Excerpt for Meeting Nihena by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Ervin Agayan


Contact: ErvinAgayan@gmail.com


Table of contents

The Little Savage


Bad food

The Green-eyed Dreamboat

The Sleeping Princess

The Cat Named Lolo


The Amazing Girl

Trial (Part II)

The Princess and Sunsets

The Dinner Following the Trial

An Unexpected Offer

Two Slaves

Terrible News

Sleepless Night

Memories from the Past: How Arsy Lost the Bet

The Little Savage

When the city’s outline became visible in the distance, Arsy slowed the horse’s pace and turned back to Zens. With undisguised admiration, he nodded to Mozakon, wrapped in blue mist, and asked, “What would you say?”

“I’d only say that it’s fantastic!” exclaimed Zens, equally enthusiastically.

“Living a life and never having seen Mozakon is the same as not living at all.”

“I totally agree with you!” Zens still couldn’t believe his eyes. “In the books, these territories and the city itself were compared to heaven, and it is clear that they were not exaggerating.”

“One thing, however, is definitely exaggerated.” Arsy shook his head. “From this altitude, the city looks magnificent indeed, but it is still eclipsed by Siyeron in terms of beauty.”

“Let’s move!” Zens could hardly restrain himself from spurring the horse forward. “I am eager to get to Mozakon.”

“Wait!” said Arsy less confidently. He wanted to discuss a rather delicate matter with Zens.

“Would you like to make a stop?” Hesitantly, Zens looked around the location, which obviously wasn’t fit for stopping.

“No, I want to have a word with you.” Arsy cleared his throat uncertainly and added reluctantly, “Yesterday, I shared some secrets with you…”

“Right, you told me that you are head over heels in love with the princess,” Zens broke in with a sly smile. “I wasn’t really surprised to hear it, but your intention of kidnapping her…I thought you were kidding me!”

“I was drunk yesterday, and it seems like I put my foot in it.” Arsy’s smile was more than apologetic. “Please, don’t interpret it as mistrust; it’s just that the less people know about it, the better it is.”

“No problem!” said Zens lightheartedly.

“Rumors are swirling that someone wants to win her heart. If I don’t manage to put a crimp in the scheme, I will have to kidnap her.” Arsy’s eyes lit up with rage.

“Will have to?” Zens looked at him askance.

“Exactly! I can’t cede my Parelia to someone else. That’s out of the question!” Arsy’s resolve was flaring up with every second.

It’d been a year since Arsy and Elmunia started working together. Things were going well, and during this period, they had managed to improve their financial standing, almost entirely seizing Erathos’ and his friends’ business.

Arsy knew Erathos would never forgive him and would unfailingly come to settle accounts with him. He began to engage in intensive martial arts training so he would have at least a chance to resist him. However, the techniques and maneuvers turned out to be childish games compared to his rival’s expertise. Arsy avoided meeting Erathos in any possible way, but the latter finally managed to catch him. After that encounter, Arsy realized the lessons had no effect; his resistance had lasted only a few seconds, after which Erathos beat his opponent so badly that Arsy’s friends found him half-dead.

That time, Erathos decided not to kill him, but warned him that their next encounter could become the last if Arsy didn’t comply with the conditions he had set, and there was no compromise. It was then that Arsy realized the key to his redemption was in learning cathastu, of which Erathos was a master.

There were few people who could teach that style in Agastan. Arsy knew of only one—Sensei Farin, from whom Erathos had learned the skills of the martial art. He lived with mercenaries, and they were his only disciples. Recently, Erathos had killed their leader’s son, and Arsy hoped that a common enemy would link them together and they’d agree to join forces to fight against Erathos. Arsy also hoped Sensei Farin would agree to teach him cathastu, so he could confront his enemy.

And now Arsy made his way to the mercenaries with one of his people, Zens, whom he had recently bailed out of jail for a large amount of money and accepted into his gang. Though Arsy had many loyal people, he decided to put Zens to the test.

The mercenaries lived in a faraway region of the kingdom, which was located almost on the edge of Agastan. In fairy tales, such places are commonly described as “the end of the world, farther than the land of Dragons.” Their capital city, Mozakon, was located almost on the top of Mount Moz. Surrounded by high walls from all sides, Mozakon was considered the world’s most inaccessible city.

“This is more like childish tantrums,” said Zens, still admiring the rocky landscapes.

