The knock at the door startled Leoth. He jumped. It was not an inherently frightening sound, and he was not one to be easily frightened, but people rarely, if ever, came knocking at their door. People almost never came knocking bearing pleasant tidings. People didn’t come this late at night, either.
Baruch lifted his head from where he’d been resting it on a pillow, reading. “Someone’s at the door.”
“I heard the knock,” Leoth said. He wiped the flour from his hands with a rag. He’d been in the middle of mixing the dough for flatbread.
“Who do you think it is?” Arriette asked, peeking out from above the bookcase. “It’s awfully late.”
“It is,” Leoth said.
Leoth was not afraid, but he was worried. People did not like them. Leoth would not use the word “hate,” because it didn’t apply, even though it sometimes felt that way. A sphinx was an oddity, something to be stared at and questioned constantly. Faeries, too, were rarely seen, and they were disliked because everyone assumed them to be lying trickers.
And halflings, well, they weren’t supposed to live on their own in an apartment. They weren’t supposed to have any sort of money to their name. They were just supposed to say “yes sir” and “yes ma’am” to elves and rich humans.
If this was another person knocking to leave an anonymous note saying they needed to get out of the apartment building, or out of the city, or out of the country… If this was another person who had left a bag of refuse outside of their door… If this was another human who was brave enough to stand in the door and spit in Leoth’s face after he opened it, before walking away, sure that they would face no repercussions…
Leoth didn’t know what he had to follow after that “if,” and he didn’t want to find out.
What waited for him on the other side of that door was not anything like he had expected. It was not, for starters, a human. It was not someone wishing him hate. When he opened the door, he could only stand, for a moment, with his hand still on the handle, mouth faintly agape, at the woman who stood before him.
Ariette squeaked from the top of the bookshelf. Leoth didn’t have to look back to see that she had made herself invisible.
“What is it?” Baruch asked. Leoth heard him shifting. From where he reclined while reading, Baruch couldn’t see the front door.
“Ah, good evening, my lady,” Leoth said. He bowed. He’d never been taught to do it properly so every inch of the movement was stiff and awkward.
She was much taller than him. His head, when standing erect, pushed just past her waistline. She had long hair, darkened by rainfall, which was tied back behind her head. Wisps of it had escaped in front of her ears. A long tendril of it, faintly curled, clung to her wet forehead. She had forest green eyes, wide and tilted, that seemed to perch atop her strong cheekbones. Her ears swept back into graceful points.
“Good evening,” she said.
She did not return his bow. He hadn’t expected her to do so. He also didn’t expect her to walk calmly past him into his home without invitation, but she did that anyway, striding in with all the confidence of someone who owned the place. Maybe she did. Maybe the human to whom he paid is rent only collected it on her behalf. She might be here to evict them personally.
“What can I do for you, my lady?” Leoth asked. He didn’t fear her, physically, though she wore a sword at her side. He feared her power as an elf. If she did own this place, or if she was part of the right family, and Leoth offended her somehow, he might as well take Baruch and Arriette and leave the city.
She looked down at him out of the corner of her eye. Leoth flinched, because she didn’t just look down physically: she looked at him as though he were worth as little to him as an insect that she had already trodden upon.
Then her gaze softened, or at least, it softened as much as ice can be said to soften, when the first gust of warm air strikes it and thin glaze appears on its surface. “You may call me Cyrène,” she said. “‘My lady’ does not suit me anymore.”
“Forgive me,” Leoth said. “I didn’t mean to offend.”
He had never been asked to call an elf by their first name. Before the monastery, he hadn’t been allowed to call elves by their names at all, if he even learned them at all.
“I’m not offended,” she said, though her tone indicated otherwise. She took a deep breath and exhaled it sharply. “This has been a trying day for me. I don’t mean to take it out on you.”
Leoth, at a loss, did not know how to respond. Luckily Baruch filled the silence. “Would you like some tea?”
“I would,” Cyrène said.
For all the confidence with which she had entered, now the elf seemed to falter. She stood, arms crossed behind her back, in the center of the room, looking around as though critically assessing their home.
Not knowing what else to do, Leoth closed the door and went to the kitchen. He used his stepping-stool to retrieve some tea from the cabinet and filled the teapot with water from the tap. When he set the pot on the stove, Arriette appeared next to it.
“I’ll finish it up,” she said. She peaked around the edge of the pot, carefully keeping herself hidden from Cyrène’s view. “You go talk to her. She seems scary.”
