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Fire Princess and the Outcasts chapter 10

      Anneth had a good night’s rest but wished she could stay in bed awhile longer. She rolled onto her left side to fetch her glasses on the counter and sat upright, throwing her arms overhead. Satisfied, she looked around in the room --dark and still as if time had stopped, and into her view came Rosella and Gertrude who slept together on the next bed over covered in white sheets. She’d gladly trade places with one of them right now, but sadly, her schedule had tasks only she could fulfill.

      Asserting she was in the capital after six months of being a runaway was easy to say. On the other hand, believing she was actually in the capital again was not. Anneth was also not about to pinch herself. She ached all over from the eccentric weekend trip to get here --and needless to say, the fortune telling and heist took a huge toll on her mentally and physically. Adding more pain might get her to collapse.

      She wriggled out of bed and put on her slippers, cautious to not wake the girls as she headed to the restroom to wash up. Once that was done, Anneth dressed and left a note on the chest as a reminder of where she'd gone. When she made it to the hallway, Anneth threw a threatening look at the room next door where Hudson stayed. What he said a few days ago about tracking her out at night was a statement still fresh in her mind, and something she would work on to prevent from occurring a second time. Her lips twisted in disgust.

      “Filthy,” Anneth scoffed under her breath.

      She marched down the inn's hallway and made it out the front door. The first thing to greet her were passing carts and snickering fruit vendors wisecracking on the job.

      The streets rumbled with activity even in the wee hours of the morning. The capital boasted a population size of over two and a quarter million citizens; the biggest in the kingdom and third largest on the continent. Anneth pulled her hood on and walked off, paying no heed to distractions.

 

      Central Cathedral was a tall monument, indeed. It rose from the ground like stalagmites, taller than the buildings around it, and was made of pure granite. It had three front entrances in arched shapes, with the middle one being the widest and tallest. Statues of historical figures exalted on pedestals decked the entryways as if welcoming its devout believers inside. The meticulously carved details --all symmetrical-- seemed to orbit the idols in tribute.

      At the top between a pair of columns was a design reminiscent of a flame but in the shape of a star with six points. The symbol belonged to the Fire Spirit, which had bestowed the House of Vermillion its powers during the world war against the cosmos invaders.

      Anneth found herself entering Central Cathedral amongst a growing throng of people. Their voices bounced off the ascending walls, walls that were lined with stained glass windows of various red tints that aimed for the heavens. That reddish color engulfed the interior’s masonry almost blood red, and made giant veins out of its pillars.

      Sets of armor stood against the walls holding heraldic flags, their metallic bodies catching the glint of morning glow pouring through the dome windows in the center.

      Anneth scanned around the navel in search for a sister, but was afraid she’d miss them even in their distinct crimson uniform. Still, the cathedral was a work of art. She marveled at its masterful design every time she got the chance to visit with another fellow maid during off days. It felt like forever since then. The ceiling was as high as she remembered, too. One could fit a three-story building and still have room leftover for a small house to fill the gap. When she peered below at the granite floor, she stared back at her own reflection in awe, able to make out individual strands of hair on her brows.

      Whatever holy sensation this was, it gave Anneth peace of mind even in these perilous times.

      “Good morning there, child of the Fire Spirit,” said a young, feminine voice. She turned to face the person and saw a sister before her, hands tied neatly in front and sporting an aura of goodwill. “My name is sister Dioné.” She lay a hand on her chest. “Have you come to seek guidance by way of a sacred text reading, or maybe a private session of prayer?”

      The sister’s sudden appearance stunned Anneth that her toes curled in. The girl was about the same age as her, and the black eyebrows hinted at her having black hair hidden underneath her flowing coif. The uniform was a combination of red and white, with red being the dominant color and white being limited mostly to the hems, which sported triangular frills.

      She offered a gentle tilt of her head as if willing to lend an ear to any grievance.

      “P-pardon. But I--” Anneth stumbled for words as her eyes scoured the cathedral for any eavesdroppers. She pulled on her hood to further conceal her features. “If you would be so kind, sister Dioné,” she said cordially. “I’d like a little more in-depth information about the pilgrimages slated for Victory Day. You see, I was told restrictions were put into place recently when it comes to visiting the Fire Spirit temple. Correct?”

      Sister Dioné clasped her hands together. “Ahh! Indeed they have. For the time being, pilgrimages that are not state mandated have been prohibited until further notice. What is it you wish for me to clarify, specifically?”

      “Yes.” Anneth tried relaxing her posture to look less insecure. “The thing is, I came to the capital solely to visit the temple. I imagine I’m not the only one doing this.”

      The nun nodded in agreement, smiling lightly. “It is as you say miss…”

      “Athena Bonsil,” she said without delay. That was some quick name crafting she pulled there. She'd have to brag about it to the princess later. “Umm. First of all, what are the required documents I need? Where I come from, the church told us we’d have to travel here to find out.”

      “I see. Thank you, miss Bonsil.” She lowered her head slightly and pulled it back up. “As for the required documents, I am glad to inform you the only one you will need is a valid Kingdom Card. I suppose yours is up to date, miss Bonsil?” Kingdom Cards were basically a copy of a person’s birth certificate summarized into a miniature card one could fit into their tunic or pant pockets. It served as an extra means of identification.

      “It is,” she answered. Though she wasn't about to use her real one or Rosella’s on this pilgrimage. For that she had a separate plan in mind.

      “Wonderful. And, I know it is a bit costly due to our current circumstances, unfortunately, but the prices for tickets are being sold for one hundred kroans per person.” Calling it “a bit costly” was “a bit” of an exaggeration. With that amount you could buy a week’s worth of groceries for a family of four. There was no way Anneth could keep a straight face while taking in that information, but she managed somehow. It had to be part of the king’s ploy to get the least amount of people to visit the temple. In that case, he was doing a good job. “And lastly,” the nun raised a finger, “the expedition will depart five days before Victory Day. We congregate at the Church of the Sacred Flame at daybreak, listen to a short sermon and prayer from father Ornicus who will lead the pilgrimage, and finally head to the Northern Highlands for the Fire Spirit temple.”

