1 – Dinner

My stomach felt twisted.  The reflection that looked back at me from the mirror across the room was a stranger’s.  A Northlander with a mug and a meal.  His features were not remarkable from other Northlanders, but they were marked by shadow-kissed eyes, worried eyebrows, and tight lips.

Had it really only been six days?

I took a slow sip from the mug, a sigh filling the cup as the water it held filled me.  The water tasted thick and sour, a typical offering for a place like this.  Where travelers gathered in numbers, low on coin and high on thirst, quality was second to convenience.  And there were so many people here.  So many strange voices.  Some had accents that reminded me of home in the North, some that I recognized from the South, and a handful I couldn’t even place.

I took another look in the mirror as I finished my poor excuse for drinking water.  The face of the stranger that was me twisted a little at the taste.  I hoped it was well water, and not something from the river.

Behind me was another patron of the inn.  It was someone dressed in colorful clothes, the most prominent shade being a vivid green.  Green.  Green like home.

“What am I doing?” The twists in my stomach twisted again.  I clutched my wrist.  Guilt and homesickness, or maybe the water, were making me nauseated.  I shoved my mug away and got up to leave the table, tossing a copper coin down as I turned. I almost tripped over her.

She was a tiny girl, coming up only to my chest.  Her hair was a fire, bright curling waves flowing out across the sea of green that was her clothing.

“Goddess!  I’m s-sorry,” I said as I moved away, stumbling over my feet and my words.  So much green.

“No, no, it’s alright!” said the Green Girl.  I mumbled some more apologies which she met with reassurance, and I stumbled out of the tavern.

Everything about this place was wrong.  Even the architecture was all wrong.  In my home the buildings were styled with arches, and the wooden entryways were covered in carved decorations.  Lush grasses covered most of the roofs.  Here, all of the buildings were simple in style, and made of cold blue stones.

     This was a trade city, one of the hearts of trade in between the North and the South.   It was built alongside the river, the same river that fed the fjords that I lived along.  But the water was shallower here, and the river narrower across.  It also smelled terrible.  The city was large enough, and the water congested enough, that the waste from the city was enough to make it smell disgusting anywhere along the riverside.  The water at home smelled fresh, and the strongest smell was the muddiness of the riverbank.

     The street that the tavern was on started to get closer to the docks, which meant a lot more bodies packing closer and closer together.  The closer we moved towards the river, the less space there was between the people.  I prepared myself to start shoving and squeezing, and held tightly to the small bag that held my fortune.  Thieves were common in an area like this.  Not that I would have much to offer them.

     The street turned a corner that allowed the river to come in full view.  The smell knocked into me as roughly as the bodies of strangers that were shoving me from side to side.  Goddess, this place was disgusting.  I took a deep breath and pushed on.

     Several bruises later, I emerged from the stream of traffic where the street met the docks.  Every city had a square, but the docks were the real heart of any river town.  The docks were the primary place where travelers came and left from, and the center of the city’s economy.  The markets were there, and most businesses and taverns tried to place themselves as accessibly to the docks as possible.

     At the heart of the docks were all sorts of stands where food was being cooked and served, made with the spices and flavors of all parts of the North and the South.  The smells of food there mostly masked the river’s smell.  Unfortunately, the better the smells in a part of the city, the more expensive the inns.  Since I had a limited amount of money, I elected for the luxurious option of renting room at an inn delightfully placed beside the city’s main sewage drain.

     Despite the mix of smells, the docks were my best bet to find someone to help me with the problem that had dropped into my lap, and the reason I was here in the first place.  If there was one thing this city was better for than home, it was finding the kind of help that doesn’t ask questions.  I just didn’t know what that help looked like.

     To sell a boat this far in the Midlands is simple enough.  When boats come from the North carrying cargo for sale, and men to haul it, the current is with you.  On the way back, the river fights your progress, and all the men are needed for rowing.  Often at a Midland city on the river, the excess boats, usually the more raft-like ones, are sold at the end of trading.  Those boats get used in the Midlands to send cargo to the South.  There, they are often repurposed.  Lumber is more valuable there, even if it has been used as a boat.

