"Bel!" At the word, the young redhead's eyes snapped up to the man who'd spoken it. He was a gruff-looking man, maybe in his mid-forties, and the expression on his face betrayed his disinterest in the topic at hand as he spoke. "Get those two crates of loqua to the bar, then you're done for the night." He said shortly before turning to address two more bedraggled-looking youths.
The girl sighed as she eyed up the two crates she'd been assigned to carry. Both looked fairly heavy, and she could tell already that her back would be protesting once she was done delivering them. Still, there was nothing for it but to follow the man's orders. She needed every scrap of gold she could get to survive in this town.
With a grunt of effort, she hauled the stacked crates off the stone-paved floor and set off in the direction of the bar. She'd delivered there enough times to know exactly where it was. She knew lower city like the back of her hand.
Lower city Valua had been her home for all sixteen years of her life. Her emerald eyes gleamed in the flickering light of the lanterns that intermittently lined the streets as she carefully observed the area for anything amiss. This was the poorest part of Valua, and living here taught you a couple important things about survival.
Never look like you have gold. Even if you don't, always be on the lookout for people looking to mug you anyways. And lastly, don't talk to the guards. They're not there to protect you.
As she turned down a narrow walkway, someone else came into view walking the other way. In the low light, she couldn't tell if they were armed. She slowed her pace as she pulled to one side, expecting them to do the same. They didn't draw any weapons or assume a threatening stance; all the same, they kept on walking straight down the middle of the alley.
"Watch out!" She snapped, just as the stranger bumped into her, jostling the crates slung over her arms and forcing her to stumble to keep her balance. Fortunately, she managed to avoid dropping either of them, and she levelled a glare at the stranger as she recovered.
"I'm sorry…" They said. Almost immediately, her curiosity was piqued. It was a boy who looked to be around her age, maybe slightly younger. He had a hood pulled over his golden hair, and his blue eyes were piercing even in the low light. He didn't look like any lower city dweller she'd ever seen before.
That worried her. If they didn't look beat down, they were probably looking to beat someone else down. "Whatever." She said as she turned partway away from him, intent on walking away as quickly as she could.
"Wait!" He said, quickly catching up to her and grabbing her arm. She flinched, resisting the urge to pull away. She couldn't afford to pay for the loqua if she dropped it.
"What is it?" She said, trying her best to keep the venom out of her tone. She wasn't an optimist, not after living here for so long, but she could still entertain the vaguest hope that this person was not here to cause trouble for her.
"Uhm… Do you need help carrying those crates? They look really heavy." She blinked in surprise at the question. It wasn't what she was expecting from someone she'd bump into in a poorly-lit alleyway. It made her suspicious, and she narrowed her eyes at him.
"What's to stop you from just running off with them once I hand them over?" She said seriously.
"What?! I wouldn't-" He started to protest, but quickly caught himself as realization began to dawn on his face. He was quiet for a moment before giving her a sheepish smile. "I guess it's not unusual to expect treachery in a town like this, huh?"
What was his angle? Her arms were starting to get tired, and she couldn't think of a convenient way to get out of this discussion. Now that she gave him a closer look, she could see, too, that he had a small sword dangling from his hip. If he really wanted to rob her, he could just run her through and leave with the goods.
She heaved a sigh as she shifted her position to face him again. "Fine. If you want to help me carry this crap, you can. But if you start running, I'm going to catch you and beat you senseless." She warned him.
That got a smile from him. "I won't disappoint you." He said as he grabbed one of the crates and took it in his arms. She suppressed a chuckle as he visibly wobbled while adjusting to the weight. "These are a lot heavier than I thought…" He admitted with strain in his voice.
"Why do you think they pay me to carry them?" She asked, smirking. "We're heading to the bar a little ways down the street. Do you know the place?"
"The bar…" He said, looking thoughtful for a moment before nodding. "I think I saw it on my way here. I suppose you want me to lead the way?"
She nodded curtly. "Lets me keep an eye on you."
He huffed a breath that might've been laughter, before moving past her back towards the way he'd come. She began following him once he'd gotten a few steps ahead of her. The pace was faster with each of them carrying a lighter load, and in only a few minutes they reached the bar. "Take them up to the counter." She instructed her would-be helper as they entered.
He set his crate down first, and she followed suit moments later. The barkeep gave her a look. "Delivery from Jorval company." She said. At that, the barkeep nodded.
"Good. That's all I need. I'll make sure they get their payments on time." He said, giving them a dismissive wave of his hand.
That meant her work day was over, then. She was just about to head out the door without a second thought when she realized her companion of the last few minutes was standing in the middle of the room, looking around as if it were a tourist attraction. The barflies scattered around the room were beginning to glare at him.
Part of her wanted to leave him to get what was coming to him. Anyone that oblivious in this town probably needed a lesson, anyways.
But she couldn't do that. Not yet. She'd need a few more years to become that cynical. She backpedaled a few steps, snatched his hand, and tugged him out of the bar and back out into the street. He stumbled a short ways before managing to match her pace, and as soon as they stopped, he yanked his hand away, giving her a confused look.
"What was that about?" He said, a note of irritation in his voice.
She crossed her arms over her chest, glaring at him. "You don't know? You were pissing off half the bar, giving them looks like that. You need to keep to yourself in this town."
