next day, Merlin and Asha made their way to town. The weather was chilly, and
Merlin had lost his cloak the last time they were there. He asked Asha if she
could use her pure-blooded nymph magic to make some new clothes, and in return
“I am a nymph, not a tailor.”
Merlin wondered if he had offended her, as she turned her back to him and went out to take care of the pig. He honestly didn’t think that it was an insulting question.
And for the first time in his life, Merlin found himself worrying about things that weren’t directly related to his own wellbeing. He only had one more cloak in reserve, and they needed one more for Asha as she still only wore the silk dress she came out of the Grimoire book with. He also thought about building a small hut for the pig. The winter would be almost certainly too cold for it to survive outside.
Merlin took a cloth bag he had made himself and filled it with some nuts and fruits he had found in the forest. Asha used Merlin’s spare cloak to hide her ears and slender body, and then, they made their way to Marlborough.
Before they entered the town, Asha placed her hands on his eyes to remove the purple glow. This resulted in Asha making another comment about the inferiority of Merlin’s amateur handling of magic, but by now, Merlin was used to that. He had resigned himself to the fact that his magic — even after a lifetime of disciplined self-training — could not compete with that of a pure blooded nymph who had studied under the greatest magic users of the demon world.
“Are you sure your memory magic worked?” Merlin asked when the first buildings came into sight.
“If it didn’t, your hut would have been torched and you would have been taken to Camelot to burn and hang,” Asha said.
“And what about you?” Merlin asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Of course I would have escaped, otherwise who would come to save you?” Asha stuck her tongue out.
Merlin gave her a chagrined smile. “If you can save yourself, then why don’t you save me before I get captured?”
“I would use your freedom to negotiate the release of my brothers and sisters,” Asha smiled.
So brilliant and pure was her smile that Merlin wondered if she was serious or not.
“But don’t worry,” Asha added. “I won’t allow you to die so easily.”
With that being said, the pair emerged from the forest and entered the outskirts of the town. With every step, Merlin grew more nervous. He knew how skilled Asha was with magic, but he couldn’t quite believe that she was capable of casting a memory spell on the entire population of the town.
They began to walk towards the marketplace. Merlin’s heart beat like mad when they walked past the first person they came across: a woman with a boy and a girl following behind her.
Merlin walked in a stiff manner as he realized that the woman was looking at him. He wondered if Asha’s spell had failed and the woman recognized him. After a few tense moments, the woman turned her attention to her children. Merlin let out a deep breath.
“Why are you so nervous?” Asha asked.
“The woman was looking at us.”
“She was probably curious because we are strangers.”
“I thought that she might have recognized us.”
“Really?” Asha frowned. “Your magic may be weak, but have some faith in me. You cannot imagine what I am capable of.”
Merlin wanted to point out that it was the failure of her magic that had caused this trouble in the first place. But seeing Asha pride on full display in her shameless boast, Merlin decided to leave her be.
“Well, then,” Asha said. “Where should we buy some clothes?”
“The marketplace,” Merlin answered. “Last time I saw a stall that was selling some.”
“Truly?” Asha asked with doubt in her voice.
“Where else should we get our clothes?”
Asha shook her head and gestured for him to lead the way.
Soon, they reached the marketplace and just like last time, it was busting with activity. Countless stalls sold all kinds of goods. Merchants and craftsmen advertised their wares, each of them trying to shout louder than their neighbor.
For Merlin, even though this was his second time here, he still felt amazed by what he saw.
With Asha following closely behind him, he made his way through the crowd until he got to the stall he noticed before.
Merlin smiled with satisfaction when got there. The stall was filled with brown trousers and shirts. It sold jacket and thick boots in matching brown color and even had winter dresses for women. Merlin picked up a jacket and examined it. One could immediately tell that it was of far superior quality than the cloak he had made himself. The garment had the sharp cut of a tailor and its inside was stuffed with sheep wool to keep its owner warm during the frosty winters.
“What do you think?” Merlin beamed and showed the jacket to Asha.
Asha remained silent.
Confused by her reaction, Merlin put the jacket back and took a dress the merchant was selling.
“What about this?”
He had expected for Asha to be jumping with joy, or perhaps smile, but Asha grimaced and shook her head.
“Uhm...,” Merlin began, unsure of what to make of her reaction.
“You hopeless fool,” Asha sighed and grabbed his hand.
“W-wait, where are you going?”
“Just follow me.”
