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His hands are in their pockets again.
This ought not have been a habit, oil-slick palms plunged in silk and satin purses, blackened tips tracing the rough ridges of copper coins. He is better than this, better than them---but the work needed finishing.
Enough coin could buy lenses, lights, licensures. Enough coin could buy rank, could buy respect.
Enough coin could have the workshop running day and night, could put the wits and wisdom of the finest wizards to proper use.
Enough coin could bring him back.
She found him trapped, tangled in a snare stitched from burrs and black briars.
He could be a handsome man if one were looking, with almond eyes and a firm bottom lip that would look rather comely tucked between his even, white teeth. Those teeth were bared in a snarl, though, and his eyes wide and wild with fear. Long, tapered fingers---oh, how the court poets must love those---were white at the knuckles, twisted and twining in the snarled net, stained with smears of blood.
It took hours to dig him from the sickening stink of gristle and grime, from tepid pools of black blood and piles of broken bones. He was buried beneath a mound of moldering bodies and had been for some time, but he'd not be due for the Dustmen if you knew where to look.
It was simple to track him down, to follow the clues that were carved into curves of torn flesh or the murmurs that rode the fetid breeze of the back alleys. A fistful of jagged jink could get you rumors but a swift stab in the side would get you facts: there was a mimir in the Hive and he would be dust by dawn if he didn't keep his fool mouth shut.
He did not like surprises.
In the most perfect of plans set in the bleak, black bowels of his laboratory, he would have all the time in the world--he'd HAD all the time in the world. Now he had only mere moments melting from fitful sleep to anguished wakefulness, the sorrowful suffering in the seconds that his skilled hands sought answers beneath their flesh, behind their skin, and all the endless effort that yielded naught.
The fountain rests in the heart of the forest, hidden on the folds of great, gnarled tree roots. It has been there for as long as anyone can remember, resting beneath the sweeping, sagging canopy of the lavender woods…and the nymphs with it.
You've seen them draped in willow branches and waterfalls, in smoke and stone and swallows' tails, in silk and silence. Their voices flit and flutter from the edges of the wilderness, on the wings of sparrows, in the rush and roar of heavy rain. They call to you.
"Come dance with us."
Perhaps the paladin was one to hesitate at a time like this, to doubt the path that cut so clearly and cleanly through doubt and disorder, but the sorceress was not. No, even if the blessed hero was blind to the truth, Strix could see the answer blazing before her, as brilliantly as Evelyn's blasted sun. All she need was to reach out and take it, grasp it between her fingers before her last chance slipped through the cracks and out of reach.
She slammed the shimmering dust into the bottle fistful after furious fistful, fixing her fangs into the meat of her bottom lip until blood trickled in lazy trails down her pointed chin.
There was no time!
His wrist is tilted, swirl smooth, as he stirs the contents of a scarlet-encrusted wine glass. You think perhaps that has been years since his smile reached his eyes, years since it was more than a practice of propriety, a polite facde that did not delve too deeply beneath the skin. He is calm, collected and the crimson wine does not splash nor spill upon his snow white gloves.
His mustache twitches with the sort of tired amusement that one employs when addressing what was once promised to be an exotic animal, yet has become frightfully mundane. The priest in scarlet silk moves to speak, to explain your presence (pitiful and plain though you are).
She had never seen such beauty, such unbridled brilliance.
The winged mare beneath her glided effortlessly, glimmering, glistening in the rays that reached for her, beckoned her to the golden city gates. He waited for her there, bold and beautiful. He waited beyond the heavenly palisade, between the shoulders of his faithful disciples, gilded and glowing and glorious.
She was home.
She was His.
The lazy pit-pat of rain against dying leaves has not yet begun in earnest when you meet her beneath the slim, sagging branches of those ancient willows. Her shy smile is soft, safe, and there is a throbbing thrum along disbelieving heartstrings that spreads a golden glow from the tips of fingers to the tops of feet. If she notices, she is merciful, and the dusting of freckles wrinkles rather prettily as she draws a thin brush from deep within those drooping silk sleeves.
She presses the silver stem between your palms and clasps your hands closed. The warmth of her touch lingers like breath on a window in winter.
"I will miss you."
He came after the moon began to dip into the horizon, into a great, green bed painted grey, into a cacophonous lullaby of jungle life. It was open here, all the way to stars he had never seen in all his travels, that winked down at him and his meager mortality through pinholes in the black veil of the sky.
It was open here, all the way to those stars, all the way to his head, all the way to his heart.
