Habit is a scary thing…
I remember that, in the first hours after meeting Akasha, I was scared out of my mind.
Then, I calmed down a bit, and for the next few days, while I resolved to maintain a certain distance between us, we managed to cooperate and communicate rather effectively.
But then, I started flirting with her more and more blatantly.
It’s only afterward that I remember that she’s a devil, and that, hey, I am risking my life by doing that. And even though I can feel a bit of cold sweat run down my back, each time I realize the danger of my actions, I can’t stop myself from doing it again and again.
To the point of sharing a bed with her last night.
Nothing happened afterward, but still… I’m seriously reflecting on my behavior.
It’s fine to seduce the innocent, sheltered daughters of human nobles and, um, expand their horizons a little, but a devil is a whole other thing. If someone had told me, a few weeks back, that I would one day be happy to sleep next to one of those creatures, I would have laughed. Loudly. And then, I would have stabbed that someone in the face.
Akasha’s not even all that attractive. Scars don’t bother me too much, usually, but she has more of them than my aesthetic sense would prefer. And she’s a bit too young, too. And a bit too cold and emotionless.
Am I attracted to her because she’s unfathomably strong?
I remember someone quoting to me that power was a great aphrodisiac or something.
Or maybe it’s just a century and a half spent wooing every woman who happens to strike my fancy. The reflex has been bred into my bones, so that I don’t even question it when my potential partner hails from a species of temperamental, mass-murdering lunatics.
…Yes, habit really is a scary thing.
I let out a small sigh and stop ruminating on my failings.
I put down the chopsticks into the empty plate in front of me and lean back into my chair, closing my eyes, letting the indistinct murmur of conversation filling the room wash over me.
It’s good to eat real food, after subsisting on nothing but freshly picked berries for the past two days.
I might look like an elf, but I certainly don’t share their distaste for meat. I like meat. I need meat. Vegetables and fruits alone aren’t enough to satisfy the demands of a body capable of shapeshifting. But the fortresses are far apart, and for someone with only a backpack, it’s too difficult to carry enough food to last the trip between them, so it can’t exactly be helped that I ran out.
The waitress comes around to my table to gather up the cutlery. I open my eyes and take a look at her. She’s obviously trying to focus on her work, but she keeps taking glances at my face, a slight blush creeping up her cheeks. That’s good. With Akasha never showing any reaction, I was starting to wonder if I’d somehow lost my charm, but arriving in this fortress has comforted me on that point.
“Is my order ready?” I ask to get the girl’s mind back on the right track.
She blinks and stammers an answer. “Y–Yes. The food you ordered has already been sent over to your carriage.”
I smile at her. “Perfect.”
This time, the blush climbs all the way up her ears. But I don’t want to tease this girl too much, or she might just drop the plates and cause some kind of commotion, so I just chuckle a bit at her innocence, drop some coins on the table, and leave the restaurant, satisfied, squinting against the glare of the sun.
I parted from Akasha almost two hours ago, now.
I’ve already bought everything I needed, including a horse, a carriage, some basic cargo and supplies.
I figured, if we’re going to pretend to be free merchants anyway, we might as well milk it for all it’s worth. Playing the act to that point should be enough to convince the guards of Jodene Fortress to let us enter without too much problem.
Indeed, all the information I’ve gathered tells me that, despite Jodene Fortress being the single most powerful and influential faction in the Planar Prison, the inspection at their gates are the least severe of the lot. I’m guessing it’s a show of confidence on their part. Something like, ‘We’re not afraid of any spies or infiltrators, so come right up.’
It seems their confidence is well-founded, however. It would take an alliance of all the other fortresses put together to fell Jodene Fortress, something that’s never happened before and is unlikely to ever do, considering all the internecine struggles always flaring up between them.
Well, the balance of power between the fortresses doesn’t exactly matter to me. As long as Akasha and I can take advantage of their confidence to enter the fortress unimpeded, it’s all good.
I walk through the marketplace toward the fountain.
Why is there a crowd gathering in front of that stall?
