Aleron awoke to his hair being softly brushed against his face, the warm sunlight just barely creeping through the windows in the early hours of the morning. He opened his eyes sleepily, a pounding thunder in his head signaling the copious wine that was consumed the previous evening.
After rubbing his temple, he looked down and sighed with relief that he was still clothed. And the woman that was wrapped tightly against him was clothed as well, merely stroking his hair lovingly as he awoke to the day.
Shit. He shoved Natalie’s leg off of him and stumbled from the mattress in a flash.
“Good morning, dad,” he heard playfully from the bed.
“Not now!” he thought of yelling.
“Natalie, I know what you’re thinking,” he rushed out instead with more than a hint of worry on his face.
“What am I thinking?” she inquired quickly, amused.
“That, you, uh — it doesn’t matter! I was drunk, nothing happened,” Aleron said to a grinning Natalie.
“You’re right dad, nothing happened.”
“Stop calling me that!” he clamored as his daughter continued to chide him.
“But you are my dad. And nothing happened, I swear. And I know you think I’m lying, or you’re blaming me, right now, for seducing you or something, but-”
“I was drunk,” he weakly justified, more for himself than for her. “I wasn’t thinking properly.” He scanned the wine-splattered floor of the room, hoping he wouldn’t need to pay the innkeep for the damage.
“Buuut, if you’d let me finish, we were both fine with that nothing happening, right? Even if you needed the wine to see that. You’ve been my dad for what? A week?” she asked pesteringly.
Aleron shrugged hurriedly, finding his sword laying against the wall and wrapped the strap around his shoulder.
Natalie stayed on the bed, lying on her elbows as her legs danced anxiously in the air behind her. “Well, Aleron, we’ve already shared a bed for five-”
“Let’s go,” Aleron said, interjecting to change the subject. “It’s time for training.”
The pair decided to leave Beaumont prior to their training session, Aleron realizing the town would probably find the educational experience too barbarous for their refined tastes. Aleron had packed the horse quickly and silently, telling Natalie to fill their waterskins for the trip. When she had returned, she held two wooden training swords as well, believing herself ready to train in earnest with her father.
They were now a half mile from town, Beaumont rising proudly atop its hill in the background of their makeshift training site.
“I don’t want you to get discouraged, Natalie. It’s still too soon for these,” Aleron protested, holding one of the wooden swords in his hand. “We still need to improve your footwork.”
“Please? We don’t have to do it every day,” Natalie retorted with the cutest pout she could muster.
“Footwork. I promise we’ll get to the swordplay,” Aleron refused.
“But you didn’t even move a foot against those robbers. I say we spar.”
Aleron shrugged, gazing into her eyes. He knew she wouldn’t be swayed by his words alone. The easiest way to get his point across here was to concede, and he did so with a smile. He tossed the wooden practice sword over to Natalie, picking up the second one strapped to the horse for himself.
“Where you step is the most important thing in combat. I’ll prove it to you. Just try not to get discouraged,” Aleron stated, swinging the sword in a circle to feel its weight for just a moment. He walked slowly towards Natalie, keeping the sword pointed to the ground.
“Defend yourself,” he said sternly as he soon raised his sword into an upward strike, stepping quickly to the left as Natalie rose her own to deflect the blow and rotated his sword to instead land a horizontal blow flatly on her butt.
Natalie yelped in surprise, swinging her wooden blade horizontally at him as he hopped backwards, avoiding the strike and instead landing a blow on her shin.
“Not so hard, dad,” she winced, regaining her composure and returning to her favored stance.
“Just beating the disobedience from you. You can stop whenever you’d like,” Aleron replied with a smirk, walking backwards to get several paces away from the now livid Natalie. She moved towards him when he had stopped, watching his feet as she advanced. Motionless. Waiting for her.
Another attempted downward strike by Natalie, met by another side-step as the wood once again smacked her on the behind. Aleron swung his sword lazily in his hand, rolling his eyes as she charged him again. The attack was met by a pirouette, Aleron untouched as he slammed his sword flatly onto her back and forced her to her knees.
The pair went on like this for ten minutes or so, Aleron purposely avoiding her neck where most of his strikes would land in actuality, until Natalie had had enough of the punishment.