You are nearly ready to cap the brown candle with a brass cup when the toe of her leather boot catches the crease in your door, nudging it open to let slip a cold wind that has not quite crawled between the slats and slivers in the wooden frame. She strides in proudly, heels clicking against the creaking floorboards, trailing slick puddles of grimy snow and grey slush and when you stand to greet her, she slams a stained sack upon your desk. The black blood has already seeped through and you bite back a groan through gritted teeth---the smell alone burns the back of your throat and coaxes acid to climb up from the churning pit of your belly.
There is a hush that falls in the city, blankets it with soft snow and smothers it. Shutters of grey-washed shacks are nailed tightly shut here, and the doors are locked against the wilderness, against the hunters and the hunted. But try as it might, the city cannot hide the dips and divots of clawed footprints, cannot cloak his prey.
He stalks lazily around the twisted angles and tangled alleyways and the hardened soles of his leather boots barely whisper when they slide across the the stones. No, no, he hunts as easily here as though he traipsed through thorny groves and thickets beyond the white walls that blocked the sleeping moon.
She meets him a mile from the marble fountain when her shoulders are stiff and sore from the weight of the water buckets stretched across them. He is as beautiful as her sisters told her, with a strong jaw and eyes like chipped shards of jet. From his crown of coal-black curls rises a single jeweled horn---it shines in the sun even through the shimmering haze of heat and smoke.
He smiles, sharp teeth sparkling and straight, and casts a frayed fly whisk across the sheen on his chest. She does not smile back and carefully maneuvers around him, strings of pearls and painted beads click-clacking when she moves. Her pierced nose wrinkles daintily when he takes a step to block her path again.
"I must be away." Her voice is strained. Her patience is thin.
There is no telling how long you have been watching the golden glow bob through the murky forest like a toy boat on the sea. You do know that you have been walking for hours, that the ache in your long legs burns through your thighs and beats a relentless tattoo to the base of your skull. There is no shelter here beneath the spindly fingers of tree that have twisted upon themselves to reach for you. There is no well-worn path.
There is only the forest and the golden globe that guides you through it.
He hates the scritch-scratchy sound of fresh chalk upon the slate and cringes as every familiar stroke draws a stiff edge against his board of formulas. The distinct drone of annoyed children echoes from the farthest corners of the lecture hall but he does his very best to set his teeth and suffer the squeaks and squeals in silence. Just one more line…
"Prooooofessssoooooor," was the whine from among the rows, vowels drawn and whistling between missing teeth and some awkward---but charming---breaks in slightly older voices.
A wide grin cast over the shoulder and a deep belly laugh that shakes and shudders his shoulders. He sets the felt eraser down and impatiently waves away a cloud of white film that bursts from beneath his closed fist. The children laugh at that and he thinks, for a moment, how like a chorus of bright bells they are, chiming for him and his lessons.
"No complaining, this is the last one," he tells them, though the cheery beat of his voice betrays him: there is no bite. "After this we'll do some…practical application."
A merry mixture of mirth and misery---the students rustle sheafs of smooth parchment and set the fluffy ends of feathered quills into a flurry of motion.
Her fingers guide the polished shuttle between the strands of silk and she sighs, shoulders shuddering when her chest caves. The tapestry is shimmering, shining in the last breaths of starlight through the window, stretched taut on a walnut frame and if she keeps the pace that she has set, it will be finished by the time the sun peeks over the sill.
There are fingers upon her shoulder, straight and slender, soft and strong, and she feels a familiar weight shift and settle along the nape of her neck. She does not turn when her hair gathers in pearl-white palms and cold lips graze a bare crown, but the shuttle in her fist falters.
Where would he go when the tapestry was ready to be cut down? What would she do without him?
The man in her studio will not smile.
Typically she would not object, even after hours of finicky fidgeting and the foolhardy notion that this portrait would be done in less than a day. He is, after all, a paying customer and had proved an otherwise dutiful client. She can hardly afford to insist upon a particular facial feature, let alone urge him to remember that this painting must be perfect, as his progeny will likely have no other likeness. If it is his wish to scowl at her through the tilted easel and crisp canvas, then who is she to dictate otherwise?
You fall for hours, for days, for a thousand years and a thousand more before your descent slows nearly to a halt only a handful of inches above a churning cloud of dust. The packed ground that so readily rushed to meet the tips of your toes brushes them instead, tenderly kissing the parts of your bare heels that it can reach.
It is cold here and your breath curls from the cracks between your chapped lips in delicate coils. You shiver and shake and shift forward, beyond the green glow of cave mushrooms and the ceaseless chittering of unseen creatures.
The Underground and its wonders are waiting for you.