A pot of tea steamed on the stove. A whole host of people gathered around in the common room as pots clinked and meats sizzled in the kitchen. The sun glittered through the window. Faint Imduin folk music played through the handheld radio.
To many, this was surely the idea of a pleasant, cheerful breakfast. To Amelia, it was a sign of just how out of place she was.
For one, she never ate, so the smell of bacon and cooked okra instead reminded her of all the places she had stayed across the countryside in Sunwell. All those places where she had to make excuses, had to hide her true nature from the hospitable folks who hardly had enough for themselves.
For two, seeing all these happy people made her a fair bit grumpy. Or perhaps she was grumpy about everything right now. Her mood was quite off this morning, actually.
She could not explain why, could not shake it off, but for some reason she had been positively exhausted since she woke up. So tired she felt like going back to bed already.
As soon as she got down the stairs and entered the first floor, that eyeless creature Otto came running up to her, nose sniffing her like a newfound treat. Not growling this time at least. He took a few trepidatious steps up to her, seemingly wondering if she would pet him. She would not.
A second later, he still came up anyway and rubbed his body against her leg.
A little slimy.
She reeled back. Ack, disgusting. Frightened by her sudden movement, Otto ran back over to his bed, but he kept his face fixed on Amelia’s location.
If even Otto was becoming used to her, did that mean she was starting to overstay her welcome? Over three whole weeks here already. Three weeks almost entirely spent on the streets, but three weeks nonetheless. All these friendly, vaguely familiar faces... She had not stayed somewhere this long since the previous winter, when the heavy snow made it too difficult to travel.
In Fleettwixt, snow did not stay on the ground for long, but she had a similar feeling regardless.
Amelia was unnaturally tired, which did not bode well for today’s excursions. Normally, even after near-death combat, she did not face such lethargy, and the past few days had been mostly risk-free, as she had not done much more than beat up smugglers and kill synth dealers. Yesterday, she even had the chance to absorb three new souls, so everything should have been just fine.
Still, she activated a diagnostic scan, just in case.
Vital signs functional.
No abnormalities detected.
Nothing’s wrong with you, Amelia. :)
As usual, her Access Core provided her with nothing useful, except perhaps an ease of mind.
Aeo, that tattoo-covered sun elf, came up and plopped her hand over Amelia’s left shoulder. “You good there, girl?” she asked. “Kinda got that five-mile stare going on.”
Amelia jerked her shoulder back and shook the hand off her. “Checking my HUD.”
“HUD? What’s a HUD?”
“Heads-Up Display,” Amelia said.
She sighed inaudibly and decided to explain. “My systems communicate information to me with text and images that appear in front of my field of vision. I can monitor my body’s health, energy reserves, module functionality, and memory banks, although the memory banks are limited to twelve images at a time. All of these displays can be manipulated in three-dimensional space, although no one can see it but me.”
Aeo breathed in as if she were about to reply to that spiel, but then apparently decided it was not worth the effort, and went to sit down at the kitchen table.
The best way to get rid of a nuisance was to shift into talking-too-much mode. She rarely enjoyed implementing it, but this time felt pretty good.
At the table now were three individuals: Mino, reading the morning paper with intent focus; Aeo, who kept glancing at Amelia every now and then; and a short, lizard-like being with a cheery face, sitting on a chair with a stack of cushions to help her reach the table.
This was Phelia, if she remembered her name correctly. A kobold from a distant land—they were quite rare to find in the Northern Reaches, especially in the cold seasons. She always sported a silly little smile, and the rest of her was an oversized doll brought into glossal form. Creamy white scales, small vestigial wings, pointy horns, and a thick scar over her right eye, as if she were some battle-hardened warrior. One look at her, of course, proved that notion false.
Amelia had seen Phelia a few times over the weeks, but they had never exchanged more than the most basic of pleasantries. Same with almost everyone here, if she was going to be honest with herself.
This morning was actually the first time Amelia had still been at the hostel by breakfast time, she realized. Most other mornings she would already have been out in Highden or Portside, staking out a position until she found someone from Fourland to attack. She was a bit too tired to go out this early again, though, and decided she would finally meet these last remaining boarders.
Phelia finally noticed her and gave a single wave. “Heya.”
Amelia did not wave back. “Hi.”
“Sit down, will you?” Aeo commanded. “You’re making me anxious, looming around like that.”
“Be nice, Aeo,” Mino said from behind the newspaper. “Do what she says, Amelia.”
Amelia pulled out a chair and sat down. Her legs had been begging for that already, so she decided to oblige, even if the direction came from the very rude elf beside her.
“It’s almost breakfast time!” Phelia exclaimed. “You haven’t had Hummer’s cooking before, have you, Amelia?”
“I haven’t.” And she definitely would not be having it this morning, either.
“It’s wonderful. I wish we could keep her around forever! She’s leaving pretty soon, so let’s savor it while we can.”
