The methodical clopping of hooves on interlocked stone was soothing in the doctor's ears. He had received a summons to an estate on the other side of Sabaody, lovingly called the Sabaody Archipelago for the city's tendency to support an island-like layout, clusters of houses linked together by stretches of woodland that surrounded cobblestone roads. He believed going straight through the heart of these clusters rather than following some of the hackneyed dirt trails through the woods would be the fastest way to arrive at the estate. Still, he imagined the rough riding over debris that settled upon the stone streets caused horses to slip shoes all the time, so he remained vigilant for nails that would possibly injure his soft-footed steed.
There was another inevitable inconvenience to his plan. Within the vastness of the city he was well known by the locals. People called out his name, always accompanying the salutation with a friendly wave, and more often then not bid him to stop and chitchat. He obliged them without hesitation. To ignore them was folly after working so hard to build up his reputation as a caregiver accessible to all, even those in the lowest of classes.
"Doctor! Dr. Trafalgar! Have you time to stop in and check up on my ailing father?" a young woman asked, smoothing back her tawny hair as she leaned over the gate to her cottage home. He knew her as a poor labourer's daughter with a house full of bawdy brothers. "I fear his condition is worsening. I don't know how much longer he has left…"
He could hardly deny such a heart-wrenching request.
Bringing his white stallion around to the fence and off the brutality of the hard street, Trafalgar slipped from the saddle, medical bag in hand. It did not contain a full array of medical instruments, but he knew this particular man's condition. He had, after all, played a starring role in his suffering.
The girl brought him inside the little home and up the stairs to a bedchamber he had been in many times during the past few months. A servant appeared to try and relieve him of his coat, but he stressed that he couldn't possibly stay for more than a few minutes. He was late as it was.
He heard the haggard breathing before he saw the man, wrapped in an assortment of blankets, everything the family could afford to spare in hopes that the warmth would break his fever. This man, who'd lost much muscle and fat until he was little more than bones with skin to cover his vital organs, was coated in a thick sweat that attracted the flies that flew in through the holes in the ceiling. He looked positively cadaverous, yet his appearance did not elicit feelings of sympathy from the doctor.
He knelt down beside the man, who was fast asleep and snoring noisily. Then he bid the girl to leave the room, for decency's sake, and withdrew a bottle of opaque liquid from his heavy leather bag. The bottle was unmarked, but he knew exactly what was contained within it. He was the only one who knew the origins of the substance. He had made it, and as far as he knew he was the only one who dared to possess such a drug.
Carefully he drew back the blankets and exposed the shoulder of the man, which he had injured on the job many months before. The shoulder wound had become infected, and it was with the opaque liquid that Dr. Trafalgar had managed to save the man's life months back. However, the drug did have a catch. A fatal catch.
It was designed to prolong suffering. And prolong suffering it certainly did.
He twisted the lid off the bottle ever so carefully so as not to spill even a drop of his special tonic. Then he held it up to the sun that streamed through an open window across the room. With trained precision, he tilted the bottle and a drop of the substance sluggishly spilt onto his finger. That would do.
He located the pink scar where a piece of machinery had penetrated the flesh and brought his finger down on the skin, feeling the fever that raged on. The liquid that did not affect him in the slightest had a near instantaneous effect on this man, activating as soon as it came into contact with the skin cells. The light bruising that had been present since the accident all that time ago began to recede, and fresh pinkish skin prevailed. The man's entire body felt the tingle of the liquid, no more than a bee sting or a drop of rain.
His fever broke, his sweat dried, his eyes previously squeezed shut with an intensity brought about by hours upon hours of aching pain fluttered open… It was the miracle of miracles.
After several minutes of blinking at the dust swirling around the room, the man sluggishly turned his head in Trafalgar's direction. "Feeling better?" the doctor asked with a friendly smile and glittering eyes.
The man's fingers twitched, grasping the tweed blankets and then releasing them as if surprised he had feeling in his fingers. His pale face, no longer a sickly yellow, was further marred by an expression of deep bewilderment. At last, when he began to sit up and blink with more rigour at the world around him, the man spoke.
