People gave me weird looks as I walked down the road. I had no idea why at the time. I just figured they had never seen a ginger before.
I ran into Lewis and his crew, who were standing around outside the guardhouse, wearing uniforms instead of their ragged clothes. He looked at me with worry written across his face. A firm hand with a warm grip shook my entire arm, and he leaned in close.
“You alright there, Red?”
“Yeah, I’m fine” I said, waving him off, “What’s going on here? Are you a guard now?”
“Erica,” he said sternly, grabbing my shoulders firmly, “What happened to you?”
“Nothing!” I told him. He didn’t look convinced. I was going to push him away when I saw the blood all over my hand. Oh, right. “I tripped, okay?” I admitted.
He eyed me for a moment, before shaking his head with a heavy sigh. He led me, wordlessly, to a nearby storefront window. The way the sunlight was hitting it, it was practically a mirror.
I gaped. I was stunned. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. No wonder everyone had been staring at me.
My curly red hair was snagged, snarled, twisted, tangled, and it clutched at twigs and leaves like a miser holding onto his gold. My clothes looked like I was carrying the forest floor on my back. It looked like I had been buried alive, but whoever was doing it had gotten bored and stopped at my hips. There was dried blood smeared all over my face and hands. I looked like a nightmare.
It would not have been unreasonable for parents to use the threat of me carrying them away for punishment, like some monster. I would have been afraid of me.
I had been so focused on catching up with Amelia that I had never stopped to consider my appearance. Lewis pointed me in the direction of the inn Amelia was staying at and told me to head straight there and take a shower. I was not to talk to anyone before I cleaned myself up and changed into appropriate attire.
I walked through the city as quickly as I could, trying to keep a low profile and not scare anyone. It was not an easy task. Parents sheltered their children from me, and people crossed to the other side of the street. A guard was even tailing me, ensuring I didn’t cause any trouble. I was so anxious, I practically tripped over the sign for the Restful Day Inn, the place where Amelia had gotten us a room.
I knew that Billie must have paid us well. I knew it the instant I opened the door and saw the inn. We had not left Tarethia with enough coin to even look at this place too long. I tried not to make eye contact with anyone.
My concentration was broken immediately, and I failed at the not-making eye contact. I saw her standing by the counter, my mouth hanging open a little. She gave me an odd look before turning her head away. I didn’t care. I was entranced. I recognized those ears, and that hair. Could she be the woman I’d heard singing as I came into town?”
“What happened!? Did those bandits do this to you?” Amelia asked me suddenly, snapping me out of my reverie. She must have been on her way out the door, to come look for me. What luck. I shook my head.
“No. I’m fine. I just need a shower” I said, trying to get another glimpse of the elf at the counter.
“That’s a lot of blood, Rika. Are you okay?” she insisted. Well… I guess she’d get it out of me sooner or later. Might as well tell her on my terms.
“Yeah, I’m fine. I tripped on a tree root and hit my face on the trunk”
“Nope. This is what you signed up for” I grinned and leaned in for a kiss. She shied away from me, doing her best to bite off a laugh. She put one gentle finger against my lips.
“Sorry, but no. You need to go wash up. We’re room 202” she said, pressing a small key into my palm. I pouted but accepted the key happily. I was looking forward to getting clean again. I still hadn’t managed to get all the twigs out of my hair by that point.
I walked up toward the counter, taking the easiest and widest path through the dining area, and was about go up the stairs to the second floor. That had been the plan. I had every intention of doing only and exactly that.
I bet you can guess what happened instead.
The most gorgeous face I have ever seen in my life was standing there. Just, standing there and waiting for the receptionist to come back to her. She seemed so elegant and peaceful.
Short brown hair, the color of an autumn stroll in the woods, topped her head in a neatly messy pile. Her eyes were piercing and observant, taking in the entirety of her surroundings with a steady gaze. They are such a perfect shade of green that I have never found anywhere else in the world. To compare them with emeralds or other green precious stones would only be a disservice to the purity and clarity of their hue. Her cheeks were tinged with a blush, what little of it I could see under all those freckles. Her lips… her lips have always captivated me. I never had a favorite shape until I saw the shape of her mouth.
