Chapter I

When the traveller swaggered into the bar, the first thing that ran through Lazue's mind revolved around the simple fact that the man owned one hell of an ugly hat. This was a prime example of a rather deplorable habit she'd developed over the years: picking out all the negative aspects of a person's appearance. She found it easier to later judge someone's character this way, no matter how shallow this habit made her out to be. She just found this habit absolutely vital to her success, as it assisted her greatly in dealing with men. Early on, from working long shifts in this tavern, she had learned how easily a sweet tongue on a man did a woman in, and she had developed this habit, this defence mechanism, to cope.

Being a female bartender had taught her not to be swayed by a man's charm, his clothing, or his degree of handsomeness. She learnt to steel herself against men, to act as cold and uninviting as she could, all in order to keep them from taking advantage of her as many often attempted to do. So far she was doing a damn fine job making sure customers paid their tab. One way or another.

Lazue noticed offhandedly that the man wasn't wearing much more than baggy shorts held in place by an oversized buckle and the ugly hat. She wished that her boss had put up a sign at the front of the tavern announcing that they wouldn't serve anyone without a shirt on their back. After all, more often than not a man without a shirt meant he was a poor vagabond unable to feed himself.

The man with the hat who slumped into one of the many empty stools at the bar appeared as though he hadn't a beli to his name.

"Can I get something to eat, please?" the traveller politely inquired, his face impassive and half-hidden under the brim of that ugly orange hat. Lazue continued to stare at that hat with its strange theatre faces sitting on the brim, noticing that it was made of material that had a slight shine to it, though it wasn't silk and it certainly was no metal alloy she knew of. The hat didn't look heavy nor did it look flimsy. It seemed instead like it was created to withstand a certain type of predicament. She hadn't the slightest clue what, but on the Grand Line anything and everything could happen. She had seen more than one strange traveller come through the tavern over the years.

"What do you want to eat?" Lazue asked gruffly. She hadn't the time to be fooling around when there were more lucrative customers to be served.

"Whatever you're serving. As long as it's a lot of food, I'll be happy," the stranger grunted, pulling his hat off his head to reveal dishevelled black locks that probably had never felt the pull of a brush through them. Once again, Lazue took in his appearance and came to the conclusion that the man was doubtlessly a drifter of sorts. Perhaps a travelling bard, judging by the theatrical smilies on his hat. Now he was asking for food, and a lot of it at that.

Her gaze swept across the room to her co-worker, a thick shouldered burly man with a face that resembled that of a pug's, squashed in and disproportioned. She caught his beady eyes and he shrugged passively, resuming his task of straightening up their liquor cabinet. She had a feeling that Tool would gladly place his hands around the vagabond's neck if Lazue found out the man was without coin.

So, she decided to serve him, despite having her reservations. She figured Tool would appreciate a midday brawl.

Lazue went around to the back room where the kitchen was found deserted. At this time of day, with the customer count at its lowest, their chef would surely be taking a smoking break out back. This was just fine with Lazue as she could see the chef had left a mess of leftovers in the kitchen for the taking. If the rogue hadn't a single beli then she wouldn't feel bad feeding him kitchen scraps only fit for consumption by animals. He looked like a mangy mutt anyhow.

However, she wagered to herself, if the man has enough money to pay for the food I'll make him up a meal to take on the road for free.

She didn't think she'd be making that package. Her premonitions were rarely wrong when it came to the tavern's customers.

She grabbed a dirty plate and quickly ran it under the stale water sitting in the sink, swishing it about until most of the solid particles broke free. Then she hastily dried the dish, reminding herself that she would be covering the plate anyway, and began searching the kitchen for the remnants of meals past served.

She scrounged up a great deal of things from plates that had been nibbled on naught an hour ago and pilled the assortment of meats and vegetables onto the single plate. Soon it was covered with a hodgepodge of ingredients and she heated the plate on a rack above the stove to finish it off. Then she grabbed a bowl from the overhead cupboards, this one clean, and emptied the remainder of the stew that was sitting in a cauldron simmering. It was probably ruined, having sat there unstirred for a few hours already, but she suspected a hungry man wouldn't notice the slightly charred flavour.

She snatched some spare cutlery off the counter and took the dishes out.

For eating the tavern's leftovers and reducing their garbage load for the day, Lazue brandished a tankard which she topped off with their strongest liquor, intending to give it to him for nothing. He would need it if he were to actually consume the food.

All the stranger said as she placed the meal in front of him was: "Thanks."

Lazue backed off, wondering if the vagabond would get sick and puke up all of his innards on the scuffed wooden floor. She kept watch on him from a distance as he stabbed fiercely at the food and more or less drank the scorching stew, despite the fact that the heat must have burned his tongue and scalded his throat.

Tool came up beside Lazue and nudged her silently, nodding that he would be out back collecting the garbage for disposal later. She wordlessly shrugged and continued to watch the customer she was sure would ask to use the toilet after finishing his grisly meal.

