“My husband and I are from Beetletun,” Lady Eira said. “It’s a lovely area with beautiful views of the fields. Have you been there?”
“Actually, I have a couple of times,” Quint replied, still carrying on the conversation while I tried to remain out of it. “Beautiful sunsets out there. What brings you all the way up north, so far from home?”
“My husband wanted to see the mountains,” she said, rolling her eyes. Despite her silvery voice, I could hear an edge of annoyance. “We have mountains back home, but he wanted to see the snow-covered ones. He insisted, so of course I couldn’t help but accommodate.”
I quietly snorted into my ale mug as I tipped it back, drawing a disapproving glance from Lady Eira. Finishing it off, I set it back down on the table harder than I had anticipated and the sound seemed to echo through the open tavern. The monotony of their conversation had started to amuse me, or maybe it was the ale that had made it more entertaining. Either way, the pain from my injuries had started to fade and I was feeling quite content, so I leaned back in my chair and motioned to the barkeep for another. I glanced over at Quint who flashed me a concerned look, but I crossed my arms over my chest and countered with a mockingly sweet smile.
“And you Lady Valar-,” Lady Eira began.
“Nienna,” I replied, cutting her off. I wasn’t fond of being addressed by my last name. It sounded too formal and I was not one for formal, even after all of Rhys’ lessons on how to survive highborn society. I smiled to myself, remembering the endless lessons and the horrified look on my late friend Rhys’ face when I broke away from them.
“Oh,” Lady Eira said quietly. Her cold, blue eyes studied me and I could feel something crawl up my spine. There was something in her eyes when she looked at me that didn’t sit well. Once satisfied that I was serious, she nodded. “My apologies, Lady Nienna. Where are you from?”
I thanked the barkeep as he brought me a full mug of ale and cleared my empty one. “Here and there,” I replied.
“Oh,” the highborn lady replied as she cocked her head to the side and raised her delicate eyebrows. “You moved around much then?”
“I traveled quite a bit before settling in Lion’s Arch,” I explained before taking another drink of ale.
“Must have been nice not to have had any established roots,” she asked with a strange smile on her thin lips. “No family or friends to worry about.”
I froze, my grip on my ale mug growing tighter until my knuckles started to turn white. Did she know about my family, or was it just my ale-induced paranoia? “Excuse me?” I asked as I straitened myself.
“I’m sorry, I just assumed with all your traveling that you had no one keeping you home,” the lady explained as she smoothed the small folds of material on her lap. The dimples near her cheeks deepened as she smiled to herself. Then, she looked up at me, that same smile still on her lips. It made my skin start to crawl. “Freedom from liabilities. Freedom from accountability.”
“I just liked to travel is all,” I said simply, still clutching my ale mug with an iron grip and doing my best to keep a stoic expression.
She uttered an amused sound from behind her smile while regarding me with a knowing glance that lingered far longer than I liked. I could feel her icy stare try to burrow its way into my thoughts. The invasiveness sent chills down my spine, and I looked away, instead focusing on calming my racing pulse. My concentration was not nearly as sharp as it usually was. Maybe the ale wasn’t such a good idea after all.
“I think sometimes people just like to travel, to see the world,” Quint said, putting himself back into the conversation, and I flashed him a thankful glance. “I don’t necessarily think that everyone who travels is avoiding or hiding something. I did a fair amount of traveling in my younger years only because I wanted to see as much of Tyria as I could.”
Her attention moving back to Quint, the lady forced a smile. “Of course,” was all she said.
The conversation tapered off after that. I assumed Lady Eira had grown bored of the topic and instead changed it to a discussion about the local weather and how horrid all the snow was. I took another drink of ale. I was much happier observing, rather than participating, at this point. The less I spoke, the safer I felt, especially with all the ale I had consumed. Almost a full two mugs in and I could already start to feel it try to loosen my tongue.
“Well,” Lady Eira began as she stood. The movement was just as graceful as when she sat down. It looked almost unearthly to my wavering gaze. “It’s getting late and I’m sure Aedan will be wondering where I am, so if you’ll excuse me, I’ll leave you two to your evening. Good night.”
I managed to smile and offered a polite nod while Quint rose from his chair as the highborn lady left.
