Mariqah woke to the sound of shouting. She rose, bleary-eyed, a headache pounding between her brows. She touched her forehead, gasped a little, thinking of nothing and feeling nothing. She hadn't even began looking around her. Mariqah kept her eyes closed, listening to the crashing of the sea and the sound Vasquez barking his orders in that vulgar way he did. She sniffed and looked at her hands - feeling strange and not quite... material, like she was in a dream rather than grounded in reality. Mariqah touched her side - finding it numb.
She lifted her tunic and her brows rose at the sight.
It was as if nothing had happened.
Where there should have been a bloody, fatal wound dribbling precious life, wasn't even the trace of a scar and not the whisper of pain. Mariqah furrowed her brows.
“How can this be?” she muttered, “...I should be dead.”
Mariqah laughed to herself, her head snapping to attention at Vasquez shouting, “You fucking pricks, what are you? Dead? Why can't I hear you fucking sing?”
“That man will never change,” Mariqah chuckled, shaking her head. She got down from the slate she had been placed on and, holding her side on a whim, walked up to an irregular opening in the wall that must have been blown up by cannon-fire. She found Vasquez standing on the precipice of a wall, waving his arms and demanding the repair of specific parts of the fortress.
“Estaban?” Mariqah said.
A sudden pause - as if something sharp had jabbed him - before Vasquez turned around and put his hands together, “About time you woke up, guapa.”
“What... What happened? How did I survive?” she asked, welcoming his warm embrace.
“You almost didn't,” Vasquez replied.
“But... I feel... fine...” Mariqah itched her head, “It doesn't make sense.”
Vasquez looked away for a moment, “Sometimes, not everything does.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing...” Vasquez smiled, waiving away the question, “I'm just glad to see you alive.”
“I'm glad to see you're alive too.”
He laughed, “Come on! You didn't honestly think I would lose, did you?”
Mariqah shrugged, “You could say I had my doubts.”
“Because,” Mariqah said, touching Vasquez's face, “you are one cowardly motherfucker, Estaban Vasquez.”
“Fair enough. But after you nearly died, there was no way I could run.”
Mariqah shut her eyes and asked, “Did you lose any men?”
Mariqah bent her head a little.
“Eh,” Vasquez said, touching her chin and raising her head, “They knew what they were getting into.”
“I know,” she said.
Vasquez observed a moment of silence before he said, “There is still one thing I need you to decide for me.”
“What?” Mariqah said.
“Come with me,” he said.
Vasquez led her down two flights of stairs and then down the irregular ruins of the fortress, until they reached the base. There she saw a newly-erected platform and scaffold.
“Bring out the prisoners!” Vasquez said.
A pair of pirates went under a narrow opening beneath the fortress and dragged out a few redcoats - followed by none other than Commodore Eastwick.
“Mariqah!” said the Commodore, “You... you survived?”
Mariqah regarded him, “Apparently,” she looked at Vasquez, “What exactly do you want me to decide?”
“This fucker tells me that you'd let him go. What do you say?”
Eastwick gazed at her, hope gleaming in his eyes.
Mariqah turned away and - she could just feel the old man's face fall - before she said, “They're your prisoners. You decide.”
“I want you to pass a judgment,” Vasquez insisted, “These are your prisoners now, what would you have me do with them?”
Mariqah touched her painless, healed side and said, “I would ransom them and let them go.”
“You asked me to pass judgment and I have,” Mariqah said.
“But why the fuck would you do that? Have you never killed a prisoner before?”
“Then why not this one?”
Mariqah remained silent.
“This fucker tried to kill you!”
“He was looking for a way to win,” Mariqah said, “Would you have behaved any different? Commodore Eastwick might not be the bravest of enemies or the craftiest, but...”
“He treated me well. Yes, I was behind bars and I didn't speak as much as, perhaps, I would have liked - but I was treated with honour and respect. Much better than I was in Bengal. And I gave him my word that if he freed me, I'd vouch for him and his,” Mariqah looked at Vasquez, “I know I'll have enemies - but why kill the ones that will treat me well when I fall into their hands?”
Vasquez looked at her, holding his head, “Your judgment, your self-righteous bullshit, your mind-fucking delusions will work against you one day, hermana! Get rid of as many enemies as you can, while you fucking can!”
“No. Every enemy is the head of a hydra. Cutting them off will not help me - another will always sprout in its place. I'd rather spare the ones that don't have the teeth to bite.”
Vasquez sighed, “Have it your way, Mariqah,” he asked for the prisoners to be replaced in the narrow dungeon.
“You really aren't pirate,” Vasquez laughed.
“You'll get some coin, won't you?” Mariqah replied, “Take care of this place, Vasquez. Don't let this place become the mess that Nassau is.”
“Sì. I will try, Mariqah,” Vasquez assured, “Which reminds me, I contacted Captain O'Brien. He should be here in a matter of hours.”
Mariqah looked surprised, “Hours?” she asked.
“Sì. It's been a week you've been out.”
“Stop beating around the bush, alright?” Mariqah implored, “I should be dead. How did you heal me?”
He sighed, “I... It's complicated. It's better I show you. Come.”
