by Hana Chikai (羽名血海)
illustrated by tashigi
The familiar call rings out across the scuffed wood and billows the sails as they unfurl from the mast. Well-worn boot soles pound the deck as all hands are put to the myriad tasks involved in leaving port.
The captain stands, feet firm, by the wheel, calling out orders. “Wind’s in our favour, boys, let’s get her out there!” He’s tall and pale compared to the slighter, darker figures about the ship; what really makes him stand out, however, is the pale blond of his hair. It’s a marked contrast to the sun-streaked midnight of the others’ heads.
Barely had the words sprung from his lips before there is a piercing whistle and thundering footsteps. “Halt! You’re under arrest!” A uniformed member of the naval forces comes running into view, and stops at the edge of the pier, red-faced and out of breath. “You’re under arrest for the act of piracy!”
There’s a muffled cough from somewhere on deck. The captain raises one pale eyebrow at the culprit, who merely grins widely, never letting the rope in his hands slacken. “Something amusing?” asks the captain, as he swings the wheel around and watches as the harbour recedes into the distance. “Yo ho ho and all that,” he continues, keeping an eye on the horizon for any ambitious new naval officers who might decide that the little clipper sailing by is worth a routine check. There’s no need to reveal the reason behind the poor man’s shouting from the pier, really, all twenty-seven sacks of gold and jewels, silks and ivory. There might even be a painting or two in the pile of profits hidden in a shadowy corner of the ship.
They are setting a steady pace away from the bustling and oh-so-profitable port when sounds of a scuffle drift up from below deck, followed shortly by the sources of the noise. The captain, who’s checking a map and compass alongside his first mate, turns to see what the commotion is about.
“We have a stowaway, ‘bang,” says Nasi, one arm locked around the neck of a slightly smaller figure. “He wasn’t even shy about it.”
The captain gestures, and the stowaway is flung at his feet ungraciously. The captain cocks his head and watches as the man instantly coils into a position ready to spring. “Good afternoon,” he says in English, pleasantly and casual as though having tea with the other man instead of being a potential target. When he elicits no response, he tries the greeting again in French. Followed by Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, German and very broken Chinese. He’s halfway through a memory of Japanese phonetics when the man looks up, eyes shockingly green against all the black he’s wearing.
“Don’t sully my language, white demon,” snaps the newcomer.
Ah, Japanese then, thinks the captain, who sketches a quick bow. “Wish you bad, I no,” he attempts, and the black-clad man winces. Very slightly, but visibly. Unhurriedly, the captain continues, “Boat am I, boat you no. Why?”
He knows that he barely knows a word of Japanese, but it’s worth it just to see the pain in the stowaway’s eyes. “If you aren’t going to answer me,” the captain says, reverting back to the language of the Malays for the benefit of the crew, “I guess you’ll just have to be locked up until you do.”
“No,” growls the man in accented Malay. “I do not come to fight.”
A loud surprised murmur ripples through the watching crew. “It speaks!” says the captain. “Well, then. If you are not here to fight, then why are you on my ship?”
There’s a silence pierced by the shrieks of gulls overhead and the incessant wash of brine against timber. The man looks less hostile now, and has come out of his aggressive position. In fact, he looks almost uncomfortable about the entire situation.
“I,” the man begins, then looks away. The ship waits. He looks back at the captain.
“I got lost.”
The stowaway turns out to be a lot more muscular than he first seemed under all the black fabric, which he is ordered to change out of. The captain has decided that since the man hasn’t made an attempt on any of their lives in the hour or so before being discovered, he must be harmless despite his extremely deplorable sense of direction and the rather sharp blade he has strapped across his back.
“It’s only for precaution’s sake,” the captain apologises as he locks the door of the cargo hold on the sword and the man’s clothing. “We’ll return it once we reach the next port.”
They have struck a deal, the Japanese and the captain. It would be another month or so before they reached the East Indies, and the ship could always use another pair of able hands; it was thus decided that Katana – for that was the stowaway’s name – would be part of the crew until their next destination.
“So why Katana?” the captain asks as they ascend the stairs to the deck. “I didn’t think the Japanese named their young quite so literally.”
“I was a baby left at the monastery with three silver coins and a big shiny sword as compensation,” replies Katana dryly. “So it became my nickname. Better than Coin, though.” He turns green eyes – so very unusual for someone of his ethnicity – on the captain. “I did not manage to get your name, captain.”
The captain makes a mental note about the ‘nickname’ portion of the explanation, but merely gives the requested answer. “Antoine,” he says. “Antoine Mellor. But the guys can’t pronounce it at all, and call me abang.”
“Big brother,” Katana translates, and Antoine nods.
Antoine’s first mate Nasi is given charge of Katana, whose language skills are amateur but good enough. The crew takes to him like they take to anyone who drinks as much as they do and enjoys a good game of dice, and the weeks sail by easily. Katana starts to pick up Malay a little more fluently, and, in return, teaches basic Japanese to the crew.
When the islands of the Philippines are close enough to be seen through the telescope, Antoine opens the cargo door and hands Katana his belongings.
“Remember what we agreed on,” Antoine says to a once again black-clad Katana as the crew mills around, pretending not to be listening. “We keep you fed and free on our ship, and you do not tell anyone that we exist.”
Katana bows. “I will keep my word.”