“I don’t like her,” I said quietly as Quint settled back down into his chair. A gentle snoring was now coming from under the table. Michi had not stirred during out conversation with Lady Eira, and frankly I was surprised. She seemed to not really care for me, surely she would have at least hissed in Lady Eira’s general direction.
“What exactly do you not like?” Quint asked.
I waved to the barkeep for another ale, despite a small voice in the back of my head, telling me it may not be a good idea. As the tall norn made his way toward us with a full ale mug, Quint leaned in towards me.
“Are you sure about that? This is your third one and you’re not much of a drinker,” he tried to warn me, but I waved him off and shook my head.
“After the night I’ve had–,” I let my words trail off as the barkeep set the full mug in front of me and cleared the empty one.
“Alright,” he began with a smirk as he pulled away, “far be it from me to be telling the lady commander what to do.”
I countered his sarcastic comment with a playful glare and took a drink from the new mug. It was cold and crisp, but warmed my throat and belly. That heat spread all throughout my body, and I sat back in my chair, content once again. It was an odd feeling, not feeling in complete control of my faculties, but yet I didn’t seem to care, and I couldn’t tell if that was me or the ale talking.
“Back- to the lady,” I said, my words starting to slur, “something’s off about her. Something in her eyes.” With a wavering index finger, I pointed to my own eyes. “She knows something, I think. Gives me the creeps.”
“Something seemed a little off to me too,” he confessed, “but I don’t think it’s anything other than just being a highborn. They seem to operate in a totally different world most of the time.”
I shrugged. “Maybe.” Though, I wasn’t entirely convinced, but I let it go for the moment. The ale was quite helpful in that regard.
Quint and I sat in silence as I enjoyed my ale and watched the snowflakes fall, blanketing Cragstead in a fresh coating of snow. It was beautiful. So peaceful, so serene. I wished time would stop for a while, just so I could sit and enjoy this for longer than I knew it would last. But time kept moving, whether I liked it or not, and I had responsibilities to take care of.
“You haven’t touched your ale,” I pointed out.
He chuckled and stretched his long legs under the table, careful not to kick Michi. “Oh, I think you’ve had enough for the both of us.”
I smiled lazily and shrugged. “Debatable,” I said.
My eyelids started to grow heavy and my bed was calling. I took one more long pull of ale, set the mug down, and pushed myself up from my chair. The whole world around me lurched and started to spin. I quickly sat back down, thankful I landed on my chair and not the floor.
A hearty chuckle filled the air, and I looked over to find Quint laughing, the mirth reaching his steely-grey eyes. I glared at him and leaned forward as I gripped the table to steady myself.
“You dare laugh at your lady commander,” I said as sternly as I could, but a smile broke through the serious façade I tried so hard to keep plastered on my face.
We shared a good laugh together.
“It appears– I may have had too much,” I announced.
Pushing back his chair, Quint stood up and offered me a hand. “It appears so. Here, let me help you back.”
Using his arm to steady myself, I managed to get to my feet and we made our way around the other tables and back to Rugnar’s steading. It was quiet inside, except for the crackling sound of the main fire pit and the occasional snore from a patron. Reaching for the privacy screen in front of my bed, I tried pushing it back, but it started to tip over. Quint swiftly reached out and caught it before it fell to the floor, but nearly dropped me. I stumbled, but managed to catch myself as I stifled a giggle. The responsible part of me who had been shoved so far back in my brain at that time, was thankful no one else was around to see me in this state.
My memory of getting to my bed from the screen was a little fuzzy, but I do remember the softness of the bed and the relief my body felt to finally be laying down. I rolled onto my back, pushing back messy strands of red hair from my face and smiled up at Quint. I closed my eyes for a moment. There was a gentle rocking in the darkness that started to lull me into sleep, but I fought against it for a moment and opened my heavy eyes as he draped a blanket over me.
“I just want it to be over,” I said, the words coming out out barely above a whisper, despite how hard I worked to get them out.
“What’s that,” he asked as he sat next to me on the bed.
“Everything– the blade. I want it done,” I said. “I don’t want anyone to hurt anymore.”
Quint leaned in closer and said something in response, but by then, my heavy eyes had finally closed and I let sleep take me.