Female mercenary leader, Mariqah, puts faith in an organisation of rebellious world changers in an alternate history where the British colonialism still exists. These world changers seek to abolish all form of imperialism. Mariqah is in tw minds however, as she has friends in both camps. Things go horribly wrong when she sets foot into Bengal which is torn by civil war - where there seems to be deceptive conflict between factions.


14. 10

Callum O'Brien was a true sailor. He had the ocean in his heart and the mettle to deal with it in his mind and body. In understanding this, he found land tedious and alien.
And the desert? He absolutely detested it.
But as he journeyed through the barren lands of Syria towards Masyaf, he had had but one comfort. One might think it was welcoming for him to go the Brotherhood HQ, to see all his companions of like mind and purpose - and while he had come to report back to Richard and the others of his findings at sea and the progress with the Brethren of the Coast in Nassau - he didn't think of it as a comfort, a pleasure, but merely a task he was required to do.

His only comfort was Mariqah.

It was a strange position for Callum.
He was usually the one that ladies swooned and pined over. He'd never given such ladies a second thought or (after he'd finished with them) a second glance. Most of the time, he could barely recall their names, remember their faces. They were nothings to him, putty in his hands, tools to remedy a biological desire.

But Mariqah? Mariqah was different.

The ocean might fill Callum's heart, but it could never drown his affections for Mariqah. She could be enough reason to bear the desert heat, the empty lifeless everything and endure it.
She'd entered his life and left only numbness when she walked out of it.
It hurt Callum to think that Mariqah believed they couldn't make it work. They'd had this discussion, of course: Mariqah hated the sea. She had been on-board Callum's ship, the BC Tyrant, long enough to stop getting sea-sick and she'd sprouted a decent pair of sea-legs - but the fact remained: she didn't like it.
So she'd left him, broke his heart, to seek out her way in Syria.
Mariqah might have been sorry, but she didn't realise the impact she had made on Callum. He hid the fact well.
In the moment she stepped away: food became like ash in his mouth, all the alcohol in the world could not dull his emotions and no woman alive - past or present - could sate his lust. Slowly, slowly, he could feel the senses return to him, but they were blunted - like a pair of scissors that had cut through material it was not made for. Solid, yes, but rough and useless.

The thing she'd said, all those years ago - like a sweet nightmare - stuck in his mind: “You love your life the way it is. You love the sea and the sea loves you. You were meant for each other. But me? My life and me have always had a sour, unpleasant relationship. I wish I could find a way to love it or, at least, come to terms with it - like you.”
Callum didn't know how true the first part of that statement was anymore.

And now, Mariqah was a narcotic to him - he'd see her, and he could enjoy food and wine and women. For a time. Before he walked away and became a corpse inside once more.

As Callum neared Masyaf with only a handful of his crew - he knew all of this. The effect she had on him. The way he couldn't let her go. Callum wasn't sure why - Mariqah was not the prettiest girl in any room, unless it was filled with men - but he couldn't leave her behind him like had done with so many before her. It wasn't a simple infatuation - it had been too long for it to remain that. It was an insane obsession: love, defined.
It was dangerous.
And when he came upon the trench that now guarded the mercenary state, he stopped to stare at it and mentally kicked himself with the thought: “To keep me out?”

