A myriad of shadows swarmed the freshly plopped body as it sank into the sea.
With barely a glance at his enchanted scroll, Eric crossed out the words Ruby One. The list would inform the Empress of his kill, as it always did. Another chosen down and another bonus in his future.
Whistling a bright melody, Eric left the fish to their meal and walked down the beaten path through the dense woods. The treeline thinned, giving way to open fields and paved road. Given how early it was, there were a lot of people on the road to Sitay Naym. Eric undid his braid and pulled his scarlet waves back, leaving the rest to tumble down his muscular back.
His amethyst gaze flitted from carriage to carriage, but it was just a bunch of bland travelers, all in worn cloaks with faded trousers. No one of interest to investigate, nor was there anyone to lure to his bed for the day. What a disappointing crowd. Perhaps the tavern would be more rewarding.
He loosened the ties that kept his low-cut, sapphire blouse closed, revealing more of his alabaster chest. The hem, of course, embroidered with crashing waves. Between his teasing top, his snug deep sea-green trousers, and his quality, knee-high black leather boots, Eric was certain he’d catch someone’s eye.
– – – – – – –
Eric walked through the familiar and welcoming side of town. The opulent walls were an assortment of rainbows; some were intricately designed to display scenes, while others displayed complex, geometric patterns.
Jovial shanties flooded through the Jewel of the Sea’s doorway. Eric joined the chorus of voices as he entered, the air buzzing with early morning glee. The crowd was a mix of leather clad sellswords, patchwork sailors, and flamboyant singles looking to attract their next bedfellow. Great Seas—he loved coastal cities.
Eric flopped into a hard seat near the back—where the exits would be visible and few would bother him. Vincent, a lovely waiter with chestnut curls hanging in front of his hazel eyes, wove his way through the press of patrons to take Eric’s order. With thoughts of removing the simple black tunic from Vincent’s lithe form, Eric searched the room for potential targets.
In a shadowed corner, a woman hunched at her table. Her fair skin and tattered, teal dress contrasted with the tanned locals and well-maintained travelers. When Vincent brought the woman her food, she tugged at strands of her deep blue hair. The two gestured at each other—Vincent explaining things slowly, the woman not speaking at all.
“Apologies for the wait.” Vincent set Eric’s berry covered pancakes on the table.
“Having problems?” Eric asked, nodding in the woman’s direction.
“Just a bit of a language barrier. She’s plenty of gold to pay, though.”
“Does she?” He tapped the edge of the plate. Plenty of coin, yet her clothes are in disrepair. He put on his most charming smile. “Maybe I can help,” he said flirtatiously. “I’m very multilingual.”
With a wink to Vincent and his plate in hand, Eric strode over to the woman, nodding to the chair diagonal from her.
Hesitantly, she nodded her head, her amber stare locked on her toast and eggs. She continued to eat, keeping him in her peripheral.
“My name is Eric. Are you new to town?” He dug into his own meal.
“May I have your name?”
“… Reina.” The rest of her words were in a familiar language. One that could have existed in his world, albeit in a dialect he couldn’t place.
“Don’t speak the common tongue?” Eric asked in a different dialect, one he hoped was her language.
Reina’s eyes widened.
“You hear me?” Her shoulders straightened, her smile brightening. “I know spoken to. Cannot speak back.”
Well, close enough.
“Yes, I understand you.” Eric gently corrected. “Have you had any trouble shopping? I hope you don’t find me too forward, but I couldn’t ignore your attire’s condition.”
Blushing, Reina’s eyes darted from her dress back to him. “Yes. I have much money. Seller cannot … know me?”
“Understand you.” Eric offered her a gentle smile as he took her hand. “Lucky for you, I’m on vacation and have plenty of time to serve you.”
He kissed the back of her hand, deepening her blush and earning a soft smile.
“Thank you, Eric.”
“For you, anything.” Eric winked and flagged Vincent down. “Could you send for Mistress Taliel? Have her bring the catalog. I have a lot of coin to spend and a pretty lady to spend it on.” He slid a few gold pieces across the table.
“Right away, sir.”
“I can pay.”
“Fear not, my dear,” Eric said and revealed a royal emblem. Reina tilted her head curiously, her gaze tracing the crest of Atlantis—a trident wrapped in a simple crown— with no recognition in her face.
Curious little thing. “It’s a symbol of my status and wealth. It just means I have a lot of money and privilege.”
