We were sitting in a little gorge at the top of the maze of casks. This time it really was we sitting. I sat on a rock, Sirhan sat on a nearby branch, Kinsey sat on the round stones near the brook, splashing at the water with her tail. That answered my question about her tail being prehensile.
For some reason, I liked her more for that. Why had she come back as a New World monkey? When had New World monkeys and Old World monkeys split? Before or after Africa and South America split? I suddenly wished I still had Wikipedia.
“They’re going to kill us,” Sirhan said.
That wasn’t a sentiment I welcomed. I rubbed the growing beard on my chin. Then, I drew two pistols from Bob’s vest. They felt heavy. I’d never fired one, but I figured it couldn’t be harder than shoving a hanger into Bob had been. Something has to be done—for yourself, for your friends—and you do it.
I frowned at Sirhan and shook my head. “No, they won’t.”
Kinsey grinned at me.
There was a shuffling sound from the nearest barrel. Naoki stepped out of it and stood in that halting, old man way of his. It looked bizarre on his thirty-something frame. The two Arab brothers followed and took positions beside the not-old man. Naoki had his wooden sword, but the knives the other two wielded were metal and sharp.
“Bad news,” I guessed, letting my arms rest on my knees. They didn’t fail to notice the dragons I had in my hands.
Naoki frowned and nodded, accepting my challenge. “We will not be joining you. You have endangered our sanctuary. When they figure out you didn’t flee into the fields, Yellowbeard and his men will bring slave hunters into the uplands. We’ll be forced to hide somewhere else.”
I felt heat rising in my chest, down through my arms. My hands grew sweaty. I remembered Bob’s words. Take out the strongest ones first. That would be the Arab brothers. Ahmad and the other one.
I nodded at the brother who had actually spoken to me earlier. “I don’t know your name.”
He glanced at Naoki and Ahmad. His knife dropped nearer to his knee. “My name is Karím bin Muhammad.”
His brother’s lips went stiff. “I am Ahmad bin Muhammad.”
“I know your name,” I said bluntly.
Naoki seemed out of sorts suddenly. “We will give you some food, but you must leave here. And you must promise not to mention us.”
I looked back and forth at Sirhan and Kinsey. I didn’t bother gauging their moods. “I think we can do that.”
Ahmad looked at his feet and shook his head. He thrust his knife at me. “We should kill them. They’ll give us away.”
“Ahmad,” Karím said. “We are not Q Bone. Let us have compassion. Peace.”
His brother’s teeth gritted. “Do not use his name against me. I have his scars on my shoulders.”
Karím put his free hand on his brother’s elbow. “I know. We all do. And other places. Let’s not extend his cruelty to innocents.”
Ahmad glared at me. “You are American? Christian?”
I felt my spine straightening. I fought my wet thumbs, which wanted to creep up to the pistols’ hammers. “I was American. I was raised Christian, but now I am here.” Whatever that meant.
Naoki took a step forward. He set the wooden sword atop Ahmad’s knife. Both descended toward the stony ground.
“You will leave, with food. You will say nothing about us.”
I felt my tongue playing against my teeth, as if I had gum or a bit of unswallowed food there. Inside I felt patience, I had already made up my mind. But externally I was projecting conflict and menace. Where were these instincts coming from? I had never been in such a confrontation. Maybe with Yellowbeard, or with Bob at the monastery. Perhaps, I had learned something that I hadn’t had time to analyze.
It was almost, “I already said,” but felt I could dial it up a bit.
“I already told you that I think we can do this.”
“Mhmm,” Sirhan grunted.
Kinsey leaped onto my shoulder and nodded. She wrapped her tail around my neck. Solidarity.
“Well then,” Naoki said. His face was tight. He realized this was the best he could get from the confrontation. He nodded the Arab brothers toward the barrels. They shot a glance at each other and squatted into the maze.
The not-old man looked me in the eye. “It will be dark soon. Be gone before then.”
I nodded. Let him have that victory.
Naoki untied a sack from his rope belt and tossed it at my feet. “Eat the meat before it goes bad. The fruit should be good for a few days.”
With that, he disappeared into the maze.
We had only moved a few miles before the failing sun forced us to make camp in a stony grotto. Despite my grit at facing down Ahmad and Naoki, I felt defeated. I thought we’d have a new bunch of allies, but now the escaped slaves were just another faction who hated us.
