Even the sea smells different here, Miah’to thought as he gazed out at the Othard shore, towering islands of volcanic rock rising from the ocean floor. When the Captain told him that they were setting sail for the Far East, Miah’to had anticipated new sights and smells, but he hadn’t expected the sea itself to change. It seemed so foolish in hindsight, to think that that familiar sea salt smell would remain consistent even in foreign lands. It was the marine life, he realized; different creatures occupied these waters, altering its scent in different ways as they lived and died and decayed.
When he was a child, Miah’to would sit with his mother on the western pier in Limsa Lominsa, and as day turned to night they would watch together as the sun dipped beneath the waves, transmuting water into gold, and then ink. Miah’to knew what lied to the east of Vylbrand, across the Strait of Merlthor; travelers and merchants from all over Eorzea made stops in Limsa in search of work and trade. But as they looked to the west, he sometimes asked his mother what waited beyond the horizon, and she would tell him about distant lands and people, all unique and all beautiful in their own way. He told her that when he grew up he wanted to see it all, and he would bring her with him. She would smile at him then, lavender eyes he wasn’t fortunate enough to inherit full of warmth, and tell him that she couldn’t wait.
Seeing those lands now, Miah’to found that there was little joy to be had in the experience. A pirate vessel was not his intended mode of transportation, nor had he planned on making his journey until he was old enough to pay his way onto a merchant’s ship—or sail one himself. For the thousandth time, Miah’to felt a pang of homesickness, a dull throbbing behind his ribs that gnawed like a hunger he could not fill. Last week had marked the two year anniversary since he was taken, and a month before that, his sixteenth name day came and went without remark. The Captain didn’t care to know more than his year of birth, and that information he knew intimately well—after all, he had participated in his conception.
The sound of laughter made Miah’to cringe and look over his shoulder. Between Othard and the island nation of Koshu, the Ruby Sea was held by a fleet who called themselves the Confederacy. To the members of this fleet, any ship that wished to travel between Othard and Koshu must pay the Ruby tithe to guarantee its safety.
Pirates everywhere are the same, Miah’to thought as he watched the Captain chat amicably with a Hyur man whose dark hair was pulled back into a braid. There were a lot of Hyur in the Far East, as well as a number of Hellsguard and a race of horned beings Miah’to had never encountered before—though even the familiar races looked different here in comparison to their Eorzean counterparts.
Miah’to was jolted from his thoughts by a hand striking the back of his head with an open palm.
“Quit your staring!” hissed his assailant: a Sun Seeker named A’linh, and the crew’s first-mate. “The last thing the Captain needs right now is for you to fuck up negotiations by making our gracious hosts feel uncomfortable.”
Miah’to shot him a scowl and replied, “You say that like you think I give a damn about his needs.”
A’linh raised his hand like he was going to hit Miah’to a second time, but then he curled his fingers into his palm and jerked his thumb at the Confederate pirates behind him. “If you’re thinking about throwing your lot in with this bunch, be my guest. You’re pretty, and some of them may have never even seen a Miqo’te before. I’m sure they’d have far better uses for your mouth than I do.”
Miah’to’s teeth snapped together with an audible click and he met A’linh’s amber gaze with a glare. When they weren’t discussing the Captain or doling out instructions (or, as was often the case, punishment), it seemed the crew could talk to him about precious little aside from how pretty he was. It was why A’linh was the only member who the Captain trusted to leave alone with Miah’to for any length of time.
“Having difficulties over there, A’linh?” came his voice.
Miah’to stiffened and raised his chin to look toward the source instinctively, finding a pair of silver eyes staring back at him impassively, like twin daggers trapped in ice. Cold and razor sharp. A shiver ran down his spine and Miah’to gritted his teeth harder together. His mother always used to say Miah’to had beautiful eyes; having found their origin, he no longer agreed. He hated every little reminder that his blood ran in Miah’to’s veins—that long, straight nose and bushy tail. Pale skin now tanned from too long spent beneath the sun on the open sea.
“None at all, Cap,” said the Sun Seeker. “Everything’s been sorted.”
“Good,” he replied. “Then I want you to get your axes and run him through drills.”
A’linh groaned with exasperation, but he offered no resistance as he curled a hand around Miah’to’s arm—tightly, despite his previous words to the Moon Keeper—and began to lead him back to the ship.
Behind them, the Confederate Hyur said to the Captain, “You are bringing your boy with you?”
“No, but we are in Garlean territory. One must be prepared for anything.”
For twenty-two years, Doma had been under the heel of the Garlean Empire. For a time, little changed across the countryside save for its leadership, but since Doma’s leash had been relinquished to a new Viceroy, her people found themselves guided by a far less forgiving hand. It left them weak and vulnerable—easy pickings, the Captain said with a smirk that made Miah’to’s blood boil. He wanted to take his dinner knife and cut the grin from his lips.
