Skull and Shackles

Interlude: Desert Rose

Posted by Darth Krzysztof, from a conversation with DarkRose16

26 Sarenith, 4712 AR

The light of the half-moon filtered down through the great vine-choked tree, barely illuminating the bubbling spring. Leila held one dying sunrod out to find her way through the gnarly roots; ahead of her, Reiko had already reached the spring, removed her sash and linen robe, and laid them on a large boulder that someone had dragged here to serve as a bench. Leila nearly tripped, unable to take her eyes away from the samurai as she stepped out of her woodblock sandals. Reiko’s loincloth did little to hide her backside from view, and then even that was gone, placed next to the robe.

Leila noticed the hitch in her own breath. She’d seen Reiko’s grace, her vulnerability, her skill in battle – but never her skin, or the strength beneath it. Every muscle in the samurai’s body came into lean definition as she unwound her chest wrap, but it took nothing away from her femininity. Leila saw the fringes of a tattoo on Reiko’s shoulder blades; as the wrap fell away, the image of a great tree came into view, covering most of her back. The samurai turned to pick up her clothes, then carried them toward the spring, sparing Leila a smile as she passed.

Reiko used a battered old bucket and a bit of soap to clean her clothes, hanging each item in turn on one of the thicker vines. She seemed so comfortable scrubbing away in the nude on a hostile, deserted island in the middle of the night… and why shouldn’t she be? Someone with her looks, with her body, with her talents, had nothing to be ashamed of, and nothing to fear.

I can’t do this, Leila thought.

You’re just taking a bath with her, she told herself. She won’t judge you.

Look at her! I’ve never seen anything so beautiful. How am I supposed to take off my clothes and just… bathe with her?

But she had to try, Leila knew. Reiko had no interest in “shipboard romances,” probably had no interest in women, and likely had no interest in Leila. She had to think of her as a friend, and learn to control herself around her. And if that meant her first swimming lesson was in deep, treacherous waters, then that was the way of it.

She’s going to finish bathing before you even start, idiot.

Leila walked over to the boulder, jammed the sunrod into the dirt, and sat down to wrench her boots off. She shouldn’t have worn them down to the grindylow caves, but the sea floor was sharp, sticky, and unforgiving to bare feet. Once she’d removed the last pieces of her shabby leather armor, she glanced in the camp’s direction, reached down to the hem of her shift, and glanced back again.

“Is something wrong?” Reiko asked, looking toward the camp, too.

“No. I… I just don’t want the men to see.” Which was true, if not the whole truth.

“Ahh. Well, most of them are asleep. I doubt anyone will come over here unless we call them.”

“Oh, I know. I just… I was taught that a man can’t see a naked woman without wanting to touch her.”

Reiko laughed a little bit. “I suppose most men are like that, though not all. I think that Ezikial and Chopper, at the very least, would have the decency to turn their gaze… maybe.”

Leila nodded, hoped the samurai wouldn’t notice as she took a deep breath.

You can do this.

Once she finished washing her clothes, Reiko used the bucket to start washing herself – before getting into the spring. “What are you doing?” Leila asked.

“It’s a habit, I suppose. It’s pretty standard where I come from. We typically share bath water. We wash off all the day’s sweat and grunge before getting in to soak, so the water does not become dirty.”

Leila nodded. “That is… smart, actually.”

“Isn’t it? It’s a courtesy to the last bather of the day. Many families where I come from are quite large.” Reiko half-kneeled to bathe her legs, giving Leila her first clear look at the tree tattoo that covered her back. She’d seen statues carved with less love, paintings executed with less attention to detail.

“Reiko, this is beautiful.”

The samurai looked over her shoulder, realized what Leila meant. “Oh! Thank you. It’s a sakura tree.” A slight blush came to her face, and she rose and turned to provide a better view. Most people never see it, Leila reminded herself. Just like your own tattoos.

“Did you have this done in Ushinawa?” Leila drew close enough to touch it, but (with no small effort) kept her hands at her sides.

