Frost and Fire

An immediate short story to follow the completion of Maverick :D ***** Cover by AldrinHD

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10. 9

The sun shone on the busy island as Blackwell slid into port, the water sparkling and shimmering like millions and millions of gems beneath the hull. Mariqah tried not to let her previous interaction with Vasquez or the heat bother her as she leaned against the port-side of the ship and examined the dock. Martinique was lively - with the smell of fish dampened by the smell of spices and beverages, and the loud chatter of buyers and sellers haggling over prices.
 But it was not welcome to pirates - Mariqah could see the metal cages that hug from tall, rusting poles all around the harbour, holding the rotting corpses of the condemned and executed.
“We have to be careful,” Vasquez commented, as if reading her thoughts.
“Where do we head first?” Mariqah asked.
 Vasquez stood next to her and looked at the market-place, “Weave in and out of the market, you should get word of a hanging to take place today. Once you learn of the location, find me, and we can make our way there and set the prisoners loose.”
 “And you'll be...?”
 “Minding the ship until you get back. It's better if there's two of us in this fight, hermana. And if one of us gets caught, the other can release them - instead of both of us getting clapped in irons,” Vasquez paused, “Unless you want me to find out the location...?”
 “No. I think I can manage.”
 “Alright. I've marked the goods that Chip should sell to the harbour-master. We should have enough wealth to fix Blackwell up as well as buy her some heavy-shot and cannon rounds.”
 “Good.”
 “Mariqah...” Vasquez said, “About last night...”
Mariqah gave him a look, “It's... fine. Just leave it.”
Vasquez gazed at her for a moment, before he nodded and let her leave the ship.

 Mariqah's boots clipped on the wooden boards as she made her way towards the fish-market stalls. She wrinkled her nose at the pungent pong, but moved passed the buyers. The salesmen called to her "lady in the green" or "boy in the green" and showed her their stock - and Mariqah listened to them chatter as she moved from stall to stall: looking at and touching everything, but not buying anything. She frowned deeply at the sight of a slave auction - each shackled man aggrieved but resigned to the chains around his neck and wrists. It was a repugnant trade. Mariqah allowed the keeping of slaves amongst mercenaries, but it wasn't a racial slavery. Mercenaries gained slaves through war spoils - political prisoners of the losing state and the widows and orphans of fallen soldiers - and slave-keeping in Masyaf had a strict code that included granting them three decent meals a day equal to that of slave's master, having the right to buy and sell their own property, and the master had an obligation to dress slaves in an equal manner to themselves. Abused slaves could complain to her or an appointed liaison, and the master would be dealt with. Mariqah thought it better that widows and orphans had some means of provision, rather than letting them roam the wild homeless and penniless after a traumatic war. And, most of all, Mariqah decreed that once a mercenary had no need of a slave, he could not sell them - his only option was to set them free of bondage.
 Mariqah's gaze settled a while longer on the slave trade, before she turned away.
 If there was a decent metal-worker around, she might have considered parting with a few coins - but there was mostly fish, spices and textiles for sale. As she window-shopped, she listened to the people talk - keeping a keen ear-out for the keyword "hanging".

 As she eavesdropped, she came upon a stall that sold hats and one caught her eye. She'd been meaning to get one for a while, but she'd never found one that took her fancy until now. It was a green tricorne with yellow trimmings - which matched her jacket perfectly. She picked it up and admired the handiwork. Once upon a time, she had made such crafts in a factory - but she'd never have the skill to make one so precise and fine.
“Does this please you, señorita?” asked the salesman.
 A hat would help with the sun...
“It's beautiful,” Mariqah commented. She looked back at the slaves and an idea formed in her mind.
 He chuckled nervously, “Shall we agree a price now? Or...” he gestured to her thin belt, “when you have more coins in your purse?”
Mariqah put the hat on her head. She remembered one of her old friends telling her about the comfort of a hat, how it moulded to one's head so that it wasn't so easily knocked-off and lost. This one fit Mariqah's head like it was made for her.
“Señorita?” the salesman pressed.
 Mariqah smiled at him, “I'm afraid I'll have to borrow this for a while.”
 “Excusa mi?”
 “Very sorry about this,” she said, turning away.
 It wasn't long before the salesman cried “Thief!” and all the guards within the market area came and caught Mariqah by the arms (not that she was running or anything, but guards were used to fleeing targets as opposed to ones strolling around).
“You really don't have to be so aggressive,” Mariqah sighed, as she was pulled along.
 One of the guards just snarled at her and they continued to man-handle her until they arrived at a raised wooden platform with a scaffolding, nooses already ready and an eager audience waiting for the week's gruesome drama. There was a line of convicts standing behind the scaffold, shoulders hunched forward and heads bowed in submission.

