Asmodeus Almighty this took a god-damn long time to get to. Wanna give a large fucking shout out to myself for being able to push through the mold and get this chapter out. Here's to hoping I keep it up and not regress backwards.
As always, of course, shout out to you guys for reading, leaving a review, or a flame, or being that one guy sending me death threats because he's pissed about all the 'Allah Akhbar' jokes.
On one hand, the joke has probably been overused and is arguably sensitive to those with religious inclinations so I should probably stop with any and all Islamic references, on the other hand, some of the threats are genuinely amusing enough that it leaves me itching to use those depraved ideas in my writing...
Hmm... offend more people at the cost of getting increasingly vivid gory ideas and new curse words, or stop at the price of finally letting the threats end...
Ah well. I'll think it over.
As always, stay safe, wear a mask, and don't get screwed over by 2020.
I awoke to the ache of fists battering my ribs. Pain and nausea accompanied my lurch to consciousness like the twin ravens on Odin's shoulders, whispering to him to secrets of the world. The only secret whispered to me was the command, vomit. Vomit! Nausea yelled. Vomit now!
Water, bitter, spewed from my lips, dredged from my lungs, burning out of my throat and nostrils.
"He's coming to!"
"He's alive! We have a survivor here!"
Seagulls sang unfamiliar songs. Their cries felt mocking. I'd never felt strongly enough about noises of seabirds to regard them with any sentiment, but I knew, in those moments, as I awoke, that the seagulls were mocking me. The pelicans were more subtle, as were the vultures circling with embittered sneers, irritated at the loss of an easy feast.
He's alive, alive, alive, alive, one vulture sneered. Another one scoffed. Not for long, not for long.
Unfamiliar faces hovered. My eyes itched and burned – sunlight streamed through lashes like a torn curtain. Blinding lights, blinding lights – my eyes screamed and my throat pitched a campaign to do the same. Sound, stubbornly refused to escape my lips.
"My god, he's alive? Jesus Christ. I can't believe someone survived that wreckage."
Wreckage? My mind lurched. Wreckage? Wreckage?
"Hey, hey, relax, we've called 911. They'll be here soon."
911? My chest felt too small. 911? 911? What?
"Hey… guys, I think – I think we should leave. I think we should leave, now."
"What are you on about?"
"Look – look goddamn it. The – the ocean –"
The waves were mocking me. They, like the seagulls, the pelicans, the vultures, they were mocking me. Fleeing from me. Depriving me of their presence. Begone, the Ocean said. Begone.
Coward! My throat burned the words, but the sound did not emerge. Coward!
"Shit, shit, shit what the hell? The water – why's the water receding so fucking much?"
"Don't ask stupid questions man! You never watch a goddamn nature documentary? This much of a drawback only means –"
The pelicans were laughing. The vultures were salivating. The seagulls were singing again. Singing, singing, the seagulls were singing -
"Fuck. Run. Run. Run goddamn it!"
"What – what about the kid?"
"If you think you can outrun a freak tsunami with a half-dead kid on your back, then be my fucking guest."
The voice was coarse. He was a rough man. A scraggly man. Shorts, Hawaiian shirt, and flip-flops. Sunglasses atop his head. Surfboard beside his feet. In his hands, a small rectangular device – a black mirror with a visible button below.
A smartphone. I lurched my hand for it. I've missed you. My brain sent a weird message. There are no smartphones in Oda's world.
"Shit, I'm getting out of here!"
My mind replayed the thought. There are no smartphones in Oda's world. No smartphones. No smartphones. No smartphones… No… smartphones…
"Goddamnit! I'm sorry!"
Flip-flops crashed on sand, receding from my hearing like a broken metronome. The vultures jubilated, diving like elegant swans for me. Finally, finally, the vultures cheered. Finally, finally.
The ocean's hand outstretched. She clicked her tongue. No, no, the ocean said. Not yet.
Ah, it was a competition. An odd competition. Can a vulture outrace a tidal wave? Probably not. The vultures came to the same conclusion, sulking as they ascended skyward. The scavengers of the skies could not wage war against mother nature herself. Beasts were not so greedy as to revolt against the hand that fed them.
And what large hands the ocean had, oh, what large hands! Hands that blocked the sky. Obscured the sun. Hands that curled, slowly, with all-embracing fervor.
Something heavy struck my body. Sound faded in and out of my hearing like faint static. The songs of the seagulls started to sound familiar again. The tides hit to the right notes, a proper symphony.
My throat burned, eyes burned, body burned –
Briefly. Briefly. Just briefly. The burning, ultimately, was brief.
The universe was the sound of a radio tuned to a dead channel –
Until someone hit mute.
Aboard the Lady Seven
Vanity was a sly bitch. Mikita knew. Vanity was what aided her reluctance in midnight strolls to the kitchen area. Vanity was the friend whispering in her ear, jabbing elbows deep in her ribs, telling her to flaunt what she had. The numbers which appeared on a scale obeyed her whim and fancy, and it would be a waste for a man newly given sight to pluck out his eyeballs in fear of blindness.
