Indirectly inspired by a wonderful fanart here: umitsu.deviantart.com/gallery . The art is yaoi. The fic still isn't. I never claimed my subconscious was logical.
"Ah, hell," Zoro muttered, as he elbowed his way through the crowd. The people pressed around him were murmuring in anxious discontent, trying to peer over one another's shoulders and headdresses to whatever was in the center of the throng. Zoro didn't bother looking. He already knew what he was going to find. This was a peaceful island and they were the only pirate ship in the port, so it was pretty much inevitable that one of his crewmates had caused this.
Satva was an autumn island, currently at the end of its winter. For the past week of sailing there had been constant sleet which had kept them all crammed into the Going Merry's cabins, except for whichever unlucky soul had drawn watch. The wind had been against them the whole time, so the voyage had taken longer than expected as it were, and while they had been in no danger of exhausting their food supplies, the meat had run out some five days previous, so even Luffy had been in a bad mood. By the time they docked at Satva's major city, even Robin was showing signs of wear.
At the port they learned that the Log Pose would take sixty hours to reset, and no one had objected when Nami grabbed her rucksack, said, "I'll meet you back here in a couple days," and disappeared down the streets. Robin had agreed to watch the Going Merry, so Chopper and Usopp had left together for a shopping expedition, and Sanji had followed for his own supply restocking once he had made a list of necessary ingredients. Luffy had vanished to who knows where, and Zoro had decided to explore the rocky wilderness outside the city.
A couple days' mountain climbing in the cold fresh air was just what he needed to stretch his legs after those long days stuck in the cabin. He hadn't even been allowed sword practice, just because he had accidentally cut a few of Nami's bangs that she had apparently been trying to grow out. While the subsequent wrestling match with Sanji had been a little exercise, he needed to get back in shape.
However, the mountains, though visible throughout the city, proved harder to locate than he would have thought, thanks to the labyrinthine layout of the streets. The city was arranged around a central temple, a trio of gray granite towers jutting into the sky, and all roads lead there sooner or later. Mostly sooner. The eighth time in an hour that Zoro found himself before the carved archway of the main temple entrances, rather than the city gates he had been seeking, he began to get annoyed. So when he ran into the crowd on the other side of the temple, he was already impatient, and not as polite as he might have been shoving through the knot of disturbed people.
He was expecting to find Usopp and Chopper, since the reindeer tended to attract notice and Usopp wasn't quick to deny any kind of attention; or possibly Luffy, who could locate trouble absolutely anywhere, and Zoro doubted even this peaceful city was exempt. This was definitely trouble of some kind, given the uneasy temper of the crowd, and he dropped one hand to the hilts of his swords, readying himself, should captain or crew require him.
The crowd hastily parted at that gesture, and Zoro was surprised to see, backed against the low temple wall, Sanji's dark suit and blond hair. The cook was smoking, casually, but that particular relaxed poise meant he was bracing himself for something, and there were three men standing before him, temple priests from their fancy robes and hats, and mad as hell from their dark expressions. Sanji's gaze flicked past those men to Zoro and narrowed in irritation.
Zoro shrugged, began to turn away. Sanji could take care of himself. Whatever hot water he had landed in, he was a cook; he knew enough to get out before he boiled. And there didn't seem to be any women involved, which would be the only sticking point--
At which point he happened to make out, over the general murmur of the crowd, a few distinct words, to whit, "priestess," "defilement", and "execution".
"Hell," Zoro growled again under his breath, and turned back. Everyone obligingly shied away, so his voice carried over their whispers. "Need a hand, cook?"
Sanji shook his head. "Nah, it's all good."
"It is not good at all," contradicted the tallest of the priests before him, a great, grizzled man with a black beard, peppered with gray.
"No," Sanji said, looking back to him and flicking ash off his cigarette. "I got that, you damn priest. I already told you, I'll come." He pushed off the wall, waved in Zoro's direction as he started for the temple entrance, flanked by the priests. "Later."
Zoro intercepted them before they crossed into the gardens beyond the stone walls. "What's this about?"
The tall priest opened his mouth, but Sanji cut him off. "None of your damn business."
Implacable gray eyes studied Zoro from under the fancy brocade cap. "This man is your comrade?"
"Something like that," Sanji said. "He doesn't have anything to do with this, though."
"The sin was yours alone," agreed the priest.