Since I can’t see Akasha by the fountain, I idly head over there to check what’s happening. I squeeze through the crowd until I can get a good look at the scene everyone is gawking at.
…And there she is.
It’s good that I found Akasha quickly, but… I really want to ask…
Why, exactly, is she bullying this poor fellow?
Akasha is looking down on a young man in armor kneeling in front of her. Her face is hidden underneath the hood of her cloak, and only her jet-black right hand can be seen, crushing the guard’s wrist right through his armor. But even though I can’t see her face, I can feel the ice-cold air hanging about her, and I curse under my breath.
I don’t know what happened, but she is definitely going to kill that man.
It won’t matter that there are a few hundred witnesses, or that she’s attacking a member of Islan–
Wait a second.
Those people aren’t members of Islandis Fortress’s army at all. The insignia on their armor is completely different. What’s more, I recognize it.
This is the sign of Jodene Fortress.
So it turns out Akasha did not, in fact, attack the soldiers of Islandis Fortress.
I’m so glad.
Hahaha. I was almost scared there for a minute.
It’s only a little bit of a problem that, instead, she attacked soldiers from Jodene Fortress, which is the one with the most powerful military, which is also our next destination. That’s right. Just a little bit of a problem.
No one is dead, yet.
And as long as no one is dead, the situation can be salvaged.
Should I step forward and try to mediate? But then, that will be the point of no return. I will be inextricably linked to that idiotic monster’s actions, whether I want to or not. As it is, if I just leave right now and strike out on my own, there might still be a chance for me to remain unnoticed.
Except I must have caught some attention, today, since I’ve been walking around under my real appearance. And, if people saw me, they might have seen Akasha walking next to me, and me talking to her and giving her money. There will definitely be witnesses.
And they’ll definitely investigate it.
Soldiers of Jodene Fortress getting attacked in Islandis Fortress, their greatest ally…
This’ll raise eyebrows. The wrong people will be interested. They’ll end up linking me to Akasha, no matter what. What’s more, it’s still too soon for me to perform any comprehensive shapeshifting. My body is still too unstable.
I stroke my chin in thought, my brain furiously jumping from one idea to the next, looking for a way out of this mess.
Before I can make a decision one way or the other, however, the old man who had been sitting behind Akasha, who I assume is the owner of the stall where everything’s happening, suddenly stands up and walks up next to her to plead for the young man’s life.
This is everything but a good idea.
Stop courting death, you old fogey. I suggest you turn around and obediently sit back down on your ass. Or run away, as fast as your legs will carry you – which most likely won’t be fast enough, but you can always hope.
But it seems the old fogey does indeed manage to convince her, after all. Akasha lets the young man go and takes the magic core that the old man is offering for his life.
…That girl is quite greedy, isn’t she?
Then, he asks for Akasha’s name.
And she completely ignores him.
At least, I think she does. I don’t get the impression that she transmitted her answer to him by telepathy. I think I would see some sign on the old man’s face, were that the case. A twitch of his eyebrows or dilation of his pupils, maybe. Or his head exploding, if she doesn’t lower the volume of her voice. Something like that, a little sign.
But, if I’m correct, if she really ignored his question, then that girl really has a gift for insulting people.
Giving your name when asked for it is the single most basic courtesy in the world. Even among mortal enemies, names are exchanged. Refusing to give your name is like slapping someone in the face and spitting in their eye and stomping on their foot and kneeing them in the groin all put together in a lovely package of contemptuous disregard.
I can hardly think of anything more insulting than that.
When Akasha walks away, the soldiers of Jodene Fortress seem like they’re going to surround her. Their faces are full of bloodthirst. Their eyes are burning with rage.
Courting death, courting death…
They were so close to getting out of this alive, too. Really, at this point, these morons can only blame themselves.
But then, unexpectedly, with just a single wave of the old man’s hand, all of them obediently fall back and let Akasha go past them unmolested.
…Who is that old man?
How could a simple stall owner from Islandis Fortress command the knights of Jodene?
This doesn’t make any sense.
…He does seem somewhat familiar, now that I get a good look at his face. But I don’t think we’ve ever met before. Did I see a picture of his face somewhere, perha–
I do remember where, exactly, I saw this old man’s face.
