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SEA

HEART





MARÍA ACOSTA









Copyright © 2017 María Acosta

Translated by: María Acosta

All rights reserved.







'On the Freedom's flag I sewed the greatest love of my life.'

Mariana Pineda. Federico García Lorca.





'My treasure is my gallant bark,

My only God is Liberty;

My law is might, the wind my mark,

My country is the sea.'

The Pirate's Song. José de Espronceda.

I



Atlantic Ocean. Spring 1716.

The new day brought the good weather with it. They have been several days sailing in turbulent waters, under an overcast sky and now the sun greeted them from the wide blue yonder.

The ship crossed the ocean at a good speed, pushed by gusts of wind that, if remain during the next few days, they could save them a whole day's journey.

Captain Bonfils was in the quarter-deck, looking through the spyglass beside his boatswain, Monsieur Allard. Both men had sailed together for many years and could not be more different from one another: Bonfils was tall and plump, with a special taste for baroque things. He always wore his dress coat and wig, regardless of the heat. Allard, however, was shorter, bald and thin, his clothes and manners humbler than his employer's.

At that moment, both men have fixed their eyes on the galleon far ahead, which had already spent two days following them.

'It's impossible to get rid of her.' Bonfils tutted, lowering the spyglass with apprehension. 'At that speed, she will reach us in less than one hour.'

'Perhaps they aren't pirates, captain.' said monsieur Allard, hopeful. 'It could be just another trading ship doing our same route.'

'It could.' he nodded. 'The French flag waves in her stern, in fact. But I don't trust them: there are too many men on that deck.'

'How many, sir?'

'Eighty, at least. Maybe more.'

Monsieur Allard pursed his lips and looked around, restless. The Fierté Royal, a three masts ship which made her route between the French port of La Rochelle and the Caribbean island of Guadalupe, was not prepared to fight a pirate galleon... If that's what it was: galleons usually were heavily armed, in an approximate ratio of ten men per cannon. So, taking into account the ship's size and Bonfils' calculations about her crew, she should not have less than eight guns, while they had only three and a half-dozen muskets. Even bringing together all the healthy men on board of the Fierté, just about forty of them would be suited up for battle. That was not enough, if comparing their forces with those of their possible opponent...

Suddenly, there was movement on the other vessel's deck and Bonfils harried to use the spyglass in order not to lose detail. Monsieur Allard watched him with concern, waiting for an answer that scared both of them. He was pretty aware of the moment his captain had been petrified, seeing whatever it was through the lens.

Finally, Bonfils lowered the spyglass and sighed, defeated.

'They have raisen the black: it's Misson.'

'We'd better give up, captain: we'll lose the cargo but still retain our lives.'

'I'm afraid we can do nothing other, my friend. We are in no shape to resist them.' he turned around to address the crew: 'Pirates! Hoist up the white flag!'

There was a moment of astonishment, while the news spread among the sailors. It took the men a few seconds to meet the orders, rushing at the same time they prayed for their surrender to earn them the mercy of the enemy, whose barbarity and lust for blood was well known around the world.





The trading ship has been caught half an hour ago. The boarding's excitement had passed now, leaving only the calm of what seemed to have been an assault without incident.

The doctor had just left his surgeon's chest on the table, when one of his fellow crew appeared at his doorstep. He was a short dark man, with a peculiar gait a cause of the weird curvature of his legs.

'Doctor.' the man walked to him.

'Monsieur Cloutier.'

'Monsieur Deniaud has sent me to find you: there is a passenger on the trading ship he wants you to examine.'

The doctor nodded, picked up his chest and putting it on his shoulder he left, preceded by the pirate.

'What are the symptoms?' he asked, as they crossed the hall to go on deck.

'I have no idea.' Cloutier shrugged. 'But he's someone important, that's for sure: the captain and his crew refused to speak, when Monsieur Deniaud asked them about him... that means there are rich people involved.'

'Maybe.'

They went out on deck and from there they crossed to the other ship, using one of the gangplanks their peers had tended to unite both vessels during the boarding.

They found the crew of the trading ship clustered in the center of the deck, all sitting on the floor and guarded by heavily armed pirates, who were at Monsieur Deniaud's command.

The boatswain was waiting for them not far from there: blonde and thin as a toothpick, to the point that his clothes were hanging off him, he greeted them with a nod and without speaking – he was a man of a few words - led them inside and into one of the cabins, located at the end of the hallway.

Upon entering, it was obvious they were in the captain's cabin. Not only because it was located abaft but because the spacious room and its fine decoration in oak and brocade attested that: only a high-ranking official – or a wealthy merchant in this case - could afford something like that.

'He's over there.' said Monsieur Deniaud, gesturing towards the bed. It was an amazing furniture, made of dark wood. On it rested a young man, wearing just a camisole and socks. 'We found him while we were searching the cabin. He's a rich boy, no doubt: the silk of his socks worth more than a year's salary for any of these sailors. Also, nobody wanted to answer for him when I asked: his family must be very rich, if they are trying to hide his presence on the ship... surely they'll pay well to get him back.' the boatswain smiled, cunning.

'Assuming there was a family.' the doctor said, moving closer to the bed to examine the youngster.

The boy was lying face-up. He could not be more than twenty years old. Long chocolate hair framed his well-defined features, contrasting beautifully with his white skin. The paleness and the sweat betrayed a disease, which could be contagious or not. Therefore, it was necessary to find out if it was dangerous to get him on board with them. No ransom, appealing though it is, worth to face an outbreak of the plague or the fevers.