"I've not felt this lively in ages," he rasped, voice grating from a lack of use. There was the usual hint of disbelief, followed by scepticism of his own body's health that Trafalgar was loath to hear. "I…I…"
"You should continue to rest," the doctor advised, moving into a standing position and gently pushing the man back down into his bed. He was still weak, even under the influence of the drug. "I shall come and check up on you in a week. I imagine you'll be feeling better by then. Perhaps this time we'll have fought off that wretched infection, no?"
The man grunted, then reached a hand up to rub at the place the opaque liquid had permeated his skin. He could feel nothing but a fiery longing to use the limb, a sense of euphoria at being healed. So different from when he'd fallen asleep earlier, with his shoulder and the rest of his frail body slowly succumbing to an agonizing death. It had felt like death, certainly. But if it were death, then how had this doctor brought him back to life?
He came to the decision that the man was a miracle worker. It was the talk of Sabaody that this man had a gift for healing all physical grievances, but until now he had yet to believe such a thing.
"I shall perform a bloodletting upon you the next time I visit, as that will help ease the final bits of the infection out of your shoulder," the doctor said, beginning to head for the door. "Is this alright?"
"Yes, yes, of course," the man said without hesitation. Bloodletting was what everyone spoke of, indeed perhaps one of the many miracles behind the man. They said he had a technique that emptied the body of all evils. Even if the technique was fast becoming archaic, the belief that it did indeed do some good was entirely the legacy of Dr. Trafalgar and his previous patients.
Dr. Trafalgar smiled politely. If only the man knew whom he really was. "Alright then. I shall take my leave. I have a very important client to attend to. Perhaps you've heard of the family? Anyway, it is Lord Eustass' grandson. To the South."
The man's listless eyes blinked up at him, eyelashes as dusty as every other surface in the room. "Lord Eustass…" he trailed off. "Ah, I did not know he had a grandson, much less any offspring."
Trafalgar continued to smile as he gathered himself up and smoothed down his black coat, fiddling with the cuffs. "Lord Eustass lost all of his offspring, and wife too. Now it is just he and the grandson." Trafalgar chuckled as he recounted the urgency of the letter that arrived earlier this morning. "Well, this grandson may have been hidden from the world for a good reason. I hear he is quite the demon. Not fit for the courts, surely."
The man mumbled a few polite phrases for the old lord's humiliation, but his eyes grew cloudy and he once again nodded off. Dr. Trafalgar left his side, going down the creaky stairs in his patent leather boots that shone in the midday sun. He had nearly made it out the door when the young girl reappeared.
"Oh! I must pay you for your troubles, doctor!"
"There is no need. He has promised to pay me well in the future, and I am not one to rush payments," said the man with a slight smile. He turned and took his leave before a protest could begin, then got back up on his heavyset horse to continue his journey. Once he was well enough away and settled into a trot that shook the cobblestones loose, he allowed a malicious grin to take over his previously solemn countenance. Pay indeed. If a life could be considered ample payment for his troubles. He would revisit the man just once more and then give him a week to tapper off. Hand him over to Death, he would.
He left the huddle of houses behind him and the woods grew up around him on both sides. It would be a half hour until he came upon the next cluster of country homes, and by then he would feel starved of company. Luckily, he had his horse to keep him amused.
"Oh, Bepo, if only they knew what I have done," the doctor said, voice flitting just barely above a whisper. His horse's rounded ears flicked back to catch the sound, and the beast answered with an exasperated snort. "But not one of them realize a thing. They adore me, Bepo. Idolize me."
He heard the deep whisper, broken and choppy due to the elongated teeth in his horse's mouth, just barely concealed by his soft pink lips. "As they should, Master."
He chuckled under his breath. Bepo had long idolized him, too, but not for the same reasons as the humans of Sabaody did. "I have to admit though, that man lasted longer than even I expected on the caprice serum. I wonder why that is? He seemed much frailer than my last victim with that shoulder."
