Chapter EightMature

            Reality shoots back to me in an awful rush. Keeping my eyes shut, I immediately begin to cough, expelling water from my nose and mouth. There’s a burning sensation in my nose and my diaphragm is sore from the force of the coughing. Once my airways are clear, I collapse on my side, trembling from the exertion and cold, my body feeling weirdly limp and achey.

            Cheers erupt all around me. I wince and weakly raise an arm over my head to cover my ears from the sound. It feels like a sledgehammer beating against my brain. I just want to go back into the water, where admittedly it was still pretty cold, but at least I was mostly numb to it.

Hands scoop me up gingerly and hold me against a comfortingly warm body. I can feel the wind brushing across my skin and hear the voices fading away as I’m carried elsewhere. A door opens and shuts, cutting off the sounds of the outside completely. I can smell a familiar scent of incense; I open my eyes a crack, and as the room comes into focus, I recognize my quarters. I close my eyes again as my unseen caretaker lowers me gently onto my futon.

The hands start to tug at the hem of my shirt and I snatch them by the wrist. “Hey, no peeping,” I say clumsily as I struggle to open my eyes again. When I do, I see Anamaria’s face hovering above my own, smiling down at me knowingly. “Oh,” I mumble, dropping her hand. “Carry on.”

She peels off my sopping wet clothes, careful not to jostle my injured arm, and helps me into fresh, warm ones. I only stop her again when she tries to put baby powder on my inner thighs. No familial relationship is that close. Once I’m dressed and my hair wrapped up in a towel, she urges me to lie back against the pillows and tucks a blanket around me.

“I grabbed the boots and braces you left behind. They’re over in the corner,” she says. Her voice is feeble and the neck brace restricts much of her movement, but she gives me her most comforting smile as she pulls the blanket up to my shoulders and brushes a piece of hair out of my face.

“You didn’t have to do that. You need to go rest yourself or something,” I offer half-heartedly.

She smiles and stands to leave. As she reaches the door, there comes a soft knocking. She raises a quizzical eyebrow at me before answering it.

“Hi, Robin. Come on in,” she says hoarsely.

“C’mon, Ms. P, you know you need to rest those vocal cords. Lay off the talking for a little while, eh?” she says, clapping Anamaria on the shoulder. After Anamaria leaves, Robin then turns to me and says, “Olufemi wants to talk to you.”

I groan and pull the blanket up over my head so I can’t see her. “Tell her I feel gross and want to sleep for seven hundred hours.”

“T’ be honest, I’m kinda scared that she’ll conjure up a big tidal wave and keel haul the lot of us if I do,” she replies.

Tossing off the blanket with a dramatic sigh, I get to my feet, and nearly fall over. Robin jerks toward me, arms outstretched to offer assistance, but I raise a hand to stay her. Sitting back down on the futon, I point to the corner where my braces are arranged neatly beside my shoes and gesture toward myself. She brings them to me and watches as I put them on.

“I’ll come out and talk to her. Quit worrying,” I say, waving her away.

She looks doubtful, but nevertheless leaves the room, closing the door behind her. I waste as much time as I can, double- and triple-checking the straps on my braces, scrubbing away invisible spots of dirt on my boots before tugging them on, hanging the towel over the end of the futon and pausing in front of my mirror to comb my fingers through my hair. My bandana is missing and my hair hangs in my face in thick ringlets. At this length, it’s positively unmanageable if I can’t tie it up, but somehow a haircut hasn’t been terribly high on my list of priorities lately. At last, I heave a sight of resignation and go out onto the deck to meet the water spirit.

As soon as I exit the room, a flash of brilliant white light makes me stagger backwards and cover my eyes. The light dims enough for me to make out a column of water rising at the bow of the ship, emitting a majestic blue glow. Shapes seem to dance in the water, filled with life and color, and at the center is Olufemi. Her scales reflect the light like ten thousand glimmering jewels and her hair flows about her body like an alive thing. The narrow lizard-like pupils are gone; her eyes instead grow with brilliant white fire.

“Ingrid Liston, captain of the Aventura,” she says in a booming voice unrecognizable from her normal lilting tone, “you have proven yourself—okay, hold on, can we do something else? This just isn’t working for me.”

In a moment, the light is gone and the column of water dissolves back into the canal, sending up a wave that makes the ship rock violently. Gradually, my eyes adjust to the much dimmer light of the passage; we are back in the darkness, with only our own lanterns to illuminate the path.

“Look, I know I’m supposed to do this all formal and spirit-like, but I’m plum pooped. Think we can skip the theatrics and just do it casual?”

I jump at the sound of Olufemi’s voice. She has appeared at my side quite suddenly, perched on the railing at the edge of the deck.

“What the hell are you talking about?” I groan, massaging my temples in exasperation.

“Your prize. For escaping the vines. After you stabbed that big one, the monster retreated back into the cavern walls and your crew was able to get away. Yay, you.” She holds out a closed fist. When she opens it, a small glass elephant is resting in her palm.

I eye the figurine warily, then glance up at her. “Well? Take it,” she says, shaking it in her hand. I pick it up carefully and examine it before tucking it in my pocket.

“Uh. Thanks?” I say.

She rolls her eyes. “Mortals. Always ungrateful.”

With that, she leaps off the railing and darts beneath the water. I rush to the edge of the deck and lean over the water. “That’s it?” I call out.

She reappears several yards away. “You’re almost out of the caves. Just keep going straight. There’s a town just outside the exit,” she says.

“And how are we supposed to get there without a helm? Or a guide?”

She nods toward the gun deck behind me. I turn and see that the shattered stump where out helm once stood is gone and replaced with a glistening, magnificent new one, covered in carvings inlaid with gold and tiny jewels.

“You can thank me later,” Olufemi calls to me. “Preferably with a blood sacrifice. I’m especially partial to chickens.”

And in the next instant she is gone.

 

***

 

            Emerging into the sunlight feels like being birthed again. The great azure dome of the sky stretches above, reaching to the horizon all around us. A few streaks of wispy white clouds encircle the dazzling orb of the sun, like a brilliant jewel nestled on a delicate cushion. I have never been so thrilled to look upon the turquoise waters lapping against the hull of the ship.

            When I look behind us, the cliffs have disappeared. An incredibly hopelessness is lifted from my heart.

            I turn back to the bow to see a finger of land approaching on the horizon. My crew, spying it as well, give out a collective cheer.

            The exhaustion is suddenly lifted out of my limbs and I’m filled with a renewed energy. I clamber up the stairs to the top of the gun deck and take my place at the helm. “Raise the sails! Make speed! We’re headed for that yonder chunk o’ land!”

            At my words, the crew cheer again, many thrusting their fists into the air. They hurry to their positions with fresh zeal, drunk with the rush of having survived a journey so treacherous and the sheer joy of sailing.

            Although the wind is in our favor and we’re working with as much haste as we can, it’s just about sunset when we reach the land at last. Before we’re within a mile of the shore, I recognize the city—San Martín, a former oil refinery town on the eastern tip of Cuba, now a hub of commercial and criminal activity.

            “You know where we are, Captain?” Robin asks. She’s taken a break from overseeing the activity on the main deck to join me at the helm.

