Al-Sarmen wants a meeting with him.

That's hardly news-they've been trying to get him into talks for a year or more, probably since he'd destroyed that palace in Laem. What's new, apparently, is that it's their sorcerer who wants to get him into a meeting. "Masrur," he calls, swinging down from the rigging to land on the deck, clutching the magical pelican-delivered paper in his hand. The pelting rain doesn't make the ink run, though it tries to tear the paper out of his clenched hand.

His first mate is right behind him, somehow, though Sinbad is certain he hadn't been there when he'd started swinging down. "Yes, Captain?"

"The wizard's sorcerer, this...Judal. What do you know about him?"

Masrur's brows twitch inward a bit. "Not much."

Sinbad grins. This is looking to be interesting. "Good, I was getting bored. Change course," he shouts loud enough to be heard over the lashing winds. "Nor by nor'east, fast as we can!" His eyes narrow, and he thrusts the letter inside his shirt, ignoring the quiet reticence that means at least one of his followers thinks this is a bad idea. He hasn't gotten to be the captain of a ship by listening to his subordinates, that's for certain.

Three weeks later

Sinbad isn't much for formal parties. Rather, he always enjoys them, but they never quite seem to work out the way he plans, always ending with someone being chased out of somewhere with some kind of police or army called. Hardly his fault, how the women flock to him, dying to hear tales of his life, clutching a copy of his memoirs to their ample chests more often than not. Hardly his fault, though it is sort of his fault that his men tend to make a habit of ignoring his orders and pilfering whatever looks shiny and isn't nailed down.

For that reason, he leaves the vast majority of his men in the city to bed down, and Masrur cleans up well enough, holding still long enough to let Sinbad stick some half-way nice clothes on him. He himself wears all his jewelry, all his djinns obvious on his body, over his nicest captain's coat, specially tailored for his form. He hears the whispers as they walk through the city streets, hears his name, and watches the crowd part for them-another good reason to travel with Masrur, that.

The party is nice enough, thrown by some fat-faced king in honor of some marriage agreement, and Sinbad enjoys himself, relying on Masrur to keep an eye on any of Al-Sarmen's movements. It's out of the corner of his eye that he notices the boy first, a kid with a lovely face and a mass of dark hair bound in a braid trailing to the floor, on the arm of a slender, pale assassin.

Oh, there's nothing about him that says assassin, but Sinbad can tell with less than half a glance, and he can see Masrur twitch towards the pair. That's them, all right, the Al-Sarmen sorcerer and his pet bodyguard.

Time to dance.

Ja'far, on the other hand, loathes parties.

Not only are they a nightmare for keeping an eye on his charge, they're a nightmare in logistics in general, a nightmare for his sanity when Judal insists that he looks just as nice as he does. Judal doesn't oft have the mind to allow himself to be dressed in layers and brocades and ruffles, but when he does, Ja'far finds himself similarly, annoyingly draped, and it's all he can do to keep an eye on Judal while he stresses about decreased mobility in general.

At a party like this, having all of his wits about him will save him faster than any quick draw for his weapons, however.

"That's him," Judal insists, with all the enthusiasm of the entirely too-sheltered teenager that he is, and Ja'far grinds his molars as the brat grips his sleeve, yanking him forward as he trots off. "I'm going to go talk to him."

"Priest, there are arranged meetings for this later-"

"I wanna talk to him now."

Ja'far is going to kill the kid himself, one of these days. He opens his mouth to protest, but Judal is already a step ahead of him, letting himself across the room and promptly sidling up to this… Sinbad person, whom apparently has caught the child's eye. Ja'far catches up in short order, eyeballs him once, and comes away unimpressed.

Sinbad casts his gaze over the boy from up close, and likes what he sees. Power thrums within him, barely contained-no, not contained-by his skin, from everything to the too-light way his braid hovers in the air to the way his feet barely seem to touch the ground.

This could be interesting.

He bows, and holds out a hand. "You must be the Oracle. I think you wanted to meet me?"

Judal nods, eagerly reaching out to take Sinbad's hand. Before he can, however, a pale hand catches his wrist, promptly hauling him back, and he pouts near-audibly. "Ja'faaaaarrrrr-"

"No one is to touch the Oracle of Kou without express permission," Ja'far flatly interrupts, gaze cool as it lands upon Sinbad. "You must be Sinbad. The priest requested an audience with you, which I suggest we take to a more private setting."

Sinbad takes a little snack from a passing tray and tosses it into the air, catching it in his mouth without breaking eye contact. "But I'm having fun at this party. He's not my priest, I don't dance to his tune." He looks appraisingly over the boy again, being more obvious about it this time for the assassin's benefit. "Then again….yeah, this could be fun. Lead the way, Priest."

Ja'far wants to kill this one, too.

Humor him, Kouen says. The problem with that is that humoring Judal never gets any of them anywhere but in trouble, and this is looking to be no exception. Ja'far's teeth set into a slow grind again, even more so when Judal lurches forward, looking far too pleased about latching onto Sinbad's arm no matter what his bodyguard just said.

What a little snot.

"Is it true," Judal asks as he peers up at Sinbad, contemplative, "that you've conquered more dungeons than Prince Kouen?"

"Unless he's conquered twice as many since I've last been on land," Sinbad says with a grin. "Is he up to eight yet? I won't say I'm making it easy for him to pass me." He lets the corner of his eye sweep over the assassin, then turns away from him, dismissing him entirely. "I've heard a few rumors about you, too. Is it true you can level a whole city just by looking at it?"

"I can do more than that." Judal looks infinitely pleased about his reputation, especially when he can squish himself close to Sinbad's side, cheek rubbing into his shoulder all too like an affectionate cat. It has to be something about the idiot's magoi that he can't see, Ja'far irritably decides, because Judal does the same damned thing with Kouen off and on. Like a moth to a flame-and in this case, there's a good chance Judal will get himself burnt to a crisp.

There's another one-silent, less an obnoxious threat but still one, and Ja'far's gaze snaps to him briefly. The red hair and familiar eyes screams Fanalis in an instant (and here they thought Laem had the only ones lurking about) and that could be… troublesome. He knew this party was a bad idea. "Priest-"

"I'm taaaalking, leave me alone," Judal whines. It's more like wallowing in this man's rukh, if Ja'far has to guess, and he draws in a slow breath to keep himself from bodily hauling the brat away. "Someone like you," he sighs, "should have a country, and a palace, and all sorts of things like that-why don't you?"

Sinbad laughs, and because the priest touching him seems to make the assassin squirm and flinch, he wraps an arm around the boy's slender waist, pulling him closer. Hardly an inconvenience, when he's so pliable and warm. "Maybe I will. Maybe I just like being little better than a pirate." Golden eyes dance as he looks at the boy, tugging his braid. "If I were a king, would you come play in my palace?"

Judal's eyes lid, all the more pleased, and he wriggles himself closer, lifting a hand to trail his fingers along the gold clinking about Sinbad's neck. "I could build you a palace, you know. Anywhere that you like."

