Our trip to Mayaan felt markedly different than our journey to the Mountain Gate. Without the constant threat of pursuit and the looming uncertainty of what we would find at our destination, the air within the wagon was permeated with a feeling of relief and relaxation. We traveled at a significantly slower speed with plenty of long breaks to appreciate our beautiful surroundings and enjoy each other’s company. Lia and I took a long overdue turn to drive the wagon on our second day of travel, savoring the chance to feel the wind on our faces that were no longer on wanted posters. Our leisurely pace knocked us off track to reach Mayaan within two days, and we were forced to camp outside for an extra night.
Marten explained his plan for when we reached the city the following morning. “I’ve got an old merchant friend who lives in Mayaan,” he told us as we ate the last of our trail rations for dinner. “She moved there about...how long has it been, dear? Twelve years ago? Thirteen?”
“Thirteen,” Hana agreed. “I haven’t seen Elise in a long time.”
“Aunt Ellie!” Lia exclaimed suddenly. “Aunt Ellie lives in Mayaan?!”
“She certainly does!” Marten answered. “I went to visit her a few years back after a delivery to the Mountain Gate. She had always run a successful business back in Kaldan, but her company really took off once she moved to Lybesa. I’ve never seen so many company wagons in one place!” He laughed, pausing for a moment to sip on his tin cup of ale. “If anybody can help us out, it’ll be Elise.”
Lia grabbed my hand and squeezed it excitedly, looking up at me with childlike wonder. “Aunt Ellie is the best! She always used to bring me presents from other countries whenever she would come visit.” She bounced enthusiastically beside me on the rock we shared as a bench. “I haven’t seen her since I was a kid!”
“It sounds like it should be a nice reunion for everyone,” I said, scanning the happy faces around the small campfire. “Plus, working with an established trading company should eliminate any issues with using foreign currency.”
“My thoughts exactly,” Marten grinned. “All in all, we should be well on our way to building our new lives in Lybesa by this time tomorrow.”
“Good,” Marin stated. “Not that I haven’t enjoyed traveling with you all, but I can’t go much longer without a big meal and a soft bed.” Marten and Hana laughed, and I scratched my stomach in silent agreement.
“Oh, I can’t wait!” Lia hummed, nestling her head into my shoulder. The feeling of anticipation buzzed like static electricity throughout the camp, and our group dispersed one by one in search of sleep until Lia and I were the only ones remaining at the fireside. “I guess I should go to bed too,” she said sleepily, making no move to follow through on the thought.
“Mhmm,” I agreed, nuzzling the top of her head. “The sooner you go to sleep, the soon you get to see your Aunt Ellie.”
She reached up over her head and grabbed the edge of my cloak, nearly vanishing inside against my chest as she pulled it around her shoulders. “She’s not actually my aunt, that’s just what my parents call her. I think they’ve been friends since before I was born.”
“I see,” I murmured, looking down at her with a touch of amusement. “You’re planning on sleeping out here tonight, aren’t you?”
“I’m too comfy to move.”
“That’s okay. I appreciate the company.” I took a few deep breaths and prepared to start my watch for the evening. “Goodnight, Lia.”
She gave my hand a squeeze and let out a long, satisfied sigh. “Goodnight.”
I closed my eyes, and the world sprang to life in vivid neon color around me. As my mana rushed out in all directions I was surprised that, even after two days of travel, all I could see was the endless forest of emberwood trees. Marin had explained that the forest covered over a quarter of Lybesa, and despite the massive lumber industry, it never seemed to shrink. According to her, emberwood was highly sought after for all manner of construction products due to both its high strength to weight ratio and its remarkably efficient insulative properties. I had seen evidence of logging camps, and small sections of forest that had been recently cut and replanted, but they hardly seemed impactful against the hundreds of miles of dense tree cover.
“Lux?” Lia’s voice asked, small and far away.
I cracked open one eye and peered down at her. “Yes?”
“Are you happy?”
“Of course I’m…” I started, then paused. After fighting off the reflexive instinct to blindly reassure her, I took a moment to truly consider the question. “For the first time since I lived in Alderea, I feel like I have my feet on solid ground. I can take a breath without worrying if it’ll be my last one. I have people around me that I care about, and who care about me, too. I want to see tomorrow again.” I smiled as I reflected on the life I had fought so hard to find. “I’m happy, Lia. For the first time in a long time, I’m really happy.”
