When Arty is sent to a neighbouring country to 'become a man', the last thing he expects is to fall in love.
"I honestly don't see why this is necessary, brother," Arty said, clasping his hands tightly behind his back so he wouldn't fiddle with his fingers. His brother hated that habit of his. He wanted Arty to be a mirror image of himself, but Arty was firmly of the belief that this world could only cope with one Golden High Prince, and that was not Arty. Arty was more of a scholarly type, preferring to study the latest anthropological text from Van Heeran, than parade and peacock in front of the fawning masses.
Arty's brother Leonis was golden though – hair, eyes, skin; he was even sheathed in bright golden armour at the moment, a long golden cape shimmering down his back. When the sun from the glass windows of the throne room hit him just right, it was like looking at the noon sun on a hot, bright day. Maybe that was the point. Leonis knew Arty wasn't going to like this, so had dressed to cow Arty into submission by his brilliance.
But probably not.
Arty still remembered the days when Leonis ate mud cakes and made faces at the other courtiers behind their backs. A little bit of golden armour was hardly going to impress him.
"You need to get out of this hole you've put yourself in, Artemisios," Leonis said, turning his golden gaze upon his younger brother. Yes, those days of mud cakes had never seemed further away. Arty hated his full name. Made him sound way too prim and proper – it was much more suited to someone of Leonis' bearing. "You gave your word that you would do this years ago, yet you are to be married in a month and are barely a man."
This made Arty snap upright – no one doubted his manhood.
"I am twenty-two, brother!" he protested. "Many people would call that passed the age of manhood!"
Leonis' eyebrows raised slowly in a way that made Arty want to shrink.
"You barely know how to use a sword. Books and quills cannot defend you, brother."
Arty raised his chin stubbornly.
"I know enough about swords – you stick things with the pointy end. And that's all I wish to know about them too."
Leonis also had a great golden sword strapped to his side, which he now rested one hand on. Arty didn't need to be reminded of his older brother's prowess with the sword. Indeed, all his older brothers were extraordinary swordsmen. Then came Arty, seventh son, who had so far managed to get away with the handful of lessons he had taken as a child before he retreated to the library.
Obviously, that was not to go unnoticed any longer.
"You shall leave tomorrow," Leonis declared. "I have arranged a convoy to take you to Fienlend's capital of Aurus, where the master swordsman there has agreed to take you on as a student."
"Please tell me you're joking," Arty said pitifully, collapsing into a gilded chair. The pillow was plush velvet, stuffed with the finest goose feathers, and his bottom sunk into it.
On the bright side, Fienlend was the closest country to his home city, so his bottom wouldn't be too rubbed raw by the end of the long horse ride. He actually had never spend much time in Aurus anyway – only for the crowning of their Queen a few years back – and had always wanted to visit again. The city was architecturally brilliant – he'd seen many maps of it; of their vast, intricate underground tunnels as well the twisting streets that partly mirrored it.
But he wouldn't be exploring the city. He'd be getting his backside whipped into shape by their world-renown master swordsman.
"I would not joke about finally getting you to become a man, younger brother." Of course, because a scholarly life was looked down upon by the legendary warriors of Thieron. Everything was about fighting and whose sword was bigger. "You should make your goodbyes to your pretty bride today, as you will be leaving before dawn tomorrow. When you next see her, she will be all in white and you, little brother, shall be a man."
"And I guess I have no say in this?" Arty said, one final effort of defiance.
"Of course you don't," he informed with that golden charm. "I'm glad you've finally realised that. The entire realm looks up to our family, Artemisios, and I need each one of us to be as strong as we can be. Even the little seventh son."
"I can't wait," Arty deadpanned, frowning slightly at Leonis' condescension. And because Arty was annoyed and feeling like the petulant child Leonis obviously thought he was, he left the throne room without a word.
Against what Leonis had thought, his 'pretty bride' did rise before the sun to farewell him. That's what best friends did, after all. However, Katalina, daughter of the Duke of Trimeister, did not look overly pretty in her rumpled nightgown with a thick coat pulled over the top, hair in a disarray and face still with pillow marks on it.
She was hugging him tightly.
"You must write to me, okay?" she said. "You must tell me of all the horrible things their swordmaster makes you do. It will make my day that much brighter to hear about it."
Arty pulled away, making a face at her even though his eyes were still warm.