      “I see,” Anneth said. The five day head-start was likely due to the organizers wanting to arrive exactly on the day of victory to give the occasion a more symbolic meaning. It made sense to her when she thought about it from that perspective. The only thing still in the dark was if this father Ornicus had any knowledge concerning Rosella. It would not come as a surprise if that were the case. It was imperative she'd be extra careful.

      “Is there something I did not clarify, miss Bonsil?,” sister Dioné asked Anneth who looked pensive.

      “Ah, no! Nothing of the sort.” Anneth realized she had curled into a meditative pose, and sprung out. “I was meditating on what I should say to the Fire Spirit when I get my chance at the altar.” She giggled in a way to make her look ditsy. Even though Trebena had told her they weren’t aloud inside the temple either, Anneth had a responsibility to clear all doubts and discrepancies, or else she could be losing out on chances while having skewed information.

      It was the nun’s turn to take a meditative pose. “Hmmm. It seems you have not been fully informed, miss Bonsil,” sister Dioné said with a tinge of remorse. That was more than enough confirmation. “I am afraid to say, but entry to the temple has also been strictly forbidden.”

      ‘I-I see,” she said.

      “But do not be discouraged,” sister Dioné said taking an optimistic approach. “We have reserved a hill that overlooks the temple grounds. We will have sermons, festivities, and prayers throughout our whole stay. So rest assured. Though entrance is prohibited, your prayers and everybody else's will not go unheard by the Fire Spirit, for Ponderosa is still under his care.”

      “Right.” Anneth had a tough time rolling the word off her tongue.

      How could she say that without a slight hint of hesitation in her voice? Not only the Fire Spirit, but every other deity had fallen quiet since anyone alive today was even born. Countless rumors had spread around for decades that they'd turned into their own unofficial interpretations of the spirit's origins. Sometimes they turned out so quirky they were told as a means to get disobedient kids to behave. The more she dwelled on it, the more it reeked of mystery in itself, too. Anneth suspected some level of correlation with the princess’s inability to control fire, unlike the rest of her family.

      But why would that alone be enough to make every spirit lay low for so long? If anything, the Fire Spirit should be the only one inactive, not everyone else. Unless heirs in the neighboring kingdoms were experiencing similar problems as well… Anneth cleared her head of harmful ideas that could twist her conscience. Her forehead was already speckled with sweat.

      “Well, no harm is done,” she said behind the guise of a fake smile. “I'm satisfied as long as I can pray for my family back home.”

      “You most definitely will,” the nun reassured, putting a gentle hand on Anneth’s shoulder.

      “Then, I must get going.” Anneth took a step back and her maid formalities took over for a bow. “Thank you for your time and patience, sister Dioné. You were a big help.”

      “With pleasure, miss Bonsil.” She joined in the bow. “You are most welcome to visit Central Cathedral any time you are in the capital. Just ask anybody for me, and I will gladly join you in any holy activity you wish to partake in.”

      Anneth doubted she'd ever set foot in this building again. “That sounds lovely,” she said anyway. Anneth excused herself finally and B lined for the doors, puffing out a continuous stream of air via her mouth.

      Sister Dioné called out her name, prompting Anneth to turn around. “I forgot to say, the deadline for registration is on the twentieth. Be sure you do not forget.” Before she continued onward, Anneth flashed her pearly whites in a show of gratitude, waved goodbye, and headed out. The sun shone down on her with ruthless heat rays, but luckily, the plaza surrounding the cathedral had a plethora of stands selling ready-to-eat fruits, freshly squeezed juice you could order with scoops of shaved ice, and a variety of other things like snacks and toys for kids.

      Anneth treated herself to freshly squeezed lemon juice with a scoop of shaved ice: her old time favorite. Her cheeks rejuvenated at the citrusy flavor arousing her taste buds flowing down to freshen her hot throat. The crunchy flakes of ice popping in her mouth was a delight unlike any other. Both the refreshment’s taste and texture brought her back to better times.

      She let out a sigh of bliss as the hotness inside her withered to distant lands. Finishing her snack, Anneth had no free time to spare and marched to her next destination.

      Already she could see the Victory Day spirit spreading. She deviated into a street where citizens worked together to put up red, black, and white colored string flags from rooftop to rooftop. Shops decorated their front doors and windows with elaborate wreaths, and balcony handrails were wrapped in ribbons and shredded paper of all colors. This was only the start. Soon there’d be giant puppets roaming the streets followed by an endless parade of people recreating famous battles against the cosmos invaders. Confetti would fall from the sky like rain and the masses would indulge in national dishes and drinking parties.

      Just thinking about it gave Anneth goosebumps. It was a shame, however. She, Rosella, Gertrude, and the idiot would miss out on this year’s festivities. Probably for the rest to come…

      Anneth walked inside an herbal store, pulling her hood close, and greeted the shop owner at the front counter. A gust of fragrances attacked her nose without permission, thinking someone had handed her a freshly brewed cup of tea. “Hair dye, hair dye,” she said under her breath scouring the shelves of jars and bottles. “Blonde hair dye, where are you, you little rascal.” She read labels and returned jars to their place. Anneth’s eyes zigzagged the dye section, skipping the shelves dedicated for clothing dye.

      Finally, she happened upon the hair section. Rows of jars, bags, and bottles stood before her, as if making decisions weren’t hard enough already. But to make the process less frustrating, Anneth had an idea of what she wanted. She drew a bottle the size of her hand and read the label, returning it. The same happened on the next, and the next. “Something that will last at least twenty washes, please,” she pleaded hoping the right bottle would reply. “Here we go!” Her pitch spiked in excitement when she plucked a jar squeezed between two larger containers. At last, a description matching her request letter for letter. The price tag wasn’t that bad, either. With this she could walk the streets not having to look over her shoulder for anyone who might recognize her. Anneth could ditch the cloak all together, for the moment. While she was at it, a change of hairstyle might be a good option as well. Ponytail, maybe?

      Beaming with joy, Anneth wrapped the product in an arm and made for the front counter. Her face smashed against a soft wall of fabrics, and she stumbled backwards with a short whimper escaping her lips. “Ah! Excuse us ma’am. We are terribly sorry.”

      Anneth regained balanced. “N-no, I--” But she clamped her mouth shut immediately.

      This woman's voice. Who could it be? She knew this person well and this person knew her the same. Her mind raced like mad trying to match a face with it.

      “What happened? Is everything alright?,” said a second eerily familiar female voice.

