Flashback The Wish and the Willing

Caspian looks for love in the wrong places.

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A lawless town of anarchists, built on the ruins of an ancient mining city. [Lore]

The Wish and the Willing

Postby Caspian on March 17th, 2021, 12:59 pm

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1 Summer 510

On the first night of Summer, Taaldros takes the core members of his house down to the Sunset Quarters.

Crossing his arms with a scowl, his left wrist smarting from where Taaldros had grabbed and yanked him out the door, a 17-year-old Caspian hangs back behind the rest of the group. Naturally, Taaldros is at the front, Gavir in step, Zhassel eagerly keeping pace. None of them are talking, but there’s a tightness to their shoulders, a pointedness to their vector. Taalviel flutters a few steps behind them, quick and efficient, and just as silent.

It’s extremely weird, being out with the whole family – if you can call it that – at once. Like, suspiciously unusual, do a double-take petching odd. To Caspian’s recollection this has never happened before, and he’s quite certain he doesn’t like it. One member of the house is enough to deal with, but the whole horde at the same time? It could be worse, he supposes – Taaldros had left the real louts back at the house. There are two who’ve been staying over this week, both cut-knuckled mercenaries with a dozen gold teeth between them. Not the brightest, but good enough for smashing, which is worth keeping them on hand.

So where in the world are they going that Taaldros has decided he doesn’t need the muscle – that it’s worth bringing Caspian along instead?

No one tells him anything, of course, even after they make their way through the Sunset Quarters and up someone’s stoop. People passing by see the sword at Taaldros’ hip, the gleaming longbow on Gavir’s back, the knives belted on the waists of all. Zhassel’s lip pulled back in feral Hound’s snarl. They wisely avert their eyes.

Taaldros knocks on the door, which is a funny way to rob someone’s house – but Caspian supposes this is a strange day all around. A man answers, rough and tumble like the rest of them, and upon seeing Taaldros lets him in immediately without a word.

For a moment Caspian considers not heading in after the others. Clearly, they’re expected – doubtful at this point that Taaldros would skip out on any preplanned meeting just to chase Caspian down in the streets. As if reading his mind, Gavir hangs back, waiting for him on the stoop. The Vantha man’s eyes flash from amethyst to ruby, then to a swirling pine green.

“Caspian,” he says, in his careful, pointed way.

Caspian uncrosses his arms. Crosses them again. As only a half-Vantha, his eyes don’t project how he’s feeling, but his body language should be a message clear enough. “Tell me what’s going on first. And then I’ll decide if I want to be a part of it.”

In a house full of people unwilling and uninterested in respectful communication, Gavir still wins the prize for being the most pensively silent. Only speaking when absolutely necessary, each syllable he chooses is weighed with absolute intent.

He’s one of the most brutal and effective interrogators Caspian’s ever seen.

Even if he and Taaldros weren’t great friends, he’s more than earned his spot on the payroll.

“Caspian,” Gavir says again, and that’s twice now, something deadly hanging in the air between them, a promise of what might happen if he has to call a third.

With the evening rolling on, and without the safety of the group at large, it might be in his best interests after all not to linger outside alone.

Caspian sighs and resentfully heads up the porch steps and into the house. Just past the doorway, Taaldros’ hand closes around the back of his neck, guiding him to a room towards the back of the house.

“Watch. Listen. Learn,” Taaldros hisses in his ear, shoving him lightly into a corner for good measure.

As Gavir shuts the door behind him, Caspian feels the room shift.

Something’s begun.

There are four other people here, and not nearly enough chairs for all of them. Caspian props himself on a window ledge and scans the ones he doesn’t know. Two women, two men, all humans in roughly hewn, practical clothing, carrying half a dozen weapons between them. All around Taaldros’ age, with a respectable number of scars. Mercenaries, from the looks of things, another murky family of misfits cobbled together just like his own.

They offer Taaldros the most stable-looking seat in the house, and a woman with lank brown hair tightly pinned back takes one across from him.

From the initial gesture of respect, and the fact that they’ve been in here for a few minutes yet no one’s broken any bones – Caspian deduces, with relief, that they aren’t here to wage war.

Perhaps, precisely, the opposite.

Taaldros and the woman – Bethana, it sounds like – lapse immediately into talks of neighborhoods and boots on the ground and percentages of cuts. This is a conversation they must have started long ago; and now, it seems, things are coming to some fruition. Without any prior knowledge, most of it goes over Caspian’s head, and his attention wanders.

And that’s when he notices a young man around his own age, slinking out of the shadows of a dark hallway, and settling back into a corner opposite his own.
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The Wish and the Willing

Postby Caspian on March 19th, 2021, 12:46 pm

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The other boy looks a lot better than Caspian.

There are a few candles flickering around the room, more light filtering in through the gaps in the curtains from the lamp posts outside. The other boy steps right into a moonbeam, and – what was Caspian supposed to do? Not look at someone effectively entering center stage?

It takes him a few moments of both covert and conspicuous staring to parse out exactly what constitutes that better.

First, perhaps, is the noted absence of holes or patches in the other boy’s clothing. It’s standard fare, rough spun linen in muted green, like grass drying under summer sun – but it isn’t wrinkled, nor torn, and he’s got the sleeves neatly rolled halfway up his forearms. A brown leather belt is cinched around his waist, but not so tightly that it suggests it’s the only thing keeping his pants up. A matching leather bracelet is knotted around his left wrist.

