It didn't take them long to weigh anchor and cast off. The ship caught the wind in her sails and fled the island, quickly losing any pursuers that Commodore Stockington (as Mariqah insisted on calling him) sent after them.
“Did you manage to gather enough supplies?” Mariqah asked Chip, laughing at her dumb-luck.
“I think so,” he replied, coiling a bit of rope to put it away, “Though, I had just scrubbed the deck when your horde of dirty madmen decided to board.”
“My apologies,” Mariqah said, patting his shoulder, “on the brighter side, though, you have more helping hands.”
Chip shook his head with a smile on his face. He walked away and left Mariqah to her thoughts.
She leaned against the banister, took of her newly-acquired hat and loosed her hair. She let the cool wind play with it as she stared up at the bright moon standing alone in the dark sky. It was the same moon, the same black sky she would see in the desert - but it felt different somehow.
How long had it been? How long had she been trapped in this sweaty, scorching heat? How long before she had to go back to her own sweaty, scorching heat?
Mariqah sighed, feeling a stab of icy guilt.
She longed for familiarity - how one mercenary would pass her a flask of water and she would pour it over her head to escape the heat of the day, or how Khadir would pass her a fleece and she would throw it over her shoulders to escape the chill of the night.
Mariqah's limbs felt heavy with fatigue, with the burden that she'd so far put out of mind, out of sight.
She wasn't where she was supposed to be. She didn't belong here. And she was enjoying all this much more than she should be.
Mariqah had forgotten all that she'd left behind.
She missed the comfort of stone walls, clean furnishings. She missed the company of her soldiers and their stories over a campfire during tedious night-watches.
She missed Masyaf.
Or did she?
Mariqah suddenly felt incredibly vulnerable standing on Blackwell's deck, with the deep, deep ocean churning beneath them all. She caught her breath, and looked back up at the moon - stepping away from the banister.
She wondered: Did they all miss her, as much as she missed them?
She doubted it. Mariqah placed her hat onto her head and turned her back on the moon.
She wasn't watching where she was going as she trudged towards the helm, and bumped into Vasquez on her way.
“Sorry,” she said, looking up at him.
He grimaced, and didn't say anything to her. Vasquez pushed passed her and made his way to the wheel.
Mariqah furrowed her brows, “Um, hello?” she said, climbing up the steps, “A 'thank you' because of all this would be nice.”
“I don't need your shit right now, Mariqah,” Vasquez spat.
“Can I ask you something?”
“When God was handing out brains, where were you?”
Vasquez glared at her, but sighed and dropped the matter.
“What?” Mariqah insisted, “What? What's the matter? Somebody knock on your skull and find it making a hollow ringing sound?”
Vasquez growled, “Shut up!”
“Mariqah, I am trying to fucking think!”
“Pfft!” Mariqah laughed, “That's dangerous.”
Vasquez rolled his eyes.
“Why don't you just tell me what the problem is?” Mariqah said.
“Because it's not one you can solve,” Vasquez snapped.
Vasquez gave her a look.
“I haven't failed you thus far,” Mariqah pointed out, “If anything, you failed us both once. You got us marooned. You owe me one. Two, for trying to kill me.”
Vasquez shook his head, “Fine,” he said, steering the wheel with a slightly calmer look on his face, “You know those fucking morons we saved from the gallows today?”
“I saved from the gallows. You helped,” Mariqah corrected, “But go on.”
“Well, turns out five of them used to be captains of their own ships. And they feel they have some rights to captain Blackwell. I tried talking to them, but... You asked me where I was when God was handing out brains, I was probably fucking Satan's daughter. Those captains, though, were probably out chasing butterflies and unicorns and pink elephants.”
Mariqah laughed more than she should have, “Well, how are these things usually decided?”
Vasquez paused, “Are... you serious? You don't know this?”
“Consider it one of those things you do know, compared to someone who was definitely there to receive a brain.”
“A captain is usually elected by his crew. But the system is different now - because there is one fresh crew and six captains on this vessel.”
“But you are captain of this ship, you were before any of them got here - doesn't that hold any weight?”
“Not in a democracy.”
Mariqah rolled her eyes, “Urgh.”
“Hey, our laws keep us free.”
“Your laws keep you confused,” Mariqah muttered, folding her arms, “So, what do you have to do now?”
“Hold a vote between captains, only.”
“You didn't hold a vote?”
“What would be the point? Each shitty captain would vote for himself.”
Mariqah made a face, “This can't stand... You need some measure of order, or we'll all just descend into mutiny.”