      “Ma’am, can you hear me? Did I cause you any harm?” Anneth clutched at her cloak hood and brought her gaze to the wooden floor. Even though the black dresses hid their legs, she knew they wore white knee-high stockings underneath. Their black, rounded tip shoes were polished to a fine shine with a wax based product referred to as “Blossom”. They were probably here to resupply on it.

      There was no mistake. She had bumped into the House of Vermillion’s executive maid! And to make matters worse, one of the three --now two because she was gone, head maids accompanied her! Stomach acid bubbled in Anneth’s throat, and the world seemed to wobble. Out of all the places in the city, out of all the people in the city, these old hags just had to be at this store at this precise hour. Coming to terms with that made her blood boil, and a storm of conflicting emotions ravaged her sanity.

      “Excuse us,” said the head maid in a slightly miffed tone. “We are making an effort to apologize, and therefore deserve your attention.” She drove the word “deserve” down like a nail. It was no use. If Anneth spoke even a syllable they'd recognize her by her voice alone. Worst case scenario, they'd drag her to the dungeons and torture her to death for not revealing the princess’s whereabouts. She had to retreat, now! Masking the bottom half of her face with the cloak, Anneth scampered off without a second thought.

      “Ma’am!” The executive maid sought to stop her but was unsuccessful.

      “That's a commoner for you,” the head maid snorted. “No class, no manners.”

      Digging viciously into her coin purse, Anneth withdrew a handful of kroans, not checking what amount was in her hand. Not caring, for that matter. She came to a skidding halt at the cashier, nearly slipping, and slammed the coins on the counter. “Keep the change, mister!,” Anneth rapped as though it were one long word, bolting for the exit. The poor man didn’t even get a chance to react.

 

      “What was it you wanted to tell us after we got back?,” Hudson said as he set the paper lunch bags on the girls’ vanity table. Across the room sitting in lotus position was Anneth covered in her new blanket with Rosella at her side, distress still floating in her syrup tinted irises since returning from her morning errands. That, and her crooked posture and paleness hinted at something gone wrong. She stabbed Hudson with a nasty frown that said she was no maid of his to be ordered around. That's how he read her expression, anyway. Instead of groveling, asking what he did wrong, he would simply let her take it from there.

      “Gertrude,” she motioned at the elf standing to his right. Her pointy ears jittered. “Can you hand me my lunch, please? This appetite of mine grows ever more monstrous,” she asked sweetly with a gentle expression to match.

      “Gladly!,” Gertrude responded, taking the bag to Anneth without gripes.

      Sometimes Hudson wished he were born a girl to receive the same courteous treatment.

      She dug into the bag. “Did you get me the salami and cheese sandwiches with no spice like I requested?”

      “Yes! I even told the sandwich maker to add a pinch of salt on the tomatoes.”

      “Lovely! Let us hope he does not find out it was for me this entire time,” Anneth joked and the girls joined in on sisterly chuckles. “I am forever thankful you joined us, Gertrude.” As Anneth took her time on her meal, Hudson inspected the room and came to the conclusion it was the same as the one he stayed at next door. The walls were built of white brick and mortar, standard for this style. Wooden beams ran parallel to each other on the ceiling which Hudson bet he could lay his palms flat on if he stood on tip-toes. The girls had a vanity table; he did not. They each had a pair of windows. Lastly, the only differences were the placement of furniture and bathroom.

      His sights glided around the interior, and somewhere along the way Rosella came into his view, as did he. The red headed girl blushed and ducked her slender chin, fighting a weak smile. Hudson did likewise, but then he remembered he had bought lunch for everyone and not just Anneth, snatching Rosella’s lunch bag and handing it over. She showed him her pearly white teeth in a show of gratitude and thanked him.

      “I ran into coworkers from the castle today,” without notice, Anneth blurted out this event. “It happened at the herbal store where I bought the hair dye. Both the executive maid and one of the head maids were there. And because of my carelessness, I almost exposed my identity.” Her tone crippled at the end.

      Only Hudson and Gertrude reacted properly with shocked faces, but Rosella seemed less shocked and more disheartened. Most likely Anneth had told her while he and Gertrude had gone out to buy lunch. He understood if she had sent them in her place as a precautionary measure to prevent it from reoccurring.

      “W-what do you mean you were careless?,” Gertrude asked, voice rushed. “Didn't you see them enter while you were inside?”

      She shook her head. “That was part of my carelessness. I was deep in my search for the right product I forgot my surroundings. In fact, I remember hearing approaching voices, and in my low state of perception, I could not properly deduce where they stood.”

      “And that is how you ran into them, right?” Rosella cupped her hand over Anneth’s.

      “Exactly. If only I had been more careful…”

      Hudson crossed his arms and rocked back nonchalantly. “Don’t waste your energy on ‘what if’s’,” he said in hopes of getting on her good side. “What’s done is done and the good thing is that you got here safely. Don't you agree?”

      “Yes, of course!” Rosella lended Hudson her support with the same levels of enthusiasm she had shown in Livony. Anneth could only purse her lips, though it looked like she didn’t want to disrespect Rosella.

      “Cheer up. Gertrude and I will do any errands around the city for you. So just stay here and sit tight. We got this!” That should cheer her up. As long as he didn’t mention anything about what she did the other day, that weird encounter he instigated between them in the wagon, the path to the Fire Spirit temple should run smoothly.

      “Hmph. You make it sound too easy, Hudson.” To be fair, that was his intention. But hearing it come from Anneth frustrated him. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, after all, she was the most skeptical out of the bunch.

      “I can't say you're wrong, but, why the skepticism?”

      “Skepticism?” Anneth smirked, putting her sandwich in the bag and brushing it aside. “Do not get the wrong idea. Despite my despairing episode, I too believe the situation holds a simple solution. Which brings me to my visit to Central Cathedral today.” Her cocky mood caught Hudson off balance. “I spoke with a sister about the pilgrimage. She said, in order for us to join, we will need to present valid forms of identification. In essence, our kingdom cards and one hundred kroans per person.”

      A brief pause ensued, and Hudson shrugged. “That's it?,” he asked as if there needed more to be said. “That's all we need?”

      “Do you have a Kingdom Card, Hudson?,” Anneth responded with a question, brow rising.

