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کتاب: واشینگتون سیاه / فصل 14

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AND SO we did not die.

The burly man with the axe proved to be the ship’s captain, a German by birth, an Englishman by chance, who went by the name of Benedikt Kinast. He was sixty years old at least, with pulsing red hands and extravagant wrinkles. He dragged us down, soaked, gasping, out of the storm and into the swaying, creaking hold of the ship. There were sailors moving rapidly in the shadows, tying ropes fast, working at the hatches. At each sudden shift of the vessel a great dunk of water poured in through the hatch, sloshing at our feet.

There was a single lit lantern hanging from a nail on a beam above Mister Benedikt’s head. He turned on us in the swaying light and swore. “You cracked the mizzen and damaged my victuals,” he bellowed. “What business have you, anyhow, being out in a storm like this, in a contraption like that?”

“It was a Cloud-cutter,” said Titch.

“I do not give a sh@t what you call it. You don’t drop it on my aft-deck. Who are you?” he said, turning on Titch.

“I might ask you the same, sir,” Titch replied. “And your vessel, in fact, did not damage my Cloud-cutter, but rather destroyed it. Entirely. I might suggest you owe me for the expense of an entire new contraption, as you call it.”

The captain wiped at his wet beard with a big red open hand. He glanced over my shoulder. “Mister Slipp, get back and lash the barrels fast. I won’t have more damage this night.” His eyes fixed again on Titch. “I was on course here, steady as the fu@king stars. You fell on me.”

“Captain!” a second man called from above. “Cutter’s like to give!”

“Fix it fast, you bastards!” he roared.

“We, Captain, were in complete control,” Titch continued smoothly, as if the burly man had not just shouted. “We were flying low to keep out of the storm. You sailed into us. Where were your deck lanterns, sir? How is it you sail so unmarked?”

“A goddamn storm,” Mister Benedikt muttered. “A balloon in a goddamn storm.”

Titch’s head was bent forward to keep it from striking the low ceiling, and he reached up now with both arms to grip a beam for balance. He said, angrily, “One would be forgiven, sir, for mistaking this for a smuggling vessel. Who else sails at night, without lights?”

“You’ll want to watch your bloody mouth.”

“You mean my bloody mouth, sir,” Titch snapped.

The two men glared at each other as the ship swayed; both were leaning into their thigh muscles to keep in place. My stomach lurched. The captain was powerful, all spit and outrage, an extension of the storm itself.

“You’re a bold one, aren’t you?” he said. “You have a name?”

Titch remained silent.

“Don’t care to say, eh?” said Mister Benedikt. “Someone after you, then? Pair of fugitives?”

“Christopher Wilde,” Titch said, looking leadenly at the man. “Son of James Wilde, Fellow of the Royal Society, recipient of the Copley Medal and the Bakerian lectureship.”

Captain Benedikt puffed out his cheeks. “Royal Society.”

“My friend here calls me Titch.”

Though the storm had not abated, still something had shifted, eased, between us three below decks. Captain Benedikt turned an angry smile on me, and grunted. “Friend? Ain’t you property, boy?”

Titch let go of the beam he had been clutching for balance and set a hand on my shoulder. “Indeed, the boy is my property,” said he, and I was rattled to hear him speak these words. “He has shown himself an excellent scientific illustrator, and so, rather than wasting his talents in physical labour, I’ve made better use of him as a personal assistant. He has quite a gift for expressing aeronautical methodologies in ink. You and your crew would be wise to treat him with the respect he is due. There are powerful men in England studying our latest report with interest.”

Mister Benedikt chewed at his pipe stem. “Oh, give off,” he said. “Looks a plain old nigger slave to me.”

“The first rule of science, Captain, is to doubt appearances and to seek substances in their stead.”

The ship rolled, turned, rolled. “Substances my arse,” Mister Benedikt said, paying the movement no mind. “You still owe me a ship’s worth of repairs, Christopher Wilde, and we’ll be talking to the substance of that right enough.”

— MY SCALP WAS bleeding. Captain Benedikt had handed across to me a large red handkerchief cold with salt water, and when I pressed it to my head, the wound at once started to sting. He explained that a ship’s surgeon was on board, though violently ill in his cabin. He scowled and told us to find our way aft to the fellow, and to keep out of the way of his bloody sailors.

“Go on,” spat Mister Benedikt, “the both of you. I won’t have you expiring on my damned deck. Go.”

