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author: hazard_us ([livejournal.com profile] hazard_us)
email: scorpio_kaur [at] yahoo.com

Vina outlined her report in her head and waited for the screaming to end. It did eventually.

Then she waited for the knock on her cabin door. And there was a knock.

"Captain wants to see you," said a voice at the door. No 'miss' or 'lady' and just a taste of 'damnable sea witch' in the tone, so that meant it was Basu at the door. Yes, and only Basu had the ability to smell exactly like an unwashed corpse even though he was still alive. A pity about that, she thought as she put a knife in her belt. Yes, a pity about both the smelling and the living.

She opened her door and followed the first mate to the doctor's quarters. A very injured buccaneer was bleeding on the sawdust on Dr. Mahdukhar's floor. The blood made a pattern, like woven poppies in a carpet from Tabriz, though she hadn't seen a carpet in a month. Blood she saw very nearly every day.

The doctor was covered in blood, not his, never his, and the Captain was pristine. She did not know how he kept so clean when she had heard crewmembers whisper of his prowess in battle. But one did not lose an eye, or possess such fierce scars, without losing blood, so it must have happened at least once in his lifetime.

"Ask him where it is," the Captain ordered. She never flinched at taking orders from those who gave them well. Never mind that she’d like to know the same thing – that she was looking for it just as desperately as the Captain was. They both worked for the same Emperor, after all - well, he worked for the Emperor. She worked for the Light of the Palace, blessed be her name.

The pirate stared at her, probably wondering what new hell was here. Basu looked like the mean man he was, but she must have looked strange on this ship, for not only was she a woman but she dressed like a man on the shore, and she knew she swaggered like a very rich man on the shore.

She leaned over the confused pirate, smiled, and pinched him as hard as she could.

"What the hell is wrong with you, you she-male?" the pirate swore. And that was all she needed to hear.

"Where is it?" she asked, sweetly, politely and - more importantly - in that tongue-twisting, throat-scarring language the pirates used.

This was the part she liked best; the half-second where they couldn't quite understand how she had understood them.

His eyes widened. "How do you--"

"Where is it? If you do not tell me, I will give you such a pinch again." Her gaze dropped to the doctor's tools in the leather roll on the table next to him. The pliers waited there, very conspicuously.

Terrified though he was, he did not relent. "Do it then, sea witch!"

"That sure as hell didn't sound like directions." Basu gobbed into the sawdust; his saliva mixed with the blood spatterings, ruining the flowers there. "Goddamn heathens and their heathen lingo."

"Strip him," she said in the language of the Empire.

A nod from the Captain, for Basu would never allow himself to be seen taking orders from her, and the pirate's clothes were cut and torn away. The prisoner didn't protest; he just stared straight ahead until Basu got too close and then he spit blood and phlegm on the first mate. The man hit the floor hard from Basu's backhand.

"If you broke his jaw..." Dr. Mahdukhar said, but he did not finish. If his jaw was broken, Mahdukhar would fix it enough for the man to talk. That was what he did.

But Vina stared at an interesting thing.

"Yes, drink it in, slut," the pirate murmured through blood and gore. "Perhaps I'll give you a taste of it later."

"I won't deny you are very impressive," she said. She wasn't going to lie about so obvious a thing. Really, he was about as annoying as Basu. They could have been brothers, if he’d smelled worse. "But I'm more interested in that lovely drawing on your stomach."

He blanched; the other men in the cabin took notice. They had no idea what had been said, but knew it must have been important from the way the once defiant pirate was squirming.

"It must have been hell to make, much more painful than a tattoo, but much, much less obvious."

Yes, he was terrified now. A woman who could speak his language. A woman who could recognize a map of wounds. A clever woman...

And the way his mouth tightened and his tongue worked between his lips made her want to sigh. He was going to be difficult and he was already dying. She - they didn't have time for this.

She turned her tongue to the easier language and said to the others, "He'd need to be healed before you could begin persuading him properly. But what about the other option? Doctor, what do you think?"

Mahdukhar shrugged. "The brew may kill him before we can even get him to the twilight stage, but you are right. Healing him will take too long and he wouldn't survive a session with Basu as he is now."

The Captain stared at the pirate and then at the wall. "Do it then, doctor. We do not have time."

The Potential skimmed through clear waters, rocking over the ocean like a stately matron being ferried through the marketplace in her litter. The ship's bulk belied its speed and it could bristle with arms given one shouted word.

Vina followed the Captain above deck because the tea took time to make and time to work – and because he told her to.

Bits and bobs and sometimes limbs were tossed overboard as the crew cleaned the most recent battle away. Vina was glad of her sensible shoes when she stepped in something slick. Pretty silk slippers wouldn't have survived more than an hour in this life.

"You need the man to talk?" he asked her.

"Yes." She could recognize a map of wounds, but not decipher it without assistance. But he never asked her to explain why she could or couldn’t do something. He just asked her if she could.

He stared at the sea, but at what she knew not. She had become used to the hillier country in the north, cooler as it was, but she went where the Light of the Palace ordered her to go and if that meant floating on the sea, surrounded by the company of men, then that was where she would be.

Every man on this ship suspected her of something; of being a witch, of being a curse, of being a spy - and surely she was all three and more, but that did not matter when the Captain made his favor known.

She smiled at nothing. Perhaps favor was the wrong word. Lack of contempt was more accurate, but it was enough to keep her safe to do her job.

"We are close," he said. "This one, this one knows about the island. And with that knowledge, we can break the spine of the pirates and destroy their work in the Emperor's seas for good."