Callum felt hurt and he swallowed thickly. He tipped his hat lower, feeling as slimy as a toad, drowning in his own sweat beneath his tunic and frock-coat, and carried forward. There was a man on the interior - a mercenary in his black uniform - sitting against a long pole expectantly.
“Ahoy!” Callum called to him, “How'm I s'posed to cross?”
“Who are you and what are you doing here?” the man stood up and called back.
Callum grumbled under his breath - the heat making his temper even shorter than usual - before he shouted, “Captain O'Brien! Here to see Richard Shankar for Brotherhood business!”
The mercenary nodded and pushed the pole forward. A great slab of wood rose from out under the sand - and the further the mercenary pushed, the further the drawbridge lowered.
“Well, go on!” the mercenary said, his voice taut, the sweat-splashed muscles of his arm rippling under the strain, “I haven't got all day!”
The pirates scurried across the bridge and stood to the mercenary's side as he placed the pole back slowly, so the bridge wouldn't slam against the ground.
“Wot's this mess, then?” Callum asked, pointing at the trench.
“Defensive mechanism, in case something goes wrong,” the mercenary informed, brushing his hands off, “It was set up a while ago. Nearly four months now,” he gestured for Callum and his crew to follow him, “From what I've heard, Richard's been expecting you. I'll take you to him.”
“Actually...” Callum said, tapping the mercenary's shoulder, “I was hopin' I could see your mistress first? Mariqah?”
The mercenary looked at Callum uneasily, “She's not here, sir.”
Callum paused. He wondered whether the mercenaries had been asked to just waive him away from her, “What d'you mean?” he asked.
“She... She and 400 of the men had left Masyaf for a campaign to Bengal. That were about the time we finished the trench, four months ago. We haven't heard much from Mariqah since.”
Callum's face blanched, a panic and worry filling his chest, “Who'd she leave in-charge?”
“Technically, Myra Castelle. But, after a bit of song and dance, Khadir was left here too.”
Callum nodded thoughtfully. Khadir didn't like him, but if Mariqah was missing... “Take me to Khadir, please,” he said.
“Of course, sir.”

The mercenary led them, covering his face with the bandanna that hung around his neck. Strong winds began blowing in their direction - the grains of sand flying in their faces and assaulting their eyes and mouths as they walked. Callum took his hat from his head and used it to try and shield his face. It didn't work as well as he'd hoped. In what felt like a whole new arduous journey, the Fortress of Masyaf came into view. It would have been more magnificent to look at without all the sand particles flying into Callum's eyes.

They entered the Fortress. It was in a messier state than Callum remembered and the mercenaries were arguing over something. They were in a rough circle and Callum caught sight of a pair of dice on the ground.
Mariqah wouldn't have stood for it. Even the Pirate Code, laid down by captains Morgan and Bartholomew, was against gambling on-deck - Mariqah would be against it doubly so, for reasons that were plain to see. But he said nothing and found Khadir - completely ignoring the pandemonium around him - rifling through a few sheets of paper. His entire demeanour gave off the look, the feel, the smell of panic. He'd allowed his hair to grow into a tangled mess and his eyelids drooped heavily - as if he hadn't slept in forever. The creases in his forehead were deeper than usual.
When Callum called his name (with all the caution he could muster), Khadir didn't hear him, so he tried again and Khadir snapped his head up and scowled, “Has Richard changed his mind?” he asked. His voice was weary, like he hadn't spoken to anyone in a while after a bout of continuous screaming.
The mercenary that had escorted them wandered off, and Callum told his men to find lodgings and rest for the day.
“I just got here, actually. I was hopin' to find Mariqah but...” Callum paused, taking in Khadir's question, “What do ye mean? What has Richard said?”
“Fucking coward,” Khadir muttered, standing up and folding his arms.
Callum took a step back in caution. It didn't matter how agitated and tired he looked, Khadir was scary - and now doubly so.
“What did he say?” Callum asked again.
Khadir put a hand to his forehead, “Why don't you go and ask Richard? You'll probably side with him anyway,” he turned aside and muttered, “Take what my sister gives him and he doesn't even care what happens to her...”
Callum grabbed his arm as he began to walk away, “Oi, Khadir, listen,” he said. Callum hesitated as Khadir gave him an irritated glower, but said, “I know I'm not your favourite person in the world, but I care about Mariqah all the same. Tell me what has happened and what Richard has said or, at least, come with me t'go and talk to him.”
Khadir frowned sadly, “She likes you, Mr O'Brien. I don't, but she does. But before I say anything, tell me why it is you look for her. Honestly.”
“You won't like my answer, sir,” Callum mumbled, wringing his hat in his hands uneasily.
“I don't like looking at you either, but I still am.”
“I... I love Mariqah, sir. I have since I met her. She don't love me, though. Not in the way I would've hoped. But that ne'er changed how I've felt about her,” he put a hand to his chest, “And if she's lost or in trouble... I'd do all in my power t'help.”
Khadir looked at him for a long time, with an unreadable expression. Callum began to feel worried for his safety. But he could relate. It couldn't be easy - playing big brother when your adoptive little sister put her life in danger almost all the time.
“Come,” Khadir said, “let's talk.”
Callum stood stunned for a moment.
Khadir added, “Before I change my mind,” tersely.

