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Fire Princess and the Outcasts chapter 8

      Anneth could not fathom the amount of food she had just consumed. Her jaw ached from all the chewing and her posture caved in somewhere in the midst of lunch. Fortunately, they sat at a booth which she was thankful for and her spine, too. The platter on the table --once a mountain of duck meat surrounded by a forest of assorted vegetables, was gone and in its stead an apocalyptic wasteland of bones. Adding to the casualties, the honey glazed bread buns and cheese slices were nowhere to be found, plates emptied.

      How could she have allowed herself to indulge in the sin of gluttony? Out in public, no less. Slowly, she came to her senses and called attention to her abdomen. The underbust corset she wore over her long tunic felt a little tighter than usual. Anneth swallowed, grimaced, but she saw no other option. At this rate she'd suffocate if she heeded her stubbornness. Slowly, her hand unfastened the first hook, grumbling when she admitted it wasn't enough, then the second. That should do it…. Or not. Ashamed and on the verge of tears, Anneth worked up the courage to unfasten the third of five hooks on her corset, finally ceasing the tightness on her stomach.

      She heaved out a stream of air in one long sigh of relief like a noisy pressure cooker. The food was delicious, flavorful. She went so far as to say addicting and could see it compete against the roast duck they cooked back at the castle. Lucky for her, she traveled on foot quite often which would help burn off the newly gained weight.

      On the other side of the table was Annabelle: the child beggar Anneth invited out to lunch, also reclining on the booth’s backrest. The ear-to-ear smile she had at the start of the meal was still there, unwavering, which translated over to Anneth. She wondered when was the last time Annabelle felt this satisfied, or if at all, ever. And this might have been her first time eating food of this quality. Anneth opted out of asking, afraid she’d get an answer that would release the flood gates.

      The answers to the questions she posed went unanswered. She wasn’t this child’s mother or relative or caretaker of any sorts. The townspeople wouldn’t point at her and single her out, call her a hypocrite, someone who forgets their roots the moment they make it big. Well…. She never made it “big” per se, but Anneth was able to escape a pitiful way of life thanks to the royal family’s head maid that noticed her potential. Her point was, was it alright to treat Annabelle? Every time she’d beg after today, would she patiently wait in hopes of somebody taking pity on her sorry appearance again? These questions drove Anneth crazy.

      She always thought the older she’d grow the wiser she’d become to comprehend the world’s weird structures. It was actually the opposite. Anneth signaled the young waitress for the bill. The total came out the same for a room at their hostel, well worth the money.

      When the girls got out Anneth recommended they walk around town to aide the digestion. They headed left where the street sloped upwards and behind a scenic view of the small town and green hills that blended into the horizon. Judging by the sun’s location, it had to be shortly past noon, an hour at the least. Annabelle skipped ahead as she held on to the flower crown. She hummed and would spin on a heel like dancers with both arms fanned out. For a small girl, she had the energy to move as if what she'd eaten was an appetizer. Anneth envied her the slightest.

      For now what mattered was this moment of bliss. Anneth spared a few coins for dessert and let the decision fall on the little girl.

      “Annabelle.” The child spun back to meet her eyes, curiosity tilting her head. “Are you up for dessert? Because I know I am.” Unable to gauge Anneth’s generosity, she answered with a deep gasp, ecstatic for more goodies. “Tell me what you want and I'll get it for you. Don't be afraid to choose, okay?”

      In an instant, Annabelle snatched Anneth by the hand and steered her to a stand that sold freshly made ice cream and popsicles. Anneth found the plethora of flavors and toppings overwhelming, unlike Annabelle who studied the menu that hung overhead thoroughly, whispering to herself the possible flavor combinations. Anneth’s jaw nearly dropped when she read each word fluidly. This girl was literate! That meant Annabelle had gone to school at some point in the past. Weird.

      Setting that thought aside, the girls took a seat at the edge of a fountain in the town square to pass the time. Anneth drew out a small comb she had on her person and began to brush Annabelle’s tangled hair as she savored her vanilla strawberry ice cream topped with diced fruits. Birds flocked to an old man on a bench who fed them bread crumbs. A married couple walked by with their son in the middle, swaying him back and forth as if on a swing. Water droplets from the fountain would occasionally make their way down the back of Anneth’s tunic, inciting goosebumps on her skin. It was a nice way to keep cool while out in the sun.

      “Thank you, big sis Anneth,” the child said, feet kicking in the air. “I’m having fun!”

      Those words of gratitude felt wasted on her. Nonetheless, she returned the kindness. “I’m having fun, too! This whole day has been a blast for me. I got to eat a lot, walk around town, and even made a new friend.” Annabelle offered a nod of agreement.

      “Thank you for brushing my hair. I’m gonna be pretty again.”

      “What are you saying, Annabelle? You were pretty from the start,” she argued, untangling a knot.

      This time she shook her head. “That’s not what people say.”

      “Who cares what others say. There opinions don’t count. What does is how you see yourself. Plain and simple.”

