“Hey, Lucia,” Durandal said after Algar left. “What did he want from you and why did you agree?”
“It’s a secret!” This is between me and the crown prince. It’s highly illegal, which is why I have no intentions of sharing it with Durandal or Ilya! And I won’t even say it in my thoughts because Ilya and Durandal are mind readers. Think happy thoughts like steaming hot chocolate! The payoff for the request is going to be great; I can’t wait; though, it might take a while.
“Oh my lord,” Ilya said and bit her lower lip. What was her problem? “I really feel like she’s been bribed with sweets.” Hey, I’m not that easily fooled. I’m not a child. Besides, even if I was tempted by sweets, how would that be any of her concern? Jeez. I’m an adult, and I’m completely responsible.
Ah! That reminds me. “Puppers! How could you blatantly lie to Evelyn like that? I didn’t kill Lan! I don’t even know who Lan is.” I killed a rare spirit monkey to obtain Puppers, remember? It was a bit persistent and knew how to use a spear, but it definitely wasn’t a person. Puppers should be thanking me for freeing him from that monkey’s clutches. How can I punish him for slandering me like that? I could poison him and feed him to a divine beast! …Well, I do that regardless—I need something better. I could force him to spar with me and beat him to death! …I just realized I never treated Puppers that nicely.
Puppers looked at me, shook his head, and disappeared into my socks. Looks like he’s going to give me the silent treatment again. Right, I’ll punish him by not speaking to him. Think of how devastated he’ll be when my lovely voice is always present around him, but never directly addressing him. It’ll be torture. Gah! “Don’t flick me!”
“You were thinking something weird,” Durandal said. “It’s fine if you want to keep secrets, I won’t keep asking.”
“Is it? Is it really?” Ilya asked.
“Mm, probably,” Durandal said and shrugged.
Why does it sound like the two of them don’t trust me? It’s not like the world’s going to end just because I made a deal with the crown prince to—ah, I almost spoiled it. Positive thoughts! “So where do we go now?” I want to go shopping! I saw so many neat things outside on that road, but I didn’t say anything because Ilya’s dad looked like he wanted to keep up his fierce expression. It wouldn’t have been nice of me to ruin it by telling him to wait so I could look at the displays. He’s a bit like Durandal in that aspect. Why are men so prideful?
“I was going to reserve some lodgings for us,” Ilya’s dad said. “Why? Is there something you wanted to do? The request the crown prince gave you, perhaps?”
“No, that’s not going to happen for a while.” It isn’t! Really. I promise. They’ll probably forget about it by the time I fulfill the deal, or if their memory’s anything like mine, they’ll forget about it as soon as I’m out of sight. “I want to go shopping. Maybe there’ll be spirit seeds that I can plant in my underwear.”
“In your underwear…?” Ilya’s dad asked. Was that concern on his face? Don’t worry, I’ll make sure they’re female spirits! “Why…, no, never mind. Then I’ll be waiting at the Demon’s Peak Inn. I trust you’ll be able to find your way there after you’re done?”
“Nope! Let me take Ilya, and then it’ll be fine.”
“What? You’re a wanted person right now! I don’t want to get involved,” Ilya said and pursed her lips. “Besides, you have Durandal. He’s so … confident. His sense of direction should be good, right?”
Durandal looked away.
“Nuh-uh. He’s even worse than me when it comes to navigation.”
Ilya’s face fell. “What about Puppers?”
I’m not sure…. The only thing I know about Puppers is his ability to soften my socks and poison the enemy. Is he good at directions? Can he cook?
“I’m an ex-spear spirit, not a map spirit,” Puppers said from my socks. “The only navigation I have to do is finding my way to my opponent’s vitals.”
Easy there, Puppers. You’re a sock spirit now, remember? Just do your job and make my socks nice and fluffy. “And there we have it. You’ve officially volunteered to lead us to the inn after we’re done shopping.”
“What volunteering? I’ve been conscripted,” Ilya said and glanced at her dad. He smiled at her and nodded. As usual, he’s on my side when it comes to bullying Ilya. I’m not quite sure why that is, but I won’t question it. Ah, did I say bullying? I meant guiding. Mhm. “This is ridiculous. How come a divine warrior doesn’t know how to differentiate north from south? You just look at the sun and know.”
“Not everyone can be as smart as a mage, Ilya. It’s called tradeoffs. I get super strength, you get super brains.”
