Cables To Cobwebs

by B. B. Dox

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/117763.html)

“You’ve something on your mind, Koya,” a voice said, muffled by the curtains that enclosed the palanquin.

“It is of no consequence, my lord,” Koya said stiffly, keeping his voice low. The palanquin’s bearers, panting in the humid summer air with every step, were too busy and too smart to give any indication that they had heard a word, but Koya knew that appearing oblivious was quite a different thing from being actually so. “I am sure my lord has much on his mind other than my petty troubles.”

Hayaki darted a glance at him from her position on the other side of the palanquin. Koya pretended not to notice her.

“Really, now.” His lord shifted, the heavy silks of his robes rustling against each other. “It will be some time yet before we arrive at the Flower Basket. Indulge me, Koya.”

“If that is my lord’s wish,” Koya replied, voice neutral as always. He hated speaking to his lord like this, with Imayano no more than a blurry silhouette behind the palanquin’s curtains, making it impossible to read his expression. Not, Koya thought sourly, that the face his lord presented ever reflected his thoughts anyway.

After a moment, the hazy outline of his lord’s hand waved in Koya’s general direction. Finally, he said, “I do not like this.”

“I take it you mean my little impending business transaction?” Imayano queried. “Juna suggested as much. I suppose I might as well as let you get your grievances off your chest while we’re here. Haki-Haki, keep an eye out, won’t you?” There was the sharp rap from within the palanquin. The servants bearing it stopped dead, chests heaving. “Koya, join me.”

“As my lord wishes,” Koya said. He climbed silently into the palanquin, sending silent apologies to Imayano’s servants as they grunted beneath the added weight. The little lantern hanging from the root of the palanquin swayed wildly as Imayano gave the command to continue towards town.

Imayano watched him patiently, a small smile on his lips. “Well, Koya?”

“It is risky,” Koya said flatly. “What guarantee do you have that these corsairs will keep their word and not expose your intentions to Lord Maseda?”

“None at all,” Imayano said, “save my coin. To mercenaries such as our soon-to-be associates, the promise of payment should be word enough, no?”

“It may be Lord Maseda will offer more than you, my lord, in order to secure their information,” Koya countered. “Exposing you would bring greater reward for less risk.”

“My, my, Haki-Haki.” Imayano pulled the edge of a curtain back just enough to allow a glimpse of the world outside. “Would you listen to what Koya has to say? Such pessimism doesn’t become him.”

“No, my lord,” Hayaki said immediately, gazing up at Imayano. Her eyes were fervent with loyalty; Koya felt something unpleasant twist in his stomach at the sight. “He should trust in your judgment, my lord.”

“That’s what I like to hear.” Imayano favored her with a brief smile before letting the curtain fall. “Thank you for your input, Koya, but you may leave.”

Koya bowed as much as was possible for one seated before slipping out of the palanquin. One of the servants stumbled in surprise at his sudden appearance; he absently steadied the man so that the palanquin suffered only a slight dip as it continued through the town. Koya thought he heard the breathy sound of a laugh from Imayano, though it was possible he was mistaken. He did not think so.

At last, the palanquin lurched to a halt outside a squat building. Its wooden walls were painted vivid red, its roof decorated with green tiles and fantastic beasts perched along each of its four curled corners. Lanterns hung around its doors, each with the words “Flower Basket” scrawled in flamboyant calligraphy.

Imayano’s nose wrinkled slightly when his slippered feet touched the packed dirt of the road beneath, but he quickly hid his distaste with the long practice of aristocracy. “Wait here until I come,” Imayano ordered the servants, barely pausing for their flurry of bows before sweeping towards the Flower Basket’s entrance as if he entered such places every day of his pampered life.

They were stopped by the guards at the entrance. The man held out his hand for Koya’s sword; Koya laid a hand on its hilt, glancing at his lord for confirmation. Imayano nodded impatiently in assent so Koya unbuckled his sword and handed it over. Hayaki hurriedly followed suit. The guard would not meet Koya’s gaze, storing the confiscated weapons with exaggerated care. Koya and Hayaki’s deadliness was hardly diminished without the swords, especially in such a cramped building, and by the look on the guard’s face as he waved them through he knew it too.

As Imayano threaded his way through the gambling tables, the shouts and chatter of foolish men wasting their coin died to little more than a whisper. Even the scant few foreigners tolerated in the Flower Basket’s walls quieted, sensing the tension rising amongst the tables like the incoming tide. The den’s patrons did not stay silent for long, however, though the chatter that sprung up in Imayano’s wake was far more subdued.

The proprietor of the den looked up at Imayano’s approach. Her eyes saw first his robes, and then travelled upwards to his perfect porcelain face. Koya fancied that the blood had rushed from her withered face, but it was so caked with powders and creams that he could not be sure. The elderly woman scrambled upright and bowed low. “Welcome to this humble house of chance, my lord,” she said. The words scraped and slithered as they left her mouth—a relic, Koya wagered, of decades spent smoking the pipe that now lay smoldering on a black lacquer ashtray. “How may this unworthy one help my lordship this night?”

“I am meeting an associate in a private room,” Imayano said, acknowledging her with a regal dip of his head. “The Lotus Room, I believe.”

“Yes, yes, of course, of course.” The woman rounded her desk and bowed once more, gesturing towards the darkened hallway behind her. “Your associate has already arrived.”

“Really.” Imayano arched one delicate eyebrow. “I should hate to keep him waiting then. Many thanks for your aid, Madame Kaorin.” As he moved past her, his sleeve flashed outward: Koya’s sensitive ears picked up the muffled chink of coins as a small pouch dropped from Imayano’s hand to Madame Kaorin’s desk. Koya’s lips thinned beneath the soft mask that covered the lower half of his face.

“You disapprove, Koya?” Imayano’s murmured, as if Koya had spoken aloud. His amber eyes slanted sideways towards Koya; they were amused. Sometimes it seemed that Imayano had no other expression than amusement—a vague, generalized sense that the world was a show put on for his entertainment, to be meddled with at will. He continued speaking though Koya had given no sign of having heard him. “But you must admit having a source of foreign gossip is very useful, no?”

The Flower Basket’s inner chambers lined the hallway they walked; the doors that lined the walls were screened with some crimson material more like cloth than paper, revealing nothing but the vaguest of silhouettes. Koya’s ears picked up the sound of labored breathing from some, and irregular thumps and groans from another. The Flower Basket was clearly more than a simple ‘humble house of chance’. Glancing behind him, Koya saw one of the red doors slide open to reveal a slim girl and her client, a swarthy foreigner wearing the lopsided grin of one well and truly satisfied.

Eventually, Imayano came to a door that was not red but white, with an elaborate lotus blossom worked into the thick paper. Hayaki rushed forward to slide the door open; Koya moved towards the opening, but Imayano brushed past him. Koya felt his brow furrow with annoyance—how could he guard his lord if Imayano could not be bothered to let him?—but quickly smoothed away the expression as he followed Imayano inside, taking stock of the three men already gathered within.

The one in the center was a hulking individual, broad-shouldered and barrel-chested. The man looked like a caricature of every corsair ever to strut across a page: unkempt hair, enormous bushy beard, smile dotted with gold teeth, and a heavy coat that Koya recognized as having once belonged to an naval officer from the lands across the ocean. The remains of a stab wound were still visible upon it.

Of the two men who flanked him, one stood and one sat. The one in the corner looked as if he would have liked to lean on the wall but was afraid he might fall through if he did. His long-fingered hand danced, spider-like, on his thighs as if accompanying some invisible music, though his face was sour and joyless. The other sat cross-legged behind and off to the side of his captain. Stubble was just visible on his chin in the lamp light, and thick hanks of dirty blond hair were held away from his handsome face by a wildly colorful scarf. Despite the captain’s extravagant presence, Koya felt his eye being drawn to this third man—something about the way he carried himself, the way he had watched Imayano enter with lazy not-quite-irreverence seemed to snag Koya’s attention and hold it.

“Lord Afuda Imayano of Kanfu province,” Hayaki announced, as Koya slid the door shut behind him with one last glance into the darkened hallway.

“Gentlemen,” Imayano said with a charming smile. “Captain Kensington.” He bowed at the three men across him in succession, bowing deepest for the man in the center, before gracefully seating himself. His hands fluttered over his robes almost as an afterthought, arranging them around his slender form. Koya signaled to Hayaki to take position standing on either side of their lord, just behind him.

“Lord Afuda! Glad to see ye could make it.” Kensington half-extended a hand over the table before the blond man elbowed him with an exasperated shake of his head, clumsily turning the gesture into a hasty bow of inappropriate depth. He waved an arm expansively at Koya and Hayaki. “Won’t yer men sit?”

“They do not sit in the presence of their lord,” Imayano replied. “However, your consideration is appreciated.” …

Automatically, Koya bowed in response to his lord’s statement; out of the corner of his eye he saw Hayaki do the same. Now that he had had some few moments to consider the blond man, Koya could admit to himself that part of his allure lay in the clean lines of his limbs, the strong lines of his nose and jaw, in the amiable expression with which he seemed to regard all those around him.

“Ah well, do what you like,” the captain said doubtfully. He resettled himself into a cross-legged position like his subordinate. “Now, Afuda, I hear ye got some business ye be wantin’ to discuss with me?”

“I do indeed.” Imayano’s face took on a thoughtful look; he tapped his chin with a fan pulled from the depths of his right sleeve. “But first, Captain, let me pose this question to you—how well do you know local politics?”

“I ain’t got the slightest head for that kind o’ thing,” Kensington said cheerfully. “Lord this, Lady that, I c’n barely keep the buggers straight—exceptin’ yer most honorable self, o’ course. I let me first mate handle all that, ain’t that right, Jody-me-boy?”

“Aye, cap’n,” the blond man grinned. He flicked two fingers at Imayano in an insolent little salute. “If the cap’n wants to know what’s happening betwixt the local lords, I’m his man.”

“Very well, then.” Imayano refocused his attention on the blond man. “Then you, First Mate Jody. How well do you know local politics?”

The blond man grinned in response. It looked good on him; the confidence suited Jody very well. Which, given Koya’s impressions of him thus far, was perhaps not a. “I keep up with the coastal provinces mostly, not so much with the ones further inland. ‘Course, most every province’s coastal in this country, hey?” He tapped his chin with one finger, as if deep in tought. His nails were surprisingly clean for a corsair—even the captain seated beside him had crescents of dirt buried beneath each of his blunt nail. Not so for his first mate, apparently. “Lots of unrest these days, lots of jockeying for favor, what with the new emperor n’ all. Backs being stabbed left, right, and center. Marriages going off like fireworks, too—the ships ferrying brides back and forth always got big guards on ’em, too much for the Sound and Fury to handle alone.”

Imayano looked pleased by this answer. “Then, First Mate Jody, perhaps you can divine the nature of my request?”

Kensington glanced over at the blond man, who leaned forward, eyes glinting in the low light. Koya couldn’t tell what color they were—blue, like the open sky? Turqoise, like the seas that encircled his nation? “Kanfu’s been fighting with Moaji like wet cats in a sack. You want somethin’ to happen to Maseda’s fleet?”

“In a manner of speaking.” Imayano tapped his right hand with the fan in his left as he spoke, as if it were a lecture rod and he the lecturer. “Maseda Kunehi and I have had our past differences, but in recent months I have been playing the charming suitor to his lovely daughter, Naori. I would like for Lord Maseda to feel that a marital alliance between Moaji and Kanfu provinces would be, shall we say, very fortuitous—in that I would of course be glad to lend Kanfu’s fortune and fleet to aiding Moaji in fending off the terrible corsair menace that will have lately plagued its shores.”

“You be wanting us to blow shit up,” the captain said thoughtfully, rubbing his chin. Koya wondered how he could possibly find it beneath his beard; even his rough-knuckled hand was furred over. Given his size, the only word that came to Koya’s mind as a description of Kensington was bear, and if the captain was such a beast Koya doubted it would be a particularly intelligent specimen. “Well now, we of the Sound and Fury are plenty good at blowing shit up. You might even say that blowing shit up is our specialty, eh, Jody-boy?”

“You might well say that, cap’n,” the blond man laughed. It was a surprisingly genuine sound; where the captain’s manner grated on Koya’s nerves with its theatricality, Jody seemed a true man—even his unexpected cleanliness felt like genuine habit, rather than an attempt to curry the very aristocratic Imayano’s favor. It was almost…Koya was reluctant to use the word ‘refreshing’ but it was a pleasant surprise after having spent the past few years seeing nothing but Imayano’s carefully controlled expressions and affectations.

“While I don’t doubt the, ah, Sound and Fury’s ability to, as you say, ‘blow shit up'”—Imayano handled the vulgarity as he might have a dead mouse; as a thing to be discarded as soon as possible—”convincing Maseda that Moaji is under a genuine corsair threat will require a somewhat subtler hand.”

“Subtle, now, the Sound and Fury c’n do subtle,” the captain replied jovially. “If’n you be wantin’ subtle, Henner’s yer man.” He jerked a thumb at the standing man, who was so tall he looked emaciated rather than merely thin. “Henner’s me strategist, couldn’t sink a damn ship without him!”

Henner bobbed his head in their direction, his face having not moved an inch from its sullen frown. “As you say, cap’n.”

“Aw, lighten up, Henner,” Jody called from where he sat. “Take a seat, why don’t you? His lordship’s going to think you don’t trust him!”

