One Night with a Scoundrel – Shelly Thacker

The July sun sizzled over the Bay of Bengal, the acrid smells of gunpowder and cannon shot clinging to the heat-thickened air. The residue of violence mingled oddly with the more piquant scents of cinnamon, pepper, and cloves. Broken casks of spices, dropped by the English pirates in their greedy haste, littered the deck of the Portuguese merchant frigate. The English buccaneers had reduced the Adiante to a tangled ruin of torn sails and rigging, splintered masts, and blood-spattered oak in a matter of minutes. Thankfully, none of them had given so much as a glance to the capstan, the slim barrel beside the mainmast used for storing cable. Hidden there, six-year-old Ashiana de Canto e Calda trembled, her eyes squeezed shut, her boyish white shirt and breeches stuck to her skin in the sweltering heat. She must not let the pirates know she was here. Papa had said she must not. He had asked her to be a brave girl, in that split second when he realized the ship approaching under a friendly Portuguese flag was not friendly at all. He had only enough time to whisk her inside the capstan before the Adiante took a full broadside. He gave her a reassuring flicker of his usual warm smile, just before he replaced the lid and drew his saber to fight. She only heard what happened next: swarms of men coming over the railings, shouting in a guttural language. The clash of swords. The sharp pop of pistols. Screams—Deus, the screams! Then, for a few minutes, an eerie silence reigned.

Papa, she thought, terrified. Papa! Are you all right? Her heart had thudded a dozen hard beats before she heard his voice, shouting curses as the pirates helped themselves to the cargo he had worked so hard to get. Now Ashiana could hear muffled sounds from the holds below. She tried not to cough. Smoke burned her throat with every breath—and that frightened her even more. This smoke wasn’t coming from the ship’s spent cannons; she had smelled that more than once in the past. This was much stronger, and she could guess its source. The Adiante, her birthplace, the only home she had known, the ship where she had scrambled through the rigging, journeyed to all the ports of India, and sung songs with her father’s sailors all her life, had been set ablaze. She heard the pirates on deck again, yelling in that awful, unfamiliar tongue. From the responses shouted by her father, it sounded as if these Englishmen were looking for some treasure they had not found.

She heard Papa say the word “sapphires” several times. It made no sense. Her father did not trade in jewels. He was a spice merchant, sailing between Bombay, Madras, and their home port at Goa. They had been on their way to the Andaman Islands, where Papa would stop to trade with his friend who lived there, Maharaja Kalyan Ajmir. She had always liked visiting the maharaja and his palace. He and his people were of the warrior tribe called the Rajputs, but they did not frighten Ashiana. The maharaja always gave her sweet nougats and let her play with the peacocks and baby chital deer in his menagerie. The Adiante had been within sight of the maharaja’s islands when the English pirates attacked. Now it all seemed impossibly far away.

She could hear her father speaking again. His voice was more angry than she had ever heard it. “Destroying my ship and slaughtering my crew will not change the truth! The Nine Sapphires of Kashmir do not exist. It is only a legend!” This time one of the pirates responded in Portuguese, so heavily accented that Ashiana could barely make it out. “Liar,” the man snarled. “You’re good friends with them Ajmir, so you must know something. They’re the ones what guard the sapphires. Everybody from here to Brazil knows that. Now start talking!” Ashiana heard her father utter a painful grunt, as if someone had hit him. She whimpered despite her promise to be brave.

It was very hard to stay silent. She blinked as smoke stung her tear-filled eyes. The fire was getting closer. “Maybe me cat-o’-nine-tails will loosen your tongue!” There was the sound of cloth tearing. “You cough up the truth right quick now, Cap’n, else there won’t be enough left of you to feed the fishes.” Ashiana, to her horror, heard a whip singing through the air. Papa shouted in pain. Her body jerked as the lash landed on her father’s back…again and again. Then he stopped shouting. He stopped making any sounds at all.

“Had enough yet, Cap’n? Tell us what you know about them sapphires!” He uttered only a groan. The pirates laughed. Ashiana had never heard anything so cruel and horrifying in all her life. In that moment, an overpowering emotion seized her, a feeling she had never experienced before. She hated these Englishmen! Hated them so much she could taste it like something bitter on her tongue. She would kill them if she could! The pirate called out something in English, and the whip cracked again. Papa screamed. “Nao! No!” Unable to stand it a second longer, Ashiana threw her full weight upward against the capstan lid and tumbled from her hiding place. Her eyes took in the terrifying scene with a single glance. Smoke poured from the Adiante’s bow.

The fallen crew lay scattered across the deck— Gaspar and Diogo and Martim and the others, every one of her friends, dead. Two men held her father by the arms while a third raised a lash over his bare back. “Nao! No! Papa!” She threw herself at the astonished pirate who held the whip. “Filho da puta!” She beat at him with her fists, yelling curses she had heard the Adiante’s sailors use so many times. “Va para o diabo! Chega! No more!” She grabbed his arm with all the strength she possessed, to keep him from hurting her father anymore. The pirate shouted at her in English and shook her off with a snap of his arm. The whip, still gripped in his hand, snaked sideways and struck Ashiana as she fell, opening a line of red on her left arm from her wrist to her elbow. She landed on the deck with a cry of pain. In the confusion, her father threw off the men who held him and launched himself at the one who had hurt Ashiana. “I will kill you!” One of the pirates behind him drew a pistol.

