It was first visible as we turned the latest bend, this intervening copse of trees parting to one side to allow us vision of the place. Mom’s initial choice of destination yielded little fruit, I was told, but I was just happy nothing horrific happened so far. Of course, neither of us were satisfied leaving this unsettled. Every step I took at her side presented a fresh wave of anxiety over what might happen, either here or, even worse, at our next stop.
“Prisha,” she announced, a subtle hint of displeasure coloring her voice. “I have a colleague here who I’m fairly certain can provide some help. In fact, more sure of it than Seyasta.”
“Why come here second, then?” I asked. There obviously had to be a specific reason to that. It was probably far too prying of me to look into things like that, but other worries had dominated my consideration all this time. Being scolded by her felt a little less scary in the wake of that.
Mom resumed walking, prompting me to follow. “I’ve had some bad experiences here. I’m going to need some help from you, but keep an eye out for a guy named Kaill, okay? Uh, about a head taller than you, short brown hair, will probably reek of alcohol. Can’t miss that.”
Okay, she was not mad at me, points there. Who the hell was this ‘Kaill’ guy, though? And how was I supposed to know what alcohol smelled like? I knew what it was, but Mom said she was never much of a drinker, and I never got exposed otherwise. I guess it was supposed to be his behavior giving him away? And the hair. In spite of how utterly vague a description it all was. In any case, I wanted to know more, but it was not like I could just come out and ask what he did. Not when it would be even more blatantly prying into bad experiences.
“Got it,” I said with a soft nod. “Well, what did you need me to do?”
“I’ll be heading out of town soon after we get there,” she began explaining, “or rather as soon as I find where she’s been staying recently. In the meantime, it’d be helpful to know more about our general situation, so if you could scope out what rumors are floating around…” she trailed off, allowing me to finish.
“That would let us see how cautious we need to be, at least?” There was probably more to it than just that, but if so, the specifics did not come to mind immediately. It was another reason to have changed my appearance for this foray, though. Beyond the obvious one. This one was a little more tolerable, too.
“Give us a good grasp of the situation in general,” she corrected. “I’ll keep tabs on you, so don’t worry too much. Once your job’s done, we’ll probably be able to leave.” After my own acknowledgement of that, she fell silent for the remainder of our walk towards Prisha.
Just as we had done the first time, we split up before actually entering the village, trying to remove association between ourselves in case something went wrong. It was a necessary measure, we both knew very well. It made sense in spite of my emotions. In any case, she was well out of sight by the time I entered Prisha; it had probably been several minutes, and given that we were not the only ones coming in at this hour, nothing looked suspicious. At least to me.
Almost made me feel genuinely guilty, how we had to skulk around like this and act dishonestly. Certainly would look guilty to anyone else. Not like that was the only thing to feel guilty over… Right now, though, all I had to worry about was doing the job Mom gave me: collect some rumors. The quaint little tavern at the settlement’s heart was a natural place to start, I imagined.
Compared to- to that one place, though, Prisha was not laid out very logically. Few signs existed to point out general directions to places. Sure, the blacksmith had a sign above their shop or whatever, but that helped me little in actually getting to the right place when it was not in immediate line of sight. Seemingly had no other choice than to ask someone about it, unless I wanted to wander around like an idiot all day.
A deep breath, and I had my social face back on. Needed to keep myself looking composed and pleasant, and looking frustratedly in all directions was not that. Hopefully no one really noticed. Next step was finding someone who looked like they actually lived here so I could get some useful information on where an inn or tavern or something equivalent was located.
Second man I tried proved more helpful than the random traveler I accidentally selected the first time, and it was not horrendously awkward? Only kinda awkward. I really was not doing my best lately, and I could only curse that fact. To cap off the conversation in an equally embarrassing fashion, I thanked him with exaggerated body motions and left. At least my haste meant I did not have to see his reaction to that.