Everyone’s obviously reluctant to see him go, a slight figure with a sword across his back walking into the bustling market crowd, but they have a job to do. Silently, as night drapes the harbour like a well-worn cloak, the thirty-two men split into practiced groups and slice through the docked ships like a hot knife through butter. There’s a soft clinking and softer footsteps, drowned out easily by the raucous drunken howling of portside bars.
The clipper with blue sails is long gone by the time the first alarm is cried.
It takes another two weeks to reach Singapore, and the weather is entirely agreeable as they putter down along the coast of Malaya. Food supply is oddly low considering their ample bounty from the Philippines, but Antoine chalks it up to the hot sun and proportionately increased appetites. Fish is aplenty in the waters around them, anyway.
“’bang,” says Ikan one afternoon as Antoine sits on the railing, smoking. It’s a bad habit he has, and Nasi always says he’ll fall over and drown one day, but it’s relaxing. “We’re almost home.”
Antoine sometimes wonders if it’s considered odd for a pirate crew to have somewhere to call home; pirates are supposed to be free upon the ocean, or so the stories say. He crosses the deck to watch as the familiar mangroves and jungles appear through the early morning fog. As much as he enjoys the… global… lifestyle he was brought up in, the steam, light and rain of Singapore will always be something to come back to.
“All hands on deck,” he shouts, and the men snap to their stations. “Prepare to dock.”
It takes a while for everything to be loaded onto the smaller boats and then rowed to shore, but finally they’re back on land and headed for everyone’s first stop upon landing on Singapore: the pirate queen’s headquarters. Antoine grew up loving and fearing her, and dreads his meetings with her as much as he looks forward to them.
They’re passing through town, greeting friends and acquaintances, when a familiar stance makes Antoine pause. Nasi has noticed it too, and he murmurs his surprise behind Antoine, who waves his men ahead and crosses the street to the person.
The man gazes at him steadily. There’s a curious wound across his chest – a long just-healing gash from shoulder to hip – that hadn’t been there when Antoine last saw him. “Captain Antoine,” he says in reply.
“Didn’t we leave you in the Philippines?”
There’s a moment of awkward pause. A chicken squawks in the background. “I got on the wrong ship,” Katana says eventually. He’s wearing the brown sarong of the locals, but somehow looks completely at home in it, an ease in his surroundings that had helped him blend in with the crew in the first place. “And ended up here a few days ago.”
It’s so typically Katana – and since when has Antoine known him long enough to deem anything that he does typical? – that Antoine can’t help but laugh. Ayam once found Katana staring at the locked door of the cargo hold, wondering why the galley door wouldn’t open; the man’s sense of direction was useless even on a small ship like the Aubergine.
“Join us for a drink later,” Antoine invites, and Katana agrees readily. “We’ll be at the Rubber Tree at sunset.” He wants desperately to ask about the wound, but he has to hurry; being late for a meeting with the queen is unacceptable.
He’s late anyway. The guards Lelaki and Perempuan grin at him as he toes off his boots and stomps through the doorway, dreading the meeting already. He isn’t disappointed; the moment the queen sees him, there’s a cry of “Kenta~ang,” and then he’s attacked by a blur of red and blue.
“Queen Bapok,” Antoine greets weakly. “Please don’t hurt me.”
The blur detaches itself from where it was hugging him enthusiastically. “I would never hurt you, my little terung.” Bapok plants a wet kiss on Antoine’s face before heading back to her throne, a wicker chair elevating her above the others who are seated on straw mats. Antoine can see Nasi smirking at him, the little shit. “Come, tell me all about your travels.”
Antoine suffers the queen’s affections with a mixture of delight and disgust; he was, after all, saved from drowning by her men, and brought up under her care. However, growing up in close proximity with the pirate queen who was at the same time the pirate king caused much confusion in the young Antoine, who has since learned that women are actually separate beings from men, and are not, in fact, men in women’s clothing, as Bapok is.
“It was a fruitful trip,” he says as he settles on the mat beside his traitorous first mate. Nasi has at least stopped smirking and is helping himself to fruit. “We bring you much treasure.”
Bapok waves aside the gold and ivory that has been placed at her feet, and leans forward. The chair creaks and her chest threatens to spill out of the corset that she’s fond of wearing – a tribute to our mysterious Western benefactors, she calls them, even though everyone knows she just likes the way they slim her waist. “I hear you found a newcomer,” she whispers conspiratorially.
Antoine munches on a piece of starfruit and wonders what she’s talking about. “Wait, you mean Katana? He’s not a newcomer, he was just temporary help.”
Disappointed, Bapok leans back. “And here I was hoping I’d get to meet a new dashing young man.” There’s a collective twitch throughout the group. “On to other business, my darlings. Kacang, Kentang, would you please come here?”
Antoine looks around. Kacang gets up from where he was sitting with his own crew, and makes his way to the queen. Antoine has never liked the other man; most of the pirates under the queen are either native or have been brought up as he. Kacang, on the other hand, randomly turned up one day and joined a crew, and made his way to captain within three years. Antoine wonders what his real name is.
“Now,” says Bapok, twirling her hair absently. Antoine knows for a fact that hidden in the ridiculous bun on her head are several venom-coated darts that Bapok is extremely skilled with. “You two little terungs are my final choices for next in line.”
