12. Men

Despite her need of sleep, Princess Hataru still lay awake in bed, staring up at the wooden ceiling. She could not stop thinking about the prince and the pirate. Tarin's castle was supposed to have been her next destination, where they would have met if it hadn’t been for the grimy pirates who had stolen from him and attacked herself. She imagined what it would have been like had everything gone according to plan.

           Just as she had done with all of the other possible suitors, she would have arrived at his palace a day before The Sky-Bender in an outdated speedboat, dressed in a simple maid's uniform. She would have then posed as a new servant for the prince and requested an audience with him so that she could meet the man that "she would be serving". After entering the room, she would have carefully assessed how much attention he gave her, if he looked her in the eye or not, and other signs of respect for her as another human being. Later in the day she would have "accidentally" poured water in his lap as she was serving his meal, and wait for his reaction, compassionate or spiteful. After being rescued by and walking with Tarin in the cave without giving him her name or status, Hataru was sure that he would have passed her tests with flying colors.

The next day, when her father's ship arrived, she would have crept aboard to get ready to officially meet the prince as Princess Hataru Orfanos-Catomerus of Trellisania. She would have worn one of her finest gowns with a modestly cut neckline, slit sleeves, and gems beaded across the bodice and down the skirt ─ transforming her into a radiant, walking chandelier. Her neck and wrist would have been adorned with expensive jewels, silver, and gold; her hair would have been teased into a becoming updo, showcasing her curly locks; and her skin would have been perfumed with the most divine of products. For a finishing touch, her eyes would have been lined and painted, her lashes elongated, her cheeks powdered, and her lips colored and glossed. She would have been stunning, just like every time before, making every head turn and every jaw drop. She would have walked into throne room with her back straight and her head held high. There, the prince would have been seated on the right hand side of his father, as the crown prince. Their eyes would have met, and she would have given him an award winning smile. His eyes would have grown even wider once she was close enough for him to recognize her as the maid from the day before. Then, she would have congratulated him for impressing her and asked the king to be granted a month as a guest at his castle in order to become more acquainted with his son through courtship. Hataru smiled at her vision, but then grew sad because she knew that it would never happen now. Brewing over this in brief anger, she gently stroked the black mask that the prince had given to her. Sighing, she glanced at it where it lay on the pillow next to her; she knew in her heart that she could not completely hate the vile pirates, for they were also the reason she had met little Zephyr and Captain Levi.

           Captain Levi, now there was another man for her to think about. He had rescued her from captivity on her own father's ship with no hidden motives or angles other than just doing good, and he had also shown compassion to a young child who reminded her a bit of herself. He was clever and wily, and the way he governed his men was more than admirable. He was a perfect gentleman, in spite of being a pirate, always seeming to put others first. Of course that didn't mean he was a perfect person; she recalled how peculiar he had acted as they traveled up the mountain. He was grumpy and moody, yet when she tripped out of the boat and toppled over him, he didn't even moan in pain, though she was sure that hitting his head on the hard rock must have hurt miserably.     When she finally returned to the treasure cave, she had stood there at the entrance beside Prince Tarin, scanning through the chaos, hoping against hope that Captain Levi was safe or at least unharmed. Her heart had soared once she'd spotted him, but then plummeted again when she also saw The Black and White Assassin confronting him. In the confusion, the captain had somehow turned himself around and was smiling up at her like a child on Christmas despite the dangerous snake ready to strike him from behind. She’d screamed his name in warning as the heroic Prince Tarin rushed passed her to his aid, and all she could do was stand and watch in cold sweat as Levi and Kosu battled it out using all of their wits and strengths; she had felt so powerless, unable to help ─ useless.

     After the prince's sloppy, yet still romantically heart-pounding farewell, came Levi's daring embrace. First it was his golden yellow eye, filled with joy and excitement and something else; she had tried not to notice it at first by filling her mind with thoughts of another man, but she was not able to keep up that battle. He’d placed his hand and claw atop her shoulders. She was ensnared in his gaze and his grasp, yet oddly enough, she didn't really want to escape. Next, it was the way he swooped in, instantly closing the distance between their faces. Even though there were two air masks between them, she could count every stitch of his eyepatch and see that his good eye was red and puffy with tear trails down the sides. Had he been crying? As curious as she was, she’d dared not ask the question. Struggling through an explanation of her short adventure with without stuttering excessively had been extremely draining, but she’d finally made it through. Then the next thing she knew, she was wrapped in his arms and squeezed up against his chest in a giant bear hug. His strong arms had surrounded her body, and Hataru had thought her heart would burst open because it was pounding so hard! Even if she’d had wanted to, there was no way she could have competed with his physical strength to escape his clasp, but, that was just it; again, she was caught up by the captain, yet had no will to run from his presence. What was happening to her? The words he had whispered in her ear were full of mystery and left her hanging, but they still made her heart pound all the more. Finally the snare was opened and she was set free, her heart was relieved from its racing, and everything seemed to go back to normal. But has it, really? Hataru asked herself. Or has everything changed completely?

            Groggily still stroking the air mask, Hataru’s eyelashes fluttered like the wings of a butterfly that had just emerged from its cocoon and she gave in to the sleep, which had been nagging at her for hours.

The End

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