Charming as Needed
Aneska moseyed down the hall, hair fresh and clean after a soapberry soak. The smells of the farm, the road, and the trees from the ride today washed away to be replaced by must and rotting wood. Ah, the familiar smells of home for the past two and a half months…
She turned into the cot room and frowned. Where did Tino go? Walking back out, she made her way down the hall, peeking into another cot room. "Hey."
The Kallecían sat on the dusty floor of the second unused cot room. More cots lined the left and right wall, leaving room to walk in the middle. A grey kind of film covered the floor and the naked pallets, and the wooden frames almost blended in with the faded old wood color of the surroundings. His pack rested on one of the dirty cots, opened.
Knucklebones clattered to the floor as Tino tossed them, originally taken from the astragalus joint. The game of astragaloi involved multitasking and agility. As a stone was tossed into the air, several knucklebones made from actual bone or stones were to be snatched from the ground. Difficulty increased as fancier tricks were used, like catching the falling stone on the other side of the hand.
Tino looked up at her. "Oh, hey! What's up?" He snatched a couple bones off the floor as the stone flew into the air.
Aneska shrugged. "Same old." She glance around with a faint look of disgust on her face. "You know, you don't have to sleep in here. At least wait until it gets cleaned." By her. Counting on Rem for something remotely responsible like that would be unwise.
"Huh?" Tino looked around and laughed. "Oh! I didn't even notice it was dusty, I thought everything had this look." He ran a finger on a nearby cot frame and looked at the actual color underneath the film. Then he shrugged. "Eh, I've slept on grass so it's all good." He grinned at her. "Something you'll never let me live down, huh."
"Nah, I just need some new material." She crossed her arms and leaned against the doorframe. "So, about the question you asked earlier… If we're going to be working together, there's no sense in keeping secrets."
Tino nodded as he scooped up half the knucklebones before snatching the stone in the air. "Yeah, but…" He tossed the stone in the air and glanced at her. "Trust comes in time." And without breaking his gaze, he swiped the rest of the bones—and the stone in the air.
Aneska raised her eyebrows as she watched. "Impressive." That skill with his peripheral vision could come in handy during an intense fight. She straightened, uncrossing her arms as she relaxed. A hand rested on a hip as she took a few steps into the room. "Are you trying to dissuade me from telling you?"
He was still grinning at her compliment, quickly adding, "Check this out!" before throwing a couple stones in the air. He caught two stones on the back of his hand, balancing them for a split second before flipping them back into the air and catching all three in his fist, still grinning at her and having not answered her question in the slightest. He tossed another stone in the air.
Her eyelids lowered as she gave him a dull stare. He was worse than Rem.
"I tried to kill someone."
His green eyes widened as he stared up at her. Then he broke his gaze as he grabbed the stone right before it hit the ground. He kept his head bowed, looking at the stones in his hand for a few moments before looking back up at Aneska. "Are you serious?"
Aneska rolled her eyes. "No, I'm just trying to impress you. Why would I joke about that?"
Tino stood, stones in a fist as he continued gazing at her with a faint frown on his face. "So did you actually kill someone?"
"I said I tried. Does that even change anything?" She asked as she gazed steadily back at him.
His brows knit as he peered at her face, trying to read what was behind those cool grey eyes. And when he failed, he looked away. "Are you going to try again?"
"No. I realized there wasn't a solution to the problem at hand. Killing would have solved nothing." She looked down, running a hand through her wavy hair. "Well, there's your answer."
"No, it's not." He stepped forward, gaze intensifying as he frowned. His sun earring swung from his movement. "I wasn't just asking about the problem at hand. What about future problems? Would you try to kill at all?"
"I won't allow it to get that personal again. All I have to do is avoid people for the rest of my life. Shouldn't be too hard." Then she cracked a crooked smile and turned to walk away.
He frowned at her back. "But we're working together. You can't avoid me." And he couldn't avoid her, either. But as long as Aneska's words were true, he didn't have to watch her moves as closely...
The blonde woman glanced over her shoulder at him. "C'mooon, I was joking." She looked forward. "I tried to push them away." As she walked out, she murmured, "Guess that plan failed."
