Chapter ThreeMature

“Captain!”

Manuela sprints down the wharf and collides with me like a soft, excitable cannon ball. She buries her head in my torso and squeezes me so tightly Robin needs to physically extract her from my person before clasping my hand in greeting. Up on deck, one of the crew throws down a ladder and we climb aboard.

The ship’s navigator, Lucia, quickly hurries across the deck to greet me. Though she’s blind, she navigates the crowded deck with ease. “Glad you’re alright, Captain,” she says, reaching up to shake my hand. She rapidly pivots her wheelchair in a half circle and starts to head toward the hatch leading belowdecks, gesturing for me to follow.

Downstairs, the damp chill of early morning recedes and I’m comforted by the familiar setting of my ship. Lucia goes ahead, followed by me, then Anamaria. She leads the way to her study, a compact room filled with bookshelves bowed over from the weight of hundreds of maps and charts. In the center of the crowded space is an enormous electronic globe.

Lucia wheels up to the globe and drags her hand across it as if to spin it. Instead of physically rotating on its pedestal, the globe lights up and begins to project a swirl of colors and lines across its surface. The shapes gradually manifest into somewhat recognizable blobs, then narrow and focus into detailed countries. A miniature bird’s eye image of the Aventura bobs in the water next to an expanse of buildings labeled “Portmore” in elegant script.

 “You have the map?” Lucia asks.

A spark of panic strikes me as I realize that I completely forgot to make sure I still had the map on me when the mobsters finally let me go. I jam my hands into my pockets and feel limp with sheer relief when my fingers brush against the aged cloth. I withdraw the map and place it in Lucia’s outstretched hand.

When she unrolls it, her mouth drops open in awe. “It’s beautifully preserved,” she says in a near-whisper as her fingers reverently trace the careful stitches.

I knock on the side of her head. “Lucia, you in there? Kinda in the middle of something super urgent here.”

She brushes me aside and begins tracing her fingers across the surface of the globe. “We’ve worked out a course to start with, but that translator you picked up is being a terrible pain,” she gripes. “She doesn’t work without good incentive, and she’s only translating a little bit at a time.”

“Smart,” Anamaria says, smiling pensively. “She knows not to make herself too dispensable.”

Lucia continues, pointing out the route on the globe with her fingers. “The safest path seems to lead all the way around the islands. We’ll have to stick close to the coast near Haiti—or at least, what we’re assuming is Haiti, according to the map. After that point, it’s gonna be a lot of guess work.”

I snort. “Whatever happened to the good old days when someone put a big red X to mark the treasure and you were done with it?”

A sudden clattering erupts from the deck above. In an instant, I’m sprinting down the corridor and up the stairs. All the worst thoughts rush through my head—the Cat changed his mind about our deal, he sold me out, someone knows I have the map, we’re under attack, we’re under attack—but when I burst through the hatch and onto the main deck, everyone is still. Eerily still. Most of the crew has gathered along the port side and are staring at the shore attentively.

A hollow, ghostly bell begins to toll, shattering the near silence. Drummers start up a sharp, rhythmic tapping. An inexplicable wariness coils in my gut, but I shove through the crowd to get a proper view of the events.

The marina looks pale and drained in the stark, gray dawn light. A gaggle of townsfolk have gathered in the grassy square nearby, where a large iron cross has been constructed. Looking closer, I can make out the murky shapes of two nooses strung from each end. Calls of excitement erupt from the crowd as a longboat pulls up to the wharf and a gang of civilian soldiers in ragged attire clamber out. Dragging behind them is a line of people chained together at the wrists.

They wear clothing not entirely dissimilar to our own—loose-fitting shirts, leather waistcoats, flared pantaloons. Several don flat-brimmed hats with intricate braiding around the brim. Most of them are young adults, probably not much older than myself, though a few elderly and very young children are among them as well. As they’re marched down the wharf toward the gnashing crowd, they begin to sing, a harsh and guttural yet strangely melodic tune unlike any I’ve come across before. The words are in another language that I can’t entirely distinguish.

Angelique appears at my side. “We need to go,” she whispers, tugging hard on my arm. She lets go after I shoot her a violent glare.

“What’s the matter? It’s just a trial. No big,” I say.

“This isn’t a trial. It’s a hanging,” she replies urgently.