      Annabelle pondered the statement for a while and then turned her neck slightly. “Have you ever been called ugly?”

      “Of course I have. By many people, in fact.”

      “But you’re not ugly.” Confounded, she furrowed her brows together, puffing her cheeks. “You’re beautiful like my mom, big sis. Whoever said you were ugly is uglier.”

      “I know, right? How dare they say that to me!,” Anneth agreed.

      “Yeah!”

      “They wish they could be this beautiful.”

      “Yeah!”

      “My eyes are prettier, my nose is cuter, and because I'm short I don't have to worry about my forehead hitting the door.”

      “Yeah! Me too! Hurray for being short!”

      “Hurray!”

      They burst into laughter, drawing attention their way.

      That’s interesting. Hearing Annabelle mention her mother in a positive tone meant they were on good terms. At least, that’s how she made it out to seem. Then again, she still thought it cruel to have her daughter outside alone begging for money. What was she and her husband doing back home in the meantime? Small town or not, any passerby could pretend to befriend Annabelle and turn out to be a kidnapper or worse: a slave trader… slave trader…

      Anneth wasn’t any of those horrid things. Still, she nauseated at the idea. She promised not to dig up dead memories and tried to focus on untangling the little girl's blonde hair. A few more strokes and she'd be good to go. “Say, Annabelle,” she said, “Where did you learn to read so nicely, hmmm? I saw you skimming the ice cream stand’s menu so fast earlier, not even asking what the flavors were. You’re better than some adults I know.”

      Before she could give an answer, Annabelle devoured a spoonful of ice cream, licking the residue off her lips. “That’s easy, big sis. My mom was a teacher and taught me how to read and write before I started school.”

      That solved one mystery. She had gone to school before, and the conversation segwayed towards her mother again. Maybe she could learn something about this girl's family, why they allowed their daughter to beg. “Oh, really? She teaches other kids to read and write? That’s wonderful!”

      “Not anymore.”

      Annabelle stopped shoveling ice cream. The gleeful hue in her voice darkened and she painfully dropped her gaze to the cobblestone floor. It was like watching a flower that had just bloomed at the start of spring, ready to show the world its inspiring beauty, only to meet its end under a vandal’s boot. Somehow, Anneth felt the same negative energy from yesterday when she asked Trebena about her deceased grandmother, emitting from the little girl. Her tongue curled to the back of her mouth in the blink of an eye.

      “My mom can’t teach anymore. She’s not allowed because she forgave dad’s mistake, and the church didn’t like it.”

      “M-- mistake?,” Anneth parroted.

      “The church and the neighbors, told her to leave him because he kissed another woman and didn’t come back home until the next day.”

      Oh… Ohh… That kind of mistake.

      “My dad says he was drunk and thought the woman was my mom, but the priest told my mom to not believe him or our family would suffer divine punishment. She was very sad and we cried a lot.”

      Not knowing what to properly comment, Anneth muttered the most basic phrase that first came to mind. “I… I see.”

      Annabelle resumed. “She said she would believe in him and dad promised to never kiss another woman again. That he wouldn't drink alcohol anymore if she gave him another chance. Then all of a sudden, the monastery didn't want my mom to teach, and people stopped buying from dad's blacksmith shop. He said he's out of business.”

      Simply put, her father committed adultery and the church made good on their delivery of punishment if no divorce followed. It came as no surprise when Anneth considered the town's remote location and size. These people were a few decades behind the rest of the kingdom. Nowadays you wouldn't hear much from the church in cases like these unless one of the two parties sought out consultation. And even then you wouldn't hear of such ultimatums, save for there being domestic violence.

      Anneth unraveled a list of curse words in her mind for bringing up the girl's family. The mood had dampened because of her. She’d have no qualms if a stray arrow were to pierce her chest right now. But now she knew Annabelle’s circumstances, the reason why she was all alone begging on the streets.

      However, from the way she spoke of her parents, it sounded unlikely they forced her into this. Annabelle was a brave girl, so she probably volunteered. Still, this situation was beyond tragic. Anneth finished brushing Annabelle’s hair, straightened and neat, then scoped their surroundings for prying eyes as she reached down her tunic, pulling out a gold, jeweled ring a duchess once handed her after a banquet. She balled it in her fist, unsure if it was the right thing to do. It wasn’t like she asked for this ring, anyway. It held no deep meaning to her, no emotional worth. What it did hold were thousands of kroans worth of money and that’s why she brought it along to sell someday if need be. But after learning Annabelle’s circumstances, she reevaluated that intent.

 

      Her pulse hadn’t been this high since the day she plunged her dagger into Felker, killing him on the spot in the middle of a thunderous storm. Rosella wasn’t fighting to survive at the moment, nor was she evading pursuers ready to take her back to the capital where surely her father, king of Ponderosa, would lock her up in the underground dungeons. According to Gertrude, Anneth left the weapons shop because she wanted to “breathe fresh air,” which was an obscure answer and said nothing of her current whereabouts.

