We stayed in Tarethia, the undercity at least, for several more days. Reading my work for money was a dream come true, if less exciting than I had initially hoped for. I wasn’t getting rich, by any means, but it was a very validating experience to know that so many people resonated with my words. Where I had always felt out of place in my life, I now was just another member of the unwanted, unnoticed masses. Or so I had thought.
I had just shared a brand-new piece about Reckless Rika and her pirate companion Amelia facing off against a Soul Spider, when she approached me. An elven woman with a sweet smile bought me a drink when I returned to my table. She was the only one of her kind in there amongst us outcasts. It seemed that the entire Inn was watching her with suspicious distaste; a sign I should have paid more attention to. I, on the other hand, was mesmerized by her features. I now believed that the elven sailors I had met were, in fact, men as Fynn had insisted. They had been beautiful, sure; gorgeous, even. This woman was heavenly. Angels might blush in her presence, feeling insecure about their appearance.
“It seems like you really love writing” she said, her voice a tinkling melody of pleasant tones. I nodded dumbly, unable to find any words. She smiled and reached a delicate hand across the table, placing it gently atop my own. “You don’t write like anyone else I have ever met. Do you think, maybe, you would be interested in reading for me and my friends?”
“What’s the catch?” Amelia asked gruffly. The elven woman looked confused.
“Catch? Whatever do you mean?” she asked innocently. Amelia huffed, rolled her eyes, and sneered at her.
“What are you after? What do you get out of this?” she asked directly. Everyone was watching and listening to us. I desperately wanted to turn invisible and disappear; big scenes made me uncomfortable.
“What am I after?” she repeated, appalled, “Are you accusing me of having ulterior motives?” she stood up abruptly.
“What my friend is trying to say, is that we weren’t expecting to be approached. She has difficulty trusting strangers” I interjected, finding my tongue. Amelia shot me a dirty look, but the elf relaxed and sat back down.
“For good reason, too” Amelia huffed, crossing her arms, and disengaging from the conversation. With a flip of her hair, the elf blocked Amelia from her view and addressed me directly.
“Well, she does not need to come, if she doesn’t want to” the elven woman said, “I am glad to see that you are reasonable, at least” she said sweetly. Those perfect blue eyes gazed into my own and I lost my train of thought for a moment. I realized I was staring at her and broke contact.
“What is it I would be doing?”
“Nothing too much. Just accompany me to our meeting place, up in the city proper, and read your best work aloud for the group”
“Don’t do it, Erica. It’s not a good idea” Amelia cautioned. The elf ignored her and leaned forward, bringing her face closer to me. My thoughts began to swim.
“It would mean so much to me if you would, Erica” she implored. I began to panic and looked for an easy out. Anything to get her to give me enough space to think.
“There’s not an entry fee, or something, is there?” I asked. She shook her head with a smile.
“Oh, no. Nothing like that” she assured me, her hand on mine again, “we just want to give struggling artists like yourself a chance to shine. That’s all” she reassured me. That didn’t sound so bad. What was Amelia so worried about?
“I’m not going to be the only one who reads their work, am I?” I asked. The elf looked confused and laughed a little.
“No. There will be others, don’t worry about that. I’m not trying to trick you into embarrassing yourself” she said, still smiling and laughing lightly to herself. I was too entranced by the sound to notice that there was nothing funny enough to warrant this much levity.
“Sure, I guess I can come. When is it?”
“Oh, perfect!” she said excitedly, her face lighting up and melting my heart, “It’s tonight. I’ll come get you just before dusk, okay?” she said, getting up from her seat.
“Yeah, I’ll be ready”
“Splendid. My name is Taranelia, but you may call me Tara. Bye, Erica”
“Bye, Tara” I muttered softly, watching her leave. I was floating on a cloud of bliss, daydreaming about her.
“You’re an absolute idiot, Rika” Amelia said from behind a mug. That soured my mood.
“What? You don’t think I’m good enough to compete?”
“It’s not that” she snarled, “you can’t just agree to follow every pretty face that comes along. It’s going to get you into serious trouble one day”
“I don’t follow every pretty face blindly, Amelia” I defended myself, trying not to notice the person walking by.
“If Kendra wasn’t straight, you’d be following her like a lost puppy” she said with a wave and grin to the belly-dancing Kitsune in question, “If you go with that elf, it’ll end in tears” she warned. I should have listened to her, but I never mastered that skill while I was with Amelia.
“I’m not going to leave you for her, if that’s what you’re worried about” I said, angry that she couldn’t just be happy for me. After everything I had been through in my life, it was time something went right for me.
“Right now, I am trying to decide how to handle it when you come back crying, saying I was right all along. I think a smug ‘I told you so’ will be enough. And I bet I can get Tilly to make you wash the night’s dishes” she said. I know that the innkeeper heard the comment, but she stayed out of our business.
