Another perfect day, thought Herrie, leaning on the stern rail and looking out over the Misericordia's wake. The plume of foam lay across the translucent blue waters of the Mediterranean behind them, straight as a master draftsman's line on the plan of a cathedral. It led back to Valencia, where they had picked up the last of their cargo: fine wool and iron, and from the New World, cochineal and silver bullion. The hold of the Misericordia was full of goods that would make him a rich man back in Genoa.
It was appalling how little he cared.
Alberto, the mate, appeared at his elbow. "Looks fine, don't it? We'll be back in Genoa tomorrow evening, at this rate."
"Yes," Herrie agreed. He knew he sounded unenthusiastic. "The men have done wonderfully," he added.
Alberto's seamed face relaxed. "They're good lads," he said. "And we couldn't have wished for finer weather."
"True." And in that case, why was Herrie certain, in the pit of his belly, that something was very wrong?
Because you're a sinner: a murderer and a man who desired his own sister. It doesn't matter what Father Sandro said, or did. You're posing as a prosperous merchant captain, laying claim to a life you don't deserve. It's all been going much too well.
The last time he had felt this sickness within him, he had been certain that something terrible had happened to Caron. And he had been right.
The old sea dog beside him stirred. "In the name of the Virgin ... ."
He was gazing at the horizon. The blue of the sky was unmarred. Herrie squinted, turning his head to bring his better eye to bear. "A ship?"
"Aye, Captain de Caut. A galliot, from the look of her."
"It doesn't have to be a corsair, does it?"
"Nay ... but most of 'em are. Not much room for a cargo in a galliot, and not suited to a long voyage, neither."
"Still, it's just the one."
They watched, side by side, as the scratch at the edge of the sea grew larger. Whatever it was, it was gaining on them. Now Herrie could clearly see the three masts, and the triangular lateen sails. He ran his gaze along the horizon in both directions, and then his eye was caught by another mote, to the south. "Alberto – is that a second ship?"
The older man squinted against the sun. "That's torn it. Aye: a smaller one. Looks like a fusta. We'd best prepare. I could be wrong, but I doubt it."
Herrie turned and shouted to the men. Sails were adjusted, and the helmsman started to turn the ship to face the larger newcomer. The gunner and his mate were at the small cannons in the bow, and the rest of the crew were assembled, armed with crossbows, arquebuses, and hatchets for cutting ropes. Now the crew of the galliot could be seen, and by their dress, they were indeed Turks. Several of them waved their scimitars with sardonic cheer, and the galliot was turning to bring its own small battery to bear. The oarsmen and their leader were clearly veterans: the galliot turned with a speed and grace that the Misericordia, solely dependent on her sails and rudder, could not hope to match. As Herrie and his men watched, a banner snapped free at the top of the galliot's mainmast: a long rectangular tail of a deep, solid crimson. Guy, the second mate, swore.
"You know the ship?" asked Herrie.
"Not by name, but I reckon she's under the command of the Fox Captain. Crimson is his color."
"A pirate of Barbary?"
"They're in range," said Alberto, sharply. "Look lively, lads."
The attacker had finished maneuvering and now her guns spat. Herrie's crew ducked behind rails and stanchions, but the missiles weren't aimed at them: chain shot whistled toward the Misericordia's mainsail. The shot ripped through the edge of the sail and destroyed much of the rigging on that side, and a cheer went up from the corsairs. Their own guns were not yet in a position to return fire. Bring her round! thought Herrie, uselessly. He knew that their maneuvers would be even more awkward now.
"'Ware to port!" shouted Guy. Herrie turned and saw the fusta coming up fast. It had but a single cannon, and the crew standing behind was clearly preparing to board the Misericordia. Several of Herrie's crew fired toward it, but at the same moment, the fusta's cannon fired a load of scattershot that struck several of the crew, wounding some of them seriously.
"That's some fine gunnery, damn them all to Hell," growled Alberto.
As though to prove his point, another shot was fired from the galliot behind them, raking the length of the deck on the Misericordia's starboard side, scattering the crew and bringing one of them down. Martin, thought Herrie. The man would never see his native Rouen again.
Now cries erupted from the men on the port side, and the irregular thumping of grapnels hitting the side and rails of the Misericordia showed that the fusta had pulled alongside. Herrie drew his sword and ran over the deck with Alberto at his side. Corsairs were already heaving themselves over the rails, their bare feet thudding against the desk, and turning on Nichol and Adam, who were trying to cut free the ropes by which the attackers had climbed onto the ship. Herrie was struck by the fact that the men facing him were seemingly of every nation he knew. Then the rogue facing him, who had strands of light brown hair escaping from beneath a gaily striped headcloth and fair skin tanned the color of polished copper, nearly gutted him with a well-placed scimitar stroke, and Herrie had no more time to think.
It was all over in scarcely a quarter of an hour. The two corsair ships had carried almost nothing but armed men and rowers. They greatly outnumbered the Misericordia's small crew, and they were as skilled at hand-to-hand fighting as they were at gunnery. Herrie had killed two of them before he was overpowered and skillfully bound. Captives taken by the Barbary pirates were all part of the prize, to be sold as slaves. Everyone knew that.
