The late afternoon sun made a white splendor of the city that lay sprawled across the low, sloping sands of the African coast. From the towering castle walls to the hook of the mole-head that held the blue waters of its harbor, Tripoli brooded in sullen apathy at the lone frigate ship that slid through the Mediterranean like a hungry wolf pacing at the outskirts of a camp. Sunlight tipped the muzzles of its starboard cannon and put a glaze on its freshly painted deck-boards. A wind whipped at the striped flag taut from its mainmast, occasionally showing the fifteen stars on its blue field.
Inside the city, men stared at the ship with venom in their eyes. Guards paced the thick white walls of the palace nestling at the northern corner of the Street of Arcades, their faces dark and gloomy. Along the stretch of sand before these walls, men in linen loincloths paused from their tasks of twisting strips of hemp to mutter oaths to Allah, as a glance showed them the big frigate prowling just outside gunnery range.
Men hated and men starved inside the city of Tripoli in this year 1805, that the Moslems called 1221. The high white walls of the Caramanli castello, that joined the sea walls to run in a height of stone as far as the Maltese castle near the mole, had been built to keep enemies out. Now these walls kept the true believers in, and those upstart Americans, who flew their stars and stripes with such unbelievable defiance, added their weight of sail and metal to act the part of jailers.
Where the Street of Arcades made a bend before the stalls of the rug sellers, a white man with only a piece of rag at his middle stirred restlessly. His eyes were feverishly bright in the dark bronze of his face as they scanned the passersby. Hunger was an ache in this man. It hurt, deep inside him, and the hurt was strong enough so that he was on the point of madness.
The man moved suddenly, scurrying out of the archway as a frightened rat scurries, his eyes intent on the orange peel tossed so carelessly aside by a passing dowedee with his fishnets dangling over a shoulder. There was street dirt on that bit of rind, and dry dust. But to the starving man whose bony hand clawed out at it, it seemed a rare, exotic fruit.
He caught it up and slithered sideways into the shelter of a canopy overhanging the street from the doorway of a glassware stall. Nervously his fingertips went over the skin, knowing it to be big and still juicy: possibly torn off an orange from Jefren. When he was partially hidden by the striped overhang, he hunkered down and licked at the peel, his eyes closing almost in ecstasy at the bittersweet taste.
He took a bite, carefully, muscles tensed against the need to wolf down this food. He chewed slowly, gently.
The starving man knew that the passersby were regarding him with amused scorn, but he was past pride. An empty belly screamed up to him that pride is an expensive luxury, and for a man who was now only a slave to the stone merchant, Ali ben Sidi of Tripoli, it ill behooved him to be spending something he did not have. And so he crouched and mouthed at is orange peel, ignoring the eyes of a slave seller whose lips were twisted in disgust, not seeing the scornful glance that a haughty corsair captain flung him as he picked his way between the street hawkers.
Voices touched his ears, but he did not hear the words. “The nasrany is worse than an alley cur. A dog would turn up his nose at such fare.”
“May Allah be blessed that I am not in his place!”
“Insh'allah! He reminds me of the pigs I keep to eat my garbage!"
When the peeling was gone, and even as his stomach rumbled gratefully, the man stood up into the late sunlight that came over the rooftops of Tripoli to bathe his broad shoulders and deep chest in crimson light. Soon now, it would be the hour of prayer, when the muezzins would step onto the circular platforms of the mosques and call on all true believers to face toward Mecca and kneel atop their prayer mats. He was tall, this man, lean to emaciation, and there was pride in his fleshless face, from which the gray eyes blazed like crystals. The dirty rag at his hips was in danger of sliding from his narrow loins. A tousle of pale yellow hair, like a mop upended and thrust upon his poll, gathered the sunbeams with a reddish glint.
He moved onto the cobblestones, his eyes darting toward the gutters and beyond them into the dark mysteries of the stall shops, hoping against hope that some Turk or Arab fool had thrown away another precious bit of orange skin. The man went on more slowly. There was other food here. There had to be! He was late now, at the stone quarries. There would be lashes on his back from the black bull-hide whip that fat sheriff wielded so efficiently, but he would take those lashes in exchange for one more peeling from a Tunisian orange. Stubbornly, he told himself he would not return to the quarry where they made him lug gray stones from sunrise to sunset, until he did find it.
He saw the fruit lying close by the white wall of a goldsmith shop.
It was an overripe melon, squishy and half rotten.
The man whimpered deep in his throat and ran for it. His hand was stretching downward for the big fruit when a fat man moved out of the doorway of the goldsmith shop and came forward with a quick stride. His booted foot lifted in a kick. The kick caught the starving man at the side of his face and toppled him back into the dust of the cobbled Street.
He lay there on an elbow and a thigh, staring wildly up at the man who had kicked him. He saw the fleshy brown chest and black spade beard, the scimitar dangling from the belt that banded his middle, the loose green trousers that, except for the yellow boots on his feet, was his sole garment.
The starving man had been in Tripoli long enough to know this blubbery monster for a Caramanli palace guard. A member of the pasha's family was in the stall shop, buying precious ornaments. The guard threw back his head and roared vicious laughter into the warm African sunlight.
“No,” said the starving man through cracked lips. “By God No.”
He saw that Moroccan leather boot lift and poise itself above the overripe melon. Then that foot was coming down on the fruit, mashing it, making its skin burst wide apart and shower juice and pulp across half the street.
The guard laughed louder than before.
“American filth! There goes your meal! Come! Lick your food off my slipper! Eh? Here!”
