Chapter

Twenty Four

Two Weeks Later

Spare a coin, sir? M’lud? Spare a coin?”

Rosemary looked across the street at the beggar lad as a gentleman in a gilt-edged cloak pulled it tighter around him to avoid brushing against the boy. Though the youth’s clothes were ragged and his cheeks gaunt from lack of food, his eyes were surprisingly intelligent. Rosemary caught a glimpse of disappointment and resignation in their brown depths before he looked back into the empty tin cup in his lap.

Closing the distance between them, she asked kindly, “Not much luck today, eh, Jimmie?”

The youth looked up at the sound of the sweet voice, and Ariana, having followed, noticed that his face lit when he saw it was Rosemary who addressed him.

“Nay, m’Lady, not a farthing.”

Jimmie,” Rosemary grinned. “I have told thee afore, I am not a Lady!”

“Well, y’walk like ‘un.” The boy’s eyes twinkled, for though it was flattery pure and simple, he knew Rosemary liked it all the same.

“Here.” Rosemary dug a small apple out of her basket, and held it out to the lad. “Go on, take it. I have two more.”

“Many thanks, m’Lady.” The boy was so hungry that he barely got the words out of his mouth before tearing into the apple’s tart flesh and gulping it down without hardly chewing.

Ariana had known hunger like that, and she looked back at the lad as Rosemary waved goodbye and the two women went on their way. The youth had already finished the apple, and was wiping his mouth with his threadbare coat sleeve as he watched them depart.

“He seems a sweet lad,” she told her companion.

“Hm? Oh, aye, that he is. Quick, too.”

“You seem to know him well. When didst thou meet?”

“I cannot say I know him well, but I have spoken to him several times. A couple weeks ago I was delivering some handkerchiefs to Eadith -”

“Whom?”

“The seamstress I have been helping?”

“Ah, right. Carry on.”

“…when he asked me for a coin. I had none to give, but stopped and wished him good luck in getting some. From his reaction, I rather got the feeling that most people walk past him and pretend they hear him not. Since then, we have spoken on a few other occasions.”

“Sad, “Ariana commented. “That most ignore him, I mean, e’en if they have naught to give.”

“Aye, indeed. There but for the grace of G-d go we, thou knowest. I know not if there shall be any more work coming to me from Eadith; her apprentice is feeling better, so I do not think she shall be sending me much more, alas.”

Ariana sighed. Rosemary was right – they were not too far from such a situation themselves. Thankfully, they had their voices and instruments and a warm place to sleep. In many ways, they were truly blessed.

Ariana smiled to herself as she thought of how Jimmie’s eyes had followed Rosemary.

“How old is he?”

“I know not. By the looks of him, fourteen or so. Mayhaps younger.”

They had reached the entrance to their apartment, and Rosemary handed Ariana the basket to hold as she went to fish in it for the key. But Ariana held it teasingly away from her, and instead swatted Rosemary on the arm, chanting,

 “He likes thee! Jimmie liiiiikes thee!”

“Ariana, he is but fourteen!”

“E’en young bucks can spy a pretty doe.”

“Oh, go on!” Rosemary swatted her back, but she was smiling.

“Rosemary hath got a beau! Rosemary hath got a beau!” Ariana teased in singsong, and was preparing to take off running when they heard a shout behind them.

“M’Lady! M’Lady! Wait!” Jimmie was running towards them, clutching the neck of his threadbare coat to keep it from flying off his shoulders.

“You see?” Ariana laughed.

“Jimmie, I am not a -” Rosemary began laughingly to chide him again for the nickname until she saw the look upon his face. “Jimmie! What is it? Art thou hurt?”

Jimmie skidded to a halt in front of them, panting with exertion.

“Nay – not – not me,” he gasped, gulping to catch his breath. “’Tis thy…friend. Th’… heavyset one wi’ th’ muffin hat? Plays th’ guitar in th’ streets?”

