I'm not sure what I was expecting from our jaunt outside. Maybe I'd learn that, despite what Lin's muddled memories suggested, I wasn't really in a backwater city in a brutal, medieval society. I'd learn that I was somewhere poor but unremarkable, like a rusted-out slum in the outskirts of Manila or something - it would have been a convoluted journey that got me there, but at least it wouldn't break the rules of reality as I'd once understood them.
Well… as Douglas MacArthur once observed: rules are made to be broken. I was not in the world I remembered. It might not even be Earth.
First of all, it was definitely not a modern city, not even the poor part of one. It was like something out of medieval China - not that everybody looked Chinese, though Asiatic features seemed to predominate. Almost everybody was a peasant, the men wearing simple clothes, often a tunic and trousers, but occasionally wearing robes. Many kept their hair in topknots, a few had long, trailing braids, and all but a few of the wealthier-looking townspeople wore simple sandals. The poorer ones, like me, wore no footwear at all. The women all wore dresses - most were simple tunic-style affairs, but others wore fancier gowns with billowy sleeves and fancy ornamentation to keep their hair up. Color was plentiful - lots of greens, yellows, and reds.
I didn't notice any blue or purple, which I thought a bit odd, but I could remember that the rarity of different colors varied based on the availability of dyes in premodern societies. In modern America, you could get almost any article of clothing in any color, shade, and hue that you wanted, but it hadn't been that way for most of human history.
A blacksmith with a heavy apron and scar-pocked forearms pounded horseshoes into shape. A man with an intense presence and night-black robes clopped by on a horse, the people scurrying to get out of his way. A trio of musicians played on string instruments next to a burbling fountain featuring a winged carp statue. Writing was intermittent - most of the signage was symbols - but what writing I could see was utterly incomprehensible to me.
I spoke with Fu as we walked. He lead the way since I had no idea where I was going. Even with access to Lin's memories, I could only discern my whereabouts vaguely and through major landmarks, like the large water-clock tower that dominated a gray cobblestone courtyard.
"This is your… our town?" I asked Fu.
He nodded uncertainly. "You've lived in Emerald Vale all your life…"
That wasn't true, obviously. I'd spent most of my life in southern and central California and it would take all of my fingers and most of my toes to count the number of different countries I'd visited across thirty-one years of life. But I couldn't very well explain that to Fu, so I just shrugged. "Never knew what it was called."
He nodded slowly. "You aren't slurring your speech," he said. "And you aren't limping."
I pursed my lips, unsure of how to play the situation. I had no idea what would happen if I busted out with the revelation that I was Lynn Lee, a 21st Century Earth woman, California born and bred, college-educated, successful-ish entrepreneur, and more than twice the age I assumed Lin to be. "Like Granny P said… I guess getting hit knocked something loose. It's like I'm experiencing everything here for the first time. Fu… that's your name?"
He nodded, looking a bit hurt. "Phuong Fu. You really don't remember?"
"I do," I said truthfully - Lin was familiar enough with Fu that she knew his name and that he was related to Granny P. "I'm just confused about a lot. Fu, was I, um… am I… how to say this delicately. Am I 'simple'?"
He cringed and ran his fingers through wavy, black hair. "I… think you might not be."
"So I was," I confirmed. "Look… Fu, I don't want to be a bother, but I kind of have a lot of questions. Do you think you might be able to answer them for me?"
"Uh… sure, I guess I could do that sometime," he said. "But I've got to get back to my gran. I promised I'd help until suppertime, and if I don't get back, she's just might tan my hide. Well… she hasn't done that in a while, but a pot upside the head is a possibility."
My eyes went wide - what kind of messed-up violent world had I found myself in? Corporal punishment and beating your own grandchild with cookware? I guess it really was the middle ages here. "Okay, just until we get to my house…"
"We're here," Fu said abruptly, gesturing toward a nearby building.
I guess I must have inherited the place from my dead parents, because there's no way a 'simple' girl dressed in rags could have afforded the place. The house wasn't a mansion or anything, but we were in a slightly-nicer neighborhood than where Fu and Granny P lived, with neat limestone roads instead of patchy gravel. The houses were larger and separated by neat rows of trees and little gardens. The house that Fu indicated was one of the larger homes, even, with a second story occupying half of the house's footprint. I'd guess it had twice the square footage of my condo back in La Mancha Beach…
I wondered whether my parents would pay my condo association dues if I didn't show back up…
I hoped they weren't too worried. Somebody had probably reported me missing already. Or… well, I didn't really know. Maybe I'd actually died and got astral projected, because I sure as anything wasn't in my usual body.
Fu nudged my shoulder. "Everything okay, Lin-Lin?"
"Fine," I said with a sigh. "And just call me Lynn."
"Okay, Lin. Stay safe. And…" Fu's voice dropped to a whisper. "If Lee Dan tries to hit you again, you come and get me, alright?"
Lee Dan… the vague memory flashed through my mind. A cruel-eyed man with a close-cropped beard and a vicious streak a mile long. I nodded. The moment my crazy ex, or whoever this bastard was, showed up, I'd split for Granny P's place. "Okay. Thanks, Fu."
I approached my house and turned the door handle. And do you know what? It didn't even have a lock!
'My' house was nice enough on the outside - a nice little garden, a neat row of trees to either side, a small circle of crunchy, white gravel with a maple tree and a koi pond at the center, and a small shrine of red lacquered wood near the back. I assume somebody else did the groundskeeping, because Lin certainly hadn't been capable of it. It was also a stark contrast to the inside of the house.
