Cullen found Mayor Thurston at the noisy lumbermill going over a shipping agreement. The mage noisily cleared his throat and the man hailed him, then returned to his assistant. Cullen’s eyes flicked toward the sweaty workers hauling logs off the wagons to cut into boards. The men’s biceps bulged. The saws bit into wood and the water tumbled in the mill. The air was thick with the scent of cut wood and sawdust. Thurston’s assistant turned and left. Thurston greeted Cullen.
“There’s our town hero! Back from your adventure?”
He sighed. He had the strangest feeling it wasn’t halfway done yet. “Yes and no,” he said slowly. “I found the rider…”
Cullen made a helpless gesture. “The aldri rider was alive and I convinced her to come back with me,” he said, his voice low.
Thurston frowned. “Let’s step into my office.”
The mayor’s office at the mill was a sweltering closet of a room with a desk and little else. A pair of bluebottle flies trickled in on the meager breeze from the open window.
Thurston swiped a sweaty brow on the back of his wool sleeve and turned to Cullen. “What’s this about the rider?”
He sighed. “Her... name is ‘Lily’. She wants her mule back so she can beg the College to put down the Border,” he explained, batting at one of the flies. “She has it in her head that we are responsible for it.”
“Couldn’t be,” he objected. “We lost thousands that day! We—”
Cullen sighed. “So did they.” The obstinate fly landed on his sleeve. “I was there. Anyway, they’re having many of the same problems we are. And… the Border is spreading on their side too.” He swatted at the fly and missed.
The mayor tapped his fingers on the desk. “The weed war was a long time ago. There’s no need to make a fuss over it now.” He frowned. “It’s not like we said none of ‘em could travel in Shalot. No laws about that.” He bit his lip. A fly landed on his collar. “We can give her back the mule. No need to escalate tensions. If they sent her, she might be important; we don’t want another war. I’ll write to the College about her peculiar arrival and… Why, to the Lord Crosby—might be important.”
“Should we wait for a reply?”
“Yes, quite. Shouldn’t be long. I’ll draft the letter immediately.” The mayor bustled out and Cullen strode behind him. “She can stay... There’s a garden… They’re plants, right?”
“More or less.” The flies zipped in the air between them.
“No need for her to frighten the villagers. We lost a lot during the war. Wouldn’t want something unfortunate to happen. Why don’t you go sort out your pay with Jarvis while I write this letter?”
Cullen’s eyes narrowed at the fly. He twitched his fingers in the symbol for fire. The fly burned to a husk and fell. “Fine idea.” Cullen was in a perfect mood to deal with Jarvis.
Jarvis rubbed his temples. “I said ‘no’.”
“Half the town knows!” Reverend Marshall bawled.
“Hearsay and rumors! You’d have me execute a man on hearsay? I thought you were above gossip, Reverend.”
The man’s face turned righteously red. “It’s true. He…”
“Have you witnessed Rennell’s activities yourself?”
Marshall’s face was as crimson as a cardinal’s sleeves. “No.”
“Then it’s gossip. Find me proof. I won’t execute a national hero on gossip.”
The man’s fists balled. “I am a man of piety! I wouldn’t dare make such an accusation—”
“Evidence, Reverend. Is that all?” The cedar door slammed on his way out. If Cullen could only try to be a little more discreet, Jarvis wouldn’t have every hyper-religious wackadoo in the village wanting to execute him. Cullen called it extortion; Jarvis called it hazard pay. Whatever it was, it had long-since bred animosity.
The door creaked open. Cullen’s head poked through. “Jarvis?”
He sighed like tired dog. “I have the rest of your coin. You find ‘im?”
“Her,” he corrected. “Alive, no less.”
He snorted. “Interesting.” He tossed the bag on the table. Cullen swiped it, waving on his way out. He grinned knowingly at the reverend as he passed, who returned a sneer. Cullen’s grin grew wider.
Two pigeons left the rookery and Thurston came huffing and puffing down the stairs from the belltower. “Now, let’s see to our guest. Lily, was it?”
“Yes,” Cullen said, as if resigned.
