13. Calm Before the Storm

Natsu jumped off the boat as she and Pantu reached the dark, abandoned beach. If they didn’t stop for rest, they would make it to the northern side of the town before midnight.

“Hopefully, we run into them,” Pantu muttered as they walked through the defile between the mountains of the northern coast. “Maybe he was waiting for nightfall to make his move.”

Natsu hoped her deputy was right about Sogeki-hei, who had taken longer than expected to return with her son and her mother. Though Pantu had begged her to stay on board the Wraith while he went on his own to look for Sogeki-hei and her family, Natsu had insisted on joining him. Actually, Pantu was the one joining her. It was my task from the beginning. I shouldn’t have let anybody else undertake it on my behalf.

“We should slow down a little bit lest we get tired,” Pantu offered. As Natsu ignored his piece of advice, he added, “Slower is faster sometimes.”

“Pantu, please.” Natsu wanted to avoid arguing with her deputy right now. With her anxiety getting worse by the minute, she might not be able to control whatever words coming out of her mouth.

Thankfully, Pantu didn’t share more of his wisdom with her until they reached the end of the defile, which was not too far away from the quiet edge of the town. “Where are we going?” she asked her deputy after noticing he was not taking the shortest path to her house.

“You and I need to get cloaks before we wander the town,” he justified. “Qianfan’s men could be watching now.”

It was dark already, but Natsu wouldn’t protest against Pantu’s precautionary measure as long as it didn’t imply wasting too much time. “Daiyu’s house then?” The drunken widow Natsu mentioned was not just a tailor; she was one of Pantu’s informants. “Most probably, she is not back home yet.”

“Let’s hope she abandons the tavern earlier tonight,” he said, his eyes betraying his doubt. Everybody in town knew that Daiyu was always the last to leave the tavern. Most of the time, it was the tavern keeper who dismissed her because he needed to shut the place and go to sleep.

The widow was sitting on the doorstep of her cottage when Natsu and Pantu found her. Still not done with the bottle of ale in her hand, she didn’t notice her late visitors until they stood right in front of her. “Hells and demons.” Daiyu gaped at them, her eyes wide. “I’m not hallucinating, am I?”

“The filth you drink is never that strong.” Pantu helped the old widow up and walked her into the cottage, Natsu following them, closing the door behind her.

“What are you doing here, you two? Shouldn’t you be hiding somewhere?” Daiyu asked them, the bottle still in her hand. “Wait a minute. You are not going to hide here, are you?”

Without taking Daiyu’s permission, Pantu rummaged through the pile of outfits cramming the table in the center of the small reception hall. “Don’t worry, young lady. We will borrow two cloaks and leave.”

Even that lonely widow who lived at the edge of the town was aware of the current situation with Qianfan. Curious to hear what that drunken lady knew, Natsu asked her, “Why do you think we should be hiding?”

Daiyu slammed the bottle on the table. “You don’t know? Qianfan’s men have been sweeping the entire town to find you.” She winced, shaking her head. “Too much blood and fire in the past few days.” Grimacing, she stook a gulp of ale, then said, “You haven’t heard about your family and your house, have you?”

Mentioning Natsu’s family alarmed her. Please, no. “What happened to them?” Natsu gripped the widow’s wrist. “Is my son alright? Speak!”

Pantu hurried to Natsu to pull her off Daiyu. “Easy on her, Natsu. She is a friend.”

“Get away from me!” Natsu shoved him, then held Daiyu’s shoulders and shook her. “Speak quickly, woman! What do you know?”

Daiyu got rid of Natsu’s grasp. “They didn’t find his body. So, there is a chance he is still alive.”

His body? “What on earth are you talking about?”

“They found the corpses of your mother and the man who was trying to sneak her out of the town. Whoever stabbed them to death left their bodies on the street, in the heart of the marketplace, so that the merchants would find them when they went to their shops next morning.”

*  *  *

Sitting on her own in Daiyu’s cottage, Natsu needed an hour to grasp what the drunken, wrinkled woman had told her.

Her mother was killed. Sogeki-hei, whom Natsu had sent to get her family out of this damned town, was killed. And her son Riku hadn’t been seen since then. Too much for her troubled mind and broken heart to deal with.

Natsu hadn’t been there when the bastards had done it, and yet she couldn’t dismiss the intrusive imagery of her mother’s torn abdomen. Couldn’t dismiss her mother’s screams of fear, her shrieks of agony. Those lowly sons of whores! They didn’t deign to hurt an old woman! With everything precious in this world, I swear I will make them face my wrath before they face the wrath of the Light in hell!

