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Sail to Apollo
Sameen stopped pacing. The foredeck didn't sway underneath her. That was unnatural. Even her own agitated energy was not adding appreciably to the world around her.
The world's end was listless. No wind. No sail. No waves on the ocean. It was stagnant, and dangerous, and was making her paranoid. Just like the rest of the crew.
In every cardinal direction, nothing moved. She searched for birds. She searched the horizon for a mirage. The man in the crow's nest, able to see farther over the horizon, hadn't said anything in hours.
She considered praying. Or succumbing to the un-tempered sunlight and letting heat drive her mad. Even a vision would serve for something. The sun, though, hung in a hazy sky, nothing to look at on its own, neither powerfully blazing nor powerlessly covered by clouds.
They were all suspended. In between.
Cole, ever the loyal first mate, clambered onto the fore-deck, making as much noise as possible, huffing and puffing. He was a big man, twice her size, twice her age, and twice as charming. Usually. At the moment he looked as pissed off as she felt.
He tried a smile. "Fun afternoon, isn't it?"
She ignored him.
"Right. Should we try the oars?"
She hated making the crew use the oars. They were no galley slaves, they were sailors. With sails. She frowned up at the sagging cloths. Every sailor's nightmare. For centuries it had kept exploration of the sea limited to known routes. Few were daring enough to abandon the trade winds. But now there was the New World. There was something to bump into. If they got that far.
Cole nodded and said nothing, joining her surveillance of the horizon.
"How long have we been here?" she asked.
"It'll be dark soon," Cole said.
"There will be a moon. We can row in the dark if we have to."
Cole looked upward. Not a cloud in the sky. "It's a new moon."
"Ahoy!" Leon cried from the quarter deck. When Sameen turned toward him, he said, "At the horizon, due east. There's a boat."
The crow's nest waved signal flags.
Sameen turned again and squinted toward the horizon. She saw nothing but the hazy line.
She waited. Dusk gathered.
Cole folded his arms, coughed, and unfolded them again.
Another quarter hour and they could make out a rowboat. Fifteen minutes after that a single rower was revealed. When the ship was within 100 meters Sameen had them throw down the ladder. She made her way to the main deck, Cole following.
The rowboat barely made waves in the still water. It pulled alongside, and a figure with long brown hair and impractical leather clothing climbed up the ladder, carrying a satchel, with a knife and a flintlock pistol at the belt.
The figure leapt ably onto the main deck, and upon the head lifting revealed itself to be a woman with a broad smile. She took stock of them. She seemed un-distressed and undeterred by endless hours of rowing in molasses, with no current to help.
She spoke in Portuguese. "There are rumored to be five or six female pirates, only three of them actual captains, in the whole of the Atlantic. But here in Africa, there is only one." The woman stepped forward. "They call her the Queen."
Sameen offered a wry smile.
"But 'Captain Shaw' is enough to strike fear into the hearts of most men. Especially the British. But occasionally the Dutch. I came all this way to see you, Sameen Shaw," the woman said.
Sameen's smile faded. The woman was pale-skinned, but her Portuguese had a distinct Arab lilt. As if learned far away from home. Sameen wondered what her native tongue was.
"Came all what way?" she asked blithely.
"Oh, across the ocean. I was looking for you. And I found you." The woman clapped her hands.
Sameen rolled her eyes, but before she could utter something disparagingso much came to mind that she was loathe to choose--the woman lunged forward, surprisingly tall and strong, took Sameen in her grip, and kissed her.
Sameen grappled. She was finally able to shove the woman back, already breathing hard, shocked by the warm, unchapped, lips that had brushed against hers.
No one kissed her. No one bedded her. She spent all her days trying to keep the madness of men from seizing her and raping her. No one had challenged her like that in over five years.
Cole snickered behind her.
"Don't do that," she said.
The woman smiled, giving an apologetic shrug.
"Who are you?"
"They call me Nous."
Sameen wiped at her mouth, and then wiped her hand on her skirt, ignoring the amusement in Nous's eyes. She had heard the name. She had not heard great things attached to the name. She kept her tone even.
"And you came all this way in a rowboat."
"Oh, no, I was on a ship. The Madre de Deus."
Leon let out a little sound from his spot on the quarter deck. The Madre de Deus was an infamous, massive caravel, with nearly 600 crew.
Nous didn't seem to be volunteering any more information, so Sameen prompted her.
"But you came on a rowboat."
"Yes, well, the captain of the de Deus set me adrift."
Again a pause.
Sameen cleared her throat. "Why?"
"Oh, because they thought I was a witch."
With that, Nous slung her satchel over her shoulder and strode across the main deck to the captain's quarters.
They all watched her go.
"Well," Cole said, "Looks like we have a passenger."
The wind picked up. The sails billowed, and then filled out.
"A witch," Leon mouthed.
"This is not okay," Sameen said, and strode off toward her quarters.
"Orders?" Cole called after her.
"Whatever the fuck we were doing before."
She strode into her quarters, Cole's barking directions echoing behind her.
Nous was sitting at her desk, legs crossed, pen in her hand. She was attractive in all that leather. Her smile, though, was sinister.
"Are you going to kiss me again?" Sameen asked.
"Not until you ask me too."
"Good, then, never. You know I'll have to tie you up?"
"Can't have a witch aboard."
"I don't think you'll drown me, Sameen."
"Don't call me that."
"What do they call you? Queen? Really?" Nous tilted her head.
"They call me, Captain."
"Okay, Captain." Nous got gracefully to her feet. She took ahold of Sameen's coat collar. "Tie me up."
Sameen's cheeks flushed. "Not yet. You've heard of me? I've heard of you, too, Nous. Everyone on this ship has. The crazy zealot that claims she can read the future. Rumored to have spent time in Egypt. A lot of time. And now you're aboard my ship."
"Yes, the Crane. Inspired name, don't you think?"
"Just tell me, are you here as some sort of divine intervention?" Sameen brushed Nous's hand away.
That didn't stop Nous from towering over her, or from gazing intently into her eyes. "Do you believe in divine intervention, Captain Sameen?"
"Not what I would have expected from a Moslem."
"I'm not a Moslem. I'm a Captain with the East India Company."
"British Moslem, then. Intriguing. No prayers five times a day?"
"I really don't feel like explaining it to you." Sameen stuck her head out her door. "Leon, get Diego. Tell him to bring chains."
"Wait," Nous said.
Sameen turned back.
"I'm here with a mission," Nous said. "An actual, government-sanctioned mission."
"What is it?"
"I can't tell you. Yet."
"We're going to St. Helena, right? I can tell you in St. Helena."
Sameen rolled her eyes.
Diego appeared, dragging heavy chains with manacles on one end.
Nous stuck out her wrists, allowing herself to be chained.
"Lash her to the mast, Captain?"
"No, put her in sickbay."
Diego nodded. He gestured, and Nous politely strode onto the deck. Over her shoulder, she called, "I have many things to tell you."
"Great." Sameen glanced at Diego. "You don't believe she's a witch, Diego? That she's not a harbinger of our doom?"
Diego looked reverent. "She brought the winds."
"Oh, for God's sake."
The door closed, and Sameen dutifully recorded the day's events in her log. She studied her pen, thoughtful, thinking of how Nous had held it.
It had probably been a mistake not to search Nous, to strip her, to see what she carried and why. Sameen could not help but see it as a violation. She couldn't bring herself to give the order. If something happened to Nous outside of Sameen's purview, well
But her crew was too good for that. Too well-trained, too well-fed. There would be whores enough in St. Helena, and cargo to unload, and mail to read. The tiny island in the middle of nowhere was always a joy to see.
Sameen undressed and washed with the salt water in her basin, and then dressed again and stretched out on her bed. She thought only of the way the demon Nous's lips had felt on hers.
Tomorrow, she would forget all about it. Her work was too important for distraction. She'd lived most of her life without the merest temptations and she was bound to continue.
Tonight, though, she let herself be bewitched.
"Well, this is sickbay," Diego said, chaining Nous to the wall of a small, cramped room with two cots and a table and four cabinets presumably filled with medicines and herbs.
Nous nodded. She settled herself against the wall.
"Do you want the doctor?"
"No, thank you. I'm fine." Nous offered him a smile.
"You sure? Otherwise, it'll be pretty quiet in here. I mean, no one will bother you. Captain wouldn't allow it."
"Is this how you treat all your female guests?"
Diego blushed. "You're the first. I guess we want to get it right."
"I'll be fine, Diego."
He blushed even deeper at the sound of his own name.
It always worked.
"Do you, uh, want a Bible?"
She patted her satchel. "Got one."
He nodded. "Good, um, enjoy your night." He seemed to stumble around a bit, and then lit a lantern for her, too far away for her to reach, and then locked her away.
Nous smiled. She was patient. Her patience had helped her persevere through times when more urgent men had gotten themselves killed, sacrificed on altars trying to make people understand.
People understood in their own time.
She stretched out her legs and opened her satchel, and pulled out a handmade book, pages tied with strings.
"See, Diego? I brought my own."
She read in Greek,
" they will say of him that he is unbegotten, though he has been begotten, that he does not eat, even though he eats, that he does not drink, even though he drinks, that he is uncircumcised, though he has been circumcised, that he is unfleshly, though he has come in the flesh, that he did not come to suffering, he came to suffering, that he did not rise from the dead, he arose from the dead "
She read until the lantern went out, and cast her into darkness.