But he was right. Twice, they raided villages along the shore of the Ruby Sea, and Miah’to was left on the ship with A’linh to await their return. To watch them climb back aboard with bloodied armour and stolen bounty. The day after the second raid, the Captain declared that they would take a third village, and Miah’to clenched his fists, knowing that he had reached his limit. Tomorrow, he would challenge his father to a duel or pitch himself overboard—entrust his life to the sea before suffering another day of complicity.
He never got the chance.
Later, he wasn’t sure if it was the cannon fire or the Captain scrambling from his bed that woke him. All he knew was that within seconds of blinking awake, a rough hand was curling around his bicep and yanking him from his cot in their shared quarters. At first Miah’to simply wobbled on his feet, sleepy and confused, but as the second volley of cannon fire rocked the ship, he snapped to attention. The Captain hissed a string of curses as he tugged on his boots and armoured overcoat, forgoing a light—as Keepers of the Moon, neither he nor Miah’to had any need for one. Miah’to followed his lead and began to dress himself as his heart took up a staccato rhythm, like a bird’s wings beating against the bars of its cage. Breaths coming faster as his body prepared itself for fight or flight.
It was around that time when the screams began.
In the books Miah’to’s mother read to him as a child, the battles were long and drawn out. Even though he knew the heroes would come out victorious in the end, there was suspense and a clear power struggle between the combatants. Reality was never so fair. Armed with a strategically sound plan, most battles were swift and decisive. It mattered not who was more righteous—only whose tactician was smarter.
The Captain had barely taken his great-axe in his hands before the door burst open to admit a panting and bloodied A’linh, the blond hair at his temples dampened with sweat.
“It’s an ambush, Captain!” A’linh cried. “The Garleans have—” He was cut off with a wet gasp as a sword pierced through his mid-section like a skewered fruit. Time came to a standstill as wide eyes fell to the steel tip peering through his tattered shirt, red blooming down its front like an opening rose. The moment passed as he slid off of the blade, falling to the wooden floor in a heap. The blood came quickly now that the wound was no longer stoppered and Miah’to could only stare dumbly at the spreading lake of crimson. How many times had those hands, now lax, taken the lash to him? He should have known, because he had been ordered to count each one, but now the number escaped him as he thought, I’ll never feel the sting of his whip again.
His mind went blank as the swordsman stepped through the doorway and over A’linh’s corpse. Between his towering height and the elaborate armour that adorned his body, he utterly filled the room—but more than that he seemed to leech the very warmth from the air. If there was such a thing as an angel of death, Miah’to thought, this is how he would appear: with a horned white mask and lifeless eyes as he held his bloodied blade in a loose grasp, golden hair cascading down broad shoulders.
The Captain positioned himself between Miah’to and that lethal angel, gripping his axe with white knuckles. “Miah’to, run!” he shouted, panic lacing his voice.
Miah’to drew in a sharp breath, tasting salt and iron, but instead of darting for the porthole window over the head of the Captain’s bed, he reached beneath the pillow for the dagger he knew resided there and drew it from its sheath. The Captain and his accoster hadn’t moved when Miah’to turned back to them, and he found himself freezing with indecision. Suddenly, he wasn’t sure whether he should aid in fending off the Garlean giant or plunge the knife into the Captain’s back. His heart pounded, the bird behind his ribs frantic with its proximity to freedom.
The decision was taken out of his hands when the Captain lunged forward with a wordless yell. The Garlean parried the blade effortlessly, like he was sparring with a child, and as the Captain was forced off-balance by the strength with which he was met, the angel of death swung his sword around in a graceful arc. A shower of rubies spilled from the blade’s edge and Miah’to flinched as something warm and wet splattered across his face. A broken cry was wrenched from the Captain’s mouth and the axe slipped from his hands as he fell to his hands and knees. The breath retreated from his lungs with a shuddering sigh, and Miah’to could have sworn for a moment that he heard his own name. The Garlean turned his sword downward and drove it through the Captain’s back, pinning him to the floor.
He’s dead, Miah’to thought, repeating over and over like a mantra. For two long years he had dreamed of this day, though in his fantasies it was he who had made the killing stroke. He’s dead. Face-down as his blood joined the pool surrounding A’linh. His head was spinning, unable to come to terms with the reality he was seeing.
Slowly, the pale mask of the Garlean’s helm lifted to meet Miah’to’s gaze and he remembered that he was not alone. His hands tightened around the dagger, hard leather digging into his palms, but as he stared into those blackened eyes he found that he couldn’t move. The cage door had swung open before him to reveal a coeurl, and he had no intentions of charging to his doom. The Garlean spoke then with a low and sultry voice.
“Why do you hesitate?” he asked.
A drip rolled down Miah’to’s face and he licked his lips, tasting blood. “Because… I am not sure whether I should attack you or thank you,” he said.
The Garlean cocked his head. “An interesting response.”
Miah’to glared back at him. “Should I love my own captors? You have done me a service—if you permit me to live.”
“And if I do not?”
