Volume 1 — Chapter 3: The Coven of Zero
“I-I believe these pieces may be pleasing fits for you indeed…”
A voice which could be described only as beguiling exuded into existence. It was a voice for currying favor with others, and was loud and saccharine. It was a giant who stunk like a bandit leader—although I certainly wasn’t in any position to criticize his hygiene—speaking. We were looking through a thrift store in the run-down part of town to buy Zero some clothes.
Crooks frequented places like this to sell their stolen goods, so occasionally one would see the odd finery lying around. The purveyor was showing Zero exactly such a piece.
“Ol’ man. I thought I told ya she’s lookin’ for travellin’ clothes…”
As I studied the vibrant noblewoman’s dress, my whiskers twitched.
“As he says. I am seeking something else.”
At Zero’s words, the shopkeeper snatched up the next piece of clothing and held it up for examination.
“Ah, then this dress—“
“I toldya, travellin’ clothes! Stop pullin’ out fluttery dresses that don’t even fit her looks, ya moron!”
“Shut up, ya stupid furball! I’m talkin’ to the lady over here!”
“How ‘bout it, miss?” The man drawled in a cracked voice, the result of having had too much to drink. Zero looked over the dress held before her and refused curtly, saying: “it is not to my liking.” At her words, the shopkeeper relaxed as if spellbound, said, “Of course this raggedy dress is unbefitting of you, my lady,” and retreated further into the store.
It had been a mistake for Zero to reveal her face. It pains me to say so, but Zero is undeniably a great looker. The moment she’d stepped through the doors and pulled back her hood, the formerly chilly atmosphere within the shop had melted away into a lovestruck one, and the shopkeeper had appointed himself as her manservant.
“He’s gotta be pretty desperate to be like this…”
Albus muttered a few words at the obsequious shopkeeper, who was even now running around to try and curry Zero’s favor. “Don’t say anythin’,” I let my shoulders droop.
“Unlike with kids, there’re plenty’a grown men like that…’specially the ugly ones. Even harlots won’t service ‘em. ‘Course, it’s probably a whole ‘nother story if you’re loaded with cash…”
There were plenty of men who would be thankful to merely be able to breathe the same air as a woman as beautiful as Zero. The only thing keeping me from stooping to the shopkeeper’s level was the fact that Zero was a witch, and I hated witches. If it weren’t for that, I’d probably be laying myself at her feet just as he was.
I felt her tugging on my sleeve and lowered my gaze.
“I feel that this is adequate.”
As she spoke, Zero pointed out a sable overcoat that was lying in a corner of the store. It was long sleeved, and I could tell that it was made for men. On Zero, the coat would probably reach halfway down her legs.
“It is well built yet light, and the added warmth will be welcome. I am pleased with the hood as well. What say you, mercenary?”
It looked heavy to hold, but was actually light and soft. Assuming the lining was well-built, then the overcoat definitely seemed to be of a sturdy make. It would function moderately well as a traveling coat. I felt that she should decide what she would wear, but it seemed that she was seeking my opinion as a well-traveled mercenary.
“It’s a good find. Ain’t half bad. It’s just a bit big—“
Zero’s face brightened.
“Good. I am pleased with this. If mercenary approves, then I do as well.”
It seemed that she placed a great deal of trust in me. If I had disapproved, would she have too?
Having been browsing around, Albus broke into a run as he headed further into the store.
“Ah, socks! Hey merc, these’ll come in handy. They’re so much simpler to put on compared to wrapping cloth over your feet! You won’t get blisters, and they warm your feet too!”
Albus held up a pair of very long socks for me to see. They would probably cover up to half of his legs if he were to wear them. It seemed that one held them in place by tying tight their decorative twines. Contrary to the overcoat, these were very ornamental pieces made for women, but they seemed sufficient for practical use. They probably protected against the cold too.
I was about to call her “witch”, but hurriedly stopped myself.
We had company. It was probably not a good idea.
She looked up, having been examining the laid-out overcoat with a pleased look on her face.
“He found some socks.”
I exchanged a look with Albus, who grabbed the socks and ran back to where he had been.
“You still need shoes…ah! These are nice. Definitely these!”
He was as excited as if he were picking out his own pieces of clothing. Just the act of shopping was probably fun. What Albus held in his hands as he returned to us was a pair of long boots reaching up to the knees. Made out of firm leather, they would be resistant against water and mud. I rubbed Albus on the head.
“You’ve got a good eye. They ain’t bad.”
“Pooh!” Albus puffed out his chest.
Zero took a look at them, and went “hrm” in a sullen tone.
“I prefer to walk barefoot. The dirt is warm and the grass is gentle. The damp dew is also pleasant.”
“Don’t ya get bruised easy?”
“It is no problem so long as I walk slowly.”
“Sometimes we’re gonna need ta move quickly…if ya think I’ll just carry ya in my arms every time that’s the case, then you’ve got another thing comin’.”
“Then will you leave me behind? What a heartless man.”
“Do you see me as a man of deep emotions?”
“You do possess some deep fur.”
“Don’t make me hit ya. Anyway, you’re gonna need those boots.”
At my curt reply, Zero pouted in disappointment.
It took all my willpower to turn a deaf ear as Zero badmouthed me, complaining that “it would be fine for you to carry me around”, “don’t be so miserly”, and “you are so large, and yet…”
“So with the way things are, ya can’t wear any pants besides short ones, but I guess it’s easier ta move around that way.”
As I spoke, Albus got his hands on a ridiculously short pair of pants that looked like they belonged on a female thief. They’d probably allow for better movement, but would be severely lacking in protection for the skin. Although, with the boots, socks, and overcoat, some skimpy clothing might not matter…
“Hey, ol’ man! We’ve decided, give us the bill!”
Hollering into the depths of the store, I saw the shopkeeper emerge, arms full with a mass of brightly colored cloth, and a disappointed look on his face.
“Change here. We’re gonna burn the stuff you’re wearin’. It’d just be baggage.”
“What, reduce this old friend to ashes?”
“Long-term relationships ain’t good for ya. You’ll make new friends and lose old ones with ’em.”
“What a heartless man. Although, I don’t dislike that in the slightest.”
Chuckling, Zero stripped and flung away her raggedy old robes.
In that moment, I stiffened. Albus’ jaw dropped, and the shopkeeper fainted as blood spurted out of his nose.
Skin so pale I felt as if my eyes became saucers, and a thin waist. Such a body was more magnificent in appearance than a statue of a goddess, sculpted over a lifetime by an artist of unmatched skill, would be. It was a flawless form.
Right now, I was gazing at its full glory.
Zero had not been wearing any undergarments.
“—What? Is the female form such an exceptional sight to behold?”