The prow of The Princesses Blade cut through the high waves of the mornings swelling tides. The men aboard held to ropes and railing as the boat dipped, lurched, and rose again. Chaos ruled the belt of water between bay and sea but even so, one man stood abreast the main mast. His lax arms were crossed and he was not the least bit phased by the rocking of the ship. The man stared out into the distance, listening to the horizon calling to him. Singing a song forgotten. Pleading in grieving psalms for him to come home. After a few minutes of bouncing travel the harsh waves crashing in front of the Diamond Bay settled. The ship finding itself on the calm waters of the Crimson Sea thereafter.
Shirtless men began working the ropes and shouting to each other. A large chested man in a leather jerkin over gray linen barked commands loudly to a group of hard looking sailors. Their muscular, sweat covered arms worked the rigging of the fore sail. Nimble men climbed up the main mast and unfurled the sandy colored cloth. It flapped it’s way down to the men below whom fastened it in place. The captain stood atop the quarter deck, thumb anxiously fingering the hilt of his curved short sword. He looked to his men with content. It was always a beautiful day when the Princess Blade danced on the sea. For a moment, the captain peered down to the deck below and met eyes with the man who never seemed to lose balance on his ship aside from him. Never used rail or rope to steady himself when the waves crashed and berated The Princess Blade with severe motion. The foreigner, the enigma known only as ’Shun.’
Looking up, Shun blinked slowly at the captain and tilted his head slightly forward in acknowledgment that he had to work now. That was the sign he looked for every time they made it to sea. The tan, almost yellow skinned man started walking from his favored spot on the middle of the deck to his work area below the quarter deck. Shun noticed looks burning at the back of his head. Even when the sailors were in a hurry to their duties, they spared as many side glances as they could. Shun’s skin tone did not seem odd to him but maybe his shorter stature and flat face stirred some talk. He was shorter than most men, most folk even. Shun’s smooth face and body was void of hair. He shaved it most days and men ridiculed him for being soft, a boy. Jesting at his bald head, his hairless features. There was also his eyes. They were slanted, reaching out and upward. His irises almost glowed a dull red. A common place for him but the people of this land did not understand that, nor did they readily accept it. The majority of the populace he had interacted with saw the shape and color of his eyes as an ill omen. No shred of trust for an alien in a foreign land. It was something he had become accustomed to. But just as Shun was an unknown variable to them, equally their ways of life and looks were just as mysterious to him.
He often found the way people acted rude and in some ways barbaric. To be fair to them, Shun had never been anywhere in the city with culture. He had always stuck to the side streets and lowborn areas. Shun was a hard worker and he looked the part. He may be quick to learn but he never established a report with anyone. His grasp on the language, as limited as it was, did not permit him into the higher tiers of cities. He was often turned away and poked fun at by city guard protecting inner sanctums. Every once in a while he could peek a glimpse of a high born lord or lady at the docks. When their glamorous business made for taking passage on a sailing frigate. Their painted faces were a curious wonder to him. Men and women in costume. Living lives in costume. Facades.
“Great! I have to work with this bloody freak again!” A large and portly sailor loudly said to himself, breaking Shun’s mind from wandering.
There were few words that Shun had cared to learn since coming to this land and ‘bloody’ is one that he knew sailors to use frequently. The connotation to him was of negativity and dismay in an intrusively rude way. He always heard mutterings of it under peoples breaths as they talked to themselves. A crass mantra.
Approaching and taking spot at the table left of the fat sailor still cursing to himself, Shun picked up his knife and began gutting fish. The portly man had never introduced himself or spoke directly to Shun. Never once said a word to him despite the fact they had been working with each other at this gutting and baiting station for two weeks. That may have been for the best though. Shun didn’t need the distraction. It may have been meticulous and smelly work but Shun never complained. He kept the same sullen low look and did what he was told. He would have you believe that everything was below him. He had a bigger mouth to match his belly and routinely complained loudly beneath his breath and greasy beard. He was meant for bigger and better things. The Princess Blade should be his and he could run it far better than the ‘bloody captain.’