Herrie was hustled across the Misericordia's deck to the starboard rail by ungentle hands. He could see that corsairs were already at work mending the damaged rigging and sail, preparing the captured ship to be sailed to their home port. Algiers is closest, he thought, and felt a certain grim satisfaction that his premonitions had been so accurate.
The pirates manhandled him over the rail and into the galliot, which was roped alongside now. He was hauled to his feet and dragged along the catwalk between the rows of oarsman, who were taking their leisure as they awaited the order to start back home. Like the pirates, they were of many nations, with skins ranging from ruddy fair to black as night.
A pleasantly deep voice called out something with a mocking tone in a language Herrie did not know, and he looked up to see that he was being brought to the feet of what could only be the captain of this crew of miscreants. The corsairs laughed at their leader's witticism, whatever it might be, and the man threw back his head and chuckled with them, showing even, white teeth. He was dressed splendidly, in soft crimson leather slippers, matching full trousers gartered and cropped at the knee, a sash of finely worked brocade in many colors wrapped tightly around a slim waist and ending in gold fringes as long as a man's fingers, a flowing vest of sheer white linen over a close-fitting blue tunic with white and gold embroidery at the neck and cuffs, and a gold-and-red cloth wrapped and knotted around his head and finished off with a silver cord.
The pirate captain's eyes were a piercing blue, and his level, finely drawn brows were as red as any natural hair Herrie had ever seen. One cheek was seamed with two thin, parallel scars, likely knife cuts. He looked Herrie over very thoroughly and asked him a question.
"I don't speak that language," said Herrie, calmly, in Italian. If it was good enough for his crew, it was good enough for the men who had captured them.
The pirate tried another language, which Herrie thought was likely Arabic. Since he himself only understood a few words of that, he shook his head.
"What of French, then, Frankish captain?" said the pirate, in perfectly clear but heavily accented French.
Herrie sighed. "Yes, I speak that."
"You have not been at this long, if you don't speak the Lingua Franca."
"Neither have you been at this long, have you?" By the look of him, the pirate captain was no older than Herrie himself.
"Long enough, I think. Long enough for you, eh?" The other man grinned. "What is your name?"
He would get the information from the crew, eventually, if Herrie didn't give it up. "Herrie de Caut."
"A Frenchman for sure. But this is a Italian ship you have. What is her home port?"
"Genoa." Again, there was little point in dissembling. Herrie narrowed his eyes. "What is your name?"
His tone caused some muttering among the corsairs. "Watch your tongue, Frankishman," said one of them, menacingly. He was a European of some sort, likely from the north, for although his skin was as deeply tanned as a deerskin, his eyebrows were white blond, and his French sounded vaguely Germanic. Herrie barely spared him a glance.
"You are a calm one," observed the pirate captain. He still seemed to be amused. "You may call me Ta'lab Reis, Monsieur de Caut."
Herrie knew that reis was captain. "Does that mean the Fox Captain?"
The blond man snorted. Ta'lab Reis cuffed him and then struck a noble pose. "I am famous, yes, Borni? Indeed, Ta'lab Reis is the Fox Captain, sly in his ways and quick to bite. As you have found out, hey?"
There was a shout from one of the corsairs aboard the Misericordia. All the pirates around Herrie turned to look, and when their comrade spoke again, they all cheered.
Ta'lab Reis looked smugly at Herrie. "All that bright silver is mine now, de Caut. You bring me good luck, you with the pretty face. That is in addition to whatever ransom you are worth. Who will pay to see your face again, Green Eyes?"
Who indeed? Father Sandro was unlikely to try to raise a ransom, and Piero Guarco was unlikely to pay: he had taken a risk in financing Herrie at Sandro's request in the first place. The Misericordia was an old ship, and only Herrie's sharp dealings in the shipyard had restored her to her current seaworthy shape. "No one."
"That is a bad joke, de Caut."
"It is no joke, Ta'lab Reis."
The corsair stared at him for a moment. Borni spat on the deck and then leered at Herrie. "I know one who would buy him, Ta'lab Reis."
"Al-Qadi Nusair al-Azhar?" Ta'lab Reis asked.
Ta'lab Reis looked at Herrie again and scowled. "No," he answered. "Bring him and the elder ones here under the canopy."
Herrie wondered at this seeming mercy, but Ta'lab Reis seemed to have lost interest in conversation with his prisoner. Alberto, Gaspar the master gunner, and Jenkin the ship's carpenter were brought to join Herrie under the awning that shaded the helmsman's position at the stern of the galliot. They sat there silently, watching the corsairs finish their repairs to the Misericordia and shift some supplies and cargo among the three ships. Several of the caskets of silver were among the goods that ended up on the galliot. As evening drew near, the ships were cut loose from each other, and the little flotilla headed south.
The journey to Algiers was both tedious and uncomfortable. They were untied only as long as needed to attend to the necessities of their bodies, and that under guard. The only break from the tedium of the hard deck and the heat of the days was the sparse crumbs of information that they occasionally gleaned by overhearing their captors' conversation, when the language was right, or talking with them outright. Alberto and Gaspar could speak the Lingua Franca, the mongrel language used by merchant and mercenary alike around the Mediterranean. Several of the corsairs turned out to be Englishmen, one of whom wanted to get news of home from Jenkin, and at any time, French, Italian, or Spanish might be heard.