And where had they taken her son? Had the rascals dared to lay their filthy hands on him? Every time she tried to imagine how terrified her poor little boy could be right now tore her heart apart. I must find him tonight, Natsu thought as she pushed to her feet and strode to the door. He can’t stay all that long with those monsters.

Pantu, who had been waiting outside with Daiyu, hurried toward Natsu upon seeing her exit the cottage. “Where to, Natsu?”

“I have a son to bring back,” Natsu rasped as she went on her way.

“Natsu, wait!” Pantu scurried after her and caught her wrist. “Did you forget what I told you?”

“Let go of me!” Natsu wriggled to break free from his grip, but he held her tight with both hands. “My boy must not stay one more hour with those bastards. Do you understand?”

“It’s you who must understand!” To Natsu’s surprise, Pantu yelled at her. “This is exactly what he wants you to do! To act mindlessly until you get yourself killed! Is that what you want to do? Is that how you want to save Riku?”

For a second, Natsu’s wrecked mind tried to consider Pantu’s words. Another second later, she found herself bursting into tears, Pantu allowing her to bury her face in his shoulder. For a second, it felt wrong to show how vulnerable she was in front of her deputy. But above being a boss, she was a daughter who grieved for her murdered mother. A mother who was scared about her lost son. A mere person who felt too helpless to protect her loved ones.

Yes, she was vulnerable. She had the right to show that.

Natsu pulled herself away from Pantu and muttered, “I just want him back.”

“We will find a way to bring him back,” Pantu promised softly. “But we need to be calm and reasonable to do that.”

Calm and reasonable. Two words that had become too absurd for her to use.

“You can resume this conversation inside,” Daiyu urged them, scanning the dark, desolate area around her cottage. “We can never know who might be watching us right now.”

Natsu didn’t argue, and silently she headed back to the cottage, Pantu and the widow following her. When Daiyu offered her one of her bottles, Natsu waved at her dismissively as she picked the nearest chair. “My mind is shattered already. I need whatever remained of my sanity to think of my next move.”

Pantu nodded approvingly as he stood facing Natsu, his arms folded across his chest, his back against the wall. “That’s a good start.” He turned to Daiyu. “Are you sure Qianfan didn’t leave a message for Natsu to state his demands?”

Daiyu shook her head, then said, “Doesn’t that mean it’s possible he doesn’t have the boy?”

“He is only five,” Pantu pointed out. “It’s unlikely he wasn’t with his grandmother and Sogeki-hei when Qianfan’s men found them.” He paused thoughtfully. “He wants to throw Natsu off balance. He wants her to rush into town to look for her son blindly, with her guards down, so that he could easily strike her dead.”

“Alright.” Natsu clenched her jaw. “Now I’m not going blindly; what is the plan?”

Pantu heaved a sigh. “I must talk to my eyes here to find out Riku’s whereabouts. Someone must have seen something.”

“And after we find out?”

Pantu peered at her for a moment. “Natsu, it must be me only. You and the rest of the crew will flee to Oyoto while I handle—”

“That’s not going to happen, and you know that.”

“Natsu, please.” Pantu looked her in the eye. “I need you to trust me with this mission.”

“I have always trusted you with missions, Pantu. But this is my son we are talking about. My everything!”

“If you want to stay on Hokydo, then I must remind you that Qianfan’s men are not leaving a stone unturned,” said Daiyu. “If they find you, what remains to your little boy?”

We need to be calm and reasonable. It was hard to do that just one hour after hearing today’s shocking news. “You are right, good woman. I had better stay away and let my men handle this matter.” She rose to her feet, gesturing toward Pantu. “Just give this man a cloak to leave you be.”

Pantu seemed confused as Natsu went to the door and exited. After a minute of waiting, Pantu joined her outside the cottage wearing his new cloak. They stood facing each other for a moment before Pantu broke the silence. “You really meant what you just said? You will let your men handle the matter while you flee to Oyoto?”

“I didn’t say I’d go to Oyoto.” Natsu lowered her voice. “I will take the Wraith back to our cavern, and from there I will head to the southern hills.”

“The southern hills?” Pantu furrowed his brow. “Why?”

Natsu poked his chest with her finger. “Because you are going to hurry to that common friend between you and the mage. Tell him that I need an extremely urgent meeting at our usual place.”