The new clothes that Hugh had left for me turned out to be basically a big square of fabric about as wide as my outstretched arms. On closer inspection, it seemed like it was one long rectangle that had been folded over onto itself and stitched up the side, then one of the open ends had been threaded with ribbons at eight spots leaving multiple gaps.
That left one end of the square wide open, which I decided meant it was the bottom. If that was the bottom then my head went at the ribbon end, presumably through the middle of the seven holes. Sure enough, that let my hands stick out of small holes at the tops of the mostly-closed sides and after putting a belt around my waist it started to seem like actual clothing in an ancient Greek kind of way.
I'd used one of the soldier's belts rather than the flimsy string that had come with the dress, because it had a loop for the knife and would be easier to attach a pouch to without snapping or falling down - this was probably a fashion faux pas but the big furry boots were already going to keep me from being a clothing model. I walked around the room to test the feel of it and then did my best to look at my reflection in the tub and in the wavy glass of the window since there wasn't a mirror. The "sleeves" that hung down and bunched up under my arms were going to take a little getting used to and I felt like I wasn't wearing real clothes, but overall I was impressed and couldn't think of a reason that Earth clothes weren't just big squares of fabric since it seemed way simpler.
There didn't appear to be a way to lock the door from the outside, though there was a little footlocker next to each of the beds with individual keys on top. I shoved everything I wasn't taking with me into one of them and locked it, then shoved the key and the coins into one of the leather pouches I'd taken and tied it to my belt before heading out for my first alone time in an alien city.
I was pretty sure it was early evening, and there were more people milling around than there had been when we arrived. I saw a lot of people wearing the wrap things like I was as well as a lot in loose pants, but most interesting to me was that neither seemed to be gendered. I was also a bit relieved to see that I was wearing it right, and that furry boots and a big leather belt were far from the strangest accessories. It did seem like some people were more dressed-up than others, with makeup or jewelry or embroidered patterns, but even the fanciest-looking person I saw was still wearing workmanlike (and filthy) boots despite his golden chains and immaculate eyeshadow.
I didn't see street signs so I made sure to look for some landmarks before I headed out, and then it was time to gawk like a kid in a candy store - everything was fascinating for me. Either it was different from Earth (why was some of the wood purple? Was it stained, or was there some type of tree here that was just naturally that color?) or it was the same (that's clearly a hot dog cart, that is literally exactly a hot dog cart!) and both options were equally exciting. There were a lot of odors, most of them unpleasant, but my nose kept guiding me towards anything that smelled like meat cooking.
I hadn't eaten lunch so it was tempting to just grab the first thing I saw, but I'm skeptical enough of Earth hot dogs and anyway I was still shying away from sausages after that allergic reaction. Instead I finally settled on a place that was selling something that looked like egg noodles, beef strips, and broccoli tops but was presumably not actually any of those things. I watched people ahead of me and got a good enough look to figure out exact change as well as the procedure: walk up, get a wooden spork and bowl, hold it out as you pass the stuff you want, pay the guy, eat the food, and then hand back the bowl and get some a smaller coin in return.
The meat was a little odd, it had a way stronger taste in a not entirely pleasant way - was this what people meant when they said meat tasted 'gamey'? It wasn't bad though, and the sauce was delicious. The noodles and veggies weren't particularly different from what I'd had on Earth, so no surprises there although on closer inspection it for sure wasn't broccoli. I wandered as I ate, looking at different shops. Some of the items on offer were totally unrecognizable but the majority were the expected things - furniture, fabric, food.
I found a store that was some sort of shared space between a seamstress, a shoe maker, and a leatherworker. The actual craftspeople had their own areas and signs that seemed to indicate they were individual businesses, but there was a single salesperson in the middle that I haggled with to get a whole outfit. It was a little tricky since I didn't know anything about the economy, but I did my best based on what I'd learned about the cost of fantasy Panda Express and just kinda went on instinct for the rest. In the end I managed to secure two pairs of pants, three shirts, a lighter cloak, some wooly socks, some moccasin style shoes, and a messenger bag. It took all but a few of the smallest coins, but I was pretty sure that was what Hugh had intended it to be spent on anyway.
While they were measuring me, I heard a bell chime six times. Hugh had said to be back by second bell so hearing six either meant I was very late, or I was confused about what it meant. They finished measuring and told me to return in two bells but no later because they were closing for the night at that point. Had Hugh maybe meant the second bell after I left? That would mean I was going to be a whole bell late if I waited until after picking up my order. I decided the safe thing would be to go look for Hugh at the inn before heading back to get my clothes.
