My eyes wandered down to my left hand, where they came to rest on the stripe-shaped shadow around my ring finger. The skin was darker and depressed in the place where my wedding rings usually sat. I had taken them off the night before and left them on my bed-stand, as my fingers would sometimes swell up when I slept.
Now, I may never put those rings back on again.
There were a million thoughts racing through my mind, accusations and swears and screams, eventually achieving singularity by melding into a single, giant question: Why?
I didn’t want to go to the funeral anymore. I didn’t want to look at Malcolm’s face or talk to him. I just wanted to go back home and fall asleep, waking up the next day and realizing this was all a bad dream.
This world was real though, as real as anything I had experienced back home, and I had known that on a deep, visceral level the second I had opened my eyes back on the beach. I could taste the salt in the air, feel the brush as other people shouldered past me like clockwork as they retraced steps of what were probably daily routines, smell the scent of spiced meat cooking in vats of bubbling broth, wafting over from the street food stalls on the far side of the square.
I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around to find Ko’sa. “There you are,” she said, holding out some kind of shish-kebab for me to take. The skewer was piled high with cubes of slightly burnt meat, cheese, and a variety of brightly colored peppers. “Thought I’d lost you for a second.”
“Yeah, I got distracted.” Starving, I took the stick and dug my teeth into the nearest piece of food, which happened to be a pepper the color of a firetruck. Ko’sa’s eyes widened as she watched me devour it. “You’re a brave one Miss Jill. Not even Dalt will touch those buggers.”
At once it hit me, a burning so intense that I nearly choked. As I began to cough and hack, pure, unadulterated heat spread from the back of my throat, across my tongue and up through my sinuses like wildfire. My eyes began to water, the scene of the square now swimming behind tears.
“Water,” was the only word I could manage but Ko’sa was already pressing a gold coin into the palm of my hand, fighting back a fit of laughter.
“Go buy yourself a drink then, miss.”
My eyes scanned the square for anything that resembled a bar. There was a stand close by with barrels and casks piled up high behind it. I sprinted over to the stand and slapped the coin down on the counter. A disinterested server was bent over examining a scroll inscribed with some type of figures. I was the only person at the stand, but he did not acknowledge my presence.
“Water. Please,” I whispered to him.
The man rolled up the scroll and looked up at me. His smooth skin was the color of caramel, and he wore a dark crimson robe embroidered with a Golden “X” in the center. His eyes swept over me, two dark paint drops floating in pools of pale yellow. “Does this look like the type of place that sells water, you Outsider hick?” He pointed over to a trough in the corner where a couple of horses were feeding. “You want water, then go drink over there with the rest of your kind.”
I felt Ko’sa’s arm loop around mine as my face continued to sweat profusely, running in rivulets from my forehead down to the neck of my shirt. “Her mistake, she’ll be leaving. I’ll have a house ale.”
“No, friends of Outsiders can’t drink here. Take your business somewhere else.”
Dalton stepped up next to us, his hulking shadow enveloping the smaller server in darkness. His thick beard was speckled with bits of meat and cheese. “Then I’ll take a house ale.” He stroked his beard for a minute as he thought. “Make it two actually. And mine’s free. City Guard tax, innit?”
The man looked back up at him. “Don’t be ridiculous. There’s no such thing as a City Guard tax, and I have the right to refuse service to anyone.”
“You going to make me reach across that counter and pour the drinks myself? Dare you to stop me, you little twit.”
I was beginning to feel lightheaded from the heat of the food, to the point where I suspected I might faint. I turned away from the argument and closed my eyes, withdrawing into a world defined by burning, ceaseless pain. The server must have conceded, because a second later a tin cup sloshing with a frothy amber liquid was pushed into my hands.
Without hesitation, I inhaled the thick, bitter ale as fast as I could keep it down. Every few seconds I would come back up for air, waiting until the momentary recession of heat began to resurface from the corners of my mouth, at which point I would resume.
Dalton clapped me on the back, the force of his hand knocking me forward a few steps. “Easy now. Drink that slowly, Outsiders have trouble handling the spirits in the capital; stronger than most.”
Finally, the cup was empty and the heat had been reduced from an unbridled firestorm to a lingering discomfort. I could already feel a buzz from behind my eyes, the beginning effects from the strong alcohol.
“Thanks,” I said. “What the hell was that all about?”
Dalton turned to Ko’sa. “Where do you find these loons, Ko? First it was the one that had all the weird crap to sell, now you got an Outsider that tries to pick a fight with a Genelda?”
“I wasn’t trying to pick a fight with anyone!” I said. “I was just trying to buy a drink. What is he talking about? What’s a Genelda?”
Ko’sa gave me a look that a parent gives a child before explaining why it’s a bad idea to touch a hot stove. “The Genelda have been around for ages; the ones wearing the red robes. They hate Outsiders more than anything else in the world. Best if you avoid that lot from now on, yeah?”
Dalton was less subtle; he looked at me like I was an idiot. “Is she serious? What are they teachin’ these people back in their homeland? Hope you remember this little incident the next time you threaten to raise prices on me, Ko.” He handed me a few coins, a mix of silver and copper. “Here, your change.”
I held the coins up close to my eyes, trying to determine the denomination of each one. Instead, I found a familiar face grinning back at me. “They even put his stupid face on your currency?” I said, examining the small copper engraving of my husband. Then quietly to myself, “What is he, Abraham Freaking-Lincoln?”
“Course they did,” Dalton said. “Most famous face in the country.”