But his shoes - the shoes are what piece it all together. Not only do they match, they appear to fit.

All of the above suggests that someone is looking after this boy, that perhaps at least one person in this house has gone out of their way to find clothes for him, and not just treated the matter of dressing him as a chore, as slapdash as one might a scarecrow.

But more than the clothes –

There’s just something about the way the other boy is holding himself.

He’s leaning back with his hands in his pockets, pensive but seemingly relaxed with the proceedings, like he’s got no issue with having a swarm of strangers crammed into his parlor. His shoulders are broader, carrying noticeable muscle, and unlike Caspian he looks like he could swing a sword for more than a minute without his arms going numb.

He’s fleshed out, filled out, given room to grow.

And Caspian, in his thin-wristed, sullen despondence, can only cross his arms harder and try to melt into the wall.

He wishes he’d put on a better shirt, the one he’d snatched from someone’s clothesline last week, with a spray of flowers across the collar. Some of the wooden buttons are even painted with delicate red blooms, most of it not yet worn off. Taaldros hasn’t seen it yet but Caspian already knows he hates it, so he’d hidden it in the back of his closet and told himself he was saving it for a special occasion.

When special occasions will enter his Sunberthian vocabulary is yet to be determined, but it’s hanging in his room all the same.

For the past quarter of a bell, Caspian hasn’t moved from his perch against the ledge. But he must be telegraphing something loud and clear, for he realizes, the next time he tries to sneak a glance, that the other boy is watching him too.

Face burning, Caspian hurriedly looks away, stares at the back of Taaldros’ head and hopes the light is dim enough here that the other boy can’t tell. The back of his neck is prickling, and after five years he’s come very well to know that means –

For some reason he looks, as if that will change anything, right at Taalviel.

Like the brooding, darkly prophetic vision she is, she’s staring right back at him.

Calculating, doubtlessly, the angle of his eyeline and what must have caught his attention.

Even if she figures it out, what could she possibly scold him for?

It isn’t a crime to wonder what he might turn out like if someone gave a damn.

Whatever Taaldros had come for – he looks a bit stormy as he finally rises from his seat and shakes Bethana’s hand. But Caspian’s not sure he’s ever seen him look pleased with anything, and at the very least, they’ve done the petching improbable, which was deal with strangers without anyone ending up in stitches.

The other boy hangs back in that same corner, watching them all file out. The hallway seems narrower, walking now trickier for some reason, and when Caspian follows suit he feels another flush rise across his neck. Though resolved to keep his fidgeting hands in his pockets and his petching eyes straight ahead –

The moment they’re level, it’s like an electric current runs through him, like a rope tied between them and pulling taut. He looks again. It’s only for a second, a shifting of his gaze right to the side, a compulsion like a kick, and –

The other boy is looking right back, playing idly with the leather bracelet around his wrist.

Distracted, Caspian doesn’t notice their exit’s momentarily halted and bumps into Gavir, leaping back with stuttering apologies, right into Taalviel bringing up the rear.

“Watch it,” she hisses, shoving him forward.

Gavir gives them a warning look, enough to punt Taalviel back into check.

With the other boy just a few feet away, Caspian keeps his expletives to himself, only unwinding when the Sunset Quarters are far behind them.
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The Wish and the Willing

Postby Caspian on March 28th, 2021, 2:48 pm

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There’s a quick rap at Caspian’s bedroom door, the only warning before it’s opened without his approval.

Up,” Gavir says in Vani, sapphire eyes flashing at him slantwise from beneath his hood.

Caspian groans, rolling over in bed and looking at him blearily. Last night had not been a long one, but a painful one, and the thrashing he’d put himself through in his escape is now making itself known. For the past year he’s been more than a bit obsessed with the Gated Community, that little walled-off and guarded patch east-ish of the city center. His interests go beyond the material – he’s never been inside, and for that alone it becomes an itch he desperately needs to scratch. Some of the wealthy here have walls around their compounds and keep security, but they're just single lots, not an entire neighborhood. What’s the Gated Community got that they keep it under such conspicuous lock and key? How did a whole collective of neighbors decide that what they had was worth cooperating over, and how exactly did they draw the boundary lines? There are plenty of rumors about what the area contains, and the most consistent assumption is that there’s a high class brothel with hosts from as far as Eyktol, some even from Avanthal. There also, apparently, might be a solid silver fountain flowing with ale, substituted with red wine on holidays, and all the citizens of the Gated Community walk around with an equally solid and silver tankard around their waists, and are free to dip into the fountain whenever they like. He’s not sure which of these things is more than the whimsy daydreaming of the masses, but he supposes there must be a kernel of truth in them, or the rumors wouldn’t so consistently persist.

So he had tried, last night, to get into the Gated Community. They’ve chopped down most of the trees directly beside said gate, but not all, and he’d found one of the remaining, waited for the blisteringly bored guards to amble off enough to the left, and attempted to shimmy up and over. Had he been caught while still on the tree, the guards may not have bothered very much at all; but he’d placed his hand fully on the top of said gate, and in making contact, his offense evidently ratcheted up several exponential notches. There had been a lot of screaming and swearing and the expected number of threateningly waving spears, and seeing as he had no other choice – both cajoling, jeering, and feigning confusion had none of the desired effect – he clambered carefully down. But as incremental as the slight had been, he had breached the area, and the guards had decided to take their approach up towards maximum.

