Morning came again, and Asra was already gone with a bowl of breakfast food sitting on the table. Verun didn’t pay too much mind to it for a while, going through her morning routine as she readied the shop to open for the day. She really didn’t want to go back to the palace and have Nadia ask about how her search for Julian had been going. Though maybe, if she could get back to the palace and find something else that would lead her back to him, it would be worth it.
She stopped in her morning routine to get the now-cold bowl of porridge from the table upstairs when there was a loud knock on the door that made her stop, spoon still in her mouth. No one should be at the shop so early unless there was some sort of emergency, and while she was exhausted still from the night before, she put down her bowl and spoon and dragged a hand through her hair to at least somewhat contain the messy locks behind her ear.
“Verun, are you home? It’s me, Portia, we need to talk!”
The Countess’s handmaid called through the door, and Verun almost left her hanging before she dully realized that… well, again, Portia is Julian’s sister. Her concern ramped up significantly from there, thinking that maybe something had happened to the doctor.
So, Verun shuffled over to the door and let her in, standing aside so Portia could step in properly.
“There you are! Whew, I’m glad I was able to catch you before you left.” She caught Verun up in a hug for a second, surprising the other girl. Then she looked around curiously. “Oh, is this what your shop looks like? Look at this place!”
Verun gave a small smile, knowing that Portia was either commenting on the messy state of the shop or just interested in all the magical knick-knacks her and Asra left lying around. She gave her a few moments to poke around, looking at the dried herbs and other spell ingredients around the shop until she cleared her throat quietly.
“Portia, you said we needed to talk?”
“Oh! Sorry Verun, you’re right. Milady wanted me to come check up on you. Um… see how you were doing with… the investigation.” Portia’s expression dropped as Verun’s followed suit. Of course, the one thing that Verun had wanted to avoid today…
“I’m working on it,” she said simply, a note of sourness in her voice. She didn’t want to talk about it, but even past that it probably wasn’t the best to speak about the investigation to anyone anyway.
Portia stared at her, wringing her hands into her sash. “Really? Have you… made any progress?”
“I…” Verun shook her head. How could she get out of this conversation? “I think so.”
“And did you… find him?” Portia’s expression darkened with worry, scared.
Of course. She didn’t know. Verun hadn’t even been able to talk to Portia about anything so far, let alone get to the castle, not after her day with Julian. “Well… yes, for better or worse.”
“I… see…” Portia’s expression turned more confused, but maybe more hopeful. “Ugh! Look, Verun. You know I saw you with him outside the shop a few days ago. And you saw me. It seems like neither of us are in a rush to turn him in. If milady catches him, she’s going to hang him. I’m not about to let that happen to my brother, no matter how dim-witted he wants to be. We have to get him out of the city. That’s the only way he’ll be safe.”
“We’re on the same side, aren’t we? I could use your help, Verun. And Ilya could, too.”
Verun looked away, her heart twisting in her chest. “If he’ll even let us help. Do you think he will?”
“Sounds like you’re talking from experience,” Portia said, annoyance in her voice.
“I… I am, I guess. Last night…”
“He pushed me away. He said he needed to do this alone. I tried to get him to let me stay, but…” Verun shook her head, still-fresh memories whipping her mind into a tumult of emotion.
Portia sighed, the annoyance in her voice more prevalent now. “That sounds like Ilya, alright. Let me guess, he said it was to keep you safe?”
“I take that it’s a recurring theme?”
“He used to do that to me all the time when we were younger. He never let me handle anything… Always shouldering someone else’s burdens, while lamenting how heavy the load is.” She gave a small smile, trying to be reassuring. “I mean, it’s nice to hear he’s still my same brother. And now that I’m older, maybe I can finally help carry that weight. Ilya needs people he can rely on. He might need you , so let’s go find him.”
“Where do we find him?”
“Hmm… I think I know where he might be, or maybe people who might now. Follow me.” With that she hooked her arm into Verun’s, dragging her out of the shop before she was able to protest. The door closed and Verun knew she wasn’t getting in the way of Portia’s adventure, so she left her breakfast inside and put her magical wards up before getting dragged away again.
As Portia led the way through the streets, Verun started to realize that… maybe she recognized the area around here. She was pretty sure that she had seen that building leaning out into the street a few times now, though in this unfamiliar part of the city she was still firmly lost.
It didn’t hit her until they reached it. The Rowdy Raven. It almost made her laugh, thinking that of course Julian would return to his little alcoholic hideaway. Maybe it really wasn’t so hard to find him, even when he didn’t want to be found.
Portia pushed the door open, and they stepped in. The tavern was quiet for now, the evening rush still quite a ways off. The few patrons inside milled about, talking in low murmurs as money changed hands quite suddenly. The bartender looked over and saw Verun, nodding to her silently as they returned to their task of cleaning glasses.
