“Um...Jae?” she called out into the dark. “I can’t see anything...”
“Give me a second,” Jae replied from somewhere ahead of her. And suddenly the space around them exploded with opaque light. Jae stood next to the wall to her left, his hand falling away from a large orb set into a metal bracket on the wall. He regarded her with a smug grin. “Impressive isn’t it? Maevis made them for me and Hev made the brackets. Connar and helped me put them in since I haven’t the first clue on this kind of thing. I mostly watched and held his tools for him. Oh-! Connar’s another human. He hangs around Hev’s workshop, but he kind of has his own space near the stables. He was probably the one to make your marker there.”
Nenani touched the metal trinket resting against her clavicle. “They said there were four other humans plus me.”
“Yep. You, me, Barnaby, Connar, and Sawyer. And Kent, but he passed away a few years ago,” Jae replied. He turned his back to her and walked down the tunnel. Just as the orb’s light seemed to be fading, another orb lit up, banishing the shadows to the farthest reaches of Nenani’s peripherals. As one orb illuminated the tunnel, the one before dimmed back to dark. It was as though the light inside was following them, bouncing from orb to orb as they transversed the stone tunnel’s pathways. Ahead of them was a small collection of steps. “Most humans who find there way here don’t stay very long. The war’s still pretty fresh on a lot of folk’s mind and most of them haven’t really forgiven Vhasshal for everything that happened. Most either go back to where they came from or join one of the hill tribes. Warren’s set aside a good bit of land for them to settle and make their own. Most giants stay away since it was made illegal to bother them without express permission.”
“What was the war about?” she asked.
Jae stopped to stare at her. “You don’t know?”
She shook her head. “Everyone always talks like I should already know, but no one ever really explained why the war happened.”
“Well. Long story short: someone killed the crowned Prince of Vhasshal. Never found out who. But they were human, whoever they were. And it happened in Silvaara. The Blood King got pissed and utterly destroyed Silvaara over it. Killed the King of Silvaara and every blood relative and most of the nobility for that matter. My family fled with most of the capitol. We weren’t some members of a noble house or anything like that though. We made shoes,” he said, continuing on and up the steps. “The Blood King earned his name, killed a shit ton of people, brought back the ancient tradition of eating humans, and got all but one of his sons killed because he was a fucking nut job. Until Warren and the last few folks with their sanity intact rose up and killed him.”
“...what happened to your family?”
“The war was over. But I didn’t know it at the time. We’d been hiding from the blue coats up in the hills for a few days and were making a move for Dander Pass. It’s a clear shot to the nothern plate from the moors that way. We stopped to rest our ox and to get a drink, but I was asleep in the cart. Someone had poisoned the pond. I only woke up when the ox died and it flipped the cart over. Everyone was dead. My Dad. My Mom. Everyone.”
“Don’t be. They were hardly the only ones who died and theirs was quick and painless. Not many got such a luxury,” he replied. “Anyway, Warren and Keral showed up not too long after. I tried to hide, but Keral sniffed me out pretty easily. I guess I was pathetic enough to earn the King’s pity because he took me in and I’ve lived here since. He even taught me to read and write. Kent showed up about two years after that and Connar and Sawyer….hm, about three years ago? No, Connar was three years ago and Sawyer was two. And now you.”
“Who is Keral?” Nenani asked. “I keep hearing that name.”
“Have you not met him either?” Jae asked. “Damn. I’m gonna have to take you on my rounds and introduce you to everyone. Keral’s Captain of the Rangers. The blue coated bastards walking around like their shit don’t stink.”
Nenani gulped, as she recalled her recent and unfavorable meeting with the blue coats. “...I’m don’t think I wanna meet him.”
Jae paused and looked back at her with genuine curiosity. “Why’s that?”
“...I’ve already met a few of the Rangers,” she replied. “It wasn’t a good experience.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Which one?”
“Him? Ha! That fucker’s half-a-penny short of a half-a-penny,” replied Jae as he turned and continued on. “What’d he do?”
“He tried to eat me,” she replied acidly.
“Ooooh, that’s not good. Anyone tell Keral about it?”
“Bart did, yeah.”
“Ah, well, then there’s no worry. Thrist’s gonna regret ever looking at you wrong after Keral’s done with him. It’s a big no-no to mess with any of us with markers. We’re under the King’s personal protection. So messing with one of us is paramount to giving Warren the finger. Oh, Warren’s the King’s name. Don’t know if anyone’s explained that to you yet. I never call him by any honorifics though. Special privileges, being his ward, I guess.”
Jae paused and turned back to Nenani and pointed to her. “You should probably stick to all the formalities though.” He turned back around and continued onward. “Anyway. Keral’s a decent guy. His sense of humor sucks, but he’s a good fella’ overall. He’d never hurt ya. Especially since your Farris’s.”
Nenani made a noise of confusion.
“On the account of them being brothers and all,” Jae replied casually.
Nenani stopped in her tracks, regarding the older human ahead of her. “Farris has a brother?”
“Yup. Twin actually,” he said and then laughed. “But they’re really easy to tell apart. One’s always grinning like an idiot and the other always looks like someone pissed in his ale.”
