“Two times can be considered a coincidence, but three times!” the businessman laughed. “It must be fate!”
Your eyes automatically moved towards Lukas. This guy just happened to be everywhere you didn’t expect. First the Bone Forest, then the town, now here beyond the force field?
“What are you doing here?” Lukas spoke up before you could open your mouth and ask the same question.
“Travelling back home,” the businessman said. “Beyond this place is the mountain pass that leads to the far east. I’ve had my share of travelling through Eliatha. We all could use a good home-cooked meal back home.”
The rest of his crew nodded in unison.
You furrowed your eyebrows. “If I may ask, what’s with the masks?”
“That’s to protect our faces from the ice,” the businessman explained. “Oh, that’s right, back when we at the Bone Forest, there wasn’t any snow, and at the town, you didn’t see any of them so it must be your first time seeing them like this.”
“I guess…” you mumbled. “Um, look…Sorry about stealing your…you said they were dumplings, correct?”
“That’s right,” the businessman answered.
“Yes, then sorry for eating your dumplings. We were so hungry, and since there wasn’t anyone around, we thought that it couldn’t hurt to eat them. We’d pay you back, but we don’t have anything to offer you.”
The businessman scratched his head. “You don’t have any money, huh? Well, then, how about this? If you two don’t have anything else better to do, why don’t you tag along with us to the mountain pass? We can use the extra help.”
Lukas frowned at the suggestion. “As a matter of fact, we actually have something of crucial importance to take care of here,” he said. Then he blinked as though remembering something and changed the subject. “By the way, do you know of a place that has a large gate and a river?”
“That’s where we’re going!” the businessman answered. “Beyond the gate is the way back to our home. You have to cross a river to get there, but it’s been frozen for as long as anyone can remember. Nowadays, everyone just cuts through the frozen river on caravans.”
“Oh, then maybe we can tag along with you after all,” you spoke up. “We need to go there, too. We’re looking for our friend.”
“What a coincidence!” the businessman smiled. “Now you can get rid of two dragons with one spear!” At this Lukas uttered a low growl.
“Fine,” the dragon frowned. “We’ll tag along, but I am only agreeing because we need to get to the gate or wherever it is you’re going.”
You threw your travelling companion a silencing look. “Lukas, we ate their food, and they know the way! It’s only right that we pay them back.”
“Whatever,” he snorted.
“Oh, then I might as well introduce myself and the rest of us while we’re all here,” the businessman grinned in a business-like manner. “I’m Yao, and these are my extended family members!” He then swept his hand around the masked people who were surrounding you.
“I’m ____________, and this is Lukas,” you said gesturing to yourself and the Divine Keeper of the Sapphire Flames.
Right after introducing yourself, the second tallest masked man tore off his mask, his youthful and energetic face riddled with disappointment.
“Aw, and here I was hoping we’d get to teach these guys a thing or two about stealing!”
“You need to control your temper,” the tallest one said with his mask still on his face. Judging by his voice, you got the impression that he was an even-mannered person.
“It’s going to be nice knowing there’s another girl travelling with us for a while,” a feminine voice said. Beyond the removed mask, you saw that the person speaking was a girl. Her expression was sincere, but you could tell that she knew a thing or two about surviving in Eliatha’s eternal winter.
The other two remained silent throughout the rest of the time you and Lukas rejoined the rest at the red caravan.
“This is a waste of time,” Lukas frowned. “Even if I was carrying you and walking on foot, it would have been easier to get to our destination.”
“But we don’t know where we’re going,” you reminded him. “…Unless you know of any other places where there’s a gate and a river?”
That got Lukas to shut his mouth.
In any case, travelling inside the caravan was much more comfortable than you had imagined. The inside of the large merchandise-carrying vehicle was filled with a rosy red light and strange smells you had never encountered before. There were tiny lanterns constructed of paper dangling along the caravan walls, and there were even small nooks and shelves where Mei, the only female member of the caravan, told you everyone slept.
