Chapter 6:

Chapter 6

Waking Up as a Gyaru in a New World

We reached the town of Paddletail late in the afternoon on the third day, just as Aliya predicted. It was a real town this time, not a little village like before. It had impressively large walls made of red stone. I couldn’t stop grinning. It was a real, no kidding medieval walled town. The track had gotten more and more beaten down as we grew closer to Paddletail and the traffic had picked up as well. It wasn’t enough to impede our progress or anything but over the last day we’d consistently shared the road with other people. More than a few had given me a second glance but nobody had hassled me. Bookmark here

I was nervous as we crossed under the gate and into the town but none of the guards stopped me. I had to force my eyes forward because I wanted to stare at the guards. They were the strangest beastmen yet. They had flat heads with dark, bulbous eyes and squat bodies with dark, pockmarked skin. Their very long fingers curled around trident-style spears and they were wearing padded armor even though the day was hot and humid. Bookmark here

Aliya caught me giving them repeated, quick looks and said, quietly, “They’re newt zverdi. Small clan. All of their strength is invested in this town.” Bookmark here

“Why do they look so...inhuman? They look more like newts than you and Kriv look like a tiger or a wolf.” Bookmark here

Aliya shrugged. “Reptile zverdi are all like that. The only ones who might know why are the alchemists that created them.” Since they had all died two thousand years ago, I guess I wasn’t getting my answer. Bookmark here

The town inside of the walls didn’t really match what I had expected. The walls had caused me to expect an organized layout of stone buildings. Instead there was a crown of squat wooden buildings with thatched roofs that seemed to be placed completely randomly. Muddy streets wound this way and that, going in circles, ending abruptly, narrowing and widening without warning. Whenever we met a cart or wagon on the road, we had to jump into a side alleyway to let them pass. Dorsa led us. She got turned around a few times but I have no idea how we would have managed to get anywhere without her. Bookmark here

The inn she finally led us to wasn’t even two stories tall but it was very long. It was made of actual wood planks, as well, instead of the woven wood of most of the other buildings. It also had wooden shingles instead of straw thatch for a roof. There was a small sign that read, ‘The Fire Belly.’ Bookmark here

“This is it,” Dorsa said. “Finally.” She was hesitating just outside the door, however. Bookmark here

“What are you doing?” I asked. “Shouldn’t we go in?” I really wanted to sit down. Bookmark here

Dorsa poked her forefingers together. “I’m a little nervous Jael will be in there.” Jael was Dorsa’s bodyguard but I was getting the sense she was her minder as well. Dorsa seemed too nervous about Jael for her to just to have been a hired guard. The rest of us glanced at each other and pushed our way through the double-doors. “Wait!” Dorsa said, “I’m coming. Geez, you guys.” Bookmark here

The inside of the Fire Belly was pretty close to what I expected. Sawdust covered the floors and there were about a dozen round tables spread around the large common room. There was even a raised platform along one wall, ostensibly for performances. That was exciting. I wondered if there would be something interesting tonight. There were only a few patrons in the tavern. One man was slowly drinking a large mug of beer by himself. He glanced at us without interest. Two others were talking quietly at one of the tables. They didn’t even look up.Bookmark here

A woman came out from what I assumed was the kitchen behind the bar. She was wearing the same top and breeches that most Pekelnik wore but I kind of wished she had been wearing more. She was obviously a newt woman, with a broad, squat frame and dark, warty skin. Her bulbous black eyes were not friendly. “Dorsa,” the woman said. Her voice was deep and gravelly. “You aren’t dead. I guess I owe Evgenia a copper.” She sounded unhappy. I guess she didn’t like Dorsa. Great. Bookmark here

“Mama Elvina!” Dorsa said brightly, either not noticing or electing not to notice Elvina’s tone. “How have you been?” Elvina just stared at her. “Um…” Some of Dorsa’s brightness leaked away. “Is Jael here?” Bookmark here

“Haven’t seen her in days.” We waited a moment for Elvina to expand but the newt woman didn’t say anything further. Maybe it wasn’t just Dorsa she didn’t like. Maybe it was any foreigner. Curious attitude for the patroness of an inn. Bookmark here

“Then I suppose my room…” Dorsa began.Bookmark here

Elvina shook her head. “You don’t have a room anymore. Jael took the rest of your things the last time she was here.” Bookmark here

“Ah.” Dorsa seemed to have wilted a little. Bookmark here

“We have openings. You know the price.” It seemed Elvina’s dislike wasn’t intense enough for her to turn away paying customers. Bookmark here

“Right.” Dorsa turned to us, an apologetic smile on her face. “I...don’t actually have any coin with me right now. Jael carries it. I can sometimes be a we decided together to let Jael carry our coin.”Bookmark here

That wasn’t good. Kriv obviously didn’t have any money and Aliya told me that she was just staying at sept houses while she traveled. They would welcome in other clan warriors but no one else. That just left me. I didn’t have any money, of course, but I did have Mina’s jewelry. I hoped she could forgive me for using it. Bookmark here

