Equilibrium

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13: The Aftermath

Larke, 1182

We walked together silently back to my room. The heaviness of the day's events squashed all thoughts of conversation, and as much as I wanted to act on my plan to flirt with Dean, this was not the time. My mind, occupied with the past, relived old memories, and I was barely present enough to put one foot in front of the other. Somehow, he delivered me to our destination, awkwardly holding the door open for me so that I could enter before him.

"We'll have a celebration tonight," he said, finally breaking the silence.

He leaned against the door frame, watching my reaction.

"A celebration?"

"Yeah, it's customary when welcoming new members." He laughed to himself, a humorless chuckle. "You'll get to meet everyone and hopefully distract yourself for a few hours."

I looked down blankly at my blood soaked clothes. "Do you have something else I could wear, then?"

He twisted his mouth in thought, and replied, "Probably. Wait right there."

Before I could say anything, he rushed off to another room, leaving me stunned.

A minute later, he returned with a bundle of sleek, steel gray fabric in his arms. He must've gone to an adjacent room to pick it up.

"It's nothing special, but it should fit you. The laces are adjustable." He flipped over the fabric to reveal a series of laces that would go on the back of a dress to tighten it.

"Thank you," I said, grateful. I enjoyed fine things, and feeling beautiful, just like any other girl. I could tell by a glance that this dress was well made, of delicate fabrics. I was confident it would look good on me.

"You're welcome," he said shrugging. "I'll be back this evening to bring you to the festivities."

He turned heel and left me holding the dress gingerly in my fingers, careful not to get any blood or dirt on it. The door locked behind him, sealing me in.

I spent the next several hours bathing again, scrubbing every drop of sin from the day's activities from my flesh. Underneath the fingernails, the wrinkles in my knuckles, every single fingerprint, was scoured clean.

After washing up, I got dressed and waited.

And waited.

Hours passed by, and still Dean had not come. The light from the minuscule window in my room faded, turned to pink and orange rays that painted the room with warm colors. Though there was silence in the hall, I began to hear faint music emanating from somewhere else in the manor.

I became irritated; I'd wasted this time, assuming that Dean would be back soon, and I couldn't leave. I could've been exploring half of this manor by now, uncovering secrets and gaining information. But no, I spent it bathing and primping for a party. How useless.

Finally, I heard Dean knock at the door.

"Come in," I called.

His response was the key turning the lock in the door. He swung it open casually, meeting my eyes and then doing a double take.

"Oh, wow. You look…really nice."

"As do you."

And he did. He looked relaxed, yet put together, in a fresh loose-fitting shirt tucked into his usual trousers. While his clothes looked clean and freshly pressed, his hair was everywhere, and wild as ever.

He held out his hand for me to take. I set my hand in his, and he spun me around unexpectedly. I couldn't contain the gasp of delight and surprise when he did. He twirled me a full three hundred and sixty degrees, ending with me encircled in his arms.

"So, you do have your dancing shoes on," he winked. "Looks like you're ready. Let's go."

His fingers clasped mine tightly, belying his playful tone, and we left the room behind us. The promise of a party must truly have lightened his spirits, for there was nothing of the dark, brooding Dean that I'd been with earlier that day. Eager to shake off the tension myself, I followed in stride and allowed him to lead me towards our destination.

He took me to the banquet hall in this large manor. There were already people there dancing, mingling, and laughing. I could hear them as we approached. Music filled the hallways; a fiddle, a guitar, drums, and what seemed to be a whole chorus of already-drunk revelers. I couldn't help but smile. This type of party was much more welcoming than the palace's stiff formal banquets that the King often hosted. I usually had to act as Royal Guard for those events, which meant that all I was allowed to do was shadow the royal couple all evening, speaking to no one. Not exactly a delightful affair. But this was quite another matter, and I couldn't help but feel excited for the night to come.

We entered the hall, and Dean caught the eye of the fiddler. He made a motion to cut the music. The band stopped playing, which drew the party-goer's attention to us.

"Everyone, this is Larke, your new associate!"

His words were met with cheers and raised drinks. Laughter echoed throughout the hall, filling the space with a joyous cacophony.

"Let's have a toast in her honor!" shouted someone, drink eagerly lifted above the crowd.

Choruses of agreement chimed in, happy yelling and shouting from everyone. Some shoving, and then a single hand lifted their mug skyward.

"To our wives and our girlfriends," he shouted, then took a hearty sip. "May they never meet!"