A startled murmur shoots through the assembled pirates. There have been rumours that Bapok was choosing her heir, but she has never confirmed it until now. To pick only two is uncommon, as the contenders for the crown are usually expected to sabotage each other till only one remained, but to pick two non-natives? Never mind that Kentang – nobody ever learned how to say Antoine properly – has been brought up in Singapore from the age of seven; he is still a golden-haired blue-eyed white man.
Bapok raises a hand; the crowd stills. “I realise my choices are… unconventional,” she says. “But they are my choices.” She looks them both up and down. “Now, I will not condone this poisoning and duelling thing that my ancestors so favoured,” she continues with a trace of irony in her voice; she won her position by both of those practices, among others. “Instead, I wish to award this throne to the one who is most deserving of it.”
Without being asked, her manservant brings out a map and lays it on the floor between the queen and the two men. “The two of you are to gather what you need within two days, and set sail,” she traces the route from Singapore to India, “all the way,” down to the Cape of Good Hope, “to where my good friend the queen,” around Africa up to England, “lives.” She smiles at them. “You may make use of whomever and whatever you find along the way, but if I hear that either of you have killed the other deliberately, I will take your head myself.” She rolls the map up with a punctuating snap. There is an unspoken clause; they not only have to get to England, but have to reach her with as much treasure as they could.
Antoine and Kacang look at each other.
“Well, go on, then. I’ll send you off myself at dawn of the third day.” Bapok waves a hand languidly, dismissing the gathering. Everyone scrambles to their feet.
On the way back to town, Antoine and Kacang both receive several slaps on the back. Many of the other captains offer their congratulations, half of them with envy written plainly on their faces, the other half with an equal amount of relief. After finally breaking away from the well-wishers, Antoine beckons his crew to him.
“You know what we need,” he tells them. “Tonight we celebrate; from tomorrow we work.” There are repairs to do, treasures to sell, supplies to buy; a night off would refresh them for the three days of preparation. “I’m going to the Rubber Tree, anyone with me?” Unsurprisingly, everyone follows.
Katana enters the bar as the second round of drinks is being distributed. “KONISIWA,” bellows Nasi when he spots the swordsman, and the greeting is echoed by the growing crowd. Antoine watches Katana wince but bow back in greeting, ever the polite Japanese.
“I hear you’re going on a trip,” he starts, and Ikan saunters by to shove a bottle in his hand.
Antoine grins at him, rum in one hand and cigarette in the other. “I certainly am,” he shouts. “Please imbibe in celebration.” He has a funny habit of getting extremely eloquent when drunk; he sometimes suspects he was brought up posh. He doesn’t really remember his childhood before the sunken ship and subsequent salvation by the Singapore pirates, though, and doesn’t really care either.
Katana swigs the rum, and the conversation flows. Ayam occasionally joins them at the bar, a different set of girls on his person each time. Under normal circumstances, Antoine would partake in the various pairs of wonders, but somehow Katana makes for much better company than any pair of papayas does. The bartender of the Rubber Tree makes instant friends with Katana as well (Antoine isn’t sure there’s anyone who isn’t friends with Beruk), and plies them all with steadily stronger alcohol to lubricate the way to songs about the sea and bawdier songs about women.
Eventually the off-key caterwauling gets too much for Antoine’s aching head, and he ducks out into the cooler night air, ignoring the cacophony of jeers following him out. He reaches for another cigarette before realising he already has one, smoking, between his lips.
“I didn’t think you were such a lightweight, Captain Antoine,” Katana says, suddenly beside him like an unexpected green-eyed ghost. Antoine doesn’t drink as much when at sea because he figures that there always should be at least one person with a semi-clear head in case of emergencies.
Still, the statement annoys him. “I hold my liquor better when on a ship,” he retorts, pointing his cigarette at Katana, who merely stares down its smouldering length, unimpressed. “Being on land unsettles me.”
“Yes,” Katana says agreeably, and Antoine gets even more irritated. Who is this random Japanese man anyway, and who does he think he is, insulting Antoine’s drinking limits?
“Why are you here, really?” he asks instead. The other man has been and is a mystery to him, one that he doesn’t try to explain away in the daytime and when sober, but now that he has a dozen bottles of rum and the inhaled equivalent of thrice as many tobacco sticks in him, the unanswered question eats at his brain like the poison on one of Bapok’s needles. He waggles the empty bottle in his hand at Katana. “I don’t believe this nonsense about getting lost. Nobody that silent is that useless at directions.”
Katana levels his gaze at Antoine, and Antoine has a panicked moment where he thinks, hysterically, that Katana’s eyes are the exact same green as the Indian Ocean at noon. But then Katana’s leaning far too close, whispering into Antoine’s ear, “I’m here because of you.”
And then something gives way, and Antoine has an armful and mouthful of Katana, who tastes like rum and fish spices and something else, something oddly familiar that Antoine can’t quite place and that doesn’t seem quite right on this stranger whom Antoine has only known for no more than three months. But Katana moves his hand, places it somewhere it really shouldn’t be, and Antoine lets go.
They march past the wasted crowd in the bar, who are by now too far gone to notice their captain going by with suspiciously swollen lips, followed closely by Katana, whose mouth is equally red. They don’t see them take the stairs two at a time, turn the corner and then slam the door of the first room open. And the crew certainly doesn’t see Katana lock the door behind him before prowling over to where Antoine stands in a patch of moonlight, hair the colour of silver coins and eyes blazing like the open sky.