“Trust me, I know my brother. He’d definitely hang at a place called The Rowdy Raven.” Portia gave her a sly wink, stepping through the patrons to get to the bar. But Verun knew better, instead pulling her in the direction of the corner where the booth was left to the shadows just a little more than the others.
Lo and behold, there sat Julian, slumped over with his head in his arms. His long legs stuck out in front of him and out from under the table, almost begging for someone to trip over them. Luckily it seemed like there weren’t any people in the corner to trip over them, as the two girls approached him. There were glasses and tankards covering the table, a flush high on his cheeks that wasn’t from embarrassment.
The two of them stopped a few yards away, just out of earshot as Portia murmured to her. “Ohhh boy. There he is… listen, when he gets like this, what he really needs is a good boot to the ass. You want to deliver it, or should I?”
Verun looked at the other girl for a few moments, debating. As much as she wanted to rant and rave at Julian, she knew she would lose the heat of any anger she felt the moment Julian looked up at her and looked any sort of sad. And Portia seemed to have some experience in this sort of thing, so she nodded thoughtfully.
“You go ahead. I don’t want to be too soft on him.”
Portia snickered quietly and nodded. “Fair enough.”
Then her voice raised, turning as stern as Verun had heard it when the other girl had been reprimanding some lazy servants. “Ilya!! What do you think you’re doing?!”
Julian jumped, nearly spilling the drink that he had in hand. It took a moment for him to focus, his gaze confused and bleary. “Pa… Pasha? Verun…?” His cheeks colored the moment he saw Verun standing slightly behind Portia. “H-Wow did the two of you… where did you come from? How’d you find me?”
His voice was definitely slurring, making Verun feel a touch of concern. She really didn’t like the fact that he was drinking his way into a coma over her.
“It was easy, we just followed the sounds of self-loathing and day drinking,” Portia told him, rolling her eyes. “What are you doing here, Ilya?? Do you want to be caught?”
“Caught??? Here?? Pfffff, nonsense-” Julian laughed, swaying in his seat a little as he waved a hand. “The bird would fly in and cause a racket.”
“And then you would probably waltz right into the waiting arms of the guards, right? Maybe swing them around for a little bit of a dance before they put you in chains?”
Julian frowned sadly, leaning back into his seat until it seemed like he was about to slide right under the table. “If I did get caught, I would deserve it… it’s not safe for either of you to be near me. You… you better go, before you get tangled in my mess.”
“We aren’t going anywhere without you! You’re my brother, I’m already tangled up in your mess, dim-wit. Do you have some kind of death wish, Ilya?” Tears flooded into Portia’s eyes, and Julian leaned forward, desperate to stop the tears.
“Pasha- ohhhhh, no don’t cry, no, don’t-”
“I’ll cry if I want to!” Portia angrily wiped the tears away even as they kept rolling down her cheeks, looking away as her bottom lip trembled. Verun had to give it to her, even while her performance was fueled by legitimate feelings, Portia had a way of making everything just excessive enough to persuade anyone. “You better hold me back, Verun, before I f-fight him!”
“Pasha, I’m sorry, I- ohh, I’m so sorry-” Julian was looking wobbly, and Verun was hit with the distinct epiphany that she was surrounded on both sides by absolute drama lovers, though one was able to control it much better than the other. Maybe she should reconsider her life choices.
“I’ve done nothing but cause you trouble! This is what happens! Where I go, misery follows…”
Yup, drama. Enough that it was fit for the theater.
“That doesn’t mean that you can just give up! You’ll die, Ilya!”
“Maybe I deserve to.” He drooped back into his seat, at risk of sliding under the table again. “Barth… Baaaarth, I need another stein over here… make it another Salty Bitters.”
Verun nudged him over on the bench and plopped down beside him, pinning him with her stern glare. “You stop that moaning, Julian. The last thing you deserve is death.” She pressed a hand to his chest to stop him from speaking. “Portia, would you stop the barkeep from making that drink?”
The other girl nodded and headed to the bar to have a quick word while Julian tried to flail his way around Verun with a wordless whine. It sounded… particularly pathetic while he was drunk like this.
“Verun, why would you do that…” He huffed and draped himself over her, face planted messily along the back of her neck. “Just one more, pleeeaaase.”
“You’re drunk enough, Julian.” Still, Verun shuffled him around a bit so that he dropped his head into her lap. He was drunk enough that he didn’t complain about his long legs getting tangled up in each other as he had to twist around to settle in his new position. “Julian… you might not believe it, but I really do want to help you. I want… well, in simple terms, I do want to spend time with you.”
“Pffff.” His lips flapped loosely as he scoffed. “Even after I hurt you last night, Verun? Don’t be… don’t be foolish. Only a masochist would want to be around me. I’m not good for anyone. A moment with you… it’s not worth all the pain and tears that inevitably follow.”
“Maybe I am just a masochist,” she said, raising an eyebrow at him. “But between you and me, I think the masochist is you.”