Again, laughter rang out in the crowded space. Amidst the merry group, more shuffling, and finally another individual pushing through the front successfully.

"May we get what we need. May we get what we want. But… may we never get what we deserve!"

This, once more, was met with cheers and the upturning of many mugs.

"Okay, okay, enough of that," Dean shouted over the noise. "If I let you continue, you'll be spouting nonsensical toasts all evening, and we'll never get on with things!"

The gang members all laughed and nodded, reminiscing of nights and parties they'd had before, smiles spread wide upon everyone's lips. They listened intently to Dean's words, and it made me wonder again exactly what his role was in this organization. The members all seemed to respect him enough to follow his direction; it was clear on their faces. It burned me not to know exactly what his position was, but I was confident that I would find out eventually.

My eyes roamed the room. The hall was filled with people lounging on chairs, sitting on tables, dancing in the small spaces between the benches. I noticed The Raven in her own chair in the corner, quietly observing everything and whittling an inconsequentially small stick. Her rough exterior and dark clothing blended in with the corner she sat in, but to me, she stuck out. Everybody else was smiling, laughing, dancing, or drinking, while she seemed tranquil.

I tore my eyes away from her, feeling a little unsettled. Perhaps she was here to do business, not to engage in frivolous activities. I should pay attention to who she talks to; maybe I too, could drum up some business and collect more information. Dean and I stood in one spot for a moment, the two of us satisfied simply watching the joyous crowd. The crowd generally ignored us, too busy in their drinking, but I noticed one man watching me. He looked disheveled, as if he'd just woken up; his short, dark blond hair combed to follow its natural growth. He was the only one directly staring at me in the whole room. He was sitting at a bench several tables away from us, but I knew I would have to make a point to introduce myself. He was being too obvious; something was up.

"Here, let me show you around. Meet some people." Dean grabbed my hand suddenly and jerked me in the direction of a small group of people chatting.

"Jon, Therese, Lolita, this is Larke, the new recruit," Dean said, gesturing to me. A chorus of greetings met my ears in response.

"…Hi, everyone," I whispered, suddenly nervous.

"Larke, this is some of our muscle... as it were." He gestured towards the three of them, and they did all appear to be quite fit and intimidating.

"Very interesting," I said, making eye contact with the three of them. "How did you get involved in the Naga?"

Dean cut off Jon as he opened his mouth to answer my question. "Actually, ladies and gentlemen, Larke has a lot of people she should meet tonight. Continue this later?"

Before they could respond, he had whisked me away to another table.

"Let's get a drink," he suggested.

And that was fine by me, but I didn't plan on getting drunk tonight. He grabbed two empty mugs and I followed him to the cask of whatever everyone was drinking tonight. There was a line of a few people, and we added ourselves to the queue. Dean and I exchanged a look. If I asked about his diversion from my conversation, I'm sure it would appear suspicious, so I said nothing.

"Sorry," he mumbled, "I just… wanted a drink. And, I am right. You're going to have to meet a lot of people tonight. Need to pace yourself."

We shuffled forward in line. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the man who had been staring at me earlier. He was still sitting in the same spot, but we had approached his bench, as it was only two tables away from the cask. He was still staring. I smoothed my dress subconsciously; his eyes didn't leave my person for a single second.

"That's alright, I wanted a drink too."

This wasn't true, but it seemed to appease Dean for the time being. I flicked my eyes up to the man staring at me once more. Finally, we were first in line for the drinks. Dean filled both mugs expertly with the mystery golden liquid, sloshing it a bit when accidentally knocked the two mugs together.

"Ah, shit," he swore, handing me the mugs and trying to wipe his hands dry on his shirt, rumpling it.

Preoccupied with this, I hadn't noticed someone come up behind us until suddenly, he was there. It was the man who had been staring at me. I stepped away, unnerved that I hadn't sensed his approach.

"Spenser Red. Pleased to make your acquaintance," he said boldly.

He held his hand out for a handshake, and upon noticing that both of my hands were full, he withdrew with a chastened grin.

"Larke Fields," I introduced myself, giving a respectful nod to greet him. I tried my best to hide my curiosity about him, and why he was so interested in me.

"Spenser." Dean acknowledged him curtly.

"Dean." Spenser returned Dean's curt greeting with one of his own.

"I had no idea the Naga gang was recruiting such beautiful women," Spenser smiled, looking at me. "Come have a drink with me."