It was in a list of the few most notable people within the Planar Prison. Most of that list was little more than self-congratulating prattle, but there were pictures, which I consciously committed to memory, just in case they turned out to be useful.
Number one on the list was Lady Jodene herself, of course.
Number two was this old man.
Lady Jodene’s right hand.
Someone so old he only ever gives his age with a precision in the centuries, because decades have become negligible. But, despite his age – or maybe because of his age? – he is very, very strong. And crafty. Since Lady Jodene doesn’t usually act herself, Shen Lei is probably the most famous and successful general in the history of the Planar Prison.
All in all, he’s not someone you want to offend casually.
But why is a celebrated warrior like him selling magic cores in Islandis Fortress’s marketplace? Is he touched in the head or something? Doesn’t he have servants who can sell his spoils for him? Rumors said he was eccentric, but still…
Akasha has obviously no idea who it is she just snubbed, of course. She walks peacefully toward the fountain, ready to follow our arrangement to meet up there. I don’t detect any trace of awkwardness or flurry in her gait; it’s as unhurried and fluid and graceful as ever, despite the confrontation.
I reckon that, even if she knew who those people were, she would not have a single spare fuck to give.
That’s the impression I have of her, at least. Someone who can look down on the world and its generals and lords and kings and emperors with impunity because none of them can challenge her.
The privilege of the strong.
In the end, that’s all that matters, isn’t it? Who is the strongest?
Could Shen Lei have killed Ralgrermn and his team as effortlessly as Akasha did?
Maybe, but I’m not certain.
What I am absolutely certain of, however, is that Akasha was nowhere near serious when she butchered them. She went easy. Like an adult fighting a child.
All right, then…
I turn and start walking toward the fountain myself, following after Akasha.
She stops midway and turns around to look at me, clearly having discovered my presence, somehow. I put a smile on my face, and when I’m close enough for her to hear me without having to raise my voice, I ask, “Did you buy everything you wanted?”
“Good. Then, it’s probably best if we leave Islandis Fortress without delay.” I hesitate for a moment before continuing. “Are you confident you can kill the people you just met a minute ago, in case they attack us? That group of people in armor over there, I mean.”
She nods without hesitation.
I nod back and take her hand in mine, leading her around the fountain and toward the north gates of the fortress, where the carriage I purchased should be waiting for us, along with its cargo and our supplies. Akasha doesn’t resist my pull and follows obediently.
“All right. Good. What about that old man who gave you the magic core?” I ask. “Do you know anything about him?”
I knew that beforehand, but even so, hearing Akasha herself confirm it, my heart skips a beat.
I sigh and rub the bridge of my nose with my free hand.
Why do things always get more complicated all the time? Why did Akasha just happen to stumble on him right when his soldiers were there with him? What’s with this horrible luck? Are the heavens playing tricks on me?
“Is he stronger than you?”
There is no more hesitation or fluctuation in her voice than at any time before. It’s still cold and dead. Like a lake without any ripples disturbing its surface. Unexpectedly, I can’t even feel any kind of fighting spirit or anticipation or motivation for a soon-to-come great battle, either. Maybe I’m just too used to hot-blooded youths itching to fight everyone they meet and rising to every challenge. It feels unnatural to see someone so young, yet so dispassionate.
Actually, though I tend to forget it sometimes, she is a devil, isn’t she?
In my vocabulary, ‘dispassionate’ isn’t a word you could even remotely link to ‘devil’.
The devils I know of would be jumping for joy at the idea of fighting someone like Shen Lei.
Still, my worries have been addressed, so I stay silent until we reach the north gates. I don’t look around myself too obviously, but I still try to keep an eye out for anyone who might be following us.
And hello, there they are.
I don’t recognize their faces, and they’re not wearing any kind of distinctive clothing – they look like any one of the hundreds of civilians walking the streets – but those two men are definitely tailing us. It’s like they’re not even hiding it, really. They’re doing the bare minimum to avoid making it too blatant, but I very much doubt they’ve received any kind of training as spies or assassins. Judging from their physique and the way they hold themselves, they must be regular soldiers.
