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Our trip south began quite differently from what I had expected. All of my time spent traveling in Kaldan had been on nearly empty roads through relatively undeveloped countryside, and I had started to forget that my experiences were abnormal under normal circumstances. The southern road out of Mayaan was packed with foot traffic, passenger carriages, and produce carts, all bustling in both directions. The closeness of the crowd set me on edge, and I had to consistently remind myself that I was no longer a wanted man.

 

While our promise of investigating Elise’s missing caravans waited somewhere ahead of us, Lia and I were both perfectly content to travel at a far more leisurely pace than our previous journeys. Lia found the crowd much more enjoyable than I did, and did her best to make casual conversation with some of the passersby. Most people replied to her amicably, and although it all sounded the same to me, I could tell by Lia’s reaction that the responses were in Lybesian rather than Kaldanic, which put an end to any further dialogue.

 

It was late afternoon on our first day of traveling when she found a response she understood. We had finally caught up with a group of four people moving approximately the same speed as us after a few hours of walking behind them; their pace seemed slightly slowed by the lead man, who pushed a wheelchair that held an elderly woman in a heavy cloak. Lia greeted them warmly, and her face lit up when she understood their reply in kind. “You speak Kaldanic!” she exclaimed as we walked up beside them.

 

“As do you, it seems,” laughed the stranger pushing the wheelchair. He was a tall man, most likely my height when not hunched over the chair grips, with a shining bald head, deep brown skin, and a close cropped black beard. “What brings a native Kaldanic speaker out this way?” he asked with a friendly smile.

 

“Vacation!” Lia answered excitedly. “We’re on our way to visit the capitol for a few days.”

 

The man chuckled and looked at the woman on his right, who bobbed her head forward to catch our eyes. “We’re on our way to Ellawyn ourselves, Prime’s willing,” she said cheerfully, circling around the group to walk next to Lia. She looked to be about my age, with copper skin, bouncy chestnut hair, and kind blue eyes. “You’re free to join us on the road, if you’d like the company; we’ve got a chartered wagon waiting for us in Leinna to take us through the Midlands, but we’re on foot until then.”

 

The cloaked figure in the wheelchair turned her head towards us. “We don’t need a couple of foriegn strangers traveling with us! Especially not some road vagabonds like them!” the woman complained in a shrill, deliberate voice. I was able to see a face beneath the hood for a brief moment; she had pale, translucent skin that seemed to hang from her small frame, with sunken eyes and a long, crooked nose. She looked over Lia and myself for a brief moment, then turned away with a huff of disgust.

 

“Gran, please!” cried the last member of their group. He looked to be the youngest of their party, and walked with a slight limp as he hurried up to the side of the wheelchair. His dirty blonde hair hung down into his nervous, shifty eyes, and he constantly pushed it out of his face, to no avail. “You can’t talk to people like that, even if they can’t understand you!”

 

The youth looked up to us with an apologetic smile. “Sorry, she doesn’t speak Kaldanic. She was just asking if we knew each other,” he lied. “Which, as far as I can remember, we don’t. I’m Miles,” he said, moving to the back of the group and holding out a hand, “and this is my grandmother, Llewellyn.”

 

“It’s nice to meet you, Miles!” Lia chirped, shaking his hand. “And you as well, Llewellyn,” she added, giving the woman a respectful bow of her head. “My name is Marlia, but you can just call me Lia.” She gave my arm a hard tug and pulled me closer to the group insistently as I heard her voice inside my head. Introduce yourself. And be nice.

 

“Pardon my rudeness; speaking in groups has never been my forte,” I said with a small, forced smile. “My name is Lux. It’s nice to meet you all.”

 

“Lux, Lia,” repeated the young woman, briefly looking us over as she committed the names to memory. “I’m Lyn, and this is my husband Layne,” she said, placing her hand on the crook of her husband’s arm.

 

“Miles, Llewellyn, Lyn, Layne,” Lia said, nodding to each person in turn. “Got it! So, what brings the four of you out this way? Are you vacationing too?”

 

Llewellyn snorted derisively, but Lyn ignored her. “Not quite. Miles is a good friend of ours and needed a place to stay while he visits the capitol with his grandmother, so we came up to collect them. We have a house outside of the city where Layne sells his smithing wares, and traveling in large groups is safer this time of year.” She paused for a moment and tipped her face up towards the sun, inhaling deeply. “Plus, I can never say no to a week outdoors.”

 

My interest was suddenly piqued by her explanation. “Smithing wares? You’re a blacksmith?” I asked, quickly weaving my way through the group to stand beside Layne.

 

“That I am,” he answered. “I don’t claim to be of much renown, but I’ve had steady work out of my own forge for a few years now.”

