Perhaps it was the growing silence between us that made me realize that I was staring. Cerian was hard to look away from once his angelic aura had taken a hold of you. And once I saw the slightest of smirks turn up in the corner of his soft lips, I began to giggle to myself as was forced to look away. My entire vision had gone pink. Probably worse than it ever had before. Something about the playful hue that it put on the whole world around me tinted everything with an infatuated haze. Even the sky itself had become a wondrous miracle to behold. It just made everything in life look...sighhhh...'pretty'.
I took a moment to try to shake off the spell that Cerian's delicate looks and tender nature had cast upon me...hoping to keep my infatuated madness a secret for just a little bit longer. I can't imagine what my father would say if he had caught me tripping all over my own emotions in such a brazen manner. I, honestly, couldn't stop myself from shaking. It felt like blinding terror in a lot of ways, but much more inviting. Much more alluring. Almost like the intriguing urge to stick your hand in a burning flame...just to see what it felt like. I am so confused.
At that moment, we heard the stomping of more Solomon's guards as they passed through the market place once again. There was an awful lot of them today. Between their invasive presence and the scourge of sentinels flying overhead for multiple passes, there seemed to be a looming threat of immediate danger in the air. Where they looking to make trouble...or was the trouble already here, walking among us?
A swarm of sentinels flew low for another pass, their fluttering wings and demonic shrieking racing by as Tionna covered her sensitive ears and attempted to block them out. At least the distraction was enough to get my vision to return to normal. I wasn't sure how long it would last though. Another extended gaze at Cerian's face, or maybe even just the song that was his lovely voice, may be enough to bring my pupils back to their unnatural color.
"I don't believe I've ever seen so many at once." Cerian said, looking up at the sky. "Horrible creatures, those sentinels. Very aggressive. Especially in swarms that large."
Tionna scoffed at the idea. "They're barely worth the two or three strikes that it would take to bring any one of them down."
"Is it always like this in the Dermian marketplace?" He asked, and I bashfully peeked up to look him in the eye again. My heart began to pulse wildly as I struggled to speak.
"Not like this, no. They're in rare form today." I said. "Have you not spent much time here? In the market, I mean."
Slowly, Cerian shook his head. "This is all new to me. My father brought me here to expose me to a new part of my inner circle. And am I ever grateful. So many amazing things to see here. So many different sounds, and different people, music, art, food...I've never seen anything like it."
"There's much more on the side streets. And even better food products in the alleys."
"Yes. The markets that are put out front are big and well known here, and the merchants have much more currency to work with in terms of competing with one another for business. But the really juicy food, the best cloths, the most creative bards and new music? They're in the alleys where the less fortunate have set up smaller, family owned, shops. You can find the most traditional wares and recipes there." I said, seeing Cerian's smile widen. Wow...that smile. Just...I have no words. "Perhaps..." I paused, my breath getting caught in the back of my throat, but with a quick swallow, I continued. "Perhaps...I could show you some of the best places the side streets have to offer. Some of them are difficult to locate without a guide."
Cerian blushed slightly, and I could feel my eyes turning pink again. "I think I would like that, Orrin." He said softly. "My first major journey outside of my ring...and I feel as though I have already made a good friend." Then he looked over at Tionna. "Perhaps two friends?"
Still a bit envious of my instant attraction to him, Tionna grumbled, "You assume much, preacher's son." Then she looked down to where the beggar had been seated just moments ago, only to find an empty space and an old blanket that he had left behind. "You see, Orrin? I TOLD you not to waste your silver on that wandering piece of trash. Now he's gone. Not so much as a 'thank you'."
"It's fine, Tionna." I told her. "I didn't give him the silver to feel good about myself. I gave it to him so that he didn't have to go to bed hungry tonight."
"We could have bought ourselves some sweetie treats with the amount of money you gave him. And you too." She said, turning her gaze to Cerian. She seemed to be in one of her moods today. It was best to just ignore it and leave her alone before she finds her sense of joy in the conflict.
Cerian, however, answered her with, "I think what we did was a noble thing."
"If you stopped helping the unfortunate and the leeches of the realm, they wouldn't keep coming back for more."