“Where do we find this surgeon?” Titch asked, his knees shifting as the ship ascended another swell.

There was a crash and the sound of men hollering from above.

“Do I look like a man with the time to offer directions?” Mister Benedikt roared. Nevertheless, he said, “Straight along past the hammocks and up the first ladder. You’ll know it by the bile between your toes.” He turned to go, muttering and shaking his head. “It’s a goddamn barque, you can’t walk far without finding open water.”

Titch gave me an exhausted look, and I could see the toll the evening’s events had taken. He led me on, into the darkness of the ship, falling against the narrow walls, ducking his head as he went. A single lantern swayed on a hook near some webbing, and the shadows crawled across the walls. A sealed wooden box slid the length of the cabin; it splashed up against the far wall then rolled back in the ankle-deep surf.

An image of Mister Philip’s wrecked face flashed in my mind, and I was overcome with a sick sort of panic. It seemed inevitable to me we’d be found out; that the stink of blood was on me still.

The old surgeon opened his cabin door at the second knock. I caught my breath, staring. I did not understand the nature of the joke. For it was Captain Benedikt who stood before us, groaning, his coat changed and dry now, his hair drawn tightly back from his pained face. He wore the same beard, coughed the same damp cough. “What is it?” he barked.

“Captain?” said Titch.

Then I saw the missing fingers on the man’s left hand and shook my head, confounded.

He stepped back, gestured us in with his chin. “I take it you were sent here to be examined? Come, let me have a look at you. You are the gentlemen who fell upon our deck, no doubt. Come in, do. My brother will be cross if I do not at least bandage that cut on the boy’s head.”

“Look at him, Titch,” said I, astonished. “He is the very image.”

“They are twins, Wash,” said Titch.

“I trust we are,” the surgeon said. “Or there is more mystery to my origins than I can account for. Will you sit?” The surgeon gave us a weak smile. “Theo Kinast, sir, ship’s surgeon and general source of sailors’ misery,” he said to Titch. “And you, boy. Hold yourself steady so I can see to that gash. Though from the looks of it the cut is nothing to your past injuries. What a ghastly burn.”

I gripped the edge of his narrow bed frame as the floor shifted under us. I clenched my teeth as he poked at my wound, though I knew better than to speak or cry out.

The doctor muttered as he worked. “Gave the lads quite a scare, you did, dropping like gods from the sky. Some of them are quite superstitious.” He coughed, turning to Titch. “Now, what is your name?”

“Christopher Wilde, sir.”

“The nigger called you Titch.”

Titch frowned. “The boy is called Washington. And yes, he did call me Titch.”

The surgeon eyed us both, grunting. “Well, Mister Wilde, what do you mean by flying about in this weather? What were you flying away from?” He poked some sharp thing at my scalp and I let out a cry. “Stop it, now,” he said to me, but not unkindly. He glanced wearily at Titch. “The lads tell me my brother believes the boy a fugitive. Believes that you, sir, are stealing this black away from his rightful master.”

“I am his master,” Titch said patiently. “As I explained to your brother, the boy is my assistant on the plantation. I was launching a prototype of my aerostat.”

“And which plantation would that be?” said the surgeon.

“Hope, on Saint Lucia.”

“Why would a planter venture out in such a fashion, leaving his plantation to the whims of others?”

“I am not the planter—I oversee the slaves who operate the mechanized tools. I am trained as an engineer, you see. I was given full use of the plantation’s resources, as well as some few days off to make a successful launch of my aerostat. If I’d triumphed, the Cloud-cutter would have proved an invaluable tool in our daily operations there. This boy you see here was granted me as an assistant. He has played a crucial role in the assembly and launching of my aerostat.”

“The balloon that is now at the bottom of the sea,” said the doctor.

“It is not a balloon,” said Titch.

The surgeon smiled tiredly.

“What is progress, sir, without error?” said Titch.

“Hold still,” said the surgeon. But he leaned back and gave me a curious look. Above his beard he had a long, needling nose and deep-set black eyes. His brow jutted outwards like some awesome precipice. And despite all, his dark eyes seemed to me soft, restless, thoughtful, with a kindness so rarely granted to one like me that, meeting his eyes, I shivered.