 

“What sort of work do you do?” I asked, completely abandoning my initial reservations about joining their group.

“Mostly industrial supply: nails, hinges, supports, that sort of thing,” he said, grinning at my obvious enthusiasm. “Are you a blacksmith too?”

 

“I was! Well, technically, I was an apprentice, but by the end of my tenure there I was practically running half the shop,” I babbled. “We were mainly weaponsmiths, but we took on any work that came in if we had time.”

 

“Oh, to be a weaponsmith,” he sighed longingly. “The dream of every young man looking to become a smith. Unfortunately, there isn’t much demand for weapons at the moment in Lybesa, so I’ve made due with what’s needed.” He chuckled after a short pause. “That’s probably a good thing, come to think of it.”

 

“That’s true,” I agreed, “though I have to admit, it really was the dream job. Forging weapons all day, then training with them in my downtime…” I trailed off, smiling as I thought back to my days at Ashedown’s forge.

 

“I’ve never had much reason to hold a sword, let alone train with one,” Layne admitted. “My boyhood dreams of becoming a knight died when a threat to the country’s way of life failed to materialize. Truly a shame.”

 

As we both laughed, I remembered for the first time since our conversation started that we weren’t walking alonealong, and I turned to find Lyn and Lia watching us with wide grins. “Please, don’t stop on our account,” Lyn giggled, holding up her hands. “I’m glad to see you’ve found a common interest.”

 

“I guess it’s been a while since I’ve found someone to talk to about smithing work,” I chuckled as my cheeks grew warm. I turned to Miles and gave him a small nod. “How about you, Miles? What do you do for work?”

 

“Me?” he asked timidly. “I’m an artist. A painter, specifically.”

 

“Oh, a painter!” Lia said delightedly. “What do you like to paint?”

 

“Portraits,” he answered quickly. “People commission me to paint their portrait, and I travel to wherever they are and, erm, paint them.”

 

“Is that why you’re heading to the capitol? Are you going to paint some important nobles?”

 

“No. Well, yes, and no,” he said, shrugging. “I do have plans to do some portraits while I’m there, but it isn’t the reason for our trip. Gran has been in a great deal of pain lately due to her hip, and I’ve heard there’s a healer in the capitol that specializes in—”

 

“Don’t talk to them about my problems!” shouted his grandmother, swatting at him with a frail hand. “You don’t even know these people! Stop telling them so much about us.” Each halting word she spoke carried an unusual amount of emphasis, as if it were physically difficult for her to speak them.

 

“Gran, you know it’s safer to travel in groups,” Miles responded quietly, leaning in close to her ear. “Besides, you can see how they’re dressed; if we get ambushed by bandits, don’t you want them with us?”

 

“They could be the bandits!” she shot back. “Do you make friends with every armored thug you meet?”

 

“Stop it, Gran!” he hissed. He straightened up from his hunched position and pushed the hair out of his eyes as he laughed nervously, no doubt concocting his next false translation. “Gran is wondering how long you’ll be traveling with us. We certainly appreciate the company, but the wagon waiting for us in Lienna only has room for the four of us, plus one guard.”

 

“We would never think to impose ourselves on you like that,” I said, waving away the notion. “Besides, we have some business in the Midlands that needs looking into before we make our way to the capitol.”

 

“But we’ll walk with you to Lienna!” Lia added. “If you’ll have us, of course.”

 

“We’d love to have you walk with us. Not that we could stop you otherwise,” Lyn laughed, flashing a quick grin in Llewellyn’s direction. “There are still plenty of miles of walking between us and that wagon.”

 

With her blessing, Lia and I continued to travel with their group for the remainder of the day, passing the time by sharing stories of where we all were from. Lyn, Miles, and Layne had all grown up together in a small town just outside of Ellawynn, and had been an inseparable, adventurous trio of friends. The tall tales of their youth seemed a bit exaggerated to my ear, but they were enjoyable to listen to nonetheless; whether they were sneaking into the royal gardens or stowing away in an Elta’sahn Company caravan, they always seemed to escape from their endeavors without a scratch.

 

Layne had found a blacksmith willing to take him on as an apprentice in the small town of Olum on Kaldan’s southern coast, and had moved away soon after his fifteenth birthday. Their stories grew less exciting from that point, with Layne focusing on his apprenticeship, Miles on his art, and Lyn on running her family’s inn. After six years apart Layne returned to Lybesa, and he and Lyn were married within the month. Miles moved to the northern coast a few years later to help care for his grandmother, and the group had been broken up ever since, apart from their continued correspondence through letters.

