Chapter Sixteen: Cruel Desperation
Elizabeth was pacing in the cabin when Miguel came through the door without knocking. She spun around, stifling a shriek, and her hand instinctively went to the hilt of the knife that hung on her belt.
Miguel noticed this unconscious gesture and nodded. "It's good to think of a weapon, bonita. You'll need that skill and more very soon."
"What's happened?," Elizabeth asked, green eyes searching the Spaniard's worried face. Having already experienced Graciela's displeasure - and still smarting from the insults - she assumed his entrance had something to do with their escapades earlier that evening. "She hasn't done something to you, has she? If she's hurt you, Miguel, I swear she'll answer for it!"
"Nay, Lizzybetta." Miguel shut the door and stepped close to the tall maid. "The cap'n has been taken by the Governor's men, may God damn his black soul to Hell. She's for Hangman's Dock if we don't get her back."
Elizabeth was shocked. "I thought she had a pardon..."
"Aye, that she did. A pardon for all but kidnapping that puta of a Countess, which is how Lord Jeffrey intends to execute the captain without destroying the pirate's pact and peace. Splitfoot's in on the plot; of that, I'd swear on my mother's grave. I've a way to break her out of prison, but I need your help, bonita." The Spaniard's ruby eye glittered faintly in the pale, uncertain light of morning. "Will you aid me, my friend?"
Elizabeth opened her mouth to reply, then closed it and thought.
A small, gloating part of her was glad that Graciela was languishing in prison. Good!, this unworthy voice said gleefully, let her hang! She's nothing but filthy, depraved, murdering scum who deserves a rope around her neck!
Elizabeth was still burning from the way she'd been rejected by the pirate. By her own lights, she'd been sincere enough in offering her virginal body to Graciela in return for a place among the crew. The pirate had nearly raped her - a painful enough experience - but then, rather than continue her ravages, had spurned the redheaded maid and offered scathing insults to boot. Injured pride made Elizabeth's first reaction to Miguel's request an utter, scornful rejection.
Then she swallowed her anger and considered the problem unemotionally. Without the force of Graciela's personality to hold them together, the crew would probably split apart into warring factions - if they weren't already doing so. The sailors were scoundrels and blackhearted rogues, but weren't they her new family? After all, she'd been willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to stay aboard the Quartier; she couldn't turn her back on her brothers because of a personal slight.
Despite her anger, it really was better for the "family" if Graciela was there to lead them. No one else could step into that woman's boots - she was unique and uniquely suited to command a pirate vessel. Also, what sort of future did she have without Graciela? Without the pirate captain's protection, she'd probably be raped then sold for a slave. Elizabeth harbored no illusions about the crewmen she expected to serve with - she'd read enough accounts of pirates to be sure that as soon as the squabbling for position was over, the men's eyes would next turn to her as a prize worth fighting for.
So... it was not only in the pirate's, but in her own best interests that Graciela return safely. A thoroughly logical conclusion that nevertheless left a nasty taste in her mouth.
Still, Elizabeth was well practiced at squelching her pride when the situation required. "All right," she replied, staring boldly into Miguel's eye. "Tell me what you want me to do. I'm in."
Miguel put both hands on Elizabeth's shoulders and squeezed. "I never doubted it, Lizzybetta."
Elizabeth's lips twisted. "You should have," she said dryly. "But we can't let the Governor hang one of our own."
Miguel frowned. "Where is your passion, bonita? The captain loves you, even if she doesn't realize it yet."
"Pray God she never does, my friend." Elizabeth's green eyes were cold. "I've already experienced her hate; I don't think I could survive her love."
Miguel shook his head. "Hard words from one so young. It breaks my heart to hear them."
Elizabeth turned away. "Let's hear your plan," she said, ignoring the implications in the Spaniard's remarks. "How many are with us and what do we need to do?"
Miguel sighed. "The men are already restless. Some will attempt a rescue; others will hang back; and still others will mutiny. If a man is not for us, he is against us and our enemy. We must be ruthless, Lizzybetta - if we show fear, we will be devoured."
In answer, Elizabeth knelt on the floor and pulled a flat box from beneath Graciela's bunk. Throwing back the lid, she revealed a matched pair of dueling pistols. Miguel whistled; the polished steel barrels were elaborately chased, and the carved ivory handles were masterpieces of the craftsman's loving trade.
He picked one up and studied it reverently. "Made in Toledo," he said in a hushed whisper. "For a nobleman, or even royalty. I've never seen the like."
