“Brace yourselves!” My shipmate’s cry rises above the din of the cannon fire. I reach for the rigging, tangling both hands in the coarse rope just as the attacking vessel rams the port side of the Shui Niao with the crackle of splintering wood. I jerk forward, clinging to the mast only by the rope in my hands, toes gripping the wind-polished beam.
The smell of gunpowder and smoke still hangs thick in the air as I look down to assess the damage. The enemy vessel had come up along the length of our smaller junk, too fast to avoid a collision. Both ships seemed to be relatively undamaged, though our hull had taken the brunt of the force.
I loosen my grip on the ropes, allowing one hand to swing free, I check that my sword is at my hip. Not expecting a fight, I almost left it below this morning. I’m glad that I hadn’t. I’ll be needing it soon.
The attack had come just after dawn on our second day at sea. A surprise, because the course we sailed had been charted to avoid this sort of confrontation - one that skirted the Japanese islands in a great loop rather than taking the more direct trade routes to the south. And for good reason. We wanted to avoid the imperial ships that sailed along the coast, intercepting illegal smuggling operations - which meant, with China's sea ban still in place, anyone without government contacts. Even simple private traders were no better than pirates in the eyes of the Ming officials. Though the added chaos often made it more fun for the actual pirates, it also added a certain amount of risk. Sometimes, it was simpler to just avoid being seen.
But taking the alternative route was a different kind of risk - invisible shoals, unpredictable currents, fierce storms. With good reason for most ships to go south, there shouldn’t have been anyone anyone near our course for days yet.
I'd called Captain Lei over as soon as I'd seen the white sails appear, stark against the sea-blue sky. My heart pounded with excitement as I waited for his orders, watching as he studied the enemy, squinting in the harsh sunlight. The ragged scar across his cheek glowed white. As he lowered the scope, I saw a strange glint in his eyes. Recognition? Before I could ask, he turned and hurried to the helm, calling for full canvas. We jumped into action.
At the captains' orders, we pushed the Shui Niao for all she had, but the wind hadn’t been on our side, and the enemy quickly closed the gap. I watched from my post in the rigging as the ship drew nearer, until it loomed, blocking the sight of the otherwise peaceful sea. Once we came in range of their canons a fight was inevitable.
Captain Lei didn’t give the order to come about with his usual eager delight. Face grim, he called for half canvas as he swept the ship in a tight circle, setting us on a course to intercept amid a barrage of cannon balls. Those that hit sent up a spray of splinters, but the maneuver allowed us to avoid most of the fire, and many splashed harmlessly into the surrounding waves.
The captain caught my eye and growled, “Hai, to the rigging - I want eyes on the sea.”
I scurried up the ropes of the main mast and settled at my post. I kept one eye on the ship and one eye on the captain, worried by his odd behavior.
It seemed to me, as I watched the captain at the helm, that he was reluctant. Hesitant. And perhaps, an emotion that I’ve never seen him show before, afraid. We’d faced dozens of onslaughts - from imperial forces and Shaolin monks to hired samurai and enemy pirates - and done it with manic grins on our faces and the fight singing through our blood. What could he see in the junk on the horizon, barely more than a splotch of grey hull and white sails, that instilled such emotion? What did he know of this enemy that made this fight so different?
Because it was. And the crew could feel it. They were too loud. Too boisterous as they tightened the sails and readied the guns. The captain was on edge and they knew something was wrong. It almost made me wish that a storm would spring up, the winds would roll through and that our ship would be carried away from this fight.
But where was the fun in that?
Perched overhead, I heard the low rumble of Tu Wei's voice drift across the deck. “We could change course, try to lose them in the shoals.” It seemed the first mate was looking for the equivalent of a storm too.
The captain shook his head, wind beaten hand gripping the well-worn wheel. “I've been running for too long.” He stared forward, face drawn and eyes unseeing. "Some things need to be faced."
I frowned, shifting my weight on the ropes. Running from what? All I knew of his past was what I’d learned from the crew. Each had a similar story. The captain had shown up one day nearly twenty years ago, with a fresh scar across his face and a ship in need of a crew. He’d plucked them from the various ports and gutters of Kyushu and hired them on the spot. Others, like me, had been found later.
