Her life begins with a knife and a gush of red.
Well, it actually begins much sooner than that, the way most people begin. There’s a father and mother and at some point they fuck and then she’s born.
There’s the lost years of her childhood she remembers only for the milestones of pain writ on her skin and in her bones. The sharp ache of a hand twisting her thin wrist to the point of breaking. The swift sting of the rod when she misbehaved or whenever he felt it appropriate. The choking stiffness, shortness of breath, and dark lines pressed into her skin when they wrapped her in whalebone and heavy fabric.
She remembers the looks – gauging and heavy. Wondering how soon was too soon, how young too young. Remembers the thoughtful way his hand would gentle. Remembers the way it felt like something was crawling and shivering and shaking under the abrupt stillness that washed over her. Remembers hating him with every fibre of her being.
She remembers the blood on her sheets and the way his lips twisted, pleased and content
There’s more after that – a minister, a church, a man as old as he and an exchange of money. Laughter and hands, hands all over and pain. Everything is too much and too soon and she wants to claw and bite and tear and cut them but.
She remembers the fear. She remembers smiling and hoping they don’t notice the hate. Don’t notice the seething fury that coils in her gut and screams to be let out. She belonged to him and now she doesn’t but he’s still there and so are his friends and colleagues and acquaintances and they all want to play and she wants.
She wants fiercely.
And then there’s a tavern and a hand and she’s still bleeding from the night before and there are bruises under her sleeves and she can still feel them on her and she can’t stop the snarl, the way her lips twist in disgust, the way bile rises in her throat and she says “Don’t touch me.”
There’s a flash of movement, knuckles slammed across the side of her face and she’s sprawled on the floor and then –
There’s a knife and a gush of red. Then another flash and then shouting and so much movement and she’s still on the floor and there’s blood all over her dress and on her face and people are trampling all around and stepping in it and she scrambles back, gets under a table and waits.
Then he crouches down, says “Alright there? Only it’s about to get very crowded in here and I don’t feel it fortuitous for our futures if we’re still lounging about in the next few minutes.” He puts out a hand and –
He doesn’t touch her. Holds out a hand and twists his neck and doesn’t yell at the crowd but to rile them back up – focus them on one another – his hand hovers and hovers and he waits.
She doesn’t take the hand but she pushes out from under, follows him when he rocks back on his heels and springs lightly to his feet and darts out the back door into the alley saying “Alright, alright, this way, that’s a girl, step lively now, oh hold,” stretches out an arm, bobs into a sort of half-bow and looks around the corner and doesn’t touch her, “aaand we’re moving!” he sings under his breath.
It’s dark and the streets are wet and it’s cold and he’s heading to the docks. She can smell the salt and hear the water and the creaking of the ships. She’s never been this far from town-centre, he never had dealings with the folk who frequent the places here, and the thing inside her that snarled is fit to bursting with some combination of elation and a wary need to know.
“Here we are,” he says and doesn’t tug her into a house that must be an inn though there’s no sign or indication anywhere she can see – but for the counter and bar and old woman turning a sharp eye on them and the ring of keys on her belt. “Just upstairs, if we could?”
An actual question and not just a prompt for agreement. The woman is watching but not intervening though that may be because he’s propping the door open with one arm because she’s still standing in the frame and not quite inside.
It’s dark enough she probably can’t see the blood.
She won’t go up first, can’t have him behind her, but she can’t speak. The words won’t come out but she steps all-the-way inside and he flashes a grin at her.
She startles a little though she doesn’t think it shows on her face because she can’t remember the last time a smile on a man didn’t set her heart to racing. He takes the stairs two at a time and keeps twisting his head to keep an eye on her and when he stops by a door, takes a key and unlocks it, he gestures grandly. It’s some sort of absurd caricature of Proper manners that she wants to laugh but nothing is getting past the lump in her throat.
She finds herself sitting on the bed and he vanishes into the hallway but leaves the door open. She can’t see him but she can hear him ask for hot water and food and rum. He returns and closes the door and sets to lighting a candle. His back is turned to her and by the time he’s facing her, light flickering across his features and casting shadows, her lungs abruptly decide to announce that No she hasn’t been able to catch her breath since the first flash of the knife.
She twists and pushes at her dress, tries to reach the cords in her corset, doesn’t want him to see but she can’t breathe.
“Let me help,” he reaches out and her skin is crawling where his touches hers, but he flips the gown over her head, tosses it aside, gestures for her to turn and she’s still twisting – trying to keep him in sight. She sees the knife and freezes but he tugs it through the uppermost stretches of cord and then she can feel the edges and she pulls and then everything comes loose and she heaves in great lungfuls of air as he settles back away from her, eyes dark and cautious beneath his brow.
She’s still moderating her breathing and deliberately ignoring that she’s sat in a stranger’s bed in just her shift and the ruined remains of a corset still clinging loosely around her ribs when the knock comes to the door. He casts an eye over the room – her blood-soaked dress crumbled in the corner, her on the bed trying to remember how to breath and wide-eyed – and pulls it open only enough to accept the heavy tray before nudging it shut with a, “many thanks mistress, as always your prompt service is credit to your fine establishment.” There’s an incredulous snort and footsteps fade away.
There’s a small table pushed beneath the narrow window and he sets the tray down there, within her easy reach. There’s a small bowl and a clean towel beside a steaming jug, a green bottle and two upturned glasses, and two bowls of what looks like some sort of hot stew, spoons set to one side.
He takes one bowl, one of the glasses, and the bottle and slumps slowly to the floor parallel the bed. He leans against the wall with a heavy sigh and gestures to the tray. “You have blood all over your face still,” he says with a careful sort of bluntness and a curious disregard for the way she watches him like a bird poised to fly.
There’s a fierce satisfaction in watching the water turn pink and then red as she scrubs the worst of it off with the damp corner of the towel. She has to dump the bowl out the window several times and refill it from the jug before the only colour added is from the stained towel and not her skin. She can hear his spoon scraping against the bowl and whenever she glances over he’s watching her carefully. It doesn’t feel abrasive the way she expects it to – something in the way his brow furrows ever so slightly and the way his lips thin before he drinks is inexplicably kind.
She eventually pulls the corset the rest of the way off and the finds herself at a loss as to what to do next. Her husband is dead and she’s just washed away the last of his blood.
“That’s for you,” he says and tilts his chin toward the other serving of stew. “I’m even mostly sure it’s not dog,” he adds brightly.
It’s warm and she’s hungry so she doesn’t rightly care even if it is. She eats it sitting on the edge of the bed as he starts drinking directly from the bottle. Her husband liked to drink too, and her father, but where drink made them red and cruel it seems to simply give him something to do while he cocks his head and stares into the middle distance.
“Do you know,” he says suddenly and catches her gaze and holds it, “I’ve killed a man, brought you home, and haven’t even introduced myself? Jack Rackham, at your service.” He gives her a funny little bow made more ridiculous by his still sprawled position on the floor.
She smiles – it’s an almost fragile thing. Not wide enough for joy but too small to be false and she can’t remember the last time her lips have pulled into a real expression. Her husband is dead; she’s in a seedy inn near the ports with what must be either a sailor or a pirate; she has no money to speak of; her only clothes lay in ruins about the room, all that’s salvageable is the shift; she doesn’t know anything about Rackham except that he has a knife and is willing to use it; and her husband is dead.
He’s dead and she’s keeping his name because fuck him.