“Yes, not long before I left. I guess it’s been a little over three years now.” When the faraway look crossed Reiko’s face, Leila gave her a moment to gather wool while she studied the tattoo… until she got lost in the fair skin beneath it.

Leila cleared her throat. “It is amazing. May I see the dragon, please?”

She spent half a moment preparing for refusal before Reiko snapped out of her brief reverie and smiled at her. “Sure,” she said, holding out her arms and twisting them slightly, to show how the dragon wrapped around them.

“Simply marvelous.” Leila fought down the urge to touch, again. “I would love to visit Ushinawa someday.”

“Well, the next time I make it home, you should definitely come with me. I’m sure my parents would love to meet you. Of course, there is no telling when that may be. It has been over three years, after all.”

Meet her parents? Would I need their permission to court Reiko? I have got to learn more about the Tian-Min people… Leila tried to think of a subtle way to ask about this until Reiko set the bucket down and climbed into the spring. She took a deep breath and sank into the water, soaking herself from head to toe before surfacing to lean back against the rocky wall. She exhaled slowly, a contented, peaceful smile on her lips.

“Is that as blissful as you make it look?” Leila asked.

“It could be.” Reiko closed her eyes. “I’m just glad to have a somewhat-proper bath after being on ships for almost a month. Salt water baths just aren’t that great. You know. It dries and leaves you all itchy from the crystals.”

Leila nodded. “I’ve got to get in there.”

“Take your time, Leila. It isn’t a race. We have all night.”

You can do this.

Leila pulled her shift up over her head, then took her breeches and smallclothes down together in one motion. She used her own sliver of soap and the bucket to scrub everything down, trying to take her time and do it well, not to simply dive into the wonderful, relaxing bath with the beautiful, wise woman who was watching her every move – wait, no. Reiko sat with her eyes closed, slowly breathing in and out.

She hung her garments up to dry, then started washing herself with the soap and a bit of cloth. “A proper bath is such a pleasure,” she told Reiko, “and something sailors seldom enjoy. Pirates doubly so. And I miss proper food, as well. I mean, Sadira was gifted, but she had so little to work with.”

“Mr. Kroop has the same limitation, I believe. I like a nice, soft bed, too.”

Leila sighed, washing underarms that were due for a razor’s touch, trying to separate her memories of comfortable beds from her fantasies of sharing one with the samurai. Sadira had often suggested that captains outfitted their ships with hammocks because they made sex so damned difficult, forcing the crew to find less troublesome ways to entertain themselves. But Sadira simply found more creative ways to make love… “Yes,” she managed.

“I prefer the futons back home, but I always look for a decent inn with good beds whenever I happen to be in port.” She opened her eyes at last, locking them on Leila. “But what I could really use right now is some nice, aged rice wine.”

“I have never tried it.” Leila avoided alcohol, but ships rarely had anything else to drink, especially pirate ships. She could make exceptions in the name of friendship, though. “It sounds most agreeable, though.”

Reiko nodded and leaned back to look up at the stars through the tree. “Many brewers from other areas outside Ushinawa don’t let it age long enough, so it tastes young. But once you’ve had one that has been aged for just the right length of time, you’ll never want the other stuff again. Of course, right now, I’ll take what I can get.”

Leila leaned against the rock wall of the spring so she could scrub the sole of one foot, then the other. After taking a couple of minutes to brush out her hair, she announced: “Very well, I believe I am clean enough to bathe now.” She swung her legs over and eased into the spring, feeling her aches and woes start to dissolve in the warm, gently bubbling water.

“Better?” Reiko asked.

“The best.” She took a second to steel herself. “Before I get too relaxed, though, I should show you my tattoos. Though they might seem a bit boring, compared to yours.”

“I’ll be the judge of that, don’t you think?” The little laugh in Reiko’s words relaxed Leila a bit more.