"Perhaps," said Bepo, "it is because you did not drain him of his blood as frequently as some of the others."
"My stores have been overflowing. I shan't need more to sustain myself for a while, or Robin for that matter. I do it for the amusement, it seems."
"To keep up appearances, too?"
"Indeed, to keep up appearances, my dearest friend. Which is why we must investigate Lord Eustass' grandchild. Even that reclusive man has caught wind of my supposedly divine healing powers. He wishes me to preform an exorcism, would you believe? I'm surprised I'm even qualified for the job."
For a few seconds his horse quivered all over and paused in his regular gait to slow to a walk. The skin bunched in places it shouldn't have bunched, and the mane began to recede into the skin in a most deplorable fashion. Trafalgar frowned at the sight and sat deeply in the saddle, bringing Bepo to a full halt before anything more calamitous could happen.
"Bepo, contain your laughter lest you change out here in the open where anyone could see."
"I am sorry." The creature's hide stopped twitching as if thousands of tiny bugs had landed upon him and straightened his thick neck. "You needn't worry about me keeping my form outside of the next manor. It is only when I laugh that I can't hold it fully."
"I know. Now perhaps we should gallop so I am not late meeting Lord Eustass. Do you remember how to imitate a horse's gallop, or have you allowed yourself to get rusty this past week?"
Bepo snorted as if the thought amused him in some way. "Of course, Master. I have only eaten how many horses now?"
"A far too many, I'm afraid. The people of Sabaody have begun to suspect that there is a pack of wolves with a preference for horses roaming the woods around here. That, and certain exasperated farmers have been whispering about werewolves. You should really catch the wild deer, not the penned animals."
"Bah! Werewolves! How silly people are. I've never seen a werewolf. I doubt their very existence."
Before Bepo went off on a full digression of snorts and growls, Trafalgar dug his heels into the creature's sides, urging him into a gallop. Bepo moved languidly, and it was like this that his true and natural lope became quite clear to the careful observer. Trafalgar continued to dig his heels, and Bepo corrected his gait to something perkier, something more horse-like and graceful.
The estate of the recluse of Sabaody came into view, and the doctor slowed his mount to a steady canter, which was more like his natural gait than anything, and they approached. From a distance he could see stablehands scrambling like rodents around a wooden building near the majestic Eustass manor, which dominated a single hill among many grassy hills. "Do not eat them, Bepo," he cautioned, keeping his voice low.
His steed snorted indignantly. "I don't revel in the taste of humans as you do."
This made the doctor grin, and he rode into the courtyard with that youthful smile still upon his face. A hand took the reins from him and Bepo was led off to a stall in the wooden building for his temporary stay. Another servant led the doctor into the sprawling mansion. He admired the stone pillars inside and the rolling colours of numerous stained glass pieces that covered the gothic windows, but the shaky servant was eager to have him follow, as if leisure was out of the question in this household.
He was brought immediately to a sitting room in which one beady-eyed, gray-haired man with a perpetual frown sat stiffly in a chair.
"Dr. Trafalgar, my Lord," the servant announced.
He rose only when the servant had hurried away with his head bowed, and walked over to greet Trafalgar with a stiff-shouldered handshake. The man's hand was sheathed in a dank clamminess, and Trafalgar had to resist the urge to wipe his palm on his ulster.
"Are you really Dr. Trafalgar, the miracle worker from the North side of Sabaody?" The man murmured, looking him up and down and scrutinizing his slight, lanky frame and moony face. "You are younger than I had expected. Much younger. And yet your eyes are so very…"
"Ruined?" offered the doctor with a courteous smile. He knew how unbecoming the dark circles 'round his eyes were. If he didn't pay particular attention to keeping his mouth in a smile, the circles gave him an almost deranged look that did not attract people to his services. Not that he ever experienced a shortage or anything, as the number of able-bodied doctors mysteriously dwindled after he arrived in Sabaody a few years ago. "I don't find sleep easy to come by. It mars my beauty, of course, but then again what does beauty matter when we all grow old so quickly?"