"So long as he lives long enough to tell us," she said. The Captain could get quite warm when it came to pirates; warm enough to stop being pragmatic. It was as if he took their existence as a personal affront. That or he was very dutiful to his master, the Emperor.

But she understood his impatience. They'd been sailing these seas for weeks now, pretending to be fat merchants, luring pirates to them, but never being able to capture one alive – or at least alive and knowledgeable. Only high-ranking corsairs knew the way to their hive nest of an island and only today had they finally received good fortune. Bless Allah or the gods or the gurus; whichever was at work.

"Get in the hold and make him talk," he ordered.

And because it was him giving the order, she did.

The tea was already working. Always fatal, there was a window of time when it would open a man's heart, loosen his tongue, and then there was nothing he could do to keep the truth from flowing like the great river in the South.

The prisoner was not any worse for wear even though Basu had been watching him; Mardukhar's presence must have stifled the first mate's sadistic impulses. But Basu could not keep the sneer off his mouth as she stepped in.

The sneer left as he watched her work. Neither the doctor nor the first mate could understand her words, but that made it easier for them to understand how well she could do her job.

For she'd done this job from the moment her mother had died on shore, right after her father-owner had pitched them from his felonious life at sea. She'd scrimped and begged and danced and every time she had had a chance, she’d listened for important words and learned how to get what she needed.

It was the Light of the Palace that noticed a Nautch girl in the marketplace, in scraps of cloth, barely decent, and saw possibilities beyond a dancing girl. So when her mistress found out she knew the language of pirates, she was given a very important job – help the sailors find their lair and destroy them.

This was how she worked.

First she cajoled, but there was that stony gaze again, and so she switched to an order, which turned his stoniness to fear - but fear was ice and had to be melted, so she did so with a quick touch that made him flinch slightly, and then she gave him a blanket and a sip of water and asked Dr. Mardukhar to give him a painkiller (which was not one at all, but this man would not know as his blood burned) and then she lost count of her steps, got herself lost in the dance as she acted and reacted like she did when she heard the beat of a Nautch song.

It was late night when she was finished, but she found the Captain in his cabin and gave him a map. It was fresh and it was bloody but she now could tell him what it meant.

They set course for the island, to break the spine of the pirates.

The screaming woke her up. She was used to screaming, but this time there had been no hard thumps to indicate that the men were making preparations for war, and she had not heard the timid knock of a cabin boy, warning her to stay in her room until it was over.

She rolled out of her bed, stuffed two knives in her belt and carefully filled her pistol with gunpowder in the dark. Her mind sang with one word, betrayal.

She crouched in the darkness and thought quickly. Had it been too easy? No, that corpse they’d thrown overboard had really resisted her. Perhaps he'd been unknowing bait.

This part of the ship was silent, though now the screams were louder and she could see torchlight flickering through the boards in the doorway at the end of the hallway. She slipped on something she did not want to see and immediately ducked under a cutlass that rent the air above her head.

She could dance with knives, though, and she drove them into the man, all chest and neck hits, before he could bring his arm back for another swing. Nameless pirates did not earn her notice, but this man she'd sailed with for months now. Was he a traitor? Or had this been a horrible mistake in the dark?

The doctor's room was one room from hers; the door was open and Mardukhar was covered in his own blood this time. Pirates had not made it this far; there could be no other explanation now. Treachery.

She cracked the door to the open deck. Firelight danced on familiar faces, both dead and alive; it glinted off pistols and knives and cutlasses. Basu was leading a small group of men against the Captain, who stood at the stern with the rest of the sailors. He had no blood on him, though she could see dark streaks on his sword.

The fighting was heavy, and half-shadow memories of similar moments flickered with the torchlight in her mind. Fights above deck, men dying, her mother holding her close but ignoring it all – just another day on the sea. She stayed at the door, but she did not open it; willing her stomach to stop churning, swallowing often to keep the bile down.

Basu's men were outnumbered and outmatched. Soon it was only him, all spit and blood, shouting defiance at everyone until many blades found sheaths in his body and he fell to the deck, another bit, another bob to be thrown overboard later.

The tide had turned. She was safe and she stepped out carefully onto the deck. No sudden movements; no reason to have people attack her as a pirate. Only now did she wish that she dressed like a woman, to show that she wasn't a threat.

The sailors let her pass up the steps, so she could give her report to the Captain. "The doctor, I'm sorry – he's--"

The steel was not cold; it burned as it cut through her skin, skin admired by the Light of the Palace herself. Her skin was much too weak to stop the Captain's blade.

Her Light... she would never get her report, never know that the greatest threat against the Empire was from within and not without.

He took her arm as she felt her knees weaken, eased her to the boards with care. It did not make the wound in her stomach hurt any less.

And he brought his sword, now flowering with her blood, (poppies) across her throat as a kindness - because hadn't he been in the room when Mahdukar had discussed at length the prolonged torture that was a mortal abdominal wound? But even throat-slittings were not quick deaths.

"You would have made a good pirate," the Captain said before he stood up.

It was the best compliment he could give her, and it was the last thing she heard. Then her smile became a rictus and her blood mingled with the seawater on the wooden deck of the Potential.

the end

Date: 2010-08-18 12:52 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] bratfarrar.livejournal.com
Ow. I was not expecting that ending. Poor Vina! And I wonder what the repercussions of this will be--if you ever are inclined to write more in this world, you'll have at least one eager reader.

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