24. The Silver Comb

Memories of her childhood wafted along on the crisp breeze as Hataru and the crew tromped through the crowded streets of Habar, Marcelia ─ their most recent stop ─ in search of supplies and prophecy items. The scent of the surrounding forests reminded her of the times she and her mother had picked wild berries, often eating more than they brought home, and a hint of baking bread brought her back to the days they would transform their small, homely kitchen into that of master pâtissiers. The rhythmic dings of a hammer clanging against an anvil in the distance brought tears to her eyes as thoughts of her father's mighty arms clouded her mind's vision.

Abruptly, a pair of small arms wove their way around her waist, bringing Hataru back to the present. Sniffling and blinking the moisture of her mourning away, the young woman smiled down to the boy. “Why, hello there, Zephyr! Ready for a day in town?”

“Not hello! Goodbye!”

Stepping back from him, she queried with concern, “Goodbye? Whatever do you mean?” Her glistening blue eyes probed his face for answers.

“Well... Mister Captain Levi said that I could go off on my own at the next port, so… so I’ve decided to go.” Zephyr readjusted the small pack on his shoulder and puffed out his chest with a dauntless gleam in his eyes as they marched along.

“I suppose he did…” the princess glanced over toward the captain and clutched the sapphire ring that now hung upon a silver chain around her neck, where it had rested ever since she’d yanked it off her finger eight days ago. She and Captain Spry hadn't seen much of each other over the past week of traveling, for every time he had tried to approach her, she would find some way to excuse herself. It wasn’t that she blamed him for anything in particular, but after the Kresreb incident and the nightmare-inflicting ring, she unconsciously wanted to distance herself from him. “... but, Zephyr,” she placed a hand on the lad’s shoulder and studied his face, “you do know that you can stay, right? You don’t have to leave; you have nothing to prove.”

Looking down, slightly unassured of himself, he answered, "I know, but I’ve been dreaming of this, of my freedom, ever since I was taken prisoner on Kosu’s ship. I’m older than I was then; I can take care of myself now. Some of the crewmen told me about how to get a job, and they even taught me a few fighting tricks so I can defend myself, and look ─ !” he opened his vest to showcase a fine blade the perfect size for his small hand to hold, “Mister Firious said he didn’t want me to go trotting off and get myself killed, so he gave this to me! Isn’t it cool? It’s so shiny! You know, Mister Firious isn’t such a mean guy after all. When he caught me hiding back aboard Jupiter’s Revenge, I thought he was a mean, grumpy old man, but he’s actually pretty nice.” A deprecatory snort sounded off at the boy’s remark from the general direction of the first mate himself. “Oh, and let me show you my pack! Mister Captain Levi gave me my favorite foods from the kitchen,” he pulled out a sack of jerky and cheese, “some spare clothes,” he removed two pairs of slacks, four pairs of socks, and three shirts, “and he even gave me some real money for me to spend at the market!” he lifted a heavy pouch of gold coins from his pocket to show her.

“Wow!” Hataru feigned some extra enthusiasm, still quite worried for the boy. She had no doubt that he was tough, but she also knew from her own experiences that the world, especially Habar, could be a very dangerous and scary place for a child.

“Oh! I almost forgot!” his eyes smiled as he tied the knapsack shut, “Thank you for saving me from the scary-monster bear. Mister Captain Levi told me what happened.” The boy looked up at her, “I hope you know he really didn’t mean to hurt you, and he’s really sorry that he did. He told me so.”

Again, the princess’ eyes dashed to the silver-haired pirate. Tiny dimples appeared at the corners of her mouth. “I know,” she mused, “Thank you for telling me, Zephyr.”

“You’re welcome!” he exclaimed, not fully aware of what his words meant to her. “Well, I think I’ll be heading off now.” He looked around at all of the merchant’s tables they were passing, already thinking his future purchases.

Maternal instinct alarms ringing in her ears, she choked, “Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure.” More downcast, he added, “Besides, I don’t want cause any more trouble for you and Mister Captain Levi. Goodbye, Miss Princess Hataru!” And with that, the ten year old disappeared into the crowd.