A full fish made a loud popping noise as it spilled its innards all over the rotund belly of the sailor. Indifference playing a key role in the mans life. Seemingly unperturbed by this happening, the sailor carried on. Shun watched the viscera glisten on the hairy distended stomach. It’s slow trudge down the fleshy mess of a man. Passing over scars of bar fights and hard life. A wave of empathy hit Shun and made him forget his concentration as he hooked one of the fish heads onto a tangle of tackle. A spark of pain sunk deep as the hook pierced his forefinger. Quick reaction took over and Shun immediately pulled his finger up and away. He didn’t make a noise but it was obvious what he had done as he jerked suddenly and clenched his hand shut. The pain burned fiercely in flashes of intensity. Shun stood still instinctively and closed his eyes:
A golden lotus floats in infinite darkness. A single petal begins to open, shining bright glorious light from its unfolding. Pain is an Illusion, pain is --No!
A stab of phantom pain pulsed through Shun’s head. Pulling himself from his mind, he opened his eyes sharply and shook the words away. Inspecting his finger close to him he noticed the pain had ceased almost instantly, the old ways were broken but still worked. The razor hook had gone through the tip of his finger and upended the fingernail, hanging jaggedly askew. The fat sailor guffawed with a wide toothless gin in amusement as Shun gripped the fingernail and pulled it off with a soft snap. He tossed the nail to the chum bucket with the rest of the fish guts. Never giving a secondary thought to what happened, Shun resumed his work. But the fat sailor was silent. The kind of silence that follows a background noise you had grow accustomed to. It was an odd, unnatural, and obvious silence. A minute of quiet work passed before Shun reluctantly looked to his open mouthed ship-mate. Shun didn’t think the fat man observant enough to notice he did not bleed. The hook had passed straight through his finger and not a drop of blood fell. Thinking quickly, Shun held up the finger and flicked it. Utilizing a word he knew from dock merchants, “Fake.”
The lie was accepted bold faced and both men continued their work. Hours had passed before all the hooks were baited and many buckets were overflowing with chum. The refuse spilling over the tops as the ship lurched left and right acutely with the sea’s flow. Bending down, Shun looped the metal bucket handles onto his forearms and walked back out onto the main deck. Arms raised in front of him, Shun’s lean muscle glistened with sweat in the mid day sunlight. Carefully he placed the buckets down near the port railing where men were setting up large metal cages. Slim wired and tightly woven, the cages were ten span wide on all sides. Just behind him, the fat sailor approached with the baited bouquet of fish heads and bodies. One by one Shun was handed a new tangle of bait and he tied them on the inside of each cage. Only needing to stoop down a little to get inside. Iron weights were placed on the corners of the the cages, allowing them to fall to the sea bottom quickly. Clever contraptions inside the cage trapped all sorts of sea life within. The sailors place two dozen of these cages into the sea and then sail to another grouping of cages they placed the previous day and pick them up. A cycle repeated unending. The money was pitiful but people didn’t ask too many questions and everyone avoided him for the most part and Shun liked that. He wanted to be alone. He hadn’t always but he did now.
“Shun.” The first mate said as he approached.
The barrel chested man in a dark leather manta ray jerkin walked up to the foreign sailor.
The first mate padded his bicep with the palm of his other hand.
“Help?” He asked.
The first mate always had a way to speak to Shun. Using simple words to get his point across.
“Help?” Shun questioned back with a raised eyebrow.
The first mate pointed to the cages and gestured with his finger over the railing.
