Following Pantu’s advice, Natsu forbade Mushi from setting a straight course back to Hokydo. Instead, they turned around the island of Jopen and headed to their homeland from its eastern coast. The helmswoman had her concerns about taking a longer route with the Wraith in its current condition. “We are not sure how long that magical seal will hold,” she said, referring to the mage’s trick that didn’t just repair the breach; it made it vanish. As if the hull of the ship had always been intact.
“It will hold.” Natsu didn’t have a hint of doubt, still unable to forget the sight of the wooden parts sticking together and fusing with the gap in a smooth fashion. According to the mage, who had descended to the mountain foot to aid Natsu’s crew yesterday, ‘binding the particles of wood’ was the explanation for his trick. As if he owed anybody an explanation in the first place. “And it’s too late now anyway, Mushi. If you want to say something useful, then pray we won’t encounter any more Turtles.”
Natsu couldn’t tell whether Mushi’s prayers worked or it was just a coincidence, but fortunately, the Wraith made it safely to their secret cove, which you would never spot from the sea unless you were foolish enough to come close to the waterfall covering the entrance. After docking at the wharf, Mushi and the sailors stayed to replenish the ship’s supply of coal, and also to guard the vessel if necessary. Pantu, Sogeki-hei, and Jirou followed Natsu through the cave from which they would emerge in the middle of the eastern hills, then traverse the abandoned area until reaching the main coastal road, and from there, they would move north toward the town. If they didn’t encounter any more hurdles on their way, they should arrive by nightfall.
They were exiting the cave when Pantu walked alongside Natsu. “You think of anything other than sticking to our deal with the mage?” her deputy asked. He would always be worried about her recklessness, Natsu reckoned.
“Why would we break our deal with him? All he has done so far is help us.”
“To deliver him the Wraith on a silver platter.”
“You think he couldn’t steal the Wraith from under our nose if he wanted?”
Pantu’s lips made a firm line as he nodded. “You have a point.” He went silent for a moment, then said, “But there is something in the assignment he has given us that bothers me. Why all the secrecy about the cargo he wants us to transport to Gorania? If we are working for the Koyan Empire, then we shouldn’t be hiding from the coastguards.”
“We never cared who paid us as long as he paid.”
“He hasn’t shown us a damned coin of copper.”
Natsu heaved a sigh. “Don’t you realize that he doesn’t even need to lie to us? He could have just threatened us with his ‘domesticated’ sea monster.” Shnakar was its name. If only that mage agreed to unleash his hellish pet upon Qianfan’s boats…
Natsu’s retinue reached an abandoned warehouse near the main road, where they had hidden the carriage that had brought them to this place. As they approached the front door, Sogeki-hei drew his crossbow and mounted a bolt into it, and at once Jirou drew his falchion. Natsu and Pantu halted and looked around, but nothing alive was there except their shadows. “What is it?” she asked nervously.
As the sharpshooter aimed at the door, Natsu shot Jirou an inquisitive look. “I don’t know,” the brawny man whispered, shrugging. “I just saw Sogeki-hei draw his weapon.”
“Someone is inside the warehouse,” the sharpshooter said in a low voice without looking at Natsu or Jirou, his crossbow pointed at the door as he warily approached.
“Our coachman, perhaps?” Natsu asked.
“Someone else is with him.” Sogeki-hei nodded his chin toward the ground, where he must have spotted the tracks of the outsider.
“Someone? You mean we are only facing one man?” Jirou arched an eyebrow, and then he rushed toward the door and barged into the warehouse despite Sogeki-hei’s disapproval.
Jirou’s noisy entrance startled the two men inside for an instant before they all realized they were on the same side. Standing next to Natsu’s coachman was Manshik, the boss of one of the small gangs that pledged to join her in her feud against Qianfan. What brought him here? How had he found her, to begin with?
“I have been praying to the Light you will come back safe,” the stocky boss said, his hands clasped in front of him. “I knew you wouldn’t fall that easy.”
Manshik’s words didn’t bode well. “What are you doing here, Manshik?”
“Qianfan and his men have been everywhere since you left. He amassed them and went to all the gangs in Hokydo, telling them that your days were over, and now they must only answer to the man in charge. To him. Otherwise, the answer would be blood.”
So, Natsu’s clash with Qianfan had just begun. “And blood is what he will get,” she bristled. “Gather your men at the southern road while I summon the rest.”
Manshik swallowed. “You don’t get it. Qianfan wasn’t just threatening. He killed all who resisted on the spot, leaving the rest no option but to join him.”
No, no, no! She couldn’t lose now. Not after all the measures she had taken. “Blast!” she blustered, walking away from Manshik, her mind still unable to process the situation. I took too much time preparing! I should have acted at once, she thought, biting her lower lip until it almost bled. “What about you, Manshik?” She glanced over her shoulder at him. “Why did Qianfan let you live if you were still loyal to me?”
“I ordered my men to flee from the town the moment I heard about Qianfan’s moves. It was obvious he was targeting all those who joined you, so I knew our turn would come.”
Running away was better than betraying her. “How did this happen? We had as many men as he had,” she rambled, not addressing anybody in particular.
“Our people were scattered, Natsu,” Manshik explained. “On the other hand, he gathered all his men and moved as one unit to each gang on its own. The few who didn’t join him perished by his order.”
“He is even stronger now,” Natsu muttered, unable to find a way out of this predicament.
“You all should flee from Hokydo,” Manshik provided. “Most probably, my men and I will do the same. On this island, we can never be safe from Qianfan.”
“He is right,” Pantu seconded Manshik. “Qianfan’s next target will be us. He will sweep the island until he finds his only rival.”
