Miss Charlotte Merrigold's ninth birthday was a formal occasion. She pinned her hair with fish bones, wore a skirt of torn sail, and held a matching pair of seashells by her ears. A small puppy that had followed her down to the seaside became the eager young prince, and yells from the nearby pier music to dance to. As the night grew colder the girl lit a rainbow fire and told Prince all the stories she knew. She told him about the mermaid that kissed Pat the Pirate but had no legs for him to spread, about a man named Will who was hung for blowing his nose on his sleeve, and her own story about a girl who stole and got away with it.
Prince must not have thought much of her stories for he, who was secretly a mutt but had fine enough ears to be sired by Mr. Hamsworth's dog, draped his body across her lap and snored. After that she braided kelp until the tide touched her toes.
Eleven years later Prince died behind the Old Fisherman Inn and Charlotte boarded a ship with sails, cannons, and coffee beans.
"We don't take beggars," said a man with an upturned eye patch. "Or girls."
"Ah, but I am no beggar. Beggars beg, you see, but I am merely asking if you are foolish enough to leave me behind." Her voice rolled with a practiced lilt. "Oh, and before you go repeating yourself, I would bring your attention to these horrid hips of mine." Plucked her shirt bottom and lifted it enough to reveal a starved waist. "Surely, such pointy, bony things, that stick so far and knock my arms constitute womanhood. If not, well, I wonder why they ever reared their sharp little heads all those years ago."
The man's lips curled. "The answer is no." He stirred a coffee pot and handed it to the serving boy.
Gulls reeled overhead, fat fairy lights swung from a toy crow's nest, and a cheery loop of music bumbled from the speakers. The serving boy descended a gangplank and delivered the steaming drink to an elderly couple enjoying the sea breeze. Money was exchanged and comments made on the lad's too big boots, and crossboned hat.
Charlotte's laugh was carefully practiced and precisely executed. "You don't seem to understand. I am not looking for a job aboard your miserable vessel. Hardly two people wide, and four long, there wouldn't be any room. Frankly, I'm amazed five of you live on here. No
" the thief lent forward, wrapped a bony arm over the man's shoulders, and whispered in his ear. "I am holding you hostage."
"Are you now." Not a question. Hands continued to work.
"Indeed. You see, my dog died, and I am feeling a bit despondent. Well, I was. Then you boys sailed into town. Dressed as pirates and selling coffee. Seemed like fun. But you fine fellows, I'm sorry to say, don't. So, I want this boat and in exchange, I won't kill you or ruin your coffee beans. How does that sound?"
"Like you've lost it."
"Good," she declared. "That's what I was going for." Pulled a gun from her sleeve. "But, Black Beard, I wasn't kidding."
It wasn't, strictly speaking, illegal to be insane. And so it became her backup plan. If things didn't work she could just crow to a doctor and be locked up, but in a place with padding, not large ladies in uniform. Free food, free drugs, and free electroshock. It didn't sound so bad. Better to be free yourself though. Free to sail away from that sorry little town, escape into a country people told her wasn't too far away, and be no longer thought of as the town's homeless whore spawn.
But people never explained to her how far it was. Nor how little she was. And when she got there, sinking and starving, they called her illegal, and sent her back to bury her Prince.