Callum sneezed. They had spent almost five days walking to the east and the weather had gotten somewhat colder. There was no mistaking it, both of them had a slight cold. They had spent a lot more time resting than they had intended.
Rayla looked on with concern as he coughed, then launched into a hacking round of her own.
“We'll be reachin’ Larwein soon. They should have a doctor's office.”
“It's not a bad idea to show me to an Elven doctor?”, Callum doubted.
“Well no, I'm just gonna trade you for some medicine", she quipped.
He laughed, coughed and asked, “Actually, we should probably talk about our stay in town. Any more taboos I need to know about?”
“No, not really. If we don't hold hands outside and you don't talk to anyone, we should be fine. Only time we'll have to really be on our toes is the gate watch. They tend to be kinda jumpy near the bord--”
With some alarm, he interrupted, “Gate watch? Aren't they going to ask to see our faces?”
“They will - but we have a right to refuse them. It’s not goin’ to make us more suspicious than we already are, a lot of moonshadow elves turn that sort of request down.”
They reached the top of a ridge. Below them stretched more dense woodlands. Callum scanned the landscape, with Zym poking his furry head out of his backpack.
“Are we lost? I don't see a village.”
“Come on Callum, we’re elves! Of course you're not goin’ to spot a settlement from a mile away. We don’t chop down the forest to build our cities”, she stepped behind him, and guided his head, pointing.
“Look over there. The light puffs of smoke.”
When he nodded, she turned her guiding motion into a hug. “We should put on our cloaks.”
“Sorry buddy”, Callum said as he pushed the little dragon into the pack and latched it tightly, “I’ll let you out as soon as possible.”
As they approached the road, Rayla bade him wait and checked both directions. “It'd be weird if we showed up off the beaten path.”
Walking on the gravel was pleasant after having spent so much time on unprepared ground.
An arch flanked by wooden palisades came into view, two guards in heavy armor milling about.
Rayla approached one of them. “Greetn’s. We're passing through to Veltis-Tiram out from Ising-on-the-River.”
“State your purpose in Veltis-Tiram, names and tribe", The guard replied, opening a ledger on a pedestal before her.
“Visit relatives. I am Tarla, moon and Entwen, also moon.”
“Thank you", she replied. Rayla started to turn away but the guard stopped her, “We have warrants searching two fugitives, one human, the other moon. Would you consent to removing your hoods?”
Rayla shook her head calmly.
The guard stepped out from behind the pedestal, suspiciously placing a hand on her saber’s hilt.
“I apologize, but I will have to insist. You can follow me to the guard post if you are not comfortable under the open sky.”
Callum's heart was beating in his throat.
Rayla leaned towards the guard, talking quietly. Callum could see the guard's mien change from distant professionalism to recognition. When she had recomposed herself, the soldier closed the ledger, motioning them through.
Out of earshot, Callum turned to Rayla. “What did you tell her?”
Rayla chuckled. “I gave her a Lucid password and told her that I was escorting some ocean tribe VIP.”
“And that convinced her?”
His girlfriend shrugged. “We’re in, aren’t we?”
They passed through the palisades, entering a town square. That is, a place that didn’t have houses in it.
There wasn’t a tree stump in sight and walking the streets felt only slightly different from wandering through a light, well-kept forest.
The square was encircled by simple wooden buildings with thatched roofs. The wooden elements of the houses’ timber construction were hewn into soft, sweeping arches. More notably, the structures had been raised using existing trees as corner supports, creating some unconventional layouts.
A few of the houses had storefronts and elves were busy trading one thing for another.
Suddenly, Rayla stopped dead in her tracks. “They have an inn here now!”
Coughing, she pointed at a larger building that had three different signs installed along its facing wall.
“Blacksmith, Herbalist, Guest House”, she read out excitedly for him, “What about it, wanna take a hot bath and sleep in a real bed tonight?”
“I thought we weren’t going to stay?”, he looked around anxiously.