“That’s good,” she answered, patting me lightly on the chest. I waited for her to follow up on the question, but it quickly became apparent that she had fallen back asleep with her lips curled in the faint remnants of a smile. I couldn’t help but laugh and hold her a bit tighter against me. Slipping back into my meditative trance, I let my consciousness fade out from my body and observe the surrounding landscape all at once. There was an immense rush through my mind as a million individual dots of life shifted into focus at once, and I flitted from light to light as they moved.
My attention settled on a skulk of what looked to be giant foxes, each nearly the size of a wolf. They crept through the tall grasses between the trees, carefully encircling a pair of yearlings. Without any apparent signal they all pounced at once, sailing up through the air from their hiding spots and catching the deer unaware. The twin green lights of the yearlings quickly faded as the skulk finished their synchronous kills and settled in to feast. A quick flash of energy a few miles to the south drew my focus, and the majestic form of an owl appeared all at once as its talons sunk into the back of a mouse, both of which quickly disappeared from sight a moment later.
The teeming life within the forest provided me with an endless array of stories to watch, and I felt the warmth of the rising sun on my face before I had a chance to consider how much time had passed. Lia shifted for the first time as the light roused her, stretching her arms out from beneath the tightly bundled cloak. A small squeak escaped her lips as her eyes opened, and she looked side to side as her brain gradually woke up and began to process the information. “Mmmph,” she grunted eventually, burying her face behind my cloak.
“Good morning to you too,” I chuckled, opening my eyes. “You know, hiding from the sun won’t make it go away.”
A weak punch glanced off of my armor as she grunted again. “You don’t know that.”
I stood and pulled away the cloak with a quick flourish. Lia covered her eyes with her arm and yelped as she toppled backwards off of the rock, landing in the grass with a dull thud. Before I had a chance to laugh, a flurry of legs and feet flew out at my shins, and I felt the edge of her boot scrape my greaves as I dodged backwards. She landed her spin in a crouch and lunged forward while I was off balance, hooking her foot behind my heel as she pressed against my opposite shoulder. I knew I had already lost before I started to fall, so I grabbed her under the shoulders and pulled her along with me.
We collapsed in a heap beside the fire pit, each of us flailing in an attempt to gain leverage over the other. After a few seconds of struggling I realized I couldn’t shake out of her pin, and I flopped back into the grass in defeat. “Well, you win. Feel better now?”
“A bit,” she giggled, kissing me on the forehead. “Although I have to admit, I’d still rather be asleep with y—”
A loud squeak interrupted her thought, and we both turned just in time to see Hana dive out of sight behind the wagon. Marten’s head poked out of the flaps and looked around for the source of the disturbance. “Darling, where did you…” he trailed off as his eyes scanned over the camp and found us entangled together on the ground, and a devious smirk curled his lips. “I’m sorry, am I interrupting something?”
Lia’s face flushed, and she threw herself backwards as she attempted to sputter out an excuse. “No! Nothing! We weren’t, uhm, I was just...uhm, just waking up, and—”
“Good morning!” I called out loudly, sitting up and giving Marten a wave. “Lia was just telling me how she would rather be—”
“Stop it!” Lia yelled, struggling to her feet. I burst into laughter, and Marten followed suit soon after. After inarguably losing our first encounter of the morning, my small act of playful revenge felt even sweeter. I stood and put my hand on her shoulder, and her glare told me she was considering whether or not she would allow the contact. Eventually she sighed, and a small smile graced her face as she shook her head.
“Why is everybody yelling so loud? It’s too early for that,” Marin yelled loudly as she appeared from the back of the wagon.
“Oh good, you’re up!” Marten greeted her. “It’s time for us to get going. Seeing as we’re out of food, our next meal is waiting for us in Mayaan, and I’d like to find it as soon as possible.”
Marin rubbed her eyes and frowned. “I feel like I didn’t need to be woken up for that.” She disappeared back into the wagon as the rest of us prepared to leave. I kicked dirt over the last remnants of our fire, then followed Lia and Hana into the wagon as Marten climbed up to the driver’s bench. After a few hard bumps we made it back to the main road, and the final leg of our trip began.
