It had upset Ben that I did not stay on deck to watch the Mirror City come in.
"I told you." He grumbles as a deckhand throws a line over the ruined railings to an immaculately trimmed dock worker. "What does an outfit matter? You missed it."
"Mhm." I rearrange the silken waves of my skirt with a single delicate movement and lean on the railings at his side.
He hasn't even turned. He isn't looking.
I wait. Patiently.
Allowing my eyes to tilt upwards, I take in the glory of the city spread before me. The Mirror City is... everything they said it would be.
I cannot stop the low whistle as it escapes my lips and Ben nods absently. His eyes continue to rove the spotless streets that await us, and I should expect to feel bitter, I should demand his attention. But, frankly, I cannot blame him.
"Where are all the..."
"...Bad bits?" He shrugs. "Never seen anything so perfect in my entire life."
The Mirror City is pristine perfect. Flawless. These are the docks, I think. Docks are meant to be busy, messy, dirty... and yet this place looks as though it has been lifted straight from some child's storybook. The whole city curves away up a gentle slope, and from what I can see nothing knows how to be out of place, nothing knows how to break. This is the largest settlement on the planet, or so they say, and the place is no more than a single, continuous swathe of cream limestone icing.
I could not have imagined a place so beautiful, I could not have imagined a place more perfectly designed for me.
"The dragon scale...?" I breathe, and it becomes the second sentence I do not need to finish.
Ben shrugs as he answers.
"They said it was heaven on earth. They said the dust knew not to fall, that the very seasons treated these streets with a gentle hand, and they said that time itself was loath even to touch the people."
"I could believe all those things..."
"So the streets will be paved in dragon scale, because they said that too; I'd bet my last penny on it."
"They said a lot of things."
"And I'm beginning to believe they knew what they were talking about."
Late sun sweeps across peaceful streets, adding warm caramel to cold stone, and even the shadows seem cool and friendly. It hardly surprises me; they said that in the Mirror City, the rain never falls.
With a clatter, the gangplank falls onto one of the many floating piers of the city's dock. The water sparkles in the sunset, aquamarine and so inviting. Even the pier's wood appears untouched by decay.
"Come on." I slip my fingers into Ben's hand. He hardly seems to notice.
He stoops to draw the saddlebags from the floor and slips them, one handed, over his shoulder. And awed puppy only follows as I guide him to the gang plank, eyes dazed and distant, lost to the city of wonder, even as I must release his hand to allow the whole crew to rush forward and shake it in final farewell.
But "Ben," I prompt as even the captain comes forward to clasp his fist in a firm grip. My words seem to shake him slightly, bringing his attention back enough for Ben to smile and listen.
But not enough to even look at me yet, damn him.
"... cannot even begin to..." the captain is saying, and the tone is so mind numbing, so insipid and grateful and grovelling that I have to leave.
I take my first steps into the Mirror City alone, striding out across the floating piers as if they were made for me because, if ever anything was, it would be this place. The docks rock gently beneath my feet, coasting easily on crystalline water. I smile as a uniformed dock worker pauses briefly to bow before he passes.
Does a place so ideal truly exist? This city treats itself as I treat myself. And it treats me like some kind of queen. Somehow I cannot help but think I have come home.
A low whistle drifts over my shoulders and I make sure to turn smoothly on the rocking boards.
"Curse Viper." Ben breathes with a grin. "You are a siren."
I return the smile.
"Take back what you said before," I say.
"This was worth missing a tiny island on the horizon, Benjamin."
"You do seem to fit in so perfectly," he says, and I do not miss the subtle sweep of his eyes.
"And you still look like a drowned rat."
"This is all I own," he replies, tugging at his salt-stained shirt. "I'll just have to hurry up with selling my magic before they find me and throw me out."
"Did you learn nothing from the journey over here?" I ask, still horrified despite the playful glint in his eye. He is teasing, and by the Gods is that rare, but there is nothing I can do but rise to the bait. "You will do no such thing, you know that. I won't allow it."
"Soothe yourself, siren." His grin spreads, and suddenly I cannot help but admire how the stance he has taken to steady himself on the rocking pier makes him almost too much to bear.
"Besides," he says.
A small breeze lifts from the calm waters, tugging at the fine material of my skirt, wrapping it tight around my legs.
"I'm feeling particularly enamoured toward it today."