You couldn’t imagine how uncomfortable it must have been for someone to sleep in such a tight space. There was hardly any room to lift your head up, and the space was so thin that there was only room for one blanket. Even so, the lack of space provided for blankets was compensated by the fact that the sleeping space was incredibly warm.
“So your ankle is twisted?” she asked when she noticed you had trouble maneuvering around the small space inside. Meanwhile, Lukas and the others (whom Mei said were all men) were walking outside carrying anything that didn’t need to be stored inside the caravan.
“Y-Yes…” you nodded rubbing your ankle.
Mei brought her sleeve to her mouth as if in thought.
“Hmm…If it’s just twisted, then it’s nothing a little binding can fix. Hang on.” With that, she began to rummage through some of the built-in drawers until she pulled out what appeared to be a roll of long, flat cloth.
“This is something along the lines of a bandage,” she explained as she gestured for you take a seat on the floor. “We use this for any cuts that we may have, but sometimes, we can use these for supporting any joints that have too much stress put on them. I can do the same for your ankle. It should help to make it heal faster.”
That being said, she began to wrap the bandage around your ankle in circles until the entire length of the cloth was used up. Then, she took a small pin from her hair and clipped the bandage together so it would not fall apart.
“There,” said Mei. “Now try to stand up and tell me how it feels.”
You obeyed and stood up. When you did, you noticed that the sharp sting of pain was no longer there, and the swelling around your ankle wasn’t quite as noticeable—then again, that could have been because it was covered up by the bandage. There was still a minor pain in your ankle, but it wasn’t unbearable to the point where you couldn’t walk anymore.
“It’s better,” you answered with a smile. “Thank you very much for your help, Mei.”
“It’s nothing, ___________,” she replied. Since your ankle was taken care of, she decided to change the subject. “So about this friend of yours…is he very important to you?”
“He is,” you nodded.
“When Yao was at the town, he mentioned something about there being another person with you. He said he bought the largest firework we were selling. Is that the friend you are looking for?”
“Uh…no, he’s not. We went on our separate ways a while ago,” you answered carefully. In the back of your head, you reminded yourself that you had to be careful when talking about your recent travelling companions thanks to the mark that Emil left on your heart. You didn’t want to go burning up your heart or the caravan if possible. Yao had mentioned something about the caravan being prone to fire hazards, too.
Mei giggled. “From the sound of the way you and Lukas talk to each other, I think the person you are looking for is special in your own two ways, am I correct?”
“Yes,” you said. “Emil—that’s his name—is actually Lukas’ brother. To me, Emil is something along the lines of being my friend.”
“Oh, I see. I can see how the two of you put up with each other then. Family and friends are very important.”
“They are,” you agreed though you couldn’t say you had the luxury of having very many of them yourself.
Mei sighed. “I have plenty of family members, myself, as you can see, but it’s no fun being surrounded by men all of the time. It’s hard for them to get on the same level as me for various reasons, although there are a few who understand.”
You chuckled. “My experience is pretty much the opposite. I didn’t have very many family members growing up so the moment I could, I ended up working. I never had the time to make friends. Even when I’ve been travelling with Lukas, it’s been hard to get along with him.”
This made Mei laugh. “Ah, you know, when we were back at the Bone Forest, the way you two were talking was just like an embarrassed couple.”
“Wh-What?” you stammered and looked away. You could only hope you weren’t blushing. “Where’d you get an idea like that, Mei?”
“The little things you say sound like you’re bickering with one another,” she smiled. “I don’t think you two hate each other enough that you would really go at each other’s throats, but there’s something about the way you two fight that brings you closer together.”
You could only avert your eyes to anything other than Mei’s eyes. She was wrong there. Lukas actually did go for your throat—literally. Of course, there was no way or context you could tell her that.
“I don’t think Lukas and I would ever be something like that. We both have our own personal reasons for finding Emil, but that situation just put us together.”
“Ah, I see. I didn’t mean to assume anything too drastic, __________.”
“Oh, no, not at all!” you quickly said. “Really, there’s nothing to be rude about!”
“That’s a relief,” Mei breathed. “But aren’t you the least bit worried about Lukas?”