She was merely standing there, minding her own business, when I failed to follow directions and tried to talk with her. I have never forgotten how it went. It completely contrasted every hope I carried into that conversation.
“Excuse me” I said. She turned to look at me, and her eyes widened in horror.
“Can I help you?” she asked softly. Her expression reminded me of a peasant trying to escape from a troll without offending it.
“I just wanted to say that you have a lovely singing voice” I said, trying to sound encouraging and polite. She nodded her head with a tight expression on her lips.
“Thank you” she whispered.
“My friend and I have been traveling for some time now, and we have since learned that it is better to travel in larger groups. As you seem unaccompanied, would you consider joining us until we get to wherever it is you’re going?”
“No, thank you” she told me. She accepted the handful of coins the receptionist handed her and then ducked away suddenly, shooting furtive glances at me over her shoulder. The person behind the counter looked at me uncomfortably. I gave him a look that said he needed to mind his own business.
A hand grabbed me by the shoulder. The world blurred as I was spun to face Amelia, who was wearing a scowl.
“Go. Take. A. Shower” she ordered. I remembered, only too late, how desperately I needed to wash up before talking with anyone. Oops.
As someone who had grown up needing to bring a pot of water to boil before I could wash myself with warm water, it was a luxury I had grown less accustomed to over the years. It had never been worth the fighting it caused to make the water warm for just myself, and I was tired of making it for everyone else as well. It was easier to just shower cold.
And my showers had always been with a large tank and a smaller cup. Two buckets. One to hold the water, one to pour on myself. A very involved process with a lot of steps. Especially if you were showering outside and the water was losing heat with every passing minute. One risked frostbite on the toes if they took too long.
Tadegan plumbing is quite different from the plumbing in Minas Ohta. For one thing, they have indoor plumbing on the mainland. Self-filling storage tanks that provide endless water. Magic pipes that heat or cool the water to boiling or freezing respectively. One pipe of lukewarm water for the extremes to mix into.
I had become acquainted with the unusual taps in New Port and gained further experience in Tarethia. We’d had toilets and sinks, but that was it. There had been communal showers that used big tubs like those I was accustomed to.
The shower in our room here was like nothing I had ever experienced. The Restful Day Inn is not a two-star establishment. They are the premier Inn/Hotel in Midway; even today, with On the Way Inn offering competition. The level of luxury is unsurpassed. They have invested deeply in customer satisfaction, and they deserve nothing but the greatest of praise for their amenities.
I was familiar with the taps, yes. I was not, however, familiar with the showerhead above me. I didn’t even register it for what it was. Not until it was too late.
I had decided to simply turn the knob and find out where the water would come out later. I thought I would have to go grab a bucket that I had filled somewhere else, for some reason. I really don’t know why I thought that. It didn’t make any sense.
Room temperature water, which always feels several times colder than it really is, poured out across my back. I shrieked in terror and twisted another knob furiously. Wrong knob.
The water thickened almost immediately, and I had slush pouring out over me instead. In true Erica fashion, I rolled the last knob to the highest it would go while howling awkwardly.
The water was steaming in seconds. A welcome relief from the cold washed over me, and I began to relax. Another classic mistake.
The water went from pleasantly hot to uncomfortable, to scalding. It did this faster than I had time to prepare a plan. I began screaming again and ducked down to turn off the water entirely. My wet hair chose that moment to swing out in front of my face, and I misjudged where the knobs were. I cracked my hand against the tub, swore and stayed low. The boiling water was spraying above me, drizzling a fine mist over me. Wincing through the pain, I turned the hot and cold water taps down to nothing.
The shower settled back down to a reasonable range quickly. I inched each knob in turn, adjusting them with technical and precise motions until I found a temperature I could endure. My patience was rewarded, though my hand still throbbed.
The rest of my shower passed without notable event. I did drop the soap once, but I picked it up again without incident. I was able to wash myself and straighten out my hair to the point where I looked like a presentable human being.
I changed into the dress I had bought for the reading. That night having been awful did not mean anything about how beautiful the dress was. Even if it was a little cheap.
