Luss had lied about the sword he’d given Adif.
He knew exactly where he had gotten it.
The sword was of a common design of blade in Asbvaj, being curved and wider at the blade’s end—but it wasn’t of common craftsmanship whatsoever.
Luss knew where he’d obtained the sword, but at first he’d had no idea where it had come from. It was true that he’d gotten it in exchange for blood—nixie blood—but the blade’s origin was unknown to him.
He’d carried the sword with him for years, unsure what to do with it. He had no interest in learning to use it, but it felt wrong to abandon it somewhere or give it to a stranger.
Giving it to Adif felt right.
Taking the silver bits made Luss feel guilty, but he tried to tell himself that he was just doing normal business as a merchant. The customer had paid for the purchase, and now he had a lot more jag to worry about.
“Should we stop for the night?” Kestek tentatively asked once the sun started to set.
“There’s a town not far ahead,” Shayrow pointed out, gesturing down the road. “We could stay at an inn there.”
“Let’s do that,” Kestek said. “I mean, we should do that, right?”
Everyone gave vague signs of agreement.
Luss didn’t like inns, but he bobbed his head as to not start an argument. The concept of sleeping in a building with so many strangers wasn’t his idea of a comforting experience.
“Maybe we can hitch a ride with someone in the town that’s traveling towards Asbvaj,” Kestek suggested. “That would speed things up.”
“Depends on the method of transportation,” Luss pointed out.
Kestek gave him a dirty look, so he didn’t bother elaborating.
They made it to the town before the sun had completely vanished, and luckily the inn was still serving supper in the tavern.
“Are you sure we have the jag for this?” Shayrow whispered as they sat down at a table.
Luss couldn’t help but wonder the same thing.
The inn wasn’t some old run-down place for ragtag travelers to rest at. The floors were polished; there were witch’s lanterns filling the rooms with warm, cheerful glows; and there appeared to be pipes that brought running water straight into the building, which Luss had only heard of but never seen before—at least, not outside of The Academy.
“Plenty,” Adif assured him. “I’ve got us covered.”
“If you say so...” Shayrow reluctantly started examining the food options that were listed on the wall.
Luss decided to take the opportunity to indulge a little. He didn’t get anything particularly expensive, as that would have been low—even for him—while Adif was offering to pay, but he did end up with a lot of food.
“So disgusting,” Kestek muttered under her breath, looking anywhere but at Luss. “Humans...!”
After they ate, the group got up to see if their room was ready. They’d only asked for one room, but the innkeeper told them that them all being in one room would violate the inn’s rules of capacity, so they would have to use two rooms.
The group was led up the stairs and to the rooms, which were right next to each other and joined by a doorway that was unlocked for their use.
And then they were left to themselves.
Luss knew he shouldn’t have been so taken aback by the room, but he was. He couldn’t decide if it were sad or incredible that the room he was standing in was probably the nicest room he had ever stood in.
“There’s a tub!” Kestek exclaimed upon examining the washroom.
“No matter how often I see it, I can never get over just how incredible the pipework system is,” Shayrow remarked. “Getting water to the second floor with the turn of a nozzle! Ingenious, really.”
“Sooo... who’s sleeping in what room?” Luss asked.
“Adif and I will take that room,” Kestek declared, as though it were obvious that she and Adif would be in a separate room from the others. “Refi, Breek, and Liaj can come, too.”
“Oh, I see,” Luss said, “you’ve gone and created a gender wall.”
“It’s just the simplest method of division!” Kestek retorted.
“I wasn’t objecting,” Luss pointed out.
Luss was about to land another comment, but then his gaze fell on the shelf that was placed on the far end of the room. His insides knotted with glee and he bolted for the shelf.
Never in his life had he had access to so many new books at once. The Academy had tons of books of course, but they were limited in use and most were only for certain classes.
There were at least thirty books on the shelf in front of Luss, and all of them looked very new. Only a few of them had the bindings broken in.
Overwhelmed, Luss stared at the miniature library, trying to decide which book to start with.
“Uh, well, good night,” Kestek said, and Luss heard the door close.
“I might be up for a bit,” Jelro said.
“Ditto,” Shayrow replied.
Luss didn’t say anything. He didn’t even look over his shoulder to see what Shayrow and Jelro were doing.
The only thing he cared about at the moment were the books.
He skimmed through the volumes of the Magic Item Compendium that he had yet to see, skipping volumes three through ten, as well as volumes thirteen and fifteen. Then he flipped through books about dragons and birds, getting lost in a book about feathercaster folklore before he was pulled out of his trance.
Luss snapped his gaze up, startled. Shayrow quickly pulled back his hand from Luss’s shoulder.
“Sorry. I wasn’t sure if I should bother you.”
“Eh.” Luss dropped his gaze back on the book that was propped on his lap while he sat cross-legged on the floor. “Do you need something?”
“It’s getting a bit late, so I might turn in for the night. Do you care where you sleep?”
