Little Iron Box
Title: Little Iron Box
Disclaimer: Wholly original work.
Characters/Pairings: Tula, Ethan
Summary: Tula tells a tale.
Ethan leaned back in his chair, listening to the sounds of the city as he brought a glass of wine to his mouth. He let the liquid hit his lips for a moment as he heard a band strike up for the day in the street below. Morning was slowly fading to noon, causing Ethan to feel a flicker of guilt that he was still wearing a borrowed robe and drinking wine so early when really he should have began the trek home already.
"Stay with me another day?" his host asked, nearly on cue as he slinked into the second-floor parlor, not bothering to look at Ethan as he walked over to the open-air balcony to glance downward. "Weíll have good music, at least, should this group choose to stay near."
Sighing, Ethan didnít answer. He wanted to stay in Ruame, in a city that danced through the night and never lacked for art and unique street vendors, even in the wee hours. But he had what he had come for, packed safely in a box in his pack, just waiting for him to slide out of his borrowed robe and into his traveling clothes.
"Tula..." Finally drinking a bit of the wine, Ethan tried to find words in it. "I shouldnít."
"But this is Ruame," Tula replied, turning from the balcony and selecting a chair near Ethanís, flicking his tail to the side so that he didnít sit on it. "An entire city of things you shouldnít do."
Ethan shook his head, trying not to laugh at the utter truth wrapped into that simple statement. Ruame was filled with things he shouldnít have done, such as the entire night before which wasnít as clear as he would have preferred, save that he knew quite well that it had ended in sharing Tulaís bed and more than a little body heat.
Each time he came to Ruame to seek out Tulaís hidden shop on orders from his master, Ethan couldnít help but linger, enchanted with each detail of the city and also each detail that pieced together the millennia-old half-fox who watched over the treasures of the land.
"I'll stay," Ethan finally said, looking away from Tula and out into the city, wondering if it was at late as he feared anyway. The sun looked to be high over the city, and since it was farther east than his home, he knew heíd only be walking into darkness as he headed back to the northern part of Agassia.
"I thought you would." Tula chuckled, the sound mixing with the growing swell of music in the street below and threatening to drown out anything else Ethan wanted to say. Not that he really knew what he wanted to say.
He set his wine glass down onto a low table covered in a beautiful gold inlay and couldnít help but wonder if it was a treasure hidden away or just one of the many trinkets given to the shopkeeper for his services.
It had taken years and several visits for Ethan to even linger anywhere but Tulaís bed, fearful that he too would be lost as part of the contents of the enchanted shop, constantly shifting and unable to be found by anyone but Tula.
The spell cast by the Mother Goddess herself actually scared him a little, but Ethan wouldnít admit that to anyone. Because if anything ever did happen to Tula, even if a thousand people searched the packed shop for their possessions, theyíd never find a thing they wanted, just the treasures of long-dead kings or bottles of thousand-year-old wine. But only, of course, if that wasnít what they were looking for.
The band started marching away, clearing the warm but thin air enough that Tula opened his mouth to say something.
But he stopped, instead reaching to pick up a small metal box that was sitting beside Ethanís wine glass.
"Whatís that?" Ethan asked, completely sure that the box hadnít been there just a minute before. He was fairly thankful his glass hadnít disappeared on him yet, especially after an incident a few years before when heíd accidentally set his sword on what heíd thought was a perfectly harmless chair. Five hours later heíd admitted to Tula what heíd done and Tula had produced the sword again from a closet as if Ethan somehow hadnít already looked there twice.
"Thereís actually quite the story behind this little box," Tula said, turning it over in his hands. Ethan could see a lock dangling from it now, keeping the contents even safer than necessary.
"Something you can tell?" Ethan questioned, stretching his arms above his head and settling deeper into his chair.
"Time has taken the original owner and I doubt the current heir knows about this trinket," Tula said slowly before nodding. "So I donít believe any harm will come from telling old tales."
Ethan just nodded, watching as Tula put the box back onto the table, adjusting his position on his own chair before reaching for a glass of wine that Ethan hadnít noticed.