The captain threw back his head and let loose a great guffaw that resounded around the little room. Even the dour Henner’s face lightened almost imperceptibly. “Well now, Afuda, lemme put yer mind at rest. We of the Sound and Fury—as well as her sisters ships—are as honorable a pack of corsairs and e’er sailed the five seas. Which is to say as long as yer money’s good, so’s our word.”

“Excellent,” Imayano smiled. “Though perhaps money was not what I held in mind when considering your payment, Captain Kensington.” Slipping a hand into the mouth of one voluminous sleeve, he drew out a small bundle wrapped in raw silk. He tossed it across the table; Jody casually snatched it out of the air right before it would have hit Kensington in the chest. Koya was loath to admit he was impressed, but from his own training he knew how quick an eye and hand such a feat required.

“Think of it as a first taste of things to come,” Imayano purred, and only an idiot would not have heard the triumph threaded through his voice.

Jody unwrapped the bundle, revealing a waxed-paper packet. As soon as Jody had revealed the packet’s contents, his eyebrows shot straight to his hairline and he handed the packet over to his captain.

Kensington’s eyes opened almost comically wide when he saw what Imayano had offered in lieu of gold. “Mandrin?” he muttered, more to himself than anyone else in the room, though Imayano nodded in response regardless. The captain dipped the tip of one of his ring-encrusted fingers into the paper’s depths, bringing it out coated with a fine, orange-tinted white powder. Gingerly, he barely touched the tip of his finger to the tip of his outstretched tongue before carelessly shaking the rest of the powder away, scattering grains over the worn wood of the floor. “And it’s th’ good stuff, too! Good god, man, you’d be payin’ for th’Sound and Fury’s services twice over!”

“I am a generous empoyer,” Imayano replied. “If my gold is what binds your loyalty, I wish to have your loyalty bound to me most tightly indeed.”

“Heh.” The captain’s craggy face split into a grin as he roughly rewrapped the packet. Jody eventually gave a put-upon sigh and plucked it out of Kensington’s fingers. Within seconds, his deft fingers had rebound the waxed-paper layer’s cords and tucked the cloth around it as neatly as before. “Not exactly the gold I was thinkin’ of, I’ll grant you, but it’ll do. Good god will it do.”

Imayano’s face stretched into the closest thing to a genuine smile he had exhibited all night. “Then I believe that we, as you corsairs would say, have an accord?”

“That we do,” Kensington said solemnly. He spat into his hand and held it out over the table. Koya grudgingly gave his master credit for not even hesitating to do the same, and for being able to work up a good spit at all.

“And now,” Imayano declared, “this meeting never happened.”

News of corsairs attacking Moaji province’s coast filtered through Imayano’s household a month later, courtesy of a colleague hidden in Maseda’s household as a simple maid. Koya received the news from Juna, his mentor and superior, a venerable woman whose muscles were still tough as steel despite her years.

“Take this to Lord Afuda,” she said gruffly, handing Koya a tightly bound scroll. It had been copied, transformed from the spy’s hurried scrawl into elegant columns of characters, fit for a lord’s eyes. “He asked for you to be sent to him specifically. Apparently he’s got a job for you.”

Koya’s mouth thinned behind his mask, but he did not say anything. He accepted the scroll and bowed, padding through the wooden hallways of the ancestral Afuda manor to Imayano’s personal chambers. Out of long habit, he cleaved close to the walls, to the shadowed places. He wished he could vanish into them like the shadowmen that populated the fairy tails his sister had been fond of, able to melt into a darkened nook and emerge miles away.

When Koya arrived at Imayano’s rooms, he was struck as always by a sense of wrongness. Imayano should not have become the next head of the Afuda family, the next lord of Kanfu. How Koya longed to fling open the screen door and find another Afuda in his stead. For all Imanobu and Imayano had been brothers, they had looked remarkably little alike—Imanobu’s face had been squarer with sharper lines, his body bulkier and corded with muscle—so unlike Imayano’s slim, androgynous form.

But of course when Koya finally entered his lords rooms he found not Imanobu, the man he had sworn to serve, but instead Imayano. He was seated behind a low, narrow table whose surface as buried beneath scattered papers. His inky black hair had been combed out of its elaborate styling and fell down his back in a glossy waterfall. Koya knelt before him, head bowed, and held out the scroll with both hands. Imayano did not so much as start at Koya’s appearance, nor did he look up until he had finished whatever he was doing. The only sound in the room was the clack and clatter of the abacus’ beads as he sifted through what Koya presumed to be reports from officials scattered throughout Kanfu province. Koya’s legs were in danger of falling asleep before Imayano admitted to having noticed his arrival at all.

“Ah, Koya,” Imaino said. He set his brush down and plucked the scroll from Koya’s hands. “What do we have here?”

Koya did not reply, instead waiting for Imaino to unroll the paper and skim its contents.

“How kind of Juna to pass this on,” he commented, sounding pleased. “It seems those corsairs are going to be well worth the cost after all. And speaking of which—”

Raising his head, Koya watched the movement of Imaino’s arm as he reached beneath his desk, working some switch hidden from Koya’s view. He pulled out a familiar silk-wrapped packet from the compartment’s depths and, holding his sleeve out of the way, reached over the table to tuck it into Koya’s outer-tunic, where its two halves folded over each other. “Take this to Kensington’s contact at the Flower Basket,” he instructed. “You are not to let yourself be unduly questioned as to your task.”

Koya rose to his feet. “It will be done, my lord,” he bowed, before slipping out of Imaino’s chambers.

Kensington’s contact was already at the Flower Basket when he arrived, merrily partaking of the den’s gaming tables and clear wine. Koya recognized the man as Jody, easily identifiable by the light hue of his hair, ashen though it was. Once Koya had bypassed the Flower Basket’s guards he found himself unwilling to approach Jody’s table and interrupt the spectacle of his country—his countrymen!—making merry with a foreigner.

Hovering in an out of the way corner, unnoticed and unnoticeable, Koya found him gaze riveted to the man. Jody spoke the tongue of Koya’s land with a heavy, unmistakable accent, and was good-natured about his occasional mistakes, making the men he gambled with laugh with, rather than at, him. His countrymen, laughing with a foreigner. Laughing with a foreigner. Koya could not help but wonder what manner of man Jody was, that he could so easily cleave the steel curtain of mistrust that had hung between their respective nations for generations before their own.

Eventually Koya realized that he’d been staring at Jody for several minutes already. He roused himself to action—Jody was an unusual sight, to be sure, but surely not worth such gaping. As he approached Jody’s table, the other man threw up his hands in a grand gesture, tossing his tokens to the table and saying that his snake had eaten his socks. After the general—and good-natured!—laughter had died down, he sheepishly corrected himself and said that his hand was no good, he would play no longer. To Koya’s surprise, several men at the table actually asked him to stay, though Jody refused them all with a rueful shrug.

“Sorry ’bout that,” he said as he approached Koya. “You were late and I wanted to see how I’d do against men who’ve been playin’ that game since before I set foot on a ship.” He winced, and laughed at himself. “Not too good, as turns out.”

“My Lord Imayano required my services,” Koya replied stiffly.

“That so?” the corsair said dryly. “Huh. Will we be going inside or headin’ out to conduct our business?”

“In.” Koya led the way past Madame Kaorin’s desk, tossing Imayano’s payment on her desk as he went. He picked the first of the meeting rooms he came too, the one with a purple-blue iris decorating its door.

“After you,” Jody grinned when they arrived, and Koya took his invitation. He noticed, as the other man was sliding the door shut behind them, that the corsair was wearing a hip-length robe in a style the working men of Koya’s country favored, though Koya could not guess where he would have found one to fit his comparatively large body. Incongruously, Jody had paired the colorful silk garment with bits and pieces of his own country’s clothes, including close-cut trousers and knee-high boots. The effect was familiar and foreign at once, a combination which should have gotten Jody nothing but a knife in the back but was, on him, somehow…captivating.

“Not that I don’t like attention, mind,” Jody drawled, “but I thought you were here on business?”

“Yes,” Koya said briskly, shaking himself out of his reverie. Inwardly, he was appalled; was he so weak that Jody could work his charm on him as easily as half-drunk gamblers with nothing to their names and a handful of coppers to lose it with? Koya reached into his robe and pulled the packet of drugs from where Imayano had stuffed it earlier that evening. “Lord Imayano sends payment with his compliments, and requests that pressure be increased as soon as plausible.”

“No fun in stealing broken toys, but your lord’s the one holdin’ the purse strings.” Jody unwrapped the packet and put it through the same crude examination that he and his captain had subjected the first one to, before retying it and making it vanish somewhere in the multitudinous layers of his clothing. “I’ll tell the cap’n to have Henner break out the big guns.” Something about his surprisingly white-toothed smile told Koya that his words were not metaphor.

“I will be sure to inform my Lord Afuda,” Koya said.

“You do that,” Jody replied, with a rakish smile.

Koya felt his breath catch slightly at the sight of it and was immediately annoyed with himself. Clearly he needed to leave as soon as possible, if Jody affected him so. The corsair opened his mouth as if to say something more, but Koya cut him off with a short, abbreviated bow and slammed out of the Iris Room.

Imayano continued to use Koya as courier for his payments; Koya did not know why—surely secrecy was not the issue as Hayaki had been present at the first meeting also and was just as capable of such a simple task. But he could not complain too strenuously of a chance to leave the manor often, and nor could he complain of a chance to meet and observe Jody regularly, as loath as he might be to admit the second to even himself.

Their meetings followed a steady and set formula, and both became so used to it over the weeks that it was perhaps inevitable it would change.

“So that’s it, then?” Jody asked one night, after the mandrin had been duly handed over and examined. Koya was aware that the other man seemed to be moving closer, and while he was not afraid of the difference in their sizes, their myriad meetings had not given him any more reason to like Jody’s effortless charm, for all Koya admired it—the way he drew eyes and attention, transformed hostility into uproarious laughter.

Koya’s back thumped against the wall—he hadn’t realized he was moving until then. Jody closed the last gap between them, left arm braced over Koya’s head from elbow to wrist. Koya gazed up into his eyes fearlessly and loosened a knife so its hilt fell square into hi hand. If Jody had noticed, he gave no indication. This close, the difference in their heights felt exaggerated, a product of puppetry and theatre. Koya supposed he should have been afraid, then, but what he felt instead was exhilarated, challenged—adrenaline thrumming through each and every one of his veins. He wondered how Jody might fight, if it came to that. What Jody’s body might look like as it flowed through the motions of battle—and any other kind of motion, as well.

Given his line of thoughts, the last thing Koya had expected Jody to do was blurt out, “The cap’n has informed me to inform you that if you’re ever looking to leave that lord of yours, the Sound and Fury will have a position for you.”

Koya opened his mouth. He closed it again. He was glad he had his mask to hide his momentary impression of a hungry carp. “You are offering me a…a job.”

Jody nodded. He stepped back, running a hand through his hair and dislodging the scarf he had used to keep it off his face. Tugging it off, he turned it over it in his tanned hands, fidgeting with its fraying edges. “Yep. We know your kind are pretty good fighters and e can always use good fighters. Could use quiet guys, too, who know how to keep their mouths shut, and they say you and yours are good at that kind of thing too. What do you say?”

“No. No!” Koya pulled himself together. “I refuse, and be glad I do not kill you for dishonoring me and my lord by even suggesting such a thing.” His words were right, the appropriate response he had been drilled in, but to Koya they sounded more hollow than ever. Nonetheless, he continued, “It is my duty to serve my lord, and my lord is Lord Afuda Imayano, and will be Lord Afuda Imayano until the day I die.”

Jody avoided his gaze by wrapping the scarf back around a hair. “Worth a shot,” he said, to no one in particular. “I told the cap’n a loyal bugger like you wouldn’t say yes, but I’m just first mate, what do I know?”

“I make allowances for your foreign origin,” Koya heard himself say, as if from a long distance away. If Juna knew he had let his loyalty be questioned—by a foreigner!—and let the questioner live, she would test the strength of her nine-tails on his back. The strength of her arm would never be in doubt at all. “But only this once.”

“If you say so.” Jody smirked and continued, “C’n I help you take care of anythin’ before I go?” It took a moment for Koya to recognize the invitation for what it was, but before he could move—to accept or refuse to something else altogether, he did not know—Jody gave a rueful shrug and vanished out the Iris Room’s door.

Koya lingered behind, meditating on his breathing for a slow ten seconds, before squaring his shoulders and leaving for the manor. Imayano would be expecting him.

“Late,” Jody greeted him curtly, months later. The genial expression Koya was used to from him had slipped momentarily, replaced by impatience. It was unfair, Koya thought, that the unhappy twist of his mouth suited the man about as well as the reckless grin he had worn the first time Koya had laid eyes on him.

“Lord Afuda apologizes for his tardiness,” Koya replied. By now, the words were familiar to both of them. Jody grimaced as he accepted the payment from him.

“At least he hasn’t tried to outright cheat us yet,” he muttered, just low enough that Koya could ignore the slur against his lord. Jody opened the packet, sifted through it with a knife pulled from his boot, before his long red tongue darted out to taste the mandrin caking the knife’s tip. Koya found himself watching the way Jody absently licked his lips. “Mmm. Still th’ good stuff, at least.” The packet of powder vanished, along with the knife. “And now for the next order of business.”

Despite Koya’s warning, Jody didn’t seem inclined to give up his increasingly rote attempts to woo him to the side of the corsairs. Koya hadn’t yet stabbed Jody and left him for dead in the bowels of the Flower Basket for the affront, having to come to enjoy the little thrill of savage pleasure in each little treason against Imayano’s name.

