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An Endless Ruse

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“Isn’t it a pretty ring?” you ask Julian upon returning back to your shop from the market. “There was a traveling jeweler, I thought I’d splurge.”

He examines your new purchase with eager curiosity, turning the gold, elegantly carved band in his fingers. “What’s the jewel in it?”

“Moonstone,” you beam, taking the ring from him and sliding it on. Julian watches you with a sly look on his face, and instantly, you’re wary. “What?

“You’re wearing it on your wedding finger,” he says with wiggling eyebrows. “Are you sure this was a gift to yourself? Do you perhaps have a secret engagement you aren’t telling me about?”

You roll your eyes at the drama, watch him raise his hand to his tormented brow and pout most tragically.

“It’s just the finger that fits it best, no secret anything.” Indeed, you had tried it on other fingers - on your other hand, even, and it just seems destined for that particular spot. “You know as well as I that I have nothing of the sort. Secret engagement - as if,” you snort, the idea humorous and somehow a little sad at the same time.

Julian, predictably, pretends to swoon onto one of the very large shop pillows. “You wound me, my dear. Your closest friend and confidante and yet even I, who knows you ever so well, am not privy to your romantic escapades?”

“What romantic escapades?” you say, just a hint of frustration apparent in your tone. “The last thing I did was that one traveling merchant, and obviously that worked out so well.”

A wide grin falls onto Julian’s lips as he stares upside down at you, lanky form sprawled over the cushion. “Ah yes, the magician and the conman. I wondered what had happened to half your clothes when you stumbled back into your shop the morning after. Had I known you had a thing for rougeish types, I would have offered myself and reduced your chance of theft in half.”

“He got my favorite scarf,” you sigh, shaking your head and shelving a tin of powdered gill worm. “If I ever was secretly engaged to someone like that I fully expect you to duel some sense back into me.”

Duel?” even upside down, you can see his eyebrows raise. “And tarnish my good name when I inevitably win and have to mop your blood out of the streets?”

“What, you don’t think I’ll win? Toss a fireball at you?”

“That would hardly preserve my good name now would it? What fool picks a fight with a skilled magician?”

“You don’t have a good name.”

“Utterly besides the point.”

You laugh, something bubbly and lazy, and you look over at a very red-faced Julian staring fondly back.

“You might want to sit up before all your blood rushes to your head,” you say, returning to stocking the last new items. “You match your hair.”

You hear the sounds of stretching leather as Julian tumbles and rolls his way back into a semi-seated position, and when you’ve stashed the market basket under the counter, you see him trying to arrange his long limbs in a cross-legged position, a motion not aided by his boots coming over his knees.

You stare at them, for a moment, the garters keeping the boots tightly situated around his thighs. Perhaps you look for a little longer than you need to.

You look at your new ring instead, admiring the way the light plays around in the pale moonstone.

“Do you really think I’m the type of person to have a secret engagement?” you ask a little too quietly. “I can’t imagine anyone ever proposing to me.”

Julian laughs, but cuts short at your expression. “That’s a joke, right? You’re joking?”

Your shoulders shrug as your head shakes itself a little, your sunny day suddenly a bit darker. “I don’t know. It’s just… it’s a weird thought, you know? Saying yes to something like that and settling down forever?”

“If it’s any comfort,” he stretches, giving up on the cross-legged thing and spreading his knees wide instead. “I can’t imagine anyone putting up with me for more than a month at the very most.”

“You had that silk trader for two,” you recall, glad to change the focus to someone besides yourself on the matter. “He had nice arms. Strong. He picked you up like a twig.”

“One and a half months, thank you very much,” Julian pouts. “And that was hardly anything serious. Just some drunk nights and mutual boredom.”

“You were devastated when he left for Hjaal.”

He sighs wistfully. “Oh, wasn’t I ever. You know, I always am when they leave. When everyone leaves. Even if it’s nothing more than sex to them.” Julian stares at the ground for a moment, lost in thought. “You and I got very drunk that night, didn’t we?”

You nod. “I was still bitter about being stood up by that one nobleman.”

“The one what?

“You know,” you say, awkwardly gesturing around your shoulders. “The one with the… braid. And the snarky attitude. He probably stayed in and stared at himself in the mirror the whole night instead.”

“You have terrible taste in men,” Julian says, wrinkling up his nose. “It’s a wonder you haven’t fallen for me at this point.”

He gives you a funny sort of look after that, like his mouth has run away from him again as it so often does when he's had too much to drink. Only it’s two in the afternoon and as far as you know, the both of you are stone cold sober.

