Suddenly one-minded, all eight members of the makeshift covey simultaneously turned tail. As one unit they swam through the swarm of festival participants, shoving individuals old and young out of the way with half-hearted apologies. The Marcelian guards charged after the group like a pack of wolves on the hunt. In fact, Hataru could have sworn that she’d heard one of them growl when she dove out of the way to evade the capture of his colossal, gloved hands. These men were the flawless incarnation of their country’s beastly emblem.
Further ahead, the prince and the pirate led their conjoined band of escapees deeper into the crowds. To the naked eye, they both appeared to act as one. Years of training and leadership provided them with the knowledge they required to become a dangerous duo of skill and steel. Whenever an obstacle crossed one man’s path, the other was there to provide him aid, executing each maneuver as if it had been rehearsed. However, despite this bond of adeptness, the air between the two was tense and sparked with electricity as they ran, altering their flight for freedom into a foot race of prideful rage. What seemed to be a fellowship between two warriors, was quite the opposite ─ a private battle in which no one else was allowed to interfere.
“Tell me, you thieving rat, what did you have to go through to steal away the young miss? Did you swipe her right out from under her father’s nose? Or did you kill him first and then take her?” Tarin hissed through his teeth, as he knelt so the captain could use his knee as a foothold to front-flip over a couple of free-roaming hogs.
“Oh no, I just stole his jewels and took her as an after thought.” Using his claws, he slashed through a pair of ropes that bound a cartload of wine kegs, sending the barrels rolling into one of the wolfish guards that was still in their pursuit. “But as a pompous patriarch, you should understand such things. Taking what isn’t yours is as second nature to your kind as it is to mine.”
The crown prince frowned, “Not all royals are the same.” Luring two more guards away from Levi, the prince scaled a nearby construction ladder that had been left leaning against a wall. When he reached the top, Tarin fearlessly leapt into the air, his arms stretched far above his head.
The pirate was ready. Beads of sweat streaming from his bearded chin to his brow, he hung upside-down from a flagpole like a circus acrobat and caught the prince with his hand and claw, swinging them both safely to the ground. “Neither are all pirates.”
They each stared the other down with a reserved, yet quizzical look, and for a brief moment, they understood one another to be radicals of their own typecasts ─ a prince who wasn’t subject to the mold of materialism and a pirate who was accustomed to selflessness. But then, having eluded the other three Marcelian guards, all of the others joined their company, bursting the fragile bubble of reception they had formed. All of the others, except for two.
“Where is Hataru?” Levi frantically spun around, hoping to catch sight of her with his one eye.
Tarin joined in his panicstricken hunt, calling out, “Elden? Where are you?” All around them, the celebration continued, and those who had gathered to watch their little escapade quickly dispersed. Thousands of faces passed them by, but not one of them belonged to either of their missing groupmates.
The captain sent a jabbing finger into the prince’s chest. “You, you were supposed to be watching them!”
“Levi, this is not the time to start arguing,” Antenor tried to interject.
“I don’t recall that ever being agreed upon! Why weren’t you watching them?”
“I was too busy watching you!”
“Knock it off, you buck-headed coxcombs!”
“Oh, that’s really helping, Firious. Do go on.”
“Shut it, Antenor, I─”
“BOYS!” a patronizing voice rang out across the street as loud as a gunshot, interrupting their little donnybrook. They all turned. Her brown hair flittering in the wind, Hataru stood beside the red-headed captain at a nearby pedaler’s booth. “I thought we were trying to desist from attracting attention and getting caught. I think it is due time for a change in approach, as well as in attire.” She gestured to the festive garb at the booth.
Sifting through the assorted garments, Elden remarked, “Camouflage... good thinking. We can blend in with the rest of the crowd and hide in plain sight.”
