I stood in the middle of the battlefield, surrounded by corpses. All around me, the bodies of soldiers lay – some of them my allies, most of them my enemies. Scattered among them, numerous undead soldiers were unmoving, slowly fading to dust. My polearm was firmly lodged in the ground a short distance away, its wooden shaft broken by my using it as a foothold. The dagger which I usually kept hidden along my calf was in my hand, submerged to its hilt in its target. Her hands went limp at her side and her eyes began to flutter. I felt a weight on the dagger – it was the dagger, along with my strength, that held her upright. Slowly, gently, I placed my free hand under her back and rested her on my free arm. I carefully extracted the dagger from her chest, her body convulsing slightly when it exited. Her fresh blood dripped from the tip, staining her perfectly white clothing. I slowly lowered her to the ground as her breaths grew weak. She looked at me, her youthful face – seventeen, give or take a couple months – showing me a look of gratitude. Seventeen. Something about that number disturbed me. It felt… familiar, painful.
Though it was plain to see that speaking hurt her greatly, she motioned for me to come closer. Suspicious. We had been fighting to the death until just a few minutes ago, after all. However, I was not one to deny a dying girl her last words. I leaned in close, bringing my ear to her mouth. I owed her that much.
“Finally… I don’t need to fight anymore. Thank you… Perhaps, now that I’ve joined them in death, those poor soldiers I had to raise will forgive me…”
One of the undead soldiers who had been crumbling away slowly turned – a magic-using type. It wore a mask – it had been one of the strongest and fastest. It had given me no end of trouble whenever it appeared. Its hood and mask shrouded its face, but judging by the clothes it wore, in life, it had been a woman. The undead started shambling towards us, with no trace of the threatening speed it had previously displayed. Cautious, I quickly stepped away from Rachel and readied my dagger in case it attacked. But it was unnecessary. The undead moved over to Rachel’s side and stopped, slowly kneeling down. It brought one bony hand to Rachel’s face. On her part, Rachel reached up and touched her hand to its mask. Her voice didn’t carry to me, but somehow I knew what she said.
“…Mother. Let’s go.”
Then her hand dropped to the ground and she moved no more. The masked undead instantly crumbled away, as did the remaining undead soldiers. Then I was the only one left on the battlefield. I glanced at the dagger in my hand, still blood-soaked. Rachel’s peaceful face as she died flashed across my mind. Resisting the urge to retch, I threw the dagger aside, burying my face in my hands, feeling wet, warm tears under my fingers.
I was woken from my dream by the sound of footsteps passing through the doorway toward me. Alarmed, I clasped my hand to my chest, searching for the sword that I always kept close at hand – only to remember that I no longer slept with a sword. I had not done so for years. My heart raced as I tried to confirm the number of enemies and their level of equipment by the sound they were making – but as I calmed down, I remembered where I was. I was sleeping in Rosalind’s home, in her guest room. The sound of the footsteps matched hers. Rosalind was… not a hostile entity.
I took deep breaths to calm myself, then pushed myself up on the bed, shielding my eyes against the glare that came in through the window. Judging by the amount of light, it was probably sometime in the early afternoon.
Blinking the sleep away, I turned to the doorway, where Rosalind was frozen, watching me with concern while a large tote bag hung from her left hand. My first thought was that it contained a weapon of some sort – maybe an explosive – but I forced my paranoia down. It was that dream that was bringing back all my old habits. That old dream that I had thought myself free of. A memory of a time long past. Perhaps recounting my story had brought it to the surface once again to haunt me.
Seeing that I had calmed down somewhat, Rosalind spoke.
“Are you okay? When I came in, you suddenly jolted.”
I shook my head.
“I’m fine. You just surprised me, that’s all. I had… an old dream. It had me on edge.” I narrowed my eyes. This was an unusual situation. “Still, this is the first time you’ve woken me up at this time of the day. Isn’t this the time you normally start preparing to open the tavern? I always hear you shuffling about downstairs.”
Rosalind blinked, evidently surprised. Perhaps she had not thought that I would be aware of her daily habits. Whatever the reason, she smiled thoughtfully.
“Hmm. You have a good sense of perception – though I already knew that. You’re right. I should, in fact, be preparing to open the tavern right now. But before that, there’s something important I have to do.”
“I suppose this is the part where you show me the bill I’ve accumulated over the past three weeks and threaten me with slavery if I don’t pay up, knowing full well that I have no money?”