“Oh. That’s good to have,” she said, turning away from him to finish her meal.
Not one to ignore such a strong hint, Eric let the silence settle in until the table was cleared. Standing, he held his hand out to her. “I imagine Mistress Taliel won’t be free until this afternoon. Would you like a hot bath? I have a rather large suite here, with a private porcelain tub.”
She trailed a look from his outstretched hand up his torso, pausing at the crest hanging from his neck, then continued until her cautious gaze met his. He adored the roundness of her eyes, the gentle peak of her upper lip. Where else did she have to go?
Reina took his hand and let Eric lead her up the wooden staircase. Dramatic landscapes of ocean creatures lined the burgundy-papered walls. On one, slimy tentacles encased a ship breaking in two. The next showcased a creature whose body appeared human, save for the long, deep-red fish tail trailing behind him. On a third one, a dark shadow, easily three times the length of the schooner above it, lurked below. A history displayed in oils.
Thick, mahogany doors for each room were painted to match the interior palettes, making it rather difficult to get ‘lost’ on the way.
Eric spotted a passing maid and said, “Hot water for the violet suite, please.” She bowed and scurried on by as Eric opened his door. “Reina, would you like to wash first?”
“Together.” With a confidence and a sly smile Eric had not expected, Reina stared him down. “We wash together. Unless you don’t like?”
Eric’s lip curled into a smile. “I very much like.”
– – – – – – –
Hours passed easily. From Reina’s warm bath, which quickly turned into their warm bath, onto the king-sized bed. She was fun to indulge and eager to please. Until a sharp knock on the door interrupted their sensual explorations.
Answering the door in his mulberry silk robe, Eric smiled widely at his visitor.
The familiar, petite woman wore a maroon dress with complex, floral patterns lining the hems. Her turquoise curls were pulled into a severe bun, the waves surrounding her scarlet-furred, dog-like ears. Though she attempted a disproving eyebrow raise, the older woman couldn’t hide the smile lines creasing the corners of her violet eyes, or the smirk her thin lips were forming.
“Mistress Taleil,” Eric greeted, “lovely to see you again. You didn’t clear your schedule for me, I hope.” With a small bow, he kissed her hand.
“I’m sure you would be honored if I did,” Taliel said, an amused lilt to her words and a modest pile of dresses and catalogs in her free arm. “Honestly, Eric, you have so many fine tunics and this is how you deem to welcome your guests?”
“My apologies. I lost track of time. Please, come in.” He stepped aside and motioned to Reina. “You see, my companion Reina is in need of a new wardrobe, but she has been having trouble communicating.”
“You seem to understand each other well enough.” Taleil looked between the mussy haired woman and the disheveled bed. “My skies.” She rushed to Reina and began inspecting her tattered dress. “Tsk, you poor thing.”
Reina looked from Taleil to Eric, then back to Taleil. “You … build clothes?”
“Make clothes,” Eric offered and began to dress himself. “Tell her whatever you want. Dresses, britches, blouses—I’ll purchase as much as Taliel believes you need.”
“Dresses on Eric’s dime. Oh, tab.” Reina quickly corrected herself as she allowed the seamstress to remove her clothes to take her measurements. “Eight please. And four leg bottoms … two cloaks.”
“A lady who knows what she wants,” Taleil teased. “You should watch out for this one.”
“Watch out?” Reina asked, batting her eyes quizzically. “Yes, Eric take good care of me.”
“Oh that’s not … nevermind.”
Chuckling, Eric took a seat in a velvet-covered loveseat nearby. I take good care of you, huh?
Once Taleil had the information she needed, she fitted Reina into a beige dress and disposed of the old one. Reina sat beside Eric and took his hand, resting it on her thigh. He watched her as they flipped through pages and pages of options. Whenever they landed on a design she favored, Reina would place her hand over his and asked if he thought it would suit her. And, judging from the fine materials and elaborate embroidery she ordered, she was unconcerned with sparing him any expense.
By the end, Reina had selected enough dresses, britches, blouses, and cloaks to last over a month for any kind of outing with a prince—almost all of it in ocean shades and designs. Such a clever guppy.
Having recorded and calculated the bill, Taleil kissed their cheeks, promising to settle with Eric’s accountants, and scampered off, tail wagging enthusiastically.
Reina intertwined their fingers, smiling at him. “We see city? Need”—she lifted up one of her feet and pointed at the old, drab leather boot—“better slippers.”