Shun nodded and began helping the other sailors tie their complex knots to the cages. Ravels of rope coiled into piles sat next to the cage they were tied to. Large orange bobbles tied at the end of the rope were used as indicators for the captain to find where he had cast off his previous traps. Chum was poured overboard to excite the animal life. One by one the men began to lift the baited cages and toss them overboard. After each shove off the ship, men jumped back to get away from the ropes as they went taught and began racing into the water. There was a brief moment of joy perking in Shun’s heart. Working with the sailors in this way before was new. He had never been asked to join in this kind of work before and he felt like he had earned something. They weren’t friends by any stretch, they were barely acquaintances. There was just a small linking of acceptance. At one point he had almost smiled. Halfway done upturning the cages one of the other shirtless sailors had joked about how small but strong he was. Comparing him to the potency of a drink he had gotten drunk off of at the docks of North Lon Garun. By the time they had gotten to the last cage and tossed it over, each sailor helping had taken turn comparing him to a strong alcohol, a strong drink, and a particularly rambunctious whore. Shun straightened his back as the last cage was tossed over, accomplished. The allure of friendship tantalized his mind. It was shade in a desert. Though the feeling was followed swiftly by the sinking feeling of friends lost. Epitaphs of men sacrificed and loves torn away by being close. But Shun smiled, regardless. Smiled at the men before his body suddenly hit the floor. His head banged against the wood, splinters piercing the right side of his skull as it made destructive impact. Instantly, before he could regain the breath he had lost falling, he was being rocketed to the railings of The Princess Blade. The rope around his ankle had an impossible grip and was pulling him toward the sea. When Shun’s body began to pass over the railing he could feel the bones in his ankle snap and crack in the awkward angle it took going over. Quick reflexes grasped at the railing and he held onto it for a brief moment. Enough to see the horror in the sailors eyes before the cage cruelly dragged him off the Ship and diving into the water.
The cool splash of the water would have been welcomed earlier. Welcomed outside the boundary of mortal peril. Maybe the sun had softened his senses or the deceitful promise of friendship had distracted him but he would have normally never dropped his guard and made such a foolish mistake.
Thick hempen rope wrapped in a slipknot around Shun’s ankle. The drag of the cage was harsh. The metal wiring, heavy fish and bulky Iron weights contributed to a sinister descent. Shun looked up to the glass ceiling of the sea. The Princess Blade growing smaller and dimmer. The sun being eaten. Swallowed whole by the abyss. Panic gripped at all angles of Shun’s brain. His eyes darted everywhere and his hands struggled to find anything to cut the rope.
Nothing at all. He resigned his muscles and let himself be pulled mercilessly below.
’They can’t stop it.’ Shun Thought. ’They can only retrieve me after the cage has hit bottom. Even then it takes twenty minutes to pull the cage up. They all already know I am going to die.’
Diaphragm spasms pulled at Shun’s chest. The need to inhale grew inside each and every thought. Chaotic synapses tried to override conscious thought. ‘Breathe’ they yelled. ‘What are you doing? Breathe!’ but Shun did not give in. Did not yield to their call. Shun’s eyes shut tightly in pained torsion.
’There is a chance.’ Shun thought to himself once more. ’I need to steady my heart and mind. Monk Xian could hold his breath for twenty minutes.’
Shun opened his eyes and took in the rushing water and the darkness falling all around his body.
’But if you try, you won’t see her.’ A fleeting voice taunted.
Shun weighed both options. How long had it been? How long since he had seen her face? Her grace? Her cruel beauty? A hard choice was cast and Shun truly did dislike the idea of drowning. She would have to wait. Again he closed his eyes to old ways.
A golden lotus floats in infinite darkness. A single petal begins to open, shining bright glorious light from its unfolding. Calm is stillness within stillness. My energy is--Stop!
A sharp phantom pain split the middle of Shun’s head and he shook it vigorously. There is no chance. It was already too late. The feat Shun intended needed preparation. Hours of it. He had been working too hard and was short of breathe before being dragged into the water. There was no hope. Shun accepted that long ago, though. He had given in to despair eons before this fall. Countless years ago.
Shun opened his eyes again and took in the deep dark nothing. His eyes unable to dully glow in the pitch of the sea bottom. They Bulged from his head and pounded with the pressure and pain. Shun’s eyes swelled with warm tears and they burned with salt from the sea. Each drop passing upward mixed with the cool of the dark. His chest was an aching cavity. Heart echoing in the extending darkness. The drumming in his ears pounded as the liquid roared past them like a river.
Sheer will had kept this going on for as long as it had. Decades of training and mental exercise to take complete control over his body gave way to basic animal impulse. With a deep inhale, Shun’s lungs surged with water. Agony wracked his throat, bloated with the rush. The tissues of his insides felt like they were being pierced with small pricks from all angles. Dry heaves began to vainly squeeze the water out. Each spasm stabbed the daggers in his gut and chest deeper. Pain spiked and fell and spiked again. Between each hefty heave the foreign sailor made the motion of screaming. Shun clawed at his body. Desperately trying to overcome the pain. Overcome death pulling on his broken ankle. The edges of his vision began to dim. Close in. Narrow to a pin prick of dark surrounded by a deeper dark. Death beckoned.
