art by Jonathan Westbrook
Mad Cats and Englishmen
by Laura Anne Gilman
"I was thinking it's maybe time we had a change of scenery. Maybe do things different around here." It was an idle comment, just the kind one might flick off between washing one ear and digging between his fore and third claws for a bit of sand somehow lodged there. But nothing Oliver ever did was without reason, however distant or obscured.
The sailor paused in coiling the rope, feeling the oiled fiber slide under his calluses. "Captain's not going to like that kind of thinking."
"So don't tell her."
"Hah. Very funny."
It was, actually. Herself was quartermaster, second in command only to the Captain and in truth with more power on-ship than the Captain held. Anyone could be Captain, with enough of the men behind him. Herself was the only one they trusted enough to keep the records, even among pirates and thieves. Dark-haired, dark-eyed, and dark-tempered, nobody crossed her without cause, and often not even then. Captain inspired, but Quartermaster made it happen.
You never told the Captain anything, if you could help it. He tended a bit hot, temper-wise. Herself, on the other hand, she thought things through. Practical-minded, she was, always practical.
Oliver approved. Cats were practical creatures, for all their voyaging ways.
The man stood and braced the small of his back with one hand, stretching the aching muscles while he watched the play of white foam over the waves, then went back to work and looked over his shoulder. Wide-set green eyes met his gaze with equanimity.
"Captain and Herself won't like that idea," he said, referring to his companion's earlier comment.
Oliver yawned, those green eyes slitting closed with the effort. "Look at me, I'm so scared." Herself wouldn't be amused, no. Herself liked order, and the way things were. But Captain might be. Captain used to have a right healthy sense of the absurd, not so long ago. And it was how he came to be Captain himself, anyhow; challenging the order of things.
The sailor shrugged his shoulders, and went back to coiling the rope in a neat pile on the deck. He knew the truth about arguing with women and cats. "Your funeral. You got eight more after, I suppose."
"Six, actually. There was the incident with the Portuguese traders last year. And remember the wildcat in port over the summer?"
"There were many wildcats in port over the summer," the sailor said, his own grin reminiscing. "I didn't bother keeping track of your'n."
"Trust me, this one was worth noticing. Had a coat like silk, and claws… well, it was all consensual, but I need to keep better track of my lives, in a year or three."
"They should have cut you when you were whelped, Oliver."
"And ladies in ports on all five continents would mourn. And not all of them the four-legged sort, either."
The sailor crunched his weather-beaten face in disgust at the thought. "You kiss your mother with those whiskers?"
"Never my mother," Oliver said. "Yours, on occasion, though."
The sailor worked his mouth and spat a nasty stream of spit at the cat. By the time it reached the spot where Oliver had been, he no longer was.
"Damned cat. Should have drowned it, ne'r mind cut 'im."
Around him, the rest of the ship was occupied with normal chores. The wind was southward across the bow, freshening as the sun rose into the sky. They had been off the coastline of the southern islands for three days now, waiting for some signal only the Captain knew of, and the Fifth of Moon was in the finest shape she had ever seen, to the point where the crew was starting to darn each other's clothing, lacking anything else to mend, clean, or polish.
"At this rate, we'll be the sole best dressed pirates on any sea," the sailor said, not without some vanity. Well-dressed, well-rested, and bored out of their minds. What was in the Captain's mind, to keep them still for so long? A pirate's berth was an easy one, compared to life on a navy ship from any country, but easy didn't mean you wanted your crew lazy. Not all the time, anyway. Lazy man was a dead man, on God's open seas. And that was before Herself got done with you.
As though the thought inspired him, he finished coiling the rope into a perfect pile, and went off in search of something else to do. If not busy, look busy.
If Oliver was going to shake the ship up, he wanted to make sure he didn't get tagged with blame for it, too.
"Good Lord be gentle. Not now, I'm busy."
"Oi!" The high-pitched voice was more insistent now, demanding attention.
Oliver finished grooming one paw, flexing each of his six-clawed toes in turn and admiring the ship-shape condition of his cuticles before letting them slide back into his paw. Only then did he turn to greet the speaker, who had landed beside him in a fluster.
"Herself's on deck."
Oliver cocked his head and listened. The sounds from on-deck sounded no different than any other moment of the day. But it wasn't sound that made Herself into Herself. It was motion. Like the ship itself, Herself had a definite sway to her step.
"We're heading into the bay," Oliver said, deciding the clues with ease. "Where else would she be?"
"But why? Why are we leaving the sea? Find out, find out what she's doing!"
Oliver looked at the bird. It was barely the size of his paw, and one swat would send tiny yellow feathers flying. But it perched there on the edge of the Captain's desk, barely large enough to see over the sextant, staring at him with those unblinking little black eyes, and had no thought whatsoever to the dangers of being within reach.
Oliver admired that, he really did. Crazy was a plus, on the Fifth. Crazy and brave made a pirate, no matter they had feet, fur, or wings.
"Why should I?" he asked, contemplating his other paw.
Cheepree flapped its tiny yellow wings in frustration. "Because she won't tell me! I want to know!"
Oliver had never met anything, man nor feline nor fowl, with such damned control issues. Damned bird had to be in on everything, even things he had no cause to know.
"You should have stayed in your nest if you wanted to know everything. On the Fifth you take what you get, unless you think you can do it better?"