Lia filled the hours of our journey with stories of Elise from her childhood. A majority of the memories were focused around the gifts Elise would bring on her visits: Lia’s favorite doll that she carried with her wherever she went, her first fancy dress that she refused to take off for four days, and, when she was old enough, a fitted saddle for Marten’s workhorse so she could learn to ride, much to her parents chagrin. Hana chimed in with additional details to round out the stories, and I listened with rapt interest as I learned more about Lia’s formative years.
An image of the town of Mayaan began to form through my Detection long before Marten called out our approach. It seemed as though the outskirts of the town started at some unmarked border within the forest of emberwood trees, based on the sudden appearance of homesteads hidden down winding paths that branched off from the main road. The forest ended abruptly a few miles ahead, replaced with plowed farmlands that ran directly to the edge of the treeline. An organized township took shape at the opposite edge of the farmland, separated into a neat grid containing markets, housing, and industrial sections. While it was nowhere near as large as Yoria or Atsal, the city I saw in my head looked large enough to support a few thousand people.
The telltale switch from packed earth to cobblestone road beneath our wagon’s wheels alerted Marin and Hana that we had reached the city proper, and the excitement that had been simmering in the back of the wagon reached its boiling point. Lia jumped up and stuck her head out through the wagon flaps, bouncing with anticipation as she scanned our new surroundings. Marin disappeared behind a stacked wall of crates, having decided last minute to change into what she determined to be more presentable clothes.
Lia jumped out of the wagon as soon as it came to a halt at our destination. The building Marten had brought us to looked like a large, modified barn; it had multiple doors along the side wall large enough for trading caravans to pass through, all of which led into a massive, open storeroom full of two story shelves and palettes stocked with goods. Parallel stairways on either side of the space lead up to a top floor composed of bunkrooms, offices, and break rooms, most of which were full of employees. The front door led to a small lobby, which had doors to both the work floor and the upstairs offices behind a reception desk. An ornate sign was attached to the wall above the front door, labeled with Lybesian print and depicting a stack of three barrels in a red circle.
While Lia joined her father as he entered the building, I waited in the back of the wagon for the rest of our party. Marin emerged from her makeshift changing booth a few seconds later, wearing a familiar red and white sundress from Lia’s box of clothes. “Oh, that’s so much better!” she said, admiring the dress as she twirled in a circle. “Now, let’s go meet this friend of yours so we can get something to eat!”
I led Hana and Marin to the front door, and we entered the building to find a puzzling scene; Lia stood with her head held in her hand, hiding her eyes from the receptionist who leaned over the counter towards her father. Marten was tapping his hands anxiously at his sides as he stammered something quietly under his breath. “I...I am...uhm, Marten, and I, erm, I am..”
The receptionist, a young man with brown hair and kind eyes, looked up at me as we filed into the room. “Good morning, sir. Are you with this gentleman?” he asked, motioning with his head towards Marten. “He seems...confused.”
I looked at the pair with a furrowed brow, curious as to what could have caused the current situation. “Yes,” I said slowly, looking back to the receptionist, “I’m with them. We’re here to see Elise. She’s an old family friend.”
“Oh, good,” he sighed, looking relieved. “Did you have an appointment?”
“I’m afraid not,” I answered apologetically. “Just tell her the Corell family is here to see her.”
“Hmm,” he mused, his face shifting to one of concern. “Miss Tressel is very busy today, I’m not sure she’ll have time—”
I held up a finger to cut him off, and retrieved my coin purse from my belt. “If that’s not enough,” I added, shaking the purse with a satisfying jingle, “tell her that they have a lucrative business opportunity to discuss as well.”
He eyed our group nervously for a moment, then nodded. “I’ll relay the message. Please wait here.” He left his desk and moved to the back door, pausing one more time to look the five of us over before he disappeared into the stairwell.
Satisfied, I turned back to Marten to find out what had flustered him so badly, only to find him staring at me in stunned silence. “What?” I asked, confused. I looked to Hana and Marin for support, only to find them with the same shocked expression. I took a step back towards Lia and held up my hands defensively. “What?!”
Marten shook his head in disbelief as if I had spoken complete gibberish. “What do you mean, ‘what’?! Since when do you speak fluent Lybesian?”
“Since when do I…” I managed to say before my brain put the pieces together. Marten was confused because he doesn’t actually speak Lybesian. The receptionist was speaking Lybesian, so if he understood me, I was clearly speaking Lybesian as well. “Oh, I’ve always known Lybesian, or at least, how to speak it,” I lied casually, mostly for Marin’s sake; had she not been present, I would have explained the helpful yet mysterious power that came with my reincarnations to Lia’s parents. “I picked it up when I lived in Doram.”