The cage made purchase with the sea floor. Sediment being kicked up all around its frame. The silent impact eerie in the darkness. The rope began to grow partially taught as the fishing bobble raised upward, no longer bound by the whim of the heavy cage. Shun floated ten span above the sea floor. Leg tethered and broken. Gray linen clothes drifting off his skin and floated to and fro. A crushing pressure gently swayed his body back and forth.
Shun opened his eyes. There was darkness everywhere. He was not dead and he knew he would not be. There is no way to convince a mind that you are not going to die when the evidence in front of it suggested otherwise.
There was no pain, there was no need to breathe. He felt pressure on his body but did not suffer. He jerked his head from side to side, twisting to look over his surrounding. Movements awkward beneath the water and having no solid anchor to hold onto. Panic was slowly fading but there was an overlying feeling of anxiety taking its place. Scores of questions ran through his mind but the only would he could truly grab in front of him was:
‘Where is she?’
Anxiety was mounting higher. Not fearful but giddy in anticipation. Shun took his shirt and tucked it into his pants and retied his gray sash which came loose when he was dying. He tugged the belt tightly so it stayed in place. His heart thumped in his chest still. It was slow, rhythmic. Whether it still needed to beat was beyond him. Shun didn’t care. Not now. There were more important matters at hand. Shun’s eyes moved heavy in the darkness. The abyss giving up nothing that he wanted. Worry began to build on his giddy anxiety. He was so sorely looking forward to her when he knew he was going to die. Desperate, even. It helped with the pain of dying.
Out into the abyss a low gray orb glowed without hint of whisper.
Shun’s heart beat and the dark orb grew larger and brighter. A lighter shade of gray, a little larger form. The dim light reaching out to his floating body. Passively accentuating his crushed feelings.
Brighter and larger still it grew, drawing ever closer. Each beat of Shun’s heart propelling it forward unnaturally. Bending time and space, surging forward. A smile peaked shyly at the corners of Shun’s mouth.
A figure of a woman bathed in light could hazily be made out. Her light growing brighter, extinguishing the darkness of the abyss. She floated through the water as if on wings. Smoothly gliding toward Shun. Her white and intricately layered dress flowed behind her. Frayed ends of the gown danced in the darkness. White tassels tied from her shoulders down to her thick silk belt wrapped around her middle. Ends of the tassels orbited around her like sea vipers. Her hands and hips undulated as if she was walking. Each movement was precise and graceful. There would be no man who would not want for her. Her thick and layered silk dress did not hint at her figure but that was apart of her appeal. The mystery budded such provocative thinking. Deepened your need to enjoy slowly untying each layer. The sleeves stopped at mid forearm, showing supple and thin wrists. Her hands were carved of ivory and were exquisitely shaped. A thin neck ran up to a feminine chin slightly pointed. Her sharp features were beautiful and perfect. Her skin pale and smooth. Her eyes were all whites, glimpsed intermittently between waves of her hair passing by her face. Stark white strands of flowing hair surrounded her like the tentacles of a leviathan.
Shun looked to her with a deepening smile. The same way a groom does when his bride walks to him in ceremony. The same way a boy does to his village crush. The warm tears filled his eyes again. The middle of his smile interrupted with quivers from his lower lip.
The woman’s gliding form raced ahead in the time of Shun’s heart. Close enough to reach out and hold. She stopped. Silk and lace tipped dress flowing and brushing up against Shun’s arm. Just like the need to breathe he now had every synapse in his mind telling him to hug her. Hold her and never let go. Still of movement, he did not. His lip still quivered. His eyes burned with tears he could not quell.
She smiled. A smile so beautiful it hurt. Hurt more than death. Than dying. Worst than losing all your breath and being crushed into infinite darkness. Nothing hurt more than that smile. Her gorgeous eyes softly looking him over. How long HAD it been since last he saw her?
