To say that Ichimatsu was surprised by a knock at his door would be an understatement.
He hadn’t had a single visitor in nearly a decade, having squirreled himself away to study massive arcane tomes long ago. In fact, to ensure he would not receive any visitors whatsoever, he had taken up residence in a cottage deep in a thick, wild forest, and had enchanted the place to be difficult to notice for good measure.
He himself only left his hidden cottage on rare occasion, needing to acquire some supply or another from a nearby human settlement.
Another knock came, faster, louder, and more insistent this time.
Ichimatsu already hated whoever was on the other side.
He cast a spell of clairvoyance in lieu of allowing the stranger access, taking in the figure shifting nervously, impatiently, on the other side.
Armed, armored, but still anxious.
“What do you want.” Ichimatsu raised his voice enough to be heard from opposite the door.
“Ah! Hello! I am on a royal mission from His Majesty, the King!”
A royal mission, huh? “Not interested. Goodbye.”
Ichimatsu dispelled the clairvoyance and trudged deeper into his home. He heard a clatter and a shout. He let himself chuckle quietly. The idiot had tried the doorknob, and his enchantment on it hadn’t lost its juice.
“Please!” The voice came again, a bit frantic. “They said you were the only one who’d know how to stop the… thing!”
“I don’t remember what it was called,” the voice admitted sheepishly.
“And why would I be able to stop… whatever it is?”
“They said you have the book about it!”
Ichimatsu tried to think of what tomes he had that were both one-of-a-kind and could possibly be whatever he was referencing.
“The Arc of Night was activated?”
“That was it! Yes!”
Ichimatsu sighed heavily. He trudged reluctantly to his front door and finally cracked it open. “Okay. Now you have my attention.”
The young knight on the other side had looked triumphant for one moment, but his expression had fallen into something inscrutable in the next.
“What, do I have something on my face?”
He struggled to recover. “Ah, no, it’s just that… I was not informed that you were…tabaxi?”
“It was a horrific magic accident.”
“Oh, I’m… I’m very sorry, I didn’t-”
“I’m screwing with you. Also, I’m Catfolk, not Tabaxi.”
“Is that so!”
“Is this the time for this? You said the Arc of Night was active, and you think we have time to be awkward about what I look like?”
The knight looked bashful. “I suppose not…”
Ichimatsu turned around, pacing deeper into his home, leaving the door ajar. “Tell me the details while I get ready.”
“Of course! I can certainly do so.” The knight spoke confidently, but his posture was still uncertain as he stepped gingerly through the entryway. “A few nights ago, a sect of cultists broke through castle security. They made it to the artefact chamber and from there to the Arc. The Arcane Advisor to the King reported the Arc was glowing or something and that it was active.”
“Wow. That’s a whole lot of specifics.” Ichimatsu frowned at the books in front of him. He couldn’t bring many on the journey; it would take two weeks, at least, to reach the castle, and he wasn’t in great shape. He settled on bringing the tome of the Arc and another to read for fun. He tucked them into his satchel and turned to the knight. “I’m ready.”
He frowned. “That’s all you’re bringing?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“There’s no… magical artefacts or a magic staff or… anything like that?”
Ichimatsu gave him a flat look. “You have absolutely no idea how anything related to magic works, do you?”
“It’s, uh, not my area of… expertise…”
“That’s a no. Alright.” Ichimatsu adjusted the satchel awkwardly. “You never told me your name.”
“Didn’t I?” The knight screwed up his face as though trying to search his memory. “Well, I’m Sir Karamatsu, of the Castle Guard.” He snapped his fingers, twirled in place, and posed. “But you can call me ‘My Hero’.” The painful statement was accompanied by an equally painful shine in his eyes.
“That’s nice. I don’t think I’ll do that. Can we get going?” Ichimatsu passed the man, still frozen in his pose like a statue sculpted by an artist trying too hard to make a statement. The horse outside pranced a bit in place as he emerged.
“Ah, wait!” The knight, Karamatsu, shouted after him, too loud for the short distance. “You didn’t tell me yours!”
“You don’t know it? You were sent to find me.”
The man struggled for his words for a moment before Ichimatsu cut him off.
“You forgot.” The man looked appropriately apologetic. “It’s Ichimatsu.”
“Oh! We have similar names! How odd!”
“Is it really?” Ichimatsu said, flatly. “Is this horse for us, or just for luggage?”
As usual, the knight took a moment too long to react to the change in subject. “Feel free to hang your bag with the saddlebags! He cannot bear us both, but, as the guest, you will, of course, be the one borne by him.”
Ichimatsu attached his bag, as instructed, and struggled to climb onto the tall beast. Karamatsu gave him a boost, showing him where to place his feet.
“It’s no hardship! I suppose this is your first time astride a proud steed?”
“They’re not exactly cheap to come by.”
Again, the knight looked bashful. “I suppose that’s accurate.”
There was an awkward silence for a moment. Karamatsu clicked his tongue and the horse began a leisurely pace through the thick trees.
“You certainly didn’t make it easy to find you, you know.”
Ichimatsu hummed noncommittally.
“I was worried, for a time, that I had been sent on a purposeless mission again. The instructions on how to find you were very vague. However, with perseverance comes reward! The scholarly hermit of the forest does, indeed, exist!”
Ichimatsu considered the man’s vacant, optimistic smile. “What do you mean, being sent on a purposeless mission? They’ve done that to you?”
“It’s a form of training the guard captain puts us through! I’m given a goal to achieve with no real way to do so, simply to teach me to hold steadfast and persevere! And such training paid off today, no? Were I weaker in spirit, I would have given up the search hours before!”
I wish you would have. Ichimatsu held his tongue.