— THE MORNING WATERS were calm. The ship smelled of tar, of vomit and salt water. Again I had not slept; I lay in a twist of blankets beside Titch on the planks of a tiny, unfurnished cabin. Titch had been so tired he’d begun to snore as soon as he’d lain down. In sleep he looked easy, emptied of all striving, like someone granted a clemency. I recalled his lie of the night before, the chill it had sent through me to hear him claim me as his property. The ruse had of course been necessary, but still it felt eerie to me, like a sudden breach of reality. Most strange, I think, was that in a parallel life—or perhaps even a prior one, before his moral awakening—Titch’s story might have been the truth.

He stirred now, his bones cracking softly, his face pale with exhaustion. He sat up, rubbing at his cheeks, and for a moment I glimpsed in him the anguish of the earlier evening. Catching my eyes on him, he gave a slow, sad smile. “We have made it away, Wash,” he murmured. “What a miracle.”

I returned the smile, but could not help but think of Mister Philip, and of the master. I knew Titch could not possibly fault me for all that had happened, but still I felt uneasy at having been the sole witness of his cousin’s brutal death, and for wrenching both of our lives off course. I was terrified also of being found out by the Kinasts. Did the brothers have some method of detection to discover where we had come from, what we actually were? What would they do with us then? The boat rose gently under us on the swells, and I got up in silence to clean my teeth and face.

Moments later Titch and I found ourselves at the small breakfasting table in the captain’s quarters, facing the ship’s surgeon, none of us with any appetite. Captain Benedikt was nowhere to be seen. “My brother is rough in his manners, but he has a generous heart,” his brother explained. His eyes were ringed, his skin ill-looking. “He tells me you will accompany us to the next port. Indeed, it is either that or leave you for the sharks.” He gave a sharp little chuckle. “Do not worry, you shall have no trouble in finding a vessel in Haiti to take you back to Saint Lucia. Unless you wish to accompany us as far as Virginia, which I imagine you don’t.”

Titch paused, gripping his metal cup tightly. I saw something pass across his face. “Virginia,” he said slowly. “You sail the triangular trade, then?”

“We are not illicit slavers, if that’s what you mean,” said Mister Theo, sparing me no glance. We waited for him to elaborate, but he spoke no more.

I thought Titch would leave it, but he said, “So what is your enterprise, then, sir?”

Mister Theo shifted uncomfortably. “Rum, molasses. Sugar. Goods from the Indies. We trade them in Virginia for hemp—for hemp and tobacco, I believe.” His face darkened in embarrassment. “I sail with the ship, you understand. It makes no difference to me where she goes, what she carries. I am paid the same.”

“By your brother.”

“By the gentlemen underwriting this journey, sir. My brother is the captain, not the owner.”

“It must be an unusual living.”

“I do not do it regularly,” Mister Theo said. “I am a chiropodist, principally. I am along on this voyage as a favour to my brother, that is all.”

“A chiropodist,” Titch said, interested. “That is the study of feet.”

Half-rising from his rough wood seat, Mister Theo reached for his glass of rum, licking the rim in a bright flash of tongue. “Very good, sir, yes. Of course, my training is the regular training of the surgeon. I am satisfactorily qualified for this task. My specialty is rather my own.”

I knew this man was not being forthright with us, and though I could not conceive the nature of his dissembling, I believed his claim that they were not slavers. It would have been difficult on such a ship to conceal so grotesque an endeavour. In any case, it seemed unwise to question him further, we who had our own dark business to conceal. The wood beams in the ceiling creaked as the ship moved, and we could hear the shouts of sailors on deck and the sounds of feet passing overhead. Through the small port window, pale light drifted in. The shelves held hide-bound charts and sea annals. Mister Theo took down a chart and unrolled it, gesturing to Titch to study the location with him.

“I have a very dear friend in Virginia,” said Titch, and I glanced up at him. “It is in fact quite serendipitous for me that you are headed there. If it wouldn’t be too much trouble, might we accompany you the entire journey, to Virginia? We have money enough for our keep, and we will try to be as useful as possible.”

“But have you leave to be so many months away from your post, sir?” Mister Theo said flatly, though it was clear he was suspicious.

“I do not. But the reunion in Virginia will undoubtedly prove crucial to redesigning the Cloud-cutter. My friend is a great aeronaut. I shall write my employer at once explaining the situation. I am sure I will be given leave.”

Mister Theo cleared his throat as though taking it in, but I sensed he did not believe Titch. “This I must discuss with my brother. You realize we are many weeks, many stops yet from America?” he said, stabbing with his ruined hand at the chart. “Your contraption, your Cloud-cutter—what was your destination, before the storm struck?”

Our silence was marked, uncomfortable. And so I blurted, “What happened to your fingers, sir?”

