I was given a slave as soon as I boarded the Sloop John B. I wasn't sure why. The Captain, who'd introduced himself as Cartman had been suspiciously nice to me ever since I'd come on board.
It made no sense. I knew the pirates were under the impression that I was the Captain of La Gazza Ladra, but as far as I knew when pirates wanted information they usually just tortured the person whose knowledge they wanted. Being taken aboard, handed a servant, and shown to a rather nice (for a small pirate ship) cabin certainly wasn't what I expected to happen. I knew I'd probably be killed eventually, but I figured I'd at least get to live in relative luxury until that time came. It was better than the fate of the men of La Gazza Ladra. The ship had been blown out of the water as soon as I had boarded the Sloop John B. taking her crew down into the murky water with her. I thought I should feel bad about that, but I didn't, really. I'd hated every single person aboard the galleon.
The truth was that I wasn't the Captain at all. I was merely the carpenter. When the Sloop John B. drew near to the ship and raised her colors, the Captain of La Gaza Ladra forced me to switch clothes with him to protect himself. He figured that if the Captain was what they were after, they'd take me aboard and do whatever awful things they planned to do, and he'd stay safe aboard his ship. Guess things don't always work out the way we want them to.
Though La Gaza Ladra was a merchant vessel, the men aboard the ship had behaved in the most vile, hedonistic manner that I had ever seen, drinking constantly, gambling, and spending all their time ashore with what my mother had always called "painted ladies." I kept my opinions to myself, but once they caught on that I wasn't going to join them in their activities, they never stopped giving me hell for it.
The men had teased me mercilessly for being what they called a fey, church-going pansy, and though I tried not to let it get to me, it hadn't exactly been pleasant. I was good at my job, and mostly I just wanted to be left alone, but that's not really easy with a lot of world-weary seamen. So, ok, maybe I did feel a little bad watching my former crew mates drown in the waves, but shit happens, I guess. I hoped maybe pirates would be an improvement. Which sounds stupid I guess, but what the hell did I know.
I laid back on my new bunk, pleased with the circumstances in which I'd accidentally ended up. The room was tiny and dim, but there was enough room for a narrow bed, and a small chest for my belongings, if I had any. I didn't. It wasn't exactly the most luxurious accommodations in the world, but considering the fact that on my last ship I slept on a hammock in a room with 30 other men who spent most of their nights snoring and farting, this was like Heaven to me.
The servant, however, was a bit of a problem. Despite having lived in Florida for a good part of my life where we had slaves to do most of the manual labor, I was absolutely appalled at the entire concept of slavery. Even though most of the people in my community relied upon it to earn their money, I'd felt it was unfair, even when I was a child. People are people are people. I didn't see much of a difference. But there wasn't exactly much I could do about it, you know?
It was after I'd watched a friend of mine torture a slave to death for trying to run away that I realized I'd had enough. He told me he was making an example so his other slaves would learn their lesson. Well, I learned my lesson, too. I didn't want anything else to do with the friends and family members that I'd watched treat other people like livestock. I went to the ship yard the next day, joined the crew of a merchant ship, and never looked back.
So here I found myself at a loss as to what to do with the young man loitering in the corner of the cabin. He was frightfully thin, and had the wildest red hair I had ever seen. He was also wearing nothing but a pair of tattered canvas shorts: no shirt or shoes. His exposed skin was sunburnt and bruised, and he looked exhausted and dejected. I felt very sorry for him, but I was also confused by him: I'd never seen a white slave before, and I wondered what his story was.
"What's your name?" I asked him, feeling uncomfortable as the man's defiant glare shifted toward me.
"It's Kyle," he said softly, casting his eyes downward again.
"I'm Stan," I supplied. He didn't answer me. He didn't even look at me.
"How did you end up as a slave?" I asked, trying to get his attention.
I watched as Kyle shifted, clearly deciding if he should answer the question honestly or not.
"I was the navigator on this ship before. We were privateers. Then Cartman stupidly decided we ought to be pirates, and held a mutiny. He's always hated me, so he made me his personal slave."
"Couldn't you have fought back?"
Kyle rolled his eyes. "You say that as if it's so easy. I wouldn't be able to fight off a whole crew of men who've resented me for years. And if I could, where would I go? We're on a ship in the middle of the ocean."
"Huh," I said, "Well, I promise I won't make you do anything you don't want to."