Nenani smiled at that and then hummed as she contemplated the notion of there being another giant walking around who looked just like Farris. Someone with the same red hair, same square jaw, and the same...green eyes…
A blue coat Ranger with sharp green eyes. Her heart skipped a beat as vague memories surfaced. She could almost feel the chill of a cold night from so long ago brush against her arms and the smell of trees and dirt. An echo of a voice…
‘Hello there, my little sweetling...’
There was an uncomfortable knot in her stomach, but Jae seemed to pay no notice as he continued through the tunnels, making a sharp right and up another flight of stairs. The light followed them, bouncing from orb to orb, illuminating their way. She jogged up the stairs to catch up, her head reeling a bit as she tried to make sense of the jumble of thoughts and feelings bouncing around in her skull.
“Maybe another day I’ll introduce you” Jae was saying. Her head snapped to attention and she opened her mouth to decline the offer, but found her voice failed her. “He’s a guy you want on your side, that’s for sure.”
Nenani picked at an uneven section of her fingernail, trying to find some words to spit out, but found her mouth too dry. Her heart hammered in her chest.
Why did these memories scare her so much?
“You okay?” The concern in Jae’s question startled her out of her thoughts and she looked up to see him regarding her with a curious, but slightly worried expression. “Is it the tunnels? I know they’re kind of creepy, but there’s nothing down here. Just us. None of the other humans even use them. Connar and Sawyer never really come inside the castle and Barnaby never leaves the library without Maevis. So it’s just you and me.” A pause. “Are you afraid of the dark or something?”
Nenani saw an opening to dismiss her behavior and jumped on it. “A little,” she confessed. “I’ve never been inside a castle before all this. It’s...a little strange for me.”
Jae just smiled indulgently and gestured for her to follow him. He waited until she was on the same step as her and put his arm around her shoulders.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I know these tunnels like the back of my hand. Better even. I never pay attention to the back of my hand. Heh. Anyway, we’re almost to the big stairs. Those will take us to the tower. That’s where the big library is. It use to be a watch tower during the war, but Warren gave it to Maevis and he filled it with books so now it’s the big library. Or King’s library. But Warren never goes up there. He has his own study. It’s pretty impressive too.”
“The one with the big window? The colorful one?”
“Yeah, that’s the one,” Jae nodded. “You’ve seen it?”
“That’s where I was taken for judgment.”
“...judgment?” Jae asked with a suspicious raise of an eyebrow. He smirked at her. “What’d you do?”
She shrugged. “...I stole fruit from the kitchens.”
“Why?” he asked, sounding genuinely confused.
“I was hungry,” she replied defensively with a furrow of her brow.
Jae laughed at her pouting. “So you thought it was a smart idea to steal from the King of Vhasshal? Didn’t your parents tell you the horror stories about this place? Giants are suppose to eat naughty children, right? That’s what the stories say. Well, I suppose the ones who would actually eat you don’t give a rat’s ass whether you ate your vegetables or finished your chores that day.”
“Yeah,” she replied. “I knew the stories. But I didn’t mean to come here. It was an accident. I got stuck in a basket that was on its way here. For the wedding.”
Jae seemed to consider her as though he was only now getting a true look at her. “Where are you from, anyway?”
Jae choked on empty air, staring at her with wide eyes. “Wow! That...is not a small distance. You spent, what – how many days in that basket? By wagon? Damn.”
“A few days, yeah,” she replied. “Yale caught me when I tried to run. I was taken to the King later and he gave me to Farris. I met Lolly too. I like her. Her and the other ladies. They’re nice. They made me this dress.”
“Oh, sure,” Jae replied, making a face. “So long as you’re on her good side. Do me a favor if you see Lolly, don’t tell her you saw me. I’m hoping the whole gravy fiasco will blow over in a week or so and I can sleep in my own room again.”
They continued on through the tunnels until at last they were standing at the base of a wide set of grand stairs. Each stone step was wide enough for eight men to stand side by side and had inlaid carvings of figures and trees and rivers. An example of exquisite mastery of the masonry arts. Each step was different and seemed to tell a story as one climbed upwards. Along the walls, flashed colored tiles. Deep blues, greens, and gold. A small spot of red among waves of orange and yellow. Figures dressed in finery walking through forests, hand in hand. A castle upon a hill. A winding river. It was a marvelous work of art. It seemed such a waste for it to be lost down in some dingy tunnel. And then the thought struck her that it seemed quite odd that within a giant castle, were tunnels that were decidedly human sized.
“Who built these tunnels?” she asked as they began to climb the large stairs.
“That’s the great mystery!” Jae replied, his eyes alight with a fierce passion. “I’ve been trying to figure that out since I found them years ago. It was an accident that I even found a door, but they’re all over the place. All hidden in plain sight. Like servant’s doors. But then why all this?” he waved to the mosaics and fine masonry. “I can get to pretty much any part of the castle through these tunnels. But the weird thing is that no one seems to know why they’re here. I mean, obviously they were made for humans, but why? Warren didn’t know they were here and he was born and raised in this castle. Barnaby scavenged through every book in this place. Nothing.”
“How odd,” Nenani remarked, running a hand along the tiled mosaic as she moved up the stairs. “They’re so pretty.”
“Yeah. Barnaby did some sketches of them for Maevis a while back since he cant’t come in to see them. He has some theories, but just that. Personally I think they’re all hooey.” A pause. “Don’t tell him I said that.”
