THE BLOOD STAR
Yellowbeard was scowling at me. I was not scowling back. I was too busy trying to lean away from the pistol barrel the captain was pressing into my throat. As if that wouldn’t do the job, the rest of the pirates, including the newly recruited ones whose plantation boss I had killed, were standing around with their long guns and dragons in their hands.
Danny set his musket butt to his shoulder, took aim at my face, and winked at me.
Yellowbeard sniffed. “If your pets start something, if we get ambushed by an army of birds and monkeys, I’ll put an end to you.”
I tried not to huff, but it came out anyway. “No, you won’t.”
He cocked the pistol and leaned it a centimeter deeper into my throat. I tried to look steady. Wasn’t sure I pulled it off.
I swallowed. “Captain Yellowbeard is not going to kill his engineer over a bunch of feathers and fur.”
He was breathing hard but otherwise not moving.
“Maybe if there were elephants.” I shrugged. “They’re dangerous.” Danny lowered his musket and put a hand over his mouth.
Yellowbeard reset his crutch and dropped the pistol from my throat. I swallowed. “So, where’d they go then?”
“I don’t know.”
His mouth showed teeth. “You don’t know.”
I shrugged and shook my head. “I don’t know. I released them from their obligation, however they saw it. I told them to go. This isn’t their fight.”
“It’s not a fight,” he said. “The fight is over.”
I exhaled and stared at his boots and nodded. “The fight is over.” I slowly raised my eyes to look into his. “Except, of course, the fight that requires my rifling.”
Yellowbeard just jerked his head sideways for everyone to move on. He crutched his way to the front of the column, and we made our way down the gorge.
Danny jabbed a grin at me as he took his place in the line. Várion, on the other hand, just glared like he was trying to figure me out.
The gorge trail ended on a sandy beach with steep cliffs behind us on either side. The broad, freshwater stream cut through sand on its romantic mission toward the salty sea. The sun was red and settling into the horizon like a weary man squiggling under the covers into a comfy bed. The air was still, before the onshore breeze.
“Camp!” Yellowbeard shouted. Danny ducked at the suddenness of the order.
“Are you serious?” I said. I immediately wished I hadn’t because all eyes were suddenly on me. Including the captain, who was shaking his head in confusion and anger.
He limped toward me. Sand exploded under the foot of the crutch. His white teeth were set like bricks in a wall.
“Do you have a fucking problem, Randolph?”
I was in a weird zone. I had lost a host of allies all in one day. It was just me, John Randolph, all alone like when I first sat naked on that rock. And, just like then, I was staring at a blonde-bearded pirate who had designs on me.
“I’m not tired,” I said. “Are your men tired? We could keep moving.”
The Speedwell‘s men started laughing. Danny laughed. Yellowbeard chuckled. Even Várion smirked at me.
“The tide will be coming in,” the captain said. “The trail ahead will be awash soon.”
I was still not fully aware of the moons of the World Facing. But, I was determined to press on, for some reason.
“We can’t do a forced march and get past the breach before the tide?”
Yellowbeard scowled. His men were busying themselves here and there on the sand, far from the water and against the cliffs.
“No,” he said. “Yes, we could, but I’m not going to push my crew because you’ve found your second wind.”
Second wind. That was a runner’s term. More lingo he had picked up from newcomers.
“So, you can push me, but not your watches.”
He grinned sidelong at that. Suddenly enjoying the repartee.
“My watches have proven their loyalty.” He glanced down at his missing leg. “You, not so much.”
That was a fair point. I sat my ass down on the sand and let my arms rest on my knees. A few seconds after Yellowbeard limped away, someone with both feet still attached came up beside me and sat on the beach.
“Your octopus will not come here,” Vàrion said. “There are not enough rocks.”
I stared out into the golden-red waves, avoided the sun to spare my retinas, and wondered where Hiral might be. Vàrion was there when she recruited me, but I did not think he had seen.
“You knew about the octopus? How?”
He rocked side-to-side. His afro rocked with him. I turned to look straight into his ancient eyes. He seemed amused by his secret information.
“The parrot you sent approached me first,” he said, “and told me his story to get access to the captain. He said the octopus had contacted you and sent the raven and monkey your way. Only one time they could have done that, and that was at the rocks near Legionnaire’s Cove.”
Várion was a good detective. I was impressed, and dismayed. But, mostly impressed. This is how he had survived millennia.
“Octopus like rocks,” he spoke into my silence.
“Yeah, that was where.”
“The octopus want you contained, the parrot claimed, like other engineers in the past.”
“Like Henry Ford at Casa Relajada.”
“Indeed.” He dug into a bag on his belt and pulled out a smaller bag. He handed it to me casually. I sniffed it: tobacco. Then, he dug out a long, cherry-wood pipe. Then another, short and black. That one was clearly mine.
We filled and lit the pipes. No disease in the World Facing, so what did I have to fear? We drew deep of the tobacco and watched the stars and the Moon, the real moon Luna, take over the sky from the sun. The sea crept up toward our feet, wave by wave.
“Yellowbeard did warn Bob against climbing that wall.”
I made my pipe crackle. “I believed him.”
Várion nodded and drew on his pipe. “And, you did not give Señor Abarca-Abaroa the technology of rifling.”
“I did not.” I breathed in some clean air. “That was a ruse. A dumb one. I only told his men how to fix their water.”
He looked sympathetic. “They can finish without you?”
“I hope they can. I told them all they need to know. I gave them pictures.” I turned to watch the men cooking and drinking rum under the crude sailcloth tents they had set up against the cliff’s foot. I did not see Yellowbeard. Or Danny. “They can probably finish without me.”