 

Once their stories were finished, Lia provided a quick, less embellished version of her own upbringing. She mainly focused on her father’s trading business and the exciting trips it enabled her to take as a child. When she was finished, I followed up with my crafted backstory: Born in a small Doramese town, I moved from place to place too frequently to put down roots, staying in the north just long enough to apprentice at a blacksmith’s shop before I traveled to Kaldan in search of better work. Between the maps I had studied and multiple conversations with Marten, I was able to reference enough real locations to give the story what I thought was reasonable substance.

 

Though I should have anticipated the question from the moment we began sharing stories, I was taken off guard when Layne asked how Lia and I had first met. Luckily, Lia came to my rescue before I finished my nervous chuckling; she told a lovely story of love at first sight, beginning the day I had tried to convince her father to trade my wares in the Yorian market. Our initial introductions had gone so well that we planned to meet again that night, and I arrived at our predetermined meeting place just in time to find her being accosted by a particularly unsavory town guard. After repelling the man and returning safely to her family, her father had become so distressed from the news that he decided to relocate his family to Lybesa. The plans took a month to finalize, during which time I stayed with the family as a guard and welcome guest.

 

The remainder of her story was an abbreviated version of the truth. We had made the trip across Kaldan just as winter arrived, and passed through the Mountain Gate just before “some incident” seemingly closed it for the foreseeable future. Marten had made contact with an old business associate who helped him reestablish his trading business and build our new home, and our lives had returned to the perfectly normal routines we had before, with no thoughts of adventures, corrupt kings, or monsters.

 

Our topic of conversation shifted once again after Lia finished the story, and we continued talking without pause until just before dusk when we reached our destination for the day: a small roadside town with a prominent inn. We rented our separate rooms and took a moment to put our traveling gear away, then reconvened in the common room for dinner. The provided meal of stew was cold and bland, but the good company was more than enough to compensate, and we parted ways for the evening in high spirits.

 

When the door to our meager lodgings closed behind us, I shrugged off my cloak and sat down in the solitary chair against the wall with a contented sigh. “That was...nice.”

 

“Yeah, it was,” Lia agreed, sitting on the lumpy straw mattress across from me as she began to unbuckle her armor. “I’m glad I said hello to them on the road, aren’t you?”

 

“I am now,” I chuckled. “I can’t say I was at the time, though. I’m not used to meeting people like them. You know, good people.”

 

She shook her head as she slipped a bracer from her arm. “That’s what most people are like, Lux.”

 

“You’re probably right. It’s just—”

 

“I am right,” she corrected.

 

I gave her an exaggerated roll of my eyes. “You are entirely, perfectly right.” After removing my boots, I continued with my original thought. “That’s not something I’m used to. My track record so far in this life has been less than stellar.” I paused in my disrobing and gestured towards her with a large smirk. “Apart from a few shining exceptions, of course.”

 

“Of course,” she echoed, holding up her nose with theatrical pride. We finished undressing, then climbed into bed for the night. “I’m glad you like them,” she said as she curled up against my chest.

 

“I’m glad they liked us, too,” I said. “Well, most of them, anyway. Llewellyn wasn’t exactly thrilled to have us join their group.” I reached out to the bedside table and turned out the lamp, then settled in beneath the thin blankets.

 

“She wasn’t?” Lia asked, confused. “Miles said she...oh! Right!” She tapped excitedly against my bare chest as she looked up at me through the darkness. “What was she really saying?”

 

“Well, she definitely speaks Kaldanic. It sounds like she isn’t too fond of foreigners.” I nodded towards the two piles of armor at the foot of the bed. “Plus, given the way we were dressed, she thought we were some kind of thugs, and was mad that Miles told us where they were going.”

 

She let out a hearty laugh. “We are sort of thuggish looking, aren’t we?” Her finger traced lazily along my collarbone as she continued. “You can’t really blame her, I guess. It seems like everyone is a bit on edge traveling right now. Plus, with her hip the way it is, it’s probably hard for her to…” she trailed off, her finger pausing on its trek across my chest. “Could you do something about her hip?”

 

I shrugged. “Maybe. It feels a bit weird to invade her privacy like that, but it would be for her benefit, right?” Lia gave me a firm nod of agreement, and I took a moment to center my breathing. “Let’s find out.”

 

A pulse of mana ran out into the hallway and through the surrounding rooms, scanning each chamber quickly and without lingering until I found my target. Llewellyn was asleep in the room two doors down from ours, propped up on the mattress by various pillows and balled clothing, while Miles reclined restlessly in her wheelchair. The mana in her core was a pale yellow, so faint that I could hardly see it even against the black void of my view through Detection. As I carefully suffused my energy around her hip, her ailment became immediately apparent: multiple osteoporotic fractures running along the surface of her right hip and femur.

