"Do as you please then, you damned wretch," she said softly, and with a flash of uncharacteristic and unwelcome insight Friend realized she wasn't using damned as a mere adjective of emphasis. "I'm going to go and speak to him. Follow or not."
"I'll watch you from here," said Friend, and he raised his voice as she walked away from him: "Fear not I'd follow! I'd not subject my nostrils to proximity to the fellow!"
The confrontation by the fire being over and more or less settled, some of the pirates and prostitutes nearby looked toward Friend for further amusement - and evidently found some, for there were whisperings and guffaws and giggling behind jewel-studded hands.
Friend scowled and raised his hand, but already he could feel the strain in his mind, so he lowered his hand and made do with just saying, "Vermin!" and striding away to stand on a slight rise, his arms crossed dramatically, and staring at Hurwood's daughter. She had found the Shandy fellow, and they'd moved a dozen yards away to talk.
Despise me, he thought, all of you - you've only got about a week left to do it in.
For the first time in years, Friend thought about the old man who had started him on the ... he paused to savor the phrase ... the road to godhood. How old had Friend been? About eight years old - but already he had learned Latin and Greek, and had read Newton's Principia and Paracelsus' De Sagis Earumque Operibus ... and already, he now recalled, envy of his intellect and his sturdy physique had begun to cause small-minded people to dislike and fear him. Even his father, sensing and resenting a greatness he could never hope to comprehend, had abused him, tried to make him take up pointless physical exercises and reduce his daily allotment of the sweets that provided him with the blood sugar his body required; only his mother had truly recognized his genius, and had seen to it that he didn't have to go to school with other children. Yes, he'd been about eight when he'd seen the ragged old man leaning in the back window of the pastry shop.
The old fellow was obviously simple-minded, and drawn to the window by the smell of fresh-cooked fruit pies, but he was gesturing in an odd way, his hands making digging motions in front of him as if they were encountering resistance in the empty air; and for the first time in his life Friend's nose was irritated by that smell that was like overheated metal.
Already graceful and sure-footed despite what everyone thought about his bulk, Friend had silently climbed onto a box behind the old man to be able to see in through the window - and what he saw set his young heart thumping. A fresh pie was moving jerkily through the air toward the window, and its hesitations and jigglings corresponded exactly to the old man's gestures. The shop girl was on her hands and knees in the far corner, too busy being violently ill to notice the airborne pie, and every few seconds the old man would let the pie pause while he gigglingly made other gestures that, at a distance, disarranged the girl's clothing.
Tremendously excited, Friend had climbed down from the box and hidden, and then a few minutes later followed the old man as he gleefully pranced away with the stolen pie. The boy followed the old man all that day, watching as he procured lunch and beer and caused pretty girls' skirts to fly up over their heads, all simply by gesturing and muttering, and little Leo Friend's breathing was fast and shallow as it became clear that none of the people the old man robbed or manhandled realized that the grinning, winking old vagabond was responsible. That night the old man broke the lock of an unoccupied house and retired, yawning cavernously, within.
Friend was out in front of the house next morning, walking back and forth carrying the biggest, grandest cake he'd been able to buy with the money from his father's rent-box. It was a sight to arouse lust in any lover of sweets, and the boy had been careful to refrost it to conceal all evidence of the tampering he'd done.
After an hour and a half of plodding back and forth, his chubby arms aching cruelly with the torture of holding up the heavy cake, little Friend finally saw the old man emerge, yawning again but dressed now in a gaudy velvet coat with taffeta lining. Friend held the cake a bit higher as he walked past this time, and he exulted when, simultaneously, abruptly induced cramps knotted his stomach and the cake floated up out of his hands.
The cramp doubled the boy up and had him rolling on the pavement, but he forced himself to open his eyes against the pain and watch the levitating cake; it was rising straight up into the air, and then it shifted a bit and descended on the far side of the house. The giggling old man went back inside, and Friend's cramp relaxed. The boy struggled to his feet, hobbled up to the front door, and, silently, went in.
