~~Mariqah put down the pen and rubbed her forehead. She hated maths. She sat back in her seat and stretched out her arms. Mariqah hissed and grasped her bandaged side. She lifted the hem of her tunic and looked at the shapeless bloodied patch on the rough cotton dressing. Maybe resting now wouldn't be such a bad idea. She got out of her seat and moved slowly towards the straw-mattress crib. Mariqah sighed, sat down and rubbed the soles of her feet. She then lay down, placing her hands on her abdomen, and looked at the wooden ceiling. She could hear the soft thud-thud of boots clipping on the boards above her as either Vasquez or someone else steered the helm. She shut her eyes and smiled to herself. She didn't care that it was a ship or she was working with sailors - this felt good, sort of like the buzz one gets from winning a game of cards. The rush was so... wholesome and addictive. Perhaps even worth the hot, stabbing pain in her side.
Mariqah frowned slightly.
Losing felt awful though, much worse than getting swindled by a bluff. How long would it take her to forget that she'd lost so much? What was it that Vasquez said? “My ship, my crew and my freedom, are worth much more than my pride”? Mariqah started to wonder what was worth more to her.
Mariqah turned her head to the door. She hadn't even heard it open or, for that matter, heard him climb down to the cabin. He was leaning the corner of his elbow on the frame, the other hand on his hip.
Cocky and smug as ever.
“Estaban,” Mariqah said, “How long have you been standing there?”
Vasquez chuckled, “Not long,” he came inside and shut the door, “How are you feeling?”
Mariqah furrowed a brow at him, “Well enough, I guess.”
Vasquez came up to the crib and lay down next to her, looking at the ceiling.
“Um...” Mariqah said.
He regarded her, as if this was normal, “Sí?”
“What happened to 'undisturbed rest'?” she asked.
“This isn't disturbing?”
“Disturbing? Who's disturbing? I'm just lying down.”
Mariqah rolled her eyes and sat up, “This relationship is weird.”
“I second that,” Vasquez laughed, putting out an arm, “But it's not getting any more normal, hermana.”
Mariqah smiled and took his invitation, resting her head on his shoulder, while he wrapped an arm around her.
“In all seriousness, though,” Vasquez said, “I'm not here to... 'disturb' you. Just to lie down.”
Mariqah felt Vasquez's chest rise slowly as he yawned, “Fair enough,” she smiled.
“Did you manage to get any sleep? McLean is going to need a break, he's been up since I sent you here.”
“I didn't, but I'll be okay to work. Who's steering Blackwell?”
“You trust him?”
“No,” Vasquez admitted, “But I bought some loyalty.”
“What?” he laughed.
“You gave him a bigger share?”
“Is... that a problem?”
Mariqah covered her face with her hands, “Urgh... Maths...” she groaned.
They both laughed.
“Don't tell me you've been working all this time?” Vasquez said.
“You said it was part of my job!”
“I said you should rest!”
Mariqah threw up her hands in melodramatic frustration, “I'll just cut a portion from my share and give it to Emmet. I can't be bothered to re-work the whole thing.”
“Cut it from both our shares,” Vasquez said.
“I told you. You're getting whatever I'm getting. And that means you split the increase and take it from both our shares.”
“You're awfully charitable all of a sudden,” Mariqah grinned.
“The least I can do, for the strangest of all my amigos.”
There was a lighthearted pause before Mariqah said, “I should really get up to the quarter-deck, huh? Liam could probably use a break.”
Vasquez pulled her closed to him, “You're always in such a hurry to get away from me.”
Mariqah stroked his chest, “You know it's not that,” she smiled.
“Right. I forgot: You're married to your work.”
Mariqah looked away, “I kind of am, aren't I?”
Vasquez's humour dampened, “I didn't mean to take you out of your good mood.”
“It's fine, Estaban. I'm just... morbid, all the time. And you...” she sat up.
Vasquez gave her a toothy smile, “I'm...?”
“So carefree and stupid.”
“Muy bien, gracias.”
“I don't know,” Mariqah smiled and shook her head, “Sometimes I wish I could be that way.”
“Well, I'm glad to be such a good fucking influence on you,” Vasquez winked.
Mariqah slipped off of the crib and stretched out. She put on her jacket.
“Before you go...” Vasquez began.
“Hmm?” Mariqah turned back and asked.
Vasquez sat up and rubbed the back of his neck, “I have a question.”
“I'm not marrying you.”
Vasquez choked up in laughter, “Not what I was getting at, but seriously - you don't know what you're going to miss.”
Mariqah smirked, “What did you want to ask, Estaban?”
“Those men... Why did you let them go?”
Mariqah's good humour melted away like ice to an open flame and it showed on her face. She turned away, “I do what good I can,” she replied simply.
“Wasn't it the British that attacked you in Bengal?” Vasquez queried, tilting his head.
Mariqah bit her tongue, “How... How did you know about that? I didn't tell you,” she asked.
“Captain O'Brien didn't just tell us about the Harbinger, you know. He told us the whole story... but he didn't mention you by name or describe your appearance,” Vasquez explained, “So, why did you let them go?”
“It just... felt like the right thing to do.”
She looked at Vasquez.
“Don't push me away,” was his plea. He stood up, came close and tried to look at her face, “They hunted you, imprisoned you for days, mistreated and humiliated you. Killed your men, who seem to mean so much to you. You have every reason to eradicate them where you can - so why didn't you?”