 

I absentmindedly spun the ring on my finger as I activated the healing rune along in the inside of the band. The small cracks in her bones began to mend, and after a few seconds of channeling, the green glow dissipated. While I was happy to see the breaks had healed, I was ultimately disappointed in the results; her hip bone, though healed of all its readily apparent injuries, was still overly porous and brittle. I activated the rune a second time, but the healing energy failed to make any further changes.

 

My eyes fluttered open as I withdrew the extended mana. “Well,” I said, scrunching up my face, “I did what I could. There were a couple of small fractures I was able to heal, but...she’s just old. She’ll probably be a lot more comfortable for now, but it’s only a matter of time until the bones break again.”

 

“You still helped, though,” Lia encouraged. “I didn’t expect you to...I don’t know, cure her old age or something.”

 

“You’re right, as usual,” I said with a slight grin. “I guess I’m just disappointed that I found another limitation to our healing magic.”

 

“You can add whatever it is to the list when we get home. Might as well add ‘fix old age’ and ‘cure death’ while you’re at it,” she joked.

 

“That would certainly be a good one to figure out.” I gave her a quick hug, then shook my head and patted my cheeks. “Okay, no more moping. We’re on vacation, right?”

 

“Right. No moping allowed on vacation!” She tilted her head and kissed me, then resettled herself in her sleeping position. “I love you.”

 

“I love you,” I murmured, closing my eyes again. As I drifted off to sleep, I was surprised to find myself in relatively high spirits. The feeling of Lia held snugly in my arms combined with my excitement for another day of travel with Layne, Lyn, and Miles easily banished my earlier disappointment, and I fell asleep with a smile on my face. I guess a vacation really is what I needed after all.

 

---

 

The following day of travel passed us by in a flash. We grew comfortable with our new friends almost immediately, and spent our time talking as if we had known each other for years. I fully indulged in my passion for blacksmithing, trading stories with Layne for hours on end, while Lia asked Miles and Lyn for more stories about the capitol. Llewellyn seemed to be in a better mood as well, as she stopped voicing her displeasure at our company at every given opportunity, but I couldn’t determine whether it was due to the reduced pain in her hip or simply growing accustomed to our presence.

 

Even though I was focused on my own conversation, I was able to pick up some useful information from Lia’s conversations as well. As Miles was a well regarded artist, he was often in the company of diplomats, royalty, and wealthy merchants, many of whom had a tendency to speak in front of him about matters otherwise kept private from the general public. While he was always careful to hide the names of his sources, he talked about the information they revealed openly, often with a sly smile.

 

According to the latest news from the major seaport traders, the Elta’Sahn Company’s presence had all but disappeared from the southern ocean. Various tales reported massive gatherings of their ships, the location of which never seemed to align from report to report. The most notable landowners around the capital reported similar disappearances of the usual ground forces. Strangest of all, every intermediary for the Company had gone completely silent, without a clue as to where they had gone, how long they would be away, or if they would ever come back.

 

The reports from Kaldan were even more troubling. Although trading with the coastal cities was at an all time high, strange stories had begun to filter back across the shipping routes of trouble in the north. The details varied wildly from source to source. Some said a massive crop failure had plagued the northern fields and forced the farmers to abandon their harvests. Others reported that the weather had grown abnormally harsh, forcing smaller towns to leave their homes for the warmer refuge of Yoria. The most troubling stories were those that mirrored the information Val had relayed to me; terrifying, unknown monsters were running rampant across the northern countryside, wiping out entire villages in the night. Whatever flavor the story took, one thing always remained consistent: People were fleeing from northern Kaldan, and those that didn’t disappeared.

 

While we engaged in our own separate conversations, Lia and I also kept a dialogue running through our mental connection. Apart from the comfort her presence at the back of my mind provided me, it also served a functional purpose: a private place to share information without the need for hushed tones or fake backstories. We shared a silent moment of pride at our involvement in the Company’s disappearance from Lybesa and joked about the potential meetings led by Jeremiah “Quickblade” Eltann. When Miles mentioned the rumor of monsters in northern Kaldan, Lia was quick to assuage my anxieties, and despite the news, I was in good spirits by the end of the day.

 

When the sun set on our day of travel, we stopped in a small roadside settlement for the night. It was composed of a dozen buildings at most, which, aside from a small five room inn and a general store, were entirely residential. According to Lyn, foot travel through the Midlands was uncommon during even the safest months of the year, so most major townships were spaced apart by roughly a day’s travel by wagon, not walking. She estimated that we would finish the first leg of our journey before noon on the following day with our arrival in Lienna, where our group would part ways; Lia and I would continue into the Midlands on foot, while the rest of the group would wait for their chartered wagon to arrive the next morning. With our plans set, we shared a quick meal in the cramped common space of the inn before retiring to our separate rooms for the night.

 

We left before the sun had broken the horizon the next morning. As soon as we left town, Layne left the duty of pushing the wheelchair to Miles and pulled me aside.