Mayor Thurston followed him to where he had left the aldri, only to find her gone. He swore. “Lily!” he shouted. Thurston frowned. “Lily!”
Cullen looked one way, then another. In the stillness, children shouted.
“Fuck.” He walked briskly toward the sound. Thurston plodded behind him. “I think she wandered off—she’s very… flighty.”
He stopped at a field where children played with a ball, divided into teams. Sure enough, there was Lily. Children didn’t care that she looked like a plant and was different from them; they just wanted to play.
Cullen called to Lily. She looked at him, but she was playing a game she judged to be more important. Thurston called to the children instead. Slowly, the kids stopped. One picked up the ball and everyone looked at the mayor.
Thurston walked toward them. “What’s this now?”
The children swarmed around Lily like bees surrounding their queen. “Lily is our friend,” a little boy answered.
“Yeah! She’s our friend,” the sentiment echoed.
The mayor put up a hand. “I just want to talk to her and greet our new guest.”
The mayor’s daughter, Babs, took Lily’s hand. “Papa, Lily didn’t do anythin’—”
“Of course not, dear. I was going to invite her to stay with us.”
The girl brightened. “Oh, Lily! We have the prettiest little garden. And a pond. And—”
Lily’s fingers rested on Babs’ slender shoulder. “This one would love to see it.”
Babs beamed. “‘Course! We can—” She glanced at her father. “Uh. We can play later?”
The children resumed their game and Lily approached the adults. “You’re the… may-or that Cullen was getting?” She frowned. He didn’t look like a Cullen-kind; his skin was more wrinkled and didn’t have the blue and gold marks Cullen’s had, the fur on his head was different, and he was so round! He must be a different sort of human.
“Yes, ma’am. Mayor Thurston.” He extended a hand. Lily frowned at it. His hand dropped. “What brings you to Millcreek?”
She smiled. “It’s such a lovely town. It’s a good place.” Thurston was pleased to hear it. Cullen’s lips curled as if he could argue the point. “Cullen said that you have this one’s mule—may she be returned? This one really needs to be on the way soon—it’s very important.”
He bobbed his head. “Quite right! Well. I sent a letter to the College already for you—Rennell told me you’ve been having some trouble?”
The mayor gestured at the spellsword. “Cullen Rennell.”
Lily’s eyes raked over Cullen like a comb through fine hair. Humans made no sense! It’s bad enough you can’t tell each other apart so you have to name one another like dogs, but then you have to have two names because one isn’t enough! She sighed miserably. “Oh, yes. We’ve been under a draught for such a long time—There’s nothing in Aldrika so green as these forests. It’s beautiful.”
She wanted to tell them everything there was to know, to pass on what information she knew so bits of her memory could dwell with them. She wanted them to know that their home was special, but humans didn’t seem as able to grasp these concepts as she had first hoped. Undeterred, she had to try.
Cullen fought a desire to scream. How could everyone not act hostile to her? Why was there no prejudice? He trailed behind as the children showed her through town, worried out of his mind that someone would react violently. She was so innocent, so childlike—how could he not worry?
The man had yelped, as if in pain. Rennell, you’d worry about someone even as they tried to gouge out your pretty chocolate eyes, a lieutenant whispered somewhere in Cullen’s memory, the other man under him. Cullen had nuzzled against him, concerned he had hurt him. Stupid—in the middle of a damned war, and there he had been, worried he had hurt… It hadn’t mattered; the lieutenant’s throat had been cut the next day by a cheerful aldri.
Everyone who saw her was at first frightened or suspicious, then only charmed by her childlike nature and wonder. It was simply impossible to consider her threatening.
She happily listened to Reverend Marshall speak and asked questions; she wanted to know everything. She watched the mill workers. Cullen thought she would be appalled at how they logged the trees, but she only had more questions: What it was for and why? How does it work? Who thought of it? How do you make it?
Lily said it was exciting that they had so many uses for nature’s bounty, from houses to equipment to weapons. She looked at the fields and vegetable gardens. She explored the bakeries, sweet shop, parlors, and barns.
