Chapter Eleven: A Beggar's Choice
Up on deck, with a cool salt breeze blowing, seagulls swooping and diving at scraps that floated in the sparkling water, Elizabeth squinted against the glare of the sun and impatiently blew a stray red-gold curl away from her eyes.
She felt awkward and hideously exposed, dressed as she was in a man's trousers and a loose shirt. Her hair had been braided back and at Miguel's suggestion, she'd wound a kerchief around her forehead to soak up sweat. The Spaniard had brought a flat board up from the hold and propped it against the mainmast. The board had been painted with the outline of a human body; small hearts at the eyes, throat, groin and thighs indicated the targets she was to concentrate on.
"Never try to stab a man in the chest," Miguel said. "If your dagger gets caught in his ribs, you're without a weapon. See, bonita... left foot back a bit, right forward for balance, on the balls of your feet, and thus! thus! thus!" He punctuated each word with a vicious stab of his long knife. "Now you."
Elizabeth hefted the unfamiliar weapon - a dagger with an eight inch long blade of razor sharp steel, the hilt covered in tightly wound straps of well-cured leather. She shuffled her bare feet on the deck, trying to find her balance as Miguel had commanded. The sun beat down on her head, making her feel slightly dizzy and out of breath; she blinked and licked her lips.
Miguel growled; the girl was procrastinating deliberately. If she wouldn't attack a wooden board, how would she ever hold her own in a flesh-and-blood fight?
Most of the crew had gone ashore to drink, whore and gamble their money away. The Quartier was left with a handful of sailors on guard, all of whom were lazing around the deck; some huddled in tight little knots around a game of dice, others with cards, a few actually tending to ship's maintenance. Miguel's eye lit on the apprentice sailmaker, a gangly good-natured youth named Joseph.
As Elizabeth tentatively struck at the target - and missed - Miguel casually sauntered over to Joseph and after placing a fatherly arm around the boy's shoulders, began whispering in his ear. After a moment, the apprentice grinned widely, showing the gap between his front teeth, and nodded.
The maid stared at the target, tongue caught between her teeth as she concentrated. The dagger felt heavy in her hand; she imagined actually thrusting that point into human flesh and felt ill. Although violence had been an everyday occurrence at Court - at least two duels a day, regardless of the official censure of such things - she herself had merely watched, never participated. Although she would admit to being thrilled, watching the gentlemen as they danced with deadly rapiers, it was another thing entirely to take up weapons herself and prepare to use them against another... even if that other was merely a wooden board.
Suddenly, a hand grabbed her shoulder and squeezed. "How 'bout you and me goin' down below for some fun," a voice breathed in her ear.
Elizabeth jerked away and spun around. Unconsciously, she shifted her grip on the dagger until she held it precisely as Miguel had tried to teach her all morning - hilt comfortably settled in her palm, thumb aligned along the top, fingers curled in a relaxed grip. "Who are you?," she asked, taking a step backwards.
Joseph smiled, his freckled face lighting up with glee. His shock of auburn hair was slicked down with water and it was apparent from the light skin of his hands and face - in contrast with the grimy gray of his neck and ears - that he'd cleaned up a bit before accosting her.
"Cap'n ain't here," he said. "C'mon... let's go have some fun." Joseph cupped the crotch of his baggy trousers with one hand and shifted his stance, still grinning.
Elizabeth looked around but saw no sign of Miguel. The other sailors glanced her way and then continued their games of dice and cards; if the sailmaker's apprentice chose to commit suicide by messing about with the Captain's bedmate, there would at least be few actual witnesses.
"C'mon, pretty girl," Joseph said, sidling closer until Elizabeth could smell the rank stench of stale sweat and urine that emanated from his ragged clothing. "You looks like you could go all night, built like a bleedin' stoat, you are. I'll even let ya play me John Thomas like a flute. Now wouldn't that be a pretty site?"
It wasn't until Joseph reached out tentatively and stroked a thumb down the front of her shirt, tickling her nipple, that Elizabeth reacted. Nostrils flaring as she sucked in an angry breath, the maid lashed out with the knife she held, stamping forward for the follow-through as the sharp blade missed Joseph's neck by a fraction of an inch and swept flashing back downward. The freckled apprentice blanched... and Elizabeth's dagger was halted by Miguel's steely grip on her wrist, preventing her wild blow from striking home in Joseph's chest.
"Easy, bonita," the Spaniard said. He motioned Joseph away and the apprentice scuttled back to his sails, still pale as new milk. "You see? Defending yourself is not that difficult, is it?"
