Note from the author: There is some very foul language and potentially shocking/suggestive imagery in this post that may disturb readers of a more sensitive nature. Reader discretion is advised.
Dandelion arrived twenty-two minutes late to his own lecture the following evening.
Several of the students called into play the fifteen minute rule that allowed them to leave a classroom, excused of their absence if the professor actually arrived after they’d departed. At twenty minutes after the hour, Nyannah looked around at the remaining handful of students who didn’t want to give up on their guest lecturer and began to consider packing up her things and leaving herself when she heard someone fumbling with the lock behind the lectern, the door that led them out into the alleyway behind the hall rattling as a muffled stream of curses crawled beneath the crack to reach their ears.
A few of the girls who’d stayed behind stifled giggles into their hands, at least four others decided they weren’t sticking around for whatever was about to come through that door, and they quickly made their way to the back of the lecture hall, slipping out of the hall just as Dandelion stumbled through the back, tripping over his own feet and landing with an embarrassing oomph several feet away from the podium.
Nyannah felt ashamed for him, but he seemed to have no such shame himself. An obnoxious laugh followed as he scrambled to his feet, head bobbing and wavering as he turned bleary eyes to scan the remaining four students who’d stuck around to see if he would bother showing up at all.
Perhaps he saw double, even triple as he ducked back his head to take it all in and matter-of-factly cleared his throat as if he hadn’t arrived late at all, and began mid-lecture. For ten full minutes, during which two of the remaining four girls made for the door at the back of the hall, completely unnoticed by the man in front, he rattled on a stream of nonsense laced loosely with obscenities bold enough to make even a low-level whorehouse madame blush.
And then he gripped the corner of the podium, pitched forward behind it and threw up all over the floor. The violent sound of it echoed through the auditorium, followed soon thereafter by the rancid smell, which sent the only two girls who’d stuck behind to see the show racing for the door.
Nyannah left her things in her chair and climbed quickly up onto the platform via the four steps that lifted it from the rest of the room just in time to shoot an arm out and catch his weight against her as he stumbled backwards in an effort to right himself.
“Master Dandelion, you’re drunk,” she informed him.
“Indeed,” he wobbled, pressing the padded blade of his shoulder into her as his left foot slipped on the floor. “Indeed, I am.”
“You shouldn’t even be here,” she hissed, the rancid odor of sick rising up to invade her senses. It was all she could do to stifle her gag reflex, which she could feel trembling in her throat and threatening to bring the contents of her stomach out to join his on the floor. “In no way is this professional behavior for an instructor.”
“I’m not even an instructor anymore.”
“No,” she moaned, burying her face into her shoulder. Both arms were wrapped around his waist, holding him as steady as she could, even though he outweighed her by several stone and the unwillingness of his body to cooperate made holding him up more than just a bit difficult. “No, I suppose you’re not.”
“Where did everyone go?” He swung around, backing her across the stage and nearly knocking her off balance.
“They left,” she said stiffly, “and can you blame them? You were more than twenty minutes late. Most of them left five minutes before you arrived, and the others, seeing how positively wasted you are, snuck out the back door just seconds before you threw up your dinner all over the stage.”
“Oh.” Tilting his head back, his hat slid off his head and rolled down her shoulder to the floor. His hair tickled her cheeks, but there was nothing endearing or exciting about the feel of it. “Then I should go,” he surged forward, tugging her with him because she’d yet to let go of his waist. “Back to the tavern…” Long, staggering legs took three wide steps forward after she released her grip. “Miss Del Vandlovey, which way to the tavern.”
“They won’t let you anywhere near the tavern, drunk as you already are. There are laws about such things, you know.”
“Laws,” he sneered. “Plough the law. It’s my right to drink wherever I want to drunk, no matter how drink I am when I get there.”
“And maybe plough you too,” he pointed a waggling finger over her left shoulder as if someone stood behind her, still sneering in the most unpleasant manner as he rocked back onto his heels and nearly fell over again. “Unless you have a bottle in that bag over there. Do you?”
“No,” she tightened her lips against her teeth. “I do not have a bottle, or even a bag in which to put one. Come on, Master Dandelion. I’m taking you to wherever it is you’re staying and putting you to bed.”