            “Some of the most notorious crime bosses of our time originated in the bowels of this very place,” I reply. “Once a glorious shrine to the wonders of late capitalism and colonial ideals, now a wretch of a town ruled by mob activity. Some cities start fashion trends; San Martín starts drug trends.”

            “Oh.” She nods thoughtfully as she gazes across the water at the sparkling city lights. “Should we be worried?”

            “Please. Anyone who might pose a threat would be too tweaked out to mug us. Not to mention, we have, you know, swords.”

            “That’s not what I meant.”

            I don’t meet her eyes. I know what she was trying to ask me—is there anyone in this particular vicinity that I might owe money to. “No,” I say gravely, feeling a twinge of guilt in my stomach even though it technically isn’t a lie. I certainly owe something to someone around here, but that person’s whereabouts and the conditions of my debt are as yet to be fully determined.

            We pull into the harbor and weigh anchor. The person overseeing the ships docking gives us a glance, seems to recognize the ship, and doesn’t say a word as we march past.

            There is an enormous arch at the end of the pier bearing neon letters declaring the city’s name. Most of the letters have lost their juice, so that in the evening gloom the letters spell out “Sa Matn”. The aesthetic is fitting; the boardwalk is illuminated by harsh fluorescent lights from the various game booths and eateries manned by seedy-looking teenagers with greasy hair, and the sidewalk is crowded with people covered in piercings and gelled-up hair in every kind of color. The scent of hot garbage mingles with that of fried food and the brine of the ocean.

            “This looks awfully familiar,” Manuela says. She seems to have temporarily forgotten her annoyance with me as she walks closely at my side, evidently scanning the crowd for any sign of rowdy Brits.

            “Boardwalks are kind of a ‘seen one, seen ‘em all’ type of deal. We won’t have to worry about anyone bothering us here, trust me,” I assure her.

            Robin, who seems to have taken for herself the position of quartermaster and chief advisor in the wake of Anamaria’s injury, moves closer to me and speaks in a hushed, conspiratorial tone. “Do you even know where we’re headed, per chance?” she asks.

            “Tranquilízate, chica. I’ve got this,” I reply.

            “I’m in a strange city I’ve never been to before which you just told me is well known for its high mob activity. ‘Scuse me si no quiero tranquilizarme right now.”

            I elbow her in the arm, though it’s a bit more like a whack on the shoulder since she’s a good deal shorter than me, making her stumble sideways and nearly collide with a couple pushing a baby carriage. I smother my giggles as she rights herself. She tries to shove me back, but I easily avoid her blow; she loses her balance again and bumps into Manuela, who half-falls, half-stumbles into the crowd and smacks hard into a surly, muscular gentleman.

            “Whoops. Sorry,” she says, blushing. He glares at her through half-lidded eyes, snorts, and walks off into the throng. Manuela rejoins me at the head of the group, unfazed.

            “So you nearly shit yourself when you go up against a couple of scrawny white brats with nothing but a couple of fancy fireworks, but you barely flinch when you full-on collide with that guy?” I say, astonished.

            She shrugs. “The heart feels what it feels,” she says.

            We pick our way through the crowd without further incident. As I glance up and down the side streets looking for signs, it suddenly occurs to me that my contact has more than likely changed addresses. And in any case, the street signs have all been either ripped off or are covered in so much graffiti that they’re unreadable.

            I fight my way past a line gathered in front of a greasy lemonade stand and get the attention of the pissed-looking cashier behind the counter. “Excuse me— can you help me?” I call over the din of the crowd and the bellowing carnival music. “I need directions to—”

            “Get in line or piss off,” they reply in a bored monotone.

            I give them my best snarl. “Look, kid, I know you are a very busy and important person, but it’ll take you literally ten seconds to help me out here. C’mon, bud.”

            “If you want lemonade, the end of the line is that way,” they reply, nodding toward the back of the line. “If you’re not gonna buy anything, I don’t care.”

            I turn to Robin and nod. On my cue, she pulls out her pistol and aims it at the cashier’s head. “Does this help you make up yer mind?” she says threateningly.

            The cashier rolls their eyes. “Lady, do you know how many times I get threatened at gun point? Like, on a daily basis. Either get in line and buy something or go away.”

            Perplexed, Robin glances from the cashier to me. I gesture for her to put it away and continue along the boardwalk. There’s sure to be someone around here who will help me out, but the more I look around at the crowd, the more disheartened I feel.

            I stop and plop down on the edge of the sidewalk, resting my head in my hands. The dozen or so others in my attending crew look around, unsure of whether or not to follow; most of them elect to remain standing. Robin and Anamaria take seats beside me. I feel a bit comforted having them there, although there is a notable absence in the group. Angelique decided to stay on the ship to work on decoding the map. It bothers me that I’ve only known her for three—four? five? more? who knows how long we were really trapped in the caverns—days and her presence is already beginning to feel so necessary to me.

            A chorus of raucous hollering jams into my thoughts. Some distance away, a group of teenagers dressed in little more than a few scraps of fabric and smears of neon body paint are making their way through the crowd, whooping and dancing and waving glow sticks around. One of them is wearing roller skates and carrying a boom box that emits a low, thrumming bass.

            When they get close, one of them shoves a flyer into my hands. “Party of the year, dude!” they yell over the ruckus. They stick out their tongue and give me a rocker hand signal before sprinting off to rejoin the group.

            I hold out the flyer so the rest of my crew can examine it with me. Splatters of pulsing neon text spell out Neon Theme Bash, Howard Sterling Jr. Skate Park.

            “It doesn’t say a time,” Jimena observes.

            “That’s because the parties in this city never stop.”

            I turn around to find the owner of the unfamiliar voice, and my heart leaps with a thrill of joy. I jump to my feet and squeeze them to me in a fit of excitement.

            “Xena!” I cry. “I can’t believe you found me!”

            “Please. I always know when someone’s looking for me. Especially someone with your skunky mug,” she jokes, slugging me on the arm.

            I turn to the rest of my group. “Guys, this is Xena. She’s one of my old friends from when I was—erm, living here in San Martín.”

            “Pleasure.” Xena delivers double pistols and a wink in their general direction, then turns back to me. “Are you back here visiting for long? So much has happened since you left. I need to show you all the old places, and—”

            “Actually,” I interject, “we’re just here for a quick stop. I hope. We’re kind of on a quest, and we were hoping someone might help us figure out what this means.”

            I with draw the elephant figurine from my pocket and hold it up to show her. When she sees it, her mouth pops open in sudden surprise; then her expression turns to one of fear. “Put that away,” she says in a hushed tone. Then, a bit louder, she adds, “Sure you can’t stay the night? There’s plenty of room at my place if ya’ll don’t feel like snoozing on that little sardine tub Ingrid pretends is a ship.”

            “Why not,” I say, getting the hint and quickly replacing the figurine in my pocket. “We’ve been traveling all day; it’d be nice to sleep on a bed that isn’t rocking all night.”

            “Awesome. Do you need to go back and grab anything?”

            “Like what? Our toothbrushes?” The both of us burst out laughing—maybe a bit too strained, as a few of my crew give us odd glances.

            “I take great pride in my dental hygiene, thanks very much,” Manuela mumbles, injured.