Leon brought breakfast into Sameen's quarters. Eggs and salted ham and fresh baked bread and moldy cheese.
"Eggs didn't break this morning?"
"Sea is still perfect, Captain."
"Don't tell me you're buying this witch thing, too."
Leon shook his head. "No ma'am. Just another day. Would you like the prisoner to join you for breakfast?" He looked hopeful.
Sameen took a bite of her eggs. "Not really."
Leon turned toward the door.
Smaeen sighed. "But I suppose I should. Make her this. How far are we from St. Helena?"
"Another day, at least. Erik did the charting last night."
"By starlight? Fuck."
"Okay. Bring up the wit--Nous."
"What a stupid name," Sameen muttered, and ate her eggs.
Fifteen minutes later Nous was pushed into the chair opposite Sameen. Leon put a plate in front of her.
"I don't eat meat," Nous said.
Sameen rolled her eyes and took the ham. "Do you eat eggs?"
"Today I will. Thank you."
"You're polite for a crazy person."
Nous smiled broadly. "Thank you."
"Do you drink wine?"
"At breakfast? I suppose. You do?" Nous looked surprised.
"Whatever you're thinking, I have wine at breakfast."
"I understand," Nous said patiently.
"You can't have breakfast with me if you're going to annoy me."
Sameen ate the ham.
Nous watched her with a pained look.
"So, what's the mission?"
Nous handed her a piece of paper.
Shaw studied it. "It's in code."
"Can you translate the code?"
"If I must."
Nous nodded. "You must."
"Is this a test?"
Nous said nothing. She picked apart some cheese, seemingly intent.
Sameen pushed aside her plate, got a heavy book from her bookstand, and dropped it on the table. She studied the date, written plainly, on the paper, and flipped through her book. Nous said nothing while she studied and transcribed.
"It just says, 'Nous has the mission. Signed Harbow.'"
"Do you know Harbow?"
"Vaguely. He's a--well. He's in government."
Nous nodded. "Covertly." She handed over another paper, this one imprinted with was. "His seal."
"Okay," Sameen said.
"Just like that?"
"No, not just like that. This could mean nothing."
"It could mean everything."
Sameen sighed. "Is it cargo related?"
Nous considered. "Sort of. Not really."
"Is it slave-related?"
"Yes. That's it."
Sameen frowned. "That's not something we usually get involved with."
A knock came at the door.
"Come in," Sameen called.
Cole entered, along with their navigator, Erik. "Time for the morning meeting?" Cole asked, smiling.
Sameen glanced at Nous. "Back in the hole you go."
"Don't you think I should be at this meeting?" Nous asked.
"No. No I don't. Why?" Sameen asked.
"I could brief them on my mission."
"They won't care about your mission, Nous."
Nous squinted and pushed back her plate.
Erik glanced between Cole and Sameen.
"Call Diego," Sameen said.
"No, wait," Nous said. "I know your mission. You attack messenger ships, usually fast cutters and clippers. From other governments, of course. Not your own. Particularly the Dutch. Particularly in and out of St. Helena."
Sameen pursed her lips. "And?"
"The messages you intercept are usually in code, right?"
"What's that to us?"
"Don't you want to crack the code?"
Cole shook his head. "Why should we care, demonio?"
"Demon, now. My reputation is plunging. Because those messages don't say what you think they say."
"We don't know what they say in the first place," Sameen said. "We just pass them along. We get paid in return."
"That's not the point," Nous said.
"Getting paid is not the point?"
"Being experts in catching fast, small ships is the point? Instead of slow, lumbering ones?"
"Because we trick them."
"Because you're covert." Nous said.
Erik shifted his weight, clutching his maps.
"Diego," Sameen said.
"I already know you're going to St. Helena," Nous tried.
"Yes, everyone knows. Wonderful."
Cole went out and came back with Diego. Nous got up without issue.
"You've got to learn to trust me, Sameen," Nous said.
Sameen laughed. "Never. Not on your life."
"What about yours?"
Sameen shook her head.
Diego led Nous out.
Cole sat down in the now-empty chair. "I don't trust her either, Captain."
"Why is that?" Sameen asked.
Sameen considered revealing Nous's non-Portuguese origin. But then she considered that she didn't know Nous's actual origin. "Well. We are not, so let's get started."
The Crane pulled into port. Sameen and Cole went to the quartermaster's to discuss cargo and orders. The rest of the crew got shore leave on the tiny strip of land that had barely any women or goats. They made do, fucking the women and eating the goats, around a big bonfire where they liberally spent their meager coin.
An India ship had also come into port, and goods were traded. Spices and ivory in meager handfuls, though Sameen bought a full tiger pelt for her floor. Gazing upon the rich orange color, she remembered Nous, and sent for her. Maybe the tiger meant something. Something more than a year's wages.
But Nous wasn't in sick bay.
Diego was chained in her place.
"Sorry, Captain," he said.
"I don't know. On shore?"
Tempted to leave him manacled, Sameen unbuckled him so he could lead the search. "We just found her. I don't want to lose her. Search the ship, and then search the shore."
Diego shook his head. "It's not a big island. She'll come back."
"What makes you think that?"
Sameen rolled her eyes. "Begin the search."
The search was fruitless.
Darkness fell, and the crew stopped working, and most stayed on shore, so Sameen strung her hammock by the main mast and gazed at the wakening stars.
She was contemplating the Phoenix when fingers brushed her hair.
"What's your favorite star?" Nous asked.
Sameen started, but willed herself not to react in anger. "I like them all."
"I like Pegasus. So strident, you know?"
Sameen blinked upon realization that they were speaking English.
"You do speak English."
"Of course. Your Portuguese accent is terrible."
"Oh, dear. And I've been speaking it for such a long time. And you're British. Here I thought you hated the British."
"I do. How long have you been speaking Portuguese?" Sameen asked.
"Years." Nous contemplated. "At least four years."
"Why'd you come back?"
"I wasn't trying to escape, Sameen. I came to find you, remember?"
"Oh, yes, I remember. I don't remember why."
"I told you. I would tell you. But first do you want me to hear your confession?"
"Of your sins."
"Moslems atone, they don't confess."
"Since we've established you're not a Moslem, humor me."
"Why start now?" Sameen closed her eyes.
Nous's hand on her forehead was light and cool. Sameen missed the stars, so she opened her eyes again, finding Gemini glowing above her.
Nous said, "For numerous are the sins by which we daily offend God, night and day, in thought, in word and deed, wittingly and unwittingly, and especially by the desires the evil spirits bring to us in the flesh which clothes us "
"I don't like where this is going," Sameen muttered.
"Whereas we are taught by God's Holy Word as well as by the Holy Apostles and the preaching of our spiritual brothers to reject all fleshly desire and all uncleanness and to do the will of God by doing good we, unworthy servants that we are, not only do not do the will of God as we should, but more often give way to desires of the flesh and the cares of the world, to such an extent that we wound our spirits "
"All right, all right, enough already." Sameen struggled to sit up in the hammock, and ended up springing out of it, to stand next to Nous.
"I don't think you've received God's pardon," Nous said, fretfully.
"No? Look, I adhere to the Christian Nations as I should, and my crew carries the cross upon its backs, but that is What is that? That is not from the Bible, is it?"
Nous laughed lightly.
Sameen studied her. "You're not Christian."
"No. No, of course not. Such a misguided religion. Jesus Christ came to earth to unlock the secrets of the universe, yes. But not to everyone. Not to every peasant and gentile. It's not what they say. Paul. Paul was a fool. Sameen, it's what they don't say."
Sameen stared at her. "What who doesn'tdon't" She stopped.
"Jesus spoke just to the chosen few. Those who know the secrets."
"Yes, Sameen. I am one of the receivers of His Word."
"Porco Dio," Sameen said.
"Please, Sameen. We've dropped the Portuguese front. Italian won't do any better. Nor will disparaging my faith."
"Your faith. Certainly you're all on your own there. Why are you here?"
Nous cupped Sameen's shoulder. "I came to find you. Just in time."
"I've been studying and seeking for a long time, but I didn't expect to like you this much." Nous laughed. "So sarcastic, so distastefully brooding, and yet totally without bias. You're the perfect partner."
Nous ran her hand down Sameen's arm. "For crime. That's the most natural way I can put it."
"I'm already pretty good at crime. Though I imagine you are, too."
Nous smiled. "Of course."
"What are we going to steal, O Holy One?"
"Don't mock me, Sameen. And what's the most important thing to all of Europe right now? Not just your Brits or my Egyptians or the Dutch swarming all over the waters."
Sameen closed her eyes. "Maps."
"Exactly. We're going after some maps."
"The best kind."
"And whose government do you work for again?"
"The same government you work for. The one you haven't told your crew about. I told you, Sameen. We're partners."
Sameen pinched the bridge of her nose. "I have a feeling I'm not going to get out of this alive."
"Yes. Yes, you are. I promise."
Nous held her gaze intently, and Sameen didn't know what to make of it, didn't know how to tear herself away from those wide eyes that were searching hers. She finally shrugged, not looking away. "Okay. We'll both get out of this alive."
Nous's smile broadened. "Thank you, Sameen."
"Don't thank me yet. Now go, get some sleep."
"Not in sick bay, please."
Sameen hopped back in her hammock, laid back, and closed her eyes. She knew exactly where Nous wanted to sleep, but didn't know how to assent to it, and didn't want to deny it.
