23 Sarenith, 4712 AR
When she was sure everyone else was sound asleep, Leila al-Zahra slid from her hammock and crept aft to the galley door, barefoot and on tiptoe, her every muscle sore with the day’s exertion. She was no stranger to hard work on the Man’s Promise, and had even worked her rigging before, but never with a slave driver like Mr. Plugg watching her every move, eager to rub her nose in every mistake.
How doubly fortunate for her that Chopper had been there to show her the ropes, as it were. She surely would have been flayed to shreds at the Bloody Hour if not for his help. Indeed, were it not for Chopper, she wouldn’t be alive at all. What manner of gratitude could she show him that would begin to speak to what she owed him?
Focus, Leila told herself. You have a job to do.
The door creaked open at her touch. Leila winced, but when no one stirred, she slipped into the galley, knocking a tin cup from the counter as she passed through the door. She reached out to catch it, but it bounced off her fingers and clattered to the floor.
“Stupid,” she hissed at herself in Osiriani. “Clumsy.” She blamed Plugg; if he hadn’t worked her to exhaustion, she’d be quiet as a shadow. The sound of loud snoring came from the open doorway to port; that had to be the ship’s cook. Leila couldn’t imagine such a din coming from the cook’s mate, nor could she imagine how anyone could sleep in the same room with it…
A lone hooded lantern lit the room, aided by half-moon light streaming in from a starboard porthole. The pirates had restocked the stores for the journey to Port Peril. Things were much more organized than they’d been when this had been Sadira’s space; that, too, was probably the cook’s mate’s doing. Leila couldn’t remember the Tian woman’s name, for her thoughts lingered on Sadira. A woman so lovely and talented deserved better than slavery on the Wormwood, crafting meals for that monster Harrigan…
She scooped the lantern from its hook and began searching a spice rack. They didn’t loot any of these things, it’s got to be here somewhere… At last, she found the ceramic sugar bowl. Cradling it in her hands, she hung the lantern back up, turned – and looked up to see the cook’s mate closing the door to the crew berths. She, too, had snuck in on bare feet. She wasn’t wielding one of her Tian blades, but Leila had heard stories of their martial arts. This one was a samurai, too – among the fiercest warriors in all of Golarion. And she only had to raise her voice to bring help.
Leila gasped, and the sugar bowl slipped from her fingers. She tried to catch it, but it smashed to bits on the floor, dusting everything in grains of white. A bronze medallion on a simple metal chain sat revealed among the ruins.
“Oops,” Leila managed, weakly.
The cook’s mate sighed. “So much for anything sweet until we get to port.”
“I can clean it up,” Leila said at once, dropping to her knees. She’d gathered that the samurai was no friend to Plugg, Scourge, or the other, more miserable pirates that Haroun and Maoud al-Azrad had fallen in with, but Leila was hardly the best judge of character.
The Tian woman rummaged until she came up with an empty vessel, which she wiped down with a less-grimy rag and set within Leila’s reach. Seeing the medallion, she asked, “You couldn’t have just taken it out, and left the bowl?”
“You scared me!” Leila’s voice came out higher and louder than she’d wanted; she clapped a hand over her mouth.
“I apologize.” The cook’s mate went to close the door to the cabin, finally muting the big man’s snores. “But, considering the enemies some of us have aboard this ship, I can’t be too careful.”
Leila’s deft fingers started sweeping the sugar granules into the new bowl. “I understand. It’s not like you have any reason to trust me yet.”
“I have no reason to distrust you,” the samurai replied. “We haven’t even been properly introduced. Quick introductions during a muted gathering of cutthroats does not a friend make. My name is Nakayama Reiko. You may call me Reiko.” Her demeanor was friendly, her tone warm. It was a welcome change from the suspicion and hostility Leila had faced all day, and the odd glances from the redhead…
“Very well. Reiko. I am Leila al-Zahra; please, call me Leila.” She had no family name, but Captain Asad had called her al-Zahra, “the rose,” which had always pleased her.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Leila.”
“For me, as well. The first real pleasure I’ve had in days.” She held the medallion over the bowl, shaking off the last of the sugar. “I had to hide this, before the pirates came. I… didn’t want to lose it.”
Reiko sat on the floor near her, leaning against one of the cupboards. “Well, it’s good that you were saved by Mr. Chopper, and also ended up back here on the Man’s Promise, then. Otherwise, it would have been just as lost.”