His dry humour fell completely flat on Lord Eustass, who bid him to sit while his grandchild was summoned to the room. "Now, in my letter I have told you that he is something of a…" the old man trailed off, his hand waving in the air as he searched for a proper description.
"Demon," finished Trafalgar, the words of the letter running through his mind, as they'd been all day. "Or, rather, a man possessed by a demonic force. And you believe it may have something to do with the loss of both parents at a young age, considering he was unusually attached to the mother."
"More so than other children. Really, most you give over to the nanny, and that is it, but his foolish mother insisted she raise him herself. Only until he was a few years old, but the damage, I think, has been done. Now it seems she's left the lad with deep scars that accursed demons have settled in."
"You believe in demons then, my Lord?" Trafalgar asked, careful to keep all amusement off of his face. If Bepo were standing in the room, he fancied his hooves would have turned to claws as he laughed his elongated snout right off of his face.
"I do not know how else to explain his strange behaviour," the old man said with a sigh. "He has a certain…bloodlust that is simply abnormal."
The lord hadn't mentioned that in his letter, and Trafalgar felt intrigue creep up his spine again. He could hardly wait to see his new patient. He did not have to twiddle his thumbs for long, as a servant rushed into the room, bowed, and stated that Eustass William Kidd had been brought from his private chambers.
"First, Dr. Trafalgar, you must swear by God that you won't tell of any happenings that take place in this manor. Silence on the matter of my grandson, if you please."
Trafalgar couldn't help but feel that swearing on God was incredibly sinful for a man of his nature and profession, but did it anyway. Not because he immensely enjoyed tempting Fate to wring his neck, or that he had no business swearing on God, but because he genuinely wished to see this demonic grandchild.
"Send him in," the elder Eustass ordered gravely.
When the young man entered, placid face detracting from eyes brimming with anger and hatred, Trafalgar could not repress a violent shudder of excitement. This would be a case well-worth riding to the South side of Sabaody for.
The day the letter came, addressed to him, Marco's anxiety had increased tenfold. He had been expecting the letter, of course, but when it finally came he could not help but become terrified of his fate.
The temporary tenant that had moved into the manor after his late master died had read it aloud to him as if he were a child incapable of comprehending the complicated script. The truth was that, even as a servant, Marco knew how to read and could even write some. The only one that had known that was his late master, Gol D. Roger, and the man's deceased wife who had been his teacher.
The only other living member left of the Gol family had written the manor and its occupants – a few straggling servants and a stable of rudiment animals – off, and had put the property up for temporary lease. But the letter had hinted at a return now that the temporary lease of the land had expired after three years and the tenant wished to move on. While the Eastern side of Sabaody was relaxing, it had not any of the trendy shops or opera theatres that the West side did, and the tenant grew bored with the reclusive home shouldered by rolling fields and arcane woods.
So now helping his temporary master, who had picked on him and given him the most ridiculous of duties for the past three years, he became aware of the fact that he would never see the pompous man again. And Marco had no idea if he, too, was to leave the manor.
It was a dreadful thing to think about, for he really had nowhere to go but Death's door.
In all actuality it was a marvel that he was still alive. He had come from the far off lands overseas, from a plantation where he worked laboriously day in and day out as a slave under the hot sun. Then the man known as Whitebeard had set them all free…
But it had not gone as planned, and it was a wonder that he did not hang in the gallows with the other slaves that had become pirates. Gol D. Roger had taken a liking to him and bought him from the executioner, much to the dismay of the gathering that surrounded the gallows and cheered for a good hanging.
Rumours abounded that day, all stemming from the fact that Gol D. Roger's wealth had been earned in a rather unscrupulous manner. Some pointed fingers at the king buying him off because of learned intelligence that the king did not want getting out, others simply shrugged it off as piracy in the king's name. A privateer. But Marco thought knew the truth better than most.
He wondered if the young man who was riding towards the manor at this very moment knew a different truth or something close to what he'd been told. When it came to Lord Gol, there had never been one single all-encompassing story about the enigmatic man.