All Tino had for her was a faint smile as he began to understand at last. "But pushing someone away means you gotta touch them." He should know. His whole fighting discipline involved strategic use of bodily force to move an opponent. He tilted his head, earring bobbing. "I bet that touch is enough to stir hope of a connection."
Aneska could only chuckle. "If you say so." Her expression sobered as she dropped her mask and continued down the hall.
Tino stared at the emptiness in the doorframe. Then he swiped up his jacks, the bag for them, and his pack, before rushing out into the hallway and back into the cleaner cot room, all the while exclaiming, "I don't just say so! It's true!" He dumped his stuff onto the cot next to Aneska's, arms gesticulating wildly. "I mean, the lengths everyone is going for you…and you're still here, supporting the group. C'mon!"
He plopped down on the pallet, staring up at her. "That's something, right?"
"Maddening." Aneska sat down a bit more gracefully, back straight as grey tendrils materialized. They pinched at his shirts and pants that fell out of his pack, folding them and put into neat piles. "Speaking of which, if we're going to share a room, you'll have to clean up after yourself."
Tino stared again, green eyes a bit lighter in the brighter globe light (it helped that Aneska had polished the glass). Sharing a room? He smiled to the side, surprised and sheepish. "So…you're not gonna be too annoyed at me? I haven't even helped you as much as the others and you're already mad with them…"
Aneska smirked as a thin grey tendril wrapped around each astragaloi piece and dropped them into the bag, one at a time. Then they all disappeared save for the one holding the throwing stone. It floated over toward her as she examined the bone. "I can't answer that with any level of certainty. I can't see into the future." She raised her eyebrows at him. "Can you?" The grey tendril flicked the stone at Tino's forehead.
He snatched it from the air without even looking as he was busy shooting to her a playful pout. "No, I can't. But I don't want to intrude, so…just tell me if you're mad, okay?" He started flipping the stone onto the back of his hand and onto his palm, not meeting her eyes. "I may be a fighter, but only physically."
"Pity." Aneska fell onto her side and set the bag on the ground.
Tino stared at her. "Whaa? You like arguing?" He shook his head. "I can try, but I usually end up laughing things off anyway." He grinned.
"I'm not surprised." She smiled faintly as she looked off, head on her pillow. "Forget about it."
Tino laughed and fell onto his side, too, facing her. "Okay." His eyes twinkled. "You'll laugh, too. I'll make sure of it."
Aneska stared dully back at him, lids lowered over her grey-blue eyes. "Are you always this happy? It's disgusting."
Laughter burst from his smiling lips. "If this is your attempt at picking a fight, you're doin' it wrong." He grinned. "Hey. I have a roof over my head and I'm not sleeping on a floor. I've got friends in a strange city and I get to room with one—for free! (I'll do chores on the side I promise)." He curled up on the pallet, smiling at her. "What can't I be happy about?"
"Friends?" Her brows lowered. "Free?!" She sat up, murmuring, "How much am I paying to stay here, anyway?" Whatever it was, it wasn't worth it. Especially with this new tenant.
Tino chuckled from his pillow. "Well, I mean, I'm going to get some money doing oddjobs for food, so…" He looked at her. "What can you do besides sass?"
"Sleep." She smiled faintly, lying back down. "That's about it."
"Wow, that's sooo impressive," he said with a grin. His lips remained smiling as his eyes slowly closed. The last stone clattering to the ground as his hand dangled over the edge.
"Mmhm." A grey tendril pinched the blanket on Tino's cot and draped it over him. Then it wrapped around the remaining stone and placed it in the bag.
Stone temples seemed to rise from the horizon as the trio crossed the bridge into the Holy Quarter. The sun shone harshly this morning, causing travelers such as them to sweat out all the moisture they could. Compounded with the sticky humid air, that sweat went nowhere, leaving them to melt in the heat. Xuan hoped they would be replenished at this "spa," but all she could remember from soaking in water was wrinkling, not absorbing.
She had never been in this section of the Holy Quarter before. Hers was the academic area, with libraries and temples devoted to patrons of learning. Here, though, was the sheer celebration and devotion to the gods, goddesses, and spirits. In ancient times, all a mortal could hope for was the benevolent indifference from the fickle gods. People worshipped without abandon in the hopes of better luck in life.
