The wonderful thing about being on vacation is that if there’s not a crisis in the midst of occurring you can just kick back and relax. The tough part, of course, was convincing my worries that we were not, in fact, in the midst of a crisis and that they should shut the hell up for a bit.
That was more a more difficult thing to believe than it might have been given how events were starting to shape up. Vale Septem wasn’t what we’d expected it to be and it would have been arrogant to assume that we could handle everything that it could throw at us. On the other hand, it would have been foolish to turn our fears into self fulfilling prophecies. If we jumped at every shadow and fought every foe we could imagine we’d run ourselves down to nothing.
Sometimes you have to push yourself to your limits. This wasn’t one of those occasions. Not yet anyways. A part of me disagreed, but I’d known that part of myself for a long time. The voice of my fears was an old friend. These days I preferred to listen to a different voice.
“See what I mean about the water being nice?” Way asked as she swam by me.
Kari had calmed down after she’d had a chance to sob out her stress. With no sign that the Shadow Breakers were immediately due to descend on us and the meeting with the Goblin King days away we’d decided to do the sensible thing and hit the beach.
It was a clear and sunny day, so the surf and sand looked inviting enough. The chill spring wind would have been sufficient to dispel that notion but with the application of a few spells tied to the Eighth Dominion’s Fire aspect the ambient temperature ceased to be an issue.
Kari had fled the Inne with only the clothes on her back and didn’t own any special clothes for swimming even if she’d had a chance to pack. Or rather she didn’t until we unleashed “Jin and Way’s House of Fashion” on her. Granted not all of our clothes were enchanted to resize themselves to fit any wearer but it wasn’t hard to find a dozen or so outfits for her that were.
It was kind of magical watching her sort through the racks of clothes that we produced for her to pick from. I felt like a fairy godmother. That my actual connection to the Fey was closer to Maleficent than Flora, Merryweather or Fauna was something I chose to studiously ignore.
“The fishermen must think we’re mermaids to be in water this cold.” I said to Way as Kari swum up to us. Thanks to the spells that wrapped us up, the water felt warm and pleasant but I knew it was just this side of hypothermia inducing in reality.
“But mermaids are hideous.” Kari objected.
“Different mermaids.” I said. A check on meta-awareness told me that Vale Septem’s mermaids were indeed quite different. They were predators that made sharks look tame. Their song might lure sailors in but there was nothing “pretty” about their teeth or claws. The last thing a sailor who saw one would be thinking about would be giving them a kiss. Fleeing for their lives? Yes. Romantic ballads and moonlit smoochies? Not so much.
“Speaking of the fisherman it looks like they’re heading in.” Way said.
The boats that had been trawling the coast all day had turned their prows towards the mouth of the bay where we were floating. Their day’s work was accomplished and their nets were full with whatever fish they’d managed to scoop up.
“Think we could grab dinner from any of them?” I asked.
“Maybe. Do you have anything to cook it with though?” Kari asked.
There was a fire pit outside the bungalow and a small fireplace within it. Healer Grida had left a few pots and pans there as well but it wasn’t exactly a luxurious cooking arrangement. On the other hand fish didn’t take a lot of room to prepare and I had enough gear in my pack to handle making a simple meal. Or I could just use magic.
Among its other aspects, the Fourth Dominion covered crafts, which in turn covered cooking. To invent new dishes took real skill. To make normal dishes, normal skills were quite sufficient. To make great food without practice? That was the kind of cheat you needed magic to get away with. While a serious cook would have scoffed at the notion of such cheating, I was more than willing to embrace it in the name of a yummy meal.
“Let’s see what we can get then. I think I’d prefer Jin’s cooking to another round at the Inn.” Way said.
As it turned out ‘what we could get’ was precious little. The first two fishermen that made it to shore claimed that their catches were too short for the day to sell any. That seemed a little suspicious given how full their nets were and the boastful comments we’d overhead as we walked over to them. To be fair to them though, it was common for the local fisherman to have “standing orders” with the traders who came through town, so the fish they caught could have been spoken for even before they even set sail that day.