"We're being treated well enough," muttered Alberto, on the second morning, "because a man with skills can go for a high price in the markets. Plenty of them turn renegade later, and join the corsairs of their own will."
"What, they turn Mohametan?" whispered Jenkin.
"Not necessarily. But some do, especially if they've a mind to command a ship someday."
Herrie looked toward the bow, where Ta'lab Reis was talking with his second-in-command, a grizzled Algerian named al-Mu'afi. Alberto followed the glance. "Not him," he said. "Yesterday, when he broke up that little spat, the one who got a beating later was cursing him for a Christian dog. And I've never seen him at prayer – have you?"
"How does he square that with preying on shipping, then?" Gaspar wanted to know.
"Not all Christians are good Christians," said Herrie. He glanced again at their red-haired captor and found Ta'lab Reis looking at him. Everything seemed to go quiet and taut for a moment, and then the pirate smiled briefly and turned away. Herrie closed his eyes, and wondered where on the heavenly scale of justice a murderer and lecher would be placed, in comparison with a pirate.
On the third day, they arrived in Algiers. It was an impressive city, walled all about, with several large gates opening onto roads east, west, and south . Green hills rose behind it, and ships of all sorts were at anchor. Herrie watched with bleak approval as Ta'lab Reis' men brought the Misericordia into port with considerable skill, followed by the galliot and the fusta. The prisoners were dragged off the ship and marched to a low building near the quays.
This proved to be be a prison of sorts. They were allowed to relieve themselves, each given a couple of dippers of water and some bread, and then left there for the night.
All about him, Herrie heard the sounds of his crew praying. He could not bring himself to do so: surely everything that had happened to him thus far was only right. Finally, he prayed for his men, that they would be treated well and eventually be able to make their way home. He was not able to sleep for a long time.
The next day, they were marched to what turned out to be the court of the pasha. The ruler of Algiers, gorgeous in robes of brocade and a huge snow-white turban, looked over the crew of the Misericordia, frowning. He looked at Herrie the longest, and Herrie, trying to avoid his eyes, looked at the officials ranged along the walls of the sumptuous chamber. To his surprise, Ta'lab Reis and his man al-Mu’afa were standing near the doors. Ta'lab Reis, garbed in the same gaudy finery he had worn for the raid on the Misericordia, looked nervous and was tapping his fingers anxiously against his sash. One of the pasha's men came over to speak with the pirate captain and then went back to address his lord. The pasha gave Herrie a final sharp look and then waved dismissively. The four strongest-looking crewmen were separated from the rest and led off through a side door. Then the rest of them were marched back to the prison by the docks.
"We're to be sold to the highest bidder on the next market day," said Alberto, after a short conversation with one of the guards. "The pasha was disappointed that there was no one to ransom, but he was soothed with one of the caskets of silver."
"Splendid," said Herrie, sardonically, before he could stop himself, and then he felt ashamed. There was no point in snapping at his men; they'd all be sold off like livestock soon enough.
But early the next morning, the gates of their prison were thrown open, and Herrie was bustled out. He looked back at Alberto, confused, but his first mate was just as mystified as he was. "God be with you, captain," he called after Herrie. And then Herrie was blinking in the sunlight as the guards smiled and bowed to Ta'lab Reis.
The pirate captain was dressed more simply this morning, in the workaday garments he'd worn during the voyage to Algiers. He spoke briefly to the guards, who cut the ropes from Herrie's wrists and then went back inside. The two captains stared at one another for a long moment.
"Come on," said Ta'lab Reis, and turned to go.
"Wait," said Herrie. "Come with you where? Why am I out here?"
Ta'lab Reis did not turn around. "Because I bought you."
"What about my men?"
Now the pirate did turn. "What about them?"
"They'll be sold to row galleys, under the lash."
"Maybe not. And even if they serve a while on the benches of a galley, maybe they'll be back on the deck of a ship some day quite soon soon, as sailors or even officers, or working at the ship yard, or even running a shop. There's lots of chances for a man to advance himself, here in Algiers."
"They'll be slaves!"
"So? How free were the ordinary sailors on your ship? Would any of them ever own his own vessel, or his own business? And do your sailors never go under the lash?"
"The Barbary pirates torture their Christian captives," said Herrie. "Everyone knows it. Stop your lying mouth."
"And men and women in London and Paris are hanged and drawn and quartered and burnt alive, in the name of Christ Jesus. Am I lying about that, de Caut?"
Herrie shivered, despite the heat of the sun. "No."
"I was sold in the market myself, nine years ago, monsieur. It was the best piece of fortune I ever had in my life. And I bought you because you'd be dead at your oar in three months on the forces travaux out of Algiers. You're a decent swordsman, and you're not weak for your size, but you've no flesh to spare. Come away now. I'll not discuss business out here under this sun when I've a choice."
"What do you want of me, Ta'lab Reis?"
"Curious, hey? Come away. We'll talk."
