The glimmering stars of Thanalan’s great black sky looked down upon the dusty streets of Ul’dah. The Quicksands was lively that night, song and laughter issuing from the brightly lit desert tavern. Patrons entering hungry and sober were passed and occasionally bumped into by those exiting satiated and laughing. Even the shadowed, garbage-lined alleyway behind the establishment was invaded by the light and noise issuing from a back door cracked open to allow better ventilation on that muggy desert evening.
Some of that light fell upon the slouched figure of a disheveled young miqo’te boy wearing only a woman’s oversized nightshirt. The boy was digging for abandoned gems in piles of rubbish fresh from the kitchen. As he hummed along with the tavern music, his stomach complained in harmony. His bushy green tail danced around the rotting morsels he threw left and right over his shoulder, stiffening suddenly as the boy victoriously extracted a half-eaten scoop of seasoned popotoes smashed against a fatty crescent of dodo steak.
He munched greedily on the discarded treats, ears rotating now and then, attentive to the rattling chainmail of Brass Blades stationed on the opposite side of those doors. Those ears perked when the crowd simmered down, their noise abruptly replaced by a thumping drumbeat and jazzy brass players introducing a song by the next performer, whose vibrant, sultry voice cut through the sweltering night air.
The boy turned his smudged, pretty face toward the yellow light, his emerald eyes dilating as they searched for answers. Still nibbling on the food, he ventured toward the doors, his nose crinkling from the odor of wafting pipe smoke and sweaty bodies as he stuck his face into the crack.
That’s when he saw her for the first time: a magnificent tower of a Roegadyn singer with hips like the rolling dunes of the Sagolii, accentuated by a sequined corset which forced up her massive overgrown melons for breasts. Her arms and neck were thick as spruce tree trunks, and her hair flowed and burned red like Fool’s Falls, if someone could set it ablaze. Her lips were ripe rolanberries, lashes long and curly like teasing fingers, accentuated by deep purple eyeshadow above, brightened by cheeks with heavy rouge below. Her voice was rich like a Sultana’s birthday cake, and deep like the chasm beneath Highbridge. She danced and sang and dramatized like a one-woman play. Regal and flamboyant might only begin to describe her style.
And yet, as the boy’s eyes searched the room for the crowd’s enthusiasm, they were met only with men’s snickering faces, and women’s disinterested huffing. The tavern was littered with empty seats and awkward pockets of standing room. The crowd seemed entirely unimpressed by the woman’s performance.
The boy could not understand: why were these people not fighting each other tooth and nail for a mere chance to glimpse the magnificence of this singer?
“Get a load o’ this bloke,” said a drunken marauder as he swaggered over to a Blade standing beside the door. The marauder nodded toward the singer. “Can you believe any man’d have the balls to dress like that an’ put on a show? Somethin’ ain’t right…up there,” he tapped hard at his skull.
The singer…was a man? But how? Why? The boy looked to the Blade for his answer, but the guard only waved away the marauder, then led him back to an empty seat when the drunken man insisted on elaborating. As the Blade walked away, the boy’s eyes fell to a large, gaudy bag and empty violin case leaning against the wall where the guard had stood. He looked toward the singer and noticed she, or he, was swinging a violin, then put it to her, or his, jaw and began to play.
The boy’s curiosity was piqued. Tail waving, ears pinned, he pounced on the gaudy bag and yanked it open. The bag released a cloud of floral perfume in his face. As he blinked past it, what he discovered twinkled like the very stars: an assortment of fine molehair brushes, jars with brightly colored powders and thick creams, spray bottles of golden scents, lip colorsticks of red shades, and all covering a healthy pile of blonde hair at the bottom of the bag.
The boy grabbed one of the reddest lip colorsticks and a handful of the blonde hair. As he pulled at the hair, some of the bag’s contents began to spill. Fearing he might attract the Blade’s attention, he rushed back out into the alley.
Unsure what to do with the wig, he stuck the blonde hair pile on his head. It slipped off a couple of times before he realized it had sewn-in pins to secure it to his hair beneath. He fumbled with the pins until they finally bit down onto his frumpy green hair.