He heard the old man noisily gobbling the cake in another room, and Friend waited in the dusty entry hall until the chomping stopped and the whimpering began. He walked boldly into the next room then, and saw the old man rolling on the floor between indistinct, sheet-covered pieces of furniture. "I've got the medicine hidden," the boy piped up. "Tell me how you do your magic and I'll let you have it."
He had to repeat this a few times, more loudly, but eventually the old man had understood. Haltingly, and with much use of expressive gestures when his wretched vocabulary failed him, the old man had explained to the boy the basis for the exchange that was sorcery, as simple a concept, but as unevident, as the usefulness of a purchase and block and tackle to dramatically increase a pulling force. The boy grasped the notion quickly, but insisted that the old man actually teach him to move things at a distance before he'd fetch the antidote; and after young Friend had successfully impelled a couch against the ceiling hard enough to crack the Plaster, the old man had begged him to end his pain.
Friend had laughingly obliged, and then scampered home, leaving the devastated corpse to be found by the house's tenants whenever they might return.
As he grew older, though, and studied the records of the ancient magics - all so tantalizingly consistent, from culture to culture! - he came to the bitter realization that the really splendid, godlike sorceries had, gradually over the millennia, become impossible. It was as if magic had once been a spring at which a sorceror could fill the vessel of himself to the vessel's capacity, but was now just damp dirt from which only a few drops could be wrung, and even that with difficulty ... or as if there were invisible stepping-stones in the sky, but the sky had expanded and pulled them far apart, so that, though ancient magicians had been able to step up them with just a little stretching, it now took almost a lifetime's strength just to leap from one stone to the next.
But he worked with what remained, and by the time he was fifteen he was able to take anything he wanted, and he could make people do virtually anything, against their wills ... and then he tried to give his mother, who alone had always had faith in him, access to this secret world he'd found. He could never remember exactly what had happened then ... but he knew that his father had hit him, and that he had fled his parents' house and had not ever returned.
His sorcerous skills enabled him to live comfortably for the next five years as a student. The best of food, clothing and lodging were his for the reaching - though a profound mistrust of sex had kept him from doing anything more about that subject than to have disturbing, unremembered, sheet-fouling dreams - and so one day he was alarmed, as a man might be alarmed to realize that his usual daily dose of laudanum is no longer enough to sustain him, to realize that he wanted - needed - more than this.
For after all, it was not what he was able to take that made magic wonderful, but the taking, the violation of another person's will, the holding of the better hand, the perception of his own will staining the landscape in all directions; and so it was disquieting to realize that his violation of other people was not complete, that there were spots in the picture that resisted his will the way waxed areas on a lithographer's stone resist ink - he couldn't reach their minds. He could force people to do his bidding, but he couldn't force them to want to. And as long as there was the slightest tremor of protest or outrage in the minds of the people he used, then his domination of them, his absorption of them, was not absolute. He needed it to be absolute ... but until he met Benjamin Hurwood he'd thought it couldn't be done.
"Why do you call him that?" Beth Hurwood asked irritably.
"What, hunsi kanzo?" said Shandy. "It's his title. I don't know, it seems too familiar to call him Thatch, and too theatrical to call him Blackbeard."
"His title? What does it mean?"
"It means he's a ... an initiate. That he's been through the ordeal by fire."
"Initiated into what?" She seemed upset that Shandy should know all this.
Shandy started to speak, then shrugged. "All this magic stuff. Even living up there in the old fort, you must have noticed that magic is as much in use here as ... as fire is back in England."
"I've observed that these people are superstitious, of course. I suppose all uneducated communities - " She froze, then stared at him. "Good Lord, John - you don't believe any of it, do you?"
