As they worked, Shades asked Ma’Quiver, “So, seeing as how we’re not going back to Sarna anytime soon, what do you plan to do next?”
“Well, in the long run, I plan to continue my journey,” he replied, “but for the time being, I’m not going anywhere until I get my rematch. Right, Max?”
“Of course,” Max confirmed.
“So that’s what you promised him,” Shades remarked, for he was quite certain that in the latter portion of their match they had become a lot more talkative, even if they were way too far away for him to hear any of it. “I suppose we’ll probably need to re-divide the rations.”
“Wait a minute,” Justin piped up, looking up from his counting. “You mean we’re taking him along, too?”
“Unless you wanna press your luck dropping him off in one of the other city-states,” Shades snorted. “You’re welcome to try sticking him in a life raft, but I doubt you’re any match for him. I, for one, wouldn’t dream of doing that to somebody who helped my friends so much.”
“I’m just sayin’ it’s gonna be cramped onboard,” Justin pointed out, “and food’s gonna be a problem, too.”
“Then let’s hope we find land again soon,” said Shades, “and be glad we stocked up so much before we checked out.” He then turned to Ma’Quiver, adding, “By the way, I was kinda wondering, what is that fighting technique you use, and would you be able to teach it to others?”
“Well… the thing is… uh, Shades, wasn’t it?…”
“Perhaps we should start with some introductions,” Max suggested, a trifle chagrined at not having thought of that sooner. “You already know my name, and Bandit’s…”
“Justin Black.” Scarcely looking up from his counting.
“Dominik Ma’Quiver,” he replied, bowing his head slightly, “and you should be pleased to note, I travel light, not wishing to burden myself with too much baggage.”
“And here I was thinking you just had no time to pack your bags,” Shades remarked.
“This is our ship, the Maximum,” Max told him. “For helping save Bandit and escape from those guys, I am in your debt. The least we can do is give you a ride to the next island. Maybe then we’ll have our rematch?”
“Perhaps. For now, I’ll hold you to your word, Max. It would be rude to fight you on your own ship anyway, so instead we might do some training, as your friend suggested? I’m pretty sure I could beat you as you are now, but you’ve got potential, and I’d like to have more of a challenge.”
“So you really can teach others how to do that?” Shades immediately lit up at the prospect.
“I wouldn’t know. I’ve never tried,” Ma’Quiver cautioned him. “It’s not something just anybody can do. My master only met one or two other people in all of his travels who had any ability…”
“Couldn’t hurt to try.” Max shrugged.
“Very well,” Ma’Quiver proposed, “in exchange for passage, I will teach you what I know of the ancient art of Shanshou-kan.”
“But what if we can’t do it?” Justin demanded.
“Don’t be rude,” Shades countered. “This guy’s offering to teach us things you can’t learn from any dojo where I come from. And even if we can’t do it, no training is ever a waste of time as long as you learn something from it, right?”
“Right,” Max nodded. Then he turned back to Ma’Quiver. “So, what is Shanshou-kan?”
“Shanshou-kan, or Lightning Step— Shadow Fist, as they called it in these parts— is a system of fighting based on the rare ability to bend time around yourself. Much like how I appear to ‘speed up’ to your eyes, it’s no exaggeration to say that you slow down from my perspective.”
“So it’s not just about being fast…” Max mused.
“Yes and no,” Ma’Quiver explained. “It takes a lot of concentration to enter that state. Even though I’ve been practicing the technique for years, I can still only use it for sustained bursts, which is why I always trained for speed and precision, to make the most of it while it lasts. In the arena, I only used it as a finishing move. And only against the tougher contenders, to keep the crowd on the edge of their seats.”
“I see.” Shades figured there had to be a catch to something that pushed the limits that much. “So, if you don’t mind me asking, where did your master learn all this?”
“From his master, of course,” Ma’Quiver answered. “To my knowledge, there has never been any formal school where these techniques are taught— probably because the talent is so rare in the first place— so it is simply passed down from master to student. Sadly, this also means there is no record of where it came from, either. My master searched for many years to find me, and I suppose someday I’ll have to seek out my own student, but for now, I’m still a learner myself, which is why I continue to search for my master.”
“What happened to him?” Max could tell there was a story here.