"Go," she said.
The brush of lips against her hair was faint. Then Nous was gone.
Sameen ignored the stars, but asked Nous's porco dio, the Pig God she'd Christened Him, "Did you send me an angel or a devil?"
"Just a woman," responded the universe. "That's all."
Leon's alert from the crow's nest was almost a relief to Sameen as she clambered up onto the quarter deck to survey the horizon. A galleon, nearly five times their size, was heading toward them at an angle, probably headed back to St. Helena's.
They'd set sail from St. Helena three days ago. After three days of breakfasts with Nous, who alternated between flirting, spouting Gnostic texts, and warning her about the occult and state secrets, and having to sleep in her hammock while Nous took her bed, and was tormented by nightmares all night that kept them both awake, Sameen was ready to do anything that would be considered action.
Nous had other ideas, though. She'd boarded the quarter deck and seized Sameen's arm.
"You're not going after that," Nous said.
"Of course I am."
"That's not our mission."
"That's my job, Nous. That's what I do. It's sailing under a Spanish flag, it's probably full of missives, maps--"
"And slaves," Nous said. "What are you going to do with those?"
"Nothing." Sameen yanked her arm away.
"You should do something."
"That's not my job."
Nous let out a frustrated sigh. "You're going to get hurt."
"I'll be fine."
"I told you, I need you alive." Nous was growling.
"Nous, your Pig God will watch over us."
"You know what? Fuck you." Nous stalked off to the main deck.
Sameen folded her arms and gazed at the sky. "Jendeh."
"I heard that," Nous called.
Leon took Sameen's side. "That is a really big ship. Should we arm the canons?"
"No. You know what to do."
"Swords all around, then."
"We'll get through this without any violence."
"Just like the last time "Leon said bitterly.
Sameen let it go. Leon's lover Jaques had been killed in that raid, the only fatality against a cutter, but it had netted them nothing. A failed mission that sank morale so low she'd had to take on a lot of new crew at Cape Verde.
Leon himself hadn't blamed her, but it had hurt her reputation as both a privateer and a captain. She hadn't quite recovered. The Queen was more myth than reality.
"Here's our chance," she said to Leon.
The galleon veered away from them, but the Crane was fast and the winds were on their side. They pulled into signaling distance, canons pointed but not loaded, and after two hours of driving the ship, the Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, off course, and negotiating, the Concepción slowed and allowed the Crane alongside. The galleon was risking a small bribe, rather than canon exchange. The damage usually wasn't worth it.
The Spanish ship's captain stood on the maindeck. "I am Jose Marti. I do not have anything you want, Queen." He spat.
"I will allow you to keep all the gold in your hold. But we are going to search the rest of your ship."
"500 people against, what, 25?" Jose showed contempt.
"No, just you and me." Sameen took a running start, and leapt the distance between her ship and his, landing on the deck, sword drawn.
Jose drew his, as did his crew, circling her.
Nous had reappeared on the main deck, and gasped and grabbed Cole's hand.
"What is she doing?" Nous asked.
"What she does," Cole replied.
"We signaled," Sameen said. "If allowed to board, we would not take anything, not disturb anything. Just search."
"Who made you the customs house?" Jose took a swipe at her with his sword.
She deftly ducked it, and then took a swing at him. He defended with a parry, metal clanging against metal.
"How about we kill all of you and take your ship?" Jose asked.
"You know why." Sameen lowered her sword, her eyes wary. "Because our canons are pressed right up your ass. We fire, you lose your galleon, all your cargo, all your wealth, and all your life."
"We'll bring you down with us."
"Sure. Mutually assured destruction is a beautiful thing, isn't it? But do you really want to kill us so much you're willing to lose everything?"
"Generally that's how I feel about England." Jose spat again.
Nous's grip on Cole tightened so hard he yelped.
"We have the advantage. We have less to lose," Sameen said.
Jose snarled and lunged at her with the sword. Sameen dodged him and thrust at his back, slicing his coat and leaving a gash in his side.
Spanish crew members fired upon Sameen with bows and arrows. Three hit her. She screamed and headed toward the plank Cole had laid to join their ships.
More arrows flew, and flintlocks went off across the water. Both crews were firing. Sameen caught a fourth arrow in her thigh.
Nous leapt onto the gangplank. "Stop!"
The fighting subsided, the Crane's crew first, then the Concepción's, as they turned to look at Nous.
Jose was dead, lying on the deck, a ball bearing in his eye.
Nous helped Sameen onto the gangplank and walked her backwards, cradling her, not letting go when they reached the Crane and Sameen sank onto her knees.
Everything was still.
Cole knelt next to Nous. "They're awaiting your orders."
"Do whatever the hell it was you were going to do," Nous said. "It doesn't matter now."
Cole nodded and he and Diego leapt onto the gangplank. Cole bellowed, "Who's in charge of the Concepción?"
A man, unarmed, stepped forward to greet him.
Nous cupped Sameen's cheek, and helped her lay back on the deck. "Hold still. Don't move. What were you thinking?"
"Usually that goes better," Sameen said.
"Always funny, even at a time like this."
The doc arrived, shooing Nous away. So Nous boarded the Concepción with Cole, and they began searching, at sword point.
And found nothing.
"It was pointless, Sameen. No papers, no orders, no codes. Maps worse than what we wipe our ass with. Nothing. 120 slaves. Not even coin---they expect to get paid in the Americas. A worthless Spanish galleon. That's why they were so willing. They barely have any foodWe should have hit them after St. Helena."
Sameen was lying in her own bed in her quarters, puncture wounds cleaned and bandaged, including a hole all the way through her thigh that she tried to resist poking. The one in her shoulder hurt the most.
"Could you just--" Sameen tried weakly.
"That is not the mission!"
Sameen squinted, trying to focus on Nous's face, finding rage to the point of tears, swollen cheeks, and fury. Then their gaze met and Nous's features softened, but not her furious eyes--those hardened into diamonds.
"Fine, fine, we'll do it your way next time. Just stop blathering." Sameen raised a hand. That was a mistake. She winced and let it fall.
Nous relaxed. "Thank you."
"Can I get you anything? Water? Wine? How about some wine. We're taking all the small arms from the Concepcion, just to amuse ourselves. It seemed a very 'Sameen Shaw' thing to do."
"Just tell me Why did you choose me for your mission?"
"I didn't choose you. But I'm here to help you."
"I thought I was helping you."
"Sameen. It only works if it goes both ways."
Nous said, "If the unbelievers seek your help, then help them, and escort them to safety."
"I'm not done. 'So long as they are true to you, be true to them.'"
"You're going to tell me that's from the Qu'ran aren't you? A text my father read to me as a child? At bedtime, in secret? In a language I never even spoke? I don't remember a word. Haven't you figured that out by now?"
"Sameen, Sameen. What can I get you?"
"Nothing. No wine. Just go away."
"I'm going. But I'm good at unlocking secrets. Even the ones hidden in our own mind."
Nous went away, and only returned after dusk. By then it was comfortably quiet and black and Sameen dozed in a haze of pain and comfort.
"Brought you something," Nous said, breaking her reverie. "Drink."
Sameen drank from the tea cup, while lying down, spilling some on her chest. The taste was bitter. She spat. "You can't give me this, it's--"
"For the crew, I know. You want to be strong. But please, just this one night? One night of laudanum?"
Her body was already numbing, and her fingers lifted the cup back to her mouth of their own accord.
"Good," Nous said, stroking her hair.
"Thank you," Sameen managed.
"No need to thank me, I didn't save you. Not this time. It didn't occur to me that you would be so--"
"Reckless?" Sameen let out a weak laugh.
Their eyes met again, in the dark, and Sameen smiled.
"I didn't know your face could do that." Nous touched Sameen's lips.
"Yes, well, you drugged me."
"I did." She set the tea cup down on the desk and hopped into the hammock. "Mine, tonight."
"You don't have to."
"Oh, no? Should I sleep in sick bay? Or with the men?" She swang. "This is fun."
Sameen groaned and closed her eyes.
It didn't shut out Nous's babble.
For a week, Sameen healed, hobbling on deck with a cane at first, and eventually was able to use that to beat Cole at cane-to-cane contact. The crew kept to light drills and rotation. The deck smelled fishy. The fires burned all night, and they were surrounded by song, and wine, and stars.
Sameen found it unfathomable, and yet, everyone liked Nous. She regaled them with stories of Eygpt and China and other places Sameen was sure she'd never been, but they riveted the crew, folk-tale or not.
Nous never preached to the crew about her secret knowledge, or her secret mission.
That she saved only for Sameen's ears. Late at night, as Sameen swayed in her hammock, with the breeze from the portal blowing across her, and her aches and pains lessening into scabs and bruises, Nous talked.
"Some are afraid lest they rise naked. Because of this they wish to rise in the flesh, and they do not know that it is those who wear the flesh who are naked. It is those who unclothe themselves who are not naked "
"Nous. My God, please stop for just one moment."
Nous looked up from her prayer book, her visage lit by candlelight at the desk. She looked concerned.
"Can I take a turn?"
"Don't you want the secret knowledge?"
Sameen covered her face and groaned.
"Fine. What do you want to read?"
Nous got up. "I know your titles by heart. You want to read The Prince? The Book of Prophecies? I'm so impressed you have that, by the way. But I am not reading any nautical journals to you. And Marco Polo will just have to wait."
