Kearse was more than a little intimidated by his dinner companions.
He was a commoner, and yet he was now sitting at the same table as a baron. While he could follow the logical progression of events that had led him to this moment, he still had trouble believing that it was happening. The entire situation was simply too far removed from his daily life for him to make sense of it.
Dining with a knight or paladin, he could maybe see happening. Maybe. His short period of enlistment in the militia had given him a chance to rub elbows with his betters. Corlo in particular had been rather down to earth and easy to interact with.
On second thought, perhaps it was better that he was with a baron. With a knight, he might have run the risk of forgetting that he was dealing with a person that was above him. Among Mayra’s family, something like that would take effort. He couldn’t not be aware of the fact that he was surrounded by nobility.
Kearse envied his friends.
Mayra, by nature and nurture, was able to fit in well with people of any standing. She could talk to both commoners and nobles without anyone finding it odd. She could hold conversations on everything from magic to military tactics.
Haylen had grown up in the church, and had enough experience to make up for her low birth. She was also a paladin candidate. While anyone could become a paladin if they worked hard enough, only a few were ever invited to join their ranks like she had been. In a few short years, she would practically be a noble herself.
And Indigo… That girl just didn’t seem to care what people thought of her. She simply didn’t give a shit about the social hierarchy. During the introductions, Kearse had put effort into being as polite and presentable as possible. He had used formal speech. His bow had been impeccable! He had done exactly as a commoner was supposed to in the presence of nobility. Mere seconds later, Indigo had gone in for hugs and handshakes before proceeding to ignore everyone in favor of talking to the kid. And it had worked!
Indigo hadn’t seen it, and she probably wouldn’t done anything differently if she had, but everyone in the room had been smiling as they watched the little boy poke and prod at her. Indigo had completely ignored protocol, and the Damfelds loved her for it!
Kearse vowed that he would stop being surprised by Indigo’s antics or people’s reactions to them, but he knew that was a promise he would soon break. Give her a week, and she’d probably find some new way of confusing and confounding him.
His nervousness was renewed when Mayra’s father announced that it was time for dinner.
“We will be eating in the formal dining room,” he told them, with a polite chuckle, “but don’t feel the need to act formal. Our family dining table is simply too small to fit this many guests.”
The friendly words helped, but only a little. Kearse had never been to a home large enough to need a second dining table, let alone a second dining room.
It was exactly as he imagined in that it was opulent, with every piece of furniture being a work of art. Indigo’s home in the necropolis had probably contained more valuable pieces, but she had paid no attention to their arrangement, and had mostly been content to pile one treasure next to another. Here, beautifully carved chairs surrounded a massive table that probably cost more than some houses. Paintings in gilded frames covered the walls, each highlighting and being highlighted by its neighbors.
“Mom and Dad are never going to believe me when I tell them about this.”
Lord Damfeld took his seat at the head of the table, and the others followed suit, with the men on one side and the women on the other. Kearse was at the end of the men, sitting after Lukas as befitted his station, but he was only technically at the end. The table was long enough that the actual end was still a good distance away, and his seat wasn’t even close to the middle.
Mayra sat next to her mother near the front, followed by Haylen and Indigo. Kearse felt a little reassured when he saw Indigo looking around, unsure of what to do next. She may not care about her position, but at least she was aware that etiquette was a thing that existed.
“Although, knowing her, she may just be looking for the food.”
No sooner had he thought that then, by some unseen signal, servants began to file into the room and place tray upon tray of food in front of them. Bread as white as snow, thinly sliced meats covered in rich sauces, more vegetables than he could name, candied fruits and jellies. All of it was there, waiting to be devoured.
“No. Not ‘devoured.’ Nobles don’t devour things.”
Kearse looked down at the cutlery with dread.
“Why do I have three different forks?”
In front of him was enough flatware for an entire family, but from their arrangement, he could tell that they were specifically for him. Looking down the table, he could see identical sets for everyone else.
He was sure that Mayra would be happy to explain it all to him, but she was busy talking with her parents, and it would be rude of him to interrupt. Haylen was similarly engaged in conversation with Mayra’s brothers. Indigo seemed to be at as much of a loss as he was, and could only shrug when he caught her attention and gave a pointed glance at the silverware.