“Want to join the Sound and Fury?” the corsair went on. “We could use you. And pay you. No? Didn’t think so. Ho-hum.” Jody stretched, his interlaced hands rising up, and up, and up. Koya found himself watching them rise, watching the way the motion made the muscles of Jody’s bare arms stand out in relief. It had been a long time since he had actively sought out a lover, Imanobu’s death having robbed him of that desire as it had so much else, but in the same way Jody effortlessly made Koya’s countrymen like him, he had effortlessly awakened passions that Koya had nearly forgotten.

Jody caught him staring, and as Koya was berating himself for such a slip Jody crossed the distance between them with two strides of his long, long legs until a scant handful of inches between them. Instead of backing away, Koya stood his ground this time, keeping Jody’s eyes locked with his.

Slowly, almost as if waiting for a knife to the ribs to stop him, Jody reached up and hooked his fingers in Koya’s mask. He quirked an eyebrow in question, knuckles pressing against Koya’s cheek. The movement was so unexpected that Koya had no idea how to react—by right he should have stopped Jody long before, reminded him just how good a fighter he was, but his automatic impulse was at war with Koya’s sudden certainty that he didn’t want Jody to stop. For his part, Jody seemed to take Koya’s stillness as assent and tugged down the fabric of his mask down around his throat.

Jody kissed like Koya expected he would, unyielding and demanding; all teeth and tongue battling for the upper hand. It galled Koya to have to do it, but he pushed himself up on his toes anyway, to kiss back with equal fervor. Somehow they stumbled against the wall, Koya forcing Jody against the thick paper right where it passed over a supporting beam and pressing demandingly on his shoulders until the taller man slid down, bringing their faces level at last.

Jody had one leg slid between Koya’s thighs, and he could feel the hard outline of Jody’s cock grinding against him and his fingers digging into Koya’s flesh. Koya could feel himself answering Jody’s hunger with his own, pressing against the joint of the other man’s hip. He wondered whether anyone would miss him, if he stayed here at the Flower Basket rutting against Jody’s lean, sunburnt body. If Madame Kaorin would send one of her guards to the manor with a report of what had transpired in her brothel, of the truth that lay beneath the dull, repetitious apologies Koya would make to his lord for his tardiness—

The last thought of Imayano’s eyes on him, even one spy removed, was enough to douse Koya’s desire; he wrenched himself away from Jody and staggered back across the room. Jody darted after him, but Koya spun out of the way. Rather than follow him again, Jody folded his arms across his chest and glared at him. Koya scowled back at him in turn, tugging his mask back into place.

“What is it now?” Jody demanded. The hunger in his eyes had been replaced by anger, and the intensity of his gaze made Koya’s belly coil tighter with need. He wondered what it would feel like, for Jody’s focus to be transfigured from fury back to lust, what it would feel like to fight and wrestle him, to be pinned and overpowered and—

“Waiting,” he managed to mumble by way of explanation. “Imaya—Lord Afuda. I must go.”

“And you care?” Jody arched an eyebrow. “Now, of all times?”

“It is my duty.”

“To care?”

“Yes.” Koya yanked the door open, feeling a cool breeze play over his face. It only served to remind him of how much warmer he had been. “That is my duty.”

“Really now.” Looking over his shoulder, Koya caught a glimpse of Jody’s tented trousers. His fingers twitched restlessly, as if longing to readjust his clothing around it. Or perhaps to slip under the colorful sash lashed tight around his hips and—Koya shook the thought away.

“I must go,” he repeated, and left.

Frustratingly, the journey back to the manor did nothing to soothe Koya. True, he had managed to—eliminate the most obvious signs of his encounter with Jody. But not even the exertion of riding full-tilt back to the manor was enough to douse the fires Jody had awakened, and it was in a state of frustration that Koya paused outside the entrance to Imayano’s personal quarters. He breathed in deeply of the incense-soaked air, meditated for ten seconds. Perhaps Imayano would not notice. And perhaps the sea would rise up and drown Kanfu beneath a rain of octopi and fish.

When Koya had finally steeled himself enough to enter, he found Imayano seated at his low table, though this night it had been cleared of documents. His eyes were clear and focused, his hand wrapped around an calligraphy brush as he painted characters in a manner that could be only be described as stately.

Koya knelt before the table. “My lord.”

“Ah, Koya,” his lord said, without glancing upwards. He said no more. Koya waited as patiently as possible until Imayano finally set his brush down. “You are quite late. I trust, however, that your meeting with Kensington’s contact went well?”

“Yes, my lord,” Koya said. He hoped desperately Imayano would not ask for further details so he could leave and take care of what Jody had left him.

“Good, good.” Imayano seemed distracted, calmly grinding out more ink into its dish before studying his brush for stray hairs. “I suppose I’m done with you, then.”

Koya rose to leave, but froze when he caught sight of what Imayano had been painting. It hadn’t been characters after all, but portraits—among those arrayed he recognized his own visage formed of bruststrokes. The face Imayano had just finished was an achingly familiar one, one Koya still had not forgotten—Imanobu’s. Imayano looked up at him, brow faintly furrowed in annoyance, then back down at his art. Then he looked straight ahead, eyes level with Koya’s hips, and a small, cruel smile touched his lips. “Really now, Koya,” he drawled. “I know you were…close to my brother, but surely that reaction is a bit much for simply seeing his face?”

Involuntarily Koya flushed; his mask would hide most of it, but not nearly enough. He frantically scrambled for an appropriate reply that would not end in revealing what had truly kept him.

To his surprise, Imayano was the first to break the impasse. “I suppose I shouldn’t be so disingenuous of my dear brother’s mourners,” he said. “Dismissed, Koya.”

He blinked in surprise. “My lord?”

Imayano carefully lifted the scroll from his table, studying the face writ large across it. “I wish to be alone, Koya,” he said. “Dismissed.”

Koya fled for the manor’s secret hallways with relief, heading for the manor’s well. This late at night, it was abandoned, and Koya leaned against the cool stone, taking comfort in its solidity. Imayano was right, he and Imanobu had been close—friends from childhood on. Koya would have given his life for Imanobu’s a thousand times over, which made the circumstance of his death sting worse than ever. He had failed his master, the master he had loved more than anything, even life and propriety itself. Every day he served Imayano served as another twist of the knife that it seemed would never leave his chest.

Koya closed his eyes and tried desperately to focus on Jody—on the sheer bulk of his body, the way he radiated heat as if he had absorbed a bit of the sun’s warmth from walking in her embrace so many hours of his day. But it was too late—Imayano had reawakened all the dreams and desires Koya thought he had forgotten. He hated how easy it was to take Imayano’s face and morph it into Imanobu’s—he would have been a great man, a warrior and leader and lord born and bred—if he had lived, Imanobu would surely have grown, inching his way taller than Koya—his skin bronzed the way Koya’s would never be, living in the shadows as he did—

Koya came almost before he even realized climax was upon him. He glared at the stain on the stone, and hauled up a bucketful of water to clean away his shame. Then he pulled up another bucketful, upending the cold, metallic-smelling water over his head to try and wash away the scent of semen that clung to his clothes.

The weeks Imayano spent waiting for Lord Maseda to fold and betroth his daughter to him were tedious in the extreme. This was only made doubly true by the fact that nobles across the land had caught wind of Imayano redoubling his efforts to press his suit for Lady Naori’s hand and were scrambling to make their own suit—for him. It seemed every noble in the land had dispatched an advocated to congregate in the Afuda manor in order to sell their lieges’ daughters—or even the occasional unnecessary son—as suitable spouses, and to sell their provinces as favorable allies. Standing guard at each and every banquet Imayano threw for his myriad guests afforded Koya too much time to watch his lord play each man and woman off each other in their attempts to win his attentions and affections.

The monotony was finally interrupted by Juna. As the last of yet another drinking party dispersed, Koya prepared to make one last sweep of the manor’s surroundings before retiring himself for the night. Juna stopped him as he was about to exit the manor, her grip like a vice around his arm. Koya bowed to her as best he could in such a position. “Sir?”

She tugged him towards the wall, working an unseen switch to pull him into one of the myriad hidden tunnels that honeycombed the Afuda manor. “This was Hayaki’s job, but the horse threw her and her wrist’s gone.” She pressed a short, slender object into his hand; when Koya looked down at it he nearly dropped the thing in shock. It was a tube of bamboo, sealed with wax at both ends and decorated by a ribbon about its center. Koya did not have to feel the knot to know it would be a dense mass of fabric, twined and tightened into a sphere only members of the Afuda family would know the construction of.

Juna continued, “I can’t spare anyone else—at least, no one I’d trust to get this job done.” Her voice adopted its familiar order-giving timbre. “Get this message to Lord Maseda Kunehi with all the speed you can muster. Don’t go through the town, avoid all notice. I trust any other warnings and instructions are unnecessary?”

In lieu of answering, Koya tucked the message away, into a hidden pocket within his clothing added for just such a purpose. “It will be done,” he said at last. Perhaps his relief at being allowed to do something—anything—other than guard duty was visible, for Juna gave a low laugh.

“Do you really think I haven’t noticed how bored you are?” she asked, sounding amused. “Watching those stupid puppets get drunk and flirt with Lord Afuda is a waste of your talents. There’s a horse already loaded; take it. I expect you to make all haste getting to Moaji, but I won’t say a word if it takes a day extra for you to return. Understood?”

“Sir.” Koya managed a bow in to the narrow corridor, but only just. Juna nodded in acknowledgement before opening the corridor once more and shoving him out into the hallway. Juna headed past him as if nothing had happened; Koya, for his part, headed straight for the Afuda stables.

Moaji province abutted Kanfu, so the sojourn from the Afuda manor would perhaps not be as long as Koya could have wished. But it was a sojourn, and at this point Koya was willing to take anything he could get. It occurred to Koya as he rode into the night that if he was careful, he could pry the wax off one end of the bamboo with its seal intact, and could no doubt slide the slim roll of paper ensconced within and see what exactly it was that Imayano had to say to Lord Maseda…

…but no, it was most likely another articulate and beautifully written attempt to persuade the elder nobleman that marrying his daughter to Imayano was Moaji’s only salvation. There were only so many ways to mask bullying and extortion with fine words and sweet phrases, and Koya was uninterested in reading what he had already heard a thousand times over.

Walking into Moaji’s main town, it was obvious that the corsair attacks were having dire effect. The commoners walked around with grim looks on their faces, while children played listlessly in the dust. There were no pets in evidence, not a single hound or lazy cat—it seemed that Moaji, an utterly maritime province, was not faring well with food shipments so difficult to come by. Down the hill the town was built on, Koya could see Moaji’s harbors, which were uncomfortably empty save for the tiniest of fishing boats. Off in the distance, dotting the horizon, he could make out the bulky shapes and bright sails of foreign ships—the Sound and Fury and her sisters, no doubt.

Koya approached the Maseda residence from the front entrance. The building was at least as grand as the Afudas’, though it had a demoralized air about it—even the faces of the guards, or at least what was visible of them, looked pinched and withdrawn.

“I bear a message from Lord Afuda Imayano for Lord Maseda Kunehi,” Koya said by way of greeting. The guards exchanged glances; the slight sneer on one man’s face was more than enough to convey all Koya needed to know about how they regarded his lord. Before either of the guards could answer him, however, a figure clad in dark clothing arranged almost, but not quite, exactly as Koya’s dropped into sight from somewhere unseen and padded over to the mansion’s front walk.

She—Koya noted the faint rise of bound breasts beneath the front of her clothes—held out a gloved hand expectantly. Koya met her eyes and held them. “It is a message for Lord Maseda Kunehi alone.”

The woman paused, then jerked her hand in a quick motion that brought out another dark-clad figure. “Search the horse,” she rasped. Her voice had a low, grating quality, like heavy pebbles ground against each other by the incoming tide. Koya handed the reins over to her colleague without quarrel.

She led Koya into a courtyard at the very heart of the mansion. He had no doubt the windows rising all around him were stocked with hidden watchers. He conducted a cursory examination of his surroundings—after the drab, defeated air of the town, the size and color of the carp pond’s denizens was rather surprising—before taking a seat. A few moments later Lord Maseda strode into the courtyard.

Koya leapt immediately to his feet. Maseda was technically Imayano’s rival, but his reputation as a naval warlord was ferocious and Koya respected the man for that—and for having survived to be an old naval warlord at all. Maseda was a hulking man, dressed in simple clothes and armor even deep in his own home. His steely grey hair was bound in a traditional topknot, and one of his piercing green eyes was covered by a worn leather eyepatch. He nodded curtly at Koya’s bow of greeting, not even pausing to return it before saying, “Let’s see what that whelp’s got to say this time.”

Koya produced the bamboo tube—hiding his amusement at the barely perceptible jingle of metal when his hand flashed towards his clothing—and held it out in both hands for Maseda. The man snatched it away, thumbing off the wax and impatiently shaking the scroll within onto his weathered hands. For a moment Koya thought he would simply discard the paper after skimming it, but one of the densely packed characters must have caught his eye for Maseda paused before re-reading the message seriously.

He examined the bamboo tube once he had finished, peering at the knot and prodding it with the tip of a knife. Maseda then subjected the remaining wax seal to the same close scrutiny. “It doesn’t look like a fake,” he muttered. He trained his gaze on Koya. “You’re here as his official courier, then?”