“In Doram?” Marten asked quizzically. “When were you in—” he interrupted himself suddenly as a spark of acknowledgement entered his eyes. “Right. When you lived in Doram.”
“I have to ask, Marten. Was your plan really to just walk in here and assume everybody would speak Kaldanic?” I prodded, trying to shift the focus away from my sudden knowledge of a foreign language.
“Well...yes!” he answered. “It worked last time I was here!”
Marin laughed. “It’s a good thing you brought me along, Marten. I’m not sure your business could have survived the language barrier without my help.” She rubbed her hands together and put on a sinister smile. “We’ll have to consider that in my upcoming contract negotiations.”
Marten moved to respond, but a loud bang from the stairwell in front of us drew all of our attention to the door. The receptionist returned a moment later, red faced and flustered. “Miss Tressel will see you all in her office immediately. Please follow me.” We entered the narrow stairwell single file and followed him up to another reception room. It was much larger than the initial entryway, with multiple sets of tables and chairs in a waiting area, plus a larger reception desk at the back of the room that blocked a wooden door labeled in gold lettering. The woman attending the new desk eyed us suspiciously as we were led past her post to the door. “Just through here. She’s ready for you.”
Without hesitation, Marten knocked and opened the door simultaneously, leading the way into the office. The room was lavishly decorated, implying the success Marten had spoken about on the road had only grown since his last visit. The wall to our left was covered floor to ceiling in beautifully intricate maps, each depicting a different country or region thereof. The opposite wall was lined with bookshelves packed with ledgers, books, and various bound bundles of loose paper. Light poured in from a small, square window at the far end of the room, and was supplemented by two small candle chandeliers. A small rolling cart stocked with bottles and crystal decanters of amber liquid sat next to the extravagant blue-dyed emberwood desk that faced the door. Behind the desk was a high backed chair made of the same polished wood as the desk, upon which our host sat.
“Marten! Hana!” she cried out excitedly, jumping up from the desk as we all entered the room and closed the door behind us. Elise stood a head taller than Lia, with vibrant green eyes behind a set of square glasses and puffy, blue black hair that was held in a messy bun above her head by three large pins. She wore a knit grey sweater that seemed to be missing most of its fabric; it had no back, no sleeves, and a diamond shaped hole in the center of her chest, all of which combined to reveal a shocking amount of sable skin. Likewise, her tight black skirt was cut up one side nearly to her hip, and looked to be held in place only by a thin, blue belt.
She rushed towards us and embraced Hana tightly, shaking her around like a dog with a new toy. The room was filled with a melodious echo as the two women laughed and exchanged hellos. Without warning, Elise dropped Hana and moved on to Marten and gave him similar treatment. Lia stepped ahead excitedly, and Elise let out a loud gasp when their eyes met. “No!” she exclaimed dramatically. “This can’t be little Marly, can it? No! You’re all grown up!”
“Hi Aunt Ellie!” Lia yelled, jumping forward for a hug. “I’ve missed you so much!”
“Oh, Marly,” she said, sounding as if she were on the verge of tears, “it’s so good to see you. You’re such a beautiful young woman now, I can’t believe how fast time has gone by!”
“Stop it,” Lia said, burying her face in Elise’s shoulder to hide her flushed cheeks.
When she had finally finished her reunion with the Corell family, Elise’s attention turned to me and Marin at the back of the room. She met my eyes, and the corner of her mouth curled into a grin. “And who is this?” she asked, slipping past Lia to approach me. “You must be the man my assistant told me about. He said you had a...proposition for me?” She walked two fingers up my chest to my shoulder, grabbing it to pull herself up until her face was uncomfortably close to mine.
“Uhm...that’s technically true,” I answered, leaning my face back away from hers, “though it may have been a bit of an exaggeration to ensure we could see you.”
“And now you’ve seen me,” she whispered, her breathy voice lowering in volume the closer her mouth came to my ear, “and I’ve seen you. Perhaps we could discuss this proposition over lunch?”
The scent of her perfume overpowered my nose and set my head spinning, and it took the entirety of my focus to keep my eyes straight ahead. Lia’s face had morphed from one of excitement to a look of pure horror as she watched from across the room, and I saw her foot rise and fall as she fought over whether she should intercede. “Lunch sounds great,” I managed to say. “We’ve been subsisting on trail rations for quite a while now, so a full meal of warm food would be amazing.”
