All I saw of her at first were her eyes, gleaming out of the darkness at me. Brilliant blue, those eyes.
Looking back, they were my first sign that I was in over my head. More fool I, for not recognizing it at the time.
“Who are you?” The words slipped out of my mouth, even as a single glance at her revealed that she wasn’t anyone I knew. Not the kind of person I’d ever know, aside from a label, a single name that applied to all of her kind.
She didn’t speak a word, not at first. She just stared at me, huddled up in the corner of my little shack, looking almost like a pale white spider, her limbs twisted and tightened up. She crouched there, torn between fleeing and purely submitting to whatever I might do, her eyes locked onto my own.
I took a step forward. Not to hurt her, of course, but just to come inside. The wooden door still stood partly open behind me, and the warmth of the interior leeched out past me. But as I entered, she shrank back even further, her hands twitching and tightening around some small object.
“Hey, it’s okay.” I held up one of my hands, open, showing that I held nothing. The line of fish in my other hand dripped onto the floor, but the thatch would absorb the moisture. I needed to shovel it out soon, anyway. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
Her mouth opened, lips trembling. “Please.” That was all, but I heard the accent, the cultured tones. Definitely an uplander, but different from any that I’ve heard. Wavering tone, but there was a note of strength beneath it, too, if hidden.
“Don’t worry.” The absurdity of what I was doing – comforting someone in my own little hut – wasn’t lost on me. I moved past her, over to the hearth, pulling up the little iron box that held a few softly glowing coals. With careful, deft movements, I coaxed a small fire into life.
The light of the flames cast long shadows around the little interior. I carefully ignored the woman behind me, focusing instead on skewering the fish. I’d already cut them open, removed the guts, scraped off the scales. Best to do that outside, not getting anything inside my little house. I carefully propped the skewer up out of reach of the flames, making sure that it wouldn’t burn.
She crept closer. She moved almost silently, and I didn’t realize that she’d shifted until she was almost just behind me, peering over my shoulder at the fish. “What is it?” she asked.
“Gods above!” I hadn’t expected her to appear over my shoulder, and scrambled back. She also drew back at my sudden movement, fear incited by fear. We ended up both on our asses, staring wide-eyed at each other. “How’d you move like that, woman?”
Her eyes flashed down towards the floor, but then back up at me, hot and angry. “I can do it again. Don’t think of doing anything, or I’ll… I’ll…”
“No, nothing at all,” I promised, holding up my hands again. Slowly, I reached out and turned the fish again, making sure that no one side ended up burning. “Look, I can tell that you’re an uplander. What are you doing here?”
Her brow furrowed. “Uplander?” she repeated, blankly.
“Yeah, from the city. You know?” Her confused expression didn’t change. Exasperated, I stood up and crossed over to the door, pushing it open. She shrank back for a second, but I held it open, pointing outside with my other hand. “Up there.”
Hesitantly, she peered past me, out into the darkness. Even the night, of course, wasn’t enough to hide the city. It shone with its own radiance, lighting up the night. Its tall spires, made of that shining glass, gleamed and reflected light in all directions, like a massive, twinkling star fallen to Earth.
“I’ve never seen it from here,” she murmured, her eyes big and shining blue, reflecting the light from the city. Her city. “Never seen it from outside.”
After another second, I let the door swing shut. Couldn’t let all the cold air out, after all. “Now, what the hell are you doing here?”
She hesitated, and her eyes darted towards the fish, still roasting in front of the fire. The smell of cooked flesh was filling the small interior of my home. She didn’t speak, but the implication was clear.
I went over, checked them. Just perfectly done. I moved them off the fire, onto a carved wooden plate that I’d whittled down from a chunk of old stump. She crept closer, but I didn’t offer it to her. Not yet.
“Talk,” I said. “Then I’ll let you have some.”
She hesitated a second longer, but then gave in. “I… I needed a place to hide. Somewhere that they wouldn’t find me. Somewhere that they wouldn’t even think of looking.”
“So you picked the crappy little hut in the village outside your shining city?” I challenged, unable to keep the note of challenge out of my voice.
She didn’t fight back. Those blue eyes dipped down towards the ground. She reached up and pushed back a few hairs of shining hair, almost pure white, from her forehead. Despite the white hair, I didn’t think that she was old. Her skin was unlined, and she didn’t move with the careful, hindered slowness of an elder. I thought of Master Buie, oldest in our little fishing village, already bent and withered. He insisted that he was fifty, despite the others saying that he was only forty-eight. She wasn’t anything like him, despite the white hair.
“I’ve never been- Outside,” she finally volunteered. “It’s so vast, so open. I couldn’t think, needed to hide away. Felt like everyone could see me.”
“So you came in here.”
She nodded. Her eyes again strayed towards the fish.
I started to push some towards her, but then paused. “Your name,” I said.
She blinked at me. “Elisabethedra Melindicalia,” she said, the many syllables spilling off her tongue like water.
“Elisa,” I said, unable to pronounce the rest. “I’m Rane. Good to meet you, I suppose.”
“Rane,” she repeated, rolling the name around in her mouth. It sounded strange, coming from her lips. Melodic, as if she’d shaped it out of the same spun, gossamer glass that formed her city. “Yes.”
I shared some of the fish with her, watching her devour it. I still had more questions, but their answers would come in time. For the moment, I just watched her eat, and let my mind wonder what she might see, what she could tell me.
An uplander, here, in my house. It seemed impossible.