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even being a city over would suffice - though it helped, of course, that the city in question was of a coastal region, and one fully devoted to coast-ly activities. even with the difficulties implicit in the language barrier, naveed had quickly found himself feeling more at home than doubtless most of his peers who'd chosen to remain in the capital for the festivities. a love for sail and sea, he'd learned and relearned since he was about knee-high, defied most barriers between bodies, and his willingness to climb and scrub and stay awake through nights in times of stormier seas had won him some degree of acceptance. (his coin, and his apparent ineptitude at their games of chance, won him the rest, never mind that the regular losing was an insurance policy naveed himself had chosen to take out against his having his neck summarily slit in his sleep by a sailor with a grudge.)
not that he'd expected any of the crew to hold any serious grudges from the recent war - he had been taken himself to the edges of the very reason why eldur had not experienced any volubisian attacks from sea, a huge, seemingly unending expanse of jagged rocks capable of tearing through the sides of ships like so much tissue paper, and supposedly inhabited by the very worst of creatures the gods had to offer. it was almost as though the gods themselves had opposed to the meeting between their lands; a thought that did not trouble naveed overmuch as he studied what he could of the barriers, and imagined what he could of how volubisian engineers and eldurian manpower might overcome them. the ivory coast had some of the best ships in eldur, both of the military and trading variety; it was simply a matter of seeing how best to play the cards in his hand, and sacrificing a little to gain multiples in return. the art of war, at least, he knew more of than the bowing and scraping to foreign dignitaries.
though he had succeeded with enough of the latter to allow him this small journey to cambria and beyond and - less fortunately - back again. whatever his feelings on this latest turn of fortune, naveed still made a mental note to visit the empress's seer on some near eve to thank him personally for his favors, in addition to the letter his secretary had sent out on his behalf. the day still had enough hours for him to make more of such friends - preferably of the breed uncaring of his travel-dust - and with repeated lack of regard for his feelings on the matter, naveed made his way through the crowds to the arena where the gladiator tournaments were being held instead of to his private chambers in the palace (or better yet, one of the public baths.) the clean steps of the arena were still, to him, something of an architectural marvel; one he could appreciate briefly, then ignore, as he scanned the rows of cheering spectators for an open seat with enough people of his station nearby to make it worth sitting.
and here she was - unchanged and alone, all pale gold and sunkissed skin, even the silks of her dress too-familiar. he could not look too closely at how easily he had found her, when he had not even been looking for her, when she had not even crossed his mind as he scanned the faces of their - their - peers; and now he could not move his gaze away, could not help but wonder. not about the fact that he had seen her at all, the idea of his gaze being drawn to her as though fated just-so more ludicrous than he could manage. he could not ask that of himself, refused the possibility of being frozen in time himself by the question, made so much a carved statue as the ones lining the walls of the arena. he'd heard a rumor than those statues were not men carved out of stone, but men covered by stone for some past transgression. an ignoble death, but one he would deserve if he were so stupid as to torment himself with what-ifs and other, assorted regrets. he had those aplenty, even without her, and he could not afford to prioritize her even now.
she had never wanted that, of him, and naveed could only raise his brows in surprise - questions and regrets alike entirely forgotten - as she caught his gaze and - almost in the same breath - turned away again. that - that was different, was unexpected, was almost enough to fill him with relief, that he might have been mistaken. perhaps she had changed. perhaps he had been mistaken, and it had never been her at all. the steel of her spine was unfamiliar, after all, her squared shoulders foreign; and was he to blame for that? he could not comprehend exactly why it was his presence that had changed her - recoiled from the thought that the absence of him was her new normal, that the time they had spent in their youths was a distant past.