Asha pulled Merlin through the marketplace until they stood at its outskirts. She then took a turn and stopped at once of the houses that faced the marketplace.
“Where are we going?” Merlin asked again.
“Those clothes are atrocious!” Asha cried. “How can you even consider wearing that?”
Merlin was left speechless. He was rather confident in the quality of the garments he showed her.
“We need to get some proper things,” Asha said. “Come with me.”
She opened the door to the house and stepped inside. Merlin reluctantly followed her.
“I’d like to order a winter dress for me, and a fur coat for my husband,” Asha’s voice sounded.
“Husband?” Merlin mumbled and stepped into a spacious room.
He saw Asha talking to a man behind the counter. He wore a white shirt, signifying that he was either of nobility or a tailor who served the nobility. His hair was nearly kept neat and short — another sign that he was different from the ordinary folk at the marketplace.
“Yes, m’lady,” the man bowed. “Please give me a moment to collect the proper fabrics, we will take the measurements in a moment.”
The tailor opened a door behind the counter and vanished.
“A tailor?” Merlin asked.
“Yes, a tailor.”
“Why a tailor?”
Asha shot him a glare. “You cannot expect me to wear that peasant dress! It’s disgraceful!”
Taken aback by her tone, Merlin did not know what to say. Were the clothes at the marketplace really that horrible? He thought that they appeared quite stylish.
Moments later, the tailor came back with an armful of colorful fabrics. Merlin swallowed. This was the kind of material he saw the royal family in Camelot wear. Was Asha planning on having the tailor make a dress with that?
“Can you believe it? My husband wanted to buy me a dress from the marketplace!” Asha told the tailor as they selected different fabrics.
“My, my,” the tailor covered his mouth in shock. “How absurd! Clothes of the peasant folk!”
“He has no taste whatsoever,” Asha said dismissively.
“I’m sure it’s a mistake,” the tailor looked at Merlin. “There is a lot to learn.”
“I think he has no taste, at all,” Asha shook her head.
Merlin simply stood there, listening to Asha criticizing him. He only found it mildly annoying how Asha was bemoaning his taste — after all he was just trying to be sincere — rather he found it amusing how Asha was referring to him as her husband. She moment she entered the tailor’s shop, she perfectly slipped into the role of a noble wife who was unsatisfied with her husband.
After Asha had picked out the fur for his coat — without consulting him — the tailor vanished again to find his measurement equipment.
“Merlin,” Asha said and motioned for him come over.
“Yes, my dear.”
“He will take your measurement in a moment,” Asha said. “After that go out so I can use my magic to negotiate the price.”
“Are you sure about that?” Merlin asked. “Last time it didn’t work out so well.”
“We’re not surrounded by other people. I can use my magic however I want without being seen.”
Merlin nodded. If it was only the tailor, then it shouldn’t pose a problem. The only thing that bothered him was this nagging feeling in his chest. The idea of Asha using her seduction techniques on the tailor made him feel restless inside. He frankly disliked the idea of it, but he couldn’t think of why he detested it so much. This strange desire of wanting to have ownership over Asha consumed him, pushing away every thought of reason.
“Are you all right? You don’t seem so well,” Asha asked and placed a hand on his chest.
“Yes, I’m quite all right.”
Asha wasn’t satisfied with that answer, but before she could ask more, the tailor returned.
“Over here, please,” the tailor gestured for Merlin to step into a room next to the counter.
Merlin went in and the tailor closed the door.
“Quite the feisty wife,” the tailor commented while taking the measurements.
“She is a difficult one,” Merlin agreed.
“But you love her a lot, if I may be so bold.”
The tailor smiled. “Only a man who loves his wife to death would remain so composed when she is scolding him.”
“Hmm...,” Merlin murmured. He had honestly never thought of it like that before.
“Your eyes are filled with a tenderness whenever you look at her,” the tailor said.
Merlin raised an eyebrow. How could the tailor notice all these subtle things? Was he a demon who somehow managed to escape the Grimoire book?
“You can tell?” Merlin asked.
“Yes,” the tailor nodded. He took Merlin’s arm and measured the length of it. “I’m an old man already. I have seen so many couples come in and out throughout these years...I suppose I naturally developed an eye for what kind of people my costumers are.”
Merlin smiled wordlessly. He was just glad that the tailor’s eyes weren’t sharp enough to see that Asha wasn’t human.
“Here. All done.”