This particular night was different. A light sleeper her captain was, and extra care was always needed when she floated out of his arms through the corridors guarded by enslaved silent men. Off she'd go, into the kitchen, where she'd cut out a slice of cake, return the slice, and take what was left unto the deck to eat under starlit sky.
This particular night, her ritual was different, because there were no arms to float out of. She'd checked around the room, ignoring the sleeping pet-Marine and the younger red-head, in lieu of finding where the man of mystery had vanished to.
Like a phantom, she floated her way across the hallway, her intent this night different. She found him, shirtless under the moonlight, gazing at the ocean.
Serenity was not a word that came to mind when she thought of him. Violence, chaos, destruction – all of these accompanied vibrant imagery when his name came across her lips. So did, strangely enough, the image of warmth, compassion, and safety. Or perhaps belonging? She wasn't sure. She hadn't belonged anywhere long enough to know the intricacies of such a feeling.
No matter how silent her approach, he would always hear her coming. She let out an exasperated breath. Her annoyance was petulant. Mikita knew. Yet, the annoyance remained. One day, she'd learn to evade his inhuman senses. One day.
"Midnight snack," she said.
As always, she took her comfortable sitting position atop his shoulders. At first, she did it because she felt it'd rile him up. Over time, motivations changed. She was comfortable, atop his shoulders. She felt like a child, somewhat, sitting atop the shoulders of an adult, pointing out the mysteries of the world.
"I didn't realize the ocean was so interesting to look at," she joked. "Past midnight, out here, silently brooding… it can't be good for your health."
His subdued response unsettled her. She'd noticed that of him, lately. He swung like a pendulum; a pace too fast for her to keep up. He would be quiet, introspective, subdued, and then he would bounce back, loud, cocky, brash and chaotic. He was a bomb with an illogical, randomized fuse.
"What's bothering you this time?"
He hesitated. Mikita saw. She felt. The tenseness in his shoulders. The momentary indecision. He was deciding, it seemed, whether to tell her something, or not.
"You know," she cleared her throat. "After all I've seen you do, I don't really think there's anything you can do that'll shock me anymore. Or anything you can say. So, how about we make a bet?"
She emerged a smooth, neat, 10,000 beli note and waved it in front of his face. "You interested?"
"…Mikita, where were you keeping that?"
"You interested?" she repeated.
He sighed. There was so much defeat and exasperation in the sigh that she was almost offended. Almost. "Let's hear it."
"So, here's the wager." She folded the note. "Any time you feel you're about to do or say something that might make my brains feel like slush, you have to give me 10,000 beli in advance."
She waved the note in front of his face. "If it doesn't manage to make me have an expression like someone popped open my skull and started to scrub it squeaky clean with soap, I'll return the 10,000 beli back to you."
She watched him mull over the benefits. "And if it does?"
"I'll stack another 10k on top of it." She said. "An extra 1k for every level of mind-numbing, with 10k as the max. That means you stand to win 20,000 beli each time you manage to blow my mind."
V chuckled. "Really that desperate to go broke?"
"It's not about the money." She responded cheekily. "Besides, after all I've seen you do, I really don't think there's much else you can do that'll shock me anymore."
She rested her arms atop his head. "That's kind of sad, Cap'n. Because of you, there are now soooooo many fewer things on the Grand Line that'll be capable of grossing me out, terrifying me, or making me speechless."
"You're welcome." His chuckle had significantly more life to it. "I think I'll take your wager."
"Good." She said. "Now, maybe you can start with what's been bothering you?"
"…I had a nightmare."
A nightmare? She pressed her lips together. V had a nightmare? She couldn't imagine what sort of nightmare someone like him would have. Someone who barely flinched in the face of death and complete annihilation… what sort of nightmare could give him pause?
"I barely remember most of it." His shoulders rose and fell. "Yet, I couldn't shake it off."
Her brows rose. "That's it?" She didn't believe it. "I'm pretty sure it's more than just a nightmare that's been bothering you."
"…did Marianne tell you how she came to be a pirate?"
The red-head? Mikita's lips tightened a bit. She shook her head "No."
"Her parents met at the execution of the Pirate King, Gold Roger." Cap'n explained. "They were young impressionable kids who'd seen the world's greatest pirate be executed with a smile on his face, after announcing that his treasure was up for grabs. So, they formed their own crew, and sought to gain experience in North Blue before entering the Grand Line."
Mikita felt she knew where this was going. "It… ended poorly, didn't it?"
"She was born after they'd made a bit of a name for themselves sailing that sea, more or less as adventure-loving sailors than pirates, atop a ship called the Righteous Maple. She was nine when her family entered the race for Roger's treasure."
"…The Grand Line?"