At the top of the stairs was a carved archway. The stone had been carved to appear like two willowy trees growing from the slate flooring and up to meet in a delicate archway, their branches intertwined.
“It’s so pretty,” Nenani breathed, eye eyes darting around to take in all the details of the stonework. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
“I guess I’m so use to it now,” Jae commented. “That I don’t appreciate it as much as I should. There’s other parts of the tunnels that have some nice masonry and mosaics, but I’d have to say this area has the nicest of them.”
He walked up to the center of the archway and put his hands against the seemingly solid stone. A fine line of bright light formed at its center as he pushed and the stone parted into a set of double doors. A gentle gust of wind blew towards them, bringing with it the scent of parchment and ink and the deeper rich smell of mahogany.
Jae walked through with easy strides while Nenani took her time. She eased into the new space, blinking as her sight adjusted from the dim gloom of the tunnels. Once her vision cleared, she was met with a magnificent sight. It was obvious that the big library was housed in a tower by the impossible tall cylinder shape of the room. A set of ornate mahogany and iron spiraling walkways swirled around and around to meet at a platform at the ceiling hundreds if not thousands of feet above them. And the walls were covered, every visible inch, in shelves that were filled to bursting with books and tomes and manuscripts and scrolls and all manners of writings. The floor was a gorgeous pattern made of light and dark wood patches that looked as though they had been woven together into the floor. The wood mosaic floor had been flawlessly polished, leaving such a reflective surface that Nenani could see her own reflection. It seemed presumptuous to walk across it with her dirty shoes. At the center of the round room was a table, made with the same level of craft and skill as the floor. The four thick legs were beautifully carved and finished with inlays of mother of pearl. A single door, set in between the books at the ground level and partially obscured by a purple velvet curtain was the only other feature to the room.
Nenani stood still, looking up and all around her, her jaw hanging open in wonder. Jae regarded her with a smug grin. “Impressive, huh?”
She nodded dumbly, spinning in slow circles as she tried to take in the room fully.
“Halooooo!” Jae called out, walking further into the room towards the large table. “You up there, Barnaby?”
“Indeed, I am,” came a muffled voice from above them. “Just putting the finishing touches on the new pages. Come on up and take a gander, young master Jae.”
“Be right up,” Jae replied. He glances over his shoulder and gestured for her to follow him. As she did so, she was wondering how in the world they were going to get on the table from the floor. She had been expressly forbidden from table climbing. Even if she had not been so, Nenani would have not been at all keen at doing so. Perhaps it was a trick of the eye, but this table seemed much higher than the one in the kitchen.
And then she noticed a feature to the table that was very unexpected. Set within the one of the legs, carved from the thick dark wood, was a human sized staircase. Hidden from view unless standing under table, there was a groove cut into inside of the leg, sloping upwards in a gently arch, hidden by the decorative arched panels on the table’s sides. Jae was waiting at the bottom. He held his hand out to her and she took it with a smile and he helped her up the first few steps. They were much more narrow than they first looked and part way up, she bent down to all fours and began to climb it more like a ladder than stairs. At the top was a landing, set into the table top and a single step up to the table’s surface proper. She waited on the landing until Jae came up beside her.
The table was a mess.
Giant sized books were sprawled out at one end as well as several glass jars and tubes filled with various liquids in varying colors of vibrant hues. The other side was dominated by an oddly sized book, too small for a giant and far too large to be of practical use to a human, and it was propped up on an easel. She surmised that if it were placed on the ground, it would be as tall as a fully grown man. A human sized table sat close by and pallets of color paints and inks and water colors and dozens of brushes, both clean and used, sat about in organized chaos. A bucket of murky colored water sat to the other side of the easel. From behind the bulk of the book, a hand appeared and dipped a brush into the water and disappeared before reappearing on the other side where it was dipped delicately into a small tub filled with yellow paint.
“So I brought you a surprise,” Jae said as he walked closer. Nenani followed belatedly behind. “One I think you’ll actually like.”
“Oh?” asked the voice from behind the book with a chuckle. “That would certainly be a nice change, wouldn’t it? What would it be then, my lad?”
“Well, if you look up from your paints for more than a second,” Jae said, though he was smiling brightly. “You’ll see for yourself.”
The face of an old man popped out from behind the bulk of the large book. Tufts of white hair sprouted from the sides of his balding head. The bare skin looked as polished as the floor far below them. A pair of thick spectacles rested on a curved hawkish nose. The glass magnified the pale blue eyes that peeked from behind them and they blinked curiously at Nenani as their owner made sense of what he was seeing.
“Oh my goodness!” The old man exclaimed. He rose from the small stool on which he had been perched and he came into full view. He was a lanky man of some years, marked by his white hair, ample wrinkles, and the slight stoop to his posture. He was dressed in a plain brown tunic and dark trousers with a tan apron that had splatters and flecks of colors from his various paints. His sleeves had been pulled up around his elbows and as he rounded the table, setting his brush down as he did so, he rolled them back down. He wiped his hands briskly with an old gray rag hanging at his hip as he ambled over to Nenani, a bright and happy smile stretching his face. “What a wonderful surprise indeed! It is very good to meet you, my dear. I am Barnabas MacVoy Devonshire, but it would please me greatly if you simply call be Barnaby.”
