Juan Niño watched the Santa Maria across the water. He could see Admiral Colón deep in conversation with the representative of the crown. Juan looked for his brother, Pedro, and saw him aft, watching the shore. Juan could not read his face. Surely, as pilot of Colón’s flagship, Pedro must know something. Give me a sign.
Juan swore softly. He had wagered the Niña against a sixth of the profits. Once they reached Cipangu, he had expected a harbor, a city, boats, throngs of odd-looking people. A place of opportunity. Of money to be made. Not a small island in a vast sea with a handful of naked savages standing on the beach watching them.
There was no money to be had in savages.
Vicente Pinzón clapped a hand on his shoulder. “We have made it at last. Cipangu!”
The eternal optimism of the Pinzón brothers. Vicinte and Martín Pinzón could afford optimism. The Pinzón brothers stood to gain from fully half the profits. Martín owned the Pínta. Juan owned the Niña but Vicente commanded it—one of the conditions placed upon him by the Admiral and, by extension, the King and Queen. Probably instigated by the Pinzóns. The return had seemed worth it at the time. Before the long weeks at sea where the Pinzón optimism had worn thin. Perhaps even the Admiral found them tiresome and it was intentional that neither Pinzón served on Colón’s ship, the Santa Maria.
“They’re nearly as dark as you are,” chuckled Vicente. “Perhaps the Africans came here before us.”
Juan held his tongue. As the saying went, money had no color.
Francisco climbed up beside them. “Will we be docking soon?”
“Eager for your share?” Juan shook his head and smiled at his younger brother. Two Pinzóns on the Pínta and one on the Niña. Two Niños on the Niña and one on the Santa Maria. Three brothers versus three brothers. Juan had made sure the Niño family was as well represented as the Pinzón.
Vicente laughed. “You’ll get your share soon enough, boy. Besides, where would you spend it?”
“Cipangu!” said the boy, eyes shining.
“You must at least wait for a proper harbor.”
Juan ignored them both and watched the shore. These people were dark. That was unremarkable. Dark skins were found the world over. But the color of these people did not come from Africa. Instead, their skin seemed to share the color of tarnished copper. They seemed to show a hesitant enthusiasm as if they were unsure if the presence of three Spanish ships in their tiny harbor was good fortune or bad. Juan wondered if any of them had ever seen a Spaniard. Ever heard of Spain. Ever seen a white or black man.
Most of them were naked—even the women. That Juan hadn’t counted on. He had twenty sailors who hadn’t seen land, much less a woman, much less a naked woman, for over two months. Juan could feel their tension as if the Niña were vibrating. Every seaman leaned over the eastern side watching the shore. The ship tilted towards the island. Juan didn’t like forcing his men into submission but it was his ship, by God, and he would have order if he had to bust their heads, Vicente or not.
Being closer to the island, the crew of the Santa Maria had an even better view. Juan didn’t envy the Admiral. Juan glanced towards the Pínta a bit further out from shore. He wondered if the proximity of riches might cause the excitable Pinzón brothers to dance on the deck. At least Vicente had the grace of a serious mind.
He could see preparations being made on Santa Maria. Finally. Juan watched as one of the boats settled into the water. He suppressed his misgivings and let himself relax into anticipation. Perhaps Vicente was right. Perhaps they had made it to the Cipangu. Perhaps they really were going to be rich.
Luís de Torres was a Jew among Christians. This was, he thought, similar to being a bloodied lamb dropped among lions. If the lamb was quiet enough to escape their notice he might just avoid being eaten.
He sighed, thinking of Spain. Translating for the Murcian Governor had been a sweet position. An advantage here and there. He’d been able to save for small comforts. Enough he could afford a house. A tiny estate. A wife.
Then, Granada had fallen and the expulsion order came a few months later. Who knew things could fail so fast? Luís shook his head. The writing had been on the wall for a century. He’d wanted to emigrate to Anatolia before the ink on the Queen’s order was dry—living under Islamic rule was not easy but would be a better life than under Isabella. Catalina would not have it. Convert as I did, she said. Now is your chance to embrace the one true faith. As if he felt the same way.
