Chapter 1: Skirmish
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Crowded streets. Normally something that she would not enjoy at all, but in moments like these, they served as a perfect cover nonetheless. Somewhere far off, she could hear the faint sounds of soldiers shouting. 


"She must be somewhere around here, keep looking!" 


With a small smirk upon her lips, the cloaked woman pulled her hood further up against her head to cover more of her face. But even so, if one were to look close enough, they could still see one of the most striking features that she was trying to hide. 


A strand of crimson red hair. 


Walking further down the streets, she grew more at ease once she arrived at the general marketplace of the Imperial capital, with most of the soldiers still looking around the palace grounds. It was here where she managed to blend in with the crowd the most, and for just this moment, she felt like she was in a way a part of them. A mere wandering person who was minding their own business as they strode around the marketplace… 


As she walked, her eyes wandered around the different stands and vendors who were selling various goods from around the Empire. Somewhere a loud man was trying his best to make customers aware of the tasty looking meat he was selling, constantly claiming that there was no better meat from anywhere within the Empire. 


Albeit her eyes didn't remain on his goods for long before they wandered to the next, this one being a more slim, old man who was quietly waiting at his stand as the people passed by his store, the many kinds of jewels he was selling set out on display for everyone to see. 


"My dear, would you like to taste some of my rice balls?" with a small gasp, the young woman turned around and shifted her attention away from the jewelry, following the voice of an old lady which was directed at her. Said old lady was standing at a small but modest stand which was offering various kinds of food, many delicious smells coming from each and every single product that she was selling. 


However, the old lady was giving her a kind and genuine smile as she held a small stick with rice balls in her hand, kindly offering it to the young woman. The latter hesitantly approached with a glance at the ground before she accepted the offer, but the moment she moved her free hand towards the satchel upon her belt, wanting to repay the old woman somehow, she was immediately stopped in her tracks. 


"Oh no, my dear, it is free of charge. Please, just enjoy it along with this beautiful day." with another warm smile, the disguised woman almost sheepishly smiled back beneath her hood, bowing slightly in gratitude at the vendor's kindness. 


"Thanks, that is very kind of you." a gentle and light voice sounded from her lips, and it was already enough for the old lady to close her eyes in content before she waved the young woman goodbye once she was off on her way again. 


Truly, it was such a cheery day… for once, she didn't quite feel as restricted as she normally did. Even though she knew that she was currently only delaying the inevitable trouble she would be getting into for simply disappearing like that from the palace… 


As she took a small bite from the rice balls, a sweet and mild flavor filling her senses, she suddenly halted in her tracks the moment she suddenly witnessed a loud commotion not far away. At first, she listened in more closely, but after realizing that the voices involved were partly aggressive, she immediately discarded her thoughts and subtly approached the scene which was unfolding not far away. And it was not hard to miss, for at the edge of the marketplace, near a small side street, the rest of the crowd seemed to be trying to avoid the evident trouble that was taking place. 


And once she arrived there, she saw three figures. Two, large men were cornering a relatively smaller person, but even upon taking a closer look, she could not truly identify the person due to the cloak he was wearing, much like her own. 


"A new face around here, am I right? You are clearly not from here…" a sinister chuckle escaped one of the two men, his posture alone speaking of arrogance as he held a fist to his hips, while he mockingly stared at the smaller person with an evil grin. He was wearing a rather rugged leather tunic and pants, and everything about him spoke of a ruffian at best. 


"I think we ought to teach him how we treat new people around here, especially when they are travelling alone. Looking at you, you look like someone who comes around a lot… and I bet your coin purse is not quite empty." the cloaked person subtly gritted his teeth as he took a step back with his hand covering his purse, his other hand covered beneath his cloak. However, despite how often he desperately glanced around, there was no other guard nearby… and the people of the crowd were all but avoiding all of this, even when it was in broad daylight. 


The two men cornering him followed up with another step towards him, more than invading his personal space, especially when suddenly, one of the two grabbed him by his cloak, roughly pulling him forward. 


"Now now, you don't want to leave us so soon, do you? I thought we'd become friends! Surely there is no harm in spending a bit more time together, is there? I think we should go into that small side street for a moment, drink a little…" with a sharp breath, every attempt to keep his composure began to leave the cloaked person as a growing fear began to show in his eyes, and the two ruffians only seemed to feed upon it with each passing moment-


"Stand down and leave him be! Now." a commanding voice sounded in the air and the two ruffians, along with many people of the crowd, suddenly turned around to look at the source. And once they witnessed the cloaked woman who was seemingly standing up for the stranger, they immediately huffed, their vicious grins returning once again before the one who had been threatening the stranger simply dropped him to the ground. 