"Judal."

The priest twitches, and his head twists around to scowl at Ja'far. "You're ruining my fun. Hey, Sinbad," he quickly adds, looking back up at the man with a pout, "don't you have a nice room you can take me to, so we can talk in private? My bodyguard's a pain and doesn't know how to have fun."

Ah, Sinbad is enjoying tonight more and more. Having a boy this lovely on his arm would be good in and of itself, but the fact that he's making someone from Al-Sarmen hyperventilate every time he strokes a hand down Judal's side is just hilarious. "I took the liberty of renting the finest room in the house," he assures the boy, and gives Ja'far a wink. "Just in case I had company. Your bodyguard can stay and enjoy the party, he seems like the kind that loves dancing with strangers."

"Oh, he's the life of the party," Judal drawls, pawing a little bit at Sinbad's chest. "Show me then, show me!"

"Judal." This is his last attempt, and then he's done. If the wretch wants to get himself killed-ugh, well, he'll prevent it, but the events preluding it, he'll have no part of. "At least have some consideration as to Prince Kouen's-"

"Room," Judal cheerfully demands.

Fuck that. Ja'far is done.

Ah, this boy is bossy.

Sinbad likes that.

"I like a boy that knows what he wants," he says with a grin, hand stealing down to give the priest's ass a little pinch. "I guess if your guardian is really lonely, my first mate could always dance with him. Just so he doesn't feel left out or anything." A half-glance to Masrur, and he's suddenly there, looming over all of them. "Masrur, make sure this nice man is entertained properly while I have a little chat with the Oracle of Kou."

"Understood."

Sinbad wraps his arm tightly around Judal's waist, and whisks him upstairs.

God dammit.

Ja'far breathes a slow, measured exhale through his teeth, eyes sharp as they land upon Masrur. "I can assure you, I have no intention of interrupting them," he stiffly retorts. "I will merely be waiting until my charge is… returned to me." Kouen is going to love this story.

Masrur nods. He folds his arms, noting Ja'far's distribution of weight, analyzing which way he'll go in the event of any movement, and is satisfied. "Sin doesn't kidnap," he rumbles, hoping that will be some comfort.

Ja'far merely offers a snort at that. "If he did, he wouldn't want that one."

He'd like to go up and sit outside of the bedroom. That would be the proper choice, and one far more conducive to his job, but listening to all of that for hours on end… pass. Instead, there's a wall to lean against just fine right here-all the better to stare down a Fanalis with, and not listen to one bratty Magi all night long.

Upstairs, Sinbad unlocks the door to the room, sweeping Judal inside and locking the door after. No sign of the assassin, which he chooses to take as good. He's never met the assassin that could best Masrur, and doesn't particularly want to-though part of his mind mutters that such a person would be fun to fight.

The room is furnished richly, and he sits immediately on the bed, tugging the priest down into his lap. "You summoned me for a conversation, did you not?"

Judal is pleased, infinitely so, to find himself in a warm, comfortable lap, even though his robes are annoying and getting in the way, and it would really be a lot easier to just hike them up and settle down properly that way. "Something like that," he murmurs, flopping his arms over Sinbad's shoulders, still marveling in the way that his magoi hums and churns and overflows, even more so than Kouen's, and a dozen times warmer besides. "I've felt you for years now. I just wanted to meet you."

"You felt me?" Sinbad grins, and pulls Judal close, hiking up the boy's robes to make it easier on both of them. "Only fair that I return the favor." He slides his hands up the boy's back, then down again, cupping his ass and squeezing. "Unless-oh, that's right, isn't it forbidden to touch you?"

"Didn't mean felt you like that, but… ahh… you can still… return the favor," Judal fairly purrs, letting himself sag forward with a content noise in the back of his throat. "Don't listen to Ja'far, he's a jerk. Creepy, too, never trust people with freckles."

"Sounds like a good plan," Sinbad agrees easily, hefting the boy closer. "So….how does a priest of Kou like to be touched, hmm? Surely not like some mortal man."

Sinbad is warm, and really, really nice to lean against, what with his chest being so broad and strong. Judal exhales a sigh through his nose, butting his face into the man's neck. "However you wanna touch is good." Just let me keep rolling around in your rukh.

There's a sort of wild, innocent enjoyment, free of artifice, that Sinbad finds himself drawn to strongly in Judal, and he rolls them over, letting Judal's hair spill out onto the ground as he brings the boy in for a kiss.

A deep, slow kiss, Sinbad explores his mouth thoroughly, tasting him, feeling the trembling, slender strength of the boy's body underneath his own. "You taste as good as you feel," he murmurs. "Better than I expected from a priest."

"Hate that title," Judal grumbles, though he can't be too cranky, not when he has Sinbad above him and this is going perfectly, just like he wanted it to. "I'm hardly a priest. They just call me that because of all my magic…" He sighs against Sinbad's mouth, reaching up to twist his fingers through Snbad's hair, marveling at the length of it. "You're prettier than I expected. Really good."

Sinbad preens under the praise, shaking his hair free of its single tie that suffices to keep it out of his eyes when he's on land. "I admit, you didn't seem like a man of many gods to me. Do you want me to call you Judal, then?"

"Mmm, call me by name," Judal sighs, lurching up to nibble on Sinbad's lower lip, sucking it into his mouth with a pleased noise. "I'm more a god than anything anyone believes in."

The superstitious instinct of a sailor makes Sinbad want to flinch or shiver at such words, but he pushes that aside, kissing the boy again as he runs his hands down Judal's sides. "Does your pet assassin let men touch you very often, Judal?" he asks, tangling a hand in the boy's hair. "Or just kings and pirates?"

Judal's nose wrinkles, and he lets his head loll back into Sinbad's hand with a sigh. "I'm picky," he murmurs, eyes lidding as he wriggles, hiking his robes up a little more to let Sinbad between his legs easier. "Don't want anyone unless they're strong enough-and you… I could feel you half-way across the world."

Sinbad's grin is roguish, and Judal's movement makes him lean down, dragging a thigh up between the boy's legs. "And what do you like strong men to do to you, boy?" he breathes, leaning down to scrape his teeth over Judal's neck.

A hard shiver, and Judal sinks down, his back arching to better squirm his hips up against that hard thigh. "Lots of things," he mumbles, eyes lidding. "Like it… when they just take what they want from me."

Sinbad yanks the rest of Judal's robes up, sliding a hand down to palm his cock, stroking it slowly, easily covering it with one broad, rough hand. "Do you like being held down?" he asks, pinning Judal's hands over his head, an easy stroke of his hand enough to make himself hard too. "Do you like being fucked?"

This meeting, Judal hazily thinks, was a good decision.

Sinbad's hand is rough and calloused in all the right ways, and makes him shudder as he lurches up, legs a wanton, eager splay. "Please," is his groan, his hands grabbing for the man's shoulders, clawing in mindlessly as he ruts up. "Want you to just…" Judal's breath hitches, and he licks his lower lip, huffing. "Just use me." Wanna feel if you're as hot inside me as you are just like this.