The doctor left his chest on the bedside table, next to a bowl containing the last vestiges of some apples... green, judging by the peeling. He bent and checked the temperature and the pulse of his patient. Examined his skin and eyes – they were bright blue, as it was proved when his owner gave him a confused look – in search of anomalies that were not found. The inside of his mouth was healthy, his denture in good condition, although his throat was slightly irritated. Nothing strange, if one had in mind the potty that had been left beside the bed to contain the vomiting...

Suddenly, the young man grabbed the side of the bed, stricken with retching. He was able to move out of the way on time but still his patient vomited all over his footwear before he can avoid it. The boy didn't have much in his stomach, thank God, but the vomiting was poured directly on his boots, ruining them.

The pirates watched it with disgust and they stepped back, wary.

'Is it the fevers?' asked Cloutier, suspicious.

'No fever.' the doctor said. He grimaced at inspecting his footwear. He was going to clean it thoroughly, as soon as he returned to the ship. 'There is not blood in the vomit and he doesn't suffer from seizures, or bleeding, so it's not the Plague or the fevers. Also, his gums have a healthy color, so it's not scurvy, either.'

'What wrong with him then?' asked Monsieur Deniaud.

'It's seasickness: we have had troubled waters these days, the boy must have a bad time.' he turned to open his chest and pulled out a ribbon he tied around the young man's wrist. 'This will serve for the moment. Monsieur Cloutier, help me to get him on board. I'll take care of him in the infirmary.'

'Until further notice he's under your custody, doctor.' declared Monsieur Deniaud. 'Tell us, when he'll be well enough to speak.'

He nodded because there wasn't much more he could do or say: the youngter's destiny had already been sealed.

With Cloutier's help, he picked up the ends of the sheet and they both got the boy out of there, as if they carried him on a stretcher.

II



Seasickness had disappeared. He was in a nice state of sleepiness now, only disturbed by the mild pain on his throat. However, he had not vomited even once in several hours and that was enough for him.

He was grateful for being able to sleep in peace finally. Still he was getting used to live in a ship and, to make things worse, during those weeks he had had to face that ominous sickness, which has affected him as soon as they left La Rochelle. At first, the breeze on the deck and the green apples Bonfils had advised him to eat had worked well against it. However, as soon as they came to the high seas and waters got troubled, he felt so bad they had to move him to the captain's cabin... where his personal hell truly began: for days he was trapped in a cycle of seasickness, vomiting and exhaustion. He could barely rest and it was difficult for him to retain food in his stomach, feeling worse with each pounding of the waves against the hull of the boat.

In the midst of his agony, he prayed for the journey to end and be able to reach the port of Saint Loïs soon. He wanted to stay on land and never return to the sea, just remain safe at his brother's house: his new home. He had heard so many things about the island, the Caribbean, the pirates...

He opened the eyes suddenly.

He looked around and discovered, startled, he was no longer in Bonfils' cabin. This place was smaller and was decorated in a different way: the large oak bed has been replaced by one smaller, older and more humble. There was a shelf full of books occupying the wall on the right and a large sailcloth a few metres away from the bed, separating the room in two. To the left, he could see a desk under a porthole.

'Good afternoon.' greeted a man sitting in a chair next to the bed. 'Are you feeling better now, sir?'

He looked at the man as if he were an apparition. Certainly, he could be: he had not seen him in his entire life. The man in question was considerably tall, his slender body accommodated in the chair like a big cat on a tree branch. He wore green clothes, simple but of good quality and taylor-made. His hair was long and blonde, combed neatly and tied back with a dark ribbon. His grey eyes showed confidence and there was a friendly smile on his thin lips.

The man's presence made him relax in some way. He did not seem to be dangerous, yet he was still a stranger to him. He must behave with caution:

'Who are you, sir? Where I am? What's happened?'

'My name is Aloys.' the man introduced himself. 'I'm the doctor of the Liberté. You're in my infirmary. My partners and I got you on board in the morning and it has been decided you'll be temporarily our guest.'

'Your guest?' he swallowed, confused. 'Where is captain Bonfils? I need to talk to him.'

'The captain is on his route to Guadalupe in these moments: he decided to continue on his way, once we released him and his men.'

He looked at him astonished:

'Release them... you have captured our ship!' he realized. 'You are pirates! I have been hijacked!'

'Please, don't be alarmed.' the doctor changed position and leaned toward him in a gesture that showed conciliation and was intended to reassure him. 'We're going to return you to your family, as soon as possible. But first you must tell me your name: we want to know who we're dealing with.'

'I wont say anything.' he went away from him, scared.

'As you wish.' declared the doctor, without losing patience. He stood up and turned to the bedside table, where there was a tray he had not notice until then. The doctor put it on his lap and his stomach could not help a desperate roar at the sight and smell of a delicious soup of vegetables and a generous grilled chicken breast. 'You must eat all, so you need to get your strength back. Our cook is one of the best, I'm sure you'll enjoy the food... and while doing so, I recommend you to think about the situation: my colleagues will pay you a visit before the end of the day and they didn't want to settle with a no for an answer. I say this as an advice, not a threat.'

He looked at him: the man's eyes showed understanding. There was neither aggressiveness nor arrogance in his words, only knowledge.

The doctor said goodbye then and left, leaving him alone in the cabin. He looked away with a lump on his throat.

Pirates.

He had fallen prey to pirates.





'How is our guest doing?' the captain asked, at seeing him in the doorway. 'Is he awake yet? Is he in the mood to chat?'

'He's awake and almost recovered.' said the doctor, getting into the cabin to take a seat in front of the desk, behind which the captain awaited for him. 'I've left him getting a snack. Still he's shocked by the news.'

'So your charm hasn't been enough to make him talk?' the captain joked and earned a smile in turn. 'I'm surprised, doctor.'

