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.


8. 6

“I know many of you have doubts when it comes to me and my possessing any... lady-like qualities,” Mariqah announced. Chuckles ran through the audience of mercenaries as she spoke to them. She was standing on a wooden crate, wearing a long tunic and dark breeches - the Damascus lying dormant in its sheath at her side.
“And admittedly,” she continued, “I do feel I've lost more feminine qualities than I care to count,” Mariqah paused to hear someone yell a crude remark, “Yes, well, at least mine have actually dropped! Can't say the same about yours, mate!” everyone guffawed, “Joking aside, though - this place needs a good clean up,” she spread her arms and gestured around them, “Redcoats are about as good residents as they are soldiers. It stinks of piss and alcohol everywhere. The bedrooms reek of sex and the kitchen and mess hall is musty with rat shit and spores. Frankly, gents, it's disgusting. So I'm dismissing all of today's activities so we can take care of the building,” Mariqah paused as they grumbled, their voices echoing and carrying themselves to the height of the arched ceiling.
“Can't we just hire a cleaning crew?” one of them asked, “Or a bunch of sailors? They know how to clean.”
“No,” Mariqah said with a shake of her head, “You lot need to know how to keep this place clean, how to keep a house. If you don't, it could cause some serious problems. Disease, pests, fungi - we have to see the doctor enough already, lads.”
“I told you it was a bad idea to join a woman's army...” she heard someone mutter.
“Charming, mate!” Mariqah barked, her face contorting with offence, “Find yourself a stick and shank yourself with it! You want to know what happens when idiot men run armies?” she pointed accusingly behind her, “What we've currently got! Everyone'd be eating off the floor, screwing whores on the floor, shitting and pissing on the floor, losing an arm to a bad doctor on the floor! And that's just what I've seen!” Mariqah paused and took a breath, “I know my methods aren't exactly... 'manly', but they're necessary - and believe me, no whores are passing that threshold,” she pointed to the Masyaf gate, “I didn't sniff you out to lose you to syphilis! I'll lose you to war or repute: nothing less! You want cheap women, you do it outside - do not bring them here. Which reminds me - since we have stable accommodations now, those of you with families ought to send for them,” this gained an approving response, “It'd work out better for you,” Mariqah said, “This way your wives wouldn't be so concerned about you deserting them, and you wouldn't be so worried about them deserting you. But back to cleaning...” she scoffed under her breath, “I'd like to kindly remind you that there's a million pound sitting pretty in a chest just waiting to be split up - and until I can hire a few decent accountants, it'll stay that way. You all have a share in that money and there's only 150 of you, mind. So I want a quarter of you in the kitchen and mess hall, making everything spick and span; a quarter of you cleaning out the rooms and corridors, the storage rooms and the closets; a quarter of you seeing to any repairs that the building might need; and the last quarter of you giving any linens, curtains and clothes the wash. Anyone who refuses immediately loses two-thirds of his share.”
“What about you?” one of the mercenaries asked.
“What do you mean what about me?”
“That money's yours, ma'am. Your shares from all the wars. You aren't going to keep any of it?”
Mariqah crossed her arms and explained, “Lad, I've got a Masyaf's roof o'er my head, the world's greatest sword at my side, and 150 of the best soldiers I've ever seen as my personal guards - what could I possibly want with money?” Mariqah hopped off the crate and laughed, “Get to work!” she passed by Khadir and tapped his arm, “Oversee this for me. Split them up, and see that they do their jobs. Get the kitchen lads to make some food, if you can. I'll handle it later, if you can't.”