When Captain Levi emerged from the public restroom in his newly purchased habiliments, half a dozen by-standing women fainted. Having traded his typical white poet shirt for a single light grey vest, his bronze, mesomorphic torso was on display for the world to see. He suspended his ankle-length, black slacks; sword; and compass with a turquoise sash that matched this silk bandana. To complete his disguise, Levi had grudgingly shaved away his boyhood’s conceptual symbol of masculinity ─ his facial hair ─ and lopped off half of his silver tresses so that his locks gently tickled his shoulders. The only likeness he shared with his portrait on the WANTED poster was the old, leather eyepatch, which was incorrectly drawn on the left side instead of the right. Only a trained eye could identify him from the outdated image, now.
With his auburn hair tied at the top of his head, Prince Tarin exited the washroom shortly after the captain with the innate aplomb of royalty, but not one woman gave him a second glance. The dull brown fabric of a simple peasant ensemble masked his sovereignty like a scarf over a kiss-mark on a secret lover’s neck. He was now as plain as any passerby on the street ─ save for his sapphire studded sword ─ a perfect cover. Antenor, costumed in a pristine overcoat and top hat garnished with a cobalt sash, followed suit accompanied by Firious, who wore a hooded midnight blue smock shirt and a decorated baldric to bear his sword. To complete the procession of men, Kurt and Cedric stumbled out of the loo behind them. The scraggy man had opted not to purchase any accessories save for a bundle of cornflowers from an elderly florist to adorn his slovenly hat due to a shortage in cash, but Cedy had chosen to empty his pockets on an expensive, aqua keffiyeh turban from a foreign merchant. Onlookers weren’t quite sure of what to make of this unusual band of eccentrics.
Folding his arms across his chest, Levi refused to look at the prince, who was scratching his arm at the hem of his coarse sleeve, but muttered under his breath, “Scratching like that won’t make it itch any less, you know.”
The sound of nails against skin ceased. “I’m not scratching.”
“You should ask for your money back.”
“No, no. I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was taking advantage of an innocent peddler by stealing from him.”
“No, of course you wouldn’t want anyone to think that. You’d just want them to nod their little, empty heads in agreement with you, or at least turn a blind eye.”
“It was your suggestion, in the first place.”
“I was just testing yo─.”
“What?” Levi scowled in confusion and turned to glare at the prince, but his expression morphed into awe when he saw the subject of Tarin’s interjection.
The image of beauty sauntered towards them, her hazelnut curls drifting delicately on the breeze like ocean waves on a peaceful day. Her flamboyant, flamingo-colored dress made ample use of her womanly proportions, with sultry, off-the-shoulder sleeves; a cropped-top that revealed her midriff; and a low-riding skirt that hugged her generous hips and swirled down to her feet like rose petals. Zinnias, hollyhocks, and free-flying streamers crowned her head and embellished her waistline, transforming her into a daughter of Jubilee.
The captain’s eye grew wide, “You look─”
“Incredible!” the crown prince looked her up and down.
“─beautiful,” Levi breathed. Hataru found herself ensnared by his intense, but tender gaze. Neither he nor she could rip their eyes away as their surroundings melted into oblivion and they entered into their own private world in which they were the sole inhabitants.
“Ahem,” a sudden cough brought them back into reality. Captain Sterling stood with her hands on her hips, her stoic face entirely unfazed by her own festive getup. She wore a rust-colored, leather corset with straps and a winged collar over her light-green dress that descended to her knees in elegant, leaf-like ruffles. Her upper arms were decorated with sinoper armlets that matched her ankle-strap platform shoes, which accentuated her shapely calves. Atop her head rested a circlet of marigolds with pendulous, grassy ribbons.
Tarin beamed brightly. “Elden, you look fantastic! When was the last time I saw you wear a dress? Graduation?”
“No, your highness, I wore the standard naval uniform, just like everyone else,” she retorted. “The last time I wore an actual dress was when we attended the Commemoration Ball together, the year before. It was a faded shade of amber, don’t you remember? You told me that I glowed like a candle flame.”