I give a doubtful snort. “Yeah, okay. Why would Portmore care about executing some random fishermen?”

“Those aren’t fishermen. They’re Greek pirates.”

My heart clenches. I jog across the deck as quickly as my legs will allow, up the stairs of the fo’c’sle, and over to the helm. Several of the crew, seeing me, abandon the spectacle and return to their positions.

“We can’t just leave them!” Manuela cries, rushing to the base of the fo’c’sle.

Jimena, the ship’s second mate, follows close behind her. “They’re innocent people,” they call up to me. “I mean, mostly innocent. But they’re one of us! We can’t desert them.”

“Sure we can. Watch.” I put two fingers to my lips and issue a bellowing whistle. The crew members remaining on deck who haven’t yet found a way to occupy themselves give a start and rush to their positions.

“Ingrid! You have to help them. You have to!” Manuela demands, stamping her foot angrily.

“I scorn to do anyone a mischief when it is not for my advantage, love,” I reply.

I raise signal the crew to lower the sails, but Manuela marches up the stairs and swats my hand away. My lip curls in anger and my fingers jump to the hilt of my cutlass. “Try that again, sailor. I dare ya,” I snarl.

She backs up a couple paces, but her resolve does not falter. “Captain. Please,” she says urgently.

A small crowd has encircled the two of us, watching in anticipatory silence. My eyes dart from crew member to crew member, and I realize that I’m alone in my opinion here. I heave a massive sigh and withdraw my cutlass. A bloodthirsty clamor arises as I thrust the weapon into the air.

I rush to the bulkhead, grasp hold of a line, and leap off the edge of the ship. I soar through the chilly morning air and land in the shallows. The rest of my crew splash in alongside me. With myself in the lead, we rush the crowd of startled townspeople, blades flashing. The civilian soldiers draw their own weapons to combat us, but we can tell they’re beyond help; we’ve struck at the perfect moment.

Some members of the crowd have their own weapons—a few even raise their fists, as if to fight us off barehanded—but we easily disarm them with a flick of our swords. I head for the burliest looking person I see—a stout middle aged man with a glistening bald head. He lashes out with feet and fists, but I easily dodge his blows and deliver several rapid slashes to his person. Blood wells from a long cut across his arm and he storms away to safety, clutching his wound.

A sharp pain in my back makes me nearly stumble over, but I bite back against it and whirl around to face my attacker. A young pregnant girl stands behind me, weilding a whippet-thin rapier. Our blades clash, the heft of my cutlass slowing my movements but the bulge on her midriff equally impeding hers.

“I don’t want to hurt you!” I cry in between jabs.

“Then leave!” she snaps.

I groan. So not in the mood for this. Letting my sword fall to the ground, I lift my hands almost in surrender, then quickly drop into a squatting position. My leg shoots out and nails her in the knee, making her topple over. I snatch up my sword and rush off without stopping to see if she’s alright.

Through the mass of swirling bodies, I glimpse Angelique at the base of the cross, fighting two soldiers at the same time. I start to shove toward her to give some assistance, but two additional soldiers hurl themselves out of the throng, brandishing clubs. I swipe at their knees, hoping for a quick battle, but they’re prepared and jump out of the way. While I’m recovering from the sideways momentum, they swing their clubs at me in a synchronized movement. The weapons strike me solidly in the gut and the breath flies from my body. Before I can think of a retaliation, they come at me again, this time aiming low. I somehow manage to dance out of their reach, but the movement sends me off balance, toppling to the ground and dropping my sword.

A hairy ankle appears next to my face, and without thinking I pull it closer and clamp my teeth down hard. The young sailor to whom the ankle is attached lets out a shriek and falls backwards. I quickly roll over and narrowly avoid a meeting with his backside. The two officers who had been attacking me don’t notice the younger man in time and trip over him, collapsing directly on their faces. I snatch up my cutlass and leap to my feet, flooded with renewed energy and adrenaline, and deliver a few kicks to my attackers’ sides to ensure they don’t get up again soon.

I search for Angelique, but I’m all turned around after that rapid tussle. Then I spot her again through a break in the crowd. She’s still at the base of the makeshift gallows, though now with a scarlet gash marring her shoulder. Alarm shoots through my body and drives me like a bullet across the messy square. Instantly, I’ve placed myself between her and one of her attackers. Now we’re standing with our backs against one another, fighting as one.

