A Second Meeting
I was woken up by the sound of someone knocking on our front door. Still half-asleep, I sat up and rubbed at my eyes, listening to the sound of the door being opened, followed by a general exclamation of surprise. Was Rosalind already awake? I pushed myself off the bed and glanced at the table, where my working uniform sat neatly folded and cleaned, next to a set of more casual clothing: a tunic and skirt combination, in simple grey tones. I turned my gaze outside the window, where the orange tint of the setting sun informed me of the time. It seemed I had slept most of the day away. Considering my new job, I should have been downstairs preparing to open the tavern, but as Rosalind had clarified, we would not be opening for that night. I briefly considered getting back into the bed and sleeping the rest of the day away, but I also felt a degree of curiosity as to Rosalind’s visitor. I had been staying with Rosalind for more than a month now, and this was the first time I had heard a visitor come knocking outside of operating hours. Furthermore, the tone of pleasant surprise I had heard from Rosalind indicated that the visitor was a friend – or at the very least, a favoured acquaintance. I thus held a desire to see what this friend of Rosalind’s was like.
I quickly slipped on the casual clothing, wondering how long Rosalind had been awake, if she had taken the time to clean and fold my clothes. I descended the stairs, hearing the sounds of conversation coming from one of the tables. As I reached the last step, the sight of Rosalind sitting at the table across from a brown-haired woman reached my eyes. Rosalind was wearing clothes that were similar to mine, though hers were a light blue in colour. However, what drew my attention was the person she was speaking to – I recognised her. It was that merchant, the one on the cart that had found me on the way here. The one who had been unable to give me water, but instead had pointed me in the direction of this town. Her brown hair and brilliant blue eyes were unmistakeable – moreover, she was wearing the same heavy brown cloak that she had worn on the road. Now that she had pulled off her hood, I could see her features more clearly – my first impression of her face as one of great beauty was not mistaken. It was rather angular, with sharp contours – it gave her a very mature, detached beauty that was accentuated by her short hair.
As I stepped off the staircase, she turned her head sharply and glanced right at me, wearing a look of surprise, which quickly turned into a slight smile. Rosalind turned to follow her gaze and grinned as she saw me.
“My, Rosalind, is this the new helper you’ve been telling me about?”
“Yep. She’s amazing! She brought in so many customers that we actually completely ran out of ingredients. Can you imagine? We actually sold so much that we don’t have anything left for tonight.”
“My, that’s certainly something. I don’t suppose you want to restock from my supplies?”
“I’ll be glad to take your wines off your hands, but our normal suppliers already agreed to send us a restock tomorrow, so we’ll be fine~”
“Well then, I’ll let you look at my selection in a bit. I managed to get a couple rare ones on my way in. But more importantly, introduce us, will you?”
The woman laughed and beckoned me over. As I approached the table, she stood up, her cloak shifting to reveal a tunic and pants beneath it, both in shades of light brown – along with a sword, sheathed at her hip. Naturally, my attention in the brief moment of the reveal was drawn to the weapon. Its sheath and handle were completely wrapped in cloth, obscuring any design detail which might grant information about the weapon. All I could tell about it was that based on the length of the hilt, it was likely meant to be held in one hand, and based on the length, it was likely a shortsword – assuming the weapon filled the entirety of the scabbard. Furthermore, when the woman stood up, her left hand went right to the sheath, gripping it through her cloak briefly before releasing it, the right side of her body facing forward – from that posture, she could draw and engage in moments. Her movements were those of someone who had stood on the battlefield, a veteran for whom fighting was as natural as breathing. Seeing this, I tensed up. She raised an eyebrow, a grin playing around her lips.
Rosalind seemed not to notice this subtle shift in atmosphere, introducing us as the woman had requested.
“Elysium, this is Ruth – the family friend I told you about.”
Ruth – the one who had proposed the theory about multiple planes. So a fighter as well as an intellectual? What a frightening combination. I felt myself grow even more wary – this woman was a mysterious figure. There was something unusual about her. I could feel my instinct screaming that fact. Meanwhile, Rosalind turned to Ruth.