“Papa!” Ashiana screamed in warning. The gun went off in a burst of fire and noise. Papa staggered, suspended for a moment against the clear summer-blue sky, his handsome features a mask of agonized surprise. He crumpled to the deck. The pirate leader swore and began yelling at the man who had fired. Sobbing, Ashiana scrambled to her father. He lay unmoving on a jumble of canvas and rigging. “Papa?” Ignoring the fiery pain in her left arm, Ashiana touched his cheek. His brown eyes flickered open. A crimson stain was spreading quickly on the white sailcloth beneath him.

“I am sorry, minha cara,” he gasped. A shadow blocked the sun. Ashiana looked up to see one of the pirates looming over her. With his pale face, matted blond hair, and bushy beard, he was the ugliest, most frightening thing she had ever seen. “So this little whelp be yours, Cap’n?” he asked in mangled Portuguese. “Maybe we’ll get the truth from you now.” Ashiana spat at the man. He only laughed. Reaching down, he grabbed her by her thick black hair. “After you’ve tasted me lash, you won’t be so—” Suddenly, his voice choked out.

As if from the clouds above, an arrow had whistled across the deck and struck him in the middle of his chest. He dropped Ashiana as he toppled over. The men around him fell back in shock. A lance killed another of them before they could think to draw their weapons. Ashiana huddled over her father protectively. The pirates spun to face their unseen enemy. A score of dark-skinned warriors dressed in turbans and silks suddenly appeared over the railing, bristling with weapons. A dozen more came from the other side of the ship. “Papa,” Ashiana cried in surprise and relief, “it is the maharaja’s men!” The battle was over almost before it began. The pirates were no match for the legendary Rajput warriors.

Scimitars and battle-axes flashed, and the few Englishmen left standing were throwing themselves overboard to escape to their own ship. The Rajputs followed to the rail, releasing volley after volley of flaming arrows that soon had the pirate vessel blazing. Ashiana pillowed her papa’s head in her lap and kissed his temple. “You will be all right, now, Papa,” she assured him, stroking his black hair. “You will.” “Never should have…kept you with me, minha cara.” His eyes drifted open, then closed. “Your mother would have wanted you to be a…proper little English lady.” “Never, Papa! I hate the English. I hate them!” “No, Ashiana, do not—” A spasm seized him and he could not speak for a moment.

“Do not…hate half of what you are.” He grimaced in pain. Ashiana was about to reply when she became aware of someone else kneeling beside her, felt a gentle hand on her shoulder. Wiping a grimy sleeve across her eyes, she looked up to see the maharaja’s face. He looked impassive as always, his brown skin wreathed with hard lines, his dark eyes revealing no emotion. “Antonio,” he said in his deep, calm voice. “We saw the smoke. Our cata maran are swift but I fear we are too late to save your ship, my friend.” As if to underscore his words, the Adiante shifted suddenly, its oak timbers groaning as the fire devoured the lower decks. “We shall take you to safety.

” The maharaja signaled to his men. “No, Kalyan,” Ashiana’s father objected weakly. “It is my time, and I would…stay with my ship. But you must…you must take Ashiana with you—” “Papa, no!” Ashiana looked back down at her father, stricken at the idea. For the first time, and with a depth of understanding that went beyond her years, she realized her papa was not going to be all right. He was dying. She felt as if the very sun had been stolen from the sky. Ashiana had been without a mother from the day of her birth, but she had never been apart from her father. She grasped his hand, her small fingers wrapping firmly around his callused palm. “No, Papa.

” She started crying. “I will not leave you!” He closed his eyes, his face etched with pain. “Kalyan, she must…h-have a home. Jacinda had no family left in England. And I have—” He coughed on the smoke. “I have no one in Portugal—” “She shall be as my own,” the maharaja said simply, laying a hand on Papa’s shoulder. Ashiana was crying too hard to speak. “I love you, my daughter,” her father whispered. She hugged him fiercely, shaking with sobs. “Papa, don’t leave me.

” “Remember always…” he whispered. “Remember me, minha cara…” The Adiante shifted again, heeling over on one side, dangerously low in the water. “It must be now,” Papa said weakly, his eyes still closed as if he had no strength to open them again. “Kalyan…know that I told them nothing. Your secret…it is safe.” “The gods shall bless your next life, Antonio.” The next thing Ashiana knew, the maharaja had scooped her into his arms. He and his warriors moved quickly across the ravaged deck toward the rail. “Papa!” Ashiana screamed, reaching back toward her father’s still form. “Papa!” The maharaja held her tightly as the Rajputs slipped over the side and down into their small boats, casting off their lines and pushing away from the sinking merchantman.

Ashiana fought the maharaja’s hold on her as they left the Adiante behind. Smoke and flames and the sea consumed the ship until she couldn’t see anything but the Portuguese flag atop the mainmast. Then even that disappeared beneath the waves. She went limp, sobbing into the maharaja’s silk tunic. “You must not cry so, little one,” he said gently, wrapping a protective arm around her. “You are now a Rajput princess of the clan Ajmir.”

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