“And that’s when we decided to come back.” Chopper concluded the scouting team’s report.
“I can’t believe we’re at the island of Manoa.” Nami sounded faint, carefully lowering herself down into a chair. “The richest island in the world,” she whispered to herself.
“And it appears to be the home of the treasure-bird.” Robin added.
“That makes sense,” Usopp was scratching his chin. Then he brightened and held up one finger in realization, “More than that. This solves the mystery of Manoa!”
“Care to explain?” Zoro asked, not making the connection.
“I’m so glad you asked! It’s obvious that the bird that we saw is the key! It’s the source of the island’s wealth AND the Statue Guardian that Franky talked about. It takes all the treasure from the ships that sail too close to its home, and it turns everyone onboard into statues! The Manoans then trade the treasure for their wealth.”
“There’s a few problems with that, Nose-bro,” Franky interjected. “Most importantly, stuff like the treasure we saw the bird carrying is not what the Manoans bring to sell when their traders come to Water 7. Also, if they were trading treasure away, then why did the inhabitants make it sound like there’s a bunch of it just sitting around to the north of the island waiting to be taken? Next, even if the bird robbed every vessel that has been found empty in the Florian Triangle, would that be enough wealth to fully fund the richest island in the world? Most ships aren't carrying treasure. And remember that there aren’t enough statues on the ships to account for the number of crew, and-”
“Everyone,” Robin interrupted in a voice that immediately quieted the room. “I suggest we do this in a more organized manner. Do I have permission to arrange this, Captain-kun?”
Luffy nodded distractedly from where he was gazing out the window in the direction of the mystery island.
“Then I suggest we all move to the library for this.”
“So,” Robin’s voice held a tone they’d rarely heard from her, “There’s more to this island than you think. I confess I’m uneasy about it. Should we try to get some information before we land?”
“How are we supposed to do that, Robin-chwan?”
“I suggest we pool our information. We are from such diverse backgrounds that collectively we may know more than we imagine. What do you think about combining our knowledge before we land?”
Everyone shrugged or made various noises of assent. It couldn’t hurt. Manoa was a large-ish island, so the scouting expedition had taken the rest of the day and it was now dark enough that they already had to wait until morning before making landfall. So talking for a while wouldn’t delay the onset of the next adventure.
“I suggest that instead of our actual knowledge, we start with the legends,” Robin said. “Through my life I’ve learned that rumor and myth often contain a grain of truth, so it might be worth sorting through what we’ve all heard, even the things that have been proven false.”
Everyone nodded and shrugged some more.
“Usopp, you’re our storyteller. What have you heard about Manoa?”
“Eh, not much. Only what I said before: it is one of the most mysterious places in the world, a legend throughout the four Blues. It’s an island of gold, impossible to reach unless invited. Everything and everyone from that island is blessed and perfected by the gods.”
“Sounds like a load of bull to me,” Zoro grunted.
“Zoro,” Nami’s voice was frosty with warning.
“It does sound mythical, but I can tell you from experience that the trading ships from Manoa are definitely real.”
“Franky, we’re talking about legends for now. If you want to talk, what have you heard that’s been disproven or sounds too fantastical to be real?”
“Jeez, that’s a lot of stuff,” Franky scratched his head, “Manoa is a super popular topic in the taverns. We get people from all over the world coming to the island to see our shipwrights, and all of them bring their own legends,” the cyborg paused in thought for a minute, “I guess it breaks down into three…ish? main rumors.
“The most common belief is that it is the richest mining and smelting operation in the world, because of what they bring to trade. They don’t bring raw ore, though – the metals they sell are as refined and pure as any gold ingot found in a bank vault. They also bring in and sell uncut versions of every kind of gemstone, even though that should be geologically impossible for a single location.
