World of Dusk: The Ring
The giggling was what finally brought Marquez back to consciousness. He woke up to two sets of breasts on each side of his bare chest while two hands played with his pink nipples. The other hand from both women slid down his torso and beneath the thin sheets that did little to cover up the three of them. He laid back in a foreign bed and pretended to remain asleep, intrigued by how far the two models from his shoot would go while believing him to be unconscious.
 
“Oh, someone’s awake,” the blonde one said to the brunette, her hand firmly on his erection.
 
The brunette let out a giggle and began to lick the tip of his nipple as her hair cascaded around her face, tickling his chest. He kept his eyes shut firmly and focused only on the feel of her tongue sliding down his stomach, his loins, and then finally around his cock while the blonde grasped it for her. If either of them glanced up at his face, as they played with him, they would have noticed how much he struggled not to smile.
 
He woke up again sometime after with one arm wrapped around each of them. He would have loved to have gotten the same treatment as before, but it wasn’t giggles from two bare-skinned women that woke him this time. It was the emergency ring on his telecom buzzing furiously somewhere in his pants pocket.
 
The brunette (whatever her name was) mumbled something indistinctly, but neither of them was trained to jump at the sound like Marquez was. He slid one arm out at a time, doing as little as he could to disturb them in their slumber, then slid like a caterpillar to the foot of the bed before sitting up and leaping off of it.
 
Whoever was calling stopped the moment he rifled through his pants to grab his telecom. He grimaced when he saw that it was a call from Father. When he noticed the time, his heart nearly sunk from his chest to his feet. The two women he’d gone home with occupied his time all the way into the late afternoon. All of the pleasure he just enjoyed was eclipsed by the shade of disappointment that was certainly on his father’s face.
 
He slipped his pants on right away and then scoped the ground for his shirt. His briefs were probably on the bed somewhere, so he didn’t bother sifting between the sheets and the women for them. One of them could keep them as a souvenir. Not everyone got bedded by Marquez Donnick. Granted, that was largely because of the plethora of women in Noreis, but that was beside the point.
 
Clothed enough to get by, Marquez cracked open the loudly creaking door and did his best to slip out through the slivers of light Hela emitted on the streets of Cardeau. He didn’t think to glance at a mirror before stepping out into the world, but he was certain he looked just fine. He was Marquez Donnick, after all.
 
Cardeau’s citizens paid him little attention as they walked down the sand-dusted streets. Several stands were lined up on the corners while a few shuttles flew overhead. Hela shined brightly in the cloudless sky while buildings of wood and stone made up all of the blocks that were within his sight. None of them were more than three or four stories tall, but they were all high enough to obscure his view of Cardeau Palace, wherever it was. He couldn’t even see his air shuttle from where he stood—assuming that they took his back to one of the women’s homes.
 
He wandered down a block, hoping to get a view of the palace at the intersection. A vendor’s display of magazines caught his eye and made him smile. The week’s issue of “Stunning” was still prominently on the stand, boasting a shirtless picture of him mid-flex with the words “Sexiest man alive?” beneath. The magazine was scrutinized all week after the issue was released, since Marquez was technically still a year off from being considered a “man.” Despite that, it was the highest selling issue that quarter and, in the days that followed, he received offers from two other publications and a newscast. Father didn’t approve, but that was nothing new. Marquez spent seventeen years being told what he should be doing with his life, and every time his father droned on about the Donnick family legacy, Marquez’s mind would wander to other things—almost always women. That got him in trouble a lot, but probably not to the degree that awaited him at the palace.
 
His air shuttle was parked a half block further down. While he still couldn’t see Cardeau Palace, as soon as he hovered above the other buildings, it would be easy to spot and then he’d be home in no time. He unlocked it and stepped inside. Marquez checked himself through the reflection of the glass dome before starting it, abruptly distracted by the cacophonous buzzing of his emergency line for the second time.
 
“Ugh, I’ll be right there, father,” he scoffed without answering the call. He turned the shuttle on and hovered off of the ground, raising it steadily in case there were other air shuttles blazing by without paying any attention.
 
Hela’s gleam pierced the shuttle’s glass dome and lit up the east side of the enormous Cardeau Palace, which stood nearly a hundred feet higher than any of the surrounding buildings. The palace shimmered in cyan and silver, much like nearly half of the structures in the city-state. The four outer walls of the palace were made of glass, revealing the first layer of activity within. Several towers emerged from the edges of the palace, shooting several hundred more feet into the air and almost kissing the clouds on days when the weather was less desirable.
 