He looked befuddled as he glanced back at the bar, before turning his attention back to her. "Was I really being that much of a bother…?" He heaved a sigh as his eyes went to her feet. "I'm sorry."
What was with this kid? "Quit apologizing." She said, taking a seat on a nearby bench. It creaked a little as she sat down. It probably hadn't been derusted in months. "You aren't from lower city, are you?" She asked.
He eyed her for a moment before sitting down on the other side of the bench. "No, I guess I'm not." He turned his head to look at her. "Out of curiosity, what gave me away?"
She raised a hand and began listing things off on her fingertips. "You're too clean - your face should have some grime. Your clothes are all new. You don't look around enough. You stare a lot, and you've got this, this… hopeful look in your eyes."
He eyed her for several seconds before frowning. "What kind of nightmare must you be living?"
That caught her off guard, and she stared at him for a moment as she lowered her hand. "I'm just living lower city, like most of Valua." Her eyes narrowed again as she watched him. "I'm guessing you're from upper city. A runaway?"
A small smile graced his lips as he looked away. "Something like that." He turned back to her as he extended a hand to her. "I'm… Henri."
She eyed his hand for a long moment before reaching out to take it, shaking it briefly. "Belleza." She replied.
His smile was wider now. "It's nice to meet you, Belleza." Slowly, the smile faded as he moved on to his next question. "So you've lived in lower city your whole life?"
All this time, she'd been watching him for an angle. She knew that just about anyone she met in lower city was probably looking to get something out of her, and this boy was likely no different. Still… it was hard to deny the sympathy in his eyes. Something about him told her she was dealing with a kind of person she hadn't seen in a long time.
She looked away. She didn't want to keep looking him in the eyes. "Yeah, I have."
He went quiet. Maybe, despite his lack of subtlety, he could tell she didn't want to elaborate. His voice was quieter when he spoke again. "It must be very hard for you here."
She turned her head to glare at him once more. "Of course it is. It's hard for everyone." She leaned closer, raising her voice. "Why did you come here, rich boy? This isn't the town for you."
He flinched, and pulled away. The pained look on his face made her regret her anger very quickly. Could she afford to retract her words now, though? "Because… I wanted to see with my own eyes what the real people of Valua go through every day. I don't want to close myself off from the real problems of the world." His voice was heavy with sadness as he spoke.
She shivered a little at that tone, and pulled away further to her side of the bench. Any anger that had been in her voice was now replaced with a similar sorrow to his own. "And just what does any of that do for the people living here?" She asked.
He caught her eyes with his, and she was surprised to see the determination in them. She thought she could see the flicker of a smile forming on his face, but it didn't reach his lips. "More than you might think."
Part of her wanted to believe him. But she'd been living in this town long enough to be wary of hope, even if she hadn't lost it all yet. "Whatever." She said. Her voice wasn't as harsh as the last time she'd said it.
The boy turned his head to look up above them. Through a crack in the ever-present storm clouds hanging above Valua, a glimpse of the yellow moon told him that time had passed quickly since he'd met Belleza.
She followed his eyes, quickly coming to the same conclusion, and glanced back at him after a moment. "Time for you to go?" She inquired.
He nodded slowly as he got back on his feet again. "I'm afraid so. I'll be missed if I'm not home soon." He gave her another one of those small smiles. "If it's not too much of a bother, Belleza, I'd like to see you again sometime."
She leaned back on the bench as she looked him up and down once more. His clothes were fine, but carefully selected, like he'd had some idea of how he should look coming here, but not quite enough of one. His posture was good, and the way he set his feet told her he wasn't bad in a fight, either. There was more to this boy than he was letting on.
"Maybe I wouldn't mind." She admitted. Before he could turn away, however, she raised a hand. "But… on one condition."
He raised an eyebrow at her. "And that is?"
"Tell me your real name."
His face paled a bit. "Wow… You're even sharper than I thought." He said. She could hear some approval in his tone. He turned away from her enough that all she could see was his a hint of his smile past his hood. "Alright… My name is Enrique."
It was her turn to grow pale. Enrique. Sure, it could be someone with the same name, but the aura he projected…
"I'll see you again soon, Belleza." He said, waving goodbye to her as he walked away and around a corner, out of sight.
She watched him go, then turned to stare up at the yellow moon once more.
Enrique - Prince Enrique, crown prince of Valua, son of Empress Teodora I. What was he doing in lower city? What interest did he have in her?
And why did she think that for once, this was someone who wasn't out to get her?
Belleza and Enrique walked side by side through the streets towards the industrial district, chatting quietly as they passed the occasional lower city denizen on their way.
"You probably know this, but most of the moonstone processing in Valua is done around here. Without lower city, nobody here would have fuel." She explained as they went.
Enrique nodded under his hood. He'd swapped out the finer clothes for something more deliberately worn and tattered. If someone looked for too long, they might get the impression that it was still a little too clean, but it was a lot better than what he'd been wearing before. "Most of our airship parts are manufactured here, too, from what I've read."
Belleza smirked at him. "So you're not one of those rich kids who eats when he should be reading."
He laughed a little. "I wouldn't exactly be qualified for my job if I didn't keep up with my studies. I need to know Valua inside and out."