I walked down the steps, and along the hallway. I was taking my time, enjoying the view of the intricate craftsmanship. The door frames were elegant. Simple and beautiful in design. The doorknobs were shiny brass, lightly enchanted to clean themselves regularly. The keys were magical blanks that formed themselves to the specific lock it was attuned to. My key was no good with any door but my room, and the side entrances.
Heatless torches blazed happily in their sconces, Neverburning. Magical illusions. I wondered how much it had cost; and realized I’d never counted that high before.
I shook my head and turned my attention to the main hall. It made me feel lost, for a second. I hadn’t realized just how big this place really was.
An open space at least as large as the dining area and stage of the Rat’s Nest Inn was occupied by comfortable tables and chairs. The dining area proper. Beyond that was an area of open seating. Couches and armchairs gathered around coffee tables. There was the odd row of bookshelves between sections of seating.
Occupying a full quarter of the remaining space was the stage and backstage. The stage was readily visible from the front door. There was a proper theatrical audience seating area just before the stage. This place was a venue. A place where artists perform publicly, to put on real shows. Not just a random stage offering time to anyone who wanders inside, in the hopes of squeezing a few extra coins out of the regulars.
In the other corner, farthest back from the stage, was the bar. It was squeezed in just after the restrooms, as though it had been an afterthought. A dance floor dominated the space, but a few booths filled the back wall. It was at one of these tables that I found Amelia. She was not alone but waved to me cheerily. I wondered what was going on. She couldn’t be in trouble, somehow, could she?
A man and a woman were sitting there with her. Plates of decadent food lay before them, a smattering of drinks scattered across the table. It looked like Amelia was sampling the bartender’s abilities. I tried to get a closer view of the two people facing away from me, my heart pounding as I saw her ears.
I couldn’t miss them. They were freckled and tanned, like her face. They stood out above her hair and would have done so even if it had not been cut so short.
I sidled in beside Amelia, trying to play it cool. You can tell me how I did.
“Hello, Erica,” I said confidently, trying to offer my hand. I knocked the glass of water that was before me off the edge of the table instead.
“Hello, Evan,” the man said cheerily. I recognized his voice!
“Hello… Anastania?” The elven woman said slowly, unsure if this was a normal human custom.
“That was awkward,” Amelia chuckled, “I’m glad it worked itself out. Now, let’s have a drink before we get to business” she said, raising a glass. Everyone else raised their own drinks. I gave Amelia a quizzical look.
“Mind your own, and drink” Amelia said, pressing a glass of whiskey into my hand. We all threw one back, and I had no idea what was going on. I thought I’d never even see this woman again, and now she was sitting across from me, sharing dinner and drinks with us.
The man, Evan, he confirmed that he was the one who had saved me from the bandits a few days earlier. Amelia had been in town a full day already. Evan and the bandits had come in the day after her, and assured Amelia that I had been fine. The fox was named Karo, the one who had escorted me to the city.
Evan had been born in Cooper and had moved out to Midway to train with the Rangers. He’d always loved wandering in the woods. He had come here about a year ago and trained since then. When he had bargained for the bandits to be employed, they essentially took the job he had been training for.
After seeing me handle the bandits as I did, he thought it might be beneficial for everyone if he joined us. He worked that out with Amelia before I even arrived. I didn’t get much say in the choice, but I couldn’t argue; we could use his help.
Anastania was another story entirely. She had been in town for two months now. She was from the small elven community of Greenleaf, down south near the border. It was a city, but one far removed from any other major settlements. And she hadn’t even lived in the city. It was just the only one around.
Her parents had been unusual, for elves. They lived in a small cottage a few miles out of the forest. They spoke in the common tongue more often than their own, though they had certainly taught their daughter elvish. And they were farmers.
Now, if you’re like me, you did not understand the full importance of this. I didn’t at the time. It has since been made clear to me. To save you the trouble of needing an annoyed spouse to explain it thoroughly, I shall do so for you now.
Elves, generally, do not cook. Elves who live in the forest have developed a symbiotic relationship with a certain plant that predigests food for them and adds nutrients to their diets. It is exceptionally common, and highly prevalent among all the elven communities I know of.