"I found them when Graciela had me confined before," the redhead confessed. "So here's a pair of flintlocks to our advantage. What else do we need?"
"I have a key to the weapon's locker," Miguel confessed. "I'll round up the crewmen I know are loyal, arm them, and call an assembly. It must be done swiftly, before the mutineers screw up enough courage and support among the men."
"What shall I do?"
"Stay here until I call you." His good eye glittered. "You have an important part to play, Lizzybetta. We cannot do this without you, but it is better for now that you remain in the cabin with the door locked."
"I understand." Elizabeth scooped the other pistol from the case, stood, and reached for a powder horn that hung on the wall. "I'll load these and stand ready."
Miguel kissed her forehead. "We will rescue the cap'n."
Elizabeth smiled. "Of course we will, my friend."
With that reassurance, the Spaniard left to rally his men.
Elizabeth's smile faded; she finished loading both
pistols with hands that shook so much that she spilled gunpowder all over
Graciela's desk. That task ended, she perched on the edge of the desk with
pistols in both hands, waiting for Miguel's return, her guts griping in answer
to the turmoil she felt in her mind.
The rattling of keys alerted her to visitors. One of her eyes was swollen shut; she lifted her head slightly and peered with her good eye through stiff strands of blood-soaked black hair. She was alone in her iron-barred cell except for scurrying rats. She'd stomped one of the boldest to death, squashing it like a ripe tomato when it had tried investigating her bare leg with its teeth. The rest had stayed away, waiting until she was weaker before attacking in earnest.
The cells for dangerous criminals were located just below street level; a small, narrow window above her head allowed both light and fresh air to pass through. It also allowed for garbage to be tossed in on her head, as well as urine from the men and women who pissed in the gutters, not to mention the contents of chamberpots. She'd already received such barrages several times and was feeling almost grateful for the rats who thrived on such filthy leavings of humankind.
The jailer's deep baritone voice echoed weirdly in the brick-lined space. "O'Malley may look bad, but she'll live to swing." His footsteps were strange as well - a soft shuffle followed by a heavy thwack. The jailer had once served in the British Navy before having his leg shot off by a cannonball on the deck of the H.M.S. Ardent, and the wooden peg that replaced his lost limb left him unfit for sea duty.
A woman's voice said sweetly, "I'm so glad the pirate's wounds aren't serious. I know the Governor would be quite displeased if the hanging didn't go as scheduled."
"No worries," the jailer said, sweating heavily. He was a fat man who moved with a curious grace despite his handicap. "She'll dance on the merry rope's end soon enough."
Graciela struggled to stand as straight as her broken ribs would allow. She knew that voice and would be damned before she gave the Countess any satisfaction.
The jailer opened the door and Margaret entered the pirate's cell, holding her skirts up daintily to avoid dragging them in filth. "We meet again, my dear captain," she said with a laugh. "This time, however, the circumstances have changed. You are MY prisoner now." She licked her lips. "Would you care to bargain with me for your life?"
"I'd sooner stick my neck in the noose right now," Graciela croaked, "than deal with a devil's whore."
Amethyst eyes blazing with fury, Margaret heft her parasol and struck the helpless pirate several times in the side. The blows weren't that heavy, but the parasol's solid steel ribs lent enough force to make Graciela's broken bones grind, bringing tears to her eyes.
Margaret's face was made even more poisonously beautiful by anger. "Keep a civil tongue in your head or I'll have it removed!," she shrilled.
Graciela gasped, "Go fuck a pig's pizzle, you goddamned putain." Her good eye blazed with ice-blue hate. "Better still, run back to your pouffe master and tell him you bring my curse upon you both."
Margaret raised the parasol again, then suddenly lowered it. "You have a big mouth for one so helpless." She put a finger to her lips and regarded the sorry state of the prisoner. "I could almost feel pity for you."
"A pox on your pity and on you, besides!" Graciela shook her head to clear the fog and immediately regretted it; consciousness began to slip away and she growled weakly in frustration. "You'll get nothing from me but blood and spit."
Margaret noticed the wavering and pouted. "Oh, and I had such pretty games for us to play!," she said in disappointment. "Still, the hanging isn't for two days, so there's plenty of time. I'll be sure and visit you often, my dear captain. You and I have so many things to discuss."
She prodded Graciela's ribs with the pointed tip of her parasol. This additional pain was too much; with a sigh, Graciela fainted and her body hung limply from the chains.
