The next morning there was porridge for breakfast, and Bactine was pensive.
“What if she doesn’t like me? What if I say all the wrong things? What if I’m not smart enough?” Bactine fretted endlessly. Xylic paused, a spoonful of porridge halfway to his mouth.
“Did you just say ‘What if I’m not smart enough’?” he asked.
Her face was a complicated mask of concern as she worried into her bowl of oatmeal.
“If you’re not smart enough, I’d like to meet whoever is,” he went on.
“Oh, ha-ha, Xylic. Don’t humor me,” Bactine replied, angsty and inconsolable.
“I’m not,” he replied simply.
Bactine sighed and shoved her bowl away in a fit of sulk.
“Well, dear, here you go!” said her mother, who burst through the door holding a rucksack full of Bactine’s things. She dropped it unceremoniously on the table, knocking over Bactine’s porridge in the process. Bactine didn’t care, for she was sulking and also fretting.
In fact, she didn’t seem to be paying attention at all. Her mother cast a concerned look at her, then looked over at Xylic, who shrugged. She gave Xylic a look, and he grinned wryly and stood up.
He took Bactine by the arm, not without force, took the rucksack with his other hand and said, “We’re leaving, now.”
“Oh, Bactine, enjoy yourself,” cried her mother, and she threw her arms around her daughter and kissed her. “Be careful!”
She waved as Xylic dragged Bactine out the door, who was more than a little surprised out of her funk.
“Bye, Mum,” she called. “I’ll write,” she added as an afterthought right before the door slammed shut.
Outside, the day was bright and promising. The sky was a particularly stunning shade of blue, and there was no lack of birds twirping in all directions.
“What’s the matter with you?” Xylic asked Bactine, as they hit the lane.
“I don’t know. Self doubt?” she replied. She gave him a critical look and said, “Don’t you ever suffer from it?”
“This isn’t about me,” he said.
“It never is,” she said accusingly.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked.
“Nothing, forget it,” she said irritably, and withdrew into a spiky silence.
They passed the city and went beyond into farmland, and eventually, as the afternoon light began to fall and turn they came to a forest. Shadows pervaded the forest, and although Bactine was fond of forests, she wasn’t particularly fond of being in a strange forest at night.
“Should we wait to go in until tomorrow?” she asked him.
“Nah,” he said, not bothering to explain why.
They plunged into the forest. Trees passed, and there was a sense of being closed in. Overhead were the intertwining branches of the woode, lush with leaves of late summer. The weather certainly was pleasant. Overly pleasant. Mockingly pleasant. Bactine was irritable and listless in this forest. She couldn’t enjoy it at all.
She made a quiet, complaining sound to punctuate the sentence of her irritability.
Xylic stopped and dropped Bactine’s rucksack on the ground.
She noticed him and stopped too, allowing some curiosity to show through her annoyance. After he didn’t move for a moment, she ventured.
“Er, what are you doing?”
He gave her a sharp glance she’d never seen before.
“We’re stopping here for the night,” he said. Then he began to busy himself with clearing off a patch of ground and collecting wood for a small fire.
Suddenly, right now, all of the hundreds of times she’d asked him to tell her something about himself and he’d just sloughed her off came back to hit her at full force and she was positively livid over it. Here, again, just like every other time, he managed not to tell her a thing with his incessant side-stepping, and did it in such a way that she couldn’t pin down exactly what he was doing. She couldn’t accuse him, because he never outright refused to tell her anything. He just changed the subject. He was a master at changing the subject. She wondered if he thought she was that moronic to not know what he was doing. She wondered if he thought it was funny, and was having a joke at her expense. She wondered if he thought so little of her that she wasn’t allowed to know who he really was. Any one of those scenarios made her so furious she could do little but stand rigid and white knuckled as he seemed entirely embroiled in the ordinary task of starting a fire.
How could he be so obstinate to think about fires right now?
She flounced angrily to where he was carefully placing small sticks in a tee-pee shape and kicked them over.
He looked at her, his face denoting any of a number of things, none of them favorable.
Bactine hadn’t planned out what to do next, and felt kind of silly, but it didn’t matter because Xylic filled in the empty spaces as he stood and faced her. He really was kind of tallish.
“What is the matter with you?” he demanded of her, completely chagrined and at a loss for himself. “This is something you’ve wanted for years, and something you deserve, and you’ve done nothing but complain all day, and frankly, you’re bloody annoying the crap out of me!”
“You? I annoy you?” she returned sharply. “You never tell me anything you’re thinking!”
“What does that have to do with anything?” he replied defensively, and not quietly.
“It has everything to do with everything!” she cried, losing all sense of logic.
“It does not!” he shot back, his rapier wit at its dullest. She hesitated, confused briefly, but then he continued as his thoughts cleared slightly. “I don’t have to tell you anything!”
His retorts still weren’t very good. It didn’t matter, though. It outraged Bactine that he would say that, after all this time. He didn’t care at all! He was a… a…
“You’re nothing but a selfish, beslubbering base-court joithead!” she yelled, and turned on her heel to walk away, although where she would go in this forest was fairly dubious. However, she didn’t have to think about it for long because Xylic caught her by the wrist and pulled her back to face him.
“What did you call me?” he demanded down at her, his voice no longer raised, but positively simmering with anger and disbelief as he held her wrist in a way that denoted he wasn’t letting go anytime soon.
“A selfish, beslubbering base-court joithead?” she replied quietly, realizing that was really the opposite of what he was, seeing as how he had sacrificed whatever else it was he would have done with his time to take her on this path. Considering how much he had sacrificed for her in the past, and considering all the times he’d shown he’d only been thinking about her with the things he did. It all crashed home to her in one moment, and she felt miserable over it; like an ungrateful wretch.
