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The Dragon's Kiss

Chapter 19 - NINETEEN: The Night Market

Kel's breath caught in her throat.

In front of her stretched endless colored glass lanterns hung from street poles, casting rainbow reflections along every surface. The cobblestones laid in careful waves seemed to dance in the glimmering light.

Fluttering back and forth in the light were paper decorations and lovely clusters of flowers, meticulously strung back and forth across the street. The scene gave off the appearance of a wonderland.

In addition to the decorations, the enchanting lane was coated in a thick layer of people, all wearing bright hues. They walked, skipped and laughed along, grouping around various stalls and street performers with painted faces and eccentric costumes.

Lively. It was lively.

"Incredible, isn't it?" Lucy asked, bounding up behind Kel.. In her hand were two shimmering masquerade masks, decorated with feathers.

Kel stood agape watching the scene, completely unaware of Lucy firmly affixing one of the masks to her face. After finishing Kel's, the maid turned to don her own mask.

Earlier in the evening, the two had walked right out of the west building as if Kel wasn't a war hostage under house arrest. Lucy claimed it was because she had sent Thane on an errand and then timed their escape accordingly.

Once outside, Lucy had led her to an obscure path that ran along the edges of the palace grounds and cut back to the main road. From there, this florid dreamworld had only been a short walk. The entire escapade was suspiciously simple, but Kel was just grateful to be outside.

"-cess.. Princess?" Lucy's bell-toned voice suddenly broke through the happy noises filling Kel's ears, and she whipped around to face the maid.

"Ah, sorry, what was that?" Kel asked. πš’π’π“ƒπ“»eπ‘Žπ™™. π™˜ο½π‘š

Lucy chuckled. "I can't call you Princess out here," she whispered.

"Oh, that's right," Kel remarked. She paused to think for a moment before instructing, "Please call me Adri."

An unexpected bitter taste rose from the back of her throat as she spoke. 'Adri' was the nickname she and Dash had used to call the princess in their younger years.

"Alright, Adri," Lucy grinned, extending her elbow. "Shall we go?"

Kel shook off the wave of tainted memories threatening to flood her thoughts and swallowed deeply, then happily took the maid's arm.

The night market was even more incredible from the middle of the commotion. Everywhere Kel turned, her senses were filled with bright lights, cheery music and delicious smells.

What struck her the most was how happy and carefree the people seemed. Wasn't the empire in the middle of a war? Yet everybody looked healthy and happy.

Street urchins and common beggars were nowhere to be seen. Were they forced off the roads due to the market's bustle? Or was there a different place they chose to gather?

As she looked around, Kel was acutely reminded of the stark contrast between this charming festival and the austere nights in Mevani.

As an orphaned child, most nights on the street were cold and unhappy. She'd certainly never seen something like this. Later on, as part of the royal guard, the most enjoyment she'd had out in town was going to a local tavern. She'd heard some of the soldiers fancied gambling establishments, but even that soon came to an end as the pressure of the war took hold.

She couldn't help but feel a twinge of jealousy that the residents of this place were free to enjoy themselves, unburdened by their emperor's war. Serin didn't just put on a dazzling facade; the inside of the empire shown as brightly as the outside.

Do they just ignore the war entirely? Kel scoffed to herself. What a hypocritical perspective for the people that had inflicted so much bloodshed on everyone else.

As if in response to her silent contempt, a loud horn rang out.

"What's going on?" Kel called to Lucy as people began moving out of the center of the street.

"A tribute!" Lucy called over her shoulder, dragging Kel to join the rest of the onlookers.

The hubbub of the crowd made it impossible to ask any further questions, but the 'tribute' soon revealed itself.

A group of acrobats dressed in flashy costumes that mimicked official Serin uniforms came tumbling down the street first. Behind them were several fire dancers, creating brilliant orange patterns in the air as they twirled their fire sticks.

At the center of the performers, a group of strong men carried a flat wooden base on their backs. The base was piled with a myriad of riches. Gold and other precious metals, gems, fine cloth and exotic fruits were a few of the treasures Kel was able to distinguish.

More performers trailed behind the altar, mirroring the stunts of those in front. The people lining the streets cheered deafeningly as the procession passed by, and quickly swarmed back into the street to follow behind.

When the epicenter of the ruckus was far enough away, Kel turned to Lucy.

"What was that about?" she asked.

"That's a tribute," Lucy explained. "It was given to us by another nation as a symbol of allegiance."

Kel's face fell. "What nation was it?"

"Hmmm," Lucy rubbed her chin thoughtfully, "there's really no way to tell. It could even just be a city that broke away from their country."

"But it is a place that Serin successfully conquered?" Kel pressed, feeling somewhat nauseous. Did the people of this empire really take such joy in parading their spoils of war down the street in such a gaudy fashion?

"Yes and no," Lucy answered. "We celebrate tributes like this because it means a nation has joined us peacefully. There was little to no bloodshed involved."

"Peacefully? Then all that treasure?" Kel wondered.

"Like I said," Lucy smiled, "It was given as a gesture of peace. It's their way of proclaiming their joining of the empire."

"I see," Kel replied thoughtfully. She hadn't considered the possibility that others would be so willing to join Serin. Where was their patriotism? Where was their loyalty?

In spite of her frustration with whichever nation had surrendered so easily, there was no denying that her heart felt considerably lighter at Lucy's explanation. Once again, she had the nagging thought that perhaps she had misjudged the citizens of the Serin Empire.

"If you're satisfied," Lucy ventured, tugging on Kel's arm, "let's go get something delicious to eat!"

Kel smiled. "Yeah, let's do that!"

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