My first taste of coffee in more than a month was a heaven that belied the supposed hell we had managed to find ourselves in. At least my mouth believed it was coffee. It looked, smelled, and tasted like coffee, with a dark roast that was slightly sweet.
“Gavelscore is the name of the nearest city,” Xen informed us once we had been left alone in the small kitchen. Edda had gone back out the door we had come through and Aldrich had disappeared up some stairs.
“This is going to complicate our finding the way back to Vaneesh,” Daria added, her eyes skipping around the room and coming back to us. “We can’t just go around asking people how to find the portal.”
“Our best bet is still to head to town,” Xen said. “I could not turn down the hospitality once it was offered. Not without offending them, and Edda looked fairly offended to start with.”
“What did you tell them?” Daria asked quietly.
“That we were travelers who had been robbed on our way to the city,” Xen replied. “Once I heard them speak, I knew where we were. Their speech is distinctive. One of their minor deities is the Faceless Stranger, who commands that those who honor him extend hospitality to all.”
“Amblin isn’t the only one you’ve met from here, is he?” Daria asked, turning to her food.
“No,” Xen replied. “When my birthmates and I were young, one of the caretakers was a woman from a town on this world. She told us many stories.”
“I really need to stop going places where people want me dead.” My magic hangover was starting to ease up with the liberal application of food and coffee. I wasn’t going to be up to casting any time soon, but at least I didn’t feel like my head was going to implode.
Aldrich reappeared then, clad in a dark blue dress, with a wide skirt covered in an apron, his long brown hair plaited and styled in circles around his head. He smiled broadly at us as he refilled our coffee. He asked a question, which I caught about one-third of, and Xen wiped their face on a napkin before responding.
He was moving around the kitchen as they spoke. Daria and I ate quietly, not entirely sure what we were meant to be doing. “Yes, andyttan,” Xen said, rising from the table. They started helping Aldrich clear our plates, giving me a look when I began to do the same. I sank back into my chair and finished the coffee in my cup instead.
Once the kitchen was tidied, Aldrich handed Xen a basket filled with leftover sausages and bread, then walked us to the door. Edda reigned in the two beasts pulling a wagon, like something out of Little House on the Prairie, if Pa Ingalls had horses that looked like overly large greyhounds. She grunted and jerked her head toward the bed of the wagon behind her.
“Our host will take us into town,” Xen explained. They climbed up first, then offered a hand to each of us. We were barely seated before the wagon lurched forward. Aldrich waved as we pulled out onto the road.
“Quick things to know,” Xen said in a hushed tone. “Gender roles are very strict here, and the reverse of what you may be used to. The society is matriarchal; the women control everything from religion to government. I have told them we are from a town many days’ journey from here. You must let me speak for us in most situations. There are many ways we may endanger ourselves here.”
“No argument from me,” I said, rubbing my face.
The road was fairly smooth, though in places the wagon bounced over rocks and potholes filled with water. Now that the sun was fully up, the day was warm and the air thick with humidity. The road was dirt and gravel, passing first through open fields, then as we neared the outskirts of the city, a sluggish river sidled up to the left side of the road, and trees filled the right.
The city was surrounded by a rock wall topped with parapets and punctuated by huge wooden doors that stood open but guarded. The wagon rumbled through the doors and made its way through streets lined with carts, shops, and taverns.
When it stopped, our benefactor said something to Xen and gestured with her chin toward what looked like an inn or tavern with a sign painted in faded yellow featuring a dragon and what looked like Wyld Wyvern for a name. Xen thanked her and drew us toward the doors. Inside, the tavern part of the building was largely empty. There was one woman at a table, laying out tiles with symbols on them, and one woman behind the bar. It was like walking onto the set of an old Western movie.
The bartender nodded at us. “Canne help êow?”
Xen glanced at me, then stepped closer. “Min frig and hir sweostor were uppan by bandits. We seke scead and werk. Mastery Comly lean êow rím agan arstafa.”
I was definitely thinking that Xen’s talents with languages were actually affecting me through our connection because I understood most of that. Either that or my Old English wasn’t as rusty as I had thought it was.
The woman behind the bar gave a stiff nod. “Cannae êow cran mete?”
Xen nodded. “Ay bâm til rostian.”