The man continued to eat with vigour. She pondered when he'd had his last meal. Then, with a tiny grunt, the man suddenly keeled over, his face splattering into the food she'd hastily prepared.

Oh shit, she thought with mounting horror. Iā€¦hoped he had a stronger stomach than that. How am I going to explain to the boss that I accidentally caused the death of a customer? Lazue sprung forward from the back of the tavern and wove her way to the man's side. He was completely submerged in what must have been the mashed potatoes with gravy. A barbequed pork chop that had been too burnt to serve to their regular customers rested seamlessly against his tanned cheek.

She tentatively shook his naked shoulder, noticing his tattoo. The vertical letters down his arm spelt something. It looked like a name. "Asce?" She put a heavy emphasis on the 's', unsure of what the cross through the letter meant. "Asce!" Though it was strange, she accepted the tattoo as a variant spelling of mule, or, more commonly in her part of the world, ass.

There wasn't an answer, though somehow she detected the slight rise and fall of his chest. His fork, piercing a bit of meat, remained erect in his propped up hand. She touched lightly for a pulse on his wrist. Found one. It thumped evenly, signalling that he was alive.

Not a moment after coming to that conclusion, the man stirred in his meal. She jumped back against a table, a bit thrown when the man lifted his head, caked with a myriad of food. He turned to her almost sleepily and reached for her apron. Before she could protest he'd already painted a lovely abstract picture across the fabric. Then, as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred, the man once again began consuming his food, starting with the smidgeon of meat left on his fork.

Lazue glanced down at her ruined apron and, instead of kicking the man off his stool as her instincts were shouting at her to do, she turned away from the scene and started back into the kitchen. Once there she slumped against a counter and let out a little sigh of relief.

She wasn't a murderer after all.

Thank goodness.

She had a few moments of silence to herself before Tool came in the back door.

"Did that guy pay yet?" Tool asked, making no attempt to hide the glimmer in his eyes that told of his willingness to act in a brutal and unforgiving manner.

Lazue, however, had decided to make the customer her business and her business only. The man had mucked up her apron and for that he was going to get a heftier bill to pay. "I'll see to it he does." Tool stared at her determined face and decided that he would wait for tonight to get his fight. The drunkards were more amusing to deal with than one penniless idiot anyway.

"Chef went down to the brewery to buy some kegs of our usual stuff. We'll have to pick it up ourselves later. The ass is lame on two feet. Unbelievable, really."

Lazue couldn't help it as her mind rushed back to the man sitting at the bar with the peculiar tattoo. She shook her head to clear it and then replied, "The mule's getting older and probably needs to be retired. I told the boss we need to invest in a new one but he was too busy cutting expenses. That damn man only thinks about himself. The fool hardly cares to invest in his business."

Tool grumbled, convinced he was doomed to carry all of the kegs back to the tavern on his back. He knew that Lazue wouldn't be of much help, what with being accustomed to serving guests rather than doing backbreaking hard labour. Not that he would curse her, for he quite liked having the girl around. She was much better with supplying the customer's demands than he was. He hated serving people, but at the same time the only other job he could have filled with his lack of an education would be a job working down at the island's docks. And that certainly would have been backbreaking work.

He wasn't happy, but he figured it could be worse. Though it didn't mean he couldn't express his displeasure at the route his life had taken every once and while.

Lazue left Tool cussing out their boss in the kitchen and headed back out to the bar area. She had dumped her apron on the counter, its use fulfilled the moment the stranger's dirty face had rubbed against the cloth.

Speaking of the stranger, he was no longer sitting in the stool. His plate and bowl were gleaming as if they'd been licked clean and the liquor she'd given him was completely gone. Not even a drop remained. She stared into the empty tankard before catching movement out of the corner of her eye.

If the man was trying to find the toilets, he was going in the wrong direction. She opened her mouth to call him back and point him the right way when she realized that he was making a beeline for the exit.

That son of a bitch.

She booked it, leaping over the counter and making a note of the lack of coins left at the meal. The man was, without a doubt, dinning and dashing. She knew he was broke, yet foolishly served him anyway thinking that Tool would be the one to throttle the man. Then he'd gone and messed with her apron and she'd told Tool she would take care of him. She couldn't just turn around and seek Tool out having made a promise like that.

"Hey, you! Asce!" she yelled. In front of her, just scant feet away, the man stiffened then bolted. This only confirmed her suspicions. "Ass!"

She could only think, dryly, What a fitting name.

Lazue ploughed through the wooden revolving shutter doors of the tavern and spilled out into the streets. The midday crowds were milling about, everyone going about their business. Her eyes scanned quickly and she locked onto her target. When in a pinch, Lazue could trust her eyes to help her out.

She took off after the bob of black hair, noticing that the ugly hat was bouncing against the man's back, suspended by a string around his neck. Though it was possible for her to lose sight of the black hair in the throng of people, she knew she wouldn't lose sight of such an ugly hat.

Lazue knew before long that the man would easily outrun her.

What was also obvious to her trained eyes was that the man didn't know where he was going. She, on the other hand, knew every back alley in the city. She firmly believed that she was the one with the advantage, not him.

