Kouen is not a stupid man.
Sometimes he thinks it would be easier to be one, unable to see the people in his world being moved about like pieces on a chess board, knowing himself to be the hidden king, and the idea of it makes him shudder very deep down where no one can see. He can see the way Al-Sarmen moves, his supposed friends, and it doesn't bother him that they're out to get something from him. Everyone is, in any alliance.
What bothers him is that they'd sent people he likes.
It's why he enlists his brothers' help, why Ha distracts the agent with quick words and a bright smile while Mei switches the potion out for simple syrup, an hour before Kouen sneaks into Judal's room.
Judal is barely stirring, free of the drug's influence for the first time in months, and Kouen sits on the bed, brushing the hair from the Magi's eyes. You should have just picked me. Would I have been so bad a king? What do you know that I don't?
"Judal. Can you wake up a little?"
For a moment, the words float through his mind as if he's still underwater. Everything is still a bit of a bleary haze, achy and bogged down, but it's more of a lingering effect than anything, and once he's fully awake, it's not nearly so bad.
Besides, Kouen is petting him, sort of. He's warm, and Judal can't help but butt his head against the palm of his hand, turning slowly to the side to flop against the man's hip-or well, he tries to. The one chain that links a wrist to a bedpost hinders the movement slightly, and Judal whines in protest, eyes cracking open as he frowns. "En?" Huh. It's been awhile since he's seen En.
Kouen scoots forward, letting Judal flop onto him despite the restraints. No use tipping his hand and letting Al-Sarmen know he's in here by messing with them, not yet. "It's me. How are you feeling?"
"Weiiiird." That's an understatement. Judal blinks blearily, and he properly sets his head against Kouen's thigh, his pupils still a little too-dilated when he looks up. "Everything feels weird… you're warm, though," he murmurs, eyes sliding half-shut.
"You'll feel less weird soon. The drugs they've been giving you should wear off in an hour." Kouen strokes the side of Judal's face, a pang of longing for something long gone going through him. "You can sleep it off a little more if you want."
"Don't wanna. You're here."
Judal promptly wriggles closer-as much closer as he can get, at any rate, and makes a slow, pawing grab at Kouen's chest. "Why haven't you been visiting me? I missed you. Where's Ja'far?"
"Ja'far is out on a mission. Your new keeper is less….indulgent." Kouen's face is sour, and there's little doubt of his opinion of the new keeper Al-Sarmen had sent. "We might not have too long, Ha and Mei are distracting him."
"Don't like him." Judal huffs, rolling over a bit when his world starts becoming clearer by the minute, even though he still feels oddly like he's clawing his way through water or something even more… gooey. Really weird. "Wish you had been on that ship, too," he murmurs thoughtfully. "You might be a good pirate."
"But I'm not a pirate." Kouen's fingers thread through Judal's hair, and his voice is quiet, and a little sad. "I'm to be a king. I…."
He trails off, and something in his chest aches a bit. "You're never going to choose me, are you?"
Judal pauses, a frown slowly pulling at his lips, and he leans his head into Kouen's hand. "… It's not that I don't like you a lot, you know. It doesn't have anything to do with that."
Something sinks inside Kouen, some last, vague hope. His hand doesn't pause in his petting, but his voice is a little hoarse as he asks, "Am I just not good enough? I can conquer more dungeons. I can make myself a king, you've only ever had to ask."
"It's not that either! It's-it doesn't have anything to do with that, or you. Well, I mean, it does, but not… like you're thinking." Judal's brow furrows, teeth worrying into his lower lip. "I think you'd be a really good king. But… something tells me you'd be better, if I didn't pick you."
"Better than Sinbad?" Kouen asks simply, quietly.
Judal blinks slowly. "He's a pirate. He's not a king. I think on a scale of kingliness, you're better at king-y stuff by far."
"So you're not choosing at all?" Kouen frowns, and his petting gets a little more affectionate. "Al-Sarmen's not going to leave you alone until you do, you know. Probably not after either."
"I like Sinbad… but he's not good either right now," Judal says with a nod as he wriggles again, eyes lidding beneath the easy stroke of Kouen's hand. "I don't know what they want me to do. They're really scary lately, and I just… I don't like being cooped up in here. I wanna go be a pirate again."