            “Alright, we can head over there later. But right now, ya’ll need a break. And this party,” she says, taking the flyer from me, “is the perfect chance. C’mon.”

            She leads us through the throng, along a tangle of side streets and alleys until we’re so deep into the city I can no longer smell the ocean. Can still hear that damn carnival music, though. God, I hate carnivals.

            We hurry down a particularly shady alleyway and emerge into a broad, open lot surrounded by buildings on all sides. A clothesline stretches between the upper floors of two of the buildings, a few articles of tattered clothing swinging gently in the barely noticeable evening breeze. The sun has just about set now, but far as we are from the chilly winds coming off of the water, the air is positively balmy. A sailor could get used to this weather.

            Xena knocks on the door of one of the buildings, and a panel slides back. “MX Stargazer and guests,” she says. The panel slides shut and the door opens, allowing us through.

            “Can someone say uncanny?” Manuela murmurs as we enter the murky room beyond.

            Almost all of us have filed inside when the guard suddenly holds out a hand to stop us. “You,” he says, pointing to Robin. “Need to see some I.D.”

            “Why me? I’m probably the oldest looking one of all of us,” she protests.

            “Just show it to me.”

            “I don’t have any.”

            “Ma’am, I don’t want a fight. Show me your identification and I’ll let you in.”

            “I just told you I don’t have any kind of I.D. Must have forgotten it when I entered a clearly illegal line of work.”

            The guard steps closer to her. “Is that a British accent?” he asks.

            “So what if it is?”

            His lip curls in disgust. “Your kind just love coming in here and making a mess for the rest of us, don’tcha? Just think you’re entitled to whatever you want, and don’t care about what folks you trample on when you—”

            “Hey, pal, I’m as much a fan of them as you are,” she says, holding up her hands in surrender.

            “Leave.”

            “What? But that’s not—”

            He turns to Xena with a murderous glow in his eyes. “Is this one with you?” he asks.

            Xena looks from the guard to Robin to me. I know she’s already made her decision before she opens her mouth. “No,” she says. “Never seen her before.”

            Robin stares in disbelief. “You’ve gotta be shitting me,” she cries. “Ingrid! Tell her—make her tell him the truth.”

            “I’m sorry,” I mouth over the guard’s shoulder as he guides her out of the building.

            “What, you’re just going to leave me on my own out here?”

            I want to tell her we’ll be back out to get her soon—and another, larger part of me wants to draw my sword and cut that guard down—but Xena’s look stops me. She’s gazing after Robin with a mix of concern and—revulsion? Whatever the case, something in her expression stops me from pursuing the matter.

            Xena leads us down a murky hallway. The only light comes from tiny LED bulbs tucked in the crease between the edge of the ceiling and the top of the walls, casting the space in a faint green glow. At the end of the hallway, Xena presses her ear to the wall and lightly taps four times. Then comes the barely audible sound of a door unlatching, and the wall swings away to reveal a hidden room beyond.

            We cross the threshold and enter a space not unlike a long-neglected garage. It’s a cramped, rectangular gap between two buildings. The long sides consist of the smooth, bare cement of the buildings’ outer walls, while the gaps at the short ends are enclosed by tall steel fencing. The fence tops are laced with barbed wire, and security cameras mounted on the walls above stand sentinel.

            We’re not the only ones trying to get in. The space is filled with an array of partygoers, mostly young people, in every kind of costume and hair color imaginable. I mean, there’s a reason they call this place the motley city. (Okay, only I call it that.)

            Xena ignores the crowd and shoves her way to the front of the line amidst jeers and groans. When the bouncer spots her, he quickly opens the door and ushers us inside.

            “Wow, you’re like a celebrity,” Manuela gushes.

            “Stick with me, kid, and you’ll never get bored in this city,” she replies with a self-important grin.

            “Oh, please,” I groan. “Is that how I sound when I use my vague Pirates of the Caribbean references?”

            “Uh huh,” Jimena says, glaring at me.

            The hallway in this second building is a bit brighter than the first, even though the only apparent source of light comes from an open doorway at the far end, obscured from our view by a wall partition. When we reach the end of the hallway and enter the room, however, I can understand why.

            Light dazzles from every surface. A disco ball made from what looks like shards of broken alcohol bottles hangs from the ceiling, rotating slowly and casting the room in rays of colored light like a tiny sun. The room itself appears to be a warehouse of some kind with an oddly-shaped hole dominating the center. The cement floor seems to have been renovated with inlaid shards of mirror-like glass, doubly reflecting the light from the electronic party lights set up along the edges of the room. The lights pulse and change color in time with the throbbing bass pounding out of a stack of old school black speakers along one side of the room. Even the hundreds of dancers shaking and swerving across the floor seem to give off little rainbows of light, decked out as they are in metallic fabrics and body glitter.

            My first thought, spawned from the impossibly loud beat and the nuclear assault on my corneas, is “alcohol”. I scan the room and spot a shoddily constructed bar against the far wall. It’s no more sophisticated than a bunch of plastic crates stacked in the shape of a counter, but it has booze, so it’s adequate by my standards. Forgetting my crew, I start off through the crowd toward my salvation.

            A hand wraps around my wrist and tugs me back. “Are you nuts? We have to stick together in this shithole,” Xena hisses. Even with her mouth right next to my ear, I can still only just barely hear her over the music.

            I hang my head dejectedly as I let her pull me back to the group. She weaves among the thrashing partyers with a honed finesse enough to stir a little envy. There’s something almost graceful in the way she dodges flying drinks and ducks beneath flailing limbs while still keeping up an admirable pace. I remind myself that this is her element; this is the scene in which she’s grown up.

            “Hey, Xena,” I call, panting slightly from exertion, struggling to make my voice heard above the beat. “What’s up with the weird swimming pool thing in the floor?”

            “This used to be an indoor skate park. It got closed down a couple years ago,” she replies. “That’s the ramp system they would use.”

            “Oh. Thanks.”

            I pause and let the rest of my group go ahead of me, taking up the position at the back so I can make sure everyone’s keeping up. And so I don’t look the same way I feel—like I’m barely keeping up myself.

            Okay, yes, so maybe I’m more than a little jealous.

            We finally reach the other end of the room and a thick metal door with a blazing red exit sign above it. Six bodyguards dressed in cliché black, sunglasses and headpiece and all, stand silent and motionless in front of it. When we get within five feet, one of them shoots to attention, piercing us with a razor stare. It’s especially unnerving coming from behind thick black shades in such a stoic, impenetrable face.

            Xena motions for us to hang back while she goes to speak with the guard. They exchange words in hushed voices; though I can’t tell what they might be saying, Xena is gesturing dramatically while the bodyguard gives monosyllabic and apparently unsatisfying responses. Finally, she throws her hands up in the air, flips the guard off, and stomps away into the crowd.

            “What’d he say?” Manuela asks, rushing to stay at her pace.

            “He doesn’t believe that we have anything of value to discuss,” Xena snarls in response.

            “Hey, care to enlighten me, friend?” I say, jogging to her side. “I mean, ‘scuse me if I’m overstepping some boundaries here, but isn’t it my sick ass Yoruban water spirit artifact we’re talking about?”

            She rolls her eyes. “Don’t worry. You’ll find out in just a sec,” she assures me.

