Chapter Fifteen: At a Word, Betrayed !!
After Miguel left her alone on the quarterdeck, Graciela continued to study the stars, picking out constellations and naming them to herself.
Sirius, the Dog Star, part of Canis Major... Cassiopeia... Orion the Hunter... Serpens Cauda and Caput...
The stars that guided a sailor's course by night... the sun that determined their position by day. The arcane art of navigation had once been the sole purview of the Pilot's Guild and they'd guarded their secrets ruthlessly, but those days had come to an end. The use of the quadrant to measure the angles of the sun and stars, not to mention increasingly accurate charts, meant that navigation by dead reckoning - a dangerous undertaking at best - was resorted to only in extremis.
The familiar litany of star names was soothing. She could feel nervous tension draining away, replaced by a healthier glow, bringing a slight smile to her lips. But when Elizabeth's face loomed up unbidden in her inner vision, momentarily making her gut churn with mingled frustration and frustrated passion, she firmly thrust the thought of the maid aside and instead concentrated on naming the ship's sails.
Spritsail... springstay... topgallant...headsail...
Once again, the inner chant of hard-won knowledge was calming. The near sickening confusion and baffled anger she felt each time she confronted Elizabeth was washed away... but not gone entirely. No, the problem of Lizzybet - and the girl's presence on her ship was becoming a problem, she could feel that in her bones - would wait for another day. There were more important things on her mind than a gawky chit with presumptions of glory... or, her inner self insisted on whispering, the most beautiful, unspoiled and soul-blessed woman you've ever seen... a woman made for love... your love...
Lips twisted in anger, Graciela pushed these thoughts aside and willed herself to concentrate only on the mission at hand. After a moment, the vision of green eyes and creamy flesh faded, replaced by Jack Splitfoot's vile countenance.
Fire erupted in the pirate's veins. Splitfoot! The bastard responsible for many of her scars - physical, emotional, mental. Only her father could have evoked such hatred as now smoked and roiled in Graciela's brain. Pale eyes burning, she hawked and spat over the ship's rail. That for Jack and all his kind! She'd have his map or die.
Taking a deep breath, she allowed the hate to consume her, then fade. Graciela knew that the only hope she had of making her plan work was to remain dispassionate and not let heated emotions rule.
The night was turning cooler and she rubbed her bare arms briskly. From her position, Graciela could make out the softly glowing lantern lights that illuminated the rigging of the Brimstone. To confirm her information, however, she reached for the brass telescope and flicked it open, holding the spyglass to one eye. Sure enough; the ship that lay to the west between a Dutch merchantman and a foundering galleon was Splitfoot's Brimstone; the figurehead on the prow was that of a beautiful woman's naked body with a grinning skull's face perched atop the curved wooden shoulders. It was an unmistakable symbol of Splitfoot's fascination with the perverse and perverted; no other captain would have so dared defy convention and risked losing his ship's luck with such a blasphemous piece of art.
It wasn't the best berth but it wasn't the worst, either; Splitfoot's ship would still be protected from even the worst storms, unlike those unfortunates who'd had to anchor closer to the harbor entrance.
Graciela clicked the spyglass closed and ran a hand through her hair, savoring the feeling of a cool trickle of wind drying the sweat on her forehead and face. She quickly ran through her plan - it had come to her full-blown the minute she'd heard of Splitfoot's audacious kidnapping of her property... the Countess.
Graciela was determined not only to steal the Englishwoman back, literally from beneath her hated rival's nose, but also kill another bird with the same stone. For after she'd liberated that damnable woman - or rather, kidnapped her a second time and delivered the Countess to the Sultan's factor - the pirate was determined to steal Splitfoot's part of the Sirena map. That would put her in the position of owning all four pieces and being the first in decades to actually make a serious attempt at recovering the fabulous treasure.
She lifted a ring of keys that was threaded through her leather belt. Walking off the quarterdeck, she went below and opened a locked door; inside were all the flintlocks, muskets and small ammunition the Quartier carried. Only she, Miguel and the second mate had a key to the munitions locker and Graciela intended to keep it that way. She grabbed a flintlock, checked to see that it was loaded and primed, and slipped the piece into a waterproof oilcloth sack. Three more pistols went into the sack, then she pulled the drawstring taut. Thoughtfully, she pulled a pair of throwing knives off a shelf and strapped them with leather laces to her calves; a needle-thin stiletto of springy steel was carefully threaded through a hidden pocket in the collar of her shirt. She dug around inside a drawer and came up with a pair of thin gold wires; these were looped through the holes in her earlobes and twisted shut.
Back out on deck, Graciela thrust her cutlass through her sash and tied the sack securely to her belt. She peeled out of her shirt and tossed it in an out-of-the-way place. Naked from the waist up, she shivered as the chilly wind raised goose-bumps on her chest and arms. The nipples on her firm breasts pebbled and grew rock hard.
Pulling a scarf from the pocket of her breeches, the pirate used it to tie back her hair, knotting the cloth tightly behind one ear. Then she toed off her boots, careful not to let them thump on the wooden deck. Too much noise might rouse the nightwatch and Graciela didn't want to call too much attention to herself, even on her own ship.
