"Dark Stag" - Chapter 6


“I’m not stupid! Just explain to me why you’re giving me all this money…” Mercury said, growing frustrated.
“I already told you that I’m going to be away for a while. It’s already taking a lot for me to even trust you with this money as is…. Don’t make me wrong.” I said through the grit of my teeth, eyes and head clenched.
“I’m an official of the law! I cannot take sums of money at a whim, especially something under the rug like this.” He responded. I was reduced to a frustrated stare.
“..All you have to do…” I managed to say, “Is keep my money until I return. I’m not giving it for you to have…”
“But why? Where are you going? You trust me enough to give me several hundreds of thousands of dollars you tote around so secretly but not enough to tell me why you’re leaving?” He prodded.
“Forget it…” I said, walking back to the door. He beat me to it as I tried to open it. He slammed it shut, looming over me frustratingly.
“You’re going to tell me why I’m keeping your money and where you’re going.” He demanded. My plan had worked. I had made him feel like this was something worth knowing and he’d go to extreme lengths to find out. Now, whether he’d react the way I wanted him to was another thing. Nonetheless, I still needed to play on his intellect before I dare told him my plans.
“No…” I began, “I truly made a mistake. I’ll just manage on my own…” I began to brush past him but he pushed me away from the door.
“What did you get yourself into? Where’d you get the money?” He continued, truly concerned.
“You fucking know where I got the damn money from.” I sighed.
“Are you sure? I mean last time you were here, you stormed out of here in a teary eyed mess.  I know so little about you and you’re so damn guarded…can you blame me for being cautious. Just like you said, you’re going out on a limb to ask me for help, I’m going out on a limb to give it to you….now tell me what the hell is going on…”
“I’m pretty sure you’ll be of little help. Just keep the damn money…if you don’t hear from me within a month someone from the upper ring will come and pick it up.” I said.
“I’m just trying to put two and two together. You said you saw some things in the lower ring that disturbed you. You say you have stuff to handle and that you’ll be gone for a while. What’s the third piece to this puzzle…?” Mercury pondered.
“I am…going to turn in to the brothels.” I said.
“WHAT?” Mercury screamed.
“I’ve lost so much, as is. There’s no point in talking me out of it. There’s something I need to do.” I sighed.
“Why?” Mercury said, barely hearing the end of my statement, “After I busted my ass to keep you away from that life you’re just gonna dive into it?”
“Can I just explain to you my plan, because it’s much easier to talk about compared to why I’m actually doing it…?” I sighed.
“Sure.” He said, not knowing what to expect.
“I’ve scoped this entire town out. I know it inside and out, every service tunnel, every nook and cranny and every establishment. I know how the brothels operate. They tend to lure foreigners in who can’t find work and then trap them with a contract they can’t read and turn them into servants but they are in fact, slaves. When I…audition I’m going to have to have a little identity change. I left the upper ring for good… I wasn’t supposed to leave though and I know that the king is probably searching for me left and right.”
“What about your stag and the giant bird?” He asked.
“That’s my angle. I have it sat up that Prince Richard will take temporary care of them. He’s in on this too and he’s kind of my safety net.” I responded. That tidbit of information hopefully made Mercury realize that despite this being extremely illegal, this operation ran deep into the upper ring.
“Then what?”
“I’m infiltrating the brothels, will work my way up to the high status but not too high that I can’t be purchased. Once I get to the big ring, I want to be one of the street performers.”
“My sister… one I long thought was dead is in that ring. I will stop at nothing until she’s back home and I burn that brothel and anyone who stands in my way down to the ground.”
“Kijus,” Mercury began, “That is so hopeless. You think you’ll succeed in doing this? Is this something you really want to be involved in?”
I smiled, chuckling a bit.
“You don’t know me very well Mercury. Though Illisia is beautiful, it is one perilous place. If I’m not fighting for my survival, I’m fighting for someone else’s. I’ve done some pretty gruesome things just to insure my survival. This…same shit, new toilet…” I explained. It took him a while to digest this.
“Like…?” He asked unintentionally.
“Oh, well when I was sevenish-eight my mother and sister were abducted… My father and I had to hunt down their captors. When we did, he went in falchion in one hand, scimitar in another and disemboweled thirty men. I was being a bit of a macaque and leaping around, bowing down any person who’d overwhelm my father. But, it was two of us against hundreds of men so inevitably my father went down. They killed him by beheading him with his own sword but also knew there was an archer in their midst. However, the ruins they held camp in were to my advantage. I knew them well and managed to escape unseen. It was hard having to come back to my grandmother and my younger sister without the rest of my family. I then had to carry double the responsibility, hunting the way my father did and foraging the way my mother and sister did. My grandmother though, she bought a rifle and a few other fire arms so this wouldn’t happen again. You think I’m tough, that’s a tough ass eighty six year old. You wouldn’t believe some of the things she can do but that’s beside the point. All and all, that wasn’t our last run in. When I was fifteen, I got captured by a tribe of cannibals. I thought I was done for then…guess what, one of the idiots fell for the old convulsion foam and seizure trick and I managed to slip a leg through the bars and break his fucking neck. I then got the keys, freeing myself and the other prisoners. However I wasn’t done, I killed all thirty of the tribe’s men… Ironically, it was in the same ruins. I don’t know why travelers and tribes collect in the Zan Ruins. They should know that place is cursed.” I summed.
“Okay, so you’ve…” Mercury said with a gulp, “…killed people?”
“Yes. It’s nothing to me…” I said plainly.
“Oh my god.” He said, struggling to wrap his hands around it.
“Trust me… Killing is something super last resort.” I smiled, hoping to reassure him.
“I mean…I’ve never killed anyone…I hope I don’t ever have to… What is it like? I know that’s a strange question but…” He stammered.
“To me, it’s worse killing people you know. You’ll always have memories with them. When you kill random strangers, it’s no different than killing a wild boar or an antelope.” I laughed.
“Wait…so, just then when I tried to keep you in here…. Oh my god, you could have killed me without a second thought…” He gasped.
“No, there would have been some serious second thought. I would have hesitated.” I laughed. He shuttered, taking a seat at his tiny dining set.
“So…what can I do to help?” He asked.
“What?” I responded, catching him off guard.
“If you have that prince involved, I need to be involved.” He responded, hissing, jealousy tingeing in his voice.
“This isn’t any type of competition, Mercury.” I said.
“I’m not trying to make it any.  Like what do I need to do? That’s all I need to know.”
“…Just hold the money.”
“That’s not enough,” He chuckled, “I’ve had other officers ask about you. I’m in this whether I want to be or not. If shit goes down and I have these types of details, as a low ranking official, I’m done for. I’m in this to win it. So, I’m going to ask this again. What can I do to help?”
This was a repercussion I did not consider. I couldn’t leave him here either. However, he differed from my sister, being perfectly capable of fighting.
“You know I’m leaving this city right? I mean…at this point…”
“I’d have to leave too, huh?” He asked. I nodded.
“You know,” I began, “There is a black stag for sell for about twenty five dollars in lower ring.”
“Why is that important….wait…twenty five dollars?” He asked, caught by surprise.
“Yeah. The horses range much higher, but I understand. Black antelope are touchy ass animals.” I said.
“For real though, why is it important?”
“You’ll need a getaway animal, and trust me. Nothing can catch a black stag.”  
Suddenly, faint knocking on the door caught us by surprise.
“Who’s that?” I asked. Mercury looked on extremely startled.