I felt a hard tug on my arm as Lia dislodged me from Elise’s clutches, positioning herself quickly between the two of us. Both of her hands clasped mine tightly as she menaced at her aunt. “Yes, WE are all very hungry.”
Elise giggled as she continued to stare at me, wiggling her eyebrows suggestively. As she looked down to address Lia, she did a double take when she saw my fingers laced in between hers, and she turned to Marten and Hana in genuine shock. “Did little Marly find...a man?” Hana put a hand to her mouth to stifle a laugh and gave a small nod. Elise squealed and clutched her hands in front of her chest. “Oh, I never thought I’d see the day! Marlia in a real relationship!”
“What is THAT supposed to mean?!” Lia yelled.
Elise ignored the challenge and stepped forward, reaching over Lia’s head to put her hand back on my shoulder. Her lustful, seductive aura from earlier was completely gone, instead replaced with the bubbly demeanor of the woman who had greeted the Corell family. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’ll expect the full story of how you two met over lunch,” she said with a wink. “Now, you still haven’t given me your name.”
“I’m Lux,” I answered, offering my free hand out to her over Lia’s shoulder. “It’s nice to meet you, Elise.”
“Please, call me Ellie!” she smiled, shaking my hand. Satisfied with the encounter, she turned and looked over our assembled group, pausing when her eyes fell on Marin. “I’m sorry dear, I’ve completely ignored you this whole time,” she said, giving her a deep apologetic bow. “You must think I’m incredibly rude, and rightfully so.”
Marin’s head spun as she looked for some unseen target of Elise’s apology behind her. “Who, me? No! Of course not!” She waved her hands vigorously and took a step back. “I-It’s nice to meet you, Ellie. I mean, Miss Tressel! I’m Marin. Sesaude. Marin Sesaude.” There was a visible blush to her bronze cheeks as she awkwardly tripped over her greeting.
“It’s nice to meet you too, Marin Sesaude!” Elise answered, giving her a tight hug. “Are you a friend of the Corells?”
I watched Marin’s brain shut down and reboot over Elise’s shoulder as her face shifted from a blank slate to complete embarrassment. “Y-yes! Or, I think? I’m, uhm, I’m Marten’s business...partner. Or, I was going to be...and will be, eventually.”
“Business partner?” Elise asked, spinning around with Marin in tow to look inquisitively at Marten. “Marten Corell has a business partner?”
“Things have changed, Ellie,” he shrugged. “It’s a bit of a long story.”
“Well, it sounds like we have plenty of stories to tell!” Without warning, she dropped Marin and walked to the exit, grabbing a large fur coat from a rack beside the door. She pulled the door open and stuck her head into the lobby. “Clear my schedule for the rest of the afternoon, I’m going out.” After a murmured response from the receptionist, Elise turned back to us. “Let’s go have lunch! My treat.”
Marten and Hana followed closely behind her as she left the room, and the rest of us fell in line behind them. Marin wiped the clearly beaded sweat from her forehead as we went and held a hand over her chest, seemingly in an attempt to settle her rapid breathing. Lia still clasped my hand, and led me forward intently as we descended the stairs and exited the building. Elise turned to address us when we were all outside. “Marten, I’ll have someone take your wagon inside for safekeeping until we’re back, and make sure your horses are fed. We’ll take my carriage to lunch.” Without waiting for a response, she dashed off around the side of the building and disappeared.
I could feel Lia’s hands rhythmically squeezing mine much harder than was comfortable, grinding my knuckles together. “Are you okay, Lia?” I asked, gently rubbing her shoulder.
“I’m fine!” she snapped. A few seconds went by in silence, and then she shook her head angrily. “Where does she get off acting like that? That’s not the Aunt Ellie I remember!”
Hana turned away from us, and I saw her shoulders bouncing slightly as she tried to hide her laughter. “The thing is, dear,” Marten started cautiously, “you only know her as ‘Aunt Ellie’. Elise has always been…” he trailed off, motioning in vague circles with his hands as he tried to think of the proper wording, “...that way, at least when it comes to her business.” He looked up at me with a barely suppressed grin. “You’re lucky. I think she was restraining herself, on account of all of us being there.”