He sputtered, throwing his arms up and over his face to cover the way his cheeks burned brighter at her comment. “Hhhhhey. Look. I told you, I have an interesting relationship with pain.”
“In other words, you get off on it.” Verun struggled not to smile as he whined, trying to hide his face in her thighs. For a moment she enjoyed teasing him, even if it was just to momentarily distract him. “Wonder what I could do with that.”
“Ohhhmmm god. Noooooo.” Julian whined into her belly, and Verun could feel his voice better than hear it. She got to watch as his shoulders started going red as well where his loose shirt let her see, his body flushing in embarrassment that the alcohol wasn’t able to stop. Thankfully Portia seemed to be giving them some time to speak alone, Verun didn’t particularly want to scar her with discussion of her brother’s sexual habits.
“Hmm…” Verun ran a hand through his hair, tugging just enough to get his attention. “Maybe I should test some things with you. Figure out what works…” She gave a harder tug, and felt the vibration of some sort of noise running through him. “And what doesn’t.”
But then Portia walked back up, seating herself on the opposite bench where Verun had sat the night before. “Getting back to the previous conversation… Ilya, listen. I know you’re used to doing everything alone, that hasn’t changed since we were kids. But me and Verun are determined, and whether you like it or not we’re not just going to let you throw your life away. We’re here to help, and we’re not leaving until you’re safe. Right Verun?”
Verun nodded, her fingers now simply running through Julian’s hair to maybe help keep him from dropping into his same dramatics as earlier. “She’s right, Jules.”
“... Though really, we should be getting you out of the city, not sitting around here talking.”
“I can’t leave, Pasha… not until I know what I’ve done, for sure.”
Verun honestly wasn’t sure how well Julian could hear his sister’s voice with his head pressed resting on her thighs as it was, but apparently it was well enough as Portia sighed. “Fine. But you have to let us help you. We’re not going to let you do this alone.”
Julian sat up enough to lean forward, his chin on the table as his gaze flicked between the two of them. “... Well. I can’t tell either of you what to do. If you want to be here… I can’t really stop you.”
Portia let out a whoop, throwing a triumphant fist into the air. “Fantastic! I’ll take it. So if we can’t get Julian out of the city yet, what’s the next step?”
Verun nodded, a slight smile on her lips as she watched the two siblings. She kind of wanted to just stay here for the day, make sure Julian was taken care of so that she could just kind of hang out. But they did need a plan if they were going to figure out what Julian’s missing memories were. “What if we got Julian into the palace and into the Count’s room? Maybe that would help jog some memories loose?”
“Good idea, but how will we get him into the palace? It’ll be easy for us, but…” Portia leaned forward, head in her hands. “If someone sees him it’s all over, and the palace is basically the most dangerous place for him possible.”
Leaning back, Verun ran a hand through her hair and hummed. Her mind had been so jumbled up for a while now, it was hard to get her thoughts in order. Especially as Julian picked his head up and leaned closer, raising his hands to her hair and picking through the strands with a strange, drunken focus. She didn’t know what he was doing and she didn’t ask, not moving from her spot until she remembered.
“Well… there is a spell I can use. Something I can disguise him with.”
“What, you mean I’d become another person?” Julian looked surprised and so concerned that it was almost comical. “But who would I become?”
Verun bit her lip, her emotions warring between amusement and concern. If this worked out… Julian might kind of hate her for a while, but there was only one person that would make sense to be traveling into the palace with her and Portia.
“Just… trust me. Let’s go out into the alley, I’ll change you there.”
She helped Julian steady himself as his gangly limbs hauled himself out of the booth, his legs wobbly underneath him. Then Portia led the way out and into the alleyway nearby, Julian clinging onto Verun as he tried his best to keep his balance. The three of them stopped once they were well enough in the shadows to not be spotted from the main street.
Taking a deep breath, Verun focused on simply getting herself gathered. She had never actually attempted this on her own, but she had seen Asra do it several times, and she had what she hoped was a good enough understanding that it would work. Once she was sufficiently focused enough, Verun stooped down to gather a small handful of dirt from the ground.
Then she blew it over Julian, the air rippling with magic as it settled on his skin and his clothing. There was a sort of shimmering effect, and then… gone was Julian, at least for now. There was definite strain on her magic, but she was confident enough that it would hold.
Portia stared for a moment, eyes wide. “Ohhh, who’d you turn him into? He’s… okay, he’s really cute.”
Julian stared at them, amethyst eyes wide. “What? What do I look like?” He glanced around and scrambled to find a puddle, dropping down to his knees to stare at his reflection. Then he froze, before swaying to his feet in such a hurry that Verun steps forward in case she has to catch him.
“Oh my god.” His face was a bit stunned, but after a moment he smirked , and it was definitely still Julian in that familiar body. “I’m definitely too drunk for this.”