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.

An brought Juliette and Areum to a small, two-story infirmary, with a humble flower garden for a front yard. It had signs of wear and age, but everything seemed to be maintained to the best of its ability. An had been taking good care of it, despite its obvious shortcomings.

However, what stood out to Juliette were the number of bowls and small plates sitting in the front yard. They were empty now, but some of them had crumbs and small leftovers of various foodstuffs. “Do stray animals come to your house often?” she asked.

“Yes; four cats and two dogs,” An said. “One of the dogs is pregnant, so I’ve been stockpiling food for her in advance.”

When they entered the building, they noticed that it was small and tightly packed with all sorts of boxes neatly stacked on top of each other. The rooms with shelves and drawers were packed with mortar and pestles, scissors, thread, fabric and other medical assortments. The kitchen was a slight mess between the food and all the other implements.

The building overall was narrow, quiet, and lonely. Any creak of the floorboard, every time someone brushed up against a crate: it was all harshly audible. Juliette and Areum walked through the building anxiously, hands resting on their weapons, nervous that these sounds weren’t just innocent ambiance. Of course, their caution was all an act. It wouldn’t make sense if they were too eager to settle into a stranger’s house, after all.

“Relax,” An said. “I don’t have any intention to hurt you.”

Areum furrowed his eyebrows. “Then why did you bring us here?”

“…you two have seen what the city is like, haven’t you?”

Juliette tilted her head, and her tense expression slowly softened. “I have.”

Just like that. Make it look natural. I wonder if this is easier because she has no reason to suspect us of being with Lucky.

“I’d never thought that I could be around so many people at once, yet feel so alone.” An sighed. “When I saw you two lying in that alleyway, I thought that there’d be no way you’d reject a free offer to have a warm bed and a roof over your heads for the night.”

“So… you just wanted… company?” Areum slowly asked.

“Yes. I suppose so,” An said. “I understand that you’re both suspicious of me. How about this, then: you don’t have to stay the night here, but just have dinner with me.”

Juliette and Areum looked at each other, pretending to sport uncertain looks on their faces. After a moment, Areum turned to An, ‘reluctantly’ nodding. “…well, I suppose it beats sleeping in the alleyway,” he said. “What do you say?”

“…agreed,” Juliette said. “We’ll have dinner with you.”

The smile on An’s face widened. “Thank you for trusting me,” she said, a little skip in her step as she walked to the kitchen. “Come, sit at the table! I’ll make you all dinner… oh! Before that, may I know your names?”

“I’m Juliette.”

“I’m Areum.”

“Juliette and Areum… it’s good to meet you both.”

Once An was done cooking a meal for everyone, she served it on three platters, and they proceeded to dig into the food.

“Are you a doctor, An?” Juliette asked, thinking that making some small talk would keep An from growing suspicious.

“Not always… It used to be my husband’s practice,” An said. “He’s off serving as a doctor on the front lines.”

“That’s a long way away. How did he get assigned there?” Areum asked.

“Well, how do I say this…” An started. “We got into a fight when the war began, and he went off to join the army… He told me not to follow him, and I ended up lashing out.” She sighed. “I’m not proud of it. I told him that he was abandoning me, that he’d thrown me aside out of some sense of loyalty to Krygon.”

Juliette struggled to find the right words to reply. “That… sounds rough…” she said, slowly. 

“We haven’t seen each other since he left for the front lines,” An continued. “When I realized that our fight might have been the last conversation we would have, it destroyed me. I felt helpless, but I decided to do what I can to make sure he gets back. I picked up his practice, and now I deliver medical supplies to the front lines. It’s not much… but who knows? Perhaps that one roll of bandages or that single tourniquet will be what saves him.”

Juliette leaned towards Areum. “She’s oversharing,” she whispered.

“You know An can still hear you,” Areum ‘whispered’ back.

An chuckled. “My apologies, Juliette. I didn’t mean to pile onto you like that.” She said, “It’s just been a long time since I’ve had someone to talk to. It’s been a hard burden to bear, and it’s simply nice to have a listening ear.”

Juliette smiled nervously. “It’s… It’s okay…” she said, quickly trying to find a way to shift the topic away from her embarrassment. “W-Wait… So, does this mean you were looking for people in an alleyway because you were lonely?”

“Hey, don’t say it like that…”

The two shared a small bout of laughter. Even Areum was smiling a bit.

Once dinner was done and the talk died down, An led them to the second floor, where there was a guest bedroom with two mattresses, along with some common amenities. “It’s not much, but it’s not an alleyway.” She chuckled. “If you ever need me, I’ll be downstairs.”

As An went downstairs, Juliette and Areum got themselves settled in the room. Weary from the night’s travel, both of them were in silent agreement that they’d lie down on their mattresses and fall asleep.

“Well… she seems nice,” Areum said, keeping his voice low. “I didn’t think she would find us, of all the things that could have happened.”

“Yeah. She also… seems nice.” Juliette rose a bit from her mattress. “Does this mean we’re contacting Lucky tomorrow?”

“You sound like you don’t want to do it.”

Juliette closed her eyes. She took a deep breath.

This is for Charlie.

“No. I want to do it,” she said. “Lucky seems to trust you more than me. So, tomorrow, you go contact him, while I make sure An stays here until you and Lucky can return.”

“Got it.”

Juliette sighed, lying back down. “Did we ever ask Lucky what his business was with her?”

Areum shook his head. “No,” he said, “but I have a bad feeling.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

The two attempted to sleep, but they found the silence too loud.

“You know…” Juliette was the first to cave. “The fact that you’ve brought me here is enough, if not plenty. You don’t have to…”

“I don’t intend to back down halfway,” Areum told her. “I promised I’d help you. I’m sticking to that promise. Besides, she knew what she was getting herself into. She showed kindness to two strangers in a city where everyone should be suspicious of each other.”

Juliette found it unconvincing. It sounded like he was trying to convince himself more than her.

Who are you telling that to, exactly?

“Well, good night then, Areum.”

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