Restraining herself? The only way she could have been more overt would be to take me to her room and—
“Restraining herself?!” Lia shouted, echoing my sentiment. I took the sudden outburst as an opportunity to let my train of thought die, and ardently refused to consider it further. “That’s not what restraint looks like!”
“It was just a misunderstanding, is all,” Marten continued in his attempt to defuse the situation. “I’m sure she’ll behave herself now that she knows how things are.”
“She’d better,” Lia grumbled, settling down into a more subdued pout. I wormed my hand out of her iron grip and hugged her from behind, resting my chin on the top of her head. Although her face was still set in a hard scowl, my mana found another story entirely; she was filled with doubt, fear, and an overwhelming feeling of inadequacy. I squeezed her tightly in my arms and impressed a thought against her energy. I love you more than anything in this world. You. I love you.
A moment passed, and I felt her slowly begin to relax in my arms as I heard a response in my head. I know. The uncertainty still lingered in her mind, but a sense of relief began to spread across her body. Thank you.
From the side of the building where Elise had disappeared came the sudden sound of a wagon approaching, and an ornamented emberwood carriage appeared from around the corner, drawn by two dappled horses. When it parked in front of us, the carriage doors opened to reveal a large, posh interior with two long bench seats. A man in similar clothing to the other employees hopped out and jogged over to Marten’s wagon, quickly mantling up into the driver’s seat and taking it away to the same place they had appeared from.
“Come on in, there’s plenty of room!” Elise called out to us, poking her head out through one of the open windows. Lia and I followed her parents into the carriage and took our seats on the bench opposite Elise, which fit the four of us comfortably. Marin hesitated outside for a moment, and her eyes widened when she entered behind us and found the only open seat to be beside our host on her bench. Marin sat down well away from Elise, folding her hands tightly in her lap and staring at them with intense focus.
“Alright, let’s go!” Elise yelled, giving the wall behind her a few hard knocks. The carriage started forward with an impressively gentle bump, and I leaned my head out of the window to watch the city go by. Elise’s business was located in the center of what looked to be a trade district, and we passed by a multitude of interesting storefronts as we wheeled down the street. The surrounding buildings were much more modest than Elise’s headquarters had been, appearing to be residential houses that had their front ends converted for business purposes.
We hardly had a chance to get comfortable in our seats before the carriage ground to a halt. “We’re here!” our host proclaimed, opening the door and stepping down into the street. Lia and I shared a quizzical look and followed her outside; from my place on the carriage step, I could clearly see the towering face of the modified barn we had come from only a street away, most likely a two minute walk back at most. Lia looked back at me and rolled her eyes as she realized just how short our trip had been, which brought a grin to my face.
Elise led us through a side door of the restaurant to a preset round table in an otherwise empty room, bypassing any hosts that watched the front door. A bell sounded as the door opened and closed, and a server appeared from a small door across from our table before we were all seated. “Good afternoon Miss Tressel,” she said with a deep bow, “and guests of Miss Tressel. What can I get for you today?”
“Hello, dear. Six of my usual order,” she answered, taking her seat. “We’ll start with bread and ale; something sippable, nothing too strong today. Oh, and some of those crispy mushrooms you do, those are lovely.”
“Right away, miss,” the server answered with another bow before quickly exiting the room.
“Now,” Elise said, rubbing her hands together excitedly as we finished taking our seats around the table, “you have some stories to tell me. Let’s start with why you’re in Lybesa, and go from there.”
We all looked around the table, scanning each other’s faces to see who wanted to attempt to explain our situation. “We aren’t here for a leisure visit, I’m afraid,” Marten spoke up eventually. “Given the events of the last few weeks, our days of living in Kaldan are over.”
“I figured as much,” she answered, leaning back in her chair to kick her feet up on the edge of the table, but she froze in place suddenly before she finished reclining. “This wouldn’t have anything to do with the incident at the Mountain Gate, would it?”
Everyone at the table turned to look at me expectantly. “I might have had something to do with that,” I answered, leaning my elbows on the table to rest my chin on my hands. “What have you heard?”
She blinked at me in disbelief. “I’ve heard a lot of things. Terrorists from Lybesa. Terrorists from Kaldan. Rebels from Attetsia. However, my more official sources in Kaldan have been uncharacteristically quiet.” Her eyes narrowed as she sat up and mimicked my posture, leaning forward with interest. “Tell me.”