“We can go pick up a new pair of boots for you,” Eric agreed and brushed a few loose strands of hair behind her ear. “Or slippers if you would prefer. But those are boots.”
“Yes, boots.” Reina sighed before leading him from the room, but stopped outside the inn and waited expectantly.
“Have you been to Sitay Naym before?” Eric asked, making their way away from the stench of drunkards and down the paved road to the mercantile side of town.
“I—” Reina looked away, her body tensed beside him. “Why?”
“I frequent the city.” Eric took a deep breath. “That sweet honey scent? That’s Millie’s Bakery and past there is one of the best candy shops on the land. I like to stop in and pick some up to send home.”
She looked back up to him, without a word, searching his face.
“I wish I could send some of the pastries as well. The plum rolls are my favorite. Alas, I have no skill for preservation magic and I don’t imagine they’d be as tasty stale.” He continued until they reached the alley by the cobbler’s shop before stopping and turning her face to his with a gentle grip on her chin.
“I won’t pry into your secrets.” He leaned over, his lips brushing her ear as he whispered, “Keep me company until you have no more use for me, but … I do hope that, by then, I will know more than your name.”
Reina shivered. With a quick nod, she pulled him forward into the cobbler’s shop. “We get plum rolls and candy later,” she said brightly before turning her attention to the store and the several pairs of shoes Eric was to purchase.
– – – – – – –
Running his fingers along Reina’s decolletage, Eric resisted the urge to begin what he didn’t have time to finish. Leaning forward, he kissed her forehead, her brows, over her closed eyes, until she groaned her annoyance.
“My deepest apologies,” he said softly and sat back up.
“Eric.” She paused to yawn, taking in his dark leather pants and sea-green tunic. “Why are you dressed?”
“As much as it pains me to leave, I must investigate a chosen,” Eric explained. With a wistful sigh, he brushed the hair from her face. The roots were beginning to reveal the auburn truth beneath.
“Are—are chosen dangerous?” Reina asked and scurried from the bed, grabbing leather pants and a pale blue blouse.
“They can be,” he explained, watching as she dressed much quicker than usual. “You needn’t worry about me though, I’ve hunted them for years.”
“You’re strong.” Reina pulled her boots on. “How long will we be missing?”
“We won’t be gone, wait, we? Reina …” He gently took her arm. “Why would you come with me? You’re not a hunter and I still, well …”
Silence enveloped them. Reina chewed her bottom lip, staring intently at his the pendant peaking beneath his low collar.
Steadily, sounds returned. Her nails flicking, her deepening breaths, and the soft shuffling as she shifted from foot to foot.
“I …” Reina steadied herself. “Don’t remember. Home. Family. I don’t know.”
“How long?” He asked softly, letting her slide into his lap.
“Before we met. I’m not sure.” Burying her head in his shoulder, she continued, a tremor in her voice. “Let me go with you. Maybe … I’ll remember something.”
“Reina, it will be dangerous. Are you certain?” Eric slid his hand along her back.
No memory. No gem.
“You can protect me. You take care of me, right?” The tremor was gone, her fingers playing with the collar of his tunic.
“Right … I take care of you. Up now.” He patted her rump and stood. He grabbed a light cloak and draped it over her shoulders. “Don’t pack, we’re not going far.”
Pulling on his own dark cloak, Eric headed out, taking Reina from the city and down an overgrown path, through the dense forest.
Yes, he would continue to take very good care of her.
They made quick time, despite the thick root system and strong branches that tried to bar their way. Reina kept close, her nose scrunching disdainfully every so often, until the wind carried the scent of warm, thick sweetness—the sizzling of meat nearby. Eric watched Reina, but she merely stared back. Waiting.
Turning from her, he stepped into the clearing. A scarlet-scaled lizardfolk froze, her golden gaze widening the longer they stood there. Jolting, she dropped to a bow, holding her plate to him.
“That’s not … well,” Eric paused.
Not human. Not a chosen. But … maybe not a dead-end either.
She wore rubber and Velcro shoes, her vibrant top was very tight and stretchy, though her trousers were normal enough.
“Do you have enough for two guests? I have some questions.”
“Of course, Majesty, please, um. Uh, make yourself comfortable.” She hastily cleared some stumps and retrieved plates of questionable cleanliness.
