Chapter 1: The First Sally
The element itself till seven years heat
Shall not behold her face at ample view,
But like a cloistress she will veiled walk
And water once a day her chamber round
With eye-offending brine - all this to season
...dead love, which we would keep fresh
And lasting in her sad remembrance.
Twelfth Night, Act 1 Scene 1
Ma querida Theresa,
I was disappointed in your previous letter, which was more melancholic than I had hoped. You really must try to rouse yourself a little, dearest. You surely have no cause for gloom, living in C ádiz as you do, with society at the snap of your fingers and the theatres and salons only a brief carriage-ride away! Granted, we were all very sorry about Sebastien – he was a cheerful fellow, and a most attentive and adoring husband. But you must look to the future – and certainly not hide yourself from the world, dear! Particularly now. A new husband will not come knocking of his own accord. One has to seek them out. Unless, of course, you do find you prefer religion after all? That would solve a great many difficulties, if it weren’t for -
My dear, I am quite forgetting why I was writing to you. I have an invitation. I told Pedro about the little difficulties of your reduced circumstances on your widow’s pension, and like the dear man he is, he at once offered a place for you here with us! Is this not generosity? Not to mention, your little contributions will be ever such a help to the housekeeping (I need not disguise from you, dearest, that since that unpleasant business with the sugarcane harvest, our finances have been a little straitened. So much so, that I am afraid I could not prevail upon Pedro for more than half of your passage.)
But all will be right once you are here! You can be quite the little lady’s maid, as I remember from our younger days in Madrid - and the dressing-woman I had here is so dreadfully stupid, and does not speak a word of Spanish. She does it to spite me, I am sure. I shall be very glad to let her go once you are here.
P.S: By the way – before you leave C ádiz, you must make sure to pack the latest ladies journals. French dress is all the rage now – and we see so little of the fashionable world here in Saint-Martin! I am determined to be quite the fashionable woman amongst the planter’s ladies - with your help, of course.
Your loving sister,
And that, Theresa reflected drearily, appeared to be that, as far as her elder sister was concerned. The end. Finito.
It was what people did, of course, when the crunch came. When the money ran out, or you spent what you didn’t have. People took what they had and ran to the West Indies, where you could live cheaply, quietly and below the attention of the law - if there was something worse in your past. There were more than a few gallant cavaliers of Spain who had tactfully... emigrated, after being found with the wrong man’s wife, or found his creditors no longer willing to wait. That was why Luisa-Cristina and her puffed-up pigeon of a husband had gone to lie low in Saint-Martin, after some hare-brained investment of Pedro’s had gone wrong. The Cádiz debtors could whistle for their money as much as they liked, but there wasn’t a gaol that could hold defaulters a thousand miles distant.
Musing, she traced the hurried scrawl of her sister’s signature with a fingertip, scarcely aware of what she did. In the dull silvered shaving mirror on Sebastien’s desk – no, her desk, now – she caught sight of her own dim profile and started a little, still unused to the outline of her mourning cap.
A pale-faced ghost stared back at her from beneath the black gauze veil, grey eyes glittering. Sweet Jesu, Theresa thought, peering at her reflection. Do I really look like that now?
It reminded her of Sister Annunciata’s tales back at Sacré-Coeur in Marseilles of the Dame en Noir. The Dark Lady, who supposedly walked the convent cloister, sadly rattling her chains and creeping up on bad little girls who stayed awake too long.
Theresa had enjoyed that story as a child. It had been the sort to make your flesh creep, but in a safe, comforting way; when you knew the candle was only an arms length away, and you were safe in bed, and the boggarts under the bed were just...stories.
Everything was so much simpler when all you had to fear were the monsters that lived in the cracks of your imagination. Once you grew up, the monsters became much more prosaic, and far more terrifying. Loneliness. Poverty. Hunger. Humiliation.
Still. Luisa-Cristina put it ...bluntly in her letter, but it was true. There was always a convent.
Theresa had considered it. It was a quiet, tidy way to live for a widowed lady, and living with the nuns would be like going back to school at Sacré-Coeur again. She would be retreating back into the solemn whitewashed cloisters of her childhood. And it was respectable. Many widows, rich and poor alike, took the veil in earnest, either as a nun or a lay sister: spending the rest of their lives praying for their husbands, but...
There were always the others.
Theresa thought with a stab of dismay of the retired lay sisters she often saw in church – a row of sanctimonious wrinkled faces shuffled along the walls of every cathedral and church she had ever visited. All drab severity; pretending penance whilst jealously jogging elbows for a better place in church, sniffing derisively at the beggars on the cathedral steps whilst swinging carved gold and ivory rosaries…
Her jaw hardened. No. Never the convent.
It was as good as admitting her married life was a failure, or a mistake. As though Sebastien was something she regretted.
Theresa glanced down at the painted miniature she wore on a ribbon about her neck. Sebastien’s kindly blue eyes looked back at her, gently, as always, the soft sheen of his fair hair gleaming in the evening sunlight.
No. She would never regret Sebastien.
But there was no money to stay here in Spain. The government pension she received was scarcely enough to keep body and soul together. The Condé de Barrós had also made it politely, but firmly, clear that any connection she had to his family had died with his nephew.
If Sebastien wandered back from his grave – the way Theresa’s niñera had assured her the dead did, every night - he wouldn’t recognize his little wife. He’d wonder who that sad-faced crow was with the paper-white face and reddened eyes, and fly away on the back of the wind, never to be seen again.
And Cádiz had become unbearable simply from the memories the place held. The streets where they’d walked. The places they’d visited. The gardens where they had laughed, and loved, and dreamed of all the places they would see together...
She couldn’t even look at the church where they had been married, much less pray there. All her prayers seemed to have crumbled away.
So, Theresa thought, sitting up straighter. The convent – no. Cádiz – no.
This left, at the last, Luisa-Cristina’s vision of her future. She would be an unpaid lady’s companion, suffered to remain solely for the sake of the limited little widow’s government pension she received for Sebastien’s civil service work. She would sit with her elder sister, listen dutifully to her chatter, be her waiting-maid, and generally act as a piece of social furniture, to be wheeled out and exhibited as an example of Don Pedro Alvarez’s Christian charity…
She would have laughed at the idea once. But now...
Well, why not? She thought, dully. Maybe the Holy Virgin would be kind, and wash her overboard on the crossing. She could join Sebastien, floating fathoms deep in his sacking shroud in the Atlantic...
Had he even had a shroud? She found herself wondering, with a sick fascination. What did they do on quarantined ships, when disease broke out and men died like flies? Did they even have the time to read a prayer over the dead? Or did they just tumble him over the side like a broken doll for the eels and the sea-carrion to pick at-
No. Stop it. Don’t think about that. Think about the way he used to smile at you. Think of the good things – the picnics in the hills, the supper-party where you first met – the things he’ll say to you when you see him again…
She looked down again at the miniature about her neck and clasped it in both hands, willing Sebastien’s face into her mind.
‘Tell me what to do, my love,’ she breathed. ‘Please. Tell me where to go...’
‘Seńora de Barrós?’ Jacinta’s voice came suspiciously from outside the door. ‘Is that you?’
‘Who else would it be, Jacinta?’ Theresa said wearily. ‘Come in.’
Seńora Jacinta was a small, vigorous-looking Catalan woman who had escaped the usual fate of emptying crab-buckets and mending fishing-nets on the quayside in Cádiz as maid-of-all-work for the Widow de Barrós. She was fifty-three, stout as a pepper-pot, and, in her own words, “too old to put up with nonsense.” Theresa paid her so much a week for cooking and cleaning. In return, Jacinta scrubbed floors as though they had done her a mortal injury, scolded the little ragged street urchins who dodged about the street outside their lodgings, and generally treated Theresa like a vaguely wilful child - who for some reason held the purse-strings.
Theresa wouldn’t have traded her in for a thousand well-bred Parisian lady’s maids. They understood each other too well.
Jacinta crossed her arms accusingly as she crossed the threshold of the study to find at the desk.
‘Oh. Moping again. I see.’ She said, bluntly. ’Just as well I left market early, eh?’
‘I wasn’t moping.’ Theresa rubbed a hand across her forehead, trying to shift the sick headache that was throbbing in her temples. ‘I was thinking. Luisa’s reply arrived today.’
‘Oh?’ Jacinta’s greying eyebrows rose a fraction. ‘What does she say?’
‘Offered me a home on Saint-Martin with her.’ Theresa picked up the oilskin packet and handed it across to her. ‘With money for the journey, too.’
Jacinta whistled, weighing the pouch in her hand. ‘So she wants you there?’
‘Wants me? No. She and Pedro want Sebastien’s pension there.’ Theresa shrugged. ‘She’s prepared to tolerate me if I come with it.’
Jacinta unloosened the purse strings and peered critically into the bag. Her mouth turned down at the corners. ‘Not much silver there. Stingy. That’s a bad sign. Still...’ she shrugged. ‘The West Indies, eh? Not a bad place to start over when you go.’
‘If I decide to go,’ Theresa corrected sharply, rocking the worn out chair back and forth. She had huddled into the folds of the white fichu folded across the bosom of her gown, hands clutching the black silk ribbon around her neck. ‘I’m still thinking, aren’t I? There’s still the convent...’
‘Oh, so you want to bury yourself alive in a convent now? After all you said about it yesterday?’ Jacinta put her hands on her hips. ‘Mother of God, give me patience! So you want to be a withered old crow like the hags on the cathedral steps?’
‘You know I don’t.’ Theresa’s slender, long-boned hands fidgeted again with the ribbon, clasping her husband’s portrait close. ‘But... to leave, so soon after...’
Aha, Jacinta thought. So that’s it, is it? No wonder she looks as sad as Ash Wednesday.
‘Niña,’ she said, as gently as she could, ‘Your Sebastien... he isn’t here. You understand? That fine marble tablet the Condé put up to Don Sebastien is just a stone. ‘
Theresa’s dark head drooped a little lower over her hands. Jacinta couldn’t read her expression behind the widow’s veil. ‘It’s not just –‘
‘It is. It’s nothing. A piece of rock. No coffin, no tomb. Nothing. And even if he were there...’ Jacinta hesitated, before carrying on. ‘You carry the best parts of your husband with you, Señora. You understand? In your heart, and in your head. You don’t have to leave him behind. You pack him up close, here –‘ she made a fist, and held it to her chest like a salute. ‘And then you can look at the world and spit in its eye, because you already have what’s important.’
Theresa looked up at that – and at the determinedly cheerful note in Jacinta’s voice. The false briskness hid a note of emotion she hadn’t heard in her quickfire chiding before now.
‘I never heard you talk like that before-’
‘You didn’t need it before, that’s why.’ Jacinta said shortly, going over to the clothes press in the corner. She picked up Theresa’s light summer cloak and held it out. ‘You’ve been cooped up in your husbands’ study, moping over his portrait all day. That’s enough to make anyone think slow. What you need is fresh air.’ She picked up Theresa’s light summer cloak from the peg on the wall and held it out. ‘Go for a walk, Señora. Think. In the sunlight, not locked up in here. You’ll have your answer before you return.’
You think? Theresa thought bitterly – but it was a petty thought, one she kept to herself. She shrugged herself into the cloak, before looking out through the wrought iron latticework at the endless blue sky above. Jacinta was right, it was a beautiful evening. She could hear the gulls crying as they wheeled over the harbour, a ships bell chiming gently somewhere in port...
Unbidden, a fresh thought came to her.
‘You know, I think you’re right,’ she said thoughtfully. ‘I’ll find my answer.’
‘Oh yes?’ Jacinta looked at her, oddly. A faint suspicion had crossed her mind that Señora de Barrós had just decided to throw herself in the Bay of Cádiz – but no. Doña Theresa might be wilful, but she wasn’t a fool.
‘Don’t fuss. I’ll be back before it even has time to get dark, I swear it…’ Theresa gently put her aside and headed towards the door. ‘I need to pray.’
‘Oh, as though you don’t do that enough!’ Jacinta called out sourly after her.
The Virgin of the Seas was not a popular place of worship, like the cathedral. It was a small tumbledown old church tucked into a shadowed side-street, far away from the busy thoroughfare or the fashionable places of resort – because the church of the Virgen del Carmen was anything but fashionable.
The flaking plaster showed the cracked brick front; the single, weary-looking priest who performed Mass always looked exhausted. The altar-boys were ragged little urchins with rags wrapped about their feet, dusting grimy hands off surreptitiously on their robes. And occasionally, if you weren’t careful, the prayer-cushions would leak sawdust and mouse-droppings.
It was, as the Condé de Barrós would have disdainfully remarked, a “peasant” church, for the fishermen and sailors. Theresa believed she was the only gentlewoman in Cádiz who actually frequented it – or who had a memorial to a loved one there.
But then she loved the place with a wistful nostalgia she couldn’t suppress.
When she was very small – before schooling and courtship and… everything else, her mother used to bring her to the Virgen del Carmen when her father rode out to the shipyards for new commissions for his workshops. The oh-so-familiar smell of accumulated incense here was a way back to the past she could follow, just like the smell of fresh wood shavings on her father’s coat when he came back from his workshops, eyes alight with the gleam of a thousand plans.
Later, after she had returned from Marseilles as Senora de Barrós rather than ‘little Zaza’, she had come here to pray for Sebastien when he first went to sea…
And now she had come here to say goodbye...again.
She wandered over to the carved stone tablet set in the wall, raising one hand to gently touch the carved edge of the memorial. For one moment she pressed her forehead to the cold marble, trying to see if she could feel some answering response from… somewhere. Her mind. Her heart. The places in tales where love lived.
Sacred to the memory of Sebastian Diego de B arrós, died of fever aged 28 years, upon the 22nd day of August 1749.
‘Hello, my love,’ she said quietly. ‘No need to tell you why I’m here. You know already. But… I need you to help me. Help me decide,’ she whispered into the silence. ‘Please?’
She half opened her eyes, peering under her eyelashes up at the altar just in case the great wooden statue set in its niche had miraculously raised its head to say, smilingly, Look, Theresa, here is your answer!
Hum, Theresa thought wryly to herself. Life didn’t work like her niñera’s stories of miracles and magic and lovers vows. She shouldn’t expect it by now. But that didn’t stop her dreams.
She shut her eyes.
Where Theresa’s father Señor Baltasar (who now rested quietly in his own country churchyard up north) had carved out his dreams in fine Spanish oak, Theresa now carved with different tools.
Her mind took the tales her niñera had told her, combined with the thousand scraps of fable and legend she had picked up in the convent, and sketched out dreams for herself with the same loving attention to detail.
Every moment in her visions of impossible reunion had been honed and polished into an impossible perfection.The living Don Sebastien would have been very puzzled to make out a case for himself as the glorious figure she had created in her mind.
But there he was in her head, her lost husband- beautiful as an angel with his fair hair shining like burnt gold loose on his shoulders, rising through a background of soft, heavenly blue to say… to say…
‘Alms, Señora?’ A lean hand shot out, pulling imploringly at Theresa’s skirts. Theresa froze, jolted from her dreams. She turned, half-annoyed to have been dislodged from her imaginary cloud... to see a ragged beggar woman, crouching in supplication on the stone flagstones outside her pew. ‘Alms?’
Her Spanish was…strange. Granted, Cádiz was a port town and you encountered all manner of foreigners there; you had everything from Moors to Englishmen – but Theresa couldn’t place the woman’s accent . It was lilting, and oddly unfamiliar to her.
‘Chut!’ One of the women in the front pew had turned round and seen the beggar woman. She rose up, all indignant outrage. ‘Nasty thing, begging inside the church! Get out on the steps where you belong! My apologies, Señora. She knows she shouldn’t be here –Go on with you! Out!’ She grabbed a broom leaning against the wall and made a couple of swipes with it. The bundle of rags let out a savage hiss and scuttled backwards, out of range
Theresa thought, with a pang about the sour faces of the widowed lay sisters and put out a restraining hand.
‘Stop! There’s no need for that. Leave her alone. She’s done me no harm.’
‘But my lady! Letting a nasty thing like that in –‘
‘Oh, you think beating a poor woman in front of the altar makes you virtuous?’ Theresa pointed to the statue. ‘I would like to hear how you explain that to your confessor. Let her be.’
The women subsided, muttering, as Theresa opened her reticule and drew the beggar woman aside, to the shelter of the church steps. She took out a few silver coins. ‘I apologise, Señora. Here. Take this.’
The beggar woman’s tanned brown hand flashed out from her ragged cloak, closing over the coins with lightning speed. Theresa had thought she was old, at first – but the hand was that of a young woman, no cracks or wrinkles or the bulging veins of age. And there were marking – strange, red markings, winding around her wrist and up her forearm…
‘Silver and kindness, lady?’ Dark eyes stared out at Theresa from behind the rotten wrappings she held swathed close about her face. ‘Those are rare gifts both, unbidden.’
To Theresa’s mounting unease, the beggar woman kept her eyes fixed on Theresa’s face, unblinking, like a cat watching its prey. She blinked, as though she had seen something she could scarcely believe. Her hand shot out again to grip Theresa’s wrist, overlong nails digging into Theresa’s skin.
‘Like for like, lady. ’ she said, her gaze sharpening. ‘Let Shansa read your fate -‘
‘Fate?’ Theresa attempted to pull away, alarmed. Fortune-telling had been harmless in Marseilles. Here, it was a dangerous profession, especially in the face of the Inquisition. However harmless it was, it smelt like sorcery to the church fathers. And this peculiar woman was doing it here, on the church steps. She tried to laugh. ‘I need no fortune-telling hopes, Señora. And I did not give you alms for fortunes-’
She attempted to pull away, shrugging off the woman’s hand. But Shansa shrugged, her grip tightening easily. ‘True. There’s a dead man in your past. I see him.’
Theresa froze – before she looked down at her black dress and her eyes hardened. For a moment there, she had nearly been fooled. She scoffed, openly.
‘You don’t need to pretend to tell that much...’
Shansa’s intent stare glazed over for a moment as she stared into Theresa’s face – but she also strangely seemed to look beyond it; as though she could read something else there. ‘You came here to make a choice, Señora. Your choice is already made. Have faith. The sea gives back what it takes away, one way or the other.’
For a moment, Theresa’s vision blurred. For a tantalizing instant, she saw Sebastien, smiling beatifically at her with the sunlight reflected in his hair…
She stopped doubting.
‘What did you say?’ she clutched at the woman’s arm in her turn. ‘Do you mean Sebastien? Have – have you seen him? In my future?’
‘The sea gives back what it takes.’ Shansa looked at her, strangely, from within the rotten cloth wrappings that covered her head – a mixture of remote pity and strangely unfocused interest.
The ragged veil slipped back from the beggar woman’s face, and to Theresa’s shock, she saw the woman’s head was shaved, her face and scalp marked with the same unending whorls of patterns many times repeated. A strange scarlet circle, edged with gold was burnt into her forehead like a brand.
Theresa shrank back, her common sense fighting her desperate need to believe.
This wasn’t true. The woman was mad, a dreamer who fancied herself a witch, - and perhaps dangerous, should some over-zealous observer see her. She should throw the woman off, flee back inside the church and pray...
‘I know what I see.’ Shansa said fiercely, as though guessing Theresa’s thoughts. Her nails dug in harder, drawing bloody crescents on Theresa’s forearm as her grip tightened. She sucked in a sharp breath, as though she was in pain. ‘Blood can’t lie. Yes, I see him. The dead man in your past - but the dead, oh... the dead lie in your future now, Señora. There is one who advances eagerly towards you on that sea you hesitate to cross...’
She released Theresa’s wrist almost thoughtfully. ‘Hmm. Interesting.’
‘What?’ Theresa’s thoughts were a whirl. She half wanted to sneer – what, a tall dark stranger, from across the seas? How original. But she couldn’t summon the energy for scorn to hide how shaken she actually was. The woman’s words had cut too close to the truth.
Theresa was hooked, like a worm. She needed to know more. The strange beggar woman Shansa had now drifted almost dreamily away from the church steps, turning down towards a narrow side-alley.
‘Wait!’ Theresa scurried after her. ‘Senora – please, I beg you! What about Sebastien? How will the sea give him back to me? How?’
The beggar woman shrugged, drawing her hood back over her head. ‘Take what you have with you, Señora, in your heart and in your hand. But be careful. Sometimes what you carry is not you expect...’
She trailed off, and vanished into the side-alley.
‘What? That doesn’t make – wait, how did you know what Jacinta –‘
Theresa trailed off.
The side alley was empty.
It shouldn’t have been. It was a narrow muddy track, more a neglected gap between buildings than any true street. There wasn’t room for a rat to hide. But there was no trace of the woman – not even a footprint in the dust.
The peasant women from inside the church had wandered out to the front steps, and were eyeing her with evident smug satisfaction at her shock and dismay.
‘Told you so, Señora.’ the one with the broom said tartly. ‘That heretic beggar woman is nothing but trouble.’ She spat on the ground.
‘She was some escaped slave from the islands, wasn’t she?’ the other woman said darkly. ‘Probably worships her old gods.’
‘Careful, Señora, she has probably given you the evil eye in thanks for your silver!’
They both burst into shrill, unfeeling laughter.
Theresa sniffed, trying to draw herself up to hide the churning confusion and dismay in her face.
They were probably right to laugh at her; she scolded herself as she took the road home. The beggar woman had probably been just some lunatic, babbling meaningless nonsense and scrabbling for what she could get. There was no truth in –
In any of it? A sly voice whispered inside her head. How did she know Sebastien died at sea? You never told her that. No-one could have told her that. It says ‘fever’ on his tomb.
Servants talk, don’t they? She could have found out –
Jacinta doesn’t gossip. And the beggar woman knew things – things she couldn’t possibly have found out. Besides, the voice asked, a little cruelly, Who cares enough about you and your affairs to gossip in Cádiz?
But the words rattled around persistently in her head, however much she tried to dislodge them. “The sea gives back what it takes…”
Her hands clutched convulsively at the ribbon of Sebastien’s miniature again, trying to think how it could be possible.
‘Oh. You’re back! So soon?’ Jacinta turned round at hearing Theresa’s step in the kitchen. ‘Well then. I hope the walk did you good?’
‘I… don’t know,’ Theresa said slowly. ‘I’m not sure. But… I think I have my answer now. About what I should do.’
‘You have?’ Jacinta’s eyes flicked upwards. The Señora had put her widow’s veil back, so she could read her mistress’ expression for once. Theresa did have a little more colour in her cheeks, that was true enough. She looked oddly... resolute. There was an unwavering determination that hadn’t been there before.
‘I shall join S-I mean, I shall go to Luisa-Cristina. In Saint Martin.’
Theresa could have bitten out her tongue in alarm. She had nearly, whirling as she was between scepticism and desperation, said “Sebastien” rather than her sisters name.
Instant relief spread over Jacinta’s face. She beamed, widely. ‘There’s my Doña Theresa!’ she said delightedly. ‘I knew you’d come to your senses at last! You’re young yet – there will be good things after this, you’ll see -
‘Yes...’ Theresa said obediently. She avoided Jacinta’s gaze, just in case she could see the conflict bubbling there. ‘Of course. That’s what I thought.’
No. It wasn’t. But the beggar-woman's prophecy couldn’t be wrong! It was too personal, too direct – an appeal that seemed to go straight to the centre of her dilemma. It couldn’t be just chance, or coincidence, as Jacinta would no doubt reason out if she told her…
Jacinta… Jacinta would ridicule it. Jacinta would laugh, and stare, and scold, and call her “childish-foolish” for believing such a tale as that.
I’m a cunning madwoman then. I keep my madness to myself.
But I don’t care what Jacinta would think, Theresa thought defiantly. It’s my chance to try for happiness again. Who wouldn’t jump at that? Even if I’m wrong and it was all nonsense, even if it is just Luisa-Cristina and Saint-Martin and boredom for the rest of my life…
At least I chose something new. Something different. I didn’t just go back to the convent. I went forward.
‘… and I’ve packed your things.’ Jacinta said, smiling slyly. ‘Ready for you.’
Theresa blinked, taken aback for a moment. Jacinta, she had quickly discovered, sometimes knew her better than she knew herself.
‘You sly thing!’ She aimed a playful smack at Jacinta’s shoulder. ‘What if I’d decided I was joining the sisters?’
‘You wouldn’t.’ Jacinta said decisively. ‘Too much sense in you to be a saint, Señora. And you’re too stubborn. Heaven and the sisters wouldn’t stand for it.’
Her smile was suddenly a little watery. ‘Though Lord knows I will miss working for you, Señora. You’ve been a good mistress, even if you are childish-foolish about some things …’
‘Childish-foolish?’ Theresa said, smiling inwardly. She hadn’t quite been able to avoid the accusation, after all.
‘As a baby,’ Jacinta retorted, shaking her head, as though to dislodge the excess water in her eyes. ‘But there! You’re young. Time cures that.’ She straightened up, smiling. ‘Now. How about something to eat? There’s still some wine left. We can drink to your Luisa-Cristina and her home on Saint-Martin.’
Theresa had been careful to tug down her sleeve to hide the raw marks of the beggar-woman’s nails on her forearm. It wasn’t only to evade Jacinta’s inescapable common sense over the black bread and vegetable stew that served as supper; it helped to pretend her decision was sensible. A rational choice she had made of her own accord, rather than a reckless jump into the unknown.
Besides, Theresa reflected, as she took up her candle to bed, the odd encounter already seemed vaguely dream-like. Perhaps she had just nodded off into an uneasy sleep in the church pew, after all? Maybe it had all been some fantasy inspired by her niñera’s tales, mingled with her uncertainty and grief…
Gingerly, she lifted up her cuff to snatch a glimpse of her arm.
She was almost afraid they wouldn’t be there.
But the marks still showed. They were red, angry-looking crescent moon shaped dints now. She had better be careful to bathe them, just in case of infection. God alone knew what midden the beggar-woman had likely been picking through for scraps…
But…it did happen, after all. Theresa couldn’t suppress a queasy jolt of... anticipation. Yes, it was foolish and stupid, and Heaven knew how reckless a chance to stake her future on– but there it was. She couldn’t gainsay it.
But how is the sea going to give Sebastien back to me?
Thoughtful, she blew out the candle, to better dwell on the question in the dark.
Chapter 2: A Bird of Ill Omen
Sea-ward, white gleaming thro' the busy scud
With arching Wings, the sea-mew o'er my head
Posts on, as bent on speed, now passaging
Edges the stiffer Breeze, now, yielding, drifts,
Now floats upon the air, and sends from far
A wildly-wailing Note.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Fragment 1
If life had been like her nurses’ stories at this point, then there should have been some warning. Maybe… maybe a fairy godmother, or a warning from heaven.
But Theresa’s last few days in Cádiz were almost ridiculously calm and quiet. She packed her trunk, wrote letters of farewell to the few married school friends she knew in Madrid – and sold what few sticks of furniture hadn’t already gone. What keepsakes she had of Sebastien were shut carefully in an old rosewood casket of her mothers; stowed safely in the depths. Jacinta mended and pressed and folded and tidied and starched – a sort of anxious preparation for a change neither of them were quite sure about. When Jacinta was worried, she talked – and she talked so often about how sensible Theresa was being, and how beautiful the islands were, that Theresa suspected she was trying to reassure herself as well as her mistress.
But she didn’t let slip so much of a word of doubt until the day came, and the porter’s cart trundled Theresa and her luggage down to the harbour.
‘You will send word once you’re safe with your sister? Promise me.’
“Jacinta! That’s the third time you’ve asked me that! You know I will.’
‘Right. Good. Good.’ Jacinta rallied. ‘None of that writing business, mind. I never know what to do when I give a letter to Father Vincente to read to me. He always looks so disapproving...’
‘How else am I to get word to you?’
‘There’s my nephew Joachim, on the Anunciación,’ Jacinta said firmly. ’He sails to the islands every few months. You just find him, and have him tell his old aunt that Doña Theresa is hale and hearty. That’ll do nicely for me...’
Jacinta’s brow was still oddly clouded. Her hands were nervously plucking at a loose thread in her apron, fingers twitching though she were counting how many she had.
‘I wish you’d wait, Señora.’ She said, at last. ‘Just another month. You could lodge with me until then, and take passage with Joachim and his master. Very fair, is Capitán de la Vega –‘
‘Jacinta-’ Theresa turned, exasperated – and stopped when she saw her housekeeper’s face. This wasn’t the usual litany of grumbling, good-natured complaints. Jacinta looked genuinely worried.
‘I – it’s probably nothing.’ Jacinta said reluctantly. ‘I don’t put much store by sailor’s stories, even when it is my sister’s son, scapegrace that he is. But…’ she fiddled miserably with her apron again. ‘Well… I don’t think you should take ship today. Not on that ship. And I told you about that before, Señora: didn’t I? Travelling alone on a Dutch ship, of all things*…’
‘You said the Duyfken was a decent ship when I told you last week!’ Theresa frowned. ‘That’s not it, Jacinta. Come on. Out with it, whatever it is.’
‘Just… something Joachim said, that’s all.’ Jacinta tried to shrug nonchalantly. ‘The islands have been having… some difficulties, from the way he told it.’
‘Pirates, you mean? Were they attacked?’ Theresa’s brow wrinkled, concerned. ‘Was your nephew all right?’
‘He said that was the funny thing. Said it was the easiest trip they’d ever made. Sold all their cargo in half an hour. But the harbours were empty. The only ships there were other traders –All Spanish. And they had the same story to tell – easy sailing, good winds, no English ships or rival French traders…’
‘What’s to complain about there?’
‘He didn’t like it. Said it wasn’t right. The islanders looked at them like the Devil himself had appeared when they heard them talking, too.’ Jacinta looked downwards. ‘They’d never had any trouble before. All they could get out of the island shipping agent was some mumbo-jumbo about “Maldito de Dios” ruling the waters now. I didn’t want to tell you, Señora, but… he made me uneasy.’
‘“The Accursed of God?” ‘Theresa raised an eyebrow. She had never met Jacinta’s “Joachim”, but she had heard enough tales, recited dutifully back from his aunt, to give her the idea he had a good imagination and a streak of mischief a mile wide. The one about the green marble Saint Christopher in Panama, that had miraculously cured the pain in his leg. The mermaids he’d sworn he’d seen off the coast of Florida, combing out their yellow hair. Joachim could have told his family he was the sole heir to the throne of Castile and they would have believed him. ‘I…see. So… the waters of the West Indies are haunted by the “Accursed of God”, but… Joachim’s going back there, in a few months?’
‘Well, of course. He made more money on that trip than half the voyages he’s made combined-’ Jacinta stopped. ‘You’re laughing at me, Señora.’ She said, accusingly. ‘You think I’m some senile old woman with no more sense than a crab-’
‘Did I say that?’ Theresa said innocently. ‘I didn’t say that!’
‘You didn’t have to,’ Jacinta grumbled.
Theresa looked at her, then lifted her veil to give Jacinta a peck on her worn cheek. ‘I’ll take care. I promise. And I will send word. But I think I’m more likely to be in danger from Joachim’s mermaids than-’
‘Dios, that boy!’ Jacinta, clutched her mistress close in a fierce maternal hug. ‘All right. Forget Joachim. You send me word the minute you’re safe on Saint-Martin, you hear? I’ll risk the padré for your sake; just to hear from you.’
The earnestness in Jacinta’s voice made Theresa’s eyes blur with tears, despite herself. She had steeled herself for goodbyes, but parting with Jacinta was harder than she had expected.
‘There! Enough of that. I have something for you.’ Jacinta said at last, fiercely brushing away her own tears. ‘I found it behind that old bureau when I was cleaning. Looks old. The frame’s silver. You can always sell it if you need money in Saint-Martin.‘
She pressed something small wrapped in crackling paper into Theresa’s hand.
‘Good luck, Señora. I’ll pray for you.’
Theresa suddenly felt very lonely as she stood on the quay by her trunk, watching the only soul in Spain who cared for her vanish into the busy portside crowd.
She wished she’d had more money to give Jacinta as a farewell gift.
She wished Sebastien was alive, so she didn’t have to go at all.
She wished –
‘Forwards, Theresa,’ she scolded herself, under her breath. ‘Forwards. We advance. Don’t look back.’
The Duyfken was a decent ship. One thing she certainly wasn’t, however, was luxurious. And there were certainly no separate cabins for passengers. Theresa’s fellow travellers made shift how they could with spare cloaks and sheets spread between the narrow wooden cots lining the below deck as a vague concession to privacy. But then Theresa hadn’t expected luxury: she certainly hadn’t paid for it.
It was only once her own trunk was safely stowed away and her own makeshift linen walls pegged up that she thought to look at Jacinta’s gift.
The paper crackled as she opened it.
It was a miniature portrait. Not like the dainty thing Theresa wore at her bodice with Sebastien’s picture; it was a heavy, old-fashioned kind that opened out like the covers of a book. It must have lingered behind the back of the bureau in her lodgings for years. The silver was tarnished and blackened.
Ah, Jacinta, Theresa thought sadly. Generations of previous lodgers hadn’t had such a conscientious maid – or such an honest one. Any other maid would have pocketed the heavy silver and sold it for what they could get.
It looked very old-fashioned, from the heavy silver moulding. What sort of portrait would be in there? Theresa wondered, amused. Some stiff old conquistador of Philip IV’s time, leaning on his sword?
She was quite surprised when she opened it to the mournful dark eyes of a lady in a stiff farthingale A little child sat wide-eyed at her feet, amongst her brocaded skirts. It was, although done in the hard, flat style that had been so in vogue in Spain before the Bourbons, a good painting. Both the eyes of the mother and child seemed to gaze back at you. It quite fascinated Theresa.
‘Now who are you?’ she murmured under her breath, brushing away a film of dust. ‘And how was I sharing houseroom with you for so long? Who are you, Señora?’
The lady stared quietly back. She looked a little mournful, Theresa fancied, for all her old-fashioned finery. There was something in the way her hand tightly clasped the child’s: as though she was afraid they would be taken away from her if she didn’t hold fast.
The child, on the other hand –
Well, it was undoubtably a boy, despite still being in a gown and leading-strings. Girls (in formal paintings, at least) do not look nearly as stubborn, and the set of the small round face already suggested a strong will. He had the same colour eyes as his mother, but there was a world of difference in expression. Whereas she was sad and passive, he looked restless – and almost breathtakingly defiant, with the boundless confidence and self-possession of a toddler.
‘He looks a handful,’ she murmured. ‘My sympathies, Señora.’
She turned to see the second painting –
And found herself staring at an empty frame..
There had been a painting there once. There were still tatters of painted canvas around the edges showing fragments of the original portrait. The edge of a gold-laced coat.
Doubtless the husband, Theresa thought, painted to match the wife and child.
But… there was nothing left of him. Whoever had been in the second portrait had been hacked away– so roughly that there were gouges and scratches in the silver from the blade that had been used to tear the canvas out.
There was some old tragedy there, Theresa guessed, a little unnerved. It must have been put away to be forgotten – after… after what? Curious, she turned over the silver to see if there was a monogram, or a date – but there was nothing. Just the melancholy mother and child and the empty frame.
Sobered, she closed the miniature with a sharp little snap, tucking it into her dress pocket. “Maybe it’s a new start for both of us, then, Señora?’ she murmured.
Lulled by the lapping of the waves and the muffled stamping of the crew overhead, she arranged herself tidily down on her narrow bunk, laid her head on the lumpy pillow, and began to drift into a comfortable doze – comforting herself with the thought of Sebastien watching over her, perhaps, on the blue water.
She dreamed of the little child in Jacinta’s picture.
Theresa hadn’t really looked at the child – she had been more interested in the sad-eyed woman in the silver frame. But, there he was, toddling uncertainly along a vast stretch of wooden floor, leading strings trailing behind him like a lamb’s tail. He was chasing beams of sunshine, she realised with the clarity of understanding you have in dreams; those thin ribbons of light that streaked in between the shutters on hot summer days. Once caught, he stamped on them with all the riotous delight of a two-year old given unlooked-for freedom.
Where’s his mother, or his nurse? Theresa wondered. There were toys scattered on the floor – along with an embroidery hoop and a workbox left abandoned in a chair, but there was no-one else to be seen on the long, dimly lit corridor.
Although there were voices, somewhere – one angry, another defensive, almost beseeching.
Theresa floated closer, hoping to make something out, but the sound was …distorted, as though she had plunged her head underwater. She could just hear the tones, growing harsher, more abrasive…
Theresa looked back at the child. She saw the childish smile begin to fade as his face began to crumple into an open-mouthed wail.
And then she understood.
She was hearing what the child was hearing – a child too young to understand words. It was all… noise. But he understood enough of the tone to be frightened –
The voices broke off at his first plaintive cry, and a woman hurried out from a side door, stiff skirts in hand. Theresa recognised the woman from the painting as she bent over to hush her son.
‘Sssh, sshh – now, now, my lamb! What a noise you can make, hmm? Come on – let’s…let’s leave Papa. He’s… busy.’ She patted him distractedly, shushing him into a hiccupping calm as they walked up and down the picture gallery. ‘Oh, who’s my brave boy? Who’s my fine brave little boy!’ She jogged him lightly up and down in her arms. ‘Come on, my lambkin. We shall go and see Grandpapa. You like seeing Grandpapa, don’t you? Yes! You’re going to be a fine big strong man, just like him-’
“Grandpapa” turned out to be a painting in the gallery: a full length portrait of a handsome, severe looking old cavalier in a steel cuirass, looking out to sea. In the background, a fine galleon floated across a view of open sea, pennants waving.
‘There, you see? There’s grandpapa!‘ She held up the child so he could see. Theresa saw how she pressed her cheek lovingly into his little frock, furtively wiping away a tear. ‘That’ll be you one day, my lamb, and you’ll sail the ships out to sea, just like Grandpapa and your – and your papa-‘
‘Oh? And will he come home to a squawking wife who complains, like I do?’
A dishevelled, dissolute looking fellow with loose hair and naval uniform in disarray had slouched sullenly to the doorframe, where he watched his wife, hands in his pockets. He shrugged. ‘Poor lookout for him, then. He’d be better staying at sea.’
The woman bit her lip.
‘That isn’t fair, Paulo -‘
‘Isn’t it? When I come home and all I get is mealy-mouthed complaints about the money running out? You think refitting a ship is cheap, I suppose? And it all comes out of my pocket! Not yours! God knows your dowry was small enough-’
‘I don’t –please, Paulo; I didn’t think-‘
‘No, you don’t think. That’s the problem, isn’t it?’ He stared with bleary-eyed triumph at her face, satisfied she was now silently weeping in earnest, and turned back into his room. ‘God, I need a drink…takes the bad taste out of coming home-’
The woman clutched her little son closer as the door slammed shut.
‘You’re going to be a good man,’ she murmured distractedly. ‘You’re going to be better. Better than your fa-’
Theresa awoke with an unpleasant start that nearly jolted her off her narrow shelf of a bed, and a decidedly bad taste in her mouth.
She didn’t remember much about the dream. It had faded away as imperceptibly as it came, leaving nothing but a confused feeling of indignation and dislike.
Uneasily, she pulled Jacinta’s gift from her pocket. It had doubtless been a mix of her natural anxiety about the journey, mingled with the last thing she had laid eyes on before going to sleep, but…all the same…
‘That’s quite enough of that!’ she told it, sharply, before closing it with a sharp snap. She pulled out her trunk and pushed the offending thing as far to the bottom as her hand would go, burying it beneath her clothes. She would replace the pictures with a different painting in Saint-Martin, she decided. Maybe a charming island view; something cheerful. Nothing that suggested lost things, or sadness. Or sell it, once she was at Saint-Martin, the way Jacinta had suggested.
New horizons, Theresa told herself firmly. That was the thing. The portrait would remain forgotten for the rest of the journey.
Unfortunately, there were no new horizons outside the confines of the cramped passenger deck; at least for the first few weeks of their passage. Between the bouts of sea-sickness as they encountered rougher waters and contrary winds, no-one had much stomach for gazing beyond anything more than the gunwales. Or, more often, a bucket. And being able to breathe fresh air rather than the stale rankness of the passenger deck was a rare luxury; the captain of the Duyfken had his crew chivvy his queasy passengers back below deck if he thought they lingered too long, or got in the way.
Passengers, to his way of thinking, were clearly no better than rats who were able to pay their way. Theresa almost regretted not taking up the offer of the Anunciación by the fourth week. Almost.
But horizons are where you find them, and the painfully close quarters of the Duyfken provided excellent opportunities to get to know her fellow passengers, in between the sickness and the complaints about the food.
There were the middle-aged brothers from the Cádiz Mountains, for a start .They didn’t talk much, but Theresa gathered they hoped to change ships on Saint-Martin and find work on Hispaniola. There was also the harassed shoemaker’s wife from Córdoba, who was rejoining her husband with her seven children in tow. They were as lively as kittens and scampered everywhere; generally everywhere they shouldn’t to boot.
They were all somewhat bemused at the reserved Spanish gentlewoman travelling by herself. Gentlewomen didn’t do that, did they? They kept a perplexed distance, at first. But the fatigues of travel wore away at that. She ate and slept and washed her clothes in the same cramped space as they did; scolded the bolder children, comforted the little ones. She was one of them now, a peculiar tribe of sea-wanderers.
None of them however, were port people. Else they too, would have been as quietly puzzled as Theresa was about the crew.
The Duyfken was a Dutch packet ship. It would therefore have been reasonable to assume that at least a few of the crew were Dutch. But the crew was mostly Portuguese, with a small mixture of Cádiz men. All new hands. None had never sailed with Captain de Voorst before. In fact, there were no old hands at all, aside from the captain himself. An odd thing, for a seasoned Dutch ship. Granted, relations between Spain and the Netherlands weren’t always of the best, but... none of his old crew, at all? She couldn’t make it out.
She could make it out still less once she saw him. Captain de Voorst was a nervous, gangling, lean-boned man with greying hair, who barely spoke enough Spanish to make his orders understood.
Conveniently (or otherwise, for the hands) he also failed to understand anything at all about paying his men when they took on water at the Canary Islands. Which made for a sullen set of hands on an Atlantic crossing.
Theresa kept an ear open. The bosun complained loudly to anyone who would listen; sometimes within earshot of the passengers he was supposed to keep off the quarterdeck. And whilst the complaints were colourful – they were certainly interesting.
‘Pox-ridden bastard was supposed to pay us half at Gran Canaria! But what does he do? Say’s he won’t pay us until we’ve “got the job done”. Pah! As though what he’s giving us is half what it should be.If he valued his hide properly, he’d be paying us double.’
The helmsman sniggered. ‘Getting nervous though, isn’t he?’
‘Can’t blame him, though? Doing a Caribbean run? He must be pissing himself!’ The bosun jerked his head towards the ensign flag. ‘He ain’t flying his own flag, that’s for sure...’
Theresa pretended to keep her eyes on the horizon, but shifted her gaze to the flag, curious. And gaped, shocked.
The Duyfken was flying the flag of Spain.
De Voorst was sailing under false colours.
For one moment, Theresa was seized by a horrible panic. De Voorst was a crook. God knows what he was doing-smuggling, robbing, tricking his passengers into slavery-
But then the helmsman muttered something in an undertone that had Theresa listening again.
‘Think it’s real? That “Maldito de Dios” stuff?’
‘Ah, that’s just a story-’ The bosun scoffed. ‘I’ve been sailing the sea for nigh on fourteen years. Never had any trouble making port– and I’ve been on plenty ships.’
‘Not just Spanish. I was captured in ‘forty-two, remember? English.’ He spat. ‘Bastards.’
‘Still. Captain thinks it’s real. Have you seen him? He’s jumpy as a cat on hot coals.’
‘Maybe that’s how we should play it. Go to him in a body, like? Say we want more money, else we won’t get him past his precious sea-ghosts…’
‘Yeah. That might do it. Old skinflint…’
Theresa quietly took herself off after that, to think.
So. Captain De Voorst was frightened of something. Something that meant he was prepared to run the risk of sailing under the flag of Spain rather than his own – risking the French, the English and his own countrymen – not to mention the usual sea-robbers.
Not paying his men was doubly foolish, in that case. He risked mutiny, especially on a long voyage. But...she had heard of it. The only time that captains generally did something like that, within Theresa’s experience, was when the venture was risky. When arriving alive was by no means certain.
But the more she thought about it, the more that didn’t make sense, either.
There was nothing raiders would want, or customs officers would sniff at. Not even the usual casual “off-the-books” thing every merchant included for one paying customer or another in the islands - Malaga wine, say, or French lace. And whilst she didn’t doubt de Voorst was a little weasel (all small ship owners were) he didn’t seem the sort to sell his passengers into slavery. Besides, slavers took care to keep their crews on side.
So… what was de Voorst afraid of?
Of course, there was the mysterious Maldito de Dios, who now seemed to be more than one of Joachim’s tall stories. Probably not much more, she re-assured herself. Maybe just... sea-rovers who avoided Spanish ships of the line. De Voorst was just trying to avoid some port tax or something. Or dodge some charge on the Dutch side of Saint-Martin. Yes. That would be it.
There were things that made her uneasy. Things began to change on board for them all as they approached warmer waters. De Voorst looked more on edge every time she saw him. He kept watch continuously – and any delay – a slight change in speed, a contrary wind, and he became almost frantic.
Given his temperament, Theresa thought he would have penned them below in their bunks – but instead of being herded below decks like cattle, the passengers were now abruptly given the freedom of the deck. More than that; De Voorst practically urged them up from the passenger deck to sit in the bows, or stand posed, like statues, on the quarterdeck near the helm. He was especially keen on the children being above, something he had previously forbidden. They were allowed to make noise, run about, play – unheard of freedom, for all of them.
Theresa didn’t like it at all. None of the passengers did. But they didn’t dare protest.
‘It makes me nervous, Señora,’ The shoemaker’s wife confided to her one evening, after their own little group had been ushered up to stand ostentatiously on the quarterdeck. ‘What does he want with us up here? Why the children?’
‘I wish I knew.’ Theresa murmured back. ‘I think... he’s afraid. And he’s trying to...’
She faltered. Trying to... what? She couldn’t even put words to it. But – she had watched him. From where Theresa stood... it was as though de Voorst was setting his passengers out on display, somehow. See, we’re a harmless passenger ship, no trouble. No threat...
But that only increased the difficulty. There had been nothing but sea, sky, and a few sea-birds now and then, lazily soaring on the warm air-currents high above. No unfriendly sea traffic... nothing.
So who was the display for?
‘He’s afraid of something.’ She finished.
‘Of what? There’s nothing to...’ the shoemaker’s wife looked alarmed. ‘Sweet Virgin, do you think he’s crazy?’ She darted a worried glance at their captain.
De Voorst paced anxiously about in between the little family groups, casting uneasy glances at the western skyline. They were approaching land fast now – Saint-Martin was within reach. But the sun was beginning to set. The sky was darkening.
He gestured towards them, flapping his hands. ‘Talk, please!’ He said, urgently. ‘If you please, talk!’
The shoemaker’s glance exchanged a terrified glance with Theresa that said, clearly: My god, he is mad.
‘Please!’ De Voorst . ‘Anything you like – talk! But... Spanish, ja?’
A harsh squawk of a sea bird that had come to roost on one of the stern lanterns made him break off. He let out a muffled cry, backing away from the ladies.
‘Spanish! Please, I am Spanish!’ he gibbered, before haring away from the quarterdeck as though the hounds of hell were after him. ‘We are all Spanish!’
They stared after him. That was not encouraging.
‘Oh sweet Virgin...’ the shoemaker’s wife moaned. ‘I knew we shouldn’t have come! I told my husband; why don’t you make shoes in Spain? You think people don’t have feet in Murcia? But no, he knew better – said “there’s more work on the islands...”
Theresa slowly looked up at the stern lantern.
The mad, beady eye of a dishevelled seagull stared back at her.
Chapter 3: Interception
In which Theresa encounters seabirds, superstition and something worse... the English.
AT Flores, in the Azores Sir Richard Grenville lay,
And a pinnace, like a flutter’d bird, came flying from far away;
"Spanish ships of war at sea! we have sighted fifty-three!”
Alfred Lord Tennyson – The Revenge
Theresa was not overly fond of birds.
Oh, her school friends in Marseilles used to coo over the linnets and green-finches you could buy in little wicker cages for a few centimes – but not Theresa. She had always rather pitied the poor things, trapped in their woven wicker prisons. Real birds were hunger on wings and webbed feet, like the shrieking seabirds that followed the fishing boats in the bay: all vicious bills and buffeting wings.
She would have dimly supposed, had she thought about it, that there might be new kinds of bird on the islands. Ones she hadn’t seen before.
The bird perched on the stern lantern hadn’t even the grace to be a new kind. It was a scruffy looking gull, almost bald of feathers on one side. The ugly raw exposed pink flesh had dulled to a murky grey, looking pitted and dry. What feathers did remain looked oily and rank, sticking out at odd angles.
‘Ugly-looking thing, aren’t you?’ Theresa said casually to it. ‘I thought birds were supposed to be colourful in the Indies?’
One beady little yellow eye fixed on her. Now she came to examine it, its neck looked oddly... twisted, as though it had been broken and then badly put back together again by a clumsy child. “Sickly-looking” was perhaps too kind a description.
‘You’d better not die onboard this ship,’ she warned it, idly. ‘Everyone’s jumpy enough as it is without omens like that.’
The bird cocked its head at her, unblinking. When it turned to preen at a wretched stump of non-existent feather, Theresa could have sworn she saw exposed muscle and sinew...
She blinked, startled.
‘Señora?’ The shoemaker’s wife approached, her face anxious in the torchlight.
‘Oh- yes. Do pardon me, Elena. I was... distracted.’
‘I spoke to the steersman. He says that we should reach Philipsburg soon. Once we put in, everything will be all right. But...’ she dropped her voice, as though afraid of being overheard. ‘He says, Señora, that the Captain is right to be worried. He says that there has been bad luck in these waters-‘
‘There have been… attacks. We should be all right, but…other ships have not been so-’ The shoemaker’s wife looked appalled. ‘I did not hear this in Cádiz! We would not have sailed on a Dutch ship!’
She glared daggers at De Voorst’s back as he paced the deck.
‘Explains he isn’t mad, though.’ Theresa said thoughtfully, thinking about how they’d been positioned on deck. A merchant ship flying the Spanish flag, coming from Cádiz; and on deck, clusters of harmless-looking Spanish civilians with little children. De Voorst had planned it very well.
‘Foolhardy, maybe, taking a risk like that, but – I think we’re safe.’
‘Well, yes, but-‘ The shoemaker picked up her youngest, deftly balancing the little girl on her hip. ‘He used us, didn’t he? And his crew. They’re not happy about it either-’
Oh dear, Theresa thought to herself. At this rate De Voorst would be squeezed dry of his coin.
She wasn’t particularly sorry. Merchants could stand to be a little poorer if they played games like that with their passengers.
‘I suppose they wouldn’t be.’ She found herself wondering. ‘Say, Elena… did the steersman mention the Maldito de Dios?’
The shoemaker’s wife shuddered. ‘Piratas,’ she muttered under her breath. She plunged a hand in her apron pocket for her rosary, fervently telling her beads. ‘Whatever next? Lord, I’ll be glad when we’re safe on dry land, Señora! How did you dare set sail, knowing such things as that?’
So that was a “yes” then, Theresa reflected. Jacinta (and, indeed, Joachim) had been right, after all.
There was a sudden, joyous cry from the hand perched in the crow’s nest.
‘Land to starboard! Land ho!’
They stared at each other.
‘Land?’ Theresa hurried to the side. ‘Is it possible?’
At first, there seemed to be nothing. But gradually, as she shaded her eyes to avoid the dazzle of the evening sunlight on the waves, there appeared a thin ribbon of rich green on the horizon. Cliffs. Birds, swooping in and out of the treeline along the rocks – and, carved precariously out of the greenery, a harbour. The smoke of a settlement. People.
‘We’re here.’ Theresa said, relieved. ‘Thank God, we’re here! We made it!’
The shoemaker’s wife sank to her knees in gratitude as her children clamoured about the side, craning their necks to get a better look. Half the passengers began a ragged cheer. Even de Voorst, after clapping his spyglass to his eye, had ventured to smile…
Had they been too happy? Theresa would wonder, later. What ill luck decided to blow their way that day? Over three thousand miles of blue water – and it was in the last few, with land in sight, that everything soured all at once.
As the Duyfken began to turn, another ship slid sedately out of a sheltered spot amongst the rocks of the headlands, bearing down on the smaller merchant ship with almost lazy ease.
Theresa recognised the wasp-like black and yellow paint as English.
Her smile faded when she noticed the open gun-ports, and the decks cleared for action.
They were prepared to fire if the Duyfken didn’t stop.
The sight of it looming over them cut off the passengers’ joy almost instantaneously. They scattered across the deck. The very shadow seemed to blot out the warmth of the sun.
De Voorst swore, bitterly.
‘Engelsen.’ He said, briefly, before spitting over the side. ‘Verdomd Engelsen.’
It all happened depressingly quickly, after that. What other choice did they have?
The Duyfken was hauled in by the English ship like a butchered whale carcass – tethered and made fast. De Voorst, to his credit, stood his ground even as Marines and English sailors swarmed the side, hands held up in appeal as he tried to explain -
But this seemed to go beyond explaining, from the hard-set faces of both the soldiers and English hands. The crew were driven at musket-point to the main deck, where they were pushed into a rough line along with the bewildered male passengers. De Voorst kept gesticulating, and protesting – one moment in Dutch, now in Spanish, trying anything that anyone might listen to -
‘And you, missy,’ A soldier grunted English at her. A musket butt prodded her in the small of her back, none-too-gently. ‘Go on with yer, poor favourey-‘
Theresa stared at him hard, wondering whether she should insult his Spanish to his face or out of earshot, before moving slowly in the direction he indicated – a group to the side, away from the men. Elena and her children were huddled in the middle. She was slumped on her knees clutching her youngest children in her arms, trying to push the older ones behind her out of sight.
‘Oh, sweet Virgin, I knew this journey would end badly!’ She moaned, white-faced. ‘I knew!’
‘Sssh!’ Theresa tried to pull her to her feet, but she just sagged, like a sack of potatoes. ‘Don’t give them the satisfaction, Elena!’
So, she caught herself thinking, distantly. Is this how I go? Is this how the sea is going to “give” Sebastien back to me like the beggar woman said– by the end of an English bayonet?
How Luisa Cristina would enjoy that! She could get no end of social attention out of the tragic loss of a sister ‘murdered by the English’, even if she did lose the pension.
‘We’re going to die!’ the shoemaker’s wife howled. ‘We’re all going to DIIII-IIIIE-!’
The toddlers in her arms, appalled at their mothers cries, set off a frenzied howling of their own.
‘‘Ere!’ Theresa’s guard looked infuriated at the noise his prisoners were making. ‘Stow that row! Officer’s coming!’
Theresa was dimly aware that a tall, fair English officer had now boarded the Duyfken, rapier in hand. He looked up and down the line of prisoners with evident disfavour, before rapping out a sharp question in English Theresa couldn’t quite catch towards a startled sailor. On him shaking his head, he moved on, asked another.
‘You! Do you speak English?’ He frowned, and then added (as though pronouncing something vaguely distasteful) ‘Habby-lar You-sted Ingles?’
