The following day, the sun was setting by the time Lovien became available to go to the market. Shaya spent her time engaged in an enthusiastic gladiator battle with the front gate guards over jumping spiders she found crawling around the stone walls.
A victorious roar erupted from one of the guards and Shaya clapped for them as their spider finished the other with a resounding snip. The other guard expelled a short defeated cry.
“Apollo. My young warrior. I will remember you always.” He cradled his lifeless spider in his hands.
Shaya gave him a sympathetic pat on the shoulder and bent down to scoop the victor into a match box. She handed it over to the winning guard.
“I’m here!” Lovien waved and jogged towards her. “Apologies for taking so long. What’s this?”
Shaya rose and wiped her hands on Lovien’s robe while he was assessing the situation.
“We had spiders battle each other to the death.” She explained, eyes glistening with the remaining exhilaration of the little tournament.
Lovien’s eyebrows furrowed. “That’s absolutely barbaric.” He took a quick look at the sun. “Gods. It’s getting dark. Hopefully they’re still selling snake tongues and chicken claws at this hour.” He checked his hand woven satchel for his coin and other market needs. Then he fished out a balm and dabbed a bit of it on his lips.
“I have noticed they always have an abundance of pig knuckles.” Shaya offered.
“That’s because no one wants pig knuckles.” Lovien smacked his lips together. “Let’s go, before it turns completely dark and we’ll have encountered a werewolf festival.” He shoved her along.
Shaya waved goodbye to the guards as she was ushered away.
“Aren’t one of those guards the brutes who whistled at your friend in her undergarments?” Lovien whispered.
“They switched them out. Joffrey and Crumb usually patrol the west halls.” Shaya clarified. Kikolin had an awful day that time. Shaya didn’t blame her for being quick to the knife than she usually was.
The duo made their way out of the castle gates and entered the town of Ceribrus, named after the dwellers of the Palazio it sat so close to. They were just in time to see torches light their path and the sun completely set. Lovien noticed some stains on his robe.
“Where did this come from?”
On the way, Shaya inquired what took him so long.
"That sample you retrieved. That's what." He snappily replied.
"What about it?"
"The Magnus had me inspect it with the Alchemist for further examination because of my specialty in corpses."
"What did you find?"
"I'm getting there." He looked at her pointedly. "There were the usual human remains, and yours. You’re not a very clean extractor. But, compared to yours, their molecules were mutated by a substance I wasn't familiar with. That took hours and I eventually found a part of it that was recognizable. Vampire essence."
"Vampires?" Shaya's eyes widened, feeling wonderful that she recognized the word. "You mean the rumors are true? It came from their kind?"
Lovien shrugged. " I found it on the surface which meant vampires were involved but the other mysterious particle was far beyond my understanding."
"Werewolves?" She offered.
"Please, I can smell werewolf essence from half a mile away. It smells like a wet dog if you're wondering."
Shaya wrinkled her nose. "So vampires collaborated with some sort of entity to… create monstrous humans?"
"Or they picked up a terrible bug from their consumption and accidently created a monster germ."
Shaya narrowed her gaze trying to make sense of that theory.
The market of Ceribrus was growing idle in the early night. Shops were closing and people were making their way home. It was so quiet, the central fountain in the middle of the market could be heard trickling water. A small band played calming tunes as locals passed or tossed coins their way. Despite the growing concern around the dark season because of the plague, taverns still opened. Shaya supposed they had to make a living somehow.
She wandered her gaze to the band until Lovien began speaking.
"Gods. Don't look now, but the captain of the guard is heading inside that tavern." He faced her but his eyes were pulled to their left corners.
Shaya leaned over to get a peak from his side. She caught a glimpse of an incredibly muscular human in royal blue uniform, helmet off, with his short brown hair slicked to his side. He was joined by two other officers off duty as they made their way to The Lazy Leaf Tavern.
She immediately felt a shove on her shoulder. Shaya jerked an appalled look at Lovien.
"Are you deaf? I said don't look." He whispered and turned to do exactly that for a quick second.
"Isn't he stunning?"
Shaya flicked her attention back to the men entering the tavern. She was shoved again.
"I SAID don't look!" Lovien repeated, now sounding stern.
"How am I supposed to know if you will not let me look?" She shrugged exasperated.
"Fine, look, but don't make it apparent." He instructed.
His words only confused her but she turned away and tried to swivel her head cautiously in an awkward lean. Meanwhile Lovien had already turned to watch the men enter the tavern. He fished for his balm and smeared the substance over his lips.
"I'm going to introduce myself." He replaced the ointment and searched his satchel.
"But what about your Snake Tongue and-" Shaya jumped as a coin pouch was tossed at her. She caught it in a juggle.
Lovien was already retreating to the Tavern.
"Buy them for me. And get fresh ones! Reanimation is better when they are fresh! Alright, thank you! I'll meet you back at the fountain, bye!"