“I don’t know. I don’t…get visitors.” He said, scratching the back of his head. Nervously, he went to the door. He twisted the knob, opening it. There was no one there. Suddenly a silver blur rushed past his feet. It was Bazahra. As he stood at the top of the stairs, he was surprised to see a hooded figure tying up Rejon in the apartment shaft, next to the horses.
“Um…” Mercury said. The hooded figure faced Mercury, taking off his cloak. It was Richard.
“I’m so sorry, but I need to see Kijus.”
“He’s here…” He said, as I rushed past him and down the stairs in total shock.
“Oh my god, what are you doing here?” I asked, giving him a hug.
“It’s bad. He tried killing Rejon and Bazahra. Roi, Brija and I didn’t let him. He told me to get rid of them. This is the first place I thought to bring them. Since it’s later in the day and no one’s on patrol, I doubt I was seen.” He said, panting. Our embrace came to an end, the boy being very tired. He leaned against the wall, quite dizzy.
“What’s wrong with him?” Mercury asked.
“Oh nothing. Riding on the back of a stag does that to you if you’re not prepared.” I said before getting ready to address him, “Brija?”
“Yeah, she’s on team Kijus now. I’m sorry, but I had to tell her.” He said.
“It’s ok.”
“I mean, she felt like shit after I told her and now she’s looking at pa like the villain he is. I also told Roi who’s mad you didn’t tell him first, but nonetheless, also willing to take a fall for you. Anyways, we had to think fast to throw pa off our tails. We decided it’d be best if one person takes Rejon and Bazahra away. He’d think something was up if two people left.”
“So did my letter work?”
“I guess so, but he was suspicious as to why you left Rejon and Bazahra behind. It seems that if you would have left the city, you’d take your two most prized possessions with you. In fact, he doesn’t even know how you were able to simply walk out… I don’t know what lies in store.” He sighed, full of uncertainty.
“I can pass for a white person if I dye my hair and brows. Also, I’m chopping all of this off.” I responded.
“But your accent.” He said, still unsure. I stared at him with a grin.
“What accent?” He asked, as I immolated his perfectly.
“Are you sure you weren’t followed?” Mercury chimed in, making his way down the stairs.
“Most certainly… Rejon would have lost a pursuer before we even left the upper ring. He’s fast…” Richard said, still struggling to wrap his head around the amount of speed the stag had.
“Leave a horse?” Mercury asked.
“He can outpace your average horse by nearly three times the rate.” I said.
“So, like ninety miles an hour?” Mercury gasped.
“Dammit…Dammit…dammit…fuck…dammit!” Richard said, angered by himself.
“What?” Mercury and I asked simultaneously.
“I didn’t think this through. How the hell am I supposed to get back to the upper ring?” He asked.
“Don’t worry. You can have one of my horses.” Mercury said.
“Thank you.” Richard said bowing, before pausing, “So do you have everything sorted out?”
“Mercury, do you have some peroxide and a spray bottle?” I asked.
“Yeah.” He responded.
“Then I’m good.” I sighed, not wanting to see him go. Richard hugged me tight, “Be safe…” He whispered. I had no response. I didn’t want my voice to waver with emotion. Our embrace came to a depressing end as I watched Mercury untie his prized Palomino mare and hand Richard the reins. As the boy rode away, I couldn’t hold back my tears.
Mercury looked at me, in concern.
“You two…are you a thing?” He asked.
“No, we couldn’t let ourselves get involved that way,” I began, “But we did consent…”
“Wait, you did it with him?” Mercury asked.
“I mean, I’m going to be doing it with a lot of people so I might as well had started somewhere. Besides, we were both two clunky virgins…” I responded.
“Did you learn anything?”
“Yeah,” I said, snapping my fingers trying to remember, “I’m what you westerners call a bottom.” Mercury burst out laughing.
“That’s is precisely what the Brothel needs. They have an overage of tops. You’ll fit right in.” He teased.
“Um…. This isn’t really something I want to joke about.” I said.
“Eh, I understand. I’m a bit mad I gave the prince my beloved Beth.” He sighed.
“Don’t sweat that. Let’s get this hair situation of mine situated and then we can focus on that stag on the other side of town.” I said.
“Fortunately for you, I’m a damn good barber.” He said, as he led me up the stairs. Bazahra was standing at the door, full of worry.
“What gonna be of you?” She asked. I got down on my knees to greet her.
“You’re going to carry mail between me, Mercury and Richard, okay?” I told her. She nodded, and waited for us to pass by before following.
Mercury pulled out one of his dining chairs, patting it, gesturing for me to sit. I did so. The boy then disappeared down the hall of the apartment, returning with two armfuls of hair supplies.
“You didn’t think my hair was naturally auburn right?” He asked with a smile.
“Well, auburn is a common hair color for Illisians. In fact, I had auburn hair as a kid. My little sister had bright strawberry hair as a babe then when she hit puberty, her hair turned auburn. Also, she’s much lighter than me and I’m already rather light for an Illisian.” I rambled.
“Really?” He asked, surprised.
“How light do you want your hair?” He asked, throwing all the supplies on the table.
“Bright blonde.” He sighed.
“Blonde?” He asked with a chuckle.
“Then we’re going to have to condition your hair all nice. Have you ever been to Nok?” He asked.
“Of course… If I’m Illisian, I’ve been to Nok.” I laughed.
“So you know how good black people’s hair products are?” He asked.
“Nigga, you’re black! Illisians consider themselves black! I consider myself black. Well, some Illisians consider themselves Arabian or Middle Eastern but that’s understandable... Eastern Illisia is only a seven hour boat sail to Arabia and they look pretty similar to us, except their hair is straighter.” I said.
“Wait so, does Egypt, Nubia, Ethiopia and Somalia consist of Illisia too?”
“No, Egypt claimed northern Nubia for themselves and we claimed southern Nubia since it’s mostly grassland. Ethiopia and Somalia are ours though, as well as Kenya, Uganda, and Northern Zaire. Beyond the province of Zaire is the nation of Nok.” I said.
“Do you ever wonder what the world was like before the huge fallout in twenty two twenty?”
“I always did.” I sighed.
“I heard they had machines to do everything for them and the machines turned on them and it was a war between the humans and machine…”
“I heard that the humans were playing God with certain creatures… Some people didn’t agree and conflict arose. It ended in a great war.”
“I guess it’s no way of knowing… It’s been so long. I heard the war was over minerals in the sky,” Mercury said as he pulled me to the sink, “Lean back a bit.” I did so. He began running cool water through my hair, gently stroking my scalp.
“This is my first time working with hair so similar to mine...well, anyone else’s hair for the matter.” Mercury laughed. I laughed too. I just loved Mercury’s quirkiness. It differed so starkly from Richard’s finesse. I couldn’t say what I liked more.
“So,” Mercury began, “How close were you to falling for the prince?” The question startled me. I suddenly leaned up to look at him.
“I mean if he didn’t have to be king and I didn’t have to do this… I’d want to spend my life with him.” I said.
“I see.” He said, gently grabbing my head putting it back in the sink, “I guess you’re lucky then. I had a preconceived notion about the royal family but I’m glad I was wrong. To know the prince is going to these lengths to help you is kind of good to hear.” The bitterness in his tone could not be hidden.
“You know, Mercury…” I began, unsure how to say it, “I’m utterly terrified.”
“I bet you are…” He chuckled. He poured conditioner onto my scalp lathering it in.
“Oh my God…” I moaned.
