Manuel de Castillo stood on the plank looking down at the calm, steel green water thirty feet below and cursing. Fucking pirate whores. Fucking ocean. His hands were bound. They’d stripped him and chopped off his hair. Fucking idiot boy he’d been to ever leave Mellaria.
The color of the water was familiar even after four years away. Gadez, the sea of his father and grandfather. Squalid little fishermen who stank of their catch and never sailed beyond where they could see land. Cowards, like him. He lifted his head and could nearly smell the salty brine of his mother’s kitchen.
The fat sun blazed mockingly in the blue sky.
“Go on now, sweet,” the swab said, prodding Castillo’s bruised ass with a pike.
The white remains of his breeches fluttered when he stepped away from the boat. He gripped the plank with the soles of his feet. The pitch increased as he moved farther out and he swayed, trying to steady himself with his bound hands. The horsehair rope dug into his wrists. A breeze nearly swept him off the side. The swab giggled. Castillo had been beaten and violated, but at that moment all that mattered was to get to the end of the plank. He couldn’t bear to be made any more of a fool.
The pirates gathered at the rail, jeering and giddy, like children in the patched-together rags of other men’s clothes: vests from the Royal Navy, a buccaneer’s coat, the fitted pants of a Dutch admiral. Moctezuma’s jewelry hung from their scrawny necks and stretched their freshly pierced ears. Castillo regained his balance. Clenching his teeth, he took a slow, measured step.
High on the topsail, one of the monkeys loosed in the drunken revelry following the battle hooted, a strange pleading sound. The swab clacked his wooden teeth together. Grinning at his comrades, he hoisted one of his black boots onto the plank and leaned on his knee. The plank wobbled, forcing Castillo to his knees.
Salt air rippled the limp sail. The monkey pawed at the moving fabric, hooting once more. Castillo’s stomach churned with each undulation of the plank. Crouching, he fixed his eyes on a knot in the wood. The grain whorled around it as a line of ants avoids a rock. He willed himself not to fall. He was halfway out; the sea curved from horizon to horizon, broken by a distant plume of smoke. Behind him, the black painted hull of the Dauphine shimmered like oil.
Of course it would end like this. They were not only pirates but French. He’d been sentenced to death in the name of King Francis, that pale fop, at his own doorstep. Goddamn it all.
No sooner had he thought the words than Castillo began to frantically pray: for his mother and brothers, the heathen souls of Tenochtitlan, and that he would not go to hell.
“I think he misses me,” the swab said, tugging his balls at the slumped figure.
The captain, shaking the long greasy hair from his eyes, pushed the swab aside and slapped the plank with the flat of his hand. “Move, woman,” he said.
Castillo stilled his lips. He knew he deserved to die. The carcass of the San Fernando smoldered as it sank. Its blackened mast and topsail formed a crucifix, leaning west. He’d pillaged and killed in the New World, but when he saw the ropes flying onto the deck he fled instinctively, thinking, somehow, that he’d come too far to die. Hidden in the hold, he listened to the wet cracking sounds the cutlasses made on the bones of his shipmates.
The salt air stung his eyes. Slowly, he stood. The pirates cheered and laughed. A single thick cloud hung in the eastern sky. It was the kind of day his father had warned him about as a boy: too calm. Foot by trembling foot, Castillo walked toward the cloud until the plank ended and he stood alone above the great vault of the sea.
The captain straightened. Even the swab went silent as the Spaniard reckoned his fate.
When they nailed the plank in place, Castillo had been gripped by a fear so noxious he thought he would vomit, but now, looking down, it was not so bad. The steel green water was cool, inviting. He’d leapt into the sea thousands of times before, and from greater heights. Diving from the cliffs outside Mellaria with his brothers, then swimming south as fast as he could so the surf would deliver him onto the beach.
There is no beach. The thought slid around his brain but found no purchase, like water on glass. He remembered his mother’s rough hand on his cheek in the doorway. Cortes’ expedition had been years overdue, a lifetime in that heathen jungle, and surely she had already mourned him, but he’d dreamt of reappearing before her: a miracle, bearing jewels and gold.
He turned to the haggard faces at the rail, the last men he would ever see. Their sun-leathered cheeks were twisted by greed. Moctezuma’s treasures littered the deck behind them. Gold coins spilled from gold chests. Goblets and trinkets rattled across the uneven boards. An ink-black jaguar paced in a wooden cage. Three more monkeys clung to the mast where Alonso de Avila was tied.
“This place is not yet clouded by the eyes of God,” Avila had said, walking up the bloody steps of Xacayatzin. But God had found them.
Castillo met the captain’s gaze. “He will find you, too,” he said. Then he looked up at Avila hanging from the mast—naked and bound, the man he had followed to the end of the world. A fool as well, in the end.
Castillo’s toes curled around the edge of the plank. He stood as tall as he could. A pounding filled his ears.