There's a vial of sandalwood oil around his neck, fragrant and viscous as Sinbad uncorks it, pours it into his hand and slicks himself up, loathe to wait any longer when he's got someone so nubile and lovely wanting him, needing him, begging for him. "I hope," he murmurs, "you're going to look as pretty stuffed full of me as you do right now." A good hard fuck never hurt anyone, and he positions himself between the boy's legs, one hand wrapped around his cock to guide himself in one smooth slide, filling the boy's tight hole.

It's far from the first time he's been fucked, but it has to be the first time he's felt quite so full. Judal whines, a broken, mindless noise as his legs tremble, clamping tight about Sinbad's waist as his hands scrabble down his back, his body twitching, quivering from the effort of just taking him, no matter how badly he wants it.

Whimpering, his head falls back, eyes squeezing shut and brow knitted as his body tries to lurch down, tries to wriggle himself further down that long, thick cock, and it sends a twinge up his spine, his mouth falling open with another squeaking moan leaving his throat. "R… really big," he breathes, voice ragged around the edges. "You're… ahh… god…"

Sinbad had been right. Judal does look good stuffed full of cock, a little uncomfortable, a lot aroused, shocks of nervousness and desire and a hint of pain flickering over his expressive features. "Look at you," he breathes, rolling his hips slowly, wanting to savor every instant of Judal being stretched around him, legs spread wide and trembling. "You really like this, huh? God, you feel good-" I bet they don't fuck you like this in Kou.

Judal mewls, his head lolling back as his hands weakly dig into Sinbad's back, trying to hold on when his world is reduced to nothing but so full so hot god he's in so deep. It's difficult, when even the arch of his back drives him mad, rutting his achingly hard cock against Sinbad's stomach, every twitch of his hips making Sinbad feel like he's that much deeper, and that tense, trembling stretch is enough to make him sob.

"T…told you to just…" Judal swallows hard, his cheeks flushed, tears pricking into the corners of his eyes. "Just…. hold me down… f-fuck me, I-I wanna be your toy-"

Sinbad tightens his hand on Judal's wrists, holding him in place as he slams in hard, wanting to force screams out of the boy, wanting his precious little guardian to hear how well that pretty Magi is getting fucked. It's not hard, and his eyes lid at the sweet tight clench of Judal's body as he moves harder and harder, head dipping down to bite Judal's neck, down his chest to let his teeth tug hard at one pert nipple. "What a good boy," he groans, thrusting in so hard his hips slap against Judal's ass. "Be a good boy for me and come all over yourself, show me how much you love my cock."

Judal can't remember ever being fucked like this.

Even holding him down, even shoving him around and fucking him so hard that he aches-there's no part of it that doesn't feel good, that doesn't make his cock harder, and Judal gasps, twitching up with a shudder against those sharp teeth, the added pull on his nipple enough to make his eyes roll back. He doesn't think, just acts, little more than a mindlessly rutting animal as he writhes down onto Sinbad's cock, his legs splayed wide and desperate, hands curling into fists as he sobs and moans and cries, and it's a particularly achingly deep thrust that makes him lose himself, groaning as he comes, spilling hot and slick between them and twitching with every weak, lingering squirm.

The twitching, helpless little clench of Judal's body combined with those noises he's making are enough to send a shock of white-hot pleasure up Sinbad's spine, and he buries his face in Judal's neck with an almighty groan, slamming in to the root when he comes, flooding Judal deep inside. He keeps moving, slowly, dragging every last spark of heat out of both of them, shuddering little grunts coming out from his lips with every shallow thrust, until finally his heartbeat starts to return to normal.

He releases Judal's wrists finally, bringing one down to his mouth and pressing a kiss to it. "Will your keeper let you stay the night?"

"Probably not," Judal dazedly manages, his fingers wiggling sort of out of his control. He's never quite felt like this before after sex, and it makes him sag back into the bed, smiling contently. "Bet he's outside of the door, trying to figure out if you've killed me or not. Ahhh, such a paaain."

"Annoying," Sinbad agrees, laying half-on the boy, wrapping an arm around his waist to pull him close. "I don't sail weeks out of my way for just anyone, you know. You're special. I could feel it back on my ship."

Judal likes hearing that, and the rumble that escape his throat is more akin to a purr than anything. "Wanna stay with you," he mumbles, butting his face into Sinbad's neck. "Hey, if you'll be my king, you can stay with me all the time."

"Oh?" Sinbad blinks, looking down. "What does it mean, to be your king?"

"You've never heard of Magi?" Judal's head tilts, his eyes wide and innocent. "We select a king that we think is strong enough to rule the world. You can have whatever you want-power, gold, women… between the two of us," he sighs, wriggling closer, "no one would be able to stop us, you're already so strong-"

"Judal. That's quite enough."

How Ja'far always manages to sneak into rooms unnoticed is beyond him, but Judal is past the point of jumping, more to the point of being annoyed. "You always ruin my fun!" he petulantly snaps, twisting in Sinbad's arms to glare at his bodyguard who seems content to linger by the door, less content to actually look at the sight on the bed.

"This pirate is hardly worthy of your attention. Come, I will have a bath prepared for you back at the-"

"No, I'm staying here!"

It's with great restraint that Ja'far doesn't rope and hogtie the little shit.

"If the boy wants to stay here," Sinbad says, eyes narrowed dangerously, "he's staying here."

At the sight of Masrur lumbering into view behind Ja'far, he relaxes marginally. If the assassin had killed Masrur, well, then there would be at least one fewer person leaving this room alive. "And you can be quiet for a minute," he adds, turning to kiss up Judal's jaw, wrapping the boy's braid around his hand. "I'm thinking about a decision."

"No," Ja'far flatly interrupts, "you are not."

Ja'far spares the Fanalis a sharp glance over his shoulder before simply striding forward, grabbing Judal by the ankle, and hauling him down to the foot of the bed and then onto his feet in short order. "We're going," he says, a swift yank on Judal's robes straightening them before he throws the brat over one shoulder, no matter his immediate kicking and shrieking. "You," he adds with a cold look shot in Sinbad's direction, "would do well to keep your distance."

Sinbad is up in a second, Masrur shutting the door and standing in front of it like an implacable wall. Sinbad fights down his instinct to just kill the man, calming himself before he does something they'll all be paying for. "Judal," he says quietly, power starting to crackle around his hands, gathering on the sword of Baal, "do you want me to kill this man?" There's not a question in his mind that he can do it. There's never been a man he couldn't kill yet.

"Do others tell you your arrogance is charming?" is the assassin's bored retort.