“Where are you going?” Khadir asked, grabbing hold of Mariqah's arm as she began to walk passed him, “Not going to chase Evans's ghosts, are you?”
Mariqah smiled, “Aww, Khadir, were you eavesdropping on us?”
“Answer my question.”
“As a matter of fact, yes. I was. I'm just going to have a look around the village.”
“Flay that madman's fantasies, Mariqah!” Khadir snapped.
“I gave him my word, Khadir,” Mariqah said, shrugging him off, “And I intend to keep it. Reynold has done me a great deal of favours in the past, and it's about time I started paying them back. I promise I won't be long.”
Khadir grunted, his upper-lip twitching in irritation, “Two hours. If you're not back to the gate by then, I come looking for you.”
“You have yourself a deal,” Mariqah said, turning to leave, “Oh, and Khadir?”
“Will you be sending for your father and sister, your wife and kids?”
“One hour, fifth-nine minutes.”
“God, you'd best send for your wife,” Mariqah muttered, “sounds like you need some serious release...”

Mariqah passed under the raised gate casually and climbed down the pathway, whistling as she went with her hands in her pockets. The weather was on fire, the sun a burning ball in the blue cloudless sky, making the air shimmer with heat. Mariqah took the red shawl from her shoulders and covered her head to protect it from the sun's rays. As she approached the village, she realised that several of the villagers had set up stalls as a makeshift market-place. It might have looked small from a distance, but it was extremely large and busy up-close - with merchants shouting and advertising their wares and people haggling for prices and trade. It reminded Mariqah vaguely of the fish-markets back home. She smiled at the thought and browsed through the different stalls. No-one seemed to notice who she was as they called out to her one but one, in the hope she'd buy what they had to sell. She stopped by a stall selling fresh and dried dates.
The merchant smiled, “Sabahun Khayr!” he said, his Arabic rich with the Syrian dialect (the most beautiful, Mariqah had always thought). He wore an off-white turban and kept an unruly beard, but his smile was genuine and warm. He was garbed in a one-piece ensemble known as a thawb, coloured a light blue, “Are we looking for anything specific, ukhti?” he asked.
Mariqah smiled, “Just passing by, akhi, I haven't come here to buy. Only to see,” she picked up a dried date from a pile and tested it between forefinger and thumb. Not too soft and not too hard, “Your village looks a lot smaller from Masyaf.”
“Ah,” his smiled became a little more forced and he looked up at the looming stronghold, “You come from...? You're the...?”
“My daughter...” he mumbled, looking away slightly.
Mariqah raised her brows and said, “I'm not with the British. But I'm sorry for what they might have done. Anna asifun. Really.”
“No, no,” he said putting a hand to his chest, “You misunderstood. You saved my daughter,” he turned to call: “Amaal, ta'al! Yallah!”
A young woman holding a woven tray of dried dates turned and smiled at her father. She wore a green head-piece - her short, choppy hair only marginally visible - and an intricately embroidered blouse and loose trousers of a similar shade. A necklace made up of golden disks hung around her throat and she wore an impressive array of bracelets around her arms, that were decorated with henna tattoos. Mariqah couldn't be sure, but her ears looked strangely pointed. She was uncommonly beautiful.
Amaal came towards the stall and smiled even broader at Mariqah.
Amiratee!” Amaal said.
“Don't call me that,” Mariqah said, with a light laugh, “I'm not anyone's queen.”
“But you saved me! You saved me from that lecherous himaar!”
“It... it hadn't been my intention,” Mariqah admitted, “I was only seeking to take the fortress. Saving you wasn't a priority or even noted. It just happened.”
“All the same - I am forever in your debt!” she put down her tray and embraced Mariqah warmly, “I am Amaal Ha'Caste,” she said in English, “but most of the people here know me as Amaal daughter of Suhayl. What do they call you?”
Mariqah inclined her head, “Mariqah de Saint-Omer, at your service.”
“'Mariqah'? That is a strange name.”
“It is a name that best describes me, I think - and we are what we are called by,” Mariqah laughed.
“Please,” said Amaal's father, pushing his wares forward, “Try some, free of charge.”
“That is quite alright, sadiqee, I'm not here to take your goods,” Mariqah refused politely, “But there... might be something you could help me with.”
The merchant leaned forward, placing his hands on the stall, “Speak.”
“I was wondering if there are any... settlers here, other than the British soldiers that came,” Mariqah explained, “People that hold secret meetings and make secret plans.”
“It wouldn't be secret if I knew, sadiqatee, but...” the man paused, “there are men and women in the village that aren't from here, and they stick together - but I think this is because they share a language, or perhaps an interest.”
“Do they strike you as strange?”
“La, not particularly. Although...” the merchant put a hand to his chin and scratched his beard, “there is a Christian woman among them. How do you say...? A nun. Light-skinned, ar-roomi, I think. I do not see many of those in these parts.”
Mariqah nodded, “And do they cause trouble?”
He shook his head, “Not that I have heard of.”
“Do you know where I can find one of them?”

