“If you don’t mind me calling you that, of course,” the elderly man said to the woman standing behind the bar. She picked up another patron’s empty glass and doused it in water before cleaning it with a cloth, never quite breaking eye contact with him. There was a grace to every moment she made like a dancer never breaking character.
“But of course, I do not mind. In fact, I feel honored. I’ve heard many a tale about you.” After she finished cleaning, she poured herself a drink as well. She held it up to him. “Cheers.”
He picked up his glass in response. “Cheers.” The sound of glass clinking followed and each of them took a sip. It was a pleasantly warm drink that immediately seemed to calm some of his nerves. There was a hint of cinnamon to it.
“It truly is a wonderful place. You’ve created something of sheer beauty hiding something quite sad.”
“I do not think of the passing of life as sad.” She let out a deep sigh. “It is inevitable and special in its own way. Perhaps I’m biased as its overseer, but I think the process of moving on is quite beautiful.” She refilled both of their glasses and a smile formed on her face. “It is my life’s work, after all.”
“I would ask you how long it took you, but I was told by your daughter many times that it is rude to ask a lady her age, so I will refrain.” He sighed. “She truly was something else, wasn’t she.”
The look on her face turned nostalgic as she nodded in agreement. “She spoke very highly of you when she was here. She told me all these stories about how you were going to change the world and usher in a new era of prosperity. That you were the wisest, kindest and most infallible person she had ever met.” She looked him dead in the eyes. “Yet here you are.”
He didn’t back down from her gaze. “Yet here I am.”
Winter in the Celeran Canopy was often quite harsh, but this year seemed to be something else. Rain turned into snow and cold turned into freezing as the days went by, until everyone living at the Foxire Library was forced to stay inside unless they wished to risk their safety.
Liari was cooped up in a corner of the library itself, huddled in a blanket with a pile of books next to her. Ever since Fesquera’s last visit, which was several months ago now, she had been studying more and more books on magic and she slowly started to understand some of the theory behind it. The book she was currently reading, The practical use of a magic focus, was particularly interesting to her, as Fesquera had given her a focus gem as a gift. So far, she’d learned that they can be used to store energy and that this energy can then be manipulated as long as you knew how to. There were many ways of storing energy in a focus, but the most common two methods were meditation, which had you store your own energy in the catalyst, as well as absorbing energy from your surroundings. The second method was less efficient, but it didn’t require you to sacrifice some of your own energy, and according to the book it could be quite tiring to use your energy this way. She just got to a passage about how to start meditation practice when the doors to the library swung open violently. A pile of snow rolled into the room, followed by a figure collapsing. A moment of silence followed before Liari, as well as Miroc who was nearby, rushed towards the collapsed figure to see what was going on. Liari got there first and looked at the person, a young elven woman with scarlet red hair, to see if she was okay. The woman looked extremely pale and was breathing heavily. Her fingertips were almost devoid of color as if there was no blood left in them, and the same could be said about her face.
Miroc pushed the doors back closed, which took some effort with the pile of snow that had blocked it, but he managed. Miranda came running down from the first floor. “Move her to a chair near the fire,” she said to Liari and Miroc. She then turned to Rimah, who had come out of her room to see what the commotion was all about. “Get some blankets and bring them to the kitchen, quickly.”
Moments later the girl was propped up in a chair next to the fire, while water was boiling for tea.
“You have to be crazy to travel through these woods alone at this time of year,” Miroc said.
“I’m sure she has her reasons, now go make some tea,” Miranda said. She was looking over at the girl to see if she was in any immediate danger.
As they were bickering about what to do, the woman shifted ever so slightly and opened her eyes. “Where am I?” she asked.
“This is the Foxire Library, we found you collapsed on our doorstep.”
“So I made it to the right place then.” She let out a sigh of relief and closed her eyes again.
A few seconds went by before Miroc said, “I think you bored her so much she fell asleep.”
Miranda gave him an angry stare. Rimah entered the small kitchen. “I’ve prepared one of the guestrooms for her, do you think it’s smart to move her there now?”
Miranda nodded. “Liari, fetch her some of your dry clothes as well.”
With haste Liari went to her room to grab some clothes for the girl and they got her settled in one of the guest bedrooms further down the hall from Liari. It was quite exciting to have a visitor in this boring snowy weather, even though it looked like the visitor wasn’t in the best of health. Liari wondered why the woman came here in the middle of winter. She decided it must be something quite serious. She’d been wearing pretty fancy looking clothes under her big winter coat. Maybe she was an important person.
Two days passed by without anything of note happening. Liari was sitting in her room with a few scrolls. She was making a schedule for meditating when someone knocked on the door. “Come on in, the door is open.” Liari replied.
