“And that’s why Nestor Pinkly is not only my creator, but my best friend in the whole wide world!”
Even the shrewdest in the crowd found themselves swayed to a kind of parental adoration of Dovetail by the time she finished her story. The automaton took a bow, beaming with pride, and everyone clapped.
“That was fun!” Dovetail said. “Is it okay if I tell another story? Ah!” Dovetail jumped as the door to the backroom opened, admitting Donovan, Elma, and Keel. “Welcome back! I was just telling a story about how Nestor is my best friend. Do you want to hear it?”
Donovan, looking vaguely like a man whose perception of spacial reality had been challenged, declined. “Maybe later.”
“You were gone a long time,” Linda said. “Get everything worked out back there?”
“Yes, forgive my earlier…passions,” Keel said. “I stand by my words, but regret my presentation.”
“We’ve all been there.”
“Ah!” Dovetail jumped as the front door of Odd & Ends was thrown open, accompanied by howling wind, whipping rain, and a tumbling dwarf. Many of the travelers who had fallen asleep by this point now awoke with a start.
“Frosty damnation,” the damp dwarf woman swore as she got to her feet and slammed the door. “Didn’t expect it to give so easily. Oh, I, uh. I interrupting something?”
“No, I – Hega?” Donovan asked. The one-eyed, one-armed dwarf’s hair stuck to her head and neck like tight clothing, a look so different from her usual bun that the woman was briefly unrecognizable. “We’re just…what are you doing here? What are you doing out in the storm?”
“My job,” she said. Hega was responsible for planning and executing safety drills in the event of unexpected aftermaj emergencies. “Using this place as a shelter? Good of you.” Donovan just nodded quietly. Hega, now fully taking in her surroundings, became aware that she was very much the center of attention. “Could we go somewhere private, Donovan? I want to speak with you. Privately.”
“Oh. Yes, sure. I’ll get you a towel.”
The ambiance of Odd & Ends shifted to a quiet, awkward murmur as the pair departed to Donovan’s room. Gwendolyn Bottlehelm whistled, and Linda shook her head.
“Sorry about the disturbance,” the minotaur said. “Let’s try and get some sleep, everyone.”
In the emptiest corner of the room, Bagel the pixie rested under the watchful and bored gaze of Tabitha Darkholm. “He’s doing fine,” Tabitha told Elma as she approached. “He was even lucid for a moment. Just gotta sleep it off.”
Elma nodded as she took a seat beside her tiny friend. She ran a finger through his dense brown hair. “Thank you,” she said. “I’ve got him from here. You can go get some sleep.”
Tabitha passed Keel on the way to her mother. “Mind if I have a seat?”
Elma waved for him to sit. “Bagel’s gonna be okay.”
They both watched the young man breathe for a spell.
“How do you know him? If you don’t mind.”
Elma shook her head. “He’s my brother. Practically. My mom and I found him when he was just a baby. Fit right in the palm of my hand, with room to spare. Later, when we were alone together, wandering Penscarop as vagabonds, we made a perfect pairing. He was great at foraging for food, and I was great at eating it.”
They shared a chuckle, and silence fell once more. Keel grasped for conversation – he was hardly a socialite outside of his small community. What did secular folk talk about?
“What brings you to Skymoore?”
“Oh, we’re regulars, as much as we’re regulars anywhere. You know Tim Belcherk?” Keel didn’t. “Really? Local playwright? Well, anyway, Bagel and I are big fans, and we stop by whenever he’s got a show. Just did one called Dusk. Blondie over there always directs. Good stuff.” Keel nodded. He wasn’t much for theater.
“It’s about these two sisters, who meet these guys, and well, they’re artists – musicians, and everyone in their lives are telling them that they should abandon their dreams and become, like, lawyers or scribes or whatever boring people do. It’s kind of about how, sometimes people tell you that you don’t get to follow your dreams, or maybe you don’t get to follow them in the way you want, but how when you try to compromise with life, and play by their rules, it destroys you. At least…that’s what I got out of it.
“Oh, and it was very musical. Not like, a musical. But there was a lot of music in it. Good music. You should check it out.”
“It sounds sad,” Keel said.
“It kind of was,” Elma said. “But also, kind of, affirmative? For me? Bagel and I are always traveling, because we just don’t jive well with all the rules people place on themselves, and on others. It can be a bit isolating, and sometimes I wonder, would I be happier if I just gave in? Settled down in Castiron or Skymoore or wherever, and just gave in? But there’s this line, early in the play, where the main girl’s mom says she’s going to kill herself if she keeps pursuing her music, and she says, well at least I’ll still be me. That’s how I feel.”
“At least I’ll still be me,” Keel echoed. “That is a good thought. I’m much the same.”
For a moment, Keel considered all the ways in which they were different. How all the rules she cast aside were the same rules that gave his life meaning. When he woke up tomorrow, those rules would guide his steps and offer him peace and purpose like they did every day. Right here, in this moment though, they would only divide. And where was the sense in that?
He was surprised by how much it rang true.
Hega sat on Donovan’s bed wrapped in a towel. Donovan sat in his rocking chair, eyeing her with interest.
“You’re acting strange,” Hega said. “What’s going on? And don’t say nothing, because I may be a cyclops but I’m not blind.”
“It is something. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. But it’s not important, truly. I’m much more interested in what’s brought you here.”
“You,” she said sincerely, without a hint of embarrassment or indecision. “The city is as safe as I’m going to make it, and I just wanted to make sure you’re okay. Using your shop as a makeshift inn was kind.”
“I had no choice.”
“You did, and you chose kindness.”
Donovan shifted uncomfortably.
“Where’s Karessa?” she asked
“At home.” Hega pulled her towel tighter around herself. “Why? What’s wrong?”
“The Mish Mash, right? Something’s happened there.”
“What do you mean? The storm?”
“I don’t know. I’d heard there was some commotion there, but when I tried to get in there, The Cabal had sealed it off. Can’t be good. Donovan, no.”
“I saw the way you twitched. Your grip tightened on the chair. You’re like me. A doer, a fixer. The kind of man who rides the back of a primal. But you have to pick your battles. Nobody gains anything by crossing The Cabal.” Donovan rocked quietly. “Who are you, Donovan Allman? I’ve poked and I’ve prodded and I haven’t come up with much.”
Donovan thought back to some weeks ago, sitting in this very chair as he told Karessa Plunderton all of his secrets. He thought to what lay below Odd & Ends, and the role he and Hega seem to have played in its creation. He wanted to share his thoughts with someone, especially her, but it felt wrong on this night, with Karessa missing, with Hega drenched and exhausted after a night living the kind of life Donovan saw every time he closed his eyes.
“And lose my mysterious aura? Don’t women find that kind of thing sexy?”
Hega grinned. “I thought we were just friends.”
“Friends can be sexy,” Donovan said.
Hega laughed, hard. She laughed, and she laughed, and she lied down and she laughed until she couldn’t laugh anymore. “You’re doing good, Donovan Allman,” she said breathlessly. And then she yawned.
“At what?” Donovan asked.
Exhaustion took her before she could respond. Donovan stayed awake a while longer, rocking gently and worrying about Karessa, and wondering about all that had happened today, until exhaustion took him, too.