Ari sat at the table, looking out the window toward the bustling street below. It amazed him how people here were so different from his own. In all the villages and towns he visited, everyone walked how and where they pleased, but here everything had its place.
Carriages of various sizes and shapes, drawn by either normal horses or the steel ones he encountered before, filled the road. The sidewalks were crawling with people — women and men in simple white-black clothes carrying big baskets overflowing with food and kids chasing each other, clanking with their wooden swords. The longer he watched, the more ‘grim top hats,’ as he started calling them, appeared on the streets accompanied by women wearing large colorful dresses.
He turned away from the window when another loud snore reached his ears. After what happened last night, he decided to let Elijah sleep as long as he needed it. But it was midday already, and they had things to do.
“Hey, time to wake up,” Ari said.
“Emma, it’s Saturday. Let me sleep,” Elijah murmured.
Ari sighed and prodded him with his hands. “Wake up, Elijah.”
The man opened his eyes slowly and shook his head after noticing Ari. “So it wasn’t a dream,” he muttered while he sat up.
“No. I wish it were.”
Elijah nodded and rubbed his forehead. “My little sister woke me up every single day, and I hated her for that. Now, I would give anything to see her smile again.”
“You will. There must be a way to get back to your world.”
“I hope,” Elijah responded wearily.
“First, we need to get you new clothes. Last night the disguise worked, but if you walked out of here now, someone would notice something is wrong,” Ari said and pointed at his puffy blue-white shoes.
Elijah blinked and looked at them, then at the leather ones Ari wore. “Yeah, I kinda get what you mean.”
“You should stay in the room while I'll exchange my coins and buy something else for you to wear,” Ari said and picked up his bag. The long stave would only bring unwanted attention, so he left it under his bed.
When he approached the door, a loud growling sound filled the room, and Elijah’s face turned red. “Sorry, I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.”
“We will go to eat something as soon as I’m back.” Ari laughed and left, but after closing the door, a sense of dread filled him. Do they eat horses in his world?
He went downstairs, trying not to overthink what he had just heard. The common room was empty and quiet; even the barkeeper from last night was absent. Behind the bar, Ari found a young woman with short blonde hair and asked for directions to this ‘coin exchange’ person. She looked at him funny and drew him a map when he was confused by the difference between a street and something called a boulevard. The map had only a set of lines and arrows on it, with two locations marked — the inn and the exchange place. He thanked the woman and left the building, going deeper into the town.
The streets outside were noisy, with all the constant jolting and banging of carriages on the cobbled ground. Moreover, people stood in front of the shops, shouting and inviting the passerby to check their wares. After five minutes, Ari’s head started aching, and he wondered how anyone was able to function normally with all those loud sounds surrounding them.
Following the map, he reached a small square with a big tree planted in the middle and headed towards the only building without any windows. Inside, a grumpy older man exchanged his coins for the Order’s currency, and he received sixty-five opal chips and one opal orb. He thought he would get more, but it seemed Islander coins were barely worth anything here.
Next, he started looking for a place to buy clothes for Elijah. To his dismay, all the shops he found only sold the local clothing — what they called a gentleman suit — and when he asked about something like what he wore, he was shooed out of the building. The men who did it were anything but gentle, and he thought the clothes deserved a better name.
After like an hour, in one of the back alleys, he stumbled into a small shop selling traveling gear, where he finally bought everything he needed — four simple shirts, two for him and two for Elijah, black linen trousers and a pair of leather shoes. He picked darker colors to blend better with the locals because the Islanders were a minority here. The nice middle-aged woman who owned the shop even told him to come back if the clothes wouldn’t fit well on his friend.
All in all, he paid twenty-eight opal chips, which worried him. His remaining coins would last for a few weeks of rent, and they still had to eat. Lost in his thoughts, he hurried back to The Golden Goose.
When Ari entered their room, he found Elijah standing near the window, and the man gestured for him to come closer.
“What are those?” Elijah asked, his voice trembling. He pointed at one of the carriages, which had the steel horses in front of it.
“Uhm, I don’t know either,” Ari replied truthfully.