"Pull them back."
Nous jerked at the books. Behind them she found a smaller book, pocket-sized, bound in leather rather than the cloth of the others.
"The New Testament? Really?" Nous turned to grin at her.
Sameen pursed her lips. "I told you "
"Sameen Shaw, you devil. You're a believer."
"Fuck, Nous. Not so loud."
"Then what is this book I have in my hand?"
"Look, pirate, queen, whatever you think I am, I am a subject of the British Royal Navy."
"And thus, a Christian."
"At least outwardly."
"Right. And a man?"
"Well, no one's asked if Sameen is a boy's name or a girl's name."
"Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Farsi would--"
Nous pursed her lips at Sameen's stern look, and continued on a different track. "You've never considered joining the Barbarys?"
"I'm learning so much, Sameen." Patience was indeed rewarding, once again.
"And here I thought you already knew everything."
"Just mostly everything." Nous was grinning ear-to-ear as she sat on the bed with the little book.
"My favorite is--"
"Shussh, Sameen. I'm a code-breaker. I can figure this out."
"I can figure you out."
"Fine, go ahead." Sameen covered her eyes again.
Nous rifled through pages, noting doggearedness, and pencil marks, and thinning paper, and running ink. She wanted to get to the core of Sameen's belief system. It would help. The one sentence that would unlock her secrets.
"Reveal yourself to me," Nous whispered.
And then louder, she read, "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.' My my, Sameen."
"Porco Dio, Strega Cazzo." Sameen opened one eye.
"My little British-Persian apostle." Nous looked happy. She glowed in the candlelight.
Sameen closed her eye. "Goodnight, Nous."
Shuffling, and then footsteps, and then a kiss against her temple. Then darkness past her eyelids. The candle had been blown out.
They had gone ten days without a ship sighting. Nous had taken to climbing the crow's nest.
"Are we off course?" Sameen asked Erik, right on the main deck. No use hiding behind her doors and starting a conspiracy.
"No, we are right where we should be." Erik cast a glance at Nous, who gave him a thumbs up.
"Don't look at her."
Erik ducked his head back toward his maps.
"We have to decide," Cole said. "Are we going to keep patrolling St. Helena, which is our mandate for the next six months? Or are we going to go elsewhere?"
He, too, glanced up at Nous. She pointed west.
"Stop it," Sameen said.
"How much food do we have?" Sameen asked.
"We can resupply in Brazil " Cole started.
"Yeah, because the Portuguese just love us."
"Jesuits!" Nous shouted, waving her arm toward the west.
"Fine. Do whatever Nous wants. But if this causes a mutiny in six months, they're eating you first, Cole."
"Yes ma'am. I shall cover myself in lard."
Erik shrank back. "Not me, my captain."
Sameen strode toward the poop deck. "Let's start some evasive drills while the wind is high. We'll head west tonight."
The turn to the west brought trouble. A storm blew up, turning the sky red and grey. Hail dropped, shredding their sails, leaving the ship floundering, the deck pockmarked, the crew bruised. Ropes strained. Wind blew.
A crewman died putting up the sails, and as they mourned him they stayed in the hold, even Nous and Sameen, warmed by the coal fire, but too sick to eat. The crew's quarters were covered in vomit, and shit, and rats.
But no one urged the captain to turn back. The tribulation had come too quickly, they all saw it as a test. They all mourned Matthew's death. Their first casualty of the new mission. Their first martyr and angel. They begged Nous to ease their pain.
Nous prayed with them, for the first time, hands all clasped, head bowed.
"They asked the soul, 'whence do you come slayer of men, or where are you going, conqueror of space?' The soul answered and said, 'What binds me has been slain, and what turns me about has been overcome, and my desire has been ended, and ignorance has died '"
"I don't get it," Cole whispered to Sameen.
"Don't look at me. She might as well be speaking Greek."
" of the season, of the aeon, in silence," Nous finished, casting a meaningful glance at Sameen.
"What the hell are you talking about?" asked Sameen.
Nous stuck out her tongue.
"Okay, now I begin to have my doubts," Cole said.
"This was your idea, First-to-be-Eaten."
"That was Matthew. What do we tell his mother?"
Sameen rolled her shoulders. "That he died for something."
"Something that matters?"
"We'll see. I'm kind of getting used to her, though."
Cole nodded. "Life was pretty dull before."
"Even as a pirate?"
"And what is it now?" Sameen asked.
The storm passed into gentle, pelting rain. The crew opened the hatches and the portals, letting in fresh air, and took to their mops to rid their living space of their secretions and sins. The water was still rough, but in a predictable manner did the ship rock up and down, sometimes at a sliding grade. They laughed together, and sang not of God but of women.
Above deck, men checked to see that the masts were still sturdy, that the cloth could be repaired in the coming sunlight, that nothing had come unlashed or fallen overboard.
Sameen and Nous ran back to the captain's chambers. Sameen lit coals to warm up the room, and Nous opened the portal.
"Smell that," Nous said, inhaling.
Clean, wet air came through.
Sameen pushed past her to look outside. "No stars, though."
"Just clouds," Nous said.
"I like stars," Sameen said.
Nous patted her on the back, and then went to the center of the room and began stripping off her clothes.
"Nous, what are you doing?"
"I'm soaked through. Aren't you?"
"Modest, Sameen? We've been living here for over two weeks."
"Yeah, but--" In clothes.
Underclothes and bedclothes and overcoats and cloaks and belts and boots.
"It's not natural," Sameen said.
"That Garden of Eden thing? Really? It's the most natural thing in the world."
Still, Sameen's face burned red, as she watched, and did nothing until Nous stood before her, nude, and blackly lit by the burning coals.
Sameen lit her lantern and secured to its perch. The storm still rocked it to and fro, leaving Nous in swirling orange light and dark shadow. She was tall and powerful, with long limbs that showed strength, and curves of hip and breast that Sameen recognized, both familiar and foreign.
She swallowed. She stared openly. Nous let her, neither ferociously manic or enraged, just patient.
"I'm afraid I don't know what to do," Sameen said, a bit breathlessly, and cursed herself for it.
"The big bad Queen, look at her now," Nous said, a glint in her eye--or maybe it was the lantern-light--and a smile touched her lips.
"I suppose I deserve that," Sameen said.
"And so much more," Nous said.
She began with the big buttons of Sameen's coat. The wool was thoroughly saturated, the buttons ivory and slippery, and Nous struggled.
"Salt water is overrated," she said.
"Don't let Neptune hear you."
"If Neptune ever listened My life would be a whole different story."
Nous yanked open her coat, and peeled her out of it, leaving Sameen feeling exposed, despite two more layers of clothing.
"You're cold, I know. I'm working on that."
Sameen didn't quite know how to respond, so she didn't, falling under the spell of Nous's patient ministrations.
She lost her belt and her knife, which Nous commented on, and then, pushed onto the bed, her boots, her stockings, until she was left with in chemise and drawers, white cotton, unfashionably clingy.
"Why, Sameen, you look like a woman."
Sameen smiled wryly. "What were you expecting?"
"I'm expecting a lot," Nous said.
Sameen stood back up, and strode toward her.
"I'm expecting this to change my life."
Sameen reached up for Nous's shoulders. "It's just--"
Nous's mouth crashed down on hers, robbing her of heresy, offering a universe of heat and desire instead. Sameen gripped Nous, desperate to stay on her feet, and succumbed to kisses she'd never had, lips she had never tasted.
"Nous," she breathed.
Nous stumbled back, freeing herself. She stared at Sameen with wide eyes.
"You are human, after all," Sameen said. She took a step back, into the scant light.
Nous wiped at her mouth. "I don't know what you mean."
"You're just as afraid as I am."
Nous shook her head.
Sameen pulled off her chemise, and kicked off her drawers, and let Nous look at her. A sight no one had seen since Sameen's childhood. She wasn't nervous at all. Her body yearned for the touch of Nous's gaze.
"I've never--" Nous started. Then frowned.
"Me either." Sameen smirked.
"Not with men?"
"Okay, once. Just to see what it was like. It was brutish. Sweaty. I could take or leave it. So I guess, I left it. Never really thought about it much."
"I think about it all the time," Nous said, studying her but not quite looking at her.
Sameen stepped forward again. "Aren't you above all that?"
"It's one of the secrets," Nous said, meeting Sameen halfway and taking her in her arms, skin to skin, body to body. Sameen rested against Nous's chest.
"I can hear your heartbeat," she said.
"Is it pounding?" Nous asked.
"Like canon fire."
Sameen cupped the back of Nous's head and brought her down for a kiss. Gentler, this time. A meeting of two souls. Saying hello. Saying goodbye. Sameen's lips parted and Nous entered, gingerly, exploring a new world.
Their breasts brushed. Their thighs. Sameen ran her hands down Sameen's back, confident in the lingering kiss.
But Nous broke part. "Oh. I should show you."
She let go and turned around, and filling the whole of her back was a tattoo.
It was a circle, and contained within it were squares and triangles, interlocking, overlaying, with two globes at the top and another hanging off the bottom.
"It's a pleroma," Nous said, gasping when fingers touched her and began tracing the symbols. "It means fullness. Everything."
"I've heard the word," Sameen said. "But I've never seen it."
Nous held still as her whole world was explored, prodded. She trembled more when Sameen kissed her shoulder, and then the back of her neck.
"Sameen," she said.
