Something woke her up from her slumber. She felt someone’s presence, someone close.
Last few times she felt such thing, it turned out to be a tanuki that had snuck into her cave in the mountains. A tanuki who seemingly arrived knowing very well she, a dragon, lived here. ‘Trying to steal my hoard,’ she immediately thought the first time, the second, the third, and every single time that tanuki had appeared. Not even her first impression struck nicely, for that tanuki even told her she snored awfully loud, too, each and every time puffing out a little flame with it.
That tanuki. Always happy, always with that uncanny smirk, always eyeing her treasure like a jub-jub eyed a kid in the woods. Always carrying her own stuff in her backpack. ‘Just the things a merchant would need in her every day job’, she had said to her every time she asked. That damned happy merchant, rubbing her hands while trying to smooth-talk her way to getting that mountain of gold.
And here she was again.
A frown grew in her eyes-still-closed face, gritting her teeth with anger over the tanuki’s presence, deciding ‘today’s the day I set her on fire’. She stood upright and opened her eyes, ready to release the flames in her mouth in the merchant’s general direction.
A boy, before her eyes. Almost face to face in proximity. She couldn’t even open her mouth fully in stupefaction, leaving what fire she had in her mouth to escape at the edge of her lips like a fart. Wasn’t too young, nor too old, maybe her own age too, but what he certainly did not look like was someone who knew what he had gotten himself into. What stupefaction showed in her face, his reflected it like a mirror.
“Uh…” Muttered the two of them at the same time. A short silence ensued.
“You shouldn’t have come here, human. I hope you’re not here for my treasure. Why do you cross through my domain?”
“I was on my way to the inn and got lost.”
She raised her eyebrow in stupefaction far greater than what she even held before.
“…You ended up on the tallest of mountains dozens of kilometers away from the closest town on your way to the inn?”
“I’m not a clever man.”
Her eyes closed halfly in annoyance and disappointment, while his remained wide open. Then, he threw herself back and lied down on the ground sideways with her back turned to him.
“Whatever. Leave. I’m not supposed to wake up for the next three hours.”
“I don’t know how to go back.”
Immediately, she sat back up. Every time he spoke, her expression of confusion kept on growing, now staring at him with her eyes narrowed along with an eyebrow raised. It felt as if this kid was too stupid to know what things should be impossible to do, and did them nonetheless. After a second of staring, she stood up and walked to the entrance of her cave, the wind blowing with a few snowflakes here and there thrown aside by the whistling weather. Just as she stepped outside, the wind struck her side and made her hair flutter along. Too cold for comfort, she thought. She already wished to be inside sleeping, but it’d take hours to fall back asleep, for she was already wide awake.
A glance outside was all that she needed. The rest of the mountains etched a line on the horizon to the sides, for the entrance of her cave in the mountain line pointed to the great plains beyond, with the green grass obscured and turned a shade of icy blue by the cold winds and the height. Soon she saw it: the closest town. Still too far away to deviate from by accident.
The noises next to her of dirt ruffled around gave away the boy who crawled forward to where the stood; a mere patch of earth barely a meter in width, with her cave on one end, the steep cliff on the other, and leading to a ramp down below to the side.
“…What are you doing?” She asked.
“I’m scared of heights.” He said, peeking down with all his body in contact with the ground.
“You’re dumb, you know that?”
She couldn’t help but keep staring at him. Apart from the tanuki, how many actually visited here? The town far beyond, even though it always looked lively, felt more like a mound of ants to her in terms of company.
“I’m flying you there.” She said.
“Can’t we walk?”
“I’m not going to spend hours of my day I could have spent sleeping for your sake. We’ll get there in a minute or two by air.”
With a firm grip on the back of his clothes, she raised him to his feet, and then hugged him from behind.
“Don’t move about and you won’t fall.” She said. In response, the boy gripped tightly onto her arms by his torso. Though he did not say a word, she soon noticed how he stared almost catatonic at the heights in front of him. Scared out of his mind, no doubt.
Then, she extended her wings, and took flight.
“You can leave me there.” He said, pointing down below to the border of the town.
The flight had not lasted long. So close was the town that just by gliding she reached it. She flew lower and lower, until they both set foot on the road.
“Thank you, miss.” He said, taking a few steps forward and turning around to look at her. “What is your name?”
“Name’s Kevin. I’m gonna visit.”
“Nuh-uh. I’m visiting you.”
She couldn’t complain further, for the boy ran off into town.
Thoughts of her calm life up in the mountains ending flooded her mind. The tanuki was already bad enough of a visitor but, at the same time, if company was unavoidable, at least it was him instead of random robbers. Maybe she could scare him off next time? No, it’d look forced after what she did for him.
Twenty years already since her birth, and still lived in the same cave as ever before. Passed down by her mother, and her mother’s mother, and her mother’s mother’s mother, and so on eternally.
That, or it was a fancy tale her mother made up. This cave didn’t really look all that fancy for one inhabited for generations. Not that comfortable either. Maybe she found it a year or two before she gave birth? There wasn’t even enough space for all the treasure she would’ve imagined generations gathered, much less the amount of treasure to actually take up that limited space.
“Ey, wake up.” Called a voice, just as she felt something poking her cheek. When she opened her eyes, she found Kevin poking at her with a branch, crouching in front of her.
Annoyance. She puffed out a flame his way, making him jerk back, though with a smile that annoyed her even further.
“You’re doing this on purpose!” She said.
“Doing what?” He asked, feigning ignorance so blatantly it felt more like taunting.
“You know what!”
“No I don’t.”
“Coming this early!”
“Okay, I’ll leave and return another time.” He chuckled, standing up and turning around to walk off.
He didn’t come too many times a month. What, four or five maybe? The distance, added to her reluctance to leave her cave comparable to his reluctance to abandon his town, created an uncomfortable situation.
“Ah, I almost forgot.” He said, stopping in his tracks and sinking one hand into his pocket. “I got a gift.”
“Ta-da.” He said, taking out a shiny stone and showing it high. Her eyes began shining as much as the stone, almost hypnotized. She could immediately identify that precious stone: a sapphire. A gem. “Took me a bit of work, but I managed to buy it. Like it?”
“…Give.” She said. Kevin smirked at how she said it, attention focused entirely on it, standing up with arms slightly pointed forward while stepping closer and closer.
He extended his open palm with the sapphire towards her and, just as she was about to grab it, closed it and pulled back, much to her dismay.
“I went through a lot of trouble to get it.” He said. “I think I should get something in return for it.”