"Some rulers would disagree with you." She said, not without a hint of sadness. "Not that I'm complaining, mind you." She admitted after a moment.
Belleza was still getting used to him. They'd met twice now since their first meeting; this would be the third time. In the week and a half it took him to visit her again after the first time, she'd almost begun to believe it was all an elaborate prank. That doubt, at least, had faded when he'd found her again in the same alleyway they'd met in the first time.
It was hard to dispel her doubts. Very, very few people in her life had ever shown a care for anything beyond their next paycheck. She'd grown up around violence, decay and the constant threat of starvation. Enrique was something new to her.
It was clear to her, by now, that he meant her no harm. She possessed nothing so valuable as to merit multiple weeks of observing her and her surroundings. But still, it was difficult to get to the point of trusting him. She could believe that he wasn't trying to hurt her. But it was a very different thing to accept that he had truly noble intentions; that he could actually understand what she'd been through.
Doubts like these gnawed at her as they made their way through a small metal arch that indicated the beginning of the industrial district. She quickly turned a left and began climbing a steep staircase cut into a rock wall. "We're almost there." She assured him.
"Looking forward to it!" He replied. She smiled to herself. To his credit, Enrique certainly seemed to trust her. Since that first meeting, he'd never questioned anything she'd said to him. She reflected that it would be painfully easy to hurt him, or steal from him. If it had been someone else he'd decided to place his trust in, he very well could've been dead by now.
But she wasn't the kind of person to exploit someone like that, and so he carried on living and enjoying her company. Her breathing was a little heavy by the time they reached the top of the stairs. The building at the top was locked, but that wasn't her destination, anyways. She turned away from it and strode to the edge of the tall rock outcropping they now found themselves perched on.
"Welcome to the best view in lower city." She said, extending her arms to either side as if to present the smoggy vista to him like a work of art.
Enrique was breathing just as hard as he joined her at the landing on top of the stairs, and she watched him as he surveyed the view of the industrial district and the few unlucky portions of the residential district that bordered it. Distantly, through the smog, could be seen the glimmering lights of upper city - and between here and there, the empty void of sky that separated the two shores.
"It's beautiful." Enrique said, with just a tinge of sarcasm in his voice.
"I'm sorry it doesn't sparkle the way you imagined it would." She shot back as she sat down on the worn tiling beneath her, staring out into the distance.
Enrique shook his head as he sat down beside her. "I didn't ask to come here for something to paint. I just wanted to see the city." He turned his head to smile at her. "I appreciate you taking me up here." He said, waving a hand in front of his face after a moment. "Even if it is a little hard to breathe."
She shrugged. "The people who live close to here breathe this every day. I don't think they even notice anymore."
Enrique frowned miserably at that. "Until they get sick."
Belleza nodded, giving him a look. "Right. Then they die."
He looked like he might be a little sick himself as he considered that. "Right…"
Silence fell between them. Belleza felt a little bad. Though they got along well enough, their more serious conversations often seemed to reach these kinds of standstills. She knew it was, in part, because she always took the offensive when talking about the problems lower city faced. She treated things like they were his fault, and he didn't know how to handle it yet.
As she watched him, Enrique's eyes swept slowly over the city and the smoke-covered factories. That sympathetic, sad look was back. On most rich folks, she'd probably have been happy to see that expression. On him, however, it just made her unhappy. She'd let it slide all the other times she'd seen it, but now it was starting to eat at her.
"Why are you so interested in lower city? I get that you want to understand what it's like down here, but I don't really think this is standard for people in your position. You've even admitted you have to sneak out to get here. You're not supposed to be here." She said, staring at him. It wasn't an accusing look; just a questioning one.
Enrique scratched his head for a moment before meeting her eyes. "Well, my uncle Gregorio… well, I guess he's not really my uncle, but he helped raise me - Gregorio is an honorable man, and a thoughtful one. He grew up in lower city, too. I think he's a big part of why I am who I am, and why I want to know what others are going through in this kingdom I'm supposed to rule someday."
She stared at him harder. "Gregorio? You mean the ironwall admiral? That Gregorio?"
He smiled wistfully. "Yeah, that's the one. He's a lot nicer than he looks. It's why he commands the defensive fleet, rather than one of the more aggressive ones…"
Belleza sighed as she set her forehead in one hand. "You really have lived a life I can't even begin to understand, Enrique."
She could feel his eyes still on her. She could picture the smile he'd be giving her about now. "And I could say the same about you, Bella. All the more reason for me to keep coming here. I can't be a good ruler if I don't understand my own people."
She lifted her head and glared at him. "How many times have I asked you not to call me that?"
His smile turned sheepish. "Maybe fifteen times? I'm starting to lose count."
"Yet you keep doing it."
He rolled his eyes. "Come on. It's perfect. It describes you exactly." He said.
"Whatever…" She said, quickly looking away as his smile continued to grow warmer. Her cheeks felt just a little hot. She sighed and shook her head. Despite the noble attitude he could take sometimes, the prince really was just another boy her age. It made her feel an odd mixture of confused and giddy whenever she was reminded of that.
"I'm sorry for teasing you." His quiet voice roused her from her thoughts. He was looking away now, back at the city again. The sad look was back.
