That wretched cocksure witch made me want to scream.
How dare she.
How DARE she?
No debt was worth that humiliation, I thought to myself. The nerve, doing that to me in front of those men, as if it didn’t matter? If she made any attempts to explain the issue later, I certainly wasn’t going to indulge her. No clever reasoning could ever forgive the blatant violation of trust. And what of her expectations from me? How did she expect me to take my duty to her seriously after having my pride stepped on like a belly-scraping roach?
My skin tingled and my clothes felt tight. Heat flashed over me. Anger and fury played games with my misplaced pride, calling up the ghostly vestiges of self-respect I’d once had. It seemed to appear from nothing, like sparks from flint, and if I’d thought about the situation more, I’d have seen the gross hypocrisy that existed not just in Elmiryn, but in myself. I was a Marked therian. What respect did I deserve from anyone? But I’d been away from others for a long time, and to have my trust violated in such a way made anger a slow thing to cool.
I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply—taking in the human scents around me. Things to hold onto while my other self writhed. I leaned back against the inn behind me and wondered why it was I separated my current state from my bestial one. ‘Her’, versus ‘me’. Us. Like two things could ever really ever occupy such an uncertain shell. Bitterly, I thought of how my animal counterpart would have stood up for herself given the great insult I suffered. My shoulders deflated with a sigh, and I shook my head, allowing my eyes to open.
“If She were in charge, I wouldn’t be here to begin with.” And this confession seemed enough to quell the stirring creature into silence.
All around, the smells and sounds of town life called to me, draped over me; it was warm like blanket—one that wasn’t mine. I stood awkwardly for a moment before deciding a small walk wouldn’t hurt. Ruffling my uneven mop, I stepped out onto the street. I could hear Elmiryn in my head, saying with amusement, “Good. That’s the first step. What do you do next?”
Gods, she was already becoming a voice in my head. How pathetic was I?
A group of teenagers stampeded past me, knocking me around in their haste to get by. As they continued out of view, I muttered shakily, “You try not to get run over.”
“That can be quite a task in this busy little town, miss,” a new voice said.
My head turned, and between the passing bodies I made out one man whose gaze locked with mine. Instinctively, I shrunk in on myself and took a step back. I didn’t look away, though. He had already seen my eyes—seen the otherness that colored them. Better to see what he did and react appropriately.
But the man only smiled, his mature countenance wrinkling with mirth at my reaction. Dark eyes peered from beneath a barely connected unibrow—a trait that on anyone else would have seemed brutish or unkempt, but somehow rested regally on him. He extended a hand to me and I could see the blisters in his palm. My suspicion increased and I took a deep breath through my nose. I managed to make out his scent from those around me. Citrus, oil, and earth mixed together with the common scents of a warrior; the scent of leather, metal, and sweat.
“Don’t be afraid, kitten. This lanky oaf means you no harm,” he said. His voice was calm and deep. I was reminded of my mother’s heartbeat when I slept beside her. Reluctantly I came closer.
“What do you want?” I asked, my eyes wide and wary.
“You seem upset,” the stranger said, brushing his overgrown coal-gray hair away from his face. He was seated on a thick honey-colored wicker basket, which was turned over and strained beneath the weight of his long body. His legs were bent as if he were ready to spring away at any moment, and the cloth of his crimson aketon was tinged a darker shade in some places. “I saw you come in with your friend,” the man continued, nodding toward the direction of the gate, “And next I know it you’re outside that inn with the most puckered face I ever laid eyes on.” He shook his head, looking at me sympathetically. “She did something brash, didn’t she?”
I crossed my arms and frowned at him. “Do you know her?”
The dark man chuckled. “Personally? Oh, heavens no. But her eyes say a lot. Sharp eyes, yes, but eyes that wander—like she’s looking for something. A little aimless. Careless in their own way. You could say I was just waiting to see you come out of that inn by yourself.”
“And of me? What did you gather from seeing me?”
“That’s a trap, young girl. I won’t go tripping that anytime soon. Too many men have stuck their foots in their mouths from a question like that.”
I shook my head and waved him off. “This is silly. I shouldn’t even be talking to you.” I started to walk away.
“I bet your life makes it hard to speak casually with anyone, kitten. But you should know that not everyone in this region wants your kind dead.”
I turned and glared at him, my eyes searing. “Shh!” I hissed. I went back to him and said through tight lips, “Most haven’t noticed what I am, and I’d like to keep it that way! And stop calling me kitten, for gods sakes. I hardly know you!”
“Sorry,” the man said. He held out his hand, “I’m Tobias. Not from around here, as you can probably guess.”
I didn’t take his hand. “Leave me alone,” I snapped. I stalked back toward the inn, deciding that finishing my bowl of stew seemed a lot nicer than dealing with odd men.