“He don't,” said a deep voice, behind Mariqah, “but I might.”
The immediate recognition stunned Mariqah and she turned slowly to the tall, broad man, “Callum?”
He smiled, “Firdy?”
Mariqah jumped on him, holding him in a tight hug, “Good God, I never thought I'd see you again! What are you doing here? Where have you been?”
Callum bawled in laughter. He spoke with a thick Irish accent, “Alright, Firdy Khanom, calm yourself! I ain't goin' nowhere anytime soon!” he set her down and looked about, “People are lookin' at us funny, let's go find somewhere to talk, eh?”
Mariqah nodded, saying brief goodbyes to Amaal and her father. Callum led her to a tan-coloured tent and sat on the ground. She joined him and felt awkward sitting so close after so long.
Captain Callum O'Brien used to be a friend. With benefits. Only, it hadn't always been that way for him. The relationship thereafter had become quite spoiled and, although they had parted on mutual terms, Mariqah had always felt bad about what had happened. Now the old memories crept on her and made her look away from him.
“So...” she said, the uneasiness kicking in after the initial surprise at seeing him, “how have you been?”
“Good, good...” Callum said, feeling a similar way but unable to tear his gaze from her, “You?”
“Not too bad, in all honesty.”
“So I've heard,” he smiled a little, “Found your way away from sea, then?”
“Aye. I think so,” Mariqah said, “So, um...”
“You, uh, wanted to know about settlers?”
“Yes, that's right. Do you know them? Those in the Brotherhood?”
Callum narrowed his eyes, “Why?”
“You aren't goin' to hurt 'em?”
“Not if I don't need to.”
Callum paused before he said, “Most of us are here.”
“I'm sorry: 'us'?”
“Aye. I follow what they preach, Firdy.”
“So you're - what? - part of some daffy cult?”
“It's not so simple as that. It's real, Firdy.”
“I'll believe it when I'm shown.”
“Then I'll show you.”
“You lead them?”
“Not I, no. Another man, a good man.”
“Hmm... Could you get me an audience with him?”

