Mei felt her palms growing sweaty and worried about how well they’d continue to adhere to the polished wooden grip of the pistol in her left hand.
Fowler continued to give her that infuriating half-smile, just waiting for her to move.
Her heart rate started picking up speed. Her fingers flexed around the wood and felt for the trigger. Doing her best to control her breathing, she knew there was no point in trying to drag things out. She readied herself to shoot and tried to ignore the sense of dread that washed over her as she anticipated failure.
Fowler suddenly slid to her right.
Instinctively, she raised the gun and fired.
But he was already calmly in motion the other way, and the bullet flew wide. With smooth practice, he raised his pistol, and white smoke bloomed from the end.
She readied herself for the bullet’s impact and then was surprised to hear a sharp whine of pain from beside and behind her. Whipping her head around, she saw Jie and gasped in worry.
The beautiful but already bloodied feline fell to the ground. She opened her mouth, and a sawing roar rose. With heroic effort, she tried to claw her way towards the man who’d shot her, but he’d hit her in the left hindquarters, and Jie’s leg was too weak and in too much pain to use. It dragged behind her, and then she collapsed with a piercing wail.
“Jie!” Mei exclaimed. She turned back to her opponent and snarled at him. “You bastard! Why would you do that?”
He arched a single eyebrow. “So it doesn’t attack me, obviously.” He cocked his head. “Is that the governor’s escaped pet? It must be; I can’t imagine there are any other jaguars on the island. How on Earth did you tame the damn thing? Did you actually get it to follow you around somehow? Incredible!”
She felt hate pulse within her chest. “You’re cruel.” She itched to go over and help the poor creature, but Fowler was still standing before her, still dangerous, although he’d fired his weapon, and it would take time to recharge. Anxiously, she inched towards Jie.
The cat looked up at her, eyes swimming in fear and pain. It whined.
Wary of being bitten, she gingerly reached out. Once Jie showed no sign of snapping, she touched the animal on the head. “There, there. You’ll be ok.” She petted the feline.
Fowler’s chest heaved with silent laughter. “Amazing! You managed to bond with it. We had no such luck.”
“That’s because all you did was abuse it and treat it like a toy. You should have treated her with kindness instead. But I guess that’s a foreign concept for someone like you.” She pretended to look down at Jie, but her eyes darted towards the pistol’s timer, hovering over the rear of the barrel. The seconds ticked by too slowly. And she just bet that his countdown was going to be shorter.
Her mind whirred. What to do? Should she charge him? Try to run past to the ship? But that would mean abandoning Jie. The thought appalled her, though she admitted to the practicality of it. Should she sacrifice the animal for her freedom? Of course she should, though she’d hate herself for it. But were there other options?
Was there any way she could beat Fowler again? Some way to trick him? Or to appeal to whatever small measure of humanity he possessed?
Then she recalled the other pistol in her other pocket. If she could use that before his weapon recharged…
Transferring her sword to her other hand, she drew the other gun, switched hands again, and faced him.
He didn’t seem worried at all at the sight. “Oh, good. You’ve still got both of them. I’ll be taking all of my things back now.”
There was too much distance between them. She didn’t trust herself to be able to hit him, especially if he dodged again. The man was too experienced a fighter. The only thing for it was to get as close as she could, shoot to cripple him and then try to end him with the blade. Charging forward, she raised the gun and aimed. The urge to fire pressured her, but she held on and held on, only pulling the trigger when she was two paces away.
This proved foolish.
With the superior reach of a fencer’s lunge, the tip of his sword flicked the barrel away, and when she fired, the bullet harmless sailed wide.
A pang of despair hit her. She’d missed her best chance!
He stepped forward into his lunge and her forward motion, swinging his pistol.
She felt the crack against her temple and reeled sideways, seeing stars. A sharp pain cut across her arm, and she dropped the gun, suddenly feeling even more vulnerable without it. Scared and dazed, she back-peddled a few paces towards the headquarters and then raised her sword in what she hoped was something like a proper stance. Given the fact that she wavered back and forth, her senses in turmoil, she probably wasn’t very threatening.
Amusement was written all over his face. “Ha. Fancying yourself a swordsperson, are you? Just because you got lucky and stole what’s mine? How droll. Fancy a lesson? How about this?” He slashed her across the forearm, leaving another red line. “And this?” He jabbed her in the belly, and a red flower bloomed as blood stained her clothing.
She did her best to ignore how much the injuries hurt and tried to fight back, lunging and slashing too, but her blows were wild and easily evaded or slapped aside with contemptuous ease.
“Here’s a good one.” He lunged, faked a slash, faked another lunge, then charged in, then pushed her sword arm away and kicked her knee, buckling it in a world of hurt, before punching her in the face and sending her stumbling away, head spinning again.