She didn't know what to think of him. He was simultaneously regal and foolish, knowledgeable and naive, charming and depressing. In some ways, she reflected, maybe he was just as isolated as she was.
He turned to look at her, raising an eyebrow. "Yes?" He asked.
"Can I tell you about my family?" Her voice was quiet as she asked the question.
His eyes widened. He hadn't pried on the matter since they first met, but she could tell he'd grown deeply curious about her history. "If you want to, I'm all ears." He replied.
She sighed. A small part of her still didn't want to dredge up old memories, but he'd shown her nothing but sympathy and trust thus far. Maybe it was time for her to return the favor. "As you know, I was born here sixteen years ago. We were lower city, but we weren't really in that bad of a spot."
He watched her expectantly. She took a deep breath and kept going. "My mom worked in the factories. My dad was a soldier. Between the two of them, we had enough money to be comfortable. Before I turned seven, I don't think I was ever actually hungry."
"It sounds like it was a good life." Enrique observed.
Belleza nodded. "It was." Her expression darkened, and she looked away as she continued. "Then the Valua-Nasr war started." Enrique didn't say anything, but she could imagine he was putting the pieces together in his head now.
"Both sides said the other started it. It didn't matter to the men who had to go out and fight. My father left the city to join the armada in battle." She explained. Her voice was flat as she went over the memories which she'd so carefully buried. "He survived longer than most infantry did. We actually started to believe he'd make it."
"And did he?" Enrique asked. By the tone of his voice, she could tell he already knew the answer.
Belleza shook her head. "He died a week before the ceasefire was called. The last battle of the war." She was surprised that she didn't feel like crying. The event seemed distant to her now. Dealing with the fallout had meant she'd had little time to focus on grieving. "Mom couldn't handle it. She stopped eating. She got sick, and died two months later."
"Belleza… I'm so sorry." The words were so quiet that they were hard to hear.
She ignored them. "I ended up on the streets, just seven years old. I didn't know what to do at first. I begged for change, then I started stealing. Once I got caught and beat for it, I started to take odd jobs. Sometimes I'm still not sure how I managed to survive until now." She explained. "That's my story. That's what life is like in lower city." Her voice was colder than even she expected.
Enrique was silent for a minute, then another. He didn't know what to say, she guessed. She didn't know what he should say, either. Part of her wished she'd never broached the topic to begin with.
"Belleza… I can't even begin to imagine what it was like for you to go through that. I can't undo what happened to you, either." She watched him stare at his hands, and as she did, she saw him clench his fingers into a fist. "But I do know that I don't want to let that happen to anyone else ever again."
She stared at him, expressionless, for a long moment. "I'm not sure even an emperor can stop foolish men from going to war."
He glanced up at her. He looked determined, but underneath it she could see the scared child he still was. "I'll find a way."
A small part of her wanted to believe he would. "I certainly hope you will, Enrique." She said, smiling ever so slightly.
They kept meeting, and weeks turned into months. Enrique's schedule was erratic. Sometimes she wouldn't see him for weeks at a time, and others he would show up two days in a row. While he tried several times to clarify his routine and his life in the palace, Belleza could never quite grasp what it was like without once having seen it. A part of her wished she could be the one to visit him, for once.
Still, despite this disconnect, the two got along well, and as time passed, the both of them managed to open up to one another. They became friends, and eventually, as Enrique grew more comfortable and familiar with lower city, she began to suspect that he was really just visiting to see her now.
She couldn't complain. Despite their different upbringings, she and the young prince clicked in an oddly satisfying way. They were both intensely curious about things they didn't know; both keenly analytical (though his naivete from growing up in the palace sometimes hindered that); and the both of them, at times, seemed to want to be living the other's life.
It was just another evening in lower city Valua as Belleza and Enrique reclined against the back of the bar, a half-finished bottle of loqua between them. The area around the bar had become their de facto hangout in the past several months, and this was not the first bottle the two had shared since becoming friends.
"I turned fifteen a few days ago." Enrique announced after a moment of silence and another sip from the bottle.
Belleza grinned at him. "Congratulations. It's always an achievement to live another year." Her bright green eyes twinkled with amusement in the low light of a nearby streetlight as she continued. "I didn't get you anything."
That made him laugh. "I already got more than I should have. It's honestly kind of upsetting how much money was wasted on that party…" He shook his head, and though he was smiling, his eyes were a little sad.
She shrugged. "You can't help being the prince." She'd come to accept that fact over the months she'd known him. At first, maybe a month and a half into their relationship, she'd started getting it in her head that he was going to stick around one of these days. She wasn't sure what had brought about that delusion, but it had slowly been broken down as he'd continued to disappear back to the palace after their every meeting.
Enrique heaved a sigh and nodded. "I know, but… If nothing else, it did make me want to hurry and get back out here. Being stuck in the palace during the preparations was incredibly frustrating." He admitted, rubbing at his forehead with his palm as if to nurse a headache away at the thought of it all.
He always got that look when he talked about the palace. "Well, if it makes you feel any better, I missed you while you were away." She offered, her smile turning sincere for a moment.
He returned her smile, and the frustration faded from his face as he looked at her. "I appreciate knowing that. I always feel better when I get the chance to come out here. It's kind of like a second home to me, now."