“Wash,” Titch said softly.

Mister Theo studied me, rubbing his beard. “They were removed, boy, with a knife. A gift from the French, during the wars. It was a very hot knife. And a very unwelcome gift.”

— I HAD NOT KNOWN twins before, and the sight of them together all that first day left me uneasy, as though a cloud had passed in front of the sun. Titch and I walked the ship, we rested, we perused the minuscule library of books and charts, we slept. We neither of us mentioned his cousin, nor his brother, nor the danger of discovery that held us fast like a leash. On the second day I awoke before Titch. I paused in the thin morning light and watched him sway in the slung hammock he had now been given. I slipped out of the cabin and made my way to the upper deck. My head was sore, but the wound was not serious. The light was radiant, and very white, and I stood in the sudden salt air feeling a cool wind on my face, my clothes rustling around my body. The blue sea stretched out as far as the eye could measure, in all directions, as if the world had been swallowed by water. There were sailors at work, coiling ropes, clambering up and down the rigging, washing down the deck. I saw two men—carpenters—sawing down boards and nailing into place a makeshift barrier at the railing where the Cloud-cutter had gone over. If not for such evidence the storm would have been but a hallucination. The ship cut its quick wake through the waves, the sails fore and aft swollen with wind.

Beyond those first days I saw little of the captain and his brother, the surgeon. This was as great a relief as it was a worry, for much as I feared being interrogated about the true nature of our appearance here, I did not like to think of the Kinasts furtively discussing us, secretly making plans to turn us in.

All this I tried to put from my mind as the days became weeks, but I never let my guard down, watching, observing. Some evenings I would take out my papers and leads and attempt to sketch the twins from memory, trying very hard to recall their differences so as to make them distinct. But at this I always failed. In life they were discrete as cane fields, each with his own character and history and way of talking. Yet when I sat down to draw them, they became one pale face, one beady, judging set of eyes. They defied my every attempt to get them right. Disturbed, I began instead to make sketches of the open water. I would walk slowly to the railing and stare out at the roiling waves. When we reached port in Haiti, I stayed aboard with Titch and sketched the sailors hauling huge crates through the air with ropes blackened with sea plants.

The long, slow weeks at sea turned me inwards, brought unwanted ruminations. Peering over the great rambling township of Habana, I thought of Mister Philip’s abrupt death and the unknown scenes that must have followed. But I also thought much of Big Kit, and of Gaius, and of all those I had left behind at Faith. It was a wonder to me that a world of cruelty and hardship existed, even now, only some miles away. How was it possible, thought I, that we lived in such nightmare and all the while a world of men continued just over the horizon, men such as these, in ships moving in any direction the wind might lead them? I thought how Titch had risked everything for me. I knew he had preserved my person despite the death of his own flesh and blood, and I knew, too, how strange it felt to be alive, and whole, and astonishingly worth saving.

I felt burdened by such thoughts and so did not notice until the last moment that I was no longer alone. I turned to see Titch standing behind me, running his long fingers over his ruddy face, blinking sleepily in the brightness.

“It is a fine day for sailing,” he said with a tired smile. He looked past me out at the empty and endless waters, and then raised his face and stared up the tall mizzen-mast to the small figures scrambling about in the sunlight.

“Imagine this life,” he said. “Scurrying about like monkeys. Look at them.”

I looked.

“We shall be arriving in America in some few days, I expect,” Titch said.

I studied his face as he said this. I knew that he was not telling me all there was to tell. I lowered my voice. “Do you suppose they know?”

Titch shrugged softly, turned to me. “It is impossible to say. But what they do not know, and what they must never discover, is which island we came from, which plantation.”

I stared at him, nervous. “And shall we stay in Virginia, when we arrive there?”

He smiled sadly at me. “I am afraid you will not wish to once you have seen it, Wash, believe me. I expect there will be many ships leaving from there. Though we may be best served by a ship out of Baltimore.” When I looked at him curiously, he added, “It is only a short ways further along the coast. It is a big city, a city of ships.”

I nodded. “And then where will we move on to?”

“It is a large world.” He gave me a long, searching look. “Have you eaten anything? Let us go down and find ourselves some breakfast. I fear the ship has been awake for hours, there may be little left.”

— CAPTAIN BENEDIKT NEVER DEIGNED to speak to me—he would stare out past my head if I neared him. But his brother Theo seemed eager for a listening ear, and as the Ave Maria neared the coast of Florida, I came to learn more of the Kinasts’ strange story.