The only one left was Lukas. The boy was sitting patiently, but was swinging his legs back and forth in excitement. For a kid his age, this dinner was probably as special as everything else that had happened today.
Kearse realized that he might have gotten lucky, and gave a quiet, “Psst.”
Lukas halted his leg swinging and looked up, once again surprised that an adult had chosen to speak with him.
“How do I use the forks?”
The boy looked confused by the question. How do you use a fork? What kind of question is that? You poke things with it and put it in your mouth! Obviously!
“Why are there so many?” Kearse explained.
Understanding dawned on the boy, and he reached forward to point out and name the individual pieces of cutlery. Dinner fork, salad fork, soup spoon. On and on. There were so many! Lukas wasn’t the best teacher, but Kearse slowly noticed a pattern, and was able to figure out the intended purpose of the various utensils.
“This one is the fish knife. You have to be careful with it because it’s sharp, and you might cut yourself. That one is the butter knife. It’s the one that’s not sharp, so Daddy lets me use that one myself.”
Around that point, Elber broke off from his chat with Haylen and watched with pride as his son taught a lesson in the ways of noble dining. He gave Kearse an appreciative nod, but stayed silent. Kearse in turn gave a slight nod towards the other side of the table, and the two men had to hold back a laugh.
There was Indigo, studiously listening to Lukas’ every word, and currently searching for the thing the boy had dubbed a “fruit fork.”
“Good job, Lukas,” Elber congratulated him when the boy had finished.
Lukas looked around, finally noticing his small audience. He beamed. Like most children, he was happy to be listened to, and even happier to have been the voice of authority. Kearse thought back to his own childhood, but couldn’t think of any times when he had been able to tell an adult what to do. He probably would have enjoyed it.
Kearse sometimes forgot that he was an adult now, though he usually hid that fact well. He was only eighteen, but he was a veteran of an expedition and was taking the grand pilgrimage. He’d done more in this past year than some people did in their entire lives.
Looking at Elber, as the man praised his son, Kearse felt immature. The two of them were about the same age, but for a reason Kearse couldn’t explain, he couldn’t help but think of himself as the younger one.
“Thanks for that,” Elber said, reaching over his son to give Kearse a friendly pat on the shoulder. “And don’t worry about the forks. Nobody’ll mind if you just use the normal ones. Everyone’s excited to have Mayra back, so I think the maids went all out when they set this up. We don’t actually eat like this very often.”
Kearse was surprised at being treated so casually, and it must have shown.
“First time eating with nobles?” Elber asked.
“I’ve had dinner with your sister a few times, but not like… this.”
He gestured vaguely at the table, and Elber nodded in understanding.
“Like I said, don’t worry about it. Most of this formal stuff is just for Lukas. Help teach him how to greet guests and all that. This is all an act, mostly. Mayra coming home is special, but it’s not as big a deal as we’re making it out to be.”
If Kearse was surprised before, he was entirely shocked now. Elber was a noble, but he seemed so… normal. If the baron’s son had walked into a pub, would anyone be able to tell that he was the son of a baron? Probably not. In the end, was all noble etiquette only an act?
“Um… thank you,” Kearse said and gave a sigh of relief.
He looked over, and saw that Indigo was now glaring at her dining utensils. She was biting her lip in frustration and probably still trying to find the elusive fruit fork. Next to her, Haylen was explaining her role in the expedition to Mayra’s father, and Kearse was glad for her presence. The longer Mayra’s parents went without trying to talk with him, the more comfortable he’d feel when they finally did.
“If it’s all the same though, I think I’ll try to do this right. I don’t think Lukas is the only one learning new things today.”
Dinner had now officially been served, and Kearse waited for the baron to take the first bite before eating anything himself. New to noble dining as he was, he at least understood that much. The food was as delicious as it was varied, and unlike a certain blue-haired glutton, he was able to prevent himself from “chowing down.”
When Indigo pulled out a bottle of wine, Kearse actually felt a twinge of superiority. Among the nobility, ancestral vintages were a rare treat. To commoners like himself, they were usually an impossible thing to obtain. But while everyone else took small sips, commenting on the flavor or the aroma, Kearse allowed the wine to flow past his lips without a thought. He knew exactly how big Indigo’s stock of the stuff was, and she was always happy to share. He had practically free access to as much liquid gold as he could stomach.