I hold that sight of Angelique, the terror at seeing her bleeding at the hands of this man, in my mind as fuel. I slash, thrust, and jab with a rare kind of fervor. Blood, blood. Kill, kill, my cutlass whispers. With a furious cry, I lash quite brusquely at my opponent’s hand, slicing open the tender flesh between thumb and forefinger. His longsword clatters onto the marble base of the bloody cross.

For the briefest of moments, he raises his fists into a solid defensive position and clenches his jaw. I shake my head—Don’t even try, mate. He gets the message. In the next instant he’s turned and is sprinting away into the heaving throng.

 Several meters away, I see Manuela and Jimena fighting a civilian simultaneously. With one sword between them, they take turns with weapons and fists. I snatch up my attacker’s abandoned sword, catch Manuela’s eye, and toss it over to her. She catches it smoothly and turns to her opponent with renewed fury.

Satisfied, I bring my own attention to the clamor behind me. The other swordman has just managed to knock Angelique’s weapon out of her hand. For reasons unfathomable to me, rather than retreating, she reaches forward as if intending to take that of her attacker. With a movement like a lightning strike, his sword slashes across her palm and she lets out a shriek of agony.

I wrap an arm around her waist and throw her behind me, using my circular momentum to bring my own sword in an upward slicing motion. The soldier easily dodges me and retaliates with a smooth jab, which I also avoid. Angelique tries to shove past me, fingers stretching toward our opponent, and is of course met with another strike that draw blood from the underside of her arm.

“¡Ay, chica, eres desquiciada!” I snap. But when I glance in the direction in which she’s reaching, I realize what she’s trying to do. On the other side of the massive cross, somewhat guarded from the fray, a lone soldier is rapidly dragging one of the slaves across the grass toward the nooses. The sailor seems oblivious to the clash of swords and the cries of pirates and their opponents. Their face is blank and wan, shoulders hunched dejectedly, a perfect image of defeat.

“Shit,” I mutter as I realize my dilemma. Before I can deliberate further, my opponent has his weapon at my throat. I instinctively lash out a foot and manage to clock him on the ankle, sending him off balance and creating at least a temporary delay.

I grasp Angelique by the forearm and speak quickly and softly. “Do whatever you can to stop that guy from hanging these people. Grab whoever you can find and free the rest of them. Here—” I reach inside one of my boots and withdraw the dagger I keep for emergencies. “Use this. Don’t lose it or I’ll have your hiney mounted above my hearth, translator or no.”

She takes it, nods grimly, and hurries around to the other side of the marble structure. I turn back to my fight an instant before the other swordman regains himself and clambers to his feet. We clash blades again, and though I’m trying my damnedest to concentrate, the edges of my mind can’t resist wandering toward Angelique and her mission. I try to find every opportunity to snatch a glimpse of what’s happening, but this soldier is a slick fighter. I can’t spare an ounce of attention.

“Ingrid! Help me!”

My alarm shoots up again, but I know I cannot risk a glance back to find the source of the cry. I clench my jaw and pray that whoever it is finds salvation in another of my crew. Considerable time has passed since the beginning of our battle, and the wan early morning light has dissolved into a brewing storm. The wind takes on a distinct edge and is soon whipping the ocean shallows into a froth. My loose hair swirls about me in thick tendrils, and I desperately wish I’d thought to put it up in its usual bandana. A thin pattering of icy raindrops is hurled from the heavens, muddying the earth and making slick the smooth marble base on which I stand battling. I know that if I continue in this way, I’ll sooner fall and break my skull than win this encounter.

I try to ease backwards onto the soft and (relatively) safer grass, but collide with two clashing bodies, making me topple clumsily onto my side. My cutlass falls inches from my fingers. I struggle to sit up and grab it, but unfortunately fall in the path of a passing civilian; their boot rams down on my fingers hard enough to make me nearly scream. Tears of pain leap unwillingly to my eyes.

My opponent takes this opportunity to stand above me, feet straddling my fallen body. He glowers down at me with a look of glee and raises his sword triumphantly. The sight sends powerful hatred roiling through me.

Acting on brash instinct, I raise my leg in a sharp upward motion, my shin colliding directly with his groin. He howls and crumples over, nursing his injured crotch. I grab my cutlass and spring to my feet, sparing him a look of disgust before departing.