There are no tender words, no furtive touches; they simply seal together like the horizon, clouds meeting ocean waves. Katana reaches the laces holding Antoine’s trousers up, and the whole ensemble comes apart at barely a touch of his fingers. Antoine barely has time to marvel before Katana loosens his own cloth wrap, revealing a complete lack of underthings, a discovery that Antoine enjoys very much indeed. Still, he can’t help but feel a bit inadequate in the whole undressing show, so he leans over to tug his boots off.
“Antoine,” Katana breathes, and Antoine’s cock twitches at the way Katana drops the ‘captain’, the title he’s always hung in front of Antoine’s name like a barrier between them. He’s tried to get Katana to stop with the captain thing, Japanese societal demands or no, partly because he doesn’t get to hear his own name often enough, and partly because he doesn’t want to be this man’s captain. Katana is a rank of his very own, and it is impossible to see him defer to someone else’s.
“What’s your real name?” Antoine asks in return, fingers gently tracing the edges of the violent-looking chest wound, and the tongue lapping at his neck pauses. Antoine wonders if he has pressed too hard, or if there’s a taboo that he’s just accidentally violated.
Katana smiles against Antoine’s skin; Antoine feels the curve of his lips. “My name is Kenzo,” he says. The name resounds in the boiling air like a struck crystal goblet; Antoine shivers. It fits the other man so well that Antoine knows he’ll never be able to call him Katana again without feeling like he’s naming a pet cat instead of this lean, muscular man who’s pressed up against him, pushing him down to sit on the bed.
Antoine is experienced in the ways of sex; nobody goes on long voyages at sea without getting their trousers pulled down at least once. Aside from the plentiful women at each port, Antoine’s favourite partner is Nasi, because the two of them go far back enough to carry on with life without any of the awkwardness that tends to come after a night of pirate-style debauchery. Antoine really does prefer a good pair of melons to a single banana, but sex is sex, especially after three weeks on the open sea with only other men around.
Still, as Antoine already realised earlier during the night, Kenzo likes to go around smashing all penchants and expectations. Antoine watches as the other man spits into his hand and then wraps his fingers around Antoine’s erection, slicking and pumping it, his actions brisk but unhurried.
As Kenzo shifts to position himself over Antoine, the blond smiles and tugs them both over so that Kenzo’s flat on his back, Antoine kneeling and arched over him. “You have done this before,” he says, and it’s not a question, and he doesn’t question Kenzo’s strength – the fresh-looking wound can handle the vigour or the other man wouldn’t have agreed to this at all. Kenzo nods, shifting his weight and pulling his knees up in a position that Antoine, never the most limber of people, can’t help but envy a little.
The first push hurts; Antoine can see it in the way Kenzo’s eyes darken from sea-foam green to a shining jewel hue. He feels a bit stupid for thinking in such flowery terms, so he pulls out a little, slowly, before sliding in again. They eventually settle into a rhythm, breaths harsh against each other’s, sweat dripping and pooling in the crevices of the bunched sheets. Sex in the tropics is stickier and somehow more sinful than sex out on the ocean at midnight in the northern hemisphere; Antoine enjoys the slippery slide of bodies and the way his partner glistens in whatever light there happens to be.
They move together like a boat in a storm, and it doesn’t take long before Kenzo grips at Antoine’s shoulders and gasps something in Japanese, muscles tensing beneath and around Antoine. “Yeah,” Antoine bites out, thrusting a few more times, riding Kenzo’s wave out before letting his own crash and shatter.
When Antoine wakes, the bed is empty and damp. Early morning sunlight is streaming through the window, making the fine hairs on his legs look like they’re on fire. He’s not surprised about being alone; he isn’t expecting Kenzo to stick around. When he rolls off the bed and pads around the room collecting his clothes, however, a sudden voice startles him.
“Good morning,” Kenzo murmurs, emerging out of a stubborn shadow that is slowly being nudged out of the way by the dawning sun. Antoine raises an eyebrow at him, fingers suddenly forgetting how to do up his trouser laces; Kenzo wearing nothing but a lazily-slung bed sheet does strange things to Antoine’s anatomy.
“Same to you,” Antoine says with a smile. Kenzo crosses the room to give him a long, lazy kiss. They stand like that for a while, joined only at the mouth, Antoine bending slightly to accommodate their height difference – it didn’t seem this apparent the night before. Eventually they break apart, and finish dressing. The origin of the chest wound still eats at Antoine’s mind, but he ignores it; strange and scary scars are part and parcel of life on the ocean.
The bar is quiet when they go downstairs, bearing the vestiges of a few hours’ hard scrubbing. Ikan is snoozing in a corner, his breakfast half-eaten. Beside him, Nasi and Kambing grin and wave rice-speckled hands at them. Antoine slides into the chair across from them, and Kenzo sits down beside him. Chairs and tables are rare in the peninsula; the Rubber Tree is an import and thus doesn’t conform to the usual dining standards of floor and banana leaf. People still generally use their hands to eat, though.
“Breakfast, boys?” Kucing glides over and asks. Antoine beams at her; the lady boss of the Rubber Tree has always been the love of his life. The fact that she’s married to Beruk puts absolutely no damper on his affections.