We didn’t make a fire. We just settled down as I distributed hunks of meat and fruit. The sky was purple, with a few bright stars and two moons. I was tired of keeping track of them. Sirhan and Kinsey dug into their rations, but I just chewed at the smoked pork Naoki had given us, wondering which barrel they had smoked it in. It wouldn’t matter. They’d be abandoning that shelter by then.
I wondered where Lincoln and Mukki had gone. Doubtless they were still on the island. Were they captured by Yellowbeard and his men, or maybe taken by Q Bone’s slave hunters? Whatever had happened, I suspected it couldn’t be good. They shouldn’t have run.
I looked at the raven and monkey until they noticed my attention. They took the cue and leaped up onto my shoulders.
“Why do you two stay with me?”
They looked at each other in front of my face.
“You’re more interesting than eating New Nassau trash,” Sirhan said. Kinsey held out her hand in front of my face for a high five. Out of what I only guess was avian instinct, the raven stretched his foot out first, which did not reach, then swung his wing around. I blew through my lips to show I didn’t appreciate that happening an inch from my mouth.
“No,” I said. “Seriously. Just to keep an eye or two on me for the octopus?”
“Yeah, sure,” Kinsey said. “At first. But, that wasn’t as interesting as eating trash. I would’ve gone back to town.”
“Then,” I said, “better than fresh fruit from the forest?”
“Okay,” she giggled. “Busted. I stole fresh fruit in New Nassau, not trash. Way easier than picking it from trees, too.”
Sirhan squawked and held his wing in front of my face again. I batted it aside.
“Enough of that.”
“This is the most fun I’ve had in the World Facing,” Sirhan said.
“Me too,” echoed Kinsey. “You’re the most interesting thing that’s happened since I got here. You keep almost getting killed. But, you don’t.”
“Huh,” I said. Gears turning. “Okay. That’s a fair answer.”
The next morning, as I walked along the narrow trail with raven and monkey on my shoulders, I realized we were well into the region over the southern plantations, to the east of New Nassau. Below us, beyond the uplands forests, were fields stretching toward the far cliffs. Beyond that, only sea sprinkled with the light of the morning sun. There were slave shacks here and there among the yellow-green rows of whatever, and a bright white mansion at the far periphery, perched at the edge of the cliffs.
But, ahead of us at the curved horizon of the island, there was another dark green fan reaching seaward at the border of the plantation. Another watershed. I wondered if there were monasteries there, where we might find sanctuary. The wilderness trail was descending toward that watershed.
“Hear that?” Kinsey said.
I listened through the animals sounds of the forest, through the brush of the wind through the leaves. There was a hissing roar.
“Oh, God,” I said. “A waterfall. Water!”
My pace picked up, the trail’s descent grew steeper and rockier, and before long we were standing before a pool at the base of a tall waterfall. The mist of it cooled my face and diluted the sweat there.
“I’m filthy,” I said. “Mind if I take a shower?”
Their response was to leap from my shoulders and race into the water themselves. I guess animals liked bathing, too.
I felt a little weird disrobing, but then I remembered high school gym class. What was the big deal? I draped my rags and the gun vest on a rock, leaned the cutlass against the same rock, and slipped naked under the waterfall.
Now, we were all naked animals.
Sirhan made a game of flying up into the sheet of water and letting it knock him down into the pool. Kinsey’s circuit was to swim to a rock, climb up, then leap into the waterfall. We were laughing in three timbres, human and raven and monkey. It was all fun, the horrors of the World Facing forgotten.
Then, we noticed someone else was there. It was Amy Ida-Ayu, standing at the edge of the pool in her slave rags.
We stopped our frolic. I stood there naked in the falls, Sirhan and Kinsey taking their places on nearby rocks.
Two other women walked out of the bushes and stood behind Amy. Then Ahmad and Karím stepped out of the bushes with knives tucked into their belts.
My cutlass and pistol belt were still sitting on a dry rock. On the shore of the pool, far from me. Sirhan flapped his wings and Kinsey shook the water from her fur. As I stood there stupidly in the roar of the falls, staring at Amy, I felt my cock brush against my leg on its way to full alert.