After all, the fact of the matter was that he’d converted solely to be allowed on the Santa Maria. He’d been told it was necessary. Even Colón could not go against the Queen in this matter. Every member of the Admiral’s crew must be Christian. Luís had been born a Jew and had no desire to do anything but die a Jew. Of course, he’d planned to put death off as long as possible.
A conversion in name only was precisely what most interested the Inquisition.
But not in Cipangu. If they had managed to reach it, Luís would not be required for the return. But maybe he could be left behind to help a small delegation representing the crown. At least long enough to send for his wife. And so, he converted just before the voyage. At least there were no Inquisitors aboard.
When Luís closed his eyes, he could see the massive flotilla carrying Jews bound for Africa or England or Anatolia that had accompanied the Admiral’s ships out of Palos Harbor.
Luís looked up at Colón giving orders to prepare the boats. Two boats, twelve men, Luís included. He licked his lips. Luís was fluent in Arabic, Portuguese and Spanish, Aramaic, Hebrew, and the scattering of pidgins and bastard patois that grew around the coasts like weeds. The Admiral was convinced they’d find relics of the Lost Tribes of Israel in Cipangu. Luís had no such belief. What common ground could possibly lie between his knowledge and the languages of Cipangu? He reassured himself: he would figure something out. How many times had he accomplished an intricate trade with a foreigner who barely knew the words for yes or no or money? It was only necessary to discover the common ground.
Luís closed his eyes in the sunlight. This place was like nothing he had ever known. The taste of the air. The feel of it—like someone touching you with fur. With silk. Everywhere he looked, the water was a different color ranging from translucent aqua to deep blue. The air was like nowhere else. Not in the Canaries where they’d actually begun the journey. Not Spain. Not in the Mediterranean. Was this why people admired the East so much? Not the spices. Not the gold. But the perfumed, delicate air.
The islanders were naked. Luís turned away. When they had reached the beach and stood next to the natives, they were still naked but Luís could no longer turn away. He kept his eyes on their faces.
The Admiral said, “Translate my words.”
“Excuse me, sir,” Luís said. “Let me see what sort of languages we might have in common.” Both natives were dressed essentially in misplaced feathers. Clothing was mere ornamentation. Luís led the taller man a few steps away—often negotiations were better handled with the illusion of privacy. Luís noticed the pale, yellow color of pendants hanging from his companion’s nose and ears. Gold. The Admiral would surely be interested in that.
The two of them tried different languages. The man pointed to himself, finally saying, “Arun.”
Luís pointed to himself and said his name. The two of them grinned at one another. Half an hour of failure climaxed by determining how both referred to themselves by name. If it was his name and not the name of his tribe, family, or island. Luís sighed.
Luís pointed to the gold in Arun’s nose.
“Pekun,” said Arun.
Which could be gold, nose, or nose ornament. Luís tried looking around as if searching.
Arun laughed and pointed southwest.
At least it was a possible direction to find gold, thought Luís.
Arun pointed at the older man standing with the Admiral, listening politely as Colón tried first Spanish, the Portuguese, then Italian, and, finally, Genoese. With the exception of Genoese, Colón spoke none of them well.
“Meh,” Arun said.
Arun nodded vigorously, pointing first to Meh and then back to himself. Then, he pointed to the Admiral. “Kassiquan.”
Ah, thought Luís. It was clear even to a naked savage the Admiral was their leader. Meh and Arun were the leaders of the island—kassiquans? That was something.
Arun gestured to the islanders. “Guaitiao.”
Which could mean his tribe or that they were all islanders.
Arun pointed to the ground. “Siano.”
Which could mean ground. Beach. Island. Or the name of this place.
“Admiral,” said Luís, pointing to Colón.
“Almeer,” said Arun thoughtfully.
Luís returned to the Admiral.
“What news?” asked Colón.