And so Herrie followed his new master out of the yard of the slave prison, down a wide street and a narrower street, passing white-washed houses with bright flowers growing in pots and iron gates opening onto cool courtyards, like the houses in the south of Spain. They came at last to what seemed to be an inn, and Ta'lab Reis paid the proprietor a piece of silver to lead them to a pleasant little room, with a low table and cushions on the floor for seats, and a window that looked out onto a paved yard with lemon trees set about it and a small tiled pool in the center. The host brought platters and cups, bread and olives, a dish of what looked like white cream, dates and almonds, and a couple of pitchers that were hazed with moisture on the outside, as though they were very cold.
"Sit and eat," said Ta'lab Reis.
"What's in the pitchers?"
"Well water, and sekanjabin. It's made with sugar and vinegar and mint. It's better than it sounds."
It was, in fact, quite refreshing. Herrie downed two cups of it and then realized that he was famished. He ate his way through a plateful of food. Ta'lab Reis picked at his, dipping bites of the bread in the white cream. Herrie tried some: it was tart but pleasant, almost like a fresh cheese in flavor. "Yogurt," explained Ta'lab Reis. "Soured milk, really, but it makes a decent enough food."
Herrie sat back on his cushion. "Ta'lab Reis, why did you buy me?"
"Your men were saying to mine that you refitted that ship of yours: that you watched over the work like a master and made it near as good as a keel that was laid no more than five years since. They said that you shopped the markets like an old farmwife, always getting the last of each copper's worth. I want you to help refit my ships properly, and supply them. The galliot, Habibti, is more than thirty years of age and has not been maintained as she should be, I know. Rohi, my fusta, is newer, but she could also use some work."
"Why on earth should you suppose that I would assist a pirate in preying on the shipping of Christendom?"
Ta'lab Reis gave him a knowing smile. "Have you ever thought, de Caut, about where that silver you carried came from?"
"From the new world; from Hispania."
"And to whom did it belong? Who owned the land where it was mined? Who broke his back to dig the ore?"
Herrie stared at him, about to answer glibly, and then he thought about what Ta'lab Reis had said about the prospects of men on a ship like the Misericordia. He sighed. "I suppose that 'the Spanish' is not the answer you had in mind."
"The Spanish took that land from those who lived in it, did they not? And said it was just, because the people were heathens who worshipped demons and idols. They also used them as slaves in those mines, and unlike a galley slave of Barbary, they had no chance to be freed and take up another way of life. So, your patrons dealt with the Spanish, who were also thieves and pirates. And now I have taken it from you. This is life, as we live it in this world."
"Your pirates killed several of my men."
"And your crew killed three of mine. What of it? That is the chance we all take, when we choose to live a life on the waves. The sea takes from us, even sometimes requiring our lives, but it gives great gifts as well. Listen: I have never killed a young child, or a woman who did not attack me first. I have never killed a man who threw down his weapon and cried mercy. Are all your Christian shipmasters as kind and generous as I am? And yet you are too good to work for me."
"You are a tempter, Reis."
Ta'lab Reis' intense face relaxed into laughter. "That is not how the word is used. It is not the name of my family, and you cannot say it as you would the word 'captain.' 'Al-Reis' is 'the captain,' and when you address me to my face, it would be 'ya al-Reis.' So you would say, 'You are a tempter, ya al-Reis.'"
"Ta'lab can't be your name."
"By no means. But you will learn, almost no one who is a grown man or woman is called by his or her name here. Were you an old friend, like Borni, you might call me Karam, here, while we are alone."
"I wager that isn't your name either. Where are you from?"
"You are a poor excuse for a slave, de Caut. Such manners!"
Herrie looked him in the eye. Ta'lab Reis gazed back, the blue eyes crinkling at the corners. "I was born in Terre d'Écosse. But now I am from Algiers."
"You're a Scot."
"I was. Are you a native Frenchman? How is it that you command a ship, even a small one, and yet have no one who will pay a ransom for your release?"
Herrie pressed his lips together, but then he sighed. This was all so pointless. He had no reputation to destroy, and nothing about his history would cost his Genovese patron the least coin of the realm. "I am French, from Lyon. My parents died when I was quite young. When my twin sister died as well, I had not much of a life to be worth the living. A priest befriended me, and eventually he persuaded a Genovese merchant that he knew to take a chance on me. I worked well for the man for some four years, and this spring he allowed me to take his smallest and oldest ship under my command. The rest you know."
"So, the attention of the priest was caught by the face of a pretty boy. That is an old story."
Herrie thought of Father Sandro and was suddenly hard put to keep from laughing. Ta'lab Reis noticed at once. "There is a joke? Tell me."
"Only that the priest in question was no more than two years my elder, and the girls of the city would sigh and blush as he walked by."
"Oh, what a sad waste!." And then Ta'lab Reis grinned wickedly, showing his white teeth. Father Sandro would thump him with a missal, if he were there, thought Herrie.
"What of your history, ya al-Reis?"
"Very good! We will make an Algerian of you yet, de Caut."