He sped toward the palace. As the structure grew larger and swallowed his other surroundings, his anxiety rose, fully knowing the scrutiny he was about to endure for missing the final meeting for the charity ball. Father was apprehensive enough about giving Marquez this type of responsibility. What little trust his father might’ve had in him may be broken now. As he entered the third floor hangar bay, his anxiety transformed into guilt.
 
Marquez parked in his usual lot and stepped onto the hangar floor, which connected the outside to the outer halls and the air lifts. He walked to the entrance of the bay as a familiar face emerged from it. Sir Milo, a knight of the Guard and his best friend, gave him a wary smile as they crossed paths in the threshold.
 
“I know,” Marquez said. “You don’t even have to say it.”
 
“The captain is livid,” Milo replied as though Marquez’s father had just yelled at him. “Good luck in there.”
 
“When are you off duty? Want to get drinks after?”
 
“If you’re more than a flayed carcass by dinnertime, sure.” Milo kept walking toward his shuttle. His metal armor clanked on the cold ground and began to shimmer in the light of Hela peering inside the hangar. The knight had to shield his eyes in order to find his shuttle, and he didn’t once turn back to his friend.
 
Milo did nothing to instill confidence in Marquez. He knew that father was going to be angry, but if even Milo was scurrying away from him, this must have been bad. Marquez continued on into the depths of the palace where the silvers and blues covered everything in sight. He was able to tell which rooms he was in solely based on the other colors within them, since they were so seldom used inside Cardeau Palace. He thought about taking the long way toward Father’s quarters, but he knew that wouldn’t be wise. Father would only get angrier with him the longer it took for him to receive his punishment for missing the meeting.
 
“Are you looking for the captain?” Dame Harraway asked him as he reached the Knight’s Quarters. She had to move some of the bangs from her bowl cut to see him clearly. She was taller than most, but at six feet, Marquez matched her in height.
 
Marquez nodded while Harraway stood like a statue with her arms crossed over her chest, single-handedly guarding the corridor that really didn’t need protecting.
 
“He’s currently with the Queen.”
 
That brought some relief to Marquez’s face. “Oh good, I’ll catch him when he returns.”
 
“The captain specifically told me to send you his way when you returned to the palace, even if he’s meeting with Kallisto.”
 
“Wonderful.” They can both sneer at me, then.
 
“Good luck,” Dame Harraway said as stalely as hardened bread. It was the most emotion he’d ever seen from her. He really was in deep shit.
 
Marquez left the knight’s quarters and walked towards the Queen’s Chambers with his head down. Palace guests, servants, and knights stepped away from him as though he’d contracted the worms. Not even his own friends dared to address him. He felt all of the guilt that was going to be bestowed upon him before even reaching his father, then as he reached the floor to Kallisto’s chambers, he thought about things in a different shade.
 
I missed a meeting. It’s not like I killed anyone. Why should he be so damned disappointed with me over something so minor? He knows who I am and what I do. I’m Marquez Donnick, dammit!
 
The set of guards between him and the chambers stepped aside when he approached. Unlike Dame Harraway, they dwarfed him in size and their biceps threatened to break through their chain mail confinements. As intimidating as they were, they were nothing compared to what was on the other side of the opening double-doors.
 
“Marquez,” Koston shot him a scathing look from Kallisto’s work table. He sat across from the queen with a decanter set between them. She was pouring another glass while he kept a jug of water close by. The blackout curtains lined several windows of her room, casting half of it in shadow and highlighting the portion where she and Koston sat.
 
Koston’s silver vest was just a shade darker than the tiles of the room. His dirty blonde hair was highlighted in Hela’s gleam through the unblocked floor-to-ceiling windows that revealed most of the city beyond them. His lips were tight and his eyes narrowed on his son so intensely that Marquez could barely bring himself to look elsewhere in the room.
 
“Do you wish to talk to him in private?” Kallisto asked. She swirled the contents of her glass while sitting on a small throne in a white and black dress and bearing a dark circlet with white leaves on her head.
 
Koston didn’t even acknowledge her as he rose to his feet and drew Marquez closer as if he had telekinetic eyes. “We’ve been planning tomorrow’s fundraiser for months. I’ve purposely walked you through every part of the process because this is something you might actually be passionate about that would do the world some good. You’ve done nothing to prove that you even give a shit about this event. You wanted to take the reins on the Donnick Foundation and yet I’m still doing everything! All I asked yesterday was that you show up to our final meeting with the rest of the staff. You didn’t even have to say a damn word, because obviously all of the responsibility is going to fall to me anyway. I ask very little of you, and you can’t even give me that? What in Noreis is wrong with you?”
 