Though her expression showed annoyance, a devious grin grew nigh-instantly before she pounced on him, throwing him onto the ground with her lying on top. Kevin gave her the sapphire and lied back comfortably, as much as the ground could give in terms of comfort, and looked at her eye the gem now in her hands with wonder fitting that of a child.
“How much did you go through for this?” She couldn’t help but ask.
“Remember a year ago, when I said I’d get you something special?”
“I started saving up and taking odd jobs for it at that time.”
Though she stared on and on at the sapphire, soon she returned her eyes to his, leaving the sapphire on the ground next to them and placing one hand on his chest while resting her head on the other.
“Hey.” She said, smirking.
“I love you.”
His smile growing wider, he brought her hand to her cheek and caressed it. “…I’ll never get tired of you saying that.” He said, then brought her head closer for a kiss.
He took his time, didn’t he? He should’ve been here time ago. Days ago.
Her desire to see him despite his delay led to her spending her time outside the cave, if only to see him coming at whatever time he decided to come. All she did in the meantime was play with the small sapphire, moving it about, letting the sun’s light shine through it and cast a colorful, shiny shadow over her skin and clothes as blue as the gem itself. At least the weather allowed it, without clouds to blot out the sun, and no wind to make it too cold to spend hours and hours outside.
But he never came.
She could see the town from where she sat. Day after day, hour after hour, too far to see anything, the town only remained in the plains as a small reminder to her: he lived there.
She had no idea why he stopped coming. Difficulties? No, he even came around when a blizzard of all things struck, and it didn’t even faze him. Nothing would stop him, so he must’ve decided to not come of his own accord. She wasn’t annoying, was she? Why would he stop? Did she do something wrong? Thinking about it, she remembered the first time he visited, thinking she could scare him off, yet choosing not to.
He didn’t think she didn’t want to see him, right?
Paranoia floated about. If nothing else, she could visit him instead to see what happened.
It’s been a while since she last visited. Last time, she didn’t know his name. Maybe back then they didn’t even know she existed. Would they talk about her now? Kevin always walking out to visit her must’ve sparked a rumor or two, no doubt. what could they view her as now?
No use dwelling on it, she thought as she stood up with a sigh. It’d be hard to find him, seeing as she didn’t even know where he lived, but she could ask around at least.
Just like last time, she glided and landed at the border of the city that pointed to her cave. Yet, first thing she saw outside at the main road going in were a few men armed with spears, armored in chainmail, sitting and lazing about on top of a few crates by the side of the road. Town watch, maybe? There weren’t any last time. Had something changed? The town got popular or something?
But just as much as she looked in confusion, the men stared right back. One of them, sitting at the top of the pile of crates, stared long-faced while holding a half-eaten apple, having stopped chewing as soon as she landed. At that instant, the guard sitting next to him on a crate below hit him in the leg, gaining his attention.
“Ey, Fred,” said the one who hit him in the leg, “shouldn’t we do something?”
“They aaaaain’t paying me enough to deal with a dragon.” He replied, starting to chew again. “Fuck it. If you ignore it maybe it’ll go away.”
She spent a second thinking, then began stepping closer to the pile of crates.
“You’re on your own.” Said the one next the apple eater, before rushing off away. The other, annoyed followed him with his eyes with a frown. Afterwards, as soon as she stopped in front of him, he returned his eyes to her.
“I’m looking for someone.” She said.
“Guy that looks twenty. Dark hair, blue eyes. My height-“
“And acts like a cheeky fucking cunt all the time?”
She blinked near-catatonically, taken by surprise. “…Yes. How did you know?”
“General told us to keep an eye on him around a week ago. Lives three blocks from here, right side, some tiny house that barely fits one person in sandwiched between an inn and a blacksmith. You won’t miss it.”
“I uh… Thanks, I guess.”
“Yeah, sure.” He said, voice muffled by the mouthful of apple he chewed.
Without much regard to whatever else those men were doing, she walked off into the town.
First block, second block. Third block. Always looking to the right side of the road. Soon she saw the sign outside and the hammering noises giving away the blacksmith’s place. Next she saw the inn, surprising her as how she missed his house entirely. A careful look afterwards, she found how his house was far, far tinier than she had thought; it was barely wide enough to accommodate the door! She had mistaken it for some sort of side door for the blacksmith or the inn. Surely it was bigger inside, as not even a bed would fit in.
There was a paper stuck on it, though. Curious, she stepped closer and began reading. At least her mother taught her how to read and write.
‘The man ‘Kevin McLaden’, under suspicion of sympathizing with a monster, has been taken under custody of The Order and the 190th Army. Any and all who have business with him will be able to reach him in the town center for the time being until further notice.’
‘The Order?’ she thought. 190th Army. So that’s why Kevin never returned.
It didn’t make sense. Nothing made sense. If The Order was here, then surely the situation would’ve changed from monsters still walking around freely almost ignoring the soldiers of the army and vice versa.
“You’re not from here, are you?”
When she turned around, she found that such words had been directed at her, words that came from an armored man in chainmail and surcoat, and a great helm hanging by his hand. Looked like a knight, with his sword sheathed and tied to his belt. Blonde of somewhat medium hair, blue eyed, and a short seemingly-unkempt stubble of the same color as the top of his head. Looked tired, or annoyed in his gaze, maybe both, but she couldn’t tell.
“Uh, no.” She answered.
“How did you get past the guards?”
“Huh? The guards didn’t do anything.”
One of his eyebrows rose in confusion, then turned his head in the general direction of the guards at the edge of the town while frowning. Then, he looked back at her.
“Woe is me to think they’d do anything to anyone, let alone a dragon. What are you doing here?”
“I’m looking for him.” She answered, pointing with her thumb over her shoulder behind her, right at the door with the paper on it.
“Eh, him… I can take you to him. Better than just aimlessly walking around this pit people call town.”
“What? Really? Even though I’m supposedly the monster the paper’s referring to?”
“…Who are you?”
Suddenly, silence, with only the birds chirping and the general noise of the town. Then, she took a step back, though at that instant, Lysandros started wheezing, suppressing a laugh that tried to break through his grin.
“You really think he was arrested for being a monster sympathizer? The hundred-ninetieth would only care about monsters if there was gold to be offered.”
“Okay listen to me because I’m not feeling like wasting my entire day here. I don’t care. The hundred-ninetieth doesn’t care. Monsters walk about and nobody gives a damn, and I sure would have done something if I cared. Your guy was arrested because he annoyed the general a little too much so he looked for an excuse to return the favor. Want me to take you to him or not?”
“W-well… Uhhh… Sure, I guess.”
He turned and walked off, and soon she followed behind. “You’ll need to see General Castor first. He has the keys to where your guy is.”
