CAT'S CLAW

CHAPTER SEVEN

Colonel Smoker billowed, shifting from side to side in what Tashigi recognised as one of his regular strategies -- spread out wide enough to either side of the target that they couldn't keep a full watch on what he was doing, then come round from behind. Her sword pressed deeper into Bonney's bare throat, drawing a trickle of blood. "Tell him to stay where he is," she snapped. "Order him!"

"Stay where you are!" Bonney gasped. She must have a higher opinion of Tashigi's ruthlessness than Tashigi herself did. "Hold position! And hold your captive too!"

"Release Captain Kuro," Tashigi snarled, "or I'll slit your throat here and now!"

"Steady now, Claw," Kuro said. He managed to sound the calmest all of them, even though he was hanging hostage by wrists and neck several feet off the ground. "I wouldn't provoke her if I were you, Madam Bonney. She's the unstable type."

Tashigi growled, and hoped she sounded like a homicidal lunatic.

Bonney bit her lip. "We're at a standoff," she said. "Now if perhaps both sides let go of their hostages and back away --"

"And you have everyone kill us," Kuro pointed out.

"I'm prepared to let you go alive," Bonney said. "I'm not interested in killing you just for the sake of it. I'm not one of the lunatic morons. I want to stay alive and in command. I'm sure you want the same. I don't mind you taking your ship and getting out of here . . ."

"And we need to do it soon, Captain," Tashigi broke in. She had to find a way of telling Kuro that the Straw Hats were incoming without alerting the others, if they didn't know yet. "Those people -- the ones you ran into before --" She was fairly sure that he'd guess who she was talking about. It wasn't as if she knew that much of his history. "They're coming in, they must be after us . . ."

Kuro's eyes narrowed behind his glasses. "Well, that gives me a motive for getting out of here fast, Madam Bonney. The question is, can you trust us to let you go without any trouble?"

Tashigi couldn't see Bonney's face, but she suspected the woman was thinking as fast as she could. "Let's compromise," she said. "I'll have the Colonel let you down and stay here. You two can walk with me to the entrance of this place. Then we'll separate at the main door and you can take yourself down to the quay and your ship and out of my life."

It was an obvious trap. It was so obviously a trap it should have PIRATES THIS WAY FOR TRAP written on the side. It was insanely, ridiculously, blatantly a trap.

"Very well," Kuro said. "You have a deal."

"Release him," Bonney ordered Colonel Smoker.

Smoker's coils of smoke faded, pulling back into his natural form as he rematerialised a couple of steps behind Kuro.

Kuro landed on the floor on the balls of his feet, smooth and steady, without even letting his blades rasp against each other. "Adjust your sword, Claw," he said, "and move it to behind Madam Bonney so that she can walk more comfortably. We're leaving."

--

Tashigi occupied those parts of her mind not focussed on holding her blade steady with trying to work out where the ambush would come. It took her by surprise when Bonney paused next to one door.

"May we go in here a moment?" she asked. "No tricks, no traps, I just need another cigarette."

Kuro flicked a brief glance at Tashigi, then shrugged when she had no comments to offer other than a generalised stare of blank warning. "Be my guest," he said.

Tashigi was half a pace behind Bonney as she opened the door and stepped inside. The interior of the room hit her like a rainbow in bad taste, with swirls of horrible colour everywhere. There was nowhere for her to look. Even the floor and ceiling were painted. The patterns made sense, though, and if she could just look at them a moment longer --

Kuro slapped her hard across the back of her head. Her glasses flew off, reducing the paintings to incomprehensible blobs of violent clashing colour, and she went down on her knees, barely keeping hold of her sword. She was conscious of Kuro stepping across her, kicking the door shut behind him.

"Really," Bonney said. She was sounding more confident now. "You may have been able to resist me elsewhere, Captain Kuro, but I don't think that you'll be able to do so here. Even with your glasses on. Your bodyguard's already kneeling to me."

"You may underestimate me," Kuro said. His voice was as prim as a schoolteacher's, hardly threatening at all. "But I'll make a guess. These paintings of yours -- I suspect they work on the natural hierarchy instinct that so many humans have. They simply convince the person who sees them that you are somewhere superior in their hierarchy, whatever the hierarchy is, and they fill in the mental details themselves."

"You're surprisingly well-informed," Bonney said, a thread of uncertainty in her voice. Her footsteps moved to Tashigi's right. Some instinct kept Tashigi on her knees, feigning confusion and obedience. "But you did have a hypnotist in your crew, didn't you? That Jango fellow."

"I like to stay informed about what my underlings can do," Kuro said blandly. "It makes unpleasantness that much less possible."

Bonney paused. "You've got your eyes shut, haven't you."

"Don't think that means I can't kill you."

"I wouldn't dream of it."

This was all playing for time. Tashigi knew it in her bones. Any moment now, Colonel Smoker or someone else would enter, and Kuro's only defence would be to try to slaughter everything in the room without opening his eyes, and even if Bonney was dead at the end of it . . . well, that was achieving the mission objective in a way, but the collateral was painfully high. (And if it was Colonel Smoker who came in under Bonney's orders, then both she and Kuro were dead in any case.)