With his directions, getting to the right place was actually feasible, and soon the decorated entrance to Prisha’s main tavern came into view. It had a sign themed after a tree in bloom – one of the local species? It was a nice image. Well carved. After another moment spent idly tracing my eyes over its details, it struck me that I was seriously letting myself waste time by standing outside admiring a wooden sign. It made me more somber than upset at myself, though, because I could guess what was throwing me off. Maybe more accurately, what was making me crave distraction more than anything.
As I stepped over the dirty threshold, my thoughts wandered briefly to where Mom had gone exactly, but it was crowded out in the next moment by a concerted effort to actually do my job. A brief inspection of the interior revealed that it was not very clean. I guess it was normal otherwise, though, and I had nowhere else to work with yet, so it would do.
Several tables were available, but only one was occupied, for a total of two entire people occupying the room. The other person, who I could only imagine was the barkeep, seemed far more promising than a slumped over drunkard. I trudged across the dirt floor towards them and the bar itself, more than a little aware of being one of very few people in here. Seemed very weird to me. Really, there were not enough people in here to warrant my efforts, now that I thought about it. Who was I even going to ask, the barkeep himself?
As I neared, he gestured to one of the roughly shaped wooden chairs, and I seated myself. The natural daylight filtering in through the windows contributed to making it feel nicer. Several generously sized barrels took up the space directly behind him, stacked on their sides against the back wall of the room. Did they trade for all this stuff, or grow the plants nearby? If there was not something more important to aim for, I might have asked.
“Need a drink?” he asked, voice gruff even in its cordiality. “Or is there something else on your mind?”
“Mmmm… something cheap?” I requested after a moment’s thought. It would look weird to not get anything, but I had literally no experience with this stuff, and did not want Mom chastising me for spending more of her money than I needed to.
Without offering any comment, the man turned and counted down to one of the further barrels and filled a cup. It was swiftly offered to me, the liquid within appearing dark and smooth. Well, my first draught of alcohol, it certainly did not look bad. Here I had the idea for a rather smooth motion, and decided to take the opportunity. Gripping the cup offered to me, I pulled it closer and attempted to spark a conversation rather than immediately drink. I bet that looked plenty natural.
“I do have something on my mind, too,” I admitted, as it was as good a place to start as any. “Well, frankly, I wanted to get some socializing in since I have time to kill before, er- before I need to get to work. But, uh, not many people around, are there? Ehm.” Great job there. I only sounded mostly stupid.
He laughed. More of a chuckle, really. “Socializin’? It’s midday, friend. Not sure what you expected.”
That just made me feel even more stupid. This could not be what Mom was expecting from me- well, on that note, what was she expecting? I had little idea of where to go other than relying on a cliche like this. She did need me to perform admirably here, though. Maybe looking for some minor work around here would do better, since that is what everyone would be doing? Even if there was no time to look for gossip during that, I could get invited somewhere.
“I- uh, that is very true,” I laughed stiltedly, trying and failing to appear decently natural. “I guess I just have some time to kill, then. Do you know of anyone needing help around here?”
“What, a little work on the side? I thought you were waiting on some other job you had to do?” Shit, I forgot I implied that. Or directly said it, actually.
“I may not look it, but I have… quite good endurance?” Nice save.
Another chuckle. “And quite the need for some spare coin, I’d wager. Look, my friend’s got a lumber yard, and he’s shorthanded this time of year. You help him out, come back here together, maybe I help you out, eh? Oh, and the drink’s on the house if you agree.”
How the hell did this end up going decently? It made me want to laugh from relief. His next words were directions to his friend’s place of work – someplace a good half-hour’s walk out of town – as well as instructions to greet him on his behalf. ‘Tell him I sent you’, to be exact. Thanking him for the partially finished drink and the pointers, I made my way past the mostly empty seating and out to my next job. First job? First real job, I guess.
“Been too long,” I smirked at her, she who was walking into my home like she owned the place. That was just like her. I set the book I had been reading aside just as she made the first comment I’d heard from her in years.