 Mariqah was led up the steps and forced to her knees, before she was made to look up at the white-wigged officer in a blue jacket.
“I know you,” the man smiled.
“You do?” Mariqah squinted, putting a hand on her hat - readjusting it so she could see him properly, “Because I can safely say that I do not know you.”
 “That sharp tongue, Commander Mariqah de Saint-Omer, will one day be your undoing.”
Mariqah rolled her eyes. Like she needed warnings from a man in a wig.
“Let me try that again: who are you?” she asked.
“Does it matter? This shall probably be your last day.”
 “Ah-ha,” Mariqah said, “Well, unless you want me to call you Mister Whitey-Wig Tighty-Stockington, I suggest you give me a name. Or at least your rank.”
Stockington was not amused by the sniggering that buzzed from the crowd, “I don't need to answer to you.”
Mariqah nodded, “Stockington, it is then. Now, Mr Stockington - why is this my last day?” she inquired.
 Stockington huffed, “My name is-”
 “Uh-uh, I'm afraid it's too late for that.”
 “I am Commodore Albert Chambers,” Stockington insisted, “And don't you dare try and play coy with me!”
 “Play coy? Moi? Are you sure you've actually heard of me?”
 “I have it on good authority that you have been consorting with pirates.”
 “So I have a few bad friends. Since when is that a crime?”
He folded his arms, “Consorting with pirates is punishable by death.”
 “I've been friends with Captain O'Brien since I learned to shoot straight, and I know a number of your superiors who have been more than just alright with it. What's the difference now?”
 “I feel your... 'friendships' have gone too far.”
 “Are you accusing me of aiding Captain O'Brien in piracy?”
 “Not Captain O'Brien. Captain Estaban Vasquez, the scourge of Tortuga.”
A collective gasp from the audience.
“Oh, give me a break,” Mariqah snorted, rolling her eyes at his theatrics, “Have you met the man? He's insane, he stinks like horse-shit and don't even get me started on his distaste for women. I wouldn't be able to play checkers with him without blowing his head off, let alone aid him in piracy.”
 “You're losing your touch, Mariqah. I have witnesses.”
 “Do any of your 'witnesses' know that Vasquez has been dead for weeks now?”
A pause, “I'm sorry?”
 “Right...” Mariqah said, “He's dead! I killed him and took a vessel, aye. But only because I needed to get somewhere and all four fine fishermen that transported me are all well and alive. Do I look like I'm flush with coin or drunk with rum? And since when do soldiers and sailors mingle anyway? Or mercenaries and pirates for that matter? Bloody hell, you'd find cats and dogs working in better harmony!”
 “Vasquez can't be dead. One of our commanding officers was threatened by him and you only a few days ago.”
 “Is this 'officer' a sailor?”
 “Yes.”
 “The same kind that witness mermaids and sirens and kraken?”
Also being a sailor of some standing, Stockington glared at Mariqah, “Do not test my patience, Mariqah.”
Mariqah grinned, “That's not an answer to my query, Mr Stockington. Your officer has been maddened by uncounted days at sea, and has testified to a situation that cannot be. Captain Vasquez is dead.”
Flustered for good measure, Stockington snapped, “And what about the hat?”
 “What about the hat, Mr Stockington?”
 “You stole a hat.”
 “I made it clear to the salesman that I was borrowing the hat. Did I run like a thief, tripping over my own feet to flee from captivity? No. I held my head with civility and allowed your guards to bring me here without much of a fuss.”
 “Why?” Stockington snarled, gritting his teeth.
“To find you!” Mariqah snapped, “But you've offered me nothing but rebuke and a bloody hanging! Perhaps I should have asked to be transported to Jamaica or, for that matter, China since you all seem to be the same everywhere! Good grief! You'd think men who call everyone else savages might have a few more manners!”

 “You dare speak of manners?”