The man shook his head. A soldier roughly shoved him back, before grabbing another sailor by his shirt.
De Voorst moved forward, speaking rapidly in Dutch. The officer silenced him with a gesture that made him fall back, pale-faced and trembling.
The shoemaker’s wife had subsided into terrified sobs at the Marine shouting at her. But young children follow no orders when they are too young to understand – and both the children in her arms showed no signs of holding their peace. They were roaring more lustily than ever, the little boy smacking out wildly at anything – his mother’s arm, the soldier – in an attempt to make everything that scared him just go away…
‘By God, if I have to slap yer brats gobs shut for yer-’ The soldier threatened darkly.
That did it.
‘Don’t touch them!’ Theresa said sharply, in as correct an English as she could muster. ‘Can’t you see they are frightened?!’
She moved in between the shoemaker’s wife and the soldier, sheltering the huddled children behind her black muslin skirts. ‘You will leave them, soldier! Move to touch them again, and I will claw out your eyes-’
Theresa had expected violence, at this point. A blow from the musket, perhaps, or a fist to the stomach. What she hadn’t expected was for the startled soldier to gape at her as though she had grown a second head – or for the fair English officer’s eyes to suddenly snap towards her with a strange triumph.
He began to walk towards them.
‘Found something, have you, Perkins?’ He called out.
Too late, Theresa tried to fall back into the group, but the Marine’s hand shot out to seize her wrist.
‘Oh no, missy! You don’t get away as easy as that.’ He raised his voice. ‘This one speaks English, Lieutenant! Right little firecracker, too!’
‘Is that so?’ the lieutenant said coolly. His eyes rested on Theresa. ‘You speak English, madam?’
Theresa said nothing. She clamped her lips together and reached up for her veil, drawing it firmly over her face.
‘She does, sir!’ The Marine said quickly. ‘Heard her, sir. Threatened me, she did, sir.’
‘Is that so?’ The Lieutenant turned. ‘Why should she do that, Perkins?’
The soldier muttered something under his breath and shuffled his feet.
‘I asked you a question, Perkins.’
‘Said I’d hit the sprogs if they didn’t shut up, sir.’
‘Is that so?’ the Lieutenant said, with mild interest. ‘Very good, then. Carry on.’
The Marine grinned, and raised his musket butt. Elena let out a screech, trying to cover her children with her own body-
The lieutenant cupped his ear, theatrically. ‘Did you say something, Madam?’
‘I speak English.’ Theresa said desperately, seeing the musket butt still poised above Elena’s head. ‘I speak English! Please – don’t harm them!’
‘I thought that might be sufficient inducement. Very well. At ease, Perkins.’
He turned with a show of politeness towards Theresa. ‘I wonder if, madam, to begin with, you would be so good as to translate something for me. I fear things may prove…difficult for your companions unless we understand each other. You are agreeable?’
Theresa gritted her teeth together. ‘Yes,’ she grated out, in a voice choked with anger.
He raised his voice.
‘I am Lieutenant John Scarfield. By order of Governor Dix, gentlemen – and ladies - you are all under arrest. We do not take kindly to the arrival of enemy citizens in a time of war- ‘
‘-And in the face of your constant naval aggression in these waters-‘The lieutenant continued, disregarding Theresa’s expression of horror, ‘We have no choice but to charge you all with the intent to spread sedition and malice... ’
Voice shaking and half-stunned, Theresa translated. The explosion was instant.
‘Se ñor, we are poor families! We have nothing to do with- ‘
‘We aren’t at war! How can you do this?’
‘Bastard!’ The first mate lunged at Captain de Voorst, fists flying. ‘You knew this would happen! You knew! That’s why you- ‘
It was true – whilst De Voorst looked sullen, he didn’t look surprised. And it explained why he hadn’t paid his crew. Maybe he’d known he wouldn’t have to, once they were within sight of Saint -Martin.
‘Oh, the captain can be detained too,’ added Scarfield nonchalantly. ‘He entered flying the flag of Spain, after all. It’s only fair to assume a Spanish ship has a Spanish captain...’
He dabbed a handkerchief daintily to his nostrils. ‘Load the prisoners in the pinnace for going ashore – ‘
Theresa, for her part, was stunned. Granted, things could certainly have changed at home during her long journey – but from what she understood of court life in Madrid from her bored society friends, political decisions operated at a glacially slow pace. Certainly not fast enough to arm and equip an invading armada, even if they diverted the fleet from New Spain. England and Spain played at cat and mouse with each other all the time, but- constant naval aggression?
It didn’t make sense...
‘Where we taking them, sir? Only the gaol’s mighty crowded since we rounded up the town Spaniards…’
Townspeople? Theresa thought, dismayed. That would mean...Luisa. Her husband. Other innocent Spanish émigrés to Saint-Martin.
Things had evidently grown much worse since Jacinta’s nephew sailed so blithely from the harbour a few months before, with nothing but vague misgivings.
‘Aren’t there still some smugglers in there?’ Scarfield said sharply. ‘Hang them, and there’ll be enough room. I don’t recall I have anything further to say… Oh!’ He pointed a finger at Theresa, who had been about to follow. ‘Not her, Perkins.’
‘But sir! You said-‘
‘We have what we came for, don’t we? She’ll do. ’ He crooked a finger at Theresa. ‘You. I hope you will be reasonable, Miss…’ he eyed Theresa’s black dress. ‘Or should I say, Mrs…?’
He waited for her name. Theresa studiously ignored the pause, hands clenching and unclenching convulsively. I’m not giving you anything, Englishman, she thought, furiously.
‘I would rather be in gaol.’ she said frostily.
‘Oh, I’m sure you would.’ Scarfield nodded at Sergeant Perkins, who began roughly shepherding the women and children towards the Essex’s pinnace.’ But let me advise you to consider your position, madam. You are under arrest. You are an enemy citizen, almost certainly sent here in order to ferment turmoil and rebellion-‘
‘I am no such thing-’
‘Oh, I think you’ll find you are.’ Scarfield said languidly. ‘At least, all Saint-Martin thinks you are. And mob mentality is so refreshingly… simple, don’t you find? Why, I wouldn’t give tuppence for any Spanish life if, say, the crowd decided to attack the gaol. Or the governor gives orders to simply hang you all…’
He doesn’t have the power, was Theresa’s first thought. Then, swiftly following on that – Yes he does. Don’t be a fool.
Theresa began to panic, despite her attempt at bravado. There was something unpleasantly... reptilian about the calculating look in the unpleasant English lieutenant’s eyes; as though she was a gaming chip – a useful gaming chip, for now, but one that could be discarded at will.
And this was a game where this man held all the cards, she realised, with a sinking feeling. One word from him, and she’d be bundled off to join the wailing, weeping prisoners in the pinnace, to languish in Saint-Martin’s overcrowded gaol.
She met his gaze, trying to keep her voice from shaking. ‘And will...he do that?’
You, she meant, with her glance. Because this is all you, isn’t it?
Scarfield smiled. ‘Ah, we understand each other! That rather depends on the outcome of this mission, ma’am. Which we can now undertake with rather more confidence, thanks to you – ‘
‘Thanks to me?’
‘Yes. Just a trifling thing, but alas, none of my men speak Spanish. But since you had the grace to volunteer your services…’
He nodded at someone behind her.
‘Sir?’ A round-faced boy in a crisp blue inform saluted eagerly behind her.
‘Have our… guest secured in Petty Officer Maddox’s cabin, will you? And have Cole send word to Governor Dix that we have what we need. We’ll rejoin the fleet at Fort Amsterdam.’
‘What about the barque, sir?’
‘Oh, the Duyfken? Second Lieutenant Epsom can take her in. Prize-money should be rather decent, I think.’ He frowned, as the boy gaped at Theresa. ‘Look lively, Scrimshaw?’
He had the nerve to bow mockingly to Theresa as Lieutenant Scrimshaw hastily hurried her over the gangplank to the Essex. ‘We will speak again, Madam Spaniard.’
‘Come on, miss,’ the young lieutenant said awkwardly. ‘Best foot forward, eh?’
The last glimpse Theresa could catch of her fellow travellers – the brothers from the mountains, Elena, her children – was a sea of hopeless faces in the pinnace bristling with armed Marines. She looked after them as long as she could. Until the Essex and the English together swallowed her whole, like Jonah.
She didn’t know how long she sat in the stifling half-dark of the cramped cabin they locked her in – or at what point she simply rolled on her side to the narrow shelf that served as a bunk. She didn’t sleep. She stared up, unblinking, at the wooden beams until her eyes swam with hot, angry tears at the thought of the whole wretched business.
She should have kept her mouth shut. But that wouldn’t have done Elena or her poor children any good. At least, she had saved them a beating-
Only for them to be locked up in some filthy overcrowded jail cell ashore?
It was in the midst of such gloomy reflections that there came a tap at the door.
‘Er... Miss? Ma’am?’
The uncertain voice of the younger lieutenant came through the door. ‘I’m... I’ve been requested to take you to Lieutenant Scarfield, ma’am....’
The Essex’s stateroom was the usual picture of regulation Navy comfort; apart from a long cherrywood desk arranged like a judge’s throne towards one wall. Scarfield sat behind it, head bent over his papers. To all intents and purposes he was ignoring both her and fumbling, stammering Lieutenant Scrimshaw.
‘Sit.’ He said, not taking his eyes from the chart. ‘You can leave us, Scrimshaw.’
Theresa didn’t oblige him. She remained standing, even as Scrimshaw apologetically backed out.
‘My pardon, Señor,’ she said stonily, ‘A prisoner stands in the presence of her captor.’
‘Mm. Is that so.’ Scarfield didn’t as much as glance up at her.
Theresa curled her fingers into her palms, digging the nails in.
‘We were not at war when I sailed from Cádiz little more than a month ago. I believe I have the right to know my country’s crime-’
‘Your country’s crime? How melodramatic.’ Scarfield actually sounded amused. She hated him for it. ‘Interesting, however.’ He threw down his pen to look at her. ‘You really don’t know what is happening, do you?’
‘I know you hold hostage innocent men and women of Spain. I know you have taken me from the rest because I understand you-’
‘And can make yourself understood to your countrymen. Yes.’
‘My countrymen?’ Theresa’s voice rose. ‘What have “my countrymen” done to you, Señor? You have told me nothing. All I see is an army officer hounding a pack of frightened women and children, along with a few… a few pitiful farmers and fishermen!’
The lieutenant said nothing; just watched her.
‘I say,’ Scarfield said softly, ‘You are full of lies.’
‘What? No, I-‘
‘Evidently lies! ‘ Scarfield leant across the desk, his gaze hardening. ‘Because, Senora, you had the wit to arrive here on a ship flying the Spanish flag. Unlike other ships in these waters.’
‘Are you quite unaware there is barely a ship of the line left in the Carribbean?’ Scarfield demanded. And I am not just talking English ships, madam. I speak of the Dutch. The French. Anything that flies a different flag to your own. Dozens of heavily-armed military warships. And all sunk by your compatriots.’ He spat the words as if they were an insult. ‘Spanish ships, curiously, are left... unmolested. Nothing but safe passage and smooth journeys for them.’
Scarfield must have seen the confusion and doubt in her eyes, for he leaned forward over the desk.
‘I wish you could have seen a few of the bodies we pulled from the wrecks, Señora.’ He said softly. ‘Butchered. Like cattle. And the ones that live don’t fare much better. We couldn’t get a word out of the last survivor about what happened. He wouldn’t stop screaming. And pushing, with his hands -’ Scarfield mimicked the gesture, hands held before him as though keeping something at arm’s length. ‘I believe he’s pushing still, in the asylum. The holy sisters care for him.’
Scarfield straightened his back, and stalked towards the window. ‘I am a man of strategy, madam. I return like for like. This is the reason for this expedition. I mean to deal with it, whatever it is – pirates, privateers, Spain itself. You are a minor detail,’ he added, disdainfully. ‘Governor Dix believes our quarry will be willing to make terms. He, ah, requested a translator accompany us.’
A look of open irritation crossed his face.
Ah, Theresa thought, with grim satisfaction. He doesn’t like to admit he needs something from a Spanish woman his oh-so-correct British officers can’t supply.
‘Why me, sir?’ she enquired sweetly, maliciously deciding to twist the knife a little. ‘You have no Englishman on hand who is able to speak Spanish?’
Scarfield’s right hand began drumming impatiently on the cherrywood surface of his desk. Tap-tap, tap-tap...
‘Unavailable.’ He said curtly. ‘Petty Officer Maddox did speak Spanish – but he went down with the Monarch. You have your own damned countrymen and their precious “Maldito de Dios” to thank for your presence here-’
‘So it is pirates?’ Theresa flashed back, triumphantly. ‘You were very quick to judge it a Spanish enterprise, Señor Scarfield. I only hope, for your sake, you will not be proved wrong-‘
It had clearly crossed his mind too. In addition to the look of annoyance that crossed Scarfield’s face, there was a tiny flicker of – something else. Doubt. Uncertainty.
‘Enough of this!’ he snapped. ‘You know your purpose, and why. Don’t make me-‘
‘Change your mind?’ Theresa met his gaze. ‘You need me, Lieutenant. To make your terms with your pirates-’
Scarfield’s thin lips had all but vanished in his face, she noted, with a certain vicious delight. It was wrong of her, perhaps, but –
I don’t care.
‘You had better pray, madam, that you will not be proved wrong.’ He snarled. ‘Because if this is Spain’s doing rather than a parcel of rogues, I will not hesitate to string you and your confederates up like so much-‘
There was a timid rap at the door.
‘Sir?’ The uncertain voice of Lieutenant Scrimshaw came through the door. ‘We’ve reached Fort Amsterdam, Sir! The Thetis is signalling. She’s holding herself in readiness, along with the Gallant and the Saint Crispin-‘
Theresa took one look at Scarfield’s white-lipped look of fury and tensed. She hadn’t been meant to hear that.
‘You...!’ Scarfield took a deep breath. ‘I don’t have words for you, Scrimshaw. How you ever passed the Lieutenant’s exam is beyond me.’ He pushed Theresa unceremoniously towards the door. ‘Take the bloody Spaniard back to her cabin and lock her in. And keep your mouth shut, understand ?’
The little lieutenant actually flinched at the venom in Scarfield’s voice.
‘A- aye, sir!’
He took the instruction literally. He didn’t so much as drop a word until Theresa was back in her cabin before blinking at her, almost apologetically.
‘Sorry about this, ma’am,’ he said, uncertainly. ‘It’s...it’s not regulation-‘
‘No?’ Theresa said curtly, turning determinedly away from him. ‘I am sorry too.’ She had quite enough of Englishmen for the day. Just shut up, she thought silently. Just shut up and leave me alone...
Scrimshaw looked abashed.
‘I... don’t know if it makes any difference, but...’ he looked awkward. ‘I... I had midshipman Jones bring over your trunk, from the Duyfken. So you’d be more comfortable, Miss Señora – ma’am.’
Theresa stared at him, then down at her box which had been neatly stowed below the desk. AS though she were a guest, rather than a prisoner.
She wanted to shout. To scream. To throw things – preferably at Scarfield, but she’d settle for the stupid boy with his freckled face and meaningless attempts to be kind –
Before her convent education and years of practiced courtesy took over. A lady is always polite, no matter the circumstances.
‘...Thank you.’ She said, flatly. ‘That was a kind thought.’
It was almost disheartening to see how Scrimshaw’s face brightened at this reluctant platitude from a foreign prisoner. Praise must be scanty indeed aboard ship, if he was grateful for that...
She felt a twinge of pity.
‘No problem at all, ma’am!’ he chirruped, bright-eyed as a starling. ‘I’ll bring you your supper, later? I mean, you’re doing us a wonderful service, ma’am. If everything goes right, you’ll be able to talk to them, and we should be able to see off the trouble, and everyone gets to go home again...’
‘I’m a little tired.’ Theresa said meaningfully, interrupting his enthusiastic flow. It was true. She was wearied; almost to death it seemed. ‘If you don’t mind, Lieutenant....Scrim-?’ she paused.
‘I would rather sleep, for now.’
‘Right you are, ma’am!’ He went to close the door. ‘If you don’t mind my saying, ma’am – I’m very glad you’re here. Scarfield had a phrase book for me, but I couldn’t get my head around the verbs. Something awful at languages, ma’am.’
The door, finally, bolted shut, leaving her in blessed darkness. Theresa squeezed her eyes shut, glad of it. They hadn’t trusted her with a light. But she could see enough once her eyes had adjusted to grope her way to her trunk and open it.
Nothing seemed to be missing. Theresa hadn’t been a fool about sea travel; she’d sewn her valuables and what money she had tight into her stays. All there was in her trunk were a few books and her clothes –
Her hand closed on something cold and metallic at the bottom of the trunk. Jacinta’s gift. The sad-eyed portrait of the mother and child. She was surprised that it hadn’t been stolen for the sake of the silver. The British were thieves; everyone knew that. For a minute she heard Jacinta’s voice, echoing in her head.
‘You send me word the minute you’re safe on Saint-Martin, you hear? I’ll risk the padré for your sake; just to hear from you...’
Theresa couldn’t help it, Remembering. Jacinta had been right, after all.
Swallowing a sob that had formed in her throat, she tucked the silver portrait into her dress pocket, before lifting Sebastien’s miniature to her lips; another little ritual of reassurance.
‘Give me sweet dreams, my love,’ she whispered. ‘I need them. More than ever. ’
Chapter 4: The Ship is Hailed
In which Theresa dreams, the Essex finds its quarry, and Lieutenant Scarfield discovers things may be lost in translation
Alas! (thought I, and my heart beat loud)
How fast she nears and nears!
Are those her sails that glance in the Sun,
Like restless gossameres?
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Theresa’s imprisonment aboard the Essex lasted four days.
It might as well have been forty.
The time seemed endless. Scarfield did not trust her with a candle, doubtless thinking she might deliberately set herself and the ship alight. It was flattering as an estimate of her capacity for resentment; but it gave her very little to do in a windowless cabin. The only signs she had that time was passing at all was the tin plates of food the little lieutenant nervously proffered her – or the relentless clang of the Essex’s ships bell.
Frustratingly, there also seemed to be no sign of Scarfield’s “Maldito de Dios”. The Essex was in open sea now, flying British colours like a taunting incitement. They had long ago left the safety of Saint- Martin’s green shoreline. But there was still no ship on the horizon – pirate or merchantman, Spanish or otherwise. Whoever was out there, they weren’t watching for the Essex.
Without occupation, Theresa slept. Mostly from boredom. Being awake would mean she would have to think, and the circumstances were too dismal to think about. It made things bearable, being able to just pull the blankets over her head and pretend she was still aboard the Duyfken, waiting for land, dreaming of her husband, just like any other woman…
Except Sebastien seemed somewhat elusive of late. She could reach for him when awake - she tried to keep him by her in thought. But at night, or during her fitful sleep during the day, the little dark-eyed child from the old-fashioned miniature kept company with her constantly.
It was perplexing. Bewildering.
The child was always there. He never saw her; Theresa always seemed to hover, invisible, like some observant spirit. But there he was. Now in his mothers’ arms, now toddling, leading strings held in the grasp of a bored nurse.
She grew to watch the little dream-child with growing interest. The same way you care about a – a beloved character in a book, or a stage-play. Distant a relationship enough, but.. there emerges a strange need to know that all is well with them, regardless.
She didn’t know why her dream-self always hovered in the gallery, as though it were some ante-room of the subconscious. After a while, she longed to be able to cross into a different room – maybe follow the child somewhere else – but that never seemed to work. She always woke up whenever she tried, seemingly tethered to the dream-room like a pig’s bladder on a string.
After a while, she came to know the stiffly tapestried rooms in that old-fashioned gallery almost as well as her own childhood home. It was almost reassuring, to see the scowling conquistador in the steel cuirass glaring down at her from the wall. She could almost have counted the woven flowers in the upholstery.
Perhaps, she reasoned… perhaps she returned there in spirit because it was so clearly Spain, and so achingly familiar to her. For all it was a strange house – it was somewhere she might have visited, perhaps; a house her father or grandfather might have known.
But if that was so – why weren’t her dreams happier?
One scene in Theresa’s dreams showed bailiffs carrying away a carved cherrywood pianoforte that had stood in the corner, with a dealer brusquely tapping silverware to see whether it rang true.
And, as always, it was the wife who bore the brunt of their growing poverty. Sometimes the husband was there, raging as another token of wealth was carried away – but that wasn’t often. He appeared seldom in the dream, thank God. Theresa had disliked him on sight, the more so for the effect he had on his family. The dream-child was a frightened, withdrawn little thing when his father appeared to offer some rough form of affection – cuffing him about the ears like a fierce bear attempting to play with its cub, or idly pinching his cheek until the little boy began to cry. And then he would peevishly complain about ungrateful children and wives until Theresa wanted to box his ears the way he did his little sons’–
She wondered how often the cowed mother repeated that ritual of holding up her little son before the conquistador painting like an infant sacrifice, imploring – what? God? Fate? The grandfather? -to make her son better than his father.
She wondered when the boy began to understand what his mother was asking for, and why.
It was a dismal picture of infancy. Theresa thought of her own gentle, safe upbringing, and often had the sudden desperate urge to scoop the child up in her arms and lead him and his mother out. No matter where -anywhere but that dreary mausoleum of a house and that selfish brute of a husband. But the dream never let her, no matter how hard she tried. She was suspended in the cloying unhappiness of that place like a fly in amber.
But time did pass for them. In one half-doze, a surprised Theresa caught a glimpse of an older child (still recognisably the boy, but old enough to no longer wear infants’ petticoats) intently playing with a hunk of carved wood that vaguely resembled a toy boat. He was murmuring to himself with the intense gravity of a child lost in an adventure of his own making.
Then the scene would dissolve, and Theresa would see him perched on tiptoe on the altar-like sideboard set in front of the old admiral, passing a childish finger over the painted ships in the background as though sketching them into reality…
Who was he, the boy? she pondered, on waking from her latest uneasy half-doze. Was he just a figment of her imagination – some wistful dream of home that had been born from Jacinta’s parting gift? And in that case, why couldn’t she have made the poor child happier…
A sudden familiar tell-tale stickiness on her forearm cut into her thoughts. She sighed, and pulled at her sleeve.
The little crescent-moon marks of the beggar-woman’s nails had healed well, at first. They had barely been anything on the Duyfken. But no matter how often she bathed it (or salved it, or wrapped it in clean linen) the cuts would occasionally break open and bleed. Theresa had just.. accepted it, by now.
A tap at the door interrupted her thoughts.
‘Er… Missis de Barrós? Ma’am?’ Third Lieutenant Scrimshaw’s voice came faintly through the panelling. ‘Lieutenant Scarfield wants you up on deck.’ The key rattled as he fumbled with the lock.
Theresa’s eyes opened wide in surprise .
This was new. She hadn’t so much as seen the deck of the Essex since her removal from the Duyfken. ‘Have you sighted anything?’ she asked quickly, as he opened the door. ‘Is there –‘
‘Haven’t sighted a thing, ma’am,’ Scrimshaw said cheerfully. It was evident Scrimshaw seemed to feel his prisoner-watching duties a welcome relief from… whatever his actual duties were. Theresa more than half-suspected Scarfield had given him the job of jailer in order to keep him out of the way. ‘Calm waters and fair skies as far as the eye can see.’
‘I thought your Lieutenant Scarfield’s pirates scorched British ships from the sea as soon as they put out?’
‘Not a single sail,’ Scrimshaw said – a little nervously. He reached out to touch the wooden beam overhead for luck. ‘And we… we don’t know they’re pirates, ma’am.’
‘No? But no sign of… whatever they are?’
‘Not so much as a fisherman’s sail, ma’am. Think the Lieutenant’s a little… annoyed. Normally there’s no hesitation with the damn Span-’ he caught Theresa’s eye, and stopped. ‘With… whoever it is. But… they’ve been sighted all along the Spanish Main, so they may have sailed away from these waters –‘
‘They may have fled the Lieutenant?’ Theresa blinked in the light like an owl as she emerged from her cabin. ‘Hah. I should imagine that puts his fleet in some difficulty, having no quarry to chase-‘
Scrimshaw flushed. ‘W-what fleet?’ he mumbled. ‘There’s – there’s no fleet…’
Scrimshaw would never have made a card player. You could almost read the number and suit of every card he had, reflected in his face. He sagged at Theresa’s expression. ‘Please … forget what I said that day, ma’am!’ he said wretchedly, ‘I wasn’t supposed to say anything about the Thetis or the other ships! They’re rounding the French side of Saint-Martin to rejoin us if we can draw the Spanish in. If Scarfield thinks I’ve told you-‘
‘You haven’t.’ Theresa said soothingly. She liked Scrimshaw, but she had to agree with Scarfield in one particular – he shouldn’t have passed the Lieutenant’s exam. Good lord, the poor boy was spilling half the secrets of Scarfield’s plan in a desperate attempt to not let her know anything. ‘You haven’t told me anything, Lieutenant Scrimshaw, and I won’t repeat it to that bestia of an officer.’
She slipped her arm through the crook of his elbow as they ascended upwards into the sunlight. ‘There, escort me like a gentleman to your Lieutenant Scarfield.’
Scrimshaw still looked confused. ‘You have been talking to me of your home, yes?’ Theresa prompted, tactfully. ‘How much you miss it?’
Scrimshaw looked nervously upwards as they promenaded towards the quarterdeck. ‘What, Gravesend, ma’am? Not much to miss. My pa runs The Prince of Orange inn there…’
‘I thought I said no dawdling, Scrimshaw!’ Scarfield’s electric blue eye had fallen on them with evident displeasure. ‘And here I find you lounging along with a prisoner like you’re promenading in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens?’
Scrimshaw quailed, and dropped Theresa’s arm as if it were a hot coal. ‘Beg pardon, sir!’
Theresa couldn’t bear to see how crushed he looked. I’m sorry, little lieutenant. But you’re better scolded and sneered at, she thought. Better than being hanged because you told me too much. Scarfield would string you up without a second thought.
‘You wanted me, Señor Scarfield?’ she said shortly.
Scarfield’s expression went cold. ‘That’s Lieutenant.’ He corrected. ‘Endeavour to remember my title, and I shall endeavour to remember yours.’ He crooked a finger. ‘Come here.’
Oho, a spiteful voice in the back of Theresa’s voice murmured, as she and Scrimshaw ascended the stairs to the quarterdeck. That had annoyed him. Scrimshaw had said the Lieutenant was already “put out” by the lack of enemy ships. He had evidently called her up merely to vent his spite a little.
‘I thought that we would have found our naval aggressors by now.’ He said flatly. ‘Your compatriots are cowards, madam-’
If he was hoping she would respond with anger or indignation, he was disappointed. Theresa assumed her best ‘piously attentive’ face that she had used to use at convent school. Demure. Unruffled.
‘Perhaps then they aren’t… soldiers?’’ she suggested, innocently. ‘They are - perhaps - just robbers? As I said-’
‘They aren’t pirates.’ Scarfield grated out. ‘Jackals quarrel, but they don’t eat their own kind.’ He eyed Theresa dispassionately. ‘Tell me… do you know any stories of Spanish ships in these waters?’
Theresa blinked, bemused by the sudden turn of the conversation.
‘Your pardon, Señor?’ she said cautiously.
At her blank expression, Scarfield shrugged. ‘So, the name “Silent Mary” means nothing to you? then. Pity.’ He smiled, unpleasantly. ‘If you so much as whisper the name to the Spaniards on Saint-Martin, they fall to their knees quaking and muttering...’
Theresa searched her memory, but nothing came to mind.
‘It means nothing to me, Lieutenant.’ She said coldly. ‘I am a stranger to the islands. I don’t know what stories they tell. I haven’t even set foot on land yet,’ she added, bitterly.
‘All the better for you, then.’ Scarfield shut up his spyglass with a nasty little snap. ‘Still, if they do appear– I think a blindfold is in order. We don’t want you beating out your own brains on sight of them now, do we? I’ve been told a captain did that on one of the French ships they attacked…’
He strolled off down the quarterdeck, apparently satisfied at the apprehension that had played across Theresa’s dark eyes.
‘What?’ she muttered aside to Third Lieutenant Scrimshaw, who looked uncomfortable. ‘Why must I be blindfolded? What is your Lieutenant Scarfield playing at?’
Scrimshaw looked away, avoiding her gaze. His recent chastisement had made him shut up all confidence, like a shy oyster. ‘I – I really cannot…cannot say, ma’am. He took off his cocked hat and fiddled worriedly with the brim. ‘I mean- I’m not permitted to tell you, as you’re a –‘his voice faded into an apologetic mumble.
‘Well…’ Scrimshaw swallowed. ‘Please don’t take offence, ma’am, but… you are a, erm… civilian. And a foreign civilian, so technically you are still a – ‘
He trailed off on seeing Theresa’s expression.
‘Oh, a prisoner of war? Is that it?’ Theresa’s eyes narrowed. ‘I thought we were intent on stopping a war. Or is your lieutenant so ambitious he intends to make war on Spain outright because of some band of lawless -?’
‘Ssh! It’s – it’s not that, ma’am. There’ve been stories about these Spaniards. Foolish stories.’ He added quickly. ‘The surviving sailors were half-crazed with heatstroke and thirst, babbling about all sorts of things…But people believed them. That’s why the Spanish islanders won’t help. Didn’t matter what the Lieutenant offered them. That’s why he shut them up in prison…’
‘How… persuasive.’ Theresa said with distaste. She pondered. ‘But no-one was willing to help? No-one at all?’
‘As I said,’ Lieutenant Scrimshaw said stiffly. ‘There were… stories.’
Oh, I’m sure there were, Theresa thought privately. But…every old salt has a grisly tale like that. She’d grown up in a port town. If people believed every tale a thirst-maddened sailor told them of their hallucinations, no-one would ever set foot off land in the first place.
Besides, sailors like telling tall tales. Who wants to listen to dull stories about how there’s nothing to see but blue water for two months?
But...she thought about the hopeless, fearful faces of the families held captive. Elena’s children. And then she thought about her brother-in-law Pedro; by no means a brave or valiant man. He wasn’t even particularly superstitious, unless you counted his fanatical belief that the gaming dice would one day bring him untold riches.
What could be so terrible about the mysterious Spanish ship that no-one would even try to free themselves and their families by offering themselves to Scarfield’s enterprise?
No, there was something more to this, Theresa realised. And if the officers of the Inglés were taking such an interest that they were forced to take a Spanish woman’s assistance...
‘Is this… is this how they got their name, the “Maldito de Dios?’ she asked, thoughtfully.
‘Ma’am?’ Scrimshaw was staring at the horizon, clearly trying to pretend he hadn’t heard her.
‘You know… the “Accursed of God?”’
Lieutenant’s Scrimshaw’s face was a picture. He had flushed up to his ears, suddenly looking acutely uncomfortable under his horsehair wig.
‘Well?’ To Theresa’s annoyance, Lieutenant Scarfield had now strolled within earshot. He raised his colourless eyebrows at Scrimshaw, who stepped back, apologetically.
‘We will discuss this later, Scrimshaw.’ Lieutenant Scarfield said smoothly, with poisonous niceness. ‘Dismissed.’
Scrimshaw cast a stricken look at Theresa as he descended to the main deck. She tried not to feel a pang of inward reproach. He was only a boy – and he had been as kind to her as his position allowed, under the circumstances.
‘He didn’t tell me anything,’ she said, shortly, to cover her confusion. ‘You needn’t –‘
‘I don’t waste breath, much less punishment, on young fools like Scrimshaw,’ Scarfield said lazily. ‘He’ll die soon enough. The service has a way of weeding out the liabilities.’ He glanced at Theresa. ‘Besides, he can’t tell you anything.’ He gave another of his insufferable English smirks. ‘And I won’t.’
‘Then why I am to be blindfolded?’ Theresa said bluntly. She was growing tired of Scarfield’s self-complacent little speeches. ‘Do you blindfold all your interpreters? Or only the ones you think will scare easily with your children’s stories?’
Scarfield’s cold blue eyes looked over her, dismissive. ‘Why should I explain myself to you? I thought your people believed in blind faith, Señora…’
Oh, how she hated him for the acrid distaste with which he said ‘your people.’
‘Mock me if you like,’ Theresa said icily. ‘But I would prefer it if I wasn’t going in blind, Mr Scarfield. In any sense of the word.’
It was worth it to see the brief resentment that flashed in the lieutenant’s eyes at her deliberate foregoing of his title. ‘That’s Lieutenant Scarfield, if you please,’ he snapped, stepping forwards in order to loom threateningly over her. ‘And I might remind you, madam, that there are far less comfortable ways for you to assist in this enterprise. A few nights in irons in the brig might make you less curious-’ His fingers bit into her arm.
Theresa bit back the urge to shake him off, looking up at him. There. Beneath that brittle English porcelain politeness… she could see the manner of man he was. Chip away at that cheap glaze of polished manners, and he was just a brute.
But it was perhaps… politic to let him think she was cowed. She backed away. ‘I have no more questions.’
‘Good.’ Scarfield looked triumphant; happy she was cowed into obedience. ‘I have written out what you are to say. You will find a fair copy in your quarters so you may, aha’- he coughed and smirked, as though making a witty remark. ‘So you may learn your part, as it were.’ His tone hardened. ‘There will be no deviation - you understand, Señora? If I even for one moment suspect you say anything in your native tongue that strays from what I have instructed you to say…’ He glanced significantly upwards at the yardarm. ‘A ‘long drop and a sudden stop’ will be the very least I can offer you.’ He let go, his point made; nodding to a pair of Marines stationed below.
He obviously enjoyed his inflated power as the informal naval general of Saint-Martin, Theresa thought bitterly, staring with loathing at Scarfield’s uniformed back. Under normal circumstances, a mere lieutenant would surely not have risen so high in the service. The splintered British shipwrecks littering the sea lanes had clearly proved an unlooked-for opportunity for promotion - for an ambitious, unscrupulous man.
She sighed as she heard the key turn in the door with a sharp snap. Well. Her freedom might be limited, but she had discovered some things at least. In a way, Scarfield had answered her question.
This was a power play. She wasn’t just a simple translator – she was a hostage; a puppet Scarfield could wave at his opponents. See what happens to your innocent civilians if you cross me…
But that meant they were frightened. Badly frightened too, if Lieutenant Scrimshaw’s discomfort was anything to go by.
Theresa had privately thought all along that it was more likely to be a couple of privateers ships - full of jeering, leering rogues that preyed on anything. But the more she thought about it, the more the list of casualties seemed unusual. Taking on heavily-armed foreign ships of the line? What privateer or pirate would be mad enough to try that?
And the facts were puzzling. This ship, or ships, left nothing but death, gibbering survivors and splintered matchwood in their wake – but, strangely, abstained from attacking ships flying the Spanish flag.
That didn’t square with the behaviour of a pirate, unless it was some strangely patriotic one. And then of course, there were the superstitious rumours swirling around about the “Accursed of God” …
It wasn’t cold in the airless little wooden box they called a cabin, but Theresa shivered nonetheless, thinking about it.
Still - what was the alternative? Rot in a Saint-Martin gaol until Scarfield decided to execute his “prisoners-of-war”?
She thought back to the frightened wails of the children as they’d been bundled into the rowboat with their mother. Her jaw hardened as she stared down at Scarfield’s handwriting.
Busy. She had best keep busy.
Picking up the ink pot, she dipped her quill and began to translate. Her pen nib made hard, sharp downward strokes, perceptibly digging into the paper as she wrote, but she finished her task – and sat there in the half-light, reading it over and over until the words no longer registered as having meaning for her.
I am commanded by Lieutenant John Scarfield, acting as Lieutenant General Scarfield –
Acting as Lieutenant-General! Theresa thought scornfully. No wonder Scarfield was enjoying this so much. He got to play commander.
- of-His Majesty’s Ship Essex, to act as translator so an accommodation may be-reached-pending-the cessation of hostilities against the Isle of Saint Martin and British territories, and to negotiate a settlement in the face of your unprovoked attacks on legitimate sea traffic from said Isle of Saint Martin -
It all sounded so much drivel to Theresa.
Surely, none of this was going to matter. Scarfield was wrong. It would probably turn out to be some rogue Portuguese privateers trying to strike lucky who would be scared off at first sight of the Essex. She might as well have been translating children’s nursery rhymes, or an old recipe for bread…
Until, for the second time that day, there came a tap at the door that proved Theresa wrong.
‘S-señora?’ Scrimshaw’s voice sounded very faint – and very frightened. ‘You’re – you’re wanted, on the quarterdeck.’
Theresa’s stomach lurched. ‘Is it-?’
‘Yes miss. They – they found us.’
There were two blank-faced Marines accompanying Scrimshaw this time when Theresa was let out. One of them was holding fetters.
‘I’m … I’m sorry about this, ma’am,’ Scrimshaw mumbled miserably, as the Marine advanced towards her. ‘Lieutenant’s orders. He said to make sure you were held fast- ‘
Theresa tried to shrug nonchalantly as the irons closed around her wrists.
‘I’m a prisoner, aren’t I?’ she said briefly. ‘Prisoners aren’t supposed to be able to escape.’
‘And the blindfold, Scrimshaw.’ Scarfield was watching from the upper deck.
‘Sir?’ Scrimshaw coughed. ‘Er, is that really –‘
‘Are you arguing with me, Scrimshaw?’
‘No, sir. ‘ Scrimshaw wretchedly moved forward, with what looked like a spare black stock in his hands – probably hastily pulled from his own uniform. ‘Um - if you’ll just go up above, ma’am – I’ll blindfold you up there. Easier. And you can still climb the stairs…’
Theresa decided not to miss the opportunity. She let her guards escort her up to the deck of the Essex, eyes fixed ahead so she could seize on anything she could fix her eyes on.
At first, hasty glance, there was nothing but a grey cloud on the horizon, marked by a squat… black something on the horizon. It had been robbed of its mainmast, a tangle of crazed-looking ratlines and ragged sail hanging precariously between the deck and sky.
‘Is that-‘Theresa breathed.
‘They’re bearing down fast,’ Scrimshaw said urgently. ‘Blindfold!’ The world went black.
‘Sorry, ma’am…’ she heard Scrimshaw swallow, nervously. ‘But believe me, it’s for the best. I’m not sure you’ll want to see this next part…’
‘What next part?’
‘We hail ‘em, that’s what.’ A Marine behind her growled. ‘And then it’s your cue, missy…’
Oh hell, really?
Theresa had a growing feeling that Scarfield’s plan was going to end badly. Pirate, privateer (or even, as Scarfield believed, Spanish navy) she didn’t believe her halting translation was likely to stop anything. Privateers did as they pleased with their letters of marque to protect them. They could always claim they had no knowledge of the events on land.
And pirates - pirates wouldn’t care either way.
But, Theresa tried to reason, if this all was a declaration of war by Spain – surely they would at least be honour-bound to defend their citizens ? She knew Saint-Martin was a sore point, belonging as it did to the French and Dutch. But it had once been Spanish territory, in Columbus’ day. It wasn’t beyond speculation that there’d be some petty local tussle for it.
In which case, they should know what the consequences had been for the unlucky few on Saint-Martin, Theresa thought grimly.
She gripped the carved wooden balcony of the quarterdeck, trying to drum up some tattered remnants of courage. Unfortunately, what remained seemed to have decided to beat a hasty retreat. Her hands were shaking. The blindfold, unfortunately, was closely-woven, so she could glimpse nothing through the fabric.
She was prodded forward, like a reluctant child being pushed centre-stage in a school play.
There was dead silence.
Apart from the eerie creaking and groaning of the strange ship’s timbers and the alarmed mutterings of the English soldiers behind her, Theresa couldn’t hear a sound.
‘Go on, woman,’ hissed Scarfield, from behind her. ‘Say your piece.’
Like a child, Theresa found herself trying to distance herself from the words, repeating the speech in a flat monotone. ‘I-am-commanded-by Lieutenant-John-Scarfield,-acting-as-Lieutenant--General-Scarfield-of-His-Majesty-George-the-Second’s-Navy-commander-of-the-ship-Essex-to-act-as-translator-so-an-accomodation-may-be-reached-pending-the-cessation-of-hostilities-against-the-Isle-of-Saint-Martin-and-your-unprovoked-attacks-on-legitimate-sea-traffic-from-said-Isle-of-Saint-Martin-‘
Theresa broke off, dismayed, as a rough voice scornfully interrupted, echoing over the water to her.
‘What, the English need a woman to speak for them?’ There was a ripple of hollow laughter from the unseen vessel in front of her. ‘They are as ignorant as they are cowardly.’
It was then that Theresa, too late, realised why she was foolhardy – and why no right-minded islander had volunteered for this thankless task.
If they were pirates, well – the outcome wouldn’t change no matter what she did. But to the unseen ship and the crew - if they were Navy men - she must look like an ally of the Inglés. A turncoat. Even, perhaps, a traitor.
Appalled, she did the only thing she could think of, recklessly disregarding Scarfield’s warning. ‘Please.’ She said rapidly, hastily tacking a question to the end of her prepared speech. ‘Are you Spanish officers?’
‘Is it…working?’ Scarfield murmured. His usual barking voice came out as a subdued croak. ‘They’ve gone quiet…’
The jeers had died away. There was a sudden abrupt silence, filled with a dim confused muttering that Theresa couldn’t quite catch across the distance between vessels.
Had she been able to listen, she would have heard a curious conversation.
‘What did she say?’
‘Bah, some nonsense about cessation of hostilities – as if el Capitán is likely to –‘
‘No, idiota, the other part! She asked if we were Spanish officers.’
‘Ignore it. It’s just some trick of the English. She’s probably English.’
‘But that is a Cádiz accent…’ A voice said wonderingly. ‘I would know it anywhere…’
Theresa, afraid that Scarfield would work out she had added an unauthorised gloss to his text, began again, raising her voice to carry better. ‘I-am-commanded-by-by-Lieutenant-John-Scarfield, -acting-as-Lieutenant-General…I have to keep talking,’ she said into the silence. ‘They will kill me if I don’t. Please… Is anyone there a Spanish officer?’
Scarfield heard the intonation of a question, despite Theresa’s attempts to keep her voice disinterested. He seized her by the arm, roughly. ‘Questions, madam? That wasn’t what we agreed-‘
‘No one answered. I spoke your message and asked if there was a Spanish officer!’ Theresa said angrily. ‘That is all!’
‘A Spanish officer-?!’ Scarfield hissed through his teeth, as though she was being unbearably stupid. ‘Oh, I had forgotten the blindfold. Your niceties are wasted, woman. They will not answer you. They are- ‘
And then, to both his and Theresa’s surprise, an answering hail came across.
‘I was-’ the voice paused and then corrected itself. ‘I am on officer of Spain, Señora. Tell that beast of an Englishman he may treat with me until the Capitán comes to “make terms” with him.’
There was another ripple of sinister laughter from the crew. Theresa didn’t like that. Or the ironic note at the phrase “make terms”. It sounded more like “slit throats”. But – the voice, whilst dubious, had an undertone of courtesy Theresa hadn’t expected when addressing her.
And the response had thrown Scarfield off-balance. He was afraid – irritated and alarmed at half the conversation being out of his power, and uncertain of what course to take next. He had fallen back, to murmur urgently in the helmsman’s ear.
Good. Theresa thought. For now, Scarfield didn’t know what to do. She needed to take advantage of that while she had the chance.
‘He says he is an officer and will listen to you,’ she said quickly. ‘Do you wish me to repeat the message?’
Scarfield released his iron grip on her arm, pushing her forward again. ‘Give it ten minutes to the hour,’ he murmured, under his breath to himself, before raising his voice. ‘You may.’
The voice, although hoarse (and strangely… hollow), spoke up again – clearer, as though they had now pressed to the front to get a better view. It now sounded faintly concerned. ‘You are a captive, Señora?’
‘I-am-commanded-by Lieutenant-General-Scarfield- Yes! Because of the raids on foreign ships! This mad Englishman is arresting Spanish citizens and threatens us with the rope.’ Theresa said hurriedly. ‘He says he will execute-‘
‘He will execute no-one, after today.’ The voice said sharply. ‘My word on that, Señora. El Capitán will see to it.’
Theresa almost went weak at the knees with relief. She hadn’t dared to hope the vessel could be friendly until now. ‘Thank God,’ she said, fervently. ‘I place myself under your protection, Señor. But I should warn you –he split up his fleet after we left Fort Amsterdam. I think he means to ambush-‘
There was a sudden bloom of pain from the back of her scalp, and the sound of ripping lace. Scarfield wasn’t stupid. He had finally realised there was more taking place in the conversation than met the eye – especially when he heard “Amsterdam”. He seized her mourning veil in his clenched fist, practically hauling her back by her widow’s cap. She gasped, trying to pull away from him, stop the pain -
‘You will continue with the piece I prepared!’ Scarfield practically hissed into her ear, through the tattered remnants of her veil. ‘No additions! Should you happen to forget our bargain again, Señora, I will-’
There was a sudden cry of audible anger from the Spanish crew – and the unpleasant, rasping noise of unsheathed steel.
‘Er. Sir. With respect, I think… maybe you should let the lady alone? I don’t think they like you doing that-’ Scrimshaw’s voice came pleadingly, from somewhere behind Theresa’s shoulder.
‘Oh! They don’t like that?’ Scarfield snarled. There was precious little left of his officer’s veneer now – he held Theresa fast by the neck by one hand, shaking her like a puppet. A terrier, worrying a rat in his jaws, Theresa thought, and squeezed her eyes shut. ‘What, you think those - those things are… what, gentlemen?’
‘More than you.’ The same voice who had addressed Theresa spoke – although this time, to everyone’s shock, in fluent, disdainful English. ‘We are not brutes, Señor, who have not the wit to learn another language. We see you, Inglés. We see you clear.’
It was at that moment that the screams began, below their feet.
‘Ah!’ The voice said, with a grim satisfaction. “Aqui esta el Capitán…’
Chapter 5: Theresa's Negotiation
In which Theresa meets the Maldito de Dios and their captain...
Lady Anne: Villain, thou know’st no law of God nor man.
No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity.
Richard Gloucester: But I know none, and therefore am no beast.
Richard III, Act I Scene ii
Theresa would remember the screams she heard that night for a long time. She had heard men cry out in pain before; wounded or sick sailors were often unloaded like so many bundles of bloodstained blanket at Cadiz after seeing action. But she had never heard the high-pitched, shrill hare’s shriek of men in blind terror – or the faint grisly, bubbling noises they made… afterwards.
It would have been terrible had she been free and able to see something of what caused it.
But being held blindfolded and pinioned made it ten times worse – well-nigh unbearable. It was like the cries of the damned echoing up from Hell itself, a few planks below beneath her feet. She began to struggle in earnest, panic overtaking her.
‘Boarders below deck, sir!’
Frustrated, Scarfield shoved her away, turning towards his Marines. She almost sprawled headlong across the deck.
‘What… how?!’ He snarled. ‘Hold your ground, men! Hold! Fight them off! Await the Thetis! You know your orders!’
If boarding parties had invaded below, then the gun crews were probably fighting for their lives below decks. And losing, with those horrible screams…
But it was a fatal mistake for the lieutenant to turn away from the adversaries already poised in front of him. There was a hoarse, terrible yell from the strange crew-
‘Ma’am!’ Scrimshaw was suddenly by her side, trying to pick her up. ‘Get up – you’ve got to get up…’
He sounded more like a panic-stricken child on the verge of sobbing.
‘I can’t! My hands-‘
‘I don’t have the key! Sergeant Ennis holds -’ Scrimshaw truly was sobbing now. ‘Oh, hell!’
He managed to drag her half to her feet, and urged her a few paces forwards, before dragging her down into a crouch. ‘Stay here!’
Theresa felt the brush of the ship’s wheel against her arm. Scrimshaw had tugged her into the narrow space between the helm and the carved wooden balustrade of the quarterdeck. It was scanty enough shelter, but it offered somewhat more protection than the furious battleground of the deck than open ground. ‘We’ll fight them off, ma’am. Don’t you worry,’ he said fervently. ‘The Thetis should be here soon, we’ll see ‘em gone. I’ll come and get you when it’s all over-’
‘Wait! Please, loosen my blindfold!’ Theresa said urgently – just a fraction too late, as Scrimshaw leapt away. She could hear him unsheathing his sword as he took the steps at a run, towards the sounds of battle.
There was a muffled roar and the recoil of a cannon from below – one of the gun crews at least, had managed to fire on the Spanish ship. Jolted, Theresa threw her arms over her head, trying to make herself as small as possible.
Perhaps it was simply the stifling blindfold that made everything so much worse? The crack of rifles and the smell of black powder had mingled with a sharp, metallic tang she recognised from walking past the abattoir district. Spilt blood.
What should she pray for? She wondered despairingly. The Thetis to arrive in the nick of time? For the Spanish crew to triumph? She scarcely knew any more.
There was another terrible high-pitched scream. A fleshy tearing sound. The smash of glass – perhaps a lantern.
Seventeen, Theresa thought disconnectedly to herself. That’s how old Third Lieutenant Scrimshaw had told her he was. Just seventeen.
Don’t let him be brave. She prayed, from her cramped position almost beneath the ships wheel. Let him hide, let him hide away and stay safe. He’s a boy, not a hero in a storybook…
It might only have been a few minutes. For Theresa it seemed like an eternity. But eventually the noises, such as they were, came shuddering to a halt. No more groans or cries. Not even the sound of pistol shot or steel. Just the creak of the deck timbers underfoot, and the pacing of unknown feet. Murmuring that was no longer in English.
The Essex had been taken.
Theresa realised despairingly that this was no ordinary military engagement. She had understood that officers normally at least spared their own rank, preferring to take them as prisoners of war for the prize money. It was a small courtesy that saved them from bloodier treatment in the hands of the enemy. But this? This hadn’t been …ordinary. This had been slaughter, pure and simple.
There were footsteps coming towards her, tramping up the steps to the quarterdeck.
‘Where was she? The woman?’
‘On the quarterdeck, I think. There, hiding near the wheel.’
‘Que? A widow?’
No use in trying to avoid notice. They had seen her. And if the way they treated the English was anything to go by…
Oh Sebastien, Theresa thought, dimly. I think I’m coming back to you, my love. Sooner than I thought I would.
Oddly, it was the thought of him that gave her some comfort. It was a steadying thought – something certain, at least. She might not be able to choose many things about how this played out, but at worst… there was always the blue of the sea, and Sebastien.
She concentrated. Sunlight in fair hair. Sébastien, turning around, as if to wait for her…
It gave her the strength to rise to her knees, feeling for the balustrade. The footsteps stopped. There was a murmur of surprise from the voices below her. ‘Look, she is bound – ‘
‘And blindfolded. Ah, that explains it.’ A different voice said in a wry undertone. ‘It is not Gui’s winning personality and pre-possessing looks that make her so polite –‘
Theresa briefly – foolishly - found herself wondering which language to reply in. Pointless, speaking English now! There were no men alive to hear her, or answer if she did.
‘Is it all over?’ she asked, numbly, eventually deciding on Spanish.
‘Señora?’ There was a pause. When they next spoke, it was the respectful voice from the parley across the decks. ‘Yes. It is over. You have no more to fear from them.’
Ah, but what about you? Theresa thought. Groping, she found the edge of the rail and hauled herself to her feet. Fragments of old deportment lessons flitted through her mind. Stand up straight, Theresa, tuck in your spine! Head up! Show them how well you can die! ‘I am ready, Señor. Make it quick.’
There was a pause.
‘Make… it…quick-?’ The voice caught her meaning, sounding a little taken aback. ‘Señora, you misunderstand our intent. We do not mean to - ‘
‘Forgive me for doubting your intent,’ Theresa said tightly. Her legs were beginning to tremble from the delayed shock. Thank heaven for the disguise of petticoats. ‘But the crew-‘
‘They were English,’ the voice said matter-of-factly. There was a shrug in there, as though to say “they were cockroaches.”. ‘You are not. And we do not kill honest citizens of Spain- ‘
‘Honest citizens,’ another voice added darkly. ‘You don’t know that she is honest. This could still be a trick-’
‘That will be for el Capitán to decide-’
‘You mean to bring her to el Capitán?’ There was a low whistle. ‘He will spit fire! You know how he is about-’
‘You may have forgotten that you are an officer of Spain, Magda, but I have not. And neither will el Capitán. He knows his duty, as do I. The lady-’ the word was stressed, pointedly. ‘asked for the protection of Spain. Who are you to refuse it to her?’
A hand gingerly brushed her sleeve. ‘This way, Señora. I will conduct you to el Capitán. He - he will know what to do…’
‘Please – ‘Theresa burst out, desperately. ‘Will you not remove my blindfold? I – I should at least like to see in order to – to thank you…’
There was a peculiar silence. It lasted some time, and was punctuated only by what sounded like the other officer laughing softly under his breath.
‘Yes, do let her thank you, Gui,’ he said mockingly. ‘My faith, it will be better than a play when she does-‘
‘ I regret, Señora – the officer’s voice said eventually. ‘It may be better for you to… remain as you are. For now. Until el Capitán has decided-’ He broke off.
Whether I’m to live or die, Theresa decided, resignedly. It was too late. They must think her part of the bait. And why shouldn’t they? She’d been with the English, after all. Apparently helping them.
It didn’t strike her as odd until later that, when guiding her, the unseen officer took the utmost care only to touch her sleeve. He instinctively avoided her hand. The other officer took care not to approach her at all, following at a distance behind.
But even that wasn’t the strangest part.
An uncanny hush followed them through the murmur of the crew as she was guided along the deck. Evidently they hadn’t expected to find a fellow countrywoman on board, whatever they were, but…
Why were they so quiet?
‘Please –‘ she said, anxiously, growing more frightened. She would almost have preferred leers and curses. They were at least to be expected under circumstances such as this. The strange deathlike silence made her fears sprout like mushrooms; growing into monstrous shapes in the darkness. ‘Please, let me see where you’re taking me-‘
No reply. There was a strange, muted sigh from the collected Spanish crew. Theresa felt someone reach out and brush her skirts, almost reverently, with outstretched fingertips-
She flinched away, alarmed. The officer cursed under his breath and struck out.
‘¡Eh!’ he snarled. ‘What are we, beasts? Keep your fingers to yourself!’
‘Apologies, señora,‘ he added. ‘They mean no disrespect...’
Theresa could do no more than nod, mouth dry with fear.
Think of Sebastien, she told herself. Don’t think about where you are –Oh God, why won’t they let me see their faces? Are they pirates after all? Is that it? No, stop it! Stop thinking about it. Sebastien. Think of Sebastien. Fair hair in sunlight, and that smile of his…
And then, to her shock, she heard an English voice she didn’t think she’d hear again.
‘Please! I don’t know! We had sealed orders! No-one said…’ Third Lieutenant Scrimshaw’s voice was a shrill whimper. ‘P… please, I don’t-‘
‘You don’t know.’ A hoarse voice growled. ‘Sí, I know that. Every time we capture one of your ships we hear it! “Oh, please, Capitán, I do not know!” I am tired of hearing what you Inglés do not know-’
The officer towing Theresa along coughed respectfully, as though to discreetly attract attention.