“I was assumin’ there was no guest house. Last time I was here, I was a wee elf and it was essentially a bunch of fisher’s huts and a herbalist. Guest house means we won’t be eatin’ with a family which means we can keep our hoods on. ”
“How do we even pay for that?”, he was still not convinced, though he had been wanting a real bed and hot bath since they had left the Moon Nexus, several weeks ago.
She enthusiastically unclasped one of her satchels, drawing out a packet of flower petals.
“No tall mountains around here! Meanin’ these people would literally shank us for this bundle of Invertim!”, she seemed excited at the prospect of being murdered over a bushel of dessicated flowers.
She dangled the pack in front of his unconvinced face, nodding with a wide grin, until he sighed and motioned her forward, sneezing in the process.
The inn was empty, save for the keeper. He was a wide, stocky elf, muscular but clearly fond of eating. His face was bright and friendly, streaked by a few wrinkles. As he was busy sweeping dirt out from under four round tables to their right, he hadn’t noticed them just yet. A few dirty but empty cups were lined up on a long counter to the left of them, ready to be taken away.
“Greet’ns”, Rayla said, getting his attention, “Got a room with bath for two?”
“‘Course! Sorry we’re short staffed, my summand’s out", he replied cordially, balancing the broom against a chair. He walked over to the bar counter, pulled out a ledger and asked, “My name’s Talaar. How long will you stay and may I have your tribes and names please?”
While his girlfriend handled the transaction, Callum studied the interior of the inn a little closer. There was a second level to it, a sort of balcony jutting out above the tables. He could see doors to six rooms up on the balcony and wondered if there was anyone else staying here. A glance at the key board behind the bar revealed that only one other room was currently taken.
“Got a lot more busy around here with the war”, the keeper explained, “People rushin’ to and from the Breach. Can’t help but feel a bit worried about Abusers comin’ through at some point. Never had any trouble here.”
Rayla handed him the packet, which he sniffed and stowed with glee.
“Ooh, Invertim! You’ve come far! Hm. You sure you don’t want… two… rooms?”, he said conspiratorially, sending a flush to Rayla’s face, “Ah, I shouldn’t be prying, sorry. Here you go, your key. It’s for my best room, at the left end upstairs. Breakfast and dinner are covered with this. You’ll love the tub in there, we had it made by a guy from Veltis", he gestured with pursed lips. “An experience! Oh, and washrooms are all the way to the right upstairs.”
They climbed the stairs and made their way into their room.
The door had barely closed when Rayla erupted in quiet laughter.
“He’s the stereotype of any innkeeper I’ve ever met”, Rayla said, coughing, “Size, slurs and folksy wisdoms all!”
“Slurs?”, Callum asked.
“Didn’t you hear him call humans `Abusers`? That’s a slur if I’ve ever heard one.”
Her boyfriend shrugged. “I didn’t know that was a thing”, he sneezed, “we should really get that medicine before we get settled in.”
She nodded, adjusting her hood. “While I’m down there, can you get some hot water started? There’s bound to be a fountain somewhere in here, look around.”
He nodded and she left after placing a peck on his cheek.
Callum opened his pack to let the whelp explore the room, which he did without much prompting.
The room was really nice. To his left was a door leading into some other room. A small wood stove was set up next to it, its exhaust pipe poking through the ceiling. The bed in the center of the wall he was facing was the main feature with a simple stool in front of a small table on his right. Above the bed’s headboard, there was a window rattling quietly in the wind.
“Comfy!”, Callum thought, walking into the other room. This one was windowless and contained nothing but a gurgling fountain with a bucket to his right and a bathtub that rivaled the bed’s size, hewn from timber, taking up the entire facing wall. Its insides were polished and lacquered, shining like brown marble in the dim blue light of a magically lit wall sconce. Around the rear rim of the tub, a few glass vials were lined up in wooden stands. Callum sniffed the contents of one and found it to be a sort of thick liquid that smelled of Banther Lilies. Above the tub, a number of fuzzy looking towels hung, neatly folded.
