Vivi’s first real trip away from Alabarna is made in the year of her mother’s death. Lady Vilantia is laid to rest in the stone tombs beneath the palace alongside former rulers of Alabarna dating back to time immemorial, but at her request her husband takes locks of the long blue river of her hair north to be burnt in the mountain temples. The retinue is small, just himself, Vivi, the two guard captains and a handful of servants. They ride horses, a shaggy mountain breed more than equal to the steep inclines and cold temperatures, both of which make spot-bills impossible. Cobra rides with his tiny daughter sometimes seated before him in the saddle, sometimes at his side on a small pony – the little furry beast is the only thing that has delighted her heart since her mother’s death, and he can only bear to part her from it on the most dangerous roads.
The mountains here are not troubled by bandits – visitors are rare enough, and those who do make the trek are usually penniless pilgrims – but rock slides occasionally block the narrow paths. Pell scouts ahead of the party, sometimes soaring up to half a day’s travel in advance of them, and advises of the shortest and safest routes. His horse spends most of its time rider-less, travelling with a lead tied to Chaka’s saddle, and is easily the most energetic member of the party.
Pell is riding the thermals several miles away when he hears the far off roll of thunder, a deep rumbling in a clear sky. He turns a tight circle, wind whipping through his feathers with a sound like a flag being snapped, and casts his sharp eyes back towards the sound. There are intervening crags and peaks, but he can see a pale column of smoke rising from near where the party must be now – not smoke, dust.
He has flown high into the thin air to scout a long distance ahead without travelling too far, and now all it takes to return is to drop into a sharp dive. It is his best angle by far, and he slices through the air like lightning descending, swerving around outcroppings and cliffs with tiny twists of his primaries. From the first hint of a rumble to the time he pulls up sharply to land at the front of the party it can’t be more than five minutes. But he knows instantly by the look on Cobra’s face that it is five minutes too long.
The party stands on a narrow path, a steep cliff face heading up to the top of the mountain on their left, and the slope dropping down away into the valley on their right. Behind them, the path has been blocked by a thick wall of rocks of all sizes from pebbles to boulders. Most of the men are standing comforting nervous mounts, the horses stamping and shaking their heads, still. But Cobra is standing at the edge of the steep gorge on the right side of the path, a deep gully studded with huge stones and pitted by narrow fissures and holes. Off to one side Cobra’s mount is standing, held by a servant, with the little pony beside it. Vivi is nowhere to be seen.
“He threw her – bolted, when the first rocks came down and threw her. Chaka went after her, right down the damn side.” Cobra swallows, convulsively. His hands are fisted in the loose fabric of his robe, his face grey and staring. If he knows Pell is there, apart from the words he gives no sign of it.
Pell doesn’t wait to hear more. He launches himself into the air, changing as he falls and pulls up his talons to skim the rough rock face as he skates over it, wind pouring under his huge wings. He slips between the boulders like a needle stitching through fabric, keen eyes searching for any hint of sky-blue or coal-black. When he has gone further than he thinks they could possibly have fallen he banks so hard he nearly tumbles into the ground and beats upwards again, slower this time.
He finally catches sight of a flash of white – Vivi’s cotton travelling smock – in a deep hollow in the side of the steep slope. Pell lands awkwardly, falling out of his falcon form and hitting the ground rolling rather than bothering to glide in on the uneven ground. “Vivi-sama? Vivi-sama?!” He stumbles into the shadow, gritty rocks eroding under his pounding feed, and skids to a stop as his eyes focus.
Chaka, a full black jackal, is staring at him with glinting eyes; on his back, Vivi-sama smiles through her tears. “Pell!”
He scoops her up off of Chaka’s back, allowing Chaka to stand up and wipe the dirt from his face with a bloody hand. “Thank the gods you’re safe, Vivi-sama.” He sits her on his hip, wipes the tears from her cheeks with his thumb. “Are you alright?”
She nods, eyes huge. “Chaka caught me.” She cranes her head backwards like an owl looking for him, and he smiles at her.
“Lucky it was downhill; once I was under her, it was easy enough to keep going.” He notices the scrapes on his palms and turns them down, out of Vivi’s sight.
“Can you make it back up again?” asks Pell, seriously. Chaka nods.
Pell sighs, and hoists Vivi-sama up in his arms. Kisses her on the forehead – “I am glad you’re safe” – and nods. “We should get going, then. I can come back down and help you navigate, if you want.”
Chaka shakes his head. Pell turns to go, but Vivi pulls sharply on the front of his robes and he glances down, surprised. “Vivi-sama?”
“Aren’t you glad Chaka’s safe, too?” she demands, stern and uncompromising as only a four year-old can be, pressing her finger against her forehead.