I turned to look at Várion. I wondered if he would play it straight with me. “But, maybe not without those mechanics from Cavalry.”
He smiled and nodded. “We intercepted your couriers. The Señor’s couriers. The captain learned of your plan and let the couriers go on their way. But, he did not leave men behind to intercept them or the mechanics on their return. Nobody to spare.”
That made me feel a little better. But, it took me back to the monastery. All the slaughter there.
“Why the fuck did he kill all the monks? I thought they had set up a hospital for the pirates and slave hunters.”
Várion settled the arm holding his pipe on a knee. “They did do that, the monks. They saved several of us from the World United, including the captain.”
“He wanted you to see his resolve.” He was frowning. Almost apologetic. “Same with the men from the plantation. He knew he already had the loyalty of Q Bone’s men. They had no other play.”
I swallowed and took the pipe in my mouth. I scanned the blackening sky for something familiar, but the stars were all different. No belt of Orion. No stars forming a bear or dipper to the north. Newcomers must have had to learn an entirely new pattern of navigation. I wondered if the planets, the “moving stars,” were the same as in the World of Things, or if they too were as changed as the moons.
“And, Karím and Ahmad?”
Várion grunted. “That was also to convince you that his demands were ruthless.”
“Ugh, that was fucking unnecessary.” I cleared my throat. “Are those lives also on me? In your accounting?”
“I am no automaton,” he said. “I know you. I know you would have come with us without those deaths. I know Yellowbeard had no need to murder those men.”
Várion set his spent pipe on the sand, stretched his legs out, and leaned back on his hands.
I needed a distraction. We both did. “What are the constellations here? They’re different from my world.”
“This is your world, now.”
“True. I should learn the stars.”
He turned toward me, to his right. His long arm pointed past me. “See that diamond of bright stars?”
I saw them immediately. Three white and one with a clean, blue glow.
“The blue one, look to the small one opposite. That is the North Star here.”
“I see it.”
“Now, trace a line from there through the blue star. You see the red one with the four little ones in a row below it?”
My hand went up and traced the line as instructed. I found the red star, a little off to the west from a straight line and much nearer the elliptical. The four little ones lined up just south of it on an east-west perpendicular. “Got it.”
“That one helps navigators line up their rudders. It’s called the Hearthstone.”
“That’s comforting,” I said. “It guides you home.”
He laughed. “It’s meant to be comforting. In my day, it was called the Blood Star.”
“That’s dark.” I drew from my pipe, but it tasted burnt. I set the pipe in the sand next to Várion’s.
“It was the star we used to guide our way on raids.” He stared into the waves and seemed to be contemplating something. “In those days, you may be surprised to learn, things were much bloodier. Everyone was at everyone’s throat. Tiny little tribes, all gutting each other for an advantage. In both worlds, actually.”
I let that fricative sound shake my throat. “You’re saying it was bloodier before?”
He looked over his shoulder, caught a sailor’s eye, and tilted a cupped hand near his mouth. The sailor nodded and ducked under a canvas lean-to. After a moment, he appeared with a bottle, which he quickly brought over.
Vuvússa Várion nodded, took the bottle, and waved the man off.
Várion noted that the bottle had been dutifully uncorked and took a long swig. He held the bottle out to me. What the fuck, I took it and took a swig. Good ol’ pirate rum.
“It was much bloodier back then. There was a time, when the Chinese and the Romans and the Persians and the Mongols came, that I would have said that things were getting worse.”
“Would have said,” I prompted him, handing back the bottle. He nodded, took the rum, and drank another draft.
“Yes,” he said. “Are you a student of history? Were you?”
I shook my head as I felt the rum’s heat spreading through my body. “Only the history of engineering.”
“Things always seem to be getting worse,” he said, taking another drink. He handed me the bottle. “But, if you live long enough, you see through that.”
I took a drink. He was on a roll, so I let him talk without interruption.
“The Arabs came, the Spanish, the English, the French. More killing, more blood. Or so it seemed. But the killing brought a sort of order. Fewer tribes, fewer factions. Old foes made new coalitions. The wars became simpler. More strategic, more constrained.”
I set the bottle in the sand in front of our pipes. “Less ruthless?”
He huffed and nodded. His hand reached for the bottle and found it, but didn’t lift it. “Now that we have two factions, the pirates and the company men, the leaders are more careful, more … circumspect.”
“So, how does what Yellowbeard did up the gorge fit into that?”
“The advantage you represent,” he waved north, up the shore. I looked. I saw cliffs in the moonlight, and the sea. Around the edge of the cliffs, however, I also saw a dim glow. That would be the light of New Nassau’s fires. I turned back to Várion to show him that I had recognized his reference. He nodded. “It changes things. Puts them back into play. Encourages men to be more ruthless.”
“It pits the pirate lords against each other. Like Yellowbeard and Whitebeard.”
“Yes,” he said. “And the company men and their allies. Like Señors Abarca-Abaroa and Q Bone, who were happy allies before your potential led those escaped slaves to follow you.”
I swallowed and tasted rum and tobacco. “I did this.”
“Not intentionally,” he said, finally lifting the bottle to his lips. He slurped at the rum then held it out to me. “But, by nature. Ford was lucky to find a master who would not squeeze gas wagons out of him.”
He thrust a finger at me. “Yellowbeard, however.”
I looked into his ancient eyes. He frowned and shook his head.
“Yellowbeard will kill you if you do not cooperate.”
He scooped up the pipes and tapped them out on the side of the rum bottle, which he shoved across the sand toward me.
“I’ll have your food sent over. You need to make up your mind what you’re going to do.”