"No it's like... it's a fruit, very sweet but also very acidic."
Errod continued to idly dig through his bag to disguise the fact that he was really watching for Milanata Hurst to leave her workshop. "And it goes well with the sauce and cheese?"
"Well that's the debate. I like it with ham. Oh that translated, good. If you have ham you have bacon."
"Of course we have bacon. If we find the right ingredients can you make me pizza?"
"Maybe. I always bought it from somewhere. And I don't like the way 'tomato' is translating, so I'm not hopeful for the sauce. Okay, your turn."
Katrin wandered by, making her seventh loop around the block, and flashed a thumbs-up. Still no guards or anything. There were a lot of guards in Theramas, and they looked like they took their jobs seriously.
"Well speaking of sauces… we went down to this city on the ocean when we were little, and they had this amazing stuff. It's just like... fish and salt and some spices and you put it in a barrel for three months until the fish turns into goo, and you strain out the bones and things. And it's so good. We bought like four bottles of it, and when we were down to the last one we made it last for like a year."
"That sounds absolutely vile." I felt sure we didn't do anything like that on Earth.
Theramas was gorgeous. The buildings weren't anything too impressive - mostly one or two stories, they were all very square and made from some kind of pale green stone. But the wide streets all had these willowy trees with leaves that were shiny on one side so that even a gentle breeze would set them sparkling, and the alleyways were clean and hung with colorful flags - I'd assumed there was some kind of festival, but it seemed the flags were just a normal part of the city's decorations. There was no rhyme or reason to the shape, size, or color of the flags as far as I could tell; there had been one little side street that had a hundred tiny square blue flags of various shades, and another that had a few large triangular flags of jarring reds and greens.
There were public fountains where I saw people just hanging out doing laundry, and a huge marketplace of tents every bit as colorful as the flags. There was also one square that had a colossal orrery with one huge sphere in the center and thirty-six others orbiting it in complicated rings. Katrin had said it was showing the alignment of the planes - apparently depending on the day some varying number of planes were in alignment with the world and with each other, each having its own cycle. The shortest cycle hit every single day, and the slowest was lined up with the world in whatever metaphysical way once every one thousand two hundred eighty-three and one third years - and that was the local year that took four hundred and thirty-two days. That had only happened a few times in recorded history, of course, but one was coming up in a few years and was apparently a big fucking deal.
Yet again I had been deprived the more in-depth explanation of the planes, however, since we had decided to get some actual work done as soon as we arrived. Katrin had taken my confession about coming from a world without magic surprisingly well, but had still been bothered regarding the identity of the letter-writer. Once she was bothered I was too, and we'd spent most of the trip working on a plan. I couldn't afford to just ignore the issue entirely, especially since I had still been unable to learn a single spell and we were running low on money - Hugh had left us a little but stabling the moskar was surprisingly expensive - but we couldn't just head into the meeting with 'me' without at least trying to find out more information first.
Lord Protector Hammersmith was supposed to be the first person we went to, but she was in a literal fortress so it wasn't somewhere we could easily spy on or escape if things went wrong. Reviewing the list of names, supposedly of people I could trust, had let us narrow down the approach. Only three of the names other than Hammersmith were of people in Theramas: Lord Merry Aridac was right out, because we didn't want to deal with nobles. Tannic Yan was listed as the person to contact if Lord Protector Hammersmith wasn't in the city and I was being told to leave a message or wait a month or something, so it seemed like they would probably go right to Hammersmith anyway. That left Milanata Hurst, a potter of no apparent importance, which the letter had as the very last person listed and said was basically a last resort in case everyone else was dead.
Even then, we didn't want to trust anything. Errod wasn't keen on the next part because breaking and entering seemed to be against his poorly-defined code of knightly morals, but he conceded that if there was some sinister conspiracy to manipulate me it was worth a little sneaking to ensure my safety. So we waited, and talked about favorite foods, and eventually Milanata left her workshop. She was a pleasant-looking woman, some gray snaking through her black curls and dried bits of clay speckled over her clothes. She was smiling to herself and humming, and turned around three times before finally getting on her way - once to take off her apron, once to retrieve a bag, and once to close and lock the door.