“Pete? What has happened?”

“I thought y’d want to know, m’Lady, on account of th’ fact that I seen y’ talking to him a few times, smiling like. I thought mayhaps he was y’r…erm…”

“He is a friend, Jimmie. Tell me, what has happened?”

“He’s been pressed, miss! I saw it happen! Three big men - pirates, methinks – they came an’ took ‘im! Two of ‘em knocked ‘im o’er th’ head an’ carried ‘im off!”

“Oh, G-d!”

“But something were odd, miss – I seen a man get pressed before, but I ne’er saw no one payin’ another man t’ do it.”

“What?” Ariana exclaimed.

“Aye! As th’ two big ‘uns were carrying y’r friend off, a fourth man, diff’rent from th’ others, came out from hiding an’ approached th’ third. I heard th’ pirate say something abou’ being a sailor on ‘the Moira’, and tha’ he would make damned sure y’r friend got put on th’ ship, in secret like. Said he would be long gone before ‘they’ thought to look for him – Methinks he meant you two, m’Lady?”

Without pausing for an answer, he continued, “An’ then ‘e said tha’ since th’ Moira docks in London only once or twice a year to trade, that any man put aboard ‘er would have th’ devil’s own time getting back. Then th’ other man said ‘Make certain it is so,’ and I saw ‘im hand th’ pirate a purse. After that, they all left an’ I ran to find you.”

Rosemary looked at Ariana.

“Sister, thou hast more knowledge of street ways than I. Doth that seem unusual to thee?”

“I have heard of men in taverns who are too drunk to defend themselves being pressed into service aboard a ship, but I have ne’er heard of anyone paying one man to press another. Prithee,” she asked Jimmie, “What did the man with the purse look like?”

“Small,” he replied. “Not much taller than thou art, an’ older, mayhap forty or e’en fifty. Very slender, with gray hair swep’ back from ‘is temples. Skinny face, pinched-like.”

Ariana’s hand flew to her mouth. It couldn’t be.

“By chance, was he clothed all in black?”

“Aye.”

Philibert!” Ariana breathed, and Rosemary gasped.

“What, from Gravesend Consort?”

“The same.”

“Oh, heavens, Ariana, we have to do something! Jimmie, knowest thou where the Moira docks?”

“Nay, m’Lady, forgive me.”

 “Naught to forgive…we owe thee thanks enough for this news! Ariana, have we anything upstairs, anything at all?”

“Methinks there is a bit of cheese still left.”

Jimmie began to protest, but Rosemary waved her friend up the stairs, and as Ariana ran to fetch the food, Rosemary pleaded, “Jimmie, prithee, ‘tis the least we can do for thee. You must take it.”

Ariana had swiftly returned with the cheese, wrapped in a bit of white cloth. Ignoring the boy’s protests, she pressed the cheese into his hand. Too hungry to argue in earnest, he mumbled, “Thank ‘ee, miss.”

Looking at Rosemary again, he said, “I doubt a ship like that ‘un docks by th’ law, but if anyone would know if th’ Moira be still at port, ‘twould be th’ harbour master who keepeth th’ logs. I can take thee where he be, if y’wish.”

“Gramercy,” Rosemary exclaimed. “Take us to him at once!”

“South end of th’ Thames,” Jimmie yelled over his shoulder as he took off, and Rosemary lifted her skirts to run after him. Ariana raced to lock the door behind her and swiftly ran after them.

 

 

Skidding to a halt as they neared the dock, Rosemary threw out her hand to catch Jimmie’s sleeve, nearly toppling him over. Ariana was running so quickly that she had to catch Rosemary about the waist to stop herself.

“What is it?” Ariana cried.

“Shhh! Quickly! Behind the bush!”

Ducking behind a wide shrub, Rosemary parted the branches just enough to see through. She hissed through her teeth in anger, prompting Ariana and Jimmie to also make tiny apertures in the branches to see what had upset her.