“Ooh,” he wagged his brow, the sneer growing into an almost predatory leer that lost all effect when he hiccupped and threatened to vomit all over himself.
“By yourself,” she affirmed, much to his dismay. “Where are you staying?”
“At the tavern!” he shouted, raising his fist.
Nyannah shook her head and said, “I don’t think so. You’re not going anywhere near the tavern, not if I can help it. I could get into real trouble for this, but I’m bringing you back to my dormitory so you can sleep this off.”
He didn’t protest, though it was quite an ordeal leading him out the back door and through the alleyway, across the courtyard to her dormitory. He was so obnoxiously loud, singing and cursing, she swore the matron was going to come out and send her marching right back the way she’d come and report them both for drunken misconduct. Men were not permitted in the women’s dormitory, not even famous men who believed they had the gods’ given right to go wherever the hell they pleased.
As she rifled through her pockets for her dorm room key, Dandelion slumped back against the wall behind her and slid into a half-lean, half-crouch that proved impossible for him to maintain. As soon as she jammed the key in the lock and pushed open the door, he fell forward, face first onto the hardwood floor.
She had to drag him across the threshold, huffing and choosing from a few choice swears herself as she cursed and considered kicking him. Finally tucking both arms around him from behind, she heaved him into the room, stumbled backward onto the bed and moaned with pain when his full weight landed atop her. Throwing back her head, it bounced off the mattress as she sighed, and then with all that remained of her waning strength, she heaved the drunken bard off of her and he rolled, face down, into the middle of the bed.
“Everything my father said about you was true,” she announced, stalking across the room to slam the door. He winced at the sound, brought a hand to his ear to cover it and mumbled something obscene about what he thought of her father. “You really are a truly awful human being, a real asshole, you know it? You’re a lazy drunk and a lecherous scoundrel who doesn’t know his own worth. In fact, I don’t even know why I brought you back here.”
“I didn’t ask you to,” he slurred into the quilt. Lifting his head, he wiped a hand across his mouth and squinted at her from that strange angle. The waves of his disheveled hair clung to his cheek and stuck straight up, and though she was truly disgusted by his behavior, there was a part of her that wanted to go to him, smooth those wayward hairs and ask him why he did such awful things to himself. “Why did you? So you could insult and berate me? Some men might be into that sort of thing, but not me. Well, maybe a little bit. Okay, I’m lying. I’m sort of into that kind of thing a lot. Don’t listen to a word I say. I’m obviously very drunk and I have no idea what I’m saying.”
“So… why did you bring me here again?”
“I’ve already said I have no idea why I brought you, though I am sure I will regret it come morning.”
“Maybe you should just shove me into the hallway and let me sleep it off out there. I’ve slept in worse places, though I can assure you most of them were warmer than this room.”
He thought he was so clever.
“And risk blame for leaving you there if something terrible happens to you? I’d rather get caught with you in my bed.”
“So you do want me in your bed.” That insatiable and impish grin, which under ordinary circumstances was quite enough to make just about any woman vulnerable to his charms, made her laugh, and not because he was irresistible, but because the entire situation was so ridiculous she didn’t know what else to do. “Maybe it’s not so cold in here after all.”
“Why on earth would I want a drunk old man in my bed?”
“I’ll have you know I am not an old man!”
“You’re not a young man,” she pointed out. “You’ve got to be at least eighty to have written Half a Century of Poetry…”
“Eighty,” he snorted. “I’m forty-seven, if you must know.”
“Well, you act like you’re all of seventeen, and I’m sorry to disappoint you, Master Dandelion, but I stopped finding seventeen year old boys attractive more than five years ago.”
“And you’re what,” he began, “nineteen?”
“Twenty-two, not that it matters.”
“Twenty-two,” he dropped onto his side again and nuzzled his head into the pillow. “When I was twenty-two I was already in love with the world. Ready to yank down her knickers and ravish her like a blushing maiden… but you… You turn your back on its come hither glances, ignore its advances when it purses lips to tempt you with tender kisses on bare skin. You write papers about experience and inspiration, knowing you will never understand the latter until you stop fearing the former, but it terrifies you, doesn’t it? That world? The cock it wants to thrust between your thighs until you scream its name and beg it to give you more.”