“Of course, Vivi-sama.” Pell eyes Chaka and reads the thoughts written there, a mirror of his own: it’s simpler just to give in. Chaka obligingly steps over and stoops; Pell presses cool lips to his forehead.
In his arms, Vivi nods seriously, satisfied. Pell shifts, and wings out into the bright sunshine to return her to her father.
The immense bonfire is sending a plume of smoke spiraling up towards the sky that can be seen for miles. Flames lick upwards, sparks rising with the updraft.
All around, people are dancing. The fall harvest has finished, crops safely stored away in cool rooms across the country, and now the ancient rituals take hold. When the full moon rises, the people don their best clothes, light bonfires and dance.
Chaka has returned to his old neighbourhood, a small poor one on the outskirts of Alabarna, with gifts of food and money for his friends and family. He is the most prosperous son they have seen in centuries, one of the county’s two protecting gods, and he brings pride into their hearts. Pell comes with him, as he often does for the harvest festival – his family lies buried in abandoned desert caves far out in the west of the country, and there is nothing there for him to celebrate.
The jackal is dressed in heavy robes of ebony and silver, the edging decorated with coins that jingle when he dances. He spins with both young men and women, his footsteps sure and agile, never once putting a foot out of place. He takes hands and purchases dances with a kiss, bestowing his favours generously, enjoying the joyous celebration and the crowd’s enthusiastic mood.
Pell sits off to one side drinking as he usually does, disdaining to dance. Fire was a sacred luxury to his people, not a cheap amusement; he rarely brings levity to the festival. Chaka appreciates his presence all the same – Pell is no son of his neighbourhood, but the presence of both protecting gods at their celebration brings his family all the more honour. Even if one doesn’t participate.
By the end of the evening the children and old folks have gone to bed, and the remaining dancers are covered in soot and smell of smoke and hickory. Dancing is in some dark corners giving away to bawdier past times. The fire has begun to die down and while the music is still playing, it’s a solo, sentimental tune rather than the earlier band’s lively efforts. Couples are swaying slowly, heads resting on shoulders.
Chaka slips out of the remaining circle of dancers to stop in front of his partner. Pell looks up coolly, his headdress framing his pale face. However much he might disdain the festival he is aware that his presence brings face to Chaka’s family; like the jackal he is wearing his best unofficial robes, pure white edged in aquamarine and gold. Somehow, despite the dust and the soot, he has managed to keep them spotless.
Chaka holds out his hand; Pell gives it a slow, considering look. “Payment in advance,” he says. Chaka rolls his eyes, but stoops to press a light kiss to Pell’s lips.
The falcon rises, taking his hand, and together they step into the last dance of the night.
They don’t usually cross the Sandora in bad weather; the barques used to cut across her broad waters are built to handle heavy shipments, not to weather storms. It’s not often that the river is choppy, and it rarely lasts more than a day – much easier just to wait for calm sailings again.
But Pell has been sent out from Alabarna to meet Cobra and the party crossing the desert on their return from Rain Base to convey the news that a representative from the World Government was waiting to speak urgently to him about potential drought relief. With half the country under risk of starvation, Cobra puts the convoy on the barques and urges the captains to cross.
Chaka and Pell sit in the very centre of the largest ship, staring morosely at the water that means certain death for them and keeping a firm grip on the mast. His majesty stands nearer the side, trying to read the letter Pell brought with him in the tearing wind, until the spray becomes too much and he begins to put it away. As he changes his grip on it the wind catches it and rips it from his fingers. He chases it across the ship right to the edge, reaching out for it as it disappears beyond the railing. At the same moment the wind shifts directions to slam violently into the ship from the side so that the whole vessel tilts sharply to the side. Men, barrels and crates go tumbling over the flat planks, the sails strain at their ropes, and His Majesty goes right over the edge into the seething waters.
Every man on the desk runs over instantly; ropes and life preservers are thrown into the water, poles and hooks are fetched, several men actually jump in. Cobra surfaces once, already some ways behind the boat, and then disappears again. The lines aren’t long enough, and the swimmers missed the one sighting and search in the wrong directions.
Pell throws off his outer robes, takes a rope and ties it to his waist, then takes a second line in his hand. A moment later it’s a talon and he’s fighting to stay in the air, flying low over the spitting river. He heads for the place Cobra last surfaced, hovers over the waves. The water is a dull blown-glass green, full of silt and sand; he can’t see anything clearly. He thinks he sees a shadow, holds his breath, and dives.