"You're a little witch, you know that?" he said. "You have absolutely no pity for the torture I'm about to be put through." He held out his thin hands, stained with ink both old and new. "These hands are not meant to hold a sword!"
Katalina burst out laughing.
"Oh your poor, feminine hands! They're better suited to sewing than wielding a big, evil sword."
"Kat, you are no comfort at all."
"Time to be mounting up, your highness," said the groom, who had brought forth Arty's big bay mare without him noticing. His packs were already strapped tightly to the saddle, much more efficiently than anything he would've done. Feminine hands, indeed.
Arty gave Katalina one last hug.
"When we see each other next, we will be getting married," Arty whispered. He didn't want to speak of it – it was almost a taboo subject between them – but he couldn't help but blurt that out. He wasn't sure, but Katalina may have stiffened slightly in his arms. He'd surely lost all lightness.
Katalina was his closest friend in the entire world yet for the life of him, he couldn't see her that way. The way that poets and romantic novelists went on and on for pages about, that burning sensation in your stomach, your heart, that made you need a woman. Katalina didn't make him burn, but he did love her. As a friend. He guessed that he was lucky, though. His marriage might be arranged, but at least he got along well with his bride. Many arranged marriages bred hate and loathing – he couldn't see that happening with Katalina and he.
"Indeed," Katalina murmured, giving him one last squeeze before retreating.
"Your highness," the groom reminded him, a worried note in his voice. The rest of the convoy were already seated atop their mounts. Arty gave one last smile to his best friend, before turning and awkwardly mounting his horse. How Leonis and his five other brothers managed to get all the grace of the family, he'd never know.
"Remember to write!" came Katalina's final words, floating in the wind to his ears as the convoy rode off. He gave a wave of acknowledgment and then they had turned the corner. Katalina was gone from sight.
They arrived at the city of Aurus only a week after they'd left. Arty's bottom and thighs were aching – spending days resting his delicate rear on the plush cushions in the library did not prepare him for this. But he forgot all about his aching backside when they entered the city. It was so much more marvellous in real life than the two dimensional drawings in his books. Leonis was right about something then – maybe parts of the world really were better seeing them in real life, rather than in books.
The city was spread out over a plain, with a jagged hill at its epicentre – the royal palace was situated on top, of course. One of the marvels of Aurus, Arty had read, was that this hill was entirely man-made. It looked completely unnatural on the flat plain that stretched for days, and so showed off their might and power. The city itself was a winding, seemingly unorganised mess, but Arty had seen maps of the roads. The roads were purposefully windy, turning back on themselves and getting narrower and wider in random places, as this would slow down invaders. Not really needed in this time of peace, but Arty could see the merits in wartime. The flat roofs of the houses, also, were made like that so archers could hide atop them and fire down at the enemy.
Once again, not overly needed since there hadn't been any fighting since the Prince's War two hundred years ago.
The horses clattered on the clean, cobblestone roads as they navigated the twisting roads. The people of Aurus were going about their day and skilfully avoided the convoy, barely sparing them a glance. The people of Aurus weren't that different to Arty's own. The two countries were so close that they even spoke the same language. However, Thieron was a mountainous country, and Arty's home city was of a much cooler climate. As they'd descended onto the plains of Fienlend, he'd been shedding layers until he was just in a thin shirt and pants, more closely resembling the people of Aurus' own billowing, light-weight clothing. The sun was high in the sky at the moment and the heat was bearing down. That was probably another reason for the flat roofed houses – so in the height of summer, they could find relief from the hot nights by sleeping on their roofs.
Arty didn't want to think about all the insects outside that would make a feast of his body while he slept. Sometimes being so well read wasn't a good thing. He knew all about the blood-sucking insects and the ones that crawled up one's nose and made a home inside one's body.
He was so engrossed in his surroundings that he jolted when he realised they were already in the palace's courtyard. Twisting around in the saddle, his breath caught at the view of the city sprawled out before him and the long plains Fienlend was famous for. The heat made the air quaver, distorting his view of all the flat-topped houses and busy people running around like ants.
"Welcome, your highness!"
Arty turned back around and noticed the welcoming party. The man who had spoken was the Heir Apparent, Crown Prince Julienne de Morteau – Arty had seen his likeness in many books and even some of the broadsheets from Fienlend.
Arty pasted a bright smile on his face and swung off his horse, grimacing into his horse's shoulder at his protesting muscles before composing his face once again.
