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21: Tarpik at Night

Larke, 1182

“Ready to work?” Dean asked, smiling.

I smiled in return; it was impossible not to when he beamed so brightly.

His whole face lit up, and it made the sun itself want to shine brighter. “Then let’s go,” he said, taking my hand in his. He led me out of the manor, still holding my hand.

Was he not aware that he was still holding it? We’d walked this whole way, and there he was, still clasping my fingers with his. I blushed, my cheeks reddening like I was a teenager. What was wrong with me? He dropped my hand to open the door for us. I immediately felt the loss of warmth, instantly melancholy.

“Let’s go,” he said, his voice business-like, though his grin still lurked just beneath the surface.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“Gotta collect our weekly fees,” he said nonchalantly, looking forward as we walked down the street side by side.

I straightened, excited to see what other businesses the Naga had within their realm of influence. We walked briskly, taking back roads and cutting through alleyways that I wasn’t familiar with. I followed closely, staying only a step or two behind him. He evidently knew where he was going.

Though months had passed, and the weather had turned cold, the cobble stone streets started to look familiar to me. We entered from another side, but I definitely recognized the street where I’d met Mama Jude. Were we going there? That wouldn’t be surprising, but I already knew they were associated with the Naga. That’s how I’d met Dean in the first place. I hoped we were going somewhere else; firstly, I wanted to discover something new, and secondly, there was a certain dismembered nobleman that I didn’t want uncovered. I wondered if it was even possible that he hadn’t been found yet.

Much to my dismay, we stopped directly in front of Mama Jude’s door. Internally groaning, I followed Dean when he pushed the door open to enter. It was approaching evening, so the atmosphere was lively and seductive, just as I remembered it. Smoke wafted from several different tables, which I now knew to be Spate.

There she was to the right of the door, ready to greet guests and keep an eye on them. Mama Jude.

“Darlings! How are you doing this fine evening?” she said, her words slipping out like molasses from her lips. She stood and flipped her shawl out of the way to accept Dean’s arm, which he had held out for her. At her full height, she barely reached his chest.

“Excellent, Miss Jude,” he answered with a smile.

She simpered. “I take it you’re here for your… payment?” she asked.

“Yes ma’am.”

“Well you go have a seat at your usual table, I’ll bring it right out.” She turned away, and then did a double take when she noticed me. “Oh, hello dearie,” she said knowingly. “Good to see you again.” She winked, and then strut out of the room into the wardrobe area where I’d chosen my outfit that first night; she must store her funds there.

Dean led me to his secluded table in the corner. It was entirely possible that it was reserved for Naga members only, I considered, as it sat in a section somewhat separated from the rest of the room. We sat with our backs to the wall, waiting patiently for Mama Jude. Dean absentmindedly twiddled his fingers on the table, not really looking around at the beautiful women interspersed with the degenerates who frequented this establishment.

He looked so at ease, a vivid contrast to my obvious discomfort. Mama Jude’s sly greeting had me on edge, making me increasingly nervous as the minutes flitted by.

Eventually, Mama Jude must have counted out the right amount of money, because she showed up with a bag of coins, reminiscent of the morning she’d taken her cut from my profits. She slid the hefty bag across the table, and a few coins slipped out of the top, glinting a shiny gold.

The bag of coins lay on the table, neither of us reaching for it. Mama Jude stared at us, a coquettish smile on her face as her eyes flicked between mine and Dean’s.

“You two are adorable together, my dearies,” she said sweetly, her fingers tenting, fingertips tapping each other.

“Oh, we’re not… we’re just friends. Associates, really,” I stuttered, taken aback.

Dean didn’t say a word, simply took the bag of coins from Mama Jude and slipped it into his coat pocket.

“Thank you, Jude,” Dean said authoritatively. “You can take your leave now. I know you’re a busy woman.”

His eyebrow raised, she took the hint, and stood. A perfect curtsy later, and she was gone, back to her post at the door, eyeing us from a distance. Still stunned by these interactions, I blinked rapidly, trying to regain my composure.

“They pay us to provide them with security,” Dean said, noticing my look of complete bewilderment. “See those men in the corner over there?” he pointed with a nod of his towards one corner of the room.

There stood a large man, so nondescript and discreet that I hadn’t noticed when I’d walked in. Come to think of it, I hadn’t noticed them when I was here the first time, either. I was thankful Dean tried to clear up my confusion, but the guards weren’t the source of my perplexed expression.

“You know, I saw you here that night.” His eyes bored into the table.

Surprised again, I looked up at him. “You did?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he chuckled, still staring at the table. “I thought you were… intriguing. You stood out.”

“Did I?” I said, laughing now.

“Yeah, you did,” he said with a small smile. “I was sitting here at this table, too. You almost approached me. I wish you had.”