“What?” He asked, stopping.
“This feels so good!” I sighed. It caught him by surprise.
“You like this?” He asked.
“YES!” I said out. Mercury then stopped, looking at my hair curiously as it began to curl tightly, hanging in the seat.
“Maybe I should have cut it first.” He laughed.
“Maybe you should have.” I chuckled back.
Nonetheless, he continued. He finished the deep conditioning and cut my hair to about two and a half inches. He then sprayed the peroxide in my hair and placed a humidity cap over my head. We now had to wait.
“So is Prince Richard going to leave as well” Mercury asked.
“No.” I said shaking my head.
“How’s he going to get away with this then?”He asked.
“He’s only covering for me while I’m in the brothel.  After I do what I got to do in the brothel, then that’s when I’ll kind of… It’s my doing so I should be the one blamed.” I said.
“What if you don’t make it out of here alive?”
“What if I don’t make it out of here alive? I guess I’ll have to take as many with me as I can.” I smiled.
“How far have you planned this?” He asked.
“Like I said before, I’ve thought of a thousand scenarios on how this could go down. The best thing to do is to keep all of those scenarios open because shit never goes to plan. As a result, Bazahra is going to be crucial to our success.” I explained. He looked at my hair cap. He got up, looking under the cap. My hair had turned to a sandy blonde.
“I say about fifteen more minutes.” He said back.
“I wonder how I’m going to look.” I pondered.
“Probably a lot more convincing than I previously thought….” Mercury said. He then walked to his refrigerator, “You hungry?”
“Surprisingly, yes for once.” I laughed.
“You…” He began full of shock, “Ok, so…”
“Hey, I’m not going to be picky. I just want food.” I laughed.
He made two stacked sandwiches, both on rice bread with Greek yogurt substituting cheese. They had a strange bitter tasting leaf on them that was canceled out with the tanginess of thinly cut limes.Then he put several slices of venison on it. He then added the last piece of bread and filled two bowls with fruit. I was impressed.
“This is how you eat on a regular basis?” I asked.
“To be honest, no. I only tried eating this way after you said this is how you eat.” He chuckled. It caught me by surprise. I took a bite out of the sandwich and it was good, very good.
“You like it?” He asked.
“Yeah its damn good!” I responded. We both scarfed down the sandwiches, just in time for my hair to finish dying. Mercury pulled off the cap to see custardy blonde hair. He then pulled my seat across the floor back to the sink. He washed the peroxide out of my hair for a few minutes before putting in a strange conditioning agent. It smelt wonderful, like african palm dates mixed with shea butter.
“This right here,” Mercury began, “Adds the moisture right back into your hair when you dry it out. Peroxide is a powerful oxidizer so it takes the mositure right from you. This adds the moisture but also strengthens your hair by giving it protein. You gotta love Nok for it’s hair products.” He put the humidity cap back on my head, “We got to let it air dry.”
“How do you know so much about hair?” I asked.
“I’d just read…” He laughed.
“Ah...same.” I smiled.
“You don’t?” Mercury started, walking over to his cabinets, “Want to have a bit of fun before you get involved with the masters?”
“What do you mean?” I asked. He pulled out a board game and plopped it onto the table. I felt a sudden sense of relief. I mean, if he wanted to do it I wouldn’t have said no, but...Mercury made me feel like I was dealing with someone of immense mystical power. He had a way of getting inside my head with such little effort. How he differed from Richard is that he was a ton more tenacious. Richard needed someone to drive him, someone to fight for. Mercury was more like me, in the aspect that if pushed he’d push back twice as hard. To see that we shared this quality was jarring.
He opened the board game and began dispersing the cards. He took out two oddly designed clay cups filled with metallic coins placing them in the center of each board.
“This game is called Jedidiah. Basically the point of this game is to make it to the pot of gold, which is heaven. You pull a card and it tells you which direction on the board to move. Where you stop, you’ll have to deal with a blessing or a hardship. If you get a blessing, I give you a coin. If you get a hardship I must use the second deck of cards to judge you based off a single yes or no question. It’s a test of morality, to be honest.” Mercury smiled. I nodded, eager to try out this game.        
“Sounds simple enough.” I sighed.
“Yeah very simple.” He smiled, “You draw first.”  I pulled the first card. It read move six units to the left. I did so. My figure landed on a blank slot on the board.
“Is that good?” I asked.
“It’s fine.” He responded as he pulled a card from his draw. His card read move two units forward and nine units right. His figure landed a curse. He smiled at me.
“Judge me.” He said. I reached to the center of the board grabbing a card from the middle deck. I began to read the question. It was utterly unsettling.
“A life long friend who dabbles in the narcotic industry says he needs a place to stay. You allow him to stay but one day you come home from your stressing job, you see someone else leaving your home, a person who seemed a little more alert than they should. Knowing your friend’s history you instantly speculate he’s selling drugs from your home. Upon confronting him, you see he’s turn your house into a pin. Before you can utter a word, he hands you a big wad of money, thanking you for letting him stay. He knows how money is tight for you and truthfully you need the money. Would you still turn him down and kick him out or would you…. keep the money and turn a silent eye? Yes or No in that order.” I read.
“No.” Mercury smiled.
“Would you really?” I asked, really wanting to know.
“I wouldn’t. I’m not like most people here. The law is kind of important to me.” He smiled. I drew a card. It read move four units forward, four units right. I did so. I landed on, again, a blank unit.  
“Wow.” I sighed. Mercury drew. He moved two units to the right, landing on a blessing. The blessing read two coins. I drew once again, this time getting a curse. Mercury was a bit too eager when reaching for the center deck. He read over the card, chuckling to himself.
“You were in a long term relationship for two and a half years. As the years added up, you and your partner found several issues with each other. Though you were willing to compromise on many things, your partner wasn’t. You spend many nights crying silent tears as your partner, equally as unhappy spends nights at a time out on the town. Both of you work hard and your only wish is to spend time with your partner. One day, you’re let off work early and walk in on your partner caught in the act, cheating. Your immediate reaction is shock but it turns into sudden hurt. You forgive your partner as they beg for your better judgement. However, it was not the only time they cheated. After that encounter, you catch them in the act several other times until finally you had enough…. A.) You cheat in revenge, B.) You kill them, C.) You leave them…” Mercury laughed.
“What the fuck kind of question is that?” I asked.
“I’m curious to see what you’d do.” Mercury responded.
“Oh I’d kill’em. You cheat on me, you die!”  I said plainly.
“Gotta move back the units you were allowed to move up.” He laughed.
“Wow…” I said. Mercury went, reaching for his personal deck. He moved nine units to the left. He landed on a curse. I pulled a card from the center deck.
“Someone kills your family. That someone is someone you  know very, very well and when you found out who that someone is, you’re twelve times as devastated. You have the opportunity to to go after that person and spend a lot of time contemplating what is the best way to heal. Would you go after that person?” I read… I put the card down, this particular card striking home with me.
“No…” Mercury said back. I couldn’t help but smile.
“We’re two totally different people…” I chuckled, drawing my deck. It read move nine units to the right, two units up.  As I did, I realized I landed on another curse. Mercury picked up a card from the center deck. He read it over before reading it out loud. It seemed it hit a hard nerve with him.  
“You,” He began, “Have had a friend you’ve been attracted to for a long time. This friend also has voiced their attraction to you but made you vow to never try and take it further than friendship. You reluctantly do so but an opportunity presents itself. Your friend….finds their-self in a compromising position and you see their vulnerability as a chance to get what you’ve longed years for. Do you act on the temptation or not?”