Mariqah tried to hide her grin, as everyone looked in the direction of the voice.
“It cannot be,” Mariqah said, standing up and looking up at a building. On its flat roof, stood Captain Estaban Vasquez.
“You think you could kill me so easily, princesa?” he teased, holding out his sword dramatically.
“You were dead!” Mariqah insisted, drawing her sword, “I made sure of it! I even pissed on your bloody corpse after I was done with you!”
Vasquez laughed, “Oh, mi alteza!” he snapped a washing line and swung down to the ground, “You should know I endured that for the view.”
Stockington was about to order his guards to arrest Vasquez, when Mariqah interrupted him, “Don't you fucking dare!” she barked at Stockington, “Vasquez is mine! And he will fall to my blade if it's the last thing I do!” she dropped down from the platform and raced at Vasquez.
“Your blade will make a dandy ornament in my cabin,” Vasquez said, blocking the blow.
“Your loins would look even dandier when I cut them out and stick them in your mouth!” Mariqah screamed, throwing off the blow and moving back towards the gawking crowd of action-starved people.
“Oh, such sharp barbs, Mariqah,” Vasquez said, taking a quick swing at her head, “Why not let your sword do the talking?”
Mariqah ducked down and swept a leg at Vasquez's feet, “Why let it have all the fun?”
Vasquez jumped and slammed his blade down on Mariqah, “I hope you have a plan,” he muttered, as she blocked the blow - the swords clashing and scraping against each other, “Or at least, a good explanation for all this.”
Mariqah shrugged, “I wanted a new hat.”
 “What!”
Mariqah grinned and used his moment of shock to head-butt him in the face, “For a man who claims to have come back from the dead, you disappoint me, Estaban!” she said, stepping back onto the platform.
“And who says I came back, Mariqah?” Vasquez laughed holding his throbbing nose, making his face sinister and dubious, “Don't you know? Some men on these tides cannot die.”
Mariqah tore another sword from the sheath of a guard and blocked a descending blow, “And of all sailors, the tides chose you?” she snorted.
“What is that supposed to mean?” Vasquez asked, almost serious. He also took a sword from a guard and sliced down on Mariqah's side.
 Mariqah gasped as the blade cut into her a little, but used the Damascus to throw the blade away - right in the direction of the other convicts, the blade sticking in the ground and vibrating from the force of the throw.
“You are a dishonest man, Estaban,” Mariqah said, knocking back his remaining sword.
“You're hardly the most honest woman, Mariqah,” Vasquez returned.
“Aye, but I know I'm more honest than you,” Mariqah said, pushing Vasquez back further.
“A matter of perspective, I think.”
 “You think?”
 “You don't?”
Vasquez threw in a blow, but Mariqah had the upper hand and knocked it away. Vasquez stumbled and fell onto his back. It took a moment for him to register Mariqah standing over him, panting from fatigue, with both swords crossed over his throat.
 He could have beamed at her.

 A series of impressed clamour followed - applause and verdicts for Vasquez.
 Stockington stepped forward, hands clapping, and said, “Bravo, bravo. Perhaps I didn't give you as much credit as you deserved.”
 “We all like...” Mariqah panted, “to be paid our dues, Mr Stockington.”
 “Indeed. You have my apologies.”
 “Apologies?”
Stockington paused, “For my accusations.”
 “Oh,” Mariqah laughed giddily, “Oh, oh no, Mr Stockington. You see, I'm a mercenary,” she straightened and looked at him, “And words mean nothing to mercenaries if they cannot be weighed with some amount of wealth.”
 “Ex...cuse me?”
Mariqah sniffed and then swallowed, “I am owed much, and I intend to collect.”
Mariqah sliced through Stockington's belt so that his breeches flopped down. She dropped her second sword so that Vasquez could use it, before collecting up the belt and cocking her hat at Stockington. The convicts - who had used the distraction to free themselves - cheered and leapt on the guards, stealing their weapons or dying in their attempts. The crowd of civilians were glued to their spots in shock.
“Come on!” Mariqah cried, throwing herself into the saddle of the Commodore's horse, “You can't kill every fool, lads!” she dug her heels into the horse's belly and the animal reared-up and bolted towards the docks.
 She raised her sword as she rode, frantic to get to Blackwell. Her eyes caught sight of the slave auction again. She bared her teeth and made the Commodore's horse gallop into the crowd of buyers. The horse stood on its hind legs - kicking and yewling at the mass of people screaming to get away. Mariqah dropped down - letting the crazy horse serve as enough of a distraction - and broke the chains and cut the ropes binding the slaves.
“Run if you want to,” she said, “But if you even want to begin to repay this debt, meet me on that ship. It's called Blackwell,” she gestured and ran into the insane rabble of salesmen and buyers panicking to escape the scene. She found the hat-seller and stopped him.
“Keep the hat! Keep the hat!” he cried, when she grabbed his arm.
“Your payment,” she said, handing the Commodore's belt to him. Mariqah smiled and tipped her hat, before racing towards Blackwell.

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