At first, all they could see were a few sailors on a hackney boat which was gently taking leave of a massive ship and depositing the men on shore. The sailors’ latest journey having been completed, no doubt they were heading to the alehouse to find a refreshing drink and their next few months’ worth of employment.

The ship from which they departed was magnificent and meticulously kept, with tall masts soaring above the deck. Bedecking the prow was the brightly painted wooden figure of an Arab maiden, bare-breasted and wild-looking. Rosemary saw a forbidding abundance of gun ports on each side, and the deck was a-swarm with bodies busy in their tasks. Through the branches, they could see that she was already sailing swiftly away from shore.

But as the disembarking sailors moved away, the three hidden friends could see the black-clad figure of a small man watching the ship as it departed.

“Thou hadst the right of it. ‘Tis Philibert indeed,” Rosemary hissed, and Ariana nodded. She would know that arrogant stance and that ferret-like profile anywhere.

“That would be the Moira, then,” Ariana whispered, pointing towards the departing ship. “We are too late!”

Rosemary sighed angrily, and let the branches she had been holding close with a snap. “We shall have to find out where the Moira docks next, and hope to board her there.”

Ariana’s blue eyes were as saucers. “Board the –? Art thou mad?”

“If we must.”

“We cannot board a pirate ship, e’en if she were still here, but she is gone!”

“Well then,” Rosemary snapped. “Stay here, if thou art afeared! I will rescue Pete alone, if needs be! I am going to find that ship!” Rosemary began to rise.

“But they are pirates!”

I. WILL. RESCUE. PETE!

There was a blaze in Rosemary’s eyes which Ariana had not seen before, not even at Rosemary’s most passionate. Ariana caught Jimmie’s eye over Rosemary’s shoulder. He, too, had heard the tone of her voice and knew that no argument would persuade her otherwise. For some reason, Rosemary was willing to risk her life to find Pete.

At length, not knowing what else to do, Ariana nodded. “How shall we find where next she docks, then?”

Thrusting the branches aside once more, Rosemary looked towards the sailors who were heading for the tavern. Ariana and Jimmie offered her their silence whilst she thought.

Finally, “I have an idea, at least how I might find out where the Moira will next dock,” she whispered, “but…”

“What?”

“It affords some danger in the execution.”

“Be there any other way?”

“None I can think of. Hast thou any ideas?”

“Alas, none.”

Rosemary turned to rise, but Ariana stopped her with a hand. She knew without asking that Rosemary meant to go after Pete even if it meant leaving her gypsy sister behind. Ariana had said goodbye to her mother already; she did not think she could bear to say goodbye to Rosemary, too.

“Sister, I think thou art touched. But… tell me what to do. I will follow thee.”

“Truly?”

“Aye.”

Rosemary kissed Ariana’s cheek in a quick burst of gratitude, then eyed the gypsy speculatively. “Just how quick canst thou be with thy dagger if I need thee?”

Ariana replied by whipping the dagger from its sheath and presenting it to Rosemary handle forward before Rosemary had even drawn another breath. Smiling, Rosemary squeezed Ariana’s hand, as Jimmie stared at the gypsy with his mouth agape.

“’T’will be fast enough, sister. I thank thee, with all my heart. Come.”

With Jimmie and Ariana close on her heels, Rosemary followed the path taken by the docking sailors to a disreputable little tavern nearby. Clearly, it was the first and last refuge of those heading to or from the sea, and the inhabitants therein were rowdy. The noise issuing forth was deafening, and accents of all sorts crowed and bellowed stories of plunder and pillage, riches and ravishment.

Mayhaps some of them were e’en true.

Rosemary nearly balked at her own idea as the three approached the tavern, but resolutely grit her teeth as the thought of Pete captive and forced into labor gave her resolve.

“Ariana, do you trust me?”