'It's not surprising, considering the circumstances: our guest is young and he's scared. I don't think he's ever faced anything like this before. Even so, I think he'll give in when he had time to assess the situation.'

'Let's give him a few hours to think about it. Later, I will pay him a visit... I hope the feminine touch could convince him.'

'I'm sure it will surprise him.'

'Not the first time.' the woman smiled. 'Do you fancy a drink?'

'Yes, thank you.'

The captain stood up and walked to a sideboard nearby, from where she took a bottle and two glasses. She came back to the desk and served the rum, giving his glass to the doctor and taking hers as she sat again, leaning back in the chair as she used to do when she was relaxed and confident.

The doctor could not avoid looking at her and thinking, while drinking, how much things had changed over the past year: twelve months ago, the crew had another captain and the ship another name. All that had changed by being Vianne elected as captain, after her brother's death... suddenly the young woman, who had impersonated a man since the age of thirteen, was uncovered and the reaction of her peers – after more than a decade of living together in brotherhood, fighting, bleeding and suffering side by side - was to accept her, not without astonishment, of course. But at the end of the day she was one of them, an authority figure who they appreciated and respected... otherwise, things would have been very different for her.

Vianne's appointment had brought a new reality to the ship: an enviroment safer and more democratic for all, a significant decrease in the mortality among the crew and some succulent booties that kept the men satisfied and happy... Alongside with several reforms that had been long time demanded and some which at first were not to the liking of many but soon have proved to be beneficial, so that they were complied now without hesitation.

One of those reforms had to do with the treatment of prisoners: their guest would benefit from the rule prohibiting abuse against the hostages... as long as the circumstances or his own attitude doesn't compelled them to act otherwise.

They had got him on board in order to ask for a ransom and certainly they could not do that, if they didn't know who they must sue for the money.

The doctor knew Vianne would make sure to get the information out of the boy by not harming methods, preferring to intimidate him rather than hurt him. But if the lad decided stick to his guns...

Well, none of them wanted to come to that.



III



There was no escape.

After the doctor's departure - once he has got his strength back with the food - he had got out of bed and went round the room looking for an exit: the cabin's door was locked and there was no other form of getting out of there that was not using the windows. The toilet window was too narrow and the other two, although spacious, only will lead him to take an unwanted dip.

Over his head was just the sky and the three masts of the ship and at his feet the ocean, blue and vast. There was not land in miles...

He snorted, frustrated, and got down from the desk where he had hopped up on to look through the porthole.

He tried to think.

He was trapped in that ship. He was at the mercy of pirates, who would certainly make use of torture and other nefarious methods to get the information they wanted from him. Although he had refused to speak in front of the doctor, the truth was that after thinking about it for a while he had come to the conclusion the man was right: he could not persist in such an attitude. No, if he wanted to preserve his integrity or his life.

'They want to know who I am in order to know who they should ask for ransom' he thought. 'Bernard is going to get mad. He could even try to fight them.'

Should he wait for that to happen? Had his brother the resources to defeat the pirates? He surely would make them hang for daring to kidnap his younger brother. But in the meantime...

'I need to stay safe.' he said himself. 'Maybe I won't get hurt, if they think I'm collaborating and don't see me as a threat. I could even gain his trust and then try to escape, if I have the chance. In addition, the sooner I let them know my identity, the sooner mi brother will heard of what happened... that would be the quickest way to put an end to all of this.'

He did not want to bow to the pirates, much less that his family was forced to get rid of what surely would be a hefty sum of money. But neither he wanted to suffer nor lose his life at the hands of his captors. What he would won with that? Would he be considered a hero for dying standing his ground or do he simply would be remembered for his recklessness and stupidity?

He must keep calm and use his head.

His brother would do everything to prevent him from suffering any harm. Bernard wanted him safe and sound, in Saint Loïs, so that he could fulfill his duty to the family and start a new life on the island.

It wasn't like he refused to do so. Although he had not been granted the privilege of giving his opinion, the true was he found the idea more than appealing: change the bucolic and peaceful French countryside by the ardent and fascinating Caribbean, which so many stories were told about in Europe and so many new things had to offer to the newcomers like him. He loved his native land but he did not care to abandon its benefits in exchange to discover the New World.

As for the pirates...

There was no other solution. He must play along with them to survive, until his brother came to rescue him. It would be just a few weeks, if he was lucky. He could stand it.

He turned his blue eyes to the cabin's door and looked at it frowning, defiant.

When his captors come for him, he would be prepared.

They arrived two hours before dinner.

He was reading a book in bed when the cabin's door opened and he could heard two people entering the room.

He put immediately the book aside and got out of bed to receive his visitors, crossing to the other side of the sailcloth. He already knew the doctor, so that his gaze fell immediately on his companion: he was tall and slim, with broad shoulders just like him. His eyes were bright and his red hair was tied back. He wore pants and a dark blue dress coat, with a hat and boots and a sword worn at the waist. A leather strap crossed his chest, carrying several guns.

If his outfit itself was somewhat shocking, it was much more the fact that that man had breasts.

He stepped back stunned, looking at his visitor up and down in disbelief:

'A woman!'

The aforementioned smiled, amused by his reaction.

'Have you never seen one, sir?'

'No. I mean... yes, of course.' he blushed and seeing the fun in the eyes of the others, made an effort to keep his composure. 'I thought pirates didn't allow women on board.'

'They don't. Mine's a long story, monsieur, I'll save you the details. All I'm going to say is I was elected by my crew to lead the ship: I'm captain Misson. I'll be your hostess, while you're with us. You're under my custody, sir...'

'Delaney. Remi Delaney.'

