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[P] Regal; Haven
Topic Started: Fri Nov 10, 2017 5:43 pm (1,112 Views)
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Istan had softened him.

Branse strolled through the partygoers, touching shoulders and kissing cheeks left and right. Snapping a drink off a serving tray, he tipped it toward a promising prospect for the night. He'd captured the young woman's attention earlier, now coming to the fun part. The cat and mouse.

He tapped beringed fingers on the crystal, chiming as he squeezed between two young lordlings. He gave both a wink on his way by. One blushed and the other narrowed his eyes, turning his nose up at Branse's flirtation. The young woman had been making her way across the room to intercept him, but he was lost to her as a group passed by, closing off her opening.

Grinning to himself, the young man ducked into a private seat, a lowered area ringed with cushions and a table in its center. The young couple gave him a mildly irritated look as he kicked his feet up on the table, leaning back into the cushion beside them. The pair broke apart, the woman ducking her face into her partner's shoulder and laughing softly as he gave Branse a level stare.

"This is a private booth, sir." His tone held a sharp edge, glaring down his nose at the intruding Thedran.

Branse was eminently relaxed, his hair pulled up in a swoop in front, eyes heavily lined with kohl and shadowed with coppery dust. His outfit reflected a similar color scheme, done in iron blacks and dark, coppery hues with greenish touches here and there. The outfit set off his eyes, honey gold irises more common to his people than the usual brown with a smaller ring of green around the center.

Cocking his head to the side with a confident smirk, he bit the tip of his thumb, regarding the young Istani man's companion. "Oh, I know that. Does this lovely creature know she's kissing up the neck of Istan's top ranking mediocrimancer?"

The man's cheeks flushed and he scowled, but the woman's eyebrow quirked, peering at Branse from across the academ's chest. "Is that so? What exactly does a mediocrimancer do?" Her eyes were lit up as she asked, her own savage grin fixed in place.

"Turn their inkwell into a small blue frog. Admittedly impressive, but he was supposed to be turning the ink red." He snickered.

"It was a very large frog!" The man protested, scowl falling as the woman laughed, leaning away. "Oh honey, it was wildly average. Don't go embellishing on a young woman now." The man sighed dejectedly as the girl grinned, waving her goodbye as she left the two alone.

"Braaaanse," he groaned, sliding deeper into the cushions. "She was cute. And how the hell did you find out about that? As far as I can tell you've never even tried to take a placement exam."

Branse sipped at his drink, a spiced liqueur that heated his core wonderfully and tingles the whole way down. "She was. And she's not interested in the size of your frog, Mehai. More in how very talented your mother is at turning gold into larger piles of gold." The student smoothed the purple of his robe, giving Branse a level look.

"We just had exams. I just want to blow off some steam, not find a future wife." He gave Branse's drink a longing look before rising. "Think I'm going to go find one of those myself. Maybe I'll run into someone half as pretty as the woman you just chased off."

Branse waved, beaming as he took a sip. Mehai made a rude gesture back and left the young Thedran alone in the booth. Resting his head back against the edge of the lowered area, he shot a look between partygoers to spot the young woman from earlier scanning the crowd, a frown on her face.
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Somewhere across the crowded room, a handful of people congregated in a crescent moon around a large piano, holding drinks and laughing to the point of tears. The cheerful, bawdy chords echoed across the room, but the various other conversations in combination with the numerous bodies absorbed the sounds of the musician's songs. Perhaps this was for the best, for the person seated at the piano, despite their expert playing, sang only dirty renditions of favorite Imythessian folk-songs.

"Give me another!" said Haven, wearing a grin so wide and charming it was nearly unbearable to look at. "Suggest away!"

And the gathered crowd shouted out their favorite songs, wanting to hear the classics ruined just as much as they wanted to test Haven's improvisational prowess. There was one awkward looking boy, standing off to the side, who seemed to want to say something but kept his mouth shut, apparently happy enough to watch without participating. Haven's eyes settled on the young man, and they extended a hand in his direction.

"You," said Haven, "you, sweet thing, what song shall I play for you?"

At once his eyes lit up with the simultaneous joy and humiliation of being included. After a moment, he smiled and said, "How about 'Tarasian Bones'?"

Haven tilted their head back and cackled. "That'll do splendid," they said, and after a moment began the song in boisterous earnest. They were only a little drunk from alcohol—the attention had deeply penetrated their ego, and now it was time to prove they were worth every ounce of fixation. Some of the people gathered around were friends who knew Haven quite well enough already, but the mere acquaintances and total strangers deserved a such a fine first impression that Haven would be all they could talk about for at least a week following the party, and Haven would be what they remembered first when they thought of this night.