But since a millennium ago, magic seeped into the people, and the gods no longer walked the earth. Worshippers could pick and choose, and here in Arcolia the people chose survival. Being a pioneer city, the people focused on the more practical side of things like Demeter for farming, Poseidon for the surrounding rivers, and Artemis for the wildlife.
Luxury followed in the one hundred years after the city's founding, and so our travelers arrived at one of the more sumptuous bath houses of the order of Poseidon. Saltwater was supposed to do wonders for the skin, and being how they were surrounded by fresh rivers, this bathhouse had grown in popularity—and expense.
Xuan thought of that as they soaked in the large pool, her bottom firmly planted on the stone seats immersed in the water. She thought of how expensive this water was, essentially imported…and squirted by their newest member.
A jet of saltwater sailed into the air. Tino then sank into the water, bubbles popping up by his face as his eyes twinkled at the young women.
Xuan grimaced at him. "Tino…this water is blessed, but I think it still can be dirty."
His eyes widened before he burst out of the water, spraying it out of his mouth. "Ah!" His face contorted as his tongue stuck out. "Augh, dis tastes nasty!" His hair was flat for once, spikes now clinging to his forehead after he had jumped into the pool.
Xuan noticed that the same nobles who gave him a look the first time gave him a stern look the second time at his behavior, noticeably lingering at the far edge of the pool. They seemed to wear their wealth in an invisible cloak, as no one here was dressed.
Perhaps it was the context that made them so stuffy. Indeed, the bathhouse could be seen as theirs, with all the drachma that went into renovating it. Water streamed from the walls into little sinks, fresh for the face and mouth. Mosaics decorated the tile walls. But the most impressive piece was the skylight. Sunlight streamed through a large panel of translucent glass, the harsh sun now filtered to a soft glow; the water sparkled in it.
But no matter how pretty the water looked, Xuan still had to recoil when she saw it burst out Tino's mouth. The salt already made it taste bad and only now he thought about it after squirting it?
Aneska rolled her eyes and sunk lower in the water, closing her eyes. Her blonde hair fanned out on the surface of the water, the top of her head still dry. She planned to keep it that way.
Xuan chuckled at the sight. She rinsed at her shoulder, red lines striped across it from her pack. Her skin was so easily marked. So much for her feather spell. "So now that everyone's relaxed, I have to give you guys an update I got from Enezi before we head over there to train."
Tino looked up from his wading, his arms moving to make louder swish noises in the water. "Huh? What update?"
"We're down a member," Aneska answered with a smirk. She opened her eyes, a light grey in the light as she glanced at Xuan.
The Kalnasian furrowed her brow as she grimaced again. Aneska looked like a predator in the water…like some gliding alligator from Hua she read about in her books. Xuan coughed and smiled weakly at the two. "Well, besides that…"
She quieted. Who would have thought that Aine would not be with them today. But…she was in a better place, going after what she truly believed in. Xuan sighed and sunk in the water as well, her own shoulder-length black hair floating in the water. Warmth enveloped her…made her feel sleepy. She smiled faintly. "Maybe I'll tell you guys later...this water feels good…" A yawn escaped.
Aneska stared at her. "Or you could say it now."
"Yeah!" Tino exclaimed, splashing at the water. "Say it!"
Xuan sighed again and brushed her bangs out of her face. If her feet weren't floating in the water right now she would have dragged them. "Okaaay. After our member change, we have to think about what the team needs for our next member." She sunk a little in the water. Planning was something she did without thinking, but this time for something so unpredictable with the consequences…she dreaded it.
"Next member?" Tino asked, head tilting. "Why do we need another one?"
The water rippled slightly as Aneska sighed. "As much as I hate to admit it, she's right. The team's unbalanced."
He frowned. "I guess…"
Xuan nodded. "Enezi used this kind of analogy I liked, about our team being a body. What it seems that we're missing is another strong arm and some legs." She paused to chuckle. "That sounds funny when I say it out loud. We need a foundation, and another extension of the team to help."
Tino's frown was now out of thought, not confusion. "So we need strength? Like some kind of offense?" He waded back and forth in the pool, his version of water pacing. "What kind of style would work…"
Xuan shrugged. "Beggars can't be choosers." She winced. She loved idioms, but uttering that one made the reality sink in further for her about their situation.
