“Now you will see what fine dwarven dining is all about,” Hil said. All of them were seated on hard dwarven benches around a table. The cushion Roger got was a little over stuffed, and he felt that he could slip off from it at any moment.
When the waiter came, Hil was prepared. “I’ll be having a steak prepared in the dorim-khah style, perfect medium, and to drink I’ll take your best mushroom wine. Thank you.” He tucked his hands in front him and waited for everyone else to order.
Roger frankly had no idea what anything on the menu was, and so he had Ari order for him. She sighed loudly at him when he asked, but didn’t say anything rude. Baby steps.
Having taken their order, the waiter walked away, his long traditional dwarven skirt swishing as he went.
“Thanks for getting the money for dinner, Ari,” Hannah said, “I was pretty sure Hil was going to stay in the room by himself for the rest of his life.”
“Yes, thank you,” Hil said earnestly.
“It was nothing, really…” Ari started to say before interrupting herself, “Actually, it was the worst. You guys owe me. You should be groveling at my feet.”
“Did something go wrong?” Hannah asked, surprised.
“Yes!” Ari scowled, “No. That’s not the point.”
She continued, “Do you know how humiliating it was to show up at that house like this?” She plucked at her clothes and ran a hand through her hair. “If Toli tells anyone, nobody will ever take me seriously ever again!” She slumped down in her chair, glowering.
“And Ari’s not even mentioning the other stuff,” Roger said.
“Other stuff?” Hil asked.
“We got chased around town by that blond guy and friends.” Roger said, “You know, the ones from the mountains? Then they chased us into a catacomb where some creepy girl named Une was having skeletons help her… What was she looking for again?”.
“I don’t remember,” Ari said sullenly.
“Anyway, this girl was running around in the dark with a bunch of skeletons. How creepy or awesome is that?”
“What did you say her name was?” the abbot asked.
“Interesting.” Father Miha sat back, thinking inscrutable thoughts and twiddling his thumbs.
“Huh, raising skeletons,” Hannah said, “I wonder how she did it. I’ve never heard of someone doing that where I’m from, but then again souls are weird things that can be coerced into things that you wouldn’t expect. This one time, I was working with this soul that had decided he couldn’t go anywhere without his baseball. I thought that was really weird, until I realized it was a dog…” She trailed off when she noticed that everyone was giving her odd looks. “I mean, I dreamed it or something. Ha ha ha ha.” She chuckled nervously and started pointedly inspecting every detail of the room.
Roger just shook his head at Hannah as the conversation took a bit of a lull after her remarks. He scanned the room, noticed the other patrons, smelled the inviting smells. If the dwarven food tasted half as good as it smelled, he would be very pleased. He was seated such that he was facing the door, and was enjoying seeing the various kinds of people who came and went. Many were dwarves, but many were humans as well. There were a couple of people that, from Hil’s explanation, were probably half dwarves, but none of them were as large as Hil.
The door opened again to admit another visitor, and this time Roger was transfixed. The girl that had blown him up entered, looking cautiously around the room. Just like he remembered, she was the perfect picture of feminine beauty. The host showed her to a table off to Roger’s right. He did his best not to stare, but his eyes kept finding excuses to glance in her direction.
“What are you looking at?” Hannah asked while the others chatted about something else.
“Nothing. I mean, I’ll tell you later.” Roger could feel his face growing warm. He glanced over at the girl one more time, and this time she just happened to be looking back in his direction. Their eyes met for a brief second, and she stared back at him. It wasn’t an aggressive look, but it held a challenge in it, as if she was daring him to keep looking at her. He didn’t dare, and pretended that he had been looking at something else the whole time.
It took him several minutes to remember that the last time he’d seen her, she had blown him up and nearly killed him. He wondered if she remembered him.
Soon after that their food came. Hil’s steak looked perfectly seared, and was topped with a pile of sliced mushrooms that were oozing some kind of sauce. The dish that Ari had picked for Roger turned out to be a soup. “It’s very traditional, very authentic. If you’ve never had dwarven food before, this is the place to start,” she had said at the time. It turned out to be a kind of lamb stew that had some kind of breaded and fried mushrooms thrown on top.
Roger scooped up one of the mushrooms with his spoon and popped it in his mouth. He was nearly overwhelmed by how delicious the flavor was. The breading was seasoned with a blend of spices that Roger couldn’t even begin to try to pick apart, and the broth had soaked into one side, adding extra flavor while the top remained crunchy. He tried a spoonful of the broth next, and found it equally delicious, seasoned with who knows what, but with a distinctly sweet note to it. After a few bites he found that he was beginning to sweat as heat from the spice blend started to build up.