Bonney moved again. Her high heels scraped on the floor. Tashigi flung herself towards her in a low tackle, grabbing for the other woman's knees, and heard her yelp as they went down together.

They rolled across the floor, with Bonney thrashing and kicking, and Tashigi trying to work high enough up her body to thump her somewhere painful. Bonney slid a knife into her hand -- probably from her sleeve, Tashigi couldn't see and was too busy trying to stop Bonney cutting her throat with it. She jammed her own elbow into Bonney's stomach, grabbed the other woman's wrist while she was gasping, rolled three times over and onto Kuro's foot, was kicked off it, landed under Bonney and felt Bonney's blade go into her shoulder, headbutted the other woman in the face, finally got on top of her, and slammed her head into the floor till she stopped moving.

"Who won?" Kuro asked mildly.

"Me," Tashigi said, looking around and trying to see her glasses, "sir. She's out for the moment. Do we just leave?"

"Of course not," Kuro said. He took a step backwards, still not opening his eyes, and shut the door, then groped around till he found the latch and locked it. "We take advantage of the situation."

Well. He was the famous Captain Kuro of a Thousand Plans. He must know what he was doing.

"You see, Claw," Kuro said conversationally, "like all good plans, Bonney's scheme relied on a very simple basic concept."

Tashigi managed to find her glasses. She held them in one hand, not wanting to put them on again while she was still in the room. "What's that, sir?"

"Think," Kuro said. "Her paintings caused everyone to obey her -- agreed?"

Tashigi nodded, then realising he couldn't see her, said, "Yes, sir. She confirmed that just now."

"Exactly," Kuro said. "But, and this is the pretty point of the whole scheme, and at the same time its main flaw -- how did they know whom to obey?"

Tashigi frowned. "Well, I suppose the paintings must have made them feel obedient . . . no, wait, that wouldn't work. They'd just have obeyed anyone if they were obeying people."

"Precisely," Kuro said. He adjusted his glasses. "So, the paintings made them obey her. So there's something in the paintings keyed to her specifically. And what was the first thing she said to us?"

Bonney. Call me Bonney.

Tashigi could feel her mouth sagging open into Gawp Position (as so often demonstrated by Straw Hat Luffy). "Wait a moment," she said. "You mean that the paintings are simply to make people obey someone called Bonney?"

Kuro smiled thinly. "Positively blinding in its simplicity, isn't it?"

"But that would never . . ." Tashigi broke off. "But what if someone else said they were Bonney?"

"Why should they?" Kuro pointed out.

"But that's so obvious."

Kuro gave a still-eyes-shut look in her direction which suggested very clearly that Tashigi herself had not thought of it.

"But --" Tashigi stopped. "But what do we do now?"

"Well," Kuro said. "There is one obvious solution at hand. Bonney will simply have to resolve matters."

Tashigi looked down at the unconscious woman. "But she'll never --"

"No, no, Claw. You fail to understand. As usual," Kuro added. "I am not saying Bonney will resolve matters. I am saying that 'Bonney' will resolve matters."

Understanding broke over Tashigi with the remorseless horror of a tidal wave and a Sea King attacking during a shipwreck in the middle of a whirlpool. "Oh no," she said thinly.

"Oh yes," Kuro said. "Hurry up. We've probably got a minute to make preparations."

--

Tashigi stepped nervously through the door. The corridor outside was crowded; there was Colonel Smoker, a group of Marines, a number of pirates carrying a battering ram, and they all had swords. Except for Colonel Smoker. Who didn't need one because he could kill her anyhow. Even without her glasses on she could make out the blurred outlines of intense and present menace.

She was wearing Bonney's jacket and boots, and had pushed Bonney's glasses up into her hairline; her Kuro-crew ears were tucked into a pocket. Her head felt oddly naked without them.

There was a growl from the gathered mob. Colonel Smoker lifted his huge jitte from his back and pointed it at her.

"Hello," she said in a little squeak. "I'm Bonney."

The words hung on the air as the growl died away into silence. The mob looked at each other, confused. Colonel Smoker leaned forward, studying her, and suddenly frowned. "Tashigi? What the hell do you think you're doing here, when I left you on orders --"

One of the pirates said, "Wait a moment. If she's Tashigi she can't be Bonney."

"I'm the other Bonney," Tashigi said hastily.

Another long pause.

Then, miraculously, blessedly, in a way that she would remember afterwards in near-disaster nightmares for the next few years, the crowd began to nod, looking at each other in an accepting sort of way. She could even hear someone at the back saying that of course it must be the other Bonney, right?

Tashigi clenched her fists behind her back till the bones of her hands creaked, and looked Colonel Smoker in the (very blurred) eyes. "Two orders. First, I want signals hung on the main tower and at the port to keep ships away for the next few days. Say we've had a breakout of something contagious. Second --"

"Second?" Colonel Smoker rumbled.