"Where we would we even find someone," he wondered aloud as he waded.
"Did Enezi happen to mention that aspect?" Aneska murmured. "It's not like we can hold tryouts."
Xuan sighed again. "No, he didn't…" She frowned a bit. "Although he seemed like he was holding back something—but he usually is." A sheepish grin snuck out. "Probably laughter 'cause he can hear what I'm thinking." But in all seriousness, she wouldn't be surprised if he maneuvered them somewhere without doing anything.
Tino slapped at the water, grinning. "I wanna hear it!"
Xuan grinned. "You'll hear it soon enough." She smiled at them, brows furrowed. "We don't really have applicants for tryouts, but...it's just that I want us all to be open-minded and inviting when it comes time to choose." Her eyes couldn't help but dart to the floating fair-headed maiden.
Xuan's openness looked like caution when compared to Tino's inviting nature. She wasn't being sarcastic, either, so her words could only apply to one person in this pool...
Aneska's lip curled in a sneer as she rolled her eyes disdainfully. "Just come out and say it."
"Say what?" Tino said as he waded.
Xuan smiled to the side. These days she was less worried about offending her friend and more amused by whatever happened. "Yes, I was asking you to be nice. Hard request, I know..." She chuckled.
Tino smiled at them. "We could have try outs. I mean, Izzy's strong. He's not a fighter, but I could see what he could do." He shrugged his toned, tanned shoulders. "At the least, he could spar with us or something?"
Xuan tilted her head in thought, hair dipping into the water. "It's better than nothing." She glanced at Tino. "Do you think Layla would be interested? Her magic..." Now she frowned, hesitating a bit. "It's an advantage, at least." Her frown expressed the doubt her lips would not speak of.
Aneska, however, had absolutely no problem doing so. Her brows lowered as she stared at them. "Did we not just establish that we need to focus on offense? Izzy's out because he's not a fighter, which should be straightforward enough." She looked pointedly at Tino, adding, "But if you're still in doubt, your mom probably needs him around the farm."
Then she turned her attention to Xuan, words spoken with a slight edge of irritation to them. "And with our current distribution, Layla would be more of a liability than anything else." She looked off, lids lowering over her cool gaze. "Any other thoughts? Preferably ones that aren't completely idiotic."
Xuan could feel her brows knit under Aneska's admonishing words—all true, of course. She looked away. "It's idiotic now, I admit…" Then she looked back up at Aneska, frowning faintly. "But that level of magic isn't something I'd easily pass up. Especially since we're lacking so much in that charming skill." Orpheus himself was able to convince stubborn Hades to release his dead lover all because of music. Her eyebrow raised as she continued to gaze at Aneska.
Tino smiled faintly.
Aneska did so as well, although her smile turned into a challenge as she narrowed her eyes. "If I completely lacked charm, like you seem to be suggesting, we wouldn't be here at this spa, now would we? Or have you wiped the Lissy incident from you mind?" She added in a murmur, "Come to think of it, that wouldn't be so bad."
Tino had no knowledge of the event and sunk deeper in the water at the sound of rising conflict.
The Kalnasian, however, burst into laughter. The memory of the jiggling female bestowing them spa passes seemed like it happened months ago. She grinned at her friend. "No, it was worth it." Only because the curse could be broken (and seeing Aneska's other gender was a guilty pleasure). But she had a feeling that if she had this spar with Nico, he would have bitten her head off in a grislier fashion. She smiled to the side. "So is your vote a 'no' to tryouts, then?"
Ripples floated away from Aneska's shoulders as she shrugged. "If someone comes along, it would be in our best interest to consider the addition of another member. But don't go picking fragile flowers until we know we can sustain them."
Xuan smiled at Aneska, appreciative. The Kalnasian could get used to this feedback. "Objection noted."
Tino rose enough out of the water so salt wouldn't get in his mouth. "I'll send a letter back home to set a date so we can talk."
"Yeah, do that." Xuan nodded and glanced over at Aneska. She smiled fondly at her. "Welcome back."
It made her heart warm to see their brain return to full function. As the team resumed wrinkling like prunes, Xuan couldn't help but wonder just where they were headed in the weeks ahead. But with a clear head and a strong heart, a body could weather through almost anything.