The lock didn't bother me at all. I'd already gotten a look at the locks in this world, and they were absolutely pathetic. I was pretty sure I could pick any of them within seconds if I had had lockpicks, and without the proper tools it would still be a matter of minutes. I'd whittled down some sticks while we traveled, and absurd as it seemed I was sure that was all I would need. We waited another moment to make sure she wasn't coming right back, and then I walked to the door and took a closer look. "Oh are you kidding me? Come on." I'd been all ready to show off. Instead, all I had to do was slide my knife between the door and the jamb and lift.
I closed the door behind me, trusting in Errod to make a commotion if I needed to bail. There were pots, and vases, and even some statues along the back wall. I had assumed that she would just focus on one thing, mass produce them or something, but as I looked around I saw examples of virtually everything. Even the simplest of the pots was somehow just... pleasing to look at. Something about the way it curved, and the little lip around the top. It was the kind of thing that looks plain but also looks like something you'd see in a rich person's house. And the statues...
As I approached, I thought I was seeing things. They were hyper-realistic, with clothing that seemed to hang there like real fabric and bodies so perfectly formed I thought I could see muscles under the skin. And one of them was of me, or some idealized version of me anyway. I had this smirk on my face, and a wicked-looking dagger in my hand, and for whatever reason a flower in the other. I was wearing my jeans from Earth, but my shirt was some strange style I'd never seen and I was wearing some ridiculously cool boots. I vowed immediately to find those boots in real life.
I wasn't sure what to make of it. Had she been magically spying on me? Was it some sort of voodoo doll? Was I some kind of hero of prophesy? I didn't know enough about magic yet, it seemed possible that there were a million explanations - dreams, remote viewing, some intuition-based thing, looking into the future. It could be anything. With great effort I pulled my eyes away and started searching through the workshop. I was hoping for paperwork, or a secret chest with a book labeled 'Master Plan'.
I found receipts for clay, and a shopping list, and when I finally located a book hidden away under some plates it was a romance novel. I was sure there had to be something else, and that's when I realized there would need to be a whole other workshop somewhere. I wasn't totally clear on what you used to make pots and sculptures and all the other things around the room, but I wasn't finding any tools. There was clay, and finished products, but no... pottery wheel or kiln or whatever. Was this a storage room rather than an actual workshop?
Before I had a chance to figure it out, I heard Errod screaming in pain outside. It was a little over the top, but bad acting was probably safer than being too subtle in cases like this. I headed for the back window, and found that contrary to my assumptions there was no latch. It couldn't open, even from the inside. I went to the next window, and the next. They were all the same. If Errod was already making a fuss, the front door would be in plain view of whoever he was distracting - and I didn't want to run past because I couldn't trust Errod to keep up and it would be too obvious we were together. All three of the side windows faces the same alley, and peeking out I could see someone had stopped Katrin and was talking to her. It didn't look like a guard, but that wouldn't matter once I started smashing windows.
It seemed like it was time for plan C. I tried to look confident, and just waited for Milanata Hurst to walk in. If I really was supposed to be able to go to her in an emergency she should know something, and would be unlikely to call for the guards. Finding information before having to talk to anyone would have been way better, but there wasn't a lot to do about it.
She didn’t even notice me at first, despite me being in plain view. When she finally realized I was standing there she jumped straight up in the air. "Callie! You terrified me! What are you doing here? I thought you were locked in a room with the Lord Protector making secret plans and things."
It wasn't surprising she recognized me, I'd already seen the statue. So, she assumed I'd gone to Hammersmith already. But what kind of plans would I be making? "No, I'm out getting lunch." the excuse sounded incredibly weak to me, but Milanata just nodded.
"Well, it's nice to see you. Oh, did you come for the letter? Callie, I'm sorry, I forget what I'm supposed to ask before I give it to you. I'm terrible. I don't know why anyone would trust me with this kind of thing."
I sounded like there was supposed to be another verification question, like when Hugh asked me about the name of my dog. "It's fine, you can just give it to me."
"You want it now?"
She walked over to the statue of me, and casually pulled the chest open. It had been a finished, hardened statue but suddenly the clay around where she had touched it looked wet and soft. Digging around for a moment, she pulled out a scroll sealed with wax and handed it to me before turning back and sealing up the statue, leaving it totally unmarred and solid once more. That would explain the lack of tools, at least.
"Perfect, thank you."
"No problem, dear. Can I get you a drink?"