He hits the water as a man, diving in with a cormorant’s steep plunge, and fights to keep his eyes open against the sting of the sand. He’s never been in wild water before, never swum even before the tori-tori fruit, and the crush of water against his skin is terrifying. His only security lies in the knowledge that he only has one task, one quick manoeuver to pull off. Pell strains his eyes, lungs already beginning to ache, and catches sight of a dark shape a few yards away. He strikes out as best he can, already feeling the downwards drag, and catches hold of Cobra’s robes with his fingertips. He ties the second rope tightly around Cobra’s waist, struggling fearfully with the knot, and finally hauls hard on its length. Cobra vanishes, disappearing backwards into the water.
Pell, staring upwards at the surface, realises he has very few seconds’ worth of air left, and begins to paddle, to wave, to strike at the water around him. But he is being pulled down, down, down, water pressing in against him and he can’t hold his breath – his lungs are burning, are on fire, he must breathe –
Pell falls into darkness as the rope around his waist catches, limp body being hauled through the water. Unlike Cobra’s he does not rise easily, hangs like an anchor under the ship so that they have to pull him up almost vertically before they can get him over the side.
Cobra is already aboard, sputtering and coughing at the back of the ship when Chaka hauls his partner over the rails. Pell rolls over to lie in a soaked, half-naked heap, unmoving, unbreathing. Chaka pulls him away from the rails, while at the same time turning him on his side and emptying out all the water that will come.
When he’s farther from the edge and the water has ceased pouring out, Chaka turns him on his back, tilting his head up. The ship’s crew are already gathering, and one pushes aside the others to kneel beside Pell; he starts beating his chest, pumping it down firmly with his palms in a slow even rhythm. Chaka, like most devil fruit eaters who have been to sea, knows what to do. He waits for the pause and then opens Pell’s mouth, pinching his nose shut and sealing his own mouth over to breathe deeply into Pell’s lungs. Once, twice, three times. Then the man starts pumping his chest again, pumping hard enough to crack ribs, until another pause comes and Chaka breathes for him again. He’s cursing, begging, praying in his head, with every piece of his thoughts not caught up in counting the rhythm. The man leans down on Pell’s chest, and the falcon’s back arches as he sucks in air, coughing and hacking.
They roll him onto his side, Chaka chafing his arms and back as he coughs and vomits up the water; he’s breathing nearly as hard as Pell, chest aching with a sharp pain. He pulls his coat off and wraps it over Pell, drying and sheltering him even as he looks up to see how far it is to the coast. Only to find that they are already tying up at the dock. He shakes his head and leans forward to rest against Pell’s shoulder, eyes closed. Takes a moment to catch his breath.
And then it’s time to disembark.
It feels as though the kingdom is falling to pieces. Rebels are everywhere speaking of Dance Powder. Baroque Works is a rumour on everyone’s lips, an insidious weed strangling the country from within. Igaram and Vivi-sama have been gone for more than a year, disappeared in the night and not seen since. Cobra, struggling on as best he can, is a shadow of himself.
Pell spends his days interspacing his regular routines of guard duty and holy obligations with trying to spy out new information on their enemies. He spends the long, dark nights patrolling above Alabarna, circling slowly on such thermals as there are, his keen eyes watching for dangerous activity below.
He can’t remember when he last had a full night’s rest, when he ate a meal without an eye on the clock and an ear to the door. He has tried to be everything to everyone, and it is pulling him apart. As long as the country and her king stand, he will stand beside them. But he no longer knows for how long that will be.
He reflects on this as he circles over the city, ever-watchful. They say Alabarna is green with the tears of the gods; they should be weeping now, to see what the country is coming to. Chaka is full of rage, a tangle of outrage and fury, but he himself is still unbelieving. That rumour could outweigh fact, that a history of more than a millennia could be displaced in a year. He doesn’t know how to live in this new world.
It’s nearing sunrise when Pell lands in the palace’s wide garden, near the entrance that leads to his quarters. He can snatch a couple of hours of sleep now before his shift, perhaps even have breakfast. It seems terribly mundane: the kingdom is falling to pieces and he’s worried about his meals.
To his surprise, Chaka is lounging outside the door to his room, a large black jackal lying on the floor. His chin is resting on his paws, but his dark eyes are sharp.
“How long have you been there?” asks Pell, stopping to stare down at his partner and co-captain.
Chaka sits up on his haunches. “Long enough. You disappear every night. What if you’re needed?”
“You know I can return in a heartbeat.”
“What about sleep?”
Pell frowns. “I haven’t keeled over yet. Why have you suddenly decided to turn on the mothering act?”
“We’re bleeding men, Pell. Losing loyalties across the country. We’ve already lost Vivi-sama and Igaram. We can’t stand to lose you too.” Chaka’s voice is low and guttural, sharp teeth shining in the candlelight. Pell wonders suddenly what he’s afraid of, that the falcon will slip out in the night like the princess and not return? Such was never his intention, but he realises now just how possible it could seem. He sighs.