Elber was fun to talk with. Kearse started with an explanation of how he had first met Mayra, but ended up telling the entire story of his time in the necropolis. Most of it at any rate. Lukas was also a great listener, and by the end of the tale, was staring at Kearse with something akin to awe.
“Haylen’s the amazing one,” he told the boy. “I was there, but she was one of the people leading us. She’s done everything I have and more.”
“So how do Haylen and Mayra know each other?” Elber asked, changing the topic slightly. “Mayra’s letters often mention her, but I don’t know much of the woman myself.”
“Through your uncle, probably,” Kearse answered. “Haylen’s a commander in the militia, and she’s always been involved with the paladins, as far as I can tell.”
“And they’re good for each other?”
Kearse paused, mulling over the question.
“I suppose?” he finally said. “They were friends before I ever met them, and I think Mayra only came on this pilgrimage because Haylen was the one that asked her. This means a lot to both of them, so I’m glad you and your family let her come.”
Kearse wasn’t sure if the question he had been asked was the same question he had answered, but Elber nodded, seemingly satisfied either way.
“And you and Indigo, what are your reasons for making the pilgrimage?”
Kearse didn’t hesitate to downplay his involvement.
“I’m… the unnecessary bodyguard. Haylen and Mayra can take care of themselves. I’m just here to make sure they don’t have to. I was invited to join them, and… well, I’m a commoner! How often does someone like me get a chance to make the grand pilgrimage? I’d be a fool to turn it down. As for Indigo…”
The girl had found what she was looking for, and was now taking far too much pleasure in cutting her food into the smallest pieces possible so that she could skewer them with the tiny fruit fork. She looked up when she heard her name mentioned and patted at her mouth with a napkin before continuing where Kearse had left off.
“I’m new to the empire, and don’t know what to do with myself. Spending a few years wandering around seemed like a good option.”
“So you are a foreigner. Kearse mentioned that you had been lost in the mist. I must admit that I’ve never heard of a homunculus before. What nation are your people from?”
Indigo paused, and bought herself some time to think by poking at her food. For once, she actually used the fruit fork on a piece of fruit.
“I’m not from anywhere. Not really. And I don’t know how much I could really explain about homunculi. I’m actually younger than your son, so there’s a lot I don’t know.”
Kearse knew that Indigo couldn’t lie, but he could clearly see that she was evading the question. The girl was often careless, but she could be subtle when she chose to be. By overloading Elber with unbelievable statements, true as they were, the man wouldn’t know where to begin with his questions.
“I’m older?” Lukas asked, unintentionally helping Indigo by throwing the topic even more off course.
“Yup,” She answered with a nod. “I’m only two. Actually, no. I’ll be turning two in a few months.”
Elber and Lukas gaped, but Kearse faceplamed. Indigo could remember her previous life, which by some convoluted twist of logic meant that she was older than her physical age… but still.
“You’re not even two?” he blurted out.
“It’s called rounding, Kearse. I’m close enough to two to call myself two.”
He could only laugh in defeat. Up the table though, others had noticed the conversation and weren’t sure if they liked what they heard.
“Mayra,” Lady Damfeld asked, “are you sure it’s wise to bring someone so young on your pilgrimage? Won’t it be dangerous for her?”
Mayra laughed as well, and had to cover her moth to prevent food from spilling out. Haylen also had her mouth clamped firmly shut, not wanting to give offense by downplaying the importance of the question.
“There is no need to worry about Indigo, Mother. She has more experience surviving in a necropolis that anyone alive. The church even granted her salvage rights, and you know how rarely they do that.”
“And how did you survive in a necropolis for so long? Most of the fools who try to sneak in and loot the place never return.”
“She used magic, Father. She might not be a member of the guild, but I can tell you that she’s as good as any mage.”
Lord Damfeld frowned at his daughter.
“Now now, she can speak for herself. Don’t be shy, girl,” he said, turning back to Indigo. “Go on and show us one of your spells.”