Judal flops over Ja'far's shoulder, huffing out a long breath as he lays there. "I just wanna spend the night-"

"No. Prince Kouen will already be less than pleased to hear about your solicitations." It isn't as if Ja'far has to report anything to the man-he doesn't work for Kouen, after all. It's just that the threat is the most effective on the brat, and in this case, it certainly ceases any lingering struggling as Judal goes still. He spares another glance the Fanalis, another back to the pirate. What a headache.

"… Fine," is Judal's eventual, entirely unhappy reply. "I'm going. Sinbaaad, I wanna see you tomorrow," he plaintively whines, reaching a hand out.

Sinbad hesitates. He doesn't want to let them go, wants more than anything to be the one leaving here with Judal over his shoulder, leaving only the smoldering corpse of the assassin behind. He reaches out, squeezing Judal's hand, bringing it close for a kiss. "I'll be here tomorrow," he promises. "Ask me again, and I'll say yes."

He turns his eyes to the assassin, narrowing them. "And if you're not here, I'll come looking for you."

He nods to Masrur, and the Fanalis stands aside, opening the door. From the looks of it, he doesn't look much more pleased than Sinbad does, but his gaze is on the assassin, not the boy.

"Yeah. Okay." Judal seems at least somewhat mollified, if not now apprehensive about the idea of asking again, and Ja'far calls that a success. He ignores Sinbad's threat outright, stepping past Masrur without another glance. Knowing Judal, and what the brat has in mind now, it's probably best to leave by morning whether he likes it or not. Sinbad can come looking all he damn well pleases.

Three days later, Sinbad climbs back on board the Sindria, tying his hair into several knots against the wind. His jaw is set, his eyes narrowed as he rubs kohl onto his eyelids. Ten strides, and he's at the prow, looking back at his navigator. "Set course."

"Where to, Captain?"

"Kou."

Judal has been a wretch, at best, since returning from his visitation with Sinbad.

Ja'far finds himself relieved that returning back to Kou was an uneventful thing, though he doubts that will last. Judal has a way of drawing trouble to him, even in smaller doses, and though Ja'far tries as he might to mitigate such issues, there's always something. Locking the brat up in his bedroom is only a start.

Avoidance is key within the Kou Empire's Imperial Palace, especially on a day that everyone seems to be home. Ja'far answers to none of the royal family, though it's often in his best interest to follow their suggestions.

Today, he has a few suggestions for Kouen, though.

"Pay your Magi a visit." It's the 'greeting' he offers upon stepping into view within Kouen's study, eyes sharp in the dim light. "I believe he is what you would call lonely, judging by his propensity towards causing disaster as of late." Ja'far pauses, gaze sweeping about. "Also, light a candle in here, you will ruin your eyesight."

Kouen blinks, startled at Ja'far's sudden presence. Damn it, now he'll never remember the words to that song, and the ones he'd already remembered slip away like sand through his fingers. "What?" he asks, finally paying attention. "Did you say Judal?"

A low, exasperated noise escapes. "Yes. Your Magi. Pay him a visit."

Kouen waves a hand. "Tomorrow." Maybe she's already waiting for him outside. Maybe she'll have flowers in her hair, and let him sniff their delicate perfume. "Busy tonight."

Everyone in this family is a bunch of romantic slackasses. Ja'far exhales a slow, measured breath. "It isn't something that can wait. He attempted to solicit another king."

At that, Kouen frowns. "Another king? Who? Not Yuu or Ren, they haven't even conquered a dungeon. No, wait, that's right, you went somewhere with him." He tilts his head, thinking. "Balbadd?"

"He requested an audience with a low-born ship captain-or should I say, a pirate that you might know the name of," Ja'far coolly returns, stepping closer to Kouen's desk. "Sinbad. Remember, the reason why your cousins do not have a conquered dungeon underneath their belts?"

At that name, the red fog sweeps over him, clearing away the last of the moonlight and cobwebs. "Sinbad the pirate? He didn't!" He stands from the desk, sweeping his cloak out over his shoulders. Hakuei will just have to wait.

"Judal did. In spades." Ja'far snorts, relieved that he finally has the prince's attention. "Had I not stepped in when I did, Sinbad would have accepted his offer. Did you know that man has a Fanalis at his side? I thought they were only in Laem these days, or with slave traders."

Kouen rounds on the slight man, murder in his eyes. "You are supposed to be his keeper! How could you let something like this happen? Do you think your masters will be pleased to hear that you almost gave away their prize to an uncultured brigand?"

Ja'far stares up at him, impassive. "'Almost' does not mean that I did. Forgive me, Your Highness, but are you not the one that always tells me to humor your Oracle?"

"With sweets and outings that he wants," Kouen snaps, "not with meeting commoners and trying to give away the world! Tell me where he is, I want to teach him a lesson."

Remarkable, that Kouen can be such an idiot when it comes to dealing with the brat, especially when Ja'far hardly considers himself an expert on interpersonal relationships. "That's hardly advised. The problem was dealt with, and he has been returned and is properly held within his chambers-if you want to visit him, I suggest an affectionate visit, so this doesn't happen again. I believe he was mostly trying to get your attention."

Kouen slams his hand down on the desk, the books jumping under the sudden motion. He's on the verge of throwing something through the wall, hopefully Ja'far, and it's only with the greatest effort that he doesn't. "When I want your opinion, Assassin, I'll ask for it."

It isn't worth the paperwork or the annoyance of actually hurting the man-he's The Assassin of Al-Sarmen for a reason, and this doesn't feel like one of Kouen's particularly good days-so Kouen leaves him behind, stalking off to confront the Magi.

By the time he gets to Judal's door, he's calmed somewhat, at least enough to pretend to himself that it was his own idea to make Judal feel petted and prized. "Judal? It's En, are you in there?"

Slowly, the lock turns and the door cracks open, producing a decidedly pouty Magi peering up at Kouen through the messy fall of his bangs. "You're not here to yell at me, are you? Everyone's been mad at me all day, and I didn't even do anything."

Kouen's stomach unclenches. Judal looks sad, and that's never anything he likes seeing. "I'm not here to yell at you," he assures the Magi, reaching out to brush back his bangs. "Want to go out? Or have a drink in here? I missed you." He sort of has, much to his own surprise. Judal's the only one whose eyes don't glaze over when he talks about the things he likes, and is always up for mischief with him.

Immediately, Judal brightens, and he reaches up to grab at Kouen's hand lest the man somehow be inclined to change his mind. "Really? Can we go out? Without Ja'far?" he quickly adds, scowling. "He's mean. He ruined my fun and made me come home early-but it's okay, I missed you a lot, too."

"Of course we can go without Ja'far." Kouen tousles Judal's hair again, tugging him out the door and down the front steps of the palace before Ja'far can hear and start following them. "He's just around to make sure you don't die, but I can protect you just fine. You want to go flying?"

"It's not like I'd die, anyway-I'm a Magi, I'm way more powerful than him," Judal huffs, latching himself firmly to Kouen's arm. "We can go flying, or we can go into the city and maybe eat something… ahhh, I'm hungry, can we get those little candied peaches again? Oh, did you know that there's someone that's conquered more dungeons than you for real? It's not just a story," he hushedly adds, eyes shining. "Do you want to go and conquer another one? We can do it, right now."