"Is this what you expected? When you came on board?"
Sameen encircled Nous's waist, tucking the whole of her against Nous's back.
Nous closed her eyes, but said, "I thought you'd have killed me long before this."
"I still might," Sameen said.
Nous laughed. "No, you won't."
"Tonight, I'll try." Sameen spun Nous around.
Their noses touched before their lips, and their hands clasped together.
"It's too bad this ship is full of people," Nous whispered against her ear, between kisses. "I'd love to do this on deck, naked in the rain."
"Don't tempt me," Sameen said.
"Next stormy night?"
"If we're on shore somewhere."
Sameen pulled Nous backward to the small bed, unsurprised that Nous twisted, postioning herself on top. Nous sat up and peered down as if Sameen were here prey.
Sameen waited, and then realized Nous wasn't going to say anything. Sameen growled.
Nous took Sameen's hands in hers, pushed them over Sameen's head, pinned them to the pillow. Then she kissed Sameen, opening her mouth, consuming with heat and strength that Sameen welcomed to her bed, enough not to struggle until Nous released one wrist in order to stroke down Sameen's body, between her thighs.
Sameen tore from the kiss. "Not--Don't."
Nous hesitated, and then resumed her position, peering down curiously. She held Sameen's gaze and still did not speak.
"I don't know," Sameen said. "Just don't."
Nous nodded and began her descent again, this time with her lips. She barely brushed Sameen's nipples, and was firmer on Sameen's abdomen.
Finally she spoke. "Is this okay?"
Nous sank down between parted thighs, offering her lips only to skin, moving in teasing circles until Sameen began to writhe. Then she found with her tongue the place she'd only found on herself, and was rewarded with exquisite tastes and tightening of muscles.
"Yes," Sameen breathed.
Nous took a few more experimental licks before moving in earnest, determined to free more moans from Sameen's throat.
Sameen gripped her hair, hurting, but Nous continued. This is what she had come for, this and the fresh wind across her back, and treasures and endless horizons.
Sameen's body stilled, taut as a bow string, and then released, energy flooding through them, leaving Sameen gasping and covering her face.
Nous kissed her way up Sameen's body and then settled beside her.
"So. One with a man, one with a woman."
"It won't be once with a woman."
Sameen turned and captured Nous's mouth with her own. She grappled and groped and groaned with Nous, enjoying the exertion. Their wrestling kisses end with Sameen on top, lying like an anchor, heavy, iron. Nous was pleased.
Panting, Sameen dove for another kiss.
Nous tilted her head enough to speak. "Sameen."
"That thing I couldn't do to you? I want you to do it to me."
"I can do that."
Sameen got to work.
They sailed for a month, through stormy seas and calm seas, over waves sometimes thirty feet tall, down again into white foam, through green algae, with silver dolphins chasing them. The captain led drills during the day, and kept the old ship clean. At night she and Nous retreated to the captain's quarters, echoing grunts and sighs and squeaking furniture onto the deck.
Cole watched this time pass with amusement and anticipation, and was unsurprised the day the captain stormed out onto the main deck after Nous, who scrambled toward the poop deck. The sea had been choppy and relentless for days, and the crew could not hold any food for long. But the rains had not yet come to clean away the slime and smell of unwashed bodies. Ill-tempers abounded, and the captain had a finally crafted one.
"You control the weather, don't you? Fix this!" Sameen shouted. She stood by the main mast, chest heaving, hands gripping her belt.
"I don't control the fucking weather," Nous said. "But maybe if you'd calm down and listen"
"Listen to what? More of your babble?" Sameen stalked forward.
Nous had turned around on the staircase to the upper deck, holding onto the edge. She frowned at Sameen. Her look of disappointment could confound lesser men.
"Religious zealot!" Sameen shouted.
"Godless heathen," Nous said.
Nous put her hand on her sword hilt but it was Sameen who drew first, and lunged, sword raised like an ax.
Nous parried, her blade in her hand. Sameen pinned her against the stairs, but Nous slipped underneath, and whirled on the main deck to face her.
Sameen lunged again. Swords clashed. Nous swung around and thrust, only to have her blade pinned again by Sameen's.
Sameen growled and stepped back, readying herself for another charge.
Nous swiped at her.
Men, concerned, moved toward them. Cole stopped them with a raised hand. He was sure they were using real blades and were truly trying to kill each other, but selfishly he wanted to see if Nous could fight.
She could. She backed Sameen up to the mast, and holding her sword off with the strength of one hand, she kneed Sameen in the gut.
Sameen grunted and tumbled forward, but managed to grab Nous by the throat. They fell together, swords dropping to the deck, and wrestled.
Punches landed harmlessly on arms and chests. Nous tried to bite Sameen but ended up with a mouthful of hair. Sameen flipped Nous over her head and scrambled to stand up again, but Nous swept her legs and Sameen fell again.
They were both panting, circling, getting splinters from the deck.
Cole stepped forward. "Ladies."
Sameen gave him a dour look.
Nous kept her gaze on Sameen.
"There's a ship." He offered his arm to Sameen, who pulled herself up. She squinted at the horizon.
"It's just cresting now, Captain," Leon called from the crow's next, unperturbed by the sickening rocking of the ship or the life-and-death fight below.
Cole offered his arm to Nous. She accepted it, concerned look on her face, and mostly leapt to her feet. She gathered her sword, sheathed it, and then picked up Sameen's.
Sameen glanced at her from the railing, and accepted the proffered sword. "Thanks."
"Thank you," Nous said, smiling. "I was wondering what you could do."
"I can hold my own."
Nous nodded. "Good. We'll need it."
Sameen rolled her eyes. "Were you even listening?"
Nous merely pursed her lips and turned her gaze toward the approaching ship.
"Where did you learn to fight?" Sameen asked.
"It's a long story. You? Let me guess. Your daddy's knee."
"Exactly. He saw me fighting sticks with the other boys, and he wanted me to protect myself. I actually think he wanted me to win. He said everyone carries their sword, but few have the discipline to use it, so swordplay would put me at an immediate advantage. Even with people bigger than me."
"He was smart," Nous said.
"I hated it. I hated training every day. My arms ached, my back hurt, I frequently got cut. But here I am."
"And you can read and write too? You are the whole package," Nous said.
"Make fun, Nous, but I'm exactly where I want to be. Are you?"
Nous turned her attention back to the sea. "I'm getting there."
They were quiet as the ship got closer.
Leon called, "It's a British ship. Looks like the Roo."
Sameen straightened. "Prepare for drills."
"Aren't they your allies?" Nous said, in a somewhat toxic tone.
"That's why we drill. Good practice for both sides. And it's been a month. If they don't get some action for their itch they'll tear the ship apart for real."
Canons were loaded into gun ports.
Muskets and bows were loaded and aimed.
Leon flagged the ship, and reported, "They've agreed to war game terms."
"You should get inside," Sameen said.
"Why? War games sound fun to me," Nous said.
"Because I don't want anyone to see you."
Nous frowned, but headed toward the captain's quarters.
"Going to tie me up in sick bay again?" Nous asked, offering her wrists with a sinister smile.
Sameen shrugged and leaned against the railing. "Don't tempt me."
Cole put his hand on Nous's shoulder. "Captain'll be having the other Captain over for drinks. She doesn't want them to find out there's women aboard."
"Women? Her, either?"
"She has her ways."
"And I have mine," Nous said, stalking off toward the hold.
Sameen leapt lightly up to the quarter deck. "Widdershins, boys."
Hersh tipped his glass to Sameen. "To good fortune."
"Hear, hear." Sameen drank down her glass. Bad beer that Hersh had brought aboard. Sometimes being polite exacted a price.
"I didn't expect to see the Crane out this far. I've been chasing you for two months."
"Orders changed," Sameen said.
Hersh nodded. "I was planning on meeting up with you at St. Helena."
"Really?" Sameen sat up, lowering her glass.
"I have documents from Penn," he said.
She raised her eyebrows. "How long ago did you leave England?"
He smiled. "About eight months ago. The mail travels so slowly, doesn't it?"
"Indeed. I was in Africa about that time. Clearly you weren't trying to find me then."
Hersh merely smiled and tilted his glass.
Hersh left the ship, and Nous, sneaking in the shadows beyond lantern light, found Sameen while she was still pouring back the wine.
She shoved Sameen against the cabin wall. "Did you miss something, Sameen?"
Sameen's eyes were black with warning, but she didn't respond. She held herself still as Nous tore at the buttons of her trousers, and seeking, found what was waiting for her.
"Do you need something, Sameen?" Nous hissed. "Or did Hersh satisfy you?"
"I need you to shut up and touch me."
Nous slid firm fingers against slick skin. "I know you do."
"Then why ask?"
Nous grinned, pushing her body against Sameen's. "Just playing a little game."
Sameen narrowed her eyes.
"Do you like this?" Nous asked, hand moving rapidly.
Sameen's words were curt, almost panted. "Use your mouth."
The admission was enough for Nous. Sameen needed her for something precisesomething she could do, even though it left her vulnerable, made her subservient. Things she hated.
She knelt, yanking Sameen's trousers down along the way. She hesitated, gazing upward. Sameen met her eyes, and stroked her cheek, and then the back of her head. Giving no quarter.
Nous had done this before, enough that it was almost familiar now, Sameen's taste, texture, welcoming and soft in a way that betrayed Sameen's demeanor. Just never on her knees.