Belleza looked away from him as she took a sip from the bottle between them, setting it aside nearly empty. "That's good. Now that you know what it's like here, maybe things will change when you're in charge." The words felt a little odd on her tongue. She didn't like the idea of leaning on an authority figure for change, even if he was one of her closest friends at this point.
She shook off those thoughts as she turned to grin at him again. "So when is it my turn to visit your place, hm?" She'd teased him about this from time to time, and it never failed to get a flustered reaction from him. She knew she'd never see the palace, and she didn't particularly want to - she just liked seeing this more human side of him.
To her surprise, though, his reaction this time was different. Instead of stammering and making excuses, this time he went quiet and looked away. "Belleza…"
The redhead frowned. There'd been an odd tension between them all night. She'd been ignoring it thus far, but the long silences and odd looks were starting to gnaw at her. Maybe it was time to tell him…
"Enrique, I have-"
"-Something to tell you." they both finished speaking at the same time, and for a moment they both stared at one another as they tried to process what had just happened. Eventually, they both looked away again, feeling a little embarrassed.
"Uhm… you go first." She prompted him.
She heard him take a deep breath, then let it out. Then, suddenly, his hand was on hers, warm and soft. She blinked in surprise as she turned to look at him. He stared her in the eyes for a long moment before speaking. "Belleza, I… I love you." He admitted with only a little hesitation.
Her breath caught in her throat, and for a few seconds her cheeks felt like they were on fire. The things she'd been planning to say rushed away from her. Then, she forced herself to start breathing again, and her thoughts returned to her. Despite that, she couldn't help smiling as she spoke. "Enrique…"
He'd evidently caught some of the sadness in her voice and her expression, however. "Belleza, is something wrong?" His fingers tightened on her hand for a moment, urgent but not painful. "I've been meaning to say this for awhile now. You've asked me about visiting the palace many times… I can take you there. You could live there, if you wanted."
She laughed quietly to herself as she looked away. Leave lower city. Never be hungry again. Never be bullied again. She could do whatever she wanted. And, she admitted to herself as she glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, she could be close to who she wanted.
Now that it was out in the open, Enrique was frantic. "Seriously. Anything you want will be taken care of. You could even begin to change Valua for the better, from there. If you, you know, became empress someda-" His eyes widened and his words were cut off as she leaned close and kissed him.
It was a gentle, almost chaste gesture. Her fingers brushed his cheek for a moment before she pulled away, wearing that same wistful smile from before. "Belleza…" Enrique said quietly. She could tell how much he wanted this to work.
"Enrique… you have no idea how happy it would make me if I could accept that offer." She said as her smile slowly faded to a frown. "But I don't think I can accept it."
Enrique was despondent. "But why not…?" He asked miserably.
She hated seeing him like this. She almost wanted to accept his offer, and let go of her objections. But… "It'd change who I am. I'm not nobility. I grew up in lower city and I got to where I am by working all the time." She looked away from him as she continued. It would be difficult to keep this up if she had to keep looking in his eyes. "If I end up somewhere like that, I need to know it's because I earned it."
"And being the girl I love isn't earning it?" His voice was quiet and sad now. Maybe, deep down, he'd expected this.
Her heart fluttered for a moment as he spoke, and she forced herself to keep avoiding his face. "As happy as it makes me to hear you say you love me… no, it's not."
"I… don't know what to do, then." Enrique admitted. "I hate only being able to see you every once in awhile, and like this…"
She didn't know what to do about that, either. She took a breath to steel herself before speaking again. "I still have something to tell you, Enrique."
"What is it?" His voice was lacking most of its usual enthusiasm. It stung her to hear it.
"I'm planning to join the military." She said.
"What? Why?" Now his tone was a little snappy. Even he hadn't anticipated that.
She looked at him to see a rare glimpse of anger on his features. Was this the first time he'd been upset with her? She couldn't remember the last time. "I'm never going to get anywhere staying in lower city. If I enlist, though… maybe I can achieve something." She smiled sadly at him. "You know I'm good enough in a fight, after all."
He frowned. They'd scrapped on occasion, and she'd won more often than not. She hadn't thought much of it until recently. Now she realized she had an opportunity to choose her own path, for once. "You could achieve something with me, though." He protested.
"They'd be your achievements. Not mine." She said with finality.
She watched as Enrique slowly schooled the anger off of his face. She'd seen his little ritual of self-control countless times at this point. She wondered to herself now if this would be the last time she'd see it. "If this is what you really want, Belleza, I won't stop you."
She stared at the floor for a long moment before replying. "It is."
"I probably won't be able to see you again once you're a part of the armada. Barracks aren't as open as city streets." His words held a note of warning.
She'd considered that. She couldn't think of a way around it. "I know." She'd just have to accept it.
There was silence between them for a little over a minute before he spoke again. "Well… since this is probably the last time we'll meet like this, maybe I should get us another bottle of loqua." He said as he hefted the bottle between them and drained the last of the liquid inside.
Even in this, he was taking the high road, she reflected. "I'd like that." She said agreeably, giving him a small smile.
"I'll be right back, then." He said, rising to his feet and walking around the corner towards the front of the bar.