At her companion’s anxious nod, Rosemary looked at Ariana a moment as if making a decision, then gently reached up and removed the hematite moon from her companion’s forehead. She then pulled on the gypsy’s chemise to bare her shoulders, and fluffed her friend’s long blond hair until it billowed in a golden cloud. She looked at Ariana again, adjusting one shoulder of her chemise, and decided she was satisfied.

Whispering almost to herself, Rosemary prayed tensely, “Lord, I thank Thee that in Thine infinite wisdom Thou hast made me a woman. Thou hast not given me strength or lands, but Thou hast gifted me the one thing that can control men of all climes.”

And with that, Rosemary pulled her own chemise down until the neckline was barely visible above her bodice, the cloth plunging to reveal the creamy swell of her bosom. Taking up the hem of her skirts, she tucked the corners into the waist of her bodice, showing a shocking expanse of leg. Jimmie looked away, embarrassed, and Ariana’s eyebrows shot to her hairline. After some thought, Rosemary also took off her dainty shoes to reveal two feminine, snow-white feet.

Thrusting her shoes and the gypsy’s moon at a red-faced Jimmie, she whispered to him, “Jimmie, stay thou away the door, and try not to attract the attention of any man who passes. If thou hear’st a scream, run and find help, but else do nothing until we get back. Dost thou hear?”

“M’Lady, I am nearly fourteen! I c’n fight if need be!”

“Jimmie, I know thou canst, and I know thou lackest no bravery. But force is not what is needed here…stealth is. If I cannot find out by stealth what I need to know, there shall be plenty of opportunity for thee to prove thy mettle. Agreed?”

Jimmie nodded and snuck around to the side of the alehouse, the better to remain out of sight.

Rosemary moved to enter the tavern, but Ariana grabbed her arm, her eyes wide with the memory of that disastrous night at the Scots Arms Inn. And that time, they had done naught to tempt their attackers save breathe!

“Hast thou any idea what thou art doing?” Ariana whispered frantically.

“None whatsoe’er. Except that I believe that a sailor fresh from sea is made more vulnerable by a willing woman than by any sword.”

“Art thou suggesting we, as thou dost phrase it, are willing? Hast thou forgotten the -”

“Of course I have not forgotten! But this time we are in control, not they. And with G-d’s help our mark shall not know he is in peril until it be too late.” Rosemary breathed in deeply, and her tone softened. “Let me take the lead. And keep thy dagger handy. We may need it.”

Tossing back her hair, Rosemary mustered her courage and strode into the open door of the pub. Ariana, close on her heels, reeled as the stench of seldom-washed bodies, exotic pipe smoke, liquor, and bravado assailed her nostrils.

“There,” Rosemary whispered, discreetly pointing to a sailor lounging at a table to the left, who wore a distinctive red bandana about his brow. “I saw that one disembark the Moira. That one, too. Either might be of help to us.”

Almost at once the women were assessed by all but the most inebriated men within the pub. Knowing she had to take control from the start, Rosemary thrust Ariana behind her and said as authoritatively as she could, “Thou shalt pay in advance for what thou takest, mark me well. If thou hast good coin, come and speak with us. But naught is given for free!”

They endured a few bursts of language unmannerly, but Rosemary’s school-marm glare kept hands at bay and they reached the bar untouched.

Turning her back to the bar so that she might survey the room, Rosemary leaned on it in a pose that thrust her bosom forward and cocked one hip invitingly, then gestured subtly for Ariana to do the same. Shooting her a look that was part fear and part fury, Ariana did so, arranging her hair becomingly over one eye.

Rosemary hid behind her own hair for a moment and instructed in an undertone, “Do not move towards anyone until I say. Let our mark show himself to us first… or at least let us give him the notion that our encounter is his idea.”

Rosemary smoothed her hair back off her face and looked betwixt the two men she had seen disembark from the Moira, trying to choose the more likely for her quest. Since the man who stood nearer the entrance seemed nearly too far gone in his cups to remember his own name, she settled on the one with the red bandana who sat by himself at a table. Despite his weathered skin, the man seemed relatively clean of limb and face, and, considering what she had to do, this solidified her choice.