She could drive Sameen to orgasm with just her mouth. Loosen her, unravel her. She went to places no mortal had ever been.
"Sameen," she breathed against the quivering flesh. One mere lickNo, twoshe could pinpoint the exact place and time Sameen came, with a cry torn from her lips that she'd never admit to, and a sigh that sounded like the universe settling into place
When Nous had won her battle, Sameen hitched up her trousers. "Stop looking so reverent. It's just sex."
Nous remained kneeling. "One good turn deserves another, Sameen."
Sameen shook her head. "Think I don't enjoy what I do to you?"
"It's so hard to tell," Nous purred.
Sameen offered a hand and almost gallantly led Nous to bed, and undressed her with care, folding clothes, airing out underwear, staying dressed herself. When she applied the same careful touches to Nous's body, it was too much.
"Don't," Nous protested, as Sameen traced circles on her stomach. "Don't be so kind."
"Why not?" Sameen asked, and then answered her own question. "Don't think you deserve it?"
"It's too much."
Nous closed her eyes. Sensations coursed through her, every aroused nerve tingling. She wantedshe wanted all of it. She wanted to be held, to have a shield between her and the world, not so connected, not so alive. The opposite of what Sameen was offering.
"Please," she begged one last time.
Sameen surrendered, and fucked her, and it was just as raw, intrusive, and she felt better, the universe driven into her, making her focus, filling with love and lust she'd stolen from Sameen.
Something connected, solidified, and Nous came, shameless over Sameen's hand, gasping for breath.
"I barely got started," Sameen lamented.
"It's too much," Nous said. She looked away, toward the outside.
Sameen glanced out the portal. Only starlight. She undressed at last, crawling naked into bed to gaze at the ceiling, lying too close to Nous, blocking out the stars.
Nous curled around Sameen. "I don't know who's taking care of who."
"It doesn't matter," Sameen said to the ceiling.
Nous exhaled, and shifted closer.
Sameen closed her eyes.
Something was happening. Some singularity of purpose. Or intimacy.
"I don't know what this is," Nous said.
"Maybe it's love," Sameen said, dryly.
"That doesn't make any sense," Nous said.
"I think that's the point."
"The mission is important."
"I never said it wasn't."
"Good." Nous kissed Sameen's shoulder. "Good."
Still, Nous was unsettled. The closer she got to Sameen, the better Sameen was at blocking out the Truth.
The Roo set sail in the morning.
"Where's it going?" Cole asked.
"It's just going over the horizon. It'll keep following us," Sameen said.
"Why? We don't even know where we're going."
"It does. Orders from the Empire."
"We don't work for the fucking Empire," Cole said. "Not if we're going to be stalked."
Sameen shrugged, and when Nous emerged from the bolthole, curious but safe, Sameen crooked her finger.
"She knows more than she's telling," Sameen said.
"We all know that," Cole said.
"I'm going to get it out of her, one way or the other. You, keep the sails full. I don't think we can out-run them but we want to make landfall sooner rather than later."
"Sure. But we're still weeks out."
Nous reached them, and looked, frowning, between Cole and Sameen.
"Let's go, Nous." Sameen strode into her cabin. "Where's the note about Harlow?"
Nous was trotting to keep up. "What?"
"The note with his orders. Where?"
"Um. I think I have it on me." Nous produced a pouch from inside her shirt, and produced again the tiny, coiled paper.
Sameen unrolled it and read the words.
"They're the same, Sameen," Nous said.
"No, they're not. Watch." Sameen took the paper and held it over the lantern, so that the smoke rose. Words darkened from the heat.
"Burn the books. Kill Nous."
"What?" Nous looked shocked.
Sameen set the note down. Brow furrowed, she grabbed Nous by the throat, and held her against the bulkhead.
Nous pulled at her wrist, her eyes wide, gasping.
"Who do you worship?" Sameen asked. "You said you weren't a Christian. To my face, at least. To the crew, you're just as much of a liar as I am."
"I worship Jesus Christ." Nous's voice was cold, and serious.
Sameen tightened her grip. "No you don't. Who?"
"So help me I follow orders, Nous. Tell me!"
"Apollo! Apollo!" Nous shouted.
Sameen released her.
Nous slid down the bulkhead. "I worship Apollonius of Tyana." She panted, and when she regained enough breath, asked, "How did you know?"
"Harlow sent another message. To the Roo."
"How? How did it get there so fast?"
Sameen narrowed her eyes. "Alchemy."
Nous swallowed, looking wide-eyed at her. She folded her arms over herself protectively, but didn't speak.
"You knew," Sameen said. "Goddamnit, Nous. You knew."
Tears filled Nous's eyes. "I thought we were on the same side."
Nous shook her head. "Me and Harlow. We--I thought we had a plan."
Sameen sighed and dragged Nous to her feet, and pushed her onto the bed. Then she settled in her desk chair, put her feet up, and pointed her pistol at Nous, half-cocked.
Nous turned to gaze out the porthole.
"Start talking, Nous," Sameen said. "You're not looking for some fucking maps."
Nous looked back. "No. I have maps. We're smuggling books to Brazil."
Nous nodded. "Books. Ancient texts. They describe Apollo as the true divine being. And other books You might know them as Gnosticism."
Sameen raised her eyebrows. "I might?"
Nous smiled. "The Persians hid a few of them for us. The Egyptians, too. When Europe condensed into Catholicism. Some are as old as the fourth century."
"And you're smuggling them. Aboard my ship?"
"I just have one, a rudimentary copy." Nous rummaged in her clothing, and produced a small, leather-bound book. She offered it to Sameem.
Sameen took it and opened it. "I don't read Greek."
"You really should. It's a beautiful language."
"Right." Nous took the book back. "They're just books, Sameen. They aren't safe in England. Or Europe. Or even Palestine, not anymore. But in Brazil " she trailed off, turning again to the portal.
"There's nothing in Brazil but Indians. Were you going to convert them all to Apollo-worshipping--what did you call it?"
Nous's lips pursed into a thin smile. "Some people want to. But that's not the real plan."
"What's the real plan, Nous? For God's sake, don't make me ask again."
"We're hoping by having all the texts in one place, and studying them. We'll " Nous exhaled and gazed up. "We'll find the secret knowledge. We'll find out everything. Start a new church in Brazil and ascend."
"And do what? Turn into Gods, like Apollo?"
Nous laughed, her eyes shining with tears.
Sameen sighed. "But Harlow just wants all the books in one place, outside of civilized soil, so he can rid the world of the scourge. Make Europe pure."
Nous laughed again. "And he calls himself an Alchemist."
"Where are you from, Nous?"
Nous shook her head.
"Who are you?"
"I'm the girl who just got fucked, that's who."
Sameen lowed her pistol and eased the hammer back into place. "Well, obviously I'm not going to kill you."
Nous bit her lip. "But you don't think we'll be able to create a utopia in Brazil, either."
Nous bowed her head.
"So there's a worldwide conspiracy at work. That you and I are in the middle of. Which doesn't take away from the fact that you're insane. Great."
"What are you going to do?"
"Pray that the Sun comes up tomorrow?"
Nous chuckled. "Don't say things like that."
Sameen closed her eyes, and missed Nous's tears falling down her cheeks. But the anguished tone of her voice, she heard.
"Know why I like you, Sameen?" Nous asked. "I mean. Besides the mission. What I've learned from serving alongside you on the Crane."
Sameen opened her eyes and looked Nous up and down. She considered her words carefully before she spoke, low and incredulous. "My breasts?"
Nous shook her head and got up. "I like that you don't care about anything."
She paced, forcing Sameen to follow as Nous circled, angry.
"You don't care about woman, man, nor beast. Politics or promises. Countries. Empires. Gods. You don't care that Harlow betrayed you, or that Hersh is out there on the Roo, waiting to cut us to pieces. Love, hate, it's all the same to you."
"That's true," Sameen said slowly.
"See, I care." Nous stopped in her tracks. "I--Cared. Someone--I wasn't going to through this world alone. I was going to go through it with my friend. And I lost her. So I swore--I swore I would never care again. About anyone." Nous took a deep breath. "And then I found you."
She took a step closer, enough to grab Sameen's vest and tug her around, so their faces almost touched.
"I'm so glad you don't care. Thank God." Nous glanced upward, and then back at Sameen. "I need that right now. It's the only way this will work."
Sameen nodded. "Okay, Nous. Whatever you say."
"That's how we'll get through this." Nous tucked herself against Sameen's neck, head bowed so her forehead touched Sameen's shoulder. "Good."
"Get through what, by the way?" Sameen asked.
Sameen sighed, and rolled her eyes, and eventually, with measured impatience, lifted her arms and held Nous close.
That night, they lay side by side, not touching, Nous trying to stop the hammering in her heart, and Sameen trying to stop the hammering in her head. When the morning sunlight came, they made love, weary but safer in the daylight.
Breakfast was late, but Cole and Erik joined them, bringing maps and questions.
"What's the Roo have to say?" Cole asked.
Nous put down her chunk of bread, fresh-baked that morning, and glanced at Sameen.
"Uh oh," Cole said. "Are we all going to die?"
"Probably just Nous," Sameen said, as she stabbed a piece of ham.
"Okay then," Cole said.
Erik cleared his throat. "It depends on how much we all know, I presume, about Nous's plans."
"Which is nothing," Sameen said.
"Well, that's certainly how much I know," Cole said.
