.. | the waterstreet mill | chapter 3
On the morning I was to leave, Aislinn kept herself busy packing my few belongings for me and Archer disappeared into the barn, presumably to saddle up the twins. Alone for a while, I stepped onto the porch and listened to the quiet morning. There was no describing the emptiness I felt inside as I looked out over the keep for those few moments. Nature was my mirror that day it seemed; the clouds were low and dark, there was no sun. There was another storm on the horizon, I could smell it in the air. As I looked to the east, it was like the whole world was covered with a dull gray damp that would never lift again. The melancholy chill saturated my clothes and skin. My heart.
Archer would ride to the city with me to make sure I was settled, something Aislinn had insisted on. He had been unsure about leaving his wife alone with their young daughter but she would have her way, as in all things. She didn't want me to go alone. I did not want to go alone.
When all preparations had been made, we sat down for one last meal, but the breakfast table was silent. Missing my appetite, I stole glances at Archer as he ate and stared at the table in front of him, hardly even chewing. Aislinn, too, only picked at her food.
Finally, there could be no more delaying. I trudged outside to where our horses awaited us, looked at the sky and on a desperate whim I suggested we stay and wait out the storm at least. The both of them shook their heads.
"I have already sent word," Archer said. "They are waiting for you now. Besides," he threw a lopsided grin over his shoulder as he checked his packs. "What's a little rain?"
Aislinn pulled me aside while her husband busied himself with checking the girths and saddle ties.
"I want you to have this," she said, opening her clasped hands and revealing a simple little necklace wound through her fingers. In the middle of the threaded black leather strap lay a small, polished shell the size of my thumbnail.
"They call it a cowry shell. My sister brought it from the ocean," she said, reaching around my neck to tie it on. "I've never been there, but I always wanted to see it." The small shell lay loosely right at the base of my throat. It was cold.
Her hands framed my face gently, warm on my skin despite the moist, chilly air. "Now you can wear it and wish for greater things as well." She kissed my lips softly, and I melted into her embrace as if I were just a child again.
She was the mother my own had never been, the sister I had never had. She was the being that embodied all women in my mind, whom I would always base my opinions of others on. To this day scarce few of the women in my life live up to what she was to me.
Archer bid her goodbye with a simple kiss to strengthen her resolve, and I dare say his as well. Then we were off down the very road that had led me here. I looked back at the keep only once, then at Archer who rode beside me. I desperately needed his strength but He had hardly said a word to me all morning. What was he thinking? Couldn't he say something, anything, to try and help me feel better?
But I still had to learn that sometimes there are no need for words. From under his hooded cloak Archer gave me a smile, and amid the misty morning I felt a little warmth return to my chest.
For leagues we rode in silence with the sound of the wind and rain in our ears. I hugged my cloaks closely to my body and rubbed the small shell at my throat, subconsciously keeping it warm with my fingers. The weather was quite fitting, I thought, but couldn't help but wonder if the sun had been shining brilliantly on a beautiful day, would I have felt any different? Perhaps I would have felt worse.
We arrived on the outskirts of the walled city of Gaerune well after dark, having stopped during midday to let the horses rest and to eat. I should have been ravenous by the time we reached the city, but my stomach still balked at the thought of food.
I followed Archer's lead and dismounted once we were well onto the worn streets. With wide eyes I followed him closely; I'd never seen a place like this in all my life. My village had been quite small, and the small town half a day's ride from the keep was only about hundred families large. This place was brimming with activity and life; even at this time of night there were so many people out and about, milling amid two and three-storied buildings that had wood-roofed shingles and intricate bannister and shutter carvings. There were street vendors harking their wares to the evening crowds, and people shouted down from second story windows to friends in the street. Lanterns placed every few yards apart lit up the slick cobblestone street with a warm glow and laughter could be heard from pubs whose doors were swung wide open so that the scent of food and smoke wafted into the street.
I was mesmerized by the throngs of people and their rich dress. Archer seemed less enchanted with the place than I.
"I remember now why I chose the country," he mumbled, shifting aside to make way for a horse-drawn cart that rattled along too close.