She quickly stepped over the rail and balanced on the edge of the ship. The water looked cold, oily and uninviting. After glancing again to the west and confirming the Brimstone's position, she poised with her arms above her head, then leaped out in a dive. Graciela cut into the water with barely a splash; after a moment, her head emerged and she began to swim strongly and silently towards her goal.
It took only a few minutes to make her way to the Brimstone. As she reached the ship, the moon broke free from a cover of smoky clouds and beamed strongly, turning the sea around her into a glimmering swath of milky brightness. Clenching her teeth tightly against a curse, Graciela dove beneath the sudden, otherworldly glare and emerged quietly beside the Brimstone's shadowy hull. Treading water, she tossed stray strands of wet hair from her eyes and scanned the ship's side.
A limp coil of rope dangled almost to the water's edge. She swam over, keeping an eye out for signs of the watch. When she had a hand on the twisted hempen rope, she froze; men's voices floated over the water and a lantern's light glimmered faintly.
"Need to pump your ship, Bill?"
"Aye, I've a sore need after drinkin' all that stingo what the cap'n left aboard."
"Eeeee! Billy Cockmartin! Yer a ragabash scoundrel fer sure if the Ol' Devil finds out ye've been dippin' inter his privy stock o' ale."
"I'll prime me belly wit' galley bean-fare, bare me buttocks, an' blow him such a brimstone wind as'll send him clean to the Azores! I baint afeard o' Captain Hairylegs."
Both men chuckled over this piece of drunken wit. Below them in the water, Graciela made a face, then bit back a growled obscenity when a stream of warm urine arced and splattered into the harbor, scant inches from her head.
"Ah, that's better!," sighed Billy Cockmartin, buttoning up his trousers. "C'mon, Moses. T'is halfway through the graveyard watch and we'd best be seein' to the others."
"You mean, finish drinkin' up them Winchester quarts o' stingo? I'm game!," replied the anonymous companion enthusiastically. "I've a fine white puddin' what's only got a bit o' the rot. Care to share?"
"Done and done!," replied Billy, and the voices of the two men faded as they walked away from the rail together; the light from their lantern grew fainter until it, like the sailor's presence, had been swallowed up by the night.
Graciela spit out a mouthful of water and grabbed the rope. Despite the weight of the sack hanging from her belt, she easily climbed hand-over-hand, swarming up the ship's side like a monkey. Clambering over the rail, she dropped lightly to the deck and looked around. She was alone, although a faint hum of conversation indicated the presence of three crewmen in the stern.
Squatting down, she cut the knot on her oilcloth sack and pulled out the pistols, one by one, checking them with an expert eye to make sure they'd come to no harm during their brief immersion. They hadn't, so she rose and stuck three of them into her belt, keeping the fourth in her hand. The sack she quickly stuffed into the back of her trousers, loath to leave any trace of her visit behind. Drawing her cutlass and gripping the hilt with her free hand, Graciela ghosted across the deck towards the rear of the ship.
Four sailors squatted on the deck, tossing dice by a lantern's light. From their slurred speech and uproarious comments, Graciela knew that all the men were much the worse for drink.
Silently and swiftly, the pirate woman attacked, rushing forward and using the razor-sharp blade in her fist so effectively that the deed was done in a heartbeat. Four men lay dead, blood gurgling from their slashed throats and pooling on the wooden deck. Graciela flicked her cutlass to one side to free the blade of blood, then rose from her crouch and listened. No shouts or cries of alarm had been raised; the Brimstone slept, ignorant of the implacable avatar of death that now stalked in the night.
Cautiously, Graciela entered the captain's cabin, wincing when the door hinges squealed. Freezing in place and holding her breath, she waited... and heard nothing, saw no one. More confidently, she shut the door behind her, sheathed her cutlass and exhaled slowly. Step one of her plan had been successful.
A covered oil lantern hung on the wall next to the door; she turned up the wick, blinking to adjust her eyesight to the sudden, brilliant glow.
Splitfoot's cabin was like the man himself - messy, strewn with filth and stinking like a pit of Hell. Bits of rancid and decaying food squelched underfoot; a sudden whispered rustling proved to be hundreds of cockroaches fleeing the light, wiggling their way back into the shadowy, safe corners. A bold rat with a moth-eaten gray coat stood at bay on the bunk, baring its long, yellow teeth at the pirate's intrusion.
Graciela ignored everything in pursuit of her goal. Splitfoot's sea chest stood on the floor at the foot of the bunk. It was locked but she'd come prepared - long ago, when she'd been his unwilling mistress, she'd had the foresight to make a wax impression of the lock. The fat brass key she'd had made had been kept safe all these years, against the day of need. That day had now come.
She fumbled the key into the lock, lower lip caught between her teeth as she concentrated. Excitement made her heart race; beads of perspiration rolled down from her forehead, stinging her eyes and making her squint. After a moment, the lock sprang open with a grinding moan, and she made haste to open the chest and claim her prize.
