Nene Adams 1998-2000. No portion of this publication
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Chapter Twenty-Two: Out of Africa
Graciela cursed roundly, spitting out oaths as if they burned her throat, and snatched her trousers and shirt off the floor. Stupid, stupid, stupid!
How could you let the girl flee like that? she thought savagely, yanking her clothes on. Lizzybet's young and has a head filled with romantic notions. She probably thinks belching in her lover's face is the end of the world.
The strident call of the lookout made Graciela cock her head to one side. Maldemere was in sight at last. They'd layover a few days, pick up some supplies, and then be off to the Hag's Chain... and the lost treasure of the Sirena.
She needed to get up on deck to take the helm; piloting into St. Agnes' Harbor was tricky and she trusted no one else at the ship's wheel. She also needed to talk to Elizabeth, try and fix what was wrong.
Being a pirate captain was only marginally more dangerous than being in love, Graciela thought wryly.
She trotted up the stairs to the foredeck, bare feet making scarcely a whisper on the smooth boards. She could see a huddled figure in a white shirt near the bow - that had to be Elizabeth. Dawn was just breaking, a rippling sheet of pinks, grays and lavenders slipping across the sky, mirrored by the sea.
Graciela turned and looked up at the quarterdeck. "Ease off the sheets and don't be in such a damned hurry," she said to the helmsman. "I'm not yet ready to enter port yet."
When she was sure her command would be obeyed, Graciela paced slowly towards her lover.
Elizabeth had been crying; her face was blotched, eyes swollen, freckled nose wet at the end. When she caught sight of Graciela, the girl scrubbed her cheeks with a sleeve and stared resolutely out at the water.
"Lizzybet," the dark haired woman said, squatting down. "Why did you run away?"
Elizabeth couldn't answer; she was too mortified, too heartbroken. I ruined it, she thought. The Great Gawk's done it again! Rather than reply to Graciela's question, she asked one of her own. "When will we be in port?"
Graciela laid a hand lightly on Elizabeth's arm. "Soon enough," she said. "Querida, did I do something to offend you?"
The girl's eyes opened wide. "You? Offend me?" She laughed bitterly. "I'm afraid t'is the other way 'round."
"Nay..." Graciela scratched her head as if puzzled. "I've no reason to think ill of you. Mayhap you've fallen out of love with me." She gave a dramatic sigh. "P'raps I'm not so fine a lover as you'd hoped."
Elizabeth's eyes narrowed. "Are you making fun of me?"
"Nay! I'd sooner carve my own heart into callops!"
"You know what happened. You were there." Elizabeth couldn't bring herself to speak of it. The embarrassment was still burning hotly.
"What? Oh, aye, we were both there, querida. Only I'm not rememberin' anything so terrible."
"All right. Do you want me to say it out loud?" The girl turned her head, looking directly at Graciela for the first time. "Fine." She took a deep breath, let it out slowly. "I belched in your face. Are you happy now? And I know its disgusting, unpardonably rude, you probably don't want to see me ever again..."
"Lizzybet... I love you. What's a little wind between us, eh?" Graciela kept her tone light. "Querida, we're human. We fart, shit, piss and belch all the time. I think no less of you for that. Besides, I've lived on rough ships with rough men for a long time. You've seen the crew... not a mother's son of 'em would think twice about dumping ballast in the thunder mug and wipin' his own arse at the Pope's dinner table. No manners a'tall. Do you really think a ladylike burp is going to put me off so quickly?"
Elizabeth blushed. "I'm... I'm being silly, aren't I?"
"A bit." Graciela leaned closer and gave the girl a smile "But t'is part of your charm."
"I'm sorry. I just..."
"I know." The pirate glanced up. "Time for me to take the wheel. What say we take a little shore leave together, hmm? Not much to see on Maldemere in the way of culture and such, but there's a lovely market and I've cash to spend."
"Oh! That sounds wonderful!" Troubles almost forgotten, Elizabeth fairly glowed with excitement. In the soft light, her red-gold hair hanging around her shoulders, she was beautiful. "Mayhap later in the evening we could...?" She shyly pointed in the direction of the cabin.
Graciela grinned. "I'd like nothing better."
The girl leaned forward and kissed Graciela on the mouth. "I love you."
"I love you as well." The dark-haired woman levered herself up and held out a hand. "Now go and wipe your face, sweetheart. And don't forget to wear your claymore. Maldemere's a pirate port full of horny bastards and greedy thieves."
"Aye-aye!" Elizabeth replied with a giggle, getting to her feet. Looking down at Graciela, noticing the way the wind blew strands of black hair across the smaller woman's ice blue eyes, made her feel as if her heart was melting under a weight of sheer affection.
I love her! I love her! I love her! the girl exalted silently.
A gull perched on a yardarm let out a raucous cry, as if in answer.