“Yes, my lord,” Koya bowed. Juna hadn’t said so, technically, but it was better safe than sorry. “Please excuse my slovenly appearance—”

Maseda waved aside his apologies with his knife. “And you mean to tell me that after all this time, Imayano is finally going to simply give up his obsession with my daughter and just—send help?”

“My Lord Afuda does not discuss with me—”

” I wasn’t expecting an answer from you.” Maseda frowned mightily at the paper in his hands. “If this is true…” He absently flipped the paper back and forth, as if searching for some secret mark that would reveal Imayano’s correspondence for a hoax. At last he heaved a sigh and waved an impatient arm; within moments a trim, spare man in plain brown robes emerged from the shadows with a precisely decorous bow. Koya bowed back at him. The newcomer nodded absently in his direction as Maseda handed him the message, saying, “Your opinion, Tobuka?”

Tobuka peered closely at the paper, pulling out a piece of glass to enlarge his gaze. “It seems legitimate,” he said doubtfully. Maseda silently handed him the tube, which Tobuka—who must be some official high in Maseda’s household, to be so casually consulted—subjected to even closer scrutiny, examining the intricacies of the ribbon. “This, too, seems legitimate. If it is a fake, it is an extremely knowledgeable one.”

“Hrmph.” Maseda seemed to be fighting some terrible internal battle; the hand holding the message wavered in the air as his fingers tightened, crumpling the fine paper. “You’ve read it. What do you think?”

Tobuka coughed and tucked the glass away. “I can only tell you what is necessary, my lord. But what is necessary may not be right.”

“But is not taking the necessary action also a right action?” Maseda wondered aloud. “Afuda’s gifts don’t come free. He’ll make sure the entire country knows Kanfu saved Moaji from the foreign devils. How can I keep refusing him? Moaji and its people can’t last much longer under siege.”

At last, after long moments of further deliberation, Maseda clumsily folded up Imayano’s message and stuffed it into his sash. “I accept Lord Afuda’s offer of assistance,” he said gruffly. “As his courier, you are welcome to stay the night in my household while I prepare an appropriate response.”

“I humbly accept your offer of accommodation,” Koya replied, bowing low. His head churned with confusion, he was barely aware of the rote words spilling from his lips. “You are most generous, Lord Maseda.”

Maseda grunted and waved another arm. Another figure emerged from the courtyard’s doorways, this time a young maid who stumbled over the sill as if unused to her official uniform. After a moment’s hesitation, she dropped to her knees and bowed, pressing her forehead to the stone. Maseda sighed impatiently and knelt himself, taking her chin in his hand to guide her upright. He seemed almost embarrassed by the display of obeisance, gently turning her by the shoulders to face Koya, whereupon the maid immediately bowed far too low for the courier of an untrustworthy and temporary ally. “Please show Afuda’s messenger to a guest room,” Maseda instructed. “See that his every need is met.”

“O-Of course, my lord Maseda!” The maid seemed about to fall her knees again, before thinking better of it and bowing instead, first to Maseda, and then to Tobuka. Koya bowed at both men once more before following the maid to his room. As soon as he was inside he sat down cross-legged, trying to meditate and calm his flurried thoughts in order to consider the implications of Maseda’s words more closely. It was not long before Koya discovered that he could not stand to stay so still. He stood, wandered the room’s narrow confines, sat down again. If Maseda was not lying—but why would he? Was Imayano lying, then? But then—

It was a restless night Koya spent in Maseda’s house. He was awakened at dawn by another maid, this one older and sour-faced. She led him back to the courtyard and left without a word. Koya waited patiently, careful to pose himself as unthreateningly as possible. Presently Tobuka appeared before him, striding towards him with a scroll in his hand.

The man stopped before him held out the scroll. “Maseda’s reply,” he said, in his dry, academic tones.

Koya silently accepted the little bamboo tube with both hands, bowing deeply. “I will convey Lord Maseda’s words to Lord Afuda as soon as possible.”

Tobuka nodded at another doorway. “Your horse has been prepared.”

“Then I shall take my leave, honored sir.” Koya bowed again and left the mansion as fast as possible.

Once mounted, he pointed his steed’s head in the direction of Kanfu, under no illusion as to being allowed to leave Moaji’s lands alone. He traveled as he had said he would, but once deep in Kanfu’s lands, or at least deep enough that Maseda’s shadows would not dare to follow him, he veered off the main road.

Koya turned his horse inwards, towards the mountains that backed Kanfu province and served as the border between it and the next province over. It was not a long ride to the mountains’ base, Kanfu being substantially longer than it was wide, and Koya made his camp amongst the boulders that littered the ground—all of them relics of landslides past.

As soon as camp was set up and he had ascertained no foolhardy spy had followed him into Kanfu’s lands, Koya pulled Maseda’s message out of its hidden pocket. It looked exactly as Imayano’s had, though the bamboo tube was decorated by a piece of rough cord rather than silk ribbon, and the knot had been intricately bound in an entirely different way. He turned it over in his gloved hands, glancing into the dark woods before pulling out his smallest, lightest knife and thrusting its blade into the fire. The key to opening the message was to keep the seal stamped in the wax at either end intact. With his knife sufficiently heated, Koya carefully pressed his knife into the side of the wax and muttered a prayer for luck under his breath for luck as he slowly sliced the head of it off. The chunk of wax stamped with the Maseda crest came off as smoothly as he could have wished, but Koya had misjudged the depth of the wax cap and a thick layer still lay between his eyes and the message lying snug in the tube.

He carefully set the wax seal down on the stone beside him and studied the message tube again as he reheated his knife. On the next try he found the top of the bamboo tube and managed to cut off the last of the wax. Careful not to knock off the drippings of wax still clinging to the tube’s mouth, he shook the paper inside out into his palm. By the light of the fire, he could see that Maseda’s script was cruder than Imayano’s delicate, precise brushstrokes, though not without its own rough kind of elegance. The other lord’s words were curt: he thanked Imayano for his aid, and would not fear the next corsair attack with the assurance of Kanfu’s support as soon they saw the foreign devils sailing in to attack.

Koya stared into his little fire, stunned. So it hadn’t been a hoax, after all. Imayano really did intend to help Maseda, apparently without even so much as hinting at his desire for Naori’s hand. But then what about—

After long moments, he shook himself out of his reverie and began the long process of putting the wax seal back together. He had a message to deliver.

When he rode into the Afuda manor grounds, the dome of the sky above him was dotted with stars. On this night the manor felt less like home than ever—as one of the shadow house, born of man and woman who spent their lives protecting Afuda interests by darting from the flanks rather than marching with the vanguard, the manor had been as much Koya’s home as Imayano or Imanobu’s—even more his, perhaps, because no noble of the family had ever known the manor’s passageways and hidden byways as throughly as those who thrived in its dark places.

But tonight, the manor was alien and empty of people; Koya almost fancied that the servants had simply vanished, rendering the manor fit only for ghosts, though only one ghost had ever haunted Koya. He wandered its halls with feet that seemed to move him without need of conscious thought. It was almost a surprise to realize he had come to a stop outside Imayano’s door, the glow of lamplight flickering from within.

After a moment, Koya shook himself out of his daze. He had a duty to do. Placing a hand on the door, he prepared to slide the door open—and paused, as another silhouette moved into view. Now he was faced with a quandary—interrupt, or wait? The idea of entering while Imayano was mid-tryst made Koya’s stomach heave. He stepped back, deeper into the shadows, and might well have turned to go when his ear caught the familiar timbre of Juna’s voice.

“…lutely sure?” she was saying. Koya froze, torn between impulses, and finally shuffled aside and leaned in to listen more closely.

“How can he refuse?” Imayano replied. There was the faint chink of what Koya thought might be pottery—tea? So late at night? They must have been together for some time, then, and planned to stay awake for hours yet. “I offered no terms. I made no mention of Naori…except between the brushstrokes.”

“And you believe Maseda will give in now, after so many refusals?”

“Does he have a choice?” Koya gritted his teeth against the faint note of smugness in Imayano’s voice, his helpless fury only exasperated by the knowledge that his lord had been right, that the message tucked in his clothes only played into Imayano’s hands. “How much longer do you think Moaji will last without Kanfu? And once indebted to me, he’ll have no choice but to marry Naori off to me. Then I’ll rebuild the province and add its trade to Kanfu’s.”

“Hmph.” There was the sound of rustling paper before Juna’s voice sounded again. “What of the corsairs, then? Hayaki reported they were getting impatient when she returned from town with your message.”

“One more payment, perhaps,” Imayano replied thoughtfully. “Perhaps a bit more than usual so as to keep the deal sweet. I’m sure they will understand the difficulty in procuring so much of the drug, and so pure.”

“And—when your aid arrives at Moaji…?”

“Come now, Juna, surely you can guess the answer to that?” There the soft chink of pottery on pottery. “Maseda needs to believe the battle is real, and how better to do that than with a real battle?”

“The corsairs must die, then.” Her voice was as dry and dispassionate as Imayano’s.

“Yes. Every one. I’m sure you and Hu Nua have seen that Kanfu’s fleet is capable of such a feat?”

“Hu Nua still wishes to have the cannons she showed you the plans for last month.”

“Ah, yes, I have them right here…” The rustling of paper obscured the rest of his words, but Koya heard enough.

So Imayano did plan to betray Jody and his corsairs. Koya knew he shouldn’t be feeling sympathy for them, but—they had obeyed Imayano’s orders, enduring tardy payments while at great personal risk to themselves. They were foreigners, of course, but they had thus far exhibited more honor than Imayano in the matter, letting the tenets of their initial agreement stand unchallenged despite Imayano’s slips in diligence. No wonder he had been reluctant to pay the corsairs on time—why waste such a valuable drug on soon-to-be dead men? It was not unheard of for lords to be cunning and liars, especially in dealings with corsairs, but—Imayano was—

Koya crept away. Before he knew it, he was back at the stables. Juna would not be expecting him back for another day or two, if her words ran true.

The entire ride back to Moaji, Koya felt his insides twist in knots. It was not yet too late for him to turn around, to abide by the tenets of loyalty and duty that had been driven deep into his bones from birth. It was not too late for his tardiness to be covered with some inane lie, heard and dismissed by the memory of Juna’s lenient orders. It was not too late.

But standing at the edge of Moaji’s town, watching the Sound and Fury and her sister ships move into the harbor, Koya knew there could be no turning back. As the corsairs drew closer, the bedraggled remnants of Moaji’s once proud fleet moved to face them, the sounds of battle echoing throughout the harbor. The docks were deserted, Moaji’s men and women hidden in their homes and undoubtedly wondering if tonight was the night the defense finally failed once and for all.

Once Koya judged the corsairs’ ships had come as close to the shoreline as they were likely to get, he departed the shadows and dove into the harbor. He sent a silent apology to his horse, who would most likely be a meal this time the next day if Koya’s previous visit had been any indication. As he neared the closest corsair ship Koya slowed, searching for a point of entrance. He managed to make his way awkwardly up the side of the ship, eventually clinging to the figurehead for purchase. His limbs ached with exhaustion from the swim and climb, but Koya clung determined as a limpet until he felt the ship begin to turn, accompanied by the jubilant shouts of the men aboard.

As soon as he was certain that the corsairs were heading away from Moaji, Koya willed strength and motion back into his limbs and carefully climbed over the edge of the deck. He was spotted, of course, but as the alarm was raised he deliberately let himself fall over in a position of helplessness—the various members of the crew who had drawn their blades in preparation of running him through paused at this sudden show of weakness.

“I must…speak with…your captain,” he said as weakly as possible. The sailors milled in confusion until a short man with a neatly trimmed beard pushed his way through the crowd. He exchanged a few rapid words with the closest of the corsairs—Koya understood perhaps one word in three—before crouching near him. Koya did not miss the way he produced a dagger as he did so.

“What you want?” he asked. His accent and grammar was crude, and while Koya inwardly winced at his language being so mangled, at least it was one less obstacle.

“I must speak with your captain,” he repeated, making sure to keep the tip of the knife in the corner of his eye.

“Captain?” The man frowned, then pointed at himself with his free hand.

“Kensi—” Koya coughed to clear his throat and slowly said in the foreigners’ language, “Ken-sing-ton.”

“Kensi—want see Kensington?”

Koya nodded. The man frowned down at him. “Why?”

“You don’t…know…enough of…the language.”

The man simply stared down at him—Koya could not tell if he was using silence to demand more information, or if he had simply not understood what he had said.

“I have a message.” Koya waved a hand vaguely, then let it fall as if too tired to indicate where he’d hidden it. “Important. Very important.”

The man rose to his feet and barked orders at the men milling about. Two of them grabbed Koya by the arms and hauled him upright; a third took his sword and patted his body down, managing to find three of the more conspicuous knives. Koya let them haul him down into the depths of the ship and toss him into a cell that was cleaner than he might have otherwise expected of a corsair ship.

As soon as he was sure he was alone, Koya sat up from the wooden floor, stretching out his aching muscles and taking stock of his surroundings. His cell was small, one in an array of many others just like it. He heard a rat skitter out across his cell, freezing when he caught his scent—Koya snapped a leg out at it and it vanished into the shadows, leaving him utterly alone.

Koya could not tell how long he had been in the cell. There was no window, and so no sunlight with which to gauge the time. He was barely able to hear the sounds of men moving about on deck, let alone discern changes in shifts. The only change in his condition was the impatient gnawing in his stomach, but hunger was a discomfort he was used to and it at least provided a rough gauge of how long he had been stuck behind these wooden bars.

