He looks so…young. Then again, I already knew he was. A young prince not yet ready to assume the throne.
With the term: ‘Sultan’, the figure of an older man comes to mind. Perhaps with a beard growing from his chin. The years pulling at his eyes, dulling their life, and draining the colour from his hair.
There are no such ailments upon this young prince. Still in the prime of his youth; the sun still coats his tan skin, shines in his golden hair and in the depth of his azure blue eyes.
I take a moment to take him in…
And I find myself confused. His form is all wrong. He doesn’t scream ‘proud and blissfully happy’. The dark circles under his eyes age him. Gravity pulls down on his shoulders, hunching his would-be royal form.
He looks…lost. If it were not for the crown upon his head and the clothes on his back, I would mistake him for another street urchin that wanders the city. This is not the Sultan’s son I imagined at all.
The Alsatian dog – Valcan, he had called him – leans his head into his master’s hand. He whines, worried, as the prince kneels before him. The prince lightly tugs on his large companion’s ears and presses his human brow to the dog’s. My heart warms at the sight; the bond they share is recognisable to my eyes.
Please be safe, Aneria. My stomach turns, thinking of my own companion left amongst the slums of Agrabah. Please be curled up in your sheepskin bed. Safe.
After a moment, the prince pulls away and Valcan barks and shifts back to swing his lower body as he crouches low on his forelegs. Tongue out, he all but screams ‘Play!’.
I watch as Valcan tugs on the young prince’s robe, huffing and whining. His tail swings eagerly as his master’s ghost of a smile breaks through. The prince crouches low and flings his hands up. Valcan yelps in rejoice and jumps back. It is very strange to see such a large dog playing like this. He has a young heart, I suppose.
His master makes his move forward, feigning an attack. Valcan leaps back before tackling him backward, pushing him down into the grass and licking his face. Now the prince cannot help but smile and laugh as he tries to get his slobbering companion off him. No doubt the reaction Valcan was hoping for. He pulls back easily, sitting on his haunches, seeming very proud of himself as he puffs out his furry chest.
Once he feels the drool has been whipped from his face, the young prince reaches forward to pet behind each of Valcan’s ears. “Thanks, buddy. I needed that.”
Valcan hums in reply.
The prince guffawes, “And you knew it.”
His smile slips. “I’m sorry, Valcan. My mind keeps wandering. I miss him, you know.”
Valcan hums deep in his throat and rests his head over his master’s trembling shoulder, offering him support and comfort. I hear the stories of his parents. I cannot help but sympathise as the hazy memories of my own family surface.
I was only young when my parents died. My father was taken away by the palace guards. And my mother did not wake up one day soon after.
The prince never knew his mother. The news of her death as the result of the birth of their only heir wracked the city to its core. I was told my mother had held me to her, bundled up tightly in my baby blanket, as she trembled in mourning.
The sultan, his father, was a mere shell of his former self after his wife’s death. Much beloved, the people found it hard to see their Sultan struggle on without her by his side. He held out as long as he could for his son’s sake. But the city deteriorated alongside their sultan.
He left behind a young man of eighteen years. The sultan died, alone, asleep in his bed.
“Come on, Valcan, we came out here for some fresh air.”
The prince snaps back my attention and he gathers himself to his feet. “We better make the most of the time we have.”
As they draw ever nearer to the tree from which I am hiding in, I fear my breathing too loud. I slap my hand over my nose and mouth in hopes it will help.
I shift deeper into the tree, moulding myself to its bark and look for an escape that will not have me noticed. I could slip back the way I came – if I knew the guards that were following me were already long gone.
Ugh, this kind of stress is not good for me in my current state, I glare down at my wounded leg. The blood has soaked through and stained the leather red. I try not to think about what I am standing in as my vision blurs.
With a deep breath through my fingers, I decide I do not have a choice. It is only a matter of time before that hound catches my sent in the breeze. And I will be worse off if the prince finds me. I yank myself up by the branch above my head, off my injured leg, and limp back the way I came.
I overestimated the strength of the branch, for within a few feet of where I started, the wood creaks and splitters.
I hear the dog switch to high alert as he begins to bark and growl up at me. He may not see me, but he knows I am here now.
“What’s up there, Valcan?” I hear the prince call over his companion’s aggressive barking. He does not assume his dog is barking at nothing.
Panic sinks into my muscles as I struggle to keep moving through the thick green branches. I hear Valcan’s claws scratching against the base of the tree. I look down and see him leaping up repeatedly on his hind legs, trying to climb the bark to no avail. His teeth gleam in the setting sunlight and my stomach twists.
I am used to Aneria’s ferocity being directed at others. Faced with it in the form of this protective alpha male, I see why people buckle and run. The taste of fear is like blood on my tongue as I force my body onward.
“Hey, who’s there? What do you want?!” The prince yells, but I do not flinch until he calls out for his “Guards!”.
