It was also blacker than midnight in Darkmoor and wetter than Celestia. Those Bernardo Ortiz could handle. This odor, though. It was rancid and painful, like fire burning his nose and smoke squeezing his throat. He supposed he should have been accustomed to such smells by now. Despite Monquistan civility and a culture of thorough bathing and cleanliness, they never could fully eliminate their…primal scent, and their noses had adjusted accordingly over the years.
Nothing a Monquistan could create was of this magnitude. The barrel had been his prison for two full days, with reprieves to eat and rest more distanced as time drew on.
His paws fumbled at his soaked boots, sliding them off to drain the water. Many times in his life had he found his Monquistan heritage an advantage and a curse. Such as now.
The Yakooza operative in Hamamitsu had suggested smuggling them into Khotan past the Imperial closed door policy. It had been a decent idea, until a weapon’s dealer from Cool Ranch had been found in a citizen’s fishing boat. From then on, every ship was searched and checked, every hidden corner and passageway.
That was when the shop owner had sealed Bernardo’s doom. “I may not be able to bring all of you, but as long as one can slip past the checkpoint, my brothers could secure the necessary papers for you.” His grin had been the most unsettling thing Bernardo had seen. “All it would take, is one small enough to fit inside my belongings…”
And so had he been confined to his prison, wading waist-high in fish and water that’d only rise to any other man’s knees. The worst part was being forced to work with these criminals. Whatever pride he was supposed to feel from helping the crew rotted with the fish around him.
Suddenly, he felt the barrel jerk. The pitch black lightened to a ruddy dim as rough hands pried the top off. He pushed up and out, but leaned too far to the right, shrieking as the barrel tipped over. His armor hit the rock with a clang, and water and fish spilled out in every direction.
As he coughed, a deep voice sounded. “We’ve been expecting you.”
He gazed around. A vast grotto spread before him, brown rock tinted purple by the shadows. Deep lakes of standing water circled their center foothold, with narrow bridges of smooth rock that were effectively no more than stepping stones in places, the sparkling clear water giving glimpses of the occasional fish swimming through the depths. Jagged spurs of rock, each thicker than tree trunks, pierced the ceiling of the cavern to hold it aloft. Cages hung from the ceiling like festival ornaments, some filled with the local Inoshishi banditry, others filled with skeletons.
Dozens of Yakooza stood around the cave, their faces lit by the numerous candles. The one that’d opened the barrel helped him to his feet. One Yakooza of note sat ahead of the aged carcass of some decorated Mooshu skiff, behind a tea table filled with scrolls. The dragons embellishing his robe were as wicked as the ebony horns jutting from his head, fur whiter than any snow Bernardo had ever seen.
Bernardo approached, then took a seat in front of the table. As he did so, one of the Yakooza stepped up to say. “You were not given permission to sit, Pirate. You will show respect to the Oyabun.”
“I do not show respect to anarchists.” Bernardo said flatly. After two days in that barrel, he had no patience left for this. “I came for our travel papers.”
The Yakooza’s furs seemed to bristle, and his hand flew to the shortsword in his sash, as did a few others. “You would voice such dishonor against those you seek help from? You will be lucky to leave with your—”
“Enough.” The white-fur Yakooza said in a still voice, and immediately the others back down. Bernardo stared undaunted into the Oyabun’s eyes, looking up as he was. “I am Oyabun Shingen. State your name and business.”
“Bernardo Ortiz of Monquista...and the Greyfox Pirates.” He finally answered. “Our crew and ship is harbored at Hamamitsu, and we require travel papers to enter Khotan. Also, we’ve been told that the Pirate Egg Foo Yung is in your captivity. My captain has need to speak with him, and by extension, you.”
“…You think we hold Egg Foo Yung…?”
Bernardo let a sliver of triumph sneak onto his face. “We have our sources.”
Shingen didn’t respond immediately, instead taking a sip of tea from the table. “The Yakooza have our sources as well.” He reached for the kettle, and poured a glass for the Monquistan. “Ortiz…Ortiz. A familiar name. Tell me, do you know a Ricardo Ortiz?”
Bernardo’s triumph vanished, but otherwise the Monquistan revealed nothing.
“No? I thought you might have, though I hear it is a common surname.” The Oyabun took another sip. “He was the leader of the Blacktail renegades, who conspired with Fernando to assume power...”
Bernardo’s face twisted in anger and surprise. “How did you know…?”
Shingen blew on his steaming tea, and the monkey knew from his hard stare.
The Monquistan waited a few moments before his head dipped low, paws clenched. “I…I was doing so well, too. A new promotion, Captain of the Ave Maria. Though I had never agreed with my father’s distaste for the monarchy, I was still tried for familial association.” Shingen watched the monkey’s body tremble. “And for all that, Fernando still sent him off to the mines. He shattered all our lives for nothing.”
Bernardo’s beady eyes flew up. “That is why you renegades disgust me. So enamored with your ideals, but you think not of the destruction you sow. Of how many innocents are lost in your crusades….” He paused, finding a breath. “Of the children left behind who would rather have had a father than freedom.”
Shingen let him finish, then set his tea down and leaned forward some. “And yet here you are, beneath the command of a Pirate doing the same thing.”
“Under order from my queen.” Bernardo countered.
Shingen raked his fingers through some of his chin fur. “There is great danger in narrowed vision, to be sure. And we have heard much of your captain’s…accomplishments.” Another Yak removed the tea glass and placed a fresh one before his leader. Shingen’s voice was a deep bass. “Before the Yakooza can consider a deal, we would have you tell us what kind of man he is.”
“With a pass to Khotan, you may meet him yourself—”
“No.” Shingen said. “I would hear it from your mouth. And speak truthfully.”
Bernardo paused for half a minute, eyes rolled upward, pondering. At length, he said. “What you said before is right. He is the same as my father, chasing after ideals and freedom. But not for wealth or power or personal gain. I first realized this in St. Bonobo’s Alley, where he risked life and limb against an Imperial warship merely to feed the orphans. He kept none of the spoils for himself. Everything he has done, the welfare of those around him was always considered.” Bernardo stared off into a corner, imagining something. “When I look upon him, I do not feel shame. Rather, I feel hope.”
The cave rang with the last of his echo, and soon the sound of trickling water returned to the foreground. Shingen finished the last of his tea, then said. “Your words have piqued my interest. You will have your pass, Monquistan. And tell your captain we will grant access to Egg Foo Yung…”
Bernardo noticed the linger. “…If?”
Shingen poured another cup of tea, and blew on the steam. “If he is willing to raid a few more warships. Mooshu has its fair share of orphans too.”
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