"Come on, everybody! Have a taste of what Avasine has to offer!"
Rink and her crew turned towards the source of the unexpected exclamations. From the street in the direction of the Veranda Hotel came a procession that, as opposed to the groups of people approaching the five of them from every other street leading to the market square, was clearly not composed of Marines.
"...what's going on?" James asked.
"What's going on is the distraction we needed," Rink replied. "Sammy did this."
Indeed, in front of the procession was Sammy, carrying a small keg on his shoulder. Walking next to him was Ricky, playing a trumpet.
And behind them were an assortment of people carrying trays of drinks, pulling carts with food, playing music, and holding up banners displaying the names of a variety of Avasine's restaurants, bars, and hotels. Several citizens seemed to have joined in as well.
"Come on!" Rink exclaimed and ran towards the parade, with the others following. Sam winked at her and stepped to the side to let them disappear into the crowd as it entered the market square, being met by the groups of Marines.
"What is going on here?" one of the Marine officers loudly demanded.
"It's Avasine's annual food and drink parade, sir!" Sam responded and filled up a small glass with beer from the keg he was holding, presenting it to the Marine. "Come on, have a taste of what we have to offer!"
"I clearly saw those pirates run towards you, and now they've disappeared! Step aside!"
"Pirates? This is Avasine, sir!" Sam replied with a laugh. "There's pirates all around, but there's nothing to worry about with all of you here! So we want to show our appreciation."
"They attacked-" was all the officer managed to say before being overpowered by the music from the parade, which had not stopped moving. Waiters and waitresses were handing out food and drinks to the Marines, charming them, distracting them, and a combination of confusion and comfort started spreading through the crowd of soldiers. Most of them weren't saying no to free food and drinks, orders from the officers were getting drowned out by the noise and music, and they weren't going to start attacking citizens who weren't being violent—especially not ones who were feeding them. They weren't very keen on trying to fight the pirates either, after seeing what they had done to four of the strongest Marines in West Blue. With the Marines having lost all semblance of organization around the feast of entertainment, Sammy slipped into the parade to find Rink and her friends, who had hidden themselves further underneath a small parade float in the shape of a fish, carried by six people.
"You didn't hear this?" James asked Rink.
"I heard lots of people coming towards us from a lot of directions. It was kinda hard to pinpoint who was a Marine and who wasn't."
"They're playing music, though..."
"Do you have any idea how many places playing music there are in Avasine? Not to mention street musicians?" Rink replied as Sammy slipped underneath the float as well, facing his former employee.
"Long time no see, miss Kazai."
"I take it you're responsible for all of this."
"Annual parade, eh? That's funny, I was here a year and I never heard anything about this..."
"This being the first one doesn't mean it can't be annual."
"Still, you put this together quite fast, we weren't fighting that long..."
"Word travels quickly in the right channels around here, and everybody jumped at the chance to help Avasine's two biggest celebrities."
"And this thing?" Rink asked and pointed up at the float above them.
"Giovanni's had it left over from a new year's celebration."
"Aren't you worried what they might do to you?"
"We all decided the risk was worth taking... and we reasoned that if we don't get violent, they're not going to want to make an enemy of every single bar and restaurant in all of Avasine."
"We're never gonna be able to repay you. Hell, after all of this, we're probably never gonna be able to set foot in this city again..."
"Don't worry about that. Everybody did this on their own volition. Avasine's first daughter and Avasine's magic voice are well worth protecting... even if it is to make it possible for you to leave again."
"Anyway, I'm kinda spent after all that... I need something to–" Rink said, looking over at Sam who was already handing her an opened bottle of grape juice. "–drink. Thanks. Something to eat, too..." She started drinking as she turned back to her crew. "Alright, I'm sure we all need to regain some energy after all of that, so... have a bite and something to drink, but not too much, and no alcohol, okay?"
"Funny to hear you be the one to say that for once," Sam chuckled.
"Well, it's a bit more important when you might have to fight off Marines than when you're performing in a bar, don't you think?"