The port of St. Agnes was a ramshackle, sprawling town that looked half swallowed by the surrounding jungle. Small buildings made of salvaged wood, spliced together haphazardly with rope and nails, peeped out of a thick tangle of vines and palms. Some had tables set up outside, hawking fruits, roasted pig meat, baby parrots, infant monkeys, caged songbirds, cheap jewelry, weapons and clothing. Most of the manufactured goods came from pirated cargo, traded for voyaging essentials, or from the holds of ships wrecked on the treacherous coral reefs that surrounded the island.
Elizabeth walked arm in arm with Graciela, taking in the sights, sounds and smells. Every other building seemed to be a tavern or whorehouse, and they were doing a rousing business even at this early hour of the morning. She was forced to step over several recumbent bodies, unsure whether they were merely unconscious or no longer among the living, and her nostrils were filled with the scents of woodsmoke, charred meat and lemons. Catching a leer from a whiskery drunk, she unconsciously felt the money pouch nestled between her breasts and thanked God she was dressed as a man.
Graciela steered them towards a long table that was piled with second-hand clothing, nodding at the high bosomed woman who presided behind. "Let's see if we can find something for you, querida." She began sorting through the tangled masses of shirts, vests, breeches and boots. "You've a long length to your bones but no doubt we'll uncover a pretty or two."
Elizabeth obediently began picking through the clothing, rejecting a good many of the items because of their gaudy coloration, bad condition or poor construction. She finally selected a couple of plain linen shirts, soft moleskin trousers, a dress shirt of fine lawn with mother of pearl cuff buttons and Irish lace jabot, and two pairs of tan breeches. A faint glitter caught her eye and she dug down into the pile, eventually unearthing a spectacular outfit that must have been tailored for a nobleman's son.
The coat was forest green satin, heavily frogged and embroidered in gold, amber cabochons picking out the highlights of the arabesque scrolling. Wide sleeve cuffs and broad lapels were outlined in carved ivory buttons inset with polished amber chips in a mosaic sun design. The matching vest repeated the ivory/amber sun design, and flared leg trousers completed the set.
Graciela nodded. "T'is a fine piece, Lizzybet." She examined the outfit with a critical eye. "No stains or tears, and the fancy trimmings are intact. T'would suit you nicely, I think."
Elizabeth held the coat in both hands for a moment, then reluctantly put it down. "I can't afford it," she said. "Let me pay for these other things and we'll go."
"Nay, querida! You'll not leave that lovely thing behind. T'was made for you and no mistake!" The pirate turned and regarded the woman behind the table. "Go get yourself a cup of something cool, Lizzybet. I'll bargain for your pretties and the rest." She always relished a good bartering session and this looked to be an exceptional challenge.
Elizabeth patted the coat one last time. "Are you sure?" She didn't think Graciela could get the better of this deal but hated the thought of losing such a wonderful outfit.
Graciela scrubbed her hands together with glee. "Aye. Just don't go too far and keep your weapon handy." As the proprietress stepped from behind the table, she continued, "So, madame... how many pennies d'ye think to cheat a poor sailor for these old rags?..."
Elizabeth listened for a moment before wandering away, stifling a chuckle. She had no idea her pirate lover was such a skilled and melodramatic bargainer. That's nearly an entertainment of itself, she thought as a small crowd began gathering to watch Graciela's performance with the equally high spirited owner.
Left to her own devices, the tall girl stopped at a stall selling juicy slices of fresh pineapple. After a diet of dried beef and ship's biscuits, relieved only by an apple or spoonful of lemon conserve a day, she craved fruits and vegetables. Elizabeth bought a couple of skewers and wolfed the pineapple down, heedless of the juice running down her chin. There were other carts in the street, each offering a different delicacy, and she was suddenly ravenous. A bowl of mango and papaya slices spiked with chili and lime was followed by a handful of deliciously soft passionfruits; then Elizabeth tried roasted corn, ember-baked yams and a chunk of highly spiced pork, washed down by several clay cups of slightly fermented juice.
Belching softly and feeling almost uncomfortably full, she glanced back at the clothing stall. Graciela was still going strong. A commotion down the street caught her attention; people were collecting in front of a low wooden stage. Perhaps there's a play, she thought, drifting idly in that direction.
To her horror, she found a slave sale in progress when she arrived.
The auction master was running his hands over the nude body of a dark-skinned man. "Good strong teeth," he called out, prying open the slave's jaws. "Plenty of muscle, very healthy, reasonably intelligent. A good field worker. What am I bid?" He prodded the slave with the hilt of his whip; the African's face remained expressionless but a dull hatred burned in his eyes.
Elizabeth was speechless. The idea of people as objects to be bought, sold and traded was anathema to her.
