Rosalind sipped away at her glass of Saphiz Scarlet – a wine that, contrary to what the name might suggest, was not at all scarlet in colour. The liquid that swirled about in our glasses was of a vivid blue coloration that seemed to sparkle in the late afternoon light. The taste of the wine was…complex, for lack of a better descriptor. It had a hint of spiciness to it that undercut the sweetness, and it left a distinctive buzzing on the tip of the tongue. I found it rather difficult to drink, but Rosalind seemed to like it a lot – inherited taste, I suppose. As she drank, a look of fond remembrance blossomed across her face, a look that Ruth was watching with no small deal of affection. The merchant was clearly fond of Rosalind, and it made me feel somewhat like an interloper – after all, I had only known Rosalind for a little over a month, and here I was, sharing a drink with two long-time acquaintances. A degree of discomfort was inevitable.
After finishing off her first glass – mine was still about two-thirds filled – Rosalind posed a question to Ruth.
“So, Ruth, will you be staying over tonight again? I could prepare a room.”
Ruth shook her head.
“No, I need to get going. I have reasonably urgent business elsewhere, so I can’t stay too long.”
“If you were in a rush, you didn’t have to stop by… you could have always come by the next time you swung around… now I feel kind of bad for holding you here…”
Ruth laughed and patted Rosalind’s head.
“Don’t worry about it. I had to pass through this town, anyway, so stopping by wasn’t a very hard decision to come to. Besides, there’s a reason I had to come by: my next job will take me… pretty far. I won’t be able to drop by for a while, so I decided to check up on you one more time before I left.”
“How far is ‘pretty far’?”
“I’m going home.”
Rosalind’s face became downcast, while Ruth gave her an apologetic look. Confused, I decided to cut in.
“Sorry, but where’s your home again?”
“I’m headed to Saphiz.”
I blinked, surprised. I had assumed she was going to another part of the country, but if she was going to another continent, that was a different matter. Considering that travel in this world was still done by sea, going to another country would take weeks, or even months. Clearly, Rosalind knew this as well – she was visibly upset. She asked the natural question.
“So… When will you be coming by again?”
“I’m not sure. I’ll be away for a few months, at least. Maybe even a couple years.”
Rosalind had a look of veritable horror on her face – it was clear she did not welcome the thought of being separated from her friend for so long. Considering the circumstances under which she had come to know Ruth, that was unavoidable. Ruth scratched her head, troubled.
“Yeah… that’s why I dropped by today. To tell you, and make sure you’ll be okay.”
“I totally won’t be okay.”
Ruth laughed and flicked Rosalind’s forehead.
“That’s a lie. You have Elysium now. You’re not alone anymore, Rosalind. As long as you’re not alone, there’s nothing you can’t overcome. Wasn’t that what your father used to say all the time?”
Rosalind bit her lip and cast her gaze down, holding her silence for a while before nodding.
“So you’ll be fine. I swear, sometimes you still act like a child. Come on. Chin up.”
Rosalind obediently lifted her head and met Ruth’s eyes, tears beginning to well up.
“Ah… Don’t cry. Come on. I’ve been away for way longer before. I didn’t even get to see you for most of your teenage years. You’ll be fine without me, especially now that you’ve got her,” She motioned at me, “to take care of you. Though… I suspect you’ll need to teach her quite a few things, as well.”
I shot Ruth a glare. I was fully aware of how little I knew about this world, given my background. I had read plenty of books, I knew lots of tiny trivia and theoretical things. But the extent of my experience had thus far been limited to the road and this tavern. I knew that I had much to learn, but there was no need for Ruth to point it out so clearly. Trying to get back at her, I derailed the conversation with a jibe.
“You know, Ruth, I forgot to ask; how old are you, exactly? When Ros told me about you, she introduced you as a friend of her parents. And from what you’ve just said, you were there to see her grow up. Given that Ros is around my age, wouldn’t that make you an old woman? How old are you, exactly?”
“Come now, Elysium. It’s rude to ask a lady her age, as I’m sure you’re aware – or maybe not. Forgive me, I did not realise you had yet to be educated in basic etiquette that a five year old should know.”
Unfazed, Ruth easily evaded the question and counterattacked. Impressive. But I had more up my sleeve.
“Ah, but that was meant to lead-in to a compliment, you see? I’m impressed by your youthful looks. You must be what, ninety? How does an old lady like you manage to look so young? What’s your secret? It’s magic, after all, isn’t it. Ah… as someone who can’t use magic, I’m jealous…”
Ruth barked out a laugh.
“Ninety? Was that your best shot? I must say I’m rather disappointed. But I suppose I can tell you my secret: I bathe in the blood of my fallen enemies. Easy~”
The last line was spoken with a conspiratorial wink, but I felt a chill run up my spine. Based on what I had garnered of her combat ability from the way she carried herself… it might not necessarily have been a joke.
Meanwhile, Rosalind had stopped crying, and was instead watching our conversation with a bemused smile. Seeing a lull as I tried to formulate a response, she cut in.
“Actually, Ruth, I’m curious as well. How old are you?”
Ruth sighed theatrically, shooting Rosalind a pained look in response to her betrayal. She reached out and patted Rosalind’s head again.
“I’ll tell you when you reach my current age, girl.”
Rosalind chuckled and nodded. Ruth, however, took on a serious expression.
“Well. That takes care of the first reason I’m visiting – to check on you and tell you I’m leaving. Now for the second.”
