The man dozed uneasily in the sweltering, airless heat. The storage room he was in had never been designed as a bedroom, especially for the height of summer. Flies drank on his sweat, and he tossed irritably, shooing them away. Finally, he came awake, glaring at the wall next to him. He was beyond tired, grimy, sweaty and now had a pounding, dehydrated headache.
Ulrich sighed, sitting up slowly. There was no way he was going to get any sleep like this. Which meant that today would be no different than the last two, and he was desperate for a just a couple of hours of cool, deep, uninterrupted sleep. He wiped his forehead on his sleeve, which was just as filthy as the rest of him, and stumbled around crates and into the street beyond the door.
"Drunk bastard." A sharp voice startled him, and he sent the woman he had nearly run over an evil glare. He was most certainly not drunk. If he was, he'd probably manage the sleep idea better. But then, he'd be drunk. And that was not a wise idea, especially recently.
He arched a sarcastic eyebrow and pointed to the sign prominently displayed above the door of the warehouse which read "Door opens to street, beware."
"Better drunk than illiterate." He snapped back, and immediately regretted it. He was drawing attention to himself doing this, and that was something he really needed to avoid, not court. He dismissed her, heading resolutely towards his goal, the ornate fountain in the square beyond. That would help. It had to, because he was running out of options here.
He knelt before it, plunging his entire head and shoulders into the icy water. It was stunningly cold, and his headache exploded in the second before it calmed down again. His hair shed the dust that had left it beige, and a plume of dirt marked the fountain for just a second, until it dissipated into clarity. Tiny bright fish flitted across his skin, and he wished he just didn't have to breathe. That he could stay there, forever, just like one of those fish. A fanciful idea, one for children and he was not one of those anymore. He also sensed the proximity of someone watching him, and he came up for air, looking for the person with eyes on him. Found, already?
No. He had no idea who the man watching him was. The newcomer was obviously a little far from home, beautifully garbed, with a grip on the leash of one of the most beautiful drakehounds he'd ever seen. It was another young man, almost effeminately presented, but he could feel that the man was more dangerous than he looked. For a noble, he seemed content to wait patiently, none of the spite and anger that the young man was used to getting from that crowd.
"Is it good?" The noble asked when he'd stopped sputtering and clearing his face.
"Yes. It is." Why was the man waiting, so patiently? The hound leaned against its leash and whined pleadingly, head pointed towards the fountain. Ah, the dog was thirsty, and he'd been in its way.
"Good. Are you finished?"
"Uh, sure." He could always come back when the dog was done, even if he wasn't.
"Miserably hot day." The nobleman noted with a rueful smile, relaxing his hold on the dog. Ulrich would bet so, while he envied the quality and cleanliness of the noble's clothes, he didn't envy their opulent weight. It wasn't a day for a 'proper' set of clothes, and that man's clothes definitely qualified.
"It's going to be worse later." By the depths of the shadows clinging to the tightly packed buildings, it was still early. He'd scraped out only three hours of a poor sleep; it was going to be a long day. His headache was abating, but he still felt pale, empty, with a warning of a fever rising. He needed food, but the icy water he'd just drank sat uneasily in his belly, and it wasn't as if he had the coin to purchase food anyway. There were other ways, but he refused. He was tired of that. He was tired of everything. He didn't want to play anymore. He wanted clean clothes. He wanted a dog. A home, with food in the kitchen, linen on the beds, peaceful and cozy. He wanted people who knew his name, and used it with respect. He wanted to be just about anybody but who he was.
The noble snorted, wrinkling his nose as he stared upwards. It was deathly still, on this day not even the omnipresent confetti would fly, unless an annoyed elementalist made it do so. "That's why I took the dog for a walk this early."
Pretty and wise, Ulrich was almost impressed. But the longer he stayed in the open, the greater the chance he'd be seen, so he gave the nobleman a slight wave and vanished into the warren of alleys he knew so well.
He found a quiet, almost cool corner, and settled down. He'd weighed his options, few as they were, once again. And once again, came up with only two. Stay here, in Divinity's Reach, and become what everyone expected… just another gang thug. He could hide the truth from Two-Blade Pete for only so long, eventually he was going to get caught, and that would be the end of that. He'd be stuck, trapped, bitter and sad. Or…leave Divinity's Reach. A truly terrifying thought, he'd lived his entire life in this city. It had started out as a haven, but the older he got, the more like a prison it seemed. Prison. There was another issue. Ulrich just didn't have it in him to be a thug. He was terrible at it, and his heart yearned for other things. He was tired of hiding from everybody, from the Seraph who wanted to clean him off of the streets; from his gang who wanted him to do things he knew were wrong. For every harebrained idea Pete came up, Ulrich's mind came up with a thousand reasons why it was stupid, wrong, and would end up with Ulrich cooling his heels in prison. While cool did sound almost inviting, prison did not. And with the Seraph and their Captain Thackeray cracking down on gang activity, that chance grew. Worse, Ulrich had been hearing rumors that Thackeray was more than willing to forget about the whole prison thing for more and more of the gangs' leaderships, and it was just Ulrich's luck to end his short enough life executed by Seraph city guards. No. It was becoming increasingly untenable here. And the only other option was to not be here anymore. To find his own way, away from Divinity's Reach. Away from the gang. Away from Seraph who wanted to make an example out of him.
"Make up your bloody mind, Ulrich." He hissed to himself, still uncertain. This was home…
Yes, the city was home. But that didn't mean he wasn't supposed to go out there and be part of the solution and not part of the problem. If he really called Divinity's Reach home, then he was doing her no favors by turning to a life of crime and turning his back on the increasingly solid plans of going out there and doing something for her. He didn't want to be part of her underbelly, wormy and preying on her better folk. He wanted a home, and to walk down her streets proudly.
His mind made itself up in that moment and he galvanized into motion. He'd been hiding coin for quite awhile, since his vague unease had begun to coalesce, and his eyes had begun to change. He recovered the small bag from its hiding place, and left Salma, headed across the city to a neighborhood that would not recognize him quite as easily as his own home turf did.
Once there, he spent an hour haggling over clothes better than his ragged, sweat stained garments, real boots, and a bath at an inn he'd never been in before.
He'd walked in as a filthy, barefoot street rat with brown streaked, spiky hair, and walked out as a rather handsome and prosperous looking young man with shining red gold hair. He walked right down the middle of the street, responding to every greeting thrown at him with a smile and a nod. Yes, this was right. This was good. Now, all he had to do was actually earn this…
There were four white armored Seraph at the city gates, and his shoulders tightened in fear. They were never good, never ever good. He bit his bottom lip and kept right walking towards them. He'd done nothing wrong, yet. They had nothing; he was as free to leave Divinity's Reach as any other citizen of Kryta.
"Morning." He greeted when he drew close. Would they stop him? Question him? Damned if he knew, he'd never actually tried to leave the city before.
And the answer was no. They merely nodded back a greeting and let him through the gates for the first time in Ulrich's memory.