“Are you still collecting those things? How much have you paid importing so many books? I still don’t get your infatuation with something so expensive.” Oh, great, she was laughing at me. That was just like her, too.
“Scribes deserve to be paid properly for such polished work,” I retorted, “but you seem too obsessed with your own little knick knacks to be able to appreciate it. You didn’t come all the way up here just to insult my choices in knowledge acquisition, did you?”
Without invitation – and granted, she didn’t really need one with me – Lamine took the available chair and sat down across from me, elbow unceremoniously gracing the table in the process. I cleared away several items, moving to stow them where they ostensibly belonged and make my guest feel more comfortable. Not like she looked ill at ease, hah.
“Tea?” I asked.
“Eh, sure. Make it quickly, though.” Lamine’s devilish grin punctuated the sentence in just the way that let me know she had gotten up to something good while we were out of contact. Oh that really brought some memories back. When was the last time she looked at me like that? We might only have been in our older teens then-
Right, right. Tea. Once everything was stashed away, I stepped over into my little kitchen area and started preparing things. Even from this distance, Lamine’s excited energy practically danced through the air over towards me. It might have even been palpable to the spiritually inert rats we both had to deal with. That spoke more to her mood than to their worth, though. In any event, why wasn’t she talking yet?
“You know I’m right here, right?” I raised my voice towards her somewhat. “I can listen to you. What’s got you so delighted?”
“Hah, is that what I am?” she laughed again. At least this time it wasn’t aimed at me. “Well, yes, I guess it is. I’m fucking delighted, Lamora. Listen. I’ve got a kid now.”
“…And? I know that’s not the type of thing to make you happy,” I pointed out, taking the moment to bring the water to its proper temperature.
“It’s not,” she agreed, “it’s about how it happened. In all those books you buy and read, you ever come across the name ‘Chorazom’ by chance?”
“What, that folklore demon-god-thing? Some recorded testimony and oral tradition from Karrian, some of our brothers’ experiments over on Taimont, sure,” I shrugged. The motion only briefly interrupted me from pouring both of our already-finished cups of tea.
“Christ, you got imported books all the way from the other continent?” Lamine groaned unnecessarily, eyes rolling so hard it had to have been painful. Should have known she’d take issue with that, stupid as it was. All the same, that sparkle in her eyes hadn’t diminished as I offered her her drink.
“Hey, don’t change the subject back to me,” came my irritated reply as I sat down. “Why exactly are you mentioning an entity like that right after talking about your kid? Because I don’t like what that’s implying.”
One eyebrow of hers quirked upwards. “You don’t like what that’s implying? Don’t tell me you’re-”
“No, I know,” I sighed in interruption. “I still can’t find it within myself to be surprised at anything you end up doing. Just tell me what happened, or better yet, how.”
“That’s more like it,” Lamine grinned again, adjusting her position against the table. It looked like she was about to start immediately, so her taking a sudden sip of her tea felt almost jarring, but she soon continued, “Anyways, it all started about a decade ago, during a trip to the far south…”
Quite good endurance, my ass. Even if I had an uncanny ability to push through physical fatigue, the day left me feeling drained in more than one way. How many hours was that, working to the bone alongside a bunch of sweaty men? Way more sweaty men than I had ever encountered in one place before. Oh they were nice, plenty nice, but I never wanted to do this again, ever.
Chop. Eli still had to finish that last batch, right. Chop. Most everyone else already set their down by now, including chop myself. Their banter made it apparent how familiar they were with each other, and contrasted my own utter strangeness. I chop was sure none of them missed my discomfort, given how garbage I was at acting. Chop. You know, that was actually very distracting.
The lack of further chopping was finalized by the very faint sound of an axe being set aside – something I was surprised to have picked up on – and a deep, contented sigh from Eli. A quick sweep of my eyes confirmed that everything we had laid out for the day was done, with the only remaining task being to haul this stuff in for storage. That meant I had to come into play again. All of us, actually, but the rest seemed to be enjoying their social break still.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, s3Du/ik[[44-,” he called out, making me wince at the name in spite of his amiable tone. Wait, keep me waiting? Was he taking pity on the ‘new kid’, as it were, or just wanted to avoid interrupting his friends? Either way, Eli had now made his way over toward me, seemingly intent on saving the rest of the labor for today as well.
