The guests were so packed with energy that Lorelei thought the whole room might break off and fly away from the manor. They were only six and on average stood level with her, well, hips, but their voices were deep and personalities huge.
Ziah gave a short welcoming speech and quickly directed them to the table so that in a matter of seconds they were seated and skewering hunks of meat and bread with whatever pointed utensil was closest. She explained over their rumble the origin of the cider, and they each took a stein to their lips. The room went silent as cups were drained then slammed onto the table, the group erupting in a raucous cheer, reaching past one another to pour themselves more.
“Lass!” the first who’d introduced himself to Lorelei turned from his seat and motioned to her, his accent even thicker than Seamus’s, and his smile wider. “You muss hava draught o this!” He offered her his stein, tiny eyes twinkling in a sea of bushy, chestnut hair.
She glanced at Ziah who was shaking her head, then back at the man, “No, thank you, but I can’t.”
“Aww,” he cocked his head, the two braids of his mustache swinging down into his great beard, tied off at the end with a green cord, “Come on, now!” He wore a suit with blue pinstripes, a yellow vest beneath, and one of his ears glittered with hoop piercings down its outer rim. He had small, round features enveloped in dark brown hair that was pulled into a ponytail at the nape of his neck.
“That’s very kind, but–” and then her stomach took that very inopportune moment to growl loud enough to be heard over the racket of the room.
The man shouted with glee, and a few of the others followed suit. He slipped down from his chair and waddled over to her, pushing her onto the bench beside his own seat. Lorelei shot a wild-eyed look at Ziah who was smirking, but just as she crossed her arms and leaned back, another of the men grabbed her elbow and dragged her to the table as well.
“Here, have that, lass,” the little man pressed a fork into Lorelei’s hand, a hunk of meat covered in a white, steaming sauce on its end. She looked to Ziah for permission, but the woman was busy trying to get another to stop pouring her a stein. Seamus sat at the head of the table and was already indulging himself. With a shrug, she popped it into her mouth, and the man cheered. “Now it’s a real party!”
Senses overwhelmed, Lorelei lost track of time. There had been singing, some even in languages she recognized, but mostly the sounds of foods being devoured and approving words. Eventually, Ziah stood, “Gentlemen, if you’ll please excuse us, we’re going to check on your rooms.”
The men let out a dramatic, collective groan, and Ziah hiccuped, then they cheered once again. Lorelei popped up from the table, or tried, the weight in her belly almost pulling her back down. As Seamus distracted them, the women slipped out the door at the room’s end, and Ziah fell against it with a sigh.
“Dwarves,” she moaned quietly, “they’re exhausting.”
“Dwarves?” Lorelei looked up and down the little hall they’d entered into, but it was empty, “I don’t think you’re supposed to call them that.”
“Hm?” the woman blinked as if seeing her for the first time, “Oh, no, probably not human ones.” She pushed herself off the door and began walking at a quick pace again.
Lorelei followed and they came out into the main foyer again. Grier leaned against the counter, still human, but perked up when he saw them.
“Stay,” she said to him, pointing to the desk, “and not a word to anyone about–” she motioned to Lorelei, “or so help me…”
“You’ll what?” Grier raised the brow over his whitened eye.
She grimaced, “You won’t like it.”
“Try me!” he shouted after her, but the women were already halfway up the stairs.
Ziah pressed a small, gold button set into the wall at the head of the stairs. She leaned into the grate above it, “Bur, how’s it coming?”
There’s was a shuffling sound from the other end, a knock, a yelp, then a small, feminine voice squeaked back, “How do you think?”
Ziah made a face at Lorelei, “Come on now, your team’s the best there is. It can’t be that bad!”
The voice grunted, “Well, of course!” Ziah winked. “But we could use some help. The dragon suite. Can you get that one for us?”
“Anything for you, dear.” The woman shrugged, motioning to Lorelei that it would be easy.
“And you know the Blue Room is empty, right?”
Ziah paused, opening and closing her mouth, “Yes, um, leave that one as is for now.”
Down a hall and up another flight, they came to a wing a bit grander than the others. Double doors lined the corridor, and each had different etchings running along the frames. They came to stop before a room with flames carved into the wood.
“I can’t remember who stayed here,” Ziah fished in her pocket and pulled out a key, “but this should be a breeze.”
