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The deck tilted to port, and I tilted with it, grabbing at a rope to keep my balance. One day out from Constanta, the wind had turned contrary and the waters of the Black Sea rose and fell under the Stea de Mare’s belly like a testy horse trying to unseat its rider.
“You have excellent sea legs, Paula,” my father commented. He stood perfectly balanced, a veteran of more merchant voyages than he could count. This was my first.
The sail crackled in the wind. The crewmen, grim-jawed and narrow-eyed, were struggling to keep the one-master under control. When they glanced my way, their expressions were hostile.
“It unsettles them to have a woman on board,” my father said. “Ignore it. It’s superstitious nonsense. They know me, and you’re my daughter. If the captain doesn’t like it, he shouldn’t have accepted my silver.”
“It doesn’t bother me, Father,” I said through gritted teeth. Having good sea legs didn’t mean I relished the bobbing motion of the boat or the constant drenching in salt spray. Nor did I much care for the sense that if the Stea de Mare sank, these sailors would put the blame on me. “Is this going to delay us, Father?”
“It may, but Salem bin Afazi will wait for us in Istanbul. He understands what this means for me, Paula–the opportunity of a lifetime.”
“I know, Father.” There was a treasure waiting for us in the great city of the Turks, the kind of piece merchants dream of laying their hands on just once in their lives. Father wouldn’t be the only prospective buyer. Fortunately, he was a skillful negotiator, patient and subtle.
When he had first agreed to take me with him, it had been to allow me to broaden my horizons now that I was in my eighteenth year, to let me see the world beyond the isolated valley where we lived and the merchant towns of Transylvania that we sometimes visited.
But things had changed on the journey. Just before we were due to embark, Father’s secretary, Gabriel, had tripped coming down a flight of steps in the Black Sea port of Constanta. The resultant broken ankle was now being tended to in the physician’s house there while the Stea de Mare bore Father and me on to Istanbul. It was most fortunate that I spoke perfect Greek and several other languages and that I had Father’s full trust. While I could not take Gabriel’s place as his official assistant, I could, at the very least, be his second set of ears. It would be a challenge. I could hardly wait.
The wind had brought rain, the same drenching spring rain that fell on our mountains back home, flooding streams and soaking fields. It scoured the planks of the deck and wrapped the ship in a curtain of white. From where I stood, I could barely see the sail, let alone the bow cutting its way through choppy seas. The crew must be steering our course
Father was shouting something above the rising voice of the wind, perhaps suggesting we should go below until things calmed down. I pretended not to hear. The tiny cabins we had been allocated were stuffy and claustrophobic. Being enclosed there only emphasized the ship’s movement, and one could not lie on the narrow bunk without dwelling on how exactly one would get out should the Stea de Mare decide to sink.
“Get down, Paula!” Father yelled. A moment later a huge, dark form loomed up behind us. A scream died in my throat before I could release it. Another ship– a tall threemaster, so close I screwed my eyes shut, waiting for the sickening crunch of a collision. It towered above us. The moment it hit us, we would begin to go down.
Running steps, shouts, the clank of metal. I opened my eyes to see our crew diving across the deck, snatching implements to fend off the approaching wall of timber. Everyone was yelling. The helmsman and his assistant heaved on the wheel. I clutched on to Father, and the two of us ducked down behind the flimsy protection of a cargo crate, but I couldn’t bear not knowing what was happening. I peered over the crate, my heart racing.
Aboard the three-master, a motley collection of sailors was busy hauling on ropes and scrambling up rigging while an equally mixed group had assembled by the rail, long poles extended across and downward in our direction. There were about two arm’s lengths between us.
“Poxy pirate!” I heard our captain snarl as he strode past. A shudder went through the bigger ship, as if it were drawing a difficult breath, and then the two vessels slid by one another, a pair of dancers performing a graceful aquatic pavane.
The wind gusted, snatching my red headscarf and tossing it high. As the scrap of scarlet crossed the divide between the boats, I saw a man set a booted foot on the rail of the three-master and swing up with graceful ease to stand balanced on the narrow rim. He took hold of a rope with one casual hand, then leaned out over the churning waters to pluck the scarf from midair while the ship moved on under full sail. The sailor was tall, his skin darker than was usual in my homeland, his features striking in their sculpted strength. As I stared, the fellow tilted himself back with the ship’s natural movement and leaped down to the deck, tucking the red scarf into his belt. He did not glance in my direction. The big ship moved away, and I saw its name in gold paint on the side:Esperança.
“Close,” muttered Father. “Altogether too close.”
Despite my pounding heart, I felt more intrigued than frightened. “Did the captain say pirate?” I asked, unrealistic images of weathered seafarers with exotic birds or monkeys on their shoulders flashing through my mind.
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