EVERYTHING HAS ITS COST
The men of Casa Relajada relieved me of my hanger and my gun vest, and took the Iraqi brothers’ knives. That was to be expected. Still, even though I was no less armed than I had been for most of my time in the World Facing, I felt oddly naked without my weapons.
They led us through fields of barley and grapes and sugar cane. I only knew the wheat-looking stuff was barley by asking Foster. The one and only thing I could think of that they had in common was that they were the ingredients of the Alcoholic Trinity of beer, wine, and rum. I found myself feeling a bit more relaxed about Señor Abarca-Abaroa.
I didn’t bother myself trying to reason out whether those three plants should be able to grow in the same soil, in the same climate. Why fuck up a good thing? Let the World Facing have its inconsistencies.
Then, we noticed the slaves. We all did. I glanced around, seeing if the escaped were noticing what I noticed. I felt a politically correct tightening in my throat as I noticed what I noticed and what the others were noticing. The slaves were all wearing shoes. Not raggedy sandals like Amy wore. Nice cloth shoes with leather soles, like deck shoes from the World of Things.
And, their clothes were, for want of a better term, complete. There were no ragged edges. The pants came down to a neat seam at the knees. The belts were actual cloth belts, not ropes or strings. And with wooden or metal buckles, not tied off with granny knots. There were multiple belt loops seamed into the pants, not just a couple of crudely cut holes for a rope to slip through. And, the shirts had sleeves that came down to neat seams at the elbows, and dropping V-necks that let in clean, cool air.
They had hats. I suddenly realized I had lost my hat somewhere. Probably left it on the Speedwell. The slaves had broad, well-woven reed hats, blocking the sun, with chin straps of a soft-looking material. And, they had gloves, nice cloth gloves which were each fit neatly to the shape of the hand inside.
I glanced around. Amy’s lips were open. Ahmad’s lips were tight, his jaw tight, his eyes tight. Karím’s eyebrows were arched in confusion. Mei and Keiki were frowning, not in sadness but in envy. I didn’t look at Sirhan and Kinsey, but only because I didn’t trust myself to gauge their non-human reactions. They stayed still on my shoulders. Maybe that told me something.
There were men with tall, deep buckets of water over their shoulders, and ladles in their hands. They were moving down the lines, offering drinks to the slaves. Greetings and smiles were exchanged.
I turned to Karím.
“Q Bone’s place isn’t like this, is it?”
He huffed through his nostrils. “These are still slaves.”
I took that as a No. “Is this how it was in the old days, maybe?”
He shrugged. “How the fuck should I know?”
Foster laughed ahead of us, and turned his comforting grin at me. “These are Q Bone’s slaves you brought with you?”
I felt my throat tighten again. “These are people who escaped Q Bone.”
“He was a drug dealer in the old world and he’s a drug dealer now.”
We marched for a few moments with that hanging in the air. I was a bit disappointed that the distinction between alcohol and cannabis persisted in the World Facing.
“It’s not a bad drug,” Foster said, perhaps predicting my thought process. I could no longer see his face, only a slight shrug in his shoulders. “But, he’s a bad dealer.”
I found myself trying to place Foster in time. His language, and his alcohol-cannabis dualism, placed him in the late 20th or early 21st century. But, he could’ve learned that lingo during his time in the World Facing. He was clearly wise, or at least well-worn, and that means he could be centuries old.
I wanted to ask him what he had been, before. The plantation house, painted an odd, soft pink that contrasted in its pastel brilliance with the deep blue sky, loomed ahead. My questions would have to wait.
Foster and his men led us through the main entrance of the mansion, with nods from the guards standing with hangers and dragons near the teal Doric columns. The guards were black, white, Latin. I suddenly realized that the slaves had been almost entirely Asian. This sad racial dynamic undermined my relaxation at what I’d seen in the fields.
We were marched through a lobby in dark wood, cream floor tiles, and racks of muskets and swords adorning every wall. An insane amount of weapons. Beyond that was a floral wallpapered corridor lined with portraits of Latin aristocrats reaching back to God knew when. It opened onto a broad ballroom with open double doors all along the far side, gossamer drapes gently billowing in a sea breeze. There were large fireplaces at either end and ornately carved benches along the back wall beside us as we were marched in.
A man in an absurdly embroidered suit of burgundy velvet stood looking through the central pair of open double doors, at a garden of bright flowers, brightly clothed round tables, and brightly fluttering parasols set through holes in those tables. Wooden folding chair were arranged around each table. Porcelain and steel dinnerware were set on peach place-mats before each chair. A party was afoot.