He hit the ground running. He made it all of two steps before one of the guards snatched him by the collar of his shirt and dragged him back. Underestimating exactly how many times said shirt had been passed down and wrung out before finding its way to Caspian, all they had accomplished was a momentary garrote before Caspian tore himself free.

Had the guards been any less portly, they might have caught him, and instead by the limbs, which unlike his threadbare clothing are a lot harder to tear away. They gave him a good run for it, though, and he flung himself through unforgivingly brick alleys and over equally unforgiving brick walls, tearing through yard and block until, finally, they had given up.

And now he’s lying in bed and it’s well past noon, with nothing to show for the whole experience except his bruises.

Up,” Gavir says again. “Now.” Before Gavir, he hadn’t known the language of Avanthal, of his father, could be spoken with such harshness. That something so merry and crystalline could be boiled down into a scraping against the grain.

This time Caspian listens. “What for?”

But Gavir is already gone.

No one bothers, again, to tell him where they’re going; no one, as is expected, asks him why he’s wincing and scraped. It’s only when they enter the limits of the Sunset Quarters and Caspian realizes the same group – Taaldros, Gavir, Zhassel, himself and Taalviel – have fallen in line, that he deduces where they’re headed.

It’s been a week since their first visit to Bethana’s home, since seeing the boy his age, who seemed, just by existing, to encapsulate everything Caspian isn’t. Something between then and now must have gone well, for this time the house is full of smells well and roasting. As far as Caspian can remember, no one Taaldros has worked with in the past has bothered to make him dinner. Is this some kind of trap? But one of the women who’s got full run of the kitchen is tasting as she goes, adding herbs and salt and pepper as needed, tasting again. She pronounces it done, smiling and wiping her hands on her apron in satisfaction. Someone hands them plates, and if they’re meant to also be serving themselves –

He supposes none of it, though one might wonder, is poisoned. Taaldros and Gavir seem well enough at ease, though they cast everything with a watchful eye. That’s as good a guarantee as he’s going to get.

Like last time, there aren’t enough chairs, and besides that, there isn’t enough room for all of them at the dining table. The woman who’d been cooking – she looks a lot like the boy Caspian’s age, dark skin and even darker corkscrew-tight curls. She fixes his plate for him, and seeing the crowd at the table, bids them both upstairs.

As Taaldros’ favorite child - and given her appearing, despite her few Kelvic years, as a fully grown adult - Taalviel gets to sit at the table. She catches his eye as he follows the other boy up to the second floor.

“Want to go to my room?”

It’s the first time the boy has spoken to him directly.

Voice catching in his throat, Caspian mutely nods.

“I’m Taroko, by the way.”

“Ca – “ He coughs. “Caspian.”

“That’s a nice name.”

“Yours is nicer,” he blurts out, flushing. Is it even true? They have the same number of syllables, and he doesn't think he can adequately argue the phonetic qualities of one vowel over another. But it seems right enough - because everything is better on Taroko than on Caspian, from the tips of his shoes to the word people use to call him when they want him near.

“If you say so.” Taroko laughs, leading him into a modestly sized room that faces their backyard, and shuts the door behind them.
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The Wish and the Willing

Postby Caspian on April 1st, 2021, 12:51 pm

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Caspian stands awkwardly in the middle of the room, plate in one hand, utensils clutched in the other. Taroko’s sitting on his bed against the far wall, which makes sense given that it’s his, and the chair that might have accompanied the desk in the corner is missing, likely used to supplement the dining room below. The bed is a lot bigger than Caspian’s and Taroko’s sitting to one side of it, which suggests that he means for Caspian to kip up right next to him but without actual flares or a marquee Caspian can guess at his intentions but isn’t entirely sure that he –

“Well, come on,” Taroko says through a mouthful of food, and Caspian, willing himself to remember how to walk again, crosses the room on stilted steps and perches uncertainly beside him. “Ugh. I think she overdid it on the chicken again.” He scrutinizes his plate, scratches at the herbs roasted onto the skin of the roast bird with his fork.

She overdid it on the chicken again – that again-ness indicating in no uncertain terms that this is a meal he’s had before, enough times to warrant an informed opinion; that the event occurs frequently enough that the opinion is sustained; that, perhaps most significantly of all, this is a house where such an opinion might be expressed in the first place.

“No one in my house really cooks,” Caspian offers. The food on his plate is yet untouched, the utensils still bundled up and gleaming in his right hand. It’s not that he isn’t hungry – it’s that he very much is, and he’s worried that once he gets started it’s going to be more of a deep dive, a headfirst plunge, that he won’t be able to keep his motor control in check and will tear into it with about as much dignity as a rat that’s somehow crawled its way through winter.

“Oh yeah?” Taroko, despite his feelings about the chicken, is eating it all the same. “Your mother, she’ doesn’t -?”

Does he mean Zhassel? “She’s not my mother,” he says with a scoff.

“Neither is Tamande. Well – she’s my aunt. Close enough, I guess.”

Both of them have upstairs bedrooms; neither of them have their mothers, raised secondhand.

It’s not a lot to have in common – Caspian’s pretty sure he could go out and spit in any direction and land on some other stray adoptee with the same qualifications – but it’s something.

He takes a bite of the chicken, the mash of lentils heaped beside it.