"The Grand Line." He nodded. "Idealistic pirates on this sea are a dime a dozen. Thousands of people with ideals, hopes and dreams… but without the appropriate strength to succeed. Without fate's blessing and without providence's preference." He sighed. "She lost her father to a freak storm that emerged not long after the first few days on the Grand Line. She lost her uncles and cousins some days later, to an abrupt sea-king attack. Whatever was left of the crew of the Righteous Maple was picked apart into pieces by other pirate crews, absorbing and gathering strength."
Mikita winced. She knew how it was. Her Cap'n pulled out a cigarette. He snapped his fingers, lighting it in front of the stick, before placing it to his lips. She didn't truly approve of his newfound smoking habit because of the charred taste it left on him, but she didn't comment on it.
"The Pirate King, Gol D. Roger." He exhaled a puff of smoke. "What a fucking joke."
Her brows furrowed. Gol… D?
"For every idealistic adventurer he spurned forth with his final words, there are probably five murders, seven rapists, and twelve orphans." He said. "Ironic, perhaps hypocritical coming from me… but I'm not supposed to be anyone's role model. I'm not supposed to be worth emulating."
V's head swayed from side to side. "The Pirate King is a man that many men want to be. They hold the title with reverence, completely ignorant to the realization that he kick-started the worst age of pirates in history. Nearly every bad deed done by every pirate today can be traced back to moment that fucker opened his lips and made the world believe that piracy would grant them their deepest, fullest desires."
"He… was right, though, wasn't he?" she pointed out. "You can get your desires by being a pirate. By plundering and taking – you can have the whole world."
"You can get your desires by being a powerful pirate," he corrected. "Most pirates in their lifespan will struggle to fight a Marine Lieutenant, and hardly ever dream about taking on a Captain. Of the potentially hundreds of thousands of people who became pirates in search for his treasure, only one person will find it. And the rest, who'd turned to piracy originally, upon realizing that they have no hope of ever getting that grand slice of pie… what do you think happens then?"
"They'll look for another pie?"
He nodded. "They look for another pie." He exhaled more smoke into the air. "And while everyone in the world is busy searching for their pies… the world only further rots, decays and worsens."
She sighed, heavily. "Didn't really take you as the philosophical type, Cap'n."
"I have my moments."
"But what are you going to do about it exactly? It's not like you can turn back time and tell the Pirate King to shut his mouth."
"I told you already, didn't I?" He tossed his cigar butt into the ocean. "I'm going to become the Devil of Pirates. The complete antithesis to everything the Pirate King stood for. The part of piracy he didn't see or willfully ignored with his ideal-tinted glasses."
"So what you're saying is… you're going to be the most evil pirate in the world… in order to… prevent piracy?" She couldn't keep the amusement out of her voice.
"That's a roundabout way of looking at things," V said. "But I can't say it's wrong. Once people come to associate piracy not with wonder and adventure, but with cruelty, misery and destruction… there'll be far less pirates to worry about."
"Ending the age of pirates… by being the worst pirate to ever live." Mikita tested the words. She sighed. Without another word, she floated off his shoulders and stuffed a 10,000 beli note into V's hands.
"I have a feeling I'm going to regret making this bet with you."
Port Town of Nanohana
Once the Lady Seven docked, I knew immediately that Oda's inspiration for Alabasta was Egypt. The architecture was clearly Egyptian in origin, and although I'd never visited the famed city of the Nile, I'd played enough Prince of Persia and watched enough Prince of Egypt to be able to accurately identify the blatant similarities between the Nanohana and what resembled traditional Egyptian architecture.
The differences were astounding as well. For starters, Nanohana was significantly larger than I expected, with long winding streets and rooftops stretching out further and further into the horizon. There were no visible mosques, though there were the occasional dome-like structures erected with pointed roofs that was most likely this world's version of the religious structure. I did not know how the religion in this world worked, nor was I particularly interested in discovering how.
The people, also, from the dockhands to the merchants and travelers, were notably dark-skinned. Not dark enough to be cast as Africans, but certainly darker than the majority of people I'd encountered on the Grand Line so far, enough to be considered Middle-Eastern. It made sense the further I thought about it, and made littler sense as to why Vivi, a stand-in for a literal Princess of Egypt, had possessed such fair skin in the first place despite living in desert all her life.
You don't live in the desert or descend from a lineage of individuals living in a desert and emerge with perfectly pale skin. Not unless your mother performed funny business behind the scenes.
I chalked it up to Japanese aesthetics. For all of that country's seeming lack of care towards any sort of political correctness, it still possessed its own standards of beauty and appeal, and simply put, black was not "in" for the demographic.
A shame. The image of a Middle-Eastern, dark-skinned Vivi was in my head, and it amused me to wonder what she would have been like.
Geographically of course, Egypt was located in Africa. Though, like a majority of the North African countries, they never truly considered themselves 'Africans.' There was certainly some history to go into it, and my jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none knowledge didn't manage to cover that topic.