“All right, I guess this is happening right here,” Kallisto said to herself between sips.
 
Each word father spoke felt like a paper cut on his body. Marquez half-expected to see blood marks soak through on his perfectly-fitted tunic. Yet, he could not muster a reply.
 
“Are you even going to show up tomorrow? Do you even care?”
 
“Yes, I care—”
 
“Then where were you? We heard nothing from you for nearly a full day,” Koston said. “I was this close to contacting the Seekers to go looking for you.”
 
“I was—”
 
“Ugh, you don’t have to explain,” Kallisto sneered. “I can smell your shame and regret from over here.”
 
Marquez felt himself shrinking on the tiled floor while Koston could only shake his head in dismay.
“And to think,” Koston said, rotating a ring with an opal stone on his middle finger. “I was going to give you this today.”
 
“The family ring?” Marquez muttered.
 
Koston nodded and scowled at the same time.
 
The Donnick family ring was quickly becoming engraved in Cardeau’s history. Marquez’s great-great-grandfather, Baltus, gave it to his great-grandfather, Abraham, upon his graduating from the Barencos Advisory Academy. Back then, the Donnicks were a poor family, and Abraham knew that stone with the word ‘Donnick’ engraved in its center likely cost Baltus half a year’s salary. Abraham wore it as a reminder that anyone can have valuable things and achieve greatness if they tried hard enough. According to the story, Baltus told Abraham that the ring was very symbolic of his character. He had to work much harder than others with known names to get into the Academy, and then even harder to afford it and graduate at the top of his class. The tale behind the ring brought Abraham Donnick all the way to the highest and most prominent seat in the world.
 
Abraham intended to pass the ring down to his son, but tragedy struck before the two men ever got to make the exchange. Instead, Abraham passed it to Koston shortly before Marquez was born when Koston was having doubts about fatherhood. Abraham told Koston that he’d become a better man than he ever was, and certainly a much better father. Abraham died five days later. Having been the last conversation he’d ever had with his grandfather, Koston kept the ring on at all times and the story very close to his heart. This was probably why he was so unusually upset with him. Father wanted to entrust him with a precious family heirloom, and he couldn’t even show up to the meeting where he was to receive it.
 
“Father, I—”
 
“I’m still giving it to you.”
 
Marquez blinked with surprise. “You are?”
 
“It is a symbol of responsibility and maturity. You will wear it at all times as a reminder of the men who have worn it before you and what they’ve achieved. I wanted to give it to you because I’m proud of you, but now you get it as a lesson. You will become a great man and someone worthy of the Donnick name whether you like it or not.”
 
Abraham got the ring as a reward. I’m receiving it as a prison sentence.
 
Koston wrestled the ring off of his finger and handed it to his son. The stone felt like a boulder on Marquez’s palm and, when he tried to slip it onto his middle finger, he discovered that it was too boney to fit properly. The moment he’d start to walk while swaying his arms, the ring would slip from his hand to the floor. He contemplated putting it on his thumb, but inside slipped it into his pocket. 
 
“I’ll get a necklace for it,” Marquez muttered meekly.
 
“You’re damn right you will,” Koston replied. “Go to the foundation headquarters. Barbara will fill you in on what you’ve missed.”
 
Marquez bowed to his queen, then scurried out of the room like a rat with a flashlight cast on it. He didn’t wish to deal with any further scrutiny. Now was the time to pick up the pieces of the mistakes that he’d made.
 
Alone in the room, Koston returned to his seat across from Kallisto, whose expression hadn’t changed since Marquez stepped inside. She put her glass down and crossed both her arms and legs. “He will misplace that ring in a matter of minutes and four generations of familial symbolism will end up buried in some little tart’s bed.”
 
Koston shook his head.
 
The queen was amused by this and shot him a half-smile. “Oh? You think that giving him a shiny object will get him to change his tune?”
 
“Forgive me for saying this, Your Highness, but what do you know of children?”
 
“First they shit on your dreams, and then they shit on everything else,” she replied. “If someone has to be barren, I’m glad that it’s me. Could you imagine if my ex-husband had gotten me pregnant? We definitely don’t need another one of him running around Cardeau.”
 
“Children change you,” Koston said with a sullenness in his eyes. “I just wish I didn’t have to do this alone. Jessa would’ve made an excellent mother. I think he would have turned out differently.”
 