Motioning for Reina to sit down, Eric kept her in his peripheral. Reina’s expression was curious, her body at ease with no recognition in her gaze.
Accepting a plate of meat coated in syrup, Eric smiled. “About those clothes …”
– – – – – – –
The Empress’s list dwindled. The other Hunters had been busy in the weeks Eric spent at Reina’s beck and call. In that time, the only lead he had proved useless; but Eric had been far more focused trying to figure Reina out. Yet, her smile proved as unreadable as her past.
Eric sat on the soft, violet couch in their suite. Everything was a different shade of purple, from the lavender king bed to the deep indigo curtains framing the small windows. He rubbed the side of his face, counting the number of names on the scroll with blue lines through them.
“What’re you reading?” Reina asked, draping her arms around his shoulders, her chest pressed to his back. The blue in her hair had faded considerably, the auburn roots growing more pronounced.
“Work.” Eric kissed her forearm. “I’m losing my lead to Bruce, that obnoxious bastard. What kind of name is Bruce anyway.”
“Is it because of me?” She leaned forward, squinting at the paper.
“You can’t read any of this?”
“You know I can’t. Don’t …” Reina sighed and looked away in thought, as she often did when trying to remember a word she wanted. “Avoid? That’s it. Don’t avoid the question.”
“Rest assured, my dear, I am not slacking in my duty. This is my region to search and, unfortunately, I may have cleared mine much sooner than the others. There’s only so many chosen to go around, after all.” Eric set the scroll down and rested his arms against hers. “Four more. The Opals and Amethysts.”
Reina played with the open collar of his blouse. Maybe he had allowed himself to be a little distracted by their time together. What was a prince to do with a ready, tempting damsel before him? Not to mention one who was so sweet-smelling and knew how to get anything she wanted from him. Eventually, she’d need to leave him.
Eric kissed her forearm. “We can look for your home while I look for leads. I’m sure someone must be worrying about you by now.”
“How? We don’t have clues.” She let go only to plop beside him. “All I remember … is laying on a swing, the sea breeze on my face, and … a man. I don’t even know what he looks like.”
“We have clues, my dear.” He leaned back, draping an arm around her. “Your dialect is foreign here and we’re in a port city. We’ll start by getting a copy of the month’s shipping records.”
“And while we look for home, we’ll keep hunting chosen …” Reina tapped her fingers against his chest, staring at the Empress’s list. “Do all of the chosen have to die?”
Sighing deeply, he pulled her across his lap.
“Technically, no. Divine protectors summon chosen from somewhere. They’re pretty weak unless they find their bonded gem. Rubies to Rubies, Opals to Opals. The Empress has us Hunters track and kill them before that happens.” They shifted on the couch so she laid against his chest. “Once we kill about half, they can’t match her power anymore. However, my Empress is no fool and takes no risks. We kill all of them, every time.”
An uneasy silence lingered. He traced shapes across the surface of her arm. Her concern was obvious, but neither spoke it. What was there to say? Kissing the top of her soft hair, Eric gently lifted her off of him.
“I need to check the rumor mill and request those records. Otherwise, we may never find where you’re from.” Eric pulled his boots on.
“Eric …” She sat up, first tugging at the fabric of her cobalt dress, then the untrimmed hair over her shoulder. “You’d never hurt me, would you?”
“Of course not, my dear. I promised to help you figure out who you are and where you’re from. A prince always keeps his word.”
“You promise never to hurt me?” She pressed, her stare locked with his. Determination radiated behind those eyes.
Cheeky little guppy.
“I promise, on my honor as Prince Eric of Atlantis, I will never intentionally cause you pain.” Eric blew her a kiss as a warmth spread over him. The magical bond was sealed. As a merfolk, if Eric broke such an oath he’d lose his magic—or his life—but he wasn’t worried. Whistling a bright tune, he left the violet suite and the mysterious woman he’d entwined himself with.
– – – – – – –
Eric sidled up to the inn’s marble countertop and leaned on his elbows. “Vincent, my pet, have you heard anything yet?”
“Sir Eric!” Vincent’s face brightened with a smile. “Some merchants came by this morning. They were talking about a traveler who barely spoke our language. He was wearing strange shoes, rubber with those sticky closings. It could be nothing, but you wanted to know small things, right?”
“Where did they see this traveler?”
“Oh, um, the west. They were coming from Seaqwell. They also said he had short, brown hair, if that helps.” His eyes gleamed in the afternoon light.
