CHAPTER ONE
The Time Has Come


It was an unusually biting wind that roamed the deserted waters around the Mary-Mercer and pushed the ship onwards, penetrating the sailors' flimsy shirts and chilling their lean bodies. The blinding fog surrounding the ship did nothing to improve the sailors' spirits either, for Arctic winds were never expected to wander the Caribbean Sea due to the latter's constant high temperatures, and the ship was well south of the Tropic of Cancer.

But a cold and uncommon wind it was, though it did nothing to daunt the girl on the deck of the ship who leaned as far as she could over the railings without falling overboard. Her smudged and torn dress, bare feet, and dark copper waves of hair billowing around her shoulders gave her the appearance of a convict on the run, though she was, in fact, a rather wealthy heiress from the highest ranks of French aristocracy.

Most peculiarly, she wanted none of it. Not the expensive dresses or carriages, nor the fancy associations that wealth and fame always brought. And especially not the constricting rules and regulations ever-present in the life of a noblewoman. She wrinkled her nose with distaste. That was what she'd have to be - a noblewoman. She'd have to marry some rich old goat and be an agreeable and demure little wife, bear him ten thousand children, and die a miserable wretch.

She growled angrily and leaned further over the railings in protest. "I won't, I won't, I won't!" she chanted under her breath. "I'd sooner die than turn into a slave!"

"Mercy! Mercy, chérie, how many times have I told you not to lean over the railings?" called a man with a fashionable grey wig and plumed hat, striding up to the girl with an exasperated expression on his face.

"Well, I don't count, do I?" Mercy snapped back, stepping off the railings and turning to face the man.

"Mon Dieu! What have you been doing? Oh, Mercy, you haven't been in the brig again, have you? Your dress is all torn and sullied ... and where are your shoes?!"

"I'll find them somewhere," replied Mercy, waving her hand vaguely. "And I don't care about my dress. It's so heavy and tight, and I'd rather wear men's clothing, anyway."

"I don't like that attitude, Mercy Bellew." Mercy's father frowned at her sternly. "Though your mother would doubtless approve of it, were she alive, you will conform to - "

"You leave my mother out of this!" Mercy flared up angrily. "You'll never let her rest in peace! And I won't conform to anyone's wishes, least of all yours. I hate you! I hate you and I wish you'd die!"

Mr Bellew grabbed Mercy's arm in a tight grip and pulled his face close to hers. "I do not care what you think of me as long as you control your temper and behave in a respectable manner which does not include humiliating me in public. And if you disgrace me one more time I swear up on your mother's grave - " (he paused in triumph) " - that I will disown you. Otherwise you are to be a well-mannered young lady and not a pauper's wench. And fix your hair," he added over his shoulder as he walked away, his expensive shoes making clicking noises on the deck.

"I don't care! I don't care! Disowning me will not erase the memory of what you did to my mother! I know the truth, I saw it happen!" Mercy yelled at Mr Bellew's retreating back.

But he did not turn around or give any ackowledgement that he had heard her. Instead of tying her hair with the ribbon wrapped around her wrist, Mercy dishevelled the reddish curls even more, twisting and tangling harshly. She then flopped down onto the deck and proceeded to furiously tear the folds of her dress until it looked that she was wearing nothing more than strips of cloth. Of course it didn't improve her appearance but it helped soothe her anger and stoke the fire of hate that blazed in her soul.

This wasn't the first time she had been so enraged by her father, nor was it likely to be the last. She had had to live with him in close quarters for over a month, something that she wasn't accustomed to doing as she had been sent to a boarding school every year in England.

But now there was no escaping him. Now they were in the middle of the Caribbean Sea where no boarding schools could provide refuge from his sharp eye and even sharper tongue. He always seemed to know how to rouse her anger, though it was usually the same way. With just one mention of Mercy's mother, Mercy was ready to blast her father into oblivion, if only she had a pistol.

She would never forgive him for what he did to her mother, his wife. She had told the truth when she said she saw it happen, and she remembered every terrible moment of the incident. Of course, Mercy's father had not meant for his daughter to see the proceedings, but Mercy had always been a rebellious child and had kicked her bedroom door down when she heard her mother's scream that night.

