She laid a soft kiss on the forehead of her five-year-old boy lest she wake him up. The sleeping brat could be a handful sometimes, and old Sakura deserved a break.
Natsu tiptoed out of her son’s room, Sakura waiting for her outside, hands on her waist. “Not ready to talk now either?” the old lady asked, her judging tone not bothering Natsu anymore. Another lecture was coming, and Natsu had no time for this endless back and forth.
“Later, Mother,” Natsu said, stalking past her mother to pick up the cloak she had left on the nearest chair to the door of the house.
“Isn’t losing his father enough?” Sakura snapped.
Natsu inhaled deeply, hoping the fragrant scent of incense would soothe her nerves. “You are going to wake him up this way.” She wore the cloak and headed to the door.
“We never needed your husband’s coin, and we never will.” Sakura followed her as she held the doorknob. “All the coin in the world will be of no use if that little child loses his mother.”
“You are wrong, Mother. We have always needed that coin.” Natsu glared at Sakura. “It’s just you who have forgotten how life outside this house looks like. You want me to quit and do what? Be Father’s assistant on his pathetic fishing boat? No, Mother! I won’t let my son be raised in a smelly hovel on some mud-laden alley packed with drunkards. Are we clear now?”
Her mother looked down without saying a word.
“Good.” Natsu heaved a sigh. “Because I’m done talking about this every day.”
Natsu slammed the door shut behind her and joined Pantu and Jirou who had been waiting for her down the street—the only paved street in Hokydo, mind you. When Pantu ushered her to the cart, she said, “This shall draw too much attention.” Horses were rare animals to come upon across the islands of Koya, especially in its poorest parts.
“It’s a long walk to the meeting venue,” said Pantu. “We shouldn’t keep Qianfan waiting too long.”
The name of Qianfan could be intimidating to many people in Hokydo, but not to Natsu. She should heed Pantu’s advice though. “The cart, it is.” She grinned. “We need to save our strength for the meeting.”
Natsu clambered onto the cart, Pantu joining her at the back, Jirou assuming the coachman seat. “Save our strength,” Pantu echoed dubiously as the cart moved. “Another plan you are not sharing with me?”
Natsu took a moment till she understood what he was hinting at. “Still unable to forgive me since the Turtle job?” she teased her deputy.
“It’s a mere question.” Pantu cast her a studying look. “I don’t fond of surprises, you know. Especially, with the likes of Qianfan.”
Qianfan was the one who had benefited the most from her husband’s death. Having no rival in the underground business for some time, the way was paved for him to undertake as many jobs as he could. Me taking over Botan’s business must have disappointed him.
“The likes of Qianfan must know that they are not alone in the market any longer,” she said to her deputy.
“Still, you didn’t answer my question, Natsu. What are you up to?”
“He is the one who called for this meeting, Pantu,” she reminded her deputy. “Why don’t you ask him?”
Pantu stared at her accusingly. “Sogeki-hei told me you had sent him for a task this morning.”
Indeed. Her sharpshooter must have arrived at the meeting venue already. “Nothing more than a precautionary measure. I will feel safer, knowing that he is watching my back.”
Pantu didn’t seem convinced. What she should do to win his trust?
“We got away with the Turtle,” he said. “But any reckless acts today will have serious implications. To the coastguards, we are ghosts; they can’t follow our tracks. But Qianfan? The man knows more than enough to hurt us.”
“Don’t we know enough about him as well?” Natsu peered at her deputy, the man who had his own network of spies all over Hokydo and even Oyoto. Thanks to his eyes, she had been aware of the location of the Turtle ship and the fact that a Pink Cloak had been in charge of its crew.
“Natsu, the man wants to talk. Let’s hear him first, and whatever he asks, don’t give him a final say right away. Just tell him you will think about it and leave.”
So, her deputy wanted her to behave. Well, she couldn’t promise him. It might be hard for her to abide by his piece of wisdom if she heard something she didn’t like.
The meeting venue was near the Dragon Gulf. To go there, Jirou had to take them through the Old Village (Not that there was a New Village; it was nothing more than a name. Every place was in Hokydo was in the same miserable condition), and that was today’s event for the simple folks inhabiting these slums. Everybody, mostly children, gathered in the muddy streets and the small windows of their cracked shacks, gaping in awe at ‘the horse’ passing by. Too young, too fragile to join their fathers at the docks in the west or the mines in the east, Natsu thought, the sight of the little ones reminding her of her childhood in this very place.
The childhood she wanted to protect her son from.
The venue was an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of the Old Village. Looking at every rooftop around her, Natsu couldn’t spot Sogeki-hei anywhere. If I can’t find him, then Qianfan won’t, she thought, staring at the two lookouts posted at the door of the warehouse.
“I don’t like this, Lady Boss. There could be more men inside,” Jirou said in his hoarse voice. “We will be badly outnumbered inside this trap.”
“Not with you on our side, Jirou.” Natsu winked at her burly man. “It will be us trapping them.”