But none of us knew who he had been before he was our captain. Whatever it was, I thought, he must have made one hell of an enemy for the man to show up now, across all of these years.
I shake my head and focus. Still perched in the lookout, I watch, peering through the red, ribbed sails still raised to full canvas, as the crew of the attacking ship prepares to board. They line the starboard deck, grappling hooks clutched in their hands and their swords raised above their heads, looking just as ragged and unkept as our crew of bandits - calloused, with weather roughened skin and scraggly hair, their clothes worn thin by the sun and spray of the sea.
Below me, the crew of the Shui Niao mirrors them, abandoning the still smoking cannons and unsheathing their close-combat weapons, cutlasses, rapiers, and spears - naginatas and yaris - to beat back the attack. The ships rise and fall with the motion of the sea and the men scream insults across the shrinking gap. I look aft to see Captain Lei, leather skinned and flint eyed, brandishing his familiar katana with an easy grace, and showing no emotion but grim determination. I grin with fierce pride.
There’s no need for a look-out any more. I scramble down the mast and drop to the deck, pulling my short sword from its scabbard. I blink and the enemy is across the divide and over the railing. Those nearest are quick to engage. Weapon in hand, I leap to join the fray of clashing metal.
Parry a high strike. Duck under and slice. Turn. Block. Attack. Parry. I dance across the deck, sidestepping attacks from the much stronger men. My small frame and quick feet give me the advantage in such close quarters. I stay low, dodging under the swinging blades and jabbing from behind. I help my crew mates when I can, acting as a distraction, dealing out well timed blows.
The usually clear deck is littered with splinters of wood and other debris from the enemy cannons. I watch my footing. The scent of the salty sea air and ocean brine mixes with the coppery scents of blood and sweat, gunpowder and metal. The sounds of battle drown out all else - the clash of sword on sword accompanied by fierce battle cries, curses, and jeering insults.
A dark skinned pirate with patchy hair laughs as he slices for my neck. I fend off the blade. Find an opening and strike. He goes down, clutching a shoulder. I glance around for the next enemy, and instead catch the eye of Tu Wei. Blood runs in a strip across his forearm but he grins as he salutes with his blade. I see his gaze flick past me, “Hai, behind!”
I jerk around to find a burly pirate, with inked skin and dead eyes, rushing at me with his cutlass raised. He shouts a challenge as he hammers the blade down. I balk, raising my shorter sword to block the attack. Metal hits metal with a screech. He shoves down, pushing my back against the railing, slick with ocean spray. I lean forward, desperately trying to overcome his sheer strength. My eyes focus at his sword above my face. It inches closer.
Suddenly the man stiffens, his arm goes slack and he slides to the side. Tu Wei jerks his sword free. He offers me a calloused hand, “Watch yourself, xiâo didi.”
I grimace and nod my thanks. My hands shake. I reach up to wipe the spot of blood from my cheek. That was too close. Baka, I berate myself, focus. I rejoin the fight, Tu Wei at my side. I make it a habit to watch my back.
My next opponent is annoyingly light on his feet. He’s smaller than the rest, only slightly taller than me, and just as agile. I try to get around behind him. He manages to avoid turning his back, even for an instant, and presses the attack, forcing me to focus on defense. I struggle to find an opening. Shine kisama, I growl to myself. His foot lands in a coil of rope. I smile, roll to the side, grab one end of the rope and tug. His legs fly out from under him and I drive the point of my sword down.
I pivot, ready for the next assault. There is none, for the moment. I watch the tide of the battle, trying to discern order in the chaos. Are we winning? I can’t tell. My breath comes in gasps, my shoulders ache, and a bruise on my shoulder makes it difficult to raise my arm. A good fight, by all means. But there’s still something wrong. Some tension that I can’t fully grasp underneath the frenzy of the battle.