“Zephyr, wait! You’re not a bur...den.” she tried to call him back, but he was already gone. For the trillionth time, Hataru’s eyes welled with tears. Only two seconds without the little chatterbox, and she already missed him more than she could say.

~~~

Intoxicated by the sense of independence, the young boy wandered through the market, soaking in the world around him. Brilliantly colored tents lined the streets, protecting the peddlers’ commodities from the scorching noontime sun. Farmers sold their produce from the backs of their mule-drawn wagons, and foreign merchants with dark skin and yards of cloth wrapped atop their heads dangled their jewels and riches before the passersbys, speaking with thick accents that Zephyr found hard to understand. Vendors and craftsmen leaned over their tables to capture his attention, pining for the assumed riches hidden within his pocket.

“Here, little boy!” croaked an elderly florist with fine specimens of her trade woven into her hoary braids, grabbing him by the shoulder, “Buy a daisy for your sweetheart? Or maybe a rose? For your mother? I’ll give you two for the price of one ─ a special National Day Sale!”

“Oh… ah, no thank y─”

“No, young lad, look at this!” the cobbler beside her imparted and snatched the boy away. “I’ve got a brand new pair of loafers with your name on it! What color do you like? Black, brown? Tan, navy? I’ve even got them in the national colors to help you celebrate our country’s birth with style!”

“Um… I already have a─”

“He’s already got a pair of shoes, ya halfwit!” another pair of hands yanked him toward yet another table. “What ya need, son, is a nice, new play thing, yeah? How ‘bout this fun, little spinnin’ top? Or maybe a toy soldier for ya? Ya look like a strong li’l man, don’t ya, eh?”

“Well, I really shouldn’t… I need to get a─”

“Come on, son. It’s okay to get something nice fir yerself on a holiday, yeah? How about this sturdy jumpin’ rope?”

“Or these brogues!”

“Or this bouquet!”

“Ah… I’m sorry… I…” Zephyr slowly backed away from the three insistent purveyors. “I really must go!” Young and agile, the boy turned tail and darted away with ease.

A few seconds later, half-way down the street, a horrendous gurgling erupted from his stomach and his nostrils underwent a sensory overload when he found himself surrounded by the mouth-watering scents of sizzling meat and sugary delights. Hundreds of chickens twirled on spickets over orange flames alongside roasting boars’ rumps and steaks smouldering on grills. Cream-loaded pastries and frosted cookies filled with jams of every known fruit lined the bakers’ tables. The gurgling turned into a roar, forcing his feet to shuffle toward the nearest stand.

Fishing out a golden coin, the boy licked his lips and scoured the counter. His eyes flickered to and fro like an indecisive honey bee attempting to find the perfect nectar in a vast meadow of wild flowers. The chocolate moose, light and delicate, caught his attention first, but then he quickly transferred to a miniature pecan pie with a perfectly golden crust. His mouth foamed at the sight of the fluffy, red raspberry soufflé cups, and the candied apples dripping with red, gooey goodness made him whimper in excitement. Everything looked so delectable, he couldn’t decide! Then he saw it, the most toothsome treat of all ─ a dainty, double-decker cake with a middle layer of fresh strawberries and cream, drizzled in a pink, sugary sauce. The faint wisp of a memory of a smiling woman, presumably his mother before she’d disappeared and left him alone with his father, placing such a dessert in front of him tingled in the back of his brain, sending warm fuzzies all through his being as he handed the confectioner his coin and trotted off with his edible treasure.

Licking the stickiness from his fingers, Zephyr sighed with contentment. Every bite of his ambrosial morsel had been celestial bliss. Smacking his lips in order to enjoy the scrumptious, ghostly aftertaste, the boy laid back and stared at the clouds. The sky is such a pretty color, but what makes it like that? He closed his eyes and speculated. Is there a man who paints it everyday? Or maybe it’s a woman? Yeah, only a woman, a pretty woman like Miss Princess Hataru, could paint such a beautiful thing like the sky. But where would she live? It would have to be somewhere where she could reach the sky easily… so maybe a mountain, ora really tall tree, just like a bird. Can she fly like a bird? Her wings would have to be long and pretty and… white, like a swan’s, so she could hide in the clouds while she paints. That way she wouldn’t have to worry about getting caught by mean people like Captain Kosu. No one could ever hurt her or make her peel potatoes and scrub toilets! She would be able to paint the sky as much as she wanted! She would be free, all by herself, and all… alone. Like me.