“Yes.” Leila stood up long enough to return the bowl to the shelf, then slumped back down the bulkhead, stretching out her legs. I feel like my muscles are on fire. “I was… surprised by that, yes. I thought I was going to die. I can swim well enough, but not while bound.”
“I’m quite sure that I would even have trouble swimming while bound. Fortunately though, Mr. Chopper has little regard for his own life when someone is in trouble… particularly when that someone is of the female persuasion.”
Really? “I am… in his debt.”
Reiko studied the tattoo on Leila’s right ankle, the tangle of roses and thorns she’d had done on her first night back in Azir. The cook’s mate hadn’t seen it before, of course, because of Leila’s boots… a question came to Leila about Chopper, but before Leila could voice it, Reiko asked, “Mind if I have a look at that medallion that you went through so much trouble to hide and re-find?”
She hesitated, but only for an instant. Leila needed allies on this ship to survive, and Reiko acted like she felt the same way. No, this wasn’t an act… the samurai wanted to be her ally. Perhaps even her friend. “Of course,” Leila said, handing it over. “He helped me all day today. Chopper, I mean. I’ve already heard stories of your Captain’s reputation for cruelty; I didn’t want to be punished.”
“Well, from what I’ve gleaned of Mr. Chopper, he’s the type to wave off something like a debt such as that. He seems to fancy himself a ‘knight-in-shining-armor’ type. Ms. Feruzi apparently has been following him around for a similar reason.” The medallion looked larger in Reiko’s small hands as she turned it over and over. “And you’re right to fear Mr. Plugg. He doesn’t take kindly to mistakes of any kind. I’ll be honest with you though, if you associate yourself with Mr. Chopper, Ms. Feruzi, Mr. Hands – that’s the quiet one – or myself too much, you’ll be marked."
“I fear that’s happened already. Even Haroun and Maoud al-Azrad have shunned me.”
“I’d like to say that you’d be better off and safer with us. We’re not quite like your typical pirates. However, you’d really have to make your own choices on that one. Not a single person in Captain Plugg’s entourage would hesitate, even for a moment, to kill you or anyone else if they saw it to their benefit.”
Leila looked down at the floor. “I believe you. The other man, Harrigan… after my Captain surrendered, Harrigan cut out his heart, while he still drew breath.” Leila met Reiko’s gaze, saw gold flecks in her amber eyes, shining in the moonlight. She’d only met a handful of Tian, and always found them fascinating to behold. “But I’m glad to hear that you and yours aren’t like that.” And Leila believed it. How could she not?
“Neither Harrigan, nor Mr. Plugg, have given me any reason to call either one of them captain.” Leila could almost taste the anger in Reiko’s voice. “I don’t consider myself part of their crew.”
A chill flushed through Leila’s heart. “Then you are here against your will?”
The cook’s mate sighed. “Not exactly. But, now that I have the information I came here to get, I haven’t had the chance to leave.”
“If I may… what information could be worth such a price?”
“Family.” Reiko paused before continuing. “My brother, more specifically. And our birth parents, who were apparently pirates. My older brother Tatsumi and I were adopted when I was just a baby. When we found out we were adopted, Tatsumi decided to go searching for our birth parents. After three years of not hearing from him, I followed, but my focus is on my brother, more than my birth parents.”
“You followed his trail to the Wormwood, only to find he wasn’t here.”
“That he wasn’t. Apparently he’d been in Port Peril while I was there looking for him. Mr. Scourge failed to mention that until I cornered him and questioned him on the poop deck, nearly two weeks out at sea.”
Leila understood the need for family well enough. For someone like Scourge to abuse that need… “I am not a virtuous woman,” Leila said. “I know this. But these pirates are little better than vermin.”
“I can’t disagree. I have worked with many that appear as holy men, comparatively speaking.” Before Leila could say something dismissive about holy men, Reiko added, almost snarling, “But Scourge’s days are numbered.”
“I see. Then it’s clear which side I should take.” She held her smile (probably the first one she’d worn all day) until Reiko’s face found its own. “Shall I show you a secret?”
“If you would like to share a secret with me, Ms. Leila, I will take it with me to the grave.”
She means it, too. Leila held out a hand, and Reiko returned the medallion. Leila turned it over in her hands, sliding her fingers along a hidden catch, opening the front to reveal a tiny astrolabe. This was still the smallest one she had ever seen, and the intricacy of its craftsmanship always caused Leila’s heart to sing. A second switch opened the other side, exposing the compass.
“Wow!” the Tian woman exclaimed. “That is quite fascinating.”
