The monks corralled us into a holding cell. They called it our “guest quarters” but I had seen enough spy movies to know when I’m being detained. It was the New Nassau hotel all over again.
The room, oddly enough, had an open window. Square, of course. Forty or fifty feet above the ground, and sheer walls, but that wouldn’t mean anything to Sirhan and Kinsey. They hopped into the window and looked around, but didn’t abandon me.
There were four straw beds in the corners. I took the pistols out and lay them on one of the beds to relieve my shoulders of their weight. Sets of plates and eating utensils were tucked under the beds. Dark gray, so pewter? And porcelain chamber pots, decorated in little tan leaves. Out of curiosity, I stepped over to the window, nudged the raven and monkey aside, and leaned out. Far below was a discolored spot in the dirt, clearly the recipient of many chamber pots.
I felt my throat trying to gag.
“I can try to pick the lock,” Kinsey said, putting her tiny, furred hand over my large, less hairy one.
“Did they lock it?” I suddenly realized I did not know. I did not know a lot of things.
“Probably,” she said with a monkey grin. “Obvi they don’t want you to leave.”
Obvi. I was suddenly reminded that Kinsey and I were contemporaries. I wondered what she had looked like as a human. Dumb thought. She would never be human again. Unless, as the abbot had said, she got “sent back.”
Sirhan ruffled his feathers and turned to face us. “There’s a rope bridge from the mezzanine platform, over the waterfall. I saw it when I was flying around.”
I felt a plan coming together. Like Hannibal in the A Team. “There’s a waterfall?” My engineer brain immediately realized that was not the relevant information. But, some remnant in my soul, a poet and a geologist, wanted to see that waterfall. I wanted to hear it and feel its spray on my face.
Sirhan’s head was tilting back and forth, studying me and Kinsey in his avian way. “There is a waterfall. The upper end of the gorge, beyond which is a shallower valley with good access to either side or upward into the highlands.”
I smiled at my raven friend. He had answered my wrong question and the better question I should have asked. I dug into my bag and pulled out a hunk of meat for him. Birds can’t smile, but he let me know he was happy by how eagerly he snatched it from my hand.
“I’m not a pet,” he said after swallowing.
“I know. But a verbal thanks wouldn’t have the same impact, would it?”
He squawked a laugh at that and flapped his black wings. A feather came loose and drifted to my foot. His eyes followed it wanly.
“I’ll get the door then?” Kinsey was grinning at me with that infectious monkey smile.
While the monkey worked at the lock, I dug into the gun vest with the tip of my cutlass. I had walked among the dead until I found a blade that looked light, sturdy, and swift. The monks had suggested I take the one I had sunk into Bob’s gut, but it seemed tainted to me.
When Kinsey pushed opened the door, I was just finished poking six new buckle holes into the leather. My first real engineering job in the World Facing. I felt accomplished.
“Quick,” she said, furry little monkey face darting this way and that to make sure no one was coming.
I slung the vest over my shoulders. Sirhan flew from the window to behind me on the bed where I was sitting. As I stuffed pistols into their holsters, I felt his beak tugging at the straps against my back.
“Take the door!” came a distant shout through the window. Yellowbeard’s voice.
The three of us froze in the moment. The pirates had come to the monastery.
“Aye,” came the voice of Várion. I recognized it even with the single syllable. “Move!”
“I can’t get the buckles,” Sirhan squawked.
I looked to Kinsey, who had hands. She glanced up and down the corridor, then raced into the room. She jumped onto the bed and started working the buckles.
There was a thump in the distance, then another, then a splintering sound. Yellowbeard’s men were in. The muffled sound of pistol and musket broke the forest silence.
I slipped the last of the pistols into the vest. I checked the third bag on my belt, full of lead shot, and the powder horn. Everything was accounted for.
“Time to go,” I said.
Kinsey raced toward the door on all fours. Sirhan swooped out the window.
The clamor of battle sounded through the monastery below us. Cries, shouted orders, gunshots. Far too many gunshots. The pirates were winning.