Amy giggled. “Friends?”
Apparently, Karím had nudged Ahmad’s fear and anger toward realizing that hiding in barrels was never a long-term solution to slavery. That my knowledge was a better investment. Amy had helped. The other two women, Keiki and Mei, were the Arab brothers’ girlfriends. The five of them had sneaked away in the night.
After a rather tense negotiation about my weapons, I promised I would behave myself. To be perfectly frank about it, I no longer understood why the monks had been fine about letting me arm myself. Their abbot thought me an EDP, an Exceptionally Disruptive Person. I can only assume, given the intervening events, that he considered his assessment confirmed.
The escaped—I did not want to keep calling them slaves as that was an imposed condition—wanted to shower in the waterfall.
I cleared my throat as I pulled on my raggedy pants. “The boys can move off down—”
“It’s okay,” Amy giggled, removing her sandals. I glanced at Ahmad and Karím. They were just grinning. They’d probably seen Mei and Keiki disrobed before. As I stood there, pretending to decide, I watched Amy disrobe. She slipped her pants off with her eyes locked on mine. Her tongue played at her teeth as she undid her shirt.
I turned and wandered into the forest. As I stepped, bare feet against mud and stone, Sirhan and Kinsey landed on my shoulders.
“She’s pretty,” the raven said.
“She is,” I said. “But, she’s innocent of everything I’ve seen.”
“She’s been here longer than you,” Sirhan croaked. “She’s been a slave.”
I took that in. Kinsey’s tiny, furry hand was in my hair, gripping.
“Experience has its own timescale,” was the only thing I could say. “Some systems process faster than others.”
The monkey’s free hand swung around to grab the tip of my nose and squeeze it twice.
We set up camp on the ridge beyond the waterfall. Ahmad built a small fire and started to cook some pork skewers. Karím complained about the smoke, but he lost the argument to the hunger of the rest of us. And, Ahmad promised to gut any slave hunters who came investigating. I seconded his defense by tapping my chest-full of pistols with my pointer fingers. He smiled at me for the first time.
The Arab brothers and their Japanese and Chinese paramours sat on a pair of fallen logs under a broadly limbed tree. Sirhan and Kinsey were engaging them in conversation, seemingly eager to chat with other former humans. They were all laughing and squawking and squeaking.
Amy and I sat on some round stones on the opposite side of the fire. The pork skewers were incredible, and we matched them with some guava-like fruit Kinsey had found.
“These are good,” Amy said. She looked into my eyes solicitously. “So, what do you think about everything that’s going on?”
I took the hint. The cue. Whatever it was. Things were sketchy. I was an Exceptionally Disruptive Person, as the abbot said. I had disrupted the crew of the Speedwell. I had disrupted the monastery. I had disrupted the escaped slaves. I had disrupted Amy’s life, as perilous as it was, and she wanted to know what I thought about that. What could I say? I couldn’t stop thinking of Várion telling me to seek my own freedom, but not at the expense of others’ freedom.
“Everything I do has an enormous impact,” I said. “And yet nothing I do really seems to matter in the end. Things just stay fucked up. Ambiguous.”
She leaned into me, shoulder to shoulder.
“Your words mattered. What you said about freedom. About fleeing on a ship, maybe to Jissamán. They mattered to me, and to Ahmad and Karím.”
I had no idea what might await us at the Left Breast. It was all rumor and conjecture. The rogue pirates, Bluebeard, and the company men, whatever they were. Maybe not freedom, just another form of servitude.
“Even so, we’d need more than just the seven of us.”
“When you came here, how many friends did you have?”
I thought about being hauled ashore that first day. Maybe she meant when I first arrived in the World Facing, but a lot happened between then and New Nassau. And, when I came to the Right Breast, it was just me.
“None,” I said. “Well, one. Myself.”
“And, then you found two.” She nodded to where Sirhan and Kinsey were chasing each other through the low-hanging limbs over the heads of the others. “And then you found five. There will be more.”
“I guess so.” I spun the skewer and looked at the last piece, wondering if I had the stomach for it. “I just hope I don’t get us all killed.”
“We’ve all died before,” she grinned. “I think we can handle it.”
In that one cavalier statement, she undid the knots the long-lived Várion had tied around my heart.