“Ah, uh, no need to worry.” Good start, ruined by a couple seconds of silence as I mentally grappled with what to follow up on it with. It would sound weird to say I was fine being left alone, right? Like, it would sound insulting probably. So would asking why he was talking to me instead of his buddies. I assumed they were his buddies at least.
“…Mm, well, mind if we sit down? We’ve been at it for a few hours now.” Shit, he really was keeping at this interaction thing. No way to turn that down and not look- no, more importantly, I only came here in the first place to try and feel for any rumors that might have been spreading. This was not the time for anxious bullshit.
We took our seats on a log a ways away from the main group of workers, close enough to still hear them laughing amongst themselves – and it was only as I sat that it dawned on me how weird it was for me to have been waiting by myself without even sitting down for the duration. It was still fine, though, it was fine. Eli was just getting out some food he packed- wait, yeah, food. That stuff I forgot. How many times was I messing up in a row, now?
“Since I have not been in Prisha very long at all,” I suddenly began, trying to move past my general incompetence and distract both Eli and myself from it, “is this pretty normal for you all?”
“Well, you know, just coming out here and hanging out. Pretty casual,” I shrugged. “And your boss’ friend back at the bar, he was pretty casual about it too.”
His nod came accompanied by a bit of a laugh. “Yeah, well, we all know each other, especially around this season. Don’t have a lot of extra help, aside from you this time. Speaking of which, I hope it’s not too prying, but what brought you this way?”
I had rehearsed this in my head already. Blundering my way through things at the tavern made it something of a focus, so I could only be thankful to be better equipped for this one. While it still had to be vague, I was more confident in telling Eli that I had work that brought me up this way, and that something unexpected meant I had both extra time and a lack of coin on my hands.
“I see, I see,” he nodded again, declining to pursue further information. His discretion was the most appreciable aspect thus far. “Well we sure don’t mind the extra company. How long will you be staying in Prisha?”
“Not sure yet, but I will know soon, probably,” I hedged in just about the vaguest way possible. More importantly, I had to present myself as open as possible to later socializing, so I continued, “In the meantime, I am still free all this evening.”
Apparently once everyone had finished eating, and then some, we would actually start bringing all this stuff in. The others had a bit of a head start on that end. With how much they were having fun together, though, it hardly felt like Eli was holding anything up. I did try to minimize talking so he was not slowed down, but he was fairly insistant. At least it was in a good way. We also got called over halfway through, which greatly increased my acting workload.
More time passed. I even started getting worried about the hour, to little effect. Things seamlessly progressed from sitting around joking with each other to doing the same whilst bundling up and carrying our cargo; it was barely ten minutes before the lumber yard was emptied and we had taken to the mildly muddy roads. The sun was no longer visible in the sky, but maybe that was not saying much, considering the tree cover.
This was sorta nice. The day went slowly, and was as exhausting as I thought it would be – and that part was not even over yet – but this was more genuine interaction than I had really ever had before. Even if I was operating here under false pretenses. Even if I hated the identity I had to wear for everything to work, for my Mom. Hearing the people all around me gave me a sense of comfort I never had being alone or with just one person in that homey little shack.
Our imminent return to Prisha was noted by a couple in our party even before the village properly came into view, out of sheer familiarity I had to assume. As we entered, things seemed more abuzz now, likely due to most people’s work days having ended. Lights twinkled both near and in the distance, signalling further off cottages that still belonged to the community. This was also something that I only rarely had the chance to experience.
The leader of our group, Obenai, steered us all towards one building in particular – or, rather, the storage shed adjacent to it. This would be where we met back up with the man who hired us, who returned several hours before us to attend to business. Indeed, we were waved over once he noticed our return. Obenai went into the larger structure with him while the rest of us busied ourselves storing and arranging the few different kinds of wood we had gathered. This was easy enough, after Eli briefly laid out for me how things were meant to be placed.