"And yet, if we helped them all...there wouldn't be any unfortunates or leeches left. And we could prosper together once an equilibrium between us had been restored." Cerian retorted. I looked over at him, and it almost seemed as if he was getting more and more incredible with each passing moment. I think I like his take better.
Tionna said, "I think your professionally administered brainwashing has done its job well." Yikes! She's going to insult his religion now? "I suppose someone like you would take that as a compliment."
Without hesitation, Cerian said, "I do." I think it had taken her by surprise. And Tionna doesn't get surprised very often. "At the Temple Of Kalo, we believe that all things are natural and designed to perfection. It is only our perception that warps the Realm's meaning...as well as its beauty."
Now becoming curious, Tionna stepped closer. "We feed off of one another, we have to protect what is ours and defend those we love. One can only gain when another loses. It's the only way to survive. And if that is so, there can be no equilibrium. What would be the purpose of a perfect Realm?"
"Nature doesn't act with purpose. It acts with balance. Every action affects the tide. Rewards must be given...and debts must be paid. When you selflessly give in to the balance...the tide has no choice but to bring that good fortune back to you. And if you try to take from the balance...the balance will ultimately take from you." He said. "Justice. Fairness. They're not just concepts, they are the natural way of restoring the balance to all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be. Everything works in equal parts to its exact opposite. The darkest shadows can only be created by the brightest light. Kalo teaches us to trust in the balance of such things, even during the most unfortunate times. It's really quite beautiful once you learn to recognize it for what it is."
Again, my heart began to beat faster. I wasn't sure how much more of his graceful presence I could handle before I lost all control. I had never been more tempted to press my lips against those of another boy. My hands itched with the longing I felt to reach out and touch him. Not in a lustful way, although thoughts of that did seem to be festering in the back of my mind somewhere...but in a way that was affectionate. Maybe even intimate. An arm, his waist, his hair...or maybe just a light brush of my thumb across the smooth surface of his cheek as I gazed directly into his eyes and let him see what my true feelings were for him.
"I'm sorry. I'm rambling." Cerian said. "It wasn't my intention."
"No. I thought it was...you know...beautiful. Just like you said." I told him.
Tionna looked back and forth between us as we gazed at one another again, and she decided to back down for once. "It was alright. Whatever makes you mystics happy." She started to walk away, but grabbed a hold of my wrist to drag me along with her. "Come on, I need food. Let's go this way."
"Hold on a moment." I said, pulling free from her grip. "Ummm...Cerian? Would you like to, maybe follow us to some of those alley shops that I told you about? They've got really good stuff. I promise."
He looked over his shoulder, and then back at me. "I can't be gone for too long. Like I said, this is a whole new ring for me, and my father will be worried if he loses sight of me for too long."
"We'll have you back in no time. It's not far." I said, the excitement building as Cerian looked as though he was going to sneak away with us.
"Hmmm...alright. I suppose I can come see what secrets the Dermian Market has to offer."
So we all trotted off together, the three of us, and Tionna led the way towards a few of the so-called 'peasant class' alleys around the next few corners. These streets were a bit more crowded, with more smoke, louder music, and smaller venues. And you had to be careful of pickpockets and thieves. I made sure to warn Cerian to hold his purse tightly to his hip so as not to become a target. And yet, despite its 'less than pristine' appearance...the energy in the alleys and side streets was always massively different. Smiles all around. Songs and instruments that inspired the shoppers and even the merchants themselves to dance. Sometimes, even with strangers. A few drunks littered the streets here and there, stumbling about with an intoxicated sway...and at one point, we saw a fight break out on the side of the street over a high stakes game of Manupa, a gambling match featuring a hand full of cards and pyramid shaped wood pieces on a circular board. I never learned how to play. My father wouldn't let me. People have been slaughtered over suspected cheating at Manupa, depending on how high the stakes were. It hardly looked like a game that one would want to sacrifice their life for.
