[m] when its dark out, illuminate

POSTED: Sat Jun 15, 2019 1:36 am

WARNING: This thread contains material exceeding the general board rating of PG-13. It may contain very strong language, drug usage, graphic violence, or graphic sexual content. Reader discretion is advised.


Word Count → ??? :: backdated to before the formation of the Troupe - Portland, East Docks

Their stipend was running out.

Cal spent their last good trinket on an oil-paper wrapped packet of dried meat strips. It would last them a while. Pragmatism was still relatively new to the young brothers, who had spent their childhood in humble abundance, wanting for no necessities and comfortable in life. Semini had been a good mother, and had taught them many important things about the world.

But some lessons could only be learned by experience. That first week, holding tight to the hunger pains in his stomach each night, taught Malik a lesson he would never forget.

---------

The next morning Calrian found the brothers their first dockside job, offloading cargo from a Barbadian spice-merchant's sloop by the East Docks. It was hard work, unforgiving but honest beneath the blistering light of day. Salt air scoured Malik's nose and eyes, leaving them dry and painful. The pads on his soft hands split open in some places, and a seaman from the crew told him to wash them in the ocean and then bound them up with stained linen scraps.

By day's end his arms felt like lead. It took a great effort even to hold his palms out to the foreman and accept the barter - a pithy payment, two buttons and salt mackerel. Cal traded his buttons with a friendly acquaintance he had charmed through midshift, and became one apple richer.

That night in the straw beside Mondo's stall they had a feast for kings. Three fruit slice apiece, fish and some little dry flourcakes that Mal had saved at midday from the workers' lunch stipend that crunched like stone grit between their teeth.

Then they slept like the dead, and did not feel hungry again until the sun rose.

---------

A season passed in this way. By the next new moon the Amaranthe brothers were not so soft anymore. Calrian had grown broad in the shoulders and handsome, and the dock hands treated him like one of their own. He was a natural leader of men, charming and convivial and always an optimist. They accepted Malik too, as a favor to their new comrade, even though he was quiet and sad-looking and didn't tell the rowdy belly-shaking kind of jokes they liked.

Malik changed too. He was sturdy beneath the leanness of his build and the oversized old work clothes they wore. His beautiful soft hands grew strong. And his hair kept growing, long enough that he had to braid it during the day or else the foreman threatened to chop it off. Long and white, foaming at the ends. It was like their mother's had been.

Every night before he fell asleep, Mal took out Semini's locket and held it to his cheek.

---------

The dock workers liked to spend their spare stipend at Mullen's. It was a shit-dive that boasted the most motley assortment of patrons the tide could wash in. Anyone was welcome at Mullen's - the rich, who sat at wooden tables near a rickety old stage and were served by ambitious nightgirls in low-cut dresses; The poor, who slumped shoulder to shoulder in stinky throngs so thick a man had to squeeze forcibly to get through them.

Dragged along by his brother on the pretense of forming connections, Malik hated the place at first. It was too loud, too crowded. The booze tasted like horse piss, vinegar and vile. The inhabitants of the East Docks were rowdy and obnoxious when sober. When drunk, they were almost intolerable.

Sitting uncomfortably between two big wolfdogs who were telling (shouting) a droll story about their home in the hinterlands, he tried to take each rib-jab in good humor. But the truth was that Mal didn't have Calrian's golden tongue. He didn't know how to lie to these honest men, how to convince them (and himself) that time was better spent when they were in his company.

Watching his brother work this magic - the kind that made rough men smoother somehow - felt like watching an alchemist turn water into wine.

---------

The first time it changed was inauspicious, a night like any other night.

The dockhands were in good cheer. The foreman had tipped them for working in the rain, so everyone had a little extra in their threadbare pockets to spend. Cal was in the middle of a rousing story when he stopped, inspired by a memory, and looked across at his brother. There was a sailor's song their mother had known that fit the bill just right, and when prompted, Mal reluctantly cleared his throat and began to sing.

He didn't realize the bar had gone quiet until the final stanza faded on his tongue. There was a pregnant hush. Unsettled, he looked for his brother in the crowd, and spotted him by the size of his grin - the kind of grin he got when he saw a real good deal.

The patrons began to holler and cheer.

