Sunsets and revelations
Chapter 7: Going West
Location: Aboard Steamhawke
The work day was approaching its end. The birds of the sky disappeared, huddling in their nests to wait for another sunrise. There was one bell left from the second dogwatch, as Chago had counted the ones just heard. He was free after the first dogwatch, and he was staring at the deep sky. The rather hot day was followed by a pleasant evening breeze and the sky looked inviting, with the orange, red and lilac haze cast over the friendly clouds, reflecting off every golden streak like in a painting.
Lately, he hadn’t time to admire a sunset from the sea or the sky. Most often, the sunsets were catching El Moreno stalking his prey somewhere in a crowded town, or celebrating a success in a tavern. But now it was different… For the moment being, he had the peace of mind needed to watch the silent growth of the sea of darkness, slowly enveloping the sky undisturbed by the breeze.
Mei-Xiu approached the deck,ocarina in hand,admiring the beautiful sky.She started to play a slow and mellow song with very few high notes known as "Traversing the Skies" before noticing Chago. The young woman felt she should say something to him,"I always found that sunsets are even more beautiful up here."
The song was extremely beautiful, its harmonious notes were adding to the magic of the sunset. His mother's people had instruments close to the ocarina, but he played guitar, not those.
"Yes, they are. I always like them when at sea. The palette of colours is unusual and rich. And your song deepens the experience more. Such a lovely tune and such a good artist."
Birds do sing in captivity to make their prison go away - this is how he understood her song, oblivious to the fact that she was here of her own will.
"Do you like sailing?" he asked her. "What is your job aboard?"
Step by step, he could come closer to the truth and, as nobody was around, he could tell her that he had been sent to help her.
Mei-Xiu smiled at the compliment,"Thank you,and I love to sail.It lets me see the world." But what she didn't add was 'from a long and mobile distance from Gamshen.' Yes,he could learn that later...maybe.Still,he was very polite."I'm a war-dog."
Now, this was a surprise after another.
"I love to sail too. And... such a fine lady like you, a wardog?"
He had no idea that she had been trained to be an assassin, his employer had told him only what he had considered necessary. At least he knew that no wardog could be a slave - they would have rebelled against their masters. And this started to change the logic of the things he had been told...
"Does it mean you are here by your own will?" he asked, trying to seem more reassured than he actually was.
Perhaps they could have that discussion....
Mei blinked,"Of course I am." She wonder where he got that idea.Well,she always was very different from the other pirates. "Where did you get the idea I wasn't?" Come to think about of it,he was also very different from the rest of the crew,much more serious and polite.The young woman went through her mind,wondering who might have told him such a thing.She couldn't think of anyone.
Could Chago tell her right here, in the middle of the crew on watch doing various tasks, that he had been sent to help her and bring her back? No, he couldn't.
"Some pirates use to have slaves, you know... And a beautiful, cultivated lady, playing a musical instrument, is usually less prone to associate with... the likes of us," he still attempted to pass as one of them. "But for a wardog, at the same time, it takes skills I am impressed you have. I have both fighting skills and sailing skills, and I can appreciate a fighter wherever he or she is."
Yes, he had met lady mercenaries too, but usually their weapons were more... subtle. They were goddesses of poisons, skilled seductresses making a man drink his last cup with them, and making sure that he wouldn't reach alive the bed meant to collect the promises they made. Agile users of a deadly dagger, with the knowledge where to stick it and how to escape the enemy's grip - after, again, having drunk with said enemy and won his trust. When they were needing a man's strength to help them in their mission, El Moreno, Il Condottier or a few others were there to share the bounty.
But here it seemed something else was happening, and Chago was curious what. The discussion would continue here on the deck as much as possible, but then one should find a quiet place to tell her the truth.
Mei Xiu blushed at hearing the compliment. It felt strange to her to hear that she was seen differently than the others were seeing her... or than the impression she had of herself. As for the idea that pirates had slaves, it was nothing new.
"Even nobles have slaves,there's at least some honor amongst thieves.And escape..." She then started to shake slightly.
The answer had come out stranger than Chago would have expected, but directly to the point, making him see things in another light. Things really changed for him if she was there for her own will, to be free. It meant, most likely, that he had been lied. And his own imagination could connect the dots in ways he hadn't thought about before. What if the anxious father had other motives to have her back? That she had not been kidnapped, but ran away from an abuse or another? This changed his mission in a way he didn't like it at all. And he was the man to choose his missions... Rescuing an enslaved young woman, a kidnapped one, made sense; bringing her back against her will didn't - not for El Moreno. For any other mercenary, maybe yes, but not for him.
"Do yo know a place where we can talk without being overheard?" he asked directly, but in a whisper. "I had been sent by your father."
"You mean Shou?",Mei found herself saying out loud in a shaky surprised voice.The older man did allow her to call him her father,who else could it be? Unfortunately,it could be a trap set by quite a few people.A realization came to her,what if Chago was one of them? What if he was out to get her.Mei-Xiu found herself practically spitting her words in panic."How do I know you're with him?! I'm not going to let you bring me back to die!"