It was also possible that they were fearful of inciting the church’s wrath and didn’t want to risk being associated with us. That was aggravating, but also understandable. The sanctuary spell that kept the town safe didn’t extend beyond the bay. That meant the fisherman had to rely on portable charms and prayer beads to ward off the monsters. The charms were weak and costly to make but when that was your best chance to avoid an encounter with the creatures from the deep it was worth giving up the coins offered for a few fish in order to stay in the church’s good graces.
I was starting to make alternate plans for dinner when the third boat landed. Its nets weren’t as full as either of the first two had been but the owner of the boat didn’t seem to mind. He was a tall, broad chested man with a deep and even tan. The mop of grey hair on his head and the wrinkles that looked they been carved into his face with a chisel suggested he was well past his prime but his eyes sparkled with a youthful zeal that suggested today was his best day yet and tomorrow would be better still.
Since the source of his joy was probably not the anemic contents of his nets, I looked around for another source and spied a likely candidate. An older woman, hair as gray as his but with rich ebony skin, stood on the dock that the happy fisherman was sailing towards.
“Healer Grida!” Way called out as we walked close enough for conversation.
The woman turned to catch sight of us and waved us over.
“Sir Way, good to see you up and about. Did you do those exercises we spoke ok?” Grida asked.
“I went swimming twice. It helped to work out the soreness.” Way said.
“Good, good. And Kari, what happened to you dear? I heard there was some trouble between you and Caina this morning.” Grida said.
“She fired me.” Kari replied.
Grida rolled her eyes.
“That silly old fool. Whatever did she do that for?”
“She didn’t want me to serve Jin and Way.”
“And you did?” Grida asked.
Kari nodded, and looked away.
“Well good for you! I have no idea how that old goat has kept that place running for so long with how she treats travelers. I’ll give her a good talking to for you. Daft woman would be a fool not to take you back.” Grida said.
“I don’t want to go back though. I’m going to travel with Jin and Way now.” Kari said.
Grida’s eyes widened at that and she regarded Kari with an appraising air. Further discussion was interrupted by the happy fisherman’s boat arriving at the dock though.
“Can an old man beg, borrow or steal a hand tying off here?” the fisherman said as he hurried to take down his sails.
“Depends if you brought anything good back for us Colten.” Grida said.
“Only the finest delicacies from the sea’s bounty for you my wild rose.” Colten answered.
The two moved with practiced ease through the process of getting the ship tied down and stowed for the night. Kari pitched in as well, drawing on a lifetime of being around fisherfolk to know what to do. Way and I managed to contribute by holding ropes and staying away from the actual work that was being done.
“So how do I find myself in the company of so many fair beauties?” Colten asked as the last of the empty nets were stowed.
“We were looking to see if we could buy any of the day’s catch for dinner tonight.” I said.
“You were uncommonly wise to wait for my arrival then. As I said, I have the finest of the sea’s bounty in my nets.”
“Our good luck then that the other fishermen wouldn’t sell to us.” I said. I didn’t want to scare him off, but Colten seemed like a nice enough guy that I didn’t want to leave him too much in the dark either.
“A strange day when an honest fisherman turns down honest coin. Were you offering them seashells instead of copper bits perhaps?”
“Their coins were true, but the Bishop, perhaps, was not.” Grida said.
“Ah, you’re the girls that gave his Oh-So-Holiness a verbal drubbing? Well in that case you’re money is no good here either.” Colten said, his smile undercutting his words. “Here’s the second finest catch of the day, on the house!”
He reached into the net that he’d consolidated his catches into and pulled forth a giant fish of a species I didn’t recognize. To be fair, I’d never been much of a cook, so it could have been an exact match for a fish from my own world and I still wouldn’t have been able to guess it’s name. I checked meta-awareness, but the Jin of this world had spent her time studying her magics and learning to fight. Seafood (and all other food) preparation was subcontracted out to the magics of the Fourth Dominion.
“Now Colten, how are these nice girls going to prepare that thing? They’re just in my old little shack.” Grida said.
“It’s no problem. I can manage it.” I said.
I wasn’t sure if Colten’s boasts of it being the second best fish were true, but I was pretty sure the cooking spells would make it reasonably palatable. Grida just shook her head at that idea though.
