“No.” Her answer was firm, with no room for hesitation. Aleksi internally groaned, this was way harder than he had originally anticipated.”Please?” To say the least, his convincing skills needed some work. Akilina’s unyielding gaze turned into a sharp glare in the blink of an eye. “I said no. Now get out.” She gritted through her teeth. Aleksi sighed and gave her a once over. The messy nest of dark hair on her head, the disheveled apron tied around her waist covered in sawdust, and finally the clutter of machines and pieces in the corner of the workshop that Aleksi knew he could never be able to fathom how they worked. She was a complete and utter mess. Unfortunately, before Aleksi could voice his thoughts aloud in a more polite way, Akilina spoke up. “Are you, you know, aware that the whole world doesn’t stop for you to do a whole investigation of me and my atelier?” Aleksi didn’t even bother asking what that word meant. He simply sighed, tucked his hands in his pockets, and stalked out. Though before he could step outside, he stopped and turned to Akilina. His view revealed the still-waiting young woman, with her hands on her hips, obviously not trusting him enough to take her eyes off him for even a second. Or maybe there was another reason, but that thought never materialized in Aleksi’s mind. “There are other ways to honor your father, rather than hiding Akilina.” Others would have taken this as an insult, but his warm tone of voice and the genuine concern laced in his eyes, turned the tables a bit. Akilina simply gave a curt nod and turned away, pondering what he just uttered. It was not common for something wise to come out of his mouth, and Akilina wondered if this was just the same, or once again, an unexpected change was occurring in her life.~•~’I’ll do it,’ was all the letter displayed. Aleksi was surprised, nonetheless; he hadn’t expected Akilina to even consider the offer. Maybe his convincing skills had finally taken a turn for the better. It was a mere hope. Though the decision rattled Aleksi, the letter’s contents most certainly did not. Akilina, to those that knew her, was a blunt person, never using more words than needed, but she hadn’t always been. Aleksi guessed it was just a part of growing up, but he had surmised that it might be just a bit more than that. Aleksi knew he wasn’t the most perceptive person around, but the fact that the sentence ended with a comma, informed him that this was not a finished thought. There would certainly be conditions. Not that he minded . . . though, it wasn’t exactly, entirely his problem.~•~He was wrong. So very wrong. “What do you mean they’re gone?!” The messenger simply shrugged, and pulled at the loose thread on his sleeve’s cuff. “They just said to tell you that the mission is entirely up to you now. The others got caught up in Miruential and are attending matters there.” Aleksi started to massage his forehead anxiously; he couldn’t possibly do this on his own.”Where are the uncompleted diagrams for the journey? Are they still up in Miruential?” The servant winced and started to pick at his nails; he was clearly new at this,”So here’s the thing, they didn’t exactly start the planning.” Now, here’s the part where I tell you that Aleksi wasn’t normally a rude fellow. In fact, he was usually, quite a pleasant, accommodating man to be around. However, when you put him in charge of an impromptu strategy for possibly the most important expedition in his entire life, and a companion in the form of a former (rather moody) childhood friend, he doesn’t exactly become the most amiable individual.~•~Akilina stared at the map strewn across the table. The map showed a layout of their country, bordering the aforementioned Miruential, and Aloreforetan. Miruential bordered the northeast corner, while Aloreforetan went to the southwest. In the direct south and southeast, lie the Lermonian Sea, named after the country across the water, yet unviewable from the map Akilina peered upon. On the northwest and west border of Jardovia, faint borders branched off, but soon faded into nothing. Though Jardovia had reigned for centuries, they had never made relations with the country over in that area, or found out if there even was one. It didn’t make sense, but Aleksi and Akilina weren’t exactly in the place to question it. They internally assured themselves that they would find out soon enough. Aleksi and Akilina, themselves, were sent to investigate, posing as ‘starstruck voyagers’ to the people on the other side of the border. The kingdom’s officials didn’t want to give any evident sign to the northwestern area (which they nicknamed Borviack for the sole purpose of not having to refer to it as the ‘northwestern area’) that they had not heard of them but just neglected making proper ties. ‘Subtle is better than war,’ the king has so gracefully stated to Aleksi himself. The expedition was launched because of waves of people coming in from that area. A proper investigation of the people hadn’t been organized, as to not cause questions or rumours that could sweep across the empires and cause states of disruption. The government was in a very fragile state, and even the slightest bit of indirect tantalization could cause ruination among countries. The people approached the western borders and came in groups of dark-skinned people. Some came with weapons, and some with only the clothes on their backs. They had settled in the western area, almost as if it was normal to receive random visitors. Jardovia wasn’t exactly a tourist site. The people who migrated here were evidently