GET TO THE FRONTIERS
The Down Payment was indeed a shit-hole. Every corner we turned inside, rats and cockroaches scuttered away from us. That was a bit encouraging. If they stood their ground, that would have been a truly bad sign.
On the floor were bits of food and bottles, most empty but some with stale remainders. For the most part, this trash had been kicked against the plank walls. The wooden floors were also planks. Several times, Danny warned me to watch my footing as he stepped over missing or rotten boards.
The whole place stank of old beer and skunky marijuana smoke and sweaty bodies, like the distilled essence of every frat party that ever took place in the World of Things.
“This is it,” Danny said. He shoved the key we had gotten from the desk into the lock. The lock slumped inward. Danny had to lever it back into place with the key itself. He turned the key and there was a click. “I hope that was necessary.”
He pushed the door open. Inside was more trash on the floor and two sailcloth frame beds with no mattresses or pillows. There was a window, looking out over the beach, but no glass. I looked out. We were about fifteen feet above the sand and beach grass. One man could boost another up.
What was I talking about? These were pirates. They’d use a grappling hook.
“Wanna go get laid?”
I turned to see Danny looking weary, sitting on a bed.
He shrugged. “Not really.”
I sat on my bed and we just breathed in the stink for a long moment. I didn’t like the silence. I wanted to start up a more cheery conversation.
“What’s Avamarquía like?”
Danny shrugged. “Never been. I’ve heard it’s like India crossed with Africa. Only, the people in charge are mostly South Americans.”
I couldn’t help thinking about the East Asians making up the bulk of the slaves on the Right Breast. Ahmad and Karím showing up together. Bob and his murderer. “Do people from the same places in the World of Things show up in the same places here?”
Danny’s shoulders dropped. “Jesus, John. You’re the engineer. I was just a fisherman.”
“I’m sorry.” I was. Danny had had enough. “And, it’s Sam.”
He looked up at me with tired eyes.
He laughed at that.
“So, what makes it like India and Africa? The elephants?”
“Yeah,” he nodded. “Half a dozen kinds. Regular ones, a short one called a coovie, a big one called downtuskers, mean ones called paleadors. I saw one of them once, but in the Curintines.”
He sniffed and looked at me. “You could see all this shit for yourself, if we live.”
“Not that I’ve ever heard of.”
“This isn’t helping, is it?”
He chuckled. “We need to get out of here and find someplace less stinky.”
“Think we could hire a maid to sweep this shit off the floor while we’re gone?”
“Huh,” he said. “That’s not a bad idea. Better use of my coin than getting laid.”
There were boots in the hallway. After a few steps, I knew it was one boot. And one crutch.
Our door flung open. The captain was standing there with two men behind him.
“The lock doesn’t work,” Danny said.
Yellowbeard threw a bag onto the bed beside me. I could see from the contours that it was full of pistols.
I glanced at Danny. “This isn’t good.”
The captain growled at him then jabbed a thick, dirty finger at me. “They’ve got your fucking animals! Let’s go.”
I was on my feet before I knew it. “Wait! Who’s got them?”
“Damn it!” I starting yanking the busted pistols from the vest and flinging them on the floor. “I don’t know anything about Greybeard.”
“He’s tedious,” Yellowbeard smirked.
I starting yanking the new pistols from the bag and shoving them into the vest. “Okay. You did tell me that.”
“He is an irascible old Chinaman—”
“Chinese,” I said. “We don’t say Chinaman any more.”
Yellowbeard reset his crutch. “Fuck your lingo.”
The pistols were holstered. I scooped up my hanger and carefully slipped it into my belt. “You were saying?”
Turning to the hallway, he said, “He killed the last Yellowbeard.”
“And the last Blackbeard,” Danny said, following us. The captain scowled at him over a shoulder. Danny shrugged. “And, the last Redbeard.”
“Well,” Yellowbeard said as he crutched down the stairs. “Nevertheless, the current Redbeard is with him.”
He stopped at the bottom of the stairs and turned to glare at me. “And Bluebeard.”
The sky turned black as we navigated the streets of New Nassau. Stormtroopers and Victorian rakes and Tolkien dwarves were lighting oil lamps on the balconies of the rowhouses we passed.
I was freaking out. I needed something to stop my heart from splintering my ribs. I needed a conversation and I needed an engineering problem.
He glanced back at me. He was about two paces ahead, but he slowed until we were side-by-side. Yellowbeard glared at me over his shoulder, four or five paces ahead. I shrugged and turned to Danny.
“These oil lamps. Whale oil, I’m guessing?”
Yellowbeard shook his greasy blonde curls and turned forward.
“Yeah,” Danny said, a little too quietly. “We take a whaler now and then, so this is all prize oil.”
I rolled that information around in my head for a moment. I knew from memory we were nearing the square. “So, they hunt whales, just like the old days in the World of Things.”
Danny grinned. I was talking fisherman talk with him. “Nah. The whales here are smart.”
