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Finding the prince was going to be harder than I thought it would, I realized not long after I separated myself from my friends. One crowd of drunken and exuberant aristocrats was much like any other. And as the night wore on at a steady and thrumming pace, the peasants began to mingle with the upper class, and the upper class in turn mingled with the peasants. Everywhere I turned there was a body to meet mine. Or burning plants to overwhelm my senses, or a whore to beckon me with a pleasant smile and a curling finger. Their gender hadn't mattered by then; I had enough of the warm and coiling smoke from the exotic leaves wrapping warmly in my belly that I near forgotten what I was there for as I pressed myself into these lively crowds.
I had a bag of heavy coin weighing me down, after all. Shouldn't I indulge? Shouldn't I enjoy myself? That's what I was thinking, and in the moments where I found myself forced against a scantily dressed body, murmuring words and having words murmured in return, I would see something. A flash of straight chestnut hair perhaps, or modestly dark leather that was still of a far finer make and embroidery then I could of ever have had. And then I would be pushing away from the warm and arching body against me, and disappear into the crowds again. It was a long and tiring cycle, and each time I breathed in more of those burning plants – Either as residue off the bodies around me or from an actual lantern – I kept finding it harder and harder to leave behind someone who so obviously wanted me.
And by that point, the pool of smoke in my belly was so thick and coiling, I'd have been lying if I said I didn't want them too.
But that flash of dark hair or dark clothing was enough to pull me out of my otherwise welcomed trance, and I would start the search again. To be honest, I could not say if what I saw were sure signs of the prince. I doubted it. But I kept on all the same. "Alex?" I turned, stumbled really, into the person who called my name and gave what I thought was a suitable enough of an expression between curiosity and confusion. The person didn't think so, apparently, because they shoved me off with ginger hands and eyed me up and down with obvious scrutiny. A masculine woman. Or a feminine man. I couldn't decide then. "Does your mother know you are here?" I laughed because wasn't it obvious? And I thought it was a charming laugh, too, if some of the glances I gained from the passing crowd were anything to go by, but looking back to the gentlewoman – She was too feminine to be a man – I decided it wasn't. She looked like she couldn't decide between scowling and leaving me there, or taking me back home and making sure I was safe.
Mother Miriam. I did know her. She was older than my mother by several years, though she would never say by how much, and she always seemed to be caught between wariness, disapproval and liking of us younger folk. I laughed again, and leaned heavily against her side. Mother Miriam was a strong woman; big-boned. She could support me. But her rough stumble said otherwise – I wasn't terribly lanky, after all - , and I fell to laughter again, softer this time. "No," I finally got out, eyeing her carefully, head tilted, eyebrow raised. Maybe it was the right expression that time, because soon after her muscles loosened and she let out a tired sigh. "Just like Moria, you are. Inhaling those plants unprotected, are you? Here." Mother Miriam made to hand something brownish and lumpy from one of her apron pockets, and in my current pleasant impudence I scrunched up my nose without really meaning to. It smelled odd.
Mother Miriam grunted, roughly pried open my mouth, and popped the plant root under my tongue. It tasted like soil. Nothing more. I stared at her blankly, and she stared back. "It'll help with the haze." And with that, old Mother Miriam ambled off, probably to get drunk off the wine herself. Oh. Right. She mentioned Moria. Her daughter. Moria was only fifteen, but I suppose she looked old enough to be out past implemented curfew. It would explain Mother Miriam, at least, more logically than my wine theory.
Logic. I gagged on the word, or maybe I was just gagging on the root. I couldn't have been sure. But I kept it in my mouth all the same and continued looking for the elusive prince.
The district I was in by then was familiar. At the least, more familiar than the ones I've been in before. I didn't know what it was about the district that said I knew it. The tavern, maybe, with its light reflecting brick stones and brightly painted murals decorating its outside walls, or perhaps that stall placed not too far off of it selling odd pastries. The stall owner looked like a heavily painted performer. Maybe they were. But the longer I held that plant root under my tongue, the more I forced my way through pressing and giggling crowds, the less things seemed to blur together. That was alright. I was wincing against a pressing headache and, oh! I knew well enough to shimmy away from coaxing whores.