"This is amazing!" Cerian said, his head looking back and forth so quickly that it was as if he was afraid to miss a part of the experience. I could hear a few strings and horns playing nearby, and an older lady with a wide grin took Cerian by the hand and twirled him around, causing him to giggle playfully as they began to step and twirl and dance for a few moments before she let go and waved goodbye. Thanking him for accepting the random spin and sway. Cerian looked at me and said, "I don't even know her! Are all of the side streets like this? This is much more fun than the main streets! Hehehe! Oh wow! What is that over there?"
"That? Hehehe, he's juggling." I said. "Have you never seen juggling before?"
Cerian shook his head, his mind blown by watching the act. "How is he able to keep them in the air like that? He keeps catching them. So fast..." He asked, "Is it magic?"
"No. No magic. Just a practiced skill."
"Incredible." He whispered.
As we tried to make our way through the alley, I asked, "So...you said that this was your first time exploring a new ring?"
Cerian was still distracted by some of the sights and sounds surrounding him, but soon nodded and said, "Yes. I celebrated my fourteenth ring about six sunrises before today. I was able to pass my trials pretty easily, but I was still nervous to come here at first. I read all of these texts and listened to many stories by the fire, but to actually be here to see it for myself? This is more than I ever could have expected. I want to come back here every day from now on. I am in awe of this place."
I loved to see the sparkle in his eyes. I loved to see the beauty of his smile. And there's something about Tanzian ears that just drives me WILD with passion. "I'm glad you like it." I said. My eyes were changing again! I had to look away before he noticed. "I'm not far from my fifteenth ring, myself. Soon, I'll be able to travel outside of the marketplace and maybe find adventures elsewhere. A little closer to the outlands. Or so I'm hoping."
Cerian grinned, "I don't look forward to having anything to do with the outlands. From what I hear, it's full of monsters and wicked men. Sounds intimidating."
"Maybe." I said. "But aren't you the least bit curious? I mean...imagine being able to explore parts of the Realm that even our travelers, our teachers, our parents, have never seen. New lands, and new colors, and new sunsets over unknown places." I said, dreamily looking up at the sky above. "I just...I have a craving to experience so much more. Maybe the fourteenth ring is satisfying to most boys who live within it...but not for me. I want to go further. I want to see it all. And I don't want to wait until I'm too old to enjoy it like I can right now."
Cerian glanced over at me, and I noticed that he was blushing again. But he didn't turn away. Not like I would have. There was something different in the tilt of his smile this time. Something that I couldn't quite describe, but I could feel it...through and through. "A very daring and dauntless perspective. I like it." He said.
"Really?" I replied. "You're probably thinking that I'm the one babbling now, huh?"
He said, "No. Actually...I was thinking that I must have done something good for the balance to bring this sort of good fortune my way in response."
There was a slightly flirtatious feeling that came along with that comment, and a welcoming rush of fancy seemed to take me over the edge, into a full blown swoon over what I was hearing. Never have I been so fascinated.
"I...I uhhh..." My helpless stammering was cut short by the sound of a rather high pitched voice as it pushed its way through the crowd.
I couldn't see where it was coming from at first, as the boy was so short that everyone else towered over him by a full head or two. But you could see the disturbance in the cluster of shoppers as he confidently shoved them all to the side. "Coming through. Coming through. Take heed. Step to the side, please. I have important business here. Move aside, please. You too. Yes...to the side! Pardon me..."
What I saw, once he finally broke through to a clearing in the was so valiantly trying to bully out of his path...was a young boy that barely looked as though he should be wandering around this part of the marketplace by himself. Fresh faced, with wide, dark brown, eyes and slightly feminine features, he appeared almost androgynous at first. Especially with a mop of longish brown hair that hung down to his chin on both sides of his face. Dressed in homemade clothes and a pair of shoes that looked as though they would need replacing soon, his proud posture and assertive attitude seemed almost out of place when compared to the rest of his vulnerable appearance. There was a small smudge of dirt on his cheek that he didn't seem to take notice of, but the way he marched through that crowd and over to one of the food vendors on the side of the alley...you would have thought he was dashing out in the finest threads in the Realm.
He stood in front of the merchant, who was roasting some of his fine meats and cleaning his work area simultaneously. The older man had to lean forward and peer over the counter to make eye contact with the boy, looking down upon him as though he were a scavenging rodent, looking for a few cheeks full of seed. "You won't find any children's toys here, boy. Move along."