“Anything your hands create, I will eat,” he tells her. She smiles, takes Kenzo’s order, and swishes back to the kitchens. The Rubber Tree is technically a night-time establishment, day-time inn, and the Aubergine’s crew’s all-year-round home, but Kucing has the good business sense to offer breakfast to the hungover sailors and pirates that tend to be plastered to the walls still come morning.
Ikan wakes up while Antoine is halfway through his meal, and the four of them discuss the necessities the crew is likely to need for the journey. Kenzo listens as he eats but doesn’t join in. As Ayam and his two female companions descend the stairs, they wrap up the impromptu meeting and Antoine delegates responsibilities for the others to delegate further to everyone else. As the captain, he doesn’t have to worry about the small repair details or the food supply; instead, he has to gather maps and other cartographic equipment to decide on their route.
For the next two days, Kenzo is a silent shadow beside Antoine as the latter strides about town running his errands. Antoine even forgets about the swordsman’s presence sometimes, even though Kenzo does engage in conversation if Antoine initiates. He just never starts talking himself. At dusk of the second day, Antoine finally turns to Kenzo and asks, “What are you still doing here?”
Kenzo quirks a smile at Antoine. “I told you,” he replies, meeting Antoine’s eyes. “I’m here because of you.”
At that moment, Bapok and her entourage pass by. “Ah, Kentang,” she coos. “Come, come, walk with me. Your pretty friend too.” She sweeps them into her wake, and the conversation is lost.
That night, Antoine strips down for bed with an odd unease in him. As he pulls his boots off, he realises what it is that he has been thinking over for the past few days without realising it. Barefoot, he pads over to the room he knows is Kenzo’s and knocks on the door.
“Enter,” says the now-familiar voice, and Antoine does. Kenzo looks surprised to see him, but not startled, and Antoine closes the door to lean against it.
“Come with us,” he hears himself say. “You don’t seem to be in a hurry to return.” He walks to Kenzo and sits beside him on the bed. “Sail with us for a while.” He doesn’t add that Kenzo would be free to leave at any point; this is understood.
Kenzo doesn’t say anything. Antoine waits for a while, and resists the urge to cluck along with the house lizards that chatter from the corners of the room. As he stands to exit in the most dignified way he can, Kenzo suddenly says, softly, “Yes.”
Antoine doesn’t make it back to his room that night.
The moon is still a quicksilver gleam on the horizon when Antoine and Kacang’s crews assemble on the beach by the mouth of the island’s main river. Bapok looks horrifyingly chirpy for an hour so early it’s still night.
“Your contest begins now, boys,” she tells them, and everyone winces at her volume. She leans down to plant loud damp kisses on first Antoine, then Kacang’s cheeks; both of them make faces at each other as she turns. “Fair play, remember! Good luck, and I’ll see you in England.” Nobody asks how she’s going to get there; Queen Bapok has her ways. As the last of her words echo across the shore, the men scramble into boats and begin paddling out to their respective ships. Antoine and Kacang are the last to get onto the boats; they smile tightly at each other, clasp hands, and are off.
The first two weeks are smooth, with fine weather and plenty of good cheer. As they’re halfway across the Bay of Bengal between Rangoon and Calcutta, however, a monsoon sets in, and a good third of their supplies are washed overboard. It throws a pall over the morale of the crew, who get bored after their sixth dolphin sighting in two days. Kenzo is a centre of calm amidst the restlessness, and finds himself pulled into countless games of dice or cards. Antoine sits beside these games with a map in his hands, giving useless hints to the players, who ignore him as they all know that he loses every single card game he plays.
Eventually the huge land mass of India looms over the horizon, and the crew is delighted for the chance to explore Calcutta and its markets of spices and riches. Antoine loves India; it has all the colour and light of the Orient, but combines the zest with the dusty tea-loving inheritance of the Europeans. He plans to get his hands on at least one catty of tea leaves while he’s here, among other things.
Kenzo, for once, doesn’t quite look as well-adjusted as he normally does. “It’s a little mad,” Antoine remarks to him, waving a hand around to indicate the sweltering port and its markets, streets, and crush of people. Antoine’s dressed as a European aristocrat today, a disguise to ward off any suspicious glances. Being white in India means you and your ship are untouchable, even if your entire crew is made up of little brown people; it’s a useful trait that the crew uses to its full potential. The fact that Antoine speaks perfect Queen’s English (as well as fluent French, Dutch and German) adds authenticity to their charade. As long as they stay clear of actual Europeans, everything works out.
“A little,” Kenzo agrees as Antoine hails a rickshaw to take them to the hotel. The crew has to spend the next few days with the locals, but they enjoy it; Antoine gets a bed and indoor plumbing as part of his role. He’s not used to the outhouse being inhouse, so to speak, but he’s supposed to be rich and thus expect no less. Kenzo is his Chinese manservant this trip, and so gets to follow his master.
They leave Calcutta on schedule, with as heavy a load as they can manage, little of it legally gained. As alarms and voices are raised, and fingers are pointed, nobody remembers the clipper with blue sails until it has passed Ceylon and is on its way to the Cape of Good Hope.