He inspected the fountain. It was quietly tinkling, as though there was a small bell inside it. There was another cylindrical glass container sitting on the fountain’s rim, filled with orange disks that bore the mark of the Sun.
Zym jumped up on the fountain and started gulping down the fresh, clear water while Callum gently stroked his fur.
He heard the key rattling and the door open and close in the other room.
“I’m in here.”
He stepped out of the bathroom and found Rayla on the floor, busy taking off her boots and massaging her feet. Zym seemed happy she was back and she fed him a slice of cheese from a board that now sat on the table.
“Sorry, I got distracted”, he said.
“It’s fine. I was just too quick for you", she smirked, waving a bottle of irregular white pills, then pointed at his shoes, “Really don’t appreciate you tracking dirt everywhere though", motioning at the table, she added, “I brought dinner from downstairs.”
He bent down, lifted her chin to kiss her, then sat next to her and took off his boots.
“So do we use the bucket to heat the water or what?”
“Oh! No! That’d be actual work”, she walked into the bathroom and returned with one of the orange disks.
“One of these has enough heat to get the both of us a nice boil tonight. We just fill the tub with water from the fountain and drop one of those in and that’s it.”
“You use sun magic to heat your bath water?”, he asked incredulously.
“Duh, what else would we do with it? Make pancakes?”, she thought for a moment, “Actually that also makes sense, somewhat. Help me with this, please", she asked, lifting her arms over her head. He came over to help her out of her rigid chest guard.
She yelped quietly, then sighed contently, rotating her shoulders, “Sweet relief. Hadn’t realized how much the thin’ was rubbin’ on my rib.”
Zym sat on the bed’s headboard, looking through the window at the on-goings below.
“How is it”, he asked, nodding at her broken rib.
She shrugged, stepping into the bathroom. “It’s… a bit swollen. Not too bad though.”
Callum heard her fill and empty the bucket multiple times. Not quite sure what to do with himself, he took off his overcoat and pants, hoping to keep the mess he’d already made contained.
She poked her head out of the bathroom and saw her boyfriend in his underwear, getting ready to fall backwards onto the bed.
“NO!”, she shouted and both he and Zym flinched, “What’s wrong with you? That’s a clean bed!”
He clasped his chest. “You scared the soul out of me, Rayla!”
She shook her head and scolded with a smirk, “People who drop into a clean Arler-down bed in week old underwear have neither soul nor sense. Come in here, you’ll wanna see this thin’ splash down.”
He came over, shyly glancing at her like a dog looking for help from its owner.
“Don’t look at me like that, dummy, I just couldn’t let you do it! Look.”
She dropped the pellet into the water and after a breath’s time, it exploded into the liquid, heating it to what looked like an extreme boil that quickly subsided.
The room was immediately filled with thick fog.
“Whew!”, Callum said, flinching. He hadn’t expected it to be so violent.
Carefully, he dropped on his knees to examine the water. Dipping his hand inside, he smiled. “It’s perfect!”
“Yeah, and, thanks to it bein’ magic, it’ll still be perfect when you take your turn!”
“You get the first bath? When did we agree on that?”
“Oh, I called dibs. Just now!”, she said confidently.
Harrumphing, he pulled one of the vials from the stands on the back rim of the tub. “What are these? Soaps?”
“Sorta”, Rayla said, taking the container from him to unstopper it. She gave it a sniff, then upturned the entire thing and the amber-colored contents splashed into the water.
The room now filled with the smell of smoked caramel, making Callum’s mouth water. The surface of the water was covered in a thick, dense layer of bubbles.
“Neat!”, he said, running a finger through the foam.
“I guess”, Rayla smiled adoringly at his amazement. He was being cute.
He looked up from his experimentation and caught the tail end of her hastily hidden expression.