As if timed perfectly for that line, right out of the kitchen came a human woman carrying a whole tray of plates and bowls. Phelia got up and went into the kitchen to grab more.
This woman was presumably Hummer. Amelia had only ever seen her in passing, and had never actually stopped to look at her. But on closer inspection, she was struck with surprise—Hummer was absolutely beautiful. She had thick, curly hair that went all the way down to her waist, and skin darker than any human she had ever seen in Fleettwixt. She carried herself with a certain dignity and made it clear she was well-practiced, even if her clothes were plain and simple like everyone else’s. There was a depth to her pretty face that hid the effort she put into herself. Reminded Amelia more than a little of Ed herself.
Hummer was from the Saxonia Dominion, Amelia realized. The homeland of the North Sunwell Company, and the center of a large continent-spanning empire, with Sunwell as a mere outlying colony. If Hummer was from all the way there, then why was she staying at this low-rent hostel?
Once she noticed Amelia, her eyes sparkled. “Oh, it’s you,” she said. “I’ve seen you a couple times around here. Glad you’re finally here for breakfast, uh, you.”
Phelia came into the common room with a big pot of creamy soup and, with a little help from Aeo, set it on the center of the table. Only after that did Hummer set down the plates of okra, bacon, cooked water oats, and boiled mackerel. All of it gave off a pungent aroma that again reminded Amelia of those many countryside family meals she had been around but never in.
Phelia hopped back up on her chair and adjusted herself into place with the cushions. “Hummer, this is Amelia. Have you met her yet?”
“Amelia, eh?” Hummer folded her arms. “Actually, my name is Amelia, too. Hummer’s just my nickname here.”
“Oh, I see,” Amelia said. It was not a particularly uncommon name, which was exactly why she chose it. “Why Hummer?”
“Because I like to hum,” she said.
“Oh.” There was nothing Amelia could even say about this that would not come off as rude, aside from the most basic of responses. Why was she being told this?
“Hummer really does hum all the time when she’s doing things,” Phelia said. “It’s really cute sometimes.”
Hummer blushed and then, with a swipe of her skirt, sat down on an empty chair across from Amelia.
Mino folded up her newspaper, set it aside, and picked up a fork. “Alright then. Let’s dig in.”
Everyone began scooping up food from the plates and bowls and putting it on their own. A free-for-all where the fastest and greediest would get the best parts of each dish. This morning, and Amelia suspected most mornings, it was Aeo who managed to get the most on her first go-around.
When Amelia made no motion to grab anything for herself, everyone but Mino began to give her curious, confused looks.
“Is she okay?” Hummer asked, looking at Aeo.
“I don’t know,” Aeo said. “You okay?”
If she were not so tired, she really would have gotten up and left the house right at this moment. Every single thing she did was questioned, and she understood why, but hated it regardless. “I’m fine,” she told them. “I don’t eat breakfast.”
“I knew it,” Mino said. “I thought you were just being rude at first, but you really don’t eat anything, do you?”
Amelia nodded reluctantly. “Correct,” she said to Mino. “I don’t eat breakfast, or anything.”
“Uh, how?” Aeo asked incredulously.
Amelia pointed to her own purple eye. “I’m a golem,” she said. “I look human, but I’m not. My body is powered by a soul gem, and all I need is water.”
The entire common room had gone silent. No one was eating or scooping food, just looking at her. It seemed as if none of them actually believed her.
“The right side of my body is made up entirely of stone. Because... I’m a golem. Do you understand?”
“Oh, okay, all of it makes a lot more sense now,” Mino said. “That’s sort of amazing, actually. Who made you? Why?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
Hummer slumped over, a little bit of disappointment in her face. “Aw. I really wanted to know how you liked my cooking.”
“It smells good. That is all I can say.”
“Are you SURE you can’t eat?” Aeo asked. “Have you even tried?”
“No. If I ate something, I don’t know how it would help me. I’m not sure I even have the organs for digestion. And, frankly, the whole defecation process is disgusting. No interest in trying it.”
“Please don’t talk about that at the table,” Mino said.
The eating resumed after a few moments, but everyone’s attention was completely focused on Amelia. She did not crave this, but it was a necessary step to get these people to stop misunderstanding her. Every time she was forced to explain her golem nature, people peppered her with a million questions, usually identical ones, and she could tell that was about to happen here.
Phelia fired the first volley. “Do you still feel emotions and stuff?”
“Hm. Well, what kinds of emotions do you feel?”
“Everything,” she said. “I’m a glossal being, just like you.”
“Oh. But you’re a golem. That’s so weird.”
“A very advanced one.”
“Do you have real boobs, or rock boobs?” Aeo asked, mouth full.
Aeo cracked a smile, knowing she had hit her target. “I bet you’re real fun to be around.”
“Yeah, I bet you are. So then why are you angry all the time? I’ve never seen you smile. Did your master abandon you or something?”