"Maybe so, maybe so. Anyway, you're at the north docks, right?"
"Good, we've already got some stuff set up there... just stay here in the middle for now," Sam stated and headed back out, returning to his place at the front of the parade.
The impromptu celebration continued through Avasine, with more people joining along the way. Some Marines kept trying to break it up to find the pirates, but they found no success, being either firmly rebuked or taken in by the festivities. They moved deliberately but at a controlled pace, to not make it seem like they were in a hurry to get somewhere. Eventually they did make their way to the docks, where stalls with more food and drink and some simple games had been put up. Sam announced the festivities again before letting the parade pass him, just staying still until the float reached him so he could slip underneath it.
"Alright, we're here," he told Rink. "Which ship is yours?"
"The one with the naked mermaid in front."
"Alright... we'll take the parade past there as close as we can, then you slip away... we'll keep the Marines on this side busy, but can't guarantee anything else..."
"Alright. Thank you so much, Sammy, I don't know how we would have gotten away without you," Rink said.
"A pleasure to be of service," Sam replied and extended his hand towards her, but rather than shake it, Rink pulled him into a hug.
"I'll miss you, Sammy. I'll miss everybody here, and I wish we could have met again under better circumstances than this. Give my thanks to Ricky, too... I've never had accompaniment quite like him." Rink let her old employer go, and turned back to her crew. "Alright, everybody ready. The moment we pass Aniara, we get on, make sure nothing's wrong, then get away as fast as we can. Mirise, you're in charge of that last part, and anything you need anybody to do, they do on your command. Everybody clear?"
"Almost there... now!"
As the parade passed their ship, the five of them snuck out of the crowd, quickly making their way on deck. As Mirise directed the others to get the ship ready for a hasty escape, Rink headed to the war room, having heard that Markus and Charon were both there.
"Hey, we gotta-" she started, before seeing that Markus was bleeding from some wounds on his arms, and Charon's clothes had several tears in them. "Whoa, what happened to you two? They didn't find you, did they?"
"No, but there was a certain little miss who didn't much appreciate not being allowed outside," Markus said and nodded towards the now peacefully sleeping Miss Moa on the bed. "She tired herself out by rather spiritedly making her opinion of that known."
"Ah. Anyway, we gotta go, now! Get out there and do whatever Mirise tells you to do!"
"Right!" Markus said as he and Charon followed Rink out to help the others.
Aniara had already started moving when they reached the main deck, which should have made it clear to the Marines what their target was, but the party at the docks had proved very effective in preventing anyone else from reaching their ships. With no clear orders reaching the soldiers crewing them, and with the confusion that the parade-turned-festival had created, any Marine vessels stayed in place. Leaning over the railing, Rink watched the ongoing chaos with a grin, being thankful for the assistance from Sammy and his colleagues. She wasn't happy about what would probably happen to Avasine now, but the mayor had given them their blessing, so...
"Captain?" Muse shouted from below, snapping Rink back to reality.
"We might have a bit of an issue here," Muse said and pointed towards the bow. There, in front of them, were three Marine warships—one destroyer, flanked by two cruisers, cutting off their escape route. While they weren't the largest of battleships, they still were an obstacle they couldn't just sail through.
"Damn, they got here faster than I thought..." Rink muttered, heading down to the main deck and looking towards the front of the ship. "They must have set off from the other docks, and maybe had some ships on standby offshore..."
"But they're just... sitting there. I would've thought they'd be firing at us."
"We're way too close to the city for them to want to do that. They're not gonna fire at us when one stray shot would risk harming or killing several civilians and Marines, and I bet that after us taking down the four clowns, they don't want to chance us being able to turn it back on them," Rink said and glanced back towards Avasine. "But even so..."
"We don't want to wait until they've escaped the party and can surround us completely," Allen added. "And there's sure to be more and heavier ships incoming."
"Yeah, we've got a bit of a time limit here, and the only way out is through that blockade in front of us..."
