The Buckle and Chain
wasn’t the best tavern in Almund, but it was far from the worst. Natalia made a habit of stopping through most of them, listening for enticing bits and pieces of information that she could use to her advantage in one way or another. Most of the time, she found the type of information that would be more useful in the future, but occasionally a stray nugget led her on an adventure.
One such rumor
had come to her attention recently - in another tavern - regarding a local mage that seemed to be able to get his hands on anything. The young woman kept her ears open for anything that might confirm or deny the whispers. Thus far, Natalia had come up empty, but Grayson, annoying and ever encouraging, told her that sometimes things took time to reveal themselves, so she kept digging.
That trial, she indulged in something of a personal preference. Keeping to herself was becoming a challenge the more prolonged their stay in Almund was. While Natalia had no desire to go against her cousin’s wishes on the matter, there was a need for conversation with someone other
than him. Even light banter was preferable to subjecting herself to standing back and observing things happening around her, worried she might accidentally let something slip about who she was.
There was one place in Almund that would satisfy her need to engage another – The Buckle and Chain. Natalia had spent some time there and become friendly with the owner, Tilda. Tilda was a bit older than the young woman, and the pair had conversed on a wide variety of subjects, making Natalia feel somewhat comfortable in her presence. The woman never asked probing questions, and if the conversation did
steer in a more personal direction, Tilda didn’t seem to mind Natalia reversing course, back to safer topics.
Stepping into the tavern, she immediately made haste for the small section in the back, set aside for the quieter crowd. It was sparsely populated that evening, with pairs of people dotting the room, all seemingly engaged in intimate, quiet conversations. The young woman found a small table near the edge of the room, allowing her to view the area without being committed to sitting right in the middle of it.
As she sat, a familiar voice called out to her. “Liselle! I’m so happy you stopped in.”
Turning, knowing she would see the friendly face of Tilda strolling into the room, Natalia gave her a quick smile to acknowledge the greeting. Watching the woman deliver food to a table, she reminded herself of her alias – Liselle – and tried to recall what she knew about the tavern owner.
In their previous conversations, Tilda had shown herself to be friendly and charming with a giving heart. At least that’s how she seemed. Her main interests were beer and men, and Natalia couldn’t quite tell which one she was more passionate about. Having told Natalia stories of her youth, the younger woman understood that Tilda had inherited the tavern from her father and grew up there.
By the time the tavern owner approached her table, Natalia felt ready for a conversation. “Hello, Tilda. I found myself with a few breaks to spare and thought to swing past and see how you were.”
It wasn’t a lie. Not totally. There was a genuine interest in how Tilda was, but there were other additional needs her visitor didn't feel the need to share.
Tilda’s smile was a bit infectious, as was her charismatic personality. ”Give me a few bits, and I’ll sit down with you. I need to find someone to take over for a while. Did you want your usual cider?”
Nodding in response, Natalia watched the woman depart for the central portion of the building, which by the noise coming from that part of the structure led her to believe that things were starting to get a bit rowdy. After all, it was
a tavern, but she had to admit that Tilda managed to keep the more violent nonsense to a minimum.
Returning quickly with two ciders, the woman took a seat opposite Natalia and sighed deeply. “Crazy trial today. I do love the Buckle, but it’s exhausting work sometimes.”
The young woman could see how that could be the case and commented in return, offering a smile. “I suppose then it’s a good thing you enjoy the work, or else there would be minimal upside. Making money doing what you are passionate about, I would think, is a good thing?”
Tilda shrugged but nodded in response. “It is. But, enough about me. What have you been up to? And where is that brother of yours? I haven’t seen Gareth in a few trials. Tell him he should swing past and see me.”
The woman, of course, was talking about Grayson, who in Almund was known as Gareth. Tilda was very fond of him, and as far as Natalia could tell, the feeling was mutual, although a passing flirtation for both.
