“William?” a familiar voice said. As he turned to face it, Arial came to stand next to him, apparently straight from work. Her curly hair was braided.
“Hello, love.” William offered his drink to her for her inspection. His side ached again, but he had a few minutes left to kill, so he chose to ignore it.
She accepted it without question, peering at the yellowish-orange liquid with a frown. “What’re you doing here? Places like these are how you end up back with the Maimans.”
He gestured to the cup in her hands. “I wanted a quality drink.”
“Do you ever get anything different?” she asked as she slid the cup back to him.
“No.” He nodded at her. “You want some food?” He was about thirty percent sure that he had enough change on him to buy her something.
“What, no drink for a pretty lady?” she asked, pulling a bar stool closer and sitting on it.
William raised a brow. “You drink now?”
She smirked. “Fair enough.” She eyed Falcon a moment, then shook her head. “No, I’m fine. I do have a question, though.”
William took a sip of his drink. “What’s that?”
“When is Ceamath getting here?”
He shook his head. “She won’t be here tonight.” It wasn’t usual for her to come this day of the week, at least. “Why?”
She exhaled deeply. “I don’t have an invitation to the masquerade, but I’d like to go.”
His brows furrowed. “Isn’t Derac going?”
Arial nodded. “Of course, so far as I know.” She paused. “I don’t have to ask him to know he won’t take me, though.”
“Course not. It’d be bad taste.” The man was married, even if it was to Ceamath. “I didn’t think you would want to go.”
“I want to talk to someone.”
Dario? William opened his mouth to ask who she wanted to talk to, but she seemed to guess his question.
“I want to talk to Dario. Derac won’t do it for me, and I’m not exactly a person Dario would meet on a normal day.” She wiped the bar counter with her hand.
Fuck. “Masquerades are good for that.” William took a swig of his drink. He frowned at her. “It’s late to get a dress.”
Arial waved a hand. “I’ve been to a few parties, in Lessmurk. I’m sure I have a dress to wear.”
“For your medals, or whatever?” Surely she didn’t get invited to that many parties as a guest after the initial award ceremonies?
She nodded. “Something like that.”
“Then they’re the guard colors?”
She paused, then nodded again. “I suppose.”
“Then everyone will recognize you.” He couldn’t say she was remarkable just at first glance, but no one else in Wakegloom had the garb of a high ranking soldier and carried themself like they still ran an army.
“Do you think?” She drummed her fingers against the bar. “I know Derac would, at least, but soon as he heard me talk he’d recognize me anyway.”
He forgot about Derac. “As long as you’ve worked together, I’d expect he recognizes you no matter what.” The two had worked together for years.
“That’s why I’m avoiding him,” Arial said. She frowned. “I don’t imagine you have any clothes I could borrow?”
William snorted, then flinched at the stab of pain in his side. “I didn’t even say I’d take you.”
“Who are you gonna take? Your imaginary girlfriend?”
Arial’s brows raised. “Mm-hmm. Well, she’ll thank me for saving her time.”
“You’re very rude.”
“Yet you’ll take me.”
It wasn’t a question. Then again, if he said no, she’d just go to Ceamath and get in anyway. If he took her, then at least he could keep an eye on her. Maybe he’d get his uncle to see this line of thought, too. He swallowed the last swig of his drink. “For asking so nicely, of course I will. I don’t think you’ll fit any of my clothes, but we’ll see.”
She frowned a little, then nodded. “I know how to sew. I’ll come by in a day or two and grab them. How’s that?”
He gestured at his neck. “We’ll need to get makeup for your tattoos, too.” He paused, glancing over her skin. She didn’t have many visible tattoos. Her wrists might be an issue, if the sleeves came up even a little short. Well, assuming Dario had ever met her. On the other hand, one tattoo per wrist and nothing more was rather suspicious. Should he be trying this hard to help her mask her identity? “You’ll probably want gloves, but you should be fine with a half mask, if Dario hasn’t ever met you.”
“There’s a lot to go into this, huh?” Arial said, leaning on the bar.