The next hour and a half flew by as they finished off the next bottle. They talked, and teased, and questioned each other like they always had. And then, it grew late, and they parted for the last time.
Belleza enlisted on the day of her seventeenth birthday, just a few days after her last meeting with Enrique. She had few people to say goodbye to, and even fewer she thought would actually care.
The recruiting station by the docks was as dilapidated as the rest of the city, but she could tell it was at least patched up from time to time. The armada couldn't afford to lose their largest source of new blood.
The recruiter looked half-asleep when she entered the main room, but he jolted to attention when the door slammed shut. He was a rough-looking middle-aged man with one eye covered by an eyepatch, and a five-o'-clock shadow covering the lower half of his face. "Aren't you a pretty one?" He said as he looked her over.
She ignored his comment as she stepped up to the desk where he sat and set a hand on it, glaring down at him. "I'm here to enlist."
His eyes widened, and a grin spread across his face. "Takes all kinds to make an armada, I suppose." He pushed a clipboard across the desk towards her, along with a pencil. "Sign your name."
The page was full of the names of other hopefuls who could only be looking for a way out of lower city. And there, at the bottom of the sheet, and empty space awaited her signature. This was it. This was where she would decide her fate. Her thoughts briefly flashed to her mother, her father, and finally, to Enrique. What she wouldn't give if she could have all of them.
Then she signed her name in the blank spot and passed the clipboard back to the recruiter. His grin persisted as he looked her name over. "Welcome to the Valuan armada."
Training passed by quickly. She discovered she was a natural at both hand-to-hand combat and basic tactics. Years of surviving unscathed as a relatively pretty woman in lower city had helped that. When at last it was time for her and the rest of the successful recruits to ship out to the grand fortress, she could tell that the eyes on her were examining more than just her looks.
She'd never ridden one of Valua's rail-cars before. They were a fairly recent invention, and thus far they were mostly used to transport goods to the Grand Fortress and the palace. In this case, she supposed, she and her fellow recruits could be considered "goods". She and about a dozen others boarded a relatively empty car through a set of open double doors, prompted by the recruiter she'd met when they first got there.
"All aboard, then." He said in his usual gruff voice as the last man boarded, and he rolled the doors shut as the train's engine began to hum from further down the tracks. The space she and the others found themselves in was empty save for a couple of handholds to avoid the lot of them falling down in transit. A few windows lined the walls, and a single light illuminated the room from above.
Several men wobbled and grabbed the handholds as the floor shifted beneath them and the train set off in the direction of the Grand Fortress. Belleza had been anticipating it, and she held on tight as they accelerated down the tracks.
"This is my first time riding one of these." One of the men observed once they'd all stopped struggling with their balance. The others echoed his thoughts as they began to chatter about their plans and their goals.
Belleza ignored them, instead opting to stare out the windows at the passing stone cliffs and the machinery scattered around the rails. This was it. No more lower city. The place where her parents had lived, where she'd grown up, where she'd met Enrique. But also the place where she'd nearly starved so many times. Where she'd had to fight just to stay alive.
She'd miss a few things about it. But upon reflection, she realized she'd needed more than anything to get away from it. The hopelessness, the darkness, and the violence of that place were a poison to anyone with dreams. She couldn't let it crush her.
After a few minutes, a massive structure came into view. It was composed of tightly-packed bricks and steel, and was built directly into the face of the cliffs that surrounded Valua, facing the palace.
"The Grand Fortress…" One of the other men said as he apparently caught sight of it too. It was the pride of Valua's military; a massive gate, lined with cannons, behind which sat the bulk of the empire's soldiers and ships. It had taken decades to be completed, and now it stood as an impenetrable door to the empire from mid ocean.
The fortress drew closer and closer, until the view was swallowed up by darkness as the train went into a tunnel in the side of the structure. Eventually, light returned as they pulled into a station located just inside. The train gradually pulled to a stop, and the doors rolled open once more to reveal an older-looking woman in uniform.
"Everyone out! You're helping us haul our supplies in, and then you're all getting briefed." She said snappily. Belleza followed the others in hurrying out of the car and beginning to collect the various supplies they'd be bringing with them into the fortress.
This would be her home from now on. She could only hope she'd grow to like it.
Belleza integrated with surprising ease into the hierarchy of the armada. She ended up being placed into admiral Gregorio's defensive fleet, patrolling and maintaining the Grand Fortress. She was a natural at most of her assigned tasks - maintaining and operating the cannons, staying watchful during her guard shifts, and never faltering during the occasional training session.
Within a year, she found herself being considered for officer status. She wasn't sure she cared at this point; the pay was good and for better or for worse, the Grand Fortress was her home now. While she'd espoused to Enrique back then that she'd wanted to make her own future, when faced with the actual prospect of promotion, she wasn't all that enthused.
Still, she accepted the rise in rank when it eventually came, along with the training it necessitated. And so she began to organize those soldiers who had previously been her peers, managing patrol shifts and maintenance schedules. She continued like that without much of a care, until the day she met admiral Galcian.
It was the first time since her arrival at the Grand Fortress that she'd encountered one of the admirals. They'd visited before, but always stayed cloistered in their personal sections of the fortress, away from the common guards.