 

“I’ve got a question for you, Lux,” he asked in a hushed tone, flashing a small smile.

 

I raised an eyebrow at him and scanned back over my shoulder at the rest of the group walking with us only a few feet away. “Uhm, sure. What’s on your mind, Layne?”

 

“Forgive me for the rather personal question, but I’ve been wondering this since we first met…” he trailed off, lowering his voice further as he checked to make sure we were out of earshot of the rest of the group. “When are you going to make your Union offering to Lia? You’re going to do it in Ellawynn, aren’t you?”

 

My eyes widened as I processed the question, and I immediately withdrew my extended mana and shut Lia out from my thoughts. “Why do you think that?” I whispered back.

 

“Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? You two are clearly together, but you aren’t married,” he answered. “Lyn and I thought that you might be taking the trip to the capital to do it there.” He paused as he watched my reaction, and his brow furrowed. “Unless, of course, that’s not your, uhm...you do follow Unity, right?”

 

“Yeah. Yes. Unity, yes,” I stammered. Caught off guard by the sudden inquiries, I thought back to my conversation with Hana and Marten on our initial ride into the country. Marriage proposals in the Unity religion were traditionally done through a Union offering. As opposed to the traditional engagement ring I was familiar with, a Union offering could be anything: jewelry, money, poetry, or even the completion of a special task. The only true requirement of a proper Union offering was that it demonstrated an understanding of the potential spouse’s desires, and a willingness to become one under Unity.

 

“Oh, thank the Primes. That would have been an awkward mistake,” he said with a sigh of relief. “So, are you going to do it in Ellawynn? What’s your plan?”

 

“No, I haven’t, uhm, prepared anything, yet,” I answered. “I’ve thought about it, of course, but I don’t know exactly when—”

 

“You’ve got to go for it, man!” he cut me off, shaking my shoulder. “Trust me, you’re going to regret every single day until you do it.” His eyes briefly looked over my shoulder to where Lia and Lyn were walking, and his smile widened. “I knew that I was going to marry Lyn when we were just kids. I was starting to make plans for my offering, but I left for my apprenticeship before I figured things out. I kicked myself every day for six years while I was gone, and when I finally came home, I worked day and night until the offering was ready.”

 

“What did you do for your offering?” I asked, desperate to remove the focus from myself.

 

“Her brooch,” he said, nodding in her direction. I subtly turned my head until I could see Lyn out of the corner of my eye. For the first time since we had met, I noticed the shimmering gold pin that fastened her cloak: a gem encrusted butterfly with wings made of handspun gold. “I wanted to prove to her that my blacksmithing skills would be enough to provide for us. That, and she loves butterflies.” He chuckled to himself. “It worked like a charm.”

 

“Wow,” I murmured, studying the finer details of the brooch through Detection. “That’s fantastic work, Layne.”

 

“Right?” he asked, puffing out his chest. “No more delays now, Lux. Tell me true; are you going to make Lia a Union offering?”

 

I felt my cheeks flush, but I steadied my breathing and gave him a firm nod. “Yes, I am.”

 

“What do you need to do to make it happen?”

 

“I need…” I trailed off, rubbing my chin. “I guess all I really need is...a forge. And a few hours.”

 

Layne clapped his hands excitedly. “Come visit us when you’re in Ellawynn, then! You can use my forge, along with any materials you need. My gift to the two of you.”

 

“Really? You’re sure?” I asked, bewildered. “I guess I could come by.”

 

“No, promise you’ll come by,” he insisted, grabbing my hand and giving it a firm shake before I could respond.

 

“Alright,” I laughed, confirming the handshake. “I promise.”

 

“Good. Good!” He clapped my hand between both of his. “You’ll look back on this moment as the start of the best decision you ever made. I guarantee it.” He dropped my hand and nodded his head towards Lia and Lyn, who seemed to be holding an equally secretive conversation on the opposite side of our small party. “Looks like Lyn had the same idea I did.”

 

I reached out to Lia with a thin tendril of mana and found her consciousness blocked off. “Seems that way,” I agreed. Layne took his place behind the wheelchair once again as we shifted back to the middle of the group. Lia’s eyes met mine as we walked closer, and she quickly turned her gaze elsewhere, blushing. Lyn laughed and led her a few steps further towards the side of the road, and they continued their conversation in private. Layne had started a loud, jovial conversation with Llewellyn, which provided them plenty of cover to speak in their hushed tones.

 

After another few minutes of walking, Lyn crossed in front of me with a satisfied smile on her face, joining Layne at the center of our group. Lia sidled up to me a moment later, keeping her eyes straight ahead. Talk about anything interesting? I asked her the moment her mental guard had fallen.