With the news this stout fellow had just brought, Natsu was far from being anybody’s rival. Her feud with Qianfan was something she should forget about for the time being. “My boy and my mother.” She balled her hand into a fist as she went on, “I can’t leave them in that bloody town on their own.”
“They are safer the farther they stay from you,” Pantu remarked.
“Nonsense,” Natsu insisted. “If Qianfan doesn’t find me, he will use them to get to me.”
“So, you make his job of finding you easier?” Pantu swept an arm toward Manshik. “This man is still alive because Qianfan wants so. He left you someone to warn you, so that you would feel the urge to hurry to the very place he would be waiting for you at.”
What Pantu said made Natsu even more determined to return as soon as possible to the town. “Listen. I don’t care if I die while trying to save my family. If you want to run away, then go. I’m not forcing anyone to go to the town with me.”
“I’ll go where you go, boss,” said Jirou with no hesitation. Maybe he was not the cleverest member of her crew, but definitely, he was one of the most loyal. Like Sogeki-hei, who just shrugged, as if his stance should be too clear to ask him about.
“Alright.” Pantu exhaled. Clearly, he realized that nothing would change his boss’s mind. “Sogeki-hei,” he turned to the sharpshooter, his hands on his waist, “go ahead of us to scout the road. If you don’t come back before sunset, we shall leave.”
Sogeki-hei nodded, and while he was untying one of the two horses that were supposed to drag the carriage, Manshik harrumphed as he made one step closer to Natsu. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to join you, Lady Boss.”
Natsu patted his shoulder, allowing herself a smile. “You did better than the most, Manshik. Don’t let the bastard find you.”
Mounting his horse, Sogeki-hei offered to drop Manshik on the main road, and the stout man accepted. After they both left, Jirou asked both Natsu and Pantu, “You want me to stand outside for the lookout?”
Jirou would rather bring unnecessary attention to their hideout than be useful as a lookout. “We will watch from inside.” Natsu gazed through the nearest window at the apparently deserted area outside the warehouse. “Before sunset we shall leave as Pantu decided.”
* * *
Natsu was relieved when Sogeki-hei returned before sunset. The news he bore didn’t bode well though. “Qianfan’s men are lurking all over the southern territory. We can’t take the main road.”
Sogeki-hei’s announcements loomed large in the minds of everybody in the warehouse, it was obvious. Going to the town was a suicide mission; Natsu was fully aware of this fact, and surely, she was the only one who didn’t care. “We will draw too much attention if the four of us go together,” she said to her men. “Qianfan’s men won’t expect me to enter the town on my own.”
“That’s out of the question,” Pantu said firmly.
“We need to put our emotions aside and think rationally,” she countered. “It’s the only way we all survive.”
“There is nothing rational in going to the town now, Natsu.” Her deputy sneered. “But as long as you decide to go back there, we can’t leave you.”
“She is right, Pantu. We can’t enter the city together if we want to make this work,” Sogeki-hei interjected. “That’s why I will do it alone.”
Natsu hadn’t seen this coming. “No one is going to risk himself for me. It’s my family that’s trapped there; I must be the one who rescues them.”
“You were just talking about thinking rationally, weren’t you?” Sogeki-hei smiled crookedly. “If you put your emotions aside indeed, you will realize that I’m the best one for such a mission. None of you can sneak into and out of the town better than me.”
Natsu found herself at a loss for words right now. Truth be told, her sharpshooter was the only one in this room who said something sensible. Instead of arguing with him, she asked, “Do you have a plan in mind?”
“Qianfan won’t expect any of us to enter the town from its northern borders,” Sogeki-hei began. “Also, he won’t expect you to run away from the island while your child and your mother are still there.” He glanced at both Pantu and Jirou as he added, “We will do everything he doesn’t expect.”
“That will never happen,” Natsu snapped. “I will never leave my boy behind!”
Pantu shook his head, his arms folded across his chest, making Natsu not sure whether he disapproved of her reaction to Sogeki-hei’s idea or to the idea itself.
“You will not leave anybody,” Sogeki-hei explained. “Because I will bring them to you in the middle of the sea, where you will be waiting for me on board the Wraith.”
Pantu’s eyebrows rose in astonishment. “You will sneak Natsu’s family out through the sea?”
“Through the northern coast.”
“It could be easier for you to cross the mountains there on your own. But with an old woman and a child in your company?” Pantu smacked his lips, shaking his head again. “I don’t know, but it will take too much time, to say the least.”
Sogeki-hei grinned. “That’s why Qianfan won’t expect us to come in or out from that side of Hokydo.”
Pantu didn’t seem convinced as he shot Natsu an inquisitive glance. He was waiting for her to weigh in, it was clear.
“Your plan sounds reckless a little bit,” Natsu said to her sharpshooter. “But I guess it is our best alternative so far.” She peered at Pantu. “You have a better idea?”
Pantu puffed nervously. “It’s the best idea I have heard so far, and that’s what worries me.”
“Every voyage we made was always a risk,” Sogeki-hei pointed out, smiling at Pantu. “Why do you expect this one to be any different?”
“This one is different.” Pantu didn’t seem in the mood for Sogeki-hei’s humor. “This time we are chased by everybody on land and in the sea.”
“Only for a while, Pantu,” Natsu promised, and she did mean every word of it. But right now, her priority was putting Riku and her mother somewhere safe. She would hide in the forbidden lands of Gorania, if that was what it took. Because after that, with the arrival of Bilguun’s Skandivian mercenaries, it wouldn’t be a chase anymore.
It would be a bloodbath.