She walked with a heavy heart. She had her freedom at last, but not without cost. That was life. All one could do was their best. She’d tried to fight Tattoos, even at the cost of her own life. It hadn’t been enough. But she’d gotten lucky and re-spawned in neutral territory and that meant she wasn’t finished yet. And it made one thing very clear: if she was going to triumph in this world, she was going to need to become stronger.
Barefoot in the light jungle, she tried to smile and focus on the positive: she was finally free to make her own way. Well, sort of. She had no idea where she was. What island was this? If there were Caribs here, there likely weren’t other towns or cities here. Then again, she’d been pointed in this direction. With luck, she’d find someone ahead. And a way to safe harbour.
The whole ‘I’m gonna be a pirate’ idea was sort of a vague plan; she was humble enough to admit that. She’d done her research on prison systems in general as part of her career, but she didn’t know all that much about this one, nor was she an expert on the real world history of the Caribbean. But she did figure that she was going to need a ship and a crew of her own at some point. If she wanted to buy her way out of here, she’d probably only be able to do that as a captain. Although, that was all well and good in theory; it was rather daunting and overwhelming to believe that she could do it now that she was actually faced with the prospect.
How would that even work? Well, first she’d have to make her way to some kind of pirate haven and join up with a crew to start out and learn the ropes. Ok, even before that, she was going to have to find a way off yet another island to get to said pirate haven. So many islands! No wonder they were using the Caribbean for a prison world. The only way to get around was by ship, and that wasn’t easy to do. Even if she had one of the Carib canoes, there’s no way she could paddle one herself. And somehow making it across hundreds of kilometres to another island? She believed in herself, but not that much. She would need help.
A whiff of smoke floated in the air.
Mei caught the scent and a wave of nausea went through her. She put a hand out and leaned against a nearby tree as she tried to force away memories of the previous night. Breath in. Breath out. Don’t vomit again.
Like a bad head rush, the feeling gradually went away and she recovered herself. She tentatively sniffed but couldn’t smell smoke anymore. Had it just been her imagination? Shuddering, she carried on.
She weaved in between and around trees, stepping over ferns and undergrowth. The air was warm, but not too much so here in the shade with the canopy overhead. The walk was actually quite pleasant. She looked over her shoulder every now and then but was resigned to the fact that she was probably not heading in the same direction as she’d started. She tried to stay on course. But she’d get detoured from a dense stand of trees or a gully and knew that she was likely meandering as she tried to get back on track.
Thus it was sometime in the afternoon before she wandered close to the destination that the old Carib woman likely had had in mind. By then she was tired, sweaty and starving. Her bare feet were sore and the hilt of the sword damp in her palm. That’s when she heard voices.
They were faint at first, male. Perhaps that was laughter?
She froze in place, listening.
It took several moments, but more voices carried to her.
Her heart beat faster. Who were they? More Carib warriors? Guards or soldiers come to search for her? She bit her lip. She had to find out, even if it was dangerous. Gripping the sword more tightly, she stepped slowly and purposefully now. She edged around foliage and gently pushed leaves out of the way, trying not to show her movement or make sound. Creeping slowly, she heard the voices growing louder.
Yes, they were definitely male. And there were a few. Two? Three. More?
She saw the jungle thin ahead and blue sky appeared. Was that a clearing in front of her?
Not wanting to be discovered, she crouched low. Her head swivelled side to side, taking everything around her in. Was anyone standing in the undergrowth taking a leak? Were they hunting or gathering? She did not want to be caught unawares.
At last, she approached the edge of the jungle. She didn’t walk all the way to the edge though. Instead, Mei got down onto her stomach and crawled forward under the ferns like a snake.
She paused. Were there snakes here? She looked around at the ground, covered in leaves and new plants. This would be prime snake country, right? If any were slithering around. Or what about scorpions. Did they have those here? They had them in Mexico, didn’t they? Or big, hairy tarantulas? Army ants?
Ugh! Why she thinking about this kind of thing now?
She shook her head. These were just anxious thoughts. Ignore them. Crawling forward a little further, she peeked beyond a cluster of ferns.