      Now of all times was the worst for her to be missing, because there was no telling when another band of bounty hunters would crawl out of the dirt, capture them when they least expect it. For all she knew, Anneth could be in someone's wagon, tied and bound in cloth disguised as goods. What else could have happened? She was a diligent maid, always on alert and ready to take orders from the royal family without a wrinkle of frustration disfiguring her face. She embodied the ideal servant which reflected in her quick ascension to the position of head maid. Anneth wasn’t the type to leave without uttering a word of her destination, either. That was irresponsible, and a trait that fit Rosella more than it did Anneth. Gertrude’s warm hands brought her back to the present. The elf had to lift her chin up so their eyes could meet as she was on a knee. Her lips didn’t quite curve like a smile, yet they didn’t resemble a frown. They stayed slightly in the middle and the orange fire whirls that were her irises transmitted an essence of strength that soothed Rosella’s fiery bloodline.

      Hudson was there, too, looking worried behind Gertrude. In his right hand a paper cone with water. The despair had cut a portion out of her day. Rosella couldn’t remember how she’d gotten onto this rusty bench next to a bakery. Her cheeks were hot and wet, as well.

      “... and everything’s gonna be alright. So don't worry. Besides, this town is small. She shouldn’t be hard to find,” Gertrude said. Hudson nodded.

      Coming out of her shock, Rosella adjusted her breathing to normal levels. She took a moment to reflect on Anneth’s disappearance and connect it with the message she left. “R-right,” she managed, voice less shaky. She had to believe in her best friend. If Anneth stepped outside for fresh air, that's what she did, and anything beyond that was Rosella’s imagination running wild. Rosella tucked a lock of hair behind her ear.

      The bench squeaked at the rusting nails as Hudson claimed the space beside her, catching her attention as he leaned a little closer. He offered the water-filled cone. “Here. It's for you,” he said in a tone so sweet it could bring back the tears.

      “Thank you, Hudson.” She peeked at him from under the shadow of her bangs and accepted the offer. She noticed the growing hair on his square chin, how it was thick, black, and dense like sandpaper. Would it feel the same if she grazed a finger on it? She'd been this close to a man's face before while dancing in the castle’s ballroom, granting noblemen a dance. They were either clean shaven, fully bearded, or with a simple mustache.

      What separated Hudson from them was the untidiness of his facial hair. It made him seem more human and genuine, not artificial where every edge was trimmed to perfection like bushes in a fancy botanical garden. A princess like her would know. Even her father's beard stayed finely groomed, too, symmetrical with a wavy flow.

      “Is there something on my face?”

      She jerked. “Ah! N-no. I just got lost in your beard.”

      “My beard?” He wiped it thinking something had gotten stuck.

      “No! Sorry. Forgive me.”

      “Uhh. Okay? If you say so.” They locked eyes briefly, but it was all she needed to get excited. Or maybe excited was an understatement. Rosella saw the world around them explode into dust and a strange force compelled her to stick to Hudson's face, even though her body from the neck down was crawling away. He didn't budge either, he stayed frozen, like her. Did Hudson also see the world vanish? Was his left knee also fidgeting from their close proximity, like hers?

      Now that she had time, she noticed he had a small scar next to his right earlobe. It was healed and barely visible, matching his lightly olive skin. Did he get it here, or back in his old world? One way to find out was by touching it. Why not the chin as well while she was at it?

      “What's wrong with you guys? You've been like those statue things for a while. It's annoying.”

      The sound of Gertrude’s voice shattered their daydream; water from the cup spilled on her boots. What in the world…? Hudson was so close he covered almost her entire line of sight! She'd never been that close to another man's face before. Her heart clung to the ribcage. She could hear Gertrude argue about being ignored as he apologized rigorously.

      Rosella felt more confident after chugging down the water. It was thanks to her companions, Gertrude and Hudson.

      “Let us keep searching,” she said looking ahead. She saw herself like the protagonists in the fairy tales the storyteller used to narrate when Rosella was little. Believing wasn't enough. Going out and venturing was the only means to obtain one's goals. That is how she confirmed the existence of miracles. After all, that miracle was standing at her side in the flesh.

      The gang marched through town revisiting places they'd been to and entering shops. To be safe, they stuck together instead of splitting up in case bounty hunters were somehow involved in Anneth’s disappearance, though it reduced their chances of finding her quicker, it was a necessary sacrifice. For this same reason, they avoided locals and asked shopkeepers if anyone resembling Anneth had walked by.

      Rosella almost jumped for joy when the owner of a flower store recalled someone with the same features earlier that day. Supposedly he saw Anneth cross the street out of Flower Alley when he watered the plants outside his store. His only gripe was she had bought a flower crown at a rival store when his were allegedly much “cheaper”. With the newly obtained information, the trio traced Anneth’s steps across the street and then tossed a coin to help choose at random their next turn. “Heads” meant they would go left (downhill), and “tails” meant right (uphill). The coin landed showing the monarch, so they headed left.