Shaya was left alone in the closing market with a quest she hadn't readily taken. She mumbled through the sidewalk as she scanned through the shops that were left open. Fortunately, it was easy to find chicken claws. They were parts of poultry not eaten around here which she found strange. In Espia, chicken feet was a street delicacy, claws and all. The harder item to locate was the snake tongue. Not many shops were left open. And those that sold snake tongues had live snakes accompanying it. She had half a mind to purchase one and cut the tongue later.
Shaya passed by a vendor in a purple hood who she swore had only one eye and rushed to a cart selling exotic animals. She leaned down to peer at a ball python in a glass case. Perhaps she would purchase the snake and leave the tongue cutting to Lovien. Served him right for leaving her.
She shuddered as she felt the cold air come in from her left.
"It appears next time has come." A familiar silken voice uttered beside her.
Shaya's eyebrows raised as she slowly glanced to her left where a towering figure in a darkened hood loomed over her. Her neck strained from her lean, so she straightened back up to meet the familiar gold eyes and handsome features that hid under the hood.
"Ramses." She grinned, pleasantly surprised to see him.
"Good evening, Shaya." He briefly tilted his head down in greeting. His gestures were as elegant as she remembered.
"What brings you here? Is there a night market for vampires?" That was a genuine question. Shaya wasn't sure if the market opened somewhere for vampires to feast on humans.
Ramses raised an eyebrow.
"So you've communed with the locals and finally unraveled my secrets." He uttered with the same amused tone.
"In my defense your kind doesn't exist in my territory." The sorceress looked back at the snake that suddenly went missing. The shopkeeper was now packing his items for the night.
"Wait! I was going to purchase that!" She called out.
The shop keep sighed, and brought the snake case back. It was a quick transaction.
"Can't afford lingering at night, miss. Don't got magic like you to fend off the blood plague beasts." They explained and resumed packing everything.
Shaya apologized, hefting the snake case. She struggled with its weight. It had come with the sand and accessories that made it unnecessarily heavy.
"Have you come so far in your magic that you've considered a familiar?" He watched her and slowly gestured his arms for the enclosure. "Do you need assistance?"
Shaya barely balanced the bag of chicken claws that was slipping from her grasp under the glass. By the time the questions were retained, she had gestured the claws to him instead.
"Yes, please take this." She wiggled the bag from underneath.
He stared at her for a brief moment before obliging. Shaya sighed in relief as if that made all the difference in the world.
"Oh thank you. That is a little better." Sweat beat down her forehead and a part of her hair unraveled in the struggle.
There was a moment of pause where she finally processed the situation and she glanced at him holding the small bag. Her stare trailed up to his eyes that communicated how ridiculous her offer was. Shaya swallowed awkward embarrassment down her throat.
"Perhaps we should switch."
"I was about to say…" His sentence overlapped hers.
With one hand, Ramses lifted the case and tucked it under his arm as if it weighed like air. He gestured the bag of claws back.
Shaya exhaled one nervous laugh and received the bag.. "Thank you."
"Is this your familiar?" He asked, beginning to stride.
"No. My friend needs a fresh snake tongue for his project." Shaya replied.
"And so you bought a whole snake complete with its habitat." He glanced at the case he was hefting.
"He can cut its tongue off. He left me to flirt with the captain of the guard." Shaya shook her head, still annoyed at being abandoned.
"Hmm." Ramses began thoughtfully. "Well I hope she's enjoying the time he's traded for yours."
"He. The captain of the guard is a man. But the supreme commander is a woman." Shaya corrected.
He peered at her from the corner of his eyes and smirked.
"Is that so?"
"You really should not be out and about. Your kind is being suspected to have caused the Blood Plague." Shaya whispered, searching warely for prying ears. She didn't know if the rumors were true. But she didn't want to speculate immediately after learning only half the results of Lovien's discovery.
“Unless it’s true.” She quickly darted her gaze towards him, scrutinizing his every movement for any sort of guilt ridden tells.
Ramses merely hummed. A tired and bored sound that seemed unfit for the news she delivered.
She leaned over to peer at his face.
"Did you not hear what I said?" She shook her head, baffled at his reaction.
"I did. It gets old, an unexplained blight…war… and my kind are among the prime suspects to be blamed. That's always been the nature of humanity. Of course there are reasons to be distrustful of my species but it's always accompanied with irrelevant garbage." His tone was one of experience. Having learned vampires were immortal, Shaya wondered how many times Ramses repeatedly lived with these accusations.
"Well…" She continued. "They found vampire residue on the sample.” She tried very hard not to sound accusatory. “Perhaps it was not you but another vampire experimenting with magic? Maybe they communed with another sorcerer?"
"And both had a personal vendetta against humans? An interesting theory." He nodded smiling.
Shaya raced in front of him and forced them both to halt. "Would you, for a moment, take this seriously." She strained, trying hard not to raise her voice.
He leaned down towards her, his cold air invading her face.