“I’ve got something I think you’d like. Something that might take your mind off things when they get hard.” he called after me, his voice carrying easily through the bustle that surrounded us.
Against my better judgment, I stopped. I looked back at him over my shoulder, trying to seem indifferent despite my curiosity. Tobias smiled, his large upper-teeth a little crooked but otherwise endearing in an honest, openhearted sort of way. He reached behind him, rummaging through things I couldn’t see, and a moment later he straightened again with a worn, leather-bound book in his hands. I frowned and turned fully as he stood and crossed the stream of passerby to hand it to me. He towered over all he passed.
The man stopped just short of arm’s length and held out the book. I thought for a moment before I took it gingerly from him, half-expecting him to grab me as soon as I did so, but he didn’t move. Instead, Tobias only gave a satisfied nod and went back to where he had sat and picked up a traveler’s bag from behind the basket.
“There. I hope you enjoy that,” he said, returning to me. He shouldered his bag.
I blinked at him. “Why give me this? What is it?”
“Poetry, thoughts, small stories. It has a little of everything,” Tobias said with a shrug.
“That’s it? This is what you planned on doing all along?”
“You sound disappointed.”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “I just…I mean…why?”
The man quickly tapped his long finger on my head before I could react. “Because you seemed like the grounded, intellectual sort. Or perhaps, a person who could be one.” He winked before walking away. I stared after him, mouth slightly agape.
“When you tire of the book,” he called over his shoulder, “Trade it for another! It’s the only way things like that should be shared.” And after that, even my keen eyes couldn’t make him out of the smear of the crowd—colors and scents melding together in a great and formless herd as the suns crept closer to the horizon. I looked at the book in my hand skeptically. There was no title to it.
I went to the basket and sat down. It didn’t sag nearly as much as it did with the man. Nervously I looked around me before I opened the book and began to read.
‘There was not enough in me to speak lest I drown. Any other dawn and this man would have been as brave as a minute—knowing nothing more than that moment’s charge of exhilaration and fulfillment by the sweep of his sword…’
There is no barring imagination from reality when walls shift and waver, and humor makes a home in bruises and dust. She delighted in the weight of her limbs. Lyrical language and capricious phrases darted about her head in a game of tag. Her tongue tingled with want of speaking these nonsensical fragments, but Elmiryn refrained, aware she lacked an audience.
When she came outside of the inn, the air was cool and the sky had shifted to a glorious velvet. The merchants were long since packed and gone, only a small crowd of folk wandering here to there, taking care of things before they were expected to retreat for the night. The warrior spotted Nyx across the way, sitting on a basket with her head bowed down and what appeared to be a book in her hands. She cantered towards her.
“Hullo there, my kitten in cutie’s clothing. What is that you’ve got?” Elmiryn chirped. She bent over and tilted her head to one side, her body swaying. “Is it because of what you are that you can read out here with so little light?” the woman asked.
Nyx sighed and stopped reading, her tawny eyes rolling up to glower at her companion.
Elmiryn pouted. “You’re still mad at me,” she grumbled asininely.
“That’s very astute of you, considering your head’s drowned in ale.” Nyx looked back at her book. “Step back, please. I’ve got a sensitive nose and you’re making my eyes water.”
Elmiryn knelt down with a flop before the girl and blew wisps of hair away from her forehead. “My head isn’t swimming just with ale, you know,” she said matter-of-factly. “It’s also swimming with information!”
“Lovely. I can just imagine what that would look like,” was the dry response.
“We’re going to Gamath.”
“Fine. Go to bed. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Elmiryn shifted so that she could stare up into Nyx’s face. She blinked a lot, trying to get a fix on the girl’s face, which just didn’t seem to sit still.
The youth looked up at her in annoyance. “What?” she snapped.
“I don’t want you to be mad at me,” the woman said, cerulean eyes lidded. She leaned forward unsteadily, her neck straining as she tried to look at Nyx full on. The girl sat back with a curl of her lip. “C’mon…please don’t be mad,” Elmiryn beseeched. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. Honest!”
The girl frowned at her. “Sweet Aelurus, you’re just like a child!”
“Sweet as a babe when drunk, my mother says,” Elmiryn said proudly. “It’s also been said that I’m more attractive when tipsy. I’d say I’m beyond that state, right? So what would you make of me now, Nyx? Am I…desirable?” The woman waggled her brows.
Nyx stared. Her cheeks became flushed, so much so that even Elmiryn noticed it in the poor light.
“Hey, it’s working!” The warrior said, her voice strained as she held back a giggle. “And to think, I didn’t expect that line to go anywhere!”
“It hasn’t!” Nyx huffed. She stood to her feet and began to stomp away. “Gods, I can’t believe you! I thought there was some level of respectability in you, but here you are acting like a callow, fatuous nincompoop!”