“And when I come back with a publishing deal, you get to do those dishes and apologize to both Tara and I”
“I will shave my head and eat my hair if you come back with a publishing deal” she said flatly. I wouldn’t let her eat it, but it would be a sight to watch her shave her head for losing this bet. I knew I was going to win whatever competition this was.
As promised, Tara came back to the inn before dusk. I was prepared. I had purchased a new dress for the occasion and had the poem I had written for Amelia copied to a sheet of paper, now in hand. It held the most emotion, and I had spoken from my soul when I wrote it. If anything could impress, it would be this.
She smiled sweetly at me, and we set out. The dress Tara was wearing made mine stand out horribly. My dress looked like I had bought it on sale for two silver pieces, which, I had. I brushed aside the concerns, knowing that I could never compare my own beauty to an elven woman’s. It was like comparing a candle to a campfire.
Tara led me to the base of a massive tree trunk, a spiral staircase carved into the bark winding up as far as I could see, with two elven guards barring our path. Wordlessly, they allowed the two of us by them, a watchful eye scrutinizing every aspect of my person, and we began to climb the stairs. I still don’t know how they manage to go up and down those spirals as often as they do.
I was exhausted by the time we reached the top, gasping for breath with my legs feeling like they were filled with both lead and fire. Thankfully, we stopped for a quick rest, sitting on a bench formed from branches. I dropped heavily onto the wood, surprised to find it springy and cushioning. Tara hardly seemed to even notice the climb.
As I was catching my breath, I took in my surroundings. Aside from the strikingly beautiful people that surrounded us, the scenery itself seemed to be a vision of fantasy. I have never been able to capture it in words properly.
The waning sunlight was being replaced by a deepening dimness in the air over the “streets” of the elven city. The “roads” showed the grain of their bark, though they formed a perfectly solid and flat surface. The air was sweet as a spring morning. The first stars were beginning to peek out in the sky above, the canopy politely receded from the walkways allowing us a magnificent view.
The Milky Way was beautiful, filling the sky with the cosmic wonder. This was what drew me to love space. Seeing it so close, so clearly… it looked like a pristine pool of starlight. Like I was gazing into a galactic tidepool. I needed to try to capture the imagery in a poem, even if I failed entirely.
The shops and houses blended in so perfectly, I didn’t see them at first. It took someone walking through what I had mistaken for a solid wall covered in vines to realize that the elves had no doors. It blew me away. Branches that had seemed wayward were now revealed as elegant walkways that led into “buildings”, though nothing here had been built. Everything seemed effortless and natural.
Tara pulled me from the surprisingly comfortable bench before I was ready, though I had caught my breath by that point, and we walked down the street. Though it was probably to keep me from wandering off and getting lost, I was giddy that she held my hand the entire walk.
I heard snippets of conversation as we passed people, their words indecipherable in their magical-sounding tongue, and smelled scents beyond compare. The one thing I did notice for certain was that, despite the vast population and varied commerce, not even one of the hollows I caught glimpses of was a restaurant. Did the elves somehow not need to eat? That couldn’t be it. It was ridiculous. Of course, they ate.
The signs we passed were written in elvish, a language I could not read at the time, and some letters seemed to be missing entirely from the signage. That was unexpected. I figured they would have taken better care when presenting their businesses to the public. When I brought this up, Tara laughed loudly and harshly.
“I always forget that you humans can’t see all the colors” she snickered in a self-satisfied manner.
“The letters aren’t missing. They’re just invisible to your eyes. Don’t worry, it’s not very important. Come on, here we are” she said, turning suddenly to part a vine-curtain door for me. I stepped inside and was taken aback by the elegant beauty of the space.
A warm yellow light coming from the ceiling was, upon closer inspection, coming from pristine cut gemstones that hung idly a few inches from the ceiling like they were waiting for something. Cushioned seats, much like the bench I had sat on, filled the room save for a space at the far end with a small stage where several gems provided a strong spotlight. The vine-curtain closed behind us, and the noise of the city died out immediately, leaving us only with the soft murmurs of conversation in the enclosed space. There was a group of confused-looking non-elves all talking to one another.
“Go on, I’ll get you signed up. We should be starting soon enough” Tara said encouragingly. I nodded and made my way to the myriad of misfits; unsure if I wanted to belong here. I wrote it off as nerves and joined the group of people.
Apparently, none of us really knew what to expect. Each of us had been approached by an elf to read our works here, but not one of the readers was elven. Perhaps, it was a social exchange to encourage mingling between the races?
The lights dimmed unexpectedly, and a handsomely gorgeous elf took the stage. Only the spotlight gemstones remained in the air, and the elven man spoke to the crowd in elvish. I looked to the others to see if they understood, receiving only blank stares that mirrored my own. Amelia’s words rang in my head, and I fought the urge to leave.