From there it was a simple thing. Cal was friends with Mullen's son, a meat-fisted barkeep with a soft head. He negotiated easily, talking quick with his hands and his expressions to move things along his chosen path. Mal watched wordlessly as his rate was brokered, his schedule finessed, and just like that the Amaranthe brothers became something new.

For Malik, Portland would never be the same again.

Giddy with luck, the young bard did not notice the merchant who was watching him intently from across the bar, twisting the heavy rings on his fingers; One ruby, one emerald, and one sapphire.

The Troupe
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Alaine
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POSTED: Mon Aug 26, 2019 7:06 am

Word Count → ??? :: cont.

Brego was a man of many talents. Today he was de Bruin, and he wore fine handmade cloth-of-gold thread brocaded into his calfskin tunic. For the third night in a row he sat in the third table from the hearth and was served by the same red-haired nightgirl as each evening prior. She'd long since given up on showing him the low cut of her lapel, but for a welcome and generous tip he was rewarded with a clean glass and a smile. The ale was sour, lukewarm and frothy, but de Bruin was a drinker and liked something to do with his hands.

As he lapped from the rim the firelight made his three rings sparkle in succession. There was a balance to the number that satisfied him; Made him feel lucky.

And lucky he was. The day had been a prosperous one, spent with his crew by the stone terrace, writing crow letters sealed with rouge wax and taking stock of big wooden crates as they were loaded into the cavernous belly of The Vos. The dogs worked hard at it, stripped down to pants and fur, their strong arms and broad shoulders straining under the weight of the cargo. For his part, de Bruin had enjoyed the spectacle.

But he enjoyed the sight of the white-haired youth even more.

---------

Folk who live by the sea have an innate appreciation for song. He figured it was integral to their natures; A way of telling stories to pass time best kept by tide and waves alone. That first night, listening to the bard's tremulous little chorus, had speared Brego through with a nostalgia so rare and potent that he was taken aback. He fleetingly remembered being a boy in the village too small to have a name, the fat silver moonfish jumping on the deck of his father's little runabout. The memory, come and gone from one refrain to the next, was as powerful as a slap in the face.

De Bruin liked it. It warmed him through, more than the crush of onlookers or the weight of copper in his pockets ever could. He liked the look of the young performer, too, though this was a slow-growing and refined appreciation; For a retriever he was unusually patient, never wanting to leap in headfirst.

So it took three whole nights to take a proper measure of things. The bard had a routine now, and de Bruin was just setting down his third drink when the lad's voice quieted. He'd finished his act with a sorrowful song - a sailor lost at sea with only the waterdogs for company, their alien yet familiar voices crooning in the deep - It hadn't gone down as well as the more rowdy or robust shanties, but de Bruin had savored it nonetheless. Everything was sweeter for the touch of a little sorrow.

He almost didn't do it. Pretty white-haired boys were rare to come by, and rare things could be awful pricey. But Portland had done well by Brego, and he liked his odds. There was nothing wrong with enjoying the sweeter things in life after a job well done.

Rising, he made his choice.

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Alaine
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POSTED: Sun Jan 19, 2020 3:26 am

Word Count → ??? :: cont. II

The late hour quickened. As the world slid toward dawn, Mullens bar spewed its rancid intestines out into the cold streets of the East End. Some parted in good company. Some were whisked away in the many skirts of the nightgirls, there to be robbed of coin and fidelity. Some fell down in the gutters and did not get up again.

There was a barn stall and straw cot waiting for Malik Amaranthe, but he stayed behind to receive payment for his dues. When the merchant came up to the bar, he figured the man to be clearing a tab. He was a well-dressed dog, handsome and toned. His wind-tousled hair was the warm dark color of tilled earth, good for planting. On his hand three rings glittered like little eyes.

Mal watched from beneath the safety of his lashes.

"Do you like what you see?"

Startled, the young man's pale blue eyes darted nervously up to where the dog was watching him with a level gaze. His cheeks burned at being caught. "Oh, I-"

"They were a gift," Continued the dog casually. He came closer, lifting his hand to show Malik the rings. With the distance between them closed, he could smell the merchant more clearly - and such a peculiar smell he had, not at all like a rich man's perfume. He smelled like... Oak, or... Roast acorns...

"They are very nice,"

"Gifts always are."

The dog spoke with such confidence, it was impossible not to listen. The tenor of him was lovely and deep; The way his brown eyes roved made the Amaranthe boy flustered. He thought of how Calrian might handle such a character, and instead of retreating from the butterflies in his stomach, pressed on a warm smile.