here to stay, and none hovered above the middle class. The government was more than intrigued and here we insert the expedition of Akilina and Aleksi. The mission that the government didn’t seem to be taking very seriously, as there was only two people planning it. Aleksi had been assigned with about three others that had backed out because of the complications in Miruential. Now all Akilina and Aleksi had to plan with was an unfinished map and a few clothes pins that dotted different stops in Jardovia. The beginning of the journey started in the capital, about 300 miles east of the border. They would travel through the country at a quick speed and break off from their escorts once they reached Borviack. Then, they would slowly travel through the unfamiliar country, taking every small detail into account and mapping the new land. They had assigned Aleksi because of his growth in the military compound. His strategic qualities prevailed over most others’ and consisted of approaching enemies, attacking them if needed, and handling difficult situations with utmost sensitivity and intelligence. He had also been directed to recruit Akilina, one of the best cartographers that they knew, to accompany him. She also was a skilled fighter and was trusted with many duties when she lived in the palace. Until she had moved, she was an esteemed member of the court, and excelled in studies. Now they both stood above the map, eyes flickering over the multi-colored pins, at a loss of where to start.”So,” Akilina started, “We travel through these points,” her index finger skimmed across the route they had just traced, and abruptly stopped at the border. “Until here.” Aleksi gave a curt nod. He watched Akilina lean over the map and bite her lip as she stared at the empty area that was Borviack. “This is going to be tough.” Aleksi affirmed her statement,”That it is.” They stood there in silence for a moment before Akilina brought her hands together loudly, nearly scaring the pants off Aleksi. “Well then we better get planning.” Akilina was a little rusty at the whole ‘get-things-going’ job because Aleksi gave her the blankest stare she had ever seen.”That’s what we’ve been trying to do for the past 20 minutes.” Akilina’s cheeks brightened the slightest bit, but we know she would never admit it. They endured another little awkward silence until Aleksi broke it this time around.”What should we pack?” Akilina started to list off essentials such as water, food, weapons, parchment, ink, and other things needed for cartography. Both started to delve deeper into what obstacles they would face and what they should pack to help them. Their thoughts got flowing and things started to fall in place. By the week after, they were ready and already hopping onto the carriage that would deliver them to the border. They were ready for the long and bumpy path ahead, but little did they know they weren’t ready for the things that they would find on that path. ~•~The carriage rolled to a sudden stop. Akilina’s sleeping form lay fixed on the seats opposite of Aleksi. His tired eyes fluttered closed and open repeatedly until he managed to keep them open. He heard the distant neigh of retreating horses and his body straightened, alerted. Something wasn’t right. He scooted to the carriage door, making as little sound as possible, for the fear of waking Akilina or notifying potential enemies. He pressed his ear against the door and heard hushed voices. He finally dared the take a peek out the window by pulling the curtain aside the slightest bit and almost sighed in relief. A few figures decked out in black stood at a distance from the carriage. Only common bandits in this area of town, something they could easily take care of. His attention was brought back to Akilina, as she shifted in her seat and muttered something under her breath. His thoughts whirled around, eyeing the huge packs they had ready for trekking. They couldn’t possibly fight the bandits with that kind of weight on their hands. They were trapped. He remembered being in a situation like this before, and it wasn’t a pretty one. His heartbeat quickened and panic gripped at his heart sending waves of fear through him. They had lost an honorable man and good friend of his in that battle against bandits that were too heavily supplied with weapons to have been usual. Aleksi’s breathing accelerated as flashes of the gruesome fight tore through his mind. His hands shook and he felt numb as he stepped on a creaky board in the carriage. He flew through states of dread as he lost hope, his mind retreating further and further into those depths of dark thoughts. Then Akilina’s legs slid down the side of the droopy seats and all Aleksi’s thoughts stopped. If he couldn’t be brave for himself, he had to be for her. She had just lost her father, she gave up her home and life of normality for this, he couldn’t let her give up more. So, he thought, be courageous, just this once, for someone else. And that he did. He shook Akilina’s shoulder for her response to be a sudden jerk upwards, sitting straight. Her head almost hit the roof of the carriage and her sudden movement must have rocked the carriage a bit. Now they were in a time clutch.”Wha— wait, what’s happening?” He shushed her and whispered in a hurried, frantic tone.”Bandits, outside. There’s only one carriage door, we have no way out.” Akilina understood in an instant, despite never having had been in a similar situation before. She grabbed her pack, and Aleksi did the same.”Are you sure there is no other way out?” Aleksi collected his thoughts