Shandy frowned, and looked past the flickering fire to the jungle. "I won't insult you by being less than frank. This is a new world, and these pirates live much more intimately with it than the Europeans in Kingston and Cartagena and Port-au-Prince, who try to transplant as much of the Old World as they can. If you believe what's in the Old Testament you believe some weird things ... and you shouldn't be too quick to dictate what is and isn't possible."
Mr. Bird flung his food away and leaped to his feet, glaring around at no one in particular. "I am not a dog!" he shouted angrily, his gold earrings flashing in the firelight. "You son of a bitch!"
Beth looked over at him in alarm, but Shandy smiled and muttered to her, "Nothing to worry about - it's a rare night that he doesn't do this at least once. Whatever it is he's angry about has nothing to do with New Providence Island or 1718."
"God damn you!" shouted Mr. Bird. "I am not a dog! I am not a dog! I am not a dog!"
"I guess someone called him a dog once," Shandy said quietly, "and when he has a few drinks he remembers it."
"Evidently," agreed Beth bleakly. "But John, do you mean to tell me you ... I don't know ... carry charms so you'll be protected by this Mate Care-For?"
"No," said Shandy, "but I remember firing a pistol at your physician's stomach when he was carrying such a charm, that day Davies took the Carmichael.
"And listen, during the first week we were here, I caught a chicken and cooked it and ate it, and next day I came down with a bad fever. Old Governor Sawney was wandering by, jabbering and swatting invisible flies the way he does, and he saw me sweating and moaning in my tent, and right away he asked me if I'd eaten a chicken with words written on its beak. Well, I had noticed markings on its beak, and I admitted it. 'I thought so,' says the governor. 'That's the chicken I magicked Rouncivel's fever into. Never eat 'em if there's writing on their beaks - you'll get whatever it was someone wanted to get rid of.' And then he got another chicken, and did his tricks, and I was recovered next morning."
"Oh, John," Beth said, "don't tell me you think his tricks cured you!"
Shandy shrugged, a little irritably. "I wouldn't eat that chicken." He decided not even to try to tell her about the man he'd seen down the beach one night. The man's pockets had all been torn open, and he didn't speak because his jaw was bound up in a cloth that was knotted over his head. As he had walked past Shandy, Shandy had noticed that his coat was sewn shut rather than buttoned. There was no point in telling her about it, or what he'd later learned about people who were dressed that way.
She dismissed the subject with an impatient wave. "John," she said urgently, "Friend won't let me stay long - can you tell me where it is we're sailing for, tomorrow morning?"
Shandy blinked at her. "You're not going, are you?"
"Yes. My father - "
"But are you certain? I'd have thought that, with Woodes Rogers due here any day, the obvious thing for your father to do would be - "
"Yes, John, I'm certain. I saw my father today, the first time I've seen him in a week or so, and of course he was carrying that little wooden box that smells so bad, and he told me I'm going along. He went on and on about how thoroughly I'd be protected from any injuries or ailments - but he wouldn't say a word about where we're going, or why."
"Jesus." Shandy took a deep breath and then let it out. "Well, Davies hasn't said either, but the rumor is that we're headed for a place on the Florida west coast, a place where the huns - uh, where Blackbeard accidentally let a number of ghosts attach themselves to him." He smiled nervously at her. "Something like lamprey eels, I gather; or leeches. And," he added, hoping he was concealing the apprehension he felt, "we'll rendezvous there with Blackbeard himself."
"God help us," she said softly.
And Mate Care-For too, thought Shandy.
With a lot of impressive swishing and spraying of sand and audible grunts of effort, Friend came waddling and arm-swinging over to them. "That's ... enough, Elizabeth," he panted. "Dinner awaits us ... at the fort." He mopped his forehead with a lacy handkerchief.
Beth Hurwood looked toward the pirates' cooking pots so longingly that Shandy asked, "Dinner?"
"Herbs and greens and black bread," she sighed.
"Plain but wholesome," pronounced Friend. "We have to keep her healthy." He too glanced toward the pots, briefly feigned gagging, then took Beth's arm and led her away.