It wasn't only Haven's talent or their charisma that attracted people; anyone could be talented, charismatic, and perfectly cruel. Haven, however, made the sincere effort to include everyone in the fun without making fun of anyone. It was this kindness—this ability to make anyone in the room feel important—that people responded to.

You've got to make people like you if you want to survive this world, their mother had said. Sometimes it won't be enough. But sometimes it will be.

Luckily for Haven it came easy, and this party was by no means a matter of life and death. Haven felt quite certain they'd left all matters of life and death far behind.

Once the song concluded, Haven stood from the bench, and gestured for someone else to take over. A chorus of disappointment erupted until someone else took the coveted seat, though everyone stood in tacit agreement that no one could follow Haven. Reveling in the high, Haven went off to find the water-closet and perfect their face.

The upper lid of each eye was painted with golden shadow, while the lower lids were lined with a rich, complementing purple that contrasted nicely with their dark skin and highlighted their lavender rises. Their fine white eyebrows were plucked evenly into dramatic arches, and their hair—equally blanched—was voluminous and wavy from the heat. The sides were pulled back into a tight bun, while the rest of their hair curled down to their shoulder blades. Rings adorned each finger, and golden bangles hung from each wrist. From each ear dangled a golden earring, and a low-hanging golden necklace sat around their neck and reached the center of their chest.

After a little bit of vain preening, Haven returned to the party. Their boots—apparently inlaid with gemstones and sporting a decent heel—clicked against the floor with each step. Grabbing a pink drink off a tray, Haven began exploring, saying hello to people they knew and didn't know, ingratiating themselves with friends and strangers alike. It was at this point that they passed a booth toward which they spared only a passing glance.

It was enough to stop them in their tracks.

Lifting a single eyebrow with interest, Haven sashayed over to the booth and cocked their hips to the side, one hand resting on the bone and the other holding their drink.

"How is it we haven't met yet?" said Haven. They extended the hand from their hip toward Branse, palm facing downward, fully expecting a kiss to be placed upon their knuckles.

"I'm Haven," they said, "and you are far too delicious to be sitting alone." At which point, with an elegant swoop, Haven sank into the cushions opposite Branse.

"And now you're not alone. What's your name, sweet thing?"
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Sipping at his drink, Branse watched the party around him like a predator that hadn't been noticed yet. Any that knew him well would call him such, but this particular creature was an unusual one. A predator like enjoyed being chased as much as doing the chasing. He lured others in and danced just out of reach until he decided he wanted to be caught.

He barely registered the music as he picked out his prey. The small crowd of adoring fans around them were a little more to his interest than the music itself, but he typically knew his own limitations. Big names weren't his bag.

Tapping nails adorned with gold leaf against the crystal, he chimed along until the music paused, someone a little more serious taking the reins.

Waggling one polished, black leather half-boot on the table idly, he picked several threads from the lapel of his suit. A Tarasian cut, though a little more form-fitting and elegantly styled than most of those worn by the upper class lordlings and politicos. The form it fit was well-toned, the kind of muscle one got from careful training and sculpting and not at all the softer frame of some of the aristocrats-to-be in attendance.

The rings adorning his fingers were an assortment of gold bands somehow veined with topaz, delicate traceries of gem worked throughout each ring.

His prey for the night seemed to be pouting, having completely lost him to the party. Grinning to himself, he barely managed to avoid jumping out of his skin. He hadn't noticed the elf slinking up until they were standing before him with hand outstretched. It was such a display of pampered, self-absorbed arrogance he almost wanted to applaud.

Regardless, this one was beautiful enough he had to wonder if it really was deserved.

Taking the delicate hand in his own, he brushed his lips across their ebony knuckles. "A pleasure to meet such a stunning creature, I'm sure."

His eyes glittered, betraying the jest. He didn't fully remove his feet from the table, but instead moved them to the side, the better to see Haven.

Giving him an unashamed up and down assessment, the small smirk grew into something much more like genuine interest.

"I'm honored to be graced with your presence. My name is Bransen. Branse is better." Swirling the spice liquor idly, he tilted his head as he studied everything from their light-catching shoes to their painted eyes.

"I have to say, I haven't seen anyone quite like yourself. It's refreshing to meet someone with a little more flair."