“There are some smart warriors out there,” Ilya said and sighed but led the way despite her complaints.
“Well, those aren’t real warriors.”
“Technically, they aren’t,” Ilya said and shrugged. “They’re called battlemages, people who’ve crossed the first wall in martial arts and magic. None of them have been able to cross the second wall though. Their combat prowess is amazing, but their potential caps early on. The path of the magician is the only way to the top…. Unless we’re talking about someone like you.”
“Why can’t they pass the second wall?” That’s the one from spirit warrior to divine warrior, right? Just shove some cores down their throats and bam! Evolution.
“Magicians can’t do what you did. Cores are painful for us to absorb, remember?” Ilya sighed before waving a badge at the guards. What was that? Her family emblem? How come I don’t get one? The gate opened, and the sound of the rabble outside filled the air for a second before it fell silent. Everyone had turned to stare at us again. I should buy a cloak; I’m tired of being stared at. It’s squirrel nature! The only things that stare at squirrels are those that want to eat squirrels. Hmm. Would I taste good?
Eh, I probably would considering divine beasts are always trying to eat me instead of chase me out of their territory. But that doesn’t mean I plan on tasting myself! …Puppers did say I’d regrow limbs if I lost them, right? Lucia! Stop thinking strange things. Shopping, remember? It’s great that all the stalls form two neat lines all the way along the road. Even without Ilya, there’s zero chance of me getting lost this way.
“What did you see that you wanted to buy?” Ilya asked, grabbing my hand. Was she nervous? Probably not, knowing her, she was making sure I didn’t run off without her. Which I totally wouldn’t have done. Like I’ve said hundreds of times before, I’m a responsible—ooh, acorn stew! “Don’t move so fast!”
Ah, oops, almost ripped Ilya’s arm off. Oh wells. “Give me a bowl, mister.” The person manning the stall was an old man. Above his head, there were two triangular ears. He had a big bushy tail that hung to the ground. It was gray with black stripes, or was it black with gray stripes? How can you tell? The old man smiled at me; some of his teeth were missing. Compared to all the other stalls, his was a bit rundown with shoddy craftsmanship, but it was the only one selling acorn stew! He pulled a wooden bowl out from under his counter and ladled a generous helping of stew into it from the pot in front of him.
“An extra portion of meat for the beautiful young lady,” he said, taking another scoop from the pot.
“Thanks!” I knew I was beautiful! I took a sip and looked at Ilya. “Do you want a bowl?”
“I thought you had to eat like a tiger to become a tiger,” Ilya said and rolled her eyes.
“Even tigers drink acorn stew!” Huh? The old man and I looked at each other. We both had said the same thing at the same time. This is fate! I grabbed the old man’s hand with my free hand, retrieved five gold coins from my interspacial ring, placed them into his palm without letting anyone else see, and curled his fingers around them.
“Live a good life, mister. You deserve it.” No wonder why people of the same race stick together. They think alike! Humans are so emotional and greedy. Demons are so cold and logical. But beastkin, beastkin are generous and kind! Only another beastkin could understand me. …Disregard the fact my family tried to drown me before selling me to slave traders, and the fact that Durandal and Ilya can read me like an open book. Well, maybe with the gold I gave this man, he won’t have to drown a future grandchild.
The old man cautiously lifted one finger before closing his hand even tighter than before. “Thank you, beautiful miss,” he said and pocketed the coins in a flash. “Your kindness, I’ll remember it forever.”
Mm, this stew’s delicious. I haven’t had it in so long. While training, who has time to pick up enough acorns to make a stew? And no one sold acorns either because humans and demons can’t appreciate fine dining! Well, demons had hot chocolate which comes from miniature black acorns that grow on trees, so I guess they’re alright.
“What’s that?” a voice asked from behind me.
“Acorn stew, a meal fit for pigs and cows,” an older voice said. Mm, happy thoughts, Lucia. It’s been so long since you had good-tasting stew. Don’t let some ignorant men ruin it for you. One sip at a time. Savor the taste. Swirl it a bit with your spoon.
“Then why’s the expression she’s making saying it’s the greatest thing in the world?” the voice asked. Okay, what does this person look like to have the qualifications to sound so arrogant? Oh, he’s a lionkin. Beside him, there was a grouchy fellow with black feathers, a beak, and a pair of wings for arms. Behind him, there was a neat formation of guards. The lionkin tilted his head and stared at me before sniffing the air. He slapped the crowkin’s shoulder. “Fetch me some.”