“Alright folks,” Obenai began announcing after his return, “we got our day’s pay. Y’all keep that up; I’ll start handing it out.”
Hand it out he did. Once he got around to me and delivered my share, he took the opportunity to officially ask whether I would want to join them at the tavern afterwards. That was exactly what I had been hoping for this entire time, so I obviously accepted, pocketing the coins carefully and stretching my arms and spine somewhat unnecessarily. They were not particularly tired or achy, but I was cognizant of the need to keep up that appearance.
“Not a bad first day at all,” Eli commented with a smile, having brought himself to my side again. He really was dedicated to this ‘making friends’ thing, huh. “Do you have somewhere you need to be, check in on things?”
I shook my head. “Just told Obenai that I would be joining everyone tonight. Tomorrow, we will have to see. I might stop by again.”
“Well,” he chuckled, “I doubt we’ll be doing that again quite yet. It’s not exactly a full-time job or anything. If you’re staying the night, though, do you have somewhere to, er, actually sleep?”
“I was probably just going to use some of today’s pay on a room somewhere… I mean, there has to be an inn, right?”
“You walked into one earlier, didn’t you?” Oh yeah, that- well, I was dumb. And did not bother inspecting the building very closely. Suppressing the urge to shake my head in distaste, I simply followed along with everyone else as they began filing over towards the other end of the village, hearts seemingly lifted by the additional spending money. At my lack of response, he continued.
“I mean, you can spend your money how you want, but it’d be a shame to waste it. I have plenty of room at my family home,” he said with some measure of friendly insistence.
My biggest concern was the complete lack of contact with Mom, or specifically, how that meant I was unaware of her intentions, whether she had anything planned. Staying with someone else might mess something up, but I had no way to know that. Realistically, though, I had to conclude that there was little practical difference between staying at an inn and staying at someone’s house – in fact, the practical difference was that the latter did not waste money, which she would certainly berate me for under most circumstances.
“Alright, I see your point,” I sighed. Hopefully that did not register as an annoyed reaction. “After this, uh, gathering? I guess I will stay at your home.”
That answer definitely made him a bit happier, and more importantly, ended that particular conversation just as the tavern’s sign came into view. This signalled the others to get rather excited, our pace increasing as we neared it, and it also signalled my real job as being about to begin.
The interior was as I expected it to be: natural sunlight replaced by candlelight, and occupied by more people than just one guy and the barkeep. How things progressed from there was about as expected, too, to the point that it all started blurring together. I drank along with the rest of them, one cup leading into the next all too easily. My utter lack of experience here did cause me some worry, but the alcohol was not affecting me that badly. Come to think of it, would I have been able to ignore its effects completely if I had some time to practice that?
I felt each and every minute as it passed, especially as they collectively ticked over into what must have been the first hour, and my efforts still yielded little. What effort it was safe to expend, that is. My boldness steadily increased as people become more drunk, but Eli’s presence was a continuous inhibition. Even if he was not sober, it was possible for him to piece something together about my intentions if he was paying attention. Frequent excuses or requests were needed to pry him from my side, and during those intervening times, leading questions towards others were my tools.
No matter how much I tried, nothing relevant seemed to be coming up. Got plenty of local gossip and recent events, but none of that was necessary, even if it interested me somewhat. Was Prisha just too far north for word of it to have spread yet, or was something staunching the flow of rumors? Not like I had a way to answer that question, really. All the same, I spent the entire day and a good portion of the night trying to scrape this together; Mom had to be satisfied with my efforts.
Things definitely started to quiet down after the second hour had passed, particularly when a large group decided to all turn in for the night. Other than the guys I came in with, no one seemed to spend too long in here, which was probably the healthy decision to make. Only one person was really going overboard, but I could avoid him pretty easily. Eli constantly being around was actually beneficial there.