Mei stumbled over herself, her knee unable to support her, and fell to the cobblestones. She found it hard to think, but she desperately knew that she had to get up again. She had to get up or die. So she rolled over and used her good leg to right herself. Back on her feet, she pointed the shaky tip of her blade in his direction once more.
He wasn’t content to stand in one spot. He circled her, and this sword darted in, taunting her, toying with her.
She lashed out and thought she had him this time. But the strike completely missed as he ducked under her sword, then kicked her feet out from under her, sending her to the ground again. She thought she was done for. Yet he gave her enough time to regain her feet, apparently in no hurry to defeat her, so she agonizingly forced herself to stand.
He danced about some more, poking more holes in her chest and her thighs.
The sword went deep and nailed her in the thigh bone, the steel tip scraping along it, and she screamed. She swam in a sea of trauma and bled from multiple wounds. But this time, she refused to go down. She swayed on her feet, openly weeping, but she still stood.
His eyes roamed over her, and he seemed to momentarily lose the sadistic glee of a cat playing with a mouse. He studied her. “Why are you doing this, Mei? Why try so hard to escape, to fight back? Look at how much you’re suffering. Why can’t you just accept your fate?”
“Like a good little sheep?” She huffed at him. “People use the word fate to say that something about life cannot be changed or denied, that it must be accepted. It’s just a word for giving up. Or a way for other people to manipulate us into accepting things we shouldn’t have to. There’s no such thing as fate. ”
He gestured to the world around them with both hands, a wry smile on his lips. “There is when you’ve been sentenced to prison.”
“Wrongly!” she shouted in frustrated defiance. Angrily, she brushed her tears away, furious that they were flowing so freely and scared because they blurred her vision.
He looked at her almost with pity. “So they all say. ‘I’m innocent!’ they all cry. Bah. Liars, the lot of ‘em. You’re here. You’re going to be here for a very long time. You should start accepting that.”
“Why? It’s wrong! I shouldn’t be here. Like I said, read my file,” she pleaded. “You’d learn the truth. I am a journalist. And an activist. I did nothing wrong. We promoted democracy and human rights and freedom from oppression.”
“Against your government?” He mocked. “Even if that’s all you did, you really didn’t see this coming? How many people are spirited away every year for so-called re-education over there?”
She straightened, hopeful that she was reaching him, despite his mockery. “So you believe me?”
He rolled his shoulder and stretched his neck as if tired. “No. And I don’t care. If you had just accepted your sentence and been a model prisoner so that I could get on with doing my job, then I never would have looked at you twice. But you weren’t in here a day before you started acting like a little terrorist.”
Righteousness flared. “One of your men tried to rape me!”
“Don’t you care?”
An eyebrow rose. “After a few weeks of what you’re going to experience in exchange for sinking my ship, rape will be the least of your worries. In fact, you’ll be begging me to experience something so mundane and painless in comparison.”
She shouted in disgust. “Where’s your sense of morality? Are you utterly heartless?”
He began to look fed up and spoke flatly. “You’re a prisoner. And prisoners are here to be punished for the immoral things they’ve done in the real world to real people. This place is full of brainless thugs who have killed, tortured, maimed, stolen, hurt, and raped. Putting them through the same is justice.”
She was appalled. “How can you not see that raping prisoners under your care is wrong? How can you justify torture?”
He looked confused. “How can you not see that they deserve it for all the pain and damage they’ve caused?”
“I don’t deserve it!”
“Nobody thinks they deserve it. That’s self-interest for you.”
“Torturing prisoners in the name of justice. Do you think you’re Satan or something? Doing your god’s work?”
“Since Heaven and Hell aren’t real, someone has to do it.” Disappointment came over his features. “Or do you think that criminals deserve nothing more than a harmless time out in exchange for the monstrosities they’ve committed? You’re not stupid enough to think that any of these people will reform and become better just because they sat in a cell for a few years? That’s just idiotic and shows a complete lack of realistic understanding.”
She tightened her grip on her sword in frustration. “You’re just another one of the corrupt bastards using your position to go on a power trip. Look at you.” She thrust the sword his way. “So proud of being the very same villain you accuse others of being.” She drove forward, stabbing at him multiple times.
Fowler rapidly backed up, blocking her strikes, moving quickly as some came surprisingly close to actually touching him.
She thrust one last time, then swept her pistol up off the ground with one hand and pulled the trigger, knowing that she had him dead to rights.
But the man hadn’t backed up for her last lunge as expected. He’d stepped into her, deflecting the blade. When the gun came up, he stepped down on her wrist, slamming it to the ground, and the shot was wasted. He gave her a cocky chuckle. “If I’m proud of myself, it’s because I’ve got good reason.”
