The laziness of morning.
With the sun barely peeking over the horizon and night’s chill still strong in the air, it’s no surprise that only the farmers, or the bakers if one lives near the city, ever leave the warmth of their bed sheets this early. Those more privileged; noblemen and clergy, can even have the luxury of sleeping till noon.
Road-bound peddlers however, will rise even earlier than farmers, as it is no new knowledge that bandits are always oversleepers.
“Uwaaaaaaaah…..´´ – His yawn echoed on the empty road.
“Just how far is that village?´´ – He mumbled, rubbing his eyes, which had bags so big he was wondering if he could use them to carry something.
The path ahead of him was that of a dirt road that had most likely not been touched by a wagon’s wheels in at least two years, and the hilly valley it crossed was so devoid of anything that wasn’t grass and rocks that he sometimes felt like he was walking through the work of an apprentice painter as short on pigments as on good ideas.
Step after step, he advanced hoping that beyond the hill ahead laid his destination; a tiny village so remote and unimportant that it was still devoid of name, but where a recent discovery of what appeared to be a tin mine had given place to the chance to change all that, as well as caused a sudden demand of chemical solvents and reagents that the metallurgists there needed to test out if what the miners were digging was actually tin and not just plain old lead.
“Ah, there it is!´´ – Gazing at the distance from the top of the hill, he could see the small cluster of shacks and the newly dug shaft not far from it.
“A bed, a pint of ale, and my well-earned pay. All the things that make a man’s happiness.´´ – He said to himself as he held onto the straps that held his squarish leather backpack onto his shoulders.
For a peddler like him, it was always refreshing to be able to voice his thoughts without worrying about whom might be hearing him. This was also why he preferred the traveling merchant’s life over that of the city peddler.
“It shouldn’t take me more than one hour to-´´ – But the moment he looked closer at the road ahead of him, he noticed something odd not too far ahead of him.
There was a tree on it. Old, and long-dead, but it was the first tree he had seen since he took this road. And there was something white fluttering at its base.
Making a short dash towards the tree, the fluttering white object soon took the shape of a human body. A woman was there, resting against the tree, and clad in a purely white nun’s habit.
That attire suddenly reminded him of a woman he had fancied in a city he had previously lived in. A nurse with a bright yet shy smile, working for an always-sour doctor. He had a crush on her, but her employer never let him get close to her, as his own womanizing tendencies were already known to him.
Truly, it was a strange moment to suddenly remember her.
“Hello? Are you okay?… Hello?´´
He announced himself and called out the white-clad woman’s attention as he slowly approached to her, not wanting to startle her. But she remained unmoving.
“Is she even alive?´´ – He wondered as he crouched in front of her, putting his pack down before slowly reaching for her cheek.
“Tee hee, gotcha!´´ – Said a rather snarky voice.
All of a sudden, she opened her eyes and grinned widely in a very unladylike manner. It was then when he noticed her eyes were of an unnatural yellow color.
With that shout, his world turned upside down.
He was now hanging from the tree; a snare raising his feet in the air, like a rabbit in a hunter’s trap.
“Fu fu, yet another sucker who fell for the ”cute girl lure”; males are soooo predictable.´´
She said as she got up in a voice that was somewhere between boyish and childish.
The purely white habit she had just been wearing vanished like mist, revealing a short, freckle-cheeked, red-brown haired girl clad in a leather jerkin and some patchy leather shorts. Or at least, he believed they were shorts, as they disappeared into the strange, bag-like fur formations she had for legs.
“Hey! I know my fluffy legs are great, but starin’ at a girls parts is rude, y’know.´´ – She commented in an amused tone. It was then when he realized she also had a thick, ringed brown and red tail and a set of round ears.
A raccoon’s ears? A badger’s? Whatever they were, she wasn’t human by any interpretation of the term.
“Now, lesse, what kind of shiny trinkets are you carrying.´´
And with those merry words, she reached for his backpack.
“Hey! Let me go, you little thief! That’s mine!´´ – He cried from the top of his lungs as he balanced on the rope like a chandelier.
“Oh, I know they’re yours, but they won’t be like that for too long, fufu…´´ – That was her reply as she dug into his backpack’s contents.
One by one, she pulled out the dark glass bottles and sealed leather pouches that his bag contained, all of them meeting with her disapproval.
Yet, he couldn’t help but watch in horror as she tossed them aside; he was well aware how expensive all of those chemicals had been, so the idea of any of those bottles breaking could ruin him financially.
“Puuh… You’re carrying nothing but murky liquids and smelly pouches? Where are all the shiny valuables?´´
Said his beastly robber with a pout on her face as she turned towards him.
“Well, excuse me for trading in alchemical supplies and not being the royal goldsmith carrying the crown jewels, honey badger. Now you better go back to your burrow before I get down there and make myself a matching set of fur boots and belt using that fat tail you have.´´ – He said as he pulled out his dagger and tried to cut himself down, but to no avail.
“F-F-Fat tail!?´´ – Anger veins popped all over her forehead.
“You asshole!!´´ – She roared as she slapped him with her tail, making him drop his dagger and spin around on the rope.
“I was thinking of letting you go because you had nothing of value, but no one insults me and gets away with it. And I am a Tanuki, not a honey badger.´´ – That comment had really pissed her.
“Heh, tough luck, honey badger. I’m not carrying more than a few coppers, and I doubt they’ll be enough for even a moldy bread.´´ – He boasted as he finished spinning around.
“Oh, don’t worry, tan skin. That thing on your neck will fetch a good price.´´ – She said as all of a sudden her angry expression gave way to what could only be described as a ”shit eating grin”.
It was then when he noticed that something had slipped from underneath his shirt.
A thin brass chain holding together three hoops made of some dark wood-like material. In the center of each hoop was a flat golden ring with a multi-hued gemstone in the center.