Callum made a face of mixed emotions, “What, you'd rather hear it from him?”
“I just want it cleared up from the top, nothing else,” Mariqah said carefully, “This has nothing to do with you and me.”
“Is that why ye cannot look me in the eye?
“No. I can't look you in the eye because of what happened between us...” Mariqah paused awkwardly, “I don't think I can ever get passed that.”
Callum's face softened, “It's in the past. Leave it.”
“If only it were that easy.”
“Firdy...” Callum said.
Mariqah rubbed the back of her neck and still didn't meet his gaze.
“Firdy, look at me.”
Mariqah hesitated, before she raised her head to look at Callum's face. He had scarcely changed since she'd last seen him some five or six years ago - his fair skin only slightly tanned despite having been a captain at sea for many years, and his sun-bleached blonde hair sitting under a large, feathered hat. He was very, very masculine in appearance - his body toned after years of hard work (not that he was sitting around bare-chested, he was quite well-dressed - but Mariqah could imagine) and dark stubble heavy on his squared jaw. And as soon as she gazed into his bright blue eyes, Mariqah found herself stuck, unable to look away, unable to blink.
She had only seen eyes so blue - or perhaps bluer still - on one other man. The man Mariqah had used Callum to replace.
All of a sudden, she didn't mind Callum's face drawing so close. She shut her eyes, feeling his lips brush against hers, before they latched on and she responded. Her tongue moved with his, exploring his mouth, her hands going to his stubbled jaw and his hands moving to her waist - pressing her down. Mariqah felt his hands move, stroking her body lovingly, before she came to her senses and pushed him away - perhaps more aggressively than he meant.
“Firdy?” Callum panted.
Mariqah gasped, and sat up, “I didn't come here to make the same mistake twice,” she said, sliding away from Callum and hugging her knees, “I don't... We won't work, Callum.”
“It's what you said the last time... But...” Callum hesitated, “You ne'er explained why.”
“For reasons that would hurt you,” Mariqah said, standing up, “Believe me. It's better you just don't know.”
“Maybe, if I knew... We could make it work.”
Mariqah considered the idea of telling him about William: her short love for him and the way that he'd died; the way that she had used Callum as a means to immediately replace William's absence - but Mariqah abstained. She couldn't possibly tell Callum all that.
The awkwardness returned and so Mariqah tried to bring business back to business, “So, you'll set up a meeting? With your Brotherhood leader?”
“Aye, aye,” Callum said reluctantly with a frown, “o' course.”
“Thank you. Ask him to meet me at Masyaf's gate.”

Mariqah walked out of the tent, feeling guilty and unclean.
“I'm never going to stop hurting that man...” she mumbled to herself, walking back up to the looming fortress ahead - only vaguely wondering what time it was. As she reached the foot of the stronghold, she could hear rattling and tinkering and shanty singing as the mercenaries worked - just as she had intended. Mariqah smiled to herself, her cares fading away, and met Khadir at the gate.
“Not a minute too soon,” he said, joining Mariqah as she walked in, “lunch is almost ready, from what I hear.”
“Where would an extra pair of hands be welcome?” she asked, her appetite burnt to embers.
“The corridors and the rooms. A fine mess, that. A lot of things that need throwing out. Might need to break our purses to buy new furniture and some decent equipment,” Khadir said.
Mariqah laughed, “One thing at a time, mate,” she said, “Do you have some coins to spare?”
“I might. Why?”
“Well, the villagers have a market open. It would be better if we stayed on good terms with them, so I was hoping you and a few others could do business with them. Buy their food and livestock, and they might be inclined to provide for us at a certain rate and for a certain price.”
“And you want me to be responsible for that?”
“Well, I can't be responsible for all the genius things around here, can I? How unfair would that be?”
“Mariqah, I'm not going to spend money so that you can make friends.”
“Fine,” Mariqah said, taking a small pouch from her belt, fat with coin, “I want dates. Go buy me some.”
“Then I guess I'll have to just go back to the over-crowded, intimidating village without you. I mean, anything could happen, but since you won't go and I have a crazy hankering - what am I to do?”
Khadir paused and made an irritated face, “I hate you,” he took the pouch of money.
“I love you too, Khadir. Oh, and some perfume would be nice.”
He glared at her, “I really, really hate you.”

Mariqah laughed and walked away. She found some mercenaries sweeping the floors of the dusty corridors and scrubbing the walls of bedrooms.
“Got any spare rags?” she asked a mercenary.
He nodded, passing her a wet cloth, and she sang and scrubbed with them. It was a nice change of pace, she reckoned. At times, some mercenaries would walk in to strip the mattresses and the thin blankets of their sheets, to give them a good wash. In the desert heat, they would dry up in no time at all - perhaps quick enough to be used that same night. When Khadir returned from his (brotherly-forced) shopping-spree, Mariqah passed out the dates among them and dabbed perfume on the corners of mattresses. It wasn't enough to rid the place of the smell, but it would be over-powered eventually. They all took a break for lunch - a frugal vegetable soup with some flat bread - and then got back to work as soon as eating was over.
“All in a days work, eh?” Mariqah said, admiring the end result. The old building smelt so clean, and the floors and walls had a polished look to it, “My only regret is that now you lot stink.”
The mercenaries shook their heads and chuckled amongst themselves.
“Go on,” Mariqah said, “There's plenty of water in the wells, take some up to the out-houses and wash up before supper. Your work here is done, I think.”
Mariqah picked up a bucket full of blackened water and carried it down a set of steps, heading towards the entrance. Once there, she poured it out onto the sand and sighed, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand and looking out over barren Syria. Judging by the length of her shadow, they'd been working quite a while.
Mariqah reckoned she'd earned a lie-down.