Amelia shot Aeo a glare so sharp it might have cut through glass. After that, Aeo declined to ask any more questions.
“Oh, I have a question, too,” Hummer said. “Why are you here in Beechhurst? Why not a bigger place in a better part of the city?”
Now it was Mino’s turn to throw eye-daggers at Hummer, but Amelia still answered this one.
“I could ask the same about you,” she said, generally directed at everyone but mostly focused on the obviously out of place Hummer. She was hardly poor, with those soft hands, even if she wanted to hide it.
Hummer herself merely shrugged. “I really like Beechhurst. It’s small and peaceful, kind of quiet. But it’s still inside the city walls, so you can get anywhere you need to go. And...” She trailed off.
“I’m here because I can’t afford anywhere else...” Phelia admitted. “I didn’t meant to stay in Fleettwixt so long, but I sort of ran out of money.” She slumped over like a sad child. “But I really love it here in the hostel!” she added, possibly at the suggestion of Mino’s glaring. “It’s the best place I’ve ever stayed, for sure. And y’all girls are great.”
“Thanks,” Hummer said.
“I’m just getting back on my feet,” Aeo said. “Can’t live in the tattoo parlor, and my wife kicked me out. Ex-wife, whatever. So I get to stay with my bestie Mino. Isn’t that right, bestie?”
“Hehe, yep,” Mino said. “I’m really glad all of you came here. Winter might be cold and dark, but at least we get to spend it together.”
Mino and Aeo the sun elves, Hummer the human, Phelia the kobold, and Amelia the golem. A motley crew, if there ever was one. Amelia was very discontent with being added to this crew, and yet she suddenly felt like she had just been initiated into it against her will.
Now with everyone’s life stories spilled out for some reason, Amelia felt content to leave this conversation. But before she could get up from the table, Hummer waved her down.
“Wait, you didn’t answer the question. Why are YOU in Beechhurst?”
“I’m seeking revenge against the North Sunwell Company, and this place is remote and cheap. Low risk and good access to the rest of the city so I can enact my plans.”
Another whoosh of silence entered the common room.
“Oh, it wasn’t a joke,” Aeo muttered to herself.
“So that’s why you’re never around,” Hummer said. “It all makes sense now. You’re a thug or something.”
Phelia cocked her head to the side. “Are we... okay to have a person like this in the hostel?”
“She’s fine,” Mino said. “I trust her.”
She did? Why did Mino trust her? Even Amelia had no idea.
“I won’t bring violence here.”
“Not even a fun bar fight?” Aeo asked. “Lame.”
Amelia ignored that.
“No bar fights in my hostel,” Mino said. “Amelia, as long as you’re staying safe, you can do any kind of revenge you want. Just remember to come back around nightfall, okay? I don’t want you staying out too late, because there’s a lot of bad people out there.”
“Oh, like that serial killer guy!” Phelia exclaimed.
“Yeah...” Mino pointed to the folded-up newspaper. “His name is Dimples, apparently. Silly name, but not a silly man. Seven feet tall, always wears a mask, and grabs people off the streets to slash them up. Real scary. Even more than you’re thinking.”
“I’ll be fine,” Amelia said. No single man alone was going to pose a threat to her, and she had already accepted that.
“Are you going out today, too?”
“Yeah. I’m trying a new plan right now. I’m getting rid of all the synth on the streets.”
Confused expressions returned to everyone’s faces again.
“Oh, that’s great,” Phelia said. “That stuff is nasty. Lots of people are getting hurt.”
Hummer was not so enthusiastic. “What do you mean by, ‘get rid of?’”
But Amelia decided not to elaborate on that. She had told enough about herself, enough that if things really did go sour, any one of these women could be in danger just for knowing about her. She did not expect the situation to ever reach that level, but there was always a chance.
So she finally stood up from the table. A little bit less exhausted than when she first woke up, although certainly not on the top of her game.
“Actually, I’ll be off now,” she said. “Thank you for the company.”
“It was so nice meeting you,” Hummer said. She looked at her with a curiosity that, again, reminded her just a little bit too much of Ed to be comfortable.
“Stay away from Dimples,” Phelia said.
“Bring me back a snack if you’re going near the night markets,” Aeo said.
Mino rolled her eyes at Aeo and then waved goodbye.
Amelia gave an awkward nod and, finally, left the hostel, still a little tired. Now, though, it was more mental than physical, at least.
That conversation at the breakfast table was the most social activity Amelia had faced since her home village was destroyed. A whole year, and this was the first time she had spoken to so many people, for so many minutes. It gave her a jolt she was not expecting, like she suddenly realized her deficiencies in an area she had never trained in.
She continued to tell herself that friendliness was pointless, that she would abandon these simple folks the first chance she got. But, even if she had convinced herself otherwise, she knew deep inside that she really did enjoy the company. Almost as much as she would be enjoying today’s attack.