He rolled his eyes again at that. Funny how someone who was supposed to be my servant was so good at making me feel stupid. "You do realize that's sort of the whole point of slavery, right? People doing what you want, whether or not they want to."
"I'm trying to be nice," I said, rolling over onto my side so I was facing the wall, "If you're going to be that way then go get me some dinner."
I heard Kyle sigh, but he did as he was told.
That first evening was painfully uncomfortable for me, and I assumed Kyle must have felt much the same. Though I had offered to share the bed with him, it wasn't large enough to do so without the two of us laying either back to back, or spooned together. It was the most practical option, but it did seem a bit... intimate. I left it up to him to decide where he wanted to sleep, and he chose the floor, where he slept propped up uncomfortably against the wall. I felt bad as I drifted off to sleep, but I remembered the look on Kyle's face as I suggested the share the bed: he was like a cornered animal, afraid that he would be hurt. I decided not to press the issue.
The room was empty when I awoke the next morning, but Kyle returned shortly, bearing a plate of food. He looked miserable.
"Captain Cartman wants to make sure you're well fed," he said as he set the plate down next to where I was laying.
"And what about you?" I asked, reaching over to poke at Kyle's very prominent ribs. There was a large bruise there that I didn't remember from before.
"I get enough," Kyle said, flinching away.
I knew better. I'd seen the signs of starvation on people before, and though Kyle was too proud to say anything, I could see by the look in his eyes that he was more affected than he let on. Though I was hungry I ate only half my breakfast before passing the rest over to Kyle. His hunger betrayed him, and he was unabashedly scarfing down the leftovers within moments.
"So why were you 'given' to me?" I asked, watching as my companion ate with no inhibitions. Kyle didn't respond until the plate was completely clean.
"Um. A welcome gift? To attend to, ah, your various needs."
"Why, though? I mean, I would assume the Captain of an enemy ship wouldn't be taken onto a pirate ship and treated like a King, normally."
"That's just how the Captain wants to do it. You catch more flies with honey, and all that. He wants to know where the rest of your fleet is, so he can loot it."
"Yeah, oh. And I don't know what will happen if you tell him. I don't know what will happen if you don't tell him, either. Probably nothing good, either way."
"So I'm being treated like this because he hopes he can get on my good side, and I'll just tell him what he wants to know?"
"And if I don't..."
"Captain Cartman isn't exactly known for his patience. It will only be a matter of time before he gives up on the nice routine and has you tortured. Or killed, depending on his mood."
"Well," I said, "I suppose until then I ought to just enjoy myself, huh?"
Kyle stared up at me in surprise. I don't know what he expected from me, though. Was I supposed to cry and go into hysterics? That wasn't really my style.
"I mean, he's going to kill me either way, isn't he?"
"Probably," Kyle said, looking only a little bothered by that fact.
"Well, I guess I should appreciate it while it lasts," I said, standing and putting my coat on, "Because there's no way in Hell I'm telling that fat bastard anything he wants to know."
We spent the day up on the deck, chatting and watching the rolling sea pass below the hull of the ship. I'd asked the Quartermaster if I could be of help in any way, and he'd only scowled at me and told me to stay out of the way. So I figured I was off the hook, and did as I pleased. So loitering it was.
Kyle seemed to enjoy being in the sun, once I had managed to procure a shirt for him to protect his fair skin. It was far too large on him, but the dark-haired boy I'd gotten it from said it was the only one he could find. It sufficed, anyway, even though it went almost to his knees.
Nearly every deck hand at work threw vulgar remarks and questions at me as they passed by, insinuating that Kyle's main role as my servant was to take care of my sexual needs. Maybe that had been the Captain's intention, but the thought hadn't even occurred to me. Well, not really. Those were the kind of thoughts that I'd successfully pushed to the back of my head for most of my life, though I suppose they still rattled around my subconscious from time to time. But I certainly wasn't going to force myself on another person, even if that person was supposed to be my "property".
If Kyle was bothered by the lewd remarks thrown his way, he didn't let it show, but I was mortified. I wondered if the crew had done those sorts of things to Kyle before, and if that was the reason Kyle didn't want to share the bed with me. It was understandable to say the least.
But despite the nastiness of the crew, I enjoyed the opportunity to get to know the young man better. I figured if I was going to be spending most of my time with him then it would be better if we weren't strangers to each other. Kyle seemed wary at first, but receiving positive attention was clearly something he was not used to, and as the day went on he became more comfortable and revealed more and more of his past.
