I got to thinking how customs and norms differ from Oberrot and Earth, especially around courtship. Did you know that walking arm in arm is quite acceptable between peers, but hand in hand indicates a serious relationship? As Gerlay says in Book 5, "Cultural differences are cultural difficulties sometimes." (And he has his share of cultural blunders in Book 5 too!)
But the one I want to share with you today comes from none other than our irascible, anxious apothecary, Aubin. Please enjoy this snippet, shared with you this Valentines Day. May you find favourable terms and fair, this day and always.
I dressed in clean Ranger uniform, and Gerlay in smart civilian clothes. “My apologies, I only brought two spares, both of which are being washed,” he explained.
“No problem, although we could have you kitted out with a Ranger rollout.” My shoulders fell. “I suppose that would have to wait until after the current crises, though.”
Walking up to the apartment, I held the hope that Evyn had found something useful. Small sparks of some kind of excitement or apprehension were emanating from her, thrumming down the bond between us. Upon opening the door, I was greeted with a delicious saccrine smell.
“Goodness, that smells divine,” I said, and Gerlay’s stomach growled.
“It’s this.” Evyn poked at a small, delicately decorated box on the counter. “It came for me just now.”
I whistled at the insignia on the lid. “That’s an expensive patisserie in the city, noble ladies go there all the time, it's very exclusive.” I was struck with a thought. “Evyn, maybe you should open it.”
“I was just thinking that. I don’t know who it’s from though, it doesn’t say.” Her face clouded, a hint of trepidation colouring the bond a sickly green, but then she shrugged. “Smells scrummy. Let’s see what it is, I bet it’ll go well with a cup of tea.”
Taking note of the hint, I put the saucepan on to boil when her scream sent me crashing back out, dashing into the living room. Evyn dropped the box to the floor with a splat, and Gerlay put himself between her and it, looking between them wildly.
“What’s the matter?” Aubin asked, running in through the door. “I heard a scream, what is it?”
“It’s… it’s a…” Evyn put her hands over her mouth. “It’s a heart!” She ran over to me, and I pulled her to my chest.
“It is?” Gerlay peered into the edges of the box. He grimaced. “That’s disgusting.”
“Uh. Let me check,” Aubin said, his ears bright pink. He scooped up the damaged box and opened it, surveying the contents.
He turned it toward us and Evyn flinched, burrowing her head into my chest.
Distress turned Aubin’s face pale. “It’s a heart shaped cake,” he said gently. “It’s not an actual human heart.” He gave me a heart wrenchingly beseeching look.
I peered in with mounting concern for what I would see, surveying the object . “It’s, uh, very cleverly done,” I said, mouth dry. “Very… anatomically accurate. See, Evyn?”
Evyn shook her head, clinging onto my arm. “It’s disgusting! Get it away from me.”
“Very well,” Aubin said forlornly. He rescued what he could of the cake and placed it on the counter, closing the box firmly .
Gerlay went to stand next to it. “Uh, is it…?” His stomach snarled again.
“You can have it,” Aubin said.
Evyn lowered her voice. “Thorrn, Aubin, can I have a quick word?”
“Of course,” I assured her. Whatever it was, Evyn would not bring it up unless it were important and pressing.
We piled into Aubin’s room, Aubin pulling out his chair for Evyn before sitting on the edge of his bed with me. The pair of us dipped the mattress alarmingly. The dark green soul jewel on his desk flickered to life and glowed serenely behind her, responding to Aubin and Tuniel’s bond. Thinking of her made my heart pang. Was this what Evyn wanted to broach with us?
I kept my hands open on my knees. “What’s the matter?” I asked.
She took a deep breath, hands pressed together. “I know now is not the time, but something really odd is happening, and it’s freaking me out,” she whispered.
I leant forward. “We’re listening. Whatever it is, we will help.”
Aubin nodded with agreement, fingers pressed over the bracers holding his Battlemistress blades against his forearms.
She rubbed her forehead. “Hopefully you can tell me I’m overreacting.” Reaching into her trouser pocket, she pulled out a handful of pages with a rustle. She handed one to me. “Last night, I got a pile of these. They are each separate messages, each from a different messenger. The first one was okay.”
I frowned at them, and she took the top one back to read it. “‘I like your eyes. They see everything there is to see,’” she said, raising an eyebrow at the end.
I felt Aubin die a little bit beside me.
She shrugged. “Like, fine, okay, a bit out of the ordinary. No sender, either, see?” She tapped at the bottom, where a signature should be. “So, I thought it might be a secret admirer, one that knows my name and doesn’t want to approach directly.
“The next one was about a turn of the glass later.” Again she pulled it back from me to read it to us, concentrating on that rather than Aubin frozen next to me. “‘I like your neck. It smells… nice.’” Her nose wrinkled. “Who is staring at my neck, and how do they know what it smells like?” She shivered. “The next one came hot on the heels of that one, saying, ‘I like your hands. They are very expressive.’”
“I… Uh…” Aubin sounded like he was trying to get his tongue to work.
“I know, right? They stopped after that, so I put it to the back of my mind and didn’t mention it, except then I get this one this morning.” She pulled it out and read aloud, voice braver sat next to us, “‘I like your heart. It’s open and true.’” She slammed it down. “And then I get a heart in a box. Okay. So. I’m officially freaked out.”
“I, uh…” Aubin’s ears were flaming red now. He reached for the pile of messages, then shoved his hands under his seat.
Evyn offered them back to me. “I went to the messenger station this morning but they won’t give details of the senders, not without codes from Special Forces. Next time you’re around there, can either of you pop in and get the details for me?”
“Sure…” I said, looking directly at Aubin.
He stared at the floor between her feet.
Evyn smiled with relief. “Thanks. That’ll be a weight off my mind." She leafed through the messages again. “Alright. I wondered if I was being a bit panicky. They’re not death threats or anything, it’s just… never happened to me before.” Rolling up the papers, she stuffed them back in her pocket and finally looked over at Aubin. “Aubin?”
He lifted his gaze. “Yes, Evyn?”
Her cheeks flushed just from that eye contact. They were darling, and also infuriating. “Would you do me another favour, Aubin?”
“What do you need?” he asked, in the tone of one who would run to the farthest reaches of the known world if asked.
Evyn picked at her braid. “I had an idea that, well, if it is some kind of secret admirer, and they saw us arm in arm, they’ll figure we’re a couple and back off. So, uh, may I hang around with you for a bit?”
“Yes, yes of course,” Aubin said, as if the ask might be snatched away.
Evyn’s delight lit her face. “Great! Can I hold your hand if we see someone coming, if that’s okay?”
Evyn shifted in her seat. “I know that means something here, and, well…”
Do it, Evyn, I silently willed her. I couldn’t jump into this fray. She had to state her intentions, and this was the perfect opening.
Evyn nodded and took a deep breath. “Okay. Thanks, guys.” She scooted off her seat and hurried back to the kitchen.
Damn and blast. I put my head in my hands.