His family feeds him, sure, and he’s found his own way of feeding himself when he’s out and around – but it’s never been this good, pressed onto a plate made just for him.

“What happened to your mother?” Taroko asks.

The food makes the question go down easier. “Foxes don’t have the longest lifespan.”

The new brush of information – perhaps the conspicuously nonchalant way he had said it – has Taroko looking at him with new interest. He doesn’t know that for sure; except he does, can sense the vector of his gaze focused on him and him alone. So when he looks up –

The still-heavy plate, his hunger, the aching of his joints from last night’s chase – all of it siphons away for a long moment as he and Taroko lock eyes.

Face burning, he turns back to his plate with new gusto.

“What happened to your face?” Taroko asks. “And your…” His gaze trails downwards, which doesn’t help the flush that Caspian isn’t dark enough to hide. “That looks like it hurts. Are you alright?”

Caspian tries to answer – chokes, swallows. Clears his throat awkwardly. “I tried climbing over the Gated Community… gate. Wall. Guarded barricade.”

“Oh petch. I’ve always wanted to see what’s inside!” Finished with his food, Taroko sets the plate on the nightstand, leans back against the wall, hands steepled easily atop his head. Reminding Caspian, again, that this is his domain, and Caspian’s just a fly who’s wandered behind the screen. “Anything good? I heard there’s a whole fountain running with mead, big enough to swim in it. I mean, I highly doubt it, but – I can dream.”

Taroko’s enthusiasm, his unabashed questions –

Despite himself, Caspian finds himself easing in.

“Couldn’t tell you,” he says, scraping up what remains of his plate. “Didn’t get very far. I think the guards carry lances taller than me.”

Taroko takes his empty plate, sets it on the nightstand atop his own. Hands empty, the absence of the scraping of knives and forks leaving them to silence –

He fidgets with the hem of his patchy shirt.

Remembers, again, the much better one hanging in his closet at home.

“Here – “ Taroko says, throwing a pillow at him. He’s got one propped between him and the wall.

Does he mean for Caspian to – ?

As he settles back onto the bed, pillow between the wall and his back –

It’s as close to a marquee as it’s going to get.
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The Wish and the Willing

Postby Caspian on April 6th, 2021, 1:06 pm

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Somewhere along the way he had forgotten he was supposed to dislike Taroko.

No one had told him he’s meant to feel any sort of way in particular. But he’s never really clicked with anyone in Sunberth, felt that spark that’s swelling now into something warm and bubbling and new. When he was younger the other urchins swarming the streets could tell from a glance that he wasn’t from around here, and though into his teenage years he had begun to pick up the slang and swing, the scrabbling, battered look to match them, there’s always been a disconnect. A fear – a healthy and entirely reasonable one – of anyone who isn’t from his house. Though he has no love for his stepfather, his half-sister, or anyone else revolving through their home – there’s at least a sense of belonging. A his-ness, bound by time and spilled blood between common walls. Anyone beyond their circle might be parleyed with, but not trusted, and that includes Taroko.

And yet –

“Ouch,” Taroko says, peering over at Caspian’s hand. “Bit gnarly, that one.”

Caspian had picked and washed out all the gravel and muck from last night’s escapade, but there are a few splinters in the palms of his hands that he had momentarily forgotten, and hadn’t realized he’d been fussing with in the nervy absence of his dinner plate.

“Here,” Taroko’s saying, taking Caspian by the wrist.

Propped up in bed beside Taroko had already put him at capacity, but the warm grip encircling the most delicate part of his limb has him blinking rapidly and staring resolutely away.

“Are you afraid of needles?”

It takes Caspian a moment to find his voice. “N-no, why –?”

From a bedside drawer, Taroko produces a simple silver sewing needle. In his careful and steady hands, it seems mightier, a surgeon's scalpel, a carver's pick. Without asking or explaining further, Taroko picks the splinters up and out. The skin on his palm is left reddened, but Taroko had been quick and gentle, pricking him no further than had been necessary.

“Thank you,” Capsian says, stunned at how swiftly Taroko had moved. “That was – uh – yes. Thank you again.” He can still feel the heat from Taroko’s hand around his wrist even as he clutches it back to himself. Had Taroko felt his pulse, noticed how it had spiked?

It’s because they don’t know each other, Caspian tells himself. He’s sat up in bed with a complete stranger and said stranger had held something wicked and sharp and he had bared his veins to him. The combination of all of these factors had spelled danger, and his heart’s jackrabbiting in his ribs because he had been taught that danger is something to avoid.

That’s all it is, the irrevocable physical reaction he’s having now. Nothing more.

“I don’t have anything to give you,” Caspian blurts out. Because that’s how you deal with strangers, if you’re fool enough to deal with them at all. Transactions hold people at bay.

Taroko gives him a funny look – but it’s not an unkind one, and that’s what melts him further. “That’s not why I did it.” And in response to Caspian ostensibly giving him an even funnier look, he goes on, “Look, if you weren’t here I’d still be kicked out of the negotiations, and sitting in my room alone. You’ve done your part, so let’s call it square. Now that that’s settled – want to spy on everyone downstairs?”