“Very little, Admiral,” Luís said hesitantly. “There is no common language between us. I did manage to ask him about his jewelry. It is gold. Its source lies southwest of us.”
Colón smiled broadly. “Proof indeed we are where we sought. I make this one of the outer islands of Cipangu and thus too far south to benefit from Cipangu’s civilizing influence.”
“Without doubt, Admiral,” said Luís, filled with all sorts of doubt.
The Admiral insisted on a meeting in his cabin on the Santa Maria. Martín Pinzón was there as Capítan of the Pínta and Vicinte Pinzón as Capítan of the Niña. As sole owner of the Niña, Juan Niño demanded he be present also, and the Admiral acquiesced. The Admiral insisted Luís de Torres attend them. “He has the most knowledge of the islanders,” he said. “Having spent most of the afternoon with one of their leaders.”
Juan did not like the little Jew. Being a Jew was bad enough but converting to the Church the day before they embarked was an insult. An obvious ploy by which an unscrupulous man could preserve safety and property. Marrano. The Inquisition had the right idea: ferret out these unbelievers and deal with them.
The Admiral, for all of his religious convictions, did not seem to hold it against the little man. To Juan, this was not a point in the Admiral’s favor.
“We have achieved our destination,” said the Admiral in a full voice. “Did you see the gold jewelry on them?”
“These poor creatures could not be the source of such gold.” Martín looked around the table.
“Not surprising,” said Vicente. “It’s an island and a small one at that—there’s barely enough soil for the trees. It’s not a place one could mine gold.”
“Exactly,” said Martín. He turned to Luís. “Did you find where the gold is?”
Luís squirmed. “No,” he said in his high voice. “Just that it must lie to the southwest.”
“Did you find out where lies Cipangu?” asked Juan.
Luís squirmed again. “No. They did not seem to know the name.”
The Admiral shook his head. “As I said, it is one of the outlying islands. Possibly they know it by some other term.”
“Do we know for certain if we are anywhere near Cipangu?” asked Juan thoughtfully.
“What do you mean?” said the Admiral coldly.
“We could be far enough away that Cipangu is not known.”
“We are at the correct distance west. We are at the correct latitude.”
“Are we?” said Juan, stung. “We went two weeks farther than your estimates.”
“I told you every day the distance we covered—”
“I know what you told us.”
The Admiral colored and stood. “What are you implying?”
Martín stood up. “He implies nothing. Only that we must have more proof for the Queen than a few gold baubles and an island full of savages. No one would dispute that. Eh, Juan?”
“Yes,” said Juan, making himself relax.
“Remember who is master of the Niña and who is commander of the fleet,” said the Admiral.
“I remember who is its owner,” Juan returned. “I remember I’m here for the riches and not to prove myself.”
“Then remember who is commissioned by the Queen.” The Admiral glowered at him. “And who is not.”
Juan had no response for that. He nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
“What is our plan?” asked Martín.
“Luís?” The Admiral turned to Luís.
Luís fidgeted. Juan shook his head in disgust.
“There are two leaders,” squeaked Luís. “The one I spoke with is named Arun. The other, older, one appears to be named Meh. I believe I can gain a great deal of information from them if I am allowed to continue speaking with him.”
“Good. I had the same thoughts.” The Admiral looked around. “We go back again tomorrow. You, my commanders and masters, will remain with your ships. Ready with protection or reinforcements. Luís and I will take a dozen men with us. Good sailors with broad experience from different ports. It may be that collectively we can glean what we need without relying on any one source.” The Admiral fixed them with his gaze, lingering on Juan. “And gentlemen, we shall pick seamen that can follow orders. The dress of the islanders has not been lost on me and we have been many weeks at sea.”
Luís watched the beach apprehensively as they rowed towards it. This time he could see Meh and Arun clearly, along with half a dozen men. The women were absent. What could that mean?
