Another one of the large woven buildings is, I’m happy to say, an eatery. We were led here by Nom’s ever-hungry nose and are now sitting at one of many tables waiting for our food. The kitchen area is open and in the middle of the large oval space. Waiters, both the blue-skinned locals, and animal-headed moots, are swishing back and fore, taking orders and delivering meals.
People keep catching our eye and smiling pleasantly. Everyone seems very nice in Gold-Under-Shadow. In fact, they’re all so ruddy kind and well-adjusted, it’s threatening to ruin my appetite.
This town is really pressing buttons I didn’t know I had. In Ash End, when everyone hated me, looked down on me, wanted to kill me even, I couldn’t give a hoot. Bring it on, bitches. Here, surrounded by kind, healthy, well-adjusted folk, I suddenly feel like I’m covered in mud.
Our waiter Dello returns briskly with our meals, skidding expertly to a halt at the right distance from our table. They are a stocky, androgenous moot with a duck-like head. Tawny feathers. All smiles. A duck’s bill is very good for smiling it turns out.
“For madam,” they say, sliding a stew with crusty bread in from of me, “Chef’s special stew.”
“Thank you,” I smile awkwardly.
Gods, I’m so self-conscious I’m mumbling.
“And for madam,” they have three large steaming plates arrayed up an arm and effortlessly whip them one at a time onto the table. “The sharing platters.” Nom immediately starts grabbing handfuls from the nearest plate and throwing them into her mouth. “Healthy appetite on the little one,” Dello notes, approvingly.
“Um… she’s a growing girl?” I say lamely.
I don’t even think it’s lame, it just feels lame right now. I need to sort my noggin out.
The waiter smiles and wooshes off back to the kitchen area.
My stew is delicious, some herby concoction with root vegetables and chewy seafood like clams and the bread is crusty and fluffy in all the right places. After days of living off a bag of fruit, it’s heavenly. Nom’s platters meanwhile have a bit of everything but don’t last long enough for me to have a proper look at.
I get the impression not many strangers pass through town, given the amount of openly curious glances we’re getting. Curious, not venomous. No-one frowns in disapproval at the gusto with which Nom is eating, despite the shrapnel. No-one even bats an eyelid when she licks her plates clean with a huge flat tongue.
Also, there are no surly loners are sitting in the corner.
There are no ostentatious criminal types lording it about.
I can’t see any pervy priests, haughty upper-classes or obviously dangerous lunatics.
It seems like a perfectly safe, perfectly sane… trap of some kind.
I check the ceiling for spikes ready to drop. I look at people quickly to catch them off guard in hateful glances (but find none). I look at meals to make sure there are no people chopped up in there. I check shoes for signs of blood. I strain my senses for magical warning signs or inexplicable feelings of unease (I mean, I am extremely uncomfortable, but I know that’s on me) or for hints of unquiet spirits. I look at clothes for tell-tale bulges of weapons. Not a sausage.
“Nice here, isn’t it?” I say to Nom.
“It’s great!” she says enthusiastically. “Everyone’s so lovely. No-one wants to eat me.”
Okay, a low benchmark, but the only way is up from there I suppose.
“Could you, um, see yourself… living here?” I ask.
I ask because I’m wondering, not without some guilt, whether they have an orphanage or adoption program.
“Sure,” she says. “If you want to, Shoo.”
I don’t know if it’s possible to die from squirming, but I’d find out if I stayed here.
I just want to get home back to Footfall. I don’t know where that is. I don’t think it’s this realm even, but that’s where I belong. It’ll be dangerous getting there, I probably won’t make it, but I’ve got to try. Once I get there, I guess I’ll be back to living on the streets with Mondey if he’s still alive.
And I can’t drag a little girl through that, I can’t.
If she doesn’t die on the journey, she’ll end up with a life being frowned on, spat on, running, stealing… I can’t do that to her, I’ve got to find her something better. If there’s an orphanage here, one that’s nice, or preferably a family who would take her in, that’s what she needs.
And, as much as this place makes me squirm, it may be perfect for Nom.
Dello the waiter returns and gathers up the plates.
“Are you well fed, or could you fit some dessert in? We have a beige meringue berry mix up that’ll make your soul fat and happy.”
Nom looks at me hopefully.
“Okay, two of them please,” I say and decide to try and get some info out of Dello, but cunningly, so they don’t notice. “So… what happens after dark here?”
“How do you mean?” they ask.
“You know, any… religious ceremonies?”
They scratch thoughtfully under their bill, dislodging a feather that wafts to the floor, “Not really. Religion’s not big here. Folks like a singalong in the temple most Seventhdays but that’s it.”
“Okay… um… How about people changing into monsters?” I find myself asking.
So much for cunning. I’d be a terrible spy.
Dello looks amused, “Not that I know of.”
“Tourists kidnapped and forced to fight in an arena?” I suggest. “Pacts made with dark powers to keep the town a wonderful place? I’m talking sacrificed outsiders.”
What? It’s possible.
Dello frowns, bunching up the feathers on their forehead, “That would be a bit mean.”
“No, you’re right. Do dreams come to life and stalk the streets?”
Yeah, okay, I’m stretching now.
“Are you okay?” The waiter asks. “In yourself I mean?”
“No, I don’t think so, Dello,” I admit. “It’s just… it seems so friendly and safe around here. Everyone’s kind, welcoming, considerate… everything’s so… so… nice. Apart from the critters in the field.”
“Well, they’re there to hunt field rats. We don’t go into the field. There’s a sign.”
“Right… it’s just…” I struggle for words.
“You don’t seem like you trust it here,” the waiter says for me.
“That might be true,” I admit.
“Madam, it is exactly what it seems. I promise. Tell you what, stay a few days and if you’re murdered or ritually sacrificed by the inbred relatives we keep in the attic, I’ll give you a free meal.”
I laugh nervously, “You don’t actually…”
“No, we don’t keep mutant relatives in the attic. Gold-Under-Shadow really, honestly is just a nice place to live. Boring, really.” I look at them sceptically which makes them smile again. “Lady Brattler has a boarding house, go see her if you need somewhere to stay.”
“Thank you,” I say, still suspiciously.
The waiter laughs and zips off.
“Shoo, what’s a bored-in-house?” Nom asks
I just assumed we’d camp again, but I know what’s going to happen the second I tell Nom what a boarding house is. Still, it’s not like we can’t afford it.
“It’s kind of like a hotel, just smaller and the landlady lives downstairs.”
Nom’s eyes light up, “A hotel? Ooo! I’ve always wanted to stay in a hotel!”
She looks at me with pleading in those big eyes of hers.
Yep. Guess I know where we’re going tonight then.