Oh, how Mercy had loved her mother! For Mrs Bellew never scolded or threatened her, like her husband was always wont to do. It was Mrs Bellew who protested against the enrollment of Mercy in a boarding school; it was Mrs Bellew who protected Mercy after the teachers at the school complained about her fights with the other girls; it was Mrs Bellew who had taught Mercy all she knew about seafaring and allowed her to swim at the beach in men's clothing.

Yet it was Mrs Bellew who would have abandoned her daughter and sailed off on a stolen ship, partial to the pirate ways she had been forced to give up when Mercy was born. And she would have done it most unscrupulously, Mercy knew, had it not been for Mr Bellew's interference.

Mercy could not imagine how her father had managed to persuade her mother to live with him. Nor was she able to understand why Mr Bellew had ever taken up with her mother in the first place. Mr Bellew was one of the most distinguished men in England, complete with a nice house, nice carriage, and seemingly nice disposition. His household knew better. Mercy knew better.

Nevertheless, she was not afraid of him. She couldn't allow herself to be afraid of him. Otherwise how would she deal with him? She had been scared at first, having seen what he was capable of when pushed to the limit. But she remembered that she had been living with a murderous pirate who had not, in fact, committed a single killing for twelve years, just before the fear was able to step in.

Although she had never really liked Mr Bellew much, Mercy dislike of him reached boiling point on that fateful night when she saw him as a criminal and a liar. Even now, as she sat on the cold smooth deck of the Mary-Mercer, hatred bubbled within her like a hot spring. She couldn't control it. Moreover, she didn't want to control it. She was tired of the rules Mr Bellew loved and yearned for freedom like a caged bird.

She wished for her mother. She wanted to break free of her chains, just like her mother did. Yet no matter how much Mercy loved her, there was still a small voice in the back of her mind that liked to whisper how Mrs Bellew would have run off on a pirate ship without giving Mercy a second thought. Nevertheless, Mercy knew her mother would want to help her. Mrs Bellew did, after all, have some pity for her child. But where would she look for the soul of Aimone Blaire Bellew?

Mercy rose to her feet and, with a mutinous expression on her face, stormed to the captain's cabin, deliberately thumping her feet on the floor as she went. Thankfully Mr Bellew was not in the cabin, nor was anyone else. It was a rather drab room with grey curtains, polished wooden chairs and table, and ugly-looking bed in a corner. On the pristine white tablecloth covering the table lay a golden pocket watch, a silver compass, and a pistol.

Mercy stared at the pistol for a moment before carefully picking it up and strapping it tightly to her leg with her hair ribbon, covering her dress over the lot. Without giving the room another glance she briskly strode out of it and back up to the upper deck, her hands swinging loosely at her sides.

Now the deck was filled with sailors and she could see Mr Bellew talking quietly to the Captain of the ship at the helm while the boatswain shouted orders to the sailors. Meaning to walk to the other side of the ship, Mercy turned but stopped when she heard her name called by Mr Bellew. She paused and then slowly, ever so slowly, she glided over to within two metres of him and stood staring at him through lowered eyelids, a small smile playing round her lips.

"Good heavens, child! What have you done to your dress?" inquired Mr Bellew, shocked. "I will not have you walking around looking like a beggar. You will go down to your cabin and change immediately!"

The smile on Mercy's face widened slightly and she shook her head. "Oh no, I'm quite fine as I am."

Mr Bellew frowned. "I will have no nonsense from you, Mercy. You remember what I told you today so do as I tell you. It will only be worse for you if you don't."

"You really think so?" Mercy shrugged. "I'm sorry, but I don't agree. You see, I have got it into my head that I don't want to conform to your wishes anymore. S'not much fun, you know, being someone's puppet. And I've decided that it's high time I rebel."

"You will get these ridiculous notions out of your head this minute!" growled Mr Bellew, his face purpling with rage. "You will shut up and change your dress. I will deal with you later."

Mercy grinned wickedly. "Well, shiver me timbers! I'm trembling with fright! Going to give me a hundred lashes o' the whip? A keelhaul, perhaps? Or maybe you'd be more comfortable to just get it over and done with quickly, just like you did with my mother?"