and ran his eyes up and down the carriage, running his hand across the carpet they were crouched upon. Then his eyes lit up.”No— if only, maybe,” He whispered hopes under his breath as he lifted the carpet beneath them. Then there, in its full glory lay a trap door leading to the cobblestone road. Then they heard the footsteps. Their heads snapped up towards the only door and their calculated movements became messy in their frantic mindsets. Both pried open the trap door, which proved to be a challenge after so many years of unuse. Akilina stuffed her pack down the little opening, and scurried down as fast as she could. She rolled over providing Aleksi some area to go down as well. He did the same and swiftly shut the trapdoor quietly. Both held their breaths as the bandits grew closer and took a peek in their carriage. It was empty.”Blast! There ‘re none o’ them rich folk in ‘ere! I told you it ain’t worth it!” came the enraged cry of a criminal, “We could’ve at least snatched up a few o’ them horsies! Would’ve done us some good!” The bandits continued to fight and yell at each other until Aleksi and Akilina could hear them throwing some punches and kicks. They had to get out of here before the furious bandits found them and inflicted more damage on them than any unfamiliar country could. Aleksi nudged Akilina and nodded his head toward the side the that was opposite to the one that the bandits were fighting on.”They’re occupied. Quick.” Akilina nodded and scooted over there as indiscreetly as she could. When she reached the end she popped up, hidden from the bandits by the carriage. She shrugged on her pack and helped Aleksi do the same. They both bolted into an alleyway, undetected by their almost-kidnappers. They ran and ran, through alley after alley, until they heard no sign of the bandits. Akilina started to break off into another sprint, but Aleksi stopped her just in time. He put his hand on her shoulder, and motioned to the wall, his breathing heavy. He heaved his body against the wall and slumped against the cool stone. Akilina begrudgingly did the same, letting the exhaustion seep into her limbs, making her clumsy. She ripped a water skin from her pack lazily, gulping down several mouthfuls at once. She handed it to Aleksi, which he took with shaking hands. She slumped against him, letting his warmth envelop her as his arm slung across her shoulder. He, too, gulped down a lot of water, before tying the skin up and letting it fall to the ground. Aleksi then leaned his head against Akilina’s and let his fatigue wash over him and succumb him to sleep. Days in a stuffy carriage, silence radiating between them sure didn’t help them become closer, but this definitely did.~•~Aleksi and Akilina had awoke to a blinding light that almost tore apart their eyes. They struggled to get up, but soon managed to gain a sense of their surroundings. They were in one of the villages just by the border, judging by the large amounts of foreign people flocking around. Aleksi had gotten out the map so Akilina could gain an even better understanding of their surroundings and mark some things she deemed important. They then gathered all their things and walked west, approaching the border. They didn’t encounter any guards, foreigners, or even Jardovians. The villages left off at a point and there was some simple dry land that Aleksi and Akilina had to trek through. As they progressed they noticed that the landscape was growing . . wilder. Grass started lengthening, trees popped up in the distance, and the small noises of animals began accumulating, steadily growing louder and louder. Then the partners found the border. It was not very difficult to distinguish. When you would have reached it, you would know you had arrived. It had a somewhat metaphorical barrier. A stream separated the lands and on the other side was a sudden boost of wildlife. Trees as tall as the clouds, huge leaves and plants, so thick that you couldn’t see past the first section. It was like a wall letting you know that you were about to cross a border, and you best be ready. No one was ever ready. Aleksi and Akilina had stopped and stared for a while, before Akilina dropped to her knees and drew out her map, sketching the stream. Judging by the strong rapids tearing through it, she could guess that as it went southwest, it grew into a healthy river eventually dumping out in the Lermonian Sea. She hadn’t ever heard of the river, and figured it snaked out of Jardovia’s range. It was a guess, but it was one of the best ones they had so far. Aleksi approached the stream and inspected the water. After he checked it out, he confirmed that it was safe to drink and refilled their water skins up to the brim. After taking a few mouthfuls of water for himself, he tossed the pack over the stream, it landing just at the other side. He dove into the waters and fought against the rapids, reaching the other side quickly. He heard a little laugh and turned to see Akilina shaking her head and biting her lip again as she packed the map back into her bag. The small action brought a little smile to Aleksi’s face and he brought his arms forward, ready to catch her bag. He was a few seconds late, because the bag was already speeding towards him, landing directly on his face, knocking him over. A few snickers could be heard, and Akilina had swum over by the time Aleksi managed to get up and get the bag off his face. Both of them hung around by the stream, drinking, eating, and bathing. Akilina had proposed staying the night there, because the evening sky was already descending upon them. Aleksi agreed and they set up a camp. After starting a good sized fire, they both gathered their sleeping arrangements and Aleksi took first watch as Akilina went to sleep. She let her eyes flutter close and soon her soft, even breathing slowly lulled Aleksi to sleep as well.