We got our groceries delivered to us from local farmers that Hal had deals with. Which was good, because there was no way any of us could carry enough food to feed all the people we were getting, let alone every day, with any semblance of saving time.
But, inevitably, there would be a day when someone had to go to the market for supplies that couldn’t be ordered from farmers.
“You could use a new dress anyhow,” said Hal as he dropped a bag heavy with coins into my hands. “You can’t always swim around in Milly’s dress whenever you need to get yours clean, though I assume the breeze between your knees is nice.”
I slapped his shoulder for that, for which he laughed. Dirty old man. But, then, what did I wear when my one pair of underwear needed cleaning.
“Can I get Gus some new clothes too?” I asked, as he’d been wearing a simple tunic and leggings Milly had somehow thrown together with scraps. Seriously, that woman was amazing.
“Might as well. Recite to me the list first,”
Just as I was listing off the second thing that needed buying—a back of leather straps from the tanner for tightening the beds and other such doohickeys—Gus came around the corner.
“I’m coming too. You’re crazy sending her alone, old man.”
He raised an eyebrow high and I frowned.
“I managed plenty before you came,” I said.
“Yeah, the grand whole three days—“
“—and what protection can a skinny little thing like you give?”
He bristled at that. “I got eyes, don’t I? And experience? Street smarts? You can hardly work the tavern without being taken advantage of, and that’s just because you have a love slave the size of a bear looking out for you.”
This rebellious, know-it-all attitude of Gus’s and the whole ‘love slave’ business had actually been driving me nutters the past few days, and I’d been looking for this errand run as an excuse to get a break. Milly said he rode my coat tails like a baby duck, but really, where else had he to go in an inn where we all had to work together anyway? I couldn’t even find it in me to tease him anymore.
“He might have a point,” said Hal slowly.
“Look, I have the map Milly drew me,” which I waved around like the flag of independence. “And I’m a grown effing woman, I can handle myself.”
“Effing?” asked Hal.
“I’m coming with,” said Gus, as firm as a mountain.
A mountain under a hundred pounds which I could push over with a toe. “No. That’s final.”
“You’re not my mom.”
“Then stop acting like you need one and grow up!” I finally snapped before twisting on the spot and stomping out.
“Lilly!” I heard him call out.
I felt guilty once I’d been given the chance to march out my madness. It had been a while since I’d been let loose from the Inn on errands due to the seasonal influx of customers, but I found it difficult to enjoy now due to guilt.
“I’m an awful parent,” I groaned. “Scratch that, he doesn’t even want me. But, then, I guess we don’t always want what’s best for us.”
Because Gus needed us. That I knew for sure.
Eventually the usual sight-seeing of the city so different from the glass and steel ones of my world distracted me away from my misery. Carts and carriages passed to and through down the street. Pedestrians like me traveled along the sides, some laden with packages, others going who knows where, all dressed in varying shades of rags and sturdy clothes. Those who wore finery could only be seen through the windows of the finer carriages now and then.
“A bit of a disparity of classes we got here, brother?” I muttered to myself. That led to a whole, one-sided mental conversation with him, where I pretended he nodded along and sipped his tea, with perhaps some good advice on raising teenagers here and there. Somehow, however, I couldn’t see Nehcor raising teens.
The market was a decent walk away from the inn, but not too far. It consisted of a large square lined with bricks with a chipped water fountain at the center, rimmed by tall buildings with stores on their ground floors and the occasional stalls in between. With Milly’s map for reference, I found the tanners not far from the street that had spit me out into the square. I appreciated that the store clerk, an aging man in a thick smock, didn’t stare when I approached and just nodded when I told him my order. The stares my skin earned in the inn had been wearing on me lately, probably because it was yet another thing Gus felt the need to complain about.
‘You’re too pretty for your own good, it’s like you have a big target on your head! Can’t you cover your head more or something? Put some mud on your face?’
Milly had scoffed a bit at that, and Hal had actually frowned. Aside from giving a bad impression, having a dirty employee in his establishment which sold itself on its reputation for cleanliness, it turned out my ‘prettiness’ had been drawing in the extra customers, to my chagrin. Apparently, pretty tavern wenches were half the selling point of stable-less inns set farther into the cities like the Red Swallow. They served as much as a restaurant and bar as they did a place to stay for the night.