He reached a hand towards her and she instinctively offered her own. Instead of shaking it as Jae had done, the old man bowed lightly and brought her captured hand to his lips and placed a gentle kiss onto it. He looked up at her from his bow through his spectacles and thick white eyebrows, asking, “What may I call you, my dear child?”
“Nenani,” she replied, feeling oddly flustered at the formality of the greeting. “M-my name is Nenani.”
His eyes twinkled and he placed his other hand over hers, sandwiching them together. “Such a lovely name. It is my greatest pleasure to meet your acquaintance, Nenani.”
“She’s Farris’s new pet,” Jae supplied.
Barnaby frowned at the young man. “Now, you know how much I detest that word. That is a gross misrepresentation of our roles, as should you know, young man!”
“I’m just teasing you, Barney,” Jae replied with a grin.
Barnaby shook his head and murmured something under his breath as he turned his attention back to Nenani. His frown melted away back into a pleasant and curious smile. “So, Farris, eh? I hope he and those boys aren’t being too rough with you. They can be quite a rowdy group. Good souls, to be sure, not a bad apple among them. But we can hear their brawls from here some days.”
“They are, a bit. Yeah,” she replied with a smile. “But they’ve been nice to me. They tease me a lot, though.”
“Oh? How so?” the old man asked.
“The usual sort, probably,” Jae added. “Acting like they’re gonna eat you? Or put you into a pie? Or the stew? Like I was saying before, Farris needs some new material.”
“Oh, I do hope someone explained the rules to you,” said Barnaby, the joy gone from his face and replaced with a stern and serious expression. “King Warren has explicitly forbidden the consumption of human flesh in Vhasshal. It’s a grave crime indeed.”
“Doesn’t stop everyone though,” said Jae lowly. “Some got a taste for it during the war and have been having a tough time giving it up. Like Thrist.”
“Thrist?” Barnaby asked with distaste. “Is he not that foul mouthed Ranger who was found urinating on the portcullis during spring festival last?”
Jae seemed to ponder that. “You know,” he said. “I think it was him. Anyway, he tried to take a bite of this one. So Bart sicced Keral on him.”
“Oh my. Well that does not sound like you have had the smoothest of introductions to our strange side of the world,” the archivist said, patting her hand in sympathy. “Very unfortunate. But in any case, you should know you are perfectly safe here within these walls. A few simple rules to follow will make sure you’ll be avoiding any unsavory characters who might not have the purest of intentions.”
“Yeah. Warren’s done a pretty good job of weeding out the crazy ones who would rather have us as dinner than as an acquaintance,” Jae was saying. “But they’re kept in line for the most part. That’s why each of us is given to a Vhasshallan. Their job is to pretty much babysit us.”
“I would most certainly not refer to it as such, but yes. In principle, young master Jae is correct. Each human who lives on castle grounds is assigned a guardian,” said the old archivist. He pointed to Nenani’s marker. “That little ditty there is very important. Never lose it.”
He reached into his tunic and pulled out a marker of his own. The leather strap was well worn and the metal medallion hanging from it lacked the bright sheen that her own possessed. He pulled it from around his neck to show Nenani, flipping it so the Vhasshal Crown’s crest faced skyward. “This is the King’s seal here, my dear. That is very crucial. It means we are under the King’s protection. In a way, making us all wards of the crown.”
He pointed to her marker.
“Your’s there has Farris’s seal and the Crown’s. Meaning you’re both ward to the King and to Farris.” He flipped his marker over to reveal another crest. “And this here is Maevis’s seal and means he is the Vhasshallan who watches over me.”
“I still make the argument that you do more watching over him than he watches you,” Jae said with a grin.
“There might be some small truth to that, perhaps,” the archivist admitted with an amused grin of his own. “But we watch out for each other to be sure. We both can be forgetful or far too engrossed with out individual passions sometimes. It’s good to have someone to watch your back.”
“And remind you to eat,” Jae added. “Which reminds me: have either of you eaten today? I don’t see any breakfast plates.”
The archivist replaced the marker around his neck and tucked it into his tunic. His eyes trailed upward, a finger tapping thoughtfully against his chin. “We had some tea not too long ago. I think. What time is it?”
Jae rolled his eyes and looked to Nenani, waving at the older human. “See? This is why I make my rounds. I came up here once and neither of them had eaten for two days. How do you just forget to eat for two days?”
“Well, Maevis had made a profound breakthrough regarding one of his spell theories and I was in the throws of the most splendid inspiration, I simply had to finish the piece before the spark left me,” the archivist defended himself. “Oh, but you’ve still to see my current project! Come, come, tell me what you both think. This way.”
The old man pulled Nenani along and around the small table to face the other side of the large book. The left page was a wall of delicate text, written in gilded ink that shone when the light hit it. The border surrounding the wall of words was exquisite and intricate with fine lines weaving around a strong red line. Flowers and fruits were clustered at the corners. And then there was the right page. A full length illustration of two figures, a man and a woman, both finely dressed in gold and white and red, standing side by side with their arms interlocked. They were smiling at one another, their profiles revealing regally sculpted noses and flushed lips.