Miah’to widened his stance and bared his teeth. “Then I will fight until I draw my last breath… or you do.”
The angel regarded him for a long minute and Miah’to realized, during that silence, that the screaming had ceased along with the cannon fire. The assault had come to an end and there was no questioning who reigned triumphant. After all, who could defeat death? His Garlean angel surprised him by turning his back to him to exit the room.
Just past the doorway he paused, and Miah’to knew that his words were meant for him. “Take what you please and come.”
It was all Miah’to needed to jolt him into action. He dropped the dagger and scrambled for a rucksack, filling it with his meagre supply of clothing and gil from the Captain’s chest. When he finished with his task he stood, eyes searching the room for… something. Even he was uncertain what it was he sought as his gaze passed over his dishevelled cot and the Captain’s unmade bed, now flecked with blood. Then he spied the oil lamp on the Captain’s desk and something inside of him said, yes, and he knew. Miah’to crossed the room to take the lamp in his hands, and then he brought down the oil reservoir against the corner of the desk with a resounding crack, feeling the glass give way. He dribbled fuel across the floor and over the beds, splashing the walls as best he could, and then let it fall to the floor with a crystalline crunch. He wiped his trembling fingers on his shirt and returned to the desk to find the Captain’s flint and a map to use as kindling. Three times he fumbled with the fire starter until sparks finally caught on the parchment. With a racing heart, Miah’to brought the burning map to the Captain’s bed and dropped it onto oil-soaked sheets. Flames sprung to life across the bed hungrily and began to clamber their way up the wall.
Let it all burn, Miah’to thought. Turn it all to ash and leave nothing behind.
Satisfied, he made his way to the door, stopping only as he reached the Captain’s body. Motionless, now and forever. Miah’to knelt down and turned him onto his back. His eyes were closed and his face was slack, parted lips that would never smirk again revealing sharp, feline teeth. Hair a few shades darker than Miah’to’s plastered to his forehead with blood. For two years Miah’to had lived with this man. Fought him and despised him even as he learned from him. For two years, Miah’to had yearned for the mother he was ripped away from, for his home in Limsa Lominsa where they would watch the sunset side by side. He wondered, not for the first time, how a woman as kind and compassionate as his mother could have loved this man for an evening, and his answer came in the unbidden memory of his name whispered on a dying breath.
How insurmountable he had once seemed. He was small for a Miqo’te, barely taller than Miah’to, and yet he had felt larger than life as he put Miah’to down again and again and again. Swatting him aside as easily as he would a fly. As easily as the Garlean angel swatted him.
Steeling his resolve, Miah’to found the great-axe at his side and hoisted it into his hands as he rose to his feet. He stepped over A’linh and found his angel waiting outside the door. The angel spared him only a brief glance before making his way out of the cabin. Miah’to followed.
If the Garleans were surprised to see a young Miqo’te trailing willingly behind the giant through the carnage, they did not show it, nor did they move to disarm him. It was clear that his angel was their leader and his will would not be defied. The smell of wood smoke mingled with blood and gunpowder as they reached the gangplank and crossed over onto the Garlean ship, joined by the last few soldiers who had remained on deck to await their superior’s orders. When the final soldier finished crossing, they drew back the gangplank and the Garlean ship drifted away from the smouldering carcass of its prey. His angel stood at the railing and Miah’to joined him, surveying the remains of the pirate vessel that had housed him for the last two years.
It was once a grand ship with a chestnut brown hull and massive, midnight blue sails, an ornate figurehead of a Sahagin warrior carved beneath the jutting bowsprit. Now smoke billowed from the cabin window as Miah’to’s fire consumed it from the inside out, and the masts were collapsed like broken twigs, shredding the blue-dyed fabric. Very slowly, the ship was sinking as water poured into the holes that had been punched through its hull with cannonballs. It wasn’t enough. Miah’to’s hands became fists around the handle of the Captain’s great-axe.
A soldier approached his angel and said, “No survivors remaining onboard save for your… hostage. In addition to eliminating the outlaws, we have also confiscated all plundered goods below deck. Your orders, my lord?”
Miah’to ignored him, glaring at the wreckage. He was not expecting a gauntleted hand to cup his jaw, a thumb covered in warmed metal running through the drying blood on his cheek. His Garlean angel. He did not look away. He did not falter.
His angel said, “Leave naught but splinters.”
“Yes, my lord. At once.”
Miah’to would never forget the sound as the cannons resumed fire. The hissing of the fuse followed by the low thrum as black powder combusted within the chamber. The deafening crash as the cannonballs collided with the hull and tore it apart, wood wailing in protest. Beating it into submission and then dismembering the ravaged corpse. Leaving ruin where once his prison stood.
Something fluttered in Miah’to’s chest and he found himself grinning, giddy, and then he was laughing. He was free. The bird escaped through his open mouth, caged no more, and he laughed even harder until tears began to stream down his face. He was free, he was free, he was free.