"Did you like my show? I saw you watching, in the crowd," He asked with an unfamiliar boldness, not sure why the answer felt suddenly important to him.

"Of course," Replied the man right-away, with a seriousness that belied his previous talk; He rested his arm on the bar, his hand casually brushing the tips of Mal's fingers. "You have something rare, you know. A real talent. It was a pleasure to listen to you sing."

The young Amaranthe's eyes were wide, full of stars. "My name is Malik," He said, without thinking.

The dog smiled. He had clean even teeth, barely yellowing with the hint of age. "Well met, Malik. My name is Brego de Bruin."

--------

The following night, Malik looked for the merchant as he sang, but could not spot him in the crowd. He could not understand, nor explain, the sharp strange disappointment he felt. It was as though he had been robbed of something he'd never owned.

But the night after that, there he was again - in the same seat, with the same Lady of the Night serving him - and oh, what a rush it was, to feel those warm brown eyes watching him again! Without knowing why he did as he did, Malik sung his very best rendition of the Tale of Odemeer. Such a lovely ballad it was, but at its end - as the hero was being dragged beneath the waves - Brego was nowhere to be seen.

Mal lingered in the crowd after the show, suffering the over-familiarity of besotted young women and the boisterous approval of dockhands alike. Eager, he looked and looked, but the dog was nowhere to be found.

The souring of anticipation was like a balled fist in his stomach. Resigned to it, Mal went to the bar to await his pay.

When he smelled the strong oak-smell again, he looked up with undisguised pleasure.

"A strong choice, tonight,"

"You missed the best part."

"No," The look Brego gave him was lazy, luxuriant, "I don't think that I did."

Malik smiled brightly. He held one hand against his stomach, pressing in the uncomfortable fluttering there.

"Malik," It was such a pleasure to hear the older man say his name, "I wanted to ask you a favor. I am having a private meeting with some powerful traders tomorrow night. I would like you to come and sing for them - I think, once they hear your siren voice, they will become as putty in my hands, and I will be able to make some excellent deals. Would you be interested?"

Misunderstanding the hybrid's surprised expression, he added, "You will be paid for the trouble, of course."

On instinct, Mal turned to look for his brother. Calrian had always managed such business on behalf of them both - on his own, the bard had never learned how to negotiate his rates appropriately. But he'd spotted Cal with a sweetheart earlier on in the evening, and now his golden-tongued brother was nowhere to be seen.

A job was a job. The chance to earn them a little more - to scrape off the edges of poverty that threatened to dry on them - was irresistible.

Of course, de Bruin was his own kind of irresistible. The rings winked encouragingly at Malik from their place on his fingers.

"Yes," Mal complied, after a thoughtful pause, "I think I could do that, for you."

"Good lad," Brego reached out to rest his hand on the bard's shoulder. The warmth of it traveled right down to his toes.

The Troupe
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Alaine
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POSTED: Mon Jan 27, 2020 3:33 am

Word Count → ??? :: cont. III

De Bruin had a room at the Inn by the East End market square. It was called The Hen and Hock - an aged little place, but certainly no hovel, with a swept step. The old concrete and brick had been patched with fine grit mud. The weathered facade turned a plucky orange the color of high-density copper clay by day; At night it was soaked in the fallow blues of the eve, the brickwork pocked with silver where it caught the tremulous light of a washy half-crescent moon.

From each glassless window came the rollicking glow of many lard candles, flickering. Every now and again they would gutter-out, and like an eye shutting tight the window would go dark.

Always the occupants inside were concealed, their faces hidden from any passerby that loitered down on the cobblestones below. Its diminutive stature as a middling sort of establishment aided this. Nobody paid overmuch attention to The Hen and Hock. For Brego de Bruin's purposes, it was perfect.

His room was in the far back of the building. To get to it, one had to take a breathlessly narrow alley that slunk between the hunched shoulders of the neighboring structures. There was an iron stair that climbed to a squalid little door, fat and peeling with bold red paint.

If it weren't for the clear instructions the merchant had given him, Malik Amaranthe would never have found it.

The bard was unsure of what to expect. For a while he lingered in the shadow of the awning, picking nervously at the dusky hair on his arms, shifting his weight back and forth. From the other side of the door came the low bass of voices intermingling. Someone laughed, callous as a bark, and in the night air Malik's skin jumped.

