"Hello there, young miss," greeted the middle-aged driver, slowing down his wagon to match their pace. "Oh? A fox spirit?" he remarked, noticing that the creature walking beside her was not a dog as he had thought. "Why're you traveling the roads on foot with a fox spirit, miss?"
Clamor arose from inside the wagon at he spoke, and a little head popped out from in-between the green seat curtains. It was a young boy.
"Huh? A girl? And a fox spirit?" observed the inquisitive boy, "What're you doing with a fox spirit?"
"Now now, don't be rude, Gerran," a gentle voice corrected from inside. The little boy scrunched up his face in dissatisfaction. "It's Jerry, not Gerran, mother!" The mother laughed and parted the green curtains. Her son disliked his given name, but she knew one day he'd prefer it over his nickname as an adult.
"Oh my, what's a pretty young lady doing out here in the middle of the roads by herself?" she exclaimed softly, "And what's this? A fox spirit indeed!" It was rare to see spirits and demons outside of their usual habitations. Like the human and elemental civilizations, spirits and demons also had theirs besides dwelling in the forests and wilderness. But it was even more bizarre that one would travel with a human.
Essairyn smiled politely at the family, and Akari rolled her eyes. She was too used to this kind of treatment from humans. By now, they ought to not be so surprised about their existences. Spirits and demons were originally born out of human thought and emotions after all, too. "I have a name you know," retorted Akari, startling the woman.
"Oh, I'm sorry. You two are..?" she asked.
Essairyn glanced from the father to the son and back to the mother again. They seemed like perfectly ordinary and safe people. Besides, maybe she could get a ride to the neighboring town if she was friendly. "Essairyn," she replied, "And this is Akari."
"Akari?" the man echoed thoughtfully, "That name sounds awfully familiar for some reason."
The woman shooed away her husband's remark, saying, "Essairyn, if you're going to the next town, why don't you and Akari travel with us in the wagon? It'd be much quicker and safer than walking. And I wouldn't feel right leaving a girl like you to fend for yourself."
Essairyn smiled gratefully, replying, "That's kind of you to offer. Thank you."
The woman smiled genially and went to open the side door. The two traveling companions stepped up on the door ledge and entered. The mother and son were sitting on green cushioned benches that lined the driver's side of the wagon in a L-shape. The other side was a wall with a door that partitioned the sitting room from the storage room in the back.
They were the Andelrin family. The mother and father were Chona and Banran. Their only son, Gerran, nicknamed Jerry, was eight. They were traveling spice and perfume merchants and had just left the farm town of Cerinalle that was known for its ability to grow a host of crops. Cerinalle was situated at the eastern tip of the cliff range where the Spirit and Demon Forest gave way to rugged terrain before sloping down to shallow, flat, and fertile land. It then sloped back up into rugged terrain and forest again. The aromatic flowers that grew in this valley town were Sol'h'meyr's finest. They were transporting Cerinalle's highly demanded spices and perfumes to the town of Reisparte, the nearby town that Essairyn had seen from above the ancient tree. The market area that skirted Reisparte made up half of the town and was a popular hub for traveling merchants because it laid in the middle along the borders of the two kingdoms As'pyze and As'rien.
Currently, Essairyn was in As'pyze, the land of humans. She had awakened in the Spirit and Demon Forest that served as a physical border between As'pyze and As'rien, which was the land of rain. The three other main kingdoms: As'iyse, the land of coldness; As'fyre, the land of warmth; As'eryt, the land of earth; laid westward where the Spirit-Demon Forest ended and the Eeuriyos mountain range began. She deduced all this from the Andelrin's map of Sol'h'meyr that they showed her when explaining where they came from and were traveling to.
"And now we're less than a third of a day's journey from Reisparte! Right Dad?" shouted the little boy to his father.
The father chuckled, "Yes Jerry, and now that evening is falling, we'll settle down for the night and continue our ride early in the morning in order to arrive by noon." Banran slowed the wagon and parked it by the side of the road.
"Oh man! I wish we could just be in Reisparte now! I want to eat some of Leia's candies! Stupid demons!" the boy pouted with his arms crossed, map in hand. Essairyn gave an inquiring look at the boy and he clarified, "There's this lady who has a candy shop in Reisparte. She makes the best candies!!" Gerran's eyes shined as he imagined the taste of the sweets, and Essairyn giggled softly at his excitement.