 

No. Nothing, uhm, specifically interesting. Just...lady things. You wouldn’t understand.

 

I couldn’t help but grin. Of course.

 

Her hand rushed out and grabbed mine, squeezing it far tighter than was comfortable. And what about you, with your secret conversation with Layne? You started it, you know!

 

Oh, we just talked about some blacksmithing things. It would’ve been too boring for you, I’m sure. I wiggled my hand out of her grip and wove my fingers back more gently between hers.

 

I’m sure, she echoed sarcastically. After a final moment of embarrassed standoffishness, she moved the remaining step closer to me, and we continued walking hand in hand.

 

Lia, how would you like to visit with Lyn and Layne before we leave the capital? I asked. Layne invited us to visit anytime we like. I figured we could stop in on our way out of the city.

 

Lyn said the same thing! Lia said excitedly. I think that’d be a great way to end the trip.

 

I gave her a wide smile. It’s settled, then. We walked on quietly together, both absorbed with our own thoughts. Layne had opened the floodgates that held back my thoughts of marriage, and my mind was consumed with a half dozen plans for my Union offering, potential ceremony locations, and our life beyond. The thoughts bounced around too fast for any one topic to develop until the buzz became overwhelming. Hey, Lia?

 

What’s up?

 

I love you. The single, unifying thought was enough to dispel the chaos from my mind and provide me with a unified point to focus on; the only thing that mattered was Lia.

 

She bumped her shoulder against mine. I love you too, Lux.

I let out a satisfied sigh as I looked down the road ahead of us, feeling renewed and eager for our trip to continue. We joined in conversation with Miles and Lyn, who had been discussing which Lybesian delicacy should be considered the quintessential dish to try in Ellawynn, and the remainder of our morning flew by. The hilly but otherwise clear countryside generally blocked our view forward past any given turn in the road, which caused a moment of surprise when we rounded a corner to find our destination of Lienna in full view only a few miles away.

 

The town was much larger than the ones we had passed through so far on our trip, rivaling Mayaan in both size and traffic. Lia and I followed along behind Layne as he led us along the side of a bustling street; as opposed to most cities I had seen, the traffic on Lienna’s roads was made almost entirely of horse drawn carriages. The clattering of their wheels on the gray brick roads mixed with a dozen conversations from the foot traffic around us on the sidewalk to create a lively, if not slightly suffocating, atmosphere. I kept my head low as we worked our way into the center of the city, eventually stopping our trek in a large cobblestone courtyard.

 

A towering, four-story tall building made of bright red bricks stood to our left, lined with neat rows of white shuttered windows on each floor and ringed by a manicured wall of hedges. A long, one-story wooden building stretched along the remaining edges of the courtyard, faced with open bay doors that seemed to constantly intake and output passenger carriages. Multiple workers in vibrant overcoats directed the traffic in and out from the busy road behind us. Near the exit to the courtyard, a small booth plastered with informational posters was constantly swarmed by a crowd of travelers.

 

We quickly made our way across the overloaded plaza and regrouped at the front doors of the brick building. “Well,” I said, scanning over the group, “I suppose this is where we part ways.”

 

“No, not yet!” Lyn said, tugging on Lia’s shoulder. “At least have lunch with us before you go! They have a small restaurant here that’s actually quite good.”

 

I gave her an apologetic laugh. “I’m not sure we—”

 

“That sounds great!” Lia interrupted, quickly shifting sides to join the rest of their party.

 

Pursing my lips for a moment, I shook my head and sighed. “In that case, I suppose we will,” I chuckled, moving to Lia’s side.

 

“Perfect!” Lyn clapped. “I’ll make sure our accommodations are in order while the rest of you get a table.” She led us through the front doors into a posh lobby; the space was mostly filled by two large emberwood desks that each had their own queue of patrons, whose impatiently tapping feet were muffled by a thick, fluffy carpet that matched the interior brick walls. The opposite wall from the entrance had two large doors labeled with a range of room numbers, while a single glass door to our left revealed a small room lined with booths and tables.

 

Lyn took her place at the back of the nearest line and nodded us towards the glass door. “Make sure you order a basket apple muffins; they’re the best in Lybesa!” Leaving her to her waiting, the rest of us made our way into the restaurant and took our seats around one of the few tables large enough for our six person party. A young woman approached the table a few moments after we were settled and gave us a small bow.

 

“Good morning! What can I get for you today?” she asked with a wide smile. Her hand briefly pointed back to a slate board hanging beside the door to the kitchen. “We have three options today if you’re looking for a full meal, and plenty of assorted baked goods otherwise.” Her eyes landed on me as she waited expectantly.