     But to sell a boat when you are alone, not backed by other traders, that is a bit more tricky.  It was honestly in my best interest to keep the boat, a small fishing skiff meant for a few men at most.  At least, if I was right about where I was going.  But to get where I was going I needed money, and the boat was about the only way I had to get more of that.

     I didn’t even know where to go to sell a boat normally, let alone on these sorts of terms.  I’d always been having fun celebrating a good trade.  Boat selling was for the older men.  Maybe I was just doomed.  That sickening feeling of despair was overwhelming me again.  Or maybe it was the river smell.  It was hard to tell them apart.  “Goddess, what do I do?”  I scratched at my wrist.  The sound of the crowds on the docks was beginning to become a strange kind of silence.  My legs felt like stones.  My heart was hammering.  “What do I do?  What am I doing?”

     “Watch it!”  snapped a voice.

     “Get out of the damn way,” said another.

     I’d stopped walking, frozen in place in the way of traffic.  A gruff hand shoved me to the side and I stumbled into a group of women, scattering what they’d been carrying.

     “Goddess, what is your problem?” said one of them.  I stared and stammered something like an apology.  They all grumbled, collecting their things.  One of them had bought some yarn, and it had landed at my feet.  A beautiful blue, it had been muddied from the fall.  I reached down to pick it up for her, but in a whirl she snatched it up, nearly out of my hand.

     “Look at what you did!” she snapped, shaking the skein at me.  “It’s a complete mess.”  She stormed away, my faltering apologies chasing after her.  The rest of the women left as well, shaking their heads and muttering to each other about me.  I turned to leave the scene of my embarrassment, and nearly fell back over again.

     The Green Girl was as close to me as in the tavern.  She was looking me dead in the eyes, scrutinizing me wordlessly, hands on her hips, and her head at a tilt.  I met her hazel eyes with a guarded stare.  What was she doing here?

     “Yah’re not much of a city boy, are yah,” she said.  She had an accent I didn’t recognize.  “Northlander, aren’t yah?”

     “No,” I said.  “And yes.”

     “What brings you down here outside of the trading seasons?”  The way she asked sounded of curiosity more than suspicion.  But that gave me suspicions of my own.

     “Are you following me?”  I knew from past trips to the cities that subtle thieves, like pickpockets, usually worked in pairs.  One to distract, one to steal.  A tiny woman with striking features and a strange accent would make a poor pickpocket, as she stood out too much.  But as a distraction, she would be ideal.  I felt for my coin pouch through my bag.  Still there.  I clutched my bag a little tighter, keeping it close to my body.

     Her head tilted further at my question, an eyebrow arching.  “Following you?  Not on purpose.”  She sounded genuine, but I kept my grip on my belongings.

     “What do you want, then?”

     “Nothing,” she said.  “I just wanted to talk to you in the tavern, but you ran off so quickly.  But when I found you here at the docks, I wasn’t about to pass up the second chance.”

     “Talk to me?”  I carefully looked to either side of me for anyone who looked like they were waiting for a signal to move in.  “What about?”

     “Well, I’m not from the Midlands either, though I assume that’s obvious.”  She gestured towards herself in an up and down motion.  “I travel.   I wanted to know more about the North, in case I go there sometime.  I just didn’t know Northlanders were so jumpy.”

     “What’s there to know?   It’s the North.”  It was the North.  Cool, and green, and beautiful.  Lush hills and mountains, majestic fjords and rivers, and sparkling glaciers.  Clean earthy smells, and peaceful towns.  It was home.   My stomach remembered that it was trying to turn upside down before this conversation started.

     “Well there must be more to know,” she said.  “Like what towns are the prettiest to visit, and where the best dressmakers live, and what foods I should try.”  She had started to smile in a dreamy, excited way.  It would be endearing, if she wasn’t probably a thief.  “Please, you must have more to share than that!  Oh, but where are my manners?  My name is Serene.”  She lunged forward, shooting out a hand.  I yelped, and jumped back, pulling my bag to safety.