Their father had been an officer in the Hanover Foot Guards, and when George II declared war on France in 1756, the elder Kinast was conscripted to cross the Channel and drill with the English regiments. The twins were babies then, only just months old; they journeyed with their mother to Maidstone, Kent, where their father had been stationed. In the years to come, the boys found Kent suspicious, sunless, unfriendly to any who spoke a broken English as they did, having learned the tongue from their mother. English words clotted in their mouths like a shadow German. Their frost-white hair and identical faces were mocked by the local children.

When cholera took both of their parents in the final year of the war, Mister Theo and Mister Benedikt were left alone in their narrow, dirty rooms; they wandered the streets with a pack of urchins prowling for food. One week later the doctor who had cared for their parents appeared, having learned of the twin boys left orphaned, and took them home to his grand house.

“That was a charity we were not used to,” Mister Theo explained to me. “I think you will understand me, boy, when I say the world cares nothing for a child alone in it.”

“What of your parents?” I asked quietly.

Mister Theo looked slightly to the side. “They were buried in a pauper’s grave, like all of the dead that summer. We never saw them again. And the dead have no compassion for the living.”

The English doctor and his wife were childless, and they raised the boys as their own, seeing to their education and introducing them to the worlds of their choosing. Mister Benedikt had wished to join the army, as their father had done, but in the end enlisted in the Royal Navy and served out five years before taking his leave and entering the merchant trade. Mister Theo studied medicine in Edinburgh and later in London, the nature of the human foot driving his studies. He was interested in the shape of the bones and the manner of human ambulation, but had discovered the profitable nature of chiropody to be somewhat less intriguing.

“One lances a plantar’s wart, boy, or extracts an ingrown toenail, and there the thing sits, glowing in the basin like some hideous barnacle,” he said, a brief smile playing at his lips. He took three swift drinks from his flask, his fingerless stumps looking red and raw. “And this is the labour of a man, day after day, as he lives out his life. How does that strike you?”

After a long moment of trying to muster my courage to speak, I remained silent.

“One night I agreed to treat my accountant—a fine man,” Mister Theo continued, “and as he settled into the chair, it seemed to me all the outer world had quieted. I readied the scalpels—as I had done every day of my working life—but my hands were stiff, stupid, and I could see the poor man’s nervousness. I mustered my composure, boy, and I cut into his heel. He screamed.”

A shudder passed through me.

“It was from that moment that my interest in feet began to decline. I cannot explain it. Inside the basin lay a putrid muck, I could smell the rot as if I had not witnessed just such foulness week after week. And from that day on, at each procedure, I heard a great echo rolling inside of me, a great thundering echo. As if I were half-mad.”

I nodded.

“And then, after a time, at last, I stopped hearing it. And when I stopped hearing it, that is when it happened.”

I hesitated. “What happened, sir?”

“What always happens. A woman.”

“Do they happen?”

“If you are lucky, boy, that is all that happens.”

I did not understand his meaning. “That sounds terrible, sir,” I whispered, fearful still of venturing an opinion to an unknown white man.

He gave me a sharp, swift look. “Does it? Ah. Well, perhaps I am not describing it right.”

— THE AVE MARIA WAS a brig-rigged ship of one hundred and fifty tons, but heavy for its size. It had been outfitted in England, its hull reinforced for northern waters.

All this Mister Theo told to me as though it might make some impression. She cut a sharp line through the waves, sailed straight as a compass. I saw less of Titch as the days passed, but would glimpse him studying some arcane text in the ship’s library, or deep in conversation with the captain, and I would leave him be, knowing he was likely trying to aid our case with the Kinasts. And so I wandered the tarry decks, clambered up the ladders to sketch from above, wandered among the barrels and nettings to make sketches from below deck. I had, from the very first day, found myself entranced by the crew, who all seemed of an age, and spoke little to each other, but, almost like a single organism, understood what was needed and where, and worked as one. They mopped, polished, tied, retied, folded, unfolded, let out and drew in all of the bolts and buckles and crates and sails and ropes and pulleys of the ship with a fixed concentration I found hypnotic. I set myself the task of sketching everything on the ship, its berths and small cabins, the lower hold. And all this time we sailed nearer and nearer to the land of freedom, the land I had been named for, the great, impossible America.

On the sixty-eighth day Titch walked to the stern, where I sat with my face in the sun. He smiled.