 

I blinked at the slate board for a few moments, unable to read the words, then returned the server’s smile. “I’m certainly looking for a full meal. Surprise me; chef’s choice.” I felt a small tap on my elbow, and turned to find Lia watching me with her eyebrows raised. “She’ll have the same,” I added, nodding in her direction.

 

I caught an oddly severe glance from Llewellyn as I ordered, but the server simply nodded and proceeded to take the rest of the tables’ orders. When she had returned to the kitchen, Layne grinned at me. “Lux, I didn’t know you spoke Lybesian,” he said, his eyes darting to the side to catch Llewellyn’s reaction.

 

“Oh?” I said innocently, momentarily grating my teeth in annoyance at my own abilities. “I suppose it never came up, did it?” I chuckled and scratched the back of my head as I raced to create a believable story. “The blacksmith I worked with in Doram was originally from Lybesa, and he tended to speak Lybesian around the shop when customers weren’t around. I’m sure I sound a bit rusty; it’s been years since I needed to say more than a few words at a time.”

 

“You sound quite fluent to me,” Llewellyn snapped. “You’ve been spying on me this whole trip, haven’t you? Both of you, I’m sure!”

 

“Gran, stop it!” Miles cut in. “It’s not his fault that you assumed he couldn’t understand you!” He turned back to Lia and me and gave us each a small bow of her head. “Sorry. Her hip has been bothering her lately, and it’s putting her on edge, is all,” he apologized, giving his grandmother a sidelong glare.

 

“It’s no trouble,” I smiled. “Llewellyn, I’m sorry that I invaded your privacy. It was not my intent.” I spoke with halting emphasis in an attempt to make the words sound like uncertain Lybesian. She grumbled and looked away in response, and I breathed a small sigh of relief.

 

“Any other secret talents you’d like to reveal?” Layne asked playfully. “You know, something fun like juggling, or mind reading.”

 

Looks like the chef is making us eggs, Lia giggled at the back of my mind.

 

“I’m actually quite good at juggling,” I laughed, “but I’ll have to get back to you on the mind reading. If I think of anything else, I’ll let you know when we stop in to visit on our way back from Ellawynn.”

 

“So you’re actually coming!” he said excitedly. “You’re welcome to stay as long as you’d like, you know. You can even swing by my forge if you’re feeling nostalgic for your apprentice days.” His eyes twinkled mischievously as he looked back and forth between Lia and me.

 

“We’ll have to see what the day brings,” I answered, ignoring the slight rush of warmth to my cheeks. “Depending on how long we end up staying, we could even visit the capital together. We could certainly use a couple of local guides.”

 

“Oh, that would be so fun!” Lia cut in, leaning forward on her elbows. “I’m sure you all know plenty of great places to visit in Ellawynn that normal tourists would miss.”

 

Her innocent statement sent Layne into an impassioned diatribe about the state of tourism in southern Lybesa; his list of grievances with the nobles that ran the Solarium Gardens and the specific regulations for visiting the famous Unity Cathedral fueled him until our food arrived. Lyn returned a few minutes later, bearing two room keys and a confirmation slip for their chartered wagon. When she heard the topic of conversation, she apologized profusely and attempted to calm her husband’s excited ranting, much to our amusement.

 

Lia and I enjoyed a lunch of poached eggs in a thick cream sauce, served atop a hearty slab of fresh bread. Lyn’s claim about the apple muffins turned out to be entirely correct; the crumbly treats were still warm from the oven and well seasoned with fresh apples, cinnamon, and cloves. We stuffed ourselves with the sweet dessert as we discussed our plans for the next few days. Despite Lyn and Layne’s worries, we held firm in our decision to travel through the MidlandsMIdlands on foot, promising as sincerely as we could that we would be safe. While we didn’t explicitly detail our plans for hunting down the bandits that had ransacked Elise’s wagons, the combination of our impressive weaponry and total confidence seemed to put their minds at ease, and we eventually moved past the topic.

 

When the basket of muffins was empty, we all gathered our things and returned to the courtyard for a final goodbye. “Don’t forget, we’re the second road on your right heading north from Ellawynn, and then your third left after that,” Layne reminded us.

 

“Got it,” I said, absorbing the information for the third time since we had arrived in Lienna. “I can’t say for certain when we’ll be there, but expect us in...a little over a week, maybe?”

 

“Well, whenever you arrive, you’re welcome to stay as long as you’d like,” Lyn offered.

 

“You’ve all been far too kind to us,” Lia answered. “Kind enough that I’m sure Lux is suspicious as to why.”

 

I laughed as I noticed her presence lingering in the back of my mind, correctly picking up on the lingering feeling of confusion I felt every time Lyn or Layne continued to show their generosity. “She’s right,” I said. “I’m not sure what we’ve done to deserve your kindness, but I hope we get a chance to pay it back in the future.”

