Their ship was small, as pirate ships went. Apparently it was the best they could do with the pirate Zazarland and the others still in possession of the Gloria. The voyages over the sea were a lot rougher because of that, but on the other hand, it was a small enough boat to be manned by the three of them.
They taught him how to man the telescope, how to turn the sails from the deck, what to do in unfavorable weather. There was a lot to learn—he’d never actually taken part in the steering and maintenance of a ship before; Gariored had always locked him belowdecks before—and he was never reprimanded when he made mistakes.
To the contrary, the cat girl Pinger turned and needled Ishut over how quickly he was catching on. He did not know what to make of it.
There were many things to learn. Ishut showed him the small soft creatures called sea goblins and told him about how they were a pirate’s first signpost to treasure. Pinger taught him how to keep a ledger, claiming that she needed help and Ishut was never any good with sensible things. The people on the small islands they visited taught him with their talk of geography and culture and fishing and food.
The lessons were neverending. The first time the three of them actually struck lucky and discovered hidden treasure—a string of rubies and an ancient golden candelabra in a musty chest that he himself had uncovered in a corner of a cave—he had asked what their plans for these things were to be, and Ishut and Pinger had just looked at each other like they didn’t know what he was talking about.
“Well, that depends. We can keep it, we can hang on to it for a little while and then sell it after we’ve gotten a chance to brag—”
He stared at the two of them, not comprehending. “Then why search, if you don’t even know what you will do with the spoils?”
Ishut laughed at him, and he felt indignant heat rise into his cheeks as his little brother slung an arm around his shoulders.
“See, Ashley, it’s more about searching and finding than it is about actually having the treasure. The journey to find stuff is the best part. It’s the fun part.”
He hadn’t known how to answer, and so he’d stayed silent.
When they next ran across the Gloria on the high seas, both ships cast anchor, and while facing across from each other, the crews shouted catcalls at each other until Ishut brought out the necklace of fat rubies and waved it about in the air.
They were too far apart to see the exact expressions on each other’s faces, but Zazarland sounded like he was laughing when he called out that they’d done a pretty good job on their own.
“You shouldn’t talk like that, old man, we’re not just a lucky band of boat-riding kids anymore,” Ishut shouted. His face was split with a wide grin. “We’ve got something you don’t.”
“Oh? And what’s that supposed to be?”
“We’ve got Ashley,” Ishut yelled back, and he looked at his brother in surprise. “He really shoulda come with me back when I ran away, he’s a natural-born treasure hunter. He was wasted sitting around on the throne.”
“Well, then!” Zazarland was certainly laughing now. “I suppose I’ve no choice but to make Ashley my son too, when I drag you lot back onto my ship!”
Ishut and Pinger jeered and pulled up the anchor, and away they sailed. Ashley remained silent the entire time; he did not know what to say, did not even know how to put a name to what he felt.
It wasn’t until they had pulled into harbor at the next island, and it had grown dark as they tried to find the town that must be on its other side to match its port, that he tried to ask about it.
Ishut slowed, and his exuberant expression faded a little bit as he stared at Ashley through wondering eyes. Pinger looked between the two of them and then smiled, saying that she was going to go ahead and check over the hill. She had disappeared over it in a minute’s time, her tail waving like an eel all the way.
“I meant what I said back there, y’know?” Ishut told him. The only light came from the stars and from the glow of small insects in the air around them—fireflies, Pinger had called them. “I really think maybe things would’ve been better if we’d left Lukia together. It would’ve been a lot more fun, going on all those adventures with you there. And you really are a natural. It’s obnoxious—I think I’m only better at all this than you ‘cause I’ve got such a big head start.”
Ashley merely shook his head, unbelieving. The flicker of the fireflies cast a kind of ethereal glow over the scene.
“I never had any particular interest in being a pirate. I merely want to become happy. That’s all.”
“You’re doing what you want to do, aren’t you?” Ishut asked suddenly, and Ashley didn’t know what to say. “You know what you want to do and you’re doing it, right?”
“I—I decided to trust you when you said… you could show me happiness,” he replied falteringly.
“As long as it’s your choice and you don’t regret your choice, you’re gonna be fine. And y’know? No matter how much fun stuff we do together, I don’t think you’ll be able to tell if you’re happy if you keep asking yourself whether or not you are. Do you even remember what it’s like to be happy?”
He couldn’t answer.