Yesterday, during his hangover, Arsy was so upset that it seemed like he’d tear up; the news about the princess’ new admirer upset him even more than he expected.

“I’d like it to be so. You can’t imagine how hard I’ve been trying to get rid of those tantrums, as you call them, but I just haven’t been able to.” Arsy added almost desperately, “I love her like a madman.”

Deprived of parental love and endearment, and with no possessions since childhood, Arsy was used to taking other people’s stuff, no matter who or what that was. When he wanted to lay his hands on something, neither the status nor the power of the owner could stop him. Arsy was feared, steered clear of, hated, and despised.

He was a full orphan, who wandered from place to place and eventually paved himself a way to becoming the right hand of the “devil.” In some sense, it made him a feared figure in the criminal world, so it was no wonder Arsy was often referred to as the Godfather of Gangland.

The attitude of the people of Agastan toward Arsy could be best described through an idiom: “If you’re meeting Erathos, be ready to die; if you’re meeting Arsy, be ready to lose all of your possessions!”

Arsy would steal not only physical items. There were also many ladies’ hearts in his personal “portfolio.” And it was no wonder; tall and well-built, he unfailingly attracted women’s attention from the start. His long, silky hair glistening with shades of dark chocolate nicely framed his smooth face and fine features.

His chiseled jaw, high cheekbones, even nose and lips dissolved into a sly grin perfectly complementing his main “treasure”—deep blue eyes that reminded one of a cloudless spring sky reflected in the smooth waters of the calm sea. There was something in those eyes that made the interlocutor’s heart beat faster, while his somewhat cunning expression captivated young ladies—once and for all, making them forget caution and put themselves in the hands of the criminal.

Unfortunately for women, an affair with Arsy unfailingly ended with the lady’s broken heart. This continued until the moment the gods became angry and set a love trap for Arsy. It is quite possible that the gods had nothing to do with it, but whatever it was, his fate wouldn’t be envied even by the most vicious heartbreaker!

“Time cures wounds,” Zens cheered up his friend. “You’ll forget everything eventually.”

Zens realized the meaning of his words; he used to repeat the same thing to himself, trying to forget his equally bitter past.

Arsy’s blue eyes were still fixed on Mozakon’s distant silhouette, but his thoughts were wandering far away.

“It’s been a year and two months since I last met her,” he sighed, “but I remember every detail, every single hair and birthmark on her body. Tell me, master of love affairs, how much time should pass for the heart to stop hurting?”

“Master of love affairs?” Zens burst out laughing, but immediately added in a serious tone, “I am afraid you are asking the wrong person. You need a specialist.”

“A specialist?” asked Arsy, surprised. “Are there any?”

“There must be.” Zens nodded confidently, strongly convinced of the existence of love experts. “They might put a spell on you, so you instantly forget about your broken heart and the one who broke it.”

“Seems like you, my Green-Eyed Jolly Fellow, just helped me find a new job for you.” Arsy smiled.

“Oh, I’ve dragged myself into a mess!” laughed Zens.

Chatting cheerfully, they made their way toward Mozakon. Arsy remembered a story he’d heard about the city and recounted it to his companion.

“You know, I have heard a funny story associated with the name of the city. Long ago, it was called something else. The road leading to the city was extremely dangerous with sharp slopes, so they placed a warning sign on it, reading: ‘Mo za kon.’ The phrase is translated from Lienese as “Attention, dangerous road,” but the travelers who didn’t know Lienese took it for the name of the city. This is how the name Mozakon appeared. Mercenaries did understandably try to struggle with it in any possible way, but then even they gave way and started calling the city Mozakon.”

Arsy paused for Zens response but received none. Zens was staring at the looming city just ahead.

The city sat solemnly on the top of the highest peak in Agastan—Mount Moz. Like a huge white eagle, it stretched its magnificent stone wings in the form of city towers, elegant houses, and elaborately intertwined blocks.

From a distance, especially when the sun lit the city’s white walls with its bright rays, Mozakon indeed reminded visitors of a great bird that had ultimately picked a dangerous place to nest.

Such a high location had both advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, Mozakon was indeed unapproachable; the centuries long history of the city, never blemished with wars or invasions, served as vivid proof of that fact. It was impossible to take Mozakon by assault. The city was surrounded by high walls, while the actual location on top of the mountain brought all assault attempts to naught.