“The general? Won’t this go awfully?”
“It will if you try being half as annoying as that guy, which shouldn’t be physically possible. Just enter the room, present yourself, and say why you are there. Easy enough.”
Without delay they reached the town hall. Lysandros led her inside past the door, through the hallway, and then reached another door which he knocked on. A second later, he opened the door, and nodded at Draika to come in. After she stepped inside, he followed.
She could see the general clearly, sitting behind a desk, sunken in his chair, sporting a thick moustache that almost twirled at the ends, and his eyes slightly darkened by the shadow cast by his helmet. Yet, his expression showed nothing but unamusement, as if he had been born old already.
“General Caster– Carlos– Uh… Castor. I’m Draika, and I’m looking for Kevin McLaden.”
“Sure.” Replied the general.
But nothing happened.
“Yeah?” Said Draika.
“Yes.” Said Castor.
“I’m looking for Kevin!”
“The alleged monster sympathizer, Castor.” Lysandros said.
“Him? Eh. Lysandros, is she with you?”
“Alright.” With a swift movement, he grabbed the keys from his pocket and threw them at Lysandros, how caught them in his hand. “Stay with her. Make sure mister Sillius Soddius doesn’t run off.”
“You know better than anyone I’m not fist-fighting a fucking dragon if she’s involved.” He said, ranting as he turned around and left. Draika, with deep worry and confusion in her expression, silently followed Lysandros out.
“You look like you saw a ghost.” Remarked Lysandros, noticing how, all the way from the town hall through the streets in which they now walked, she kept staring slightly down in worry and confusion. “Not the good kind.”
“I don’t get it.”
“You’re a paladin, right?”
“Last I checked, I was.”
“And I’m a dragon.”
“That’s a very astute observation.”
“And this army is part of The Order.”
“In a sense.”
“Why are monsters running around? Why are you doing nothing? Isn’t The Order supposedly against monsters? What’s going on anymore?! I know I haven’t seen The Order with my own eyes till now, but I kept hearing nothing but the opposite to this!”
“Even the general of an Order army didn’t bat an eye to me!”
“It’s because you talked to the general of the hundred-ninetieth.”
“You keep saying that number, and I still have no idea how that’s relevant.”
“It’s a penal army.”
“A penal army.”
“Repeating the same thing doesn’t help.”
“We’re all a bunch of clinically retarded misfits thrown together into an army because we weren’t even worth wasting space in a cell. Nobody cares about anything but payment and nobody wants to do anything that requires effort.”
“So… you’re a criminal?”
“You really think they’d bunch up eight thousand criminals and give them weapons and a bit of training? No. Just slight offenses still too grave for a slap on the wrist.”
“And the general? Is he some sort of warden for you all?”
“No, he’s the same as us.”
“What happened for you to end up here, then?”
“I was hunting a monster that infiltrated the capital; an abhorrent, disgusting, smelly abomination that none could bear to even look at. Eventually I found it. Turns out it was just the king’s mother visiting, and she was no monster at all, she was just ugly as sin. I got thrown here because of that.”
Draika couldn’t help but suppress a chuckle.
Just then, they arrived to the door of a building. Lysandros put the key in and turned, opening it and stepping inside with Draika following close. A small prison, Draika noticed in an instant.
“Ey, Sillius Soddius.” He called out loud.
“Here to read me a belated bed story?” A voice afar asked equally as loud. Unmistakable for Draika, the voice was that of Kevin, making her eyes shoot wide open.
“This is exactly the kind of shit that got you in this mess.” Ranted Lysandros, walking further to where the voice spoke, till he stopped in front of a cell and nodded aside for Draika to step up. She followed, and soon stood in front of the bars.
There he was. Kevin, lying on a bunk bed with his head resting under his hands, raising his head to see who it was, yet as soon as he saw Draika he grew a grin.
“Fancy weather we’re having, eh?” He said.
Though before her eyes had been wide open, now they fell half-closed, annoyed, with a frown becoming apparent. “I get the feeling you were put here for some other reason.”
“Looks like someone had his knickers in a twist.”
“Castor put him here because he was being too much of an annoying piece of shit.” Said Lysandros. “The monster sympathizing was a half-assed excuse.”
“Any chance you could let him go?” Asked Draika.
“How long will he be here for?”
“A good while. Until we leave in a month or two. Do what you want and find me outside, I can’t even look at this smug bastard.”
Before she could say anything else, Lysandros headed off. She followed him with her eyes, till he escaped her view. Then, she looked again at Kevin, who stood up and walked to the bars between him and her.
“Sorry about it.” He said, his smile ever present. “You must’ve been awfully worried.”
“Imagine how worried I was if I decided to get here myself.” She answered, returning the smile. “I saw your house.”
“Is that why you were never as annoying as I’d have imagined in getting me to move with you?” She asked, crossing her arms.
“How do you even live there? Looks like it couldn’t even accommodate a bed.”
“It’s just a small hallway with a staircase leading to a room a floor above. It has more space there, but it’s still not as big as I’d wish it was. Working at the blacksmith next to it doesn’t leave you with enough money to get something better.”
“…And you bought that sapphire instead? Are you dumb?”
“Don’t lie.” He said, turning his smile to a devious grin and moving closer to her, to the point only the bars stopped him. “I saw how much you liked it. You were all over me after that.” He said. Draika uncrossed her arms, blushing, yet couldn’t bring herself to step back. “Literally.”
“D… Doesn’t change what you did.”
“You wouldn’t leave that cave even if I tried as much either way, so I got something that made us both happy. Am I dumb for it?”
Draika didn’t answer.
“Well, seeing as I’m stuck here…” He said, walking off from the bars and strolling to the bunkbed he then threw himself onto. “You’ll have to visit me in the same manner I visited you. Seems fair, right?”
“I’ll find a way to get you out of here.”
“I’ll be waiting, then. Worst case scenario, it’s just waiting.”
“I don’t trust you enough to not piss them off further to the point they let you die here.”
“You could just break me out.”
“And have the entire army that controls this town chase after you? I’ve been living in a cave most of my life and I still think I know better than you.”
“I was only pretending to be retarded.”
A day later…
“That’s the point. They sent us here not to attack, or defend, or anything an army would do.” Said Lysandros as he walked through the streets with Draika beside him. “Who’d be a madman enough to trust a penal army with things a real army would do? They instead have us just occupy this town for a few months and collect the taxes before leaving.”
“So as soon as those months pass, you’re leaving?” She asked.
“In a sense. We’re supposed to collect a set amount of gold, so if we suddenly got it tomorrow we’d leave that instant.”