"I've been able to discern a little more," Erik said.
"You shouldn't do that," Sameen said.
"I'm the mapmaker. That's what I do."
"Sameen's too valuable to kill," Nous said.
Cole smiled. "I've always thought so."
"So, we're continuing onto Brazil, then?" Erik asked.
"Yes. With company."
"I mean, I am British, but I hate the British," Cole said.
"Don't we all."
"So," Cole said, drinking down a full glass of wine. "Are you like, a Jesuit or something?"
"Something like that," Nous said, and smiled, quiet and bright-eyed.
"Just tell me, and I'll be satisfied, that we're on the road to El Dorado," Cole said.
"That's a myth," Sameen said.
"Nous here knows all the secrets."
"We're not searching for treasure," Nous said.
"Well, don't tell anyone that," Cole said, standing up. "Unless you want the crew to turn their backs on you." He half-bowed and went out. Erik glanced between the women, and then followed.
"Yeah," Sameen said. "This is going to go well."
The rowboat dragged across sand. Sameen jumped out, cursing as her trousers soaked in the shallow water. Crew followed, hauling the boat to shore as she trudged. She resisted the urge to kiss the sand, superstitious she was not, but all the same. Land after four months was welcome.
Nous waisted until the boat was fully ashore, and then allowed Cole to help her out.
"Very dainty," Sameen said.
Nous just smiled.
Chests followed, hefted onto a patiently waiting donkey. A native held the reins.
Sameen conversed with him in Portuguese. He gestured toward the rainforest.
"It's quiet," Nous said. "Where's the Roo?"
"I'm sure Hersh will arrive at the most inopportune time he can," Sameen said.
She surveyed the horizon. Two other ships, both larger, were anchored in the cove. Nothing stirred.
Nous frowned at the vegetation before them.
"Let's go," Sameen said. She trudged toward the line of trees, which opened onto a dirt and stone road, manicured and cut back, but winding.
"Welcome to the New World."
"That's what you are to me," Nous replied.
Sameen rolled her eyes, but blush touched her cheeks.
Nous touched her back, friendly, and then gave her a little shove.
"What's the mission again?" Cole asked.
"Get rich, don't get shot," Sameen said. "Same as always."
Cole gave a satisfied grunt.
Colorful birds squawked overhead as they entered the forest.
Nous glanced up. "We are being watched."
The Indian led the way to a wooden and clay lodge. They tied off the donkey, and retrieved the chests, and went inside.
Men were drinking in the front parlor. Sameen strode past, into the darker interior, where it was cooler.
In a small back office, a red-skinned man with dark, curious eyes and a too big, welcoming smile sat.
Sameen stopped short, and then offered both her hands. "Jorge!"
"Captain Shaw." Jorge clasped her hands and then kissed each of her cheeks. "I never expected you to come to Brazil, even when the runner said it was your ship..."
"What a small world after all," Sameen said.
Nous leaned toward Cole. "Former lover?"
"You're the only one," he said.
Jorge poured wine for himself and Shaw.
"What have you brought me, and what do you want?" Jorge asked.
"Straight to the point. Jorge de Diaz, meet my second, Michael Cole, and this is"
"Rose. Rose Wood." Nous offered her hand.
Sameen squinted, but introduced Aaron and Ro't, who held the chests.
"I brought you a sample," Sameen nodded to the chest. Aaron opened it to reveal silver, pearls, and two highly polished pistols.
"Found yourself a ship, eh?" Jorge smiled.
"Or two," Sameen said.
Jorge picked up a silver sugar bowl. "And part two?"
Sameen took a sip of wine to compose herself. She dared not glance at Nous. "We're here with the Roo, and we're expecting to meet up with others bringing some old books. It's all very British." She fluttered her hand.
Something flickered across Jorge's eyes. "British. You mean Greek?"
"Yes. Greek books. We have more gold for"
Jorge lifted his hand to cut her off. "Sameen, Sameen. How did you get mixed up in this?"
Sameen's hand went to her pistol. Nous and Cole, to their daggers.
Men appeared at the window and the door behind them.
Jorge stood. "Now, which one of you is Nose? Has it been you all along, Captain Shaw?"
"For God's sake, it's Nous," Nous said. "For 'knowledge.'"
"For Apollo's sake," Sameen muttered, leaning close and putting her hand on Nous's back.
Jorge smirked. "We can work something out, Captain. What are old friends for?"
"I knew I had something you wanted," Sameen said.
They shared a smile.
"Gross," Nous said.
Cole glanced at Sameen.
"I'm going to kill everyone in here," Nous said.
"Not yet," Sameen hissed. "Not yet."
Jorge raised his rifle.
"What now?" Sameen asked, leaning against the bars. She was bound at the wrists.
Nous, shackled with iron, not rope, sat on the ground, looking upward.
Sameen followed her gaze toward the sun. "Consulting your God?"
Nous chuckled. "Apollo's not the Greek God. He was an actual Greek, in ancient times. After Jesus."
"That doesn't clear anything up."
Nous smiled, not turning. "A lot of people predicted the end of the world."
"Is this the end of the world?"
Nous rolled her eyes, unshackled herself, and stood, facing Sameen. "You're giving up, then?"
Sameen sighed, unwrapping her ropes. The cage around them, a dog pen, was still sold iron, buried in the ground. They were on a hill, and there were two guards, pulled from regular duty, looking annoyed and bored.
Cole, Aaron, and Ro't were in the next cage.
"Think these were built just for us? They're new. And expensive."
"Maybe," Sameen said. "Or maybe Harlow sends all the zealots to Brazil."
Nous spat. "Harlow. I need my book back. What's the plan?"
"I assume the plan is to hold you until the other shipor shipsarrive with the rest of the books. Then they'll burn them, and probably you, at the stake."
"But we're not going to let that happen, right?"
"I fulfilled my mission," Sameen said. "I had my orders."
"Sameen," Nous chuckled. And then frowned.
Cole untied his bonds and leaned on the bars, watching them.
"What, you think that just because we're lovers, I would betray my country?"
"Is your loyalty really to Harlow?"
Sameen gazed at her.
"Search for the Truth, Sameen. It will set you free."
"I guess Harlow is habit."
"I'm not habit."
Sameen stepped forward, putting her hand on Nous's chest. "No. You are a whole new adventure."
Nous nearly purred.
"We can't let them burn her, Captain," Cole interjected.
Sameen rubbed her brow. "Is the crew with her?"
"She's unlike anyone we've ever met," Cole said.
"Yeah, Sameen. Believe in something greater," Nous taunted.
"Like the Empire?" Sameen asked.
Sameen shook her head, grabbed Nous by the back of the neck, and kissed her.
One of the guards walked toward the cage. "Hey! No fraternization."
Nous broke the kiss, reached through the bars, and yanked him. He thudded into the iron.
Sameen grabbed his pistol.
The second guard screamed, shot at them, and then ran.
"Muskets," Nous said. "Such impractical weapons."
She picked the lock.
Sameen disarmed the guard of a second pistol, sword, and gagged him. She tossed him into the cage.
"What now?" Sameen asked.
"Now we get our book back. Are you going to have a problem killing Jorge?" Nous asked.
"No," Sameen growled.
They crouched in the forest, slightly up an incline, full of nettles and ferns and the sounds of birds. The lodge was in view, and its windows were open.
"Hersh," Sameen said.
"He's got us cornered," Cole said. "He'll probably loot us and get a knighthood out of it."
"We should make a run for it. They don't have cannons. We could be aboard the Crane and"
"And do what?" Nous asked. "Run for the rest of our lives? Be hunted down by pirates? Get a burial at sea?"
Sameen took a breath. "Well. What do you propose?"
"We complete the mission."
"So, kill Jorge and Hersh, disarm three ships in the harbor, wait for more ships to take, take their books, then sail to the Caribbean or St. Helena or"
"Or Africa," Nous interjected.
"Or Africa, and wait for them to find out what we did."
"Anything is possible," Nous said.
"That is not possible. We need Hersh alive to pass the messages back."
"What's your plan, then, Captain Shaw?"
"You're not going to like it," Sameen said.
"You'll be dead."
Cole looked concerned.
"There's more," Sameen said. "You have to trust me with your book."
"Trust me." Sameen looked over her shoulder at Nous. "Isn't that why you brought me into this?"
Nous contemplated the heavens. "This is not what I pictured, but yes."
"So let me do what I'm good at." Sameen's words were practically a growl.
"And that is?" Nous smiled again, her cheery madness returning to her features.
"Not getting killed," Cole said.
"So what do we do in the meantime? Hide like cowards?" Nous asked.
"You four will get those other two ships out of here."
"How?" Nous folded her arms.
"You're the witchy genius. Figure it out. Convert them."
Cole grinned. "Or we could go with what's always worked in the past."
Sameen nodded. "Bribe them."
"We probably only have enough to bribe one ship or Hersh," Nous protested.
Sameen shook her head.
Cole cleared his throat.
"What?" Nous asked.
"There's more," Sameen said. "Besides, if this works, we can raid the fort, too."
"How much more?" Nous asked.
"Much more," Cole said.
"Well," Nous said. "That's sort of a plan."
"Oh, so this is what finally gets you going. Near-certain death," Nous chided.
"Inflicting and receiving a lot of pain is almost the same as feeling. Right?"
"You have no idea how right you are," Nous said.
