“Detail your plans, but never set them in stone. Life has a way of changing circumstances without warning, and he who cannot adapt to change, must surely lose.”
-Exerpt of letter from Mercenary Commander Owain of Noorinia, during his years of exile.
The sun rose slowly over the dunes, and caravans made their way across the desert, laden with goods both exotic and commonplace.
Noorinia had been under siege for years, forced to sustain themselves on little more than what could be grown inside it’s walls. Even most spices and dyed fabrics would be considered a luxury, at this point. The guard detail was light, but moved as though they knew what they were doing.
The wagons passed through the ridge that sheltered the oasis without fear. It had once been known as bandit territory, but the bandits had been cleared out months ago, replaced by a very different kind of inhabitant. For these caravans, at least, it would be safe to pass. Others, depending on their affiliation and cargo, might not be so fortunate.
Reaching the flat plain between the ridge and the outer walls, they readied themselves to enter a city that had seen precious few newcomers in over a decade. Hailing the wall guard, the gates opened slowly, another thing that hadn’t happened in many months, since the last charge that broke the final siege.
Stepping into the city he hadn’t seen in over half his lifetime, Owain smiled.
It had been two months since the siege ended.
Two months without the background noise of war engines and distant shouting. One month since the last of the triage shelters that treated the battle wounded closed for lack of need. Three days since Noorinia’s gates had opened for the first time in easy memory.
For Sera, who didn’t remember a time when the oasis city she called home hadn’t been under siege by one army or another, it was strange, how much life had changed. The Lord had been cautious, wary of an army trying to enter the city by stealth, but finally, the gates had been opened and trade was starting up again. Was it truly ‘again’ when many had no living memory of the last time traders had passed freely to Noorinia?
Well, no matter, for they were now. Foods she had never tasted were being imported, along with cloth and spices and luxury goods that few people owned or remembered seeing. There were even people of different races, when for so long Noorinia had been populated purely by those who could pass as human, most of them retired soldiers who had been in Lord Mal’s service.
Sera had seen an Avian youth, though it was hard to judge ages or indeed gender from such a distance, soar overhead, and one of the Pantera-folk could be seen relaxing in one of the many sun-soaked courtyards. A man who looked descended from the Lizard-men who dwelled in the inhospitable Hammer of the Sun, the heart of the desert where no human could survive, shouted wares from a nearby stall, the light reflecting off his scaled skin. A pair of dancing girls, like night and day, balanced swords on their heads, to the loud approval of a cluster of admirers and the clear annoyance of a man trying to get a bull to market without anyone being gored.
It was like a glimpse of heaven, a perfect world materialising for mortals to see a glimpse of what was possible.
Sera had been brought to Noorinia as a very young child, too young to remember any other life. It was less a city than a small palace, the green oasis cultivated into orchards and gardens that sustained the Great House and the ring of houses, marketplace and wall of barracks that surrounded the oasis, protecting it. It was presided over by Lord Mal, and Sera had been companion and then handmaiden to his daughter, Persa, for most of her life. Orphaned young and with no named father, Sera often wondered if there was some kind of family connection between them, that she should share such a resemblance to Perla.
Well, it was useful. Should an invasion ever be successful, Sera could take her Lady’s place, with no-one the wiser. It was a heavy burdan, but Persa was kind and benevolent to her people, a far cry from her father. If a handmaiden’s death was the price for Persa to replace her father’s rule with something better, then Sera would pay it gladly.
But such bleak and morbid thoughts were not fit company for today.
Today, the Marketplace was full and bustling, in a way it had not been in years, and Persa had brought her handmaidens for an afternoon outside the confines of the Great House. Lord Mal wasn’t so relaxed that his daughter could roam without guards, but they at least kept their distance, and the handmaidens could roam freely. Of course, today's guard were the squad of mercenaries who had arrived a year ago, and whose Captain was not as subtle as he thought about being sweet on Persa. The Lady herself did a somewhat better job of hiding the fact that she returned the sentiment.