While it wasn’t high-fashion jewelry, it was an amulet from the far south; from the deserts that were his homeland. He was certain it wasn’t worth much, but to him, it was all he had as reminder of his origins.
“Oh, no! You’re not taking it!´´ – He shouted as he tried to reach for his dagger, but she was faster than him.
“Fu fu fu, that will teach you to make fun of my tail.´´ – She said as she effortlessly took the amulet from him.
“You don’t know what you’re doing, honey badger. I swear I’ll chase you to the world’s end if I have to get that back. And if you ever ask any merchant, you’ll know that Niels Hardwick never breaks a promise…. EVER.´´ – He added as he finally recovered his dagger and again tried to cut the rope.
“I’d like to see you try. Bye bye!´´
With these mocking words and an even more mocking tail wave, she vanished, just as Niels had finished cutting himself down.
He groaned as he got up from the ground, his face burning with fury as he gazed at the place from where his raccoon-tailed robber had just vanished from.
“Oh believe me, I will, and you’ll wish you have never gotten out of your burrow to steal from me, honey badger…´´
Mumbled Niels as he angrily packed his cargo back into his pack.
The term ”bustling” wasn’t enough to make justice of the status of this tiny village. Coteries of rowdy men with pickaxes drinking on every corner, carpenters and their apprentices setting the supports of what would probably become a two-story building, and stall after stall of peddlers selling goods that ranged from food and clothes to tools and medicine.
It was like the desert after a rainstorm; a violent blooming. It showed a tiny village about to become a sizable mining town.
The creak of this tavern’s door was enough to draw all the guests’ attention towards whomever came in, although most were either too busy or too drunk to even look at Niels, whom marched towards the counter with a bitter expression.
“Mornin’ lad. What can I getcha?´´ – A jolly barkeep turned called out Niels’s attention as he reached the counter.
“Haaahh…… Give me something strong. I wanna wash this bad day from my mind.´´ – He replied, following a sigh, as he put down a blackened silver coin.
“Right away lad. I take yer trade deal wasn’t as good as ya were promised.´´ – Said the barkeep as he filled a wooden mug with fiery red liquor.
“Nay, deal went smoothly, else I wouldn’t be paying up front.´´ – It wasn’t too clear how much of that had been a joke.
“A woman, then?´´ – The barkeep tried again.
“Heh, pretty close. A bandit woman.´´ – Niels smiled bitterly.
“She shook me up on the way here. She didn’t take my good or my coin, but she stole something far more valuable…. something I’ll chase her down to the grave if I have to recover it.´´
He took a swig of his ale as he spoke. It was pretty strong indeed.
“Ah, ‘nother victim of the shifty Naeko!´´ – Exclaimed the barkeep in realization.
“Naoke? Is that what that honey badger’s called?´´ – Said Niels as he got her name wrong; he was already on his second mug, and while he could usually take more than that, this red ale packed a real punch.
“Nay, it’s Naeko. She’s one o’ many odd types that have come from the eastern frontier this year. I b’lieve she’s one o’em ”Tanukis” or whachamatheycallem at the east. Kinda curious all those beastly folks.´´ – The bartender frowned as he spoke.
“She also shook me when I was comin’ to town two months ‘go, and not only she took m’ coin, she took a bottle of some very rare northerner mead I had gotten me hands on!´´ – Now, there was fury, and a sense of mutual sympathy.
“If you ever find her lad, bring ‘er to me and not only I’ll pay ya good, I’ll give you one free mug of ale every day for the rest of your life in this place, as well as giving cha the honor of watching as I tear the hide of that tail of hers and carve it into wine flagons!´´ – The bartender mimicked the movements of a hunter skinning a fox in the air.
“Oh, I’m so sorry….´´
The sound of two wooden objects hitting each others followed by an apology made Niels turn around.
“Watch where you going, wench!´´
In a table not far from the door, a young woman, with long black hair and an unusually thin frame, had accidentally spilled a half-empty mug of ale on a table as she was picking them up, rousing the anger of the brutish looking man on it, who got his pants splashed with it.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry…´´ – She repeated as she cleaned the table.
“Oi Herbert! Why don’t you hire a better wench than this useless tramp? I’ve seen blind old ladies work better than her.´´ – Shouted the brutish man back to the bartender, whom seemed to be called Herbert.
“It’s alright lad. Next one’s on the house.´´ – Replied the bartender as he motioned the young woman towards him with a bitter frown.
“Lisa, that is the third spilled mug today. Are you drinking from half empty cups again!?´´ – He said with a deep frown.
“N-No sir.´´ – She replied, her eyes downcast. Looked like she was called Lisa.
“And what happened to the rent you said you were going to pay me!? You said you’d bring some coin today.´´ – Continued Herbert, almost shouting.
“Don’t worry, sir. I already got it. I, I just need to pawn something of mine, I’m sure that thing will fetch a good price.´´ – Replied Lisa in a more confident tone.
But suddenly, this triggered something on Niels mind.
“”That thing will fetch a good price.”?´´ – He thought, widening his eyes.
It wasn’t the sentence itself, but the tone of her voice that sounded awfully familiar. Could it really be that? Was his luck that strong?
“Good. You have until noon to pay me, or you’ll have to find a place to stay somewhere else. I’m sure the new brothel has plenty of cheap rooms, ha ha.´´ – Added Herbert menacingly. The girl just gave him a nod and disappeared in the kitchen.
“Who’s the girl?´´ – Asked Niels as he watched her go away. The gears of his mind starting to spin.
“Ah, Lisa. She show’d up almost at the same time I opened this place. She was entirely penniless, so she begged me for a job and a place t’ stay, which at first didn’t seem half bad. But b’fore her first day was over, I had enough to rethink me choice.´´ – Explained Herbert. There was a certain degree of compassion in his words.