Galcian was not like that. He'd chosen to personally inspect much of the fortress this week, and so it was that she encountered him while checking up on the crew maintaining one of the many cannons that lined the fortress one day.
"Vander. You're off for today. Get out of here." She said curtly to the young man leaning on the cannon controls with a bored look. He jolted to his feet as he realized she was there, straightening his back and saluting smartly.
"Yes, Lieutenant Belleza, ma'am." He said, quickly marching past her and out the door. Before it could close behind him, however, it opened again to admit her senior officer, the older woman who'd greeted her when she first got off the train.
"This, my lord, is our second largest cannon. We maintain a staff of three here at all times to ensure optimal functionality." She explained as her guest followed her in.
He was a tall man, imposingly so, and the way he stood made one feel like he owned everyone in the room. His hair was silvery-gray and short, slicked back out of his eyes. His beard and mustache were neatly trimmed, encircling his lips and running up his jawline to meet his hair. And his silver eyes were cold and calculating as they roved over the room.
He regarded the soldiers in the room from within an encompassing black cloak around his shoulders that made it impossible to truly guess his proportions. As he eyed them, the soldiers - who often were lazy and uncoordinated - snapped to attention, saluting and practically quaking in their boots as they stood up to face him.
For once, Belleza was the one who was slow to attention, and Galcian's eyes fell upon her for several seconds before she thought to salute as well. "Who is this?" He said as he eyed her. His voice was low and surprisingly smooth, with almost no gravel to it. He sounded more like a scholar than a warrior.
"That's Lieutenant Belleza. Our most recent promotion to officer." Her senior officer noted drily as she raised an eyebrow at the redheaded soldier.
"Funny. I thought I was familiar with every notable soldier in the Grand Fortress." He said, ignoring the older woman as he approached Belleza. "How long have you been here?" He asked.
For her part, Belleza wasn't sure what to make of Galcian. He was incredibly imposing, but at the same time… commanding. She could see how he'd become commander of the forward fleet. She felt incredibly small as he scrutinized her. "I've been here about a year, sir." She said quietly.
A smirk curled up one side of his lips. "That's quite a rapid rise through the ranks." He observed, slowly turning away from her. "Perhaps I shall have to keep an eye on you, Lieutenant." He said as he paced back over to the senior officer. "Let us carry on, then. We have much of the fortress left to tour."
And like that, he was gone. Almost at once, the other soldiers went to gossiping. "That was lord Galcian! The most storied commander in the armada!"
"We wouldn't have ended the war without him pushing the Nasreans back right at the end…"
"What is he doing just walking around the fortress?!"
"Quiet down, all of you. Get back to work." Belleza said sharply, and slowly the chatter died down. She stayed where she was, watching the door Galcian had departed through.
Imposing. Commanding. The man who had ended a war through superior strength and tactics. And he had taken an interest in her.
Perhaps she would have to take an interest in him, too.
Another year passed. Galcian visited the fortress once more, but this time she didn't see him, despite searching for him. She wasn't entirely sure why she wanted to see him again, but she was undeniably disappointed to learn of his departure once more. She tackled her duties with new enthusiasm. Her desire to rise through the ranks and make something of herself had returned.
She achieved the rank of captain within that year, but a greater surprise awaited her a month later, when her superior (now by only a few ranks) called her into her office.
"Ma'am?" Belleza inquired as politely as she could as she stepped into the older woman's office.
"Let's get right to the point, Captain." The older woman said, tossing an envelope onto the desk in front of her. "You've been offered a unique opportunity." She said seriously.
Belleza took the envelope off the desk. It was marked with a violet seal. "What opportunity is that?" The younger woman asked.
"You've been invited to join the royal guard."
Belleza blinked for a moment before staring at the envelope again. "The what?" She said incredulously.
"You heard me." The officer said as she steepled her fingers over the desk. "Someone wants you guarding the royal palace."
"I… I'll have to think about it." The redhead replied. "Is there anything else?" She asked, still a little perplexed.
The older woman shook her head. "Nothing. Let me know what you end up deciding, so I can let the higher-ups know. You're dismissed." She said with a wave of her hand.
Belleza hurried back to her section of the barracks. What was this all about? This was not the promotion opportunity she'd expected. She quickly sat down on her bed when she reached the officer's barracks, and stared at the envelope once more before tearing off the seal and opening it. She slowly unfolded the paper and began to read.
"Captain Belleza - I am writing to you at the behest of the royal family. Your accomplishments at the Grand Fortress have not gone unnoticed, and we would very much like to employ your skills in protecting the imperial family. Rest assured, royal guards receive some of the best accommodations and pay in the armada - you will lose nothing if you decide to accept this offer. Please give us your answer with all due haste."
The letter was signed by a "Captain Alfonso". She hadn't heard of him before. Then again, she'd never particularly considered or investigated the royal guard before. It was an interesting proposal - certainly a step up in terms of station and quality of life.
Still, it was obvious that something was off about this, and she could easily guess what it was. She knew who'd requested her, even if he hadn't been named in the letter. Though she'd thought of him from time to time since coming to the fortress, she wasn't sure it was wise to accept this offer - not after the way they'd parted.