     Her smile shattered into an uncertain frown.  Her hand was open and extended, but was beginning to recoil.  “I apologize,” she said.  “I didn’t realize they don’t shake hands in the North.”

     “Oh,” I said.  “We do.”  Of course she wasn’t reaching for my bag.  She was the misdirection, not the actual thief.  I hugged the bag close to my chest with my left arm, and shook her hand stiffly with my right hand.  She had a tiny delicate hand that mine completely enveloped.  Perfect hands to be a cutpurse.  Perhaps she was not always dressed up to be the misdirection.

     “You’re very…strange,” she said, as our handshake ended.  “I was told the social norms of the North were nearly identical to the Midlands, but — “  She froze, and suddenly looked me up and down intently as if seeing me for the first time again.  And then she laughed.

     “By the Goddess!” she managed, between laughs.  “You think I’m trying to steal from you.”

     “Well, yes,” I admitted.

     “Well I’m not,” she chuckled.  “I’m not a thief, but I’ve known some.  Someone as nervous as yah are makes for a bad mark.”  She pointed to my right, towards some market stands.  These were a bit more luxurious, with finer dressed patrons debating about the objects for sale.  “Yah want someone a little more occupied, and well off.  Not much point to robbing from empty purses.  Come with me.”  She waved me along, and started walking.

     I followed, not entirely sure why.

     “What I was going to say,” she said, as we walked, “was that if yah wouldn’t mind, I would love it if yah joined me for a dinner.”  She led me towards the wealthier parts of the docks, where the river smell seemed to disappear, and the buildings were more intricate.  “I am at a loss, yah see.  I came to the Midlands because I’m not sure where I want to go next.”

     “All you do is travel?” I asked.

     She nodded.  “For now.  The world is so interesting.” She looked at me.  “Yah never did give me a name.”

     “Kulen.”  I figured it didn’t hurt to exchange names.

     “Kulen,” she said, slowly, as if tasting it.  She lingered on the ‘oo’ sound.  “Definitely Northern.”

     “Where are we going?”  We had started to break away from the docks and head inwards into the city.  I was as definitely Northern as my name, and the area was getting more and more affluent as we continued walking.  I didn’t exactly fit in to a place like this, not with my old homespun clothes and muddied boots.

     “To my rooms,” she said.  “Or we can go somewhere public?  I didn’t hear yah decline, and yah look like yah wouldn’t mind someone else giving you a good meal tonight.”

     Rooms?  That gave me a brand new set of questions and concerns.  I rubbed my wrist.  “I can take care of myself,” I objected.  “Besides, I already ate at the tavern.”

     “I believe yah, “ she said, without any trace of contradiction.  “Well, about caring for yourself.   But yah and I both know yah hardly touched that poor excuse for slop back there.  Have dinner with me.  Think of it as payment for your time and information.”

     I shrugged.  My stomach ached.  I was definitely still hungry.

    “You said rooms.  As in more than one room.  Who exactly are you?”  I only now noticed that her clothes, green and vibrant, were made of fine fabrics, and sewn in an unusual way.  The green was a dress of sorts that seemed to turn into a cloak around her shoulders.  She was not wearing it, but there was a hood that was part of it hanging behind her.  The fabric itself had a pattern around the sleeves and collar of different shades of gold and blue in alternating triangular shapes.   And underneath the green wraps of cloth she had sleeves and leggings of a deep blue that left only her hands, neck, and face exposed.  A very strange outfit, like I’d never seen.

     “No one special, just a traveler who is good at being in the right place at the right time.”  Seeming to notice my stare, she added, “I’ll only tell yah about where I come from if yah tell me about where yah come from first.”

     “Fair enough,” I said.

     “I know it attracts attention, but I like to be dressed both pretty and practical.”