"Yeah," Zoro said, "I'm sure it was. But this guy's our ship's cook, and our captain will be put out if he loses his head. What was that about an execution?" He studied the men around him. That one priest was big enough to put up a fight, but the other two were skinny fellows, and none of them had any obvious weapons. The crowd had drawn back, not wanting to get involved, and while there were a few more figures watching from inside the walls, whose less fancy robes probably indicated acolytes, he didn't see anyone who could give him or Sanji a challenge. His first assessment had been correct; the cook could handle this on his own, and probably with one leg tied up. But he was here already, might as well make sure.
Especially since Sanji wasn't really looking like he was preparing for a battle. Zoro drew enough of one katana that a few centimeters of polished steel gleamed. "What'd he do, anyway?"
The tall priest's face went a few shades darker, his lips compressing behind the beard.
"Forget it, Zoro." Sanji dropped his cigarette, crushed it under his heel and thrust his hands into his pockets. "It's not what you think. Just get on with whatever the hell you were doing." He strode past his crewmate, lazily slouched, expression hidden behind his blond hair. The tall priest nodded to Zoro, politely enough, and followed him into the gardens, heading down the pebbled path toward the temple towers.
No one made any move to prevent Zoro from following, even with his sword in his hand, and that surprised him enough that he stopped anyway. The two other priests had taken position on either side of the gate, like guards, though their expressions were too mild to be imposing. When he thought about it, Zoro recalled seeing others dressed like them by the other temple entrances, cheerfully greeting those who came by.
"Hey," he said, and both the men looked to him, their eyes dropping to his swords, then darting up to his face with a little self-conscious start, like kids chastised for staring.
"Yes, sir?" one said.
"Er," Zoro said, not quite sure how one was supposed to fight such etiquette. "That guy your boss just took." The older priest must rank higher; his round cap had more ornate decorations. "What was his, uh, sin?"
Both priests flushed, with anger or embarrassment, Zoro couldn't tell. "He..." one began, and couldn't get any further, but his fellow bravely took up the torch.
"He defiled the priestess," he said, tightly, and that was anger, unmistakably. "The maiden of this temple. He, a man, and unconsecrated, no less, touched her foully, and moreover before the eyes of others."
"There were more than a few who saw it, sir."
"No, no, I believe you. Dammit." Zoro brought up one hand to rub his forehead. He didn't have a headache yet, but he just knew there would be one waiting for him behind his lids when he closed his eyes. "That stupid Love Cook. Did he just propose to her, or did he go straight for the kiss--never mind. I don't want to know. What else did he do?"
"What more could he have done?" spat the man.
Zoro lowered his hand, eyed him. "Don't have much of an imagination, do you. Or you don't know Sanji. But that's all? He smooched your maiden, and now you're planning to chop off his head?"
Both the priests drew themselves up, offended. "What kind of barbarians do you take us for here?"
"Hanging, then? Or drowning? Little extreme, at any rate, killing a man for--"
"We are not murderers."
"Then what was that stuff about an execution?"
The priests' solemn faces were a poor match to their festively bright blue and gold robes. "It is necessary for justice, for the priestess to remain pure after such defilement. But the ceremony of the Seven Deaths is to cleanse, not kill."
"Seven Deaths?" Zoro repeated, then, "Ceremony? It's not a real execution, just something symbolic?"
"Exactly," the priests nodded.
"So you're gonna make him do something stupid, to make up for doing something stupid?" Which was apparently a poor way to put it, since they both looked affronted again. Zoro shrugged an apology, asked, "And they went off to do this now?"
"To start it now. The ceremony is three days in length."
"Ah." He craned his neck past the green and red of the flowering garden hedges. The temple's doors were open, but the hallway within was shadowed, and Sanji and the priest had disappeared further inside. "Any problems with me just going in to check on something with him?"
"If you wish, sir."
"Okay." He started through the gate, paused. "Hey, that big priest of yours, he seemed pretty pissed about this--"
"High Priest Orwalsh is a great man," the priest on the right pontificated in that same offended tone, and the one on the left added, "If he seemed distraught, it is because the priestess, our temple maiden, is his only daughter. That he should suffer such a--"
"Yeah," Zoro sighed, "I was afraid it was something like that." He strode through the gate.
The people in the gardens watched him pass with polite curiosity, and then he climbed the few hewn steps and entered the temple. The stone foyer, out of the wind, was warm and quiet, lit by a few crackling braziers of orange flame. It opened onto a circular room with a domed ceiling, a round window at the high peak letting in the light from the gray cloudy sky. The center was occupied by a large fountain, pure, warbling water spilling from three high spouts into a wide marble basin. Around the circumference were nooks with statues, garishly painted wood and plaster figures of humans and beasts and things in between.
