Rat was nineteen, and had risen high in King Adam of Rose Amon’s favor by using his powers to weed out the spies and dissenters of his court. Though none knew how he did it, he became known as the man who could figure out anyone’s inner character.
“The West family is sending a daughter to our city on a leisure trip,” Adam had said to him one morning. “It is their custom that their children take at least one trip outside their wretched desert hovel. Don’t tell her I said that.”
“Never, your majesty.”
“Anyway, I’d like for you to serve as a more subtle kind of bodyguard. Think of it as a city guide. Keep her entertained, help her get to anywhere she wants to go, and take care of anyone you’d consider risky. It’s always nice to send a wealthy visitor home with good tales to tell.” The King leaned forward and twirled his sword-like beard. “Not to mention, I hear she’s quite stunning.”
The following month, Merrian arrived in a shell carriage at the north city gate. Out stepped a lady in a more provocative dress than he had ever seen. Her skirt was deeply cut at one leg, helping it flow and shimmer in materials he did not yet recognize, and her simple top was just enough to cover a developing bosom, revealing a trim neck and waist.
“Lady Merrian West, I presume?” he held out a hand and she took it. More than anything, her spider-silk gloves, as black as her ponytail, were titillating beyond description.
“Yes. And what is your name, if I may?”
“Rat, miss. On behalf of King Adam, welcome to the Seabreeze City.”
“No last name?” she asked as he helped her down.
“I never knew my parents, and never had official guardians. At best, you could call me Rat of the Holy Delvinian Latalla Church, since I was raised there, but don’t.”
His blunt command came naturally, and terrified him until she giggled against her other hand. “Lovely to meet you, Rat. I hope my wardrobe is sufficient. Mirek has such heat, not like here.”
“As long as you are comfortable, my lady, all is well.”
“Please, ‘my lady’ is too much. We must be about the same age. Let’s speak like friends.”
“You honor me. As you wish.”
Rat could not believe how lucky his powers made him. He had obtained a royal duty that other young men would fight to the death over.
They spent the day touring the Rose Amon Lake shoreline. He merely had to hold her obsidian-encrusted slippers as they walked along the sand. They drank frozen coconut tinctures from a burly stand-holder, which froze his brain. Yet to her, nothing was too cold.
“If only we could swim,” Merrian said. “I did bring the right suit. Perhaps later?”
“We?” Rat ludicrously gazed at the water, like the scenario was difficult to picture.
“Anything that gets you out of this frumpy captain’s outfit,” she said with a cheeky grin. “It makes me feel nude, standing next to you.”
“Plenty of eyes on us, that’s for sure.” He saw that she was now looking off to the waters, and the other end of the city miles beyond. “Pardon me—”
“It’s not your fault,” she said. “You can’t control how other people behave. I’d like to rest somewhere quieter, now that you mention it. Do you live nearby?”
“A quick carriage ride, and we can go anywhere,” he said.
“Ah, yes. The streets are so open here, connected.”
“But I doubt you’d want to see—”
“It’s all I want to see.” She eyed him. “Is it too much of me?”
“There is no such thing. Come.”
The ride was quick and easy, Rat remembered, yet he hadn’t felt that way in the moment. His heart was beating so quickly it felt perpetually squeezed.
He had one of the best homes on the lower levels. They drank wine and tried all sorts of common foods desert people barely knew, like cheese, fresh fish, or jungle berry preserves on fine wheat crackers.
“What do you want to do in your life, Rat?” she asked, while they sat side by side on the peak of his rooftop. The moon was gigantic, casting a perfect yolk upon the lake.
“Anything I want, I suppose. That’s not really an answer, is it? I don’t really… have anything that feels important. Just living.”
“This may be a bad thing to say, but I think that’s a boon of not having a family.”
He looked at her, and she explained, blushing.
“Now that I’m legally a woman, I’m thirty-third in line for the Mirekian throne. Thirty-third, and my family demands that I spend my life in that pointless race. It’s the farthest from what I want to be. Queen of Sand.”
“Then what do you want?”
She looked up at the sky. “I shouldn’t say.”
“It’s far beneath what a girl like me should ever want.”
“I have served the King for years now, and you know what it has taught me? Rich, royal, none of it makes you truly different from anyone else.” Rat wasn’t sure if her upbringing would cause her to be insulted by that sentiment, but instead her eyes warmed at his words.
“Well, I want to be a housewife,” she said. “Mainly for the children. I want to be responsible for lots of wonderful little creatures. They don’t even really have to be all mine. I’d settle for being a teacher.”
“Are you shocked?”