He looked up to meet my gaze, and I didn’t know how to respond. His icy blue eyes looked vulnerable, so clear. My mouth fell open, unsure of what to say. I vaguely recalled approaching this table, now. He must have been the mysterious man I’d seen, hidden in the shadows.

“Alright, let’s go,” he said, slapping his hands on the table as he stood. “We got what we came for, and we’ve more to do.”

We approached the exit, Mama Jude eyeing me sharply as we neared her position at the door. Her stare was unnerving, all-knowing, a mischievous grin on her lips. The door beckoned me, boasting of fresh air. I wanted out of here so badly.

Just before I could slip out, she grabbed my arm with a surprisingly tight grip, stopping me. Dean, who was in front of me, continued on out the exit. Mama Jude pulled me down to her level to whisper in my ear.

“You should’ve at least let me know about the mess you made the last time you were here,” she said, her breath tickling my ear. “I take care of my own, you know.”

She released her grip, allowing me to straighten once more. I blinked rapidly, my jaw hanging open as I stared at her, wide eyed.

She pressed her fingertips together, and gave me a generous, wicked smile. “But if you cross me again, dearie, you’ll be the one that’s chopped up in a box, okay?”

Mama Jude waved me away, and I stumbled out of the brothel. She slammed the door behind us, leaving me stunned and standing in the street, watched by an amused Dean. How much had he heard?

“Come on,” he said, gesturing that we walk, and I followed blindly.

The sun was beginning to set, casting a rosy glow on the cobblestones, painting everything in a thin pink haze. I stopped to appreciate the view, standing still just in front of the door. I followed after him, stunned silent by Mama Jude’s parting words. That woman was a viper, one I’d nearly stepped on.

He pursed his lips, still looking at me. “How about we get a bite to eat?”

“Sounds great to me.”

We ambled down the street, the sun setting further with each step we took. Eventually, we reached the food district of the city. The smells of various foodstuffs blended in the air, delivering to my senses a delectable combination of every savory fragrance one could imagine. It was heavenly.
We stopped to eat a meal together, silently, that Dean had purchased for us. By the time we finished, the sun had set completely, and evening had fallen in the city. The streets were lit only by the torches at the various storefronts. Their glow made shadows that bounced off of the sharp corners of buildings, chasing the people casting silhouettes, the fire flickering and making the light shimmer across the city.

“I don’t want to do any more work now,” he sighed, sated and full. “But I don’t want to go back just yet.”

I wanted nothing more than to curl up in the warmth of my bed. It was cold out, after all. Winter was here. Our words were visible when we spoke, fogs of phrases filling the air in front of our lips. I looked at him closely, noticing the stress in his eyes.

“Let’s just keep walking,” I suggested. “The nights are beautiful in Tarpik.”

We continued strolling leisurely, taking different back roads and alleyways than we had on our way here. The city felt different at night, the lights sparkling, decorating the cobblestones in a romantic, flickering hue.

“I grew up here, you know,” Dean said softly, after several minutes of walking together in silence.

“In the city?” I asked, surprised.

“Yeah. In the streets, though.” He kicked a loose stone, scattering it across the way.

“You didn’t have a family?”

He shook his head. “No, not until the Naga took me in.”

We walked in silence for a stretch as I considered his answer. “Wasn’t it lonely?” I asked.

“Of course, it was,” Dean said nonchalantly. “But they found me and helped me find my purpose again.” He sighed, a million miles away. “They saved me.”

I didn’t know how to respond to that statement, so I didn’t, simply pushing closer to him as we walked. He looked at me, grinning sheepishly.

“What about you?” he asked me.

What should I tell him? I was still supposed to be a widow of a farmer’s wife, after all. It had been so long since I’d had to tell that lie, that I had almost forgotten. He had simply accepted me since I’d gotten here, and I was able to just be myself.

I inhaled, holding my breath before answering. “I grew up on the farm, of course.”

“So, your parents were farmers?” he asked, kicking another pebble as he walked. “Where are they now?”

“My mother’s dead.” I said, deciding not to lie.

“Oh, I’m so sorry. Was it a long time ago?”

“Yeah,” I sighed, “she died when my sister and I were born. I never knew her, so it wasn’t like I could miss her.”

“What about your father?”

I took a few more steps, unsure of what to say. “I don’t really know, to be honest.”

“You don’t know?” he asked sadly. “How long has it been since you’ve seen him?”

“Years and years,” I finally said, unable to stop the tears that threatened to well up in my eyes. I looked upwards, trying to halt them in their tracks.

Dean stopped me, a light touch on my arm as he asked me silently to face him.

I still looked up, unwilling to meet his eyes. I hated to cry, and I especially hated to have someone bear witness to a weakness like this.