The crew doesn’t comment when, some nights, Kenzo leaves his hammock in the crew’s quarters below deck for an actual bed. They pretend not to see the quick grip of hand on wrist, mouth on cheek. They’re used to certain activities between men; they’re out at sea for long periods of time and each of them knows what to do to keep themselves occupied. But those activities are kept for long warm nights on calm waters, and almost never spill over into daytime. The crew keeps silent when they glimpse muscular arms slung across broad shoulders, cigarette smoke winding around both figures sitting on the starboard railing beneath the high noon sun.
The crew chooses instead to keep a lookout for their captain, because despite their affection for the amusing foreign newcomer, the captain always comes first.
The Aubergine arrives at Cape Colony through a thick morning fog. The port is quiet except for fishing boats coming in with the morning catch. An inn is located and the entire crew sleeps like the dead until the next morning; they have barely made it out of another freak storm with their ship intact. Ikan is given market duty, along with five other men, and their carpenter Kambing sets to work on repairs with a handful of the others. Kenzo bows out of an invitation to breakfast with Antoine, citing errands he has to run.
“Why,” says a voice from behind Antoine as he steps onto the main street, on the search for a good fresh meal. “What a pleasant surprise.”
Kacang is leaning against the wall of a bakery. “Good morning,” he greets Antoine, who returns the greeting politely. “I didn’t expect you here so quickly, to be honest. Your little blue ship is certainly proving her worth.”
Antoine doesn’t bother to correct Kacang – the Aubergine isn’t blue, it’s her sails that are. “Glad to see you made it here well,” he says instead, stepping towards the bakery. He hasn’t had fresh European bread for a long while.
Kacang follows him in, and hovers as Antoine picks out several warm loaves with the intention of sharing them with the crew. “I hear you have new men,” Kacang says conversationally as Antoine hands a few coins to the girl behind the counter.
“Yes,” replies Antoine. “He joined us just before we left Singapore.”
“I see.” Something in Kacang’s voice makes Antoine pause and look at the other man, who continues, “The thing is, are you sure he’s worth trusting?”
“What exactly do you mean by that?” The question shouldn’t sting as much as it does, and Antoine knows it.
“Oh, I don’t know.” Kacang starts walking again. Antoine falls into step; Kacang is heading entirely the other way from Antoine’s inn, but he can always find his way back again. “How much do you know about him?”
Antoine bristles. Kacang implying that a captain cannot choose his crew is beyond annoying and bordering on insulting. “I know enough,” he snaps. “How is this any of your business?”
There are running footsteps in the distance, and muffled shouting. Kacang looks extremely calm, almost satisfied. “It’s entirely my business,” he tells Antoine. “You see, Kenzo works for me.”
Antoine stares at Kacang, disbelieving. “He does not,” he hears himself say.
A shadow moves, and detaches itself from the wall. Kenzo is standing there, dressed once again in the once-familiar black. It’s a jarring sight, especially the way the lower half of his face is covered in black fabric, allowing only that green gaze to be seen.
“Antoine,” Kenzo says. Antoine has taken a step back in shock, and raises his hand now at the sound of Kenzo’s voice.
“Don’t talk to me,” he says weakly.
The noises across town draw closer. Kacang smiles at Antoine. “I hired Kenzo a year ago,” he explains cheerfully. “Of course, I didn’t know a thing about Bapok’s choices then. But you and I were definitely contenders.” He begins to pace, of all things; Antoine is reminded of the villainous mastermind in a play. “You were the one I was most concerned about, though.”
Kenzo is standing extremely still, a marked contrast against Kacang’s repetitive movements. “I made him follow you around for a while. His assignment was to get rid of you before you reached Singapore, but he got discovered.” Here, Kacang gives Kenzo a glare that would make the paint peel off walls. “But you,” he turns the glare on Antoine, “didn’t kill him, because you are a complete useless bleeding heart.”
Antoine cannot speak. His mind is twisted into a huge knot, the kind so large that, if found in a fishing net, takes several hours to untangle. He’s not sure if he should feel gullible and used, or simply angry. Kenzo still has not moved. Kacang still has not stopped talking.
“He tried to get close to you on the way back to Singapore, but failed that too. I punished him severely back on the island, I’ll have you know.” Suddenly the mysterious scar makes sense. Antoine feels filthy; he’s lost count of the number of times he’d licked down its length. Kacang obviously knows this; his smirk widens as he speaks. “Still, he did an admirable job of escorting you all the way here so that I may have the satisfaction of watching the next act unfold.”
His last words, combined with uniformed men running down the street at them, kick Antoine’s pirate instinct into action. Without a word, Antoine turns on his heel and bolts away from the naval men; there is no way they can get the ship out, but with any luck, they can hide it. He has to warn someone before he’s caught.
He has to be caught.
Nasi is emerging from a shop when Antoine nearly plows into him. “Run,” Antoine hisses, pretending to trip on something. He knows Kacang isn’t interested in getting Antoine’s men in trouble, only Antoine himself. The Malay ethnicity of the Aubergine’s crew will help them blend into the Cape Colony population until everything tides over. “Katana is a traitor.” He falls to one knee, having tripped. “Kacang is here.” He reaches out to steady himself. “Hide the Aubergine.” He moves to get up.
“Run,” he repeats before being buried beneath half a dozen uniformed men, and prays to a god he does not believe in that Nasi gets away.
