Crosswinds: Gryphon Down

“Tell me where the gryphon is. Now!” she shouted out. Her breath started to grow heavy. Each swing, each thrust dug into heavy flesh… it took a toll on Juliette that wasn’t exclusively physical.

Juliette woke up in a panic, having felt like she had fallen thousands of feet before she woke up. When she looked around the room, she saw that Areum had already left his bed, leaving it neatly made.

He must have already left.

After getting herself ready for the day, she came downstairs and greeted An, who was at the front yard tending to the plants.

“Good morning, Juliette. Did you sleep well?” An asked.

“Well… more or less…” she replied. “Can I help?”

“The strays usually come around this time. Could you prepare some food for them?”

“Certainly.” It doesn’t seem like she suspects anything. All we need to do now is keep it that way.

Juliette and An spent the next few hours tending to the yard, taking care of the plants, cleaning the flowerbeds and the tools they used to maintain them, as well as feeding and playing with the stray animals that came by. Despite being under wildly different circumstances, the routine felt comforting and nostalgic to Juliette. She recalled those distant, foggy memories of caring for a different front yard with Marla: how utterly messy, tiring, yet fun they had been.

Now, she was here, a long way from Tarith, colluding with an enemy city’s underworld to desperately hold onto what remained of Marla.

“You’re a natural at this…” An said. “Or have you done this before?”

“Well, I used to own a garden with animals back in Tarith–” As Juliette spoke, she kept tending to the plants, watering and pruning them. “–with someone named Marla.”

 “And who was this ‘Marla’ to you?”

“She was… someone special.”

“I see… I won’t ask any further, if you don’t wish to talk about it. Everybody’s story is rife with tragedy these days,” An said. “Do you have anything to remember her by? Some sort of charm or trinket, perhaps? In my case, it’s this home that my husband built with me.”

“You don’t have to worry about it. It’s a bit comforting, actually.” Juliette hummed. “It’s not a trinket, but… we raised a gryphon named Charlie together. I’m actually here to look for Charlie…”

An smiled. “It’s always good to have little pieces of what it was like before this war started. It’s saddening to see people reduced to only knowing what war is.”

An knelt by the stray cats and dogs feeding from their respective bowls, fondly watching them digging into their food. “Small, perhaps insignificant things like these remind you that the world wasn’t always like this. A small glimpse of what it could be like after this war.”

 Juliette smiled fondly. Something about An’s words made her mind drift to the day Charlie had taken her on that surprise trip into the air. The army officer was so stunned after they landed, he offered Juliette a position in the army just so the two could stay together…

“By the heavens above, I didn’t think you’d actually do it.”

It’s time. Despite feeling like her stomach just dropped at the sound of Lucky’s voice, the weight in her chest remained as heavy as ever. She looked at An, a grim and regretful look on her face. An looked scared and confused, and Juliette quickly looked away. She hasn’t realized yet.

She clutched her chest tightly, taking a few choice steps away from An. I suppose this is my fault. I knew this had to end like this, anyway...

This is for Charlie, she repeated to herself. Anything to get her back. Anything. Anything…

Each time she repeated it to herself, the less sure she felt.

Lucky let out a laugh, alerting An to the presence of him and his gang. Her head snapped in their direction, and Juliette could tell by the alarmed expression on her face that she knew who they were.

Lucky gestured to his akor’mari to surround the two, drawing the weapons they had concealed within their clothing: small blades, improvised blunt weapons. One of them even carried a flintlock pistol.

An prepared to flee, but wherever she looked, an akor’mar was ready to meet her. “You…” Her voice was shaking as she struggled to speak. “How did you find me?”

“It wasn’t easy, you know. I needed a little help,” Lucky said. “It’s been a while, An, with an N.”

“Juliette… come over here,” Areum grimly told her.

It took a moment, but Juliette walked over to stand behind Areum, keeping her head down. She made it a point to keep her eyes fixed on the ground, away from An.

An looked at Areum and Juliette, a look of shock and regret written all over her. “You two…!”

“They’re quite good, aren’t they? I didn’t think they’d get it done so quickly… To be honest, I didn’t think they’d get it done at all.” Lucky snickered. “That aside… you know what you did. You’ve tarnished our good name. Now, you’ll know what we’ll do.”

“I’m sorry, An,” Areum grimly said. “But you know what the city is like — better than I or Juliette ever will. You knew the risks of trusting a stranger, wearing your heart on your sleeve amongst the akor’mari.”

An was distraught, then turned to Juliette. “You… Surely you don’t think like that too, do you?” she said. “You know about my husband, my—”

She heard a gunshot, then the sound of An’s screams. The stray dogs and cats scattered, running in all directions. Juliette kept her gaze fixed on the ground, wordless and motionless.

“Stop— Stop it— P-Please- What do you want? I’ll— I’ll give you anything—“ she cried. “I… I have a husband— I’m begging you, I’m sorry—“

“Why are you looking away?” Areum whispered to her.

“Do… Do I have to…” Juliette gulped, then sighed. “We’ve done the job. I don’t have to watch the rest.”

“Yes, we’ve done the job,” he told her. “So, look into her eyes before she gets killed. See out her final moments. If you can’t even manage that, how do you expect to keep taking lives to get Charlie back?”

“I… I didn’t want to…”

“And yet you did,” he said. “Raise your head. You are what you are.

“Tch!” Despite her hostile response, Juliette reluctantly raised her head to look at An.

She was lying on the ground, bleeding from her thigh. Tears rolled down her dirtied cheeks as she begged Lucky and his gang to leave her alone.

One of the akor’mari primed his flintlock pistol, aiming it at her head.

In her last moments, Juliette found her eyes locked with An’s, and she had a chance to take in the remnants of her last thoughts, revealed by the resigned tears in her eyes — the silent acceptance of the end, but the melancholy of what was lost.

The akor’mar squeezed the trigger, and An slumped on the ground.

Staring at her dead body, Juliette found herself unable to look away.

I should have just stayed at home with Charlie… and worked on the garden in peace. Even if it bankrupted me. Even if it meant I’d die in the streets.

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