No military leader in his right mind would send his army against Mozakon. There was only one road leading to the city, and it was so narrow and steep that it was impossible to carry siege weapons up it, and the army of soldiers would have to stretch many miles with soldiers marching two by two in a line.

In case of rain, which was quite common for the mountains, the road turned into a swamp, where one could get forever bogged down—or even worse, fall down the slope and die before landing. For the same reasons, Mozakon was unapproachable for assault during the rainy months.

It was its strategically advantageous location that made the first settlers choose it for their home. Eventually, Mozakon became a place of refuge for mercenaries who didn’t want to get involved in the world’s wars and disputes. Here, they had a chance to live in peace while preserving military neutrality. Thus, Mozakon expanded its borders and became an inaccessible fortress, the residence for mercenaries, and a world-famous cathastu military-style teaching center.

The wise Sensei Farin often said, “Mozakon is inaccessible for everyone, except for Mother Nature.”

The guardians faced them with suspicion and circumspection, the same way they welcomed all other guests of the city. Checking their identifying documents and determining the purpose of their visit, the guardians accompanied the travelers to the palace of the mercenaries’ leader, concurrently the head of the city—Lord Mesdrin.

Because of its inaccessible position, both from geographical and social perspectives (“for natives only”), Mozakon hardly ever welcomed guests. However, if a traveler did set out for this dangerous adventure into the mountains, there was a well-deserved reward at the end of the road: an incredibly beautiful and mysteriously magnificent city.

A traveler’s first view of the city was high towers that seemed to pierce the clouds like thin needles. On a sunny day, the white and pink stones of the towers sparkled like opalescent pearls. The blue tiled roofs of residential houses appeared here and there, adding some brightness to the colorful array of the city. Generally, Mozakon gave the impression of a “light” or even “pastel” city.

Appraising the streets of Mozakon with mouths wide open in admiration, the fellows reached the lord’s castle. A wide stairway led to the territory of the castle from the city’s main square. Here, the guests were ordered to wait for further instructions.

“The palace looks kind of gloomy, doesn’t it?” asked Zens.

“I’ve seen worse,” Arsy grinned. “Let’s hope the interior will be much more beautiful.”

The castle that the travelers found outwardly gloomy wasn’t gloomy at all. The ancestral castle of the Mesdrin family was Mozakon’s principal point of pride. Constructed several centuries prior, this magnificent building was one of the oldest in the city, and it remained practically unchanged.

Prominently located in the city center, the castle hung over the main square and the city’s glistening houses as a big white bird protecting its chicks. There were only three floors in the castle; nevertheless, it was impressively grandiose and seemed to be simply enormous.

Despite its magnificence and dimensions, the residence of the leader of Mozakon looked like a house rather than a castle. Its smooth walls made of white stone changed shades a few times a day, depending on the position of the sun. At sunrise, the castle reflected a bluish shade. During midday, its walls dazzled a luminous white, and at sunset, they were painted baby pink with shades of orange.

All attention was gripped by beautiful white columns with arcs between them, supporting the balconies on the second floor. A covered perch was between the façade of the house and these columns, separated from the yard by a low-standing balustrade. One could always find shelter from the heat in that corridor. The balcony on the second floor was also framed with arcs, creating an integral architectural composition.

Domelike roofs were inlaid with small brown tiles, like the ceiling of the porch along the perimeter of the house, creating an amazing contrast with the white stone. The balconies on the second and third floors overlooked a marvelous view of the stunning city landscapes.

“I have a bad premonition,” said Zens, yawning. “Are you sure they will welcome us? Mercenaries are not famous for their hospitality.”

“Of course they will. I am the enemy of their enemy; consequently, I am their friend! They will arrange a lavish welcome. Mark my words,” Arsy said with confidence. He had no idea what awaited them.

“Lavish welcome is exactly what I need right now,” answered Zens dreamily, envisaging a table bending with various viands. “I am as hungry as a wolf.”

After a moment of silence, Zens asked quite unexpectedly, “I remember you said you have been here once!”

“Right. I was here when I was a child,” Arsy nodded. “It happened at night, though, and I didn’t go inside.”

Zens shifted his almost astonished glance onto his friend. “Only, please don’t tell me you came here for robbery!”

“Rob mercenaries? I am not suicidal, after all,” Arsy smiled. “No, I was in attendance of Erathos. He used to come here for classes.”

“And why didn’t you attend those classes?”