I was only half joking. Even as I said this, I was measuring the distance between myself and the open window, calculating how long I would have to make a break for it before Rosalind could react. I had no doubt I could overpower her in a physical fight, but she had magic and I didn’t. Magic made all calculations problematic. Additionally, in preparation for this moment, I had spent much of my first day surveying the street outside the window. I was on the third storey, but there was a one-storey building just across the road – given my enhanced physical capabilities, the jump would not be a problem. I took care not to tense up, not to give any indication of running, but Rosalind shook her head quickly.
“No, no. I’d never do that. Besides, slavery is illegal. Officially, anyway. Though you’re correct in that what I have to say concerns your continued living here.”
“So, eviction, then?”
“No! Ely! Stop interrupting me!”
I shut my mouth. It was the first time I’d actually seen her mad. It was kind of cute. Exasparated, she sighed before continuing.
“You’re my friend. I wouldn’t want to turn you out. But I don’t think you’re the kind who would be willing to freeload off people, either…”
I smiled. She was right. I had been preparing to pack my bags and leave, just so I could stop being a drain on Rosalind’s resources. She had no obligation to host me, and I would rather not trouble someone who had shown me nothing but kindness. I expected her next sentence to be along the lines of how it was okay to freeload, and I steeled myself to refuse her.
“…So I was thinking, why not come work for me? I’ve been thinking about getting some help around the tavern, after all, and this way, you wouldn’t be freeloading anymore! Of course, money’s kind of tight nowadays, what with lower traffic and rising prices… so I can’t pay you a wage… but in exchange for working for me, I’ll keep you fed, and you can continue living here! How does that sound?”
I blinked in surprise. I had not expected that. Clearly, Rosalind was more resourceful than I had given her credit for. I mentally reassessed my opinion of her – kind, generous, compassionate, but also shrewd. Excellent.
I mulled over her offer. It was certainly a good compromise. It would allow me to stay on without worrying that I was being a burden – earning one’s keep was always a good feeling. I decided to seek clarification.
“When you say work for you, what do you want me to do? I’m afraid that I’m no more than an average cook, and I certainly can’t tell my alcohols apart.”
She shook her head.
“Of course, I didn’t expect you to do those! We use original recipes, so you’d need to take time to learn them anyway, and since you’re from another world, I can hardly expect you to know how to prepare our food – nor can I expect you to know the differences between our types of alcohol. That would be unreasonable.”
If anyone but Rosalind had said that in any other situation, I would have found it condescending. But in this case, it was the truth. I said nothing and waited for her to proceed.
“So I’m going to have you wait tables. A lot of the time I get swamped between delivering and preparing orders, and end up messing things up. If you can take and deliver orders for me, I can focus on preparing the food – would make things much easier. And it doesn’t require a lot of training, either! You’d just need to memorise the menu. What do you say?”
I put a finger to my lips as I thought. It was true that if it was just waitressing, it was well within my capabilities – I had done more than my share of waitressing in college. Furthermore, I did owe a lot to Rosalind, and this was a prime opportunity to pay her back… there was no reason to refuse. However, in my experience, it was a bad idea to seem overly eager, so instead, I posed a problem to which I already had an answer.
“I think it’s a good offer, and I do owe you a lot, but… I came to this world to find something – not to settle here. I should be looking for something… and when I don’t even know what that is, I don’t think I can afford to take the time and work…”
Rosalind’s eyes glinted, like a hawk catching its prey. I resisted the urge to grin. This prey knew the trap, but wanted to be caught.
“Well, if you don’t know where to start, isn’t this even more convenient? It’s a tavern near the border. Plenty of different people pass through here: merchants, soldiers, mercenaries. If you want to find something unknown, something mysterious, and you don’t even know where to look, isn’t the tavern the first place that crosses your mind? While you’re working, maybe you might hear people talking about something that strikes that chord of familiarity! Come on, I do need the help, and this will probably help you get to where you need to go, too! And you can quit whenever you want, no obligations. What do you say?”
I allowed a smile to creep unto my face. Exactly the response I had been expecting. I made a show of giving in.
“Fine, fine, you win. I’ll give it a try. No guarantees that I’ll be good at it, though.”
Rosalind grinned at my acceptance. Then her grin took on an aspect that I could only describe as mischievous, as she set her tote bag down on the table and began rummaging in it.
“Well then, let’s get you in your uniform~”
My blood went cold at the sound of the word uniform. Uniform? What uniform? The only uniform I’d ever worn was for schooling – and that could hardly apply in this context. I suddenly recalled that back in my home country, it was popular for cafés to dress their waitresses in frilly maid uniforms – surely not? This was a tavern, not a café. Such a uniform would look out of place in such an establishment… right? However, as I watched Rosalind glancing inside the tote bag and laughing with malevolent mischief, I felt a sense of foreboding.