Alaise sat uncomfortably, her hands clasped in her lap, eyes guiltily flicking between the forms of the two men in her company. The older man was presently sprawled unconscious on the musty, overstuffed pillow they let the neighborhood stray use on stormy nights. The red-head sat across from her. His chestnut eyes roamed the room critically with deep suspicion, which only heightened when they looked at Alaise. She felt as though she were under deep scrutiny, but she was used to that. Alaise supposed she shouldn't feel it was about her appearance, either, for there was no suspicious mystery behind two people of different races coming together to produce a child forever doomed to walk the space between two worlds and never fully engage in either one.
No, he didn't seem suspicious of that. Maybe he was suspicious of her loyalty to them. She had thought so originally, since they had been sneaking about (with good cause), and so she had professed to the Prince that on her life she would not betray them. The prince in question seemed unconcerned and trusting, his eyes looking at his own dirtied, warped reflection in the old, settled glass of their kitchen window. In fact, His Highness regarded her with more of a pleading comraderie, and the redhead beside him with a set of baleful, apologetic glances.
The redhead refused to look at Tervius, but seemed to regard the air all around him with that suspicion, as if it had become something he hadn't anticipated.
Alaise had missed something, she was certain of it. But it was as much her place to ask about it as it was her place to invite herself to the royal palace of either nation and offer herself as an eligible suitor for a member of the royal family. If there was something she was always painfully aware of, particularly in these times of war, it was what was acceptable for her, and what was not. Her place.
"Shall I fix some tea for you, my Lord an--I'm sorry, what was...?"
"Dustan," answered the prince after a brief pause from the man in question, who seemed completely unaware that he was being spoken to. A muscle was visibly working in the back of his jaw. He wrinkled his nose in response to hearing his name from his companion's tongue, and turned his head away, his gaze fixingor so it seemedon a cupboard full of preserves with crude but uniform labels; the wares they sold to the tourists. However, he didn't seem to be reading them or really inspecting them. His gaze, by Alaise's measure, may have stopped in the dead space somewhere between his person and the cupboard, floating in the air hatefully, trying to boil the humidity straight out of it.
She nodded, "Yes, of course. Dustan," and stepped a few paces away from the table, around the L-corner of the kitchen into the tiny U where the counters and the burners were. The floor creaked noisily beneath her as she leaned from side to side, not needing to take a step so much as merely shit her weight between her feet in order to retrieve the kettle, fill it from the bucket on the counter, and set it atop the burner. She poured oil into the divot beneath the grate, then carefully dropped a round, black stone into it. It rolled into the coin-sized puddle of oil, and immediately ignited. She felt briefly embarrassed, and cast a glance over her shoulder at the pair. She could only see the prince, for the corner wall obscured Dustan from sight, but they appeared to be paying no mind, preoccupied with their own silence.
She supposed that a fugitive prince wouldn't judge their comparative poverty too harshly, since he was at the mercy of their hospitality tonight, but still. A new and more powerful fire stone would have been brilliantly shining and swirled with color
and wouldn't need oil to help it light up. But it was old and stained by smoke, and acted more like a ball of flint than a true magical sphere.
She began to turn around to head back to them, when she heard above the creaking the soft sound of Tervius's voice. It was raspy with the effort to disguise his Terthian dialect, though Alaise didn't know why. She already knew who he was, and any guard who accompanied him certainly would. Perhaps it was habit.
Pausing to give them assumed privacy but still allow the floor to silence itself enough to let her eavesdrop, she paused in front of the ice box, grabbed a rag, and began to wipe down its surface.
"The deception was not personal, Dustan." A grunt from the receiver of this explanation cracked more loudly than the words themselves. "It wasn't!" His tone grew pleading, and through the corner of her eye, Alaise could see Tervius tentatively lift a hand toward Dustan, then curl his fingers back. "I couldn't just go around telling people who I was.
"That isn't the issue, here." The disdainful snarl with which he spoke set Alaise's nerves on edge. Perhaps she should have knocked him out after all. Perhaps, even, he was no guard, but a kidnapper? But then, why would Tervius be apologizing to him? Why wouldn't he have known his identity? No, that didn't make sense, either. "The issue is that I trusted you, and you were just using me."
"You knew that in the first place! I asked you to help me get free. It wasn't as if I pretended I was doing it for you. But I am
very glad, that you did come along. I couldn't have come this far without you."