Kouen makes a face at that. "You're going to make me jealous, and then I'm going to get mad," he warns. "Let's just go into the city and eat as many candied peaches as we can find until I have to roll you home, I don't want to get all my armor on tonight. Maybe tomorrow. Did you finally raise one that stupid pirate didn't conquer?"

Judal pouts. "I don't want you to be jealous, I'm just telling you so you know. I want you to be the strongest, you know," he sighs, cheek rubbing into Kouen's shoulder. "And I can raise one right there, when you're standing there, and he won't have a chance to come and conquer it."

It sounds a lot like winning a race while the other man has weights strapped to him, but Kouen's stopped being picky about that kind of thing. "Tomorrow," he promises, wrapping an arm around Judal's shoulders, turning to give his head a kiss. "I missed you, everyone's so annoying when you're away."

"Tomorrow," Judal happily agrees, and loosens his hold on Kouen just a bit, now convinced he isn't going to run off. "I'm good company, we can go do things you wanna do, too… but being rolled home after eating lots of peaches sounds really good right now."

"Then let's go eat the peach-seller out of house and home," Kouen suggests, "then you can come with me to the Imperial Palace. Ei's waiting for me tonight, we can all have a picnic."

"Good, really good," Judal cheerfully replies, and it's with a wave of his hand that he summons a magic carpet, hauling Kouen up onto it in short order. "Let's go, then!"

Koumei doesn't knock so much as he leans on the door until it opens, holding out his hand to Ja'far. "Brought you a present. Heard about Judal, thought you might need a smoke."

Ja'far can tell without even looking that the Kou Empire's Fourth Prince is high as a bloody kite.

That being said, Ja'far rarely will look a gift horse in the mouth-at least, if that gift horse is one that he knows. But still-"It better not be what you have been partaking in all afternoon," he curtly replies, eyeing Koumei skeptically.

Koumei gives him a slow, beatific smile. "No worries. I'm not sharing. This is the new shipment from Laem, your favorite. Or," he adds, raising an eyebrow and sinking slightly down the door, "I could keep it all to myself if you don't want it…"

"Hand it over." Even as he says that, Ja'far rises, grabbing the prince by the arm to haul him into the room so the isn't splayed out on the floor and partially into the hallway. "I'm not your keeper," he flatly points out. "Try to keep some wits about you. Did you hear if Kouen attended to the priest or not?"

"I hear everything. They went out talking about dungeons and peaches." Koumei hands over the pipe and bag, content to be hauled around.

Ja'far supposes that's something, so long as Judal is preoccupied and has an eye kept on him. The thought of dungeons makes him twitch, though, and he can't quite stuff and light his pipe fast enough once he has Koumei thrown onto the nearest piece of furniture. "And what other news have you heard? No reports of foreign ships attempting to sneak their way into Kou harbors, I hope."

"Not quite," Koumei says, muffled into a loveseat before slowly rolling to the side. It takes two tries before he's actually facing Ja'far. "Doubled my spies at every port when I heard you'd been dancing with a pirate. Put some on places that aren't ports, paid off the pirates we know to tell me things, everything. Then I smoked," he ends, with a little sigh that turns into something of a giggle. "Stress."

"I was not dancing with a pirate." The thought that he'd even entertain Sinbad for five seconds is enough to make his skin crawl, and Ja'far frowns, taking a long drag from the pipe to banish that disgusting thought. Lazy, lowborn trash. "So long as you haven't heard anything yet, that gives us time. I have no doubts he will be attempting to chase after us. He seemed… quite enamored, with Judal."

"Judal likes people being enamored of him," Koumei murmurs. "s'easy to be enamored when he's got your dick in his mouth. Oh, right, not you, though. He told me you haven't ever."

Koumei really is tiresome when he's like this. Ja'far blows a slow, annoyed stream of smoke in his direction. "I have no interest in prepubescent boys, unlike someone I know."

Koumei makes a face, but otherwise ignores the dig. It's none of Ja'far's business anyway. "Tell me about the pirate. How many other pirates, what's their strength? I've looked at reports and stuff, they're always gone before anyone can count them right."

"I had very little time to access his crew." Regrettable, that, and he's already been chided for his hastiness, but getting Judal away from the man was far more important at the time. "He does have a Fanalis under his employ. There's no telling who else he has on that ship."

"A Fanalis is no great issue, if you know he's coming. Did you sense much magic?" Boring, and stupid, that he's wasting his high on talking strategy, Koumei muses, not quite aware when he'd let his head hang off the side of the love seat, or his feet start walking up the wall. "Any magicians?"

"From the pirate king himself, but he's only a dungeon capturer. Manageable enough, no matter how many dungeons he has underneath his belt." Ja'far barely spares Koumei's antics a glance, far more content to enjoy his own pipe. The wonders it does for his stress headaches, honestly. "No magicians that I saw, anyway. I doubt he carts them around on his boat, either."

"No matter how many dungeons he has," Koumei points out, "he can only equip one at a time. Like a man owning several swords, he's no more formidable than a man who wields one properly. Could you kill him?"

"Yes." The reply is delivered without hesitation, and Ja'far leans back, contemplative. "Especially without my usual charge to keep an eye on simultaneously. Otherwise, I would have killed him already."

Koumei nods, and it makes the blood pump oddly in his head, so he swivels around to lay properly on the love seat again. "Then he's just a man. Boring. Just set his ship on fire when it comes into harbor, and he's not even a captain." He blinks at Ja'far. "How sure are you that he's coming?"

That would be satisfying, wouldn't it? Ja'far makes a note to do just that. "Men are predictable, so yes, he's coming. Judal made him an offer and I'm certain he wants to claim it."

Koumei snorts. "I've heard he's bold, but to sail into Kou to try and steal our prized Oracle? He's got to be stupid or a lot more powerful than you say he is." He's starting to get cold now, and he tugs a blanket over himself, suddenly very discontent with how alone he is on the love seat. "Men aren't that predictable. If they were, he wouldn't even exist."

"I'm sure he thinks himself quite powerful, but that doesn't mean I couldn't kill him. And you," Ja'far dismisses, tipping the ash from his pipe to refill it, "of all people, should know how predictable men are. Sinbad seems to be one a slave to his vices, if all the rumors are true, and he proved it well enough in one night. If he arrives, then he will be dealt with, plain and simple."

"Nothing wrong with vices," Koumei says mildly, "if you keep them in their proper place." He stretches, enjoying the little pleasurable tingles in his arms and legs. "You have nice legs," he notices, with a slight frown. "Why do you always keep them covered? You're not exactly shy."

Ja'far contemplates tipping hot ash onto Koumei next. Then again, burning princes is generally frowned upon. "Why are you looking at my legs in the first place?"

