Natsu almost dropped her cup of tea when the door of the safe house was open. Upon realizing it was nobody other than her loyal deputy Pantu, she sighed in relief. In terms of composure, she was not doing an impressive job, which would be enough to kill her today.
“They are coming,” Pantu announced.
And so it begins, Natsu thought, filling her lungs with air one more time. “If you are sure of what your eyes have told you, then you must leave me here, Pantu.”
Pantu furrowed his brow. “We are in this together, Natsu.”
“No, we are not.” Natsu had been mulling over this desperate situation for a whole day. “If Qianfan is after the Wraith, then it’s only me whom he needs alive.”
Pantu was at loss for words, his eyes wide, as if her conclusion had shocked him.
Natsu put the full cup on the table next to her, then she approached her dumbfounded deputy, trying to cast him her best smile in the last few days. “It’s alright. You have already done enough, my friend.” She held his hand, then she gave him what was probably her last order to him. “You must leave now.”
Gnashing his teeth, he quickly looked through the window, then he turned to her. “You won’t be alone in this, Natsu,” he promised. “My eyes and I will be watching.”
Natsu patted Pantu’s arm, signaling him to hurry. Giving her an apologetic look, he bowed and took his leave.
Now alone in the safe house—which wouldn’t be safe any longer in the next few minutes—Natsu sat at the table facing the door and took a sip from her tea, which was still warm. The thudding footsteps approaching her door were so many that she wondered how Pantu could evade all those men surrounding the house.
Two men rammed the door with a log. “She is here!” one of them yelled. Their noisy entrance didn’t deter her from drinking her tea, though.
“Drop your weapons and raise your hands!” The second man scanned the hall, pointing his sword at her as he slowly stepped forward. She was cornered, ridiculously outnumbered, and yet those bastards found some reason to worry about her. Even in her darkest moment, it was a little bit satisfying to see how those armed men still feared her. Less than a year in the shadow business, and she had built quite a reputation.
“I’m not sure how you regard a cup of tea, but I’m unarmed.” Natsu took one last sip, put the empty cup on the table, rose to her feet, and walked toward Qianfan’s men. “Let’s go, boys. Your boss must have been waiting for this moment for long.”
* * *
Four more men were waiting for their two fellows outside the safe house. But as they tied Natsu’s hands behind her back and walked her a few buildings away, she realized that Qianfan had sent a small army to ring the perimeter of the whole area. So far she counted four carts loaded with murderers armed with swords, falchions, and crossbows; a force that a commander would deploy to capture a gang, not an unarmed woman. Quite a disappointment for those men, she thought, but she couldn’t deny that the sight of the convoy escorting her was flattering.
From the road they were taking, Natsu guessed they were heading to Qianfan’s ‘humble’ house at the center of the town. Why would the most powerful man in Hokydo need to hide? she reflected, sighing as she gazed at the slums of this dreadful town. The miserable folks of Hokydo were just watching the train of carts traversing their streets. Some of them were surely aware that the lady surrounded by all those outlaws was in trouble, but none of those maggots would dare to help her. They were Hokydoans, and that meant they already had their own share of trouble to deal with on daily basis. Nobody was eager for more.
As expected, the procession halted at the walls of Qianfan’s house, and that was when Natsu realized the weight of the grave mistake she had made. I should have done a better job in protecting them, she thought sorrowfully, contemplating the guards posted at the gate and the crossbowmen atop the walls. She should have turned her house into a fort, like the one she was beholding right now. She should have assigned a decent force to guard her family wherever they went. A few things she had forgotten to do, just because she wanted her mother and her son to live the delusion she was living. That there was nothing to worry about in living her husband’s life. That she was just a merchant; a lie that had initially been intended to silence her bickering mother. By the time, Natsu herself started to believe her own lie until she had become oblivious to the dangers accompanying her profession. Oblivious to the fact that she was a smuggler; that she was one of the dangerous names in her business. And usually dangerous smugglers had dangerous rivals.
Without any sort of resistance, Natsu let Qianfan’s underlings walk her through the small garden to the door of the two-story house. The minion holding her arm tightened his grip when they stepped in, and she was not surprised. The instant she saw Qianfan’s face, she felt the blood boiling in her veins. She was not ready for this moment, for this reunion with the rascal who had murdered her mother and abducted her son. But surviving long enough for this meeting was not something she would bet on.
Qianfan motioned for his men to bring Natsu to the table he was sitting at. A round table that had no plates, bottles, or any utensils on it. It’s just a barrier for protection, she reckoned. As if being tied, outnumbered is not enough for him to feel safe in his own fort.
