Pandiculating with a wide yawn, Hataru leaned against the guardrails of Jupiter’s Revenge. Hours ago, after a long bubble bath to wash away the remains of the vanquished Kresreb, her aspirations to return to her berth had all but been smashed to pieces as young, agog Zephyr pelted her with questions about the ‘scary monster-bear.’ The only way she’d been able to escape his undying curiosity was when, with a fresh shirt on his back, the captain himself returned to the deck and the child’s attention was diverted over to him. Unfortunately, by that time, noon had long since come and gone, and her own circadian rhythms objected to her desire, despite her weariness. She wouldn’t get another chance to sleep until later in the evening, so there she patiently waited on the deck of the ship for night to come, staring off into the distance with her eyes drooping heavily and contemplating all that had happened.
“Whew,” a friendly voice sighed beside the princess, “that boy is a chatty one, isn’t he?”
Hataru twisted her head to behold the man she had been thinking about for the past few hours. “Captain Levi,” she murmured. The tone of her voice made it difficult for him to discern her mood. In fact, she wasn’t certain of her own feelings either. The princess didn’t feel contempt towards Levi; though, she did feel abhorrence towards the beast that had attempted to murder her multiple times, and it was a bit difficult to separate her impressions of the two, due to the fact that they once shared a body. As a result, when she ventured to sort through her emotions, she felt like a partially blind old woman without her spectacles; everything was fuzzy and out of focus.
“Hello, Hataru.” His voice held warmth, but it could not hide the downcast despair that lied behind its wispy cover. Though his lips curled ever slightly towards the heavens, there was no happiness in his face. His single, golden eye did not have its usual luster to it, either. Before he even began, his expression of regret was already avowed. “I wanted to tell you how truly sorry I am for all that I have caused.” As he spoke, he tore his gaze away from her, and the pair looked out to the clouds lazily drifting without a care in the world. “I have put you ─ a refined princess under my care and protection, which virtually makes you my ward ─ in the way of danger for a countless number of times, and that is unforgivable. You have faced death far too much, lately, and I can’t say that that is good for your health.” Levi grinned half-heartedly at his joke as tears welled in his eye. “There is nothing I can do to change the past, but I assure you, that if there was, I would do it; I would do anything for you, Hataru, to keep you safe. All I ask is that you would accept this gift as my apology.” From his pocket, the captain removed a sparkling blue gemstone set in a band molded of precious metals, the perfect size for her finger.
When he held it up for her to see, Princess Hataru, gasped in recognition. “It’s the ring! I loved it so much, but I left it there. So, how─?”
A flash of pearly white teeth signified Levi’s relief as he explained, “I saw you looking at this ring back in the cave of wonders and noticed how much it complemented your eyes and your dress.” She smiled down at the jewel with a hint of wariness in her eyes, almost afraid to take it. “Don’t worry, though,” he quickly added, “I did ask Antenor before I took it. He’d said he would be happy if you had it because it never fit Nosa’s finger anyway.” Nothing detaining her this time, Hataru pet it gingerly with her own fingers, and the captain queried, "Then, you accept?”
Tired eyes now full of excitement, the princess nodded and looked him square in the eye, “Of course I do! Frankly, I never blamed you in the first place; you didn’t have to go to the trouble of getting this for me.”
She beamed. “Will you help me put it on?”
Heedfully, Captain Levi took the sapphire ring between the thumb and forefinger of his hand of flesh and slipped the gold and silver band onto her right ring finger. They both basked in the beauty of the ring, twinkling as if it contained its own source of light and had no need for the sun. Then, everything started going black and Hatru collapsed to the floor. The last thing the girl heard was the captain shouting her name from a far off distance.
His voice was still echoing in her mind, calling out her name, when the princess of Trellisania once again found herself trapped in the void of nothingness. Her heart cudgeled against her chest, threatening to beat its way out from the fear of returning to this oblivion, and beads of gem-like sweat seeped out of her pores. Only horrors awaited her here; she was certain. Her past experiences told her so.
Milliseconds later, just as her prognostication had predicted, the nightmarish visions bombarded her as hard and as fast as Zephyr’s endless questions. Unearthly colors strobed across her vision from unknown sources like an erratic light show, and the cacophony of a steady beating drum filled her ears. Bum, bum, bum, bum. Bum, bum, bum, bum. Between the sporadic flashes, Hataru caught glimpses of strange images ─ an ancient book with dusty pages; a middle-aged man, reaching out to shake her hand in welcome; a giant black spider, creeping along its web; and a fetching blonde-haired woman with a sympathetic smile. The drum’s tempo accelerated, and more pictures flared. The young woman saw before her two ferocious animals, a grizzly bear and a lone wolf, aggressively circling one another ─ both growling deeply, but neither of them striking; an orange tabby cat hissed behind them. Next, she spied upon the semblance of a smiling crocodile hungrily eyeing an elegant swan confined within a cage beside a quivering, fright-stricken hare. The illusions sped up in pace with the drum, overloading her senses, and amongst the thousands of manifestations, she recognized a youthful Levi Spry, holding a tiny pouch and repeating the words, ‘Don’t be afraid,’ along with the mysterious man, with his sharp features and auburn hair tied back, waving and smiling in greeting. The drum continued to rush, beating harder, louder, faster with every strike as everything around the girl erupted into flames. The fire twisted and swirled, interlacing itself into a single bird of twice her stature, with a sharp, snapping beak, that burst from the inferno and engulfed her.
Cradling the fainted princess, Captain Levi was overjoyed with relief when she gasped awake, her eyes wild and bewildered. She had only been out for three short minutes, but they had been some of the most harrowing minutes in his life. He’d watched her face intently as spheres of perspiration lined her temples and quiet whimpers poured out of her beautiful mouth between her pants for air. He had been unable to do anything for her but hold her cushion her in his arms and utter calming words into her ear, not knowing if she could hear him or not. Now that she was awake, an alleviating wave crashed over him.
“Are you alright?” he asked, still anxious over her well being.
She blinked, focusing her glazed eyes on his face, and nodded. Jerking from his hold, she stood shakily to her feet and absentmindedly glanced around the deck. Distracted, the princess asserted, “I’m going to return to my room now,” and walked away, deserting the fretful pirate.
As soon as she closed the door behind her, her fingers ripped the golden band off and set it on the small, wooden desk beside her bed. Lying her head on her pillow, she gazed at the piece of jewelry. Her mind was blank; she couldn’t process a single thought, yet somehow she knew that the sapphire ring was the cause of loss of consciousness.