The guard lifted his yellow boot with the fruit still clinging to the leather and extended it toward the man in the street.
That was when the starving man went mad.
He came off thigh and elbow in a fluid twist. His right foot took its purchase from a rounded cobblestone, and launched him in an arching leap at the hilarious guard. His big hands, like bony claws, wrapped about that taunting foot and twisted.
The guard roared his pain and his surprise. His fat body went backward, off balance. He fell heavily, directly in the arched doorway of the goldsmith shop.
The starving man went after him. The sight of that scimitar hanging in its belt chains had put a frenzy in his blood. His hand came down about its braided hilt. With an oath on his parched lips, he tugged it free. The blue steel came out into the sunlight and went yellow as the sunbeams caught it. "Now, you Tripolitan pig, get on your feet!"
The guard lay back on both elbows and shouted. “Sa'ad! Jibran! To me! Out here in front of the shop!“
The crowd in the street paused to stare. There was a stirring among them. This naked wild-man with a bared blade in his hand was a sight that struck to their hearts. A voice or two called for someone to break the neck of this crazed infidel.
The blue blade moved, and the voices fell still.
Stephen Fletcher felt the pride stir in him, driving out the anger and the madness. Not in a year and a half had he felt like this, with a weapon in his hand and his enemies ringing him in. That long ago, the U.S. frigate Philadelphia had run aground on the rocks east of Tripoli. He had been wearing the uniform of a marine lieutenant on that October day.
The Philadelphia had hit the rocks while chasing a Tripolitan corsair. Fletcher could still feel the grating crunch underfoot. Remembering what had happened then made the sweat come out on his face. They had worked hard to free it, with Captain William Bainbridge shouting orders, with the creak of davit ropes lowering a stern boat interrupting his voice, with sailors overhead loosing the top-gallant sails. They were caught fast, and the Barbary pirates knew it. They came flocking in their little feluccas and barquentines, pounding the big frigate while American axes chipped away at the foremast. The foremast fell, taking the main top-gallant mast with it. Guns were thrown overboard to lighten the ship forward.
As if sensing the helplessness of the big frigate, the Tripolitan gunboats swarmed in with their sakers blasting. They shot away the masts, but spared the hull. This was a prize that the corsairs would not duplicate soon again. Besides, by sparing the hull, they spared the lives of the crew, and healthy Americans would ring good prices in the slave market.
Stephen Fletcher grinned mirthlessly, remembering those hectic moments when the pirates had come aboard, fighting and wrestling with the Americans. There had been steel bared, and fists flashed here and there, as proud men sought out: a hawk face, as brown as old leather, twisted into a mask of berserk rage and hate, with a small black beard below sullen, full lips and a straight, thin nose. A topknot hung like a horsetail from that shaven head, making the face seem even more sinister. Dark eyes, lighted with inner fires, bright with triumph, fastened on him and on the other marines who fought at his side. Fletcher knew the man for a reis, a sea captain, as he came swinging down on a rope hastily flung above a yardarm, his curving scimitar in a brown fist.
Fletcher had gone to meet his steel with his own service sword. Their blades had clanged twice in thrust and parry before the corsairs had swept into them and whirled them apart. But even now, all these months later, he could still see that face, in a contorted spasm of hate, and the over bright eyes glittering with triumph.
The fight had been a short one. To save his men, Captain William Bainbridge surrendered his sword to the dark man with the feverish eyes. Mustafa reis, his own men called him, with something of fright in their voices.
Most of the prisoners were to be taken before the pasha. They would be housed in the castle dungeons and held for ransom or for a prisoner exchange. There were some chosen for a different fate. Mustafa reis did the choosing. He went striding across the deck, planks of the big frigate, his eyes touching the faces of the sullen prisoners. Some he pointed at, and as he pointed, corsairs came and harried these men away.
When Mustafa reis came to Stephen Fletcher, he barked something in the coast dialect and let his eyes rest on the big marine. Fletcher saw death for him in those eyes and in the hard brown contours of that face. Whatever it was the corsair captain had barked to the half-naked inn at his back, the American knew, it would not be a pleasant thing. Within two hours he was at the slave market. Next morning he had been sold to Ali ben Sigi, the stone merchant. For a year and a half, he had been working in the quarries, breathing stone dust and eating rotten garbage that cost his master nothing.
Now he had a chance to fight his enemies like a man. There was no broken deck under his feet, no officer roaring a command at him to lay down his arms.
He moved the curving blue blade again, and his laughter was hard, and cold.
“Take it away from me! Take it—if you can!”
The crowd fell back a little, and now Fletcher saw that men were coming from the goldsmith's doorway, guards who wore the same royal-green colors of the man who lay at his feet, still shouting.
A big man followed the guards out into the street. He wore a gold brocade barracan trimmed in black fur, and pointed slippers of red Cordovan leather. There was arrogance in the tilt of his chin, and in the glowing eyes that stared at the naked infidel. The brown hairs of his tiny beard quivered as he felt the defiant mockery of the American slave.
Yussuf Caramanli was the pasha of Tripoli. His thin, lightly sneering lips and bright eyes betrayed the pride that had fed on a century of power here in this coastal city. In 1714 his ancestor Mamet had come into power by murdering the Turkish soldiers who served Ahmed III. The Caramanlis had held tight to their power, using murder and treachery as their allies. When Hamet, Yussuf's brother, had come to power some years before, it was Yussuf who deposed him and assumed the throne.
