Lorelei came to with Ziah’s hand pressed against her face. Her brow was furrowed with worry, and she bit a pouty lip. Straw slid under her hands as she tried to push herself up, and Ziah helped her lean against a pole in the barn.
Seamus’s voice echoed, sounding far off, “Oh, gods, have we broken her?”
“No,” Ziah spoke in a hushed tone and brushed Lorelei’s hair away from her face, “Not yet.”
“I’ve seen that before.” Lorelei focused on the boy standing over Ziah’s shoulder. He wore a slightly annoyed look and save for his dark hair falling in shaggy curls about his face, the teen looked nothing like a dog. A long scar ran from his forehead down to his cheek, the eye in its center milky, distorting the pupil. He snarled, “That’s a human, isn’t it?”
The woman shook her head, “She’s not staying, don’t worry. I know people come here to get away from her kind.”
Lorelei felt nauseated, but not at a loss for offense, even if she had no idea what they meant. She tried focusing back on Ziah, the woman’s mass of black hair haloing around her like a great shadow, but she couldn’t muster any words.
“You like humans well enough,” Seamus said with a little laugh, and Lorelei could make out his pudgy form standing behind Ziah.
“Sure I do,” the woman fanned at Lorelei’s face, “but it’s a unique sentiment to have around here. She can’t hack it, I mean, she fainted at the sight of Grier.”
“Yeah, but that’s what happens to all the ladies,” the boy grinned, squatting down next to her and sticking his nose inches from Lorelei’s, “You wanna scratch behind my ears? It really gets my foot thumping.” She tried recoiling, but instead just banged her head on the pole behind her.
Ziah grabbed the front of his shirt and shoved him with a force that shocked Lorelei, throwing the boy so that he skidded backward in the hay. She acted as if she had exerted no energy at all, “If Seamus would have just let me memory blot her to begin with, we wouldn’t be in this mess. Now it’s going to be doubly hard.”
Lorelei’s vision finally stabilized, though now her head throbbed. She saw the tall man, Ren he’d been called, come to stand beside Seamus. Pushing silvery hair behind an ear with one hand revealing its length once more, he held the newly-hatched creature with too many limbs in his other, “I’m no apothecarian, Ziah, but memory blotting is said to be very dangerous, not to mention that’s not exactly your forte. What do you plan on doing with her after?”
Ziah glanced over her shoulder, “Well, send her on her way, of course.”
“To where?” His voice was flat, and he stood very still. “She may not remember where she was going or from where she came.”
“Well, that’s the idea.”
“Before she came to us.” The creature he held made a little but piercing chirp.
Though Lorelei thought she might like to forget from where she’d come before the manor, she didn’t dare say that aloud. When Ziah looked back to her, her eyes were hollow, her skin a bit sallow, and the smile she had worn the night before was gone. She was still beautiful, but she looked as though she had weathered a great storm.
“There are side effects as well: sudden blackouts, long-term memory loss, personality changes,” he looked down his long nose at Lorelei, “It seems you would be possibly wrecking one of the…acceptable humans and sending her off into danger. Perhaps we should consult Conrad for an alternative.”
“No!” Ziah cut the air with her hand, “No one else can know about this,” she glared at the boy who was still picking himself up off the ground, “Enough already do.”
“The manor did open itself up to her,” Seamus ventured carefully, clasping his hands before him, “Maybe, well…she can’t be all human, can she?”
“I don’t know,” Ziah growled from the back of her throat, and Lorelei could have sworn she saw a flicker of red flash in her dark eyes, “It’s your manor, don’t you know?”
He laughed, “Oh, dear, no: I don’t pretend to know what it’s thinking.”
The woman rolled her eyes and mumbled something less than complementary as Seamus went on. Ren’s voice hummed another suggestion, and Grier leaned in to Ziah and began to complain that he could be trusted with secrets as he told her one he’d never shared before. Their voices stacked atop one another until Lorelei could understand none of it. With a groan, she sat up a little straighter, “Um, excuse me?” When they only got louder, she cleared her throat and tried again, “Is anyone interested in what I’m thinking?”
All four sets of eyes fell on her and as they went silent, she could feel her heart thumping against her chest just as the hatchling had done earlier. “Well, uh,” she swallowed, “I was thinking I could stay.”
“Splendid!” Seamus threw his hands up and clapped Ren on the back. The tall man’s face changed, nostrils flaring and lips in a snarl, but only for an instant.
“Lorelei,” Ziah spoke very carefully, putting a hand on her shoulder, “What do…what do you think is happening here?”
