Previous: Chapter 3: In the Room with Ralph

I must have had a nightmare again that night, but I couldn’t remember any of it when I awoke.  Just a a sudden awakening, like I had fallen, and my throat being raw, like I had screamed a lot. My eyes skipped around the totems for my ward around my room as I finished waking up.  They were still intact, so no one should have heard anything.

Performing my morning divination routine finished calming me down.  I moved the calendar wheel, and meditated on the result. 6-Straw Grass.  I always hated this stretch of days. I mean, it wasn’t like I didn’t know it was coming, but the four days beginning with a Straw Grass day were always ruled by troublesome aspects.  And 6 was the worst. An omen of war without the balancing chaos of the Ometezca. I wasn’t sure how it would show itself, but however it would turn out, the next few days would be a trial.  But at least knowing let me focus on what I’d need to get through it. Today would be a day to focus on control and stoicism. Yipee.

I washed up and tidied my previously fourth-best outfit as best I could and made a mental note to get myself to a made-goods store as soon as possible. I didn’t have time to sew new outfits, and at this rate, I’d be down to dirty rags and wolfskin by 6-Reed, so I had better buy some replacements.

Hair done and headdress on.  Shoes on. I checked in the mirror to make sure I’d pass inspection, and I was ready to face a new, probably-destined-to-be-apocalyptically-awful day.

Stepping into the hallway, I tried to remember what we’d worked on yesterday.  Small, graceful, dainty steps. Back straight but not stiff. Head tilting gently, swaying as I walked.  Modest smile. Arms. Hmmm. Aha! Arms soft, hands gently folded. Take that, Squinty, I remembered anyway!

Lost in my thoughts, I almost didn’t notice Lupe until she got close.  Luckily, she didn’t sneak up on my anymore. Not after that one time, and she forgave me for that even before she finished healing.  But she’d been careful not to sneak up on me since then.

She matched my pace so that we were walking side-by-side out the door and through the courtyard.  I decided to try to figure out her charm this morning at breakfast. This isn’t the first time I’ve tried, but this time I planned going to pay more attention to how people reacted to her than to her mannerisms or speech.  Maybe it would give me different insights.

The thing about Lupe is, she didn’t much care about being pretty or refined or anything, she’s just intrinsically charming.  Her parents want her here as something to keep her out of trouble, but she doesn’t really need the tutelage. She could walk into the king’s house tomorrow and become a jewel of the court.  Not by copying their manners, but because whatever she does seems better and more interesting than what other people do. She could probably belch the alphabet wearing three-day offal while spanking Sid the Gimp and make it look adorable and creative. Like she was doing a particularly outré performance, and we were all privileged to witness the birth of the new art form. Not that she would do that or anything. I don’t think. But if she did decide to do it, it would seem awesome.

“Sooo,” she said quietly, “You looked upset when I saw you at the Drowning Fish yesterday.  Everything okay?”

“Lupe, I told you before, that part of my life doesn’t exist when I’m here.  That’s the old me. I just…backslid a little yesterday. Today is a new day, and now I’m the new me.”

She gave me a crooked smile, and nodded.

Then another thought occurred to me, so I asked, “Oh, and I need to go shopping today.  Can you come with me?” Another nod. She’s such a good friend. “And I need a bit of help with Ralph right now.  He’s going to ask some awkward questions, and I said I’d answer them so I can’t go back on my word, but I don’t want to deal with it just now.  Not in public, anyway. Want to run some interference? He’s going to try to talk to me, and I need to cut him off.” She nodded a third time just as we got to the dais with the long table.

Perfect timing.  Ralph was loitering near the table, looking ready to pounce as soon as we sat. And sure enough, he did.  We barely sat down when he chose the seat directly across from me and opened his mouth to talk. But Lupe got to him first.

“Ralph!  Why, look at the fire in your eyes.  You seem awfully eager to sit across Scathach today.  Is there something going on between the two of you? Not to be nosy or anything…I’m just trying to keep an eye out for her until her family gets back in town.”

Ralph froze, a pale, hunted look passing across his face.  “No, nothing’s going on. I just…And yesterday, she just…Nothing.  Why would you think anything was going on? Her family isn’t coming into town, are they?”

Wow, I totally forgot to tell Lupe not to mention romance or my family to either Ralph or Miss Agnastes.  This could go in a less-than-good direction.