“This game is so sadistic…” I noted, “No...I would not act on temptation.” Mercury looked at me for a long time before he drew a card. He moved his figure, forward three. He landed on nothing. I drew and moved my figure six units to the right and a unit forward, landing on a blessing. Mercury handed me three gold coins. He then drew a card, landing on a curse. I reached for the center deck, coming across a card that truly unnerved me. I...I, I couldn’t even finish reading it in my head...let alone aloud.
“You ok?” Mercury asked.
“Yeah,” I said back as I looked at the card, “Your family has been ripped apart by ruthless people. You grew up thinking you had nothing but later in life encounter one of those lost family members locked in a position they can’t help their-self out of. This situation is so bad that it defiles everything you once believed in….Seeing that family member’s suffering, you contemplate…. saving them at whatever cost. That means losing...your religion….losing your sense of morality….and diving into a world where everyone around you is the same. Do you spare these people there fate?”
“How the hell am I supposed to answer that question?” Mercury pondered, “I wouldn’t leave my family though. I never really had a family so I don’t know what lengths I’d be drawn to.” Those words drew me to tears. Not for any empathetic reasons, but because it was a blatant reminder of what I lost.  Mercury saw this and instantly, felt regret. He got and up and began putting the game back into it’s box.
“How about we stop playing and go buy that Stag.” He suggested.
“I was enjoying the game.” I smiled. He looked at me in full skepticism.
“Like really? Come on…” He said as he waited for me to get up. I did so. He came in close to me, biting his gorgeous lips. I didn’t know what was about to happen. He slowly pulled the humidity cap off my head and ran his fingers through my hair.
“Eh, it’s mostly dry.” He said, “How does your hair behave when it’s short?”
“Well it definitely won’t stay straight.” I laughed.
He walked to the door waiting for me to come. I walked through it, Bazahra was close behind. I turned to her.
“No you have to stay here for a while.” I smiled. She looked at me, unsure why I wanted her to remain here. Nonetheless, she walked back into the doorway, looking back at me. Mercury closed the door and we headed down the stairs and down into the tiny stable. Rejon looked at me, seeing I was getting ready to leave. I walked up to him, caressing his face.
“Are you ready to meet another black antelope?” I asked him. He snorted, unable to understand such a complex question.
“You think they’ll fight?” Mercury asked.
“I guess we’ll have to find out later then.” I said. Rejon whistled, signifying he was aware that something was about to happen. However, he wasn’t sure of what.
“One more black stag.” I said. Rejon looked at me in confusion. He looked at the two other horses and then back to me. He stomped the ground, showing he was extremely perplexed. I laughed at him.
Mercury went to the heavy stable door and pushed it open slightly. He looked out to see there were dozens of other officials out in the fields on their horses. Rejon whistled in excitement at the sight of fresh grass. Mercury turned to shush him.
“Come on.” He said. I turned to Rejon as I left the tiny stable.
“I’ll be back.” I told him.
We walked down the cobbled path watching the horsemen as they ran the length of the fields. To my surprise, they trained birds of prey for sport as well. The sky was filled with kites, falcons and large hawks.
“Wow…” I said.
“What?” Mercury asked.
“I thought they only had raptors in the upper ring.” I said.
“Nah, the middle ring has them too. In the lower ring, it’s outlawed….”
“Go figure…” I sighed.
We reached the main gate of the Ion subdivision. We exited the fenced area, entering the bustling Bolt District. It was one of the more higher end reaches of the middle ring, having masterful architecture on the buildings, great masonwork on the roads, and people dressed in fine robes, silks and tights.
We headed east, walking casually towards the main corridor, one of the four routes that led to the lower ring. All around us, you saw boutiques and restaurants, vistas and markets all where wealthy middle class people leisurely shopped. No one looked at us, as they walked by. Everyone seemed so into themselves without a care for the people around them.  
“It’s crazy how life isn’t so bad here but you go to the lower ring and it’s just such a struggle.” I noted.
“Yeah. I work in the lower ring… I know exactly what you mean. But don’t let this fool you. The hustle in the lower ring is crazy. A lot of the people there don’t care for this life of leisure. They care about getting to the top of one of the local industries, whether it be agriculture, the markets, the sex slave industries, the narcotic industries or the feudalistic industries. My job is to make sure no one industry begins monopolizing the markets. The more competition there is, the money there is to be made.” He explained.
“So those people I see, struggling, sick on the ground...sleeping in boxes, begging for money…” I began to ask.
“Oh that’s an industry all in itself… Don’t fall for those people. The people who really struggle, you’ll never know who they are… They generally are the ones trapped behind the scene, forced to work the steepest angles for the ones who can manage to get work….” He clarified.
“That’s damn crazy. I was led to believe that poverty and oppression is beyond prevalent down there.” I said, truly shocked.
“It is in relation to the other rings. In the lower ring, the cost of living is extremely cheap. As a result, you can be poverty stricken and live a well off life. It’s just that if you manage to make money in the lower ring, you besta keep it to ya self. If people suspect you’re even hiding a stash of money, you’ll end up robbed and dead. The sad thing about it that your closest friends are more than likely going to be the culprits.” He added.
“Wow..” I said.
We reached the main corridor after a few minutes of walking. The road was as long as the eye could see. Horsemen trotted across the broad cobbled road, some pulling trolleys and caravans. It was an interesting sight just to witness something of this level of bustle.
“So do you really know your way around this town?” Mercury asked.
“Yeah, I’ve explored it top to bottom.” I said back.
“When’d you have time to do this?” He asked.
“I’ve been here for well over four months. When I say I know every square inch of this place, I mean it.” I said back.
“Like…?” He asked.
“I know the old service tunnels, I know the sewers, I know the catacombs, I know the under alleys and the aqueducts. I know every street as well….” I explained.
“That’s actually impressive. I don’t know much about the underground.” Mercury said.
“I’ve been all down in there. You know...I had to explore.” I laughed.
“How’d you get to the old service tunnels?” Mercury asked.
“I had to sneak around…. It was late one night about two months ago. I got past the patrolling noblemen and slipped down into the service tunnel.  I spent the entire night exploring every square inch of the underground.” I said.
“How’d you even know of the Underground?” He asked.
“Richard gave me a set of maps one day I tried to leave and I was overwhelmed with the complexity of this place and I decided to stay...a while. It prompted me to begin exploring which was fun until I came across the brothels and things turned a bit more serious.” I clarified.
“So you found the underground before you found the brothel?” He asked.
“No. I wasn’t even going to explore the underground. It was when I was thinking of the most efficient way to escape out of here when I decided to explore it.” I laughed.
“Really… So you searched that thoroughly for an escape route?”
“Yeah. You know what they say. Can’t build a new nest without putting down a stick first.” I sighed. Mercury smiled at the old proverb, never hearing it before.
“So is that how you’re going to leave out of here?” Mercury asked.
“It won’t work. Rejon can’t really fit in the service tunnels… Plus there’s an aspect that I simply don’t know. I don’t know the dynamic of the brothels just yet.” I said.
“Oh...damn.” Mercury said, sounding disappointed.
“It’ll be all good though.” I sighed. Mercury smiled at me.
“I love that optimism.” He grinned.