“Sounds like we’re gonna be hearing some new stories over dinner,” Justin commented. “Speaking of which, I’m starving. I think I’m gonna get started on that.”
“We got separated a few years ago,” Ma’Quiver informed them. “We were staying in the ancient city of Alta, and one day there was this earthquake. We tried to get out, but the building collapsed. I found myself trapped in the basement, with everything falling down around me. Even the basement floor broke apart, and I fell into a really old tunnel.
“I don’t know how long I was out, but I had injured my leg in the fall. It was slow going, crawling through tunnels that I later found out were part of ancient catacombs thought to have been lost many years ago. By the time I made it back to the surface, I was completely exhausted, and wound up sleeping in a hospital for four days.”
“What about your master?” Shades asked.
“I heard he came out of it okay, but I can only guess.” The look on Ma’Quiver’s face, Shades suspected, must surely look like his when wondering about John or Amy. “Between the tunnels and the hospital, I was out for about seven days, and by the time I regained consciousness, I was told he had given me up for dead after searching through the rubble for three whole days. Of course, after seeing the damage for myself, I also had a hard time believing I could survive that, yet here I am.”
Three days. Max couldn’t help noting the number. The same amount of time his parents and Uncle Angus stood vigil outside the Harken Building before finally giving up on the late Chad Owen. Tried not to shudder at that memory as Ma’Quiver continued his tale.
“Sadly, nobody knew where he went. Just packed up with a heavy heart, and signed on with a ship leaving port that same day. From what I understand, I found my way out of those tunnels the day after that. And I’ve been searching for him ever since. I want him to know I’m still alive, and I want to complete my training.”
“Then I guess we have more in common than I would have guessed,” Shades commented. “I’ve also been trying to find a couple old friends of mine, and so far I’ve been having about the same luck.”
“Great,” Justin sighed, “you mean now we’re gonna be runnin’ around askin’ even more questions everywhere we go?”
“So if you were searching for your master,” Max asked him, “then why were you at that arena for so long?”
“Well, to make a long story short, I ran out of money,” Ma’Quiver told them. “I don’t like selling my fighting skills like some kind of mercenary, so I usually get by doing odd jobs here and there. You know, ship’s hand, dock work, fishing… I live fairly simply, so the pay is usually enough to suit my needs, but surely you saw the prices in Bodeen?”
“Don’t get me started on the prices in Bodeen,” Justin muttered.
“Of course, I’ve sometimes found myself in places where the only paying work was stuff like bounty hunting or guard duty of some sort, but I’ve always tried to keep it above board, nothing shady. This time, though, I got caught up in testing my skills, I didn’t pay enough attention to who I was dealing with, I see that now. Just a few matches, I thought, a few fights here paid more than days’ worth of labor in the city.”
“But let me guess,” said Shades, reading between the lines, “doing business with this Bertona bastard got you more than you bargained for?”
“You got that right,” Ma’Quiver snorted. “Once he saw what I could do, he didn’t want to see me leave. Kept jerkin’ me around on the pay, because he knew I couldn’t leave the island, and started hassling me to train his henchmen. Not too long ago, he even offered to make me a Captain in the Bodeen Militia. By then, I could see that all he wanted was to expand his own influence, and I can’t say I like what his influence is doing to that town.”
“Then why’d you put up with that asshole?” Justin demanded, for this fellow seemed to resonate with his own disgust for the idea of being anybody’s lackey.
“There was still the matter of passage,” Ma’Quiver reminded him, briefly bringing Justin back to the frustration of his own long years in the Triangle State, “he had me where he wanted me. For a while, I kept telling myself that if I saved up a little more, I would be able to leave. But old Berto just kept getting bolder. I quickly learned just how much influence he had when I realized his Red-Bands were scaring off anyone else I tried to work for. Tried to sign on to outside ship’s crews, but couldn’t get anywhere near the harbor without them prowling around, and by then I was afraid of what they might do to anybody I did manage to sign on with.
“And it wasn’t just cheating me… he seemed to think he already had me in his pocket, that I was somehow going to make Nikopol unstoppable or something. Started acting more and more like he was above the law in Bodeen, started taking more risks, as if all the money he was raking in could buy his way past anyone.”
“And yet you felt you were… enabling him, didn’t you?” Shades insinuated.