Her face flushed deeply and she sighed. His anger seemed to pass slowly as a cloud, but he was intent on her and coiled tightly like a spring.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
He drew a ragged breath and released her.
Sangwine’s next fight was against a fellow named “Handen”, who sounded as if he was from the north country, not that Sangwine really knew anything at all about him except for his name. Gilden, the boss, had been pleased over Sangwine’s ability to defeat that insultingly lousy challenger before, and seemed to have realized that Sangwine could be a very lucrative business opportunity. Sangwine didn’t trust the fellow an inch. Then again, he didn’t trust any humans an inch.
However, the money was there, at least, and one had to do something to keep oneself.
Sangwine sat outside, in a chair, in a sort of outdoor café. It was a fairly pleasant place, in the more wealthy section of the city, which tended to run a bit more on the clean side. The quality of food also improved exponentially the further into the realm of wealthy neighborhoods he sojourned. He had a difficult time understanding why the poor tended to eat such horrible food. You can broil a fish or you can fry it; either way costs the same, so why opt for the lesser route? He was beginning to wonder if he’d ever understand the plebeian classes.
As he sat in the chair, his legs casually crossed, he vaguely noticed the numerous women who passed by. Most of them glanced at him more than twice. He had long since given up trying to be discreet. There was simply no way to do it.
The fight with Handen had gone a little differently, although overall it was mostly more of the same. He nearly laughed when he saw Handen. The humans decided a bigger fellow with a bigger sword was what Sangwine needed to challenge him. Yes, a bigger sword, which takes even longer to swing. Excellent deduction, human race.
Sangwine had obliged in drawing his weapon this time, and to be fair, the fellow was tremendous in size and musculature. If Sangwine had been missing a leg and blind, then maybe Handen would have had a chance. Even then, perhaps not. The man’s horrible wafting smell alone was nearly illustrative enough for Sangwine to know when to dodge. He hadn’t bothered to try to use his blade to parry; Sangwine knew he wouldn’t be able, by any stretch, to block anything swung from the arm of Handen. It would have cut him in two. Handen also wasn’t as clumsy with his sword, so Sangwine couldn’t rely on him to merely drop it.
Eventually, once Handen was sufficiently exhausted from trying to swing that ridiculously sized sword in Sangwine’s direction, Sangwine had knocked him off balance mid-strike and come from behind to lunge at the fallen man’s neck. Of course Sangwine didn’t cut him, but he rested the point of his sword against Handen’s neck and made it very clear he could. So again he claimed victory.
Following the fight, the bell hag had tried to fix Sangwine up with her granddaughter, at which suggestion Sangwine beat a very hasty retreat and ended up here, at this café.
He was fairly certain no one lingering around here would have seen him sword fighting in the lower part of town. Somehow he’d managed to keep his clothes unstained, even amidst the crowds, but it wasn’t easy, and then he wondered if he could find a room for let over this way. It was while in these deep thoughts that he saw Al’bert coming down the lane.
If Sangwine were to recount it, he’d definitely tell the listener that he thought something very regal and refined at this moment, but his real thoughts, the ones he never tells anyone, were something along the lines of “Holy CRAP! ”.
Sangwine immediately scrambled from behind the table, and in a sudden lapse of the ridiculously clumsy, he knocked over his teacup, and it crashed to the ground. Unable to leave an unpaid bill, even at the threat of his life, or moreover, his pride, he searched frantically through his pockets and threw a silver on the table before bolting inside the café.
Once inside, he grabbed the nearest available person, which happened to be a serving girl, and placed her squarely in front of him. He found himself faced with surprise as he realized she, for one, did not smell terrible. There wasn’t time to reflect on this, though, because she was objecting to being manhandled by an elf.
“What are you doing?” she demanded, although she looked a little curious, too. “Blimey, you’re an elf!”
“Yes, I am. And would you mind standing in front of me?” he asked.
“For how long?” she asked, looking dubious.
“Just a moment, quickly,” he said, trying to be patient, but running out of time. Besides, he wanted to get a good look at Al’bert before he passed by from behind the serving girl.
He ducked only a little, for he didn’t have to much; the serving girl was fairly tall, and he clandestinely looked past her chestnut hair to the street beyond, where Al’bert was passing. She, he noted, played her part well, trying to appear as if she was standing planted in one place for a reason.
Al’bert was walking as he always did, as if he owned the world and the world just didn’t realize it yet. Le Comte du Fromage was flanked by an interesting mélange of characters, and Sangwine wondered where he’d picked up such odd help. They didn’t look friendly, he surmised as he ducked back a little further behind the girl. Al’bert was definitely one of the last people in the world Sangwine wanted to see. He didn’t want to know why he was here, either, but he heavily suspected it was because of him.
When he was sure Al’bert was gone, he let out a frazzled exhale. The girl turned to him right away, her interest piqued.
“Soright, what was that all about, elf?” she grinned at him.
“Just an old friend I didn’t want to see,” he lied, but not entirely. Then, feeling he should show some gratitude for her assistance, he went on. “Ah… Thanks.”
She looked at him funny. He knew not what to do.
“I mean to say, thank you, for, ah, hiding me,” he said, more verbosely, thinking this might be more correct in this situation. “From that person.”
He didn’t understand why she looked like she wanted to laugh.
“Am I doing something wrong?” he asked, bewildered. She really did laugh this time.
“You are really amusing,” she said gregariously, and then she added, “Are you lost?”
“No,” he said, his brow furrowing.
“Well, don’t get upset about it,” she smiled at him. “You just look … lost.”
“I know exactly where I am,” he said.
“Lost and lost…” she said, enigmatically.
He really didn’t want to be analyzed.
“Thank you again,” he said. “And I’m not sure what passes for compliments here, but you smell rather nice.”
And then he left surreptitiously.