I did know this district, with all its shops and large center crowded with stages and booths from entertainers. It was the district that I ran across that one androgynous man who had called me pretty. With a lack of any other idea as to where to go, I headed towards what I thought was the direction of that particular man's stage.
So I just followed the direction of the people. By then, the mysterious root was doing enough of its work for me to reason out that all the festival-goers with shining faces and bizarre clothes would know more about what the main attractions were. That androgynous man, if his appearance was anything to go by, was a main attraction. And Prince Seregil would be interested in the main attractions, wouldn't he? It was the way I thought of it. The flow of bodies eventually ebbed away until I was greeted with the sight of a circular stage a foot or so off the ground, surrounded by wooden columns that held up drawn, transparent drapes. The torches surrounding them diluted the colors too much for me to know what they really were, but they didn't detract from the woman standing in the center of it all.
She was beautiful, the clothing she wore was as exotic as that of the mysterious man, and she was dancing with fire. More than that, she was enticing others to dance with her.
The dance was a complicated and beautiful thing, and even to my untrained eye it seemed that it took a considerable amount of effort for seemingly simple twists and turns. A flash of fire here, a hint of a grin there, quickly wiped off for a majestic look as the fire seemed to be pulled dangerously close for an arching pattern. While I was sure the other dancers were just as practiced, I kept my eyes on the main woman. There was skin, there was laughter, there was silence, and there were heavy drums from a land I couldn't name whose deep reverberations seemed to match my racing heart. It was terrible and exhilarating all at once, and when the woman used her prowess to force the extravagant flames out to the crowd, no one dare moved in fear of breaking the spell.
And then the dancer gave a deeper twist, and a man who was previously standing still beside me stepped forward, as filament and graceful as any of the other dancers. He, along with the woman, gave off an air of something far more intimate as they manipulated the fire together. Something sinuous and dark and bright and utterly boggling. And, I was sure, the entire spectacle would have been even more invigorating if I did not have the root stuffed underneath my tongue. I was tempted to take it out. This was something I wanted to be involved in as deeply as the rest of the glossy-eyed crowd. Something that, just for a moment, could let me appreciate the festival to its full potential.
I swallowed, and the tiny piece of plant shifted uneasily in my mouth. The dancers had moved closer together then, all of them. There was a complicated ring of fire, moving with their taut arms and constantly flowing bodies that reminded me, ironically enough, of water. The dance was calming down. The drums were slowing. I could see the blatant disappointment painted so clearly across the other spectators' faces. I could feel it, because I too did not want the dance to end. And then there was a violent flash, a surge of rippling energy through the dancers, and their grand finale warped into extravagant bows and widely grinning faces. They were sweating, their chests were heaving, some with scorch marks on their skin but they seemed so utterly pleased by it all. Whether it was with having entertained so many people, or doing what they loved I had no idea.
I took me a moment to remember why I stopped to watch the spectacle in the first place but when I did, I moved to approach the lead woman with the same fool-hardy attitude that carried me through so much. Well, it mostly carried me into trouble. But it never stopped me from stiffening up my shoulders, standing straighter than my normal slouch, and pursuing things like a determined dog. That evening was no different. I moved past stumbling and giggling bodies, hesitated only briefly at the edge of the stage, and then stepped up.
"Yes?" Her voice, I was surprised to find out, was more rugged than I had expected. It had a certain stone-like quality that did a fine job of scuffing up the silk lying just over it. And, pathetic as it was, at the time it was enough to make me pause, blink like a lamb offered up to the slaughter, and shift uncomfortably. Yes, I was tall, I was lean with muscle, and I was certain I could crush this petite and beautiful woman if I had to. But I was a teenager; she was beautiful. That was enough justification for my mind at the time. "Um, yes, um…" I paused, ran a nervous hand through my blond hair. "I'm sorry to bother you, ma'am. But I'm looking for a certain entertainer and I'm not too sure where I can find him."