She reread the letter twice more as she mulled over her decision. The more she thought about it, however, the more the answer glared at her. She could stay at the Grand Fortress and try to keep climbing the ranks - but it had been difficult enough to earn her current one, and she wasn't sure how much of a fight it would be to go further.
Beyond that, though, she wanted to see him again - even if it would carry its own set of problems. Even if it would probably end up hurting them both at some point. She folded up the letter and stood as she realized she'd already made her decision.
She hurried back to the superior's office and informed her of her choice. And like that, things changed again. Within the week, she was boarding another rail-car with what little she owned, but this time it was different. This time the car was lavishly furnished, as if for guests from upper city. It was well-lit, clean, and had comfortable seats. And it was empty of passengers other than her.
She felt a little taken aback by the hospitality already. But she couldn't complain. She'd made her decision. She'd earned what she'd been offered. She would not let her doubts take that away from her.
The humming of the train's engine was her only companion as she watched the lights of upper city fly by. She'd never been so close to it before. She wondered if all the trains that came through here were this nice.
The glittering city below her was nothing compared to the spectacle of the royal palace, however. It towered over both upper and lower city from the center of the cliffside, covered with lights of dozens of colors and painted in various shades of purple, gold and white. The train pulled to a stop at an isolated station a short ways from the palace, and she disembarked to find a man waiting there for her.
He was short for a man, about her height. He had golden blonde hair and blue eyes, just like Enrique. But he was not Enrique. His features were more masculine, and distinctly hawkish. He looked more like a noble than a royal. His violet armor distinguished him as a member of the royal guard. "Welcome, captain Belleza. I am Alfonso, captain of the royal guard." He said, bowing his head for a moment.
She eyed him for a long moment as he introduced himself. He held himself like a noble, but there was something that bothered her about him. His posture was all wrong for a fighter. He stood like someone attending a party, not someone wearing a full suit of armor. "It's nice to meet you, captain Alfonso." She replied, keeping her observations to herself, for now.
He took her hand in a flash, and like that, he began guiding her down a set of lighted walkways towards the palace. "Come! We have much to cover before you can be fully initiated into the guard."
His pace was quick, but it didn't take her long to adjust. She wanted to pull her hand away - she barely knew him, after all. But he was to be her superior here. She couldn't risk offending him just yet. "Are we heading to the barracks? Training?" She asked, hoping to dispel some of her discomfort.
"First, I think, we're going to be heading to my chambers. I need to assess you personally, as captain of the guard." He said, and there was a note of self-satisfaction in his voice as he spoke. It made her stomach twist uncomfortably as she wondered just what his "assessment" would entail. She was just considering tugging her hand away and demanding answers when someone's voice halted them.
"I think you can skip the 'assessment' this time, Alfonso." The last word dripped with venom, and Alfonso froze in place as he heard it, letting go of Belleza's hand at once.
"Of course, my lord. My apologies." He said, just barely avoiding stammering.
"You can go back inside. I'll show her the ropes and get her started." A young man said as he approached. Alfonso gave the redheaded girl a last look before nodding and pacing towards the palace, leaving the two of them behind.
He was a little taller than she remembered him. His voice was a bit deeper, and he was wearing clothes he'd never have worn back in lower city. But it was definitely him. "Enrique." She greeted him, eyes wide.
"It's nice to see you again, Belleza." He said with a smile as he closed the distance to her, standing a few inches away. "I'm glad you accepted my offer."
She felt a small smile of her own forming on her lips. "So it was you who arranged this. I figured."
His smile didn't falter. "I knew you would. That's why I framed it as the choice it was. I wanted you to decide whether you'd earned this or not."
She'd missed him more than she realized - but she looked away she replied. "Keep in mind - I'm still not your empress."
He was briefly silent at that, before speaking again a moment later. "Of course not. You're a royal guard, and an exemplary soldier, just like you wanted to be. I won't ask you to be anything else." When she looked back at him, he was shuffling uncomfortably, and for a moment, she could see the awkward teenage boy she'd met in lower city three years ago. "But, it's worth mentioning that the offer I made back then will always be open…"
Belleza looked around for a moment. They were alone - Alfonso really had retreated as he'd been ordered to. She leaned closer to Enrique and brushed her fingers against his cheek. "I'll keep it in mind, Enrique. I really did miss you. I just… need to figure some things out, still. It's been a long time, after all."
He sighed softly, briefly placing his hand over hers before letting it go. "That's all I ask, really. I wasn't kidding about you being an excellent soldier. The royal guard is a perfect place for you."
She felt her smile returning. "I appreciate your help with this. I'll make the most of the opportunity."
At that, his smile came back too. "Excellent. Then let me show you around the grounds."
She didn't object when he took her hand, and they walked side by side as he led her to the palace to begin the process of acclimating her to her new position. When at last the tour ended and he excused himself, leaving her in the guards' barracks, she was certain that Enrique was still the same person she'd known back in lower city.
As she sat down on her bed, she reflected that she was grateful for that. It would be good to have him back. A part of her still had the same feelings for him now that she'd had back then, and she knew she'd have to contemplate his offer more seriously this time.
But another part of her had changed since her time in the Grand Fortress. That part of her had different plans. And in a distant part of her mind, she wondered when she would see lord Galcian again.