Merlin nodded a word of thanks and walked out. As per Asha’s instructions, he went straight out of the shop so that Asha could perform her magic on the tailor. Merlin almost felt sorry for the old man. Judging by the few words that they had exchanged, he felt that the old man was a kind soul. But if Asha didn’t perform her magic on him, they wouldn’t be able to get their clothes.
And as he thought of Asha using her magic on the old man, he felt a pain in his chest again.
“Damn it,” he swore. He instinctively knew that this was not because of some illness. This pain he felt in his chest was an emotion he could not control. It was an emotion he never knew existed until he met Asha.
Merlin looked back and wondered if he should go back into the shop. No. He couldn’t let his own jealousy take control of him. He had to let Asha do what she had to do.
To distract himself, he looked at the stores next to the tailor shop. It wasn’t something that he had noticed before, but the stores at the side of the market which were in their own houses were of a higher class than the stalls. All of them had signs with cursive writing on them, and none of them advertised themselves the way the stall owners did. These stores expected costumers to come to them.
Next to the tailor, Merlin noticed a particular store that clearly only served the educated and wealthy. It was a bookstore. A rare shop; perhaps one in only a handful across Britain.
Only those who had learned to read and write would pay patronage to this store, and only the rich and powerful could afford to learn to read and write. Merlin was perhaps the one of the few people in the kingdom who knew how to read and write without coming from a family of blue blood.
Many bookstores would have guards at their doors, as books were a treasures kingdoms fought wars over. Every book had to be copied by hand and had traveled through many hands and places to reach this store. More often than not, each book was unique with no other copies in existence.
But to Merlin’s surprise, this bookstore did not have the imposing presence of armed guards. He opened the door and entered. He knew that he couldn’t find spell books in such a place, but there was a particular piece of writing he wanted to read if he ever had the chance of coming across it.
“Welcome!” a voice sounded.
Merlin nodded and avoided eye contact with the storeowner. The shelves against the wall were filled with scrolls and bound hardcover volumes. Each hardcover book was reinforced with iron corners and the most valuable ones carried a lock similar to the one found on the Grimoire book.
“Uhm...sir, are you sure you have found the right store?”
Surprised, Merlin turned to the store owner. He was an old man with a beard that came down to his chest. He was as bold as an eagle and carried the air of an academic.
Merlin noticed how them man’s eyes were fixed on his clothes.
“Oh!” Merlin said and frowned.
“Sir...I may have to ask you to — “
“Do not worry, I know how to read and write,” Merlin said.
Merlin’s confident tone stunned the man. But more than that, the way Merlin spoke was that of an educated person — unlike the rowdy peasant folk in the marketplace.
Merlin browsed the shelves and made sure to walk in such a way that the gold coins in his pocket made the sound every store owner loved to hear. He took a look at some of the scrolls. He took some of the hardcover books and leafed through them, but none of them bore the story he was looking for.
“Sir, is there anything in particular you would like to read?”
Merlin smiled. How easy this man to manipulate.
“Yes, I am looking for an anthology published by the Church,” he said.
“Anthologies by the Church,” the storekeeper murmured and his eyes fell on the shelf on the other side of the store. “There are many anthologies issued by the Church, would you like to purchase all of them?”
Merlin pursed his lips, pretending to think about it.
“I am looking for any tales of devils and demons the Church may have issued,” Merlin said. “I am doing research for a priest and he would like to warn his town about the dark magic lurking in the forests.”
“Oh!” the storekeeper raised both of his eyebrows. Immediately, Merlin noticed how he appeared to be eager to help. Merlin thought it was rather suspicious that the storekeeper was so eager to help as soon as he lied about being connected to the Church.
The storekeeper brought out a ladder and climbed to the top of the shelf.
“Here,” he breathed and pulled out a slim volume. It was less than half in size compared to the other books published by the Church and did not carry any golden engravings on the cover.
“It’s rather small, isn’t it?” Merlin commented.
“Indeed,” the storekeeper agreed. “I don’t think the Church released many tales about the devil and the demons...it is a rather difficult subject, if I may say so.”
Merlin was pleasantly surprised by the politeness of the storekeeper. He now understood why Asha insisted on wearing clothes which were close to that of nobility. It automatically prompted others to treat him with respect and courtesy.
The storekeeper placed the book on a table in the middle of the room and stepped back.
“Please take your time,” he bowed slightly.
Merlin tried his best not to smile. His entire life people had been running away from him whenever he entered town, but now he was being treated like a king.
And it was in that moment that he felt glad that Asha had come into his life.
