Kerberos was a real charmer. I thought he’d been leering before, but no, that had been his idea of subtle. His eyes roamed all over me, practically undressing me where I lie, and I felt my skin crawl. I decided to throw an [Identify] to see what I was dealing with.
Higher level than me, but not by much. One of the only non-guard, non-Ranger warriors I’d ever seen. Wonder what his class was.
“So you’re Elaine.” He started off, deciding that looking at my face was too much. “Mom said she’d found me a pretty Light-and-Dark healer to marry, and yeah, you’ll do.” The ever-present fire burning inside of me flared at that, and I lost most of my shyness and inhibitions.
“Hey! I don’t like that we’re getting married just because someone else says-so. But if this is going to work, listen up. Just because we’re getting married, doesn’t mean you’ll be the boss of me. If this is going to work, we’re going to be equals. You won’t be steamrolling me, you won’t be making decisions for me or about me, and we’ll come to agreements on decisions. We won’t keep secrets.” This seemed like a reasonable point to start with. There was a bunch more I wanted to say and add in, but I figured starting with good groundwork we could both agree on and work off of was square one.
Sure, I was being a bit of a hypocrite – I wasn’t going to be mentioning the reincarnation thing, not for many years, but still!
Kerberos just sneered at me. “Why on Pallos would we be equal? We’re not equal. I’m a man, you’re a girl. I’m a citizen, you’re not. I’m higher level than you are. There’s no way I’d tell you my secrets, everyone knows girls gossip. Plus, you couldn’t be that much help anyways, you can’t even read.” I was full on seeing red at this point.
“I can too read!” Wow, real convincing. Arguing like I was six-years-old again. Kerberos just looked down his nose at me, which was really impressive given that he hadn’t looked above my chest yet.
He scoffed. “Wow, and a liar to boot. Ah well, you’re hot enough, I can fix you up. You’ll be taking a show and tell skill.” He waggled his eyebrows. “And something exotic.” With that he just turned around and left. A high-pitched yelp came through the doorway he passed through, and a slave girl shortly came through, rubbing her behind. She saw me and froze.
“I-I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you were here.” She carefully bowed to me, slightly trembling. I took a few steps towards her, immediately seeing when she came in range of [Calming Aura]. Trembling stopped, and all of my hard work recently paid off as I got a notification.
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Healing Aura] has reached level 93!]
“What’s wrong? Are you hurt somewhere?” I came over, making a motion to grab her hand and stopping. I was a stranger here, she clearly felt there was some difference, let’s not make it awkward.
“No, no, I’m fine.” She straightened back up, brushing me off with her hand.
My eyes narrowed. “Really? If you’re so fine, why did my healing skill level up when you got close?”
She couldn’t look me in the eye, shame written across her face.
“Come on, there’s a slim chance I’ll eventually be married off to this family. You can tell me, I don’t bite. What’s your name?”
“Catona.” She reluctantly parted with that morsel, seeing no reason to deny it to me.
“Catona, won’t you tell me what’s wrong?” This felt all wrong, me trying to pry information out of someone a few years older than me. The power dynamic was screwy, she was supposed to be the wiser, smarter one that I looked up to, not vice-versa.
She chewed his lip, still looking off to the side. “It’s Kerberos.” She spat out with such venom, such poisonous fury, that said more than words ever could. With that the floodgates opened. How Kerberos would leer at most of the women. (No surprise there!) How he’d belittle most of the slaves, lording over them. How his dad let him run around. How he’d practice fights with most of the male slaves. He did have good grace when he lost, but wouldn’t fight that person again. How he bragged that he’d be an amazing Centurion. How he tried to convince some of the female slaves to give him favors, and gave preferential treatment to those that did – shifting their less-pleasant work to those that rebuffed him. All in all, a real charmer that I’d been setup with.
Catona eventually lead me back to where the parents were, and more polite chit-chat was exchanged. A meal, more polite conversation, and without additional incident, we left, heading home again.
It was late in the evening by the time we got back, and we sat down for dinner, in more reasonable clothes.
“I think that went well” Dad started off, taking a big mouthful.
I said nothing, violently stabbing a fish on my plate, imagining Kerberos’s ugly mug.
Mom looked smug. “So do I. Elaine, what did you think?”
“Kerberos is a prick.” Honesty’s the best policy.
Mom pointed a finger at me. “Honey, that’s no way to talk about your future husband.”
“But he is!” I protested. “Also, I’m not going to marry him. No way.”
Dad’s fist pounded the table with enough force to get all of our dishes to jump, and Themis’s water spilt. “Listen here, you-“ Mom interrupted him with a hand motion.