“Please welcome Callum, our first contender, to the stage!” the handsome elf said in common, and we all paid rapt attention to him then. An older man stepped forward, holding a sheet of paper in trembling hands, to the applause of the elven crowd. Tara smiled at me before turning her attention to the stage.
Callum read his story aloud. I wondered how he could have been invited here; it was so dry. The descriptions were lacking in detail; his storytelling was clunky; and it was a very matter-of-fact delivery. The entire thing lacked inflection, emotion, or the slightest hint of passion. Nonetheless, the crowd burst into rapturous applause. I shared a confused look with a Kaznan, one of the catfolk, who had been wincing at the story along with me. Something was clearly off, here.
One by one, the group of writers took their turns on stage; none of them too inspiring. The Kaznan, whom I had high hopes for, had a penchant for using unnecessarily large words in a pointed attempt to overcome lackluster story. She wasn’t bad, better than Callum even, but her piece would have benefited greatly if she had portrayed emotions more than trying to assure the audience she was educated. The sinking feeling in my gut grew worse with every piece read upon the stage.
All too soon, it was my turn. I walked up to the stage, feeling inadequate before this unbelievably lovely crowd. I held the paper in my hands and took a deep breath as the applause died down. Thirty or so pairs of elven eyes watched me anxiously, one set belonging to the woman I had thought was a friend. She gave a smug look to those around her before smiling sweetly to me again.
“I never meant to fall in love, it just happened” I began. The crowed focused and gave me the space to continue. The lights shining on me seemed brighter than the sun, and I felt faint. My vision blurred and I grew dizzy.
“I never meant to be different, it just happened” I continued. Several members of the front row covered their mouths, but I heard the laughter. Tara mouthed “I know!” to the host and eagerly waited for me to continue. In that moment, everything clicked together.
This was not a showcase for talented writers. They were showcasing terrible writers. I was one of them. I fought back tears and stormed off the stage to the surprise of the crowd. I didn’t make eye contact with anyone and ripped the vine-curtain out of my way.
The sun had set entirely, and the stars twinkled peacefully above. The people in the street walked around me as though I were something foul to be avoided, but I didn’t care. I dropped onto a bench and held my arms close to myself as silent tears poured down my cheeks. I noticed that someone was coming toward me.
“What in the hells!” Tara said, her voice thick with frustration, “I had money riding on that!” she said, pointing back to the hollow we had just left. I didn’t care.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” I yelled at her, drawing a few worried looked from passersby, “I didn’t mean to ruin your night” I said. That seemed to get through to her.
“Oh” she said softly, looking guilty, “You must admit… You do sort of belong with them” she offered half-heartedly. I turned away from her.
“Just leave me alone, Tara” I said, hating myself for being unable to keep the tears from spilling out of my eyes, or the waver in my voice from betraying me. The elven woman placed a gentle hand on my shoulder.
“I can’t do that, Erica. They’ll throw you in jail, give you a fine, and then drop you off in the undercity if you’re unattended without permission” she informed me. I shrugged her hand off with a heavy sigh.
“Then take me to the nearest exit, please” I said. Just then, one of the guards approached us. Their conversation was in elvish, but I could guess at what they were saying.
“Is everything okay? Should we remove this lesser being from your presence?”
“No, that won’t be necessary. This human merely realized that she was being humiliated”
“Oh, well… she probably deserves it. Have a good night” he walked away.
We walked silently to a spiral staircase, and I resented her for every step of the way. More than anything else, I was furious with myself. I should have listened to Amelia.
“May I please read what you wrote?” she asked me as we made our way down the stairs, passing elves on the way up. I scoffed at her and tried to move faster, a tricky maneuver in the cramped space.
“So that you can share it with your friends? No, thank you” I said without looking back at her.
“I thought you were going to read some of that ridiculous pirate story. It felt like fate; like you wrote it specifically for the Slop Shop”
“Thanks. That makes me feel so much better”
“I’m sorry!” she said, grabbing my shoulder and forcing me to stop, “I was callous, and I didn’t even think about you as a person. I was using you to win a competition, and that wasn’t right of me. Can you give me another chance?” I fought the urge to slap her.
“Whatever. It’s not like it matters” I said, handing over the sheet of paper. She let me go then.
She read it as we walked, and I hoped she would trip. To my dismay, she did not.
“You know, they might have enjoyed this one. It has heart” she said as she handed it back to me. She sounded sincere, but I was still tender.