There again it melts – there it ebbs. “Petch yeah I do,” Caspian replies, and means it, both of them bounding off the bed with matching grins.
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The Wish and the Willing

Postby Caspian on April 16th, 2021, 12:09 pm

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Taroko’s house is a lot bigger than Caspian’s. But that might not be entirely true – perhaps it’s just cleaner, and unlike Caspian’s, not piled to the windows and gills with mismatched, broken furniture and the remnants of whatever hurly burly mess had happened the night previous. They even have rugs, long and not burned or stained and of colors readily identifiable. It would be weird, right, if Caspian took off his shoes? It’s just that he can feel how plush this particular length of rug is, even through his boots – but that, perhaps, just speaks to the flimsiness of his soles.

They climb another flight of stairs, the floorboards squeaking quietly, emerging into a short, narrow hallway with a small window at the very end. They’re not going to climb out said window, are they? It wouldn’t be the first time, but it’s dark and he doesn’t know the facade, and he’s sure he could manage if absolutely necessary. But it’s hard enough, following after Taroko and simultaneously trying to recall how people normally walk, whether they hold their arms at their sides or let them swing, all the while not tripping over his own feet.

At the end of the hallway, Taroko looks up, snags a cord Caspian hadn’t noticed that’s hanging from the ceiling. With a swift yank downwards, a panel drops, along with a ladder.

“Sorry about the dust,” Taroko says, pulling himself up the ladder with ease.

Caspian follows, taking Taroko’s hand as it’s offered, and emerges into an attic.

Dust would certainly have been expected of an attic. But there’s very little of it here. It looks – dare he say it – entirely livable and lived-in, and in some respects in better condition than Caspian’s own bedroom. There’s a cot in the corner, with an inviting heap of pillows and blankets; a small stack of books; a few chests with anything one might assume one keeps in storage, but none of it grimed or molded over. The triangle-shaped window at the far end even has a cheery lace curtain.

Does Taroko use this as some sort of second bedroom?

Taroko lights a lantern left conveniently by the trapdoor. Raising a finger to his lips, he treads lightly and carefully across the floorboards. The path he takes is curved, at times jagged, and he skips certain floorboards on his way to a certain spot towards the window. Caspian does his best to mimic his steps. Every so often, in his lack of experience here, he sets off a particularly loud squeak. Freezing in place each time, he looks up at Taroko in both panic and forgiveness – but Taroko is never angry or impatient, only nodding and beckoning him onwards, and by the time Caspian reaches him, that feeling, whatever it is, swells into something new and light. He’s glad he’s here.

They’re standing very close now, and Taroko leans in, whispers into his ear: “Good job. Now here comes the fun part.”

In the dark, Caspian hadn’t noticed another secret panel in the attic wall. Taroko slips a dagger out of his boot and slides the point into the seam, easing it open.

Lantern in hand, Taroko crouches down and crawls in, with Caspian close behind. And perhaps too close, for Taroko unexpectedly pauses at one point, Caspian’s face colliding right into his backside. Blushing furiously, Caspian mutters a hasty apology and rears back – but Taroko only snorts and continues.

They’re crawling along a length of the house, taking sharp turns that don’t seem to match the exterior angles of the house, at least as far as Caspian can recall.

“Careful,” Taroko murmurs at one point. “Here’s the drop.”

And then he and the lantern vanish.

Caspian reaches out blindly, his palm discovering a sharp incline, and then –

Air.

Empty nothing.

But Taroko’s lantern glows faintly below.

“Taroko?” he whispers.

“Put both palms on the walls and slide down. You’ll be alright. Promise.”

Caspian believes him.

The actual drop isn’t so bad at all, perhaps a little over four feet. And then there’s another, and another, until finally they’re in a crawlspace and Taroko is sitting back with the ease of someone who’s done this many times before.

Shafts of light beam through the wall facing them, joining Taroko’s lantern. Taroko finds his hand, squeezes, raises a finger to his lips. Nods at the wall.

And then the insistent, unmistakable baritone of Taaldros filters through.
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The Wish and the Willing

Postby Caspian on April 22nd, 2021, 12:01 pm

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“- set to string him up in under a fortnight,” Taaldros is saying.

“What was his crime?” That’s Bethana’s voice, and in the cracks in the wall Caspian can make out her form, turning towards Taaldros and crossing her arms.

“My sources say he may have gone the wrong way with someone’s daughter.”

“And your sources are who, exactly?”

But Taaldros doesn’t reply.

Bethana is pacing the room, her boots striking loudly against the floor, her light shirt of chain mail – preparing, even though they’d invited strangers to dinner, for the possibility that anything might go wrong? – rustling audibly with every movement.

Taaldros still hasn’t said anything. The intentional silence, the heavy ponderance, as if he’s holding a foreign blade in his hand and testing its center of balance – these are all behaviors from his stepfather that Caspian’s very familiar with. Is Taaldros offended at the question? Is this just the calm before the storm?

He wishes he could see them both better, gauge their reactions, search the faces of everyone else present and deduce, from their expressions, the real state of the room. As if reading his mind, Taroko nudges him, puts another finger to his lips and nods at him to move.

Wherever they are in the wall, they’re near the corner of the room. Fearful that the cracks in the wall let not just light and a view in, but the possibility that noise flows both ways, Caspian creeps carefully, the barest of inches. The sawdust and grit beneath his palms, sliding beneath his shoes seems as loud as if he’s scraping it all down with sandpaper. One eye trained on what he can make out of the parlor, holding his breath for any of the adults to suddenly turn towards the wall behind which they’re hiding, he sidles as quietly as he can muster. Once he finally squeezes around the corner, and further enough down so that Taroko can slip right beside him, he sees why they’ve taken up this spot. He can dimly remember it now, but it makes sense – this section of the wall in the parlor is lined with moulding panels, and along with those panels come more seams and cracks, and a much better scope of the room at large.