I glance down at Akasha.
I can’t see any sign of her having noticed our tail, but considering the sharpness of her senses, it’s unlikely I would notice something she did not.
Soon, the north gates arrive in our sights.
To their left, a long, low building stretches along the street, several carriages parked inside it at regular intervals. Numbers are painted upon wooden planks nailed above each compartment.
Still holding Akasha’s hand, I head for number 11.
There, an oni stableboy is combing the mane of a black horse already harnessed to a wooden carriage. A thick tarp covers the bed of the carriage, hiding the cargo beneath. This thing cost me almost all the gold and silver I had left from what I stole from Selma’s tailor shop, but it’ll be worth it if it can allow me to reach Jodene Fortress even a day earlier. Money is pretty easy to make for someone like me, in any case.
When I enter compartment 11, Akasha on my heels, the horse suddenly starts neighing loudly and stomping its hooves on the ground and shaking its head in a panic. The stableboy frantically hugs the horse’s neck, whispering in its ears, trying to calm it down, but it takes several minutes for him to manage it. Even then, the horse still seems twitchy, ready to spook at the first sign of danger.
I glance behind me at Akasha.
I completely forgot that animals don’t seem to like her much. Wild ones even bolt as soon as they see her, so I suppose this horse is behaving quite admirably, comparatively, maybe because it’s already used to the presence of people.
When the horse has finally calmed down, the stableboy, a bit out of breath, turns to me. As soon as I enter his sight, his body stiffens, his pupils contract, and his whole face turns beet-red.
“M–M–Miss? I–Is this your carriage?”
I toss him a small token with the number 11 carved onto it. “Indeed it is.”
The stableboy barely even reacts to the token flying toward him. He vaguely extends a shaky hand to try and catch it, but misses, and the token falls to the ground at his feet. The boy doesn’t even seem to notice and keeps staring at my face.
“D–D–Do you want to leave with it now?”
“U–Understood. I’ll get it ready, r–right away!”
“Thank you,” I say in a wooden voice, firmly keeping any semblance of a smile off my face, so that this kid will be able to focus on his work instead of me, otherwise we’ll be here all day. “We’ll wait for you outside, then.”
“Y–Y–Yes,” the stableboy says, fumbling blindly with the horse’s harness, his gaze still on me.
I let out a small sigh and lead Akasha back out into the street.
After a few moments spent surreptitiously searching for them, I notice the two soldiers tailing us, poorly hiding at the corner of some alleyway branching off the main street.
Really are a bunch of amateurs…
But I suppose they wouldn’t care if they’re discovered.
I turn to see Akasha gazing at them, too.
“No. Not yet. We should wait until they make the first move. Especially since we’re still inside the fortress.”
Akasha doesn’t respond, but she also doesn’t attack them, so I’ll interpret that as agreement.
After a few minutes, the stableboy leads the horse out of the building by the bridle, the wheels of the carriage clattering noisily against the cobblestones as it’s being pulled along.
Without waiting for the stableboy to become even more infatuated with me than he already is, I flick a silver into his hand and take the bridle from him. “Thank you. I’ll take it from here.”
The disappointment on his face is clear as day, but he eventually retreats a few steps, bowing politely.
I don’t pay any more attention to him and quickly lead the horse toward the gates, Akasha following a bit behind so as not to frighten the horse, without me needing to warn her about it. When we approach the gates, a guard stands up from his post, interrupting the conversation he was having with one of his comrades, and walks over to me. Before he can even ask for them, I hand over my identification papers, like this is a procedure I’ve done a thousand times already.
If everything goes as I expect, there shouldn’t be any problems. My documentation looks passably real, if you don’t look too closely, and since I now actually have a cargo, pretending to be a merchant won’t invite too much suspicion.
“Your name is… Yinan? One oni bodyguard. Transporting cotton, cloth, and tools to Jodene fortress. Tax already paid,” the soldier says in a bland voice as he reads, not even bothering to look up at me.