            I sigh internally, but don’t bother arguing further as we shove our way through the crowd. This time we stop at another, unguarded exit door. Xena shoulders it open and leads us out into the humid night.

            This side of the building, like the way through which we entered the club, is surrounded by a haphazard labyrinth of buildings and alleyways, but a wire fence encloses a significant portion of the concrete lot, like a pathetic backyard in the world’s sorriest excuse for a daycare. Except instead of awesome toys, there’s nothing back here but a few piles of debris and a vague smell of hot garbage.

            “What the hell are we doing out here?” I ask. It’s much quieter away from the full force of the music, and my voice sounds unnaturally loud.

            “If Kayin’s guards won’t let us through, we’re sneaking in ourselves,” Xena replies. She goes to one of the debris piles and begins rifling through. After a minute, she triumphantly pulls out a splintered wooden pallet nearly two-thirds her size and starts to drag it toward the far corner of the lot.

            “You know, they just came out with this new thing called teamwork. You should try it some time,” I advise her. “If you need to get up to the roof, we could always just work together to do it.”

            “But that’d mean leaving someone behind. And I don’t think your fragile feelings are up to that task again,” she replies. Although her tone is light, I detect—or maybe imagine—a hint of ridicule beneath it.

            “God dammit, Xena,” I mutter. I march over to the corner, snatch the pallet out of her hands, and kneel against the wall.

            She glances at me warily. “Is this some kind of weird pirate ritual?” she asks.

            “For goodness’ sake, woman. Manuela, demonstrate.”

            Like a puppy jumping to attention at the master’s command, Manuela bounds over to us and places her foot firmly on my bent leg. Pressing her hands against the walls to balance herself, she puts her other foot on my shoulder and searches for foot- and handholds. This section of the building isn’t very tall and the stone is rough; she easily finds niches in the stone and hoists herself onto the roof.

            She peers back over the edge and pumps her fists in the air. “I did it!” she cries.

            I cock an eyebrow at Xena, daring her to say no again. She returns with a crooked smile and makes a show of ceding to me.

            “Well, if Manuela is up to it, I suppose I can find room in my heart to do the same,” she says with a dramatic sigh. I help her, like with my first mate, up as high as I can until she reaches a proper foothold to make it onto the roof. We continue this method until everyone but myself has gotten to the top. I start to scale the pitted stone walls one-handed, Robin, Xena, and Gloria leaning over the edge to offer their assistance, when someone yanks me hard back to the ground.

            I land on my tailbone with a sharp oof. Before I or my crew can collect ourselves, rough hands shove a canvas sack over my head and start to drag me away. The screams of my crew members force me into action; I dig my ankles into the hard-packed soil and throw all my weight forward, heaving against the forces pulling me away from them. My ears detect the delicate whistle of wind across a blade a fraction of a second before it would have pierced me—at the very latest moment, I let my body go limp, and the weapon slices the air where my head just was.

            The momentum seems to have thrown my attacker off-balance, and they stumble sideways, colliding with the conspirator holding onto my arm. They both let go of me as they tumble to the ground. I rip off the sack and cast it away, leaping to my feet.

            I look about to assess my surroundings. Two of the bodyguards from earlier, still in their dark sunglasses despite the near pitch black night, are entangled on the ground. A few of my crew members have made it off the roof and start to run toward me, but more bodyguards emerge from the same exit door we’d just taken and surround them.

            As I’m torn between whether to help my crew, however futile it might be, or take my chances and run, the decision is made for me. My original captors sort themselves out and grab hold of me again. They don’t even bother covering my head as they drag me back inside the building. The crowd of merrymakers parts easily as they head back toward the original door through which we tried to gain access.

            The thudding beat of the music is silenced as soon as the door shuts behind me. I’m shoved to the ground and land hard on my knees on the cement floor. My one good hand splays in front of me to absorb my fall, and pain shoots up through my palms and racks my injured shoulder. I bite down hard on my lip to keep from crying out.

            Fighting hard against tears, I sit back and look around. A colored ceiling lamp casts the room in dark red light. The walls and floor are made of unforgiving cement, absorbing, not reflecting, the ominous lighting. At the head of the room is a circle of more bodyguards in similar black uniform. At their center is a wicker globe suspended from the ceiling.

            The globe slowly rotates until an ovular opening is revealed. Inside the contraption is a pile of plush multicolored cushions, atop which perches a plump, black-skinned person draped in a slinky black mini dress and strings of gold and ebony beads. Their face is practically obscured in a cloud of wispy obsidian curls, but their eyes seem almost to glow as they fix on me. They rest their head in one hand, stroking their chin with their thumb.

            “What do you wish for me to tell you?” they ask. Their voice is high-pitched and airy, but firm, like sweet poison.

            It takes me a minute to realize that they’re addressing me. “I’m—pardon?” I choke out. My voice is frustratingly timid. I clear my throat and raise my chin with dignity, but something about their presence has shaken me unconsciously.

            “Child,” they say slowly, “you tried to sneak into my chamber to gain an audience with me even after your party was informed that I was not receiving visitors. You must have an issue of unusually grave importance to show me. Unless…” The wicker throne begins to lower from the ceiling, and once close enough to the ground, they step out and advance toward me with a menacing gait, stopping close enough to hover just above me. “…you want to tell me you’ve come here just to waste my time.”

            I gulp as I tilt my head back to meet their eyes. “Look, uh, Kayin—that’s your name, right? I gotta tell ya, god’s honest truth, I have no idea what I’m doing here.”

            “I can see that,” they reply with a smirk.

            As I continue, I slowly stumble to my feet, struggling to balance without moving my arm much more. “It was my friend’s idea to come see you really. She’s the one you should be talking to, not me. My head’s killing me and my wounded arm here is starting to throb something fierce, so if you’d be kind enough to just—”

            Eyes boring into mine and blazing with black fire, they snatch a handful of my shirt and yank me close enough to smell the chilled sweat gathering in my armpits. Their other hand jams into my pocket and withdraws the elephant figurine.

            “Hey—” I start to protest, but they shove me back and turn away as if I’m not even there, holding the elephant close to their eye to examine.

            “Who gave this to you?” they ask, back still turned to me.

            “You won’t believe me.”

            “Who?”

            “Olufemi, the water spirit.”

            They nod sagely as they turn the little glass figurine in the light. “Alright,” they say, stowing it in the folds of their dress, “I will help you. First, however, you must do something to help me.”

            I repress a groan of exasperation. “Sure. Whatever you need.”

            “There is a pirate in this city who keeps intercepting my ships and stealing their cargo. I need you to locate this vagabond and take them out of the game.”

            “Awesome. Where do I start?”

            They stroll across the room and take their place back in the whicker seat. “No one has seen this pirate close enough to give a physical description. All the spies I’ve sent out have either disappeared or returned half-dead.”

            I blink one, twice, slowly trying to ascertain that this is actually reality and not some really fucked up nightmare. “So you’re sending me out to kill a mysterious pirate without knowing what they look like or where they could possibly be, in an almost certain suicide mission?” I say.

            They lift their chin and survey me regally from their lofty vantage point. “I’ve heard stories about you, Captain Liston. I have faith.”

            “You’re shitting me.”

            “Bring me the pirate enemy’s head and you will see about getting my help for the remainder of your quest.”