“Ah, yes! Your hair was longer then. I must say, though, I think this one becomes you even more.” He teasingly waggled his eyebrows.
“Oh, quit your ogling,” she snapped, turning away from him so that he couldn’t see the slightest curling of her lips or the blush upon her cheeks.
Entertained by their banter, Hataru inquired, “Is this an old friend of yours, Prince Tarin?”
“Oh, yes,” he answered, still snickering at his jest, “Let me introduce you to Captain Elden Sterling, the best air captain in the entire Royal Flotilla.”
“It’s good to meet you, Captain,” she curtseyed.
Tarin continued, smiling proudly, “And Captain Sterling, this is… uh…” Elden crossed her arms and arched an eyebrow in amusement. Turning back to the princess, scratching at the collar of his peasant shirt, he admitted, “I… I don’t believe I’ve asked your name, actually.” Scoffingly, the red-head rolled her eyes.
“Oh! Forgive me, my name is Hataru Orfanos, your majesty,” she curtseyed again, still concealing her own royal identity.
The other members of the group gathered around, showering each other with flattering remarks, but then Firious demanded, “And how, exactly, is that supposed to help us ‘blend in,’ Missy?” The shadow cast upon his face by his hood caused his glower to look more menacing than usual. A hush fell upon the crowd, and a few grumbled that the first mate was being too finicky.
“No, Firious is right,” Hataru explained, “our costumes do stand out a bit, but no one here will think they are out of place because─”
“The guards are heading this way!” Cedric yelped with panic.
“Run!” Once again, Levi and Tarin became a synchronized team, guiding their crew away from the danger of capture. Pushing and shoving, they cut a path through the hoi polloi for the others to follow.
Levi began to dash across an adjacent street, but Tarin yanked him backwards, causing him to fall to the ground as a behemoth of a man in a cap’n’bells hat tromped past, blasting on the copper tuba he bore. Others followed the tuba-player, some wielding bows and violins, others carrying drums and harpsichords. Jovial music blared from the street, summoning the festival-goers to gather and enjoy the Marcelia Day parade.
Streamers rained from the sky as the pirate captain looked around at the band of escapees, “Now what?”
Hataru peered down the street, watching as a dozen men on stilts promenaded towards them, shadowed by troop of jugglers and─ “Levi, can you and your men dance?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Can you dance?”
“... a few jigs or two, I suppose. But what has that got to do with anything? What are you scheming?”
With a sly smile and excitement in her eyes, she grabbed his hand, “Come dance with me!”
Dragging him behind her, she darted into the middle of the march, and Levi found himself surrounded by more people than he could ever count. His muscles tensed, and his arm involuntarily reached for the hilt of his sword. As a man familiar with sneaking about, standing in the center of attention was not a comfortable feeling for him.
“Dance, Levi!” Hataru’s apprehensive voice shook him out of his stupor. His eye found her off to his left among six other women garbed in similar brightly colored costumes; she was by far the most stunning of them all. She twirled in time with the other dancers, shifting her arms and swaying her hips as if she had practiced the dance her entire life. She was a fairy, flying around the street with invisible wings, and when she trained her dazzling lagoon blue eyes on him, he felt like the most important man in the world.
Watching her caper to the spirited music coerced his feet to tapping, and before he knew it, Levi was dancing right beside her. The other members of their covey joined them in the midst of the parade, but Levi barely took any notice. Even when they initiated a type of court dance, forming a circle and trading partners in a systematic fashion, the pirate’s attention belonged only to the princess. The music swelled, filling the entire area with its excitement. Her eyes closed in bliss as she swirled, Hataru crashed against his chest, her hand landing in his own, as the song flared and came to an end, the crowd cheering.
“Captain, this way!” Levi reluctantly turned to see Antenor opening the door to a dimly lit pawn shop and ushering the others inside. Refusing to let go of her hand, he scrambled away from the paraders and into the boutique.