She walked through the fortress, going up to the room she'd chosen as her own. An old mahogany desk stood in front of a barred window, accompanied by a matching mahogany chair. Mariqah went to it and sat down, opening a drawer and finding her journal. She opened the book and jotted down a note to hire a doctor and a few accountants. They were essential to the mercenaries' up-keep. Cooking, cleaning, carpenting - these were skills that could be (and should be) learnt, but medicine and maths could prove difficult to teach.
Horses and camels were another thing to consider - horses for transport and war, and camels for transport and food (in fact, a camel could feed one hundred people on a journey). But perhaps they would prove an indulgence at such an early stage. Khadir's father, Haytham Al-Assadi, would know, and so Mariqah hoped she could meet with him soon. Someone tapped on her open door lightly and Mariqah looked up to find Khadir standing there, leaning against the frame.

“Busy, are you?” he asked.
Mariqah sighed and yawned, “Sorry,” she said, stretching her arms, “Not particularly busy, no. Did you want something?”
“Just checking on you.”
“When aren't you?” Mariqah laughed, closing her diary and getting up. She sat on the floor against the wall and Khadir came an sat next to her. He passed her a water-skin.
Mariqah took it from him and drank, surprised by the explosion of flavour in her mouth.
Asir!” she said happily, “Asir ar-rummaan! Where did you get this?”
Khadir smiled, “They were selling pomegranate juice in the village. Very rare around these parts. The man must have travelled here.”
“I thought you were against spending money in the village.”
“Well, I was already there, shopping for you, so I thought I'd buy you something nice.”
“And extravagant. Not at all like you.”
“Just shut up and drink.”
Mariqah did just that, “Now, seriously, what did you want?”
“Did you find Evans's ghosts?”
“I did. I'm meeting the Brotherhood leader tomorrow. Here. Inside the fortress.”
“And the man you spoke to? He'll arrange that?”
Mariqah paused, wondering to what length Khadir had gone to spy on her, “How much do you know?”
“Enough. Enough for me to want to kill him.”
“Firstly, stay away from Callum,” Mariqah said, “and secondly, yes. I trust that he will arrange the meeting. He's a little shabby on the exterior, but his interiors are as clean as clean can get.”
“Well, I suppose you should know.”
“That was extremely unnecessary.”
“You usually take to a jibe.”
“You're like a brother to me, Khadir,” Mariqah said, “You know that... It's different. I can't make a crude comeback to you.”
Khadir didn't say anything for a while, but got up and helped Mariqah up as well, “We should get to the mess hall.”
“Mm, I'm hungry,” Mariqah laughed, passing him back his water-skin, “There's still some in there for you.”
“I bought it for you. You have it.”
“Are you sure? I'm not going to refuse that.”
“I know.”
Mariqah drank it all, doing nothing to hide her enthusiasm, “Thank you.”
“Mariqah...” Khadir said, “I thought you'd be at least a little more upset that I was spying on you.”
“Did you want me to be disappointed?”
“No, but... I expected you to be.”
“Khadir...” Mariqah paused thoughtfully, “I have a brother, a real one. Not older than me, but old enough. He never looked out for me, he never cared. He used to steal my money, actually, and sell my jewellery or give it away to whatever harlot he'd landed himself. I hated it, him. And I'm not about to start complaining because I now have the brother I always wanted. Now, the grass?” she looked out of the barred window, to the sea of sand beyond, “It's green enough.”
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