A Visit with Author

 Mary Jo Putney

 

     Alex had finally dozed off in a corner of the cage, but she jerked upright at the sound of footsteps.  Slavery had taught her that changes were seldom for the better, and she’d been frightened ever since guards brought her to the palace to confine her in this triple locked cage in a strange, luxurious chamber. 

     At first, the dim light of the single lamp showed only the arrival of a tall, intimidating male.  Then she recognized the European who’d visited the slave market.  She’d begun to wonder if he was a hallucination, but he was real enough—a tall, powerful man with an air of command.  Those gray eyes and the fair hair sun-bleached to gold had to be European.  Involuntarily she rose and crossed the cage, pressing against the bars as she studied him hungrily.  The gaudy uniform wasn’t British—perhaps German or Scandinavian. 

     She clamped down on her longing by reminding herself that being European didn’t mean he’d help her.  Though she had instinctively pleaded for his aid at the market, now that they were face to face she reminded herself that Westerners who frequented the far corners of the world were often adventurers and renegades.  Perhaps this one had asked the sultan for the use of the European slave woman. 

     No matter.  Even if his motives were vile, he was her best chance for freedom, and she’d do whatever necessary to ingratiate herself so he’d help her. 

     The man halted with shock when he saw her.  Glad that he probably wasn’t responsible for her presence, she asked, “Do you speak English?  Parlez vous Francais?”

     “Both,” he replied in English.  “How did you come to be in my rooms?”

     “I have no idea.”  Unable to repress her bitterness, she added, “Slaves aren’t usually told why things happen to them.”

     His expression tightened.  “I’m sorry—that was a foolish question.” 

     Though she’d repaired her battered cotton shirt as best she could, she was uncomfortably aware of how her breasts strained against the thin, worn fabric.  She was larger than most Island women, and there had been no kebaya her size. 

     When his gaze reached her breasts, he looked away in embarrassment.  She found that reassuring—a man with a sense of the decencies might be more likely to help her. 

     He stepped into the bedroom and returned with a neatly folded shirt.  “Would you like this?”

     “Oh, please.”  He passed his shirt through the bars and she immediately pulled it over her head.  The garment fell almost to her knees.  Before rolling up the sleeves, she rubbed her face in the crisp white fabric.  “This smells so good.  So clean.” 

     He glanced around the cage, which contained nothing but her and a brass chamber pot.  “Do you need anything else?  Food or drink?” 

     She moistened her lips.  Not having eaten or drunk since early that morning, she’d spent her first hour in the cage staring longingly across the room at a bowl of fruit on a low table.  “Water, please.  And then…could I have some fruit?”

     “Of course.”  He set the fruit bowl on the floor so she could reach through the bars to help herself. 

     While she peeled and ate a juicy local orange called a  jeruk manis, the man collected pillows from a bench and pushed them through the bars.  Gratefully she sank onto one.  The last months had made her appreciate even the smallest of comforts. 

     “No water, only rice wine, I’m afraid.”  He settled on another pillow outside the cage, holding a bottle and two glasses.  “Drink with caution.  This has quite a kick.” 

     “Thank you.”  The rice wine went rather well with the banana that she chose, and she welcomed the spreading warmth that unknotted tight muscles.  She closed her eyes for a moment, reveling in the company of her own kind.  “I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten proper behavior.  My name is Alexandra Warren, and I’m English.”

     “I’m Gavin Elliott out of Boston, and master of a merchant ship.”  He noted her gaze.  “Ignore the uniform—it was designed only to dazzle.” 

     An American?  Not quite as good as a fellow Briton, but close enough.  “How did you come to be at the slave auction?”

     "Pure chance.  Sultan Kasan wants my trading company to become his exclusive shipping agent, so he showed me his city.”

     She smiled cynically.  “Did he also show you his pirate fleet?  Probably not—I think it’s on the other side of the island.”

     He stared at her.  “The sultan owns pirate ships?”

     “I’m not sure whether he is their chief, or merely allows them to use his island as a base in return for a percentage of their loot.  In either case, dozens of pirate praus call Maduri home.” 

     Elliott’s expression turned forbidding.  “I know that in this part of the world piracy is considered just another family trade, but I don’t share that point of view.  You were captured by pirates?”

     “My husband was in the army, and stationed in Sydney.  About six months ago, after his death, we were returning to England when pirates attacked after a storm.”  She shivered.  “It might have been better if we’d sunk.  I tried to persuade our captors that we could be profitably ransomed, but they paid no attention.”

            “We?”

            She clenched the bars separating them, knuckles whitening.  “My daughter Katie was taken from me as soon as we were captured.” 

He caught his breath.  “I’m sorry.  How old is she?”

            “Eight. Almost nine now.”  Alex thought of Katie as she’d last seen her.  How much had her daughter grown?  Where was she now? 

            “Eight,” he said softly.  “So young.” 

     Seeing the compassion in his face, she pleaded, “Can you help me, Captain Elliott?  If you will buy my freedom, I swear you’ll be repaid twice over.”