It was only when I looked up to see her adjusting her strange clothing did I actually realize that I had looked down. She was watching me with a critical eye and a lazy grace that seemed too familiar for my liking. And then she shrugged and looked off to the side for reasons, I was willing to bet, that were entirely different from my own. "I can't tell you where to find nothing without a name." The sharp 'boy' didn't need to be added on; I could hear it in my mind well enough. "I don-" She snorted and turned to leave before I could even finish my sentence. I hastily snatched at her arm. "I don't know his name but he's very, um, unique? Unique. He's very unique looking. Black clear clothing and, um, dark orange, brown maybe, hair. And kohl around his eyes. I think. And he's tall." While I was hardly eloquent with words at that time, it was enough for the woman to give pause in trying to drag her arm away from me.
She turned back to stare me down with blue eyes startling clear against the smoke of plant-burning lanterns, and I had to wonder briefly if she too had a root stuck underneath her tongue. But that was all wiped away when she said, quite simply, "His name is Ezra. His stage is directly across from mine, but he is done for the night. The inn he's staying at is that'a way. The Velvet Lady." She pointed east, and I gave her quick thanks before I scampered off.
Going east in this district led me further into the inner city than I would have been comfortable with and, probably, any other district. The noise and mayhem was slowly pulled away to reveal quiet – and threateningly large – homesteads complete with tall stone walls tipped with broken glass and gates to protect the homes from outsiders, I assumed. In the wharf no one had a yard, let alone imposing fences to protect them. And here, the gas lanterns in the street lights actually worked, it smelled of trimmed flowers and trees instead of thinly veiled sewage, and I did not have to watch my feet for a misplaced cobblestone or horse dung. I did, however, have to keep my ears keen to the sound of approaching footsteps. I may have been a dullard in the eyes of Sara, but I have snuck around in the wharf and docks often enough to know that the guards did not like it when paupers were out late at night, and not on their way to the tavern or a cheap brothel.
They were never unnecessarily unkind to us. But when a few citizens of the wharf decided to take advantage of that, it made the guards that much more reluctant to let any stone go unturned. I could only assume that the guards in the inner city, having to be around pompous aristocrats who they could never talk back to no matter what they did, would not mind roughing up a no-name wharf rat. I've seen the way the upper class treated the guards on their adventures into the wharf. I knew it wasn't kind.
But luck had been on my side.
I wasn't sure if it was just that facts that I kept to the shadows, shoulders hunched, head down and steps quiet that kept attention away from me. Or, quite likely, the few people I did pass were either merry with drink, too wrapped up in their own conversations, or too tired and on their way to bed. But I wasn't noticed, and I saw no guards so I was free to figure out where, exactly, the Velvet Lady was. Following people before proved helpful so that's what I did then, and while I wasn't really sure why I thought finding the entertainer known as Ezra would be beneficial, I had nothing else to go on. The coin purse chimed quietly in my shirt and I pressed a hand against it carefully. It silenced, and I went to continue on my scuttling way, but it was already too late.
One of the few people I had passed that deep into this district was eyeing me oddly, and when he noticed me eyeing him shiftily in return he did not hesitate in approaching. Gingerly, but he was approaching me all the same, and I had to struggle with myself to not break into a run. "Why are you here?" The flamboyant man pronounced the words so carefully, so clearly, I forgot to respond for a moment. And then his amber colored eyes darted to my hand still pressed against my stomach, and I quickly tried to break the silence. "Um, you see, sir," He eyed me like I was daft. Maybe I was, but the light indignation I felt because of it was enough for me to stiffen up and put a bit more courage into my voice. "Sir," I was pleased my voice came out smooth, "I am sorry if I interrupted your evening. I am looking for an inn, the Velvet Lady. I have a delivery I need to make." Well… It wasn't a lie, not really.