Anyone could be Captain, after all.
The bird stared at him, and Oliver wetted down his paw and slicked back the fur under his whiskers one last time, simply to show that he would not be rushed or importuned.
"All right. But only because I'm curious as well. And you'll have to ask me again to share what I know."
Cats weren't cruel, just specific. Although there was some sadistic enjoyment out of watching the bird hop up and down on its spindly little claws in frustration….
The feel of the Fifth underpaw was soothing; she moved through the water in a tidy fashion, rising and falling in harmony with the waves as she cut her tidy way through the open mouth of the bay. A long arm of rocky shore arched around them off the starboard, while a shorter spear of beach ran portside. There were people, still distant, on the beach. They stood and ran towards town as the ship came into sight, as usual. Only here, hopefully, they were running to tell the town council, not the militia.
Herself was at the helm, although one of the sailors had hands on it right then. "Heave to and wait for someone from town to come out to meet us. No need to panic them," she said, then turned to look down at Oliver without actually looking at him.
"We making landfall, or just sheltering?" he asked.
"Sheltering." That was the thing about Herself. She didn't play games. You had to ask, but then she'd tell you, no pawfooting around it.
Of course, she'd only tell you exactly what you'd asked for. For a Spaniard she was remarkably sober. Oliver wondered sometimes why the Captain hadn't strangled her in her sleep, after one of their head-to-heads. The next quartermaster wouldn't be as good, but Captain didn't always think things through before doing.
"Something was following us."
Oliver blinked. Well. That was unexpected.
"Something as in…?" Odds were, someone had spotted a Navy ship out in the blue, and for once, the Captain figured better safe than sorry. They weren't carrying anything that could hang them, but sometimes the navy didn't seem to need a reason. The fact that they flew no country's flag but their own always annoyed the British so much. The piracy aspect seemed almost secondary.
"Something as in…" Herself paused. It was rare to see Herself nonplused: it took something tough to take to the seas in the first place, double so to fly the pirate's standard. To be a woman, and do those things? Herself hadn't done as so many others of her gender, either; no hiding in men's clothing for Her. She stood on the foredeck tall and straight and proud in a rough cotton shirt that was clearly tailored for a woman's form, if closed higher at the neck than most, and a dark gray skirt that fell to her ankles, over boots that were more delicately arched than any man's. Only Oliver, with his unusual ground-up perspective--and maybe the Captain--knew that she wore trou underneath, with a sharp-edged blade sheathed on either thigh, within easy reach no matter how she fell.
"I don't know, Oliver. Captain's the one to ask. Like having eyes on his back and a whisper in his head, he said. Made him think someone's spying on us, watching. Waiting."
A someone that made Captain cautious, and a cautious Captain that had Herself steer them for the coastline, rather than the open seas where the Fifth could outrun almost anything with a hull. A cautious Captain. Oliver blinked once, thoughtfully, and took his leave without further question. Around him, the ship hummed and the sailors worked and shouted and swore, and the wind sapped their flags and ropes, and the boom swung and all was right with his world. But Oliver felt unease. The world was right… and something was wrong.
He went, as he often went when thinking, to a perch a third of the way up the main spar. It was out of the way, so he'd bother no one, with enough of a view to give him perspective but not so high that he could not jump clear come unexpected danger. You learned these things as ship's cat, and Oliver had been on the Fifth since Captain came on board, Oliver a blind mewling kit in his rucksack.
He had been joking, when he suggested that it was time for a new Captain. Or, if not joking, then merely testing the water. He had nothing against the Captain, Captain had done well by them, and they were all the wealthier for it, one way or another. He had seen far more of the world than he might have, left a pub cat among many pub cats, perhaps destined to be drowned before his eyes ever opened.
But they had been covering the same territory for too long now, and with the war between England and Spain heating up again, now was the time to swoop in and catch some explorer's convoy as they returned from the far isles of China and the Indies. No matter what might or might not be watching them, they should not be staying in the old, worn out, if attractive, waters of the Caribe, burning stores and skin without profit. They should not be cautious.
That was not the pirating way.
The town's council granted them leave, and they sailed into port on low sail, as the last of the blood-red sunlight faded behind the walls of the fort high up on the hill over town. The cannon holes were empty; the Spaniards had left this island years ago, and the locals stripped everything in the fort worth looting within an hour of their departure. Pirates did not all take to the sea; some of them stayed on land.
Crew was at half-liberty, free to wander but not far, and not liquid. There was grumbling, but Captain snarled and the grumbling died down.
Herself stalked along the deck, staring first out over the thatched rooftops of port-town, what little there was of it, then back out over the night-black waters behind them.
"I'm off," she announced to the Captain, who merely grunted in acceptance. Oliver sat up and took notice. Herself rarely took liberty, and when she did there was always something up. When she pulled on walking boots, and added an extra sticker to the leather sheath on the side, he was there, chocolate ears pricked and tail alert.
"Not tonight, Oliver."
"You think you can keep me from somewhere I want to be?"
"You don't want to be with me tonight."
"Contrary. That's exactly when I do want to be with you." He was laughing, and she knew it.
"Take him." Captain's voice was clear, surprisingly so. "At least that way I'll know both of you are getting into the same trouble, and only give me one thing to worry about."