Gold-Under-Shadow is so calm and peaceful. It doesn’t seem like the kind of place where anything bad could happen. I’ve even left my spear and crossbow in our room, though I still have the sword. Because I’m not an idiot.
The first thing we do is head back to the big circular eatery, as I’m slightly concerned that if I don’t feed Nom, she’ll ruin the atmosphere by eating someone. There’s a different chef this morning, a squat, handsome man (who I swear keeps staring at us) but Dello, our favourite duck-headed waiter is back on shift too, gracefully weaving between the tables at high speed, taking orders and delivering food.
Dello’s tawny feathers look so soft, I really want to run my fingers through them. Pretty sure that would be bad manners though.
Breakfast for me is some kind of wheat-based porridge which I’m looking forward to but when Dello appears and elegantly slides the bowl in front of me, I nearly slide it back. There are dozens of what look like reddish woodlice scattered over the surface.
Nom looks at her (three) bowls uncertainly. Then up at me.
“Um… the bugs are supposed to be there, right?” I ask.
“Indeed, they are,” Dello smiles. “Shed Pollen Hogg Husks. A local delicacy.” Dello whooshes away to deliver the next meal like they’re on roller skates.
I shrug and try a spoonful. The insect shells are crunchy but intensely sweet with a spicy, floral burst of flavour that perfectly complements the creamy blandness of the porridge. Nice.
“Mmm, that’s really good,” I tell Nom. “Try it.”
Encouraged. She empties a plate into her mouth.
“Mmm!” she parrots in agreement and throws the remaining two bowls of porridge into her mouth. “Crunchy,” she says, approvingly.
“That’s probably because you just ate the bowls,” I note, not even alarmed.
Her insides, I’ve decided, must be basically indestructible.
“Oops, I didn’t mean to,” Nom looks left and right guiltily. “Am I in trouble, Shoo?”
“I’m sure Dello will understand,” I tell her. Plus, being rich, I can always buy them a dozen replacement bowls. Mind you, that kind of behaviour reminds me of the detestable, yoinking toffs who used to lord it around Footfall, doing what they liked and tossing money at anyone who objected. “But we’ll apologise and not eat any more bowls in future,” I add.
Dello whips past our table.
“I’m sorry, I ate your bowls!” Nom calls at them.
Dello skids to a halt and comes over. The chef hears what Nom says and looks up.
“You ate our bowls?” Dello says.
Nom big-eyes the waiter, those adorable orbs are a get out of jail free card. I wish I had them in Footfall. Mine were beady, gunky and contagious looking, which is less endearing.
“It was so delicious, I forgot not to.”
“Right… Were they nice?” Dello asks, bemused.
Nom nods, guiltily.
“We can pay to replace them,” I say, apologetically, trying hard not to yoink in any way or be otherwise toffish.
The chef, I notice, has called a small boy over, said something to him and sent him running off. I’m sure it’s nothing to do with us, but best keep an eye on it.
Dello mulls this over, “don’t be silly, can you promise not to eat the rest of our crockery?”
Nom nods, still brandishing her cute, fearful expression.
“Then we’re golden,” Dello announces and wooshes off again.
Nom smiles adoringly after him.
“Shoo, Dello is the best waiter in the world,” Nom tells me, seriously.
“I think you may be right.”
Nom’s face lights up with inspiration, “When we go shopping, can we get them a present?”
Gods, that would never have occurred to me, I was wondering whether I was going to have to stab anyone, but it’s the perfect thing to do. Especially if we want to live around here. Well, more accurately, if I want Nom to live around here.
“Absolutely,” I say. “We’ll pick something out in the market.”
We step outside of the rope-woven dome structure and walk the short distance up alongside the stream to the similar building that houses the market. I can’t help but stare up in wonder at the great rope cables strung taut from the roofs to the black obelisk of the spacecraft embedded in the hillside.
An oblong craft passes overhead, high up. There’s something vaguely familiar about it but it’s also the first proper tech I’ve seen in this world, realm, or wherever we are.
“Look at that,” I say to one of the diminutive blue locals to see his reaction.
He looks at it without surprise, “Yes, it’s probably going to the spaceport in the Empiric Capitol.”
“They have a spaceport?” I say, surprised at that. And pleased.
“Several, I believe,” the man says and looks at me politely and expectantly to see if I have any more questions in that unfailingly kind and helpful manner I’m coming to associate with the locals.
I don’t have any more questions for the moment, but I’m sure I will have, “Thank you,” I say.
He nods, “Good day then.”
I stare up and after the disappearing craft. If there’s a spaceport, I may be able to catch a ride to wherever Footfall is. Even if it’s on another world. If it’s in a different realm, that may be trickier. Realms, as I understand them, are not quite dimensions but squashed folds and layers of spacetime often with different rules of physics and magic squashed in with them. Or something.
Still, this is the first concrete hint I’ve had that I might be able to get back.
Nom tugs at my hand.
“Shoo, come on, we have to get Dello a present.”
I let her drag me to the dome of the market
In the market, we go stall to stall. Everyone is friendly and helpful but not intrusively trying to flog us stuff. Nom picks out a bracelet made of shells for Dello as she wants to be nice. I find and buy a stack of replacement bowls, because I am cynically trying to purchase good will in this town.
At a clothes stall, I browse their wares, acutely aware of the griminess of our current outfits. There are some fancy clothes on sale, but these people mostly favour simple, unpretentious garb. I find an orange top and dark trousers and buy two of each for me, along with a pile of socks and underwear. I see they sell some dresses and wonder whether I should get one (it could come in handy as a disguise at some point) but decide against it.
“Ridiculous things, dresses,” I comment to Nom. “Why would you want your legs all exposed like that?”
“Ridiculous,” Nom parrots, putting her hands on her hips to match my stance. “Oh! That blue one is so pretty!”
Pretty? Right. Didn’t consider whether they were pretty.
Five minutes later, we’re browsing other stalls with Nom hugging the wrapped parcel containing her new pretty blue dress close to her chest. Pretty. That just wouldn’t factor into my decision making. I kind of feel I want to hug Nom. She’s so different to me. It feels like there’s hope for her, you know? She’ll fit in well here. Assuming she doesn’t eat anyone.
“Would you like to live here?” I ask her, testing the water.
“Oh wow!” she hops up and down. “Could we? We could see Dello every day! We could eat more of those creatures in the field, they were yummy! Could we?”
I don’t think now’s the time to explain I want to ditch her. Not there’s going to be a good time to do that. Maybe I’ll have to stay a while to get her settled in before I broach that… let’s face it, that betrayal.
“Sure, if they’ll have us,” I tell her.
Nom squeaks in delight and dances in a happy circle. Stall owners and shoppers all look at her indulgently and then smile at me. Which is weird, but they do it like it’s normal. I assume it’s some kind of non-verbal shorthand for them to express that:
1. She’s cute
2. I’m lucky
3. They approve of the situation, and…
4. Isn’t the world a jolly and wonderful place? Or something.
Nom stops spinning and starts skipping lightly ahead of me, singing to herself. I can hear people aww-ing left and right. She does have weapons-grade cuteness. Must remember that, could come in handy. Good job I’m immune.
I watch her clumsily do an imaginary hopscotch and turns around to check if I saw. I give her a thumbs up which makes her grin hugely and do it again. Gods, she absolutely exudes delight.
I bet she’ll look really sweet in that dress.