And he just went on and on. He even said once, in a burst of anger, that I might as well just marry Derrick anyways since I was already depending on him for my defense. Hal had acted insulted after that, even going so far as to tell Gus to stay in our room for the evening. Getting on in years he may be, but Hal had a sturdy enough ways to watch out for us, one being his reputation in the community. He had more than enough friends and ‘I-owe-yous’ to call upon if need be, and all the regulars who attended knew it. And if any travelers started to get a bit iffy, those same regulars would be more than happy to pitch in a fist or two in return for a free drink.
The modern woman part of me said I should be offended by Gus’s assumption that I could take care of myself at the same level as a toddler, but, hey, it wasn’t like I knew martial arts, and I was culturally stupid compared to everyone else. For all I knew, rapists and cannibals (because why not) came with beards of rabid foam and super human strength in this world. Not that I’d read anything about magic being able to do that, but Nehcor had made a point of stating that he’d made magic in such a way that human invention could have its way with it.
I got my leather strips. Dished out the money. And went back out to find a general supply store for salt and soap. Ropes. Blah.
Occasionally I’d catch the staring passerby out of the corner of my eye. But I didn’t think much of it. I had worn a shawl over my head as a hood for the occasion, and since it was a poor woman’s way of keeping her skin out of the sun, I didn’t stick out, and my blaring difference in appearance was blunted, for the most part.
I was ready to be home by the time it was time to buy my dress and Gus’s clothes. The sun was hot. These leather boots had nothing on foot cushioning tenne shoes. I was thirsty. I was hungry. And I wasn’t so tired of Gus anymore.
Fortunately, there happened to be pastry shop next to the clothing saloon or store or whatever they called it. My brain was shot, so my vocabulary wasn’t up to the task.
I welcomed the shade of the clean interior. It had the usual polished wood floor and lit by the natural light of wide, front windows. Beneath the counter that ran the length of the room, a thick pane of glass separated a display of desserts and the customers. In any ordinary medieval world this sort of glass/modern display on the poorer side of the city would have been a no, but the existence of magic often surprised me with the random modern trait here and there, like the one horseless carriage I’d seen between the tanner and general goods store. I didn’t want to think about how much energy that took.
The man at the counter didn’t have the same courtesy as the tanner. He stared. And stared. He stared to the point I started having a hard time focusing on want delicious thing I wanted to eat.
“Do you mind?” I finally asked.
He flinched. “Pardon?”
“It’s rude to stare. If I have something on my face, just say so and get it over with.”
The poor ginger, remarkably thick armed and not tubby at all for working with with pastries, flushed as quick as a traffic light.
“I-I didn’t even—I’m sorry miss, I just…call me once you’ve made your choice.” And he retreated to the back, where the kitchens most likely were.
I sighed, once more wondering for the uptenth time if my skin really was that much to stare at it. Surely the richer class had skin like this too. It wasn’t like there was anything else to stare at, right? I wasn’t ugly, but working all day running back and forth between a hot kitchen and a bar didn’t exactly give you the time to take care of your looks. If my hair wasn’t sticking to my face like an octopus, it was a win.
When I made my selection, I got more than enough chance to read off the certificates and other décor on the back wall before the ginger finally reappeared.
“Wh-what would you like?” he gave a wobbly smile. A cut just under his jaw line, probably from shaving, cracked and started to bleed.
That can’t be sanitary. “Um, you’re bleeding a bit. Right here.” I pointed to my jaw.
A touch, he saw the blood on his fingertip, more flushing, more stuttering and apologizing worthy of a man who’d accidentally killed my pet dog, and he once more disappeared behind a wall.
I was just thinking I should find somewhere else to eat when an older, plump woman who made me think of Mrs. Pots came out, looking amused.
“So sorry about that, miss, what would you like? I’ll give you a free apple tart on the house for the inconvenience.”
“Wow, that’s so nice of you. I really like apple stuff. Could I get that swirly looking apple bun too?”
“Of course. Anything to drink?”
“Some milk would be nice.”
There weren’t many seats inside the small space at the front of the shop, but since I was alone I had my choice. Once she handed me my apple desserts I picked one in the corner while she went back to get my milk.
A trio of giggly young women in layers of fancy lace and silk came in the moment I sat down, folded parasols in hand. They didn’t even notice me as they cluttered to the bar like a flock of chickens. Their hair styles and fashion reminded me of something crossed between Victorian and regency, with skirt hems that fluttered just a mite too easily for natural fabric. Wind magic, perhaps? Great for keeping mud away.
