Linza blushed as she handed over the rumpled sheaf of papers that was her terms of employment to the madame’s assistant.
He was a slender and feminine man and she would have thought him half-elf, but his ears weren’t pointed. His skin was dark as ink, his hair braided back from his face in intricate swirling designs. The braids, each almost as slender as a strand of hair, where gathered into a neat silver clasp at the base of his neck.
His navy coat was angular and his face was soft, with a wide button nose and full lips. The whites of his eyes were like crescent moons.
As he extended his hand to accept the sheaf, she noticed that his skin was lighter there, like the Milky Way.
He was the moon to the madame’s sun.
Nothing seemed to escape his gaze or the careful thought behind them. Yet, he said little.
Someone who could not ‘see’ would perhaps have looked right over him, but Linza was as captivated by him as by the madame.
He had already noticed the wrinkling of the papers, the smudging of the ink.
He must have noticed her noticing him, because he finally spoke. “I see that you signed with more than ink.” His voice was like the night wind rustling through leaves. He had a lilting accent, as if his native tongue were song.
She had prepared a fib, but she saw that it would be as transparent as damp silk to him. Better, then, the truth. “I am… very excited to join.”
“Your pleasure pleases.”
Linza had been blushing. Now, she flushed with arousal. She hasn’t considered they might actually like what had become of her papers!
Would all the staff here be such forbidden fruits? Such avatars of fundamental nature?
Linza both wished that they would be and yet knew her mind would break if it were so.
She could not break eye contact with him and his face seemed to fill her whole awareness until she saw a reflection of herself in his midnight eyes, her uncertain expression like the face of the moon.
And then it was over, and she was back in her feet, though a little dizzy. He was too much taller than her and they were at too conversational a distance for what she had felt to have really happened.
It must have been her imagination.
Illusionists could do that to themselves, sometimes.
And yet, did not his full lips wane into the slightest crescent smile?
“Your application is accepted,” he said, breaking the spell. Or, completing it?
“Your training will begin this evening, if it pleases.”
“It pleases,” she squeaked.
She expected him to notice and laugh.
He only noticed.
“You may follow me there, if it pleases.”
Linza just nodded, afraid of embarrassing herself further.
He turned and she followed him.
His navy coattails were embroidered in silver with a motif of veil-tailed fish, which she recognized. Her history lessons returned to her as they walked. To the north was a great democratic federation. The island nation controlled much of the sea and touched all the rest of it.
In the kingdom, the merchants had only recently risen to influence.
In the federation, the merchants had held the power all along. It had its pros and cons, of course, as did every type of rule. Apparently, the nations were flourishing and there was little room left on the islands, so many of them emigrated.
The kingdom was a particularly favored spot because it was still relatively close to the federation and it was, as Linza’s classmate had explained, ‘so charmingly quaint’.
Now nearly every one in five folks in the city were either immigrants or their children, distinguished by their dark skin, rounded features, and lyrical accents.
The veil-tailed fish was one the motif of one of the smaller but more prosperous merchant states, though Linza had forgotten the name. She was always bad with names.
She walked right into the assistant, her face suddenly between the lapels of his coat. He smelled like oak and myrrh and the ocean in the middle of the night.
She gasped and stumbled back.
“We have arrived,” he said.
They were standing next to a simple black door. They were in an alleyway of sorts, but on the second story, on a walkway that ran between two close buildings. There were simple black doors like this one all along the side, painted with large, white numbers. They stood next to door thirteen.
Linza had totally lost track of which way they’d come.
“Is there anything else I can assist you with?”
Yes, Linza thought.
“No,” Linza said.
He noticed. “Rule number one. Everything given.”
Linza nearly panicked. What did that mean? Was she already breaking the rules?
“Peace,” he said, smiling fully. “I only mean, tell the truth.”
Linza gulped. “I-I’ve just caught myself not remembering which way we came.”
“Wherever you are on the estate, listen for the source of music. You’ll always find the main street.”
Did he always give directions like this? Linza was grateful. She’d have totally forgotten anything more specific. This, she would remember. Did he know? Had he noticed?
“Thank you! I’ve also… totally forgotten what’s first.” Her terms of employment had been very clear about what all of the stages of her training were to be. But those were now tucked in the assistant’s coat, and no longer in her hands.
“That’s natural. Tonight, you simply meet the room.”
Right. Okay. That sounded manageable.
He stood quietly there for a long moment.
Linza realized he was waiting for her further questions. “T-that’s everything! Thank you. I appreciate it.”
He bowed, and then he left.
Linza stood next to door thirteen and gulped.
It felt like her first day of university all over again.
She took a deep breath, mustered her courage, and opened the door.