His words brought even the queen to melancholy. She grabbed the decanter and a second glass and said, “To that, we drink” while pouring the potent liquor into both. The two then clanked their glasses and sipped in silence while Hela’s setting added a deeper darkness to the room.
 
 
The ring bounced off of his chest with each step that Marquez took as he left the photoshoot, threatening to make an engraving between his pecs. He got a chain for it on the way to the ballroom the day before, then played with it while he and Milo had drinks in one of the few watering holes that served Marquez despite his age. All morning, he kept himself constantly aware that he wore his family’s history around his neck while he helped Barb, Sal, and the others set up the ballroom for that evening. He wasn’t about to prove everyone right again by falling short. The only reason he even went to the shoot was because they’d finished set up a few hours early, and Barb assured him that they could maintain things in his absence.
 
At the shoot he placed the ring in his pocket, knowing that modeling it while bare-chested would not reach his father’s approval. He put it back on the second he left the camera and changed into his dress clothes for the evening, which were picked out for him a few days before by the Queen’s wardrobe designer herself (after he fucked her).
 
Marquez stepped outside as Hela was dimming in the sky and looked across the street for his shuttle, dressed in a full suit that probably cost as much as the ring itself. He was surprised that Barb hadn’t called while he was on the shoot. He emphasized that she needed to contact him and not his father. Whether she would, and if she had faith in him, was another story. He’d find out when he got there.
He bumped into a man of about sixty when he took another step. “Sorry!” he exclaimed, and caught a look at the man’s startled face that birthed wrinkles with expression. The old man said nothing in reply and kept shuffling forward in his long flowing tan garbs that resembled a bathrobe. He didn’t realize that he’d bumped into Marquez Donnick. If he had, he might’ve apologized.
 
Marquez shrugged it off. There was no reason for him to make an issue of it. There were bigger things to achieve that day. He continued towards his shuttle, going over the time schedule in his head. He didn’t usually take these things so seriously, but Father looked as though Marquez pushed too far this time. He needed to pull back in hopes that Koston would give him more leeway.
 
He reached his shuttle and played with the necklace again, feeling around for the…
 
Marquez felt the blood leave his face faster than it took father to be frustrated with him. The chain was there, but the ring… the ring was…
 
He spun around to get a glance at the old man walking along the pavement. Marquez cocked his head as the man continued to saunter as if nothing had happened, and then the old man broke into a sprint and rounded the corner.
 
“Son of a—” Marquez bolted after, taking giant strides diagonally across the quiet street. He rounded the corner quickly and saw the old man jump between two buildings. He wished he had his gunblade with him, but he should’ve been able to take an old thief just fine without it. He rushed toward the alley and leapt between the buildings.
 
The headlights nearly blinded him as an air shuttle took off in his direction. Marquez had just enough time to catch a glimpse of the old thief at the helm before it shot forward at full speed. It flew so low that his hair blew backwards, nearly spiked up enough to feel the bottom graze it.
 
Smarter men would have ducked, but Marquez reached for the left bottom rail of the shuttle and grasped the bar with both hands. His body jerked as he was forced off the ground and his legs dangled in the air as the shuttle took him with it.
 
The old thief flung around the corner and Marquez found himself flailing towards one of the stone walls of the alley. He brought his legs to his chest as fast as he could and kicked off of the buildings corner before being whipped around again in the open streets of Cardeau. His grasp on the rail was slipping while blurs of his surroundings made him queasy quickly. He forced his eyes shut as he clutched the rails tightly.
 
The thief flung him around a second corner, back onto the street where they’d bumped into each other. Marquez’s body propelled him in the opposite direction. This time the jerk of the hands on the rail knocked the shuttle free and Marquez tucked and rolled onto the street. The pavement he hit was more dirt than stone, so his body didn’t howl with pain like he feared it would. Instead he rolled along the ground and sprung to this feet with nothing but dust on his clothes to show for it as the thief’s shuttle sped down the street.
 
Marquez ran toward his and unlocked it on the way. The glass dome retracted just fast enough for him to jump into the driver’s seat and slam on the gas. His shuttle jerked awake and knocked him forward and back, but he clutched on the square steering wheel firmly and hovered off the ground just enough to fly over the shuttle in front of him.
 