The idea of her treasure hoard used as payment popped into her mind, but just as fast as it arrived, it left. Only time was needed, and it’d be a good way to get back at Kevin. Surely he’d be safe in the coming months.
“Changing topics, I remember you said you were hunting a monster that ended up getting you stuck here. You hunted monsters, right?”
“I’m a paladin. That’s pretty much my thing.”
“Why are you not hunting monsters if you’re here with the hundred-ninetieth in a town filled with monsters?”
“Want me to start? There’s a dragon right next to me, after all.”
“The Order thought I was slipping off the edge to the point I’d risk thinking humans are monsters in disguise. They sent me here with explicit orders not to kill monsters, and instead try to… you know, be around them and try my fullest not to snap. They figured that if I succeeded I’d be less inclined to stab first and ask questions later. At least that’s what they told me. For all I know the bastards made all of that up and just wanted to throw me somewhere.”
“Ah, so that’s why then.”
“Why you and I were talking this normally.”
“I’m really trying to pretend you’re a human right now. Not like it’s that difficult though, considering we hunted monsters that behaved like rabid dogs compared to you and this town. It’s why the hundred-ninetieth isn’t doing anything either despite being part of The Order.”
“Paladin Lysandros!” Called out a panting voice, coming closer and closer with the sound of running footsteps. Lysandros and Draika turned and looked back, finding a soldier running up to them, then rested his hands on his knees slouched over, breathing erratically, wheezing, head down trying to catch his breath. “Gah… That’s what I get for being a lazy piece of shit…”
“What?” Asked Lysandros.
“Paladin Lysandros,” said the soldier, standing upright again, “general Castor wants your presence. He says it’s urgent.”
“Right. I’ll be there.”
The soldier returned to panting, placing one hand over his chest, and walked away.
“You coming?” Asked Lysandros.
“General Castor,” said Lysandros, crossing the door to the general’s room. “you called?”
However, just as Draika stepped in, she noticed another person in the room apart from the general. A monster. Bushy tail in ringed pattern, a leaf over her head, and fur at the bottom of her legs that looked like gigantic spheres with a little rope ribbon on each.
That happy merchant. That tanuki. Last time she saw it was in her cave, and here she was again with her ever-present smile.
“We might be le–” Said Castor, though soon her eyes found Draika with him. “…Are you having an affair with her?”
“Oh piss off.” Answered Lysandros. “Why did you call me?”
“Either way. We might be leaving this place in less than a week. This tanuki here offered us the amount of gold we were here to get.”
“In exchange of what?”
“Sillius Soddius. Kevin. Whatever you want to call him.”
“WHAT?!” Shouted Draika, eyes shooting wide open in stupefaction, just able to raise her hands in utmost confusion. So loud was her shout, that Castor and Lysandros couldn’t help but stare silent for a moment.
“I’ll need to consider it.” Said Castor to the tanuki.
“I have the time. I’ll be back in a week.” Said the tanuki, soon turning and leaving through the door, eyeing Draika a she walked past, not without Draika returning a furious stare.
Then, her stare returned to Castor.
“You’re selling Kevin like that?!”
“No. That’s why I said I needed time to consider it.” He said, sinking further into his chair. “You seem to like him very much. If you can present me a better deal, he’s all yours. Otherwise… Well, I want to get out of the hundred-ninetieth as soon as possible. You understand what I mean.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“I don’t know. I’m just giving you the chance to work something out. I’m giving you a week.”
She couldn’t say a word, just stare and stare at him, indignated. Then, she turned and ran out, giving chase to the tanuki.
Furious steps followed outside into the streets, till she saw that pattern-tailed monster in clear sight. Closer and closer she ran, until at the point she almost caught up, the tanuki turned her head and looked at her from the corner of her eyes, her smile never erased for even a second.
“You!” Said Draika, stopping just next to her.
“Ah, I knew you were going to come find me.”
“I don’t think I’ve presented myself fully, in those times.” She said, turning around fully and facing her. Then, she bowed in greeting, one hand extended aside and the other over her stomach. “You may call me Stephanie in the following deals we’ll make.”
“What do you want Kevin for?! Weren’t you going to stop coming last time?!”
“I don’t want him.”
“Then why are you trying to buy him?!”
“Not picking up the clues, are we? I will own him just to sell him later. ‘To who?’, you may ask. Well, to you.”
A frown sparked in Draika’s face, just as she grit her teeth.
“You want my hoard.”
“I admit I underestimated your intelligence at first. Still, I’m a generous girl, so I’ll only charge you half of what you have if you hand it to me now, and I’ll leave. Otherwise, I’ll have to charge you full price once mister Castor grants me ownership of Kevin. Fair, no?”
“What a shame. You have a week.”
As cheerful as she ever was, she turned around and walked off. Draika, unable to react, just watched as the tanuki left, her tail moving side to side with each step taken.
Three days passed. She couldn’t come up with anything. No solution presented itself, which showed in her face as she walked through the street, gloomy and down.
In due time, she reached the small prison, door already open. Didn’t look like the town was unstable enough to close it; the cells even looked like they had not been used in years. The door creaked open as she pushed it, with a silence within that echoed her steps as she walked to Kevin’s cell.
There she found him again, lying on the bunk bed, staring out the bars to her with a smile. The distinctive noise of her clawed feet always gave away her presence to him.
“Well hello hello.” He greeted, not standing up.
“You’re always so awfully cheerful.” She said. The fact that she had not told him of the tanuki yet weighed heavily on her, even moreso seeing his smile that she knew would die in an instant otherwise. “Was you house so bad to live in compared to this?”
“It’s not that.”
“I don’t know what to aim for.”
“Come on, give it a try.” He said, standing up and slowly walking to the bars.
“You get to annoy Castor and Lysandros whenever the come around?”
“Nobody comes here, except for one old man that brings me food and water.”
“Surely it is. Maybe there’s a reason why I’m not depressed all the time.”
“I give up.”
“It’s because you visit me every day.”
The words struck her by surprise, leaving her staring without a word to say.
“Back then, I visited you like twice or thrice a month.” He continued. “Those mountains are hard to climb, you know. Here we are now, seeing each other every day.”
A smile slowly yet steadily grew in her face, till she could hold herself no longer, and snuck her arms through the bars and embraced him. He returned the embrace, and though the bars between them felt nothing but uncomfortable, none cared enough.
“I saw you gloomy when you came here. Yesterday, too. Anything happened?”
“Yeah, something happened.”
Draika let go, and took a step back, looking at Kevin in the eyes.
“The army will stay here until they take the gold they want, then leave. A tanuki came three days ago, and offered them that much gold in exchange of… you.”