Casting a steady eye on her mark, she placed a small, knowing smile upon her lips, and silently prayed for the man to look up and notice her gaze. She wore such a look of admiration and invitation upon her face that any man who craved the attention of a woman – particularly after so long at sea – could not fail to respond. Or at least, so she hoped.

G-d, prithee let this work. For our sake and for Pete’s.

At last she caught his eye, and though he concealed it quickly, the look of interest on his face before he made himself look away told Rosemary that he was likely to respond. But the fact that he had looked away bespoke a man who either had no money and thought himself out of the game, or one who preferred a chase - a game of wits - to simply bargaining for a purchase. Inwardly, Rosemary groaned her impatience.

Either way, it shall be harder to learn aught from him. But mayhaps that is for the best. A man of some wit - as he appeareth to be - may be of higher rank in a ship’s crew, and more likely to have good information than a simple deck- swabber.

As she was debating with herself the best way she could make contact, a grizzled seaman of the latter sort approached to admire the merchandise. Ariana shuddered as the man lifted a strand of her hair and rubbed it between his fingertips.

“I ‘ave a coin or two in me purse. So ’ow much is it fer a taste o’ those pretty lips?” he inquired, and Rosemary raised an eyebrow at her friend, her unspoken message being, Play it gently. Dissuade without causing a scene. Ariana looked the man in the eye and named a sum too astronomical to be acceptable.

“Four shillings, sixpence.”

The sailor sputtered and dropped her hair.

“Four shill- ? Four - ? Never ‘eard such a thing!” His eyes narrowed. “What’re you playing at?”

Ariana, despite her inner trembling, shrugged nonchalantly, clearly indicating that the rough deck-swab before her could take it or leave it.

The sailor’s eyes drifted to Rosemary, who quickly added, “Look not to me if the cost be too dear. We work for the same fee. Take thy pick.”

The man looked back to Ariana, who turned deliberately bored eyes on him as though she offered herself for such a lofty sum every day.

“Pffhh!” the sailor spat, eyeing them both mistrustfully. It was clear to him that something was amiss, but since he could not conceive of what, he chose not to press the issue.

Well done!” Rosemary whispered to Ariana as the deck-swab grumbled his way over to the other side of the bar. Rosemary snuck a peek at Red Bandana. She was certain he had taken note of the exchange with the deck-swab despite his attempts to appear otherwise occupied. Once again, she turned her unblinking gaze him and coquettishly tucked a lock of ebony hair behind her ear.

After a minute or so more, the sailor allowed himself to look again at the bar and saw the voluptuous woman still appraising him with almond-shaped eyes. He smiled to himself. She was too dark of eye and hair for most Englishmen’s tastes, but he had traveled the world and seen how a more exotic sensuality could arouse the appetite. For a minute he simply returned her gaze, playing out the silent game of cat-and-mouse, until she tipped her head to the side, revealing the long column of her white throat. It was an unmistakable invitation, and he bit.

Raising his hand, he called loudly to the landlord,

“Two more ales ‘ere!”

The landlord ambled over with two brimming tin mugs in his beefy hand. Momentarily hidden from the sailor’s view by the landlord’s large frame, Rosemary took her chance to motion Ariana away from her. Reading her friend’s mind, Ariana slipped quietly around to the other side of the room, ready to play her part when the time was right.

The sailor received his two ales and, looking at Rosemary meaningfully, slid one of them towards the seat across from him. Languidly, Rosemary shifted away from the bar and moved towards him, making certain her hips undulated as she traversed the room.

Gracefully swiveling into the seat, Rosemary nodded her thanks at the sailor and took a long pull of the ale. Of course, now that she was sitting down, she had no idea how to proceed. To buy herself time, she licked the foam from her top lip and set the mug back on the table, inviting him with a look to speak first.

