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For a few moments I stand in the bedroom, looking upon myself in a tall mirror as I prepare to leave—as though I have any true need to do so, rather than being quite unnecessary considering I do not wear rouge or anything of the sort which would require a mirror. It is more of a curiosity, perhaps…I cannot recall now how many months have passed since I last gazed upon myself, and so very much has changed since then. I have grown quite used to and fond of my clothing and hair as they are now, yet some part of myself does not register this vision as “me.” The dim lamplight only makes the scene appear even more unreal.
I did well enough in forgetting that man who I so long called a “husband,” yet in this moment, it is difficult not to let unpleasant memories flurry my mind. I remember the first time he gazed upon me, the look of sheer disappointment and disgust on his face…Lebrun women are tall and slender, so they say, delicate beauties with clear mahogany skin and rose-colored hair. No one had told him he was to be married to the runt Lebrun, the likely bastard child that had become unbecomingly large, whose only notable feature is being as small as a child even as a fully grown woman. The first time we appeared in public together was our wedding, and even at such an occasion, he could scarcely hold in his disdain for me. In public, he would either depart from my side as soon as possible, or force me to follow as though someone such as myself is undeserving of being by his side. My name brought status, at least…and ultimately, it is only that which matters, I suppose…
I know Hikaru is not remotely like this—indeed, somehow he manages to appear even more unsightly in the eyes of others, to the degree that some find it an abomination, rather than merely just unpleasant to see. It seems quite clear that he genuinely loves me, genuinely finds me lovely…
Yet, gazing in the mirror, it is difficult not to frown. I do not look terribly different from the last time I looked upon myself, and certainly not enough to assuage any fears. Some dark part of me wonders if perhaps our little foray into the tavern will be little different from the times Marc and I spent together; although, at least I am fairly certain Hikaru would be kinder about it. I merely sigh at the thought…yet I suppose it is ridiculous.
He said he finds me beautiful, so I should trust in him…but ah, sometimes it is difficult…
Suddenly, the door creaks.
“Suzette,” Hikaru’s voice dances through the crack, “Are you ready?”
“Of course!” I turn around and smile cheerfully, as though I have not a care in the world. We agreed not to worry, therefore…I shall try.
Sweetly he smiles at the sight of me, so genuinely that, for a moment at least, all doubt washes away. Gently he places his hand upon my back, and whispers a small incantation to blow out the lamp. I look up slightly in a panic, hoping Florence did not notice; yet, it appears he does not.
“I was wondering if you’d ever come out,” Florence laughs as we approach him, standing in the open doorway.
“Oh, well…” I mumble, unsure how to answer, considering I was not particularly preparing myself for most of that time…
“Not a big deal, it’s not that late!” he replies reassuringly. Then we leave Florence’s little home to head downstairs, and into the dark streets below.
Once we step out of the building, for a moment I cannot help but stand and bask in the cool, summer night air; which now, since I have begun staying in a home once more, strikes me in its freshness. The streets are dark; in a town as small as this, only a few lanterns are lit.
“Is this the first time you’ll be in a tavern like this?” Hikaru asks, looking down upon me.
“It will be,” I reply, and Hikaru chuckles.
“This isn’t for me, but it feels like it might as well be…”
“You nervous?” Florence chimes in as he finishes locking the door to his shop.
“Trying not to be,” Hikaru answers.
“Hmm…” Florence hums, as he begins walking along, showing us the way, “I don’t think that’s good for your health, all this worrying.”
“I don’t worry that—”
“You seemed worried to tell me your name.”
The two men continue to talk, and I merely trail along close behind. It is a tad interesting, it is only so often that I see Hikaru conversing with others…even small exchanges, it always feels as though I discover something new about him.
“…Surely you can see why I worry,” Hikaru says.
“I never said I didn’t,” Florence continues on, “But…”
He comes a little closer to Hikaru, and begins whispering softly enough that it becomes difficult to hear. Yet, I still do regardless.
“She deserves better than that. Someone to be strong for her.”
“I know,” Hikaru sighs in his usual tone of voice, which is still rather soft.
“Do not say that…” I attempt to speak up, coming in the middle of the two. “It is not as though I do not worry occasionally as well…”
“…You’re still much better than me, though.”