The grouchy crowkin’s—or was he a black birdkin?—face cramped. “Your Highness, this meal isn’t suitable for you. If your father finds out—”
“Are you going to tell him?” the lionkin asked, glaring at his companion.
The crowkin flinched. “N-no,” he said. “I just—”
“Then do as I say,” the lionkin said with a growl.
“Right away, Your Highness,” the crowkin said and glared at me before approaching the stall. What was his problem? And why am I meeting so many princes in a single day?
“You,” the lionkin said, turning his gaze onto me. “You look familiar. Where have I seen you before?”
Probably on a poster put up by Snow. But I’m not going to tell him that! “Maybe you’ve fallen in love with me at first sight?” I am a beautiful young lady after all.
The crowkin coughed and nearly dropped the bowl of stew that he had just received. The lionkin furrowed his brow and looked me up and down. Don’t tell me he was seriously considering it. “No. That’s impossible.”
You don’t have to be so blunt either!
“Your stew, Your Highness,” the crowkin said and handed the lionkin the bowl. Then he turned around and glared at me, drawing a line in front of his neck with his wing.
I ignored him and stared at the lionkin instead. He brought the bowl up to his face and sniffed it. I could sense Ilya and the old stall owner behind me tensing. Wait, why was Ilya tensing? The lionkin frowned before bringing the bowl to his lips. Ilya and the old man sucked in their breaths. The prince took a sip. His brow furrowed as he spat into his bowl. He tossed the bowl onto the ground. “This tastes like shit. Break the stall down and bring me the owner’s head.”
Wow! What the f***? Killing someone for such a nonsensical reason!? If I killed people based on the quality of food they made, Ilya, Durandal, and Puppers wouldn’t be alive right now. I placed my bowl of stew down and drew my sword, but the old man grabbed my arm. “You, you don’t have to be involved in this,” he said. “This old man doesn’t have many years of life left. There’s no reason for you to die with me. No beastkin can disobey the tyrant.”
The lionkin’s formation of guards stomped towards us. The surroundings fell silent as everyone turned their eyes towards the show, none of them intent on stepping in.
“Is this how beastkin nobility treat their people?” Ilya asked, stepping in front of me. She’s so brave! “No wonder why you animals are the weakest amongst the fae.” Hey. Rude. No need to make things personal. “Ice, I know I don’t use you often, but listen up! Let those who oppose me learn the meaning of cold. Frost Nova!”
A bright white light engulfed the soldiers in the formation. When the light disappeared, they were frozen solid. Or at least their armor was. Chilled breaths and banging sounds came from inside as the soldiers struggled to break free.
The lionkin’s eyes narrowed. “A fifth-circle spell cast within a few seconds? You’re a sixth-circle magician. Who are you?”
“Ilya Pentorn, daughter of the Duke of Tristam.” Ilya snorted and tilted her head up. Compared to her dad’s domineering pose, Ilya’s looked cute, but at least she was trying.
The lionkin’s face fell. He walked up to the armor sets and knocked on them with his hands, breaking the ice. “How long are you buffoons going to keep embarrassing yourselves? Let’s go.”
Whoa, Ilya scared them away and I didn’t even have to lift a finger. …That probably was her plan, wasn’t it? I vaguely recall something Ilya said about not fighting random people at the Godking’s Brawl…, but that was such a long time ago—at least a couple of days. It wouldn’t be my fault if I forgot.
“Thank you, Your Grace,” the old stall owner said and fell to his knees while lowering his head.
“Don’t thank me,” Ilya said and gestured towards me. “You should thank her. I only did that because there would’ve been a huge mess if she killed a prince over a bowl of stew.”
“A bowl of acorn stew! Acorn! If you say I killed someone over stew, people would think I’m crazy. That’s why you have to specify acorn stew, so people know I’m perfectly sane.”
Ilya rolled her eyes and ignored me. Wow. “Though I don’t think the prince would care too much about you, you should probably pack your stall and lay low. If you need a new place of employment, you can come work for the Pentorn family.”
The old man nodded before rotating on his knees towards me. “Thank you,” he said and lowered his head.
“No problem!” It’s not like I had to do anything. And the conflict was resolved peacefully. There’s no way a war would start between the demons and the fae because of some incident over acorn stew, right?