My focus on Egypt when arriving to Nanohana was not random. If Oda was the lauded narrative genius numerous individuals felt he was, then he would have added numerous things to the terrain, world and lore that would fit the inspiration and theme. As any good Sid Meier's Civilization player knows, the terrain of where you set up your cities can either completely break or make your entire civilization.
Being a majorly desert-oriented kingdom would signify that agricultural produce would not be bountiful. This indicated the necessity to import foodstuff, livestock and other luxury and bonus resources into the kingdom. This constant demand for imported goods would necessitate trade to the nearest neighboring countries, but also put heavy strain on the country's finances.
Thus, the country needed a means to support its finances. Agriculture was a laughable option, as once again, majority of the city was, again, a desert.
In Ancient Egypt this problem was solved through the Nile. The Nile created a fertile green valley across the desert, and it was on this valley that one of earth's first civilizations began. Ancient Egyptians cultivated and grew enough food along the Nile to feed the bustling population. Their major production was wheat, which enabled them to bake bread, and bread's role in the development of society cannot be understated.
In Egypt, of course, the Nile River is over thirty million years old, and has never, ever, in its history, dried up.
In Alabasta however?
"Cap'n… is it just me… or are the locals a bit… odd?"
The Nile never dried up. Rainfall or not, the Nile continued to aid the Egyptians. As a matter of fact, Egypt and most desert-based nations receive considerably little rainfall than other countries not founded on arid lands. If Egypt had relied on rainfall to get things done, they would have starved.
If Alabasta possessed its own 'Nile' on which the country was founded, and somehow, it was reliant on rainfall to be able to farm enough food to feed the populace –
"Alabasta is broke."
Mikita glanced at me. She turned her gaze down to the market bazaar. I could see the children in rags, running up and down the place, some with quicker and far more deft fingers than strictly needed. There were old men in the street, with withered, bony legs and rags, sitting almost serenely in front of a cheap clay bowl filled with few snippets of coins.
Merchants' robes were clearly old and frayed. Their produce did not have the mark of 'freshness' and 'quality'. Shadiness emanated from every street and corner, and no doubt there were desperate swindlers about, looking towards new arrivals as fresh, eager prey.
"I kinda figured that out, with the whole slit-your-throat-and-take-your-wallet eyes I've been seeing."
I furrowed my brows. "This makes little sense."
"A country being broke?"
"A country being broke, but having rich royalty."
The King and royalty of Alabasta clearly lived in affluence. The mansion was grand and elegant, containing its own hot springs to which I clearly remember simply because it was the first time Nami flashed her goods. There was also the massive feast they were able to give to the Straw Hats upon their defeat of Crocodile which indicated some level of prosperous wealth to do so while a significant portion of the city starved –
"On second thought, it makes full sense."
Royalty still managing to throw feasts while the populace starved was not an uncommon occurrence in history. What was the quote again? Let them eat cake?
The castle at Alubarna must have been built ages ago by Vivi's ancestors, most likely on slave labor practices.
"This is complicated…"
Crocodile was not the major threat. Even after Crocodile was stopped, Alabasta still possessed a grand host of problems that would not vanish simply once the rains returned. Granted, they would be able to feed their populace once more, and grease the gears of the workforce, but unless they were capable of outputting enough food such that the excess was being shipped off and sold at high profits to neighboring countries, I could not for the life of me see how Alabasta was financially stable.
The only possibility was that they had something of value that they were exporting that managed to bring in most of the country's profit. Gold? Iron? Silver? Diamonds?
"Mikita… what exactly is Alabasta famous for?"
"Major exports," I clarified. "What would you say, is the major reason someone would even bother coming here for tourism?"
Mikita pointed in a straight direction. I noticed it immediately. The men and merchants, holding little bags in their hands, and pressing on a tiny valve that sprayed unto a passing customer. The customer would then complain, only to pause and sniff the air, and the merchant would begin his gambit.
"Perfumes." I said, disbelievingly. "…Perfumes… really?"
Using 4X logic, perfumes would be classified as a luxury item. Yet, at the same time, I could see it. There was a grossly disproportionate amount of wealth available in the One Piece world, and if Alabasta generated enough goodwill to be known as a country with top perfume makers, those who catered to the rich and powerful would buy wholesale from Alabasta, and ship to other kingdoms to sell at exorbitant retail prices.
It also recently occurred to me that Alabasta was a member of the World Government, and as such, there were most likely additional incentives, subsidies, and plans put in place to ensure that the nation did not sink into debt. They didn't help too much or too little, just enough to ensure the country didn't sink, but not so much as to make it flourish.
"You've been making a really constipated expression for the past few minutes."
I let most of my thoughts banish from my mind, before shaking my head. "There are several ways to cripple or topple a country. Brute force is often the most difficult, not the easiest. Cutting off trade routes, sabotaging major exports and production, and preventing tourist interest can a more powerful impact than a bomb placed at the center square."
"We're here to take down Alabasta?"