“The whales back home were smart.”
“Yeah, but here, a lot of them are reborn people. Like your raven and monkey. And your octopus.”
“Huh,” I said. “Várion told you about the octopus.”
“So, if they don’t hunt whales, how do they get the oil?”
He cleared his throat. “They got an understanding. The whalers don’t hunt, and the smart whales give up all of their dead. Natural causes.”
I made my fricative sound. “That’s a creepy deal.”
Danny chuckled. “Yeah. The whalers also help the whales get food. They lay nets in a weir, three ships in a triangle, and drive fish and krill into a tight place just under the rear ship, where the whales feed on the easy pickin’s.”
“Okay,” I said. “That makes it a bit less creepy.”
“Wait,” he grinned. His face was lit up with something he thought was funny and macabre. I almost didn’t want to hear what he was about to say.
“The reborn ones will hunt down the dumb whales. That’s what the whalers call them. Just regular ol’ whales. And the reborn ones will take turns blockin’ the dumb ones from the surface, pushing them down ’til they drown.”
He laughed. “It takes a while, but sometimes they get four or five at a time. Way easier for the whalers than harpoons. Although, sometimes the reborn ones get lazy and just point out a dumb whale to the whalers and the hunt goes down old school. Longboats and harpoons. Blood and gore.”
“That’s fucking brutal, Danny.”
“Old school,” he said. “Nantucket Sleigh Ride, they call it, just like the old days.”
I suddenly wished I hadn’t started the conversation. My luck, the conversation was ended by circumstances.
We stomped into the same square where Yellowbeard confronted Whitebeard when I first arrived in New Nassau. It was crowded shoulder-to-shoulder. The only way I could locate the central well was by noting the top of the wooden post-and-lintel over it. One disturbing detail I noticed was that most of the people gathered there were dressed appropriate to the World Facing. The anime fans, the Stormtroopers, the elves and steampunkers were all hiding away somewhere.
Somewhere else. If it were not for Sirhan and Kinsey, I would have also been somewhere else.
Then, I saw the balcony. And the crude post set up before it. It looked like a dock crane, maybe it had been a dock crane under previous purpose. Hanging from the line was not a keg or a crate of cargo. It was a wooden cage with Sirhan and Kinsey inside.
I felt my throat tighten. It was that fricative sound, but stifled by shame. They had trusted me. I had promised them things. I had freed them. And, here they were in a cage, with God-knew-what about to happen.
On the balcony itself stood a man in a simple black shalwár qamís and an elaborate blood red turban. Not exactly how I expected a Chinese pirate to dress, but his grey beard gave away his nom-de-guerre. Beside him on either side stood Redbeard, in a mustard yellow suit with a dark green sash around his waist, a parrot on his forearm, and Bluebeard in dark brown leather from neck to toes, with a monkey on his shoulder. Standing beside Bluebeard, in black-and-blue velvet with a white cocked hat, stood Whitebeard.
Four of the six pirate lords in the World Facing, all in alliance with my friends in the balance. Only Blackbeard was missing from the scene.
Greybeard stomped three times and brought the square to silence. He pointed toward the cage.
“We know these are the engineer’s mascots and that they were looking for him.”
There was a murmuring among the crowd. I scanned the square, looking for more of Yellowbeard’s men. I saw Várion and four others on a balcony to my left. Some of Q Bone’s former men were gathered in front of a tavern to my right. What was the plan? One man knew.
“Is there a plan?” I asked Yellowbeard.
He showed me his teeth. “You’re the engineer. Got an idea?”
I glanced at Danny. His head shook carefully from side to side.
“We know he is still alive,” shouted Greybeard, “and that he is here in New Nassau.”
I stepped forward. I felt Yellowbeard snatch at my right elbow. He fell short. Danny did not. I had to stop. I looked back at him.
“We are going to kill them,” Greybeard said, “one by one, if he does not surrender himself.”
Yellowbeard drew his pistol and carefully, quietly cocked it with his thumb. His eyes were aflame with rage and desperation.
I looked up at Sirhan and Kinsey. They were sitting on the floor of their cage, still and silent. They looked defeated, resigned, in despair. I had to save them, even if that meant surrendering myself. Even if that meant Yellowbeard’s ball in the back of my skull.
I shook Danny off and stepped forward into the crowd.
Musket fire sounded from high in the town. The square fell utterly silent. I could hear the crackling of torches and lanterns. The men on the balcony were glancing back and forth and conferring. A second round of gunfire reignited the crowd. People started turning to move toward the sea.
“Grab him!” Yellowbeard barked. Danny snatched up my left wrist. People were crying out and rushing past us away from the gunfire.
“What the fuck?” Danny said.
“Relajada,” Yellowbeard growled.
There was a sound like a growing wind, like the roar of a bonfire in the sky, like the breath of a god.