The inside was a mess, and I had to wonder at the kind of squalid conditions that Lin lived in. The kitchen area was a mess of dirty dishes and broken bottles, many of them smelling strongly of spirits. Many of the walls were marked or damaged, as if a troupe of deranged monkeys scheduled battle royales in there on the regular. Late afternoon sunlight streamed through little gaps in the shutters where the slats were crooked or missing altogether. Overall, the place smelled of sweat, alcohol, vomit, and worse.
Despite the smell, my stomach grumbled. This body - hopefully, a temporary one - needed calories. I wandered into the kitchen in search for anything that wasn't a moldy accretion.
There was a fair amount of unconsumed alcohol in there, mostly a clear rice wine with a strong smell. Technically, that was a source of empty calories, but not one that anybody but an inveterate alcoholic could live off of. I rummaged through the cupboards, finding bread that was harder than croutons at a subpar Denny's, a slurry of something that was like kimchi, only way more disgusting and possibly with extra stuff growing in it, and then paydirt! A decent stockpile of what appeared to be rice, dried snap peas, and a bunch of jerky.
I scooped handfuls of the rice into a big pot, rust-pitted but otherwise clean, threw in the dried peas, and…
"Huh… where's the sink?" I was in something like medieval China, and if indoor plumbing existed, it certainly wasn't found in middle-class homes. I wandered out back with half a mind to just scoop out water from the koi pond, only to find that there was a little hand-pump back there.
Of course, pumping the water was a chore with my bony little arms, and carrying the pot back inside was even more difficult. Back in Cali, I had a decent side hustle doing fitness videos on Insta, and I bet I could have popped a full squat with my current measly body weight on either side of the bar. I'd be amazed if I weighed more than seventy-five pounds soaking wet. Now, I could barely struggle along with a gallon of rice and water.
I was skin and bones, but the whole point of eating super-carby rice was to fill out, or at least to be less worryingly undernourished. I brought the pot into the kitchen, only to realize I didn't have a modern stove, either. There was a cast-iron wood stove hidden beneath a mountain of dirty dishes. After a few attempts, I managed to push it all away and clear the area. I went back outside to fetch some of the logs I saw in the neat little pile in the back yard and then rummaged around the various hutches and drawers until I found what were recognizable as actual, bona-fide matches…
Apparently not as good as regular modern matches. There was no strip on the box to light them on and scratching them against the rough iron of the stove did nothing but destroy the match. Eventually, I found a little handheld device for making sparks, which did get the fire lit, and I figured out to open the flue after only a little panic over why the kitchen was suddenly filling up with acrid smoke. A mere hour later, as the sun began to set, I realized that I didn't have any interior light beyond the orange glow of the oven…
Candles to the rescue! It turns out they had candles in Emerald Vale. The light was barely enough to see by, but it would have to do. I snacked on gamey jerky as the rice drained. I could worry about food ethics and the vegan lifestyle when I got back to La Mancha Beach. This body needed protein and iron, and it wasn't getting it from rice and reconstituted snap peas.
I thought my eyes were too big for my stomach at first - the six or seven fistfuls of rice I'd used made a lot. Somehow, I managed to eat every last grain. I feasted upon my dinner of rice, peas, and jerky as I explored my house by candlelight, looking for any clues about the girl whose life I'd stolen. There were old books and a few scrolls, but I assume those were inherited, because poor Lin could barely speak in full sentences, let alone read. I found a collection of somebody's military souvenirs - slightly-tarnished weapons, old armor with its leather slowly-cracking from years of neglect, medals… a small pouch of foreign coins… a locket with a shock of chestnut-brown hair in it…
But Lin's parents had both had black hair. Strange.
I slid a partition open and nearly toppled over from the stench. The little closet space I found was clearly the bedding area for a dog or similar animal. There was a smelly pile of rags, some badly worn and clawed-through furniture, and what looked like one or two chew-toys. Presumably, the dog was long-dead, because I certainly hadn't found one in or around the house. I shut the closet and creaked up the stairs, the shadows dancing in the dark.
The upstairs bedroom was, by a significant margin, the nicest place inside the house. It didn't look like raccoons played war games inside it. The bed was untidy, but the sheets appeared to be clean. My fingers traced along the cool, forest-green silk. There was a hazy mirror balanced upon a dresser near the back wall. I examined my reflection in the wavering candlelight.
Yup. I was Lin, right down to the lopsided jaw and facial scars. My tongue traced along the jumble of skewed and missing teeth that made up the right side of my mouth - I'd chewed all of my dinner on the left side, and frankly my jaw was still tired from the effort of working through about half a pound of year-old jerky with half a mouth. And my eyes…
"No fucking way!"
My eyes were pools of silver.
I don't mean to say they were an unusual smokey gray like they'd been on Earth. No, the irises were the shining silver of polished chrome, my own hazy reflection visible within. And even weirder? There were no pupils. Where my pupils should have been there were slight depressions, barely visible if the candlelight was brought almost perpendicular to my face.
I leaned as close as I could to the mirror until my little nose touched the cool metal. As far as I could tell, my sight was perfectly fine. Wrong body? Wrong era? Wrong planet? Wrong… eyes? It was just another mystery to add to my strange fucking day.
I patted at the food baby gestating in my stuffed tummy. I'd have myself a huge breakfast tomorrow, too. But for now, it was dark, I was sated and tired, my candle was half-burned, and I might need light after dark on a thousand more nights to come. I curled up on the cool silk sheets with a little sigh, my nose barely registering the faint scent of perfume in the pillow.
Strange. I don't think Lin ever wore perfume. Things to worry about tomorrow. I drifted off to sleep.
Imagine my surprise at being awoken a scant few hours later by a large and intensely angry man shouting at me and threatening violence.