The black-bearded man grinned gloatingly at her as she sat across from him. He turned to his minions and asked, “Did you face any unexpected hurdles?”
One of Qianfan’s men shook his head. “She was alone in the house that old woman told us about.”
Daiyu. Natsu’s face must have betrayed her shock; she could tell from Qianfan’s odious smile that even grew wider. “Your last ally has sold you for a small pouch of silver,” he said.
“She couldn’t be cheaper than the bastard who killed my mother and took my child.”
“You are starting to disappoint me, Natsu.” Qianfan didn’t seem offended, though. “I thought you could do better than throwing some insults.”
Natsu was eager to do much more than insulting him indeed. But not before she got what she was here for. “Where is my boy, Qianfan? I must see him.”
“Must?” Resting his hairy chin on his right hand, he smiled in amusement. “You are too demanding for someone cornered.”
“Let’s not fool each other.” Natsu looked him in the eye. “You could have killed me, but you didn’t because I have something you want.”
Qianfan met her gaze, still keeping his wry smile. “You do, but that’s not the only reason why I’m keeping you alive.” He leaned forward toward her. “You see, you are an interesting woman, Natsu. You are not the kind one would meet very often in this country. You deserve to understand why I did what I did to your people before I eventually kill you.”
His nonchalance while making such an announcement took her off her guard. After drawing a deep breath, she said, “If killing me guarantees my son’s safety, then so be it. I will do whatever it takes.”
Qianfan leaned back in his seat, curling his lip as he shook his head. “Look at you. We both could have become the kings of Hokydo, but your greed got the better of you. Crushed you. And now, you are nothing.”
Look who is talking about greed, like a whore preaching virtue.
Should she remind him that he was the one who had started the bloodshed by claiming what didn’t belong to him? Are you fooling yourself now? It’s totally not worth it. “You won,” she admitted. “Hokydo is all yours now. Is too much for a crushed woman to spend the remaining years of her miserable life with her son?” She couldn’t help glaring at him as she continued, “Her only family, after you killed her mother?”
“No, it is not. But I don’t like to leave loose ends, Natsu. Sparing you after our first meeting was a mistake that I will not repeat.” Qianfan gave her a studying look. “Now tell me which is a better option for you: killing both you and your son, or killing only you?”
“It doesn’t have to be this way.”
“Yes, it does.” He slammed his palm across the table, then he pointed an accusing finger at her. “You are a murderer too, Natsu. You take lives to get what you seek. Even your people; you don’t deign to sacrifice their lives to save yours. You are ruthless, and that’s how you get things done. That’s how you rose quickly in this business! But you never understood the notion of rivalry. Botan and I were rivals, but we were never enemies. We set rules, respected them, and that’s how we both grew wealthier. But you?” He clenched his jaw. “You always want to play alone. You loathe the rules of this business, and that makes you untrustworthy. Makes you dangerous. And I only know one way to deal with dangerous people.”
“Was my mother one of those dangerous people?” Natsu snarled.
“Oh, please! Don’t you dare pretend that you cared for her, or even your son ! Any woman in your place would lose her mind over her dead mother, and roam this damned town to find her lost boy. But you, Natsu? You are too practical, too sane, too heartless to do that! When I let your informants know that I’m after the Wraith, I thought you would reach out to me at once to trade for your son’s life. But plainly, you needed some time to decide which was more precious to you; your only child, or your fabled ship.”
The likes of him would never understand it was the other way around. She had lurked, but not because of her sanity. She had lurked in spite of losing it. She had wanted to roam every corner in Hokydo, to scream her son’s name, hoping someone would answer her and tell her where he was, but she had had to fight that urge. She had reined back her fear, her rage, because she had clung to the faint hope of reuniting with her son. “I needed some time indeed.” She peered at Qianfan. “But not to decide which is more precious.”
Qianfan tilted his head, squinting at her.
“I knew I had one chance to catch you,” Natsu added, leaning forward toward him. “I wanted to make sure it would count.”
“Catch me?” Qianfan chuckled. “Well, I think there might be a slight deviation in your ambitious plan.”
“On the contrary. It’s working perfectly so far.”
Natsu’s curt announcement did carve an impact on Qianfan’s face. “Daiyu,” he said, his eyes wide. “Was it you?”
“You can’t say she lied to you. I was exactly where she told your men, wasn’t I?”
Qianfan pushed to his feet. “Tell them outside to keep their eyes open,” he commanded the minion who had walked her into the house. The king of Hokydo didn’t seem as confident as he had been a few minutes ago. “And send three patrols to—”
A thunderous explosion outside the house interrupted Qianfan’s orders, the shatters and the door swinging open, the floor beneath Natsu’s feet shaking a little bit. While everybody inside and outside the house was still in shock, she took the liberty of leaving her seat to have a better view of the smoke and fire rising above the ruins of what remained of the wall of Qianfan’s fort.