The sailor’s accent was rough, but the eyes deeply set in his weathered face shone with a sort of experience-borne intelligence, and he spoke as though every word was heavy with meaning.

“Be th’ ale to thy liking? There shall be more, if y’ wish it. ‘Tis odd - I come through ‘ere each time we dock, but I ‘ave not seen thee ‘ere afore.”

“Nay?”

“Nay, I ‘ave a memory for a woman’s… face, and I know I ‘ave ne’er seen you ‘ere. Thou art from some exotic clime, I warrant…? Or, mayhaps, thou hast a reason to be here that is new to thee, hm?” The sailor eyed Rosemary speculatively.

He is indeed a man to play cat and mouse, Rosemary thought. If I am not careful, he shall have the truth out of me ‘ere I get one clue of him!

Rosemary eyed him back thoughtfully and let a small smile play about her lips whilst she stalled for time to think. He was no tavern slouch, and she needed to tread carefully.

“For a taleof mine, I shall have a tale of thine in return. From whence hast thou come?”

The sailor grinned his approval at her boldness. To gain back the upper hand, he changed tack.

“You sent th’ other sailor away.”

“Ah. You saw that?”

“Aye. Why?”

“Shall we say… that I am choosy? I named him a price he could not pay, but ‘tis no matter to me. I can afford to select more discriminating… companions.”

“Be that so?”

Rosemary shrugged, and half-lowered her eyelids, looking at him from under her lashes. The sailor took a pull on his ale, studying her in return. Suddenly he laughed, and slammed his mug down upon the table with a hearty thump.

“All righ’, since you wish it, I shall speak first. I last sailed on th’ Moira, under ‘Th’ Barbarian’. If thou hast spent any time in this tavern at all, surely his name is not strange to thee, hm?”

“His name is known to me,” Rosemary lied.

“Ah! And a prosperous trip it was, as are all Th’ Barbarian’s raids, this last ‘un on a Maltese trading ship that sweetly gave up her bounty to us. But surely thou must suspect that already, hm? ‘Tis why thou didst deign to accept my drink and not the other villain’s, I expect. E’en if thou gavest me th’ same sum you named for th’ other fellow, I c’n afford it…provided yer worth it, o’course.”

He took a long pull on his ale and wiped his mouth across his sleeve.

“Now I have told thee all. So… thou canst not argue that ‘tis my turn to ask thee a question. Just ‘ow much didst thou ask of th’ other fellow, to make ‘im turn tail like that?”

“Four and six.”

The sailor pursed his lip and ran his finger thoughtfully along his chin. “I can understand ‘is disappointment. ‘Ow do you justify such a sum?”

“Mayhaps thou didst notice that I do not work alone?”

Rosemary nodded across the room to Ariana, who warily approached but gamely placed one hand on the sailor’s shoulder, the other on her out-thrust hip. Rosemary was grateful to her friend for going along with the plan. This was not easy on either of them, especially after the Scots Arms.

But Red Bandana seemed to be buying the act. He nodded that he had indeed seen Ariana in his earlier perusals. He liked the contrast of the bolder one’s dark hair and red lips with the fair beauty of her companion, and his eyes roved Ariana’s curves without shame.

“I noticed.”

Rosemary quickly began to spin her tale, because at the sailor’s blunt perusal, Ariana had begun to blanch.

“My friend here was returned to these shores just months ago. As a child, she was captured and sold by Moorish slave traders. She speaks only a few words of English, but that should not bother thee, for I can speak to her with my hands, and she understands me. While still captive, it should interest thee to know that she was trained in a seraglio. What she learned there…the ways she knows to please a man…”

“Go on.”

“Alone she would be well worth the asking price. With mine own not unremarkable skills added to hers, well… shall it be understood that such a price is an unfathomable bargain?”

“Mayhaps. Convince me, wench.”