Except for Anastania’s family. They still grow and cook their own food, and they still do not live in the trees. Though, they do have a magnificent orchard now.
Back then, I thought that sounded perfectly quaint. I complimented her singing and she replied with a deep blush and quiet thanks. Turns out, she was employed by the Restful Day. She was a performer. It was her job to get on the stage and sing as the evening wore on. It was nothing like she had hoped it would be. Often, her audience was composed of a few drunks who had wandered over and fallen into a seat. Still, she was supposed to put on a full show every night, except for the weekends when better-known artists were scheduled. She was “paying her dues”, apparently.
I could tell that she had only agreed to join our group because Evan was a part of it. The way she looked at him, laughed at everything he said, and was constantly brushing against him or finding innocent excuses to touch him made it obvious. I tried to bury my anger in the food and drink before me.
I felt like he was teasing me. Taunting me. Flaunting that he had her attention. I know that he wasn’t. But I felt that way, regardless.
Amelia always had a special touch. She could control any situation with subtle grace. This was a practiced skill, and she had mastered it some time ago. With seemingly no effort at all, she could make the strongest arguments that seemed incontrovertible. Her perspective was never offered, but it was always reached by those she chose to influence.
The way she did it this time was with an innocent, innocuous statement.
“Since we are all such extraordinary people, I say we form a pact here and now, to remain loyal and true to one another”
It didn’t seem like much to me. Amelia had saved my skin more than once, and I had no issues doubting that the others were remarkable. Evan had stopped my attempted murder and gotten the bandits their positions with the guards. Anastania was the most beautiful person alive, a statement I stand by today, and her voice was nothing short of magical.
I was the one that they weren’t fully sold on. Evan had seen me talk my way out of a situation, but neither of them had any evidence that I was physically capable. And to be perfectly honest, Anastania seemed a little uncomfortable around me.
“We’re all extraordinary? Well, what makes her so special?” she asked Amelia with a nod towards me. My mouth fell open. That was rude.
“Go on, tell her” Amelia nodded to me. I nodded, took a breath, and looked the elf in the eyes.
“I am a writer. I’m hoping to get my books in stores one day” I told her confidently.
“Oh” she said, looking impressed, “I thought barbarians couldn’t read” she added. There was a loud slapping noise, and I looked over to see Amelia with her palm to her forehead.
“That’s not what I meant, Erica!” she winced.
“What did you mean?”
“Tell them about the damn shark!”
I did. I told them the story of me fighting the megalodon. I did a better story writing it here, for you. I was drunk that night, telling it to them. And I really wanted to impress her.
Well, I got my wish. She was captivated the entire time. She may have been a little drunk, but she didn’t even notice Evan trying to get out of the booth past her until he touched her cheek with a light brush.
She squeaked, her ears flipped back and pinned close to her head, and then she fell out of the booth. I tried to reach down to help her up but succeeded only in adding myself to the floor. Evan stepped out and offered to help her up. She was looking me in the eye, a smile on her lips. Ice cubes sat on the floor between us.
“No, thank you. I’m fine,” she said happily to him without breaking eye contact with me. I wanted to say something, but everything sounded stupid in my head. Evan walked off, and Amelia hummed to herself. “I thought you were a crazy woman when I first met you” Anastania told me as we lay there, “and, if half of what you say is true, then I was very right about that. But I was also very wrong when I said I didn’t want to go with you” she said, reaching a hand toward me and placing it on my cheek. “I want to see the world. I’m not ready to stay here. I want to see the world. Did I say that already? Well, I mean it” she said assuredly. I just listened to her, in love with the moment. “I want to see the world, and I think you could help me stay safe while I do it. Will you be there for me?” she pleaded. I nodded, dumbstruck. “Good!” she smiled, “I’m so excited! I think we’re going to be good friends, Rika”
“Are you two getting up from there, or should we send you to the room?” Amelia asked, peeking her head over the seat. I smiled at her; my heart too full of wonder to allow my brain to find words. Words weren’t necessary. I had just made the most important promise of my life.