The winds swept the hair off of Mariqah's face as she piloted the Reckoning, her brows set in determination - focused on a single course of action: to bring British hold on Tortuga down. Vasquez stood beside her, looking at a map and instructing the deckhands to keep them on course.
“So, what's the plan?” Vasquez asked.
“Plan hasn't changed. We're getting to the fortress and blowing it to smithereens,” Mariqah replied, “With this ship, I reckon we can manage it.”
“It seems a little straightforward. For you,” Vasquez commented.
“Well, while I like showing off my intellectual superiority,” Mariqah laughed, “this would be the easiest way.”
“We could also sustain heavy damage, possibly even capsize,” Vasquez told her.
“Possibly. But I think the odds are well in our favour this time.”
Vasquez paused, “I... have an idea.”
“To spare your ship some cuts and bruises?” Mariqah scoffed, “She's a big girl, Estaban, she'll manage it.”
Vasquez didn't respond.
Mariqah smiled, “I'm all ears, Estaban, what do you have in mind?”
“Yes. If you have a better idea, then shoot.”
Vasquez explained his idea to her and Mariqah chewed the inside of her cheek as she listened.
“I'm not sure, Estaban. It's a good idea, but there is a margin of unnecessary risk,” Mariqah said.
“But a larger chance of immediate success. Cut off the head of a chicken, and the rest of it just runs around not knowing what to do, comprende?” Vasquez maintained, “And it's not like you're a stranger to risks, Mariqah.”
“I take risks where I think I can manage them. With your Commodore Eastwick up in that heavy fortress on Tortuga, I can't be sure. You can never underestimate idiots with power. I don't think he'll be fooled so easily.”
“With the progress you've made here, he's certain to receive mixed signals, no? You've said it many times that you're not a pirate and freed many British captives that the rest of us would have easily killed. The odds could be in your favour.”
“And if Eastwick is a man who doesn't care for odds and takes no risks? What then?”
“That could have applied to any of the men you've subdued before now!”
“But those men were at a disadvantage,” Mariqah pointed out, “Eastwick is not. He has the upper-hand here,” Mariqah explained, and then turned to look at him, “Estaban, this is the last leg of the campaign. The last leg. Everything we've done, everything we've accomplished up until this point can become meaningless if we don't apply some caution here. I'll be the first to admit that fortune favours me often, but I'd rather not rely on something so fickle.”
A pause, “So, that's a no?”
“It's not,” Mariqah said, “You're the captain, it's about time to start acting like one. I'm merely showing you the lay of the land. Both our plans have merit - both have a margin of risk. You weigh up the odds and decide - I'm done doing your job for you.”
“Of course,” Mariqah said, smiling, “If you can trust me with a thousand crazy ideas, then I can certainly trust you with just one. But if we're sticking to your plan, I'll need to borrow Blackwell and some of the crew.”
“That can be arranged,” Vasquez said, proceeding then to order Chip to signal Blackwell. As the smaller vessel aligned itself to the Reckoning, Mariqah passed the steering wheel to Vasquez and moved along to the plank onto the Blackwell, “Bueno fortuna, Mariqah!” he called after her, “We'll hang back here, for three days. Make sure you give Eastwick my best, until then!”
“Loose the sails and catch the winds, boys, we're taking Blackwell home at last!” Mariqah called to the crew, “Emmet, call out the course, if you please.”
He gave her a look, “I don't take orders from you.”
“Suit yourself,” Mariqah shrugged, “But a quarter-master's share is equal to a captain's.”
That seemed to help him co-operate better.
“Oh, and Estaban!” Mariqah called back to the Reckoning.
“Sì, Mariqah?” he called back.
“Don't be late!” she laughed, “I don't want to sip tea with Redcoats for much longer than I have to!”
As the sun sank on the horizon, Tortuga was in full view of all the people on Blackwell.
“So, what's the plan?” Emmet asked Mariqah.
“Your part is simple, Emmet,” she replied, “We raise a white flag and you deliver me to the Commodore's doorstep and wait in the harbour. Or explore, if you fancy that.”
“We're going in on friendly terms?” Emmet asked, “Sounds a little... crafty.”
“The idea is to lure the British into a ruse,” Mariqah explained, “I'll go in, explain that Vasquez is coming from the east, so Eastwick will send all his soldiers there. When, really, Vasquez will be heading straight towards the fortress to destroy it. Hopefully, with no leader, we'll be able to scatter the English forces, round them up and send then home.”
“And how do you know Commodore Eastwick will take your word for it?”
“I don't,” Mariqah admitted, “But I can be very persuasive, when I want to be.”
“And persuasion'll stop us from being hanged and drawn?”
“What do you mean?”
“We are pirates, woman! They'll kill us!”
“Well, you aren't posing as pirates, you're posing as regular sailors who've been forced into the command of a mercenary leader from Masyaf. So I suggest you cover up that branded 'P' on your wrist and get into character,” Mariqah said, “Call out the order to raise a white flag, we're almost there.”
As the flag was raised, Mariqah felt the buzz of nervous excitement shiver through her limbs. She had no idea whether this plan would work, but the feel of it reminded her of her past successes. Reminded her of home. And, for once: she felt good about it.
She passed the wheel to Emmet and climbed down to the captain's cabin. Mariqah sighed to herself. She put her hat down and tied her hair back, tightened her belts, slid a knife into the sheath on her back, and daggers into the holsters on her hips.