They went through the many formalities, greeting each other with the proper formal words and religious rites. The greeting party was only the beginning though – the entire afternoon and evening would be spent in stifling formalities. Arty could barely contain his excitement.
The first day of learning how to be a man was horrible, of course. They didn't even give me any recovery time! The swordsmaster bears a strangely similar disposition to my favourite brother, Leonis – both believe that the only way to become a man is to know how to wave a pointy object around and vaguely look like you know what you are doing. My handful of lessons as a child were no help at all. Luckily we were in an enclosed room, so my humiliation wasn't on display for everyone. How is the city since I have left? Finding entertaining things to do now that you can't bother me the whole time? Anyway, I write this to you looking out over Aurus as the sun sets – it is truly an amazing sight. I know I should probably rest now, since my muscles are already paining me, but I just can't help but want to explore the city. I don't know when I'll get another time to do it. You should have seen my face when the prince told me what my timetable looked like for the month – sword lessons, the entire time.
Hope this letter finds you well,
Once the sun went down, the city cooled down considerably. Arty could get away with wearing a thin cloak to shadow his face without dying from overheating. He slipped out of the palace surprisingly easily, blending in with the other servants leaving the palace to trail down the hill to the rest of the sprawling city.
Arty watched in amazement as people peeled off to descend down tunnels on the side of the streets – these must be the underground tunnels that spread out like a web beneath the city. This all felt so surreal to Arty – he'd always preferred libraries and books to the outside world, but the lure of the city and the different culture had been irresistible. In the palace, he'd been tired and sore from his day with the swordsmaster but all that seemed to melt away under the warm glow of the city lights. Now it felt like his curiosity was insatiable.
He hesitated only a moment before throwing care to the wind and following the stream of people that were heading down into the underground tunnels. The air grew damper as the stairs finished and the space opened up into a large tunnel going both ways, people milling around. Arty stood on the bottom step, staring around himself in amazement, until a person bumped into him from behind and sent him stumbling into the tunnel. From there he was caught up in the crowd and swept away in the tide, stumbling along and trying to stay on two feet as the crowd surged around him.
Finally, he got his feet under him and could stare in wonder around him. There were tiles all around the walls, detailing various scenes of Aurus' history. Lanterns lit the way, every few metres, so nothing was unlit. The names of the streets were written above each of the openings, but Arty still had no idea where he was. He chose a stairway at random and raced up it before he got swept away again. Luckily, it was pretty much impossible to not find the royal palace – it was up on an enormous hill, like a pedestal.
The weariness was beginning to weigh on him again, so he found the closest bar and hesitantly let himself in. He'd only ever been in a few drinking holes, whenever he could slink under Leonis' watchful eye, but this one seemed exactly the same as the others: a bar set up along the far wall with the barmaid behind it and tables and chairs filling most of the rest of the place. Arty gratefully sunk into a chair in the corner, so he had the perfect view of the rest of the room. He sat back, ordered the speciality beer, and surveyed the room. People watching had always been a favourite pastime of his. Unlike his brothers, he preferred to stay in the shadows, observing, rather than being in the golden spotlight.
He could read all about human behaviour but that was no comparison to seeing it play out in the flesh.
At the bar sat an old cobbler, shoulders hunched over and ears pierced with numerous rings. His calloused hands were clutched around a pint and the tools of his trade were shoved into his wearying belt. He was in the middle of telling the barmaid his life story.
On the stage in the corner, a minstrel was playing his repertoire, guitar placed gently in his lap as he strummed it. A few people were watching him and throwing coins into his upturned hat on the edge of the stage. Most, however, were gathered around the tables, engrossed in their own conversations and their own lives.
Arty could feel himself relaxing, tension draining out of him, when the door opened and a hooded figure entered. Arty was immediately drawn to her, for it was a her – the cloak only really shadowed her face, not the rest of her dress covered body. The dress was of a poor quality, something that a servant in a rich household would wear, but the cloak was made of fine, black velvet and lined with a thin strip of ermine. The juxtaposition definitely caught Arty's attention.
Her walk was also undeniably feminine, exuding elegance with every move. She stepped lightly but moved as gracefully as a panther.