Just as he was lifting his knuckles at last to knock, the door pulled abruptly open.

De Bruin stood in the archway, his broad shoulders filling it from frame to frame. At the sight of Semini's white-haired son he smiled handsomely. The graceful movement of his brown eyes, measuring slowly from tip to toe, melted away the remainder of Malik's reservations and replaced them with eagerness.

"You came," The merchant sounded pleasantly surprised.

"O-of course," Malik scoffed, though his cheeks were high with color beneath the dark dusting of fur, "You are paying me."

The look de Bruin gave him was inscrutable. For a moment Mal thought he'd offended - But after a beat the dog snorted with mirth, and stepped aside to usher the bard in.

"Wonders never cease," He heard the dog mutter, and felt the warmth of a hand in the low of his back.

The interior of the room was like another world, hidden inside of a pocket in the one that Mal knew. It was dense with the kind of luxury his humble upbringing had never prepared him for. The ceiling dripped with gauzy tapestries, and here on the floor were tasseled pillows embroidered by bone-needle and hand. Furs from beasts he did not recognize draped dramatically over carved wooden furniture and spilled out underfoot.

The room was thick with incense smoke. Malik's whiskers curled against it, and he sneezed, blinking his eyes with disbelief.

There were four other people in the room. Three of them were seated, cross-ankle, around a map on the floor. One - a violently skinny man with hairless triangular ears that speared up heavenward - had already begun to roll it up, a leather tube to bind it close at hand. "Solomon doesn't need to know," He was saying in a heavily accented voice, firm as though to end a conversation. There was a woman sitting beside him whose face was concealed with thin, shifting cloth dyed brilliant ocean turquoise. Her narrowed stare watched Malik closely as he caught his graces.

The third, a rotund looking bullish dog, was chewing slovenly on an oily roasted goat-haunch. His huge fist made it look comically small. The dog's eyes were small and beady, little black raisins set deep into the jowls of his face. "The entertainment s'here!" He crowed loudly, and something about his smile made the bard feel a little sick. There were shreds of meat stuck between his giant, deadly teeth.

The fourth figure, standing half-hidden by a window, turned to face them. She was very young, little more than a child. Her hair was pale like candlewax. For a moment she looked at Malik eagerly, then her expression changed to a disgusted glare that she directed over his shoulder.

De Bruin must have caught her look. "Brigantine," He said to the girl-child, his voice low, "To your chamber, please. Don't come out again - I won't say it twice."

The girl's look was withering, but she turned without a word and disappeared behind a painted flap at the rear of the room.

Alone now with the merchants, Malik felt very exposed.

When Brego spoke again, his voice was warm as campfire smoke. "The bard is going to sing for us," He told the seated merchants. The big dog looked disappointed, but the covered woman leaned forward with interest. De Bruin's smile grew. "When you are ready?" He asked the Amaranthe youth, and joined his guests by the rug.

Malik took a deep breath. His fingers laced nervously together. Thinking of his mother's face, he began to sing.

------

When he was done, there was a terrible silence. Malik found that he had shut his eyes; Better not to see how he had failed. But when he opened one a peek he saw that the merchants were smiling - even the covered woman's eyes had softened.

"You have a knack for finding the best ones," She told Brego enviously.

"Will you lend him to me?" Asked the skinny man, whose fastidious gaze held an unfamiliar sort of hunger that Mal did not understand. He was interrupted by the big dog, who laughed deep in his belly. "Ho ho! When've ya ever known him to share, Qadir?"

For his part, de Bruin was also watching Malik. But the hunger in his eyes looked very familiar. The bard's breath hitched in his throat; He felt his pulse racing.

"Thank you, Malik," Said the brown-haired dog politely, his voice far more convivial than the look on his face, "Come back tomorrow night, and I will have your payment ready."

Bowing low at the waist, the bard took this as his sign to leave. As he stepped back out into the night he heard the jeers, the laughter, following him from the room. The fat dog was proposing a toast. "To Brego!" He said, snorting on the inhale, "To Brego of Labrador!"

Then the door clicked shut, and Malik was alone but for the smell of the incense clinging to his hair, and the uncomfortable feeling of excitement like a snare trap in his stomach.

It was a long walk home.

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