The forwardness of the elf, their aggression, was throwing him off his center. Too often he was used to being the one in control. The one making the first move. Being pursued was one thing. But this was being hunted.

His night was getting interesting.

"Can't say I've heard the name. Tell me, gorgous. Are you looking for a haven or offering one?"
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“Bransen. Branse.” Haven tested the name in a syrupy voice, and, pleased with the sound of it, grinned. Branse, like bronze—and the young man did remind Haven of the metal, considering the coppery hues under his kohl-lined, honey-colored eyes and the coppery sheen of his clothing. Haven’s eyes lingered for a little while on the man opposite, considering the shape of his build. Strong, determined. Unyielding.

Arrogant and spoiled, too, if the feet on the table were any indication.

Rather pleased with their find, Haven rolled their shoulders and relaxed further into the cushions. The grin never left their face. Instead it widened, and their eyes glittered with utter delight as Branse caught onto the sweet flirtation of their name.

“Neither,” said Haven. “A haven is simply what I am.” Haven took a long, slow sip from their neon-pink drink. “And everyone needs a haven in their life, don’t you think? How lucky you are I found you. You were sorely lacking before you met me.”

With a wink, Haven swirled their glass. The liquid inside seemed viscous, glowing. Setting the drink down, Haven hummed with exaggerated disappointment.

“You haven’t heard of me,” said Haven. “Don’t hurt my feelings. Everyone here has at least heard of me.” It was difficult to discern whether Haven’s feelings were genuinely hurt; the pout of their lips could have been melodrama in jest, or a mildly deflated ego. “If you hadn’t been hiding over here all evening you could have joined me. I was playing dirty little songs on the piano. I have a feeling you would have liked it.”

With a teasing laugh, Haven continued, “Are you always a wallflower, beautiful? Or did I find you catching your breath?”
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"So neither seeking or offering. Only remaining stationary while the world revolves around it, a haven sought by others." He mused, throwing back his drink.

Setting the glass aside, he regarded Haven's pout. He could think of some use for such a haven.

Laying his hand over his heart as if hurt and fluttering his eyelashes in a flash of glittering copper, he gave a hurt cry. "Me? A wallflower? We really don't know each other, do we?" Eyes glittering, he turned his attention away for a moment, giving a pointed look across the room.

The young woman had a slight frame and doe-eyes, seeming a little dejected as she looked into her drink where she sat alone. A young noble stopped near her, offering a hand. She lifted her head to offer a smile and shake of the head, gently rejecting the offer.

"We're on the hunt tonight. Looking for a little sip of something delicious."

Setting his feet back down and his emptied glass aside, he leaned in with chin in his palm. Branse studied this stunning creature with no small interest, the tip of one finger pinched between his teeth. A hungry smirk grew.

Everything about Haven was a mystery to him. A curious package wrapped in very well-fitting paper. Their features were exotic, unafmiliar. They could have belonged to either sex, or neither at all. This was a package he wanted to unwrap.

"Do you enjoy wine, Haven?" He asked, smirk growing to a cocky grin. "I've had a good bit to drink in my life. Exploring the tasting pool. Except I've heard from a few that the more kinds you taste, the more they begin to all run together. The thrill of exploring dulls, expectations dampened."

Sighing, he placed a hand to his breast and leaned back in his cushions. "Alas, I think I may have reached such a point. I still drink because I enjoy a buzz now and then, but it isn't the same as it used to be. The thrill is faded. There are so few flavors of wine that stand out from the rest these days." He lowered his lids, giving his own small pout.
Edited by Branse, Sun Nov 12, 2017 11:54 am.
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"That's right, you've got it now," said Haven. "A haven sought by others. And if they're very lucky, I give them what they seek." Haven tossed the long waves of their white hair over their shoulder, eyeing this spectacular specimen with some degree of expectation. Everyone wanted something, yearned for some degree of solace. Few were so bold as to come out and say what they wanted; some preferred to dance around it, and it seemed Branse ascribed to the theory that desire was a hunt.

With a long, patient smile that suggested to so much as turn their head was an act of indulgence, Haven followed Branse's pointed stare until they found the young woman in the crowd. Pretty, but plain—hadn't Branse admitted to wanting the company of someone with a little more flair? Leaning their chin on the back of their hand to mirror Branse, a gesture that caused several of their rings to catch the light and sparkle, Haven observed while she rejected the advance of a noble in the hope that the one she truly wanted might make himself known to her again.