You blinked. “What do you mean?”
“He’s walking barefoot in the snow,” Mei pointed out. “He’s wearing such thin clothes compared to you, and on top of everything, he had to carry you. Doesn’t that seem a little odd?”
You hesitated. There was no way to explain how Lukas was able to walk barefoot through the snow without the apparent loss of circulation going through his feet. The color on his cheeks didn’t have the cold rosy hue most people had when traversing through the winters of Eliatha, and Lukas didn’t seem to have the slightest sign of lacking energy. Up until this point, you had been travelling only with dragons so the little details didn’t pop up at all. Now, however, you were travelling with six other humans. Suspicions would arise sooner or later.
“Oh, let me guess,” Mei spoke up interrupting your thoughts, “he’s one of those hardy men, right?”
“Huh? Uh…I mean…sure, yeah, he’s very hardy,” you quickly lied thinking of nothing else better to say.
“Ooh, he’s lucky. It can get hard to move around in the snow with such heavy clothing on.”
“It can be,” you agreed.
Just then, someone poked his head into the caravan. Since this person had short hair with dull brown eyes, you guessed that he was Kiku.
“Mei, ___________, we’re going to be stopping for a while,” he said in a soft, polite-sounding voice.
“Oh, it’s time for lunch already?” Mei eagerly said and stood up from the caravan. You noticed that the caravan’s movement was beginning to diminish until it finally halted to a complete stop. Then, you watched as you travelling companion jumped out of the caravan and began to talk softly with Kiku leaving you alone in the empty space.
A few seconds later, however, you heard the faint sound of someone shuffling through the snow, and a different, yet familiar face poked his head into the caravan.
“Oh, Lukas,” you automatically said.
“You’re not seriously going to expect me to do all of the work in your place, are you?” the dragon hissed with a venomous glare. “Quite the hypocrite, I see."
You mentally cursed to yourself and bit down on your tongue to prevent yourself from snapping at him. It would be rude to start fighting while you were guests travelling with actual humans. It would be even ruder if you didn’t help do something when you were the one responsible for dragging you and Lukas into this mess in the first place.
“Mei bandaged my ankle so I think I’ll be able to help with some things,” you said and walked towards the edge of the caravan. Then, Lukas waited for you to test out your support before taking a small jump and landing onto the snow. Perhaps that wasn’t the smartest thing to do; the moment your feet touched the ground, your bad ankle struggled to support your weight shooting pain up your nerves to tell you to be careful.
Lukas rolled his eyes. “You reckless idiot. Do you want to make it even worse?”
“No.” You winced in pain but fought back to urge to clutch your ankle for fear of making the others worried. “I can manage.”
The dragon eyed you suspiciously. He didn’t look convinced, but nevertheless, he turned and went to see if anyone needed help. You, on the other hand, decided to see if there was some less labor-intensive work that needed to be done around the caravan.
Sure enough, you found Yao on the side of the caravan unloading what appeared to be a large pot. Once he set the large pot onto a clearing in the snow, he looked over to you and smiled.
“Hey, ___________, how’s your ankle doing?” he asked. “I see that you’re able to stand up now.”
At the question, you rolled your ankle from the tip of your toes. “It’s doing better thanks to Mei’s help,” you answered. “Is there anything I can do to help you?”
“Help is always needed when you’re managing a business,” Yao beamed. “If you’re able to walk, do you think you and Lukas could help me put some snow in the pot? We’re going to melt it to make water once it’s full.”
“Sure,” you nodded and looked around for Lukas. In a matter of seconds, you spotted him putting a large box down on the ground before coming over to help you.
While the two of you were grabbing bowlfuls of snow and putting them into the pot, Yao took some time to talk to the two of you.
“So how did you two meet each other?” was his first question.
You and Lukas looked at one another with hesitant glances in your eyes.
“We…met at a castle,” Lukas answered carefully. “___________ (you noticed how he had a hard time saying your name) was a servant, and I was a noble.”
What? you thought.