His fist and the hilt of his sword punched her in the face. He kicked her in the chest, shoving her backwards. And in doing so, she was forced to give up the pistol again.
Mei felt another cut open up over one eye and had to wipe blood out of her vision. She stared into his chilling, blue eyes, challenging him. This time, mockery dripped from her lips. “I’ll bet you’ve convinced yourself that you’re superior to everyone else because you’ve earned it. The great Captain Whoever, best fighter in the prison system, blah blah. How special. Best fight against who? A bunch of regular people who don’t have the same opportunities and time to challenge you at the same level? Against people who have never trained with weapons and at fighting the way you have? You can outclass a bunch of hungry, unskilled people in chains, like an adult beating up children. Congratulations. So much to be proud of there.” She made a mock bow, not taking her eyes off of his.
His expression soured. With narrowed eyes, he glared at her.
She sneered at him. “You’re no hero; you’re just a pathetic bully.”
“The argument of the weak.”
Her split lip made her wince, but she smirked back at him. “Strong enough to blow up your ship and to kill you.”
He spun the sword in his hand, growing focused once again and looked as dangerous as a snake on the hunt with prey in its sights. “Everyone gets lucky sometimes. In return, you’re about to get very unlucky. Honestly, I was going to try to spare you becoming party to the governor’s particular vices. The twisted prick does like to use and abuse his women in all sorts of ways. But as upset as I was, I probably would have limited myself to killing you once in retribution and then locking you away for a very long time with hardly any food or water.” He took a breath and glared. “But you’ve got quite the foul mouth on you. And you sound like one of those extremists. Perhaps a few months as an abused sex slave will reduce some of your self-righteousness and arrogance. Teach you some much-needed humility.”
Her expression faltered. Perhaps the idea of involuntarily becoming a chained-up sex slave frightened her. Perhaps being accused of being an extremist and arrogant touched a nerve. Fury bubbled up within her heart and boiled out of control. She flung herself forward and attacked. Yet she did not do so blindly. She’d been watching how he had been moving, learning from how he had struck at her, and she tried to mimic that now.
His brows rose in mild surprise as he backed up under her fierce onslaught. On the defensive, he blocked her strikes, yet he seemed to take them a bit more seriously than before. He even frowned as if unpleasantly surprised by her abilities.
In her head, she tried to go past her fears and think calmly and rationally. She wanted to turn the tables on him. So she lashed out, then pretended to be off-balance. And when he countered, she dodged and lunged, opening a bright red line down his right cheek and jaw. She felt a flash of triumph and excitement. She wasn’t entirely helpless!
He jumped back, eyes wide and cursed sharply, wincing from the hit as he put distance between them. Then he laughed. “Oh, well done. I didn’t think you had it in you, but you’ve actually managed to improve, even during a single battle.” He touched his cheek and stained his fingertips with blood.
A bit of confidence grew in her. “You underestimate me. The arrogant often do to their opponents.”
He studied her with fresh eyes, a bit wary of her now. Yet he continued to try and undermine her faith in herself with words. “So, what was your plan? Steal that ship and sail away? And then what? Become a pirate? Well, gee, I thought you didn’t see yourself as a criminal. How hypocritical.”
“Maybe I see myself as a freedom fighter.”
“Ha! A rose by any other name. Or, in this case, scum by any other name. It is still scum.” He rolled his eyes. “You think you’ll last long on your own? You’ll have to crew up to sail that ship, to survive this world. You’re not going to find too many innocents in here, though. It’s a prison. It’s full of very bad people. Do you honestly think you can trust any of them to sail with you and not stab you in the back? Or to not rape you every night?”
Her chin rose in defiance. “I’m willing to try. Not everyone is as bad as you make them out to be.”
He snapped, exasperated. “They’re nothing but criminals! They will betray you.”
She straightened and puffed her chest a bit, her words doing as much to convince herself of their truth as they were aimed at him. “I choose to have faith that at least some people can become something more. I choose to see the good in others, even if they’ve made bad decisions in the past. Maybe you should try it sometime. After all, what does it say about someone if they can only see the bad in others? I guess you’re just a rose by another name too. Sorry, I meant scum.” She barked a laugh at him.
He was having none of her argument. Frowning, he began circling her again, his sword raised. “There’s no need to see the hearts of people in this place. The justice system has done that already. The people in here are habitual losers. They’re rotten, unrepentant, selfish, ignorant, stupid, lying, manipulative, and brutally violent monsters. They had every chance to lead good lives in the real world. They chose not to. So now they’re in hell. It’s our job to punish them for their crimes and immorality.” He slashed at her.