“She’s like a cataclysm given flesh. Be it cooking, cleaning, or serving; she just can’t get it done right. Makes me wonder what kind o’ life she led b’fore coming here. She ain’t got the looks o’ a prostitute or a street-walker, and I doubt she’d perform any better in those jobs.´´ – He shook his head as he spoke.
“Curiously enough, one thing she does well is counting money; it’s really perplexin’. Is she the daughter of an impoverished noble or merchant or somethin’?´´ – Continued Herbert as he rubbed his unshaven chin with his thumb.
“Does she live in here?´´ – Niels asked this as nonchalantly as possible; his mind was already spinning some plans to test his theory about this ”Lisa”.
“Hah, no way! Else this place would had already collapsed unto itself. She sleeps in my storage shed, behind the tavern.´´ – Replied Herbert, amusedly.
“I see. Anyhow, do you have any rooms available? I’d rather spend at least one night under a roof before hitting the road again.´´ – Niels was quick to change the topic of the conversation. There were other plans on his mind.
The scorching springtime sun quickly heated the chilly morning into a warm noon, which was also quite windy due to the valley’s flatness. And said wind wasn’t gentle on the ramshackle shed she was currently inside of.
“Tch! That smelly old man, ordering me like he owns me.´´ – Growled a certain Tanuki as she fiddled around with a small lockbox, hidden under some floor boards.
“I’ll be the last one laughing when I’m away from this dump and he finds out he’s got all his-´´
*Knock, knock, knock*
“Hello? Izza pretty lady in here?´´
Following the knock on the door, that sassy line was delivered.
“Oi-I mean, wait a moment please.´´ – She almost forgot to switch back to her human looks.
“Oh, y-you are that gentleman from the tavern. I’m sorry but I am not working right now. If you have any requests, please speak to Master Herbert.´´ – Said ”Lisa” in a tone most meek and most servile.
But her politeness wasn’t fooling Niels. If there was one thing he had picked up after a lifetime of listening to drunken merchants spout valuable information amidst their inebriation, was good hearing. And he knew he had heard her voice before. He just had to test it out.
“First of all, good morning. I’m Niels and while I don’t believe we spoke, but I saw you working at the tavern, and I was wondering if you would be interested in a better job offer than the one you already had.´´ – His speech was fast and rather loud, as if to drown out any thoughts she could have.
“I, um, I really can’t. I am currently indebted to Master Herbert, and I need to pay him before I do anything else.´´ – She replied in the same meek and polite manner.
“That’s not a problem. The trading company I represent here would be quite willing to pay the amount of your debt in exchange for having your skills working for us.´´ – Continued Niels in the same loud and fast-paced speech.
“My skills. B-But I can’t do anything right.´´ – She did her best to sound pathetic.
“That’s not true; your Master mentioned how good you are at keeping track of the money, and a person capable of that in a place like this is worth more than one thousand wenches.´´ – Added Niels, his broad smile never leaving his face.
“H-H-He said that?´´ – Suddenly, she was very nervous.
“Yes, he said he can always rely on you to do that kind of work and he feels confident in that you will never steal from him. And I know many powerful Guild Masters that would pawn their family’s heirlooms just to have someone they could blindly trust in charge of their finances.´´ – But he dispelled her concerns with that same confident smile; the kind of smile that went best with lies.
Perhaps, being a good liar could be seen as Niels’s greatest trade secret.
“Your work won’t be that hard either. My company is merely in need of a reliable treasurer. Someone who isn’t a merchant and doesn’t belong to the company itself, so he may not have his own goals for that money. And if it were possible, someone ”local” to the area where the mine will soon be opened, and that may have acquaintances with the people of the area. You happen to fill all the requirements.´´ – He said.
“O… Okay. But, what will your company manufacture here? They say the mine will be a tin mine.´´ – There was now much more interest in her words.
“Not quite. In fact, part of my reason to be here was to deliver a series of compounds some of our metallurgists would use to test the ores extracted, and so far, tin is just part of what this lode is offering; we’ve found a good deal of silver and even bits of gold, so we are interested in installing a mint here to supply one of the nearby trade hubs, which is in dire need of hard currency.´´ – That was the final push.
A shy smile suddenly formed on Lisa’s face; clearly a reflection of what she was really thinking.
“Hehehe, has this sucker any idea of whom he’s talking to? He’s gonna lose sooo much more than some shiny trinket now. I think I’ll play along to see what he’s planning.´´ – Those were Naeko’s thoughts as she smiled to herself.
“Alright, it is a deal Mr. Hardwick.´´ – Said Lisa, visibly excited.
“Uh? Where did you heard my surname?´´ – He asked, pretending confusion. This was just the cue he was waiting for.
“I, uhm, heard you talking to some merchants either. T-They call you that name. Did I misheard it?´´ – And she quickly reverted back to her shy persona.
“Ah, that’s alright. I do indeed go by that name when trading.´´ – Niels pretended to brush it off.
Touche! He had won his gamble.
“Anyhow, if you agree to my proposition, come see me today after nightfall. My guild’s office is in the third eastern row; the leftmost of those new houses build by the mine.´´
The ownership of that newly built house had been part of the payment for his cargo, as his customers hadn’t expected such a sheer quantity of reagents, and they needed them all. He had been thinking of selling it, but now it would serve as a very useful hideout.
“And finally, as a gesture of goodwill, take these.´´ – He said as he handed her three shiny silver coins.
“I heard from the barkeep you’re late on your rent. This should help you with that. Consider them your first payment.´´ – Niels flashed his best smile as he handed the coins out.
“Aaah! Thank you! Really, thank you!´´ – She even bowed as she received the coins.
Following this, Niels left and she went back inside the shed, looking at the shiny coins with equally shining eyes.