Margaret raised an eyebrow, prodded again to make sure the pirate wasn't faking, and then called for the jailer. Her nose wrinkled at the fetid smell and she shooed a rat away absently. Patting her platinum curls with a gloved hand, the Countess sailed away, making a mental list of the items she'd have to be sure and bring next time. A pony whip might coax a cry or two from the stubborn captain. Then again, it might require more imaginative persuasion...
Envisioning a delightful two days of determining
O'Malley's endurance, Margaret stepped out of the jail and back into the
tropical sunshine with such a smile on her beautiful face that two men carrying
packages collided and another tripped over his own feet.
Miguel called a ship's meeting to discuss the rescue of their captain. As he had anticipated, there was a small but vocal faction that was opposed to any type of action meant to free Graciela from the Governor's clutches. The danger was that these few would manage to sway the undecided crewmen to their side, thus forming a dangerous majority.
The men were assembled on the foredeck; some of the crew was still missing - they were no doubt still in port recovering from the excesses of the day before - but there were still a good hundred seamen who shuffled and muttered, casting doubtful glances at the figure of the Spaniard who stood on the quarterdeck.
Miguel had dressed himself in finery, knowing that the appearance of riches would be impressive. His frock coat of scarlet velveteen was matched by wide-legged trousers tucked into black boots. The huge cuffs of his coat were scrolled in gold braid, which was repeated down the front. His belt supported a brace of pistols; a knotted ribbon bandolier over his shoulders held a half dozen more, and besides these he was armed with a cutlass and several daggers. A tricorn hat was perched on his head; a southerly breeze caused the fluffy ostrich feathers in his hat to wave and dance merrily.
"Brothers!," he called, the sun striking dazzling sparks from his ruby eye. "Fellow crewmen! Lord Jeffrey, governor of Port Royale, has broken the pact. He took our captain's gold and then, like the treacherous dog he is, tricked her into prison. We must save her or else watch her swing from Hangman's Dock in two days."
"Who gives a shit!," called an anonymous voice from the crowd. "Why don't we divide the spoils, take our shares, and find berths on other ships?"
"Better yet," called another, "why don't we elect a new captain!"
This sally received a few cheers but Miguel was relieved that most of the men continued to watch him for his reaction.
"Do you think to prosper so under a new captain?" The Spaniard held his arms out from his body, inviting scrutiny. "Captain O'Malley has taken the richest prizes with the fewest losses. We'd all be rich men if we hadn't drunk and whored our doubloons away. Can any other captain make such a claim? Not one living soul, my friends. Not one." He surveyed the upturned faces of the men. "We are the strongest, best crew on the seven seas, serving under the greatest captain. We've met and killed them all - British, French, Dutch, Spanish - and raped their ships of their goods and gold. If the captain dies, so dies this crew."
He waited a moment, then fiddled with a handkerchief thrust within his cuff. At this subtle signal, his loyal men began to spread out among the crowd, positioning themselves within easy reach of the ringleaders of the opposition. Seeing all was in place, Miguel decided it was time to pull out his ace.
"Many of you already know that Captain O'Malley has three pieces of Darnley's treasure map. She got the fourth one from Splitfoot last night. With the map complete, we can sail straight to the lost treasure and have it for ourselves. Gold! Silver! Jewels! More booty than a man can sanely count, my friends. Now, who'd be fool to give up all that? I won't! And only the captain can lead us there! Who's with me?"
Suddenly, shockingly, Miguel's men reached out and killed the ringleaders. Some had their throats slit, others were stabbed in the heart. But they all died in a few heartbeats, dropped to pump the last dregs of their blood on the deck. Those men nearest the murders edged away fearfully.
Miguel didn't intend to allow the crewmen time to consider. He leaned forward, a resplendent figure, and fixed them with his single eye. "WHO'S WITH ME?!!!," he thundered. "WHO'S FOR THE GOLD?!! WHO WILL BRING OUR CAPTAIN HOME?!!"
Caught between the lust for riches and the fear of reprisals, the crew never had a chance. The roar that answered the Spaniard was louder than a peal of thunder. "AYE!!"
Miguel stepped back, a pleased smile on his face. He beckoned to one of his men. "Get rid of those bodies," he commanded. "Then call the senior officers together to the captain's cabin."
He turned to go, then stopped and added as an afterthought, "Send someone ashore to buy a dress. The kind of gown a noble lady would wear. And servant's livery."
The seaman scratched his head but was quick to obey when Miguel's ruby eye glittered in his direction.
The Spaniard smiled to himself as he walked back to the cabin to apprise Elizabeth of the situation.
Working together, they would bring their