“It’s a long story.”
“We have time.”
I sighed. “I guess I’ll just start at the beginning. Lia and I met in—” I paused as our server returned with a large tray balanced on one hand. She approached the table and began to set out baskets of bread with slabs of fresh butter, large mugs of pale ale, and a particularly large bowl of breaded mushrooms.
“Don’t wait on her account,” Elise said, motioning to the woman. “Bella is my employee, and one of my closest confidants. She serves at all of my most important business meetings; anything you can tell me, you can tell her too.”
I watched silently as Bella continued to serve us for a moment, then nodded. “Lia and I met in the dungeon below Yoria. I was imprisoned due to a misunderstanding with the city guard, while she was taken as punishment when Marten refused to pay ‘taxes’ to a group of corrupt guards.”
I recounted the stories from the time after my arrival in Kaldan to the best of my ability, leaving out any specific details I determined were best kept secret. The tale wound its way from our escape from the dungeon to our adventure and eventual capture in Atsal, with an abbreviated summary of our meeting with Virram and mission to Attetsia, and culminating in our clash with the Trinity Guard and the scene at the Mountain Gate. Marin shyly chimed in with her relationship to Val and her place in the story, and the Corells added their perspectives when appropriate.
Elise listened in silence, watching us so intently that I felt as if I could see the gears turning behind her eyes. “Did you know that all travel between Lybesa and Kaldan is officially blocked until further notice?” she asked after a long moment of silence. “Trade, leisure, military...all shut down for the foreseeable future. Based on the damage done to the wall, my sources aren’t sure if it will ever function properly again.
“However,” she continued before I could offer an apology, “business never stops. My partners in Kaldan still need their emberwood, and the seaports are still open. Hauling the product south takes much longer than a trip through the Gate, but of course, the fees to transport the material increases as well. If a trading company was able to effectively pivot their resources and leverage their established connections…” she trailed off as a grin began to form on her face. “Well, the destruction of the Mountain Gate could prove to be the most profitable disaster in decades.”
Her success is far more than just flaunting her natural advantages. She’s quick and calculating, with a mind suited for the big picture. I gave her a warm smile. “In that case, I’m glad I could be of assistance.”
She let out a loud, sudden laugh. “Oh, I like you. You did a good job catching this one, Marly. You’d better hold him tight, or someone is liable to snatch him up,” she said, looking at us over the top of her glasses and waving her eyebrows suggestively. Lia’s hand shot out under the table and clamped onto my knee, but she put on a forced smile and laughed.
“Come on, Elise, take it easy on her,” Marten scolded. “She’s only been—”
“Lunch!” Elise exclaimed as Bella entered the room wheeling a large cart in front of her. As she circled the table, she set out six identical plates covered in silver cloches.
“Finally,” Marin said excitedly as she reached out for her dish.
“Marin, wait a moment, please,” Elise asked, looking at each of us as well. “Before we begin, there’s something we need to discuss.” Her eyes turned to me. “You said you had a business opportunity to discuss with me. I have a feeling I know what it is, but I’d like to hear it from you before we eat.”
“Of course,” I nodded, “although I think Marten would be best suited to explain.” I gave him an expectant raise of my eyebrows.
“Right.” He tapped his fingers on the table for a moment as he prepared. “Elise, you know the situation we’re in; everything we own is in my wagon, and we have nowhere to go. I need to find a place for my family to live, and I need to establish my business again. You have connections that can help on both fronts, and I’m prepared to pay for them.”
“You’ll be paying with Kaldanic currency, I assume?” she asked, and Marten nodded. Her eyes focused on some unseen point far beyond our dining room as she thought through the numbers. “I don’t know of any properties for sale, and while land in the forest is cheap, building a house from the ground up isn’t. I know a variety of contractors and, obviously, have the means to procure the bulk materials necessary, but depending on your price range—”
“Twelve hundred Imperials,” he stated firmly.
Marin choked on her ale at the amount, but Elise simply smiled. “Marten, I can build you the finest house in Mayaan for far less than that. The crew I work with can build a full homestead in four days, and they understand the value of discretion. You’ll be moving in by this time next week, if you’d like.”
“And my business?”
“Well, that’s simple, Marten,” she smirked, leaning forward. “Come work for me.”
“We’ve been over this before, Elise,” he said with a similar curl to his lips. “That isn’t going to happen.” Although he spoke with a jovial tone, his eyes betrayed the seriousness of the statement.
