“That’s the remarkable thing about this mountain, Miss,” one of the pirates in another boat said, his partner ─ a hefty, dark-skinned man ─ swerving their aircraft up closer. He had greasy blond hair and was missing a few teeth, but his smile was genuine. “Some folks believe that it’s cursed because the basic laws of the elements don’t affect it. Within a certain range of this mountain, the closer you get to the sun, the higher the temperature rises. When we reach the top, it will be sweltering and the air will be so thick with condensation that we will have to wear air masks to be able to breath. Without them, our lungs might fill with water, and we’ll drown. Actually, we should probably be putting them on pretty soon. You’ll find them under your seat, one for you, one for the captain. I hope yours fits good!” The man reached down and pulled one out from beneath his seat. Holding it up for her to see, he demonstrated for her how to slip on the red air mask, transforming himself into some sort of strange other-worldly being with vacant, glass eyes and a puffy air sack on each side of the muzzle. He took the oar-levers from his partner ─ so he could do the same ─ and then they swerved away, waving.
Taking the man’s advice, Hataru reached down and felt around for the masks, finding three beneath her seat. She strapped one to her face and immediately noticed the difference in the air she was breathing ─ cool and refreshing, though she could still detect the scent of her own body odor. She hoped Captain Spry couldn’t smell her. Glancing briefly at the second mask in her lap, she looked up at him.
“Umm… I don’t think I have the physical strength to keep us in the air while you get yours on, so I’m just going to… ah…” Hesitant, but quick, the princess reached across and secured the mask to his face, blushing as she did so. Taking a deep breath of fresh air, he mumbled thanks to her, but proceeded to row in silence.
When she wasn't looking, Captain Levi watched the princess as she sat patiently, gazing off into the distance, and he couldn’t help but notice how beautiful she was. Well, it wasn’t as if he hadn’t noticed it before, but he took the time now to truly appreciate it. He liked the way her hair tumbled over her shoulders and down her back, well kept, but still a little messy, and he liked the way she sat with perfect poise. Levi had only known a hand full of women in his life, but she had more grace than all of them combined. Though they were hidden behind her mask, he could still imagine her brilliant, sapphire eyes, her rosy cheeks, her enticing lips, and her scar. At first he had thought it was just a scratch, but the way she continued to hide it ─ even painting mud on her face like warpaint ─ made it pretty obvious that she was battling with her self-esteem. Whenever her hair slipped out of place, he would notice that thin, faint pink line across her left cheek and wonder how it had got there, but he didn’t think it subtracted from her loveliness.
A few days ago, the princess had told him that he was a remarkable person, but she, he thought, was truly the remarkable one. He felt sorry for the way he had shouted at her earlier; sometimes he let his rage get the better of him. He had blamed it on her willfulness and the threat of a blood-thirsty maniac, but there was another reason. Though he had only met her a little over a week ago, and had only just recently learned of her royal identity, the fact that she was in search of a suitor set him ablaze inside. And a princely suitor, at that! The thought of her falling in love with an egotistic, vainglory son of a wolf made his skin crawl. She deserved so much better! Before she had revealed her secret, he had been beginning to think Maybe… just maybe… but now she was a princess, and he was still a pirate. Something like that could never work.
When they reached the top, the crew warned her not to look down, but Hataru couldn’t stop herself. Peeking over the edge of the rowboat as she stepped out, she couldn’t see the ground. No trees. No grass. No towns. She couldn’t even see Jupiter’s Return anymore ─ only a soft, downy blanket of clouds, whiter than the purest snow and three miles beneath her feet. Dizzy as she clambered onto the mountain ledge, the princess fell face first into the captain's chest, knocking them both to the ground.