The woman leaned across the bar, close to the drunken cobbler, and spoke lowly to the barmaid. The barmaid seemed to recognise her, smiling and immediately going about pouring her a drink. The hooded woman dropped a gold coin into the barmaid's palm and took her drink to one of the tables closest to the minstrel. With a whispered word to the minstrel, he started up another song. This one was about the Sun God's journey across the sky, detailing the deal he struck up with the Moon Goddess thousands of years ago.
Arty had never heard of this version of it before, and so was listening intently. The hooded woman seemed to know it, her head bobbing along softly to the strumming of the guitar. The music was lovely – the minstrel had a very pure voice – but Arty's eyes were helplessly drawn back to the woman. The fine hood still covered her face, but his eyes still traced over the elegant arch of her folded hands on her lap and the soft way her body swayed to the music.
All too soon, the ballad was over and the woman was standing up and walking fluidly to the door. Arty watched her go, observing and staying in the shadows, like he always did.
Dearest Artemisios (because I know how much you adore your full name),
I do wish that I could see this swordsmaster whipping you into shape. It would truly make my day! I will have to settle for living vicariously through your letters instead. How is the city? The same as per usual, of course. No disasters, now that you have left, except maybe some old tomes have been gathering dust. How tragic! I wish that you were still around, to drag me away from all these boring wedding duties. I cannot get away from them! What dress do I want, do I want lace on it, do I want ermine lining, but the marquess had a plunging neckline, do you want to copy her? Their nagging is endless, Arty! I honestly just want you to get back here and find the nearest priest to marry us, with no fuss. I want this wedding over and done with!
In your absence, I have found myself frequenting the stables more and more. When I can get away from the wedding planners, that is! I have found the scenery there… very pleasing. The horses are all very fine and I've even taken over riding your gelding, Yuri – with help, of course. I can hardly call him 'yours' though, since you've ridden him, what, three times? I have already ridden him more than that! Well, I'll take him off you when you're my husband. That's something to look forward too!
I hope you're not cooped up with all your books in your spare time, Arty. You're in a new city – explore it! Put yourself out there and taste everything Aurus has to offer! Who knows when you will be able to go back? Don't disappoint me, Arty, I expect you to have at least a few adventures!
Love always to my future husband,
For the next week, Arty escaped down to the White Oak bar whenever he was able. Some nights, he was required to attend court events where, more often than not, he'd find a quiet corner to read a book and fall asleep in. He was fairly sure he was earning names like 'the Sleepy Prince', but he was more focused on seeing the mysterious hooded woman. Sometimes she wouldn't be there but more often than not, she was there. Arty always took his same table and the barmaid began to recognise him and pour him his beer before he even asked.
As much as he didn't want to admit it, he had improved slightly with his sword skills. He didn't notice any difference in his manliness, though. The only difference was that every day, he was feeling less and less sore when he fell exhausted into bed. His late nights at the White Oak weren't helping any, but he couldn't stop himself.
The hooded woman didn't always request the Sun God and Moon Goddess ballad, but that seemed to be her favourite. She seemed to favour the ballads about religion though, not interested in the ones that detailed the great deeds of King such and such or Prince so and so.
And so, it took Arty a week to muster up the courage to take his beer and approach the table right next to the stage, her table, instead of the one in the shadows. The hooded woman swept in as usual and picked up her drink from the bar. When she turned towards the tables, she paused for only a second before starting off towards him. She settled herself down in the chair next to him, cloak billowing around her in graceful folds. Even this close to her, her head was tilted in a particular way that he couldn't make out any of her features. His throat was dry and he could hear his heart thumping in his ears.
"So it's taken you, what, a week to approach me?" came her amused voice, sliding over his ears like a rich honey. His cheeks coloured.
"Better late than never," he blurted out. He was so smooth. He wished fervently that he'd been born with the gilt tongue his brother the High Prince had. Life would be so much easier, that way. Books never required him to speak with golden charm, which is why he preferred them to the frivolity of noble parties. "So, you like, ballads?"
Oh gods, he'd have to ask the swordsmaster to run him through tomorrow, to save him from further embarrassment. If only there was a sword handy now – why hadn't he taken his teacher's advice and carried one around with him at all times?
Her laugh was sudden and sounded as if it were startled out of her – and was that a snort he'd just heard? She muffled her laugh before he could confirm whether or not she did just snort when she laughed.
"I do indeed like ballads, how astute of you to notice," she replied, humour still lighting her tone. Gods, what was it about this woman that enthralled him so?