I pretended to blush – I covered my mouth with my hand, dropped my chin a bit, and looked up at him with what I hoped were doe eyes. It relieved me to hear that Spenser had been staring at me because he found me attractive, as opposed to suspicious. Perhaps I could even make Dean jealous. I handed Dean his drink, and he accepted it, his lip twitching slightly on one side.

"I would love to have a drink with you… it seems like you know how to have a good time," I smiled back, stepping closer to Spenser. "I'm not one for parties, but I think I could be if you show me how."

I hoped my advance would be well received; it was a bit forward, but I was confident that Spenser would respond positively. After all, he had initiated this conversation. Dean's brows furrowed, his expression growing stormier by the second.

"Actually, do you hear that Larke? That's the song you promised you would save me. Let's go dance, shall we, darling?"

Throwing our newly-filled drinks on the table, Dean pulled my arm and almost ran away from my conversation with Spenser; he spun me so quick I felt dizzy, and the next thing I knew he had one arm around my waist and the other holding my hand in the air. We were dancing to a mildly upbeat song that called for a partner.

"Darling?" I questioned with a half-smile on my face.

It was amusing, after all, how quickly my plan seemed to be working. Again, The Raven caught my eye from her seat in the corner. I noticed she had a perfect vantage point to watch the entire party; she could see everyone from her perspective, and yet nobody could sneak up behind her. Clever, I thought. It's exactly what I would've done, had I been her.

"Sorry again… just had to get him away from you." He looked bashful, head turned away from me, eyes downcast.

"Why?" I questioned lightly, a smile teasing my lips.

He laughed to himself before answering. "I… don't like him. He's bad news."

"Aren't you the leadership of a notorious gang?" I said in a light, joking manner, hoping to catch him off guard.

He glanced at me through the corners of his eyes, his lips tight. "…maybe."

I would have to find out just how deep he was in the hierarchy of this gang. It was possible that The Raven was just a figurehead, that somebody else was making the decisions. I doubted that possibility, though; she just seemed so competent and deadly that it was hard to imagine anyone else having any sort of authority over her. To say that she perplexed me was an understatement.

"What, so are you jealous that I might become friends with another man?" I teased. "Already so possessive, and here we are, just now having our first dance."

Dean reddened slightly. Was he embarrassed because he actually was jealous, or because I'd insinuated that this could be the first dance of many?

"I don't think he was interested in just being friends, but you've made a good point. The whole idea of this party is to get you acquainted with everybody, and how is that supposed to work if I keep stealing you away?" He sounded so melancholy, surprising me.

The song ended, and Dean twirled me around one last time as the notes faded.

"That is a beautiful dress that you're wearing. You're outshining every woman here," Dean mumbled into my ear.

I could feel his warm breath on the back of my neck; it gave me goosebumps. I looked around the room, desperate to resolve the tension he had created. I noticed The Raven staring intently at me, no longer whittling her stick and instead just watching us dance. I couldn't tell what she was thinking behind all of that face paint, but she certainly wasn't looking friendly. I couldn't let her get too suspicious of me; I must be more discreet.

"Flattery will get you everywhere, friend," I joked, returning my attention to Dean. "Let's get another drink. You need to get loosened up."

He laughed. "I could use a drink, sure."

"I want to sit for a spell. Would you mind refilling mine for me?" I asked.

Dean nodded and courteously led me to a bench. Our mugs were long gone by this time, so he went to go find replacements. I sighed, content with myself for once. It really was nice dancing with him; he was so comfortable. Although that last moment had me slightly off kilter – he sounded so genuine. I didn't know what to do with genuine. My life was so full of deceit and lies, hearing someone speak so plainly feels off.

Out of nowhere, Spenser slid onto the bench, so close that his thighs pressed against mine. I could feel the heat of his muscle through my satin dress. I could also smell the beer on his breath, but for some reason, it didn't repulse me; it intrigued me, and made me want to lean closer. He was staring at me again, as is apparently his specialty. For the first time, I noticed his eyes were the most complex hazel-green I'd ever seen. The flecks of emerald dispersed among the light brown were dazzling. They complimented his tan skin well.

"Fancy seeing you again, darling."

I laughed – he made a fairly decent Dean impression with that last word. I hadn't had a sip of alcohol so far this night, but I felt a little light-headed as I basked in Spenser's attention. I've never been flirted with this much in my entire life, let alone from two different men. I almost didn't know what to do.

"It's a small world," I countered, leaning slightly back.

He had gotten too close to me, leaning forward into my space. "Where's your dance partner? I can't imagine he would be so dense as to leave such a stunning woman by herself."

