He hesitates to comply. The conflict in his eyes is visible even from this side of the room. He's is also still blushing. But eventually, he nods so very lightly and steps into the room. In his presence, it's immediately easier to relax. The idea that I would be attacked by those hunters, subsides. I am in no shape to fight, but Azémar is. He will protect me, if need be. Not that the chances of those hunters coming to this inn are very likely.
My companion makes a point of not looking at me. I know many would be ashamed, exposed like I am. But aside from the fact that I don't think my body is anything to be ashamed about, I doubt it's anything Azémar hasn't seen. We've been traveling for a good four, maybe five months. He's bound to have seen me undress, wash myself in the river, or take the clothes of me because I got myself in another predicament and needed taking care of. He's probably just being polite, rather than awkward. I don't blame him. Eventually, he settles onto one of the stools in the corner of the room and leans against the wall.
"How's the pain?" he asks. I shrug, which sends an annoying sting through my muscles.
"About similar to the time my brothers beat me up in attempt to get rid of me."
He raises his brows very slightly, but doesn't push it. I wouldn't have mind either way. My brothers are a long way from here and I wouldn't care if Azémar the dragon would reach them.
"We have stories about them." I say softly. I stare off into the distance, eyes unfocused, but I can hear Azémar shift on his stool. "The hunters. They are feared amongst our people. We have a children's song about them, telling you that if you don't play nice they'll come for your ears and your blood." An empty chuckle escapes me. "Eons ago, they used to haunt us. They'd ravage villages, string us up by our feet and slice our throats, so they could catch blood and sell it. While alive, they'd cut off our ears. Cries could be heard for miles and miles, Azémar. Like wolfs howling. First, it was random. They came in the night, dark as shadows and with no more sound than a gush of wind. Once you saw them, you were too late. Then they found that different races, different ages, different ranks... All the blood has different properties. Their attacks became carefully planned, almost to the point where we could prevent them, but not quite. The rampage they left was even more gruesome. No one was spared. Children, who barely sprouted their ears, were not spared. All fell to the hunters once they invaded the village." I shiver, despite the hot water surrounding me. "The Morinkotto, we called them. Eventually, when our people were thinned down and afraid, we found ways to make our blood useless. We'd pierce our ears so they could not sell them. The hunters disappeared now they could not make money off of us. But the story, and the fear stayed. Though we stopped our protection, the ways of how to do it are carefully locked away in case we should ever need them. They nearly died out now, the Morinkotto, but when I saw the drawings on their face, Azémar... I have never felt fear as pure as I did in that moment."
"You... You said they wanted to sell you." His warm voice seems to slow down my racing heart. I nod.
"The drawing of blood takes a ritual. Spells, herbs, tools made out of pure amethyst. Without them, our blood deems useless anyway - unless drawn with permission. Another way to prevent harvest. I suspect they had neither of those things, which is why they were going to sell me." The lack of emotion I can tell him this with, surprises me. Maybe it's the trauma. I heave a sigh, and lift my arm out of the water. It's the one they used to inject me, and it's easily visible - the veins are a strange, green-ish colour and they run all the way up to my arm. I'm not entirely sure if they'll ever disappear.
"It's still slowing my healing down." I mutter, no longer wanting to stay on the subject of the Morinkotto. "I don't know what they used, but it's strong stuff."
"We'll stay until you are strong enough to continue." He sounds so sure and calm, I don't know how he does it. I'd be lost without him. I shoot him a glance - he is leaning forward, with his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped together. His face is full of worry, but his eyes burn bright and fiercely. Without warning, he stands. He offers me the soft towel, with his eyes directly on mine so he doesn't see anything he doesn't want to.
"Get out before you get cold." It's not an order, rather a suggestion. He is not wrong, the water has lost its pleasant temperature. I take the towel, and he leaves me alone to dry.
The lady of the inn has washed my clothes. I run into her when I leave the room in just my towel. She apologizes that they have yet to dry, but they will be by morning and for the night she has laid out a dress with undergarments and shoes. "Please forgive me if they don't fit you very well, or if they are not what you usually wear." she says kindly. "We don't get a lot of elves 'round here, but I think this will do for tonight at least..." She smiles, and I thank her. It is a long time since I saw such a kind face, and it puts me at ease.
The dress she lent me is rather fancy. It would not have looked misplaced in the palace back home. Its royal blue colour reminds me of my mother, and I spent a few minutes stroking the soft velour while praying to the Gods to bring her back, even though I know it's in vein. The fabric feels comfortable on my skin, the leather harness that comes with it gives me a strange sense of certainty. I allow myself the time to dress up, something I have not done in a long time. There was no need for it, nor have I ever missed it, but when I look at myself in the mirror, I cannot help but smile. My lip is still bruised, my left eye still bloodshot, but the rest of the bruises go hidden beneath the dress. I look like the girl who once lived in the palace, part of the royal family. That life seems incredibly far away, and I wonder if I'll ever be able to return. I might die along the way - from here on, the dangers will only get graver and meaner.
I need a drink. I think to myself. Guessing that Azémar is down at the bar, I go to join him. I am horribly overdressed for the inn, but cannot say I don't enjoy the goggling eyes of its customers. Even Azémar stares.
I grin, and wave at the innkeeper for a mead. He complies right away, while Azémar is still staring.
"The last one who stared at me as long as you did, got threatened with daggers in his eyes." I say casually. He immediately turns away, with an eye roll. I grin.
"Thank you for saving me." I take a large gulp of my mead. It tastes different than the one back home, more bitter and dry. I prefer the sweeter ones, but the alcohol is more than welcome.
"It's what I'm getting paid for, princess." he says. There's a slight slur to his words, which tells me that he's had more than enough mead already. I don't let his words hurt me. It's no use, it's a simple truth.
I look around the inn. It's a decent place, but... dull. No music, no entertainment, and all of its residents seem very invested in themselves. They are not going to provide much of a distraction. I turn back to the innkeeper.
"Excuse me, could you tell me if there's a place with music around town?" I ask him sweetly. He seems hesitant, considering I'll be losing him two good paying customers, but complies.
"The Copper Crocodile Tavern. A lil' ways down the road, always packed with bards and the like." He scrunches his nose. Ah, so it's no surprise there's no entertainment here. I turn to Azémar, who's giving me the side glance.
"Let's go there." I say excitedly. "Let's dance, sing, whatever. I bet they'll have drinks for you!"
He looks unimpressed. "We're here because you're supposed to take it slow."
"If you want me to go to bed and be haunted by nightmares until the sun comes up, that's fine with me, too."
He keeps looking at me for a second, and then heaves a heavy sigh. "I don't dance." he warns. "or sing."
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