      “A Kingdom Card…” Now that she mentioned it, that had been the first time he'd ever heard of it. He was familiar with identification forms, he had one from his old world, but it seemed too advanced of a concept to exist in this one. Thus, it never crossed his mind.

      “Gertrude, might you have a Kingdom Card?” The elf shook her head at Anneth.

      Rosella spoke this time, resting a hand on her chest. “I do not own a Kingdom Card, either. But because I belong to the royal family, I am exempt, therefore am not issued a card.” Hudson narrowed his eyes at the girl.

      Throughout the journey, he had been told very little about their identities and why they knew so much about how he arrived here in the first place. As time went on, however, snippets and slips of the tongue clued him in on who they were. Rosella was apparently a princess in that castle on the hill. Anneth was a maid in said castle, and Gertrude… well, she's an elf who can teleport with magic and heal injuries.

      But his top priority fell on getting to the Fire Spirit temple and asking its resident god how to get back home. Anything else pertaining to these girls was secondary, even if it did poke his curiosity at times.

      “That means only I have a Kingdom Card,” Anneth said fixing her glasses. “But as we are aware, we cannot afford to hand out documentation with our real names. Save for Gertrude and you, Hudson.”

      He began to catch on. “Let me guess. You want us to get fake Kingdom Cards to join the pilgrimage. Is that right?” Her sly smirk confirmed his inkling.

      “You are not as dense as I thought.”

      “Tch!” Hudson unfolded his arms and tucked them in his pant pockets. “And where do we get these fake cards? I assume we’re talking illegal activity here, so dropping by some sort of government office is out of the equation?”

      Anneth drew a folded sheet of paper underneath the blanket and extended it to Hudson. He unfolded it and skimmed through the writing. Uh-oh! This was bad. If there was one thing he hadn’t told them about him, it was that he couldn’t read Ponderose letters. He swallowed hard at the bizarre scribbles, their shapes reminding him of sticks placed at random. Disclosing that embarrassing fact now would only invite harsh criticism from Anneth, so he nodded instead.

      “I have written what information I want on each of our Kingdom Cards: full names, date of birth, place of birth, and other required information. I have also written the market’s location at the bottom. Hudson, I know your last name is Landon, but I hope you do not mind me changing it to Foridani as per your adoptive family. This way your name will have a native ring to it.”

      “I have no objection,” he said indifferently as he stashed the parchment in his inner coat pocket.

      “Good.” Anneth turned to Gertrude who stood near the window, her legs receiving light through breaks in the curtains. “I noted you as ‘Gertrude Morvon’. Is that alright?” The elf smiled and blushed lightly. “Last, but not least, you two will be doing business in a place called the ‘Cauldron Market’.”

      “Cauldron Market!?” Rosella stiffened as she heard the name, squishing the lunch bag in her hands. Judging by the dramatic reaction, this market had to have quite the reputation. “Certainly, you do not mean the rumored Cauldron Market?,” she said in a near whisper as if someone eavesdropped at the door.

      “There is only one of those in the city, princess. So yes, the rumored Cauldron Market,” Anneth faced her and reaffirmed her suspicions, minus the drama.

      “Is it not dangerous? I hear nothing but dreadful news from that place.”

      "There is danger, I will not deny it. But nowhere else in the city will we be able to obtain fake Kingdom Cards."

      Rosella shrunk into herself, voice softer, more tender than usual. "Even if you say that. To send Hudson and Gertrude there is just... cruel in my opinion." She made it sound like they’d be sent to the gallows.

      Anneth let out a short sigh and smiled sympathetically, brushing stray strands of fiery, red hair behind Rosella's ear. "Do not fret, princess. Hudson is a strong man, and Gertrude is a skilled fighter, like you. Surely they will encounter no threats in the market." She returned to Hudson and Gertrude. “Cauldron Market is safer than what it was ten or even five years ago. Just be cautious of the surroundings.”

      “It’s just as Anneth says.” Gertrude pulled one of her sleeves up and flexed her bicep. “No one’s gonna mess with Hudson and me. And if anyone does, they’ll regret it!” The muscular definition in her arm was not what Hudson expected to see on a girl her age.

      “You see, princess? Even Gertrude is this confident.”

      Rosella managed a frail smile, regarding them both. “Thank you. But please, do take care of yourselves.”

      "That settles it, then,” Hudson said getting back on track. “But you've yet to tell us where in the market, and who we should inquire for the I.D. cards,” He addressed Anneth lifting a palm. The room fell silent and all eyes gravitated towards him, the girls stumped. He smacked a hand on his cheek, sliding it down his face as he realized his mistake. “I.D. is short for ‘identification’,” he slurred.

      Anneth placed her chin between her thumb and index finger. “Right,” her doubtful tone suggested she needed time to think. “Unfortunately, I do not have an answer. If I were in your shoes, I would ask around discreetly.”

      “I guess.” He groaned. It was unfortunate, but nothing he could do about it. He’d just have to not stick out like a sore thumb. Hudson quelled an itch on the back of his head. “Is that all, by the way?,” he asked wanting to eat his lunch already. Anneth gave him a solid look and nodded, traces of annoyance gone from her big, syrupy eyes. They caught the glint of light bleeding from the windows, as if they were nebulas with stars waltzing around. He averted his gaze and picked up a paper bag on the vanity table, heading for the door. “I don’t have the energy to do all that today, so I’ll leave it for tomorrow morning if that’s okay.”

      “No need to rush. The deadline is on the twentieth.”

      “Tomorrow it is, then.” He turned the knob and walked out.

      

      Gertrude and Hudson trekked a gradually sloping path that was part avenue, part stairway crowded with civilians and stalls. At the top they were to take a hard left, and from there head north past the ancient catacombs. The landmark was visible from a prominent distance, and Gertrude could not contain her excitement when she learned they’d have to traverse the megastructure. It was one of those things she’d never asked for but was given to by a stroke of luck. Victory Day decorations decked the buildings and hand railings, the national tricolor of red, white, and black painted the stairway risers.

      They stopped midway for refreshments, their legs needing a break after nonstop walking since leaving the inn that morning. The juice vendor they patroned was a loud, whimsical fellow who had serious skills in slicing fruits like a street performer. He singled out Hudson amongst his customers because he was “frowning too much”, and duped him with a cheap magic trick.

