When we rounded the corner to the final vine-eaten shrine, a statue of a teenage girl sitting cross-legged with a pensive stare, the peak of the monastery loomed above the tops of the trees. The statue at the apex of the tower was a bird.
It looked angry. It looked like a fat hawk. It looked vaguely Egyptian, but that could just be my limited experience of archaeology talking. I was trained as an engineer, after all.
What I was sure of was that having the top of the monastery exposed made me feel exposed. How could Foster be sure that his incursions had not been seen? My trust in his competence, sealed when he masterfully ambushed me and the escaped, was sudden thrown into doubt.
We could hear voices ahead, presumably Yellowbeard’s camp. Foster was scanning everyone with a calming grin, making sure we all knew to be quiet. Every eye was either locked on Foster or locked on the bushes ahead of us, leading toward the end of the side-valley, toward the pirate’s encampment.
Sirhan tugged on my eyebrow with his beak. I brushed him off. He ruffled his feathers and tugged again. When I turned to stare at him, he was jabbing his beak toward the ground.
At the foot of the statue, atop a pile of old and blackened detritus, was the body of a parrot. Before I could stop myself, a fricative noise sounded in my throat.
There was a volley of metal clicks in the underbrush all around us. Foster’s men bent their knees.
“That’s quite enough.” I knew that voice. Too posh for its purpose.
Men appeared from the bushes in every direction. I recognized most of them. Danny gave me a sardonic smile. His pistol was steady on me.
“Nice vest,” he said.
Várion gestured at Foster with his pistol, first toward the gun in the man’s hand, then at the dirt. Foster nodded while he looked around at his men. He slowly squatted and set his dragon on the ground. Everyone else followed suit. Except me. I just glanced around until I found Yellowbeard.
He was leaning on a crutch, a bloody bandage wrapped around his leg just above where his knee should have been. He hadn’t even bothered to draw his pistol. He hadn’t even bothered to put on an angry face. He just stared at me impassively.
I shoved the pistol into its holster on my vest.
Yellowbeard shook his head. “You’ve changed, Engineer.”
“The world changed me,” I shrugged. “I had it coming.”
He chuckled at that. “Indeed.”
Várion moved behind me. I heard him holster his pistol and felt him tugging at the buckles on my vest. He shoved against the back of my neck and tugged the vest backward. Sirhan and Kinsey hopped the straps on my vest as if they were jump ropes. Then, Várion relieved me of my cutlass.
I was fuming. Foster was also fuming. He sniffed. “You’ll never get back through the lands of Casa Relajada. Every trail is being watched, including the market road.”
“Oh, so you watched us blow up your water tower?” Yellowbeard grinned at him intently. Foster just ground his teeth.
“We would like to join your crew,” Ahmad said. Karím’s mouth dropped. Ahmad scowled at him. “That’s the practice, yes? We assert our intention?”
“At sea,” Yellowbeard nodded. “When taking a prize. The rules are a little more hazy on land. But, I’ll take your offer into consideration. Is it just you, then?”
Ahmad tilted his head at Karím pleadingly. Karím’s shoulders dropped.
“Me too,” he said.
“Traitors,” Foster hissed.
“No,” I said. I had no weapons, but I felt the heat descending into my hands nonetheless. My hands leased their heat to my mouth. “Don’t blame them. They’re only protecting their interests. Which is more than you’ve done.”
Foster took a step toward me. Yellowbeard thrust his crutch forward and caught the man’s ankle. Foster’s other knee hit the ground. With a draw and a shove, Yellowbeard’s cutlass was in the man’s chest. Foster didn’t even make a sound. He just collapsed face first into the dirt with a thump.
Yellowbeard yanked his blade free. “That, Engineer, is how you kill a man with a hanger.”
I panted rage at him.
“It’s all,” he said, wiping the blade on his good leg, “in the placement.”
Várion stepped around me, holding my weapons, with a glance into my eyes. I suppressed my fuming and nodded at him.
“You’re just following orders,” I said.
He shoved my shoulder.
Our hands were tied behind our backs and were sat on our knees. Soon-to-be-executed style. We were just outside a pavilion, essentially a tent without walls, a square of sail-cloth propped up on five poles, the centerpost creating a steep angle so that the light rain drained off to the sides. The pirates sat on barrels and crates around a crude wooden table. Every bit of that had been carried on someone’s back, I knew.