“Enjoyed laughing at it, you mean”
“Well, those first two lines are kind of a disaster… but it’s clear that you really meant what you wrote. And I think it would have forced them to realize that we only put on the Slop Shop to make ourselves feel better about how our parents criticize us,” she admitted. Tears were running down her cheeks now, “You need to worry about good storytelling; I need to worry about using the correct color of ink for each accent on every letter. I’ve mastered storytelling decades ago and, still, I am being criticized for miniscule errors that you would neither notice or even physically see. I took out my frustrations on you, and it wasn’t fair of me. You should keep writing, Erica” she said encouragingly. I shrugged off the hand she tried putting on my shoulder.
“Thanks. That means a lot, coming from you”
“I deserve that” she said heavily, “Just, be yourself. And I’m sorry that a bunch of self-absorbed jerks who are terrified of never meeting the expectations and pressures put upon them put you through this” she said as we reached the bottom of the stairs.
“Your friends didn’t do this, Tara. YOU did” I turned around, finally feeling like I could stand my ground without worry of being arrested. She looked hurt at that. I wouldn’t let her just get away with blaming the group for her actions, though. She had sought me out on her own initiative.
“We’re a bunch of kids trying to cope with the knowledge that our parents don’t appreciate our talents, Erica. I got carried away. You don’t know what it’s like to live under the shadow of centuries of cultural expectations” she said. I was in no position to consider her plight.
“You’re right. I don’t” I said. “I don’t want to see you ever again. Goodbye, Taranelia” I turned away. I did not look back.
Amelia was there in the Rat’s Nest with a mug in her hand and a smirk on her face. I tried not to count the number of patrons eating, or the dishes I would be washing later. I wasn’t sure I could handle her “I told you so”, so I beat her to it.
“You were right. It was a mistake. You win” I said, hoping to make it to our room without incident. It was not to be.
“Hey, sit down for a moment” Amelia grabbed at my sleeve.
“Please don’t do this.” I begged her. Amelia rolled her beautiful brown eyes at me.
“It’s worth it, trust me” she assured me. I sighed and sat down, happily accepting the mug of spiced wine she offered me. I was looking to forget the evening.
“You’re one of us, Rika” Kendra said as she sat down at the table with us. I choked on my wine, spilling it on my front. I cursed inwardly, but she continued as though nothing had happened. “You did us all a favor, sharing your work. It’s special, clever, and uniquely you” she said, placing a warm hand on my arm. My heart was pounding, and I had a hard time hearing her words over the noise of it banging away in my chest.
“We are all misfits here. None of us has a place to truly belong, but we stubbornly cling to life anyway. You made us feel seen and heard, a gift in this society. For that, we wanted to repay you” she said, bringing up a package wrapped in brown burlap. I accepted it numbly, looking from her tawny eyes to Amelia’s umber ones. The candlelight played on their faces in the most mesmerizing way. Kendra had a golden glow in her sandy cheeks when she smiled, and I couldn’t keep myself from untying the plain string that bound the package if only to see that smile.
As the rough fabric fell away, I gasped in surprise. There were two leather-bound journals filled with many more sheets of paper in each of them than my parchment journal. Parchment had been necessary in the endlessly humid island nation I had grown up in. Paper tended to mildew or mold away.
I looked at the women sitting at the table with me, smiling at them. I thought I had cried all the tears I had for one night, but there were more spilling out of me.
“Open it” Kendra said, putting the top one in my hands. On the first page, there was a message written in elegant script.
It is hard to be yourself. It’s hard to figure out who you are, and even tougher to be that person. To reveal yourself to the world takes courage. To be true to yourself and not conform to society’s expectations takes strength of will and resilience. You are a shining example of all these things and many more. We have been so blessed to have you stay with us, though you may not believe it. For years, I have watched these people fade away, losing their will to shine with the light in their hearts. This world tends to beat out originality or authenticity, demanding that we all act as a uniform people instead of individuals.
You shook that apart. You came in here and reminded us of what it’s like to be young and brave, telling the world that we exist whether they like it or not. We had forgotten our courage, our strength. We had all grown so comfortable and complacent in our ways, accepting that we did not belong.
You reminded us that we do belong. We have a place in this world just as much as anybody else. I am proud of you and grateful for this gift you have given us.
When you write for yourself, you’re writing for all of us. You are in our hearts and our minds, and I hope we can be in yours as well. Please, remember us.
Your Biggest Fan,
Kendra of Kitland.
I swallowed the lump in my throat, and then took a drink from my mug when the lump caught. I flipped the pages to see that there were many more entries like Kendra’s, the handwriting varying from person to person, though a few were clearly in Kendra’s crisp script.
Something fluffy and soft brushed against my arm, and I looked over to see her tail was moving gently. I set the journal down and gave her the biggest hug.
“Thank you” I whispered.
“Thank you, Rika” she said, “please keep writing. I can’t wait to own the entire collection” she told me when we broke apart. I could have kissed her. Instead, I promised her I would sign her collection.