The two of us leave the tavern, and now continue on a true road leading to the Capital. It…certainly feels quite different. Normally it is only Hikaru and I, walking along no path in particular other than the one we create ourselves. But here, there are many others along the road: some on foot such as ourselves, a few in carts full of goods, and the occasional ornate carriage—dozens of people going to and fro.
At last we reach what one may truly call the Capital, the city itself.
At the edge are large buildings of numerous colors, many of them three to four stories high. The main path changes from merely worn-down soil, to dark brick, and becomes extremely wide—not only enough to fit multiple carriages and carts, but aligned on either side of the street are numerous stalls selling wares, seemingly mostly the farmers from the outskirts selling whatever few crops have been harvested at this point.
We come in at midday, when apparently all the world is out. Housewives gathering ingredients for the evening, children running around a tad too close to the carriages for comfort, men carrying crates off into the alleyways, and whatever businesses presumably exist there.
It is much different from what I remember—but I stayed in one of the inner districts, still surrounded by what remains of that ancient wall from the days when Soleia was little more than a bunch of squabbling kingdoms. Now it houses both the newest, most modern areas, along with what one must assume are the oldest buildings in all of Soleia, surrounding the palace.
As we walk along, I become lost in everything surrounding us, how different it is from what I know. The most concise way to describe it all, is it is so much. The sounds of wheels and hooves, people running about, normal conversations and the yelling of arguments. The pleasant smells of freshly picked fruits and the foul smells of rotten ones left a little too long in the sun, and of whatever monstrosities lie in the middle of the road. So many people coming back and forth, it is difficult to avoid them all, and some bumping is inevitable. Yet it appears those who live here are so used to it, they could scarcely care.
For myself, there is one constant presence, that grows closer and closer to me...
“Hikaru, is everything well?” I look up and ask him, yet he does not react even a wit. It is as though I am not even here; yet even so, he still walks closer and closer to myself. But, perhaps he did not hear me…
“Hikaru? …Hikaru?” I ask becoming louder each time; and still, no reaction. We continue walking along.
I look down, and suddenly notice something a tad concerning…
Occasionally, I have noticed him twisting and twirling things with his hands, his hair and occasionally his necklace. Never did I think too deeply of it, but now I notice it once more—except instead of just a few strands flowing around his fingers, there is enough, wound so tightly, it is becoming a knot! And it seems he does not notice at all—!
“Hikaru, is everything well?!” Now I ask even more loudly than every time previous, and shake him slightly to get his attention. Although I am to the right of him, where his hair mostly obscures his face…I believe I still see him wince.
He stops, and so do I. He stands perfectly still, in the midst of everyone around us. He looks around frantically, his head moving almost like that of a bird, abruptly turning one way, then the next.
“I must go,” he whispers, to the point I can scarcely hear him amongst everything else.
But, he does not even reply. Before I have time to even process what is happening, he has already darted through to crowd, towards an alleyway.
“H-Hikaru?!? ” I yell flabbergasted and worried—we cannot split up even in a smaller town, never mind the largest city on the continent! We cannot split up, we cannot—!
And so I rush after him as quickly as I can, mumbling “excuse me” with every breath as I push aside the masses. Once I get to the entry of the alley I catch my breath better, and for a small moment I grow relieved—he is tall enough, distinct enough, that even from a distance I still see him.
But, he is still running—!
I sprint as swiftly as I can, yet it still does not seem fast enough. He still outruns me by a terribly large margin.
I suppose with as long and often he spends doing nothing but walking, he would be rather suited to this; if only that did not make this worse for me—!
This continues for a couple of minutes until we finally reach some tiny, obscure, quite alley. He collapses to his knees, holding his head. I slow down, and make my way towards him, heaving.
My legs, oh how they hurt…not since I began this journey have I wished to fall so terribly…
But…I am not there yet. I wait until I am at his side…and then I collapse as well.
The two of us sit on the ground, breathing heavily. It is so musty and dirty; not like what one might find in the soil in the wilds, but more…unpleasant. It is rather wretched…but I do not believe he notices at all. However, immediately I notice something…that hair which he tied in knots around his fingers, the knots are still there. Yet it seems…he pulled the long, long strands out entirely…
“Hikaru…” I say softly; I do not know if it is enough to hear me…but I have a feeling he would rather not hear anything too loud at the moment.
At first, it appears he either did not hear me, or ignored me entirely. Yet, after a moment he does speak.
“What happened, are you well?”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry…” he mutters once more, and says nothing else for a long while.
Gently I lay my hand on his arm, to see how he reacts. When he does not seem to react poorly, at least, I say go to hug him…and he nearly topples upon me, limply trying to reciprocate; but still, he appears to be weak. His hat finally tumbles off his head, somehow staying there through this entire ordeal, but he does not pay mind to it.
I stroke his hair lightly, and continue to hold him in a tender embrace.
“Will you be well, Hikaru?” I ask once more, and he nods his head yes. After a few moments he speaks, at last saying something which is not an apology.
“T-this is what I meant when I said…I don’t do well in cities…”
“All the people, the carts, the noise, the noise, the noise—” he repeats over and over again, “It hurts…my entire head throbs, it hurts, it’s maddening; the pain, the panic overwhelms me, I can’t…I can’t handle it…”
“Stay calm, it is well now,” I whisper. “It is much quieter here.” I feel him nod again.
After a while, I hear him chuckling.