Nyannah didn’t shock easily, but his analogy startled her and she found herself backing away from the bed, even though she was well beyond his reach. She brought a hand to her lips to cover her dismay, but he didn’t seem to notice.
“The world wants to fuck you, Nyan,” he murmured. There was suddenly such sadness in his voice it broke her heart and the hand she’d lifted to her mouth dropped to her chest. “That’s all it will ever want. To plough you good and proper and leave you whimpering in the dirt with your underthings all tangled up around your pretty little ankles.”
“You read my paper?”
“Twice,” he declared. “I found it… lacking. Riddled with a strong theory left unsupported by actual experience, but isn’t that what you were aiming for?”
“How did you get your hands on my paper? Did she just give it to you?”
“I found it lying on her desk when I first arrived here. She made me wait in her office while she met with a student, so I picked it up and read it… I was bored. It didn’t do much to alleviate my boredom, to be honest.”
“Would it have been despicable if she’d showed it to me of her own volition?”
“Yes! Because it isn’t finished. It was just a draft.”
“A draft…” he rolled with groaning effort onto his back, the mattress shifting beneath him as his legs dangled against the floorboards. “Do you actually think a paper like that will ever be finished without the experience required to back it up?”
“Do you really want to be a poet, Nyannah Vel Andolay?” At least he’d gotten her name right that time. “Really and truly?”
She swallowed hard against the sudden lump that lodge itself in her throat and made it hard for her to breathe. “Yes,” she answered. “More than anything.”
“Then go out there and fucking live in this shit-excuse for a world. Back up your own theory with the experience that brings on inspiration.” The rakish curls fell across his brow, fluttering as he tried to huff them away, and then as if he’d completely forgotten the depth and importance of their conversation, he took on a strange, mopey tone and asked, “Do you really not find me attractive at all?”
Closing her eyes, she turned her head toward the open window and remembered how she’d felt the night before, and the first night she’d met him. She’d woken filled with thoughts of the man before her, so inspired by the way he’d touched her dreams with little more than a few words that she’d had to write down the sorrow she saw in his eyes just to get it out of her system.
He was a beautiful man, physically, yes, but the attraction went so much deeper than that. So the answer was simple. She did find him attractive, though she couldn’t for the life of her understand why.
He really was a disaster.
Didn’t anyone else see that?
“Not like this, I don’t,” she confessed. “Right now I’m thoroughly disgusted by the very sight of you, Dandelion.”
“Well, this is what life does to people like you and me, Nyannah. This is how it feels when it ploughs you in the arse. Just so you kn…” The final slurred word of that sentence was lost, as he’d tilted his head toward the pillows, drew one of his long legs up into the bed. The other still dangled, the toe of his boot pointing toward the floor. After a few quiet moments he began to snore.
Raking her fingers through her loose blond hair, she dropped both arms at her sides and just stared at the man she’d brought into her room. A man who’d inspired her so profoundly she’d woke with words already dripping from the quill and onto the page the morning after meeting him for the first time.
And as shocking as his thrusting cock analogy had been to hear, she understood his meaning.
The world was a cruel place, dark and brutal, filled with people and things that only wanted to destroy all the beauty and wonder. And maybe it did want to fuck all the people like her, maybe it wanted to plough her hard and leave her bruised and broken in a heap on some old mattress.
It had certainly fucked him in some way she wanted to understand, as if she, herself, could somehow make him feel… better.
But what if… what if a poet’s place in the world was to teach it how to soften its advances, lead it on with gentle kisses, culling words and teach it to make love?
After all, wasn’t that what Dandelion did when he was at his very best? Not that she knew him well enough to determine, but she was pretty sure she’d seen him at both his best and his worst, and she’d only known him for a grand total of three days.