And on the word 'enamoured' the breeze that I eventually discover is his breeze, flips upwards in sudden movement. I only just catch my skirt in time.
Ben shoves his hands in his pockets, stilling his wind, and saunters forwards. As he draws level, he offers a casual elbow, cocking the arm without even bothering to remove hand from pocket. I take it with light fingers anyway, unable to resist. With his dirty shirt, cheeky smile, and the saddlebags over a single shoulder once more, I cannot help but picture him as the focus of some maiden's fantasy once again.
"You know, Miss VanCoupé, I do believe you only enjoy these games when you're winning. You make hardly a challenge at all."
"Ben!" I still a giggle with a light finger on my lips.
A giggle? When did Melissa VanCoupé ever giggle?
I school my expression and don the same tone as his.
"Why Mister Sutton, I really must know what it is that has happened to you."
Ben shrugs with his answer, delectable stable boy fantasy once more.
"Happy," he replies.
I run my tongue across my lips, trying to resist the temptation. But I simply cannot. He is simply...
I find myself not quite ready to put into words what it is that he is.
"Tell me how I can keep you that way," I purr, resorting to the familiar, teasing at a shirt button with my fingers.
"Oh Melissa." His eyes twinkle as he smiles; I like that. "Not in the way that you want."
"You always spoil the fun."
"Perhaps, to me, this isn't just fun. Perhaps, to me, this is just a little bit confusing."
The boards of the pier rock as we walk, and I am struck by a sudden wish, that I could be young and carefree again so that I might dive from the creaking planks and into the refreshing blue of the sea. But my fingers tighten reflexively on Ben's forearm and I realise that even if the water came from the font of life itself, I would rather keep this little contact.
"Don't do it." Ben growls, but finishes with a laugh. "I know what you're thinking, Melissa VanCoupé!"
"What? What am I thinking?"
Ben looks at me with raised eyebrow and I shrug, wide-eyed and innocent. His footsteps falter and the suspicion grows on his face. The familiar calls out to save me once again.
"Trust me, soldier, I'm thinking many, many things." I purr, teeth grazing my lips just a little teasingly. "Which were you referring to?"
I decide I do not appreciate the way he is looking at me, big puppy grin plastered across his cheeks. I am used to his discomfort, not all these knowing smiles.
"This," he replies, tossing my hand from the crook of his arm.
He drops the saddle bags and they set the whole pier to rocking. It means I am busy looking at my feet when he wraps his arms around my waist, pulling me up and into his chest. I kick my feet, trying to return them to the floor and escape.
"Ben!" I squeal, pushing my hands against his collar. "What are you doing?"
"Getting you before you get me." He grunts, stepping lightly to the side, and sets me free.
Cold water hits me like a slap to the face.
I surface with a splutter and a scowl.
"Benjamin Sutton how dare you? I would never be so unladylike as to even consider!"
"You know," he grins, "now that I think about it, you've probably got a point. Sorry."
He is not sorry.
Ben steps forward to crouch cockily on the piers edge and looks down at me slowly treading water. He grins.
"Suits you, though, sweet siren," he boasts, leaning forward to run light fingers across my cheekbone and up into my damp hair. "Isn't this where you belong?"
"Belong?" I sneer, holding onto his forearm so that I no longer have to swim. He tenses to hold me up and I shudder delightfully.
"Ben?" I shift slightly, running my fingers up his arm, coiling them in his collar. He smiles. "I think you need to... cool down."
Understanding dawns, and panic flashes instantly into his gaze, but it is already too late; his arrogant little crouch has his centre of balanced tipped too far over the edge and it is just so easy to pull him in beside me with a splash.
He coughs as he surfaces and paddles quickly over to the side, attaching onto the pier with a casual hold.
"You little minx," he curses, shaking his head with a smile.
I smirk and he retaliates, sticking out an easy hand to dunk me under again.
"Ben!" I splutter, wiping saltwater from my eyes. "You used to be a gentleman damn you."
Horror flashes briefly over his features, and though the smile returns almost as quickly, his unease seems to poison the water. I roll my eyes, paddling to his side and hold onto the dock as well.
"What's the matter, Ben?"
He runs his hand through the crystalline water distractedly.
"I think you're the only person I ever met that I don't have to watch myself around."
"That's a good thing, Ben."
"No, it's not. Because I don't; I don't watch myself. And then I start being inappropriate and rude and wrong and..."
