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Lorelei sat straight up at the sound. She blinked cloudiness from her eyes then finally found a clock that told her, after much squinty deliberation, it was just after five. The knocking, however, did not cease now that she knew just how early it was, and she looked to the door from where a voice came, “Lorelei? It’s Ziah. Are you up?”
She mustered an answer, reaching up to her hair and tightening a loose ponytail. Sliding from the bed and brushing escaped brown strands from her face and sleep from her eyes, Lorelei staggered to the door and cracked it open, “Yes?”
“Lorelei!” Ziah beamed at the sight of her, her toothy grin much different from the simple, sultry smile she wore the night before, and she pushed the door open on the girl, “Good morning, sleepyhead!”
“It’s kinda early,” Lorelei leaned against the frame and yawned, “What’s going on?”
“You said last night that you wanted to get an early move on this morning.” She nodded vigorously and reached out a hand, “Remember?”
Just before she grabbed her, a man appeared behind the receptionist and took her shoulders, “Morning!”
Ziah jumped at his touch then twisted around, “What do you think you’re doing, Seamus?”
“What?” he made an exaggeratedly pained face, speaking in a thick Irish accent, “I just wanted a look…”
Ziah snapped her head back to Lorelei with another smile, but there was darkness in her eyes, “Come on, I’ve got some food waiting for you and–”
“No, no, I didn’t say I wanted to get up early I–” another yawn caught her mid-sentence, and Ziah took the moment to interrupt her.
“Well, lots of paperwork to fill out! Come on downstairs with me,” she went to pull Lorelei out into the hall, but the man pushed past and thrust his own hand into hers.
“Hello there, young miss,” they shook and Lorelei felt her whole body wobble from the force, “Sleep well, didja?”
“Come on,” Ziah slipped into the room and grabbed Lorelei’s bag, pulling the door closed and forcing them all out into the hall, “Let’s go downstairs, shall we?”
Dim candlelight lined the passage as it did the night before, but there was a different glow now suggesting early morning was readying itself to break through the window at the end of the hall. The man, Seamus, was staring at Lorelei with small, twinkling black eyes, flanked by wrinkles. He had graying sandy hair, but his goatee was the color of flames. They began down the hall to the landing at its end. “Tell me, where are you from, Miss? How did you get here? What lead you to our humble inn?”
Before Lorelei could tell him of the sign on the main road, Ziah grabbed his arm and pulled him a step back, “Excuse us.” She wrenched him into the room Lorelei had just so comfortably been sleeping in, shutting the door behind them. Lorelei stared back from the outside of her room, alone with the candlelight dancing across the rose-colored rug that lined the wooden floorboards.
“You what? That’s brilliant!” Seamus’s voice hooted from behind the door, and Ziah could be heard shushing him. Lorelei leaned in and could just make out the woman’s rushed whispers,
“She can’t! She’s sweet, but Arista would kill me! You too! Had I known I would have just told her we were full, but it’s not supposed to work like this.”
From the other end of the hall a loud thump sounded, and Lorelei jumped. Then there was a voice, tiny and quivering, “Oh, dear.”
Lorelei went toward the sound, turning at the hall’s end to see a stack of boxes floating toward her. She stopped short then saw the tiny legs below them. The woman carrying the boxes stacked well above her head meandered dangerously close to the stairs, teetering to the left, bumping into the wall and bouncing back to the right.
“Let me help you,” Lorelei called out, dashing over and taking the boxes. Two bright blue eyes sparkled from the aged face she revealed, especially youthful below two heavy lids, surrounded by folds of crepey skin and dark brown spots, and flyaway grey wisps stuck out from below a hat adorned with peacock feathers.
Lorelei lead the way down into the foyer, her box-laden amble downstairs almost as slow as the elderly woman’s even more careful steps. “Just by the entryway here, dear. Yes, thank you.” Her voice was like a worn record as she directed Lorelei who eased the boxes down with a bit of a struggle. She huffed as she stood, blinking the last of the sleep out of her eyes, and glanced about the foyer quickly. The ceiling was high, at least two stories, and a great chandelier she hadn’t noticed the night before hung from its center. It glittered black against what seemed to be lit candles, balls of wax rolling down their white sides, but she knew had to be as fake as those in the upstairs halls.
“Here you are.” The old woman pressed a dollar into Lorelei’s hand, and though she protested, the woman toddled off as if she hadn’t heard, which may have very well been the case. Lorelei looked down at the dollar then squinted. A vine-covered building was painted in lavender on the bill. It looked foreign, but hardly mattered to her, as she dropped it onto the counter she had registered at the night before.
“Excuse me, Miss.” A deep, masculine voice resonated from the front entrance. Startled into muteness, Lorelei stood frozen before the mass of a man that took up the whole of the double door frame. His unseasonable coat and black derby hat hid any features in shadows and bristly black hair. “Could I persuade you to take these to your caretaker? I’d see him myself, but must be off.”
