The man stared impassively at Jamie for a moment, eyes still as tide pools. Then one eyebrow flicked up and he extended his bound feet before him.
“Bene-bene, amiki?” he said, with an ironic intonation that couldn’t be missed, whatever the language. Is good, friend?
Jamie snorted briefly, amused, and rubbed a finger under his nose.
“It’s a point,” he said in English.
“Does he speak English, or French?” I moved a little closer. The captive’s eyes rested on me for a moment, then passed away, indifferent.
“If he does, he’ll no admit it. Picard and Fergus tried talking to him last night. He willna say a word, just stares at them. What he just said is the first he’s spoken since he came aboard. ÀHabla Español?” he said suddenly to the prisoner. There was no response. The man didn’t even look at Jamie; just went on staring impassively at the square of open doorway behind me.
“Er, sprechen sie Deutsche?” I said tentatively. He didn’t answer, which was just as well, as the question had exhausted my own supply of German. “Nicht Hollander, either, I don’t suppose.”
Jamie shot me a sardonic look. “I canna tell much about him, Sassenach, but I’m fairly sure he’s no a Dutchman.”
“They have slaves on Eleuthera, don’t they? That’s a Dutch island,” I said irritably. “Or St. Croix—that’s Danish, isn’t it?” Slowly as my mind was working this morning, it hadn’t escaped me that the captive was our only clue to the pirates’ whereabouts—and the only frail link to Ian. “Do you know enough taki-taki to ask him about Ian?”
Jamie shook his head, eyes intent on the prisoner. “No. Besides what I said to him already, I ken how to say ‘not good,’ ‘how much?’ ‘give it to me,’ and ‘drop that, ye bastard,’ none of which seems a great deal to the point at present.”
Stymied for the moment, we stared at the prisoner, who stared impassively back.
“To hell with it,” Jamie said suddenly. He drew the dirk from his belt, went behind the cask, and sawed through the thongs around the prisoner’s wrists.
He cut the ankle bindings as well, then sat back on his heels, the knife laid across his thigh.
“Friend,” he said firmly in taki-taki. “Is good?”
The prisoner didn’t say anything, but after a moment, he nodded slightly, his expression warily quizzical.
“There’s a chamber pot in the corner,” Jamie said in English, rising and sheathing his dirk. “Use it, and then my wife will tend your wounds.”
A very faint flicker of amusement crossed the man’s face. He nodded once more, this time in acceptance of defeat. He rose slowly from the cask and turned, stiff hands fumbling at his trousers. I looked askance at Jamie.
“It’s one of the worst things about being bound that way,” he explained matter-of-factly. “Ye canna take a piss by yourself.”
“I see,” I said, not wanting to think about how he knew that.
“That, and the pain in your shoulders,” he said. “Be careful touching him, Sassenach.” The note of warning in his voice was clear, and I nodded. It wasn’t the man’s shoulders he was concerned about.
I still felt light-headed, and the stuffiness of the surroundings had made my headache throb again, but I was less battered than the prisoner, who had indeed been “bashed about” at some stage of the proceedings.
Bashed though he was, his injuries seemed largely superficial. A swollen knot rose on the man’s forehead, and a deep scrape had left a crusted reddish patch on one shoulder. He was undoubtedly bruised in a number of places, but given the remarkably deep shade of his skin and the darkness of the surroundings, I couldn’t tell where.
There were deep bands of rawness on ankles and wrists, where he had pulled against the thongs. I hadn’t made any of the hawthorn lotion, but I had brought the jar of gentian salve. I eased myself down on the deck next to him, but he took no more notice of me than of the deck beneath his feet, even when I began to spread the cool blue cream on his wounds.
What was more interesting than the fresh injuries, though, were the healed ones. At close range, I could see the faint white lines of three parallel slashes, running across the slope of each cheekbone, and a series of three short vertical lines on the high, narrow forehead, just between his brows. Tribal scars. African-born for sure, then; such scars were made during manhood rituals, or so Murphy had told me.
His flesh was warm and smooth under my fingers, slicked with sweat. I felt warm, too; sweaty and unwell. The deck rose gently beneath me, and I put my hand on his back to keep my balance. The thin, tough lines of healed whipstrokes webbed his shoulders, like the furrows of tiny worms beneath his skin. The feel of them was unexpected; so much like the feel of the marks on Jamie’s own back. I swallowed, feeling queasy, but went on with my doctoring.
The man ignored me completely, even when I touched spots I knew must be painful. His eyes were fixed on Jamie, who was watching the prisoner with equal intentness.
The problem was plain. The man was almost certainly a runaway slave. He hadn’t wanted to speak to us, for fear that his speech would give away his owner’s island, and that we would then find out his original owner and return him to captivity.
Now we knew that he spoke—or at least understood—English, it was bound to increase his wariness. Even if we assured him that it was not our intention either to return him to an owner or to enslave him ourselves, he was unlikely to trust us. I couldn’t say that I blamed him, under the circumstances.