Smiling, he reached for a strand of hair that must have worked itself loose from the braid that I wore. He tucked it behind my ear, his touch lingering at the base of my jaw.

I felt my face heat. I resisted the urge to smack his hand away, as I would have had I been my usual self. "He went to get us some drinks," I managed to sputter out.

This man threw me off. Usually, I was competent and capable, but somehow, with one simple touch, he completely incapacitated me. He lowered his hand from my jaw, and instead extended it, palm facing up.

"Would you like to dance with me?"

I raised my hand to meet his, and he took it delicately, helping me stand from the bench. The song was a lively number, some kind of classic Thiolish jig. While the Naga gang was certainly of Rynish alliance, Thiol was known for their bar songs and lively parties; every good party would have to play at least one of these songs. Spenser held our joined hands up in the air, his other crooked at his waist. We stood side by side, and we followed suit of the other dancers on the floor. Some held their drinks in one hand, touching their partner with the other, laughing and singing along with the famous tune.

We danced; jumping, spinning, circling each other, each step a playful jig that spoke of such joy I hadn't experienced in years. Breathless, the short song was over before I knew it, and we stood there, giggling at each other. Our smiles matched, reaching from ear to ear.

Then, the next song started, a traditional Rynish ballad; this one was a simple song, with merely a guitar accompanying a singer, sad and beautiful. Once more, Spenser reached his hand out to me.

"Another?" he requested.

I accepted his hand just as before; this time, he pulled me close, similar to how Dean and I had danced earlier in the evening. Inches between us, his arm encircled my waist, the other delicately supporting my other hand. Staring deeply into those green eyes, we slowly stepped in circles, following the beat. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught notice of Dean, sitting where he had last left me, alternating between glaring at his mug and Spenser's back.

"I know what you want," Spenser whispered, pulling me out of my observations of Dean.

"What?" I sputtered, suddenly terrified.

I looked around the hall, trying to find the easiest exit path. If I could leap over this nearest bench, I could run through that opening between those groups of couples…

"You want to go home," he said in a wistful tone.

"Go home? What do you mean? I'm… a widow, looking to repay her husband's debt. I want a job and money to repay it, that's all," I insisted. "I don't have a home to go to, anyhow."

The song was quiet, we couldn't be too loud, or others would hear our whispered conversation. I hoped none had.

"I think there's more to that story. I think you're lying – but that's okay. We're all lying," he whispered. look lnnlnn "If you think you can trust me… I think we can help each other."

Skeptical, I said nothing. We continued to dance, slowly making circles around the space made for this purpose. Edged by benches pushed out of the way, the floor was full of other dancing couples, each wrapped up in each other. I looked back at Dean – he looked like he was quickly becoming very drunk. I would have to act quickly if I wanted him to remain conscious tonight.

"And how will I know I can trust you?" I questioned, doubt seeping through my words.

"You won't. Just like I won't know that I can trust you, either. But there is no reward without risk, is there not?"

"I suppose that's true," I slowly agreed. "There is no bravery without fear."

"A wise saying, if I may. We'll be meeting again," he said, squeezing me close to his chest. "But you should go to your dance partner, darling. He looks upset."

He let me go, right as the song ended.

I turned around to find Dean again, who was still aggressively drinking. I looked back, and Spenser was already lost within the crowd, gone from my sight. He had evaporated like mist on a sunny morning.

I reached Dean and sat across from him.

"Having fun?" I asked sarcastically.

He clearly was not, indeed, having a good time. He was extremely drunk – he must have had several refills in the short time I was gone.

"Indubitably," he responded, taking another swig from the half-empty mug.

I looked at it in disdain. "You should probably stop drinking. You don't want to be sick."

"Well, maybe I want to be sick, did you stop to consider that?"

I sighed. An angry drunk. Maybe I could rile up angry-drunk-Dean and ask him some delicate questions. I would have to be careful, though. It was still very possible that he would remember this conversation in the morning. While I was musing, he finished the rest of his drink, and slammed the mug on the table.

"No. On second thought, let me get you another."

I stood, holding out my hand for his empty mug. He thrust it into my hand clumsily, and I took it to be refilled, pushing my way through the amicable crowd. I returned with it full to the brim. I took a long, deep drink from it, and set it roughly on the table in front of him. I needed some liquid courage if I was to get through this night.

"Oh, so you're drinking now, too? No more dancing, eh?"

"Yeah, I'm done with that, thanks. Might as well join you drinking."