“The mining theory can’t be true for a lot of reasons, actually. First, like I said, it’s not possible to mine every kind of valuable metal and gemstone on one island, even a big one! There’s not enough kinds of rock even on the largest island, and Manoa is small enough to hide in the Florian Triangle. The second reason it can’t be true is because the traders don’t buy mining or smelting equipment, just normal stuff and high-end consumer goods. Finally… it’s not all gems and metal, they’ll bring in ivory, rare corals, pearl, tortoiseshell, and I’ve even seen them sell barrels full of unspun silk filaments. Obviously none of those things can come out of a mine! So that whole mining theory is completely bunk.”
“Good, Franky. Keep going.”
“Right. Now the second kind of rumor is that they have a way to synthesize the materials they trade - like an alchemist who can turn normal stones into all that stuff. Maybe with a devil fruit. Or they have a magic tree that grows fruits made of all those different substances. That would make a lot of sense, but it doesn’t explain why everybody who’s been to the island is so silent on the matter, or why this island has been so special for so many hundreds of years. How would they make sure a devil fruit reappears on that same island every time the user dies? Why are the Manoan people themselves so extraordinary? And since they bring in workers from outside the island, how is it that after so many centuries, not a single blabbermouth or greedy bastard has slipped in and spoiled their secrets? Do they have a mind-reader and future-teller as well as an alchemist? Seems unlikely.
“The last major set of rumors is that the people of Manoa are a special race. They really are demigods, or they live on a dimensional gate to paradise, or have changed from exposure to some other magical form of bullshit – fairy dust or something – that slowly transforms whatever comes in contact with it into some kind of perfected state. But that doesn’t make sense because that would affect the normal people who go to work there, and why would they ship in all the high quality and expensive goods if they could get cheap stuff and it would automatically turn into the perfect form they want?”
“So, ah, that’s all I’ve got.” Franky scratched his head sheepishly.
Everyone was silent for a bit after Franky had finished.
“That’s fairly comprehensive,” Robin finally said, if Zoro didn’t know better he’d think she sounded impressed. “Does anyone else know any legends about the land or its people?”
After another moment Zoro reluctantly sighed and closed his eyes. He could at least outline the basics. “Manoan fighters who leave to travel the outside world are called heroes, saints and demigods. They’re not, but that’s the rumor anyway.”
He could feel the curious stares from some of the others, but Zoro kept his eyes closed and his expression of moderate boredom never faltered.
“And you, Nami?” Robin finally said, causing a flicker of relief that if Robin had noticed him being less than forthcoming, she had kept it to herself. He opened his eyes but didn’t dare look in Robin’s direction, just in case.
“I only know rumors about the people who go to work there,” Nami shrugged. “It’s not about the island or the people of Manoa, so I didn’t think it mattered.”
“You never know,” Robin lightly rebuked the navigator. “Please tell us what you heard.”
“Oh I suppose… Once in a while, someone with a reputation for being exceptionally principled is allowed on one of the trade ships to go work on the island.” Nami dutifully recited, “They bring in normal people for some kinds of unprestigious, low-skilled, or undervalued work, like personal servants, nurses, and lowly paper-pushers. The work not befitting of the gods is done by normal people.”
Her eyes became slightly more distant, “I never stole from civilians, but I would have made an exception for one of them. Anyone who’s worked at Manoa is a thief’s greatest dream. They serve for as long as they like and then come out with enormous fortune. A street sweeper that works there for a year will come back home with as much gold as he can carry.”
Nami shrugged, “It’s hard to find any real information. The ones who come back immediately go into hiding. They tend to lay low, since anyone who finds out they came from Manoa knows that person will be completely loaded, and the perfect target for every criminal on the seas. Anyone who worked there is guaranteed enough wealth to live comfortably for the next three generations.
“Before they go into hiding, those that return are always cagey about what they find there. The people themselves seem fine, as un-traumatized as can be. But all of them, every one, says the same thing – the outside world should leave the island in peace.”
“Wow you sure do know a lot,” Chopper sounded impressed.
Nami sighed, “I learned all this because I wanted to go there myself. It didn’t matter, though; Arlong would never have let me leave. Anyway I would never have made it through whatever vetting they do.”