The velveted man, clearly the Señor, was chatting with a trio of fellows in saffron and lime green livery. When Foster brought us to a halt with a stomp, the man stilled the conversation with a gently raised hand.
He turned and took us all in with a serene grin.
“Mr. Foster,” he said with a Castellano lisp that reminded me of Juan de la Hoz. “This is the engineer and his friends?”
Foster nodded, but did not otherwise shift his stance.
Señor Abarca-Abaroa waved toward the benches.
“It has been a long walk, no? Sit, sit. We talk to him later.”
Foster turned his eyes on us with a purpose. We moved to take seats on the benches. Foster’s men took places standing around us.
“I like his animals,” Abarca-Abaroa said with a genuine smile. Sirhan and Kinsey shifted on my shoulders. “But, first we talk about tonight’s celebration. Please, Mr. Foster. Sit, sit. And your men.”
Foster took a deep breath, then turned his frowning face to his men. They all moved to take seats on the benches.
The Señor rotated back to the nearest man in livery.
“Mr. Gulick. Our guests will have the best wines and spirits from our cellars.”
“Of course, Señor. And fresh pork from the uplands. Fresh beef from Mister Turk’s ranch on the north side.”
“Avocado salad? With fresh tomatoes and goat cheese?”
“Yes. Your vinegar and Marcus Jah’s olive oil.”
I felt my mouth salivating. Ahmad’s pork-and-pineapple skewers suddenly seemed like peasant food.
“A fine celebration,” the Señor said. He smiled and extended his hands toward the tables. “And, it’s all free!”
Gulick leaned his head to one side. “It’s all paid for, sir.”
The Señor huffed and waved a hand dismissively. “What’s the difference?”
“The difference, sir,” said Gulick, “is that it’s paid for.”
“You accountants,” groaned the Señor. He waved them off. “Go, go. Do your work, make the celebration a success.”
The men in livery exited through a side door near one of the fireplaces. Señor Abarca-Abaroa turned to us and clasped his hands together in front of his velveted groin.
I straightened in my seat. “Señor.”
“You are a great concern these days. My spies among the birds brought word of you the day you arrived on our island. You frightened a great captain’s men to abandon him.”
“I did not,” I said. That raised the Señor’s eyebrows. “Word about me frightened them. I was busy being detained near Legionnaire’s Cove.”
“Ah, sí,” he lisped. “The old Roman camp. But, I have heard, whether by your own acts or your reputation, that you put a worry into Captain Whitebeard and Captain Yellowbeard and my colleague, Señor Q Bone. And, now here you are in my house, at my invitation.”
“It was an invitation I could hardly refuse.”
He smiled and took three steps toward me. It was congenial, not threatening.
“Mr. Foster did not harm anyone, I hope. I told him to be gentle.”
I felt my shoulders rise at that. “He was, as far as an abduction can be.”
The Señor smiled and nodded. “I learned to be gentle from one of you Americanos who came into my service some time ago. Mr. Henry Ford. He helped me reform the plantation I had inherited from my Facing Father, Señor Rejón.”
Two questions made my head tilt. I desperately needed both answered. Sirhan’s avian head cocked in a way that said he sensed my quandary.
“The car man, Henry Ford? The automobile engineer?”
Señor Abarca-Abaroa nodded. “He had an elephant, which he brought with him on a large catamaran from Avamarquía.”
Avamarquía? I spelled it in Spanish in my head. It could have been any of a million languages for all I knew. So, now I had three questions. He hadn’t really settled my curiosity about Ford.
The Señor noted my expression and seemed to welcome the opportunity to elaborate. He was a man who liked an audience.
“You have a raven and a monkey on your shoulders. Very appropriate for a man of knowledge. Mr. Ford was approached by an elephant in Avamarquía, and she convinced him to focus his remarkable energies on … what you call now human resources? Rather than building oil cars.”
Deflecting engineers away from changing the technology of the World Facing. I was glad suddenly that Sirhan and Kinsey had confessed their evolution beyond that aim, beyond just manipulating me. I lifted a hand and let Kinsey play with my fingers.
“What is a Facing Father?” I frowned. “I’m new here.”
He nodded. “Of course. There is no birth here. We are only adopted, as protégés. In light of the fact that, although there is no birth, there is still death. You understand?”
“Señor Rejón slipped from the cliffs during a bird hunt. A ridiculous way to die, especially for a man who had died in battle in de Muchas Cosas. Soon after, my parrots brought word from los pulpos—” He tutted in confusion.
Foster leaned forward and cleared his throat. “Octopus.”