There was tension in Meh and Arun, too. Something different from yesterday. An animal resembling a cross between a bird and a lizard frolicked between them. It was perhaps four feet tall, walked upright, and ran down to the water’s edge, splashing in it and then running back to crouch and hide behind Arun. Its hands looked thin and graceful with tiny claws at the tip. There was a single, nasty-looking claw on each foot.
“Mark the animal?” asked the Admiral.
“I do,” said Luís.
“What do you make of it?”
“Possibly it is a pet or serves as some sort of dog?”
“Do the people of Cipangu not have dogs?” The Admiral muttered under his breath.
“Perhaps it is an affectation of the Guaitiao. As you said they lie beyond Cipangu’s civilizing influence.”
“Possibly,” said the Admiral. “I don’t like it.”
“They seem to hold it in high esteem.”
“I noticed that, also.”
The Admiral left the boat as soon as he could do so and walked up to Meh and Arun with a great smile. The creature stood in front of Arun, watching Colón curiously.
Arun leaned aside to Meh and said something. Both of them laughed. The creature glanced at them and then gave its attention to the Admiral.
Arun and Meh traded comments to one another. Then, Arun pointed at it and said terl.
“I believe that is the creature’s name,” said Luís. If it wasn’t the animal’s type or owner. Every dog had a name in one way or another.
“Terl,” said the Admiral. He reached down and patted it on the head.
The creature ducked and turned, eyes locked on Colón. For a moment, Luís thought it was going to attack. Meh and Arun spoke to it.
Terl relaxed and submitted to the petting.
The Admiral patted it again, then dismissed it as unimportant. He turned back to Arun and Meh.
Luís took Arun’s arm and led him away from the Admiral. Terl followed. A few yards away, they sat down and started trying to communicate in earnest. Terl curled up nearby and fell asleep.
Luís didn’t try to teach Arun Spanish—there were good reasons to keep a foreigner in the dark as to their plans and communications. Instead, he tried to learn Arun’s language.
Arun didn’t mind. He worked hard, telling Luís the names for various things—acting out actions when he had to. Luís was surprised at his effort. After a few hours, he had words for perhaps a hundred objects and nearly as many verbs.
He returned to the Admiral. “Sir? I think I can help now.”
“So quickly?” The Admiral smiled at him. “I am impressed. Ask him where lies Cipangu.”
There was no referent for Cipangu but according to the Admiral’s maps, it was the easternmost major island of the Indies and stuffed with wealth and power. He asked Arun and Meh where lay the biggest island. Southwest. Arun offered to guide them there.
“Really?” said the Admiral when Luís relayed that.
This sparked some discussion between Meh and Arun. They spoke quickly and used words Luís couldn’t follow.
Terl came over and yawned, showing Luís a fair number of teeth. The animal fluffed out its feathers and then preened them back into position.
Finally, Meh and Arun reached some conclusion and Arun returned to the simple words he and Luís had hammered out: “I go with you.”
Though southwest was their desired direction, the wind was uncooperative. It blew from the west all the next day, forcing all three ships to clumsily tack to the southeast.
Juan Niño didn’t like it. He didn’t like the comfortable feeling of the air and the oddly calm water. It seemed once they had entered this sea the ocean’s honest swells had been tamed. It made Juan uneasy, as if some monstrous storm were going to surprise them at any moment.
Despite their efforts, the wind blew them more east than south and after a couple of days, a mountain appeared on the horizon.
Martín Pinzón brought the Pínta close enough to hail. “That’s a place where there should be gold, eh?” he called.
Juan called back. “Ask the guide.”
Vicente Pinzón, standing next to him, called out: “Ask the Admiral.”
A few hours later the Pínta came alongside the Santa Maria. Juan could hear words exchanged but could not make them out.
They anchored not far from the mountainous island and watched it. That evening, Vicente visited the Santa Maria alone.
Juan climbed the rigging high above the furled sails. He could definitely see the cliffs and what looked like large animals coming down to the edge of the sea. For what, he could not say.
When the mountainous island showed on the southern horizon, Arun took great pains to persuade the Admiral through Luís that this was a place they should not go. “Bad people,” he said to Luís. “Very bad. Cipangu to west and south. Many people greet you.” Arun gripped the railing with white-knuckled desperation.