“Ay pro fremung weargbr on cycene, ford forth hêdan rýmet yonder. Day wyrht for in wýscan rýmet.”
“Aye, dances êow.”
The woman came out from behind the bar and gestured toward the stairs. We followed her up and down a mezzanine that overlooked the bar, then into a corridor marked by doors. She took a ring of keys from her belt and unlocked a door at the far end, then handed the key to Xen.
The room was small, with a bed that might fit two of us if we didn’t mind spooning. Beside the bed was a small table with an oil lamp and a basin with a pitcher. There were a few hooks on the walls for clothes and not much else. Xen thanked our host and waited until she was gone to sigh and close the door.
“This is the only room available,” Xen said. “I will work in the kitchen in return for the room.”
“We need more than just a roof over our heads.” Daria tested the bed and sat with a sigh.
“Do we have anything we can sell?” I asked, joining Daria. “A city this size must have a way we can make money while we figure out where the portal is.”
“Do you think you could jump us straight to the portal?” Daria asked.
I shook my head. “I doubt I could jump at all right now, and I saw absolutely nothing as we came through, so I don’t think I want to risk it.”
Daria nodded. She pulled off my hiking backpack and set it on the bed. I shrugged out of the smaller backpack and did the same. We didn’t have a lot, and what we did have would not go over well in a world as backward as this. Daria dumped out her backpack on the bed and I followed suit. Together we sifted through the contents, none of which looked promising.
Daria had filled the large backpack with some food rations, a large first-aid kit, some pictures of Habros and Kota, and various trinkets, none of which promised any great return monetarily.
In the smaller backpack, I also had a few rations, a small amount of first-aid stuff, and our communication devices, which probably wouldn’t work there. From the pockets of my vest, I pulled the bag of ward stones, with my mother’s necklace inside, xýpna pouch, and the buzzer for Katyk’s collar.
Xen pulled something from a pocket. I couldn’t see it, but I got a wave of anxiety from them as they examined it, then held out their hand so we could see. It was a dark red stone, faceted so that it caught the light, set in what looked to me like silver.
“That’s beautiful, Xen,” Daria’s voice was soft, reverent.
“It was a gift from Elder Pya, one of my forebears. It comes from our homeworld. It is said the stone was made in the fires of Havek Dor, the volcano that made our world and then destroyed it.”
I shook my head. “You can’t sell that.” My hand moved to the pouch holding the ward stones. I had less attachment to my pendant than Xen’s to theirs, and I realized slowly I was still wearing the pendant Daria’s friend had given me. Between the two, we should be able to at least pick up some more appropriate clothing for the three of us, if we could find someone interested in buying.
Xen had tears in their eyes but held their head up. “We can not eat this, nor wear it. I will ask the good Mastrey where I might find someone interested.”
“Mastrey?” I asked.
Xen nodded. “Yes, I believe that to be the safest title.” They repocketed the gem and its chain. “I should get down to the kitchen. You two should probably just stay here, for now.”
I raised an eyebrow. “What? Just sit here?”
“You don’t speak the language or know the customs.”
“We can still walk around,” Daria said.
Xen sighed. “Do not be gone long. We know very little about this place.”
“All the more reason we should look around,” Daria countered, standing.
I shoved the pouch into the pocket of my pants, then our things back into our packs before tucking them under the bed. I shed my vest and untucked my shirt to make my clothing a little less conspicuously foreign.
Daria followed my lead, then we headed out. Xen paused to lock the door, then handed me the key. I pocketed it, and Daria and I headed for the front door while Xen headed toward where I supposed the kitchen was hiding.
We paused outside the door, glancing around to get our bearings. The streets were muddy, though it seemed that under the mud was a packed layer of clay that didn’t give way under the hooves of the various pack animals. Across the street from us was a storefront with large glass windows with hats on display and beside that was a store window filled with dresses. Most of them were fairly plain like the one Aldrich had put on before we left, but there were a few fancier ones as well.
Daria pointed up the street and we started in that direction. The mud streets gave way to cobblestone and the buildings seemed newer, cleaner, and a little higher class. Here there were restaurants with painted windows and homes with gables and dormers, painted in colors I thought might have been bright at one time, but the heavy mist that seemed to be the constant state of the weather made them seem dull.
“It feels like London, circa 1880,” I muttered, tucking damp hair behind an ear.