And from behind the smoke, came the roars. Roars of warriors who didn’t belong to this island. No, not just the island of Hokydo; from the whole Empire of Koya.
“This is impossible.” Qianfan gaped at the brawny, muscular warriors tearing his men apart with their axes and war hammers. “They were too far to be here this soon, I was told.”
The Skandivians were too far from this part of the world indeed. But thanks to Natsu’s new ally who had the ability to open portals, she had assembled thirty warriors from the far northwestern lands of Skandivia in nearly five hours. Though they didn’t outnumber the guards here, it was plain that against the battle-hardened Skandivians, Qianfan’s minions wouldn’t stand a chance.
“It’s over,” she said firmly to Qianfan, who was still watching the Skandivians slay his men in the garden one after another. “Now tell me where my son is, and I shall make your death swifter than you deserve.”
“You still lose.” Qianfan drew a dagger from his belt, and before he might lunge at Natsu, she kicked her chair toward him. The wooden thing hit her raging rival, but it didn’t hinder him for long. “After you die, your mercenaries will need someone to pay them.”
Natsu, whose hands were still tied, stepped back to dodge Qianfan’s stab. But she lost her balance when she hit the table. Growling, Qianfan lunged at her, but she rolled on the ground, barely evading another strike. Lying on her back, she kicked him below the belly when he lunged again. The hit stunned him, giving her a moment to rise to her feet, but with her hands bound together behind her back, she didn’t have a fighting chance. “You whore!” Qianfan grunted as he slashed at her. To protect her chest, Natsu instinctively turned, screaming as the blade cut her arm instead. The next stab was a low one. But one instant before it might touch her skin, Qianfan was sent flying in the air until he hit the wall with his back.
“You are late!” she bellowed at Akira, who stood by the doorstep, his hands stretched out.
“If you haven’t noticed, there is a fight ensuing outside that I have to go past.” Akira strode toward her, then nodded his chin toward her fallen rival. “What do you want me to do with him?”
“You have done enough,” she said, her eyes fixed on Qianfan. Still lying on the floor, the bearded bastard groaned, his dagger fallen not far away from him. “Untie me, and I will take care of the rest.”
Akira seemed a little bit confused for a moment before he stalked past Natsu, collected Qianfan’s dagger from the ground, and returned to her.
“Seriously?” She couldn’t help chuckling as the mage used the blade to cut the rope binding her hands together.
“For your hands’ safety.” After he was done with the rope, Akira handed her the dagger. “He is all yours.”
One of Qianfan’s men returned from the garden, obviously to aid his master, but Akira stopped him with another telekinetic slap that slammed the armed minion against the wall. “I’m watching your back,” Akira assured Natsu.
Gripping Qianfan’s dagger, Natsu approached her foe who seemed unable to rise to his feet. The slam against the wall could have broken his spine—not that she cared—and now, all he could do was groan, move his head, and surely, breathe.
“This can end swiftly or ugly.” Natsu sat on top of Qianfan, laying the flat of the blade on his cheek. “Where is my boy?”
Qianfan’s answer was nothing but a groan.
“You’ve become mute now?” Natsu gnashed her teeth before she planted the dagger in Qianfan’s right hand, his cry of agony giving her a slight feeling of satisfaction. “SPEAK!”
Qianfan mumbled incoherently, as if he was trying to overcome the pain to say something. To give him some help, Natsu snatched the dagger from his hand, Qianfan howling but not for long this time.
Natsu’s patience was running thin. Though she didn’t loathe anybody or anything like that bearded creature beneath her, she would never be keen about his death more than she would care about her son’s return. “I might change my mind if you tell me now.”
Qianfan opened his mouth, but instead of uttering the answer she was eager to hear, a faint smile tugged at his lips for a second. “You lie.”
Mad with fury, Natsu grunted as she drove the blade through Qianfan’s good hand. While he was howling again, she barked, “WHERE IS HE?”
After a minute of gasping, Qianfan finally said, “I…will…take…you…there…”
A desperate attempt from him to escape from the corner she had backed him into. Did he think she would fall for that? “You are not going anywhere.”
Grimacing, Qianfan seemed to be mustering all the strength he could. “You want…your son…or not?”
“Listen carefully, you whoreson dog! Because this is how it’s going to work. You say where my son is, I hold you in my custody while my men and I bring my son back. If I don’t find him there, I’ll return to dismember you.”