"I was upside down," Koumei points out logically. "They're pretty nice. Is it a modesty thing?"

"I wasn't aware it was a crime to wear pants, Your Highness." Ah, yes, because he truly wants another prying eye looking upon the proof of some of his greatest failures, all compounded into one. "If you're done with your report, I can call a servant to escort you back to your rooms."

Koumei rolls his eyes. "If I thought you were going to be pissy about it I wouldn't have brought it up, forget it." He lets his legs slide down to the floor, slowly managing to get upright. "I'll make it back myself, don't worry. The worst that can happen is I fall down in the hall and people walk on me." Which doesn't sound too bad, all things considered.

Ja'far just stares at him, exhaling more smoke. "If that's your cup of tea, do be sure to drink it a good distance from here." This family. All of them are damnably strange.

"Not to worry. I'll have my tea in my room," Koumei drawls with a lazy grin. "And not alone." He slips out the door, meandering back to what's (hopefully) waiting for him in his bed.

Ja'far did not become Assassin courtesy of poor planning.

He can count on one hand the mistakes he's made in his years of serving Al-Sarmen's cause. He can count on both legs and on his back the times that those mistakes were worthy of punishment-all foolish, disobedient moves, fully deserving of the ugly scars he bears. He rather deserves the looks of pity, or odd, disgusted awe over the marks whenever he bears his skin to another. It's a reminder, if nothing else, of what he should do to prevent even more of those scars, to prevent another moment where he sits bloody and cold on a stone floor, sewing up his own legs like a rag doll.

It's why he's been careful, preparing for Sinbad's arrival.

Perhaps Koumei thinks the pirate less than predictable, or even too powerful for them to handle, but Ja'far knows better. He's met the man in person, and regarded him with scorn then, even a few paces away. That being said, he isn't to be taken too lightly, no more likely than Kouen should be on a given day, with all of his djinns at his disposal and a wealthy supply of magoi to draw upon.

Sinbad comes, predictably, and blazes through the first wave they send out, soldiers and Al-Sarmen magicians alike. It's to buy time, a distraction when Sinbad waltzes up to the palace, and Ja'far leaves Kouen to wait for him.

"I'll be back," is his low promise in Kouen's ear, a cold stare fixed upon Sinbad for all of a second before he's a blur lost in the sand, the long swish of his hair flipping over his shoulder and brushing a tanned cheek the last touch he offers Kou's Second Prince.

The Sindria-a stupidly arrogant name for a ship, Ja'far thinks, upon setting eyes on it. Ja'far has to wonder if the pirate tries to make all things bear a portion of his name as a method of boosting his own ego. No matter. Burning it should land a decent blow, and make that ego feel a nice, solid sting.

Masrur is glad, at first, to see the assassin.

They can talk, he thinks. He's had a few things he wants to hear, and he thinks he knows fairly well where the man is coming from. There are some questions the Captain probably won't take the time to ask, knowing his policy regarding Al-Sarmen, and Masrur wants answers, for Sin's sake.

So when he sees the assassin, at first, he's glad. Even if the man is here to kill him or Sin, that's just a job. It's nothing personal, no more than it's personal when they occasionally fight back a lot harder than they need to, when an enemy ship tries to board them, ravaging it for supplies.

Then he sees what the man carries, and everything changes.

The Sindria is Masrur's home. Yes, it's Sinbad's transportation, most prized possession, weapon of choice, but it's also his home, Masrur's home, the home of everyone who sails under Sinbad's flag.

So it's just a matter of stopping him.

It's not the first time Masrur has stopped an assassin. He'd come out of the first encounter with one startled and wounded, and Sinbad had given him excellent advice at his bedside, helpfully attacking him off-guard for the next year until he got used to how fast the first strike would come. Speed is his enemy here, and with Al-Sarmen it's always a mistake to give them a way out, or to assume they won't tear their own bound arms off in order to escape.

Masrur looks down the dock, and nods once. Before the assassin can see him, he moves, bracing a foot against the ground and shoving, using every ounce of that speed to take him to the assassin's side. In the same movement, he wraps an arm securely around the man's slender waist from behind and lets out all his strength, driving his fist down at the ground, dragging the man with him into the ensuing sinkhole.

The problem with planning is there's always that chance to leave something out. Worse, the problem here is it isn't Sinbad who is the unpredictable one.

It's so ridiculous that he doesn't even have the mind to process it until his back hits the ground, a solid thump that takes the breath out of him for all of a second before he lunges, twists and snarls as he wrenches himself free of the Fanalis's hold-or, more accurately, squirms his way free all too like a snake before shoving a blade underneath Masrur's chin, chest still heaving from the breath he hasn't quite caught.

"I will gladly burn you with your captain's ship, should you continue to hinder me," Ja'far lowly hisses, a twitching jerk of his head sending the obnoxious tail of his hair over his shoulder and out of his face again. "Now keep your distance while I let myself out of this little prison you think you've devised."

Masrur nods in agreement, standing back to let the assassin try and climb out of a circular hole maybe fifty feet deep. Then, the second he has the slightest opening, he places one big hand on the assassin's chest and slams him to the ground, holding him down with a bare hint of strength. He lays a leg across the man's arms, then slams his other hand into the wall, sending it crumbling down in giant rocks on top of them, taking each blow to his head and back in stride, crouching over the assassin to make sure he's shielded from the worst of the debris.

When the dust settles, they're alone, in a hole almost large enough to stand up in, about two paces across in any direction.

Masrur doesn't move.

Instinct bids him to kill.

Through the settling dust, Ja'far can see Masrur clearly-very clearly, in fact, and his sight wants to immediately focus on the thud of his pulse in his neck, or any other major arteries that would be so pleasant to sever right then.

The unfortunate thing about it all is that he can't move, and the slightest twitch of his muscles to test exactly how much leeway he has proves he has absolutely none.

Damn it.

Ja'far sees red, and it takes a long moment before he can tell himself not to hyperventilate, to not gnash his teeth and spit and snarl and squirm to get away, hoping to land a stab or slice or three in the process. It would be one thing if he had some sort of distance on this Fanalis. There would be no contest, and he'd be dead, but in close quarters, it's something else entirely.

Also, he's held down like a pinned bug, and that does everything but wonders for his temper.

"… You," he slowly, calmly begins, "are going to release me. Right now."

Masrur is quiet for a moment, as if pondering his answer. Then, at last he says, "No."

A flare of anger makes him lurch up-a bad idea, when it sort of makes one of his ribs crack. "Let me go," is Ja'far's low snarl, "or I'll skin the meat from your bones. What do you want?" Of course he wants something, otherwise he would have allowed him to be killed far before now.

The question doesn't make quite sense, so simple is the (obvious, to Masrur) answer. "You were going to burn my home. I didn't want you to. So you are here."

Ja'far's eyes narrow to slits. "Your captain brought that on himself. Now release me, and let me deal with him accordingly."