The door creaked open and in stepped the elven woman with the scarlet red hair.
“You’re finally awake, how are you feeling?” Liari put down her quill and turned around. The woman looked pale as a ghost still, although the purple hues of the cold had left her. Her cheeks were hauntingly thin and her entire figure screamed that she was greatly malnourished. She was wearing an old woolen dress that Liari had grabbed for her, and she was holding an empty plate. “Is this where Fesquera lives?” She asked, looking around the room.
Before Liari could answer the question, she heard footsteps coming from the hallway as Miranda came walking up. “Oh, thank goodness you’re awake. Please, come down to the kitchen for some fresh food and tea, we can talk there.” She motioned to Liari to join them as well. The three of them walked to the kitchen behind the library, the girl at quite a slow pace. It seemed like her journey had definitely taken a toll on her, wherever she had come from. After everyone had some tea, they sat around the kitchen table and waited for the girl to start talking.
“I suppose I do owe you all some kind of explanation, after suddenly collapsing at your door. That was rather rude of me, I have to admit. So hereby I apologize.” She ever so slightly lowered her head.
She looked at them one by one. “I am Charlotte Dira Fyrston, daughter of Crimson Fyrston and the rightful heir to the throne. After my family was killed during the recent attack on our empire, I have come to seek the aid of Fesquera, who – by my knowledge – lives around here.”
Miroc, who was sitting in the corner by the fire, let out a deep breath. “That’s one hell of an opener.”
Miranda and Liari exchanged a look. Miranda then spoke. “Fesquera does live here from time to time, but it has been months since we last saw him. And with him, it is hard to say when he’ll be back. It’s rare that he’s gone this long anyway.” The tone of her voice was almost filled with regret, as if she knew more than she was letting on.
Charlotte looked from Miranda to Liari and back. She opened her mouth to say something, but decided against it. Silence filled the room for several minutes until Miranda stood up. “If there is anything else we can do for you, please let us know later, but for now I think it’s most important that you get some rest. You may feel alright now, but you were doing terribly just the other day. I’m sending you back to bed for at least another two days.”
Charlotte jumped up to complain, but immediately sat back down after she wobbled from the sudden movement. “I can’t lie in bed now, I’m in a hurry, I have to figure out what to do next.”
“No objections, young lady, I don’t care if you’re a princess or whatever, you’re endangering your own health. I want you in the guest room and I don’t want to see you outside of it for the rest of today, am I clear?”
“Am I clear?”
Charlotte slowly nodded. “You are.” She didn’t have the strength to continue protesting and she knew it.
“Very good. Liari, please escort her back to her room. We will talk about this later.”
The two walked back through the main hall and up the stairs to the guest room. Liari waited for Charlotte to go back to bed. “If there is anything I can help you with, I sleep in the next room over, so you can let me know.”
Charlotte gave a forced smile. “I appreciate that.”
Liari then nodded and left the room. There was a real princess here. She didn’t quite know how to act around someone like that, but it seemed exciting. She spoke of an attack though, that was worrying. She decided to go back downstairs to the kitchen, where Miranda was tidying up. When Liari came back, Miranda sat back down. Miroc had moved from his corner of the room to the kitchen table as well. A plate of freshly baked bread was now in the center of the table to complement the rest of the meal.
”This is dire news. If the Fyrston Empire has fallen, that means we no longer have reliable protection from outsiders.” Miranda sighed. “Of course, it’s hard to get to this place, considering how dense and dangerous the forest around us is, but we’ve had a longstanding agreement with the Empire. Fesquera helped them out from time to time, that is probably how the young lady knew of him as well.”
“It has been a while since we last saw him, do you think he might have gotten caught up in this?” Liari asked. “Since you’re saying that he has dealt with them before.”
Miranda thought about it for a second. “I don’t think so, you might not realize just how powerful and resourceful he really is. If he’s been gone for this long, he must have run into some serious trouble. Probably something more to do with the arcane. I hope I don’t anger him by telling you this, but apparently he’s made some very powerful enemies throughout the years, some of which have the power to burn cities to the ground if they wished to.” She laughed. “Of course, most mages are trained so thoroughly that it is rare for one to do something like that, especially since they know they’ll feel the wrath of the entire Arcane Archipelago.”
“I’m worried about him.” Liari said. She didn’t quite believe all of Miranda’s fanciful tales. Fesquera was probably very powerful, but having enemies that burned down cities? That sounded a bit far-fetched. Still, she agreed with Miranda that he was rarely gone for this long and it didn’t make her feel great.
“So am I, child.” Miranda said. “So am I.”
Charlotte didn’t show up in her room with questions for the rest of the day, but the next day, late in the afternoon, Liari heard a knock on her door. “Come in, it’s still open.” She replied.