“Elaine, I know you’re not excited about it. But Kerberos will grow up, just like you’ll grow up. You two will find love, trust me. Nobody’s excited to get married, nobody’s thrilled. We really, truly, honestly think this is what’s best for you. I know you don’t see it that way, but can you give it a chance for us? Please?” With mom’s impassioned plea, I didn’t have much of a solid counter argument. It didn’t stop me from trying, and a fierce argument raged through the night. Anything I said was met with “He’ll grow up.” Or “You’ll eventually grow into it.” Or other such nonsense, completely dismissing my complaints, pleas, and arguments. We went to bed, still at an impasse.
I lay in bed thinking about it. What were my options, really? Option one was obvious, go with the flow, get married to some rich kid, live in a lovely mansion in the countryside. I hated the idea, hated the restrictions, hated the idea of being married off so early, of sharing a life with Kerberos. I’d probably end up sharing Octavia’s fate, and that was a no-go.
Option two. Say no. I strongly suspected though that staying here and trying to say no would get me a close-up and uncomfortable look at what ‘power over life and death’ meant in a very real, and very unpleasant sense. So this just circled back to option one.
Option three. Strike out on my own. I wasn’t ready to strike out on my own, in any sense of the way. Or was I? I had some skills, and some valuable skills at that. However, if I stayed in town, I suspect I’d get dragged back to my ‘family’, whichever one currently had claim over me.
It made my lips curl, the way other people could have a ‘claim’ on me, like I was property of some sort to be traded or bartered away. Heck, this whole marriage thing felt like I’d be sold to the highest bidder, never mind that the highest bidder was rich. I would choose my own fate, be my own person, like Artemis was.
Artemis!! I bolted upright in bed. Artemis ran away from home when she was about my age. Artemis managed to make it work. Artemis couldn’t be that far away – she’d just left today. I had [Running]. I could move fast. I might be able to catch up with her, tag along with the Rangers. They didn’t have a healer, I could patch them up after a fight, pay for my travel by working, Artemis could help me get my footing in another city, and I could start a life of my own.
Content that I had a plan of action, that I could throw off these shackles, I went to sleep. Well, tried to at least – my heart was thumping, I could feel every breath, every fiber touching me. I was aware of every sound, every person walking by on the street. In the early hours of the morning, sleep finally claimed me.
I was woken up early, rubbing sleep from my eyes and failing. Bleh. Completely sleep-deprived was not a way to plan this escape. However, it had to be today, otherwise I’d never catch up. How fast could a horse-drawn wagon go anyways?
Fortunately, I was mostly left alone, mom and dad assuming I was moping, which I was doing in good measure. Alright, let’s do this.
Easy to run in clothes. Check.
My pendant. Check.
Knife? Handy for everything, check.
Life savings? Off of the rod, into a pouch, can just about hold it all. Check.
Spare clothes? Triple check. I went with three changes of clothes, with one being a fancy adult tunic and the rest being more of the short type that was easy to run in.
Water bottle? No check. Water was super important; I need to make sure I get some before I go.
Food? Packed a lunch and a dinner, I should be able to catch up to Artemis in a day.
I took a few experimental jumps with everything I had. Seemed like I could move easily enough, and it wasn’t too heavy. Those few points I had desperately dumped into strength in that burning building were paying off.
I headed off to market, drawing zero strange looks. After all, I was just another person in the crowd with a heavy backpack. I picked up a water bottle, parting with a few of my hard-won coins. Down to the river, drank a bunch of water, filled up more. It was easier to move with the water in me.
It was at the Courier’s guild that I hesitated. I wanted to leave a message for mom and dad, to let them know where I was and that I was OK. It would mean revealing I knew how to write though, especially since I didn’t want to dictate to someone there, who might get the bright idea of stopping someone a kid from running away. Bah. Make up your mind, I was either a kid, and not able to be married off, or an adult, who could make her own choices.
In the end, my desire for my parents not to worry overcame my desire to keep secrets. What would it matter? I went in and requested a bamboo scroll and some charcoal, and got strange looks. Yeah, look at the amazing girl who can read and write. I hemmed and hawed over the letter, before finally settling on short and sweet.
Dear Mom and Dad,
I’m ok, and I love you both very much. I refuse to marry Kerberos, and I’ve decided to make my own fortune. I’ll be trying to meet up with Artemis – I’m sure she’ll be able to help. I’ll let you know when I’ve settled down somewhere.
With that, I rolled up the scroll, sealed it with some helpfully offered wax, and gave my instructions – in-town delivery, but the next day. That got me a strange look, and I was politely asked why I wasn’t doing it myself. I gave my best mysterious smile, and got a grumpy look return. Fine.
With that, I was ready. It was time to leave Aquiliea. It was time to seek my fortune.
It was time for adventure.