After the First Hurdle

And now, a randomly-generated scene…

Nouns: loss, bite, breath, record, peace, silk, wash

Adjectives: handsome, aberrant, gentle, guiltless, slippery

Verbs: defer, ensure, write

Adverb: alluringly

Pebbles

A butcher’s son, Dom could appreciate a good cut of meat. But the smell as his dish was uncovered, tender chunks of goat dusted in flour and spice, fried in the best oil with leeks and strong garlic – on any other day, he would have fainted.

He wanted to enjoy his meal. His stomach begged him to – they’d been without supplies for four days, robbed in the Wastes as they travelled to reach this oasis city.

‘Go by night, when you can,’ Calahur had instructed as Dom hurriedly made preparations, shoving smoked pork and fresh underwear into a pack and stealing his father’s second-best cleaver, belting it to his waist. ‘This is not a task we can defer any longer. Avoid being seen – take the secret ways, not the road. I will point you through them,’ the aged record keeper—if taking census was really all he did on his travels—had said, and then sketched a map. In a narrow, slanted hand, he wrote a few lines telling Dom how to navigate the paths.

‘Memorise, then burn,’ Calahur had said, thrusting it at Dom and waiting, Dom under his heavy gaze – it was unsettlingly frantic behind his customary sternness—until he crumpled the paper and threw it in the fire.

‘So not quite as less-travelled as the record keeper claimed,’ Dom had grumbled after they were robbed.

‘At least petty thieves aren’t likely to report to… well, them that Calahur warned you about,’ Ral had remained cheerful, though their stomachs growled and their sunburnt skin froze in the night wind, coats taken along with their packs and weapons.

‘Who knows how big their network is,’ replied Dom moodily, slapping his sore arms and rubbing his chest, trying to keep warm as they trekked on.

‘Well, at least we’re travelling light, now. We’ll make the oasis in no time.

‘Eat, will you? That’s a handsome dish you’re letting cool.’

Their first night in the oasis they’d spent in the gutter, sleeping outside the magnificent inn where they now ate. That morning, Ral had pinched several glass bottles from street corners, washed out what liquor remained, and juggled a fistful of coins into her pockets, entertaining market goers and buying a few days at the inn, meals and baths included.

Ral nudged Dom under the communal table where they sat cross-legged.

‘Eat, or I will.’

She’d nearly finished her own share.

Urged on by Ral along with his empty innards, Dom picked up his fork.

‘We don’t have time for this,’ he said between mouthfuls, eyeing a trio of robe-swathed patrons at the end of their table. He was sure they sneaked looks his way, speaking in low voices over their steaming bread. Dom’s hand crept to his trouser pocket, closing over his handkerchief stuffed beneath. It was knotted about a glossy stone that shone shades of blue and green. Ral had stopped teasing once the thieves rode off – Dom had no clue what would have happened had they found its aberrant hiding place.

‘We need time to recover,’ Ral insisted. ‘You, especially.’

‘Why me more?’

‘My boundless optimism keeps me upright. You, on the other hand, my dear pessimistic friend, look like you’re unravelling at the seams. And it’s only been a week.’

Only a week.

Dom couldn’t believe it.

And there was still such a long way to go…

‘And we’ll be off again once we’ve seen this mineralogist fellow to get your stone looked at and all.’

‘Keep it down,’ Dom hissed thinly, shooting a glance down the table to ensure the trio had their attention elsewhere. ‘You’re unbelievable, Raleven. What have we just been through, and you’ll bring heaven knows down on our heads with your massive mouth.’

‘You need to relax,’ Ral announced, as cheery as ever, but Dom didn’t miss how she looked on him with deep concern.

He felt terrible, sick with exhaustion. He could barely fathom what was happening to him, Calahur cryptic and unknown dangers and responsibilities playing on his mind. Ever anxious and so tired, after only a week this quest-business he’d once dreamed about had already taken a hefty toll. Right then, all he wanted was to be home with his father, wielding a cleaver and smelling of carcasses for the rest of his life.

