Aleksander meets Esmeralda on a day like every other, the fog rolling off the river and the smoke from the pyres rendering everything in the city a uniform shade of gray.
he keeps his clothing as is for his business that morning: a simply cut black velvet tunic and matching trousers. it isn't a matter of taste, but the fine merchants of Paris would never conduct business with scum from the pleasure locale if he didn't look like one of them, but dressed in velvet and even with his boots caked with mud, they speak to him with perfect respect.
he plays them just by looking like one of them, because when you dress the way they expect you to, they never look too closely.
fools, he thinks, making his way through the crowd of people. there are beggars holding their hands out to garner a coin from the people walking by and the rich looking for distraction. merchants are selling their wares at every corner, and women dressed in clothes that must cost the earth are luring men and their purses into their brothels.
Aleksander has his eyes set on one such brother in particular.
it's one of the more luxurious establishments in Paris' pleasure locale: it looks more like a mansion than a pleasure house, its upper floors hanging out over the street, propped up by buttresses and stilts. waiter boys groomed to match and dressed in creamy white tunics offer beverages to its customers, while girls in white silk promise them a good time.
bless all you spend-happy and generous folk emptying your wallets into our coffers, Aleksander thinks as he steps into the parlor.
the inside is sticky, perfumed with wine and musk. men sitting on couches, drinking wine and grabbing girls in their gaudy satins around their waists, trying to hike up their skirts over their hips just because they can. then there are the women: their faces caked in white lead and carmine.
Aleksander's eyes scan the room, satisfied that they hadn't burned the place down while he was away.
he frowns, but it's not one of the girls or even a customer. it's just Nina in her red satin, so thin it barely counts as cloth in the approximation of a dress, lounging on top of a pile of cushions. she is even younger than Aleksadner, less curvy than the girls lounging on the couch with her, hair a honey-warm braid down her back. she owns the establishment, procured girls and made sure they behaved.
she stalks towards Aleksander and stabs a finger at his chest.
"it's about time you show your face around here. you still owe me ten gilders for the things you took!"
"and I'll pay you when I have that kind of money lying around, Nina dear," he says, hiding a smile.
she cants her hip in his direction, lips thinned into a sour line.
"and when is that? you're always out of money, that's why you're slumming it up in the poor house with us."
she's right. Aleksander doesn't have money and that is why he is slumming it up in the best (or worst, depending on your view) brothel in Paris' pleasure locale.
"you have good timing. something happened this morning I could use your help with. come."
she gestures him over with her hand in the direction of the stairs before stalking away. Aleksander frowns, but he comes, quirking a brow with a interested, "huh". He climbs the stairs that are only used by the staff and the girls and follows her into a lavish bedroom.
He shifts uncomfortably on his feet. even if he's usually more than hired muscle, he's not sure why it bothers him so much, he's seen it before: the young girl on the bed is one of Nina's most expensive girls Aleksander's age, but there are bruises on her pretty face, her right cheek bruised a violent shade of purple. she doesn't look particularly happy to see him.
no surprise there. Aleksander in his business clothes is rarely a good thing. Nina usually called him to deal with customers who got too handsy with the workers. He was the best investment she had ever made, as she liked to put it, though he was hardly an investment. She offered him a roof over his head and a hot meal, and in return he made sure that their clients payed and left.
he draws a deep breath, but surprise stops him.
they're not alone.
there's a woman: and from the two gold ear-rings showing from the thick black hair over her bare shoulder, she's a gypsy. Aleksander is sure he's never seen her before. she's beautiful, not in the same way Nina's girls are beautifully manufactured with expensive silk and rouge, or even in the swelling of her chest or the way her clothes hang off her.
she doesn't frown at him, she just looks as surprised as Aleksander feels, emerald green eyes focusing on his face before returning to her hands dipping a cloth in the wash basin.
"he's your help?"
Aleksander snorts. under the scraggly signs of youthly stubble and a sloping jaw he looks... well seventeen, but he's still able to toss out drunks and wasters. A young help, he thinks, leaning against the door frame, arms crossed over his chest and thumbing his belt.
"hardly. what happened?"
"they hurt Lucy," Nina says.
"merchants, and Lucy got the worst of it. they didn't want to pay and thought I would be too scared to get my money from them."
Aleksander has crossed the room to the end of the bed, black eyes focused on Lucy's face. the gypsy woman is putting some kind of salve onto her bruises and he recognizes it for Nina's best mint salve. it smells cool and coats her skin like carmine, and Aleksander wrinkles his nose at it.
"do you have a name?" he asks.