“If you girls don’t mind keeping some old folks company, I’m having a few friends over for dinner tonight. It would be wonderful if you could join us.”
“She’s a good cook when she’s not making medicines. Her and Caina tied for first place at the Winter’s Day Fair this year.” Kari agreed.
The prospect of having food as good as the Inn’s had been without the Innkeeper poisoning it was appealing. Very appealing. I looked over at Way who was already looking to me with a hopeful longing in her eyes. Sometimes we didn’t need dream speech to know exactly what the other was thinking.
“That would be fantastic! Is there anything we can do to help with the preparations?” I asked.
“No. No. I’ve already made more food than we can eat. Anything else would just go to waste. You three go enjoy the rest of the day. We’ll eat just after sundown.” Grida said.
That pronouncement lead to another trip to “Jin and Way’s Fashion Boutique” once we got back to the bungalow.
“I don’t think they’ll mind if you go in your priestess robed and armor.” Kari said as Way and I rummaged through our outfits.
“Probably not, Grida seems like a pretty nice sort.” I said.
“Colten too. Are they married?” Way asked.
“Grida and Colten? Oh no. They’ve just been friends forever. They were married to other people when they were younger but they’re both widows now. Or widower for Colten I guess.” Kari said.
“What are their other friends like?” I asked.
“I don’t know who they’ll have coming over tonight but they’re friends with a lot of people in town. Everybody wants to be on Grida’s good side since she’s the town’s healer and half the town’s fishermen learned how to sail from Colten.” Kari said.
“A little harder to pick an outfit then.” Way said. She was holding up a long blue dress that shifted from a midnight blue at the base to sky blue at the neck. The fabric was interwoven with bits of silver thread giving it a shimmer and the appearance of holding shooting stars when the light hit it right.
“That looks beautiful!” Kari said.
“Thank you. I think it might be a little too much though.” Way said.
“Whoever’s there will think its brilliant!” Kari protested.
“How about this one?” Way asked. She held up a pale green blouse with a dark green skirt.
“That’s nice, but the other one’s more exciting.” Kari said.
“Wonderful! I’ll go with these then.” Way said, setting aside the green blouse and skirt.
“Why? I mean why not just go in your armor?” Kari asked.
“Sometimes armor can protect you from the wrong things.” I said. “If we dress in exotic fabrics and come in looking as fancy as we can, we’ll be the center of attention, but the clothes will also distance us from everyone else there. Sometimes that’s the statement you want to make. Other times, like tonight, you don’t want to put up those barriers.”
Kari reflected on that for a minute.
“I’ve never had enough clothes to think like that. I just wear whatever’s cleanest.” she said.
“Let’s pick out something for you then.” I said.
I conjured a set of mirrors for Kari to see herself in as we got to work. I wasn’t an expert tailor or a clothing designer, but with the simple fashions we were going for it was really more about finding colors and styles that were appealing and comfortable.
In the end, Kari picked something a bit more exotic than I would have gone for. A long sleeved white silk shirt with lace ruffles at the wrists and pearl buttons complimented a sweeping black skirt with a silver filigree patterns that rose up both sides. She finished off the ensemble with a black silk vest that was edged with the same silver filigree as the skirt.
The outfit gave her a regal air which, oddly, suited her well. The serving girl probably hadn’t worn anything close to courtly clothes in her life, but I could tell she was be a natural in them. I would have been concerned about being overdressed for the occasion but I suspected that since the others were likely to know Kari already they wouldn’t be particularly put off by the extravagance of her garb.
For myself, I avoided white and black. White was too reminiscent of my priestess robes and black was too reminiscent of the royal robes I’d worn when I first claimed the title of the Shadow Queen. I wanted neither of those images to come up during the dinner so instead I ventured out into the daring and daunting world of color like Way had.
A pink tunic, edged in white lace and a deep red skirt gave me a similar “light and dark” color scheme to Way and Kari while not repeating any of their choices. I debated doing something interesting with my hair, but decided not to. All of my ideas were running to things like tiaras and other crown like objects and I was determined to be as ordinary as possible.