“So…” Florence begins, “With all this traveling you two’ve been doing…are you ever around people?”
“Occasionally…” I reply.
“I’m not sure how that would help with that,” Hikaru sighs once more. “But I push through anyways.”
“Maybe tonight you can finally see why you don’t have to worry so much. It’s not that scary, I promise,” Florence adds, and Hikaru replies with a quiet laugh,
“Well, I’m trying to work on not worrying so much anyways, so…I suppose that’s encouraging.”
“Good! And as for you,” Florence looks down towards me, and meets my eye, “That goes for you too, if you’ve been the same.”
“S-Surely you worry occasionally as well…” I mutter while looking away, suddenly feeling rather put on the spot.
“Of course I do, occasionally,” Florence says. “With the way he’s always worrying, I worry about you—”
“You worry about me?”
“…Damn it!” Florence exclaims, and both Hikaru and I laugh.
“Well, that was fast,” Florence says, “We’re already almost there.”
I look up, and find we are nearly to the edge of Bydlin. On the border alone sits a small building with a single lantern alighting the porch. It nearly looks like a home, if not for the somewhat small, simple sign on one of the wooden pillars, creatively reading Korshne—tavern.
The three of us walk up to the tavern, Florence still leading the way; luckily for us, it is rather quiet, the sounds of our steps on the creaky stairs creating more sound than what is seeping from inside. Perhaps Hikaru will be fine after all, I hope…
Slowly I follow Florence, going in before Hikaru, and am suddenly struck with how strange, yet…positively quaint the establishment is.
On the far wall lies shelves and shelves of alcohol, more than I have ever seen anywhere aside from a cellar—Bydlin is not particularly large, so is this normal? I wonder to myself, although it feels a tad embarrassing to ask such a question aloud. Yet looking around, I merely find a small handful of tables with chairs around them, only a couple which have a few older men conversing at them with a surprising quietness. Looking to the wall again, it appears a few more people are sitting at the bar; and just as he said, behind the counter stands Oskar, entirely unnoticing us as he mixes a drink.
“Sâlêzj!” Florence greets him. Oskar gazes upwards and, to my shock, replies with a slight smile on his face. For some reason, he just did not appear to be the type to so genuinely grin…
“Y’all decided to come after all,” he says surprisingly gently.
“Thought I’d show them a little of what Bydlin has to offer, and this seemed a good place to start!” Florence says, seating himself at one of the stools.
“Gods, you’re shit at this,” Oskar calls over as he hands another patron their drink, “Everywhere’s got booze. Lest you’re saying this place is borin’, then I guess that’ll help,” he adds with a chuckle.
“But,” he turns over to Hikaru and I, “Have y’all even…drank alcohol before?”
“Y-Yes, of course!” I reply embarrassed, in part at his insinuation, and in part at the fact that everything is absurdly large for myself here, the counter of the bar reaching my shoulders—is this too a common feature of taverns solely focused upon alcohol, or is Bydlin a stranger place than it seems? I cannot say…
“Don’t sound too convincin’,” Oskar says.
“We have…trust me, I promise,” Hikaru says as he seats himself.
“Why do you think we have not…?” I ask, as I scramble atop the seat, a little higher than I feel comfortable.
“I know y’two are obviously a bit frisky, but otherwise y’all still seem a little too goody-goody for this sort of thing.”
“Then why did you invite us…?” I inquire, and he merely shrugs before turning to Florence.
“Want your usual?”
“What do you usually drink?”
“The dandelion wine,” Florence replies.
“The…dandelion wine?” I repeat, slightly perplexed. I did not know one could even eat dandelions, never mind use them for alcohol…
“We’re one of the few places that still make it,” Oskar says while turning around, presumably searching for the drink. “Used to be real popular, but nobody wants a peasant drink…the folks here still like it, though. Maybe cause we make it real sweet.”
“Then I shall try that,” I say, certain that nearly any drink I am truly familiar with shall not be here.
“Well, if it’s good enough for them, then it’s good enough for me too,” Hikaru adds a little softly.
“Thanks for making my job easier,” Oskar says, swiftly bringing out three glasses for us.