She sighed loudly and rolled her eyes. “It can’t be helped, I suppose. I know of a few potential customers whose needs are more suited to your...particular style of business.” Her fingers tapped lightly along the surface of her silver cloche, and my stomach growled in response. “I can set up a few meetings for you once your housing situation is settled, but I have to ask: With that amount of money, why not retire? That amount of gold could last for generations, especially with a few choice investments which I would be more than happy to recommend.”
“Trust me, Ellie, he needs the work,” Hana chimed in with a laugh. “He doesn’t know what to do with himself without it.”
“I know the feeling all too well,” she answered. Picking up her mug, she raised it out over the table. “It’s settled then. Here’s to new lives, and new business!” We all raised our tankards in celebration and drank deeply of the amber liquid inside. When our toast was finished, Elise slammed her mug onto the table and removed her cloche with a flourish. “Now, let’s eat!”
The food beneath our silver covers was revealed to be a generous portion of smoked fish lacquered with a dark purple glaze and served atop a salad of mixed greens and multiple varieties of nuts. From my first bite, I could tell it was by far the most exquisite meal I had eaten in decades, and the complete lack of conversation around the table told me that everyone else felt the same. I made a mental note to ask about every aspect of the dish, but by the time I took the next bite, I had forgotten everything except for the flavor.
Food and drink continued to be served over the course of the afternoon, and conversation arose as we eventually stuffed ourselves on additional courses of fruits and cheeses, plenty of mugs of ale, and a dessert of tea cakes with a bright red berry coulis. By the end of the meal we all spoke like old friends, including Marin, who seemed much more confident around Elise after the supplemental bravery of alcohol.
“My goodness, is it that late already?” Elise asked when she noticed that the sun had taken on a deep orange hue outside. “I still have to make the arrangements for your new home!” She stood up from the table and stared at the door Bella had used. “B-Bella!” she hiccuped, “bring my wagon out front!” There was no response to the command, but she sat back down with a satisfied expression. “I just want to say...I’m so happy to see all of you. It’s been far too long, and I’ve missed you terribly.”
Hana cooed softly as she rushed around the table to give Elise a tight hug. “We’ve missed you too, Ellie. But now we’re here, and we’re here to stay. Our little family is back together again,” she said, looking around the table, “and it’s not so little anymore.”
Family. The thought spread a tingling warmth through my chest as I watched the faces of the people who had become my family. This is it. This is what we fought for. Lia’s eyes met mine, and she gave me a wide, genuine smile. It was worth it.
“Okay, okay,” Elise sniffled, wiping a tear from her face as she patted Hana’s arm. “My wagon should be out front; you can all go out and get comfortable while I stay here and make myself presentable again...and take care of the check.”
The room began to clear, but I caught Lia by the shoulder as she moved to leave. “Elise, do you have a moment?” I asked quietly, when it was just the three of us remaining in the dining hall.
“Of course, dear. What’s on your mind?”
“When you order the construction materials for the house...could you double the shipment?”
She cocked her head to one side. “I certainly could. If you have a project in mind, it wouldn’t cost much more to have my contractors work on it for you. They’ll already be in the area, after all.”
“That’s true, but…” I trailed off, considering my words carefully, “there are some things best not left to chance. Some facts better left unknown.”
“If the second delivery were made to look like a clerical error, and Marten chose to keep the materials for future renovations, I’m sure nobody would inquire further,” she mused. “Aside from me, of course. What’s your secret project?”
I slid my hand down Lia’s arm and laced my fingers with hers. “Our home.”
Hi there. I'm Adam, the author of the "Restart Again" series. I started this writing project in the spring of 2019 as a fun creative outlet, and much to my surprise, I actually stuck with it! Fast forward to a year later, and here I am with the first book completely finished, and the second well under way. It's been a great experience, and I'm glad I have a chance to share it now!
I'd never heard of this site until recently, when one of the Amazon reviews for this book suggested I share it here as well. I'm not entirely familiar with how the site works, and whether or not it's frowned upon to just come here to share fully finished products that exist on other sites. With that in mind, I plan to drop a chapter on here every Sunday and Wednesday until the entire book is posted. If you enjoy it, hop over to my website to find the latest news on the project, and a link to the Amazon page where you can buy the eBook/paperback. I hope you enjoy it!