The chains went silent. There was a loud squeal. A monkey’s squeal.
“What the fuck?” came Danny’s voice from the hallway. “Get away from there!”
There was a slap, tiny bare feet against stone, and a monkey’s squawks fading off. Larger, human foot-slaps faded in. The chain jangled again.
Sirhan hopped down to the rug. “Ask for some raw meat,” he spoke in a growly whisper. “To lure a raven.” He snatched up his fallen feather and flew up to the window. With one glance over his shoulder, he was gone.
The door swung open. Danny rushed in, hanger in hand.
“What was that?” I said, trying to look stupid.
His shoulders settled. His head shook. “A monkey was fucking with your lock. I swear to God it was trying to pick it.”
I laughed incredulously. “A circus monkey?”
“I don’t think so.” He shoved the cutlass back into his belt. “Trained maybe? But by who? Whitebeard?”
While Danny was holding up both ends of the conversation, I scanned the room for any stray feathers. None.
“Maybe. So, we have a gunsmith?”
He nodded. “We have. And a good team. Yellowbeard wants us to set up shop in a cove nearby where—” He shook his head and started untying a bag on his belt. He dug around and pulled out what looked like a pair of crude power bars, bread-colored with little flecks of red and brown. He tossed them to me, one at a time. I gnawed into one of them as if hungry, to keep up appearances. The other one I dropped into the shoulder bag next to the little pink and white piece of shell.
The bread was sweet, with what tasted like pineapple and salted pork. I could have sold the recipe to Starbucks for a fortune, in the other world.
“A nearby cove where what,” I said around a mouth of whatever the hell it was.
“Let’s go.” He stepped into the hallway and motioned for me to walk in front of him. Triangular windows let in light from the other side of the temple-hotel. It was early afternoon. I made my way out toward the stairwell we had climbed to get there.
“Okay,” he said. “A cove nearby where banned crews land to smuggle goods into New Nassau.”
“Banned? Who bans pirates from a pirate port?”
“You ask too many fuckin’ questions.” We reached the stairwell and I started down it. “It’s exhausting.”
After the first turn, I heard him sniff behind me. “By vote of a majority of the pirate lords, or their reps if they’re not in town. Which is usually. Each of them keeps a consul here on a stipend.”
“All of them except Bluebeard.”
I turned and he was glaring at me. “Don’t go there.”
He shoved me hard enough to send me stumbling. I scraped the back of my left big toe on the floor. I grunted and kept walking.
“Fine,” I said, “but what the fuck could get a pirate banned?”
I heard him sigh behind me. “You never fucking stop.”
“If I don’t know, Danny, I can’t avoid getting banned myself. Accidentally getting us all—”
“Alright, shut up. You get banned for attacking other brethren. At sea, not in a bar brawl or anything like that. Or, lying about the value of prize goods. That’s a big no-no. Excessive violence.” He chuckled. “I know that sounds weird, but it’s hard to get prizes to give up easy if they think you’re just gonna kill ’em anyways.”
“Makes sense,” I said. We were rounding the second turn. A strange, smiling, skull-like face with a long tongue was carved into the stone next to that floor’s doorway. “Where’s Bob? I haven’t seen him.”
He huffed. “Why the fuck is everyone askin’ me if Bob’s comin’ back?”
I glanced at him over my shoulder.
“He’s comin’,” Danny said. “I’m tellin’ all y’all, he’s comin’ back once he learns where those deserters are hidin’ out.”
The monkey must have overheard someone else asking about Bob, and assumed he was coming for me.
“We could poach them for our crew,” I said, making an excuse for my question.
“Great. Another bunch of cowards.”
“No word on my raven?”
“I’ve been busy. Which means hell naw.”
We came to the bottom of the stairwell. A face like a cat with oddly feminine eyes was carved into the nearby stone. God only knows what the ancient sculptors had meant by these faces. I suddenly wished I had paid more attention to the face marking the floor where my room had been.
“Can I get some raw meat, maybe? To lure one in?”
Danny shook his head at me with squinting eyes. Despite his Asian features, the expression was pure redneck fluster.
I shrugged. “Make it my problem?”
He grinned and slapped me on the shoulder. “Raw meat, I can gitcha.”
The streets of New Nassau were thronging with people, all races and manners of dress, a swirl of colors. And smells. Some better than others. As Danny led us to a butcher, I started playing Slug Bug with myself substituting fedoras, which were the odd-hat-out. There seemed to be a small but enthusiastic cult following of the jazz age in this world of sail age cosplay. Here and there, I noted people dressed in crude Stormtrooper and Darth Vader armor. Cute, but it didn’t look very effective.
