The problem with life is that it’s told in the first person. You’re constantly buffeted by the consequences of scenes you weren’t present to witness. That’s true in the World of Things and in the World Facing. I’m guessing it may be different somehow in the World Undifferentiated, where all of our souls are said to bleed into each other.
I was awakened by the poke of a boot at my ribs. The other problem with my life.
By the time I got rolled over, Yellowbeard was already walking away, toward the rocks and surf. The sky was a dark morning turquoise, almost teal, and the shadow of the great mountain spread far out over the sea. A soft breeze rose from the waters. Várion was sitting on a rock, tending the fire. Several of the crew were standing around the camp.
I had decided to stop calling them the port watch, since that change was settled. What wasn’t settled were the changes to come.
I rubbed my chin. The stubble had softened with length. I’d never grown it out. I got to my feet and stumbled over to the fire. Next to the fire was an iron pot filled with water, and two small piles on a loose pallet of leaves: fish bones and fish meat. Várion was cutting up yams and some kind of blue tomato over another pallet of leaves.
I looked at myself in the pot’s water. Not a perfect mirror, but I could see that my beard was growing in pretty thick. I wasn’t sure what color it was, but it looked dark.
“You missed a real humdinger last night, engineer.” It was a soft southern voice. Coastal Georgia or South Carolina. I looked up. The shaven-headed Asian guy was grinning down at me.
I fell back onto the sand on my buttock. “Did I?”
He nodded, looking out over the sea, one hand resting on the hilt of the cutlass hanging from his waist. “Word got round that Yellowbeard put down half his crew, just for being afraid.” He squinted, grinning, and stared me in the face. I resolved not to show any fear. Or remorse.
He nodded sideways. “And that made the people in Nassau afraid. It made half of Whitebeard’s crew afraid enough to desert him and run off inland.”
Várion was interested now. He leaned in as he dumped yams and tomatoes into the pot. “Where is he now?”
“Wait,” I said. “Inland? Up those cliffs?”
A couple of the men laughed at me and started taking seats on rocks or on the ground.
Várion scooped up the fish meat in both hands. His brown eyes leveled on me. “Above those cliffs are plantations on the high slopes leading up to the Right Breast. They trade out of a port on the other side of the island, Calvary. They don’t like pirates, so they like the cliffs separating them from New Nassau.”
“Yeah,” one of the men chuckled. “Those skirters won’t find a warm welcome up there.” The other men laughed.
“Now,” Várion said, “my question.”
The Asian guy squatted and helped Várion lift and hook the pot onto the makeshift bamboo spit. “Whitebeard split out before the stars faded, before the onshore breeze could rise up.”
“So what now,” I asked.
“Now,” Yellowbeard said, suddenly standing behind me. “We eat breakfast and take you back into town to find your smith.”
After a nice bowl of fish soup, we set out across the shore back to town. During that march, the men took every opportunity to boast about the pleasures of New Nassau that I had missed. The tavern where some Hoosier guitarist knew Prince’s entire oeuvre. The women of the World Facing, freed from fears of pregnancy and disease and damnation for their desires, women I had yet to touch. And, of course, the swirling rumors of Yellowbeard’s ruthless ambition, and the apparently hilarious mutiny it inspired in Whitebeard’s men.
As we marched, low grasses caressed my ankles, wet with dew, reminding me of Hiral’s touch.
“You don’t want me talking to people.”
Yellowbeard turned to scowl at me over his yellow beard. “I want you talking to your smith and his assistants.”
“That’s business,” I said. I needed to summon a contrite tone. “But, I’ve caused a lot of trouble talking to people out of turn.”
He frowned and turned back to the trail. “Indeed.”
“I’m new! I made a mistake. But, I’m an extrovert. I need company.”
His feet missed a step, as if to stop. But, he continued, without looking back.
“As a compromise,” I said, trying to sound stupid and submissive and childish. “Could I have a pet?”
He gave me a gravelly chuckle. “What, like a dog?”
“Not a dog,” I said. “I’m allergic.”
“Not here, you’re not. Unless you come up with some fucking reason why that also doesn’t make sense.”
That was a fair shot. “Still,” I said, “bad memories from the other world. Something smaller, maybe? Easier to feed? Like a bird?”
He stopped, and the men stopped, and I stopped. He gathered his shoulders and turned to pinch his brows at me. “If you say you want a fucking parrot, I’ll shoot you where you stand.”
My mouth moved to say something, I don’t know what, but all that came out was a timid cough. He had guessed my ruse?
He poked my chest with a dirty finger. “All of you newcomers want a fucking parrot. If I ever meet the motherfucker who wrote Treasure Island, I’m going to make him sorry he ever started that bullshit.”
The Asian guy said: “Robert Louis Stevenson.”
Yellowbeard jabbed his finger at the man. “Fuck you, Danny.”
“Fucking myself, aye.” The other men laughed.
The captain’s face turned left and right, growling. Then, he laughed with them.
“Alright then, you jacks.” He waved his arm and we all started marching again. “You can have a raven, engineer. And double shares for life to the man who brings me the head of Robert Louis fucking Stevenson.”
Danny showed me to my quarters. That’s a nice way of saying that he hauled me by the elbow to a room in an ancient hotel that looked like it was once a Babylonian temple. The walls were stone, the floor was also stone and covered in a pink-and-green Persian rug, the bed a simple wood-and-rope frame with a puffy, red mattress and a folded satin sheet of black and purple. A simple, triangular window let in the morning light through an iron grill, rusted to red but still effective. I certainly wouldn’t be able to fit my head through it.