Many of the townsfolk have dispersed; mostly it’s the soldiers who remain fighting. A pang of alarm strikes when I realize that most of my crew have disappeared, until I look up and see them ushering the captured Greek pirates onto the ship. Though they’re still bound in chains, they’ve managed to climb up the ladder and safely board the vessel.

I have barely any time to be relieved before a ragged cry erupts from behind me. I turn to see a scrawny soldier barely my own age rushing across the square toward me, brandishing what’s left of a shattered broadsword. I wait until he’s close enough before hauling back and jabbing the tip of my cutlass into the tender flesh just above his pectoral.

He freezes, eyes bulging, and he lets out a pathetic whimper. I feel a twinge of rare pity.

“Don’t try me, sonny,” I sneer.

With that, I yank out my cutlass, wipe it on the sleeve of his jacket, tuck it back into my scabbard, and scurry back to my ship.

On board, the air is rich with the thrill of triumph. Though the brief storm has begun to recede, the deck is still slick and the crew treads carefully. The ship’s doctor, Tsura, along with her sister Aishe and her daughter Dooriya, are rushing about treating everyone’s injuries. The Greeks sit in a long row, staring about like baby animals who have only just opened their eyes. Robin is dragging a blowtorch out from belowdecks, likely intending to melt the chains directly off their wrists. I’m relieved to see Angelique sitting beside the strangers, quietly conversing with several of them. They don’t appear to be saying much, but at least seem comforted.

Anamaria, spotting me, rushes across the deck to greet me. Her arms twitch as if she’s about to wrap me in a hug, but she hesitates, then claps me heartily on the shoulder. “Excellent work, captain. You made the right decision.”

I roll my eyes and open my arms. She snatches me up in a crushing embrace. “I am so, so proud of you,” she whispers. “And I know your parents would be, as well.”

I pat her awkwardly on the back until she releases me and goes off to berate Robin for chasing people with the blowtorch. As soon as she leaves, Gloria, the ship’s gunner, takes her place.

“Some adventure, eh?” she says, crossing her arms over her chest as she surveys the activity on deck. She isn’t really looking at me, but I can feel her gaze all the same. She has that effect.

“Mm. Probably not the best way to start out an adventure,” I reply pensively.

Her tone becomes more serious. “You did right, you know. Everyone’s saying so.”

“’Course I did. I’m Ingrid bloody Liston, ain’t I?”

She chuckles and slugs my arm. I wince; though I consider myself pretty hardy, she’s got a decent punch. “Riiiight. Though, I gotta say…” She glances about, then leans closer to me and speaks in a conspiratorial half-whisper. “Some of the crew are doubting that translator you found. You know—” She nods toward Angelique. “Whether she’s telling us the truth about this map. What’s she even getting out of this?”

I shake my head and pat her on the arm. “Tell the crew that worrying’s for suckers. I never failed you guys before, have I?”

She looks doubtful, but doesn’t say anything more. Giving a little half-wave, I cross the deck, trying my best to ignore the stiffness in my legs after my recent exertion, and make the laborious climb up the stairs on the side of the gun deck. I swear I can feel the minutes sliding off the end of my life every time I go up those damned things. I put my thumb and forefinger to my lips and issue a piercing whistle. The clamor on the deck quickly hushes and everyone turns to me.

Without speaking, I thrust my fist in the air and a triumphant clamor arises. The sound fills me with pride. I doubt that I’ll ever tire of the air of elation following a victory in battle.

I lower my arm and quiet returns. Then I begin my hastily prepared speech.

“We fought hard this morning, everyone,” I announce. “I know we’ve struggled these past few weeks. First, I made a bold sacrifice in journeying to the caverns of the elusive mermaid.” Several chuckles from my audience. “Then my land party came up against not only a band of British rogues, but some agents of Vittorio Fontana—yes, the Cat himself—who captured me. It was only through pure cleverness and strength of will that I escaped and was united with my crew at last.

“We did not have to venture back onto the unforgiving shore to rescue our friends from oceans far. But venture we did! For a pirate, my friends, is a pirate, no matter where they are from.”

“All for one and one for all!” someone calls out.

I grin. “Take what you can—”

“Give nothing back!”

 

The End

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