Mr Bellew paled slightly, his hands balled into fists at his sides, and said in almost a whisper meaning only for Mercy to hear, "Your mother deserved it. She wasn't just a pirate, you know, she was a whore, too. And she loved it!" Mr Bellew's eyes widened in glee as he flashed Mercy an ugly grin. "Oh yes, your mother loved whoring. If she had been less of a pirate, she'd have taken the former as a full-time occupation. She forgot to tell you about that, didn't she?"

By now the whole crew of the Mary-Mercer was listening intently to the proceedings, each man frozen in his last task, all intent on hearing every word that was traded between Mercy and Mr Bellew. But Mercy had had enough. In one fast, fluid movement she hitched up the hem of her dress and whipped the pistol out of its bindings, focusing it on Mr Bellew's chest.

"Any last words, Mr Bellew?" she said pleasantly, cocking the pistol. "I know you don't deserve the privilege but I believe in milking situations for all their worth, if you understand my meaning."

"Just like your mother," Mr Bellew gasped, now whiter than his stockings. "I should have known you'd be just like her. But you will change, will you not? You will live up to your name, yes? Mercy? Mercy?"

"You jest, Mr Bellew," replied Mercy softly. "Or you are merely stupid. The latter is most likely, of course; you never had much of a sense of humour." She paused. "Tell me, Mr Bellew, why should I change? What benefits could I reap then? I do not want to become the paragon of a perfect lady and I can guarantee that will never happen."

"But you don't really want to kill me!" exclaimed Mr Bellew plaintively.

"Oh, I assure you that I really do," contradicted Mercy. "I've had to wait fifteen years to exact mine and my mother's revenge on you. Today is surely a blessed day on my calendar. But don't worry, I will remember you and make sure to celebrate this day every year. For it is today that I break free of the chains you binded me with. It is today that I grasp freedom. But now I'm getting bored with this and I'd much rather quit. Say goodbye to the life you have wasted, Mr Bellew. You should hope that the devil is a creature of your nature for you'll need all the allies you can find in Hell."

It took less than a second but it seemed like an hour to Mercy when she finally pulled the trigger and watched, in vicious triumph, as the blood spurted out of the bullet wound in Mr Bellew's chest as he lay, dead, on the poop deck of the Mary-Mercer amid a shocked silence.


~ ~ ~


Although it was well past midnight and her nine o'clock bedtime, twelve-year-old Margaret Brooks sat on a plush grey window seat, gazing out into the darkness of Port Royal that sprawled before her.

She had been reading before the colourful streaks of the sunset caught her eye, but the book lay quite forgotten up on her lap as she watched the sky and ocean alike turn an inky black as it had done every night for every year of Margaret's existence.

Yet she never tired of the mixture of pinks, purples, oranges and blues that swirled across the sky every day that was graced with fine weather. While other girls of Margaret's age would spend their time dancing or playing dress-ups, Margaret watched the reflections of the sky in the water through her bedroom window. She would much rather have watched them from the deck of a ship, but because she was forbidden to go anywhere near the docks of Port Royal, this was quite impossible.

Margaret's parents had both died in an accident at sea when they went out in a rowboat and got caught in a terrible storm. Margaret had been five years old the last time she had seen her parents.

She had been born in Port Royal on the Caribbean island of Jamaica and lived there for the past eleven years of her life, although in utter misery which was due to the fact that her grandparents forbade her from all water activities.

This prohibition is mostly what made Margaret Brooks odder than other girls her age. It was the water that had always been the biggest attraction for her and, when her parents died, it had grown into an obsession. She never tired of begging her grandparents to let her go sailing but they were adamant: Margaret was born on land and she would stay on land for as long as both of them were alive.

And ever since that time when Margaret was nine years old and almost drowned when she slipped off the docks and fell into the water, her grandparents always made sure that she had someone with her whenever she went out of the house, which was a very tiresome thing indeed.

And the fact that she wanted to be a pirate more than anything did not help the matter at all.

Of course it was the oddest thing about her and often got her strong reprimands whenever she mentioned it, but no one could dissuade her from the idea no matter how many terrifying stories they invented or sharp remarks they uttered. So Margaret refrained from bringing the subject up with every adult in the house which meant that she could not talk about her decision with anyone.