The man was dressed in a red knee length tabard with gold adornments, a long gold mantle with a gilded and bejeweled crown atop his head. The woman was dressed in a white and silver gown, the full skirt spilling around the front of her and the man’s feet, almost as though embracing them both while his golden mantle flowed behind them, doing much the same. The gold and white of their overflowing garments created a visible circle around the two, signifying their unity. The man’s shoulder length black hair was straight and without much other detail, but the lady’s orange locks were intertwines with gold and yellow and white so as to create texture and depth.
“Wow, Barney,” Jae breathed. “You did all this in three days? Your hands must be killing you!”
“Well,” Barnaby replied sheepishly, “It would have been only two days in truth. I spent the first day sketching mostly and organizing my thoughts as to how the passages would read. And also, no one seemed to be able to tell me with any certainty how the Queens’s name was spelled! And also, Queen Rosanna’s dress had such delicate patterned bead work, I wanted to be sure I got it right. Thankfully, Lolly was very gracious in helping me with both those problems.” He glanced at Jae with a small smirk. “I did take a bit of creative liberty and left off the gravy, however.”
Jae groaned and looked to the archivist, his face void of any amusement as if to say ‘Not you too’.
Nenani snickered though and got a mild glare in return.
A loud crash startled all three of them and they simultaneously turned to the door behind the velvet curtain. There was a cacophony of bangs and scuffles and muffled curses before the door burst open and billowing blue smoke spilled out. From the furling rolls of smoke emerged a tall figure, dressed in a long maroon robe. The ash brown haired giant stumbled blindly into the larger space of the library, coughing before he closed the door behind him and shut the curtain for good measure. Still coughing and sputtering, he turned around and waved the remainder of the blue fog away from his face.
“My goodness, Maevis!” Barnaby exclaimed, moving towards the end of the table closest to the giant. “Are you alright? That was quite a bang.”
The giant coughed a few more time and adjusted his maroon robes, pulling down his yellow vest over his pot belly, and straightened the white leather gloves on his hands. “Oh yes, perfectly fine. Just a mild – cough – miscalculation. Forgot to carry over the variable element and when the primal sources don’t quite get along, well...you see, they make quite the light show when they haven’t the proper buffers. Nothing to worry about, my friend. Nothing at all. Though, I will need some more Yewling Root now. Blast. And Farris has already left for the markets, I’d imagine. I suppose I might try Garrish Parsley...”
“Well, while you think of equivalent herbal exchanges, come greet our new guest,” Barnaby told the giant as he turned and made his way back over to Nenani and Jae. The giant’s honey colored eyes drifted up to follow Barnaby. They fell on Nenani and he smiled warmly.
“Well, well, well,” said Maevis amicably as he approached, pulling a chair along with him in the same motion. He sat lightly into it to bring himself a little closer to the three human’s level. His attention focused on Nenani. “What a pleasant surprise, indeed! What might your name be, little one?”
“Nenani,” she said.
His honey eyes began to sparkle. “Named for the Daehil Nenani river, I take it?”
“That name carries a great amount of history with it,” Maevis said said, gesturing with one hand. “Barnaby would be more qualified to explain the particulars, but I do believe it was tradition to name the – oh what was it? - the first born of the sixth child? Something to do with the golden ratio and symbolizing infinity. I think. Or renewal. It has been many years since I’ve read anything on Silvaaran naming customs. The book was rather large...”
Barnaby laughed. “Your memory serves you proper, my friend. That is correct. The first born of the sixth child. Daehil, if they be a boy, and Nenani, if they be a girl. It was widely believed for many years in Silvaara that what you were named greatly affected your life. Your name, your family, which patron saint’s star you were born under. Very superstitious lot we were. And also why our King’s all took the name Haeral upon ascension to the throne.”
“Yep,” Jae added. “Luckily, all that nonsense was reserved mostly for the upper crusts. Otherwise I’d be named Ruthren Feithchild, born under Timinus the Wise, and be destined to be a magistrate. But nope. I’m Jae. Named after my Dad who was named after his Dad and so on and so forth. Because shoe makers are boring. So instead of all that, I am destined to wander around a giant castle, spilling gravy on Queens and sabotaging hard won treaties. What a waste of my talents that would have become a judge.”
“Agreed,” Maevis said with a humerus grin. “Diplomacy and politics never did suit you, I’m sorry to say, my boy. But then again, we wouldn’t have you any other way.”
Jae laughed and waved a hand dismissively. “Oh stop Maevis, you’re making me blush.”
“Now, my dear Nenani,” Maevis said, turning back to the little girl and planting his hands on his lap with a flourish. “How might you have found yourself in our midst? We don’t get many new humans these days.”
“That is right!” Barnaby exclaimed, moving to his table and ruffling among a pile of papers, pulling out a leather bound journal and quickly grabbing up a quill. “I shall need to write this down.”
Jae turned to Nenani. “Told you he’s want to write it down.”
“Where...where should I start?” she asked, looking at her audience.
“Anywhere you feel is proper, my dear,” Barnaby replied as he settled on his stool, quill at the ready. “Anywhere at all.”
So she told them how she had found herself trapped in the persimmon basket for several days, trying to escape and being caught by Yale, how she had been sick with the red reap – much to everyone’s very clear shock – and how the King had ultimately given her to Farris. It did not take long to tell and no one interrupted her, but Barnaby had an odd look on his face as he scribbled with ardent flecks of his quill. When his writing stopped, he regarded her with a soft expression. “Forgive me if I am overstepping my bounds, but I feel I need to ask: where are your parents, my dear?”