She raised her right leg from the water, until the tangle of roses and thorns around her ankle just came into view. “This one you’ve seen. These you haven’t.” Leila held out her left arm, to show off the skull over crossed sabers on her bicep. She lifted up a bit, pointing at the blue rose atop her right breast, then rose to her knees, so Reiko could see the white rose just below her navel. They were colorful, but small, and hardly as intricate as the samurai’s…

“Those are all quite lovely,” Reiko said. Something in the way she said it finally made Leila feel at ease, unashamed to show her body this way.

“Thank you! I have two more.” She turned to show the samurai the sword-stabbed heart over her right shoulder blade, and the black rose on her right buttock. “So far.”

“I’m sure they each have their own story. I’d love to hear those stories, if you ever feel like sharing them. Of course, we have all the time in the world. There is no rush.”

Leila sat back down, nodding her agreement. “Nothing would please me more than to take my time enjoying this moment. I have waited for something like this for ages, and I don’t know when, or even if, I will get a chance like this again. I almost drowned a few days ago…”

“But you didn’t.” Reiko favored her with a kind smile. “Even if you don’t believe in or worship the gods, you can be thankful for miracles such as that. You can believe that it was not time for you to join your father on the other side of life. I know that I am thankful every day that I am still alive. I know that I am reckless when it comes to a lot of things, but above all else, I do value my life. You should value yours as well. You should hold yourself above all others, because your life is not worth less than any other’s.”

“I do feel… lucky. Doubly lucky to have found you.”

“Luck, fate, a miracle. Call it what you will. They are the same, but with different skin. What’s important is that you and I are both here, alive and well.” Reiko gave a slight laugh. “With no missing limbs, to boot. And we’re able to enjoy this moment of solace.”

“Yes. It shames me that a man had to touch me, but I would rather be shameful and here, than virtuous and dead.”

Reiko tilted her head. “Well, I don’t think having a man touch you makes you unvirtuous. I think what matters, where that is concerned, is the meaning behind it. Mr. Chopper did not jump into the ocean to save you because he wanted you to reward him with your flesh. He has never come across to me as that kind of man. And I know that he wouldn’t want you to feel shameful because of that.”

“I know. It’s the philosophy I was brought up believing in. Few outside of Rahadoum know of it. I may not touch a man unless he is my husband. This is the teaching of Yazan.” She looked at the surface of the pool. “I was prepared to… make an exception, for Mr. Chopper, should my life depend on it. I was most relieved that you are right about him.” A smile crossed her face. “In honesty, I have never met a man who inspired me to touch him.”

The sound of Reiko’s sudden laughter thrilled Leila. The samurai quickly looked over her shoulder, back toward the camp. “I can’t say that I’ve ever met a man who inspired me to touch him, either. Especially not out here on this sea of cutthroats. But then, I never really looked at a man as an object to be desired either.”

Could you ever see me that way? “I imagine that Ushinawa is much like Rahadoum, in that marriages are born out of politics or business more often than love.”

“Well, yes. I suppose that is the case for many warrior families, families that own large businesses, and political families. Yes. That may very well be why my birth mother left home, though I can’t say that for sure, since I’ve never been told otherwise. I like to think though, that she was able to marry the person she loved.”

”Person,” Reiko? Not “man?” That is strangely encouraging. “Father – my father, I mean – married for love. But Mother died when I was just a baby… he missed her so. I still wonder if he felt the pain was worth it. He hated to speak of her, you see. And I know he saw her in me…” Memories long neglected washed over her like a wave, stinging her eyes with tears.

Reiko leaned forward to take her hand. “It’s hard to understand the feelings of people who keep them locked away in their hearts. I know that I can’t hope to. But everyone is like that. We pick and choose the feelings we show to others. It is our shield against unnecessary or unwanted pain. And to be honest, it wouldn’t be good for us if we knew every secret in a person’s heart. It’s sometimes easier not to know.”

Oh, Reiko, you have no idea. Leila sniffed, once, getting herself back under control. “Yes. Of course. My heart says that I can tell you anything, Reiko.” She glanced at the samurai’s hand on hers. “But my head says otherwise.”