She checked the Damascus, “The last leg, friend,” she said to it, “Just this and then we can go home. Where we should be,” she smiled, “What we never should have left.”
She stepped out into the light as Blackwell slid into port and red-coated soldiers stood to receive her.
“Let your captain show himself and state his business!” commanded the officer.
Mariqah climbed down from the deck and onto the wooden platform. She gave the officer a look, “I'm in-charge here and I have need to speak with Commodore Eastwick, urgently.”
“A woman?” smirked the officer, “Who are you?”
Mariqah stepped forward, “I am the Mercenary of Masyaf, Mariqah de Saint-Omer - at your service. Now if you wouldn't mind, step aside.”
“You may speak to the quarter-master about repairs and upkeep of the ship. It wasn't exactly an uneventful journey,” Mariqah pushed passed him and made her way towards the fortress.
“Now see here, madam-” the officer called after her.
“I haven't got time for pleasantries, soldier!” Mariqah snapped, “Tortuga is going to be attacked in three days. I suggest you go about your time preparing for it.”
The officer paled and Mariqah left him that way. She dashed up the steps towards the Commodore's quarters and pushed passed the guards to open the large, wooden double doors.
Commodore Eastwick looked up slowly from the paperwork on his desk and narrowed his eyes at the sight of Mariqah. He was an old man, with thinning white hair and beady blue eyes that gleamed with experience and cunning. His thin lips curled into a wrinkled smile and he held up a hand so that the four guards around him wouldn't pounce on Mariqah.
“Good morning, dear,” he said, his voice as smooth as ice. He sat a little straighter and fixed his white neck-tie - the movement of each joint in his fingers visible as he did so, “though I might understand you have a matter of urgency to report, I appreciate knocking.”
“You know me?” Mariqah asked, cautiously stepping towards him.
“How can I not?” Eastwick replied, looking both surprised and offended, “You understand there is little to entertain us here in the West Indies on uninhabited islands? We hear much of your daring deeds and exploits, Ms Mariqah - the most recent of which being your escape from Bengal,” he stood up and placed his hands behind his back, and began pacing behind his desk. The mention of Bengal made Mariqah bridle, “Such trouble and anger from a single woman... The story is quite remarkable.”
“I did not come here to be appraised, your Excellency,” Mariqah said, a chill settling on her the more Eastwick spoke.
“Of course,” he said, “Then why have you come?”
“To warn you-”
“To warn me?”
Mariqah paused. She didn't like this, “Yes.”
“Hmm. Curious... And you are providing this warning without want of payment or favour?”
Shit. “If you want to pay me, I'm not about to argue. By paying heed, you might just be doing me a favour anyway,” Mariqah said, folding her arms.
Eastwick chuckled, “Don't be ridiculous,” he snapped his fingers and the four Redcoats guarding him hefted their muskets and aimed them at Mariqah.
Mariqah raised her hands.
“I feel rather insulted, Mariqah,” Eastwick said, “I thought you were better than this.”
“You'll have to forgive me, Commodore,” Mariqah muttered, “I'm not good at being disregarded.”
“Oh?” smirked Eastwick.
“Captain Estaban Vasquez intends to attack this island in three days, through the jungle on the east side.”
He ignored her, “Oh, Mariqah... you always seemed to be a very assertive, no-nonsense leader in all the stories.”
Mariqah didn't reply for a moment, “I am a very assertive, no-nonsense leader.”
“Don't patronise me. It's most unbecoming, Commodore.”
Eastwick snorted, “Mariqah,” he said, coming close and holding her face in the palm of his thin hand, “Do you know the penalty for piracy?”
“I do,” she replied, her gaze staying on his face.
“And this doesn't bother you at all?”
“Why should it?” Mariqah said. She was about to feed him the line about her not being a pirate, but then decided on a different stance, “I've faced death before, how different could it be at the end of a rope?”
“Fair enough. Only, I don't intend to kill you,” Commodore Eastwick snapped his fingers again and two guards ran up behind her, bent her back and forced her to her knees, “There happens to be a bounty on your head and, I might say, it is a large one. And I intend to collect.”
“A bounty?” Mariqah said, genuinely surprised, “Who wants me? And for what?”
Eastwick knelt down and grasped her chin, “Well, when you're no empire's ally - it's easy to make enemies, isn't it?”
“Who wants me dead?” Mariqah demanded.
“I'd say any number of people.”
“You know what I mean! Who's issued this bounty?”
Eastwick sat back at his desk and stifled a yawn, “It's nice talking to you, Mariqah, really it is - but I'm afraid I am just too fatigued to continue our banter,” he looked at his guards, “Tie her up and lock her in that cell,” he pointed to a room just left of him with a barred door, “And gag her! We've all heard how sharp that tongue is.”
Mariqah was stripped of her weapons and tied up, “Tell me!” she shouted.
“Oh, hush, you silly girl!” Eastwick scoffed, looking through his papers, “What difference does it make? You're as good as dead as it is.”
“Vasquez will kill you!” Mariqah barked as she was dragged into the cell, “He'll kill you, tear your organs out and feed 'em to-” a gag was pulled around her face, muffling the rest of her words.
Commodore Eastwick chuckled softly, “I'll deal with Captain Vasquez. Don't you worry, my pet, the hangman's noose has been waiting a long, long time for him.”