The subject, however, was dangerous territory, for the topic of men usually led Tilda to ask her younger acquaintance about her own romantic endeavors, which Natalia had zero interest in talking about. Zero interest and nothing to report, if one wished to be precise.
Silently hoping the subject would move to something more mundane, Tilda held to form and glanced across the table at her visitor. “So, Liselle, tell me why I haven’t seen you with any eligible young bachelors in here? I know of several that you could have a lot of fun with?”
The mischievous glint in Tilda’s eyes told her everything she needed to know about what sort of fun she was inferring, prompting Natalia to come up with a counter quickly.
“Well, I’m just passing through. I’m not sure it would be wise to get involved with anyone when I am just leaving again.”
Quickly, she took a drink from the mug, hoping the answer would dissuade the woman from further interrogation, but Tilda’s wasn’t satisfied with that response. “Bull, my dear. I never said, ‘get involved.’ I said, ‘have fun.’ Two different topics in my experience. “
Laughing lightly, Natalia wondered if Tilda ever would ‘get involved’ with someone, seriously, but the thought was a fleeting one as she pondered her next reply. “I suppose I’ve never been a ‘have fun’ kind of girl. Responsibilities and all that. It was never encouraged, and truthfully, at least in this matter, I’m not sure I could be like that.”
Keeping her comments as vague as she could, Natalia thought about her past. The temptation of romance had never surfaced in her life, but the young woman held out a tiny sliver of hope that maybe sometrial, she would get to experience what it felt like. There had never been a hope of that growing up, knowing precisely what her family expected of her. Now, there were challenges abound, but still, maybe there was someone out there.
Snickering lightly, Tilda took a drink of her cider, seemingly considering Natalia’s words. “Well, responsibility is all well and good, but one needs some balance. And fun. My philosophy is, try to have a little fun every trial.
Observing Natalia, the woman offered up something else. “I know people. I talk to others all the time and have spent my life figuring them out. You see all sorts in a place like this, and when I look at you, my educated guess is that you grew up repressing who you really are, beneath all those layers of self-protection, and don’t know how to let other people see it.”
Natalia did her best to hide the surprise she felt at what the other woman said but knew that there was a lot of truth in it. Trying to fake a bemused expression, she gave her a smile as words popped into her mind, attempting to shift the focus of the conversation back to Tilda.
“Being around such a variety of people has gifted you with some interesting insight, I have to admit.”
It was a small concession, and one Tilda appeared to take no offense at, gazing even more intently at her companion. “I see what I see. I’ve seen others like you, and what I know is that your time will come. Something will happen. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe next season, or arc, but soon, Idalos will get to see the real Liselle….or whatever your name is.”
Smirking at Natalia, Tilda took another drink of her cider. “Don’t worry. You’ll get better at it. Telling untruths, that is. Your secret is safe with me. Everyone is entitled to their secrets.”
Smiling at the woman, Natalia was slightly disappointed that her ruse hadn't fooled Tilda but realized that it was just something else she needed to work on.
The conversation finally moved on to more routine matters, but Tilda's words stuck with Natalia. Something was going to happen, and hopefully, whatever it was, would pull the young woman out of the quagmire she seemingly found her way into.
Before parting for the evening, as Tilda rose to say her farewells, Natalia's hand brushed the woman's arm gently. "Thank you for the conversation, Tilda. It was...enlightening."
Valid words, they were - it had
been enlightening, in more than one way.
Gazing down at the ring
adorning the hand that had touched Tilda's arm, Natalia tried to interpret what the ring had told her. Ivan had said
that she would be able to use the ring to tell what people were capable of, but when she touched the tavern owner's arm, all she saw was a rowdy bar room, full of people. It could have meant a few different things, but based on what Natalia knew of the woman, she interpreted it as being good with people.
Realizing she needed more practice with the ring, Natalia sat back in her chair, continuing to consider what Tilda had said and draining the rest of her cider. "Interesting,"
she mumbled to herself.
All she could do was wait and see if the woman's prediction came true.