Though his smile remained, as if petrified, it soon died down to an expressionless face.
“What?” He asked.
“I was there when she talked to Castor. She said she’d return in a week for an answer.”
His expression then shifted. He frowned, though instead of sorrow or anger, he showed focus. Soon he stepped back and sat on the bed, staring off aimlessly, thinking.
“I never saw a tanuki in my life. I don’t think she even knows me.” He said. “Why me?”
“She told me that if I gave her my treasure hoard, she’d leave and never return.”
“…Ah, right. Can never trust those things, huh? Have you thought of something?”
“I can break you out.”
“You and I both know it won’t work.”
“The army will chase after us. I’m their ticket home, after all.”
“You can come live with me in the mountains. I lived there all my life, it won’t be hard to accommodate another. We could live together.”
“And abandon this town? Draiky, as much as you want to stay there, I want to stay here too. Who’s to say they won’t chase you either? They’d have months to do that, and you live close by.”
Draika, lowering her head, sighed in agony.
“What should I do? I don’t want to give her my treasure, but I don’t want to lose you either.”
“I can’t say anything.”
“If I told you to give her your treasure, I’d be implying that I care more about my own hide than that which you care about. If I told you not to, I’d be saying that I’d be alright with never seeing you again.” He said. A pause followed, in which he brought his hands to his head and rested his elbows on his knees. “Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. You’ll have to answer that on your own. I’m sorry.”
Footsteps alerted the two of them.
Nobody had any reason to come here. Save for them, it had been deserted, empty, without other prison cells to attract visitors. Kevin’s face rose up, and Draika turned hers. Though Kevin could not see, Draika immediately saw him stepping in, every step of his followed by a quiet rattling of chainmail. Lysandros.
“I see Sillius Soddius is still here. I hope you’re not trying to break him out.” He said, slowly yet firmly walking up to Draika, steps echoing aloud by virtue of no other noise present.
“I would have broken him out time ago if I needed to, you know.” She said, just as he arrived in front of her.
“I am aware. I am not here for that, though. I want to talk about that tanuki from time ago. I’m sure you have a few things to tell.”
“…Didn’t you want to get out of here?”
“I’m still a paladin. I’m still a monster hunter. It’s strange that she’d want to buy this guy for no apparent reason. That a tanuki is involved is a dead giveaway that something’s awfully wrong, and I want to know what.”
“I know what she really wants. She wants what I have in my cave, my treasure. She told me outside that if I gave it to her, she’d leave and never return.”
Lysandros frowned and tilted his head slightly. “So it’s not a myth that dragons are a bunch of kleptomaniacs? Huh, learn something new every day…”
“Not in the mood.”
“Like I’d care. Moving on, it looks like she knows you more than just first impressions. You two met before?”
“Many times before I met Kevin. She always tried to get me into some deal that involved me giving her all of my treasure for something I didn’t even understand a single thing about. I’m wise to those tricks, if only because my mother warned me of them.”
Lysandros, frown unchanging, raised his hand and scratched his chin. His nails scraping against his hair made an apparent noise in the silence.
“I get the feeling she’ll rip us off.” He said.
“Really? Can you help us, then?”
“I still want to get out of this place as fast as possible. Priority is to get the gold we need and get out. I’m not going to help a monster all of a sudden, you know. Say, you said you had a treasure–“
“Don’t even think about it.”
“Oh, just you try to fucking stop me. I’m thinking about it right now.” He said, grinning, lowering his hand.
Draika said nothing, instead stared visibly angry.
“So? I could go and see how much what you have is worse, take what we need, and Sillius Soddius here will be all yours. Contrary to that tanuki, you can trust that I won’t lie, since I hate being here as much as I hate that cheeky fuck.”
“Thanks.” Said Kevin.
“It wasn’t a compliment.” Lysandros replied, turning his head to see him.
“I’m still taking it as one.”
“See what I mean?!” He said to Draika, visibly annoyed, extending an arm pointed at Kevin. “Do you think I’d want to keep him around?!”
Contempt showed in her face, though soon she raised her head up and looked at the ceiling, giving out a loud, rough sigh.
“You’re all a bunch of assholes, you know that?” She said.
“That’s exactly why we’re stuck in this shitty army. Damn, you’re dense.”
“…Hold on. If that tanuki tries to rip you off and Castor rejects her deal, and I don’t give him my treasure, does that mean I can just wait until he collects the taxes and leave?”
“He’ll certainly be annoyed, but… Do I get to punch Kevin in the face?”
“What?!” Shouted Kevin, jumping to his feet and gripping the bars, staring at Draika in disbelief.
“Almost tempted to tell that tanuki to sod off.” Continued Lysandros, staring at Kevin from the corner of his eyes. Then, he returned his sight to Draika. “I’ll keep an eye out for that tanuki when she returns. You should figure something else out in the meantime.”
Draika nodded. Lysandros turned, and walked out of the prison, with his steps echoing just as much as when he entered.
Three more days later, in the last day…
“My feet hurt.”
“Why are we here?!”
“Wish I was back home.”
“We could have waited till this snowfall ended.”
“Lysandros, you stupid shit, couldn’t you have picked another group?!”
“Everyone, shut the fuck up before I kick you off the cliff! Cart and all!” Ranted Lysandros aloud to the detachment of a hundred that followed them up the hill to Draika’s cave, accompanied by an empty cart.
Silence suddenly befell them after his words. Draika couldn’t help but glance at Lysandros, both at the head of the formation, who returned a shrug upon noticing.
“Are they always this… I don’t know how to describe it.” She said.
“Undisciplined? Stupid? Childish?” Replied Lysandros.
“No, but you know what I mean.”
“Yeah, usually. Can’t blame them. It’s not like they chose to be here. Telling them you’d give us the gold needed to get out didn’t help.”
Draika let out a sigh. “I just want this to be over.”
Forward and upward they walked the slopes of the mountain, until the cave entrance finally came into sight. A few sighs of relief here and there came out of the detachment.
Yet, when they walked up to the entrance with the cart following them, Draika and Lysandros saw a few men inside. So did the rest of the detachment as they arrived together. The massive noises of their footsteps alerted those inside, who just stared petrified in the same manner those of the 190th did.
“Nobody was supposed to be here.” Said Draika.
“Don’t let them run!” Shouted Lysandros to the detachment.
But the detachment didn’t do anything. They just looked at each other, muttered, coughed a bit, and gave a general sight of discomfort and doubt.
“…Double rations to everyone if none escape!”