The chair screeched as Elijah sat hard down on it. “I really should stop being surprised. Every time I start to understand how this world works, something new pops up and fucks with my brain.” He sighed and muttered, “And now robohorses are a thing.”
“Most of the things here are new to me, too, so you’re not alone in this.” Ari threw the clothes he bought on the bed. “Try these on.”
While Elijah was changing, Ari started explaining. “My village is called Berkav, and it lies off the coast of this continent. My people call themself the Islanders, but we don’t have a ruler or anything like that. We want to be left alone and only some of us to travel here—”
“Why are you telling me all this?” Elijah interrupted. When he put the new trousers on, Ari noticed he slipped something small and gray into his pocket.
“Because your brand is a rune. Thanks to this you can pass as an Islander, even if you don’t look like one.”
Elijah wanted to interrupt him again, but Ari raised his hand and said, “Listen carefully. The Hunters aren’t stupid, and you stand out with your dark skin. You should have noticed already most of the people here are pale-skinned.” He paused for a second and asked, “What’s your surname?”
“Moore. It’s Elijah Moore.”
Ari paced around the room, thinking about what to do. While exploring the town, he noticed a lot of similar-sounding names painted on the shop windows. Maybe. This could work.
“Okay, I’ve got an idea. If someone asks, you’re from the same village as me, and your mother raised you alone. Your father was from here, but he left when you were a child.”
They talked for at least twenty more minutes about all the details, and Ari made Elijah repeat the story several times before he was satisfied with his answers. The man groaned and constantly complained like he didn’t understand that his life was on the line. At least the clothes Ari bought fit him nicely, so they could leave the room without worrying about bringing unwanted attention to themselves.
“I think we will be fine, for now, at least,” Ari said eventually. “Let’s go eat something. I’m starving too.”
“Finally,” Elijah said and jumped out of his bed.
Before leaving, Ari hid Elijah’s weird looking trousers and shoes at the bottom of the wardrobe, and they agreed to burn them on the first occasion.
The common room was still nearly empty when they arrived downstairs. Only one of the tables was occupied by a pair of older men playing cards, who didn’t even look in their direction.
The stout barkeeper from last night stood behind the counter, and they approached him first. He smiled when he noticed them. “Morning lads, you got something for me?”
Ari nodded and gave the man enough chips for last night and three more days of rent.
“Glad to know the youth today still can be trusted,” the barkeeper said. The chips vanished below the counter, and he asked, “Want something to eat? Breakfast and supper are included in the cost of the room.”
“Really?” Elijah asked, his voice filled with hope.
The barkeeper laughed and nodded. “Take a seat somewhere.” He turned around and bellowed, “Lisa, prepare two breakfast plates and bring them over here.”
“It’s already past breakfast. Do it yourself. I’m busy,” a muffled feminine voice responded.
“Don’t worry, I will talk to her.” The barkeeper let out a deep breath as if he readied himself and entered a small door behind him. Sounds of arguing soon reached the common room, and both men hastily retreated from the bar. They picked one of the tables closest to the hearthstone, from where they could observe the entrance.
“I know I asked about this before,” Elijah broke the awkward silence. “But everyone here seems to speak the same language.”
Ari nodded and said, “It’s the common tongue. From what I know, it was created by the Order a long time ago, so all the nations could communicate with each other.”
“Nations, as in more than one?” Elijah inquired, tilting his head.
“There’s about a dozen of them. We’re in the Kingdom of Mercia, and I know only about one other, which lies to the west from here. It’s called the Roman Republic or something like that.”
Elijah’s left eye twitched.
“What?” Ari asked, confused.
Elijah opened his mouth to answer, but at this moment, the inn door flung open, and three people wearing matching black cloaks entered the room, their faces hidden by hoods. There were two symbols embroidered on their cloaks, and a shiver ran through Ari’s back when he recognized the one on top — a golden snake eating its tail, the mark of the Order.
Ari tried to stand up, but then, the blonde woman he met earlier appeared beside him. With a loud thud, she placed two plates with bread and meat, along with two mugs on their table.