Will the fates offer no quarter? Good Lord, I did truly think this would be easier. Talk the man into giving away secrets he thinks will impress us, then find some distraction and haste to home ere he knows what happened. But he is wily! Think!

 “Well… I grant thou that one must not simply take a lass’s word for it. Erm… well, seeing as thou art a man of means…”

“Aye?”

“There… is an arrangement we make for men who can afford such, er, luxuries. Naturally, no grain merchant worth doing business with would sell a bag of oats without first allowing the buyer to run those oats through his fingers. To determine if they are worth the price, of course.”

Ariana looked horrified. The sailor grinned. “Meaning?”

“Only that, if thou art truly of a mind to purchase, sir, we… would be pleased to accompany thee outside. Just a small taste, you understand. To determine that thou wilt indeed get thy money’s worth.”

Ariana’s eyes widened even further, but Rosemary told her with a look that they would have the information they needed long before they were compromised.

“By all means, then, let us go. I ‘ave no business ‘ere that cannot wait.” And pushing his mug aside, the sailor gestured for the two women precede him.

Mouthing the words silently as they walked before him, Rosemary cautioned Ariana, Have thy dagger ready.

Ariana gave an almost imperceptible nod, and took a deep breath.

“This way,” beckoned Rosemary, and led the sailor around the side of the building. Seeing them approaching, Jimmie began to rise from where he crouched on the ground, but a tiny shake of Rosemary’s head stopped him. With her eyes, she asked him to keep alert, and then turned and took the sailor’s hand, walking backwards enticingly as she directed him to a sparsely wooded area behind the tavern.

“Sir, all I ask of thee is this: permit us to do all the work. Thou shalt have no need to lift a finger. Agreed?”

The sailor laughed his approval. “Done.”

Rosemary took a deep breath to steady herself, smiled knowingly at the sailor, and reached for his waist. Slowly, slowly, she lifted the sides of his shirt free from his breeches and caressed his bare sides beneath the shirt, testing her nails against his skin the way some of the poems in her books described women touching men. She heard the sailor’s intake of breath, and knew that he had been long enough without a woman that, so long as she kept him distracted, he would pose no threat until it was too late. Indeed, she could already see his eyes fluttering closed; his defenses down, he suspected nothing. Lifting his shirt gently over his head, she caught Ariana’s eye. Pointedly, she looked from the dagger at Ariana’s hip to the man’s breeches, then back again.

Ariana shook her head at Rosemary – what? Then her eyes suddenly widened, and she understood.

Standing behind the sailor, Ariana reached around him and tried with shaking fingers to unbuckle his belt. Rosemary helped, and a thin sheen of sweat shone on the sailor’s brow as he felt those four feminine hands undo the buckle and slide the belt from around his waist. Rosemary nodded at Ariana, and, swallowing her fear, lifted the sailor’s hands to her hair as she pulled his head down for a kiss.

Ariana had wrapped one arm around the man’s waist and slid the dagger from its sheath so silently that, lost in his ecstasy, the sailor was unaware.

Rosemary felt the sailor’s hands tighten in her hair, and she brought her lips close to his.

Before we go on, I have but one question for thee,” she breathed against his mouth. “To where doth the Moira sail? Where will she dock next?

“What?” The sailor whispered huskily, his breath heaving in his chest and his eyes closed in anticipation of Rosemary’s kiss. Then suddenly his eyes flew open as he felt the unmistakably sharp blade of a dagger pressing against the cloth between his legs.

“Where,” Rosemary asked, this time in a normal voice, “doth the Moira sail next, and for how long shall she dock?”

The sailor was by now fully aware of himself, and he angrily tightened his grip on Rosemary’s hair. But behind him, Ariana pressed the blade a fraction deeper, and the sailor gasped and froze. Despite his superior size, the hold that Ariana had about his waist and the skill with which she held the blade told him that any move he made would not be fast enough to keep her from doing him damage in his most sensitive parts.

Glaring at Rosemary, he growled, “What do y’ want? My gold? Damn you.”