            Reality shoots back to me in an awful rush. Keeping my eyes shut, I immediately begin to cough, expelling water from my nose and mouth. There’s a burning sensation in my nose and my diaphragm is sore from the force of the coughing. Once my airways are clear, I collapse on my side, trembling from the exertion and cold, my body feeling weirdly limp and achey.

            Cheers erupt all around me. I wince and weakly raise an arm over my head to cover my ears from the sound. It feels like a sledgehammer beating against my brain. I just want to go back into the water, where admittedly it was still pretty cold, but at least I was mostly numb to it.

Hands scoop me up gingerly and hold me against a comfortingly warm body. I can feel the wind brushing across my skin and hear the voices fading away as I’m carried elsewhere. A door opens and shuts, cutting off the sounds of the outside completely. I can smell a familiar scent of incense; I open my eyes a crack, and as the room comes into focus, I recognize my quarters. I close my eyes again as my unseen caretaker lowers me gently onto my futon.

The hands start to tug at the hem of my shirt and I snatch them by the wrist. “Hey, no peeping,” I say clumsily as I struggle to open my eyes again. When I do, I see Anamaria’s face hovering above my own, smiling down at me knowingly. “Oh,” I mumble, dropping her hand. “Carry on.”

She peels off my sopping wet clothes, careful not to jostle my injured arm, and helps me into fresh, warm ones. I only stop her again when she tries to put baby powder on my inner thighs. No familial relationship is that close. Once I’m dressed and my hair wrapped up in a towel, she urges me to lie back against the pillows and tucks a blanket around me.

“I grabbed the boots and braces you left behind. They’re over in the corner,” she says. Her voice is feeble and the neck brace restricts much of her movement, but she gives me her most comforting smile as she pulls the blanket up to my shoulders and brushes a piece of hair out of my face.

“You didn’t have to do that. You need to go rest yourself or something,” I offer half-heartedly.

She smiles and stands to leave. As she reaches the door, there comes a soft knocking. She raises a quizzical eyebrow at me before answering it.

“Hi, Robin. Come on in,” she says hoarsely.

“C’mon, Ms. P, you know you need to rest those vocal cords. Lay off the talking for a little while, eh?” she says, clapping Anamaria on the shoulder. After Anamaria leaves, Robin then turns to me and says, “Olufemi wants to talk to you.”

I groan and pull the blanket up over my head so I can’t see her. “Tell her I feel gross and want to sleep for seven hundred hours.”

“T’ be honest, I’m kinda scared that she’ll conjure up a big tidal wave and keel haul the lot of us if I do,” she replies.

Tossing off the blanket with a dramatic sigh, I get to my feet, and nearly fall over. Robin jerks toward me, arms outstretched to offer assistance, but I raise a hand to stay her. Sitting back down on the futon, I point to the corner where my braces are arranged neatly beside my shoes and gesture toward myself. She brings them to me and watches as I put them on.

“I’ll come out and talk to her. Quit worrying,” I say, waving her away.

She looks doubtful, but nevertheless leaves the room, closing the door behind her. I waste as much time as I can, double- and triple-checking the straps on my braces, scrubbing away invisible spots of dirt on my boots before tugging them on, hanging the towel over the end of the futon and pausing in front of my mirror to comb my fingers through my hair. My bandana is missing and my hair hangs in my face in thick ringlets. At this length, it’s positively unmanageable if I can’t tie it up, but somehow a haircut hasn’t been terribly high on my list of priorities lately. At last, I heave a sight of resignation and go out onto the deck to meet the water spirit.

As soon as I exit the room, a flash of brilliant white light makes me stagger backwards and cover my eyes. The light dims enough for me to make out a column of water rising at the bow of the ship, emitting a majestic blue glow. Shapes seem to dance in the water, filled with life and color, and at the center is Olufemi. Her scales reflect the light like ten thousand glimmering jewels and her hair flows about her body like an alive thing. The narrow lizard-like pupils are gone; her eyes instead grow with brilliant white fire.

“Ingrid Liston, captain of the Aventura,” she says in a booming voice unrecognizable from her normal lilting tone, “you have proven yourself—okay, hold on, can we do something else? This just isn’t working for me.”

In a moment, the light is gone and the column of water dissolves back into the canal, sending up a wave that makes the ship rock violently. Gradually, my eyes adjust to the much dimmer light of the passage; we are back in the darkness, with only our own lanterns to illuminate the path.

“Look, I know I’m supposed to do this all formal and spirit-like, but I’m plum pooped. Think we can skip the theatrics and just do it casual?”

I jump at the sound of Olufemi’s voice. She has appeared at my side quite suddenly, perched on the railing at the edge of the deck.

“What the hell are you talking about?” I groan, massaging my temples in exasperation.

“Your prize. For escaping the vines. After you stabbed that big one, the monster retreated back into the cavern walls and your crew was able to get away. Yay, you.” She holds out a closed fist. When she opens it, a small glass elephant is resting in her palm.

I eye the figurine warily, then glance up at her. “Well? Take it,” she says, shaking it in her hand. I pick it up carefully and examine it before tucking it in my pocket.

“Uh. Thanks?” I say.

She rolls her eyes. “Mortals. Always ungrateful.”

With that, she leaps off the railing and darts beneath the water. I rush to the edge of the deck and lean over the water. “That’s it?” I call out.

She reappears several yards away. “You’re almost out of the caves. Just keep going straight. There’s a town just outside the exit,” she says.

“And how are we supposed to get there without a helm? Or a guide?”

She nods toward the gun deck behind me. I turn and see that the shattered stump where out helm once stood is gone and replaced with a glistening, magnificent new one, covered in carvings inlaid with gold and tiny jewels.

“You can thank me later,” Olufemi calls to me. “Preferably with a blood sacrifice. I’m especially partial to chickens.”

And in the next instant she is gone.

 

***

 

            Emerging into the sunlight feels like being birthed again. The great azure dome of the sky stretches above, reaching to the horizon all around us. A few streaks of wispy white clouds encircle the dazzling orb of the sun, like a brilliant jewel nestled on a delicate cushion. I have never been so thrilled to look upon the turquoise waters lapping against the hull of the ship.

            When I look behind us, the cliffs have disappeared. An incredibly hopelessness is lifted from my heart.

            I turn back to the bow to see a finger of land approaching on the horizon. My crew, spying it as well, give out a collective cheer.

            The exhaustion is suddenly lifted out of my limbs and I’m filled with a renewed energy. I clamber up the stairs to the top of the gun deck and take my place at the helm. “Raise the sails! Make speed! We’re headed for that yonder chunk o’ land!”

            At my words, the crew cheer again, many thrusting their fists into the air. They hurry to their positions with fresh zeal, drunk with the rush of having survived a journey so treacherous and the sheer joy of sailing.

            Although the wind is in our favor and we’re working with as much haste as we can, it’s just about sunset when we reach the land at last. Before we’re within a mile of the shore, I recognize the city—San Martín, a former oil refinery town on the eastern tip of Cuba, now a hub of commercial and criminal activity.

            “You know where we are, Captain?” Robin asks. She’s taken a break from overseeing the activity on the main deck to join me at the helm.