“Huh…” he continues, turning around and pouring the drinks with deft speed, “I never did catch your names.”
“I am Suzette, and my, uh…he is Hikaru.”
“Interestin’,” Oskar says, leaning his head on his hands—he has already finished pouring our drinks before I could even realize. “Knowin’ Florence, I’m assumin’ he already told y’all all about me.”
“Wow, I’m not rude enough to say everything about you,” Florence playfully huffs.
“But you did tell ‘em about me, didn’t you?” Oskar smirks mischievously, making Florence laugh.
“Just your name, and that you’re a strange man that likes strange people.”
“Gee, thanks,” he quips, before turning his gaze back to me. “Well, you heard it from him I guess. So tell me, are you as odd as you seem?”
“Ah…” I blink, not entirely sure what to reply to that…
“He’s saying he wants to get to know you,” Florence sighs.
“I am not certain if there is anything terribly interesting about me…” I mutter, looking down at my glass of the honey-hued wine.
“Come on, there’s got to be somethin’ interestin’ about you. What d’you do for a living, you a housewife or somethin’ else?”
“I am working to be a baker, hopefully soon—”
“No,” Hikaru interjects, “She is one, she just doesn’t have a bakery yet.”
I look away, surely blushing terribly; even if “baker” is not exactly a prestigious title, it still feels like some wondrous, far off thing—a title which I have not properly earned for myself yet…
“See, a baker without a bakery,” Oskar says, smirking, “That’s somethin’ interestin’. And you?” he adds, looking towards Hikaru.
“I…wander,” Hikaru mumbles. I notice he is even more quiet than usual, somehow. It is a blessing this tavern appears sleepier than the typical stories I have heard, or surely no one would hear him at all…although that is assuming he would still be here.
“Like some kind of beggar?”
“I provide for myself, but…I suppose something like that.”
“You need not be so harsh,” I admonish him, a little hurt on Hikaru’s behalf.
“Never said that’s a bad thing,” he replies, laying his cheek on his hand. “But still…pšyke, if I made you feel bad,” he adds quietly.
“I’ve heard much worse things about me, it’s all right,” Hikaru replies gently, taking a sip of his wine, and gazing down at it wide-eyed—although whether from being delicious or disgusting, I do not yet know.
“What is it like here?” I ask, turning my head back to Oskar. “It seems you have lived here for some time…”
“Didn’t I already mention it? Or…you plannin’ on staying here a while?”
“We have to leave soon, yet…we are considering moving here.”
“So…I’m assumin’ you both live nowhere? Well, I guess if you’re married and he doesn’t, it’d obviously be the same for you, huh…”
I look down, a little ashamed…it feels terribly embarrassing to admit, especially to someone I barely know—although, if Hikaru can, I suppose I can as well.
“…So that’s how y’two made it this far,” Oskar gazes to Hikaru, his voice barely above a whisper, and tinged with a pathos he did not seem capable of producing.
“Hmm?” Hikaru says, looking up at him once more. “Do you mean with my…”
“Yeah,” Oskar says, seemingly having the same thought as him. “I used to know a girl like you once, y’know, where I grew up. Long, wavy white hair, though her eyes were blue. She always had…” Oskar looks down, and blinks.
“…She always had a rough life there. Our town was quite shit, but also quite remote, and she wasn’t rich, so her family had no choice but to stay. We shouldn’t have, but we got real close…”
“What…happened to her?” Hikaru whispers.
“You probably don’t want to know—”
“I do,” Hikaru replies again.
“No,” I interject, “You already wor—”
But in the middle of my warning, Oskar has already continued.
“We was idiots, my parents caught us bein’ too friendly and told the whole town. We wasn’t supposed to be together anyways, but…her bein’ who she was, I wasn’t blamed at all. Said she corrupted me. ‘Maiden Moon’ leadin’ me astray…
“You’re not wearin’ it now, but I saw it earlier, y’know,” Oskar whispers. “That thing on your neck…even if you’re not wearin’ it now, it’s amazin’ how you wore it without a care in the world…”
I gaze upon them both, holding in a sharp breath. Oskar gazes on with his same mild look, yet now tinged with sorrow; Hikaru furrows his brow in what appears to be horror.
