Shivering in his soaked shirt, up to his hips in foul water as the pile-raised town dripped on him from above, Will found himself unable to stop thinking, Would Jack do this for me?
Jack was capable of altruism, but only when it was convenient for him. Will had his own code, and whether or not Jack would ever return the favor was beside the point. Still, the thought rattled around in his head, loose and dangerous, as he climbed the slippery piling and crept up to the temple's doors. Crouching beside a carved wooden lion, he caught his breath, then slithered, a piece of moving shadow, around the corner into the dark prayer hall.
Inside, a sweet acrid cloud of incense pushed back the fishy-rotten smell of the canals. The orange tips glowed at the foot of the statue of the sea goddess, Mazu, and candles illuminated her face. Everything else was deep inky shadow. This was where the Hoklo sailors came to give thanks for surviving their voyages, his guide had explained. Apparently one was doing so now.
Will gazed past the old man kneeling on the floor to the cluster of candles and incense-burners, behind which lay the rolled-up navigational charts, tucked up against the statue's feet. He couldn't see them, but he knew they were there. Resting against the sea goddess's sandals lay the route to the farthest gates. But he would have to wait until the old sailor had finished giving thanks.
Minutes passed. Will was even colder out of the water, and his joints were growing stiff as he crouched inside the door. Still the man stayed, head bent, hands folded. At last he lifted his head and turned a bit, and to Will's surprise, he wasn't a sailor at all—he was dressed instead like a rich merchant. As he stood and tended a dying candle, Will followed his every move, certain each moment that the man was almost done. But then, just as he seemed readiest to go, he knelt again on the prayer cushion and folded his hands to pray some more.
Now Will had a choice: did he have enough steel in him to knock an old man on the head in the midst of his prayers? They were heathenish prayers, which made the task marginally easier—but when had he become such a man? He might even kill the old fellow if he struck him too hard—this man who believed himself in a place of peace. Will hadn't always been the sort of man who would blithely trample a shrine, no matter what god it was consecrated to.
Jack was the one who had taught him to laugh at sacred things.
Jack, who would not think twice about knocking over an old man to get to a piece of treasure. Jack, who would risk his neck for gold, but would sell Will's soul to the devil if it suited him. Jack, whom Will fancied he could hear right now, chuckling over Will's dilemma. Just take it, lad! Don't you want to see me again?
Will got to his feet and drew his cutlass. Without a sound, he swarmed across the room and bore down on the kneeling man, who only had a moment to look up and utter a short cry before falling under a blow from the heavy hilt.
Will stood over him, panting, and felt a pang of conscience. He stooped and put the man's silk cap back on his head before stepping over him and over the row of candles. At the goddess's feet, a bit of gold leaf glinted. He reached for it.
But he never touched it. Something jerked hard on his ankle, and he went down face-first. A foot of surprising strength pressed on the back of his neck, and a voice scolded loudly in a language he didn't understand but assumed was Hokkien. The old man ground his foot down harder, still scolding, then made a piercing whistle through his teeth. Within minutes, the prayer hall was full of men.
When Will finally met Captain Sao Feng—and there was no mistaking him when he arrived—he imagined again that he could hear Jack laughing as the man explained coldly and in perfect English what would be done to Will next. Jack would know what to say, he thought. He would know who to give up, what names to drop, what mischief to bring down on others to save his own hide. Jack had made Will bad, but not bad enough. He clenched his teeth and shut his eyes, and said nothing.