Chago looked at her, and her panicked voice, together with the words “I'm not going to let you bring me back to die!" sort of confirmed his suspicions.
“You are right,” he told her quietly, without any change of his facial expression, in the same whisper. “You have no way to know it, at least until you have finished listening to all I have to say and ask your questions to the point. After I answer to your questions, I might have some questions of my own. All that I am asking you is to keep it only between us two. And, again, this is not the right place for such a discussion! Where do you want to continue it?”
He didn’t want the crew to know his real identity and reasons to be aboard. Mei Xiu, however, had all the rights to know it, and if his suspicions were confirmed, she had to know that he wouldn’t do anything against her will.
Mei realized she could trust him and if she had to- kill him.
"How about the brig?"
"Yes, it is the best idea as long as nobody is there for the moment being!"
Once arrived there, as Chago got sure that nobody else could eavesdrop on them, he started telling his story:
“I was thinking it was Shou, but now I have my doubts, because I have seemingly been lied about the circumstances of your disappearance. I am a mercenary, and I got hired by an employer who wanted to keep his identity secret, to find Mei-Xiu, who had been kidnapped either by the pirates themselves, or by someone else and sold as slave to the pirates. From the affectation in his voice, and the concern for you, corroborated with the information he got me about you, I have thought it was your father. He seemed really grieving your missing and he was really concerned, as he had allocated an important sum of money for you return.”
He took a deep breath, continuing on the same low tone, and looking into her eyes, to notice better any reaction:
“Now, that I have met you and I have heard that you are here by your own will, this changes things. I am not intending to do anything you don't want me to. I wouldn’t harm or kill a woman, and everybody who knows El Moreno, knows that I am choosing my missions. I never get thirsty for money to do things which come against my conscience. Helping a kidnapped lady return home is something I am willing to do; hunting pirates, equally; having to bring back a lady as a bounty, when she wants to remain away, is something I would never do.”
Now he was paying attention to any questions she might have. His few ones would come only afterwards.
'I guess he's a friend after all',Mei-Xiu thought to herself.She felt confused though,"Who was it that sent you?"
If Chago knew who was, he would have said it. He was ready, though, to give all the little details he knew, maybe she would find herself the answer to the question.
"He wore a mask, protecting all his facial features, and his body was enveloped in a black cloak, so I cannot know for sure. He obviously wanted to remain anonymous. His poise, the vocabulary he used and the tone gave it away that he was a rich and educated man; not the underworld rich kind, but from the upper class," he explained, making an effort to remember all the details he had noticed.
His tone was warm, but neutral.
"I was thinking it was Shou, because he seemed to know you well, according to the information I received, and to be affected by your disappearing. He had the tone of a grieving father. The words he used exactly were: There is an exotic young woman who has been kidnapped. I tried to find her whereabouts, and the latest information I received mentioned her as a captive aboard a pirate ship named Steamhawke. I want her back. She is extremely precious to me.”
Mei's face became red and hot,she had someone after and she didn't know who.She became more nervous the more she thought about it.How did she know the man wouldn't find her even without Chago's help? He'd not only kill her but all her friends too,it wasn't as if anyone complains when someone hangs a pirate."I rarely say this,but I'm scared.What should we do?"
The girl's reaction was perfectly natural. Chago thought for a moment.
"I am definitely on your side, no matter what you choose. I would say that as long as you don't return to Seaport you are safe. Now, I am not sure what to answer you to the next question. There are some possibilities. If you remain aboard this ship and if you have friends here, I mean more friends besides me, you will be well defended. Making another life in the Old West would be another option as well."
He had to consider his options too. After having taken the advance money and fail in complying with his job, he wasn't welcome in Seaport either. And words do travel quickly, in the form of gossips, in the mercenary world; there would be others to learn, in a flourished and twisted way, about his failure to do a job.
Mei-Xiu felt conflicted,she only became a war dog because that was what she was good at but then,she did it to protect the crew she had become so close to.But it was a crew that feared her and possibly always would.
She never truly wanted to be a wardog or even an automaton though she did value the advantages it gave her.She wouldn't mind in the slightest to have the chance to forget her old life except it meant leaving behind the friends she had made and she would probably be discovered eventually.
"I have to stay here for now,I have friends here and if everything goes wrong we can fly away.If I get discovered in the West,the best I could do is run."
If Chago knew that she had been trained to be an assassin, maybe his advice would have changed slightly. But he had no idea, so he smiled encouragingly, a hand friendly on her upper arm, and he told her.
"I think here on the ship you are safe. And it will be up to you if you think, at a certain moment, that you might have a better opportunity in the Old West, where nobody knows you. But as long as you remain aboard the ship, you should tell the captain that Seaport is no more a destination for it."