“Have you ever been to Angêl, Aaron?” Saerlith inquired.
Aaron peered through the clouds of dust kicked up by a passing cart. A bright blue spire rose behind the city walls in the distance.
“I’ve been near it,” he answered, “but I tend to avoid actually being in cities.”
“Weird”, Saerlith replied with a frown. “It’s far easier to become a nobody in a huge crowd.” She smirked at the air before her as she heard Aaron mutter under his breath, scowling at her from the corner of his eye.
“I should take you to see the Blue Spire then, it’s a beautiful sight”, she attempted to break the tension.
“Ilyria likes to remember what it conquered”, Aaron sighed.
Saerlith stopped in her tracks. “Conquered?”
Aaron swallowed. He should really learn to keep his mouth shut. “I meant that they won Capital over Angêl when they separated Ara from the state and that leaving the tower up was proof of their benign intentions and respect for cultural heritage”, he mumbled.
“Yes, Aaron. I’m aware of what we’ve all been brainwashed to accept. I’m also aware that a lot of it is probably bullshit since it would otherwise be rather strange to make anything that comes down to critical discussion of Genesia’s history an act of treason, and you should be a whole damned lot smarter about where and to whom you reveal your alternate theories, especially when you make it sound like you have information to back them up.” Saerlith hissed.
Aaron stared at here wide-eyed.
“Don’t tell me, Aaron. I don’t want to know. I’ve managed to gain myself a comfortable amount of careless freedom. Don’t involve me. Do yourself a favour and let it go.”
Aaron felt highly uncomfortable as they continued their way to the gates of Angêl. Luckily, Saerlith was quite adept at pretending the entire conversation hadn’t taken place at all.
“So I take it you’ve never been to the Fiery Tart then”, she stated rather than asked.
“No. But I’m not that into spicy food anyway”, Aaron said absently.
The gates were closing as Saerlith and Aaron finally arrived before them. Aaron increased his speed, afraid they would no longer be allowed inside the city walls once the gate had fully closed. A rather stern looking guard stopped him in his tracks.
“City’s closed for the night, boy”, he stated.
“Please, sir, the gate isn’t even fully closed yet. Can’t you make an exception?” Aaron asked nervously.
The guard looked at him indifferently. There was a bang in the background. “Now it is”, he shrugged.
“The boy is with me, Arian.” Saerlith sauntered towards Aaron. The guard looked up in surprise.
“By Ara, Saer, didn’t think we’d see you around for a decade after last year… The bastard’s still rotting in the Spire dungeon” Arian laughed.
“Hope his hand rotted with a nasty infection in there”, Saerlith replied.
“Scar turned out nasty enough”, Arian winked. “Hey Boris, get out here. Look who returned from hell.”
A tall, skinny boy emerged from the bottom of the left watch tower. His grey eyes still sleepy under whisps of sandy hair. He gave Arian a confused look before turning to see what all the commotion was about. Boris’ eyes widened as he noticed Saerlith. He hesitantly stepped closer, his hand stretched out towards her.
“Come now, Boris. I’m not a fucking ghost”, Saerlith laughed.
Boris’ lips parted into a wide smile, and he threw himself into her arms.
“Okay babe, stop crying,” Saerlith patted his back. She grabbed his shoulders. “Let me look at you. Last I saw you, you were a dirty, quivering stable boy. Thank Ara Arian took you in with the guard.”
“Thanks to you”, Boris grinned.
Aaron coughed. Everyone stopped and stared at him. Arian looked from Aaron to Saerlith and back, frowning a little.
“Not here to drop that one in my guard too, are ya?” Arian inquired.
“Ah, no. That would be Aaron. I was more of a mind to show him around the Tart, but if you fancy him…” Saerlith winked as Aaron scowled at her. “Seriously though, Arian, who’s been running that place after I dethroned Eder?”
Arian’s eyes darkened. “Markus”, he said grimly.
