There are few certainties in life, but one of them is this: No matter the culture, setting, time period, ethnicity, or even dimension, everybody shares a mutual hatred for waiting in lines.
As we neared the capital, the scene materialized before us. First the barrier surrounding the city: a tall, cream colored brick wall topped by a spiked fence. The once white bricks had yellowed over time, the discoloration starting at the bottom and creeping its way towards the spikes on top like untreated enamel. In front of it was a queue of travelers that seemingly stretched for miles, starting from the clay road and trailing down the right side of the wall off into the distance.
“Bugger that,” Ko’sa said as she eyed the procession of irritated faces caught in the stationary line. “Come on, we’re going to cut.”
My gaze followed the line to the front, where a heavily armored patrol-man was barking at a young couple who appeared to be next to enter the city. The intensity of the interrogation had left the woman in tears, while the husband continued a heated discussion with the guard, both faces flushed with anger. “Um Ko’sa, I don’t think they want us to-”
Ko’sa was already walking past the gate entrance and down the length of wall, to the left away from the line. “Don’t worry, I know a guy. I bet he could get us in if we play our cards right. If you see a guard named Dalton, holler at him.”
To the left of the road, I could see a row of stalls with brightly colored tarp roofs tucked up against the city wall. They clustered together to form a narrow makeshift alley, from which I could hear singing, laughing and the clinking of mugs. “How am I supposed to know what this Dalton looks like?”
“Look for any guards near the pop-up bazaars,” she said. “It’s illegal to sell goods and drink right outside the gate like this, but some of the guards turn a blind eye during festivals, long as you grease their pockets a bit.” She smiled as people jostled past us, sloshing cold beer on our feet as they did so. “’Specially Dalton. Rules with an iron fist, that one. I’d bet my next haul he runs this section of the wall.”
We began to weave through the bazaar. It smelled like stale beer and sweat mixed with a few other recognizable scents that I cared even less for. Everyone we passed looked red in the face and had a drink in their hand. In the gaps between the stalls, my eye caught a line of men squared up against the wall, relieving themselves as if it were a trough. I quickly turned away. “Festivals? But I thought this was a funeral?”
Ko’sa shrugged. “Just another reason to gather and drink. For most common folk, it’s all the same. Our kind die all the time, and its not like any of them get a big fanfare.”
She had a point, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something callous – even mildly sinister – about treating a funeral like a celebration. I remembered the look of disgust that the Broken Prince had given the travelers camp before robbing us all blind.
No wonder he hates us all, I thought.
Ko’sa began to skip through the market; she was in a good mood. After all, she was convinced that we would be embarking on the adventure of a lifetime once the funeral concluded.
Me? Not so much. Two nights ago, I had written a diary entry about my anxiety caused by leaving our tax returns to the last minute. Today, if I were to write a new entry, it might go as follows:
Today has been a real doozy. For starters, I was violently thrown into a new dimension before this morning’s pot of coffee had even finished brewing. Since then, I’ve only gotten half a nights sleep, I haven’t showered in two days and am still wearing the same filthy pair of pajamas, my feet are killing me, my throat is sore from being choked out by the She-Hulk, my phone has been stolen, and oh yeah, I found out that my now missing husband has allegedly lived a thousand years without me, married another woman, and garnered some kind of cult-following during his meteoric rise into a controversial dictator of some random medieval kingdom that apparently specializes in raising big demon horses, all of this occurring in-between brushing his teeth and putting in his contacts and without him providing any kind of explanation to his own wife, save for one note consisting of a hastily scrawled sentence ending with a winky face.
I had also promised to take a stranger from a foreign world back home with me in exchange for helping me find my husband, even though I had no idea how to go back home myself.
It had never been my intention to lie to Ko’sa, but there had never been any choice. As long as the girl believed I could help her then I was valuable, and that leverage was the only chance I had to get myself out of this mess.
“Why me?” I had asked her, back in the forest. “I thought you told me that Outsiders come by often. What was it you said? That they usually arrive by ships?”
“Outsiders is any of you lot,” she explained. “There’s all different kinds. Really just means the ones that come that we can’t visit back.”
“Why can’t you visit them back?”