“I thought not. You barely ever smile and you never laugh.” Ishut sighed and ran both hands through his hair, making it stand up in even more absurd shapes. “Jeez, this is tougher than I thought it’d be. I thought once we got you to where nobody was hitting you anymore, and we were doing fun things all the time…
“Look, Ashley—” and Ishut whirled back around, holding up both his hands as if about to impart some important wisdom— “I know your happiness is close. I don’t think it’s gonna come out when you’re making a big racket watching for it though. It’s gonna sneak up on you when you least expect it, I’m positive.”
“……And if this is… just another treasure hunt, then…?”
“It’s not gonna be like that,” Ishut said firmly. “Happiness is a billion times better than treasure.”
When Ashley didn’t answer, his little brother held up both hands and wiggled his fingers, suddenly smirking like he had a secret. “And if you don’t turn that frown upside down, I’mma tickle you ‘til you do.”
“Ishut,” he said sharply, but even though he’d raised his voice in warning, Ishut grabbed both his sides and dug his fingers in.
“Gotcha! Ahahahaha, let’s hear a little begging for mercy, big bro!”
“Not ‘til you knock off the gloomy face! Laugh, laugh, laugh!!”
But he couldn’t manage to shove both of Ishut’s hands away at once, and there was something strange and foreign bubbling up in his chest, keeping him from breathing properly. Before long, he was gasping, and the corners of his eyes were burning, and—
“You guys, what are you doing down there?”
At Pinger’s call, Ishut stepped back, grinning in what he obviously thought was an innocent way. “Just a little brotherly bonding, nothing to worry about.”
“It sure looked inappropriate to me. Just imagine the sad look on Ruru’s face when I tell her where your true interests lie, Aniki…”
“Dammit, you have got to be the most insubordinate flunky any pirate has ever had! What about the town, did you find it?”
“Yeah! Come on, you guys, there’s a festival going on right now! They’re fine with visitors, so let’s go dance before everything’s all over!”
She waved at them from the top of the hill, and then disappeared back over its crest.
“Festival, huh. That should take care of dinner tonight, at least.” Ishut looked pleased with himself. “Festival food should be cheap, and there should be plenty of it! We might be able to hang onto those rubies for a little longer to brag with. C’mon!”
Ashley hadn’t quite gotten his breath back yet, but Ishut did not seem to care—his brother grabbed his hand and dragged him along as Ishut ran up the hill. Once they were standing atop it, they could see Pinger at its bottom, heading towards a town that was covered in bright lanterns and colorful streamers, people gathered around a tall—was that a statue or a fountain?—in the main square. They could hear the faint strains of music, something energetic with a lot of flutes and violins.
“Looks like fun,” Ishut proclaimed, and proceeded to haul Ashley down the hill.
As Emperor he had seen a number of crowds in his life, but this was the first time that Ashley had been a real part of one so big. Ishut didn’t seem to have to push to get through—he called out hellos and waved to people and they sort of parted to let him pass, their waves closing behind Ashley. The music continued to get louder as they drew closer; people were clapping in time with the drums Ashley could feel through the soles of his shoes.
“Aniki, Ashley, come on!” Pinger called, and then she ducked through the waves of people and reemerged amidst the dancers.
“Well, I guess dinner can wait for a while,” Ishut remarked, raising his voice so Ashley could hear him over the crowd, but when he tried to walk forward, Ashley dug his heels in to pull him up short.
“Ishut, I don’t know how to dance,” he tried to protest, but Ishut just grinned.
“Neither do I!”
And then the both of them were stumbling into the throng of dancers, tripping over their feet as they tried to keep up.
It was less the beat, less the music, less his eyes and more the Will of the crowd that finally pulled Ashley’s limbs into the right rhythm—or maybe it was that Ishut’s hands never left his, and that Ishut was quicker to catch on, and his twin’s Will helped to stabilize him. Ashley could not know. All that he did know was that he was out of breath and did not know what was going on and that it was not an unpleasant feeling in the least.
If there was a knowing look in Ishut’s eyes as the dance went on and on throughout the night, then he ignored it. He didn’t need his brother annoying him and ruining the mood now.
- - -
It was very early in the morning and there were streamers of pink and gold on the very edge of the horizon by the time Pinger found the boys.
She’d broken free of the crowd, balancing three cups of iced barley tea in her hands, and then she’d spotted them lying on the grassy slope just on the edge of town. There was a blanket underneath them and a box of half-eaten meat dumplings beside them, and the twins were asleep leaning on each other.
Ishut wore a careless expression as he slept with his mouth open, and if she didn’t know better she’d say that Ashley was halfway to smiling in his sleep.
“You two are so cute I just want to draw on your faces,” she informed the sleeping boys, and sat down in the grass next to them to drink all the tea herself.