      But they found no clues, and hiked back up where they stopped at an ice cream stand. Gertrude, though not the most outspoken of the group, took the initiative to ask the ice cream man if he had seen anyone resembling Anneth. He said yes, pointing ahead at the water fountain in the middle of the plaza where Anneth and a small child sat together.

      Relieved to know she was okay, Rosella couldn't help but swallow a deep gasp.

      Anneth was safe and sound all along and she had nothing to worry about. She fought off the tears only because now she realized the mental anguish her friend had caused and wanted to give her a piece of her mind. She scrunched her fist tight into a ball. For someone so responsible and mature, Anneth had done the unthinkable during a time they couldn't afford to be apart. Grateful to the ice cream man, Rosella patroned him one serving for all three.

      “Wait a minute, Rosella,” Gertrude said as she tugged on the princess’s sleeve. The trio occupied a bench under a tree while observing Anneth from a safe distance. Her back was to them, so there was no chance she could spot then unless she turned around. “Don't you think we should let’em finish whatever they're doing, and then pretend like we stumbled upon by chance?”

      Rosella heaved a scoop into her mouth, not buying Gertrude’s plan. “There is no way I will accept that,” she retorted sharply. “Quite frankly, I should be right there scolding her for abandoning us the way she did. I mean, I have never been this worried over someone else's safety, ever.”

      “Gertrude’s right,” Hudson cut in, and Rosella looked at him as if she had been betrayed. He scratched his scalp, avoiding direct eye contact as he spoke with a tinge of hesitation. “It'd be best if we waited a while before lifting a finger. I mean, who knows? Showing up like that could throw off their tempo. Don't you think?”

      She pouted. He was right, but Rosella really wanted a chance to scold Anneth for once.

      But seeing her like this opened a new heap of questions. To begin with, who was the girl in rags she was with? Anneth stopped what she was doing and looked around the area. The trio sharpened their gazes, curious to know what she would do next. The fountain however, shielded half of Anneth's body from view behind a curtain of water. It proved difficult to interpret her movements.

      “I cannot see very well,” Rosella complained, eyes squinting.

      “She took something out of her tunic,” said Gertrude. “And now the girl's feeding her ice cream.”

      “Excuse me!?,” she wailed loud enough for passersby to stop in their tracks, and Hudson apologized on her behalf. Fortunately, the ruckus didn't make it to Anneth’s ears.

      “Look. They're leaving already,” the elf alerted.

      Rosella never considered herself to be the jealous type. In fact, she regarded it as the most destructive of emotions. Part of it was due to her older sister harboring animosity towards her when they were younger because she couldn't skillfully manipulate fire, which made their mother overprotective of her. Nonetheless, witnessing Anneth hug the little girl had her pouting more than normal.

      Anneth then whispered to the girl and handed her an object discreetly. The girl blew her eyes wide open as Anneth kept on talking in a cautious manner.

      “I got it,” Hudson said as a familiar clicking sound clicked behind them. If Rosella remembered correctly, that was the cellphone apparatus. “I zoomed in and snapped a picture. See?”

      “Zoomed in?”

      “Yeah, that's what it's called. Also, sorry about the crack on the screen. It happened that time on the mountain.”

      Perplexed at the foreign lexicon, Rosella shuffled closer to examine the cellphone’s doing. Its sleek design and shiny black coat reminded her more of a sword drenched in ink than a brick regardless of the shape. She batted her eyelashes at the screen as it displayed her friend in close proximity.

      The exotic piece of technology had her mesmerized no matter how many times she'd caught a glimpse of it.

      “Wow! We're so close. How did you do that?” Gertrude nabbed it from his hands and pressed her awestruck face on its surface. Stars seemed to sparkle around the elf.

      “Hey! You're gonna rub oil all over it like that!,” he barked.

      As the two fought over the cellphone, Rosella returned to Anneth who now stood alone, waving goodbye to the little girl. She watched until the last second when Anneth slowly lowered her hand as if not wanting to give up, as if the departure was painful.

 

      She tried counting sheep. That didn't work. Next she challenged herself to not move or else she'd "lose". That failed miserably. Every day was its own story and dissimilar from the last. Annabelle’s image stayed with her the whole time and nothing else could get her out. Gifting her the jeweled ring seemed like a good idea. It held the monetary value to help the girl’s family start anew. She just hoped and prayed to whatever benevolent spirit willing to lend an ear that Annabelle arrived home safely. That no one had seen her give the ring at the fountain and stalked Annabelle for the chance to thieve her. Maybe walking her home would’ve been best.

      Fixing her glasses on, Anneth slipped out of bed as stealthily as she could to not wake the princess and Gertrude. Her throat was dry, too, and they had depleted the complimentary water jug since coming back to the hostel. Anneth turned the doorknob, peeked over her shoulder at Gertrude who had keen senses, and creeped out like a midnight burglar, closing the door. She discharged a breath, inhaled again, and ran a hand over her wavy hair. The other guests should be fast asleep, so she needn’t bother over any men seeing her in a nightgown with lace decorating the neckline.

