Juliette and Areum spent the next few days preparing for the trip. Juliette spent her time foraging for her own food and supplies, managing her wounds, and taking stock of her situation. Given the uneasy relationship between her and the Krygons, she didn’t want to ask them to give her supplies to continue her journey.
Areum, meanwhile, sorted his affairs within the group. After their initial shock and disbelief wore off, he sensed that his people were only reluctantly letting him go with Juliette. He appointed a few akor’mari to be in charge during his absence and gave them a few standing orders to follow. He only took a small portion of their supplies for the trip.
Finally, they left the group and headed off to the nearest Tarithian city, Haven, on the border between Tarith and Yeniden. Juliette worried about what sort of damage the ‘mari would do while they were gone and how she would be partly responsible for it now. Just a few days back, she was thinking glibly about how she could just wash their blood off her hands… Now, she wasn’t so sure, not after hearing Areum’s story.
Whenever such thoughts crept into her mind, she buried them. I’m doing this for Charlie — anything to get her back. That’s what she told herself.
As they arrived at Haven, Areum made sure to don a disguise so he wouldn’t be recognized as an akor’mar. They took the quickest path through Haven, but Juliette still saw a huge number of refugees flowing into it, fleeing from the Krygon raiders that the Tarithian army wouldn’t be able to spare soldiers for. Again, she buried her subsequent thoughts deep in her mind.
Anything to get her back.
After travelling through most of the city, Juliette and Areum entered a tavern on the south end, quietly sitting by the wayside in an alley. Areum gave a password and vouched for Juliette. They were granted entry and soon secured a carriage to be smuggled into Krygon along with some other goods: mostly wines and herbs exclusive to Tarith. Juliette was surprised to see there was a large demand for sneaking into Krygon; she saw people she suspected to be Tarithian spies, risk-seeking adventurers, and self-proclaimed soldiers. It was a strange lot to be traveling with.
After preparations were complete, they were set on a carriage headed towards Krygon. The trip through the Yeni countryside was mostly uneventful. Juliette and Areum were both grateful that they didn’t run into any more Krygon deserters on the way.
Sneaking through the front lines was an entirely different story. Areum grimly greeted the gruesome sights like an old friend, while Juliette struggled to comprehend what they were seeing. They would come across broken and abandoned houses, streets stained with dried blood and other bodily fluids; it was a common sight to see the ruins of a collapsed building, littered with corpses of Tarithian or Krygon soldiers.
The fields and hills they occasionally passed through had signs of past battles, often marked by corpses of soldiers, horses and gryphons, some more recent than others. Some were filled with rotting bodies; others were half-eaten by wild animals.
“These are… the kinds of sights you saw when you were in the army?” Juliette whispered to Areum.
“Yeah. You get used to them quickly, provided you live long enough,” he whispered back. “Just keep close to me. I’ll make sure we both get through this alive.”
Juliette glanced at him. “Right…”
As the days went on, travelling became much more dangerous, now that they were on the front lines. They came under fire from Tarithian and Krygon soldiers often, but they managed to narrowly escape capture, up until they ran into a Krygon ambush originally meant for Tarithian soldiers. Juliette and Areum had to fight their way out of it, along with the driver and the rest of the smuggled-in passengers. After a brief yet deadly encounter, the Krygon soldiers retreated.
There was a moment during the fight when Areum had another akor’mar soldier on the ground, unable to get up from his previously sustained injuries. The two locked eyes… Areum’s grip began to shake, and the akor’mar found himself hesitating.
He wouldn’t have to suffer the dilemma much longer, however. Without so much as a warning, Juliette brought down her sword on the Krygon soldier.
“Juliette…” Areum turned to her.
“You said that they were your brethren, so leave them to me,” she said. “If a Tarithian kills them, then you can keep your conscience clear. It’s just the war running its course, right?”
Areum stayed silent.
“It’s… the least I can do for your help.”
It sounded ridiculous, the prospect of killing someone’s kin to repay them for their kindness, but Areum seemed to acknowledge the gesture. However, he walked towards another dying Krygon soldier and raised his blade.
Juliette realized what he was going to do. “W-Wait—”
Areum cut the soldier down, killing him. “I’m grateful for the gesture, Juliette, but I can’t hesitate to kill. Not now.”
