Loriana opened her eyes, gazing at the specks of dust dancing in the rays of light filtering in through the shuttered window. It was warm and cozy and soft in bed, and she was loathe to get up. It must have been weeks since she last spent a night in a real bed, and now she needed to leave it.
She sighed then looked over at Merala’s sleeping form. How that woman stayed pale while traveling under the Malqish sun was a mystery. Merala was still sleeping, breathing softly and looking strangely serene. Whatever troubled her waking mind, it seemed far away from her now.
Loriana contemplated rousing her, but decided against it. There was no need to wake her just yet, and it would be less embarrassing to wash up while she still slept.
Sweeping her gaze around the room, Loriana noted her belt hanging from a bedpost, sword in sheath still attached, and her simple clothes neatly folded on a chair in the corner. Merala’s luxurious robes were draped haphazardly across its back, looking cast aside in a way unbefitting their quality.
After reluctantly getting out of bed, quietly washing herself with water from the small tub, and carefully pulling her clothes on, Loriana snuck out of the small room.
A scent of freshly baked bread engulfed her the moment she opened the door, and as she stepped out into the cottage’s main room the source was readily apparent. The room, serving as both sitting room and kitchen and dining room, was filled with baked goods. The table was laden with lumps of dough waiting to be put in the oven, the window sills were heavy with loaves cooling off, and the small countertop next to the stove was covered in flour.
Their hostess, Trudi, stood by that countertop, working on braiding two lengths of dough together while humming to herself. A small girl was sitting by the table, occupying the only chair not in use for holding empty bowls. She looked to be no more than four or five years old and was staring at the braid with the wide-eyed anticipation, and desire, of youth.
“It smells absolutely wonderful, ma’m,” Loriana complimented after closing the door behind her.
Trudi let out a startled exclamation as she turned, then smiled warmly. “Why thank you, dearie. Please, help yourself to- Gerald!” The woman turned an angry scowl at a middle-aged man standing outside one of the windows, frozen mid-motion as he was picking up one of the buns resting on the sill.
He looked at her sheepishly, blinked a few times as if composing himself, then grinned apologetically before rushing off with the bread.
The woman rolled her eyes and turned back to their guest. “Don’t mind him, he likes ‘em hot is all. Your friend still sleeping? No trouble the two of you sharing the bed? We don’t get many visitors around here, so there’s not really any place for guests to stay.”
“Yes, I believe she is. And thank you, it was much better than the ground,” Loriana replied with a smile, picking up a piece for herself. Fresh bread. It had been almost as long since she had last tasted bread still hot from baking as it had been since she spent a night in a comfortable bed. Sinking her teeth into it, she found that it tasted even better than it smelled.
While munching away at the bread, she noticed the little girl staring in awe at the sword dangling from Loriana’s hip. Pulling the sword seemed impolite, so instead she unfastened her belt and moved to kneel by the girl.
“So pretty!” The girl reached out and reverently touched the hilt, almost caressing it with her fingertips.
“It is one of a pair, made just for me and my sister,” Loriana explained. “You see these small gems here below the crossguard? They represent the shards of lllun, that’s why they’re uncut. This purple one is an amethyst. These two green ones are just glass, but they look like real emeralds. And these tiny ones are bits of amber.”
Whether or not the girl was listening, her full attention was undeniably on the sword.
Sethian strode through the quaint little village, moving towards the hovel where his companions had been quartered for the night. It was not a big village, home to maybe five or six families, a handful of smaller households, and that lout who had guided them here when they came upon him cutting wood in the forest.
A most uncouth sort, that man had been. Gruff, unhelpful, and rude were the most flattering words Sethian could think of to describe the nephaim, for what else could he be at that size.
He crossed through a circular plot of land with bushes planted within it, each heavy with small fruits. Plucking one and taking a bite, he scrunched his nose and spit it out immediately. Disgusting thing, much too sweet for his taste. He would have to ask its name so he could make sure to avoid it in the future.
A giggle drew his attention beyond the garden, to the small hut standing a bit further along the well-trod path. A small girl was sitting there, looking at him and laughing. Next to her sat Lor, busily braiding the child’s long hair into a pair of pigtails. Merala, unsurprisingly, was nowhere to be seen. She rarely got up more than two hours before noon.