The pirate captain nodded and followed Khadir into Mariqah's study. He looked around the bookshelves and the maps covering the walls. There was the faint scent of incense burning from sticks set in a jar on the desk - a desk that was laden with two heavy ledgers and several documents.
Khadir closed the door behind them and said, “Let me make something clear: I would do everything to keep you away from Mariqah. Like I said, she speaks good of you, fondly even, but the memories you stir seem to unsettle her. If things were different, you would never have passed Masyaf's gate.”
“I know't well, sir,” Callum said, and he meant it, “I came here in fear o' my life, but I had to see you. Your man told me Mariqah went to Bengal four months ago. Is't true? No noise since?”
Khadir nodded, “I spoke to Richard concerning Mariqah's absence, but he refuses to investigate,” he growled under his breath, “He makes promises that once Bengal is secure, once a Brotherhood had been established there - only then will he look into the matter. But I fear by then it will be too late. Perhaps it already is. Even if she's still campaigning... Mariqah is never quiet for this long. She'd send me letters regularly, even if there's nothing to say. She literally sends me one marked with only a semi-colon and a closed-bracket if there's nothing to report. Something isn't right.”
“Aye, she knows you worry, sir...” Callum paused for thought, “When was the last ye heard from her?”
“The last letter I received was sixty-four days ago, when the campaign was about to begin.”
“O'er two months ago!” Callum shook his head in disbelief, “That's not good. I'll go and talk to Richard. Will you come?”
“I've sent one of the mercenaries there in my stead. Her name is Myra Castelle. Richard has taken a liking to her, so I was hoping she could convince him to aid Mariqah in any possible way... I'd go myself, but I don't want to look at the man. I fear I might kill him, should I see him again.”
“A'right. I'll see what I can do.”
“Come back to me with your findings. And pray that they are good ones? I'm a man with a horrible temper these days.”

Callum nodded and left the Fortress in a horrible mood. He half-walked, half-stomped his way to the Brotherhood HQ, wondering what Richard could possibly be thinking.
After everything that had happened, after everything she'd done for all of them...
Callum waived himself passed the maroon-liveried guards and found his way to Richard's study. He paused, listening to the several raised voices within, in heated argument. Callum scowled and tore the door open, and a silence fell over the crowded room. Richard was standing by his desk, surrounded by red-faced members of the Brotherhood's inner-circle and a thin blonde woman in heavy armour (who Callum assumed was Myra Castelle).
Of the inner-circle, there were seven - Richard and Callum included. The others were Abbess Britney FeCamp, Dr Vincent Brown, Miss Evet Somerset, Captain of the Guard Ferdinand Mendossa, and young Miss Amaal Ha'Caste.
“Captain O'Brien,” Richard said, breaking the silence, “what a pleasant surprise.”
Callum gave him a look and shouted, “What're you doing, man? Have you taken leave o' your senses?”
“Whatever do you mean, Captain?”
“Ye know full well what I mean!” Callum shouted, “Get Mariqah back!”
The room burst again into argument.
“God above!” Richard howled over the ruckus, “Will you allow me to speak? Thank you. Good God...” he put his hands on his desk and bowed his head, “I am not certain of what has happened to Mariqah. She left without my sanction. I told her explicitly not to leave and she did. I can hardly be responsible for her disappearance now and I will not take it upon myself to hunt her down. It's too much at this crucial point in time. When Bengal has a Brotherhood head-quarters, finding her will be easier. And keep in mind that-”
“Oh, plague and perish!” Callum barked, “That woman's hauled some serious arse for you. Up and down Europe. You weren't the reason our cause has flourished, it's her! She's the one who went out and killed the Tsar and the Kaiser. She even came up with the idea! You might believe in the cause, Richard, but she's the one who's been serving it! Don't ye at least owe her this?”
“The stinking pirate is right!” Myra barked, pointing a sharp finger at Callum, “Mariqah is the reason you're still standing where you are now! Send for her, Richard!”
“Now let's not get ahead of ourselves,” said Dr Brown, his voice calm and soothing. He didn't speak much, but when he did: people listened. He was a tall, dark man from Ethiopia, an adept in the sciences and medicine, “We don't have the resources to launch a full-scale attack on an already aggravated Bengal. And even if we did, we couldn't do that for just one person.”
“But it's not just one person,” Mendossa chipped in. The burly Spaniard could compete with Khadir's look of ferocity. They were about the same height and had the same fearsome scowl, “it's some four-hundred soldiers.”
“Who could be dead,” Brown pointed out, “and the fact remains - we don't have the resources.”
“It don't have to be a full-scale attack,” Somerset said. She was a petite young woman, and had the accent of a British northener. She had intended on being trained by Mariqah in soldiering, “First we'd need to find out where they are, whether they're being held or whether they're still taking part in the campaign - and then decide how to aid them. The scoping and spying could be done by a team of ten or eleven. Maybe even less. They could report back to us and then we could find a way.”