Antoine is thrown unceremoniously into a dank cell on the ship’s holding deck. There’s a suspicious-looking bone by the far wall, which Antoine avoids. Only one other cell has an occupant, a ragged-looking man with beads in his hair and braids in his beard. Antoine can hear him singing to himself about cursed gold and un-dead monkeys, whatever those are.
“Are you a pirate?” asks the man, shortly after he concludes his tuneless ditty. He has an English accent with a West Indies inflection; Caribbean, maybe.
“Yes,” Antoine replies.
“Brilliant!” The man brightens. “Have you any rum?”
“I’m sorry, no.” The smile fades again, and Antoine is left alone. He’s not sure why the man thinks Antoine would have rum while trapped in a jail cell on a navy ship, but Antoine has seen mad people; this man is not mad. He is possibly sun-touched and definitely in a permanent state of drunkenness, but not mad.
The rest of the journey is spent in silence.
Being prisoner is a tedious occupation. Antoine is dragged from the ship’s brig to a jail on land; the drizzle they walk through tells him that they’re in England now. The other man is led somewhere else, and Antoine doesn’t see him again. After being tossed into his new cell, Antoine is read to from a list of rights, which aren’t really many rights at all; he doesn’t exactly have a thousand doubloons to pay as bail. He isn’t even entitled to a trial. Apparently there had been someone to vouch for his piracy, and that is enough to justify hanging him.
Antoine can’t help but wonder, once again, who Kacang really is.
The execution is to take place in five days, and Antoine doesn’t expect to be rescued. He hopes his crew wasn’t caught; watching them die would hurt more than getting hung by the neck till death. He stares at the little barred window at the top of the wall, and decidedly does not think about the circumstances in which he ended up in this situation. In particular, he doesn’t think about the person who has landed him in this steaming pile of buffalo dung.
The fifth day dawns bright and sunny, and the light hits a sleeping Antoine’s eyes from the small window. He wakes groggily, and gets to his feet to walk around his cell a bit. He’s not sure what the point is; when you’re about to die, does it really matter if you walk some feeling into your numb leg?
He’s on his third round when the guards appear to unlock the door. “Good riddance,” one of them spits, and they all but tear his arms off as they cuff him. Obviously lost someone to a pirate attack, Antoine thinks distantly.
There’s a crowd waiting at the gallows. Antoine suddenly wonders, after weeks of not thinking, why they have brought him to England to hang. Surely they could have made a spectacle of him at Cape Colony. When he’s positioned on the platform with the rope loosely around his neck, however, the reason occurs to him. Whoever has arranged all this wants to prove something not to the public, nor to the military; it is a thumbed nose at Queen Bapok, who is almost certainly already in England, and, if so, definitely watching.
“Antoine Stephan Mellor, you are hereby charged for the following crimes.” Antoine revels in the small satisfaction of hearing his full name spoken for the first time in decades, and barely hears the amusingly long list of things he’s being executed for. There are drums, of course; the crowd likes a show. “…hang by the neck until death.” And every show needs a punch line.
The executioner steps slowly towards Antoine, eyes gleaming from beneath the black hood. Antoine has always thought executioners look funny in the hoods, which really resemble large sacks rather than the type of hood one would see in illustrations of death personified. As his mind races through random hysterical thoughts and wondering vaguely why his life hasn’t flashed before his eyes yet, Antoine completely misses the colour of the shadowed eyes.
He certainly doesn’t miss the sudden jerk of the rope, however, and the loud bang and billowing plume of smoke that envelopes him before his vision goes dark and he crumples into waiting arms.
He comes to in a small room, feeling like a particularly distressed damsel. Fainting into someone’s embrace is something women do, and preferably into his arms; Antoine does not do swooning. He said as much out loud, and is startled to get a response.
“You didn’t swoon,” says the voice, rough with lack of sleep and possibly overexposure to smoke. “I knocked you out.”
Antoine isn’t sure which is worse. He turns his head slowly, and glares at Kenzo, who is draped over a small wooden chair in, expectedly, a corner. “You jeopardised your own mission,” he accuses. Kenzo shrugs and doesn’t answer.
They remain still and silent. Finally, Kenzo gets to his feet and reaches a hand to Antoine. “Come with me,” he says. “There’s someone you need to meet.” Antoine notices and appreciates how Kenzo doesn’t ask if Antoine can walk or even get out of bed; it’s a direct mirror of a night that Antoine firmly does not think about.
He lets Kenzo pull him up, but drops the other man’s hand once he’s on his feet. Kenzo gazes at him silently, almost sadly, and then opens the door.
The room turns out to be in the bowels of a familiar ship. As Antoine emerges out onto the top deck, there are cheers all around him. Nasi barrels out of the crowd and launches himself at Antoine, who grabs his friend around the waist and hugs him brusquely before both of them let go and pretend the embrace never happened. The entirety of the Aubergine’s crew is present, and something wound tight in Antoine’s chest loosens and drops away.
Bapok is perched on the rail in front of the captain’s wheel. She’s dressed in her finest; intricate batik patterns snake up her skirt, indicating her position equal to royalty. Sitting at her feet, bound by nothing but the fear in his eyes, is Kacang. Antoine looks at him, and feels nothing, not even anger.
