“Captain says to bring the Yokai on deck.”
Zuko barely restrains himself from rolling his eyes. “Then go get her.”
“Says he wants you to do it.”
This time he does roll his eyes. But Captain’s orders are Captain’s orders, and it wouldn’t look good to the rest of the crew if their quartermaster showed signs of in-subordinance. Especially since their Captain was already walking on thin ice.
Zuko adjusts the sword at his side and dutifully pushes himself off of the beer barrel he had been relaxing on. Begrudgingly, he makes his way across the deck towards the captive’s cell. He is still a good fifteen feet from the iron bars when he hears her now familiar obscenities.
“—your Captain’s too much of a coward to unchain me? I guess I shouldn’t have expected more from a third-rate pirate.”
A few crew members lounge around her pit, drinking and polishing their weapons. Some of them even seem to be choking down laughter at her stupidly arrogant insults. When they see Zuko heading over, they hastily clear their throats and attempt to look busy.
“Don’t you idiots have better things to do than entertain the Yokai?” But his reprimand is half-hearted at best, more out of obligation than out of real anger.
The Yokai (as the crew had dubbed her after the first three nights witnessing her incessant verbal abuse) immediately spots his approach, and the flash of her pearly teeth almost intimidates him. He knows he’s heard her real name at some point in the last few weeks, but it slips from his memory like a wisp of smoke.
“Ah, so he’s sent his right-hand man to attend to me this time? Is this some form of dimwitted flattery?”
The urge to pinch the bridge of his nose and let out a weary sigh is overwhelming, but he simply fishes a key out of his trouser pocket and sets to work on the rusted lock.
“Nothing to say to me? What, you aren’t growing bored of your favorite prisoner, are you?”
“You’re our only prisoner.” He hoists the iron bars up and over, and they swing to the other side of the pit with a loud clang.
She grins at him and merely holds up her shackled wrists. Two crew members grip her by her upper-arms and lift her up onto the deck.
Her pale blue silk dress is covered in salt and grime that stain the expensive fabric a murky grey. Her hair has long since been ruined from its previously intricate updo and has now been messily braided into one long plait. Dirt smears across her cheeks, and her overall appearance more closely resembles a tavern prostitute than the noblewoman they had first seized. And yet, the light behind her eyes gives away no fear or weakness.
“Is that bastard you call your Captain finally going to do away with me? Perhaps make me walk the plank in some gaudy, terribly average fashion? Or maybe he’ll cut me open with his sword, so that I can be a gutless fish just like him.”
He hears a few snorts among the small crowd that has now gathered, and Zuko doesn’t even have the loyalty in him to pretend to punish them. It might be a different story had their relatively new Captain actually proven himself worthy of their support, but in the past few months since he had taken charge over them, his selfish decision-making and cruel ambition had lost him the initial respect of his crew.
Before she can hurl any more insults, the door to the Captain’s cabin is flung open.
Zhao levels a coldly furious stare at the woman before he seems to forcefully reign his temper in. A brittle smile curls his lips and he slowly paces towards her. The hair on Zuko’s neck stands slightly on end, and he doesn’t quite understand why he has the urge to step bodily between them.
“I’m afraid, my dear, that you won’t be dying today.”
“What a pity. And here I was thinking that you had finally grown yourself a set of balls.”
A muscle in Zhao’s jaw ticks, but his control remains intact. He merely keeps walking until he is towering over her. To the woman’s credit, she does not budge an inch and only tilts her head up to meet his eyes.
“Don’t be mistaken, girl. Nothing would please me more than to rid my ship of your filthy existence,” he pauses to cast a disdainful glance over her admittedly dirty form, “However, someone from your home is bound to pay a handsome price to get you back, and I do intend to collect.”
There is a second of tense silence that Zuko half-expects will end with the woman clawing at Zhao’s eyes, but she makes no such move.
Instead, a violent kind of laughter forces its way out of her mouth, and her eyes look at their Captain with mocking amusement. When she speaks, every word rolls off her tongue like she is tasting the finest wine in all the seven seas.
“All my family are dead, I have no money, and I have no friends. It looks like you’ll be waiting an awful long time before you collect anything.”
Zhao is statue-still, and Zuko is sure that this will be the final straw. But Zhao only leans the slightest bit forward so that his nose is just shy of touching the woman’s, and Zuko cannot help the rush of unease that sweeps through him.
“Your value for ransom was the only thing protecting you on my ship. But now, it looks like I’m free to collect the one thing you do have that’s still useful.”
With a final smug look, Zhao spins on his heel and disappears into his quarters, the doors shutting behind him with a click.
The crew is uncomfortably silent, and a shiver of revulsion ripples through the crowd. Zuko, not unaffected by this turn of events, suddenly realizes that he, like his crew, has grown somewhat fond of the woman’s presence over the last two weeks they’ve been imprisoning her, and Zhao’s threat is further fostering the resentment and rage he feels towards his Captain. The strength of his attachment to her catches Zuko off guard, unsettling him.
He expects the woman to be shaken by her impending doom, but when he turns to look at her, there is only calm indifference in her expression. If he didn’t know any better, he would almost say that there is a glint of calculated anticipation in her eyes as she is led back to her pit.
It is not until later that night that he understands why.
Zuko is in the middle of recording inventory of their food rations when Zhao enters the ship’s hold. He spares the Captain a short glance before continuing to shuffle through the heavy crates of meat and beer.
“When you’re finished here, bring that bitch up to my cabin.”
Zuko’s hands freeze over a loaf of moldy bread. He can feel his pulse picking up underneath the thin skin of his neck and he turns to eye the Captain’s weathered face. The self-satisfaction that he sees there pulls Zuko’s lips into a grimace.
“That might not be entirely wise, Captain. The crew’s grown to fancy her quite a bit. Maybe even more than they fancy you at the moment.” There’s a hard edge to his voice that wipes the smirk from Zhao’s face.
“Is that a threat?”
Zuko subtly wraps his left hand around the dagger at his side. “Just telling you how it is, Captain.”
An ugly sneer twists the older man’s features. “I always knew you were a bastard, but I never took you to be a traitor as well. I’m not asking again, Quartermaster. If she’s going to be eating up our reserves, she might as well make herself useful and spread her fucking legs.”
It’s almost enough to burst what little self-control Zuko still possesses, but Zhao doesn’t wait for a reply and he’s gone before Zuko can put intent to action.