‘What is it, Lesaro?’ the voice said irritably. ‘I haven’t touched the boy yet. He hasn’t stopped snivelling-‘
‘The English had a hostage on board, Capitán. Translating for them. They wanted to make terms-’
There was a snort. ‘So? Slit his throat with the rest. We make no terms-’
Theresa shut her eyes behind her blindfold. Sebastien, she prayed, silently. I’m coming to you, my love…
Theresa was gently nudged forward. ‘It is a Spanish hostage, Capitán. A lady.’
There was a grunt of surprise from the unseen captain in front of her.
Theresa still blinded, saw nothing: but she could feel herself being narrowly weighed up, for a long minute. Then…
‘No.’ the voice said flatly. ‘It is a trick. Some trick of the Inglés-‘
‘There is no mistake, Capitán. She spoke to us.’ The mocking officer had joined in, from somewhere behind Theresa’s left ear. ‘No Englishwoman speaks Spanish that well.’
‘Oh, so you heard her speak?’ Theresa heard limping footsteps approach. There was an audible sneer. ‘You are sure then, that this is not some English boy in petticoats?’
That was it. Theresa had had enough. Scarfield had been bad enough, but now this? From her own countrymen? Her frayed temper gave way.
‘I am not English.’ She said sharply, in her crisp, best-society Spanish. ‘Neither am I a boy in petticoats, Capitán. And if you are the kind of man who now commands in the Spanish Navy, then the service is much the poorer for it-’
There was an aghast silence from the crew. Theresa felt movement towards her, desperately tried to think of sunlight in fair hair…
‘Bravely said, little Señora!’ the hoarse voice of the captain was suddenly uncomfortably close. He sounded almost… entertained by her daring. ‘But if you will allow me to say: you know nothing of the kind of man I am.’
The amusement in his voice vanished like winter sunlight, leaving nothing but a feral snarl. Theresa trembled and fell silent.
‘But…on the other hand, I know nothing of you.’ The voice said, musingly. ‘And you - you are a puzzlement, as an embajadora to the English.’ Something ice-cold brushed her shoulder, plucking at a corner of her veil with finger and thumb. She froze, an involuntary shiver running down her spine. ‘Where did you learn English, little Señora?’
‘Marseilles.’ Theresa said shortly. ‘I was educated by the sisters there...’
She hadn’t learned English from the sisters, mind you. Convent education was a coveted thing, but it was by no means comprehensive.
The captain was still absently playing with the tattered edge of her lace veil. Theresa might not be able to see, but she could hear him pacing about her, feel the occasional twitch of her veil’s hem.
‘Marseilles. Hm. But you are Spanish. That I can see - and hear. You are from… Cádiz, no?’
Theresa noticed there was something curiously pained in the way he paused before saying the name, as though it was an effort of will simply to pronounce the name.
‘Yes.’ She said simply, wondering at it. ‘I sailed from there a month ago.’
‘A month.’ The captain repeated, almost murmuring to himself. He sounded inexpressibly sad. ‘Ah – what we would all give, little Señora, to have been in Cádiz as little as “a month” ago...’
He paused, lost in thought.
There was a wistful sigh from the crew. Theresa felt a general surging forward behind her, as though they were trying to get a better look at her.
Someone called out from the back of the crowd.
‘If you please… Señora? Are there holy sisters still at San Francisco Convent, near the plaza?’
‘Silence!’ One of the officers shouted, angrily. ‘You speak out of turn, Bracero!’
Pirates? Theresa wondered. But... no. There was something in their attitude that suggested not. Pirates didn’t have rank – and the captain had addressed the officer – the kindly one – as Lieutenant. These were just men who had been afloat with their orders from the Admiralty a long time, then? Perhaps Scarfield had been right. This was some military manoeuvre.
The officer Theresa now knew as Lesaro seemed to judge it a propitious moment to speak in her favour, for he broke in, tactfully.
‘She translated for the English officer, Capitán. He believed we spoke no English. What he said – I thought you would want to hear. And the lady showed courage. She asked us for protection from them, Capitán. As officers of Spain. As gentlemen of honour-’
‘Bah, enough! You make your point clear, Lesaro. And, like a good cavalier of Spain, you wish me to … what? Play the gentleman gallant?’ the captain said mockingly. He drew in another pained breath that fluttered Theresa’s veil by her ear.
Oh God, what’s wrong with him? Theresa thought. That wheezing death-rattle of the captain’s sounded like consumption, or else some terrible affliction of the lungs…
‘I ask that you hear her out, Capitán,’ Lesaro said stiffly. ‘That is all.’
‘Heh? We can manage that. You! Señora!’ Theresa felt herself apostrophised impatiently and tensed. ‘Speak.’
‘The- the English Lieutenant wanted me to hold parley with you.’ Theresa stammered. ‘He ordered you to stop your attacks on the honest sea-traffic of the Caribbean-’
‘Honest sea-traffic?’ the captain let out a bark of wheezing laughter. ‘That is a good joke, eh? Honest sea-traffic…and this Englishman… orders me?’
Theresa momentarily wondered where Scarfield was. Probably lying on the deck with his throat cut like the rest of his men. He hadn’t been much the better for his plans. But-
‘It wasn’t an idle threat, even if you have the Essex!’ Theresa said urgently. ‘He divided his fleet after leaving Fort Amsterdam! I told your officer-‘
‘This is true, Capitán.’ Another voice put in. ‘She told Lesaro this - before the Englishman was enraged-‘
‘And you believed her?’ To Theresa’s growing disbelief, the captain seemed to shrug this off. ‘Tch, I did not think my officers were so credulous- ‘
‘It is not a lie!’ Theresa said angrily. She had grown to hope, faint though the hope might be, that the officers’ civility might have been a dim reflection of the man who commanded them. This man sounded like a coarse dockside braggart. ‘There are three seventy-two-gun frigates rounding the French side of Saint-Martin to catch you, along with the Thetis -’
‘Oh, the Thetis!’ Another bark of humourless laughter. Theresa felt herself scrutinized again. ‘I would not worry about the Thetis, little Señora, or her half-penny armada. We…encountered them before we met with you. And you are right – although I believe the last frigate had more guns than seventy-two. La María took care of them.’
Theresa inwardly sagged in despair. There went poor Scrimshaw’s hope of rescue. And he had simply been playing with her, waiting for her answers in order to gauge how honest she was. She might as well have been the scrap of veil he was still toying so fitfully with.
‘Still, a good answer. You at least speak what truth you know, Señora from Cádiz. That is better than the crawling lies I have had from the Inglés…’ There was a pained grunt from Scrimshaw. It sounded very much as if he had just received a careless boot to the stomach. ‘But how do you come into the tale, Señora?’
‘I was taken prisoner because I spoke English.’ Theresa fought the urge to ask about Scrimshaw. She wanted to – God knew how badly she did. But she didn’t dare remind them of him in case they decided they had no further use for him. ‘If you will allow, capitán, I have further-‘
‘Bah! Stop.’ he said abruptly. ‘I dislike talking to a bundle of washing, Señora. If we talk, we talk face to face-‘
Without waiting for her startled acquiescence, he lifted her veil.
It would have been alarming enough for her if that had been all. It became a good deal more disturbing when he raised it slowly - almost languidly. His hand lingered briefly under the pretence of slowly moving the mantilla back to delicately brush her cheek with one thumb.
‘So. Not an English boy in petticoats.’ He murmured. Theresa felt a cold, bitter breath fan her unprotected cheek.
She tried not to visibly recoil, despite the insolence of the gesture. But there was something curiously... repulsive to her in his touch.
It was so cold. Waxen. Still flesh, but icy, and strangely stiff; utterly unlike the warmth of a living thing. The hand that had just stroked a dishevelled tendril of hair back from her forehead chilled her to the bone.
This isn’t right, something whispered in Theresa’s bones. This is wrong. This is-
‘You say we talk “face to face”,’ she said, voice trembling with fear. ‘But you leave me blindfolded?’
The capitán let out a hoarse burst of mocking laughter. “Believe me Señora: you should thank me for it. You may not be disposed to be so...communicative, afterwards.’ The hand abruptly withdrew. ‘You spoke of being held prisoner by the Inglés.’
‘I was not the only one.’ Theresa said impatiently. ‘The innocent men, women and children who travelled to Saint-Martin with me? The settlers who have the misfortune to be Spanish? They have not been so lucky.’ Theresa said bitterly. ‘They rot in Saint-Martin’s gaol, awaiting the pleasure of a mob, or that...’ she searched for a word for Scarfield. ‘That bestia of a lieutenant who promised executions for all if no-one came forward...’
There was a disconcerted rumble of confused mutters from the crew behind her that was only silenced by a sudden growl of muffled fury from the captain. He paced, muttering something furiously beneath his breath.
‘They dared to-’ He stopped. Theresa heard the rasp of the captain’s sword-point gouging itself viciously into the wood of the deck. ‘No. This is a lie! They would not...’ He suddenly rounded on Theresa, suspicion sharpening his voice. ‘If you are lying-‘
‘Lying?!’ Theresa lost patience with the man. Are you really so blind to the consequences of your actions, Senor le Capitán?’ she said hotly. She shook her head. ‘They told me there are scarcely any foreign ships of the line left in the Caribbean…’
‘They did, heh?’ There was a definite note of glee in the captain’s voice. He almost sounded …flattered. ‘High praise, indeed, from the Inglés! We do our work well. None better-’
But the officers did not quite seem to share his satisfaction. There was a definite murmur of unease from behind Theresa.
‘Capitán?’ a younger, more uncertain voice now spoke up. ‘We did not know of this-this affair ashore. They take civilians hostage? What would that gain them?’
‘Nothing!’ The Capitán snapped, silencing all talk by a gesture. ‘They gain nothing by it!’ He spoke more coldly now, deliberately, as though pronouncing sentence. ‘We are privileged to serve Spain – sí, and in a capacity no other man has yet been granted! So. It follows there can be no other consideration. We know our duty. Eh, it is a regret that the innocent suffer, yes – but that is war. It happens.’
‘You...’ Theresa could scarcely believe her ears. ‘What?’
‘We can do nothing for those ashore. It is not within our power.’ The capitán said indifferently. And Theresa, defeated, might have left it there – had he not added lazily, ‘Or my inclination.’
Now Theresa was by no means a hot-tempered person. The admonitions of her niñera and the later chastisements of the sisters in Marseilles had taught her both patience and forbearance. Bad, hasty-tempered little girls earned a stinging bundle of birch twigs on the back of the neck. But there was only so much she could tolerate, and the studied callousness of the man made her gasp with shock and rage.
The officer behind Theresa had also let out a muffled exclamation.
‘Capitán!’ He said uneasily. ‘Surely we should-‘
‘Do what, Lesaro? Storm the town?’ The captain laughed, mirthlessly. ‘Bien, take a party of men ashore and see how you fare.’
‘But with respect, Capitan – we could bombard the settlement from the bay -’
‘They would soon surrender…’
‘But Capitán, if we-‘
‘I said NO!’ The smothered violence with which he burst out seemed to appal his crew into silence. ‘What are they to us? What can the living ashore be to us, eh?’ He turned. ‘Nothing. You know this-’
A dim, faintly disturbing voice at the back of her mind began to whisper: what did he mean, the “living ashore”?
But for better or worse, Theresa’s outrage had finally given her the power of speech again. She retorted with a vengeance.
‘If you truly serve Spain, Capitán,’ she said vehemently, ‘Then you should at least make some attempt to protect its people. Allowing them to have their necks wrung like chickens because it does not suit your fine military stratagems…’ she repeated the words with revulsion. ‘That is cowardly. It is base.’
‘If?’ there was a deadly quiet in the captain’s voice that should have warned Theresa she had gone too far. But she was too alight with indignation to care. ‘You presume to question if I serve Spain?!’ He felt him lean over her. ‘I have ‘served’ Spain, as you call it, for longer than many men have drawn breath. As have we all-‘
‘But do you now?’ Theresa retorted. ‘Do you serve Spain, if you incite war and allow her people to suffer? That is not the action of an honourable captain!’
She heard him audibly grit his teeth.
‘Enough!’ he said irritably. ‘Lesaro! Take your shrieking duenna away. Put her afloat for land if you like, but I will hear no more- ‘
At any other time, the menace in his voice would have warned Theresa to hold her tongue. But not now. It was as though a pent-up dam of words had suddenly burst behind her teeth. It might have been courage. It felt more like drunkenness; reckless and out of control.
‘No more of what? The truth? I speak for the voiceless, Señor! For the women and children you are content to leave to die in an English gaol! If you can do this-’
‘I said enough!’
‘-to your own people-’
Theresa, despairing, could almost feel hands closing in on her. She’d failed. She’d be tossed ashore like a piece of unwanted flotsam. If she was fortunate, she’d wash up in Saint-Martin – where she’d be imprisoned along with the other abandoned castaways of Spain.
She hadn’t managed to help anyone.
And this callous, indifferent dockside piece of work had just shrugged them off – had decided to pick and choose what rules he followed-
Her eyes narrowed. She shrugged, contemptuously.
‘Very well then. Better in their hands than yours.’ She said witheringly. ‘I thought I was speaking to a man of honour. But you? - I find you, el Capitán, no better than a common pirate.’
There was a moment’s sickening silence. You could have heard a pin drop.
Later, Theresa would wonder what would have happened if she hadn’t issued that parting riposte. All she really been trying to do was – well, convey her contempt, yes, but all she’d wanted was to try and rouse something. Anything. Some slight sting of conscience that might make him change his mind. Ruffled pride would have done. Shame, even.
She hadn’t been prepared for all hell to break loose so quickly.
Fast – faster than she could have reacted to, even if unbound and blindfolded – Theresa heard a terrible bellow of rage. Hasty footsteps. An icy hand whipped out, vicious as a serpent, to close convulsively around her windpipe, propelling her backwards by sheer brute strength until her back hit the ship’s bulwark. She choked, gasping desperately for air-
‘You… dare…’The Capitán hissed, almost incoherent with fury. ‘You dare to call me pirate? To compare me to…’
Theresa felt his weight slam against her, bending her backwards over the ships rail until her stays seemed to creak in protest. She struggled weakly, skirts fluttering as she was crushed helplessly against the side like a trapped moth. This is it, then. She thought dazedly, as darting blue dots began to appear in front of her eyes. This is how I die...
‘I weary,’ he said, from between clenched teeth, ‘Of playing the gentleman gallant for you, little Señora. The game is over-’
But just as Theresa feared the worst, his grip abruptly shifted away from her throat. He caught her chin in his cold fingers; turning her face this way and that, as though deciding on something as he looked at her.
And then he chuckled, softly and mirthlessly. It frightened Theresa more than his sudden violence.
‘You say you speak truth to me, little Señora? Well, I have heard your truth patiently. It is now time that you see mine…’
With a sudden jerk Theresa’s blindfold was pulled away from her eyes.
Chapter 6: Dead Men Advancing
In which Theresa's predicament does not noticeably improve...
Queen: Nay, never bear me hence, dispatch me here;
Here sheathe thy sword; I’ll pardon thee my death.
What! Wilt thou not?
Henry VI Part III
Silent ranks of twisted, broken, grey-faced creatures encircled Theresa. Things that had once been men.
There were men without faces. Men with half-faces, or else empty absences of coat and sleeve where drifting tatters of blackened clothing floated lazily after them, like decaying ravens’ wings. There were impossible conjunctions of bodiless heads and disembodied arms – coupled with legs sheared off as neatly as if a pair of scissors had snipped them. Some of the men’s’ posture was stiff and unnatural, as though rigor-mortis had frozen them into place. Others seemed to almost drift, barely anchored to the deck by their feet; as though some unseen watery current was dragging them away from their moorings. Where features remained, they were marred by a thousand impossible spider-like cracks; in some places crumbling away altogether into a scorched blackness.
A sea of strange preternatural eyes followed Theresa as she stared numbly at them.
She tried to work out if her mind had finally tottered under the strain of all that had happened – maybe if she looked long enough, the vision would change, the same way her dreams of the little child did….
It felt like the sort of incomplete, fevered horror you might conjure up in a nightmare – and no ordinary nightmare at that.
Maldito de Dios, a hysterical little voice murmured in her head. They were named well. Now you know why Scarfield kept you in the dark, and why they didn’t untie the blindfold. You know everything now.
‘Lords of Hell…’ she whispered, her grip tightening on the ships rail.
‘Heh! Not quite, Señora. Not quite.’
Watching her sardonically at the fore, as though measuring out her shock and fear in precise measure, was the Capitán.
Theresa wasn’t sure what she had expected of him before she had fallen headfirst into a ghost story. Some barbarous middle-aged fool, perhaps, with grey in his beard and a thwarted desire for glory-hunting. You came across the type.
She hadn’t expected … well, what Jacinta would have approvingly called ‘a brave bold fellow,’ had she encountered him in a Cádiz street. He had evidently been a fine figure of a man; tall, and stately.
But both fire and water had effaced much of what would have made him fine. He lolled strangely on his feet - like a broken puppet with half its strings cut. The point of his sword alone seemed to keep him upright - and he hunched over it, shoulders sullenly coiled and tense.
The burned and blackened remnants of his dress uniform was dimly familiar to Theresa as that of a naval commander, but the cut was old-fashioned, and older than she would have liked to guess at. The greying flesh of his hands that showed beneath the cuffs were crackled with the same broken spiderweb tracery as his face.
And his face…
Oh God in heaven. His face.
It was the face of a man dead and drowned long ago. The stark, livid grey countenance matched strangely with the congealed black blood that flecked his wasted lips, creating a man seemingly carved out of sickly twilight shadows. It was difficult to read his expression at first - a tangle of wild dark hair floated eerily about his face, obscuring it.
Until he tilted his head to one side: matching, with bitter amusement, her wide-eyed stare, and Theresa saw, to her horror, a gaping void where his left temple should have been, fragments of charred bone poking through the muscles of his face…
‘Why are you so quiet, little embajadora?’ He said mockingly. ‘You were so very eloquent before! So determined to have our help! Why are you so silent now?’
Theresa clamped her lips over her teeth to stop herself crying out. They’re dead men. Screaming might make it real, she thought wildly. If she pretended it was just a dream, maybe it wouldn’t be there when she -
‘We intimidate you, yes? With our good looks? We make you shy?’ There was a jeering note in the Captain’s hoarse voice. ‘You did not expect such pretty cavaliers of Spain to come to your rescue?’
Theresa blinked. Her mouth had gone dry with fear. She licked her lips, tried to collect the scattered rags of her thoughts.
They’re dead men.
‘I…’ she began again, trying to keep her voice from shaking. ‘I thought you were…’
‘Alive?’ The Capitan shook his head, as though humouring a small, foolish child. ‘Ah. The blindfold. that was a good stratagem for your Inglés, I grant you that – for what good it did them.’ He looked at her, grimly. ‘Not so good for you, eh?’
Theresa’s thin, pink-knuckled hands clutched instinctively at the miniature of Sebastién round her neck -as if it was a protective charm that could somehow save her.
Her niñera had told her, when she was very small, that the dead didn’t always stay in Heaven, like the priests said. That they could ride the back of the wind over the plains and mountains and look down at their loved ones from the polished mirror of the moon. In that case, Theresa thought deliriously, why shouldn’t they be at sea, too?
But… in Niñera Inez’s stories, the dead had mostly been benevolent, soothing presences. They hadn’t been this catalogue of grotesque horrors plucked straight from some stomach-churning sea-battle, wreaking mindless slaughter in turn…
Yes, they’re dead, A sharper, more practical voice in Theresa’s head said matter-of-factly. Well observed. But you aren’t. They could have slit your throat or devoured your flesh or - whatever sea-ghosts do - a thousand times over before now.
Why haven’t they killed you?
She remembered the curious phrasing of the Spanish lieutenant about how they didn’t intend to harm her. True, her frantic appeal to the “officers of Spain” couldn’t have been more wildly mistaken; but they had responded. And kindly and courteously enough at that, when they could have behaved – Theresa took in the butchered carcasses of the Marines strewn about the deck – otherwise.
Even the – the livid corpse-thing of a captain had, at least, listened to her before. Wrong emphasis, perhaps. She thought. Yes, they’re dead men. But they’re dead men.
She remembered their questions about Cádiz, and that strange hush as she’d walked across the deck. And with a pang, the terrible thought crept across her mind: what if she had seen Sebastién with grey, hopeless face and empty eyes amongst the crew? Would she have still recoiled?
The Capitán, who had been watching her frozen expression, limped back towards his crew with a kind of dismal triumph.
‘You see?’ he said bitterly. ‘You think I make rules with no thought, hmm? That there is no reason behind what I do?’ He struck the deck for emphasis with the point of his sword, glaring ferociously at the surrounding crew. ‘This is the reason we do not meddle with the living. They can be nothing to us, you understand me? How can they be? They cannot bear the sight of us-‘
Theresa stepped forward. Something sharp and pained in the man’s voice stirred Theresa’s compassion; thinking, as she was, of Sebastién. She looked again at the grey-tinged, hopeless faces in front of her, took an inward breath -and took a step forward.
‘I do not think that is true, Capitán,’ she said, trying desperately to keep the tremor from her voice. To show fear now would mean she was lost. ‘I am alive. I stand before you - and I can bear the sight of you.’
The Capitán watched her in disbelief through a drift of floating hair. She seemed to have robbed him of words by her response – although he may simply have been astounded that anyone had the nerve to interrupt him.
‘You take this very calmly, little Señora,’ he said; almost accusingly, as though she’d cheated him of something. ‘Are you not afraid?’ His eyes flickered searchingly over her face.
Absolutely, Theresa thought. I am terrified. But if Sebastién were here – alone, in despair, and like the - the rest… I’d hazard worse for his sake.
So she lied.
‘No.’ she said, as evenly as she could manage. ‘I don’t think I am. But I am…’she swallowed, ‘curious. Who… who are you?’
‘Oh, I forget my manners, not introducing myself to a gentlewoman of Spain!’ He made her a half- ironic bow. ‘Capitán Armando Salazar of His Blessed Majesty’s Armada, señora. As in life, so in death.’ He limped forward, head cocked to one side. ‘Perhaps… you have heard of me?’
‘I only heard the name the sailors call you and your crew in… in Cádiz.’ Theresa mumbled.
There was a suggestion of a ghastly smile on Capitan Salazar’s proud, frozen lips. ‘They still remember El Matador del Mar?’ He rolled the name off his tongue with relish, as though it were the grandest of titles.
Theresa had a distinct feeling he was not going to like what she said next.
‘I did not hear that name, Capitan.' she said quietly. ' I understood you were known as... Maldito de Dios.’
A muscle convulsively twitched in Captain Salazar’s ruined cheek. Theresa could see it pulsing through the torn flesh.
She could understand that. Being “The Butcher of the Sea” had a certain blood-soaked nobility to it, like some conquistador war-lord of the old days. But being known as the “Accursed of God”? There was no grandeur in that. It was a slap in the face. An outright rejection.
Still. His tone was milder than she expected from his looks.
‘Bien,’ he said calmly. ‘As I expected. That has always been the way, eh?’ He laughed, hollowly. ‘Spain does not even have the grace to be grateful for us.’
Grateful, Theresa thought, almost bewildered. He thought Spain would be… grateful?
She dipped a very poor, shaky attempt at a curtsey; something Sister Annunciata would have scolded her for. ‘Doña Theresa de Barrós,’ she returned, faintly. ‘Lately of Cádiz.‘
‘Capitán!’ There was a commotion from the back of the crowd. A knot of ghostly hands was advancing forward, dragging a struggling figure between them. ‘We found the officer of the Inglés. The coward was trying to flee in the small-boat-‘
Theresa didn’t immediately recognise the man before her. The smart blue and gold dress uniform coat had been thrown off, a bloodstained Marine jacket hastily thrown over his shoulders. With his cocked hat gone, his fair wig was half knocked over his eyes, showing a close-shaven scalp that made him look oddly… diminished. Dishevelled, desperate: a beast at bay. He looked nothing like the iron- hard commander of the quarterdeck, until you looked more closely at the face. There was no mistaking that jaw.
‘Ah, the lieutenant!’ Salazar said cheerfully. He tutted reprovingly, moving smoothly to English. ‘Tsk, tsk. Abandoning both your ship and your men? Attempting to hide your rank, too? A bad job, Inglés. A very bad job. Besides the shame of leaving …’ he turned his eyes scornfully on the bewildered huddle of Lieutenant Scrimshaw ‘- A boy to play at officer-’
‘He did that?’ Theresa was shocked despite herself. She had known Scarfield was self-serving, but she had thought he had least had some brute’s courage to fall back on. Running away and leaving everything in the hands of poor little Scrimshaw…that was-
‘That surprises you, Señora?’ Salazar asked disdainfully. He had levelled the edge of his rapier at Scarfield’s exposed neck, and was watching with idle amusement as the man tried, fruitlessly, to pull away from the blade-point.
‘Nothing surprises me about him,’ Theresa said stonily. It perhaps proved her lacking in forgiveness, but she could summon up no pity for Scarfield. Not even when he was frozen in fear. She had too distinct a memory of the musket butt held above a wailing child’s face…
Salazar bared his teeth in a feral, mad grin. ‘It is a poor thing when even the grave little embajadora speaks so unfavourably of you.’ He watched a bead of cold sweat trickle down Scarfield’s forehead as the lieutenant leaned backwards, still desperately trying to evade the sword. ‘You should have been a little more courteous, hmm?’
‘That is no wonder, Capitán,’ a voice said sharply from behind her. An officer with his right shoulder blasted into ragged tatters had stepped forward – the officer Theresa dimly recognised as Lesaro. He had a patient, rather tired-looking face, bisected by a neat eye-patch carefully covering his left eye and might, perhaps, have looked kindly enough in different circumstances. But his expression was hard as iron when he looked at Scarfield - the way a man might look at a rodent. ‘He ill-used her when she spoke to warn us.’
Salazar’s eyes blazed; like banked embers in a dying fire. ‘Did he?’ He said deliberately. The sword twitched – just a little, but enough to draw a thin trickle of blood from Scarfield’s neck.
But Scarfield wasn’t daunted. He winced at the pain - but if anything, his sneer became more pronounced. ‘It got your attention, didn’t it?’ His eyes shone over-bright. ‘We knew you were in these waters again, sir. We prepared for it. The Thetis-’
‘Oh, they will not be coming to rescue you,’ Salazar almost sang it tauntingly into the lieutenant’s face, taking a savage pleasure in the way Scarfield blanched. ‘Count on that.’
‘No.’ Scarfield shook his head., clenching his teeth, before attempting to scoff. ‘No - You’re lying! Trying to call my bluff-’
‘Hmm… the Thetis…yes?’ Salazar pretended to scratch his chin with the pommel of his sword, as though thinking. ‘An eighty-four gun ship of the line, sí? Some very pretty bow-chasers, I’ll grant you – good cañones. She might have tested the María… once.’ His grin widened. ‘But what use are your eighteen-pounders, Señor, with no crew left alive to fire them? And such a crew!’ he whistled – a peculiar, rattling, watery noise. ‘They were not as prepared as you seem to think.’ He limped forward, thrusting his face towards Scarfield in order to savour his face as the last trace of confidence left it. ‘They begged.’
‘Then so will your compatriots, Spaniard!’ Scarfield sagged a little between his captors, as though the effort of standing upright was growing too much. The triumphant malice in his face, however, was anything but weak. ‘I - made arrangements-’ he winced. ‘Before… leaving Saint-Martin, you see…’His gaze fastened venomously on Theresa. ‘If, haha…I don’t return…or the Thetis doesn’t return…Governor Dix knows… what to do with his precious prisoners….’
Theresa’s stomach clenched in horror. She would have blindly moved forward – to shake the truth out of Scarfield, if need be - if a cold, outflung arm hadn’t blocked her passage. Lesaro had moved tactfully into her path, sweeping her back to the side.
‘No, Señora.’ He said warningly. ‘Leave it to the Capitán-’
But Salazar seemingly hadn’t reacted to Scarfield’s threat. He stood there, face blank, nodding as affably as though they were making small-talk about the weather.
‘You are a thorough man, Señor,’ he said, half-admiringly. ‘In some respects, at least. But…’ he shrugged, ‘I say again: what are your living ashore to me?’
Scarfield’s over-bright, feverish gaze weakened a little. ‘To you? Nothing. Why should it mean anything to you? But ah, what about Spain?'
Something flickered in Salazar's eyes for a moment. He tried to hold it back - tried to keep his face in studied nonchalance. But it was there. And Scarfield saw it, for he carried on, a note of triumph in hos voice. 'You may well cost the Spanish Empire everything it has, Capitán. When the rest of Europe allies against them and their territories burn because of you...’
Theresa felt the arm holding her back waver for a moment. Lieutenant Lesaro was watching the contorted workings of his Capitán’s face, apprehension creasing his brow.
'Leave it,' he murmured, under his breath - softly, but not so quietly Theresa couldn't catch it. 'Capitán, leave it...'
Scarfield’s gaze dimmed. For the first time Theresa noticed the darker stain spreading across the Marine’s red coat, gouts of a deeper, richer red dripping through the fingers he clutched to his stomach. He sank to his knees, his breathing becoming more strained.
‘I… looked into… you, Capitán,’ he wheezed. ‘When… the last survivor… told me your… name. Into who…who you were.’
The crewmen, as though prompted by some invisible cue, let him go as their captain moved forward with grim finality, sword arm tensed.
‘You don’t know me, Inglés.’ Salazar snarled. ‘No man alive today knows who I am-‘
‘Hispaniola… does.’ Scarfield might have weakened, but his gloating smile hadn’t faltered an inch. It was the face of a man about to show a winning hand at cards.. ‘They…remember. Not so much you-' he sneered, 'But they still remember the… crimes of your fathe-‘
Salazar’s expression suddenly twisted out of the studied calm of a careful opponent into the abandoned fury of a demon. Black blood bubbled at his lips.
‘¡Suficiente!’ he roared.
‘Capitán, wait-’ the lieutenant stretched out a restraining hand to his commander. ‘He is goading you-‘
Theresa had known, deep in her heart of hearts, that Scarfield was a dead man before he’d even spoken a word. But that didn’t prevent her trembling when she saw him spill emptily to the ground like a rag doll, his slit throat still pumping bright red blood out on to the deck. She couldn’t help but make herself smaller as Salazar furiously paced the deck like a caged tiger, eyes wild and deranged.
The whole deck was entirely silent.
After a few appalling moments, Lesaro ventured forward a few steps. Drawing his own sword, he gingerly coaxed back the stained uniform coat with the point to examine Scarfield’s bloodied waistcoat.
‘Ah.’ He said briefly, as if it explained everything. ‘Gut-shot.’
Theresa supposed it did. Scarfield’s life had been slowly leaking away before Salazar’s crew had even caught him. He'd wanted them to kill him.
But something puzzled her. Only the crew of the Essex had used firearms in the battle. The crew of the Maria had nothing but swords green with verdigris and rusting knives.
Theresa suddenly remembered the Marine’s jacket. Scarfield had probably pulled it from one of his own slaughtered men. Perhaps a dying soldier had just had courage to try to defend himself from the hands that were robbing him as Scarfield left them to die…
Salazar, meanwhile, was muttering disconnected curses under his breath, shaking his head as though to dislodge some intolerable thought. Occasionally he would jab viciously at Scarfield’s body with his sword-point; as though Scarfield might yet make a retort of some kind.
‘He lies,’ Theresa heard him whisper to himself, through clenched teeth. ‘He lies.’
And then, fatally, he turned –
And caught sight of poor little Scrimshaw, half-fainting with pain and sheer terror behind a knot of his men.
His eyes flared.
‘No.’ he hissed. ‘No more Inglés and their words-’
‘No!’ Theresa shouted, panic overtaking her. She attempted to struggle into his path. ‘No, wait! Capitán Salazar, please - not him!’ her voice was rising into a scream. ‘Not him. Please!’
The crew had fallen back away from Scrimshaw as Salazar drew himself up into the taut killing stance. He barely flicked a glance in her direction. ‘Why should this one live?’
‘He’s a child. He’s unarmed, a boy-’
‘Man enough to come to sea, and try to make war against me!’ Salazar’s eyes glowed red with barely-restrained bloodlust.
‘You always spare one man, don’t you?’ Theresa said desperately. ‘That’s the story! There’s always one man left alive! That’s the rule -’
To her surprise, Salazar actually hesitated at that. His gaze swung slowly back to her over one shoulder, as though he had just remembered she was still there.
‘That is true, Capitán.’ Lesaro interposed. His one eye glanced briefly between the two of them – his Captain and the slumped boy on the deck. ‘That has always been the tradition of the María.’
For a long moment, Salazar stared down contemptuously at the boy’s ashen face. Scrimshaw had closed his eyes so as not to see the blade at his neck, Theresa noticed, with agonising clarity. At last he straightened, withdrawing the sword.
‘Well-argued, embajadora!’ he said ironically. ‘Sí, the stories are true. I do spare one life.’ He grinned, humourlessly. ‘ Just so they may shiver and tell the tale in years to come. But - you have left someone out of your calculations, I think?’
‘Who?’ Theresa looked around at the grisly waste of the Essex’s deck for another spark of life – found none. ‘There’s no one else left-‘
‘There is yourself, Señora.’ Salazar’s dark eyes fixed themselves intently on her face.
‘Capitán-’ Lesaro murmured uneasily.
‘Silencio!’ The Capitán’s gaze was flat. ‘These are my terms to you, Doña-‘He paused. ‘Theresa, was it?’
‘Yes,’ Theresa said, in a smothered voice.
‘Hm. Theresa.’ He pronounced her name slowly, as though savouring it. ‘Well, Señora Theresa - I am a man of my word. But I offer safe-conduct only for one. One, you understand me? And the choice is between you and the Inglés. So…’ he smiled, sourly. ‘I leave it to you to decide.’ His gaze was mocking. ‘Are you so sure you wish to beg for his life?’
Theresa understood. He was playing another sour game of morality with her again – cynically testing her scruples - and he expected her to falter. To stammer, acquiesce and withdraw her pleas for Scrimshaw to save her own skin– because who wouldn’t, when faced with a death little better than a butchered calf?
And there was a chorus of selfish voices within her that whispered Yes. Do it. Save yourself. Stay quiet the way he expects, stay alive…
But as she hesitated, she saw a hopeless, resigned tear squeeze out from under Scrimshaw’s eyelid. Seventeen, she remembered. Just seventeen. And he thinks he’s going to die…
And then she remembered what the beggar-woman had said on the church steps.
A dead man in your past. Dead men in your future.
The sea will give back what it took from you....
That decided her. If this was it, the thread of her life span out… well, she could at least make it count. No one deserved to die at seventeen.
She took a step forward. Her hands went again to the ribbon about her neck. There. Think of Sebastién.
‘Yes.’ She said, simply. ‘I am sure, Capitán. Spare him.’
How it pleased her to see the sour smile wiped in an instant from Captain Salazar’s face! Something like surprise flickered across his countenance; an honest mystification, swiftly followed by a baffled annoyance. He stared at her, suspiciously.
‘Do you presume on my gallantry towards ladies, Señora?’ he growled. ‘I warn you, I will show no mercy-‘
‘I know.’ Theresa found herself almost enjoying his discomfiture at her beatific calm. ‘I don’t presume on any gallantry.’ She shook her head. ‘I have made my choice.’
There was a muffled murmur from the crowd of ghostly crewmen. She had caused a sensation.
Think of Sebastién .
Resolutely looking away from the spreading pool of blood on the deck, she sank slowly to her knees, her thin black muslin skirts ballooning out around her as she knelt like a noblewoman receiving Eucharist.
Scrimshaw had evidently revived a little – enough to take in the quickfire exchanges of Spanish between the Capitán and Theresa. He had watched in puzzlement, and then with terrified realisation that some sort of bargain was being struck, as the sword was abruptly removed from his neck.
But he started to his feet when he saw Theresa kneel.
‘No!’ he cried out. ‘No, not… not the lady!’ Wavering, he made as though to reach for his empty scabbard. ‘I would rather die than allow them to-‘
‘Be quiet.’ Theresa said tersely, in English. ‘They will kill you.’
‘Listen to me, Señor Scrimshaw,’ Theresa said sharply, cutting through the frightened determination she saw forming in his eyes. ‘You are the single surviving officer of the Essex. When you reach Saint-Martin, tell Governor Dix to release all the Spanish prisoners unharmed. All of them. No executions.’
‘W-what?’ Scrimshaw’s eyes were frightened. ‘But I – I can’t…’
‘Yes, you can!’ Theresa’s dark eyes blazed. ‘You’re the only one who can! I can’t go back, knowing what will happen!’ she gestured down at herself. ‘I have no power in your colony. They won’t listen to me, a stranger. But you do have the power! You can make them listen to you! And you can save them.’ She slowed down, exhausted by her own burst of speech. ‘It makes sense, Scrimshaw.’ She said tiredly. ‘You know it does.’
Salazar had watched his prisoner’s exchange thoughtfully, his dark eyes fixed with a peculiar intensity on Theresa’s determined sliver of face. It would have been an impossible task to judge the expression on his own wasted features, but he nodded slightly to himself as she drew to a close; as though forming some resolution.
‘W-what about you?’ Scrimshaw whispered. ‘You’ll… you’ll die, ma’am-’
Theresa gave him a small, watery smile.
‘I’m a widow, Senor Scrimshaw,’ she murmured. ‘Half my life is already gone from me. Why should I hesitate to give up the rest?’
‘Enough!’ Salazar said sharply. He jerked his head at one of the burlier seamen crowding the deck. The dead man moved obediently towards Scrimshaw, picking him up roughly by the scruff of his jacket and dragging him to his feet. ‘Throw him in the small-boat, and cut him loose. Let him row his worthless carcass back to land, if he cares to.’
‘I protest, sir!’ Scrimshaw cried out indignantly. ‘I do not accept! I-‘
Salazar limped closer, expression murderous. ‘What was that?’ He sneered. ‘Did the Inglés speak?’
Scrimshaw paled and fell silent, hands shaking.
The Capitán regarded him narrowly, through half-lowered eyelids. ‘Heh. I thought as much.’ He shook his head. Floating fronds of ink-black hair lashed the air. ‘Tut. Never protest what you mean to accept, boy. It is bad manners. Besides, you heard the Señora make her choice. Would your last act be to show ingratitude?’
He nodded again, his mood darkening. ‘Get the Inglés out of my sight, Vasquez.’
That was the last sight Theresa had of Scrimshaw. An anguished, childish figure shoved along the deck by dead men’s hands; tossed like so much dirty laundry into the small-boat.
Sebastién, Theresa thought, closing her eyes and trying to quell the trembling in her knees. Her fingers clutched desperately at the miniature around her neck as Salazar’s limping footsteps came closer towards her. Think of Sebastién. Don’t think about whether it will hurt. A moment’s pain, and then – nothing, that’s all. And you’ll wake up to Sebastién’s smile…
She couldn’t repress an involuntary shiver as something cold glided below her chin, thinking it was steel. But then, at the absence of pain, she opened her eyes. Capitán Salazar had merely tilted her face upwards towards him, with the tip of an ice- cold finger.
‘I think I named you well as an embadajora, Señora,’ he mused. ‘There are true ambassadors who would be less valiant. You have the true espiritu marcíal of Spain, eh?’ There was, oddly, nothing scornful in his gaze now. His frozen features were alight with a peculiar veiled interest as he peered down at her. ‘Are all women in Spain like you these days?’
‘I – I hardly know, Capitán.’ Theresa, subtly, tried to reposition her knees in a less painful position. She had not expected casual conversation before death – and her kneecaps were beginning to protest. She closed her eyes, trying to indicate that the exchange was over. ‘I’m ready, Capitan. When you please-‘
‘Mm. Because half your heart is in the grave already, yes?’ Salazar reached out, briefly touching the black ribbon at Theresa’s throat. She flinched a little, feeling him trace the sharp line of her collarbone. ‘You give up life so easily because you think it no longer holds any meaning for you. So you do not fear Death. You court him; as though he were your lover.’ His voice was strangely soft. ‘As though Death were kind.’
‘Please.’ Before Theresa quite knew what she was doing, she impulsively covered the cold, cracked grey hands with her own in supplication; as she might have to a plaster saint. ‘Don’t torment me.’ She said, in a low voice. She couldn’t bear waiting on tenterhooks like this – hanging her last moments on his good graces. Scarfield had at least died quickly. ‘Let me go to him. Please.’
Salazar stared searchingly into her face for a long moment, taking in the flushed earnestness of her face; the way her eyelashes shadowed the sombre, soft brown of her eyes like the soft sweep of a charcoal pencil. She had looked up at his own dreadful cracked mask of a face with beseeching persistence – as though he could give her the peace she seemed to crave so desperately.
His hands had twitched for a moment under her touch when she reached out – but he couldn’t quite summon the determination to pull away. He was half-hypnotised by the strange light of hope in her face. No one had looked at Capitán Salazar with anything other than terror or revulsion for a long, long time. Let alone hope.
Mesmerised, he carefully took one small thin-boned hand in his own; just so he could feel the living warmth, and the hummingbird thrum of her pulse.
Theresa shivered as he leaned in closer – so close the floating strands of tangled hair brushed her face.
‘Make no mistake, Señora: Death is not kind.’ He murmured. He brushed back the sorry remnants of her widow’s veil from her shoulder almost...tenderly. ‘There is no simple happiness in it. No rest. You should have known that, the minute you saw us.’
His gaze snagged on the miniature about her neck. Sebastién’s fair flaxen beauty stared curiously out of the small frame.
‘Oh, but of course. I forget!’ In an instant all the sardonic mockery was back in his voice again. ‘You are not like us “accursed of God”. You have a husband waiting for you in Heaven.’ He plucked at the miniature, taking in the finely painted features and soft golden hair with evident distaste. ‘This is why you are so eager to die? For this painted wax doll?’
‘Don’t you-’Theresa was almost speechless with anger. She snatched her hands away. ‘Don’t you dare insult my husband‘-’ She almost choked on her indignation. ‘Why, you don’t even deserve to understand-‘
Salazar raised an eyebrow. ‘No?’
‘He’s...he’s an angel!’ Theresa flashed back – hardly caring if her words made sense or not. ‘In heaven! Waiting for me!’
‘Oh, an angel?’ Salazar truly was sneering now. ‘No doubt. With cherubs throwing rose-petals at his dainty feet...’
With a sharp snap, his hand snaked out, breaking the silk ribbon ties from around Theresa’s neck as though they were wisps of straw.
‘That is mine-‘
‘Not any more, Señora. ‘Salazar’s expression was pitiless, the old glad cruelty playing across his face. ‘Besides, I thought martyrs placed no stock in earthly things?’
Theresa snatched at it, but he easily jerked it out of reach.
‘Because that is what you want, isn’t it, Señora? To be a martyr. To die for something – something good. Something... honourable.’ Salazar’s face twisted with unutterable bitterness. ‘To that, I say: no.’
‘What?!’ For a moment, Theresa didn’t understand. And then she did, and a black horror filled her soul. He’d simply used her, to torment Scrimshaw with guilt and wring the boy's conscience at surviving.He didn't intend to kill her -with all the more spite since she had shown an eagerness for it. ‘But you - you promised! You said you’d give me death-‘
‘Ah, ah!’ Salazar held up a hand. ‘Let us be precise, Señora: I never said that. I said I would show you no mercy. You? you crave death as a mercy; as an escape.’ His eyes gleamed with a melancholy ferocity. ‘You ask strange favours, little Señora from Cádiz. Why would I simply give you what I cannot earn for myself or my men?’
‘You kill readily enough when you please!’ Theresa spat. ‘You have no use for me-‘
‘Eh, your Inglés captors? Si.’ Salazar aimed the toe of his boot at the bloodied remains of the late Scarfield. ‘But that is my duty, as Capitan of the Armada. We kill our enemies.’ His grin widened. ‘Besides, you asked for our protection! It would be against my duty to harm an innocent gentlewoman of Spain. As you so...eloquently pointed out before, when Lesaro brought you to me. Besides, you are wrong.’ He jerked his head abruptly at someone behind her, and two wraith-like officers silently moved into position, pinioning her arms. ‘I considered much, when you spoke to the Inglés. I have a use for you.’
‘Capitán?’ the Lieutenant had quickly adjusted his face into a blank, respectfully impassive mask – but for an instant Theresa thought she briefly glimpsed shock; and not a little dismay. ‘What do you wish us to do with the Señora -?’
‘Put her aboard la Maria. Somewhere where she cannot come to harm.’ He lifted a finger in warning, eyes menacing. ‘We want no play-acting of Hero and Leander, little Señora, understand? If you throw yourself into the sea – I swear, I will catch up with that Inglés you worked so hard to save and -’
He made a gruesome snapping gesture. Before nodding abruptly to his men.
‘Go on. You have your orders. Take her.’
Chapter 7: The Politics of Knowledge
In which Theresa makes further acquaintance with the crew of La Maria Silenciosa...
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The weight of this sad time we must obey.
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.
King Lear - Act V, Scene III
Theresa fell into a dazed, numbed silence as she was escorted away, icy arms holding her fast. Her mind had been dealing with impossibilities for so long that it had finally exhausted itself tap-dancing on mid-air, trying to build pathways of reason over things that should not exist. And her body was beginning to feel the cost of firing on sheer nerve for so long. Her legs felt weak as water.
Hah. Maybe I’ll go mad, Theresa thought dreamily. Like the Frenchman Scarfield told me about who beat his own brains out. Then I’ll be no use to them for…whatever they want me for.
What do they want me for?
She shook her head, trying to dislodge the stream of dark possibilities that were trickling through the comfortable fog of exhaustion. Don’t think, she decided dimly. It doesn’t do to think. If you don’t think about it, it’s not real…
Her foot caught in something. She glanced down, hazily – and instantly recoiled, unable to suppress a whimper. One of the butchered Essex sailor’s outflung hands was actually under her feet…
‘Steady, Señora!’ One of the men holding her jerked her up again with an unnatural strength that would have terrified her in ordinary circumstances; had Theresa only had all her wits about her. ‘Watch your step.’
Theresa vaguely recognised the voice. It was the other officer; the one who had spoken with the Lieutenant. He proved to be a sepulchral-looking fellow with a bored expression, wearing the tattered remnants of a lieutenant’s cocked hat and a uniform coat that was more a floating mass of threads than anything else, floating disconcertingly about the vacancy where – Theresa swallowed -- where his legs should be.
‘Why does your Captain want me alive?’ she croaked, at last.
Both men studiously avoided looking at her, Theresa noticed dimly, looking from one officer to the other. Certainly neither of them deigned to answer her. The officer Theresa hazily identified as “Miguel” pressed his lips together, as if regretting he had spoken at all. The other officer was a tall young fellow, with a smashed ribcage. Theresa could glimpse sickening scraps of vertebrae and splintered ribs, floating in mid-air. He turned his head away, staring stonily ahead on seeing her expression.
‘Ready?’ he said tonelessly, to his companion, as they approached the ships rail.. Both of them tensed, taking a firmer grip of Theresa’s elbows.
‘When you like.’
‘Ready?’ Theresa ventured. – ready for- for what-?’
And then the world flew upwards.
Have you ever seen a cricket jump?
The dead men moved like that. One moment they were quietly standing on the deck of the Essex, holding Theresa between them; and then with a terrific bound, all three of them were jolted up somewhere almost amongst the shrouds, in a whirl of ash and scorched tatters, gravity something not-so-very consequential below. Theresa had a sickening view of the Essex’s deck far, far beneath her, seemingly no bigger than a matchbox. She closed her eyes, mouth opening in a wild shriek as she felt them begin to fall –
And then there were sun-bleached, rotting wood beneath her feet, the edges peeling away from each other, the brittle caulking crumbling away between the planks. And the Essex – the Essex was now some twenty feet away across the water from her.
They seemed to have flown across. And they’d landed lightly as a feather.
It was too much for Theresa. Sea-battles, living dead-men…Now even the normal laws of nature were turning head-over-heels. She took two dizzy steps forward, trying to make sure the deck wasn’t actually swaying dangerously under her, and gave a faint gurgle.
The mournful-looking officers’ lips stretched into something she supposed was an attempt at a smile. It proved more an unpleasant death-rictus in execution.
‘Like dancing the parranda, Señora?’ he remarked dryly. ‘Although I expect the bravos in Cádiz do not jump that high- ‘
‘Not…quite.’ Theresa whispered unsteadily, drooping to the deck like a wilting flower. Her legs had completely given way under her. ‘I- if you don’t mind, I’d like to just…sit still for a moment-’
‘Not here, Señora.’ The other officer said abruptly, looking alarmed at the prospect of a half-fainting woman cluttering up the foredeck. The hands that were still working the María had stopped dead on seeing the figure of a woman, and had begun to cluster curiously about them. ‘Capitán will begin salvage from your Inglés ship soon. The deck is no place for a woman.’ He darted a reproving glance at his fellow officer. ‘She should be below! Out of sight-’
Magda sighed. ‘Why?’ He said bluntly. ‘Santos, half the men already know we have a…prisoner.’ He eyed Theresa somewhat diffidently. ‘An… unconventional prisoner, true, but-‘
It was news to Theresa that the dead could flush – and it was not exactly a flush, given there was no living blood running through the crews’ veins. But Officer Santos’ cheeks darkened to a sullen, bruise-like purple at his brother-officer’s chaff, glaring at him with an irritation that was all too human. He muttered something uncomplimentary under his breath, before pulling Magda aside, dropping his voice to a low, savage whisper.
‘Oh? You think it will reassure the men, knowing that el Capitán has taken a Spanish lady hostage? It looks…’ Santos paused, looking pointedly at the dazed Theresa, still clinging gingerly to the rotting ships rail. ‘It looks… bad.’
‘And you think lying to them and hiding her away will make things better, Santos? They aren’t fools. They’re unsettled enough as it is. Do things openly, at least - not skulking in the dark. They need encouragement-‘
‘What is encouraging about any of this?’
They both paused, to look dubiously at her.
‘It makes no sense. Why did he even take her? He was going to let her go-‘
‘Who knows? El Capitán is el Capitán. He changes like the tide.’ Magda shrugged, before pulling free of Santo’s grip as Theresa began to stagger to her feet.
The world no long seemed quite so ready to slide sideways into blurred dizziness, and she could make some sense of her surroundings – for what little sense they made.
She’d heard of ghost ships. Cádiz had a ghost-ship of its very own, so the fishermen said. If you were out early in the bay - just between the break of dawn and the still of night -you might catch a glimpse a gleaming white ghost ship made of ivory, bright golden lights strung between her masts. There would be music and laughter, if you were close enough; the sounds of a grand party, floating across the water. Theresa had suspected it was another soft fairy-tale of Niñera Inez’s.
But... the ship of the Maldito de Dios was nothing so pretty or benign. La María Silenciosa wasn’t so much a ghost ship - as a dead ship.
Theresa knew about dead ships.
When she was little -very little, before school and Marseilles – her father used to take her to the shipyards. Sometimes it was to see the fine new ships still being built the ones that still smelt of sawdust and fresh paint, where her father did the carvings. Ornate ship carvings had still been in fashion at the time; the sort with gargoyles and mermaids and saints, all jogging carved elbows in gothic niches that would rival a cathedral altarpiece. Don Balthasar used to point out the work from his own workshops, bright and new.
And then they would ride on to a different part of the shipyard at Arsenal De La Carracas: a place where ships went to die.
It happened. When they were broken beyond repair by some sea-battle or treacherous storm, occasionally a ship would manage to sail limping into port with only stretched out sailcloth keeping out the water from the damage – too badly damaged to repair. Once in dock, they’d be decommissioned and broken up for scrap, or pieces of good lumber would be snapped up to be used in some other, half-built ship. Nothing went to waste. Shipbuilders were canny like that.
The place used to have a melancholy fascination for her father, Theresa remembered. He used to go and buy the pieces no right-thinking shipbuilder would take; the old figureheads from the scrap merchants (No sane captain would take a ship with an old ship’s figurehead . It was bad luck of the worst kind.) Sometimes it would be bits of carved fretwork where the carving was simply too fine for him to see it end up as firewood.
Her mother used to scold him with good-natured exasperation when he’d come home with old salt encrusted pieces of timber strapped to the cart.
‘You’re too soft-hearted for business, my love. What use is that?’ she’d say, staring at some scratched up gryphon, or splintered mermaid. ‘It’s no good to anyone!
But Don Balthasar was always unrepentant about his purchases. They would go on a shelf in the workshop, to serve as models for the apprentices.
‘They’ve served well, in their time.’ he’d say, holding Theresa up to the shelf so her wondering child-eyes could see them. ‘They deserve another chance.’
Theresa wasn’t sure even her father could have found something salvageable in the María. She was a sad, lichen-covered hulk with a crippled mainmast and rotting ratlines, a few idly tethered bits of rope and ragged canvas suggesting the desiccated remnants of foresails . If Theresa looked down, she could see the topsy-turvy sight of blue water through the ships exposed ribs and smashed lower decks, great chunks of worm-eaten timber wholly gone. It was a skeleton ship. A malevolent, dead thing.
But it sailed, nonetheless. With its dead crew aboard, to man sails that no longer flew, and haul ropes that no longer existed.
Briefly, Theresa caught herself wondering what the figurehead was like. Her father would have asked to see it, regardless, if the Maria Silenciosa had sailed into Cádiz.
Of course it sails, a mad, sing-song voice in the back of Theresa’s head murmured. A dead ship for a dead captain. “As in life, so in death”, remember?
Officer Magda was sizing her up, shrewdly. ‘Can you walk?’ He said bluntly. ‘If not, we will carry you-‘
‘There’s no need for that,’ Theresa said hastily, mentally recoiling from the thought of being hefted like a sack of potatoes by those dead hands. ‘I can walk, señor-’
‘Good.’ Magda said briskly. ‘In that case -‘
His shoulders suddenly stiffened, like a cat scenting danger.
Blocking their path was a knot of wraith-like sailors; evidently the few that had been left behind to man la María. Staring. Unmoving. And all looking at Theresa with that same, desperate hopelessness that she had seen from the boarding party aboard the Essex.
There was a moment’s dull, heavy silence. Both officers stared at the advancing tide of men, a prickle of unspoken tension sharpening the air between them. Magda let out a quiet stream of French obscenity softly, under his breath.
Officer Santos quietly but determinedly placed himself between Theresa and the approaching crowd, one hand on his sword-hilt.
‘You have work to do, Mendoza,’ he said sharply, addressing a man at the fore of the crowd. He was a small, wizened little man with one arm missing and half his right leg blasted away. ‘So do the others. Best get to it before el teniente returns and finds you slacking...’
The man didn’t so much as bat an eyelid.
‘That’s her, then?’ he said hungrily.
He sidled crabwise, trying to get a better glimpse of Theresa through Officer Santos’ shattered chest. ‘You from Spain, miss? Like they say?’
‘Out of turn, Mendoza!’ Santos’ sword was more than half out of its scabbard now. ‘You know el Capitan’s orders –‘
Theresa, frozen by the unexpected surge of interest, had nodded wordlessly, her mouth dry.
‘Don’t answer them!’ Magda barked at her.