“All the more reason to check it out, I’d say. Tag along, Aaron!” Saerlith tossed Arian a small purse. “For taking in the boy”, she nodded at Boris.
“I thought only Gellert calls you Saer?” Aaron shouted as he darted after Saerlith. “Seriously, does everyone know you everywhere? What the hell happened in that Tart place a year ago? Who’s this Eder-guy?”
“Relax, Aaron. There are very few people who get to call me Saer. Would you like a list?”
Aaron crossed his arms and, thoroughly annoyed, kicked up dust as he followed Saerlith through the narrow streets of Angêl. They passed increasingly shifty alleys. More and more people were sitting idly against the walls of crooked buildings, huddled in dirty cloaks. The odd group of sketchy individuals discussed things in hushed tones in shadowy corners. Saerlith turned to Aaron and ordered him to walk next to her.
“Stop scowling, it’s for your own damn safety”, she urged. “And I’ll tell you all about the things that happened here last year once we sit down somewhere, but now is not the time.”
Music drifted their way. A little further along the alley, light shone out onto the cobblestone. Drunken laughter emerged from the open door ahead. Two men crashed onto the street, a third quickly followed and pulled the brawlers apart. Aaron involuntarily clutched Saerlith’s cloak. She slapped his hand away.
“Stop that. We’re here.” A women ran out, almost knocking Saerlith off her feet, and entered into an animated discussion with the man who had just broken up the fight. ‘Animated’ invloved smacking the back of his head and violently gesturing for him to get back inside. Saerlith walked up behind her. She grabbed a fistful of the woman’s long, golden curls and pulled her head back. The woman visibly stiffened.
“Problem, Alessia?” Saerlith whispered into her ear.
Alessia closed her eyes and smiled. “Saer”, she sighed as she slowly turned around while Saerlith released her grip. Alessia looked deep into her eyes. “Long time no see”, she smiled, and planted a long, soft kiss on Saerlith’s lips.
Aaron threw his hands up in the air. “She calls you Saer too?!”
“Who’s the weird kid?” Alessia asked, her arms still locked around Saerlith’s neck.
“The kid is Aaron, love. He’s okay. You can be nice to him”, Saerlith winked. “You got a room or two left?”
Aaron sat down at the table in the middle of the Fiery Tart. Saerlith had accompanied Alessia to the bar, talking and laughing, to get their drinks and order something to eat. He had reached an uncomfortable point of frustration with Saerlith over the past day. He strongly disliked her tendency to belittle him. Yes, belittle was the right word. They way she called him boy, and kid, the jokes at his expense, her constant reminders that he was an anxious coward… But wasn’t he? Aaron felt a short pang of disheartening self-doubt, but quickly regained some confidence. Even so, who was she to make fun of him? Who was she to treat him like a bothersome child she’d rather get rid of? Truth be told, he was used to such a treatment. He had come to expect it. But Saerlith hardly knew him. She had invited him along. Expecting her to be his best buddy was equally unrealistic, but she could have been more decent towards someone she chose to take along for the trip.
He observed how Saerlith made her way back to the table with two large mugs of ale.
“Drink up, A., “she said cheerfully, “and take that cloak off. I assure you you’ll melt away if you don’t. The evenings here are long, and this join will be packed tight within the hour.”
Aaron didn’t respond to her, but took a sip from his mug without looking at her.
“Problem, Aaron?” Saerlith asked in a more serious tone.
Aaron’s mind raced. This was his chance to tell her exactly how much he disagreed with her treatment of him. What if she laughed? What if she abandoned him here in this dodgy inn?
“Use your words, Aaron”, Saerlith said patiently.
“Well, yes. Problem.” He decided he would go for it.
“Do tell”, she replied, relaxing in her chair.
“I hate it when you put me down like that. Calling me a child, treating me like a coward…”
Saerlith’s eyes sparkled. “Look at you all manly, standing up for yourself A.”
“I’m serious, Saerlith.” Aaron swallowed nervously.
