Prologue: An Evening Encounter

Marisa casually strolled through the camp devoted to the company under the command of the Desert Tiger. As she cast a glance towards the sky overhead, she saw a large group of clouds rolling across the sky, obscuring the pristine blue behind a veil of white and gray. A gust of frigid wind licked at her skin, causing her to pull the gray cloak she wore tighter. It felt unusual, almost restrictive to have to wear something like the cloak, but the Chief had insisted upon it. He had given explicit orders that everyone was to stay in top condition, which meant first and foremost that no one was to get sick if they could help it. Thus, while she found the cloak more of a burden than a benefit, she didn't say anything and carried about her business as usual.

All around her she saw several of the other mercenaries under Gerik's command setting up the tents for the night. The official word had been to prepare for a cold night thus the army had broken early despite being close to the Rausten border. A large fire was already burning in the center circle of the camp, overseen personally by Tethys and her younger brother, Ewan.

She stopped mid-step and took a deep breath, simply relishing the moment. While Jehanna was her birthplace, she had come to view the mercenary camp as her real home. She knew many female mercenaries had issues working in predominantly male companies, but Marisa never found it to be an issue. She was here by her own volition and nothing could change that. As she stood there, she took in all the sensations of the camp. She could overhear the grumble of the men as one of them accidentally forgot to hitch his tent properly and struggled to salvage it. The smell of fresh meat and flatbread came from the nearby storage tent. When she was around the camp, everything just seemed right.

As she walked over to the fire, Tethys glanced up and smiled at the sight of her old friend. Ewan didn't seem to notice; he was too absorbed in his spell book, apparently trying to figure out how to control the flames before him. Marisa took a seat on a nearby log only to have the general peace and quiet of the camp disturbed by Ewan.

"Aaah!" Ewan fell backwards as the fire suddenly lurched skyward in a mighty roar.

"Ewan! Are you all right?" asked Tethys, already by his side.

"Y-yeah. I just didn't expect it to react like that," explained the kid, still wide-eyed with shock.

Tethys let out a small sigh. "How many times have I told you to be careful? Even Saleh warned you to be careful when dealing with magic."

"I know, sis, but how am I ever going to get better if I don't practice?" retorted Ewan.

"I understand that. I just wish your practicing didn't make me afraid you were going to burn down the camp in the process," replied Tethys.

"Don't worry! I've got it figured out now. At least I think I do," clarified Ewan as he gave Tethys a nervous smile.

"I think that's enough for now," said Tethys. "It's getting late, Ewan. Get some rest." Ewan was about to protest but a stern look from his big sister shut him up in a heartbeat. He nodded before trudging off to his tent.

"That boy," sighed Tethys as she sat back down. Marisa could saw Tethys's gaze shift from Ewan's tent to her. "You look uncomfortable, Marisa."

She simply shrugged. "It's fine."

Tethys let out a light laugh. "Are you sure? You look about as uncomfortable as Ewan when I tell him he needs to take a bath."

Marisa didn't say anything for a moment and watched the flames dance back and forth. "It's…a bit restrictive."

"Perhaps. But we aren't under attack and this way you won't get sick," replied Tethys.

"I…don't mind." Marisa gave the fire a brief poke with a stick, trying to encourage some more life out of the flames. "Besides…it was the Chief's orders."

Tethys shook her head slightly. "Well, I'm sure Gerik would be happy to know that you're at least taking his words to heart."

Marisa's gaze lingered momentarily upon the tent that belonged to the famous Desert Tiger. She had originally never intended to join the company, but Gerik had been relentless with his requests, particularly after their little duel. She finally consented and at the time hadn't thought much would come from the decision. She had never been happier to be wrong. She was proud to be a part of the company and, perhaps more importantly, to have the trust and confidence of Gerik.

"…Where's the Chief?" Marisa finally asked.

"In his tent, talking with someone I believe," replied Tethys.

Marisa looked at the tent a moment longer before glancing back to Tethys. "Who?"

The dancer shrugged and gave Marisa a warm smile. "I certainly don't know. From the voice though, I would have to guess it has to be another man."

Marisa didn't say anything and took a seat around the fire. After a few minutes, she heard raucous laughter coming from the Chief's tent. Turning around, she saw the tent flap open to reveal Gerik chatting amiably with a man she recognized from the army. He had bright red hair and wore a distinct black hat that matched his coat.

"Haha! You don't say, Joshua. We'll have to put that little wager of yours to the test sometime then, won't we?" grinned Gerik as he gave the man he called Joshua a firm slap on the back. Marisa now realized why Joshua seemed so familiar; he was the prince of Jehanna. Though she had never spoken to him, word had spread to all corners of the camp like wildfire following the battle at Jehanna Hall.