The smell hit them first–wet, hot, rotting–and Lorelei gagged, her overly full belly even more of a burden. She feared looking in, but couldn’t look away once she did. A thick, green pus coated the surfaces, flecks of something yellow and metallic suspended within. Steam rose up from the floors, and the constant drip of water came from somewhere deep inside the room.
Lorelei’s jaw dropped, “How?”
“You don’t want to know.” Ziah trudged in and assessed the mess further, “We’re going to need a very large bucket.”
The woman showed Lorelei the best way to scrub to remove the goo, and side-by-side they worked their way around the room, Ziah mumbling something about trickery, and how she should have suspected this. They stripped the bed and Ziah loaded Lorelei up with the linens and towels, the foul, hot smell enveloping her. She found her way down the hall to a laundry chute at its end, and with one free finger, pulled the little, metal door open.
A beam of light shot out from the darkness, and she jumped back, the door snapping shut, the linens tripping her. Planted on the ground, she pulled them off her face and looked up and down the hall, but the light was gone. On all fours, Lorelei crept back to the chute, carefully pulling it open at arm’s length. There was a dull glow inside, and then in the midst of the light, she could make out a tiny face connected to a tiny body, the whole being no taller than her hand. It scowled at her and spoke, “Rude.”
Lorelei squealed and jumped back again, but this time the door was caught open, and the being flitted out by way of a pair of iridescent wings. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“B…bedsheets?” Lorelei barely mustered, pointing to the green-stained linens all over the floor.
The tiny person’s face went red, and she sped past Lorelei so close she felt the wind off her wings. She turned to follow, then stopped, unable to leave the linens strewn about. After a long look to be sure it was empty, she shoved them down the chute and ran back to the room to find the tiny woman hovering just before Ziah’s face. They’d been trading angry whispers but stopped when she entered.
“You can’t say anything.”
“I’m not going to have to,” the winged woman spat out, “You can feel it pouring out of her!”
“You can feel it,” Ziah dropped the last of the cleaning supplies into the bucket, “but not everyone’s as sensitive as your kind. And there’s a lot of energy in the manor, so I think for the time being–”
“You’re underestimating Arista,” she took a tiny finger and poked Ziah on the nose so that the woman gasped, “You know that, don’t you?”
Ziah glanced at Lorelei then took up the bucket, “You can finish in here?”
The flighted woman nodded, and Ziah walked out. She had so many questions, but her host seemed too overwhelmed for any of them, so Lorelei silently followed her down to the foyer again where Grier snapped to attention and started whining about hunger. Ziah dismissed him with a little muttered apology and stepped behind the counter herself. “Oh my gods,” she held up the lilac paper Lorelei had placed on the desk hours before, “Where did this come from?”
“An older lady gave me that for bringing her things down,” Lorelei motioned to where the boxes had been stacked, “She must have left.” When Ziah didn’t respond, Lorelei went on, explaining sheepishly how she helped the woman and how she’d ended up outside.
“Well, here,” Ziah offered it to her.
“What is it?”
“Your first tip, apparently,” then Ziah gasped, “Is it really noon? The rest should be here any second and their luggage! Damn it, Grier! Why can’t he remember anything? Why can’t I remember anything?” She slammed her hands down on the desk and bit her lip in that way again, distress creeping into her eyes, the sure air about her from before unraveling.
Lorelei felt a heaviness set in her own chest at the look the woman wore. “How can I help?”
“You’ve done enough,” she said quietly.
“Please,” Lorelei leaned into the counter, “I want to help.”
The door opened, a bright light pouring in on them. Short guests speaking over one another piled into the entryway, their voices filling up the space.
Ziah snapped her head to Lorelei, “Go out to Ren, take the cart, get the luggage, bring it back here.”
“Oh, uh, yes!” Lorelei stood a little straighter, “I can do that!”
“Good,” Ziah nodded, the circles under her eyes a little deeper, “Oh, and, if you could, please tell Ren I’ll, um, need his assistance tonight.”
“Sure,” she smiled and waited, but when the woman said no more, so stuttered, “So I’ll just say you need his help for…?”
“He’ll know,” she yawned then waved her away.
Lorelei turned on her heel and hurried back through the dining room and out onto the porch with the barn in her sights. She knew she couldn’t let Ziah down.