      He made it up to Hudson by selling him a drink at half price.

      “That’s the first and last time I ever buy from him. Who does he think he is? Making me look like an idiot,” Hudson snarled as he churned the cherry blend with his straw. Taking cover in the shade of a tree, Gertrude savored her tropical blend, the smooth texture giving her a taste of what a sandy beach might feel like beneath her bare feet.

      “Really?” Gertrude couldn't believe what she had heard. “But seeing the coin come out from behind your ear was so cool! I've never seen or read about that kinda magic from any textbooks.” More wrinkles puckered around Hudson’s brows. “I liked it…” she drifted into a murmur, feeling guilty of her taste for entertainment.

      “Well, I didn't.” Hudson joined her, and he had to duck his head to get under. “I bet he’ll do that to anyone just to make people think he's funny. Well, I've got news for him. His stunts couldn't even make a baby laugh if his livelihood depended on it.” The growing crowd at the juicer’s stall roared in high spirits, clapping ensuing shortly after. “Not even a baby…,” he growled at his drink, swirling it furiously with the straw.

      “At least you didn’t have to pay full price,” she chipped in to lighten his mood.

      “That’s not the point,” he corrected her, gulping a mouthful of cherry juice.

      “Then, what is the point?”

      He erupted in a loud burp and shut his eyes, filling his lungs with the city’s distinct clay and metallic smell. “Nothing important, trust me. Not like it’ll get us any closer to the temple. That’s for sure.” He said that, but she had seen that kind of rebellious attitude before in the village’s children she often visited with Morvon to treat the sick. One little boy in particular who always argued with the girls, would isolate himself and ignore anyone trying to console him. In the end, holding his hand was the only option to relieve the boy’s anger. She saw his likeness in Hudson, especially when he and Anneth argued. It made her that much more curious.

      “Say, Hudson.” He glanced over. Gertrude clutched his left hand in her right, and held firm, completely burying it within his bigger palm and fingers. He raised an eyebrow. “Tell me a little about your world,” she implored.

      “My world?,” he said, caught off guard by her sudden show of affection.

      “Mhmmm. You see, I used to live in a small village of elves when I was little, but because the mark of magic appeared on my neck, the village chief forced my family to do away with me. Saying I was cursed and would bring ruin to our population.”

      “Woah! Really!?” Drops of juice trickled down the cup as he jerked up. All semblance of bitterness instantly gone.

      “Yeah. From what I remember, I was left to die in a forest. It was very lonely, to tell you the truth. I cried a lot because I missed my mom, dad, and baby sister.”

      “How did you survive being all by yourself?”

      “How?” The question incited memories of her rescuer and adoptive father. She held Hudson’s hand a little firmer. “I didn't do it alone, actually, Morvon rescued me and raised me as if I were his daughter. He's the reason why I'm alive today, why I didn't die in that forest exposed to the elements. I owe everything I've gained in life to Morvon.” Her throat twisted into a knot. Suddenly, she had a sensation of great distance dividing her from home. It was depressing and stripped her of her bravery. What was Morvon doing at this moment? What was he thinking? Did Gertrude cross his mind daily? Nonetheless, she had friends she could rely on, and they could rely on her. Morvon would be proud to know his decision had not been for naught.

      “Morvon, huh?” The name of her guardian drifted from Hudson’s lips in a mystical fashion. “I never thought you’d have such a story behind you.”

      “Hmmm? What did you think about me before?” She hovered closer, eyes sparkling with zest.

      “What, you ask?” Hudson threw his sights to the tree canopy in deep concentration. “Honestly, I found your species to be exotic,” he stated outright. “Especially your ears.”

      “Ears?”

      “Yeah. What are elves like, actually?,” he asked out of nowhere, stumping Gertrude. “I’ve only seen and read about them in media and know they’re a homogenous race. Like, they’re xenophobic or something. They don’t like mingling with other races. Is that true?”

      “Uhh…? I don’t--”

      “Because that wouldn’t fly where I’m from. Also, they’re good at magic, mysterious, skilled in combat, and live hundreds of years more than humans, clever and close to nature,” He started listing detail upon detail about elves that Gertrude had never heard of. Since she had been exiled from her village at a young age, her understanding of the elven race only went so far.

      Either way, she ogled at her every limb as if to confirm the statements, not losing hold of Hudson’s hand. “Will I really live for hundreds of years?,” she asked in a low voice.

      “Beats me. But if you do, you’re pretty lucky. Imagine all the stuff you can learn in that time. And don’t get me started on all the people you can hook up with before you decide to settle down.” He chuckled at the end and dragged it out for a while. When he saw Gertrude deadpan, he hushed, apologizing. “Uhh, sorry, that was uncalled for. I shouldn’t have said that.”

      “Said what?” She tilted her head, jet black hair swaying in the passing breeze. “The hooking up thing with people? What is it?”

      “N-nothing. Never mind,” Hudson said, rushing to take another sip. “In any case, let’s get a move on to Cauldron Market already. You got the paper with the info, right? Let's finish our drinks and go.”

      “B-but--” Hudson crumpled his cup and strutted to the juice vendor's trash sack. No fair. He forgot to tell her about his world… Well, they still had the walk to the market, and back to the inn, at best. She could satiate her thirst for his stories then. She dug for the sheet of paper in her utility belt, whipped it open and read the contents. At the top of the steps they would turn left and head north past the ancient catacombs. She was dying to visit the catacombs. The mystery and wonder shrouding the attraction romanticized her expectations. But that would be for another day.

      Hudson returned, one hand in his pocket, the other swaying. “You're not finished yet?,” he asked meeting her eyes.

      “I'll finish it on the way there.” In reality, Gertrude wanted the drink to last. A taste of the beach she longed to experience was at her fingertips. It was enough to convince him, thankfully. They resumed their errands and climbed the staired avenue, the castle’s highest tower looming overhead beyond the slope.

      “Hey there. How’s it going?” Gertrude and Hudson stopped in their tracks and directed their attention to the left. Standing a few feet away was a tall man waving at Gertrude, specifically. The cup slowly slid from her hand as her jaw went agape. It couldn’t be, but it was. An elf just like her stood within reach. Hudson seemed to freeze in place as well, not uttering a thing in response to the greeting. “I noticed you from afar and came to say hello. I don’t believe I’ve seen you around here before, either, have I? Where’re you from, huh?”