The shorter lookouts opened the door ajar and apparently, he notified whoever was inside the warehouse of Natsu’s arrival. His taller fellow kept his eyes fixed on the cart approaching the warehouse until Jirou pulled on the reins of the horse to halt it.
Natsu and Pantu clambered down the cart and waited for Jirou who found a wooden sign to tie the horse to it. As the three of them went to the door, the lookouts gestured for them to stop. “No weapons.” The tall lookout pointed to the falchion hanging to Jirou’s belt.
“I’m sure your boss is abiding by this rule.” Natsu sneered.
The tall man tilted his head.
“Let them in, boys,” came Qianfan’s voice from inside. “After all, we are here to talk.”
Not feeling comfortable about Qianfan’s tone, Natsu exchanged a quick look with Jirou. “Just be ready,” she mouthed to him before Qianfan’s men opened the door for their visitors to come in.
The warehouse was not ‘too abandoned’ inside, considering the dozen men Qianfan had brought with him to the meeting. Half of them ringed their black-bearded boss who stood at the center of the warehouse, the remaining six covering the windows and the only exit of the place. And they were all armed, Natsu observed. For someone who was here to talk, the bastard had brought too many men. Was it a trap like Jirou expected?
Without looking at Pantu and Jirou, Natsu signaled them to calm down as the men standing in front of Qianfan made way only for her. “I never thought a woman could scare you that much.” Natsu smiled crookedly at Qianfan.
“You mean the woman who captured a Turtle Ship?” Qianfan arched an eyebrow. “Some security measures won’t harm.”
“If this is a joke, then it’s a bad one.” Natsu wore a stern face. No way would she admit her responsibility for that… brilliant piece of work. “You think anyone with a sane mind might even think of facing a Turtle Ship?”
“Taking over a Turtle requires a brilliant mind, not just a sane one.” Qianfan leaned forward toward her. “And I think you are brilliant enough to realize that such a job is not only a grave act against the coastguards; it’s a violation of the deal your husband and I struck years ago.”
The Mankol market was for Botan while the Rusakian was totally Qianfan’s; Natsu was aware of that. “That deal died with Banto. You need to strike a new one with me.”
“Listen. Everybody in this business knows that Rusakia is mine.” Qianfan nodded his chin pointedly at Pantu, who was standing behind her. “Right, boy?”
That ‘boy’ was actually Qianfan’s age, if not older. “You only talk to me, Qianfan. If there is something I don’t have an answer for, I will be the one addressing my men.” Natsu straightened her back as she glared at the bearded man. “Is that clear?”
Qianfan stared at her. “The guts you have, Natsu.” He laughed, then said, “I can’t believe you have been lurking in the shadows all of Botan’s life.”
Natsu feigned a smile. “I guess we have an understanding, then.”
“Very well,” Qianfan muttered thoughtfully, his hands on his waist as he ambled inside the ring his minions had formed around him. “A new deal with the old conditions. The Mankol market will exclusively be yours while the Rusakian remains mine.”
That was easier than she had thought. “Deal, and the Light is our witness.”
Qianfan peered at her. “What about the Turtle? I was told it brought you a huge lot of coin.”
Alright. The duel was not over yet. I celebrated a little bit early. “The Turtle you would have never dared to capture, you mean?”
That didn’t seem to offend Qianfan, who said nonchalantly. “The Turtle you sold to one of my customers.”
Natsu grinned scornfully. “Shame we didn’t have a deal back then.”
“Right.” Qianfan smacked his lips. “That’s why I only demand one-third of your trophy as a fair compensation.”
May he burn in hell before he takes a single coin from me. “This is not how you strike a deal.”
“Don’t be greedy, Botan’s widow,” he warned. “Two-thirds are more than enough.”
“You did nothing to earn that damned third,” Natsu snarled.
“And you wouldn’t have been able to turn your Turtle into gold were it not for my Rusakian lord.”
This negotiation was worse than useless. “This meeting is over, I believe.” Natsu turned, motioning for Pantu and Jirou to follow her to the door of the warehouse. The latter didn’t stop looking around until they reached the exit, none of Qianfan’s goons intercepting them.
“One quarter, Natsu,” Qianfan called from behind her. When she stopped, he continued, “That’s my final proposal.”
It wasn’t about the coin, Natsu reflected. That bastard would claim anything just to affirm his authority over her in front of her men. We won’t be rivals if I pay him a single dragon.
“If you are really keen about our deal, then you should withdraw your humiliating proposal,” Natsu said firmly. “Take three days to reassess the entire situation. I will patiently wait for your answer.”
Natsu and her men exited the warehouse. Hurriedly, Jirou untied the horse while his boss and Pantu were back on the cart. Qianfan’s lookouts followed them with their eyes as Jirou spurred the horse to a canter. Truth be told, Natsu felt a sort of relief when the damned warehouse was out of sight.
“You don’t think he will reassess a thing, do you?” Pantu asked her.
“You tell me,” Natsu said to her veteran deputy, who was more familiar with Qianfan than she was. “Because I believe we have just started a war.”