Smoke of the Vine
by Dana DeVries

   Smoke still drifted through the air a day after the last fire had been extinguished. The rays of the setting sun had disappeared only moments before and an enormous man remained kneeling in the mud after his evening prayers. Around him scrub trees and bushes shielded from his sight the slaves clearing away debris, constructing hovels and defenses under the scrutiny of whip bearing offers. He wore only a loincloth and didn't stir when another figure stepped into the small clearing.

   The newcomer bowed and quietly said, "Forgive me, Great Kheired-Din."

   The Crescent leader slowly raised his head and his eyes were calm as he gazed twoards the other man. The man wore rags and cast offs and was of medium height with the dark complexion of a Crescent. His left arm bore a heavily bandaged burn but his expression showed neither fear nor doubt.

   Before he could speak, a lithe figure hurled itself into the clearing and slashed out with a whip whose handle was a Vatacine Cross. The whip's strands cracked loudly as they opened rents in the man's rags, but the man did not move. Kheired'din raised one hand and spoke in a gravelly tone. "It's alright, Shala. I was done with my prayers. What is so urgent, Captain Wazi, that it would inspire you to risk Shala's wrath again?"

   "I've served you well, sir, for ten years. I served as a young officer aboard the Strange Skies and as a captain upon my own Sweet Water. I served ten long years and grew wealthy doing so." Wazi's tone was even as he spoke the well-rehearsed lines. "But now my wealth is gone. The Sweet Water has burned as my collection fueled the flames of its own destruction. Even my clothes were destroyed so I must rely upon what I could find here. Everything of mine burned in that blaze. I would like to claim my reward for my years of service to the Corsairs, to you. For serving you as no one else could in the attack on this island."

   Shala snarled. "You partook of the poisonous vine, blasphemer! Not once, but as a way of life. You're lucky the master saw fit to allow you to live!" Her face was contorted in anger and her lush body held no appeal as she struggled to contain her rage.

   "To live? Ask those slaves out there if they are happy to live. Most would prefer a quick death to the shackles we've given them."

   Shala snorted. "Is that what you'd like? To become one of the rowers? That is easily done."

   Kheired-Din placed a hand upon her arm and quietly said "Enough." Shala immediately bowed her head. Despite the sound of her grinding teeth, she didn't speak another word.

   The Corsair leader rose to his feet. Now towering over the rag-clad man before him, he asked, "What do you wish, Wazi?"

   "My freedom. I'd like permission to resign immediately and have one of the courier ships drop me off."

   "Where would you go? The Corsairs are known far and wide. Our enemies would quickly punish you as they would like to punish us."

   "I will join the Ussuran captain who provided us with the leviathon oil. He holds no hatred for us and could use another sailor."

   "From master of your own ship and ruler over scores of slaves to a simple sailor. Quite a demotion."

   "I will be happy to take it if I can breathe freely again. We may hold the whips, but we are as bound as any slave."

   Kheired-Din nodded once and stared into the darkening skies overhead for a long moment. The shadows hid his expression as he stated, "You have served the prophets well, Wazi. See Edhago. You are to have a decent change of clothes, weapons and a Corsair Flag. Fly it if you encounter one of our ships and you should be left alone. The Shackle of Faith leaves at dawn. She can take you to your Ussuran ship. May the Prophets' watch over and protect you."

   Wazi quickly bowed and left the clearing. His face still held no expression as if he were beyond hope or dreams. Shala hissed from beside her commander. "Is that wise? How many others will try to abandon us?"

   "Few. He served ten years and left with almost nothing. When they hold much, they have much to lose. When they hold little, they dream of more."

   "But why did you let him go?" She demanded as they stood alone in the growing darkness."

   His voice was curious and thoughtful, almost yearning. "The thought of at least one man earning his freedom, escaping from his bonds…How could I not let him go?"