We reached the lower ring, allowed to pass through without incident. There the city took on a much different look. It was even more bustling, with more horsemen riding about. The sidewalks were busier, much more crowded. The homes were more decrepit and not kept up to the same code of the upper rings. Beggars were approaching upperclassmen begging for money. The venders markets here were much more diverse. There were fruit stands, livestock stands, mineral stands….a stand for everything imaginable, even a stand for hair pieces and Danish cutlery.
On an isolated corner, a group of young men sat on some freighting crates outside the loading dock of a small warehouse. One stopped me in my tracks. He was golden, his skin, his hair, his eyes! For a second, I mistook him for the slaver that captured me, Devari. He and his comrades all looked rugged, hardened and well muscled. They sat blissfully on the crates without a care in the world. They seemed to be the only things calm in this active city. As we walked by, the lankiest one pointed at us. The rest of the boys turned to look at us. They scanned us from head to toe, quietly talking back and forth between themselves.
“Mercury…” I asked quietly.
“Yeah?” He responded.
“What’s up with those kids over there?” I asked, inconspicuously pointing at them.
“Typical local bad boys… They’ve obviously banded together to stab each other in the back at one point in the future. They’re more of a threat to each other than a threat to us.” Mercury sighed.
“Wow…” I said completely taken aback by his response.
“You say wow a lot.” He noted.
“I do?”
“Yeah.” He laughed.  
We continued going down the sidewalk. We approached an oddly slow moving crowd.
“Ugh oh…” Mercury said.
“Is there a way around them? I don’t like these types of crowds…” I said.
“I’m not sure.” Mercury said, standing on his tip toes trying to see over the crowd, “Nah, I don’t see a clear way around. I guess we got to wade through them.” I sighed in reluctance as we ventured forth. Mercury reached for my hand as we neared the crowd.
“These crowds have looters. We need to stay close and have each other’s back…” He said.
“I know… I’ve been tried by looters before. Of course I got my stolen money back.” I laughed.
“Of course you would.” He said as he directed me through the dense crowd. We passed through without incident.
We ended up at a major intersection filled with vendors. We took a right and headed down a less busy street. From that point on, it was a relatively risk free walk. The streets weren’t as crowded as the major networks. The people seemed less sleazy and it was relatively calm as a result. We took a few turns down some roads, ending up in another market region. This region was where the ranching animals were sold.
As we passed by the central vendors, the pitter patter of swift feet caught everyone’s attention.
“MERCURY!” A bright voice called out. A young man around fourteen or fifteen ran towards us. A big smile came across Mercury’s face at the sight of the kid.
“Hey!” Mercury said back, hugging the boy. The boy’s hand slipped into Mercury’s pocket but Mercury caught it, “So how’ve you been my petty little thief?” The boy looked at me, his grey eyes casting deep penetrating rays, rays that made me feel uncomfortable.
“Who’s he?” The boy asked in sudden seriousness.
“Don’t worry about it…” Mercury told him. The boy continued to eye me, detailing my outfit.
“Nice tights….” He said to me.
“Thanks…” I said, trying to hide my accent. The boy looked at me closely.
“Wait, you’re not white!” He noted. I couldn’t help but smile.
“Wow…” I said to myself, surprised by his gall.
“Mercury who’s this guy?” The boy asked.
“I’m just an exotic animal trainer.” I said. Mercury looked at me sternly, hoping I’d utter no more words. The boy came in close, full of intrigue.
“Oh cool, how long have you been here?” He asked.
“I’ve been here a long time.” I smiled.
“Yeah he has and he has a job to do. We’ll see you later Preston.” Mercury said, grabbing the boy and turning him away. The boy waved, as he walked away.
“He’s a charmer.” I said sarcastically.
“Yeah...he’s my favorite little pickpocket.” Mercury laughed. We continued walking through the busy district eventually seeing a huge sign that read “Bryson’s Bovines.”
“Wow, how corny…” I said.
“He must just had gotten that because I swear that wasn’t there yesterday…” Mercury laughed.
“Come on…” I sighed. We walked into the warehouse surprised by the amount of horses, sheep, cattle and other hooved animals there. He even had ancient camels and brontotheres.
“His title is so misleading… Half of these animals are equines, not bovines.” Mercury noted.
“That’s the thing that caught your eye? I mean, who the hell is going to buy a giant ass rhinoceroses?” I asked.
“You’ll be surprised…. The middle ring requests certain animals for certain feasts on certain holidays.” Mercury said, uncertain of my reaction.
“Well, Ok then… I mean the vast majority of creatures in my region just upped and vanished… I see quite a few of them here. I’m pretty sure wherever brontotherium come from, they’re going extinct there as well.” I sighed.
“Wait the creatures in your region went extinct?” Mercury asked.
“Yeah, we talked about it before. Come on!” I said as I walked to the rear of the warehouse. There, a short squat man came from a rear office. He looked at us both in surprise.
“Can I help you?” He asked, “You two seem like you’re looking for your first time horses.” The man’s quick thinking was impressive.
“We heard you have a black stag.” Mercury said.
“A black stag?” The man asked in surprise.
“Yeah…” I said, looking at him sternly. The man led us down a hall to where various antelope and deer were for purchase. He even had giant megaloceros, a deer the same size as a black antelope. All I could do was shake my head.
“Why do you call this place Bryson’s Bovines when you have cervines and equines here?” Mercury asked.
“Because it flows off the tongue really well. If you don’t mind me asking, why do you want the Black Stag?” The man prodded.
“Food…” I said. Mercury looked at me trying not to burst out laughing.
“You’re going to eat it?” He asked.
“No, we’re going to feed it.” I said back. The man was silent for a while.
“...Well it’s a terrible creature to get near. I’m glad someone is taking it off my hands.” He responded, clearly dissatisfied with my snarkiness.
He showed us the enclosure. I was expecting an identical animal to Rejon but no, this stag was only a few years old, having two long white stripes running from the back of it’s head to its withers. His horns were only a fraction of the length of Rejon’s.
“I just want to watch you get near him..” The man laughed. I whistled in chromatic down scales, the way a friendly black antelope would do to another. The lethargic animal looked at me with limited alertness. It got to its feet, coming near us sniffing. The man backed away, knowing this animal was beyond unpredictable… well to him anyways.
The creature looked at the man, snorted and walked to the rear of the enclosure. I turned to the man.
“Did you hit him?” I asked.
“Hell yeah, I hit that thing.” He responded.
“Wow,” I said, not really too surprised by this report. I looked around for dry food. All this man had was succulent pellets. It explained why the young stag seemed to have a lack of energy.  It was then I realized this gorgeous creature was little if any threat, considering my knowledge of these rare antelope.
I slipped through the dense hardwood bars of the enclosure, walking slowly up to the young stag. The creature looked at me, fully alert. It’s ears and eyes perked to their peak. Even as it lay on the ground, this massive creature and I looked at each other eye to eye. Despite his immense size, he was more afraid of me than I was of him. I whistled to soothe him. The creature innately began to relax, the warm tones similar to what he heard as a lamb.  He put his head down on the warehouse floor, his intense stares loosening into relaxed glances.
“Do you have any dried grass?” I asked.
“Why?” The man asked.
“This type of antelope has trouble digesting succulent foliage. Those pellets you have are very hydrated and their stomachs really don’t do well extracting all that water.” I said.
“I don’t got shit for’em.” The man responded.
“Ok, how much you’re selling hm for?” I asked.  The man looked at me for a while. Just as he got ready to think of an outrageous price for the young stag, I beat him to it.