Indigo looked nervous and shuffled in her seat. As much as the girl enjoyed making herself the center of attention, she preferred to choose when, where, and how she did so. To Kearse, she suddenly gave the impression of a cornered rabbit looking for a hole to hide herself in. In some circumstances he would have felt like this was a fitting punishment for her, but right now she had his complete sympathy.
“Um, if it’s all the same, a dinner table isn’t exactly the best place for parlor tricks. Or combat demonstrations. Perhaps another time would be better?”
Mayra’s father chuckled at Indigo’s sudden humility, and brushed her discomfort aside.
“Oh, it doesn’t have to be anything big. I just want to see what has my daughter so impressed.”
The dinner had gone on for a while and more than a few empty wine bottles were scattered around the table. Going by the barons slightly flushed face, he had consumed quite a bit of it himself. Kearse doubted that the man would be taking no for an answer.
Indigo gulped, and nodded. She looked down at her plate, and everyone watched as her fruit fork floated into the air, picked up a small piece of apple, and brought it to her mouth.
Lukas clapped happily at the sight, but Lord Damfeld looked disappointed.
“That’s it?” he asked when he realized that there would be no flashing lights or balls of fire being juggled.
“Father, please stop. Why are you putting so much pressure on my friends?”
Lord Damfeld pushed his plate forward, and sent his best “stern father” look Mayra’s way.
“Because you are my daughter and I worry about you. You’re about to go on a long and dangerous trip, and I want to know that you are protected.”
“I don’t need protection. I’m a mage. A fully trained mage. And I’ve been on trips more dangerous than this. I was on the expedition! I fought! I can take care of myself.”
“Now listen here, Mayra. I am you father, and if I don’t think this journey is safe, then I’ve half a mind to-”
Whatever his rebuttal was about to be, it was interrupted by a wet thunk. Everyone turned to look at the still quivering fork embedded in a half-carved roast chicken. Then a spoon rose into the air, and sped forward to join its counterpart in the poultry.
Lord Damfeld opened his mouth to speak again, but stopped when every single knife fork, spoon, and even a ladle leapt to attention and began to throw themselves at the cooked bird. So forceful were the impacts that it would have fallen off the plate if it too hadn’t begun to levitate. Shreds of meat and drippings fell to the table, and it soon became hard to see anything edible under all the metal.
Then there was a cracking noise as bones began to extract themselves from the mass of utensils. No sooner had they emerged than they began to snap in two, and then four.
Nobody could look away from the spectacle, but out of the corner of his eye, Kearse could see that Indigo was staring fixedly at her plate and shivering.
The white shards floated down and arranged themselves in a neat pile, followed by the utensils dislodging themselves and moving handle first back to their original places at the table. The blob of what had once been a bird was dropped with a plop.
The Damfeld family’s eyes were bulging as they continued to look at the mangled flesh with something akin to horror, and it was Indigo’s faint whisper that finally snapped them back to attention.
“We will protect Mayra, just like she protects us.”
Mayra rose from her seat with an appearance of utter calm.
“Father, Mother, my companions and I have been on the road for three days, and we are tired. I believe now would be a good time for me to show them to their rooms. I wish you all good night.”
She turned, and didn’t wait for anyone’s permission before gathering up her friends and ushering them out. Kearse was the first to the door, his instincts as both a commoner and as a person with parents told him that he did not want to stick around to see what happened next. He risked a glance back though, curious.
Lord Damfeld was still staring at the tidy mess Indigo had made, nodding dumbly to Mayra’s request to be excused. Lady Damfeld had a hand to her mouth and looked queasy. Their sons were grinning at each other, perhaps enjoying seeing their father taken down a notch. Lukas just seemed confused, and was looking around for any signs of how he himself should be reacting.
* * * * *
While Mayra showed Kearse and Indigo to their rooms in the guest wing, Haylen had to wait in her own for her luggage to be delivered. She didn’t have much. Just her bedroll and a rucksack of personal belongings. And somehow it had been “misplaced.”
The maid assigned to her apologized profusely, and while Haylen could tell that it was sincere, she knew it hadn’t been an accident.
Things didn’t get lost at a baron’s residence without reason. When her belongings were returned to her after only a few short minutes, it only confirmed in her mind that their absence had been purposeful.
Haylen sighed, shooed the maid from the room, and changed into a long nightgown.