            “Some of the most notorious crime bosses of our time originated in the bowels of this very place,” I reply. “Once a glorious shrine to the wonders of late capitalism and colonial ideals, now a wretch of a town ruled by mob activity. Some cities start fashion trends; San Martín starts drug trends.”

            “Oh.” She nods thoughtfully as she gazes across the water at the sparkling city lights. “Should we be worried?”

            “Please. Anyone who might pose a threat would be too tweaked out to mug us. Not to mention, we have, you know, swords.”

            “That’s not what I meant.”

            I don’t meet her eyes. I know what she was trying to ask me—is there anyone in this particular vicinity that I might owe money to. “No,” I say gravely, feeling a twinge of guilt in my stomach even though it technically isn’t a lie. I certainly owe something to someone around here, but that person’s whereabouts and the conditions of my debt are as yet to be fully determined.

            We pull into the harbor and weigh anchor. The person overseeing the ships docking gives us a glance, seems to recognize the ship, and doesn’t say a word as we march past.

            There is an enormous arch at the end of the pier bearing neon letters declaring the city’s name. Most of the letters have lost their juice, so that in the evening gloom the letters spell out “Sa Matn”. The aesthetic is fitting; the boardwalk is illuminated by harsh fluorescent lights from the various game booths and eateries manned by seedy-looking teenagers with greasy hair, and the sidewalk is crowded with people covered in piercings and gelled-up hair in every kind of color. The scent of hot garbage mingles with that of fried food and the brine of the ocean.

            “This looks awfully familiar,” Manuela says. She seems to have temporarily forgotten her annoyance with me as she walks closely at my side, evidently scanning the crowd for any sign of rowdy Brits.

            “Boardwalks are kind of a ‘seen one, seen ‘em all’ type of deal. We won’t have to worry about anyone bothering us here, trust me,” I assure her.

            Robin, who seems to have taken for herself the position of quartermaster and chief advisor in the wake of Anamaria’s injury, moves closer to me and speaks in a hushed, conspiratorial tone. “Do you even know where we’re headed, per chance?” she asks.

            “Tranquilízate, chica. I’ve got this,” I reply.

            “I’m in a strange city I’ve never been to before which you just told me is well known for its high mob activity. ‘Scuse me si no quiero tranquilizarme right now.”

            I elbow her in the arm, though it’s a bit more like a whack on the shoulder since she’s a good deal shorter than me, making her stumble sideways and nearly collide with a couple pushing a baby carriage. I smother my giggles as she rights herself. She tries to shove me back, but I easily avoid her blow; she loses her balance again and bumps into Manuela, who half-falls, half-stumbles into the crowd and smacks hard into a surly, muscular gentleman.

            “Whoops. Sorry,” she says, blushing. He glares at her through half-lidded eyes, snorts, and walks off into the throng. Manuela rejoins me at the head of the group, unfazed.

            “So you nearly shit yourself when you go up against a couple of scrawny white brats with nothing but a couple of fancy fireworks, but you barely flinch when you full-on collide with that guy?” I say, astonished.

            She shrugs. “The heart feels what it feels,” she says.

            We pick our way through the crowd without further incident. As I glance up and down the side streets looking for signs, it suddenly occurs to me that my contact has more than likely changed addresses. And in any case, the street signs have all been either ripped off or are covered in so much graffiti that they’re unreadable.

            I fight my way past a line gathered in front of a greasy lemonade stand and get the attention of the pissed-looking cashier behind the counter. “Excuse me— can you help me?” I call over the din of the crowd and the bellowing carnival music. “I need directions to—”

            “Get in line or piss off,” they reply in a bored monotone.

            I give them my best snarl. “Look, kid, I know you are a very busy and important person, but it’ll take you literally ten seconds to help me out here. C’mon, bud.”

            “If you want lemonade, the end of the line is that way,” they reply, nodding toward the back of the line. “If you’re not gonna buy anything, I don’t care.”

            I turn to Robin and nod. On my cue, she pulls out her pistol and aims it at the cashier’s head. “Does this help you make up yer mind?” she says threateningly.

            The cashier rolls their eyes. “Lady, do you know how many times I get threatened at gun point? Like, on a daily basis. Either get in line and buy something or go away.”

            Perplexed, Robin glances from the cashier to me. I gesture for her to put it away and continue along the boardwalk. There’s sure to be someone around here who will help me out, but the more I look around at the crowd, the more disheartened I feel.

            I stop and plop down on the edge of the sidewalk, resting my head in my hands. The dozen or so others in my attending crew look around, unsure of whether or not to follow; most of them elect to remain standing. Robin and Anamaria take seats beside me. I feel a bit comforted having them there, although there is a notable absence in the group. Angelique decided to stay on the ship to work on decoding the map. It bothers me that I’ve only known her for three—four? five? more? who knows how long we were really trapped in the caverns—days and her presence is already beginning to feel so necessary to me.

            A chorus of raucous hollering jams into my thoughts. Some distance away, a group of teenagers dressed in little more than a few scraps of fabric and smears of neon body paint are making their way through the crowd, whooping and dancing and waving glow sticks around. One of them is wearing roller skates and carrying a boom box that emits a low, thrumming bass.

            When they get close, one of them shoves a flyer into my hands. “Party of the year, dude!” they yell over the ruckus. They stick out their tongue and give me a rocker hand signal before sprinting off to rejoin the group.

            I hold out the flyer so the rest of my crew can examine it with me. Splatters of pulsing neon text spell out Neon Theme Bash, Howard Sterling Jr. Skate Park.

            “It doesn’t say a time,” Jimena observes.

            “That’s because the parties in this city never stop.”

            I turn around to find the owner of the unfamiliar voice, and my heart leaps with a thrill of joy. I jump to my feet and squeeze them to me in a fit of excitement.

            “Xena!” I cry. “I can’t believe you found me!”

            “Please. I always know when someone’s looking for me. Especially someone with your skunky mug,” she jokes, slugging me on the arm.

            I turn to the rest of my group. “Guys, this is Xena. She’s one of my old friends from when I was—erm, living here in San Martín.”

            “Pleasure.” Xena delivers double pistols and a wink in their general direction, then turns back to me. “Are you back here visiting for long? So much has happened since you left. I need to show you all the old places, and—”

            “Actually,” I interject, “we’re just here for a quick stop. I hope. We’re kind of on a quest, and we were hoping someone might help us figure out what this means.”

            I with draw the elephant figurine from my pocket and hold it up to show her. When she sees it, her mouth pops open in sudden surprise; then her expression turns to one of fear. “Put that away,” she says in a hushed tone. Then, a bit louder, she adds, “Sure you can’t stay the night? There’s plenty of room at my place if ya’ll don’t feel like snoozing on that little sardine tub Ingrid pretends is a ship.”

            “Why not,” I say, getting the hint and quickly replacing the figurine in my pocket. “We’ve been traveling all day; it’d be nice to sleep on a bed that isn’t rocking all night.”

            “Awesome. Do you need to go back and grab anything?”

            “Like what? Our toothbrushes?” The both of us burst out laughing—maybe a bit too strained, as a few of my crew give us odd glances.

            “I take great pride in my dental hygiene, thanks very much,” Manuela mumbles, injured.

            “Alright, we can head over there later. But right now, ya’ll need a break. And this party,” she says, taking the flyer from me, “is the perfect chance. C’mon.”

