Behind the Mystery of the Kougra's Paw: Part Four
Over the time it took the Desert Wind to reach her harbor,
Hali and Fire Paw became fast friends. Fire Paw appreciated her interest in his
past, and Hali loved the stories of his adventures. Suta had ultimately found
where her charge was disappearing to, but through much debating Hali managed to
convince her to let them be. As they grew closer to the Lost Desert, however,
Fire Paw grew more and more concerned over the outcome of the trial sure to follow.
"Hali," he said one day. "How is it that the
Desert Wind found me?"
The Ixi blushed at his words; she had grown to
be ashamed of her part in the investigation. "Well… I was the one who figured
out that it was you who had done it. I reasoned that you would have wanted to
return to where you had been raised, and the Airax had departed unusually early."
Fire Paw's eyes widened and his brow furrowed.
"You found me? How?"
"It was a twist of luck, really. I had collected
all the evidence I could when I found the trading card that had been made for
you. After that, it all clicked into place."
Fire Paw batted his face miserably, placing his
paw over his eye. "Why did I let them turn me into a trading card?"
Hali couldn't suppress a laugh at the Kougra's
comical pose. He looked up in response to her giggle and growled playfully,
jumping to the bars of his cell as if eager to play.
Fire Paw was on edge the morning they arrived
in the Lost Desert harbor, hardly able to pause his endless pacing. Hali couldn't
slip away from the others before it was time to take the prisoner from his cell.
Though he put on an air of stubborn ferocity, Hali could see the worry in Fire
Paw's golden eyes and the resignation in his step.
Suta was eager to go straight home and forget
all about Fire Paw, but Hali obstinately insisted that they see him through
Fire Paw was taken into the throne room, where
Queen Vyssa and her entire court awaited him. The Ember was brought before the
Queen, carefully held with a blacksmith's pincers.
"I see you have returned successfully, Captain
Reaqk. Not only have you brought the Ember, but its robber as well." She turned
her attention to Fire Paw, who had flopped onto the floor in a guise of calm
serenity, his tail waving languorously.
"Do you have an explanation for your actions,
thief?" Queen Vyssa asked.
Fire Paw fixed his gaze on her, tilting his head
slightly. "You want the truth?"
She nodded solemnly.
"I don't know, I did it for a kick I suppose.
I wanted to prove to myself that I was capable of it."
Queen Vyssa looked momentarily puzzled. "You
risked so much just because you wanted to see if you could do it?"
"You would never understand," Fire Paw said without
bothering to try further explaining himself.
Hali heaved an exasperated sigh and took a step
forward, parting from the mass of onlookers. "Your Majesty, if I may speak for
him?" she asked with a curtsy.
Queen Vyssa gestured for her to continue.
"In order to clarify his reasoning, I should
tell you of his past, as well as my interpretation of how he must have felt.
As a kit, Fire Paw was abandoned in the hot crags of Tyrannia. His owner had
not the decency to leave him in the care of the Adoption Center. Fortunately,
he was saved by a group of native Scorchios. However, from my understanding,
the Scorchios never trusted him with the simplest of tasks. Fire Paw grew to
feel worthless, as if he could do nothing. He could not fly, and he could not
breathe fire. Eventually he grew rebellious and he ran away, learning to fend
for himself instead. He has never known a truly compassionate figure. Though
it is not an excuse for his choice of actions, it is an explanation."
Fire Paw listened to her speech quietly, his
ears flicking back every now and again as she revealed his weaknesses.
Queen Vyssa studied Fire Paw for a long while,
lost in thought. Eventually she spoke, "Fire Paw, do you regret your actions?"
"Yes… I will take my punishment as it comes,"
the Kougra said compliantly.
"Ordinarily, a thief such as you would be locked
up for years, perhaps even for life. I will spare you because of your youth,
however. You will be held in the dungeons for six months, after that time, you
will begin training as a palace guard. If you do well, you may someday serve
me personally. If being a guard does not suit you, you may leave after serving
for two years."
Fire Paw stared at Queen Vyssa incredulously.
She smiled slightly. "You did expect some consequences, I assume."
Hali was beaming, satisfied with the queen's
verdict and overjoyed that she would be able to see Fire Paw for at least another
two and a half years. Plans to help him settle in were already taking shape,
and she had hundreds of ideas of how to bide the time he would be spending in
Realizing that he had been let off with a relatively
light sentence, Fire Paw fairly bounded alongside the guards to his cell. Hali
considered following, but Suta was anxious to get her washed, rested, and dressed
in clean garments. The Ixi relented after a moment. She did want to get the
gritty salt and sand out of her coat.
Over the next few months, Hali dutifully visited
Fire Paw. She received an eager welcome every time she entered. Unlike many
fables, the dungeons of the Sakhmet Palace were not dark and filled with unpleasant
critters. The area was well lighted with high windows, and the light tan sandstone
gave the dungeon a more cheery aspect.
Fire Paw's cell was simple but practical, containing
all that was necessary. Hali often asked if he wanted anything, but he insisted
he was better off with what he had in the cell then he ever had been.
"What do you want to do today?" Hali asked as
she sat down on a bench close to the door.
"I don't know, do you know of any games we haven't
Hali bit her lip as she searched her mind for
a new game. "I know," she said at last. "We can take turns telling a story.
I'll say one sentence and you say the next and so on."
"Sure," Fire Paw said lightly, settling down
near his cell door.
"Okay, once there was a Blumaroo named Radley
and he loved to spend his time exploring the Lost City of Geraptiku."
As the two invented their separate parts, the
story grew more and more wacky, ending when they were both laughing too hard
to continue. Hali caught her breath and they sat in a contented silence.
"Fire Paw," she said softly.
He looked up, "Yes?"
"Do you think you'll stay in the Lost Desert
even after the two years have passed?"
"It's hard to say," Fire Paw admitted. "I don't
know if I really want to settle down and make a usual living. It seems to me
that there's so much more to do and to see."
Hali frowned, suddenly wishing she had never
brought it up.
As if sensing her distress, Fire Paw remedied
it quickly. "Wherever I go and whatever I choose to do, I'll always come back
to see you sometimes. I know that mine is not a spirit to be tied to one place.
But it has already been tied to one friend."
Hali smiled gratefully. No matter the outcome,
he would not leave her forever.
On the exact day after two and a half years had
passed, Fire Paw vanished. He had remained long enough to carry out his sentence,
but not a moment longer. A small note addressed to Lady Hali was found laid
on the pillow of his immaculately made bed. The note was delivered to Hali in
short order. When she received it, she wasted no time in reading the message:
It has been wonderful, the times we have spent.
I must admit, the years spent working as a soldier have given me wondrous fighting
techniques and I am now fit as ever for my adventures. I will visit when I can,
to tell you of my excursions. Until we meet again.
Hali smiled as she lowered the note, her emotions
bittersweet. She had always privately hoped that somehow he might change his
mind and stay on as a soldier.
Suta read the note over her shoulder and gave
a derisive snort. "I knew he wouldn't settle down and work for an honest living;
he loves being on the edge of danger."
"Oh Suta," Hali groaned. "Can't you give him
a little credit? Fire Paw has come a long way since I first met him in the brig
of the Desert Wind. He just can't get rid of his lust for exploration."
Hali laid the note to rest in her nightstand,
where she would frequently re-read it over and over again, wondering just when
he would visit again.