The jungle opened up into a small clearing, likely manmade. There were two lean-tos, one on either side of the space, made of broken branches and palm leaves and the like. They were very crudely constructed, far rougher than anything the Caribs had crafted. A small fire pit sat in the center alongside a large stack of firewood. On the far side of the area, she could just see the ocean through the jungle, though she couldn’t see any beach.
Four men inhabited the clearing. From their plain, blue uniforms, all were prisoners.
Mei swallowed. Not guards. Not navy, nor were they cannibals. Just a bunch of criminals, hanging out and looking really bored. Criminals. Possibly rapists and murderers, just like Tattoos. She should stand up. Go out there. Talk to them.
She very, very quietly backed away. Each hand and foot was placed ever so gently so as not to make a single sound. Until she was far enough back in the jungle that she warily stood, cast about for anyone else in the area, and then ran away.
She didn’t go far. Just far enough that she thought she wouldn’t be casually discovered. Then she sat down and leaned against a thick fig tree, under vines hanging from branches above.
Why had she run away?
Because she wasn’t ready. It was too soon. No it wasn’t. But she was nervous. Her first contact with other people in this world had been the guards ready to imprison and rape her. The second had been with cannibals who were either going to eat her or induct her into their tribe as a wife-slave.
Now, she’d finally met a third group: prisoners. And while this was a group she technically belonged to, she couldn’t help but remember that most prisoners in here were not going to be nice people. If they were, they’d likely be out in the real world doing good things. A prison world was home to wife beaters and serial killers and thieves and that sort of thing. Like the cowardly thief she’d shared the cages with. Or the tattooed one who’d killed her while slaughtering half a village.
Still, she needed to approach them. She wasn’t going to be able to survive this world alone let alone buy her way out of it. She needed to meet other people. She needed to network, maybe make friends. Even if it was with untrustworthy, selfish, and possible violent men. Even if she was just a lone woman.
A lone woman with no law on her side, no social protection at all. She could walk into that clearing and they could do anything they wanted to her. They could—
She violently shook her head, then slapped herself.
Idiot. Why was she so nervous? Why was she thinking such negative thoughts?
Probably because she’d seen so many people die and then died herself. Because she felt weak. She was still shaken from her experience.
Mei tried to calm herself.
Ok, time to be a professional. She was a journalist, wasn’t she? She’d met unsavoury people all the time in the course of her career. She’d walked in terrible neighbourhoods, interviewed gangsters and terrorists. She was no stranger to these kinds of men. She just had to act strong. Treat it like part of the job. Be friendly. Network. And not show them what she really thought about them. Whatever you do, she told herself, you don’t want them to feel judged. Keep your opinions to yourself.
She took a deep breath. She could do this. Standing up, she looked down at herself. Hmm. Might give them the wrong impression if she showed up wearing a captain’s coat. Weapons too. Actually, there was a good chance they’d just steal those from her, right? Right. Better to just hide all this stuff for now. She could always come back for it.
Looked about, she found a patch of bare dirt not far from the big fig tree. The loose soil was easy to dig up with a stick and her hands. After creating a small hole, she put her rapier inside, then wrapped the jacket around the pistols and put that inside as well. A few big fern leaves followed to keep the dirt off the fabric, then she filled in the hole.
Of course, the area was now disturbed and it totally looked like someone had buried treasure here. Great. She paused and thought. Then she tore another leaf off of a fern and used it to sweep the area so that it looked natural. A few dried leaves and a dead branch made for camouflage.
She stood back. It would easily fool a casual glance.
Ok, time to meet those prisoners.
Mei strode towards the clearing. This time she didn’t keep quiet. In fact, she purposely stomped along and swished the undergrowth.
The voices cut off. Had they heard someone coming?
Still cautious, she approached from behind a thicker tree and stopped with it between her and the clearing. She peeked around it.
Four heads were turned her way, waiting.
She swallowed and then cleared her throat. “Hey there!”
No reply. But someone moved.
“I’m a prisoner too!” she called.
“Yeah?” a voice replied.
She glanced down at herself. “Yeah! I’m not wearing a blue uniform though. Stolen clothes.”
“You gonna show yourself?”
“As long as everyone’s calm. I don’t want to cause trouble.”
“Come on then.”
She peeked around the tree. All four men were standing. Two had branches in their hands, like clubs. Even more nervous now, she raised her hands a bit to show they were empty and stepped out from behind the tree. “I’m not armed.”