            She leads us through the throng, along a tangle of side streets and alleys until we’re so deep into the city I can no longer smell the ocean. Can still hear that damn carnival music, though. God, I hate carnivals.

            We hurry down a particularly shady alleyway and emerge into a broad, open lot surrounded by buildings on all sides. A clothesline stretches between the upper floors of two of the buildings, a few articles of tattered clothing swinging gently in the barely noticeable evening breeze. The sun has just about set now, but far as we are from the chilly winds coming off of the water, the air is positively balmy. A sailor could get used to this weather.

            Xena knocks on the door of one of the buildings, and a panel slides back. “MX Stargazer and guests,” she says. The panel slides shut and the door opens, allowing us through.

            “Can someone say uncanny?” Manuela murmurs as we enter the murky room beyond.

            Almost all of us have filed inside when the guard suddenly holds out a hand to stop us. “You,” he says, pointing to Robin. “Need to see some I.D.”

            “Why me? I’m probably the oldest looking one of all of us,” she protests.

            “Just show it to me.”

            “I don’t have any.”

            “Ma’am, I don’t want a fight. Show me your identification and I’ll let you in.”

            “I just told you I don’t have any kind of I.D. Must have forgotten it when I entered a clearly illegal line of work.”

            The guard steps closer to her. “Is that a British accent?” he asks.

            “So what if it is?”

            His lip curls in disgust. “Your kind just love coming in here and making a mess for the rest of us, don’tcha? Just think you’re entitled to whatever you want, and don’t care about what folks you trample on when you—”

            “Hey, pal, I’m as much a fan of them as you are,” she says, holding up her hands in surrender.

            “Leave.”

            “What? But that’s not—”

            He turns to Xena with a murderous glow in his eyes. “Is this one with you?” he asks.

            Xena looks from the guard to Robin to me. I know she’s already made her decision before she opens her mouth. “No,” she says. “Never seen her before.”

            Robin stares in disbelief. “You’ve gotta be shitting me,” she cries. “Ingrid! Tell her—make her tell him the truth.”

            “I’m sorry,” I mouth over the guard’s shoulder as he guides her out of the building.

            “What, you’re just going to leave me on my own out here?”

            I want to tell her we’ll be back out to get her soon—and another, larger part of me wants to draw my sword and cut that guard down—but Xena’s look stops me. She’s gazing after Robin with a mix of concern and—revulsion? Whatever the case, something in her expression stops me from pursuing the matter.

            Xena leads us down a murky hallway. The only light comes from tiny LED bulbs tucked in the crease between the edge of the ceiling and the top of the walls, casting the space in a faint green glow. At the end of the hallway, Xena presses her ear to the wall and lightly taps four times. Then comes the barely audible sound of a door unlatching, and the wall swings away to reveal a hidden room beyond.

            We cross the threshold and enter a space not unlike a long-neglected garage. It’s a cramped, rectangular gap between two buildings. The long sides consist of the smooth, bare cement of the buildings’ outer walls, while the gaps at the short ends are enclosed by tall steel fencing. The fence tops are laced with barbed wire, and security cameras mounted on the walls above stand sentinel.

            We’re not the only ones trying to get in. The space is filled with an array of partygoers, mostly young people, in every kind of costume and hair color imaginable. I mean, there’s a reason they call this place the motley city. (Okay, only I call it that.)

            Xena ignores the crowd and shoves her way to the front of the line amidst jeers and groans. When the bouncer spots her, he quickly opens the door and ushers us inside.

            “Wow, you’re like a celebrity,” Manuela gushes.

            “Stick with me, kid, and you’ll never get bored in this city,” she replies with a self-important grin.

            “Oh, please,” I groan. “Is that how I sound when I use my vague Pirates of the Caribbean references?”

            “Uh huh,” Jimena says, glaring at me.

            The hallway in this second building is a bit brighter than the first, even though the only apparent source of light comes from an open doorway at the far end, obscured from our view by a wall partition. When we reach the end of the hallway and enter the room, however, I can understand why.

            Light dazzles from every surface. A disco ball made from what looks like shards of broken alcohol bottles hangs from the ceiling, rotating slowly and casting the room in rays of colored light like a tiny sun. The room itself appears to be a warehouse of some kind with an oddly-shaped hole dominating the center. The cement floor seems to have been renovated with inlaid shards of mirror-like glass, doubly reflecting the light from the electronic party lights set up along the edges of the room. The lights pulse and change color in time with the throbbing bass pounding out of a stack of old school black speakers along one side of the room. Even the hundreds of dancers shaking and swerving across the floor seem to give off little rainbows of light, decked out as they are in metallic fabrics and body glitter.

            My first thought, spawned from the impossibly loud beat and the nuclear assault on my corneas, is “alcohol”. I scan the room and spot a shoddily constructed bar against the far wall. It’s no more sophisticated than a bunch of plastic crates stacked in the shape of a counter, but it has booze, so it’s adequate by my standards. Forgetting my crew, I start off through the crowd toward my salvation.

            A hand wraps around my wrist and tugs me back. “Are you nuts? We have to stick together in this shithole,” Xena hisses. Even with her mouth right next to my ear, I can still only just barely hear her over the music.

            I hang my head dejectedly as I let her pull me back to the group. She weaves among the thrashing partyers with a honed finesse enough to stir a little envy. There’s something almost graceful in the way she dodges flying drinks and ducks beneath flailing limbs while still keeping up an admirable pace. I remind myself that this is her element; this is the scene in which she’s grown up.

            “Hey, Xena,” I call, panting slightly from exertion, struggling to make my voice heard above the beat. “What’s up with the weird swimming pool thing in the floor?”

            “This used to be an indoor skate park. It got closed down a couple years ago,” she replies. “That’s the ramp system they would use.”

            “Oh. Thanks.”

            I pause and let the rest of my group go ahead of me, taking up the position at the back so I can make sure everyone’s keeping up. And so I don’t look the same way I feel—like I’m barely keeping up myself.

            Okay, yes, so maybe I’m more than a little jealous.

            We finally reach the other end of the room and a thick metal door with a blazing red exit sign above it. Six bodyguards dressed in cliché black, sunglasses and headpiece and all, stand silent and motionless in front of it. When we get within five feet, one of them shoots to attention, piercing us with a razor stare. It’s especially unnerving coming from behind thick black shades in such a stoic, impenetrable face.

            Xena motions for us to hang back while she goes to speak with the guard. They exchange words in hushed voices; though I can’t tell what they might be saying, Xena is gesturing dramatically while the bodyguard gives monosyllabic and apparently unsatisfying responses. Finally, she throws her hands up in the air, flips the guard off, and stomps away into the crowd.

            “What’d he say?” Manuela asks, rushing to stay at her pace.

            “He doesn’t believe that we have anything of value to discuss,” Xena snarls in response.

            “Hey, care to enlighten me, friend?” I say, jogging to her side. “I mean, ‘scuse me if I’m overstepping some boundaries here, but isn’t it my sick ass Yoruban water spirit artifact we’re talking about?”

            She rolls her eyes. “Don’t worry. You’ll find out in just a sec,” she assures me.