“Now you can call me Saer”, she said. “You’re all grown up now.” She lifted her mug with a little nod, and drained half of it in one go. “Seriously though, A., I probably poke more fun at Gellert than at anyone else, and I have more adoration for the man in my little toe alone than I have for alcohol and fucking in my entire backside. I have a pretty damn huge backside, and if I don’t drink and fuck regularly, I might blow up the whole of Genesia, so that’s saying something. If I call you a kid, it means I like you enough to ‘kid’ around, so to speak.”
Aaron was a little dumbstruck.
“But if that is really a problem for you, I’ll keep it in mind”, Saerlith continued.
Aaron needed a moment to process the idea that Saerlith had just admitted she liked him around, and that talking back to her had apparently gained him enough of her respect to earn the privilege of calling her Saer, though he was still unsure how exclusive that privilege really was.
“Well.. just.. do it less then”, he suggested.
Saerlith grinned into her mug and beckoned Alessia to order a second round.
Alessia brought over pitchers of wine.
“I thought I’d bring you enough of the good stuff straight away. I gather you’ll be here a while tonight”, she winked.
“Join us, will you, Ally?” Saerlith invited her.
“I can’t, girl, I have work”, Alessia apologised.
“I’ll gladly pay for your company all the same, love. Markus’ll get his money, don’t worry.”
“Heard about the new regime, have you?”
“Someone had to take over, right? Arian told me. I must say Ally, for a while I thought you might have taken up running the place.”
“It’s a man’s world, Saer”, Alessia said as she sat down.
“Hold on,” Aaron interjected, “this is a… a brothel?” He whispered the last word.
Saerlith and Alessia shared a look and simultaneously burst into laughter.
“Yeah Aaron, what did you expect?” Alessia giggled.
A muscular man made a bee-line towards their table. His eyes gleamed threateningly under his dark, heavy eyebrows.
Alessia startled. “Markus.”
Saerlith looked up.
“Fuck, Saer, don’t look!” Alessia whispered hastily as she bent low over the table and grabbed Saerlith’s arm.
“What?” Saerlith whispered back at her. “I’ve heard about him, I wanted to see what the big deal is.”
Markus completely ignored Saerlith and Aaron as he arrived at their table. Without hesitation, he dragged Alessia up from the chair by her arm.
“You’re supposed to be working, whore”, he hissed.
Saerlith had quietly risen from her seat, and her index finger now tapped Markus’ shoulder.
“Excuse me,” she said calmly, “where are you going with my purchase?”
Markus instantaneously released Alessia’s arm, who collapsed back onto her chair with a fearful look on her face.
“You haven’t paid for her”, Markus said.
“I wasn’t aware it was no longer customary to pay the girls directly.” Saerlith stated matter-of-factly.
Markus took a step closer to Saerlith and stared down at her.
“Who the fuck are you then?” It sounded more like a warning than a question.
“I’m Saerlith,” she smiled, not entirely impressed by Markus’ posturing, “and I believe she’s ours for the night.” She gestured at Alessia.
Markus took a step back and guffawed. “You’re the bitch I should thank for the ownership of this establishment?”
“I’m the bitch who nearly cut off Eder’s hand for mistaking paying clientele for one of his whores. At least that is what I assume went through his head when he tried to bend me over that table over there after I protested to his, I must say not very skilled, grabbing of the twins here.” She pointed at her breasts.
“Broads aren’t clients”, Markus replied.
“We are if we pay, I assume, and I pay well. Your girls like it when I’m in town. Ask around. I could probably teach you a thing or two.” Saerlith tilted her head a little as she looked at Markus’, expectantly waiting for his reply.
Markus frowned and gnawed visibly on the inside of his lip. He turned to Alessia.
“Show me what she paid”, he barked.
Alessia fished a small handful of silver coins from her pouch and dropped them, one by one, into Markus’ open palm. He stared at it for a second and squinted his eyes as he slowly took in Saerlith once more, before pacing back to the bar with a loud ‘hmpf!’