When he first met her, his crew had been dying.
“The sea grew tired of burials,” he said, and they were the first words that fell between them.
It was too pleasant an island, he had thought upon setting eyes on the tropical trees that welcomed them forth. Beneath him was the sea, calm and unlike herself, reflecting the blue of the sky; too clear, too gentle, too cheerful, for the crew dying at his back.
“And your surgeon?” She asked, deft hands removing bandages off a poorly dressed infection on the shin of one of his men. A strip of rotting flesh came out with it, and her patient barely flinched. Then softly, patting the knee above it, “This one has to go.”
“It’d only take a bucket of hot seawater to heal!” His henchman recoiled in fright, and swore on the life of his dead mother that it didn’t ache the least. But her conviction didn’t budge, and his captain saw the color drain from a face that’d had barely any.
Then he started, delusions picking away at his words, and he begged, the sort so desperate it made men of the sea wince. He jolted up and convulsed in protest, turning heads of others away while she remained, feet firmly planted on the planks, pain expressed in a single line between her brows, but a face unwavering still.
One leg is not worth it.
“Overboard. A grand funeral he had, our surgeon.”
She steadied a cloth at the deckhand’s mouth, then with one hand on his brow, “You’ll need some of that fight in you once you wake up.”
The illness spreading to claim almost the entirety of his crew had taken a greater toll on him than he thought it would. He’d flaunted an optimism that was said to have no bounds, but even that wavered and broke behind the grin plastered on the walls of taverns seas away.
And they’d laughed at first, ill as they were. They’d thought it was only a case of land legs running back to them as they emptied their stomachs overboard. But then it took away men, one after the other, then by the handful- fearful, bloody coughing fits.
“And what,” she said, her patient falling still under her hands, “made you think you could dirty the soil of this island with the bodies of your men?”
She’d accepted and boarded, no naivety in her steps, when he’d disembarked and asked for a skilled surgeon to tend to his men. After the bustle of the ports quieted down and the initial panic of incoming pirates calmed, she gathered her supplies and left behind the warnings of men twice her size, in a council of physicians that he found by putting a poor barkeep at gunpoint.
And then she was at their sickbay, filled to the brim with fevers and groans. She’d asked for clothes as soon as she saw her patients, “Anything you could identify as clean, Captain.” From their smallest deckhand, she received a pair of breeches. They still were too wide at the waistband, but she made do with whatever resources available. And with that hair braided and thrown back, she became a stark comparison to her earlier self, that painfully feminine thing in a blue dress.
Her earlier statement was followed with a little smile that held hope for voyages years ahead. “This illness is not fatal,” she continued, “not always, and I’d appreciate it if you’d stop drinking yourself to the grave and lend me a hand, because no sane man would offer.”
He scoffed at first, then he laughed, a loud guffaw that had his barely-conscious men twitch. “So much for going down with the ship.”
“You’ll still have plenty of chances to demonstrate, Captain. I’ll make sure of it.”
And she was skilled with the saw.
He was no broken man, but a pirate knows when the end is near. An illness that consumes the body, but not one to hinder him, who loved everything grand. When the news was given, a few years ago, he laughed, much like himself, much like her homeland.
“I’d known for quite some time, Doc.”
Because when he first met her, his crew had been dying, but so had he.
“First time I witness a woman at the saw.”
“You wouldn’t have, had there been any chance of recovery,” she said, writing down prescriptions and lists for his first-mate, Luca, a quick learner whom she’d utilized by nightfall.
She sighed, long and world-weary and tired. The sun had long set and she refused to leave because she could be a carrier of their illness. But she still bore the sense of fleeting beauty with her, like she would disperse at his approach, like the mirages of barren summer islands.
“It leaves you unsettled for days after.”
The amputee had woken and, after a frightening moment of acceptance, emptied the bile of his stomach on the sheets; then he fell back and wept, two trails down the sides of his face, then a howl, shaking with the heat of grief that held the mere two years he had on the seas and the cruelty of the world to a one-legged man.
He blamed her, of course, said that she was a blood-thirsty witch, that there was no purpose to what she did, that divine punishment would befall her. And in the few years that his captain lived following, it became a reoccurring memory, that despairing kid and she, how she took all the anger and the blame and whatever insensibility someone who’d lost as much had to offer.
For a life so precious.
“A drink?” He offered, and she looked like she needed it. None of the gentle, girlish color in her cheeks now. Her face was sullen, even when she’d put her gown on again, like the sky on a clear day after she’d been in bloodied rags.