"Sinbad's coming for you." Kouen knows it, as much as he knows anything. "He's going to kill a whole lot of people to get to you, he's really angry about his ship sinking." He worries at his lower lip, looking down at the Magi, at the boy he'd carried on his shoulder, the one who'd climbed up his arm as if he weighed nothing at all and sat on his lap long after it was appropriate just to see his face change color. "Do you think he'll take good care of you, if you go be a pirate?"
Judal pushes himself up onto an elbow at that, no matter how he wobbles. "I don't want him to kill anyone. I like Kou, and all the people here, especially in the palace." His frown deepens. "He always took care of me before. Come be a pirate with me, sometimes I get bored and he's busy."
"You know you're asking to leave Al-Sarmen, right?" Kouen asks cautiously. "Because…." He looks around the room, knowing Mei's had it swept for listening spells, and lowers his voice. "If you really want to go, I'll get you out, and make sure no one dies."
"… I don't like them. I…" A shiver runs down his spine, and Judal flops back down, eyes tired before he shuts them again. "My rukh feels weird all the time now, and it hurts. Now that Ja'far isn't here, they're all mean." Not that Ja'far was ever exactly personable, but he was a better. "I really don't want anyone to die, and it seems like if I stay, that's gonna happen."
Kouen nods. He can, at least, be decisive. "All right. Then I want you to do something for me, all right? You have to pretend to sleep more for the rest of the day. And don't tell anyone about this." He closes his eyes, fastens his hands around the chain, and pulls. One link comes free, and he pushes it mostly back into place, exhaling. "Just pretend to be a sleep all day, Mei's spell won't last forever. I'll come get you once it gets dark."
"You're serious? But-" Judal makes a grabbing motion for Kouen's robes again, worry clear as day over his face. "Are you gonna come with me? What if they find out it's you that helped me leave?"
Kouen firms his jaw. There are some things worth his ambition, really. "Then Hakuyuu will be a good king. Go on, lie down, I have to go."
"I'm not gonna let them hurt you," Judal insists, and he clings onehandedly to Kouen's arm. "I told you, I like you. Even… even if you don't come with me, I'll make sure nothing happens to you." Somehow. Sinbad can understand that idea, surely, so he'd help.
Cute, that Judal fancies himself Kouen's protector. Judal's always been pretty cute. "I like you, too. That's why I'm helping you." Kouen squeezes Judal's hand. "What was it like? Running around and not having to listen to anyone?"
Judal's nose wrinkles. "I still had to l listen to people. Ja'far's always bossy. And Sinbad still tells me what to do sometimes, but he says it's to keep me safe, so… mostly I listened, especially after I made a storm and that was a bad idea."
"But you weren't having to wear what they tell you, and go where they tell you, and be what they tell you, and no one was drugging you or trying to make you choose, right?" Kouen brushes his thumb over the back of Judal's hand. "Sounds like the life you've always wanted."
"Well, yeah, that's all true…" Judal agrees, his eyes lidding as he switches his grip around to squeeze Kouen's hand back. "Girls are bad luck to have on the ship," he very seriously says, "but you can still come back and visit Hakuei and everything. You know, if you come."
"Look at you, talking like a pirate already." Kouen's voice is light, but his heart twists at the idea of not having Ei there, Ei to come home to, Ei waiting for him as soon as she comes of age, Ei waiting to hear his poetry in the gardens. He's not going, never cared about being a pirate, but just the idea of not seeing her turn to see his approach, smiling at the sight of him, makes him cold. "Lie still now. Don't get up for any reason. I'll be back after sundown."
"… All right," is the eventual, reluctant reply, and Judal sighs as he flops back down. Still wish you'd come, though.
Sinbad had expected Kou to figure they're coming.
He hadn't expected Al-Sarmen to react like this.
The walls of the palace are as ready for him as any place has ever been, more secure than any dungeon, and with so many guards that Sinbad writes off a frontal assault. Even if he could get in, and he's fairly certain he can, getting Judal out without any of them getting injured sounds like a shot too long, even for him.
He grabs Ja'far's arm, taking him to a small tavern instead, trying to regroup over a plate of food. "Right," he mutters. "You said you had plans for getting me into Kou, and they worked. Any for how to get in to the Palace?"
