Before moving to Skymoore, Linda Arterford spent some time in self-imposed hermitage. It was a nice life, at first. A pleasant contrast to the constant travel and bloodshed that had composed the years before it. But even paradise grows dull through repetition, so when Donovan Allman invited her to live in Skymoore, she accepted without a second thought. She’d spent much of the second half of her life traveling from place to place, encountering unusual customs and new ways of living. How hard could it be to adjust in Skymoore?
Very, it turned out. Skymoore had new holidays, new churches, new currency, new dialects, and an inscrutable government hierarchy. Even the water was different in Skymoore, just a bit more clear and reflective than was natural.
Not to mention the roads; back in Castiron, where she had spent much of her life, the streets were organized in a strict grid. Here in Skymoore, nothing at all seemed to have much rhyme or reason, right down to the city planning.
One evening in particular, about two weeks after arriving, Linda left Odd & Ends for the day and quickly ended up on a street she didn’t recognize. She went back the way she came, only to find herself just as lost. Could this be one of those aftermaj things Donovan talked about? Or was the city just this confusing?
Too proud to ask for directions, and not particularly in the mood to spend the evening wandering, Linda followed the sound of music and chatter to a rustic wooden building with a pair of saloon doors. It was the kind of place Linda and Donovan would have once spent an evening after saving some small town from a flock of Direhawks.
Inside, a glob of sentient slime played several unusual string instruments at once, each of which floated within its unconventional form. Not far from that, in the middle of the bar, a chalk circle designated an arena where strange creatures of stone and ice wrestled. Huddled in the corner, finely-dressed elves sat in silence, reading brightly-colored religious texts she did not recognize.
At least the bartender felt familiar; a bushy dwarven man with thick skin and a small nose. He stood on a stool behind the counter.
“Can you make Tudimampf stew?” Linda asked.
“No ‘hello?’” the dwarf asked with a laugh. “Oh, well, you know what they say about surface folk. No offense. That’s the gnomish dish, yeah? Yeah, I can do that.”
Linda only nodded, but she was relieved to hear it. A favorite meal could be just what her mood called for. Only, that’s not what the dwarf served her. Tudimapf stew was a savory dish of beef, vegetables, and the red mushrooms of the Lopfmansol forest. What she got was carrots and a strange, spongey food that tasted like cinnamon. She grimaced with every spoonful. At least the wrestling match wasn’t half bad.
“No tip?” the man asked as Linda got up to leave.
“Sorry, I’m new to town.”
The dwarf rolled his eyes. “Waitstaff are underpaid because customers are expected to leave tips to compliment our service.”
“You insulted me and served me terrible stew. I have no compliment to give.”
“Come on,” he pleaded. “I’ve gotta eat, too.”
Too embarrassed to find out if he was telling the truth, Linda put a silvered feather on the counter and walked away.
Desperate for some kind of enjoyment, Linda took a turn in the wrestling circle. She knew she would win, and that took some of the thrill out of the match, but only some. Linda did not care for violence, but she loved a good fight. It was what made her feel most alive.
Unfortunately, repetition can dull even the most extraordinary sensation.
The first time Gwendolyn Bottlehelm closed Luminous for the night, it was in the early hours of the morning, long after Skymoore fell asleep, long before it awoke. Its lights had dimmed, but she could feel its glow. She’d put everything she had into the theater. She lost a lot, and gained so much more. A place of her own to create and allow others to do the same. A place from which she could entertain and shape the people of Skymoore. She practically floated home, and she couldn’t sleep that night because she was too excited to work again the next day.
Today, Gwendolyn Bottlehelm closed early because she couldn’t wait to get home. Delia Findlesmith had been a diva, Karessa Plunderton had been absent, and Tim Belcherk – a sentient statue and her favorite playwright in town – kept handing in revised scripts of their newest play, each more convoluted than the last. The sun was just setting, and it occurred to her how plain Luminous looked when its lights weren’t shining. Nothing compared to the golden visage of the Sun Stage.
These days, a new pair of stockings offered more of a thrill.
But still, there was value in the dull. Luminous was familiar. It was her life’s work. And as sure as Sol shined, Luminous watched over Skymoore from its highest hill. Not even the Sun Stage had that kind of visibility. On her worst day, Gwen could think about her theater, and put a worried mind at ease.
Still. Thrills had value, too.
As Gwendolyn walked down the hill, Petrand Beauregard, the halfling courier who typically made the theater’s deliveries, was making his way up. He was a handsome little man, with a charming smile, perfect hair, and an interesting mustache. And Gwen was a fool for men in uniform, so long as both man and uniform were tasteful.
“Evenin’ Ms. Bottlehelm,” Petrand said. “Going home early today.”
“It was one of those days,” she said. “And I long for it to end.”
Petrand’s smile faltered, only for a second. “I’m sure tomorrow will bring brighter skies and higher highs.” Gwen forced a smile (something at which she excelled, naturally). “I’m glad I caught you before you left. Some lovely new fabrics could be just the thing to brighten your day.”
“They could just be,” Gwen agreed, taking the box from Mr. Beauregard. “As could…well.” Gwen flushed. “No, it’s silly.”
“Oh, I’m sure it’s not, ma’am,” Petrand said. “You’re not one for being silly. What’s on your mind?”