“Yes, I was at wit’s end by the time Max came along. At first, all I saw was a challenge, someone better than the desperate losers who drifted in and out, good enough, even, to make the top dogs there feel threatened. I suppose I was also taking out my frustrations on my opponents, but I especially enjoyed humiliating Nikopols, and the crowd loved every minute of it.
“Max,” he said, looking him in the eye, “once I saw how far you were willing to go for your friend, I knew you were someone I could trust. The fact that you had your own ship to get off the island with sealed the deal. You gave me a way out, in return, I gave him a way out.”
Gesturing to Bandit.
“While we’re on the subject,” Max asked him, as it was something he found himself wondering about more and more now that the battle was over, “what changed your mind back then?”
“Hmm, how can I put this?…” Ma’Quiver mused, looking over Max’s feline friend. “I guess you could say I don’t like to see living things in cages.”
“Same here!” Justin agreed from the galley. “Just like how I don’t like chains.”
“Well, I’m sure Berto’s not feeling so clever now,” Ma’Quiver laughed. “I doubt the city Patriarchs are too pleased with him anymore, either. Perhaps some of the problems in Bodeen are about to be solved very shortly.”
“Yeah, but we’re not goin’ back to find out,” Justin told him bluntly.
“I’ll second that motion,” Shades agreed. “That’s one place we don’t want to go back to any time soon!”
Max put a very tired arm around Bandit, words failing to express his relief at his seeing his old friend back, safe and sound.
Thinking of all the various reactions the big cat seemed to draw everywhere they went, he began, “Well, what can I say?”
“You just can’t take this guy anywhere,” Justin finished, walking over and patting him on the head, “can you?”
They all shared a good laugh as the Maximum sailed on, the island of Sarna and all its local troubles many miles behind them.
-word-processed draft :May 13 – June 20, 2010
-additional revisions: July, 2010
Much like Part 13, this story was written from scratch, with no prior drafts, and only some really old story notes to refer to. Probably for the best, given how sketchy most of those notes were. I was originally going to title this one "Ma'Quiver" but decided that naming a story after a character just didn't fit in with the series' naming style as it's evolved. For a while, I went with "Fresh Blood" (referring to Max's entry "adding new blood to the game" at the arena), but it just didn't roll off the tongue. That, and I became afraid that on some of the fanfic sites I post Tradewinds on, people would get the wrong idea, since apparently anything with the word "blood" in it these days couldn't possibly be about anything other than vampires. (cue eye-rolling)
Some of the scenario for this came from a story I wrote in high school, for a series I stuck a fork in more than a decade ago, but revolved around a gladiator fight with a character I'll refer to as "Ma'Quiver" for simplicity. Back then, the story basically involved Ma'Quiver throwing a fight for Max in order to gain access to another contender for reasons that would take too long to explain. Back then, Ma'Quiver not only did this favor, but later joined his party, yet when I looked back, I never really came up for any explanation for his change of heart, which was something I kept firmly in mind this time, the end result being a character with a more interesting personality, and a greater role in the series as a whole than just a one-shot.
Of course, even fighting to free Bandit took on some surprising changes when I actually started writing it down. One of the biggest plotholes in the notes was how Max knew how to fight in a tournament. To say nothing of how Justin and Shades already knew to infiltrate the arena. The real thing that did it, though, was Mr Bertona, what I would have to categorize as a very "Californian" villain, a loose amalgam of just everybody I've worked under down here, melded with the general attitude in these parts. Both their initial confrontation, and their conclusion, gave the whole thing a greater intensity than my really old idea of having Bandit escape from a "match" in another section of the arena, and Max's friends rescuing him. Berto also provided a strong thematic foil for Ma'Quiver, and a character contrast that was heavy on show, with little need to tell.
By and large, I'm glad I waited and took my time on this one, as it came out a lot fuller than the filler detour it started out as back in the day. Unfortunately, I'm still in the middle of Part 16, but lately I've had a series a almost head-rush epiphanies that may have just connected the dots from Part 17 all the way through at least 22, so once I'm done with 16, hopefully things will pick up pace.
STILL IN THE WORKS: Tradewinds 16
Wherein the crew of the Maximum take another shot at that tropic vacation thing, and Trouble ensues...