“I have no intention of militarising this crew, Mariqah!” Vasquez objected.
Mariqah laughed, “Don't worry. I'm not going to give you baths. Where are these other captains?”
“In the Captain's Cabin, probably fighting over chairs and tables.”
“Hmm...” Mariqah said, “Chip, could you watch the wheel for a spell? Vasquez and I have a situation to handle.”
“Aye, aye, madam!” Chip replied, crossing the deck to take the wheel.
“What are you doing?” Vasquez asked Mariqah, as she led him down to the cabin.
“Fixing your problem,” she assured him, opening the door.
The crashing and clamour within was a surprise. Every man was flinging themselves on all the others - shouting and kicking and biting like a pack of flea-maddened dogs.
Vasquez rubbed his forehead with his fingers, “Ay, ay, ay...” he muttered, as if this was a point of embarrassment, “Well, Mariqah: she's all yours. Fix my problem.”
Mariqah passed a look to Vasquez, “Does this happen often amongst you pirate-folk?”
“You probably wouldn't be surprised by the answer,” Vasquez commented.
“Still think a little order would be a blight on your society?” Mariqah said, ducking to avoid a bottle of rum that smashed on the door behind her. She took the pair of guns from Vasquez's holsters and shot them one after another at the ceiling.
“Are you out of your fucking mind!” Vasquez barked, rising from his sudden cower.
Mariqah laughed at the silence and blew the smoke trailing from the guns, “It shut them up, didn't it?”
“Like it didn't already need cleaning,” Mariqah scoffed, as Vasquez snatched the pistols away from her.
“What is the meaning of this, Vasquez?” shouted a pirate captain with a scraggly beard and missing teeth.
“Good to see I've got your attention-” Mariqah began.
“A woman? On this ship?” he continued, “Are you mad?”
Mariqah glared at him. She took long strides towards him and said, “You're more than welcome to jump off.”
“There's one of you, and more than thirty men aboard this vessel. I think the better option-”
“Enough o' this!” shouted another captain, who had an accent like Callum's, “Why've ye come? What d'you want?”
“To call us to a vote,” Mariqah said, “A vote between captains. Any ties will be broken by the crew.”
They all groaned - Vasquez included.
“Us?” said Captain Scraggly Beard to Mariqah. He pointed a long, bony finger at her, “You're no captain.”
“I am a captain,” Mariqah said.
Vasquez was giving her a look, but Mariqah continued, “I have a man-o'-war now sitting in a dock of Normandy, called Maverick. Used to belong to the Royal African Company, formally called the Harbinger - single-handedly captured by a woman off the coast of Bengal. Sound familiar? It's a favoured story of Captain O'Brien's telling.”
“That was you?” Vasquez asked.
“You didn't know?” Mariqah laughed, “You couldn't guess?”
“Impossible!” Captain Scraggly Beard objected, “A ship is no place for a woman! I refuse to be made an equal to you!”
“If you don't want to vote,” Mariqah said pulling out her sword, “you're more than welcome to stand down and leave.”
“The story of the Harbinger is an old wives' tale,” Captain Callum's Accent interrupted, “It can't be you.”
“And what would prove to you that it is?”
“Captain O'Brien mentioned such a woman being punished in Bengal, lashed for crimes against the state. Show us these marks.”
Mariqah hesitated. The marks of her greatest failure, her biggest shame? She didn't let herself give it two thoughts. She took off her coat, undid her corset, turned around and pulled her tunic over her head. She shut her eyes, the hairs on her body rising as all the men in the cabin saw her bared, mangled back.
“Good enough?” she asked, her voice small.
“I think it is,” said Vasquez.
There was a grumbling murmur of agreement as Mariqah pulled her clothes back on quickly. She tipped her hat low, so as to cover the red blush that formed on her face - heat sweltering in her cheeks and the beginnings of a headache emerging in the centre of her forehead.
“Do we have our vote, then?” she asked.
“It's pointless-” Vasquez began.
“It's your way of deciding things. I think it's far, far down the shithole of stupid - but it's the way you make things 'work'. So I'm going to put it to said 'work'!” Mariqah snapped, without looking at him.
Vasquez paused, before he said, “Fine.”
Mariqah stepped towards the centre of the room and picked the table up so that it stood on its uneven legs. Each captain stood around it and - as Vasquez had predicted - they all voted for themselves.
“Captain Emmet Woodruff.”
“Captain Jermaine de la Rouille.”
“Captain Liam McLean.”
“Captain Timothy Macintosh.”
“Captain Miguel Cortés.”