     He frowned.  “This afternoon I asked the sultan if I could do that, but he said that that was impossible.”

     So he had already tried, and failed.  Bitterly disappointed, she asked, “Why won’t the sultan allow me to be sold?  I’m worthless.  That’s been beaten into me every day since I was captured.” 

     “Sultan Kasan has a…a complicated mind.  Since I haven’t accepted his offer, he might want to use you as a means of persuasion.”

     “That’s absurd.  I am nothing to you.”  She reached through the bars for another piece of fruit.  “Why should my fate make a difference in whether or not you agree to ship his goods?”

     “It was obvious to him that I hated seeing a woman of my own people enslaved.”  Elliott’s expression became thoughtful.   “That must be why he had you placed in this room.  If I was concerned with the fate of a woman I didn’t know, I’ll be even more concerned once we’ve become acquainted.” 

     He rose in one lithe motion and circled the cage, testing the gilded bars.  “This is bolted to both floor and ceiling and the door locks mean business.  With time and the right tools you could be freed, but there’s no way it could be done tonight so I could spirit you off to my ship.  All we can do is talk.  Become friends rather than strangers.”  He shook his head with reluctant admiration.  “Kasan is diabolically clever.” 

     “So now I’m not only a slave, but a pawn.”  She wanted to weep with frustration at being utterly dependent on the good will of a stranger.  Elliott seemed to be a decent fellow, but there would be limits to how far he would go to help someone he’d just met.  She buried her face in her hands, close to despair.  “To think that when I was young, I wanted to be a boy so I could have adventures!  I should have stayed in England.”

     “Because of your daughter?” He sat again and replenished their wine glasses. 

     She nodded, fighting for control.  “Katie is so bright and blond and beautiful.  She was the happiest baby I’ve ever known.  Now when I try to sleep, I hear her screams as that horrible pirate carried her away.  I wonder all the time where she is.  How she’s being treated.  How to get her back.  If I ever escape this damnable place, I’ll go to Singapore.  Perhaps some Army men will help because her father was a fellow officer.” 

    “I’m sure they’ll want to do whatever they can.” 

     Hearing the reservation in Elliott’s voice, Alex said tightly, “You must think I’m fooling myself to believe I’ll ever see my daughter again.  She’s probably hidden in a rich man’s harem, impossible to find  She…she might even be dead.” 

     “It’s far more likely that she’s being treated well,” he said comfortingly.  “The people of the Islands are friendly and kind to children, and she’s young enough to be adaptable.  Though she was probably sold as a slave, surely she’ll be cherished, both for herself and because a beautiful blond girl child is rare and valuable.”

     But Elliot didn’t say that he thought Alex might see her daughter again.  “I pray that you’re right and she’s being treated kindly.  Can…can you imagine what it’s like to lose your child?”

     After a long silence, he said, “A little.  My wife died in childbirth, and our daughter a day later.  We…we had named her Anna.  She’d be about eight now.”

     Alex caught her breath, shocked out of her own grief.  She’d been looking at Captain Elliott only in terms of how he might affect her plight.  Now she saw him for himself.  He was a few years older than she, somewhere in his mid-thirties, she guessed.  Though his tanned face was forceful, there was also humor and intelligence, and the hard-earned wisdom of a man who’d lived a wide, full life.  

     He was also, she realized, strikingly handsome.  It was a measure of her mental state that she hadn’t even noticed.  “I’m so sorry about your loss, Captain.”

    He shrugged.  “One learns to endure.”

     But the pain never went completely away—she could see it in him still.  “You humble me,” she said quietly.  “I…I hope I don’t have to learn such strength.”

     “You already have.  You’ve survived six months as a slave, and are unbroken.”  He sipped at his rice wine.  “Have you been awaiting sale all these months?”

     “This was my third sale.”  She rested her head against the gilded bars.  “I’m not a very good slave.  Two different men bought me for their harems because I was an exotic foreigner, then decided I was too unruly and rebellious to keep around.  The second time my price was lower than the first, and as you saw, this time I was gagged to still my wicked tongue, and sold at a public market.” 

     He gave a low whistle.  “You’re an indomitable woman, Mrs. Warren.” 

     “Not indomitable.  Desperate,” she said flatly.  “I fought so I could go after Katie.  If not for her, I might have surrendered.  It would have been so much easier.”  And safer.  She would bear the scars of her intransigence for as long as she lived.

     “Is Katie in Maduri?”

     “A woman in the first harem, Amnah, asked some questions on my behalf, and was told that Katie was taken to a different island, but she didn’t know which one.  Katie could be anywhere.”  Alex paused to send a silent blessing to Amnah, who had been kind to a foreigner who was half-mad with grief.  “But I will find her if I have to spend the rest of my life searching.”

     “No one should bear such a burden alone.”  Expression taut, Elliott reached through the bars toward her hand, then withdrew without touching her when she instinctively flinched back.  “I swear that you will be free, Mrs. Warren.  And I’ll do my best to help you find your daughter.” 

 

 

Copyright 2004 Mary Jo Putney    

website by Technology Concepts, Inc.             Report web problems