“Erathos was observing the classes secretly. He used to take a lot of food with him, enough for a few days, and observe their classes from the roof. Then he went down and repeated what he saw. My task was to distract the mercenaries while he made his way inside.”


“Yup, he was crack-headed!” exclaimed Arsy. “As you know, mercenaries don’t teach outsiders. He tried to gain admittance through common friends but with no success; they teach only insiders. Anyone in his place would have given up long ago, but not Erathos. There are very few such purposeful people in Agastan!”

“No matter how purposeful he is, he miscalculated something in his relationship with the princess,” Zens shook his head.

“Luckily for me!” Arsy grinned. “Imagine how terrible it would be had my ex-friend married the girl of my heart.”

Zens sniffed clear mountain air and looked at the blue sky with rapidly travelling clouds.

“Funny how life works,” he said thoughtfully. “You have come here to learn cathastu style in order to conquer your former best friend and then marry the princess.” Zens looked at Arsy with a grin. “Can’t you just live in peace?”

“We can’t,” declared Arsy resolutely. “Agastan is too small for the two of us. Besides, I’ve made such a mess during the past year that he won’t even consider speaking with me.”

“And what have you done?” inquired Zens.

“I took all his property. And on top of that, I trapped all of his companions who didn’t agree to work under my command.”

“I see why he wants to kill you.”

“Yeah, I only narrowly escaped death last time, but next time, he won’t spare me. I know for sure.” Arsy sighed heavily and looked at the gates of the castle with hope. “Cathastu is my only chance of salvation. I must master that style to be able to fight him as an equal.”

“But he has a huge advantage.” Zens obviously had no belief in his friend’s plan. “Erathos has been practicing that style for a lifetime, and you haven’t even started yet.”

“I have no choice!” Arsy shrugged his shoulders and added with a smile, “Besides, they say beginners are lucky.”

“Just like fools!” sneered Zens, but he instantly became serious again. “There must be another solution!”

“I could give him back whatever I took from him, but that’s not an option.”

“Why so? It’s not a bad idea.”

I love the princess, and I can’t imagine my life without her.” Arsy’s voice grew more persistent. “But a happy family life requires a good deal of money. You don’t have the slightest idea how much I pay my people.”

“I do, quite well!” Zens smiled. “Judging by my salary, you pay a whole lot of money.”

“Now, wrap your mind around how much I have to pay to grease the police, so they leave me alone,” said Arsy. “Your salary is not even close. There are hundreds of expenses other than that.”

“You don’t need much money to kidnap the princess,” reminded Zens.

“But I will need quite a lot to survive somehow,” argued Arsy. “Can you imagine how they will start hunting me? I will need an army of people for my protection!”

“You can carry it out secretly so no one guesses what happened,” suggested Zens.

“Right, I’ve been thinking about it.” Arsy nodded. “I’m considering that as the last option. Mercenaries will find us sooner or later.”

“I doubt it very much,” Zens laughed. “They haven’t been able to find Erathos so far.”

“It’s because Erathos is constantly moving from place to place, whereas Parelia and I can’t live like nomads.”

Zens shook his head doubtfully and finally pronounced, “Well, Arsy, I think you are playing with fire.”

Arsy looked askance at him with suspicion in his blue eyes. “I sense a lack of confidence in you. Don’t tell me you have changed your mind about working with me.”

“Of course I haven’t!” assured Zens hurriedly. “I will help you, despite the fact that I have no experience in kidnapping princesses. Anyways, I don’t mind upgrading my qualifications!” joked the Green-Eyed Jolly Fellow. “Listen, I remember you said someone was trying to win her favor…”

“Everyone is trying to win her favor,” answered Arsy unhappily. “Who wouldn’t want to be the king? This time, however, I have a serious opponent. He is from an influential and well-to-do family. While it has been fairly simple to remove other admirers after exchanging a few words, this time I will need to try harder.”

“Is he successful in love affairs?”

“He invited Parelia to some sort of an event, and she agreed to go with him.” Arsy’s voice was trembling with anger.

“And instead of putting a crimp in his scheme, you’ve come here to learn cathastu?” Zens was amazed.

“I can’t even get close to her!” exclaimed Arsy with annoyance. “I am constantly under surveillance, but I have sent my spies there.”

“Under surveillance?” Zens looked back inadvertently. “Who is surveilling you?”