I started to dispel the mirrors that I’d set up but paused for a moment as Way and Kari finished dressing. “Ordinary” was perhaps a goal we weren’t quite going to hit. Way had a grace and power that shone through whatever garments or disguise she wore. Kari was lit with the joy of the new world she saw before her.
And me? I’d changed over the last two years too. I liked who I saw in the mirror. That hadn’t always been true. The girl there was far from perfect but I liked being her. For a dream lord that was fairly critical. In dreams you can be whoever you want. As a dreamlord I can literally make dreams come true. Ergo, if I didn’t like who I was, I could change that. Mostly.
There are serious pitfalls in changing yourself with magic, the biggest one being that dream magic is limited by imagination. Meta-awareness helps out a bit there but it’s notoriously prone to leaving out fairly important details.
If I decided that I hated being regular Jin and I wanted to be Warrior Princess Jin instead, I could become that easily, but some of the pieces wouldn’t quite fit. I might not be able to imagine how hard a Warrior Princess has to work to keep her abs of steel or how alert you need to be for random ninja attacks. That kind of dissonance can lead to shifting around who you are to the point where you can eventually lose all sense of your own identity. Being without any sense of self can lead to a lot of bad places so it’s one of the first things that the Parliament focuses on helping new dream lords deal.
That said, trying on new identities isn’t inherently a bad thing. There’s just an important line between “playing at being someone” (like Way and I were doing on Vale Septem) and actually living as them. It wasn’t something other people could determine for you either. Finding who you were could take a lifetime. At best all anyone in the Parliament (or anywhere else) could do was make sure you asked the right questions and had someone to talk to when you needed it.
I was lost in thoughts like that as we packed up the Jin and Way’s Fashion Boutique and headed out. That made the presence of a burning effigy outside of our door all the more shocking.
“Oh right. There’s people who hate us here.” I said.
I frowned. The two dolls that were burning were probably meant to be Way and I. Someone had hung them from the tines of a pitchfork that was planted, handle down, into the sand. In case the subtlety of the message was lost on us, the perpetrator had also left a sign with the words “Get Out” scrawled on it resting against the pitchfork.
“What are we going to do?” Kari asked. The joy she’d been shining with had been snuffed out in an instant. That, far more than the threat offered by the burning dolls, bothered me.
“About what?” I snapped my fingers and a column of blue fire exploded upwards consuming the dolls, the pitchfork and sign.
Kari yelped and jumped back away from the flames. Way caught her so she didn’t fall over. I’d called on the Seventh Dominion with dream speech for a fire spell but that didn’t feel like a sufficient enough response.
“They didn’t try to kill us.” Way cautioned me.
“I know. I’ll be gentle.” I told her.
Standing over by the ashes that remained of the burned dolls, I let the Seventh Dominion’s fire spell drop away and called to its aspect as the Dominion of Justice and Punishment.
“Those whose hands wrought this effigy and those who encouraged them, by their fears, none of them shall sleep until the sun rises once again. Unless they repent.”
I spoke the words aloud, in the more formal syntax demanded by the Seventh Dominion, as I finished weaving the spell I had in mind with dream speech. At my command, the ashes of the burned dolls rose up in the form of little girls before flying apart and racing off with the wind in search of those who had left the message of hate for us.
“What did you do?” Kari asked, her fear growing to encompass me as well.
“Just a small curse.” I said, offering her a smile. “The ash dolls will seek out those responsible and scare them to keep them awake.”
“Scare them how?”, she asked, regaining her composure.
“Spooky noises. Things moving on them. Cold patches and icy fingers touching them when they least expect it. Nothing deadly, and if they happen to think to offer an apology the curse will break.” I said.
“They might escalate instead.” Way said.
“Possibly, they weren’t vicious enough to light the bungalow on fire though so we may be able to convince them that escalation isn’t the right idea.” I said.
I thought of the girl in the mirror. She could have been a monster. She still could be. The curse I’d spoken was nastier than I’d described. The torment the ash dolls would lay upon the guilty wouldn’t harm them but the terror the dolls would evoke would be all too real. Those who’d tried to terrify us into leaving were about to spend a night living out the worst ghost story they’d ever imagined. The girl in the mirror wasn’t a monster, but I’d never said she was nice either.