“Okay, okay! I yield, or something,” pendik escort she panted, dropping her practice sword as she clutched her knees. Aleron grinned, stepping beside her and placing a comforting hand on her shoulder.
“About time. You alright?” he asked with a smirk.
“Oh! Sure. Just a couple bruises,” she replied between stunted breaths as she composed herself. Aleron gave her a couple of minutes of silence, merely handing her a waterskin, before her education continued. Footwork this time. Aleron had almost completely forgotten about the night before after the two hard hours of mentoring.
The cold season continued to roll in as the pair made their way east towards the capital that wonderful day.
The air smelled of freshly-baked bread and lilacs in the market of Mistyrum, not half a day’s ride from Beaumont. Aleron had settled on the town to resupply his meager food stores, the realization setting in for the hardened adventurer that hunting this far south would likely incur the wrath of the Ducal guard. Not to mention, he had completely forgotten to stock up in Beaumont as he hurriedly left the town this morning.
He had just paid three coppers for two loaves of hardbread when Natalie appeared behind him, holding an entire basket of strawberries.
“Ready!” Aleron heard gleefully behind himself. He turned around to a beaming Natalie, holding what had to be a year’s worth of harvest of the succulent fruit.
“You’re going to carry that the whole way to Santaria, Natalie?” he grinned, crossing his arms to distance himself from her plight.
“Don’t be mean! We have room in the saddlebags… right?” Natalie’s eyes flickered between the fruit basket in her hand and her father. Pouting would get her out of this, she thought.
Aleron sighed, taking the basket from her with both hands before signaling for Natalie to pick up the loaves of bread with a flick of his head. So far, he had never defeated that look of distress that Natalie was so good at conjuring. Perhaps he’d wisen tomorrow.
“I don’t think I’d have the room if they were empty, honestly.”
“We can always stay here,” she offered as she grabbed two of the berries from between his arms, stuffing them in her mouth. “I thinsh there’sh an inn over theresh,” the girl explained, pointing down a side street.
“Not a chance. This trip has already taken twice as long as I’d planned,” he denied her, purposely not looking at her face to avoid her puppy-eyes he knew she’d be making. She gulped down the food in her mouth, tossing the stems on the ground.
“But isn’t the adventure half the fun? Dealing with the unexpected?”
Aleron laughed, shaking his head. “No, I find getting paid all the fun. Though I can’t say that…” his words fell off mid-sentence, the hunter noticing four armor-clad soldiers riding through town on horseback with haste.
Aleron felt a bit anxious just then, before realizing he hadn’t done anything wrong. His back arched straight by instinct anyway. He set the basket of fruit on the ground, stepping towards the cantering men.
“Hear ye, hear ye! There’s been another murder in the capital!” the captain of the guardsmen bellowed, trotting his horse in a circle in the center of the village. “Be on guard for all suspicious looking travelers and report anything amiss to the constable!”
Aleron didn’t like those words one bit. He was always the suspicious one; as all wanderers were. Peasants rarely ventured from their homes, therefore, they knew everyone from their village and always found adventurers strange and mysterious. Suspicious, even.
If there were any happenings in town when he visited, most fingers would be pointed at him without a moment’s hesitation. Blaming the man you don’t know is easier than the one you do, even with evidence to the contrary.
Aleron nodded towards Natalie, picking up the basket of strawberries again. “Let’s get going, huh?”
The final two day journey to Santaria was as uneventful as it was beautiful. Fields of vines, flowers, and all manner of crops lined the road, packed with farmers tending the fields and children playing away the energy of youth. It was truly a magical place, southern Santaria; the closest thing to home that Aleron had ever known. For Natalie, it was her first time here; her head was constantly afixed to some beautiful farm, or some distant mountain scraping the cool autumnal sky as her horse trotted down the paved pathway.
While Natalie checked out the surroundings, Aleron was mostly focused on her. Aleron had warmed to her company significantly in just a couple days. The girl even reminded the man of a younger him, eager to see all the world had to offer. Before he had been corrupted by age and the harsh reality of things, anyway.
He felt a pang of regret in commanding her to kill that drooling, idiotic bandit several days ago. Natalie didn’t seem the type; too innocent a soul to perform the deed. And Aleron maltepe escort figured he should have never have forced his livelihood onto her, either. He knew he was a poor father. But he tried as well he knew, and hadn’t known any other way.