I gasp through the pain as I spring free from the tree and land on my bad leg. I spare a quick look around – no one on the rooftops. I hear the prince’s raised voice back over the wall, calling his guards.
No need to call for protection, Your Majesty, I huff as I make my way on my hands and knees to the edge of the building. I want to be long gone from here by the time they show up.
A bit of a drop, I must admit. I think I can make it back alright with the aid of the setting sun. I am more comfortable in the dark than the palace guards. Keep to the abandoned alleyways, away from the people, and I should be home free.
I know this is going to hurt but with my leg the way it is, I cannot do much else. I take a deep breath and yank myself forward, flipping onto my back as I connect with the road - careful not to crack my head down.
The gasp is sucked from my lungs. The impact ripples along my spine as tears stream from my eyes. I allow no time to recover as I gather myself up and hobble down the street. I lean my weight against the household walls to spare my injured leg.
It was a brilliant idea to run along those stalls, Trixks, I berate myself, real smart idea that was.
I can almost find the comedic side of the way things happened. Taken down by a piece of wood when no other has come close to maiming me.
The lamps hanging over doors flicker calmly in the darkness. Halfway there and I have managed to slip by those that count, unseen. The people here pay a wounded urchin no mind. This part of the city tends to look out only for themselves – able to afford establishments closer to the palace, they have adopted a ‘superior’ way of living. These are the high-end merchants of the city.
I see the people, outside on their balconies, drinking away with their steaming banquet of food. It gnaws at my empty stomach and parched throat. The loss of blood is making my hold on reality worse. I find it hard to keep my legs…my leg moving. What I would not give to be able to lie down and rest. My head pounds over the sounds along the street.
I notice faces sneering my way through my flickering vision. They mutter angrily. They do not want me to spill blood all over their ‘clean’ streets. I inwardly roll my eyes at them. Not worth the strength I would burn…besides, I do not fear that they recognise me.
There are less ‘Wanted’ posters plastered on the walls here; the palace knows not to bother. Unlike the people on the outer borders, they do not take the offer of wealth as an incentive to lay their lives on the line. That is what they would have to do if I was in my usual condition…
The door of the house I am leaning on swings open. The agony I experience when the wood slams against my face registers for a split second before I am left sprawled on my back. I know I should not let it, but I cannot fight it when I am pulled under to rest.
Warm, my half-conscious mind hums. Spicy smell. Tickles my nose.
A voice telling me to drink. Okay... Sore throat.
Drip and lapping of water. Very close to my ear. Not pleasant.
The bite of cold water across my forehead slaps the fogginess away and I startle awake. Everything is dark and blurred for a moment as my eyes try to make sense of the world around me.
A smudged human form is in my immediate personal space and I flinch back as far as I can. It is not very far before I feel my back pin itself against a cold wall.
“Easy, easy there!” the blurred human pulls back its hands in the sign that it means no harm. “Careful, you don’t want to open up those fresh stitches.”
The voice is distinctly male, and as my eyes begin to adjust to the light, I see his shadowed face. Tied back in a band, spiky crimson hair is pulled back to reveal the thin sculpted face of a young man. Red teardrop tattoos dip under each spring green eye that watch me now, wide and cautious.
After assuring myself he would not make any sudden moves towards me, I come to terms with what he said. Free from its boot, my leg rests bandaged and elevated on a cushion on the bed I lay upon.
I bite my lip and look up at the young man that I now realise is holding a wet flannel in one hand.
“Why did you help me?” I ask, frowning as I slowly set myself down better. The pale stranger looks put out for a moment and I move quickly to correct myself, “I do not mean to be rude, I am genuinely curious why you did.”
His mouth quirks in a sad half smile as he places the damp cloth into a bowl on the bedside table. “Well, it wouldn’t have been right of me to just leave you there to bleed out.” He states matter-of-factly.
Strange man. “Anyone one else around here would have.” I counter with a dejected shrug.
If not for him, I either would have been left for dead or picked up by the guards. He cannot be a merchant or merchant’s son. It is not in their nature to help others. He must have been passing through. Or I may have been moved to a different part of the city.
“Well then it’s a good thing I’m not like anyone else around here.” I take in his grin and find myself stumped. “Besides, it was me that knocked you down. You probably would have gotten to where you were going if not for me.”
“You’re a merchant?” my voice betrays my shock. This young man is breaking the inner city mould.
“No, I’m not from here. I came from across the sea.”
“Then…” I take a look around me at the small room lit by candlelight. “What is this place?”
“Oh, you misunderstand me.” He chuckles, scratching his cheek self-consciously. “This is my place. I came here with a fair bit of coin in my pocket.”
Huh, “You’re lucky you still had that coin when you got off the boat here.” I remember the woman I freed the other day. “Most have had that taken from them on the journey here. And worse.”
