The princess ran to his small body as his lungs screamed to be relieved of the water that was filling them. Sinking to her knees beside the boy, she began pushing on his chest, desperately trying to pump the fluids out. How did he get here? she wondered as she took a deep breath and removed her air mask. She strapped it to Zephyr’s face as if she had rehearsed it a thousand times, and he gratefully began breathing again. Out of nowhere, Levi materialized beside Hataru and offered his mask to her. They shared it, passing it back and forth in silence for a few minutes until she said, “We can’t keep sharing it like this. There was a third mask under my seat; I’ll go retrieve it.”
“You’re sure? I’ll go get it. You stay here,” he replied strictly.
“I can do this,” she whispered. Taking one last breath of the filtered air, she swiftly took the mask, threw it to the captain, and then dashed off into the dark hallway.
“NO!” he screamed, trying to stop her, but she was already gone, just like that. He wanted to run after her, but Firious, and many others, held him back.
“I’m sorry, Levi,” he said gravely, “but if I let you go, I know what will happen. You’ll save the lass, and die yourself. And, as much as I hate to admit it, we don’t know what we’d do without you. We need you, Levi. She’ll drown in a few minutes anyway; then it will be all over for her.” Silent tears collected in the bottom of Levi's mask.
~ ~ ~
Hataru knew that she should have let Levi handle this, yet she felt a motherly attachment to the young boy. She did with all children. As she ran as fast as her legs could carry her, she thought of all the orphans she had rescued after joining the royal family. Princess Hataru had convinced her father into bettering the lives of children whose parents had either passed away or rejected them. He saw the value of her idea and put her in charge of the first adoption agency of Trellisaina. She helped find homes for the orphaned children of her country, which somehow resulted in a larger work force for both industry and agriculture. Trellisaina rose in power and was still a thriving country that continued to grow. King Isicar was proud of his adopted daughter and took every opportunity to congratulate her on her good work, but none of that mattered to her; she just wanted to help the children of her country find the loving homes they deserved. Spotting a miniscule speck of light in the distance, Hataru realized that she was still a long way off from the exit. She ran faster and pleaded for her lungs to hold out a little longer.
What seemed like hours later, she finally reached the edge and leapt directly from the cliff into the boat Levi and she had ridden in, shoving her hand beneath the seat. Lungs gasping for air, she smacked the air filter to her face and took long, deep breaths. Climbing back out of the boat was a challenge because her feet had gotten tangled in the skirt of her azure gown, but she eventually made it back onto the mountain. Hataru crawled over to a shady corner of the cliff, to catch her breath and relax her muscles. Closing her eyes, she dozed into a light nap.
~ ~ ~
Meanwhile in the treasure chamber, Levi paced back and forth, stopping every few steps to turn and look at the entrance. The rest of his men had begun to search for the comb again, but he couldn’t focus. Why hadn’t he gone after her? Why? She had been gone for over an hour now. The princess was dead, he was almost certain. No, He thought to himself, a shiver going down his back, I can’t think like that. I must believe that she is alive somehow!
Stopping abruptly from his striding, Levi sat down atop an old wooden chest, his head in his hands, next to Zephyr. The boy was still coughing and wheezing, but it was obvious that he would live. Zephyr looked up at the captain with tear-filled, worrisome eyes shielded behind Hataru's mask. The lad had been crushed when he had heard what Hataru had done for him. Why did you disobey me, Zephyr? Levi had asked. Why didn’t you stay on the ship like I told you? Those words ate away at the boy’s heart. Why had he smuggled himself away on one of the boats? He had wanted to get in on the adventure, too, that’s why. Zephyr had felt like he would miss out on something big if he didn’t come, so he hid ─ a skill he had learned from his years on Kosu’s ship ─ under a blanket in one of the lifeboats and waited patiently for the men and Hataru to leave before he revealed himself. Unfortunately, he had no idea that he would need an air mask, and set off to follow the team without one. By the time he had reached the cavern entrance, his lungs were almost full of water and he could barely breath. Now Hataru is dead because of me! The poor boy thought. I’ll never be able to forgive myself!
With his muscles twitching from the cold, Levi scanned the room for any article of clothing that he might be able to use to keep warm. Hataru had still had his shirt wrapped around her like a shall when she so foolishly ran off, and now his body was cooling down quite a bit. He felt every chilled drop of sweat that slipped lightly down his toned muscles, and left a trail of skin just a little bit colder than before. Just past a bucket of diamonds on his left, he spotted something that might be useful.
“Zephyr,” Levi said wearily, “can you fetch that cloth over there for me? I think it's a shirt. It’s a burgundy color, over there by the diamonds. Please, go get it for me.”
The boy hopped up, grateful that the man had not yelled at him, still surprised by his kindness. He ran to the cloth and yanked up on it. Finding that it was, in fact, a shirt, Zephyr began to walk back to Levi, but a silver object fell out of a fold in the fabric and caught his eye. Stooping down to pick it up, he discovered it to be a jeweled hair comb with the initials N.M. inscribed on it. Thinking that it would be a nice thing to lay on Miss Princess Hataru’s grave, if they ever found her body, he slipped it into his pocket. Tears formed in the wells of his eyes as he thought about her death. It’s my fault, he thought in despair, it’s my fault!