 

“Oh, nonsense,” Layne said, waving us off. “Given the season, we expected a long, quiet trip full of distrustful glances from a bunch of strangers. Lia’s greeting told us everything we needed to know about you two.”

 

“It didn’t hurt that you two look like you can handle yourselves,” Miles added with a grin. “Traveling in groups is safer nowadays, especially if they’re armed and armored groups.”

 

Layne scratched his fingers through his beard. “I suppose that helped, too. But it was mostly the greeting, I promise!”

 

“If that’s the case, I’m glad I said hi!” Lia laughed. “It would have been a very boring trip so far if we hadn’t met you.” She stepped forward and gave Lyn a tight hug, then worked her way down the line, giving a quick hug to Layne and Miles before ending with a respectful nod to Llewellyn. I followed her example with a firm handshake to each of the men and a light hug with Lyn.

 

“It was lovely to meet you both,” Miles said. “If we don’t cross paths again while you’re in the capital, you should come visit me in Almayn the next time you’re looking to take a trip. It’s only a few days west on foot from where you live in Mayaan. I’ll even paint your portrait, if you’d like!”

 

“Really?!” Lia asked, her eyes wide. “That would be amazing!”

 

“Of course!” Miles answered. “I don’t get to paint couples nearly as much as I’d like. It’d be my pleasure.” He grinned in Layne’s direction. “You can see an example of my work hanging over the mantle of Lyn and Layne’s dining room.”

 

“It’s true,” Lyn added. “He made it for us as a wedding gift. It’s a beautiful piece.”

 

“I look forward to seeing it,” I said, putting a hand on Lia’s shoulder. “However, that does mean we’ll have to start walking at some point.” I looked over the faces of our new friends and nodded. “Assuming everything goes as planned, we should see each other again soon.”

 

“I guess you’re right,” Lia sighed loudly. “I hope your trip goes well, everyone!”

 

“You too!” Lyn answered, her drawn brow betraying the worry hidden behind her cheery voice. “Primes watch over you.”

 

“See you soon!” Layne called out as Lia and I started across the courtyard. We both turned and waved our final goodbyes when we reached the road, then began our trip south along the main thoroughfare. Lia skipped ahead of me and pulled me along by my hand; despite the fact that she walked backwards through the crowd, she deftly wove her way between the pedestrians, staring at me the entire time with a wide grin.

 

“Can I...help you with something, Lia?” I asked, failing to fight off her infectious smile.

 

She hopped towards me and wrapped an arm around my waist as she tucked herself against my hip. “We made some new friends,” she said, still watching my face intently.

 

“We did,” I agreed. “Out of all of the possible encounters we could’ve had on the road, that wasn’t one I had prepared for.” My brow furrowed as I thought back over the past few days. “I still can’t figure out why they were being so nice to us. Do you think they—”

 

She reached up and jabbed a finger into my cheek. “No! No more suspicions.” Her finger shook my head back and forth as she emphasized her point. “They were nice to us because they’re nice people, and we’re nice people. Or, at least, I’m a nice person, which was enough.”

 

I gasped with mostly dramatized indignation. “Hey, I was nice! What did I do that wasn’t nice?!”

 

“I’m just teasing you,” she laughed, shoving me with her hip. “You were nice enough once you figured out Layne was a blacksmith.” We turned a corner onto a less occupied street, and the rolling hills of the Midlands came into view ahead of us. “I’m not sure I’ve ever heard you talk so much.”

 

“There are only two things that I’m really good at: blacksmithing and fighting. I’ve been fighting nonstop since I showed up in Yoria, but I haven’t had much of a chance to do anything smithing related.” I stared off into the distance, picturing the space I had marked out behind our house. “Once I get my forge set up, I’ll be able to keep the smithing talk at a more manageable level. Probably.”

 

“I guess that’s fair,” Lia conceded. “Still, I’m sure you’re excited to visit with them once our trip is over.”

 

“Yeah, I am,” I said, absentmindedly spinning my thumb around the golden band that encircled the pommel of my sword. “I, uh, hope you won’t be too bored when Layne and I work in his forge.”

 

“Oh, no, it’s okay,” she answered quickly, looking away. “Lyn had mentioned some...things that we could do. I think she knew Layne would want to show off his forge.”

 

“Perfect,” I sighed in relief. As the Midlands grew closer, I scanned out with Detection to ensure our path was safe. “You know, even though we haven’t made it to Ellawynn yet, I feel like we’ve been on an adventure already. A successful one, too.”

 

“I know what you mean.” She nodded her head towards the hills ahead of us. “I bet there’s another adventure out there, too.”

 

“I bet you’re right,” I grinned. “Let’s go find it.”

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About the author

Adam Ladner

Bio: 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!

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