It's less a surprise to Ja'far exactly how fortified the palace is, but no less a disheartening one. Sinbad is a lot of things, but an assassin he isn't, so sneaking about-especially sneaking out, with Judal in tow-isn't exactly a task Ja'far thinks him capable of. "How good are you at blending in with the sand?" is his dry retort at he picks at his food.
"I owned a beige shirt once," Sinbad offers. "Apart from that-well, you've seen me in the desert. Could you do it?" He takes a swig of beer, churning the situation over in his head. "Judal trusts you, you're far stealthier than I could ever hope to be, and you know the place like the back of your hand."
"… Yes," Ja'far carefully begins, "but the palace is also crawling with Al-Sarmen right now. There's a good chance one of them is a higher ranking magician, and that simply won't bode well at all. Perhaps I can serve as a distraction, and you can sweep him off his feet through the window."
"I'm a far more distracting distraction," Sinbad points out. "You, they'd either shoot down immediately or try to tinker with your brain. You know they have orders to capture and try to turn me, so they'll be at least marginally more cautious about taking me prisoner. I'll be the distraction, you go in."
Ja'far sighs, briefly shutting his eyes in irritation. "You're missing the point. If something goes wrong, Judal doesn't want to go with me. He wants to go with you. So you get him, and I'll deal with anyone that gets in your way."
"Unacceptable." Sinbad takes a big bite, waving a hand in dismissal. "I don't trust you to work hard enough to get out of there alive."
A blank stare follows that. "I can assure you I have no desire to die just yet. Either way, though, this isn't about me."
"So you think." Sinbad reaches across the table, a sudden urgency in his expression, his voice, as he grips Ja'far's shoulders. His eyes are intent, and he says quietly, "We're getting out of this. Both of us. No matter what happens, we're getting out of this, and you're coming with me forever."
Ja'far blinks, frowning down at the hands on his shoulders before looking back up to hesitantly meet Sinbad's eyes. "But you don't know that. And it's better not to plan for things like that, in situations like this. It's better if you manage to get Judal out, regardless of everything else."
Sinbad nods slowly. "I do plan on getting Judal out. I'm going to. And you're coming with us, and I'm not letting that go. I'll find some little island somewhere and make a kingdom, Judal will shape it with the forces of creation, and you'll do my paperwork. That's the way this story ends."
"But-" You don't know that. He almost says it again, though to not risk sounding like a wind up doll, Ja'far shuts his mouth, his frown deepening. This is supposed to be about Judal, not him. He has made it about Judal the second he met up with Sinbad again-or tried to, at the very least, so for this to be brought up now…
It makes his heart clench in his chest, and Ja'far sinks back, drawing in a slow, steady breath. "I was supposed to kill you, you know. That was my assignment, after retrieving Judal. Even if we get out of this both alive, how can you trust that will never happen, through Al-Sarmen's control?"
Sinbad takes another sip of beer, shrugging. "Lots of people will try to kill me in my life. Not the man I'm sitting with here, now. If you ever do, I'll know it was either none of your control, or I've done something so bad I deserve death." His eyes don't waver. "This isn't optional. I'm leaving Kou with you."
Ja'far's eyes slide sideways, turning the words over in his mind as he tries not to start visibly worrying at his lip or letting any of the dozen thoughts he has play over his face. It's stupid. Sinbad's an idiot, and Ja'far has known that from the very start. This is simply the icing on the cake, apparently.
At the same time, it's… good.
He sucks in a slow breath. "… If I can't kill you," he quietly says after another moment, "then at least let me protect you."
The words have an element of finality, of contract to them, and Sinbad nods once, decisively. "You have yourself a deal."
"As long as you still do my paperwork."
"If it continues to be the mess that it was before, then no one else is capable."
There's a plan in place, somewhat, at least now that Ja'far has promised not to die. Sinbad still isn't thrilled with it, but at least they'll both be in danger, and that makes it a bit more okay.
At least, he's fine with it until they start down the street, and a hooded man grabs Ja'far by the arm and yanks him into an alley, holding him by the throat. "Tell him to stand down," the man says to Sinbad, a large sack over his shoulder. "You know who I am."