Now all Europe paid him tribute. Even Napoleon Bonaparte, at whose frown the Continent shook in fear, sent him gold. London gold and Italian silver, Greek jewels and German monies, all came flowing into his great, brass-bound coffers. The world acknowledged the sea might of Yussuf Caramanli and paid him gold and silver and jewels for his personal enrichment, to keep his slim corsair ships from their coastal waters and his gun-deck cannon from their heavily laden merchant ships.
All the world paid tribute, except for a young nation on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. A nation of revolutionists, who had won their freedom from England only a quarter of a century ago. One of those Americans stood here before him now, with a naked sword in his hand.
Yussuf Caramanli smiled thinly. His dark hand twisted on the gold braid of the dagger-hilt whose scabbard he wore, like all Moslems, in the brocaded silk sash at his middle. He spoke quickly to the man crumpled at his feet.
“What happened, Kefas? Why do you grovel like a dog before this nasrany?”
“He assaulted me, highness. Knocked me down and stole my steel!”
The starving man had never seen Yussuf Caramanli. He said boldly, “I was reaching for that melon. He kicked me and put his foot on it.”
The pasha grimaced in disgust. By the black stone! These unbelievers had no pride at all! He said harshly, “Get up, Kefas! Sa'ad, give him your blade. I want this man cut in little pieces. Slowly, Kefas!”
The heavyset guard grinned and took the blade his fellow handed him. On feet that were astonishingly light for a man of his bulk, he moved toward the infidel. The starving man did not wait for him. His scimitar went high and came curving down in a molinello for the head that altered swiftly into a slanting cut at the ribs. Only for the fact that the attacking man's bare foot slipped on the pulp of the ruined melon, Kefas the Fat would have lost half his side. As it was, he got his own blade up just in time. The keen edge of the scimitar scratched his arm into red wetness, then fell away.
Steel clashed as those blued blades fell and lifted. The naked man slid and crouched, and the madness in him gave his starved muscles strength. He used the molinelli in prime and tierce until the steel seemed to blur. The bright eyes of Yussuf Caramanli followed every play of that scimitar with understanding and a little envy.
The fight did not last long. To the slice at the fat arm, the starved man added a gash at the blubbery flesh of his naked side, and a gaping cut in the hairy thigh. As those wounds dripped red blood on the cobbles, the naked at lunged, the curved blue steel held out straight before him. Its point went into the guard's belly an inch above the deep-set navel and protruded out his back.
The guard screamed and dropped his blade. His hands clawed at the pain in his middle as he lunged forward, face down.
The pasha of Tripoli stared at his fallen gladiator. He still watching the death throes when a soft hand touched his arm.
The woman had come forward from the goldsmith's stall at the first clang of the curving blades. Above the gold rim of her black silk veil, her yellow cat eyes-glowed brightly, moving from the scimitars to the big, almost naked body of the American, then sliding sideways to the bronzed-features of the pasha. Slyly, she had noted the faint touch of envy in his glance. Now she put a soft finger on his arm, so that he would turn and look at her.
Mariani Chamiprak was aware that she made a stirring figure, with the late-afternoon sunlight on her thin, black silk trousers and long yelek of black satin threaded with gold that hugged her lissome body from throat to knees. Her veil was attached by silver pins to her glossy black hair. She was the favorite wife of Yussuf Caramanli, his bask-eedin, and her slightest whim was a command to him.
She said softly, “The infidels killed my personal bodyguard, Yussuf.”
“He shall be tortured with the bastinado on his naked feet, and the screws on his limbs, my love.”
She pouted. “Oh, no! I would not want that.” She added slyly, “He is a good fighter, is he not?”
The pasha sighed. "By the beard of the prophet! As good a man as I have seen since the days of my youth, when I fought beside Murad reis himself.”
Marlani looked on the big Frank with over-bright eyes. Mashallah! He was a handsome one, even in his stayed state. There was pride in him, and a kind of inner wildness that sent little trickles of excitement down her slim brown legs. He was a different man from fat, bloated Kefas. It might be enjoyable, having him around the harem as her personal bodyguard. Yussuf paid little enough attention to her any more, being too concerned with this war he had managed to get himself into with the United States.
She let her warm little hand come to rest on Yussuf's wrist. “Make him my guard, pasha effendi. Let the unbeliever take the place of Kefas!”
Yussuf Caramanli lifted his hard brown face to study the woman at his elbow. Marlani let her eyes smile up at this man who had deposed his brother Hamet for the pashaship of Tripoli less than a dozen years ago. She read the fierce pride in him, the ruthlessness and the cruelty. She knew also of the frustration that ate in him, because of the big American frigates like the Constitution that prowled the outer waters of the city and harbor he ruled. He was very angry now with the big blond American who had killed Kefas. “You want me protected from all danger,” she pouted, caressing his arm with slim fingertips. “And you said yourself this man can fight as well as Murad reis of blessed memory. Give him to me, Yussuf. Let him guard me, for you.”
His nostrils flared. Yussuf Caramanli was confused, as he often was when this sly desert wife of his set her wits to obtain favors from him. Only in the most important matters did he ever seek to cross her, and then only sparingly. Now, as a gesture, he protested.
“But he is an infidel!”
“A hungry infidel,” she reminded him, smiling beneath her veil. “If he will eat a rotten melon off the street, he would be grateful to whoever gives him better fare. He will be like a dog in his devotion.”
The pasha glanced at the nearly naked American. He grumbled, “He should be made a eunuch.”
“That would destroy his fighting abilities. You saw how easily he beat down poor, fat Kefas! If you really want to protect me, give me someone like that!”