We walked our horses through the benevolent rabble unnoticed. Archer pulled his cloak hood down further to shield his eyes; he had never liked large crowds of people. As for me my country upbringing was surely quite obvious; I was just ambling along aimlessly, looking around myself in every direction, hardly watching where I was going. I couldn't decide if the lively atmosphere here made me nervous or excited. But then I remembered that I would be here on my own, not with the comfort of having Archer next to me. The thought made me stop my dumbstruck meandering and soberly draw a little closer to him.
The tavern-laden main fare we walked gave way to quieter streets and less people. Soon, we were walking alone, the sounds of our horses' hooves echoing off the still warmly-lit buildings that faced the street. My legs had begun to aching by the time the brick street gave way to a huge gravel laden square half the size of our extensive south field, and faced on three sides by lofty buildings, most of which seemed connected by covered porches or balconies. Colorful banners and streamers, muted by the night, waved in the slight breeze and lights glowed from within most of the windows of the buildings. But there was no one outside, making it eerily quiet but for the sound of our boots on the gravel.
Archer led the way straight across the wide open square for the large, central building with a long wide stair that led up to an open porch half a story high off the ground. We tethered our horses to the line out front.
Archer looked at me. "I don't know what to expect," he admitted. "I haven't seen Hunter since we were children."
Hunter, the owner of this place, was a distant cousin of his but I knew nothing more, and apparently neither did Archer. My body sang with anxiousness and I wrung the corner of my cloak between my hands.
"Well, let's go," he said, leading the way up the steep wooden stairs. Once at the top, we could see that a great portion of the lower floor of the building, the open porch, was open to the night, with bright lanterns hanging from rafters and two long bars with stools that framed opposite walls. Haphazardly placed tables and chairs littered the wooden deck.
Now I could hear voices. We walked under the overhang, further into the building where we encountered a pair of double doors. With a deep breath I reached out and open them. It was a pub inside, very similar to those we had passed earlier, only it was fantastically huge. However, the crowds were missing. In fact, I could count on my two hands the number of people inside and they didn't even seem like normal patrons. They sat scattered lazily about on the tables and chairs, all eyes suddenly on us as we walked in. Beyond them, two grandiose winding staircases at opposite sides of the room, richly carpeted in red, lead to the same foyer of the second floor.
The people that sat about watching us, all young men, unnerved me with their silence, which I took for unfriendliness. But one of them stood up, a tall and slender reed of a man with sharp green eyes and chestnut-colored hair that fell in wisps about his face. He was quite pretty, actually; I'd never seen such a 'pretty' boy before.
The man walked up to Archer, a particularly flirtatious smirk on his full lips. He had a feline quality to his movements, his lazy eyes. Close up, he really was quite tall, able at least to look Archer in the eye and tower over me.
"Aren't you something to look at?" the man asked in a light, humor-filled tenor. "A little rough, but I like that." He walked his fingers up Archer's chest and tapped his chin. Following that leering smile the stranger, Archer lost his composure for a moment, and I too, as I resisted the urge to snort out a laugh at the look on his face.
"Something to drink perhaps?" the young man said. "Or... are you hungry?" The innuendo in his voice wasn't lost, even on me. I would soon come to know that that man, Ghen was his name, pretty much took everyone off guard in the same manner at first meeting.
"Uhm, no, thank you. I'm looking for Hunter," Archer said, clearing his throat.
At this the man rolled his eyes and gestured towards another pair of doors in the back of the place, underneath the left long staircase. "Isn't everybody? He's through there." Archer gave him a quick nod and steered me beyond the man, who went back to his friends. I heard their poorly concealed laughter, and his as well.
Archer knocked on the door we'd been directed to and we waited to be invited in. When the answer came, he opened the door to a small and quiet workspace of bookshelves, upturned wine barrels, and parchments strewn everywhere. My first view of Hunter was actually his back as he was lounging in a chair with his feet propped up on the room's small desk. The length of his coal black hair brushed the nape of his neck as he bent his head, reading something.
When he heard the door shut he looked over his shoulder, then got up, seeing that we weren't anyone he apparently knew. He was quite tall as well, lean and long-limbed, just like Archer only a little lighter. His thick black hair fell into his eyes and he brushed it back languidly, extending his arm to Archer. His eyes were a vibrant, striking blue, even in this light.