He wiped the sweat beading on his nose. “Wow, Ari. This tastes amazing, but I’m kind of afraid it’s going to kill me,” he said.
“Ha!” Ari laughed, “Considering it’s you, it might, but most people agree that sweating from dwarven cooking is supposed to be a cleansing experience.”
Roger glanced over at Hil. Hil’s face was red, and hair clung to his forehead, but he looked completely blissful as he savored his food. Hannah was in a similar state, except she was shoveling her food into her mouth as quickly as possible. The abbot pulled at the neckline of his habit and dabbed his face with a napkin.
“Why aren’t you sweating like the rest of us?” Roger asked Ari.
“Years of practice,” she said with a concealed smirk, then took another bite.
When he was done, Roger was pretty sure that his tongue was going to melt and run out of his mouth, but he was deeply satisfied on many different levels. He risked a glance over at that girl again, and saw that she had received her meal, and was eating it with grim determination.
After they had all finished, they sat around for a while listening to the music being performed. Outside the sky grew dark, but the fireplace and candles provided warm lighting for the room. The abbot told them stories from his younger days. Hil regaled them with tales of dwarven heroes who were doomed to fail, but bitterly fought, regardless, against wicked troglodytes and their own cruel fates. Hannah told a strange story that she claimed she had “heard from a friend,” about how an old man had died, and his pet dogs just stared at him for a whole week without moving until someone came looking for him. Ari recounted the events from the afternoon in greater detail, even giving Roger his due by saying that he “wasn’t completely useless.” Roger tipped a hand at her in sarcastic thanks.
“Well folks, I’m going to bed,” Roger said, beginning to feel sleepy.
“I’ll probably be along in a minute too,” Hil said, his cheeks flushed from the cup of wine he kept sipping on, “But I think I want to stay a little longer.”
Roger left the common room, and went up the stairs to the second floor. They were staying down the hall, and around the corner. He walked down the hall, went around the corner, and opened the door. He nearly stepped inside before he realized that this wasn’t his room. This room was full of someone else’s things that were arranged in the kind of partly tidy, partly left out kind of fashion that signalled longer habitation. On a table there was a map, heavily annotated, and next to that were some knitting needles and a ball of yarn with a partially finished garment growing out of it.
Roger shook his head, confused. He must have gone the wrong way at the top of the stairs and ended up going around the wrong corner. He turned to go back the other way, and ran straight into the girl who had tried to blow him up.
He froze, his train of thought completely shattered, and various instincts simultaneously trying to figure out what the best course of action would be without reaching a conclusion. The girl gave him a once over, and glared when she saw his hand on the door to her room.
“What’s with you? Why do you keep staring at me?” she demanded. Her voice was smooth and feminine, but laced with an accent that was completely alien to Roger.
“Ah… Ummm… Yeah…” he mumbled.
“Do I know you from somewhere, or something like that?”
“Ye– I mean, you don’t recognize me?”
“Should I? I feel like I should know who you are, but I don’t.”
“Maybe we should get to know each other then. What’s your name?” Roger asked, simultaneously feeling horrified and impressed with himself.
“You don’t need to know,” she said, expression flat. With that, she shrugged, stepped past him into her room, went to shut the door, but stopped.
“Honestly, though,” she said, “What are you doing at my room?”
“I took a wrong turn,” Roger said sheepishly, “I thought it was my room.”
She squinted at him, trying to determine if he was lying.
“I see,” she grunted after a moment, “But don’t make the same mistake twice.”
With that she shut the door firmly behind her.
Roger walked woodenly back down the hall, rounded the corner, and found the room he was sharing with Father Miha and Hil. His emotions were in a state of turmoil. On the one hand, he was relieved that he hadn’t been blasted through the wall of the building, and that she obviously didn’t see him as a problem. On the other hand… He had been so close to maybe starting a conversation, and then she would find out he was a really interesting guy with lots of good opinions, and then they would fall in love, and…
Stop it. You’re ridiculous, he told himself, shaking his head. He took a deep breath and assessed the situation. He should probably warn everyone that the magic user that had been part of a group who had tried to kill them was in the building, but… He would ask Hannah first. Maybe she would have some girl advice for him.
Roger waited outside the door until Hannah came upstairs with everyone else, and pulled her aside.
“I want your advice on something,” Roger said.
Hannah yawned. “Sure, no problem, but can’t it wait until morning?”
“It’ll just take a second.” Hannah nodded sleepily and Roger continued, “I’m wondering how you can tell if you ever have a chance with a girl. Like, what would she do to let you know if there was.”