“To the Speedwell,” the captain growled at Danny. “We’ll regroup at Port Steele!”
The two men accompanying Yellowbeard ushered him downhill. Danny held my wrist, staring at my face as the noise overhead grew into a hurricane.
A storm of green and black tore into the square. Danny dropped to his knees and yanked me down. Ravens and parrots set into the pirates, tearing hair, pecking at eyes. I heard my name being called in two timbres. Sirhan and Kinsey. I yanked my wrist free of Danny and stood straight among the ducking and fleeing crowd.
I raised my hands. The birds parted around me.
There were monkeys all over the cage, kicking and tearing at it. The balcony behind them was empty. The pirate lords had fled.
A parrot fluttered in front of my face, struggling to hover, hummingbird-style.
“John Randolph?” it squawked.
“Aye,” I said.
It flapped toward me and I lowered my hands. It landed on my right shoulder, in Sirhan’s place. “John Randolph!” it squawked.
The gunfire uphill rang out closer. I looked back at Danny, still squatting in the sand. I reached out a hand and he took it. As he rose to his feet, the rushing crowd separated around us.
“What’s the plan?”
I could see in his face that he was all in.
But then Várion was standing in front of me. The men with him had formed a circle around me, blocking the fleeing masses and my escape.
“What is going on? Where did Yellowbeard go? Why are you still here?” His ancient eyes were cold.
“I’m supposed to bring the animals, so they don’t talk.” I glanced at Danny, who was hoping I had a better answer. “Danny’s supposed to scout up the hill to get a sense of the invasion force.”
I turned to Danny. “So, get to the frontiers, man!”
He grinned that crazy redneck grin, looked at Várion (who just grunted), and ran across the square toward the sound of musket fire.
The parrot flew off and I felt a tug at my pants. Kinsey climbed onto my right shoulder. Sirhan settled onto my left shoulder. A single black feather floated before my face. I snatched it out of the air and lifted it up to the raven’s beak.
Várion grabbed my wrist, hard. “Danny can go fuck himself, but you are coming with me back to the Speedwell.” He dragged me downhill toward the edge of the square. His men followed.
There was a pattering sound behind us. We all turned our heads. Men poured into the square, muskets at the ready. Men in rough clothes, but also men in green-and-saffron livery. I saw Gulick waving musketeers into position around the edges of the square. I found Lincoln and Mukki standing among the Señor’s men. Lincoln looked wild and angry. Mukki looked terrified and was waving his musket, probably one of those from the Casa Relajada’s lobby, in all directions. I did not see Danny.
Várion’s men spun and drew their pistols.
“Várion, no!” He just yanked at my wrist, nearly pulling me off my feet.
Shots rang out. A wall of smoke filled the square, ripped by lead balls. I heard the catcall of one over my head. Had Várion not pulled me from standing, I’d be dead.
I glanced back through the drifting smoke. Casa Relajada’s men were quickly in lines around the square. The birds were flying off downhill, toward the docks. There were monkeys racing across the sand after them, around our feet. We disappeared into the streets of Medieval rowhouses.
As we raced toward the docks, the faces of elves and hardboiled detectives and steampunk fops stared at us blankly from behind the shutters of rowhouses. None of them had doused their oil lamps. There seemed to be a consensus that the plantation army was in New Nassau for the pirates, not the residents.
We left the town behind and the waterfront of New Nassau came into view under the light of lanterns, stars, and moons I didn’t bother to count. I could see, here and there along the docks and in the harbor, crews in the masts, sails being raised.
A horde of ravens, parrots, and monkeys had descended on the fleeing pirates crowded onto the docks and near the beached boats, forcing them to the ground and separating them from their weapons. I saw men slipping into the water between the wharves and their vessels. The docks were about fifty yards away across a stretch of sand littered with pistols, hangers, and cocked hats. Shots rang out, but I didn’t see a single fallen animal. I hoped Sirhan and Kinsey noticed this, too.
“Find a boat,” Várion growled. He jabbed a finger at three of his men and waved them toward the beach. They took off toward a less-crowded stretch of beach.
Várion was scanning the harbor and I followed his eyes. We both located the Speedwell. Her sails were still furled, but her decks were crowded with pirates. They were waiting for me. Várion yanked my wrist toward where his men had run.
I saw the Speedwell men at the shore, bashing the brains out of three sailors with the butts of their pistols. I guess we were taking their boat. Four sailors rushed up from where another boat was rowing into the harbor crammed full of pirates. Várion’s men drew their hangers and the sailors backed off.
We marched up and Várion grunted. Soon, we were all but one aboard, the last man shoving the boat’s bow, digging his toes in the sand until we were floating. He jumped aboard and the oarsmen started pulling.
Várion let go of my wrist. I reached both hands up to my shoulders. Sirhan pecked at my left knuckles and Kinsey let a furred hand rest on my right thumb. I wondered what Danny was up to.
“Get to the Frontiersman,” I whispered to myself.