He was from New York, and came from a relatively wealthy Jewish family. At age 17 he sought out a life of adventure on the seas, despite his parents' objections.
"I had to sneak out in the middle of the night," he said, "but it was worth it. At least, initially. The Captain of the first ship upon which I served took a liking to me, and he trained me to be his navigator. I'd been performing that task on various ships until this whole mess happened. I enjoyed it... I tend to be very meticulous, and I enjoy the kind of precision that navigating requires. The man Cartman chose to replace me gets us lost on a regular basis. It's appalling."
"What's he like?" I asked.
"Oh, he's this weird little guy who has always been pretty benign until Cartman gets him all riled up. He's a pretty good lackey, I guess. Easily influenced, and all that. That's him over there with that map. He's named Butters," he said, pointing.
I followed his line of vision to see a small man with very fluffy blonde hair. He was rubbing his fists together nervously as Captain Cartman berated him for something. I quickly turned back, uninterested in him. Kyle was much more interesting.
"Hmm. And your family?" I asked, "Do you ever see them?"
"I went to visit one time when my ship was docked in New York, but it was too difficult to bear. My mother fussed over my clothing to no end, and my father gave me grief for throwing away any potential career options I might have. My brother, on the other hand, was jealous of my new life, and he followed me onto my ship as a stowaway. Luckily the Captain on that ship was a kind man, and he simply put him to work instead of throwing him overboard as some men might do. I haven't been back to see my parents since that day, because I know they'd never forgive me for leading my brother astray."
"And where is your brother now?"
Kyle simply shrugged and looked down at his dirty feet. He'd been open and animated until I asked that question, and suddenly it was like a wall had gone up between us.
I could tell he was hiding something, but I supposed we'd made enough progress for one day, anyway. I could tell by the way Kyle reacted and by the funny looks the rest of the crew was giving us that no one had bothered to get to know him in a very long time. He was obviously starved for attention: or at least the kind of attention I was giving him. It was clear that the rest of the crew had given him plenty of attention in the past, but only the kind that no one would ever want. His bruises spoke more about the situation than Kyle himself would ever say.
In the evening we were summoned to the Captain's quarters, where what passed for a feast on a pirate ship was laid out upon the table. Cartman entered the room, and gestured for me to take one of only two seats available at the table.
"What about Kyle?" I asked, settling into my chair.
"Your slave can eat below deck with the livestock when we're finished. In the meantime he can serve us the wine."
"I'm not really comfortable with that... I'd rather have him sit with us."
"Don't push your luck, Marsh," Cartman said, narrowing his eyes, "I can always take Kyle back, and if I do, sharing his dinner with a pig will be the least of his worries."
Not wanting any harm to befall my companion, I decided not to argue. I endured an awkward dinner with Cartman, with Kyle standing glumly to the side. Now that I knew what Cartman was after, I had a pretty easy time parsing through his awkward questions. I lied through my teeth with every question I was asked, and by the end I couldn't remember half the wrong answers I had given. By the end of dinner I'm pretty sure I could have claimed to be the spirit of a white whale seeking my revenge against my murderers and he wouldn't have known the difference. I've never seen a man drink so much in one sitting, and his words were so slurred that I could barely understand him. He certainly didn't notice when I started wrapping bits of food in a napkin and stuffing it into my coat pocket to give to Kyle later on.
When the Captain began to doze off in his chair, I stood and smiled at Kyle, who'd been watching the whole meal sullenly from the corner of the room. I grabbed the last bottle of wine from the table and pulled Kyle by the arm out into the hall and back into our room. I'm not sure what he thought I'd do when we got back there, but he stood apprehensively by the bed as I shut the door.
When I pulled the food I'd stolen for Kyle out of my pockets and handed it to him, I was met with a look of suspicion rather than the gratitude I'd expected. It didn't stop Kyle from sitting on the bed and eating what he'd been given, but he stared at me with a look of appraisal the entire time.
"What is it?" I asked when Kyle wiped his face with the napkin, looking at least somewhat satiated.
"Cartman's going to be angry that you took that wine."
"Oh. Well he was so drunk, I'll bet he won't even notice it's gone."
"Hmmm," was Kyle's only response.
"I figured, you know, you might want some, since it was obvious he wasn't about to share with you."
I felt nervous as Kyle stared at me with cold, hard eyes.
"Why are you doing this?" he asked.
"What? What do you mean?"