“Someone I work for,” answered Arsy vaguely, “though she calls it collaboration. But what collaboration is it if I had to ask for her permission to come here?”

“Her?” Zens was shocked. “Did I mishear you?”

“No, it’s a girl,” he admitted reluctantly. “But no one should know about it.”

“I should confess, this news has my head spinning!” Zens couldn’t believe that a man who was dreaded by each and every person he met was under the command of a female.

“It’s not as unbelievable as the fact that she’s Parelia’s closest friend.”

“You must be kidding me!” said Zens, pop-eyed.

“I’m not! Elmunia is one of the most influential people in Agastan.” Exuberant intonation could be sensed in Arsy’s voice.

“I’ve heard quite a lot about her.” Zens nodded thoughtfully, realizing that in all Agastan, only deaf people hadn’t heard about Elmunia. “So how did you start working together?”

“At the time, I was still friends with Erathos. We were enemies. When our revolution went wrong, she ordered me caught and kept me locked up. Then she granted me freedom and offered collaboration. I should say I accepted her offer with great pleasure, since it gave me the chance to hear the freshest news about my Parelia.” Arsy smiled, tongue-in-cheek, and added with pride, “Besides, it’s a great honor for me to be on her team!”

“Does she know you are in love with the princess?” inquired Zens.

“Of course she doesn’t!” exclaimed Arsy. “And she shouldn’t know; otherwise, she will interfere with my kidnapping plan, which is definitely not her plan. I keep my feelings for Parelia in strict secret from her.”

“What if she has mercy for you if she finds out about your feelings?”

“No, the guy who’s courting Parelia is Elmunia’s acquaintance.” Arsy shook his head confidently. “She also has a personal interest in making him the king. That is why I’m telling you he’s a serious opponent. Elmunia will most probably drop a good word for him in Parelia’s ear. Even if she doesn’t like him, Elmunia can persuade her to marry him,” said Arsy, sighing sadly.

“And what are you planning to do about it?” Bright sunlight made Zens narrow his lids.

“I’ll try to intervene!” declared Arsy resolutely. “I have already started my game, so we shall see its results.” After a moment’s silence, he added with a more severe expression, “But if it doesn’t work and their relationship grows into something more serious, I will have to kidnap her, like it or not!”

“But there is another option,” said Zens with a grin. He sensed his friend’s interrogative glance on himself.

“Go ahead!”

“You should confess your love to her,” suggested Zens.

Arsy looked at him like a crazy man. “It’s the same as digging my own grave. Don’t forget that I am the most wanted criminal in Agastan,” declared Arsy with a grain of pride in his voice, which was immediately replaced by bitter disheartenment as he added, “whom she ultimately hates.”


“Exactly! Elmunia often jokingly says, ‘Make sure to stay out of Parelia’s sight, or she’ll reduce you to ashes.’ She can’t forget what I’ve done.”

“And what have you done?” asked Zens.

Well, the revolution with Erathos in the first place, and after we seized the castle, I tied her up.” Arsy’s voice became sadder. “I regret my deeds now, but I can’t turn the clock back. Even after so much time, she still hasn’t given up on capturing me and is constantly asking the police why they haven’t found me yet.”

“Then you are right; confessing your love to her isn’t the best idea. Well, my friend,” sighed Zens, “one thing is certain—I wouldn’t like to be in your shoes. Loving a woman who hates you is torture.”

“Yeah, fate played an evil trick with me. If only I could forget her… but I can’t. I change girlfriends like socks, but I can’t forget her. Therefore, my ‘games’ are the only hope for now, while kidnapping is the last option,” declared Arsy resolutely.

“Experience shows there’s always an alternative option. It’s just that we don’t notice it.” Zens lifted his hands in dismay, adding, “Or we don’t want to notice.”

“As for me, suicide is the only alternative,” replied Arsy bitterly, immediately adding, “but that’s the cowards’ way! I will be fighting for my happiness to the last.”

Noticing the rising anger and frustration in his friend’s eyes, Zens decided to change the topic to distract him from spiritual torment. “Why doesn’t anyone welcome us? I will faint with hunger soon! How long can we wait!” uttered Zens with a rising voice.

“That’s really weird. I will also pass out if I don’t have a bit of barbecue right now.”

“My stomach began to rumble with your mentioning of barbecue,” joked Zens.

“Eager to taste some barbecue?” The silence was broken with a sonorous female voice. “It will be served immediately; only, the barbecue will be made of your own meat.”