“Hehehe, that sucker’s just fell for my act so bad! He even gave me money! Truly, all males are weak to the cute and harmless girl act.´´ – Said Naeko, chuckling at her own luck.
And not too far from there.
“Hahaha, that honey badger fell for it hook, line and sinker. Truly, no woman can resist my manly charms.´´ – Said Niels, chucking at his own success.
The night fell unusually early. A remainder, perhaps, of that the winter hadn’t fully left yet. And while the only visible light in the streets was that pouring from the windows of all the bar and taverns around, finding a half decent lantern was child’s play in a town full of miners.
“Everything’s in place.´´ – He though, placing the lantern on top of a wooden table.
Calling this tiny place a ”house” was a bit of an overstatement; just one squarish room with two small windows and another, much smaller room in the back. He had been in brothels with bigger rooms than this. Still, it had been cheap, and more than that, it was now useful.
The only pieces of furniture there was a rickety table and two worn-out chairs. However, the glass inkwell and the sheepskin contract that laid on top of said table were both quite expensive. He had to keep the appearances of the ”Rich Minting Trade Company” somehow.
The most important things, however, where those not evident at glance. The door had been fit with a sturdy padlock, and the windows had been locked from the outside and then smeared with a certain smelly compound. Still, this was just the dressing on his plan; his most important trap was already set and concealed in plain sight.
It was almost time for the show, so he took his seat on the chair behind the table and waited.
“Excuse me, Mr. Hardwick.´´ – But the wait wasn’t long.
Lisa had fixed her hair, and was wearing a dress far less worn than the one she wore at the tavern, but Niels was already well-aware this was all part of Naeko’s illusion. Just a day ago, he wouldn’t have believed such magicks actually existed. But now that he did, he was planning to defeat them.
“Welcome Miss Lisa. Welcome to the Beckett Company’s Eastern Trading Hub. Or, at least, what we hope it’ll soon become. I am still waiting for the Guild Master to make this office looks less like a beggar’s hovel. Please take a seat.´´
He welcomed her with a jovial gesture and an amused smile at his surroundings.
“Thank you very much.´´ – She said, joyfully, as she sat on the chair in front of him.
“Hehehe, the badger’s in the honeypot.´´ – Mused Niels, barely holding his desire to grin.
“Fufufu, now I’ll rob your pockets blind, sucker.´´ – Thought Naeko as she concentrated on her act.
“I took the care of writing your work contract. Read it as much as you need, once we have your signature, you can consider yourself a member of the Beckett Company.´´ – He said, pushing the contract towards her.
“Very well.´´ – Replied ”Lisa” as she picked it up, pretending to read it as she scanned her surroundings.
“Just what are you planning sucker? Where are your tricks?´´ – Thought Naeko, quickly glancing at each corner of the shack.
The walls, the windows, the roof, the corners, the candle, the floor, the furniture. No matter where she looked, it all looked completely plain and devoid of anything that could hide a trap or other dangerous device.
Between looking at these, she alternated on both reading the contract, and looking at him.
The contract contained exactly what she had been promised; a position as treasurer of a minting company, and even had data on an estimated payment she would receive each week for her works, containing quite alluring numbers.
He, on the other hand, did nothing. He just stood there, smiling gently as she pretended to read the contract. Now and then he shifted his way on his chair on leaned onto the table, but there was nothing that could show any kind of ulterior intentions. He didn’t even have his dagger on him.
About half of the candle he had on the table had melted away before he changed his expression.
“Is there something wrong with the contract? I believe I did not omit any of my earlier proposals. Did I miss something?´´ – Asked Niels concernedly.
“I-I don’t think so, it’s just that I am not a very fast reader.´´ – Replied ”Lisa”, apologetically; her thoughts were starting to become confused.
“Is…. is this sucker for real? Is he really offering me this kind of job, just like that?´´ – Her mind had begun wavering.
All of this time, she had been suspicious of Niels having seen through her disguise, but with every minute that passed, they had melted just like the candle.
“If this is real, I could make more than the money I need to buy my way out of this rat hole in one week, and who knows how much money I could lift from him and this company besides that. In fact, forget about the passage; I could get richer than a king in less than a year if I made the right moves.´´
Naeko’s thoughts had started spiraling out of control, and out of the boundaries of safe assumptions.
“…. Alright.´´ – Said ”Lisa” all of a sudden, following a sigh.
“I will sign, but first, I want to know when will these payments be in effect.´´ – She pushed further.
“Our office might still look like a disused barn, but our main mining and smelting operations have already been going on in the mine for almost a month now. If the worst came to happen, and everything was delayed due to the most unfavorable transport and logistic operations, you’d probably start getting paid from the next week or so. We already have plenty of miners, prospectors, chemists and metallurgists to man the mine’s operations. What we need now is logistics and administrative personnel to man the offices and the paperwork.´´ – He said that as fast and clear as he could.
“And that’s where you come in.´´ – He added.
“So, are you in? I can assure you no other company will give you a better payment for your talents; our coffers run quite deep, y’see.´´ – Niels moved the inkwell towards her right hand as he said that.
She took a deep breath.
“Alright Mr. Hardwick-.´´ – She said as he took the quill.
“You got yourself a de-´´
The moment she pushed the quill against the parchment, a jet of some smelly, clear green liquid squirted from the back of the quill, hitting her in the forehead.
It had an overwhelmingly strong stench. Strong enough to make her dizzy.
“Uagh! What is-´´ – She winced, looking up to see Niels’s face, only to find him with the kind of expression that could only be described as a ”shit eating grin”.
“Gotcha, honey badger! Or maybe I should say raccoon dog or Tanuki instead.´´ – Boasted Niels as he quickly got up from his seat, closing and locking the door.
