A few months ago I got a prompt offered on Tumblr of “How did you meet?” and I applied it to my (current) favourite friendship I’ve written: Merry and Lior from the Guardian Cadet Series. I posted the first draft to Tumblr (here if you want to compare) and decided, since it’s the anniversary of Release Day for Merry Arlan: Breaking The Curse (technically yesterday, but I post on Thursdays, so we continue) I thought I might give it a re-vampt and share it here.
*Merry doesn’t want to be a bartender, not really, but she’s going to give her new job her all anyway. After all, she has no idea what she wants from life, she’s barely registered that she’s allowed to want things at all. And, anyway, it’s not safe to want things when you’re terrified of being found by the people you’re hiding from. At least the spell-singer at the bar is friendly.*
The relative quiet of the now closed bar burned in my ears. Spell-singer silenced, bustle of patrons dissipated, just me and the other staff members left. As far as first ever attempts at doing a job I’d never even heard of before went, I thought I’d done pretty well. My feet ached, exhaustion stooped my shoulders, but it matched the other black-clothed people left behind: the late shift staff.
The shields on the stage lowered, deactivated by the spell-singer. Xyr costume sparkled in the low lights, shining sequins reflecting rainbows of light onto every available surface as xe hopped off the stage, not bothering to shift around backstage first.
Xe wore xyr forward-pointed ears proudly, hair pulled away from them by a set of jewelled hair clasps that matched xyr costume, all silver glitter and shining gems. What would it be like to have confidence, pride even in one’s heritage like that? I tugged self-consciously at the end of one of the pair of plaits that hung down over my shoulders. A carefully curated hairstyle to keep it out of my face, but also to cover the tips of my ears.
I tried to pull the gathered tables into some semblance of the order they had been in before the huge group of customers had dragged them together.
“There’s lines on the floor,” the spell-singer pointed out.
“Thanks,” I muttered, fingers digging into the unyielding wood of the table top as I yanked it into its proper place, setting the chairs around it into the positions as designated by the floor lines.
The spell-singer shifted around to the back of the bar, I opened my mouth to call out, to ask xem what xe was doing but closed it again. What was I going to say? What if this was a regular part of the arrangement? Maybe drinks were included as part of the payment for spell-singers.
But, then again, what if they weren’t? What if this spell-singer was thieving? Xe seemed young. Too young to drink? Who was I to talk about someone’s youth, though? I hardly looked like the kind of person who could tend a bar. Maybe xe was just fresh faced.
Was it any of my business what xe did? Was I supposed to stop xem at all?
While I was still frozen, contemplating whether to call out to the spell-singer or not xe reappeared with a bucket and cloth in hand. I watched as xe trekked back across the main floor toward the stage and started wiping down the tables nearest the stage.
At the lack of noise of my dragging tables and chairs back into their proper places, the spell-singer glanced over xyr shoulder and wiggled, sending shimmering rainbows across my face. “Just looking or did you have some kind of plan?”
Heat rushed into my face and burned in my ears. I ducked my head, recklessly dragging a chair into its place, sending another clattering thunderously to the floor. I flinched away from the noise, expecting the yell, the snap, the punishment for such reckless, thoughtless behaviour. But it didn’t come.
I had been rude – shameful – and ridiculous. Just because xe was attractive. Wait. What was I thinking? I didn’t want– I couldn’t start thinking about– I was on the run! This whole job was a disaster waiting to happen and the spell=singer noticing my attention at all just went to show how bad of an idea it was.
My breath racketed up my throat, scraping like it was being frozen as it moved, a thousand tiny ice crystals tearing my insides to shreds.
I should leave. Just abandon my post. Go back to Arlan and tell him it wasn’t going to work. Pack up the few possessions I’d managed to accumulate and leave.
But where was I going to go? Shima was the only place someone like me could blend in.
“Are you okay?” the spell-singer asked. Xe had stood up, bucket and cloth abandoned on the table.
I reached for the chair I had knocked over, my hands trembling furiously.