But it was too late. Mendoza’s eyes had lit up with a terrible gladness at seeing her response. He came forward a few paces, ignoring Officer’s Santos’ outstretched blade.
Have you been to Bilbao, Señora?’ he asked, urgently. ‘Know anyone from the whaling fleet? Only there’s my brother, see, he’d still be alive- ‘
To Theresa’s horror, in his haste – he actually pushed – pushed, as though it was no more than a stray branch – against the sword blade until it slid through his body – simply so he could get closer. She backed away, shaking her head.
And then the rest began.
‘You from Valencia, miss?’
‘God, who cares about bloody Valencia!’ One rough, bearded hand cried impatiently. ‘Listen, Señora, if you know Murcia, then-‘
‘What about Montevideo, ma’am?’ Another man put in impatiently. ‘We throw them Portuguese out? My sister was going to emigrate, soon as the war was done-‘
They began to crowd round, thrusting their dead faces close around her to shout their questions.
‘Have you seen a corn merchant called Aurelio de la Cruz? He sells his grain on the corner between-‘
‘My mother? Is she still alive?’
‘My sons- they were only children-‘
A single disembodied hand reached out, attempting to pluck at Theresa’s shoulder to get her attention. She noticed with dreamy horror that there was still a steel-buttoned cuff attached – even some neat lace edging on the shirt sleeve, trailing after it-
‘Enough!’ Santos lunged, pushing back the sailor impaled on his sword. There was a terrible sucking noise as six inches of steel withdrew from Mendoza’s body. It was like... like watching a roast chicken be slid from a spit, ready for table.
But it barely seemed to have inconvenienced Mendoza. He shoved back at Santos with both hands, scowling blackly.
‘Keeping her to yourselves, are you?’ he yelled. ‘Ain’t that always the way?! Officers get to know – not us! We can go hang, for all you fine gentlemen care-’
Someone else jostled another man out of the way, cursing. A scuffle broke out at the back, causing the group to surge dangerously forward, still shouting scraps of old names, old places –
It was almost worse than if they had wanted to kill her.
They’re going to trample me down, Theresa thought, terrified, falling into a half-crouch behind Officer Santos . They won’t mean to, but they’ll trample me down, or crush me, like pilgrims in the processions – or I won’t be able to stand it any more and then I’ll scream…
Officer Magda, meanwhile, had weighed up the situation, and didn’t care for what he saw. He moved forward with surprising swiftness, drawing his own sword, brandishing it by the flat like an angry schoolmaster .
‘You’re all fools.’ He said roughly. ‘This is mutiny, Mendoza. You want to risk everything for what? This?’ He dismissively indicated Theresa, huddled behind Officer Santos. ‘Hands off!’ He beat back the single hand from Theresa’s shoulder with sudden violence. ‘All of you. That includes you, Fuscaro. Back! ’
‘But she might-‘
‘What the hell can she know of your brother, Mendoza?’ Santos cried angrily. ‘She couldn’t tell you anything now even if she wanted to. You’ve all frightened her half out of her wits!’
That wasn’t quite fair, Theresa thought – but it would be a lie to say she was utterly unshaken. A crowd of horrifically eager dead men, all shoving and pushing in an effort to get to her, had left her unable to speak – scarcely to think. But now she began to grasp what it was they had wanted.
Theresa slowly brought her arms down from where she had thrown them over her head, faint stirrings of pity moving at last. ‘They want to...to know what happened to their families?’
‘They are not allowed to ask.’ Santos said curtly, scowling at the crew. ‘It is not their place – or ours, to know anything of –‘ he paused, as though summoning some inner resolve, ‘- home.’ He glanced over one shoulder at her, pale, mismatched eyes blinking at Theresa’s appalled face. ‘It is the law of el Capitán, Señora. We have already given our lives for Spain. We have no right to know anything more, except how best to follow orders.’ He stared straight ahead, avoiding the look of outrage in Theresa’s eyes. ‘Life is nothing more than a - a distraction for us, Señora.’
‘Which means,’ Magda muttered, through gritted teeth, ‘No questions from them.’ He darted a warning glance at Theresa. ‘Don’t provoke them, Señora. No answers-’
‘Easy for you to say, Magda,’ a voice rumbled menacingly from the back of the crowd. ‘Who’d you leave behind who’d miss you?’
Officer Magda’s face froze, for an instant. Something raw and stricken skittered across his expression that Theresa recognised: pain, swiftly followed by anger...
There was a heavy step from behind them.
Lieutenant Lesaro had appeared on the deck – so silently Theresa hadn’t even felt the swirl of flaking ash that must have heralded his approach.
She could tell at once why Lesaro was second in command. His voice had been mild, but it had the same steely inflection of a schoolmaster approaching a chastened classroom. ‘You know what the penalty is for that...’
A terrible silence fell over the deck. At the back of the crowd, crew-members began to shuffle nonchalantly away, sloping back their tasks as though they had never left – until only Mendoza and a small knot of men remained, sullenly but doggedly standing their ground, staring at the officers with an open, burning resentment.
Officer Santos looked visibly relieved. Theresa had the distinct feeling the cavalry had just come to the rescue. ‘Teniente! We were just-‘
‘I know, officer.’ Lesaro said tightly. I heard el Capitán give you your orders. So I am astounded to find that any man here would question it- let alone prevent an officer from performing his duty...’
‘But sir!’ Mendoza burst out. ‘We only wanted to -‘
He faltered under the lieutenant’s stony look.
‘Just so there can be no misunderstanding: the lady is now a ward of el Capitán.’ Lesaro advanced a step, raising his voice just a fraction. ‘Under his personal protection. He said as much. So it follows – the usual rules regarding a lady of rank apply – and they apply to everyone.’
More men drifted away. It was Mendoza alone now, face twisting with anger and the stale taste of defeat.
‘Is that really what you want, Mendoza?’ Magda asked softly. He had readjusted his mask of cold disdain to recover his usual poise – and he smiled grimly at the remaining crewman. ‘To go against him?’
Mendoza shuffled from foot to foot. ‘No -‘ he mumbled.
Mendoza’s eyes flickered towards Lesaro’s forbidding expression, before he finally admitted defeat. ‘No... sir.’ He spat the word like it was a curse, before slowly ambling back towards the main deck. Even his hunched back radiated sullen rebellion.
Theresa let out a choked breath she hadn’t even realised she’d been holding in. For a moment there, she hadn’t been sure that anything would have moved them.
‘Many thanks, teniente,’ Santos said quietly, as soon as the men were out of earshot. ‘We tried to move quickly, but-‘
‘Bah!’ Lesaro waved a hand impatiently. ‘These are... unusual circumstances.’ His gaze moved briefly to Theresa. ‘But you should have beaten them back sooner-’
‘They didn’t present much opportunity for moving,’ Magda said stiffly. Evidently he hadn’t taken kindly to the lieutenant’s reprimand. ‘And they were already restless-‘
‘You are officers of Spain.’ Lesaro said sternly. He took Theresa’s arm in the same careful fashion as before, just touching her sleeve with the tips of his fingers. ‘For the men, you are as much Spain as King Luis Felipe. Make them remember whose dignity you represent.’ He nodded, tersely. ‘Follow my lead. Make sure we are not followed.’
Theresa couldn’t suppress a small choke of surprise as they descended the stairs. She bit back the exclamation, remembering the terrible reaction of the crew simply at her nod. She would have to remember that. Knowledge, even of simple, day-to-day affairs, was a dangerous business.
But her mind was working furiously, behind her blank expression.
Luis Felipe was what her father had called the ‘Summer King’. He had been crowned, reigned, and died all in a year – the same year her father had started courting her mother. He’d been a boy of sixteen at the time, her papa. A man long since in his grave.
How old were these men? And how long had they-
But no. That couldn’t be right. The “Maldito de Dios” were a recent thing, from what Jacinta had said. No-one had even heard of them until a few months ago, when the shipping troubles had begun. If they had been dead since Luis Felipe’s day, then...
It didn’t make sense.
‘We had some hesitation in knowing where to stow the lady,’ Magda said sourly, as they went below. ‘As there is little in the way of floor, on the lower decks. Or timber that has more consistency than maggoty cheese-‘
He made a faintly ironic bow towards her. ‘Lo siento, Señora, but you are a somewhat unusual occurrence. Our capitán is not usually inclined to take prisoners-‘
Lesaro stopped short, rounding on Magda with every evidence of impatience.
‘Prisoner? Did you not hear him?’ He demanded fiercely. ‘Did you not hear your own capitán? The lady is not a prisoner. She is a…’ His strange, lemon-yellow eye fell uneasily on Theresa ‘ – a… guest.’
Theresa couldn’t help but notice the lieutenant avoided meeting her eyes as he said that. He seemed to be trying to half-convince himself; as if saying it made it so.
It was certainly news to his officers. Santos and Magda exchanged startled glances.
‘Er... forgive me, teniente, but I thought- I thought you merely said that to the men so they would-‘
‘No, Miguel. I did not.’ Lesaro said icily, his one good eye glowing like a banked coal. ‘I do not lie to them. What I say, I say to all. As truth.’ He sighed, seeming to ponder. ‘“Out of harm’s way”’, Capitán says,’ he murmured, under his breath. ‘That is more easily said than done these days-’
‘I thought maybe the gunroom, teniente,’ Santos suggested. ‘It is secure-‘
‘Bien, and we have no brig-‘
‘No. Not the gunroom.’ Lesaro said abruptly. ‘It would not be... healthy.’ He sighed. ‘The old wardroom. That will have to do.’ He turned around, gently ushering Theresa after him. ‘This way, Señora.’
Theresa ventured a timidly curious sideways glance at the lieutenant. She had wondered about the man who had spoken to her so courteously in the midst of all hell breaking loose, even before she learned more of the crew’s…nature. He looked – tired, insofar as you could read an expression beneath the chalky pallor and death-stiffened features. Tired, and wearied to the bone. She found herself wondering, somewhat foolishly, if sleep was possible for them – and when he’d last had any.
Manners idiotically elbowed their way to the front of her brain, urging her to politeness.
‘I must apologise, Lieutenant,’ she said quietly. ‘I never thanked you...’
‘Thank me, Señora?’ The lieutenant looked uncomprehending, and slightly impatient. ‘Thank me for what?’
‘For-’Theresa found it hard to call it ‘saving’. The word stuck in her throat. What could you call her current predicament? Still. It was the intention that counted. ‘For listening to me. For trying to help me- ’
‘Don’t thank me, Señora.’ Lesaro said abruptly, swinging round to look at her bleakly through his cracked face. ‘If you had anything to thank me for, you would be halfway back to land by now. Not here.’ He shook his head bitterly. ‘So no – don’t thank me. I did nothing.’
He spoke it as self-reproach, Theresa realised. She shook her head.
‘You did enough to make me realise I was speaking to an officer of Spain and a gentleman,’ she said firmly. ‘No matter the…circumstances. I respect that, Señor.’
Lesaro blinked at her for a few moments, face curiously impassive for a moment. When he spoke at last, it was with a faint tremor in his hoarse voice.
‘There are many things we forget here,’ he said, slowly. ‘Things slip…away. I should be ashamed if courtesy or decency was one of them.’
Something that evidently didn’t trouble his capitán, Theresa thought bitterly. Something of her thought must have been in her face – or else Lesaro felt the jarring contrast of his words against Salazar’s actions too keenly to let it go without remark. He swung his head suddenly towards her as if she had voiced the doubt aloud.
‘El Capitán remembers the decencies too.’ He said, almost defensively. ‘He is an honourable man. And he is fair, according to his lights-’
‘Fair?’ Theresa looked at him, hard. ‘You call his treatment… fair, teniente?’
‘You should not have provoked him like that.’ Lieutenant Lesaro’s kindliness faded away into cold courtesy - in the face of criticism of his captain. ‘He would have let you go. He wanted the boy’s blood, not yours-’
‘And I should have just – what? Swept my skirts aside and let your Capitán butcher him?’ Theresa said disbelievingly. ‘You know that’s not right!’
Lieutenant Lesaro’s expression hardened.
‘We learned a long time ago not to put any faith in what is “right”, Señora. Too often it is all wrong – and likely to stay that way.’
They stopped. Ahead, Officer Magda had silently unlocked a rotting door. Its framework was barely held together by rusting nails and the green bloom of mould across its planks. Theresa could see scarcely nothing inside in the gloom. Only the glimmer of damp and the soft slap of the waves beneath her that echoed through the cracks in the floor.
‘There.’ Lesaro said abruptly. ‘Until el Capitán gives us further orders.’
‘What does he want with me?’ The question slipped out smaller and more timidly than Theresa intended as she stepped into the darkness. ‘Please- give me some idea what he means to… ‘
‘If Capitán Salazar were truly the unprincipled beast you think him, Señora, you would be dead,’ Lieutenant Lesaro said stiffly. ‘As it is, I-’ he exchanged a brief, uneasy glance with his fellow officers. ‘In all honesty, Señora, I do not know what he intends. This is not… usual.’
He shook his head, as though trying to clear it of doubt. ‘Enough.’
He jerked his head at Santos, who stepped forward obediently. ‘Officer Santos will take care the crew do not approach you again. Magda?’
‘Teniente.’ Officer Magda saluted smartly.
‘It has been a while since la María has needed a contador for provisioning. If we are to maintain a – a guest, you will need to take stock of what the Inglés carry-’
‘Sí, teniente?’ Officer Magda sounded doubtful. ‘If I may ask… just how long are we provisioning for?’
‘I will… clarify orders with the capitán. I do not believe he means to...’
He caught sight of Theresa’s listening expression, sighed, and closed the door, pointedly. ‘Walk with me, Magda. Elsewhere.’
Their footsteps faded into the distance as they walked away.
Theresa heard the click as it double-locked on the outside – and the heavy creak as Officer Santos rested his back against the dilapidated door.
She was left alone.
There had been little time for reaction during the events of the last few hours. Things had just seemed to happen; one thing after the other, like a chain of Chinese fire-crackers going off all at once. The reaction from one lead inevitably into the other, until it was all a cloud of smoke and noise… and mayhem. It had been like that for so long, inside Theresa’s head, that she hadn’t had time to think.
She was thinking now. And she wished she wasn’t. The enormity of what had happened to her was finally beginning to sink in. Her arms and legs were shaking as if she was palsy-stricken.
Mechanically, her fingers crept up to her neck, where the usual comforting weight of the ribbon holding Sebastién’s miniature would be…
There was nothing there.
She hadn’t even been allowed to keep that. They (“they” being a strange, hostile muddle of English and Spanish, living and dead) had taken her freedom, her future, the few belongings she still had – and now they’d taken him from her, too. The last piece.
The prickle of hot tears blurred her eyes, made the ruin of a room waver and swim before her eyes.
‘Don’t cry,’ she whispered, shakily, under her breath. ‘Remember what you told Elena. Don’t give them the satisfaction. Don’t cry… d-don’t…’
She pressed one pink wet tear-stained cheek against a supporting beam, leaning her aching head back gingerly against the wood.
I am not sure whether Theresa followed her own stern injunction not to cry. But after a brief period of something (that sounded very much like weeping) from the locked wardroom, she at last made a dry space on the floor from her bedraggled skirts, curled up upon herself like a harvest-mouse, and slept.
Pardon to all for the interruption, but due to reasons of holidaying nowhere near a keyboard, there will be a hiatus of about two weeks before Chapter 8. Expect another update around the 15th March!
Chapter 8: Aboard La Maria
In which we are at home with the damned, and Theresa has another unusual dream...
It was perhaps as well Theresa was lost in fitful sleep, and unable to overhear the muttered conversation of her new-found captors.
There was a certain stilted incredulity that proved they were a little out of practice with the concept of ‘living’, as it were. Or of what maintaining a living guest aboard would entail.
Officer Moss stared disbelievingly at the list Magda proffered him absently between finger and thumb.
It had been a long time since provisioning had been part of any man’s duties aboard the María Silenciosa, Lieutenant Lesaro reflected. The men hadn’t needed to eat for a long time. Oh, el Capitán sometimes took an interest in their quarry’s cannons and armoury, if anything looked particularly powerful – there had been some improvements since their day. But their makeshift foraging was always, for the benefit of la María and Spain.
They had nothing else.
Having to consider food provisions was almost… novel.
Magda shrugged. ‘El Capitán is keeping the woman. I presume he means to keep her alive. So – therefore – provisions, Moss. See to it. Everything on the list.’
Moss scowled. He had been one of the younger members of the crew, and had hardly had time to grow used to the weight of his officer’s epaulettes before death had overtaken them all. But Salazar didn’t make any man an officer lightly. For all Antonio Moss might have been young, he had a certain northern Spanish truculence that made Lesaro hide a smile– not least when it tended to make Officer Magda grind his teeth.
He squinted down at the paper, taking in the figures. His eyes widened. ‘Bloody hell!’ He looked up. ‘Twelve barrels of salt pork? How much do you think one señora eats, Magda?’
Magda looked affronted. He by no means welcomed a fellow officers criticism of his work when it came from a young peasant ribald like Moss – and he had spent some time carefully checking the Essex’s provisions with something like detached enjoyment.
‘It is a usual quantity for a few months at sea,’ he said coldly. ‘We have no idea how long el Capitán means to keep the lady-’
He nearly added ‘alive,’… but he caught sight of Lieutenant Lesaro’s stony expression, and thought better of the phrase. El teniente took a dim view of any officer’s public criticism of el Capitán’s methods. He coughed. ‘Ahem – I mean to say - how long he means to keep the lady with us.’
‘Six months at least, looking at this!’ Moss grumbled, staring at the boxes and barrels the men had brought up. He lifted the lid of a barrel to peer inside, poking gingerly at a small wrinkled apple. ‘Where are we to put all this, sir? I mean – ‘He saluted hesitantly in Lieutenant Lesaro’s direction. ‘In the old days we’d have stowed supplies below, but – I mean, given La María’s condition…’
‘Hawser room.’ Lieutenant Lesaro said promptly. He had given the matter a little thought; vaguely trying to remember what he would have ordered in the old days. ‘It’s cool. The food will keep.’
‘Until we know more.’ Magda stared meaningfully in Lesaro’s direction. ‘We will know more, won’t we, Lieutenant?’
It was not possible for a dead man to get a headache. Aches and pains require the strange biological machinery of the body to be humming along in the background. But Lieutenant Lesaro could almost fancy he had the beginnings of one now. Miguel Magda could have that effect on a man, particularly when he asked questions. Difficult, probing questions. Questions that Lesaro often had no idea how to answer.
Still, he tried to be patient. It was merely Magda’s nature. Too much French philosophy in the man’s education, no doubt. It left him restless. ‘He will make all plain to us, I am sure-’
‘Will he?’ Magda raised his eyebrows sceptically, moving aside and lowering his voice, as Moss began to supervise the movement of their unorthodox cargo. ‘How am I expected to provision for a guest – a living guest, no less, if I do not know exactly how long he intends to keep-’
He waved his hand towards the hatch that lead to the wardroom. ‘How long does he mean to keep the “guest” alive?’
‘You believe el Capitán wants her dead?’ Lesaro said coldly.
‘I have no more idea than the man in the moon what el Capitán wants, teniente.’ Magda sniffed, one dark eye turning button-bright towards Lesaro. And neither, its knowing expression said, do you. ‘But I know his nature. And I was as surprised as you when he said he wanted her alive; and out of harm’s way, into the bargain. That is not our usual course-’
‘We do not question el Capitán’s orders.’ Lesaro said sternly. ‘If his orders are not to be questioned by the hands, still less are they to be questioned by us-‘
‘Even when they make no sense?’ Magda stared keenly at Lesaro’s uneasy countenance. ‘Come, Lesaro– I know you better than that. I am as loyal as the next man-’
‘Depending on who the next man is.’ Lesaro said sharply. He sighed, rubbing one hand wearily over his forehead. ‘Out with it, Magda – what is it you wish to say? And speak plain, for once in your life-’
‘All I meant, is that…’The irrepressible Magda lowered his eyes, unwilling to meet Lesaro’s stare. There some things even he found difficult to say. ‘Things are not as they were since the… Reckoning.’
Oh sweet Jesu. Los Ajuste de Cuentas.
The whole ship’s crew, even, it seemed, down to the bare wooden bones of la María herself, had vowed to put what they called ‘The Reckoning’ behind them. It was part of a silent, unspoken compact they had all made together, after they had gambled their freedom from the curse on a single, erratic throw of the dice –
And they had lost.
Or rather, el Capitán had lost. Their one chance at freedom – and el Capitán had got it wrong, somehow. He had been so utterly certain that the death of the Sparrow would mean an end to all difficulties. They had trusted his certainty as instinctively as they had trusted him in life.
As they trusted him even now. Even after the miserable failure that had been the “Reckoning” with the Sparrow…
Lesaro knew what Magda was asking – even if neither of them had the courage – or perhaps, the cruelty – to voice it aloud.
He was asking whether they had been wrong, all along. Whether el Capitán was, perhaps, unworthy of their loyalty. Whether he was faltering…
It was something Lesaro hated himself for thinking, even in the privacy of his own head. He would rather have died a thousand deaths in the hated Triangulos del Diablo than voice it – or admit it as a possibility.
A good Capitán, Lesaro knew, kept his finger on the pulse of his ship by remaining visible –a sharp-eyed, almost omniscient ruling figure, and Salazar had been a very model of an intelligent commander.
He could sometimes see the thought, from time to time, crawling across his fellow officers faces. Insistent. Resentful. Not often – they had too much loyalty for that. But it was there. And not everyone knew Armando Salazar as he did. To them he was el Capitán – an imperious taskmaster whose grip had only tightened in death.
Perhaps the old saying is true, that misery loves company. But – there was least one thing, Lesaro considered. Whatever la María and her crew had suffered, Capitán Salazar hadn’t – as many Captains might -sought to alleviate his own pain, or lessen his own hardships. He endured it all with them; and as one of them, grimly taking their long existence in the Triangle in his stride. It had begot a fierce, almost fanatical loyalty in the men that bordered on worship.
No matter what else assailed them – hell or high water, or something in between – there was always el Capitán. And he always had a purpose for them. Always.
Hadn’t he had given them enough resolve to carry on; even after the Reckoning? A lesser capitán, faced with such bitter disappointment – the prospect of an eternity of emptiness- would have cast himself ashore to let the Curse and the earth both do their work.
Salazar had kept to his usual post on the quarterdeck throughout those first few dark, empty, endless days, regular as clockwork – even though time scarcely seemed to matter anymore, in a world where the last faint hope of being restored had faded.
He had kept things...familiar. There had been a routine to it, in an unfamiliar world where the old drills and forms had suddenly meant very little.
But even Lesaro had to admit to moments of... concern.
El Capitán had been forced to confront the idea that he had been wrong. And, though he might fiercely protest that their Curse was all for the greater good of Spain – that they had redeemed the lives of thousands of honest sailors by their scourging the seas of villainy – Lesaro felt the protest was an attempt to drown out the screams of misgiving in his Capitán’s soul. The failure of the Reckoning with Sparrow had changed him.
That was the worst of it. For many years, even Death hadn’t changed the habits of a lifetime with el Capitán; not even during the worst times, when the days stretched out into grey skeins of endless nothing, and the men sagged like listless scarecrows, half-senseless in the strange, cloying atmosphere of the Triangulos del Diablo. He had remained the same then. Determined. Fiercely alert. A source of strength, in his single-minded way.
But now…some days Lesaro could address Capitan Salazar on the quarterdeck, and he would turn – but there would be a dulled glaze over his eyes that showed he hadn’t heard a word. That he was lost somewhere inside himself. Inside his own head.
That frightened Lesaro more than anything. It was possible Magda was right.
Magda saw some flicker of heavy acquiescence in his lieutenant’s grey face. He pressed his advantage, carefully.
‘You know him best, teniente. What do you make of all this? What use can he possibly have for a woman? It goes against every order he had ever given us regarding the living –‘
‘Ask him yourself, if you are so curious.’ Lesaro snapped tersely. ‘I, for one, trust in el Capitán’s honour-‘
‘I don’t doubt his honour, teniente.’ Magda said sharply. ‘I doubt his temper. You know how he is. And I doubt the men’s…tolerance.’ He leaned forward. ‘You saw what happened with Mendoza and the rest of them. They are agitated. Suppose el Capitán changes his mind and tells you to slit her throat tomorrow? I do not know what they would do…’
‘You know him better than any of us, teniente. You can speak truth to him.’ he said simply. ‘And you are his second-in-command. If he will tell anyone his plans, it will be you.’
‘You wish me to go and simply ask what he intends?’ Lesaro almost scoffed. There had been a time when Salazar used to hold councils-of-war with his officers; but there had been precious few councils of late. With any of them. Whatever he decided – he decided it alone – and took no advice or help from any man.
‘It might be something to settle the men.’ Magda shrugged. ‘Besides…’ His face grew sly. ‘You told the poor helpless señora you would clarify her position. And you are “an officer and a gentleman of Spain”, remember?’
‘Save your chaff for the messroom, Magda.’ Lesaro glanced up towards the quarterdeck.
He had noted that the door to the Capitán’s staterooms was closed before as he climbed the ladder, but he hadn’t thought much of it then. He had assumed el Capitán was still busying himself supervising the scuttling of the Essex. It was with a dim perturbation that he saw that he had shut himself away now. The dim flicker of a single light fluttered weakly through the cracks and crevices in the walls – some storm lantern taken from the Essex, no doubt.
What did el Capitán need light for? Lesaro wondered. Day or night mattered little to them now. Dead eyes can see everything if they choose. They are no longer bounded by mere human limitations. It was one of the few compensations the Curse had given them, in meagre measure.
But solitary thought and isolation were not – or had not been - Armando Salazar’s way. Before the Triangle, the living Capitán Salazar had always been briskly present in the now, firing off rapid questions and orders right and left. He had been almost uncannily alert – even to the whispered comments of his officers amongst themselves.
If Lesaro cast his memory further back (to the early days of young fledgling Lieutenant Salazar of the San Juan Bautista) you could scarcely prise the young man away from the officer’s quarterdeck for rest or food. He had enjoyed the feel of it, standing on the deck of a ship he could finally control. Even back in the days when that control was just the slighter share of a teniente’s authority. But then again: Armando Salazar had fought harder than most to earn the right to stand there. And what Salazar fought for, Lesaro remembered, he held fast.
He rapped cautiously at the door.
‘Entrar!’ Salazar called impatiently.
That was something, Lesaro decided, greatly relieved. El Capitán was at least disposed to see his officers at present. He had not shut himself away like an oyster to brood alone. He had taken to that after… after the Reckoning.
He entered, saluting smartly as he did so. ‘Capitán.’
Salazar was sat before a makeshift table spread with papers and charts; although he was not, at present, studying them. He leaned back in the charred remnants of his carved chair, scowling at something he held in his hand before he looked up to see Lesaro.
‘I was not wrong,’ he said briefly, throwing down the paper. ‘The cabrón was, indeed, a thorough man.’
A few words in English jumped out at Lesaro. In a flash, he understood. These were the papers from the Essex’s stateroom. Every scrap of written information that the ship had carried. El Capitán had been checking whether Scarfield’s threats had been mere bluster-
‘There is no doubt, then, capitán?’ he said quietly. ‘He definitely gave orders for the prisoners ashore to die?’
Salazar nodded, wordlessly. ‘He boasts about it.’ He said, tonelessly. ‘In his logbook. Here –‘ he shoved the book across the desk. ‘Read it for yourself.’
Lesaro glanced down at the entry.
‘…I have placed a good deal of trust in my Sword of Damocles, as it were, but it makes provision for any mischance. Mayor Dix is as pliant as wax. One way or another it should resolve the situation – we rid the island of potential spies and offer a check to Spain’s aggression at one stroke. Should it turn out otherwise-’ Lesaro turned the page. ‘And the superstitious rumours be true, the executions may easily be explained away to any offended authority – although who will truly care enough about scarce a hundred Spanish souls, half of them peasant farmers …’ Lesaro stopped short, disgusted. ‘I am glad you killed him, Capitan. He deserved death.’
Salazar snorted. ‘He deserved a slower death than I gave him. Had I known this to be true…’ Salazar stared at the spread of papers, eyes glowing with fresh anger. ‘I would have let him bleed slowly into the water so his fellow sharks could feast on his flesh. I would have made him watch-’
‘Granted.’ Lesaro said, watching his captain’s colourless face keenly. ‘But what now, capitán?’
‘We await your orders. Whatever you ask, we will perform-‘
‘But you have a preference, hey? You and the men.’ Salazar stared down at the mess of papers before him. ‘A marked preference? For what I should do? ’
His tone sounded forbidding. Lesaro braced himself for a growling outburst. ‘Capitán, we meant no disrespect to your...’
But Salazar waved him impatiently into silence.
‘I know. I know what you think.’ He stared down at the papers, from behind a frond of floating dark hair. ‘I have decided already.’
‘You have?’ Lesaro said cautiously. It was never easy to read El Capitán, especially when he spoke in that peremptory tone that brooked no suggestion or interference from his officers. He could have decided to remove them to some distant sea, to wage some fresh war -
But that did not seem to be his intent.
‘I had forgotten,’ Salazar murmured, ‘Forgotten about Madrid and their dancing puppet-show of ministers . Until I saw this.’ he prodded disdainfully at Scarfield’s logbook. ‘Because this – this snake was right, when he wrote this down.’ He smiled, mirthlessly. ‘You remember the Admiralty, Gui?’
‘Si, Capitán.’ Certain influences at court in the Spanish Admiralty had been why many honest, talented men were overlooked in favour of high-born crooks with deep pockets and little brain. Lesaro could, with some bitterness, remember being denied position on many a promising vessel simply because some nobleman had greased palms - so their sons could climb the ladder of promotion instead.
‘If it suits their interests to ignore it - bah, they will dismiss it. Of course they will!’ Salazar dug the point of his sword hard into the boards as he rose clumsily to his feet. ‘That is what they are like.’ His scowl deepened. ‘That is what the cábron counted on. Spain’s weakness.’ A snarl disfigured his features. ’Well, we shall show him.’
‘He thinks Spain cannot – or will not – act. And he would have been right.’ An unpleasant grin split Salazar’s face. ‘He did not take us into account. Or our capacities. And if the fools in government will not act, I will. No Spanish citizen shall die because of that Ingles’ bestia’s...arrogance.’ He turned back to his papers.
Lesaro almost sighed with relief. In spite of his bluster and roar in front of the men, he had meant to take action all along. He saluted, genuine joy in his face.
‘Shall I set course for Saint-Martin, Capitan?’ he enquired. ‘The men will be glad of action again so soon –‘
‘Not quite so soon, Lesaro. We shall... delay.’ Salazar’s grin grew wider. ‘I want them frightened. Give that boy time to paddle his way back to shore and deliver his message.’
‘If he can remember it, Capitán. He looked half-dead with fear.’
‘Oh, he’ll remember, Lesaro. How should he forget? When it was given to him in such a way? And with such emphasis. Such passionate... eloquence...’ Salazar stared into the middle distance. ‘A beautiful woman looking into his face as she sacrifices herself for him, and a chance to save her people? That is a scene no man, I think, would easily forget. ..’
‘Perhaps not, Capitan.’
‘And she knew the value of it, too.’ Salazar seemed to be musing, almost to himself. ‘She used the moment to speak and try to save what she wanted, all along...Yes...Bold. Certainly, a true espiritu marcíal ...’
Lesaro coughed uneasily. He did not like the note of rapt abstraction in Salazar’s voice – or the way his hands had stretched out, as though to caress the lines of an invisible veil in the empty air.
‘I thought – pardon me, Capitan, but before...’ he said, cautiously. ‘You said there could be no meddling with the living –‘
‘Si?’ Salazar swung round sharply, all the old irascibility flooding back it on his face once more. ‘I stand by what I said, teniente Lesaro-‘
That was a warning not to cross boundaries. Not to say it. But... No.
Lesaro took his courage in his two hands and looked his captain squarely in the face – the way he used to when they had still been brother-officers, and of equal rank.
‘Then why did you take the woman?’ He shook his head. ‘You could have let her go, with the boy. This whole business, it goes against your own orders. Your own-‘
Salazar’s head slowly swung from side to side; like an irritated bull goaded by some stinging gnat. ‘I understand your point, teniente.’ He growled. ‘Take care-‘
‘I merely ask the reason, capitán.’ Lesaro watched his reaction closely with one concerned amber eye. ‘If you have some plan in mind-‘
‘Hm. Yes.’ Salazar looked pensive. ‘I told you, I had a use for the Señora before, eh? Aboard the Inglés ship? Well, I have been thinking. About what we have, and what we do not-’ he waved one hand impatiently at Lesaro’s expression. ‘Think. We lack information. This happened because we were...’ he paused, ‘ill-advised. Had we known who to fight – well...’ He shook his head. ‘I am decided. This thing happened through ignorance, that is all. We will put it right...’
Theresa shivered in her sleep.
She dreamed of a sea of dazzling bright light – too bright, almost, to look at directly. But as her eyes adjusted to the glare, the cloud of radiance resolved itself into candles. Scores of soft beeswax tapers lighting up a large old-fashioned reception room. There was the sound of laughter, mingling with the blurred sound of a hundred conversations at once and the scrape of violins in the corner. A creaky trio of musicians had begun another round of old dances. She could even hear the soft ring of china and glass as servants began to serve dishes amongst the chatter.
A party? Theresa thought, bewildered. Of all the dreams she thought she might have aboard la Mar ía Silenciosa… She blinked. Still. There were certainly worse places to be – and it was so unexpected a change of scenery that she clutched at it, gladly. Anything was better than the realities of her situation. If her fevered brain had decided to send her here, she was not going to argue with its logic. It was almost relaxing, looking about her, looking at the faces and fashions…
Until she gasped, seeing a face she dimly recognised.
The last time she had dreamed of the little boy and his mother, things had not been so…festive. But here was the dark-eyed mother from the picture, dressed in silvery brocade and fine point lace, and holding court from a raised and painted dais like an enthroned queen – graciously greeting guests and offering laughing rejoinders to witty sallies from her friends. She was an entirely different creature to the tired, dispirited woman in a thrice mended stuff gown who had been selling off furniture the last time Theresa dreamed. Maybe it was just seeing her smile a little that made a difference. The worry-lines in her forehead didn’t seem as prominent as they had when clutching her little child close as another bailiff carried off a chair.
Good, Theresa thought. She deserves some happiness, even if it was of the stately, old-fashioned kind.
The fine Madrid nobility would have laughed at it. In these modern days, they kept stylish French salons painted with smirking classical nymphs.
But here, Theresa’s lady from the painting still acted the part of hostess from a canopied estrado.
No fashionable person in Spain would be caught dead these days with an estrado in their home. It was a relic of more medieval days, when the hostess and her female guests would socialise separately - mysterious, demure presences barely glimpsed by most of the male guests unless introduced personally by the host. The only time gentlemen saw unmarried ladies bar introductions was at dinner, closely escorted by a duenna - and scarcely even then.
Theresa craned her neck to examine the tapestry behind the hostess. Yes, no doubt: it was an estrado. A large mild-eyed Holy Virgin stared down from the painted cere-cloth and velvet drapery canopy over the raised platform. All the ladies were guarded by a gilded iron railing that looked uncommonly like an altar-rail. Old-fashioned Spanish gentlemen might have reverenced their women like saints, Theresa reflected, but she was glad she had grown up in a less stately household. The gilded bars of the estrado might be fine - but it was still a cage, of sorts.
There were also other alterations that suggested the family’s fortunes had changed.
The grim grandfather in the steel cuirass had been dusted off and brought down to hang on the wall, so his picture frame could be garlanded with ribbons and armfuls of May-blossom.
Some guests admired a beautiful gold and walnut cabinet that stood gleaming against one wall – whilst others clustered about the table full of refreshments, exclaiming at a magnificent sugarpaste centrepiece of a fully rigged ship in full sail across a frosted sugar sea.
This was no ordinary fiesta or name-day, then, Theresa decided. It was something special. Something… important. She didn’t need to look long to find the answer to her question.
Greeting guests at the door, a glass of rioja in one hand, stood the father. But he was no longer a slovenly half-pay officer. He was now splendidly dressed in what Theresa vaguely recognised as the old dress uniform of the “Flota de Indias” – and a captain’s epaulettes now rested on his shoulders.
That explained the festivities, then. The father had found himself a comfortable job with the silver fleet – and was reasserting his position in society, laughing uproariously as he took more wine from a passing servant. He appeared to have settled into his new enriched position wonderfully well, Theresa thought tartly, watching him. You wouldn’t think this gregarious, affable gentleman had ever been the sullen drunk intent on making his family as miserable as he was…
Perhaps she had best try and be charitable. Granted, the man had certainly spread enough grief around when his fortunes were bad – but his fortunes seemed changed for the better. He could at the very least make amends by making his wife and son happier now. And his wife did look happier. Perhaps she had misjudged him-
A couple of children ran past her, eagerly crowding towards a servant carrying a tray of steaming hot chocolate. It nudged Theresa’s thoughts back towards the little boy. She looked around, scanning the faces of the few children she could see in the party.
Where was he? She wondered, peering about. Surely he wasn’t kept in bed during a busy fiesta like this?
‘Little boy?’ she whispered, as she moved through the guests, unheard and unseen. ‘Where are you, little boy?’ It seemed vaguely important that she find him, somehow. He had always been there before, and it would feel like a wasted dream if he weren’t there, somehow-
And then she caught sight of him. He was darting under a tablecloth on lightning-quick legs, chasing something -or someone - whilst half-choking with childish laughter. He was dodging around the table with another boy; playing keep-away with a Seville orange and ducking out of sight of anyone who might scold. Theresa had done much the same thing with her own sister when she was small, back when Luisa-Cristina had still wanted to play. It made something sharp and painful twist in her chest, looking at it.
Luisa-Cristina. Where was she now?
For an instant, the dream flickered. Theresa dimly became aware of dam planks beneath her, the stale, sour smell of rotting wood -
No. Don’t think about it, Theresa thought quickly, fighting it. She fixed her gaze on the candles lighting the supper-table, striving to ignore the gradual seepage of consciousness into her dream. Waking up would mean she would have to think, and plan, and move her tired wits against the impossible once more. And she was tired - so tired of thinking.
She would much rather stay here, in the perplexing, comforting fog of a dream where she had nothing more to do than watch a child chase after an orange.
Her little boy – or rather, the child she was coming to think of as “hers” - threw himself at his friend like an overexcited puppy. There was a small sham-fight before he won, laughingly pushing the luckless loser to the floor and seizing the prize.
‘Too slo-oow!’ he crowed, waving the orange like a prize of battle. “Too slow, Gui!’
The other boy; a sturdy, curly-haired little fellow who looked perhaps a couple of years older, took his defeat in good part – although not without another token grab for the orange. Something about his placid child’s face looked dimly familiar to Theresa; although she couldn’t quite place why when she cast about for the resemblance. For a minute it was there, and then it was gone, fast as summer lightning.
‘Your turn now, then.’ he said mildly, reaching up to the table for a bunch of grapes. ‘You get to be the Barbary pirate, and I’ll chase you-’
Theresa’s child wrinkled his nose in distaste as he tossed the orange upwards, not liking the proposition.
‘Don’t want to.’ He said, plaintively, before throwing a careful glance over his shoulder at the portrait. ‘Besides…Abuelo’s looking.’
The other boy looked up at the portrait of the gloomy conquistador with the bristling beard. Its eyes did have a trick of following one around the room, Theresa had noticed. Oh dear.
‘It’s only a game…’ he ventured, a little disconcerted at the thought of a dead grandfather scowling down disapproval. ‘It’s not real-’
‘Doesn’t matter.’ Theresa’s little boy shook his head, firmly. He threw the orange up again, a little harder. ‘He watches over everything we do. Me and Papa and everything. Mama told me. And pirates killed him. So-’
He threw again. Harder.
From her high place on the estrado, his mother’s brow puckered at seeing an orange batted into the air by the dessert-table.
‘Children?’ she called, shaking out her skirts as she rose from her seat. ‘What are you doing over there?’
‘Stop it,’ his friend muttered nervously. ‘Your Mama’s coming. We’re going to get into trouble-‘
His hand darted out, to snatch the orange as his friend threw it. But he misjudged his aim; or else it was simply unfortunate that Theresa’s little boy had hurled it upwards as hard as he could, for the orange bounced from his hand and flew wide with the speed of a cannonball – straight at the fairylike sugar-paste vessel in the centre of the table.
The consequences were instant. And devastating.
The confectionary ship splintered, the spiders-web rigging falling with a tragic tinkling like glass. The masts, which had been mere brittle cinnamon wafers, snapped in a shower of crumbs. The pulped orange sat like the finger of fate in a sugar-paste crater, directly in the centre of the cake. They couldn’t have caused more damage to the delicate thing if they’d been aiming on purpose. And there was no denying it, or explaining it away. The impact of the unlucky orange had dusted them both with drifts of icing sugar, so they looked as though their experience had turned them prematurely white.
There was a shriek from the ladies at the noise – and a surprised murmur from the gentlemen. One man, aghast, broke away from the crowd to seize the curly-haired boy by one sleeve.
‘What in -heaven’s name?’ he spluttered, ‘Gui, was that – was that you?’ He aimed a cuff at his son’s head. ‘You young ruffian! I leave you alone for five minutes and you-you destroy…’
The destruction seemed to have left the man lost for words. No wonder he was apoplectic, Theresa thought, looking on in dismay. It might only be a spoilt dessert, but it was an expensive piece of spun sugar that had probably cost more than an average man – a prosperous lawyer, or shopkeeper, say – earned in three months. Ruinous, should the host take offence and demand reparation.
He grasped at the scruff of his son’s jacket. ‘I’ve more than half a mind to beat you here, in front of all the guests you’ve insulted-’
‘Wait!’ Theresa’s little boy had squared back his shoulders. It must have taken no ordinary courage to confess under the circumstances – especially as his own father was now beginning to shoulder his way to the front of the crowd- but he did it. ‘Lo siento, Se ñor Arturo, but it wasn’t Gui. He tried to stop me. It was me. I threw the orange-’
His mother had arrived first to the scene, looking appalled. ‘How could you do that? I thought I taught you better than-’
‘Do what?’ The boy’s father blearily pushed his way through the crowd – more than a little worse for wear from his own wine. ‘What’s the boy done?’
He stared, in an unfocused way, at the ruined centrepiece, and then turned, still befuddled. In an attempt to placate him, his wife moved forward to place one hand on his arm, trying to gently steer him away from the wreckage on the table.
‘Nothing that need spoil the party, dearest,’ she said, attempting a false note of jollity. ‘Your son and heir just decided to play at cannonades with the dessert-table…’
‘He did?’ He roughly shook off his wife’s hand. ‘Get off, woman - don’t fuss so. You – boy! You did this?’
Theresa saw the poor child swallow, expecting punishment. He moved forward slowly, as if his feet were made of lead.
‘Yes – yes, Papa – I mean, sir,’ he said. ‘I’m – I’m sorry-‘
But his father, instead of scolding him, let out a hearty roar of laughter. He clapped his son on the back, appreciatively, nearly making the boy go flying.
‘You can tell he’s my son, by God!’ he called out to the room at large. ‘A boy after my own heart, there! You see that? Not even trying, and he’s crippled his first ship! I tell you, the service will be glad of a man like him when he’s grown!’
There was a ragged chorus of polite laughter. Se ñor Arturo, bowing stiffly, released his hold on his own son’s jacket.
‘You are not… annoyed, Se ñor Paulo?’ he enquired, respectfully. ‘I must, nevertheless, apologise -I believe my own son may have caused some part of the damage-‘
‘It’s just sugar, man!’ The father waved away his guest’s polite excuses. ‘I’d order twenty more just to see the boys hit ‘em! What a throw it must have been!’
He peered closer at the wreck of a dessert. ‘Heh, look at that! Right below the waterline too! Ah, that’s a man who means business!’ He pulled his son close into a rough hug, before swinging him high atop his shoulders. Theresa saw his childish face teetering there, stunned that he was the focus of so much affectionate attention. ‘Eh, you remember that, my little lion. Always go for the hull. Dismasting- now dismasting’s a fool’s game. Like blowing away dandelions with your guns-‘ he gave a contemptuous puff at one remaining cinnamon stick mast, which blew over. ‘But if you hit ‘em – and you hit ‘em hard where they can’t recover – they’re done for. Sunk. Gone.’
‘Really, Papa? I did well?’ Theresa’s little boy still didn’t seem to quite believe there was to be no punishment. He was hesitantly beginning to smile – but he still cast anxious looks towards his mother.
‘Well…maybe wait until you move on to real ships, eh?’ Senor Paulo said vaguely. ‘But here, let me show you how I caught the Diana! Fine English ship, was the Diana-’ the father moved towards the bunch of grapes, and began impetuously pelting the ship with pieces of fruit, laughing riotously. ‘Grapeshot, heheh?’
The rioja, Theresa decided, was providing most of his good temper about the incident. The other guests had drifted discreetly away – or else formed in small knots, murmuring amongst themselves. There weren’t many other naval officers, Theresa noticed. Curious, that. All the gentlemen present appeared to be the sort of idle, dissolute rogues who lived off their wits and their card-sharping skills. Aristocrats by name – but crooks by nature.
From between the bars of the estrado, the ladies looked on narrow-eyed, looking scandalised behind their fans.
‘Go on, you try, boy.’ Senor Paulo urged his son’s friend on, to gingerly bowl a small candied cherry at the wreck. ‘Your Gui will be joining the guardiamarinas in a couple of years, isn’t he, Arturo?’
‘Why – yes…’
‘Well then! He does well. Though I daresay he won’t do better than my boy…’ His tone grew boastful. ‘Blood tells, you know. Mostly farmers on your side, Arturo, eh?’
There was a certain stiffness in Senor Arturo’s face as he bowed acquiescence. He exchanged an uncomfortable glance with his hostess. It said plainly, to Theresa: We both know he’s drunk and boastful. It’s best to pretend he isn’t.
‘Dearest!’ Se ñor Paulo’s wife interposed, smilingly trying to take the sting from his words. ‘You forget your guests! Isn’t the Marqu és over there waiting to talk to you-‘
‘Let him wait.’ Se ñor Paulo growled irritably. ‘He kept me waiting in his anterooms long enough, didn’t he? Dancing attendance on getting me a position…’ He sighed. ‘I suppose I’d better see what he wants-‘
‘With your leave, husband, I think our boy should be in bed -‘
Senor Paulo was still distractedly bouncing his little son up and down on his shoulders; but he sharply moved him out of reach of his mother as she held out her arms for the child – his old peevish instincts taking over.
‘Don’t coddle the child so!’ he said, sharply. ‘You’re always coddling him! He’s to be a man, like me, and my father; not some milk-and-water ninny.’ He snapped his fingers, and a smooth-faced footman came to his elbow. ‘You! Pour the boy a glass of rioja, and don’t water it down. The boy’s proven himself a man. He shall learn to drink like one-’
‘Paulo!’ His wife looked horrified. ‘He’s a child! Barely six! It will make him ill-‘
‘Bah, it will if you treat him so! You’re a man, aren’t you, boy?’ He took his son down from his shoulders to prop him on the table like a little doll. ‘You don’t want to be a baby. You want to make your father proud, don’t you?’
The poor child quailed, stricken. He could see, by his mother’s face, that this was the wrong thing to do; but with his father looming over him, eyes, expectant, trapping him with questions – what else could he do, but mumble ‘Yes, Papa-’, and then make a childish, choking attempt to drink the rioja?
Theresa could have struck Senor Paulo across his smirking face. She would have done, regardless of whether he felt it or not – if earlier dreams hadn’t taught her that action on her part only made the dream disappear like smoke. He was punishing his wife for her implied disapproval by hurting her with the only weapon he had: through his own son.
‘Señora?’ A hollow, unfamiliar voice drifted through.
The candlelit party seemed to blow away like smoke. For an instant, Theresa felt the damp floorboards beneath her, felt herself curled up on them-
‘No!’ She reached out in desperation, trying to hang on to the dream by her fingernails. She made a final swipe towards Senor Paulo’s face , trying to knock the wineglass from his hands. ‘How could you do that – your own son-‘
‘Señora Viuda?’ The voice was still there – and, alas, so was she. She raised her head blearily, shivering in the damp. ‘Madam Widow?’
From between a crack in the wall, a pair of yellow eyes glowed. Officer Santos was watching her, carefully.
‘You are awake?’
‘Unfortunately,’ Theresa mumbled, beneath her breath. She slowly drew herself up into a sitting position. ‘What-‘
‘You are to come with me.’ He unlocked the door, pushing it open. ‘El Capitan wishes to speak with you.’
Chapter 9: A Ship Interior
In which Theresa has a second interview with the mercurial Capitan Salazar...
'Tis thy presence that exhales this blood
From cold and empty veins where no blood dwells.
Thy deeds inhuman and unnatural
Provokes this deluge most unnatural...'
Richard III, Act I, Scene II
Theresa had hoped not to be exposed to another interview with Captain Salazar quite so soon. She wanted time to arrange her thoughts and muster her inner defences; so she could at least pretend to a little stoicism. As it was –clothes rumpled and clearly slept in, mourning veil still crazily clinging to her dishevelled hair – she could pretend to nothing.
But she dazedly rose to her feet and followed Officer Santos’ dim outline through the rotting passageway, trying halfheartedly to brush out her skirts.
A sharp, familiar bloom of pain in her arm made her look down. There were dark-brown patches of dried blood in the crook of her sleeve where the old beggar-woman's fingernail marks had broken out afresh.
She was bleeding again.
Hah! That would serve el Capitán right, Theresa thought, with a certain childish perversity. I shall get blood poisoning on this damp hulk of a ghost-ship, and die. That will teach him to keep me alive...
It was a rather hollow sort of revenge, mind. And a little infantile, even for her. She put it down to her disturbed sleep. Still…
Why has he kept me alive? What does he want?
She couldn’t bear the uncertainty. And to simply blindly follow yet another disconcerting ghost into the unknown – it was too much. She had to ask, or else she’d burst.
‘If you please,’ she said, in a small voice. ‘Señor Santos?’
A certain jerk in Santos’ ragged shoulders indicated he had heard her. He snatched a look at her quickly from the corner of his eye, looking startled. Perhaps he was right to be so. She wondered, briefly, how long it had been since anyone alive had spoken his name.
‘W- what does your Capitán want with me? Do – do you know-?’
Santos’ face shut down on the instant, locking down into a mask of studied blankness.
‘I have no knowledge of that, Señora.’ He said stonily. Theresa could see why he’d been chosen as her jailer. He might be soft-spoken, but he was careful; and loyal. And clearly taking no chances with his perplexing prisoner. ‘El Capitán ordered me to bring you to him. That is all I know.’
He strode more determinedly towards the ladder up to the desk, indicating the conversation, for his part, was most definitely over.
Theresa shook her head, trying to shake some sense into it. ‘I have told him everything I knew about the Inglés. Does he think I am keeping something back? Even now?’ Her voice almost broke, despite her efforts at control, into a wail. ‘What does he want?’
Santos gave her another brief sideways glance. He turned his eyes hastily away when she lifted hers to his.
‘I do not know.’ He repeated it mechanically, as though it was a lesson he had learned by rote. ‘I am not permitted to question my orders, Señora, or ask the “whys” and “wherefores”. I obey el Capitán…’
He stopped short, as though exasperated. He swung round to face her again, some inward struggle evident in his face.
‘Listen, Señora –‘ He began, before breaking off again. ‘Never mind.’
Theresa had the disappointing sensation of a chance slipped through your fingers. ‘Señor? You were going to-’
‘We are wasting time.’ Santos said loudly. ‘Capitán will be angry if you delay-‘
And then she noticed. There were a dozen pairs of eyes watching them; from above –even, Theresa noticed, from the shadows, half obscured in the murky bowels of the ship.
There was an audience.
She ducked her head and followed him without another word, huddling into herself in an attempt to make herself smaller, less noticeable, less of a target…
‘Don’t take it amiss, Señora.’ Santos murmured under his breath, as they climbed towards the main deck. ‘They are not used to seeing the living aboard la María. Let alone a living woman. They will not hurt you.’
‘What do they want? If they know I can’t answer questions…’
‘It is not that. They…’ Santos looked momentarily uncomfortable. ‘They want to look at you.’
Theresa tried desperately not to shudder, and quickened her step, following as close on Officer Santos’ heels as she could. It had not occurred to her before that she was aboard a vessel full of men who truly hadn’t seen a woman in God-knows how many decades. The thought; followed swiftly by the consequences of being a female unprotected and alone, scuttled darkly back and forth across her mind like a black spider, coating every sensible thought with cobwebs of silver horror.
Don’t panic don’t panic don’t panic-Oh sweet Virgin, what if that’s what he took me for? – Don’t panic don’t panic-
She found herself eyeing the horizon again, looking at the water. Would it be better to simply hurl herself over the ships rail now? It might be better than –
No, Theresa thought. That sneering bastard of a Capitán still had her portrait of Sebastien. She’d be damned if she’d die without that in her hand.
‘Here, Señora.’ Santos said, as they mounted to the quarterdeck, gesturing her towards the stateroom door. Light shone faintly through the burnt-out walls and cracks in the door. ‘In there.’ He said abruptly. ‘El Capitán awaits.’
He made no movement to accompany her inside. Theresa felt inevitable panic rising at having to set foot in there alone, her thoughts still buzzing with dark possibilities. She swallowed, clenching her fists.
Officer Santos must have felt rather than seen her discomfort. Without apparently turning around or seeming to take notice of her, he muttered under his breath: ‘Take courage, Señora. Speak true, and he will not hurt you.’
And then he rapped at the door, to announce, with the gravity of a footman, ‘The Señora de Barrós, Capitán,’ before turning on his heel.
Oddly enough, the assurance gave her some slight comfort. “Speak true?” Perhaps it was just questions, after all.
Still, Theresa thought grimly. I will take no chances. Her hands slid to the back of her head, where her comb still held her veil in place. Her sharp steel comb, with the wicked points. You couldn’t kill a dead man – but it might slow him down, if she used it well. It might give her long enough to take the water’s way out.
She tucked it securely in the pocket of her gown, and straightened her shoulders before pushing the door open.
‘Ah, Señora!’ Captain Salazar rose as she entered, with another gesture of stiff ironic courtesy. ‘I must apologise for keeping you waiting. But – you understand.
Business.’ He grinned, making her another courtly bow. ‘Scuttling your Inglés ship took time.’
‘It wasn’t my Inglés ship,’ Theresa said automatically, glaring at him. She stood stiffly in the doorway, holding herself straight as a poker. ‘I am not a spy. Other than that, I have nothing to say to you-‘
‘If I thought you a spy of any kind, little Señora, you would not still be alive.’ He gestured towards the single, charred and blackened chair. ‘There - sit.’
Theresa looked at him warily for a moment, trying to work out if this was a trick of some kind. She eventually decided not; but she remained standing, eyes mutinous.