"Poor darling thing," said Haven. Their gaze slid to fix on Branse again. "Oh, you are cruel. A heartbreaker." They spoke without reproach; it wasn't a condemnation by any means, and the lilt of their tone combined with the smile on their face ought to prove as much. On another night Haven might have encouraged Branse to be done with his silly hunt, to put aside his masculine aggression and save that girl the pain of doubt, but tonight Haven felt selfish, vain. They could feel Branse's eyes, his interest. He made no effort to conceal himself.

Haven tossed up their feet on the cushion beside Branse so that he would have to step over the gem-encrusted, knee-high boots if he wanted to leave the booth. One ankle over the other, Haven leaned back again in the booth and shifted one shoulder forward so their collar bone—a favorite attribute—was more prominent. Their pants and shirt were each made of silk, and the fabric piled and flowed in ways that blurred some of Haven's features, rendering secure knowledge of their sex impossible to grasp from even a thorough studying.

"Ooh, sweet thing, are you talking about wine or people?" asked Haven with a hummed laugh. "Either way I suspect you might need to think about this differently. It isn't so much the pursuit that ought to thrill you. If you're going to go exploring, you've got to let yourself be surprised by what you find. What's the point of having expectations when you're looking for something to defy them? Exploring only gets dull when you have requirements. It's not really exploring then, is it? It's just looking for something to replace the last thing you liked."

Haven finished off the rest of the neon-pink liquid in their glass. Just as they finished swallowing, a young lady carrying a tray began to walk past their booth. Haven waved a hand, beckoning her closer.

"Hello, darling, how are you?" said Haven with such genuine care it caught the waitress off guard. "Listen, ah—come here, for me, would you please?" Haven gestured for her to bend down, which she did. Cupping their hand around her ear, Haven whispered something. The waitress stood back up straight, her mouth screwed with thought, while Haven clenched their hands into fists of hope.

"I'll be right back," she said. Haven grinned, then looked to Branse.

"Just you wait," they said.

When the waitress returned, it was with a bottle of wine and two goblets, along with another glass of the pink thing Haven had enjoyed previously.

"Oh, you did have it! Thank you!" said Haven. "You work magic."

The waitress grinned, laughed, and then left the two to their own devices. Haven uncorked the wine, then poured it out into the two goblets. It was a white, or at least close to it—the wine seemed to shimmer in its glass, and had a strong, sweet scent.

"Usually wine makes me melancholy," said Haven. "This one is the single exception." They took their wine goblet by the stem. "Ah, let's see. To new, exquisite friendships?" Haven gave Branse a hopeful, knowing grin.
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"Haven can be such a hard thing to find sometimes." He mused. "And all too often what we find is never quite what we thought. Tell me, sweet Haven. How often do people come crawling to you, looking for something but leaving unsatisfied with what they get?" His eyes were twinkling now, enjoying the game. He was getting a better sense of this one, just how far he could push with them. He was liking what he was finding. Something about them made him feel he could speak as openly as we wished without concern for the social niceties.

But the dance was fun, too.

Looking to the girl, he shrugged a shoulder lightly, dismissing the woman entirely. He wasn't bothered by the statement in the least. It was what he was good at. Working his way past guards and defenses, touching on the desires and soft inner thoughts of a person before he got what he wished out of them and left behind a gaping hole in their armor, a crack that would take a great deal of time to heal over.

Branse's eyes roamed them all the same, not so much trying to categorize Haven as appreciate what they were as a whole. His gaze ignored what they could not see and drank greedily of what was offered, nay gifted, to them.

He stuck out a lip at the direct question. "There we were having a pleasant chat and you go stabbing through the heart of the matter. You're not much for curtains and veils, I take it?" He watched Haven whisper into the girl's ear, cocking an eyebrow at the energy in their waiting. In that motion alone Branse saw a world of difference between the two of them. Haven seemed a peacock, displaying themself to be seen and admired. Loud and eager and wanting to be heard by the world. Haven would be found in the middle of a crowd, bathing in the attention.

Branse was more akin to a cat. Lounging in their domain, watching from the outside until he decided he wished to have something. When he wanted something, he went out to take it. The chase was more his style, the slow, effortless seduction and keeping his prey on their toes. They wouldn't ever quite know for sure if his affections was for them or for what they offered in the moment. He was fickle.