“Well, it really depends on the girl, but I guess most girls would look at you a little more often than normal. Maybe give you a smile sometimes, or try to find reasons to talk to you. Basically, if they’re giving you attention on purpose you probably have a chance.” Hannah suddenly got suspicious, “Why are you asking me this anyway?”
“No reason,” Roger said. He was already analyzing what Hannah had said. The girl had looked at him enough times to notice that he had been checking her out. Did that count as looking at him more than normal? She hadn’t ever smiled at him, but maybe she just didn’t smile that much. She had also started a conversation with him, and though it had been tense, that counted as looking for an excuse to talk to him, right?
“Because I know you and Ari just had an adventure together,” Hannah said, concerned, “but that doesn’t mean she’s going to have feelings for you.”
“Ummm, I’m not asking about Ari.”
“That’s good, because I wouldn’t want you getting hurt. Like, physically. I think Ari might beat you if you tried to flirt with her.”
“Noted, but I’m really not thinking about Ari.”
Hannah squinted at him, and her concern got deeper. “I was afraid this might happen,” she said, “Roger, you’re an ok guy, as in, you do nothing that’s repulsive, but there are so many reasons why we shouldn’t hook up.”
Roger stared blankly at her.
“Not least of which is that we have no idea exactly when my probation will be over, and I’ll just disappear. I don’t think either of us would want to deal with that.”
“Umm, Hannah…” Roger tried to get a word in.
Hannah talked over him, “And I know that we’re probably the two people in this world who know the most about each other, but–and this is just me–but you’re really not my type, and…”
“Wow. Hannah, please,” Roger said, raising a hand in objection, “Stop.”
“I’m not talking about you either.”
“What? Really?” Hannah almost seemed a little put out, “Well who else could it be? You don’t know any other women.”
“Well…” He felt foolish just bringing it up. Up until that moment he’d just had stupid little daydreams about this girl, but saying it out loud made something about it more real. It was probably better left as a daydream. “I’ve actually run into this one girl a couple of times while we’ve been traveling. She’s amazingly pretty, and we’ve talked…” he coughed, “A couple times, and I was wondering if there was any way I could have a chance with her.”
Hannah regarded him with suspicion. “When and where have you seen this girl?”
“Well,” Roger said, feeling awkward, “I ran into her one time on the road, and she’s staying here tonight. So…”
“I see.” Hannah gave him a flat stare.
“Anyway, thanks for your thoughts. I’ll keep them in mind.”
“Uh, no problem,” Hannah looked uncomfortable, “Good night, then.” With that she retreated into the room she was sharing with Ari.
Roger considered what Hannah had said. There was a little sting to being rejected, even if it was from something he hadn’t even asked for, but he was mostly thinking about the girl. Given what had happened so far, other than the part where she had tried to blow him up, he figured he might have a small chance. He went to bed feeling irrationally hopeful.
The next morning, Roger was woken up by one of the staff informing him that breakfast would be served. Hil could not be stirred, and the abbot was already out and about somewhere, so Roger went down with the girls.
Sharp morning light filtered through the windows, and the room felt much more alive and energetic than it had the previous night. Roger could hear the kitchen staff preparing the breakfast, and the dwarven waiters were again politely making their rounds through the tables.
As luck would have it, Roger looked up right as the dark haired girl came down the stairs. She noticed him looking at her, scowled and stomped over to a seat where she could sit with her back to him. That’s not particularly encouraging, Roger thought.
“So, Roger,” Ari said, interrupting his musing, “Hannah was telling me an interesting story about you last night.”
“Oh really?” Roger said while giving Hannah a pointed look. She just smiled back at him apologetically.
“What’s the deal with this girl?” Ari asked, “Give me all the details.” There was a strange hunger in her eyes that reminded him of her friend, Toli.
“Well she’s sitting right there,” he said, pointing vaguely.
Ari spun around in her seat, staring obviously in the direction he had pointed. “Which one, there are at least three girls over there.”
“The one in the green.”
Ari leaned over to Hannah. “Her hair’s too perfect. It makes me suspicious.” She squinted for a minute before continuing, “She looks short, and that color hasn’t been in fashion in years.” She turned back to Roger. “You could probably do better,” she said, flipping her hair to the side with her hand.
Roger was confused by what he had just witnessed. “But, you haven’t even seen anything but the back of her head.”
“Regardless,” Ari said, “She has several faults.”
“I dunno,” Roger objected, “She’s really pretty.” And she has amazing magical powers, he added to himself.
“That’s not really much of a recommendation.”
The innkeeper was bustling about, seeing to the needs of his patrons, and Ari signaled to him. He obligingly came over.
“Have you enjoyed your stay? What can I do for you?” he asked in that meaninglessly polite way that only people in the service sector are capable of.