"Well, I've only been watching you for a week," Arty said. Then went even redder when he realised how much of a stalker he sounded. He wouldn't be surprised if she called the City Guard on him right then.
But she didn't.
She leaned forward in interest, and Arty imagined that she was smiling.
"I've noticed," she said. "I've been wondering when you'd get up the courage to approach."
"I prefer watching from the shadows," Arty replied.
"Ooh, a mysterious man," she said, faintly mockingly. Arty smiled.
"Not quite – I just prefer to watch from the sidelines. Gives a different perspective to everything. You wouldn't believe the things you see from the shadows that you'd miss in the spotlight."
The hooded woman's head tilted to the side.
"I believe that to be true as well. But what have you noticed, sitting in that corner by yourself for this past week?"
Arty's smile grew and he relaxed back into his chair slightly. She was testing him and he readily had the answer.
"I've seen that cobbler in here every day this week, deep in his drink. He's been having troubles at home, trying to spend as little time there as possible. I think he lost a child, a daughter, judging from the tiny pink dress you can see poking out of his pocket."
"How astute," she drawled, not even looking at the cobbler who was at his usual place at the bar.
"And that woman, over there," he said, nodding his head at a woman a few years older than him who had just walked in and was looking around the room with a wide smile on her face. She was playing with a chipped nickel, dancing it around the fingers of one dainty hand. "She's been here several times. She hustles men out of their money, goading them into games of King's Hook and stealing all their money. I'd say she escaped the life of a brothel and has absolutely no interest in pleasuring men that way ever again." The smile that the woman shot the barmaid was very bright.
"I'm impressed," the hooded woman said. Arty wished so badly he could see her face that it hurt like a physical pain in his chest. He'd never known wanting like this before. The more he thought about it, the more he realised that he hadn't wanted to spend time with anyone in a long time – until this mysterious woman had come along and ensnared his attention. He'd always been a lonesome boy. He'd probably have no friends, if it weren't for Katalina. But as much as he loved her, he hadn't want to spend time with her recently, no matter how horrible that thought made him feel. She was still his best friend, of course, but he was supposed to marry her, for gods' sake, in less than a month's time on her birthday! The thought that he was supposed to sleep with her, as a husband and wife do, made him feel ill, as if he were thinking of his sister. Katalina was his sister to him, in everything but blood. Their parents had thought that forcing them together since they were little would make them fall in love, but it had just made them great friends.
He felt so selfish complaining though – at least he didn't revile his wife-to-be. At least he knew her, unlike so many other arranged marriages.
"I'm glad," he replied to her, smiling with, admittedly, a little bit of pride.
"And what about me?"
Arty's smile faded somewhat before returning.
"If you took off your hood, I would know a lot more."
He had to give it a go.
"Well in that case, all that I really know is that you're someone of status, judging by your clothing, and that you enjoy listening to religious ballads, at this bar in particular."
"You're not bad, are you, Prince Artemisios? For the Sleepy Prince, you do pick up a lot."
He sucked in a startled breath. People wouldn't have been able to recognise his face in his own city, let alone in this foreign one. This just reinforced his idea that she was someone of status – he may have even met her already, or passed by her.
"I haven't already met you, by any chance, have I?" he said with his most disarming grin. Which, admittedly, needed a lot of touching up.
The woman tensed and made a move to stand up.
"I didn't realise the time, it would seem that I must leav—"
He reached out a hand and placed it on her arm, gently, so he didn't scare her off anymore than he already had. He felt as if he was dealing with a fragile butterfly – one wrong move, and she would fly out of his reach.
The glinting of the nickel caught his eye as it twisted and winded between delicate fingers.
"Do you know how to play King's Hook?" he blurted out, the first thing he could think of, anything that would make her stay.
She paused, and to Arty's immense relief, settled back down in her chair. Crisis averted – he knew not to mention her true identity again.
"Passably," she said cautiously.
He arched an eyebrow.
"Are you sure you're not just saying that to hustle me like that woman over there?" Because he wasn't exactly amazing at it.
He liked to think she was smiling at him – he could certainly hear it in her voice.
"I assure you, I won't try and hustle you."