Vasquez sighed and said, “Captain Estaban Vasquez.”
Mariqah cast the final name, “Captain Estaban Vasquez.”
Hue and cry arose from the pirates.
“You planned this!” Liam accused.
“I did,” Mariqah said, “But that's how politics is played, boys. Decision's made. You wanted a vote and you have it. Reap the fruits of the seeds you sow, tighten your belts and deal with it. Vasquez is your captain.”
“This is an outrage!” Emmet cried, “I knew we shouldn't have let the woman vote!”
“Of all the ungrateful fucking-” Mariqah jabbed an elbow into Emmet Scraggly Beard's face. He flopped to the ground and held his gushing nose, “I saved your bloody neck today! Does that mean nothing to you? At all?” she spat on the ground, “To any of you? If you don't want to be here, you are more than fucking free to chuck yourselves overboard and wank yourselves to shore! This woman isn't going anywhere!”
“This 'woman' should know that fighting on deck is prohibited!” Emmet said, “I insist that our newly appointed 'captain' punish this rule-breaker!”
Mariqah took her sword and sliced the skin on her palm, gasping only slightly at the sharp cut. She squeezed her fist and poured her dribbling blood over Emmet's face, “Good enough for you?”
“It's good to see you've accepted Vasquez as your captain! Does anyone else have any objections?”
“Marvellous! Brilliant! Astounding! The scum of the fucking earth can finally agree on something!” Mariqah cursed, “Now, if you'll excuse me - I've left a half-decent sailor steering this ship to God knows where!” she tore open the cabin door and stomped out, slamming it shut behind her.
“What are you looking at?” she snapped at the reaction of some of the crew members.
They shrunk back and allowed her passage to the helm.
Chip was about to wordlessly move away, when Mariqah didn't take the wheel from him. She sat on the quarter deck and sulked. She looked at her wounded hand and felt tears well up in her eyes. Mariqah tipped her hat low and hugged her knees. She'd never felt so homesick in her life. But what was waiting for her at home? More of this?
She'd never been so humiliated - standing naked in front of men to prove a point, showing off her greatest failure. "Punished for crimes against the state" - what fucking crimes?
Mariqah sniffed, “I don't need your shit right now, Estaban,” she muttered.
She heard him sigh, but his presence didn't leave her. He sat down next to her, the boards creaking as they took his weigh.
“Let me see your hand,” he said.
“No,” Mariqah replied.
“I just want to help.”
“You can't help me,” Mariqah snapped, looking up, “...No-one can help me.”
Vasquez paused. She thought that maybe he would monologue about how untrue the sentiment was, how all the pain and sadness would end one day. But he surprised her again by just saying, “I'm sorry.”
She was glad for it. Mariqah didn't like being pitied and Vasquez seemed to understand that.
“You've done enough, you know,” he said.
“What do you mean?” Mariqah mumbled.
“I have a ship. A crew. I can handle the rest of the job.”
“Are you telling me to go home?”
“Isn't that what you want?”
Mariqah sniffed, tears flowing from her eyes, “I don't know. I know I don't want this, but...”
Vasquez didn't say anything. He took a flask of rum from his belt, drank some and then passed it to Mariqah.
She looked at him. It's all he had to give.
“Thank you,” Mariqah said, taking it from him and sipping at it. The drink burned her throat, it was a sensation that made her feel good.
“So, what's next?” Vasquez asked.
“Why are you asking me, captain?”
He scoffed, “I might have the title, but I think you deserve the job.”
“I don't want the job, Estaban.”
“I know that. And I know that I probably don't deserve it, but I'm asking for your help. A little guidance.”
“You don't need me.”
“Oh, sure, I don't need you,” Vasquez said, “But I have the captor of the pride and joy of the Royal African Company on my ship. Why not ask her advice?”
Mariqah smiled a little, “It's not something I'm proud of.”
Vasquez grasped her shoulder, “I'm sorry, mi amiga. But if it helps, it would make every man on this ship proud. Even Emmet, though he'd never admit it, el bastardo.”
Mariqah looked away.
“I bet the boys at home are missing you, you know.”
Mariqah scoffed sadly, “How much coin are you willing to part with to bet on that?”
“Well, I got nothing, hermana,” he laughed, “But I'll bet my clothes.”
“Of course you would,” Mariqah laughed.
Vasquez stretched his arms and said, “It's been a long day. My cabin's free, you're welcome to rest there.”
“What about you?”
“I have a half-decent sailor to watch as he guides us to God knows where,” he scoffed, “I'll wake you when I get bored.”