Just like the day before, the door creaked open and in walked Charlotte. Some color had returned to her face and she looked a bit better than the previous day. She looked around the room. “May I sit?”
“Of course, of course, sit down.” Liari got a bit nervous. She didn’t get to talk to strangers often and only now did she realize that she didn’t know what to say.
“So, you live here at this library?”
Liari nodded. “I do.”
“And where are you originally from?”
“I’m not sure I understand the question.” The question made Liari a bit nervous.
“Where were you born?”
“I was born here. At least I think I was born here. I’ve never quite questioned it, but I’ve been here since as long as I can remember.”
Charlotte looked surprised by this. “That’s peculiar. So you’ve never been to a city?”
“I’ve visited Larania once, which is on the edge of the Celeran Canopy.”
“I’m familiar, I came through there on my way here. But I wouldn’t call that a city. I’d barely call it a village, if I’m honest.”
This piqued Liari’s interests. She’d read about cities, and supposedly K’tapur, the capital city of the Fyrston Empire, was one of the larger cities on this continent. “Are there many bigger cities in the Empire?”
Charlotte thought about this for a second. “Honestly, even the small villages that aren’t even named are generally bigger than Larania is. Larania is just a tiny group of people living secluded from the rest of the Empire.” She saw some parchment lying on Liari’s desk. “What are you writing?”
Liari followed her gaze to see what she was looking at. “Oh, I’m currently trying to learn how to meditate efficiently. This book I’ve been reading talks about how any magic is improved by being a more focused individual.” She rummaged through a drawer and took out the emerald gemstone necklace that Fesquera had given her. “Supposedly you can store energy in this thing, it’s called a magical focus. Meditating is a way to build a connection with the magic focus.”
“I’ve seen these before, they’re often used by our army. I’ve heard they’re not very reliable and have a short lifespan.”
Liari nodded. “This book told me about that as well. Apparently, they break quite easily and it takes a very skilled arcanist to use one properly. Fesquera gave it to me, so I hope it’s a good one, but as of right now, I still have no idea what to do with it.” She stood up and poured some tea into two cups. “I’m sorry about your family.” She didn’t quite know what to say to her, but this seemed right.
“Thanks, I appreciate that.” Charlotte sipped some tea. “They came very suddenly. We’ve been at odds with Zanian for a while, but it never got past skirmishes at the border until recently. Within days, they went from breaching Fort Zarash to invading the capital city. There was nothing we could do, I just pray that others managed to make it out of the palace. I fled through the tunnels beneath the city and managed to slip by them on my own.” She let out a deep sigh and Liari could hear the resentment in her voice. “Without a real plan or direction, I figured that Fesquera might be able to help. He was always kind to me when he visited and father often told me that he was his most powerful ally. I knew he lived here and I managed to find the library, and now here I am.”
“You must have gotten quite lucky then, these forests are dangerous and the library is well hidden.”
“I was given some directions in Larania, but when the snow started falling, they said I should wait until it was spring. I didn’t listen and I almost paid the price.” She sighed as if she now regretted the risk she took.
Liari agreed. The princess seemed extremely level-headed for someone who had just gone through serious trauma. Well, besides the part where she traveled through the middle of a snow storm without proper preparation. She wondered if all royals were like that. She didn’t know people very well, so maybe this was normal. But from what she’d read, and the few people she did meet, there was something sad about seeing her like this. As if she was suppressing the pain she was feeling. “Do you also like studying?” She asked Charlotte, attempting to change the topic to something less traumatic and sad.
“Not too much, although I’ve done my fair share. Mother always made me learn etiquette and the names of different nobles around the country. I also learned the history of our country, as well as that of our neighbors, and I’ve read about exotic places whenever Fesquera would bring a book with him.” She smiled. “His visits were always a cause for celebration, it’s like everyone in the royal palace liked him.” Her smile quickly faded. “Of course, most of those people are no longer alive.”
Liari didn’t quite know what to say, so she stayed silent for a while. After a few minutes passed and both of them finished their tea, Liari asked: “What are you going to do now?”
“Talk to Fesquera.”
“I understand that, but besides talking to Fesquera.”
“Honestly, I haven’t really thought past that.” Charlotte seemed a bit upset by the question.
Maybe Liari had asked the wrong question, she didn’t mean to offend. “We could ask Miranda as well, she’s pretty smart. Besides, I think it’s time for dinner, so we should head to the kitchen.”
“Let’s do that then,” Charlotte replied. They both got up and started for the kitchen.