“Where?” Daria asked.
I shook my head. “Never mind.”
“There’s a jewelry store,” Daria said, taking my hand and drawing me with her across the street.
The pieces on display in the window showed skill in metalwork, with silver and bronze trinkets with and without gemstones. Daria craned her neck to look further into the store.
“We could just go in,” I said, nudging her.
“Do we dare?”
I rolled my eyes at her. “Come on.”
I stepped up into the store, which was narrow with a glass-top counter that held the seller’s wares. A well-rounded woman with rosy cheeks and a quick smile emerged from behind a curtain, bobbing her head in our direction. “Goode marn, cannae serve?”
I smiled and ignored Daria grabbing at my shirt. “Goode marn, um ...” I exhaled and ran through a hundred responses. “Doon ye ... um ... buy?”
“Nun local?” The woman chuckled. “Gese, Ay buy. Cannae see?”
Daria was tense beside me, but I ignored her and pulled out the bag that held my ward stones, opening it carefully, even as her hand tightened on my elbow. I extracted the pendant, which was precious to me but had less overall sentimentality than Xen’s did. Mine was a family heirloom. Theirs was an heirloom to an entire race of people.
If Daria recognized it, she said nothing. It was a heavy pewter and ruby necklace that had belonged to my mother, and her mother before that, back down the Alizon line. The ancient pewter had been cleaned and polished and the ruby in its center was smooth and unfaceted. I set it in the woman’s hand, and she nodded appreciatively before reaching under the counter for a soft velvet cloth that she laid on the counter.
She set the pendant on the cloth, then turned behind her, coming back with a pair of glasses with a jeweler’s loupe over one eye. She examined the pendant, turning it over and examining the chain, nodding to herself. “Es go’d. Ay cannae go ye fîftig duckels.”
I had no idea if that was a good price, but I nodded in agreement, then reached under my shirt and pulled off the other necklace. The shopkeeper took it from me, examining it the same way. “Ay cannae go ye thîftig duckels.”
We needed money if we were going to get by. I nodded again. A few moments later, I had a purse full of coins and we left the shop.
“We should make an effort to blend in,” I said as we headed back toward our accommodations. Everything about us made us stand out, from the length of our hair to the cut of our clothes.
“We passed a barbershop,” Daria said.
“And that clothing store,” I added, tucking my newfound wealth into a pocket.
8 8 8
Several hours later, both of us sporting new haircuts in styles that would help us blend in and new clothes for ourselves and Xen, we returned to the tavern and our room above it. I had opted for a cut that would minimize the frizz that my hair liked to default to in the humidity we were dealing with.
The barber had cut it back, shorter than I’d worn it since my teens, parted on the right, and slicked down with a pomade that made it both shiny and mostly straight. She had thrown in the pomade as well. Daria had opted for something a little longer, a straight cut at about the level of the bottom of her ear.
I stripped out of the black uniform I’d been wearing since we had left the Vaneeshi army camp and pulled on the trousers I had purchased. They were black also, but lighter weight. Over that, I had a blousy white shirt with tapered sleeves that buttoned at the wrist and a vest that matched the pants in color and fabric. I had a jacket as well: a smart double-breasted number that came to my knees. I kept the boots I’d been wearing and topped the whole thing off with a hat that hit somewhere between a bowler hat and a top hat.
Daria was similarly dressed, though she had opted for a deep brown fabric for the vest and pants, with a jacket that came to the top of her boots.
We had learned a good amount and had figured out communication with most of the people we encountered, though some were admittedly harder than others. The small city we were in, Gavelscore, was ruled over by a governor named Belle MacInster who ruled in the name of the Duchess of Ellover.
Between us, Daria and I had worked out a story that covered for our odd clothing and dialect, though we said as little as possible in that regard. We purported to have journeyed from far away, lands outside of the duchy, and may have implied outside of the country.
Once we were dressed, Daria and I headed downstairs to the tavern, choosing a table near the giant fireplace that was warming the room. A different bartender was on duty, a woman in a striking red suit with a high collar and tie. Like perhaps half of the townsfolk we had encountered, she was dark-skinned, her hair cropped close.
Her smile was bright as she came to us. “Ye moost eren ûser ednîwe. Bae wel.”