I nod. “That’s correct.”
The guard takes a glance at Akasha, sees the horn jutting out of her hood, then seems to completely dismiss her from his mind. He takes a few steps toward the bed of the carriage. “All right, let’s see it.”
I climb up the side of the carriage and flick off the tarp covering the cargo. Apart from the food and water piled in a corner, the rest matches the contents of the papers I handed to him.
Nothing too heavy, so as not to tax the horse and keep a good pace; nothing too voluminous, so as not to make the guards think I could smuggle anything inside it…
After a cursory inspection, the guard turns away and walks back to me, handing me back the papers, and says, “Seems fine.”
Excellent. And my beauty didn’t even cause any problems, this time.
I am quite pleased with how this all turned out.
After giving his verdict, the guard looks up to the soldiers standing on the walkway above the gates, whistles to get their attention, and waves his hand through the air in a circle. A few seconds later, with the deep rumble of machinery coming from inside the stone walls on each side of them, the large gates start to open ponderously.
While they do, I store my identification papers back into my bag and fix the tarp over the bed of the carriage again, then jump up to its front and sit on the driver’s bench, taking the reins in hand.
I look down at Akasha, still standing on the ground next to the carriage. “Come up. Let’s go.”
She looks up and down the length of the carriage, then at the horse itself. I can’t see her face from up on the bench, but judging by her body language, would she be… dubious? Or disappointed? Did she expect to ride a carriage made out of gold and jade and drawn by a pegasus?
Before I can ask her if there’s a problem, she takes a step forward and runs her hand on the wood of the carriage, pressing against it once or twice, as if testing its solidity.
“Why?” I ask in a whisper the guard will not hear – Akasha stands just as far away from me as he does, but her hearing should be a lot better than his. “What’s wrong?”
“What? The carriage is too heavy? Too heavy for what?”
It’s not like she’s going to be the one pulling it. The horse is already doing that very adequately.
I look at her, flabbergasted. “You are too heavy?”
“Wait, what…? You mean… You’re too heavy to ride on this carriage?”
She nods again.
“All right. As you wish.”
I’m not going to force her if she doesn’t want to ride.
I look up at the gates. They’re open wide enough to allow passage, so I flick the reins and the horse starts forward. As she said she would, Akasha walks next to the carriage, somehow easily keeping pace with it even though her strides are neither longer nor faster than usual.
We leave Islandis Fortress without any trouble, everything going so well it’s almost suspicious.
Evening, bordering into night.
The sun hangs very low over the horizon.
We stopped on the side of the road perhaps ten minutes ago. I would have wished to continue, but the horse was getting tired, and I wouldn’t want to kill it through sheer exhaustion on the first day. That would just be stupid.
Once I’m done feeding it, I turn back to our small camp where Akasha is sitting peacefully, looking into the flames of a fire I set going earlier.
By my request, she hasn’t taken off her cloak, even though I know she somewhat resents having to wear it. We might cross paths with rangers or merchants on the road, so I think it’s wiser to keep her features concealed. None of the people we’d meet would be a match for her, so she could remove all witnesses easily, but if we can avoid the need to massacre everyone we see, I think we should. It is a bit much to slaughter so many innocent people simply because it inconveniences us, after all, even for someone with such a loose morality as mine.
I take a seat on the other side of the campfire and look at Akasha, but before I can engage her in conversation, faint hoofbeats resound in the distance.
Akasha doesn’t show any surprise. She probably discovered them even earlier than I did.
…Well, this was unavoidable. At least, they won’t so easily get reinforcements from Islandis Fortress, now that we’re out in the wilderness again.
That’s more than I expected.
“Are you confident?”
“Then, thank you for your help, once again.”
Akasha simply nods at that, then stands up and walks out onto the road, standing alone in the way of the riders of Jodene Fortress coming after us. As for me, I too leave the light of the campfire and hide behind a tree, in the darkness, looking at the scene and waiting for the right opportunity to strike.
The hoofbeats get progressively closer as a cold wind stirs the hem of Akasha’s cloak.
The smell of impending violence hangs thick in the air.