The pitiful remnants of Splitfoot's life were inside the old chest - a thin bundle of letters from his sister, a poesy of dried flowers, a scrap of discolored ribbon, a tarnished brass medal - but Graciela wasn't interested in this ephemera. Scrabbling around, her fingers finally encountered the familiar slick feel of badly tanned leather at the bottom of the wooden box.
Hands almost shaking, she lifted out the fourth piece of the map. A hand sized, triangular piece of tattooed hide, it bore the familiar figure of the mermaid in one corner. It was genuine, she'd swear to that. Graciela took a moment to gloat, imagining Splitfoot's enraged reaction to the loss of his treasure.
I hope the poxy bastard drops dead of apoplexy, she thought. T'would be no better than he deserves.
Time was wasting. She rolled up the leather scrap and, after a moment's thought, tied it with the ribbon from Splitfoot's sea chest to the hilt of her cutlass. After all these years and all this effort, the last thing she wanted to do was to lose the map to a bit of carelessness.
Now for the Countess...
Some inner instinct made her press her ear to the door before opening it. That unconscious caution saved her life.
Graciela was surprised to hear the low murmur of men's voices beyond the door. She squeezed her eyes closed, listening intently, but could make out nothing distinct in the whispered susurration.
Her thoughts skipped and jumped from conclusion to conclusion - innocent sailors or some sort of trap? Paranoia won out; Graciela's lips tightened into a thin, straight line and she cast about for a means of escape. Unlike her cabin aboard the Quartier, Splitfoot's quarters didn't boast any windows except for a small porthole; the round opening was far too small for her to squeeze through and besides, the metal clasps had rusted shut. On the other hand, her priority at the moment was getting the map out of Splitfoot's hands and keeping it in her own; she'd take her chances with the men outside.
Having made her decision, Graciela set to work. She still had the oilcloth sack in which she'd transported her pistols. She placed the map inside and used several lengths of string scavenged from a tattered blanket to make a flat, tightly wrapped package. More string was used to secure the lightweight bundle to a cutlass, also found in the cabin. Finally, having made her preparations the best she could, Graciela stood at the porthole for a long moment, memorizing the position above the horizon of the sole constellation she could make out through the wavy glass - Orion the Hunter. While this wouldn't exactly pinpoint the location of her soon-to-be-buried treasure, it would aid her later in retrieving it.
With an indrawn breath, Graciela smashed the porthole glass with the butt of her pistol. Immediately, there were shouts of alarm outside and a battering on the door. She thrust the package outside, holding the cutlass hilt and ignoring a jagged sliver of glass that sliced a shallow cut into the underside of her arm. Keeping her eyes on the vibrating and splintering door, she let the bundle go; the splash was both exhilarating and frightening. What if she was unable to retrieve the precious paper upon which she'd staked so much? But there was no time for doubt; the deed was done and she had more pressing problems to deal with.
Such as the dozen heavily armed men who suddenly burst through the remains of the door.
She discharged her pistol at the nearest; when he reeled away, his face a bloody ruin, she raked the smoking barrel across another attacker's eyes, drew her cutlass and began slicing her way to the open door and freedom. For each man who fell to the shining arc of her blade, another came to take his place; all too soon, Graciela was overpowered and disarmed, wrestled to the floor and savagely beaten.
She was on the floor, curled on her side, arms protecting her head as the men kicked and punched, each blow punctuated by gritted curses. It seemed to go on forever; her body became a temple of pain that overwhelmed every other thought. Searing agony jolted from skull to heel bones, building into a crescendo that made her gasp and bite her tongue until it bled to keep from howling aloud.
At last, the siege ended when an authoritative voice shouted, "Enough, lads! Governor wants the sea bitch alive!"
Graciela uncurled and looked up, blinking away tears. A blurred male face hung over her; through the whirling darkness that threatened her vision, she could easily identify the uniform of the Jamaican governor's personal guard.
A flood of pure hatred and fury coursed through her veins. She'd been betrayed! Her gorge rose and she opened her mouth to vent her anger... but one of the guards around her drew back his foot and kicked her in the temple with casual brutality. The world spun, a blinding flash of agony blinded her... and then she knew no more as blessed oblivion descended, carrying Graciela far away from the treacherous world and into peaceful darkness.
The lieutenant looked down at the pirate's limp body and roundly cursed his subordinate. "You'd better hope she survives long enough to satisfy His Honor the Governor," he said. "Otherwise, it's your balls, mate." He looked at the woman's battered, bleeding face, then squatted down and peeled back her eyelid with a professional air.
Nodding in satisfaction, the lieutenant stood back up and signaled to his men. "Tie her fast, then rig a litter. I'm taking no chances with this one. Keep your weapons on her at all times but for Christ's sake, don't hit her head again unless you have to. The Governor'll be passing out no thanks and plenty of curses if the bitch's so damaged that she dies. Understand?"
His men muttered their grudging acceptance, shifting from foot to foot in the cramped confines of the cabin.
"Let's be off then."
Graciela, unconscious and unwitting, was transported
to Lord Jeffrey's mansion... or rather, she awoke to find herself confined in
the dungeon beneath the mansion.