I followed Kinsey down the corridor. She waited at each turn, little monkey face turning to make sure I was right behind. Blank stone hallways, walls carved with ancient symbols, faces carved here and there. Human, jaguar, crocodile, skull.
There was a sound rising. A hissing, a spattering, water against stone. Kinsey stood bouncing at a corner where a door let in light and a cloud of mist.
I rounded the corner and stepped onto the mezzanine platform. The rope bridge extended before me, the other end secured to stone posts at the end of a mud trail under a leafy corridor of trees and tall grasses. To the right of it was a shallow V of rock, like two stone hands extending from the mountain with water pouring through them.
The water plunged into a broad pool that was lined with stone benches, forty feet or so below, a rocky stream draining the pool around the monastery’s southern side. I could see fish swimming in the pool. White, pink, and brilliant blue. Trees swayed on the cliffs, buffeted by the spray of the falls.
“Are you afraid of heights?” Sirhan asked from the far end of the rope bridge.
Kinsey ran across the bridge on all fours. Her patter against the boards was funny to me. I felt my face smiling.
“Up here!” Yellowbeard was coming.
I ran across the bridge and felt my hand drawing the cutlass. When I got to the other side, Sirhan and Kinsey sat on opposite posts.
“Cut it,” Kinsey squeaked.
“I wouldn’t do that.”
I spun to see Yellowbeard standing at the other end of the bridge. He lowered his pistol on me. Men started pouring from the door behind him, taking their places on the mezzanine platform, dragons drawn and aimed. Várion took a stance at the captain’s side. There were twenty or so pistols aimed in my direction.
“So, you found two pets,” Yellowbeard grinned. His free hand was on the hilt of his hanger, thumb rubbing the tip of it. Nerves? He caught me staring at it and his eyes narrowed.
“Hold this on him,” he said to Várion and handed his man the pistol. The captain turned back to me, smirking triumphantly with his hands stretched out, and stepped onto the rope bridge. “One of them can talk?”
I adjusted my grip on the cutlass.
The captain tutted, but kept walking. “I don’t want you dead, but my men will see you dead before they see me dead.”
He was nearing the middle of the bridge. I set the blade of the cutlass against a rope. A volley of clicking hammers rang out like coins being dropped into a treasure chest.
Yellowbeard stopped walking. Stood there with his hands out. His head tilted to one side and he nodded. “Alright, then. Let’s talk. Where’s Bob?”
“Bob?” I said, dumbly.
He nodded at me. “You’re wearing his vest. He wouldn’t have given that up easily.”
“He didn’t,” I said, regaining my senses. My face went taut. “I stuffed a hanger into his gut.”
Yellowbeard grimaced and rolled his head. His hands fell to the ropes. He squeezed them violently. “He’s dead.”
“No. The monks were treating him,” I said. “If you haven’t killed them all.”
I could see Kinsey and Sirhan at my sides, unmoving. They could have fled, but they didn’t.
“You need to come back with us now,” Yellowbeard said.
“You need me to come back with you now,” I said. “But, I’m not going to.”
“Don’t let your balls outgrow your beard, boy.”
That made me laugh, despite my terror at being ripped to shred by a couple dozen pistol balls. “Go,” I whispered. Sirhan and Kinsey fled up the trail. I pressed the cutlass against the rope, bending it.
Yellowbeard’s men stepped forward to the edge of the mezzanine, but held their fire. The captain opened his palms backward to them. He was gritting his teeth at me. He still wanted me alive.
“If I kill you,” I mused, letting my free hand tug at my chin. “Will my beard go blonde so I can take your place?”
“That ain’t how it works,” he growled, dropping the posh accent in the moment. His hands were back on the ropes, and tight.
I shrugged. “It makes sense to me. Maybe I could make it make sense to the world.”
“The first Blackbeard was killed by a shark,” Yellowbeard said in an oddly loud voice. His public address voice. His crew nodded and murmured their consent. He was driving home a point. I would have to convince people, not the world. “The second Blackbeard was not that shark.”
“I’m smarter than a shark,” I said loudly, so the crew could hear. A cord in the rope snapped under the pressure of my cutlass. The rope bridge shook.