"Should be just travel through life without any expectations, then? What of standards? Looking for something we enjoy with a fresh new twist? We could let life run all over us and find ourselves in some Tarasian back alley with half a bottle of swill in our guts." He cocked his head, watching the waitress return with a bottle and trio of glasses. "Not that I'm objecting to slumming it now and again. There's something to be said for a bad old time now and then."

Taking the wine with a lazy grin, Branse eased back, wafting the glass under his face and smelling the fruity aroma gently. Toasting his glass to Haven, he winked.

"To the fantastic journey ahead of us." He returned the smile with one that squinted his eyes, taking a sip. He drank slowly, appreciating. "Well I'll be damned." He ran a finger across his lips after lowering the glass, looking thoughtfully from his glass to the bottle.
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“How often do people come crawling to you, looking for something but leaving unsatisfied with what they get?” asked Branse.

“Never,” said Haven with a proud grin.

There was arrogance in that answer, but it was not unmerited. Of the people who had come crawling—and it was never quite crawling, really, for Haven hated the act of begging, and was quick to put an end to such behavior when it was directed toward them—they could not think of a single person who had left their company disappointed. Haven knew how to mold themself to a person’s desires, could make themself the mirror into which a person saw everything they wanted manifest in flesh.

With another humming laugh, Haven lowered their lids and tilted their head down, as if relenting. “I could be for curtains and veils, if you’d like me to be,” they said, and when they raised their head it was to flash a grin. “The next time you speak in metaphor I’ll pretend I’ve not a clue what you really mean, and we can dance around our true intentions all night. What a true test of intellect.”

Scoffing, for the idea struck Haven as far too silly, they lifted their glass and clinked it gently against Branse’s. They brought the goblet to their mouth and sipped, and at once they felt as if they were home again. This was the first wine Haven had ever tasted, and a staple on the island back home. Common as it was back home, it was scarce in Imythess. Only a few places in Istan owned it, and fewer still had heard of it.

“You did say you were looking for a little sip of something delicious,” said Haven with a sweet laugh. “I’m sure this is one you’ve never tasted before.” They took another sip, then set their goblet down. Placing their arms on the table, hand to elbow, Haven leaned forward.

“A bad old time is all well and good, but you’d never catch me in the slums,” said Haven. “We do need standards, and that’s one of mine.” Haven winked. “Have your standards, darling, but perhaps readjust your sights when you find yourself growing bored. You’re far too young and far too handsome to suffer any measure of ennui just yet. Save that for when you’re old and rugged. There’s an age where being world-weary is attractive. You aren’t there yet.”
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"Seems a pity to spend the entire night on curtains and veils when there are silken sheets not so far away," He winked. "Apologies. Force of habit. Might be my intellect is scattered with good drink and better company." He set his glass aside.

"Always a fan of something I've never tasted before" He said, finger running along the mouth of the crystal to set it to humming just out of earshot as he regarded the elf. Haven was an adept predator in their own right. He had to wonder just how often they didn't get what they wanted. He could probably stand to learn a thing or two. He was certainly curious what they offered to teach beyond the hunt. Leaning forward himself, coming close enough to Haven to smell the sweet drinks on their breath, he offered his own grin.

"And what if one so young has already become world-weary and beaten down? I've lived a great deal of life in hardship and pain. It's been refreshing to surround myself with truly lovely things." He extended a hand to trace a fingertip along the upper ridge of Haven's ear, running the back of a finger along their ivory hair.

Behind Haven he spotted Mehai returning to the booth, the dark-skinned Istani bearing a drink. He got fairly close before noticing his friend was not alone. Grinning and shaking his head, he lifted his drink. Branse broke his fixation on Haven for a moment. He gestured across the room with a slender finger, toward the girl sitting by herself. She was looking less dejected and more vexed. Mehai frowned at him for several seconds before his eyebrows lifted and a grin spread across his face, scooping a second drink off a passing server and making his way across the crowd.

"Sweet thing deserves a little company. It seems I've found myself a new friend for the evening." He picked up his drink with a chime of rings on glass, taking the rest of the contents in a slow, prolonged draft.

"Offering to be what I'd like you to be. Where's the fun in that? Here I was starting to think the joy of exploration was eschewing what you know and expect to discover new things." He extended his emptied glass with a small flourish of the wrist, beckoning to the bottle.

