Chapter 23: Presence
The porridge was bland but warm. It served its purpose. So did the second-hand woollen tunics and pants they wore. They even had a generous chunk of bread for the road, but that was as far as their arena earnings had lasted.
‘How do we find a place to live, and how do we find food when we get home?’ Rayn’s face was a mask of despair and frustration. She was as streetwise as a butterfly and would survive as long if left on her own in such circumstances.
‘I’ll find a way,’ Ada said, ‘I’ve lived on the streets for many years.’
‘I refuse to move in with one of your useless boyfriends!’ The idea seemed to frighten Rayn more than anything. Her face reddened, and her pitch was higher than usual.
‘Most men prefer to have more than one woman, but they usually don’t want them to know about each other. I think you will have to find your own boyfriend,’ Ada teased.
‘I will not!’ Rayn said, loud enough for anyone in the room to hear.
‘All right, all right,’ Ada said, motioning with her hands to suggest that Rayn should stop speaking so loudly. ‘I said I will find a way, and I will. Trust me.’
Rayn lowered her eyes to the small table between them and whispered, ‘I want to live with you.’
A long, awkward silence followed as Ada tried to figure out how to respond to her friend’s admission.
Ada realised there was more to it than the practical question of future living arrangements. This was an expression of love. The pitiful, unreciprocated kind of love.
Shame washed over Ada as she saw the nature of their relationship for what it was. To Ada, theirs was a friendship of convenience. She had turned to Rayn when there was nobody else, and left her for months when she was back on her feet.
Ada had never questioned Rayn’s commitment, or why she always accepted her ungrateful and illogical behaviour. It never occurred to her that Rayn might have feelings for her.
Cowardly, Ada moved on to a different subject.
‘We have to get back to Sandcastle first. Unless we have something nasty chasing us again, I don’t feel like running back. So we will probably spend two full days on the road, or even longer off it. The nights are cold, and men or beasts might attack us if we’re seen.’
Rayn didn’t reply or even look at her.
As was her way of handling emotional discomfort, Ada kept talking.
‘But first, we have to survive until the morning. We have clothes and food, but we can’t afford a room for the night. And we’re already in the company of some mean-looking people.’
With still no reply forthcoming, Ada spent some time confirming her latter statement. The Mangled Miner was not the most appealing of inns, but it served the least expensive food. The drinking hall attracted clients who could not afford a visit to the finer establishments in town and those who were not welcome anywhere else. Dwarves and cripples. Dirty travellers, standing in small pools of mud that formed around their feet as they emptied their flagons. A battle-scarred giant of a man carried an unsightly whore over his shoulder as he headed for the rooms upstairs.
Then there were those whose reasons for preferring this particular location was less obvious. Those were the most interesting. Unable to learn their secrets and disadvantages from looking at them, Ada reached out with her spirit. Her vision blurred, and she closed her eyes to eliminate the distraction. As the shard underneath her tunic started emanating warmth, she grasped it with her hand. They were one.
She found Rayn, her spirit pure and timid. There were dwarves, their souls robust and unrevealing, like stone. She found the weak wills of drunkards and whoremongers, and she could listen to their unguarded thoughts as clearly as if they had spoken out loud. Spurred on by the rush of power, Ada drifted into the dark corners. She sensed a man, almost unconscious by hard drinking, desperately trying to silence the screams inside his head. A woman’s screams. His woman? The smell of blood. The taste.
The man stirred, and Ada withdrew.
She drifted for some time as if floating in a slow river. From somewhere, there was a call. A distant whisper carried by a warm wind. She grasped for it, but it slipped away like water through sand.
Then, something else caught her attention, something strong. Beckoning for her, daring her to approach. Ada was unafraid; this was her domain. Nobody could find her in this place. Her curiosity had no boundaries, and she effortlessly bridged the distance between them.
Ada was drawn to the radiating power like a moth to a flame. His spirit was the likeness of a vast, black pearl. She moved closer to him, eager to learn his secrets. Breaking through the opaque shell, she found no resistance.
And yet, she could not. She was repulsed. Or rather, deflected, as she slid away like a drop of water on the polished surface. Confused, she tried again, with more force. To no avail.
Something tugged at her. Ada ignored the distraction, as she made a third, futile attempt.
‘WHAT?’ Ada yelled. When she opened her eyes, she found Rayn holding her arm and shaking it, a worried expression on her face.
‘What happened? Where did you go?’ Rayn asked.
‘Not now,’ Ada said, as she left the table.
In a dark corner, she found him: the rider from the night before. Even here, he wore the wide hood pulled over his head, covering his face in shadows. His red eyes met hers as soon as she turned the corner.
‘You live,’ he greeted her.
‘I do,’ Ada said and pulled a chair up to the small table.
’And you were not … assailed by predators?’
‘Not recently. Not yet.’
The red eyes narrowed. ‘You play dangerous games, girl.’
‘You have no idea,’ she said, leaning forward over the table. Her opponent was unfamiliar, but this was her kind of game. ‘Remove the hood. I want to see your face.’
A long pause ensued, as he considered her request.
Ada gasped as he slowly pulled back his hood. He was no man. No human male that is. But certainly a male. The skin was black, unblemished. His pointed chin did not show a hint of beard. The prominent cheekbones and pointed ears gave him a regal appearance. His hair was short stubble, white or grey, probably shaved off one or two weeks earlier. ‘You’re a black elf!’
The dark figure laughed, short and bitter. ‘Most elves would object strongly to that!’
‘But you look …’ Ada started.
’Yes, I look like an elf. As the moon looks like the sun. But we are very different.’
Ada fell silent, searching her memories for the answer. The scary stories children told each other at night. The cruellest and dangerous of all the denizens of the underworld.
’You are drow,’ she whispered.
‘When I was a child, my mother told me that the drow were evil creatures living underground, eager to capture and enslave any human child they found. She told me never to enter a cave or a dark cellar.’
‘True, but unlikely.’
Ada shivered. With fear or excitement, she could not tell.
The drow smiled, a wicked, knowing grin.
‘I’m Ada.’ She reached out with her right arm towards the drow, palm up, as customary for a formal greeting in Sandcastle.
The drow sat motionless for a few beats, looking at her. Somewhat awkwardly, he accepted the greeting by clutching her hand with both of his, one below and one above.
‘Zekatar,’ he whispered, apparently reluctant to reveal his name to anyone else.
His grip was firm, his slender hands strong and calloused. The drow radiated power, confidence and arrogance. Superior to her in every way, superior to everyone, and he knew. Ada felt small, insignificant, defeated. She was losing at the game she knew so well.
The drow pulled the hood back over his head and rose from the chair. Leaving two bits on the table as payment for his meal, he left Ada without another word.
Ada remained at the table until she’d regained her breath and composure. Then, she picked up the two bits and returned to Rayn.