“Boy, if I don’t die, neither will you. Not for a long, long time.” He set his shoulders and leveled his eyes hard on me. “But, I’ll make you wish you were dead.”
“Captain!” came a voice from the doorway. “Bob’s been stabbed!”
Yellowbeard and his crew turned to the voice. Before I knew what I was doing, my feet had carried me halfway toward the bend in the trail. Two cracks, two balls whipped by, before Yellowbeard shouted, “Hold yer fire, you gobs!”
All around me was a green blur. I heard pattering on the bridge behind me. I ran faster. The path was muddy from mist. If I tried to run off to the side to throw them off, my prints would give me away.
Of course they would. I grinned and angled my run toward the left side, up toward the plantation fields. Once my feet hit stone and grass, I turned and leaped across the narrow trail to the other side.
I ran a short distance down into the valley and found a good rock to hide behind. The trail above was still empty. I looked up and saw Sirhan and Kinsey in the trees over the trail, looking down at me. I held up a hand for them to hold still. They shared a glance, but stayed put.
I tried to silence my panting, but my lungs were screaming for air. I eased the cutlass into my belt and eased a pistol from its holster.
Yellowbeard’s men appeared, and stomped to a stop where my footprints left the trail. They looked up the slope. Then, they turned to look down. I ducked behind the boulder. I could still see the raven and the monkey over the top of it, though. I put my hand next to my face and waved them forward.
Smart kids, they squawked and squeaked before taking off through the trees uphill, Sirhan on his wings and Kinsey leaping from branch to branch.
“This way,” Yellowbeard yelled, and I heard the men tearing through the brush up toward the plantation fields.
I squatted, put my head as low to the ground as I could, and peered around the rock. The forest above was empty. It worked! I holstered the pistol and turned to make my escape into the valley below.
Várion was standing there with his afro and his ancient gaze and his pistol leveled on my chest. I felt all the air come out of me.
“What are you planning to do?” he asked. His eyes were blank.
“Before or after I piss myself?” He let the corner of his mouth lift a bit. I grimaced theatrically. “Too late, a bit.”
“You are going to sell your rifling to another captain? Or to the company men?”
“I’ll be honest with you, Várion. I don’t really understand who the fuck the company men are. Are they angels? Conscripted mortals? God’s automatons?”
He pursed his lips. “I do not know that word. Automatons?”
“Just,” I shrugged, “things that follow orders.”
“Following orders makes you a thing?”
I felt my mouth frowning. “Yeah. It kinda does. If the orders don’t make sense.”
His eyelids dropped at that.
“Look, I don’t want to sell rifling to anyone. I wish I had never brought it up. I wish I had never brought up a lot of things.”
His grip tightened on the pistol.
“If I had kept my knowledge to myself,” I said. My throat was tight all of a sudden. “Maybe the starboard watch would still be alive. Juan de la Hoz, and the rest of them. Maybe Whitebeard’s men would still be alive. Maybe Bob wouldn’t have a hole in his belly.”
“May be,” he said, pronouncing it as separate words, “those monks back there would still be alive.”
I nodded. “That’s a full accounting for it, I think.”
He tucked his bottom lip between his teeth. We both took a deep breath.
“I do not know what waits in the World Undivided,” he said. “I have avoided it for too long to call it my friend.”
I was suddenly intently aware of his unimagineable age.
“But, I do know this. Free will is of God. The unpredictable. The random, or what looks random to the observer’s eye. Not driven by command or base stimulus.”
“Is that how you’ve—”
“Stop talking,” he said. His eyes drove home the message more than the pistol. “Enough men have died on this errand. If you do decide to bring your new weapons here, do it to protect your freedom, not to win an advantage over someone else’s.”
He shoved the pistol into his belt. All I could do for the longest time was nod.
“Is that it, then?”
He nodded to the side, toward the valley behind him. I stepped lightly around him and moved toward the sound of running water.
I turned back to look at him. His hands were resting on gun and hanger.
“Bob had it coming.” He frowned and nodded. “Do not feel bad about that one.”