The once calm and demoralized detachment immediately turned into a rabid mob that ran full speed into the cave almost blindly, with each and every single man screaming at the top of their lungs like beasts. The earth shook, dust and snow kicked up from the ground, and the snowflakes that fell looked as if they were sucked into the cave by sheer force of the men’s running. Draika could not believe her eyes, staring catatonic without reaction, without blinking.
When the mob had run in fully, she saw Lysandros calmly walking in. She shook her head in an effort to snap back to reality from the shocking sight, and followed in.
“They’re useful when you talk their language, no?” Said Lysandros to Draika.
They walked up to a pile of men. An actual pile, standing as tall as he was. Quickly the men got down little by little, until those at the bottom dogpiled on the intruders stood up, restraining them, brought forward to Lysandros.
“Which one of you is in charge here?” He asked.
“I am.” Said one of them. Immediately, Lysandros walked up to him, Draika following closely.
“The only thing stopping me from offering triple rations to whoever can come up with the worst to throw at you is the answers you can give me. Who are you, and why are you here?”
“Name’s Richard. I’m second in command of the mercenary company our contractor hired and sent here. We were tasked with securing whatever was here and taking it to our contractor, though we were told there’d be nobody here at this time.
Lysandros threw a glance at Draika. “Weren’t you supposed to use this to pay her?”
“I was…” She said, looking down, confused. “This was going to be hers in exchange of Kevin, but… Why would she– …That fucking bitch!”
“I’m not wise to economics. What did I miss?”
“She’s going to buy Kevin from Castor, steal my treasure, and then hold him hostage from me to extort whatever she likes!”
“…Damn, that’s cold.” He said, before turning to the mercenary. “You said you’re second in command. Where’s the leader?”
“With the rest of the company accompanying out contractor. This was just a small group with another task.”
“How many of them are in this ‘company’?”
“That many? What are three thousand people going to do?”
“They’re arriving later today to make sure a deal goes right. Don’t know the details.”
“Why is a second in command leading this small group here?” Draika asked.
“Someone loyal has to keep these guys from running off with this amount of gold, right?”
“Alright!” Shouted Lysandros to his men. “Those of you restraining the mercenaries, we’ll take them to Castor! The rest, stay here and guard this place!”
The ones with the mercenaries walked off to the cave exit. Draika followed, and so did Lysandros, but something felt wrong with him.
The realization fell upon him. The men were too calm, accepting the order to guard a treasure without complaint.
“Don’t fucking think about stealing any of it either!” He shouted while turning back and pointing a finger, much to the fright of those who began surrounding the mountains of gold. “You’ll be searched when I come back, and if I find a single thing, you’re gonna starve for weeks!”
Desperation sank in as Castor quickly rummaged through every drawer, every bookcase, every single piece of furniture that could contain any type of paper. Those papers he came across that he didn’t look for, he threw aside, leaving the room a mess. He had too little desire to reaccommodate open drawers, or even put them back after dislodging them with so much strength he pulled them out with.
But soon, he found it. A letter from time ago.
In the silence brought by his sudden inactivity, he heard footsteps coming from the hallway. They came closer and closer. There was no reason to go through this hallway than to meet him. His heart skipped a beat, realizing his helmet was not on his head, revealing his shiny, bald head. Quickly he reached for it, but found out that he lost it, for all the papers flying about covered the floor and any object lying on it. Quickly he threw the papers aside until he found the helmet and put it on, then he shot a stare at the door.
But they were already there, all of them staring at him through the doorway.
“You saw nothing.” He said, standing up fully. He then noticed the man he knew nothing of. “Who is he?”
“Yeah, about that, we got some bad news. A mercenary army of three thousand is coming on behalf of that fur ball that wanted to buy Kevin from us.”
“What? A mercenary army? What is she bringing an entire damned army for?”
“Nothing honest. We even caught their second in command trying to steal Draika’s gold. I’m telling you Castor, I keep losing the trust I never even had for that merchant.”
“You won’t need to trust her anymore.” He said, handing the letter to him. “I remembered something about that tanuki and found what I looked for. Read it.”
The room turned silent as Lysandros opened the letter and took a look, yet soon his whistling in awe broke through the quiet room.
“What’s that?” Asked Draika.
“A bounty on her head.” Answered Castor with a smile. “Whoever catches her gets enough gold to buy the title of duke if they wanted to. That thing must’ve pissed off the king really bad if he himself put that bounty. Say,” he turned to the mercenary, “you are the second in command, true?”
“True.” He answered.
“I have not presented myself to you yet. I am General Castor, of the hundred-ninetieth army of The Order. Are you open to a business deal this instant?”
“Depends on how much gold you are offering.”
“I want you to consider switching allegiances and helping us in capturing that tanuki. In exchange, we’ll share the bounty with you. Assuming what we share with you is not enough, we’ll pay you further down the line.”
The mercenary chuckled. “My company does not deal with people who don’t pay half upfront–“
“I’ll pay you with all the gold you saw in that cave.” Interrupted Draika, much to the surprise of Castor and Lysandros. More of a surprise to those two, Richard began considering it in silence.
“It’s more than what Stephanie offered…” He said. “But she can no doubt offer more.”
“Stephanie is already breaking a deal she and I had. I was supposed to be able to trade my gold in exchange that she leaves, and now she sent you to steal it. She stabbed me in the back. Can you expect her not to do the same to you?”
“Hm… Keep talking, you may convince me.”
“The tanuki won’t pay more than what she’d gain. She’s dishonest at her core, greedy, untrustworthy. How do you think she’ll react when you return saying that I put a price on her head and you actually considered it enough to extort more payment out of her?”
The mercenary fell silent, a silence that dragged on for a moment as his eyes opened wide, and his head lowered slightly.
“I’ll tell my superior.” He said. “I can’t promise it will work, but you did raise some good points. If it works, the tanuki is yours.”
Lysandros took him away with the two soldiers. Castor and Draika stared at them leave, and once gone, Draika let out a loud, rough sigh while hitting her head against the wall.
“Why are you upset?” Asked Castor, returning to the desk, picking up the papers he had thrown around in the meantime. “I’ll certainly send you a gift or two that makes up for that loss, if only because thanks to you that tanuki is here. Your treasure will be replaced tenfold.”
“Have you ever had something since you were little?” She said, keeping her head against the wall. “Have you seen it get better and better with hard work and effort year after year? Would you be fine with recklessly throwing it away, if there were mountains of other copies lying about?”
Castor stood silent for a second. “You have my condolences.”
Lysandros and Draika, both with their hands on the parapet, stared at the horizon from the height of the city walls, just an hour after meeting Richard. Over the seas of green flanked by great mountains, far away they saw the mercenary camp in place, just next to the dirt road that divided the scenery in two.
