I woke up in the morning with stiff, red hands, not quite blistering, but raw red as though I scraped my palms against the asphalt and twice as painful.
Milly tittered quite a bit, but seemed to sense my embarrassment, for she didn’t say anything as she smoothed an herb and lard balm over my hands and bandaged them up with linen strips.
“I don’t suppose you can heal yourself?” said Hal from where he stood by the counter, helping with breakfast since we had so many mouths to feed.
I shook my head. Trust me, I had tried. I didn’t want to be even more of an embarrassing weakling than I already was.
Gus full on scowled on seeing my bandaged hands when he came in. I had been given water-free tasks, such as setting out the plates and sweeping.
“Oh sweetie, don’t you ever smile?” I asked. “You’re never going to get a girlfriend being such a grouch.”
“Who said anything about getting a girlfriend?” he snapped. “And don’t you have more things to worry about? What the hell, can’t you heal yourself? Budge off, I’ll do your work.”
“No, you won’t,” said Milly, bumping him back with a hip. “You’re even more useless than she is. Get some meat on your bones and then we’ll talk.”
“I can do what she’s doing just fine!”
“And set off a hubbaloo when superstitious idiots see your eyes? You can help well enough back here for today. Kitchen’s needs help cleaning anyway, it’s disgusting.”
Grouchier than ever, he settled down to his own task well enough, grumbling so low in his throat it sounded like a kind of weird purr.
Hal looked on it all with his warm smile.
Even with my hands bandaged, I managed to do my share of work. The weather had cleared, so we got the travelers on their way and were able to close down temporarily for lunch for yet another cleaning of the inn (Hal was a stickler for cleanliness, had something to do with his dedication to keeping his establishment pest free). But by the time we were done with that, my hands were burning and throbbing something fierce to the point they refused to do more than twitch when I tried to grip something.
My eyes watered with more than just frustration.
“What happened to my body being new and improved?” I growled to the air, hoping Nehcor heard somewhere. Didn’t being like Methusalah make me just a little more durable? Was the soap they make in this world really that harsh? Lye and animal fat and all.
Hal was the one who spotted me near tears in the corner and took my hands in his warm palms. The bandages were already filthy from use.
“Have Milly redress them and only do what you can tonight. Taking orders. Carrying out food. Don’t push yourself.”
I sniffed, despite my efforts. “I’m sorry, Hal.”
“For being a lame horse.”
“Goodness, a horse? And here I thought you were a maiden with the fairest skin to grace the earth. So fair and delicate, in fact, that I’m surprised it held out until now.”
I put my smarting hands to my chest. “It was all the laundry yesterday. All the soap.” Freaking medieval lye soap. Secretly, my legs and feet were smarting too from when I’d stomped about in the tub, but not nearly as bad as my hands. And if I could avoid looking more delicate, the better.
“I figured. From now on, let’s avoid that.”
“No! I got to toughen up. I can’t just—laundry is one of the biggest chores!”
“And there are plenty of other big chores to do. Really, Lil’, there’s no need to be so hard on yourself. You’ve already done so much for me. When you’re old and your joints start swelling up, you’ll understand. And you already work so hard as it is.” And with a half cocked grin that made him look like a mischievous codger, he added, “And I know your legs are hurting you too, so get those taken care of as well.”
I flinched. My face got hot.
Gus, who had been listening from the hallway during this, followed me back into the kitchen where Milly was, already tearing new strips of linen as though she’d been following her father’s train of thought telepathically.
“Get her legs too,” he said to Milly.
“That’s enough of your smart mouth, boy. Stop thinking you can boss me around.”
Gus had the wherewithal to look just a tad repentant. “I was just letting you know in case she didn’t.”
“I’m right here, you know,” I said, wondering if my shoulders could go any lower.
With that, I was sat on a stool, slathered with more slimy fat balm, and bandaged like a cripple. The raw skin of my hands had cracked during the day and bled freely when the bandages were peeled back. Milly tittered even more as she took off my shoes to see the same thing on the back of my heels and between the joints of my toes and a rash all the way up to my knees.
“Goodness gracious, girl, you’re like a newborn!”
“Thanks, because I couldn’t feel worse.”
“How in the world do you plan on keeping a household in the future? At the very least diapers don’t clean themselves. Laundry soap is the toughest there is.”
Something within me shriveled. I’d been ready to bounce off the household stuff, as marriage appalled me, but diapers—
“I’ll get use to it,” I insisted.
“Like hell,” muttered Gus.
“Shut up! I so will!”
Milly just rolled her eyes and kept on winding bandages.
That night, none of the patrons started quite as much at my hands as Derrick did.
“God’s grace, girl, what happened?”
I sighed as I awkwardly slid the plate of food down. Gus followed me with the tankard, keeping his eyes down. “I just have stupidly sensitive skin and all the laundry soap yesterday burnt my hands to oblivion. Can we just say I slapped up a bunch of gangsters to death instead?”
His beard twitched and his eyes crinkled. “It ain’t no crime to have sensitive skin, miss.”
Gus gave the tankard a little shove, splashing a bit of the mead onto the table, and probably onto the guy’s lap.
I gave him a light slap with the back of my hand, but even that made me wince. I swore and glared at the offending appendage.
“Nothing you say is going to comfort me, Derrick. I’m the most useless woman alive at the moment, just let me get over it. Come on, grouchy pants.”
I ushered Gus along, even as I knew he was dying to give me one of his glares.
To my utmost offense, Hal was chortling at me behind the bar.
“Goodness, are you sure you’re a married woman?” he said.
“Divorced, thank you very much.”
“But, my, how you pout. You could give Gus a run for his money.”
“Just marry a rich man if it bothers you so much,” Hal went on, handing Gus another tankard, not looking at me.
I wanted to scratch out my eyes at that suggestion.
“Men are scum,” I said. “At least any man I’d pick out.”
“Oh, how she pouts.”
“You’re so heartless!”
But I felt properly embarrassed about it once I was in bed and burnt out from a day of work. I really hadn’t acted my age. It was just a work place injury if you thought about it factually. Those happened regardless of how tough you were.
To my surprise, however, it was Gus who ended the night with the surly mutter of “I don’t pout.”
All the bitter feelings of the day melted away as I giggled and hugged him tight.
“I love you, Gussy. Stay my baby forever.”
“I’m not your baby!”
“Yes yes, good night, my sweet baby.”