She was understanding that Shalot had different customs than Aldrika and even enjoyed learning them, so she therefore was disappointed, but not overmuch, that she had to wait for a pigeon to return from Lord Crosby. Cullen was relieved, actually. To his own surprise, he didn’t want to see her executed on a pyre.
The mage sat on a worm-eaten fence, watching her help the women with the washing. Lily enjoyed being in the water.
He glanced up as Jarvis approached, scowled, and looked back at Lily.
The old wooden fence groaned under the Jarvis’ weight as he leaned against it. “That’s an aldri, huh?”
Cullen grunted. Lily bounded beside an older woman, carrying baskets of freshly washed and wet laundry, listening to the tale end of a story. The woman finished it as they passed the gate, laughing. Lily waved and ran up to Cullen.
“This place is amazing!” she said, scrambling on the fence beside him, then peered at Jarvis. “Hello—Have we met?”
She had full lips, the greenest eyes he had ever seen. What passed for hair slipped over her small shoulder. She didn’t have the swell of hips or breasts that would mark a human woman—Jarvis assumed that, perhaps, she didn’t have those parts for a reason—but she was distinctly female. “No. I’m Jarvis.”
“Meeting you is a joy.”
He frowned—he had never heard the phrase before. “You... too. I’m the captain of the guard. You have any problem, you let me know, miss.”
She smiled up at him. “Oh, sure. But everyone has been so nice, it hasn’t been any trouble at all.”
“Glad to hear you’re enjoying our little town.”
“Very much! Oh, this one’s mule was being kept at a stable?”
He offered a hand to help her down. She accepted. “I’ll show her to you. Hazel’s been takin’ good care of her.”
Cullen crossed his arms stubbornly. He slid from the fence, kicking a stone idly as he trailed far behind the pair.
By the time he had caught up, Hazel was opening the fence to let Lily into the corral. Her mule perked up at the sight of its mistress. Cullen yawned.
“I can walk her to Thurston’s. You don’t need to stay,” Jarvis told Cullen, his abrasive tone conveying insults not found in his words.
Cullen blinked slowly. “Suppose I do have some cocks to suck.”
Jarvis shuddered, gagging at the thought impulsively. “Fucking faggot,” he spat. A grim satisfaction split Cullen’s lips in a humorless grin at how easily Jarvis was goaded.
What did that degenerate want with Lily? He trailed after her like he was expecting her to do something vile and wanted to catch her in the act. The most vile thing around here was Rennell himself. Of course, the man was a veteran from the Aldrikan Offensive; he had faced aldri in battle before. Of course, a lot of people had died--but that was war. The mage must be up to something.
A gaggle of small children followed Lily in single file as she marched confidently forward over a log. They chattered with questions and comments in a way that the adults had, for some reason, learned to curb. Perhaps the adults simply did not have the same questions, or any questions—why? Did adult humans stop having thoughts? That was a question too dark to ponder.
Lily jumped down and the children mimicked her in turn. A boy slipped and she dashed to catch him. He started to cry, but Lily laughed and told him that laughing would make the pain fade. She took his hand as they walked and she explained the different trees and flowers. The children asked her questions about them, what they did, how they grew, what they said when she told them they spoke. Imagine her surprise to hear that humans did not hear them too!
More strange, she found that humans could not understand animals the same way. Had humans branched off differently than aldri? Were they not so close to their fauna kin as aldri were to flora?
Millcreek appeared ahead—she spotted the mill first, but let one of the children announce it. She tossed an early spring cherry to the girl as a treat. The girl caught it, stuffing it into her mouth. Babs took her other hand. “I’m so glad…” Babs struggled. “This one is so glad you get to stay with me!” she said, lapsing once more. “It’s almost dinnertime—I’m hungry.”
“Tell us how you eat, Lily!” another child said.
“She already did, stupid.”
“I’m not stupid! I just—This one just wants to hear it again, fart-face.”
“Hey,” Lily said, commanding their attention. “None of that now.” She smiled, stopping at the field. She let go of the childrens’ hands to show them the roots on her toes. She pushed them out and they burrowed into the soil. “Aldri have roots in our toes like a flower.” She knelt to touch the petals of a daisy gently. “They are retractable—that means they hide in aldri’s toes—until they are needed.”