“Here you go.” She smiled, but the smile hadn't reached her pale purple eyes. “I hope to see you next time during breakfast time.”
“Uhm, yes,” gulped Ari. “It won’t happen again.”
But the woman ignored his response; her attention entirely focused on the newcomers. She furrowed her brows and walked back towards the bar, where she whispered something to the barkeeper before vanishing in the kitchen.
“What’s going on?” Elijah whispered.
Ari hadn’t answered right away because he wasn’t sure what to do. If they left the table before the food arrived it wouldn’t look too suspicious, but now...
He tried to keep his voice calm and whispered back, “Those guys who just entered are from the Order.” When he noticed that Elijah wanted to turn around, he kicked his leg, “Don’t look at them.”
Meanwhile, the Order’s group took their seats at the table closest to the entrance. Two of them removed their hoods, a shaggy looking man with a hooked nose and a petite girl, her apple-red hair braided in a ponytail. The third person sat with his back to Ari, and his hood was still on his head.
“Fucking Arthur, we spent six hours going through the forest and found shit. This Wanderer is probably long gone…” the shaggy man complained while putting his feet on the table. A second later, a mug appeared in his hand, and he gulped it down in one go.
The red-haired girl glared at him and growled through her gritted teeth, “Get your smelly feet off the table!”
“Not my fault someone here overestimated her tracking skills and led us into a fucking swamp,” he replied and glared back at her. When the girl reached for something beneath her cloak, he put down his feet and said in an apologetic voice, “Fine fine, have it your way.”
The red-haired girl looked around the room and murmured something under her breath. While Ari could see they were still arguing, he wasn’t able to hear anything. He saw the girl yelling at her companion, her hands flailing wildly, but no sound escaped their table.
Pulling something out of thin air and a sound blocking spell. Ari was both terrified and amazed by the abilities those people used.
Five minutes passed, and the group was still deep in conversation, but now and then the girl would glance across the room. Ari munched on his third sausage — while his appetite was long gone, he knew he needed to eat something. Elijah chewed on a sandwich he made, visibly anxious, shifting back and forth in his chair.
“Just a few more minutes, and we can leave,” Ari whispered to him.
Elijah nodded and took a swig from his mug. While he was drinking, the red-haired girl stood up and started walking towards their table, her heavy footsteps echoing through the room. Elijah’s eyes darted to the side, and he choked on his ale, swallowing hard and gasping for the air. He tried to put his mug back on the table, but he missed, and the rest of its content spilled on the floor right in front of the girl.
“Watch out, dumbass. Those shoes are worth more than your miserable life,” she growled as she jumped over the pool of ale.
“I… I’m sorry.” Elijah stammered, but the girl was already gone. She vanished around the corner, and they heard a door being slammed a moment later.
“Don't worry, kid. She’s not as bad as she looks,” the shaggy man chuckled. “She’s much fuckin’ worse.” When he noticed Elijah’s frightened face, he began to laugh hysterically.
The blonde waitress appeared a moment later and started cleaning the floor. Ari joined her on the floor and picked up the mug.
“I’m sorry for the mess—” Ari said.
She cut him off, “It’s nothing.” She glanced at Elijah and raised her eyebrow. “Your friend doesn’t look too good.”
“I think I need to use the toilet.” Elijah spluttered.
The woman pointed behind her. “It’s around the corner, at the end of the hallway.”
Elijah nodded and wobbled in that direction. When he neared the corner, the red-headed girl appeared, and he came to a dead stop, but she ignored him and returned to her table.
“Thank you, erm,” Ari said and paused.
“Name’s Lisa. And like I said already, it’s nothing.” She picked up the wet rag and started walking back towards the bar, but she stopped after taking one step and whispered, “Take good care of your friend, Ari.”
Ari was dumbfounded when he heard his name, but before he was able to reply, she was already gone. He sat heavily back in his chair, thinking about what just happened. He couldn't recall, if Elijah used his name in public. How does she know it then?
Elijah returned a few minutes later and they headed back to their room. Both the Order members and other guests ignored them, but out the corner of his eye, Ari noticed the barkeeper observed them closely as they made their way upstairs.