He watched some of the servants leave with their temporary tenant. They would not be coming back. Many of them had secured jobs elsewhere. Only Marco and a wrinkly half crazy housemaid remained, unable to find work. They would just have to pray not to be dismissed upon greeting the man.
As he noted the time and began to start for the door, he became aware of footsteps on the marble flooring. Not old Tsuru. She kept to herself in the kitchen or busied herself with the laundry. And she hardly made such a noise crossing the floor.
With a start, Marco walked briskly to the source of the sound. It was as he feared. He had missed his new master's arrival. The young man was built just like his beloved old master of many years ago, and Marco felt a pang of dread at having to see the similarities that alluded to a time when he had a much easier, happier life. This man had the same stockiness, wide shoulders, and a relatively trim waist, as well as both the dark eyes and hair of his late master. But unlike him, this man had boyish freckles that dappled his cheeks and drew attention to his eyes.
Marco forced himself to approach from behind a statue. The man caught sight of him and appeared to brighten, even smile a little. He bowed, keeping his face impassive. "My Lord, you are early," he said with a gulp. He kept his head down as he asked, "May I take your overcoat?"
"Certainly," the man replied, already shrugging out of the long, black ulster emblazoned with a brilliant red trim about the collar. "And what, may I ask, is your name, sir?"
He hadn't been expecting such polite consideration. "My given name is Marco, my Lord."
"Well, Marco, I am Portgas D. Ace," the man said. Before Marco could puzzle over the surname being remarkably different from his late master's, the man reached out to grasp his limp hand that hung at his waist. Grabbing him in a handshake that was firm, yet gentle enough not to discomfort him any. He shook once, then withdrew almost shyly.
Marco visibly paled, his pallor intensified by the friendly smile this person graced him with. Gentlemen did not touch a servant's hand so readily, and certainly didn't offer them handshakes in greeting or even fleeting smiles. Something was quite wrong. Perhaps the man thought him to be the tenant of his manor and not merely a servant within it and did not know the tenant had already departed. Hurriedly, he tried to allude to his lowly position without upsetting the young man.
"The last stableman left this morning to seek work on the other side of Sabaody. But I am more than adequate – shall I stable your horse?"
"No need; I've already settled him in the stable. I see it has been well maintained."
Marco's heart sank. A gentleman was not supposed to be anywhere near the grime of a stable, much less taking care of the horses with his unblemished, noble hands. That was a labourer's job, his job.
"C-can I get you some tea, perhaps?" Marco shakily offered. "The drawing room affords a nice sitting area–"
"I'd like to see the rest of the estate before I sit down, if you don't mind," the man interrupted, glancing about with eyes that seemed to smother everything they touched.
"Of course," Marco said, bowing his head respectfully. He could not look into such eyes without feeling grossly inferior. "Shall I give you a tour?"
"No, no," Lord Portgas said. "I should like to show myself around. There is a certain charm in the novelty of exploration. This house isn't so large that I'll get lost and never found within it. You, my friend, should take a break. You're looking as if you've contracted ague or the like."
It was true, Marco was trembling as if caught underdressed in the midst of a wicked blizzard, and doubly pale than he had been just seconds before. For all the right reasons, of course. This lord was acting out of his class, poking around at things along the mantle of a nearby fireplace and getting his graceful fingers dirty with the dust that had accumulated. The few servants left in the house had been busy appeasing the high demands of the previous tenant, and not even Marco himself had managed to keep the entire estate spotless.
He was embarrassed, but he didn't dare try to salvage the situation by procuring ideas to excuse his neglect of the house. He had no wish to anger this man with boyish impudence.
So once the lord strode out of his sight he quietly retired to his bedchamber, preparing to pack his meagre belongings into a cloth bag or his ratty old suitcase. It was all he could do now.
Only, the man showed up in his room. Well, to be precise, he barged in, only half aware of where he was. When he saw Marco standing in there with a suitcase and a ragged doublet that had seen better centuries in one hand, colour rose to his cheeks.
