Chapter Seven: A Touch of Brimstone
Graciela got Elizabeth to her cabin by main strength; the maid wasn't a lightweight by any stretch of the imagination and by the time the pirate got the girl settled on the narrow cot, she was light-headed with strain.
Nevertheless, Graciela covered Elizabeth's naked, shivering body with a blanket and managed to get a tot of rum down her, despite the maid's mewl of protest and efforts to push the pirate away.
"Drink it all, goddammit, or I'll pour it into you, wench!," Graciela growled, shoving the glass between the girl's blue-tinted lips.
Shuddering and choking, Elizabeth swallowed the searing liquid, some of it spilling down her cheeks, but the bulk of it burning its way down into her stomach.
Graciela's fright and concern changed abruptly into fury. She grabbed the blanket and began roughly scrubbing Elizabeth's body, ignoring the maid's small cries of pain as the tough, prickly fabric scorched her delicate skin. Graciela kept at it, gritting, "What the hell did you think you were doing, woman? Of all the brainless stunts...!"
She emphasized each grisly oath by a particularly brutal swipe of the blanket. "If you ever try such a thing again, I swear I'll cut out your liver myself!"
Elizabeth felt weak, her head spinning; it was so hard to breathe, like an iron weight pressed down on her chest. She gulped a lungful of air and managed to get out, "Please...," in such a tiny voice that Graciela immediately stopped what she was doing and stared down at the girl's body.
From neck to knees, Elizabeth's skin was a vivid crimson that made her pale face seem spectral in comparison. Small scratches and weals oozed droplets of blood; not serious but nevertheless shocking.
Graciela clutched the blanket in both hands and with a shudder, flung it away, anger draining away and replaced by shame. She'd treated the girl far too roughly, as if she were a disobedient seaman rather than a half-drowned gentlewoman.
But she couldn't - wouldn't! - apologize. Living as she did among cutthroats who'd turn on her at any sign of weakness, Graciela was incapable of expressing the "softer" emotions. Oh, she could be charming, when the circumstances warranted it. Even tender, if it got her what she wanted. But she'd learned to be hard, brutal if it came to that, and right now she could no more have voiced regret over her actions than she could have flown to the moon.
Instead, Graciela said gruffly, "I reckon you're warmed up good and proper, then." She crossed the cabin and rummaged around in her wardrobe, eventually coming up with a padded and quilted length of silk that had been part of booty taken from an East Indian merchant.
The silk was heavy, dyed pale blue and embroidered with pine branches and silvery-gray moons. Graciela knew how warm it was, how sensuously the fabric slid against naked skin. She'd had the ship's sailmaker turn the fabric into a bedcover but rarely used it; she knew how difficult it was to clean such a fine thing and didn't want it ruined.
Going back to the bed, she tucked the quilt around Elizabeth, even folding up the bottom edge and sliding it beneath the girl's feet. That done, she perched on the edge of the cot and held Elizabeth's hand. "Lizzybet?," she asked. "Why? Why do such a foolish thing?"
"I... I can't...," Elizabeth replied weakly. Oblivion beckoned, sparkling flashes of light like multi-colored jewels burst into her vision. "I... can't... love you," she continued. "Never... never..."
Her voice trailed off as darkness claimed her and she fell into unconsciousness.
Graciela didn't say a thing. She sat on the edge of the bed, her face a stony mask. Elizabeth's words had cut deeply although she would have died rather than admit it.
Eventually, she got up, placing Elizabeth's hand beneath the quilt and turned to go. Then she stopped and stooped down, placing a gentle kiss on the maid's forehead.
"Oh, you'll love me all right," Graciela said softly, although her voice rose as she continued. "You'll beg to love me. You'll tremble when I frown and dance to any tune I choose. You'll spread your legs like a wanton and plead for release at my hands. You'll crawl on your belly and lick my boots in gratitude for a kiss."
She stood up and walked to the door, saying over her shoulder, "You should pray that I never tire of your charms, querida." Her pale eyes were as cold as chips of ice. "If I do...," she shrugged. "Well, for now, dream of freedom, Lizzybet. Dreams are all you'll have for the rest of your days."
Graciela exited the cabin, feeling more hurt than she
could have imagined by the rejection of an unimportant
"I was about to rouse you myself! The lookout's spotted a ship on the horizon... it's the Brimstone!"
"What?!!" Graciela grabbed the brass spyglass and trained it on the horizon. At this distance, the approaching ship looked like a child's toy. She sharpened the focus and could make out the ship's figurehead, a leering devil's figure holding a trident aloft, its spiked tail curled around goat's feet. Only one captain was brave enough - some said foolish enough - to flaunt such a symbol of ill luck.
"Aye, that's Jack Splitfoot's ship!" Graciela tossed the spyglass to Miguel and said, "I want every knot of speed you can muster out of the Quartier, amigo."
Her voice rose to a controlled shout that caught the attention of the entire crew. "Yon's the Brimstone!," she called. "If that bastard Splitfoot sets boot on Port Royale before I do, I'll have the lot of you lashed till a minstrel can play a pretty tune on your backbones! So get to it, boys!"
The crewmen went to their tasks with a new energy in their steps. They knew their captain never made idle threats; she'd braid the cat-o'-nine-tails herself and lay it on thickly if they failed.