"We're here to take down Baroque Works, but after that, we're here to bully Alabasta until they concede a fortune to us." I clarified. "We can do that either by kidnapping their royalty and holding them ransom, holding an entire city ransom, or costing them massive financial and diplomatic losses until they either cave to our demands, or attempt to dissuade us with force… in which case, we escalate the situation by doing the aforementioned city-ransom holding."
The Lady Seven was giving priority docking, due to the fact that it was, or appeared to be, a Marine vessel. Along the shoreline I caught glimpses of other ships, but there were no other visible marine vessels, nor did I see anything resembling the Going Merry.
Smoker isn't here yet. Neither are the Straw Hats.
The absence of the show's "protagonists" was perfect. Crocodile's operation was most likely still going on in full swing, and he was most likely not expecting me to appear and throw a wrench in his plans.
There was no reason to go about things with brute force. There was no reason at all. No, there was the perfect way to go about doing things that would, if I was correct, completely change the stakes and the board game.
"Alright Devil Pirates, we have a city to conquer."
Port Town of Nanoha
V is weird, Marianne felt. Making her way down the streets of Nanoha, idly sketching a new image on her sketchbook, she let her thoughts wander. V is soft. A bit too soft, she felt. He was a bleeding heart, which was strange to see in pirates these days. Normally when she told people how she became a pirate, they responded with a shrug, a dull look, or, like that one time with Big Pinky Joe, they offered her some alcohol and told her to down her troubles.
V had done none of that though. He seemed bothered. It was weird. He was weird. Marianne didn't bother questioning his weirdness too much. If anything, she was glad that he was so contradictory. He gave her whatever she asked for, he didn't demand things excessively of her, and he was interested in helping her develop her abilities.
A few months ago, before Mr. 3 died, she'd required symbols to be able to use her Color Trap. Ultra-specific symbols which needed to be drawn in a particular way for it to work. That changed in the weeks she spent on the island, evading giants and man-eating dinosaurs. Dinosaurs wouldn't wait for her to draw one particular symbol before they lunged. Giants wouldn't wait for that either.
Learning how to simply use the colors rather than the symbols to implant suggestive messages within the heads of man and beast alike had taken hard work. Now, so long as she had her paint, and so long as she painted the right color, the effects would always work on those who were susceptible to it.
V said that she could go further.
V believed she could do more.
Your gift, he'd say, is something out of this world.
Unlike most words of encouragement, she'd received which she could tell was empty praise, whenever V said them, she knew he was saying the truth. Then, there was the sheer amount of training he'd made her go through.
V said, if she learned how to use her powers truly effectively, there was essentially no battle in the world she could not overcome. There would be no enemy she could not defeat.
V is weird.
Marianne slung open the bar door, Oasis Drinks, and continued onwards, ignoring the silence. The stares were plentiful, the lecherous gazes were more than she was accustomed to, though she knew it was because she'd stolen some of Mikita's clothing again. She took a seat at the front of the bar, emerging out her sketch pad, and scribbling something on it immediately.
The Bartender's gaze glanced to the sketchpad, and then to her face. She quirked an eyebrow. The rough, thuggish looking man had his expression turn into a sneer.
"Anyone can come into here claiming to be anyone," his chaffed lips opened, spittle splashed against her sketchbook. "Where's your partner?"
Patiently, she flipped another page, and scribbled again. The Bartender glanced it over, and scoffed loudly. "Of course. He's just so fortunately not alive to corroborate your story." He crossed his arms. "Listen missy, I don't know who you think you are, but walking in here and making such a bold claim –"
"Hey, Handel, what's the problem?"
Handel, pointed straight at her. "This little bitch is the problem. She says she's one of us," he exclaimed. He turned back to frown at her. "No, she's claiming to be above us. An Officer Agent, she says."
Oasis Drinks located in the heart of Nanoha was another secret hub for the members of Baroque Works. She'd never visited the place personally, but she did know about it from her former partner. Mr. 3 had been extremely judicious and meticulous in documenting every major link and connection of the Baroque Works organization.
"An officer agent?" a man barked a laugh. Other men in the bar chuckled together. "This brat?"
Handel leered at her sketchbook. "She claims she's someone called… Miss Goldenweek."
Sound seemed to withdraw from the bar immediately. She knew from the second she entered, every scarred-face, thuggish looking chap sitting in the bar was a member of the Millions. Some of them didn't even bother to hide their tattoos, and those who did, sat accompanying those who couldn't care less.
"Hey," one man whispered. "Miss Goldenweek… isn't that… the partner of – "
"I mean, she could be… but… how do we know she's real?"
"What are you all whispering about for?" Handel shouted. "You guys really think this tiny little girl is somehow an officer agent? And you call yourselves men?"
The burly man scoffed. "As if I'm supposed to believe that. If she's an Officer Agent, I'll eat my fucking shoe."
The doubt began to seep in. She watched the others, roused by Handel's words, begin to question the veracity of her claim. Not that she blamed them, from the start, even when she accompanied Mr. 3, people hardly believed she was a member of Baroque Works. For a long time, she'd lacked any true offensive capabilities of her own, and thus, despite being an Officer Agent, she'd been far weaker than members of the Billions and the Millions.