“You did great, Vincent.” Eric leaned over, kissing Vincent’s cheek. “If you could get me a copy of the shipping records, I would be in your debt. I’ll see you when I return.”
For a moment, Eric stood at the bottom of the stairs. Should I bring her along this time? Reina wasn’t a fighter, she wasn’t his partner or apprentice. While he’d never seen her with a Stone, that didn’t mean she hadn’t hidden it nearby.
“I’ve gotten so paranoid—of course I’m bringing her.” Eric mused to himself, walking up the stairs to retrieve his companion. Besides, leaving her behind could be worse. “Reina, it’s time to pack. We have a destination.”
“The maps?” She asked as she sat up. “That was fast.”
“No, not those. Though I do have my best man on it.” With practiced efficiency, he began folding and organizing his things. “Seems another chosen might have come into my territory and I need to beat Bruce to them, otherwise I might lose my streak.”
“You’re really proud of killing all those chosen?”
Her tone gave him pause. There was a lingering uncertainty—a quiver she tried to hide.
“My dear, these chosen may be here to ‘save the world’ but, from where I sit, that would hurt a lot of people I love.” Eric turned to her, again taking in her long nose, round eyes, and pouty coral lips. A combination of features he could find on many women from this region. But were they common in the region he thought she was from?
“The idea still confuses me,” she admitted, averting her stare and beginning to pack,- “how them saving the world hurts you.”
“Because I serve the Empress. I serve her, she protects me and my kingdom. Whatever else she does to the world …” He shrugged. “It’s unimportant to me. Your homeland, if it’s where I think it is, also benefits from her rule.”
“As you say.” Reina’s shoulders relaxed, her lithe fingers steady as she packed her things. “You kill the chosen. The Empress protects you and … you protect me?”
He chuckled, going over to her and kissing her lightly on the head. “Yes. Can we go find and kill the chosen now?”
Reina nodded without a word. Though he looked, Eric still saw no signs of any gems or jewels in her belongings, save the ones he had purchased during their stay.
Curiouser and curiouser.
– – – – – – –
The sweet and tangy scent of freshly barbecued boar filled the air. Carnivals were the best places to eat and pass time, everyone chattered and milled about, no one paying attention to couples or small groups. A lone attendee might draw a couple of looks at first but, given time, they too disappeared into the crowd of merrymakers.
Which was, of course, why Eric was certain their target was hiding somewhere nearby. Anyone new to the realm would need a safe place to secure resources without garnering suspicion. Unfortunately, short, brown hair wasn’t rare in their part of the world.
“Can we watch some shows?” Reina looked around, her eyes gleaming in wonder. It was difficult to deny her when she smiled so warmly.
“We can, but you need to be ready to leave without warning.” He held out his arm, which she accepted. As usual, Eric was dressed in a fine blouse and leather pants, in ocean-blue with teal wave accents.
Reina nodded, her auburn to blond to faded teal hair pulled back in a simple braid, contrasting Eric’s more complex side plaits that stopped half way down to let his scarlet waves flow. Her short dress and leggings were in a complimentary palette of deep-green and lavender ocean embroidery. They were an obvious couple dressed to match.
They passed stalls demanding visitors prove their worth with weighted hammers to demonstrate their might, darts to showcase steadfast aim, cups to test sight versus the dexterous nature of the game host. All games, of course, allowing magic to aid the contestants … as well as those making a living through the losses.
The shows were equally varied, showcasing a plethora of daring feats of ‘danger’ and dramatic skits to wow the crowds. Eric enjoyed the curious glances Reina threw the attractions, but none had grabbed her interest enough to stop them.
As they walked, Reina’s inquisitive expressions slowly scrunched. Her brows furrowed and her grip tightened around Eric’s arm.
“Everything alright, my sweet?”
“I don’t know. My head is hurting. A strange … pull.” Reina massaged her forehead. “It gets worse when walking this way.”
“What if we go that way?” Eric turned in a random direction and took a couple steps. Reina shook her head, so he turned and walked again, repeating the process until she nodded, the tension in her face easing.
“Take the lead. Just go where your headache alleviates.”
Hesitantly, she obeyed. Leading Eric through the crowd, around game stalls and other attractions. The more they ventured, the more she steadied, gaining purpose with every step.
A man walked in their direction from a canteen area. Not just back towards the carnival, but straight at them. A man with short brown hair and unusual shoes.