The pasha grunted. What his bash-kedin said was true enough. To make a eunuch of this man would be to deprive him of a sword-arm that might serve the Caramanlis with fanatical devotion. Still, he was an American, and Tripoli was at war with the Americans.
Marlani Chamiprak pressed closer. “Your enemies are not all Americans, remember! Your brother Hamet is not dead. He has many friends in Tripoli. Some night he may send someone to kill me, knowing how dear I am to you, nasrany would be a very tiger against such an attack!”
The pasha of Tripoli studied the bone structure of the slave. He had a big, strong body, a body that could defend him as well as his kedin, is the need arose. It would not matter to the American whether he killed one Tripolitan or another. Yussuf Rather thought that this yellow-haired slave might enjoy killing some of Hamet's friends, if they ever did attack him. Yussuf shivered with anticipatory fear, and looked closer at the big slave. That tall body would fill out with hard muscle when he ate something other than street refuse.
Yussuf Caramanli prided himself on his judgment. He said harshly, “Who owns you, nasrany?”
“Ali ben Sidi, the stone merchant.”
"I will buy you from him. I will make you personal guard to Marlani. Do well, and you shall be rewarded well, fail and—“ The pasha shrugged. He said softly, “Have you ever seen what a lead-tipped knot can do to a man?”
The man in the dirty rag shivered. His bared back bore the scars of former whippings. The pasha smiled cruelly, — “What is your name, infidel dog?”
The arrogance of Yussuf Caramanli, before whose corsair fleets all the world appeared to tremble, brought a spate of fury into the starving man. He let the anger run along his veins, enjoying its feel after so many months of subservience. It was good to be half blind with clean rage again. Not the craze of almost madness that had been in him short moments ago—that was rash, and only brought destruction to a man. This anger was different; it was cool and it let a man think, and it was all the more deadly because of that.
Not since Ali ben Sidi had strung him up by his wrists and ordered his bare back lashed to a bloody froth, had he been this way. That had been three days after the U.S. Philadelphia had run aground on the shoals of the harbor of Tripoli.
The United States and the Barbary state of Tripoli had been at war in that mid-autumn of 1803, a war begun when Yussuf pasha used an ax on the flagpole of the American consulate at Tripoli when that young nation across the Atlantic refused to join its European fellows in paying tribute to the corsairs.
A fleet under the command of Commodore Edward Preble had gathered at Gibraltar to blockade the North African coast. Under Captain Bainbridge, the Philadelphia ran the shoals and reefs of those treacherous waters, hunting corsair ships. On the last day of October, while chasing a small vessel standing in for the protection of the Tripolitan road-stead, the Philadelphia scraped across a reef.
Stephen Fletcher had been taken from the helpless frigate to the slave mart, and then to the stone quarries. When he showed stubbornness and fight, Ali ben Sidi had summoned his big slave master. Fletcher had been strung up by the wrists and lashed until his bare back was a bloody pulp.
The cuts of that whip had gone deeper than the flesh they marred. They taught him caution and prudence, and a seeming humility. He learned how to behave like a slave under the lash that night. Ali ben Sidi had no more trouble with him. He worked days in the stone quarries, and the nights he spent sleeping fitfully, dreaming of the Virginia plantation that had been his home, and of the fields of tobacco and cotton shifting in the breeze off the Shenandoahs.
The year and a half since the grounding of the Philadelphia added to the strength of his long thighs and lean middle, putting power in his chest and arms, ridging his back with swollen muscles. He was half starved all the time, and was never really free of the bite of hunger, and so in those hours when he was excused from the quarries, he took to scavenging in the streets.
Now, for the first time in many months, the starving man saw a chance to unleash his pride. He seemed to lift himself. His chin thrust forward.
“I am Stephen Fletcher," he said, “Lieutenant Stephen Fletcher, United States Marines.”
The palace of the pasha of Tripoli lay southeast of the town, its high white walls brooding out across the blue waters of the road-stead. For uncounted years this palace had stood against the hot winds of the African gibleh and the lashing rains that came sweeping southward across the Mediterranean from Sicily. Dragut reis had anchored his galleys in these waters. In the twelfth century, Roger Guiscard had taken Tripoli from the Arabs with his Norman knights. In Roman times, the palace had been a fortress. The years between the days when Roman biremes swung to the swell of the tides until now, when a sunset gun sounded from the walls, had only whitened the building stone to sepulchral pallor.
Fletcher found himself thinking of little but food walked between two surly brown guards into the palace, is stomach was a vast hollow between his loins and rib case. For food, he would guard the person of the seductive brown Marlaní with any weapon Yussuf Caramanli chose. But deep down inside him, possibly at the hope this new life was opening to him, a tiny flame of rebellion stirred.
The harem quarters layoff the inner courtyard. Fletcher was taken to the harem guards' rooms, where he stripped the rag from his middle and bathed in warm water thick with suds. Soft towels were given him to dry his flesh. Clean for the first time in months, he donned loose muslin trousers and a linen camyss, with low slippers of yellow Moroccan leather on his feet. Around his lean middle went a girdle of copper discs, from which would be hung a curved scimitar on thin iron chains. Then he was taken before the keeper of the house.
Sihan ibn Ajaj was a big man, with a shaven head from which hung a black topknot wrapped with golden threads, His red vest, trimmed with gold brocade, enclosed a massive chest and paunch. Fletcher had the feeling that his bulk was deceiving. There was muscle under all that laid, his thick arms were proof enough of that. His fleshy face was creased now in a disapproving scowl, as he let his small black eyes run over Fletcher. He walked around him, his frown deepening.
