The royal ships form a line across the mouth of the harbor, blocking access in and out. The old hotelkeeper, whose only customers are travelers and sailors, shakes his head at the horror of these pirates. Even the whores can squeeze a living out of the local menfolk for as long as this blockade continues, he complains, but his hotel is nearly ruined. The whores smooth his hair and tell him it will pass.
There is talk of the crown founding another port twenty miles down the island, where a high promontory offers more protection against the pirates. But no one really believes that the pirates can be headed off so easily—a few raised cannons would offer little advantage against their fearsome fleets. When the pirates come for us, he hears a young man saying in his bar, we can do nothing but surrender. Still, days pass and no black flags appear on the horizon.
To the hotelkeeper, the pirates seem capable of anything. There are rumors of pirates masquerading for months as legitimate deckhands before murdering their captains and commandeering the cargo. One guest tells him of a port on the Bay of Bengal where a pirate posed for years as a mild hotelkeeper, until one night, without warning, he slit the neck of a sleeping diamond-merchant and took his treasure out to a secret island refuge. At the end of this story, the hotelkeeper notices a strange light in his guest’s eyes, a crookedness of his smile and a whiff of sea-grime to his hair. Just to be sure, he double-locks the door leading to his quarters before he goes to sleep. If these pirates really have infiltrated everywhere, then better not to take chances.
One day, a messenger comes in from the guardian ships in the harbor to announce that the people of the port must send a tribute of food out to their royal protectors. A week later, the tribute is expanded to include women. The whores are furious, but the townspeople relent when they come to understand that pirate elements now control the guardian fleet—that instead of protecting the town from enemy invasions, the harbor ships now serve to prevent the townspeople’s escape. Without battle, the port falls to the pirates. At dawn, the ships raise the skull and crossbone standard.
The hotelkeeper brings his daughters out to the docks, and he is surprised to see himself among only a handful of townspeople obeying the pirates’ directives. Could they be plotting a rebellion, holding out hope of actually defeating the pirates in open combat? No, he soon learns: those not obeying have some other dealings with the pirates whereby less tribute is required of them. After the shock of the silent conquest is over, these townspeople begin to wear long bandannas and steal from the market on whim, explaining to him with spitting disgust that they, “always was a pirate all the time.”
He would complain to the governor, but the governor is among those in league with the pirates. He visits the hotelkeeper’s lunch hall each afternoon with a parrot on his shoulder, and each day he reports the news of another pirate conquest—Auckland, Manila, Cape Town. There are no more pillagings, just shifts in administrative policy as the pirate viceroys take over.
The hotelkeeper keeps his faith in the power of the crown to beat back the pirate advances and restore tranquil order to the empire. One day, however, the governor pays for his lunch (an act surprising enough in itself) with a newly minted coin. On its face is an engraving of the king, same as before but with a large hoop earring and goatee. The hotelkeeper reads it in the papers: always was a pirate, switched at birth by pirate conspirators, allied with pirates against all other powers of the world until pirates alone control the open seas.
The hotelkeeper takes the coin and buries it with his other profits, drawing himself a cryptic map and marking an “x” where his treasure lies. Then he takes on the uniform of a pirate and goes out onto the seas, seeking a land without piracy where he can die in peace.
He never discovers such a land, but he does find camaraderie among his crewmates on the pirate ship Black Dagger. In the chaos before they board a merchant ship, sword clenched in his mouth, his fellow pirate, a man named Shoemaker, admits he has never really considered himself a pirate. He just took to acting like one, he explains, so as to stay on the right side of history, “to keep an eye on me and mine.” Only one eye—the other is hidden behind a black eye-patch, which, as Shoemaker now reveals, is unnecessary, a hoax. The old hotelkeeper-turned-pirate soon begins to notice other inconsistencies in the behavior of his crewmates—ungrowled r’s, aversion to adventure, unexpected acts of kindness and charity. One evening, during an emotional group conversation about fathers and sons, it comes out that no one on board was born a pirate; all assumed the identity only once it seemed to be the only option left.
They vote unanimously to pull down their Jolly Roger, turn the ship around, and head for terra incognito, where they might found a colony outside all influence of piracy. They stop for provisions at the port the hotelkeeper once called home, and they are immediately arrested. The hotelkeeper is shocked to see the townspeople in conservative, un-ragged attire. “Never was a pirate,” one tells the hotelkeeper, straightening his cravat, “’Twas only putting on for show.” While in prison, the ex-pirates learn the good news: the king was not a pirate after all; he was merely impersonating one to draw the pirates closer to his trust, thereby giving him a chance to attack them on even footing. The pirates have been vanquished for now. Long live the king.
The hotelkeeper is eventually released, judged harmless on account of his old age. The governor, who has seized the hotel, gives him a job and a cot to sleep on in the back of the laundry room. The hotelkeeper never returns for his buried treasure, having lost the map in the course of his travels. Poverty does not bother him; his daughters are gone, and he has grown too old for whores. He still imagines, though, as he sits on the silent harbor dock at night, that the treasure map will come floating back to him some day. In his mind, the map arrives rolled tight inside an empty bottle of rum, carried by the ever-changing currents from one pair of hands, covered with battle-scars and silver rings, to the soft, wrinkled hands of an old hotelkeeper, now folded in his lap.