I’ve seen shoes like that before—rubber and Velcro. When will they learn?
“Reina.” The man called out. “Finally.” He paused, eyeing Eric, then Reina’s outfit. Comparatively, he was wearing a very simple beige tunic and brown pants. The chestnut traveler’s cloak completed his very dull ensemble. “Who is he?”
“Who are you?” Reina asked, clutching Eric. “How do you know me?”
“Are you serious?” His narrowed eyes widened. “Reina, we’re, umm, we’re a pair. I have your piece—you gave it to me before we got separated.”
The last piece of the puzzle fell into place. He was never wrong. Opal or Amethyst, which would it be? Given Reina’s symptoms, the answer was obvious.
“My piece of what?” She demanded. Instead of soothing her, his words drove Reina behind Eric. “I don’t know what you’re talking about and I don’t want to.”
“Opal?” Eric smiled, far too pleased with himself. “Opals usually find each other quickly, have small premonitions. Plus, when their gems are taken their memories fade. Much luckier than Rubies, who burn from the inside out.”
“How did”—his eyes widened—“you’re a Hunter!” The chosen growled. “Give Reina back, you bastard.”
“Reina, would you like to go back to … whoever this man is?” Eric asked softly. “He’s your bonded chosen. If you go with him, you may regain your memories.”
“No, I—I feel like I ran from him. I don’t think I left it with him.” Her tone strained, she pressed her palm to her forehead, pain filled each word. “I can’t remember, it hurts to try.”
The man stepped forward and she stepped back.
“Reina, come on. It’s me, Lionel,” he pleaded. “We did argue, but I didn’t steal your opal. I have it, but we … we talked about it. Look, I’ll fill you in later. He’s a Hunter—it’s his job to kill us!”
“No! Eric promised, he gave his binding word he’d never hurt me. But I think you already did.” Locking onto Eric’s eyes, her question was obvious.
“Of course, I’ll protect you from him.” Eric kissed her forehead.
“He’s using you, Reina. Don’t you see? You can’t trust anything they say.” He pulled two chained gems from beneath his tunic. Round and pearlescent, they gleamed in the afternoon light. There was no doubting the power emanating from them.
“I know humans can break oaths without consequence. However, this isn’t Earth and my word isn’t so flimsy.” Eric’s words were for Reina, not this soon-to-be dead man. “Reina, would you be upset if I killed him? I am afraid it’s part of my job, though I could give the kill to Bruce.”
“It’s okay. You have a job to do,” she reassured him, turning her face into his arm. “And I—I think I remember him now. I don’t want to go with him. I don’t trust him, he took my opal from me, Eric. You’ll protect me here. He can’t.”
“Then we’ll get it back. I need you to stand over there, okay?” Eric kissed the top of her head and gently pulled away, turning from Lionel’s judge to become his executioner.
Lionel lunged, closing the distance between them faster than a human should have been capable. Thrusting his hand, a blast of air burst forward. Eric barely blocked it with a water wall. Eric shot the water forward, his geyser missing as Lionel flew into the air.
Opals and their fucking flight.
Bracing himself, Eric looked for Lionel but the bastard zoomed all over. Pain sliced around Eric’s limbs as razor sharp wind swirled around him, cutting into him, shredding his clothes. A shadow swept across the ground. Spinning out of the way, Eric shifted his elegant fingers, nails lengthening, hardening into venom-filled claws.
Again, Lionel flew at him. Sidestepping, Eric raked his claws through the soft flesh of Lionel’s arms. Blades of air cut across Eric’s body, each slice burning fiercely. Gritting through the pain, he blasted bubbles into Lionel’s face then stepped back, shaking his head.
The venom would take time. Eric was used to stalling, used to handling a little pain.
Voices rose over the rush of his own heartbeat. The crowd was watching, circling. A chosen had appeared, a Hunter was fighting them—one would die. Some cheered for the Hunter, loyal to the Empress. Others … well, someone had to have hidden him.
Savage growls refocused Eric. Lionel was steady again, his leer trained on Eric.
Backing away, Eric grew needle-like spines from his forearms. The familiar prick as he pulled them out comforted him. He crossed the spines, barely trapping Lionel’s fist between them. Air rammed against him, his body throbbing against the pressure.