"Cousin," he guessed, clasping Archer's forearm in greeting. "Last I saw of you, you were still at marks."
"You as well. Never thought I'd get through that," Archer replied, smiling good-naturedly. Then with a hand on my back he brought me forward.
"This is Micah."
The man called Hunter blinked when he looked at me; was I what he had expected? Then a small smile crept to his lips and he extended his arm to properly greet me. He didn't let go right away.
"Micah. That's quite an unusual name," he said, pulling me a little closer to look into my face. Under the scrutiny of his intelligent gaze I lost any train of thought. What was I supposed to say?
"Everyone seems to think so," I finally blurted out.
Hunter cocked his head with another smile, amused at my discomfort. He knew what I was, surely Archer had relayed that much in their correspondence. What was even worse, however, was that I instantly- and very obviously, I might add- found him disarmingly attractive. And being who he was, he knew that too. He teased me in his manner of looking at me; that smile, his touch. I felt like I was caught in a mouse trap.
But he relented and let me go. Breaking his own spell he slapped Archer on the back as he led us out of his office. "You needn't worry, cousin, people are friendly here. He'll be all right."
I sheepishly followed a few paces behind them as they talked, heading for the front of the building again. My head muddled from Hunter's gaze, I looked around and was unprepared to catch the eyes of the pretty man we had met before as he sat with a few others at one of the tables. He winked at me. I hurried along.
Outside on the front deck, Archer was unpacking my bags and setting them by the door.
"We did have a good crowd tonight but rain scares most of them off," Hunter was saying, standing with his arms casually crossed. "Bad luck, they say."
Archer looked at the sky. "I hope not."
"Could I offer you a room?" Hunter said, gesturing a graceful hand back at the building. "You could get a better start in the morning-"
"Thank you, but no. My wife is alone at home."
Hunter smiled and 'tsk'ed good-humoredly. Undoubtedly, he'd been a bit curious about his cousin. How else would he have ended up with me? Archer smiled, then his eyes caught mine. Seeing this, Hunter politely excused himself but touched my arm as he passed.
"Come find me when you're done," he said. "We'll get you settled."
I barely heard. I was watching Archer's darkened eyes and how their color glowed just faintly in the lamplight behind me. There was no way I could have made him stay with me, not with Aislinn home alone. I wouldn't ask it of him. But still, my entire being ached for him to stay just a few moments longer.
I approached him nervously, unsure of how to go about saying goodbye. He reached out and touched the shell pendant at my throat and smiled sadly.
"Never thought she would part with that," he said. "Treasure it."
There was a small silence as we just looked at each other. I wanted to do it. I wanted to put my arms around him and hug and kiss him goodbye. But as always my courage failed me when it came to him. What a goodbye that would have been, though.
"You'll be fine," he said softly, framing my face with his warm, worn hands and briefly touching his forhead to mine. It was more of a fatherly gesture but as always I cherished anything from him. It was he who pulled me into a tight, warm embrace. I buried my nose in his cloak, trying to breathe in the scent of him but smelling only the rain.
Finally he gently released me and headed down the steps, leaving me there to watch him mount up, wave one last time, and gallop off. He would later walk his horse out of the city, as was custom, but I know why he hurried from the square. He wanted to save me from having to watch him slowly walk out of my life as I knew it.
Much later Hunter would tell me he had watched our goodbye from inside. For now though I was oblivious to anything around me but the distance that grew between us. He would spend the night riding, but morning would find him home again and in the arms of loved ones. I stood alone on the deck for several more minutes after Archer's dark figure had left the square, contemplating the loneliness that had already set in, the realization that this was real, it was happening. Archer was gone and I was among strangers once more. In the course of a few moments I would have to start over- again.
As I stared out into the night I took a few deep breaths. I was an adult now, I shouldnít feel like I was being abandoned. My life was now my own to do with what I wished. But if that were really so, why did I feel so utterly unprepared?
After a few more calming breaths I finally went back inside in search of Hunter. I passed that group of people again, determined to keep my eyes forward and avoid their curious looks; I just knew that if I subjected myself to that, I could very well lose my fragile composure and flee right then and there after Archer.