“They died,” she said simply.
“May I inquire as to the circumstances?” he asked gently, but he was quick to add, “If it is a tender subject I will not press you, please understand. I do not wish to upset you.”
She could have made it simple and omitted the major facts as she always did, glazing over the painful details of that day three years ago. Or was it four? Almost four. Gods, had it really been that long ago?
She thought on it for a moment, sifting through the darker corners of her memory. “They...well. They went to visit a friend and left me with my Uncle. When it got late and they hadn’t returned, my Uncle went out looking for them. It was a rule that no one should be out at night. They found my Dad. He’d...he had been murdered. And his sword was missing. They think that’s what he was killed with. His own sword. Because of the marks.”
Jae’s face was unreadable, but there was an intensity to his eyes that she found surprising. Both Maevis and Barnaby looks horrified and sympathetic.
“And you’re mother?” Maevis pressed gently.
Nenani shrugged and in a small voice, she admitted, “They never found her.”
“How do they know she’s dead?” Jae asked.
“My Uncle was very insistent that I not hold onto the hope that she was alive,” she replied. “And I guess after a few years I believed him. I mean, if she was alive, she would have come back. I know she would have.”
“I’m so sorry, my child,” Barnaby murmured, carefully making notes in his journal.
“So was it your Uncle took care of you?” Maevis asked. “After your parent’s passing.”
She nodded, allowing the ghost of a smile to break through.. “Yeah. He was a fisherman. He tried to teach me, but I was never good at sailing or reading the tides or anything. I can throw a line pretty good, though.”
“And where is he?”
“There was a fire. A...really big fire. It destroyed the village’s entire fleet. A lot of men didn’t come back. He was one of them.”
“Oh you poor thing!” Maevis exclaimed. “How awful.”
She could have left it there and let them be satisfied with what she had said. But something inside compelled her to keep talking. A strange desire for someone, anyone, to understand. She had mentioned it to Yale and had managed to not allow her feelings to get away from her. He had even smiled at the idea and it made it all the easier to believe him. But in that moment, the real dread was seeping through her carefully built defenses.
“They said it was my fault,” she added, her voice almost a whisper. There was a pain in her throat as she started to choke back the encroaching emotions. “That they were dead because of me.”
“Why would anyone say such a thing?”
“They said I was cursed,” she replied, her hands clenching the fabric of her skirt hard enough to turn her knuckles white. “That my parents deaths’ were an omen and the fire proved it. That I was cursed.” She began to sob. “...and they kicked me out. They said…they said I was dangerous.”
Arms were suddenly pulling her forward and her face was pressed into someone’s chest. Jae’s voice spoke above her. “Don’t ever think any of that was your fault, kid. Never. Let those cowards and idiots say whatever the hell they want, but never – and I mean never – believe a lick of it. They made you a scapegoat for their own stupid fears because bad things were happening and they didn’t understand why. It’s not you. It never was. It was always them.”
“...how can you know?” she breathed. “What if I am?”
“Well, there is a simple enough way for us to tell,” Maevis said confidently. Nenani turned him, scrubbing at her watery eyes.
“T-there is?” she asked.
He smiled kindly at her, nodding. “Of course there is! My dear, I happen to be a practitioner of the magical arts and while I am not one for shameless boasting, I freely admit to being quite good at it. I shall be able to sniff out any hint of a malicious spell about your person.”
Nenani’s heart leaped into her throat and she stood a little taller, looking into Maevis’s face with pleading eyes. “Y-you can? Really?”
He hummed in the affirmative and nodded. “If you’ll indulge me for a brief moment.”
Maevis carefully reached out to scoop her up into his gloved hands. He stood slowly and made his way over to a book shelf where a comparatively small chest sat between two large fat tomes. He shifted her to one hand and opened the chest up, reaching in and pulling out a magnifying glass before closing it shut. He walked closer to the center of the room where a bean of light from a window far above their heads shone down. Raising her up to eye level, he brought the magnifying glass to one eye and studied her, humming in contemplation as he did so. Nenani sat stiff as a board, heart hammering against her chest and watched him with wide nervous eyes.
The giant honey colored eye, made larger by the glass, shift and dart minutely as he studied her. Her arms began to tremble as she was overcome with the notion that she did not want to know after all. She could go on pretending that it did not bother her. Because what if she really was cursed? What if all those bad things were because of something she had done? Whatever it had been that warranted a curse be put on her head. What if her Uncle really was dead because of her?
Her father, cut down by his own sword.
Her mother, taken away and never to return.
Nenani saw the magician’s eye pause and the contemplative quirk of his mouth fell into a concerned frown. He took in a startled breath and her heart sank, fell through her feet, and crashed into a million pieces onto the floor so very far below.
Oh Gods, it was true! She was cursed! Despite herself, she hung her head and bite her lip. Fat droplets of water fell down her face to drip off her chin and she hiccuped out a sob.
“Well, there can be no doubt,” Maevis said with an air of finality as he moved back to the table, setting down the magnifying glass and bring his hand back up to cup Nenani in his hands. She was quaking now, terrified of the answer, but his eyes told her the truth. She was cursed. She was a wicked decrepit thing that had brought ruin and death to her people. Maybe it would have been better if she had died on that boat with her Uncle that night…
“Not a drop,” he said at last.