Slowly turning around, Arsy and Zens stared at the stranger who sneaked up to them discreetly.

It was Nihena, the daughter of Lord Mesdrin, the head of mercenaries. She was of average height, elegantly built, with a smooth oval face, blue eyes, and a small bumpy nose. Her dark purple hair was scraped back into a high ponytail and fixed with two sticks with thin and quite long turquoise blue ribbons hanging from the tips. A lock that fell across her face was dyed in a different shade.

More likely than not, the stranger liked finery. Bracelets on her wrist and leg, earrings, a necklace—all made of natural turquoise blue stones. She was obviously fascinated by that color.

Apart from turquoise blue, accents of purple weaved their way throughout her visage: the hair, lips, ribbons tied to the golden belt on her waist, as well as some other elements of her clothing. A drawing in the form of a mysterious symbol adorned the skin under her left eye. There was another drawing with a fancy design on her belly.

“Who are you?” asked Arsy, wide-eyed.

“I am your worst nightmare,” the girl retorted sharply.

Nihena’s name was known by everyone in the city. The impudent and wayward daughter of the head of mercenaries was the most discussed and gossiped-over figure in the city. The reason was her extravagant temper and incredible, almost inhuman, stubbornness. If Nihena set a goal for herself, absolutely nothing and no one, be it the devil in the flesh, could hold her back.

Her ardent temper and fervidity were reflected in her appearance too. Nihena loved self-expression through her flamboyant style. Bright colors in clothes and long ribbons in purple hair, an abundance of jewelry, and drawings on the most visible spots attracted attention from a distance.

Nevertheless, all this brightness didn’t seem tasteless or tacky; Nihena skillfully combined expressivity with functionality and exquisite taste. Hair sticks with extremely long ribbons were perhaps her only weak point and the only redundant element in her look. They were, however, an indispensable accessory to whatever image she appeared in, be it a training suit or an evening gown (which Nihena hardly ever wore). They said she had a trunk box of those sticks in various colors, shapes, and sizes.

“I am sorry?” Arsy’s eyebrows crawled upward.

“I am the one you will ever remember with horror until the end of your days, Arsy!” she threatened.

“I don’t know who you are, but you have a good sense of humor,” laughed Arsy. “Doesn’t she, Zens?”

“And not only sense of humor, she’s not bad all around,” Zens beamed half-lustfully, half-dreamily, scrutinizing Nihena from head to toes. “You can’t find such pretty girls at every step! This flower of a girl will no doubt grace an already beautiful city.”

“And what are those sticks in your hair?” Arsy kept smiling. “But, no, let me guess, you are going to poke our eyes out with them.”

“You are quick on the uptake!” retorted the girl through her teeth.

“Will you tell us who you are after all?”

“I am the one whose brother was killed by your friend!” she snapped in his face.

“Ah, so you are Nihena!” exclaimed Arsy.

“Yes!” The blue-eyed girl nodded in response.

“Nice to meet you. I am Arsy, and this is my friend Zens,” Arsy introduced himself courteously.

“What are these manners for, you hypocrite!” Nihena was literally burning him with her glance. “If I were you, I wouldn’t be happy for our encounter.”

Nihena shook her head, so the ribbons in her hair flew in various directions, which was something she was fond of doing.

“I see you are staunchly determined,” noted Arsy, “but before you attack me with these childish sticks, I’d like you to know that the person who killed your brother is no longer my friend, but rather my arch-foe.”

“Of course!” Nihena beamed caustically. “And of course, you haven’t come here to sniff out our plans. What brought you here then? An excursion? Maybe you’d fancy some sightseeing?”

“Only after a solid dinner!” Zens put in a word before Arsy could answer.

“I’ll repeat that you are deeply mistaken. Erathos and I are now enemies.”

“Come on, enough lying!” Nihena spoke with a rising voice. “I’ve been eavesdropping on your conversation. What were you saying about games? Get ready to meet my fists.”

“Listen, you must have misunderstood me,” Arsy hastened, trying to calm her down. “Where is your father? Will you call him, please?”

“I don’t need him to throw you out of here,” she answered with an acrid sneer, crooking her finger at him.

Her menacing look seemed quite ridiculous to the young men. Zens immediately compared her to a wild cat: elegant, flexible, and dangerous. Realizing that she chose Arsy as her opponent, he stepped aside, obviously anticipating an interesting scene. All this banter put Arsy in a good mood. He hardly saw an opponent in the seemingly fragile girl.