The Señor’s eyes lit up. He smiled and nodded and pointed at Foster. “Sí, from the octopus! They told me of Mr. Ford in Avamarquía, a brilliant man who had an animal at his side keeping him—what is the phrase?—in line.”
My body grew tight. “You hope to keep me in line.”
He took another congenial step toward me. “I only hope to keep alive what I have built here under Mr. Ford’s guidance.”
“He’s dead now?”
The Señor nodded. “He and his elephant went on a pilgrimage to the Left Breast and their ship sank in a storm.”
For fuck’s sake, the questions kept multiplying. I elected to suspend my curiosity about the other island, and the rogue port of Jissamán.
“What is Avamarquía?”
He waved his hand dismissively and half-turned to look at the tables arranged on the platform beyond the ballroom’s double doors. When his face turned back to me he was frowning.
“Just a place, a far continent, where some elephants can talk. This is not relevant to the concerns at hand.”
I had to agree. The conversation had resolved nothing about the fate of myself and my new allies.
“You sent your slave hunters after us for a reason.”
He shook his head. “I have no slave hunters. Workers do not flee this place.”
I felt my throat again tightening in politically correct disdain. “But, they are still slaves.”
He strode casually toward the fireplace to my left, nodding. “Workers, yes. Slaves? As I said, they do not flee, but sometimes they tell me they wish to leave, to go sailing or just to work in port, and I bid them farewell. So, slaves, no.”
“But, they were.”
“At one time, but I learned from Mr. Ford how to make my obreros happier. Treat them better. Give them more seguridad than they would find at sea, or in port. I hold off death, here. I murder no one. I whip no one for bad work. I only expel.”
Mr. Foster leaned in again. “We have to keep people out. We have two men who vet people trying to find work, and food, and boarding. One in Calvary and one in New Nassau. If we have a need and someone fits that need, our man will give them a chit. But, if you come onto the Señor’s land without a chit…” He frowned and tilted his head to one side.
“Bad news for you,” the Señor finished with a chuckle. “Foster is my wall. The men in the ports are my gates.”
I could see Ahmad growing tense in the corner of my eye. This still seemed like whitewashing an atrocity.
The Señor turned sharply, suddenly defensive, and waved his left hand toward the tables on the patio. “Some of my best servants will be sitting at my tables alongside plantation owners and wealthy merchants from El Calvário. And the rest will be feasting in their own pavilions in the fields, in honor of the Day of the Fool. The same meat and drink as I will enjoy.”
I did a quick calculation. It was the first of April. A trickster’s day. I decided to unshelf my shelved question about the Left Breast.
“What do you know of Jissamán?”
I heard Foster huff.
The Señor smiled sympathetically. “Do not get ahead of yourself, Mr. Randolph. For now, let us confine ourselves to the predicament with Q Bone and the captains.”
I nodded. I felt Sirhan’s beak touch my cheek. “Okay. What about them?”
The Señor walked up to a door and brushed aside the fluttering curtain. “I do not wish a war with the pirate lords, although I would enjoy a victory in that. But, they are still strong. I also do not wish to offend my colleague, Mr. Q Bone.”
“My friends cannot go back to him.”
“Oh, no. Of course. He is a brutal master. Inhumane and, despite his crop, very uptight.” He turned back to scan the entire group sitting in the benches. “He is, of course, not invited to tonight’s event.”
At that, I saw Ahmad relax beside me. I could only imagine his brother relaxed as well.
The Señor stepped toward us. “I propose this. You stay for my party tonight, as my guests. And we become friends.”
“Friends?” I glanced at Amy. Her brows were arched, but she smiled at me.
“Of course,” he said. “I do not like to make enemies. It makes for bad planning. I will have Mr. Gulick give you clothing appropriate to your station as my honored guests. And, you will stay here at Casa Relajada. Of course, of course.”
I didn’t need to even glance at my companions to gauge their reaction. New shoes. New clothes. A comfortable bed and good food.
I felt my engineer mind raising suspicions. Everything has its cost. “And what do you want from us in return?”
The Señor straightened his velvet overcoat, then let his hands rest at his side.
“Only, Mr. Randolph, that whatever plan you have after this, you promise to keep my interests, and the interest of the people I protect, within it.”
He went on: “And of course, that you, as Mr. Ford before you, heed the guidance your animals give you. From los pulpos.”
I suddenly thought of Hiral’s gentle, yet strong, grip on my ankle. Her gentle, yet strong, warning about changing the World Facing. I saw the dead faces of Juan de la Hoz and the rest of the starboard watch. I needed to manage my consequences.
“I consider them my friends,” I said. “You and I can be friends, as well.”