Chapter Four: The Gunpowder Plot
Captain Grimes, former commander of the merchant ship Queen's Grace, cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, "Ahoy! Navy vessel!"
Aboard the well-armed British schooner, HMS Vengeance, Captain Alexander Withers shouted back, "Ahoy, sir! How goes the sailing in these waters?"
Grimes grimaced but recovered when he received a sharp poke in the back from the sword held in Graciela's hand. The pirate was crouched down on the deck behind Grimes, out of sight of the naval officers. Grimes answered, "We encountered pirates, sir! About three miles dead nor'east!"
"Pirates, you say?" Withers gestured to his first officer, who joined him at the rail. "Have you any injured?"
"Nay. A lucky shot from our cannon destroyed their rudder and they're adrift. They need a stiff dose of British justice, I wot!"
Withers beamed. "Excellent! We'll carry on from here, captain!" The Navy captain barked orders and the Vengeance turned in a graceful arc, sailing away in pursuit of the "helpless" pirates.
Once they were out of sight, Graciela rose from the deck. "All right, Grimes. Get below with the rest of your men,'' she said, poking the merchant captain lightly with the point of her cutlass. "And many thanks for your assistance," she continued with a saucy grin that made Grimes mutter beneath his breath.
Grimes was led away and Graciela jerked her head at Miguel. "Come about and follow them at a distance. If those Navy fops manage to find the Grace, they're in for a rare treat." She chuckled, heady with relief and triumph. Her plan had worked.
A grin spread across Miguel's swarthy features. "Aye, cap'n! They thought the Quartier was an innocent merchantman. And now the Queen's Grace is adrift with a surprise in her belly..."
Graciela's sky-blue eyes danced with merriment. "Keep your ears and that one eye of yours wide open, my friend," she said. "I've no doubt that Her Majesty's navy is in for a very bad day, indeed."
Below in the captain's quarters, Elizabeth examined a curious map she'd found in a large flat book. The book itself was written in a language she didn't understand, but the map - three pieces drawn in blue ink on roughly cured leather - seemed incomplete.
She'd managed to get out of her wine-stained gown, although unlacing the back by herself had been a muscle-wrenching effort. The maid was glad that her lowly status meant that she didn't have to dress in the multiple layers worn by ladies of quality; even so, undressing had been difficult enough to make her have to catch her breath afterwards.
A pitcher of fresh water on a wrought-iron stand had caught her attention. Since she was already stripped to a cotton camisole and petticoat, she took the opportunity to wash her face, neck and arms with a rag. Then, she had turned her attention to the ruined dress, wishing she had a pot of soap so she could give it a proper cleansing. In truth, her own dresses were often cleaner and sweeter smelling than the Countess'; elaborate Court gowns were only spot-cleaned as necessary, since the costly velvets, silks and satins didn't hold up to repeated washings.
That task finished, and her dress hung over a
makeshift line she'd rigged up from a bit of cord, Elizabeth had been bored. As
a maid, her every waking moment was engaged in some task or another, so with
free time on her hands, she'd sought a diversion.
The soul-killing fear she'd felt had receded; no one could remain utterly terrified forever. Instead, it had been replaced by equal amounts of resignation and apprehension. Her future was still uncertain, but Elizabeth was young enough - and naive enough - to harbor a tiny hope that everything would turn out right after all. Finding the book and the map had distracted her from worrying.
She was still puzzling over the strange symbols on the map when she heard - and felt - the explosion.
The ship rocked from the concussion and Elizabeth fell over, striking her elbow painfully on a corner of the desk. She yelped, trying to sit up, and banged her head on the edge of the desk. Whimpering in pain and trying to clutch her throbbing head and elbow, she got to her feet and took a step forward. Her feet became entangled in the hem of her petticoat and she toppled to the floor, fetching her chin with a bang against the punishing oak floor.
Elizabeth lay there, eyes closed, trying to think past the pain and determine how badly she was injured... when she heard the distinctive creak of the door.
Her eyes popped open...
Soaking a rag in water and holding it to Elizabeth's face, Graciela continued, "Lost your sea legs already? Ah, no... you must've fallen when we scuttled the Grace. Sorry, querida. I had no time to warn you."
"S-s-scuttled? What are you talking about?" Elizabeth was relieved to find that her jaw wasn't broken - although it certainly felt that way.
"I played a trick on the Royal Navy, Lizzybet." Graciela dabbed at Elizabeth's face. "You'll have a bump and a bruise here but no cut, no scar. You'll still be the prettiest girl I've ever seen." She gently kissed the maid's cheek, lips barely brushing the soft flesh. "Where else does it hurt?"
Elizabeth pulled away. "What trick? What did you do?"
With a laugh, Graciela surrendered, tossing the damp rag in Elizabeth's lap. "I had my men load barrels of gunpowder on the Grace and run up a Jolly Roger. When that Navy ship drew alongside, thinkin' the Grace was a pirate ship, the lads lit a slow match and rowed away. We'll be pickin' them up in a bit... my crewmen, I mean. I doubt there's much of the Navy ship - or its crew - left! Except maybe as shark pickings..." She threw back her head and crowed with laughter, obviously delighted with her own cleverness.