“There’s not a lot of people out here with J’kah tattoos.” Even if Dario had never met her, the finer points of her appearance would make it easy for anyone who knew anything about her to guess her identity. He gestured at her. “The jewelry should be fine. There’s not a lot of Fleadites out here, so they shouldn’t recognize it…” his brows knitted together. “Why do you have that?”
Arial’s fingers traced the earring that wrapped around her ear. “A gift from a friend. It’s supposed to be a charm for good memory. If I ever go back west far enough to meet a Hunvian priest, I’d have it charmed as such.”
“Ah.” Must be a close friend. This actually raised another question: did the Hunvians only use jewelry? “Do they not have tattoos in your religion?”
She shook her head. “No. Not like we do here. Charms are physical. You bring any item you want to a priest, they charm it for whatever you asked, and there you have it.” She frowned. “Tattoos aren’t forbidden or anything, they’re just artful instead of practical.”
He chuckled softly. “Still don’t get how that logic works.” The vast majority of tattoos were already aesthetically pleasing as much as they had a practical use. “And you’re not allowed to my house.”
Arial shrugged. “You get a tattoo because it looks nice, not because you want charmed. It’s common, out there.” She sighed. “It gets expensive here because priests are taught a particular style, and a lot of them find it blasphemous to put something irreligious on someone’s body.”
William shook his head. “No, I know that, I just… I dunno, I never got why someone would get it if it doesn’t have a use?” He ran a hand through his hair, then chuckled. Ow. “My… when I was younger, my wife always wanted a tattoo of…” was there a proper name for this? “Did you ever hear the story of, if you go into the woods and pray all night on the new moon, then you summon the guardian of the woods and they grant you one wish?”
Arial looked at the bar, biting her lip. Finally, she nodded. “Yeah, we had something similar where I grew up.”
He nodded. “The village a few miles north had some woods, and their guardian is a lady, but she doesn’t have a physical form. She’s just, um, made up of all the flowers in the woods, and her hair is from the leaves from the willow…” he paused, trying to recall the exact way Lilly described the guardian whenever she talked about it. He never could remember exactly. “She’s very mystical, anyway.”
Arial nodded, smiling slightly. “Sounds like it.”
“Anyway, she wanted a tattoo of that guardian sitting by the pond and looking at her reflection, because her favorite story was about one of Adaer’s minor children, about this kid that wanted to make the world prettier by adding water to places that didn’t have it.” He shook his head. “But she didn’t want any runes or charms or anything in it, just that image, like a painting or something. I never understood why not.” He was never able to convince her she ought to make a practical use of it, especially if she wanted it to take up her entire back. Still, he always told her that whenever they got here, and they actually had enough money to spend on themselves, they’d find someone who could do it…
“It sounds like it’d be lovely,” Arial commented softly, folding her hands on the bar.
William paused, then rubbed his temple. He shouldn’t have said that. “I’m not divorced, if that’s what you think.”
“I think your marriage is your business.” Arial looked nonplussed. “So, if you won’t let me in your house, you can just bring the clothes to me. How’s that?”
“I didn’t have time to tell you the other day, but I don’t actually know how to find you,” William informed her, silently thanking her for the change of topic. “I’m not going by the guard tower, either. I don’t like Derac that much.”
“Lucky you, he’s usually in the Eastern Tower, unless we’re switching the guard. But I live in the quarters on that wall they haven’t repaired in a decade.” Arial made a diagonal motion with her hand. “Up on the second floor, about three doors down from the little gate they used to run when there were farms over there.”
William frowned. “You should move. The gate on that wall’s haunted.”
“Most people tell me the wall isn’t structurally sound anymore and I’ll die the next time there’s an earthquake, but you know what, William?” Arial nodded slowly, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “The fact it’s haunted is enough to convince me to pick up and move this very evening.”
“I’m here to help,” he said flatly.
“Mm. Well.” Arial slid off the seat and stood straight. “But does that work?”
He considered the entire situation once more, then nodded. “Sure. I’ll try to catch you when the shift changes so I don’t have to climb up there.” He paused. “I can meet you there the night of, as well, if you’d like.”