“I'm telling you it can't be done!” Richard insisted and then explained, “We are talking about a country in turmoil - a country that is so unstable, Mariqah and all her soldiers might just have wiped themselves out!” he paused and sighed, “I want to help. I want to be able to tell you all that there's a way of bringing her back here in one piece. But there just isn't a lot we can do for Mariqah at the moment. We need to wait.”
Callum's anger rose, but he said nothing. He simply turned to leave.
“Captain? Where are you going?” Richard called.
Callum paused, “To find Mariqah.”
“Spare me your excuses, Richard,” he said, “I understand. But I won't stand by while anyth'un could be happenin' to her. There isn't time to wait. I'm going to find her and bring her back here - dead or alive,” he looked at Amaal, who had said nothing throughout the entire argument. Amaal felt like she owed Mariqah and wanted to help, but she was the youngest member of the Seven - she didn't want to fight with any of them. Her eyes met Callum's - filled with worry and an eagerness to help. Maybe she could help.
“I'm coming with you,” Myra said, following Callum out.
Richard raised a brow, “This is a brash course of action.”
“That might be. But so's settin' up an organisation to challenge all the empires on Earth,” Callum said, “I'll take my chances.”
They left the HQ and sauntered back to the Fortress, their legs leaden. They said nothing as they walked, both Myra and Callum deep in thought.

Callum found Khadir waiting by the gate expectantly.
Khadir stood up on seeing Callum and Myra, “What news?” he asked.
“Richard'll do nothin',” Callum said, the words bitter in his mouth, “So I'm going to look for her meself.”
Khadir nodded, a light of gratitude flickering in his eyes. He expressed no such sentiment, however, “You'll need support,” he said instead, “I and fifty mercenaries will accompany you. Do you have the space on-board your ship?”
Callum paused, “I can take you part o' the way, but our supplies'll run thin quickly. We'll need t'capture another ship. You'll need to learn how to manage her too - how to steer her, how to rig her sails and such.”
“I will gladly learn what I can from you,” Khadir said, “Should you be comfortable teaching us?”
“I'll do what I can,” Callum said, when Amaal returned to his thoughts, “We should take Amaal with us. She's sailed with me dozens o' times and makes a fine helmsman. And right now, we need all the help you can get.”
“Of course. I will send for her. She was always very eager to serve Mariqah where she could,” Khadir turned to Myra, “I need you to stay with the other half of the army,” he said.
“What!” Myra snapped, “No. No, I'm going with you!”
“Myra, we need someone in our favour on this side of the trench,” Khadir insisted, putting a hand to her shoulder, “Mariqah left you in-charge for a reason. Please. You need to stay behind.”
Myra rolled her eyes and sighed, “Fine! But I'm going on the next campaign!”
“Fair enough,” Khadir looked at Callum, “I guess we'd better pack for the journey.”
“Immediately,” Callum replied.
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