“Liari, Charlotte, there’s a tub of heated water in the kitchen for you to freshen up with.” Miranda yelled from downstairs. For fairly obvious reasons it was ill-advised to use the nearby stream during winter, so instead they brought some water in with buckets and heated it in a large cast-iron tub. Liari never bothered to bathe too much, but the hot water would be nice with these cold temperatures. Charlotte joined her as well. The bath was in the kitchen, so there wasn’t too much privacy. Charlotte was scrubbing her own back off to the side while Liari was submerged in the water. When it came time to step out of the tub Liari became hesitant. She hadn’t shown her tail yet to Charlotte, and she was worried what she would say. Liari let out a sigh and stepped out of the bath, wrapping a towel around herself. Charlotte got up and went to the tub now. She looked at Liari while she stepped over and hesitated for a second.
Liari went to a corner to dry herself off and put on some clean clothes. Charlotte sat in the bath.
“May I ask you something?” Charlotte said after a few minutes of silence. Liari had gotten fully dressed by this point and was about to leave the room.
“Yes?” She replied.
“I hope you don’t find me rude, but I’ve been wondering ever since I arrived at this place. Why do you have some of the features of a fox? It’s something I’ve not seen before.”
Liari turned around to face Charlotte. She hesitated for a moment. She wasn’t sure how weird Charlotte would find her. She knew a lot about the outside world from books, but she hadn’t talked to many people. What would they think of someone like her? “I don’t know. That’s the short answer.” She paused, waiting for Charlotte to interrupt. The princess stayed quiet so she continued. “The longer answer is that I was born this way, and Fesquera has always told me it was a gift from my mother. He wouldn’t tell me anything else. I’ve always assumed there had to be more people like me out there, but in all my studies I’ve not read about it. Have you never seen anything like it either?”
Charlotte thought for a while but eventually shook her head. “No, I can’t say I’ve seen it before. I’ve seen many people, but the world is a vast place, and I’m sure there are places out there where people look similar to you. Maybe that’s where you were born. Or where your mother was born, if Fesquera says this was her gift to you.” She sank down in the tub until everything below her chin was submerged. It got a bit cramped but it barely fit. “Does it bother you?” She asked Liari.
Liari shook her head. “I’m just me, so it never bothered me that I look like this. Miroc has a different color skin from you and me, there was once a human traveler who had very different looking ears. I think many people look different from others. But it does make me curious. Why have I not heard of anyone who looks similar to me? Why was Fesquera somewhat dismissive when I asked him? Why did he say it was a gift from my mother? Was my mother from a different race that lives somewhere far away from here?”
Charlotte thought about it for a moment. “Maybe we can ask him the next time we see him.”
Liari nodded. “That might be a good idea.”
Charlotte got out of the bath and Liari looked away while she wrapped herself in a towel.
“Does it feel like a normal fox?” She asked Liari.
Liari held out her tail and Charlotte felt it. It felt just like she assumed fox hair would feel. Liari knew that already, she’d been able to convince wild foxes to come close enough to pet them.
“It does suit you,” she said, seemingly worried she offended Liari with her questions.
Liari blushed. “Thank you, I’m happy to hear it.”
After they were done and tidied up the kitchen Liari went to her room to put away her old clothes for now, and by the time she got back to the kitchen area, Charlotte was fully dressed as well and Miroc was dragging the tub out of the room, after having funneled the water out of the room. Water for tea was already boiling and a few moments later the two were sitting around the small kitchen table, each a cup of tea in their hands to keep them warm.
“I had a sister.” Charlotte said.
Liari looked at her, not sure what to say, but Charlotte quickly continued. “Her name was Scarlet and she was supposed to become the next queen. She was the smartest, kindest and most beautiful person that ever lived. I always looked up to her. She was the one who sent me through the underground passageway and helped me escape.”
“Did she not come with you?” Liari asked.
Charlotte shook her head. “No, for some reason she went back in, she said she had to get something. That was the last I saw of her. I heard later that she was among the people who were executed.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Liari took another sip of her tea and stared into the fire. “I don’t know what it’s like to have siblings.”
“It’s fun, frustrating, annoying and amazing all at the same time.”
Liari frowned. “That sounds confusing.”
Charlotte laughed. “You can say that.” She stood up and walked to the window. “When do you think the weather will clear up?”
“According to Miroc, the weather should be clearing up enough for us to go to the tower in a day or two. Maybe we can find some more information there.”
“That would be nice. I’m honestly a bit lost on what to do next. I was convinced I could get Fesquera’s help, but with no way to reach him, I don’t know what to do.” A somber expression filled her face and Liari kind of regretted bringing it up.
“Well, maybe we’ll find a way to contact him, so not all is lost.”
Charlotte nodded. “You’re right, no need to be pessimistic without reason. We’ll see when we get there.”
The two continued reading as the snowfall slowly subsided and the wind got less intense.