“Uhhh...” Luss glanced over the room. There were two beds, each big enough for two humans—or human-sized beings—to fit on, hence five beings in a room exceeding the room’s capacity.
“Where do you plan on sleeping?” Luss asked.
“It doesn’t matter to me. That’s why I’m asking.”
“Did you ask Jelro?”
“Where is he?”
Shayrow jabbed his thumb towards the washroom. Luss wasn’t sure why Jelro would be lounging in the washroom, but the door was open.
Reluctantly setting aside the book, Luss hopped to his feet and went over to see what Jelro was doing.
“Jelro?” Shayrow said.
“Do you mind if we come in?”
“I don’t mind. What’s up?”
Luss followed Shayrow around the corner—and almost burst out laughing.
Eiss the snake and Cove the chameleon were stretched out on the tiled floor next to the heating system while Oireug the rabbit was taking a bath in the wash basin.
Jelro was lazing in the water-filled tub, fully clothed, and going through pages in a pocket-sized notebook. His cobalt-blue mer-tail was stretched out and hanging over the edge of the tub while his shoes and socks lay discarded nearby.
“Wow,” Luss said. “Y’know, I don’t think that’s how you’re supposed to take a bath.”
Jelro ruefully grinned.
“My legs were feeling stiff,” he sheepishly said. “I haven’t been in the water at all since we left.” He stuck the apparently-waterproof notebook in his sopping-wet vest pocket. “Are you both heading to sleep?”
“I am,” Shayrow said. “Do you have a preference as to where you sleep?”
“A bed might be nice,” Jelro admitted. “Unless you two want the beds.”
“Is sharing not an option?” Luss wondered.
Jelro dismissively waved a hand while Shayrow indifferently shrugged.
“Hey, that’s why I’m asking,” Luss said. “I’m not deep in the knowledge of your moral boundaries or whatever. I literally learned a month ago that it’s scandalous for men in Merrow culture to leave their shoulder blades uncovered.”
“Any skin from here to here,” Jelro noted, expertly gesturing to include his entire torso up to his collar bones in the front and the base of the back of his neck, then to his shoulders.
“I wasn’t aware,” Shayrow said, looking surprised. “Are you supposed to cover your tail, too?”
“Well, uniforms usually call for fabric to reach halfway to the fin, but it’s fine as long as everything’s covered.”
Luss wasn’t sure if he wanted to ask what exactly needed to be covered.
“Well,” he said, “since Shay’s the tallest, he can have his own bed. Jelro and I can share.”
“Works for me,” Jelro said, flicking his tail. “S’ay can s’are the bed with his sword.”
Luss cracked up.
Jelro pulled himself out of the tub and waited for his legs to reform. Luss finally understood the odd design of Jelro’s pants—they unbuttoned on the inner seams for his tail, and could be re-buttoned once he had legs again.
The merfling stood up and stretched out his back, then he said something to his animal friends and took Oireug out of the wash basin to dry him off.
Luss wandered back to the main room, wistfully eyeing the books he wasn’t going to have time to read.
Would they notice if I...?
He shook off the thought, but it came right back.
Would anyone really notice if I--?
“Luss?” Shayrow said, making Luss jump. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah.” Luss started putting the books back on the shelf. “I’m fine.”
“I didn’t know you like reading, honestly,” Shayrow remarked. “But I suppose we all have our hobbies, don’t we?”
“Yeah.” Luss ran his finger over the bindings of the books, wishing he could feel the paper. He snatched one of the books and carried it with him to the bed, kicking off his boots and taking off his cloak, vest, and belt to drape over the nearby armchair.
“Do you sleep with your gloves on?” Shayrow inquired.
Luss glanced over at him. The dhampyr looked oddly rumpled in appearance with just his undershirt and pants. He’d folded up his jerkin and cloak and set them on the dresser, laying his gloves over the top and setting his satchel next to it. His sheathed sword was resting on the bed of clothes, and his boots were set on the floor right below, crumpled under his knee guards.
“Is that weird?” Luss countered, unsure how to explain his gloves.
“Is it?” Shayrow asked.
“Not to me.”
“I see.” Shayrow shrugged. “I was just curious.”
Luss said nothing and curled up against the pillows with the book in his hands.
Jelro came into the main room, carrying Eiss, Oireug, and Cove. He made sure they were comfortable on some cushions before he dropped his boots and satchel aside, tossing his gloves and other pieces of his outfit on top of his satchel.
He was very careful with his bow, though. He had left it on the bed while he was in the washroom, so he moved it to the dresser, almost affectionate in his handling of the weapon.
“Perhaps we ought to get you a weapon, Luss,” Shayrow said, seeing where Luss was looking. “It could be dangerous to continue on unarmed.”
“I’ve been unarmed since I was twelve. Weapons aren’t my sort of thing.”
“I’m sure I could teach you,” Shayrow insisted. “I was Adif’s mentor, after all.”
“Maybe.” Luss put his nose back in his book.
He didn’t have the courage—or the heart—to tell Shayrow that he was offering to teach the unteachable.
~ ~ ~