Drawing in a deep breath through her nose, she held it in her lungs and listened to the dwindling sound of his light snores. She really should at least inform someone from maintenance about the mess in the lecture hall, and maybe clear her own head with some fresh air. She left him, fretting about it and chewing her lip the entire time she was gone, but the cool air on her face felt good, brought clarity to her scattered thoughts. She tracked down one of the maintenance crew, returned to the scene of the crime and gathered her things from beside the chair.
Dandelion brought nothing with him to the auditorium, the keys he’d used to let himself into the building still dangling from his belt as he lay sprawled and snoring in her bed. His hat sat on the stage, and she knelt to pick it up, bringing that delightful feather to her face and tickling it across the bridge of her nose, her cheek. The lightness of his scent, a mixture she could separate and define as myrrh, jasmine and rose, wafted out to meet her, subtle, but defining, and she remembered how close their bodies were while they’d been walking to the tavern together the night before. His arm looped through hers, shoulder occasionally nudging her as they stepped lightly and in unison.
Tucking the hat under her arm, she took one last look around the empty auditorium, then slipped out the back door once more to make her way back to the dorms.
Part of her was terrified that he’d woken in her absence and wandered off to bring more trouble to himself, but from the hallway outside her room the drone of his snores had grown only louder. She glanced over her shoulder in paranoia as two girls came up the stairs and parted ways to head to their own rooms, neither of them even passing more than a glance of acknowledgement in her direction.
She jammed the key into the stubborn lock, turned the knob and walked quietly inside, closing it behind her.
While she was gone, he’d wrestled out of his jacket, which now lie in a heap of colorful, patch-worked leather on the floor. He tore open the top two ties of his doublet and the tunic underneath, exposing the sparse hair across his chest which rose and fell with his breath. Sprawled in the center of the bed on his back, hence the ferocity of his snores, he’d tried to take off his boots, the buckles lining the sides gaping open, one of them half-empty of his foot and dangling flaccidly toward the floor.
She took several tentative steps toward the bed, arriving at the edge of the mattress to look down at him. He didn’t wake as she finished unbuckling his boots and slipped them from his bare feet. Laying them beside the bedside table, her attention came back to his face.
Forty-seven, he’d said. He was forty-seven years old. Old enough to be her father.
She had no business feeling anything for a man more than twice her age, and yet she did feel something. The tingling excitement of attraction. Intrigue. Desire, though certainly not while he was in his current state. She’d felt it the night before, while he carried her away with song, to some far-off place where the world wanted to make love. It was no small wonder people fell over themselves to get close to him. He was beautiful… and so tragic it made her ache.
He wasn’t really that old. And he looked much younger than his years, as if some long lost strain of Elven grace and beauty lay hidden in his genes. Her hand was shaking when she brought it up, fingers reaching outward to brush the curls from his brow. The gesture stirred him, one arm fumbling to wrap cold fingers around her wrist and squeeze.
“Where did you go? I woke and you were gone. I was alone…”
“To clean up the mess you made,” she muttered. “And to retrieve your hat.”
“Mmm, my hat,” he whispered. “I love that fucking hat.”
“Well, it’ll be there waiting for you on the shelf in the morning. For now, you should go to sleep.”
“I just want someone,” he muttered, “someone to take the journey with, to share the darkness with me, just for a little while. Just a little light, Nyannah. Will you be a light in my darkness?”
“Dandelion, I don’t think…”
“Please? Just hold me…”
“You’re not going to vomit on me, are you?”
The corner of his shapely mouth jolted upward in appreciation. “Of course not,” he hiccupped, wavering her confidence in that promise.
“Scooch over a little,” she nudged his thigh with her knee.
It took several painstaking minutes for him to complete the effort, opening up the bed so she could join him in it. She sat on the edge of the mattress at first, just looking at him, his slackening arms, his droll grin and then she crawled into place, laying down beside him and opening up her embrace as he edged into her arms and rested his head like a child atop the pillow of her breasts.
And then he slept again, unwaking through the long hours of the night while Nyannah stared into the darkness, listened to the familiar sounds of late night campus life mingling with the slow and steady saw of his breath. By the time she fell asleep it was far later than it should have been and there was no way in hell she was going to wake up on time for her morning class. It would be the second time that week she’d missed it.
Master Billings would not be amused.