The bald Turk grumbled at him. “You look well enough for a nasrany. Big, and thick in the shoulders. Plenty of room for solid muscle, once we put some meat and rice in your belly.” His hand slapped hard at the muscles ridging the American's torso. He grinned, “That cus-cus will help you fight off any true believers who come slipping into the harem quarters at night. And don't believe they won't come, some time. Not to make love to the little kalfas, but to slip cold steel into Yussuf himself.”
Fletcher looked interested. “Do they hate him so. m. in the city, then?”
Sinan ibn Ajaj grinned coldly. “Not most of them. But there are always a few hotheads willing to risk their necks to save another man's food from the fire. Remember, Yussuf drove out his brother Hamet, and became pasha in his, place. Hamet is no holy man, to ignore that affront. If he could, he'd cook Yussuf for a month over a bed of red coals. A month? Ten years! But Yussuf has the power and Hamet is a broken man.”
He gloomed at Fletcher from under shaggy black eyebrows. “There are plots and counter-plots cooking from the Grand Bazaar to the Land Port Gate, right now. Reason they haven't struck before is that Yussuf Caramanli keeps himself too well protected. Never lets down his guard, not once. But sometime he will and—Insh'allah! When that time comes, you'll have your bellyful of fighting, believe me!"
That was a prospect he would look forward to, Fletcher assured himself silently. Not alone for the sake of the action, which would serve to release some of the angers and frustrations that had been building up in him these past eighteen months, but because it would give him a chance to strike back at these Barbary sea-dogs He was no scholar of history, but he knew the corsairs for a medieval anachronism, a throw-back to the time of the feudal robber barons. They roamed the Mediterranean as the White Company and others like them used to rove the land. They preyed on the helpless and the slow of keel. They robbed, taking what they would. And because it would cost their governments too much money to outfit a fleet against them, the European nations preferred to pay them tribute.
It may have been because their own liberty was so new that the young United States bridled at the conduct of these pirates. To them, the liberty of the sea was a dear and precious thing. Almost, Fletcher thought wryly, as precious as his own personal liberty.
Because his own liberty was so precious, he would die to save it. Now he was making the first step upward from the slave conditions of the stone quarries. As a bodyguard to the pasha's wife, he would gain a certain amount of bodily freedom. It was up to him to hoard and nourish that tiny Seedling of liberty, until he could make it blossom, full grown.
To aid that growth, he must make friends here. To that end, he grinned in a friendly way and jabbed a thumb into the Turk's ribs. “For a brave man, you talk a lot, Sinan. My belly is as empty as the purse of a wandering beggar.
Is there no food at all in this hulk of stone you call a palace?”
Sinan moved to the arched doorway, beckoning Fletcher to follow. They went down a corridor tiled with marble chips in red and yellow. Fletcher had visited the Alhambra in Spain, during the cruise of the Adams in 1802. He found the interior of this palace, with its wall mosaics and gilt decorations, to be the equal of the delicate stone tracery and blue faience work of that citadel. His eye was caught by the glazed earthenware urns that lined the pillared gallery, and the silver-gilt plating of a great chest of blued wood that rested, close beside a wall fountain.
It was then that he saw an inordinately thin man, with a red turban set awry on his head, scurry from the shadows across the tiled floor and into the shelter of a horseshoe arch. The man seemed a human scarecrow, with his striped barracan flapping loosely about his grotesque figure as he ran. One he turned his head and looked at the American, and Fletcher felt a cold shock pass over him at sight of those wild, reddened eyes.
Sinan growled. “Yon thing is called Yuvaz the Armless. The reason he looks so scrawny, like a fowl plucked bare for the pot, is that he's got no arms. Yussuf burned them off, just after he took the pasha ship of Tripoli from his brother, Hamet Caramanli.”
Fletcher made a retching sound in his throat and Sinan grinned, casting him a sly glance. “Empty belly gets sick easily, doesn't it? Yuvaz was a good man, devoted to Hamet: Wouldn't take the vow to Allah to support Yussuf, though. Always claimed Hamet was the pasha. Yussuf had him thrown to the torturers. They cooked his arms and made him eat a little of the flesh. To save his life, Yussuf sent for an Arab physician from Cairo. He cut 'em both off, clear up to the shoulders.”
Sinan spat. “Would have been a kindness to let him die. He's half mad. Can't even feed himself. But the pasha likes to have him around. Reminds him Hamet is still alive, planning vengeance or a return to power or whatever it is that deposed pasha's plan.”
“A poor fool! No man should be so loyal. What's it got him? Ah, here we are! Smell that food, man?”
The kitchen was an immense room fitted with a dozen open hearths. Refectory tables groaned under silver platters loaded with oranges and plums, melons from Algiers and Tunisian figs. Two women in striped barracans were ladling out a thick stew filled with chunks of lamb and bits of yellow bread and vegetables.
Sinan swaggered forward, topknot swinging.
“Stir your fat legs, sofradji! My nasrany friend, the man who killed Kefas in fair fight this afternoon on the Street of Arcades, has an empty belly. The pasha has said he must be strong, to guard the bash-kedin and her women.”
The women glanced at Fletcher from under heavily lashed eyes. They giggled, and while one came forward with a bowl of stew the other brought a long twist of barley bread. “Don’t throw your bodies at him, daughters of sin,” Sinan growled. “He’s almost as hungry for a woman as he is for that stew.”