She perked up for a moment and shrugged, “This part isn’t even rumor, just basic logic: The vetting process must be intense, since apparently no one, no matter how good an actor, has infiltrated to learn and expose the island’s secrets. They somehow have one hundred percent accuracy. It’s hard to believe no one has managed to slip through, unless the oversights and mistakes are the ones who don’t come back.”
“HOLD THE SNAIL-PHONE!” Usopp wailed. “Why do you make it sound like some of the workers meet a horrible fate?!”
“I never said that, you coward. Most of the workers who go there do come back, but once in a while one of them won’t,” Nami shrugged again, “That really is all I’ve heard about it. I only know any of this secondhand. You don’t hear from the workers themselves because they collect their families and immediately go into hiding – move and change their names and all that.”
“That is a lot more information than I could have imagined, Nami-san,” Sanji smiled around his cigarette, “I’m sure it will be useful.”
“Anyone else?” Robin said, diverting attention from Nami’s blush. She waited for a minute before concluding, “…So that covers the rumor side of things. Let’s move on to what each of us knows for real about Manoa. We may get a better picture of the whole if we combine our knowledge. Perhaps we should start with stating what we know in broad general categories: As for me - I know some of its prominent scholars and the island’s political relationship with the world government. Who next? Franky?”
“We’re one of the nearest islands, so their ships dock at Water 7 and they do a lot of their trading there. So I know the details about those. And we know some about the Statue Sea since we’re so close to it. “
“A few of their… chefs have visited the Baratie,” Sanji muttered, puffing on his cigarette and suddenly seeming grumpier than usual.
“I, THE GREAT USOPP, WAS ONCE THE KING OF M-. Ow, damnit Nami! Okay fine, all I know are the stories – nothing for sure – so I’ve already said everything earlier.”
“I’ve said pretty much everything, too,” Nami admitted. “It’s so hard to find the former workers that all I have are the stories. So I guess I know… um… their fashion designers?”
Zoro spoke up, “I know a little about their swordsmanship.” This topic was less fraught than rumors and legends.
“I’ve never met any of them, but I’ve read some of the work done by Manoan researchers…?” Chopper ventured.
“Zzzz…” was Luffy’s contribution, having fallen asleep some time ago.
“Excellent. Who will start… Sanji-kun?”
“Tell us what you know about the chefs of Manoa.”
“Of course Robin chwaa-~” Nami’s karate chop on the top of his head struck an instant before Zoro was going to knock the shitty cook upside the skull with Kitetsu’s hilt.
“Nami-swan is so cute when she’s violent~…” Just before Zoro lost his temper Sanji rallied and turned serious.
“I’ve met a few of their… chefs, if you can call them that.” Sanji grumbled. “In some ways, they can hardly be considered real cooks. But in others… they are equal to anything the Baratie has ever produced.” He took a long drag on his cigarette as everyone else boggled in disbelief.
The reactions came all at once: “No way”/“What do you mean”/“That’s impossible”/“How can that be true?”
Even Zoro was surprised, though he would never say it out loud.
“What do you mean by in some ways, Sanji-kun?”
Sanji blew out a long stream of smoke and replied, “Every dish I’ve ever sampled from a Manoan chef is as good as anything the shitty geezer or I have ever managed.”
He paused and let that sink in before continuing, “Their food could bring the harshest critic to his knees, But… well… what they say about gods might have some truth to it. The dishes are beyond belief, but a Manoan chef may only make one meal a day. Or a week. It’s like they work on a different time scale than the rest of the world. What pissed us off was that they will only use the finest ingredients. And the worst part… if there was a single detail that did not meet their standards, they would discard the whole dish and start over. If it was important to the flavor that part of the meal be a certain temperature, if some subtlety of flavor might be compromised by storing or reheating any of the dishes, they would throw it all out and start over. They never accepted anything less than perfection and wasted good food to do it, and for that I will never forgive them.”
There was silence as Sanji stubbed out his cigarette with somewhat more force than necessary.
“Indeed. That fits with my experience,” Robin supplied, “Manoa produces the finest and most rigorous scholars in the world, but those scholars fail to rise to prominence because they do not adhere to constraints of deadlines or budget. The work gets done correctly and thoroughly, no matter what it takes.