'Monsieur Delaney. Tell me, what family do you belong to and what they do for a living?'

'My only family is my brother, madame. He's the governor of Saint Loïs.'

The pirate and the doctor watched him surprised and exchanged a look between them, before the captain focused her attention on him again:

'Well, well! So Bernard Delaney... he's well-known in the French Antilles. Thank you for your kindness to inform us, monsieur. We'll head to Saint Loïs right away and I'll write to your brother, as we got closer to the island. I'm confident he'll reply soon. If you need anything more, please let us know.' she added. 'In this ship we know hospitality and for now I can't find a reason to make your stay among us uncomfortable.'

He nodded, satisfied. A moment later, he cleared his throat:

'Excuse me, captain. Would it be possible to get me some clothes? I was get on board with no more than my underwear... I'd like to be able to dress properly.'

'Of course. I'll have someone bring you fresh clothes.' she looked at him to get an idea of his measurements and, thereupon, she turned again to look at the doctor. 'Would you mind to bring our guest up to date, doctor?'

'I'll take charge of that.' nodded the physician.

'In that case, I'm leaving. Pleasure to meet you, monsieur Delaney. I'd be honoured to have your presence tonight at my table for dinner, if you're willing.'

'Thank you, captain. I'll be there.'

The woman walked away. He was left alone with the doctor, both looking – weighing up – at each other. Finally, after long seconds of scrutiny, the doctor cracked a smile and spoke:

'I'm glad you've changed your mind: talk to the captain about your brother has been the most sensible thing.'

'What did you expect me to do?'

'At the beginning you refused to speak.' he reminded him and his tone seemed more amused than reproving.

'That was before I realized I couldn't flee from this place. Stubborness serves no purpose in this case, doctor. Death or torture are not the fate I want for myself, so that, as you well have said, to tell the truth was the sensible thing to do.'

'You wont regret it. Also, you wont have any complaint of our deal... as long as you play by the rules.'

'What rules are those?'

'You'll be our hostage until we make the exchange, meanwhile you'll be in my charge. You don't have permission to leave the cabin or wander through the ship, unless you do in my company. If you need to use the latrine, you must ask for permission... or you can use one of the urinals of the infirmary.' Remi nodded, showing he understood. After a few seconds the doctor spoke again, always with that polite tone, which contributed strangely to reassure him: 'This evening you'll have dinner in the captain's cabin. I will accompany you and surely will have Monsieur Deniaud with us: he's our boatswain. The captain's invitation is an act of courtesy, as you may have already guessed. This is not the norm: during your stay, you will eat here with me, unless we decide otherwise. Do you understand?'

'I understand.'

The doctor nodded and then he made a pause before added, with a serious tone:

'I have to tell you, although I trust that there will be no need to repeat myself: if you fail to follow the rules, you will lose the privilege of being well treated and will spend the rest of the trip chained in the hold. If you shows any belligerent or inappropiate attitude or just try to escape... the captain personally will punish you in front of the entire crew. Do you get it?'

'I do.' he swallowed. 'How long I will be retained?'

'Till the governor pay the ransom. Luckily, it wont be more than a month. The exchange will take place at a safe distance from Saint Loïs. Don't worry, you will be sailing back home with your brother before you notice... and you'll be intact.'

The young man sighed at the thought.

'That's what I desire the most.'

'I can imagine.' the doctor nodded, understanding. 'Now, would you like to take a bath? After having spent some days in bed, I'm sure it will help you to feel better.'

'Yes, thank you. I think so.'

'Very well, then. Also, since we both know you'll have already looked for an exit,' he smiled slightly, 'I assume that in the process you'll have seen the bucket that hangs behind the window.' he pointed out. Remi nodded. 'You can use it to collect the sea water to fill the tub. I assume you already know where the toilet is.'

'You assume well.'

'Fine. If you want to heat the water, you can use the stove in the background. Could you do it all alone?'

'Of course.' the doubt in his tone offended him. 'I'm neither useless nor armless, doctor.'

'It wasn't my intention to insinuate such a thing. I was thinking that maybe your lineage has prevented you from learn that kind of tasks.'

'My lineage is not as high as it may seem. You'd be surprised with the kind of tasks I'm able to do, monsieur.' he said and earned a broad smile in turn.

'I'm glad to hear that. Now, if you excuse me, I have work to do. Enjoy your bath, Monsieur Delaney.'

'Thank you, I'll do.'

He walked to the window, passing very upright by the doctor. He ignored the man, as he opened the window and put his body thought it in order to get the bucket. With or without lineage, he was perfectly capable of prepare a bath without help: the process was as simple as fill the bucket and then pouring it into the tub. He had seen how it was done before... also, light a stove was not different to light a fireplace. He knew the routine, since he was the one in charge of doing it each winter in the bedroom he shared with his classmates at the boarding school. So, he was more than prepared to perform both tasks.

Concentrated in his work as he was, he had not noticed the smile of the doctor, who has delayed for a moment his return to work to watch him.

He would not know until much later but his refusal to surrender in the face of adversity earned him the doctor's sympathy instantly.







IV



Having enjoyed a relaxing bath and now dressed in the clothes that a sailor had brought to him on behalf of the captain, Remi came to dine that night in the doctor's company.

Captain Misson's cabin was a few steps away from the infirmary, on the same corridor. Aloys knocked on the door and they both got in, as soon as they received the passing order from the other side.

Remi looked around, curious. The cabin was spacious, with draped curtains in the windows and a large desk at the bottom, surrounded by three chairs. There was shelves built in the walls on both sides of the desk, filled with books from floor to ceiling. To the right hung a large bunk bed made of wood and to the left stood a beautiful folding screen with oriental designs, among whose crevices the young man was able to catch a glimpse of a basin, a mirror and something that seemed to be a large tub when he passed by. No doubt that was the toilet area, justifying a greater privacy from the rest of the room.

