Mira tried to protest when Drey offered to teach her how to take care of his herb gardens. She explained that she was only going to be there for a few weeks, and a simple job that required little to no training would be best. Anything more would just be wasting his time since she wouldn’t be there long enough to make it worth it.
He just laughed and said if she learned something new, then it wasn’t a waste of time. Even if she never needed to know what he could teach her, it would still be worth it just to grow in a new direction.
So she found herself in a garden, alluringly close to him, for several hours while Drey explained various plants and their properties. He stressed most heavily the ones that weren’t safe, especially those that were easy to mistake for other plants. It was like being in college all over again.
None of her professors had been quite so charming or, if she was being honest with herself, so freaking hot. At times, he was so close that it was hard to think about anything else, and Mira became acutely aware that it had been a long time since she’d gotten any.
Every time the serpent wrapped around her arm shifted in place though, it reminded her that it would be a terrible idea to form any sort of attachments with Drey or anyone else. For one thing, these people looked human, but she didn’t know that they actually were. So far, she hadn’t gotten sick from being around the people of the new world, but sex carried its own set of risks, doubly so in her situation.
She wasn’t worried about getting pregnant. Her shot was still good for another few months, though without a calendar, she had to admit she wasn’t sure exactly when she was due to renew it. But health risks aside, it would just complicate her life in a way she didn’t need. Besides, it wasn’t like she was going to have a long-term interplanetary relationship with a guy from an alternate dimension once she did finally get back home.
That’s what she told herself, anyway. When she was shoulder-to-shoulder with Drey looking at some leafy stalk with little white flowers at the end while he explained about how to pick them without touching the flowers, it was easy to forget all the rationalizations. She was pretty sure he knew it, too.
Drey didn’t make a move, or anything that could even be taken as an invitation for her to make a move on him. In its own way, that was oddly comforting. It left her feeling like she was in control of the situation. He simply explained, demonstrated, and had her practice. Then, once they were done, he made her recite back everything dangerous about the herb garden before leaving her with instructions to weed it and harvest the plants that were ready.
The whole process took about six hours, and when she was done, Drey helped her clean all the weeds up and haul them to a compost heap. While they worked, he quizzed on her on the various plants she’d dealt with. Mira’s answers weren’t perfect, but where she made mistakes, he corrected her.
Not once did Drey show impatience or condescension toward her, which was a trait Mira would have given a great deal to impart in some of her college professors. When the day was over, he dropped ten spanners into her hand and thanked her for a job well done.
Mira tried to protest that it was too much for what she did, but he just laughed her away and informed her that it was rare to find anybody to help him who had a delicate touch. Most of his helpers were dismissed because they inevitably mangled the gardens.
So Mira took his money and his thanks, and she purchased a room at Rohaim’s nameless inn. The next day, Drey started teaching her about his second herb garden, and the day after that they moved on to green house one. All in all, it wasn’t a bad life. The work wasn’t anything she’d ever thought she’d enjoy, but the company was exceedingly fine and the pay was adequate to her needs.
* * *
“Drey! Drey! Come quick!”
Drey looked up from where they were planting a blooming shrub that had outgrown the pot it had lived in. A middle-aged man with a thick beard and a pronounced limp was hobbling toward them. He waved a hand frantically and beckoned for Drey as he closed in.
“What’s going on?” Mira asked.
“Some sort of emergency,” Drey said, distracted. “Someone sick, maybe. No… that’s Lamir running this way. Someone got hurt while they were out hunting.”
Drey rattled off a list of herbs for Mira to gather and bring to the house, then jogged off to meet Lamir. The two of them ran off together, leaving Mira alone. She grabbed a basket and started packing it.
By the time she’d starting making her way back up to the house, the arbor’s workers had all stopped working and were gossiping while they stared at the house. A few of them smirked at her as she walked by, and a whole new round of whispering started up behind her.
Mira refused to look at them as she walked by. It would only feed into whatever rumors were spreading. Once she was out of sight though, she stopped and let out a huge sigh. It was like being in high school all over again. Or maybe Drey just had a rightfully earned reputation and they were making an entirely logical, if wrong, conclusion.
As she got closer to the house, a pain filled scream came out of the open window, followed by several men shouting. She picked Drey’s voice out of the noise, and at least two other people. The scream came again, but muffled this time.
Mira came through the door to find a young man on the table being held down by two other men and a leather strap clenched between his teeth. Drey was leaning over him with a pair of tweezers, rooting around in the man’s stomach. Blood covered the man, the table, and Drey’s hands. As Mira watched, Drey extracted a four inch long sliver of wood and dropped it into a bowl.
The man bucked as the wood came free, but the other men, including Lamir, held him steady. Another muffled scream filled the kitchen, somehow much louder than it had been outside. Mira flinched at the sound before steeling herself and crossing the kitchen to set the basket on the counter behind Drey.