If the missing pack had been the only thing to go wrong that day, she would have paid it no mind, but it was only the latest in a long string of difficulties.
Mayra’s brothers had been fine. Polite and friendly, they didn’t seem anything like the wild hellions that Mayra described them as. To them, she was Mayra’s friend, and that was all they had needed to know before welcoming her with open arms.
Elber had spent most of the dinner talking with Kearse or Indigo, but Jeck had spoken with her, and he had been a complete gentleman. He was open-minded and curious about the little details that made their two lives different. In most ways, he was exactly what Haylen had expected from one of Mayra’s siblings.
The parents though, had been difficult. Lord Damfeld had hounded her with pointed questions, and never seemed satisfied with any of Haylen’s answers. Lady Damfeld had allowed her husband to do most of the talking, but her own words had been no less critical. Mayra had tried to help, but they had largely ignored her.
If there was one thing that was clear, it was that while they had given Mayra permission to go on the pilgrimage, they were not happy about it.
“It was like they were looking for any excuse to change their minds.” Haylen decided.
She sighed again, and poked her head out of the door and into the hallway. Finding the coast clear, she sidled out and over the room next to hers, only stopping to give the bell on the handle a slight ring.
“Door’s open,” she heard from inside.
Indigo’s apartment, like Haylens own, was spacious with a modest sitting room and an attached bedroom. The only thing that prevented it from being an entire house was the lack of a bath and kitchen.
Sofas and plush chairs framed a low table in the sitting room. The bedroom was dominated by a large four poster bed, and a matching wardrobe and dresser. It was all the furniture anyone could want, and much more than any guests as common as themselves would need.
The homunculus was sitting in a chair that she had pulled outside onto her wide balcony, and was staring up at the sky.
“Do you ever have one of those moments where you suddenly realize how much things have changed?” Indigo asked.
She didn’t sound sad or depressed, but her voice was surprisingly solemn. Meloncholy was, perhaps, the more fitting word.
“Is this about what happened at dinner?” Haylen answered with a question of her own.
Indigo looked over her shoulder, and then tilted her head slightly in an invitation for the half-elf to join her.
“The dinner kinda sucked,” Indigo said once Haylen had pulled up a chair of her own. “But nah. This is just… stuff. I came out here to have a drink. Maybe a quick smoke. But then I opened the door and… BAM, there’s the moon, and I realized that I had never seen it before.”
Indigo gestured at the moon, nearly full, and hanging just over the treetops in the night sky.
“You’ve never seen the moon?”
It was a stupid question, Haylen knew, but she was too surprise to stop herself from asking.
“Well, I’ve seen it. I’ve just never really looked at it. I mean it’s the moon. When was the last time you paid any attention to it?”
Haylen’s silence was answer enough. Not recently. As big as it was, it was easy to forget that it was there.
“In Peninsula, the miasma was always too thick to see anything more than a dim glow. I wasn’t able to see it. Or the stars for that matter. Then, when you got me out, I was always too busy to think about it. It never occurred to me to look up.”
Indigo pulled out a pair of cups, filled them with wine from her stash, and passed one to Haylen. They’d both drunk a little during dinner, but this conversation seemed to call for more.
“I’ve been me for two years now,” she continued once they had each taken a sip. “You’d think I’d be used to it. I am used to it. But then, like I said, I came out here, the moon was right there, and I didn’t recognize any of it. It was just this big reminder that… I have no idea what I’m doing.”
Haylen didn’t say anything while they watched the sky. Indigo, she could tell, didn’t want to be comforted. She just wanted someone to listen, and hopefully, understand.
“I’ve always liked The Swinging Blade,” said a voice to their side.
Kearse, likely having heard them talking, had come out onto his own balcony and was standing only a few feet away. He pointed up and a bit to the left, doing a good job of pretending that he couldn’t see Haylen in her night-clothes.
“Do you see that constellation that looks like a cross?” he asked. “That’s Arlon’s sword. The blade moves as the seasons change, but the star at the pommel is always in the same place. If you ever need to find North, look for the sword.”
Indigo’s somber mood seemed to break, and she smiled as she handed Kearse a cup for himself. The jingling of a bell signaled Mayra’s return, and soon the four of them were all outside and telling Indigo the stories remembered in the stars.