Gwendolyn steeled herself, removed herself, and pushed on. “Would you like to get drinks this evening?” she asked. “We’ve always gotten along well, I just thought…” she trailed off as rejection filled the air and shaped Petrand’s face. For a moment, all was quiet. “Ha, or not then. Perfectly fine.”
“It’s nothing against you personally, of course” Petrand said. “You’re a fine friend, Gwendolyn. It’s only, I don’t date women…like you. Nothin’ against your ways, of course.”
“You don’t have to explain yourself,” Gwen said. “I understand. See you soon, Mr. Petrand.”
The halfling left her there with a package in her hand. She watched him go.
Gwendolyn could have asked him anything else. “Why’s the box so small today?” she might have asked, “Oh, these new boxes we ordered from that magic shop. Donovan Allman’s place. Got more space inside than out. How about that, huh?” Instead, she made a fool of herself. She was always so great with people until it actually mattered.
After dropping the package off at home, Gwen went to get a drink.
Sticks ‘N Stones wasn’t Gwendolyn’s tavern of choice – it was far too drab for her tastes – but nobody she knew ever went there, which made it ideal for nights like this one, when she wished only to drink, and to mope. A kamenleda man flew through the bar’s swinging doors, landing at Gwen’s feet. Chips of ice and stone broke off, but it was nothing they wouldn’t regrow in a day or two.
“Are you okay?” Linda called from inside the chalk circle. Down on the surface, such circles were typically enchanted, preventing something like tossing the opponent out the building. The kamenlada waved and groaned, and Linda laughed. The elves in the corner paid her no attention, but the rest of the patrons applauded softly. “A round on me,” Linda told the dwarf.
Another challenger, a dragonkin woman, tried her hand in the arena. Linda was powerless but to accept.
Gwendolyn skirted the arena as she made her way for the bar. The True Believers in the corner had the right idea, Gwen hated to admit. She loved a good show, of course, but violence as sport made her skin crawl.
Still, a free drink was a free drink.
After a second match, and then a third, Linda decided it was indecent of her to wallop all of the bar’s patrons, and made her way to the counter. She took a seat next to Gwendolyn. Linda noticed the disdainful look Gwen gave her as she walked in, yet the minotaur found herself interested in the woman. Her pink bob of a wig and elegant floral dress set her apart from the bar’s dusty regulars.
“One more round for her.”
“So forward,” Gwen teased.
“Just looking to make friends,” Linda said. “I’m new to town.”
“And yet you’ve so many other options,” Gwendolyn said, gesturing to the rest of the room.
“You’re one of four I haven’t pummeled or pissed off, and I feel like those fellows aren’t the drinking type. What are they even here for – sitting around feeling holier than the rest of us? Pushing the stick further up their arse?”
Gwen giggled. “You’re likely not wrong. Their lot thinks priggish is the same as pious, I’m afraid.”
“Can I get you anything to eat, ma’am?” the bartender asked.
“Your cooking is shit, sir Drungan,” Gwendolyn said, and Linda laughed, “but I will take another drink. Ale is ale.”
“I’ll drink to that,” the minotaur said. The human was bolder than she looked. Linda admired that.
As they shared another round, Gwendolyn took a moment to examine this new acquaintance. She wasn’t normally interested in fuzzy types, but something about Linda’s toned body and wizened eyes was getting Gwen unusually bothered.
Gwen knew who she was, of course. Linda Arterford – One with Strength of Twenty. Companion to the Suntouched. Maybe it was the fame getting her riled up. Maybe it was the ale. Maybe it was the way Linda was sizing her up just the same.
Linda hardly remembered the content of their conversation by the time they’d left the bar, but she remembered its nature. It was vulgar and humorous and vaguely intelligent, all the things a conversation ought to be on a night of action and ale.
“Where are we going?” Gwen asked, as they found themselves walking through a garden a few blocks from the tavern. It smelled of evening, of spring, of beer breath.
“I was hoping you’d know,” Linda said. “I’m new, remember?”
“Don’t minotaur have good sense of directions? Something about mazes?”
Linda scoffed, and Gwen laughed. The human moved in close to the minotaur.
“You know, if you don’t have anywhere to be,” Gwendolyn placed a hand on Linda’s stomach, hard as stone, “my home’s not too far from here.”
Linda took a step back. Gwen, too inebriated to take the hint, took a step forward and stood on her toes, going in for a kiss. The minotaur pushed the other woman back, gently.
“I’m sorry,” Linda said. “You seem a fine woman. I’m glad to have met you. I just don’t date women…like you.”
“Humans, I mean,” Linda clarified.
Gwen relaxed for a moment until it clicked in her impaired brain that she’d been rejected.
“Oh,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” Linda repeated. “I do hope we can get drinks again.” And she really did.
“I don’t think so,” Gwen responded. And she really didn’t. “But it was nice meeting you.”
“Likewise,” Linda called, feeling as foolish and lonely as she had earlier that evening. She watched Gwendolyn leave until the darkness swallowed her completely.
The evening breeze followed Gwen home, carrying with it the smells of evening, spring, and beer breath. She poured herself one last drink, hoping to forget the last half hour of her life. Instead she passed out on her kitchen table, with only a hangover and regret to greet her in the morning.