Nevertheless, the loneliness did not consume her for she busied herself with colourful plans of piracy in the future with herself as Captain of a large and beautiful ship, much feared and admired. She knew that she would get on the water somehow, whether it be perfectly planned or spontaneous. It was her biggest goal for the time being.

She was suddenly jerked out of her thoughts by the sound of footsteps in the hallway which seemed to be heading towards her bedroom door. This had happened countless times before -Margaret had stayed up too late and her former nursery maid, Lucy Hamlin, came in to check on her charge before she went to bed herself.

Margaret thought it distinctly unfair that she was not allowed to stay up till whatever hour she liked but, as Lucy had said on all those occasions, Margaret was not a servant or a pirate but a respectable young girl who had many things expected of her and who must obey her guardians to achieve those expectations.

As Margaret forced her face into a scowl, emphasising her disapproval of the idea, her bedroom door opened and in walked none other than Lucy Hamlin, her brows knitted in a frown and lips pursed in a forbidding manner.

"Not asleep again, Miss Margaret?" she asked, shaking her head. "How many times must I remind you of your bedtime? And look!" Her hand flew to her forehead in shock. "Sitting by an open window again!" Crossing the room and snapping the window shut she hissed, "Haven't I told you time and time again how bad it is to be sitting by an open window at night? The chill is not good for you, Miss Margaret!"

"But I was only reading, and then the sky looked so pretty that I couldn't help but look and think and think at it," protested Margaret.

Lucy snorted. "All you ever seem to do is look and think and think. You really think too much, Miss Margaret. Come along now, to bed with you!" She ushered Margaret to her bed and tucked and smoothed the covers around the thin frame of the girl. "Maybe if you thought less and ate more you'd keep to your bedtime and wouldn't disappoint me."

"I'm sorry, Lucy," Margaret apologised in a small voice. "I don't mean to disappoint you, I really don't."

Lucy gazed at her for a moment and then her frown disappeared, replaced by a faint smile. "Eh, you are a troublesome child but you can't help it. You're all right, really. Just not very good at followin' orders. But, then again, you're not a servant, are you? Good night then, Miss Margaret. And don't let me catch you out of bed when you're supposed to be sleeping again!" She blew out the candle on Margaret's bedside and bustled back to the door without another glance at Margaret.

As the door closed behind Lucy and Margaret heard the woman's footsteps move away, she snuggled herself deeper into the warmth and comfort of the bed, trying to kill the temptation of going back to the window. She would have loved to sit and stare out at the moon which was attempting to wholly penetrate its rays through the curtains at the window but settling for the illumination of the book that Margaret had been reading before sunset.

Sliding her feet out of bed, she padded over to the window seat and was about to close the book when a picture on the left page caught her eye. It was not the same one that she had been looking at before but it was just as well drawn and captivating, though the subject was not something greatly attractive. A pirate with masses of black hair and beard and a curling moustache was glaring at her from the picture, his cutlass drawn as he stood beside a chest of treasure on a sandy hillock of some island or another.

There were not many books about pirates as it was a very tense subject at that time but Margaret had received it as a birthday gift from her parents on her fifth birthday, just as she was starting to read longer and harder novels. Mr and Mrs Brooks thought that the book would amuse her because she was so interested in pirates, not fill her young mind with ideas of danger and crime. Little did they know that the book was to be the base of her piratical dreams.

Presently a fierce wind howled outside her window and the moonlight that fell on the book seemed to tremble, making it seem as though the pirate's eyes were glinting with glee. Margaret snapped the book shut and dropped it onto the floor as if it had burned her and jumped back into her bed, drawing the covers to her chin.

The wind moaned and moaned, rattling the branches of trees outside her window, making her shiver though it never passed the barrier of the window. She was amazed at the sudden change of weather. It had been clear and quiet a few minutes ago and now the sky was clouded as the moonlight was no longer trying to shine into her room.

The wind sounded as though it was whistling a tune unknown and incomprehensible to mankind, completely unrecogniseable and unpleasant to Margaret's ears. A tune only known and sung by those who had damned themselves forever to a life of crime and lust, and a love of things so wonderful and dangerous that men who lived on land could never understand the passion.