On the other hand, this man was our best—and possibly the only—chance of finding out what had happened to Ian Murray aboard the Bruja.
When at length I had bandaged the man’s wrists and ankles, Jamie gave me a hand to rise, then spoke to the prisoner.
“You’ll be hungry, I expect,” he said. “Come along to the cabin, and we’ll eat.” Not waiting for a response, he took my good arm and turned to the door. There was silence behind us as we moved into the corridor, but when I looked back, the slave was there, following a few feet behind.
Jamie led us to my cabin, disregarding the curious glances of the sailors we passed, only stopping by Fergus long enough to order food to be sent from the galley.
“Back to bed with ye, Sassenach,” he said firmly, when we reached the cabin. I didn’t argue. My arm hurt, my head hurt, and I could feel little waves of heat flickering behind my eyes. It looked as though I would have to break down and use a little of the precious penicillin on myself, after all. There was still a chance that my body could throw off the infection, but I couldn’t afford to wait too long.
Jamie had poured out a glass of whisky for me, and another for our guest. Still wary, the man accepted it, and took a sip, eyes widening in surprise. I supposed Scotch whisky must be a novelty to him.
Jamie took a glass for himself and sat down, motioning the slave to the other seat, across the small table.
“My name is Fraser,” he said. “I am captain here. My wife,” he added, with a nod toward my berth.
The prisoner hesitated, but then set down his glass with an air of decision.
“They be callin’ me Ishmael,” he said, in a voice like honey poured over coal. “I ain’t no pirate. I be a cook.”
“Murphy’s going to like that,” I remarked, but Jamie ignored me. There was a faint line between the ruddy brows, as he felt his way into the conversation.
“A ship’s cook?” he asked, taking care to make his voice sound casual. Only the tap of his two stiff fingers against his thigh betrayed him—and that, only to me.
“No, mon, I don’t got nothin’ to do with that ship!” Ishmael was vehement. “They taken me off the shore, say they kill me, I don’ go long by them, be easy. I ain’t no pirate!” he repeated, and it dawned on me belatedly that of course he wouldn’t wish to be taken for a pirate—whether he was one or not. Piracy was punishable by hanging, and he could have no way of knowing that we were as eager as he to stay clear of the Royal Navy.
“Aye, I see.” Jamie hit the right balance, between soothing and skeptical. He leaned back slightly in the big wheel-backed chair. “And how did the Bruja come to take ye prisoner, then? Not where,” he added quickly, as a look of alarm flitted across the prisoner’s face.
“Ye needna tell me where ye came from; that’s of no concern to me. Only I should care to know how ye came to fall into their hands, and how long ye’ve been with them. Since, as ye say, ye werena one of them.” The hint was broad enough to spread butter on. We didn’t mean to return him to his owner; however, if he didn’t oblige with information, we might just turn him over to the Crown as a pirate.
The prisoner’s eyes darkened; no fool, he had grasped the point at once. His head twitched briefly sideways, and his eyes narrowed.
“I be catchin’ fish by the river,” he said. “Big ship, he come sailin’ up the river slow, little boats be pullin’ him. Men in the little boat, they see me, holler out. I drop the fish, be runnin’, but they close by. They men jump out, kotch me by the cane field, figure they take me to sell. Tha’s all, mon.” He shrugged, signaling the conclusion of his story.
“Aye, I see.” Jamie’s eyes were intent on the prisoner. He hesitated, wanting to ask where the river was, but not quite daring to, for fear the man would clam up again. “While ye were on the ship—did ye see any boys among the crew, or as prisoners, too? Boys, young men?”
The man’s eyes widened slightly; he hadn’t been expecting that. He paused warily, but then nodded, with a faintly derisive glint in his eye.
“Yes, mon, they have boys. Why? You be wantin’ one?” His glance flicked to me and then back to Jamie, one eyebrow raised.
Jamie’s head jerked, and a slight flush rose on his cheekbones at the implication.
“I do,” he said levelly. “I am looking for a young kinsman who was taken by pirates. I should feel myself greatly obliged to anyone who might assist me in finding him.” He lifted one eyebrow significantly.
The prisoner grunted slightly, his nostrils flaring.
“That so? What you be doin’ for me, I be helpin’ you fin’ this boy?”
“I should set you ashore at any port of your choosing, with a fair sum in gold,” Jamie replied. “But of course I should require proof that ye did have knowledge of my nephew’s whereabouts, aye?”
“Huh.” The prisoner was still wary, but beginning to relax. “You tell me, mon—what this boy be like?”
Jamie hesitated for a moment, studying the prisoner, but then shook his head.
“No,” he said thoughtfully. “I dinna think that will work. You describe to me such lads as ye saw on the pirate vessel.”
The prisoner eyed Jamie for a moment, then broke out in a low, rich laugh.
“You no particular fool, mon,” he said. “You know that?”
“I know that,” Jamie said dryly. “So long as ye know it as well. Tell me, then.”