“Ruth, this is Elysium – my new helper. She’s looking for something, and staying with me in the meantime.”
Ruth extended a hand for a shake. I casually took it, but I could feel strength in her grip – I responded by gripping firmly as well. She withdrew, her left hand hovering at the part of her cloak which concealed the sword. On my part, I subtly adjusted my stance, shifting my body weight. We held eye contact for several seconds of silence. Then Ruth spoke.
“Elysium, was it? Rosalind was telling me about how you managed to drastically increase sales in the course of a single night. I had wondered what manner of merchant you might be, but… you’re not a merchant, are you?”
“…Unfortunately, I’m no merchant. But then again, neither are you, it seems.”
“Oh? But I am most certainly a merchant. I trade goods for a living, going up and down to different locales, buying and selling depending on the price. Does that not make me a merchant?”
“Yet your stance and atmosphere suggest otherwise.”
“No, no. I do enjoy engaging in a little swordplay, but I am most certainly a merchant.”
“…Your level of skill is clearly much higher than that of a mere enthusiast.”
“Oho. But to be able to ascertain that just by sight, clearly your own martial skill must be great. In fact, I believe I would greatly enjoy a bout with you – as a fellow enthusiast, of course.”
Rosalind cut in with a nervous stammer, seemingly lost for words. Ruth laughed and relaxed her stance, her hostility vanishing.
“But now is not the time for that. Come, sit down.”
With that, she once again sat at the table. Seeing that the immediate threat was gone, my body loosened up. I sat at the table across from her, next to Rosalind, who was still looking at us with confusion. I thought to reassure her, but Ruth beat me to it.
“No need to worry, Rosalind. It was merely a friendly greeting between enthusiasts.”
I was tempted to correct her referral to me as an enthusiast – I did not take joy in fighting – but I let it pass. It would be pointless to further complicate the matter. Seeing Rosalind breathe a sigh of relief, Ruth turned her attention back to me.
“Still, I am surprised that you ended up here. Certainly, I did point you in this direction, but to think you would end up at Rosalind’s home… truly, a great coincidence. And you can speak our language now. That’s rather impressive. I do wonder how you managed to learn it so well in such a short amount of time… Perhaps you had some special learning technique?”
“Eh? Have you two met before?”
Rosalind cut in, surprised. I nodded.
“I met her when I was wandering on the road. It was… my third day of wandering, I think. I had not seen any people, I had not seen any sign of civilisation. I was dying of thirst, and came upon Ruth on the road. I begged her for water – which was no easy task.”
“Certainly, it was very confusing for me. Everything you said sounded like gibberish to me – it took me several seconds to realise you didn’t speak our language. Though your current fluency is truly a great mystery… or perhaps a miracle? Regardless, I only managed to understand what you wanted when you desperately pointed to a barrel of tar in my cart.”
“Yes, tar. I had been carrying tar for the garrison on the walls. It was not, unfortunately, water. I would have given you water, were it not for the fact that I had none with me.”
“Not even for yourself?”
She shook her head.
“None. For the entire time I was out there, I did not drink a drop of water.”
I narrowed my eyes in suspicion. That was highly unlikely. No prepared traveller would set out on a journey without stores of water. Ruth caught my glare and took a sip of the wine in the glass before her, glancing over the rim of the glass.
“I am not so callous as to let a stranger die of thirst if I have the means to save them. I speak the truth. Believe what you will.”
She set her glass down, its contents drained.
“Rosalind, dear, could you get me a refill? And a glass for Miss Elysium, too. There should be an unopened bottle of Saphiz Scarlet somewhere in my cart – let’s open that. A welcome drink for the new hire.”
Rosalind’s eyes sparkled at the mention of the wine’s name – was it her favorite? Regardless, she nodded frantically and nearly ran out the door, leaving me to watch the swinging door with growing confusion. Ruth laughed and explained.
“It was her father’s favorite wine. More importantly…”
She leaned back in her chair, her face taking on a serious expression.
“…tell me about your plane.”