"Second," Tashigi said, "I want this whole place whitewashed."

--

When the mob was gone, she opened the door again. Kuro stepped outside, an unconscious and tied Bonney over one shoulder, and opened his eyes. "That's better," he said.

"It actually worked," Tashigi said. She felt weak at the knees with relief -- except, of course, that Marines didn't go weak at the knees with relief. It must be that damaged knee again. That'd explain it.

"What now, Claw?" He seemed honestly curious.

Tashigi tugged at the shoulders on the jacket. It was a fraction too small. She pulled her glasses back down so that she could see him clearly. "Well, sir," she said, "I suppose you're wondering if I'm going to break my word and try to arrest you."

"Pretty much," Kuro acknowledged. He dropped Bonney at his feet. "Does a Marine's word mean anything to a pirate?"

Tashigi sighed. "You'd look down on me if I said it did, Captain Kuro. And you'd be wondering at the same time just how soon I planned to betray you."

"My, my. You have learned something. Apparently even Marines can be taught." He shifted position, rocking from one foot to the other. "And?"

Tashigi swallowed down bitterness. Even Colonel Smoker wouldn't pick a fight where there was no way that he could win. Sometimes there was nothing more that one could do than back down, wait, get stronger, and try again. "And my mission was to capture Bonney. Not you. We both know that I'd like to bring you in, Captain Kuro. But right at this precise moment, we both know that I can't win. And at this precise moment -- if you leave, then you walk out safely, you get the rest of the pay, and Colonel Hina wipes your record, and neither of us actually loses."

Kuro's face was impassive. "I don't think I want you on my ship, Claw. I don't approve of my crew being too intelligent."

Tashigi saluted. "Regretfully I offer my resignation, Captain Kuro."

He thought about that. "Let's say . . . that I might owe you something for saving my life. And just this once, I'll break my rule about killing everyone who knows where I am or what I'm up to."

"I'll remember to save your life again if I need anything from you," Tashigi snapped.

"If we're both lucky, that'll never happen," Kuro said. He kicked Bonney towards Tashigi. "Here's your prize, Lieutenant Tashigi. I'm sure the Marine High Command will find something to do with her."

"Lock her up, of course!" Tashigi said.

Kuro sneered. "You may be a little more intelligent, but you're still naive. Far too naive for my crew. Goodbye, Lieutenant Tashigi."

"Goodbye," she said. "Captain Kuro."

"Keep the ears." He turned his back on her, and walked away down the corridor, blades fanning out in his wake like steel ripples.

--

Three days later, after the brainwashing and the shouting and the embarrassment and the threats and the wholesale justice were mostly over, Tashigi looked out at evening from the window over the darkened port below. Kuro's ship was long gone. The Straw Hats had never made it in; they must have believed the disease flags and sheered off well short of land. She tried not to feel too glad about it. They were pirates; it was her job to arrest them.

One cigar at a time, Colonel Smoker often said (before lighting two up). Perhaps she should try to look at it that way. Succeed in one thing at a time, then go on to the next one. She'd saved Colonel Smoker and the whole outpost, she'd captured Bonney . . . and she'd let Captain Kuro get away. Had Colonel Hina really expected her to be able to keep him a prisoner once it was over?

She fingered the cat ears in her pocket.

"Tashigi!" Colonel Smoker snapped from two inches behind her. She lifted off the ground with the force of coming to attention, nearly fell out of the window, caught herself mid-tumble, and managed to brace herself on the frame. "What do you think you're doing, lieutenant?"

"Checking the ships, sir!" she reported. "All as it should be!"

"Good." He bent to peer over her shoulder. "We can be heading out again tomorrow. Good thing, too. This place stinks of paint."

Tashigi was about to nod, when the anomalous word caught her attention. "Heading out, Colonel?" she inquired.

"Well, of course we're heading out!" He glared at her. "There are pirates out there, lieutenant! There's a job for the Marines to be doing! Don't tell me you were expecting anything else?"

"I think Colonel Hina was expecting you back at base . . ." Tashigi said cautiously, measuring the growing shade of crimson on Colonel Smoker's forehead. "Of course, she hasn't got any orders to us here yet."

"I imagine they'll be here the day after tomorrow," Colonel Smoker grunted.

"Ah," Tashigi said. "Right. Yes, sir. We sail at dawn tomorrow, then?"

"If not sooner." He chewed on his cigars. "How are you doing otherwise, lieutenant?"

There were a lot of things that she could have said to that. She settled on, "Doing better, sir. Improving. Getting stronger."

He nodded. She saw the flash of approval in his eyes. "You keep on doing that, lieutenant. We've got some way to go yet." He clapped a hand on her shoulder. "Get some sleep."

Tashigi nodded. "Sir," she said, and turned away with a nod.

One cigar at a time. One blade at a time. One step at a time. A captain who wanted excellence and justice.

It might be naive, but she could believe in that.

But she'd keep the ears.

--