Presently Koya heard the clink of a key scraping in the lock of the room housing his cell and he immediately flopped on the floor as if asleep. The sound of boot heels on wood signaled the approach of his visitor. Whoever it was paused just outside Koya’s cell and shortly afterwards something collided with his shoulder. Koya stirred and peered upwards.

Jody looked down at him, grimmer than Koya had ever seen the other man. “Food,” he said. “You probably don’t have a word for it.”

Koya sat up slowly. What had hit his shoulder was, on further examination, some sort of flat, pale object with a surface like bubbles frozen in place. It was very hard and it was with difficult that he managed to break off a corner. It was odorless and, as Koya found when he had turned away to pull down his mask and take an experimental bite, very nearly tasteless.

“What, am I supposed to talk to your back?” Jody called behind him. “Who’s holding who prisoner here?”

Brushing the pale crumbs off his clothing, Koya pulled his mask back into place and turned around once more. “I have a message for your captain.”

“The cap’n?” Jody scratched his head, leaning casually on the bars. “If this is Afuda’s idea of an assassination attempt—”

“You would not be alive,” Koya finished for him. “But Afuda did not send me.”

“Oh-ho!” Jody straightened and peered at him curiously. “Decided to take me up on my offer? Could’ve just come seen me yesterday. It ain’t nice not to cut a guy off to his face.”

“I was otherwise occupied,” Koya said coldly. “However, as a result, I have some of Lord Maseda’s correspondence to Afuda that Captain Kensington might find…interesting.”

“Yeah?” Jody held out his hand, just outside of the bars. “Let’s see it then.”

“I’ll show it to the captain and no one else,” Koya replied. “It’s worth more than my head not to see your highest authority.”

“I’m first mate of the vanguard ship, I think that’s high enough,” Jody said firmly. “C’mon, hand it over.”

“No.”

“Stubborn little bastard.”

Koya did not deign to reply.

“Alright, fine, have it your way. S’not like you’d get far if you did try killing the captain, anyway.” Jody stomped out of the room, slamming the door shut behind him. Koya leaned against the back wall, nibbling at the food he had been given. He’d scarcely managed to gnaw an inch or so from it when the door was flung open again by Jody presiding over two other men. The cell door was also unlocked and Koya hauled upright, before being mostly dragged out the door, up the stairs, and into the afternoon sunlight. Koya’s eyes automatically clamped shut against the glare reflecting off the open sea; he barely saw Jody drop over the side of the ship. The two men let his arms go, and one gave him a none-too-delicate shove towards what Koya now saw was a rope hanging over the side. A quick glance showed him Jody already seating himself in a small rowboat. Koya glanced backwards, then shimmied down the rope himself.

The boat rocked as Koya carefully sat down; Jody reached over and caught one of his wrists and Koya let him have the other. Jody easily wrapped the fingers of one hand around both. His other hand held a knife flush against Koya’s neck and Koya instinctually relaxed against him: it was easier to feel his captor’s motions, that way.

As the other two men began rowing the boat away, the craft tilted Koya back into Jody’s body. He grunted and readjusted his hold on the knife. “Don’t s’pose I got you scared?”

“Would you remove that knife if I said yes?” Koya asked, resettling his legs.

Jody laughed. Koya could feel it all along his back, distracting him. Every motion of the boat threw their bodies against each other, their combined knuckles digging into the small of Koya’s back every time. At one point Jody’s grip about his wrists slackened momentarily before he seemed to gather himself and tighten it again. The two corsairs rowing grunted in time with their exertions, ignoring them. Out in the open water, their vessel seemed impossibly small.

“Don’t s’pose you’ll tell me more about what you got for the cap’n now?” Jody asked. “‘Cause, not to put too fine a point on it, we’re in the middle of the ocean.”

“Correspondence,” Koya replied, guardedly, “between Maseda and Afuda. As I said. I will not divulge its contents until I see Captain Kensington face to face.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Jody said. “But Afuda’s tryin’ to get Maseda to marry off his girl to him, it ain’t so unusual for them to be sendin’ letters back n’ forth.”

“It does not deal with Lady Naori’s marriage prospects,” Koya said. “I will say no more.”

“So Afuda’s talkin’ to Maseda ’bout something other than marrying his kid?”

“That is what I said, yes.”

“Now that does sound mighty interestin’. Can I take a guess as to what they’re talking about behind my back?”

“You may, if you wish. I will not respond either way.”

Jody laughed again, breath puffing over the side of Koya’s face above the edge of his mask. Despite the heat and his dark clothing, he thought he was warmer than he should have been, which was perhaps not surprising but was annoying. He needed his wits about him more than ever.

“I could make you respond,” Jody suggested. The way the knife briefly pressed closer to Koya’s neck was at odds with the low intimacy of his voice. The juxtaposition was oddly…compelling.

“You could try,” Koya conceded.

“Ah, but the fun’s all in the trying, ain’t it?” He could just imagine Jody winking at him. “No fun without challenge.”

“I did not know you had command enough of this tongue to make advances upon my person,” Koya replied drily.

“Darlin’, it all depends on what kinda advances we’re talking about,” Jody drawled. “Whoops, here we are.” Jody switched languages. “Hallo the ship!”

“Hallo the boat!” someone shouted back. A rope was tossed over the side of what had to be the Sound and Fury, landing in a heap in the middle of the boat. Koya could see the dark silhouettes of heads and shoulders crowded around where it crossed the deck’s edge.

“We’re sending up the—” Koya did not recognize the word Jody used; it sounded like some corruption of his own tongue “—first!” Jody stood up and Koya had no choice but to follow him upwards. Wrists released, Koya took hold of the rope as Jody gestured pointedly with the knife and started upwards.

He shimmied up the rope easily enough and was pulled over by a multitude of hands that took such complete hold of his clothing that he could barely move. The other three men clambered onboard behind him.

“Notify the Cap’n,” Jody said to someone as he swung a leg over the deck railing. A slim child with masses of hair the color of flames nodded, wide-eyed, and dashed off. “The rest o’ you, least you could let the poor bastard breathe.”

The hands on Koya’s body lessened substantially in number. Jody pulled his hands behind his back and by peering over his shoulder Koya could just barely see him tying a length of rope in a complicated looking knot—one he recognized with no small surprise as being particular to his land. He wondered Jody could have learned such a thing.

Jody nodded at all the corsairs gathered ’round and flashed his knife. “Back to work you lazy sons-a-bitches,” he shouted good-naturedly. “The Sound and Fury ain’t gonna sail itself!” The men dispersed reluctantly—less from laziness, Koya thought, than mistrust of what he might do to their first mate, even bound as he was.

“Now we’ve got that out of the way…” Jody took hold of his elbow and tugged him in the direction of the cabin that jutted from the ship’s deck. “Cap’n’s probably waiting by now.”

“An interesting knot,” Koya said as they walked. He tested the strength of the rope; slowly, so as not to give the impression he was trying in earnest to escape.

“Thought you might recognize it,” Jody said with a grin. “How’d I do?”

“Well enough,” Koya conceded. “Though it is a simple knot, such as children might learn in the cradle.”

Jody winked at him as they reached the cabin. “Don’t worry, that ain’t the only way I know how to tie ropes.”

Koya could not decide how he was supposed to receive such a statement before Jody pulled him into the shady little room, pushing him into a chair and tying his ankles. He considered slipping out of the rope—something about Jody made him feel needlessly reckless—but decided against it. There was only so far he could allow this blond foreigner with the easy smile to sway him. He let Jody untie his wrists, and retie them to armrests of the chair. This would, he thought, make removing the message somewhat difficult. Letting Jody root through his clothing for it was simply out of the question.

It was not long before they two were joined by another pair of men—Captain Kensington, as irritatingly boisterous as Koya remembered from their first meeting, and a short, stocky man that Koya was surprised to see was not a foreigner, but one of his countrymen. The second man’s clothing was similar to that of a common laborer, but strapped to his back was a sword like that which Koya typically wore. The way the older man moved made the hair on the back of Koya’s neck stand on end. He smiled when their eyes met, but the sight did nothing to soothe Koya’s unease. On the contrary, it made him feel more aware than ever of being bound hand and foot, helpless.

“Now what’s all this?” the captain roared. He dropped into a chair opposite Koya, hooking one leg over the armrest. “There I was, having a nice nap, and Mira comes a-knockin’, waking me up! I can’t be havin’ with that sort of thing. This’d better be worth my while, Jody-boy.”

“One of Afuda’s, eh?” the captain’s companion noted.

“Formerly,” Koya replied.

The second man smiled again, wider this time. “You abandon your duty?”

“As have you.”

The man merely smiled and said nothing.

Jody moved to the other end of the room. “Enough. Can you tell the cap’n what you got now?”

Koya took a deep breath. “A few days ago, Afuda sent a message to Maseda offering to send aid at the next attack. He made no mention of Naori—Maseda’s daughter.”

The captain rubbed his chin. “Bad news, eh?”

“Maseda accepted his offer,” Koya continued. “Afuda would have been down on your heads last night, except I chose to…divert Maseda’s reply.”

Jody leaned on the table, blue eyes intense. “You have it now?”

“Yes.”

“Well, let’s see it then.” Jody made to move around the table, but the grey-haired man, the deserter, stopped him.

“You would not find it without aid,” he said. Koya met his gaze defiantly as he approached. The man knelt, reaching into Koya’s clothing unerringly and produced the little bamboo tube holding Maseda’s message. Walking back around the room, he tossed the tube to the captain, who fumbled with it before finally managing to grab hold on it. He peered at it curiously, turning it over and over in his fingers before finally prying the wax off one end with his fingers and shaking out the little message onto the table. Picking it up, the captain unfurled the scroll and turned it back and forth.

“Can’t make heads or tails of this,” he muttered. “Jody-boy?”

Jody stepped and frowned at the crowded characters. “This is some flash stuff, Cap’n,” he said as he took hold of Maseda’s message, handling the fine paper with the delicacy his captain had lacked. “Huh. Let’s see…’It is with a happ—no, heavy, with a heavy heart and consideration for my…presents? No, people that I accept your very genera—generous, generous offer of aid against the corp—corsairs currently me-na-cing these shouts—shores. These shores.'” He lowered the paper, looking troubled. “That don’t sound too good, cap’n.”

“No, it don’t,” Kensington agreed. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully, then brought his fist down on the table with a loud thump. Pointing at Koya, he demanded, “How’d you get this thing? What’s that snake Afuda up to?”

Koya returned the captain’s gaze without flinching. The catalogue of his interactions with the man and Jody was scanty, but what had begun as scattered speculation was beginning to line up with suspicious clarity in his head. He glanced at Jody, who looked extremely disturbed and not a little angry at the message’s contents, and decided to take another chance.

Sitting back in his chair, Koya said, “I will speak only to Captain Kensington.”

The boisterous man across him thumped himself in the chest. “You’re lookin’ at him, boy! Now,” he said threateningly, “I’m tellin’ you to talk.”

Koya gazed back coldly and did not react. After a moment he caught Jody’s eyes and held them. Jody merely stared back at him, before his stormy face broke into an unexpectedly wide grin. He laid a hand on the shoulder of the man seated before him. “It’s alright, Eddis.”

The captain—Eddis—looked back at him, startled. “Boss?” He clapped his hands over his mouth.

Jody shook his head. “Go get Henner. I’ll talk with Koya here.”

“You sure?” Eddis asked plaintively. It was amazing how different a man he seemed without the captain’s part to act; his appearance had changed not a jot, yet his very stance belonged to a different man altogether. He fidgeted with the bandoleer slung across his chest. “Please don’t toss me overboard, boss, I didn’t mean to screw up.”

“Relax, Eddis, I got it.” Jody flashed the man a reassuring smile as he stood. “Now go get Henner like I said, tell him to come see me.” As soon as Eddis had exited Jody rounded the table and seated himself on the edge closest to Koya, feet braced on either side of Koya’s seat. “C’n I ask what tipped you off?”

“The captain—the fake—was a complete buffoon,” Koya replied. “Hardly a man shrewd enough to lead some of the most notorious ships across the five oceans. He deferred to you for everything of importance.”

“Guess I should feel honored,” Jody Kensington said, sounding amused. “Eddis’s a damn fine actor for all that, but for foreign stuff like this—” he nodded back at where the message lay abandoned “—his act don’t work so well. Ah, Henner, you’re here.”

“Cap’n,” the dour-faced strategist said. He and the other man who had accompanied Eddis into the room came forward so that Koya was surrounded. So close to him, they towered over his head. Koya ignored the instinctive pulse of apprehension in favor of keeping his thoughts clear, focused. “This really okay?”

“I have a good feeling,” Jody replied reassuringly. “Moruya?”

The grey-haired man’s face betrayed no emotion but Koya nonetheless felt as if he was being subjected to intense scrutiny. “That message was genuine,” he said at last. “I recognize Lord Maseda’s knot and hand. But I wouldn’t trust it until I knew why he’d brought it to you.”

“Hm.” Jody turned back to Koya, resting his elbows on his knees and leaning forward. With his sides closed off, the gesture felt much more intimate than it had a right to feel. “Well, let’s start this over. Captain Jody Eremiah Kensington, at yer service. Could I get a name?”

“Dobaki Koya,” he replied. “After some consideration, Captain Kensington, I have decided to accept your offer of employment.”