King's Hook was extremely popular in Fienlend, or at least Aurus, as far as Arty could tell. Each table in this bar had the cups and die that were needed in the game. It was fairly easy to learn how to play – the die were divided between the players, you shook them all together in the cup, looked at them, and guessed how many of a particular number there are beneath everyone else's cups. And then the next player would guess, but could only raise the stakes each time until someone called their bluff. It was a betting game too. Once you understood the rules of the game, it was another thing entirely to become a master of it.
And a master of it, Arty was not.
But the hooded woman apparently was. By the end of their tenth game, Arty had lost all the gold he taken with him. The smugness was fairly radiating from his companion.
"Well aren't you glad you stayed," Arty declared, leaning back in his chair. "I think I've just about bought you a new horse, one of fine blood too!"
"It still amazes me that you carry this amount of money around with you. Aren't you afraid of being mugged and it getting stolen?"
"What about of some lady hustling me out of it?" he joked. Honestly though, he had pretty horrible street smarts. Katalina liked to laugh at him about it all the time. "But a robber would be foolhardy to try and steal from me – especially not since I'm such a master of the sword!"
This startled another laugh out of the lady, at his expense, but he'd take what he could get. And that was when he heard it – a snort. She tried to cover it up, going dead still, but Arty knew what he'd heard this time.
"I knew it! You do snort when you laugh!" he proclaimed gleefully.
Her hands rose to her face, probably to press against embarrassed cheeks.
"Oh it is such a horrible habit, so unladylike, I know—"
Arty leaned forward, staring into the darkness of her hood where he thought her eyes would be
"Don't be embarrassed, I thought it was a lovely sound," he said softly, trying to convey his seriousness.
"Oh don't be ridiculous," she said, although with a slight catch in her throat. When her hands lowered, he took one in his, and marvelled at their delicateness. Although was that a callous or two he felt?
"I'm not, it was the cutest thing I've heard all day. I loved it."
They were both still for a moment, the warmth from her hand clasped in his making him heat all over. It was intensely strange, for him, to find this woman so beautiful yet to not have seen her face. He had been taught to acknowledge beauty by sight – Katalina was beautiful, and so was Leonis – but this was different. This was all his other senses, his very gut, telling him that this woman before him was gorgeous.
Something of his captivation must have shown upon his face, because suddenly she was pulling away from him.
"I really must go this time," she said in a hurry, her hands fluttering around as she pushed the chair in and tidied the mess left over from their King's Hook games. He wasn't going to try and stop her this time, but he stood up with her nonetheless.
"Will you be bac—"
"Lovely to meet you, Artemisios, but I must be gone!"
And then she was. Gone in a flutter of black velvet as she flew out the door. Arty didn't even get time to correct her about his name.
I find myself liking this city more and more each day. But don't fear, I will always return to you and my homeland! I polished off my King's Hook skills, the other night and let me tell you, they were very rusty! Had all my gold taken off me, actually, but I think I may have improved! I actually thought I did very well to make it to ten games before admitting defeat, especially since the last time I played was with you when we were younger, under the Grand Dining Room table! Maybe I will challenge you to a game, when I get back. It could be the only thing I've improved from! I wonder if Leonis will be impressed and think me a man if I can beat him at King's Hook?
Try not to worry yourself over the details of the wedding – I would happily snatch up the nearest priest to marry us! I'm glad you've found some enjoyment while I am gone – even if it is with that devil of a horse, Yuri. I will gladly give him to you as a wedding present! I've always found the stables a boring and dreary place, filled with bad smells and men with arms thicker than my head, so I'm not quite sure what this 'pleasant scenery' that you're referring to is. Maybe you can show me, once I'm back.
Missing my best fried,
The hooded woman wasn't there the next night. Or the one after. So it came as a surprise, just as Arty was about to give up hope, when she swept through the doorway. Her table had become his, over the past few nights.
"Prince Artemisios, what a surprise to see you here," she said dryly as she settled herself in to her chair, taking a small sip of her drink before placing it down. She seemed relaxed, tilting her head to take in the view of the minstrel as he crooned out a love ballad about the affair of a mortal and the Water Goddess.
"I prefer Arty," he corrected her. "My first name is such a pain."
"Arty," she said softly, and he liked the way her soft voice curled around the edges of it. "It suits you more."
He beamed, then gestured at the cups and die arranged in front of them.
"Would you care to steal my money once more?"