Quietly, as though not to disturb, and ever so slowly a dark ship made its way into Port Royal, silently gliding into the bay like the best of thieves in the dead of the night. The sails were black as pitch as was the flag that rustled above it, except for the white skull on a background of crossed white cutlasses that leered down at the sleeping city in scorn.


~ ~ ~


"I want a ship," said Mercy to the paunchy balding man who sat opposite her who was swigging rum from a chipped mug.

Having killed her father herself, Mercy had ensnared the undivided fear of the men who had sailed with her on the Mary-Mercer and ordered the Captain of the ship to follow her orders and take the ship to the closest bit of civilised land, which just turned out to be the Isle of Tortuga.

It was a place much feared and disrespected by sailors though prized by pirates who often used it as a stopover and other criminals who occupied its soil as a place of permanent residence. Tortuga was most famed for the violence, crime and alcohol that flourished among its inhabitants; so much, indeed, that all attempts to put it under the control of the Crown had ceased just after they started.

Mercy had heard her mother talk about the isle many times and was rather pleased to know that she'd finally get to visit it. Mrs Bellew had talked about it being a place of many opportunities because you didn't know what kind of luck you'd get that day or who you'd run into. Mercy remembered the time her mother had told her about how she stole a ship that was berthed in Tortuga for the night and transformed it into her own pirate ship.

And this is almost what Mercy had in made: getting her own pirate ship. Except she was willing to pay for it with Mr Bellew's gold, rather than steal it. She didn't want any of Mr Bellew's property on her ship; it was bad enough having to put up with himself and she didn't want the memories to live on.

So as soon as the Mary-Mercer had landed in Tortuga, Mercy went off in search of someone who could help her buy a good ship, someone who had once been a friend of her mother's, someone who hopefully would be willing to be a friend to Aimone Blaire's daughter.

After running around and questioning the populace of Tortuga for half a day, she finally found the man she was looking for and summoned him to a pub where she could intoxicate him with drink until he acquiesed.

"I want a ship," repeated Mercy to Mr Gibbs, who was taking another hearty gulp of rum.

Setting down his mug on the table with a loud clank, Mr Gibbs wiped his mouth with the already sullied sleeve of his shirt. "And why're ye askin' me, missy?" he asked disinterestedly.

"Because you knew my mother," explained Mercy. "She would have wanted you to help me."

"And who might yer mam be?" Mr Gibbs peered into her face with a slight curiosity.

"Aimone Blaire."

Mr Gibbs seemed to hunch up at the name. He nodded, giving Mercy a fleeting look. "Aye, I shoulda known it would be 'er. I thought I recognised ye from somewhere." He continued nodding but did not look at Mercy. "I didn' know she 'ad a kid."

"Well, you do now. So, will you help me find a ship?"

Mr Gibbs heaved a great sigh. "What d'ye need a ship for, lass? Yer on'y - what - thirteen? Fourteen?"

"Fifteen," supplied Mercy impatiently. "Age doesn't account for anything. Remember Anne Bonny and Mary Read? Two of the best female pirates the world over. Hell, my own mother was sixteen when she became a pirate! I'm just a year younger."

"A pirate!" exclaimed Mr Gibbs, seemingly shaken up. He frowned suddenly. "What d'ye want to become a pirate for, lass?" His frown deepened. "An' where's that scallywag of a mother o' yers, eh? Yer can't 'ave sailed 'ere all by yerself."

"I didn't. I kind of commandeered a ship ..." Mercy trailed off, twirling a lock of her coppery hair. Mr Gibbs narrowed his eyes at her so she decided to ruthlessly press on. "On the crossing from England to Jamaica, I killed my father. Then I forced the Captain of the ship to take us to the nearest island which happened to be Tortuga. But I don't want that ship and I'm not going to Jamaica just yet. Not to live, anyway. I want a ship of my own and I need you to help me find one."

By now, Mr Gibbs's eyes were round as saucers instead of narrowed to slits and his mouth was hanging open slightly. He rubbed his brow with one grimy hand. "'S amazin'. Yer on'y fifteen an' yer a pirate already. Commandeerin' ships an' killin' fathers ... but see here, lass, yer can't just go an' steal a ship, yer know. There 'ave been none berthed 'ere for nigh on a week."