When Bapok sees him, she leaps off the railing and is at his side in an instant. “Oh, my little terung,” she murmurs into his ear, patting his hair gently. It’s extremely disconcerting, because she is at least half a head taller than he is. Still, Antoine stays still and lets her treat him like a small child.
Eventually, she pulls away, and turns around to face the gathered men. The deck is large, much larger than that of the Aubergine, and there’s at least two hundred people sitting or standing in the audience. Antoine inches over to where Nasi and the rest are.
“I have good news and bad news,” Bapok says, her voice carrying across the deck clearly. There are gulls in the sky, and they punctuate every other word with their cries.
“The good news is that I managed to meet both my candidates at the designated location.” She looks at Antoine and Kacang in turn. “Both of them were alive, though possibly a little… worn.”
She strolls around the crowd, bare feet hardly making a sound on the boards. “The bad news, however, is that one of my rules was broken. In fact, it was my only rule.” She certainly has a flair for the dramatic, Antoine thinks. “If you remember, I said that if either of my terungs deliberately took the life of the other…” She lets her voice trail off into the plaintive calls of the birds overhead.
Kacang looks terrified. Bapok kneels beside him and strokes his hair. “Kacang… no, Yuujirou, little bird,” she says to him, and another of Antoine’s questions is answered. “You had such promise, my boy. I’m still the pirate queen, you know. I would have let you have the crown and title had you gone up to Antoine and stabbed him through the heart.” Antoine twitches; Bapok continues. “But you had to go about it in such a long complicated way. And then you tried to make poor Kenzo over there commit the ultimate sin.”
She looks at Kenzo, whose face is a stony mask. “Betrayal, little bird,” Bapok says to him, then turns back to Yuujirou. “Because of you, Antoine believes that a member of his crew, his family is a traitor.” She gets to her feet in one smooth motion. Yuujirou’s eyes are closed now, his lips pale; he knows he is to die.
Bapok smiles, an ugly mirthless smile that thins her lips. She draws a single needle from the intricate bun on her head, and hands it to the man beside her. There is no tradition for what’s coming next, and Bapok makes her own traditions. An eye for an eye, Antoine thinks bleakly, as Yuujirou’s first mate takes the dart with hands that barely tremble, whispers something to the man who was once his captain, and plunges the venom into Yuujirou’s neck.
The crew is obviously not going to let him out of their sight, Antoine realises after two days of putting up with extreme invasion of his privacy. Bapok’s ship is huge and requires all the help it can get, but there are always at least two of his own men glued to his side, talking about the weather or offering to play a game with him. After the third strained invitation to a game of cards, Antoine throws his hands up and bellows, “Anyone who asks me to play cards with them again will be thrown overboard, do you hear me?”
At the stern of the ship, Bapok giggles. She obviously finds the mother hen behaviour of the crew hilarious. Antoine glares at Ayam, who shrugs cheerfully and puts away the cards. Then he stalks into his room and slams the door.
There’s a shadow waiting for him, one that has been waiting for days. “What do you want,” Antoine says, pulling his shirt off and not looking at the shadow. It’s stifling inside, because his room has no windows, but he can’t open the door again so soon after a dramatic slamming.
“I did not betray you,” Kenzo murmurs. “It was what I wanted to say in Africa. Yuujirou hired me a year ago, and I followed you.” He doesn’t quail under Antoine’s glare.
“Why should I believe you?” Antoine asks, his voice hard. “I’m supposed to believe Kacang just randomly turned up at Cape Colony with armed guards waiting to arrest me, then?”
“He was on the same route that we… that you were.” Kenzo looks at his hands. There are burn marks on his left hand. “He simply had to be quicker, and then alert the authorities about you.”
Antoine punches his pillow. “And you simply gave up the job halfway through, and came onto my ship for the stellar company and devastatingly handsome captain, did you?”
“The company was good, but they don’t hold their liquor very well,” Kenzo replies. “As for the second part, I have no rebuttal to make.”
“That is probably the lamest excuse in the seven seas and you know it,” Antoine exclaims.
“It does not make it any less true,” Kenzo says. “Every single time I said I was lost, I was lying.” He’s on his feet now. Antoine doesn’t step forward, and Kenzo doesn’t move to meet him; neither of them reaches out to the other.
“I’m here because of you,” Kenzo whispers, and their mouths meet somewhere in the middle.
The ship’s next port of call is the beautiful Caribbean, and the crew looks forward to living it up.
“Weigh anchor,” calls the captain, the sea breeze threading its invisible fingers through the loose tail of hair he’s tied at the base of his neck, and reaching out to snap and fill blue sails. “Wind’s in our favour, let’s go!”
Callused hands pull at ropes and rudders, and the Aubergine creaks as she heads out to sea. The captain smiles as land recedes into the distance, leaving only sparkling blue-green ocean in its wake. Once the ship is on course, the men retreat into the shade of the lower decks; the sun is at its highest, and there are newly ill-gotten treasures down below to sift through.
“You’re not at your post,” the captain says to a lone man standing by the railings on the starboard side. The man levels a gaze at the captain, who strikes a match and lights a cigarette. The tendrils of white smoke curl around his fingers before dissolving into the wind.
The man smiles, sudden as a lightning flash, and tilts his face to catch the ocean spray. His eyes are the colour of the waves below them, and the hilt of the sword on his back catches the sunlight.
“I got lost,” he says.