“After all this time?” Jody gestured at Koya as if to suggest he keep speaking. “What brings you here with that little bomb then?”

“I was assigned by one of Afuda’s highest ranked shadows to act as courier for a message from him to Maseda as the original courier had been injured,” Koya explained. “I rode to Moaji and delivered the message as ordered. Speaking with Maseda, it was made apparent to me that Afuda had offered to help him against the corsair threat he was facing—you and your crews. Maseda accepted and gave me his reply to take back to Afuda. I later overheard Afuda speaking with another and learned he had not cleared this development with you and intended for you and your ships to be obliterated in the ensuing battle, thus simultaneously ensuring his deal would remain a secret and that his position as most obvious suitor for Naori’s hand would be secured.”

Koya paused before continuing. This part of his narrative he had not yet had time to wrestle into words, even though his conviction was unshaken. He was unsure how much he could afford to disclose to Jody, how much he might say that he hadn’t meant to say because he still was unable to parse his feelings into clear, concise words. “As for why I brought the message to you…Recent events led me to decide my loyalty to Afuda was tenuous enough that abetting his treachery was unpalatable.”

“Unpalatable,” Jody repeated skeptically.

“In the extreme,” Koya added.

“In the extreme.” The corsair rubbed his chin. “I think I buy it.”

” Afuda’s actions do make sense,” Henner admitted. “If you were him, cap’n, I’d be telling you to do the same.”

Jody nodded. “Moruya? What about you?”

The rogue—Koya’s fellow rogue, he realized, they were one and the same now—cocked his head like a curious bird. “I’d hear more about those…events…before I agreed to anything.”

“Huh.” Jody turned back to him, studying his face. “So. Koya. You want to join my crew? Live the free n’ easy life of a corsair? ‘Cause I got to say, if you’re speaking the truth, this is one hell of a windfall.”

“For now I would join you,” Koya replied. “But after this affair with Afuda and Maseda has been settled, perhaps not.”

Jody nodded. He swung himself off the table and walked two rounds of the room, evidently deep in thought. Then he stopped in front of Koya once more and slit his bonds. “I trust you,” Jody declared. “Until this blows over, you’re one of mine. But I think Moruya’d better keep you company for a while, just in case. You’re getting a bunkmate, old man.”

Moruya snorted. “I’m too old to have to share a room,” he grumbled. “But if you say so.”

“And I do,” Jody affirmed as Koya rubbed feeling back into his wrists. “Now, you two skedaddle and get Koya settled. I got to talk to Henner for a while. Oh, and by the way—” He reached over and hooked two fingers in Koya’s mask, tugging it down. “Let’s get you out of all that black, hey? You ain’t a shadow anymore, and I bet you’d look nice in some colors.”

Koya looked down at himself, and at Moruya’s plainly colored clothing—at the contrast between his neatly tucked and bound uniform and Moruya’s loose worker’s garb. He could not remember the last time he had worn anything other than utilitarian black, even for festivals. It had always been his duty to stand guard over the revelries of others.

“…No,” he said eventually. “Not anymore.”

Jody, surprisingly, reached out to squeeze his shoulder. “Attaboy,” he said reassuringly. “You’ll get the hang of rebellion soon enough.”

Koya had ridden ships before, of course, when he had taken part in Kanfu province’s previous sorties against corsairs both local and otherwise. At first it seemed that he might acclimate to the sailor’s life with little problem, but after two or three days it dawned on his body that he would not be exiting the ship’s constant swaying any time soon and for the next few nights Koya could barely sleep enough to open his eyes the next morning. One night, a little over a week after he had joined the crew of the Sound and Fury, Koya decided he could not bear to spend another restless night trapped in a room he could cross in four paces.

Koya glanced at the lower bunk, where Moruya lay sleeping on his side, as they and all their colleagues were taught. The older man snored slightly, a relic of his oft-broken nose. Perhaps Moruya had heard him climb down the upper bunk and perhaps he had not, but Koya was too worn from sleeplessness to care how suspicious sneaking off in the middle of the night would seem to the old man. Silent as a ghost, he slipped out of the cabin, down the hall, and up the stairs onto the open deck.

Almost as soon as he reached open air a chill breeze swept past his face. Koya’s hand flew up towards his face before he remembered that of course he was no longer wearing his mask. He snatched his hand away equally quickly, feeling embarrassed by his nervous reaction. Even so, he could not help but feel discomfited by the nakedness of his face—it had been years since he had gone so long unmasked, and he could not remember a time before the present when serving the Afuda through Imanbu hadn’t been his life’s desire. He made his way to the edge of the deck, far from any of the sailors going about their business, and gazed down into the ocean. Night had made it clear waters dark as jet, a mirror for the stars that wheeled through the sky above.

Eventually Koya had had enough of the chilly wind and turned away. He had only begun towards the stairs when he heard a faint scraping from behind. The hairs on the back of his neck immediately stood on end, but he affected nonchalance, continuing forward until the shadows of the doorway downwards shrouded him. It being night-time, he wore minimal weaponry, but he still had a knife hidden in the folds of his night robe. He pulled it out flicking the narrow blade out of where it had been folded into the hilt.

He watched as a patroller with a lantern sauntered by, yawning hugely. A dark shape slithered over the railing in the man’s wake, glancing back and forth before moving in a slow crouch towards the doorway where Koya lay in wait. He pressed himself flatter against the wood just within, wishing his night-clothes were not such a cursedly pale color—they showed far too well in the darkness, especially against the aged wood of the Sound and Fury’s walls. The figure was a scant two feet from the doorway when Koya surged out of it, bringing his knife upwards towards the assassin’s stomach.

He—she—Koya could not tell in the darkness—dodged the blow, grabbing his arm and wrenching it behind him. “You should die for your betrayal,” the figure hissed, trying to make him let go of his weapon.

“Ha—Hayaki?” he asked, tightening his grip on the blade. “Did Imayano send you?”

“You are not fit to—ugh!” Hayaki’s words were cut off as Koya slammed her back into the wall of the cabin. The pressure made his shoulder scream in pain, but he was taller and broader than Hayaki, and easily slammed her against the wood a second time. That was all he neede—her head snapped backwards against the wood with a loud crack and she loosened her hold on Koya’s wrist, letting him turn around. He switched the knife to his other hand and jabbed at her throat; Hayaki ducked and stepped around the blow.

By now, they had attracted the attention of the patrols. Lights were heading towards them along the deck, bobbing in the dark. Hayaki bolted for the railing but Koya caught her. They grappled there as the patrols shouted for others to wake. Koya thought he saw one or two reaching out for them—for him—but Hayaki chose that moment to writhe wildly in his grasp and send them both overboard into the waves below.

Hayaki broke the surface first, having been prepared for the plunge. It took Koya a moment longer to struggle his way upwards, gasping for air. The knife had been lost somewhere mid-air but by now Koya was acting on instinct; Hayaki had scarcely swum two strokes before he dove after her, catching hold of her ankle. She kicked back wildly but Koya hung on by instinct, dragging his way along up her body until he had a hold of her shoulders. Taking a deep breath, he forced her head under the water’s surface. She struggled furiously, plumes of bubbles escaping her mouth. Hayaki managed to fight her way upward for a brief moment before Koya tightened his hold on her head and plunged her downwards again.

Eventually, her struggles grew weaker, eventually ceasing entirely. Koya held her head underwater for a few more minutes, grimly treading water, until he was satisfied that she was truly drowned and not merely pretending. Turning back towards the ship, he saw that the rowboat had been lowered and a rope with it, dark shapes crowded around it up above. He struck out for it, pulling Hayaki’s corpse with him. Jody was waiting for him.

“What the hell happened?” he demanded as Koya hauled the corpse onboard. Koya noticed that Jody must have come straight from bed, for his hair was in disarray and he was only wearing trousers.

“As-s-sas-s-sin,” Koya managed to get out between his chattering teeth. He automatically began patting down Hayaki’s body, methodically turning out all the hidden pockets.

“What are you doing?” Jody asked eventually.

“S-searching,” Koya replied. “Ins-s-struc-t-tions.” He collected all her weaponry, reasoning that he would need it for himself, and wrapped the bundle up in Hayaki’s outermost robe with a silent apology to her newly departed spirit. Koya found nothing that might have even resembled instructions, but he had not expected to anyway: neither Hayaki nor Imayano were that stupid. It was also entirely possible that she had come of her own accord, to punish Koya for his betrayal. “N-nothing.”

“Didn’t think Afuda’d be that dumb,” Jody agreed. He gently pulled Koya away from her corpse. “Damn, you’re shivering real bad.”

“Burial,” Koya muttered. He mumbled a short prayer, an abbreviated form of what priests would have said if any had been present, and straightened her clothing with shaking fingers.

“We’re a little far from land,” Jody noted. “I don’t mind a burial-by-sea but…”

“Here will be f-fine.” Koya slid his arms under her body and rolled it up and over the edge of the rowboat. There was a soft splash as Hayaki’s body fell overboard—swathed in black as it was, the corpse soon faded from visibility.

“Alright, let’s get you back onboard. Can you climb?”

Koya nodded, not trusting his chattering teeth. Jody pulled the rope towards them and put it in his hands. “Up you get, then.”

As Koya climbed back up into the Sound and Fury he was struck by a sudden sense of finality. He could have told Hayaki he was merely spying; certainly delivering Imayano’s message had not made the situation between him and Maseda unsalvageable. He might have even escaped punishment for his brief dalliance with rebellion, if the situation had resolved favorably enough for Imayano. But in killing Hayaki he had killed one of his own. Only death awaited Koya in Kanfu now. He had chosen to leave, certainly, but he had never thought that choosing to leave might mean he could never return.

Jody tumbled over the edge of the deck after him and immediately reached for Koya, reeling him in close with one warm arm slung over his shoulders. “All right, all right, all of you clear out. Henner, you make sure these sons-a-bitches go back to sleep. Koya, you’re comin’ with me.”

Before Koya had any time to protest, Jody was leading him down into the ship, towards a door he’d seen dozens of times before but had never had cause to enter—the door Moruya had pointed out as the captain’s quarters. Jody’s quarters.

It was, unsurprisingly, dark inside, though Jody quickly lit the two nearest lamps, allowing Koya to take a good look at its interior. It looked almost obscenely spacious after Koya’s cramped, shared quarters—an impression not aided by the fact that the far end’s pointed walls were lined with portholes and a triangular couch haphazardly strewn with cushions. One half of the cabin was dominated by a large table covered in maps and carved weights. A wall cut off a section of the cabin to the side, and Jody guided Koya through its door into a much smaller room that was mostly taken up by a bed and not much else.

“Sit,” Jody ordered as he lit the lamp in what had to be his personal sleeping quarters. Koya numbly obeyed. As he watched Jody flung open a solid looking trunk and started rummaging through it. Seated as he was, he had an excellent view of Jody from behind—Koya hadn’t missed the way muscles moved beneath his tanned skin. Even the scars knotted across Jody’s back he found fascinating, hypnotized by the way they writhed with the motions of his shoulders

Out of the wind, he was starting to feel better, though his sleeping robe was still damp and chilly against his skin. The realization that he could never return to Kanfu had been a double-edged blade. He had lost his home, yes—he had lost his last of hope of escaping a life on the run as a renegade. But he had also lost the tangled ties of duty and obligation that had bound him in Imayano’s service for so long. The combination was heady, intoxicating; he felt more daring than he ever had before.

“Sex is n-not generally considered an acceptab-ble method of aiding one suffering f-from intense c-cold.”

Jody started at his voice, banging his head on the trunk’s lid and cursing in an impressive five languages. When he finally emerged from the trunk’s innards, Koya was amused to see that his hair was in even greater disarray than before.

“That wasn’t what I was thinking of,” Jody said, voice not quite steady enough to pull off the nonchalance he was attempting. “I mean, I’d rather you didn’t shake yourself to death first.”

Koya made a noncommittal noise as Jody approached him, an old shirt in hand. “Do you mind?” Jody asked.

Studying Jody’s face and stance, Koya finally decided “No.” The bundle of Hayaki’s weapons still rested in his lap, after all. Jody’s gaze flicked down to it, then back to Koya’s impassive face, before his own broke into a grin. He dropped the shirt on Koya’s head, rubbing vigorously. Koya pushed at his hands—he was not a child, after all—but Jody’s hands quickly moved away, then back again. After a few more moments of such back and forth, Jody finally moved on to his shoulders and Koya turned his attention to picking through the spoils he’d claimed from Hayaki’s corpse.

“Impressive,” Jody commented, as he pushed the damp robe off Koya’s shoulders. “Never saw that many nasty little things altogether in one place in my whole life.”

“This is fairly standard,” Koya replied. Indeed, Hayaki had come to the Sound and Fury very well-armed. He wondered whether her target had been him or Jody—it wouldn’t have mattered much either way, but he would never be able to ask her now. He examined one of the throwing stars. “She took very good care of her weaponry.”

“I can see wantin’ to be armed and all,” Jody said as he rubbed Koya’s arms dry, “but did you really need to take ’em from her? I never saw Moruya do anything like that.”

“Moruya either has an illegal supplier or he kills his, or rather our, ex-colleagues and takes their weaponry whenever you reach the shore. I would think the second is likelier than the first.”

Jody’s hands went still until Koya thwapped him on the shoulder. He rolled his eyes and resumed his movements. “I guess now that you mention it I never know where he goes when he make berth ’round these parts…” he said slowly. “Though that don’t exactly seem like a steady source of those things.”