"You arranged that?," Elizabeth panted. "You... you..." Her green eyes flared as she struggled to articulate her anger. Finally, remembering some things she'd overheard on deck, the maid spat, "You hijo de puta! Comemierda! Bastardo!"
Miguel began to laugh as a torrent of abuse poured out of Elizabeth's mouth. He knew she had no idea what she was saying and besides, he preferred a red-headed firebrand instead of a milksop, whey faced maid. "Bonita," he chuckled, "I only wanted you to understand that the knife in your hand has a use besides trimming your fingernails."
For the first time, the realization of what she'd just done came slamming into Elizabeth's brain. Her fingers convulsed and she nearly dropped the knife. Looking down at the lethal weapon in her hand, the tall maid swallowed heavily. "I might have killed him," she whispered.
"I doubt it," Miguel replied coolly. "I was nearby and you are not very good with the knife yet. You missed him by a good yard the first time."
Elizabeth gulped. "But what if I'd really done it? His blood would be on my hands..."
"Aye, and probably all over your shirt and trousers, too. Girl, you must forget the Ten Commandments. Here, the law is kill or be killed. You must be prepared to answer threat with violence... it is the only thing many sailors understand."
"Including Captain O'Malley, I suppose," she said, imagining the dark-haired, petite woman with a cutlass in her hand, those blue eyes incandescent with battle fury and bloodlust. The thought made Elizabeth shiver... but part of her was also very excited by the prospect of seeing Graciela thus.
"Cap'n is different," Miguel said. "She's hard, true, but she has to be to keep this crew together. But she's got a soft place, down deep inside her, and that part of her has been touched by you, bonita."
He took Elizabeth's arm and led her to the forecastle deck. Leaning against the brass rails and gazing down at the sparkling waters, the Spaniard said sadly, "I like you, girl. You have spirit. But you're also still afraid and that's no good." He sighed. "Do you want to go home, bonita? Back to England? If you truly wish it, I can arrange passage for you on another ship. Cap'n will probably keel haul me when she finds out, but still... I do not wish to see you die because you cannot fight for your own life."
For a bare second, Elizabeth's heart pounded in relief and a flood of gratitude nearly overwhelmed her. Send her back to England? Oh, thank you, Jesus! It seemed her prayers had been answered. But just as she opened her mouth to thank Miguel, the harsh jangling of reality forced her to see her situation as it truly was.
What could be her future in England? Her family would want nothing to do with her; she had lost her place at Court and was of no use to them whatsoever. She had no friends in that country, no one upon whom she could rely. She was truly alone, without husband or relatives, and the best she could hope for was to die in a poorhouse... or become a prostitute and be passed from man to man until she died of disease or drink.
She considered all that had happened to her on the Quartier. Captain O'Malley - Graciela - had been courteous, relatively kind and behaved in a civilized fashion which Elizabeth had not expected from a notorious pirate. True, Graciela had attempted a seduction... but that was no more or less than Elizabeth had experienced from the dandies at Court. She'd already found a friend and mentor in Miguel. If she stayed on the ship with the pirates, she did not know what to expect, but felt that either Miguel or Graciela would shelter her from harm if they possibly could. Oddly enough, Elizabeth felt more secure on the Quartier than she had anywhere else in her life.
The pirates took brutal actions at times, but in all honesty, were they any worse than some of the Lords and Ladies she'd seen, who abused their servants terribly and acted as if God Himself gave them the right? The thought of being in service to the Countess of Moresby again made Elizabeth's stomach roil. She'd heard the woman was to be sold as a slave and while she felt sorry for her, Elizabeth couldn't say that Margaret didn't deserve her fate.
After serious consideration, she made her choice and had her answer. Smiling at the Spaniard, Elizabeth said, "Show me the use of this pigsticker again, amigo. If I'm to stay, I must learn to defend myself properly."
Miguel's answering grin spread like sunshine and
warmed her right down to her toes.
When a drunken sailor tried to pinch the prostitute's jiggling buttocks, he found his hand seized in a painful grip that made him squeal. A dirty-faced, scrawny boy thrust his face into the sailor's and hissed, "Wagstaff's property, mate! Keep 'em off or lose 'em!" The discreet flash of a knife made the sailor nod quickly, as did the boy's stomach-wrenching odor.
Graciela released the man and hurried after the prostitute, who was nodding and waving as if she were a Queen at a royal reception. "Dammit, Megan, will you hurry?," she whispered, tugging down the tattered cap that was jammed on her head. "I didn't roll in pigshit just to watch you play Her Majesty to a bunch of swill-headed sea bastards."