“But… you said…”
“Yes… I said what I said –” Areum sighed, walking back to the carriage with the rest of the survivors. “– but this is what it means to help. I don’t intend to go back on my promise.”
The carriage continued through the front lines, repeatedly suffering attacks from Krygon and Tarithian soldiers. However, such encounters grew feweras they climbed the forested hills into Krygon. Just like Tarith, no one questioned a lone carriage travelling on a road past the border.
The lapse in action gave Juliette and Areum a window to relax, something they’d have little opportunity for when they arrived in Gymalg G’mai. Once they did arrive, Juliette and Areum donned cloaks to disguise themselves and went in.
Juliette was seeing what Krygon was like for the first time… and it seemed to be in a state of panic. Many businesses and shops seemed desperately understaffed, the few employees actively miserable as they tried to keep themselves afloat. Houses seemed to be in a state of disrepair. Despite all the hustle and bustle, the down-trodden look, the edgy atmosphere, and the desperate businesses gave Juliette a feeling that everyone here was struggling to survive.
“Don’t make eye contact with anyone,” Areum told her. “Follow closely behind me.”
As the two walked the streets, Juliette found it difficult to stay close to Areum. People were always bumping into her, either in urgency or just plain carelessness. She got the impression that people saw each other only as obstacles in this city: something that slowed them down from attending to their businesses.
What a depressing atmosphere. Is this really what all of Krygon is like?
After weaving through the crowds, they slipped through a small, inconspicuous entrance by an alleyway into the sewers.
“Is this where the city’s underground markets are?”
“A lot of them don’t operate here. They prefer more inconspicuous spots,” Areum said, “but it’s the best shot we can get right now.”
With each hallway and corner looking the same and carrying the same dreadful scent of the city’s collective bowels, Juliette thought it would be like finding their way through a maze and that they’d get lost soon. To her surprise, Areum led them right to the sewers’ underground community, filled with not just akor’mari from Krygon, but humans from Yeniden and even Tarith, refugees from Freeport, and Little Folk from the jungles. The area was alight with thousands of lanterns and candles, neatly placed in market stalls and tent houses or held by people browsing the markets.
“Wow…” Juliette muttered. It felt a bit surreal to find a thriving community in the sewers of a city, but it was still quite a sight, nonetheless. “People can actually live in a place like this?”
“Indeed,” Areum replied, taking off his cloak. “If any of the markets here are in the business of selling animals, we can ask them if they’ve sold any gryphons recently.”
The two walked around the stalls, catching a glimpse of all sorts of services and products being offered: smuggled goods and weapons, protection services, kidnapping and assassination offers… It was an underground market, indeed. Despite the dangerous businesses, however, Juliette felt that this place was… cozier than the city above them. People weren’t in a rush to do anything; they were polite and courteous with one another, and any staff manning the markets seemed relaxed.
Juliette knew that it was a façade, that it didn’t change the fact that being down here was more dangerous than the streets up above, but somehow, it was preferable to her.
This is strange… Was it also like this back in Tarith?
Areum nudged Juliette a little bit. “Over there.” He pointed at one of the stalls by a corner. It was small, and there was a small cage laid on the table, containing a strange owl inside. It had the eyes, ears and whiskers of a cat, but the rest of the body was very much an owl’s. The market owner was an akor’mar sitting on a chair, his feet placed on the stall beside the cage.
“We could start asking there,” Areum said. “It looks like they sell exotic animals.”
The two walked over to the market stall. “Excuse me,” Juliette started, calling the akor’mar’s attention, while Areum stood behind her. “Can I ask what other wares you sell in your business?”
The akor’mar took a moment to take a good look at Juliette, then at Areum. “That depends… What are you looking for?” he asked, a polite yet sly smile growing on his face.
“We’re looking to see if you’ve sold any gryphons before.”
“Well, let’s see…” The akor’mar put a hand on his chin, making a big show of trying to recall. “Why, yes… We have sold gryphons before. They’re quite a rarity, though — live ones, at least. Why do you ask?”
“Have you sold a gryphon around two or three weeks ago?” She furrowed her brow. “Since they’re so rare, I think you’d remember that.”