There were more people here, acolytes and many dressed like the regular folk on the streets, walking the circle and sometimes pausing before some statue or other, but the way they pointed and whispered was more like visitors to a museum than devout worshippers.
"They're our old gods," someone said, and Zoro found an acolyte beside him, a plump blonde woman with a smile as soft as the rest of her. "We keep them here to remember, while bowing to another faith."
"Oh," said Zoro. "Know someone who might be interested in that, but I'm looking for someone else now. Blond guy, black suit, came in here with your high priest?"
The smile faded. "The sinner."
"They should be beginning the ceremony. I'll take you." She led him down a bewildering twisting of halls and up steps, every climb and turn of which made him slightly more apprehensive. A quick getaway under these circumstances would be difficult, if not completely impossible. He had no idea where the exit was. On the other hand, he had yet to see anyone who could give him much of a fight, and there were windows here and there.
Finally, at the end of a short hall up a curving flight of stairs, she pulled aside a silk screen, gestured him through the entryway and turned away. He listened to her footsteps retreat down the stairs--they were altogether too scarily trusting, here--and entered the room. It was some thirty paces in diameter, with a ceiling almost as high as the chamber was wide, and a thick woven rug covered the stone floor. Windows along the walls lead to a balcony overlooking the gardens and the city--this was in one of the towers, apparently, and they had climbed higher than he had guessed. The center of the room was dominated by a stone column big enough that five men with their arms outstretched might be able to ring it, carved with symbols and scenes and piercing up through the ceiling, with a cloth-covered bench running around it.
Sanji sat on the bench, slouching against the pillar with his hands still in his pockets. He glowered at Zoro. "I told you--"
"Yeah, yeah, I know. I heard about this ceremony thing. Thought I'd check it out." Zoro walked over to drop down on the bench next to him, leaned back and folded his arms. "Wouldn't want to miss anything too humiliating."
Sanji snorted. "Afraid what they've told me doesn't sound that entertaining," he said in a bored voice.
"Really? With a name like Six Deaths?"
"And three days of it, too. You sure you don't want to skip it?"
"We might leave without you, if the weather's good." Zoro looked around. "There's no one here now."
"The priest bastard'll be back in a bit. He's getting on his special robes or something."
"There's no one guarding the door. Hell, you're not even tied up."
"I told them I wouldn't run."
"Well, if you promised." Zoro got up again. "I'll just tell Nami you were cheating on her with a priestess--"
"You can't tell Nami-san that!" Sanji shrieked, in a tone very far from bored.
"Really, Love Cook, you gotta have better taste in women. Or at least better timing. In front of a whole crowd of witnesses?"
"It wasn't like that!" Sanji cried, and Zoro jumped back just in time to dodge the shoe speeding toward his head, hastily brought up a sheath to block the second whirling kick.
"If you want to explain personally, we could just--"
A polite cough behind them stopped Sanji's next kick and Zoro's answering sally. He let the scabbard fall while Sanji hopped back onto his feet, straightened up and adjusted his tie. "Sorry," the cook said. "This guy was just leaving."
"I see," replied the high priest. His outfit didn't look any different, from what Zoro could see, but he was holding a flask of blue crystal, the liquid inside glinting. "You may stay, if you wish."
"He's got things to do," Sanji said hastily.
"Ah, not that much," Zoro replied, smirking. "I've got time for a death or two."
"You've heard of the ceremony?" asked the priest.
The high priest nodded. "Second death begins now."
"Second? Aren't you missing one?"
Sanji, looking smug, held up his index finger. "Already started number one."
The high priest extended the crystal flask to him. "Drink," he commanded. "As much as you wish, all if you desire."
Taking the flask, Sanji nodded, put it to his lips and tipped his head back. The liquid inside sloshed as he gulped it down. Zoro, watching him chug, inquired, "What's in that?"
"Water," said the high priest.
The man's gray eyes watched the dance of light in the liquid shining through the crystal. "Second death. Death of the spirit. It is the last water he will drink."
"For three days?"
Sanji paused to take a breath, gulped the rest of the water, then handed back the emptied flask. "You've got good water here. That fresh, has to be melt-off from the mountains, right?"