“Like cat’s claws?” a girl asked, remembering Lily’s own analogy.
Lily gave her a cherry. “Yes, exactly. Now, this one can’t get all the necessary nutrients from the soil.” She touched the soil. “The soil has many good things, but it doesn’t have sunlight.” She pointed at the sky, away from the Border. The children’s eyes followed where she pointed. “Who remembers why?”
A boy raised his hand. “Because it’s warm?”
She smiled, handing him a berry. “That too. What else?”
More hands raised. She pointed to a shy boy who normally didn’t speak up. He blushed furiously, but said, “The sun has nutrients you can’t get from the soil.”
“Right. Just like you eat meat and vegetables.” She gave him the last cherry.
A child asked, “Lily, is it okay that we eat vegetables?”
She laughed. “Yes, of course, silly. Speaking of which, it’s almost suppertime. Babs, can you lead the way back?”
Babs, delighted, showed Lily the way home. She waved to Cullen, sitting alone in the field under a sycamore tree, a book cradled in his lap. He was always alone and—she thought—lonely. Her fingers drifted from Babs’ hand. “You go on alone, Babs. This one wants to talk to Cullen.”
Babs frowned, her hands clasped behind her small back. “Why?”
“To make friends.”
Babs looked askance at Cullen, who was ignoring them. She looked up at Lily. “But why? He’s a drunk. Daddy says he did a lot of good things in the past, but now he’s been trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?’
The girl’s face screwed into a frown. “I don’t un’erstand very well, but he got kicked out of his house a long time ago.”
She smiled. “All the more reason he needs a friend. Go on.” Babs hesitated, but her stomach gurgled and she trotted off.
Lily bounded up to Cullen. Her shadow darkened the pages of his book. His brow twitched. The silence reigned. Humans were strange. “Hi, Cullen.”
“Lily,” he said.
She frowned. “What are you reading?”
She plopped down beside him, scrambling to look over his shoulder. “Everyone lived happily ever after—the end,” she said.
He sighed. “No. It’s a history book. About the Dekamelian War.”
She frowned. “But the book has an ending, doesn’t it?”
He took a long breath and said, “Technically, history doesn’t really end, Lily. And wars never really end happily in any case.”
That sounded like philosophy, which aldri had little use for. “What?”
He shook his head. “Nothing—nevermind.”
“Why do you only like morbid things?”
She frowned. “Seems like you do.” She untied the string from her arm and fixed it around her fingers like he showed her. “Can you do the cat’s cradle again?”
He reluctantly set the book aside and pulled himself up to his knees. “My sister played this with me, when I was little,” he commented dryly as he laced his fingers in the string. “Now, take your hand and… You didn’t forget at all, did you?”
She smiled as they wove the string into shapes and bent it around their fingers. They laughed when one of Lily’s long fingers became tangled. “Can this one start?” He guessed the next step. “Do you like Millcreek?”
She paused. “Are you always so lonely?”
She frowned. “Are you always alone?”
“I’m not that either.”
“Looked alone,” she chimed. “Is it because you’re different from everyone else?”
He paused. “What makes you think that?”
She shrugged. “Well, your skin is blue. You look different.”
“It’s a tattoo—I’m the only mage. Of course I’m the only one with it.”
She nodded. “Do you have a lot of siblings?”
“What do you want, Lily?”
She smiled. “To see you happy,” she said honestly.
He stared at her. Plenty of people had said that to him, but none of them understood what being happy would mean for him—it would mean impossible things. She wished him well and didn’t mean for him to accept the world as it was and become “normal” like everyone else. Why did this weed mean something so much kinder than his fellow humans?
They untangled the string from their fingers and she wound it back around her arm. “Thanks for playing,” she said, “This one hopes you find whatever you’re looking for.”
“I’m not looking—”
“We’re all looking for something, Cullen,” she said gently. She left him in the shade of the sycamore tree as the sun sank into the Border.