Now he can see Zhassel, who’s sitting with her legs crossed, fingers fidgeting and restlessly bouncing a knee. Against the far wall, Gavir stands with his hands clasped in front of him, his Vantha hair a shimmering emerald green now turning cerulean. And Taalviel beside him –

Caspian claps a hand over his mouth, for he’d nearly gasped aloud. Taalviel’s eyes had flickered towards him the moment he’d locked on – had seemed to, at least, and are boring towards him as if she can see right through the wood.

But that’s preposterous. Ravens can’t see through walls.

Can they?

“Does the reason matter?” Gavir says, bringing his grand total of words spoken under this roof to perhaps an even dozen.

Bethana has their back to Caspian and Taroko. But it only takes her a moment of consideration before replying, “No. It doesn’t. So long as you’re sure of the date and time.”

“Absolutely sure,” Zhassel pipes up, too zealously, too eagerly, and behind her, Caspian can make out the slight frown crossing both Gavir and Taalviel’s faces.

Nevertheless, this is apparently enough for Bethana. “Alright. Nine days from now, we meet on the corner across from No Man’s Land. They say he’s not a fighter, so if the mob strikes at 8, they should have him out in ten ticks or less. The second they take him, we sweep in, clear out. Make ourselves scarce by 8:30. All sound good?”

“And how will we know when to move?” Taaldros says – though from his careful, incisive way, it’s very likely he already knows the answer. That his asking Bethana is simply just to test her, make sure they’re on the same page.

“You have a boy. I have mine. Send them ahead to a rooftop with a flag. …unless you’d rather not?”

“He can handle it,” Taaldros replies.

“You want to involve Taroko?” Caspian can’t see her, but it must be Tamande, Taroko’s aunt who’s just spoken up in evident concern. “Surely there’s another way we can –“

But Bethana rebukes her sharply, and Tamande falls silent.

The group continues discussing logistics. Itemizing their weapons. Suggesting, in open roundtable, the factors they may have fatally overlooked. Caspian’s attention drifts – and based on the hand that’s sought his in the dark, so has Taroko’s.

“Guess I’m definitely going to be seeing you again,” Taroko whispers in his ear.

Taroko’s breath against his skin, the hand tracing up his arm –

Caspian turns to him, even as he’s uncertain, unversed, unprepared for what might happen. When Taroko kisses him, he forgets they’re sitting on the floor, that they’re crammed into the abandoned space behind a wall – that getting too close to the people you work with is something worth thinking through.
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The Wish and the Willing

Postby Caspian on April 23rd, 2021, 12:26 pm

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Two days after the dinner, Taaldros sends Gavir with a hide-wrapped bundle to Bethana’s house.

“Where are you going?” Caspian pipes up as Gavir pulls on his boots, though he’d overheard the entire conversation the night previous, and knows very well where the Vantha man is headed.

“Sunset Quarters,” Gavir replies, heaving the bundle across his shoulders.

“Can I come with?”

Gavir blinks, eyes a deep amethyst today, gives him a look up and down.

“Slubs and Dodder are coming over to play cards with Taaldros, and if I hang around they’re just going to have me on ale duty.”

It’s an acceptable reason, one he’s been mulling over and fine-tuning all day. Slubs and Dodder aren’t their real names, but apt designations he’s given two of Taaldros’ friends who piss half their money away gambling and the other half on drinking enough to forget what they’d done with their wallets in the first place. It’s no big secret that whenever they’re around, they’re likely to start both howling and brawling, and even Taalviel makes herself scarce if she knows they’ll be over.

Gavir simply nods, and Caspian tags along in relief.

It’s Tamande who answers the door.

“As discussed,” Gavir says simply, handing her the bundle, the sound of metal within clattering and sliding.

“It’s appreciated,” Tamande replies. Her gaze flickers to Caspian, who’s trying and potentially very much failing to look bored and nonchalant. “Caspian, right?” she says. “You know, I think Taroko dug up a telescope from – well, petch knows where. I heard Leth is supposed to be rather bright tonight. Why don’t you go take a look?” Her glance slides towards Gavir, wondering, perhaps, his exact relation to Caspian. “If that’s alright with you?”

Gavir jerks his head towards the door. “Go on.”

No curfew, no threats. Both Gavir and Caspian know there’s no need – if Taaldros has this particular set of company over, no one will miss him.

Tamande lays her hand on Caspian’s shoulder as he enters the house, an act of motherly warmth he’s not felt since –

That’s not something he needs to think about.

“There’s grain and cold cuts down here if you get hungry,” she says, and leaves him to climb the stairs.

He knocks before entering. Fusses with his hair – likely makes it worse – straightens his collar and swipes the dust off his knees. Jumps when Taroko replies vaguely for him to enter – takes a steady breath before heading in.

“Oh, you again!” Taroko grins when he sees him, so fully and unabashedly that Caspian feels a flush down from his cheeks to the nape of his neck. “Look what I nicked from that antique shop down in the south bend. I’m pretty sure there are meant to be at least 3 more lenses but – look, the moon’s rising. Just fantastic, isn’t it?”