Nenani looked up with watering eyes. “Huh?”
Maevis smiled indulgently, his honey eyes soft and regarded her kindly. “You haven’t a spec, drop, or string of malignant magic about you, little one.”
“…n-no curse?” she asked with a small voice, not daring to hope that she had heard correctly.
“No curse,” he affirmed. The wave of relief that overcame her felt as though someone had poured cool water over her feverish head. But the tears did not stop. In fact they seemed to only increase and she covered her face as her shoulders rocked with relieved sobs. Built up guilt and fear that had dug itself into her soul and settled like sediment was breaking up and being washed away. The large hands below her shifted and she was tucked against Maevis’s chest as he took his seat, patting her back and murmuring to her. “Oh, oh, there now. Shhh. Poor little dear. Come now, let me see those pretty eyes.”
He pulled her from his chest far enough to bring a large white handkerchief to her face, dabbing lightly at her wet cheeks. Her cries were ebbing way now, leaving her utterly drained and exhausted.
“There,” Maevis said, looking down at the little girl with a sympathetic smile and tucking the piece of fabric back into his robes. “All better.”
He sat her back onto the table, catching her when her legs wobbled unsteadily under her, and waiting until she was steady on her own before pulling away.
“Thank you,” she told Maevis meekly, embarrassed at her display.
“Think nothing of it,” he told her. “In fact, I believe I have just the cure for such morose moods. Tea!”
With that, the magician stood up with vigor and walked back towards the velvet curtain, pulling it aside, and stepping through the door beyond.
“That does sound lovely,” Barnaby said, coming up beside Nenani. “Come sit, my dear. Have a rest.”
Jae was leaning against the table, watching her closely. There was an understanding in his eyes. It was a little odd for him to be so quite, but after a time, he seemed to shrug off whatever it was occupying his thoughts and he smirked at her.
“Maevis makes the best tea,” Jae said. “Grows his own plants and dries the leaves himself.”
“A man cannot have too many hobbies, my boy!” came Maevis’s cheerful voice from inside the far room.
“Do you know how tea is made?” Barnaby asked her. It was a clear attempt at steering the topic of conversation towards more pleasant topics. Which was just fine with her.
“No,” she replied.
“It’s a fascinating process. All tea comes from the same plant, but it is the manner with which those leaves are processed that yields all the vast varieties that we enjoy. Controlled oxidation and fermentation! First the leaves are allowed to dry. Then they are bruised. On purpose, mind you. Bruising is very important as it aids in the oxidation. The more oxidized and fermented the leaf, the blacker the tea. So to achieve a firm and robust black tea, the leaves are thoroughly bruised and oxidized while a lighter tea such as green or white, there is none to little bruising and the oxidation and fermentation period is much shorter.”
As Barnaby spoke about the peculiarities of the makings of tea, Nenani became aware of just how tired she was and her sobbing episode had done little to remedy that fact. Maevis was a magician, so surely he was the expert concerning curses and such and to hear from a professional that she was definitively not cursed was beyond anything she could have hoped for and she was very happy despite the tears.
So she sat on Barnaby’s small wooden stool as the archivist and Jae fell into conversation regarding their preference of tea. Barnaby was valiantly defending white tea as an incredibly underappreciated drink while Jae insisted that only black tea was worth drinking. Nenani decided not to weigh in as she had very little experience regarding tea. It was not a regularly consumed beverage in the Southlands, at least in her village. They simply could not afford it and their version of tea consisted of various weeds and grasses and sometimes seaweed boiled in water. She never liked the seaweed tea, even if the older villagers claimed it soothed their rheumatism. She preferred sour grass tea that, despite the name, was actually mildly sweet.
It was not too long after that Maevis returned carrying a small tray laden with a tea pot and several cups. Giant cups. He silently sat the tray down near the three humans and Nenani wondered if he was expecting them to drink from giant cups. The idea seemed to be cemented when he began to pour the tea into the cups, looking to Jae and Barnaby and listening in on their conversation as he did so.
“How do you take your tea, Nenani?” he asked her.
“Uh...” she began.
“One cream, three sugars!” quipped Jae, raising his hand.
Maevis regarded the young man with a reprimanding, but amused tilted of his head. “Yes, yes, I am well aware of how you take your tea, Jae. I was asking Nenani.”
“Um...I don’t know,” she replied. “Is...there a correct way to drink tea?”
Maevis grinned and laughed. “Now that is a loaded question! Careful with that one, my dear. Wars have been fought over such questions.”
“What he means,” Jae explained. “Is that it’s a very personal choice.”
“How about this,” Maevis said. “One cream, one sugar, and that will give you somewhere to start and next time you’ll have a better idea, hm?”
She nodded, still confused as to how any of them aside from Maevis would be managing any tea drinking from a cup the size of a barrel. She watched the giant prepare all four cups according to everyone’s preference and once all were ready, he picked up Nenani’s. Maevis peeked at her from the corner of his eye and smirked knowingly and...it began to shrink in his hands.
Nenani gasped, watching wide eyed with wonder as the giant cup shrank smoothly until it was perfectly portioned to human size, sitting innocently in the center of the magician’s palm.