"Ah, my apologies, I didn't know this was your–"
"M-my Lord," Marco began with a sputter, then winced as he realized he'd just interrupted this gentleman.
"My apologies, my friend, I do not wish to probe where I am not welcome, but I must ask: what is it that you're doing? Are you packing away your belongings?"
Marco blinked owlishly at him, then slowly set the bunched fabric in his hands to the side rather than inside the suitcase. "Yes, my Lord," he answered truthfully.
"For what purpose?" the young man inquired.
Marco was hesitant about what he ought to say. It was clear as an empty wineglass that Lord Portgas knew he was not the tenant. That left only one position to be filled, and so he came to the conclusion that this man knew precisely his rank and humble value to the household.
"I assumed you would bring your own servants to attend you," Marco said, speaking plainly as he stared at a fixed point on the scuffed floor. Grounding himself in the presence of a man who commanded respect just by the leisurely way his dark eyes swept across the room, already owning every speck of dust.
"And dismiss you? Why, that would have been downright rude of me, coming into this estate only to usurp you! I do hope you'll stay. I'd rather like to have a man who knows his way around both Sabaody and this manor. All the same, if you wish to leave, by all means you may, and don't think I will make it excruciatingly hard for you. I am not that sort of man."
Marco opened and closed his mouth several times, then licked his parched lips, unable to articulate his elation at being granted a place in the estate.
"I would very much like to stay, my Lord. If it is not burdensome to you…"
The man laughed. Instantly Marco's shoulders tightened. That laugh stopped his blood from flowing, leaving him a pale, pallid thing. He hadn't heard its like in many years. The last time he had heard such a booming, free-spirited laugh had been when his late master, this man's father, had been in the prime of his health. Many years ago, it had been.
Yet, not so very long, as he had just begun to age himself, having began work with the man as only a young boy, not even of age to do much more than help in the stable.
"I am glad," the young man said with another genuine smile Marco lifted his eyes to catch sight of. "I see that it is just you and the maid, Tsura. And she has expressed a want to leave, and has just as of this hour found a placement doing laundry of all things for the king's men, so it shall be only you and I. It may take a while to find a replacement chef…unless you know of anyone suitable for the job?"
Before he could think things over, Marco said, "I've the experience to fill the post, if you're willing to occasionally spare me to the kitchen to make the meal."
This elicited another guffaw from the man. "That solves all my problems now, doesn't it? Really, I was not expecting you to be so…capable at fulfilling the roles of lesser servants." Marco lifted his head, fresh rouge coating his cheeks. "You appear as more of a valet than a simple servant. I should hope you'll assume the duties of a valet to me, and I'll work at finding some help for you, of course."
"My Lord, you are too kind," Marco said, casting his eyes back down before he could get lost in the dark pupils of his new master. Those shadowy pools would surely be his downfall. He found they were easy to rest upon, to admire. Like the gleaming hide of a Friesian stallion, they were something to be marvelled at.
"I shall retire now. I've already supped at the manor of an old acquaintance. Can I trust you to wake me at nine?"
"O-of course," Marco stammered, fully aware he was staring rudely. He cast his eyes away once more and found his tongue. "I shall bring in any letters and a hearty breakfast, if it should please you."
The man laughed again, and the sound filled the small chamber, bouncing around and settling heavily in Marco's chest. "I shall hold you to that declaration, Mr. Marco."
He left the room, closing the door softly as he went, betraying his upbringing as a gentleman and lord. Marco stood for a moment and studied the wood grain, then turned and began to unpack his belongings, putting them back into the places they'd been in for years.
Tomorrow he would have to prove himself, yet he couldn't help but wonder at the ease with which the man took to him. It almost seemed too friendly to be real.
He remembered how his late master was always understanding, and certainly friendly in his own rough way. He had the decency to smile at everyone as well, Marco recalled. The good-natured traits must have been passed down by blood.
He fell asleep that night wondering at the absurdity of his luck.