Morning came early. There was no surprise there. It was what morning did.
This morning was, or at least felt, earlier than many. I was still tired, still rubbing sleep out of my eyes, as I left my room and stumbled downstairs. Left to my own devices I’d have stayed in bed for a few hours longer. But I could hear people downstairs, movement and talk and a quiet laugh, and the notion of going back to sleep while I could hear that was absurd.
Corbin was usually very good about not making noise early in the day. He never mentioned it, probably in case I was sensitive on the topic, but I knew it was for my sake. But for once we actually had a guest, and business meant a reason to be active at the crack of dawn.
I didn’t resent that. I could always take a nap later. And the business–the busyness–was worth it.
I knew this place was meant to cater to visitors, that guests staying overnight was the whole point. But it happened so rarely that they felt more like an interruption, a burr in the smooth routine of our days. Some guests could be incredibly irritating in that way. Black, though, didn’t really alter the routine at all. She just moved it up by a few hours.
Corbin was in the kitchen with some fresh kindling, coaxing out a fire in the stove. I walked past him to the taproom, past Black at the bar, and to the front door. I unlocked it, a rather involved procedure. It had grown to be a matter of habit, but the truth of the matter was that it was rather absurd: four locks, a bar, a chain, and a chunk of stone to act as a doorstop.
Once that was done I started working in the taproom. It was already clean from the previous night. Every night, the tables were wiped down with a damp cloth, the floor was mopped, the bar was polished to a sheen.
I started sweeping the floor anyway. I attacked the job with a will, sweeping aggressively at nonexistent specks of dirt. The worn bristles of the broom barely whispered against the wooden floor.
It was utterly unnecessary. But it was something to do, something to keep my hands busy while I waited, and I threw myself into the work as though I truly cared about doing a good job of it. Black sat at the bar, and sipped at her cider, and watched me with an expression of vague bemusement.
Finally, after around five minutes of that, Corbin emerged from the kitchen. He went straight to the fireplace in the taproom, where he started to stir the banked coals into life. That meant it was my turn in the kitchen. I stopped pretending to sweep and went back behind the bar.
Down in the cellar, I went looking for food. There was plenty there, though anyone else would have had a hell of a time finding it. The cellar was organized more or less at random, the contents scattered around to try and make the huge space feel less cavernous. Huge casks of beer and vodka stood next to sacks, barrels, and racks of bottles. There were less inn-like things there, as well, things that had been left by the manor’s previous owners. Suits of armor, moth-eaten tapestries, that sort of thing. In one corner was a rack, stained with blood and worse. Until I’d seen it I used to assume that the stories they told about the old Count’s second son had to be fabrications.
It was an eerie cellar, to say the least. It didn’t help that the maze of mundane stores and sudden nightmares was dimly lit at best, just a single alchemical lamp near the stairs to cast a light through the space.
I wandered through the cellar, picking things almost at random and tossing them into a bag. A handful of potatoes from a barrel tucked away in the corner, some sweet onions from another barrel close to the door that was almost empty. On a whim I grabbed a few handfuls of rice from the sack; it had to be imported all the way from the heartland of Akitsuro far to the south, since the climate here in the north didn’t support it, but it was still cheap.
Corbin had asked me once whether I got bored of the same soup every day. I’d told him that it wasn’t the same. Sometimes there were beets in it, or turnips. Or carrots. Or cabbage. And sometimes there was a marrow bone to use for stock, and it was entirely different.
Upstairs, I set the bag in the kitchen, where Corbin was already mixing dough for bread. He barely glanced at it as I left it and went out the back to fetch water.
I often heard people complain about hauling water. I didn’t understand why. It was, for me, among the most pleasant tasks of the day. It was…comforting. You couldn’t really haul water wrong. I pulled the bucket out of the well, and carried it into the kitchen, and dumped it into the heavy iron pot. Then I did it again. And again. And again.
My arms were burning and I was breathing hard by the time I poured the last of the water into the pot. The soup today would need more water than it often did, since there was rice.
And, I remembered, we had a guest. There was a good chance that someone would be eating this soup other than just Corbin and myself.