There was the Pheonix, a demi-god who refused to leave the mortal world and ascend to the heavens. At times, she had both helped and hindered Arlon in his forging of the empire. Even now, it was said, she wandered Grammon’s surface pulling strings and exerting gentle influence.
Over here was Doran’s Eye. How it had left the dwarf god’s head and ended up in the sky, nobody knew. If the dwarves did, they weren’t telling. They had always been secretive about their god. The red star was only visible during certain times of the year. It wandered as its people did, so that none of Doran’s children would be forgotten.
Next was Eaglet, The Dove. For some reason, the orc god Ector had a pet dove that he doted upon in times of peace. When Ector had found the bird, he thought it was a baby eagle. Later, once he realized his mistake, he kept the bird anyway because “he’s got a good sense of humor, like that.”
Some of the twinkling lights were remembered only by their constellation. Others were prominent enough to have names of their own. They all had their own story though.
Except for The Baby. That star was a mystery. It had suddenly appeared about a hundred years ago, with no major events or catastrophes that could be linked to it. It was just there. The newest addition to the celestial bodies.
“So, are we not going to talk about what happened at dinner?” Indigo asked once the clouds had started to block out the sky and brought the tales to a halt.
Mayra groaned, and Haylen knocked back a large gulp of her drink. Normally, it was the two of them who were trying to get Indigo to open up, and not the other way around.
“I don’t know why they acted like that,” Mayra ranted. “They never act like that!”
“So… I didn’t go too far with the chicken?”
Haylen wanted to say, “Yes,” but only a small part. There hadn’t been much of the bird left after Indigo’s little demonstration. Most of her was just glad that it had brought the dinner to an end.
“Ha!” Mayra laughed. “You could have set the whole table on fire for all I care. My father deserved it. He may have been rude to you, but he was absolutely awful to Haylen. And I have no idea why! I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen him get that drunk.”
“You could try asking him,” Indigo suggested.
“I did!” she rebutted, throwing up her arms in frustration. “And he just moans and complains about how I’m ‘being taken away from him,’ as if I haven’t spent the last four years living over in Orlis.”
“Maybe he thinks you and Haylen are a couple,” Kearse joked.
Indigo laughed, and even Haylen was able to chuckle at the idea, but Mayra dropped back down to her seat like she had been beaned in the head with a rock.
“Bloody hells, you’re right,” she muttered.
“I am?” Kearse asked, but Mayra was ignoring him now.
“Haylen, they think you’re my lover!”
Kearse seemed stunned that his little attempt at humor at somehow unraveled the mystery of the day. Indigo, meanwhile, was now laughing so hard that she had fallen out of her seat.
“How does that make sense?” Haylen asked, rubbing at her temples. “Why not Kearse? Or even Indigo?”
“It makes perfect sense!” Mayra shouted. “They know we’ve been friends for a while because I’ve mentioned you in some of my letters. They also know that you were the one who invited me to come on the pilgrimage, a journey that normally is taken by nobles once we’re married. My father didn’t mean you were taking me away on pilgrimage, he meant you were taking me away from the family!”
The half-elf’s eyes bulged as she tried to review the events of the day with this new context.
“No. It’s too… And they… But if I were a man…”
“Elber did ask me if the two of you were ‘good for each other,’” Kearse added hesitantly.
“My luggage wasn’t in my room,” Haylen admitted reluctantly. “The maid seemed surprised when you brought me to the guest wing.”
“Even the servants are in on it?” Mayra whispered, growing pale.
Indigo was still on the ground, choking with laughter that increased with every word.
“I’m going to have a word with my parents,” Mayra said, stomping towards the door. “If you don’t see me at breakfast, it’s because I killed them and ran off to live the life of an outlaw.”
Kearse stared awkwardly at the balcony door, and then down at his cup before finishing the drink.
“Well at least that’s over with. Makes me glad I’m not a noble.”
Haylen nodded, and ignored her cup to drink straight from the bottle. Below her, Indigo was clutching at her sides and giggling with a stupid grin on her face.
In the distance, they heard a muffled shout of, “Father, I’m not a lesbian!”
Haylen couldn’t help but laugh.