"Perhaps six hundred years ago, when Uloa was much more a city and much less a town, the Lord of the City had two beautiful children, a boy and a girl. And at that time, the King of the West had also two children, a boy and a girl. So the Lord of Uloa thought it would be best if his children were to marry the children of the King," Tula explained, punctuating sentences with sips from his glass.
"So the lord raised his children to be perfectly graceful and proper, literate and bright, trained with the sword but more eloquent with words... However, he neglected to let them see them experience more than he thought necessary to guarantee his prominence with the king."
"That doesnít sound good," Ethan interjected. "Because he couldnít keep the world away from them forever. And back then... Wasnít there even more turmoil than today?"
"Indeed," Tula answered, setting his empty glass beside the box. "So when Atri and Vahre, for those were their names, reached their adolescence, they were little more than well-behaved children confused by their bodies.
"And at about that time, their father heard of a traveling minstrel named Tajeh, a collector of great stories from all over the land. So the Lord of Uloa bid the minstrel to come into his great house and tell tales to his family."
"Iím telling the story; youíre listening," Tula snapped, yellow eyes narrowing at Ethan for just a second. "No wonder your master keeps sending you my way."
Ethan frowned, picking up his glass and finishing it in a swallow. "Sorry."
"Now Tajeh was rumored to be a wizened old man, but the minstrel taken in by the lord was no more than a young man with skilled hands on his lute," Tula explained, smirking. "But the lord could find no evidence that he had the wrong man and Tajehís tales delighted his family nonetheless. In fact, Atri and Vahre were so infatuated with Tajehís stories of the land beyond their city that they pursued him relentlessly, asking more and more questions until finally he knew of their upbringing.
"By this time, the lord was getting quite tired of having his children so enamored with the minstrel and neglecting their other studies. Not once did it cross his mind that perhaps there was more going on in the night.
"But yes, Tajeh the minstrel had seduced both Atri and Vahre, taking away their innocence and perhaps even leading them down a much darker path. But finally their father caught the three of them sharing one bed, entwined in an act Iíll only let you imagine.
"As he threw Tajeh out of the city, the lord made mention that his children had been raised to perfection so that they might be wed to the offspring of the king. And since Tajeh had played for the king not but days before heading to Uloa, he knew quite well that the king had already chosen suitors for his children and the offspring of the Lord of Uloa werenít even in his consideration."
"Wait... so youíre saying that thereís no way that Atri or Vahre would have had a chance anyway?" Ethan asked, violet eyes wide. "They suffered through all of that for nothing."
"They didnít know any better," Tula said. "And perhaps their father didnít either. However, Tajeh was so outraged that he schemed to steal Atri and Vahre away. No more than a month later, he snuck back into town with his long hair hidden beneath a hat and his clothing changed to that of the kingís own.
"Keeping himself in the shadows, he managed to convey a message to the lord that the king had sent for Atri and Vahre and they were to go with him immediately. But the lord bid Tajeh to spend the night so that proper preparations might be made.
"And though the lord was fooled, Vahre had heard just a few seconds of Tajehís voice. With the knowledge only a lover has, he knew indeed that Tajeh had come back. He ran to tell Atri and together they went to Tajehís room.
"It was then that Tajeh told them the truth of their upbringing and why he was going to steal them away. In anguish, Atri let out a cry and the Lord of Uloa came running to his daughterís aid."
"Oh no," Ethan murmured, leaning forward a bit in his chair, dark hair shifting over his silk robe and sliding over his shoulders.
"Yes, exactly. Angry over being tricked, the lord grabbed a sword from one of his guards and plunged it through Tajehís heart."
Ethan gasped, closing his eyes for a moment.
"What not a one of them knew, however, is the one thing they all should have suspected. For Tajeh was a wizened old minstrel - he just happened to have undertaken the ceremony of immortality. And so even after his body was thrown into the woods to be eaten by scavengers, he returned, screaming outside the lordís home that Vahre and Atri should go with him.
"So enraged at again being tricked, the lord ordered his guards to attack Tajeh. And Tajeh was a foolish man in that he let himself be attacked, believing that his immortality would again be his blessing."
"Well, wouldnít it?" Ethan asked. "You canít kill an immortal. Thatíd be against the entire point."
"Fine," Tula answered. "But how does that work?"