The captured were all outside this protection. My hair and beard and skin and clothes were all soaking wet.
“I have to say,” Yellowbeard had to say, “the parrot ploy was quite ingenious.”
I looked at him. Sirhan and Kinsey were still on my shoulders. They did not react, which was admirable. More admirable even than the fact that they hadn’t fled into the forest.
“Ploy?” I said. Yellowbeard tongued his cheeks. “I thought you just murdered a parrot to get at me.”
“I’ve seen your tactics, Engineer. You were trying to infiltrate my mind.”
I frowned and shook my head. “I’ve given up on that mess in favor of direct action.”
He stared at me. I stared at him. I saw thinking there, the dark and bloody thinking of a man who had faced opponents more formidable than me. A man who was always open to the possibility he might face a more formidable opponent than he had yet faced. Which, I knew in my engineer’s mind, was probably not me. Yet, I sensed his mind was again in play.
“Ask Bob,” I said. “Ask the abbot.”
Várion leaned back on his crate. Yellowbeard just scowled and huffed. He shoved the crutch from under his arm and leaned it against the table.
“Bob was brutal and reckless,” he said. “He suffered from meeting the man who murdered him. It made him unpredictable.”
I took a deep breath. “It sounds like you predicted his end easy enough.”
He chuckled and snatched up a bottle from the table. He glanced around at his men, and they leaned in to take their own bottles from the table and the dirt. Solidarity. Now, that was a ploy. Yellowbeard took a long swig of liquor. The other drank, but Danny abstained, chewing his lip at me.
Yellowbeard thrust a thick finger in my direction. “I warned him not to climb up to that balcony alone.”
“You ordered him,” I said, “and he didn’t feel inclined to follow your order.”
Yellowbeard’s mouth went into contortions. He knew I was calling his leadership into question in front of his men. Undermining the solidarity he’d just secured.
“I warned him. Then I let him take his own life in his own hands.”
I wasn’t about to let him out that easily. “Into my hands,” I said.
The pirates were looking to Yellowbeard for his reaction. Várion quietly took a swig. Danny stared at me with pursed lips. The captain let the arm holding his bottle rest its elbow on a knee. The only knee he had left. I suddenly wished I could see what I looked like. How long was my beard getting?
“Your reputation,” Yellowbeard intoned loudly, in his public address voice, “at being the man who put down Bob the Hippie, is well established. The story has found its way to New Nassau by now, doubtless, with my couriers. The word will be all over the sea within weeks.”
I glanced around at Foster’s men. Karím and Ahmad had been taken off into the monastery, likely performing some task to get them in the rhythm of taking orders. Their first tricks. The men remaining were all eyes on me.
“More than my reputation as an engineer,” I said blankly. “I guess I’m still changing the world even as it changes me.”
“As a good wife should,” the captain said, and took another swig.
“What now?” I rose to my knees. “You have me, you have these men. I’m guessing you’ll try to poach them from Casa Relajada. I’m guessing you’ve recruited the remainder of Q Bone’s men into your crew, so Foster’s threat about trying to move back west is of no concern.”
“Now, we go downhill. We take the shoreline trail back to New Nassau, and take you back to your smith and his mechanics.” He grinned a mad, Bob-like grin. “Including the ones you ordered from Calvary to put Abarca’s water towers back in order.”
God damn it. He was on top of my plans at every turn. I needed a lever point. As Archimedes had said about levers, give me a place to stand and I shall move the world.
“I described how rifling works to the Señor’s staff,” I said. “They’ll order new smiths.”
Yellowbear’s yellow beard curved under his frown. “No, you didn’t. You wouldn’t spend your capital that easily.”
“Not spending,” I said. “An investment. Abarca-Abaroa was a sure bet. He’ll only share with the right partners.”
He tilted his head at that, greasy blonde curls scraping against the red cloth of his shoulders. “I could see that partnership. He’s a world-changer, like you.”
Everyone’s eyes were darting back-and-forth, seeking the momentum of the moment.
“If he has the technology,” the captain said, deploying the lingo, “then it still behooves me to make sure I have it as well.”
I let my ass rest on my heels. I didn’t know if I were defeated or just feigning defeat. Either way, I felt the gears were working the way I wanted.