      Anneth headed down the hallway glistening in blue moonlight, to the stairs and out of the hostel where a short hallway connected with Trebena’s house: the reception. She raised a brow at the sleepy light filtering through the white window curtains, which could only mean Trebena was also awake. Good, she thought. At least she'd have less of a hassle figuring out which cabinet housed the drinking glasses. On her way there she figured it would've been a smart idea to sacrifice a room for kitchen space. That way guests wouldn't have to travel between buildings in the middle of the night for a measly sip of water. 

      Anneth knocked on the wooden door.“Excuse me,” she said. A faint voice reacted to her call, and she entered.

      “My, my. If it isn’t Anneth.” The innkeeper sat on a rocking chair knitting what seemed to be a scarf with a ball of red yarn on the floor. On her lap sat a thick blanket, probably one of her works, and close to her feet a rooted stump used as furniture with a lantern perched on top.

      “What are you doing here, Miss Trebena?,” she asked skeptically.

      The innkeeper shot her a snarky look. “Hmmm? Well, isn't this my house we're in?”

      Yes. Yes it was. If Anneth had the flexibility to kick her own forehead, it’d have a footprint by now. What a dumb question to ask! The innkeeper no less! She wanted to dig a hole and crawl inside. “Forgive my rudeness, Miss Trebena!” She doubled over into a deep bow, apologizing. “I have not been able to get things off my mind lately, and even though I am exhausted, I cannot fall asleep. Please, forgive me.”

      Trebena laughed into her palm. “My goodness, you're funny. In case it makes you feel any better, you're not the first guest to ask me that.” Anneth raised her head to get a better view of Trebena’s face. The lantern tinged the innkeeper’s right side a shadowy orange, brown hair appearing crimson like the princess's when it was still long. The tip of her sharp nose caught a glint of that light, too, and her wide smile curved like the crescent moon. “It happens often. A guest and I will bump into each other in the hallway, or find me here knitting, making the beds in an empty room. The list goes on. And I'll sometimes get asked why I'm there. My guess is they say it without thinking and don't expect to see me around regularly. Funny, isn't it?”

      Anneth was lodged between a cringe and a smirk to know she fell in that majority.

      “Please. Help yourself to the chair in the corner,” Trebena continued, hands busy on the scarf. “A little chit-chat might help you to sleep.”

      Why not? She had nothing better to do, and she loved late night conversations, to boot. Anneth pursed her lips when the chair she retrieved cried in protest when sat on. That damn roast duck! She knew she should've ordered something lighter. All those calories had gone straight to her butt. Fortunately, the chair had seen its fair share of decades, according to Trebena. She gladly accepted the pretext.

      “Did Gertrude get a lot of stares again today?”

      Anneth glanced at the ceiling in thought. “Somewhat. But she doesn't seem to care.”

      “It's funny because out here in the boonies we don't get to see many elves. That's mainly in the cities. Pardon my language but, you can say she's an oddity of sorts.” The comment reminded Anneth of something similar Felker had said. “If it's not much to ask, how did you all meet?”

      “We met on the road while traveling the kingdom,” she said not wasting a second. Anneth made a mental note to clue Gertrude in on the details later just in case. “She's knowledgeable on herbs and hunting. So she comes in handy when we're out in the wilderness.”

      “To tell you the truth, when I first noticed her, I fought the urge to ask if those were real.”

      “Those…,” Anneth quoted, a brow scaling her forehead.

      Trebena coughed to clear her throat. “The ears,” she said in a hissed whisper, and an awkward silence engulfed the room. “You must think I'm crazy, darling.”

      “N-not at all,” she stuttered. “It's perfectly normal to be enthralled by the unknown. At the beginning, I too… felt the same.” It took more effort to roll that lie off her tongue than the last. What would poor Gertrude do if she'd heard that? A weird aftertaste lingered as if she'd drank a glass of rotten milk, squeezing her shoulder blades together.

      “I'm glad we see eye to eye. I was feeling mighty uncomfortable in my own conscience. Elves and humans have patched their history quite well, better than other species like the ferals and mermen. But you know how there's always a few bad apples in the bunch, right?” Their shadows danced in the background when Trebena laid a slippered foot on the stump, flickering the lantern light. “Anyway, since traveling is your bread and butter, where are you heading next?”

      Those words bounced in her ears like an echo in a deep chamber, beckoning her to look back on the highlights of their journey. First came their encounter with Morvon. An old man haunted by his past who wanted nothing but to redeem himself. Then Felker, another aging man who sought to convince his daughter to return home by winning big. And Hudson, who they bumped into on the streets of Livony.

      Lastly, her conversation with the princess yesterday.

      The Fire Spirit temple.

      If she recalled the date, soon there would be pilgrimages all across the kingdom to the temple in celebration of victory day over a ten day period. What better time than the present? Anneth adjusted her round glasses by the frames, straightened her body into a more fitting posture. “We'll be taking a premature trip to the Fire Spirit temple,” she said joining her palms together in a way that made her look excited. “It gets really crazy in the holiday season, so I thought it'd be best to go now before the masses flood the sacred grounds.”