I took a wrong turn, and then another one. I was sure I'd find my way back to the inn eventually so I wasn't worried, but I was annoyed to find myself looking at a dead end. I circled around as best I could and was almost certain I was getting back on track when I saw a shop selling strange vials of liquid. Was it magic potions, or just massage oils? I went to step inside, and hesitated. Something about it reminded me of my mom's bedroom although I couldn't say what.
I wasn't allowed in that bedroom.
She had declared it off limits one day, just after my sixth birthday. I woke up afraid in the middle of the night after some nightmare where I was locked in a cage surrounded by aliens, and I went to get in bed with her but stopped at the doorway. She had said I wasn't allowed, and she had told me to be good. That meant I had to stay out. Had to. I reached out, but felt like I couldn't bring myself to step inside. Not. Allowed. Finally my fear of the aliens in my nightmare did force me to go in, but the stress of worrying that I had broken some rule and was going to make her mad gave me a splitting headache that stayed with me the rest of the day.
Even in later years when I was happily stealing things and breaking into everything from grocery stores to people's houses I refused to go into my mom's room because for whatever reason that was where I drew the line. And now this store, something about it, was making me think of my mom's bedroom. It wasn't the first time - Bill's last day as a case worker he had picked me up from the group home and told me that he'd gone out of his way to find me the perfect foster home. Somewhere I could be treated as an actual daughter and have my own room and everything. He was so sure it would work out, and seemed pretty pleased with himself.
We got there, and I couldn't do it. I couldn't go inside. Later, after some therapy, I decided it was that I must have been freaked out by thinking that this person would be sort of like a mother to me and that got all tangled up with my mom and that last fateful road trip to Arizona. But at the time all I knew is that I couldn't go inside that adorable little house. Bill asked if I was okay, he asked what was wrong, and all I could say was that I wasn't allowed to. He said it was fine and took me to this creepy little diner where he bought me a milkshake, but then he quit the next day and I think that was the last time I saw him. I had ruined the last good case worker.
I ran away after that and ended up living at Universal Servicing Systems which was honestly pretty badass, so maybe everything worked out like it should have.
I came out of my reverie to see that the shopkeeper had noticed me standing at the doorway and was giving me an extremely strange look. Determined, I stepped inside and smiled. Whatever it was that was giving me memories of my mom's room was subtle, maybe a smell or a decoration or whatever. I felt jittery, and could feel the headache starting. I'm such a neurotic mess, I decided that if I found one of those memory tweaking PTSD magic users I would have them untangle whatever flawed memory made me so upset about my mom's bedroom that going into some random potion shop could give me a headache more than twelve years later.
They were, in fact, magic potions - but I couldn't afford them and the headache was getting too bad for me to want to stay and chat about them. I mumbled some pleasantries and left, now still lost and also with a splitting migraine to boot. Maybe that was why I ended up taking yet another wrong turn right into a dark alleyway. I could have turned around, but although the alley was narrow and pitch black and super creepy I could also see a much wider and busier street at the far end. It looked like where I needed to be, and it's not like I was afraid of the dark or anything. I'd gone through plenty of dark, grimy alleyways in my time.
I made it almost exactly halfway before someone stepped out in front of me. I turned, and there was another behind me. They'd been just waiting for someone to walk down the alley, apparently, and there was no clear way out of this.
"Take off that belt and throw it to me, child. No need to pull the knife out first."
I dropped my now-empty bowl from dinner and took off the belt, throwing it to land right at his feet. It didn't seem like I had a lot of options. He didn't even move to pick it up, just kept looking at me. "The bracelet too."
"I'll die without it. Please."
"I doubt you will die as quickly as if you refuse to give it to me. Better to take the risk and hope for a miracle - if nothing else it may mean you get to say farewell to your loved ones."
I could feel a panic attack starting. Stupid high empathy days. My heart was beating too hard, and the sound of the city around me took on a muffled quality. I had to do something or I'd just freeze up until they walked over and stabbed me. I had already thrown away my knife, and it probably wouldn't have been enough anyway. I certainly couldn't get into a fistfight with them; they were just silhouettes but they were big ones and the chances that it was all a bluff and the figure in front of me was two kids in a trenchcoat was slim. So I screamed. It was a full on horror movie piercing scream, and then as they charged towards me to silence me I tried to dive past the one that had been talking. I almost made it.
He grabbed my dress, but some of the ribbons on top burst and I squirted partway out like toothpaste from a tube. He got another hand on me, more firmly, but I'd pulled an arm out and just barely snagged the belt I had thrown to him. He flipped me over and hauled me closer but I swung the knife - still in its loop on the belt - and sliced his jacket open as he dodged back. I could see him better now, with the light of the main street shining on him instead of against his back. He was, indeed, huge - and he looked like he was no stranger to fighting.