‘What do you want from me, if you won’t kill me?’ she said coldly. ‘I have told you all I know about the Inglés…’
‘The Ingles?’ Salazar waved them impatiently aside with a sweep of a hand. ‘Oh. Them. You can forget the Inglés for now, Señora. They are of no interest to me yet.’ He looked her over with amusement. ‘You are a peculiar sort of prisoner, Señora. I have never had anyone complain so bitterly at being left alive before.’
No interest in them… yet. Theresa pondered. That was interesting, from a man who had so nonchalantly brushed aside the question of Scarfield’s hostages before. Her eyes must have shown her curiosity – Salazar had stooped his head, to better look at her expression.
‘I might tell you more, Señora, about what changed my mind,’ he said, almost nonchalantly. ‘If you sit and answer my questions.’
Theresa’s old fears returned with a vengeance. She eyed the chair, apprehensively. It would be harder to run – and she knew how strong they were, remembering the terrible strength that had pushed her backwards. Salazar could bend her like a blade of grass between finger and thumb if he chose.
The door shut behind her with a sharp creak – although Theresa had tried to wedge it open as best she could. It felt half-malicious; like the snapping of a steel trap. Cutting off all slender chance of retreat.
‘Before I sit,’ she said rapidly, in a low voice, ‘Or answer your questions, or do anything else – I want your word – your absolute word, Capitán, that you did not keep me alive just to…’She stopped, flushing. ‘To…ah -’
Capitán Salazar went very still as he grasped her meaning. He stared at her, brows furrowing.
‘Oho! You think,’ he said slowly, ‘You think I intend to – ‘
A hoarse whistle escaped from between his lips, accompanying by a terrible creaking sound Theresa only just discerned as hollow laughter – a bitter, wheezing approximation of hilarity from lungs filled with seawater.
‘A “fate worse than death”, as they say, eh? Rest easy. There is no woman safer on land or sea from the threat of that than you, Señora.’ He leaned back, gesturing at himself. ‘We are dead. All of us. We do not sleep. We do not eat, we do not drink. We do not breathe. But you think we still have the ability to… play the libertine?’ He raised his eyebrows.
Theresa flushed. She had not considered it that way. in her panic And certainly, it was a uniquely living function. She felt unspeakably embarrassed. Worse yet, Salazar half-seemed to be enjoying her discomfiture.
‘Dead men do not commonly speak, walk, or kill the living,’ she said shortly. ‘But here we are.’
‘Here we are.’ Salazar agreed. ‘And, señora, I am not sure whether to be flattered by your estimation of us as lust-filled bravos-’ his voice hardened, ‘or insulted that you think me or my men to be so base...’
Did he actually have the nerve to be offended by the question? Theresa bristled, despite herself.
‘I beg your pardon, Capitán?’ she asked, incredulously. ‘You are the same man who all but cracked my spine over the ships rail. What violence should I not expect? ‘
Salazar’s face darkened like a thundercloud.
‘You called me pirate,’ he growled, dangerously. He stamped about the room with vexation. ‘There are many things men can take quietly, Señora, but – I cannot hear that. Never that. You understand?’ He shook his head, furiously, clearly trying to master himself. ‘That was not what I meant to say to you. I –‘ he attempted a strained grey-tinged smile at her through blackened lips. ‘I am not a cool-tempered man, as you can see. I am inclined to be…hasty. For that -’ he made another stiff, old-fashioned bow. ‘I can but apologise.’ His smile became faintly twisted. ‘It is a little late in life for me to change it.’
That was the mildest description of the man Theresa would have considered: “hasty.” But she had to admit, he had a point. As in life, so in death, she remembered. He said so at the start. She nodded, cautiously.
‘Questions,’ she repeated, dully. ‘I was told there was to be no answering of questions aboard this ship, Cápitan. I – I have learned to obey orders, on that score.’ She ducked her head.
Salazar looked surprised – and not a little annoyed at this new obstacle. ‘Who told you that, eh?’ he said roughly. ‘Someone has been talking out of turn –‘
‘I learned it for myself when your officers had to fend off your own men from crowding me when I came aboard-‘Theresa retorted – perhaps unwisely.
Salazar’s scowl deepened into a look of open anger. ‘They did what?’ He strode forward, the rusted rapier twitching impatiently in his hand; as though it were longing to taste blood. ‘Who were they? Give me their names, and I swear,’ His hair fanned out rapidly across the air as he turned, sharp in his fury, ‘I swear I will-‘
‘I do not know the names of your crew, Capitán- ’Theresa said hastily, alarmed at his display of temper. Neither her father or her husband had been quite so volatile. They had been gentle, even-tempered, soft-voiced men. Talking to Capitan Salazar felt like… felt sitting on the edge of a spitting volcano. And the stress of the last few days was beginning to tell on her.
‘I do.’ Salazar said grimly. ‘And I shall- ’He stopped short. He had caught sight of the way Theresa was swaying slightly in her chair. She had gripped both sides of the seat as though rooting herself to it, knuckles going white in an effort to keep herself upright – but it was evidently an effort sustained only by her willpower, rather than anything else.
He tilted his head on one side, examining her closely. His voice became gentler.
‘When did you last eat, little Señora?’
Theresa dazedly tried to remember. When had she last eaten anything? There had been some sort of dubious gruel aboard the Essex, but – that had possibly been yesterday. Or maybe.. the day before? She had no knowledge of how long she’d slept. The hunger wasn’t as bad as the thirst, though. The thirst was growing intolerable.
‘Hum. I thought as much.’ Salazar turned towards his desk, and began to pour something pale from a bottle into a battered tankard. It looked uncannily like a fine dessert wine Theresa had seen on Scarfield’s desk not two days before. ‘Your barbarous Inglés had decent taste. Not a man to stint on luxury, if he keeps bottles of Malaga in his captain’s pantry.’ He proffered the cup like a rare gift. ‘There – that will give you a little strength, yes?’
He limped over to the door of the stateroom, to throw it open and strike the deck sharply in a rapid little staccato beat Theresa found hard to follow. Another wraith-like officer appeared almost instantly, respectfully tipping the ruined remnants of his hat.
‘Some refreshments for our embajadora.’ He commanded. The officer nodded and darted away before Salazar slammed the door.
‘So! Where were we?’ he asked, briskly. ‘Oh, yes. Questions.’ He dark eyes glittering down at Theresa. ‘You are not wrong, little Señora. I do not allow my crew to ask questions. Questions imply doubt, and doubt,’ his eyes flared, ‘Doubt is something no Capitán should tolerate from men under his command.’
Theresa sipped at the sweet wine cautiously, remembering the dreadful hope in the crew’s grey, despairing faces as they had peppered her with hasty, whispered questions about Spain – and about their families. No wonder they had been so desperate, with a rule such as that…
‘I’m sure they don’t.’ she said, taking another sip. The wine was reviving her a little. She could feel warmth spreading to the tips of her fingers – and her mouth no longer tasted as though it were filled with cobwebs. ‘
They asked about their… families.’ she ventured. ‘Is that so wrong?’
It is a distraction.’ Salazar said sharply. ‘They have what they need to carry out their orders; for Spain. Why should a good man need more than that?’
‘What? But that-’Theresa tightened her lips, biting back a rejoinder. She had better not say anything to anger him.
‘Hey?’ Salazar stooped to look at her. His peculiar sardonic grin grew wider. ‘Ah, you do revive! You have colour in your cheeks – and you begin to argue. That, I like.’ He made a coaxing motion with one finger, as though trying to tease an opinion out of her. ‘You disagree, eh? You think me cruel.’
‘You can govern as you please, Señor.’ Theresa said stiffly. ‘It is your prerogative as Capitán. But I wonder at the wisdom of it.’
‘Wisdom of it?’ That had piqued Salazar. He frowned. ‘You think me stupid, Señora?’
‘No! No,’ Theresa said hastily. ‘I see things are… different. But...’ she paused, and then spoke in a stronger voice, ‘Would you have urged the same course of action were you and your men still...’ she did not like to say “alive” – but she could scarce think of a better word. She cast about, and found... “Mortal?’
A slight shadow crossed Salazar’s face.
It was true: whilst he had pushed his men hard in life, there had been limits. A good Capitán understood his men’s moods and could adjust accordingly. Men – human men - could withstand a certain amount of pressure before the tension snapped and mutiny and revolt were on hand. It had hardly seemed to matter once they were in the Triangle.
In the early years of the Triangle, they had lost men to a lack of purpose. When the inertia had grown too much, or thoughts of lost loved ones became too sharp – sometimes, you would hear the distant sound of splashing footsteps across the surface of the water, making a desperate run for the rocky archway –
And then the rocks would glow that hated red, and the fires of the Curse would take them. And another man’s name would be crossed from the roster.
Purpose – Salazar’s purpose had kept them from becoming nothing more than puffs of smoke and ash. Since the Triangulos del Diablo had let them go, he had kept them to a purpose because – how else could a man go on, with no end in sight? Especially since the Sparrow had-
‘Men tire, sir.’ Theresa said tentatively into the ominous silence. ‘They grow weary, and heartsick.’
‘Can we really be called men any more, Senora?’ Salazar snapped. ‘Your Inglés captors would say not. I think the living would agree with them.’
Theresa had no answer to that. She couldn’t disagree.
But your men still think they’re men. She thought, silently. They still remember. They want to know about their brothers in the whaling fleet, or their children, or whether their sister emigrated. You can rant about distractions all you like Capitán, but…
‘If we are not men, Señora, we can be more than men. So we can endure more. But to endure more, we do not need to be reminded of the old things. The old... ways.’ He stopped, snapping his jaw shut as though biting back some old and terrible pain, as a trickle of black blood escaped from the corner of his mouth. He swiped at it impatiently with the back of one shattered sleeve.
Pain. Theresa thought, watching the ashen, crumbling face convulse for a moment. I don’t think he’s talking about his men. He doesn’t want to be reminded of the old things. It hurts him.
How awful that black blood looks. She wondered what it was like, the stale taste of your own death lingering in your mouth, and felt a sudden twinge of pity.
Almost automatically, she offered the tin mug to him. ‘Here-‘
Salazar stared at her incredulously. Before she remembered: They don’t eat, don’t drink, don’t breathe…
She felt foolish, as she self-consciously lowered the tankard. el Capitán subjected her to another of his intense dark-eyed stares.
He gestured to his exposed jawbone, and the spiderweb of cracked and blackened skin on the left side of his face. ‘It is not a pretty sight if I attempt to drink, little Señora, but I thank you for the thought. It was… considerate.’
He leaned back, considering her with that same surprised curiosity he had shown aboard the Essex.
‘You are a most unusual gentlewoman.’ he said, almost musingly. ‘You have reserves of compassion in unexpected places.’
‘I was merely being polite,’ Theresa said coldly, remembering herself. She was not going to play at courtesy with the creature who had taken the last vestige of Sebastien from her, even if he had been civil enough to offer her some small comforts. ‘I would have done as much for anyone. Even,’ she added with a touch of spite, ‘The Inglés.’
In an instant the sardonic sharpness had returned to the dead captain’s face. ‘Oh, I see. You extend your angelic mercy even to such low creatures as dead men and the English.’ He chuckled under his breath. ‘That is fortunate, little embajadora…’
That name had begun to irk Theresa, like a burr beneath the skin.
‘You keep calling me that,’ she said tightly. ‘That is not my name-’
‘No? No, I suppose it is not. But it is what you are – like it or not.’ Salazar leaned back against his makeshift desk, an insufferable grin stretching his blackened lips. ‘I watched you, yesterday, Señora. I watched you speak to that Inglés boy.’ His eyes shone. ‘There was courage in what you did. But better than that, there was intelligence that moved it.’ He looked at her as though half-expecting her to thank him for the compliment. ‘You used your own plight to compel the Inglés boy to act. You made sure he would free your living prisoners on his return to Saint-Martin.’
‘I …’ Theresa was lost for words. She hadn’t considered her action in the light of a strategic move. Laid out in that way by Salazar, it sounded calculating and cold beyond belief. But she hadn’t thought like that! She’d thought she was about to die…
She had just tried to make her death mean something, before Capitán Salazar had interposed his veto.
‘That is what I need. That is something I can use.’ Salazar’s eyes had moved to rest thoughtfully on her face. ‘That, Señora, is why you are here aboard the María, alive. I am offering you a position here.’
Theresa took another reinforcing gulp of wine. She had a feeling she might need as much artificial courage as she could drum up for a response. She was just about to spit out a mouthful of defiance at him - before there was a respectful knock at the door.
‘Ah!’ Salazar said briskly, all ironic politeness. He held up a hand. ‘Don’t answer me yet, Señora. Consider it over dinner.’
There was an awkward little procession into the room. At their head, grave as a judge, came a silver bearded fellow with carefully trimmed moustaches, carefully carrying a covered dish with a ritual solemnity that reminded Theresa of High Mass on a holy day, closely followed by a trail of senior officers. The Lieutenant was there. Officers Magda and Santos stiffly followed him like battered tin soldiers on a string - closely followed by another smaller officer and a tall scowling second lieutenant who kept his eyes straight ahead. All of them grey-faced, decaying flakes of ash still swirling about them. None of them met her eye.
‘There are some things,’ Salazar said airily, as though this was perfectly natural, ‘that we are a little unaccustomed to these days, Señora. Dining is one of them. However, I would not deny you the courtesy due to a lady of dining at the officers table. So!’ he smiled, mirthlessly. ‘Here we are.’
He sat back on the only other chair, and motioned to his officers – who silently lined up against the wall. The silver-bearded dead man silently set the dish before Theresa before bowing and retiring to his place amongst his brother officers.
Now, Theresa had been to many an uncomfortable social engagement before. It was the fate of Spanish gentlewomen everywhere to endure awkward small talk and never-ending gossip. But never before had she endured the grisly prospect of a meal overshadowed by six dead men standing in formal attendance, not counting the Capitán. That made seven dead men silently watching her as she ate.
It would probably have counted as one of the most unpleasant meals of Theresa’s life had she not been too hungry to care. They could have fed her raw seaweed and barnacle scrapings and she would have eaten it, ravenous as she was – a lukewarm bowl of pease porridge was manna from heaven by comparison. She even finished the salted pork and dry hunk of bread that had accompanied the dish of pease.
Being gloomily stared at by decaying ghosts, however, did add a new dimension to dining.
Although they did not all stare. Lesaro had fixed his gaze determinedly on a patch of wall on the other side of the stateroom, as had Santos. The second lieutenant had put his hands in his pockets and was staring moodily at the floor.
But the others – the others certainly did. There was something… unnerving about the fascination the simple act of eating had for them. Officer Magda’s eyes kept sidling towards her in a sort of rapt fascination, despite his determined efforts to keep his gaze nonchalant – whilst the smaller officer was gawping outright. The silver-haired old fellow was watching the meal rather than her – although she was incidentally included in his observation when she lifted her spoon. Theresa rather suspected he had prepared the meal. He looked to be anxiously gauging her response.
Capitan Salazar was the most unabashed culprit. He watched her every motion with a fierce sort of satisfaction, as though every mouthful was a personal triumph for him.
‘That is better,’ he commented. ‘You do not look so much like a gust of wind will blow you away now, little Señora.’ He nodded at the silver-bearded officer in the corner. ‘My compliments to you and your skill, Suarez. You still have your old touch.’
The man brightened up visibly at his captain’s compliment, beaming proudly. It was like watching the sun come out across his tired face.
‘My thanks, Capitán!’ he said fervently. He saluted smartly, and stepped forward to clear away the dishes. ‘I shall do better, next time. I can still remember-‘
‘Eh, away with you!’ Salazar gruffly waved him off. ‘And the rest of you. Dismissed, until further notice.’
Theresa realised, with some astonishment as the rag-tag band of officers trooped out, that Salazar had arranged things like that on purpose – so the old man could see her eat, and hear himself praised in front of his fellow-officers. He’d been… kind; and where he didn’t have to be.
This was an unexpected side to el Capitán that she had not expected. Of course, it could simply be a show – a performance of humanity to get her to agree to… whatever this was. But something about the half-affectionate glance Salazar threw after the old man as he left felt genuine.
‘It was a good meal.’ She ventured, tentatively.
‘Suarez was my steward,’ he said briefly, looking towards the closed door. ‘He has not been able to perform his duty for more years than - ’ He bit off whatever he was going to say, and turned abruptly, limping away from the table. ‘He would be pleased to hear you praise his food, Señora. But - enough. We had better return to business.’
Sense had returned to Theresa. She had considered what to say. ‘Perhaps we had best be plain with each other then, Capitan Salazar,’ she said firmly. ‘You tell me you are keeping me here alive for a purpose – and in the same breath you mention you still have plans for the Inglés.’
‘Did I?’ Salazar’s face was impassive. ‘You have keen ears.’
‘You did. Plans you distinctly disavowed to - to Scarfield.’ She sipped contemplatively at her wine, trying to put the picture of Scarfield’s bloodied corpse out of her head. ‘Am I to infer you intend to …help?’
She tried to keep the hope out of her voice. But Salazar detected it all the same. He smiled.
‘Ah, the one depends on the other, Señora. I am prepared to… ensure, shall we say? That the little Inglés officer holds up his side of the agreement and lets their Spanish prisoners go. But that depends entirely on you – and your answer.’
Salazar rose restlessly, pacing the room. He was silent for some time. Theresa had the distinct feeling he was choosing his words, carefully. ‘I want you to act for us, little embajadora, you understand?’ he said at last. ‘There are places we… we cannot go.’ He seemed to have some difficulty admitting there was anything he and his crew could not do. ‘It is the nature of our…condition. We cannot make land. So, necessarily… our knowledge is a little…. behind the times.’ He grimaced. ‘What I want is information, Señora.’
‘I rather thought you might, Capitán,’ Theresa said airily. She could have laughed. Oh, she shouldn’t be enjoying this quite so much, but it was pleasant to see Salazar not quite so cocksure and arrogant as usual. ‘Considering you seem unsure of which king of Spain you serve.’ She smiled broadly. ‘Which King do you serve, by the way?’
Salazar eyed her suspiciously. His mouth turned down at the corners.
‘I serve Spain-‘ he said, almost defensively. ‘And her interests-’
‘And there’s nothing more you and your men need to know apart from your duty to serve Spain well. Yes, I’ve heard that song before,’ Theresa said flatly. Her eyes said, eloquently, You know that’s not true – or you wouldn’t be asking for my help. ‘So – you want my knowledge and my help.’ She sat back. ‘What are you prepared to give me in exchange for it?’
‘You will be allowed to live-’ Salazar said sharply.
‘Oh, you can’t pay me in such hollow coin, Capitán! Come! I already told you I have precious little interest in living!’ Theresa’s playful tone subsided. ‘There is only one thing I want as my price, Capitan. And it is a small thing to give.’ the ache in her voice was palpable – as was the steely determination.
‘Give him back to me, Capitán. Give my husband back to me.’
Salazar was transfixed by the change in her. She almost seemed to glow now, flushed as she was with food, wine, and newly-found bravery. She was a white-hot coal burning in the ashes; the smoky fall of her thin black muslin dress and veil merely accentuating her brightness. He could see that small pulse point beating fast in her white throat. He had to fight the terrible urge to reach out and touch it as he had yesterday…
It would be a small enough thing, to give it to her. His hand half stole towards his pocket.
But he distrusted the gleam in her eyes. It was a fanatic’s gleam. As soon as she had what she wanted, she would throw herself in the sea for the sake of that appalling wax doll of a husband…
He shook his head.
Chapter 10: Extreme Measures
In which oaths are sworn, Theresa is amused, and Maria Silenciosa's Capitan takes an unheard-of measure in order to learn more of his guest...
Segismundo: Your voice could cause my heart to melt,
Your presence challenge all I’ve felt,
Your guise makes my disquiet complete.
Who are you?
Pedro Calderón de La Barca, Life Is A Dream
For one, shining, hopeful moment, Theresa had thought she had gained ground. Something had shifted in Salazar’s face, changing his usual, coldly proud expression to something that resembled… regret, mingled with something else that Theresa couldn’t quite identify. His hand moved, for an instant, distractedly, in a gesture towards her, before dropping to the charred, disintegrating remnants of his coat –
Ah, the coat pocket, Theresa thought. So that’s where he has it.
But perhaps her triumph had shone out too clearly from her face. That, or the novelty of being accommodating suddenly lost its charm for el Capitán. Halfway through the motion, Salazar checked himself. Something closed-off and obstinate stole into the expression of those strange, discoloured eyes as he stared at her.
‘No,’ he said flatly. ‘No. I do not think so, Señora.’
Theresa almost rocked back on her heels. His sudden change of direction was a shock, and one that left her mentally winded.
‘No?’ she said, incredulously. Her voice rose. ‘The one little thing I ask of you, and you say-‘
‘No.’ Salazar repeated emphatically. He smiled, thinly. ‘I do not trust you so far as that. Oh, not that you are a spy-’ he waved Theresa into silence as she opened her mouth to hotly protest. ‘I do not trust you to keep to our agreement, if given the chance to choose eternity with…’ his mouth twisted, sarcastically. ‘your beloved husband.’
Theresa swore, silently, inside the privacy of her own head. Damn him. He had noticed her furtive, assessing glance towards the ships rail and the sea before; and had guessed at something of her own plans.
He had been right. She had considered it before, when there had seemed no options; plunged as she had been without warning into the horror-laden reality of being the prisoner of living dead men. But–
Then she’d thought of the shoemaker’s wife from Cordoba, and her seven children – carted away to prison on Scarfield’s say-so. Swift on its heels followed the thought of Luisa-Cristina, doubtless shut up with her husband as one of the Inglés lieutenant’s “suspect” citizens. She thought of Saint-Martin, and its unhealthy gaol – as well as the slender chance that hysterical Lieutenant Scrimshaw would be able to persuade anyone of anything, even if they believe his tales of disintegrating sea-ghosts.
And then, set against that, there was Captain Salazar’s offer, which played cunningly to her first generous impulses whilst giving him all the advantage. She had to play along. She couldn’t choose the sea and Sebastien now, even if she wanted to. That meant condemning everyone on Saint-Martin to death for the sake of her own maudlin satisfaction.
Which was something she couldn’t do-
And, Theresa realised, as she looked up to see Salazar watching her, el Capitán bloody well knew it. And had counted on it. He was using her own moral scruples against her.
He sent a grim, grey-lipped smile in her direction.
‘It is unfortunate for you, little Señora,’ he said softly, ‘but you are too valuable to be allowed to die. Crave it as you might.’
He drew out the miniature from his coat pocket, letting it dangle, tantalisingly, by its black ribbon, in front of Theresa’s eyes. She watched it for an instant; gratingly aware she was being goaded.
For one foolish moment, Theresa actually considered grabbing for it. But then she caught a certain malicious expectancy in Salazar’s livid corpse-countenance and realised.
He expects me to snatch at it. So he can laugh at me and my regard for Sebastien again. Because he knows how badly I want it.
She quieted herself, clasping her hands loosely in her lap. No. Don’t do what he expects.
Sebastien’s face span, highlighted for an instant in the weak flickering light from the Essex’s stolen lanterns. Salazar’s followed Theresa’s yearning gaze towards the portrait, lips pursed in distaste.
‘This is what noblemen in Spain are these days?’ he muttered irritably – more to himself than his guest. ‘A few years under the Bourbons and men become mincing afrancesados?’
Somehow he managed to load the word with more pointed dislike than if he’d cursed Sebastien outright.
Theresa’s eyes widened. For a moment she struggled to keep her countenance – annoyance at the intended insult contending with a terrible urge to laugh.
Had he really just...?
It was no use fighting the bubbling amusement that seemed to come from nowhere. Theresa attempted it, and lost, dreadfully. It must be hysteria, she thought vaguely, as she burst into choking laughter. There was no other accounting for it.
Her stifled peals of laughter made Salazar draw back with the snarl of a feral animal taken unawares. The noise was so unexpected he had trouble identifying it at first.
‘Eh?’ he growled at last, frowning. ‘You find something… amusing, Señora?
‘Ha hah ah- oh, excuse me, el Capitán,’ Theresa wiped away tears of laughter, desperately trying to get herself under control. ‘But...did you really use the word...? Oh, my stars...’ she laid one hand on the bosom of her gown, attempting to slow her breathing.
It wasn’t easy. Capitán Salazar’s reaction made her disposed to start laughing afresh. He was a picture of furious... uncertainty. On the one hand, he was beginning to scowl, in case there was some slight intended to his personal dignity. But on the other hand, there was also... perplexity. As though he couldn’t quite make up his mind whether to be angry or not.
Say something, a frantic voice inside Theresa’s head urged. Before he does make up his mind, and is angry. And then it’ll be the worse for you…
‘You must forgive me, Capitán.’ She amended, ‘I‘m not laughing at you.’ Well, not precisely. ‘But... oh, I haven’t laughed so well in months.’ Theresa looked up into his ashen, wary face. ‘I haven’t heard that word in years…’
Salazar stared at her, eyes narrowed. ‘The meaning has changed?’ he asked, suspiciously.
In his day, “afrancesado” had been a killing insult, fresh as the country had been from interminable wars with France. Being “Frenchified”, or a “French-alike”, was as good as throwing the word “traitor” in a man’s face.
Doubt flashed through his mind. Perhaps this was some sort of obscure revenge from the Señora for taunting her, by playing on his ignorance? It was entirely possible. He had not been kind. But he had wanted to judge her reaction when she saw her dead husband’s face again; to try and spark some fresh fire in her.
Laughter... laughter was disarming. Laughter had not been part of his calculations.
Salazar had not been in the presence of ladies’ laughter for a long time. Real, sincere laughter, that is – not the dismal croaking that passed for gallows humour amongst himself and his men. The sound almost grated on his ear, jarringly unfamiliar as it was.
In life, Salazar had been peculiarly thin-skinned where he thought his own person or honour was concerned. Even the thought of being mocked or laughed at would have once made him break out into a sweating, useless, agitated state that would ignite into unbridled fury at the least provocation. It was generally a state in which duels were fought and blood would be drawn –
But… this wasn’t that. Not precisely. And he had been struck by how agreeable Theresa’s small, spoon-shaped face had looked when filled with merriment. He almost wanted her to do it again, just so he could watch how her dark eyes seemed to dance…
It had caused something strange to unwind , like a taut rope suddenly gone slack, in his own chest.
Theresa, meanwhile, had finally managed to rein in her laughter – although the suspicion of a smile still hovered about her lips.
‘Lesson number one from my stock of knowledge, Capitán Salazar, is free.’ She said pleasantly. ‘If you mean to insult someone, for the love of heaven, don’t call them an “afrancesado.” No-one in Spain takes that seriously as an insult these days. You may mean to be contemptuous, but…Dios, you will sound like an old man-’ she mimed waving an imaginary stick. ‘The sort who complains about the new carriages young men drive through the streets. “You young coxcombs! No respect!” And you are no old dodderer by far…’
She broke off short. Behind the unnatural tangle of hair and his death-pallor, Capitán Salazar was...
Not handsome, Theresa decided, at last. There was too strange a contrast between the intolerable hardness of his features and the oddly sensual cast of his mouth for him to be considered handsome, by anyone’s definition of the word. Perhaps, had he been alive, some bored Madrid court ladies would doubtless have enjoyed the mix of steel and fire in his face –
That sparked another sobering thought. As her gaze travelled over the scorched old -fashioned uniform, that perhaps – those frail old men who whistled when they talked and who complained about their aching joints had, perhaps, been hale and hearty young men when Capitán Armando Salazar had last sailed from Cádiz. Or even young boys, scarce old enough to remember…
It made her pause, chastened.
Salazar made a dry harrumphing noise in the back of his throat. ‘I suppose I should be grateful for that back-handed compliment, Señora. In that you do not think me an “old dodderer”.’ He still looked a little distrustful, but his brows had unbent – and he had relaxed into a strange half-biting friendliness that he could seemingly adopt at will. He moved towards the bottle of Malaga to refill her cup – as though in tacit reward for the implied half-compliment.
‘I suppose it should not surprise me that things have changed.’ He eyes glittered darkly. ‘So, if I am to insult a gentleman, the insult of the current day would be…?’
‘I would hardly know how gentlemen provoke each other, Capitan, would I?’ Theresa said blandly, moving her hand carefully over the rim of the battered tankard. It might have been impulsive generosity on Salazar’s part – but on the other hand, it could easily be a shrewd attempt to loosen her tongue with wine. ‘I am a gentlewoman, after all.’
She ventured a half-smile. ‘But I would advise you not to use “afrancesado” unless you mean to be laughed at by your opponent-’
Salazar looked at her, flatly. ‘My opponents would not laugh at me long, little señora. Then or now.’
Theresa’s faint smile faded away entirely as she huddled down in the chair. She looked down at her hands again, suddenly all subdued movement.
‘Yes, Capitán.’ She said in a small, cold little voice. All the tentative good-humour in her voice shut off at once.
Salazar could have kicked himself. He had meant it as an offhand boast of his power, rather than a threat – and it certainly had not been directed at her. All that painstaking work, undone in an instant.
He cursed under his breath, and cast around for some way to rekindle the conversation.
‘I have frightened you, Señora?’
Theresa’s lips thinned.
‘Ah, not frightened. I have offended you. That is it! You think I threaten you as an “opponent?’ Salazar dragged a spare stool from the side of the table and sat himself down upon it, with an abrupt wince, so he could better meet Theresa’s eyes. ‘Well!’ He demanded. ‘Let us have it out, Señora. Are you?’
‘Am I what?’
‘An opponent.’ Salazar leaned forward. ‘Do you consider yourself my enemy, Senora?’
Theresa had been trying to puzzle out the answer to that question herself – and she had still not arrived at a satisfactory conclusion. She was hardly being treated as a… a usual captive, but the whole situation was so bizarre…And now there was a dead man sat opposite her, scorched ash drifting about his shoulders, roundly demanding of her whether she was his enemy or not. As if that mattered to him.
‘Give me back my husband, and I might consider a ceasefire.’ she snapped.
‘The return of your dulce amor to you?’ Salazar made a derisive, hissing noise between his teeth, when reminded of the portrait. ‘Ah, such a pity, to keep true lovers apart-‘
‘It is all I have left,’ Theresa said, her voice cracking unexpectedly. ‘For God’s sake, you know I will not drown myself! I will do what I can for you and your men, but please-‘
Salazar watched her sharply as she said that, examining her face for some tell-tale sign of deceit or duplicity.
‘You swear it, Señora?’ He said hungrily, a strange sort of eagerness in his face. ‘You will live, and act for me? For La María?’
What choice do I have? Theresa thought bitterly to herself. She nodded, wearily. It seemed easiest.
‘No, no. I need more than that from you, if you are to be our embajadora.’ Salazar’s cold face was suddenly close before her as he rose to his feet. ‘You must swear it.’
‘On what?’ Theresa asked, bewildered. ‘On the- the saints? The Virgin-’
‘No.’ Salazar shook his head as if they scarcely counted. ‘Here –’
He rose suddenly to his feet, flinging himself away from the joint stool to strike the floor three times – slow, heavy beats this time.
But rather than an officer hurrying to his call, there came the strange, unearthly groan of the ship’s timbers, all around them. For an instant, Theresa could have sworn the very walls of the stateroom seemed to contract and then move outwards – for all the world as though the very ship herself was breathing. Or… listening.
It’s the wine, she told herself, firmly. There has been enough impossible things for one day. Just the dessert wine, acting on me.
‘There! She hears us,’ Salazar said, with satisfaction. ‘She is listening, Señora. She will hear you make your vow.’ He rose, business-like, and gestured towards the door. ‘Out there.’
Upon the quarterdeck, the sad, snapped, rotting matchstick remnants of La María’s mizzenmast still trailed in the water at an impossible angle. If La María Silenciosa been a living ship, it would long have drifted away, or fallen into the water. But here, caught in the uncanny suspended animation of the crew and their curse, the huge fallen timber remained; as useless as a rotting tree-stump. It loomed black in the night air over Theresa as Salazar led her towards the helm, where Lieutenant Lesaro, accompanied by the surly second lieutenant Theresa had seen before, held the ships wheel.
‘Capitán?’ he asked, startled, upon seeing them emerge. ‘Is anything amiss?‘
‘No, no – at ease, teniente.’ Both officers stepped respectfully aside as the Captain approached the wheel, before beckoning Theresa over. ‘Here, Señora -’ His cold, cracked grey hands reached out to close around Theresa’s fingers, holding them fast to the spokes of the wheel. ‘Swear it on la María.’
There was a shocked indrawn breath from Lieutenant Lesaro – and a muffled exclamation from the other officer that sounded like a choked-off ‘Dios!’
‘Capitán… are you sure about this?’
‘Perfectly,’ Salazar snapped, not taking his eyes from Theresa’s face. ‘The lady has agreed. She will swear. The oath must be binding.’
‘But, capitán…’The other officer began, almost indignantly. ‘La María is not for the living-‘
‘Silencio!’ Lesaro said hastily. ‘El Capitán has decided, Cortez. No more.’
He snapped his jaw shut, as though biting back on his doubt.
Salazar ignored them both. His attention was all unnervingly fixed on Theresa, standing uncertainly at the wheel. ‘Swear it,’ he said hoarsely.
Oh dear God. What am I doing? Theresa thought despairingly. Making vows to a dead man, captain of a dead ship… and the final irony: swearing that I will not die?
But I have no choice.
‘I swear it,’ she said, in a low voice.
Theresa faltered, even as the words left her mouth. There was no mistaking it this time for the action of the wine. The grain of the aged, pitted wood beneath her fingers seemed to hum, some strange reverberating power dancing and sparking through her fingertips.
In her time, Theresa had dutifully attended many churches, from small shrines to great cathedrals. All of them had been sombre and stately in their own fashion, their priests doing their best to create an air of religious mystery according to their means. But she had never felt quite such a waiting, listening silence as she did here, at the helm of this floating impossibility. Her church prayers generally seemed to float away without acknowledgement, but…Theresa more than half-believed that Salazar was right. That the ship could hear her.
We’re in the land of impossibilities now, she thought. Why baulk at believing this? It wasn’t the strangest thing she’d encountered so far. Half the sailors in Cadiz believed on some level or another that their vessels watched over them.
Salazar must have been watching her face as she puzzled over all this; for when she looked up, he nodded almost encouragingly at her. Some of the peculiar charged tension that had animated him before she had sworn on La María’s helm seemed to have stolen away - although he still hadn’t released her fingers from his grip.
‘I told you, Señora,’ he replied as naturally as if she had spoken her thoughts aloud to him. ‘I do not answer for your vows upon the saints, but I can answer for my ship. She hears you.’ He gave another humourless smile. ‘And she will hold you to your vow better than any saint-‘
‘Capitán,’ Lesaro muttered, in an undertone. ‘Perhaps - not before the Señora?‘
‘Eh, eh. As you please.’ He shrugged. ‘My lieutenant appears to think I tempt bad luck if I blaspheme. And in front of a lady, no less.’
He relaxed his grip slightly, allowing Theresa to slide tentatively free of his grasp.
‘There it is late. Or early.’ He said abruptly, looking up at the dim sky. Day or night scarcely registered with him any more. It was a hazy concept he dimly remembered following once; like childhood prayers, or nursery rhymes.
‘Have Santos take the embajadora to her quarters. I shall defer the pleasure of speaking with you further, Señora,’ He bowed tersely in her direction, ‘for another time.’
Theresa had the oddest sensation of being dismissed, like a household steward – and almost felt indignant . Until her common sense, following close on the heels of her pride, told her this was something to be grateful for. She wasn’t sure how much more of Capitán’s Salazar’s changeable nature she could have taken in one sitting. A small helping of conversation with him, she decided, went a very long way.
She coldly made a slight inclination of her head in acknowledgement as Office Santos returned to retrieve her –
And then she remembered.
‘Wait! Capitán!’ she cried out.
Salazar had turned away. He tossed his head with a brusque air at being called back, like a fierce Arab pony champing against the bit.
‘Sí, Senora?’ he said, almost boredly.
Theresa had a nasty feeling she already knew the Capitán’s answer to this particular question. But she asked it, all the same. After the melodrama of the whole oath-taking business, she was damned if she was going to just tamely submit to being led away.
‘I have sworn on your María, Capitán.’ She said, doggedly ignoring Officer Santos’ advance. ‘You can trust me not to break my word.’ She stuck out a hand. ‘Give me my husband.’
It wasn’t a plea this time. Nor even particularly civil, considering she had just sworn some sort of allegiance to him. But it seemed to please Salazar better than when she’d begged him with tears in her eyes on bended knee. He positively grinned at her.
‘There!’ he said, half-admiringly. ‘As I said. You show espiritu marcíal, eh, little embajadora?’ He shrugged. ‘Trust takes time, Señora. And patience. Ask me again tomorrow.’
‘What, and receive the same answer I get today?’ Theresa demanded, hands on hips. ‘You try my patience, sir!’
For one odd instant, she thought she saw the suspicion of smothered laughter in the way his shoulders shook. But he didn’t answer her further, despite his smile. He merely resolutely turned his back, indicating his part in the conversation was over.
With that, as Officer Santos judiciously led her away, Theresa supposed she would have to be content.
He was playing with her again. He’d decided the portrait was far too good a bait for him to relinquish to her so easily, and he was toying with her desire for it, like a taunting boy holding out meat to a hungry dog. Enjoying her frustration. Her disappointment.
The utter... bastard.
To her surprise, however, she was not led back to her makeshift prison cell. As she turned towards it, Santos spoke, hastily.
‘No – not that way, Señora.’ He motioned her towards a different path amongst the derelict timbers. ‘We have different quarters for you now el Capitán has...’ he hesitated. ‘Agreed terms.’
‘Is that what you call it?’ Theresa said sourly. Expected though it was, the rebuffal still rankled. Next time he refuses me, she told herself silently, I shall use the comb on him. Dead or not, it should be hard indeed for a man to extricate a steel-pronged comb from his eye-socket and manage to keep hold of the miniature. And she knew where he kept it, now...
‘Here.’ Santos unlocked another door, and stood politely before it. ‘We may not have expected your presence, Señora, but we have made shift-‘
Theresa glanced into the room, startled.
Her first impression was... white. A sea of white. Until her eyes adjusted to the dim light from the lantern, and she saw that it was clumsily hung with canvas sailcloth roughly nailed around the walls over the gaping holes and rotting spaces to keep out the wind and weather . They had made a kind of makeshift chamber for her. There was even – and Theresa’s aching bones cried out in relief at the sight – a pile of lumpy ticking mattresses stacked haphazardly in the corner, with a blanket Theresa dimly recognised from the Essex thrown over it.
‘You made me a... room?’
Santos must have misinterpreted her blank look as one of disapproval. ‘We did our best with what we had to hand, Señora-‘ he began, uncomfortably. ‘We only had what we thought to take from the Inglés...’
Theresa didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. On one hand, there was something desperately poignant in the thought that, whilst she’d been playing cat-and-mouse with the Capitán, his crew had busied themselves to offer her what rude hospitality the María could provide.
But on the other hand, she also couldn’t help but think of the linnets in their woven wicker prisons on Marseilles quay: their prisons carefully lined with white paper, the bars woven into the shape of fanciful pavilions.
No matter what comforts had been contrived: this was still a cage. She was still a prisoner.
But Theresa was, despite everything, a gentlewoman. Good manners had been ingrained into her by nursemaids, the good sisters in Marseilles, and the threat of the birch twigs in the nursery corner. Besides, something faintly apprehensive in Officer Santos’ pallid, cracked face made her pause, remembering the dismal officer’s dinner.
‘...Thank you.’ She managed, her eyes snagging inevitably on the gaping hole in his chest. Greying ribs floated amongst the torn cloth and charred flesh. They were all struggling to remember what living was, weren’t they? ‘That was very...kind.’
Santos lifted a hand to his hat in a small gesture of acknowledgement. ‘It was the Lieutenant who thought of it,’ he said briefly. ‘I leave you now, Señora.’
The door snapped shut behind him, tight as an oyster.
Well then. Theresa thought, gingerly settling herself on the pile of mattresses. What now?
‘What now, Capitán?’
Lesaro’s gaze was disapproving. Salazar could feel it, like an itch at the back of his neck. He ignored it, bending over the battered travelling trunk at his feet.
‘You are sure this is all?’
‘It was all we found on the Essex, Capitán – yes.’ Lesaro said stiffly. He was not sure how to begin this conversation, but from what he had seen? There was no time to waste. As lieutenant, he had the unhappy privilege of being able to delicately express doubt to his commander – to prick conscience into action, so to speak, without verging on public insolence or over-familiarity. It was a thankless task, and by God, it was not a thing he had ever done, living or dead, with confidence, given Armando Salazar’s pride. It was walking tightrope in a tropical storm. But enough was enough, and the scene at the helm – el Capitán’s rapt fixation with the tiny Señora - was enough to give him serious misgivings.
He stiffened his shoulders, preparing for inevitable squalls ahead, and spoke.
‘Why is this... necessary, Capitán?’
‘Hmm?’ Salazar was barely listening as he examined the box. There were peeling paint letters that still read ‘Senorita Theresa Maria Gonzales, Cadiz’. The ‘Gonzales’ had been painted out to include her married name, but the newer paint must have been watery – the original brushstrokes still showed through. He ran a hand over the lid, abstractedly; wondering how much had been discarded. It was a small box...
He awoke to the question. ‘Why is what necessary?’ He said, vaguely, examining the lock. He could break it...
‘This.’ Lesaro gestured to the pathetically small trunk. ‘Picking over a gentlewoman’s things like – like vultures.’
That at least pricked him into listening. Salazar turned as sharply as if he had been stung by a wasp. ‘It is no idle curiosity,’ he snapped. ‘I wish to know... more. That is all.’ he fidgeted, irritably, with the sword –guard on which he rested, not quite meeting his lieutenant’s eyes. ‘I would not have thought you would find fault with a little caution, Lesaro –‘
Oho. Lesaro thought with resignation. I know that look. And that tone of voice.
He wasn’t telling Salazar anything the man didn’t already acknowledge, deep down, to be right. He knew it was wrong. But el Capitán was resolutely ignoring what he knew to be wrong, in order to follow whatever concentrated train of thought he had concerning the Señora.
Lesaro didn’t like to speculate on what that could be.
‘Capitán,’ he said firmly. ‘This is a poor widow, Capitán. Already unhappy. I do not see what more there is to learn from -‘
He broke off, wondering if he might as well have appealed to the rain-barrel up on deck. Salazar was already narrowly examining the lock, as if weighing up how much force it would take to break it and rifle through the contents...
‘Capitán. Please. This is...’ Lesaro hesitated, and then said it. ‘This is unworthy.’
The force in his lieutenant’s voice made Salazar stop. Even as his hand strayed towards the hasp.
‘You think... you think I should not do this.’ He said slowly. ‘That this is unworthy of my position as Capitán?’
His voice was quiet. But this was dangerous ground, approaching the volcanic slopes of Salazar’s authority and Lesaro knew it.
No,’ he said bluntly. ‘A Capitán has many things forced on him through the position he has to maintain.’ That earned him a dubious nod. ‘I am saying that it is unworthy of your character, Armando. You are a better man than that.’ Lesaro tried to speak more lightly. ‘To go rifling through a collection of prayer-books and old petticoats, searching for answers? Forcing locks, like a housebreaker?’
He thought he saw signs of relenting in Salazar’s face – a half-scowl that was as good as grudging assent.
‘Sometimes I think you believe you are my confessor, not my lieutenant.’ He growled – but it was a concessionary growl. ‘Eh, very well.’ He kicked the trunk out of sight under the table. ‘But I reserve the right to change my mind. If the Senora should attempt to deceive us -’
He wouldn’t do it. Not now, at least.
Relieved, Lesaro said something that he would come to bitterly regret.
‘Well. You already have what you need to prevent that, Capitán, in your pocket.’ He said lightly. ‘Her love for her husband tells you more about her than anything else could...’
Salazar’s head shot up lightning-fast. He stared at Lesaro, blinking.
‘What did you say?’
Lesaro coughed, suddenly uneasy.
‘The portrait, Capitán?’ he said diffidently. ‘The one in your pocket. The one you keep so she won’t act against you.’
Salazar smacked his walking cane into the floorboards – but it was a movement of suppressed elation, not anger. He struggled to rise to his feet, so he might pace impatiently about the room. ‘Díos. You are right.’ He murmured. ‘It will tell me more – and with more truth than anything else could...’
Lesaro had the sudden, horrible feeling he had perhaps not read the situation correctly. He disliked the reckless, anticipatory look that had spread over his captain’s face.
‘That is why you took it, isn’t it, Capitán? Just as a precaution?’
‘What? Oh. Yes, yes.’ Salazar waved him away. ‘You are quite right. Is there anything else?’
‘No, I don’t believe there-‘
‘Well then, dismissed, teniente. I have things to do, yes. Much to...eh, consider, before I question the Señora again tomorrow... ’
Perplexed, Lesaro bowed and left his commander, still muttering beneath his breath and plucking at his jacket pocket.
It was only after the stateroom door clicked shut after him that he realised what it all meant. And exactly what el Capitan was preparing to do.
But by then, it was too late for protest to do any good.
Salazar had already done it.
Chapter 11: The Inundacion de Memoria
In which we see the curious powers of the dead and how they may be used. For good, or ill.
The King dreams he is king and reigns
Deluded in his full command,
Imposing order in his land.
The borrowed plaudits he obtains
Blow scattered through the wind’s domains
As death – man’s life is so unjust! –
Transmutes them into ash and dust.
Oh who on earth could wish to wield
Such might when waking means to yield
It all to death’s dream, as we must?
Act II, Scene XIX, Life is A Dream, Pedro Calderón de la Barca
In the early days of their imprisonment in the Triangle, Salazar had made a rule against looting. Not because of any inherent baseness in the act; but because of what it did to his men. What it could easily have done to himself.
It had started slowly at first. One of their first skirmishes had been with a fool of a Portuguese privateer who had sailed, blithe as you like, into the Triangulos del Diablo. They had realised too late that they had sailed themselves straight into the mouth of Hell when they heard the impossible drumming of footsteps running full-tilt across the water.
Salazar didn’t remember much after that. The blood-frenzy induced by the Triangle in the early days had bitten deep. Most of his recollection of that time was a blood-tinged blur.
It was only once the red mist had lifted – the last carcass thrown overboard, that they began picking their way over the captured ship. La María had so little, after all, burned out as she was. And here was something from the outside, at last. Things that were real. Things from the world of the living. Papers, books, spare clothing - even little things, like cards or gaming dice were greedily seized on. Some men had even furtively pocketed rosaries or sacred medals, just in case the dead Portuguese had found some secret pocket of divine grace that would somehow... fix all of this.
Vultures, Salazar thought, bleakly recalling Lesaro’s earlier words of reproof. They had been vultures. But they had been still so pained, so shocked by what they were, that he hadn’t begrudged his men what little consolation they could get, even if it was plunder. Sailors at war, after all, make a living taking prizes of battle. How was this different?
Up until one of the men – Vallejo, was it? had scrabbled for a spare shirt spilled from a trunk on the deck. He’d seized it, triumphantly. And then he froze, mouth open in a wild, silent O, eyes blank and pained, locked in some kind of fit…
It had taken a quick-thinking Lieutenant Cortez to strike the shirt from Vallejo’s hands to the deck before the man was released, shuddering, from the spell – and could tell them of the things he’d seen. That he’d felt.
It had been familiar, Vallejo had said – but at the same time… strange. There had been visions of distant sea-ports flashing before his eyes. Some had been familiar, but he’d also described Lisbon – a place he’d never seen. For a moment, he’d actually tasted bread, smelt a real sea breeze; not the stale, dead air of the Triangle. He’d seen the bars of a French prison. Heard a rowdy, Portuguese drinking-song. It had all gone by at lightning speed, blurring into confusion...
But that wasn’t the worst of it, sir, Vallejo had confessed, half-weeping. The worst of it had been that he’d felt alive again, for a moment. It had been so wonderful he wouldn’t have let it go for an instant, if it hadn’t been for Cortez hastily batting the shirt out of his hands…
The sailor’s eyes had even sidled back longingly towards it as he’d told his story. Like a drunkard staring through a window at a coveted cask of ale.
Salazar had scoffed at first. But then gingerly, he tried picking up the shirt for himself – and he would never forget the sea-sick feeling of being swamped with other, alien impressions. Echoes of thoughts, feelings not his own. He had had enough self-control to drop the shirt before the memories drowned him, but there was no denying the truth of it.
Or the terrible impulse to lose yourself in it.
The men they had killed, it seemed, had their own revenge. They might not be trapped ghosts, like his own men – but their memories and lives were impressed on the objects they left behind. Flashes of lives not their own could reach out and seize a man in its grip.
Salazar had sworn him and the other officers to silence about the whole affair. They had enough trouble to deal with as it was. Besides, Salazar had felt the pull of it, like a craving for a drug. Terrible as it was, that press of foreign memories of the lives of strangers, there was a sick longing just to feel anything again …
He knew how dangerous that could be to their purpose. He had felt it momentarily shake his own.
But as it turned out, keeping silence was of little use. It wasn’t just Vasquez or a few men who were afflicted, as he had hoped.
It was all of them.
And it spread like yellow fever over the María. Men no sooner picked something up than they were locked in some strange trance, eyes rolling into their heads, hands trembling – and they fought like tigers if other crewmates attempted to free them from their entrancement. The men began to call it the “inundación de memoria” – the memory-flood.
After a while no one fought it, or tried to wrest their fellow men out of it. They knew how tempting it was. What man would be cruel enough to pull anyone back into the grim reality of the Triangle?
But eventually the store of memory-flood would run dry. They would come to the point of the Portuguese men’s death – sometimes, grimly enough, at the very hand of the man living through their memories. There would be no more.
Then came the lethargy. The melancholy when they did wake, at last, to the reality of the empty eternity of the Triangle. It was then that men began to run mad, sobbing and dashing their broken heads against the bulwarks. Trying to wake up from the nightmare of their existence.
Vallejo, who had been addicted longest, deliberately threw himself upon the rocks shortly after that. A few others came near to it.
They were all becoming Lotus-Eaters, Salazar realized, a fragment of old classical schooling floating through his head. If nothing was done, they would all succumb, and he would have no crew left. He had to take action, before more men went the way of Vallejo.
The answer had been simple, in the end. Every piece of loot they had taken from the Portuguese was put in a salvaged smallboat, and set alight. Pacing the deck in the light of the burning pyre, he had made a new rule: nothing was to be taken. The cost was too much. If they were to dwell on the living, he demanded that they concentrate their energies on the Sparrow, the man who had caused so much of their suffering -
He had expected more resistance than there was. Perhaps they were grateful to him for making the choice they could not. But after a short time, there were no more ‘lotus-eaters’ on the María. No-one was exempt. Not officers, not deck-hands.
The Capitan, however....
Salazar had never really indulged in the ““inundación” even before he enforced the new rule. He disliked losing control, and there was an element of self-abandonment in it that disquieted him. Although it had been a useful skill over the years, as it turned out. He had a discreet understanding with Lesaro that one thing – and one thing only – should be brought to him from every ship whilst they hunted their murderer across the seas. It was military necessity, of course, not hypocrisy – or at least in the way Salazar argued for it. It had been a useful resource even after the ‘Reckoning’, when they had turned their gaze towards the enemies of Spain. The breakneck flood of memory could be overwhelming , but he had learned how to “read” a memory in the same way a man might quickly scan a book, stripping it down to the bare bones; seeking out only what would be useful to him.
Salazar privately rather prided himself on his powers. No other man aboard had been able to rise above the temptation to feel things again. His concentrated purpose had given him a focus no one else had managed to achieve.
So of course it would be useful now. Of course! Better, almost, than a search of the Señora’s trunk – the possessions of the living, for some reason, did not work that way. All he would be able to learn of the Señora Theresa would be from what was before his eyes. And who better, Salazar thought, glancing cynically down at the handsome face in the miniature, to know a lady than her own husband?
It was merely a case of tactical strategy. Which was why he was doing this, Salazar thought irritably, drowning out the faint note of disquiet he felt. Of course it was. There was no other motive. He merely wished to know the nature of his future ally better. That was all.
And if she was to be his, then he had better take full advantage of the facts and learn more of her-
His? No! No, he didn’t mean that. Salazar amended hastily. He meant...his embajadora. No, La Maria’s embajadora. An emissary. Simply, as he had said, an ally. Not his. Not...
Had Lesaro been able to see the churning contents of his Capitán’s mind, he would not have been reassured by the protest. It was the half-hearted defence of an intellect besieged by a growing obsession that threatened to choke all rational thought.
When he had first considered learning more, and seeking out knowledge from better sources than the erratic inundación de memoria, he had thought his best hope would be some easily cowed youth – some green officer he could frighten into obedience.
Doña Theresa puzzled him. She was not a factor that he had made allowances for. Something so entirely outside his usual sphere of strategy and command had made him stop in his tracks – and something in the way she moved and the glance of those large, dark eyes – frightened, but determined to meet whatever came with courage – had stirred old, dimly recollected longings in Salazar that he had thought long faded into nothing . That it had once been pleasant to hear women’s laughter, and hear the soft brush of skirts as they entered a room, or brushed an arm carelessly against a uniformed jacket.
The last time he had spoken to a lady had been... perhaps a little over forty years ago? But the gentlewomen of Salazar’s time had been stiff, stately women – as unapproachable in their brocades and manners as a statue of Saint Catherine. They did not answer back, or argue, or make small jests. They certainly would not have matched wits with any man, dead or alive.
Manners had certainly changed in Spain these days, if Señora Theresa was anything to go by. Salazar was vaguely aware he should be unmoved, but it was far too agreeable to be addressed with such freedom for him to argue with it. The very act of doing so with a man who was not a father or brother would have seemed unthinkably bold in his time – tantamount to an invitation to seduction.
It was an attractive change.
If he had been alive... Salazar thought wistfully. If he had been alive, he would certainly have accepted the invitation.
But even now, when dead, she was more of a ghost to him that he was to her. She haunted him with wasted possibilities.
No. Enough. Salazar sharply curbed his wandering thoughts, bringing it back to the business at hand. He wasn’t here for that. He was here for what Don Sebastien de Barrós’ memories could tell him – and it was purely a matter of strategy, to learn more of her. Yes. Simply... strategy.
It wasn’t a convincing argument, even to himself.
He drew in a shuddering breath, looking down again at the miniature, before curling his fingers over it to focus his mind. It took control to guide the memory –flood in the right channels, but normally it was like a whip-lash, striking out eagerly. This was... different. He could feel the inundación uncurling sluggishly from the surface of the canvas like a snake. Almost as if the painted husband was reluctant to yield up the secrets he held...
‘Come,’ Salazar muttered, between gritted teeth. He pushed forward , in his mind, against the invisible resistance he could feel. ‘Come on, you poor pitiful afrancesado. Give me what you have. Show me –Ah!’
He gasped. The faint resistance he had felt had suddenly given way, propelling him forward faster than he intended.
Like a dam bursting, the inundación de memoria poured with its terrible weight into his mind.