"No." He'd thought it was a simple enough answer, but apparently this man thinks he can change Masrur's mind by giving him more orders. That's an interesting idea. Not a particularly accurate one.

Ja'far rather wishes the idiot was holding him by an arm or a leg. He'd chew it off in an instant and be done with this. "So, what?" he mockingly snaps back. "You intend to keep me here for how long, exactly? Your captain's blood is spilling on the palace steps right about now. A lot of good it's doing you."

"You're very angry," Masrur says quietly, "for someone who isn't going anywhere. You're using up all the air."

And whose fault is that, exactly? Ja'far's teeth set themselves into a grind. "Perhaps I wouldn't be so angry if you weren't holding me down," he lowly retorts. Of all the ways he expected to die, this was not among them.

"If I don't hold you down, you'll kill me and leave," Masrur points out. "I don't see why I shouldn't hold you down."

"Because I am going to find a way to kill you, regardless. It all depends on how quickly."

Masrur thinks that over for a moment, then nods. "If you're going to kill me no matter what," he says logically, "then I'll just keep you away from my Captain as long as I can."

Ja'far wonders if he can somehow slit his own throat to end the inconvenience of it all, sooner rather than later.

It isn't going to matter much what Al-Sarmen does to his corpse if he dies down in this hole, but it's more the principle of the matter. He hates losing. He hates being trapped, and he hates anyone that manages to get some sort of upper hand, this Fanalis included in spades.

"Fine. Release me," he lowly tries again, "and it won't be your death that I seek." Not yet, anyway. "You've made it nigh impossible for me to escape, and I am of little use dead, so I'll make a point of not hyperventilating in this little cage you've devised."

Masrur looks at the man very carefully. It's times like these that he wishes Sin were around to tell him for sure; he's so much better at understanding the true nature of a person, Masrur's seen it time and time again. "Just remember," he says, and withdraws his hand, shifting back to let the smaller man up, "I can get us out of here in an instant. And I won't do it for a threat on my life."

Ja'far immediately contemplates digging. His hand slaps back against the side of the hole, lips twisting into a scowl. The earth is too hard for any sort of effective attempt at that. "If I wanted you dead," he lowly retorts, eyes flickering back to Masrur, "you would have been dead already, rest assured."

Masrur settles into a kneeling position, watching the assassin impassively. Such an angry man, but he doesn't seem cruel, and he at least hadn't tried to kill him immediately after saying he wouldn't. Maybe he hadn't needed Sinbad's advice after all. He closes his eyes, and immediately realizes what's so irritating and threatening about the man-even Masrur's nose can't smell a thing, beyond the background fragrances of his clothing and all the smells clinging to it. To a Fanalis, it's as if he's not even truly alive.

It would be better, Ja'far darkly thinks, if he did start breathing heavily and use up all of their air. The more he thinks on it, the better that sounds, considering if he survives and something has happened to any of his charges-

You better act like half the warrior you claim to be for once, Kouen, and not some idle-minded fool.

Well, he's fucked. "Hundreds of men would kill to have me cornered," he irritably tosses to Masrur all the same, "and you intend to merely sit and stare at me, rather than attempt to peel any information from my bones. To what do I owe this honor?"

Masrur blinks. "I'm not an interrogator. I wasn't trying to get anything from you. I just didn't want you burning my home."

Fantastic. It's going to be a boring wait to his death. "And yet your esteemed captain is undoubtedly doing the same to my charges'," Ja'far lowly retorts, "when they incited none of it. Do you think him so much more honorable?"

"Yes."

Ah. Red flashes before his eyes again. He is so very done.

Probably, Sinbad is that much more of an honorable man. Ja'far doesn't care. In fact, he's never given a damn about honor, or at least, he hasn't for at least a decade and a half now. It's the sheer, frustrating fact that he is here that riles his blood more than anything, and it's a dagger that he draws rather than his customary blades, lurching forward with as much speed as he can gather in such tight quarters to have the thing at Masrur's neck.

Masrur doesn't move.

Rather, Masrur hardly moves.

It doesn't take much movement to bring his hand up, holding it nearly extended, wrapped loosely around the assassin's neck. Humans are so much more breakable than earth, something Masrur's always been ambivalent about. "So, that's what your word is worth," he says quietly, not moving, feeling the thrum of the man's pulse under his skin.

"Kill me, then," Ja'far flatly snaps back, eyes sharply narrowed. His breath doesn't so much as hitch, no matter how he know, very well, how quickly Masrur could snap his neck. "If you are so surprised about the worth of my word, then Sinbad employs far more idiots than I thought. Think about who I am, boy."

"I don't know who you are." Masrur hesitates for a moment, then drops his arm. One of them has to break the stalemate, either by giving way or killing the other, so speeding it along is for the best. "Show me."

Ja'far's fingers twitch from the effort it takes not to dive at the Fanalis's throat yet again.

The dagger finds its way buried into the earth instead, a slow, measured hiss escaping from between Ja'far's teeth. Sinbad is the idiot, then. It's for the best, really, if he doesn't know who or what he's dealing with before marching into Kou, but it does him little good if he's trapped in a hole. "The Assassin, Ja'far," he cooly introduces himself. "At current, I am assigned here, and your captain has decided to lay hand upon my current post. You can see why this is a problem."

"Not really." Masrur leans back, back resting against the wall. "If he's your task, why not just let Sinbad kill him? Less work."

Ja'far snorts at that. "I highly doubt Sinbad has interest in killing the Oracle, unless I am greatly misunderstanding our last meeting," he retorts. "That being said, my task is to keep him alive and residing safely within Kou. He belongs to this empire, not your captain."

"Ah. My mistake. I thought you said you were the Assassin."

"And because of that, there is no one more qualified to protect the Oracle of Kou." No matter how loathsome of a task it tends to be. Ja'far's head cocks. "Does your captain tell you nothing, or is he just as unaware?" Hilarious, if that's the case, considering how obvious they've been about it. "The Kou Empire has long enlisted the services of my group. The Oracle is merely one of its many perks."

Masrur nods slowly. "They must put a great deal of trust in you." Long, long ago, Sinbad had told him with a grin that people would be more eager to tell him things if he kept his mouth shut and acted like a simpleton. Yet again, Sin had been right.

"They expect me to do my job. Let me out of this hole to do it, and I'll spare your life."

Masrur doesn't move. He'd said before that his life isn't worth passage out of this hole, and whether Ja'far believes him or not, he hadn't been joking. There are more important things in life than fighting to keep it-Sin had taught him that. It still applies, even when Sin isn't here.

Loyalty, then-that would almost be cute, if Ja'far gave a damn. "Fine, then." He wrenches the dagger from the ground, and promptly turns to begin using it as a chisel.

Sinbad is wrong. A lot of the time, he says Masrur doesn't have a sense of humor. That's wrong.

He sure finds this funny.

He sits back, unsmiling, and waits.

