“Zephyr!” she cried, leaping from behind a chest of golden crowns and jeweled medallions and running to the boy.
Though he was as dry as a sweaty ten-year old boy can be, he behaved like a man drowning in the ocean. Without a mask, he choked on the thick, humid air, his lungs screaming for relief. Sinking to her knees, Hataru began pushing on his chest as she had once seen a servant do after her younger brother ─ only an infant then ─ had fallen into the goldfish pond in the garden. How did he get here? she wondered, taking a deep breath and removing her air mask and strapping it to Zephyr’s face as if she had rehearsed it a thousand times.
Captain Levi materialized beside her, and they shared his mask, passing it back and forth between the two of them as they watched the boy’s panting subside into steady breathing.
“There was a third mask under my seat back on the little boat,” Hataru remembered, “I’m going to go get it.” She handed the mask to him and stood up.
“What? No! Stay here. I’ll get it,” he replied strictly, passing the mask to her. “Your foot─”
“No, I can do this,” she whispered. Taking one last breath of the filtered air, she swiftly threw the mask toward the captain and dashed off into the dark hallway.
“NO! Hataru!” the pirate gasped, coughing as his own lungs filled with the liquid of life that can also bring death. He scrambled for the respirator on the ground, and a miniscule crack in the plastic told Levi that this air mask could only be worn once more; if he were to take it off again, it would fall apart and become completely useless. The princess was on her own.
~ ~ ~
Hataru knew that she should have let the captain handle this. Actually, she realized too late that her decision to run off on her own was rather idiotic of her, especially now that her wounded foot was shooting pain up her leg with every step. However, she didn’t completely regret her decision. Zephyr was safe now; she had helped save another orphan.
What seemed like hours later, the princess finally reached the end of the tunnel and burst out into the blinding light and sweltering heat of the sun. With no time to spare, she leaped directly from the cliff into the boat that Levi and she had ridden in; the height didn’t bother her this time, but maybe that was because she was already starting to black out. Snatching up the mask with oxygen-deprived fingers, Hataru smacked the air filter to her face and inflated her lungs with sporadic, shaky breaths. The ability to breath had never been such a blessing.
Climbing back out of the boat was a challenge because her feet had gotten tangled in the skirt of her lavender gown, which really needed a good washing, but she eventually made it back onto the mountain ledge and crawled over to a shady corner of the cliff to rest. She could already feel her anemic slumber creeping in. I’ll just… close my eyes… and… The princess fell asleep.
~ ~ ~
Back in the treasure chamber, Levi paced back and forth, stopping every few steps to turn and look at the entrance. The rest of his men had begun to search for the cage again, but the captain couldn’t focus. Hataru had been gone for over an hour. If she had succeeded in retrieving the other air filter, she should have been back by now, which meant she must be… No, he thought to himself, a shiver going down his back, I can’t think like that. She just can’t be dead!