“No doubt his sword has seen more use of late than it used to,” Koya replied thoughtfully. Whatever Moruya’s methods, they would have to be his own from now on. “Our kind do not generally take strolls in the sunshine.”

“Yeah, I was beginnin’ to get that impression.” Jody’s hands passed over Koya’s back, his chest and stomach, before he spoke again. “Gonna need you to strip.”

Koya’s hand paused on the sash that by now was barely holding his robe on. “You too,” he said.

Jody arched a questioning eyebrow. “I ain’t the one who just took a midnight dip in the ocean.”

“No, but turn and turnabout is fair, don’t you think?”

“Yeah, I think so,” Jody grinned, settling in a smile wholly different from the one he had worn before. Standing back, Jody unlaced his trousers and hooked his thumbs in its waistband, pushing the cloth off his hips to puddle the floor. Koya responded in kind, tugging his sash loose and peeling the damp robe off his legs to join Jody’s trousers.

As Jody climbed onto the bed Koya saw he was already half-hard; shoving him backwards, Koya reached for his cock but Jody knocked his hand away with a little shake of his head. “Who’s warming who up here?” he asked. “C’mon, give me some space.”

Koya moved backwards as Jody picked his shirt up again, draping the cloth around Koya’s leg. His hands slowly moved the cloth higher and higher, brushing the sensitive skin on the inside of his thigh. Koya impatiently jerked his leg, trying to get free of Jody’s hands and make him hurry, but he just laughed and surged across the space between them, catching Koya’s mouth in a bruising kiss. Koya kissed back as hard as he could, clawing at as much of Jody’s body as he could reach, desperate for contact with his burning warmth.

For his part, Jody had abandoned the shirt, choosing to warm Koya by rather more direct means. His hand found Koya’s hardening member and Koya groaned into his mouth at the touch of his hot fingers, callused by a lifetime spent hauling ropes across ships. He pulled at Jody, squirming into a position where he could return the favor, but Jody shook his head again. “Wait,” he said breathlessly. “I want to—”

“What?” Koya demanded. “What are you—”

Jody, damn him, just pulled his hand away. Koya hissed at him, raking his nails over Jody’s shoulder in retaliation. “Pushy,” he laughed. “I promise, this’ll be good.” Before Koya could say another word he leaned down, swiping his tongue over the head of his cock. Koya bit his lip at the contact to hold in his reaction, though Jody evidently did not feel himself bound by any such restriction. He moaned, broad hands closing around Koya’s hips as he leaned down to take Koya into his mouth proper.

Koya hissed at the wet warmth of Jody’s mouth, fingers tightening on his shoulders. “Hurry,” he demanded. It had been so long since contact with another, Koya did not know how long he could last, torn between the luxurious sensation of another’s mouth on him and the growing need for release.

Jody laughed around him, squeezing his hips once before taking him all the way. Koya groaned, the only sound he had made the entire time, hands fisting in the locks of Jody’s hair. Bracing his shoulders against the wall behind him, he thrust into Jody’s mouth. For a moment he feared he had gone too far, but Jody stroked his hip lightly, once, and Koya felt him relax around him, inviting Koya to use his mouth. It didn’t take more than one or two thrusts before he felt the heat coiling tight in his belly unspool in a noiseless explosion, climax sweeping through him like a thunderstorm.

Scarcely had he finished when he felt Jody impatiently pushing on his hips. Koya let go, watching Jody sit upright. A bit of come trailed out the side of his mouth. Without thinking, Koya leaned forward and licked it off, slow, the taste of the bitter fluid a good match for Jody’s hitched breath. “Were you—”

Jody shook his head and said, “Going to take more than that before you hurt me, boyo.”

“Good,” Koya said, wrapping his hand around Jody’s member. Jody made a pleased noise at the contact, leaning back on his hands as Koya brought him to climax. He was gorgeous when he came, vocal in the way Koya had never been able to bring himself to be, sprawling bonelessly over his bed when he had finished. Crawling forward, Koya settled himself over Jody’s body, not caring about the mess. Jody grinned up at him, draping one hand over his shoulders.

Koya leaned up a little further to kiss him, tasting himself in Jody’s mouth. It was not, he thought, a bad combination.

“What do you say you let old Moruya have his beauty sleep and stay here?” Jody murmured in his ear. His hands had moved lower on Koya’s body, exploring shamelessly

“I suppose I could be…persuaded,” Koya conceded, pushing back into Jody’s hands.

“Good,” Jody said, and blew out the lamp.

It was inevitable that Hayaki’s disappearance would not go unnoticed. Koya was the first to spot the ship—small enough to be a far cry from any sort of warship. Its stiff sail was painted with an unpleasantly familiar sigil. He turned to the corsair standing nearest him and said “Fetch the captain.” The woman looked at him strangely until Koya remembered, belatedly, what language he needed to speak. After a moment of consternation he pointed at the incoming boat. “Captain,” he said, this time in the foreigners’ tongue.

The woman barely paused in her work as she studied his face. “Danger?” she asked.

“Maybe,” Koya said.

She nodded briskly, tying off the rope she had been plying. “Keep watch,” the woman instructed, using two fingers to indicate first her eyes, then the boat. Koya nodded as she turned and strode across the deck. Within a few minutes Jody had appeared by his side, a tapered brass tube in his hand. It was the most utterly inappropriate time for it, but Koya felt vaguely pleased that the marks of his mouth still showed beneath the edge of Jody’s collar, dark smudges against his skin.

“It’s an Afuda ship,” Koya said. Jody nodded, eyes focused through the brass tube on the incoming boat as it swayed, coming closer with each stroke of the oars. “The flag planted on the prow is a flag signaling a desire for negotiation.”

“His Lordship going to be on it?” Jody asked without looking at him.

Koya shook his head. “Unlikely. This is merely a preliminary—his emissary is merely here to arrange a meeting time with you.”

“That so.” Jody lowered the tube, blinking in the sunlight. “Huh.”

The boat bobbed right up to the Sound and Fury, whereupon its most prominent passenger picked up a square of white cloth bound to a bamboo pole and began waving it furiously in what Koya recognized as a foreign sign—to negotiate, he thought, considering the flag he had spotted before. He and Jody—acting for the “real” Captain Kensington, who was supposedly busy sleeping off the effects of whiskey—arranged a meeting time. As Koya had thought, Imayano was arranging a meeting in the hopes of controlling the damage the document he had brought Jody could do to his reputation.

As soon as the boat began its journey back to Kanfu, Jody rubbed his hands. He beckoned for Koya to follow him to the room where he had first interrogated him. “Now,” Jody began, with a scheming look in his eye, “say I wanted to get a message to Maseda? How would I do that?”

Koya started. “Maseda?”

Jody nodded. “I’ve got…some ideas.” The smug, triumphant look in his eye nearly compelled Koya to kiss him, but he resisted just in time, though he could not stop from stepping closer almost involuntarily. Jody seemed to realize the effect he was having on Koya, for he casually braced himself on the table, drawing Koya’s gaze to the movement along his lean body.

Koya responded by crossing his arms across his chest. “You could send a messenger. Take a boat and carry a white flag; I will show you the proper flag to signal desire for negotiation, if you like. Maseda might listen to you. Imayano will have spies who will convey to him any contact you make with him, however. What is your plan?”

“A secret,” Jody said, laying a finger on Koya’s lips with a smile laden with promise. “I’ll tell you later.”

Koya’s eyebrows drew down into a frown as he opened his mouth to protest—if Jody wanted him as part of his crew he would not be made to whore himself for inclusion in such information—but perhaps Jody sensed his growing ire, for he quickly added, “I’ll be needing Henner, Eddis, and Moruya to be there too and half of ’em are busy right now. Got to wait ’til we’re all together.”

Koya nodded decisively. “Good.”

Jody reached up with one hand, which hovered awkwardly in the air above Koya’s shoulder, near the side of his face, before finally settling on his upper arm. “I didn’t mean to make you think—I mean, I wouldn’t—anyway, whatever we do—otherwise, don’t matter. Okay? I didn’t—anyway.”

“You would not have gotten far if you had,” Koya replied flatly. He could not help but find Jody’s obvious discomfort almost…it didn’t matter what he found it. “I accept your apology.”

Jody’s face flooded with obvious relief. “Well, that’s, uh, that’s good.”

“We will say no more of this,” Koya declared. “You are, after all, intelligent enough to learn from your mistakes.”

“I think I’d damn well better be,” Jody replied easily, “seeing as how I don’t fancy a knife to the ribs anytime soon.”

“As for you plan,” Koya continued, “if you expect me to wait, I will expect it to be brilliant.”

“Trust me, it’s a good one.” Jody grinned suddenly, bright with anticipation. He was excited for the prospect of possible death and the chance to play the pair of coastal lords like puppets. “After all, we got ’em both in a hole, don’t we?”

It seemed Jody was correct, for it wasn’t long until his emissaries to Maseda returned triumphant, and Imayano’s messenger returned acquiescent. A meeting was arranged to take place aboard the Sound and Fury—a risky move for Imayano and Maseda, but Koya thought it only served to show the upper hand Jody had in the current matter.

The day they returned Jody sauntered all over the deck, nearly vibrating with excitement. Koya, for his part, wondered at Jody’s plan and if it would even work at all. More pressing on his mind, however, was how Jody would deal with the fact that he was a renegade of the Afuda household. It was late on the night before their fated conference before Koya finally stopped pacing the Sound and Fury’s deck, heading back to his cabin.

Moruya looked up and nodded in greeting as Koya entered, lowering the piece of wood he was whittling. Koya had begun stripping for bed when the old man unexpectedly spoke. “When are you going to move into the captain’s cabin?”

He froze, before turning around slowly. Koya wondered what showed on his face—nothing, he hoped, but Moruya was a canny old man, and he wouldn’t have put it past him to notice something Koya had not intended him to. “I may not be staying,” he replied neutrally.

Moruya snorted. “And where would you go if you didn’t?”

“North—”

“Where they’d ship you back to Kanfu on sight, if they didn’t just kill you outright.” Moruya frowned at him. “You take an old renegade’s advice, the sea’s the safest place for our kind. And the captain likes you, you like the captain…” He shrugged. “Could be worse, boy. Could be a lot worse. At least he’s not forcing you into his bed to pay your way.”

Koya studied the old man’s face. It was strangely open, full of bitterness and regret. “You talk as if you know of what you speak.”

“Ah, Dobaki, I left my lord when I was a few years older than you,” Moruya said. “I wasn’t so lucky as you, to run into a captain who knew and trusted what we and ours can do.”

Koya stared back at him, at a loss for words in the face of the old man’s confession.

“Besides,” Moruya added, as if to break the silence, “this room isn’t anywhere near big enough for two men. I’m an old man, I can’t rest properly if you’re constantly sneaking in and out as if the entire ship doesn’t already know you’re in Jody’s bed.”

Koya felt a rare smile touch the corners of his mouth. He bowed his head, making the motion as steady and respectful as he could in the ship’s constant sway. “I thank you for your advice,” he said. “I will be sure to consider your words carefully.”

“Hmph.” Moruya resumed his carving, turning the wood over in his hands before making a few quick incisions with his knife. “Try to be more careful about closing the door behind you when you come back tonight.”

The hallway was deserted when Koya made his way to Jody’s cabin. He found the corsair inside, bent over maps and charting routes and distances with the tool he called a compass. Jody looked up as he entered, looking happy and pleased.

“What are you doing?” Koya asked.

“Figurin’ out the way home,” Jody replied. He show him the trails of pins stuck into the thick parchment of the ocean map. “Depending how tomorrow goes, I have a feeling I’ll be headin’ back that way to unload some of my ill-gotten cargo.” He seemed very pleased at the idea.

Koya examined the pins, imagining arcs between them in his mind’s eye, stretching over the map across the boundless seas. “The farthest I have ever been from Kanfu was the northernmost province, Su Chou.”

“Su Chou? Nice food, better silk,” Jody said. “Poppy trade’s a little too vicious for my taste. I prefer the tea—cheaper and safer, for all that it’s less profit in the end.” He turned to face Koya, who had rounded the map table, and plucked at the sleeve of his shirt. It occurred to Koya that the corsair was nervous. At first he could not think what about, but when he glanced back down at the map the answer struck him with sudden clarity. Jody cleared his throat. “Anyway—”

Koya cut him off, forcing Jody’s mouth down to meet his with a hand on the back of his head, fisted in the rough cords of his matted hair. He nodded in the direction of Jody’s bed. “Come on.”

Jody pulled back. “Not that I want to say no, but—”

“Come on.” Koya stepped away, dragging Jody after him by his sleeve.

“It’s just, Koya, I need to—” Jody began, even as he was following.

“Later,” Koya insisted. He yanked as hard as he could, and Jody stumbled through the door past him, colliding with the edge of his bed. “We can discuss this tomorrow, after you have finished your negotiations and hopefully not condemned us all to a watery grave.”

“I think you’re trying to distract me,” Jody observed as Koya shut his door. It was dark in the sleeping cabin, but their hands found each other almost by instinct, tugging at laces and buttons even without light to guide their fingers. “Though if that’s what you want I ain’t going to say no.” He pulled Koya over to the bed. “But I’m gonna hold you to that tomorrow.”