“Aha, I’m being ogled!”, he said, pointing at her face, a broad smile on his own.
“Yeah, fine, I got caught!”, she laughed, bending down to kiss him, “Now, princelin’, get out. I wanna get in there. You can play with the suds later!”
He flushed slightly and awkwardly shuffled out, closing the door behind him.
It was odd. In his mind, the days they had spent in the crack should’ve probably been the most awkward thing in his life. After all, there hadn’t been much privacy.
This, though, was somehow even stranger. Maybe it was the civilized surroundings? The fact that others might see them as a couple?
Callum settled for getting distracted, playing with Zym and eating delicious food off the small table. After a few weeks of berries, fruit, vegetables and hard tack, the cheese Rayla had brought upstairs was a feast.
Eventually, he heard the splash of water subside and after what felt like a small eternity, the door to the bathroom opened to permit his girlfriend through, her hair wrapped in a towel. She was wearing a plain linen shirt and pants rather than her dirty uniform which she had carelessly dropped on the floor in the bathroom.
“Good time?”, he asked and she nodded, focussed on brushing her wet hair.
“It was!”, she smirked, “Wish the rivers around here had that temperature.”
“Yeah. Dipping in the Ibalin wasn’t my favourite thing of all time. Okay, well, I’ll see you in a bit.”
He rummaged in his bag, digging deeply to find a clean pair of underpants and a plain linen shirt like hers.
Rayla watched him close the door, then fell back into the soft, comfortable bed. It seemed strange, having a room together. A little `official`, so to speak. She thought back to Talaar’s reaction, a slight flush returning to her face.
Hm. Maybe it would’ve been a better idea.
Gotten less attention from the keeper.
Nevertheless, it was too late to change the situation and - being honest with herself - she was looking forward to sharing a bed with Callum. The thought made her smile and she snuggled her face into the pillow on the stove-side of the bed.
A moment later, she cursed herself. She was messing up the bed with her wet hair!
Getting back to brushing, she realized how famished she was. When her hair had achieved minimum tangle, she sat at the small table and destroyed what Callum hadn’t already eaten.
A while after she’d finished, the bathroom door opened and a cloud of steam escaped. It smelled like a tropical garden had exploded in there.
“You tried all of them, didn’t you”, she snickered, with a bit of reprimand in her tone.
“Uh. Maybe”, he chortled, then yawned and finally sneezed.
Rayla laughed at his stupefied expression.
“Ow, ow, ouch!”, she said, holding her side, “Don’t make me laugh! Here. Take your medicine!”
They each forced down one of the irregular, stone-like pills.
“So, uh”, Callum started, “I’ll just grab my winter jacket from the bottom of my pack and sleep over by the stove.”
Rayla blinked. “Huh? Why would you wanna do that?”
“There’s only one bed”, he said, flushing a little.
“Callum, really?”, she said, smiling, “in the crack, you held me up while I slept. This is fine. We’ll share.”
He looked at her, hearing the thump of his own heart in his ears.
How was this more nerve-wracking than that? He’d already known about her feelings then.
Maybe his confusion about his own had stopped him from thinking too much about it?
Rayla got up and turned off all the lights, then shuffled under the comforter. She propped herself into a half-sitting position using her massive pillow.
“Come sleep”, she said, patting the other side of the bed.
He sauntered over and fell into the fluffy mattress.
Under the covers, Callum tried very hard to stay on his side of the bed, clasping his arms to his side.
After a shockingly short time, Rayla’s breathing evened out.
The prince’s strange discomfort lasted until he finally fell asleep.
Below them, the front door opened, permitting a gaggle of dinner guests inside.
Among them was the only other boarded person.
He walked up to the bar and waited for service, seeing both Talaar and his male summand were busy handing out drinks.
“Excuse me. I’d like to take my evening meal now", he requested once the latter was paying attention to him.
The reply came energetically.
“Right away, friend Helmond!”