I held firmly to my composure, but I could quite help myself from looking past his shoulder to where Miss Agnastes had followed behind him.  Her eyes met mine, unblinking, which had to be a bad sign. She sat herself next to Ralph and stirred the chocolate, elegantly passing the ewer to the student next to her to continue the upper class breakfast tradition.  At least, I assumed it was a tradition known only to the more sophisticated, big city, high-class folks we were pretending to be. Her small school was mostly filled with miners and ranchers with rough manners looking to acquire polish for themselves or their children.  Wealthy ones, of course, since her careful tutelage didn’t come cheaply. None of us had ever heard of half the things she had introduced, but I wasn’t sure if that was because our ways were just so different than the coastal lords or if she was a really great con artist, making up imaginary mores and taboos whole cloth.  Either way, she had my respect. She was a wonderful teacher, with both patience and attention to detail.

Unfortunately, that patience and attention to detail were currently focused on me and Ralph.  After gently adjusting the form a student passing the ewer, she considered the two of us. Correctly identifying who was more likely to break under questioning, she began, “Ralph, when I asked Scathach where you were yesterday at dinner, she mentioned that you had come to her aid after class.  And that you dealt with some ruffians for her? That sounds like a wonderful tale to share over our breakfast.”

My nagual powers were useful at times, but had never included telepathy. That didn’t stop me mentally screaming at Ralph, “Remember the story. Stick to the story!”

“Well,” Ralph began, “I don’t know if I’d put it quite that way.  I mean, I didn’t really do anything. I mean, I was there, and I tried to help, but… ”

Oh, may the grandmother of snakes have mercy on me, two seconds in and he was already verging on unvarnished honesty.  I had to intercede before it all came out, “Ralph, you don’t have to be delicate about it. It was awful for me of course, but that doesn’t mean you have to hide your bravery.”  Turning to face Miss Agnastes, I explained, “I had been practicing after class, with the arms.” I paused, holding them out self-consciously and then decided I didn’t have time to explain about the arms, “and several ruffians accosted me.  One held me down, and I tried asking them to let go, but they didn’t. I’m sure they had horrible plans. And the street was deserted. But then I saw Ralph across the lane. I called to him and he told the ruffians to let me go.”

Lupe, bless her, helped me carry the story, “And did they?”

I turned in my seat the Lupe, hoping it would seem more believable to act gossipy about it, “Well, no, not right away.  They laughed at us at first. It was very rude. One of them stepped up to Ralph and just punched him, right in the cheek. See, he’s got a bit of a bruise there now.”

Ralph self-consciously touched his hand to his cheek, and his mother inspected him more closely.

Lupe glanced between us with guileless big eyes.  “Oh no, poor Ralph! And poor you! But, what happened next?”

“Well, it was a bit of a blur next.  I didn’t know how we could possibly get out of the situation unscathed.  But the next thing I knew, punches were thrown and the laughter stopped, and I looked up, and there was Ralph, leaning over one of the ruffians, another was on the ground, and the third was trying to leave the alley.  He looked almost like he was coming out of a daze, like the Shorn Ones are said to after a battle frenzy.”

One of the younger and more impressionable girls at the end of the table squealed, “Like a hero from a ballad!  You could be an Shorned One yourself, Ralph! Do you think you’d one of the warrior societies will induct you?”

Most of us looked at Ralph doubtfully, and then an older man across from her argued, “Ralph’s a scholar.  If a warrior society inducted him, it would be as a Hummingbird Knight, surely.”

“Oh, the Hummingbirds are so prestigious!”, the squealing girl gushed. “I met one once when I was on pilgrimage.  She always seemed a bit remote, very calm and learned. Well, one time we passed a coconut tree. I’d always wanted to try a coconut, but they were were ever so high, and the tree didn’t have any branches to climb.  And I was just a little girl then, and quite spoiled, so I cried for someone to bring me a coconut. My papá was quite cross with me, and the rest of the party were annoyed, but the hummingbird knight just took a step back and then ran right up the trunk of the tree like it was flat ground, twisted off the coconut, and then landed on the ground so lightly, I barely heard her land next to me.  I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.”

I could see the others at the table look at Ralph again, trying to picture him reaching the heights of athleticism the Hummingbird Knights were said to reach.  Luckily for the integrity of my story, one of the Miss Agnaste’s servants interrupted before everyone decided that Ralph emphatically was not hero material. She seemed more agitated than usual, her mouth opening and closing a couple times before she finally got out what she needed to say.

“Oh Miss Agnaste, there’s a wild beast at the gate.  And a huge man. And he says he’s come for Miss Scathach!”