Qianfan should know better she wasn’t not bluffing. “What if…you find him?” He glowered at her.
She wanted him dead. She wanted her son back. Priorities, Natsu! “You don’t deserve to live,” she spat. “But I will spare you if my son comes back to me safe and sound.”
Qianfan looked at her doubtfully, and after a moment of hesitation, he said, “The cellar.”
Was there a cellar? Here, in this very house? That was news to Natsu. “How many guards?”
“No guards.” Qianfan winced, glancing at the dagger in her hand. “Just locked.”
He should know better that lying now would bring him more bleeding and agony. “Go find that cellar,” she said to Akira as she rose to her feet. “I can take care of myself.” The fight outside was almost over anyway.”
“You sure you—”
“Just go at once,” she urged the young mage. Couldn’t he understand how impatient she was right now?
While Akira was looking for that cellar, Natsu kept looking from Qianfan to the door and back. Her Skandivian mercenaries were winning the fight in the garden, and her rival was still on the floor. He appeared to be surrendering to the fact that he was defeated, but that wouldn’t make her let down her guard. Not until Akira returned with her son safe and sound.
“A mage.” Qianfan grimaced, putting his good hand on the bleeding one. “How did you persuade him?”
Natsu pointed the dagger at him. “What kind of an answer do you expect from me?”
“Nothing. I’m just impressed. You can’t tempt these people with coin because they don’t need it.” He took a deep breath, clearly struggling with his pain, and then he tiredly continued, “That’s why I can’t help wondering,” he flinched, “what do you might have that he needs so badly?” He switched his eyes from his hand to her. “You understand he will be punished for what he did here, right?”
Natsu peered at him. “You dare to make threats now?”
“I’m not making any,” he said hurriedly. “I’m talking about the folks from Sun Castle.”
Curious to hear more, she asked, “What about them?”
“They have strict rules about wielding sorcery outside the walls of their fortress.” Qianfan was checking the impact of his words on her face, she was aware. “I hear they don’t take unauthorized use of sorcery lightly. Especially when used for violent purposes.”
What was the game her cornered foe was playing? “What if this was authorized?”
Surprisingly, Qianfan was able to manage a crooked smile that irked her. “You want me to believe that the boy you are shouting your commands to is sent by Sun Castle?”
Footsteps were coming from inside the house. Footsteps of more than one person, some of them light.
“Riku!” Natsu’s heart quivered the instant she saw her son holding Akira’s hand. The young mage let go of him as Natsu sprinted and squeezed her son against her chest. Ignoring everything around her, she was unable to hold her tears when she buried her face in his black soft hair. It didn’t matter that Qianfan or Akira were watching. It didn’t matter how she seemed to them right now. With Riku in her arms, nothing else mattered.
Natsu held her son’s face with both hands. “Sweetheart, did they hurt you? Tell me, and Mama shall punish them.”
“They hurt Obaasan, Mama,” Riku whimpered, his innocent eyes betraying his horror. Had those bastards made a five-year-old child witness the murder of his grandmother?
“They won’t hurt us anymore, sweetheart.” Natsu kissed his head softly and turned to Akira. “Hold him for me, please.”
The young mage took Riku’s hand, staring at her quizzically. Ignoring him, she strode toward Qianfan, who was struggling to lean his broken back against the wall. “What are you going to do?” her foe asked in alarm, his eyes fixed on the dagger she was gripping. “You gave me your word!”
“I gave my son my word too!” With all hatred and fury in the world, she howled as she stabbed him hysterically, blood gushing out of his abdomen and his chest, splattering all over her face and tunic. The bastard stopped gurgling, his motionless body thudding on the floor.
Natsu beckoned her terrified son over. “There is nothing to fear now, sweetheart. Just come closer to your mother,” she said softly. When her hesitant child approached her, she pointed her red blade at Qianfan’s corpse. “You see, Riku? This is what Mama does to whoever thinks of hurting you. No evil people shall ever dare to come close to you again. Do you understand me?”
Blood was still dripping from her blade when her astounded son nodded silently. Truth be told, she wasn’t sure which scared her child more; Qianfan’s body that lay sprawled in a pond of blood, or his mother who had slain a man in a moment of rage.
The fight in the garden was over. When the Skandivians started to trickle into the hall, Natsu said in their Goranian tongue, “Whatever you find in this house is all yours.”
While the mercenaries were collecting their trophies, Akira came to Natsu. “Your turn to deliver,” he said, his hands on his waist.
Her son was back. Her foe was dead. The young mage had delivered his end of the agreement in full. “I’m in your debt forever. This is everything the mage in the mask has told me.”