I turned away from the others and tried to shield the backpack with my body. I didn’t want anyone to know exactly what I had. I drew out one of the gold bangles, wishing I had some idea what it was actually worth. Elvina would probably try to screw me. I didn’t want to sacrifice Mina’s jewelry for too little. It wasn’t mine, after all. But I had no idea how else to find her and the cobras besides canvassing the one place they almost certainly stopped. I zipped the backpack and turned back to the newt woman. She was staring at me with those huge eyes. I held the bangle toward her. “I can trade you this.” Bookmark here

Elvina studied it for a moment and then looked back at me. “What am I supposed to do with that?” she snapped. “I take coin, Althean, and nothing less. If you are looking for trade, go to the bazaar. Come back when you can pay.” She glared around at the others and when none of them had anything to say, she stomped away. Bookmark here

“What an unpleasant woman,” Aliya muttered softly. Bookmark here

“Ah, she’ll grow on you,” Dorsa said. I couldn’t believe she of all people was saying that. Was she willfully blind? “Come on. The bazaar lasts until sundown. If we don’t want to be sleeping on the streets tonight, we better hurry.” Bookmark here

Dorsa led us once more and only got turned around twice before she took us to a wide street jammed with people. Tables and rugs filled with products lined either side of the street. I also caught a whiff of roasting meat that made my belly rumble. I had to get enough for a meal along with a bed tonight or I would be miserable. Foraging opportunities had become scarcer as we’d gotten close to the town. Bookmark here

Only Kriv remained with me as I began to slowly walk down the street with the bazaar. Dorsa began talking to a seller that had a few books on her rug full of junk. I wasn’t sure how she expected to get anything when she had no money. I didn’t even see Aliya go. One moment she was with me and the next she was gone. I might have been worried if I thought anything could hurt her. I wished one of the two women had stayed with me and could take the lead in this. The chaos of the bazaar was intimidating. I wasn’t even sure where to start. Bookmark here

After walking around for a while, I picked out a person to try and talk to. She seemed to be human and middle-aged and didn’t seem threatening. There was jewelry on the blanket beside her. I waited until she was alone and walked up to her. “Excuse me,” I said. She turned to me with a wide smile. “Are you interested in buying some jewelry?” Her smile curdled. I took out one of Mina’s bangles anyway. “I have this…” Bookmark here

“Why the hell would I want to buy anything off you?” the woman snapped. “I’m trying to sell. If you don’t have any money, get the hell out of here!” I hurried away. Bookmark here

I was beginning to feel discouraged. I had thought it would be hard to trade away jewelry, especially gold jewelry. I sighed and began to wander down the street again, hoping for inspiration. I got it when my gaze came across a small flute sitting with some other random things. My heart leapt. I’d played the piccolo in middle school and the first couple of years of high school. My mother had forced me to choose an instrument and I picked piccolo because I liked the Dragon Ball character. Embarrassing. Even more so because the piccolo was a tiny flute. Not exactly manly. I’d been surprisingly good at it but the music club at my high school wanted to win competitions. That meant practicing constantly and tons of pressure. It had been too much, so I quit. Bookmark here

But maybe it all hadn’t been for nothing. Visions came to my head of playing on that little stage in the inn. Instead of selling off all of Mina’s jewelry, I could earn my bed and food. None of my modern knowledge had come in too handy yet but now I could potentially blow these people away with some Beethoven or Berlioz. Maybe I could become famous even! A vision of Marty McFly playing Johnny B. Goode to a confused audience flashed through my head. I shook it away. This was Beethoven, not Chuck Berry. Was Beethoven considered a rebel? I honestly had no idea. Bookmark here

I kneeled down next to the rug and closed my hand on the little flute. “Hey!” the man sitting on the rug snapped. He looked like some kind of monkey zverdi, though I wasn’t exactly sure what kind of monkey. “What do you think you are doing?” Bookmark here

“Sorry!” I said, dropping it like it was hot. “I just wanted to see it.”Bookmark here

“Keep your hands off it unless you are buying!” he barked. Bookmark here

I took a slow breath. “Would you be willing to trade?” Bookmark here

He rubbed his chin. “What do you have?” My spirits rose a little at not being instantly rejected. I took out the same gold bangle I’d flashed twice already. He studied it and then snorted. “Is that it?” I flinched and almost took out another but then I thought about it. He was probably trying to rip me off. I hated haggling. I required reading people and being antagonistic, two things I sucked at. But I did have something else I could try, even though I didn’t want to. Before I could think better of it, I thought ‘Activate Doki-doki.’ Bookmark here

My body reacted instantly, sliding into seiza. I bowed low, with my hands flat on the ground. My forehead didn’t touch, which I found strange until I realized I was giving him a perfect look down my blouse. “Please,” I begged, “won’t you take pity on me. I’m hungry and far from home with almost nothing to my name. You seem like a kind and generous man, which is why I was drawn here. Take pity on me, kind sir.” I looked up at him, unshed tears in my eyes. Bookmark here