"We don't even have a cannon!"
"Can't Muse set them on fire or something?" James asked.
"That's not gonna be enough," Rink replied and put a hand on her chin. "...not... on its own."
"So what do we do?"
"...what we do best," Rink said confidently. "Something really stupid."
"And it sounds like you've already got a stupid idea," Muse said.
"...yeah. Muse, go grab a roll of bandage from the sickbay and come down to our room. Markus, Charon, get ready to patch some wounds. The rest of you, and especially Mirise, keep us pointed in the direction we can make the quickest exit and make sure we can get going immediately when there's an opening!" Rink ordered and headed belowdecks. Muse followed after grabbing the requested bandage, while Mirise took charge of making the rest of the crew get Aniara in position.
As Muse entered the girls' room, she found Rink digging through her belongings, her jacket thrown on the bed and her shirt undone. She pulled a long and narrow cloth bag out with an exclamation of "I knew it was here somewhere!", put it down on the bed next to a large folded piece of black cloth, and then turned to Muse.
"I got the bandage, now-"
"Good," Rink replied as she finished taking off her shirt and bra as well, tossing them aside without caring where they ended up. Now wearing nothing on the upper half of her body, she sat down on her bed, with some hair ties in her hands and bobby pins in her mouth.
"What are you-"
"Bind my chest!" Rink quickly ordered and raised her arms above her head.
"Oh! Alright," Muse replied and started wrapping the bandage around Rink's breasts, while Rink herself started putting up her hair in various buns and tails. She didn't seem to be doing anything in particular with it, more ensuring that it was all secured above her neck and away from her eye. "How's that?" Muse asked after a few loops around Rink.
"Isn't that going to hurt?"
"Doesn't matter, it won't be on for long..."
"Alright," Muse said and pulled harder, flattening Rink's chest even further. "So you want to tell me why I'm doing this?"
"I need to keep my front as open as possible," Rink said. "...for everybody's safety."
"And that thing?" Muse asked and nodded towards the item Rink had retrieved when she came in.
"Hopefully our ticket out of here," Rink answered. "If I told you exactly what I'd do and what might happen, you'd try to talk me out of it."
"And you wouldn't listen," Muse said as she reached the end of the bandage, giving it a last pull before tying it up securely in the back.
"Exactly, glad we cleared that up. Also, that's good, thanks," Rink said and stood up.
"And... what I'm going to do is just going to be part of it. Get some of those special arrows ready," she continued and stood up. "I'm gonna do something crazy, and if we survive it, you'll know what to do."
"And get ready to put this up," Rink said and picked up the folded black cloth, handing it to Muse.
"Yeah. It's time to make it known. Let's just hope it's not my last act as captain."
"Don't even say stuff like that."
"Well, right now, this is our only option that doesn't involve trying to board those Marine ships, and that's not happening. And we can't go back to Avasine."
"I just hope you know what you're doing."
"I most certainly don't, but I've never let that stop me before. But if we don't get out of here, we're all dead anyway, after what we just pulled with the four clowns."
"Alright, let's do this. You'll know what to aim for. I hope."
"You've seen me shoot."
"It's not your aim I'm concerned about," Rink said and left the room, Muse following closely behind. The two of them quickly returned to the main deck, with Muse started to climb the main mast, while Rink—without looking at anyone—made her way towards the front of the ship with a determined stride. She was taking deep breaths, and it was clear that she was concentrating. "Everybody stay down here. Behind me. Preferably behind cover. But be ready to go at a moment's notice."
"What are you even-" James started, but Rink ignored him as she continued on, getting on top of the sickbay, and to the ship's bow.
"Sorry about this, Anni..." she whispered as she stepped on top of the figurehead, her eye still fixed on the Marine destroyer directly in front of them. She grabbed the hilt of the sword with her left hand, pulled it out, and tossed the sheath behind her. It was not a normal sword—it had a straight, very thin blade, with a slit in the middle running from the hilt to the sharply angled diagonal tip.