“I can do that,” the spell-singer offered. “I’ve done it a thousand times already, I don’t even need the lines. You’re welcome to wipe down the tables instead. It’s an easier job for your first closing night.”
I looked over at the spell-singer again. A soft, cautious smile curved the corners of xyr mouth. Gentle.
I nodded, equally cautious.
“I’m Lior, by the way,” xe said in passing, scooping up the chair like it was the easiest thing in the world.
I tiptoed over to the abandoned bucket.
“I take it you’re Merry?”
My heart leapt into my throat. “How did…?”
“Mama told me we have a new provisional bartender, so I figured it was you.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, pressing the wet cloth into the nearest table without thought. Keeping myself from sagging in relief.
Of course. Xe worked here, xe would have heard about my starting. And anyway, there was no chance anyone searching for me would be using the name Merry rather than Meredith, so the panic was really foolish. If only I could tell that to my rabbit-fast heartbeat.
The skitter of chair legs on a wooden floor. “Seriously, are you okay?”
“Just tired, I think,” I lied.
“You can leave, if you want. Everyone else always does.”
“Oh yeah. Any day I’m working they all fuck off as soon as the customers are gone and leave me to deal with all the clean-up by myself.”
“That doesn’t seem fair.”
“That’s what being the boss’ kid gets you.”
“The boss’ kid?”
Xe offered a tight smile. “Liorellion Folcs, Lior by preference. Spell-singer and all around ‘can you do this’ lug for the entire bar.”
“Merry,” I said pointlessly, xe had already known that. “Provisional bartender and at a loss on the regular.”
Lior’s laugh chimed something in me, residual spell-singing magic pinging off my own instinctive skills in that area.
A smile pressed at my lips, a strange feeling in recent years.
Xe covered xyr mouth. “Sorry, didn’t mean to include the magic.”
I shrugged and dunked the cloth into my soapy bucket. “It happens.”
“You’re a spell-singer too?”
“By nature more than training.”
“You planning on applying to the Five Towers too? Professor Sorenson is a master of spell-singing; I am so desperate for her to accept me as a student.”
“I… um… haven’t decided,” I hedged. Applying to the Five Towers. That would require a real identity, not a poorly forged one. And tying myself into this life: Shima, Arlan, the bar – for at least as long as it took to graduate. Not to mention, if I did have to run again, I’d have no proof of study after the fact. New identities to forge and all that.
On the other hand, if I could get my magic under control, perhaps I’d have half a chance of succeeding if I did have to run again. Or at least some kind of skill-set I could offer up. Not that I was about to become a performer. That was far too much attention for me, even before I had left my old life behind. I glanced at the sparkling costume Lior wore and then down at my own over-sized black shirt and trousers. Not exactly a compatible look.
“That’s fair. My plans don’t go much further than graduation. Actually, my plans mostly include the application right now.” Lior sighed.
We finished cleaning up in silence, Lior dipping back behind the bar at one point to grab a second bucket and cloth for the tables. We poured the dirty water down the sink and hung the cloths to dry during the day.
Lior showed me where to store the buckets in the back room then hesitated by the stairs. “Do you have someone to walk you home?”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
“It’s pretty late – well, early.”
“If you walk me there, we’ll just be in this position when we get there.”
“Right…” Lior sighed. “Thanks for sticking around and helping clean up.”
I nodded. No need to point out that the other people not doing it were ignoring duties set out by the boss. It would just make xem feel worse about the fact that such duties always ended up on xyr shoulders.
“If—um—you ever want to talk about spell-singing or anything I… well, I live upstairs.”
I nodded again, slowly this time. “I’ll keep it in mind.”
I dipped out the back door, the cool night air washing over me in an odd combination of too-cold and utter relief.
When I asked my wife to help me develop this from its original version into this veriosn she left me a note I wanna share: “And then more things happen because they are cute and ittle bittle smushies to press together in friend hugs and make happy noises with!”
But if you want to see the friendship between Lior and Merry at it’s ultimate heights, you can read it in Merry Arlan: Breaking The Curse
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