The windowless carriage enveloped them in velvety darkness. Eugene extended her palm, the sensation of a minuscule entity tracing her skin as it ascended. Gazing at the dim crimson glimmer amidst the obscurity, Eugene addressed the presence.
“Little one, are you signaling our presence?”
The little being emitted a faint sound, akin to a muted reply.
“How fares matters back at the manor? Has anyone taken notice?”
Minutes flowed with languid reluctance. To remain inactive in the midst of their flight was a taxing endeavor.
Without warning, the petite entity seated upon her palm pivoted, its red luminescence intensifying. Guided by the creature’s actions, Eugene surged to her feet and unlatched the carriage door. Positioned before the threshold, Sven swiveled his gaze.
“Sven, he’s here,” announced Eugene.
Puzzlement flickered across Sven’s features, rapidly yielding to a startle. Amid the murkiness, two crimson apparitions materialized in midair, and a primal instinct stirred within him. He understood these entities bore no malice toward him; yet, when the dual luminescent orbs darted forth with abrupt speed, Sven involuntarily adopted a defensive stance.
Sven’s rigid stance went unnoticed by the ebony leopard as it surged past him, directed unerringly toward Eugene. Though the vigor of its leap pressed her back, Eugene’s arms enfolded Abu as laughter erupted from her.
“Abu, how did you manage such impeccable timing?”
Her palms caressed Abu’s head with palpable affection, sharing in the ecstasy of their reunion. The black leopard, a human’s magnitude in size, nestled its head upon her lap like a domesticated cat.
Abu, guided by the signal from the little one, had pinpointed Eugene’s location with startling precision. Subordinate Hwansus could establish an exchange of signals, their communication intricate and exclusive.
Yet, this mode of signaling vastly diverged from the summons and communication shared between sovereigns and their familiars. It merely affirmed a shared non-enmity amidst fellow Hwansus. Were any observers—kings or otherwise—to chance upon Hwansus conversing through this method, their incredulity would doubtlessly echo: “How is that even possible?”
Sven relaxed his posture, adopting an air of casual ease. His gaze flitting to Abu, he ruminated, That Hwansu underestimates humans. Despite his familiarity with the regal Hwansus accompanying the kings, beholding the dignified creature before the queen remained a spectacle of singular significance.
“Sven, kindly prepare the saddle.”
“Ah, certainly, Your Majesty.” Sven hastened to retrieve the requisite accouterments from the saddlebag.
Obediently, Abu descended onto the earth’s surface like a trained warhound.
“Abu, I need you to carry me on your back. So, I’ll tie a rope around your body to make sure I don’t fall off. Can you do it?”
Though Eugene had thoroughly briefed Abu on this facet during the strategy formulation, she now sought his confirmation anew. Displaying the little creature concealed upon her body, she revealed it in her palm before Abu.
“The little one will come with us. Is that alright?”
Agog for Abu’s reaction, Eugene awaited his response. After a fleeting scrutiny of the little creature, Abu exhaled audibly, shifting his gaze aside. It was an attitude of grudging acquiescence, a contrast from the instinctive devouring he might have engaged in previously. Eugene lavished Abu with a consoling pat and words of commendation.
“Good boy, Abu.”
“Your Majesty, it’s ready.” Sven approached, bearing a bespoke leather saddle.
“Abu, make yourself a bit larger.”
At Eugene’s entreaty, Abu extended his bulk to about double its prior size. Taking the saddle from Sven, Eugene positioned it over Abu’s head.
“It must sit perfectly around your neck. Abu, grow a touch larger, please.”
Incrementally, Abu inflated, while Eugene prudently adjusted the leash’s tension within her grasp. Once the leather thong was securely fitted, she announced, “It’s time.” Seated, Abu had metamorphosed into an immense entity, necessitating Eugene to employ her strength to ascend.
Sven took charge of securing the remaining rope snugly around Abu’s form. As Eugene threaded the cord beneath Abu’s legs and cinched it, a low rumble issued from the leopard at Sven’s touch.
Eugene playfully chastised Abu, tapping his muzzle. “Abu, whatever’s come over you! Sven is here to assist.”
Following a series of grumbling sounds akin to those emitted by a beast, Abu subsided. Observing Eugene mount the colossal creature with effortless grace, Sven sensed a ripple of admiration. Memories surged forth of Queen Eugene’s audacious charge against the gargantuan rat during their prior escapade. Even now, the recollection provoked a shiver tracing down his spine.
His master possessed a recklessness that bordered on the extraordinary. While she abstained from overt self-praise, the king consistently convened gatherings of warriors to extol the unassailable guardianship afforded to the queen.
Having established the initial step of tethering Abu with a rudimentary rope, Eugene, sporting a custom-made saddle that snugly adhered to her form, ascended onto the leopard’s back. The culminating phase entailed securing the interplay between the foundational rope and the affixed saddle. Thanks to Sven’s meticulous evaluations and aid in ensuring an airtight fastening, this concluding sequence flowed with seamless precision.
“Your Majesty, you mustn’t remove the saddle until you’re in His Highness’s presence,” reminded Sven.
Eugene nodded, “Understood.”
The process of aligning the saddle and rope proved intricate, rendering autonomous reattachment unfeasible. This specialized saddle was the sole buffer between Eugene and potential ejection in the event Abu executed even a solitary leap.
“Please take care, Your Majesty.”
“Sven, you too. We’ll rendezvous safely within the kingdom. Let’s proceed, Abu.”
With a surge of momentum, Abu launched himself up the rocky hillside, promptly swallowed by the mountain’s enshrouding darkness.
Sven’s gaze lingered upon the concealed peak. His stride held steadfast resolve. With two stalwart Hwansus standing sentinel beside the queen, he held a sense of security surpassing that offered by an assembly of several warriors. The burden of not personally safeguarding the queen tugged at him, albeit he acknowledged it stemmed from her explicit directive.
Exhaling a sigh, he pivoted on his heel.
Personal duties beckoned him forth. Cradling the royal passage permit, endorsed by the king’s own seal, he would voyage through the Delano Kingdom en route to Hashi Kingdom. His stratagem would ingeniously litter trails suggesting him as the queen, a ruse calculated to confound any pursuing knights.