“I’m not going anywhere. But thanks for your concern.” He reaches down absently to lay a hand on Chaka’s head. Chaka’s long tongue streaks out, licking along his palm. He gives the shadow of a smile, and pushes through into his room to collapse onto his bed. Less than an hour until another day begins.
In his dreams they stand tall together, bracketing the royal throne as they have always done. They are Alabasta’s protecting gods: The Jackal, He Who Passes Judgement, and the Falcon, He Who Destroys. They rain down death on Alabasta’s enemies, and scoop up their allies in their strong arms. They are undefeatable, unassailable.
And then he wakes in the morning with the bitter taste of failure in his mouth, and knows it all to be a lie. They are no gods, and when tested they couldn’t protect the country or themselves. They were nothing but men, and as men they were defeated. He is one half of a broken whole, never to be pieced together again.
Tonight though, he dreams a different dream. He’s standing in the grass of the cemetery behind the palace, the thick bed of green blades cool around his feet. There’s a lingering scent of dampness in the air from the recent rains; the desert breeze is soft and chill against his skin. Overhead a falcon drifts by overhead, its underside startlingly white in the moonlight. Chaka finds himself watching it, eyes tied to the small bird’s bright form as it circles above the graveyard. When it turns out of its circle to drift north towards the back of the city, he follows it.
Beyond the graveyard is the edge of the tall outcropping on which Alabasta is built, the ground falling away suddenly in a sheer-faced cliff that descends to the sands dozens of yards below. There are no stairs to the desert here, but there is an old mule track hidden by a trick door – it was built centuries ago as a last escape for the monarch. To Chaka’s knowledge, it has never been used.
He follows the falcon down the steep cliff path to the sands below. It’s leading him somewhere, he’s sure of it. He doesn’t take his eyes off it, somehow certain that it has a mission. His heart is beating quicker and quicker in his chest, his skin becoming sweaty even in the cold night air. The anticipation is rising sharply towards an unseen peak; he begins jogging, then running over the loose sand. The falcon is swerving sharply between large boulders that lie scattered about on the sands, like the ruins of a giant’s castle. He’s almost there – Chaka can feel it, an intoxicating sense of drive and yearning – he’s close, so close –
Chaka wakes up with a cry. He’s lying in his bed, nightshirt stuck to him with sweat, his sheets damp with it.
He looks out the window and sees the moon high above. He sighs and closes his eyes. But his heart is still thrumming in his chest, his blood boiling with adrenaline.
It was just a dream, he tells himself, rolling over. And then a minute later, rolling over in the opposite direction.
Ten minutes later, he’s still tossing and turning.
Ten minutes after that, he throws off his blanket and stands with a curse.
The goddamn dream won’t let him rest.
All the same he heads through the graveyard and out to the hidden door that leads down to the desert. Presses the latch and descends the steep climb, pebbles and loose shale tumbling down alongside him.
The dream was vivid and, he finds when he reaches the bottom of the path, true to life. He can trace the same route he took through the boulders. His chest is beginning to tighten, mouth dry and jaw tense. For all that it was just a dream, he can’t shake the hold it has on him, can’t shake the spell it cast over him. He’s certain the falcon was leading him somewhere. He’s loping along now, ignoring the pain of Crocodile’s wounds, his paws passing soundlessly over the sand.
He stops only when he comes to the end of the trail – the point where he woke up. There’s nothing here, not a single speck of sand out of place.
And then he scents it, a familiar smell on the wind. His head turns towards it before he has time to think, body following blindly.
It can’t be, of course. Pell’s death is fact: math at its simplest. He could never have survived the bomb’s blast. Crocodile’s final piece of cruelty, designed to destroy Alabasta’s capital. Thanks to the falcon it took only one life: his own.
And yet, his nose is never wrong.
He follows it around a large boulder into its shadow and in the dark depths there sees something pale. A tall, narrow form seated with its back to the stone, long legs folded below. Orange eyes open to stare out, sharp as flint.
Chaka feels his heart skip a beat.
He wants to laugh, to cry, to pick Pell up by the collar and give him a drubbing for all the pain and anguish he’s caused.
Instead he steps forward, shifting from beast to man thoughtlessly, until he’s standing at Pell’s side. He drops to his knees and with one hand raises Pell’s chin so he can see the clear line of the falcon’s cheeks and jaw, can see the pain and the sorrow and the joy in his eyes.
Chaka leans in and kisses him until he grows dizzy with it. Only then does he pull away, Pell’s dazed eyes sliding open.
“You came back,” he says.
Pell smiles. “Always.” And, leaning upwards, he returns the kiss.