"I- I think he said his name was Tristan. I don't know his last name, I didn't ask... "
he nods once.
the gypsy's eyes follow him.
she looks at him like he's the most interesting thing in the room, and it bothers him. Aleksander gets mistrust, anger, fear, but not interest, not the open curiosity witch which she's looking at him. it's not the kind of stare he usually gets from the people who cross the street to get away from him.
he is halfway to the door when Nina gives him a look: it says this isn't an assignment.
it says it's a job for you to take, or not.
Aleksander sends an insulted glare her way, walking out without another word. he tries to silence the alarm bell ringing in his head: he was in danger every day on the streets of Paris. he'd stolen for her, hurt people, bad and good, but she has never hinted that any of it was less than an assignment, a command to follow if he wanted to keep a roof over his head. that is the price they'd agreed on. so what is so different about this job?
Aleksander runs a hand through his hair and heads out the brothel door.
he knows that the gypsy followed him when he can feel her eyes on his back.
he doesn't turn around. she will explain why she is following him when she is good and ready or she won't. it's not something he'll dwell on when he has a job to do.
outside there is still a busy flow of customers in and out of the brothel and Aleksander weaves his way through the crowd.
he has rounded the corner when finally, she says, "you're going to find the man who hurt Lucy?"
he can hear the disapproval in her voice.
"what do you care?"
he is interested why she would care about the life of one merchant out of a thousand, especially when none of them would ever extend the same concern to her people.
god knows thousands of good, calm, bourgeois faces watched as Judge Frollo stood at the pyre with his hands held before him as if it were an altar, and sentenced her people as blemishes upon their society from his tyrant mouth.
"are you going to kill him?"
he thinks there is something so satisfying about the little furrow between her black brows.
"there's never a shortage of scumbags going around," he answers simply, turning into a lesser busy street.
"so you sell out women and you're a murderer."
"I don't run whores, and I kill for profit."
"and what profit is that?"
"for coin, of course."
she purses her lips, her disgust for him clear.
"what's your name?" he asks, and he's surprised when she answers him.
"Esmeralda," she says, and then she doesn't say anything.
she just walks next to him. it's not an uncomfortable silence, but it's close to. Aleksander doesn't know why she's here, or why she's following him.
he heads down one of the canals that will take him to Paris' hub of commerce, full with merchants and trading offices, when he sees the man-
and then all he can do is stare.
he's leaning against a brick wall, arms crossed over his chest as he looks at him. he's rail-thin and dark-skinned like all gypsies, with a bearded chin and garish clothes too many shades of too many different colors, and he moves with a grace and agility that younger men would envy.
Esmeralda walks towards him and they talk like they're friends, smiling in a way that clearly says they've known each other forever.
Aleksander looks at him, too-long looks brimming with curiosity and... recognition?
he feels like he's seen him before, but he is also sure he hasn't.
(he has a new life and new clothes, a new roof over his head. no one knows who he is. he has a job he's working and makes money to keep the roof over his head, and he doesn't know anyone.)
he doesn't know where the feeling is coming from, but it only goes away when he looks at the street, forcing himself to focus on the job at hand.
there's a merchant that needs sorting out and money to be collected.
he cuts through a tight alley by a murky canal, away from Esmeralda and the gypsy. foot traffic is lighter here.
he is about to turn a corner, when he realizes he isn't alone.
a man wearing the guards black colors blocks his way.
fool. he'd been so focused on them that he didn't even realize he was being followed.
he walks towards at him and Aleksander swings his fist towards the man's face, but before it can make impact there are hands on him and the guard's fist has connected with his jaw. blood fills his mouth, coppery and sharp. how many are there ?
Aleksander struggles against them, shaking off the black spots dancing in his vision, but the hands grabbing him are too strong, and the last thing he sees is the blindfold being tied around his head.
then everything goes black.
it feels like hours before he opens his eyes again. his head spins as he takes in the luxury of the room. he'd expected to come to in a prison cell, not in some state official's office.
which means they don't seem to want him dead, or maybe they just want to get information out of him first. Aleksander wouldn't be the first to be persuaded to talk to the city guard, or maybe he is under arrest. it wouldn't surprise him if he was. but then, he wouldn't be tied to a chair in an office. so what is going on?
he pulls on the rope tying his hands: it scrapes against his wrists, but the way his arms are tied stiffly behind his back says there's no way he's going to get out of this chair and simply walk out. his best option would be stalling for time while he puzzled over where they had brought him.
he realizes there are footsteps.
Aleksander follows the sound with his eyes as they circle him in slow, leisured steps meant to put him on edge. they're behind him, then to the right of him and just out of his line of sight.
(he's ten again, and he's following those footsteps home from their morning service.)
he thinks he knows then, with absolute surety who has him.
Aleksander lifts his head, and with a slouch offers an insolent grin.