the past: they did things differently there. but she was her and then she was not, and then she was her again - faint surprise still lingered on his features by the time she turned again; naveed realised he'd been caught staring at her profile with it, and allowed it to fade away with what was likely to be the meagre remnants of his dignity. "delly - lady montfaucon," he greeted in reply, stepping closer as he did and pretending he hadn't stumbled over her name. arms still crossed, the picture of a man not raised to disappear in crowds, the hesitant smile he offered her the only sign of his uncertainty, naveed made no sign of starting to bow over her hand as would have been appropriate for two members of nobility who had not been friends for years, even years ago. "excuse me, my lady, but i'm still dusty from my travels."
he hesitated, for another moment, but had he ever remained solid in the face of one of her smiles? this one, too, was unfamiliar, and he was intrigued enough by the familiar-and-yet-not to nod, smiling in gratitude as the young lady at her side picked up on the unworded hint and started to move to make room for him. "i was. i didn't expect to find such a good one. may i?"
her smile was proof made solid that his memories weren't entirely faulty - that she was a thing real and true and familiar, a person that he had once had the good fortune to know - and naveed found himself wearing a smile to suit; it crested his features like a new dawn rising, like a bittersweet farewell to the darkness of the night, and he could not bring himself to rein it in. he would not place odds on such a feat being manageable - not when he could not even say exactly when the last time he'd been the recipient of her smile had been. and it would have been cruel to even ask him to make the effort. fondness morphed into amusement as the ladies around them went tittering on about the goingons below, scarcely paying either of them any attention, which made for an odd - and not unlikeable - change. it gave him freedom to keep his gaze on delly - her smile, the banked fire of her gaze, the way sunlight painted her bare skin - and for that he could give each of delly's companions a kiss, regardless of how the dust of his travels might affect them.
"you never used to be so easily flattered," he prodded her, voice low and familiar now that they were - at least momentarily - sitting close and familiar. the tease in his voice was obvious; almost embarrassingly so, almost pleading for her to accept his jest. and perhaps even to return fire in kind. "then again, you had a small army of men fighting for your favour; you had to spread your flattery thin." (and there was a second pang, as he said the words - or a greater jolt would be a greater descriptor, considering how the tie between them had only felt intensified.) he had never been one of the many, he could recall without bitterness, though the curl to his lips in that moment might call him liar. he had never been one for crowds, in truth, or for throwing his weight around where he was unwanted; which painted his presence in that arena as more fulfilment of responsibility than achievement of enjoyment.
though he might guess that delly - lady montfaucon - might not feel the same way, considering how the ladies around her - around them both, now - were still tittering enthusiastically. if naveed hadn't been raised absolutely surrounded by women his ears might have been caught in flames; as it was, he wondered how the ladies could be so determinedly appreciative so early in the day. he might wonder if he'd interrupted delly's own ogling - but considering the fact that not even his sisters could call him a sore sight, he would have to hope to one day reach forgiveness. for this, and for whatever other crime he must have committed, to have her looking more like painted doll than friend despite her warm greeting. naveed gave a soft, questioning hum in response, returning his gaze from the oiled men the ladies had been appreciating to delly, gaze greedy again - so briefly - over her familiar-unfamiliar face. "i was on the waters - i've made a friend kind enough to lend me a boat - and the air still felt different."
but difference felt a dangerous tune to linger on, and so he turned to the show below once more, brows furrowing slightly as he followed the stage's dangerous dance. "i'm glad i'm not down there with them," he answered, shameless in the confession, wrinkling his nose slightly - a childish expression he had never outgrown - when one fighter made a move that made it appear that the fighters would need to be switched out once more. "are you enjoying yourself?" he asked, just as she asked him her own question - and though he thought his more interesting (what did delly know of fighting, and could she really have grown into a taste for it?) he would not do her - or himself - the disservice of letting the chance for conversation slip by. "i've only just returned to myrmias, and the games," he told her, feeling each beaded slip by in uncomfortable silence as he tried to find a hook for her attention. "their waters nearest here are nothing like dorsey - i don't think i've ever seen anything that shade of blue. it more than makes up for the air." and for the gratuitous violence, he might say, if he didn't think there were a chance that this new, unfamiliar version of her might enjoy just that. the chances were small, but not nonexistent, and for that he would hold his tongue.