“Sure.” She nodded. “Alright. G’night, William. Be safe.”
William waved a little as she moved away. “G’night, Arial.”
He was startled to find, when he stepped outside, that darkness had fallen and stars now dotted the sky in between the dark clouds. It was well past ten by the time William arrived to the place he called home, a narrow brick building crammed between two others. He let himself in and locked the door.
There was only darkness, but he could hear a fire crackling and see shadows dancing at the end of the hall. Tracing his hand along the smooth wall, he strode to the sitting room.
His uncle didn’t look up from where he sat, knitting needles clicking. “William. Late again, eh?”
William ran a hand through his hair. His lateness was never intentional. “Is he upstairs?”
“Gatai, who’s there?” a female voice called.
So he was. “Caelyn!” William yelled, turning around and taking a couple steps into the hall. “Bring Rowan down!”
“Do you at least have a reason, being so late?” his uncle asked.
William glanced back at him. He nodded. “Course I do. Tell you in a moment.” He peered into the darkness again and shouted, “Caelyn!”
There were muffled voices, then he heard small feet dashing through the upstairs and down the staircase. Rowan ran into William with such force he almost fell over. Pain shot through his abdomen and he inhaled sharply, grimacing. “Careful, Row,” he murmured, stroking the boy’s dark hair. “How’re you, huh?”
The floorboards creaked. William looked up as Caelyn walked closer. She wore her characteristic scowl. “Good to see you finally showed up.”
Rowan stepped away from the woman, still hugging William.
“Did Gatai tell you yet?” Caelyn stepped past them and into the sitting room. Her hair was down, and it seemed there was more grey sprinkled throughout than there was just a few weeks ago.
“Tell what?” William took a couple of awkward steps into the room, what with Rowan refusing to let go. He ignored the aching in his side.
“Jared and I are discussing crossing the bridge.”
William forced a polite smile. “Very nice.”
Caelyn sighed, crossing her arms over her chest. “Gatai and I have been discussing it, and we agree it’s in Rowan’s best interest to come with us.”
Uncle Gatai spoke up quickly. “We haven’t agreed on anything, yet.”
Caelyn eyed him.
William nodded. “Good, because he’s staying here.”
Caelyn raised a brow. “We’ll see.”
“He’s staying.” William’s voice left no room for doubt, yet already doubt crept into him.
“Anyhow, it’s well past his bedtime and I’d like to take him back.” She glared at him. “Or are you against a child being well-rested, too?”
That wasn’t fair. Besides, he’d just gotten here, and it wasn’t terribly late yet. He shook his head. “Course not, but I don’t think one late night will be an issue.” He bit his tongue from saying anything snarky, what with Uncle Gatai here.
Caelyn opened her mouth, but Uncle Gatai interrupted. “Rowan can go up when we’re done.”
She huffed. “Very well.” She looked at Rowan and extended a hand. “Sure you don’t want to come up, m’boy?”
“He’s not your boy,” William snapped. Having an attitude with her would accomplish nothing good, but he’d had enough of her entitlement to his son for the night.
“I’ll call you in a bit, Caelyn.” Uncle’s voice sounded exasperated.
A tense moment passed before she turned and brushed past William into the hall. The floorboards creaked loudly, and her steps could be heard as she stomped upstairs.
William ran a hand through his hair and sighed. He led Rowan into the room and took a painful seat next to the hearth. “You found your doll,” he observed quietly, pointing to the stuffed dog with a torn ear in the boy’s hand.
Rowan nodded. “It was under my bed,” he whispered. He hugged it to his chest and snuggled against William.
The knitting needles silenced. “Well?” said Uncle Gatai. “Are you going to give me a reason?”
William sighed, putting his arm around his boy. “You know Captain Arial is looking for that monk?”
“Derac told me.” His uncle leaned back in the chair. “Did she suspect you of something?”
William shook his head. “No, she…” he paused. Was that a new bruise on Rowan’s arm? “Um, she trusts me pretty well, I think. She doesn’t know of me or you, that I know of.”
“Mm.” It was clear he thought his time was being wasted.
