An Unfurnished Room
When I next regained consciousness, I knew I was in a different place – an unfamiliar place. The air smelled different, the temperature was different. Falling back on my instincts developed years ago, I kept my eyes closed as I attempted to ascertain whether there was anyone in the room next to me. I focused on the sounds, listening for the telltale whisper of breathing. I found none – none in the room, anyway. I could hear the sounds of life somewhere below, the static of conversation someone would find in a bar back home, or a tavern in that previous world. However, this static was too soft, more like a murmur than a chorus. If this was indeed a tavern, then business was slow.
The nature of this establishment notwithstanding, there was nobody in the room with me; as such, I judged it safe to open my eyes.
I was greeted with a simple, gray, undecorated ceiling. Based on what little I had seen of the town while I was desperate for water, it was likely concrete, or some similar material. A bit strange, considering that from what I had seen thus far, the technology level of this world was closer to the age when houses were still built from stone and wood, but I suppose that in a parallel world, anything is possible.
There was something soft under my back – a mattress. I was lying on a bed. I slowly sat up, gritting my teeth as I felt the accumulated muscle pains of the trek hit me all at once. Recalling the trek, it struck me that I was not feeling as thirsty as I ought to be. I experimentally swallowed and was surprised to find that my throat – while still dry – did not feel as uncomfortable as I expected. I turned my gaze to the side, eyeing a small table next to the bed, atop which sat a covered jug of water and an overturned glass. Leaning neatly against the side of the jug was a small card with some kind of message written in an elegant hand – but, as I could not understand the language, I had no idea what it said.
I pushed my legs off the bed, resting them on the floor – each movement brought pains and cramps which hurt like hell. It felt like my muscles had been overworked, then left to do absolutely nothing for a long period of time. Which, as it were, might have been the case. I had no idea how long I had been out for. When I had staggered into the town, it was nighttime, and now it was evening, the orange light of sunset filtering through the blinds across the single window in the room, facing the bed. So I had been out for at least a day.
As I moved into the new seating position, I noticed something odd – namely, that I felt clean. When I had crawled into this town, I had been covered in dirt and grime and sweat and dust – and the crawling would certainly have added to the mess. But now I felt clean, too clean, even. Like I’d just come out from a full-body spa treatment and steeped myself in a bath of disinfectant. I touched my hair, expecting it to be a clumped-up mess of tangles and dirt, but I found that it was smooth and silky to the touch, a better result than any shampoo had ever given me. Confused, I turned my attention to my ruqun – it was pristine, completely clean, as if I had just taken it out from my wardrobe. The scratches and stains it had accumulated on the road were nowhere to be found. I was mystified. If it had just been my body that was clean, it might have made more sense – whoever saved me might have taken the effort to remove my clothes and give me a sponge bath, and my hair could have been settled with a bucket of water, shampoo, and dedication. But removing my garment, cleaning my body, then fixing up and cleaning my garment and putting it back on? That was far too much effort to expend on a stranger. It was possible that my host and savior was some altruistic, well-intentioned person with a bleeding heart and more compassion than any other individual I had ever met, but that was unlikely. I overturned the glass on the table to its correct orientation and poured myself a glass of water, downing it in gulps. The thought of the water being poisoned did, naturally, occur to me, but I dismissed it – anyone who had taken such great pains to nurse me and tidy me up was unlikely to do it just so that I could choke on poisoned water and die.
Setting the empty glass back on the table and pouring another round, I gazed around the room – much like the ceiling, it was simplistic and practical. It was sparsely furnished, the main furnishings being the bed, the bedside table, a larger desk sitting by a mirror on the wall, a lamp on said desk, and a bookshelf filled with various books, all with titles I could not read. A number of clothing hooks lined the wall next to the wooden door, atop a small raised platform that I presumed was meant for placing folded clothing.
Returning my attention to the water, I was about to gulp it down, but then recalled the signs of drought I had seen on my way. I glanced at the jug of clear water I had been given – clearly, this water was precious. It again caused me to wonder exactly what kind of person my savior was – what kind of person would show such hospitality to a ragged stranger of unknown origin? Such behaviour was naive at best, or suicidal at worst. What if I turned out to be a thief, or a murderer, or some other sort of legal undesirable? My curiosity triggered, I sipped at the water while waiting for my host to show up, as I had no doubt she would.
Several hours later, when the sky had turned dark, I heard footsteps at the door. I had thought of lighting the lamp on the desk, but I had no idea where to find fire, and besides, it hurt like hell to move. So when my host arrived to check on me, the light from the candle she held caused me to wince, the intrusion of light into darkness hurting my eyes. I knew from her gasp that it was a woman – that, or a man with a woman’s voice. The light from the candle was, however, too dim for me to make out her features. She hurried to the desk and used her candle to light the desktop lamp, then fiddled a bit with it to cause the flame to grow in intensity and brightness, until it filled the room with light. I raised an eyebrow in surprise – a gaslamp? Another piece of technology I had not expected.
Nonetheless, with the room lit up, I could finally see the face of my savior – and what a face it was. Beautifully angled cheekbones flanked thin lips and a pair of hazel eyes. Her hair, tied in a low ponytail, was a startling, deep red that reminded me first of berries, then of blood. I could tell she was not wearing any makeup, but she certainly did not need it. She was beautiful. However, what really caught my attention was her expression – relief was present on her face, along with clear delight, but her eyes sparkled with curiosity – not the casual, passing kind like mine, but the feverish sort of curiosity that would not stop until it had the answers it sought. I became slightly more guarded. Curiosity in and of itself was a harmless enough motivation, but anything taken to an extreme was dangerous, and this woman’s curiosity seemed close to extreme.
Noting that I had tensed up, the woman frowned and stayed where she was, putting up both hands to indicate that she had no intention of visiting harm upon me. She said something, presumably something reassuring, but I had no way of knowing what it was. I shrugged and replied, in my own tongue.
“Sorry. I don’t speak your language.”
The woman’s eyes widened, and I could almost see her curiosity intensifying. I frowned. Was it so unusual to meet someone who spoke a different language? Perhaps the woman interpreted my frown to be affront, but she quickly shook her head and said something which I, again, could not understand. Confronted with my blank stare, she frowned, placing a finger to her lips – she seemed to be deep in thought. Then she nodded and waved to get my attention – not that it had ever left her. She pointed a finger to herself and spoke what I presumed was a single word.
It sounded like a name. An English name, in fact. Was this her name? As I watched, the woman repeated her action and her utterance. Given her behaviour, and assuming the dictates of courtesy in this world were similar to those in my previous two worlds, the logical conclusion was that she was giving her name. I repeated it and pointed to her.
She smiled and nodded excitedly, then stepped closer to me and held out a slender, beautiful hand – a handshake? I eyed it for a while, unsure if that was a custom in this world. Rosalind, noting my hesitation, laughed and demonstrated, grasping her left hand in her right in a firm handshake – though it was reversed. Briefly, I wondered whether reversed handshakes were the norm in this world, but I decided not to care. Likely she had simply done so since a normal handshake was impossible on one’s own. I pushed myself off the bed and to my feet, fighting the urge to let the pain show, leveraging my years of training to keep my struggle hidden. I stood firmly on my feet and, ignoring the pain, took hold of her hand in a firm handshake.