Hunter was back in his office, reading again with his legs propped up. He got up when I came in. He fixed me with a gentle gaze, one that was oddly comforting to me, but his empathy didn't lessen my sadness. He was as much a stranger to me as any of them and I had no trust even in him, though his gaze seemed genuine enough.
"Let's get you settled," Hunter said with kind smile. Wordlessly I followed him out of the small room into the main area.
"Ghen, get the bags from the front porch and bring them up, would you? Jayce, stable that horse," Hunter said. As the two went into action, one of which was green-eyes, Hunter laid his hand on my back and firmly steered me towards one of the winding staircases.
He followed me up to the next floor, then took the lead down a long hallway that must have extended into the next building over. I was looking at the dark and seductive portraits and tapestries that adorned the walls.
"All these places are connected," he said, as if hearing my thoughts. "The whole thing was built by some rich aristocrat to host his parties in, but when he fell out of favor, the royalty took it over and fixed it up very nicely."
"How did you get it then?" I asked softly, more out of politeness than curiosity.
He threw a smile at me and tapped his temple. "Secrets of the business," he said. "And the ever unknown inner-workings of the monarchy."
Though I didnít understand his joke, I took his answer respectfully, reluctant to press him further. Besides, I was getting distracted by the turns and hallways he was taking me through. The place was huge, like a giant maze; doors and hallways off left and right, some stairs here, a dead end there.
Hunter turned and jogged up another short staircase that led into another wing of the place. Here, he slowed down. "This is the wing where most of us live, away from the visitors. It's quiet for the most part but you won't be spending a lot of time here."
Seeing that I didn't understand, he elaborated. "You're lucky, Micah, a lot of people want to stay and work here. You've the benefit of family." He smiled. "But I expect you to work just as hard as anybody else. I don't give favors to anyone about that."
I nodded, wondering if I could feel any more small and insignificant. He stopped at a door near the end of the hallway and opened it, gesturing that I should walk in first.
The room was certainly sizeable in comparison to my little space back at the keep, but it was the richness of its decorations that made my stomach flutter. The rich, chocolate wood floor was polished to marble-smoothness, and covered in carpets. The window was draped in tapestries and the bed, surely sized for a king, was covered in down comforters and spun linen sheets. Dark, heavy wood furniture made complete the room's coziness.
I couldn't help my astonishment. Seeing that, Hunter laughed to himself. "It suits you then."
Behind us, tall, green-eyed Ghen lugged in my packs with a greatly elaborated show of his exhaustion, obviously not pleased with the labor of it. "Her Majesty's wardrobe," he muttered, wiping his forehead in a distinctly feminine gesture.
Hunter gave him a benevolent reprimand with a glance, then gestured to me. "Ghen, this is Micah," he said, "though I see you two may have already met."
"Welcome to the family," the tall man said, bowing slightly. I had the feeling that he was still mocking me, but Hunter did nothing more about it.
"That other man," Ghen said to Hunter, lifting his fine eyebrows, "wasn't 'family', I suppose?"
Hunter snorted a laugh and waved him away. Ghen 'tsk'ed and was gone.
"You get used to him," Hunter said, shaking his head. "We don't get a lot of new faces around here, so you're a bit of a treat."
I admit that I hardly heard him. I was looking around the room again, still impressed and beginning to think that I could endure a little rudeness in the rest of the staff in exchange for such comfort.
"Well, I'll leave you to unpack and get some rest. Tomorrow, you get to meet everyone and learn what it is that you'll be doing around here."
Hunter was almost walking out the door when my manners finally caught up with me. I'd been too distracted to realize the favor that was being done for me, and up until now I'm sure I had seemed dreadfully ungrateful.
"Hunter," I said, his name feeling strange on my lips. He stopped in the doorway and turned to look at me, pushing his thick hair out of his eyes. "Thank you for... letting me stay here," I finished, faltering a bit over my words. How else could I put it?
Hunter gave a gentle smile and stepped back into the room, partially closing the door for privacy.
"Look," he said. "Archer didn't tell me much, but he told me enough about you to know that it wasn't easy." He paused. "If you ever want to talk about it, I'm here. We're all here. We've all been through it one way or another."