“So, why were you chosen for this incredibly important task? Finding the one man that could save the land and all.”
“I was the natural and obvious choice, of course, being the most capable member of my comrades.” The man smirked.
“You were the hole in the security, weren’t you.” Ichimatsu accused.
The knight scrambled for his words. “That’s- no, of course not, I’m- the guard is stretched thin, we do what we can, but- the castle’s really big, there are lovely women in lovely gowns around every corner-”
Ichimatsu couldn’t care less. “It doesn’t really matter. As long as I’m not being yanked around along with you.”
“Not to worry! I was assured that this task is of the utmost importance and that we would all be in grave danger should I fall short of success. You, too, are critical to the safety of all men in the realm!”
Ichimatsu fell silent for a while after that. The knight carried on occasionally with some small talk, but he eventually became discouraged by his charge’s lack of interest. It was a huge relief for Ichimatsu, who had been worried the optimistic man was too stupid to realize he was trying to shut down any conversation.
The horse was a jumpy sort, needing to be calmed at every noise, coaxed at every turn. When they finally broke free of the trees, it was as though a great load had been lifted from all three members of the party. The horse walked far more steadily, its rider no longer feared being thrown from the beast, and the knight could simply lead the way without playing mother hen to his wimpy steed.
Ichimatsu relaxed, enjoying the first clear sunlight he’d gotten in what felt like months. It may very well have been literal months, but he was never very good at telling time or counting days. His reverie was broken by the sound of the knight hissing through his teeth at every step.
“What’s wrong with you?” Ichimatsu grumbled.
“Ah, nothing at all! I’m perfectly fit, as you can clearly see!”
What Ichimatsu could clearly see was that the knight was wincing every time his feet hit the ground.
“Take the stupid horse.”
“No, no, I cannot do that! You have been invited by the King himself, and are, therefore, his royal guest! The steed is all yours!”
“Listen, Sir Dumbass. If we have to stop and wait and baby your poor fucking feet for days because you were too stubborn to sit on a damn horse, I’m marching right back to my fucking house.”
The knight looked close to tears, but nodded. Ichimatsu rolled his eyes.
“Now help me get off this stupid thing.”
Karamatsu held his paws for support as he descended the side of the mountain of animal. His foot got stuck in the stirrup, intended for human feet and not catfolk paws, and he lost his balance, falling backwards into the knight’s armored chest.
“Are you okay?” The man asked, worried.
“I’m fine. I just tripped. Let go of me.” Ichimatsu batted his arms away and regained his footing. “Let’s get going.”
“Of course! Right away!” Karamatsu swung his legs over the horse like he’d been born to do it. Then again, it was perfectly likely that he’d been taught to ride one from a very young age, trained into knighthood from birth. Some people really won the lottery right from the moment they entered this world, didn’t they?
“Are you certain you’re quite alright walking?” The knight had a real problem with silence, apparently.
“Let me know the moment you begin to tire! I will relinquish my steed immediately upon request!”
“Seriously, I’m fine. My paws are built tougher than human’s feet. Shouldn’t you be more worried about your own feet?”
“Not to worry, not to worry! I believe I simply… underestimated the difficulty of the forested terrain, that’s all. I’ll be fit as a fiddle in no time!”
“Of course you will.” Ichimatsu sighed. He prayed for a moment of silence, a reprieve from the knight’s inane chatter. If he’d been interested in hearing humans talk about whatever was on their minds, he’d live in a settlement, rather than on his own.
No such luck.
“How did you come to be living out in these woodlands, Ichimatsu?”
Being called by his name was a bit jarring. He hadn’t expected such immediate familiarity from someone so hung up on formalities. Well, that all seemed to be for show, anyway.
“Found a cottage no one else was using, fixed it up, and moved in.”
The knight frowned. Clearly he’d meant to pull some idle chatter from Ichimatsu, as well.
“Well, then, how did you come to be looking for a homestead? And one so far from the company of kinfolk, no less. Surely you must get lonely out there!”
Ichimatsu growled softly, regretting ever having borrowed that tome.
“I live out here to avoid talking to anyone. It’s not my favorite activity.”
The dumb knight completely missed the hint.
“Then what is your favorite activity?”
“Reading, alone. Studying magic, alone. Pushing the limitations of the arcane arts, tapping into other planes of existence, reaching for secrets buried beneath what we believe to be true. Alone, alone, alone.”
“That sounds incredibly fascinating. You should tell me more about it!”
Ichimatsu was ready to strangle this idiot.
“Can’t you take a fucking hint already?! I live alone because I like it! I don’t talk to people because I hate it! I don’t want to talk to you any more than I’ve wanted to talk to any other person on this planet, so shut your fucking mouth for half a damn second!”
Karamatsu looked ready to say something, but did, indeed, shut his fucking mouth. His eyes began to water and Ichimatsu had never wanted to watch someone cry less.
“Don’t even start…” Ichimatsu grumbled. The knight began to sniffle.
“I’m… I’m sorry, I’ll try to… I’ll try to keep quiet. It was rude and invasive of me to probe.” He was sobbing now, and, true to his word, trying to do so quietly.
Ichimatsu rolled his eyes. He gave in embarrassingly quickly. “Don’t… Don’t cry, alright? I’m sorry, that was… that was too harsh. I’m just, y’know, stressed about… all of this.”
The knight brightened up, eyes still watery and red, nose running, but a big smile stretching his features. He looked dumber than ever.
“Thank you for opening up, Ichimatsu. I apologize for adding to your stress. I will take care to consider your feelings as well in the future!”
“Yeah, yeah, alright.” Ichimatsu felt the corners of his mouth tugging. The idiot was growing on him.