Lionel’s face contorted in pain. His arm was swollen and Eric bet everything was burning. Eric released his opponent’s fist to block another blow. Lionel continued his barrage, gusts pummeling Eric’s torso. His body was covered in aching lacerations, but Eric stood firm, watching Lionel’s movements begin to slow. Each punch weaker than the last, every breath heavier, until Lionel pushed away and knelt, unable to stand anymore.
Slowly, Eric stalked over, savoring every step. When he stopped, he stood before an unmoving Lionel. Face twisted in agony, chest heaving. With a final glance to Reina’s impassive expression, he plunged a needle through Lionel’s throat.
Reina arrived at his side. With an unreadable expression, she leaned down and plucked one of the opals from his necklace, wiped the blood onto Lionel’s cloak, and attached the jewel to her bracelet. “You’ll never hurt me?”
My curious guppy is a survivor.
“I gave you my word. I will never cause you pain.” Eric removed his spine from the corpse and slung Lionel over his shoulder. What remained of his tattered tunic soaked up the blood dripping from his victim, while Eric’s own wounds were beginning to heal over. Another outfit sacrificed in the name of duty. “Let’s go.”
The crowd parted, whispers echoing around them. None would stop him. Nor would they question when he removed the chosen’s heart and ate it. They’d allow him to drop the body into the sea, feeding the creatures beneath.
And they’d spread word of his chosen companion.
– – – – – – –
A warm breeze carried the salty scent of the sea through the cabin. Strips of bacon sizzled on the skillet and pancakes fluffed up in their pans. Eric sprinkled his special seasoning over both before he plated two meals.
Reina sat at the marble table top, staring out the window. Waves rolled far below the cliff their little secluded cabin sat on.
“A shell for your thoughts?” he asked, setting the plates down and digging into his food.
“There’s only one chosen left on your list,” she said quietly, turning from the distant skyline to her food. “Opal Two. What will happen?”
“I’ve already sent word to my Empress. You don’t have to worry about any of them.” Eric leaned back, watching her thoughtfully. “It’s interesting. Your home language is so similar—yet different—to ours. I wonder if any chosen lived here before this empire was formed.”
“She’s going to let me live?”
“She’s going to trust my judgment.” Eric smiled at her. “Finish eating. We have plans today, don’t we?”
The day passed by. They walked along the beach, dipping their feet in the warm water. She asked about his home under the sea, Atlantis. Eric beguiled her with tales of his youth. What it was like with six older sisters who would simultaneously spoil him and get him into all kinds of mischief. A silly tease on Reina’s part led to splashing until they were drenched to the bone.
“A perfect excuse to lay in the sun.” Eric laughed, leading her to the blanket he’d set out on the grass. Reina drifted to sleep, allowing Eric time to prepare lunch. A simple meal of sandwiches, salads, and tiny chocolate cakes, all seasoned with his special ingredient.
Reina joined him, rubbing her tired eyes.
“How about lunch in the garden?” She grabbed the basket he’d finished packing.
Over lunch, they discussed other countries, their cultures, their cuisine. Reina noted all of the ones she’d love to visit, all the foods she’d love to taste. Eric chuckled, watching her delight in his world. Assured in his protection.
After they ate, she took his hand, leading him to the bedroom where they tangled with each other for hours before the sunlight began to fade. After they dressed, Eric led her to laze about on the porch swing.
He idly swung them, combing Reina’s hair as she lay over his lap. The sun drifted into the sea, casting rays of gold and fire across its surface.
“I’m so glad we met …” Reina spoke softly, her words slurring. “That … no one else …”
“Shhh, my sweet. Rest now.” Eric slid his hand over her eyes, closing them. The gentle rising and falling of her chest slowed. Her head, nestled against him grew heavy. They remained there, unmoving save for the back and forth motion. Eric waited until she completely stilled. Until her head felt like lead and her arm rolled off the swing.
Only then did he reach down and take the opal from her bracelet. Without a moment of hesitation, he crushed the jewel, then blew the dust from his palm.
“Not all deaths are painful, my sweet guppy,” he whispered, leaning down to kiss her forehead. “Sometimes, it’s a gift. Now, time to end this round of hunting. And would you look at that, you won it for me.”
Carrying her to the sea, he decided this one could keep their heart.
A myriad of shadows swarmed the sinking body, freshly plopped into the sea. With barely a glance to his enchanted scroll, Eric crossed out the final words, Opal Two. Whistling a bright melody, Eric left the fish to their meal and walked from the shore to the cabin where dinner awaited him.