It was almost comical, the way Maseda and Imayano reacted to each others’ presence. Koya wondered whether Jody had told the lords they would be negotiating with the corsairs simultaneously. Eddis, Jody’s double, greeted them with practiced boisterousness, slinging arms around their shoulders in flagrant disregard for their noble status and guiding them into the conference room. Maseda alternately glared at Imayano and “Kensington”, hand twitching as if longing to grasp his sword’s hilt. Imayano, for his part, coolly pretended not to notice a thing—not even Koya’s conspicuously civilian-clothed presence. His usual air of flirtation had been dropped in favor of the aura of a determined man; it reminded Koya abruptly that for all his affectations Imayano had the cunning as a nine-tailed fox. For all Koya’s hatred of him, he could not deny his former lord had made Kanfu the wealthy, much-desired province it was today, and without starting so much as a border skirmish.

The conference room was crowded with the three leaders and their respective entourages—Imayano backed by Juna and another woman Koya recognized as Li Kon, one of his yearmates. She ignored him as if he were naught but another plank in the wood, but Koya did not miss the angry glare Juna leveled at him as she took up position behind Imayano’s seat. Maseda was accompanied by the husky-voiced woman who had greeted Koya on his visit and the drably dressed advisor, Tobuka. As for “Kensington”, he kept Jody, Henner, Moruya, and Koya himself arrayed behind him in what Koya suspected to be a clear show of both power and a warning of the corsairs’ lack of loyalty to any of his homeland’s customs—as seen by their endorsement of not one but two renegades.

“I’m thinkin’ you men know why I called ye here,” Eddis said with his gold-toothed smile. He radiated smugness to the point that Koya had to suppress the urge to slit his throat, though he knew it to be an act. If he felt so, he wondered how Imayano and Maseda felt in his supercilious presence. “Cards on the table, hey? Afuda here—” he nodded at Imayano, who returned the gesture with the barest inclination of his own head “—paid us to attack you. After a few months of that business, my associate here—” the captain jerked a thumb in Koya’s direction, and it was with effort that he checked his instinct to bow deep, stopping instead at a shallow level that would indicate exactly how little allegiance he felt he owed either of the two lords “—came with news that Afuda was planning to go behind our backs and sink us in order to get an in with you.”

Imayano listened to the revelation of his treachery with all the emotion of a frozen pond. “A succinct summary,” he said. “Now, I must ask—also in the interests of, as you said, ‘cards on the table’—that the real Captain Kensington step forward for the negotiations to follow.”

Eddis leapt out of his chair, outrage written on his features, but Jody stepped forward and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Let it go,” he said. As he had with Koya, Jody sent Eddis out of the room and dropped into his vacated seat. “How’d you know?”

Imayano waved an elegant hand in the direction Eddis had gone. “The man he played was a buffoon,” he said dismissively. “Hardly canny enough to earn your famed reputation, Captain Kensington.”

“Guess I’ll have to tell him to up his game,” Jody grinned, sounding amused. He looked back and forth between them—from Imayano, with his carefully blank mask, to Maseda’s trapped, tired expression. “But you heard the man. So let’s hear what you’re going to offer me for what you want, eh? Maseda wants the attacks to stop, and I’m going to bet that you, Afuda, don’t want your little scheme made known to every province from here to Su Chou and back.”

“I will not negotiate with Afuda,” Maseda said firmly. “That, I refuse.” He glared at Imayano, who continued to ignore him.

“Don’t worry, you ain’t negotiating with Afuda. You’re negotiating with me,” Jody said pleasantly. “So? Let’s hear yer offers, then.”

“It seems that there is one solution which will end amicably for all involved,” Imayano began. Jody gestured in his direction, as if motioning him to continue. It seemed he had already thought how to turn the situation to his advantage, and Koya grudgingly admired his former lord’s forethought. “Publically, it will appear that I pay you to cease your attacks on my most honorable neighbor. Privately, I will additionally pay you not to send the message you no doubt possess to the other lords of his land, to say nothing of fulfilling our original agreement.”

“And me?” Maseda asked, sounding tired.

“I will give you aid in rebuilding once the corsairs have left,” Imayano replied, as if it was the most obvious course of action possible. “As long as you keep your silence, I will ask for nothing in return—including Naori’s hand.”

“Sounds like you’ve given this a lot of thinking,” Jody noted. “And I can’t say I don’t like what I get out of your plan.”

“He leaves without damage,” Maseda snapped. “This treachery goes unpunished! You would let him do this to you?”

Jody shrugged. “He’s offerin’ to pay me twice over to leave you alone. Without the public pay-off why shouldn’t we keep raiding until you pay me to let you alone?” He let the statement hang in the air for a moment before continuing. “But this way I get what I want—money—and you get what you need—help and no more attacks—and he gets what he wants—which I’m guessin’ is to come out smelling like roses. Now—”

“I agree to nothing!” Maseda sat back in his chair, arms tense as his hand gripped his sword hilt. “Afuda does not deserve to leave this affair with his hands clean. My people have suffered because of his machinations long enough!”

“And yet those self-same machinations promise to ease that suffering,” Imayano said sweetly. Koya didn’t doubt he had spoken so only to irritate Maseda further. “Can you so easily prolong Moaji’s misfortunes for the sake of your pride?”

Maseda’s mouth settled into a thin, tight line. Tobuka stepped forward and touched him lightly on the shoulder, leaning down to whisper into his ear.

“…Damn you,” he growled. “Damn you! I accept your aid in exchange for silence.”

“Excellent. I expect the actual documentation and agreement can be codified elsewhere, however.” Imayano turned to Jody expectantly. “And you, Captain Kensington?”

“What’re you proposing for the public bribe?” he asked.

Imayano turned around and beckoned to Li Kon, who stepped forward with a plain-looking little crate in her hands. Plain, that is, except for the crest painted on to each of its six sides. He took it from her and placed it on the table, sliding it across the table. Jody reached up out of his chair to pull it towards him, prying the top open with a knife he pulled from nowhere Koya had seen. Jody pushed aside the layers of cloth wrapping the crate’s load, lifting out one of the vials within and uncorking it, studying its pale orange contents. As soon as it was open its sweet-sour scent Koya like a slap in the face, made all the potent by its confinement. “What’s this?” Jody asked, pouring a little out onto his fingers.

“Perfume,” Imayano said. “A byproduct of mandrin processing. It is highly sought after among the noble ladies of my own land, but reliable sources tell me that such an exotic substance would be most highly sought after in your land as well—perhaps even more so, for its rarity.”

Maseda jolted out of his seat. “Now wait a minute—” he began hotly.

“You would renege on our agreement?” Imayano asked. “I can prove nothing, of course, if you cannot abide by it then neither will I.”

The older lord reddened. “You gain by this,” he accused. “Your name and crest peddled to the foreigners—you and your filthy drug gain nothing but business!”

“And I gain nothing but profit.” Jody corked the vial again and placed it back alongside its fellows. “I suppose more’s coming from where that came from?”

“Two more crates, exactly as the one I have just given you,” Imayano said briskly.

“Six more.”

“Surely you jest,” Imayano said disbelievingly. For the briefest moment he looked dismayed, and as trapped as Maseda must surely feel. A wave of savage pleasure swept through Koya at the sight of Imayano’s cool mask slipping for even an instant.

A triumphant little smile played on Jody’s lips as he shook his head. “How much do you want that message destroyed?” he asked.

“Three,” Imayano said persuasively. “Four crates of mandrin oil at no cost—no other corsair captain will be able to match you for profit.”

Jody held out a hand, peering at his fingernails. He blew across them and buffed them on his shirt sleeve. “Henner,” he said nonchalantly, “start charting course from here to Su Chou. Make sure we stop at every major province along the way—”

“Six,” Imayano snapped, nearly spitting out the number. Koya was surprised by the emotion, but he supposed his former lord hated being trapped as much as any other man, though Imayano surely deserved it, and twice over as well. “You will have your six crates. It will take longer for me to get them all to you.”

“That’s fine, I can wait,” Jody said with an easy smile. “And the rest of what you said? If you brought this much, I don’t suppose it’s too much fer me to suppose you brought more.”

Imayano reached into one sleeve and pulled out a familiar-looking packet, sliding it across the table also. Jody caught it and opened it up to test the contents. “More will be forthcoming, of course,” Imayano said. “It will be sent alongside the crates.”

“Double,” Jody said. “And only the last payment, ’cause I’m just that sweet a guy.”

“Half-again,” Imayano said flatly.

“Double,” Jody smiled. “C’mon, you got to make all the powder to get yer oil anyway, don’t you?”

Imayano’s lips thinned for a moment. “Double,” he said tightly. “That, too, will take some time.”

“No worries, I’ve got time,” Jody replied cheerfully.

Koya almost felt sorry for Maseda. The old lord was achieving his goals, but he gained nothing except what was necessary. Imayano, on the other hand…Koya was forced to admire his former lord for his cunning, even if his profit galled. He would have much preferred to the man raked over coals—but on the other hand, Jody seemed more than happy to squeeze as much as he could out of Imayano, and Koya supposed he would have to be satisfied with that.

“Good, good.” Jody settled back into his chair. “Just one last thing.”

Imayano arched one delicate eyebrow. “You are the one in the position to make demands,” he said, voice cold as ice.

“Now, as I’m sure you’re aware, a former…employee of yours is now one of my associates.” He nodded in Koya’s direction, who gave Imayano another bow that was insolent in its brevity. “You’ve already sent one person after him. How do I know you won’t send others?”

“So that’s what happened to poor Hayaki,” Imayano murmured, half to himself. “Is not the document in your possession insurance enough? As long as Koya stays aboard your ship I have no recourse against him.” Juna started violently at this, surging forwards. Imayano swept out an arm to stay her progress. “However, I am forced to accuse him of Hayaki’s murder and as such, I declare his life forfeit if he steps foot in Kanfu province again.”

Jody looked back at Koya expectantly. Caught off guard, it was a moment before Koya nodded back at him. Imayano’s terms were—unexpectedly fair, nothing he had not already known would happen. Jody looked back at Imayano. “I can accept that,” he said.

“Of course,” Imayano added, “I have no control over how other provinces may choose to respond to his presence.”

“Understandable.”

“You are a reasonable man, Captain Kensington.”

“But not too reasonable, I hope,” Jody replied cheerfully. His smirk told Koya he had not missed the venom in Imayano’s last comment.

“Is that all?” Maseda interjected sullenly. “I have had enough of backhand dealing as I can stand.”

Jody shrugged one shoulder. “I’m satisfied,” he said. “But if I don’t get the beginnings of payment in two days, we change targets.” This last was directed at Imayano

“Also understood,” Imayano replied. “Come, Juna, Li Kon.” He rose to leave with the barest of bows, one that any other lord would have found unforgivably rude, though of course this slipped Jody’s notice. He had just reached the door when Juna stopped, turning to face Koya from across the room.

“How could you?” she asked. Her voice sounded impossibly disappointed. “Lord Afuda favored you and treated you well.”

Koya looked past her at Imayano, who stood watching from the doorway. “Imanobu,” Koya said. “I will say no more.”

Imayano’s hand darted up, to the thin scar that sliced off the outer tip of one of his brows—the only mark he bore of Imanobu’s last ride, the one only he had come back, bearing his brother’s sword as evidence—as a trophy. He lowered the hand slowly, face as mask-like as ever. “Koya is hardly the first to level such an accusation at me,” Imayano said drily. “I highly doubt he will be the last. Juna. Come.”

With that, he and his entourage vanished. Through a porthole opposite him, Koya could see flashes of them preparing to board their own ship and leave.

Maseda stood, his face sullen and unhappy, but resigned. “We, too, will leave,” he said. “No doubt Afuda and I will work out the details of our arrangement soon enough.” Without so much as a backward glance, he stumped out of the conference room.

All was still in the room before Jody burst into sudden peals of laughter. “That Afuda,” he said, miming the wiping off of tears, “he’s a canny one. The sheer balls of that bastard!” Jody shook his head, still grinning. “Moruya, get this stuff to the hold and make sure we’ve guard aplenty assigned. Henner, take stock of what we’ll need. As soon as all of Afuda’s bribe comes in, we’re off.” The two men vanished in a flurry of action to fulfill their orders. Koya watched them go, waiting for Jody to give him his own orders.

Instead, Jody stood up and approached him slowly. “So,” he said after an awkward silence. “It’s tomorrow. I said I was gonna hold you to it, and I am.”

“I know what you want to ask,” Koya said quietly, turning to face him.

“Yeah?” Jody raised an eyebrow. “Let’s hear it then.”

Koya took a deep breath, exhaling slowly. “You want me to join your crew permanently,” he said flatly. “You want me to travel with you from here to your land.”

“And after,” Jody added softly.

“And after,” Koya agreed.

“So?” he asked, after a few moments’ silence. “What do you think? Good plan, bad plan?”

“I think,” Koya said slowly, “that it should be a very interesting plan indeed.”

“Does that mean you’ll—”

“I haven’t anywhere else to go,” Koya shrugged. “And I think I should take pity on Moruya and move into your cabin. He’s an old man, after all. He needs his beauty sleep.”

Jody smiled then—Koya had seen dozens of his smiles by now, marveled at the range of emotion they could cover, but this one was unlike any other before—quiet, private, brimming with simple joy. “And I think,” he said, “that that is a brilliant plan.”

“Is it really so surprising?” Koya replied. “I was inspired by the best.” He ran his fingers up the length of Jody’s arm, holding tight to his shoulder. Jody’s body was solid under his hand, unflinching and so very real. “I would be a fool to leave it behind, don’t you think?”

“All I know,” Jody murmured softly, “is that I didn’t hire no fools.”

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