"Yeah, yeah, don't act so excited."

"Want to play a drinking game?" I asked, changing the subject.

He perked up, sitting up straighter in his seat. The suggestion had evidently gotten his attention.

"Absolutely I do. Which one?"

"Well, here's the rules. I make a statement about you, and if I'm right, you drink. If I'm wrong, then I drink. But – there's no lying. And I can tell if you're lying."

He laughed. "Alright, I'll play. But you know there are things I can't tell you."

"Sure, sure… of course," I said, hopeful.

I leaned forward excitedly. "Okay, first one. Your parents were farmers," I said in a questioning tone.

He lifted his mug towards me, indicating I drink. An interesting turn, I think; his parents weren't farmers, which is the occupation of most of the commoners in the region outside of the capital. I took a meager sip from my mug. I wondered where he came from. In any case, starting out this way was good. It allowed him to let his guard down with a somewhat meaningless question.

"No, that's not fair! It's not a sip, it's a whole drink!" he protested. "It''s not called a sipping game, it's called a drinking game!"

I rolled my eyes at him, already angry at myself for starting this godforsaken game, and took a larger sip. "That better?" I grimaced; the taste of this beer did not suit me.

"Yes!"

"Okay, next statement. You have had a lot of romantic encounters," I stated.

This one was touchy; but if I hoped to turn the direction of this conversation. He looked uncomfortable for a moment, and then took a long drink from his cup.

Although, the feeling of victory was short-lived, as I then began thinking of Dean and his apparently numerous relationships. Shaking my head to remove those thoughts, I paused to think of another question.

"Ha! One for one. Okay, okay, here goes," I said, sitting up a little. "You think I'm attractive."

His eyes met mine. Slowly, he reached for his cup, and took the longest drink he'd taken so far. His response was better than I had hoped for.

As if I were suddenly embarrassed, I fanned my face with my hand, sat back, and appeared flustered. Dean just looked at me, head cocked to the side, boldly waiting for a response. Here was my chance to ask something to change the subject, maybe something that would get me anywhere useful in my mission.

"You've known The Raven for a long time."

Again, he lifted his cup, and drank; the tension had drained out of our atmosphere for the moment. So, he did know The Raven, indeed for a while, which meant that he probably knew who she really was.

"You and The Raven are lovers?" I felt foolish asking this question, unable to justify its purpose for my mission. Though, I had a hunch, and I wanted to see how he would respond.

He hesitated, and then set his cup down without taking a drink.

"No? Not so?" I asked, confused. I had seen how she watched us so intently during our dance. To my eyes, she had looked almost jealous.

"People assume that we are, and by all means, we could be," he lamented. "But I just don't feel that way for her. It'd be so much easier if I could."

I raised my eyebrows at him. He looked so forlorn, that I got up from seat across from him and knelt on the bench by his side. On a whim, I put my arms around his shoulders, and squeezed him briefly. He allowed me to touch him for a moment, and then shrugged me off.

"Don't forget, you were wrong. It's your turn to drink," he muttered.

And, so it was. I reached back across the table for my mug and took a swig. My tolerance for alcohol was low, and I was starting to feel fuzzy, despite the small quantity I'd had.

"Talk to me," I implored.

I settled into a comfortable position at his side, hoping to foster trust. I was sure that whatever had happened between them would give me some sort of insight as to who they both were. I held my drink nestled in my hands, the large cup resting on my lap.

He refused to look at me, instead engaging in an apparent staring match with his drink.

"Hey," I said, removing a hand from drink placed it lightly on top of his. "Look at me."

He did, and I let my hand rest back on my drink. We stared at each other, our eyes examining each other's expressions, when suddenly he closed the distance between us and pressed his lips to mine.

I didn't expect him to be so soft and gentle; I didn't expect a kiss at all. But he was; his lips delicately caressed mine, exploring, opening my mouth under his. It seemed that it went on forever, but in a second, the kiss ended as quickly it had begun. He pulled away, startled.

"I'm… sorry, I shouldn't have done that," he said, shaking his head and getting up from the bench. "We're drinking, that was wrong of me. I have to go."

He stumbled a bit but extracted himself from the bench and made quick work of finding the nearest exit. I was struck mute and paralyzed, still trying to figure out what had just happened.

By the time I had recovered enough to move from my shocked position, he was gone. I looked up to see Spenser Red, watching what had happened from a few tables away, fingers playing upon his lips in thought. In the corner, I noticed that The Raven was gone from her chair.

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