            I sigh internally, but don’t bother arguing further as we shove our way through the crowd. This time we stop at another, unguarded exit door. Xena shoulders it open and leads us out into the humid night.

            This side of the building, like the way through which we entered the club, is surrounded by a haphazard labyrinth of buildings and alleyways, but a wire fence encloses a significant portion of the concrete lot, like a pathetic backyard in the world’s sorriest excuse for a daycare. Except instead of awesome toys, there’s nothing back here but a few piles of debris and a vague smell of hot garbage.

            “What the hell are we doing out here?” I ask. It’s much quieter away from the full force of the music, and my voice sounds unnaturally loud.

            “If Kayin’s guards won’t let us through, we’re sneaking in ourselves,” Xena replies. She goes to one of the debris piles and begins rifling through. After a minute, she triumphantly pulls out a splintered wooden pallet nearly two-thirds her size and starts to drag it toward the far corner of the lot.

            “You know, they just came out with this new thing called teamwork. You should try it some time,” I advise her. “If you need to get up to the roof, we could always just work together to do it.”

            “But that’d mean leaving someone behind. And I don’t think your fragile feelings are up to that task again,” she replies. Although her tone is light, I detect—or maybe imagine—a hint of ridicule beneath it.

            “God dammit, Xena,” I mutter. I march over to the corner, snatch the pallet out of her hands, and kneel against the wall.

            She glances at me warily. “Is this some kind of weird pirate ritual?” she asks.

            “For goodness’ sake, woman. Manuela, demonstrate.”

            Like a puppy jumping to attention at the master’s command, Manuela bounds over to us and places her foot firmly on my bent leg. Pressing her hands against the walls to balance herself, she puts her other foot on my shoulder and searches for foot- and handholds. This section of the building isn’t very tall and the stone is rough; she easily finds niches in the stone and hoists herself onto the roof.

            She peers back over the edge and pumps her fists in the air. “I did it!” she cries.

            I cock an eyebrow at Xena, daring her to say no again. She returns with a crooked smile and makes a show of ceding to me.

            “Well, if Manuela is up to it, I suppose I can find room in my heart to do the same,” she says with a dramatic sigh. I help her, like with my first mate, up as high as I can until she reaches a proper foothold to make it onto the roof. We continue this method until everyone but myself has gotten to the top. I start to scale the pitted stone walls one-handed, Robin, Xena, and Gloria leaning over the edge to offer their assistance, when someone yanks me hard back to the ground.

            I land on my tailbone with a sharp oof. Before I or my crew can collect ourselves, rough hands shove a canvas sack over my head and start to drag me away. The screams of my crew members force me into action; I dig my ankles into the hard-packed soil and throw all my weight forward, heaving against the forces pulling me away from them. My ears detect the delicate whistle of wind across a blade a fraction of a second before it would have pierced me—at the very latest moment, I let my body go limp, and the weapon slices the air where my head just was.

            The momentum seems to have thrown my attacker off-balance, and they stumble sideways, colliding with the conspirator holding onto my arm. They both let go of me as they tumble to the ground. I rip off the sack and cast it away, leaping to my feet.

            I look about to assess my surroundings. Two of the bodyguards from earlier, still in their dark sunglasses despite the near pitch black night, are entangled on the ground. A few of my crew members have made it off the roof and start to run toward me, but more bodyguards emerge from the same exit door we’d just taken and surround them.

            As I’m torn between whether to help my crew, however futile it might be, or take my chances and run, the decision is made for me. My original captors sort themselves out and grab hold of me again. They don’t even bother covering my head as they drag me back inside the building. The crowd of merrymakers parts easily as they head back toward the original door through which we tried to gain access.

            The thudding beat of the music is silenced as soon as the door shuts behind me. I’m shoved to the ground and land hard on my knees on the cement floor. My one good hand splays in front of me to absorb my fall, and pain shoots up through my palms and racks my injured shoulder. I bite down hard on my lip to keep from crying out.

            Fighting hard against tears, I sit back and look around. A colored ceiling lamp casts the room in dark red light. The walls and floor are made of unforgiving cement, absorbing, not reflecting, the ominous lighting. At the head of the room is a circle of more bodyguards in similar black uniform. At their center is a wicker globe suspended from the ceiling.

            The globe slowly rotates until an ovular opening is revealed. Inside the contraption is a pile of plush multicolored cushions, atop which perches a plump, black-skinned person draped in a slinky black mini dress and strings of gold and ebony beads. Their face is practically obscured in a cloud of wispy obsidian curls, but their eyes seem almost to glow as they fix on me. They rest their head in one hand, stroking their chin with their thumb.

            “What do you wish for me to tell you?” they ask. Their voice is high-pitched and airy, but firm, like sweet poison.

            It takes me a minute to realize that they’re addressing me. “I’m—pardon?” I choke out. My voice is frustratingly timid. I clear my throat and raise my chin with dignity, but something about their presence has shaken me unconsciously.

            “Child,” they say slowly, “you tried to sneak into my chamber to gain an audience with me even after your party was informed that I was not receiving visitors. You must have an issue of unusually grave importance to show me. Unless…” The wicker throne begins to lower from the ceiling, and once close enough to the ground, they step out and advance toward me with a menacing gait, stopping close enough to hover just above me. “…you want to tell me you’ve come here just to waste my time.”

            I gulp as I tilt my head back to meet their eyes. “Look, uh, Kayin—that’s your name, right? I gotta tell ya, god’s honest truth, I have no idea what I’m doing here.”

            “I can see that,” they reply with a smirk.

            As I continue, I slowly stumble to my feet, struggling to balance without moving my arm much more. “It was my friend’s idea to come see you really. She’s the one you should be talking to, not me. My head’s killing me and my wounded arm here is starting to throb something fierce, so if you’d be kind enough to just—”

            Eyes boring into mine and blazing with black fire, they snatch a handful of my shirt and yank me close enough to smell the chilled sweat gathering in my armpits. Their other hand jams into my pocket and withdraws the elephant figurine.

            “Hey—” I start to protest, but they shove me back and turn away as if I’m not even there, holding the elephant close to their eye to examine.

            “Who gave this to you?” they ask, back still turned to me.

            “You won’t believe me.”

            “Who?”

            “Olufemi, the water spirit.”

            They nod sagely as they turn the little glass figurine in the light. “Alright,” they say, stowing it in the folds of their dress, “I will help you. First, however, you must do something to help me.”

            I repress a groan of exasperation. “Sure. Whatever you need.”

            “There is a pirate in this city who keeps intercepting my ships and stealing their cargo. I need you to locate this vagabond and take them out of the game.”

            “Awesome. Where do I start?”

            They stroll across the room and take their place back in the whicker seat. “No one has seen this pirate close enough to give a physical description. All the spies I’ve sent out have either disappeared or returned half-dead.”

            I blink one, twice, slowly trying to ascertain that this is actually reality and not some really fucked up nightmare. “So you’re sending me out to kill a mysterious pirate without knowing what they look like or where they could possibly be, in an almost certain suicide mission?” I say.

            They lift their chin and survey me regally from their lofty vantage point. “I’ve heard stories about you, Captain Liston. I have faith.”

            “You’re shitting me.”

            “Bring me the pirate enemy’s head and you will see about getting my help for the remainder of your quest.”

The End

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