The center of the room was occupied by a huge oak table. Remi could imagine it full of maps and instruments of navigation, though now it has been dressed up with a white tablecloth and there were trays of food and jugs of cut glass containing red wine on it.

Captain Misson was sitting at the head of the table, chatting with another man who must be the boatswain that the doctor has mentioned him: the man was blond and lanky. He wore a blue dress coat and leather boots, which identifying him clearly as one of the crew's officers.

To see them arrive, both Vianne and her colleague rose from their chairs to greet them:

'Welcome.' the captain cordial smile. 'Please, sit down. Pedro has prepared us a delicious dinner, as usual. Would you fancy a glass of wine?'

The doctor nodded and their hostess poured them wine in cups of cut glass, whose design matched the pitchers. After the first sip, while they still enjoyed the fruity flavor of the wine on their palates, the four took a seat. Remi watched his table mates for a moment, his attention soon attracted by the delicious dishes that spreaded on the table: a tray full of fruit of the best quality, some of them exotic, since he had never seen them before. Surely they must come from the West Indies; an enormous pheasant roasted; a tureen that exhaled an inebriating smell of fish; and finally a tarte normande whose aroma made his stomach roar shamefully.

'It smells very well.' he excused himself, when the other looked at him.

'And tastes even better.' added Vianne, smiling before doing the honours, so that the dinner would start.

'So your brother is the governor of Saint Loïs.' said monsieur Deniaud, after a while. The boatswain looked at him suspiciously with his brown eyes.

'Yes, sir.'

'I've heard of him: a shrewd man, as they say. His island has prospered almost from nothing in just five years.'

'Bernard is a very competent man, monsieur. He takes his responsibilities very seriously and has always had the desire to excel. When his Majesty appointed him governor, he felt he had to honour his duty the best as possible.'

'No doubt he has made. Are you going to follow his steps? Would you honour your duty, when you meet him in Saint Loïs?'

'That's my intention.' nodded Remi. 'I'm expected to help my brother with the issues of trade on the island.'

'Are you a trader?' asked Vianne, curious.

'I've learned the basic skills in the school, madame. Also, I'm going to learn a lot more, working for my future father-in-law.'

'Are you going to get married?' the doctor looked at him surprised, leaving his glass half-raised into the air.

'Yes, I am: on my arrival at Saint Löis is expected I'll marry Monsieur Giroux's daughter.'

'Caroline Giroux?' Vianne frowned, intrigued. 'People speaks about her in the West Indies... although not much is known about her. She's a mysterious figure.'

'It's said that she's not graceful.' stated Deniaud, a mocking smile in his lips. 'Some people think she's a deformed creature: they say that's why her father locked her in a convent at the age of three, just after her mother died.'

'Henri.' the doctor admonished him, pursing his lips. 'I don't think we should give credit to gossip.'

'I'm just saying, doctor. I don't personally know the girl or have anything against her.'

'The gossips are lying, monsieur.' replied Remi, upset by the insult to his betrothed. 'My brother knows the lady's family and he has always praised the qualities and beauty of mademoiselle Giroux. I can assure you that there is nothing wrong with her. Also, if she was put in the care of the Poor Clares of the island, it wasn't due to any deformity but to her father wish of mademoiselle receiving the best education, as her virtue remained preserved from the vices and dangers of the world.'

'The vices and dangers of the world aren't left at the doors of a convent, monsieur.' intervened Vianne, looking at him bearish. 'The sacred isn't enough to protect ourselves. Enclose an individual between four walls preserve him for nothing. The only thing you get that way is isolate the person from the world and deprive him of his freedom... a freedom that God himself granted all of us by creating us. Therefore, we neither can nor should denied it to anyone.'

'I'm sure Monsieur Giroux wasn't intended that, madame. Surely he was just thinking of his daugther's well-being.'

'Sometimes our intentions and our actions differ, monsieur. My personal opinion is no one should be locked up, whatever the reason.'

She was so blunt an inflexible in her words that Remi could not help but feel attacked in some way. He knew he should not react to any act of provocation, since that was not sensible, but he did before being able to avoid it:

'Thus both must agree that you're right, captain. I would add that not only our intentions but also our speech may differ from our actions. You yourself are proof of what I say: defending freedom at any price... while you deprive your hostages of it, in order to benefit from the ransom their families will pay for them.'

There was silence on the table. Remi could feel the moment all the eyes went on him, full of surprise and disapproval in equal parts. He swallowed, becoming aware of his impertinence and being sure that it was going to cost him a punishment.

Deniaud was the first to rise from his chair, his face red with anger:

'You little...!'

'Henri.' the captain stopped him, laying a hand on his forearm. 'There is no need to be altered. Our guest is tired, no doubt the emotions of the day have betrayed his tongue.'

'I don't care about his stupid tongue...'

'You should: circumstances must be taken into consideration.' she looked at him significantly before she turned to look with a serious face at the doctor and the boy. 'We'll let it go this time. Doctor, take Monsieur Delaney back to the infirmary. He must rest... Also, is tomorrow morning his discomfort persists, you already know what to do.'

'Yes, captain.' the physician stood up and turned, giving Remi a black look. 'We're leaving, monsieur.'

Remi stood up, apologising in a rush before run after the doctor and to the exit. Vianne dismissed him with a gesture, while Monsieur Deniaud snorted and made a big deal about it as he sat down.

The captain, for her part, remained silence and poured herself another cup of wine, drinking it with parsimony.