“I know I was...lucky.” He sneers over the term. The muscle between his brows puckers while he frowns down at nothing. “Trust me, the trip here wasn’t easy. I can handle myself, though. Unfortunately, the others could not.”
He is not bragging. He is upset with himself.
He got away unscathed, while others he travelled with were not so fortunate. He cares that he could not help.
“Anyway,” he pulls on a strained smile, “are you feeling alright? Light-headed at all?”
That conversation is over, I guess. I shrug as I take inventory of myself. I feel alright, considering.
“You lost a fair amount of blood judging by the state of your boot.” He says getting to his feet and takes the water bowl away to a sink in the corner of the room. “How did that happen anyway?”
I pause. I do not know this man. Though he did go to the trouble of helping me and stitching my leg… Little details cannot hurt.
“I got into a fight with a fruit stand and won.” I huff, as I prop myself up against the pillows so I no longer have to lie down.
The stranger laughs as he comes back to sit on the stool he has set up by the bed, “I’d hate to see the state of the fruit stand then if you’re the one that won.”
“Oh, ouch! Thanks.” I roll my eyes but I know it is all in jest.
“Hey, I’m the one that had to take care of your battle wound, so I’m telling it like it is.”
This guy knows how to laugh. I have not been like this with a human in years. It is different. Not in a bad way.
“You know,” I fight the urge to poke out my tongue like a child for effect, “if you’re going to continue to insult my pride like this, I should at least know your name.”
He scoffs through his nose, still smiling as he reaches out a hand, “Course you should. But seeing as I did the heavy lifting, stitching and bandaging…you should go first.”
“Heavy lifting?” He grins. Smart ass. “Hah, fine. My name is Trixks.”
“Huh, figured you more for a Lupa. My mistake.” His smile does not fade. But my own does.
I break out in a cold sweat. The fact that he knows who I am is bad. He might have called in for the bounty on my head. Guards could be on their way right now.
“Hey come on, T.” His voice softens as he braces a fist over his heart as if hurt. “If I was going to turn you in, I would not have bothered in picking you up off the street. I knew who you were the moment I saw you. You have quite the reputation in this city.”
I bite the inside of my cheek, “Yeah, and that reputation would usually motivate someone to turn me in.”
“Not your reputation amongst the thick-headed guards and shady merchants. I mean the people on the borders. Those you regularly stick your neck out for.”
I take a moment to process that. A stranger from out of town managed to bypass talk of a mad killer by name of Lupa and instead chose to listen to those deemed a part of the ‘lower classes’.
“I’m not stupid, Trixks.” He encases my hand in both his own. “I can usually tell when someone is talking trash.”
I smile and let go of the strain in my body. “And there’s no shortage of that in this neighbourhood.”
He rolls his eyes but his smile still holds strong as he pats the back of my hand. “I know, I know. Not the friendliest neighbourhood, but people leave me well enough alone so I can’t complain too much.”
I shrug. It is true, my huddle is not too far from this part of town for that exact reason. The warmth of his hands begin to make me feel uncomfortable so I slowly slip my own free. “So, you now have me at a disadvantage.”
He frowns, whether from me pulling away or my words, I am not sure.
“You seem to know all about me, but I have yet to even get your name.”
“Ah, yeah whoops.” He scratches his cheek again – definitely a shy or nervous habit. “The name’s Axel and as you may have already deduced; I’m a smartass that doesn’t mind getting into trouble.”
Wow, that was blunt. I scoff and shake my head in amused disbelief. If only there were more of his kind in this town.
“Well, Axel, I must say meeting you has been a…experience. Thank you. For helping me.”
“Don’t thank me just yet. You still got some recovery time before you can get back on the streets.” He says seriously, looking me down for no argument.
Aneria will worry. How long have I been away from her?
“How long was I out of it for?”
“Basically the whole night.” He does not notice my face pale. I have never been away from Aneria for so long. “I’ve kept the curtain drawn for obvious reasons. People round here are so damn nosey when it comes to their neighbours. And I’d say you have a couple more days to go to recover from all that blood loss and stress.”
I try not to jostle my leg too much as I move both of them over the side of the bed.
“Hey, none of that, Trixks!” He growls exasperatedly, moving to lay me back but I grip his arm in a vice and hold his gaze.
“No, Axel, I need to get back home. Aneria is all alone, I need to get back to her.”
“Aneria? The wolf that’s always with you? I wondered where it – uh, she - was last night…”
“Please, I cannot stay here for two more days.” I plead, squeezing his arm. “She’ll worry about me. And I need her safe with me.”
Axel gulps, reading my watery eyes. “Well…you really shouldn’t exert yourself in your state-” I take a breath to argue “-But I understand. If you promise to stay off your legs for at least the next couple of days, I will take you to her.”
I feel like collapsing into a heap, I am that relieved. I mumble into his cloth covered arm: “Deal!”.