"Bullshit," Dustan spat, his chair gently whining as he moved in it. "You could have cast a happy magic spell and gotten yourself free. Just like you did my collar, here. Isn't that right? You healed it with your fucking magic?"
"I did. I couldn't let you continue as you were. You could have died of an injury like that."
"Right, and you needed me to continue to unwittingly escort you into your enemy's lands, and happily let you spy on my people."
"No! I mean, I wanted company, certainly, but spying
"Save it. I have nothing to say to you."
More silence fell on the room, so thickly that she realized that she herself had paused in her scouring, and was making no noise as well. Her heart lept into her ears, which pulsed with the panic associated with such a telling lack of activity, and shifted, just barely, the floor squealing as if it weren't supposed to.
"How is the tea coming?" the prince asked considerately. He probably knew, but if he did, she loved him for it in that moment.
"Oh, well, it's coming. Kettle isn't boiling yet." On this vocal invitation, she emerged from around the corner, and glanced at the two of them. Dustan had turned in his seat with his arms folded, his back to the prince, who looked less apologetic now, and instead slightly irritated, an eyebrow turned down, barely creasing the space above the bridge of his nose. He really was so pristinely lovely, even in his warm-skinned disguise. That's how she'd recognized him. The painting, she'd thought at the time, was typically perfect, and couldn't have portrayed the truth of the appearance of its subjects. But here he was, painted into the room. He was thin, and dirty, and looked Aurish, and his hair was snarled, but nonetheless, he was unmistakable.
Again, Alaise felt a tinge of embarrassment. Could they have been any more different, the two of them? He could pass as Aurish or Terthian by way of magic, but still his features suited him. She tried to sloppily take on both looks, and the result was disastrous.
He smiled at her, and she paused with her mouth open. He continued, unbothered, "How did you recognize me?" he asked, "Have I visited this specific orchard before?"
"No," she said, shaking her head, "I mean, I don't know. I didn't know what you looked like until just a few days ago." She wondered, briefly, the sincerity with which that general had been looking. Perhaps he was as good an actor as the prince was. She'd thought he'd been genuinely concerned, yet the Prince had adopted his own disguise and seemed to be fleeing into Aur.
"Oh? That is curious."
"Well, a man came looking for you. He searched the whole county, from what I gather, with a handful of soldiers. He had a red cape and looked very important. He showed a painting of you, which, I must say, was of remarkable likeness
"That guy?" the other man interjected at last, turning his still-indignant head toward Alaise and fixing her with his eyes once more, before, at last, letting them fall onto the prince. "That guy who nearly killed us? He was after you?"
"Oh?" she asked, "He found you then?" Tervius's smile faded quickly, then tipped into a frown as he fearlessly met Dustan's accusatory look. Disappointment visibly slipped onto both of their faces, though in different degrees, and assumedly for very different reasons.
"Unbelievable," Dustan mumbled, again looking away.
"He could have killed us, but he didn't. He was looking for me, yes, but he found me and he let us go." The prince was quick to defend himself this time, and Dustan looked surprised for it, but quickly regrouped with a roll of his eyes and a shake of his head, the fold his arms were in tightening across his lean chest.
"Oh, so I should be grateful to you for that too, then, just like my shoulder? And my escape? And this inn for the night?"
"Already two pussies livin' in this house, boy. They don't need another from you." The drowsy certainty of the older man shook up from the floor beside the table. Alaise jumped in shock at his consciousness, and immediately fixed him with a washcloth she'd had sitting in a bowl of now lukewarm water nearby, folding it apologetically on his forehead. He winked at her and kept talking, letting her work on him. "So stop pissing yourself a hot bowl of pity and either drink it back in or dump it outside, 'cos it can't sit stinking around here."
Alaise expected Dustan to react violently, but instead he simply stared at the man speaking, then visibly pouted.
"You don't understand, Faern" Dustan began, "Edel--that's not his real name--he's a spy--"
"So are you, fool. Who cares? If he was really spying for the other team, don't you think they'd've set him up with more comfortable digs than the workhouse we were in?"
"You escaped from one of the camps?"
"Yeah darlin, we did. Can you bend over a bit more? Ow!" Dustan kicked Faern in the side, then at last looked at Alaise apologetically. It was clear now that his anger hadn't been directed at her, after all.
She smiled back at him forgivingly and shook her head. The room would have gone silent at this point, had Faern still been unconscious. But he wasn't, so he grunted and groaned and smiled so loudly it filled the room. Even his bawdy comments at her made Alaise feel at ease. She was used to dealing with crass country humor--she was not used to dealing with the apologetic prince of a warring nation to which she owed half of her heritage, and an indignant, outraged soldier of the opposing nation to which she owed her other half.