“Oh please,” you say after a little too much silence has passed to be comfortable. “You’re always taken. How on earth am I supposed to fit into your slew of partners, hhm?”

“I’d make room for you.”

He says it with such a smarmy grin that you cannot help but laugh. Had he been sincere about the matter, you’re sure your heart would have stopped beating. No, this is your Julian. Your Julian who is likely too handsome for you and who is certainly too unavailable. What’s really a wonder is that you see him so frequently as it is - he never seems to leave your shop if he can help it.

You were sure he had a thing for Asra for the longest time, but he kept popping by even when he was out. Julian is undoubtedly your friend, however, no matter how exactly that came to be. If such friendship is merely a happy coincidence to his pining for someone else, so be it.

“No,” you grin, walking around the counter and leaning up against the front of it, crossing your arms and staring at him smugly. “I’d have to fight off the long line of people desperate for you, Julian dearest.”

“You don’t want to fight for me?”

“Not if you attract more silk traders who could knock me out in one punch.”

“Gods, he was strong, wasn’t he?” Julian sighs, wistfully, and perhaps you’re imagining it, but a little seductively as well.

You bury that thought before you can even fully form it.

“I need better dates,” you say, staring out the window. “Why don't you pick someone for me? You always know someone who knows someone, right?”

“I’m in a bit of a dry spell myself, love,” he admits. “The problem with having a social network made of pirates is that they have a tendency to sail away, be arrested, or retire on some undiscovered island with more gold and rum than they know what to do with, never to be seen again.”

“Let’s go out then,” you suggest, pushing off the counter and walking over to Julian, extending a hand to pull him up off the low cushion which he merely eyes mischievously. “We’ll be each other's wingperson and see if we can’t break ourselves out of this funk.”

“That is a very nice ring,” he says as you practically shove the thing in his face. “I might just have to steal it from you.”

You try to pull your hand back in before he can grab it, but he’s on you in a flash, pulling you down into the pillows beside him and wrestling playfully for control of your wrist.

Julian!” you gasp, cackling with laughter as he digs his chin into your shoulder. He merely grabs you more tightly, and your hand not being accosted by his digs two knuckles into his ribs, earning you a slew of insincere sailor curses as you tickle him into submission, ending with your left hand raised victoriously high in the air as you pin him on the floor with a knee to his chest, staring down at him with a triumphant grin.

His own smile falters a little, a blush creeping up to his cheeks. “You could… you could absolutely take the silk merchant,” he murmurs, placing his hands palm up in mock defeat.

Smugly, you swing your knee so that you sit straddling his hips as you admire your purchase in the light of the overhead lantern. “They had this lovely silver band with a garnet set in it,” you say, recalling the spread of rings you could have chosen from. “It looked like it would fit you, and even if not - I could easily magically resize it for you.”

“Can you really imagine me wearing a ring?”

“You wear gloves all the time - no one would even see it.”

“I’m out of Vesuvia’s standard currency,” he winces. “And the lender I normally go to for exchanges is closed today and-”

“I’ll buy it for you,” you offer, suddenly serious. “It wasn’t that much. I bet the vendor’s still at the market.”
Julian blinks at you, twice. “I mean… you don’t have to do that-”

“Yes I do,” you say with mounting horror as a realization strikes at you. “I forget to pick up some celebratory pumpkin bread and Asra gets back tonight - the stalls were only a street apart from each other anyway and-”

“Asra’s getting back?” Julian asks, his eyes wide. “Why didn’t you say - we should all go out! I can send Malak with a message to Nadia - or it could just be the three of us with some cheap booze at the Raven - I know that’s the sort of thing she usually politely declines.”

Your chest sinks a bit at the thought of having to share Julian and how Asra’s presence will likely mean that neither of you will be leaving the bar to go home with someone else, but that is a trivial matter. You roll off of Julian with a smile which is only a little forced and help him to his feet before a customer can walk in and get the wrong idea.

“I’ll close early,” you say, tugging him to the door and switching the sign above it with a snap of your fingers. “We’ll have to hurry though - Selasi stops the ovens soon.”

“You get the ring,” Julian winks. “Selasi promised me a loaf after I stopped a bandit last week and had to dash off before I claimed the reward.”

“I’ll meet you back here, then?”

“Yes. Unless you get yourself kidnapped, of course. In that case, send a raven at your earliest convenience and I shall try to do my best to be understanding of the circumstances.”

With a snort, you punch him lightly in the arm and go your separate ways.