The smell of warm milk and honey. The sick headache of mid-day sunshine. City. Courtyard -garden, complete with trees. A glimpse of river, fish. Cold water. Heat. A bloom of startling pain-a moment’s breakneck stop, to catch a glimpse of a small, fair-haired boy crying over a dead dog in the road – and then whirled on again at breakneck speed – people laughing, sun-baked dusty streets, the bounce of hail against a glass window-pane-
Salazar was momentarily dazed by the wild, relentless onslaught of memory, although he scarcely liked to admit to it. But normally he was more cautious than this. Contempt had made him over-confident, and the memories were surprisingly...strong.
But I’ll be damned, he swore inwardly, if a young popinjay’s stale remembrances get the better of me.
He pushed back against it; a man forcing his away upstream against a fierce current.
No. He growled, into the deafening roar of a million memories . Show me the woman. Show me the Señora.
For a moment, it seemed as the inundación howled back at him in defiance. But Salazar brandished his own memory, concentrated into an image of the Señora’s pale, agitated face, and the sea of images shifted, slowly, to accommodate it – until a thousand different memories of Theresa glimmered back at him; a hall of endless mirrors.
Salazar limped forward for a better look.
It was a worthwhile return. The fair-haired gallant had a well-stocked memory – and there was a considerable difference in between Salazar’s single image: the pale, alarmed face of the widowed Señora, alone amongst the dead – and the thousands of images of her that danced in her husband’s recollection.
It almost... hurt, simply to look at how many there were.
He chose one at random, simply to avoid staring at them clustered together, pulling it close –
The world of La María changed.
All in an instant, Salazar was blinking in the bright, sickening familiar sunshine of Spain.
He found himself standing in a formal garden in Cádiz, dappled with bright spring sunshine and the drift of fallen blossom petals. Ahead on a gravel pathway, the Señora – a younger, much happier, Señora –was beaming from beneath a silk parasol wielded by a forbidding duenna. Evidently still a Señorita, then. She still has a companion.
She could only have been ten years younger, but she looked young; heartbreakingly young, to Salazar. Perhaps it was the bright flowered silk gown and soft hat that made her look more childlike than when framed by her widow’s black. Perhaps it was just...seeing her face open, and unclouded by fear or anger.
To his disappointment, she moved ahead before he could catch a good look at her. She disappeared ahead behind a flowering bush, trailing her sunshade in the grass, whilst a fair-haired youth in a dark blue coat walked respectfully by the duenna’s sleeve.
Ah. Salazar moved closer, staring hard into the boy’s face. This, then, was what he had come to see – if the portrait had spoken true.
Something spiteful in el Capitán had half hoped that the painter had flattered him: that the young fop had been hiding an unsightly double-chin, or a Habsburg lip. That the Señora’s idol had feet of clay. But, as far as resemblance went, Don Sebastien matched the sweet good-looks point for point; and to an almost insufferable degree. He looked made to make ladies sigh, and swoon, and drop their handkerchiefs...
Worse yet, he looked...well-behaved. Gentle, and mild. A perfect schoolboy, and a perfect gentleman.
In life, Salazar had been none of those things. Whilst he hadn’t been an ill-favoured boy, he had been a sturdy-legged rascal as a schoolboy, too often leaping headfirst into schoolboy squabbles to be considered well-behaved. And as for mild-
Mildness earned you nothing but the praise of the priests; and precious little else. It would never have done in amongst the rowdy guardiamarinas of the Armada.
Bold thrusts were needed (and here Salazar’s face cracked into an unexpected rogue’s smile of remembrance) – both in love and war.
He snorted contemptuously in Don Sebastién’s unconscious face, by way of asserting himself. Had he been at an assignation with a lady, he certainly wouldn’t have been dawdling by the sour old companion.
‘How perfect you are, Señor,’ he sneered. ‘Milk and rosewater.’
But the string of consciousness tethering him to the fair-haired youth in the sunshine suddenly, viciously pulled tight –
And Salazar was suddenly staring at the world through his eyes, thinking his thoughts.
He was Don Sebastien de Barrós.
Memories take on the emotions of the owner, tinging them with whatever they felt at the time. There was no doubting the feelings here. The boy was a mass of nerves and painful excitement his palms were sweating, and his cravat seemed several sizes too small, and his pulse beat dully in his ears. The lady was talking, and he could hear it, but...
Poor lovestruck fool, the small, cynical patch of consciousness that was Salazar thought to himself. He was young. He barely looked old enough to grow a beard.
But he didn’t lack feeling, regardless of how empty-headed he looked.
He was walking decorously by the older lady, true, but, tucked away inside Salazar could feel the way the boy’s thoughts followed, longingly, at the heels of the happy girl in the sunshine trailing her sunshade. Interest, affection and the first, faint tinges of adolescent desire all mixed together – a dozen trailing threads of emotion tangled together like a ball of string.
‘Wait. I should warn you, Señor,’ the stiff duenna was saying, somewhat severely, ‘That I do not think the Señorita’s parents will be disposed to another marriage so soon after their elder daughter’s betrothal. They may permit these walks for now, but I would not hope for too much, too soon-’
‘But until they are forbidden, Señora,’ the boy murmured, dazedly, ‘I am the happiest man in the world-‘
The duenna looked at him almost pityingly, taking in his half-stunned expression and the earnestness in his face.
‘You mean that, don’t you? With most gentlemen, that would merely be politeness.’ She paused. ‘You are very young, Señor. As is she. Allow yourself a little time to consider...’
Don Sebastien shook his head, vehemently. ‘I need no time. If I have my guardian’s permission, I can marry her. And once I am twenty-one, I will .’ His mouth had a stubborn cast. ’I won’t change.’
Is that how gentlemen of leisure feel it, then? Salazar wondered. Love?
Whatever that was.
He felt uncharacteristically sour. The inundación didn’t usually awake envy in him
When alive, love was something Salazar would have shrugged impatiently off as a sentiment for poets and men who had the leisure to dream. Not something a good capitán had time for, if he meant to do well by his duty, his ship or his men.
Of course, that hadn’t prohibited an enjoyment in the usual brisk dockside pleasures – although Salazar had taken care to be discreet in his amours. It did not do for the men or officers to see their captain openly going a-whoring when ashore. And he had been moderately fond of the women he spent his time with.
But this seemed to be something... different. It made him feel not a little cheated; there hadn’t been much calf-love longing and idealistic adoration in any of his affairs. And the one time there had been something of the kind...
Well. It was a mistake he hadn’t made twice.
He mentally shook himself, irritated.
He was becoming distracted. He should focus on what intelligence he could glean from the visions, not the feelings. Feelings? Feelings were not important. He should focus on what he could learn about the Señora and the girl she had been, not...
But, as the younger Theresa came back along the path to link arms, smiling tenderly at her suitor, all resolution to not feel anything went out of Salazar’s head altogether.
The faint smile she had ventured before when he had questioned her was merely a watery shadow when compared to a younger, happy, Theresa, smiling full on a man she loved. And, for the moment, whilst he rode the coat-tails of Don Sebastien’s mind... that man was him.
He positively basked in the feeling, ignoring the danger.
‘What are you two talking so earnestly about?’ the younger Theresa asked, arching her eyebrows. ‘Is Señora Rosalba telling you tales about me?’
Salazar could feel her fingers lightly brushing the boy’s – no, his wrist- and bit back an inward sigh. He’d forgotten how electrifying a mere touch could be between the living; especially when every nerve in the boy’s body seemed to be on fire at the contact.
‘Why, what tales can I possibly tell of you?’ Señora Rosalba said tartly, smartly taking her errant charge’s arm and tugging her a few tactful steps away from Don Sebastién, who had blushed bright red. ‘Apart from your obvious carelessness and lack of decorum, I mean.’
Theresa flushed at the barbed retort. ‘But, Señora,’ she argued, ‘It isn’t thought ill of, to take an escort’s arm in France-‘
‘-in what, Marseilles?’ Señora Rosalba disposed of Marseilles with a wrinkling of her nose. You’re not in Marseilles anymore, Señorita. And you aren’t a prattling little schoolgirl any more. Show some sense.’
Theresa lowered her eyes, looking slightly chastened.
Ah, Salazar thought. So manners hadn’t changed so very much in Spain, after all. The little Señora’s frank and open manner seemed to be in her nature. She wasn’t accustomed to deceit or pretence. For all custom and society had doubtless taught her to hide her feelings since this younger, mirror image had walked and breathed - she was true to herself. She couldn’t be otherwise.
That pleased him.
But then it was what had fascinated him so much from the beginning. Ladies generally minced and simpered and danced around a point, but the Señora – the Señora stood her ground and spoke to the point.
And looked just as charming when she was downcast as she did smiling. Salazar imagined reaching out to stroke her cheek, and impulsively lifted his hand to do it –
Before remembering he was tethered to the boy. Who was standing far off, looking abashed. Held in inaction by terminal good manners.
If it were I....Salazar thought, broodingly. I wouldn’t have given a damn for the old woman. I would have taken her in my arms by now. Tucked her under my coat. I would have shown her how little I cared for decorum...
But the duenna had softened a little at Theresa’s crestfallen look. ‘You needn’t worry, Señorita. ‘ she said dryly. ‘According to Señor de Barrós here, he walks in the eternal sunshine of your presence.’
‘Did you say that, Sebastién?’ Theresa’s smile was impish, as though she detected the embroidery of the truth. ‘How very poetic of you!’
‘I –I didn’t put it quite as well as that-‘ Don Sebastién stammered, turning crimson. ‘But...’
His eyes looked love at her. It was trembling in his face. And she saw it, and looked earnestly back at him, eyes filled with tenderness...
Salazar turned his own face away, pulling himself abruptly free from the boy’s consciousness. It was fortunate he couldn’t see his own expression. It was sadly twisted by jealousy.
Who were you, boy, to deserve this? He thought bitterly, backing out of the memory of Cadiz sunshine.
No. There must be other answers, somewhere else in the inundación. He would try again.
He would find other memories in the inundación where he could look at her...again.
Chapter 12: On Saint-Martin
In which we visit the isle of Saint-Martin and its troubles...
‘Wizards know their times.
Deep night, dark night, the silent of the night
The time of night when Troy was set on fire,
The time when screech-owls cry and bandogs howl
And spirits walk, and ghosts break up their graves –
That time best fits the work we have in hand.’
Henry VI Part II, Act II Scene 1
Saint-Martin was not a large island. Even taking into account the uneasy split between the French side (Saint-Martin), and the Dutch side (Sint Maarten, if you please – woe betide you if you unthinkingly pronounced it French fashion), it was still not amongst the ranks of the most coveted colonial territory. The proud sea-port town of Phillipsburg, whilst dignified, was certainly not to be compared to the likes of Nassau or Port Royal. But it had flourished well enough to be considered prey – and to that end was well defended by two stout stone forts flanking the bay. Fort Amsterdam, the largest, was the best place of retreat. It had weathered invasion, earthquake, fire and pirates in its time - and was a more than reasonable place for a panicked Mayor to hide. Mayor Dix had scuttled for cover as soon as the trouble began, like a frightened crab digging itself in under a rock, leaving his household, his wife, and his responsibilities to shift for themselves in his absence. It would be better, he had assured himself, as he fled, to wait on Scarfield.
Scarfield would know what do. He was a man of ...vision.
That is what Mayor Dix kept telling himself throughout the whole business. As arrests were made, and property confiscated; as ships were impounded and cargo was seized. As trade dwindled to a trickle and the population of Saint-Martin took to anxiously surveying the open sea for signs of attack – and as the mood towards the few baffled Spanish citizens soured.
Lieutenant Scarfield would sort the whole dreadful business out, he told himself, feverishly. Of course he would. He always did. There was no nonsense about Scarfield, even if-
Well...Even if the mayor always felt a little wanting, in the man’s presence. Oh, he was deferential and ever-ready to obey the Mayor’s orders, as became his station, but – lately, with the Spanish trouble, there had been the suspicion of an open sneer about the lieutenant’s face when taking orders. It made Dix feel... small. As if he, Balthazar Dix, was still just a common tripe merchant rather than a steadfast pillar of the community.
But, Dix consoled himself, listlessly poking at the reports in his office. he was still Mayor. Mayor Dix, if you please, and civic leader of Sint Maarten. Whatever powers Scarfield might have subtly ‘lifted’ from his shoulders. “Just so you don’t have to concern yourself with the petty details, my dear sir...”Several orders that would normally have gone through Dix for permission had been re-routed direct to Scarfield. Dix had been moved... aside.
Still, Dix reasoned, he was getting the better end of the bargain. Scarfield was welcome to his new powers and be damned, if this whole affair could just be resolved – and the lieutenant had promised it would be. One way or another. And what Lieutenant Scarfield promised... usually came to pass.
For instance, the business with the prisoners.
Mayor Dix shivered, despite himself. He had been dubious about that, when Scarfield had first insisted it was necessary. No man likes to take on the awful responsibility of starting a war – even if, as the lieutenant had insisted, the Spanish had clearly thrown the first stone. But those unreasonable attacks on foreign ships had entirely crippled Saint-Martin’s trade, and the Spanish citizens were undoubtedly in on the whole business. Scarfield had told him so! And the man had spies enough in town that he probably knew...
Mayor Dix, alas, was not a thinking man. If he had stopped to think (something he generally didn’t bother to do where his own interest wasn’t concerned), he might have doubted that a few peaceful provincial farmers from Spain were capable of organising such ruthlessly efficient destruction, even if they were working with outside forces.
But Dix was not a thinking man. What was worse, he pushed away any qualms he might have had like a man sticking his fingers in his ears.
Having doubts might have meant quarrelling with Scarfield – and he was more afraid of his lieutenant than he liked to admit. And where his own safety was concerned – well, being conscience-stricken about his citizens came a distinct second. He signed the arrest warrants for “any and all Spaniards currently resident or taking up residence in the Environs of Sint-Maarten” as quickly as Scarfield sent them to his desk. So what if a few... a few outsiders were inconvenienced? Lieutenant Scarfield would sort out the wheat from the chaff, wouldn’t he?
One way or another.
When Scarfield didn’t. Because he wasn’t here.
Despite all Dix’s protests and please, the lieutenant hadn’t been able to resist the glory of organising a chase, in order to seize the ‘Maldito de Dios’ threat by the heels. A sea-battle and prizes of war are the crowning glory for a man anxious to advance in the service, and Scarfield’s floating naval trap was to circle the “Maldito de Dios’ “ known hunting grounds all along the Antilles. It could be months before they heard anything from him. And with his sharp second-in command gone, Dix now had to deal with the consequences of his orders.
A long, drawn-out wail echoed down the stone passage. The mayor flinched in his chair, half-expecting the clash of steel or the panicked cries of the Marines –an attack from God knows where-
Until he realised. It was only the echo from the crowded gaol cells below his office. The prisoners were caterwauling again.
‘Fothergill!’ he called, trying to subdue the lingering note of fear in his voice. ‘I say! F- Fothergill!’
A Marine on sentry duty outside the door tipped his hat respectfully. ‘Mayor Dix, sir?’
‘This - this is really too much,’ Dix said peevishly. ‘Tell the gaoler to keep his charges quiet, will you? Why are they sobbing and moaning like that?’
Sergeant Fothergill kept his face carefully blank. Mayor Dix already had the reputation of being a fussy pen-pusher who preferred accounts to people. He was now beginning to see why. He shrugged. ‘Prisoners do, sir. Boredom, most like. Can drive ‘em a bit mad, just sitting there day in, day out. Or maybe they’re hungry?’
‘Hungry!’ Dix said indignantly, his voice rising to a shrill note of outrage. He brandished an elaborately looped balance sheet under the startled Marine’s nose. ‘Do you know what it costs, to house and feed so many prisoners in one gaol, Fothergill? Why, they’re eating me out of fifteen pounds worth of supplies a month! Fifteen pounds!’ He pronounced the words in a hushed whisper, as though stating the sheer amount of money would somehow bring home the matter.
Sergeant Fothergill said nothing. Everyone knew the quartermaster skimmed money off prisoner rationing to line his own pockets. The unfortunate prisoners would have been lucky if there’d even been a quarter of that sum spent on their food. Surely Dix knew that, didn’t he?
Oh, he probably knows all right, the sergeant thought sourly to himself. He just don’t care enough to do anything about it. It’s easier to blame them, than anyone else.
‘And you dare to tell me that they’re whining because they’re hungry after a whole fifteen pounds expenditure on them?’ Dix was still complaining to the room at large. ‘We can’t even hang any of them until Scarfield returns, to reduce costs. The ingratitude! The sheer, wanton, thanklessness! I’ve a good mind to go and reprimand them myself-’
He strode over to the door, prepared to vent his feelings on over-expenditure to the general populace of Fort Amsterdam’s gaol at large –
And a hand reached out and clutched feebly at his jacket.
The mayor barely suppressed a shriek of terror.
He had nearly walked straight into Third Lieutenant Scrimshaw standing outside the door.
Admittedly, the sight of the young officer was not a calming one. Scrimshaw was familiar to the mayor under normal circumstances, but now he looked a wreck. Being set adrift for a few days beneath the pitiless Caribbean Sun does no man any favours ; and the boy was all pink sun-scorched skin and blisters, his lips cracked and pitted. Hair and uniform alike were plastered with sweat, and he stared vacantly past Mayor Dix’s left ear, as though scarcely registering he was there. His fingers tightened instinctively on Dix’s coat.
‘Got a mess’ge,sir,’ he said, feebly. ‘Mess’ge... for St-Martin...’
‘Come here, boy! For God’s sake, Lie down before you collapse-‘ Fort Amsterdam’s surgeon followed anxiously in Scrimshaw’s wake, a flagon of water in hand. Sorry, sir!’ he panted, ‘I tried to get him to sick bay when the men brought him here, but he insisted on seeing you -’He gently prised Scrimshaw’s twitching hands from the Mayor’s coat. ‘Let go now, there’s a good boy... That’s it!’
Dix stepped back as soon as he could, reaching for his handkerchief. The boy stank. ‘And you just... let him in here?’ He glared over his shoulder. Sergeant Fothergill looked abashed.
‘I don’t have time to listen to the ravings of some sun-struck midshipman, Doctor – ‘
The surgeon’s face hardened. ‘You’ll want to listen to this, sir. This isn’t one of ours. This is Scrimshaw of the Essex.’
‘What?’ Dix tried to laugh. ‘No, impossible! The Essex is far out at sea, under Scarfield! He can’t possibly –‘
He took another look at Scrimshaw, That a happy, plump round-faced little chap in a freshly-pressed new uniform, last seen trotting aboard the Essex behind the heels of his superiors – behind the heels of Scarfield - could be here, in such poor case...
‘G’t... got a message,’ Scrimshaw slurred, eyes vaguely focusing on the occupants of the room. ‘Got to deliver the m’ssage!’ He screwed up his face in concentration. ‘She-told me I had t’do it, you know? I had to...tell ‘em...I’m the last one, y’know? Always one man left alive... that’s what the Devil said...And it w’s all sh’asked before they took ‘er away to kill...’ There scarcely seemed enough moisture left in the young officer for him to weep, but Dix could have sworn he saw tears on the wretched boy’s face, before his legs buckled beneath him. He staggered.
The surgeon quietly helped him into the Mayor’s vacant chair, forcing the flagon of water to his lips.
‘No more.’ He said, gently. ‘You’ve done your duty lad; and more than your duty, I’m sure. Drink.’
The meaning of Scrimshaw’s sudden reappearance at last began to dawn on the Mayor. His fingers began to shake, despite his best efforts to conceal them beneath the lace ruffles of his cuffs. If the boy was here and in such poor case, then...the Essex...
No. No, that couldn’t be it. Surely-
‘How- how did he come here?’ he stuttered.
‘Found out near the bay by fishermen. Cast adrift in a boat.’ The surgeon said quietly. ‘Like the others, sir.’ He shot a meaningful glance at Dix, who avoided meeting his eye. ‘You know, sir? The ones who-‘
‘I know about the others, thank you very much!’ Dix half-shouted, trying to drown out the inevitable end to that sentence. Perhaps he childishly half-believed that if he didn’t hear it, it couldn’t be true. ‘That... that can’t be true in this case! Why, the Essex had support! There were other ships! The Thetis-‘
‘They sank the Thetis and her convoy before they ever came up to us, sir,’ Scrimshaw said, in a dull, flat little voice. ‘Their Capitán boasted about it. In front of us. She’s... gone, sir. With all hands. Gone.’ He stared at the floor.
‘No.’ Dix began to shake his head. ‘No, no... Scarfield wouldn’t let me down like this. He wouldn’t- he...’ Sheer horror had made the “pillar of the community” go white as a sheet. He had been so sure of Scarfield. Even now, there were fully stocked supplies awaiting the Essex’s triumphant return. Mayor Dix had even begun to make tentative enquiries about a promotion for the man – and had been tent into commemorative medals, that sort of thing... He had even been thinking about a possible pay rise (which, for a fastidious, financially exact man like Dix, was the equivalent of a triumphant parade in the streets).
He darted an interrogative glance at Scrimshaw, still staring at the floorboards. ‘Capitán, eh?’ He said savagely. ‘Scarfield was right! It damn well is the Spanish! Well, they’ll pay for this. They’ll think twice about attacking if we start hanging them-‘
‘No!’ Scrimshaw suddenly wobbled to his feet, urgent fire in his eyes. ‘You can’t hang the prisoners, sir!’ That will make things worse!’
‘What?’ Dix bristled. ‘I think you will find that I can do what I like in this town, Lieutenant Scrimshaw. I am Mayor of this-‘
‘But you’ll make things worse! It’s not...not the Spanish-‘
He half-collapsed again. The surgeon took the opportunity to force the flagon to his lips. ‘Don’t talk so much,’ he urged. ‘Drink.’
‘But wait, sir! Our attackers – it isn’t anything to do with the prisoners!’ Scrimshaw was still trying, in between hasty gulps of water. ‘You need to free them now, sir. Else... terrible things will happen!’
‘Oh?’ Dix was scornful. ‘If it’s nothing to do with them, then why should we expect attack? Ah? He wagged a finger triumphantly. ‘They’re clearly in this up to their necks, sir; and their necks shall be stretched for it.
‘It’s not the Spanish! Not the living Spanish!’ Scrimshaw burst out. ‘They’re dead! It’s the dead who are attacking, sir-horrible, bloodless ghost-things-‘
That shocked both the mayor and the surgeon into silence. But not in the way Scrimshaw had wanted. Rather than understanding the horror of the situation, they exchanged mute, sorrowful glances with each other. Heat, the shared look seemed to say. Shock. Poor boy, raving like the others –Must have gone mad...
‘I’m not mad!’ Scrimshaw burst out, unable to bear this. He jerked forward out of the chair, impatiently knocking the flagon from the startled surgeon’s grasp. The clay jug shattered, with a tragic little tinkle, on the bare boards.
‘It’s true, sir! My word as a gentleman, it’s true! They’re not alive! They’re ancient, horrible things!’ He sought for something – anything - to make them understand. ‘They only let me go because – because...’
He choked back another hoarse sob. ‘They killed a Spanish prisoner, sir. The one Scarfield took as an interpreter. After they butchered him, she bargained to save my life with hers, and they...’ His hands clenched into fists. ‘That devil of a Capitán did it. God alone knows what she must have suffered...’
He looked up. It might still have been a boy’s face – but the expression in Scrimshaw’s eyes wasn’t boyish. There was an undertow of anger and hardy resolution there that gave him, for the moment, quite a different look. ‘So you see, sir? It’s not the Spanish. They wouldn’t have killed one of their own – and those creatures did. With no more compunction than butchering a – a goat.’
‘Wait... what?!’ Dix had managed to grasp the more intelligible part of Scrimshaw’s testimony. ‘Are you telling me, boy... that those Spanish prisoners are useless?! That the – the...’ he carefully stepped around the word “ghost” ‘the, aha... bandits don’t care about...’
Oh dear. It had seemed such a good idea of Scarfield’s at the time. But seen in this new light, the idea of having innocent – and worse, possibly influential – prisoners awaiting execution suddenly seemed... flawed. Possibly fatal for the whole colony, if one of the indignant Spanish gentlemen reported it abroad and Spain really decided to take offence.
But that wasn’t even all, he reflected, hopelessly. Another problem now reared its head for Dix. The populace, as they were now, were half-mad with fear and anger. The destruction of their livelihoods and trade had hit the town hard. Anti-Spanish sentiment was at its fever-pitch; especially in Philipsburg. If Mayor Dix announced it had all been a mistake, and released his prisoners, only for a half-mad mob to kill him, and them...
Disaster loomed, either way.
‘Oh...’ he murmured weakly. And sat down, abruptly.
The surgeon waited – long enough to see, from the glazed look in Dix’s eye, that there would be no more sense to be got from the “pillar of the community” tonight. He sighed, shifted a piece of broken crockery aside with his foot, and began to gently lead Scrimshaw from the room.
‘Will he do something?’ Scrimshaw asked dazedly. All his strength had gone with that last impetus, and his legs felt weak as water. Even his skin felting like it was aching. ‘I’ve told him – he’ll do something, won’t he? He’ll let them go free now?’ his voice wavered. ‘I promised the lady. Before she died...’
The surgeon glanced at Dix, staring blankly at the water stain on his Turkey carpet, and forbore comment. ‘Better let the mayor think for now, eh?’ he said cheerily. ‘Give us a hand with the lad, will you,Fothergill? I’m sure he’ll do something...soon.’
Even if all he does is piss himself with fear, he added silently, as they left the room. The man’s as much use as a wet dishcloth.
It would seem Mayor Dix was not a beloved figure amongst his subordinates.
And now he was left alone.
Or... not quite alone, perhaps? As the door closed, and the footsteps retreated, a shadow in the corner behind the stunned Mayor... moved, drawing the darkness behind in a flutter of rags like the coils of a serpent’s tail. It curled, before solidifying, seemingly out of nothing, into the shape of a woman shrouded in a ragged cloak.
Theresa would have had no difficulty in identifying her as the mysterious beggar-woman she had met in Cadiz.
Mayor Dix was so lost in misery that he scarcely noticed his new visitor. He was lost in turning his impossible position over and over, trying to find some way out...
Until she breathed mockingly in his ear.
‘An abyss in front, and wolves behind? Troubles indeed, Master Mayor.’
Dix nearly leapt across the room in his fright.
‘Who are y-‘ he began, before his eyes widened in recognition.
There had been rumours in Phillipsburg before about the mysterious woman Lieutenant Scarfield kept locked in a hidden cell – a woman who, it was whispered, could vanish at will or snap her fingers and summon the four winds to her call. It had been rumoured that Scarfield used her powers himself – and that he was guided by her prophecies. Mayor Dix had never reckoned much to dark stories like that; but accounting doesn’t lie. And he had been the first to notice that, amongst the bills, there was a small monthly fee for feed and upkeep. For an un-named ‘State Prisoner (female)’.
All the stories he had ever scoffed at now danced luridly before Dix’s eyes.
He backed himself against the wall, fingers clutching at his chain of office. ‘Stay back! I’ll – I’ll call the guard! I’ll call for help!’ He shrank back as she turned her full glance upon him, amused. ‘I know what you are!’
‘Oh? And what is that?’ Shansa stretched out a long, sharp fingernail to tilt the terrified mayor’s chin upwards. Dix whimpered. Knives, he thought. Torture. Sacrifice...
‘Say it. Go on, Master Mayor. Admit what I am.’
‘You’re... you’re the witch.’ Dix mumbled. ‘Scarfield’s... w-witch.’
The woman waved a hand dismissively. ‘Not anymore, it would seem. As he’s dead.’ She spoke idly, as though speaking of a lost button.
‘He – he might still be alive...’Dix whispered, faintly. He stared desperately towards the door. If only Fothergill would return!
‘I make no mistakes, Master Mayor. I felt him die.’ Shansa’s eyes burned. ‘He’s paid what he owed me.’ She spat contemplatively into Mayor Dix’s fireplace. For a moment, the flames roared up, as a wall of dry heat flooded into the room before a chill crept about Dix’s shoulders, making him shiver despite the warmth of the night air. ‘You are on your own now, Mayor Dix. And the wolves are snapping at your heels.’
The flames burned icy blue in the grate.
‘Question is, Master Mayor... what do you intend to do about it?’
For once in his miserable, self-serving life – faced with the dreaded spectacle of a witch in his office, and a future which held invasion or indiscriminate mob justice– Mayor Dix spoke honestly.
‘I d- don’t k-know...’ he whispered, dejectedly. He slid down the wall into a defeated puddle; the leading ‘pillar of the community’ brought low. ‘There’s no way out of this damned mess, is there? If I let them go, the townsfolk kill them and me. If I execute them, we’ll still be attacked; and if Spain finds out as well?’ He shuddered. ‘We’re all dead then. It’s a disaster!’
He hiccupped, miserably. ‘I consider it very inconsiderate of Scarfield to die like this just when I need him.’ He attempted to draw himself up, with dignity; a difficult feat for a man slumped on the floor with his stockings grey from the dust. ‘I do - do not care to be in this position. At all.’
Shansa had waited until the man’s mind brought him to where she needed him to be; poised between despair and blind panic. Before she dropped the lure, with the ease of a practiced fisherman casting a line.
‘Suppose there was another course open to you.’ She said idly, watching the moths fluttering about Dix’s candles. ‘Suppose... this fate could be avoided, and the credit go to you-‘
‘What?’ Dix blinked through puffy eyelids at the notion. Before he shook his head. ‘Hah. I’m not that much of a gull, witch. I know this fireside story. In exchange for what? My soul to your Master the Devil? My name in his great black book-’
‘Oh, I don’t deal in souls,’ Shansa said calmly. ‘Although you wouldn’t be the first man of power to be bought that way. But I leave that to others. My price is more of... this world than the next.’
Dix pricked up his ears at that. Money? He wondered. Did she mean... money?
This was almost as much of a wrench for Dix as parting with his immortal soul might have been. A conscience can be an inconvenient thing for a councillor, after all. But whilst he was a penny-pinching fellow, if it came to his money or his life... he knew which one he’d part with first. However reluctantly.
‘But, if you wish to resolve the matter yourself, Master Mayor...’ Shansa shrugged nonchalantly, turning towards the door.
‘Wait.’ Dix put out a hand. ‘What ... what is your price for this?’ I warn you Madam, he thought, with light-headed levity. Any fairy tale flummery with firstborn children or seven-league boots and it will go hard with you-
Shansa eyed him with veiled amusement, as if reading his thoughts. ‘None you need pay yet, Master Mayor. I shall let you decide if my help is worth the having first. Before you commit yourself.’
With lightning quick action her hand shot out. Dix flinched, expecting her to slash at his throat with those sharp, sharp nails – but she had merely snatched a moth from the air. She held it prisoner between her fingers, staring at its trembling wings speculatively for a moment.
‘You seek a course that will save your town from certain destruction,’ She said. Her voice became the distant murmur of a prophetess as she moved towards the fire, staring blankly into the future. ‘A solution that will save you...’
With a sudden, brutal gesture she flung the quivering moth directly into the fire. It squeaked piteously before the fire consumed it, with a terrible roar that shouldn’t have been possible in a fireplace that small.
A foul miasma of violet smoke belched into the room, smelling powerfully of rotting seaweed and damp, decaying wood. Dix couldn’t help but clap his hand to his nose at the terrible smell – as if the seabed had dredged up its dead.
Shansa stood unmoved, arms spread wide.
‘There will be a messenger.’ she intoned, dully. Her eyes had glazed over. ‘I see it. They are coming, across the seas. You must wait, Balthazar Dix. Do nothing, until the envoy of the dead arrives to call you to account.’
‘The what?’ Dix gasped, teeth chattering in his head. This did not sound encouraging. ‘The envoy of the dead will do...w- what?’
‘You will have your answer, Master Mayor.’ Shansa’s eyes slowly returned to normal, taking in the dull respectable mahogany furniture of Dix’s office rather than the things that might be. ‘And the escape you wanted. But first you must... wait.’ She held up her arms as the smoke curled about her, hiding her from view. Her voice grew fainter. ‘But do nothing for now. After all – that’s what you’re good at, isn’t it?’
The smoke billowed, sending another waft of the terrible decaying odour towards Dix that nearly bowled him off his feet. He coughed, and swiped at the smoke trying to clear the purple haze...
Someone was calling his name. Where were they? There was nothing but darkness and fog...
‘Sir? Mayor Dix?’
A hand shook Dix’s shoulder.
With a jolt, the mayor – woke.
He was still sat in his carved chair; where he had been when Fothergill had left with the surgeon. The fireplace held as normal a fire as could possibly be imagined; no terrible roar, no purple smoke. Just the usual, low-banked flicker.
As for the witch, who moments before had been standing by it...
She was gone.
‘You all right, sir?’ Sergeant Fothergill said tentatively, as the mayor blinked about him. He wasn’t sure if he had crossed some invisible line of protocol, awaking the mayor from his slumber. ‘Hope I didn’t disturb you...’
‘Where’s she gone?’ Mayor Dix demanded, groggily.
‘The witch! Scarfield’s witch! She was here, just now! Casting spells and –‘
Dix caught the expression in his sergeant’s eyes and stopped, embarrassed. ‘I... aha... must have dozed off,’ he finished, somewhat lamely. ‘As you were, Sergeant. Um...how is the boy?’
‘Surgeon got him settled down, sir. He’s sleeping now. He was asking... er, what you intend to do regarding the prisoners, sir?’
‘What I intend to –‘
Dix paused. Whilst he was relieved beyond measure it had all seemed to be a disturbing dream – if the witch was nothing but fantasy, then so was her solution. It left him without answers.
Unless... perhaps, he silently argued with himself, it didn’t. What if his own mind had provided the answer in his dream? Even if it had been all mixed up with witches and dead men plucked from the crazed boy’s babbling? It was, after all, an easy solution – to wait until things became clearer. And waiting was something Mayor Dix was an old hand at.
He settled himself more complacently back in his chair.
‘All in good time, Fothergill. All in good time...’
Behind him, entirely unnoticed, a fragment of charred moth wing drifted down from the fire into the ashes.
Chapter 13: Lo prometido es deuda
In which return to Theresa and her further acquaintance with her situation...
Lo Prometido es deuda – What is promised, is debt.
Traditional Spanish proverb
Being held in captivity by the dead, Theresa was learning, encompassed many things. Some of them weren’t what she had expected.
Oh of course there was fear. Add to that horror, uncertainty, grief... Those had been her first emotions.
And they were still there, she had to admit. But it was all becoming muted background noise to her.
You couldn’t keep being astonished at impossible things when so many crowd on your notice at once. By the time she had sworn her vow to Capitán Salazar, she was greeting each new supernatural occurrence with a dazed acceptance that would have seemed unthinkable to her a few days ago.
Was the shock acting on her? She wondered. She had heard stories of men come home from war who were scarcely better than tailor’s dummies; silent and unresponsive to everything from the strength of the horrors they’d seen in war.
But... that wasn’t quite her case.
In a very, very odd way, it reminded her of being sent off to school in Marseilles; terrifying to a small child who had never been away from home.
And Theresa wasn’t terrified. Not the way she had been at first.
Her conversation with el Capitán had given her some few sureties. She was useful to them, so they didn’t intend to harm her. Provided she did what they wanted - told the mad dead captain what he wanted to know about Spain, gave some message or other to men ashore - she was relatively safe.
That fact had given her some... security. Not much, but it meant she had breathing space to consider things a little without terror constantly jogging her elbow.
But as her fear ebbed away, it was slowly being replaced with something else. Curiosity, mingled with a little horrified pity for their condition.
Theresa found she now had more questions about her new captors than answers. Who were they? How had they come to be this way, somewhere between dead and alive? What did it all mean?
Well, her reason prompted her. She could either waste time being frightened, or she could keep her eyes and ears open and try to learn a little more.
Who knew? Perhaps, despite appearances, there might still be some way out of ...all of this. Once she made sense of it.
Things can’t make less sense than they do now, at any rate, Theresa thought ruefully to herself, looking about her as she put back the blanket and felt for her discarded shoes.
She regretted looking at the floor. The gaping cracks and yawning holes in La María’s rotting frame gave her a dizzying view of the sea slapping at the exposed hull as the ship cut through the water.
It made Theresa feel sick just looking at it.She moved hurriedly back on her pile of blankets. She had better concentrate on something else. Anything else, rather than that vertigo-inducing drop and the lurch of the swell as the María Silenciosa dragged her rotting keel through the waves...
A familiar footstep outside her door made her look up.
‘Hello?’ she called, edging gingerly to the end of her pile of blankets. ‘Is that you...’ she searched her memory for his name, ‘Teniente Santos?’
‘...Señora.’ Santos’ voice returned, carefully.
Despite the threefold security of a locked door, a sworn vow, and nowhere to go, Theresa still had a guard in the person of Officer Santos. She rather suspected it was more to keep off the circling, discontented hands than any real doubt about her.
She was still a prisoner, she supposed, but this felt... less like a prison than the Essex did. I seem to have become a state prisoner, rather than a common one, she thought, wryly. Perhaps Salazar was taking her role of ambassador quite seriously.
‘Good morning.’ She said automatically; more out of habit than anything else. But it made as much sense as anything else, making small-talk with a sea-ghost.
There was a baffled silence from beyond the door. Evidently being wished ‘good morning’ did not square with the way things were usually done aboard La María. Santos was evidently wondering how to respond.
‘We do not generally notice such things, Señora.’ He said stiffly. ‘But... yes.’ And then, after a short pause, as though remembering the form, ‘Yes. Good morning.’
‘You don’t... notice?’ Theresa was perplexed. How did you not notice the difference? ‘Can you ... forgive me, but - can you not tell day from night ?’
‘Oh, we see it, yes.’ There was a creak as Santos leaned against the door. ‘But it doesn’t matter so much. Our eyes –‘Through a small gap in one wooden slat, Theresa caught a glimpse of his cracked face as he shrugged. Oh yes. She had forgotten their peculiar glowing eyes. ‘We can see everything, day or night, if we choose. Not like you do. Near, far, above, below... doesn't matter.'
They don’t sleep, don’t eat, don’t breathe. Theresa reminded herself. Here was a new fact to add to the list. They can see everything. Like a spyglass focused to its utmost point.
‘I see,’ Theresa said, trying to sound matter-of-fact and unsurprised. ‘So: if there was a storm and you need to take in sail-‘
Santos didn’t quite drop his guard enough to chuckle – but there was a smile in his voice as he spoke. ‘A storm? Ha. I should like to see the storm that could harm La María. And we have few sails to take in-’
He stopped short, as if suspicious he had been betrayed into some confidence. ‘I will have Suarez bring you your food now you are awake.’ He said curtly. The door panels creaked as he lifted his weight from the door.
‘I’m not hungry just yet,’ Theresa said quickly. She hadn’t realised how lonely she felt until now, when the prospect of a semi-normal conversation with her new jailer was about to be curtailed. It wasn’t like the open friendliness of poor little Scrimshaw, but it was... close. ‘Will- will you not talk with me? I – I have nothing to do -’
Santos hesitated, before she caught sight of him slowly shake his head.
‘It is against orders.’ He said, shortly. ‘You know our rules, Señora. I cannot.’
‘Not even now I am your embajadora, as your Capitán says? ’
Ah. That gave him pause. Peering through her spy-hole, Theresa could see something like uncertainty flit across Officer Santos’ handsome, waxen features.
Theresa thought quickly. ‘I swore on La María last night to serve your Capitán and the ship by acting for you. By giving you information.’ She said, coaxingly. ‘May I not do so safely now?’
Oh, he was tempted. She could tell by the little she could see of his face, which briefly turned hopeful at the thought that finally, perhaps, a little of the outside world could filter in...
What right, Theresa thought indignantly, what right had Salazar to bind even his loyal officers to such narrow precepts in death?
But she had over-reached herself. Somewhere above their heads came the familiar hoarse cry of el Capitán’s voice barking orders. Santos seemed to sink back into harsh reality, his face hardening.
‘I have other duties to attend to.’ He said, brusquely. ‘And I would remind you of what Magda told you, when you first came aboard. No questions. Those are el Capitán’s orders. Until he tells me they are changed himself, the answer is no.’ His tone did not invite argument. ‘I am going now, Señora. Suarez will come once your food is ready.’
She heard his footsteps retreat. Quickly, as though resisting the urge to look back.
Damn, Theresa thought, dismayed. Her friendly overtures had fallen flat there. Perhaps he had thought her offer an attempt to bribe him, somehow...
Well, wasn’t it? Her inner voice added tartly. Be honest.
Not...like that, Theresa argued with herself. She had wanted to talk more, in order to learn more. But...she couldn’t say she was surprised at his reaction.
She may not have been aboard la María long, but she had already realised that Officer Santos was no Scrimshaw. He was too wary of his new, unheard-of prisoner to be inclined to make conversation. Especially if it could be breaking one of el Capitán’s precious rules...
Theresa couldn’t help but make a derisive noise under her breath, mentally condemning el Capitán’s “rules” to hell. He might take a gloomy delight in his own supernatural condition; that was all well and good for him.
But for his men...
Death was supposed to be freedom, wasn’t it? Not another term of endless servitude; and that to a capricious, exacting master. No wonder half the hands were seething with rebellion. She only wondered they hadn’t shown it sooner.
Truly, the more she thought about it all, the more angry and perplexed and...bewildered she was by it all. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right.
She sat back on her pile of blankets again, inwardly seething, before looking forlornly around the room.
Theresa hadn’t been lying to Santos when she spoke of her need for something to do.
She was sorely in want of an occupation. For all its faults, her cramped little cabin aboard the Essex had contained her trunk. If she had needed it, there had been something to occupy her mind other than her captivity.
Theresa laughed cynically to herself, remembering life aboard the Essex. Who had she been, that stupid, optimistic woman?
She had thought everything would all blow over in a few days. That she’d be able to help, somehow. How wrong she’d been.
She had ignored her travelling box then, merely trying to kill time by sleep in her dark, cramped little box of a cabin until everything was back to normal...
Theresa longed for normal. She hadn’t suspected that she could ever miss the dull task of mending stockings before this; but she missed it sorely now. Something to keep her hands occupied would have kept her mind from turning her new situation over and over in her head. There had been a collection of down-at-heel repairs in her sewing work box that she had saved up expressly for the journey, too.
Sighing, she looked about her.
She had been too weary to truly examine her new quarters last night; worn out as she was by the task of keeping pace with Salazar’s ever-changing moods.
Daylight offered her a better perspective.
The canvas hangings had been a good idea, she decided approvingly. They kept out the worst of the chilly sea breezes and the baking heat of the tropical sun – and, swaddled in her sailcloth tent, Theresa felt... safer, than she might otherwise had done in the skeletal cradle of La Maria’s rotting timbers. The crew could drift, she supposed - or leap, in their terrifying grasshopper fashion - over the gaps and broken places of their ship.
Perhaps weight no longer mattered once you were dead? Theresa had never heard tell of a ghost that was anything but wisps of air, even though the crew had seemed solid enough. She had heard the creak of timber as Santos had shifted his weight against the door – so they weren't insubstantial-
But their ship is as dead as they are, Theresa thought dully. Why wouldn’t their own ghost-ship support their ghost-feet?
It might be a different matter for her, she felt; especially if she were to overstep any boundaries. The wood groaned threateningly beneath her feet, with every small movement she made. It might have been merely age and decay, combined with her decidedly mortal weight, but...
On the other hand, there was the strange shudder the ship had given as she’d made her vow on the helm last night. The silent, solemn watchfulness of the crew. And then there had been Salazar himself, eyes burning with intensity, freezing cold hands gripping her own tight through the spokes of the ships’ wheel...
She got to her feet, absently rubbing at her hands as though she could still feel his grasp, before moving gingerly towards the white walls of her prison. Thinking.
No, she couldn’t dismiss it. Capitán Salazar hadn’t been lying, or trying to cow her.
He’d spoken truth. How else could the Silent Mary sail with her broken timbers?
One of the sail-cloth hangings was blowing in the stiff breeze every now and then, revealing a - balcony?
Theresa’s brow puckered. Her quarters had a... balcony? Overlooking the sea?
Hesitantly, she put back a corner of the sailcloth and peeped under it.
The view surprised her. Granted, it was nothing but sea and an overcast sky, accompanied by the wheeling cry of seabirds and the hollow boom of the ocean. It was a sight Theresa had quickly grown tired of about the Duyfken.
But - having open space to move about in? It seemed like an unimaginable freedom after her cramped airless wooden chicken-coop of a cabin aboard the Essex.
Here, she had been tucked neatly away behind la María’s prow and the splintered remains of the bowsprit, offering her a sort of small space for exercise in the knee of the head.
Looking at where she was, her makeshift quarters were the ruins of the head, at the very fore of the ship.
It would have been an unpleasant place to be had La María been a living ship, worked by living men. The head had been where the men went to... ahem, relieve themselves on Theresa’s journey on the Duyfken.
But, seen in the early morning light, Theresa could almost see it as a stage balcony overlooking a painted seascape.Pretty as a picture.
Yes. The scenery was much improved by the absence of piss-buckets, Theresa decided. She poked her head out between the sheets, breathing in a few gulps of sea air.
But she couldn’t linger. It would never do for Santos to return and suppose her gone. She did not want to tempt Salazar’s temper any further. She did not like to think how he would react if he thought she was attempting to break her vow to ‘La María.’
There was that to say for the man, Theresa supposed. He wasn’t particularly forthcoming with facts, but he had spoken as fondly of his ruined vessel as if she were still whole and fresh from the docks, flags flying bravely in the wind.
Perhaps that’s all they have to cling to, memories of old glories, Theresa thought. And then another, wiser thought followed on its heels: perhaps that’s why it’s easier for them not to learn anything of life ashore. Knowing that people they knew and loved have changed, grown old, died...
Perhaps that would be worse to bear than ignorance.
Theresa remembered, with another pang, her father and the dead shipyard in Arsenal de las Carracas.
She lifted a hand to pat the wooden wall; the same way you might a horse.
‘There, there,’ she said, absently. ‘You have it better here, La María. You’re still sailing, the way a ship should. You would have been scrap lumber by now if you’d still been a working ship-‘
A joist creaked, as if in reply.
Theresa settled herself back on her pile of blankets. She’d been a lonely child; and lonely children often have to fall back on their invention. She had always liked her father’s stories of ships that had a soul, trapped in the carved figurehead, ready to be the ships eyes and ears on unfriendly seas.
It is likely, she thought wryly, to be the only female conversation I will get here.
‘What sort of figurehead do you have, I wonder,La María?’ she asked, idly. ‘Are you a Holy Virgin? There are many, many Santa Marías afloat, you know...’
There was an abrupt squeak as a warped board settled.
‘No? I didn’t think so. Your capitán doesn’t look the pious sort.’ She snorted. ‘Besides, he said you listen more than any saint does.’
She paused. ‘Do you talk too, La Maria? I wish you would...’
Oh, what Theresa would have given then for a noise that might have been an answer! Even a single creak would have done. But la María did not oblige. Everything was quiet.
Theresa let out a disappointed breath. ‘You are very reserved, La María.' she said plaintively. 'Are you shy?’ She stared up at the low wooden ceiling overhead. ‘Is it because you don’t know me? Well, I don’t wonder at that. Your capitán doesn’t seem to encourage visitors. And they have told me there have been no ladies here at all...’
Was it just her imagination, or did the scrape of loose planking now sound a little indignant?
‘Apart from you, I mean.’ She added, hastily. ‘Lo siento, La María. I did not mean to slight you. My papa told me all ships are the first lady of rank at sea. Which you are, no doubt about it. Like a duquesa. ’
She flopped down flat on her back. ‘Although I am not much of one; just your Capitán’s embajadora...’ she shrugged. ‘Whatever that turns out to be.’ She sighed. ‘We’ve rather been thrown together, La María, haven’t we? I hope we can be friends. ’
She patted the wooden wall again, just as she caught the sound of approaching footsteps.
To Theresa’s shock, a man’s waist-coated back half-materialised through the wall, but only up to a point. There was a metallic clang and the sounds of a hastily suppressed curse-word.
She stared as the sailor’s back hastily retreated.
‘You can’t do that whilst holding the tray, estúpido!’ Another voice snapped – not, to her surprise, Officer Santos. It sounded more like the clipped tones of the other officer – the other man who had brought her aboard. ‘Go through the door! You know - the way a living man would?‘
‘Apologies, Officer. I forgot that-’
There was an embarrassed cough, and then a brief rattle as someone fumbled with the lock, before a displeased Officer... Magda? (Yes, that was his name, Theresa remembered) - appeared framed in the doorway, tattered coat-tails twisting in invisible currents.
‘Your meal, Señora,’ he remarked, with a ironic little dip Theresa took to be a slight bow. ‘I trust you will excuse our Suarez. He is a little rusty on his... etiquette.’
‘Not at all,’ Theresa said, in a strangled voice that she attempted to make natural as Suarez entered the room. He looked faintly abashed; he didn’t meet her gaze as he set the tray down carefully before her. ‘A mistake anyone could make, I’m sure.’
Breakfast was porridge, accompanied by three hard-boiled eggs in a bowl by way of variety. Theresa noticed with surprise and gladness that the porridge was not made English fashion, salted into a tasteless lump. There was the distinct smell of...
‘Cinnamon?’ she brought the bowl closer, inhaling deeply. The smell took her back to her childhood – her niñera, adding a little swirl in order to coax her to eat...
‘It is cinnamon!’ she said delightedly. ‘I thought it was.’
The steward was turning his knitted cap over and over in his greying hands, looking worriedly at her.
‘If it does not suit, Señorita,’ he said humbly, ‘I can add something else-‘
Officer Magda snorted. ‘What? You are not chief butler in the Palacio Real, Suarez-‘
‘Not at all, Señor Suarez,’ Theresa interposed firmly. The food was so much better than her fare aboard the Essex; she felt quite dizzy with hunger just smelling it. ‘It is very welcome. Thank you.’
Suarez looked astonished at her use of his name. But the genuine delight in her face and voice as she bent over the bowl made him grin, shyly, amidst the silver thicket of his beard.
‘Not bad, for fifty years out of practice,’ he said, with satisfaction. ‘Tell you one thing, Miss – it’s a gift from the good Lord getting to work a galley fire once more. Never thought I’d see the day again, but it’s amazing, isn’t it – what comes back to you.’ He watched Theresa make a renewed attack on her breakfast. ‘You like the cinnamon?’
Theresa looked up from her spoon. ‘I used to have it when I was quite a child as a treat.’ She said smiling. ‘If my Niñera thought I had been good...’ She grimaced. ‘Not as often as I would have liked. But then again, I had a sweet tooth.’
‘Heh!’ The old man looked fond – and a little sad. ‘Don’t all little ones.’He looked more closely at her, with some surprise. ‘Why, you’re not much more than a child yourself, Señora de Barrós.! Too young to be here –‘
Theresa coloured. She had forgotten to replace the sorry remnants of her veil – although it looked more like a cobweb than any substantial warrant of modesty now.
‘I’m past thirty, sir,’ she said dryly, in order to keep her countenance. ‘That is an age to be considered old in the marriage marts of Cádiz-’
Suarez shrugged off that consideration. ‘Counting years is a lottery for fools, Señora.’ He looked at her again before smiling a little sadly upon her. ‘I say again, you are still young. Your youth shows in your eyes.’ He paused. ‘That is why I wondered why el Capitán-‘
Officer Magda was now shifting impatiently from foot to foot. He peered, frowning, at something just out of Theresa’s sight-line in the corridor.
‘Too much talking, Suarez,’ he said curtly. ‘You know orders –‘
Suarez’s face dropped into careful neutrality. He saluted smartly, before bending to pick up the tray.
‘I am glad for the sake of my kitchen, but I am sorry you ever came here, Señora,’ He said hurriedly, in a low voice. ‘You deserve better fortune than to have your lot thrown in with ours.’
Before Theresa quite knew what he was about, he had quickly stretched out his hand, muttering something in thick Basque she could at first make no sense of.
Before she realised with a flood of pity and sadness, what it was. It brought unexpected tears to her eyes.
It was an old traditional grandfather’s blessing – the sort you might offer little children before they were taken off to bed.
Magda closed the door sharply behind him as the steward hurried out. Theresa heard the officer’s disembodied footsteps move forward in the passageway, as though making a little run at something; or… someone.
‘Go on!’ he said sharply, into the darkness. ‘Off with you! Sí, the living eat. Is that so remarkable, that you come here to gawk?’
Theresa realized, with a lurch of unease in the pit of her stomach, that her breakfast must have brought fresh ghostly spectators.
There was an indistinct murmuring.
‘She’s alive, isn’t she? Idiotas.’ Magda sounded impatient. ‘Of course el Capitán means to keep her so. ’
Another low-voiced question.
‘Your guess is as good as mine, but – eh, go and ask el teniente yourself, if you feel so bold. Face like sour milk this morning.’
Theresa carefully approached the door, trying not to let her footsteps betray her.
‘Did you hear what happened, Magda?’ the voice sounded... young, to Theresa. Excited. ‘Lopez swore he saw them , by the helm last night. Said Capitán made her swear with both hands on the helm!’
‘Cortez was angry.’ Another voice said, uneasily. ‘He said it defiled the ship, having the living swear on her. He says el Capitán took a liberty with la María ...’
‘Bah, Cortez? You’re a fool to credit anything that fiery knight of Mount Etna says; especially when his blood is up. He was angry, hey?’ Magda whistled. ‘He should take care. Mendoza and his fools will mark it as a weakness. ’
Someone sniggered. ‘He has too much care for La María’s honour, I think... ’
‘But what about the lady, Magda?’ the other voice persisted. ‘Is it true? Does el Capitán mean to keep her as - one of us?!’
‘Well, I don’t know... ‘ Officer Magda was evidently enjoying being the centre of attention; but he was lazily deferring the pleasure of offering an opinion as fact. ‘What does Santos think?’
‘He won’t speak of it...’
‘I don’t wonder. Ever discreet, our Santos.’ Magda drawled. ‘Poor boy. He didn’t know what to do with himself when she-’
Unfortunately for Theresa, at that moment a swell beneath la María jerked her forward, with a dreadful tell- tale creak of the floorboards.
All conversation stopped dead. There was a sudden, panic-stricken thud of footsteps fleeing back above deck.
And then, to Theresa’s shock and embarrassment, Officer Magda thrust his head and shoulders though the solid door, to offer her another death’s head grin. Flakes of glowing ash swirled in his wake.
‘You would make a dreadful spy, Señora.’ He remarked airily. ‘You breathe too loud.’
‘I – ah...’ There was no use beating about the bush, Theresa realised. She had been caught in the act. ‘You knew I was there?’
‘Oh, to be sure!’ Despite his earlier admonition to Suarez about manners, he showed no compunction about pushing his elbows through the wall as though it were little more than tissue paper.
He blinked at her with vague academic interest. ‘Moss and the others were so set on gossip they didn’t hear you.’ His eyes gleamed. ‘My ears are sharper. Is it true, what they say? That you actually swore on La María last night?’
‘I seem to remember you told me something, Señor, about “no questions.” ' Theresa said curtly. She was by no means sure she wanted to share anything with this satirical fellow. ‘I think I would be wise to obey.’
‘Ah,’ Magda said knowingly, ‘But that was before you became-‘
It was at this point that, from Theresa’s point of view, something very odd happened to Officer Magda. There was a muffled growl from the passageway.
Officer Magda’s eyes went wide in horror.