"Well," Ethan begin, guessing from his experience watching another immortal revive in front of him. "Something about a regeneration point pulling everything back. Healing..."
"The lord knew that much as well, so he quickly devised a plan to keep Tajeh from ever coming back. Right on the street he had his guards chop Tajeh into tiny pieces and he bid them to watch those pieces to find where the minstrelís regeneration point was. And once they found that, they kept cutting it apart until the lord returned with a small iron box that could be locked."
Ethan looked from Tula to the box on the table.
"Dropping the rapidly re-growing chunk of meat into the box, the lord locked it and had his guards feed the rest of Tajehís remains to the townís pigs. And some days later, one of the lordís men brought the box to me to keep away from his children."
"So thatís..." The wine was suddenly not sitting well within Ethanís stomach.
"What?" Ethan asked, watching as Tulaís ears flicked back, listening to something elsewhere in the shop.
"Another guest," Tula explained, sliding from his seat and disappearing from the room.
Alone with the box, Ethan couldnít help but reach out to it, running his fingers over the cool iron. But another thought flashed in his mind and he picked up the box, shaking it and then trying to knock at it. But he could hear nothing within it, neither contents nor a hollow sound.
"Mnemosi Calinthrell," Tula said, walking back into the room a moment later.
"Mnemosi Calinthrell," Tula replied. "She lives about a block away. Plays a beautiful ancient flute but also seems to be heavy with her seventh child. One of the earlier six managed to take a chunk out of her beloved flute so now she keeps it with me in exchange for jam sandwiches."
Shaking his head, Ethan motioned to the box, which heíd put back on the table. "Wouldnít Tajeh just regenerate around the box and then need to cut it out of his body or something? Or even keep it there?"
"Are you asking if I have any idea if the story I just told you is true?" Tula asked. "I only know what the guard who brought it to me told me."
"Are you sure it was a guard?" Ethan asked. "What if Tajeh had come back and killed the guard but brought the box here anyway?"
"And indeed, what if that little iron box does have a man trapped in agony within it? I was asked to keep the box, not question the morals behind it," Tula said, sitting again with the same flick of his tail.
"I just keep it," Tula restated. "I keep it safe with the other things that someone has once called a treasure. If Tajeh is trapped within, it still isnít my place to try to free him. Besides, it matters not. Because no one knows how the story ends."
"That looks kinda like an end to me," Ethan replied, pointing at the box.
"But Atri and Vahre," Tula said. "Or have you forgotten them already? Within six months, both had vanished from Uloa and were never heard from again."
"Maybe Tajeh isnít in that box. Maybe he did return to free them. Or maybe, after realizing just what sort of man their father was, they decided to leave on their own. But either way, I know that box still has an owner somewhere in the land, so one of them produced an heir, even if that soul has no clue what they are heir to," Tula said, reaching to pick up the box again.
"Do you have the key as well?" Ethan asked, trying to look away.
"The key is on the bookcase behind you, beside a pair of ruby-set goblets that sadly have no owner anymore," Tula said, smirking.
And as Ethan jumped from his chair to lunge at the bookcase, Tula simply set the box down on the table and stood to leave.
"I believe Iíll get another bottle of wine."
"No!" Ethan spun back around, a small metal key in his hand. But it was too late. Without eyes watching the box closely, it had been taken by the enchantment and shuffled elsewhere in the shop. In its place sat a much less exciting painted vase.
"What?" Tula asked innocently, poking his head back through the doorway.
"Damned trickster," Ethan muttered.
"You know quite well that I canít go looking for anything you werenít sent to claim," Tula said, vanished back into the depths of the shop for another bottle of wine.
And looking once more at the key, Ethan tossed it behind him, never hearing it land because most likely it had been taken to a space rooms away. Some things werenít his to know, after all, and some things were really not meant for anyone to know.
He walked over to the balcony, looking down on the street below. While the band had indeed marched onward, stray notes floated upward from a solitary musician below, a handsome young man with a wooden lute sitting on a crate against the opposing wall.
Ethan turned, slowly nodding.
"And I brought up Mnemosiís sandwiches as well," Tula said, holding out the plate.
Looking once more to the street below, Ethan wasnít at all surprised to see the street empty.
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