Sera had nearly completed her first circuit of the stalls, deciding what she most wanted to purchase, when a voice came from nearby. “Excuse me.”
The voice was soft, with a faint accent, and when Sera turned to look, she was briefly struck speechless. He was dressed simply, like a guard for a merchant caravan, but even the plainest clothing would fail to completely hide his good looks. Red-gold hair caught the sunlight. A neatly-trimmed beard suggested that he was some years older than her, but the face behind it was still youthful. Flowing tunics failed to hide a lean, athletic body, and his warm blue-green eyes sparkled with good humour.
Oh. Oh my.
Belatedly, Sera realised he was talking to her, and hoped that he hadn’t noticed her speechless daze. “Yes?”
His smile was even more breathtaking than the rest of him. “My name is Owain. I came with the caravans, and seem to find myself lost. Could I trouble you to show me around?”
For an afternoon in his company, Sera could be troubled for far more than a walk. “I’m Sera, and gladly. Where would you like to go?”
He smiled again, taking her hand and tucking it into the crook of his arm. “Anywhere you care to show me. I promised to meet my brother by the Market Fountain later, though.”
Sera had the afternoon free, and shopping could wait as long as it needed to. Persa had asked her handmaidens to check in every hour or so at the fountain, anyway. She smiled, attempting to be as effortlessly charming as Persa. “Then come with me."
She didn’t question how he had no problem turning at certain places. He had to have found his way to the marketplace somehow.
By the time an hour had passed, Sera had formed at least a dozen excuses to see the handsome man again. By the second hour, those excuses had solidified into tentative plans. She didn’t resist as Owain gently steered them back toward the marketplace, but her face fell as she realised that he hadn’t yet expressed interest in seeing her again.
Owain stopped, steering her into a quiet alley. “Is something wrong?”
Sera attempted to smile. “I just realised that I’m going to have to say goodbye, and I don’t want to.”
Impossibly blue eyes sparkled with humour. “I don’t know about the Lord’s immigratin policies, but I’ll be here as long as the merchent I’m contracted with is, and that promises to be some weeks, at least. If I haven’t bored you with my company yet...”
He trailed off, and Sera could have danced for delight. “Of course! I mean, I would like to see you when we can both spare the time.”
Owain touched her chin, tilting her face up as he leaned down to place a gentle kiss on her lips. “It’s a promise, then.”
It was her first kiss, and everything she could have wanted. The urge to throw herself into Owain's arms was almost overwhelming, but Sera managed to resist. Instead, she smiled and took his offered arm, walking toward the market and the fountain.
Persa was waiting with her guard when they reached the fountain. Most of the handmaidens were there, too, though Sera spotted the last of them, Eirna, hurrying back while straightening her rumpled clothing. Sera would get that story out of her friend later.
Strolling casually toward them, Owain whistled a few short notes, paused, then repeated them. Perla’s guard whirled around as if stung, his face lighting up. Quickly, he gestured for one of his men to take his place, “Owain!”
Sera’s companion laughed, gripping the guard’s arm in a warrior’s clasp, then pulled him into a hug. “It’s good to see you in one piece, Anee.”
Lord Mal didn’t encourage familiarity with the guards or servants, and Sera realised that this was the first time she had heard the bodyguard addressed by name. Persa cleared her throat, and Sera hurried to take her usual place next to her. Anee looked slightly abashed. “My apologies. Lady Persa, this is my older brother, Owain. Owain, this is Lord Mal’s daughter and heiress, Persa. I’ve been charged as her guard.”
Well, good looks certainly ran in the family. Persa smiled and inclined her head. “Anee has spoken of you often. I hate to cut the reunion short, but we’re expected back soon.”
Owain clapped his brother on the shoulder. “By all means. Anee, we’re camped outside the walls, with the caravans, if you or any of your company want to visit.”
Anee nodded, “I’ll work out a rotation of some kind, and see you at some point later today.”
Owain bowed to Persa, ever so slightly, tossed a smile and a backward glance at Sera, and vanished back into the crowds.
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