I just nodded to him, thanking him with an averted gaze since I couldn't bring myself to meet his eyes right then.
It made me feel better for the first time though, to know that I wasn't alone. But it would take a more than that for me to loosen my reserve in this place. I was the stranger here and I was certainly feeling it, but I think he understood that as well. Hunter understood a lot of things, as I would find out later.
After he left, I laid down on the soft bed and put my head in my arms. A lot was going through my mind on that first night, I can still remember. Thoughts of Archer and Aislinn. My feelings about this place. How would I ever manage to fit in?
Then there was my fear of disappointing Hunter, which was stronger than I had expected it to be. In his whole manner he seemed like a man people respected and obeyed, and I found that I wanted to as well. Besides my almost comically instant physical attraction to him, there was something about him that made me want to do well here. I hoped I could find my groove, as I had at the keep so long ago.
The next day I awoke at the crack of dawn, a habit my body had been perfecting for years. A bluish light seeped in through the curtains, making the room seem cold merely by its lack of color. The sleep haze cleared from my mind, and suddenly the infamiliarity of the room called up my loneliness again, this time centered on Archer alone. My back was cold; I remembered that sometimes he would rub it in the morning as he woke me. He wouldn't do that ever again.
I rolled over, trying to put myself back to sleep, since the others surely wouldn't be awake for several more hours. But my body would only rest when I submitted to lonely tears for the first time. How was I going to do this? When every moment was still filled with memories of home? So much so that being here, even in the comfort of this room, was almost unbearable.
That first morning was my darkest moment, I think, when everything hit me. That my life had changed, that everything I knew had changed and would never be the same again. Pressing my face into my pillow that dawn, I had never felt so alone in my life.
Eventually I slept again. I could only guess by the light through my window that several hours passed before someone woke me by touching my back in a painfully familiar gesture. I rolled over and met Hunter's blue eyes. He was sitting on the side of the bed, his head cocked curiously at me.
"Morning," he said softly. "Rough night?"
His hair was slightly damp as if he'd just bathed; I could even smell the aromatic bath salts still lingering on him. But he was otherwise dressed for the day in a casual linen shirt and black pants laced up in front. Simple, but he still looked like the one in charge. Even in my misery, my heart leapt to my throat at his proximity and the shame of what I must look like.
I could just nod my head at him, unable to think of anything to say. He smiled at my awkwardness and got up to draw open the curtains.
"Time to be up and about, think you can do it?" he asked good-naturedly, standing with his hands on his hips. In the morning sun, his silver rings glinted like diamonds themselves. He waited patiently for me to crawl out of bed, watching me with an unwavering gaze that made me blush. When he was convinced that I was awake, he directed me to a basin of water so I could wash my face.
"It won't be busy today on account of the weather last night," he said idly, handing me a towel. "It's a good day to show you around."
After a moment, he left me to get dressed on my own, telling me to meet him downstairs in the lower bar. I nodded dumbly, inwardly unsure that I would even be able to find the right stairway.
The place had a whole other look to it when I finally made it down the stairs and back into the large bar area that Archer and I had entered through the night before. Windows I had not noticed in the night lined the upper walls above the main double doors and sunlight streamed through them, lighting the place up with a bright, cheery atmosphere. But the entry bar itself was empty.
From off to the side I heard voices. Following them I found a short stairway that led to the lower bar room Hunter had spoken of. I remained in the stairwell for a moment, peering around the corner into the room to see many of the same faces I'd seen the night before. They were sitting at the few tables strewn about and only two of them were women. One man stood behind the bar, cleaning mugs and Hunter himself leaned with his back against the bar, sipping something hot and reading a set of papers covered in black and white print.
"Morning, sweets," came a laugh in my ear. I nearly tripped down the last step as Ghen came down behind me and clapped a hand on my shoulder. "Can't be lurking around corners in this place," he said with a smile. "Someone might get the wrong idea about you-"
And then quite against my will he dragged me around the corner and into the bar. Heat rushed to my cheeks as everyone looked up at me, including Hunter. I looked imploringly at him but he just smiled as he took another sip of his drink. I realized he wouldn't save me from Ghen this time.