And it would only get worse. So he didn’t protest when Ral, after watching over every bite he took, led him to the inn baths. In his own cubicle, Dom stripped, scrubbed the Wastes from his skin with fragrant lotion, rinsed in the flow from the ceiling and donned the silk robe that had been folded for his use. But it had no pockets. And, unlike in the Wastes, he wore nothing beneath where he could shove his potentially-precious cargo.

Too tired to think straight, Dom stood motionless in his cubicle, stone in hand, until Ral rapped on his door.

‘You’re taking forever. You were no filthier than me… what’s the problem?’ she asked, seeing dilemma on his face and slipping inside, swiftly closing the door.

Wordlessly, he held out the stone. Without missing a beat, Ral unravelled her braid, shaking out the black cord that had held her hair back through the Wastes. Clucking patiently, she took the stone and bound the cord around it, knotting so it hung safely around Dom’s neck.

‘Everyone will see…’

‘It looks just like the cheap glass gems in the market, now. And who would wear anything valuable in a public bath? Not someone as paranoid as you, for sure.’

Taking his hand, she gave Dom a comforting kiss on the cheek.

‘You’ll be fine, you know? This’ll all sink in, and you’ll be fine.’

Still unable to summon words, unimaginably grateful Ral was there with him, Dom rested his head on her shoulder as she held him, relishing her warm support. Then, she led him out into the bathing chamber.

In deep rectangular pools and waist-high bathing pots, water glittered alluringly in the sunset, almost open to the outside beneath the massive glass ceiling. Decorative pebbles edged the pools and marked paths, leading bathers across the slippery tiles. On the other side of the chamber were towering shelves stacked with soft towels in every size.

‘I’ll grab us a towel or two,’ Ral said, leaving Dom by a vacant bathing pot. ‘Don’t wait for me—plenty of water for the both of us.’

Used to doing what Ral told him and the water increasingly inviting, Dom grew almost convinced a long soak would help him feel sunny again, even just for a minute. So he hung his robe on a nearby stand and gripped the edge of the pot, hoisting one leg over into the blessedly warm water.

‘Hey, boy!’

Dom started at the hiss, a dark shadow falling over him. His neck snapped around violently to find its source.

Inside the pot, his foot slipped with the sudden movement. Above, his legs tangled with the edge, and he lost his grip on the pot’s edge. A moment later, Dom toppled, striking the tiles headfirst.

It wasn’t a guiltless death, nor was he at peace. But it was fast; Dom was gifted that, at least. The almighty agony in his head faded along with everything else, gentle pressure failing to hold in all that seeped from his cracked skull. He barely had time to panic for himself and his father—what would he do when Dom never came home? By the time his thoughts reached Ral—he couldn’t see at all, but imagined she was at his side; she always had been—and the task Calahur had charged him with, he could only worry dimly.

It’ll be all right, he even managed to decide with his last ragged breath, though he felt bad he’d failed, fallen when there was still so much he was meant to do.

Ral will be all right.

Ral…

Ral was with him. He’d asked her to come with him.

Perhaps he hadn’t failed, after all.

*

Above him, her usually-merry mind numb with sudden, sickening loss – dead, the inn doctor had already pronounced him, covering him with a robe—Ral clung to Dom’s hand, stroking it, ignoring the questions and sympathy from the crowd of bathers. But though otherwise blocked out to anything besides herself and Dom, over the kerfuffle Ral heard a door creak. Not letting go of her friend, Ral peered through the dripping legs of onlookers.

The creak had come from Dom’s wash cubicle. The door was ajar.

A shadow rifled through Dom’s belongings.

Ral set her jaw. Leaning over Dom’s silk-draped form, she kissed his cheek in farewell, hearing as a few sensitive bathers began to cry.

She could cry later. Right now, she had to get the stone from Dom’s neck and around her own before anyone – particularly whoever searched Dom’s cubicle – noticed. Even with her juggler’s cunning, this would be some feat.

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