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The day that the Pirate King stormed my village was a pleasant one. It was beautiful weather. Too beautiful for what would happen next. The pirates crashed through our peaceful village, looting and raiding houses. Yao had tried to keep us hidden in one of our house's closets, quietly shushing us as he confronted the pirates at our door.

Leon's hand was clenched at my shirt, squeezing his eyes closed.

"We're going to be okay," I said quietly. "I'm going to keep you safe."

"I'm scared," Leon murmured. "What if they kill dad?"

I didn't have a good answer. If Yao died–

"Last chance, old man," one of the pirates said. "You sure there's nothin' here we want?"

"No," Yao said firmly. "Surely you'd want something more than a poor, infirmed man living by himself."

"Oh? Maybe that's exactly what we want. If you're such a 'poor, infirmed man', then surely you won't mind dying at sea where no one will miss you." The pirate reaches out to grasp Yao's arm–

I slammed open the closet door immediately.

"No," I blurted out. "You can't. You can't."

"Qiangxiang," Yao said frantically. He turned back to the pirates, his voice taking on a placating tone. "Please. Take me if you must, but spare my children–"

The pirate raised a hand. Yao fell silent immediately. To this day I remember how he towered over me– how much power he seemed to hold. A dark red coat and a black hat obscured his face in shadow, with a single teal eye catching the light. The light caught the spark and shine of the gun at his hip, against the metal hilt of the sword he was holding in his other hand.

"State your case, girl," the pirate said.

It felt like static was flooding my ears– I was saying words and yet I was watching myself speak them at the same time, unable to stop my babbling.

"Take me," I said. "Please. Don't take him."

"And what do you have to offer me?" The pirate leaned down, a smile playing on his lips. "Weak little girl like you–"

"I am not weak," I snapped. "I'll have you kn–"

I couldn't finish my sentence. Before I could even process what had happened, the pirate slashed my cheek. I raised a hand to my wound, the stinging feeling more painful than anything I'd ever experienced until that point. But something in me told me not to cry– so I bit the inside of my cheek until I felt like it was going to bleed, holding in my tears.

"Insolent," the pirate said ever so softly. "I could have killed you for that."

But I was alive. My beating, traitorous heart was alive, and every beat made the wound on my cheek throb.

"I'm alive," I whispered. "You're keeping me alive."

"Smart, aren't you?" The pirate's voice was more kindly now. He straightened. "I will take your offer. Consider yourself lucky, old man. Your daughter shows some promise."

"No," Yao blurted out. "Please, don't do this. She's too young–"

"Uncle, don't do this," I said. I kept my head down, determined not to look at him. "If you go, Leon will have no one."

At that, Leon burst out of the closet as well.

"Qiangxiang!" He cried. "You can't go. You can't!" He reached out to grab my arm, grasping it so tightly as if it would keep me from leaving. As if his sheer will could prevent the inevitable.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I have to. But I'll come back for you, okay?"

Leon was always the crybaby. He cried for anything– for the falling leaves, for each scratch and wound anyone sustained. But even so, I don't think I had seen him cry as hard as he did right at that moment when I was about to leave for the Pirate King's crew.

"Please," he begged. "You have to promise. Pinky swear." He held out his pinky, and I intertwined it with mine. I reached into my pocket, pulling out a small dull metal ring– the last thing I remember taking from my old house. I pressed it into his hand.

"I'm going to find you," I promised. "And we'll be a family again. I promise. Don't cry."

Leon wiped his tears hurriedly, sniffling.

"Please come back," Leon whispered. "I don't know what I'm going to do without you."

"I will," I said with some finality. I pried Leon's fingers away from my arm, lingering on the touch. He ran to Yao, holding his hand tightly. Yao looked stricken, his lips pressed firmly together.

I turned away from them, moving forward with the man I would later come to know as the Pirate King.

The Pirate King's ship was known as the Siren. It was an impressive thing, no doubt stolen or assembled with a truly hideous amount of money. As we took the trek back to his ship, I tried to ignore the carnage happening around us– pirates looting houses, laughing as other villagers sobbed and pleaded for mercy that never came. The Pirate King looked straight ahead, uncaring of the wave of destruction in his wake.

I didn't know what I had signed up for– but what I did know is that I refused to end up like him– I couldn't become dulled to this much– this much loss, this much bloodshed. He almost seemed to relish it as he brought me to where their ship was docked. He turned back to the shore where his crew had already begun to make their way back, some of them holding onto trinkets they'd taken from villagers.

"Who's that there, Captain?" one of the pirates said to the Pirate King. His red eyes glinted at me with interest, and I drew my shoulders up in an attempt to become small.

"My... new protege," the Pirate King said thoughtfully. "She shows promise. You should have seen the way she mouthed off at me." He laughed jovially, patting my shoulder. There was a weight behind it that choked my throat. "Spirit that Arthur couldn't even hope to show even if he tried."

"I'll be honest, Captain– sometimes I struggle to see that kid as your son." The pirate leans down, holding out his hand to shake. "Allen, young miss. Pleasure to make your... acquaintance."

I swallowed.

I took his hand and shook, obviously– I didn't want to seem impolite, but quite frankly I was scared. His hand was callused, rough– and the more I took him in, I realized that his entire arm was littered with scars. I shuddered.

"You're right," the Pirate King replied. "That useless boy couldn't even die properly even if I commanded him to, I guarantee."

"That's sayin' too much, Captain– I'm sure dying might be the only thing he'd be good at."

The Pirate King laughed, but the laugh didn't reach his eyes. His gaze was cold, unfeeling. Nigh unreachable. Eventually, he extended his hand to me again– and I took it. He smiled again, a cold thing.

"Come now, little one," the Pirate King said softly. "There is much you have to get used to."

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