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.


32. 28

Mariqah wanted to be able to say that she loved horses. That they were regal creatures - as beautiful as they were graceful.
But the stiff pain in her arse from all the day's riding was making the sentiment harder and harder to confess.
She dismounted next to a tree, her bottom so sore she had to rub it and hiss in pain before she looked out over at the twinkling city of Chittagong - the jewel in Bengal's crown, the eye of the tiger.
“Not far now,” she murmured to herself. She held the hilt of the Damascus, once again at her side - comforted by its presence, “Not far now.”

The others were setting up camp, erecting tents and building fires. Reynold was some way off, checking the parameter for any possible threats. Mariqah stroked her horse's mane idly as she watched the mercenaries work, wondering what they all felt about her. Some of them, yes, could forgive her - but what about those who couldn't? And how far would their anger take them? Mariqah frowned to herself. When she had become a mercenary, all that had seemed to matter was money. But she'd grown from that, the hard way - money meant nothing if she couldn't preserve their loyalty. She had managed to keep their trust all this time, but in one instance all of it had been crumbled because of her eagerness and her neglect.
Next time, she would double- or triple-check.
Next time, she wouldn't be so easily duped.
Next time.

If there was one.

“What are you doing?”
Mariqah smiled and turned to meet Noel's face, their lips colliding almost immediately.
Noel moved away quickly, however, to check if anyone had seen, peeking behind the tree.
Mariqah giggled, “Are you that desperate?”
“Are you joking?” Noel said, holding her hips, “You're lucky I haven't stripped down to me johnnies right about now.”
Mariqah laughed, holding his shoulders and kissing his cheek, “That would be a sight.”
“Mm,” Noel made a face of mock-offence, “as if you wouldn't strip down to your knickers on seeing me.”
“Yes, well,” Mariqah pulled him closer, “my brains aren't the ones sinking down to their genitals.”
“Oh, aye, all talk now! Your brains weren't exactly up in your head back at the monastery, now were they?”
“If they were, yours wouldn't be simmering at this moment.”
Noel smiled, “So where are yours now?”
Mariqah took a glance at the other mercenaries, working to get some rest, “Definitely in my head.”

Noel's smug grin weakened, “They're mad, Mariqah.”
Mariqah nodded, “I know they are.”
“But not so much that they've lost faith in you,” Noel said.
“I'm... not so sure.”
He put a hand to her chin and turned her head so that she was looking at him, “Just trust me on this?” he smiled, “I don't care what you say, I know you came for us. And maybe you had a moment of self-doubt, so what? It happens.”
Mariqah didn't say anything.
“And stop blaming yourself for everything,” Noel said, running a hand up and down her back gently, “This isn't your fault. At all.”
“It's a little bit my fault,” Mariqah mumbled.
Noel pinched her arse and she jerked away, “Not at all,” he insisted as they both laughed.
“I don't believe you,” Mariqah said.
“Aye, well, don't bother me none,” he winked, “That's not the first time you've said that to me.”
They kissed again - slowly, softly. Mariqah knotted Noel's flowing hair between her fingers, feeling the blood pulse in his temples beneath her palms.
“How's your back?” Noel whispered, when they parted.
Mariqah placed her hands on his chest, “Better than it was. I think.”
Noel nodded absent-mindedly, “Good, good.”

Noel's head pricked up at his name being called and he swiftly pecked Mariqah on the forehead, before calling back, “Just talking with the boss, Matthew, keep your hair on!” and walking away.
Mariqah watched him go to his brother, noting the swagger in his brisk steps. Noel was... different. She didn't know what drew her to him the most - his utmost confidence in her or the fact that she just needed someone like him. Someone who could make her feel better by just touching her, by just looking at her, by just saying something to her - nice or not. Noel was all smiles, all laughs - he was bright, happy hope incarnate. And Mariqah? Hope had died in Mariqah well before it could think to survive.

It was a nice change, to have someone more stoic than cynical.

Mariqah tied her horse to the tree and undid her sleeping bag from its back. The clouds above suggested that it might rain again soon, but Mariqah didn't mind. She rolled out the thick blue casing and loosened her hair, shaking her head to spread it out. She then slipped inside her bag, not wanting any dinner, and closed her eyes.
Mariqah had just dozed off when Reynold returned and she blinked a few times on seeing him, trying to rid the fatigue from her drooping eyelids.

“Sorry,” Reynold chuckled, kneeling down before her, “I didn't mean to wake you. Aren't you going to eat?”
Mariqah sat up, rubbed her eyes and shook her head, “Did you find anything?”
“Nothing but a few scattered villages and scattered cows and goats. Wild dogs might be a point of concern, but I think we'll survive them,” Reynold shook her shoulder, “You really should come and eat. You're going to need the strength.”
“I can't...”
“I can't face them, Reynold.”
“Mariqah, please, this is just getting old now.”
“Look, I don't care if I'm not guilty, okay? I feel guilty. And I can't go over there, lord over them and dampen their mood. I just can't.”
Reynold rolled his eyes, “Will you at least let me bring you some food?”
“If you want to.”
“Of course I want to!” Reynold said, standing and walking away, “If you go and die on me, I'll have forty-three mercenaries to look after. How in hell will I manage that?”

