Author: P Hana

Page 158


Ishmael snorted briefly, but complied, pausing only to refresh himself from the tray of food Fergus had brought. Fergus himself lounged against the door, watching the prisoner through half-lidded eyes.

“They be twelve boys talkin’ strange, like you.”

Jamie’s eyebrows shot up, and he exchanged a glance of astonishment with me. Twelve?

“Like me?” He said. “White boys, English? Or Scots, d’ye mean?”

Ishmael shook his head in incomprehension; “Scot” was not in his vocabulary.

“Talkin’ like dogs fightin’,” he explained. “Grrrr! Wuff!” He growled, shaking his head in illustration like a dog worrying a rat, and I saw Fergus’s shoulders shake in suppressed hilarity.

“Scots for sure,” I said, trying not to laugh. Jamie shot me a brief dirty look, then returned his attention to Ishmael.

“Verra well, then,” he said, exaggerating his natural soft burr. “Twelve Scottish lads. What did they look like?”

Ishmael squinted dubiously, chewing a piece of mango from the tray. He wiped the juice from the corner of his mouth and shook his head.

“I only see them once, mon. Tell you all I see, though.” He closed his eyes and frowned, the vertical lines on his forehead drawing close together.

“Four boys be yellow-haired, six brown, two with black hair. Two shorter than me, one maybe the size that griffone there”—he nodded toward Fergus, who stiffened in outrage at the insult—“one big, not so big as you…”

“Aye, and how will they have been dressed?” Slowly, carefully, Jamie drew him through the descriptions, asking for details, demanding comparisons—how tall? how fat? what color eyes?—carefully concealing the direction of his interest as he drew the man further into conversation.

My head had stopped spinning, but the fatigue was still there, weighting my senses. I let my eyes close, obscurely soothed by the deep, murmuring voices. Jamie did sound rather like a big, fierce dog, I thought, with his soft growling burr and the abrupt, clipped sound of his consonants.

“Wuff,” I murmured under my breath, and my belly muscles quivered slightly under my folded hands.

Ishmael’s voice was just as deep, but smooth and low, rich as hot chocolate made with cream. I began to drift, lulled by the sound of it.

He sounded like Joe Abernathy, I thought drowsily, dictating an autopsy report—unvarnished and unappetizing physical details, related in a voice like a deep golden lullaby.

I could see Joe’s hands in memory, dark on the pale skin of an accident victim, moving swiftly as he made his verbal notes to the tape recorder.

“Deceased is a tall man, approximately six feet in height, and slender in build.…”

A tall man, slender.

“—that one, he bein’ tall, bein’ thin…”

I came awake suddenly, heart pounding, hearing the echo of Joe’s voice coming from the table a few feet away.

“No!” I said, quite suddenly, and all three men stopped and looked at me in surprise. I pushed back the weight of my damp hair and waved weakly at them.

“Don’t mind me; I was dreaming, I think.”

They returned to their conversation, and I lay still, eyes half-closed, but no longer sleepy.

There was no physical resemblance. Joe was stocky and bearlike; this Ishmael slender and lean, though the swell of muscle over the curve of his shoulder suggested considerable strength.

Joe’s face was broad and amiable; this man’s narrow and wary-eyed, with a high forehead that made his tribal scars the more striking. Joe’s skin was the color of fresh coffee, Ishmael’s the deep red-black of a burning ember, which Stern had told me was characteristic of slaves from the Guinea coast—not so highly prized as the blue-black Senegalese, but more valuable than the yellow-brown Yaga and Congolese.

But if I closed my eyes entirely, I could hear Joe’s voice speaking, even allowing for the faint Caribbean lilt of slave-English. I cracked my eyelids and looked carefully, searching for any signs of resemblance. There were none, but I did see what I had seen before, and not noticed, among the other scars and marks on the man’s battered torso. What I had thought merely a scrape was in fact a deep abrasion that overlay a wide, flat scar, cut in the form of a rough square just below the point of the shoulder. The mark was raw and pink, newly healed. I should have seen it at once, if not for the darkness of the orlop, and the scrape that obscured it.

I lay quite still, trying to remember. “No slave name,” Joe had said derisively, referring to his son’s self-christening. Clearly, Ishmael had cut away an owner’s brand, to prevent identification, should he be recaptured. But whose? And surely the name Ishmael was no more than coincidence.

Maybe not so farfetched a one, though; “Ishmael” almost certainly wasn’t the man’s real name. “They be callin’ me Ishmael,” he had said. That, too, was a slave name, given him by one owner or another. And if young Lenny had been climbing his family tree, as it seemed, what more likely than that he should have chosen one of his ancestors’ given names in symbol? If. But if he was…

I lay looking up at the claustrophobic ceiling of the berth, suppositions spinning through my head. Whether this man had any link with Joe or not, the possibility had reminded me of something.

Jamie was catechizing the man about the personnel and structure of the Bruja—for so the ship that had attacked us had been—but I was paying no attention. I sat up, cautiously, so as not to make the dizziness worse, and signaled to Fergus.