“Well, anyways,” Oskar continues, “Her parents cried and pleaded, said she didn’t do nothin’ illegal—which is true, but in a town like that, it don’t matter. The king’s law only matters so much as he gets his taxes. Otherwise, they could do what they wished…and they decided they was done with her. So…”
Oskar looks down, and bites his lip.
“They decided she go out the old-fashioned way, out on the gallows. Get rid of…the ‘menace.’”
“If she did nothing wrong, would that not be murder?!” I interject, mortified…
“Nobody cares what happens in a hick town at the edge of the world. And trust me—if you think this is a hick town, you ain’t seen nothin’.”
For what feels like ages, all three of us remain silent.
“How old are you, Hikaru? You seem a little older.”
“Well,” he blinks, clearly a bit surprised at this, “You…really should be damn proud of that.”
“…How old was she?” I ask, both not wishing for the answer…yet having to have it regardless.
“Sixteen. She’d be…almost twenty-eight if she was still here. Wasn’t much younger than me.”
“I…” suddenly Florence interjects, “I had no idea of this.”
“Well,” Oskar mumbles, “Never came up. You just got the slightly less shitty part.”
“…And I thought that was bad enough,” Florence mutters as he takes a sip of his wine.
“You. Drink,” Oskar abruptly says, pushing my glass towards me. “Sorry for makin’ you cry…you’ve not touched this at all though. Maybe it’ll make you feel better.”
“…Forgive me,” I say looking down, face growing dreadfully hot already. It is embarrassing to burst into tears in public like this, yet…it is difficult not to at such a tragic tale.
Especially considering…Hikaru and Alex so easily could have encountered the same fate.
…Hikaru and I could so easily still encounter the same fate.
Yes, what happened to Hikaru occurred over forty years ago, in a faraway land—but this occurring right here in Soléiâ, scarcely over a decade ago…
“…Anyways, what we was talkin’ about before,” Oskar says, “If it’s any consolation…I’ve often wished I was smart enough to just leave and bring her here. Folks tend to be pretty nice. There’s enough people they don’t all feel a need to run your shit, but not so many they don’t give a shit about nothin’.
“I don’t know the kind of place y’all prefer, but—I don’t think it’s bad here, ‘specially since you’ve got your brother and all.”
“You think we shall be safe here?”
“Oh yeah, you’ll be fine. Folks aren’t that superstitious ‘round here. And I’m sure just him being your hubby will make people like him.”
“You say that as though anyone knows anything of me…”
“Well I know everybody loves your brother, definitely think they’ll do the same for you,” he replies with a sly smile.
“That’s a bit of an exaggeration…” Florence laughs nervously, which Oskar merely answers with loud, piercing laughter.
“Gods, you’re both ridiculous.”
“Oskar!” A slurred voice suddenly exclaims from the other side of the bar.
“Oh well, look at that,” Oskar says, “Got to go back to work; you three have fun now,” he says, and suddenly slips away to attend to the man.
I heave a heavy sigh, and at last take a sip of my drink—surprised to find it truly is delicious, a smooth, gentle earthen taste sweetened with honey.
“I believe I am failing…” I whisper to no one in particular.
“Why do you say that?” Hikaru replies.
“I believe coming here only makes me more concerned about…everything.”
“Suzette…” Hikaru begins, and starts gently rubbing my back, “I think I’m less worried now.”
“H-How?!” I swiftly turn to him, rather baffled.
“Clearly he knows what a…dangerous place for us would be like, so if he says it’s safe here too—it may be as good of a spot as anywhere.”
“Well I think it’s a good idea,” Florence says, and I gaze over to see he is now bearing a large grin on his face. “You know, I forgot how nice it is, actually…having a family.”
“Me too,” I smile softly.
“Maybe it’s still too early to say for certain, but…” Hikaru says, grasping my hand, “Are we staying here?”
“I believe so,” I grip his palm tighter. “They are both right, we shall not be alone here…which is more than I can say of anywhere.”
Hikaru lets out a quiet chuckle.
“So,” he whispers, “For maybe the first time ever—everything is coming together?”
“Yes…I do believe so.”
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