He’d sat through it and lent no hand, a smile stretching broad against his face despite the pitiful condition of his cabin boy. Nothing about the affair was effortless, but he could see it, the efficiency of a doctor, comparable to the best naval surgeon he’d seen, mapping the joint and finding the last of the broils, and the first motion and the blood, and other than his first mate tying the limb tight and holding its owner up, she had no hands to assist, none to wipe the sweat beading on her brow.
“Not on the deck of an ill crew with no surgeon.”
“Edric of Eir,” he said, slightly hoping to strike a cord of fright, or at least of recognition. The state of his crew had spared no time for formalities, keeping her hands busy as soon as her feet strode against his deck, planks more suited for the vigor of rowdy pirates than her delicate, foreign steps.
“I know,” she replied, to his surprise. “One of the most notorious of our age, I would be too ignorant hadn’t I recognized you.” Then, after a beat, “Mirah of the Lilands” she said, finally holding his gaze and offering an introduction than only gave him back only as much as he did. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
He had sailed for far too long, and women he’d had, hundreds of them, from the edges of Earth to her core and that sat between, until he spoiled the body and the heart in it. And he’d left eyes there with them, and ears as well, because the sea is merciless. He knew from the time he heeded her first call, that he would rule and she would condemn whatever legacy he left behind.
“You appear unfazed,” he said, to a smile that carried his will and her pride.
An almost inaudible giggle fluttered with her breath. “Of the pirate? I am frightened, Captain. Your reputation precedes you,” she said, no mockery in her tone, “and what a reputation it is.”
“She said no sane man would offer,” Edric said as he stole a glance over the hunched shoulders of his first-mate.
“I never did.” He was stitching a wound closed, trying to conceal his annoyance at the constant comparisons the henchmen were making between his handling and hers.
Edric laughed, far too-loud a sound for the sickbay, and, “Hey, we wouldn’t need another surgeon at this rate.” It earned a series of melodramatic groans and demands, that she who found her way to their decks to mend their wounds and their broken hearts stayed by their sides.
“Yeah? And here I was, expecting you to bring her along.”
“You think she would leave behind this island?”
“No,” Luca said. “You know it too.”
And that, he did. In the very marrow of his bones that his illness consumed, he knew that she, no wings and no tail and no gaze of a serpent, just a woman that pressed him down with the weight of his years, raised in him the closest thing he’d ever felt to regret. An intriguing one that occupied his drunken thoughts, and had him hoping like a boy that she would wash away with the light of sobriety. But that hibiscus flower she had snatched out of her hair to chop off the leg of his deckhand was a cruel hint, a subtle emphasis of her delicate beauty, hazel eyes and a nose so refined, pretty freckles stretched across, of all days lost.
Luca smothered a laugh in the candle-lit quiet of the galley, at the way of the sea; how she brought together two stubborn fools who would all but die laughing.
“You should watch your drinking,” Luca smiled. “I don’t want you to go faster than you should.”
After a beat, “The sea,” Edric said, “I still crave.”
With a smirk, Luca raised a glass. “To further journeys, richer loot, and a senile captain.”
“You and I both carry the same will, do we not?”
He laughed, prompted by surprise. “Trained eyes.” Barely any had recognized it, even its other carriers; that that she wore so proudly he’d buried under gold and fame. He didn’t know where she saw it, but with eyes meant to seek particulars, it was only a matter of time until she did.
She brought the matter up abruptly, in their galley after she’d helped herself to the supplies in their larder. Mirah of the Lilands had just swallowed a mouthful of cured meat when she confronted him with their truth, a notoriously unrelenting legacy.
“Still keeping composure?”
There was no purpose to his question. She wasn’t a fool; she knew, not just his will, something beyond the bold headlines and the posters. Only a glance and every crime that had landed a coin to his name became almost tangible before her, and it would’ve taken a far less sharp mind to recognize the threat of pirates setting sail with only another pair of legs aboard. It’d be that insignificant.
“You can set sail,” she said, “But your men have grown a bit attached, you see, and even the most evil have some heart for gratitude.”
They owed her that, because a few days with the smile they’d gotten used to and his men finally managed to sleep, sweating and tossing throughout, but in their eyes the following mornings he saw a want he thought he would never again, the desire to sail, to live. And whether she trusted them or not, he didn’t know, but she was by nature impressively well-guarded, aware and able to sense shifts in intentions, but she’d barely had any rest since she’d stepped foot onto his ship, attention claimed by a slight moan or a heart beating too fast every other second.
