A brief note before we continue on with our story. Yes, I know I cheated just slightly in that the first person they meet is not technically one of the ones you could vote for, but you meet the winner of the poll just shortly after that. And that’s the one that’s going to be important, I think it counts.
* * * * * * *
Noshli tried not to stare as she walked down the wide city streets. Aerindan was nothing like she had ever seen before. The buildings were tall and made of heavy stone, not the poor wooden structures of home. Even the inn she had stayed in last night looked flimsy in comparison. A strong smell wafted from a set of stables on the left side of the street. Noshli turned away from them, pulling Althea between the other travelers to the other side, near a very official looking building. She peered into the open door and saw a line of people leading up to a counter. Behind the counter was a woman with a very no-nonsense look about her who was handing out money and other goods. Noshli couldn’t help but stop and watch.
“It’s a bank,” Althea explained, seeing Noshli’s confusion. “People can store their money and other valuables there.”
“How do you know about those?”
“We had a small one, back at our town,” Althea said.
“But what’s to stop them from keeping the money?” Noshli asked. “Or for one of those other people to take it?”
“Those guards,” Althea said. There were too very large men standing on either side of the counter, their arms crossed over their chests. Both were heavily armed, one with an enormous sword, the other with a smaller sword at his hip and a bow and quiver strapped to his back. The one with the bow met Noshli’s eyes and frowned.
Noshli dipped her hood lower over her face. “Let’s keep moving.”
They passed a few merchants, a small, plump woman who ran a grocery and a large metalsmith who was hammering on a large object that he kept shoving into the fire. Noshli kept moving, her hand firmly on Althea’s arm. She desperately wanted some place out of the open. With the amount of people on the streets, someone was sure to see that she was a half-breed. The last thing she wanted was another incident
The street made a sharp right turn, but at the corner there was a large building with a sign carved into the shape of a large dragon. Strangely, the dragon was painted in several different colors, giving it the appearance of being covered by a patchwork quilt. Above the door were the words “The Painted Dragon Inn” in neat gold lettering.
“An inn,” Althea said gratefully. “We can stay here.”
“Fine,” Noshli said. She handed Althea a few coins. “You arrange things with the innkeeper when we go in. I’ll hang back so that they don’t get a good look at me.”
“Maybe people here won’t mind as much,” Althea said. “In such a big city, I’m sure they’ve seen lots of different people.”
“Best not to take chances,” Noshli said grimly. They walked up the stone steps and pushed open the door. The first room was large with a roaring fireplace at the far wall. It was also nearly empty, the patrons of the inn either up in their rooms or some where on the town. Only a handful of people sat at the tables. Althea walked up to the counter, where a large man with an even larger beard was cleaning a glass.
“Good evening, young miss,” the man said. “Would ya be likin’ a drink?”
“No, thank you, sir,” Althea said. “My sister and I would like a room for the night. Do you have one available?”
“Aye, that we do,” the man said, his eyes drifting towards Noshli. She quickly averted her gaze from him. “Room eight is free. Just up the staircase on the right. Could I interest you gals in some dinner? We’ve a fine roast boar that’s been on the spit all day.”
Althea glanced at Noshli, who nodded. “That sounds wonderful,” she said. “We’ll take two.”
“That will be ten coppers for the pair of ya,” the man said. “Just have a seat and I’ll bring it to you shortly.”
They wandered into the large dining room and took a seat near the fire. The closest person to them was three tables away. Still, Noshli kept her hood up just in case. There was another person with a hood sitting in the corner, so she didn’t worry about looking out of place.
“This place seems nice enough,” Althea said. “And it will be nice to have a hot meal.”
“Definitely,” Noshli said.
“So what’s our plan for tomorrow?” Althea asked. “Rest up tonight, of course. Then what?”
“I guess we’ll go into the town and make some inquiries,” Noshli said, feeling a rush of gratitude for Althea. It would be so much easier to ask questions if Althea was the one doing the talking. Her bubbly, cheerful personality made people feel at ease around her, not to mention her perfectly normal human features. “See if anyone around here has seen . . . you know. Some of them. My . . . family.”
“And just who would that be, girlie?”
Noshli froze at the unfamiliar voice, a woman’s voice. She hadn’t heard anyone approach them, but suddenly felt the presence of someone right behind her. The woman came around Noshli and leaned against their table. Althea gasped and Noshli looked up. The woman wore a low cut dress in a deep red color. The sleeves ended in a wide bell framed with dingy white lace. The woman’s face had been covered in stark white powder, her lips outlined in ruby red to match her dress. The makeup surrounding her eyes did little to mask how exhausted she looked.
“I’m sorry,” Althea said. Noshli was surprised to hear a note of coldness enter her voice. “But do we know you?”
The woman smiled. “Everyone in this town knows me, young lady. Which is why it’s clear that you aren’t from around here.”
“Belladonna!” Noshli jumped. The woman turned around and faced the innkeeper, who was carrying two plates. “You know you’re not supposed to bother my customers!” he said. “Leave these girls alone.”
“Why not? You bother my customers all the time. Besides, I’m not bothering anyone!” the woman said. She flicked a lock of her ink black hair over her shoulder. “You can ask them. Did I bother you?”
The innkeeper set the plates down in front of Noshli and Althea. “If you need me to throw her out, just let me know.” He straightened up and stared Belladonna in the face. “Don’t you dare try to recruit these girls. And leave their food alone. Do you understand me?”
“I understand just fine, Fritz. Now go away. Shoo.”
Noshli suppressed a groan as Belladonna dropped onto the bench beside Althea, which put her directly across from Noshli. “Now then,” Belladonna said. “You mentioned that you were looking for someone. I can help you with that, if you like. For a fair price, of course.”
“Do you really know everyone in town?” Althea asked.
“In my line of work, you have to,” Belladonna said with a chuckle. Then she gasped, a small, creaking sound of shock. “My heavens,” she whispered. Noshli closed her eyes in resignation and looked across the table. Belladonna was staring at her, as Noshli expected, but not with disgust or fear. She looked awed, her painted up eyes overly large, her red mouth forming a perfect O. “You’re one of them,” she said.
“We need to leave,” Noshli said. “We should never have stopped here.”
“No, please,” Belladonna said, her hand outstretched. “Don’t leave. I didn’t mean to startle you. It’s just that . . . I didn’t know . . .”
“Didn’t know what?”
Belladonna kept staring. It was starting to get on Noshli’s nerves. “Didn’t know you were real,” she whispered again, her voice sounding strangely childlike. “I’ve heard stories, of course, but I had no idea.” She stopped. “I’ll help you, if I can. If you will let me.”
Noshli shared a glance with Althea, who shrugged. It was odd, but Noshli suspected that Belladonna’s reaction was sincere. “Very well,” Noshli said. “You’re name is Belladonna, yes?”
“Oh please, call me Bella. Everyone does.” Bella pulled Althea’s plate over and scooped up a thin slice of pork. “So, who are you looking for?”