     “And with all your traveling, you’re not worried about bandits?  Or worse?”  She was very tiny, and seemingly wealthy.  Unless, of course, this was still some kind of clever set up for thieves.

    “I guess yah could say I’m just lucky,” she said, with a beaming smile.  “Like I said, the right place at the right time.”  She seemed to be walking with something of a skip now.  “We’re nearly there, by the by.”  She started walking briskly, the skip in her step reminding me a little of a child.

     We continued through a small square.  We were not quite in the most decadent part of town, but all the buildings and streets here spoke of wealth.  The stone buildings were made much taller, with many more windows than I was accustomed to at home.  They were large and rectangular on the top floors, with wooden shutters that might have been more for appearance than function, and on the bottom floor they were large and arching, like half circles, made up of many small panes.  The roofs were shingled, and there were metal spires on several of their peaks.  The doorways had metal ornaments decorating them, and all the doors were raised above the ground level by a few steps.

     Though she clearly didn’t belong here any more than I did, the finery of the fabrics Serene wore, and the grace with which she moved, put her much more at home here than I was.  She seemed at ease and unconcerned by the looks that passersby gave her.  Or, more likely, at me.  I felt myself shrinking down a little, wishing I was as small as she was.   I caught a glimpse of our reflection in one of the large windows we passed.  I was far taller than her, nearly a foot so.  Her fiery hair was loose and wild, yet somehow managed to look much better than my short curls and hesitating beard.

     She stopped at a large building with a deep red door, and went inside.  On either side of the door were two extremely large windows, the same sort of half-circle arch shapes of all the other buildings here.  From the extra layer of ornamentation, namely a decorative sign featuring a dagger stabbed into the fork of a river, I deduced this was some kind of inn.  I followed her inside, into the largest, fanciest common room I’d ever seen.

     The tables were made of a darker, finer wood than any tavern or inn I’d been to before.  Tapestries hung from the wall across from me and the door, spaced apart evenly.  The pattern was only broken by a large stairwell, which took the space and width of where one might be.  On the right side of the room was an enormous hearth, not lit right now.  On the left side there was an impressive bar, and an entryway that led into the kitchen.  An amazing mixture of smells were coming from it.  On my side of the room, with the door, the windows were covered with two kinds of curtains.  Transparent, lacy ones hung down, filtering the sunlight that came through the large windows.  Drawn back, and tied with golden ropes, were red velvet drapes that looked like they could black out the room.

     The patrons themselves, though appearing wealthier than what I was used to, were a familiar sight.  They ate, drank, gambled, laughed, and argued.  In some ways, it seemed, all people were the same despite how much or how little coin they had to spare.

     Serene hopped towards the bar, which had three people behind it.  A stocky girl and a willowy young man were rushing back and forth getting drinks.  The third was an older man, gruff looking but well groomed.  He was chatting with some of the customers, while also keeping an eye on the other two.  Serene moved towards his end of the bar.

     He noticed her, and broke off his conversation to greet her.  “Ah, Serene!  So good to see you again, m’lady.  The boys brought all of your things to your room upstairs.”

     “Perfect!  My thanks!” She jumped up to a seat at the bar.  “It is great to see yah again as well, Leon.”  She motioned for me to join her.  “Leon, this is Kulen.  He is my guest tonight.”

     “Nice to meet you, m’boy,” he said, shaking my hand firmly.  “Welcome to Cutforks.  A friend of m’lady’s is a friend of mine.”  He waved over the stocky girl.  “Aimee!  A round for our guests, if you please.”

     She nodded and brought over two glasses of ale.  “M’lady,” she said in greeting to Serene.

     “Thank yah, love,” said Serene, passing her a couple of small coins.  Aimee took them, nodding her thanks.

     The ale was familiar, and far better than the water from the tavern before.  It was lighter than the ales I was used to back home, but still it was welcome.  A little ale would help take the edge off my nerves.

     “We are about to serve a meal,” said Leon.  “Would you like some?  And if so, you’ll want it upstairs I imagine?”