Herrie waited for his rage to rise at this suggestion, but in fact, he found himself hardly moved. The pirate was such easy company. Herrie was tempted, for the first time since he had made his confession to Father Sandro, to tell another human being his true history. "Your story, sir?" he asked, instead.
"No worse than yours. Born on the wrong side of the blanket, as they say. Never knew my mother or father, but the church pressed my father's wife to take me in. She hated me, of course. Her own son was a kind fellow, though. When she died, he ran off, and I did the same soon thereafter. A ship out of Glasgow took me on as ship's boy, and and the ship was taken by corsairs two years later. I lived as a slave here in Algiers for a couple of years, then I was freed 'cause my master got better after expecting to die of an illness and he liberated most of us in thanks to Allah. I lived lean for a few years on the streets, got taken on as a sailor, and eventually became my own man."
"What became of your half brother? Why did he run off?"
Ta'lab Reis showed his teeth, but it was not friendly this time. "What befell your sister, eh?"
"Touché." Herrie dropped his gaze to his plate and started aimlessly arranging his olive and date stones like tiles.
"I want you to work for me. I will ask you sweetly. Listen: please, will you do it, monsieur?"
If there was a God, thought Herrie; if there there were such a thing as divine justice, would Herrie de Caut, renegado who willingly served a pirate master in Mohametan pay, be judged any more harshly than Herrie de Caut, who wished to bed his sister and had killed the man who had taken her instead, along with his entire household?
"Well?" asked the young Scotsman who called himself the Fox Captain.
"I will, if you but grant me one boon."
"And that is?"
"What is your true name?"
"Curran. Curran Soul. But you can't expect me to answer to it."
"I wouldn't dream of it."
The pirate leaned across the table and clapped him on the shoulder. "Come along, then. I need your wits in the shipyard."
The next few weeks were the busiest Herrie had ever known. Each day at dawn, he brought Ta'lab Reis his meal and served as his valet. Then with the assistance of Paulo, an Italian in Ta'lab Reis' crew who served as an interpreter, Herrie supervised the repair and refitting of the pirate's two ships. He earned the respect of the irascible shipwright, al'Abbas, and got his support in the matter of a new idea for reinforcing the telaro, the structure that supported the rower's benches and the oars, with a dense wood brought from the New World. When that work was well underway, he stalked goods in the markets with Paulo and al-Mu'afi, assessing and bargaining and arranging for delivery to Ta'lab Reis' warehouse near the quays. And all the while, he was learning the Lingua Franca, which allowed the many nations of the people of Algiers to do business together.
The pirate crew accepted him as they accepted the few men of Herries' own crew that ended up augmenting the rowing benches of the Habibti and the Rohi: as a newcomer who needed to prove his worth. After a couple of weeks, during which Herrie fell into an exhausted slumber on his mattress in the crew's common room at the inn every night, they began to address him with some respect. He picked up a byname, as most of them had: al-Ustadh, which was a gentle mockery because it could mean a respected scholar. Still, it became obvious that some of them would never think much of him. Borni, for instance, never failed to call him the Fox's Dog, and would sometimes bark at him when he spoke.
His own crewmen who had been purchased by Ta'lab Reis seemed to take his position philosophically. They had been put to work, as had the rest of the oarsmen, fetching and carrying and doing other mostly mindless labor, but they were given rest breaks in the shade and enough food and water to keep working well, for they were an investment. Occasionally, Herrie saw other members of his crew about Algiers: Jenkin was working as a carpenter on another ship, and Gaspar was grudgingly helping with the addition of some new cannon for it. Herrie heard a rumor that Alberto had been bought by a caravaneer who hoped to make use of his sharp eyes. He also, to his sorrow, saw young Piero limping painfully through the streets with a heavy water jug: clearly, he had committed some offense that had been punished with the bastinado.
One evening, Ta'lab Reis called Herrie to accompany him on an errand. They walked to another inn, a smaller one, which Herrie recognized as the shore residence of Borni and several of the other senior members of the Habibti's crew. They were shown into a space that was set up as a dining room and parlor. Borni was there, looking uneasy, his head bare and the blond bristles of his close-cropped hair all on end, but his expression changed to scorn when he saw Herrie. "Send your Frankish dog out, Karam! He doesn't need to know my business," he said, in the Lingua Franca. Herrie knew quite enough to understand every word, but he kept his face blank. Ta'lab Reis looked at him speculatively and then shook his head.
"He can stay. I trust him with my silver; that should be good enough."
"The hell," said Borni, and ran one hand through his hair. "You giving up the ladies, Karam?"
Ta'lab Reis grimaced. "Is that your problem? I just gave Salsal a pair of gold earrings – maybe you heard her boasting of it?"
"He's at least as pretty as she is," said Borni, with an offensive leer.
"Yes, but he can't dance," said Ta'lab Reis, with what seemed to Herrie to be an unnecessary amount of patience. "Borni, what's this about? I could be back at ibn Hakim's, watching her dance right now."