"Oh Dragon-kin, Ben!" I clip him around the ear and then paddle closer, softening the reprimand with a head on his shoulder. "Damn that Sinead and all her goddamn rules. You sound like some pet she's spent her entire life trying to train."
"But I'm not losing any sleep over it, am I?"
Ben chuckles, ruffling my hair before he removes himself to drag his sodden body back onto the pier. He dangles his legs over the edge and holds a hand to pull me up alongside. I settle myself, running my feet slowly through the water, and gaze out to sea.
Both Ben and I look up at the sound of running feet. At first I am confused to see one of the sailors from our ship, but then I recognise the form of his address and remember that the whole crew had taken to calling Ben by the ridiculous old title.
"Yes?" He asks, swiping his wet locks from his eyes, and furrows his brow.
Oh I want him. Forever.
"We saw the lady go in," the deckhand pants, eyes darting briefly in my direction. I give the boy a sickly smile, oddly jealous, and his eyes return to the comfort of Ben's questioning look. "And then nobody came out for a while. Are you alright? We were... concerned. But Jingo said there's no way you'd drown."
Ben's eyes crinkle as he replies; polite puppy, well trained. Suddenly, I hate it.
"We're fine," he says, "sorry if we worried you."
"No, no. It's just..." Sailor boy runs a hand through his hair, gazing worriedly across the city. "Do you have anywhere to stay?" He asks suddenly.
"Not yet." Ben continues to smile politely. "We were thinking of sightseeing and stopping wherever we found ourselves."
"No!" The deckhand squeaks, and then composes himself. "You need to find somewhere to stay first, Master Sutton."
"Is it really that important?" Ben asks, tossing me a confused glance. I shrug; how am I supposed to understand the squeaky little cabin boy. Eventually he will harden into a real man, this boyish concern is just a phase.
"Yes. Yes it is." The deckhand nods emphatically with his words. "Please promise me, Master sir. Promise."
"Master sir?" I sneer.
Ben's hand goes straight to my wrist, tightening a warning. I narrow my eyes, and try desperately to pretend I want him to let go.
"We promise," he says. And that one little word, 'we', does more to soothe my scorn than anything ever did.
The cabin boy sighs his relief, eyes flicking fearfully to me one final time before he nods a farewell, to Ben only, and dashes back to deck.
"Come on." Ben pulls himself to standing, and then lifts me up as well. "We've got a promise to keep."
"We're not really going to listen to that little..."
"I keep my promises, Melissa."
I do too. I would be at home right now if I didn't.
And then I would have missed out on Ben, and on this glorious city, which already looks as though it were built for me.
With that reminder, I look down at my sodden clothing.
"Oh I hate you. I wanted to look nice, Ben. What force was it in you that made you have to ruin it?"
When I look up, Ben's face is oddly pensive. His eyes flick across my drenched dress, the light material clinging uncomfortably and, more importantly, unflatteringly to my chilled skin.
"I like it," he says, "I like you... when you're not so perfect. You're always so perfect, all the time. I like it better this way."
"Well I hate you," I say, but cannot help running my hands gleefully around my waist.
"Mhm," Ben replies absentmindedly. He wrings his dripping shirt out dejectedly, and sighs, waving a hand loosely through the air before of him. In a second his drenched form is bone dry and a globe of water hovers precariously over the boards.
"Me next," I demand, holding out my arms.
Ben raises an eyebrow.
"You're rude," he says.
"Like you've only just noticed. Pushing me in the water was rude. I want to be dry."
Ben waves that hand again and his floating puddle hits me square in the face.
I shake the water from my fingers and sluice the excess from my face.
"Dry me you horrible boy."
"Give me one reason why."
"Because if I catch a cold, I'm going to break your fingers."
"You make a good point."
He laughs, and I am flooded by the scent of lilies. My body flushes instantly cold with the sensation of lifting water. He cannot remove the salt, and the dress is probably destroyed, but at least he tried.
Ben's heels click dully on the planks as we make our way from the floating piers and despite the lure of pristine streets and lush wall plants, starkly green against the cream, I find myself a little disappointed to be stepping onto firm ground and away from the water.