I keep my back to the railing, still wary of an unseen attack, and scan the turmoil for Captain Lei. There. On the other side of the main mast. Fighting the enemy captain, who wields his twin swords in a blur of motion. They lock blades. I see Captain Lei say something over their crossed weapons. The other laughs grimly and replies. The captain smiles. I frown - the captain never smiles during a fight.
They pull apart and stand, weapons slack, staring for a long moment. They give each other a formal bow. An agreement?
I frown again. He’s not surrendering? Is he? I feel a sudden dread.
At some unseen signal they spring into action. Clash. Twist. Parry. Attack. They trade a flurry of blows, moving as if they’ve fought a thousand battles before. Like they know each weakness, each strength. And how best to exploit both.
I watch Captain Lei with unblinking eyes and a dry mouth. I know I shouldn’t be worried. I know it… and yet.
There. He falters. Just an inch, not enough for any lesser swordsman to take advantage of, but this enemy is no lesser swordsman and both blades swing from below, pushing Captain Lei further off balance. He stumbles back. The enemy lunges forward. My stomach drops to the deck. His sword spears through Captain Lei’s stomach.
For an instant, they are frozen. I am frozen.
Then, “Taichou!” A ragged scream tears itself from my throat and I spring forward in a haze of anger as red as the sails of the Shui Niao. No! I push through the press of bodies, unable to distinguish friend from foe. Too slow. I watch as Captain Lei falls to his knees, his hand reaching up to grasp the blade. I scream inside. Chikushou! Faster. His katana falls to his feet, inches out of reach.
My voice cracks in a guttural cry as I attack the pirate’s unprotected back. He turns, parrying the blow with a swipe of his sword. His other sword sweeps around in a slice. I raise my arm to block. Misjudge the timing, barely manage to keep the blade from scoring my chest. Again, his other sword flicks up and I feel the hilt of my blade twist out of my grip. My weapon clatters to the deck.
The tip of his sword rests at my collar bone.
I close my eyes and clench my teeth, sure that I’ll feel the bit of the blade at any moment. It presses deeper, urging me to my knees. I follow with a silent curse.
“Stay down, boy.” I open my eyes to glare along the length of the blade. “Gang Fan. Hold him.” Rough hands grasp at my arms, yanking them behind my back and jerking me to my feet.
Silence spreads like a wave as one by one the pockets of fighting across the deck come to a stop. Seeing their captain’s defeat, the crew of the Shui Niao lower their weapons.
The pirate turns to Captain Lei, inclines his head. “As agreed, your ship and your crew will be spared and will sail under my flag.” He sheathes one of his swords. The other he holds loosely at his side. “What lays between us is settled, Lei Zhu.”
“Kutabare! Never!” I scream in a surge of anger. A hand reaches across, covering my mouth. I try to bite it.
He continues, “Those that resist will join you.”
Lei Zhu bows his head, eyes clouded with pain, “Duì, Yun Kuo. As agreed.” He takes a shuddering breath, “Don’t resist.” The words are for us, and are met with silence. Disbelief. After a long moment, Tu Wei’s sword clatters to the deck and his shoulders sag. The rest of the crew follows his lead.
I try to shout, straining against the pirate’s grip. I lock eyes with Captain Lei. He shakes his head with a sad smile. I glare back. He wants me to just stand here and let him die? Some things need to be faced. Had he known where this fight would lead? Had he chosen this? I don’t understand. All I know is that I can’t let this happen. He may have given up, but I will not.
I shift my weight and drop. Down, breaking free of the arms clamped around my shoulders. I dart to the side, rolling under the grasping hands and reaching blades. Gathering my feet, I sprint for Captain Lei, for his katana, the hilt slick with blood. I scoop it up as I turn, raising the blade between me and Yun Kuo. I charge.
He effortlessly fends off my wild attack. I reel back. He moves in. I can only see the flash of the weapons, not the man. Before I can muster a defense I feel the katana wrenched from my fingers. It tumbles over the edge of the deck and into the rolling water below.
Once again the shadow of a sword falls across my face.
I glance up. Meet his gaze.
My hands shake in rage. And fear.
I refuse to close my eyes this time.