“You have been keeping busy these weeks,” he said.

“I am like a cat,” said I. “I roam everywhere and am not seen.”

He glanced squinting in the light, then turned back to me. “I have been speaking to Captain Benedikt,” he said quietly. “Our conversation was pleasant enough, all about our origins and family. He asks a great deal after you. After the F he has seen on your chest.”

I tried not to look alarmed.

“We will make land at Norfolk,” Titch said, as if this was some reassurance.

It meant little to me, of course. Titch explained we would be entering Chesapeake Bay, and would therefore soon be leaving the ship. We would also, however, find ourselves subject to the laws of American freedom. “Freedom, Wash, is a word with different meanings to different people,” he said, as though I did not know the truth of this better than he.

“I shall be glad to see my friend,” Titch said thoughtfully.

“Who is he, this man in Virginia?” said I. “You have spoken of him these weeks as your colleague. He is an aeronaut?”

“Among other things.” The ocean around us was a pale blue, the sunlight glittering upon the wind ruffling Titch’s hair. “You shall find him a most interesting man.”

— ON THE NIGHT BEFORE we struck land, I stood on the upper deck peering west, towards what I imagined must be Virginia. The air was different. I could smell the mulchy scent of the cliffs, the farmlands beyond, and something else, an acrid tang which I did not know. I stood gripping the rail loosely in one hand, my face upraised, my eyes closed in the near darkness as the ship rose and dipped in the swells. Then I heard a strange crackle behind me, almost as of leaves rustling. Startled, I turned to observe a jagged silhouette fluttering in the weak glow of a lit pipe.

It was Mister Benedikt. He stood at the bulwark with his pipe clenched between his teeth, watching me with unblinking eyes.

Nervous, I lowered my eyes and made to slip by.

“You have been speaking to Theo,” he said suddenly.

I stood there feeling quite naked. “He has been speaking to me, sir,” I said almost inaudibly, again lowering my eyes.

“Spirited, aren’t you. Rather like your friend.”

I said nothing to this, my eyes still lowered.

“The friend that you purport is your master.”

I tipped my chin up, looking openly at him, though my hands were trembling.

He seemed to take no notice of my nervousness. “And how do you like Ave Maria? A fair ship for her nature. Cranky somewhat.” He nodded as if in agreement with himself, turning towards the darkness. “She was a privateer, but the bloody navy revoked her letters of marque two years back. Her size never troubled her. She’s no smaller than a sloop, and twice as fast. Used to be, at least. What’s that look, boy? She sails the Atlantic trade now, she does.” Mister Benedikt gave me a quick, dark look. “Not slaves, as you’ve seen. Sugar and tobacco. It’s profitable enough, for them that can keep the wind at their back.”

I did not understand why he was suddenly speaking to me so. I thought of his brother, how Mister Theo described him as a man with a good heart despite his gruffness. I wondered if this was the good heart addressing me now.

He paused as a night crewman stepped across the deck and made his way aft. “Look at that, boy. All my sailors are the same age, give or take a year. Did not you wonder about that? Did it not strike you?”

I did not answer.

“They’re all of them orphaned boys. Whole bloody crew. Took them on myself when their orphanage was shut down and they were all to be thrown into the streets. First time I knew I was in the right, I was nearly drowned in a pinnace at Abu Shehr and five of the lads leaped into the waves to rescue me. Five of them. That was an era ago. All my other men are gone and these wee ones are still here. What does that tell you?”

In my fear I was a long while to speak. “You are well regarded by them, sir,” I said softly.

“Aye.” Mister Benedikt smiled a thin, vinegary smile. He spoke very quietly. “I know you are a slave run away. And I know your Mister Wilde is a thief for having procured you.”

I stood very still. This he had said when we first crashed upon his ship; it was no new discovery.

He eyed me in the darkness, the boat rising and surging in the wind. “Saint Lucia my arse.” He shook his head. “You were far too southeasterly for Saint Lucia. No, you are a nigger slave from Barbados, or from Grenada.”

My heart was pounding so hard it was as if I would be knocked from my footing. A thin, invisible mist sprayed off the water.

“What are you?” said he, his voice suddenly softer.

I raised my face, terrified.

“Are you a human creature?”

He reached out and touched the burnt half of my face, drawing his rough hand sharply back almost at once, as if scorched. I was too surprised to move. I stood stunned by the feel of his fingers. His touch had been cool, and gentle, and somehow, though I would never have thought it, filled with an impossible sadness.

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