Sameen fixed the sights of the rifle with pliers. Then she shouldered the rifle, gazed past at the lodge, and frowned.
The lodge was built on a well-defended hill. The forest had been cut away from the edges. She was a good fifty meters back. At the edge of her range for a musket. An almost impossible shot, especially with a rifle she'd never used.
Far better would it be to drag her knife across Jorge's throat and be done with it. But there would be too many guards, no time to explain to Hersh. It would be messy and chaotic.
One shot would be clean. Like taking down a dog.
She'd done this on moving ships, in storms, with the enemy swarming around her.
Now she sweated, too close to the equator. Strange bugs crept over her boots. She didn't know why she was doing this. Jorge would forgive her if she turned over Nous. Hersh would be pleased. She might even get a commendation. Maybe she'd get captaincy of a bigger ship. Maybe she could be a merchant, not a scavenger. Maybe a foreign name would no longer be a crime.
Jorge appeared in the window.
She shot, her finger moving with her breath. The sound was loud. Jorge didn't hear it until a black mark appeared at his temple, and spread. She retreated back into the forest, changing her direction, knowing the guard who'd already informed Jorge of her escape would be the first to chase after her.
Jorge fell from view.
She crouched as the guards ran up the path to the prisoners, and down the path to the beach. Only one, that one, entered the forest where she'd been hiding.
Sameen smiled grimly. They were afraid of the forest.
When all was clear, she ran across the open land to the lodge's front door. There were no men drinking now. Back to their ships, probably. Maybe Nous's work would be easier than they thought.
Hersh appeared in the office doorway.
She nodded. "Captain."
"Captain," he said. "What was that for?"
"Jorge put me in a dog cage."
"He said you'd turned on him, And he said you escaped."
"Apparently I did."
Hersh nodded. "Where's the book lover?"
"Haven't seen her."
Hersh sighed. "We're company men, Shaw. What do you want?"
"I want you to tell them I'm dead."
"You're not dead."
"I know. But after this, I'll disappear. I'll become someone else."
"You're dangerous." He rubbed the back of his head. "And your new friend?"
"She's already dead."
"I don't believe that."
Sameen leaned over and picked the Greek book up from the desk. "I just came back for revenge."
"Give that to me," Hersh said. He moved forward.
She held it out of his reach. "What are you going to do with it?"
"My orders were to kill the woman."
"I don't have anything to do with those books."
"So you'll go quietly?" Sameen asked.
"Damnit, Captain, I'm not going to roll over for you and risk the whole empire. What's in those books?"
She tossed it to him. It thudded against his chest and he barely caught it. He opened it to read.
"Of course," he said. "All my life. You don't?"
Sameen rolled her eyes. "You have two hours to decide if that book is worth your life."
"My life, Shaw?"
"And that of your crew?"
Hersh scoffed, and kept reading.
She headed out.
Nous met them at the beach, out of breath, but grinning. She had blood on her cheek.
Sameen licked her thumb and wiped it away.
Nous bore it politely.
"Scrum?" Sameen asked.
"One ship took the bribe. The other ship took the bribe after some violence."
"I'm glad you didn't get hurt."
"Oh, Sameen. Do you really mean that?"
Sameen rolled her eyes. "We have Hersh. When does the glory ship arrive?"
"That's the thing," Nous said.
"There's another thing?" Cole complained. "I'm sick of it."
"Why don't you tell him," Nous said, over Sameen's shoulder.
Hersh stood with a pistol in his hand.
"What now?" Sameen asked.
"There is no ship," Hersh said.
"That's what I was going to tell you," Nous said.
"I sank it," Hersh said. "Two days before I found you."
"What?" Sameen asked.
He lifted the book with his free hand. "This is the last of it. The rest is at the bottom of the sea."
Nous's expression hardened.
"And soon you will be too, now that you've wrapped up the work here in port."
Cole groaned and clutched his gut. He looked down. Blood soaked past his fingers.
"Michael!" Sameen grabbed his arm, steadying him as he sank to his knees.
"You shouldn't have done that," Nous said.
Hersh steadied the pistol at her. "Why not?"
"You always kill the strongest first."
Nous kicked the pistol out of his hand, then stepped forward, grabbing his throat.
"Nous" Sameen crouched. "We need him alive, remember?"
"No we don't." Nous squeezed.
Hersh swept his arms outward and broke her grip, stumbling backward.
"Come at me again," he said. "I read your book. It stinks."
Hersh caught her in the back. She thudded to her knees and scrambled away from him.
Sameen got to her feet. She drew her dagger.
"This?" Hersh said, keeping the book high, circling away from both women. "The ravings of a madman. Nothing more."
"Then why do you care so much?" Sameen asked.
"Because some people believe this crap."
Sameen crept closer.
"It needs to be stopped," Hersh said.
Nous glanced from Cole to Sameen, panic in her eyes. Guards came out of the forest.
"It's an ambush," Sameen said.
"You had your chance to leave, Captain Shaw. Just leave the book with me and go back to your own waters and never worry about this again. You had your chance, and now it's gone."
"Please," Sameen said.
Nous ran at Hersh, got caught by his elbow, gasped at the blow.
Sameen threw the dagger. It lodged in his stomach.
"A belly for a belly?" she asked.
Hersh yanked at it. It didn't move. "You just said you couldn't kill me."
"I changed my mind. This is Brazil, is it not? Those men will follow the winner."
"Or the one with the most gold," Nous said. "That's Sameen here."
"You fucking pirate." Hersh spat.
"Better than a traitor," Sameen said.
"God." She grabbed ahold of the dagger with both hands, and twisted, pushing until he toppled backward.
When he was on the ground, Nous grabbed the book. "Who's going to tear out his heart and eat it?"
Sameen went back to Cole. "Michael. Please. It's going to be all right." She drew his head into her lap, stroking his face.
"It was an honor to serve," Michael whispered. His gaze went to Nous. "Both of you."
Then his eyes drifted closed and his head lulled. He breathed no more.
Nous dropped to her knees. She grabbed Sameen's hair, and yanked her head back, studying her face closely. She leaned in and kissed Sameen's cheek, tasting the tear there.
"I never knew you were so close," Nous said.
"I know. It's hard to tell. But I trusted him with my life." Sameen looked from his body to Hersh's. "That was enough for me."
Nous tried to embrace her, but Sameen shook it off, and stood. "You should be devastated. Your books are gone."
"Sameen, please. If I wasn't used to adversity by now "
"There's still the question of what to do with this one. If they try to sink the Crane, like the other Well, that was a galleon and your little ship isn't much."
"What's the alternative?"
Nous gestured to the native guards that stood around them, with weapons lowered, and listening faces.
"Maybe they know a place. I don't need it. It's all up here." She tapped the book against her temple.
"Let's find a translator. And let's get Cole aboard."
"You don't want to bury him here?"
"At sea, Nous. At sea."
The Crane brought aboard canoes and Tupi, and sailed northward for weeks to a river mouth. Then they followed the river, Calçoene, through twists and turns for another week, until it was too narrow and shallow for the Crane.
Nous, Sameen, and two guides boarded a canoe, and paddled for another four days.
"Here we walk," Jaci said.
So they walked, a full day, so that the sun was setting when they reached the monoliths.
More than a hundred of them, rising from the earth, in a rough circle.
Nous's face took on an expression of ecstasy.
"Where are we?" Sameen asked Jaci.
He shrugged. "We are here."
"Tell me where to bury it," Nous said.
She and Sameen dragged the iron box to the spot where Jaci showed them, and they dug, six feet down, taking two days, encountering skeletons along the way.
"Are you sure?" Nous asked.
"No one will bother the dead," Jaci said.
"Do you believe? In what I'm doing?" Nous asked.
"You've sent the Portuguese away. It's enough of a trade."
"They'll come back."
Jaci nodded, looking not at them but at the sky, purple now without the sun.
"I could stay in this place a thousand years and never know its mysteries," Nous said.
"We're not staying."
Nous took Sameen's sketchbook, and studied the drawings, and read the notes, and was satisfied. "We'll come back."
Jaci made a face, but said nothing.
They stayed one more night, then traveled back to the sea, and southward to Nueva Andalucía. The fort was burned, stock and water were taken aboard, and Tupi sailors recruited.
Then they set sail for the east.
Sameen and Nous stayed in their cabin, often naked, not speaking, as the sea and clouds passed through them.
"We're going back to the Old World," Nous said. "I can feel the new slipping away."
"Where are we going?" Sameen asked. She held Nous, as they lay together on the tiny bed.
She didn't expect an answer. She'd asked every day, gave orders to Diego, the new first mate, but knew nothing but east. East was vast. Europe and Egypt and Arabia, and Russia and China beyond.
"There are more books," Nous said. "There have to be."
Sameen nodded, noncommittal.
Nous rested her cheek on Sameen's chest. "We're going to find Harold."
"Harold? Who's Harold?"
"He's the person who built your boat."
"Nothing's a coincidence with you, is it?" Sameen asked.
Nous lifted herself up, tossing a leg over Sameen's prone form. "I make my own destiny."
"And you're destined for this." Sameen dragged her nails up Nous's sides, then grabbed the back of her neck.
"Yes. It's Fate." Nous kissed her, hard and seeking.
Sameen yanked her close, letting the kisses sear her face, giving back with ferocity. Her hand slipped from Nous's neck into her hair, twisting and holding.
If this was Fate, who was she to judge?
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