“It’s alright, Larke,” he said. His finger brushed my cheek, bringing my eyes back to his. “Whatever’s happened to your father since then, I’m sure he was loved and taken care of.”

The tears began to fall now, and I held back the sniffles, my throat burning as I restrained myself. When did I become so soft? He found a strand of hair that had worked itself loose from my braid and tucked it back behind my ear, lingering at my jaw.

“When all of this craziness is over, if you like, we can go find him. Together.”

I shook my head, his hands backed away, my lips tight, holding back.

“I don’t want to look back anymore,” I whispered, my voice choked. “I’m tired of knowing what I’ve lost.”

He stepped back, accepting my answer.

“If it makes you feel better, my parents are both dead,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.

I could see right through his nonchalance, the pain just beneath it. He’s just as broken as me.

I smacked his arm lightly, desperate to change the mood. “Why would knowing that make me feel better?” I attempted a laugh, wiping my damp cheeks with my sleeve.

“Solidarity,” he laughed.

“Just… let’s just keep going.” I said, wanting nothing more than to move on from this moment. I had been too vulnerable, he and I too close.

We’d reached the town square. Without all of the people filling the space, it looked so deserted and sad, the complete opposite of the busy, happy place it was during the day. The fountain ran, majestic shoots of water spouting from the top, cascading beautifully into the pool below, splashing and bubbling. The last time I was here, soldiers had silenced a rebel forever, right here in the water. The fountain had run red, the plants surrounding the pool washed in violence.

We walked up to the fountain, ambling and taking our time. It was a beautiful night, and I didn’t want to squander it. Dean led me to the edge, and we sat on the rim on the pool.

A lone musician, leaning up against one of the walls in the square, spun a delicate, lilting tune from his ramshackle violin. It felt like he was playing just for us, though it was evident he was playing for the pure joy of the art, the whimsy and passion singing through his talent on the instrument.
Dean twisted around, reaching for something I couldn’t see. He came back to face me, holding a single bloom in his hand. He must have picked it from one of the potted flowers that lined the fountain. His cheeks flushed, making his vibrant blue eyes stand out even more, he tucked the bloom behind my ear, securing it into my hair. The heat rose in my face as well, and I couldn’t face him. I looked down at my hands, tightly clasping each other in my lap.

“Do you want to dance?”

I looked up in surprise. “Dance?”

He smiled. He nodded his head towards the musician, who was still playing the beautifully sad and slow song. “We can’t waste this lovely melody.”

He stood, offering his hand out to me. I took it, and suddenly we were too close, and at the same time, not close enough. His hand held mine tightly, the other on my waist, while I rested my spare hand on his shoulder. His face was inches from mine, my personal space absolutely invaded. He spun me in slow circles, and by all means, I should be uncomfortable. But I wasn’t.

We danced, slow and sweet, his eyes locked on mine, his hands and close proximity warming me. I didn’t feel the cold, didn’t notice it at all, because all of my senses were overwhelmed with his presence. His scent, a clean scent of soap, filled my nostrils. His eyes, a startling blue against his black hair and warm-toned skin, were all I could see. My vision was filled with blue; it was as if I had fallen into those depths, never to return.

He pressed his forehead into mine, a small smile dancing on his lips. Unbidden, a smile came to mine as well. His peaceful face was infectious; I couldn’t help but mirror it. In that moment, I envied him. He looked so happy. I wondered if I could feel that way, too. Was happiness really so far out of my reach? I thought back and realized this was the happiest I’d been in… perhaps ever. Had I ever been happy? The pressure from his forehead eased. I saw his gaze flicker my lips to my eyes, and back again.

I stared deep into those eyes, my lips parted slightly, my breath uneven and shallow.

“May I kiss you?” he asked, quieter than a whisper on a breeze.

“Always,” I whispered back.

I’d barely uttered the last syllable before his lips were on mine, full and soft. He tightened his embrace, and I melted into his body, deepening our kiss. His hand on my lower back pulled me closer to him, and I caressed his jaw with my fingers, feeling the stubble that I hadn’t noticed before. All I could feel was him, his warmth, his quiet strength, my emotions soaring, my head spinning, and I felt like I was a tsunami about to break on the sand.

Then, the music stopped, the song ended.

We separated, each of our breath ragged and heavy. I couldn’t think, couldn’t comprehend anything but his lips on mine. The music had put us under a spell, it seemed, and now that it had finished, we woke with a daze.

He dropped my hand suddenly, letting me go and giving me space. He brushed off some nonexistent dirt from his pants, looking flustered. “We should go. It’s getting late.”
Incapable of speaking, I only nodded. He was right. It was getting late, and we should return to our respective realities. I had to return to my reality, in particular – the one where I knew I had to run away, and leave my heart with him.

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