Aleron was already watching her as he spoke. He needed to apologize.
“Hey, Natalie,” he said, breaking a silence of over half an hour as they traveled along the busy road. The girl in the saddle looked towards him, absentmindedly brushing a loose lock of hair behind her ear. His heart fluttered.
“Yeah, dad?” she replied with a smile.
Dad. How silly that a word so simple make him feel so proud. He didn’t need to weigh her down with such things as apologies now.
“Nothing, honey,” he said instead, hopefully unreadably. He continued when her gaze didn’t leave him, as if wordlessly telling him to speak. “It looks like you enjoy it here, huh?”
Natalie beamed. “This is amazing. I can’t believe…” her eyes wandered over the ice-capped mountains, “I can’t believe I haven’t been before.”
Aleron grinned, tugging on the reins of the horse to help Natalie dodge a merchant leading a pack mule. She wouldn’t have needed it, by now, having already learned to ride decently in just a couple days. How perceptive a girl, Aleron thought. Her eyes fell to him once more.
“I know you’re an adventurer, but… if you had to live somewhere. Would it be here? Or are there other places just as nice?”
He pretended to contemplate the question for a moment with eyes cast skyward, but the truth of the matter was that there weren’t. Sure, Imperia had more people, and therefore more luxuries to purchase. Catriona had the magical College, with all the unique benefits that gave to the people of the city. Falinor was decent in the summer months as well, providing a much-needed retreat in its expansive forests, without being too far away from a marketplace.
Santaria wasn’t magical in the sense that many sorceresses lived here. It was just naturally that way.
“Yeah. It’d be here. I told ya as much on our-” Aleron paused, not wanting to say the word ‘date’ any more, “during our night in Heurbon. I always find myself attracted to Santaria like a moth to flame.”
Natalie sighed, obviously finding the answer to her liking. She spoke quietly after half a minute.
“That would be nice.”
And so the pair traveled, talked, laughed and trained over the three long days until the rising metropolis that was Santaria dominated the view before them.
The city itself was one-of-a-kind. Situated on three large hills, the stone structures of the city sprawled this way and that, unhindered by any walls. Protection hadn’t been required of the city in hundreds of years, situated where it was, and there had been no serious attempt to build any in several lifetimes. Atop two of the hills stood the deluxe mansions of the aristocracy, looking down on the rest of the city. Even the most densely-packed area, the central market between the three hills, was still dotted with many parks, fountains, and monuments that broke up the rows of buildings.
Atop the final, largest hill stood the Ducal palatial estate. The palace, too, was not ringed by walls but instead by a half circle of smaller buildings which made up most of the complex, the rear side of the hill guarded by the monolithic structure which was the Ducal palace itself. The two halves of the estate attached to form a make-shift circular fortress, below which the ducal gardens and wineries rested on the hillside. For any Imperial traveler, it would have looked like paradise. To Aleron, sweet familiarity. The sun was setting early behind them, covering the white stone structures of the city with a warm, pink glow.
Natalie was grinning as if she had refound the gods as they traveled under the victory arch of Santaria’s founder, signaling the historical limit of the city. The four-story arch was constructed purely of marble, vines entwined with roses rising from the base of the structure. Before them was the main, six-wide street of the city, which if taken to its easterly limit would land them right on the doorstep of the Ducal palace.
They wandered in that direction for now, Aleron pointing out monuments depicting this, structures which housed that. Natalie was completely awestruck by the time they reached the central market, a six-acre paved and grass-covered square occupied by all manner of merchant, instructor, and musician.
Aleron snapped his finger in front of Natalie’s face to get her attention, and pointed towards his favorite inn, the Unicorn, just down one of the streets connected to the central square.
“Think you can occupy yourself and Carrot for the day?” he asked impatiently. Now that he was here, Aleron needed to get to work. Two murders, no suspects.
“That there is the Unicorn, where I usually stay when I’m here. Close to the square, feather beds, and the innkeep cooks the meanest duck kartal escort this side of the Dracorange.”