“Are we about ready leave this place one the Lady wakes up?” Sethian asked as he stepped over a bush and walked up to the pair.
“Why the rush? Did it not feel good to sleep in a real bed for a change?” Loriana barely looked up, throwing him a quick glance before returning to her work. “Hold still!”
Sethian sneered at the little girl as she leaned forward, her big eyes staring at his cane. It was not a toy for children. He moved it away from her outstretched hand, paying no heed to the sad eyes and pouting lip that she responded with.
“Real bed?” He scoffed “I do not know what luxury you slept in, but the bunk I had to endure hardly qualified as a bed.”
The girl started to sniffle, still looking at him with pleading eyes. Lor looked up at him from under raised, thick eyebrows.
She acted like a woman of breeding, someone with manners and a certain decorum the lower classes would never understand, yet aside from her sword, her attire was plain and functional. Furthermore, she put very little effort into maintaining her looks; brown hair tied up in a ponytail, no makeup, and no plucking of the eyebrows.
Unconsciously, Sethian traced the neat line of his eyebrows with a fingertip. He himself did not bother with makeup either, so he could hardly fault her for not wasting time on that. But those eyebrows gave her whole face a most uncivilized air, wholly unfitting for a lady.
“She just wants a look, Sethian,” a soft voice said from behind him. Looking over his shoulder, he saw Merala gliding through the garden, a scruffy local in tow. If Lor looked like she was not even trying, then Merala looked like she had succeeded and then completely given up.
Her crimson lipstick clashed with her ivory skin, her hair hung about her in the ruins of a style that had gone out of fashion years ago, and her robes, though once no doubt nearly as lavish as Sethian’s own, were ragged and worn. At least those long bangs would shade her eyes and take the edge off the bright light of a sunny day like this, he mused.
“Are you really going to be that cruel to a little girl?” Lor, predictably, sided with Merala.
After throwing a glance down at the sad girl, her lip trembling and her big eyes looking back at him, Sethian caved. His reputation for ruthlessness was well-deserved, perhaps, but he was not heartless. The cane’s magic could be tapped only by someone with a connection to the astral so he dropped it in the girl’s lap, watching her attention become transfixed by the mercurial orb topping it.
“Ky, this is Lord Sethian of the Arlathian Empire. The scholar of our little troupe,” Merala introduced him to the young man with her usual lack of enthusiasm. “Sethian, this young man told me that he might know where we could find something of interest. Apparently, there is a ruin in the forest…”
Finally something worth his attention.
“Ah, ehrm, yes… Well, it is, perhaps, not anything fancy. We don’t really know, to be honest.” The young man fidgeted as if nervous, though Sethian was unsure if he really was. Something felt off about this boy, something Sethian could not quite pin down.
Sethian scrutinized the man carefully. He was quite young, perhaps in his mid-twenties at most, with long, unkempt blonde hair and a scraggly beard. Rough, but hardly anything suspicious. It was something else, something unseen.
“It’s got this bad feeling to it, y’know? People what go near there say it feels like, uhm, there’s something wrong about the place,” this Ky continued.
Then Sethian noticed it, an aura of magic to the boy. It was very weak, and quite crude. Perhaps a family heirloom, or some bauble he had traded his life savings for, or some minor charm he had gotten from the fey said to haunt these woods. Either way, nothing worth Sethian’s interest.
“Ruins? I thought this forest marked the edge of the Wilds?” Lor was referring to the large region of unsettled, and largely unexplored, lands southeast of Malqish. There were no records of civilization in that area, but then this frontier town would most likely not leave any either if it was abandoned tomorrow.
“Likely worth our time, do you not agree?” Merala lifted her head slightly, for once looking Sethian in the eyes. He looked up at the tall woman, then eyed the farmhand once again, before finally looking over to Lor. The prospect of unknown civilizations appealed to her, he knew, while for him it was the promise of something feeling wrong about the place.
That meant magic, which was precisely the purpose of his travels. Nodding his assent, he flicked his wrist and his cane came flying through the air to his waiting grip.
“Let us be off at once.”