The merchant’s face remained impassive but his eyes drilled into me. He sighed theatrically. “Well, I suppose if you are going to beg so pathetically, I would be a monster to say no.”Bookmark here

“I can have it?” I asked excitedly, my hand closing on the flute. I made to stand up but the merchant coughed meaningfully. “Oh, right.” I grinned with embarrassment and held the bangle out to him. He caressed my wrist and hand with his long leathery fingers as he took it from me. A chill ran up my spine. He winked at me. Bookmark here

“There is room in my wagon if you need some place to sleep tonight,” he said. Bookmark here

I stood up so fast I almost ended up on my ass. When I was steady, I hurriedly said, “Thank you,” and hustled away. Kriv followed me like a small shadow. I ducked into a relatively deserted alleyway and put a hand to my chest as I caught my breath. That had been scary. But I did have the flute clutched in my hand. Bookmark here

I studied it. The flute was wood, of course, but it seemed to be a decent blackwood. It had open finger holes instead of keys like I was used to. It was also perfectly cylindrical and slightly narrower than a piccolo. It was a fife, really. But I had an embouchure hole and six finger holes so I thought I could use it. I blew on it experimentally and found that the note was higher and more strident than I had expected. I played a simple melody as a test. My pitch was off and my fingering was sloppy. I had to get used to sealing the holes completely. But I could hear the melody. I could do this. Bookmark here

“You bought a flute?” Aliya startled me so badly that I bobbled my new fife and almost dropped it. I turned to find her standing in the alleyway, almost right beside me. I guess cat zverdi were just as sneaky as real cats. She held out a leg of roast chicken toward me. “Hungry?” she asked. Hungry? I was ravenous. I took it and took a big bite out of it. Tears came to my eyes. It was so good. Chicken really didn’t need anything else. Maybe a pinch of salt but at this point I wasn’t really complaining. Bookmark here

“Where did you get this?” I asked through a mouthful of meat. Bookmark here

Aliya glanced up from Kriv, who’d she’d been handing a leg to. “Sept house. Mud River Sept. They weren’t exactly happy to see me but custom means they can’t turn me away. It would be a grave insult to the Tiger Clan.” I nodded, devouring the rest of the leg. When it was all gone, I sighed. I could have eaten a whole chicken. “So why the flute?” Aliya asked. “I thought you were trying to scrounge up some coin for that hag at the inn.” Bookmark here

I shrugged. “Nobody was buying. But I can earn my bed with this,” I said, holding up the flute. Bookmark here

“What a marvelous idea!” Dorsa shouted. She was on the other end of the alleyway. She raced down it, surprisingly agile with the giant pack on her back. She skidded to a halt beside us. Her eyes flicked from the chicken bone in my hands, to the one in Kriv’s, to Aliya. There was a desperate hopefulness in her eyes. Aliya shrugged with an apologetic look on her face and Dorsa slumped. I was starting to think that Aliya didn’t like Dorsa very much. Dorsa set down her pack and opened it up. “But as I was saying, that is a great idea. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it.” She searched around a little more and then shouted “Aha!” She pulled out a wrapped ovoid package and set it on top of her pack. She unwrapped it to reveal a small guitar. A ukulele? No, I needed to think more fantasy-ish.Bookmark here

“A lute?” I asked. Bookmark here

She grinned and held it up. “Indeed!” A wide smile spread across my own face. A fife alone might not have been enough but a fife and lute played by two pretty girls. Even that nasty innkeeper wouldn’t throw that away. Bookmark here

“We’ll be able to sleep in a real bed tonight!” I cried. Bookmark here

“With a real cooked meal!” Dorsa shouted. Bookmark here

“And a hot bath!” Me and Dorsa looked each other in the eyes and even though we were very different people from very different worlds, there was real understanding and camaraderie there. It made me feel warm and gooey inside. I lifted up a hand and Dorsa clasped it. Bookmark here

“You two are weird,” Kriv said. Bookmark here

I glanced at him. Who was he to talk about weird? “I think I actually agree with Kriv on this one,” Aliya said. “But I’d rather stay with you at the Fire Belly than that dank sept house if I could. Reptile houses always smell.”Bookmark here

“Alright but let’s practice a little first,” I said. It hit me that I didn’t know any Pekelnik folk music. This was where pretending to be a foreigner helped. “I don’t know what kind of songs the people here like.” Bookmark here

Dorsa nodded. “I’ve learned a few of them.” She taught me. Luckily, the melodies were simplistic and easy to get the hang of. Much easier than the concert music I’d been playing in my old world. Better yet, it turned out that Dorsa’s rather strident voice was strong and beautiful when she sang. With her skills on the lute, I thought that she would have made an excellent bard.Bookmark here

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