"I take this plague very seriously." He replied, golden eyes piercing with sincerity.
"But the reason why you found vampire essence in that sample was because I had defeated the beast." He straightened and drifted forward again.
She absently stepped aside squinting. A lie? Something to cover his tracks?
“Is that so?” She narrowed her gaze farther.
“By all means, be suspicious. But I warn you, this speculative trail will lead nowhere.” He gestured bored.
Shaya hummed. “It does seem rather odd that you let me take the samples and proceeded to escort me out of the woods unharmed. You would be a rather idiotic culprit, or a confident psycopath.”
He stopped and faced her. “And which am I to you?” He studied her challengingly.
She squinted harder, unrelenting and searching his cold calm expression. “I don’t know. I’m not quite convinced you are involved but I am also not convinced you aren’t. But… If what you say is true. And you merely slayed the beast. Why are you not infected? Surely blood was involved in the brawl.”
"I did find it bizarre that I wasn't infected when I tore it apart with my own hands.” He tilted his head to the sky thoughtfully, then continued his walk. “That wasn't an easy feat. But I managed it and rushed back home to clean myself. I observed the corpse for a few days, seeing how it affected the surrounding area. And on the 3rd day…" he paused and shifted his gaze towards her. "... You were there."
“I was there.” She repeated and staredinto space in deep thought. She placed the pieces of how she had come to find the body together. He had been watching her since she collected the sample.
After a few seconds, she regained herself and jogged to catch up.
"I thought you would transform from contact and I stayed away." He added. “I saw how you collected the sample. Surely your essence also coated it. Perhaps you’re a suspect too.”
"I am not." Shaya whipped her head around, dumb founded by the teasing accusation.
He chuckled. “Any and all essence found in the sample is fair game, no? A sorceress feigning to be weak who perhaps caused this entire blight. A very interesting premise.”
She exhaled an understanding breath and hesitantly dropped her suspicion surrounding him. If he was telling the truth, they were back to square one, a mysterious addition that mutated the human genome. But there was also new knowledge. "I suppose… if we are both not the culprit, then that third mystery substance may be behind it all. And… if we were both not turned while in contact with the victim… that means if an infected person is dead…they will not contaminate others."
Ramses stopped and faced her with an impressed look. A deduction, it seemed, he hadn't thought of, himself.
"I suppose so."
He turned and continued to one of the only open small food carts. It sold grilled kebobs with a side of wrapped vegetables. Shaya frowned, she was told vampires feasted on blood. Why was he buying regular food? Was the meat bloody rare?
"Would you like some?" He gestured her to the cart after ordering a few and the inquisitive look on her face fell in an instant.
"W- oh no I could not." She shook her head but her stomach was aching to be fed. "Um well. No no."
He watched her go back and forth with herself for a moment longer, then ordered another one. The coin was exchanged, all of which he did one handed and he received his kebobs and vegetables in wrapped paper. The last one he gestured for her to retrieve.
"That is for you." He stated.
"Oh." Shaya carefully received the stick of grilled beef and thanked both the vendor and Ramses.
He scanned the area. "Now where shall we be taking this?" He wiggled his elbow carrying the snake container.
"Mmm!" Shaya exclaimed, covering her mouth already having bit into her meal. "We were regrouping by the fountain. So you can leave the case there and I will wait for my friend to come back."
Ramses glanced at the lone fountain. Even the band had gone. All that was left were the open taverns, a few roaming cart vendors, and drunkards wandering outside.
"I suppose I could wait with you until your friend comes back."
He made his way to the fountain and placed the case there.
"Oh! You must not. That is far too much." Shaya scrambled after him. Then produced the money she owed for the food and gestured it over. "I can pay for myself."
He waved it away and looked around, scanning for a face he did not know. "I needed to rid myself of some extra change. Where did your friend go?"
Shaya pointed to the Lazy Leaf Tavern as she took another bite of her kebob.
"Is that him coming out?" Ramses kept his eyes on the door. A blond tall young man in white flounced out.
She followed his gaze. "It is!" Shaya waved.
"Well then," he uttered. Shaya turned back and found Ramses bowing once again with effortless grace. She lowered her head in turn, not as graceful but with equal respect.
"Until next time." He smiled wistfully.
"Until next time…" Shaya repeated. Now having seen him twice in a week, she partially believed they would meet again.
Shaya watched him leave and blend into the night. She scoffed at herself, not fully certain if that second encounter was any better than their first. Needless to say, she glanced at the money in her palm and turned to look at the snake enclosure, he was thoughtful.
"Gods." Lovien approached beside her.
Shaya pried her attention away from the darkness and towards Lovien.
"How was it?"
"He is an idiot." He sighed.
"Oh." She knitted her brows ready to give him a pep talk.
"A handsome fool." Lovien shook his head placing his hands on his hips. "I want him."
"Oh!" Shaya reiterated.
Lovien's gaze fell on the container at the edge of the fountain.
"Is that a live snake!"