Graciela went to the quarterdeck and took the helm herself, braced legs spread wide, eyes narrowed against the salty spray. The ship plunged down into a trough, white rooster-tails of foam jetting up as the bowsprit stabbed down into the waves and came up again, supple as a dolphin, riding the swells lightly despite the fullness of her hold.
As she piloted the Quartier, feeling a thrumming strain pass through the decking and up into her spine, Graciela found her thoughts unwillingly turning to Jack Splitfoot.
He'd been her lover, once, in the long ago days when she'd been practically a child, head stuffed full of romantic nonsense and fantasy, wanting nothing more than escape from the cesspool of filth and violence where she lived with her whore of a mother.
"Bloody" Jack Splitfoot - so called because he affected a rusty-red headscarf that he claimed to have been dipped in the blood and bile of his enemies - was suave, pretty as a girl, given to passionate flirting. His slender build had seemed romantically frail, like a poet's. It hadn't been until Graciela moved aboard his ship that she'd discovered the monster behind the facade.
Graciela had known that she preferred women for sex - that portion of her education hadn't been neglected; she'd spied on her mother and her 'special' friends, and even had a few girlfriends herself, though they hadn't done much more than grope in the dark and giggle. But she was willing to do anything to get away from Marseilles - and if it meant submitting to the embrace of a man, so be it. She'd grit her teeth and endure.
Once aboard the Brimstone, Jack had changed. Gone was the winsome, charming lover; in his place Graciela discovered a sadistic brute who'd raped her frequently. He'd even taken to casually driving his fist in her face, knocking her down to the deck, where he'd kick her ribs and thighs until she was gasping with pain.
All that she could have lived with; conditions aboard the ship weren't all that different to what she was used to at home. It was when Jack began offering her body to the crewmen as a prize for exceptional work that she objected. He beat her into unconsciousness; when she awoke, she was being mounted by a whiskery seaman. Six of them took their turns and their time before she'd been cut loose from her bonds. When she'd half crawled to Jack's cabin, he'd laughed off her anger and raped her himself.
Some of the other crewmen felt sorry for the black-haired girl; they began teaching her the arts of running a ship. She learned how to navigate by sun and stars, dead reckoning, reading and drawing maps. Graciela learned everything she could, absorbing knowledge as thirstily as a sponge, including the deadlier arts - knife fighting, cutlass work, flintlock, rifle and cannon. After a bare year of their rough tutoring, Graciela was as skilled as any man aboard...
Only then she was ready.
She jumped ship in the pirate town of Billingsgate Bay, a small harbor city on an island in Dead Man's Keys, and signed on to the Sans Quartier. While she'd never met her father, she'd heard all about him from her mother and had dreamed all her life about confronting the man who had abandoned her.
Before she left the Brimstone, however, she bestowed one last mark of favor on Jack Splitfoot. A spadeful of white-hot nails cast into his face before she leaped over the side.
Of course, El Tiburon had proved just as heartless and cruel as Jack Splitfoot... for which conduct she stabbed him eleven times before tossing his body to the crabs and sharks. Now she commanded the Quartier, she was captain and commander, held the power of life and death. No one touched her with impunity.
Graciela shook her head, banishing the black thoughts back to the past, where they belonged. She noted from the position of the sun that she'd been at the helm for a couple of hours; she nodded to a waiting bosun to take the wheel. "Keep her on this heading, Mister Starkey."
She went down below to see how Elizabeth was getting
She whimpered, tossing her head from side to side. She was smothering...
With a massive effort, Elizabeth managed to heave the silk quilt to one side. That brought temporary relief but all too soon, she once again felt as if she was roasting in a furnace.
She rolled out of the cot and crawled on her hands and knees, sometimes catching a hank of red-gold hair beneath her palms and pulling it painfully. Her destination seemed a thousand miles away; in reality, only a few feet. Elizabeth gathered her strength and somehow negotiated the tricky pass behind the captain's desk and reached her goal: a padded bench built beneath the leaded glass window that formed part of the curved stern of the ship.
Moaning in pain, she levered herself onto the bench and curled up on her side, knees drawn up. Flinging up a hand, she struck at the sash hook until it lifted and the small window swung wide open, allowing a rush of icy air to cascade over her body.
Blessed, cool relief...
Elizabeth closed her eyes; the pressure in her chest was tightening by degrees, as if iron bands were slowly being screwed across her torso, making it difficult to breathe.
Her head felt stuffed with wool; dimly, some part of her realized that what she was doing was foolish, but she couldn't muster up enough strength to heed the warning. Instead, Elizabeth lapsed into unconsciousness once more, her body trembling with fever.
After a while, she began having terrible dreams,
visions of scarred and brutal pirates who clutched at her with their rough hands
while she cried piteously and tried to twist away, their breaths hot and
smelling of the sea. But then a shining silver blade descended, driving her
attackers away. Elizabeth saw the beautiful face of her captor, Graciela... and
her body relaxed, slipping into oblivion once again.
At first, the pirate was nonplused when Elizabeth wasn't on the cot. Surely the girl hadn't had the strength to make another attempt at suicide...
Then she discovered Elizabeth on the window seat, babbling with delirium, her breath a wheezing rasp of pain.
Slamming the window shut so hard it rattled the panes
in their lead frames, Graciela loudly called for help.