Setting the bottle down on the table, Tanya turned to regard the man who walked into her shop. The first thing she noticed about him was his feet: they were bare.
The man scratched his head awkwardly. “H-hello…. I, uh, just want my hair shorn off.”
Sighing to herself inwardly, Tanya nodded and smiled. Better be positive about it. “Of course, please have a seat. Ah…”
There, she stumbled. Very quickly, she had been told that they didn’t really have US money anymore. Instead, they used a local currency. This seemed… fanciful to Tanya, and she distrusted it. Although it was silly, in a way, she much preferred the gifts that people seemed very willing to give her, in exchange for the haircuts.
“I…” Tanya searched around for the words. The man’s face was darkening, for some reason, which caused her anxiety to spike, making the words even more slippery. “Um… I… would it be okay to pa…. to pay in goods? I’m new here…. so… I don’t…”
The man frowned, tilting his head to the side. His eyes were sharp and emerald, and quite beautiful. “New?”
“Yes.” She stammered. “To t-town. I, uh, was in the border place, that just opened up.”
“Oh. Oh. That’s fine, I can pay in goods.” The man said, blinking. His strange coldness faded away as swiftly as it came. That made Tanya anxious about him in a different way. It wasn’t an enjoyable prospect to be in an enclosed space with a man who experienced such rapid emotional changes, but she would accept it for now.
She pointed to the seat. “Sit? How much do you want off?’
“All of it…. Well, most of it.” The man said sheepishly. His hair was almost to his shoulders, thick and black. Tanya sighed in jealousy, shaking her head at her own mousy brown curls.
“I haven’t gotten a haircut in a long time,” The man admitted. “It just hasn’t seemed… important.”
“Mmm.” Tanya hummed at that. It was probably true. After all, if there were monsters around, there was no doubt that dealing with those were more important than getting a haircut. But it seemed the town they were in right now was a bit weird, but it was safe enough. Tanya had only seen a few places, and that was when she was too shellshocked to notice much, so she had a timid curiosity about the place.
They lapsed into silence as Tanya began cutting the man’s hair. It was surprisingly difficult. Tanya frowned at the hair. This was… literally the toughest hair she had ever encountered. Not impossible, with the magically sharp sheers Dinesh had provided for her, but very, very difficult.
“So,” Tanya said, hoping to fill the heavy silence. “What do you do?”
“What do I do?” She could feel the man frown.
“Like… your job. Or… did you get a Class from the Village? I really don’t know much about…” Tanya trailed off. It abruptly struck her how strange these past several days had been. She couldn’t find words to articulate all the things she didn’t know or understand what happened. In so many ways she just wanted to ignore the changes, and pretend nothing had happened.
But every time she thought about that, she remembered the crooked yellow teeth in that monster’s smile.
“Oh. Um.” The man seemed to think about that. He thought very hard about it, for almost 20 seconds, taking enough time that Tanya began to sweat. Immediately, she remembered that this man was barefoot.
Cursing herself for bringing it up, Tanya cast her mind around, looking for a good transition. ‘Unemployment still exists, dummy,’ she reprimanded herself. It was a good reminder that without Dinesh, she would be whisked off to some city miles away.
“Well, I believe I’m going to become a sorta Scout, Explorer type.” The man said finally. Tanya’s expression brightened, feeding off his positivity.
“Exploring? That sounds amazing. I’ve always enjoyed nature. Are you excited to be gone?”
Again, the temperature in the room seemed to shift abruptly downwards as the man frowned. “...well, no, I would prefer to remain. But I don’t believe I can in good conscience.”
When Dinesh opened the door, almost exactly after the man had finished, Tanya wanted to do a dance of relief. A familiar presence was just what she needed, with this moody man.
To her surprise, when Dinesh entered, he abruptly straightened and saluted the man. “Ghosthound! Sir, I didn’t expect-”
The man waved his hand, laughing. “Don’t worry about it. I wouldn’t have minded if you are avoiding me, it’s asking a lot.”
Dinesh shook his head very quickly. “No, it’s truly nothing. I, too, enjoy Neveah’s company. The issue was simply tying up loose ends here, with the relocation of the people from the border areas. If you wish, I will come with you.”
Tanya looked between the two men. As it turned out… the barefoot man and Dinesh knew each other? And based on how they were acting… the barefoot man was in the superior position.
Her hands began to shake slightly as she continued to cut away his hair.
The barefoot man was very still while she cut his hair. “Well… hopefully, it doesn’t come to that.”
There was a moment of awkward silence before Dinesh spoke again. “Oh, yes. Mrs. Hamilton told me to inform you that they have secured the mine and Thorn will be returning shortly.”
Now the man smiled, and when he did so, the whole room became several degrees warmer. “Perfect.”
The two continued to make small talk about topics that Tanya didn’t really understand, but she was happy to have them speak. Although she wasn’t included, the sound of voices in the backdrop was what she wanted. It used to be the View playing on TV, now it was these two strange men.
Luckily, neither of them had a sword.
She also noticed that her Hair Cutting Skill was increasing very, very, very quickly. More quickly than it had all day. Before this man had come, she was at Level 8, and she was now already at Level 15. Dinesh had told her that it would improve more quickly when she attempted more difficult things, maybe it was simply because of how hard his hair was.
After about an hour, she finally finished, and the man stood and went to the mirror to inspect it. Where his hair had framed his face and veiled his eyes before, now it was cut short, just a few centimeters of dark hair sticking out of his scalp. It revealed high, gaunt cheekbones and a strong jaw. But most of all, it cut away everything in his face that hid his eyes. They burned and flashed like fat in a fire, bright and sharp.
When the man turned to thank her, she couldn’t even reply: the force of will behind those eyes caused something primal in her to shrivel up and refuse to move. In this man, Tanya found herself trusting completely, and also giving up completely. Before him, there was no resistance, and that strange submission caused her hands to tremble so hard her bones popped...
After a bit of thought, the man produced a glove with a strange Engraving carved into it for payment, bid them both farewell, and left the shop.
“Who… who was that” Tanya asked, wide-eyed.
Dinesh shook his head, saying nothing.
When Randidly knocked on the door, there was a soft laugh, and then an answer. “We both know why you are here. No need to be polite, come on in.”
Randidly walked through the door, his hackles already rising.
She was lovely, of course. In a relatively chaste blue summer dress, her blonde hair tumbling long and wild down her back. It was slightly satisfying to see Lyra blink slightly when he walked in, looking at him.
“You got a haircut,” She blurted out, as he stopped in front of her. “It… It looks really good, Randidly.”
Her tone was warm, and it gave him hope for this conversation. But almost immediately, Randidly had a sudden sense that this was just the calm before the storm; they would not part amicably on this day.