There aren't many people that can grab him and haul him around so easily, and for a moment, even Ja'far is stunned, a sharp grab for a dagger at his hip thwarted when he actually takes a split second to look.
"… Kouen?" Ja'far's hand slides away from the dagger in short order, and he sags back, blinking when the sack on the man's shoulder sort of… wiggles. "Sinbad-don't hurt him," he quickly adds.
Kouen doesn't pull the hood back from his face, but his hand relaxes, and he lets it fall from Ja'far's neck. "Good, you still know me. I…." His eyes dart to the man with murder in his eyes, and he can't help the frustrated little growl. I still like you, Judal says in his mind, and Ja'far tells him they work well together.
At least Ei likes me best. Probably, he thinks, a little miserably. He hands over the sack, warning, "Don't drop it."
"Is that…" Ja'far trails off, pushing away from the wall as he reaches out to idly touch the sack in question. It kicks, and Ja'far stares, looking from it and then back to Kouen. "Do you have any idea what you're doing? This could get you killed."
"And you're a fine one to preach caution," Kouen snaps, getting more annoyed by the second. "I can make decisions for myself too. Maybe I don't want the power given to me by keeping this thing drugged and prisoner." His face darkens, and he pulls his hood further up. "He's never going to choose me anyway, he might as well be free."
"'m not a thin'-"
Ja'far calmly pretends he doesn't hear Judal's protests. "The difference is you're walking right back into lion's den, having made these decisions," he lowly points out. "Al-Sarmen is going to know it's you that brought Judal from the palace, and I… you know I have no power to do anything about it." He swallows, glancing aside as his voice drops. "No matter how thankful I am. Why are you all such idiots?"
"Because you're always saying you're the smart one," Kouen retorts, "so why should we try? Besides, I should have listened to Ren and Mei and Yuu years ago, we're going to force them out of Kou. Be our own country, not their puppet. Father's never liked them."
"Well, good luck with that now! Do you have any idea how thoroughly Al-Sarmen is entrenched within your government and finances?" Ja'far hisses back. "My god, Kouen, what do you think you're going to do? Walk up to each agent and run them through? You don't even know half of the people that are part of Al-Sarmen."
"Unless you're volunteering to stay and help," Kouen says dryly, "I suggest you worry more about how to get this past them and back to your ship, Captain."
Sinbad hefts the sack experimentally, raising an eyebrow. "He's right, we should go."
There's that wave of irritation again.
No, it isn't quite irritation. It's… well, whatever it is, it makes his head hurt, and makes stress bubble up more sharply than ever. Ja'far sucks in a slow breath, and he yanks open the bag from his hip, pulling out what appears to be a pot of ink and a quill. "Go, I'll catch up," he firmly tells Sinbad, and turns his attention back to Kouen. "Give me your arm. I'm going to write down the names of the higher officials that you don't know about, at least. This ink has a spell on it, so it'll disappear unless exposed to certain magics, so keep a good magician at your side and read it properly later before you wash it off."
Kouen's mouth twitches, and he holds out his arm, watching Sinbad disappear from the mouth of the alley, sack in tow. "We're all going to miss you, you know. Me especially."
"God forbid if you don't have anyone to wake you from your dozing to go recite poems in the garden," Ja'far mutters, pushing up Kouen's cloak and robes to carefully begin writing out each name. Even if he says that, his chest does tighten a bit, and Ja'far heaves a sigh. "Don't think about me. Get your country in order, don't let Al-Sarmen turn you or anyone else, and just… wait for the day you can form an alliance with that idiot's country," he adds, a jerk of his head over his shoulder following.
Kouen raises an eyebrow. "He's really doing it, then? Judal seemed to doubt he was fit to be a king, but….I mean, why else would he follow the man around half the world like a sad puppy? I think he's already chosen, whether he wants to admit it or not." His other hand reaches out, clasping Ja'far's shoulder. "Take care of yourself? I know you aren't good at that, but make an effort."
"He's no king… yet," Ja'far murmurs, finishing the last name before drawing back and shaking his quill off with a sigh as the words fade on Kouen's skin. "I think you're right about Judal. That's not why I'm taking him from you, though. You know that." Ja'far glances up, frowning. "And I take care of myself just fine."