“Then, I’m guessing, it’s back to New Nassau for all of us.”
Yellowbeard laughed out loud. As his men picked up the laughter, he lifted the bottle to his cracked lips and took a draft. The captain slammed the bottle onto the table with a grinning huff and snatched up his crutch. With a heave and a grunt, he was on his feet. Well, his foot.
“The rest of Abarca’s men have not stated their intention. Nor have Q Bone’s men.” He let a hand rest on his dragon. “Their lives are in their own hands as well.”
Yellowbeard, Várion, and Danny stomped off toward the monastery, leaving us captives under the guard of the remainder of the Speedwell‘s crew.
I was awakened from my afternoon nap by a tug at my eyebrow. I knew that it was Sirhan and I had learned to heed it. I shook my head and lifted myself to kneeling as well as I could with my hands tied behind my back.
All around us, Foster’s men were being lifted to their feet by the pirates. I got up on my knees and shoved myself to my feet with the animals on my shoulders.
Yellowbeard was standing near the west wall of the monastery, leaning against the stone with the crutch tucked under his arm. Danny and Várion were on either side, hands on hangers and dragons. To one side were a group of men I did not recognize. Q Bone’s men.
Foster’s men were being lined up at the edge of the gorge, at the edge of the bush, at the edge of the cliffs that rose toward Casa Relajada. On their knees soon-to-be-executed style.
The pirates were noticeably avoiding me in their gathering of men.
I glared at the captain. “What the fuck is going on?” I said.
Yellowbeard waved toward the men at his left. They began moving into the space between the monastery and the captives.
“Q Bone’s men have agreed to join us. On one condition.”
The last of Foster’s men was shoved to his knees, his ropes cut, his arms free like the others. Yellowbeard’s men retreated to join their captain. Q Bone’s slave hunters had formed a line, drawing their cutlasses.
I breathed and swallowed. “What condition?”
“This.” He let out a shout like a wagoneer urging on a team of horses.
The slave hunters set into Foster’s men with hangers. Heads came free, hands, arms, chunks of shoulders. Blood was everywhere. Men were crying, until they were cut so they couldn’t cry any more. A red-spattered row of corpses and gore lay where Foster’s men once kneeled.
The slave hunters turned back toward Yellowbeard, their “condition” lying dismembered behind them. They were pirates now.
If I still had Bob’s vest around me, I would have drawn. I didn’t have the vest. I only had my mouth. And my concerns for friends and allies had been mortally reduced with the slaughter of Foster’s men.
I let my eyes close. “Where are Karím and Ahmad?” I opened my eyes. Yellowbeard was grinning at me.
“You’ll see them soon enough.”
I was led around the southern edge of the monastery. The flat field of dirt in front of the place was much the same as the one in front of the temple of the abbot I had shot. The building itself looked much like that temple, but without the rows of monks pretending to be statues.
Instead, there was a pile of variously headed bodies at the far corner, near the stream skirting the monastery to the east, its babbling stream singing a quiet dirge behind the indifferent sounds of the rain forest. Birds, and wind, and insects.
I had been conflicted about killing three men. Yellowbeard was the murderer of dozens. Any illusion I had about being a formidable opponent in his eyes was swept off like gunpowder smoke on a steady tropical wind.
As we approached the trail downhill, I saw them. They were hanging from their wrists by ropes tied high into the trees, one on each side of the trail. Karím and Ahmad, blood trailing down their arms, over their shoulders, across their chests and legs to drip from their bare feet. Their eyes were blank with death.
Sirhan and Kinsey did not shift on my shoulders. I moved on, Várion and Danny at my shoulders, as the column marched between the hanging brothers. Yellowbeard was at the van, stomping on boot and crutch. Defiant against the disability I had imposed on him.
I suddenly regretted what I had imposed on Karím and Ahmad. On Mei, and Keiki, and Amy. Even on Várion, whose good will I had mocked with my banter about his obeying orders. And, on my last friends in the World Facing, Sirhan and Kinsey.
“If you want to run,” I whispered, “now would be the time.”
Sirhan and Kinsey shifted their feet on my shoulders.
“I will not blame you. I will not blame anyone but myself.”
With the forest closing in around me, the raven and the monkey leaped from my shoulders and fled into the trees.