The black man was sold, and in rapid succession, new owners were found for weeping women, a pair of pretty twins, and several more young men. Then the auction master snapped his whip to get the bidder's attention. "We've got something very special for you today! A high spirited bitch from the dusty savannah. Easy on the eye with plenty of temper that can be trained out of her, if required, or enjoyed to the fullest by the discerning master."
The handlers dragged a naked woman onto the stage. Heavy chains were connected to thick steel cuffs on her wrists and ankles. The men dumped her close to the auction master, fastening her bonds to an iron staple in the floor, and retreated to a safe distance, muttering and nursing bruises. The reason for their caution became clear when she exploded off the floor like a cornered wolf, reaching for the auctioneer. He danced back and slashed her twice with the whip, opening up thin cuts on her back. She subsided, panting and shaking her head, when she realized he was out of her reach.
Elizabeth frankly stared. The African woman's skin was a pure blue-black, glistening in the sun as if oiled. She was tall, perhaps a hand taller than Elizabeth herself, and lean as a greyhound. Long legs and arms were banded with ropy muscle; her wooly hair was twisted into wire-thin braids that bounced on her shoulders. She had a nose like a hawk, sharp and aquiline, nostrils flared like an arrowhead, matched by high, delicate cheekbones. The woman surveyed the bidders and spat once in contempt, earning another whip lash, which she ignored.
The auction master shouted, "A fine, strong female, very suitable for breeding." Someone in the crowd guffawed. "Only if you want your jewels bitten off!"
For one moment, the proud slave's gaze met Elizabeth's fascinated stare. The woman's lip curled and she spat again before looking away.
A ship's captain with more bravado than sense, egged on by his yelling, whistling crew, leaped on the stage. "I'd like a taste of the merchandise before I buy, b'God!" He grabbed one of the slave's small breasts, kneading it roughly and grinning like a fool. When she didn't react, he slipped his fingers down to the vee of black curls between her thighs, while his men screamed in approval.
The auctioneer cried a warning but it was too late. Quick as a snake, the African looped a length of chain around the captain's throat and hauled backwards, actually dragging the man's kicking feet clear of the floor. The captain's face turned purple and he struggled weakly, eyes bulging from their sockets, tongue protruding. The handlers and auctioneer laid on their whips, trying to free the man, but the slave merely grinned fiercely. With a startling pop, the captain's neck snapped. A foul stench spread as his bowels loosened in death. The slave let him drop and the handlers backed away, unwilling to get too close to this lethal woman.
The auction master was almost in tears. "Two hundred in silver you cost me, bitch!" he shouted, snapping his whip in frustration. "Two hundred!"
A dandy in a sky blue satin coat nudged Elizabeth with his elbow. "It happens every year," he said, raising a lacy handkerchief to his nose. "Master Reichart has an unholy fascination with a tribe of warrior savages in Africa. Their women are just as fierce as the men. They can't be tamed, really. Sooner slit your throat than bow. Bloody uncivilized, I call it."
Elizabeth pitched her voice as low as she could without sounding forced. "What is Reichart going to do?"
The dandy shrugged. "Kill her, of course. Not like he can send her back to Africa as supercargo."
The auction master was handed a loaded blunderbuss by one of the dead captain's crewmen. Ugly mutterings swept through the crowd. "Bitch!" "Murdering whore!" "Black hearted cunt!"
Elizabeth began shoving her way towards the stage, suddenly filled with outrage.
Graciela was feeling very pleased with herself.
She'd not only gotten everything at an excellent price, but persuaded the stall owner to throw in two pairs of boots, gratis.
Now she glanced around in the midst of the food sellers, wondering where the hell Lizzybet had gotten off to. I told her not to wander away, the minx. She still doesn't know how dangerous shore leave can be...
A loud shouting and screaming caught her attention. Graciela looked in the direction of the slave auction down the street... and spotted a mop of red-gold hair flaming in the sun, seemingly in the midst of a milling mob.
"Shit!" Graciela tucked the parcel under her arm and drew her cutlass, heading towards the auction stage at a dead run.
When she arrived on the edges of the crowd, she heard a man say loudly, "Kill that red-headed bastard, too!"
Kill Lizzybet?!! Pure fury raged through her blood and it took an effort not to simply hack her way through the packed crowd. Instead, Graciela cleared a path with the sharp tip of her blade and took a running leap onto the stage. Elizabeth was standing in front of a chained female slave, protecting the woman from the furious auctioneer and his blunderbuss.
Graciela immediately shifted her stance and laid the edge of her cutlass along Reichart's neck. "Put down that damned scattergun, man, or I'll open you a second smile."
Reichart slowly lowered the blunderbuss but didn't loosen his grip on the stock. "What's your business in this, O'Malley?"
"That's my crewman you're threatening." One of the mob tried to grab Graciela's ankles but she kicked him in the face with casual brutality, knocking him back down into his fellows. "What's your problem?"