“I’ll give you fifty dollars for him…. He’s nowhere near your most prized possession.” I said plainly, tossing the money through the bars of the enclosure.
“And if I say no?” The man challenged.
“I’ll just take him. He’s the only one you got, and he’s the most problematic creature you have. You wouldn’t know it’s worth if it slapped you in face.” I said. Mercury looked at me surprised by my gall.
I walked back over to the young stag. I reached in my bag, grabbing a bundle of fire weed.
“It’s better than nothing…” I said to myself. Sitting on the warehouse floor  I scooted towards the stag. Slowly, I began separating the bundle, placing down a segment of the clippings just in front of the stag’s mouth. The stag smelled the dried grass, wiggling towards it. It’s long black tongue nimbly wrapped around the fire weed. It drew the thin blades of glass into its mouth, chewing them briefly. The massive creature then wiggled in a semicircle, now facing me.
“It acts like a giant puppy.” Mercury noted.
“Yeah, he’s a bit less serious than….” I began but held my tongue. The buck got to it’s feet, circling around me.
“Oh shit…” The store owner said.
“I’m in no danger.” I replied to him. This stag was very young, very receptive and very trusting. He differed from Rejon when Rejon was this age. I wouldn’t even have dared to approach Rejon in tight quarters such as this. Then again, Rejon wasn’t even this young when I first got him. It was at least two years of difference between their ages.
I separated the bundle again, handing him the dry grass. The young stag ate it swiftly, craving more. It was obvious he had never eaten anything of the likes. Seeing I was holding the rest of the bundle in my other hand, he reached over with his long neck to that side.
“Agh!” I said swiftly, eliciting a startled reaction from the stag. He backed up cautiously, before dropping his head, baring his relatively short horns. They grew out of his head straight, not even having a curve yet.
The playful little stag mocked charged me, before leaping over my head again and again. He’d prance around me on his delicate little legs, before he slammed into the warehouse floor, rolling onto his back. I looked at Mercury smiling. He didn’t share the same expression. He was utterly terrified.
“You’re scaring me.” He said to me.
“I’m fine.” I laughed. The stag got back onto its feet, kicking and leaping all around the large enclosure. He was obviously under-stimulated, not having a true outlet in this relatively tight enclosure. I whistled, in a cooing way. The stag immediately calmed down, walking towards me with his head down. I fed him each stalk of the fireweed, one by one. As he ate blissfully, I reached into my bag grabbing the bit, chomp and reins. I slipped the chomp into his mouth and slipped the bit around his muzzle. The reins, due to his horns locked together by a powerful magnet instead of swing all the way across his head, able to be conveniently pulled apart.
I was unsure how he’d react to the reins but was relieved to see him trying nothing more than to spit out the bit and chomp. I checked his mouth to see if it was comfortable. Since antelope had no front teeth, I had to design a bit and chomp that was soft and malleable, something that could mold to their palate. It overall was fitting well.  He could eat just fine if he wanted to.
I stood up, handing the stag another stalk of the fireweed. He ate it as normal, quickly adapting to the chomp.  It made me feel rather...good. The bit and chomp, a rough prototype I had virtually no time to build, was far more comfortable than I thought it’d be. Even then, there was one last process to stocking the young stag up. I had to put the blinders on him. It would be for his own safety as we traversed through the city. I had a trick though...chalk.
Chalk was the crutch to any antelope. They ate it like a cat would eat catnip or a dog would eat peanut butter. They simply couldn’t get enough of it. I reached into my bag, grabbing both a piece of chalk and the blinders. I eased the chalk cube into his mouth and all you could hear was a sound of a tongue sucking against an oral palate. I then eased the blinders onto the Stag’s head. The transition was so seamless even I was unsettled.
“OK…” I said, unhooking the reins so they could snap together under his neck. I pulled the reins, directing the young stag behind me. My eyes fell upon Mercury who was shocked at what I managed to do with the stag in under five minutes. I could tell he had a lot of questions. I looked at the store owner.
“Open the gate…” I demanded. Too shocked to make sense of what was stated, it  took a while for the statement to sink in. He rushed toward the lever, yanking it back with all his strength. The wooden bars began to retract into the ground. Watching the floor carefully, I led the stag out of the enclosure.
“So you…” The man began. I tossed him another fifty dollars.
“Thanks for the gorgeous stag. Just so you know, you got cheated out of your most valuable animal and didn’t even know it…” I laughed. The man just stood there flabbergasted.
We exited the warehouse, walking back to the street. Mercury looked on in complete confusion.
“Ok,” He began, “How far did you pre plan?”
“This was somewhat pre planned but I’m so glad I had some left over fireweed in my pack.” I responded.
“And you just tamed him so quickly…” Mercury blabbed on.
“He was pretty much already tamed, just neglected. Not to mention he is considerably younger than Rejon, by at least five years. If he was Rejon’s age, I would have been dealing with a very different animal. He’d probably be unapproachable.” I corrected.
“So is he’s ready to be ridden?” Mercury asked.
“Not quite. We have to get him saddle ready, command responsive and build a very tight dependency on humans. Since he’s super young and obviously super bright, I’m pretty sure you can manage to do this in a matter of weeks.”  I replied.
“Is it any different from training a horse?”
“Based off of Rejon’s nature, I’d say so. Rejon...he was like raising a baby with no opposable thumbs, and no ability to speak. But...they do have a language and I’d advise you to learn that language because he will learn yours….the same way a baby picks up language. He just won’t be able to speak it.”  I explained. Mercury looked at me in complete dismay.
“Kijus, this is too much…” He said, obviously feeling overwhelmed.
“It won’t be…”
“I’m not a trainer like you!”
“I’m not going to leave you hanging, ya know. I’m not that cruel.” I laughed. Mercury looked at me, utterly perplexed as to what I meant.
“Dude..” Mercury said, getting frustrated.
“Just wait until we get back…” I smiled.
We didn’t draw a strange eye in the lower ring. Every single person had an oddity near them. In the region, walking around with a strange bovine meant you scored dinner more than anything. As soon as we reached the middle ring, things changed drastically. Eyes fell upon us, some of wonder, some of concern. Mercury and I looked at each other. having the same thought.
“Back alleys?” He asked. I looked at the young stag. He was still sucking on the chalk cube, without a care in the world.
“Yeah.” I responded.
We took a detour, taking a lengthy route through the long isolated alleys of the middle ring.  Not a soul was present here, not even people peeking out of their windows. These alleys were just underutilized compared to those of the lower ring which is where the vast majority of all the underhanded activities happened. If you wanted to sneak something into the upper levels, this was definitely the way to do it.
Not long after, we approached the fence of the Black Pastures, the very rear of the Ion Subdivision. We could see noblemen on their horses as well as noblemen flying there raptors.
“We’re almost there. It’s been smooth strolling so far.” Mercury said. I looked at him in dismay.
“Don’t curse us.” I sighed.
“I think we’ll be fine.” He laughed. He led the way around the miles of gates and we entered the property. Not an eye was turned to us as everyone was at a distance, too far to discern if the young stag was a horse or not. Most of the residences were spaced several hundreds of feet apart. The multi storey duplex homes had a designated horse stable on the lowest floor. Principally, a horse stable is kept in the most confidence so no one would just venture into one’s stable without notifying the tenant well in advance that they’d be paying a visit.  It simply was the noblest thing to do here and for a law official, nobility was everything. I then thought about something, seeing the many off duty officers spending the day with their raptors.
“Mercury.” I said.