Caspian peers through the telescope. It really is something, being able to make out Leth’s distinct outline, the craters across its surface. But something possesses him, a sudden spike of confidence that flurries in ungainly burst. “It’s alright,” he says, pulling away from it, as coolly as he can. “I’ve seen better.”

And he looks right at Taroko.

Who – to his credit – only laughs at Caspian a little before they tumble onto his bed.

He barely manages to tug his shirt on in time when Tamande knocks a few minutes later, to remind them they both ought to eat. He hurtles himself back at the telescope just as she enters the room, feigning being entirely engrossed with what he sees – but with his mussed hair and all the buttons he’d skipped, he’s pretty sure he’s not fooling anyone.
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The Wish and the Willing

Postby Caspian on May 4th, 2021, 12:37 pm

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In the nine days that follow, Caspian spends several of them with Taroko.

Taroko knows the streets just as well as he does. For all the ways that Taroko exceeds him, in looks and clothes and even the way his head rests high upon his shoulders, Caspian can easily keep up as they dip and dive through back alleys and patter across the roofs. They both know which old crone gives you the stink eye if she catches you lingering outside the butcher’s door, and how many seconds of loitering you get before she starts hollering; the closest radius from which one can watch the gaggle of young women in lacy pinafores, all sisters, who are taken out on a strictly supervised promenade just before noon; which pubs get deliveries at a certain hour and don’t keep as keen an eye on the goods as they ought to, left too long on the curb before they’re hauled in. The quirks, the denizens, the shadowy spots and the light – with Taroko, he doesn’t feel irrevocably entangled in the city. For the first time, he’s awake and interwoven, heart beating in real time, able to act and counteract and take effect on everything around him.

On top of all that – stealing’s a lot more fun when you’ve got an accomplice up and ready for all kinds of diversion.

“You don’t understand,” Taroko says, leaning back against a lamppost across the corner from the shop they’ve been eyeing. All general goods, and they aren’t after anything in particular, though Caspian thinks it would be nice if he could get his hands on a decent tin of shoe polish. “She’s allergic. Like, really allergic.”

The burlap sack in Caspian’s hands wriggles violently. He clamps his arms over it, winces as claws pierce through the fabric, and decides to hold it from where it’s been cinched, very much at arm’s length.

“But not, uh, deathly, right?” Caspian replies, looking uncertainly towards the shop. “I knew someone allergic to fish oil, and he borrowed someone’s knife and didn’t realize what they’d been eating. And he went into anaphylactic shock, just minutes after cutting into his own steak.”

“That was fish, Cas,” Taroko replies. “This is a cat.”

As if that solves it.

But Caspian’s too buoyantly pleased at his name being fondly abbreviated for the first time to pry at it any further. This must all mean something – the making out in his bed and in the alleys, and the lunches with him and his aunt, and how much time they’ve been spending together without any of the adults around.

“Alright,” Taroko says, turning back to him with decisive swiftness. “You ready? What do you want to do?” When Caspian hesitates, he holds out his hand. “Never mind. I’ll let the thing loose. You grab shoe polish and whatever the hell else looks good. Meet you down east by the tannery. Sound good?”

Already covered in scrapes and scratches from having chased and caught the thing in the first place, Caspian readily hands him the sack, which has started growling.

“Hush, you,” Taroko mutters to it as they traipse towards the shop.

Caspian enters first, ignores the middle-aged woman puffing a pipe at the counter. Upon seeing him, she immediately narrows her eyes, but he says nothing to her and pretends eminent interest in a rack of fishing lures. As he wanders down the aisles, slowing his gait, attempting the most natural meander, he can practically feel her glare burning through the shelves.

A minute later, the shop door opens and shuts again, and a quick glance over his shoulder confirms it’s Taroko.

Heart beating, he rapidly scans the aisles. He really should have started doing this the moment he walked in, and now he’s wasting time, trying to find that petching shoe polish, itemizing everything and deciding what’s of value and also not too cumbersome to carry. Just as he spots a stack of telltale round tins, next to wide bristle brushes for buffing, he hears the woman exclaim.

“Get that thing out of here,” she hisses, and the cat hisses right back.

“What thing? Oh, this?” Taroko replies innocently. “Isn’t it yours?”

“It very much isn’t, you little scum snake –“ There’s a rustling and a beating sound. The woman’s taken up a broom.

But the cat, more than a little furious from having been kidnapped and absconded in a burlap sack, isn’t showing any signs of skittering off. It’s a tight squeeze, this little shop, and dander is flying around the room as the cat dashes and leaps about. The woman’s clamped a hand over her face, tried to drag her scarf over her eyes, but it’s too late. Taroko himself, as well as Caspian, are covered in as much shedded cat matter as what’s now spewing through the room. But this, apparently, isn’t enough chaos for Taroko, who feigns clumsiness and knocks over several shelves of pots and pans, that clatter loudly and set off the cat and the woman with new furor. The woman decides to go on the offensive, descending from her counter to chase after the cat with the broom – and Caspian knows it’s time to move.

He shoves several tins of polish into his pockets – ridiculous, given the fact that he hasn’t got many shoes to begin with – thinks it would be sensible if he also took a brush or two, to give his sorry kicks a proper shine. But both thrill and panic have the better of him, and he really doesn't need all that, especially with it now spilling out of his pockets, and the shopkeeper now rounding around the corner.