Mariqah followed him as he made his way to the jungle. An inward groan resonated through her mind. Mariqah kept close to him as he led the way, occasionally holding his arm, knowing that the terrain could easily engulf her. The unwelcome hear, the chirping of a gazillion insects and the density of moisture made Mariqah itch all over. It wasn't long before they got to one of Vasquez's old jungle outposts.
“What are we doing here?” Mariqah asked.
Vasquez didn't answer - he went into the makeshift building, scratched at the soft ground and dug out a strange stone with his hands.
Mariqah gave him a look, “What is this? A talisman? Voodoo?”
“This is going to sound crazy,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck, “But... this rock opens a door to other worlds.”
Mariqah took the stone in her hands, noting the obscure faded runes that marked it, and said, “Are you... feeling okay? Am I hearing this right?”
“Mariqah, please. I got the elixir to heal you from this. It's a substance that's been keeping me alive for generations.”
Mariqah was not about to buy into this, “...What weeds have you been smoking?”
Vasquez plucked up the patience from somewhere within himself and said, “Look around, Mariqah - what would Spain and Britain want with this shitty place? They couldn't live here. There are no resources here, just barren sand they can't use and untamed jungle they're too fucking afraid to venture,” he explained and he had a point, “They were looking for this. They've always been after this. They feed their people bullshit lines about the search for treasures in the New World, gold and riches, ancient artifacts. But there's no history to be found here, no gold to dig up - only this ,” he gestured to the stone, “You've heard the stories? The legends? The fabled searches for the Fountain of Youth? There is no fountain. It's this stone.”
Mariqah bit her lip, held her hips - her patience thinning the more Vasquez explained his case, “And how did you happen upon it?”
“I didn't. It was given to me, a long time ago. For safe-keeping.”
“How long ago? By who?”
“Hermana... you don't wanna know.”
Mariqah paused, “Show me,” she said, passing the stone to Vasquez.
“Okay,” he said, placing stone down on the jungle floor. He took his tinderbox from his pocket and lit the stone on fire, “Come,” he said.
Mariqah waited, watching the bright red flame in wonder. It emitted grey clouds of smoke - but the stone did not burn and it did not char. Some strange energy within the stone itself was feeding this strange fire.
Mariqah hesitated, “I don't see anything,” she said.
“Just because you can't see something, doesn't mean it's not there,” he said, pulling her forward, “Reach out and touch the smoke.”
Mariqah stared at Vasquez, but then put her hand forward into the faint, wafting grey cloud. She withdrew in shock and then reached out to feel it again.
It was cold and wet.
“This is bloody witchcraft...” she murmured.
“I don't know what it is, but look at your hand,” Vasquez said.
Mariqah looked at her fingers. All the marks and scratches accumulated over years of work had gone. Vanished. The skin was even a different colour - removed of the tan she had earned by working in the sun.
Vasquez pulled out his flask, emptied it and collected some of this unseeable water.
“What's on the other side?” Mariqah asked.
“I've... never been,” he admitted, “The one who gave the stone to me just said that it leads somewhere, to another world, one that is different but same as ours. But I've never gone,” he picked up the stone and the fire went out immediately, “Take it,” he said, proffering it to Mariqah.
“What?” she said.
“Call it a gift, Mariqah,” he continued, “I know you would turn down any payment, so take this. You'll do a better job in looking after it, than me.”
Mariqah held it between her hands, “I... I can't take this. It's yours. It was given to you.”
Vasquez took a step back and waved his hands in front of his chest, “I don't want it anymore. I've held onto it for a very, very long time and I'm sick of having it. And I think you might need it more than me.”
Mariqah smiled, “Thank you, Estaban,” she said, placing the stone in one of her pockets.
“Come on,” he said, “We should get back. Captain O'Brien has probably arrived and is waiting for you.”
“I hate to say it, but I think I'm going to miss this, miss you.”
“Well, that makes two of us.”
“I'm sorry... In a different life... Maybe...”
“Eh,” Vasquez said, “It's okay. It's alright. I'm fine, princesa.”
“Thank you for everything. You know, except for the part where you tried to kill me.”
“You're welcome. And I'm sorry I did.”
Mariqah kissed his cheek and said, “Let's go.”
They made their way out of the jungle and back to the fortress - where a ship was indeed waiting in the harbour.
But it wasn't the Tyrant.
“El Tívu? What is your old ship doing here?” Mariqah asked.
“What is Morgan doing here?” Vasquez muttered.
They walked up to the vessel and Morgan plonked down - over-enthusiastic and perhaps a little drunk, “Good afternoon, Miss Mariqah and the so queerly re-established Captain Vasquez!”
“What do you want, Morgan?” Mariqah asked.
“He's come to piss on my sunshine, that's what,” Vasquez muttered.
“On the contrary,” Morgan replied, “I've been charged with escorting you home, Miss Mariqah.”
“What do you mean?” Mariqah said, “What happened to Callum?”
The chill set in once more as Morgan spoke the words Mariqah never thought to hear, “Haven't you heard, dear? Captain Callum O'Brien is dead.”