     “Yes on both counts,” she replied.  “And, please, two for each of us of my favorite drink.”  She added a little wink with the order.

     “We’ll bring it all up, and breakfast as usual,” said Leon, smiling.  “I’ll leave you two to your business.  Good to meet you, Northlander.”  He clapped a hand on my shoulder.  “Come find me if the boys aren’t providing for m’lady and you appropriately.”  He moved on to other parts of the bar.

     “When yah’re finished,” said Serene, after a sip of her ale, “we’ll head up to my rooms, if yah don’t mind.  The common area’s lovely, but poor for long conversations.”

     “Seems nice enough to me,” I said, still marveling at the quality of everything.

     “Too loud,” she said.  I didn’t disagree.

     When we finished our drinks, we went up the broad staircase.  The building had two floors above the common room.  We went up to the top floor, and followed the hall to the end.  She stopped at the last door on the right.

     She really had meant rooms.  The door opened into a small, but luxurious sitting room.  Two plush armchairs sat across from each other.  They were placed at an angle so that they could face each other while also facing a short table between them.  On the other side of the table, with its back to us, was a loveseat made in the same style.  An enormous rug lay across the floor, its color scheme mostly red and gold to match the rest of the inn.  In the corner, on a stand that matched the table, was a set of decanters and glasses.  Next to it hung a strange, thin tapestry, which ended in a tassel.  It was woven with the same imagery of the sign outside.

     Two doorways opened up from the left side of the room.  One was a room for a toilet and bathing.  I could see a large tub tiled with a brilliant blue and green mosaic through the partially open door.  The other doorway led into a bedroom, which was undoubtedly the smallest room of the three.  It was beautiful, but simple, with only a bed, a small set of drawers, and a tiny closet.

     “Welcome to my home away from home,” said Serene.  “Make yourself comfortable.  I’ll be out in a bit.”  She went into the bedroom and closed the door.

     I put my bag down near the door.  The rug looked expensive, so I took off my boots.  I left them next to my bag, and settled hesitantly into one of the armchairs.  It felt amazing.  I imagined that this was what clouds would feel like.  I sank in deep and let the comfort of the seat mix with the faint, pleasurable hum I felt from my ale.

     After several minutes, Serene came back out, and I started.  She had changed from her layered clothes into something far more revealing.  Green still, this dress was made of shining fabrics and threads that drew the eye.  It was loose and formless, but tight around the sleeves of the upper arm.  It had cuts that bared her shoulders, and a circular collar that connected the other side of the cuts to each other, supporting the rest of dress.  The dress gathered on either shoulder in a strap like section made of gathered cloth.  The straps created a frame around her uncovered chest.  The cloth flowed freely, exposing her small breasts.  I swallowed nervously.

     She didn’t seem to notice as she joined me in the sitting area.  She took a seat directly across from me in the loveseat, legs crossed, and smoothed out the fabric that gathered in her lap.  To say that the dress was flattering was an understatement.  It looked like an extension of her oddly innate grace.

     “So tell me about yah, Kulen Northlander,” she said.  “And, if yah are willing, what brings yah to the Midlands.”  She seemed to notice my nervous stare now.  “Yah’re safe with me.  I don’t need to rob yah, as yah can see.  Yah’re free to go at any time, I won’t stop yah.  But I would love the company, and the knowledge.”

     I shifted in my seat and scratched at my wrist, trying to will myself to be comfortable.  Sure, she probably wasn’t going to rob me.  And she probably didn’t want to kill me.  But the wealth, and the way she was dressed, still had me on edge.

     “Well,” I managed, “I’m not exactly sure where to start.”

     “I suppose yah could start with telling me about your home,” she offered.  “What’s it like in a Northern town?”

     I looked her in the eyes, less unnerving than looking at her body.  They were wide with questions, hungry and innocent.  I couldn’t quite reconcile that look with the way she presented herself, but there was no trace of insincerity in the way she looked.  I let my guard down.