The man's eyes went back to my hand, quiet, and the fear that he would not believe me was just beginning to set in when; "The Velvet Lady is two more blocks east. Take a left, then. There will be a sign difficult to miss just outside the entrance." I was about to thank him for his help, but he was already turning away with a practiced walk that made me feel like the clumsy peasant aristocrats tried to make me off to be, and then he was gone. It felt odd, being accepted so easily, but I didn't really feel I had the time to question it. Instead, I was worrying about the sign. I couldn't… read. No better than the average pauper at least. It was a struggle. A large struggle and I found it unnecessary. My mother could read well enough that she could write down orders at least, but she had never offered to teach me and I, well, I didn't feel my asking would have been welcomed.
These were the thoughts that occupied my mind on the way to the Velvet Lady, and as such I only mutely registered that the root was no longer in my mouth, and that I had probably spat it out a while back. I didn't think it mattered much as there were no plant burning lanterns this deep into the inner city. Before I knew it, I was on the final street, the one where the inn was said to be, and I was standing in the center of the road, fidgeting, and looking about for the sign. A sing amongst signs, that would have hopefully stood out and mark it easily as the inn I was looking for, but there was no such luck. One sign looked like the next, and I was growing increasingly frustrated. So I decided to walk the street.
The walk didn't yield much other than that most of the buildings were dimly lit, if lit at all, and that it seemed like most of them were shops, not inns or taverns doubling as inns. Convinced that the aristocrat from before had tricked me, I turned to head back to the main festival-going parts of the city.
There was no grand revelation, no kind voice to point me in the right direction, no mystical or magical being to turn my attention the right way. Really, it all came down to sheer dumb luck and the sporadic decision to, since I was heading back to the festival, just pick a marked building and try it. Sheer dumb luck, and perhaps just wanton desire that things would go smoothly for me. Whatever it was, I got a glimpse of what I thought to be people milling around just through a window, and above the entryway of that particular building was a sign. A sign with loping letters in red, and I figured, at the very least, whoever was inside could point me in the right direction if just to get me out of their way.
It was the wrong place, of course, as the owner of that establishment was, strangely, both very joyful and very frustrated to inform me. Even at that moment I had stared at him with such incredulity that I forgot that I should have probably left more hastily than I had. So perhaps it was my own fault that I got chased out by a rather… endowed woman who bore a rolling pin, and behind her a man I assumed to be her husband.
But I did say I had a remarkable amount of dumb luck, didn't I? Or maybe it was terrible luck if it was viewed differently. But even then I still bore the grin of a little boy pleased with the world if even the smallest things went my way, so when I stumbled out the door of the establishment with the hellish woman on my trail, I stumbled straight into a chest that greeted me with a heady, spicy smell. The man I had run into staggered, briefly, before he regained himself with leisurely carelessness and a hand pressed to my chest to force me back a step. I was grateful. The smell clouded thoughts as much as the smoke from the plant burners did.
It was that man. That entertainer, Ezra, and I felt my cheeks burn with the ridiculous grin that dominated my face, and I proceeded to babble happily like a fool. "I was looking for you, sir! I don't… I don't really remember why, though." Because, thinking back, it was ridiculous logic that the prince would be with this entertainer. If the oddly beautiful man thought my explanation strange, he expressed nothing of it and instead turned his attention to the shaking woman behind me, still holding the rolling pin rather threateningly. The barely transparent black cloth shifted as he moved forward, and I gained a view that made me look quickly back to the woman. The two of them had been talking, and I hadn't even realized it. Right then, the woman seemed to be confronting Ezra.
"Mm. No, I do not."
"So why is he here? Another mutt come to find you with his tail wagging and breath panting?"