She was angry. She has been in fact so close to punish that insolent for his audacity. But she couldn't deny the guy was daring – or perhaps just a fool - to say what he thought... and even it was possible he was partly right.





'I'm sorry.' Remi apologized, as they crossed the infirmary's doorway.

Aloys snorted with anger, closing the door behind them. The boy had disappointed him with his stupidity. He was angry and now that they were in private, there was no need to hold back:

'What the hell were you thinking about!?' he confronted him. 'Didn't make myself clear, when I explained you the rules and the consequences of violating them?'

'You did and I understand perfectly your anger. You have a right...'

'So why you didn't listen to me? How dare you to offend the captain that way? You called her a hypocrite in her own face.'

'It wasn't my intention. I felt attacked by her words. She was so emphatic and I...'

'She usually is. It's part of her personality, it's nothing personal. Vianne has always been a passionate woman.'

'Now I know. I'm sorry for what happened.' he apologized again. 'It was reckless and stupid of me, I'm aware of that. I'll apologise to the captain first thing in the morning.'

'Of course you'll do. From now on, you'll tame your tongue and your attitude. You have already earned Deniaud's animosity and he's a man who doesn't forget easily. Don't provoke him in the future. As for the captain,' he added, 'You must know her understanding is limited, when it comes to those who question her authority. Next time you wont be so lucky.'

'There wont be a next time, I promise. I've realised my mistake.'

'You'd better.' he huffed, turning away his gaze from him and looking at the row of bunk beds on the left, which could accommodate up to eight patients, but now they were all empty. 'Choose a bed.' he ordered. 'You will sleep on it, while you're here... as long as you don't make another mistake and end up in the hold.'

'That's not going to happen.'

'Well, I hope so because my word doesn't have much influence in this ship. I cannot help you, do you understand? You have no friends or protectors here. Your survival depends solely on yourself. Learn that lesson as soon as possible, if you don't want to pay the consequences.'

'I'll do. I'll play by the rules. You wont have to worry about me in the future, I assure you.'

'I don't care about you.' he disowned. Then sighed. 'I don't even know you! This morning I thought you were a sensible boy and you would know how to behave in these circumstances but now I've realised you're just a fool, who doesn't have an idea about how to hold his tongue.' he gave Remi a black look and the young man lowered his gaze, embarrassed like a child reprimanded by his father. 'Good night, monsieur. See you tomorrow.'

He walked away, disappearing on the other side of the sailcloth. Remi watched the shadow of the man, while he prepared to get into bed. He swallowed, chiding himself for having goofed and not having been able to contain his temper or his words. In such a situation that was the last thing he needed.

In addition, he discovered that a small part of him felt sad for having let the doctor down. While he was picking one of the bunk beds to sleep, he reminded himself that meet the physician's expectations was not his purpose. He was not obliged to do it and he should not be worried because the doctor could feel disappointed. However, he has never liked to disappoint anyone.

Aloys had treated him very well and for his words Remi knew he actually concerned for his well-being... for its integrity, at least. The doctor was not going to admit it, of course: they didn't know each other and the physician couldn't allow himself to feel compassion of the hostages on board. At the end of the day, he was on the pirates' side.

'Even so, he's noble enough to care for others.' he thought. 'He feels frustrated because he knows he wont be able to help me, if I don't help myself. Any wrongdoer without scruples would be worried about that. No, that shows he's a good man.'

Wrapping in the sheets, he promised himself he would not put his foot in it again. He would not put its integrity at risk and would try not to displease his kind guardian again. From now on, he would be prudent and sensible. He should not forget what was his true position on that ship.

He was decided not to make the same mistake twice.



V



The the next morning, after having breakfast, Remi asked him for permission to go to see the captain.

He granted it to him, of course, and watched him while he walked away with a sigh: the truth was he was not angry anymore. In fact, that morning the boy had shown a clear willingness to amend, to compensate, looking at him with that puppy eyes that had made him consider whether he has been too strict with him the night before. At the end of the day, he was just a boy and boys made nonsense once in a while. Especially if they had to deal with the fact that being kidnapped and holding against their will by pirates, with the consequent danger to their lives. Also, Remi had humbly accepted his mistake...

'Don't relent.' he said to himself. 'You were strict with him in order to make him learn the lesson and it seems you have succeeded. There is nothing to regret.'

That was true. Although after thinking of what happened, he could not help to think the boy's words had been accurate. He was sure Vianne also would have noticed it. She was an intelligent woman and usually she didn't miss a thing. No doubt that's why she had not punished the boy. Remi has been lucky. Otherwise, he would be chained in the hold now, waiting to receive his punishment in front of everyone. In that case, he would have to treat his wounds...

He winced. He didn't want to think about that. It was not his desire the young man was harmed in any way and he didn't want to have to repeat the unpleasant experience of assisting a prisoner who has been mistreated, either. He had been forced to heal many in that situation, before Vianne was elected as a captain, and he has never liked it.

Fortunately, he knew he would not have to face that with Monsieur Delaney. Unless the boy was stupid enough to upset Vianne again and he was almost sure that would not happen.

Half an hour after his departure, Remi came back. He was in front of his desk at that moment and the young man came to him, not without hesitation, and he stopped what he was doing to look at him.

'How did it go?' he asked, curious.

'Fine.' he sighed. He seemed relieved. 'The captain and I are now at peace.'

'I'm glad.' seeing the boy has not departed from his side and was looking at him expectantly, he added: 'Do you want to tell me anything else, monsieur?'

'I had thought...' Remi cleared his throat, as if he was mustering the courage to speak: 'I'd like to make you a request, doctor.'

'A request? To me?' that aroused his curiosity. 'What's it about?'

'I haven't dared to ask the captain because I didn't know how she would react.' the boy admitted. 'Perhaps, a cause of my position in this ship, my request could seem somewhat unorthodox. It's for that reason that I prefer to discuss it with you first and know your opinión about it.'

'Very well.' he gestured to the bed, where the boy took a seat in order to speak. 'Go ahead. I'm all ears.'

'I know I'll have to stay here for several weeks,' he declared, 'and there's not much I can do in that time except reading, which I don't wish to do forever. So that I had thought to find myself an occupation: some of my skills could be useful on the ship, I believe. What do you think about it?'

The young man watched him, awaiting his verdict. He weighed it for a moment:

'It's not a commond request, that's true, although it's not unusual. In fact, it could be perfectly feasible.' he said, interested. 'Tell me, do you know anything of navigation?'

'Very little, sir. I had thought I could be your assistant, actually.'

'My assistant?' that's definitely caught his attention. 'I didn't know you had knowledge of medicine, monsieur.'

'I haven't.' he grimaced at seeing he looked at him with skepticism and hurried to add: 'But I can read and write in two languages, sir. I could help you with the inventory. I also have a head for figures and you've seen I can do simple tasks.'

'What else you can do, apart from lighting the stove and prepare a bath?' he asked, intrigued.

'I can make beds and I know to use a broom... I could even empty the chamber pots, if necessary. I've seen how it's done.'

'I appreciate your willingness, monsieur. Certainly those are all very useful skills but I wonder if those wont be tasks too low for a man of your position.'

'My position wont be a problem.' he assured. 'Although my brother is a governor and our family is ancient and renowned, we have never been more than rural nobles... we're mere landowners, monsieur.' he said it humbly and that pleased the doctor. It seemed there was no arrogance in him. 'In addition, I don't have anything better to do and I'd like to contribute, if I can.'

He observed the boy's face carefully, looking for a lie that he didn't find. Remi was being sincere, although he can't help to wonder what were his true intentions on that. Were such a willingness to lend a hand honest or just a trick to gain their trust? Was he intended to be useful in the eyes of everyone, maybe even to arouse their affection, so he could obtain some advantage over them? He may wish to achieve greater freedom, to be released of his confinement in the infirmary perhaps...

Despite everything, he had to admit it was not a bad idea. In fact, having a assistant will be positive for him. If he didn't trust the boy, he just had to watch him well... and that was his obligation, anyway. In any case, it wasn't even sure that he got Vianne's approval. If she accepted his proposal, it would be with some conditions: if he himself had his doubts about Remi, she surely wouldn't trust him at all and would act accordingly. She would not allow that young man to cause any prejudice to her plans or her men.

'We must inform the captain about it.' he said. 'It's her who must give the nod to your proposal. I'll go to see her after lunch and we'll see what she says. Just in case, don't get your hopes up. There is no guarantee you was going to get what you want.'

'Okay.' said the young man. 'Thanks anyway, doctor.'

He frowned as he watched him, evaluating him as a candidate:

'Tell me, does it bother you to see blood?'

'No.'

'How much blood exactly have you seen in your life? It's important: some people can't handle its vision and passes out upon seeing it.'

'That's not my case.' Remi shook his head. 'I remember seeing a clean break a year ago: an accident suffered by one of my classmates at the boarding school. The bone could be seen. It was very unpleasant, certainly.'

'Didn't it affect you?' he asked, intrigued.

'No.'

'Well, that will serve, I suppose.' he sighed, before remembering something: 'Excuse me, what languages have you said you speak?'

'I haven't said, actually, but I speak French and Spanish.'

'I see.'

He rose from his chair and walked away to cross to the other side of the sailcloth, to the apothecary, which was next to the toilet. He came back some minutes later, with a bucket he put on Remi's lap. The boy looked down, seeing the brush, the clean cloth and the huge green bar of soap inside the bucket.

'I want you to clean the floors.' he declared, when the young man rose his eyes up to him, looking for an answer. 'It will be one of your basic tasks, if you becomes my assistant. So I want to verify you're able to do so. I will assess your work and, if the results please me, I'll recommend the captain to accept your proposal.'

'Agreed.' Remi stood up, determinated. 'You wont have any complaint of my work, doctor.'

'I hope so.'

The boy nodded and walked away, ready to fulfil his task. He went after him and stopped at a safe distance to observe interested, as the young man put the brush, the towel and the soap on the floor, beside one of the beds, and walked then to the window for picking up the water. Seconds after, he came back and knelt down, putting the bucket on the floor next to him, ready to start.

Remi hesitated for a few moments. Then took the soap with decision and he sighed at seeing the boy rubbing the soap directly on the floor, without getting it through water, making clear the fact that he had no idea what he was doing. He was aware of a young man of his class could not be expected to know how to do that kind of work, although amazingly he was able to carry out some cleaning tasks. At some point in his life he'd has learned them or seen them done, he supposed. However, it was obvious that his young captive had not touched a cleaning cloth in his whole life... much less he was accustomed to use it.

He got closer and touched him gently on the shoulder to get his attention. Remi rose his eyes and seeing his face, he composed an expression of circumstances. He was trying to make his best but both were aware of his ignorance with regard to certain tasks:

'It's easier if you wet the soap first and then use the brush to clean the floor.' the doctor recommended, with a gentle tone. He didn't mean to patronise him but someone had to teach the boy. 'The cloth can be used at the end to rinse off the soap.'

'Thanks.' he grimaced, embarrassed. 'I'm sorry, I'm not get used to...'

'Don't worry, monsieur, you're trying hard.' he smiled to comfort him. 'That also counts for me.'

The boy smiled back and the gesture softened his features, lighting up his blue eyes, which were even more beautiful the more closely you looked at them.

He looked away and stepped back to take distance from his future apprentice during the assessment. While the boy returned to his chores with a renewed determination, he could not avoid a grimace at seeing him: Remi was trying hard but still he was not sure of that. What kind of assistant would be the young Delaney? He didn't even know how to handle a cloth and his knowledge of medicine was virtually null...

He sighed.

He could end up regreting that, even if Vianne approved it.





Vianne was on deck, replacing Cloutier behind the rudder.

Keeping the ship's course required supervision twenty-four hours a day, in order to prevent the vessel from deviating from her route. For that reason, they had established four-hour shifts for the sailors, who were rotating and divided their time between the deck and the bilge, where the pumps worked all day bailing out the water that seeped in the bottom of the ship, which was in permanent contact with the sea, and was in danger to become in a swamp of stagnant water, if it was not drained well and constantly.

Among her duties as a captain was not to pump at the bilges but she had to watch the ship's course and at the moment, while she did so, her eyes observed the men working around her, a vision that always had made her feel relaxed, as it represented the peace of the routine for her: she could see the sailors working with the sails, handling the ropes, and a couple of cadets competing to see who was able to swipe the mop faster fore and aft. In the forecastle, another group of boys – none of them was less than fifteen: it was one of the rules of the ship – was washing the sailors' clothes in a wooden tub, chatting and joking.

Vianne smiled, satisfied. That was another quiet day at work...

'Captain, can I have a moment of your time?'

She turned, following the sound of the doctor's voice. He was standing on her left with his hands on the back, in a gesture that was a habit of him.

'Good afternoon, Aloys. Tell me, what do you want?'

'Nothing relevant, actually: I must ask for your permission.'

'For what?' she asked, intrigued.

'Monsieur Delaney has expressed his desire to help me in the infirmary. I've told him it was you who must approve it.'

The woman frowned.

'He didn't say anything, when we talked this morning.'

'According to him, he didn't know which would be your reaction, due to the unusual of his request. He talked with me to know my opinion before communicate it to you.'

'And what's your opinion?' she asked, looking at him with curiosity.

Aloys sighed, while he thought about it.

'Well, it's obvious the boy wants the position: I ordered him a simple task to test him and he carried it out with dedication and without complaints, despite having no idea and being the task itself unworthy of his status.'

'Do you trust his intentions? Do you think he is being honest or maybe his desire to help is due to some cunning plan? Perhaps he's trying to earn our trust to gain some privileges during his captivity.'

'It could be possible.' he admitted. 'He certainly has the intelligence for that and more. It's what any of us would do, if we were in his place. But I don't see him as a threat.' he added. 'He's inexperienced and impetuous at times, like many young men, but I think he's sincere... though I don't rule out he may have ulterior motives.'

'Me neither. That's why we will be cautious with him: if you want to name him your assistant, I have no objection. The boy will be under your direct supervision and his detention's conditions will remain the same. On the other hand, if he fails at his duties or we discover he's fooling us, or his inexperience or ineptitude eventually hurt someone on this ship... I'm confident you'll let him know he will pay the consequences. I wouldn't wish our young friend get the wrong idea about that.'

'I'll tell him.' he nodded.

'Perfect. Is there anything else you want us to discuss?'

'No, that was all. I should go back to the infirmary now. I wont take up any more of your time. Thanks for giving your permission.'

'My pleasure.' the captain smiled suddenly. 'Now Monsieur Delaney wont be able to say I take away his freedom from him.'

Aloys laughed.

'Vianne, you know the boy didn't said that to offend you.'

'No, he said that because he believed it... and he's right.' she declared. 'Defending freedom, while you kidnap people for ransom is quite incongruous, don't you think?'

'Well, in your defense, this is your first kidnapping... And it will be the last, if I'm not mistaken.'

'It will be.' she said, nodding in agreement. 'When all this has finished, only Madagascar is waiting for us.'

Hearing her words, the doctor widened his smile. She smiled back and they both exchanged a knowing look, before they turned to contemplate the vast ocean around them.

They both thought of the future with a broad smile.

VI



The cooks' routine on the Liberté started very early. At dawn, Augustin – the young mulatto who had been recruited a year ago in Martinique as a kitchen boy – and Pedro left their hammocks to wash up and prepare breakfast for their fellow crew.

Their work shift covered meal times mostly. Also, both were in charge of everything related to the kitchen, including the pantry and the dining room, which they kept always neat and tidy, according to the rules of the ship.

That morning, Pedro was the first to reach the large table, where they used to prepare the food. There he found a delicate pink flower: a Jamaican rose, fragrant and similar in its appearance to an European poppy. It must have been left there anonymously during the night, after he and his partner finished their day and went to sleep.

The cook took it right away, bringing it closer to his nose to smell it, while he grinned broadly and closed his black eyes in delight a cause of the perfume. Behind him, he heard Augustin mumbled something he was not understand and he turned around to watch him, distracted.

'Have you said something?'

'I'm going for the flour.' the mulatto said surly and walked away, disappearing behind the archway that led to the pantry.

Pedro ignored him. The boy must have got out of the hammock on the wrong side.

He focused his attention back on the flower. He knew exactly who had left him that gift, since the sailor in question had already done the same before: he had almost half a dozen flowers under his belt, at the rate of one or two per month. Normally, he received them after they docked in some port because there were not many chances of getting flowers being on the high seas... unless you steal those of the pantry or the geraniums he grew in small pots under one of the portholes.

His flowers were for a practical use and woe to who dared to touch them without his permission. All the sailors knew it. On any other occasion, he would have flown into a rage against the infamous thief but considering the circumstances...


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