‘Mierde-‘ he swore.
But it was too late.
Alas! Magda, fuelled by his own curiosity and the chance to speak with the much-vaunted embajadora, had taken no care to keep watch on his side of the wall – and his capitán had caught his provisioning officer halfway through a wall, blithely talking away, and more or less completely disregarding his instructions.
His reaction was immediate.
With a sudden, savage jerk, Officer Magda vanished altogether from Theresa’s sight – pulled backwards through the wall by an unseen hand. The last glimpse Theresa had of him was his appalled face vanishing through the woodwork like a smudged drawing.
‘This is how you keep my orders, contrador? Eh?’ Salazar demanded. His tone made both Theresa and the unhappy officer quake . ‘One law for the men, and another for my officers? Is that how it goes?’
‘Capitán!’ the fright in Officer’s Magda’s voice made Theresa back away silently towards her pile of blankets, cringing in sympathy. ‘I did not mean- That is, I was merely making sure that the prisoner did not escape-‘
‘Oh, of course! The prisoner!’ Theresa could almost picture Salazar’s nod. ‘What prisoner, Magda?’
‘I said; what prisoner?’ Oh, how Theresa wished Salazar didn’t sound so falsely reasonable! She was quite sure that it boded no good for Officer Magda. ‘We have no prisoners aboard la María, now, do we? For I take no prisoners.’
‘No, Capitan. But in that case... ah, the lady-?‘
‘The lady is, as of now, a...’ Theresa heard the slightest of hesitations on Salazar’s part, before he continued. ‘She is to be treated, contrador, as a gentlewoman, and a guest. A passenger, sí, but as of now, she is one of us.’
One of us, Theresa thought. What does that mean?
But she had no time to wonder. There was a dull thud that sounded very much like Salazar had just slammed his hand into the wall.
‘Tell me: when you escorted the Marquesa de Altamira to Lisbon, Magda – did you gossip loudly outside her door with your fellow officers? Intrude upon her person, to make foolish barrack-room chatter?’
‘No? No, I didn’t think so,’ Salazar said grimly. ‘Now, I don’t pretend to teach you your duty – because I assume any man who holds the rank of officer on my ship knows that. I would merely... remind you of the fine manners you pretend to affect as a gentleman, contrador, and of my orders.’
There was no mistaking the snarl in his voice this time. ‘And if I ever find you, or any other man, acting like some tavern-bred oaf rather than the disciplined officers I know you to be...’
‘Understood, Capitán. I – I apologise. To you and to the lady.’ Magda said carefully. ‘I apologise... profusely.’
‘Hmm. Better.’ Salazar’s sword tapped impatiently on the boards. ‘For now. Dismissed.’
Officer Magda may have had little in the way to call legs, not to mention feet. But he certainly moved quickly. Theresa could hear his agitated footsteps as he hurried away.
Salazar let out one of his peculiar sardonic laughs.
‘I suppose I had better follow my own commands, eh, embajadora?’ he said through the panelling, stamping his feet briskly before making an over-exaggerated knock upon the door. ‘Never let it be said that I have less courtesy than my own crew.’
‘Isn’t it...locked?’ Theresa said, in a trembling voice. She was not at all certain she wanted to be subjected to Salazar’s company so soon – and in a case where she might have offended.
‘Locked?’ Salazar gave the door a push. It creaked open as he limped through it. He tutted mock-reprovingly at Theresa standing stupefied by her bed. ‘There are no locks aboard my ship, Señora. Not for you. I thought you overheard my little speech to Magda...’
She should have remembered, Theresa thought ruefully. Their hearing was probably supernaturally good, too.
‘I assumed you were listening.’ Salazar looked at her slyly from the corner of one shadowy eye-socket. ‘You were, weren’t you?’
Theresa’s frozen expression of guilt mingled with fright must have betrayed her. He looked amused. ‘I expected no less! You needn’t look at me so, little Señora.’ He added, waving a hand dismissively. ‘I do not blame you.’
‘You don’t?’ Theresa couldn’t help but be a little incredulous; Salazar’s temper did not seem particularly discerning.
‘Eh, The offence was Magda’s, not yours. Besides, the ability to listen is a good quality to have as our embajadora, yes? You are not quite the same as the crew.’
That was true, Theresa thought; there was a difference in the way Salazar addressed her compared to his growled admonitions to his officers. He was almost... affable; if a man such as Salazar could truly be such a thing. Was it merely his complacency at having secured her oath? She wondered, baffled. Or something else?
He turned around to look at her room with a critical eye.
‘Lesaro outdid himself, I see.’ He remarked, testing the floor with his foot. ‘Bien, it seems sound enough. Although you will have to shift quarters if we clear for action. La María is – ha! Not always a safe place for the living when we have quarry to pursue... but yes. Not bad.’
He paused, hands clasped behind his back. There was an awkward silence, before he rounded on her again, with another abrupt start of conversation.
‘Do you like it?’ he demanded.
‘...your pardon, capitán Salazar?’
‘Your room.’ He gestured to the makeshift sailcloth hangings. ‘The, eh – furnishings. You are comfortable?’
Is he trying to make... small talk? Sweet Virgin.
And he was waiting for her answer, too. Dark eyes earnestly watching her face.
At a loss, she fell back on echoing his words back to him. ‘I am – comfortable, yes. Thank you.’ She said stiffly. Although I would feel better if there was more floor, she thought silently. But I suppose that can’t be helped on a ghost-ship.
‘Good! Good. Heh. That is something, at least...’
That seemed to have exhausted Salazar’s stock of conversation for the moment. He stared blankly at the floor, tapping the point of his sword distractedly upon the floor, lips moving silently as though trying to puzzle out what to say next...
Oh sweet Jesu, Theresa decided. I have had enough of this. I think I preferred him when he was blunt and to the point.
‘I suppose,’ she prompted, ‘you wish me to honour the terms of my engagement, Capitán?’
‘Your... engagement?’ For a minute, a peculiar expression of stupefaction mixed with...something else flitted across the captain’s wasted expression. Salazar’s first thought had sprung instantly to the dappled sunshine in the Cádiz garden and the memories of the fiancé, rooted in a lingering sense of guilt.
‘My role, Capitán,’ Theresa said sharply. ‘You no doubt wish the embajadora of the living to give you news of the Spain that is now?’
That awoke the man from his reverie, she was pleased to see. The usual sharp intelligence shone from his eyes again, and with it a marked irritation.
‘You mistake your role, little Señora,’ he said coldly. ‘A natural mistake, perhaps, considering. But you do not speak for the living.’ He spoke the word with withering scorn. ‘You will speak of them, and the world beyond - but only to me, so I may know how I may best serve Spain’s interests.’ His eyes glowed. ‘Do we understand each other? Your pledge is to us, the dead. You are ambassador to me. No-one else.’
A careful observer might have noticed a faint undercurrent of jealousy in his voice – as if the idea of the widow de Barrós belonging to the living could somehow make her an enemy party.
‘But eh- let that pass for now. Time enough to tell me what passes in the world later. At dinner.’
He extended a hand to her.
‘Come!’ he said, briefly. ‘Walk with me, little Señora. Let me explain myself further...’
Chapter 14: A Diplomatic Discussion
In which the art of diplomacy and compromise is practiced by La Maria's ambassador, and an introduction is made between ship and passenger.
...Life e’en wept
With very envy of their happy fronts;
For there were neighbour brows scarr’d by the brunts
Of strife and sorrowing—where Care had set
His crooked autograph, and marr’d the jet
Of glossy locks with hollow eyes forlorn,
And lips that curl’d in bitterness and scorn—
Wretched,—as they had breathed of this world’s pain,
And so bequeath’d it to the world again.
Thomas Hood, The Sea of Death
There was something faintly…incongruous, Theresa decided, about pacing by the side of a walking corpse. Salazar’s arm struck cold, even through the rotting remnants of his coat sleeve. He was within the bounds of politeness, but there was nevertheless an iron quality to his grip that reminded her of the terrible preternatural strength he possessed.
Why, he could crush me between finger and thumb, Theresa thought, with an inward shiver, and never notice any difference...
Contrary to the usual custom of the lady walking on the left, Salazar had also firmly attached her to his right-hand side; something that he persisted in, even after gesturing her up the ladder to the main deck.
‘No,’ he said abruptly, as she moved to take his other arm. ‘Not that side. This.’
Theresa was at a loss at first to account for it; until she glanced at him and began to grasp the reason why.
Even ghosts, it seemed, could have their vanity. The ruined, gaping side of the captain’s head was on the left; where charred bone and flesh opened on a black and terrible vacancy at the back of his skull. By keeping her to his right, Salazar was keeping her away from the worst of his death-wound - so there was merely his blunt, stern hawk’s profile to stare at- cracked and distorted, yes, but not quite as horrifying.
He must have noticed how my eyes always catch on it, thought Theresa, feeling faintly ashamed of herself. El Capitán had many faults, after all; but being dead, at least, he couldn’t help.
And now he was trying, somewhat gruffly, not to terrify her too much.
What had prompted him to that? She wondered. It was a curious departure from Salazar’s usual manner of proceeding; when interrogating Scrimshaw he had taken a ghoulish delight in thrusting his ruined face towards the poor boy in order to horrify him all the more.
It could be some trick, her more cynical side warned. Some new stratagem on his part. Remember, he wants you to tell him all he knows. It’s easier for him if you aren’t too petrified to speak, isn’t it?
But... that didn’t quite ring true to her; even whilst she examined it. There was an unconscious... pride about Capitán Salazar. He might be bleached, blackened and scorched by the fire and waters he had died in, but it hadn’t diminished his force of character. Salazar carried enough imperious command in his very walk to set half the court of Madrid to shame.
And it was a compelling arrogance, too. One that disdained mere appearance in favour of action, strength, and power – and it persuaded you to believe it for yourself; that it was enough to be judged by the world for your mind and your courage alone, and damn the rest for so much... unnecessary foolery.
Some noblemen had the same force of will, to be sure; but only a rare few, in Theresa’s experience. If he had the same self-assurance in life, he must have been quite a figure to encounter. Not likeable, perhaps; but you would certainly have remembered the man...
‘You look grave, little Señora?’
Theresa had forgotten that she wasn’t unobserved herself. When she looked up with a start, she realised that Salazar’s own eyes had been sharply following her glance at his face.
‘Not a pretty sight, is it, little Señora?’ he remarked, a ghastly parody of a smile stretching his blackened lips. He gestured to his ruined skull. ‘Bien, and I am one of the fortunate ones, as you have no doubt seen here.’ He spoke lightly enough; perhaps to disarm the suspicion of pain. But Theresa was no fool. The banked coals of helpless rage and suffering were alight in the man’s eyes, despite his irony. ‘Curses are capricious things, Señora Theresa. Not something I would recommend.’
‘A curse,’ Theresa repeated, numbly, hardly sure she had heard him right. ‘A... curse?’
Of course, that made... sense, in an upside-down morality tale way. It was a staple of folklore. Ghosts were only ghosts because of wrongs done, crimes left unpunished. Both Niñera Inez’s nursery tales and the sisters at Marseilles had been very definite about that, along with every sermon Theresa had ever listened to on a Sunday. Be good, or else you go where the bad people go...
‘You are surprised? Ah, little Señora, you disappoint me. I thought you better at a guess than that.’ Salazar gouged idly at the boards with the tip of his sword. ‘What else could have done this to us, do you think?’
No. That can’t be right. Theresa argued with herself. She still vividly remembered Suarez’s blessing – the outstretched hand-
She shook her head. ‘But... wait, that can’t be right! You can’t be cursed -’
Salazar’s face grew hard.
‘You doubt my word?’
‘No – no, sir. But your steward, the kindly one –‘ Theresa checked herself, but hastened to explain. ‘This morning, at breakfast he... ah, he...’ She hoped to heaven this wasn’t a breaking of the rules that would involve the man in any trouble. ‘He gave me a grandfather’s blessing, Capitán.’
Salazar grunted. ‘Did he.’ He said flatly.
‘Please don’t punish him.’ Theresa said hastily. ‘He did not speak to me, as it were. He asked me no questions. I only mention it because surely... if you were all cursed, then you could not-’ Theresa floundered, trying to find a delicate way of saying it. Niñera Inez’s fairy tales hadn’t prepared her for this, but...
Surely – cursed men couldn’t pray? She remembered some of the more lurid stories of the fireside. Murderers whose prayers choked them in their throat as they tried to avow their innocence – unclean ghosts who holy things burned. Stories, but...
We are in the land of stories now, Theresa thought. Maybe there’s a grain of truth in all of them, somewhere. Even the mermaids of Florida.
‘If we were damned, you mean, Señora?’ Salazar said brutally, instantly cutting to the truth she had dodged. ‘Let us not beat about the bush, hmm? An ambassador should be frank.’ He looked at her sideways. ‘We are not damned in that way, Señora. Like in the stories – a sight of a crucifix and we vanish to Hell in a puff of brimstone, hey? We can still pray, if we wish.’ He snapped his fingers, before subsiding. ‘But we are cursed. And all the prayers in the world have been worse than usele-’ He stopped himself before he finished the sentence. But the thought was there, in the bitter lines of his face.
Worse than useless.
‘You need not fret for your immortal soul, Señora, if that is what concerns you.’ He added, a touch derisively. ‘You will not be the worse for Suarez’s blessing.’
‘Fret!’ Theresa bristled, despite herself. This was too much. ‘You think I am... hard-hearted enough to – fear a...’ she shook her head, speechless. ‘Señor Suarez was kindly, thoughtful and offered me nothing but courtesy and consideration, Capitán Salazar. And if you think me churlish enough to fear a good old man’s blessing because of his... his condition, why then I see no reason why you should -‘
She attempted to pull away. She might as well have attempted to unclasp a statue. But whilst Salazar’s grip was unyielding, his face wasn’t. A careful observer might have even noticed a certain wry amusement as she tugged uselessly, trying to free her arm.
‘Why, how I have ruffled your feathers, little embajadora!’ He spoke almost... admiringly. ‘Please, be calm. I did not mean to rouse you quite so far. I meant only to test your mettle.’ he added, matter-of-factly. ‘It pleases me that you are loyal to those who are kind – and Suarez...’ Salazar hesitated. ‘If there were true justice in the world, he would not be here with us. True to Spain, to his mates and to me.’
More tests. When would they end with this man? Theresa wondered. Nearly everything seemed to be a hurdle to be got over. But she could agree with him there.
‘He is a good man,’ Theresa said warmly, subsiding a little. ‘He put cinnamon in the porridge for me, like a true grandfather.’
A more genuine smile came to the Capitán’s face at her praise. ‘Si, that is our Suarez.’ He said, nodding. ‘You speak truly, little Señora. He is a true kindly old grandfather.’
His eyes darkened. ‘And yet cursed like all the rest with us.’
‘I am sorry for it, Capitán.’ Theresa spoke almost instinctively, noting with dismay the old, cruel look coming back into his face. She half-hoped to keep the better side alive a little while.
‘Sorry.’ Salazar repeated, blankly. At first the word seemed to register as something distant, but sweet – until the usual bitterness crept behind his eyes, and Salazar’s usual feral snarl came back to his face at the word. ‘Sorry? I do not tell you this to implore your pity, Señora. For me or my men. I tell you the facts, that is all. We are cursed because of that... that cábron Sparrow and his damned tricks-‘
An exposed muscle in his cheek twitched, convulsively, as he ground his teeth together. Black blood trickled lazily down his chin. The arm Theresa clasped grew rigid, his grip almost painful.
Theresa flinched. Rage seemed an ever present companion with Salazar, bubbling to the surface at the slightest opportunity; but his words gave her another piece of information to puzzle over
‘“Trick,”’ he had said. They had been... tricked? Tricked into a curse?
How was that even possible?
Fortunately, the spasms of fury that seized Salazar seemed... fitful – or else he saw her shrink away and managed to master himself. He shook his head, chuckling darkly under his breath as he quelled his temper. ‘A story for another time, little embajadora.’
‘I intended no offence, Capitán-’ Theresa began hurriedly.
To her surprise, Salazar waved away her apology almost... absently. As if it were already forgotten. ‘No, no, little Señora. I know you did not. It is not a... comfortable subject with me.’ A sour smile twisted his lips again. ‘But... you will learn this, as our embajadora. And you now know why we are-‘ he gestured, expansively. ‘As we are.’
‘I... I understand.’ Some prompting of obscure pity compelled her to add: ‘It does not repulse me, sir. Your appearance.’
Salazar stared blankly at her for a moment, eyes burning. For a moment she wondered if she had offended him – before he offered her his half-amused tilt of the head.
‘Determined to show courage to the last, little Señora?’ he said softly. ‘Have you not heard the stories?’ He stepped back, to make a mocking flourish. ‘Why, there was a capitán of Lyons who shot himself through the throat rather than meet with me. After all their weapons and prayers came to nothing.’ He made a grisly flourish. ‘It was... messy. And exasperating. He left me without my one man to tell the tale...’
This was another test, Theresa realised, after freezing for a moment. He wasn’t exactly trying to frighten her – but he wasn’t disguising his own brutal nature, either. Here, he was saying. This is what I am. This is what I do. You are right to fear me.
But... he can’t kill me. Frighten me, yes – but I’m too valuable to them alive. They need me.
The thought put renewed courage in Theresa. She wordlessly slipped around to his left side, taking his arm in the correct Madrid fashion; before making a point of looking directly into his face. Without flinching.
‘With respect, Capitán,’ she said, slowly. ‘I am not... French.’
He let out a bark of laughter at that. She could see an exposed muscle tug at the corner of his eye as he threw back his head, soot-stained cracks distorting his chalk-white skin into new shapes.
‘No, that you are certainly not.’ He half-patted her sleeve, almost in congratulation. ‘Very good, embajadora. Very good.’
That seemed a good indication she had passed whatever test of character that had been, Theresa thought. She hoped she would be allowed a little space before the next exchange of wits. Matching with Salazar was like fencing on the edge of a precipice, with fire about to break out beneath your feet at any moment.
But at least for now, she was in the open air and sunshine. She took time to just ... breathe.
It was already warm from the morning sunshine beating down on the exposed deck. Theresa could almost feel the heat through the thin sole of her shoes from the warped timbers of La Maria. From her viewpoint on the high quarterdeck she could see a swarm of activity below her. The men were climbing or leaping in gigantic strides along broken spars and rickety masts; occasionally using what few frail ratlines remained. It was fascinating to watch – like seeing ants climb a single piece of rope, clinging on despite all dictates of logic and gravity.
‘Ah, you watch them?’ Salazar’s gaze fell on his men, briefly, with a critical eye. He frowned, seeing something not to his liking below. ‘Ho there!’ He bellowed. ‘What are we, some slack merchant ship? Make that fast now, Ruíz! Señor Moss, keep your men in order!’
A figure below saluted smartly. ‘Sí, Capitan!’
‘You keep your men... active, sir.’ Theresa ventured.
Salazar shrugged – but he looked, despite himself, faintly gratified. It had been a long time since anyone had praised the quickness of his men – and like a true captain, Salazar took praise of his ship and crew the way a proud mother takes praise of her children. He almost preened.
‘It is the only way for men to be, Señora.’ He declared matter-of-factly. ‘It keeps them prepared. Keeps them ready.’ His eyes gleamed with a fanatic’s distant stare, fixed on some invisible future only he could see. ‘When the call for action comes, the men of La María will not be found wanting. All we need is direction. Let Spain give us a purpose, and by God we will answer it...’
‘That is all you desire?’ Theresa asked, before she could help herself. ‘Simply to serve Spain?’
Salazar turned his preternatural eyes on her.
Something unspeakably sad and desperate looked out at Theresa from behind them. Blink and you would have missed it, but she caught it; a trapped thing, despairing, unhappy - and unspeakably alone.
‘No, Señora,’ he said quietly. ‘That is not all I desire. But since fate places us here...’ He hunched his shoulders. ‘Well. We make do with what we can get, hmm?’
‘I – I see.’
Salazar must have caught a glimpse of pity in her eyes, for he abruptly turned his head away from her, as if unable to bear scrutiny. ‘Oh I don’t think you do, little Señora.’ He said softly, shrugging his shoulders. ‘But, heh, what living man could?’ His movement was so sudden a floating lock of dark hair brushed Theresa’s cheek in the wake of his sharp movement.
But whatever momentary vulnerability had been there vanished – and in its place was the coldly remote face of the imperious Capitán, ironic and disdainful as ever.
‘There. That is enough questions answered for you today, Señora.’ He grinned. ‘My turn, if you please.’
He was being deliberately provoking again, and Theresa knew it. But it was a turn of the subject into safer waters, and she was glad enough to follow his lead.
‘As you please, Capitán,’ she returned, bobbing an satirical little curtsey. ‘What else can I say? I am clearly very honoured in my new role already.’
‘Eh?’ Salazar frowned. ‘How so?’
‘Well,’ Theresa said drily, ‘I have seen few royal masters at court deign to offer an arm to their ambassadors as they walk the halls...’
His brow cleared at her answer. There was even a suspicion of another smile hovering about his mouth. ‘Bien, I suppose that is true. But then again, little Señora: there are only embajadors at court, are there not? No embajadoras, none at all!’ He looked her over head to toe. ‘The ladies would play havoc amongst the ministers, I think. So here is my difficulty – I must choose between respecting you as my emissary, or else omitting the gallantry due to the gentler sex. A quandary, no?’ He patted her arm, something like subtle devilment dancing in his eyes. ‘It is a case of diplomacy for you to practice on, Señora– what would you have me do?’
He was in a more genial mood, Theresa decided, relieved. Not only was he taking her own reply in good part, but he now responded with something almost – playful, on his part.
Thank heaven for small mercies, She thought. Playful, she could deal with. And just as he had the previous night, he was inviting her into a game of wits with him.
Oh, it was not a fair game by any means; the odds were stacked overwhelmingly in his favour. But it was possible to return fire, in a pleasant way – and Theresa was not averse to a little verbal swordplay, on occasion. The social salons of Cadiz had schooled her well, even if it had never quite been as perilous as this.
‘If my sex presents such a problem as to gallantry, Capitán, you are quite at liberty to select a new ambassador.’ She said sweetly. ‘I can relinquish the honour without too much regret, I assure you –‘
Salazar’s face flickered for a moment – ah, that shot went home , did it? - but it resolved itself into a carefully neutral expression.
‘Alas. This is not an option.’ He said calmly. ‘I am quite... eh, resolved as to your qualifications for the role, little Señora.’
‘No?’ Theresa risked a faint smile before meeting his eye again. ‘Well, then. Let us devise a compromise.’
‘That you do not, perhaps, address me as if I were knee-high to a grasshopper.’ Theresa said tartly, eyes narrowing. ‘Granted, I am your embajadora, and a woman. Give me the respect due to both. No more “little Señora” this, “little Señora” that. If you please.’
It would have been a barbaric retort in a fashionable Cadiz salon – little short of the shrieks of a fish-wife. But to Theresa’s annoyance, Salazar was not even slightly discomfited.
‘But you are little, Señora,’ he pointed out, amused. He casually extended a great heavy grey hand to hover over Theresa’s head. ‘You see? Pequeñísima.’
He leisurely drew himself up to his full height, propping himself up by the point of his sword to further emphasise the difference between them. Theresa found herself staring square at the centre of his decaying waistcoat.
She would have been angrier yet to discover the vague perambulations of Salazar’s thoughts were ambling along quite a different track.
Small...yes. The smallest. Although Pequeñísima wasn’t the first word that had come to Salazar’s mind. In his old days of shore side gallantry there had been a phrase...what had it been?
Ah... yes. Venus de bolsillo. A “pocket Venus.” A tender name for a small lady of one’s heart; implying that the lover in question could simply be picked up and stowed in a pocket, to be saved for later. Like a little doll.
The corners of his mouth turned up slightly as she glowered up at him. It was perhaps as well he hadn’t mentioned that, for all she was delightfully animated when angry. It recalled the brighter, heedless girl of the husband’s inundación de memoria, tempered with an engaging... sharpness. Which she was certainly demonstrating now.
So sharp, Salazar thought. All points and edges. No concessions. She has espiritu marcíal indeed! And then, with a touch of gratification: Dios, but I chose well!
There was only one point that galled him. Just a little.
He had imagined that the inundación de memoria would make things... easier. Somewhere, amongst the plans he had made - Ah! And that such a short time ago! - he had the vague notion that searching the husband’s memory-flood would reveal some tell, or weakness; some handle by which he could coax or manipulate the Señora to his will as embajadora.
But there had been no weakness in sight; unless you counted the fact that she had once been young, and innocent, and heedless of the future. A soft, pretty, engaging counterpoint to the woman she was now, certainly but – nothing that told him who Theresa de Barrós really was.
Perhaps he had been too careful? He had plunged in recklessly enough, but he had withdrawn baffled after a few scant hours of memories, wary of squandering what the memory-flood provided and frustrated with his own lack of progress.
He had combed the poor young fool’s memories as well as he could, given so many, many memories, and all he had for his trouble was the terrible far-away feeling that the inundación left you with; as though he was puppeteering his own carcass about from far above, somewhere in the clouds. Even the deck of his own beloved María seemed faintly unreal, compared to the vivid feel of land ; actual land – earth, grass and the common stones of a Spanish street beneath his feet again.
Yes, lingering too long in other men’s memories was dangerous. He had never felt the temptation before now.
But there was a dreadfully alluring simplicity to it. It was so easy. Easy to watch, easy to listen. And above all – oh, it was far, far too easy to just slip inside the de Barrós boys’ skin when he ate a pear, or drank cold water in the heat of mid-day and feel again.
It made him look around at the fields and villages and roads of a country he used to know, only to feel more alone and cast-out than he had ever felt in the Triangulos del Diablo. And increasingly bitter against Sebastien de Barrós for simply existing.
Watching an insipid youth shyly court a young girl – why, it should have bored him, or made him laugh in contempt, like some foolish Court masque.
It shouldn’t have touched him. It shouldn’t have made him want to stay in a world where the only trouble in that stupid, empty-eyed boy’s head was whether he would dare to chastely kiss a girl’s hand in the twilight as they walked back from a country picnic.
But always, dancing through all of those moments like a common thread he followed until his dead eyes and his splintered skull ached, was the figure of the Señora Theresa de Barrós. Unknowable, both as the young girl of yesterday and the sharper woman of today.
But the Señora was glaring up at him again. She had taken advantage of his lapse in concentration to shake free of him, but she hadn’t moved away. On the contrary, she had moved to confront him head on.
‘You are pleased to jest, with your “pequeñísimas”,’ Theresa said frostily, looking hard into his face. ‘But according to your own decree, Capitán, I represent your interests. The interests of your men. The interests of your ship. ‘ She paused. ‘Are any of these things “small” to you?’
Ah. There she touched a nerve. Salazar turned as if she had pricked him with a bull-spear, nostrils flaring.
‘You presume to doubt-’ He growled.
‘I? I doubt nothing, Capitán. But if I am to be described as “small” as your embajadora, it follows you think your own interests are the same. And I know – I know,’ Theresa stressed the word, ‘That they are by no means small. ’
Salazar bit his lip, frowning.
For a nasty moment, Theresa feared she had pushed things too far in her eagerness to make her point, and that she was about to be clapped below deck – but after a moment his brow cleared as he worked it out.
He gave her a begrudging nod.
‘You make your point... well,’ he said, slowly. ‘And with the subtlety of the serpent, I think.’ Theresa waited, tentatively.
‘Heh. Very well... Señora.’ He grimaced, but Theresa couldn’t help but note the more respectful use of her title. ‘You are in the right. This is a case for us both to practice diplomacy, I think? Well,’ he waved a hand, imperiously, ‘ Granted. No more “pequeñísima”. ’
He stared hard at her. ‘Provided, Señora – that you are as careful of our interests as you are to safeguard your own.’
‘Granted.’ Theresa said promptly. There had been precious few concessions from Capitán Salazar so far; and this was the first she had won. But it was something to remember – when approached in the right way, compromise was a possibility.
It was difficult to keep the flush of victory out of her face. To cover her confusion she proffered her hand.
‘In that case,’ she said, ‘I think we may safely agree, Capitán.’
Salazar stared at her outstretched fingers for a moment, remembering that sudden flush of heat in Cádiz sunshine; the scolding duenna, the dazed boy who would be her husband...
His fingers impulsively covered her own. ‘Sí, embajadora, I think we may.’ He said, low-voiced.
It wasn’t...quite the same feeling as the inundación. Nothing was the same as life, even when lived second-hand. But, for a moment, as the widow’s eyes crinkled at the corners into a cautious smile...
Well. It came... close. Closer to what he remembered as “living.”
‘Come.’ He said, suddenly decided. He beckoned her towards the stairs. ‘I think, embajadora, since we do understand each other so well, you had better understand la María, too.’
‘The... ship?’ Theresa looked down at the warped boards beneath her feet. She opened her mouth to say something unthinking like ‘What is there to understand about a ship?’
Before she recalled, with a jolt, Officer Magda’s question of the morning.
“ ‘Is it true? You swore on La Maria?’ “
La Maria Silenciosa wasn’t just a ship, was she? No more than Salazar and his officers were just men. They were all something more.
Her curiosity of the morning got the better of her as she followed him down the steps to the main deck. ‘Capitán,’ she said eagerly. ‘May... may I see her?’
Salazar looked confounded. ‘You already see her, Señora. You stand upon her-‘
‘No, not the ship. I mean – I mean... her. The figurehead,’ Theresa explained. ‘May I see... her?’
Salazar looked at her distrustfully for a moment. He had not seen the lady quite so animated by interest since she had demanded her miniature back, and for a moment he half- suspected some trick. But he shrugged. What harm could the lady do to any of them, after all?
‘Bien, if you wish.’ He limped along slowly by her side until they reached La María’s bows, where she could peer down at the bowsprit. ‘Why so much interest?’
‘Oh, my father was a ship’s carver, Capitan. My grandfather made his fortune that way shipbuilding, in Cádiz. I grew up running about his workshops near the harbours.’
Salazar grunted. ‘Carpenters still fleecing the Navy through their contracts, heh? Some things don’t change-‘
‘Carver,’ Theresa corrected, coldly. ‘Not carpenter. Back in the days when they truly decorated ships, you know?’ she sighed with nostalgia. ‘Papa used to tell me about the great days. Ship sterns used to be works of art. Wonders of carving, like a cathedral high altar! All heraldic beasts, and saints in their niches, all gilded...’
‘Sí, they were,’ Salazar agreed, growing interested despite himself. His first ship, the San Juan Bautista, had been a rickety old thing, and none too trim in the lines, either – but her stern had been a thing of beauty – twelve Roman knights on the beams, and a great carved bas-relief of King Solomon on his throne. The figurehead had been a buxom Salome, holding aloft a saintly severed head in triumph. He had fond memories of the San Juan, despite it being as manoeuvrable as a leaking water bucket in a storm. ‘But such things went out of fashion, did they not? At least...’he waved a hand idly, ‘There were not so many after the war. No money. I remember, from when I was in Cádiz last-‘
‘You are right there,’ Theresa said absently, craning her neck to get a better view. All she could see was a hint of a blackened carved shoulder. ‘Papa said it almost broke the business in grandfather’s time. They had to change about to smaller things like coats of arms in order to survive. And the carpenter’s apprentices used to steal timber from our yards.’ She added tartly.
‘Carpenters, eh?’ Salazar shook his head in mock-dismay, smiling at her tone. ‘Swindlers and thieves, the world over – and never an honest one in port.’ He frowned as he saw Theresa standing on tiptoe at the ships rail, trying to twist her head into impossible angles. ‘Bah, you can see nothing of La María to advantage from there, Señora. Here.’
Before Theresa quite knew what he was about, he had caught her arm, pulling her sharply against his side,before making a short spring into the air –
Theresa shut her eyes, her grip tightening on his elbow. Please, she prayed, don’t let Capitan Salazar kill me by accident with the fall...
But she needn’t have worried. They landed with a bump in the little space behind Theresa’s quarters, close behind the rising line of the bowsprit.
‘Do you see her? There. Much better. ’ Salazar pointed, proudly. ‘She is not what she was, our poor la María, but she is still fine...’
It took Theresa a moment to catch her breath; no amount of time, she decided, dizzily, would ever allow her to get used to those spring-heeled jumps of theirs. But once she recovered her balance, and ventured to take a glance down and the gigantic figure at the prow –
She leaned forward, mouth dropping open.
The words escaped her despite herself.
She had been right. La Maria Silenciosa wasn’t anything so... so insipid as a Santa Maria. Holy Virgins on a prow were ten a penny in Spain, but this... this figure was...
She was almost... classical – and so very, very martial. There was a definite flavour of Pallas Athene, with the breastplate and flowing drapery – and she held a rusted metal falchion aloft in both clenched mailed fists, one buckler strapped to her arm. Ready to challenge the world at the point of her blade, Theresa thought – how very apt for a ship commanded by Salazar.
You’d have almost expected her face to be... fierce. But it wasn’t. Even though charred and blackened and peppered with woodworm, it was exquisitely modelled. A calm, tranquil face, eyes closed, the lines only dimly seen through a garlanded hood and veil.
Perhaps that’s why she’s the “silent” Maria. She veils her intentions from the world until she’s ready to strike.
Papa would have sold his soul ten times over to have her in his workshop to take models from, Theresa thought. She stared long and earnestly at the carved face.
‘She is your La María, Capitán?’ she breathed. She turned almost reproachfully towards him. ‘Why didn’t you show me her sooner? She is...she is...’ She turned back, peering downwards again. ‘She is magnificent. ‘
She sucked in a breath. ‘Look at the carvings! You can’t even see the chisel marks on the veil... it’s as fine as real lawn! She is – she is sublime!’
Salazar looked long and earnestly too – but not... quite at his La María. His gaze had slid over, fascinated towards Theresa’s face, which was almost transfigured by delight, absorbed as she was in admiring the figurehead. The girl in the soft hat from Cádiz was peeping out, soft brown eyes alive with-
‘Si,’ he said vaguely. ‘You are right. Sublime...’
Chapter 15: Doubts are Traitors
In which the Lieutenant is uneasy, and it is made clear that the embajadora's voyage will not be an easy one...
Well, heaven forgive him! And forgive us all!
Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall:
Some run from brakes of ice, and answer none:
And some condemned for a fault alone.
Measure for Measure, Act II, Scene I.
Lieutenant Lesaro stood stoically at his usual post on the quarterdeck.
For any casual observer amongst the crew, he looked much the same as always. As steady as clockwork, and as steadfast as a toy soldier was el teniente – and as loyal to el Capitán’s will as a bulldog. No one questioned his loyalties. Ever.
No, the only person who ever questioned Lesaro’s motives was Lesaro himself. Had anyone caught a glimpse of his one good eye that morning, they would have seen it filled with enough care and worry for three men.
He shifted, striding purposefully over to the ship rail in an effort to dislodge the thought. The hint of a south-westerly wind set the floating fragments of his shattered right shoulder dancing lazily in the breeze.
He had always wondered about that; how the phantom underwater currents that held them all still prevailed. It could be a calm day out on the open sea, but Lesaro would see his jacket sleeve move against the prevailing wind, knowing that somewhere in the Triangulos del Diablo, the water was moving... differently.
Reminding us where we belong, Lesaro thought, in a moment of uncharacteristic darkness. We are still galley slaves chained to the will of the Curse. It just chooses to let us wander.
Lesaro was not often ill-at-ease. A good lieutenant has no business, he had always maintained, showing any open doubt in his captain’s actions or his judgement. Public criticism of his capitán’s actions? That way led to mutiny and dissent and all manner of evils.
But when…uncomfortable, shall we say, with Capitan Salazar’s decisions, he became much more formal. He withdrew the marks of his friendship and approval and became a stiff, mechanical officer – operating almost more by stiff mechanism than by his own willpower. My duty and loyalty may compel me to obey you, he seemed to say without speaking, but I do not like it – and you betray my faith in you by asking it.
Something of this had been present in Lesaro since the introduction of the Señora aboard La María. His conscience smote him cruelly when he thought of the whole affair.
I doomed her. That is what I did.
But it had been almost... instinctive. He had not seen or heard a fellow countrywoman in over fifty years; just hearing another Spanish voice, asking so earnestly for help had reminded him of so many things he had long thought forgotten. Better things. The things he’d gone to sea to serve in the first place.
He hadn’t dreamed that things would fall out as they did.
The situation had been such that he had thought Salazar, confronted with a frightened innocent fellow citizen, was at least capable of allowing her to leave unscathed. He had still enough belief in Armando Salazar’s sense of honour and duty that he had thought: Capitán will not kill her, Capitán will set her free. Capitán will remember what it is that we once were...
But I forget. Lesaro thought bleakly. There is no mercy. Not with Capitán..
His intentions had backfired, miserably. Salazar had been far too interested to relinquish such a precious thing as new information, even when it came in the form of an unprotected innocent.
Capitán was doubtlessly rubbing his hands together at the prospect of knowing more of Spain after so long and so little gleaned from the miserable survivors of their sea-raids.
His plan seemed beyond cruel to Lesaro; making a living woman a caged bird, taught to sing their macabre notes of death and vengeance as a warning to others.
And what if he takes it into his head to kill her, if she displeases him? He could do it. And then the chill realisation. He would do it, too, rather than show weakness in front of the men. Let his temper get the better of him once, and she’ll be tipped overboard with her throat cut…
His mind recoiled from the thought.
No. The Señora is an innocent. Not a pirate, not an enemy soldier – nothing Capitán has any excuse for keeping or killing. She should have been allowed to go free ashore.
This is wrong. This is all wrong.
And the worst of it was that Salazar hardly seemed to know what he had done. He was so wrapped up in his own calculations he hadn’t allowed for the devastating change in the precarious equilibrium of the crew. Even the officers couldn’t help but be... disturbed.
Surprisingly, it was Cortez who had given Lesaro the clue to how bad things were.
Several lifetimes spent in the man’s company hadn’t given Lesaro much knowledge of his brother-lieutenant– a deep one, was Cortez. But he was a staunch officer in his surly fashion, and a good man to have beside you in a fight. Nothing ever seemed to shake teniente Cortez.
That is, until the Senora had been sworn in. Lesaro had to lay a restraining hand on the man’s sleeve. Cortez, had been shaking with shock and anger – so much so that he had let fly that indignant protest.
He might as well have been a fly trying to sting a bull through its thick hide.
Cortez had turned an aghast face to Lesaro once el Capitán had left the deck.
‘La María is not for the living!’ he hissed. ‘She is ours! Ours alone! He can’t... he has no authority to-‘
‘Authority?’ Lesaro’s brow furrowed darkly. These were dangerous waters – and all the worse for coming from the mouth of a second lieutenant. ‘Tread carefully, Cortez. He is the capitán. What other authority does he need?’
Cortez stared at him, wide-eyed. ‘Are you truly that blind?’ he rocked back on his heels, jerking his arm away from the lieutenant’s reach. ‘There are some spaces in men’s souls that should be left free, Lesaro. Capitán grants us nothing. And now he takes away what little we still have to call our own?’He shook his head. ‘The men will not stand for it-’
He had a point, Lesaro recognised silently. La María was all they had. She served them as both home and floating purgatory. Up until now, she had been theirs alone. She was their guardian, in a way; a fellow-sufferer, bound to them by the Curse as surely as they were bound to her.
In a world filled only with the screams of the dying or else grey... silence, where there was nothing else, the men could at least be sure that La María looked down on them kindly, as someone who could understand them. What could the living know about that need for reassurance?
But she had sworn, nonetheless. And now, by Capitán’s decree, she was one of them. Not a prisoner; not, as Lesaro had thought, an uneasy kind of guest.
Did the poor woman even know what she had done? It wasn’t a light oath, by any means. If you swore service to Salazar on La Maria – as they had all done, in life and death both – La Maria would hold you to it. She had her own means of doing so, too. Lesaro had seen it for himself
And that was even leaving Cortez’s claims of the men’s jealousy and anger aside, too...
Inwardly he groaned. Capitán, what are you doing?
‘They will have to stand for it,’ Lesaro said sternly, quashing his own doubts. ‘Remember, he is-‘
‘He is a fool.’
Meeting Lesaro’s shocked, angry gaze, Cortez spat carefully -and contemptuously- over the ship’s rail.
‘There! Capitán can have that for his authority, if he pleases.’ He said, hoarsely. ‘He cannot do this. It is a blasphemy. He will undo us all. Again.’
Lesaro took a threatening step forward, his hand involuntarily clenching over the verdigrised hilt of his sword. ‘Watch your mouth, Cortez. You speak tr-‘
Treason, he had been about to say. But Cortez interrupted him.
‘-Truth,’ he finished, eyes glinting with frustration. ‘I speak truth, teniente. And you know it as well as I do.’
He saluted ironically, before turning on his heel and marching away.
Lesaro glared after him, briefly considering how best to counter such open aggravation. Insolent young puppy. To say such things openly to his senior officer was bordering on defiance.
But he’s right. Damn him. It was the truth, even if it sounded no better coming from a wild-eyed young hothead like Cortez.
But Capitán is worse. Lesaro recalled, with much misgiving, his commander’s changed and preoccupied manner, even in their fruitless, endless sea-wanderings before the Señora. He grows worse every day. He no longer knows when to draw back, or when to stop.
And the poor woman –
Lesaro hadn’t missed the way his captain followed the Señora hungrily with his eyes at that parody of an officer’s dinner. His heart had sank into his boots. He had known, even before the oath on La Maria, what the end would be.
The trouble was that the lady was spirited. Perhaps too much so for her own good. It had caught El Capitán’s attention. Drawn it, in his unswerving fashion, straight to her, with the relish Capitán always had for a challenge.
She was something new but... familiar, at the same time. A reminder of home and a future that never was. It would have been an affecting combination in any circumstance, but...
Salazar had not had much outside their unceasing patrols of the sea to catch his interest. And that was the trouble. The lady-embajadora was now his new focus. His only focus.
She was a source of valuable information for them, true enough, but...
If she’d truly been nothing more than a source of intelligence, he would have interrogated her more closely from the start. They could have reached Saint-Martin by now, the transaction over and done with.
Salazar was dancing around, playing for time. Prolonging their forced acquaintance.
Lesaro had seen Armando Salazar fascinated by women before. In the old days, his...attachments had rarely lasted the length of leave ashore. But women had been little more than a pleasant recreation for him then –something to do, but barely worth the talking to. Or... so he claimed, at any rate.
Lesaro remembered the business in Veracruz, and said nothing,
No, this interest in the widowed Señora... this was new. This was worrying.
Perhaps it’s simply a case of forbidden fruit, Lesaro reasoned. He wants what he can’t have any more. It will pass...
Oh, but that closed stateroom door! Lesaro knew what that portended. He wished he didn’t.
He’s using the inundacíon de memoria again. To look at her.
Oh, I cannot bear this. Lesaro thought despairingly. I am tired of it. He barely even obeys his own rules now. The next opportunity -the very next that presents itself, I must warn him. I must keep him from his folly despite himself…
There was a respectful “ahem” at his elbow.
Lesaro made an effort to pull himself from his gloomy calculations. Better not to show his foul mood, even if recalling Cortez’s insolence had spoiled his temper. He made a feeble pretence of fiddling with the begrimed spyglass in his hands, in order to recover himself. If it was chattering Magda or heaven help us, blasted Cortez again...
‘Your pardon, but... teniente?’
Ah. Lesaro relaxed a trifle. There was only one man who still spoke so formally on the quarterdeck after all this time, and he was a man to be trusted.
‘Officer Santos.’ He returned, amiably. ‘I assumed you were on watch until-’
‘I was.’ Santos said, briefly. He lowered his voice. ‘Magda relieved me. And then... El Capitán relieved him. He is... walking with the lady now.’
Inwardly, Lesaro cursed.
Of course he is.
‘Of course.’ He said, attempting a brisk assurance he did not feel. ‘I believe he has much to learn from the lady of political affairs in Spain before she acts for us ashore.’
Officer Santos was too loyal a man to openly voice any doubt about this to his lieutenant. He nodded, as if accepting this as fact, before clasping his hands behind his back.
‘I will be... glad when this is done, teniente.’ He said in a low voice.
‘Oh?’ Lesaro looked more closely at him. If it had been another officer, Lesaro would have instantly shot the man down with a withering verbal broadside. But Isidro Santos was a steady, methodical young man, never one to shirk a duty simply because he didn’t care for it. And he looked…strained. Something was wrong.
‘You do not find your guard duties agreeable?’ Better to be cruel in order to be kind here. Whatever the trouble, it needed forcing to the surface. ‘Dull, perhaps?’
A dull mottled purple flush came to Santos’ wasted cheek, stung by the reproach. ‘It is not that, teniente!’ he cried, stung into indignation. ‘I would not forget my place and go against orders-‘
‘Then what is it?’Lesaro’s tone became more icy. There was a “but” in there he dreaded. Things were coming to a pretty pass when even Santos was fermenting with doubt and misgiving.
Santos looked at Lesaro almost… helplessly, as if wishing him to say it for him. ‘I…’ He desperately shook his head. ‘It will sound foolish, but I do not feel at... ease in the Señora’s presence, teniente.’
‘At ease,’ Lesaro repeated, numbly. For once, he was dumbfounded. ‘You are not...at ease?’
The incredulous tone of his lieutenant’s voice must have cut deep. Santos looked up unhappily. He was striving to appear calm, but the way he was now fidgeting with a loose sleeve cuff suggested otherwise.
‘I – I have some shame of it.’ He said, avoiding Lesaro’s gaze. ‘But... it – it is hard...’ he struggled to explain. ‘With the piratas –‘ he swallowed. ‘With enemies that we know, it is different. There are rules. There are –ways to steel yourself against them, because they deserve it. Of course they do. But... the Señora...’he swallowed. ‘She…’
He didn’t say it. He didn’t need to. By no stretch of the imagination did the Widow de Barrós meet any qualification of ‘enemy.’
‘Ah,’ Lesaro said wisely. ‘I understand you.’
‘I cannot see it. And it is...hard.’ Santos looked up with a troubled expression. ‘How am I to steel myself against a prisoner who bids me ‘good morning’ as if we are fresh out of Cadiz, teniente? As if we were still...’
As if we were still alive.
He snapped his mouth shut, looking stricken. His hand drifted automatically across the gaping hole in his shattered ribcage, as if to hide it.
Oh, Lesaro thought, dismayed. The gesture would have been enough to disconcert a harder man than Santos. He’d forgotten just how young the officer was when they died. Barely twenty-five. And little enough of a life lived.
‘My –my apologies, teniente. I – I came to beg to exchange duties with Officer Magda. I should like another duty, for now. Any other duty.’ His voice broke. ‘I cannot guard the Señora only to watch Capitán kill her-’
‘Capitán will not kill her,’ Lesaro said sharply. Santos’ thought had followed his own too closely for his liking. ‘I will see to it she is released on Saint-Martin, safe, as he promised. She will not be here for long enough to disturb your peace. I swear it. But you must continue in your duties. I will divide it between you and Magda; maybe even Moss will lighten your load.-’
‘But teniente!’ Santos protested. ‘I-
‘This must be managed between the officers, Santos. You understand?’ Lesaro clapped a hand on the young man’s shoulder, casting a look behind him in case and hands were trailing within earshot. ‘You know how things are with the crew.’
He lightened his tone. ‘Come, after everything else? This is light enough. Nothing to daunt a brave man. Be ...pleasant, that is all. And don’t think too much about it.’
‘Pleasant.’ Santos repeated, distractedly, lifting one hand to his hat in a vague approximation of a salute. It wasn’t the answer he’d wanted, poor boy, Lesaro could see that – but it was the best he could do for him. ‘I... I will try that, teniente.’ He bowed his head.
Lesaro, moved by an unaccountable impulse of pity, wordlessly pushed his spyglass into the boy’s hands. ‘Here,’ he said, not unkindly. ‘Take my place. I must speak with el Capitán in any case.’
And that without delay, Lesaro thought silently. Before it is as Cortez says, and Capitán undoes us all... again.
There was an unusual hum amongst the crew at the bows as Lesaro hurried towards the head. Nothing too demonstrative – the hands of La María weren’t stupid enough to risk drawing Capitán’s attention to themselves. But there was a certain buzz that indicated a scene of more than usual interest taking place at the head –
Oh seven hells, Lesaro thought, impatiently. Quarrelling, again, no doubt? The Señora appeared to have a sharp tongue when she chose – and she chose mostly to use it with El Capitan when braver men would have blanched at the idea. Well, that might serve – if Salazar was growing impatient of her as a nuisance, perhaps he would discard his plans more easily-
But the hum of conversation, whilst animated, did not sound like a quarrel.
‘So was she Italian originally, your María?’
‘Italian? Bah!’ Salazar waved away the suggestion, impatiently – shaking his head in mock-sorrow at her ignorance. ‘She is Spanish from her stem to her stern, Señora, and as ready to outmatch any vessel afloat as she was in her prime.’ He settled himself more easily on the ships rail, leaning over it with the genial air of a gentleman surveying his estates. ‘Ah, she was a glory to see then, our María! A little fanciful, in some places – ‘he waved at the charred skeletal outline of a turret. ‘But what shipbuilder has not their fashions of the day? And a ship should have a little something of the fantastic about her – sí, as your ships carvers well know-’
‘Certainly,’ the Senora agreed. ‘I should have liked to see the turrets. It is a pretty fancy, having a little of Granada about her.’ She had seated herself neatly by Salazar, perching herself on the rail. Not quite by his side – not quite. But there was an element of settled interest about her that did not now suggest reluctant captive or unwilling emissary. They might have been friendly acquaintances exchanging pleasantries, whilst promenading on a packet ship. ‘Lord of your own floating castle, like an El Cid of the sea-’
Salazar made a gruff noise of vague acquiescence. His literary education had not been extensive; books read simply for enjoyment had never seemed important enough to waste good silver on when he was ashore. There had always been so much – too much - that needed attention onboard. But he would rather have cut out his tongue at this point than admit ignorance to the Señora . Ignorance was... weakness, as he was only too well aware.
The Señora perhaps divined it anyway from his blank countenance, for she elaborated. ‘He was a crusader knight, Capitán. You would enjoy his feats, I think – he was known in days of old as the ‘Campeador’ of Spain-’
‘Oh, the Campeador!’ Salazar’s brow cleared in understanding. He nodded. ‘I know the name It was my third ship, when I was just made lieutenant. The figurehead was a mailed knight...’ He looked at her cautiously. ‘That would be your el Cid, perhaps.’
‘Perhaps,’ Theresa agreed. For the first time since her arrival she found herself more at ease. It may just have been the reviving open air, or the sunshine that warmed her face. Or even the fact that the formidable Capitan Salazar, in all his ghostly grandeur, could still talk a little; and to a different pattern than terse orders or bellowed threats. There was a charm in it. Like...like stroking the fur of a tiger. Yes, it was made of teeth and claws and death, being able to soothe it, answer it on its own terms so it became softer, more peaceable...that had its own magic.
She wanted to sustain the conversation, simply to see how long she could make the moment last. She ransacked her brains for a suitable topic.
‘I wonder... did you ever see Carmona’s work when you were in Spain?’ she asked. ‘Your María... her carving does remind me of his work. He makes statuary for the Spanish Court in Madrid. Very fine work – the way he carves marble you’d think it was silk-‘
She lifted her hands – fine long-boned, capable hands, Salazar noted –in her enthusiasm, sketching out an invisible veiled figure in the air.
‘Very fine,’ Salazar agreed, without having the least idea who Carmona was. He hardly cared what the topic of conversation was, for the moment . She could have talked about anything; about the phases of the moon if she’d pleased. Just so long as she did keep on talking to him as she did now –easily, and without constraint or fear.
He hadn’t realised how restrained she had been before. Now she even leaned over, unprompted, to get a better glimpse of La María; suddenly all careless elbows and fluttering of skirts – so very human in her interest. It hurt, even whilst it delighted, but... he could have watched her all day, just to see that certain softness in her eyes when she talked about her family.
Why hadn’t the inundación shown him that? He wondered, silently. He would have asked more about her heritage sooner, just hear her speak so freely of this father and grandfather of hers who worked with wood. A simple profession, but she was evidently proud of them. Speaking of them seemed to make her burn brighter and happier...
She was fortunate then, something old and embittered whispered within him. Fortunate enough to have a family name without stain-
His face darkened, and he turned away, suddenly unable to bear the old thoughts. After so many, many years – and that Inglés officer’s taunts had still managed to wound him to the quick...
‘They still remember on Hispaniola-‘
Nearly seventy years, but the memory lingered. Seventy years since his father had -
‘Enough! ’ he said abruptly. ‘Enough, Señora.’
The Señora stopped dead. Her face froze, startled and a little offended.
For one brief second, Salazar felt the urge to repair the damage. She would grow cold and formal to him again unless he made some excuse-
But then he caught from the corner of his eye the watchful figure of Lesaro above him – and pride held him back.
Whatever that brief moment of amiability had been, too late. It was gone.
‘I believe my lieutenant has a word for me.’ He said, staring ferociously into the middle distance. ‘We must defer our conference, madam embajadora, for another time.’
‘As you please, sir,’ Theresa returned, coldly, to his turned back.
He didn’t even turn around.
She moved pointedly away feeling oddly... hurt.
It seemed strange, even to her. Why should she care how this dead monomaniac acted towards her? He might dress it up with his crew’s courtesy and those half-playful changes of manner, but he was still her captor, just as much as Scarfield. She had half-forgotten it in light of their verbal sparring.
You forgot what he is, she told herself sternly. You were talking as though he were human. And it had only been a soap-bubble kind of moment, after all – here one moment, gone the next. Perhaps he struggled to keep his brutality in check that long.
Head held high, she picked up her skirts about her, made a deliberately cool curtsey, and stalked resolutely towards the opening of her canvas-shrouded quarters.
Lesaro watched her go. And (although his huddled shoulders suggested otherwise) so did Salazar. For all his assumed indifference, it was not until the last whisk of her hem had fluttered out of sight that he turned and leapt in a single bound the distance between himself and his lieutenant, growling under his breath.
‘You have something you want to say, Lesaro?’ he demanded roughly. ‘Some vital business that cannot wait, perhaps?’
Lesaro stared at his captain – meeting his eye long enough that even Salazar shifted uneasily. ‘Perhaps.’ he said, gravely. ‘Walk with me, Capitan. There are things you should know...’
To Theresa’s disappointment (for she was standing carefully beneath them in her quarters, listening intently through the cracks in the beams) the conversation did not continue within her earshot. There was an indecipherable growl from Salazar, some murmured reply from the lieutenant... and then the sound of their feet moving away.
Well. Let him go, then.
Sighing, she turned around – and let out a muffled curse under her breath. She had grazed her shins on something wooden lying directly in the path to her pile of blankets – something which hadn’t been there before.
It was her trunk.
For a moment, Theresa blinked, sure she had imagined it. But – no. When she looked again, it was still there – down to the poorly painted out name and scuffed brass corners. She ran her hand over the lid, half-dazed. She had thought it lost with the Essex; but here it was, stolidly surviving sea battle and capture alongside her.