“My brother would often play with her, and it wasn’t long before he introduced her to me through a trivial errand of which I forget the task of,” Lukas continued. “Sometime after being introduced to her, a group of bandits raided our castle and took my brother as a hostage. We have some evidence leading us to believe that he is somewhere beyond this land to where you are going.”
“What a tragic story,” Yao commented after Lukas was done.
A servant! you angrily thought. Sure you weren’t exactly of noble status like someone was claiming to be, but you weren’t considered to actually be a servant. If anything, he could have called you the dragonkeeper, but that would have led to possible suspicions. As a result, you could only remain silent and play along with the absurd story Lukas told you.
“You must be very dedicated to be giving up your noble status and walking all the way out here on foot,” Yao then said making your heart lurch in your chest. “If I remember things correctly, the nearest castle was at least more than two weeks to walk through, and that’s only if you kept a steady pace by horseback.”
“That seems about correct,” Lukas answered. While it was definitely true that the two of you had been travelling together for around that period of time, that didn’t mean it was on horseback. Almost a third or more of the trip was done riding on Lukas' back as a dragon. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on the situation, Lukas couldn’t transform into a dragon in this place, not while the force field was overhead.
“And you still have faith that your brother is somewhere beyond these lands?” the businessman asked.
“I am,” Lukas answered without the slightest ounce of hesitation.
“This is me being curious, but what exactly is your relationship like? Looking at the two of you and from your background, I’d say you having striking differences, and yet you two have managed to stay together for this long.”
Lukas blinked. “You’d be amazed at how well the power of the spirit can get when you’re determined to do something.”
Yao raised his eyebrows. “And you must be a very determined person if you, a noble, could stoop low enough to give up your clothes to a servant and even carry her on your back.”
Now the dragon was getting impatient. The lies were stacking up one each other faster than you could keep the information together. You had been travelling with Lukas long enough to know when he was getting irritated about something. His voice would get a little softer and a little shorter, and his eyes would twitch or narrow depending on the situation. Right now, you could see them barely getting narrower as Yao continued to press him with questions.
“Your point?” Lukas softly replied.
A slight smirk cracked on Yao’s lips. You suddenly had a very strange feeling about all of this, like he knew something that you didn’t.
“Lukas…” you whispered to the dragon and tugged at his sleeve. By now, the two of you had filled up the pot with snow, and with the help of some provided dry wood, Yao took out a small pair of flint rocks from one of his pockets and began to strike them together. The surfaces of the rocks rubbing together generated a shower of sparks that ignited all over the firewood. Soon, a small fire had lit beneath the pot giving the bottom a warm, orange glow.
The businessman sighed. “You know, I was lucky that time, but I bet with the help of your abilities, the fire would have started up the first time guaranteed.”
Lukas frowned. “I’m afraid I don’t follow you.”
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Yao began to burst into laughter. You squeezed your fist around Lukas’ thin tunic and looked around. None of the others seemed to mind that their companion was laughing. It was as if they didn’t care.
“It became obvious from the moment I set my eyes on you and your other friend at the town,” Yao chuckled. “Really, there’s no need to skip over the juicy details.”
You furrowed your eyebrows. “What details would we be leaving out?”
The businessman made an amused smile like your question had been an insightful joke.
“You really don’t know, ____________? Well, then I’m sure your friend, Lukas, does—or is that even his real name?”
You weren’t exactly sure what happened right after that, but you distinctly remember there being a flash of blue cloth and a low hiss as Lukas lunged forward to attack the mysterious businessman. However, shortly after the blur of sound and movement, the moment you blinked, you saw Lukas flat on the ground, his body pinned to the snow like a hunted animal and his eyes alight with a furious blue flame.
“You…” he hissed. “Who are you?”
“Just a travelling businessman,” Yao casually answered. “But since you were so inclined to hide who really are, I’m going to have to take an educated guess.”
“Damn you!” Lukas growled. He tried to lift his head, but a mysterious force was holding him down as if there was a large block of stone resting on his body. Then, Yao slowly leaned close to his ear and said something that made your blood run cold.
“You’re a dragon, aren’t you?”