“You…! What is this thing… ?´´ – Asked Naeko as she fell to the floor, her disguise quickly coming apart and revealing those same round ears and thick tail she sported the moment she robbed him.
“Black Pepper Oil.´´ – Again, he boasted.
“When I was a kid, the apothecarist I was apprenticed to specialized in creating poisons and repellents for farmers and travelers to use against wild animals. And Black Pepper Oil was particularly efficient in keeping raccoons away from hen coops.´´ – Narrated Niels.
“Although, I must admit, I didn’t think it would be so effective against an actual Tanuki…. Hehe, mayhaps I should start a business here of selling ”Tanuki Bandit Repellent”? I’m sure it would turn in quite a profit with you around…´´ – He continued as Naeko managed to get up. Her eyes had gotten all red and she was still coughing a bit.
“I’m outta- ugh!´´ – With a jump, she tried to reach for one of the windows, but the smell it exuded quickly turned her away.
“Not gonna happen, raccoon dog. I drenched both windows with the oil. And while it doesn’t last for long on skin and clothes, on wood, it can last for hours. So you ain’t getting out that way.´´ – Said Niels in deep amusement.
“Oh, and before you even think of it, this door can only be opened with a key. This key I have here. So if you wanna get out, you’ll have to listen to me.´´ – A proud grin formed on his face as he showed off the tiny iron key.
“What do you want, sucker?´´ – Asked Naeko loathsomely.
“You know damn well what I want. I want my amulet back, plain and simple.´´ – Stated Niels as he waved the key around.
“Heh, and what makes you think I still have it with me? I could have already sold it or left it hidden in my stash.´´ – Answered Naeko defiantly.
“Oh, I know you still have it.´´ – Retorted Niels in the same manner.
“First, you probably took it to a pawnbroker or some other shady type for appraisal. I can almost hear what he said: ”It’s a good luck amulet from the far south. It ain’t worth much, but you should still keep it around. Those folks in the south really take good care of them, so they probably work.”´´ – He said that last part trying to speak like a raspy old man.
“Then, I came to your doorstep offering you the best deal you could ever imagine; a job where you could earn good coin, and steal much more. It was truly an offer you couldn’t reject, and you probably thought: ”Boy! That sucker’s amulet was the real deal! Better keep it with me for a while at least.”´´ – Now he tried to mimic her voice and failed badly.
“And secondly, I can see its chain hanging from your pocket.´´ – He added, pointing to her shorts, which she quickly looked at and pushed the small brass chain back inside.
“So, to sum up, give me back my amulet, and you get the key out of here. Deal?´´ – Announced Niels as he kept waving the key in the air.
“Fufufu…´´ – Chuckled Naeko.
“You really pay attention to details, don’t you, tan skin?´´ – She grinned, although she was still rubbing her eyes a bit.
“That’s a real merchant for you; that’s the difference between a seasoned peddler and one who just stepped out of his mentor’s shadow.´´ – He boasted proudly.
“Alright then.´´ – She smiled.
“You want this trinket back? You’ll have to learn how to CATCH!´´
With that final word, she tossed Niels’s amulet in the air, sending it flying towards him.
But the moment he grabbed it, the amulet turned into a leaf.
“Haahh!!´´ – She cried as she jumped towards Niels, managing to grab his arm, but not the key.
“Gimme that key, you sucker!´´ – Shouted Naeko as she tried to force his hand open.
“No I won’t, gimme my amulet!´´ – Roared Niels back as he tried to reach her pocket with his remaining arm.
But he ended up grabbing one of her buttocks instead. She blushed deeply the moment she felt it.
She kicked his feet, making him lose his balance and sending them both into the floor.
And worst than that, the impact made him drop the key, and sent it sliding towards the door, under which it slipped.
“Oh man, now you trapped us here! Great work, raccoon dog!´´ – Now Niels was truly angry.
“It’s your fault you sucker!´´ – Naeko kicked him in the thighs.
“If you had only given me the damn key we wouldn’t be trapped now.´´ – She cried, just as angry as him.
“My fault? You’re the thief who tricked me with that illusion! Had that really been my amulet I would had given you the key so you could get out of my life for good!´´ – He shouted back.
“You talking about tricks!? Who made this whole elaborate scheme just to get me here and throw that shit on my face!?´´ – Her shouts got even louder.
“Well, maybe if you hadn’t robbed me in the first place I wouldn’t have had to spend my time and my money on setting this whole shit up!´´ – And so did his.
“Why would you go to such extremes for a cheap trinket like this you can’t even pawn for some rusty coppers anyway!?´´ – She walked right in front of him and threw the real amulet at his face, although he managed to catch it.
“There are things in this world whose value can’t be measured even in gold, but I don’t expect some inhuman monstrosity like you to understand that!!´´ – This last shout greatly eclipsed his previous ones, and it clearly seemed to have hit her.
“Hey neighbor, can’t cha argue with yer wife when we ain’t tryin’ to catch some shuteye here, yo? It’s real late y’know.´´
All of a sudden and following some blows on the wall, a raspy old man’s voice nagged from the house on the other side. This seemed to had cut the thread of their argument, and just as they went silent, the candle snuffed out, leaving them both in a deep darkness.
“Haaaaaah….. What’s the point of it?´´ – Niels seemed to deflate as he let out these words, sitting on the floor and eventually laying over it.
And strangely enough, Naeko did the same, laying down on the floor not far from him, but in the opposite direction.
“How are we gonna get out of here now?´´ – She asked, sounding unusually non-hostile.
“The smell of the oil will most likely be gone by morning. With that strength you just showed, I’m sure you can kick the window and get out.´´ – He replied, but sounding more tired than calm.
“And you’re just gonna let me go after all I did? What happened to those plans of a matching set of fur boots and belt made from my tail? Or will you take old man Herbert’s offer of the free ale and Tanuki leather flagons?´´ – The way she asked that was rather jokingly.