"Could you at least just let us know what-" James tried again, but was interrupted by Rink starting to talk louder than he had ever heard her before, and it was clear that she intended for everybody around, both in front of and behind them, to hear what she had to say.
"I am Rink Kazai, captain of the New Harmony Pirates! I... we do not stand against the Marines without reason, but if you insist on standing in our way, then I have no other choice! We are forced to forge our own path forward, in the name of freedom, in the name of friendships, and in the name of love! And if that path goes through you, then so be it! That is what I, what we, and what this flag will stand for as long as it flies!" Rink raised her arm, pointing towards the top of their main mast. Muse, having heard the message loud and clear, raised the flag she had been given, for the first time displaying the symbol of the New Harmony Pirates to the world.
A black flag, with a white treble clef on the left, a white thirty-second note on the right side, and taking up the majority of the flag between the two, two conjoined hearts—one dark red and one light red. Hearing her flag take its first flaps in the wind, Rink struck her arm guard with a tuning fork, then lightly dragged the fork across the blade of the sword. It started vibrating, almost humming, and she raised it over her right shoulder.
"What is she doing?" Allen asked James.
"Dude, I have no idea what's going on."
She swung the blade towards the destroyer in a wide arc. A swooshing sound was heard, before everything turned silent for half a second, followed by a shrill cutting sound—and a large diagonal gash appeared on the side of the destroyer, exposing the cannon deck. Just about everybody who had witnessed the sequence of events stared in amazement, not sure what to do, with one important exception. Arrows started flying through the air from Aniara's main mast, some catching fire, some discharging bolts of electricity... with some going through the gash that had just been opened in the destroyer. A few flashes later, a fire was visibly starting on its cannon deck, spreading quickly.
Only moments later, an explosion tore the Marine vessel in half. Some of its crew remained on the sinking halves, but most of them had jumped or fallen into the water, and the cruisers had started deploying life boats to rescue their fellow soldiers.
"Alright... get going... quick!" Rink half-shouted as she returned to the main deck, before taking a strained breath.
"R-right!" Mirise replied, directing Allen and Muse to get Aniara moving again.
"What in the world was that?" James asked, half amazed and half concerned.
"The sword that sings," Rink replied with a weak chuckle. "The Harmony Blade."
"And why haven't you used that before? That would have helped against that guy!"
"Because... I can't fully control it yet," Rink grunted, clearly in pain. She dropped the sword on the deck, putting a hand over her chest, where a small trickle of blood had appeared. "Decapitating myself wouldn't be much help in a fight... and enemies usually don't let you stand still and concentrate for a while."
"Why do you even have that?"
"I had it made when... I wasn't sure what direction my life was going to take, after the crew I was with... disappeared. But I found it too dangerous, both to myself and others... and before I started any serious practice with it, I found that I didn't have any real problems making a living by performing, so I just left it alone..." She pulled on the bandage, starting to loosen it before ripping it off, revealing a shallow horizontal cut across her chest. "I need this looked at... help Mirise, keep going, and don't stop until we can be sure we're not being pursued... and then, gather in the war room," she ordered as she headed to the sickbay, where Markus and Charon were waiting.
With the two cruisers being busy rescuing Marines that had been on the destroyer, Aniara faced no resistance as she sailed between the sinking halves of the Marine vessel. It was only when emerging on the other side, with the Marines now fully behind her, that the sound of cannon fire broke the silence from the aftermath of the explosion. Some shots glanced Aniara's sides, shaking her, but with the cruisers having lighter armament and their aim being less than true due to their crews still being shaken by what had just occurred, her hull remained intact.
With Avasine behind them and their flag above them, West Blue's newest pirate crew had certainly made an impactful statement in their first encounter with the Marines. Four high-ranking soldiers dispatched and one ship blown up was more than most crews achieved in their first month. Today they had claimed decisive victory, but also ensured the Marines would be keeping a closer eye on them going forward, and that this would be far from their last tussle with them.
The New Harmony Pirates had started building their legend.