“Gods, I’m pathetic, so pathetic…”
“No you are not.”
“I can’t even walk down a street normally…I’m much older than you, yet here you must hold me like a child…”
“Do not say such things…”
“Is it not true?”
“…Not the way you are framing it, no.” He sighs.
“It was like this before, when I lived here…I remember, I couldn’t leave home often, it was much easier to stay indoors all day…the most I could ever see nature was through a few potted flowers, but most days were spent awfully lonely, until he…” his voice trails off, and goes quiet.
He and Alex lived here before…did I realize how much it pained him? If not…perhaps I can be better this time.
“I am so sorry, Hikaru…”
“Why are you apologizing to me?”
“I am the one that brought you here.”
“What else were we to do? Get a boat? There’s not exactly…a good way around.”
“Well, we can find a way through that is more peaceful…surely this alley must not be the only agreeable spot in all the city.”
“You don’t have to do that, I just need to control myself better…”
“Hikaru…can you truly help it?”
“Surely, I just haven’t tried hard enough—”
“Do you truly believe so?” He chuckles once more.
“Of course not…but I’d rather at least pretend I’m not broken.”
I move back from him, and look at him straight in the eye.
“You are not broken.”
“How can you look at this, and say that with any sincerity?”
“We all have our own struggles and limits…”
“Have you ever met someone whose limits…are so low?”
“I have met people even more sensitive than you,” I answer, and he looks at me as though he misheard. Still, I continue on. “Back in my old village, one nobles’ wife would never come to events, and scarcely left the house because she became overwhelmed so easily…every time she would attempt to come to any gathering, she would become visibly nervous and shrink away, and occasionally even cry over the pressure. Normally, she only spoke to others through letters, because it was easier for her…”
“Is that so…”
Once more, I go to hold him in an embrace.
“You are not broken…please, please do not say such things…at least, I do not mind you as you are.”
For some time, we say nothing. He merely returns the hug, little by little becoming tighter and tighter…
“…Thank you, Suzette.”
“It is no problem.” He chuckles, and lets go of me.
“Well…I suppose it’s time we continue onwa—”
“Not yet,” I interrupt him.
“Not until we think of a way to do it that is agreeable for you.” He sighs.
“Hmm…” I put my hand to my chin, and begin pondering the possibilities. “Would mostly traversing at night be too dangerous here?”
“It’s likely…but I don’t know. When I lived here I mostly only went out at night, and usually didn’t have issues…but I also lived in the districts with street lamps, and a night guard.”
“Does…not every district have a night guard?” I look at him, baffled. I remember seeing them when I last visited, and assumed they were everywhere…
“There’s guards, but they tend to be…a bit less vigilant here. They don’t…they don’t care as much what happens to those that live here, versus the inner districts.”
“That is horrid…is it truly like this everywhere?”
“More or less, yes. I assumed everyone knew.”
Well…perhaps I am slightly less worldly than I believed I was.
“Then perhaps we should try to reach the inner districts before nightfall. Yet that also means…”
“And we might run into issues there regardless.”
“What do you mean?”
“I used to live there, so that’s why I was safe. But two homeless people, trolling through some back alley…”
“Is that not where homeless people…usually are?”
“Not in the inner districts. They don’t have homeless people.”
I put my face in my palms.
This is…much more difficult than I was anticipating.
“Hikaru…you said it was mostly the noise which bothered you, yes?”
“Well, all of it is awful…but mostly the noise, yeah.”
An idea comes to me.
Immediately, I untie the napkin from my head, and begin folding it into a long, thick rectangle.
“What are you do—”
“Let me see your head.” He gives me a queer look, but closes his eye and comes closer.
For a moment, I cannot help but pause…
Normally whenever we are close to one another, we are standing; and he is so much taller than myself, I still must look up towards him. When we sit together, we tend to keep some distance…this is the closest I can recall us being so close, on the same level…
I almost wish—
No, I swiftly shake the thought from my mind.
I put the napkin over his head, carefully making sure it tightly covers his ears. And then I pull back, and he opens his eye once more.
“Does this help?” He blinks at me.
“Well, I saw you say something, but—” I smile.
I make a motion of pulling down around my head, and he does so.
“I could…scarcely hear you at all.” I continue smiling.
“So then, do you think this will help?”
“What will we do about…”
“We can just hold one another’s hand, and if you begin feeling overwhelmed just lead us to a more agreeable place. Do you think that shall work?” He pulls my napkin over his head, and places his hat on top of it all. With that and his hair, it is scarcely noticeable that it is there at all.
And so the two of us stand up and clasp hands, and continue our journey once more. In spite of myself…it is difficult not to grasp perhaps a little too tightly, grow a little too close…
“Is everything all right?” he turns to look at me, speaking softly. I merely nod, and smile.
“All right then,” he replies with a smile in return, and we continue on our way. Luckily midday has passed, and though there is still a slight crowd, it is still a tad loud, it is not nearly so much as earlier. It appears he scarcely notices them at all now, now that the cacophony of noises is mostly quelled.
A part of me feels horrid…when he said he did not “do well in cities,” I had no idea he meant it so seriously, so severely…I cannot help but sigh at the thought of it. The last thing I wish to do is to put him under such distress…
But…at least I know for the future, perhaps. And…walking hand in hand such as this, I cannot say I mind it. Quite the opposite.
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© 2019 by J.H. Rose