It was my first time seeing someone of high class outside a carriage, so I took a dip into hypocrisy and did my own staring as they made their orders to yet another ginger, this one properly tubby, but paired with a mustache and the same thick arms. Guess pastries took some muscle too.
Mrs. Pots came out from around him with a thin neck bottle of milk on a tray.
“Here you go, miss. I apologize again for the inconvenience. My son, well…” she touched her smiling lips. “You have such a beautiful face, I’m afraid it caught him off guard. He’s shy around women, like any boy.”
I smiled, thinking of my own shy boy, not that he would admit it. “Gracious, I hope he’s not your only child, else how will he ever get the courage to get you some grandbabies?”
“My exact thought!” she chirped, and in that moment I felt I had found a kindred spirit. “And he was such an adorable baby, it would be a crying shame if no more of them graced this planet. Such chubby legs and cheeks! Oh, pardon me, you didn’t ask for all that.”
“No, it’s good, I love babies. I’m saving up for my own house so I can raise some of my own, and I’m so excited.”
“Really? Are you married then?”
“No, miss. I plan on adopting.”
“Adopting,” I could see the conflict in her mind as she did her best not to judge. “I’m sure there’s a story behind that, but adopting is all well and good too. You’ve got a beautiful dream there.”
I couldn’t help but smile. No one had ever told me so, and it felt good to hear it.
She put her fingers to her lips again, this time her smile a bit coy.
“Oh my, you really are very pretty.”
Sometime in our conversation, one of the ladies receiving their treats had taken notice of us. She whispered something to the others and they had been glancing over too.
Fortunately, Mrs. Pots had been in their direct line of sight, so I made sure to pull up my hood a bit more. I wasn’t up to the extra attention.
“I like you,” said Mrs. Pots as I took my first few bites of my pastry. “It’s so rare to find a sweet girl like you, could I ask your name?”
“Lillian. I work down at the Red Swallow Inn.”
“Oh, with Hal and Milly? Good folk, they are, you fell in with the right crowd.”
“I did. I really did.”
“I’m Gloria Rights, or Mama Rights, whichever is more comfortable. I’ll stop interrupting your treat now. Please let me know if there’s anything else you need.”
With the disappearance of Gloria went my cover from the girls.
I hoped they’d just try to get a peek and then continue on their way. I mean, that’s how it worked back home, right? People stick to their own business?
No. Those chickedees fluttered right over and into my face, pulling down my hood like the lid of merchandise.
“Hey!” I squawked.
“She is pretty!”
“For a commoner. Look at that dirt.”
“Smells like lard. Such a pity.”
Without thinking, I slapped away their prying hands and arms with my frosting rimmed hands.
“Where you lot raised in a barn?” I snapped. “Don’t go touching other people’s clothes and poking at their faces, I’m not a show!”
All three girls jumped and stared as though I’d suddenly turned into a dog.
“A foreigner,” squeaked one.
“Look who’s talking?” I’d never been the rude, aggressive type, but my space bubble had just been popped, and I don’t think anyone would have taken kindly to having their looks and smell commented on by utter strangers.
Mrs. Gloria, who had did a double take in the doorway the moment I’d squawked had just vanished and reappeared with her bashful son, who looked completely flummoxed. She gestured to me, saying something to him, but he just gawked at his mother as though she’d gone crazy.
Sighing, I threw back my milk in a few huge gulps.
“How are you so pretty, girl?”
“Are you a fallen noble from another country? Oh, you must be, how exotic.”
“Not so, look at her drink, and she growls like a dog.”
“Tut tut, such a pity.”
“Why don’t you let us dress you up? You’ll be so pretty if you do.”
“Yes, you might even win over a rich husband.”
I brought the milk glass down with a thunk. “Thank you, but I have to get to work.” Time to blow this taco stand.
And ignoring the squeaks of indignation, I gathered up my remaining pastry in one hand and shoved them aside for the door, pulling my shawl made hood back up as I did so.
They reminded me of some girls back in middle school I once knew who had convinced an unpopular girl to let them make her over. Instead of helping her, they’d just humiliated her. Kids could be mean. But weren’t they a little too old to be acting like that? Gus would kill to have that problem, heh. Being fourteen trapped in an eight-year-old’s body, and a skinny starved one at that, sure had a way of fixing one’s perspective. While thinking that, a child’s squeal drew my attention to the fountain at the center of the square.