“I was told to shackle you to the bed,” he said, “but I can lock the door from the outside and you ain’t getting out.”
“I’d prefer that,” I said. “My pet?”
He smiled and nodded. “I’ll spread the word about a crow for sale.”
I didn’t know if crows could speak. “A raven, the captain said.”
“Aye, engineer. I’m also in charge of finding you a smith. The latter task is more pressing.”
I suppressed a grunt. “I get it, I get it. But, I’ll be lonely.”
He smiled again and nodded again. Then, he stepped out of the room, the door swung shut, and a shuffle of chains let me know it was locked from the outside.
Thereafter followed a long stretch of sitting, and listening to the noise of New Nassau carried through the window, and smelling the scent of New Nassau carried through the window, and thinking about the pleasures of New Nassau I was missing. I missed pop music. I missed Lorie. I missed my poorly fitting shoes.
I kept expecting a knock at the door, or a shuffling of chains. Danny or Várion grinning at me with a raven on one arm. Hopefully not Bob with his insane grin and whatever he might have in mind for me. I listened to the sounds of the city, laughter and music and the groans of animals. I thought I heard a crowd of people singing Comfortably Numb in the distance. I sniffed in the scents, the sweet aroma of barbecue, the stench of sewers, the calming smell of incense. No sound came to my door. The golden light through the window slowly closed off as the sun moved westward.
There was a fluttering. My head was between my knees at the time, struggling not to nap in that position out of sheer boredom. I thought it must be leaves, loosed from trees on the slopes above, brushing against the window grill in some offshore breeze. Was it already late enough in the day for that?
I looked up. A raven perched on the window grate, head cocked toward me.
“John Randolph,” it spoke in a croaking voice with a foreign accent. Something Mediterranean, maybe?
“Aye,” I replied, smiling at my archaism. “Did Hiral send you?”
“No,” it said. “But I have had word from her about you.”
I stood from the bed. The raven’s head turned to follow me.
“That’s not helpful.”
“My name is Sirhan,” he said. There was a lump of bread the size of a baseball on the windowsill. His beak poked at it, and it fell onto the rug. I leaned to scoop it up. Wasn’t there a guy in the Bible who was fed by a raven? Elijah? Joshua? I should have paid more attention in church.
I closed my teeth on the bread. My tongue told me it was ciabatta. It was delicious.
“I heard rumors around New Nassau that you were seeking a raven. But, also that you were unlikely to get one.”
I resolved to see whether this spy was worth his feathers. “What else have you heard?”
He leaned through the grill and fell, wings fluttering to bring him to the bed. One of his feathers floated onto the carpet.
“Damn,” he said, cocking his head to take in the fallen feather with one green eye. “I hate when that happens. I know it happens, from time to time. I lost hairs in the other world and never paid any attention.”
“You new here, too?”
“Yeah. About a year.” He resettled his feathers with a ruffling of his wings. I agreed. This was a weird conversation. A year ago, we were both humans in a completely different world.
“Anyway, your crew is focused on finding a gunsmith. This resonates with rumors that Yellowbeard has an engineer who could shift the balance of power in his direction. Rumors that he murdered half his crew to ensure this advantage.”
I had no idea how to react to all of this. I was the central gear moving a great machine, but I had no idea which direction I was turning or what the eventual consequences would be. Another casualty of the first-person blindness of life.
“You heard about me from the dolphins?”
He croaked a laugh. “Oh, no. From the parrots, who heard it from the dolphins. Ravens don’t go near the sea. The seagulls are stupid and competitive. Not worth the bother. We stay mainly upland.”
Well, at least the chain of communication was intact, if a bit attenuated. “Upland? In the plantations.”
“Yes,” he said. “I can show you.”
I chuckled and sat on the bed beside him, feeding myself the rest of the bread.
“To keep me from causing more trouble?”
He fluffed his wings at that.
“My door is locked from the outside.”
“I have colleagues who could pick that lock,” he said. “Ravens, parrots, monkeys.”
My hands fell between my knees, arms resting on my thighs. “Wouldn’t they know that? Yellowbeard’s men?”
“We normally keep ourselves secret from those who came here as humans,” he said. “I mean, they know. Kind of. Suspect. But they mostly ignore us, so we hide our backgrounds, our intelligence. But the consensus is that you might be a special case.”
“A special case,” I said. “Because I’m an engineer?”
He hopped sideways on his little black legs. “Redbeard has a parrot. He was a steamer captain before he came here. Bluebeard has a monkey. He manufactured machine guns in the World of Things.”
I felt my head nodding before I realized I had made the connection. There was more than one conspiracy afoot. “You want to bring me in, to keep my knowledge to myself. To keep the World Facing from changing.”
“You know, humans made a mess of the World of Things. Change has consequences. We would prefer to keep those consequences at bay in this world.”
I heard chains jangling. The raven hopped beside me.
“Sirhan,” a squeaky voice spoke from the other side of the door. The raven squawked in answer.
I stood from the bed, my pulse suddenly like thunder in my ears. Sirhan’s feathers were ruffled like he’d been electrocuted.
The squeaky voice was frantic, and the chains were jangling manically. “Hippie Bob is coming. We have to hurry!”