"Your damned sailor's trying to keep me from destroying my merchandise," Reichart spat. "That slave bitch killed Captain Furioso."
Graciela's ice blue gaze flicked towards the dead man and back to the auctioneer. "If he was stupid enough to stick his pecker in a lion's den, he deserved to die."
"Well, the Captain's men might have something different to say about that," the auctioneer replied stubbornly.
Elizabeth cleared her throat. "How much?" she asked.
"I'm having no bloodthirsty savages on my ship, Everheart," Graciela barked, maintaining the illusion of Elizabeth's fictional manhood. . "If you're aching for a taste of blackberry poon, try Mother Langley's brothel."
Elizabeth sucked in a furious breath and let it out slowly. You're supposed to be a man... gird your loins, woman, and act like one. "Captain... fuck the whorehouse. And fuck Reichart, too. I want to buy this slave."
Sensing a possible solution to his problem - and one which would partially compensate for his loss - Reichart said cautiously, "A hundred silver."
The crowd booed and hissed. One of Furioso's men shouted, "Don't do it, Reichart! String the bitch up and let her die!"
Another suggested loudly, "Kill 'em all! O'Malley and her whoreson sailor! Kill 'em all!"
A crackling fusillade of gunfire made everyone duck. Miguel and some of the Quartier's crew had come up from behind; they were heavily armed and obviously spoiling for a fight. "Anyone other son of a bitch havin' bright ideas?" Graciela asked acidly.
The loud-mouthed man subsided.
Elizabeth pulled the money-pouch out from her shirt. "I've got twenty gold reals. You can have them for the slave."
Reichart looked stung. "That's less than half the asking price, matey. No sale."
Graciela gave the man an icy glare. "I'd advise you to take it." She nudged him with her cutlass to emphasize the thinly veiled command. She didn't know what Elizabeth had in mind, but if the girl wanted this so badly, she'd go along with it... for now. We'll talk about this later, missy, she thought.
He held out his hand with a sour look and accepted the pouch with ill-grace.
"Take those chains off her," Elizabeth said. She didn't really understand precisely why, but the thought of such a wild and beautiful creature kidnapped from her homeland and caged like an animal had started a slow burn under her breastbone that turned into a raging bonfire. She hated slavery and slavers. Realistically, she couldn't save them all but at least THIS woman wasn't going to be brutalized any longer.
Even Graciela looked askance at that. "T'is not the best of ideas, Everheart."
Elizabeth's mouth firmed into a tight line. "Give me the keys."
"Look, crewman! T'is not a dog we're talking about. The slave is too dangerous. Take her back to the ship if you must but by God, you'll do it in chains."
"Give me the keys." Elizabeth's green eyes glowed with barely suppressed anger. "Now."
Miguel and the others began to disperse the crowd with curses and threats. Reichart nodded and a handler slapped an iron key into Elizabeth's outstretched hand.
Graciela shook her head. Stubborn chit! She turned her back on Reichart and pointed her cutlass in the direction of the slave. If the woman attacked Lizzybet, it would be the last thing she'd ever do.
Elizabeth looked up into the African's dark brown eyes. The slave stood tall and proud, unconcerned about her nakedness but warily watching the red-head's movements.
"I'm going to set you free," the girl said, certain that the slave didn't understand her language but hoping the woman might comprehend her intentions. She held up the key. "May I?"
Graciela snorted. "T'is not likely the heathen understands you..." Her voice trailed off when the dark-skinned woman bowed her head and held out her hands for Elizabeth's inspection.
Flashing the captain an 'I told you so' look, Elizabeth quickly unlocked the manacles, exclaiming softly under her breath when she saw the weeping sores that braceleted each wrist and ankle.
The mob had melted away, though not without some muttering. As soon as she was free, the African jumped high into the air with a triumphant, ululating shriek that made Graciela wince, then thudded to her knees, grasping Elizabeth's ankles in both hands. "I am Safiya," the woman said, startling everyone with her knowledge of English. "I will serve the Woman Clothed in the Sun because she is human-worthy. She is a lioness among jackals. My shield is yours; my spear, my bow, my knife - all to command. I am yours."
Elizabeth bent over and put her hands on Safiya's shoulders. "Please," she begged, "get up. You're a free woman now..."
"No." The African glanced up with a gaze as fierce as an eagle's. "I will serve you."
The girl gave Graciela a helpless look; the pirate shrugged and scowled. "Let's get your new friend back to the Quartier before Furioso's men return. We'll sort this out later."
Elizabeth got Safiya to her feet and draped her own plain peacoat around the black woman's shoulders, then led her away from the auction platform. Graciela murmured as they passed, "If you were burnin' for a pet, querida, a parrot would've been cheaper to keep and less trouble, besides."
Guiding her 'servant' through the wandering paths of St. Agnes, Elizabeth suspected that she'd bitten off more than she could chew... or swallow.
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