Megan's dark brown eyes flashed in ire. "I comes to the Swan every Tuesday, regular as clockwork, on Wagstaff's bill. You's the one as is payin' extra fer comin' along for the ride. Don't start bitchin' now... the pigshit were your idea." She flicked a lace handkerchief - stolen - from her bodice and fluttered it beneath her nose. "I reckon it'll keep folks at a distance, aye. And me as well if you don't bloody well stand downwind!"
Graciela slunk along beside the prostitute as she made a round of the room. Madame Li, the owner of the brothel, had been more than happy to pass along information about Harry Wagstaff's relationship with Megan... for a price. The boy's clothing had also cost the pirate, as had Megan's cooperation with her plan. The shit had been free. Fearing that her thin disguise might be penetrated, Graciela had taken a dip in the pigpen behind the brothel, figuring that the smell would keep most sane people too far away for identification. Now, as the nauseating odor on her clothes ripened in the heat of the room, Graciela began to regret her own cleverness.
Megan took her time, sipping from this man's beaker of rum, taking a puff from another sailor's clay pipe. Once, she even rapped Graciela on the ear with her fan for some pretended error. The pirate glared but stayed in character by yelping and cringing. Eventually, Megan plumped up her outstanding bosoms with her hands, shook out her scarlet skirts, and began to mount the stairs that led to the private rooms.
They were halted by a trio of guards outside Harry Wagstaff's room. "Ah, Megan Lightskirt!," one of the ruffians called good-naturedly. "Come to service the captain's staff, have you?" He and the others guffawed and Megan curtsied flirtatiously.
"Is the old man at home, then?," she asked with a twinkle in her eyes.
A few more moments were taken in coarse jesting and finally the guard put his hand on the doorknob. Megan swept forward but came to an abrupt halt when she bumped into the guard, who had spied Graciela lurking behind and scowled.
"Here, boy! What's your business?"
"He's with me," Megan hastened to say. She pursed her lips and leaned forward to whisper in the man's hairy ear, deliberately giving him a fine view down the front of her bodice. "Madame Li's breakin' him in as a sweetpeach and wants Harry to take his cherry."
The guard sniffed and frowned as a strong whiff of Graciela's stench wafted towards him. "Smells like he's a bit too ripe, I'd say."
"You'd be surprised. Cleaned up, he's pretty enough to suit even your taste," Megan replied with a saucy wink. "When we're finished in there, mayhap I can be talked into seconds... me or the boy, whichever your pleasure."
The guard grinned widely. "I'll strike that bargain!," he declared and opened the door, bowing as the other two guards laughed.
Graciela surreptitiously fingered the flintlock that hung down the leg of her loose trousers and followed Megan into Harry's room. The door shut behind them and she glanced around, her eyes narrowing when she spied Wagstaff sitting on the bed, face buried in an enormous cup of wine.
Wagstaff slammed the cup down on a nearby table and belched profoundly. "Ah, Megan, me love!," he said in his deep voice. A fluffy fringe of gray-streaked hair bobbed around his round face; his eyes were nearly lost in nests of wrinkles. "It is Tuesday already?"
"Aye, that it is, you old lecher!," Megan answered, her scarlet satin-covered hips swaying from side to side as she sashayed towards him. "And Madame Li's said as your to pay the monthly bill before the boots start knockin'."
Wagstaff opened a drawer, grabbed a handful of silver coins and got up from the bed in stages; he was a big man who had gotten considerably fatter as he'd gotten older and also suffered from gout. Lumbering towards Megan, he said with a grin, "You look lovelier every time I..."
He stopped and sniffed. "If that's a new perfume, girl, it don't suit you at all."
Graciela had remained in the shadows, but now she stepped into the light. She'd removed the flintlock from her trousers and it was steady in her hand... aimed at the center of Wagstaff's chest. "I want the map, Harry," she said menacingly.
Wagstaff let the coins he held drop to the floor, where they clattered and rolled to all four corners of the room. "Who's that there?"
"You know who I am," Graciela said, removing the cap from her head and flinging it into a corner. She grabbed Megan's arm and shoved her aside, saying out of the corner of her mouth, "Pick up your money, Megan, and sit down somewhere where I can see you."
White faced, Megan got down on her knees and shakily began to gather up the silver coins. "Is this your little joke?," she asked bitterly. "I thought you were playin' a jest on the old bugger."