Chopper raised his hoof, “My knowledge is the same. The biologists and medical researchers of Manoa are extremely skilled, but rarely make good doctors because they do not work quickly and will not tolerate commonly accepted unknown variables or standard margins of error.”
Nami continued in the same vein, “The clothing by their designers is of the highest quality but way too expensive for anyone who isn’t royalty. It's wearable, couture art. There’s at least one designer who makes entire elaborate outfits out of tiny beads, and another who uses intricately painted seashells...” she trailed off.
Robin nodded. “One more thing to add: I may not be an expert, but what I have seen of their other artists is the same as what we have described so far. They are not prolific, but each work is a masterpiece. I bring that up because there is another art that I suspect might be different…”
She turned and looked straight at Zoro. “Zoro-kun? You said you knew something about the fighters. How do they fit with what the rest of us have described? I imagine something like fighting is quite different. You cannot take your time in battle and there are no do-overs. How do the ‘Heroes of Manoa’ handle the fighting arts?”
Zoro considered his answer. “High technical skill. The best armor and weapons money can buy. But otherwise not special. They’re known for doing good deeds and helping people, even if that help doesn’t involve fighting. They never take payment.”
He stopped there, figuring that was all he knew that might matter to other people.
“Good. Now, Franky, tell us what you know. You said Water 7 was a favorite trading port for Manoa?”
“Yeah, the traders themselves are pretty laid back, all relaxed and friendly, but they guard their goods extremely well, so they didn’t lose much to theft even with all the pirates around Water 7. They bring in all kinds of valuable materials to trade. The traders and guards are completely mum about where they get it all, and since they’re so fancy high-class, none of them sneak off to drink so we can’t use alcohol or trickery to loosen their tongues. Too rich to be bribed too. Basically all we have are the rumors I said earlier.”
“What, exactly, do they trade?”
“Mostly raw treasure for beri, a little like you guys did. Only unlike you guys, they’re fine with some loss on the exchange rate. They sure have enough of the stuff.”
“See? They trade in treasure! Treasure like that bird we saw!” Usopp sounded excited, “That can’t just be a coincidence. He is the source of Manoa’s wealth!”
“No, not that kind of treasure. The traders bring in these gigantic pure uncut gemstones, along with these big irregular discs of valuable metals, and sometimes lumps of other materials to trade. The bird was carrying normal treasure, already crafted.”
“Could they have the bird steal treasure and then melt down the gold and whatnot to hide its origin?” Nami asked.
“Unlikely,” Robin answered in place of Franky, “It is nearly impossible to make a cut gem look like it has never been shaped. And since a gem’s value increases exponentially with its size, breaking large, already-cut gems into small raw pieces to sell would be foolishly wasteful even for those who have more wealth than they can spend. Furthermore, I know the World Government has been keeping close track of this mysterious and wealthy land, trying to find clues about it. They would notice if the trading expeditions were correlated to treasure disappearing elsewhere.”
“Wait what?” Chopper interrupted, flailing his hooves, “Even the World Government can’t locate this island? How is it possible that the World Government can’t find the richest island in the world?”
“Likely the World Government would be able to reach it if they put their full effort into finding it, but they haven’t pressed that hard, since the traders willingly pay all the taxes that are asked of them when they reach port.”
“Still,” Chopper pressed, “why is it so hard to get to?”
“Manoa is not on any of the log pose paths through the Grand Line, so the only way to reach it is with an Eternal Pose,” Franky answered him, “Anyone who takes a trader’s pose never returns, and as we saw from the ghost ship, that includes the occasional corrupt marine who decides to invade.”
“So people just take eternal poses from the traders?”
“Manoa has the funds to hire top-notch security, but they’re hired to guard the goods more than the log pose, so it happens sometimes,” Franky answered again. “The traders usually bring along more than one eternal pose just in case.”
“Wait, do only the traders have poses?” Sanji asked, “What about the other people who come from the island? The legendary gods and saints and whatnot?”