“Thank you, Mira,” he said, without looking up. “That’s the last of the big ones. They don’t appear to have ruptured anything, thank the Fourth Son for that. Let me finish cleaning this out and we’ll set the leg next.”
The man said something around the leather strap that might have been agreement, but Drey didn’t wait for him to clarify. He spent the next few minutes dabbing away blood and fishing out small chips of wood until he finally straightened up and said, “There. I think that’s the last of it. How’s that arumin leaf? You’ve been quieter, but I’m not sure if it’s because it’s not hurting as much with all the big pieces out or because the herb is numbing you.”
“Na-uum,” the man said around the strap.
“Numb? Good. This next part is going to hurt anyway. Lamir, move here to the leg. There, good. Ok, on three, push down. Ready?”
Setting the bone back in place produced a whole new level of screaming, one that almost drove Mira out of the kitchen. She held her position though, even though she didn’t need to be there. She just didn’t want Drey thinking less of her when she ran away, which sounded stupid when she finally admitted it to herself.
She had to remind herself, again, that there wasn’t anything between them, that there couldn’t be anything between them even if he was interested, and that all complications aside, she wasn’t sure that it would be a good idea anyway. Gossip was gossip, but when everyone in town seemed to have the same read on Drey, it probably wasn’t a good idea to just ignore it.
Mira pushed her concerns from her mind and helped Drey pack herbs into the man’s stomach wound and create poultices for later use. When they got the room cleared out and the blood cleaned off, Drey flopped down with an exhausted, “Oomph.”
Mira slid into the chair opposite him. “That was… messy. What happened?”
“Hunting accident. The guy got panicked by something and fell into a gully running away, hit a broken tree branch on the way down that punctured his stomach, and broke his leg on the landing. Good thing he wasn’t alone out there or he’d probably have died.”
“Did he say what scared him?”
Drey frowned. “Well, he said it was a demon, but I don’t know. The seltharis blossoms I grow all over the area keeps the weaker ones away. Even the strong ones don’t like the scent of it. He was probably just jumping at shadows.”
“The blue flowers all over town, you mean?”
“Yes. Demons dislike them. I’ve seeded the forest with them as well. It’s not a perfect defense, of course, but it does keep the lesser, unthinking variety of demon from harassing us. And if it was anything stronger, I can’t imagine it would have just let the hunters go after being spotted.”
Mira didn’t say anything, but she could think of a reason a demon or two might be lurking near the town. Of course, the ones with an interest in her looked more or less human. Still, it might be something she needed to worry about.
* * *
Mira left early that afternoon. When Drey asked if something was wrong, she just said that the excitement had tired her out. He accepted her excuse at face value, handed over her pay for the day, and advised a good meal and a hot, relaxing bath. Mira smiled and very carefully didn’t tell him she’d have one if he joined her.
Once she was away from the man, it was easier to clear her head and get her hormones back under control. There was just something about his presence that was electric. It sent shivers right through her, but as soon as he was out of sight, it was appalling to look back at her behavior. Drey had some serious pheromones going on.
The hunting accident was the gossip of the evening at the inn. By the time Mira had eaten her dinner, she’d learned where the gully was, that the injured man’s name was Faldur, now being called Faldur the Faller, that he was unmarried, that there was a demon lurking in the wood, that it was actually a wild animal, that he’d actually gotten into a fight and been pushed by one of the other hunters, and a dozen other theories.
On the off chance that it was a demon though, Mira wanted to see for herself. That gave her a pause once she realized that she wasn’t really afraid. She’d gone through too much to be scared of a shadowy demon figure that didn’t attack on sight, that was more rumor than fact. Whatever it was, if it even existed, it obviously wasn’t in the area to kill.
Finding the gully proved to be more of a challenge than she’d expected it to be. Evening turned into twilight, and then into nightfall, before Mira was forced to admit that she was well and thoroughly lost. She wasn’t even sure which direction to go to eventually even cross the road, let alone how to get back to Rohaim.
“Stupid idea,” she said, cursing herself bitterly. “Couldn’t just leave well enough alone, could you?”
She was so busy beating herself up that Mira was halfway through a field of ash before she realized it. There was no plant life at all there, just a sooty black clearing thirty feet wide with scorch marks on the tree trunks surrounding it.
Mira stood in the middle of the clearing and spun around. She wasn’t sure what she was looking for, and nothing jumped out at her. It was possible that the whole thing was just some sort of fluke or accident. A lightning bolt could have struck the clearing and caught the brush on fire until it had burned away, except that it hadn’t rained recently and it didn’t seem like the ash would have just sat undisturbed for weeks.
She didn’t think it was a campfire gone out of control either, though Mira didn’t know enough to rule it out for sure. That left a third option though: that someone had burned the clearing out deliberately. There was no reason she could think of for anyone to do that though.
The answer came to her when she reached the far side. There were only a few of them, tucked between some tree roots and easy to miss, but a handful of seltharis blossoms had escaped the fire. Someone had burned away a field of demon-repelling flowers.