Even without the sun as a guide, Ja'far can easily calculate the passage of time. Too long, his mind screams at him when he's only chiseled out a small hole in the wall, no matter how dust from the effort makes him fight back sneezing and his hands seem inclined to blister from the amount of force it takes to drive a knife into hard earth. His teeth grind, sweat beading on his brow, and there's that distinct feeling that he's being laughed at, something he never appreciates.

He throws the dagger, and it buries itself into the earth just to the side of Masrur's head. "Am I entertaining you?"

"Yes." Masrur pauses, then adds, "Thank you."

Ja'far wants to scream. "What, exactly, do you think you're accomplishing through all of this?" he fairly snarls, whirling back around to face the other man. "How long do you intend to keep me here? You've said it yourself-the air could easily run out, is it worth your own pathetic life?"

"Is it worth yours?" Ah, the assassin-sorry, The Assassin-is getting angry again, really angry.

"Considering it seems to be your prerogative to kill me either way, what the hell does it matter?" Ja'far snaps. "Release me, inform me of whatever point there is to keeping me here, or I'll speed this along."

"I'm not trying to kill you." Masrur says it as if it's obvious, and it is. He hadn't had to come in the hole with the assassin, after all. "I wanted to talk to you. Then I saw the matches, so I wanted to keep you away from the ship. That's all."

"Talk to me-" Oh, that's laughable. "Then go ahead and talk to me, Fanalis. Stop wasting our time."

Masrur takes long minutes, choosing his words carefully. "Do you believe in the mission of Al-Sarmen?"

It's hardly the question he expects. More likely, always, are questions about Al-Sarmen logistics, to which Ja'far tends to roll his eyes. This, though… this is a bit humorous still, and Ja'far snorts, sagging back into the little indentation he's made for himself. "I serve my masters well. It's all of little consequence to me, so long as my work is completed to their specifications."

Masrur nods. Maybe Sin was wrong again, and he is getting better at reading people, because it's about the answer he'd expected. He thinks about it, about what kind of person this Ja'far must be-not ambitious, but dedicated. Not personable, but efficient. "Why did you choose them to be your masters?"

"They seemed to think I was qualified." Odd, for so much interest in him. Ja'far finds that a dozen times more annoying than any sort of usual interrogation.

"So you were looking for masters?"

Ja'far stares back at him impassively. "Not particularly. I was taken in from the streets. It was work, so I did it. Do you ask every one of my comrades how they came into their position?"

"No. Sin usually kills them before I have a chance."

"Pleasant." I would enjoy seeing him attempt to kill me.

"Why not leave?" Masrur stares at the man, watching him deflect, snap sarcastically, fidget.

"Do I give the impression that I loathe my work so very much?" Well, he supposes he does detest parts of it, primarily acting as a babysitter. "I have no desire to leave."

"It isn't that you seem like you loathe it. It's that you seem like you don't care."

Ja'far's head tilts. "And you think I have something to care about outside of following orders."

Masrur absorbs that for a minute, then carefully says, "People must seem very strange to you."

"In general, yes. And stupid."

Masrur mostly just thinks they're silly and loud, except Sin and the crew. Sin always knows what's appropriate, and always understands what people are feeling. He'd definitely be better at this, but Masrur is the only one in the hole with the assassin. "So why serve anyone?" Don't just tell me you don't have a choice, I think you're smarter and more alive than that.

"It's easier to stay busy than to lay down and die." Ja'far's eyebrows slowly raise. "Al-Sarmen just happens to have quite a bit of work to be done, and appreciate my efficiency."

Masrur nods slowly. Now, he understands. "I was like that. Before I met Sin."

Ja'far thinks he's starting to understand the line of questioning now. "Lovely. Good for you. He seems like a decidedly worthless wretch, I'm so glad he could bring value to your life."

"So am I." Masrur can't quite figure out how to say what he'd intended, so he falls silent again, watching the assassin.

Or not.

Ja'far can't quite stop the annoyed sigh from escaping. "What do you want from me?" he bluntly asks.

That's a good question. Masrur isn't quite sure of the answer. "We've been...killing people from Al-Sarmen for a while, now," he says slowly. "They all want to die for their cause, and they love killing for it. You seemed different. I wanted to know why."

"Did it ever occur to you that maybe I have enough assignments on my plate, and killing anyone extra or for fun merely makes more unnecessary work and trouble for myself?" That's only half of it, honestly, but Masrur needn't know that. Ja'far has equally little desire to die for any cause. If he's going to die, it would be best to avoid anything terribly melodramatic, after all.

Masrur looks up, meeting his eyes. "Is that the answer?" he asks, voice quiet and serious. Sin uses vocal tricks like that sometimes, asking Would you really think I'm the kind of person who'd do something like that? Or What would you say if I asked you to ask me a question?, things that tie his brain in knots. Masrur is hardly slow, but Sinbad's mind gallops a thousand miles a minute, and he sometimes forgets that he doesn't need to trick his crew into doing what he wants, he can just order them. Then again, most people seem to find his antics amusing.

Annoying.

Annoying as Koumei poking the issue about his legs, or Kouen's flirtations, or Judal whining, telling him to be fun for a change. It gives Ja'far headaches, all of it. Work is much easier, much simpler, and he doesn't feel anywhere near as tired by the end of it as he does actually dealing with living people.

"… Does it bother you so much," he eventually drawls, stretching his legs out carefully, "to think that I don't need saving? That I have no desire to follow your captain around?"

Masrur blinks. "I don't think he'd want you to. He doesn't like Al-Sarmen. I'm just trying to figure out why you're different from the rest of them."

"Good, because I don't like him." Ja'far snorts, dismissive. "You've answered your own question already. I don't care. Killing isn't a sport, it's a job."

"But you don't serve a company, or a king. You serve a cause."

"I answer the orders handed down to me." He looks at Masrur, annoyed. "You're very tiresome. It isn't so complicated as you think."

Masrur nods slowly. "I think you're right. I was seeing more than there was to you."

"Considering I make a habit of blending in with the sand, that is more than likely true." Ja'far holds out his hand. "Give me my dagger back. If you're quite finished, I'm going to go back to digging."

Masrur pulls the dagger out of the wall, looks at it for a minute, then bends it into a U-shape. "No."

So taken by surprise is he that his jaw drops for a second before he catches himself, seething. "Do you think that's the only one I have on my person?" Ja'far grinds out, even though he's less than inclined to ruin his wired blades by burying them in the dirt, and the other dagger strapped to his thigh was a gift on a mostly-guessed birthday, far more suited to flesh than chipping away at earth and stone. Not that it matters particularly, because given the situation, they're all better than nothing, but-

At least the indentation he's managed to dig out is big enough to curl up in. He promptly shoves himself inside, and folds himself up into a surprisingly small ball.

Masrur hadn't quite been prepared for the assassin to curl up and pout. It's shockingly endearing. God, the man must be so lonely, thinking everyone is confusing and stupid the way he does. He can't think of anything that would change that, though, so he settles himself in, closes his eyes, and thinks of sea breezes.