The fleeing cat looks up at Caspian – remembers him, likely, and hisses, then makes a sharp u-turn and darts back at the woman. She shrieks as it flies under her skirts, beating at the ground with the broom and missing it by inches. But then she spots Caspian, very much red-handed.

Cornered in the tiny shop, this would have been a terrible position for him – were it not for the woman’s allergic reaction to the cat dander, now swelling her face to frighteningly red and bulbous proportions.

Behind her, Taroko’s knocked over an entire rack of gardening tools, shattered ceramic cups and plates. Between the cat and Caspian and all the noise, the woman doesn’t know which way to turn – couldn’t anyway, with her eyes now swelling shut. Seeing her wobble uncertainly, Caspian darts forward, shoves his way past her and follows a loudly whooping Taroko out into the streets.

In Taroko’s arms is a vial of lantern oil, a bit of hemp rope, what looks like a smidge of soap. Caspian’s managed to hold on to two of the tins of shoe polish and just one of the brushes. Breathlessly, they duck into an alley, zip several blocks away, make it most of the way to the tannery before they both no longer see the use. The woman had been in no state to chase them to begin with.

“Is she alright?” Caspian says, when he’s done wheezing. “I mean – she – “ He lets the tins and the brush fall to the floor, slumps against a barrel. “Really looked like she couldn’t breathe.”

“Old dame’ll be just fine,” Taroko says breezily. Already he’s patting down his hair, arranging his clothes, no longer looks like someone who’s just robbed a general store and wildly scampered. “It’s not like she didn’t know she’s got a condition. Lived her whole life like that and probably knows how to deal with it. Can’t have been the first time this has happened, you know? Petch, Cas. You’re a real mess of fun when you try.”

The nickname again – Caspian basks in it. Almost succeeds, in its wake, in forgetting how far and gruesome the woman’s reaction had become, how feebly and desperately she’d clawed around her bare neck, as if with his own two hands he’d tied a noose.
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The Wish and the Willing

Postby Caspian on May 10th, 2021, 1:04 pm

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When the day comes for Gavir to tell him the plans that had been cooked up in Bethana’s parlor, Caspian tries his best to look surprised – like he and Taroko hadn’t slithered through the walls and spied on the entire meeting.

The target is the house of a man named Lemsworth. As Caspian had overheard that night he and Taroko kissed for the first time within the walls, Lemsworth had done wrong by someone’s daughter, wrong enough that the offended family had gathered a mob and were planning on dragging him from his home, and stringing him up in the Gallows in the Castle Commons. Onlookers usually descend on the body, sometimes before it stops jerking, and if they’re in the know, raid what remains of their domicile. But Taaldros and Bethana’s joint company have the upper hand, in that they had heard long ago that Lemsowrth was going to be executed in the first place – and also where he lives. With just that small bit of foresight and organization, the plan is to strike seconds after the house is vacated, giving them precious and lucrative minutes ahead of any other aspiring looters.

Caspian listens to all this with what he hopes is a wide-eyed, hesitant expression – his usual response when someone in Taaldros’ house tells him they’re got a job to do. Asks, blank-facedly, “oh, really?” and “when is that, again?”

Whether Gavir cares or not, it’s impossible to tell.

But Taalviel isn’t fooled.

“What’s the matter with you?” She’s standing in the doorway he’s just tried to exit through, arms crossed, glaring at him with suspicion.

Having no great love for his Kelvic half-sister – who's cold, acerbic, and scathing on a good day – he tries to shove past her. Immediately finds a hand planted on his chest, shunting him back.

It’s odd, that though barely six years old, she already appears to be a full-grown woman in her twenties. When they had first met, she was technically a year old, but already looked like a teenager. In just two years following that, she shot straight into adulthood, and has remained as immutably haughty and distant ever since. In all her forms, she both irritates and scares the petch out of him, and he avoids her and her frustrating loyalty to her blood-father Taaldros if he can help it.

“Nothing’s the matter,” Caspian snaps back. “Now get out of the way.”

She doesn't have to point out how tinny and whiney his voice sounded – how utterly unintimidating the command had been. Tilting her head to the side, she only utters, “You’ve been out of the house a lot recently.”

“And out of your way. Is that a problem?”

“Out of my way, and into whose instead?”

The cold prickle on the back of his neck tells him she already knows.

But whether the interaction has already begun to bore her, or she had simply accomplished what she wanted, which was ruining his day, she merely scoffs. “I’d just be careful, if I were you. Remember where your real family lies.”

“My real family is in Avanthal.” The words tumble from him fiercely before he can stop them.

The look she gives him –

It’s not even cold, nor pitying.

Just the barest of acknowledgments, as if he's a piece of litter that had caught her attention, floating alongside a dock.

“Be that as it may – “ She glances at the clock. “You have five ticks to get both your knives on and meet us downstairs. Not one, both. Stick the other one down your shoe.”

It occurs to him, after she leaves, that though she may very well know he’s been slipping off with Taroko –

She might bother him for it, but she hadn’t stopped him, either.

But at this point in his relationship with his sister – if one can call it that – he’s still only 17 and nuance is beyond him, and all he can glean is how much satisfaction she gets from needling.
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Last edited by Caspian on July 7th, 2021, 10:30 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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