      That shouldn't turn any heads in suspicion. Pilgrimages to the Fire Spirit temple were an all-year event, and to a certain degree, encouraged if one had spare time. Also, because the king had only named the Roheisia Mountains the most plausible location they could be at and not the temple, visiting it shouldn't raise any red flags. Yet, Trebena narrowed her eyes as if she had trouble seeing, gliding her chin forward slightly. She sat deathly quiet for what felt like ages and Anneth wondered if she'd accidentally insulted the innkeeper.

      “Is something the matter?”

      “You haven't heard?”

      Had she missed something important? Anneth was at a loss. “I'm sorry. What, exactly?”

      Trebena laid the scarf down, baffled. “Anneth, darling. For a traveler, you're awfully uninformed of the news. Old news, I should say.” Old news? Wait... Did it pertain to the princess in any form? She dreaded the idea of Trebena following in Felker’s footsteps. She braced herself for a surprise attack, lifting her bottom off the chair by minuscule increments. Before Anneth could guess, Trebena piled on the details. “All pilgrimages stemming outside the capital have been banned until further notice.” She shook her head while frowning. “It came outta nowhere, but the king all of a sudden axed the tradition months ago, leaving those who planned on attending without answers.”

      The news beat her silent, and Anneth fought the emotions rampaging inside her. It should’ve been obvious he’d think ahead. The king is no amateur. If she were him she’d do the same to prevent Rosella from regaining her abilities. Anneth spaced out and caved in, giving the chair reason to cry again.

      “Oh?,” Trebena voiced, interest peaked. “Were you that passionate about going?”.

      Anneth tried to articulate words but the shock had bolted her jaw shut.

      “Don’t throw in the towel just yet, darling. The restrictions are only for territories outside the capital city.” And just like that the bolts were hammered off.

      "Huh?!" she sprung forth to the chair's edge in a flash, nostrils flared. Her response startled the innkeeper nearly to the other wall, which suggested she'd gone overboard with the reaction. Reading the tensed atmosphere she'd created, Anneth went upright and arranged her cluttered thoughts. "S-sorry!... When you said 'territories outside', that means anyone residing within the capital city's limits is exempt from the ban? Right?”

      “Well…,” Trebena started, still a bit shaken. “Apparently, anyone willing to attend will need to register at a house of worship.”

      “Can we do that here in advance?”

      Trebena shaking her head answered that question. “Afraid not --rather, they’ve stripped our local church of that power. And I’m more than certain it’s been done to every church in the kingdom, as well.”

      “I see,” she managed to squeeze out with defeated morale. Anneth sunk her gaze to the nightgown’s silky, white texture blanketing her lap.

      “Yes, and the expeditions will be lead by experienced clergy members. And if that wasn’t strict enough, no one is allowed near the temple, much less inside. Worshiping will have to take place from afar on a certain cliff, or so I’ve heard.”

      That last line sounded comical to Anneth, but she had no incentive to deride the rules.

      “Honestly. It’s ridiculous. Wouldn't you agree? To be told we can't celebrate the biggest achievement in our history the way we've done for ages without an explanation is having testicles for brains, as my grandmother used to say.” Trebena flipped a hand in the air dismissively amidst her heated rant. “I don't know if you've noticed but people have been speculating and spitting rumors around to justify the ban.”

      “Oh?”

      “Yeah. I've heard some pretty colorful stories circulating the kingdom. People are saying that the four monarchs are gonna shut down the religious institutions pertaining to their bloodline, and establish a new faith because the spirits have been unresponsive for years now. And then...” Anneth held her breath tight in suspense as Trebena dragged out the last syllable. “...I hear rumors claiming they're remodeling the temple's interior.”

      She relaxed and the air came flooding out. Goodness! For an instant, she thought rumors of the princess might have made it onto the populace’s lips. Luckily they were mere rumors passed around by people itching for drama, and it would stay that way, too.

      With that mini heart attack out of the way, this new information changed everything. Not only had their initial plans been foiled, but she'd have to concoct a new strategy from scratch. Thankfully, not all hope was lost as organizing pilgrimages weren't completely outlawed, but restricted to one place: the capital. In other words...

      Anneth reclined on the chair, rubbing her temples and reminding herself there was still nothing to celebrate.

      Trebena seemed to catch on to Anneth’s displeasure. “There's a merchant caravan setting out for the capital tomorrow,” she informed as she returned to the scarf. “They gather at the town entrance before departures at the end of every month. You might wanna hitch a ride if you're gonna make it to this year's only pilgrimage.” She ended on a friendly wink.

      Anneth surrendered. Out of all places she never would’ve imagined the capital to be their next stop. It pained her to admit it, to realize she’d have to put the groups safety at risk for the princess’s benefit. But what else was she to do? Rosella was her best friend in the end, someone she would walk on a path of burning coal barefooted for. She pictured the king on his tall thrown, sporting a pompous grin with royal guards at his side ready to seize them at a moment's notice.

      “Hmm. You're right, Miss Trebena.” The corners of her mouth stretched. Though she was terrified, she tried her hardest to hide any sign of weakness. “I'm afraid we'll have to cut our stay short, then.”