“Ahh.” Reiko quickly pulled her hand away and blushed again. “Sorry,” she whispered, coming to rest against the wall once more. Then, in a more normal tone, with a friendly smile: “I will listen to anything you want to tell me, whenever you feel like you’re ready to tell me.”

She could almost still feel Reiko’s hand. “I… thank you. And I will listen to anything, and everything, you have to say. I do have two things to say. Vows, if you will. First, I will never lie to you.” I may fear to speak painful truths, but that is not the same thing.

That got a smile and a nod. “I’m glad. What is the second?”

“If – no, when – we are free of Mr. Plugg and his ship, I will help you find your brother.”

Reiko’s eyes widened; her mouth fell open. For once, the samurai found herself at a loss for words… until she turned away from Leila, the words “Thank you” barely audible. She splashed water on her face, then turned back toward the navigator with a big smile. “You don’t have to, of course. But really, I am honored by your words.”

“The honor is mine.” Leila traced the surface of the water with her fingertips. “I have always followed the currents and the tides… I can’t always know why they take me where they do. But now I feel that I know.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. Pirates may be… what they are… but I can’t deny that the life appeals to me.” And on a different ship, Leila thought, with a different captain, I might be quite a pirate. Even a rose that grew from desert sands might thrive at sea, after all.

“I can’t say that I haven’t thought about it. Back when I was working aboard the Come What May, I was seriously considering it. But I decided that, at that time, finding my brother was more important to me than living on the whim of a pirate captain.”

“And now?” She looked Reiko in the eye.

“Hmmm. It’s hard to say. Under certain circumstances, I’m pretty sure I fancy myself a pirate. Under these… under Mr. Plugg or Captain Harrigan, definitely not. The reason, I think, that so many people come to be pirates is their desire for freedom and a life at sea, without the chains inherent with living in a society. Mr. Plugg and Capt. Harrigan do not offer real freedom. Their brand of freedom is little better than slavery, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. But under different circumstances… Yes, I’m sure I could be a pirate.”

“Our circumstances will change soon enough, I think,” Leila said, stretching her arms out above her head.

That got the samurai to raise an eyebrow. “Well, I would be inclined to agree. I have no doubt that Mr. Plugg intends to get rid of us somehow, and soon. I know he won’t want us on board when he reaches Rickety’s… assuming that is where he’s headed. It’s just hard to say exactly how much time that is. And quite frankly, I’m not ready to die… not that Mr. Plugg or any of his goons could kill me all that easily.”

“Certainly not.”

“But, I am not alone either. I worry for everyone else’s safety. Now that Sandara and Conchobar are safe and sound, I particularly worry for Mr. Kroop and Ms. Cusswell, who are still aboard that ship.”

“And you’re right to worry, of course. But may I ask you something?”

“Anything.”

“Suppose that Mr. Plugg and his pirates were… out of the picture. Who do you think should be the captain? Or would be? That might be a different answer, after all.”

Reiko tilted her head back, looking to the sky. “I… hadn’t really given that much thought, to be honest. I won’t deny that I’ve thought that being the Captain of my own ship has an appeal. It would afford me even more freedom to go where I want in my search. The problem lies with the fact that the Captain of a ship holds certain responsibilities to his or her crew that I’m not sure I want to deal with just yet. If it came down to it though, and Mr. Plugg and staff were no longer there, and the ship needed a Captain, I would probably be willing if everyone agreed.”

“I was simply curious. I have brought too much worry to this place.”

The samurai laughed a bit. “I can’t say that talking about the Captainship of the Promise is something to worry over just yet. I think we’ll figure out what needs to be done and the best way to handle it when the time comes, don’t you think?”

“Of course, of course. As much as I want to see the Shackles – and the world – some part of me wants to stay right here forever. So I want to remember every detail.”

“Well, this would probably have been a nice little island to retire on. You know, if the ghoul plague weren’t around.” She laughed at the thought, then poked her toes out of the water. “Ah… all pruney. It might be about time to at least get out of the water.”