The thief’s shuttle rounded a corner two blocks away, but Marquez’s vehicle was faster. He thrust the wheel forward so aggressively that he nearly flipped the shuttle as it barreled down the street, nearly clipping the signs dangling from buildings to his right. Several air shuttles flew overhead at a much safer altitude, but he knew that he needed to stay low and keep level with the buildings around him. This thief would want to whip around and aside buildings in hopes of losing him, but that wasn’t about to happen.
 
Marquez rounded the turn he saw the thief take just in time to watch him make a left in front of the Cardeau museum of natural history. He ignored the two-story long posters of Cardeau Palace, Superior Abraham Donnick, the original throne, and a scepter that once belonged to one of the first monarchs of the city-state.
 
A loud honk made him slam the brakes before he realized that it was well overhead. He kept driving low as the wind smacked his face and started to make it difficult to see. He should’ve put the glass frame back up, but even the thought of reaching for the button felt like a waste of time.
 
The thief made a sharp left around the entrance sign for the museum. The shuttle’s rails clipped a corner of it and forced it to swing from side to side. Marquez spun around it as the thief hoisted upwards and hovered of the rooftops to the same altitude that most of the other shuttles were flying. He sped up to further close the gap and swerved around a pair of shuttles that were taking a wide turn. Hela’s light gleamed on the glass domes in front of him and the swish of the wind jolted his body backward and forced him to protract the dome.
 
He regained his focus a second later and continued after the thief as he spun out several more shuttles in the Cardeau skies. Hundreds of shuttles were bolting in all directions and altitudes, flying above the streets between buildings as a reference point and minding their surroundings. Marquez kept his focus on the thief’s shuttle, which now looked just like every other shuttle in the sky. It even slowed to the same speeds of the other shuttles to further throw him off, but he couldn’t be fooled. He’d follow the old man across the world if it meant getting that ring back!
 
Marquez sped up until he got right behind the thief’s shuttle and, just as he was about to tap the back of his shuttle with his own, he noticed the backs of several other heads in the shuttle. His mouth fell open and he slowed down, giving the vehicle in front of him more space.
 
A moment later, another shuttle honked from behind and brought Marquez out of his sudden daze. He lowered his shuttle back toward the ground and parked it in an empty lot on the street. Sometime between the thief flying up to blend in with the other shuttles and before Marquez put the glass dome up so that the wind wouldn’t blind him, the old man must have disappeared without him knowing it.
 
He took it clear off my chain in less than a second. I didn’t even feel his fingers slip open the clasp. That wasn’t a thief—that was a magician!
 
A magician who stole the symbol of his family’s legacy. Marquez barely had it for a full day…
 
 
Father knew the moment he saw the dread on Marquez’s face as he walked into the empty ball room. He frowned at him from across the room filled with empty tables and chairs and a podium where the notes for Marquez’s speech were in order on a series of index cards. Marquez didn’t even bother to walk across the cerulean and silver checkered tiles to approach his father and explain what had happened. He knew the second that he made eye contact with the Captain of Cardeau, who had managed to hold onto the ring for Marquez’s entire lifetime, that there was no excuse that he would be open to hearing. Marquez had failed again.
 
It wasn’t even worth walking toward him with his head down and a pair of cracking wells in his eyes. The chain felt cold around the nape of his neck, and his chest bore a hole where the responsibility of bearing the ring once laid on him. He didn’t have the courage to open his mouth and say the words that would fall deaf on father’s ears.
 
Instead Koston shook his head, and Marquez turned around and left the ballroom, knowing that there was nothing else to be said or done.
 
 
In the desert south of Cardeau’s city border was a small wooden house barely large enough for one person. An air shuttle parked beside it while Hela took one last glimpse at the world for the day, and an old man with even older eyes stepped out of it and sauntered into his house of solitude.
 
He felt the ring clasped firmly in his callused hand as his rickety door creaked a little louder and a little longer than usual. His very surroundings were falling apart all around him. Despite his age, he felt as though he was the youngest thing in the deteriorating hut he called a home.
 
He placed the ring on the table that commonly gave him splinters and inspected it for a moment. It was probably worth a decent sum if he sold it to the right dealers. He wondered how the others did in their venture out into Cardeau. They were probably by the oasis where they planned to rendezvous back upon Hela set. None of them knew of the second home he’d built here so long ago.
 
Grains of sand popped up through the open floorboards and coated the bottoms of his feet as he walked on them over to his mantle where he inspected some of his other, more personal possessions: the very first coin he ever stole from a “noble” in Ratone, a piece of wood from the first house he built, and a crumbled and dampened photo of him and the family he was torn away from nearly sixty years before…