“I need air,” I said. “Help me up on deck, will you?” Jamie glanced at me with a hint of worry, but I smiled reassuringly at him, and took Fergus’s arm.

“Where are the papers for that slave we bought on Barbados?” I demanded, as soon as we were out of earshot of the cabin. “And where’s the slave, for that matter?”

Fergus looked at me curiously, but obligingly rummaged in his coat.

“I have the papers here, milady,” he said, handing them to me. “As for the slave, I believe he is in the crew’s quarters. Why?” he added, unable to restrain his curiosity.

I ignored the question, fumbling through the grubby, repellent bits of paper.

“There it is,” I said, finding the bit I remembered Jamie reading to me. “Abernathy! It was Abernathy! Branded on the left shoulder with a fleur-de-lys. Did you notice that mark, Fergus?”

He shook his head, looking mildly bewildered.

“No, milady.”

“Then come with me,” I said, turning toward the crew’s quarters. “I want to see how big it is.”

The mark was about three inches long and three wide; a flower, surmounting the initial “A,” burned into the skin a few inches below the point of the shoulder. It was the right size, and in the right place, to match the scar on the man Ishmael. It wasn’t, however, a fleur-de-lys; that had been the mistake of a careless transcriber. It was a sixteen-petaled rose—the Jacobite emblem of Charles Stuart. I blinked at it in amazement; what patriotic exile had chosen this bizarre method of maintaining allegiance to the vanquished Stuarts?

“Milady, I think you should return to your bed,” Fergus said. He was frowning at me as I stooped over Temeraire, who bore this inspection as stolidly as everything else. “You are the color of goose turds, and milord will not like it at all if I allow you to fall down on the deck.”

“I won’t fall down,” I assured him. “And I don’t care what color I am. I think we’ve just had a stroke of luck. Listen, Fergus, I want you to do something for me.”

“Anything, milady,” he said, grabbing me by the elbow as a shift in the wind sent me staggering across the suddenly tilting deck. “But not,” he added firmly, “until you are safely back in your bed.”

I allowed him to lead me back to the cabin, for I really didn’t feel at all well, but not before giving him my instructions. As we entered the cabin, Jamie stood up from the table to greet us.

“There ye are, Sassenach! Are ye all right?” he asked, frowning down at me. “Ye’ve gone a nasty color, like a spoilt custard.”

“I am perfectly fine,” I said, through my teeth, easing myself down on the bunk to avoid jarring my arm. “Have you and Mr. Ishmael finished your conversation?”

Jamie glanced at the prisoner, and I saw the flat black gaze that locked with his. The atmosphere between them was not hostile, but it was charged in some way. Jamie nodded in dismissal.

“We’ve finished—for the moment,” he said. He turned to Fergus. “See our guest below, will ye, Fergus, and see to it that he’s fed and clothed?” He remained standing until Ishmael had left under Fergus’s wing. Then he sat down beside my berth and squinted into the darkness at me.

“Ye look awful,” he said. “Had I best fetch your kit and be feeding ye a wee tonic or somesuch?”

“No,” I said. “Jamie, listen—I think I know where our friend Ishmael came from.”

He lifted one brow.

“You do?”

I explained about the scar on Ishmael, and the almost matching brand on the slave Temeraire, without mentioning what had given me the idea in the first place.

“Five will get you ten that they came from the same place—from this Mrs. Abernathy’s, on Jamaica.” I said.

“Five will…? Och,” he said, waving away my confusing reference in the interests of continuing the discussion. “Well, ye could be right, Sassenach, and I hope so. The wily black bastard wouldna say where he was from. Not that I can blame him,” he added fairly. “God, if I’d got away from such a life, there’s no power on earth would take me back!” He spoke with a surprising vehemence.

“No, I wouldn’t blame him either,” I said. “But what did he tell you, about the boys? Has he seen Young Ian?”

The frowning lines of his face relaxed.

“Aye, I’m almost sure he has.” One fist curled on his knee in anticipation. “Two of the lads he described could be Ian. And knowin’ it was the Bruja, I canna think otherwise. And if you’re right about where he’s come from, Sassenach, we might have him—we may find him at last!” Ishmael, while refusing to give any clue as to where the Bruja had picked him up, had gone so far as to say that the twelve boys—all prisoners—had been taken off the ship together, soon after his own capture.

“Twelve lads,” Jamie repeated, his momentary look of excitement fading back into a frown. “What in the name of God would someone be wanting, to kidnap twelve lads from Scotland?”

“Perhaps he’s a collector,” I said, feeling more light-headed by the moment. “Coins, and gems, and Scottish boys.”

“Ye think whoever’s got Ian has the treasure as well?” He glanced curiously at me.

“I don’t know,” I said, feeling suddenly very tired. I yawned rackingly. “We may know for sure about Ishmael, though. I told Fergus to see that Temeraire gets a look at him. If they are from the same place…” I yawned again, my body seeking the oxygen that loss of blood had deprived me of.