“There’s another?” The surprise was evident in Rosalind’s voice.
“Yes. A warning.”
I sat up straight, alert. Warnings meant danger. Danger required vigilance.
“This is purely speculation on my part, based on what I’ve heard and seen in various towns on my route, but… there seems to be an uprising brewing.”
“Against the King?”
“Yes. A number of nobles are frustrated with his taxation policies, as well as his neglect of the peasants.”
Rosalind winced when Ruth mentioned taxation, but I could only tilt my head in confusion. I was aware that this country operated under a monarchy, but I had no idea about the policies implemented or the political situation of the country, other than that overseas trade was strictly regulated. Ruth explained the gist of it to me.
“Three years ago, when the previous King died, the current King ascended to power by winning favor from the noble houses, buying their endorsements over his brother, the original crown prince. While he hasn’t changed many of the existing laws – thank goodness – he implemented higher taxes in the name of making the country richer. The increased coffers were used to pay back the many favors he owed to the noble houses, and he continues to shower money and gifts on them to maintain their support. The result is that the middle and lower classes are taxed heavily, while the rich grow fat on these taxes and pay none of their own.”
I blinked, astounded. That made no sense. It was basically an inverse progressive tax. It was literally a direct worsening of the income gap.
“Thankfully, since this country operates under a feudal system, the citizens are not taxed directly – the lord that owns their land is taxed by the King, and the lord in turn levies taxes from the citizens to pay that tax. The problem of taxing the poor still remains, for those lords who have to pay the most are the least powerful or least wealthy of the nobles. Even so, many of them try to make the burden on their citizenry lighter by paying a part of the taxes out of their own coffers. It makes them poorer, but it keeps the citizens from starving. This region is under one such kindhearted lord. That’s the gist of the situation.”
It was somewhat reassuring to know that there were at least some decent people within this system. It was a sign of hope, that the country was not completely lost to corruption and avarice. Still, it was an unsettling state of affairs.
“So I’m guessing these smaller lords have had enough?”
“Many of the smaller nobles are dissatisfied with the King and his policies, and wish to push for reform – but they are not given an ear in the court of the King, for he prefers to surround himself with those nobles that do nothing but flatter him and support him in exchange for money and power. It’s not a pretty situation, and these nobles want change – but the uprising seems to be in the early stages. The current lord of this region, Lord Dyfern, has, as far as I can tell, maintained neutrality on the matter. But that might change.
If he decides to side with the rebels, it is likely all the citizens under him will be called to action to support the effort. If that happens, I want you to refuse. Stay out of this. Keep your heads low, wait for it to blow over.”
I stared at Ruth, saying nothing, trying to get a read on her intentions. Rosalind, meanwhile, creased her eyebrows in confusion.
“But why? If the lord wishes to make our lives better, surely supporting him would be to our advantage.”
“It’s because she thinks the rebellion will fail.”
I answered for Ruth. Based on how she had approached the topic of the rebellion – as a warning – it was clear she did not think the uprising would be a successful one. Ruth nodded, confirming my suspicions.
“Something feels off. Uprisings are rooted in outrage, but also hope. From what I’ve heard of the uprising, it’s definitely motivated by outrage, but nobody’s passing around messages of hope. An uprising like this is bound to make a misstep somewhere along the line, and when that happens, I don’t want you to be anywhere near it. Got it?”
Rosalind fell silent. Clearly, the idea of simply keeping her head down and passing by an uprising unnoticed was an uncomfortable one.
“Promise me, Rosalind.”
“Good girl.” She smiled warmly. “Well then, I really should get going – I’ve a long trip ahead of me.”
Ruth stood up and walked toward the door, Rosalind trailing behind her, with myself behind Rosalind. We walked her out of the tavern and to her cart, where she turned around, holding out her arms. Rosalind quickly entered them and hugged Ruth, holding her close for several seconds. Rosalind whispered a few words to her, at a volume I could not catch. I averted my eyes to prevent myself from reading her lips – it would be rude to intrude on the intimacy of such a moment. Still, from the brief amount I had seen prior to turning, it seemed to be a simple goodbye.
Ruth caught my attention by calling to me – Rosalind was still hugging her. I turned to her.
“Make sure you keep Rosalind safe.”
“I’ll protect her at the cost of my life.”
“No you won’t.”
“You’re right, I won’t. I’ll protect her as long as it doesn’t involve putting my life on the line.”
“That’s enough for me.”
The confidence with which she spoke… I could feel a hidden message in that grin. She seemed to have made an assessment of my ability. ‘If it was me, the situations which could be life-risking were few and far between’ – that was the sort of message she was sending me. It was an affirmation, as well as a challenge. The corners of my mouth upturned in a smirk. It was not my choice, but like her, I was a fighter at heart. There was no way I could refuse this challenge.
“Come now, Rosalind. If you detain me any longer I might miss my ship.”
Finally, Ruth pushed Rosalind away, laughing. Rosalind took a few steps back and stood at the doorway.
“Farewell for now, then. I don’t know how long it’ll take, but I’ll be back. I promise.”
Waving one last time, Ruth got on her cart and gently patted her horse, starting on the long road toward the port. As she left, Rosalind continued watching her, trembling. She was on the verge of tears again. I placed a hand on her shoulder, and she leaned against it. Like that, we continued watching Ruth until we could no longer see the shape of her cart.