“Thank you. It’s called the Compass Rose, and it belonged to my father.” How long had it been since she’d spoken of Kamal al-Saif? Months? Years? Yet he was never more than a thought away… “He always said that, while I wear this, I can never be lost.” She closed the medallion. “It also serves to remind me, few things are what they seem to be.”
“Your father was a smart man, then. And yes, while many things are not what they seem in this world, there are, likewise, many things that are exactly what they seem. The hard part is usually sorting between the two.”
“You’re right, of course. But I’ve spent so many years pretending to be something I’m not, that I believe everyone else hides behind masks. You are… not like this, I think.”
Reiko nodded. “One of the most important things that we learn as children, where I come from, is to be true to yourself. Pretending to be something that you’re not isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as you understand where you own boundaries lie. As long as you can be honest with yourself when it is important to be honest with yourself, then you will be fine.”
Leila closed her eyes to take this all in, finally nodding. “I am a thief,” she said, opening her eyes again. “I may be a navigator, like my father before me, but I am first a thief.” She had never said this aloud before, had she? Yet it seemed as natural as giving her name… what was it about Reiko that put her so at ease?
“May I ask what your reasons for being a thief are?”
That’s part of it. No judgment, no fear, just curiosity. This is a… safe place. “You may, of course. Father was… not virtuous. He owed money to unforgiving people. When he could not pay, they made him a slave.” She scowled. “’Indentured servitude,’ they called it, but calling something by another name doesn’t change what it is.”
“Go on.” Reiko sat very still, nodding thoughtfully, though her eyebrows had knotted.
“I was still very young when he died – old enough to learn his trade, but not old enough to go to sea. And I had no one else. So I stole, and I lied, and cheated… I was poor, and I was not virtuous. But at least I was free.”
Reiko nodded again. "I believe that everyone has the right to life. I do not think thievery is the answer, but I cannot fault your will to survive by your own choices. The important thing is that you made the choice to be free, and to live on your own terms.”
“Yes.” Leila sniffed once, fighting down tears. “I might not be the navigator I once was, but even in darkness, I can steer by the stars.”
“A valuable skill, which you can rely on to get you to where you want to be. The question stands, where do you want to be?”
She moved closer to Reiko, dropping her voice to a more conspiratorial tone. “That is the question, isn’t it? I feel that I could be a good pirate, but is that what I want?”
“To be honest, Ms. Leila, I’ve asked myself the same question, many times. The sea, it calls to me, presumably as it did my brother and parents before me.”
“When it’s in your blood, it never stops speaking to you.” Leila found herself gazing at the part of Reiko’s chest left bare by her kimono, where the gold-black tattoo of a dragon stretched across the upper half. I’d love to see the whole thing, Leila thought, but I don’t want to be rude….
“And I ask myself often, what will I do when I find my brother? Will I go home, as I promised my adopted parents? Or will I continue on the seas, as those who came before me?”
“I don’t know where I want to be, Reiko. Not yet. But I’m not in a hurry to answer the question. And I’m relieved, and glad, to find good company in the meantime.”
“Me, too. For the first time in my three years on these seas, I’ve met those that I would be willing to continue to sail with.”
“You feel that they’re family, too, in a way.”
Reiko paused to consider. “This is true.”
“I felt the same here, until the Wormwood came along.” Captain Asad, who’d practically been a second father to her… Sadira, who spun miracles out of even the most basic foods and knew a thousand bawdy jokes… and Ferran, who’d claimed to have elven blood and vowed to admire Leila from a distance until his dying day, for fear that being touched by someone so base and undeserving as himself might mar her beauty. They were all gone now, dead or enslaved by Harrigan, all but Haroun and Maoud, the curs. Leila had seen enough of the world to acknowledge that the gods were probably real, but that their sense of humor was positively malicious.
“My sincerest apologies.” Reiko’s words brought Leila back to the present. “It’s an unfortunate circumstance that has brought us together, indeed.”
“At least we’re together. And perhaps I’ll have my revenge yet.”
“That, Ms. Leila, is quite possible. I will say this, though… Do not let vengeance be your only reason for staying this course. Vengeance breeds more vengeance. Death more death. Hate more hate. Be here because it is the path you have decided on by your own admission. I know that you are not aboard this ship of your own accord at this point, but if it is not where you want to be, then you must make the choices needed to get back to where you belong. Vengeance will not heal the hurt of the losses you suffered from this inquisition. "But,” she added with a wink, “Vengeance can be a sweet side.”