Without breaking her pace Lazue located a ladder that would take her to the rooftop of one of the tallest buildings in the city. As a general trend, most of the buildings were the same size but Lazue knew that this particular building had an additional floor.

She scaled the ladder and peered out at the crowds from her new vantage point. The time she spent climbing the ladder would have given the runner below time enough to get out of her sight had she stayed on the ground and pursued him. Either way, time and speed were not on her side.

She relied on her eyes and, sure enough, picked out his orange hat. He had turned into a back alley and was currently still running and dodging the occasional passer-by, though she detected his pace was slowing to a lazy jog. As she crouched at the edge of the roof she watched him turn around, checking for his pursuer.

He stopped, waited a few minutes and picked at his teeth, and then continued on down the alley at a more leisurely pace.

Lazue smiled at herself, knowing that the best time to strike was always when her opponent's guard was down. And, right now, the man's guard was nonexistent.

She took note of his location and the direction he was heading. The alley, she knew, opened up into an always-empty courtyard. She would confront him there.

With that in mind, Lazue climbed down the ladder and took a much faster route to her destination. The man had weaved in and around trying to lose her and in the end had set himself up.

Lazue arrived at the mouth of the alley where the man would pass by in mere minutes. She cemented herself against the wall of the courtyard, intending to have the jump on the man as he passed by unaware of her presence.

She waited patiently, thinking herself quite clever, until she heard the scuffling of boots on loose dirt. She tensed, ready to pounce. She would, at the very least, scare the crap out of the man if he had no hidden coins to give her.

After a pause in which Lazue held her breath, the man passed by her without much thought of who she was. Under his hat, she caught his eye. However, at first glance her appearance didn't register. By the time he did a double take Lazue had jumped onto the man's back, catching him completely open to attack. She wrapped her legs around his midsection and one arm around his neck. Her other free hand walloped him on the top of his head.

The sounds of their ensuing struggle echoed in the empty courtyard. Basically, all Lazue wanted to do was land as many blows as possible to compensate for the lack of concern the stranger had shown her by taking off without so much as leaving a single beli. Not to mention wrecking her apron. He had been damn disrespectful to her and she would let him know he couldn't get away with such rude behaviour in this world.

Before too long, the shirtless stranger disentangled her feet around his waist and threw her to the ground where she lay panting. He grunted, ran a hand through his messy black hair and glared at her, unsure of what to make of her persistent streak.

Her job nearly done, Lazue laughed morbidly and stood up. But before she could say anything the man had picked up his hat from where it had fallen in the dirt, dusted it off, and continued on his way, back to her. She ground her teeth, annoyed at his indifference to her assault.

"You're just a dishonourable mongrel of a man, aren't you?" she taunted loudly. She allowed herself a quick triumphant smirk upon seeing his body stiffen up. His muscles pulled taunt across his broad back and that was all she needed to confirm that she'd rubbed his hair backwards. Finally she was getting somewhere.

"I am not dishonourable," the man growled, spinning around to face her. Her smirk had vanished and she glared at him evenly.

"You certainly are. Taking whatever the hell you want from a lady without a word. It's downright shameful."

Again, he bristled at her words. She knew, from past experience, that many a man put their pride and honour before their life. As a woman living on her own she often had to prey on this weakness to survive. "It's pathetic, stealing from a woman."

His already hooded eyes narrowed even further. "I'm a pirate, it's what I do."

Somehow, that explained everything.

She couldn't argue with that simpleton statement. Instead, she changed tactics, "Do you know what a debt is?" He inclined his head, the only indication that he was still listening to her. "You owe me something in return for the food and for dirtying my clothes."

"I have nothing to give you," he said simply, gesturing to his lack of possessions.

She offered a weak smile. She had just thought of the perfect plot. Tool would be grateful to her later. "If you're strong, you can help me with some manual labour. Unpaid, of course. But it will erase your debt."

The man frowned before curtly answering, "No."

"Yeah, I didn't think you looked strong enough to help either. You're kind of scrawny." In truth, Lazue knew her statement fell flat on the muscular man who'd thrown her aside like a feathery pillow, but she had worked on making her voice sound convincing even to the most hesitant of souls. White lies were a survival tactic.

The man's fists clenched, fingernails biting into flesh. It was a subtle movement, but Lazue's sharp eye caught it.

"How long must I work?"

"Today. And if you prove useless in the tavern you can work tomorrow as well when the shipment of supplies comes in down by the docks."

The man frowned, knowing he was being blatantly cheated. Lazue sweetened her smile. She knew that as strong as Tool may claim himself to be, he would not be able to handle the moving of tomorrow's shipment of supplies all by himself and without a mule and cart. "We'll feed you and board you up at the inn down the street for free."

The vagabond visibly perked at the mention of more food.

"If it's only for two days, I will assist you and pay my debt."

That sealed it; Lazue's eyes were never wrong. When she'd first laid eyes on that ugly hat she'd taken the man for an idiot. Sure enough, he had proven himself.