The sun was high in the sky, inching toward the steep cliffs behind the town. I scanned those cliffs for trails among the rocks and trees, but couldn’t find any. Then, I wondered why there was only one sun, when there were three moons. An extra sun would have made the Star Wars geeks happy.
“Here’s the butcher,” Danny said. There was indeed a man in loose robes behind a bamboo stand with meat hanging on hooks. He didn’t have any customers. “He’s not a good butcher, but he’s cheap and ravens won’t care if the meat is bad.”
After the butcher, Danny stopped at a stand selling leather sacks. He splurged for a small bag so I wouldn’t have to dump the chunks of meat in my hands into the sack with my power bars. A true Southern gentleman.
As I tied the bag to my belt, I decided to test his generosity.
“How about a hanger?”
Danny laughed. “Have your gunsmith make one. I ain’t gonna buy you a weapon.”
I shrugged. “Alright. How about some shoes?”
“You’ll be happier if you let your feet get tough. But, you can make sandals if you’re as smart as the captain thinks you are.”
I looked up at the cliffs. “How the hell could they have got up that?”
He grinned and motioned with his elbow for me to move on down the street. “Captain’s waiting.”
It was getting hot. I felt sweat everywhere, soaking my rags, making them stick to my chest and thighs. Danny’s skin was surprisingly dry.
“They couldn’t have made that climb easily.”
Danny shouldered his way through a bundle of men dressed like steampunk fops. A growl told me he had little respect for them. I was suddenly taken by how many of the residents of New Nassau must be newcomers. That meant that it took a while to earn your way onto a pirate crew, or that the old-timers like Várion preferred not to stay ashore.
Considering the ridiculous fankids I saw in clumps here and there on the sand streets, dressed up like noir detectives and anime rejects, I could understand the sentiment.
“There’s trails everywhere. It’s not so hard, once you find a trailhead. Unless you don’t like hikin’.” He was in full country boy mode, thinking about ways into the wilderness, and not paying any mind to why I might be curious about it.
That’s when I saw Sirhan, cocking his raven head at me from the top of a nearby gallows. Still marching ahead of Danny, I dug into my bag for a hunk of meat.
“They smuggle, um,” Danny said, “luxury goods up there to the plantations. Silks and jewelry and little do-dads to put on a mansion shelf.”
I tied off the bag and held the meat out in my fingers. “Rich folk stuff?”
He laughed at that. “Yeah. Useless shit. But you can get some gold for it.”
I swear I saw Sirhan’s head shaking, telling me to hold off. Then, he cocked his head and reconsidered the situation. He suddenly started nodding like a crazy crow.
I lifted the meat toward him and Sirhan took to the air. I glanced back and Danny had stopped, grinning, his eyes following the raven’s flight toward me.
Just then, I heard a squawk. Danny turned into a tornado beside me, spinning and cursing. There was a monkey scrambling up his back.
Sirhan wheeled and coasted toward a nearby alley with a double caw. I dropped the meat and ran after him.
I glanced back as I ran. Danny’s pants had fallen around his knees. He was snatching at his belt with one hand, grabbing over his shoulder at the monkey with his other hand. The people in the street were gasping and laughing and pointing.
The shadows of the alley closed around me. I hopped over a body, not sure if he was dead or just sleeping, and kept going. Sirhan swooped ahead and turned suddenly into a gap between two buildings. I pushed against the sand at an angle, feeling it give against my toes and the ball of my foot, and followed. A crack behind me, and the corner of the building exploded in a shower of stone flakes against my back.
“Shit,” I said. I had forgotten about Danny’s pistol. But, at least, his shot was spent.
I raced ahead, chasing Sirhan. There was another market street ahead. I shot a glance over my shoulder as I turned. Danny’s teeth and cutlass were bared. His feet were tougher than mine, his legs faster than mine.
I was going to die.
The market street was narrow. I started grabbing at the bamboo of the stalls, yanking them to the ground behind me. Curses and offended shouts trailed in my wake. My throat was aching in rhythm with my pulse. I didn’t dare look back.
Sirhan swooped into another alley. He was my only friend at the moment. My shoulder collided with a fruit stand as I turned to follow him.