Suddenly, the remains of his shortcake tasted bitter in his mouth, and the gentle breeze sent goosebumps down his arms. A pain deep inside his chest caused warm tears to form in his eyes, but he squeezed them tighter, refusing to let the droplets flow. Zephyr had chosen to go his own way, to be alone. He would have to figure things out for himself from now on.

Unless I go back.

No, that’s impossible. I can’t just turn around and ask to stay with them again only a few hours after leaving! They’d think that I’m… that I’m a halfwit! I can’t let my only friends think that about me.

After sitting in silence for a moment and accepting his decision, Zephyr lazily opened his eyes and stared up at the dimming sky, the sun beginning its descent behind the treeline of the forest just outside of town. A horrific thought struck the lad, It’s already this late? I should have found a place to stay by now! I really am a halfwit! Hopping up from the stone wall he’d been resting on, Zephyr pulled out his stash of money, wondering if it would even be enough to sleep on an innkeeper’s floor for the night, and also emancipated a cold, metallic object in the process.

Puzzled, the lad stopped and picked it up from where it had landed on the dusty road. He wiped the dirt away with his sleeve, and the tiny gems that decorated the object glinted in the light emitting from the glowing streetlamps. Zephyr’s spirits ballooned with recognition ─ it was the comb from the cave that he’d taken to place on the princess’ grave when he’d thought she was dead. He still had it! The possibilities raced through Zephyr’s mind like a jackrabbit. He could sell the comb and use the money to rent a cozy room with a real bed for the night, or he could use the money to purchase more delicious strawberry shortcakes. He could… He could… He could even take it to the Jupiter’s Revenge and use it as an excuse to come back aboard! Yes! His resolve for remaining self-reliant crashing, Zephyr roughly stuffed the pouch of coins in his pocket and bolted away clutching the silver comb.

This was perfect! It was his ticket to staying with his friends without them considering him a dunce! Laughing with joy, the boy dodged in and out of the thinning crowds in the market as if he were a spy on a stealth mission, racing against time. Running so fast he could hardly see where he was going; everything was a blur, so it wasn’t too much of a surprise when he slammed into someone’s back, knocking Zephyr to the ground. However, he soon began to tremble when he saw his worst nightmare dominantly shadowing over him, firing daggers of disgust from eyes as dark as the endless void of a starless sky.

The figure hissed, “Well, well, what do we have here? Thought you could run away, did you boy? Yet here you are, running right back to me, just like the night I first found you. What do you have to say for yourself?”

“I ─ I’m,” Zephyr gasped, his throat constricting with fear, “I’m sorry, Mister Kosu! I ─”

What did you call me? Don’t forget, I demand respect from the likes of you!”

“I’m sorry, Mister Captain Kosu, sir! I─ I’m sorry!” he squealed like a runt piglet. “Please… please don’t hurt me!”

Hurt you? Oh, I’m going to do much more than hurt you, child.” The Black and White Assassin lifted his stygian knife.

“No! Please!” Zephyr held his hands up in a meager attempt of self-protection, revealing the precious cargo he’d been clutching.

Kosu halted, and stared at the comb in astonishment. “Where did you get this?” he spat, snatching it from the boy’s quivering hand.

“Hey, that’s ─,” the boy grappled for the silver object, but was knocked back down by a sharp kick from the heel of the pirate’s boot.

“Silence, brat! Or I’ll cut out your tongue and feed it to the dogs!”

“But… you don’t have any dogs.” Zephyr cried.

I said silence!” Kosu studied the comb, turning it over in his palm as the lad groveled at his feet, sniveling. A moment later, the 26 year old glanced down and with a falsely sweet voice cooed, “It seems as though you have saved your skin with an appeasing gift to your master. With such a gift, I, as the gracious master that I am, would normally have given you a choice between freedom or returning to your duties aboard my ship, but, since you’ve made it clear that you, my precious, little thief,  want to join my crew again by running all the way here to give this to me, I will be morethan happy to oblige.” Kosu bared his teeth in a sneering, crocodile grin. “Brutus,” he called over his shoulder, “show our youngest member back to the ship; he has some toilets to scrub.”

A massive giant of a man with curly hair sprouting from every visible spot on his body materialized behind Zephyr and grabbed him by the scruff of his shirt. Before he carried the child off, the captain whispered in the man’s ear, “Keep an eye on him, and when he’s finished with his chores, lock him up until we’ve set sail. I don’t want the brat running off again.” Brutus grunted in acknowledgment, then trudged heavily toward Kronos’ Return, towing a terrified Zephyr, streams of tears flowing down the lad’s cheeks, washing away the last of the sticky residue of his strawberry cake.

The End

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