The two women were fat and greasy. One of them was old enough to be a grandmother. They squealed at the Turk's words, and scurried back to their hearths. Sinan straddled a stool and watched the American dip a spoon into the thick soup.
When he was done, Sinan called another woman to the table. “Didn't I tell you the nasrany was hungry, Rephia? Give him more!”
Fletcher ate five bowls of the stew and finished three lengths of the hard-crusted bread. He ate fig paste and a slice of sweetmeat before he admitted, as he swallowed the last few drops of the palm wine Sinan had poured for him, that he was hungry no longer.
Sinan looked at him with shining black eyes, nodding his head. “You ate well, for a Christian. By Allah! If you guard Marlani Chamiprak the way you wolf your food, Yussuf will make you a free man in a week. He values good service, does the pasha. Treat him well and his generosity will overwhelm you.”
Fletcher put that thought away inside him as he got to his feet. “Come along, then. I'm anxious to discover how generous this Yussuf Caramanli can be.”
With a grin on his lips and a roll to his walk, Sinan brought Fletcher up a flight of stone steps and out into the dying sunlight on the second courtyard. His thumb jerked upward at the grilled stonework of the harem windows.
“That's where you'll be quartered, up there behind that latticework. You'll be surrounded with women. Pretty girls, not like those fat cooks down in the kitchen! Hotblooded Tauregs and pallid Spanish slaves. Turks. Greeks. Women of every nation you can name, and you not able to put a finger on any one of them.”
Sinan paused and cocked a speculative eye at the big American. “Watch yourself, nasrany. They may be slaves and concubines, but they all belong to Yussuf Caramanli. If you're caught playing games with them, your death won't be a pleasant thing!”
“I’ll be as indifferent to them as if I were a eunuch,” Fletcher promised glibly.
Sinan chuckled. “They won't make it easy for you. Some of those little kalfas have been a long time without a man. They’ll risk death by suffocation for a few hours of manly comfort. I tell you this because I've taken a liking to you. Guard your virtue better than you guard your life. It amounts to the same thing, in the harem.”
As he walked at the heels of the Turk, Fletcher found himself thinking of his plantation home in Virginia, and of its pillared elegance. In the years of his rebellious youth, when he had been obliged to sit at a Monroe desk and add up columns of figures in the workhouse beside the stable portico, or journey to the iron works near Baltimore in which his father owned a controlling interest, he had dreamed of something other, than fields of tobacco and ledgers filled with monotonous numerals. Checking the slaves as they painted the wash house or put fresh straw on the floor of the coach house, or riding Big Dan across hundreds of acres rolling fat with green tobacco, had been infinitely boring.
The ocean stretched wide and green from the mouth of Accokeek Creek, a day's ride from the manse. He would spend long afternoons staring at it, with Big Dan browsing contentedly on bunch grass twenty feet away. When the chance came to go aboard a training ship as a midshipman, he snatched at it. As a midshipman, he would see distant lands that were only names in books to him at the time. There would be no dusty ledgers, no tobacco fields or roaring blast furnaces to occupy his time. Later, he had been transferred to the marine corps, at his own request.
Fletcher smiled grimly. Instead of his dreams of adventure, he faced the reality of slavery. He wondered for a moment what his aristocratic father, gentleman planter that he was, might do in his place. Would he choose death to acting the slave for an unbaptized infidel? Or would he plan, as he himself planned, to play his part in such a manner that he would win over the confidence of his captors and perhaps, eventually, his freedom? Fletcher realized that a man made his own destiny, by his own acts. It was not his father who walked toward the harem quarters behind Sinan ibn Ajaj, but himself.
The food in his veins and the months of slave labor in the stone quarries of Ali ben Sidi began to work their spell. Strength came flooding into his body. He stretched a little, feeling confidence and sureness blossom in him.
The pasha of Tripoli sat on one of the hundred cushions thrown across a quarter of the tiled floor of his audience chamber. His legs in loose silk trousers were crossed under him. His brocaded kaftan jacket was covered by strings of seed pearls. His black beard had been freshly trimmed and scented.
He spoke swiftly with Sinan in a Turkish dialect that Fletcher could not follow. Whatever, it was the bald Sinan told him, he grunted in approval. He lifted his hands and clapped.
A palace guard entered, carrying a lacquered sword-case in his hands. He knelt and set it before Yussuf Caramanli, who was regarding Fletcher all this while with a curious smile on his full lips. Reaching out with a slippered toe, he kicked the long teak-wood case.
“Open it,” he told Sinan. “Show the nasrany the sword that will be his only friend for the rest of his life.”
It was a magnificent weapon, of blue Damascus steel, its curved blade inset with thin kufic scroll work. The hilt was of silver on steel, and the haft was wrapped about with durable cording. Sinan brought it out into the lights of a hundred lamps and held it out to the Virginian.
“A good blade, Stefan. See for yourself.”
Fletcher grasped the braided hilt, lifting the sword into his hand. It was light, but its steel was so finely made that he knew instinctively he had never before held such a weapon in his fist. Its blue, watered sheen was so bright that it seemed to glow in the lamplight.
Sinan saw that he was staring at the scroll work, and leaned forward. “Its name is written there forever, infidel. Dushman kash! The slayer of his enemies. Have you any enemies, Stefan?”
Fletcher brought his gaze up sharply, aware that there was mockery in the voice of the bald Turk. From Sinan, his eyes went to Yussuf Caramanli, who sat forward of his throne cushions, eyeing him with amusement.
“He does not know Mustafa reis, Sinan,” chided the pasha with a smile.
