We had been on the road now for the better part of the week before we started encountering small crossroads carrying other solo traveling hybrids. Most of them seemed to be self-motivated merchants, though their wares appeared dusty and worn. To be fair, we were also dusty and worn. The dirt road had been baked to a powdery crisp, and the slightest breeze caused swirls of fine particles to descend on everything. Aleph had us keep our hoods up at all times. We also wore thin black cloth coverings across our noses and mouths to hide our faces and protect us from the errant dust.
“Ho, kinsman,” a young, ox-tailed peddler hailed Aleph. “What lies yonder?” He gestured to the path behind us.
“The village of Tun and just beyond, the Altar of Raelynn.” I felt a little guilty when I realized I hadn’t even asked the village’s name while we were there.
“How long until I arrive in Tun?”
“Two days if you keep the peddler’s pace,” Aleph replied with a smile. Just two days? Were we really that slow?
“Not much farther then,” the young peddler laughed. “I’m looking forward to dropping off all these prayer requests. For slips of paper, their weight can add up,” he laughed as he gestured to the basket on his back.
“The villagers will happily accept them, no matter their weight or quantity.” I wondered what they did with them. Hang them up on trees? Use them as insulation? Burn them as nuisance garbage?
“I also have, um… a personal request for Raelynn. Is there something better I could offer than just a scrap of scribble?”
“That depends on the request. What are you hoping she will achieve on your behalf?”
“There’s this girl…” he blushed deeply. “You should see her–” he looked at Nora and I. “Um. Her…”
“Personality?” Nora suggested.
“Oh, yeah! Big personality!” he laughed nervously.
“Have you told her how you felt about her… personality?” Nora asked, her voice overflowing with insincerity.
“Well… no… see, I must earn enough money to gain her favor first. That’s why I’m picking up these odd jobs.”
“Earn her favor?” I questioned.
“Yeah. With enough money, maybe I can confess my feelings…”
“What’s money got to do with it?” I asked in a surly tone, even though I knew the answer.
“Everything! I can’t ask her to marry me without at least showing I’m financially secure! Being a peddler isn’t exactly a high-level purpose…” he responded sheepishly, which was a real feat for someone built like an ox.
I sighed. “I think you should tell her how you feel, regardless.”
“I’ll just ask Raelynn to guide me, thanks,” he declined politely, causing Tetora to snort.
“Ask for Widower Pyo,” Aleph said around a mild cough. “He makes ornate charms for such circumstances. He’ll be glad to help you out for a nominal fee.”
“Thank you for your guidance,” the peddler bowed. “Ah, before I forget! It would be best to take the low path around Dark Star Hill. There’s a surveyor hanging around on the upper side.”
“Your advice is much appreciated,” Aleph also bowed. We continued on for a few minutes and were soon out of earshot.
“So… Do you think he was referring to her rack?” Nora pointed to her temples. “Or her rack?” She made an exaggerated gesture to showcase her chest.
“Obviously, he was talking about her rack.” I didn’t point to anything in particular.
Tetora laughed heartily, but Aleph gave us all a stern look. “Absolutely incorrigible.”
“Well, which one was he talking about?” Tetora questioned with a wicked gleam in his eyes. “Which rack do ox-men fancy more?”
“You’re the worst of the lot!” He whacked him somewhat gently in the head with the small end of his war hammer.
“Gwah!” Tetora shouted, rubbing his head. “That hurt!”
“It’s a good thing we entertained his words, though,” Aleph mused as he ignored Tetora’s protests. “I was planning to stop by Dunon for supplies, but it’s not worth it now.”
“Because of the surveyor?” Nora asked.
Aleph nodded. “They’re quite difficult to deal with. They’ll delay our travel for weeks if we let them.”
I scratched my head. “Why would a surveyor get involved with our travels?” Don’t they focus on land boundaries?
“Their whole point is to limit hybrids from moving around and congregating together. A group of four adults on the road like us will raise much suspicion. More if they find out that our party is mixed.”
“Mixed? So humans and hybrids can’t even just associate with each other around here? They should mind their own business!” I snapped.
“That’s just what it is, though. If you anger them, a hybrid could find themself assigned to the northern land of dragons.”
“Dragons!” Nora breathed excitedly.
“There’s no such thing!” Tetora scoffed. “I have never seen one!”
“Just because you have not seen one does not mean they do not exist,” Aleph warned.