Daria nodded to me, so I looked up at our hostess. “Bae wel. Ay de ic Thána. Daet ic Daria. We wolde liketh onlic supper,” I said, introducing us and asking for dinner. The dialect seemed to be a weird combination of Old and Middle English, with obvious differences due to developing in a completely different culture. My high school and early college fascination were going to serve me well.
“Goode. Doon ye foreberan stewe or venison?”
“Stewe,” Daria replied.
I nodded. “Stewe.”
The bartender nodded to us and disappeared behind a door I assumed led to the kitchen. She reappeared moments later, going to the bar before bringing two glasses containing what looked like beer, somewhere between a lager and a brown ale in color. She put the glasses on our table and went to other customers.
“You seem comfortable here,” Daria observed.
“I considered getting my college degree in English Language History.” I sipped the beer in my glass and nodded appreciatively. It was nutty and thick, with a subtle caramel flavor on the finish. “I love how languages evolve. I couldn’t figure out how that sort of degree would earn me enough to live on though, so I switched over to a management track. The owner of the bookstore I worked in kept me well-stocked in books though.”
She raised an eyebrow at me but didn’t respond as Xen appeared, an apron over their uniform and two steaming bowls in their hands. They smiled warmly as they set the bowls down. “I see you’ve been busy. How did you manage?”
“Took your idea,” I said, lifting the spoon they set down beside the bowl. “Sold some jewelry. Now you don’t have to sell yours.”
“What jewelry did you have to sell?” Xen asked.
“Just something that used to be my mother’s. I haven’t worn it since ... well, since Mom and I got to Vaneesh. It was buried down in my backpack. Nearly forgot I had it. Transferred it into the bag with my stones before we headed for Meerat.”
“We got you some clothes too,” Daria said.
“I should get back to the kitchen. I should be done soon.”
We had a lot left to figure out before we could begin looking for the portal back to Vaneesh. It would be dangerous to go around asking people about a magic portal. I also had not forgotten that somewhere in the world, Katyk was possibly free and probably looking for us.
Daria and I ate, sipped our beer, and watched as people came and went. As I was finishing my beer, a lively card game of some kind was happening at a table near the front, five women in moderate garb drinking and laughing as coins clinked in a pile between them. “I guess some things are the same everywhere,” I said.
A young man with dark hair pulled up in a low bun approached us, his dull blue skirt covered with a dirty apron that had once been white. He gestured to our plates, and I nodded, passing them to him. A few moments later, Xen joined us, their eyes skipping around the room before gesturing toward the stairs. Together, the three of us went to our small room, shutting the door as Xen collapsed onto the bed.
“Are you okay?” I asked, sitting next to them, and lifting a hand to rub over their back.
“I will be. Just tired. It has been a long while since I have worked on my feet all day.”
Somewhere in my memory, there was knowledge of what Xen had done before the war, something I’d seen during that long night of our bonding. They had been teaching at the University, languages, and Pixila, but prior to that, they had worked as a line cook while attending classes.
“You two seem to have adapted well today,” Xen observed, gesturing at Daria’s clothing.
“It was her,” Daria countered. “You would have been impressed.”
Xen grinned at me. “Oh, I am.”
“We got you some stuff to help you fit in better.” Daria handed over the bag that contained undergarments, two pairs of pants and two shirts, and an apron.
“Great. Thank you.” Xen set the bag aside and bent down to untie their boots.
“With any luck, we can find our way home soon,” Daria said.
“It may be a while,” Xen countered. “From what I have picked up on today, this place is pretty backward.”
“We noticed,” I said. “So far, we know the local governor’s name, the Duchess’s name, and that there is a Queen.”
Xen nodded. “There is also a city Healdor, or Mayor, and a Steallere, or constable. Big news stories of the day included a dead body they found down by the riverfront—a man who had his stomach sliced open and his genitals removed. And the preparations for the centennial celebrations in a month. Apparently, we’ll be expecting a royal visitor.”
“I overheard a little something about the dead body,” I said. “Speculation is that he was a low-rent body-boy, which I took to be the polite way to say he was a prostitute.”
“That was the speculation I heard as well.” Xen yawned.
I echoed the yawn, suddenly lulled by the beer and heavy food. It was still early, the world outside our one small window just starting to get dark. “I’ll go see if I can get us some extra bedding,” I said, standing.