Marianne pressed her lips tightly together. V said this would happen. Some men were drawing their weapons. Others were rising from their feet with less than savory intentions in mind. With a flick, she emerged a brush. With another flick, she emerged an easel filled with paint.
The hesitation of the men vanished, and the room erupted in laughter. "Paint! She's got a paintbrush!"
"What are you going to do to us little girl, paint our nails?"
She dipped the brush into the black paint, and then the red paint. With a swirl and flourish, she slapped the dark red paint across the chest of man jerked back and swore. "You little shit, I'll – "
A fist slammed directly into his nose. The bar went quiet. Handel rose, roaring in pain. "Who the fuck –"
Another fist slammed into his face again. He crashed down over the bar. He opened his lips, only for a right hook to crash against his mouth, teeth and blood splattering unto the floor. Another fist crushed his jaw. One smacked against his nose a second time and shattered it.
The only sound which could be heard in the bar was that of a fist smacking against skin. The squelching sound of wet, bloodied hands crashing against flesh. Barely a minute passed before Handel started whimpering. He never got the chance to beg. Each time he opened his lips, a fist connected against his face. Each time he made a sound, a sickening squelching blow would rattle his brain.
No one could make sense of what happened, least of all Handel, who, after the blows had stopped, found himself holding his shoe with his bloodied, broken knuckles, and shoving it forcefully down his throat.
A wide berth emerged as everyone backed away from Handel, the man forcefully choking himself on his own shoe, and Marianne, the girl sitting with her legs crossed, staring blandly, and twirling a paintbrush in her hand.
It took longer than expected, but he did, succeed, in shoving his shoe down his throat. He wasn't able to swallow it all the way however, his grunting, gasping noises slashing through the silence of the bar for several long seconds before he went still.
The remaining men backed away even further, pressing themselves against walls, falling pitchers and trying their hardest to become inconspicuous. Marianne pressed her lips together. She hadn't understood, at first, why V had sent her on this mission, but she did admit, she was beginning to. It was strange, odd, in fact, seeing fully grown men, muscle-bound and hardened, stumbling backwards away from her with fear in their eyes.
There was fear in their eyes. She'd never seen it as clearly or as sharply as she was seeing it now. Never encapsulated the emotion of human terror so pristinely. As an artist, she felt as though her eyes were merely opening for the first time. The colors were vivid, brighter than anything she'd possessed on her easel. The scents and sounds made the entire moment register in her brain on a deep, intrinsic level.
The primality of emotion which she felt incapable of capturing in her colors lay bare before her.
Fervor-like inspiration took over. She moved to her sketchbook, ignoring the flinching men, and with haste, she began to paint. Trace, to capture the moment as it was, fresh and wild before it was diluted by other thoughts or sensations.
Her wrists flicked across parchment at a speed she did not know realize possible. Her eyes locked on to the scene, taking raw the colors of what she understood to be terror and fear, and slapping them unto paper.
This… is art.
She'd never understood Mr. 3's obsession with his art until now. She'd seen him, countless times, turn living human beings into wax statues, immortalizing them in their ultimate poses where they would remain forever. He'd always been picky about making sure that their poses encapsulated the rawness of human emotion, and all the while, Marianne had seen it as a mere odd quirk.
Now, she understood what drove him. She missed him. Missed that it was too late for her to tell him, that she finally understood his fervor; she understood his art.
"Um… M-M-Miss Goldenweek, sir – I mean, ma'am –"
She turned a fierce glare on the man who interrupted her. He flinched backwards. Sweat dripped from his brow even in the cold evening, and he backed away immediately.
She huffed a breath, and returned to her sketch.
The men returned, as inconspicuously as they could, to their seats. No one dared touch Handel's body. No one dared move towards the door. All the while, Miss Goldenweek hummed a satisfied tune as she prepared what would be her latest masterpiece.
She was satisfied with the image. Satisfied, somewhat. The painting was as realistic as it could be, but it was missing something. There was something missing from the art that could not be expressed. The two-dimensional limitations of her art prevented it from emanating the emotional impact she wanted – the emotional impact she desired.
She turned her gaze upwards back to the bar.
The answer was right in front of her.
Mr. 3 always said, art requires sacrifice.
And she was sure V wouldn't really mind if she had some fun experimenting with the few tricks he taught her. She swirled her brush into paint again,Uragiri no Kuro (Black of Betrayal) and then theTogyu no Aka (Red of Bullfighting). Two of her base colors which combined, to create Jiko Hakai no Ketsueki(Blood Red of Self-Destruction.)
She glanced around the room filled with Baroque Works minions, closing one eye and gesturing out with her thumb and paintbrush. The perfect angle…
"Miss Goldenweek-sama, ma'am –"
"Please, wait, we – we're all Baroque Works! We – we're sorry we insulted you –"
She tilted her head. They were sorry? Marianne shrugged. This had nothing to do with that. She was used to it. This was different. She was an artist, and they were going to be her art. If she didn't use them for her art, V would use them for his.