Half-way through one of Faern's comments about the shitty plaster on the walls of the kitchen, Dustan finally answered Faern's earlier question, some of his spite returning with his words: "Well, he never actually worked, did he? Did anyone ever see him? He just stayed up in his bed all day and plotted!" Dustan jabbed a finger into Tervius's upper arm, causing the lither man to wince. Dustan stared at him expectantly for some kind of rebuttal, but Tervius just returned his gaze unflinchingly, those bright copper eyes growing increasingly colder. Dustan looked fazed just for a splitsecond before a triumphant look overtook him. "At last," he said. "No response. At least he's finally being honest."
"I did work. But not often," Tervius began, and when Dustan rolled his eyes, he scowled and firmly grasped Dustan's upper arm. That is, it seemed firm from the amount of energy he put into it, but Dustan easily pulled his arm away from the slender clutch. The prince opened his mouth to say something else, but when caught by Dustan's defiant, "try your worst, I'm ready" look, he shook his head and looked away. "Forget it. Believe what you wish to believe."
"At least," Dustan said, scowling, "Stop with the pretenses. You're one of those vile ogres, so speak and look the part. It's insulting, your pretense now."
Tervius paused, his lovely, filthy, sweat-salted face void before he frowned, "This young lady's mother is one of those "ogres" you speak of. You should watch your tongue when you're receiving generous hospitality."
Again, Dustan shot Alaise a look of apology, but it seemed only half-hearted. Although he appeared earnest and sincere in his eyes to her, his words did not convey remorse for the insult. "Because I'm in party with their Prince," he spat, and shut his eyes. "Just hurry up and tell me when you're done." He seemed to be bracing himself the way her mother often did when she paused before the door to their outhouse, key in hand to unlock it for a paying guest. She was desensitized to the smell she had been accustomed to all those years. But the anticipation of the reaction of the guest to the stench was something far more overpowering to her. Perhaps that brace was more what Alaise was feeling. Dustan was the guest, and she was her mother, desensitized to racism after a life of duality, yet still dreading seeing it happen honestly and face-on.
Tervius looked at Dustan. His eyes met him with frigidity, but instantly thawed upon seeing that the other man's eyes were closed, the residual water blinked back behind his eyelashes. Was he himself hurt? Or was he hurting for Dustan? A man who had been encamped by his army, and for whom he must feel some sympathy?
The look vanished when Tervius closed his eyes as well. Alaise expected a spell, but none came. Instead, Tervius reached into the front of his tunic, and pulled out a necklace. From it hung a pendant made of stone--a small, yet remarkably-carved golden hand, cradling what looked like an egg, or a pear, but lumpy and misshapen. The stone itself was a bright, brilliant sky blue, and shone with multiple colors, as it swung under the light--like the inside of the shell her mother kept as a memento of when a tourist paid them with it--except that at the time, there were a few pearls inside. The hand looked familiar to Alaise. In fact, she knew exactly what it reminded her of--she had the same necklace. Had he stolen it? But on hers, the hand was tarnished, and it was empty. A gift from the father she'd never met, it sat untouched on her dresser, on the corner nearest the window, accruing weather damage.
The hand must have been a common thing, for Tervius drew out a second from his pocket. Again, it was gold and shining and new-looking, but this hand held a red stone, burning like painted fire blown with gold dust. When he placed the second necklace around his neck, his features became strangely distorted. They underlying structure didn't change, but everything that was strikingly Aurish or strikingly Terthian was accentuated to make him look like a completed puzzle portrait whose pieces were from two completely different pictures. She must have gasped, for his eyes--now a brass to match the hands around his neck--flicked to meet hers, and with a strangely emphasized look of guilt, he swiftly removed the blue-stoned necklace, and tucked the red one into his shirt. When the blue one left his neck, his features settled again, and he was the picture of the smooth, slate-skinned beauty whose painting she'd been shown by the soldier.
"Are you done yet?" Dustan grunted, one of his eyes opening impatiently to glance over at Tervius, who had just finished pocketing the blue-stoned necklace. "What? What did he do?" Dustan asked, though now his gaze was on Alaise. She realized that her expression was betraying her wonder. "Did he do something weird?"
"No, no. I was just surprised, is all."
By what, though, she wasn't quite certain.