      “... u-h… h-... uh…” Gertrude struggled to even put words together.

      “Oh? Did I startle you?,” He asked looking apologetic, emitting a friendly aura. The elf was of a slender build. His lime green hair spread no further than his upper back, and he dressed in a simple short sleeve, white tunic with pants that resembled the hue of basil leaves. His forearms donned leather bracers with metal plates. “My bad, my bad. I shouldn’t have come outta nowhere like that. Probably gave you a heart attack, he-he!”

      “N-no… I,” Gertrude finally managed. “I’ve just never--”

      “Sorry,” Hudson interrupted, stepping forward. “Do we know you?”

      Unfazed by Hudson’s larger size, the elf did likewise, putting an elbow on his shoulder. “Big bro! I was greeting the both of you, in case it wasn’t obvious. But I apologize, anyway.” He patted him on the chest. “Lemme ask you something. Are you and this lady here together?”

      “Uhh, yeah, we are,” he said, unsure of what to make of the elf’s chummy attitude.

      “Hmmm, I see. Just to be clear,  are you perhaps… dating?” He cupped his mouth and whispered.

      “No.” Hudson said.

      “Ha-ha-ha! I’m joking, I’m joking.” He patted Hudson harder this time. Gertrude was stumped speechless. This was another elf, for crying out loud. One of her kind. The last time she saw anyone of her species was in her village years ago. It felt like an eternity since then, too. Her heart and mind couldn’t find common ground as to how to interpret the situation. Should she jump for joy, cry for joy? Run away? The elf continued his spiel. “Listen. You’re probably wondering why I’m speaking to you guys in the first place. I’m gonna be honest, okay. I was sitting on the other side, on that bench you see there talking to a friend, when I turn around and lay eyes on the lady. She seemed kinda lost, maybe looking for something since you’re not locals?” He deduced all that just by looking at her? “So I thought ‘Hey! I’ve got some free time. Why not use it to help out a member of my own kind?’ Great idea, genius. Am I right?,” he said poking fun at his intelligence.

      “Yeah…”

      “I live around in the area, and know my way around the city better than most people. I could walk to the store and back with a blindfold if I wanted to, I tell you.”

      Hudson seemed precarious but unwilling to admit it. Gertrude, on the other hand, couldn’t fight off the stupor engulfing her. She had so many things she wanted to ask him, but was hesitant to speak.

      The elf went back to Gertrude, snickering, and noticed the paper in her hand. “Hey, whaddya got there? Can I see it, pulkra?” He plucked it from her without permission and read the contents.

      “Pulkra?,” Gertrude repeated the alluring term, attracted by its tonality.

      “Ahh. It’s slang for ‘beautiful’ in elf speech.” Red tinted her cheeks, eyelashes fluttering. He really thought she was beautiful? It's not like she'd never been called that. Morvon called her that once… once… But the way he said it so genuinely with finesse sparked a flame inside her.

      “What’re you doing!? Give it back!,” Hudson exclaimed as he sprang to recover the paper.

      The elf dodged him. “Cauldron Market, huh? You’re looking for counterfeit Kingdom Cards, I see,” he said putting a hand on his pointy chin. “What’s it for? To visit the Fire Spirit temple?”

      Hudson snapped his neck to Gertrude, patience gone from his face. “Am I the only one seeing this? Why’d you let him have it?” Why? “Why”, he asked. When she ruminated his question, Gertrude snapped out of her daze, gasping.

      “What’s the big deal, you guys? Calm down.” The elf whose name they still had not heard, waved the paper like a flag. “On the flip side, you should be glad. If you wanna go to Cauldron Market for a counterfeiter, I know just the guy for the job. In fact, I plan on visiting the temple as well, fake documents and all.”

      “What?,” they said in unison.

      He grinned. “It’s a sensitive topic for both parties, so I’ll keep it to a minimum. I used to work in Cauldron Market, you see? I sold construction materials for a living, then got involved with the whole counterfeiting and piracy business on the side. It’s shady, but it's still a job, nonetheless, no matter what others say to shame you out of it.” Gertrude gazed up at Hudson, and found him doing the same. “Here, I’ll give it back to you. Sorry about that.” At least he was nice enough to apologize…  Gertrude thanked him. “As I was saying, I'm going to the temple myself with some friends. And I doubt we'd be the only ones with fake documents on board, anyhow.”

      “Are you saying others are doing the same as us?,” Hudson asked.

      “Why yes. Not so long ago there were people in Cauldron Market doing business with an old acquaintance of mine for the same purposes. He told me there's plenty coming from out of town with expired cards who weren't able to renew theirs in time. You see? And the number’s been climbing ever since.” Gertrude tightened her grip on the sheet, wrinkling the edge. “How ‘bout it? I'll introduce you guys to my acquaintance so he can fix you some nice cards in a matter of days. He's human, so it'll be easier for you to trust him than me.” He giggled.

      The idea sounded good. It could save them a lot of trouble, too. But what would Anneth say about this? Gertrude couldn't imagine her friend agreeing that easy. “I'm not sure,” Gertrude started. “Maybe--” Hudson stepped in again. His stance was firm, like his voice, and he took on a more cordial character.

      “Yeah, let's do it. Introduce us to your acquaintance.”

      The elf snapped his fingers. “Great! I'm glad we could come to a mutual understanding. I promise you won't regret it.”

      “Really?,” Gertrude pressured. “Are we not going to consult with Anneth first?”

      “Hmm? Don’t be silly,” Hudson retorted in a condescending tune, patting her on the head. “We have our chance right in front of us, someone who’s experienced in this to guide us through the process.”

      “Yeah, but--”

      “If we consulted with Anneth, that’d take even more time out of our schedule just so she can give us the permission we already had since the beginning. Think about it. We’d only be going in circles, delaying the process.” When he put it like that, it did make sense.

      “Maybe so.” She couldn’t shake off the antsy throbbing in her chest. This was too sudden in her opinion. “Or I could run back to the inn and tell her, that way you won’t have to do it?”