And as much as she enjoyed V, he was a rather terrible artist.
Port-Town of Nanoha
V and Miki were already waiting for her. V was wearing his usual overcoat, because he didn't seem to care much for the desert cold or heat. Mikita was wearing lighter clothes, traditional Alabastan wears. They also brought along Hina-chan, who was wearing pretty much the same thing, and held back by a chain leash in V's hands.
"Did you have fun?" was the first thing that escaped his lips.
She nodded, albeit slowly. 'I got to make a lot of art.'
He approached her, his warm hands patting her head. He smelt of cigarettes and thick, richly roasted pork. She glanced at him, questioningly.
"I had fun too," he said, cheekily. "Lots of fun."
He cleared his throat. "Anyway," he jerked the chain he was holding, "Hina-chan, if you would please."
The ex-Marine captain obeyed, slamming her hands together and creating a large, contained, cage-like structure. The black dome was large enough for about three people, and there were two windows attached to the sides. The bottom of the dome was a flat, large piece of black iron, attached to round black loops with black chains running across them.
"Is that… a carriage?" Mikita turned to V. "We're traversing the desert… in that?"
"Yes," he sounded amused. "Hina's devil fruit is particularly useful… for those with sufficient imagination anyway."
"It looks like a giant witch pot turned upside down... with holes and wheels slapped to the side."
"Glad to know all my explosions haven't damaged your 20-20 vision."
Mikita crossed her arms. "In case you've forgotten, the rest of us aren't immune to heat Captain. We'll roast in there once the sun comes up."
"Objects created by the Ori Ori no Mi are poor conductors of heat. It isn't like any metal in the world because it isn't really a metal." V clapped. "Now, in you go. Besides, if we're fast enough, I believe we'll be able to get to Alubarna before the sun comes up."
The Captain of the Devil Pirates gave one of his increasingly bloodthirsty grins. "And that is where all the fun is going to begin."
Stealth missions were not my preferred method of approach. High in the sky, the desert chill was biting. Manipulating a dome of soundproof waves to keep our descent silent was difficult. Even more so with a girl strapped unto my back, and another, clad in black, staring at me with amusement.
The destination came in view as we broke through the clouds. Unlike the city of Nanoha which had possessed Egyptian styled architecture, the grand palace below us was something that would not have been out of place in a Middle-Eastern, perhaps Iraqi setting. My knowledge on those topics being limited, my focus strayed towards a sustainable landing strategy.
My 'landing strategy' trailed behind me as the palace began to sharpen in view. A thousand feet, nine hundred, five, three, two –
Mikita jerked me upwards, floating in the air seconds before Marianne and I made impact with the ground. I gestured with my two fingers, and silenced my steps completely. Mikita floated beside me, having no steps requiring silencing. Her Devil Fruit was more suited to stealth and assassination than mine by far.
We landed in the middle of a flourishing garden. My brows rose at the collection of flowers, vibrant, lively, despite the arid nature of the country in question. Closing my eyes, I focused on my hearing, on the sound-waves I could pick up, the footsteps, the heat signatures, the heartbeats – all the signs of life I could detect from our landing position onwards.
The information pumped its way into my brain in a combination of thermal imagery and sonar data. I could tell that the two guards positioned at the doorway leading out of the gardens were relaxed, with one nearly dozing off. I could detect what routes the guards in the main hallway were following, how quickly they were moving from the vibrations in their footsteps, and gleam what path they were likely to follow. I knew immediately that most of the palace workers were asleep in their beds, and the kitchen area was all but deserted.
And I could tell what area was reserved for royalty, simply from the grandiosity of space, the prevalence of more active, alert guards and mobile guards, and the rigidity and inflexibility of their patrols.
I mentally mapped out the shortest route from our current location to our destination, and realized it would unfortunately put us in the path of several palace guards. Fortunately, I'd already thought about a work-around.
I flicked two fingers to the side, gesturing at Mikita. Marianne stayed firm on my back, and I circled one finger up and down, wordlessly giving her the needed instructions.
The mission was a go.
We marched like a shadow and a specter, moving out of the gardens into a large open hallway. A sleepy-eyed guard spotted us, opening his mouth to cry an alarm. His words died in his throat as Marianne lobbed a pellet of black paint down his mouth. His partner standing beside him was unable to make a sound before his head lopped off his shoulders, decapitated by his own comrade.
I touched the body and the head, muffling the sound, and letting rip my explosion. The soundless explosions ripped through the area with a small pressure of breeze that would easily be mistaken for the desert winds. The evidence vanished, and the mind-controlled guard merely saluted us as we made our way out of the garden and into the halls.