He had all the advantages; he was bigger, probably a better fighter, and I was laying on my back halfway out of my dress through the top which meant only one useable arm and no good way to stand. So I did the only thing I could think of and scooted backwards on my ass down the alleyway. It didn't work super well, because with the dress no longer on right it was free to trail behind me a bit so after the first few kicks my heel kept getting tangled on the bottom of the dress which obviously couldn't give me any leverage. He advanced once more, looking annoyed.
"Unhand her, scoundrel!"
The command came from behind me, and the man hesitated. I took that opportunity to haul up the dress with my knife hand so it wasn't in the way of my feet, and then I scooted further back. I'm pretty sure it made me the record holder for 'least dignified way to travel', especially considering my left boob was hanging all the way out - it would have been embarrasing if I hadn't been in a life or death situation. The owner of the voice stepped forward to stand next to me as I slid back. I couldn't get a good look but he seemed significantly smaller than the other guy - though he did have a sword rather than a knife. Now that I felt like there was a chance I was going to get out of this I took a second to wriggle back into the dress as best I could.
"What do you think you're playing at, kid? You a friend of this foreigner?"
He glanced down at me as I finally got my arms positioned correctly and began to stand up.
"No. No, but... I will not allow innocent people to be... uh, assaulted." He didn't sound very convincing. I knew right away these guys weren't going to be scared off by him. The second thug had caught up and was eyeballing the newcomer.
"Hey, I know you. You're Errod, aren't you? The lamplighter's kid?"
"Yes you are. Kej, this is the kid whose dad fucked up and burned down the spice store."
The first thug, Kej apparently, let out a low whistle. "That was quite the scene. They ship your dad off to Tarmestal?"
"That's... look, just let her go and we'll part ways."
"Nnnnnno, I don't think so. But I feel bad for you, so I'll make you a deal. If you turn around right now, I'll let you go just like you never pointed a sword at me. That's a very kind offer."
I slid the belt back on. They didn't make a move towards me, which meant they felt pretty sure they could still catch me if I ran. I didn't see crossbows or whatever. Maybe they had throwing knives? Maybe they were just really fast? Maybe I looked slow? The kid with the sword - and he was a kid, at least a few years younger than me - turned his head a little and whispered.
"Run. I'll buy you a few minutes."
His voice was shaking. Unlike the thugs, he wasn't at all confident. He probably wouldn't even buy me five seconds, let alone minutes. On another day maybe I could have taken off and left him, but...
"Errod, right? These guys are going to kill you. Let's both run. Okay?"
"You should run. Really." I grabbed his belt and pulled him a step backwards, which seemed to break the spell. We ran. I was faster than Errod, but the thugs were faster than us both. Kej grabbed my arm, and when I tried to swing the knife at him he just grabbed that wrist too and headbutted me. It was the exact move I'd used on other people so many times, and while I saw it coming and made sure he hit the hardest part of my head rather than breaking my nose it still stunned me. I dropped the knife, and he kicked it away.
Errod, meanwhile, had turned to face the other thug and swung his sword in a big, slow, clumsy arc. The thug stepped aside, and then literally grabbed the sword by the blade and twisted it out of Errod's hand. Like taking candy from a baby. A fist to the face followed that up while Errod still looked confused at what had happened, and he nearly fell over. I grabbed the only weapon I could think of out of my pouch, that being the little wooden spork I'd eaten dinner with. It wasn't even particularly pointy.
I heard something, far away. My name. "HUGH!" I yelled, and then I was being hauled up by my hair and flipped around so he could hold my back to his chest while he slit my throat. I felt cold, so cold, as I flailed and kicked; it was all happening in slow motion, and the knife began to glide up towards my neck as his leg suddenly jerked and he stumbled. I had just the tiniest bit of slack, and I used it to stab him with the fork. There was no way it could do any real damage but it must have hurt or at least surprised him because he let go for a second. As he finished stumbling back he winced, and I realized he'd been standing in a puddle and his foot had twisted out from under him. What are the odds of a sprained ankle saving me at the last second?
I ran again, and this time he couldn't keep up. I reached the end of the alley and burst out into the street shouting for Hugh, who was already jogging towards me.
"Calliope! You screamed, yes?"
"Save the kid!" I yelled, and slumped exhausted against a lamp post. The sounds of fighting in the alley were brief - I didn't even watch, I had no doubt Hugh would be the victor. Sure enough he returned with Errod in tow a moment later.
"Calliope, you told me you were experienced with cities. I trusted you to stick to well lit areas."
I was trying to decide if I should apologize to Hugh or tell him to fuck off, but instead I just stared at the embroidered emblem on Errod's vest.
It was the logo for Van Halen.