Leoth sighed. It always fell to him to deal with anything they came across. Baruch’s problems with his memory and his temperament made handling anything important almost impossible for him, and Arriette grew extremely nervous around people she didn’t know. He could forgive her, this time. Elves made everyone nervous.
“You’re welcome to take a seat, if you like.” Leoth gestured to the chairs at their dining table. “Though I guess they might not be as comfortable as you’re used to.”
“Thank you.” Cyrène said. She shrugged the pack from her back. “Is there a place I can set this down?”
Leoth blinked. He’d been so taken with the fact than elf had appeared at his door that he hadn’t even taken in her clothing, which was staggeringly different from anything he’d ever seen worn by an elvish lady. It was all finely made, of course, but she wore pants — pants! — instead of a dress or a robe, and a leather jacket on which beads of water had collected like glistening jewels. She had a sword at her side as well, which should have been the first thing Leoth noticed.
Most importantly, she now held in her hands the leather bag she’d worn on her back, which, by the way it stretched, was obviously full of something. Attached to the bottom by a strap was a case that Leoth guessed belonged to an instrument of some kind.
“Of course,” Leoth said. “I can, uh, do you mind if I just set it by the doorway?”
“That’s fine,” Cyrène said, though for a brief second, Leoth swore he saw disappointment flit across her fine features.
Leoth took the bag from her, when she held it out to him, then her jacket as well. He slung the jacket up on a hook he kept near the door, placing the bag beneath it. It was heavy and obviously quite full.
Leoth joined her at the table. For the first time, he felt embarassed in his own home. They had purchased a set of three human-sized chairs, because they were old and in poor condition, and Leoth had found them for a low price. He’d wanted more than one on the off chance that they might someday have a human-sized visitor.
Now they did, and Leoth sat across from her, blushing slightly because his legs dangled above the ground, and the surface of the table came uncomfortably close to his armpits. Cyrène, despite her wet hair and the fact that her chair creaked whenever she shifted even slightly, looked regal and composed.
“I don’t mean to be rude,” Leoth said, “but what can we do for you?”
“I want to help you.” She said this straight-faced. Leoth would have believed her, had she not continued on. She huffed, closed her eyes, and went on. “I’m sorry. This is difficult for me. Let me try to be honest.”
Cyrène opened her eyes. “I want your help.”
“I want your help.”
“No, I heard you,” Leoth said. He glanced at Baruch, who was watching the two of them placidly, which his head tilted to one side. “I just don’t understand. What can we do to help you? I mean, you’re an elf.”
“Because I’m an elf, nothing can go wrong in my life?” Cyrène said. “Because I’m elf my life is perfect and happy and wonderful?”
“No! I mean, maybe. I don’t know. I just…” Leoth spread his arms. “We have so little. You… I mean, you’re an elf. You have more than we do. I think. Probably?”
Cyrène folded her hands on the table in front of her. “I did, before today.”
The tea kettle whistled on the stove, where Arriette would be heating it with fire born of a spellform. Leoth almost stood to go attend to it, but Arriette could handle everything but bringing the tea to the table.
“May I ask what happened?” Leoth said.
Cyrène eyed him, one eyebrow raised. “You may. My mother and father arranged a marriage for me. I refused it.”
“Oh,” Leoth said. “I, ah. Well, I know what all of those words mean…”
“My parents chose my husband for me,” Cyrène said. “Without my input. I would have had to spend the rest of my life with that man. They’ve been negotiating with his family for years about this. Today, when they declared our engagement publically, I refused it. Publically.”
“Oh,” Leoth said.
Baruch chuckled. “You left him at the altar.”
“No,” Cyrène snapped, twisting in her chair so that she could face him. “There was no altar. It was not the marriage ceremony. It was a celebration of our engagement.”
“I’m guessing your parents were not happy,” Leoth said.
“That is an understatement,” Cyrène said. She looked down, turning so that neither Leoth nor Baruch could see straight into her face. But Leoth saw plenty. She looked wounded. Hurt beyond anything he had known an elf could even experience. “They are not my parents anymore, legally.”
“Oh.” Leoth felt like a fool for saying that over and over again, but he did not know how else to respond. “Um, I’m Leoth, by the way. I don’t think I ever introduced myself.”