Nihena looked quite menacing; standing on her toes, she stretched her left hand toward Arsy and snorted like a wild cat.

“Shall we start?” she asked.

“Listen, baby, I think you should call your daddy now and then bring us something to eat, while we will discuss the affairs of grown-ups.” Arsy started to speak with a tone of a teacher, explaining to a school bully how one shouldn’t behave. “And when we are done, I will happily let you show me the city and maybe even…”

Arsy didn’t manage to finish his phrase. Nihena rushed toward him at such a pace that he could hardly see her move. As for Zens, he felt like she appeared at an arm’s length from his friend in no time. Or rather at a leg’s length, since she used this part of her body to strike Arsy with such power that he flew a couple of steps away and landed in the road dust.

“Hey…are you…crazy?” It took Arsy a few seconds to catch his breath. He tried to stand up, looking at his new acquaintance with completely different eyes.

“I’m warning you one last time: defend yourself!” ordered Nihena.

“Listen, I don’t fight with women,” Arsy tried to calm her down, but it seemed like she became even angrier.

“You have to! You will soon curse the air you once shared with my brother’s killer.”

Nihena reminded him of a wild lioness.

Arsy reluctantly took a defensive position. He was facing an ambiguous rival; on one hand, it was a woman, whom he really never raised a hand to. Above all, she wasn’t just a woman, but Lord Mesdrin’s daughter! What would happen to him if he laid even a finger on her? The doors to the city would be closed for him once and for all. On the other hand, this young lady was obviously asking for trouble and explanatory speeches weren’t settling the matter. If talking some sense had little effect, perhaps he’d have to apply force. Arsy was not going to beat her, but a small punch or a humiliating slap in the face could blow off her steam.

Zens was observing this confrontation with undisguised interest. He had no doubt about Arsy’s victory, but he was rather interested to see what the impudent young stranger was capable of. He was absolutely astonished when Nihena rushed headlong into the fight, as a wild beast, practically mute, blazing and furious. Her every strike and thrust were so well-aimed that Zens was increasingly filled with respect for this wildcat.

The battle lasted no more than three minutes. During this period, Arsy was only able to block a few strikes. Personally, he didn’t launch even one. Nihena was fighting silently, her elusive movements speaking for her. The ribbons in her hair flitting occasionally; her slim hands and legs launching blows with such dexterity and precision that, after a minute, Arsy no longer realized what was going on.

Zens didn’t notice himself standing open-mouthed. Nihena’s technique had stunned him to the extent that it took him a while to realize his friend was lying on the ground, knocked down by a single concise strike to his throat with the edge of the hand, while the wild beast straddled him, smashing her rival. Arsy literally swallowed dust, accepting more and more blows to his face and body.

Finally, Zens emerged from numbness and rushed to help his friend. Pulling Nihena’s elbows behind her back, he literally dragged her away from her prey. The girl was biting and struggling to break loose, but Zens’ strong arms held her with a death grip; he also had decent techniques in his arsenal.

At last, the wildcat calmed down. The rival’s beaten face must have amused her, for a satisfied sneer flashed across her face.

Arsy stood up with difficulty. Covered in dust, with a split lip and bursting bruise under his eye, he looked like a ragged cat that lost a squabble in the backstreet.

“I’ve come to you in peace,” exclaimed Arsy almost mournfully as he started shaking the dust from his clothes vigorously. “I’m not your enemy! What was that? Are you crazy?”

“Take that as your first lesson,” sneered Nihena, still making efforts to set herself free from Zens’ powerful grip. “It’s what brought you here, isn’t it? You want to master cathastu, don’t you?”

“Yes, that’s true, but…” Arsy carefully touched his swollen cheekbone “…I thought we’d start with theory. And to begin with,” Arsy looked at her almost huffily, “maiming guests is impolite, if nothing else.”

“Maiming?” Nihena burst out laughing. “This was actually the foreplay.”

All of a sudden, she stopped struggling and gave a nod behind her back, still addressing Arsy.

“If your friend doesn’t let me free right now, I’m afraid he’ll look even worse. And in the end, you will both see what I need those sticks in my hair for. I’ve already told you, you will never forget this day,” she exclaimed.

“Zens, my friend, you should not set this crazy woman free! She’s got problems with her head!” Arsy was at a loss and didn’t know what to do.

