Your sodden clothing offers you no protection from the razor edge of the wind as you watch your home splinter and shatter. It floats in pieces for a minute before being swallowed by the uncaring mouth of the ocean. Parts of your ship, now relegated to driftwood, spread like litter. Some innocuously bump your little lifeboat but others are larger and pose more of a threat. You see a remnant of the main mast, tangled with rigging, fast approaching and there is movement around you to avoid the snagging tendrils.
There is shouting - senseless, panicked shouting - and you know you should be taking more stock of what’s being said but your wounds are oozing blood and it’s making you lightheaded. A hand grabs your upper arm and you raise your eyes sluggishly. It’s Elissa and the look of concern on her face focuses you in a way that feels very much like you’re resurfacing from a long stretch underwater. With focus comes pain and you gasp loudly, which startles her. It’s been a while since she’s heard any kind of physical complaint from you.
“Merde,” you spit, using language that isn’t native to you but that you’ve adopted in your travels. “Survivors?”
Strangely, the profanity soothes Elissa and her frown sharpens as she switches from concerned lover to efficient first mate. “Seventeen including us,” she says curtly and though she tries to barrel on with explanations and a list of names, she cannot disguise the grief that flickers through her eyes. 68 losses is heavy. The heaviest you’ve ever endured. She doesn’t give recriminations but you can sense the resentment burning deep in her gut. Now is not the time to discuss it though. You press your hand to the wound in your side a little more tightly and use the sharp increase in pain as a way to maintain control.
Looking around, you can see that there are three rowing boats, packed with crew in varying states of health. Some, like you, are looking singed and bloody. Others, like Elissa, seem relatively unscathed. Physically at least. Everyone looks a little weathered around the eyes and there’s a blanket of quiet that smothers. It’s a stark contrast to the recent screams.
The sea is still rough, possibly even getting rougher, and you bark an order to truss the boats together. This far from land and with crew that are still reeling from a long, drawn out night of bloodshed and burning, the vessels could too easily drift apart and you find yourself fiercely, even desperately protective of your final seventeen.
This is not your first time dealing with the total loss of everything (although the last time this happened you were a mere deckhand with no responsibilities) and you’ve prepared the little boats accordingly. Elissa had raised an eyebrow at what she saw as wasting of supplies but your experience of floating at sea for days as a green mariner had left you with a healthy respect for emergency kits. Under the roughly hewn seats are watertight packages of biscuits, basic medical supplies and even a few weapons. It was Barton’s job to check and refresh these each month but, scanning the faces of those around, you cannot see him. His bunk mate is there though and she slumps against the side, knuckles white against her oar.
There is movement, between boats and on them: men and women following orders and tending to each other. Dimly, you realise that Cortez is wrapping bandages around your stomach and arm. The pressure on your bicep blurs the world around you momentarily and you welcome the icy water that chooses that moment to slap you from behind. Cortez swears profusely and swipes the water out of his eyes but continues in his task. You catch him looking at you with narrowed eyes and you avert your gaze to avoid the accusation in them. The time for that will come but in the present moment, your crew need strength.
The sea buckles and thrashes under the little chain of boats and the occasional cracks of lightning illuminate larger and larger waves approaching. Waves that barely registered against the powerful galleon that you’re all used to now threaten to capsize your fragile lifeboats. There are more shouted orders and you manage to remind the survivors of their collective prowess mastering the sea. They begin to work together to keep themselves afloat and pride fills your chest.
You haven’t forgotten the reason that your beloved home is now mere splinters and memories. While crew members fight the heaving of the water, you scan the surrounding area and use the moments at the top of crests to see further. At the top of one such swell, you see lights in the distance and bitterness tastes like bile behind your teeth. The bright spots bob up and down with each roil of the waves. Some are fixed in place and others move from one end of the ship to the other. You spend a vindictive moment imagining the holders of the lights frantically bailing out water and mourning their dead. You’d hoped that the other ship would’ve shared your fate but apparently the holes they created were bigger than those they’d received.
“Extinguish all lanterns,” you snap and the order is carried out immediately. There were only a few that had managed to stay lit anyway but you’ll cut Elissa’s throat yourself before you allow the Navy to get their hands on her. Or on any of the souls that are currently putting their hopes of survival on your leadership.
You’d only been half a day from Port Royal when this had started and you’d retreated some of that distance when the battle began. If you can remain undetected, there is a chance that you can make your way back there. With none of your cargo, your position and authority in the harbour may well have changed but you have safeguarded against this, too. You’ve made sure there is something at every major harbour on this side of the world that will get you started again - hidden wealth and useful people in your debt. You just have to make it there. Every person on these vessels can use the stars to navigate to some extent or another and the cover of night will hide you for several more hours yet. The odds are now in your favour though it feels like too little, too late.
You announce your plan and the responses are lost in the deep-throated growl of thunder. Those around you seem to have fresh energy though and the determination to reach safety has filled them with a kind of fire. They row with renewed fervour and the fear and dejection seems to have receded from most. Elissa, though, is looking intently at a bit of floating debris and will not meet your eyes. You notice a deep cut on her cheek and wonder that you’d missed it before. It distorts the tattoo that snakes up from below her collar and ends below her ear. Suddenly worried, you scan the rest of her profile, searching for any more injuries, but though her jacket is missing and her dark skin is smudged with ash, she is otherwise unharmed.
You recall the conversation mere hours before, when you’d been standing on the deck, watching those lights approach. Her disdain, carefully wrapped in professional deference for the crew’s benefit, at your conviction that your new cannons would be able to deal with the approaching frigate with little to no damage to your own. Her insistence that their trial run should be on a smaller, more easily overpowered vessel. Preferably one leaving a harbour weighed down with spices or cloth to loot rather than a fully armed English warship. Her furious accusations that recent successes had given you a false sense of safety and that you’d started to belief the legends that had sprung up around you and your indomitable invincibility. You recall the look she gave you when you pulled rank and remember, with perfect clarity and no small amount of irony, thinking that she would owe you an apology when you were floating amongst the wreckage of yet another conquest.
Sullen resentment flares in you and you think back to your life before Elissa arrived in it. Before she sauntered onto your ship in New Providence, white shirt billowing, tight black curls clipped close and a price of her head that did not require her to be breathing in order for you to cash it in. She’d demanded to be introduced to the captain of this vessel and you’d taken your time before answering. You had a reputation in certain circles and her appearance in front of you proved her to be either unspeakably stupid or incredibly brazen; it took her all of three minutes to show you which one. She knew you lacked a first mate and offered her services and her loyalty. You still didn’t know why you’d accepted but you suspected it had something to do with her hips.
She had softened you. There was no question of it. Before her, you would have found someone or something else to blame. The notion of regret, particularly regret at leaving words unsaid, would never have crossed your mind. But now, the apology that she wants - deserves - sticks in your craw and you feel something you thought you’d left behind on the shore all those years ago: shame.
You touch her knee and in her gaze you see the choice between the smouldering fires of hell or the slow crawl towards redemption. You choose.