“Haah… I never wanted to catch you or anything. I just wanted my amulet back. That was all.´´ – Niels sighed as he replied.
There was a brief moment of silence after that.
“…. What’s so special about that trinket anyway? It’s not even real gold, and those gems on it are so cheap they would make even a ring made of lead look bad.´´ – And it was Naeko who broke it.
“It’s…. the only thing I have that reminds me where I am from.´´ – Niels’s reply was following yet another short silence.
“My parents, or at least, the ones who raised me, were battlefield scavengers from around the southern border…´´
He began narrating. Naeko remained silent.
“Back when the ”Southern Purification” campaigns were still going strong, they made a lot of coin selling the stuff they picked up after the battles.´´
“One day, they found a small nomadic camp that had been attacked by the purgers; plenty of dead men and raped women corpses. And, as they were dismantling one of the tents that remained to sell the fabric, they heard me crying from the bottom of a dry well. All I had on me was like a whole bolt of linen wrapped around…. and this thing, hanging from my neck.´´ – He put his amulet on as he finished this sentence.
“I’m sorry…´´ – Said Naeko all of a sudden. Her voice sounded genuine.
“It’s okay, it wasn’t bad. My parents were great parents; they taught me to read, write, do math, how to tell junk from treasure and how to smile handsomely while swindling some poor sod. Then again, I really didn’t mind doing legit work either; all coin’s good coin.´´
“However, the campaigns were over before long, and you could no longer make profit by robbing the dead. So they used their contacts to send me as an apothecarist’s apprentice on a big city far north, which wasn’t half bad either, as I learned how to create many smelly liquids and even made some coin.´´
He could hear Naeko snorting as he mentioned the smelly liquids, but she said nothing about it.
“But then, then purges came back, and with this tanned skin of mine, the words ”desert barbarian” got tossed at me pretty often. I was fifteen back then, and after I parted ways with my mentor, began ten long years of fleeing from misfortunes.´´
For a moment, he thought maybe Naeko had fallen asleep, but a quick glance revealed a ringed tail moving in the dark and two yellow eyes looking attentively.
“I headed farther north, to another city closer to the western frontier, where I got caught in the middle of a massive rebellion and was forced to flee eastwards, towards a big walled city I had later to escape from as the blight known as Orellion’s Obloquy began ravaging the region, and really I didn’t want to end up like one of my regulars there who survived an earlier outbreak; pale like a corpse and sour like a lemon. Because as much trouble this skin tone of mine as brought me, it’s still part of who I am.´´ – He raised his hand in the air as he said that final sentence.
“And now, I’m here. I wonder what will happen next that’ll force me to keep running? Will the Obloquy catch up with me or will some new war break out that’ll make me keep walking northwards.´´ – This last part was heavy with a sense of jinx.
“You’ve really walked a lot of world, eh?´´ – Commented Naeko in a strangely friendly way.
“Uhu, if the scholars are right and the world is indeed round, I’ll probably do a full circle soon and end up back at my parent’s place. Some times I wonder how are they doing…´´ – Replied Niels amusedly. It was real strange to be having such a conversation with someone who had tried to beat him down not long ago.
Again, silence reigned for a brief moment, and Niels felt this time it was his turn to break it.
“So, what’s your story, raccoon dog? How did you end up as a bandit around this backwater place?´´ – He asked, half curious and half wanting to kill some time before falling asleep.
“Heh, my story is kinda like yours, tan skin. Only with much worse parents and a lot more of purse cutting.´´ – She replied with a short laugh.
“Long story short, I come from a boringly long bloodline of ”proud merchants” and just like any other member of my family before me, I was supposed to spend the rest of my life behind the counter of my family’s store, figuring new ways to sell less for more than hadn’t been already invented in the past two centuries.´´
“So, I did what every good and responsible child would do; I stole all the coin I could from my parents, and then ran westwards to avoid the bounty hunters my mother so lovingly sent after her oldest and ”favorite” daughter’s head. Guess it tells you a lot of what was more important to her.´´
“In the end, I began to live via all the known ways of robbery, until I stepped on some toes even bigger than those of my mother and I was forced to flee farther westwards. I ran out of money by the time I got here, and hopefully, I’ll be able to keep running once I’ve saved enough. The borders will only keep those bounty hunters away for so long.´´
There was a deep sense of resignation in her words; like those of a young princess resigned to the fate of being used as a political tool by her family.
“Heh, guess everyone’s running from something. At least you can change shapes and pretend to be whomever you need to earn a living.´´ – Said Niels in jest.
“Hey, it’s not as good as you think. At least you can be yourself; as bad a tanned skin may be, it won’t draw the inquisitors’ ire as easily as these fluffy legs of mine.´´ – And she replied, jesting equally.
And yet there was something much deeper to those jokes.
However, Niels didn’t get much of a chance to think about it as he could feel the call of the dream coming for him, taking his mind to a better place.
The simple yet sturdy construction of this house had been done taking into account the cold winters of the regions, so it was a very warm place to stay at night.
So, if it was like that, why did Niels felt so uncomfortably cold? He knew he was sleeping on a bare wooden floor, devoid of blankets and such, but part of his body felt even more exposed than usual. Most specifically, he felt rather cold in the crotch, and also rather strange. And this was enough to rouse him from his sleep.
“Hrm… what’s with the drafty feeling?´´ – He mumbled as he opened his eyes. It was still pitch black, so it took a while for his eyes to adapt to the darkness.
“Rise and shine, tan skin. Although I think it’s still kinda early to be saying that.´´
It took Niels a moment to realize her voice was actually sounding from around his legs, and that the strange sensation he had before had now become quite familiar.