Joshua returned the grin. "I don't know if I'm comfortable with that. You're a bit too observant for your own good. I'm just glad we have you on our side."

Gerik let out another loud laugh. "Fair enough." He turned his attention towards the rest of the camp and his gaze immediately fell upon Marisa and Tethys sitting by the fire. He slapped his hand to his forehead and shook his head, a small smile on his face the whole time.

"I've been a terrible host. Here I've had you to my camp several times and never once introduced you to any of my comrades."

Joshua waved the comment aside. "I've met several of your men already, Gerik. After all, many were more than eager to take part in some of my evening games."

Gerik shook his head again. "You and your 'hobby.'" He turned his attention back to the two. Marisa felt her breath catch in her throat when Gerik looked at her. Her throat relaxed almost immediately once his gaze went back to Joshua. "Well, the red-haired beauty over here is Tethys," motioned Gerik. "She's a dancer by trade."

Joshua offered his hand as Tethys gave it a brief shake. "Well met, Tethys."

Tethys gave a slight bow of the head. "It's an honor to finally meet you, Prince Joshua."

Joshua replied with a half smile. "Please, just call me Joshua for the time being."

"Are you certain?"

Joshua nodded. "We're all comrades here. Besides, I'm not sure I'm completely comfortable being called 'Prince Joshua' quite yet." He flashed her a playful grin. "I've heard tales about the dancer within the ranks of the Desert Tiger. I can see why Gerik would keep you hidden from the rest of the army," he joked.

"Yeah, you'd best just watch yourself, Joshua," said Gerik, eliciting a brief laugh from both Joshua and Tethys. Gerik turned his attention back to Marisa, causing her breath to stop once again.

"You've heard of the fabled Crimson Flash, haven't you?" smiled Gerik. "Allow me to introduce the masterful swordswoman, Marisa."

Marisa didn't notice at first when Joshua offered her his hand just as he had done for Tethys. She slowly reached out and took his hand before he gave her a firm handshake. She saw he had a playful expression in his crimson eyes as he took a step back.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Marisa," greeted Joshua pleasantly.

She didn't say anything at first, instead just giving a curt nod. "Same to you."

She noticed his smile seemed to grow a bit wider before he turned his gaze a bit lower. "A shamshir, huh? I haven't seen one of those in many years."

Marisa turned her attention to the polished silver sword that hung at her waist. She was a bit surprised that he had recognized her weapon, but then she remembered he did hail from Jehanna as well.

"I used one for a time myself," continued Joshua, "but I eventually decided to use a different sword."

She couldn't resist asking the question that immediately came to mind. "Why?"

Joshua rested his right hand upon the sword at his waist. "Shamshirs are light which makes them good for fatal strikes, but they also lack the power granted by a heavier sword such as a killing edge. In my mercenary work, the killing edge just proved to be a better choice for me."

She scrutinized Joshua's expression for a moment before finally answering. "Maybe."

He raised an eyebrow in amusement. "Maybe?"

She had expected him to drop the subject and leave it at that, but it was clear from the tone in his voice that he wasn't about to do that at all. "Lightness," she said slowly, "may result in less power…but if the strike connects properly, it can be even more fatal than a killing edge."

Joshua took a moment to contemplate this before nodding. "You know what, you're probably right. But I think even Gerik here wouldn't exactly call me the type to use something as graceful as a shamshir."

"Just remember it was you who said that, not me," commented the mercenary leader, prompting a laugh from Joshua.

"All right. I should be heading back," said Joshua. "Gerik, keep what I said in mind. Tethys, it was a pleasure to meet you. Marisa," he said, "perhaps one day we'll get to put your claim to the test regarding which weapon is superior." He took a few steps before he turned around and gave them a brief wave.

"I'll see you later."

As he left, Marisa watched him for a second before turning her gaze back to the Chief; he was currently talking about something with Tethys. After a few moments, she got up and retired to her tent to get some much needed sleep.

She turned over and got into a more comfortable position on her right side before closing her eyes.

What a strange man.

Author's Notes: Hello everyone. I realize it has been a while since I have been here and that this story disappeared. I apologize for that and would like to say thank you for your patience. This past semester was particularly trying in many ways but rest assured I am back (as hopefully evidenced by this completed story). Thanks again for your patience, and I hope you enjoy the newly edited and revised "Grains of Sand."

I would also like to extend a sincere thank you to barefootbean for her assistance as my beta reader.