      “Mhmm. Fine by me.” She returned the gesture politely.

      “Thank you for your assistance, Miss Trebena. I honestly don’t know what I would’ve done if it were somebody else running this hostel. You’re truly a godsend.”

      “The last time I received that level of praise was from my ex-husband.” She chuckled, the skin of her cheeks flushing.

      “What about the customers that buy your pine tar soap?”

      “Oh. Right. I almost forgot. I must be missing my ex if I thought of him first. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! I’m kidding!” She burst into a drunk man’s laughter. Apart from appearing very mature, this woman had quite the sense of humor. Anneth searched for bottles of hard liquor in the room but only saw wooden planks. “Speaking of my pine tar soap… would you be interested in buying some from me now that you’ve cut your stay short.” Suddenly, a spark of mischief twisted the innkeeper’s face into a smug expression as if she’d cornered Anneth into a tourist trap.

      She felt the weight of those glaring eyes pin her to the chair.

      “Sure... Why not?”

      “Splendid!,” Trebena cheered. “And so you won’t think badly of me, I’ll throw in this blanket, free of charge.”

      “But isn’t that yours, Miss Trebena?,” Anneth asked.

      “Hmmm? Yes, but I make these all the time. Go on, take it!,” she insisted. “It’ll be cold outside when you go back to your room, anyway. That nightgown of yours is so thin you’ll freeze before you can slip under the covers.” The gown wasn’t that thin. If anything, she was referring to the lace neckline which was indeed thin, but this was her way of haggling merchandise to customers so they wouldn’t feel cheated.

      Trebena handed her the blanket with pleasure and Anneth experienced its comfort first-hand. “Oh my.” The words slipped out of her mouth. “It’s so warm... and soft.” She brought it to her cheek and melted. The blanket’s fluffiness harbored Trebena’s love and care to the point where her flower-like scent had been absorbed into it fully. She could have sworn the piece of cloth had taken a life of its own and hugged her back. Is this how a mother's warmth felt?

      Anneth accepted the gift, ecstatic, and she and Trebena bid each other good night as she left the room covered in her new blanket. The air caressed Anneth’s cheeks with a chilly fingernail when she set foot outside, but that's as far as it would reach. The door closed with a click and off to bed she went.

      But a giant mass blocked the hallway to the hostel. At just over six feet in height, a broad frame near the top, and loose robe-like folds shy of skimming the ground, it swerved disgustingly slow to face her. It literally had a face. Squared and long, almost carved out of stone by artful hands. Black hair that blended into the shadows, and limbs that swayed languidly like drapes on a windy day before a storm.

      The dark figure whisked at her, aiming to envelope Anneth in its horrid body. She screamed but the outcry never made it out of her throat and before she could try again, the dark figure sealed her mouth shut.  Anneth tossed and whirled, struggling to escape its grasp. What was this thing, and what did it want? She witnessed snippets of her life come and go. Hot air came to her right ear and she noticed it had shortened the distance between their faces.

      “C-calm down!,” it urged in a male's voice, whispering. How gross! It could even mimic human speech!? “It's me, dammit! Hudson!”

      Hudson!? What!? But how!? Since when was he a moving, dark blob? Her answer came when he carried her into the moonlight and revealed him dressed in his black coat. He was breathing hard, as much as she, and tendrils of steam rose from his head. Seeing that it was him all along and not a living nightmare served little to quell her growing anger.

      “Listen to me. It's not what you think. You startled me just as much as I startled you. I'm gonna let go, but promise me you won't scream or walk off.” She glared at him with scorn. “I just wanna talk for a bit. Please, hear me out, Anneth.”

      His eyes trembled, and his heart beat knocked on her shoulder through the thickness of their garments. Anneth swallowed her pride, relaxing her body until he let go.

      “Awesome. Hey, thanks for--”

      She yanked him down by the tube collar. “Yes Hudson. Tell me,” she said oh so lovingly, granting him a vibrant smile. “Tell me before I change my mind and accuse you of stalking me. Got it?”

      He was speechless.

 

      “So you were stalking me?” Anneth solidified her stance on his explanation as they both sat in the backyard lot of the hostel under a starry sky. She glanced hard at his profile over her glasses in an attempt to burrow a hole in that thick skull to see if it were an empty shell.

      “No!,” he barked back. “I couldn't fall asleep, so I thought maybe going out for a stroll could help. And that's when I saw you in the hallway.”

      “Yet you followed me, regardless.”

      “Of course I would because what are the odds of us both going out at the same time?” She had no counter argument but she let the silence speak in her place. “I'm sorry, though, for not saying anything… and scaring you like that.” Hudson's tone drifted into lower, more somber volumes by the end of the apology. At least he was man enough to admit fault.

      Anneth focused on the red shutter windows of the two story house up ahead. “It’s fine,” she said hugging at her knees. “Just don’t do it again, or else I’ll make sure you can’t have kids.” Hudson curled up, too. “Roger that.”