Then, he removed the cap on the lip colorstick. He thought hard about how the woman’s, or man’s, lips looked, then tried to apply it by feeling around his lips. He slipped a few times, catching his chin and nose with the creamy colorstick. He tried to wipe the color off with his fingers, then balked as the yellow light from the tavern revealed his fingers were covered in red.
Inside, the singer began a new song, accompanying herself, or himself, on the violin. The boy felt that was his cue. Ready with wig and lip color, he watched the singer from the crack in the door and began copying the moves. He even tried singing the words.
The boy felt like a star. With the new hair and the lip color, he felt like he could be someone else besides himself: someone magical, someone famous and talented. He was no longer an alley scavenger; he was an alley celebrity. This was the life he wanted to lead: away from the loneliness, away from the stinky trash, the constant battles against hunger and foul weather. He’d never beg for another gil; people would beg him for encores. He’d never let anyone look away; he’d capture their attention forever and steal their hearts, not their makeup or wigs.
The back door creaked open. The Blade who just returned to his station was looking down, following a trail of makeup supplies toward the boy. He spotted the prancing youth and pointed. “You there!”
The boy froze in the yellow spotlight from the tavern. Before the huge guard, the scrawny miqo boy with the lopsided blonde wig, scribbled-on red lips, and woman’s nightshirt stood rooted and trembling. The Blade seized his bony arm before he could even think about fleeing.
“Well, what have we here? A little thief in drag! My captain will bust his gut laughing when he sees the likes of you.” The boy protested as the Blade began dragging him into the tavern.
A towering silhouette appeared behind the Blade. “What’s going on back here, sugar?” It was thatsame rich, deep voice from the music. As the silhouette approached, the boy's nose picked up the scent from the singer's bag.
“Caught this one tryin’ to make off with your makeup.”
The singer stepped into full view. The boy and singer stared at each other then, and the boy surrendered to the guard's grip. He was disheartened. This was the end of his celebrity career. The Blade loosened his grip and the boy was able to shake his arm free. The Blade prepared to grab him again, but stopped short as he watched the boy unclip his wig, then offer it, along with the lip colorstick, back to the singer.
The singer accepted them, looking them over and asking, “you were in my bag, little one. You could’ve taken anything. The gil, the jewelry... why did you take these?”
With an enthusiasm that disarmed both the singer and the guard, the boy looked up with his bright emerald eyes, light dancing around inside of them. “I thought you were a-ma-zing!” he answered giddily. “I never got to see a real star before! I wanted to be just like you! Just like you,” he repeated, his enthusiasm draining away, the light in his eyes distorting, turning watery. “I’m just so sick of being me. I’m sorry.”
If it could make noise, the entire City-State would have heard the singer’s heart break just then. The singer lunged for the boy, scooping him up into his massive arms and hugging him so tightly, the boy yelped, and coughed at the potency of the singer's perfume. “You poor, precious thing! That settles it. You’re coming home with me.”
“Hey, now--“ began the Blade.
“I said he’s with ME!” retorted the singer, veins in his neck bulging, rage and spittle firing at the Blade along with his words, causing the armed guard to take a large step back and raise his arms in surrender.
The singer hoisted the boy over to one arm, retrieved her or his bag and violin case with the other, then marched down the back alley from the Quicksands as the door slammed shut, the yellow light and heaps of trash shrinking away. “What’s your name, honey?” asked the singer.
“Dhola,” he answered.
“No, that’s a family name,” corrected the singer. “What’s -your- name?”
“Dhola,” he repeated.
“So, you’re Dhola Dhola?”
“I dunno. I guess.”
The singer chuckled. “How about I just call you D, then? D’ Dhola.”
The boy shrugged. “Okay. What’s your name?”
“Me? Well, there’s my stage name, then there’s my real name. Which do you want?”
“What’s a stage name?”
“Well, when you’re a performer like me, you take on a name so people remember you easier. No one’s gonna remember my real name. It’s so long, no one can pronounce it right, anyway!”
“What should I call you, then?”
The singer furrowed her, or his, precisely plucked eyebrows. “Roe Paul’s the name I’m recognized by. But you, little one? You can just call me ‘Mama.’”
The boy hugged the singer, purring as the singer leaned her or his great head against the boy’s, together smiling as they turned to cross the Gold Court, pass through the Sultana’s Gate, and head for the Goblet.