Half of Cyrène’s mouth stretched upward in an attempt at a smile. “I apologize. I was so caught up in myself that I didn’t let us have proper introductions.”
“That’s Baruch, over there.”
“Hello.” Baruch waved.
“Arriette is making your tea.” Leoth pointed at the teapot.
Arriette peaked out from around the teapot. “Um, hi.”
“Hello to all of you,” Cyrène said. “But I already knew your names. I’ve been following your matches.”
“You… oh. Oh!” Leoth said. “I feel like that’s embarassing.”
“It’s not!” Cyrène said. “It’s why I’m here.”
“Wait, what? Are you, um, a fan?” Leoth had never thought he would hear those words coming out of his mouth.”
“Yes,” Cyrène said. “I know that it doesn’t make sense. I know that you have no reason to trust me, or to say yes to anything about to ask, but just… Just know this. My family isn’t my family anymore. I have no name now. I’m just Cyrène. If my parents could have cut my ears off and called me a human, they would have.
“I had nowhere to go in the city, because I don’t even know anyone who’s not an elf. Not well. But I know about you. I’ve seen you fight, and I’ve seen you win some, but not as much as you deserve. You’re at a disadvantage, with only three people, and people don’t respect you because — well, no offense, but it’s because you’re a halfling, and she’s a faerie, and he’s a sphinx.
“But I’m an elf. I’m not being conceited when I say that will make people respect you more. It would also add a fourth person to your team.”
“A fourth person?” Leoth shook his head. “Are you honestly asking what I think you’re asking?”
“I would like to join you,” Cyrène said. She unhitched her sword from where it hung at her side. “This isn’t just for decoration. I can use it.”
Leoth stared at her. He was, fundamentally, an accepting person. He wanted to trust and to help people. He had a chance to do that, here, but the situation was almost too bizarre to comprehend. Here was an elvish noblewoman that he had never met, in his run-down apartment, asking to fight alongside him and his friends in the arena. Elves didn’t fight in the arena. They bet on the fights.
“I…” He shook his head again. “Baruch?”
“I like her,” Baruch said. “She seems interesting.”
Leoth rolled his eyes. “Arriette?”
“No!” Arriette said. Then she squeaked. “I don’t mean no to you, ma’am. I mean… Oh my. I mean, no, please don’t pull me into this.”
“You’re part of this too, Arriette,” Leoth said. “I’m not pulling you into anything. We agreed to be in this together.”
“You just decide. Please.”
Leoth sighed. “This is what you’re in for, if you really want to work with us. Dealing with these two.”
“They seem nice.”
“They’re deceiving you.” Leoth smiled. “Well, not really. But they are a challenge.”
“We can hear you,” Baruch reminded him.
“I know,” Leoth said. The casual nature of the banter emboldened him. He felt free to speak what was on his mind. “Look. We don’t know you. We don’t know anything about you. I can’t just tell you yes because you showed up here needing help, or because you’re an elf.”
Cyrène’s face went ice cold in a way that made Leoth want to shut down entirely. “Alright,” she said.
Leoth pressed forward. “I’m not going to tell you no, either, though. Come back here tomorrow morning, and you can join us… well, you can join me for training. These two just sort of goof around.”
Cyrène’s face thawed. Her entire body visibly relaxed. “Thank you. You have no idea what that means to me.”
“It’s not a firm yes,” Leoth said.
“That’s fine,” Cyrène said. “It’s more than I really expected.” She stood. “I will be back in the morning.”
“Do you have somewhere to stay?” Leoth asked, though he shouldn’t have. He didn’t really want to let her stay here, because for all he knew, every word she spoke might have been a lie of some sort. Not that they had much for her to steal, he supposed.
“No,” Cyrène said. “But that’s alright. I still have my identification.” She winked. “The manager of a hotel won’t know I’ve been disowned. I just have to say I’m staying on my parents’ credit.”
“Will that work?” Leoth said. He couldn’t imagine trying to get any service without having to show his money upfront.
“Oh, yes,” Cyrène said. “I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about me.”
“Don’t you still want your tea?” Arriette called from the stove. “It’s ready.”
“Yes, please stay for the tea,” Leoth said. “You can leave after.”
Cyrène smiled. “Thank you. I’d like that.”
She sat back down while Leoth collected the mugs of tea. To his surprise, Arriette flew over to the table and, fully visible, joined them while they drank and spoke. When Cyrène did leave, he found himself looking forward to seeing her again the next morning.