The town of Rohaim was out of place with Mira’s experiences so far. It had a peaceful, idyllic vibe to it. Trellises of vibrant flowers, in purples and blues, reds and oranges, adorned the houses. In one spot, there was an archway that rose twenty feet into the air with flowering vines wrapped around it.
“This place is gorgeous,” Mira said.
Shy looked bored. “I’m glad you like it. You’ll be here for a few weeks while I’m busy.”
“You know I don’t have any money, right?”
“I’m sure you’ll find work. Look at the far end of town. They’re building something there. Why don’t you go see if they need a paid laborer?”
Mira looked past the flowers to the back end of the square, where five or six men were hauling in lumber, canvas, and buckets filled with some viscous liquid. Another two or three were on ladders or scaffolding while they assembled… something. “Are they building a statue made of out of wood?”
“Probably an effigy of Piroku. This town must still do Piroku Festivals when a red moon cycle ends.”
“And who or what is Piroku?” Mira asked.
“One of the five sons, patron of the Toshi clan. Back when they still existed, one of their primary duties was shielding settlements from yith when Huervas is in the night sky.”
“Whatever any of that means,” Mira muttered to herself. It didn’t matter. Whatever they were celebrating wouldn’t change her situation. She just needed to keep herself alive long enough to reach the end.
Still, it was a pretty enough town. If the townsfolk were friendly, Rohaim might even be a contender for nicest village so far. That having been said, Mira wasn’t looking forward to a week or two of intense manual labor or getting her ass grabbed by drunkards while she waited tables.
“What if I-” The words caught in Mira’s throat. She turned to Shy, only to find the demon had disappeared. “Son of a bitch. Where did she go?”
But wherever it was, Shy had gotten there quickly. It wasn’t the first time she’d disappeared, though Mira was baffled as to how she’d pulled it off. Waking up and finding Shy gone was one thing, but Batman-ing her in the middle of a conversation was just rude.
Grumbling to herself and calling Shy several choice names, Mira walked alone into the town.
* * *
As it turned out, the men constructing the Piroku effigy didn’t need or want any help. With their direction and a resigned sigh, Mira turned to the town’s inn, a two-story affair tucked away from the main square with a weather beaten old sign whose name had long since been worn away.
Unfortunately for her, there were more employees inside than there were customers. None of them looked busy either. As soon as the door opened, four different sets of eyes snapped over to look at Mira.
“Meal or drink, or both?” one of the girls asked. “Or… room, maybe? Haven’t had anyone want one of those in the last week.”
Another girl snorted. “Can’t blame them for not wanting to travel, all things considered.”
“No, I suppose not. But here’s an unfamiliar face, so hopefully things are going to pick up again soon.”
“Um, sorry,” Mira cut in. “I’m actually looking for some short-term work. Are any of you the owner?”
“Nah, he’s off at the arbor right now, but I can tell you already what the answer will be.”
Empty tables and idle workers meant exactly what Mira was afraid they would. There was no work to be had, and she had no money to spare. If she didn’t come up with something, she’d be spending the next week or two sleeping under hedges and foraging for nuts and berries in the woods.
The serving girl tilted her head to the side and pointed over Mira’s shoulder. “If you’re looking for work though, maybe you should head to the arbor too. That’s what the boss is over there for, to see if he can find something for us to do now. Can’t say I’m looking forward to climbing ladders and picking fruit myself, but you do what you got to.”
“What… uh… is an arbor?” Mira asked. She wondered if they meant an orchard, but if that was the case, she didn’t know why they didn’t just call it an orchard then.
“Drey’s place. He does all the flowers around town, grows medicinal herbs, crops, fruit. The man’s thumb is so green that it goes all the way up to his elbow. Weather’s starting to turn toward harvest anyway, so he needs lot of help with his right now.”
That sounded like something Mira could do. Hopefully this Drey person was paying decent wages. Hopefully he wasn’t already swamped with other people looking for work. Hopefully Shy would get her ass back in a hurry and it wouldn’t much matter.