The akor’mar whistled. “Well, aren’t you subtle…?” He chuckled. “Indeed, my contacts and I sold a gryphon to someone in the city around that time period.”
“Who did you sell that gryphon to, and where is it now?”
The akor’mar shrugged, raising his hands. “Nuh-uh-uh! Slow down there,” he said, chuckling. “I don’t know how it is back in whatever fancy mansion you hail from, but down here, information is a valuable currency. I can tell that you’re new here; I was gracious enough to give you two pieces of information for free.”
“I don’t come from—“
The akor’mar took his feet off the table, sitting upright. “Oh, please, it’s written all over you, m’lady.” He gave a sarcastic bow.
Juliette found herself flustered; she resisted the urge to retreat further into her cloak. She looked at her own clothing and bearing, trying to see if anything about it oozed nobility. Am I… am I really that obvious?
“Now, then, answer a question for me, will you?” the akor’mar said, making it a point to raise his voice for everyone else and make big, theatrical gestures to hold the crowd’s attention. “Who are you? Are you here to arrest us? Stop this business? Did someone hire you to come here?”
Juliette and Areum quickly felt all sorts of sharp gazes fall on them, along with the bloodlust the many eyes carried with them. Areum stood close to Juliette, preparing to draw his weapons.
“We’re not here for that sort of business,” Areum spoke up. “She’s a Tarithian soldier. Well, used to be, that is. Her gryphon got captured in combat, and she smuggled herself into Gymalg G’mai to chase after it.”
“Is that so?” The akor’mar looked at Juliette. “That your boy toy?”
“If you really think that, then please just kill me now.”
“Hey, don’t say things like that in this situation!” Areum snapped.
“If you don’t trust us, we’re willing to make a deal,” Juliette said. “What do you want in exchange for the information?”
“Hm? Why would I take a deal from you two?”
“We’re unknown faces. If you need someone to do your dirty work for you, then we’re the perfect pair.” She said, “The war has dragged on for months, right? Who’s going to think twice about yet another rumor about deserters being up to mischief?”
The akor’mar hummed in thought. “Perhaps… I do have something in mind for you two…” he said. “But how do I know that you two are the ones for the job?”
“We’re plenty capable.”
“Are you, really? Or are you just saying that to stay alive?”
Juliette frowned, clicking her tongue. She rested her hand on the handle of her blade. “Fine, if that’s what you think, then tell everyone here to attack us,” she challenged him. “We’ll show you who’s trying to stay alive, then.”
The akor’mar whistled. “That’s quite brave of you… Foolish, but brave… Tell me, m’lady, are you sure you’re willing to die for this gryphon you’re looking for?”
Juliette locked her eyes onto his. “Are you?”
The two had a brief, tense stare-off. Areum silently stood behind her, also resting his hands on his weapons, as did everyone near enough to overhear their confrontation. For a moment, they heard the rasp of someone unsheathing their blade. Usually, that would mean that a big fight was imminent, but before things got out of hand, the other akor’mar quickly let out a loud round of laughter, piercing through the tense silence and breaking through everyone’s fight-or-flight state of mind.
“Very well, then. I find you quite charming, after all,” he said. “There’s someone I’ve been trying to track down. I have business with her, you see, but I can’t quite get a hold of her. I want you to find her and report her location to me.”
Juliette resisted the urge to breathe a sigh of relief. “You should’ve just said that from the start,” she said. “What can you tell us about this person?”
“Her name is An, with one N. She’s an akor’mar with light blue eyes. It’s hard to miss that, provided you find her first.”
“Got it. We’ll be back once we know where she is,” Juliette said. “We’ll start looking for her now, even.” She looked at Areum. “Let’s go.”
“Right…” Areum nodded. The two started to walk away from the market, moving to the sewers to find their way back up to the surface.
“Ah, before you go, there’s something you should know,” the akor’mar called out.
“What is that?”
“You’re both lucky to be alive, you know.” He had a sly grin on his face. “So, if you need to contact me, ask for a ‘Lucky.’”
Juliette scoffed. “Is that it? You’re the one who’s lucky to be alive!” she shouted, sticking her tongue out at Lucky. “Let’s get out of here, boy toy.”
“I told you, I’m not your—“ Areum groaned.