“I know him,” Fletcher growled. “He sold me to Ali ben Sidi.”
The pasha laughed. "Ah, yes. You were one of the Americanos that went to my best sea captain as his share of the loot. Most of my other captains were glad to waive their rights for gold. Not Mustafa reis. He hates you Americans with a fine hate. Tell Stefan why, some time, Sinan.”
Yussuf Caramanli stared thoughtfully at Stephen. “I did not know this afternoon that you, were one of the men chosen by Mustafa reis. Otherwise I would have bastinadoed you and brought you back to the stone quarries for Ali ben Sidi to kill in any manner he desired, to teach his slaves of the consequences of killing a royal guard. However Allah saw fit to make me act without such knowledge. New, of course, I am committed. It would never do to give you back, once I bought you. It would be a sign of weakness, and a pasha must never, be weak. So you will take your post in the harem, to guard Marlani Chamiprak.”
Losing interest, the pasha leaned forward to a silver platter filled with purple grapes. Idly, he drew a bunch into his hand and sat there cross-legged, nibbling at them, as Sinan took Fletcher down the length of the audience room.
As the big bronze doors clanged shut behind them, Sinan sighed and shook his head. “A lucky star, watches over you, nasrany. Mustafa reis will not like what Yussuf has done. He will give anything to put you back in chains, or torture you to death in a public square. But Yussuf will not let him do that; it has become a matter of pride to him. But walk as if you walked on eggshells! One false slip, and even the pasha of Tripoli will not be able to protect you from him.”
“I’ll be careful, Fletcher promised, but Sinan only eyed him curiously and grunted.
“You aren't, the careful kind” the bald Turk growled, and clapped his heavy, meaty hands.”
In the distance the patter of bare feet sounded along the tiled floors of the palace hall.
Sinan sighed, "I won't see much of you, once you go behind the seraglio doors. You'll live in a different world from me. There will be jealous women, and lusting women, and scheming women. Only a eunuch is able to live there without trouble settling around his ears. Make believe you are a eunuch, American!”
A slim Tuareg girl, with hair like blackened copper hanging to her brown shoulders, came walking toward them. Silver hoops swung from her tiny ears. Her glowing eyes, their lids darkened with kohl, studied his big bulk. Beneath the thin khalak, that was a sheer mist of green silk, her body was naked. Her full breasts moved faintly to her breathing. Her legs were slim and brown, long and shapely, under the floating silk.
Sinan said, “Her name's Shellah. A Tuareg girl, a slave. She sometimes acts as guide or messenger in the palace. She'll take you to the harem quarters.”
The girl was smiling boldly, letting her dark eyes drift over Fletcher with calculating slyness. There was impudence in her smile and in her lazy stance. When Sinan shouted at her in Turki, she shouted back at him, baring tiny white teeth.
“Desert harlot!” grumbled Sinan. “Remember what I told you, Stefan. Don't let these little kalfas get their claws into you, or you'll wind up blind in chains, hung upside down over a rat pit! Remember! Now, go with Shellah.”
It was not a difficult command to obey. The Tuareg girl carried something of the wildness of the desert in the spicy smell of her thick hair and in the warm glow of the eyes. She glanced slyly at this big, yellow-haired man as she padded beside him, and she let the misty kalak slide a little, baring her supple brown back.
Her giggle came into the silence between them as they mounted the wide stairway to the harem rooms. Now the Tuareg girl grew coquettish. Her arm brushed against him as they walked.
Once she said something in the Bedouin tongue that Fletcher did not understand. When she realized that he could not comprehend her desert jargon, she laughed softly. She spoke again, and though the words were strange, something in their inflection made Fletcher flush.
His hands closed on her wrist and he brought a halt, swinging her in against him. With one hand he caught the thick black hair, twisting his fingers in it, and held her face motionless.
"I don't know your game, little one,” he told her, staring down into the bold eyes that never flickered, though his grip on her hair stung her scalp. "Maybe. Sinan told you to act up, to test me. Or maybe it was the pasha, or even that favorite wife of his. I've been a slave a long time. Too long. I've almost forgotten that I'm a man, too.”
He paused and grinned down at her soft red mouth. The palace was silent all about them. From where they stood, at the top of the tiled stair, Fletcher could see the length of the empty corridor before him. His pulse was beating faster now that her soft hips and legs were wedged so closely against him. Suddenly rebellion leaped in him—revolt against the subservience he must observe, against the irony of his position. Here he was, a strong man with a noble weapon at his side; but instead of fighting lustily for his country, he must waste his manhood protecting a group of pampered harem women.
"If you want to run to Sinan or the pasha or his wife,” he went on conversationally “and tell them what I'm going to do to you, go ahead. I have a sword at my hip again. This time they won't take me alive, to hang over any rat pit.” He kissed her roughly, hungrily, holding her head hard between hands, while his savagely seeking lips bruised her mouth. The Tuareg girl took his kisses in a soft, sweet surrender. She melted against him with a supple twist of her slender body that told Fletcher she was enjoying this moment, whether or not she betrayed him later.
As he let her go, Shellah whispered something in her Tuareg dialect, her eyes hot on his face. With fingertips tinted a bright red by henna paste, she drew her thin, revealing shawl about her body, and moved on. Her bosom was leaping with her hurried breathing, but the only sound was the musical tinkle of the silver chains about her slim ankles.
When they came to a door inscribed with geometric inlays and set with two round gold hoops for handles, Shellah put her fingers on one of the grips and lifted her dark eyes. “Enter, Stefan. And do not worry, Shellah is no mewling spy, to go running when a man kisses her.”
