One, Two, Drop

By: K. Ryan, 2003


Rating: PG for language

Disclaimer: J'ai rien. D'accord?


Author's Note: Written for the Seanfhocal Circle challenges (#13), this is set when Numair first arrives in Carthak. It also ties very nicely with Midwinter Luck and Hundreds of Colours; Millions of Shades.


The vendor had moved.

Well, obviously, street vendors were meant to move, but food that wasn't inappropriately green was hard to find in the lower city, and this particular resident had no desire to lose key parts of his internal workings through every human orifice. He also had no desire to wander through the myriad of streets of the city, a place that, after a year of scratching a living in it, he was only just beginning to know. His fledgling understanding was enough; however, to make him well aware that you didn't need to anything to mug to be mugged. Having earthly possessions was just a lucky extra.

Mild starvation it was, then.

The man glared at the space where the vendor had been; now taken over by a tall, gangling youth that was juggling three cheaply painted balls, very badly.

One, two, drop--muffled-curse, guilty-smile.

A smirk on the part of the watcher. He edged closer, taking in the blotchy brown-grey-white complexion of a boy who had been used to good food and a lot of sun before being thrust mercilessly into the chill of a northern autumn. He saw prominent cheekbones that told of a diet that matched his own, and expression of nervousness, which was probably destined to culminate with inopportune urination.

One, drop, "oh, shi…t-hell!" start-again, one.

No smile this time. The watcher was glad. When the juggler had smiled before, it had been a contortion, spread all over his face and making something twitch rhythmically above his eyelid. Incompetence aside, it was no wonder he'd had little or no trade today. Must have terrified everyone within a mile radius.

One, two, three--awed-look, drop, groan.

The watcher thought of his sister, after a while. His tall, beautiful, young sister, singing her way through Trya, and, the last he'd heard, through a certain Marenite's heart. He wished he were home, with her, with his family, instead of watching this idiot stumble his way towards exhaustion. But, as he saw the juggler's small success, catching the third ball as the others flew, he clapped.

One, two, stop. Wide-eyed hope. Tired flourish.

"Only a few simple coppers to see magic and mystery, my good sir!"

It was, the man supposed, meant to be a dramatic and enticing call. But the youth's voice shook a little, and cracked on the 'sir'. Dark eyes that looked vaguely familiar pleaded with him. "Help me," they said. "Just…throw some money at me, hard as you like, and I'll stop embarrassing myself and leave you alone."

"Coppers aren't so simple when you don't have them." The watcher wished he could look away from those eyes, he wished he could ignore them, and the man they belonged to. But there was something in him that deserved an honest apology. "You and I both know that, mmph-hmph, and I haven't any to spare."

"Understood, sir, of course." The juggler bit his lip as he took up the painted balls again, but managed, somehow, to look courteous and, gods help all, sympathetic.

The sympathy bit. Hard. Pulling his useless coat tighter around him, the watcher chose that moment to look away.

One, two, "eh?!"

The timing was perfect. The curve of the juggler's arm exquisite as he tossed the washed out, ugly object into the air. It flew beautifully, up, around…

And then the wind blew.

Stained, weathered hands, knees and copper-framed glasses met cobblestones, as the ball struck the back of the watcher's neck.

"Oh! Mithros, Mynoss and Shakith! I'm so sorry. "

Careful, long-fingered hands, helping him up. Big, worried eyes checking him over for injury. Eyes that flashed in faint recognition.

"Do I know you?"

"I am, mmph-hmph, the man you knocked over with your hopeless juggling."

A blush. "Um…yes. I'm sorry."

The man groaned, getting stiffly to his feet. Unfortunately, so did the juggler. "Lean down, boy. I've hurt my neck enough today on your account."

"Sorry--"

"--Is just a word. If you never learn to juggle, at least learn that, mmph-hmph!"

"S--"

"--Kindly shut up."

The juggler glared at him, then, drawing himself up to his full height, his whole bearing screaming: 'I'm better than this. I'm better than this!' "Who are you, to tell me that?" he muttered.

"Sore. What on earth possessed you to take to street-performance?"

The youth feigned nonchalance, running a hand through hair that looked as if it had been very recently cropped short. "Necessity. Though some might say my natural flair for the dramatic, mmph-hmph." He mocked the older man's inflection well.

Two could play at that game. "Who are you, to tell me that, hmph?"

"Numair Salmalìn, at your service."

I have definitely seen this boy, the man thought. "A rather ostentatious name, for someone with so few skills."

"Says who?" Numair Salmalìn raised an eyebrow. "You're as badly off as I am. No food, no trade, no roof…"

The man smiled, mocking. "Volney Rain. Of one trade, and one roof. You're right about the food, though. Mmph-hmph."

Numair stared. "The…imperial artist?"

Volney snorted. "Some empire. But, si--I mean, yes." He blinked. The boy's face had changed from blotchy to dead white.

"No…nononono…" Numair had hunkered down on the cobbles, head in hands. "I can't do this."

"Juggle?" Volney looked down at him, bemused. "I think we both know that."

"I'm cold, I'm hungry, and have spent over half my life learning how to be big, flashy, powerful and about as subtle as gangrene. I'm going to get caught. You could go back to Carthak and tell Ozorne where I am, who I am, and I'd have to change my name again, leave my life again, vanish again--"

"--I spent seven years in Ozorne's dungeons." As Volney watched the boy, the world seemed to darken around him and the wind blew ice. "There's no way in hell I would go back there. If I believed in hell, that is."

"How can I trust you?" Numair was shivering, face full of panic. "I can't trust anyone, not anymore. I trusted--"

"--Are you deaf?" Volney snapped, glaring. He should never have started talking to this fool. His own mind was too raw for it, the memories to fresh. A baby cried, somewhere behind them, and he flinched. "Was the word 'dungeon' completely lost on you, hmph? You also seem to be oblivious to the fact that I don't really know, or care about, who you are, were, or will be. As for creating new lives, I've done it twice. You get used to it. So shut up and live, you stupid child!"

Numair swallowed. "Seven years," he whispered. "It's a wonder you aren't completely mad."

"You think I'm sane?"

"We-ell, no. But you know what I mean."

Volney sighed, and held out a hand. "Get up, Numair Salmalìn. The," he grimaced, "studio I managed to rent has only one room, and my landlord's locked that for the night, but it's a little less cold around the back. Mmph-hmph. Safer, too."


Several days later, with a large bruise that was turning colours he desperately wished to reproduce spanning across the back of his neck, Volney found himself standing opposite a very familiar space, currently filled by a wiry, street-savvy man with a reprehensible moustache and a large, deliciously steaming cart. He stood in the spot as if he owned, as if he'd never been away. As if, by some twisted bit of not quite luck, an incredibly useless juggler hadn't stood, terrified, in his place.

The vendor was back.