‘Laces loose, lassie?’
Francesca stood and turned to face the snarling voice, her skirts trailing on the powder-room floor.
‘Captain Deadeye,’ she said with her best smile. ‘What news? Have we found another fat merchant to rob of his spoils? Or perhaps more merfolk to hunt for sport?’
‘You’re to come up on deck,’ the pirate replied, chewing on the words like a pickled lemon. ‘The crew would like a talk.’
‘Perhaps you could give me a moment?’
‘This ain’t a request,’ Deadeye replied, his cutlass hissing as it emerged from the scabard. ‘Now get up there.’
‘As you wish.’
Francesca crossed the room and ascended the well-worn ladder. Unseen by the captain, something crossed the room behind her, snaking through the sawdust.
The first thing she noticed as she emerged into bright daylight was the volcano. The island of Mahonia had blown its top at last, spitting flames and dense smoke into a crystal clear sky. Outcast gulls wheeled away from it in flocks, seeking a new sanctuary. She thought of the marooned geological expedition, trapped between the fire of the underworld and the deepest, bluest of seas. She was not the sort to let her breast heave at the first hint of sorrow, but she felt a tremor of loss at the thought of poor Welby and his colleagues.
However, more urgent matters demanded her attention. A motley collection of faces glared at her from around the deck. Tatooed Chinese renegades, their hair in tight pony tails, the fire of foreign magic burning in their eyes. Fugitive Frenchmen, scarred by jaunts in the Bastille and on the chain gang. Strange savage creatures from the Americas, their faces spread across their chests, flat nostrils exposing flashes of lung. In the rigging Barbary apemen dangled beside powder monkeys, while pygmies and Lilliputians scrambled up the lower rungs for a better view. The Wandering Dog’s crew, all frowning as grimly as the skull and crossbones under which they sailed.
‘There’s few things worse than bein’ an outcast,’ Deadeye said as he followed her out of the hatch. ‘We should know, shouldn’t we boys?’
The crew muttered assent.
‘And there’s few we won’t take in, if they’re willin’ to pull their weight. After all, everybody’s got to have a home.’
Deadeye bore down on Francesca as he spoke, cutlass held out before him, so that she had to back off towards the starboard beam. The crowd parted to let her through, then merged again behind the captain, a mass of weathered flesh and faded cloth. There was no sound except the distant rumble of Mahonia. One of the chimps in the rigging began to screech, but was beaten into silence by his neighbours.
‘But there’s one sort that’ll never be welcome on this here boat,’ the captain said, his voice rising, ‘and that a traitor!’
This time the crew roared their approval. Francesca trembled, perspiration peppering her brow. Her heels knocked against the raised edge of the deck. Behind her was a gap in the beam and a plank stretched out above the water.
‘Did you think we wouldn’t work it out?’ Deadeye bellowed. ‘A fallen woman fleeing her father’s wrath, yet not a scar or blemish on you – oh yes, I had one of the monkeys watch you bathe. Scales was all they saw. What sort of woman has scales? Not an English aristocrat, that’s for sure. And you were so well equipped for a lass who’d never travelled. Too much experience and too little knowledge, that gave it away. Perhaps we should have left you to die with lover boy on the island – don’t think I didn’t notice the looks between you two. But me, I like a bit of variety. It spices up life.’
Francesca felt the sharp point of the cutlass prodding at her guts. She stepped onto the plank.
‘It has been an exciting journey,’ she said, putting on a brave face as she backed unsteadily along the creaking board.
‘Aye, we’re all sad to see the end,’ Deadeye said with a grin.
Francesca reached the end of the plank and looked back at the crew’s leering visages. The wind turned and the gutsy reek of sixty unwashed bodies was replaced by the fresh salt breath of the ocean, tinged with a faint, sad scent of smoke. She looked the captain in the eye and smiled smugly.
‘It’s nearer than you think, captain,’ she said.
The wind lifted her skirts, and for the first time the pirates saw the cord tied to her boot, running back along the plank, between their feet, and down into the powder room. They had time for one shared gasp. Then Francesca leapt into the air, graceful as a salmon in a stream, and plunged into the waters below. The line hissed out behind her and pulled taught. Down in the powder room, the little noose on the end tightened round the trigger of a pistol. The flint fell and sparks flew into the barrels of gunpowder. The Wandering Dog exploded with a deafening roar.
Francesca rose to the surface and watched the shattered remnants of the ship bobbing on the water. A plume of smoke poured from the scorched, sinking hull, a twin to the cloud rising over the volcano. She tore herself loose of the cumbersome dress and dived back down beneath the waves, her heart swelling with pride at her triumph and joy at returning to her people. Other merfolk rose to greet her, scales glinting as they swam victory laps. She kicked off her boots and joined them, webbed feet flexing through the crystal clear sea.
This story was previously published in Alienskin magazine, February 2008