The man did not answer, and it was in that moment of silence that I realized I had just been insulted. I stiffened up immediately and glared at the woman, though she apparently saw it fit to grin at me in return. More likely she did not particularly care what a 'panting mutt' thought of her comment, and the idea just made me stiffen up even more. I was just about to step forward to say something that only a wharf rat could come up with when the index finger of Ezra's left hand twitched. I was standing a few steps behind him, and he carried enough of an enigmatic authority that I stopped moving. Likewise, the woman tore her scrutiny away from me and looked back to Ezra with narrowed eyes.
"He's come to give me something," the entertainer said. The woman snorted, a leer curling her lips in an unpleasant way. "I'm sure he has. Go on." She jerked her chin over her shoulder; back into the building that I was starting to believe was, indeed, the Velvet Lady. Ezra moved forward, slowly, though his strides were long so I suppose it didn't matter much. When I failed to immediately follow, he turned back to face me with the eyebrow of the eye that I could see raised. He didn't say anything, but when he turned back to continue into the inn, he did not have to. I understood it well enough. He expected me to follow, and since I was seeking him out, I had no qualms to do so.
At least, not right away.
The performer led me towards the back of the establishment, comfortable in where he was going, and further still up stairs that did not creak and groan like the ones back in my home did. The place in general was… nice. Far nicer than I was used to. Every piece of furniture was carefully carved and polished, and what I assumed to be Ezra's room when he led me there was no different. But I was surprised. I had thought someone who dressed and acted like him – And who obviously was not poor – would prefer a room with more… flamboyance. Instead, this room was rather simple, dominated by a bed, nicely carved and with a thick mattress and pillows – I was willing to bet they had goose feathers over straw. The sheets were plain white, though I assumed they were soft, and the pillows weren't riddled with embroidery like I thought they would be. There was a pitcher of water on a nightstand, a bed pan in the far corner, and a hearth, just opposite the window and the bed.
That was it. No fancy decorations, no waiting call girl, nothing unnecessary.
"Why are you here?" I snapped my attention to the man, startled to find him leaning against the fireplace with his arms folded across his chest instead of standing in front of me, like he last was. He was speaking in that tone that was too lazy to be casual, too full of a humming drawl to be disregarded. I closed the door behind me, sat at the very edge of the bed, and took in a quiet breath. When I finally looked up to meet Ezra's hazel eyes, it hadn't seemed like the man blinked. It was unnerving, especially with the way his lips twitched. I couldn't tell if it was a frown or a smirk. "I'm looking for Prince Seregil." He remained quiet, jewelry reflecting the fire light, and tilted his head lightly back against the hearth. "And why, young one, did you seek me out if you were searching for him?"
I felt it was in my best interest not to inquire about his informality in regards to the prince.
He had moved forward when I failed to respond, filament and quiet and full of grace that would have put the fire dancers to shame, and tilted up my chin with his thumb. His index finger was digging harshly into my bottom lip, and I found it difficult to focus on the current nerve-wrecking situation when the smell of him was doing everything in its power to make me calm down. Those were long and excruciating moments as he was lightly dragging his nail back and forth, back and forth across my bottom lip with an impassive face while I felt like I could collapse at any moment. Would collapse at any moment, and that became truth as I stared up into his face, feeling the heat of another body so near, but feeling emotions drift further and further away. Terrible, terrible moments. The unseen eye became an anchor. The one which I could see was blank; too inhuman, too human, too everything positive and negative and, as his hand drifted to cradle the side of my neck like a priest held a child he was about to kill – Carefully, coldly -; I reached out to touch it. I reached out to touch the unseen eye.
Just like that. The man stepped back as if nothing happen just like that, and I was out of his reach and he was out of mine. He did not look as if anything had happened. I felt shaken, and I wanted to be violent, but more than that, I wanted to flee.
His lips quirked. I knew it was a smirk.
"You will meet the prince."
Suddenly, I did not want to meet the prince.
Special thanks to LizhiAnne and your avenging angel for their reviews. Thanks you guys. (: