Gunpowder looked down the stone hallway through which Merlot was leading him. It was kept very dim. No visibly lit torches anywhere. This wasn’t a problem for him, no; his eyes were used to the enveloping darkness of his cave. Well... he considered for a moment. It wasn’t just his cave anymore. For a long while it had been, but now his personal space was constantly being violated by that overly curious pest known to everyone else as Dmitri. And what a pest he was! The questions he asked no doubt made everyone think of the boy as an idiot. That was fine with Gunpowder. Let them be surprised to find out there was more to the Zangoose than that. Let them find out firsthand, as he himself had during the trying bout with Sorbet earlier in the morning. God, he was sure to be sore for weeks.
Gunpowder’s train of thought was broken as Merlot stopped in front of an elaborate door. He didn’t even need to pay much attention to notice that this particular door was unlike the others. Merlot’s room, maybe? Likely. She seemed a lady of class and fine taste. Her room was to be the same, undoubtedly, so this had to be hers.
This suddenly made Gunpowder extremely uncomfortable.
“Er, wait a sec. Thought we were gonna go on a stroll. I don’t really wanna be knowin what’s in yer room, lass,” he said.
Merlot turned to him, and all Gunpowder could do was notice how dramatically her cloak fluttered. She was just so tall, it was kind of hard to constantly make eye contact without craning the neck. To tell the truth, he was used to looking down on others. When he finally got around to looking up at her, into those mesmerizing eyes, it struck him that she was used to the same.
going on a stroll. Please, follow me.” She took on a polite tone, but... but it seemed a bit rough, unpolished. Gunpowder suspected that she could be rather courteous when she wanted to be, but how often was that, anyway? Who needed to be polite with so many servants?
Something tickled the back of Gunpowder’s mind. Something Dmitri might’ve said the previous night. Mostly he figured it an ideal time to nap, falling asleep to the constant drivel pouring out of that ruffian’s incessantly moving little mouth. Dmitri had briefly gotten ruffled when it became clear how Gunpowder actually spent their story time... and then Dmitri had forgiven the poor listener, only to reattempt telling the tale. Gunpowder had cut him off at that point and they continued on into the castle.
Merlot grasped one of the giant bronze Dragonair-circle handles and pulled the door open with ease (and with no wonder, for she was so large that opening such a giant door was surely no task for her). She motioned wordlessly for Gunpowder to enter the room beyond.Eh, why not. If she was really so horrible, would Devonshire be in leagues with-- hm. Let’s try that again.
Gunpowder started toward the door. If she was really so horrible, wouldn’t Dmitri have warned-- hm.
Gunpowder realized that, well, Devonshire wasn’t known for having the most savory of company. And also that Dmitri could very well have tried to tell him some pertinent piece of information at some point during the previous evening. Well, shoot.
“Are you afraid?” she asked.
“Nah. I’ve seen plenty o’ rough situations, takes a lot t’make me ‘fraid o’ sommat,” he lied. “‘Sides, I’ve seen Devonshire on an off day, and prolly that’s the worst there is to see,” he joked, forcing a bark of a laugh. Boy, was Merlot intimidating when she wanted to be. He almost felt a tinge of pity for Shroomsworth creep up on him. That fella’d been in a real
bad spot when Gunpowder first had arrived. Who knew what even went on before that. Wasn’t his concern. His concern right now was what Merlot wanted to talk about (if anything), and what she had planned.
He walked through. She followed suit and pulled the door back toward its frame.
The room was not at all like what he expected. It seemed fit for... what was it? Something just wasn’t quite right. Fit for... a child? But no, that wasn’t right exactly, was it? The chairs, the dressers, the doors in the room all seemed about the right size. The bed looked really comfortable, many fluffy pillows resting atop that giant red comforter... and suddenly a wave of fatigue swept over Gunpowder. He fought it. What was
it about the room?
Oh, wait, duh. It was definitely for a child. For a child Merlot. This had to be her play room. The thought sent a shudder through Gunpowder’s spine for reasons he couldn’t quite name. Hadn’t Dmitri told him something of relevance? He might have. Probably did.
Merlot was already across the room. In fact, she was in the middle of hopping out of a window that he didn’t quite believe she was capable of fitting through. ‘Spose she wouldn’t like it if I said that. Not gonna risk offendin this lady,
he thought. Not when I don’t know where the hell I am or what she’s up to.
Gunpowder followed, but had a bit of trouble getting through the window. It was a little high up, but he managed to pull himself up after some effort. The stone walls provided nice friction for his scaly feet. He sort of wished he had hands or something though; single spikes for fingers didn’t do a great job when it came to holding onto ledges.
In the window sill, he got a good view of the courtyard. It was vast, there was even a little pond. At the center there was a small island with a statue. From here, it looked like a... it looked like the snakey fellow from in the entry room. What was it, Dragonair or something? What was his name? Nevermind it. It was hard to look away from the statue’s overpowering presence, and it really could have been alive for all the difference it would have made. The curves looked so strong, powerful, crushing, contr-
“Are you coming or what?” Merlot snapped, showing impatience for the first time since their “stroll” had begun. She waited down below on a ledge. As soon as Merlot had his attention, she seemed satisfied. Gunpowder supposed he was to hop down there, too. The ledge was part of a wall that sectioned off a tiny piece of the courtyard, which looked to be inaccessible except by hopping over the wall or down from above. There was a hole in the dirt at the far end of the enclosed area. Merlot was entering the hole. From the looks of it, this section of the courtyard wasn’t looked after at all by whatever gardeners she employed - the weeds ran rampant up the sides of the wall and into the stone itself. Gunpowder found himself stealing a glance at the statue, sighing a bit at this desire that started to crawl into his mind, this desire to serve and protect and fight, really fight for the family and--What? What the hell am I thinking? There somethin in the air out here?
he wondered, shortly before hopping down to wherever Merlot was leading him.
The cave made Gunpowder feel a little more at ease. It didn’t last that long, and it was actually more like a tunnel now that he thought about it. Still, to be underground helped take those bizarre thoughts out of his mind a bit. Those thoughts that started with the statue and ended with the longing to really, truly serve. Terrifying thoughts that felt foreign and that washed over him whenever he thought of that wonderful, powerful Dragonair.
Light was ahead. He saw this even though Merlot blocked most of his vision in the relatively tiny tunnel. Why the hell are we all the way out here?
he wondered a bit absentmindedly. The thoughts of the courtyard were too pervasive for him, though, and so that’s what his mind wandered back to.
Before too long, and after too much wandering, they reached the end together. It turned out to be a small cliff overlooking a good chunk of Creeping Forest. Gunpowder’s sense of direction was a little askew at the moment, so he wasn’t entirely positive which side they were facing. He noticed that Merlot kept a small storage of wine bottles nearby. What in god’s name for, he had no clue, but so it was. She uncorked one of the bottles and started to pour herself some wine in a comically small glass. He’d seen similar when he first arrived at the castle. Seeing as there was only one glass, he expected not to be offered any. His expectation was met.
There was a sort of awkward silence as Gunpowder realized their stroll was over and it was time to... to whatever it was Merlot wanted to do. It was to his relief that it didn’t seem to be anything weird, as much as the back of his mind told him otherwise. What the hell exactly had Dmitri told him as he slept? Maybe next time he’d actually listen to the runt. Maybe. Well, probably not. But still, maybe.
Merlot stood, looking over the forest. Not a sip had been taken yet. What once appeared in her as a forceful dominance became a meek apprehension. Her posture seemed to become more childish and her eyes shot downward. She opened her mouth a couple of times as if to speak, but stopped just short of doing so.
Gunpowder would have waited for her, but he became overwhelmed with a curiosity that made him feel a tad bit like Dmitri, and so he asked the question that came to mind. “Why, uh, exactly’re we up here?” he said, motioning to the cliff’s ledge. “Odd place fer a talk, doncha think?”
She stopped faltering and answered immediately. “We’ll get the most privacy here. No one bothers me here, no one knows where we are.”
“Eh, we coulda left the castle and headed into the woods if ye wanted that, y’know,” he replied. It was true too. It seemed like a lot of extra effort to go to this ledge. “Couldn’t ye’ve just flew up ‘ere anyway? What’s the point o’comin through the tunnel?” he asked. Merlot seemed to freeze up a little, so (to avoid offending, of course) he added, “not that I minded! I like a good tunnel, y’see!”
Merlot relaxed a little. Just a little though. She looked a little on edge.
“It wouldn’t have been very considerate of me to fly up here, leaving you to climb here, would it have been?” she asked. Gunpowder didn’t even consider that. Of course, that’s why they had to come through the tunnel! Why else?
He grinned a little. “Course. Didn’t think o’that. Sorry, I’m a mite tired from earlier. Big dragons n all.”
Merlot’s face flashed recognition at what he meant, but didn’t seem to dwell on it. She looked a little distant. In the silence that followed, Gunpowder stared into the wine glass she held, taking a moment to appreciate the way the light hit the fluid. He wasn’t really an artsy guy or one to appreciate beauty in general, but... Well, it was
pretty the way the sparkling red lights reflected onto her pale fingers. He waited for her to gather her thoughts. His mind drifted back to the statue once more.
“Tell me about him,” she demanded. And it really was a demand.
Gunpowder didn’t really want to look like a dolt, but he wasn’t entirely positive who she meant. “Bout who?”
“You know...” she said, voice little more than a whisper. “Devonshire. Tell me what he’s like.”
Gunpowder was a little confused here. Wasn’t she supposed to know him? Was this some sort of test? He didn’t really want to mess up the answer here, he’d messed up enough things in his time. Instead of answering as she’d have liked, he responded with another question. “Dontcha know, yerself?”
This incited a little of both anger and impatience in her. “If I knew what he was really like now, why would I ask you? Idiot.” Gunpowder flinched a little at this and looked away. Perhaps realizing that he wouldn’t answer her if she kept talking down to him, she offered (unbeknownst to Gunpowder) a rare apology, and then asked once more what Devonshire was like.
“Well, erm,” Gunpowder started, “it’s kinda hard to say so simple. Sides, he and I don’t really talk sommuch.” Seeing the disappointment in her face out of the corner of his eye, he kept on. “Though I can tell ye what I can. I been workin for him for years so there’s a good bit o’stories ta tell.” This was exactly what she wanted to hear, he was sure. He thought he could see the envy replace the former disappointment. Probably that was crazy, though. He wasn’t sure anyone could actually be envious of spending time with Devonshire.
In any case, he passed a good hour or two telling Merlot stories about her missed companion, stories she eagerly devoured with the sort of greed a person has after a day of hard labor and no meals. Any sort of intimidation she might inspired evaporated over the course of their palaver, and by the time Gunpowder felt the need to take a break (which he was loathe to take-- but his voice was getting hoarse from such an unusual amount of talking), she was in a very amiable mood. She’d been grinning since well into their storytime.
He had a really important question that had been eating at him throughout it though. Something that didn’t make a lot of sense.
“Ey Merlot,” he said. He waited for a response (which he received) before continuing. “How come ye haven’t... how come ye hadn’t gone out a-lookin for him? Ain’t much hard t’find him if ye venture round Tao, y’know.”
The grin fell from her face in the middle of a tiny sip from her tiny glass. (Well, it was a kind of large glass, but not for her.) “I don’t... leave. The castle. I don’t leave the castle. He should have...” she stuttered a little, “he should have come back.” She started to blink, must have realized it was a prelude to tears, and turned to face away from Gunpowder. What type of nerve did he strike? What the hell had happened, exactly? He made a note in his mental to-do list to ask Devonshire about this stuff and why he wasn’t here talking to her later on. It almost immediately hit him that Devonshire couldn’t really be here even if he had wanted to be and thus Gunpowder mentally crossed out the latter bit.
Sensing it was more of a delicate matter than he was used to handling made him feel nervous and unequipped to handle the situation. No good. He had no idea what to really say and didn’t want to make her even more upset, for in his mind it wasn’t too unlikely that she’d take it out on him. Probably in more than one way. That was also no good.
He didn’t really know where to go from here though. “Why cantcha leave? We’re not really in the castle now, ye must know, so-”
“Shut UP!” she yelled. Gunpowder did so.
“It’s not safe out there, it’s not safe at all!” she said in a tone that was quickly approaching hysterics, “No one comes back! No one comes back at all, no one returns!” There was a crazed look in her eyes which Gunpowder did not think he would be able to console. There wasn’t any consoling for whatever she’d been through, whatever fear had been planted deep inside her heart. It made him almost want to laugh that she could be afraid of anything, especially given how much she’d raised his own heartbeat not but a couple hours prior. She hadn’t even done
anything while they were traveling to this spot, and yet he couldn’t deny that he felt uneasy being around her. But now? He really wanted to be able to say something, but he groped and there was nothing.
Merlot wept bitter tears as Gunpowder stood and watched.
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