“Ya know,” Eli said, eyeing another pair of people leaving the tavern, “it really is getting late now. And what, that’s your fifth drink, right? You sure you’re okay?”
“I am very fine,” I assured him, focusing on keeping down the growing buzz.
“Is there anything else you need to do before the day’s over, then?” he asked, sounding more like he was wondering whether I would be going home with him now. Or was that too cynical of me? Taking advantage of it could let me get some time to myself, if just for a bit, though.
“Yeah, let me just, uh, check in on something. Where do you live? I can head over there after I finish up,” I lightly suggested. If I sounded casual enough, maybe he would not ask what I was doing.
His mouth scrunched in dissatisfaction. “It’s kinda out in the country. Don’t know if that’s something you could just find on your own, at night, y’know?” That was a good point, but I still needed this opportunity. Had to think. For a noticeable pair of seconds, apparently.
“Tell me where to meet up with you, then,” I conceded, hoping that would be good enough. I really had nothing else.
He gave me a brief set of instructions to a tree along the main road going north out of town, one that more or less marked where the path split off towards his family property. With one last request for me to be both swift and safe, he headed off, leaving me graciously alone. As alone as one can be in the heart of a village, anyway. It somehow always felt like there was someone tangibly close in these.
I made myself this opportunity, but I was no less lost in terms of how to actively reconnect with Mom and see what she wanted to do next. I did have the info she wanted, after all. As much as I could possibly have gotten. And if she was keeping tabs on me – whatever that meant – then would making sure I was alone after finishing my assignment be enough? That would make sense, right? I just wish I knew where she was.
Even my footsteps were unsure, bringing me hardly anywhere while these thoughts circled around in my head. On top of it all, the feeling of not being alone was getting stronger. I might have wanted to assume it had something to do with Mom if it did not feel so… unpleasant? Dangerous? No idea what was even making me feel this, much less how I could be in genuine danger, but I resolved to at least try to hide myself. It amounted to little distance before I heard someone behind me.
“Hey, kid,” an obviously inebriated voice slurred out, making me jump a little, “you’re all alone. Boyfriend leave you dry?”
Boy- was that referring to Eli? I turned around to face the voice, already disliking where this was going, and inspected the man’s features. My first worry, the one implanted by Mom’s earlier words, was realized: he stood about a head taller than me, with short, brown hair. And was obviously drunk. If this was who she-
“Oi, I’m talking to you, shithead,” he snapped at my apparent lack of response. As the man spoke, he stepped closer, and not even remotely in a friendly way. “Where do you get off coming into town and instantly getting buddy-buddy with my old mates? It pissed me off just watching you tonight, especially around Eli. People just traipsing into our community acting like they belong here, fucking little- Hey!”
I was certainly in no real danger here, but how the hell was I supposed to resolve this? Absolutely no clue. I could not even begin to fathom what had him so upset in the first place, but it seemed like this was getting out of hand, fast. So, I started leaving, equally fast. Avoiding a violent escalation was about the best I could come up with in a panic, so I simply ran into the nearest alley. Easier to lose him like that, and it would put me in a position to have Mom come back – those were my thoughts.
He was not as slow as I expected, given his intoxication, but that on its own should have been fine. What was worse was the massive wooden wall blocking off the end of the alley, something I had not been able to see before turning and taking these vital steps into this space. Could I scale that? More importantly, in time? I did not want to get confronted again, or really learn anything more about why that guy was acting like this, fuck all of it.
“HEY, jackass!” came his somewhat worn exclamation from directly behind me. Probably thinking me cornered, he took several slow steps forward whilst speaking. “Who the hell bolts it into an alley when someone just tries talking to you? At least give me a fucking explanation for why…”
His words stopped reaching my ears, slowly fading out. Mom was there, at the mouth of the alley. My thoughts stopped, and in the next moment, I suddenly had no idea why I was bothering to run away from this man. Why I was bothering not to kill him. Why Mom was smiling at me from such a distance.