After getting directions and thanking the women, Mira hurried across town to the outskirts where she found what looked like several fields worth of different kinds of gardens, orchards, and green houses. Dozens of people were working to bring in fruits and vegetables from the arbor, but no one stood out as the person in charge.
“Excuse me,” Mira called out to the nearest person. “I’m looking for Drey. Can you tell me where he is?”
“Check green house three. If he’s not there, he’s probably up in his house,” the man called back. He waved a hand toward the row of green houses past the garden, then off to the far end of the orchard where Mira could just barely see a cottage through the trees.
“Thanks,” she said.
The green houses had numbers painted on the door in black, making it easy to find the one she wanted. When she poked her head in though, there was nobody in sight. Instead, several rows of planters had small leafy plants growing in them. Bags that stank of fertilizer were piled in one corner next to a rack full of hand tools for digging, pruning, and other uses Mira could only guess at.
Just as she was about to leave, she caught movement out of the corner of her eye. When she turned to face it, she saw nothing. “Hello?” she said. “I’m looking for Drey. Is somebody in here?”
The flicker of movement came again, and this time she spotted what had made it. A planter on the right side wall had a bundle of stalks growing out of it, and each stalk had a series of bulbs attached that were shaking back and forth. As Mira watched, one stalk bent away from the bunch, then snapped back up and set all the bulbs to rattling.
“What in the world is that?” she said aloud.
Curious, Mira crossed the green house floor to get a better look. Up close, she could see that the stalks weren’t actually moving. The bulbs themselves shook back and forth, seemingly at random. Occasionally, an entire stalk’s set would jiggle in more or less the same direction, which would cause the stalk to jerk. When it snapped back, that set the entire planter to bouncing around.
Mira reached a finger out to poke one of the bulbs, but before she could touch it, a voice behind her said, “I wouldn’t if I were you.”
She jumped and attempted to spin around at the same time. The result was her tripping over her own feet and tumbling face first toward the planter. A pair of strong hands caught her and pulled her a full step back before releasing her.
“Easy there,” a man said. “Sorry about scaring you. Don’t touch the maljubo without gloves though. The bulbs are coated in a skin irritant that causes inflammation and eventually muscle paralysis. If you’d fallen into that, gotten hit by that many at once, you likely wouldn’t have been able to stand up and it’s possible that your lungs would have stopped working.”
“Jesus,” Mira said. “Why is something like that in here? Why isn’t there a warning label on it?”
“Ahem.” A hand reached past her to touch a sign hung over the planter. It explicitly stated that the plant was dangerous to the touch. It even, in smaller print, outlined the dangers the man had just warned her about.
Mira felt her face flush. “Sorry,” she said as she spun around. The man took a step back as she did, and it was a good thing too. He was tall, well muscled with broad shoulders. Sandy hair hung down to his jaw, framing a face that was entirely too handsome to be real. Mira’s blush deepened another several degrees.
He gave her a lopsided grin. “Name’s Drey. I heard there was a girl looking for me. That you?”
“Um, yeah. Yeah, that’s me.” Mira blinked up at him. She belatedly added, “I’m Mira.”
“Well, Mira, what can I do for you?”
“I’m, uh, looking for work.” Mira was having problems remembering exactly what she’d been planning to say to Drey when she met him. Certainly, she hadn’t imagined she would be stammering and blushing like she had the time she’d been a freshman in highschool and asked out a crush two years ahead of her. That hadn’t ended well for her.
“It’s a good time of year for that,” Drey said. “Lots to be done around here. Normally it’s just me and a few assistants, but come the end of summer, it’s time to get everything taken in. Tell me, do you know much about botany, or are you just looking to pick the trees and can the preserves?”
“Uh, a little, I guess.” Mira shot a glance back at the plant, trying to remember what Drey had called it. “Maybe not as much as I should though.”