Kouen gives him a little shove. "Go. You should try and be happy, if you can. Not everyone can, in this world." Ah, that would make a nice poem. Maybe Ei will like it. No, there's war to think about now.
"Keep a magician by your side," Ja'far insists again, hesitation marking his steps when he finally does turn. He shouldn't be hesitant at all, but of all the people he's worked with-no, more properly, known within the Kou Empire… "And think less about poems for five seconds."
That sours Kouen's mood a bit, but he inclines his head nonetheless, a hand rising to stroke his beard contemplatively. Yes, that's a good final image to leave Ja'far with.
Ja'far gives him a last, put out stare before turning on his heel entirely and disappearing into the night. Honestly, of all the people in the world, Kouen certainly admires his facial hair like none other.
It's endearing, if he squints.
More important than the odd, worried pang in his chest at leaving the man behind is catching up with Sinbad, however, and Ja'far does so in short order, his sigh at the sack still thrown over the man's shoulder announcing his presence. "A rather inelegant way to transport something this important, I think."
"The cargo enjoys it," Sinbad says with a grin. "I'm transporting bait. Giant worms. Very wriggly. Need to be tickled just right."
"Worms aren't ticklish," Ja'far deadpans, and the sack kicks again, wriggling within Sinbad's hold. "Whatever. Let's just get to the ship already and leave as soon as we can-Kouen isn't going to get out of this cleanly, and neither are we, at this rate."
"Then let's make certain his efforts are worth something." Sinbad tugs on Ja'far's arm, and starts striding through the streets, not appearing to move very quickly, but covering ground at a rapid pace nonetheless.
That's when he sees his ship bobbing gently in the harbor.
He squints to see any sign of Sharrkan at the wheel, narrowing his eyes.
A smear of blood winds its way across the deck, ending in a crumpled heap of a dozen bodies piled together, at the feet of one tall, black-robed man.
To think they'd have any, any hope of a clean getaway is laughable. Ja'far isn't sure why he hoped so dearly for it.
"Assassin." Isnan's drawl cuts through the night's air, the slick drag of his scythe sliding through blood following as he casually lifts it. "Lovely of you, to bring the Oracle right back to us after he'd been stolen away."
Ja'far's swallow is a slow, measured one, and his blades are cold in his hands, fingers twitching at the ready. "I am not bringing him to you."
"At least you admit your disobedience this time. That's a good first step." Isnan steps over the bodies at his feet, his head tilting. "And you, Sinbad-you're proving to be much more trouble than you're worth."
"I was about to say the same about you." Sinbad lets his hand fall to his sword, then stops. The cold rage in him now isn't the sort of thing Baal works with, not really. It isn't heroics that entrance him now. Slowly, he hands the bag over to Ja'far, one last test. "Go, if you're going. Otherwise I'm going to put an end to this."
The deposit of Judal solidly into his arms shakes Ja'far from one trance-worried, stressed, rapidly attempting to plan-and what feels like another: mostly cold.
Looking up at Isnan, the smirk on his face, and Ja'far can't quite breathe. He can't think, either, over the sudden, sharp pain across his temples, and he takes a step back, his arms tightening about Judal in the damned sack until he hears the Magi squeak.
Go on. He bid you to return the Oracle, so do it.
Ja'far's legs shake, and when his mind wills him to move forward, the flash of a blade dropping back onto his hand is somehow faster, somehow clarifying to his thoughts for the briefest of moments. He twists, the lift of one foot up quick and precise, and with only a tremble of hesitation, the honed edge of his blade rips across the back of his ankle, cutting painfully, debilitatingly deep before he topples over, ignoring the yelp that escapes from Judal. "Sin, kill him!" Ja'far brokenly insists, and he twists back, hand trembling and fully prepared to cut his other tendon if he has to. From the aching in his head, the thudding of his pulse-"I can't-"
Sinbad hadn't expected Ja'far to go so far, but there's a savage glee in the fact that Ja'far hadn't gone, hadn't delivered Judal to his enemy, had made his own choice. Silvery power washes over him, and he barely hears the screams of the people on the wharf as he rises into the air, clothes shredded, feathers rippling over his body as his eyes flash.