“I got that already. I’m barely holding her, bro. We’ve been badly misled! This is definitely no warm welcome!” exclaimed Zens.

“Let me go, idiot!” squeaked Nihena, who was struggling in his powerful arms like a fish in a net. “I promise I won’t test my hair sticks on you if you set me free right now; your friend will suffer alone.”

She tried to set herself free in every possible way, kicking back at Zens with her legs and head, while the latter held her with great effort.

“Arsy, you’d better get away from here while I’m holding her,” screamed Zens. “Hurry up, I won’t be able to hold this savage for long.”

“Where would I go? This problem should be settled peacefully,” said Arsy. He then addressed the girl. “We are not your enemies. Do you understand?”

But Nihena wasn’t listening to him. She was busy trying to hit Zens with her head. She even succeeded once, but his death grip didn’t loosen.

“There’s no point talking to her, Arsy,” Zens cried out. “She’s absolutely frantic!”

“That’s it, Zens; I’ll get you for the word frantic!” Nihena retorted through her teeth, and her ice-cold intonation made Zens swallow nervously.

“You know what, Nihena, or whatever the hell your name is, behave yourself, or I’ll forget you’re a girl and will give you a good beating!” threatened Zens.

“You know what, Zens, or whatever the hell your name is,” she answered caustically, “you can forget I’m a girl and fight me like you’d fight a man, until I’ve taken vengeance for my brother’s death.”

“For all saints, Arsy, let’s leave here,” snapped Zens, feeling his arms weaken by the second. He would never think there was so much power in that elegant and fragile female body.

“We won’t leave! You can go if you are scared of her threats, but I’ve come here with a mission, and I won’t leave until I complete it.”

“Then you should explain to her that you had nothing to do with her brother’s murder. And you’d better do it quickly!” Zens knew he wouldn’t be able to hold her for much longer.

“Listen, keep holding her. I’ll go see if there’s anyone saner than her in the house,” said Arsy.

“What’s going on here?” someone shouted unexpectedly. It was Lord Mesdrin, who came because of his daughter’s screaming. Mesdrin was infuriated and held a sword in his hands. His menacing look usually instilled fear in everyone and now even more so.

“Oh, Lord Mesdrin, it’s so good you came out!” exclaimed Arsy with relief.

“I’m asking you again; what’s going on here and why has this guy, who is obviously bored with his life, seized my daughter?” The lord was furious.

“Let her go, Zens!” ordered Arsy. “Lord Mesdrin, there’s been a misunderstanding. We are not your enemies, and we’ve come here with a lucrative offer, but your daughter attacked me for no reason.”

Zens listened to Arsy and let go of Nihena. The guys hoped she’d be calmer in her father’s presence, but they were way off the mark! Nihena sprang at Arsy again and started pounding him. Arsy managed to evade the few first blows but was unable to repel the subsequent quick and dexterous strikes.

Zens was watching dazedly as the savage girl set about crippling his friend again. After a few powerful blows, Arsy fell to the ground, knocked out.

Arsy, who refused to live in poverty since childhood, was paving his way upward with every tool he knew, be it robbery, intrigues, lies, deceit, quick wit, and even betrayal. He was ready to do anything only to get what he wanted. Arsy could be anyone; he played masterfully in any kind of role, so well that pretense had become his second skin.

Nevertheless, most of the time, he preferred to be himself—a crafty thief, who was used to living in a great way. Therefore, even in his own style, Arsy opted for the golden mean between pomposity and practicality. His suits were always of the best quality; the best silk for shirts, the most expensive leather for tunics and boots, exquisite fabrics for trousers, eye-catching elements like golden buttons and zippers. At that, there was always some space for secrets in his image. Secret pockets, extra compartments in the sleeves, many-pocketed belts, unnoticeable bags for picklocks.

However, from the moment the feeling called love inhabited his heart, he slowly started changing and committing acts that the old Arsy was simply incapable of. We’ll have to find out who he is now—the love-stricken Arsy.

Meanwhile, he lay on the ground like some sort of beggar, in dusty clothes, with jumbled hair and a bloody face.

After a few deep breaths, Nihena turned back and looked at Zens with sparkling eyes. “So, you said frantic, didn’t you?” A spiteful smile touched her face, and she stalked toward her new prey slowly.

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(Pages 1-21 show above.)