“So eager to be on your own?” Natalie asked with a pout. Aleron sighed, remembering his promise to combat that pout when she used it. It would do her no good favors to find men so easily swayed.
“It’s not that. I just work better alone, is all. Gives me time to think,” he explained, fishing out a couple of gold Imperials from his coin purse. Natalie shook her head when he offered the coins to her.
“I still have plenty from before, dad,” she huffed. He shoved the coins into her hand anyway.
“I can’t believe you want to get to work immediately. Don’t you wanna…” Natalie scanned the square, her eyes darting over a musician troupe, an outdoor restaurant, then a clothes merchant, “do things? Explore?”
He gave the horse a pat on the neck. “Maybe tomorrow, huh? We’d be out fifty golden Imperials if I didn’t win this one. But I’ll be at the Unicorn before sunfall, okay?”
Natalie rolled her eyes, puckering her lips sarcastically to blow him a somewhat less sarcastic kiss. “Fine. Be safe, dad.”
Aleron grinned. He would.
Aleron the bounty hunter wasted no time this afternoon. He began his investigation where he always did; at the bottom of a glass of alcohol, conversing with the local barkeeps and taverngoers.
Aleron had learned a thing or two of investigations over his twenty years as a wanderer; for one, the motive of all murders, kidnappings, rapes, or other nefarious acts always boil down to a single thing.
Power. A man murders another for money, for revenge, or perhaps just for the sick thrill of it. An abductor performs a kidnapping for the same reasons, as do rapists, as do counterfeiters. Perhaps they’re looking to prove their power to the victim, to another, to themselves. Perhaps they’re looking for money, which would in turn allow them to purchase power. If it’s revenge, they’re looking to show their victim how powerless they really are.
So he started with what he knew best. He asked the populace of the second man murdered, who turned out to be a Lord Dubois. Aleron asked what properties, if any, the Lord Dubois held to his name. He already knew the first, Montagne, held several wineries to his name, and had already theorized the men had been murdered for their wealth. Be it land, gold, or titles.
He’d learned that Dubois had been murdered in a clocktower, just off the main square in the city; convenient enough for Aleron, as he was already there. Getting access to the first scene — the Ducal palace — would prove more difficult. He’d save that one for last, and only if he didn’t have any other options.
Aleron had his game plan within two hours. He’d check the tower first, of course, followed by the late Lord Montagne’s wineries.
Aleron scanned the alleyway he now stood in, ensuring no one was watching him at the moment. The clocktower’s main doors were barred, and Aleron instead used his rope and grapple to gain entry through a second-story window. He pulled himself through with just a pinch of effort without another spotting him performing the deed.
Natalie sighed, contentedly falling back onto the gigantic, plush mattress, having finally lugged all of their things up the stairs to their room. Aleron was right about one thing. These beds were great. She splayed her arms wildly about the silken sheets, realizing that she hadn’t known such comforts until he had come into her life only a little over a week ago.
Gods, what a man. A horrid father, of course, if she would ask another for their opinion. Yet, her life had turned into one of wonder and excitement at his introduction into it, and for that she was grateful.
Natalie slipped her thumbs into her pants, satisfyingly peeling them from her legs. She had tried to keep modest for him while they’ve been out on the road since his outburst in Beaumont, and hadn’t slept with her pants off in days. Natalie felt disgusting.
How a man like that could travel in the wilderness for weeks a time, she would never know. She removed the rest of her clothing hastily and made her way towards the bath in the spacious room, settling within its comforting warmth once it was filled.
But what a man. Natalie dreamt of a night in Heurbon, not too long ago. What would of happened had their relationship not come up? Would she still have left the castle? Would he love her still, when he was swept elsewhere?
No. It didn’t matter, she knew. There’s always a trade-off when thinking of ‘what-if’s’, according to someone’s wise words anyway, and Natalie brushed it from her mind. She instead brought a hand down her soft leg and brushed her fingertips against the warmth between her thighs.
She dreamt of a night, not too long ago, and sighed lustfully.
Aleron returned to the massive central square of Santaria towards the Unicorn, having found little of use in the clocktower. The scene of the second murder had been picked clean by Ducal inspectors; likely doing a poor job, he figured. He wondered if he could go to the palace and offer his services directly; perhaps he could inject some professionalism into the investigation.