"Well, it can't be helped, Jerry. You'll have to wait until tomorrow since we can't travel at night. So, make sure to go to sleep quickly, and it'll be tomorrow before you know it," Chona said with a wink.
"Yeah, I know," the boy mumbled glumly.
Chona patted her son's head as they all headed out of the wagon. Banran retrieved a rolled up tent from an enclosed compartment underneath the seat, and with Chona, they set it up in a matter of minutes. He then struck protective poles into the ground around the encampment while his son watched in fascination. The poles were imbued with a magical spell that warded off demons and phantoms of the night. The wagon already had the same spell imbued within its frame. Jerry then helped his father arrange the inside of the tent while Chona cooked dinner in a pot overhanging a fire.
"Is there anything I can do?" offered Essairyn as she watched Chona heat up broth for a stew.
"Oh don't worry, honey. You're a guest, so just relax while I make dinner," replied Chona.
"Okay," smiled Essairyn as she plopped herself down on the wooden bench which was brought out from the wagon.
"Oh, I know! Why don't you try these perfumes I made while traveling; I haven't yet gotten a chance to get a young lady's opinion on them. As you see, I don't have daughter yet," Chona suddenly exclaimed with a clap and a regretful sigh as she rushed off to fetch them.
"You make your own perfumes too?" Essairyn asked after she returned with an uncovered box of perfume bottles.
"Yes, I have a line called Choerin, after Chona and Cerinalle. Here," Chona explained, uncapping a deep rose colored bottle, "Smell this."
Essairyn tentatively inched her face forward to get a whiff of the perfume. A warmly dulcet and lightly tropical scent suffused throughout the air. She twitched her nose, trying to pick out the familiar fragrances. She smelled what seemed to be rose, honeysuckle, lavender, wisteria and plumeria, balanced with sandalwood and cotton flower for an underlying comforting and fresh feel. Altogether, it was an enchanting yet relaxing aroma, like being on an exotic beach in a high-class resort.
"Wow, this is amazing," Essairyn gasped, thoroughly impressed, "You really made this?"
Chona beamed in pride, replying, "Yes, I enjoy experimenting with different scents. Cerinalle has the most magnificent assortment of fragrant flowers and plants!" Chona capped the bottle and placed it back in the box before handing the entire container to Essairyn. While she enjoyed smelling the handmade perfumes, Chona continued cooking the stew. Ten minutes later, the meal was ready, and they all began eating.
The Andelrin's made light conversation with Essairyn and described Reisparte in greater depth. The family's happy chatter and the fire's cozy warmth made Essairyn pleasantly wistful. Her thoughts wandered, and she looked up at the night sky. It was a starless sky, devoid of a galaxy, outside of her universe. Yet it was softly lit with glowing drifts of languid light that bobbed airily above the world. Somehow, the similarity of the sight to Earth's stars made her feel at ease. Perhaps, even now, she was searching for familiarity, for some solid ground in this strange world.
After dinner and cleaning up, everyone prepared to go to bed; Chona and Jerry headed inside the tent to sleep, and Banran went inside the wagon to sleep while watching out for thieves. Essairyn lingered outside the tent door and gazed up one last time at the magic lights. Each illuminated the dark like a nightlight.
"Akari," she whispered almost soundlessly, "I'm glad.." The fox perked up her ears and peered inquisitively at the girl in the dim light. Essairyn smiled wistfully at Akari. "..that you're here with me."
The fox turned away bashfully, mumbling, "H-huh, what are you even saying? Come on, let's sleep."
The girl gave an inaudible chuckle, and the fox gave a sheepish huff as they entered the lamp-lit tent. Essairyn truly was grateful for the Akari's company. No matter the fox's real intentions, the girl knew that she would feel much more lonely and lost in this world without her. Even though she was used to being alone as an only child with busy parents, it didn't lessen the loneliness. She merely had coped.
Chona was readying Essairyn's covers, and Jerry was already half-asleep beside his mother. She patted the pillow and gestured for Essairyn to sleep on her other side. The sight warmed the girl's heart, and she settled into the covers. Akari nestled on top by her side.
"Good night," Chona murmured, extinguishing the lamp.
"Night," Essairyn murmured back, "...Good night, Akari."