Mercy's lips spread into a smirk. "I'm not going to steal a ship, Mr Gibbs. At least not today." She leaned in towards him. "I want to buy one. And money can often fetch a pretty trinket pretty quickly. Don't you agree?"

Mr Gibbs grinned, exposing yellow teeth. "I agree an' plenty. But just how much are yer willin' to cash in?"

"Couple of chests of gold and my father's glittering finery ... and also - " Mercy pulled out Mr Bellew's silver compass and gold pocket watch, laying them on the table for Gibbs to examine. "Solid silver and gold. I'd image they'd fetch a pretty penny."

Gibbs stroked the pocket watch fondly. "A pretty penny indeed. But like I told ye, we've 'ad no ships coming into Tortuga and we're - "

"Don't you get a lot of stolen ships berthed in Tortuga?" interrupted Mercy. "Brand new ships, very well made and very expensive?"

Gibbs surveyed her for a moment, apparently mulling her words over in his alcohol-muddled mind. "Aye, we do get 'em now an' then," he said eventually, another grin stretching his mouth. "In fact, if I remember correctly, we'll be gettin' one in under a week from Jamaica. Tha's what yer mam did when she got 'er ship. Stole it once and then twice." Suddenly the grin vanished and he became serious. "What did happen to 'er? Yer didn' mention that yer killed 'er, too ..."

"I didn't. My father - her husband - was the culprit."

Gibbs's face softened somewhat. "Ah, poor lass. She was a good woman. Good pirate, too. Why did he kill 'er?"

"She wanted to go back to the life of a pirate and he couldn't allow that. So - bang!" Mercy laughed sourly. "He became a criminal himself, though no one but myself ever found out the truth. Oh, and you."

Gibbs nodded understandingly. "Aye, she always was too much of a free spirit. Couldn' stand being cooped up on land for too long. Should've been a bird, that one."

"Well, she wasn't. She was a human being who was selfish enough to succumb to her own wishes. She wanted to run away and leave me with my father, Mr Gibbs! She didn't want me at all!" The nasty little voice in Mercy's mind had overpowered her and a flame of resentment burned in her eyes. She was about to carry on but stopped at the look on Gibbs's face.

"Aye, lassie, that's how a real pirate is," he said gently. "True pirates, such as yer mam, for example, belong to the waters of the world and not to the land. All pirates know that and most of 'em feel it in their gut. Most of 'em give in as they can't live otherwise. The need drowns them, you see."

A silence elapsed between them. Then Mercy took a deep breath and plunged back into the previous subject, "So, is that ship good?"

Gibbs scratched his beard, thinking. "Supposed to be. 'S not a pirate ship but it's on its way to becomin' one, eh?"

"Just make sure that you're ready to give the ship a makeover. I want black sails, crimson and mahogany furnishings, and everything else will be dark chestnut. Understood?"

Gibbs scratched his beard again, looking puzzled. "Now where am I to get all that? Them mahogany things ain't cheap!"

Mercy rolled her eyes. "Use the swag I'm giving you, you idiot. Believe me, there's a lot of it and by the time you've used half of it, that ship'll be ready for a king."

"Aye, lass. That'll about do it." He proferred his grubby hand to Mercy. "We surely have a deal here ... Miss Blaire, is it?"

Mercy hesitated for a fraction of a second before uttering firmly, "Yes, Blaire. Mary-Mercer Blaire."

Gibbs pumped her hand vigorously, though looking rather thoughtful. "Tell me, Miss Blaire, why a pirate?"

Mercy bored her steely grey eyes into his washed out blue ones. "I have my reasons, none of which I feel compelled to tell you."

Gibbs shrugged. "Ah, well, it happens. A man can't know everything, can he?" He rose from the table, giving Mercy a small clumsy bow. "Shall we be off, Miss? On'y we've got a few valuables to unload."

"Indeed, you greedy pig," responded Mercy with a disdainful sniff, watching and following Gibbs as he drunkenly weaved his way out of the pub and into the harsh light of the morning Tortuga sun.