     “The North, it’s, well, green.  And cool.  And a fair bit nicer than here.”   It was safe.  It was homey.  It was perfect.  “I come from an old fishing village.  It sits along a fjord.  Three times a year we come down the river to trade.”

     “Oh!  So yah were with other Northlanders?” she asked.

     “Er, no.  I came alone.”  I scratched at my wrist.

     “How long have yah been away?”

     “Six days.”   Six days.  It really felt like more.  Unwanted memories from my nightmares and a feeling of helplessness washed over me.  My stomach once again resumed its attempts to flip upside down.

     “Oh, not long!” she said.  “So a visit for pleasure?

     “No.”  Definitely not pleasure.  “More like…business.”

     “But not trading?”

     “No.  I’m sorry, why are we talking about me?”

     She started to say something but a sudden knock interrupted.  She raised a finger to pause the conversation and got up to answer the door.

     A thin boy was outside the door, with an elegant cart carrying food and drink.  He wheeled it inside and began placing the dishes on the table.  There were two shallow bowls, each with fish and a buttery yellow sauce.    The smell of lemon, herbs, and spices burst out from the plates.  Whatever qualms I had about accepting a meal from Serene went missing as soon as the scent hit my nose.

    The boy left another two plates, one for bread, and one for butter, beside ours. He placed cutlery out for the meal, as well as a decanter of white wine with matching glasses.   On the cart were four other glasses, all filled with a deep red liquid, iced, and garnished with flowers.  Two were garnished with white flowers, and two with blue.

     “The wine comes with the meal,” said the boy, “but Master said M’lady asked for these as well.”  He placed them at the end of the table.

     “Thank yah, Louis,” said Serene, passing him a copper piece.  “No need to come collect these until the morning.  We would like to dine and converse undisturbed.”

     “As you like, M’lady,” said the boy.  “Enjoy.  If you would like anything else, if you please, pull the bell.”  He gestured towards the corner to the thin tapestry.

     “Of course,” said Serene.

     “Mister.”  The boy bowed slightly, first to me, then Serene.  “M’lady.”  He took the cart and left, closing the door behind him gently.

     As soon as the door began to close, my hands dove towards the food.  In an almost frantic movement, a forkful of fish was in my mouth, melting sweetly in a song of incredible flavors.  Finally, something beautiful in this wretched place.  Another bite was in my mouth before the first had even disappeared.

    Serene could not contain her laughter at this.  “Yah’re so strange,” she giggled.  “It’s like yah’ve never had a meal before!”

    “It’s very good,” I mumbled out through the food.  I felt my cheeks warming, but ignored it.  This food was too delicious to care what I looked like eating it.

     I poured myself and Serene some of the wine, and cut off some bread to dip in the sauce.  Serene was eating hers in a delicate way that matched the rest of her sensibilities, savoring every bite.  I wanted to, but could not make myself slow down.  The dish was all gone before I was completely satisfied, but at least I wasn’t hungry.

     When we were finished, Serene took one of the filled glasses from the end of the table, and passed me one.  “This is my favorite!” she said.  “I always start my evenings here with at least two, they’re so good!”   She chugged it down completely without pause, the most graceless thing I’d seen her do yet.

     “Two,” she added, “Because when it comes to these, I’m a bit like yah with that fish.”  She smiled a little shyly, taking only a tiny sip from her second one.  “Go on, try it!”

     I took a tentative sip from my own.  It was alcoholic, but very sweet.  It was still icy cold, but filled my throat and chest with a fiery warmth.  Flavors of wine were there with fruits I didn’t recognize, and it was almost spicy.  It was strange, as strange as Serene.  I could see why she enjoyed these.

     “Good?’ she asked, eagerly.

     “Good,” I said.

     “Good.”  She smiled, nose crinkling.

    I drank my drink down, not quite as quickly as she had her first, and started on my second.

    “What are these?” I asked.  In the North we stuck to wine, ale, and mead.  Rarely did we make or drink distilled liquors, but I’d tasted them in the Midlands before.  However, those had always been pure.  This tasted like some sort of mixture.