"What are you looking for, Haven? There must be more you want for than to simply be a haven for others."
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"Hah!" Haven laughed. The suggestion of sheets caught them off guard, but it was a welcome surprise. Branse had chosen Haven over that girl—unless he spoke like this to everyone he fancied, which he very well might have. Haven was still trying to pin down the method to Branse's hunting; he certainly didn't seem to invest himself in one potential mate. Suppressing a smile, Haven said, "Maybe I like your habits. But easy as I might be, you've got to do a little more work first."

Branse wasted no time adhering to that rule, even if he didn't realize it. A tender touch went a long way with Haven—and more impressive than that was how readily Branse pointed a friend to the poor girl he'd abandoned. Rather pleased by the act of mercy, Haven lowered their bejeweled shoes from beside Branse and back to the floor. There was no need to guard him against outside forces anymore.

"You made an excellent choice," said Haven. "I must be sure not to disappoint you. You've been through so much pain already, after all." They ran a finger along the back of Branse's hand. Their voice still possessed a teasing lilt—in this instance it was almost cruel, considering the context of hardship. "We've all faced pain, darling Branse. I've found it can be very easy to forget, though, with the right company." Haven took a sip of wine. "You could be amazed, darling, how much that pain never happened."

Taking the bottle up, Haven poured Branse a second, generous serving of wine. They still hadn't finished their own goblet yet, and that second pink thing awaited them. Haven wasn't much of a drinker; they hated the feeling of being hungover and preferred to remember, in perfect detail, all that was said to them.

"Forgive me. A terrible habit, that. I merely aim to please." Haven set the bottle back down, then leaned in close again. "Can I tell you a secret?" Their eyes glittered. Looking Branse over, Haven couldn't tell whether or not he could be trusted with anything. Yet they felt daring, compelled to inject a little danger and instability into the perfectly constructed facade they had made for themselves.

"I'm not from here at all," they said. That was the truth. The rest would not be. "I've run away. I stole my family's jewels and ran, ran, ran, and my feet took me here." Haven set their hands on the table, putting each gemstone ring on display. "My family owned crystal mines. In the underground. That's where I'm from, originally, the underground. I climbed out of hell, darling, to be here. What am I looking for? Everything that years spent underground couldn't give to me. Sunlight. The coast. A sky full of stars. And beautiful men who give me their full attention. Down there it was forbidden for anyone to look at me, and I'm far too beautiful to be kept hidden away. So I suppose we're both after adventure, but you're world-weary and I'm just starting. Whatever am I to do?"
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"A pair of incorrigible youths set in our ways are we two," He said, cradling his glass like his firstborn child. He knew his limitations, so he took it in sips. He'd had to learn the hard way when to stop and when to just take it slow. He was no stranger to hangovers, to memories of parties fading into silhouettes and dream-like recall that slipped out of your grasp the harder you tried to remember.

Tonight he wanted to remember.

"Plying a poor stranger with drink so soon after meeting. A girl might think you're after something." He gave a huff of a laugh.

"No worries, darling Haven. I'm a sucker for anyone aiming to please." He leaned in to hear their story, looking at the rings on display. Something about their story sounded off to his ear, but he couldn't quite tell which part. Part of the trouble spending life around aristocracy was that everyone claimed to be more than they were. Everyone embellished their tale just a little bit. Some much better than others.

He took one of Haven's hands in his, running his thumb over the rings. While the pad of his thumb touched upon the gems, his other fingers explored the hands that wore them. Slim, strong. The hands of a musician, which he already knew from their earlier playing. He bent down, placing a kiss on one knuckle. "Such a shame to hide your treasures away like that. I admire anyone daring enough to display such generous gifts openly for all to admire. May your light never be hidden away in the darkness. The world would be a darker place without you." He let his hand slip away, running down their fingertips.

He leaned on an elbow. "One secret deserves another." He flourished a hand, displaying the gem-set ring in his palm. Flicking it in the air, he caught on his thumb and danced it across his fingers like a coin before snapping back and reaching out to slide it back on Haven's finger.

"I am a refugee of a foreign land." He said, voice seeming far away. "Born to a middle-class family of little note. Unsatisfied with my lot in life, for the tradesman's calloused hands, I turned to the aristocracy. I became a master thief, stealing and charming my way up the social ladder. One day I was invited to a royal gala." He looked up at Haven from half-lidded eyes. "I stole the king's crown from his very head, but not before I stole what lay beneath his daughter's skirts. So I ran here, finding work for nimble fingers as a tailor fit for a sultan."

He told the story without hesitation, seeming to be perfectly honest if not for the wink and grin giving away the lie. He didn't offer the truth. The spotty memories he had of blood and pain. His highborn status as one of two surviving members of his house. The lifetime of training to be a chameleon.