Wagstaff's eyes almost disappeared as he screwed up his face. "T'is the Shark's child," he said mournfully, shaking his head. "You should never have trusted this one, Megan me girl."
Graciela growled, "Shut up, the two of you! Harry, I've come for the map. Give it to me peacefully and I'll leave you with your life. Cross me or call for help and I swear to God I'll put a bullet in your brainpan."
Wagstaff considered. He knew Graciela well; had even raised a glass with her in a tavern or two. He knew she meant what she said and his only hope was to stall for time. "Well, now, Grace, I'll have to think about that," he began, but was interrupted.
"Harry, you've got ten seconds to put that map into my hands." The flintlock's barrel dropped until it was pointed squarely at Wagstaff's crotch. "I'll blow your balls to hell first, then I'll whittle the rest of you down piece by piece." A knife appeared in Graciela's other hand. The blade glinted ominously in the afternoon sunlight.
Wagstaff knew when he'd been beaten. His shoulders slumping, he returned to the bed, opened the drawer in the table, and turned it upside down, emptying coins, loose tobacco, sweetmeats and other miscellaneous onto the floor. Fastened with pins to the underside of the drawer was the leathery, ragged piece of the map Graciela had come there to retrieve.
Graciela crossed the room in three strides and tore the map out of Wagstaff's hands. She surveyed it a moment; satisfied that it was genuine, she rolled it up and thrust down the front of her shirt. Gesturing with her flintlock, the pirate made Wagstaff back up until his wide rump struck the front of an oak wardrobe. "Get in," she commanded.
He protested, but to no avail. In short order, Graciela had stuffed the old man into the less than spacious wardrobe and after shoving the door hard with her shoulder several times, thrust a letter opener into the lock and snapped it off, jamming the door shut. Within, Wagstaff's curses and shouts were muffled by the thick wooden box he was trapped in.
Megan finished gathering up her coins and stood, staring at Graciela fearfully. "What're you doin' with me?," she asked.
"I still need you to get out of here," Graciela explained calmly. "We'll leave the same way we came in; through the door. Once we're past the guards and away from the Swan's Ear, you can return to Madame Li's. If I were you, I'd take the rest of the silver, too. Consider it hazard pay and a well earned bonus."
Megan cast an apprehensive glance at the wardrobe and then quickly began picking up the rest of the scattered coins, thrusting them into a pocket sewn into her petticoat. Finished, she stood and tugged her gown into place, making sure the bodice was pulled so low that her nipples were nearly exposed.
"He'll kill me when he gets out of there," the prostitute said. Her eyes gleamed as she appraised Graciela from head to toe, a slow lingering caress that seemed to penetrate the pirate's clothing and brought a blast of heat to her skin.
Graciela shook her head. "I know Harry. He won't blame you, Meg, anymore than he'll blame himself."
"Still..." Megan's tongue darted out to wet her lips. "What if you was to take me with you, hmm?" She cocked her head to one side and laid a hand on her breast, squeezing firmly enough to make the fleshy globe bulge over the edge of her bodice. "I could make it worth your while, captain."
Graciela sighed and thrust the flintlock back into her pocket. Going over to a corner, she snatched up her cap and jammed it back onto her head. "Nay, pretty Meg," she said. "Shipboard life wouldn't agree with you. Besides, with the money you've earned from this night's work, you could set up your own place and kick Madame Li out of business."
Megan's brown eyes took on an avaricious glimmer. "Sure, I could do that, and more besides. Old Harry's a sweetheart... he'll forgive me. 'Specially if I tell him t'was you what stole his gelt."
Graciela laughed. "You do that, sweetheart. One more grudge on my shoulders makes no difference to me. Harry'll still want to cut out my liver for taking his map."
Megan pulled some pins from her hair and let it straggle on her shoulders. For good measure, she pinched her bottom lip between thumb and forefinger and gave it a vicious twist. Her lip began to swell immediately, as if she'd been violently kissed.
Taking a peek into the tarnished mirror that hung on the wall, Megan nodded. "I'm ready," she said after a deep breath.
Graciela swept the prostitute a courtly bow. "Shall we go, milady?"
Megan tittered. "Oh, pshaw!," she said, smacking Graciela lightly on the shoulder as she passed. "You make me blush."
Privately, Graciela doubted that Megan had ever blushed in her life but she wasn't about to say so. They still had to get past the guards and out of the Swan's Ear, and she needed the prostitute to do that. Besides, she liked Meg - the woman was honest and good natured, if greedy.