"Well, if you want to watch some skinny slut dance instead of helping your oldest friend –"
"What do you need, old friend?" Ta'lab Reis' face showed genuine concern, and Borni at last began to talk, rapidly enough that Herrie had a hard time with some of it. Apparently Borni had been speculating on a shipment of ivory from the heart of Africa. He knew that Ta'lab Reis wouldn't lend him the enormous amount he needed to get in on the deal, so he had borrowed some from the notorious Thawr al-Hakam, whose sobriquet, meaning "the judge," had been given to him because he was ruthless in executing his judgement on those who defaulted on their loans. And the caravan had just arrived last evening in Algiers – without the ivory. The connection had fallen through, and the merchant had simply made up his shipment out of what other goods he could. None of it was worth the amount that Borni had borrowed.
"Name of God, Borni! That would be every piece of silver I got from the Frankish ship, before the Pasha took his portion! And I've already given al'Abbas his payment for the shipyard work, not to mention the provisions."
"And not to mention what you spent on your Frankish dog, either!" Borni shot back, but Herrie could see his hands were trembling. "Karam – little brother – I saved your ass so many times. Can't you do something?"
"How much time do you have before al-Hakam comes calling for your miserable hide?"
Borni looked down at his feet. "I'm out of time, Kar. His little rat just headed back there."
Ta'lab Reis cursed, at length, and in several languages. "You jackass. Get your stuff together – now!"
"They'll come after me, Kar –"
"Just do it!"
Borni left the room through the door on the far side. "How much silver do you have in your purse, de Caut?" asked Ta'lab Reis.
Herrie checked the soft leather pouch he had stuffed into his Turkish-style sash. "Some thirty pieces."
"That figures. Take out a couple of them; hand the purse here." He added the contents of his own purse and handed it to Borni, who had returned with his bundle under one arm and his head covered. "Take this. Go the back way down to the quay and tell al-Walid that I said you were to take the dinghy out on an errand for me, under cover of the night. I know you can handle her by yourself. Head for Tunis, or wherever the hell you want."
"And you? Those wolves of al-Hakam's ... "
"Yeah, you picked a fine time to start worrying about 'em, didn't you? Don't waste any more of my time or yours, Borni."
"Good luck, little brother," and Borni climbed out the window as neatly as any thief in the night.
"What are you going to do now?" Herrie asked, in French.
"Wait for 'em. I was wondering whether I should keep your ship or sell it; guess I've got my answer."
"Why is he worth so much to you?"
"After I was freed, I would've starved or taken up work as a bugger-boy if he hadn't looked after me. He got me my first job on a corsair ship, too, and taught me how to fight. But he's no good as a captain: men won't follow him. Go to the master of the house, de Caut. Order some food and drink sent up, then stay out of the way in the common room. I don't want to have to worry about you when the bully boys get here."
Herrie did as he was told, at first, but then a party of half a dozen brutish-looking thugs showed up. The proprietor, looking anxious, tried to put them off, but Herrie was not surprised when he capitulated and showed them to the Habibti party's rooms. When the innkeeper came back, Herrie slipped out the back door of the common room and went to the door of the place where he had left Ta'lab Reis.
"Come have a seat, gentlemen," Ta'lab Reis was saying. "Those melons are as sweet as honey."
"Cut the crap, ya al-Reis. Our master requires the money he loaned your yellow-headed knave."
"Well, he's lucky that I have a ship to sell."
"He's not going to wait to find a buyer for that old cog, you son of a Frankish whore. He needs his money now. Where's that piece of offal who warms your bed?"
There was a burst of noise: shouts, chairs falling over, soft-shod feet on the tiled floor. Herrie eased the door open and peered in. Ta'lab Reis, his back to the inner wall, had his scimitar in one hand and his dagger in the other. Four of the men were surrounding him, armed with clubs, while the most richly dressed one was looking at the door to the inner room. The sound of furniture and crockery being hurled about could be heard there, and finally the sixth man appeared in the doorway. "He isn't there!"
The leader turned to Ta'lab Reis. "Where has he fled?"
"Beat it out of him," the man growled.
"He's got blades," objected one of the thugs.
"Are you children? There are six of us!"
Ta'lab Reis sighed. "Come on, I haven't got all night."
The tallest of the thugs raised his iron-bound club and lunged forward. Ta'lab Reis ducked around his swing and caught him across the gut with his scimitar, leaping clear as the blood spurted out and turning to face the next attacker. Herrie, who had not seen him fight before, was amazed and appalled. His speed was astonishing, but the room was not large, and soon he would be caught with no room to maneuver.
There had been a broom in a corner of the hallway. Herrie grabbed it and slipped into the room. Wielding it like a boar spear, he caught the leader a very foul blow at the back of the skull, just below his turban. As he bellowed and dropped to his knees, clutching his head, Herrie disarmed him of his scimitar. Then he took careful aim and, swinging the weapon two-handed, chopped halfway through the thick neck from behind.
One of the thugs suddenly woke to the fact that he had a foeman behind him and started to turn. Herrie picked up a small table in one hand and struck him in the side of the face with it, then got him across the ribs with the scimitar. As the man staggered and dropped his club, Herrie slashed his throat.