Merlin opened the slim volume and began to study the cursive writing. It was noticeably less fancy than the other books by the Church that he had read before. These tales about the demons in Britain were written with little detail and Merlin could tell that the handwriting was careless compared to the other books. There was no introduction or preface. No table of contents or foreword. It carried the simple title of “Demons of Britain” with the seal of the Church at the bottom of the cover.
“I will be in the backroom if you need my assistance,” the shopkeeper said.
The old man left Merlin to do his reading. Merlin wondered if he was not at all afraid that he might steal these valuable books. Perhaps the shopkeeper assumed that anyone who had the ability to read and write came from so much wealth that they had no need to steal.
Merlin’s eyes raced through the lines, absorbing the stories the Church had issued to the public.
“What are you looking for?” a voice sounded next to him.
Merlin took a sharp breath and turned his head.
“Asha!” he exclaimed. “How did you find me?”
“I figured you couldn’t have gone far and a bookstore seemed like the sort of place for you to go to.”
She smiled and took the book he was reading.
“Demons of Britain?” Asha asked.
“Why do you need to read a book by the Church about the demons of Britain? You have one sleeping in your bed.”
“Shhh!” Merlin hissed and covered her mouth with his hand. “Quiet! We’re not alone in here.”
Asha narrowed her eyes and he felt a light purple glow enveloping her body. “You are right...there is another man in here.”
Merlin took the book back and placed it on the table.
“Are you done with the measurements?” Merlin asked.
“Yes,” Asha smiled happily. “The tailor said he will have it done by tomorrow and for free too!”
“How kind of him,” Merlin said with a dry laugh.
Asha’s attention turned to the book again.
“Why are you looking at this? I thought that you had already sealed away all...”
Merlin turned a page. “I’m looking for records of my mother.”
“Your Mother?” Asha tilted her head.
“Yes,” Merlin said and his voice changed to a quite whisper. “She was killed by the Church when I was still an infant. I don’t know even remember what she looked like or what her name was.”
“Then how will you find her in these books?”
“I know that she had a relationship with my father — a demon. I’m hoping that the Church might have kept some record of her execution and the reason for it.”
Asha nodded. He didn’t know his mother’s name, but he knew why she was killed. If he looked through the records for a woman who did things similar to what his mother did, then there was a good chance that this woman was his mother.
“Why do you care so much about her if you have never known her?” Asha asked.
For a moment Merlin wondered if Asha was trying to anger him with this question, but when he turned to her, she regarded him evenly, genuinely waiting for him to answer the question.
“Don’t you care about your parents?” Merlin asked in return.
“We nymphs are different,” Asha said proudly. “If a nymph chooses to have children, she will find herself a human man and have him impregnate her.”
“But wouldn’t that mean that none of the offspring will be pure blooded nymphs?”
Asha shook her head. “No. If the child turns out to be a boy, he will usually take after his father and have no magic in his blood. But our nymph blood is so thick with magic that if it is a girl, the filthy human blood will be vanquished, leaving the girl as a pure blooded nymph.”
“So...a nymph daughter will live together with the nymphs. What happens with the boy and his father?”
Even as Merlin was asking the question, he did not have a good feeling in his stomach.
“We kill them.”
“We kill them,” Asha repeated.
“We kill them, is there something wrong with that?”
Asha had such a confused expression on her face that Merlin didn’t know what to say. To her, killing the father and any sons was the most natural course of action. It wasn’t just a tradition, it was part of the life as a nymph.
“So you mean that you grew up knowing your mother but not your father?” Merlin asked.
“And you do not care about the identity of our father?”
“Why should I care?” Asha asked, her eyes looking at Merlin as if he had just asked the strangest question she had ever heard. “I don’t have any of his filthy blood...and he was a human male too.”
Merlin stared at her, unsure of how to continue speaking with her. Out of all the things that set the nymphs apart, this was the most glaring. To nymphs, killing the father and sons was as thing that had to be naturally done. To Merlin, this was as cold-blooded and barbaric as one can be.
“But...doesn’t the mother — the nymph who slept with the man — care about the man?” Merlin asked.
“Should she?” Asha tilted her head.
Merlin used his hands to cover his eyes. This line of questioning was getting him nowhere.
“Does all of this sound strange to you?” Asha asked.
“Yes, although strange is not the word I would use to describe it.”
“I assume that you humans care about both of your parents?”
“How strange...,” Asha breathed out.