"A new pup in our midst, boys," Ghen said, holding onto to me as if I would bolt, which I very well would have. "This is Micah, isn't he just adorable?" He leaned back a bit and looked me up and down. "It's a nice change, this country bumpkin look, you know. The high fashions here can be so boring."
I was mortified. Amidst their amused laughter, Ghen began pointing to those who sat before us, rattling off their names and a few choice jibes at who they were and what they did here. For their part, they each nodded to me, smiling at my reddened face. Ghen then turned me to face the bar.
"And then there's handsome Josif behind the bar-" the shaggy blond cocked a wave at me, "-and you of course have met our illustrious leader," Ghen said in a mocking tone.
With an amused smile Hunter relented on my torture and set his mug down. "Come on, Micah, have something to eat," he said, beckoning me over. "Ghen, behave."
Ghen gave me a gentle shove in Hunter's direction and I was let out of the spotlight. I felt as if my knees would give way underneath me. Hunter patted a stool next to him for me to sit on and asked Josif to grab a plate from the kitchen for me. He then leaned his elbows on the bar, turning his back to the room and giving us some privacy.
"Well, at least you've met everybody," he said with a lopsided smile.
I put my face in my hands. I couldn't do this, I couldn't-
Hunter lifted my chin. "Micah," he said gently. "You're going to have to learn to handle him. Believe me, heís not the worst youíll meet."
I looked up at him. "Why does he dislike me? I never did anything to him." I mumbled, knowing how pitiful I must have sounded.
Hunter just blinked at me, genuinely confused for a moment as Josif set a plate of steaming food in front of me. My stomach growled in anticipation; I had not eaten since noonday before.
"He does like you," Hunter said with a little laugh. "I should think that was obvious enough."
I looked over my shoulder but Ghen was occupied in conversation with his friends. I turned back and took a grudging bite of food. Hunter watched me for a few moments, his chin propped on his hand, quietly musing to himself as I hesitantly ate.
"You've a lot to learn," he decided finally. "I supposed you havenít learned a lot of social skills being out in the middle of nowhere for so long." He leaned close. "Here, Iíll help you out. Next time he starts with you, tell him he shouldn't be jealous of the competition just because they're younger and better looking than he is."
I snorted a laugh in mid-bite. Unlikely as it was that I would ever say such a thing to him, it was funny enough to me that Hunter would make jibes back at Ghen, when all heíd done so far was take them. I had a feeling Hunter was just much more discreet about things. A lot of things.
After I'd finished eating, Hunter sent the rest of his staff on to their separate duties but kept me behind.
"Ready for the tour?" he asked, taking his coffee mug with him.
At my nod he started off back up the short flight of stairs into the entry bar room.
"There are two main bars, this one and one on the inn side," he said. "Then thereís a lower bar to the right there where we were, and a back bar through here."
I followed him as he led. The room we entered into wasnít as grand as the entry area, which Hunter called the Ďupper barí.
"I donít know if youíd call it a bar, really," Hunter said. "People usually come back through here to eat. There's more tables in here, and see, thereís the kitchen-" he pointed- "and through there is a hall to the back courtyards."
We walked through the back bar to a door that led outside down a short flight of steps. We stood in the humid morning, my nostrils filled with the scent of rain and wet soil. Hunter gestured to the line of trees hedged several yards away. "Backs right up to the forest, but there are some riding trails through there. See those stones? They mark the path."
It was beautiful. A little past the stone pathway were some gardens that reached the treeline. On that side there were wooden lattices built over the path, overgrown with hanging garden vines. Hunter let me look a little longer, then gently guided me back inside.
"Sometimes we have music out there," he said as he strolled back through the bars. "But definitely not until it gets cooler."
We reached the back bar again and Hunter slipped through a narrow hallway, bypassing several backrooms I noticed he didnít explain. It's not giving away too much to say that I would find out about them soon enough.
"Sixty-four rooms, upper and lower bars, two peripheral bars, two kitchens and the stables out on the east side. Think you can handle it?"
I smiled nervously, hoping he was joking. Surely he didnít mean for me to work everywhere at once?
"This is the inn," he said, continuing his tour. "You probably wonít see a lot of it though, I have a whole other staff that runs this side."