      “You’re not listening, are you?” Gertrude tensed at the momentum he swung the sentence with. “Look, the others aren’t the only ones who wanna chat with the Fire Spirit and fix their problems. I’ve got issues of my own too, you know? Or what? You thought I tagged along for fun? I can’t sit around waiting for permission when the chance is right in front of me. That’s what you call idiocy, and that’s one thing I’m not, despite what Anneth says.” Taken aback, she admitted there was no way she could argue against his beliefs. Hudson faced the elf. “We’re ready when you are.”

      With the same expression of delight, the elf then ushered in his name. “Awesome! By the way, my name's Zelphar Erdi. Gonna be nice to travel with you over the holiday.”

      Hudson closed in for a handshake, walking up a step. “ Same here. I'm Hudson Landon, and this is Gertrude…” He stopped midway and glanced over.

      “Gertrude Morvon,” she chimed in, weary of their decision but prepared to be proven wrong.

 

      Cauldron Market was a miniature city under the capital. It ran with tunnels, alleys, ancient mines, holes in the walls, and out of commission sewers to create an ecosystem of labyrinths of its own. People packed the hallways to where you couldn’t see the floor beneath at times. People of a separate class than those above; less extravagant and more ragged, thrived here. The smell of goods, gastronomy, and sewage lingered like incense; not a pleasant mixture in the slightest. Zelphar recommended not to hold in one’s breath, telling Gertrude and Hudson they’d pass out from a lack of oxygen before the stench could do it. That bothered Gertrude more than it should have.

      Lanterns with magic stones hung on the walls by rusty hooks, illuminating the spaces a reddish hue due to the wall’s natural rock color. They made a right turn and descended a flight of small stairs. Puffs of smoke billowed onto Gertrude’s face as they scurried by a food stall, the scent of broiled meat flooding her mouth and nose. Zelphar spoke out, but the chattering of the masses drowned his message. He tried again. “Almost there!” His strides were long and he covered much ground, though he slouched a tad and pushed his neck forward while doing so, both hands in his pockets. Gertrude had to power walk, unlike Hudson who kept up with ease. Until recently, he had gone at her pace so she wouldn't fall behind.

      “Black hair, pointy ears!,” a shoe vendor whooped at Gertrude, followed by a boisterous whistle that could traverse the market in its entirety. “Hey sweety, can I take ya out tonight!? I know a nice place we can spend the night after dinner!,” he flirted. The man, hairy and thick, puckered his lips at her, erupting in a series of cackles with his neighbors.

      “Eh… me?” Gertrude suddenly had a dying urge to bathe. Thankfully, Hudson was there to pull her away. Guess he wasn’t that mad at her. Zelphar guided them deeper into the underground. Sometimes it seemed like they turned random corners or went in circles. He said the market used to be a prison for p.o.w.’s back in the warring states period five hundred years ago. But as time went on it became part of the slums, until finally being restored to a full fledged neighborhood.

      The short history lesson served its part, and now they had arrived at their destination. The stall where they’d inquire the Kingdom Cards, was a hole carved into the rock wall covered in hanging tapestry with psychedelic needlework. It was claustrophobic, to say the least. Zelphar’s acquaintance was apparently a carpet seller, but he was nowhere to be found. Zelphar rung the bell situated on a stool. Seconds later, someone cropped out behind a rug blocking another hole in the wall. “Comin’!,” said a scratchy voice. “Oh! It’s you. Where’ve ya been, eh? Haven’t seen ya in a week.”

      “You haven’t seen me because you’re always cooped up in that hole munching on chicken legs, you fat fart,” Zelphar said as he went for a handshake.

      “Who ya callin’ fat fart, ya skinny twig? I go upstairs and get my recommended daily dose of exercise. I’ll kick your ass for spreading lies about me.” Scowling, the balding man jiggled his gut, and the elf exploded into laughter. Gertrude and Hudson watched in silence as they joked. Shortly after, Zelphar introduced them to his acquaintance and Hudson took over the conversation to talk business. “So it'll be four of yuhs total, and no children?”

      “Yeah, that's right, mr. Kymil,” Hudson confirmed as Kymil read the details on the paper.

      “Ya know… it might come a lil cheaper if Gertrude were to register as below eighteen. Just sayin’.”

      “How cheaper are we talking?”

      Kymil scratched his left temple with a grimy fingernail. “‘Bout half the adult price.”

      Hudson hesitated. “Sure. Let’s do that,” he said. “By the way, how does the process work? The forging of documents and everything.”

      Kymil scrutinized him as though he spoke a different tongue. “Heh! Ya think I'm gonna sit here, willy nilly, and tell ya how forgin’ works? Ha-ha! Yer outta luck, kid, cause when it comes to that, my mouth is sealed.”

      Off in the background were Gertrude and Zelphar observing the ongoing deal. “Seriously, what a dumb thing to ask. There’s no way a middleman would give out details of how a business as shady as forging documents works. That’s just absurd. Unless they put a blade to his neck, he might snitch.” The elf had his arms folded and a leg over the other, leaning against a column of rock as he spoke his mind. Gertrude was at his side, hands neatly joined and attentive of her surroundings.

      That incident with the shoe seller cued her in on the levels of perversion in this neck of the woods. He wasn't the only one she'd received nasty gestures from either. She could beat them to a pulp easily, if they dared touch her, but inciting a brawl here would put their need for secrecy in jeopardy.

      “Pulkra,” Zelphar purred at Gertrude, prompting her to look his way. He had on a wily smirk. “Since hearing your human name, I couldn’t help but assume your family hated their own roots. Are you ashamed of being an elf?” Ashamed of being an elf? She could find no good reason to concur on his suspicions. She did, however, remember her elven name.

      “Yuulas,” she murmured, and his eyes flew wide open. “That was my old name.” She wouldn’t go any further, too shy.

      “Yuulas.” Zelphar licked his lips as if a plate of fresh meats had been presented to him. “ Oh my. It’s not everyday I get to hear such a rare elven name, even amongst the older generations. Such beauty and grace surrounds it. Did you know it means ‘child of the barley fields’?”

      “Really?” Gertrude breathed in, amused. But in reality, the meaning wasn’t all that charming if she had to be honest. Nonetheless, she stifled her yearning for more answers about elves and Zelphar above all, afraid she’d vex him. To bump into another one of her kind was a concept unimaginable to her, even though she’d been told there were others out there. She took that without much thought.