Ta'lab Reis had brought down another man, but as Herrie had anticipated, the remaining three now had him trapped in a corner. He was favoring his dagger arm in a way that suggested one of the clubs had landed a blow. Herrie hamstrung one of them, and Ta'lab Reis got him with the scimitar as he started to collapse to the side. One of the remaining thugs got in a blow to the pirate captain's ribs, but his companion uttered a roar of dismay as he realized that the odds had suddenly tilted against them: now two men armed with clubs face two men armed with scimitars. Ta'lab Reis grinned, looking very much like the fox his namesake.
"You could run off now. We'll let you go," he said, encouragingly.
The one closest to Herrie flinched and started to back away toward the door. His comrade grabbed his arm. "Dolt! Craven! WIll you face al-Hakam with this news?"
And then Ta'lab Reis cut his club hand off.
"That was unsporting," said Herrie, as the coward bolted out of the room. And as the wounded man sank to his knees, clutching the spurting stump of his wrist, Herrie decapitated him.
Ta'lab Reis sagged against the wall. "You took that blade from the leader? What in God's holy name did you use?"
"The end of a broomstick to the back of his skull. He never knew what hit him."
"And you with those scholar's hands ... I think I'm gong to be sick."
So he was, rather extravagantly. Herrie, bemused, realized that he must have taken a blow to the head at some point. He fetched the pitcher of water and a napkin and mopped his master's spattered face. "Let's get out of here," said Ta'lab Reis.
"My thought, yes. I'll send the landlord some money tomorrow."
Back at their own inn, the host took one look at them and hurried them up to their own rooms, promising a washtub and several buckets of water. Al-Mu'afi summoned Symon, who served as their ship's surgeon, and the three of them set about the touchy business of undressing Ta'lab Reis and caring for his wounds.
He had ugly bruises on his left forearm and his ribs on that side, and a nasty lump coming on his head, but Symon said that no bones had actually been broken. He dosed his captain with a tincture of opium and advocated bed rest, cold compresses on the bruises, and a chilled milk posset with sugar and ginger. "Just bring me the drink and let me be, Sym" said Ta'lab Reis. "De Caut can take care of the compresses."
Laid out in bed, clad only in linen drawers, his long, red hair tumbled on the pillows, he looked pitifully young. Presently he began to shiver, and Herrie covered him up with the silk-stuffed quilt, arranging towels to keep to keep the compresses from dampening it. "That's good. Thank you," said the pirate captain, and closed his eyes.
Herrie looked at his profile, as finely drawn as the portrait of a young saint in an icon, and felt a longing that he realized had been there for days, if not weeks. When had that begun? Had Borni's intemperate words put the notion into his head tonight, or had it been when he saw this man grinning carelessly as he faced off against enemies who meant to beat him into a senseless pulp?
"What will happen now?" he asked.
"Nothing. Al-Hakam can hardly complain that I killed his men, when they attacked me after I offered the ship in good faith. It's worth more than the ivory. The Pasha will render a judgment, and we'll probably end up with some gold on the side. It's al-Hakam's own fault for hiring those ogres with more brawn than brains."
"Won't there be trouble because I killed some of them?"
"No more than if you were my dog, who leapt to defend me. I own you." There was a brief silence, and then Ta'lab Reis' eyes flew open. "De Caut ... Herrie?" He turned his head, wincing.
"No, listen. You gave me my life tonight. I always pay my debts. Tomorrow, I'll go to the magistrates, have them draw up a bill of manumission."
"You mean ... you'll set me free."
"It's only right."
"So you'll send me away?"
"Isn't that what you want?"
Herrie started to laugh and then stopped himself. "I ... Karam ... no. Curran. No. I don't think I do."
"I told you not to call me that," said the pirate captain, but without heat. "Whatever could be keeping you here?"
The silence built, until it was a solid thing that Herrie could have touched, could have cut with a knife. He could hardly blame the pirate: he knew now that the Mohametan was no more inclined to sodomy than was the Christian.
"So you've felt it too, hey?" whispered Curran. Herrie stared at him, and Curran grinned through his pain, a grin like a handsome young Death. "Heh. You didn't know, then. Didn't I turn pale when Borni said I should sell you to that libertine al-Azhar? Didn't I spend the price of five good horses to buy you before the market day? I know Borni told you the price, damn his eyes."
He had. And Herrie had wondered, then, but thought nothing more about it than that the Fox Captain was perhaps a little mad. Now he knelt by the bed and stroked Curan's sweat-damp red hair back from his forehead. The pirate laughed up at him, silently, and Herrie had to stop that mouth with his own.
"Herrie, stop," said Curran, when he could breathe once again. His face was troubled, although the condition of his body beneath the flimsy linen gave ample evidence that he had been moved by the kiss.
"I'm hurting you."
"Not so I'd notice – Sym dosed me but good. But it's not right. Not while you're still my boughten slave."
"You're going to manumit me tomorrow, you said."
"Herrie, I can't take advantage of a ... of you that way."
"You're not," he said, and nuzzled Curran's throat. "For that matter, I shouldn't be molesting you while you lie here, helpless, drugged and injured."
"Not helpless," said Curran, and pushed Herrie's face away with his good hand and arm. "Herrie, no."
Herrie sighed. "What will it take for you to let me do this, now? I think I deserve some indulgence tonight. Perhaps you should swear some dire oath that you will do tomorrow whatever it takes to free me."