Along that road, from the camp’s direction, a few people marched. A human, a tanuki, and a dozen armed men.
“This won’t go wrong at all.” Muttered Lysandros, just before stepping away from the parapet and walking away. Draika barely caught glimpse of him leaving thanks to the sound of his footsteps, and quickly caught up with him.
“How would it go wrong?” She asked.
“We all die.”
“We have an army here. We outnumber them at least five to one, if I can gauge the number correctly.”
Lysandros started wheezing with laughter as he lowered his head, shaking it, much to Draika’s discontent. She couldn’t help but sigh, soon turning her head to glance around, seeing the men of the hundred-ninetieth running about, preparing for that sudden appearance of the mercenary army.
In due time, they reached the city hall, walking in until they reached Castor’s office.
“They’re here.” Said Lysandros, stepping in with Draika behind him.
Castor, silent, looked at the letter since before Lysandros had walked in, soon sighing.
“All or nothing.” He said, standing up and walking out.
“How will we know if the mercenaries will help us?” Asked Draika just as Castor walked past her, but she received no response, leaving her to follow them outside.
Two columns, a dozen men each, formed to the entrance of the city hall, all of the hundred-ninetieth. Castor, Lysandros, and Draika stepped out and waited by the entrance. At the same time, two more soldiers arrived with Kevin in shackles.
Though Draika glance at him, she quickly looked elsewhere when their eyes almost met. She couldn’t look at him in the eyes. He didn’t know of any plan, after all. Castor forbid her from telling him. ‘Has to look real’, he had said.
In the distance, through the street, the three could soon see the tanuki with her men arriving. When they reached the meeting point, the tanuki glanced at Draika, and Draika glanced back. Her devious smile turned Draika’s expression into a frown, gritting her teeth, with just her image alone provoking her anger. Yet, the tanuki walked up to her first.
“It’s unfortunate that you did not wish to accept my offer. It’s too late now, I suppose.” She said, before turning to Castor. “I am aware that it’s a day earlier than arranged, but a few unforeseen events made me decide to hasten my visit. Have you thought about the offer?”
“Yes.” Answered Castor. “I want an increase in payment, however. We still need to hand the proper amount of gold to The Order, which means I’d not be making a profit off the previously arranged amount.”
“I predicted such outcome,” said Stephanie, taking out a rolled paper from within her clothes and handing it to Castor, “so I took the liberty of arranging a new offer beforehand. You’ll find within the proper amount, the method of transportation, and all guarantees that you’ll receive it in full.”
Then, she turned again to Draika.
“I don’t usually hand additional chances like this, but I can sell Kevin back to you for the full amount of treasure you have in your cave. Not a single coin more. Should be affordable, no?”
Draika began grinding her teeth, her frown and grit never disappearing, instead growing greater in intensity. She knew very well the tanuki had sent Richard and his mercenaries. The tanuki probably thinks that Richard had been successful in stealing it. The audacity this tanuki had, to lie in her face!
“You should consider it.” She continued. “I can wait here. You can go and bring it all here even if it has to be little by little. I am a patient person.”
The effort needed to stop herself from releasing her pent-up anger on her became greater and greater with each passing second. Already she clenched both of her shaking fists. Too many tempting thoughts crossed her mind: punching her in the throat, setting her hair on fire, grabbing her by the tail and throwing her around… Even if she had said no words, her smile and her slowly wagging tail already worked enough.
The tanuki sighed. “There’s no hope for you, is there? How greedy, to care about your treasure more than Kevin-“
“Alright, listen to me you plutophiliac piece of shit!” Shouted Draika, taking a step forward and throwing her clawed finger towards her, making the tanuki step back in fright with eyes wide open and smile gone. All present immediately snapped their eyes at her, taken by surprise. “If you go any further with your testicular cancer you call legs, I’m going to wreck your shit so hard that you won’t even be able to walk with your nonexistent tits! I’m gonna shove my foot so far up your shaven perfect little ass that your face is gonna look like an aboriginal spiked luck charm! Then I’m gonna take every coin you have and shove them in your face hard enough to make Charon blush! I’m gonna flagellate you with my fucking tail! I’ll headbutt you until there’s nothing but a butt left! I’m gonna color your god-awful dress red using your bone marrow, you atrocious fucking boil on the face of reality!”
Once her words ended, not a single sound remained to be heard save for her panting. None dared say a word, only stare near-catatonic at Draika. Reactions, though mixed, all shared a degree of unimaginable surprise and horror, some soldiers even staring with mouths wide open.
When she realized what she had done, she quickly slammed her hands on her mouth shut.
“Yeah, no, I’m not pissing off a dragon. No deal.” Said Castor, handing back the paper to Stephanie, who could barely grab it in her shocked state. Soon, her shocked wore off replaced with anger and a loud grunt.
“You’ll regret this.” She said, turning around and storming off.
Richard and the mercenaries followed behind her.
“Oh my…” Said Lysandros.
At the same time, Kevin bursted out with laughter.
“Where did you learn that from? That doesn’t come naturally.” Asked Lysandros.
Draika blushed. Quietly, she lowered her hands. “My… My mom had a bit of anger issues…” She said in a low, embarrassed tone.
But then, her eyes shot wide open.
“The mercenary army! Stephanie will–“
“Calm down.” He interrupted. “They’re on our side.”
“How do you know?”
“While you were busy verbally tearing that tanuki apart for all to enjoy, Richard threw me a few subtle gestures. He’s with us.”
Stephanie pulled the cloth of the tent’s entrance, and walked in with Richard behind her. Her presence surprised the one inside, the captain of the mercenaries, a mountain of muscles that made Richard look like a stick, sitting at a great table in the middle. His gaze alone already showed his doubt on her return being too early to be normal.
“The deal failed.” Said Stephanie, pulling a chair at the opposite end and sitting down. Richard remained standing by the entrance. “I want the prisoner by the name of Kevin in my possession. I don’t care how.”
“Assaulting those walls will be suicide, will it not?”
“Then siege them! I don’t care what you have to do.”
“We were not paid enough to engage in a prolonged siege that could drag on for months, and we don’t have the equipment necessary to assault them even if I wanted to consider it in the first place.
The tanuki stared on, indignated, eyes half closed with no strength left to even get furious anymore.
“I paid for your services.” She said. “The contract did not specify that a siege was out of the equation. You have an army for a reason.”
“The amount offered does not outweigh the risks, and…” He said, soon standing up and slowly walking around the table towards her, something Stephanie could only follow with her eyes. “We found a new contractor. You’ll be of no use to us. Our deal is no more.”