      “Mhmm.” Zelphar nodded. “Actually, you share the same name with my late grandmother, which is why I regard it so highly. Do you mind if I call you by your real name?” She hesitated. “Yuulas” held no deep meaning to her compared to “Gertrude”. Her current name was given by someone who didn’t abandon her, someone who raised her as his own despite how her village viewed her: a calamity. She broke eye contact and draped her face behind locks of black hair. “No biggie. It’s something you gotta get used to over a period of time, which is what this pilgrimage will do, bring us closer.” Gertrude tightened her lips. “Maybe you can switch over to our side. Abandon the humans and move to an elvish town with me while we're at it.” She faced him again, unsure of what he meant. “Yeah, wouldn’t that be great? It’d be better than risking your life to protect the prin-cess.”

      Her heart raced and she hunched. “Wha… how do you--” Zelphar widened his smirk, he pushed off the column and inched towards Gertrude.

      “I ask a lot of questions, but that's because you think a lot of things I want answered. Like, who this princess is, for example.”

      Gertrude felt every organ in her body drop, drag her to her knees. When did she ever mention princess Rosella to him? She had no recollection of that ever happening. Did he know about her running away and changing her name? Or the bounty on her head? That they sought the Fire Spirit’s divinity to help Rosella regain her fire abilities? Zelphar’s expression suddenly morphed into bewilderment, as if his soul had been drained out.

      “Oh… That’s how it is…” He said it in a way she couldn’t decipher if it was a question, or statement. Gertrude’s legs began to lose strength. This elf knew more than he lead on. “In other words, princess Scarlet ran off and is seeking to get her fire powers back at the temple? Is that what you’re telling me?” She had said nothing! NOTHING! “Oh, but you are, Yuulas. You’re spilling everything on me right now. The fact that the princess in that castle right now is nothing but a phony... and the real one changed her name. Interesting.”

      “Zelphar…?” The scream she wanted to release became lodged in her throat, and she couldn’t shove it out no matter how hard she tried. Hudson had his back to them, oblivious of what occurred. This had to be a dream.

      The elf shortened the gap between their faces, his cobalt eyes delved deeper, deeper into her heart. He stroked Gertrude’s hair and continued prattling her secrets in a sweet manner. “This is no dream. It’s reality.” He chuckled, rubbing his cheek against hers. “I’m glad I met you, Yuulas. I must admit, when I laid eyes on you at Skyward Avenue, it was love at first sight. Yet my blood boiled to see you with the likes of that putrid human,” he snorted. “You have no idea how much I wished to decapitate Hudson when he grabbed your hand after that pig of a man blew kisses at you. A beautiful elven girl such as yourself should have no business with those who’ve abused our people. Elves, and other species have suffered and lost lands because of mankind. You should know that by now.” She didn’t. She had never heard of tensions between men and elves in the past, or else Morvon would’ve told her about it. “I see. You were deprived of that history, weren’t you? Poor thing. Betrayed by those you’ve trusted.”

      Something wasn’t right. “What are you doing to me?,” she demanded, voice reduced to whispers. He ignored her plea.

      “Now that I’ve come this far, I must tell you.” Whatever it was, he was serious about it. “Me and a group of companions plan to ambush the pilgrimage. We want revenge on this country for slaughtering our people in the elven wars.”

      “Revenge? What are you on about?”

      He held her by the shoulders, eyes in agony. “Join us, Yuulas. If you do, I promise princess Scarlet’s safety, despite her ties to the bloodshed her ancestors have caused. But in exchange, promise you’ll become mine.” Gertrude felt as though she’d walked into a mirror and everything had been flipped in opposite directions. She couldn't think straight. Should she agree to this merciless proposal? He guaranteed Rosella’s safety in the end, which Anneth prioritized. But innocent lives would still be lost… “Don’t worry. When you become mine, you will not be locked in. I’ll take you to see the ocean you so crave. We’ll walk on the sandy beaches, smell the ocean spray, and explore the world together.” His long arms wrapped her in a warm embrace, and she had no strength to resist. She felt like she had been cracked open, made vulnerable, and exposed for the world to see. Her deepest secrets had spilled out, but someone willing to support her was here. Were her deductions true?

      Fearing there was no other option, Gertrude gambled on Zelphar’s pledges. “I'll join you,” she said with a quiver into his ear. “But please, don't harm my friends, or Hudson for that matter.” His hold on her loosened, and he let go.

      Zelphar towered above her. He caressed her cheek with a gentle, romantic touch, cerulean eyes plunging into her amber oculars, whirling in a sea of color. “You have my word, Yuulas,” he said with tender rhythm, Gertrude already blushing.

      “Gertrude?” Hudson was standing not far from them but he stood still as he watched Zelphar stroke her, confusion written on his face. She breathed in quickly and held her breath.

      “Hudson,” she reacted.

      “Hey there, Hudson.” Zelphar butted in and switched to his former, chipper self. “Gertrude was scared of what they said to her on our way here. I was merely comforting her.” Hudson shifted his gaze to Gertrude, his upset expression asking if it was true.

      “H-he’s right, Hudson. Don’t worry,” she lied with a smile, careful not to expose Zelphar. “I feel better now. Honest.”

      Hudson’s suspicions died down, and he regained a collected attitude. Good. “Everything’s done,” he said. “We should leave now or you might get cat called again.” Without prying any further, Hudson marched for the exit. He reminded her of Morvon after an argument, quiet and withdrawn.

      “Okay,” she responded obediently, following his footsteps. Zelphar winked at her, and because of the awkward atmosphere they’d created, Gertrude averted her eyes.

      The deal had gone well without problems and they’d have to come back within a few days to pick up the documents. With that done, they exited the market and parted with Zelphar near the entrance. Prior to that, he embraced her again and whispered he looked forward to seeing Gertrude on the day of departure. Her goosebumps persisted the entire time, even after they arrived back at the inn. She did her best to hide it, to conceal any semblance of insecurity from Hudson, Anneth, and Rosella. This was for the best since their safety was promised. At this rate, they could even make it inside the temple, ultimately serving a good purpose for Rosella. Gertrude had nothing to worry about. Nothing. Tomorrow she would wake up to a new day of hope, and a day closer to achieving their ultimate goal.