“H-how did you do that?” Nenani asked with a bright smile, delighted by the blatant display of magic.
“Years of study and practice,” he replied, lowering his hand close to her so she could retrieve the cup.
“A remarkable and endlessly useful little trick, I must say. Especially when one’s friends tend to be on the -shall we say- shorter side.”
She grinned widely and watched with growing wonder and excitement as he repeated the trick with both Jae’s and Barnaby’s cups.
“Never seen magic before?” Jae asked, taking a long drink from his cup.
She shook her head. “Nu-huh.”
“Truly?” Maevis asked, sounding shocked. “Well, it pleases me greatly to be the first.”
She took a tentative sip from her cup and marveled at how far a cry the taste was from the tea with which she was accustomed. It was sweet, but not overly so and the cream mellowed out the deeper earthy flavor of the tea itself. It was delicious. She took a longer drink and hummed appreciatively.
“I believe she approves,” Barnaby said with a smile, sipping lightly at his own cup. “There’s nothing better than a good cup of tea. Especially as the season changes.”
“Wholeheartedly agreed,” Maevis added with a placid smile.
The settled into a content and largely silent spell of time where they nursed their drinks. The warm tea warmed Nenani’s belly and she could not muffle the yawn that rose up through her chest and stretched her mouth.
Barnaby laughed softly. “I do hope we haven’t tired you out, my dear.”
She was quick to reassure the man. “No, it’s just everyone downstairs gets up really early and they go to bed really late.”
“Well that won’t do,” Barnaby replied. “Children need their sleep. Much more than I’m sure their schedule allows for.”
“Is that why Avery was serenading the rafters with his caterwauling?” Jae asked with a laugh. “Trying to keep you awake?”
Nenani made a face. “Something like that...”
Maevis sat his cup down and stood up. “Well, I might have just the thing for you.”
‘Just the thing’, as it turned out, was a small bottle filled with violet liquid. He shrank it and handed it to Jae with the instructions of adding ‘just a drop’ to the remainder of Nenani’s tea. As she and Barnaby questioned the magician on what exactly the liquid was, Jae was carefully eyeballing the small drop that dangled from the brim of the bottle over the tea cup. Maevis barked out a laugh at something Barnaby suggested and Jae started. A little more than ‘just a drop’ of the liquid spilled into the tea cup.
Jae hurriedly put the stopper back into the bottle and sat it aside to swirl the tea and potion mixture. He handed the cup to Nenani as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.
“Now, it’s not the most palatable thing ever,” Maevis said as Nenani took a drink of her tea. She reared back at the taste hit her tongue and she squinted at the overly bitter and medicinal flavor. “But it should do the trick. A little ‘pick me up’, if you will. Very useful when the need for sleep interferes with one’s academic pursuits.”
Close to an hour later, it became apparent that they had a problem on their hands. Nenani no longer felt tired and the time passed smoothly through pleasant conversation. But, rather than feeling well refreshed and rested, Nenani became more and more energetic as the afternoon progressed. The time to return her back to the kitchens prior to Farris’s return was drawing nearer and nearer and her energy only seemed to be increasing.
Maevis was understandably concerned. Jae thought it was hilarious. Until Barnaby reminded him that he would be the one explaining to the Spice Master why his ward was, for lack of a better term, vibrating. As the humans and magician pondered helplessly for a solution, Nenani was content to bounce in her seat. One side effect, besides the seemingly boundless energy, was that she suddenly found everything very humerus.
“...maybe they won’t notice?” Jae suggested. Three pairs of eyes focused on Nenani who was quietly giggling at her feet as she swung them out and bounced up and down on her seat. Jae deadpanned. “Okay, maybe they’ll notice.”
He groaned and laid his head in his hands. “One week. One week where someone doesn’t end up pissed off at me. Is that too much to ask for? Am I being selfish?”
“Don’t fret,” Maevis replied. “This is not a permanent state. It shall wear off in time. My worry is that given the unknown amount she ingested, we do not have the full scope of how her metabolism might be affected.”
“You mean when the happy juice wears off,” Jae said. “She’s gonna crash and it’s now a question of when and how hard?”
Maevis nodded gravely, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “Precisely.”
“Farris is gonna kill me...” Jae groaned.
“And I doubt that I won’t be far behind...” added Maevis.
Barnaby walked over to Nenani and held out his hands which she took with alacrity and hopped off the stool. “I think,” the archivist began, smiling. “The best course of action is to simply tell the truth. Lying will do us no good. If there is one thing Farris respects above all, it is the plain truth.”
“No bullshit,” Jae translated.
“Language!” Maevis chided.
So it was that Nenani and Jae bid farewell to Barnaby and Maevis, disappearing through the small door set into the ground and down the great stairs. After the door closed behind them, the first thing Nenani did was bound down the steps three at a time.
“Fucking hells!” Jae cursed, rushing down after her. He caught her arm at the bottom, frowning when she just giggled at him. “Don’t do that! Bouncing like a frog and laughing like an idiot is one thing, but I am not going to be the one to explain your neck being broken too!”
“But I didn’t break my neck!” she replied, smiling all the while. “And it was fun!”
Jae sighed in exasperation. “Let’s just get you back to the kitchens in one piece, alright?”
“Okay!” she chirped and began skipping back down the tunnel.