~•~Aleksi breathed heavily, sweat dripping off his entire body. The two had been trudging through the jungles of Borivack for days by now and both had barely spoken a word. For the first time, both of them entirely agreed that talking was a waste of breath, and their breath was far too important to even consider wasting. Even though a minimum of words were exchanged, Akilina and Aleksi didn’t make it very far into the jungle. It was larger and much harder to travel through than they thought. Both held a dagger in their hands cutting and slashing through branches, leaves, and the briers of plants dotting the landscape. The past few days hadn’t been very eventful. Walk, stop at sundown, build a fire, eat, and sleep; was their constant routine. Unfortunately, though, just because their schedule was continuous, didn’t mean it was any easier. Both were attacked by bug bites and waves of nausea at the uncomfortable change of scenery. Neither of them were used to this environment and temperature, since Jardovia was a rather cool country. Akilina dropped down, her back against a wide tree. Aleksi did the same, both catching their breaths as they rested. Aleksi was distrait with drowsiness, as Akilina noticed something. Her whole posture shot straight up, a habit of hers whenever she noticed something out of the ordinary. Footprints led through the grass right in front of her, and she could hear more at a distance. They were grower louder, quickly. Akilina let out a quick gasp and grabbed a drowsy Aleksi by his arm. She lugged her forgotten pack from the ground and onto her back. Aleksi did the same, at a loss of whatever else he could do. Akilina took off and was followed by Aleksi, and unfortunately the strangers too. Their rapid movement attracted attention and multiple shouts rung through the air, in their direction. The duo picked up their pace, choosing speed over stealth. Arrows sped over their shoulders, alarming Akilina. They took a sharp left and continued jumped over plants and branches, ignoring the numerous scratches that accumulated as they continued. Aleksi sped forward before coming to an abrupt stop, holding his arm out to prevent Akilina from going an further. She bumped against his arm, but quickly grabbed onto it after seeing the sight before her. The jungle ended a huge cliff, only sky blue waters underneath. It was a beautiful sight, but the pair didn’t have time to appreciate it judging by the fact that they were trying to escape their pursuers. Akilina exhaled at the cliff edge and turned to Aleksi, footsteps increasing in distance behind them,”What do we do!” She voiced aloud, realizing that whispering would do them no good. Aleksi didn’t tear his eyes away from the clear waters.”We jump.” The relentless thumping of numerous feet continued behind them.”No, no, no.” Aklina held her hand out and took a step back, “I’ve seen this all before, We jump, we drown, we die. C’mon, let’s just—” Aleksi cut her off, finally looking at her,”We jump.” Akilina was alarmed by the look he was giving her. It had a sense of strength, as is he wouldn’t shake from this decision. They were running out of time. Akilina swallowed and struggled to keep her voice steady,”I watched my father drown as he pushed me to the shore. This is not going to work, it isn’t.” Desperation had captured her tone, her hands gripping Aleksi’s biceps as she shook him. She wouldn’t do this. She couldn’t. Aleksi’s gaze hardened even more, “Nothing ever works, Akilina,” He took a step toward her, “It will never, it won’t ever, until you make it.” His fingertips brushed her chin before he took of jumping from the cliff, his body arked in the perfect dive of a swimmer that Akilina couldn’t help but absentmindedly admire. Their followers were almost right behind her by now. A sense of dread filled her to the brim until she stopped. She stopped. She stopped her panicked thoughts. She stopped her motions. She stopped her fear. And she let what Aleksi said ring out in her mind. He’s right. It was almost as if the whole world had slowed down. She tossed her pack into the water in an almost effortless action. As she did, she realized that she had to do this. She had to. She needed to overcome her fears and breathe. So she did. Akilina jumped, mimicking the posture Aleksi had adopted, and dived. Halfway down she could hear shouts of “They’re gone!” and “This way!”. She closed her eyes before the water enveloped her on all sides and took one final breath. She had jumped, and she had found the courage within herself to do so.~•~Aleksi and Akilina stood side-by-side, hand-in hand. Their grip tightened as they stared at the mysterious wonder above them. A village— no a city lay up their path, bustling with the same dark-skinned people from before. And right in the middle of it, a castle. One belaid with jewels and studded with stones. Their gazes stopped at their destination. They had reached the end of journey with courage, strength, and bravery in the face of danger. Neither regretted it. And as this journey ended, a whole new one began, but one thing wouldn’t change; their approach. From now on, in every situation, Aleksi and Akilina would use courage to battle their obstacles, for they had learned it was one of the most important things that you could attain.