Lorelei looked from Ziah’s otherworldly beauty, to the seven plus foot man with pointed ears, to the man with a flame-colored goatee, to the scarred boy who had only very recently been a dog. She squinted, “Aliens?”
The boy immediately burst into hysterics and threw himself onto his back again. Seamus chuckled and Ren’s lips may have even twitched, but Ziah cocked her head, “Would you be okay with that?”
“Well,” Lorelei thought a moment. The place was obviously secluded and perhaps even unreachable by anyone else. It was almost ideal if not for the nagging feeling that its inhabitants might permanently damage her in trying to get rid of her. She swallowed, “You haven’t, like, vaporized me yet. So yeah, aliens are fine.” The woman’s face softened, and Lorelei saw her chance, “And you have that open position. You said you need someone, and I need a job.”
“Well, we’re not aliens,” Ziah laughed lightly through her nose, color coming into her cheeks, “And it’s not quite as easy as that.”
“Sure it is!” Seamus leaned forward, grabbing Ziah’s shoulders, “You’re hired!”
The woman shook him off, “Gods, Seamus! And what’s Arista going to say?”
Suddenly, the look on his face ran away, and he fell into a shadowy grimace, “Didn’t think a tha…”
Lorelei screwed up her courage, pushing herself up onto her knees and with Ziah’s help came to stand before them. “Look,” she narrowed her brow, making her best serious face, “I can’t go back to where I came from, and I…I don’t have anywhere else to go. I don’t even,” she felt a sudden wave of sadness as the words came, realizing the truth for the first time, “I don’t even have anyone to tell anything to, so your secrets–government experiments, mutants, whatever–are safe with me.”
They were left in a somber silence. The girl looked at their faces again, an odd mixture of guilt and unease across them. Any fear she might have felt before at their strangeness left her.
“Ziah!” A small voice sounded from the yard as the girl from the kitchen came jogging up to them. Her face was red and eyes watery, and she grabbed the side of the barn with a huff, “Some of the men from the convention are here.”
Ziah’s eyes widened, “The convention,” and she slapped her forehead.
“They’re kind of grumpy.” Hotaru bit her lip.
The woman rolled her eyes, “Of course they are. Grab some cider, the strongest stuff, and bring it to the white room.”
“How many bottles? There’s six of them.”
“Twelve.” Ziah changed suddenly, her voice less ragged as she focused on those around her, “Grier, help her, and on the way let Bur know we’re going to need those rooms a lot earlier than we thought, probably in about three hours. Seamus, you can keep them distracted for a few minutes, right? Don’t mention that they’re early, just be your charming self. Ren, can you grab a sample of the latest harvest, and get it to the white room? No greens; root veggies and stuff we can ferment only. Then, um, make yourself scarce. And if anyone hands any of you a rock, just take it: trust me.” The group looked at her with wide eyes for a moment then she huffed, “Well, get going!” With that, they scattered.
“And you,” Ziah rounded on Lorelei and she stood very straight in response, “I need your help.”
Ziah’s long strides were difficult to keep pace with as they crossed the yard to the side porch of the manor. They entered into a short hall that lead to a storeroom filled with foods, but swept by too quickly for Lorelei to take note of anything but a spicy, earthy smell, like freshly cut grass sprinkled with paprika. The kitchen lay on the other side where the chef was leaning over a large, bubbling pot. “Ando, can you whip up something meaty in a hurry?”
“Oh, little girl is back,” the chef pointed his ladle at Lorelei, thick brown gravy flicking off its end, “but she’s not got my eggs, still!”
Ziah ignored him, rummaging around the shelves, “Maybe like a fondue situation?”
“You sure about that?”
The woman revealed three loaves of crusty bread, “If it’s hot they’re less likely to throw it.” Then, she slung the loaves at him.
Ando grabbed each out of the air in succession, holding all three up. That’s when Lorelei saw, he had three–no–four arms. But there was no time to react, as Ziah rushed her out of the kitchen and through a side door into another hall, and, really after seeing a dog turn into a boy, what was a couple more arms? From somewhere on the other side of the wall, a chorus of gruff voices sounded, but Ziah was undeterred from her course, taking them around a corner and into another room.
The white room was just that: white. Its walls were bare above dark wainscotting and save for some rather sad, folded furniture stacked in the corner, it was empty. “The tables, set them up in a long row just here.” Lorelei didn’t hesitate to oblige and went for the furniture, but the moment she touched them she was zapped.
She recoiled, stuck her finger in her mouth, then shook her head and went for them again. Again, she felt electricity, but this time it buzzed through her, almost pleasantly like the nighttime hum of a car’s backseat on a road trip. The two moved the pieces into the room’s center, circling the table with simple foldout chairs. It was not a very impressive sight.