“Wait! Come back! I’m still apologizing!” Elmiryn stumbled to her feet, limbs in seeming rebellion; but as she fixed her eyes on Nyx, she shifted her weight and followed through with her momentum, her mind caught up with her desires and she found herself moving purposefully in a calculated line. The woman managed to stop before the girl, successfully cutting her off. Nyx stared at her in surprise.
Elmiryn held up her hands, her breath heavy. “Now wait! Just wait!”
“No.” Nyx said vehemently, the muscles in her face strained. “You’re acting like a buffoon, and I’d rather not talk to you like this. It’s shameful.”
“Shameful.” Elmiryn’s face fell. She rubbed the back of her neck and looked down at the ground. “How is it that you take words and give them so much meaning? Am I really so blind…that it has to be brought to my attention all the time?”
The Ailuran faltered. “…Sorry?”
The woman looked up at the girl, her wavering gaze somehow brighter by the drink in her system. The space between them seemed so great, and there was something vibrant, but flat about Nyx that made Elmiryn’s eyes water. She slowly stretched out a hand toward the girl, and when the youth didn’t pull away, she stroked her cold cheek.
Elmiryn trusted the contact.
“I like drinking. It isn’t a very admirable habit, but I do it when I can.” Elmiryn’s face went blank and she took back her hand. “I think differently like this. Sometimes what I come up with isn’t the brightest of ideas…but there’s sincerity here,” Elmiryn pointed emphatically at her head and looked at Nyx pleadingly. “I’m sorry. I’m. Sorry. It won’t happen again. I swear on my mother’s life.”
Nyx flinched and hurriedly took the woman’s shoulder. “No, no, no! Never do that. Ever. Not for me. The way you’re acting it’s as if you’re afraid I’d leave. I still have my debt to you, remember?”
“Your debt.” Elmiryn rubbed at her eye and placed a hand on her hip. Her nose tickled, and she wiped at it a little more forcefully then necessary. “That’s right. You’re still indebted to me. For saving your life.”
The youth nodded, now watching Elmiryn carefully. “Yes,” she said slowly. “That’s right.” She indicated gingerly toward the inn. “Let’s get inside. We should rest if we’re to set out tomorrow…”
She led Elmiryn by the arm toward the inn, where they entered. The company inside had dwindled to those that were staying the night. The stairs that led to the second floor were at the back across from the bar. Nyx pulled the warrior along to their room.
Elmiryn cherished this. The sudden care that rested in her companion’s touch. There were dying embers of anger in the girl’s eyes, but a softness was coming over them that the warrior wanted desperately to believe in. She wouldn’t say it, but Nyx was sobering. Perhaps because the woman rarely found herself in the company of such a person, or because any individual she found herself with in the past had never been expected to remain past morning.
“Nyx,” Elmiryn whispered as they entered their room—two beds on either side of the modest space, their things at the foot of each. “I lied earlier today. I did.” The warrior muttered as she was led to her bed, where she sat on the edge ungracefully. The world was getting too heavy. It didn’t swing or sway in an ideal way, but a way that made the woman wish to close her eyes and fall to nothing.
Elmiryn was beginning to feel small again.
Nyx placed her book on her bed and knelt down onto the floor, where she began to untie her companion’s boots. “What is it, Elmiryn,” she asked, distracted with her task.
“There’s some more conditions. Besides the one I told you. You’ve really gotta know.”
The girl looked up at her, her eyebrow raised. “Yes? What are they?”
“Stay with me. As much as you can. Please.”
Nyx frowned at her. “Elmiryn, I am with you. I told you, I won’t leave.” She tugged off one boot and set on the other.
Elmiryn shook her head, brows pressed together as she leaned down. “No. I mean stay with me. You don’t leave my side unless you’ve got to, okay? You’re my anchor. You’re my anchor now, and if staying with me means getting angry and calling me an unfair bitch in front of other people, then so be it—but don’t you go. Please promise me.”
The youth gazed up at her with a look that Elmiryn couldn’t quite pin. “All right… Okay, Elmiryn. I…I promise.” she said quietly.
Nyx pulled off the last boot and the woman shook her head, a smirk now flashing on her face. “And that’s another thing…” she began, voice low and thick as she laid back onto the bed.
“What?” the girl asked, pulling the sheets over her.
“Call me Elle. Having someone like you calling me by my full name just makes me feel old.” Elmiryn’s eyes closed for a moment. Then they snapped open again. “…And y’know, it really isn’t fair that I can’t call you a cute pet name. Your name’s already short. So unfair. That is just really unfair! …And hey, wait a second! You didn’t tell me what callow and fatuous meant!”
Nyx offered an exasperated smile and patted Elmiryn’s arm.
“Good night, Elle…”