Once the pot was filled with water, I slid the alchemical filter off the pot. It had a fine layer of sediment on it, trapped by the bright glass baffles. The water from our well was clean, but there was nothing like an alchemical filter to make you very aware of how dirty water could be and still be clean.
I didn’t particularly care. But Corbin was adamant about filtering the water before cooking with it. Something about metals in the water, which struck me as a strange thing to complain about when we were putting it into a metal pot, but I didn’t argue with him. It was, I’d found, generally easier to go along with Corbin’s eccentricities than argue with them. And it wasn’t like it was hard to use the filter anyway.
I took the filter outside and washed it with another bucket of water, rinsing the thin layer of sediment away. I carried it inside, and put it back in the drawer where it belonged. I took a knife from the drawer and sliced most of the vegetables, which Corbin would fry in a bit of oil before putting them into the soup.
And then, like I did every day, I stuttered to a stop. The soup was ready, or at least as ready as it could be until the rice had cooked. The bread was ready, the individual loaves set aside to rise. The rest of the lamb was in the alchemical icebox in the cellar, already cut, and it wouldn’t take much time at all to cook. The taproom was clean.
There was nothing left to do.
Corbin had the same reaction I did, a sort of frozen, uncertain pause. His hands kept twitching at his sides, like they wanted to be moving, touching, working. I kept glancing around the kitchen, like I would suddenly see something else that needed doing.
The silence stretched on for perhaps a second and a half before it was interrupted by a particularly loud pop from the new fire in the stove. I jumped a good inch into the air, my head twisting to stare at the flame, my ears instantly laying back against my head.
It took a second or two for me to relax, and turn away from the fire. I was blushing.
“Do you want to go back to bed?” Corbin asked, breaking the silence just as it settled into the frozen, awkward silence that sometimes swept over the inn. “I can handle things from here, I think.”
I shook my head and looked out at the taproom.
“I can take care of our guest, too,” he assured me. “She’s not the sort to ask for all that much. And I don’t have much to do here anyway.”
I looked at him incredulously, then rolled my eyes before looking back out to where she was sitting at the bar.
“All right,” Corbin said, with a hint of a laugh in his voice. “You can go talk to her. Just…be careful, Silf. That’s not someone to take lightly.”
I bobbed my head in a quick nod, shifting my weight impatiently from one foot to the other. Corbin nodded, the laugh more visible in his eyes now, and I was off for the taproom, barely keeping my pace in check enough not to seem pathetically eager.
The guest–Black–was still sitting at the bar, spear in easy reach by her side. She was staring pensively into her mug of cider, expression vague. I thought her expression was vague, at least. It could be hard to read the expressions of the Changed until you grew to know the details of their features, their shape, their movement.
She watched me as I slipped out from behind the bar to sit next to her. It was a rather intense gaze, one that I knew rather well. Usually I saw it before this much time had passed, but Black had barely noticed me the previous night. It was only after Corbin said I could stay and listen that I had become interesting enough to really see.
Now that I was, I got the same look from her that I got from everyone, sooner or later. The one that said what are you?
It was a bit different, coming from another of the Changed. It was the same way I’d looked at her, last night. Most of the time the humans, the people who didn’t know what being Changed was like, looked at the surface. They wanted to gawk at the mutations and the twisting of the flesh, the obviously inhuman features.
Someone who knew better, though, tended to look past that as relatively unimportant. They wanted to see what lay under those features, what they meant. What had been gained in the Change, and what had been lost. Last night I’d seen Black’s odd hairless skin and thought that she might not be able to regulate her body’s heat properly. I’d seen the strangely proportioned limbs and the flexible movements, and I wondered whether her joints weren’t articulated the same way a human’s were. I saw the huge dark eyes and wondered whether she could see better in the dark than they could.
Similarly, she looked at me and looked past the surface to the implications. She connected the dots to see the shape that was implied by what was missing, as much as what was present.
“Your name is Silf, right?” she asked, looking back at her cider. It was a weak attempt at courtesy, when she’d already stared too much for me to have missed it, but I could appreciate the thought.
I nodded, a quick gesture that was in the shoulders as much as the neck. It had taken me a bit to figure out how to mimic a normal nod, with my neck, but I’d figured something passable out.