“Good,” Ziah nodded, though Lorelei thought it was nothing in comparison to the colorful, eclectic dining room she’d been in earlier. “Now stand back.” Beside the door they had entered was a single light switch, though the room had no fixtures. “We’re looking for something rugged, sturdy, just very…masculine.” Then she flipped the switch.
The room came alive with a jolt through the air. Light flashed before them, and a sound like crumbling buildings emanated from behind the walls. Lorelei froze, and the room around her moved. The white plaster replaced itself with rough-cut stones, vines crawling in through their cracks. A massive, iron fixture formed on the ceiling and thick, yellowed candles on it sparked to life. The tables shook, growing sturdy, dark legs covered in knotted bark, and iron bars grew from the backs of the chairs into rough angled shapes.
Lorelei blinked. She wanted to again touch the table, to feel the wood and know it was real, to run her hands across the walls and pluck a leaf off the vines, to scratch at one of the bowls laid on the table and smell the clay, but Ziah’s voice broke her just as she was about to take a step. “Too rugged,” she said to, apparently, the room, “Maybe take it back a notch.” She flipped the switch again.
The air sizzled, the walls cracked, and there was another blinding light. The stone on the walls crumbled away into dust, leaving behind a pink floral patterned wallpaper. The plates replaced themselves with delicate, white pieces, fluted champagne glasses and gold utensils on either side. Lacy tulle shot out from the ceiling in swooping pastels and the faint sound of birds floated somewhere in the farthest corners of the room, but none were seen.
“Very funny,” Ziah smirked, glancing at Lorelei, and she returned it. “It knows what I mean. Once more, shall we?”
With a final flip of the switch, the room changed again. This time, a deep maroon color dripped down the walls, painting over the pinks, and landscape paintings and ancient weaponry expanded from nothingness to hang there. The tables twisted into a sturdy oak, and the chairs melted together into communal benches with intricate carvings of deer and evergreens. The champagne flutes shifted themselves in steins, and at the far end of the room there was a pop and a stone fireplace roared to life.
“That’s more like it.”
Of course there were no words, and even if she could find them, Lorelei knew she couldn’t muster the voice to say them. Instead, she blinked, felt her heart pound, and knew, at the very least, the people she’d met today were probably not government experiments. This was the kind of technology that should have already been monopolized upon.
The door behind them opened, and Hotaru and Grier entered with armfulls of thick bottles full of a buttery-colored liquid. “Bur’s a little pissy.” Grier told them as he placed the bottles along the table.
“Yeah, well,” Ziah shrugged, “what else is new? Go on out front and start taking their things upstairs. Hotaru, Ando should be cooking us up something.”
“Right,” the small girl, who Lorelei looked at closely but only noted two arms, nodded and slipped back through the door with Grier right behind her, both nearly knocking into Ren’s towering figure.
The man handed off the basket he carried to Lorelei, and she wobbled to stay on her feet under its weight. Inside, it held potatoes, apples, red and purple berries, and a handful of other unrecognizable chunks she assumed were edible. There was a little screech and from Ren’s shirt pocket the creature she had hatched popped its head out. Ren gently pushed it back down, but gave her a knowing look before disappearing again without a word.
Ziah directed her to place the basket on a side table and help her uncork the bottles. When she caught a wiff of the liquid, her knees went weak and she had to grab the table to sturdy herself. Ziah laughed, “Yeah, don’t drink this straight. One part to ten parts water, for you.”
Lorelei nodded, and Ziah stared back at her. She looked as if she might say something when Hotaru slipped back inside pushing a cart covered in trays of cut up meats, breads, and cheeses, and three steaming pots of heavenly smelling goo suspended on racks over stubby candles.
Just as the woman finished directing them to arrange the food on the table and Hotaru wheeled out the cart, the sudden rumble of voices came from behind the door on the far end of the room. An Irish lilt could be heard amongst them, coming closer by the second.
“Here we go.” Ziah grabbed Lorelei’s elbow and pulled her to the back of the room, far from the door.
“Don’t be too surprised, now.”
The door burst open, and there stood Seamus, smiling broadly, but he was alone save for the thunderous voices that surrounded him. Just as Lorelei was sure that the guests were invisible, she caught a glimpse of something scurry along the side of the table and then, in a flash, a man no taller than three feet was extending a hand up to her.
She started, then quickly took it, his grip firm and nearly pulling her downward as he shook, “It’s a pleasure, lass! Now, what’s to eat?”