She saw his amazement at her knowledge of the English language, and paused, still holding the door-pull “I was captured when I was very young, at the oasis of Kufra. They found me intelligent, and taught me many things. Your language was one of the things I learned. Now go in, and say no more of what happened between us.”
The Tuareg girl tugged and the door swung outward. Fletcher stepped into a domed room, its walls ornate with delicate plaster friezes in bold reds and blues and golds. Tall archways led back into gloomy recesses, and the last red rays of the dying sun came thrusting through the iron fretwork of the windows. He saw low sofas, heaped heavily with pillows and silk cushions, an occasional table and coffer of inlaid teak-wood, a few upholstered benches and Ottomans.
Lying at full length on one of the low sofas, her right hand draped lazily from the cushions so that her fingers could scratch and fondle the head of a white kitten, was Marlani Chamiprak. Her gaze was fastened on the silken veils that floated from the ceiling overhead. As Fletcher stepped across the sill, she arched her slim body, revealing that her only article of clothing was a pair of loose, silken trousers of royal green.
Marlani said sweetly, “Did the nasrany give you any difficulty, Shellah?"
“No difficulty, highness,” replied the girl, entering behind Fletcher and closing the door.
Apparently still entranced by the dangling lengths of red, blue and yellow silk floating in the eddies of air above her, the kedin laughed softly. “He is a disappointment. I was hoping that hot red blood ran in his veins. It seems I made a mistake.”
Her hand came away from the kitten and gestured lazily. “Come stand before me, nasrany. I want to see what my new guard looks like.”
Fletcher went to the foot of the divan and let her stare at him. Admiration shone in her yellow cat eyes as she examined his deep chest and bared midriff. He was a big man, Fletcher, towering tall and muscular among the scented cushions and silks. His height made Marlani look up at him, and now the American could read the wanton hunger in her eyes, the hidden desires and emotions that must be veiled everywhere but in the privacy of her harem boudoir.
The woman writhed, stretching. Laughter gurgled deep. in her throat as she saw his eyes drawn instinctively to the hard brown breasts thrusting up at him. She whispered throatily, “You are mine now, Americano. You belong to me. Here in the selamlik my word is law. Even Yussuf does not interfere with what I do.”
She came off the low, cushioned sofa with a flash of shapely brown legs and walked toward him, hips rolling easily, a smile twisting the corners of her red mouth. Lightly, she scratched her fingernails, sharply pointed and coated with silver dust, across his chest. Her yellow eyes brightened, glowing.
“He does not interfere at all! Whatever I do here, is my own business!”
Fletcher thought numbly that the pasha of Tripoli would make it his business if Fletcher dared to do what the bold yellow eyes invited him to do. For the first time since the Philadelphia went down, there was good food in his belly and clean clothes on his body. If this wanton with the kohl darkened eyes and the musk-scented hair were to have her way with him—and the pasha learned of it—he would be strung up by his heels over a slow fire.
Marlani Chamiprak read something of this in his stony face. The yellow eyes narrowed. The red lips drew back a little, to show even white teeth. “You are a coward! You are afraid of Yussuf. And I thought all you Americanos were brave men!”
Marlani let the tide of her desire run wild in her, making no attempt to check it. Never before this moment had she felt like this. Never, before had a big blond American stood in her boudoir, fighting for control, forcing his eyes away from the body she exhibited so shamelessly.
Before she had been wed to Yussuf Caramanli, Marlani had been a dancer at the court of Sultan Selim III of Turkey. Long ago she had learned the ways of pleasing men, and with her lessons had come an avid addiction to the art. She had been faithful to Yussuf, but since he had begun this stupid war with the United States, he had become more and more neglectful of her.
She laughed softly, throwing her head back. Then she swirled, arms spread wide, and went dancing about the room, her thin silken trousers billowing outward. She danced nearer to Fletcher, tripped across a cushion and fell against him. Her upturned face was an inch below his chin, her honeyed breath fanning his lips as her cat eyes mocked him. “Coward!” she whispered fiercely. “What are you afraid of? Put your arms around me! Make love to me, nasrany!” He held himself as rigid as if he were at attention on the spar deck of the Constellation, his training ship. For one instant he stared down into her flushed, lovely face with its kohled eyes and long lashes, seeing the moist red lips waiting, parted. Then his gaze lifted until he was staring blankly above her brown hair at the Moorish windows of the haremlik.
He said heavily, “The pasha said I was to guard his wife against all harm. He said my life depended on it.”
She whispered, “In the harem, my word is the law. Kiss me!”
She writhed against him, but he was as unmoving as a statue. Then Marlani Chamiprak drew back and snarled, like a savage cat. Her hand came up and her palm cracked hard against his cheek. Three times she hit him, until his cheek was an angry scarlet.
“You Americano fool! You shouldn't have made an enemy of me. It would have been better for you to have Yussuf angry with you, than me!" She paused for breath and slowly the rage gave way to a quiet slyness, brightening her eyes and curving her lips. “If you want it like this, with open war between us, very well. But remember, I fight as a woman fights!”
She turned on a heel and walked away. Just before she disappeared behind the archway curtains, she looked back over a bare shoulder. "I'll make you forget yourself yet, nasrany. When I do, I'll tell Yussuf you raped me! Pray to your gods that it will take a long time.”
The curtain fell behind her, limply, and Stephen Fletcher was aware that sweat was standing out like jeweled beads on his forehead.