Soundlessly, our ascent up the Palace continued in the manner of elimination or conversion. Any opponent that Marianne could not hit with her paint fast enough, was eliminated by Mikita floating above and behind them, slamming two fingers into the back of their heads to rip out their tongues. It was somewhat noisier than I liked. It forced me to move quickly and disintegrate their bodies to ash with a silent explosion before anyone could question the gurgling.
Ultimately, the guards were ill-equipped for the combined teamwork of the Devil Pirates. I honestly believed there were truly few individuals who were well equipped enough to handle the three of us as we were.
Within five minutes since landing, we'd made our way from the center garden to the outskirts of the bed-chambers. Two guards stood at the end of a long, large corridor, guarding a door that held our target. Normally, it would be impossible for us to eliminate them without alerting everyone within the bedchambers that there was a threat present.
However, there was one caveat:
The universal transmission rate for human speech was somewhere at about thirty-nine bits per second. Most people speak at an average speed of four to five syllables per second. Most words are two to three syllables long, meaning that the average person speaks approximately a hundred to one-thirty words per minute. Roughly two-point-five words a second if I was being generous.
Words such as "Al-Arm" or "In-Tru-Der" were multisyllabic, and could be said in a single breath. However, there was a delay in human reaction speed that was finite. Individuals needed time for their brain to process a threat, analyze the threat, and then call attention to the threat in a way that was universally understood.
Accounting for all this, I estimated, it takes nearly one point three five seconds.
The clock started ticking the second we entered their field of vision.
0.10 seconds – the guards' eyes traced movement approaching via their peripheral vision.
0.33 seconds – neurons fired. The sympathetic nervous system sent out impulses to glands and smooth muscles and roars at the adrenal medulla to release adrenaline into the bloodstream. Their hands painstakingly moved over to the sheathes of their weapons.
0.52 seconds – their lips opened, air swelled into their lungs, larynx's vibrated in preparation for the displacement of air that would follow the announcement of a phoneme.
1.02 seconds – Mikita drew the blade of the left man in a reverse grip, swinging it in a wide, sweeping motion with the accumulated momentum of her initial burst of speed.
1.23 seconds – Two decapitated heads entered my palm, flash burning in a silent, superheated spark of blue flame that left powdered ash in my fingertips.
1.45 seconds – I caught two falling headless bodies, detonating the carbon-based matter on a cellular level with silent explosions.
2.00 seconds – ashen remains dusted off the tips of my finger nails.
The unsteady thrums of my heart were still loud, even after we'd completed the feat. I glanced at Mikita. Mikita grinned. I grinned back. Marianne squeezed me tighter. The blood pumping in my own body never sounded clearer.
Taking a deep breath to collect myself, we turned to the door as one, and with a light, push – we opened it to find our prize.
Truly, it was a chamber worthy of a King. Vast, elegant, with a fitting portrait of a woman with blue hair, but older, kept in the center of the room. There was both a bear-rug and a chandelier, as if the interior designer had given the instructions 'lavish and extravagant' and no limitations in budget.
The old man snored in his sleep, clad in pajamas that were unbefitting and heavily clashing with the rest of the opulence surrounding his room. The bed was large enough to possibly fit five, maybe six people all at once, yet one man lay on it, sole and quiet.
He slept rather well for a man whose kingdom was in ruins, and who's daughter was supposedly missing.
I made a gesture. Marianne hopped off my back, finally, and shut the door as she did so. With everything set, I turned to Mikita, and nodded twice.
She floated directly over the King, and with a large heavy slap – she drew him to reality.
"Wake up, your royal highness!"
"Wha – what – what's going on? Who are you? Guards! Gua –"
She dragged the King off the bed. He fell, literally on his fours beneath my feet. A King, a literal King, lay at my feet, and the urge to laugh almost escaped me. Almost.
"Hold him down."
"What are you doing? Get off me! Guards!"
"Nobody can hear you," I said. "I created a vacuum in this room that prevents sound from escaping. Cry and shout and scream all you want, and all you'll be doing is wasting your breath."
Cobra glanced up at me, a defiant scowl on his face. "What is it that you want? Gold? Treasure?"
"Something more," I said, shrugging. Mikita pinned him to the floor, and Marianne emerged her paint and tattoo set.
"What – what are you doing?"
"A long time ago," I said to the King. "I read a book. A book about man's existence and struggle for meaning. In that book, there was a quote that stuck with me."
Marianne prepared her tattoo set, priming it with her special ink. King Cobra's eyes glanced at it, confused and unknowledgeable as he was as to what was about to happen, he knew it could not be good.
"Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's way."
A soft, dawning realization appeared on the King's face.
"Unfortunately, your highness, as it turns out, even that can be taken."
"Wait, stop – stop this, please we can negotiate –"
I patted the King on his head like I would pet a stray, pitiable dog.
"Don't worry. I'll be sure to take good care of Vivi for you."
I turned around, and clapped my hands.
"Mari-chan… relieve the King of his burdens."
The screams of a defiant monarch cried out that night –
And the only ones who heard it, where those who would shape his legacy.