     “Honesty.”  She took another sip of her drink.  “I find them delicious, and great for conversation.  Really opens yah up.”  She stood up.  “I’ll be right back,” she said, and went into the lavoratory.

     I continued to sip at my drink.  The warmth from my chest was spreading out across my body, and into my limbs.  We could use drinks like this in the North, where the bitter cold of the winter stung all the warmth out of you.   

     I finished the glass.  It was amazing how comfortable it made me feel.  It was like the warm fuzzy comfort of the ale I’d had earlier, but so much stronger.  The softness of the chair was almost tugging me downward, as if I’d grown heavier, and my limbs were so relaxed it seemed like it would be a chore to move them.  The warmth of the drink was reaching all the way into my fingers and toes, and I sighed, content.

     My wrist was itching.  Goddess, how irritating.  I sighed heavily and rubbed it back and forth on the arm of the chair.  It didn’t seem to help.  Did I really have to scratch it?  I didn’t really feel like making the effort right now.  I felt so tired, and heavy.  That meal and drink had really satisfied me.  The itching was spoiling my contentment.  And it was itching more than normal.

     Serene came back out, and sat across from me in the other armchair.  “Alright,” she said, looking away distantly.  “Let’s get back to talking.  But this time, I want yah to be truthful with me.”

     “What do you mean?” I asked.    

     “I’ll be frank,” she said.  She looked me in the eyes.  All the innocent sparkle had gone out of her eyes, and they seemed much more cold.  “I know there is something yah won’t tell me, and I want to know what that is.”  She stood up.  I tried to stand up too.  I couldn’t.

     She walked towards me with a predatory grace, never breaking eye contact.  “Yah are holding something back.”

     “I thought you w-wanted to know about the North,” I said, struggling to move.  The warmth I had felt from the drink was starting to turn into heat.  I glanced frantically at the table.  The drinks!  I hadn’t noticed before, but although our drinks looked the same, she had drank both the glasses with white flowers, and left me the blue ones.  Drugs?  Poison?

     “I do want to know about the North,” she said, head cocking, eyes squinting as they pierced into mine.  “But there’s something else.”   She moved in close, too close, her face inches from mine.

     “Yah smell very bad,” she said quietly.

     “Excuse me?”  I hadn’t exactly bathed properly since I left the North, but what did that have to do with anything?  The heat was growing inside of me, reaching through every part of me from the depth of my chest to the tips of my fingertips.  The itch in my wrist was growing intense.

     “Yah stink” she said.  “Yah smell evil.  I had heard all magic in the North had died, but it seems I’d heard wrong.”   She reached a hand, and laid it on my forehead.  I flinched, but could not move.   

     “What was in that drink?” I grunted.  My wrist began to burn.

     “I told, yah,” she said.  Her hand wandered from my forehead down to my chest.  “Honesty.”

     She moved from my chest to my left arm, slowly moving down towards my burning hand.  She grabbed my hand, flipping it over and shoving my sleeve back.  I cried out, but could not stop her.  She muffled a scream and dropped my hand, clutching the hand that had held it.

     There, on my wrist, blazed two red, angry eyes made of fire.  They burned hot, making my whole body scream in pain.  The eyes disappeared, and became a swirling circle of colors, spinning faster and faster, until the colors became brightness that came out from my skin.  When they were spinning so fast and bright that they became a single, bright light expanding outward, the light exploded into tiny fragments that shot through my veins like white hot motes of smoke.  I screamed as they tore through me and seemed to burn all of my blood.

     And then it was over.

     “What kind of magic is that?” shouted Serene.

     I breathed heavily, but seemed to be able to move now.  My wrist was still, only a small marking left behind.  It looked like an ugly birthmark, or a poor tattoo of a storm cloud.  I looked at closer.  It was still moving, but so faintly that it would be missed if you only gave it a glance.  I stood up, awkwardly.

    “What just happened?”  She looked different again.  She looked afraid.

    “Honesty,” I said.  And then the world turned upside down.

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