“Fuck, slow down!” I knew that was the wrong engineering solution even as I yelled it. Sirhan cawed and turned down another alley. I realized my cries were a trail of bread crumbs for Danny, so I tucked my bottom lip between my teeth.
I risked a glance back as I made the turn. A blank stone corridor carpeted with sand. I slapped at the sweat-soaked cloth on my chest and my feet found new speed.
I stood panting at the trailhead, soaked from hair to heel, unexpectedly giggling like a little boy. I had nothing. Some rags. A couple of bags. Some hunks of bad steak. I had nothing but freedom.
I looked back down the empty alley that had brought me to this rocky, palm-sheltered grotto. Sirhan stood on a nearby rock, cocking his black-feathered head at me.
“You dropped the meat,” he said.
I laughed harder at that. “I have more, buddy.” I dug into my bag, pulled a piece out and flung it to the ground.
“Great,” he said. “Now it’s covered in sand. I would’ve come for it.”
“Sorry about that.”
He hopped down and snatched up the hunk of meat in his beak. He tapped it against the rock he’d been standing on to knock the sand away, then swallowed it.
There was a shuffling sound behind me. I turned to see the monkey running up the alley.
“He’s pissed,” the monkey said in its weird, girlish falsetto. “But, he has no idea where you went.”
I nodded. “Our conversation might give him a clue. We need to get going.”
The monkey looked over its shoulder. I caught my eyes glancing between its legs. No dangly parts. A girl?
“Yellowbeard’s a bastard,” Sirhan said. “He’ll have his whole crew after you once that one tells him what happened.”
I coughed the phlegm from my throat and started walking up the trail.
“Wait,” the monkey said. “What are we doing? What’s the plan?”
I paused, to take in the question, but also to take in the chemicals that were coursing through my veins. Freedom, adventure, a new journey.
“What’s your name?”
The monkey ran up to my feet. “Kinsey.”
“Kinsey,” I said. “There’s no plan.”
Sirhan flew onto my shoulder. I laughed and dug another hunk of meat from my bag. He took it eagerly and swallowed it down.
“Well,” I said, “there is a plan. Like this. We get up to the plantations. We keep hidden from Whitebeard’s men and Bob.”
“Bob’s up there?” Kinsey squeaked.
“Oh yeah,” I said. “He’s hunting the deserters. Some of Yellowbeard’s crew were asking when he was coming back. You overheard that, yeah?”
The monkey looked up at me with a furry, but intelligent face. “Maybe. I heard them talking about it.” I couldn’t place her accent behind that weird, tiny-voiced falsetto.
“So, that’s part of the plan. We know Whitebeard’s men won’t be welcome in the plantations. Bob knows this, too. So, they’ll be hiding out somewhere.”
“The monasteries,” Kinsey said, rubbing her furry chin with two monkey fingers.
Sirhan fluttered on my shoulder. “Could we do this while moving?”
“Yeah,” I said.
I glanced back to make sure the alley, now beyond a cluster of rocks and sand and palm trees, was still empty. The buildings on either side were stone without mortar. They looked older than history, older than writing, older than rational thought. My engineer’s brain knew that last part didn’t make sense. At some unimaginably distant point in history, people had made plans, carved those stones, fit them together. They had built paths into these cliffs. I started up the trail.
The trail quickly abandoned the sand and palms of the coastal slopes for stone and low-lying bushes. There were stairs carved here and there, rounded by erosion and dented by centuries of feet.
“How old are you, Kinsey?”
Sirhan squawked at that. Kinsey leaped onto my ragged pants and clambered onto my opposite shoulder. I had asked for one pirate mascot and now I had two.
“I was seventeen when I died,” the monkey said. “That was maybe six years ago. So twenty-three?”
I laughed and climbed up some rocks to another stretch of stairs. “You don’t look a day past twenty.”
Sirhan laughed at that, but Kinsey just tugged roughly at my ear.
“You said they’d be hiding out in the monasteries.” I tried to keep my pace up, to keep my friends from regretting sitting on my shoulders.
Kinsey squatted on my shoulder and put a tiny hand on the back of my neck. “There are old shrines and temples on the slopes. In rugged valleys where there’s no good ground for planting.”
“So, the plantation owners leave them alone.”
“Yes, mostly,” Kinsey said in my ear. “They don’t have anything worth taking. Just waterfalls, and groves. And beauty.”
I took the next set of stairs two-at-a-time. Sirhan and Kinsey bobbed on my shoulders.
“That sounds amazing,” I said. “That sounds like everything worth having.”