Skull and Shackles: Tides of Fortune

Interlude: Unvirtuous

Posted by Darth Krzysztof

24 Sarenith, 4712 AR

Feeling weightless in her hammock, Leila had lost track of the hour; neither time nor space had any hold on her. Though exhausted from two days of hell in the rigging, she had never felt less sleepy. But the risk of getting caught sneaking around the ship bothered her more than it had yesterday, and with nothing else to do, she stared at the ceiling and tried not to think.

When that failed, she turned her mind back to making sense of everything that had happened in the last two days, which meant turning her mind back to Nakayama Reiko.

Nakayama would be her family name, in the Tian fashion. She was probably of Tian-Min descent – pilgrims from Minkai had settled an island of the Shackles a couple of centuries ago, though Leila couldn’t think of the name – and a samurai, though she was adopted, not born, into the warrior caste. Unless her pirate birth parents had once been samurai, too? This was why Reiko searched for her brother, Tatsumi: to find out who her parents were, and to find out who she was.

I have no family of my own, Leila thought, and she has two families. A pang of jealousy shot through Leila, which shamed her… painful as her own losses had been, Leila was free in a way Reiko wasn’t, and never could be. Rahadoum was not so different from Reiko’s world… the things they found honorable differed, but the importance of honor was the same.

As most outsiders knew, the Laws of Man governed Rahadoum, forbidding the worship of the gods. But many philosophies existed under those Laws, so the culture varied from city to city, from district to district, and even from household to household. Most Rahadoumi placed the same value on honesty, generosity, hospitality, valor, and loyalty. One’s word, once given, was never taken back; punishment always fit the crime. Dishonorable acts reflected on one’s family, and insults to honor demanded satisfaction.

But the philosopher Yazan went beyond this in his search for purity. All physical contact between men and women who weren’t married became taboo – and in less enlightened places, even a flirtatious glance could be more insulting than complimentary. Women had their own place in the house, where even the husband never ventured without first asking permission. In Yazanite lands, amorous impropriety was the only crime besides murder that was punishable by death.

Kamal al-Saif raised Leila in the Yazanite manner.

After her father died, leaving her with nothing, Leila took to the streets of Azir, stealing to survive. A criminal is unvirtuous, regardless of her circumstances… and with no family or friends to be loyal to, she became a street rat, with only the Compass Rose to tie her to her former life. She maintained her purity, though, never stooping to prostitution or yielding to her urges as she came into womanhood.

It wasn’t until she’d (lied about her age and) signed on board the Man’s Promise that she met Sadira, and everything changed. The ship’s cook, another Yazanite, explained that Yazan had never forbidden women from touching each other. The great poet Iamar bint Iamar had written so eloquently on the subject… how could Leila not know this?

“My father never cared for poetry,” had been her reply.

Most turned a blind eye to these couplings, Sadira claimed, as long as they were carried out with discretion, and wifely duties were still met. “I will show you,” Sadira had said, her eyes dark as time, “if you will let me.”

Leila accepted, not without hesitation. True, the Yazanite code didn’t forbid it, but what could a woman possibly know about pleasing another woman?

As it turned out, this woman knew everything.

As wonderful as the nights with Sadira were, their intimacy was only physical. Leila came to realize that she could love a woman, as a woman was expected to love her husband; in time, she grew to prefer this notion, even as Sadira kept her at arm’s length. In Drenchport, she met two men who’d married each other… unthinkable in Rahadoum, but possible, if uncommon, in the Shackles.

Leila had tried to banish the thought from her mind. She was Rahadoumi, after all, and she still had too much pride to ask some godslave to preside over her wedding, even if that was her only option…

Someone snored and turned on his side, snapping Leila from her thoughts. Man’s Promise had no space set aside for women, even before Mr. Plugg took command… Leila would never get to sleep at this rate.

And, in the end, that was because of Reiko.

They’d met in the galley to talk again tonight, touching on a dozen topics before talking about how Harrigan, Plugg, and the Man’s Promise had made their lives a struggle for control. In that moment, Leila made a fateful decision.

“I shall be your friend,” she’d told Reiko, “in this dark place and this unhappy hour, not because I must to survive, but because it pleases me to do so.”

This was meant to restore some feeling of control over her own life – which it did – but Reiko took Leila’s hand and leaned her forehead against her arm, thanking her. No one had been a friend to Reiko in her three years at sea… she claimed to push people away when they got too close, to be too obsessed with finding her brother. Leila had now seen Reiko tearful, then bashful, then giddy, which she doubted anyone else had. And she was quite sure that no one else on this ship had ever seen the samurai laugh. A weird possessiveness passed through her, which she willed away with another feeling of shame.

Reiko seemed so wise for someone so close to Leila’s own age, so sure of her beliefs and herself, so serious and brave. But beneath that was a girl who’d never been called pretty, who’d been a warrior since she was big enough to wield a sword, who was so alone, even when surrounded by comrades and shipmates. Leila had common ground with both the woman outside and the girl within. She wanted to be a friend to both, to help Reiko make one of the two.

But she thought of the way Reiko’s face glided along her forearm, the way she’d held Leila’s hands just before parting to give thanks in an almost-whisper, the way she’d blushed when Leila told her how pretty she was when she laughed, the way lantern light set off a hundred flecks of gold in her eyes, and Leila knew she wanted more than that.

It was impossible, of course. Reiko wanted a friend, not a lover, and it was unvirtuous to think of her that way. “This is why it doesn’t do to get involved romantically when on a ship,” Reiko had said earlier. The samurai had been talking about Sandara and Chopper, of course, but… either she’d missed Leila’s flirting the night before, or dismissed it out of hand.

She thought about Ferran, who had claimed to be so unworthy of her affection, and for the first time, she understood how he felt. Leila was unvirtuous, undeserving of someone like Reiko. It made no matter; Leila was no stranger to wanting things she couldn’t have.

And she could, would, become virtuous… maybe not a paragon of virtue, certainly not in the company of pirates, but virtuous, still and all. She would be the best friend the samurai could ever ask for: sensitive, open, and strong. She would vow to help her find Tatsumi, wouldn’t leave her side until they had. She would keep her word.

The thought turned Leila’s mouth up in a smile. Having a friend like Reiko gave her something to live for, beyond all this mere existence. And if Reiko ever changed her mind about shipboard romances… well, stranger things have happened at sea.

She closed her eyes at last, found Reiko waiting there. Leila wondered what those lips tasted like.

She wondered if the Tian-Min had a poet like Iamar bint Iamar.

She wondered what the head of the dragon tattoo looked like. She drew closer in her mind’s eye, close enough to slide the white linen kimono from Reiko’s shoulders, her fingertips following the pattern down the samurai’s bare arm, but it seemed to go on forever, a gold-black road that stretched off into the distance. She left her feet and flew after it, chasing the dragon into peaceful, dreamless sleep.