The sing-song shout of the young girl that just entered the inn, schoolbooks in one hand, ribbon-tied braids trailing behind her as she didn’t miss a beat rushing in, most certainly made Tanya look up from the persistent piece of smudge on the floor that she was cleaning. Normally, the young tavern assistant would frown at anyone who barged into the inn before it was open but this was one of the few beings on this planet that she wouldn’t mind making such a ruckus so early. Or spreading dirt on the floor she but recently cleaned.
The young girl swept by Tanya, giving her a peck on the cheek in passing, but the older woman grabbed the girl by the end of her collar. “And just where do you think you’re going, young lady?”
“I gotta see uncle, atachi!” the young girl said, not even breathless, looking back at the woman she just called her older sister (even if they didn’t share any blood relations; but each was the closest the other had to a real sister) with a smile. “I can’t wait to continue my lessons!”
“I’m sure Garold would be happy to see you, too, but I’m willing to bet the floor of the inn isn’t,” Tanya said, indicating the path the girl just swept through with her head.
The young girl’s eyes went big and she craned her neck further back and down, seeing the splotches of mud that had her unmistakable shoeprints on the otherwise shiny floor. Absentmindedly, the girl wondered how Tanya managed to keep the floors clean despite the weather; fall was starting, and with it, rain. In fact, there was quite the drizzle outside already.
The girl adopted a sad pout and looked at Tanya, who was trying as hard as she can to affect a displeased look. Only the desire she shared with Garold and their friends to rear this young woman up to a proper, if frontier, lady was what steeled her to not give her little sister a hug then and there.
“I’m sorry, Tanyakins,” the girl said, giving Tanya a tight hug. “I’ll help you clean it up soon as I see uncle, okay? I guess I just wanted to get away from boring schoolwork too much.”
“Can’t blame you on that,” Tanya said, giving a hearty laugh and hugging the girl tightly. “Very well, then: go see your uncle and just help me prepare the inn, after you’ve changed and gotten something hot in your belly. I’ll handle your tracks. By the Light, if Dom ever saw this, you’d never hear the end of it.”
“Thanks, atachi. You’re the best!” the girl said. “I’ll come back soon as I see uncle.”
“And it might be sooner than you think, child,” a mild baritone said from the door behind the bar. Garold Roscian, owner of the Journey’s Past inn, managed to fill the doorway despite his physique, lean even as the man entered late middle age. Tanya knew that even now, he was quicker and more agile than she would ever be.
“Uncle!!!” the girl screamed in delight, letting go of Tanya and burying her head in Garold’s chest. Or, rather, his tummy, which was only slightly bulged with age and the hearty meals cooked in the inn.
Tanya smiled as Garold’s face softened with the affections shown by the girl. As far as everyone knew, Garold wasn’t really her blood relation, either. But he’d taken care of her as long as Tanya could remember, and she practically grew up at the Journey.
“So, Krystal, how was school?” Garold asked, motioning for his niece to sit down as he putted behind the inn’s bar, preparing a meal for the girl. Tanya dropped what she was doing and moved to assist Garold, who was also mentoring her on everything that dealt with running the place.
“Boring, as usual,” Krystal said, plopping on top of the counter the books bound by a strap of tough leather with a bright steel buckle made for her by the town’s blacksmith, Brachion. “I’ve learned all of this high school stuff from Master Terry and kaydra Val before I was ten. Why do I have to go through them all over again?”
“Because, young lady, you’re only fourteen and girls your age should be in school, learning these things,” Garold said as he put down a bowl full of steaming cream of mushroom soup. The scent of the meal filled the inn with a wonderful aroma, banishing the damp and gloomy feel the coming downpour was sure to bring. “Also, you need to get good scores from an accredited high school to get into a university.”
“Why do I need to go to a university?” Krystal said between mouthfulls of soup.
“Don’t talk when your mouth is full, dear,” Tanya said from where she was making hot chocolate. Finished, she put it beside Krystal’s bowl and took a napkin to wipe off a soup smudge on the left side of the young girl’s mouth. “Also, I thought you wanted to go to a university?”
“I did, when I was little, spending all those afternoons at the Observatory with Master Terry and kaydra Val,” Krystal said, using a piece of bread to sponge up the last dregs of her soup. “But I found out that there are more interesting things than mathematical formulae, scientific and arcanotech principles, or philosophy.”
“And what would these things be?” Tanya said, taking the bowls and utensils for cleaning.
“Being a gunslinger, for one,” Krystal said before downing a full third of her mug of chocolate.
Tanya stopped midway to the inner kitchen’s door and looked at Garold, who also gave her a look, one that had worry on the older man’s face. The innkeeper nodded to Tanya, who slipped quietly into the inner kitchen while Garold turned to face his niece.
“Now, dear, we’ve talked about this when I began teaching you how to hold a gun,” Garold said, regretting for the umpteenth time why he even considered doing so in the first place. “The gunfighter’s life isn’t an easy one, certainly not for a prim and proper young lady that you’re going to grow up to be.”