A dockworker hurries forwards as soon as we step foot on solid ground and asks for our names. He truly is dressed immaculately and he repeats the command to find a bed for the night. I find my mind drifting back to my previous experience of dockworkers; big, heavy men with crude manners and cruder countenance. This delicate young creature is more obsessively conscientious than any male should be, and even the muscled heavies that busy themselves behind him are well dressed and spotlessly clean.
Heaven, I think. This place is heaven.
"He says there's an inn just up the hill, come on, he was quite insistent we make it before dark. I'm starting to think this place might have a curfew."
At first I have my doubts about the place we are being directed to. This city must have plenty of inns and taverns; dockside establishments have reputations, dangerous reputations, and I find myself unwilling to consider staying in a place so unfriendly, even for a single night.
But, of course, this is the Mirror City, and everything is beautiful.
The inn has been built in a square, and so we must walk beneath a second story bedroom, suspended bridge-like across the gate. It opens into a central courtyard, not large, and I find...
Whilst every wall is crooked, bulging, and water trickles down over the edge of the gallery above, coating the lower story in fresh green moss, I cannot help but think how perfect it is. Over, and over, and over.
Ben has leant forward, is reading a tiny plaque; this place's entire history has been nailed to the wall, and such an impressive one it is at that. It has housed emperors, and dragons, and kings, and queens. Ben whistles as he realises entire navy armadas have been sent to war from this self same balcony.
As I am still trying to take it all in, a small side door creaks open, and a woman with a face as pinched as a stork steps out, running her hands through a chequered tea towel. Every aspect of her countenance screams 'housekeeper.'
"You know, I can't make a living off gawks and stares," she says.
Ben jumps instantly to attention, but there is something about the tone that riles me. I have never been good with false authority or pettiness, but her attitude is worsened by the fact that, until now, nothing about this city had been anything less than idyllic, and I feel as though she is breaking some kind of sanctity.
"We need rooms," I announce, equally as haughtily, "for a week, preferably, but maybe longer."
The housekeeper looks between Ben and I, and then seems to accept my authority.
"That'll be eighty Scales, love. Each, mind you."
Ben sorts through the saddlebags until he comes up with our money. For a second he does nothing but stare at it quizzically, and then hands it slowly over. It takes me less than a second to realise neither of us knows how much we have, or how much each coin is worth.
I lift a glittering green disk and run it through my fingers. The housekeeper sighs impatiently.
"If you've got a gold, love, that's 25. Blues are 10, greens are 5 and reds are one. If you've got anything else, we can come to an agreement, people don't like everything to be too standardised here."
"Silvers and purples are rare; we can put something higher to it, but I doubt you've got any."
"Are they... real scales?" Ben asks, catching on a little before I can.
"Of course they are; that's what they're called aren't they?"
"So one blue scale is worth ten scales...? Is it me or does that not make sense?"
"One blue scale is worth two green scales is worth ten red scales, son. Just like math."
I'm not quite willing to be spoken to like a child anymore, and I roll my eyes as though I knew. But, then, there is every possibility that I cannot contain my excitement as I look at the glittering disks in this new light.
In the end, we have a grand total of ninety two Scales. Not enough. I hand the money over with a little concern.
"Can we not just share a room?" I ask, "just for one night? Ben can sleep on the floor, he won't be any hassle."
The old hag is already shaking her head.
"I got to pay for the rooms, love, and I got to clean, and I got to put out towels and food in the mornings. And I'm paying for your temporary permit too, love. They don't come cheap. If I got one for him too, there'd be nothing left for me."
Ben looks from her to me, concern etched across his face.
"You promised," he reminds me.
"I don't care how nice this place seems, Ben, it's dangerous to sleep on the streets."
"I'll get work tomorrow," he says, "it's just one morning."
I wonder if it means something that he says he will look for employment, rather than continuing to claim use of the money from selling his magic.
"I'm not sure..."
"It's fine," he assures, "I'll be back first thing in the morning."
Before I can reply, Ben is leaving, taking all the guilt and the indecision with him. I hang, strangely lost, in the perfection of the courtyard, and I still haven't moved when he reaches the gate. He looks so small and helpless as he waves a cheery goodbye. He has left the saddlebags with me, and he is once again a lone boy with nothing more than the shirt on his back.
"I'll see you tomorrow!" He smiles.
I lift my hand to wave back.
"See you tomorrow." I say, and truly believe it... until something in the housekeeper's dry tone adds pause to my thought.
"No," she says, "you won't."
And she is undeniably right. I don't.