“Not sure. The people born here just can’t. Some of us sail out trying to find where the Outsiders come from, but once you cross the barrier you just end up hitting the other side of this land, like its one big circle. Most Outsiders arrive by sea, claiming to be from places we could never reach. You though, you’re a bit different. First one I met from Jack’s home. And Jack told us there was a way to travel between the two.”
I nodded. Jack -I had come to find out- was the name of the man from the wallet picture-roll. “How did you know I was from the same place as Jack?”
“It was obvious Miss Jill.” She pointed at my pajama bottoms, now caked with so much mud that the pattern was unrecognizable. “The clothes. He wears a shirt from the same cloth as you in the pictures. Never seen it anywhere else.”
“Oh. Plaid. Right.” I scratched my head and wondered how this day would have gone if my favorite pair of sweatpants – the ones with the fish prints – had not still been damp from the washing machine and left out to dry the night before.
“Oi, found him! Over here!”
I snapped back to the present to find Ko’sa waving at me. She was leaning against a plywood stall which was wobbling under her pressure and threatening to fold in on itself. A guard twice her size was talking with her, swaying in time with the stall. His skin was pink and sunburned, with a head shaved so closely that only a shadow of dark hair was visible. The bottom of his face was covered with a thick chestnut beard streaked with white, although he still looked to be in his mid thirties. Unlike most of the other men on patrol, he looked to be missing about half his armor: he was a helmet, both shoulder pieces, and one gauntlet short of a full set.
He smiled and held out a hand as I approached. As I grasped it, I caught a whiff of what smelled like strong mead, smoked meat and body odor. “Well look at this, Ko’s finally made a new friend. Nice to meet you Dalton, I’m beautiful.” He hiccuped. “Oh wait, that’s not right, I mean-”
“Been drinking much today, Dalt?” Ko’sa asked, shooting me a sideways grin.
“NO. You know us city guards aren’t allowed to drink on the job,” His head lolled from side to side on his neck like a rag-doll as he slurred his sentences. “So what can I do for you two lovely ladies today? Don’t s’pose you brought any more fish to sell me? Your father always gives me the best prices.”
“Not today,” Ko’sa said. “Need you to get us in to the city.”
“No problem,” he said, pointing back towards where we came from. “Queue’s over there. The really long one, hard to miss.”
Ko’sa didn’t move.
“Do you want me to explain how it works?” he asked. “You go all the way to the back of it and wait until its your turn, like a good little girl. ”
“Don’t be thick. We’re not waiting in that. Can’t you let us in your checkpoint?”
“Nah, it’s closed for the day.” He wiped his brow with the hand that was missing a gauntlet. “And if you don’t have anything to sell, then go away. I’m busy.”
“Clearly.” I heard glass break behind me as a fight broke out between two inebriated civilians over a piece of gold lying on the ground. Ko’sa put her hands on her hips and glared at the guard. “Ten fifty.”
He looked at her with unfocused eyes, pretending not to notice the fight. “Excuse me?”
“That’s the new price for a pound of fish from Pa.”
His eyes grew wide. “Come on Ko. I’m just trying to do my job here. You have to understand.”
“Ten fifty,” she said again.
“I heard you the first time. But I could get in a lot of trouble.” The three of us watched as two more men jumped into the fray. People began to cheer and throw bits of food and drink into the circle, howling with laughter. It had evolved into a full-on brawl.
“I thought we were friends. Are you really going to black-mail an honest, honorable-”
Dalton rolled his eyes. I could see his face was starting to turn purple with frustration. “Bloody hell. Alright fine, give me one second.”
He stomped past us, heading straight for the fight. His expression darkened into a glower and his eyes focused like lasers on the brawlers. It was as if all the booze in his bloodstream had evaporated out of his pores in that instant.
Ko’sa and I watched in awe as he pounced into the fray, now a mess of shoulders, elbows and garbled yells. A second later, he emerged from the pile, holding the original two perpetrators of the fight by their collars, one in each massive hand. He was sporting a bloody nose for his efforts.
He paused for a second to look at us, the men squirming in his grasp. “You two might as well make yourselves useful and go find me helmet while I deal with this. I’m not leaving without it.”