Shun shyly looked away as her gaze met his. His smile still quivering. Tears still stagnant in his eyes. His skin prickled as her hair tickled his neck. Without warning, his smile broke and his frown doubled the expression his smile held. A grimace waiting in the depths beside him. Finally broken by a wish that could never be fulfilled. His body quaked with sorrow. Shun began to sob futilely. Half of him wants to be elsewhere and the rest wants to be right here. Next to her. Eternally. Dropping his head he bared his teeth in the tired frown. Unable to control his emotion. Quaking furiously.
The White woman held out her hand to his chin and lifted it up once more. Her eyes were saddened. Filled with a sympathy he felt he did not deserve. The frowning of her lips sent a pang of pain through him. The first he had felt since dying. The burden of his tears still pooling, Shun looked to her and mouthed a word he could not physically speak.
She sighed with the heavy weight of the question. Her lips tightened as she slowly shook her head left and right. The motion made her hair shimmer in glowing dance. Eyes overloaded with pity.
The phantom pain surged through Shun once more. His lips moved again in question.
The tip of his question was met with the abrupt tightening of the rope attached to his ankle. A jolt of movement pulled Shun upward a few feet. A second jolt moments later had made it so Shun was hanging upside down. He looked down at the beautiful White Woman that could not acquiesce to him. That had never acquiesced to him. He held out an arm, hand and fingers stretched outward as if he could grab her. She held up her own arm toward him. Eyes still filled with pity. Lips still tight in her frown.
Shun eagerly looked to her fading glow and never looked away.
There was too much time to think going up. Too much time to go over every detail and despair because of it. Afternoon sun put an orange color to the glass ceiling of the sea. The crooning of the seas waves met the frantic pulling and disrupt of the rope. Clashing as the two energies met each other. None of that seemed to matter right now as he crested the surface. Shun’s limp body banged against the hull of The Princess Blade as they pulled him up.
“Careful you bloody ninnies!” The first mate barked at the men hauling up the rope.
Hands grasped at Shun’s clothes and body as they pulled him on board and set him down on his back. The deck of the ship felt warm. The wood having been baked in the sun. It added a somewhat comforting feeling. Shun looked up to the sky, staring. Dismay playing master to his thoughts.
“I thought you were ready, boy. Ready to shed the green and become a true sailor but Sholan is a cruel mistress of waves sometimes.” The burly first mate sighed. “I am sorry.”
The first mate put his fingers on Shun’s eyelids and closed them shut. Never bothering to check to see if he had somehow survived.Without delay Shun opened his eyes again. He focused his look to the First mate. The burly sailor fell backward in a fearful start and gasped heaps of air into his large chest.
Getting to his feet, shun briefly looked around. Every sailor he could see was backing up as far away from him as possible. Some running below deck, others climbing the mast. They scrambled and darted in all directions.
Shun Walked to the railing and casually fell upon it. Trying to make his chest the first contact point when he fell. He impacted sharply but a little too high and he heard the pop of ribs coming out of place. The pain was quick and did not linger as it normally would have. Getting back to his feet, Shun stepped back to the main deck, swung around and fell on the railing once more. This time the railing connected contact with his lower ribs and sternum. His diaphragm heaved violently and evacuated a good portion of water from his lungs. Gurgling on the ground, Shun wretched up some water and took a few more bubbled breaths. More water came up but less with each consecutive inhale and upheaval. Shun pushed his back up against the railing. His breaths were normal and his heartbeat resumed its natural beat. Shun sourly looked down at the wooden planks of the ship. Sullen of face just as always.
‘I am going to have to leave this ship, this job. Probably even leave this town too.’ Shun thought to himself. ‘I will have to travel to another place, again. Far enough away that this story doesn’t reach it. Something more inland perhaps.’
The first mate had gotten to his feet at some point and bent down low in a stance built for fighting or fleeing at a moments notice. Taking slow and brave steps, he approached the once drowned man.
Shun looked up gave a look of disappointment. One side of his mouth frowning. Still processing information past.
“Wh-what..” The burly first mate stuttered. “..What are you?”
Shun sighed, “Alive.”