“Yeah?” He asked.
“Why don’t you have a raptor?” I asked.
“Well, I’ve never had too much of an interest. My father often steered me away from it.” He laughed.
“Why?” I asked.
“I don’t know, the man really wanted me to be a top shelf equestrian.” Mercury responded.
“Well… Are you?” I asked.
“Not at all…” Mercury laughed, “I mean I am good but not as good as my father wishes.”
“We’ll you’re going to help with Bazahra as well.” I responded. Mercury looked at me, questioning was I serious.
“You’re killing me right now…” He sighed.
“Okay, I’m going to need you to relax. I’m going to make this incredibly easy for you…” I said.
“How…” He asked.
“Just wait until we get back…”
I now had his curiosity. He wanted to ask what I had planned but we had reached his apartment. He unlocked the massive stable door and swung it open. Rejon whistled loudly in rejoice at my return. His eyes laid upon the young stag. He tensed up, sniffing the air hoping to catch a whiff of the new creature. As I brought the stag further into the stable, Rejon began to whir threateningly, stomping the ground.
“Hey!” I called out. Rejon looked at me. I tossed him a chalk cube and he immediately relaxed, forgetting the world around him. I was beyond thankful that Rejon was tied to a post. if not, he could have seriously hurt us all. I looked to Mercury who was oblivious to the seriousness of this situation.
I tied the young stag up to the post in the rear, taking off his blinders. He looked around the dark stable, laying eyes on the gorgeous grey horse standing beside him. He whistled at her, trilling his heart away. It then hit me. He thought that either he was a horse or she was another antelope. Compared to Rejon, this young stag was very naive albeit well socialized. Rejon though, would prove to be the greater issue.
Fortunately for now, he simply sucked on the chalk, blissfully in his own little world. Unsure what I should do to solve this issue, I set as a less important priority , walking up the stairs to the apartment. Mercury was close behind. He unlocked the door, letting me walk through first. Bazahra rushed up to me, ruffling her feathers against my leg. I leaned down to rub her.
Mercury closed the door, standing next to it with the same inquisitive look.
“So….” He began, “What is it you wanted to show me?” I smiled as I walked over to my main satchel. I pulled out all my journals, finding the one written specifically for Rejon. He came over looking at all the journals wondering what information filled them.
“Here.” I said, handing it to him. He opened it skimming over all the recollections.
“Wow…” He said.
“Look who’s saying wow now.” I laughed.
“So you have a trial and error process for training and disciplining Rejon and you checked the ones that worked. What type of patience do you have?” He asked.
“All of the training took course over a month. It didn’t take long to break him. Also, pay attention to how you whistle. Black antelopes have a very complex language… I detail it as much as I can.” I explained.
“This is amazing…” He responded. He flipped to the first page, starting from there. He yanked the dining chair from under the table, taking a firm seat. I was shocked. I didn’t know he’d be this emersed.
I opened my most recent journal, going over my recent notes. I remember when the king reported the last thing he read in it was ‘She found me but didn’t recognize me… I don’t know how to process this let alone have anything to say.’ There has been a considerable amount more details placed into the journal since then. As I began to go over them, Mercury looked up at me.
“What’s that one?” He asked.
“I did some research on the brothels around town, trying to figure out which one will bring me closer to my sister.” I said.
“Well you said you saw her on the streets?” Mercury asked.
“Well street performers are relatively highly renowned sex slaves. There are only two brothels that have street stages: The High Pansun and Felker Distribution. The slavers you encountered months ago were Felker Distribution agents.” Mercury said to me. I looked at him, completely astounded.
“Really?” I asked.
“Yes and they are ridiculously cruel. The High Pansun are much more lenient than Felker Distribution but Felker would die for as exotic a lineup as High Pansun. They are arguably the bigger success of the two. If I had to make a recommendation, I’d say join the High Pansun.”
“I don’t know… what’ if my sister’s not there?”
“There’s a chance that she is. If not, if you’re good at what you do Felker will pay you attention because you will get a...reputation. They’ll make an offer to High Pansun and more than likely High Pansun will sell you. If High Pansun doesn’t want to sell you,  then there’d be a bit of an issue… Felker is a bit territorial… They might try and take you and from what I’ve seen it can get very violent. There have been some brutal things happen to the slaves as a result of these gang wars. The sex slave industry is just that cut throat.”
I sighed, realizing that this could very much be the most danger I’ve ever put myself in.
“I really don’t want you doing this, Kijus…” Mercury said.
“I have no choice! I can’t buy her! I can’t break in and burst her out! That’d be stupid and brash… I’d probably get gunned down… I can’t go ask the king for help because, for one, he considered me a slave all along and secondly, the sex slave industry supports his entire kingdom!”
“I know but you don’t know how dangerous this industry is!”
“I don’t care… This city doesn’t know how dangerous I am. This is an argument I’m not going to have with you, Mercury. I’ve made up my mind… I can’t just sit here and let my sister continue to be defiled the way she is… Even if that means I have to stoop to depths lower than I’ve ever been… so be it! Family is family!”
Mercury just sat there staring. I knew this was equally as hard on him.
“You know you’re nothing but trouble…” He said, “Come to this city and not only get yourself involved in some mess you can’t fix but through the entire kingdom into it with you…” He began. Before he could finish, I got up, heading for the door. Before I could open it, he beat me to it placing his firm hand on it, keeping me from opening it. He grabbed me with his free arm and kissed me.
“You’re not leaving…” He said, “At least not yet.” I was confused. He was giving me so many mixed signals and in this state, I really didn’t want to be toyed with.
“Mercury…” I began.
“From the moment I laid eyes on you, I knew we’d have quite an entwined fate… I don’t know what this fate will bring us so I just had to kiss you. I just had to know what those lips felt like...just once.” He interrupted. It was relieving to know that this was only spur of the moment kiss and not some way to trap me with his affection. He backed away, going back to his seat, trying to pretend that this simply didn’t happen.
“I got a lot of ground to cover in so little time…” I said, going back to gather my things. Mercury looked at at me.
“Let’s really make this worth our whiles.” Mercury suggested. I looked at him torn between my affection for Richard and the want to explore the depths of my sexuality with Mercury. I already knew it. Mercury could make me do some things that no other person could. The way he hammers down his concerns, the way he asserts himself, it just made me feel like putty in his grasp.
The simple fact of the matter is that he cared far more than he was leading on. He wanted me to be his but didn’t want to call it love. He wanted us to be one but didn’t want it to be labeled as a unity. He got to his feet, embracing me tight, far too tightly for this to be anything other than affection he no longer wanted to hide. I felt his lips caress my neck as he moved up, gradually to my chin then to my lips. He pressed our bodies together so tightly, I only could imagine us becoming one.
Our kissing led to the couch. He gently laid me down, placing his mass over mine. I couldn’t explain it but just kissing felt like an immediate danger, yet there was no danger present. Pulling each other’s clothes off felt like entering a world filled with peril yet...no peril was present. The low kisses added unbelievable pleasure to sin, yet no salvation could stop us. He pinned my right leg up to my head, preparing for the inevitable. He explored my entry with a gentle finger as we continued to kiss. Not long after building the nerve at this point of no return, he slowly took the plunge.
I never thought I’d experience this level of intensity again but here I was, completely in over my head. Mercury had me in straight euphoria. Every thrust of his forged our bond more and more. He was soldering a connection that simply couldn’t be wedged apart. This...this was something deep.