“You don’t talk much, do you?” Black asked. It had a rhetorical tone to it. She’d already seen what was missing, there.
I shook my head anyway, smiling a little. Not very wide. A wide smile from me didn’t look much like a smile to most folk, I’d found.
I paused, humming slightly. It felt…tight, tense, like stretching a muscle that was stiff, or trying to swallow something just slightly too large. It hurt a little, but mostly it felt tight.
I felt a quiet surge of relief at that. It was going to be a good day, then. That was…very good. It would have been quite typical for me to have a bad day when we had an interesting guest for once.
“Some,” I said quietly. Talking hurt more than humming, like usual, and it sounded…wrong. My voice was rough and breathy, and the enunciation was horrid. But it was understandable. “Some days more than others. Hurts, and if I talk too loud it tears things in my throat. But I can talk.”
She nodded, clearly not surprised. “That’s something, then,” she said. “Sometimes the more extensively Changed can’t talk at all. The vocal cords are too altered.”
I shrugged, nodded. I hadn’t heard that it was a common complaint, but I knew that I was relatively lucky. Plenty of the Changed had lost more than I did in the transition.
“Let’s see,” she said, sounding pensive now. “Corbin will have taught you to read and write, if you didn’t know already. But I imagine that has to get tedious, and I don’t want to make you talk if it hurts you. So I guess this’ll be a largely one-sided conversation.”
I shrugged again. “I can talk some,” I said. “It’s a good day. Just quiet, and not so much.”
“That’s something,” she said again. “Do you want something to drink, then? Does that help?”
I snorted and rolled my eyes again, gesturing behind the bar. It was an expansive sort of gesture, one that took in the whole of the inn.
Black chuckled. “Okay, I deserved that one,” she said. “Your place, not mine. If something to drink would help you’d have it by now.” She took a sip of her cider, probably reminded by what she’d just said. “What did you want to talk about, then?”
“Where did I come from, you mean?” She shrugged. “Northwest, most recently. Out near the coast. Plenty of places before that, but that’s where I was last.”
I hesitated. There was something about her voice that discouraged questions. If she’d sounded any more closed off, I didn’t think she’d have said a word at all. But I was starved for news from the outside world, and I couldn’t stop there.
I didn’t want to risk alienating Black entirely, though. So rather than anything personal, I went for the most generic of questions, the one that every traveler asked and answered in every town.
“The roads bad?” I asked, not looking directly at her. My voice sounded pathetically hopeful, at least to me.
If Black noticed that, she didn’t comment. “Don’t really know,” she said. “I don’t actually spend much time on the roads. I work as a hunter, you see, and you don’t see much game on the main roads.” She took another sip of cider; it had to be almost gone by now. She was silent for a moment, long enough that I wasn’t sure she’d continue. “But yes,” she said, finally, suddenly, breaking the silence before it could really settle in. “The roads are bad, from what I’ve heard. Not as bad as sometimes, but…bad.”
I nodded. It fit with what I’d heard from other travelers, and from the villagers after their rare trips out. Things weren’t as bad as they could be; there weren’t many deserters this far south, and the empire kept the major roads in good repair. Things weren’t as bad as they could be, but they were bad enough.
I started to ask another question, but interrupted myself with a yawn. Black grinned, her teeth startlingly bright against her dusky skin. “Tired?” she said, her voice teasing. “Maybe you shouldn’t have stayed up late to listen in, eh?”
I flushed and shrugged awkwardly, not wanting to explain the reality of things to her. It wasn’t a conversation I particularly wanted to have.
She apparently misunderstood, or perhaps she understood perfectly. Either way, the teasing expression fell away instantly, too fast to have been really sincere in the first place. “Get some more sleep, Silf,” she said. “I’ll still be here later today, and we can talk more then. I’m sure Corbin can take care of things for now.”
It was a good suggestion, if somewhat misguided, and I didn’t want to explain to her why what she was saying wasn’t exactly possible. So I smiled sheepishly, and shrugged, and made my way upstairs.
Black’s eyes never left me until I was out of sight, and her expression wasn’t teasing at all now. It was quiet, and flat, and far too interested for comfort.