Volume 1 — Chapter 3: The Coven of Zero
All’s well that ends well… but still. After we had walked a distance from the gates and I had confirmed that we were far away enough, I gave both Zero and Albus a good wallop.
“I did not expect to be struck as thanks for my acumen,” Zero grumbled as she rubbed the spot I had hit, surveying the dizzying hustle and bustle with great interest.
“Since ages past, warriors across the globe and across centuries have been accompanied by slaves, yes? Every book counsels to declare oneself a slave if one’s identity is ever called into question. And it proved efficacious, did it not?”
Albus pouted in agreement.
“That’s right! Like, if a fallen beast was going around with a shabbily dressed girl and a guy with my looks, that would be the most realistic explanation, wouldn’t it?”
“Shut yer mouth! That just made me seem like a perverted bastard who likes ta play with his poor slaves every night! What’s worse is that one of ‘em is a guy, and a kid to boot! It’s sleazy…I’m a symbol of sleaziness…”
“Who cares what the guard thinks, s’long as you’ve got your sojourner’s permit…how were you gonna write it off then, mercenary?”
“Well, I’d…I’d do it properly.”
“Properly huh,” Albus spoke with a sarcastic tone. “Even if you managed to come up with some excuse, Zero’s clothes are just too raggedy. Look, everyone’s staring at her. Even slaves have better clothes nowadays…”
Albus took a long hard look at Zero’s garb, starting from the top of her head to the toes of her feet.
That’s when I noticed Zero wasn’t even wearing shoes. Her robes were old, stained, and tattered. If she’d been on her own, Zero could have passed for an impoverished traveler, but I was a warrior wearing riveted leather armor, outfitted with a sword, knife, explosives, and other equipment, while Albus could pass as a neat merchant’s maid. With the three of us together, it really was easiest and safest to introduce Zero as a slave.
I didn’t think that there was any need for Albus to dress like a slave too… Well, since we’d already gotten into town without incident, I didn’t see any point in continuing to worry over it.
“Mercenary, mercenary. What might that be?”
As if ignoring mine and Albus’ ruminations, Zero gestured with curiosity—not toward something of concern—but at an impassioned pair of lovers.
They pressed their faces together under the open air, sampling necklaces and contentedly exchanging words like: “which one suits me?” It was also no surprise that they slipped in kisses whenever they could.
“I wish I could…”
“Make them stop!” I quickly corrected myself.
“They’re so into one another that they don’t even care ‘bout the stares they’re gettin’. Must be a happy couple.”
Although I’d said it myself, I still felt a pang of jealousy. But I wasn’t some saint who could live his life free from envy, and I wouldn’t be even if I were more mature. As for giving up on love, well, I’d pretty much already reached that point. But still, since Zero’d promised me a human form, I wasn’t devoid of hope for the future.
“Why do they press their lips together? Some sort of ritual perhaps?”
“…What, ya don’t know what a kiss is?”
Zero gazed in disbelief at the couple, then turned to face me again.
“A kiss is the act of pressing one’s lips to a demon’s thi—”
I clapped a hand over Zero’s mouth. I wasn’t going to let her spew stuff out in public; I had a hunch that those words were nothing but nasty. With how much Zero was struggling, it didn’t seem like it had been just a bad joke either.
“Sonny, don’t tell me you too…?”
He didn’t give me a “what”, but whipped his head left and right.
“I-I’m not that clueless about how the world works!”
“Well then, I guess that’s fine. Hey witch, ya listenin’? A kiss is a way for two people ta show their love for each other. It ain’t some vomit-inducing, sick thing that’s got anythin’ ta do with demons. Why’d ya think that in the first place?”
“Having been engrossed in a sea of books along with my fellow students, I have become ignorant of the customs of this world. That is the price of my wholehearted devotion to research.”
I felt that it was pretty impressive for someone like that to be quick-witted enough to come up with an excuse like “slaves”.
“That is because I am a prodigy.”
“It ain’t polite to go ’round readin’ people’s minds.”
“What I read was not your mind, but your expression.”
“Hmph, is that so…”
“I was born within a cave, raised within that cave, and have only recently departed said cave.”
For a moment, I thought she was pulling my leg and looked over at Albus. His head was tilted in confusion as if troubled, and as I watched, he nodded. His expression said “it’s possible”. Huh, she’s not screwing with me. Assuming that she wasn’t, then she really wasn’t joking with her story.
I wasn’t sure how to react, so I pulled a wry face and faced Zero. However, she did not seem like she was holding back any sorrow. No. Rather, she gazed up at me as if she had been struck by some bright idea. Under her hood, Zero’s eyes glittered with boundless curiosity.
“Have you done it before, mercenary?”
I haven’t, I barked in my mind.
I did so audibly as well, albeit somewhat more loudly than I had done in my mind.
Once I had admitted this, Zero smiled and nodded, pleased.
“Then we are even. Youngster, I trust that you have not either?”
“M-me? N-no no no! There isn’t even anyone…that wants to do it with me yet…”
How unexpected. I felt relieved. I hadn’t lost to this guy when it came to a question of manhood.
“Love is exchanged through kisses…? Hm, most fascinating. I would like to try it out.”
So would I.
“Would you like to attempt it with me, mercenary?”
Without thinking, I looked at Zero’s lips. They were exquisitely formed, and shone like the polished ruby skin of an apple ripened to perfection. If I touched her lips with mine, it would undoubtedly be sacrilege. —No, it already was.
“Uh…I told ya it’s a way to show your love for someone…”
“That is precisely why I suggested we try it. I do like you, after all.”