Chapter 25 : The Blue-Eyed Bandit
The sun was sinking low, the moon visible as a faint drop on the canvas of sky, when the delightful day took a downturn. Saeng was watching the clouds drift, humming along as Vis Avara sang a traveling tune, contentedly full of spicy pastries and bananas. A small dark cloud edged over the silvery gray and the daughter of Moon lifted her head, suddenly alert. “There is trouble,” she said, moving Bellat Abi to the bench by her side. Vis Avara continued to sing, through a frown that passed his face, and when Saeng drew the handle of a sword from her sack he shook his head at her. She was relieved, for she had never fought a real fight, yet disappointed in this feeling, for she had been trained — as a daughter of the Beast King! So instead she wove a strand of her hair around the gifted silver bracelet, she placed it around the cat’s neck and continued to hum, gathering her courage.
They wore deep browns and light grays and dirty yellow, head scarfs and neck scarfs and makeshift shoes, they swung long scimitars with no trained skill but dangerous familiarity, and they spoke too loud. Saeng covered her ears, frightened by the clamor, then felt childish and tried to appear unaffected. The merchant had stopped his cart, keeping his hands clear in front of him, the two boys in the back sat still as the wagon was surrounded by the bandits.
“Throw us your purse—”
“— and a bit of your goods—”
“—and we’ll leave you unharmed,” they said, and Saeng resisted the urge to glower at the fiends.
“Can you not find pleasure in honest work?” she asked, then regretted drawing attention to herself too early.
The man who may or may not have been the leader of the bandits put a foot on the front wheel and hoisted himself up so he was eye-level with the princess, and as his blue eyes peered into hers of pale yellow his confident swagger was tinged by unease. “Tell me what work is honest, and I’ll tell you there’s no pleasure to be found,” he replied in perhaps a milder tone than he’d intended.
“I hear gardening is rewarding,” said the princess, trying not to let her own uncertainty show.
The bandit laughed, a short bark without humor. “And where did you hear such a thing?”
“From a gardener,” said the princess.
“What joy is there in pulling weeds, what reward can there be when your labor goes to the pleasure of others?”
“Joy in caring for living things, joy in the scent of jasmine, joy in regarding beauty.”
“That is no joy for me.”
She gazed straight into his deep blue eyes. “Then your joys must be sad ones.”
The bandit looked to the merchant. “I will tarry no longer.”
“Joy in a better prize?” said the princess quickly.
“There is no better prize.”
“See! You are lost! I assure you, there is a better prize. Surely worth triple your stealings from this honest merchant.”
“Then I shall take both.”
“Nay, ’tis one or the other.”
The merchant placed a hand on her shoulder. “Hush, my child. He who recognizes only the value of money cares little for the values of others.”
Saeng swallowed sadness, unable to fully comprehend that a human being might be willing to kill good people for sake of money. Was it because she never wanted for a thing in the world? Raised differently, would money mean the same to her as it did to this dreadful man?
“My offer still stands,” she managed to say.
“Your offer is unclear, I grow weary of riddles,” said the blue-eyed bandit.
Saeng stood and drew back her head scarf. “I am Saeng, the fourth princess of Bengal. Return me to any loyal man and your reward will be great.”
“Great indeed, for I will take what I wanted and you as well.”
“No, one or the other I said.”
“It matters not what you say, I do what I want.”
“You’ll do what I want — though, it’s not really what I want, for I’d rather you left good people alone.”
“A princess without power is an ordinary girl.”
Too quickly for the bandit to do anything but pull back half an inch, Saeng drew her sword and placed the tip to the side of his neck. “Accept my terms!”
“You are a spoilt child, expecting always to get her way.”
“You do not wish to see my tantrums,” she returned, though she could not recall if she had ever, in fact, thrown a tantrum.
“Would this be your definition of honest work? Killing your subjects?”
“No subject of mine is a dishonest man.”
“Then you have very few subjects, princess.”
“Please! You must accept. The grandchildren of Vis Avara are waiting for his return, the tradesmen are expecting their goods. I am a better prize and my will you shall heed in this matter.”
The bandit lifted a hand to the blade, and the princess tried to look stern as Lynx, unwavering before the gaze of his dull blue eyes.
“Thrice the value, you say?”
“Thrice, I say.”
He smiled darkly, and she suspected he planned to fabricate the sum he would have earned from the merchant’s purse and goods, but she would deal with that later. If she must. She had only specified a reward on her delivery, did it harm her honor to escape that delivery? Decisions were much easier when she was at the palace! Two days gone and already she was betraying her moral teachings!
“Then I accept.”
She drew away her sword, he stepped down and offered her a hand to follow. Saeng turned to the merchant and smiled. “Thank you, Vis Avara. You are a wonderful person.”
“More wonderful I am each time I see you smile,” he replied, eyebrows pinched and fingers clamped.
Saeng picked up her cat and hopped off the wagon without assistance, then waived the good merchant away.