“No, but I can understand your frustration. Rich girls in line for the throne are not usually teachers and wives.”
“You have no idea what my mother and father would do if I told them what I’ve told you. Deep down, that might be the real point of trips like this. One chance to say and do what you want before family duty runs your life forever.”
“It must be stressful,” he said, as she inched closer.
“Rat,” she said, “Look at my legs.”
“You heard me.”
He looked down at her lap, and at the line of glorious tanned skin up and down the mountain of her bent legs.
“I didn’t sit on this side of you for nothing. Go ahead.”
This time, he didn’t need clarification. Her skin was smooth and warm, with an undeniable life hidden underneath as her thigh muscles shifted and flexed, helping her arch her back.
“Make no mistake, Merrian,” he said, looking her in the eyes and grabbing her chin. His thumb pouted her lower lip. “I wasn’t hired to be a concubine.”
“Good, because I’m not paying.” She nibbled on his thumb and whispered, much closer. “Truthfully, Rat, I just want you. No favors, no rebellion. I didn’t come here wanting to do this until you took my hand and led me through this city like you know every inch of it.”
“I sure wouldn’t mind seeing every inch of you. And same. I don’t care if you’re wealthy or royal. You’re wonderful in a truer way.”
It was a long night, filled with more sweet words than anyone could hope to remember a decade later. In the morning, he couldn’t help but feel a basic, animal pride, like he had pounced upon and claimed the strongest lioness. He had worn her out so thoroughly that they rested in bed until the next evening, where they went to dinner and watched fire breathers in the southeast quarter. Then it was right back to his home.
Am I crazy, he thought at the time, or am I—really—the luckiest man alive?
Somewhere in the midst of his days with her, Rat told her his secret. While fairly intrigued, mystified, and bedazzled, she was mostly honored by his trust.
Merrian’s ten-day visit to Rose Amon went by like watching an autumn leaf pass in front of his face. The last day was silent, reserved, and achingly tense.
“Rat,” she said, as he walked her to the north entrance once again.
“I’d like for you to come with me to Mirek.”
“I can provide the capital needed. You could set up with a nice home on Street Two or Three. We could meet for the supposed first time, be together publicly, do what real adults do when they’re in control of their lives. Not to mention, Mirek is a place where information is worth more than gold. Your talent would keep you wealthy, I’m sure of it.”
“But your family—”
“My family can rot,” Merrian said, her brow pushed together. “I’ll take care of them and their opinions about someone ‘beneath my station.’”
“I don’t understand. I thought this was just your break—”
“You damned liar. That’s not what you think and you know it. We have the real thing.”
“You have access to the greatest men in the world.”
“I want to be your wife,” she said. “I want to have your children. I want a life that costs nothing, but means everything. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
He took her hand, a bold move while they were still in public. “I just don’t know. We may be moving too fast.”
“Rat,” she said. “There’s something I need you to know. Your power… I have it, too.”
Within two months of Merrian returning to Mirek, Rat had moved into a home on Street Two.
Before he knew it, Rat was back in the streets of Mirek and walking through the north Colosseum entrance. Sneaking through the palace was easy enough for him; all he had to do was avoid the noisy, worried thoughts of the guards and officials. In fact, he had been effortlessly reminiscing about his first encounters with Merrian all the way.
Ten years later, and here we go again, he thought. I’ve come to Mirek for you.
He followed the guides through the dark, high tunnels until he came to the steps that spun around and around, rising to the King’s perch. On the side was a twisting ramp that went the same way. Claudia must have been rolled up that path. He took it, despite the weaker footing.
“Well, you’re back,” Merrian said once he was on the platform. She stood next to the throne and patted the armrest. “And at a strange time. Now you know the truth about me.”
“Hardly a point in running away now, is there?” Rat asked.
“As if there ever was.”
“Right.” His smile was bitter and tight against his teeth. “What are you doing, Merrian?”
“Take a look,” she said, holding a hand out to the pit below.
From one portcullis, the elves were ushering one richly-dressed citizen at a time toward the Fey, who stood with its head down and arms out. A sniveling boy of about nine had one of the stronger elves pulling him through the red sand.
“Quit your crying!” Rat heard the elf say. He didn’t realize how much the place echoed without the screaming audience. “You’re about to join your momma.”
The elf flung the boy into the Fey’s embrace, and like a cube of ice dropped into a hot pan, the screaming boy disappeared, losing form to the Fey until nothing remained.
“Next!” the elf barked.
“What do you get out of this?” Rat asked. Between Merrian herself and the scene before him, he could only look at his own feet.
“I’ll show you, come on.”