Arty couldn't remember having more fun in his entire life. His hooded companion was witty, good-tempered, and seemed to be enjoying his company as much as he was enjoying hers. Her quick mind had a comeback to everything, so conversation flowed swiftly between the two, no awkward pauses in sight. By the end of the night, two others had joined in their game, one of which Arty was actually better than. It was nice that, for once, it wasn't just his money getting stolen.
And for the next two weeks, nights at the White Oak became the highlight of his life. He'd never laughed harder in his life or felt like he was walking on clouds with the gods. The sword lessons became a blur in his mind, although he did slowly improve, but the hours with his hooded companion were crystalline in his mind. Every comeback, every snorted laugh – he wanted to remember it all. Was it possible to fall in love with someone in three weeks? Arty had no idea. He didn't really have much experience with love, other than the platonic feelings he had for Katalina. Maybe it was just a passing fantasy… but Arty didn't think so. Deep down, he knew he shouldn't be having feelings this strong for another woman when he was about to be married. And he had to marry Katalina, she was depending on him. If they didn't marry, she wouldn't receive her inheritance and would be stuck living off her father's kindness before he sold her like cattle to the next bidder. Arty had heard about that happening many times, spoken of in whispers by the servants, and he dreaded that happening to Katalina.
But he was selfish and having the time of his life, so every night that he was able, he slipped away to the White Oak.
Those were golden nights, all but one where he made the mistake of being too curious about her identity again. They'd chatted all night and played King's Hook, as per usual, but when she left, Arty followed. He only had two more nights in Aurus and he needed to know who she was before he left. Against his will, it consumed him.
He pulled his hood over his face and kept a good way behind her, only just keeping her in sight. She almost blended in with the night, but the velvet of her cloak was just a touch to dark for the grey and navy night around her.
Just as he had expected, they were heading towards the wealthier part of town, the roads steadily growing less worn and cracked as the clumped houses turned into huge mansions and even some properties. She made a turn to the left and Arty followed her, then stopped in confusion when he saw no one else down the road. He made to turn around but suddenly a sharp knife was at his throat, the warmth from a body searing into his back. A dainty hand gripped onto his shoulder tightly.
"Why are you following me?" she hissed in his ear, her voice filled with anger. He tried to stay as still as possible, but his throat still caught on her blade when he drew in a deep breath. He could feel a trickle of warm blood spill down his chest.
"Is it so wrong to be curious about you?" he asked. Her hand that carried the blade was beginning to tremble, though the other one just dug deeper into his shoulder.
"It is wrong to follow a woman to her home in the night!"
"I just wanted to know all about you. I don't even know your name."
"You don't need to know it," she said stiffly, ice coating the edges of her words.
"But I leave in two nights time – you will give me nothing?"
"Why? What would that achieve, Artemisios?" He knew she was annoyed now – she hadn't called him by his dreaded full name since he'd first corrected her. "You leave in two days time to be married. This has just been a nice holiday for you before you're tied down to your bride."
Oh, this arranged marriage was going to kill him.
"That doesn't change the fact that I still want to know you." Testing his luck, he shifted around. When the knife didn't slit his throat, he turned all the way around so he was a hairsbreadth from her. There was no lighting, so her features remained a mystery to him, but he could feel her warm breath fanning his face. He could also feel her trembling. He wished to gather her up in his arms, promise her that she'd never feel alone or scared again, but she probably would slit his throat if he did that.
"You do know me," she said raggedly. "You just don't know my name or what I look like."
"If you don't give me your name," he cajoled softly, "I will be forced to come up with my own name for you, to remember you by. At the moment, I'm thinking Imp."
She laughed her unique laugh, the genuine one with snorts thrown in. He was so close to her; could feel the heat from her body, smell her beautiful lavender scent – was it possible for such a strange laugh to enthral a man?
He couldn't help himself – he leaned in and brushed his lips against hers. And they were everything he'd ever dreamed of. Luscious and soft, like beautiful rose petals, he could feel her breath stuttering out. He stayed where he was, hardly daring to move lest he be skewered by her knife. He yearned to do it again, taste them again, but he knew not to push his luck.
For one, beautiful moment, she leaned into him, her body going soft and supple against his. But then her breath caught and she was gone, bolting down the streets. He wanted to yell after her, call her back, but by the gods, he didn't even know her name.
And so she was gone.
She wasn't at the White Oak the night after that, his last available night. He spent the whole night trying to drown his misery as the barmaid shot him pitying looks.