Elizabeth was horrified. "You mean... you blew them up?"
"Aye! Oh, I'll admit it's not my own idea, querida. Henry Morgan told me once about how he played the same trick against the West Indian fleet of Spain." Graciela smiled proudly. "Now we can go to Port Royale with a full cargo of booty and no pursuers! Those beef-eatin' bastards are feastin' with Davy Jones tonight!"
Elizabeth abruptly stood, ignoring the dizziness that threatened to send her to the floor again. "Inhuman monster," she half-whispered. "You killed those men without the decency of a fair fight!"
Graciela sighed. "Lizzybet, the law of the pirate is kill or die. Is it such a bad thing that I chose to save my own men rather than see them dangle on the rope's end at Execution Dock?"
Elizabeth felt the room spinning around her. She opened her mouth to reply but a sudden tightness in her chest took her breath away. With a tiny mewl she slumped over, and Graciela nearly dislocated her shoulder trying to catch the fainting young woman before she hit the floor.
God knows I'd give my soul to be so lovely, the young maid thought absently, then felt a flush creeping across her face. I'm not but a great gawk and a clumsy cow.
Graciela leaned closer, her mouth so close that Elizabeth could feel the soft caress of warm breath against her burning cheek. "You must have hit your head harder than you thought, querida. How do you feel?"
Elizabeth blinked. Her head felt swollen like a balloon, her teeth ached and she still felt slightly dizzy. But the room wasn't spinning anymore, so she cautiously tried sitting up. Graciela's arm prevented her.
"Not so fast, Lizzybet. Lie still another moment. I've no wish for you to crack your skull and spill your brains." Graciela eased her back down.
Elizabeth was suddenly aware that Graciela's shirtfront was gaping open... affording the young woman with a spectacular view of her breasts. The rosy-tipped globes - smaller than the maid's own but just as firm - swayed with each breath the pirate took.
Despite herself, she was fascinated... and a tingling sensation swept her from crown to heel, centering itself in the secret place between her thighs. The only time she'd ever felt this way was when she'd rubbed herself there with a washcloth when bathing - a sinful act, and one so shameful she'd never confessed it to a soul, not even the priest.
At once, she felt guilty and ashamed. What's wrong with me?, Elizabeth thought. She's a bloodthirsty pirate who just killed dozens of innocent men... is there something wrong with me? How can I feel this way?
The young woman was torn between scrambling to her feet and running away or just staying there forever, slowly drowning in Graciela's blue eyes.
Graciela took in Elizabeth's wide eyes, her panting breaths, the color that flooded her cheeks... and smiled. "Querida...," she said softly, caressing the other woman's face with the back of her hand. "You're so flushed! Well, it is perishin' hot in here. Why don't we take off your camisole, aye? You'll be more comfortable..."
Elizabeth allowed herself to be helped off the floor. She felt as if she were in a dream, as if none of this could be happening. She was frozen, numb and stiff... not even the feel of Graciela's fingers gently easing the straps of the camisole off her shoulders had any effect.
Graciela caught her breath. Elizabeth was more magnificent than she'd realized! The skin of her shoulders was like ivory, sprinkled with pale freckles that continued down to just above her breasts. Despite the heat of the cabin, the maid's nipples were erect, those rose-pink buds begging to be touched, licked, nibbled...
Graciela slowly drew the camisole down until it hung around Elizabeth's waist. The maid's breasts were at eye-level and the pirate licked her lips, fingers clenching and unclenching as she fought with her desire to leap upon the young woman and ravish her then and there. She controlled herself with an effort... seduction was a game she liked to play and she relished the chase as much - if not more - than the conquest itself.
She schooled herself to patience and took up one of Elizabeth's limp hands, kissing it slowly, lovingly, making sure every inch received equal attention.
Elizabeth's bosom heaved as Graciela guided her to the bunk, sitting her down and coming up on the bed behind her. The dark-haired pirate kissed the back of Elizabeth's neck, fingers busily pulling down the pins that held the maid's hair in place. Fine red-gold curls tumbled down and Graciela buried her face in the silken length, moaning softly as the spicy smell intoxicated her almost beyond control.
Just as Graciela's hands began sliding down Elizabeth's throat, a journey that would ultimately end at her quivering breasts... the cabin door resounded beneath a frantic pounding.
"Goddammit!!," Graciela spat, then laughed a little as Elizabeth, suddenly awakened from her trance, began to struggle away from her embrace.
"Nay, querida," Graciela said, pulling the frantic young woman close and whispering in her ear. The hot breath made Elizabeth flinch violently. "Better the crew see you as you are. You're mine, Lizzybet, and I want those hot-blooded bastards of mine to understand that. Mine!!"
Elizabeth hung her head, hot tears of shame scorching her face, as Graciela called, "Enter!"
The pirate's eyes glinted like chill sapphires. "And it had better be damned good!," she added beneath her breath.
Trapped in Graciela's embrace, Elizabeth could do
nothing... except weep quietly and wait for further shame to be heaped upon her
as her charms - and her unwelcome position - were exposed for all eyes to