The tall man nodded. "Drawn from the fountain in the towers' center, which runs from the mountain's stream. It is the ice goddess's milk."
"So what's next?"
"Tonight," the priest told him.
Unease prickled the back of Zoro's neck. This wasn't nearly as harsh as its name suggested, but..."What was first death?"
"Death of the flesh." The priest's sonorous baritone reverberated off the granite walls. "He has eaten; he will eat no more."
"Fresh peaches," Sanji confided. "Delicious, too. It's true that hunger is the best seasoning, but expectation of appetite works pretty well. As a cook I'm envious." He settled back on the bench, crossed his hands behind his head. "Tell everyone I'll be a little late, will you, Zoro? Give Nami-san my apologies. I'll meet you all in three days." He frowned. "And if you could keep Luffy out of the icebox, that'd be even better, but I guess even you aren't that strong."
"Who's not strong enough?"
"Hell, I can barely manage that!"
"He may stay, if he wishes," the priest said. "In this ceremony the sinner may have an attendant."
Sanji snorted, then batted his lashes. "Oh, Zoro, attend me!"
"I'll attend your--" Zoro started to growl.
"Another friend, then?" inquired the priest. "You may ask us to contact someone; it's your right, if there's someone you would wish to come."
"I'll be fine."
"What does an attendant do?" Zoro asked.
"Cater to my every whim."
"You would not be present for the deaths. Only afterwards. There would be no formal rites; it isn't a duty, but a service of companionship. And if he survives, you can bring him back to your ship and crew."
The prickles resolved into a freezing chill down his back. "What do you mean, survives? This is supposed to be just ceremonial."
"It is." The priest did not blink. "But the ceremonies can be fatal."
"Three days, Zoro," Sanji said, so coolly he might have been breathing that chill himself. "Just tell them I'll be running a little late."
Zoro didn't look at him. "I'll attend him," he said. "Be his attendant. Whatever."
"Dammit, this has nothing to do with you!"
The priest ignored Sanji's shout, and when he flipped himself off the bench to throw a kick at Zoro's head, the swordsman blocked it without breaking his gaze from the older man's gray focus.
He wasn't sure what the priest saw in his own eyes, but when the man at last nodded, Zoro saw he relaxed as well, his shoulders falling a little from their stiff decorum. "Very well, I'll tell the others. You may go where you will, but it would be best if you stayed within the temple grounds. You may sleep here, and take meals with us; anything else you require, ask." He glanced at Sanji. "As you already agreed, you aren't to leave this room, unless we've come for you."
"I know," Sanji grated, glaring hot enough that Zoro could feel the burn of both eyes, even hidden under the blond hair.
The high priest said nothing more, ceremonious or otherwise; he simply turned and walked out the door, sliding it shut behind him. Even if there had been a latch, which there wasn't, Sanji could kick through that silk like tissue paper. But he only took a seat on the bench again.
"You're serious about this," Zoro said.
Sanji didn't deign to reply.
Shaking his head, Zoro slid aside the door, jogged to catch up with the high priest halfway down the stairs. "Hey," he said. "What'd you threaten him with, to get him to agree to this?"
"There was no threat."
Zoro drew his white katana. "I mean it, old man. What the hell--"
"There was only one other way." The priest didn't even glance at the sword, looking past the blade to meet Zoro's eyes. There was no fear in his own, but something else. Maybe sorrow. "It wasn't my choice, that my daughter would be the priestess. It was her decision...to make me proud, I suppose. But she must be a maiden, pure of any man's touch, until the moon goddess chooses her. And there can be but one priestess.
"If that priestess is tainted, if she cannot hear the goddess, then we are lost. But once a maiden is made a priestess, that cannot be unmade, even if she is corrupted. Once a priestess's life is gifted to the goddess, there's only one way for her to be renounced, so another can be anointed. As I'm high priest, the duty would be mine...but...she is my daughter..."
"Only one way..." Zoro frowned. "You mean...you'd have to kill her?"
"It's the only way. Unless she can be purified, by the death of he who corrupted her. When that man--"
"The sinner, you mean?"
"When that man," the priest repeated, "when he heard this, he agreed, even before we told him what the ceremony entailed. He promised us he wouldn't run, and I saw he was a man to be trusted. So we won't lock him in any room, or bind him with anything but his word. But for me, I am grateful you came. Even if he must be called a sinner, one god at least must favor him, to bring you here. The Seven Deaths cannot be survived by a man alone..."
to be continued...