More than a command than a request, the enormous man pressed three round objects into the stunned Lorelei’s hands and immediately strode back through doors he had entered a moment before. She glanced down. Eggs, three of them, pink, looked back. At least she felt as though they were looking back.
Lorelei spun around, but she found herself suddenly alone and the foyer all too quiet. Springing toward the door the old woman had disappeared through, she entered into a large room scattered with mismatched tables, square, round, hexagonal, amorphous, each covered in cloths of varying colors and pattern. There was a door at its opposite end, and she made for it, her charges still clutched in her hands, but a familiar voice broke her stride. “Oh, dear, some tea would be rather nice, if you would please.”
The woman was nearly hidden at a table near the front window, her feathered hat blending with the turquoises and violets of the wallpaper behind her.
“Oh, of course.”
Lorelei didn’t know what she was doing: she certainly didn’t work here, and from what she had heard Ziah say, she wouldn’t be, but something compelled her to help this woman. She continued through the swinging door on the opposite end of the room, still tightly grasping the eggs, and came to a stop. Though she could only see two people, the kitchen was bustling with life. Steam issued from numerous pans upon a long set of burners, the sound of a grill, running water, and some incomprehensible shouting filled the over-stuffed room. It smelled wonderful–no horrible–perhaps both, like a garden, and like a brewery all at once. Her eyes watered and mouth salivated.
“I need eggs!” A short man with a curt mustache shouted from the kitchen’s center amid chopped ingredients and flying knives.
Lorelei gulped, eyeing the stocky, dark-haired man who was only dwarfed further by his tall hat, “Excuse me, sir, but where is the tea?”
“Tea?” he shouted, suddenly looking up and trapping her in his intense, black eyes, “You’re in my kitchen, you work for me now! Get me eggs!”
Lorelei whimpered and almost obliged him, though she had even less idea where she would find a carton of eggs than a pot of tea, but a metallic racket shocked her out of her trance. On the floor beside the chef, a girl was splayed out, silver and copper pans littered all about her. Lorelei held her three, small charges against her chest with one hand and fell to the floor to assist the scrawny, apron-clad teen and the short man shouted at bullet speed in a language Lorelei couldn’t place beyond Asia.
The girl mumbled a thank you, her dark, straight bangs falling into her eyes as she scurried off to re-wash the pots. “Hotaru is so clumsy,” the short man laughed, “She’s no good, she’s only got two arms!”
Lorelei got to her feet, but a sudden poke at her chest made her recoil. Glancing down, one of the eggs began to vibrate, clinking against the others. She took it up between her fingers and thought she felt, for a second, a tiny thump from inside the shell.
“Ah, my egg!” The chef snatched it from her hand and raised his arm to break it into the steaming pan of boiling doom below.
“No!” Lorelei rescued the tiny pink vessel and cradled against her chest again.
“Well, where’s my eggs then?” The man returned to chopping at a rate unlike Lorelei had even seen, as if he had extra hands.
“I don’t know seeing as I don’t work for you! Now, where is the tea?” she found herself saying with more intensity than she thought able.
He stopped, glared at her, then smiled, “For you, the tea is there.” He pointed with his blade to a table by the swinging doors she’d entered. Rolling her eyes, Lorelei took it up in one hand and went back through to the old woman. With the sounds of the bustling kitchen behind her, she took a deep breath and caught the peacock lady’s eye. For the moment that she crossed the odd dining room with the tray in hand, the spice of freshly brewed tea wafting around her, she couldn’t help but smile and offer her a few kind words, “How are you today?”
“Oh, much better now,” she replied like crinkling leather.
Lorelei leaned over the table, pouring the tea carefully from the silver pot, having never done so before and praying silently that it wouldn’t spill as wisps of steam rose from the cup.
“A bit of milk would be nice,” the woman said in a way that Lorelei couldn’t possibly say no to, and she proceeded to pour carefully. “You know, I thought I was going to have a terrible day this morning, just awful, but it certainly isn’t turning out that way at all. In fact, I may be headed home tonight after all.”
“Oh, that’s good.” Lorelei tried to listen as the old woman continued, but the tapping between her palm and chest suddenly intensified. The once perfectly round, pink sphere was now chipped, a small chunk hanging off and revealing the dark insides of the egg. Her eyes widened as she saw something small and matted poke out through the hole.
In her distracted state, Lorelei had failed to realize that the teacup had begun to overflow. She quickly ceased pouring and tried to sop up the spill with a bright blue napkin, but the old woman didn’t seem to notice, continuing on happily, “I’ve just come from France, you know, and that was just after Egypt, oh but not before Brazil. My, was it humid there, but the flora! My dear, rain does have a way of making the most beautiful things happen, doesn’t it?”