“Fu fu, I was wondering how long you would stay asleep. Got me thinking maybe I should have robbed you in your sleep, friend.´´
She was at his crotch, her arms resting on his thighs and her right hand folding his half-erect manhood playfully.
“Hey! Just what are you doing!?´´ – Asked Niels in utter shock.
“Can’t you see? I’m fondling your happy stick.´´ – And Naeko replied, a smug smile adorning her lips.
“I can SEE that, but why are you doing that now?´´ – He still wasn’t out of his shock.
“Hmm…. Just felt like messing around. Not much to do around here, is there?´´ – She sped up her movements following this sentence, as well as began using both her hands.
“And I am supposed to believe you have no ulterior motive for this? If you’re expecting me to pay for the ”service”, then I’m sad to announce that I left my purse at my room in the inn.´´ – Declared Niels in mild amusement. That wasn’t a lie.
“Hmph, how rude!´´ – Naeko tightened her grip on him and slightly twisted his glans, as if strangling it. It wasn’t painful, but it felt weird.
“Why does such a display of selfless affection need an ulterior motive behind it?´´ – She gave him a deadly attack of ”puppy eyes” as she said that, but he wasn’t falling for it.
“I’m mistrustful of all easy-coming things, specially those I know I enjoy.´´ – Replied Niels, sporting a smug smile of his own.
“Heheh, well, I DO know of one thing that isn’t coming easily.´´ – Added Naeko as she began to run her cheeks along his length. They felt really soft and smooth, and her handiwork was superb.
“Hey, wadda ya take me for, girl? Some kind of choirboy? I’ve bedded enough women to fill a whole orphanage with bastards. Just how old do you think I am?´´ – Boasted Niels. He was exaggerating.
“Younger than me, that’s for sure. At least for a handful of years.´´ – She gave the underside of his glans a quick, lash-like lick as she finished her sentence. It was pleasant enough to make Niels squirm.
“And to be honest, I… kinda got a bit bothered when you grabbed my butt; it’s been a while, y’know, and this town is full of nothing but smelly old men and dirty muscle-bound miners. Neither are my type, so consider this more a reward than a service.´´ – Her voice was sincere and seductive in equal parts, and her lickings were becoming more aggressive.
“Hehe, then can you meet my high standards of quality? I choose the women I bed just as carefully as the goods I sell or the fools I choose to swindle.´´ – Bragged Niels as he folded his arms. He was already as erect as he would ever be.
“And can you please a woman as demanding as myself? Choosing a good man is no different from choosing a good mark to rob, y’know?´´ – And Naeko countered with her own question, her voice strangely changing to a tone as boyish and childish as the one she spoke with the day they met.
“Tracking it carefully.´´ – She licked along the back of his manhood.
“Studying it meticulously.´´ – She wriggled her fingers around his sensitive areas.
“And finally-´´ – With those words, she began sucking on his manhood violently.
Her movements; fingers, mouth and tongue, they were all on spot, and their violent speed and greedy suction were too much for him.
“Irk!´´ – He tried to hold it, and failed.
“Pah!´´ – She released him…. but he didn’t release.
“Strike in such a way where they cannot counter you.´´ – And again, she was sporting a smug smirk of superiority.
It was then when he noticed one of her hands had closed a ring on his base, preventing his climax from escaping.
“Alright!´´ – He was pissed.
With a quick movement, he folded his legs and propelled himself towards her, pushing her on her back. It was then when he noticed she had taken off her shorts, and her slightly fuzzy place was leaking like a broken cork.
“If you want the money-´´ – Grabbing onto her ankles, he forced her legs open, although ”forced” wasn’t quite the best word as she offered no resistance. It was also surprising how light they were, despite those thick fur bags.
“-I’ll make you work for it.´´ – He added, full of manly pride and vengeance.
This was also the first time he could take a good look at her body.
Although she claimed to be older than him, she still looked rather juvenile; a freckled and childish face and a pair of somewhat modest breasts. However, it was ample buttocks and thick, slightly plump thighs that showed a bit of maturity.
“….´´ – She said nothing; all she did was unbutton her leather jerkin, releasing a pair of orange-sized breasts, and smiling in a way that wordlessly stated ”Bring it on!”.
Still holding her legs, he pushed inside of her wet folds violently, earning himself a barely contained gasp from her. He still had that blocked ejaculation on him, but he wasn’t going to allow himself to break first, not him, not today.
*Slap* *Slap* *Slap*
Careful, well-aimed blows in every possible direction, like a miner trying to pry out a stubborn ore vein. He timed each of his trusts; slow, but long and deep, and they were clearly working as all she could do was grit her teeth while holding her bouncing chest. She was resisting almost as well as him.
“He-eheh, is t-that all you can do? You’re g-g-gonna lose it at this rate.´´ – She flashed a dastardly smile.
She was bluffing, but not entirely. Even though he was indeed making progress, it wasn’t fast enough, he needed to change his attack method; he needed a weak point.
“Very well.´´ – He said, letting go of her ankles and grabbing her waist instead.
“I’ll give it a spin-´´ – Before she could react, he turned her around, putting her on her four legs.
“-and take it up a notch!´´ – And just as quickly, he put it back inside from behind.
*Slap, slap, slap!*
This time forswearing technique for speed. Grabbing onto her buttocks and pushing them towards him for maximum power.
*Wap, wap* *Wap, wap*
“You’re a raccoon dog, no? Then maybe what you need is to get taken from behind like an animal.´´ – Niels boasted.
Like a loose piece of clothing in a storm, her tail was fluttering around like crazy. This thick and fluffy mass of striped fur, as if showing the feeling she was holding so desperately.
This gave him an idea.
“Kyon!´´ – Now that was a girly yelp.
All he had done was grab her tail, leaving his thrusting to his hips alone.
“H-Hey, d-don’t fondle my-ah!´´ – She sounded equally nervous and aroused.