"I could do that. But why should you think I would regard such an oath?"
"It doesn't matter to me! I believed you when first you said you would do it. You are the one who is insisting on this farce."
"Honestly, you make a terrible pirate," said Herrie, exasperated. "You are more virtuous than most of the priests I've known. Come now, swear this oath."
"May I die a painful death and God give me over to the Devil if I do not free you before the sun sets tomorrow," said Curran, promptly, and pulled Herrie's face toward his own.
Herrie kissed him again, and what a difference it made to have Curran's mouth soften and welcome him in. Herrie tangled his fingers in that long, richly colored hair on the side that was not bruised and held him in place. exploring his mouth and then continuing his previously interrupted errand of placing kisses down the pirate's throat, across his tautly muscled chest, lingering on the dusky blooms of his paps. Curran reached to stroke whatever he could and finally growled impatiently. "You have me at a disadvantage, you smooth-tongued villain: you're still fully dressed!"
"You could do something about that – no, actually, you couldn't. Lie still." Herrie peeled off his embroidered vest and fine lawn shirt: old things of Curran's that had allowed him to pass unremarked in the market and the shipyard. Curran reached up to stroke his belly, fingertips skirting the gnarled old scar there. Herrie gave him a dour look. "I told you to lie still."
"You're so cruel, with your lover's lips and your scholar's hands, and the eyes in your head like emeralds. Come up here on the bed, or I'll be forced to harm myself to reach you."
"I'll show you how cruel I can be," said Herrie, serenely, peeling off his knee-length trews and climbing up to kneel beside him. He licked his way down Curran's flat stomach, where a fine line of russet hairs trailed southward from his navel, and undid the drawstrings of the linen trousers. He stopped then to admire what he found there and to wonder, for a moment, what exactly he would do with it.
"Have you ever done this before?" Curran's voice was slow and thick with lust and the opium.
"Keep your head right there, on the pillow," said Herrie. "I imagine the mechanism is similar to my own."
Curran laughed and winced. "Oh, my head. You and your sly words. Get you to work, then."
Herrie did so, with lips and tongue and hands, so that Curran gasped and moaned. "That's so sweet, my hero."
"How's your head?" asked Herrie, solicitously.
"Ah, it's not my bruised head that's the issue just now. I swear I will die of thwarted lust this minute if you don't put your mouth –"
"Sweet mother of Christ, yes!"
His climax shuddered through him, and Herrie wondered whether his moan was purely of pleasure. But when Herrie had finished wiping his face with Curran's discarded drawers, the pirate was smiling, soft and sleepy. "Your turn, now."
"You shouldn't – "
"Ah, it will take more than that to kill me, my lad. You're the one who's suffering now: look at the size of that thing!"
Herrie flushed, flattered and embarrassed and aroused beyond anything he'd ever felt before. He tugged off his own drawers and laid back on the pillows. Curran rested the unbruised side of his face on Herrie's thigh and licked and stroked him, firmly and sweetly and achingly slow. The bubble of pleasure built and built, until he thought the pressure of it would take his breath away forever. When he spent at last, he cried aloud.
Curran mopped Herrie's belly and thighs clean with his abused drawers and then crawled back into bed with a contented sigh, closing his eyes. Herrie got up and wrung out fresh cloths for the bruises. When Curran was settled, Herrie started to dress.
"What the devil are you doing?"
"No, you're not. You're sleeping here."
"Whatever you say, ya al-Reis."
"None of that, now." Then, when Herrie was settled against him: "That wasn't my name you called. It was close, but it wasn't the same."
"No," said Herrie, reluctantly.
"Yes. She's dead."
Herrie held his breath, but Curran didn't ask. Instead, after a moment, he said: "We'll be setting out in a week. One last voyage before the rough weather settles in. Will you come with me?"
"Would your men think the worse of you?"
"They'd know not to mention it. I think they'd not care, unless they thought you were after advancements they'd already earned."
"What would be my position?"
"Purser, supercargo, and master of supply. I think it would work. They know how well you can fight."
"Curran, I'm not sure I could attack the crew of a ship so much like my own Misericordia."
"Would you be able to make yourself defend our holdings and the oarsmen?"
"I think perhaps I could," said Herrie, after a moment.
"That's settled, then. You need not ever be part of a boarding party." He yawned and winced as the motion pulled at the bruises on his skull.
"You should sleep now," said Herrie.
A faint laugh: "I doubt you could stop me, my hero."
After a few moments, Curran's breathing settled and deepened. Herrie turned on his side and looked at the beautiful, scarred curve of the pirate's cheekbone, the shadows of the long eyelashes laid on his cheek and smudges of weariness and pain below them.
So now, I am a Barbary pirate. Somehow, it did not seem any worse than any other path he had pursued. What would she think?
He saw her face then, the warm dark eyes, the honey-colored hair. The last few times he'd seen her this clearly in his mind's eye, she had been dead, as he had actually last seen her. But now she smiled and waved him a kiss.
– And turned, and walked lightly away.
Thank you, Caron, though Herrie, and fell asleep, to slumber without evil dreams for the first time in three years.