"And you are…? Don't tell me you are his wife, or else I'd say this is our lucky day… we'll take you instead of his coin any time…!" 


Not paying their worthless talk any heed, the woman glanced at the person who had been dropped with concern, albeit it was momentarily gone as quickly as it had appeared when she hummed. 


And with one, swift movement, she tore the cloak which was concealing her identity aside, and in the blink of an eye she drew a long, ceremoniously crafted sword from her belt. 


"I highly doubt that."


Gasps sounded from everywhere around her, including the two ruffians who were momentarily frozen in place as they stared at the woman who had just revealed her true identity. And so, too, did the stranger on the ground witness who had stood up for him as he shakily tried to stand up, the eyes beneath his hood staring at the woman with worry. 


Her long hair, which was reaching down her back, was a fiery crimson in color, matching along with the ruby shade of her eyes. Whereas her rugged and brown cloak would have formerly never implied who the wearer truly was, beneath that cloak she wore a neatly decorated and masterfully crafted battle dress which was reaching down to her waist, adorned with the colors of the Imperial royal family, along with its insignia. And the ceremonial sword in her hand completed her entire appearance, which was now more than apparent to anyone who even glanced into her direction. 


Several murmurs sounded among the crowds, but even so, the Imperial princess never once faltered in her stance as she pointed her sword at the two ruffians, regarding them with calm precision. 


"It's the princess, Amaragi… what is she doing here…!" for a moment, one of the two ruffians was beginning to panic, but the other one merely slapped him with the back of his hand before he stared back at the princess with a forced, sinister grin. 


"Who cares? That little puppet probably doesn't even know how to handle a mere butter knife… careful, princess, or else you might cut yourself!" with a flick of his wrist, the taller one of the ruffians pulled out a hidden dagger from his belt beneath his tunic before he rushed forward, albeit she merely narrowed her eyes in response. 


"You'll come with us- ugh!" a gurgle escaped the tall man when she sidestepped his sloppy attack with a trained step before she used the opening with ease and her blade cut deeply along his side, spilling his blood along the ground. With a last grunt, he succumbed with his blood trickling down his tunic while she merely swung her sword in one, strong motion to wipe part of the blood off. And all the while, her stance had never ceased to appear as graceful as before. 


The other ruffian was now openly shivering in fright before he all but ran away, almost stumbling over his own two feet as he fled in a panic. With a huff, she watched as the remaining ruffian disappeared in the dark alley before she wiped the rest of the blood from her blade, sheathing it once more. 


And thus, her eyes finally fell upon the stranger she had rescued, quickly rushing over towards him. 


"Are you alright? Did they harm you…?" the cloaked person seemed to be frozen slightly as he glanced at the ground, and the kind smile she was wearing in the hopes of reassuring him faded away slightly when he evaded her eyes. However, now that she was much closer to him, she could finally see more clearly beneath his hood, especially when she gently placed a hand upon his shoulder which unintentionally caused him to perk up for a brief moment. 


He was quite young, barely any older than herself if she were to guess. Beneath his hood, she could see clear, black strands of hair, and in general, his face was quite soft. But most importantly, his eyes almost seemed to be emptily staring off at the ground, a certain amount of shock and fear still evident within them. And it caused her to worry all the more. 


She wanted to ask him far more than that, where he came from, where he was headed, if she could do anything else for him, anything after the horrid experience he had just endured, but suddenly, loud voices sounded in the back, and they were quickly approaching. 


"Here, princess Amaragi is here!" undoubtedly, the whole commotion had roused the attention of the guards, and the word about her whereabouts had most likely already spread. However, before she could focus back upon the one she had saved, he suddenly pulled away from her hold upon his shoulder before he stared at the end of the marketplace. 


"... I… thank you…" it was a barely audible whisper, but she understood it all the same. And yet, before she could stop him, he was already halfway gone, rushing off and further blending in into the crowds of people on the streets. 


"Wait! I…" her hand was emptily reaching out to the air in front of her, her voice not reaching the stranger anymore as he hurried away. She had wanted to… 


With a small sigh, and with the voices of the soldiers becoming more evident, she quickly pulled on her cloak once again, hiding her face beneath her hood. And yet, before she moved away as well, she suddenly took note of a small shred of cloth on the ground. Leaning down, she picked it up and inspected it more closely. 


It was colored blue, and the black tips from where it had been torn off indicated that it belonged to the cloak which the stranger had been wearing, which was most likely a result of one of the ruffians who had roughly been pulling at it. 


And thus, she grasped it in her hand before she made up her mind, and in the blink of an eye, she rushed after the young person she had just encountered, following in the same direction where he had just hurried away. 


After all, she thought with a content smile… 


… now she actually had a reason to go after him.