Mariqah yawned into her palm and climbed out of her bag, bending down to roll it up. Soft thunder struck from above, lighting the dark cloudy sky. Mariqah looked up, rubbing her arms, hoping the friction would cause some warmth. She looked longingly at the camp, knowing it would be so much warmer there. But how? How was she supposed to go back there and pretend that this hadn't happened - that this wasn't happening? She couldn't pretend to save her life, not when it came to what she was feeling. Mariqah watched Reynold bring back some food, and Noel called to him and asked him why he was taking so much.
Mariqah guessed he wanted to spare her the shame, because all he said was, “I'm starving.”
The mercenaries laughed and called him a British rooster and made some comments about crumpets and tea, but Reynold waived it off and came to Mariqah.

She said her thanks, sat down and took cooked meat and naan from Reynold.
“Rice is more what they eat here,” Mariqah commented, “Rice and fish, because of all the water... It's strange. I don't think we've spent much on food.”
“Perhaps it's true then,” Reynold said, “Perhaps Bengal is prosperous under the rebels.”
“I don't think it's really under the rebels,” Mariqah said, “I don't know what your Order is really about - and I'm not about to dig for it, so you can spare all the excuses - but it just seems so... strange. Men fighting on different sides but for the same reasons, for the same goal. That doesn't sound honest.”
“To be fair,” Reynold said, chewing his food thoughtfully, “it probably isn't. But then: we don't live in honest times.”
Mariqah broke the naan and ate it with the meat, “That's not a plausible excuse.”
“You're a mercenary, Mariqah. Everyone considers you a miscreant. You're not exactly one to talk.”
“They consider me a miscreant because I ask for money to fight and die for something; because I don't go galloping into suicide missions voluntarily. I'm perfectly comfortable with being that kind of miscreant. You, Reynold, I have no idea what all of this has in store for you.”
“There isn't anything.”

“But why?” Mariqah pressed, “Why this... obsession? Why abandon your family for such a long time, to achieve this unforeseeable ambition? What do you get out of it? What's the benefit?”
“Who says I have to get anything from it? I'm not you.”
“I'm not stupid, Reynold. I like to hold back, but I'm not stupid. Nobody does... this - what you're doing - out of the goodness of their hearts. You must get something out of it.”
Reynold shrugged, “I believe, Mariqah.”
“Believe what?”
“That I can make a difference, that I can change the world from the state it is - or, at the very least, help.”
Mariqah raised a brow, “By toying between kings and queens, by expending the lives of countless armed and innocent people?”
“I didn't say it was easy or instantaneous. And I've already said that it's not entirely honest.”

“Richard believes the same thing...”
Mariqah ignored the query, “How is it then that two ideas that want the same thing fight against each other? The Brotherhood and the Order. What do you seek to achieve there?”
“We think it's just best for everyone if we moved to one thought. Factions, divisions cause problems. The Brotherhood doesn't condone some of our necessary policies, and we don't really fancy their reckless, shabby works. It's why you got caught up in all this - almost all of their successes are due to you, and yet you claim not to be of them. I still am at a loss to understand why.”
“It's nice to have a contractor nearby and frequent. Makes you feel wanted.”
“Wanted dead,” Reynold pointed out.

“I still don't see your point. What are you hoping to achieve?”
“Uniformity. Get all the most powerful men on earth to all agree to a common truce - stop them fighting - or replace them with men who will comply.”
“To dye our skins the same colour and crop our hair down to our skulls and walk as one. All the world's problems, solved.”
“I'm mocking you, you idiot!”
“It's never going to happen, Reynold. It's outside our nature to keep quiet, accept things and stay the same. There are all manner of people in the world, you can't make them uniform.”
Reynold shrugged and said, “You were uniform once. If you can be tamed, why not everyone else?”
“What's that supposed to mean?”
Reynold smirked.
“Hey!” Mariqah said, slapping his wrist, “That wasn't nice!”
He laughed, “You feel my ideas are ridiculous, Mariqah, and you wouldn't understand them no matter how much I explain them. I'd prefer not to argue with you all night.”
Mariqah sighed, “Alright. I just...”
“I was under the impression that you would try and convert me to your mode of thought.”
“I'm your friend, not your father.”
“But you were my teacher as well, Reynold.”
“Exactly. Past-tense. Words can no longer teach you. Only experience will carry you forward.”
“I hate it when you not-teaching teach me.”
Reynold smiled, licking his fingers, “Get some sleep, eh?”