"Perhaps such a fresh face to the world should experience a few of the pleasures it has to offer. The dramas of its courts and the tender touch of a noble scoundrel."
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"A girl ought to think I'm merely providing what was requested," said Haven with a wink.

It seemed Branse believed their story. At the very least he didn't ask questions. Haven had improvised it entirely; no two people ever heard the same origin story. Sometimes Haven was born to a noble family in Taras, and sometimes they were abandoned in Striberg then adopted by a kindly older couple. The story Branse heard was not regressed—the only practice that supported it was Haven's history of storytelling. No one in Imythess knew of their island.

The wine might have given it away, but so few people here even knew of it. Haven doubted Branse would put it together.

"Ooh, you flatter me," said Haven. Basking in the compliments of his kisses and his words, Haven offered a long smile and let him do whatever he pleased with their hands. "You've known me such a short while and already you know what a treasure I am. Some people don't realize it even after years. My parents wanted to keep me hidden away, and you know I was meant to shine. Perhaps tonight I am the lucky one to find someone who understands me so well."

So satisfied with Branse's flattery was Haven that they didn't even notice he'd stolen a ring. But the promise of a secret soothed any anger they might have felt. This was what Haven wanted all along: a secret. Back home, toward the end, when money was rare and food was scarce, people would pay in secrets. Old family skeletons. Rumors. Bits of gossip. Anything could be made useful, especially for the purpose of blackmail.

Not that Haven wanted to blackmail Branse into anything. But it was always better to be the keeper of secrets. As Branse told his story, Haven gave him their full attention, smiling and nodding to encourage him, laughing at the appropriate parts. Haven took Branse's hand and laced their fingers together, squeezing with gratitude.

"Look at us," said Haven, "two refugees from foreign lands, fated to meet each other. We were destined to be the best of friends, Branse, weren't we?" With their free hand, Haven enjoyed a long drink from their wine. "Already you know me better than anyone here. No one here knows where I'm truly from."

Not even you, darling. Forgive me.

"I'd say I already felt the touch of a noble scoundrel," said Haven. "And I think I know a bit about court drama, if what you and the king's daughter did counts for anything. What other pleasures would you suggest to someone who's been kept from them? Would a walk outside alone together count for anything?" Haven smiled, then, remembering, added: "Whatever happened to the crown? Do you have it still?"
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Fitting the ring back on Haven's finger, he happily interlaced fingers with them. Squeezing back gently, so very carefully, he was very aware of his strength holding this seemingly fragile beauty. He felt like a great beast holding a newborn infant in its claws.

Taking his cue from Haven, he kept their fingers interwoven with one hand and drank with the other. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Mehai sitting beside the girl, sharing a drink and a small smile. A gift of hunted prey to a friend, like a cat bringing a dead bird to the front door.

Rubbing smooth ebony skin with his thumb as he returned his gaze to Haven, he beamed.

"Then it is a thing we share. Can't go around telling everyone we're a pair of runaway thieves, can we? I don't think I've ever told my story either." He said, eyes shining with a wealth of inner thoughts.

"Am I allowed to be grandiose?" He chuffed, tilting his glass back and forth to watch the shimmering ambrosia stir. "The love of a good man. A walk by starlight along the coast of a sea. Finding comfort in the sweet embrace of another in the middle of a hardship. Sharp words and harsh objects thrown at one another in a lovers' spat." He hummed satisfactorily as he thought.

"I'm not sure how many of those I can offer, but a walk by starlight I can most certainly do." He look a long drink and picked up the bottle by the neck, spinning it thoughtfully.

Upon standing his head began to swim pleasantly, but not impairingly. He tugged gently at Haven's hand, beseeching they join him.

"I gifted the crown to a wealthy client for their favor, offering it in exchange for an order to sew them an outfit to match. Thinking back on it, I regret giving it up. I have a suit and a pair of heeled boots that would go marvelously with such a piece." He stuck out a lip, disappointment evident.

"Care to join me on a walk? I'm afraid I'm just not terribly steady on my feet tonight." The lie was plain and clear, not swaying in the least where he stood.
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Haven gazed up at Branse with an even stare, as if they were trying to figure something out. Then, smirking, Haven picked up the two goblets and stood with the grace and elegance of a practiced dancer. The delightful pink drink sat on the table, purposely left behind, while Haven squeezed Branse's hand.