“Ridiculous…” I muttered under my breath. “Someone ought to do something about this. I mean, about the surveyors.” Let sleeping dragons lie.
Tetora’s tail quivered slightly. “Well, since we’re headed toward Chairo anyway…”
“Tetora… she has enough to deal with as it is.” Aleph let out an exasperated sigh.
“What’s this now?” I asked.
Tetora pounced, figuratively speaking. “When you get into the inner city, tell the council of high priests to—”
“Tetora!” Aleph admonished.
“What? Her words will carry weight! It’s not like we can make them stop all this!”
“Why not?” Nora asked with an almost exaggerated tone of curiosity.
“Hybrids aren’t allowed past the outer gate of the city anymore.”
“Wait, you can’t come in with us?” I panicked. “What about Nora and I? We don’t even have any identification on us. What do we do, say we’re travelers from another world, so please let us in?”
“Your face will open any door in the city!” Tetora answered excitedly. “Just say, ‘I’m back!’”
“You want me to lie my way into the holy city?”
“It’s not a lie! It’s, uh…” Tetora paused, obviously at a linguistic loss. Even though Aleph and Tetora called me Rae, their opinions hadn’t changed. Nora kept saying anything was possible. I had settled on a case of mistaken identity because I could easily deny any plausibility.
Nora looked off into the distance. “Let’s say we get into the inner city. Where can we find the council?”
“They’ll be on the first floor of the main temple. You can’t miss them!”
Nora looked at me. “You’ll say something to them, of course?”
“Um,” I hesitated. What’s this now?
“We’re going there, anyway. Don’t you think you should use your looks for the good of hybrid kind?”
Please don’t put it that way… now this is my problem, too! “Looks won’t be enough. Acting for me is impossible. Don’t you remember when I made our high school drama coach cry?” It was in relief, of course, about five seconds after I confessed I wanted to switch to art class.
“She didn’t know how to motivate you, that’s all.” I looked at her face closely. Even her eyebrows looked mischievous. She was plotting something. “Actually…” Nora paused dramatically. “You should probably start practicing now, Chosen One!”
“Oh no, no no no!” I shouted defiantly.
“Oh yes, yes yes yes.” she countered calmly. “If you continue arguing with me, you’ll leave me no choice but to retaliate.”
I ignored her warning and continued my tirade. “I refuse! There is no way you are going to parade me around like some heaven-sent messiah to—”
“Boop.” She reached up and tapped my nose rather sharply with her right index finger.
I stared at her momentarily in silent bewilderment, then yelled again. “If you think for one second that I’m just going to do whatever you say, then you—”
Would you believe she did it again? “Why are you doing that?!”
“Distracting you. If you had thought about it for a moment, you’d realize that practicing now will make it a lot easier when the final exam comes. Didn’t you just point out that we have no good way into Chairo otherwise?”
“You have two party members who’ve spent years with Raelynn. Use their knowledge to your advantage. I’ll coach you through it.”
“I really hate it when you do that.” I rubbed my nose.
“I warned you, didn’t I?”
“I know, I know. Just why me!”
“Because there’s no one else who can,” Nora shrugged. “Unless you’d rather just lead an assault on the city. That might be fun!” Her violet eyes lit up dangerously, and I swore I could see electricity crackling around her in an unholy halo.
“I thought we were supposed to be good guys! At least, sort of good…” I mean, at a level greater than blasting everything first and asking questions later.
Nora waggled her eyebrows playfully. “You forgot to tell me about the ends versus the means, remember?”
“Ugh…” I glanced at Tetora and Aleph, who had watched our lively exchange in suspenseful silence. “Just so we’re clear, I’m not admitting I’m Raelynn. So don’t be surprised if this doesn’t work the way you want it.”
Nora stepped forward. “It also means you two will explain to the real Raelynn if she shows up later, that is, that you came up with this plan,” she added, surprising me. I guess she was entertaining a multitude of possibilities.
“And… uh…” I stalled. I wanted some more concessions for having to go through all this.
“This counts as training, too?” Nora suggested.
“Yes! No extra training hours!” I agreed excitedly. Great idea!
“Agreed!” Aleph said with a self-satisfied smile. Hey, wait. It was Tetora who brought it up initially. Did Nora know this was coming, too? Did they rehearse this whole thing? I eyed all three of them, but they didn’t even bother to look the least bit guilty. I had the feeling they had completely hoodwinked me.
“Damnit,” I muttered.