His men found some comfort in that, because she was always there; when they opened their eyes in panic, or when they were started in pain. She would always be across that sickbay, clearing her fingers off the ink she used to write each of their mixtures. He saw her listen as they told tales too embellished to believe, and, “brave sailors you are,” she would laugh, earnestly like the rest of her; a clean soul of which she gave a piece to every fiendish pirate aboard.
She spared momentary glances and small, almost sad smiles for him, all from an enduring heart that must’ve seen loss far too many times, and found worth in even the lowest of lives, those like him that killed without a second thought, like him with his hard-earned titles.
He felt his grin stretch wide; that ill-famed smirk that turned the world on its head and made it want his, but he still wanted; not gold, but perhaps glory, and unquestionably the legacy to live on beyond him.
“Sail with me.”
She smiled a beat later, and looked up from her papers, something almost fond on her lips. “I wasn’t made for it.”
“Surgeons don’t usually volunteer to join a crew, you know, but one accepted share of loot and you’ll fit right in.”
Smile unrelenting, she replied at length, “Who are you, under all the gold and the infamy, Edric of Eir?”
“A man no less notorious,” his voice carried a chortle, loud over the revived bustle of his deck. His men were on their feet now, and their departure approached with no mind for those he would leave behind.
He thought he had her fooled with his act, the spirited captain, grinning foolishly beyond a dying crew, in a red cloak and chests full of gold, the best rum of the seas in his casks and his tankards, and an obscene amount of money on his head, which he knew would roll off in not too long, only because he’d let it.
Until he asked if she feared the man like she did the pirate.
Why would I be fazed by the eyes of a dying king?
She’d seen through it before she even saw him at his worst.
Sweating and fevered, he heaved over his bunk, “Looks like I finally caught it,” he laughed, ache rushing through him, “what they had, good thing we haven’t set sail.”
“They don’t know,” she said, only to bring the fact to life, that his body had been wearing away at a languid, frightening surety, and what was eating at him was an entirely different enemy than what did his crew. He was being gnawed alive by an illness with no cure.
“But you do.”
“Trained eyes,” came her reply.
“The world shouldn’t realize that Edric of Eir was usurped by his own body,” he said, matter-of-factly this time, “too quiet, that way to go.”
“What do you plan to do?”
His first-mate had drawn no ambiguous line, and “You’re being too reckless,” he’d said earlier, when his captain’s intentions he saw clear. “You’ve made too many enemies, Captain, the world won’t forgive her for this.”
But Edric was alone with her now, in a state more repulsive than even his usual one, dressed in tattered shirtsleeves and with a blunt, unkind pain tugging at what sat between his lungs. Dread, and too much of it, was spreading to a stab below his ribs, and his cabin closed in as he leaned his side against the wall by his bunk to still face her.
So, “Live,” he said, “and too freely for this body. That’s the plan.”
But he carried that will, that unyielding thing that won’t settle, not for anything other than her, whom he wanted with a conviction more sincere than any he’d felt. And right then, she seemed drained of that will they shared, with despondency clinging onto her features as she reached out to touch the lumps on his neck. Tender, knowing touches they were, not the examining probes of doctors. Then she hesitantly withdrew her hand, and he might have recognized a twinge of regret in her dropped gaze, a thing unlike he’d seen in the short time they’d spent at her island, so different from her steadfast eyes.
“It’s always hardest to see the strongest go,” she said when he didn’t shy away from asking why her sadness had grown over a dying pirate.“You’ve put on a front that convinced the world that you won’t die, Captain.”
Then, after a lull, “Is it not frightening? To know that you are so close to it?”
“What a thing to ask.” He laughed, barely loud enough to fill the faintly lit air of his quarters, and he extended a hand himself, to tuck the hair that fell about her face behind her ear. “Despair doesn’t suit you.”
“That is why I’ve kept the question for you,” Mirah said, like she was bearing a side of her that she hadn’t to anyone else, every look she spared and touch they’d missed, gathered into a trembling thread in her voice. “Not for anyone who hadn’t seen the world and tasted its freedom,” she continued, sinking into his palm as he cupped it against her cheek, because right then they both knew how little was left.
“The journey to the sea that I desire,” he said, “would leave behind something so magnificent that the pirate would never die.”
“And the man?”
“He,” Edric said, “might want to spend his final days with you.”