The smallest of the four males sat next to the fire pit, where he’d been tossing twigs into the flames. He exclaimed first, in a thick Mexican accent, the kind you hear on poorer streets. “Guau! Es una chica! I don’t believe it.” He was small and wiry, with very short black hair. He sported an unfortunate example of what was supposed to be a moustache, but which he evidently didn’t have the genes for. Or the age. He might have been eighteen or nineteen at most.
And…there was no other way to put this: he was ugly. As in, so ugly you couldn’t help but feel bad for the guy. One look and Mei’s heart went out to him. Kind of like the way it does when you see a really pitiful puppy that no one wants.
One of the men with clubs narrowed his eyes at her. He was older, quite handsome and lanky and stood with good posture. His dense, coiled hair was a few centimetres long and bone white, which matched the tastefully groomed goatee of the same stark colour. Both were in strong contrast to his very dark skin. “Are you alone?” he asked, his eyes flickering past her to the jungle beyond. Was that a French accent?
“I am,” she replied, continuing to take their measure. It was a diverse group.
The guy standing next to the black man only grunted, but his smouldering eyes blatantly travelled all over Mei’s body. He looked Mediterranean and was the definition of swarthy, that is tall, dark and exceedingly handsome, the type of guy who appears on the covers of magazines and erotic romance novels. He was muscular. Arms and shoulders filled out his uniform, and he no doubt came with lots of visible abs. A confident smirk appeared on his lips.
Mei did not return it. She wasn’t into guys like him. Her first impression of him was arrogant and narcissistic, the type who came up to you in the club and touched you all over without asking, insisting on being the alpha male and assuming you would do anything for them. Gross.
The fourth guy, who was white, had been laying in one of the lean-tos, relaxing in the shade. He smiled easily, his blue eyes bright. “My my, isn’t this a welcome surprise? Gentlemen, there is a lady in our midst.” The accent was American, or perhaps Canadian. He stood up very smoothly, revealing some athleticism. His smile was fresh and friendly, and though he was no pretty boy, he was not bad looking. Perhaps just…average. “Welcome. Won’t you join us? Assuming you’re not currently being chased by armed individuals and are about to get us all captured, of course.”
Mei actually cracked a smile at his easy charm. She lowered her hands. “No, it’s just me. And I’m harmless.”
The fourth guy laughed. “A lady is never harmless. Please, join our humble camp.” He waved her forward.
She hesitated, body jittery. It felt like it was the first day of school and she was meeting a bunch of new people for the first time, knowing she wanted to make friends but was afraid nobody would like her. Which was ridiculous. She was not young and had plenty of experience meeting and befriending new people. What was wrong with her? She walked forward.
The little Mexican jumped to his feet and leered at her. He looked her over her body too.
The fourth guy came forward and offered a hand, his eyes on hers. “Lancelot Kinsley. American.”
His politeness and good manners were something of a surprise. And it must have shown on her face as she hesitated before taking his hand.
He laughed. “Is something wrong?”
“I just wasn’t—“ She grew flustered.
He grinned. “Weren’t expecting someone like me in prison?”
She felt her cheeks warm. What was wrong with her? Why was she so off balance all of a sudden? “No!” she protested. “Of course not. Um…”
The black man tossed his club away and stepped forward with a twist of smile on his lips. “It’s ok. We are all criminals here, true. But that does not mean that all of us lack class. Only most of us.”
She couldn’t help but laugh at that. “Is that a French accent?”
The way he spoke and the way his eyes pierced her own, he seemed like the serious, intelligent type, yet not unfriendly. “Oui. I was born and lived for a long time in Marseille and then Paris. Armand Blanchet.” He gestured to the the muscular man on his left. “Juan here is from Madrid.” He pointed to the final member of the group. “And Cheeto is from Tijuana.”
“And Mexico City,” Cheeto added. “That’s where I got arrested, actually.” He had tattoos on his forearms and two inked teardrops. His lazy manner seemed insolent, full of youthful bravado, but not yet rude. Probably because he was, without question, the runt of the litter here and likely knew it.
Juan didn’t speak. He just studied her. Mostly her breasts.
Mei ignored the sexual attention, which was to be expected, and took heart. This was going much better than she’d feared it might. She put on her best smile. “I’m Mei.”