“Oh, why is that?´´ – He added as he began to rub and fondle it.
“M-M-My tail i-i-is off lim-EEEK!´´
Yet another yelp as he now had hugged it, fiddling it and caressing it in all sorts of manner. And she was tightening like crazy.
“I guess I found your weak point.´´ – This reply was highly playful.
“So now I’m gonna play this fluffy tail like a strummin’ minstrel with a lute!´´
And so he did.
Between the thrusting of his hip and the fondling of her tail, Naeko was starting to lose it.
“…Staaahp….kyoouh… nuuuh.´´ – Her tongue was hanging out of her mouth flapping around as she moaned incomprehensible words. Her eyes upturned with ecstasy.
“Hey hey, what happened to that much older and experienced girl who was going to make me squirm?´´ – Now it was him who was bluffing; he could barely hold it as well.
“… Naeko…´´ – He bent over her, breathing her name right at her round, furry ears. It was also the first time he had called her by her name, and he felt her body react to it.
“… Come for me…´´
He bit her ear softly, and that was the final push.
And he released along with her; a deep ecstasy overcoming them both.
It was a violent climax; almost as if they had both released their pent-up frustrations into it. He couldn’t hold his body any longer, he collapsed onto her back, her legs also giving away, and both sinking into a sleep most blissful.
This house had been built facing the east, to make it easier for those living in to wake up early at morning. So now, tiny spears of sunlight crossed from the edges of the door and windows. One of them in particular landing right at Niels’s face.
“Whoa… what a night…´´ – Moaned Niels as he arose from the rather uncomfortable (and now somewhat sticky) floor.
He was a mess; disheveled clothes, messy hair, and a limp manhood hanging bare, which he was rather quick to put back in its place upon noticing.
And next to him, this rascally Tanuki of a woman. She was as disheveled as him, but seeing her asleep like that; this newfound cute and peaceful side of hers, he couldn’t help but feel allured by it.
“Hey, honey badger.´´ – He simply wanted to call her that again.
“Wake up, it’s morning alread-.´´
The moment he gently stroked her hair, she reacted by clocking him one right in the nose.
“Uagh, oh, sorry!´´ – She woke up to his cry.
“Is that the way you treat everyone who tries to wake you up!?´´ – Said Niels as he tried to stop the bleeding of his nose.
“My bad, for a moment I thought you were the old man. Are you okay?´´ – Said Naeko, embarrassed.
“Don’t worry, it’s nothing big.´´ – He replied as he cleaned his nosebleed with a handkerchief. Luckily, the bleeding had stopped.
“That’s good, and also…´´ – She took a rather seductive pose as she spoke, which was even more effective because she was still half-naked. She really had some nice legs and thick thighs.
“You’re pretty good in bed, Niels Hardwick.´´ – Added Naeko as she grabbed onto Niels’s shoulder, pulling his face closer before delivering a soft kiss to his lips.
“Consider me a satisfied customer.´´ – She said playfully.
“Thanks you for your patronage.´´ – And his reply was just as playful.
“Oi, neighbor, you dropped yer key.´´
All of a sudden, there were two blows on the door along with the voice of an old man, followed by one particular metal object sliding under the door and landing at Niels’s feet.
“An’ tell yer wife to tone down the volume o’ yer lovemakin’; Imma lone man, and the brothel ain’t open fo’ service yet. So simmer down!´´
Following that complaint, a set of steps could be heard walking away, until there was nothing but silence.
A long, shameful silence as they both felt their cheeks redden.
“So, what are ya gonna do now? Go back to being ”Lisa the clumsy wench”?´´ – Asked Niels as he unlocked the door.
“Heh, it ain’t like I have much choice, friend.´´ – Replied Naeko ruefully.
“I need that money to get away, and now that I know the west is outta question with that blight and stuff, I guess I’ll have to aim for the cold north. Good thing my fur’s pretty thick, huh.´´ – She added as she showed off her legs and tail.
But her reply made him uneasy. Had his feelings for this woman changed so quickly in just one night of pleasure? That was so strange for him. However, he simply couldn’t let this go.
“Say, how about I make you a job offer?´´ – Stated Niels, putting on his best merchant’s smile.
“Like the one you made to poor Lisa?´´ – She asked in jest.
“No, a real one.´´ – He countered.
“You’re really fast with your mind, and you clearly have some unique skills. So how about you come with me? I’m also heading to the north and I could always use a trade partner. We’ll split the profits fifty-fifty and we’ll watch each other’s backs. Wadda ya say?´´
Niels extended his hand towards Naeko as he spoke in a very proper way.
But she shoved it to the side, moved next to him and pulled his face close to hers, the difference in their heights becoming more obvious.
“Does that contract include the ”Nightly Business” clause?´´ – She said in a childish voice.
“It does, although its fulfillment demands satisfaction of both parties’ needs. Can you keep up with that?´´ – And he replied with a smug grin.
“Ya know we both can.´´ – Replied Naeko flirtatiously.
“But still…´´ – She suddenly became serious.
“Do you really wanna bring me along? I could rob you blind and escape with all you own in the middle of the night. Would you still wanna go with me?´´
The way she was speaking was both honest and serious.
“Hey, I think it was good luck that brought our two rascally hearts together, and in my experience, it’s never a good idea to go against good luck.´´ – Said Niels as he pulled his amulet from under his shirt.
“Heheh.´´ – Naeko smiled.
Not her usual smug smile, but a simple and genuinely happy smile.
“Don’t say later I didn’t warn you, tan skin.´´ – She added, amusingly.
“Like I said, I’m willing to take the risk, honey badger.´´
He put his arm over her shoulder as he said that, and she did the same. The door was already open, and even though there was nobody outside, it felt as if the world itself laid open for whatever events their journey could take them.
The journey of two rascally hearts.