The next morning, had come. I dreaded this day far more than ever thought I would. I got off the couch looking at my clothes on the floor. Mercury, feeling I had moved came to his senses. He leaned up stretching and wiping his face. He looked up at me, knowing exactly what this day meant. It was bittersweet for the both of us.
He wrapped his arms around my waist, resting his head gently upon my belly. I ran my fingers through his soft gorgeous hair, not knowing when I’d get the chance to do so again. He looked up at me.
“Give me a kiss…” He said. I did so. He then got up and went to take a shower. He came back a few minutes later, saddened.
“I got morning duty…” He responded.
“You took the day shift?” I asked.
“I had to due to new recruits taking the night shift. It gives me time to discretely train the young stag, though.” He said. I began to smile.
“You know,” I started, “You need to name him.”
“I’ll call him Bastion for now…” He sighed, putting on his uniform. He then stopped, thinking deeply, “You’re going to need one last big meal.”
“Don’t worry about it.” I sighed.
“Well, I can’t help but be. Depending on where you go, you might not get a meal....”
“I’ll be fine.” I said as I went to the shower. He followed.
“How can you be this certain?” He asked.
“I’m not.” I said back, “It’s just that I want to hope for the best.” I climbed into the shower, washing off briskly. Mercury had delightful tastes in soaps. They were hard and crystalline, dissolving slowly into a soft foam as you lathered them. They smell was jasmine and camomile. It made a swift scrub down of one’s extremities feel much more thorough.
Mercury had grown so silent I thought he had left. I hopped out of the shower to see him standing in the doorway deep in thought. He was struggling coming to terms with the fact that he’d have to let me go. I grabbed a towel and wrapped it around myself.
“You know…” I began, “Those soaps are great…”
“I know.” He smiled.
I walked to the living room, putting on a pair of tights. Bazahra was sitting on her perch. I summoned her.
“Follow me from above until I reach the brothel. Then go across the wall and find Richard. Whatever you do, make sure you’re not seen by anyone except Richard! When he writes a letter, sneak into the brothel and give it to me.” I said, hoping she was able to understand. There was so much riding on this bird, it was almost foolish to believe she was possible of going through with it. She nodded and walked to the door.
I gave Mercury one last look goodbye. He gave a weak smile and walked into the kitchen. It took every ounce of my strength to maintain my composure. I exited his home, walking down the stairs into the stable. Rejon sat tense, still uncomfortable with the presence of the young stag. The fact that I could possibly be leaving him behind forever was overwhelming. I rushed to him, hugging him tightly. The mighty stag could sense something was terribly wrong. but his lack of comprehension left it only cooing in confusion.
“Listen to me, Rejon… Treat that young stag like he’s your son… We’re all going to need you and him very soon. Don’t act so terrible towards him.” I cried. Rejon though was not Bazahra.  Though he had a small grasp on the Illisian language as a whole, expecting him to understand this was simply too much to ask.
I sighed as I headed to the main door. I pulled it open, Bazahra darting out disappearing almost instantly. To the brothels, I headed.
I took back alleys, not wanting to be seen. Upon reaching the lower ring, the congested streets all felt surreal. I was about to give up my freedom in exchange for someone else’s. There was no questioning was it worth it. It most certainly was. No one could tell me otherwise and I was going to succeed.
Everyone looked at me as I walked through the city. I don’t know, maybe it was because I wasn’t wearing a shirt. Thinking something might be wrong with the little clothes I did where, I glanced over myself. As I checked my rear, someone caught my eye. It was a nobleman of the king but I wasn’t quite sure who he was. Nonetheless, this wasn’t a good sign.
He could have been following me. This was the last thing I needed when I was so close to making definitive progress. Nonetheless, I trudged on as though I never even saw him. My focus was on which brothel did I want to be apart of. The decision could be detrimental to the welfare of the mission. I had a hunch though and I needed to know if it was right before I made my decision. It did require a bit of a risk though.
I headed to the rear of the distillery where a bunch of freighting crates always ended up. It was where the handful of boys were sitting when Mercury and I were heading towards the ungulate seller. The boys were there, like clockwork watching the passers by snickering at them as they smoked whatever strange herbs they thought was cool enough.
The same boy, the golden one, turned hearing my approach. His resemblance to the the
slaver unerved me. He pointed, causing all his friends to turn. I stood before them, causing the kids to be come nervous.
“I have a few questions.” I began. The boys simply looked at me, “Which brothels owns the East side and which brothels take the west side?” Just as the golden one began to answer, his friend held out his hand, a gesture not to speak.
“You new around here?” He asked.
“No, I’m just low key.” I responded dryly.
“So where are you from?” He asked, turning to face me completely.
“Here, so...you’re going to tell me or am I going to have to find someone else?” I asked. The boy smiled.
“See, I don’t give information out to people I don’t know. I got to know you first…” He said, licking his lips seductively. I rolled my eyes, walking past him.  It was clear the boy was not expecting the reaction.
“I know you want the information.” He said, hoping to tempt me back.
“Nah, I don’t want it that bad.” I said.
As I continued, someone grabbed my hand. I turned back and it was the boy.
“I’m only teasing ya.” He said, “Come.” I followed him back to the crates, having no patience at all for any more games. I stood there with my arms folded. The boy looked me from head to toe.
“The east side is owned by Felker Distribution and they allow for smaller independent bro….”
“That’s all I need to know.” I interrupted, turning back towards the road.
“What, gonna get you some exotic pussy?” He asked.
“Yeah, sure.” I responded, not caring to entertain the boys any further.
I continued eastward, finding the very stands my sister was dancing on. Looking up, I checked the sky for Bazahra. Her silhouette was barely visible in the sky. Looking back over my shoulder, I had to make sure I wasn’t followed.  There wasn’t anyone suspicious tailing me, not that I could tell. It seemed safe to continue.
I walked between the two tiny stands. There’d be dancers on these by the middle of the day. I hoped my sister wouldn’t be one of these dancers. Nonetheless, I persisted forward, heading towards the brothel. Upon opening the door, my heart sank and my stomach twisted into knots. There was someone I instantly recognized… Devari. He was oblivious to my presence, deep into the listings of his clipboard. I sat down in the chair just in front of his desk.
“You’re not on my client list.” He said, not bothering to look up. My stomach jarred in disgust but I had to maintain some level of composure.
“I’m not here for a service. I’m looking for a job… I’m trying to get out of this city and I can’t do it without money… I don’t have any money left and I can’t find a job anywhere else.” I said, hoping I was playing the role to the tee. The man finally looked up, shocked by my appearance. He looked at me from head to toe.
“Don’t I know you from somewhere?” He asked. The question made me very nervous.
“No, I don’t think so.” I responded. He looked at me intently for several seconds. The tension was blade proof, “Please I really need a job.”
This golden man didn’t look anything like the dark and twisted person he actually was. He had a level of innocence about him that could mislead anyone. He handed me the infamously known working contract. 
To my surprise, it was very thorough and...blunt. It stated clearly that I would be sacrificing my freedom and would become a simple product for making money and disclaimed any liabilities. It also stated in several paragraphs that I was liable to be sold at any given moment. I wouldn’t even be awarded money for my berating and belittling work… This was such a serious scam.
“You read it, you don’t get the job.” He said handing me a pen, “Just sign your name.”
It took some willpower to not just call out this scam. It was saddening and just terrifying to know they counted on people barely able to read to accept this job. Despite my concerns, I signed my name. There was no turning back now.  


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