Mariqah shut her eyes, “It's one thing to make examples and prove points - it's another thing to mindlessly destroy everything. Not every redcoat is a selfish, womanising psychopath; and killing all of those would be like chasing every fly that exists. Some of them know what their doing, but...” Mariqah sighed and murmured, “most of them don't. They're just following orders. Nobody deserves to die because of that, even if they're paid to. Even if they know it's coming for them.”
“Mariqah...” Vasquez held her shoulders and said, “you're drowning.”
Mariqah furrowed a brow, “What?”
He touched her face and asked gently, “Are you sure you've had enough rest?”
“Can you manage the helm?” Vasquez elaborated, “Relieve Mr McLean of his work?”
Vasquez stepped away from her, “Then get back to your post, Ms de Saint-Omer.”
Mariqah gazed at him for a while, before she said, “Aye, captain.”
Vasquez picked up her hat and placed it onto her head, “And a few words of advice, if you'll take them,” he watched Mariqah look up at him, “Break free and rise above it. Water cannot kill you, if you can swim - but you will have to break free of the burdens that weigh you down. Water cannot kill you, like fire can.”
Mariqah stared after him, as he left her and went back to lie in the crib. The words sizzled in her mind, engraved there - tingling her nerves and making the hairs on the back her neck rise. She blinked and opened the door, leaving the cabin and climbing up to the quarter-deck.
Mr McLean nodded at her in greeting. Mariqah was too numb to even nod back for a while. She just stood by his side as he managed the wheel, using the banister to support herself.
“You look like you've seen a ghost, mad'm...” Mr McLean commented, “Everythin' alright?”
Mariqah looked up at the darkened sky, the cool breeze anything but comforting. The cold white stars and the pale, somnolent moon stared down at her. With what emotion - pity or accusation - she could not tell.
“Everything's...” Mariqah said, “fine, Liam,” she huffed and looked at him, “You'd better go and get some rest. I can take it from here.”
“O' course,” Mr McLean smiled, allowing Mariqah to take the wheel, “though, I'd like to stand by you a while, if ye don't mind.”
“Up to you, though I'd seriously advise that you don't.”
“I'll be alright, I think.”
Mariqah shrugged and steered the ship towards their due course - Nassau.
“A beautiful night, wouldn't ye say?” Mr McLean commented.
Mariqah shivered, “Hauntingly,” she replied.
“Pardon my curiosity, mad'm, but...” Mr McLean hesitated, “the captain might've told me a bit about you.”
Mariqah bit her lip, “What has he told you?”
“That you're actually a mercenary.”
“Is that all?” Mariqah asked.
“Well, is it true?”
Mariqah nodded, her neck stuff as she did so, “Aye.”
“Strange, that,” Mr McLean laughed, “Pirates and mercenaries don't often mingle.”
“Captain O'Brien hired me to help Captain Vasquez secure Tortuga for the Brethren of the Coast. There have been a few mishaps along the way,” Mariqah explained.
Mr McLean seemed to ignore this information, “You know, I've a pair o' cousins who are mercenaries.”
“Aye! Pair o' ruffians, must say they must fit the part. I stay in close contact with them, but I don't openly admit to bein' related to such brutes.”
“Well, mercenaries aren't that bad.”
“That depends, don't it? I mean, you're amazin' as far as I'm concerned. But those louts wouldn't know an ant from an anthill.”
Mariqah scoffed, “I see.”
“And they're quite blind on their own.”
“Well, the last few times they wrote to me, they said their commander had disappeared. In the beginnin' they weren't exactly upset about it - but they're becomin' more and more complacent and whiny. Like they can't fight without the leader. 'We're all just arms and legs without our head' they say.”
Mariqah looked at him, “Uh-ha...”
“I reckon they really miss her - even if she hurt one o' them.”
“Did Estaban out you up to this?” she asked, her voice small.
“Estaban? What does the captain care?” Mr McLean said, shaking his head, “He'll keep you here as long as he lives, from the looks o' it. I'm tellin' you this on behalf of my cousins, Matthew and Noel.”
“You're lying. It can't be true. Not after what I put Noel through.”
“His heart's mended. He understands you and your choices - and he knows they need you.”
“But I brought them ruin,” Mariqah whispered.
“Aye, once. But how many victories've you brought them?”
“It doesn't matter!” Mariqah snapped, her whisper turning into a roar, “All those victories are like pebbles lying at the bottom of an ocean of ruin! They mean nothing!”
“Perhaps not to you!” Mr McLean snapped back, “But I know it matters to my cousins and I believe it might to the rest o' your men. Doesn't that mean somethin' - anythin'! - to you at all?”
Mariqah looked away.
“You have to-”
“Mr McLean,” Mariqah said, “I insist that you get some rest.”
She pointed away from her, “Go. To bed.”
Mr McLean grimaced and then nodded curtly. He stepped down from the quarter-deck and Mariqah watched him climb down the hatch. The other pirates minding the ship were staring at her.
Vasquez was right.
She was drowning.
Drowning. Drowning in cold, cold waters.
She needed to save herself.
But she thought about her burdens... About Matthew and Noel and Khadir and all her living men and all her dead men... About what Mr McLean had said...
She look back at the moon and the stars, painted across a dark oblivion - with their frozen, timeless stare (or was it a glare?) - and consulted them, “Am I worth saving?”