"Sure, some water would be lovely."
As soon as she walked away I tore the scroll open and unrolled it.
First things first: if this isn't an emergency and everyone isn't dead you shouldn't be reading this. This is for if things go totally wrong and the local government has collapsed or something. I doubt that has happened, which means you're probably just being sneaky. Cut it out. Come and see me. If I had wanted to kill you or imprison you I would have done that.
That being said... if things really have all gone wrong, there's a bag of money and some supplies hidden inside a fake rock I had Mila make. Go out the North gate, walk like a mile down the road until you see a dead tree. It's ten paces East of that, you should be able to tell which one it is so just smash it open. If there hasn't been an emergency and you're still reading this, remember that if you actually don't trust me it could be that rock is filled with poison gas or something. So either you don't trust me and you should leave it alone, or you do trust me and you should just come see me.
Also, please don't pester Mila too much. She doesn't really know what's going on and you'll just worry her or freak her out. Seriously, if everything is okay just head over to the fort, and if it's not go break open the rock. Either way you'll get your explanation, and you'll get to have a cool adventure to find a previously unknown Duminere where you can get fantastic magic powers without having to become a citizen of anywhere or paying anyone or joining the military. It's going to be awesome, unless you're reading this more than six months after you arrived in which case that expedition might have already left.
I rolled the scroll back up and tucked it away just as Milanata returned with water. "Thanks," I said. "Was there anything else other than the letter?"
She looked at me like I was crazy. "No, dear. That was it. Is that alright? Did I do okay?"
"I... yeah. Yeah, you did great." She seemed uncertain, and I decided that the letter was probably telling the truth when it said she didn't know what was going on. I told her to have a great day and she told me to not be a stranger and stop by again soon, and I headed out. Errod was pacing.
"Are you okay? I acted like I'd twisted my ankle, but then I didn't see you come out and..."
"It's fine. I got what we needed. Is Katrin okay? I saw her talking to someone."
"He was flirting with her. She scared him off, though."
We collected her from the side of the building, and headed towards the fort at the edge of town. We passed the man that had been hitting on her and he turned and very nearly ran away from us, but Katrin wouldn't tell us what she'd said to get that kind of reaction. "I've dealt with that type of man before," she said, "and I know how to get them to reconsider."
I was dying to know more, but there were more pressing matters. "It wasn't a total bust, but I think we're going to have to skip the sneaky stuff for now and just go for it. There was a letter, but it basically called me out for trying to avoid the meeting and I think it's right." As we walked I told them about the fake rock, and made them promise to carefully check it out if I didn't come back. Then I said my goodbyes just in case, and headed inside.
It was one of those rare days where I felt somewhat balanced, not overly emotional or devoid of feeling. I was nervous, and excited, and a hundred other things - but also was just muted enough to keep it all hidden. As I approached the gates, one of the guards squinted at me and elbowed another. That one did a double take, and then hurried into the guardhouse for a moment. By the time I actually reached them he had emerged with a third guard, who nodded politely at me and gestured at the gates.
"Follow me, please."
In the past I'd had bad experiences with authority figures, and so alarm bells were going off in my head even though everything seemed fine. I followed him down some hallways, getting little glimpses at bunk rooms and an armory and a dining hall. We finally reached an office, and a seven foot tall woman with shoulders so wide it looked like she would need to turn sideways to get through a door was staring at me.
"Well I'll be damned. Calliope Smith, correct?"
"Fascinating. Thank you Ren, you're dismissed. Miss Smith, my name is Lord Protector Hammersmith. And yes, we use the full title every time. Please follow me."
She headed back out into the hallway and down two doors before walking into a conference room of some sort. I paused a moment. There were no guards standing nearby, and Hammersmith was facing away from me. I could still make a break for it. But we'd talked about this, during our trip from Handoleren. I couldn't let my trust issues keep me from having this meeting. We'd agreed to be sneaky at first, try and find out what was going on, but in the end... the letter was right. If they wanted me dead they clearly could have arranged it.
I walked in, despite my paranoia, and saw myself sitting at the table. Myself, but... cooler, and with longer hair. She grinned, the same smirk I'd seen on the statue, and spoke to me in English. "Hey, younger me. So in addition to magic, it turns out time travel is a thing. Crazy, right? But hey, we are going to have so much fun."