Her eyes shot wide open. “I paid you a small fortune!”
Though her indignation skyrocketed to the level a furious outburst already seemed to be her next action, she became petrified when the captain placed one hand over her shoulder. Such was the difference in size between them, that his hand felt like a heavy gauntlet pressing upon her.
“And that gives you power over me…?” He asked. “Don’t hold a grudge, miss Stephanie. I’m merely practicing on you what you practiced on the common folk.”
She couldn’t believe her eyes, nor what her ears kept hearing. Her body refused to move. It all felt like a nightmare, enough to make her want to cry, but before she could even blink in reaction, Richard, from behind, violently forced a rope at her mouth to tie her up.
Castor, Draika, and Lysandros walked to the city’s gate, where columns of soldiers stood waiting by the sidewalks of the streets. Upon arriving, the gate opened for a few men outside the city.
Once they crossed in, they saw who it was. Richard, and four men carrying the tied up tanuki. All stared as they walked in and arrived to Castor.
“Our end of the deal is done. Up to you to not disappoint us, now.” Said Richard.
Castor glanced at the tanuki, still struggling against the ropes that immobilized her to no avail. A smile grew in his face upon seeing her.
“We got her!” He shouted aloud to the men.
All began cheering aloud in unison, without a single man left silent among those of the hundred-ninetieth. Swords, spears, and fisted were lifted in the air along with the cacophony that broke out.
Yet, Draika stared on at the tanuki, expressionless.
“Ey.” Called Lysandros, lightly hitting her in the shoulder and gaining her attention. “You don’t look that happy. That tanuki won’t be bothering you or anyone else, now.”
“I guess.” She said. After a moment of silence, she sighed. “If Kevin asks, I’m gonna be in my cave.”
“Aren’t you gonna pay Sillius Soddius a visit first?”
“Later, maybe. Wouldn’t want to have him put up with me as I am right now.”
Lysandros stared silent as she walked off, leaving through the gate that had opened for the mercenary.
“Lysandros!” Called Castor, snapping him back to focus. “Bring that letter the king gave us. It should be in the city hall somewhere.”
“Right.” He answered. “Lazy piece of shit…” He then muttered through his teeth, turning in the opposite direction and heading off.
Yet, halfway there he found Kevin walking through the streets. The thought to hide away just to not have to put up with him crossed his mind, though too late to do anything, for Kevin already saw him.
“Who let you out of your pen?” He asked aloud, walking up to him.
“Everyone’s getting ready to leave. The guard figured I’d stop annoying him if he let me go. Fun, huh?”
“And now you’re here to annoy all of us, right?”
“You wish. I’m trying to find Draika, wherever she is.”
“She told me to tell you she’ll be in her cave.”
“A better question is why you’re not chasing after her if you love her so much!” He shouted, walking past to his back and violently pushing him in the direction she left to. “Something’s up with her! Go!”
Soon, Kevin started running on his own, following his command. Lysandros stood quiet, staring till Kevin ran out of sight. A small sigh escaped his mouth, before he turned to the city hall and walked again.
What luck he had to decide to turn around and bring proper clothes for the climb first, for the weather up in the mountains never ceased to be cold. Already his breath showed past his scarf, walking up the slopes covered in snow, with the winds threatening to throw him aside. Step by step, with the ever present sensation of the snow crushed under his feet, he walked forward.
He finally reached the highest point of the slope, leading to a level path that connected to the cave entrance. A step in, and immediately he felt the wind hitting him no longer.
A glance around was all that it took for him to find her. There she was, Draika, sitting down alone in the cold of her cave. However, he immediately noticed what was missing; the treasure hoard. Without it’s glinting, without the reflection of the light that snuck in and struck it, without the space it took up like a small version of the mountains outside of gold instead, the cave turned into a cold, dull, and empty room. Too spacious, too dark, too lacking in what life it once had. It was just a cave, and nothing else.
Every step he took towards her echoed in the endless space within, until he arrived next to her and sat down. An eerie silence forced its way in, as not even the howling of the wind dared enter. Though Kevin looked at her, Draika could not return the glance, stuck staring aimlessly and expressionlessly at the ground.
“I knew it was too good to be true, that things would end without you losing anything.” He said.
“I gave it all to the mercenaries. They wanted to be paid upfront. All I had, I gave it to them, in exchange that they’d hand the tanuki to Castor. She’s gone, now. Forever, hopefully.”
Words could not leave her mouth, as much as it pained him to see her in such state. He couldn’t discern even a slight hint of sorrow in her face, as if she were a husk of her former self, holding no emotion. Catatonic, as if. Quietly, he brought his arm over her and pulled her closer, hugging her. Soon, she returned the embrace.
“You won’t leave me, right?” She asked in a lone tone. “Ha… Who am I kidding? I wouldn’t let you. If you go, I’ll go with you, I don’t care where. I won’t let anyone take you from me, even if it costs me my life. I had the choice to give up my hoard, or give you up. I never gave up my treasure, though. Want to know why?”
She paused in her words, hugging him tighter, closer to her, closing her eyes when a tear threatened to come out.
“Because you are my treasure.”
Though both said nothing, soon a chuckle escaped from both, holding each other as tightly as they could, keeping each other warm in the cold, dark cave.
“I didn’t lose everything, though.” She said.
She rummaged through her clothes with one hand, soon taking out a tiny object that she kept hidden within her hand. She brought it to Kevin and, when she opened her palm, he saw how it was the sapphire he had gifted her time ago.
“You still have it?” He asked, smiling. “I thought you gave it up, too.”
“I kept it close ever since you gave it to me. The mercenaries never saw it, and nor did the hundred-ninetieth. It’s mine, and only mine, because you gave it to me. I don’t care that it’s a gem. It could be a worthless rock covered in mud, and I’d still treasure it the same.”
After a moment of silence, Kevin let out a quiet, short laugh.
“Want me to tell you a secret?” He asked.
“What is it?”
“That thing, that sapphire, wasn’t supposed to be like that on its own. It was supposed to be encrusted into something else, something I couldn’t afford so I bought it separate. Want to know what that other something was supposed to be?”
He took the sapphire from her hand, turned her hand around, and placed it over one particular finger.
Though her stay in the city had been short, what little she learned allowed her to recognize what Kevin meant, making her eyes open wide as her face blushed a shade of scarlet. The tears that one threatened to come out snuck out at the same time her rising cheeks from a smile narrowed her eyes, a smile she could not even hope to hide. Joyful sobs soon followed, until, unable to contain herself, she threw herself over him, leaving them both on the ground hugging each other.35175 Views