I couldnít fathom how he managed the whole thing alone. "How many people work here then?" I asked.
"Right now, twenty-three, but Iíve had less."
Twenty-three people for an inn with over a fifty rooms, not to mention the kitchens, the washrooms, the bars and the stables. It seemed impossible. And yet here he was, not looking too terribly over-worked or like he was in a big hurry over anything. Was he really that good?
It also struck me that if he had both an inn and the taverns to run, would I even get to see him at all? Though I had only known him a day, I found myself wanting him to be nearby. Especially in the beginning.
"Do you really have to go back and forth all day?" I asked suddenly.
He looked at me, curious at the question and seeming amused that it should concern me. "The inn practically runs itself," he answered. "Iím afraid youíll being seeing a lot of me on your side." He put an arm around my shoulders and led me back towards the upper bar room.
"Donít look so happy about it," he said with a smile. "Youíre going to get tired of me breathing down your neck all day. Everyone does."
Somehow, I didnít feel like that would be the case with me.
It was actually only the main areas that he outlined in any great detail, while flying through the rest at a dizzying pace. So many new faces, new places and rules- surely he knew that later on I would have to familiarize myself all over again.
After about an hour of wandering the place, we made it back to the main bar. There were a few people bustling about, cleaning, setting up. It was otherwise quite empty.
"Will it get busy later?" I asked.
Hunter glanced at the streaming sunlight cascading through the upper windows above the entrance doors. "In an hour or so, weíll get a decent noon-meal crowd, being so close to the trade grounds," he said. "But you donít have to worry about anything today. I want you to just stay around here and watch what goes on."
I nodded, relieved. As we sat down at one of the tables, Hunter went on to tell me that Ghen would be the one to wake me in the morning until I got used to that hour, and be the one to go through the routines with me until I could do things on my own.
At my poorly-veiled displeasure, he actually pinched my arm. "Itís the best way to get used to him. Heís a bit crude at times, but heís got a heart of gold, if you can believe that."
"Iíll try," I said dryly.
With a grin, Hunter then outlined my duties. What it would be was a life of routine, which had always suited me well. Everyday it was wake up at six and be downstairs by seven in the lower bar where everybody would meet for breakfast and anything Hunter needed to tell us before the day got underway. In the bar I was supposed to serve and entertain, learn my drinks, be friendly, courteous, fast and efficient.
As he spoke I quelled my nervousness. Although the routine end of it would be nothing to me, this interaction with people side of it was a whole new role. Difficult because I had become used to the solitary, self-servicing life of a farmer. Now I was expected to mingle with people, something I had avoided even when I was still living at home with my parents. Worse yet, from Archer I had picked up a dislike and distrust of large crowds.
Ghen had wandered into the room amidst a group of his friends as Hunter spoke, and I watched him break off from them and meander over to us. He stood over me as Hunter finished his explanations, to which Iíd only been half-listening. My apprehension must have been showing in my face; Ghen wound an arm about my neck and squeezed. He gave me an honest, confident smile.
"You get used to it, sweets. Real quick," he said. Little did he know that it was he who made me nervous.
Hunter nodded in agreement and moved to get up. He suddenly seemed like he wanted to be elsewhere, now that the tour was done with and Ghen was here to take over.
"After the noon-meal you can rest up for a few hours. Thatís when people tend to take a break in the day," he said. "After that, come back down here and weíll see about the dinner and night crowds- theyíre a whole other story. Now, if youíll excuse me-"
With that, he left Ghen and I alone. I stared after him, confused. Ghen flopped down in his chair and propped his chin on his hand to watch me.
"Did I do something wrong?" I asked.
"What, to him?" Ghen said, following my gaze. He laughed at me, but it wasnít mean. "Some people have to work around here, you know," he said. "Heís put off his whole morning to tote you around. Now he has to catch up."
"Oh, I didnít know," I stammered, feeling like I should apologize for something.
Ghen cocked his head. "Donít worry about it, sweets. Hunter never does anything he doesnít want to do. If he meant to show you around personally, then thatís just what he did."
I looked at Ghen but was lost in my thoughts. Hunter had said the day before that I shouldnít expect any favors, that I needed to pull my own weight. So why did I feel like I was getting special treatment?
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