Terl squatted next to them. The animal had not seemed to be put off by the rolling motions of the ship. It stayed close to Arun, yawning now and then and sleeping when it could. Sometimes, Terl would call in a fluting pipe. Luís considered this the equivalent of a dog’s howl.
“Best place is to go east.” Arun pointed. “There.”
That night Martín Pinzón questioned Arun about the source of the gold. At first, Arun made as if not to understand but Luís could tell he was stalling. Finally, Arun confessed there might be some gold on the mountain island. But the vast majority of gold, and other obscure but valuable treasure, lay in “Cipangu.” It made Luís nervous that Arun had started calling the target island “Cipangu.”
The Admiral was furious to find Martín Pinzón and the Pínta gone the next morning. He brought the Niña closer to talk with Vicente. Juan stood next to his commander, silent except for those moments when Vicente asked him a question: No, Martín had not told him where he was going. He had not spoken with Martín since yesterday. But wasn’t it obvious? Martín was going to find gold of his own on yonder island. If they wanted to find him, they’d have to sail around it until they found the Pínta’s chosen harbor.
The Admiral considered this a long time. Finally, he brought Arun to the rear deck and directed him to take them to “Cipangu.”
Luís stood on the foredeck, next to Arun and Terl, entered a small bay. Terl leaned against the railing, watching the shore. Luís thought that if Terl were a dog he would be wagging his tail.
The harbor of “Cipangu” had a lovely natural draft and a gentle current from its river. The Admiral brightened considerably. “This harbor is as good as any in Europe!” A wooden pier extended out into deeper water. It wasn’t as robust as the piers back in Spain. Double and triple dugouts were tied to it, showing the sort of craft it served. Even so, the Admiral directed that the Santa Maria come near enough he could disembark. Capítan Pedro Niño brought the Santa Maria as close as possible to the end of the pier to stay in deeper water. Then, he declared the pier was too flimsy to tie against and anchored the Santa Maria next to it. Juan de la Cosa, the Santa Maria’s master and part owner, agreed.
A clot of men stood on the pier, waving them ashore.
Odd, he thought. The inhabitants of Cipangu looked a great deal like the inhabitants of Arun’s home island.
Luís looked into the group and recognized Meh. That would mean they had come here directly, ahead of the ships. To meet them.
To capture the ship.
Luís started to cry out but Arun grabbed him and pulled him down. Terl said something to Arun too fast for Luís to follow. Terl’s no pet!
Terl cocked his head and looked at Arun, then back at Luís. “I need you,” he said in clear, simple Spanish.
Then, Terl leaped to the railing and gave a fluting call. From behind the trees came running a thousand Terls, each carrying a short sword. The men on the pier scattered out of their way. Terl himself leaped from the foredeck, caught a rope, and swung over the milling seamen to the Admiral. He climbed his way up the Admiral’s back until he had grabbed the Admiral’s shoulders and had that wicked foot-claw at his throat.
Arun shook Luís. “Say stop fighting!” He shook him again. “Say!”
Luís felt slow, thick, watching a swarm of bird/crocodile things flow over the railing like insects. “Admiral!” he called. “Surrender! We are defeated!”
Juan was watching through a spyglass as feathered figures ran from the forest. Hm, he thought. The people of Cipangu are small.
Then he saw the glint of their knives as they swarmed up the ropes onto the Santa Maria.
“Vicente!” he yelled. “The Admiral is attacked!”
“Bring us in!” cried Vicente.
“No!” Juan looked around. If they went in, they’d be captured just like the Santa Maria. “Bring us around for the cannon.” The Niña had only a few small cannons but it overmatched those knives.
They brought the Niña broadside to shore. It took precious minutes to load the cannon and they had to fire carefully to miss the Santa Maria. Juan crossed himself and gave the order to fire.
The shore next to the pier exploded and figures went flying.
Good! Juan thought. Would it be enough?