“Ah, Aailaine, that’s quite a harvest. So early, too, maybe it's a sign.” The she-dwarf accepted Aailaine’s full baskets and paper without much question. Aailaine shook her head and waited for the dwarf to finish filing her report. As she waited for her pay, she decided to test her luck.
“Um, Hvidr, can I ask you something?”
“Ask away.” Hvidr never looked up from her work as she spoke. A wave of uncertainty passed over Aailaine, but her curiosity got the better of her.
“Is it possible to see akhby this deep in the Tolsan?” At this, Hvidr stopped working and looked at Aailaine suspiciously. Aailaine, uncomfortable under her gaze, began to stroke her index finger with her thumb. “I’m just curious.”
“Did they speak to you?” Hvidr asked, ignoring Aailaine’s last statement. Aailaine nodded, deciding not to lie as she continued avoiding the dwarf’s gaze. She chanced a glance at Hvidr, who stared at her a bit longer before turning back to her work. Relieved that the moment had passed, but puzzled by the dwarf’s reaction, Aailaine remained silent as Hvidr finished calculating her pay. She soon finished her work and handed Aailaine a strip of paper.
“Nao Fei, Hvidr.” Aailaine bowed her head as she offered her thanks, but Hvidr merely waved her off. Aailaine took her leave and returned to main cavern, climbing down the wall slowly. A lot more people were out and about now, so Aailaine knew she needed to be careful about her path. She needed to reach the deep-dweller Commune, which stood in the heart of Mathydar, in the city’s largest cavern. However, the quickest route would be by far the busiest, filled with both deep-dwellers and dwarves alike. She had no interest in being around that many people, so she decided to take the longer but more deserted path.
As she crawled and walked her way through various tunnels, she became aware of the whispers that followed her presence. She had grown used to the whispers over the cycles, but they still bothered her. When she had been a child, no one ever cared that she looked different, but as she and her friends grew into their later cycles, one by one the friends began to disappear. Aailaine tried many different ways to hide her strange features, going as far as cutting off all her hair. However, it never made a difference and soon Rfkr was Aailaine’s only company.
Soon, Aailaine reached the center of Mathydar and quickly made her way to the deep-dweller Commune. The large building was packed with people and Aailaine paused, considering whether or not her pay was worth waiting for. She took a glance at the paper, and nearly dropped it in her surprise. The pay was made out for almost three times her normal pay and she had to do a double take to make sure she hadn’t misread the amount.
Aailaine silently thanked the dwarf and stepped into line, clutching the paper close to her chest. Living was hard with it just being her and her dwarven caretaker. Rfkr was an old adventurer and a Meiouko, and didn’t have many work opportunities, so they mostly lived off Aailaine’s pay. Her work was usually limited to half the week- only four or five days, leaving her without pay for the remaining five or six.
“Next! Oh…it’s you.” Aailaine’s spirits instantly dropped when she reached the front of the line. The teller almost seemed ready to dismiss her but waved her over with a look of disdain. The entire room grew silent as she made her way to the front and handed the teller her pay slip. She could feel her ears growing red as the crowd continued to stare and talk in whispers.
“Aailaine, yes, it seems as if quite the bonus has come through. If I didn’t recognize Hvidr’s handwriting, I’d say you wrote this yourself.” Aailaine scowled at the accusation but didn’t respond. The man behind the window reached into a drawer behind him and began to count the money. He put the money in a small pouch and handed it to her, a small smirk on his face. “Please, continue your service to the deep-dweller community.”
Aailaine took the pouch cautiously and began to leave the room. Once she stood outside the building, she produced a pouch of her own and slid the pouch with her pay inside, leaving the string that would open it hanging out. Carefully, she pulled the string and the outer pouch bulged and smoke ebbed from its stitching. Aailaine sighed as she opened the larger pouch; once again, her pay pouch had been lined with smoke powder, with the hope that it would jet into her face when she opened it.
Waving away the last bit of the smoke, she checked the amount in the bag. As if the smoke prank hadn’t been enough, the teller also shorted her pay, although if she hadn’t been expecting it she wouldn’t have noticed, as only a couple of silver pieces were missing. She sighed and stood, sealing the two bags and beginning her slow trek home.
“I’m home.” Aailaine whispered, speaking to the empty dwelling. She made her way to her room and, kneeling next to the bed, she reached underneath and pulled out her quiver. Attached to the quiver was a leather bag, which she carefully removed. Inside the bag were two smaller drawstring pouches and the girl opened the larger of the two and carefully removed her pay from the trapped pouch and into her savings. Once her money was safely stored, she pulled out the smaller pouch and opened it, removing one single white emerald. White and translucent stones were a rarity and Aailaine was fortunate to have so many. She happened to be well known within the Stryn clan, the dwarven clan based in Mathydar, because she had saved the now-leader from a wild totiriel who had found its way into the city. The large mountain ram was about to trample the young lord when Aailaine took down the ram before it reached him. As thanks, he now allowed her to have first pick when white and translucent stones were found, and in return she provided them with the smibi that Rfkr made, which was made with rice from Dochel. Dochel rice was a rare treat in the mountains, making Rfkr’s smibi heavily valued.
Aailaine put away her stones and made her way back to the main room. She pulled down another bottle of smibi, before tidying up the small space, sighing deeply. She began sipping the wine as she walked back to her room and, kicking off her boots, collapsed on her bed. She looked up at the Elddess lamp that cast its soft glow over her room. She finished drinking the small bottle and dropped it on the floor, watching it roll away on the smooth stone.
‘Orassul, please hear me,’ Aailaine silently prayed. ‘I know the life I have here isn’t the worst it could be, but if you see fit to, can you let me leave? I want to see the world that my mother and Rfkr knew and then maybe the deep-dwellers would accept me too. But, I really want to see the world outside.’
Aailaine found her thoughts once again returning to the dragon woman and she slowly sat up, undoing her braid. She considered for a moment asking Rfkr once he returned but shook her head.
“He would probably just ignore my questions again.” Aailaine fell back into her bed, burying her face into her pillow. “And that’s assuming he knows something. But Hvidr seemed to know…”
“Maybe I’ll try to find her later.” Aailaine looked up once more at the Elddess lamp and slowly drifted into sleep, leaving the cares of her world behind her.