Leila froze for a fraction of a second, staring at the sole of Reiko’s foot. In much of Rahadoum, showing that to someone was terribly rude, even insulting – the dirtiest part of the dirtiest part of the body. But Reiko couldn’t possibly know that… and in the most conservative Yazanite communities, where women wore veils and robes that hid the shape of their bodies, eyes, hands, and feet became important objects of beauty.

She reached out and gently took hold of Reiko’s foot. “Lemme see,” she said, trying to sound like Chopper. Her accent kept her impression from being anything like convincing. “This looks bad, all right. Show me the other one.” When Reiko’s other foot appeared, Leila grabbed it, too.

Reiko laughed, clearly tickled by this attention, if not literally tickled. “Before long, I might just shrivel up. Especially after all that swimming earlier.”

“Oh, don’t shrivel up now.” Leila made a fuss over one foot, then the other, then back to the first. Reiko’s skin was soft and alive beneath her fingers… “Dunno know how you can stand upright with feet this small.”

That made the samurai laugh even harder. “Hey! I think my feet are quite well proportioned, thank you very much!”

“Sure, sure. This looks pretty normal for a woman of your size. But if you don’t get out of the water soon, I’ll have to cut ‘em off.”

“No! Cutting off my feet would be very bad indeed! I need those!”

Leila had just decided to try tickling her in a different spot when the sunrod’s light finally fizzled out. She released Reiko with a sigh, unable to see the samurai’s naked body as she stood up and reached for her drying cloth before leaving the bath. “I’m glad we got to do this, Reiko,” she said, though she wished it didn’t have to end here.

“As am I. Those fools over there just do not understand the importance of a non-saltwater bath. I swear.”

“It’s their loss.” Finally recognizing defeat, Leila crawled out of the spring. “I know I need to spend some time getting to know them…”

“You should. They are all good folks as far as I’ve seen in the past month. And let me tell you this… I didn’t really take much time to get to know them in the beginning. I really do regret it. Because of my shortcomings, the beginnings of our acquaintanceships were very rocky.” The samurai walked over to her clothes, found them dry enough to wear, and started dressing.

Once she, too, felt dry enough, Leila started putting her own clothes back on. “Who knows? I might even find a way to get along with Ms. Quinn.”

“I’m sure you can. Ms. Quinn, despite being a servant to her god, does not seem to push her faith on anyone. At least, she hasn’t on me. I think, though, that her biggest problem with you was the way that Mr. Chopper revived you after you had inhaled the sea water.”

“The kiss of life?”

Reiko nodded. “He was not inappropriate by any stretch of the imagination, but, well, a woman in love will see things the way she wants to see them.”

“Indeed.” At least I can also see them as they really are. “Perhaps, after he, too, has confessed his love, we can all get on with our lives.”

“Perhaps, though it’s because of these situations that I do not approve of onboard romances. I know I said it before, but it can cause other conflicts, and inconvenience the other crew members, if the two involved are not on the same page. “

“That makes sense,” Leila said without conviction. She knows I don’t mean that, but let her. I doubt she knows why. “Either way, it’ll be easier for me to talk to them once their situation is resolved.”

Leila was all together now, but for her boots, which she picked up. “I haven’t been this relaxed in a long time,” she said with a sigh. “I know it won’t happen, but I hope to sleep until I can’t anymore.”

“I’m not sure when, but I know we’ll get that chance soon, one way or another.”

“Of course. I’m sure you’re right,” Leila said with a grin.

They walked together toward the light of the campfire, Reiko in the lead. Conchobar Turlach Shortstone sat keeping watch. “Why don’t you get some sleep, Mr. Shortstone?” Reiko called, wearing a kindly smile. “I’ll take watch till morning.”

“I was too strung up to sleep, my dear,” the gnome said. “But volunteering to take a watch was hasty on my part. I now find myself most fatigued, and quite relieved to be relieved by you.” He tipped his hat and climbed into his bedroll.

“Sleep well,” said the samurai. Turning to Leila, she said, “You get some sleep, too.”

Leila dropped her boots and her pack to bed down. “Thank you, Reiko,” she said. “See you in the morning.”

She fell asleep in minutes.

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