“But, uncle, guns seem more interesting than the stuff they teach us in school, or the things they make us girls do so we’ll grow up to be ‘prim and proper ladies’,” Krystal said, trying hard to imitate her uncle’s voice but making it sound comical due to her soft soprano. “Besides, what else do I have going for me in this town? A provincial or even regional college? Or, and I shudder at the thought, the life of a simple housewife? I’d rather be a gunslinger girl”
Garold was at a loss right now about how to explain to Krystal why those lives were infinitely better compared to the excitement and danger that the life of a gunfighter, or any combat profession, entailed. He was actually blaming himself for this. In a moment of weakness, he had taken his old guns out and tried them in the field at the back of the inn, thinking Krystal was yet to come home. But their class ended early and she had been observing him for a good long while before Tanya discovered she was watching.
They knew her insatiable curiosity would get the better of her – she was still too young to really know better, despite her maturity for her age – and everyone agreed it was better that she knew how to handle the weapons before she got anyone, including herself, hurt by mishandling them. At least, early on, they could teach her the proper values associated with such horrible things.
Garold was about to engage in a debate he little relished with his brilliant (for her own good, Garold thought, but that’s something she got from both sides of her family tree) niece when the door opened, admitting a tall but lanky man wrapped in a raincoat.
“By the Light, the wind’s making this drizzle seem worse than it is,” the man, young by the sound of his voice, said, doffing the rain-slicked hood of his coat and beginning to slip out of the whole thing. “It’s like it came from nowhere!”
“Kaydra Val!!!” Krystal said, rushing to the young man and hugging him as he hung his coat on the rack beside the door.
“Whoa there, Krys, haha,” Valiant Kreis said, ruffling Krystal’s red hair. “You’re getting bigger everyday. And heftier.”
Krystal let go of Valiant, an annoyed look on her face. “Am not! That’s just baby fat! I’m going to lose all that when I get older! You and Master Terry said so!”
“I’m sure you would, dear,” Valiant said, patting the young girl on her head. She huffed and stalked to the counter again, Garold laughing at the exchange between the two. “Ho, Gar! Quite a night this is going to be, eh?”
“You bet, Val. I hope that downpour won’t scare away too much of the clientle,” the older man replied, putting a mug of hot coffee laced with vanilla on the counter for the newly-arrived guest. “Tanya! Your lover’s here!”
“Heard him the first time, Gar! I’ll just fix up his dinner for him, be out in a minute!” Tanya said from the inner kitchen. Krystal snickered at Valiant’s reddening face and Garold shook his head, smiling. The two were only a year into officially being lovers, after all, and it was a match few thought would happen: practical, no-nonsense, and gorgeous Tanya Winters and the bookish apprentice-Weaver Valiant Kreis? Preposterous. But here it was, and no one was happier for the two than Garold and Krystal.
“Anyway, since you raised the issue of flooding, I’d be happy to report that Master Terry thinks the new drainage system should work,” Valiant said, adjusting his glasses a bit. “The Gnomes were masters of engineering, as they were with most science and technology, and even the little they left after they abandoned Tinker Hill allowed us to advance our own civilization by decades, if not centuries!”
“Yes, but at what cost?” Krystal’s voice piped up beside Valiant, a sad look on the girl’s face. “The Gnomes are gone. The Dwarven Forge Cities are sealed. And the Light knows what happened to the Elven Sanctuaries.”
This time, it was Valiant and Garold who shared a look. One of Krystal’s earliest interests, even without prodding from them, was history, and she learned quickly like with most things.They only wished they could keep her away from some of the more… unsavory parts, but they didn’t want to “edit” her learning. Better for her to know and ask them. At least they could guide her.
“Well, maybe someday it’ll all be better, eh, little sister?” Valiant said, putting an arm around Krystal’s shoulders. “We can hope, right? After all, who would think a man, Nobari though he be, would be the instrument of the Shadow’s death? Bet you Garaghan or Anarcaine didn’t see that one coming!”
Krystal only gave a wan smile and Garold could see the obvious distress in Valiant’s face. The young Weaver-to-be wasn’t really good with words, although he was a good, honest and hardworking young man. His true talent lay in realizing the Patterns and Effects that are a Weaver’s stock in trade. He wasn’t Gifted, but Master Terry often told Garold about the great potential in his latest protege. And skilled enough Weavers could match the best of the Gifted if they had enough training and experience and the right kind of Vibranite Crystal to help them Weave thoughts into reality.
At that moment, Tanya entered with a large plate of freshly cooked pasta, a rich patch of her special white sauce on top of it. Garold was a good cook, but one of the things his protege had over him was a gift for cooking. Of course, the older man knew where part of her excellence in putting things aright, from her methodical orderliness to her capability with gardening, carpentry, cooking and even visual arts, came from. Some of the new paintings adorning the mezzanine of the inn, where more… refined clientele went, were made by Tanya. One of their regulars even inquired two nights ago if he could buy one of them, and promptly doubled the asking price when he found out it was Tanya who made it. She had a legion of fans in the town, too, truth be told.