Mei blocked the blow and backed away, feeling good about herself for being able to defend herself. She mocked him. “Must be real nice seeing the world only in black and white as you yourself define it. Blind acceptance in the system means you don’t have to think for yourself. You don’t have to bear any responsibility, which is good for you. After all, you’re profiting off of it, so why would you want anything to change, right? Who cares if everyone else is suffering?”
He launched a series of tight, quick strikes, driving her backwards even faster, speaking as he did. “It’s amazing how coloured your perspective is. I’ll bet you’re good at justifying your every action, excusing your every bad deed, aren’t you? Sounds like someone enjoys lying to herself. It seems like you’re the one actually guilty of everything you’re accusing me of.” He faked a slash and lunged for her neck.
She rolled away, managing to block the blow. She was growing increasingly weak from exhaustion and blood loss and pain, but, to her surprise, she seemed to be getting better at fighting with the sword.
He showed her just how foolish that momentary pride was by flicking her blade aside and kicking her hard enough in the hip to send her flying. “Give up. You’re worthless. You’ll never beat me.”
Mei landed on her butt and puffed, breathing hard. “Look at you,” she gasped. “You seem reasonably smart. You’re athletic, healthy. You’ve risen to a position of influence. You think of yourself as a good person, think you’re doing a worthy job. If anyone’s lying to themselves, it’s you. You’ve framed your entire perspective of yourself and this place to make it ok to live a life where you get to hurt others and get away with it, even get praised and paid for it. You’re such a disappointment.”
He stood over her, looking down on her, all amusement gone. His features were icy with anger. “If anyone is a disappointment, it’s you.” He raised the pistol in his hand and fired.
Lia peeked over the edge of the dock to watch the battle. She watched as her new hero, Mei, was battered and bullied and made helpless before the cold-eyed man in a long, blue coat that matched Mei’s.
The young Carib woman cheered as Mei scored a hit on the man and bloodied his cheek. Yet he so easily outclassed his opponent, and it was plain that the man was only toying with Mei.
Lia desperately wanted to help. She wanted to save Mei so that they could sail away from here and this danger and onto a life of adventure and exciting new experiences. But what could she do? Her blowgun was too wet to use, and she was no good with one of the foreigners’ long bang sticks. And even if she went out there to make it two versus one, other soldiers were watching the fight who would surely intervene.
She felt so scared and helpless. She turned her anxious eyes on the two men in the boat with her. Perhaps they had some idea.
The wounded one with bright skin said something to the other and gestured as if they should take the ship and go.
The dark one hung his head. He, too, peaked over the edge of the dock and surveyed the scene, yet from the morose expression on his face, he didn’t have any good ideas either.
Her fingernails dug into the wood of the dock. She had to help Mei. But how?
Then Mei got knocked down.
The captain raised his hand and fired.
Lia’s heart nearly burst with panic and heartache. She jumped up and pulled herself onto the dock.
The three soldiers watching from just outside the headquarters were in good spirits.
Marcus pursed his lips. “Ooh. What a feint. Fooled me too.”
Brian momentarily looked away and shook his head. “Disgusting. I wish I was that good.”
Simon snorted. “You could be. Just get up at four every day and spend two hours practicing before work.”
“Psh. Yeah, right. I like my sleep, thank you very much.”
Marcus crossed his arms as he watched the fight. Of the three of them, he was most focused on what was going on, eyes examining every move for something he could pick up for himself. “Fowler’s making a mockery of her. I hope he doesn’t cut her up too bad. Would be nice to have someone decent looking in the cells for a change, instead of all the ugly mugs we’re used to seeing every day.”
The woman opened a wound on the captain’s face, and two of the watchers had sharp intakes of breath.
“Whoa,” Marcus breathed.
Brian scowled. “Damn. Bitch.”
The other two turned to Simon, brows raised.
“Say what?” Marcus asked.
“Are you seriously cheering for her?” Brian scoffed in disbelief.
Simon shrugged, trying not to feel self-conscious. “Why not?”
Brian looked at him like he was an idiot. “The captain’s obviously way better. He could put her down in an instant if he wanted. He’s just playing with her, punishing her.”
Simon bowed his head in agreement. “Yep. Even so, did you think she was going to last this long? Or do as well as she has? Have you ever drawn blood against him in training?”
“Bah.” Brian casually waved the idea away. “He’s not taking her seriously.”
This greatly amused Marcus. “Ha! You think he takes you any more seriously than he does her?”
Brian’s face reddened, and now he crossed his arms. “She’s gonna lose. I ain’t cheering for her.”
But Simon felt otherwise. He was impressed. And not just because the woman was attractive. “She’s brave. And she’s still standing even though half her blood must be on the ground by now. I’ll keep cheering for her.”
Brian sneered. “Whatever.”
When the woman went down, and Captain Fowler stood over her, his pistol raised, the trio of watchers all held their breath.