Lorelei smiled distractedly, assuming the woman was at least a little confused and perhaps recalling times when she was a bit more spry, and she slipped the second cup from the tray to try and re-pour the tea correctly. Leaning closer to the cup, she lifted the silver pot and began again, the amber liquid swirling and steaming in the cup, until a pink flake fell into the brew. Lorelei squeaked quietly in the back of her throat at the sight of the bit of eggshell floating peacefully in the sea of tea, but, again, the peacock lady was oblivious, “…always loved the Thames, of course, it’s more built-up now than it used to be, but…” and she quickly scooped the shell out with her finger, glancing back down at her chest. Something like a tiny snout poked out from the hole in the shell and opened its mouth, letting out a garbled screech.
“Yes, yes, I know! But that’s what they said and I haven’t been back to Utah since!”
Lorelei offered a nervous laugh, placing the teapot back on the tray, then something speared her finger, and she couldn’t contain a yelp.
“Oh,” the woman craned her neck toward the eggs, apparently seeing them for the first time, “looks like you’ve got something special there.”
Lorelei glanced down at the contented, little face of the strangest, soggiest creature she’d ever seen, then to her finger, “It bit me!”
The old woman chuckled, leaning a bit closer to it, “Better get him to that nice, tall fellow out back.”
“Yes, I believe so. Seen him handle quite a few different creatures now.” While Lorelei wondered just how many unruly pets guests brought to Moonlit Shores Manor, she hustled toward the door the woman had pointed to and found herself on a shaded porch looking out onto a vast lawn bordered by trees in dawn’s muted light. Set down by the woods, a barn stood, a shadow disappearing through its entrance that she knew had to be the man she was looking for.
“Excuse me!” she shouted, running across the lawn, the tiny creature squeaking up at her. The building was long and narrow and smelled of hay, open at both ends so that the man standing in the breezeway appeared as a silhouette. His height seemed impossible, and it was only exaggerated by his lanky frame.
“I, uh, have…” she lost her train of thought as her eyes adjusted to the light. Sleek blond hair fell on either side of his features, long and pointed, and his skin was so pale it almost glowed. He was strikingly handsome, but had an oddness that unnerved her, and she stumbled over her words, before simply holding out the eggs.
Without a word, he came up to her, at least two heads taller than she, and bent down to look. The cracked egg was now almost completely apart, revealing a wet ball of matted fluff that looked like it had too many appendages to be anything from earth.
He looked on in awe then blinked grey eyes up at her, “From where did it come?”
The silky voice made her waver a moment. “Um, just a man in the hall. Said to bring them to the caretaker.”
He narrowed his eyes then and, to Lorelei’s shock, tossed the other two eggs over his shoulder.
“What are you doing!” she almost went for them, but he held out a hand and she stopped. The eggs landed and cracked with two sharp bangs, sparks and black smoke shooting from them.
Lorelei screwed up her face, looking back to the man. She watched him run long fingers against his scalp, pushing back his silvery hair, and she gasped. The man’s ears curled upward and came to pronounced points, but were covered again too quickly for her to be sure of what she saw. He spoke again, “Could I, please?”
She nodded slowly, slipping the creature into his outstretched hands.
“There you are!” Ziah’s exasperated voice came from the end of the barn. The woman strutted in, Seamus just in tow with a great grin across his face. Ziah’s already furrowed brow only worsened when she took in the scene before her, “What’s going on?”
“This human has just brought me a winged cabbit.”
“I’m sorry, what?” Lorelei pinged her eyes back and forth from the tall man’s stoic look to the horror that began to crawl across Ziah’s face at his words. “Did you just,” she laughed nervously, “call me a human?” That phrase seemed eerily familiar to her, and her head felt dizzy for a moment.
“Of course,” the man stood to his full height again, towering at least seven feet, “Why is there a human here, Ziah?”
“Damnit, Ren!” the woman slapped her forehead.
The newly born creature suddenly let out a triumphant squawk from the man’s hand as it completely loosed its shell and unfurled two wings, shaking out its feathers and sitting up on four tiny feet.
Lorelei made a sound in the back of her throat, wishing she could lay down and run away all at once.
“It’s not so bad,” Seamus shrugged with a smile, “At least we’ve still got her here!”
They all stood in silence a moment as the morning sun began to light up the yard. In the dawn, a shadow was bounding across the yard toward them. Ziah’s eyes widened. She shouted at the dog to stop, but it came just up to her, its tongue hanging from its mouth. It looked harmless as it planted itself in the straw beside her until, suddenly, it was no longer a dog at all, and in its place stood a boy who spoke in human words from a human mouth, “Is this a meeting no one told me about? I wish you guys would stop leaving me out of stuff!”
No one spoke, but Ziah and Seamus snapped their heads toward Lorelei expectantly. She could feel her mouth hanging open, but could do or say nothing.
“Oh man, I just forgot again, didn’t I?”
Lorelei’s vision tunneled and she felt herself fall.
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