Tanya gave Valiant an affectionate peck on the cheek – no passionate kisses in front of children, Tanya insisted, eventhough they all brought Krystal up very open-minded about these things – and hung onto her lover as the rest of her little family attacked her latest culinary creation, their debates and concerns, which Tanya could hear from the inner kitchen, momentarily forgotten. All that was lacking was gruff Dom and even gruffier Brachion and, of course, Master Terry and Tanya’s world would be complete.
When the last of the pasta had been fought over and won by a Krystal wilier than usual, Tanya decided to continue one of the earlier discussions. She didn’t want to leave something important as that hanging. “So, little sister, what’s this about not going to university?”
The statement elicited a shocked look from Valiant, who regarded learning as one of the foremost pursuits mankind can have. That look made Krystal far less sure in her response as she would with Garold and Tanya, since she looked up to Valiant with a certain sense of awe. After all, she wanted to be a Weaver when she was younger.
“That true, little sister?” Valiant asked.
“Well, I… It’s just that…” Krystal tried to explain but couldn’t find the words. How could she explain to her bookish (if a Weaver) older brother, her practical-minded (if awesome artistically) older sister, and even her uncle (whom she loved and adored over anyone else), why she found it hard to get away from guns?
She knew the value of a good education; she loved learning as much as Valiant did and regularly visits Master Terry in the Observatory just to read books, even the ones she’s read dozens of times. She also knew, both from her education and stories told by her elders about the war that ended fourteen years ago, the… things that guns do. They took lives. Weavers, at least, knew Patterns and could make Effects that save lives, even if one of sufficient power can rip a small hill apart with just his or her thoughts.
Still, that chambered, rifled, tube of steel and wood awakened… something inside of her, almost like a yearning, a… call, ever since she saw her uncle Garold practicing with his old pistols. It was the high points of her week, those every-other-day-except-Sunday practice sessions, which Garold used to make her go to school and work hard even if she knew everything the teachers taught.
Garold was about to say something when Valiant suddenly sat straight. Everyone looked worriedly at him until he started patting the front of his polo and found what he was looking for: the Weavertech communicator his master, Terry, gave him. Valiant excused himself and went over to a corner to answer the call.
Everyone was silent as Valiant talked to Master Terry, who was most likely in the Observatory. From what they could see of his face, Valiant looked a bit concerned, his normally bright face all scrunched up, bows knit together. Tanya took the plate and utensils to the inner kitchen as Garold refilled their mugs. Krystal just looked with concern at her older brother.
“All right, Master, I’ll be there soon,” Valiant said, turning off his crystalcomm and turning back to his friends. “Something’s come up at the Observatory, so I’m afraid I have to cut this short.”
“Do you have to, kaydra?” Krystal asked, a pout on her face her arms around Valiant. “I don’t see you a lot these days and that weather’s going to turn nasty soon.”
“I’m sure it’s extremely important, dear, otherwise Master Terry wouldn’t make Val go back so soon,” Garold said, putting a package on the counter and shoving it to Valiant. “I was hoping the old coot would spare some time to go down here, even with the weather, but I think that’s not going to happen tonight so I packed him this soup, which I bet is better than the stuff you two concoct.”
“True that, Gar!”, Valiant said, draining his coffee and giving Krystal an affectionate peck on top of her head. “I’ll make sure Master Terry eats it all; the Light knows he’d take care of himself more. He’s not that young anymore and he’s not Alari to be sprightly in his old age.”
“Like he’d listen if he has a new research going on,” Tanya said, coming out of the inner kitchen with a paper bag. “Some more of the pasta for you two; the sauce is inside. You eat a lot of these yourself, okay? You’re getting thin.”
“Thanks, hon, I will,” Valiant said, giving Tanya a hug as he took the proffered bag. “I’ll send the master your love and best wishes. He wants to see you soon, said something about a package of sorts?”
Tanya had a quizzical look on her face. Garold cleared his throat. “It’s something I asked Master Terry to make for you, dear, but it can wait as soon as this thing gets sorted out. Will you kindly see Valiant out?”
Tanya nodded and walked to the coat rack, arm in Valiant’s. As the young man was about to go, the two looked over to the bar where Garold and Krystal were, both looking at the pair. Two large hands suddenly blocked Krystal’s eyes.
“Oh, come on, uncle!” Krystal complained. “I’ve seen them kiss before, you know!”
“And let’s hope you won’t have to see too many public displays of affection, young lady, until you’re a bit older,” Garold said as the two lovers laughed at the other end of the inn. “Just because we’re liberal with your education and upbringing doesn’t mean we have to set values aside, yes?”
Krystal complained some more, albeit playfully, about wanting to see as Tanya and Valiant exchanged a short but passionate kiss. The young man gave Garold a salute and a flying kiss to a now able-to-see Krystal before stepping out into the world that boded ill weather.