William jumped to the point, grabbing Rowan’s arm to examine it. “She wants to speak to Dario.”
Uncle Gatai snorted. “She may have won a war, but she has no title.”
William sucked in a breath, lowering Rowan’s bruised arm. “She’s going to the masquerade.”
Uncle Gatai was silent a moment. Then he groaned, looking at William. “You’re taking her, aren’t you?”
William stared at Rowan’s arm, brows furrowed. That wasn’t the type of bruise one got from a fight, but that’s what Caelyn would say it came from when he asked.
“You should’ve told her ‘no’, or convinced her it wouldn’t do her any good, if she trusts you so much.” His uncle shook his head. “How hard would that have been?” Before William could respond, he continued, “Then again, you are the person that takes the easy way out of everything.”
That was… well, it wasn’t totally true, surely. “I didn’t have a reason to tell her no. Anyway, she would’ve just asked Derac’s wife.”
“I don’t care about your excuses.” Uncle Gatai breathed in deeply. “You know, it’s when you act stupidly and do things like invite Captain Shasetia to parties she shouldn’t be at, that I find myself ever more concerned about how well you can actually care for a child.”
William shook his head. “I didn’t invite her.”
“Don’t interrupt me.”
“Sorry,” he murmured, staring at the shadows the fire cast on the wall.
His uncle was quiet for a few seconds before he finally asked, “Did she tell you what she knows?”
“Just that she wants to talk to Dario because Derac won’t help her.” William combed his fingers through Rowan’s thick hair. With each passing day, he looked more and more like Lilly. “I figure…” he paused, biting his lip. Uncle wouldn’t care, at this point, what he could or couldn’t do once they were at the masquerade. He sighed, looking at Uncle Gatai. “I know where she lives.”
“And what of it, William?”
William exhaled deeply through his nose. “I’m meeting her at her house the night of the masquerade. I doubt she just leaves the door unlocked, but she might let me in then. I dunno…” He wracked his brain for something useful to come of this information. His gaze locked on the bookshelf. “Maybe she does have that spell.”
Uncle Gatai was quiet for a while. At last he said, “If you could find it, and tell us wherever you put Flathif’s, you could leave in as little as a month.”
“With your boy, naturally.”
The prospect was exciting, but, “I haven’t put Flathif’s anywhere.”
Uncle Gatai’s brows shot up. “What do you mean?”
He shrugged. “Derac was supposed to fetch it.”
Uncle’s head tilted slightly. “He told me you grabbed it.”
“I asked and he said he was fine grabbing it. It’s his wife.” William shrugged again, then shook his head. “No, but I got Flead’s, and he was supposed to grab Flathif’s.”
“So he lied to me, that’s what you’re saying?”
“I’m saying that I never had it.”
“Fine.” Uncle Gatai stood up, shaking his head. “Fine. You fetch Flathif’s, give me Flead’s, and see if you can’t find the damned spell, and I’ll arrange for you and your boy to return to Woodsworth.”
William opened his mouth, then closed it again. Part of him wanted to jump on the opportunity, but the irrational part wondered if it wasn’t just another lie?
Uncle Gatai seemed to read the skepticism in his face. “I mean it. Unless you’re secretly a magician, there’s not much for you to do once the ceremony is set up. I certainly don’t need you for the whole thing.” He paused. “Surely you don’t think I’m lying, after all I’ve done for you.”
“Of course not,” William said quickly. He ran a hand through his hair. How often did Uncle Gatai lie to him?
Uncle Gatai sighed, then sat next to him with a frown. “You worry too much.” He set a hand on William’s shoulder and nodded once. “I think getting out of the city would be good for you.”
Maybe… maybe he was just being too hard on his uncle again.
There have been a lot of changes to this story since I came back to it, like, a year ago, but this arc is one of the few things that has remained relatively the same. As I developed and changed various elements, this has remained something that I've been carefully working towards and trying to subtly build up. That said, my biggest concern is whether you feel like that build up worked, or if this entire thing has come out of nowhere/otherwise gone horribly wrong.
And of course, I want to hear any questions, comments, or concerns you have! ^_^