Rarely has his sense of purpose ever been so cold, or so clear.
Wind roars in his ears, but he doesn't hear it, any more than he'd heard the screams of his men.
He doesn't hear his own voice, screaming, "Foraz Zora!"
He doesn't hear his ship being ripped apart, but he sees it, in a torrent of tornadoes, shattering to dust.
He fancies that in all of it, he hears Isnan scream, just once.
Then it's gone, and there's nothing left but a tiny doll, washing gently against the shore as Sinbad sinks down.
Ja'far shudders, the pull and desire to take Judal elsewhere, back into the confines of the palace lessening only marginally, and he yanks at the ties on the sack, pulling it down as he rolls off of the lump that is Judal. "Go step on it," he hurriedly insists, giving the teenager a shove. "Now."
Judal, thank god, doesn't hesitate save for to nod, and he scrambles from the sack, darting off the docks and finding the doll in short order, his bare heel grinding down into it until it shatters into dusty, delicate porcelain. Only then does the pounding in Ja'far's head lessen, and he flops down with a groan.
Sinbad hits the ground, and grabs Judal hard around the waist, moving to pick Ja'far up with his other arm, lifting him onto his hip. "Come on. We're getting out of here. Judal, pick a ship."
"Umm-" Judal, in the process of clawing his way up Sinbad's side to 'sit' on his shoulder (really, he's floating for a better view), peers around and frowns. "That one. It's a trade ship, I recognize it. I bet there's already food."
"Is that all you care about?" Ja'far crossly mutters, wincing as he twists within Sinbad's hold. "Put me down for just a second, let me bind this damned scratch-"
"Hey, look there are people swimming," Judal idly remarks.
"That's not a scratch, you almost cut your damned foot off, you're not walking on it. But I can't steal a ship while I'm carrying both of you in a hurry, so….Judal, float him, will you?"
Sinbad barely looks away from his goal, but he does cast a glance down into the water, worried for a moment that it's damned Isnan after all, doll or no doll.
His chest twists.
"Oy! Captain!" Sharrkan waves his arms, sinking as he does, only to bob up again. "Captain! Over here! Don't leave us here!"
"We're not dead yet!" Spartos insistently adds, a little frantic as he grabs briefly onto Sharrkan to keep from floundering in the water even further.
"… Just put me down," Ja'far groans, about as far from interested in being floated about as anything. "Float them, out of the water, while I at least wrap this thing up. I know I'm not going to walk on it, that's the point," he adds snappishly.
Sinbad sets Ja'far gently on the deck, commandeering the ship in a matter of seconds-funny, how the men seemed so willing to leave peaceably after they'd seen Sinbad rip another ship to shreds in the space of seconds.
He can't help the grin on his face, the shattering relief that goes through him at seeing Spartos and Sharrkan alive and on board, and the hugs he gives them are bone-crushing. "Right! Judal, whip us up a wind-a small one. New ship, new problems, let's find them out as fast as we can! Hoist the sails, weigh anchor!"
He kneels next to Ja'far as the two men run off, touching his face gently. "You did good. I'll be back as soon as we're at sea."
"It's fine." And for the first time in awhile, it is. Being able to stop something lifts a dozen weights off of his shoulders, even though he knows they'll be back later, that it might happen again-but that's a set of problems for another day, for once. Ja'far exhales a soft breath, unable to stop himself from leaning into Sinbad's touch, however fleeting. "I'm not going anywhere-"
Except, apparently, straight into Sinbad's chest when a 'small' wind makes the ship lurch rather abruptly forward. Judal, perched in mid-air, looks anything but displeased with himself.
Sinbad grins, sketching Judal a quick salute, and wraps an arm around Ja'far, turning towards the horizon. The ship has a name, he sees out of the corner of his eye. The paint is worn, and an ugly color anyway, hardly fitting for a pirate ship. No matter what it was before, the Masrur is a much better name. "There's an awful lot of paperwork out there. Think you're ready for it?"
The look Ja'far shoots Sinbad is wry for all of a second, but with a sigh, he allows himself a faint smile, his cheek pressing to the other man's shoulder. "One way or another." Maybe I'll neaten up your handwriting at some point, too.