"I'm not here for playthings, good sir. I would like to buy some of your prepared goods to take home with me. I like your spread." The boy said, and Cerian, Tionna, and I, were instantly entertained by his very presence there. There was a certain innocent arrogance about him. What ring was he in? There's no way that he could be old enough to travel this far away from his homeland. Not unless he lived right outside of the gates of Dermian, which was unlikely.
"Are you playing games?" The merchant asked.
"Not at all. I would like two loaves of bread, please. And these purple peppers. Sell me four of them. And your thickest cut of Punzasha meat! Is it fresh? Give me at least four stones' worth. And some of your finest valley spices. The spiciest spices you've got." The boy ordered, looking over his table and picking out even more items to fill his belly with. "Is this Fanosha pudding? Yes, give me a covered bowl of that as well. No...TWO! Two covered bowls of Fanosha pudding! Let's see, hmmm...what else?"
The merchant raised an eyebrow. "Do you have enough silver to afford any of this, boy?"
With a grin, the boy took a small pouch from his belt, and he poured what looked like a hidden treasure's worth of coins into his smallish hand. "What does THIS tell you? Huh?"
The merchant replied, "It tells me that your parents let you walk around with too much currency to be considered safe in this part of the market." He was suspicious from the very beginning, but whether the boy's money was legitimate or not...the merchant didn't see that as being his problem. Still, he asked, "What ring are you in, young one?"
Feigning surprise, the boy gasped and tried his best to put a mean look on that non-threatening face of his. Hahaha, he looked more like a baby with a belly ache than a threat. "Don't be rude! And you mind your business, meat peddler!" He said, his voice cracking slightly. "I want some of those ginger roots as well. And that bottle of pan oil. And pass me that small jug of wine, while you're at it!" The merchant didn't move. Just stared the boy in the eyes until he knew he was going a bit too far with his ruse now. "Alright, alright. Forget the wine. Just package up the rest, and I'll give you enough coin to rest easy tonight."
"Watch your tongue." The man told him. "You should thank fortune itself that I am even serving you at all."
The boy said, "Don't you tell me to watch my tongue! The NERVE of you! My currency is just as good as anyone else's in this place!" He stomped his foot. "I'll have you know that my father is a well known prince from a far away land, and he will not tolerate his first born being treated with such disrespect! Now you package up the items I asked you for and do away with the insults! Lest I have one of my loyal servants come down here and throttle you about the ears and face with a whipping stick!"
The three of us could overhear the whole transaction, and we all began to laugh heartily to ourselves over the boy's mini tantrum. But my attention was snatched away by a bit of ruckus coming from further down the alley. It looked like the same platoon of soldiers that had passed us earlier, but they seemed to be extremely angry as they were coming back through the side streets. We watched as they shoved other marketplace shoppers out of their way and searched the crowd with a vengeful eye. I noticed one of the soldiers grab a small child who was wearing a hood on his head, and he snatched it off...looking into the boy's eyes. There was no recognition there, and so he let the boy go. They kept moving forward, looking for anyone shorter than they were. Often nabbing them by the scruff of the neck, or grabbing their chin to lift their heads up to look them in the eye.
It wasn't difficult to figure out who they were searching for.
The boy at the merchant's counter saw the soldiers approaching, and he turned his back to them, his hands now beginning to nervously tap on the table. "I don't have all day, you know! Make it snappy!" He said.
"You said you wanted my thickest cut of Punzasha meat. Four stones' worth. You have to wait for me to cut it from the spit."
"Well...hurry up!" The boy said, now peeking back over his shoulder to see the soldiers closing in on his location. "Ok, just...give me what you got now! And the spices! And the pudding! One loaf of bread! Just...shove some stuff in a bag so I can pay you and move on!"
"Worried about something, are we?" The merchant smirked, now seeing the soldiers himself.
I've seen this kind of thing happen before in the alleys of the Dermian Marketplace. I know how this story ends. And it isn't on the side of this brave little boy, that's for sure!
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