“I can answer that,” Nami said, “It’s because there’s so many attempts to steal or forcibly take an eternal pose from the traders. It’s not easy to steal one, but that doesn’t stop people from trying. The thieving attempts would be so pervasive that travelers from the island don’t take poses of their own; they'd ride with the traders to port, and when they are finished with whatever they were doing, they find another of the trading vessels to bring them home.”
“H-hey. I’m still worried about the whole ‘thieves never come back’ thing,” Usopp said.
“What happens when someone does manage to take a log pose is the darkest mystery of Manoa,” Franky’s tone was grim, “Those who are successful in stealing an Eternal Pose set out to seek the island, and they are never seen again. Their ships are later found adrift in the Florian Triangle. Since the Triangle is so close to water 7, I’ve salvaged a lot of those ships myself. When they’re found, the decks of the ghost ships are always torn open. The weirdest part is the handful of scattered statues usually found onboard – although sometimes there are none at all. This is known as the Sea of Statues for that reason.”
“I think I just got ‘I don’t want to be turned into a statue’ disease!”
“We’ve already told you that there aren’t enough statues on each ship to make a whole crew,” Zoro insisted, “So it isn’t the crew turned into statues.”
“That’s easily explained – all the rest of the crew and passengers jump overboard! If a giant bird showed up and started wrecking the ship and turning people into statues, wouldn’t you be jumping ship?”
“Oh, right. I forgot who I was talking to.”
“That segues neatly into my next question,” Nami said, “If it was just a big bird with a statue devil fruit doing all this, how is it possible that it has never been defeated? How is it that nobody has managed to fight the bird or escape and tell stories about how the Sea of Statues gets its name? Even Franky and Robin haven’t heard of the bird before.”
“Okay, then I have ‘I don’t want to be killed by mysterious statues’ disease!”
“Usopp, we didn’t steal a pose. So we should be okay even if we do visit the island,” Zoro reassured their sniper.
“Besides, people go to the island to work and most of them come back fine,” Nami added.
“There’s that ‘most’ again!”
“No matter how intense the vetting process is,” Sanji mused aloud, “I can’t believe that no one has ever managed to sneak through and infiltrate the island. It’s been centuries, that should be impossible.”
“I know, Sanji, but the facts speak for themselves.”
The crew parted ways for the night, each thinking on what they had heard. Zoro knew he wasn’t one of the smarter Strawhats, so it wouldn’t do him any good to think too hard. (If anyone was to figure something out, it would be one of the girls) but with the information overload he couldn’t help but swirl through it all through his head.
The rumors – an island of saints and demigods. No mine or devil fruit could account for all the weirdness. An impossible record of keeping a secret for centuries, even from the World Government.
Things known for sure – Large gems and lumps of precious metals. The people were disciplined and rigorous but wasteful. Ghost ships of would-be thieves found broken open, empty except for a few statues.
He wondered if any of the others were holding back on the details. He certainly was.
Zoro had told the truth. Mostly. But the whole story was more complicated.
In his travels he’d seen a few fights involving the Heroes of Manoa. The warriors were highly skilled, they had beautiful techniques practiced to perfection, but they didn’t have any extraordinary creativity or strength. They were simply human, yet the few fighters that came from the island were hailed as heroes and saints, working to make the world a better place and refusing to accept anything in return.
That was all true, but that wasn’t everything.
It made sense in retrospect that as Zoro’s infamy grew, he was compared to the Manoan warriors. Zoro had never done anything he regretted, but unlike the Manoans, he had needed to make money.
He’d needed to survive and he hunted bounties to do it. Zoro didn’t regret any of his actions but that didn’t mean he hadn’t heard the rumors. Pirate Hunter was only the most benign of the labels that had been placed on him. He was called a monster, a demon or a beast. Rumor claimed he was born from the shadow of a Manoan warrior. Zoro was the blood-lust and chaos and darkness that had been purged from the soul of a great Manoan hero who had ascended to become a god.
He didn’t much care what other people thought of him, and he had nothing against people who dedicated their lives to helping others… but the rumor had dogged Zoro so pervasively that he didn’t know how he felt about these heroes of Manoa.