      “What does that mean?”

      “Oh, sorry. We say it when we receive orders from someone where I'm from.”

      “You better not be calling me ugly or something,” she groaned. “You know what'll happen.”

      “It has no such connotations. Trust me.”

      “Better not be.”

      Nocturnal insects surrounded them in a chirping orchestra. The winged type hovered about the lot, illuminating the grass beneath with their glowing thorax. The cold temperatures had ceased to be an issue for her thanks to the blanket. Anneth believed she could fall asleep comfortably in this current position until morning. She released a yawn from deep down.

      “So, about the thing I wanted to talk with you.” She rolled her eyes. “Sorry again, but I kind of overheard your conversation with the innkeeper.”

      “Doesn’t surprise me.”

      “I said ‘sorry’, okay?,” he growled and leaned towards her. Anneth did not budge. “Not everything I heard was clear, and some things made more sense than others for me. But you know I’m not from this world. Rosella and Gertrude understand that, too. We confirmed it on the mountain that day. That’s why I’m traveling with you guys, because this isn’t my world and I’d be lost without your help.”

      “And? What’s your point?,” she said without facing him. “You’re just repeating the obvious. Cut to the chase already.” As if she had the time to sit through melodrama.

      “You and the innkeeper mentioned a spirit, right? And spirits have supernatural powers, right? I wanna talk to this spirit, see if they can help me get back home.”

      “Huh?”

      “Hey, I have people on the other side who actually care about me, unlike this world.”

      “Yeah? Well what about the old folks who took care of you before we showed up?”

      “They’re not my real family. Besides, I was just a replacement for their son the entire time. They were demented.”

      “They took care of you regardless, you ingrate,” she hissed.

      “What would you do in my shoes?,” he asked. “You’d wanna go back home, right?” That tactic wasn’t about to work on her.

      “Is it because of Karen?”

      Hudson stiffened and went wide eyed in disbelief. Of course he would since a woman was involved. “How did--” and went speechless again.

      “So it is a woman. I don’t believe Rosella heard when you yelled it at the mountain. She hasn’t mentioned anything, at least.” The dumb look on his face was all too satisfying to take in. Anneth found it impossible to stay irritated at him any longer. She sprouted a cheeky grin which she kept undercover. “In case you’re wondering, I won’t say a word about it to Rosella. I can’t afford to put her sanity in limbo again, because you’re her ‘miracle’... and it needs to stay that way.”

      “But--”

      “No buts, Hudson,” she interrupted, landing a finger on his lips. “I need you to cooperate and do this for Rosella, not me. Then we can go from there. Got it?” She smeared his germs off her finger on his coat. “In case you didn't hear, we'll be joining a caravan to the capital city tomorrow morning in preparation for the holiday season mid next month.”

      “Oh. How long will that be?”

      “I just said, ‘mid next month’.”

      “I meant the trip to the capital.”

      “We'll find out soon.”

      “Okay. But why are you shaking?”

      “It's cold out here.”

      Hudson regarded her with a doubtful expression. “Yeah but, that blanket is--”

      “Mind your own damn business!” She snapped but he jabbed back.

      “I'm not making fun of you for being scared. Look, why not just take a different route instead of--”

      “Things are not that easy, Hudson.” Anneth bared her fangs. Acting as if her issues were that easy to solve. His advice wasn't needed, not from an outsider like him who had no stakes in this game of cat and mouse. It proved just how ignorant of the situation he really was.

      “I'm not an idiot. I can tell you guys are hiding something important from me. I can bet it has to do with those thugs that attacked us, and your true identities.”

      She stood showed her back. She had no reason to sit around and give private information to an outsider.

      “Wait!,” Hudson said rushed. She stopped, not having taken a step. “I'm sorry. You don't have to tell me now. I just wanna gain your trust. So… if it's about our identities, my name isn't my real one, at least.., I don't think it is. The fall from space must've messed with my memory.” Anneth was about to peer over her shoulder and ask but the idea died before it could take off. That had to be a lie to bait her into spilling the beans.

      “If that's everything, then I'm going back to bed. I won't hear the end of it if Rosella sees me missing again.”

      “Wait!”

      Her patience walked on a tightrope. What more did he want!? “What, Hudson?,” she growled.

      “Umm, was there a reason you went to the reception other than to talk with Trebena?”

      Now that she remembered, Anneth had gone downstairs for a drink of water because their pitcher had been exhausted. Her thirst vanished during that period and now that Hudson revived the thought it came back in full bloom. She salivated. Interrupting Trebena in the middle of knitting again didn’t fancy her. It’d be kind of embarrassing after they’ve both said good night.

      “Our pitcher's empty and I got thirsty,” she said in a flat tone. The grass rustled as he got up, circled around her to the front.

      “Then, you should’ve come to me instead. Mine’s still half full.”

      Anneth reflected on what he said and had a hard time comprehending why he would be her first option. She shot him a look asking that question. She watched as the gesture knocked the enthusiasm off his face, and marched off back to the room, blanket flowing in her wake.