"I seem to have that effect on people," said Haven. In their heels, they stood a good few inches taller than Branse. He might have been stronger—the grip of his hand reminded Haven how utterly fragile they were—but for now they were taller, had the advantage of being able to turn their eyes down to meet his. "I'll keep you steady, darling."

Lifting their laced hands, Haven kissed the back of Branse's wrist and then lead him through the party toward the exit. Heads turned as they passed, eyeing the gorgeous pair in awe and bewilderment. A few dear friends stopped Haven to ask if they were coming back to the party later, to which Haven answered of course, darling, of course even though they weren't entirely sure. It was a matter of not disappointing people or assuming too much of Branse.

Outside, the warm night enveloped them. The humidity had dropped steadily since the morning, and so instead of searing, sticky heat, the beach possessed a pleasant and inviting temperature. A breeze rolled by, catching Haven's hair. Ahead of them was the boardwalk, and beyond that, the ocean, with a full bright moon pouring white light over Istan. Reflected in the water's waves, the moon rippled.

Tugging Branse's hand, Haven brought him further down the boardwalk, a little closer to the sand, then began to walk slowly. Their heels echoed against the wooden platform with each sashayed step.

"The love of a good man," said Haven. "Hmmm. I think I've had adoration from good men, and terrible men, too. They've damned near worshipped me. Does that count?" Haven grinned. "And I hadn't pictured you for the throwing things sort, but no, I was wrong, it makes perfect sense. Look at you. There's something wild in you yet."

Haven held out the glasses toward Branse, and tilted them back and forth, indicating that he ought to fill them back up.

"You know, darling, your story is a little hard to believe without that crown," said Haven. "I can't say I know anyone who would steal a king's crown and then not keep it. Have you embellished your origins, sweet Branse? I won't be angry if you have."
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The walk through the party drew the eye of everyone they came across. The attention of so many others, the venemous looks of jealousy from men and women alike as he departed with this beautiful creature walking amongst them. Anywhere else he might have been unsettled by the glared, the unspoken threats, but here he reveled in their jealousy. Walking out with all the bearing of a prince, he showed the only trait he and his father shared. Sheer proud arrogance. He'd won the game without rules tonight.

Questions were directed at his companion of return and Haven's promises to return to them. He squeezed their hand gently as they spoke, a grin of ambitious greed growing on his lips.

Once they left the bustle and buzz of the party, Branse's bearing faded somewhat. He visibly relaxed, inhaling the salty ocean air and rolling his head back to bathe in moonlight. Something about this silvery glow set him at peace.


Walking in the night, with the scent of the ocean breeze and the darkness covering everything like a shroud. It quieted the busy crowd of thoughts in his head, set his racing mind to ease and calming raw nerves. He released Haven's hand a moment to step ahead, taking in a deep breath and running his fingers through his hair. The many rings shimmered in the light, catching the moonbeams in a way the sun couldn't quite manage and dancing in the crystalline veins in the metal.

Turning on the spot, he walked backward with confident grace. Without looking he poured the both of them a new glass, appreciating anew the way the moon set Haven's hair aflame. Stepping smoothly with an alien grace, every action seeming like a coiled spring carefully allowed just a little bit of room to expand. A mask of calm hiding something powerful and wild as his companion had said.

Taking his glass, he enjoyed it slowly, letting his eyes wander up to Haven's as he sipped. He wasn't used to being the shorter partner, but he was finding it wasn't something he minded. Their eyes were a deep purple, though in the silvery glow they seemed more a lilac.

"The embellishment is half of the story, darlin. What if I were to tell you I was born a nomad, come to Istan with dreams of adventure in the great star of the desert only to find myself a pauper in its streets, putting on a fine costume and crashing these lovely little get-togethers?" He cupped his hands below his glass, gesturing toward Haven in a request for alms.

"I could tell you I was a soldier who has deserted house and state, hiding from his past. Or a highborn survivor of a broken house." His posture shifted with each story, from a bent and broken creature to a postured stiffness and a look of regret. The posture eased, cocking his hips and looking aside as regret became pain.

This guise melted away as well, turning to walk forward beside Haven. "Or maybe I'm some monstrous mercenary, a renegade for hire breaking heart in his time between stopping them." He was quiet a moment, flicking a painted nail against the edge of his glass to ring in the night.

"Tell me, darling Haven. What happens when you find someone who doesn't know what they want? Someone who has no expectations from this life? What are you then?"
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