“I am sorry, sir. We do not wish to take thy money. But our friend aboard the Moira is in peril, and we must know by…er…any means necessary… in which direction she sails and where she will next come to rest.”

The sailor loosened his grip on Rosemary’s hair, but shot daggers at her with his eyes.

“What makes y’ think I know, then?”

Rosemary stepped a pace away and glanced quickly down at the man’s private parts.

“For thine own sake, I hope thou dost.”

“Do y’ know what will ‘appen to me if I tell thee? ‘Tis no light vessel, but th’ Barbarian’s own ship yer askin’ for, y’ know!”

“I know what will happen if you do not,” Ariana threatened from behind, and pressed the blade in even closer. The sailor’s body tensed further, and Rosemary felt sorry for him.

“We truly wish thee no harm, but we are desperate, sir. The Moira?”

The sailor growled and looked as though he might strangle Rosemary if he dared, but he spoke. “They are headed to th’ Bay of Biscay, by way of th’ English Channel. Methinks they are putting into harbor at Malaga.”

“How long doth she usually dock?”

Once again the sailor balked, but Ariana tightened her arm about his waist, and in anticipation of the dagger coming closer, he winced.

“Less than a week,” he growled. “Now I have told thee all, an’ may the knowledge of it damn thee both.”

“Forgive us, sir. We are truly sorry for deceiving thee.”

Taking his belt, Rosemary led him to a tree – with Ariana holding the dagger now to his bare side - and belted his arms in a wide circle about its trunk.

“Again, we crave thy pardon, but we would not have thee following us.”

“If th’ Barbarian ever finds out ‘twas I what told thee -”

Rosemary considered this. Methinks he is more in fear of being discovered as a traitor to this ‘Barbarian’ than he is angry at the deception itself.

Gently as she could, she replied, “I grant thou hast no reason to trust either of us, yet I swear I shall never tell from whence we received our information.”

“Nor I,” Ariana agreed, and re-sheathed the dagger at her waist as if to prove she meant the sailor no further harm.

The sailor grunted by way of acknowledgement, and rested his forehead on his arms, stretched wide as they were around the tree. He looked so miserable that Rosemary felt a stab of pity. With some trepidation, she gently leaned in and touched the sailor’s bare arm as he glared at her.

“Thinkest thou on this,” she said, offering an apologetic smile. “Thou mayest well have saved a man’s life with this news. And good things, as we all do know, come in threes. With the treasure thou hadst of the Maltese ship and now saving the life of a good man, surely thou art due some spectacular good turn to come as a third delight!”

The sailor looked up, and despite his grim mouth, his eyes no longer glittered with anger. “So long as it be not in th’ form of a woman.”

“Amen,” laughed Rosemary shakily, and followed Ariana, who had already run around to the side of the alehouse and the safety of Jimmie’s side. Angrily yanking her chemise back onto her shoulders, Ariana was muttering dark oaths underneath her breath. Rosemary cleared the side of the building as Jimmie looked betwixt the two of them and sputtered.

“M’Lady! Miss! Thou - ? But –?”

“Thank G-d, thank G-d, ohhhhhh thank Thee, G-d,” Rosemary breathed as she yanked her own chemise up to cover her bosom, then leaned her back against the wall and tipped her head up, the better to breathe as her fear caught up with her.

Now that the danger was passed, Ariana’s blood was racing, and she hit Rosemary hard on the arm.

“Never, never make me do that again!”

“Come, quickly,” Rosemary replied, grabbing her shoes from Jimmie and thrusting them onto her feet. Recovering Ariana’s moon from the speechless boy, Rosemary pressed the pendant into her friend’s hands, quickly kissing them as she did so by way of apology. Running back towards their home, she shouted breathlessly over her shoulder at the others as they followed,

“At least we found out what we needed to know! Pete is headed for Malaga, and if G-d is still with us, e’en then he may not be beyond our reach!”