All of this was true. Leila mulled this over, or tried to, but found her mind getting fuzzy. She stifled a yawn before saying: “Your philosophy intrigues me, Reiko, but we may have to discuss it in greater detail another night. And compare tattoos.” She added this last part quickly, impulsively.
“Yes, we must, Ms. Leila. But another time. It would not do to be falling asleep at work, lest we should suffer the wrath of Captain Plugg.” She giggled and quickly covered her mouth, a particularly Tian gesture that brought a grin to Leila’s face.
She thought of something else to say, but decided to save it for her departure. Instead, she said, “Tell me something, if you will, Reiko. The godslave redhead… I can tell she dislikes me. But I think it’s because of Chopper, and not my Rahadoumi philosophy.”
“Ah. That is probably true, though I suspect her dislike is a passing issue that can be resolved. She’s had a… thing for Mr. Chopper since he attempted to rescue her when the Wormwood’s crew press-ganged them. As I mentioned earlier, Mr. Chopper seems to think of himself as a knight in shining armor.”
“I see. If I may, did he try to save you, as well?”
Reiko giggled again, a bit. “I don’t think I’ve given him the opportunity or reason to try. That said, I honestly suspect that if I were in peril, mortal or otherwise, he would do what he could to rescue me. He just seems to be the kind of man to care more about others’ lives before his own… especially if they’re female lives.”
There were worse men in the world, at least. “The godslave cares enough for him to be jealous, though?”
“So it seems. I think that may be more due to the way he rescued you, rather than it being you that he rescued.”
“This is what I thought.” At least Leila wasn’t alone.
“Ms. Quinn is a very good person at heart, though.” Reiko’s tone suddenly became more serious. “She’s helped us immensely since we all turned up on the Wormwood. She may be a slave to her god, but it has not been without benefit to us all.”
“I know.” Leila shook her head. “It’s a Rahadoumi phrase, and it is not kind for me to use it. I am…not virtuous. But, in light of deciding ‘where I want to be,’ I must ask myself: could I give her something to be jealous of?”
The giggle escaped Reiko again. “If that is what you want. To be honest, it will make for a brief amusement for the rest of us to watch Mr. Chopper flounder a bit. I would, however, decide if you are truly interested in Mr. Chopper before starting in on that kind of play. Make sure that it is not just the ‘Hero’ that you are attracted to."
Leila nodded. “Of course. I must also be sure that there isn’t anyone else who’d be jealous.” She tried to make her meaning plain with a sideways glance.
“If you are asking about Ms. Feruzi, I think that she would be pretty amused by you and Ms. Quinn giving Mr. Chopper a little bit of hell. If it is me that you are asking about, then you have nothing to worry about. Mr. Chopper is a fine man, but I have no interest in him on a romantic level. Of course, I can’t speak for the hordes of women he may have saved before I met him.”
“Who can say how many of those there are?” Leila said, smirking.
Reiko chuckled. “Indeed.”
Leila yawned again. “I have taken up far too much of your time, Reiko. But your hospitality has been most welcome.”
“I’m glad we had the chance to talk. Be wary of being alone with anyone other than Ms. Quinn or Ms. Cusswell, the two staying with the officers. They can be trusted. Also, to be trusted are Mr. Hands, Mr. Chopper, Ms. Feruzi, and myself. Mr. Kroop… ah, you’ve probably heard him named Fishguts, can be trusted for the most part, but he’s quite the drunk, though I’ve been trying to wean him a bit. Also, Mr. Shortstone. He can be trusted well enough that you’re pretty safe to be alone with him. Everyone else, I would be very careful around. We’ll chat again soon, I’m sure.” Standing up to stretch, Reiko added, “And next time, just announce yourself if you come into the galley at night. If you’re sneaking around, I start to think it’s someone that I may call enemy… if you catch my drift.”
“Of course.” She accepted a hand up from Reiko, shocked by the strength in the tiny woman’s frame. There was an exotic scent to her, too, but Leila couldn’t isolate it in the galley. She nodded a bow to catch one more look at the gold flecks in the samurai’s eyes before turning to leave. Don’t forget that thing you thought of to say, Leila.
She opened the door to the crew berths, more quietly this time, then paused. “Oh, one more thing, Reiko.”
Leila permitted herself a smile that felt downright unvirtuous. “If you need another reason to look forward to comparing tattoos with me, consider this: my clothes cover all of mine.”
She closed the door without stopping to see Reiko’s reaction, though she knew it had to be priceless.