Getting away from the guards proved trickier than Graciela had thought. The first guard, after having a good laugh at the doubled-over gait that the pirate was affecting, insisted on Megan making good her offer. Leaving Graciela sweating in the hall and trying to think of a good excuse to get away, the guard and Megan went into one of the empty bedrooms for a bit of slap and tickle.
The other two ruffians stared holes in the back of Graciela's shirt as she tried to lean against the wall and act casual. Unfortunately, her boy's costume proved too enticing for one of them.
Graciela started when she felt a hard hand clap her on the back. "Well, laddy-buck, did Fat Harry pop your cherry for you?"
She looked up and met the eyes of a tall, bronzed and muscular man whose shaven head reflected the dim light in the hall. "Y-y-yessir," she stammered, pitching her voice lower than normal.
The sailor grinned. He wore no shirt, only a leather bandolier that crossed his naked chest, holding lead shot in cunningly made slings. A matched pair of flintlocks had been thrust into the waistband of his pants and a broad bladed cutlass swung from his belt. "Hurt much?," he asked in a friendly tone.
Graciela bent over further, arms wrapped around her stomach, pretending to have belly gripes. "Yessir," she said. "Hurts like the Devil hisself had a poke with his pitchfork."
"It'll get easier, once you get used to it." The sailor eyed Graciela's arse hungrily; in the bent over position she had assumed, her bottom was thrust out in a highly suggestive manner. He reached out a hand and suddenly grabbed one of her buttocks, squeezing it hard.
Graciela let out a whoop and straightened up in a hurry. "Please, sir, have mercy!," she said, fighting the urge to flatten the man's nose with her fist. "I'm still pretty sore." She bit her lip and rubbed the offended area with a hand.
The sailor chuckled. "You're a pretty one underneath all that dirt," he said, getting so close that Graciela could have counted the individual hairs on his chest. "And I'll bet you've got an arse like a bloody peach, boy. Tight and juicy, just like I like it. Why don't you let Josephus Bugger-All have a go, eh? I'll stretch you out nice and easy. Won't hurt a bit, I promise."
Graciela looked around wildly, praying Megan would arrive soon. The longer they delayed, the more likely the chance that Harry Wagstaff would escape and raise the alarm. On the other hand, this lecherous sailor seemed to be a more immediate problem.
"Madame Li don't allow it, sir," Graciela said, edging away. "You gots to pay like everybody else. If you was to come to her house on Cockwhite Lane, she'd give you a good price, I'm sure. And I need a bath... and..."
"I prefer to take mine now," Josephus said. "What Madame Li don't know ain't going to hurt her. Besides, I don't mind a bit of stink. Perks up the nose and makes a man feel like a man"
He took a quick look up and down the hall, then said over his shoulder to the remaining guard, "Keep your eyeballs peeled, Billy-Bones. I don't know why the Squid has to have all the fun." He was referring to the first guard, who had gone off with Megan. "I'm taking this little one to Number Eight; when I get finished, you can have a go."
Billy-Bones nodded. His skin had been burnt by the sun until it was nearly black; his hair was a pale, straw yellow that was almost shocking in comparison. "Maybe I'll have a go at the two of 'em," he replied laconically. "Been a while since I dipped my wick into such sweet meat, both woman and boy."
Josephus smiled and it seemed to Graciela that his mouth stretched into a shark's leering death grin. "C'mon, boy," he said, wrapping a beefy hand around her arm and pulling her down the hall. "You and me got some business to take care of, peach bottom."
Graciela dug in her heels but Josephus was physically stronger than she was; he practically lifted her off her feet and dragged her. The flintlock was still in her pocket, but the sailor had hold of her arm and she couldn't reach it.
Just as they reached the door of Number Eight, however, Graciela heard a familiar voice calling her name.
She gritted her teeth. Josephus stopped dead and stared hard at his unwilling prisoner. At last, he was able to penetrate the dirt and grime and recognized one of the most famous faces in Port Royale. With a gasp of pure disbelief, he cried, "It's YOU!"
Harry Wagstaff burst out of his room, what little hair he had nearly standing on end. Spotting the sailor and the woman, he howled, "Kill that bitch!," and shoved an astonished Billy-Bones towards the pair.
Megan and the Squid emerged from their room, the prostitute patting her hair into place. Seeing Wagstaff, Megan squeaked, turned around and fled back into the room, slamming the door shut behind her.
Graciela gave Josephus a weak grin...
And with a thunderous volley of gunfire, all hell
suddenly broke loose with a vengeance.