Her hand reached into her pocket to feel the reassuring weight of the key. At any other time she would have flown to it, to lovingly take stock of her belongings – even down to the unwanted pile of darning, but the morning’s fresh duel of wits had drained her. The Caribbean sun was no longer pleasantly warm; below decks it was stiflingly hot.
A nap was an increasingly welcome thought.
‘I shall just close my eyes for a minute,’ Theresa told herself drowsily, falling back against her pillow. ‘Just... a few minutes, no more...’
Sleep claimed her almost instantly.
And with it came... tumult.
Theresa found herself back in the old reception room; the one where the great glittering party had been held in her last dream with the little child.
But then it had been bright and hectic with the babble of party guests. Now it was dark, echoing and empty, the windows shuttered as though the family were away–
From a passageway leading to servant’s quarters, a wild-eyed serving-man darted out, eyes shifting in panic around the room, before snatching for something and disappearing again-
A small figure ran forward, staring appalled after him, ’Marco! Where are you going?’
Theresa smothered her cry of surprise. Not that he could have heard it anyway, but...
It was her little boy. He was grown taller and older now; he looked thinner in the face .He was still a child. She wouldn’t have counted him older than ten, at most.
He looked indignant, even in his bewilderment. This was not the usual order of things, evidently – fleeing servants, shuttered windows, darkened rooms as though the house were in mourning...
Oh no. Theresa thought. She’d had her doubts about that pitiful excuse for a father – and putting two and two together from what she saw – he must finally have lost all credit in the face of the world.
The little boy’s eyes fell on a telltale empty place on the mantelpiece, and his mouth fell open in childish shock and outrage.
‘Mama!’ he called frantically. ‘Mama – mama, the servants –they’re stealing! They shouldn’t do that. They shouldn’t-’
He ran about, back and forth, looking for his mother, hands clenching in and out; into fists one minute, then back again into a child’s shaky fingers.
‘Mama? Where are you!?’
He hadn’t seen the glimmer of crumpled silk lying stricken in the middle of the empty estrado.
Oh no. No. Theresa tried to move, but the dreadful slowness of nightmare seemed to drag at her feet. Please, don’t let his mother be dead too. Don’t...
But... no. The woman was breathing. In fact, she wasn’t even unconscious, as Theresa had assumed. She was just... lying there as though she had lain down to rest in a field, eyes staring blankly up at the moulded ceiling. She blinked, occasionally, but that was all the sign she was alive.
Why hadn’t she got up? Theresa wondered as she drew closer. Why hadn’t she gone to berate the thieving servant, or risen to comfort her child? If Theresa’s little boy had been her own child, she would have leaped up in an instant, no matter how hard the blow fell.
‘Mama?’ The little boy had caught sight of the silk. His face quivered. ‘Mama!’
And then Theresa heard it. There was a remorseless pounding coming from the hall passageway; heavy gloved fists were beating on the front door – and there was the impatient stamp of hoof beats.
‘It would be better not to make a scene.’ A coldly polite but pitiless voice spoke loudly. ‘Do not force us to break down the door, Se ñora-’
‘Mama –‘ the little boy tugged on his mother’s sleeve. She lay where she was, rigid as a wooden doll. ‘Mama, there are men outside the door-‘
‘Can the wife have fled to join the husband?’Another rough voice murmured doubtfully. ‘The house is shuttered-‘
‘Hah, I doubt it! See the fleeing servants? They’re in there, no doubt. Hiding. The traitors.’ The first voice spoke with withering contempt. ‘Like rats in a bolthole.’
‘Mama!’ the little boy pleaded. He was trying to drag his mother to her feet. Her lips were moving silently; in prayer, perhaps. Some plea that this could all be averted.
Get up, Theresa thought, willing the woman to rise. Get up and do something. God helps those who help themselves Se ñora. Please comfort your boy. Please.
No matter what foundations of her world had been shaken, Theresa couldn’t imagine herself lying unresponsive whilst a child was calling for her. Any child. Let alone her own...
‘Mama, please!’ the boy was crying, silently, in frustration and terror. ‘M-mama, please! Get up, you have to get up...’
A small serving-maid scurried out from the kitchen, eyes wide with fright. Her red-knuckled hands twisted one over the other. She hadn’t fled with the other servants; perhaps, looking at her threadbare dress and bare feet, for lack of anywhere to run to. Scullery maid, if that. Or perhaps pot-girl.
‘My mistress is ill, Se ñors.’ She called out, voice trembling, as she advanced towards the door. ‘And her husband is away from home-‘
‘Oh, we know where her husband is, woman!’ The voice sneered. ‘He’ll rot in his chains in the Fortaleza San Felipe, if there’s any justice. Selling state secrets to pirates and lining your own pocket with the profits has its price-’
The little boy had stopped dead at the mention of his father. His mother’s arm twitched in his grasp.
He had gone white as a sheet.
‘Papa would never do such a thing!’ he shouted, his voice shrill with childish anger. ‘You lie! My Papa is an honourable Capit án, he would NEVER-‘
But he’d caught a glimpse of his mother’s ashen face. He saw the truth in it.
‘For the last time, open in the name of His Majesty, or else-’
The timid little maid, unnerved by their shouts, reluctantly unbolted the door. She was almost crushed behind the weight of the armed men shouldering their way through.
A haughty sergeant, followed by three burly men in uniform.
Oh God . Theresa’s heart sank for them all. This was worse than an unpaid bill or angry creditors, after all. They were things that allowed of escape. Treason – and it was nothing short of treason, robbing the silver fleet – meant that the consequences were inescapable for his family as well as himself. Everything that could be laid hands on would be seized.
The sergeant – a brutal, thickset pan with a bushy black beard, looked disgusted at he took in the painted rooms. ‘Look at this!’ he snorted, kicking contemptuously at the expensive Turkey carpet beneath his feet. ‘Hiding amongst their stolen loot, like the thieves they are-‘
He clicked his tongue, gesturing two of his men over. They shoved the boy aside to drag the fallen lady roughly to her feet by her wrists. She sagged between them like a bird with a broken wing. ‘Enough play-acting, Se ñora. You know the penalty for conspiracy with traitors-‘
‘No! Not Mama!’ The boy was beside himself. He had taken his father’s guilt in his stride. But his mother. ‘Mama doesn’t know anything! She’s innocent! She never even been to sea; she’s been here in Cadiz all this time! Let her go!’ He swiped ineffectually with his small fists at the guards as though he thought he could knock them down. ‘You’re hurting her! Let her go –‘
But he was lifted away the burly Sergeant had grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, lifting him as easily as if he were a spitting kitten. ‘Oho. A young serpent here, eh? A real viper’s nest here!’ He shook his head, before dragging the boy close by his shirt collar. ‘Here’s a lesson for you, viper– there’s no such thing as innocence. Especially not between husband and wife. If the husband’s a traitor –‘ he grinned, unpleasantly. ‘The wife’s one, too. And their bastard brat too, most likely-’ He struck the boy across the face. The weight of it sent the poor child tumbling like a bundle of rags, face bleeding.
No! Theresa was screaming soundlessly, beating with invisible hands, kicking with unseen feet . She might as well have been a puff of air.
The sergeant yawned. ‘Right. Bring her along then. Where we taking this one?’
‘Orders are for the sisters, sir. The penitents, you know?’
‘Oh, in with the reformed whores? Best place for her.’He guffawed. ‘Shows they’re taking things seriously.’ He nodded, virtuously. ‘Very proper, too.The wife of a traitor should pay for his sins.’
Chapter 16: Something is Something: Less is Nothing
In which Lesaro and Salazar differ over the embajadora’s future, the memory-flood takes a disturbing turn - and Theresa encounters spectral mutiny...
Borra con el codo lo que escribe con la mano.
He erases with the elbow what his hand writes - (Whatever good actions or decisions he makes, he invalidates by other actions)
Traditional Spanish proverb.
‘Well, teniente?’ Salazar demanded, hoarsely. ‘You have something to say?’
There was a certain half-abashed, half-defiant air to the jut of el Capitán’s chin that spoke volumes to a keen observer. He had possessed exactly the same look when caught in some schoolboy prank as a boy, Lesaro remembered. Armando Salazar had never been one to tamely accept criticism, even when caught outright in some childish offence.
Oh hells. He knew, Lesaro realised, with an inward groan of frustration. He knew exactly what his junior officer was going to say to him about the Señora– but el Capitán would be damned - twice over if necessary, before he’d admit to any fault on his own part. Salazar’s irascible spirit rebelled at even the bare idea of reproof.
‘I only desire to make enquiry about what you have learned from the Señora, Capitán.’ Lesaro’s tone was mildness itself, and he took care to turn his face towards the sea. But from the corner of his one good eye he watched his captain’s face carefully; and the mottled dark flush that rose like a blackened blossom across Salazar’s face. Oh Capitán, Lesaro thought regretfully. You are as transparent as glass, to the right observer.
‘There is much to learn,’ Salazar said swiftly- almost hastily. His grip tightened on the carved cane he held and, for once, he failed to quite meet his lieutenant’s eye. As if the excuse half-shamed him even in speaking it. ‘Fifty years of politics is not all learned in a day, Lesaro. There is much –‘ he swallowed. ‘Much we have missed, in Spain.’
I’ll be sworn he’s not talking about who we’re at war with now, Lesaro thought silently. But he nodded. He would be a fool to try tackling Salazar on the issue of the Señora now. No – better alert him to the problems closer to home.
‘To be sure. With so many years away...’
Salazar stared disconsolately at the endless expanse of sea, his expression... distant. Brooding.
‘Too many.’ He said dully. ‘Too many years away. I forget...’ He shifted, turning his face towards Lesaro. ‘Did you know... she speaks of the Spain we knew. Oh yes.’ he shook his head, chuckling humourlessly. ‘In the time of her grandfather.’ He struck the deck softly with the tip of his cane. ‘Her grandfather! Why, she was not yet even born when we sailed from...’
The thought had sobered Salazar– brought him back from whatever distant land of what- might-have-been he had been building in his mind.
‘Eh, enough.’ He said, roughly. ‘You wished to speak with me?’
‘I have concerns, Capitan.’ Lesaro said, glancing anxiously about to ensure no lagging crew-member was in earshot. ‘Concerns about the crew-‘
‘The crew? Bah- ’Salazar waved away the doubts with one hand, half-impatiently. ‘If you mean Mendoza, I have my eye on him. He chuckled grimly. ‘He is watched.’
Lesaro flinched inwardly. A man “watched” by Salazar before the Curse or after it, did not long prosper.
‘And as for the rest,’ Salazar shrugged. ‘What of them? They are loyal, to a man-‘
He spoke without even a shadow of doubt crossing his face. As assuredly as if his men were just the rusting eighteen-pounders on the rotting gun deck, or the shattered timbers of la Maria. Something about that provoked Lesaro beyond endurance.
Do you really think so little of our sacrifices for you, Capit án Salazar? Do you even think of them at all any more?
‘You think so?’ he said, forbiddingly. ‘I do not.’
Salazar’s self-complacent smile slipped, just a little. He turned with a half-incredulous air of disbelief. Lesaro had never spoken to his captain in that tone before – or with such a set face.
His eyes darted black sparks.
‘What do you insinuate, teniente?’ he grated out, grinding his teeth. ‘Are you-‘
‘I insinuate nothing, Capitán. You have my loyalty, now and always. But I must...counsel you. Plainly.’ Lesaro’s gaze hadn’t wavered for a moment. ‘There are others now. Men who I would never have doubted for a moment before- ’
‘Name them!’ Salazar cried furiously. ‘Name the traitors!’
‘ “Traitors?” ’ Lesaro’s stare turned a shade colder. He looked at his Capitan with something like disgust. ‘That is a strong word, Capitán.’ He said, slowly. And one I did not use to describe them. They have doubts. That is reasonable, under the new...circumstances-‘
The baffled fury in Salazar’s face was a sight to see. You could see his mind racing: Doubt? They doubt me? How can they possibly...
He restrained himself, with a visible effort. No. He could not follow that line of thought. Not here, in front of his officers.
‘The what?’ he repeated, with irritation, to cover his uncertainty
‘The new circumstances, Capitán.’ Lesaro’s single eye moved pointedly towards the bow in the direction of the Señora’s quarters. ‘She... unsettles them. They begin to think of life... before. It does not make for a comfortable ship. Especially in light of your orders-’
Salazar paused, chewing his lip.
He had not expected this; especially from this quarter. Granted, he knew Lesaro had not been particularly happy at the turn things had taken - but in general Salazar took Lesaro’s warnings and counsel in much the same way an impatient child shakes off an over-cautious, doting grandmother. He listened – but he followed his own will all the same. This new, plain-speaking Lesaro was something new.
‘I know something of this,’ he admitted. ‘The Señora said there was some... trouble, when she first came aboard. But she showed much the same squeamishness as you. She refused to tell me-‘
Clearly she has good sense. Lesaro didn’t voice the thought out loud, but something of it must have shown in his expression – for Salazar’s eyes narrowed. ‘Tell me their names, teniente.’ he snarled. ‘You’ve reported their crimes. Now give me the offenders-‘
Crimes? Lesaro thought. Since when are men’s thoughts crimes?
This had gone far enough. ‘I did not tell you so you could punish them.’ He said sharply. ‘It is not their fault. Or hers.’ He looked earnestly into his captain’s face. ‘I told you so you would realise; there will be trouble if we keep the Señora as you intend.’
A strange, closed-off expression stole across the captain’s wasted face.
Lesaro hurried on, taking Salazar’s unnatural silence as acquiescence. Better try and let some words of sense sink in. ‘You need not lose face in front of the men, Capitán!’ he coaxed. ‘Give it as a gift, if you like – in payment for the intelligence she gives us. Let her go once the affair at Saint –Martin is settled. Then we can go back to the way things were and-‘
He stopped appalled, on catching sight of Salazar’s face.
The capitán’s stillness wasn’t the thoughtful calm of a man weighing his lieutenant’s advice; it was the deadly quiet that comes just before an explosion. He rounded on Lesaro .
“The way things were?!’ he spat. ‘You – you dare prate to me of going back to “the way things were?” Look at this!’ he thrust out an arm towards La Maria in general. ‘Look at us!’ He sucked in a croaking breath. ‘Everything I do – every plan I make, every aim I have , is to get us back to “the way things were”, teniente. Before all this happened. You mark me? And for that I require the Señora and what she knows, so-‘
Lesaro found his voice – and with it, a piercing home truth he later wished he hadn’t uttered.
‘Granted,’ he said icily. ‘But is that all this is, Capitán, hmm?’ He dropped his voice. ‘Or has the inundación de memoria of the Senora’s husband been working its influence, too?’
Salazar stopped dead, mouth half-open. There was no colour left to drain from those sickly-pale features. But the cracks in his face seemed to pulse, as if the charred darkness beneath was churning. He lifted the back of his hand to his mouth, attempting to hold back the tell-tale blood that dripped treacherously from his chin.
‘I – I don’t know what you mean-‘ he muttered sullenly. ‘What foolery are you-‘
‘Foolery, is it? Lesaro said sharply. He leaned forward, doing away with the conventional niceties. ‘You were not... discreet last night, Capitán.’ He said, in clipped tones. I will not let him evade the point this time. ‘How long did you spend there in her husband’s memories, hmm? Searching for.. what, answers?’
Salazar did not reply. He released his underlip from a hard bite, breathing hard – but his eyes remained obstinately fixed on la Maria’s deck floor.
‘Hah. I thought so.’ Lesaro straightened. He softened his voice just a fraction, seeing the baffled guilt and irritation marching in step across his captain’s face.
‘Listen: you hide it well – better than most. But it always shows. You know that. And before long the men will see it, too– and then they will despise you for a hypocrite. You!’ Lesaro shook his head. ‘The one man I would have claimed incapable of any double-dealing-‘
‘I understand the... fascination, Capitán. She is an engaging, kindly lady. And a Spanish gentlewoman. Both things la María has not seen in a long time –‘
‘Yes.’ There was a terrible note of yearning in Salazar’s voice. He shifted uncomfortably under Lesaro’s scrutiny – but the lieutenant had the distinct impression it was almost a relief to the man to be able to speak of it. ‘I had forgotten how it could be, in the company of-‘
He looked up, almost defiantly. ‘What of it, eh? Your Capitán does not exceed the bounds of propriety, I think, in talking with the lady?’ He hunched his shoulders. ‘What harm does it do-‘
‘It makes the men... restless, Capitan. Envious. And... they are-‘ Lesaro tried to frame it properly, ‘they are... protective of their La Maria. The oath you made the lady swear has caused talk; talk that you mean to keep her here... indefinitely-‘
Lesaro had hoped this would cause Salazar to start back, all offended honour and ruffled captain’s pride. But whilst Salazar’s eyes did flare dangerously, they didn’t register... shock.
‘I do not give the men license to speculate about my intent, teniente,’ he growled. ‘Or you. My intent is my own-‘
Oh, sweet Jesu. This is worse than I thought. He’s actually considering it.
‘All the more reason to prove them wrong!’ Lesaro said urgently. ‘Show your mettle, Capitán. As a man of...honour. Please. Let her go at Saint-Martin.’
Salazar started as if a wasp had stung him, glaring at the lieutenant. It was a subtle blow, but it had struck home.
‘You forget your place, teniente-’ he spat. ‘And my actions will not be dictated by you or anyone else aboard this ship, you hear me? I make my own choices-’
He stormed past Lesaro, attempting to shoulder the man out of his path if necessary –
But the lieutenant’s cold hand reached out and gripped his sleeve.
‘I don’t speak as your lieutenant, Armando.’ Lesaro said quietly. ‘I speak as your friend, to warn you-’
‘And it is only because of that I allow you the licence to speak-‘ Salazar’s voice sounded blustering and pompous, even to his own ears.
But something painful gripped at his heart and twisted with anguish when he thought of Saint-Martin – barely a scant day away now. Leaving the Señora with the living where she belonged was right, yes. Only a few -what, days ago? Yes. Days - and he would have dismissed her without a second thought.
But simply to resume the same dreary course of existence they had endured for so many years now: the same endless round of death, and slaughter, and eternal ocean wanderings...hopeless? Adrift, without a purpose or a course to follow?
No. I cannot do it. I won’t.
He threw off Lesaro’s hand as though it were a scorpion clinging to his coat sleeve.
‘Let me alone, Guillermo,’ he rasped, voice hoarse. ‘Let me alone before I forget what I owe you-‘ He paused, awkwardly. It had taken no common courage for Lesaro to break protocol and speak so plainly – and he was not insensible to it. ‘I will... think on this.’
They broke apart, staring at each other, before Salazar swung hastily towards his quarters, unable to meet the look of remote pity in his lieutenant’s eyes. Lesaro understood too much as it was.
Left alone, in the peaceful gloom of his stateroom, Salazar released a breath he no longer needed to take, and closed his eyes, head resting against the comforting barricade of the door.
He needed time. Time alone to... think.
‘No!’ Theresa shouted, scrabbling frantically at the edges of her dream. ‘Spare the child!’ The vision was fading even as she tugged on it, trying to make it last long enough so she could do something. Anything. ‘For God’s sake spare the child, you brutes!’
Half-waking; stuck between a fading image of that old Cádiz house and flailing on her lumpy pile of blankets, hot angry tears squeezed out from beneath her eyelids as she reached out imploring hands towards the slumped figure of the child, staring half-dazed with dark despairing eyes-
Wait. A disconnected thought floated eerily through her head. I’ve seen those eyes before. Recently... Not in a child...
No. Not a child.
The words reached her from somewhere inside herself; although whatever had said it wasn’t Theresa. It was as if a tremendous chord had been played by some mighty instrument and she had just caught the reverberation. She almost gasped with the shock.
But how do I help him?’ she thought, dazedly.
Not just him. The strange, voiceless words came stronger now, as though the speaker – whoever or whatever it was, was trying to emphasise something. To help one, you must help all.
‘You sure about this? I say we wait. Wait until we’re nearing Saint-Martin and they’re all distracted-’
‘I’m telling you, now’s the perfect time to strike. None of ‘em knows what they’re doing anymore.’Mendoza said, with bitter satisfaction. ‘Half of the officers would be on our side anyway, if they knew what’s good for ‘em. El Capitán’s kept them cowed-‘ He spat contemptuously. ‘Old Fuente negra.’
‘Did you see the old man today?’ an incredulous voice said. ‘Teniente, bickering with his precious capitán!’
‘See? The oficiales are either half-mad with fear they’ll break one of his precious rules, or half-crazed from being so near the woman.’ Mendoza said bitterly. ‘They all WANT to know. They’re just too afraid to act on it-‘
‘But the penalty-‘
‘I’ll take my chance,’ Mendoza said grimly. ‘Better to end as dust than be Salazar’s cringing lapdog for eternity. He’s brought us enough ruin.’ He grinned, mirthlessly. ‘At least it will be our own choice, heh? Not his.’
There was murmur of agreement amongst the huddle of men.
Mendoza crouched down, gripping his boarding axe in one bunched fist. The other arm was barely more than a cloud of ash in the air, even though it moved as if it were still intact.
‘Now listen. This is what we’re goin’ to do...’
Salazar hadn’t moved from his hunched position against the door.
The few rays of golden light streaming through the broken timbers might have told him that the sun was beginning, if such things had mattered to him anymore. As it was, he rested his splintered forehead against the damp wood and groaned, quietly.
He avoided looking at the desk. The miniature oh-so-innocently lay there: Sebastien de Barros’ handsome smiling face staring upwards, tempting Salazar in with more visions of a life – more than that, a pleasant, agreeable life, spent in the company of-
No. Salazar thought savagely. Always that one idea! But he controlled himself, thinking of Lesaro’s tight-lipped, disapproving face.
He had his pride, and Armando Salazar’s pride had seen him through worse inducements than this. But it was... appealing, despite everything. Add to that the new, heavy realisation that Lesaro, damn him, was right.
Bringing Señora Theresa de Barrós aboard had changed things; and in ways he hadn’t considered. For himself, he had considered his original plan a better thing than their endless roaming. The thought of finding a purpose – the thought that, perhaps, even cursed and burdened, they might still be useful to Spain, they could still prove of worth, somehow, with the assistance of the embajadora...
Redemption through good works? A dark, cynical part of himself chuckled. A little late for schoolboy notions like that, now, isn’t it?
But if the order of things was truly growing as uncertain as Lesaro had darkly hinted, then...
There would only be one honourable course of action for him to take.
But thinking of that, as well as the shrinking distance between la María and Saint-Martin, only made Salazar curse under his breath. Two days, maybe less, if the wind was kind – and then ...
I will never see her again, the little embajadora.
His eyes stole reluctantly towards the miniature and its moulded silver frame; the aggravating painted smile of the dead husband. His brow furrowed.
Guillermo couldn’t have it both ways. If he wanted the greater sacrifice-
I want to see her. Just once more. Just once...
Salazar had reached the desk in two great strides before he had even half-realised what he was doing. Focusing on the quiet, tranquil look he had seen upon Theresa’s face as they stood at the rail, he bowed his head, as his fingers reached out...
The bittersweet waters of the inundación de memoria closed over him.
There was no resistance this time. That was what Salazar would remember. He could see them all, a dazzling hall of a thousand reflected Theresas – dancing, anxious, annoyed – and with that puckered brow he knew so well – but one memory seemed to draw him towards it, as though there was no other...
He moved... forward.
And just like that, he was blinking in...firelight.
Soft firelight, in a suite of rooms. And the smell of... blossom?
The room was a fine one, if a little faded and cracked in its stately grandeur. The blue of the painted walls was faded , the diapered ornament in the corner peeling from crumbling plaster. But the furniture was certainly old and stately – and doubtless heirlooms. There was a huge heavy mahogany bedstead with carved faces and dusty crewelwork curtains that looked as if it belonged to the time of King Phillip – as well as a few stiff-backed brocade chairs with wobbling legs. But just as Salazar took in the slight shabbiness of the room, he took in, with growing unease, the little touches that showed the room was now occupied.
The travelling trunks in the corner. The half-open coffer, with a few shifts and petticoats spilling out of it. A gentleman’s shaving glass and razor propped up on a small rickety table.
And the garlands of blossom –
Orange-blossom and pomegranate.
It was...everywhere. On the mantelpiece, strung in extravagant, messy garlands about the bedposts; where they dropped twigs and broken petals onto the boards. It looked more like a church altar than a bedroom...
Salazar stared at it in bemusement, momentarily puzzled. Until he caught sight of the turned-down coverlet and realised what this was.
Oh sweet Virgin-
There was a spring of orange-blossom, lying coyly over a crisp, neatly folded nightdress.
It’s her wedding night. The damned inundación is showing me the night she-
There was the rustle of agitated silks from outside the corridor. Gentle masculine laughter, with a voice (her voice)intermingling.
No. Not this. Salazar thought furiously. This was too much, too intimate. He could excuse his voyeuristic watching of simple, everyday things as within reason but...this? It was akin to watching pretty girls undress through their windows. Craven. Sneaking. He felt vaguely unclean even being here, in this memory of a room – especially when he looked down and saw his own cold dead-white hands glimmering, semi-transparent, in the light from the fire.
He tried to mentally withdraw from the memory, but his very feet seemed glued to the floor, in the immovability of nightmare. He tried again more impatiently, his thoughts now tinged with a sudden strange edge of...panic.
I don’t want to see this. Not this. I don’t want to see-
Too late. The door opened, and the couple -flushed with wine and merriment, and suppressed nerves, stumbled into the room.
Salazar hadn’t steeled himself in time to prepare for the shock of that. He had been too busy frantically trying to escape the scene altogether.
So he was quite unprepared for...Theresa, in her wedding veil and wreath.
Her cheeks were flushed, and errant tendrils of hair had escaped from her carefully coiffed hairstyle – doubtless during the dancing, or the couple’s hurried race towards their chambers. Dressed in a simple open robe of pearl coloured satin, it seems to make her shine all silvery in the half-light. Just like the moon, Salazar thought dazedly. On a clear night in the Caribbean, the moon was that colour...
Theresa was laughing tenderly at her shy groom’s efforts to loosen his tightly wound cravat. Salazar could feel the boy’s agitation, even from here; even whilst trying to distance himself from the churning emotions bubbling beneath the surface of the scene. He was picking helplessly at the complicated fashionable knot with his fingernails, half laughing at himself, and half impatient at his own clumsiness. ‘Díos, you’ll choke yourself, twisting it like a noose!’ She moved towards him ‘Stand still, Señor my husband.’ She commanded, smilingly, her own small fingers picking easily at the bunched and knotted lawn. ‘It is the duty of a wife to help her husband in times of trouble-’
She was perhaps more of a pleasant hindrance than a help, for she paused occasionally to plant shy, tender kisses on the soft skin of her bridegroom’s throat in a way that made Salazar’s knuckles go white.
Sebastién didn’t seem to mind, somehow.
Oh, little embajadora...little pocket Venus, so full of soft enchantment and understanding. What I wouldn’t give to have you nestled close to my heart, the way you touch that boy...
‘I’m sorry it’s not what it should be,’ the boy confessed, lifting his own hands gently to the bridal wreath on her temples. ‘If I had come into my inheritance everything would be grander –‘
‘Grander?’ Theresa looked at him and laughed, dark eyes dancing. ‘ I don’t want grander, Sebastien. I’m not a duchess, or a countess.’ Her voice became softer. ‘But I want you-‘
She had finished, business-like, untangling the long ends of the neck cloth, and had slid her hand against his chest, hesitantly resting on the bare skin. Sebastien, hands shaking, had let the wreath drop, to delicately – with the cautious air of asking permission, let his fingers hover at her lace stomacher, just tracing the lines of the silken ties.
‘I want to be worthy of you, Teresa, somehow. I feel I ought to do more to deserve you-‘
You should. Salazar thought bitterly. What had this wax doll of a boy ever done to earn such bliss?
I’m unworthy. But I still want her.
He turned his face away.
It was a supreme temptation. He could move into the boy’s consciousness, yes - taste all the sweets of life the young wretch had unaccountably been given. And something devilish bitterly goaded Salazar. Yes, go on. Why not? This is all you can ever hope for – stale memories of other men’s passions.
You’re a walking corpse to her. A gaunt abomination.
She’ll be gone soon. You’ll never see her again. Why not take the chance?
Take it. Take her.
It was the sort of shock that either changes the nature of the dream, or wakes one up entirely. In Theresa’s case, she jolted awake in a clammy sweat, still half-shouting at brutish soldiers.
‘At least take pity on the child, you monsters-‘
Officer Santos’ concerned voice came cautiously through the door. ‘Señora Theresa, are you all right?’
‘Wha – oh.’ Theresa woke to where she was. She sagged back against the pillows, relieved, her heart still hammering in her chest. ‘Y – yes. I’m all right. A bad... dream, I think. A bad dream, that’s all.’
‘Yes.’ Officer Santos said sadly. ‘I remember those.’ He paused. ‘It is dark now, Señora. Would you like a candle? To see?’
‘I- thank you. Yes. That would be very kind.’
‘It is no trouble, Senora. I – Hey!’ Santos’ voice sharpened. ‘You don’t have orders to be below there, Gomez! Mendoza... what are you-?‘
There was a sudden alarmed cry – and the bumping, terrible noise of a scuffle.
‘Help below! Mutiny! Mutin-‘
‘Oh, we’ve had a bellyful of you, boy. Ortiz, shut him up!’
There was a pained cry from Santos, sharply cut off.
‘Right. He taken care of? Good. Let’s have at Capitan’s little war-prize, shall we?’
Chapter 17: A Rebellion of the Spirits
In which there are rebellions of the spirit in many forms as
rebellion and dissent ferments to a boiling aboard La Maria. Salazar must make a choice about the inundacion de memoria...
Just a heads-up for those concerned! We have ghost injuries, some slight sexual content (in a vision setting) and an 'f-bomb' as the sailors' language gets... colourful, under pressure. Ye be warned.
‘Conscience: t’is a blushing, shamefaced spirit that mutinies in a man’s bosom: it fills a man full of obstacles.’
Richard III , Act I, Scene IV
Theresa only had a split-second to take in the horror of her situation; barely time to spring to her feet with a confused idea of flight. But it would already have been too late. Before she had even moved, they were there.
Three burly sailors sprang through the wall of her prison, almost quicker than thought. A verdigrised cutlass was pointed at her throat before she could summon either the breath or the nerve to scream-
‘You stay quiet, madam viuda.’ A hoarse voice said warningly. There was a stony resolution in it that sent shivers down Theresa’s spine. ‘Quiet as a church mouse. Else we’ll have to resort to measures, see? Measures you won’t like-’
It was the little wizened man with the missing arm; the one they had called Mendoza. The one who had led the mob of unruly sailors. He nodded tersely to his fellows. One burly man took up position by the door – whilst another scrawny fellow with only half a lower jaw darted out towards the bowsprit to keep watch. Other faces loomed out of the darkness, clutching makeshift weapons in their cold hands.
This wasn’t an impulsive rebellion, Theresa recognised. This was ...planned.
She should have guessed there would be trouble. Those desperate questions when she had arrived. Something had been fermenting there, long before she arrived aboard la María. Salazar’s domineering rule was not as tamely accepted amongst the men as the officers thought.
And I’m the spark to the powder magazine. Theresa realised, sinkingly. I’m what finally made them snap-
And all because Salazar wouldn’t let them ask me about something as simple as home. Or the people they left behind.
What a terrible tangle this all is-
She managed to summon the courage to nod, slowly.
‘I – I’ll be quiet,’ she whispered, shakily.
Mendoza had been watching her narrowly, his sword-hand tensing. He relaxed a little on hearing her response. ‘That’s more like it, eh? We can all be comfortable if you’re reasonable, Señora-’
He turned sharply to his confederate.
‘No fuss from above. Don’t think anyone heard the pipsqueak here cry out...’
Oh God. Theresa thought, with a sudden pang of concern. Officer Santos.
‘What have you done to-’she began.
Mendoza spat contemptuously on the boards. ‘Bah, the little gentilhombre? Nothing he can’t get out of, provided he knows to keep his mouth shut-‘
Two deckhands quickly drifted through the walls, carrying a struggling Officer Santos between them. Theresa was relieved to see he was still making a spirited effort to fight back. They’d tried to twist a rag between his teeth, but he was still flailing lashing out wildly with both fists and feet. His jailers staggered, and for one brief moment Theresa thought he might actually make his escape-
Another mutineer shambled hastily over to help, but withdrew, cursing, as an errant blow from Santos’ boot connected to a drifting fragment of shinbone-
‘Keep it down!’ Mendoza growled. ‘You want to bring ‘em down on us before we’re prepared, huh? Shut him up-‘
‘He’s precious lively-‘
‘I know my duty!’ Santos’ voice cried out; evidently he had spat out the rag from between his teeth. His voice was alive with rage and dismay. ‘You fools – you don’t know what you’ll bring down on your own heads, doing this-‘
‘Oh, we know, pipsqueak.’ The one Mendoza called Ortiz growled. He lifted up a hank of the officer’s hair, dragging his head back. He laid the handle of his boarding axe warningly against Santos’ exposed throat. ‘Maybe we’ve made our peace with that, eh? Maybe we’re all sick to the back-teeth of la Fuente Negra and his damned leadership-‘
Santos’ eyes flickered briefly to Theresa, standing frozen to the spot; Mendoza, with his blade tilted warningly at her neck. He seemed to be making a decision.
‘HO, Teniente!’ He bellowed, suddenly, with all the force his lungs could muster. ‘Motín debajo! Mutiny below! Treachery! Traición!–‘
‘Shut it!’ Mendoza pointed. ‘Ortiz – shut the little honourable gentilhombre up... properly.’
Ortiz shifted his grip, so quickly Theresa didn’t see his hands move.
Santos’ cries... stopped.
And then Theresa saw, with a sickening lurch of her stomach, exactly how you silenced a dead man.... properly.
Ortiz had dropped the axe to reach up –with both hands - into Santo’s splintered rib cage. He had his fingers wrapped tightly around the grisly remnant of windpipe that trailed out into view through his shattered chest, squeezing the greying length of gristle with all his might-
Theresa recoiled, repressing a scream. It wasn’t only the impossible, horrific injury that made her wince; it was the fact the crewman did it so matter-of-factly, his face a cold blank, as Officer Santos’ face crumpled in confusion-
Before he looked down, and saw.
His back arched, his mouth open in a wordless shriek of agony, before he crumpled, twitching, to the floor.
It had taken a moment to register, to be sure. But on seeing it, he felt it.
‘You’re killing him-‘ Theresa said, her voice cracking as she stared at the fallen Santos. That terrible black blood was leaking from his mouth – and she noticed, in horror, saturating the remnants of his waistcoat.
There was a ripple of cold, mirthless laughter from the mutineers.
‘Funny thing, is death.’ Mendoza said casually. ‘The living can’t touch us, no. But-’ he tapped his forehead significantly . ‘It’s what up here in your head that makes the pain, Señora.’ He shrugged. ‘It’ll inconvenience him for a while, is all.’
Theresa thought about that terrible hole in Santos’ chest. She thought about what it would feel like, having to relive your death-agony all over again.
She stared at them, aghast.
‘How can you do that to him?’ The question burst from her before she had a chance to hold it back. ‘He’s one of your own!’
The question seemed to ignite something in Mendoza. He advanced forward a step, eyes blazing, his face distorted by a terrible anger.
‘He ain’t though, is he?’ he hissed. ‘None o’ them are. There’s one law for el Capitan and his little gentlemen lap-dogs. They can trot about nice as you please, while Capitan plays the oh-so-polite gentleman with you. Pretending he isn’t the worst of us! And then there’s us. Bottom of the pile, and expected to mind our manners, doff our caps, take the same bloody orders we’ve taken year after year...’
Theresa caught herself dimly wondering what had become of Salazar. Was he facing down his crew too; a band of men with a score of age-old grievances under their belts? But Mendoza’s caution suggested there hadn’t been a massed attack. Not yet.
Theresa could not imagine Salazar taking a lenient view of an attempted mutiny.
Perhaps there’s still time for this to be stopped...somehow. Before there really is hell to pay.
Theresa took a deep breath.
‘You’re right.’ She said, as firmly as she could. ‘It is wrong, how the Capitán treats you.’
There was a faint murmur from the crowd of sailors. She had surprised them.
‘But I don’t think this uprising will –‘ she swallowed, uncomfortably. ‘I don’t think it can do any good. It won’t win you any favours-‘
‘To hell with favours,’ rumbled Ortiz from his corner. ‘This ain’t about that.’
‘Then what are you hoping to-‘
Mendoza turned his uncanny eyes on her. Theresa had the distinct, uncomfortable impression he was looking through her, at some invisible vision no-one else could see.
‘Justice. We want what’s owing to us, Señora. What Capitán refuses to give us.’
Maybe it’s not too late. Maybe I can help them, like the dream said...
‘Señor Mendoza, you... you asked about your brother, didn’t you?’ she ventured desperately, trying to spark his memory. ‘He... he was with the whaling fleet in Bilbao, you said?’
The hunger in Mendoza’s eyes rose like glowing coals. He actually lowered the sword for a moment, obviously wavering.
‘What about him?’ He said, suspiciously.
‘I-I think I have news of him.’ Theresa said desperately, racking her brains. ‘There’s – there’s a firm, Mendoza and Vargas. They run merchant ships into Cadiz, sometimes...’
Oh sweet Virgin... she hoped she was right. It was a wild chance to stake her life on. And what were the odds that the Mendoza she had heard of was the right one? Fifty years was a long time to-
But it seemed her gamble had paid off. Mendoza’s sword-point slid to the floor.
The man wanted it to be true. And who wouldn’t reach for something hopeful ? Theresa thought, with a twinge of pity. Salazar is wrong to keep it from them.
‘Teodoro always said he’d buy his way out, when he got enough oil-money together...’ Mendoza said, huskily. There was the suspicion of a sob in his voice.
‘I... I can tell you things,’ Theresa said carefully. ‘Things about Spain. I don’t know everything, but... I can help. And I will-’
‘Hah!’ Ortiz growled. ‘ Capitán would never allow that-‘
‘I wasn’t planning to ask him.’ Theresa snapped. ‘I’m not under orders!’
She tried again. ‘Look – Señors: I will gladly give you what new I can of... home. But... mutiny, like this?’ She shook her head. ‘There’s no going back from it. And if it failed?’
There was a ripple of shudders running through the silent crowd.
The bewildered silence gave her courage. They were listening to her, at the very least. Perhaps even... reconsidering.
But then it all went... sour.
‘Señora, please...’ Santos croaked. In the distraction he had been left lying on the floor, like a bundle of rags, but hearing Theresa’s voice amid the sudden quiet had stirred him from his pain. ‘You mustn’t...’
Ortiz turned back to the captured officer with a grunt, all his old hostility flooding back into his face. ‘Still yapping, hijo de las mil putas? Do I need to shut you up again?’
‘He squeaks too much for his own good.’ Mendoza turned, advancing on Santos as his captors dragged him to his feet. ‘And we can silence you for good, pipsqueak. We’re near land now, aren’t we? You know what that means... ’
Santos blenched, even the grey seeming to drain out of his face.
‘Wait... no-‘ Theresa said, alarmed at the turn this was taking. ‘I told you, you don’t need to-‘
‘ Oh? How about if we want to?’ Mendoza snarled. ‘Officers have had it all their own way for too long-‘
‘Stop it!’ Theresa said sharply, her temper momentarily getting the better of her fright. She didn’t quite understand the threat about land, but the evident horror in Santos’ face made her harden her resolve. ‘Let him alone! If you want me to tell you anything, then-‘
But they were no longer listening to her. Mendoza had rammed his fist straight through Santos’ side again, a glad light of hatred seething in his eyes. The officer had been expecting it, but it didn’t prevent him doubling over in agony.
‘We deal with this one first.’ He said, almost licking his lips wolfishly. ‘Then the rest of ‘em. All of them. Over the side. And we’ll leave that maldito Jonás Salazar until last. He can watch ‘em all turn to dust. Maybe then he can finally see what he’s done to us- ’
‘If you do that, I’ll tell you nothing!’ Theresa shouted. This was turning ugly fast. And damn it all, she was panicking openly now. ‘You hear me? Touch Santos or any of them, and you won’ get a single word-‘
It was then that Theresa realised, just a fraction too late, that Mendoza was not Capitán Salazar, with his ironic smiles and playful tolerance.
There was a deranged gleam in the seaman’s eye as he turned towards her that made her quail; a blind and terrible glitter of rage. He turned back towards her, cutlass outstretched. ‘Who says we need you either, Señora?’
The blade turned almost casually in Mendoza’s hand, pricking the soft skin at Theresa’s throat.
She gasped and stopped dead.
A small bead of bright red blood trickled lazily down the sword-point.
‘Cabróns!’ Somewhere on Theresa’s blurring horizon of sight, Santos had picked himself up off the floor to hurl himself at Mendoza. ‘Beast! You dare to harm-‘
He was impeded by a dozen hands – but it was amidst a sudden murmur of unease from the huddled mutineers. They seemed to half-echo his sentiments.
‘That wasn’t the plan, Mendoza-‘ A voice said uncertainly.
‘Boy’s right, y’know...’ That was a deep-voiced rumble from Ortiz himself. ‘She’s an innocent. We don’t harm the -‘
Harm, Theresa reflected dazedly, gingerly raising a hand to her neck, was perhaps a little strong. Mendoza had only lightly drawn blood. A mismanaged brooch-pin might have done as much. But...
They can kill me. And they will, if I get in their way.
‘There you go again, following his rules!’ Mendoza stamped in anger. ‘That son of a whore Salazar destroys us, over and over again, and you’re still tamely jumping in the shit he leaves for us -!’
‘It ain’t about him.’ Ortiz growled. ‘You’re forgetting, Mendoza - she swore on La María. She’s protected. If you cross-‘
‘Screw the rules! And screw poxy La María!’ Mendoza whirled about, madness blazing in his eyes. ‘I’ll not take another hour under rule from anyone, you hear me?! Anyone!!’
A tiny speck of blood – fresh, living blood - dropped unnoticed to the floor from his blade. No one saw it fall. But as it struck the boards, it seemed to scorch the wood, as though it were red-hot lead, just as Mendoza cursed the ship aloud...
Shocked silence fell like the edge of an axe.
With a creak of groaning timbers, La María began to stir.
Salazar stared wild-eyed at the scene before him as the couple closed with each other, morality crumbling beneath the terrible temptation before him.
He wanted to. Holy Mother, all he wanted to do right now was to simply sink into the boy’s consciousness like a feather-bed, all thoughts of honour or restraint gone. It might be a stolen rapture, but it would be his. He’d feel her kisses, her caresses – and in the moment at least, it would be for him-
The thought of that propelled him forwards, edging into the fringes of the boy’s mind. It was barely coherent at all by this point; after all, his bride’s arms were tightening around his neck as they teetered in an embrace that was quickly moving from tender to passionate; and more than a little impatient.
Salazar remembered the impatience well enough. And the warmth. The feeling that nothing else mattered in the whole world, so long as there was someone soft and willing clasped tight in your arms; a hushed, dangerous secret pleasure you could barely voice...
He found himself recollecting something similar in a silk-draped bedroom in Veracruz – a woman with fair hair and a practised card-player’s smile. He had been young then; a hopeful slip of a young lieutenant who had only been recently honoured in dispatches back home. But he could still remember the breathless, aching triumph of being chosen by her-
There was something of that elation clouding Sebastién de Barros’ thoughts now. The younger Theresa was muttering with vexation under her breath at a particularly recalcitrant stay-ribbon. His hand covered hers for a brief moment.
‘Here,’ he whispered. ‘Let me...’
He began to gently pick at the stubborn knot with his fingernail, until the silk ribbon began to slide loose, teasing apart her stays so one hand could glide in amongst the folds of her shift. He watched, stupefied, as Sebastien cupped the warm flesh of a pale breast; kissed it, like a pilgrim touching lips to a holy relic. It coaxed the softest sigh Salazar had ever heard from a woman out of her.
She strained her bridegroom to her then, stumbling backwards over the puddle of abandoned petticoats on the floor in her haste as she drew him back towards the bed.
Both of them were rapidly losing control in the midst of their urgency now; that younger, ardent Theresa arched her back into his body, letting out sharp little cries of ecstasy as she strained to offer him her other breast. The boy himself had barely a coherent thought in his head by this point – he was rubbing himself helplessly against her, one hand struggling to loose himself from his breeches whilst still mindlessly rutting against her hips. Eventually he took the offered breast, his lips opening to take the dark red nipple in his mouth like an infant at suck as his hand moved gently between her stockinged legs...
Salazar’s endurance had its limits. He couldn’t bear this. This - this was a Tantalus’ torment. The worst of it was that unlike the doomed victim of the underworld, it was within his grasp. All he had to do was reach out into the boy’s mind and-
‘Oh. Oh, Sebastién. My love. Oh...’
At that ragged sigh, Salazar stopped dead.
There it was. Ice-cold to the point of pain, as truth so often is; but there was no evading it.
This was her love for her husband. By rights, this was something no other man, living or dead, should ever have seen.
The banner of Salazar’s honour was somewhat tattered; that, he allowed, was true. The miserable manner of his death and their... existence afterwards had forced his hand. But even in the midst of bitter envy for Sebastien; where the chilly desolation of death contended with helpless want –Salazar couldn’t bring himself to such meanness as... as taking this, stealing this. He baulked at it, instinctively.
It was a thief’s action.
The action of a... pirate. His conscience said coldly. A craven brute, seeking to glut himself in insensate pleasure, no matter the cost to honour, or self-respect...
Disgust at himself moved within Salazar like a maggot, prompting him to withdrawing his influence from the hazy edges of the Sebastien’s perception. It was slow and terrible work, for sensations travelled enticingly down even as he let it go. But he managed, in the end, fiercely kicking away the lingering tendrils touch and scent the way he might a fawning street dog. He turned away towards the open window, ferociously shaking his cracked skull so the swirl of dark hair blotted out the view...
Lesaro was right. There must be no more of this.
Blessedly, the scene began to fade into the familiar cold darkness that heralded the approach of consciousness.
And with it, came...the sounds of...
Knocking, he realised, dimly. Sharp, urgent knocking. It must be up there somewhere – back in the real world.
Slowly, painfully, he began to crawl back towards the light.
Above deck, all seemed discouragingly... normal, for the small band of rebel mutineers huddled in the shadows.
Mendoza had done his work well, with the crewmen he had persuaded to his side. He was only voicing the discontent they all felt, wasn’t it? It was only natural.
But, as it turned out, it hadn’t been everyone; and not nearly enough crewmen to make a victory against those still loyal to Salazar certain. And not a single officer had been included in the roster of discontents.
This was where Pereira (a hard-faced master of the fore-top, missing a lower jaw) came in.
‘We got to have an officer on our side, brothers.’ he insisted. ‘Makes this proper, then. You want to take power from a capitán, then you got to have one of his own; to turn the tide against him.’
‘Alright then. Who?’
‘Not Moss,’ someone guffawed. Whilst hot as gunpowder and a fierce fighter, the lad had barely started shaving before they had died. ‘And bloody Lesaro’s cut from the same cloth as the precious Capitán-‘
Pereira grinned. ‘No. I’ve got a better man than him in mind. And from what I hear, he’s more than half on our side already...’
‘You mean...Cortez?’ someone asked incredulously.
‘Who better than Cortez, eh?’ Pereira demanded. ‘He’s second in command after Lesaro – and no soft gentilhombre officer. Damned good fighter. And you heard him and el teniente! Scrapping like dogs. He feels the way we do, I’ll swear it.’
There was a general murmur of agreement amongst the men.
Teniente Cortez was definitely an officer to respect by the crew’s standards; and onboard ship that means a great deal. But by rights, he should have been a soft-voiced gentleman, like Magda; or else primly obedient, like Santos and Lesaro. Officers were like that.
Cortez , on the other hand...
Well, Cortez had the loping, swaggering walk of a Cordovan street-fighter, combined with a sharp-eyed gleam that rivalled the average drill-sergeant. Even lieutenant has a difference in manner, but Cortez – right from the beginning, Cortez had watched the men in his division as though he already knew every trick in the book. Any man who had ever borne the brunt of his displeasure could vouch for the fact the second teniente had a punch that could rattle a mule; a facet of his personality that hadn’t changed since the Curse.
And he said what he thought, no matter where he was. Or who heard him. Occasionally within earshot of Capitán himself. If anyone already knew about the mutiny, it would probably be Cortez.
Nonetheless, a few sailors looked... worried.
There was one other thing about Officer Cortez: something Pereira had quite forgotten. He might say what he thought, to be sure – but it was hard to predict what the man would do.
And all the crew knew of Cortez’s devotion to La Mária, down to her very bones and keel. Mutiny – mutiny might only be against Salazar’s command, but under the Curse? It had the faint tang of a deeper treachery: something Cortez might well not tolerate.
But Pereira had a certain brash faith in his own powers of persuasion. He scoffed openly at the hesitation in his crewmates’ faces. ‘What little quaking fools you all are! I tell you he’ll join with us on a word. ‘ He shook himself, a sly smile creeping across his face. ‘Watch now. I’ll go talk him over. You’ll see...’
He shambled over towards the stairs leading up to the quarterdeck.
Cortez was leaning back on the ships rail whistling a snatch of an old Spanish street-tune, his hands thrust jauntily in his pockets. He nodded tersely as Pereira hove in view.
‘Teniente, sir!’ Pereira tugged at his cap, an oily deference dripping from his voice. ‘Clear skies tonight, sir?’
Cortez eyed him, guardedly. Common seamen weren’t permitted to lounge about the officer’s deck outside their duties. Pereira was already taking a bold liberty by being there at all.
‘Sea and skies both.’ He said briefly.
‘And more to follow, we can hope, sir. Though... with a few storms along the way, mebbe?’ There was a delicate insinuation in Pereira’s tone. ‘Our road’s not been an easy one, Sir. And that’s God’s own truth-’
Cortez nodded affably. ‘Talking just about the weather, are we?’ he murmured, a strange gleam lighting up his dead grey eyes. ‘Careful, Pereira. I know better.’
‘You’re a smart one, teniente, sir, and no mistake!’ Behind his back, Pereira gestured for his shadowy compatriots to come out of hiding. They approached in a silent phalanx, cutting off all possible escape. ‘That’s why we came to you, sir. You ain’t like the other officers, sir. You... understand.’
An uncanny smile hovered for a moment over Cortez’s lips that should have given a wiser man pause. He turned almost carelessly, eying the mob as though there were no more than fellow-drinkers jostling for a cup of ale.
‘Oh yes,’ he said. ‘I understand. And you’re offering me...?’
‘A place with us. Once Capitán and the rest are dealt with.’ Pereira said baldly. ‘Something none of the other bloody officers are getting.’
‘Tempting.’ Cortez smile widened. ‘Lesaro, too?’
‘First after Salazar.’
Cortez’ eyes gleamed. ‘Good. It’s about time someone wiped the smile from that pompous old fucker’s face.’
There was a ripple of relieved guffaws from the mutineers. Cortez grinned, unsheathing his sword as though preparing to join the crowd. ‘There, you have my answer. Anything else I should know?’
Pereira’s rat-like face broke into a gleeful grin. He clapped a hand to Cortez’s shoulder. ‘Come, I’ll take you to Mendoza. He says that’s what went wrong in the first place. We needed to purge the filth.’
‘Aye, the air’ll be sweeter for it afterwards.’ Cortez agreed, tranquilly. He shifted his sword from hand to hand, before raising his voice. ‘You ready then, men?’
‘Hey!’ Pereira snapped, ruffled at this sudden dismissal. ‘You don’t give orders here! Mendoza gave me-‘
Cortez’ head whipped around, eyes suddenly vicious.
‘I wasn’t talking to you.’
His hand moved faster than eye could follow. Pereira let out a faint gurgle, his eyes staring stupidly at the sword blade nailing his severed jaw to the mast...
And with that, all hell broke loose. Men dropped on the startled mutineers from aloft, bearing them to the ground. Other, ghostly arms reached up through the boards, dragging men down with them – and darting at a run through the boards of La Maria as though they were wisps of fog, came the officers.
‘Depressing really,’ Magda murmured afterwards, wiping his sword with distaste. ‘We’ve attacked ships enough using that manoeuvre. They should have expected it. Were they really so foolish as to think-‘
‘A little too soon to cry victory, Magda. It was a near thing enough,’ Lesaro said grimly. The fight with the mutineers had been pitched; and they had fought like desperate men when cornered. ‘This isn’t all of them, from what Cortez says-‘
He nodded tersely at the man, scowling darkly. ‘“Pompous old” – well, that word – had rather struck home with Lesaro. And from the insolent grin that lingered on the second lieutenant’s mouth, he rather suspected the insult had been intended.
Cortez saluted, leisurely. ‘I took my intelligence from Bracero,sir. ’ He nodded. ‘This all of them, then?’
‘No.’ Panting, a rough seaman straightened up, knife in hand. ‘Mendoza and the rest are below.’ His face looked grave. ‘With Santos and the Seňora. It’s bad, sirs-‘
Lesaro’s insides went cold.
Surely... surely they know what Capit án will do to them once he learns of this?
He glanced towards the corner where their sullen prisoners had been herded by Moss, some of them still twitching and groaning from old death-throes. They’d taken the precaution of securing old wooden spars through their gaping wounds, keeping them too incapacitated to attempt escape. Cortez had suggested that. An inventive streak of cruelty, to be sure – but it was the only way to subdue them.
‘They haven’t taken Capitan?’
‘Leaving him until last, I think.’
‘Why the devil isn’t he here? Didn’t he hear-‘ Lesaro swore softly under his breath. His clenched fist struck his leg.
‘Teniente?’ Magda asked, nervously.
‘Never mind.’ The lieutenant bit back a sharp response. ‘I’ll fetch him. You-‘ he pointed at Moss – ‘take care of these wretches with Magda, whilst you-‘he paused. Insolent or not , Cortez had proved his loyalty tonight many times over.
‘You may take a stealth party below. ‘ He allowed, grudgingly. ‘Mop them up. There may be some who aren’t wholly of Mendoza’s party.’
‘What about Santos and the woman?’
‘If you can save them, do it! For all our sakes, Cortez.’ Lesaro spoke urgently. ‘If the men harm either of them... Capitan’s rage will be-‘
‘I know. You don’t need to tell me what he will do. ‘ Cortez frowned. ‘But... why isn’t he here? Surely he can sense how wrong things are?’ He stared down at the boards of the ship. ‘You can feel it. From La Mária herself.’ He closed his eyes. ‘She is... disturbed...’
‘We do not all have your bond with La Mária.’ Lesaro said evasively, praying to heaven that Capitán’s use of the inundación de memoria didn’t come out now. ‘ And Capitan has much to think of-‘
He stopped, startled.
Cortez had thrown out an arm to stop his passage. His eyes were still closed, but now he winced, drawing back as though in pain.
His eyes flew open.
‘The fools, ‘ He said softly, under his breath. ‘The God-damned fools...’ He pushed at Lesaro. ‘Fetch Capitán now. They have angered her-‘
‘Mendoza has broken his vow! He has broken his oath to La Mária!’ Cortez’ eyes were wild. ‘And now...' he shuddered, and swallowed.
'Now, she seeks vengeance...’