“What do you know about that young woman over there?” Ari asked.
The innkeeper frowned, “She pays, and she keeps quiet. I don’t know a lot about her, but she’s been staying here for a few weeks. I can’t–and won’t–tell you any more.” With that, he went back to helping his other customers.
Ari took a moment to mull that over in her head, before shrugging, “I guess I’ll have to see for myself.”
Ari stood up, and–to Roger’s horror–stalked directly over to the girl, sitting down next to her. She recoiled in surprise. Roger and Hannah leaned in as close as they politely could to listen.
“Hello,” Ari said, using a cordial tone that Roger was unfamiliar with, “My name’s Ari. What’s yours?”
“It’s Shurre-Na,” the girl responded defensively, “What do you want?”
“My friend over there says he’s talked to you a couple times,” Ari said, pointing at Roger. Shurre-Na shot an irritated glance at him, and went back to looking at Ari. “I was wondering what you guys talked about,” Ari continued with an evil look growing on her face.
Shurre-Na sat motionless for a moment before responding. “Why do I recognize you?” she asked, “Why do I recognize all of you?” She sat there stewing over her conundrum.
“So you’re not going to answer my question?” Ari pressed.
“Oh,” Shurre-Na said, with a hint of a smile, “I remember now.” She turned back to Roger. “I figured he died.”
“What’s that now?” Hannah asked Roger.
“Umm, I don’t know,” Roger lied.
“Right, you all were the ones who escaped the abbey and killed my mercenaries. I was going to sneak up behind you, and… Well, regardless, that guy stopped me, so I tried to kill him.”
“Are you sure you don’t know about this?” Hannah asked Roger again.
“Maybe a little bit, now that she says it that way…” Roger mumbled.
“So you have the hots for someone who tried to murder you?”
“I didn’t think it was personal,” Roger said.
“It wasn’t,” Shurre-Na said, suddenly standing next to him, “Just know that the next time you get in my way, I won’t be so careless.”
Roger gulped. His heart was racing from terror and the fact that she had intentionally spoken to him.
Ari came up behind her, and put her hand on Shurre-Na’s shoulder. “You don’t have any right to threaten him. Only I am allowed to do that.”
“I don’t think anyone should be allowed to threaten me,” Roger objected. The two girls both glared at him.
Shurre-Na shrugged Ari’s hand off and pivoted to face her, “And you have no right to touch me.”
“Oh I don’t, do I?” Ari asked, the steel evident in her tone. Ari and Shurre-Na stared each other down, and Roger noticed both of them subtly shifting their weight lower, preparing to strike.
“Alright,” he said, standing up between the two, “Let’s not do that here.”
“Yeah!” Hannah said, standing up and putting her arm around Ari’s shoulders, “Can’t we just get along for now? I don’t really want to get thrown out.”
Ari growled, and Shurre-Na straightened up and stepped away from them. “You got in my way again,” she said to Roger. She glanced around the room, and took a step back, some of the tension leaving her, “Luckily for you, I don’t feel like destroying you right now, but I definitely will if you don’t leave me alone.”
Roger felt something tighten up in his chest. On the one hand, she was looking directly at him, and she was gorgeous. On the other hand, he knew full well that she would execute on her threat.
“I’m going to eat my breakfast now,” Shurre-Na said, “I don’t want to talk to any of you again.” She walked off to the other end of the room, tapped a waiter on the shoulder, and sat down at a table to make her order.
“I knew she was awful,” Ari said with a sniff and flip of her head.
“I dunno, I kinda like her,” Hannah said, sitting back down at the table, “But seriously Roger, you shouldn’t fall for girls that try to blow you up. That’s abuse.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said, “It’s not like I was thinking anything serious. I just thought… Who knows what I thought…”
Ari continued to growl, “I could’ve taken her so easily. She’s like three inches shorter than me.” She flexed her fists in frustration.
“Do you need to beat her?” Roger asked.
“She already escalated this to a physical conflict when she tried to blow you up. Otherwise I would have had to try for months to destroy her identity. This way is so much more direct. I like it.”
“But why try to destroy her at all?” Roger asked.
“Pretty girls are always in conflict with each other,” Hannah said with a bored tone, folding her arms on the table in front of her, “It’s just the nature of things.”
“No it isn’t,” Ari objected, “I have lots of pretty friends.”
“Are they as pretty as you?” Hannah asked.
“Of course not,” Ari replied.
“Well there you go.”
Ari sat down with a huff. “Regardless, Roger, you have horrible taste in women.”
“I just thought she was cute,” Roger said defensively, crossing his arms. “Stop me next time I’m tempted to talk to you guys about anything.”