Mariqah nodded, and moved off to her tree. She unfolded her sleeping bag once more and slipped in. She yawned and began to doze off. A light sprinkle of rain began to fall and Mariqah smiled as it dotted her face and arms. Her horse yewled and shook its head, and Mariqah nuzzled in next to it. She felt warm and comforted, better than she had in days, weeks, maybe since she got to Bengal. She dozed off for a moment before being shook awake.
Mariqah's eyes fluttered and she curled her lip in irritation. That was the second time tonight. She mumbled abuse.
Mariqah heard a scoff.
“What do you want?” she said, her voice thick.
“Well, I was going to grant you some company,” he spoke, “But if you're not in the mood for that, I'm sure I can stick it out until tomorrow night.”
“Noel?” Mariqah rubbed her eyes and sat up.
“Got room for one more?” Noel asked, smiling at her.
“Isn't this a bit too open?”
“I reckon we're hidden enough.”
Mariqah laughed, “I'm sorry, Noel, but you're loud in bed.”
Noel raised a brow, “What exactly do you think I'm here for?”
Mariqah gave him a look, “What exactly am I meant to think you're here for?”
Noel snorted, “Touché, Mari.”
“You're not here for that, then?”
“No, I just thought you might appreciate a warm body to sleep against.”
“Aren't you sharing a tent with someone?”
“Aye, with Matthew.”
“And he won't notice you've just disappeared?”
“Well, I told him I was going for a piss-”
“-but my brother will be asleep by now. He won't wonder too much. He knows me.”
Mariqah smiled, “We all know you.”
Noel have her a smug grin, “You, especially.”
“Really? No-one else in the fortress has been graced by your nudity?”

Noel laughed and slid in beside Mariqah, lying against her back and kissing her neck, “Shocking, ain't it?” he intertwined his left hand to hers. She loved that - the way his hand fit hers.
“Aye, madam?”
Mariqah laughed, turning over and resting her head against his chest, hearing the thumping of his heart, “Don't say that when we're alone. You make me sound so old.”
“I know. I was just teasing,” Noel said, smiling, “What is it?”
“It's been some time... since I had someone.”
“Oh? How long?”
Mariqah looked at him, unable to answer for a moment, “A while. More than a few years.”
“Okay,” said Noel, he sucked in his cheeks and nodded, “It didn't seem like it, but okay. So?”
Mariqah looked at him and scoffed to herself, “How...?”
“How are you so... okay, with everything?”
“Well,” he brushed back some of her hair, “not all of us can doubt everything all the time.”
Mariqah kissed him, his lips soft against hers. She looked at his face, tracing the line of his brows with her thumbs. Noel looked kind - he had the look of a man who would laugh and smile even in the darkest of times. His blonde hair was dampening onto his scalp due to the rain and his blue eyes glistened. They were always watery, though Mariqah could never tell why and it always made her gaze at him that little bit longer, fascinated. It wasn't until then that she realised she had a type - an attraction to blue-eyed men. She smiled to herself.
What would her mother think if she knew that?
“I wish I could be that way,” Mariqah said at last, “Just accept things. Sometimes.”
“Excuse me? I'm the biggest trouble-maker in the whole army and you're sleeping with me! Give me some credit!”
“And what's that supposed to mean?”
“Well, correct me if I'm wrong, but with my reputation I'm worth doubting.”

Mariqah looked away from him, “You saved my life, Noel,” she whispered, “How am I supposed to doubt that?”

Noel paused, at a loss for words, “Anyone would've done it.”
Mariqah shook her head, “No.”
“Of course they would.”
“So, what? You feel like you owe me?”
“I feel like... I can trust you,” Mariqah made a face, “Those words taste strange.”
“I was just about to say...” Noel laughed humourlessly, “Do you trust anyone?”
“Not many,” Mariqah admitted.
“Look, don't... don't fret about it, alright? I'm telling you, anyone would have-”
Mariqah kissed Noel, they're lips moving against each other, their tongues exploring each others' mouths. Mariqah could feel how firm he was beneath her palms, and yet somehow soft - gentle and harmless.
What a deadly combination...
Noel gazed at her for a while, when she let go. She wasn't looking at him, but she had a blush on her cheeks. He kissed her forehead and pulled her close.
“Don't leave me until I fall asleep,” Mariqah murmured, “But you can't stay here until morning.”
“Alright,” Noel said, taking her hand in his. He looked at it, taking notice of a discoloured mark on her ring finger, “Can I ask you something?”
“Of course.”

“Were you...? Were you married, at some point?”
Mariqah showed him her hand. It was a burn scar, Noel realised.
“I was... prepared to,” Mariqah said, choosing her words, “In Britain, they don't allow you to marry until you're eighteen, but I was promised to someone when I was twelve...” she touched the circular mark, “I left home before the wedding could take place.”
“Was it... why you left?”
Mariqah paused, “There were many reasons why I left home. But... I guess you could say the marriage was one of them.”
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