Once she thought of it, she realized that what little she did know probably wasn’t that useful. Some things seemed to be the same, but she’d already seen plenty of food she didn’t recognize, made from animals she didn’t have names for, and that wasn’t even counting the demons and fairies and God knew what else.
“Right. Let’s head up to the house and we can discuss it,” Drey said. “I’ve got a pot of tea brewing right now, so I need to get back there anyway.”
Mira followed him back out the green house door, grateful that at least with him leading, he couldn’t see how badly she was still blushing.
* * *
Drey’s house was unique in many ways. For one thing, bundles of dried herbs were hung up in almost every room on the ground floor. It didn’t make the place smell bad, necessarily, but it certainly smelled strong.
Another unique feature was that he ran something like a doctor’s office out of it, dispensing medicinal herbs to the citizens of Rohaim. It was readily apparent that they relied on him and appreciated him, though the older lady sitting in his parlor took maybe more of an interest in him than was strictly professional.
“Widow Shaw,” Drey said by way of introduction. “And this is Mira, who has come to see me about finding some work.”
“Lucky to be her,” the widow said, a twinkle in her eye. “If I were thirty years younger, I’d work your fields all day long.”
Mira goggled at the old lady, but Drey just laughed and shook his head. “If you were thirty years younger, I’d have half a mind to let you. Though I don’t know that your husband would have appreciated it.”
“Hah! He’d have probably joined me. You’re pretty enough to turn anybody’s head.”
“I don’t know about all of that now. But let me get that tea and we’ll have a nice cup each.”
Drey swept out of the room with an easy smile and a laugh, leaving Mira to make awkward polite chat with the widow Shaw. The old lady was more concerned with watching Drey leave the room than chatting though.
She clucked her tongue once he was gone and lowered her voice to a stage whisper. “Rumor is his great grandmother was a dryad. They say that’s how he keeps all this going, that he inherited some magical skill with plants.”
She leaned back into her chair and flashed Mira a wicked grin. “Boy like him wouldn’t need to work though. There’s any number of nice women who’d snap him up in a second.”
“He is very tasty looking,” Mira admitted. She clapped her hand over her mouth and glanced at the doorway Drey had disappeared through. “You can’t tell him I said that!”
Widow Shaw laughed again. “Trust me, sweetie, he already knows.”
Drey came back with a platter containing a tea pot, three cups, and a tray containing a dozen different packs. “What will it be, ladies? Something sweet today?”
“Oh, it doesn’t matter. You know it’ll be too bitter to stand by the time you’re done with it,” Widow Shaw said.
Drey prepared their tea, then fetched a pack of herbs from their place on the drying line. Carefully, he counted out three leaves and added them to one cup. Widow Shaw watched him with a sad smile. “Better make it strong today,” she said. “It’s been a bad one.”
“Of course,” Drey said. He added one more. “That’s as much as it’s safe to take though. You really shouldn’t have this much thornleaf every day.”
“Or what, it’ll kill me? I’m seventy seven years old. If it means I can get out and around without much trouble for another year, I’ll take that over three years confined to a chair by the window, watching the world go by.”
“It’s your decision, of course.”
Drey served the tea, taking extra care with the widow’s. Mira found to her surprise that it was actually quite good. She hadn’t been much of a tea drinker during her college years. Caffeine, and thus coffee, took precedence. But when Drey offered to refill her cup, she didn’t think twice about letting him.
While they drank, the widow Shaw continued to flirt outrageously with him. Drey didn’t take offense to any of it, and indeed on several occasions came back even more over the top. It was obviously a familiar routine, playful and harmless. When the widow wasn’t looking though, Mira thought she caught a bit of sadness in his face.
After the tea was finished, the widow made her goodbyes and left. Drey let out a heavy sigh and watched her totter down the road back toward town. “She doesn’t have much left in her,” he told Mira. “And it’s a shame. The world will be a worse place without her. But, such is the way of life.”
He cleared aside the empty tea cups and leaned forward. His eyes, a deep chocolate brown, locked on her own. “Now then, what can I do for you?”