Merlin wanted to tell her how barbaric he found the practice of killing the father and any brothers. But he knew that Asha probably believed it as a fact that humans were primitive compared to nymphs, and a half-blood calling the practices of the nymphs barbaric would anger her beyond any appeasement. Instead, he chose an indirect approach.
“Well, human beings care about both their mother and father.”
“I know that,” Asha said. “Although your demon father had quiet the peculiar taste to choose a human woman to be his bed companion.”
“Peculiar or not, I still want to know the story.”
“But how can you be sure that the Church has recorded this story?”
“I’d think a woman sleeping with a demon would be quite a major story that should at least be mentioned in here,” Merlin answered. “Of course I will have to read very carefully to catch any mention of a woman like my mother.”
Merlin focused on the cursive writing again. Meanwhile, Asha browsed the shelves and took out some of the scrolls. Her eyes scanned through them and quickly put them back. For her, these human writings were of no interest. Most of them were texts issued by either King Arthur, his ministers, or the Church. They were about the history and politics of the kingdom — human affairs which Asha took no interest in. She hoped to find records of ancient runes or perhaps an amusing book on the evil demons in the forest, but there was nothing.
Soon, she became bored and sat on the table.
“Are you done yet?”
“I think I might have found something.”
“Truly?” Asha’s eyes glowed with interest.
Merlin pointed to the page he was currently reading.
“This is the only page in the entire book that the Church dedicated to the worst sins one could commit against God. It’s only one page, but it mentions that one of the unforgivable sins is for a woman to have a child with a demon.”
“Oh ho!” Asha’s eyes opened wide. She was now really interested. “Is it only about women committing sins with demons? Men’s can’t commit sins?”
“It only mentions women here,” Merlin said.
“So you didn’t commit a sin when I pleasured you with my mouth?”
Merlin took a sharp breath. Asha had caught him off guard again. Mere moments ago she was behaving like a normal human maiden, and now she suddenly talked shamelessly like a nymph again.
“I’m not a man of God,” Merlin said. “I cannot commit sins against him.”
“Oh, God is a man now?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Merlin shrugged. “God is whatever the Church says he is.”
Merlin pointed to a specific line in the middle of the page. “It’s only three sentences, but here it mentions that many years ago, there as a girl by the name of Elizabeth Swanwick who had committed the sin of bearing the child of a demon. For that, she and her parents were burned at a stake.”
“And you think this Elizabeth Swanwick was your mother?”
“Maybe,” Merlin said. “I can’t be sure. It doesn’t mention any detail about the details of the demon she slept with...save for the fact that he was a demon. Nor does it mention anything about what happened with the child she gave birth to. It only says that the Church executed her and her parents.”
“Among us nymphs, we only know of one demon who has ever slept with a human woman,” Asha said.
“So if there was only one demon, there can only be one woman,” Merlin said.
“Unless the demon slept with several human women.”
“Then the Church would have listed them together with Elizabeth Swanwick.”
Asha nodded in agreement. “It’s a shame that they don’t have a drawing of her. You definitely resemble your mother more than your demon father.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Because if you had taken after your father, your magic wouldn’t be as weak as it is now.”
Merlin could only give a dry laugh in return. Asha truly didn’t give a damn about his pride. And even though he had gotten used to her heavy-handed comments, his human blood still hung onto the last shred of dignity.
Since there was nothing more they could learn, Merlin left the book on the table and put a silver coin next to it.
“I never imagined you to be such a sentimental man,” Asha said as they stepped outside into the sunshine. The sounds of the marketplace filled the air again and a pleasant breeze ruffled her hair.
“Nymphs don’t become sentimental?” Merlin asked.
Asha shook her head. “I don’t know who my mother is and I have no desire to find out. Nymphs are raised in groups and not by the nymph who gave birth to us.”
“In the human world, that would be an orphanage.”
“What is that?”
“A place where children with no parents are raised in groups.”
Asha smiled. “The difference with us nymphs is, is that all of the older nymphs are our mothers and grandmothers.”
“I never had that,” Merlin frowned. “After you demons killed my father, I had to survive on my own with no family or tribe to help me.”
Standing in front of the bookstore, both of them ceased to talk. The noise of the marketplace was loud as it can be, but it did nothing to get rid of the awkwardness of the silence between them.
After a while, it was Asha who broke the silence.
“I’m sorry...,” she said.
“I’m sorry that the actions of the nymphs and other demons made you suffer so much,” she said. “But don’t misunderstand. I am not sorry for the death of your father...I’m just sorry that we made you suffer like this.”
Merlin let out a sigh and patted her head. “Thank you.”