"Why are you being nice to me? What do you think you could possibly gain from it?"
"I'm not trying to gain anything!" I said, feeling wounded, "I just thought... well, I can tell no one else has been nice to you, and that... I mean... I can't...."
"I don't need your pity," Kyle answered, looking angrier than ever.
"I'm not trying to pity you!"
"Then what is it, coercion? If you want me to do something then you can just force me to do it the way everyone else does. You don't have to pretend to be a good guy."
"I'm not pretending!" I said, embarrassed by the way my voice cracked, "I don't want anything from you, and I'm not trying to treat you like I'm better than you or... or whatever it is you think I'm trying to do. It's just, you know, ever since I came aboard the ship yesterday I've been horrified by the way people treat you, and I didn't want things to be that way for you. Why do you think it's such a bad thing that I want to treat you with compassion?! Just because everyone else had treated you with cruelty and derision, that doesn't mean that I will."
I felt embarrassed by how worked up I was getting, but it upset me to think that he'd seen my thoughtfulness as some sort of plot against him. What the hell had the men aboard the ship done to make him so suspicious?
Kyle was still staring at me, and though his expression had softened a little, there was still anger and bitterness written across his face. But there was no way he could miss how fast I was breathing, or the fact that my eyes were watering a little. Humiliating as my over-emotional reaction was, I hoped at least that Kyle would see that I was sincere.
Finally after a long moment Kyle shook his head and mumbled an apology, before climbing off the bed to sit in the corner in which he'd slept the previous night.
"Don't you want to have some of the wine?" I asked, confused.
"Maybe some other night," Kyle responded, hugging his legs to his chest. He looked up at me through his eyelashes for a moment, and then his eyes fluttered shut. Not knowing what else to do, I shut the lantern off and crawled into bed.
Throughout the following day I could feel Kyle's eyes upon me, but each time I'd turn to look at him he'd would look away quickly, casting his eyes downward. It was unnerving, and I guessed he was still trying to figure me out. It still kind of hurt my feelings, though. I wanted him to be able to trust me, especially since I had given him no reason not to. Still, I didn't want to force him to do anything he didn't want to, even if that thing was something as simple as explaining himself to me. Thankfully he decided to do that on his own.
It was after another strained dinner with Cartman, when we were back in our room that Kyle broached the subject.
"I'm sorry I've been so mistrustful," he said, setting aside the remnants of the food I had stolen for him for the second night in a row. "It's been a year since Cartman's mutiny, and ever since then the only time anyone's been kind to me is if they wanted to trick me into something. I've been the whipping boy upon this ship ever since, both figuratively and literally, and it's made me forget that sometimes people can actually be nice for no reason."
"I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable," I said smiling softly. I was surprised when Kyle smiled back.
"I realize that now. But, I just..." he trailed off, and stared into a dark corner of the room for a moment, and when he looked back at me he looked rather sad, "I told you before that I don't know what will happen to you. If you tell Cartman what he wants, he may kill you. And if you don't, he may kill you for that, too. You're the first person who's been nice to me in a long time, and I don't want to grow attached to someone who might... well..."
"Be brutally murdered?" I joked, hoping to make Kyle smile again.
He didn't. Instead he shook his head sadly, and stared at the floor.
"I'm sorry," Kyle said finally, "I don't mean to be morose. It's just that it's a reality I'm going to have to come to terms with, and I suggest you try and do the same."
I could tell Kyle was annoyed when I shook my head, brushing off his concerns, but I figured there was no use in worrying about something I couldn't control. As Kyle had pointed out before, they were on a ship in the middle of the ocean. What could I do?
I guess he figured the conversation was over, so he made to move to the floor for another uncomfortable night's sleep. I put a hand on his arm to stop him, and he looked back at me in confusion.
"You take the bed tonight. I'll sleep on the floor," I said.
"What? That's not... I'm your slave, remember? It wouldn't do for someone to find us with our roles reversed."
"No one comes in here but us, though. And I've seen how stiff your neck and shoulders are during the day. We can switch off, alright?"
I could see Kyle trying to find an argument against the idea, so I grasped his shoulders and gently pushed him back against the pillows. His eyes widened for a moment, and for a split second I thought about kissing him. I moved away quickly, settling myself upon the floor. It would be unwise to allow those impulses to run their courses.
"Thank you," Kyle said quietly, making himself comfortable under the blankets. I smiled, and settled in for a very long night.