The copper [key] with a stylized moon and sun wrought into the bow grip was for the lock on his wagon. The long one with a protective rune etched into the shaft opened the main entrance of the caravanserai in Silveridge, his previous home with the carnies in the capital city. Now Blythe had given him a third key, deceptively plain for the importance it carried. Three keys for the three places he felt safe.
Unexpected Inspiration Short Story - "Three Keys"
Blythe blinked up at the indiscernible ceiling of her bunk as her sleepy mind tried to figure out what could have awoken her in the middle of the night. Then she heard it again. Soft knocks on the door, as though whoever it was didn't want to wake her, but needed her attention. It couldn't be someone who was ill. Wystan lived in the carnival troupe's healing wagon, so that would be where someone in need of a healer would go. She was just the assistant. She rubbed her eyes and swung herself down to the floor without using the ladder built into the cabinet beneath the bed. The wagon was small and she knew it well, so she reached the lamp sitting next to the sink by feel alone. Once she had this lit, she padded over to the door. She felt the cold air blowing through the bottom of the door as she neared and she shivered when the draft reached her bare toes.
She turned the lock to unbolt the door and pulled it open a crack, not wanting to let more of the cold air in. At first she didn't see anything out there and she wondered if the sound of the knocking had been the wind. Surely none of the younger carnies would be out causing mischief this late and in this weather by waking someone up and then running away.
A pale face ghosted into view. It was half hidden in the shadow cast by the lantern hanging from the wagon across the way.
She pulled the door open far enough for her abnormally tall visitor to fit through, then gestured at him to come in. “Etch, what's wrong? Are you sick?”
She was already halfway across the wagon to where she kept her healing kit in her makeshift work space when he answered. “No. That is not... why I am here.”
With his accented words came a pause while he shivered. Etri became cold so easily. What could possibly be his reason for being out in weather this unseasonably chilly? Changing her plans, but not her destination as her work space was also her kitchen, she set the kettle on the top of the stove and added a few more lumps of coal to the banking flames. When she turned back around to talk to him again, she jumped when she saw him standing behind her. His footsteps were so soft that this happened more frequently than she would like to admit. Trying to pretend as though he hadn't startled her, she grabbed her stool from under the counter and placed it in front of the fire. “Sit. What's wrong that you're out in this mess so late?”
Etri lowered himself down onto the stool as best he could with his long legs in the way and held his hands up to the heat of the stove. Despite always being cold, he never wore gloves. He said that the sleeves of his coat kept them warm, but for someone as practical as Etri, this seemed suspiciously like stupid reasoning.
Once his teeth were no longer chattering, he replied in a voice that was almost too low for her to hear. “I can stay with you tonight, yes? I did not wish to ask...”
This time his pause was him trailing off the sentence. His question would have sounded like an imposing statement from anyone else, but that was simply how Etri worded questions. Although fluent in Concordian, he hadn't yet grasped the idioms and structure behind the language. She also knew that he didn't mean anything behind the question; asked by any other carny, it would likely be an insinuation for company. With Etri, what he said was what he meant, usually in too few words to make himself clear.
Blythe was more familiar with him than most people were. This meant that, by association, she was also familiar with his brother. “Sol has someone over, doesn't he?”
Etri simply nodded. That nod, however, portrayed more than a simple agreement. Etri valued his space. He needed somewhere safe to retreat when he felt overwhelmed. Now someone new was in that space. Blythe set about getting out a mug so that she wouldn't do something stupid like charge across the camp and chew Sol out for being inconsiderate. He knew this about Etri as well as she did. “What did he say when you told him you didn't like that idea?”
Etri looked down at his hands. With his fingertips he brushed the stars tattooed on the inside of his left wrist. “I did not wish to inconvenience him. When he does this, I spend the night outside.”
Blythe found herself gripping the tin of tea leaves so tightly that the metal indented. She carefully set this down on the counter before speaking. “That isn't right.”
“I enjoy night, Blade. I find somewhere quiet and vacant. Tonight it is too cold.”
Blythe sighed as she wrapped the thick cloth over her hand to take the kettle from the stove. She knew how Etri felt about confrontation. He thought it was better to be uncomfortable than to say something that might upset his twin. “You can stay in Firedrake's old bed. I just wish you'd speak up for yourself sometimes.”
“That gains me naught. He finds a boyfriend and eventually brings the boyfriend home. It is not reasonable to deny him companionship. He does warn me ahead of time.”
Blythe had to admit that he had a point. With other roommates or siblings in the troupe, the one being imposed upon would usually just stay with their significant other. She had never had to worry about this because her sibling was as likely as she was to date someone, which was to say not at all. Etri was in the same situation, but not for the same reasons. Firedrake had walls built so thick around their heart that Blythe imagined it as a kind of castle. Blythe had simply never found anyone worthwhile. Performers were too frivolous for her and she could rarely spend time with many other soldiers while living as a carny. Etri, though, seemed incapable of any kind of attraction. This Blythe couldn't understand, but she could certainly respect. Solitude was preferable.
She thought about this as she poured the tea and handed it to Etri. It wouldn't be steeped for several minutes, but in the meantime it would serve to keep his hands warm. She wasn't sure what to say to Etri to help his situation and he wasn't inclined to talk, so she busied herself by digging through her linen chest to find the blankets for the other bunk. “They're a little cedar smelly, but they're clean. Will you be okay?”
Etri gave her a small smile. He didn't smile often or in front of many people, so this always made Blythe feel a little special. “Thank you. I am sorry I woke you. You wish to return to sleep, yes?”
Blythe grinned sheepishly as she pulled her hand from her mouth where it had unsuccessfully been hiding a yawn. “Make sure you sleep. I know you're a night owl, but we have a performance tomorrow.”
When she was dozing off again she heard him say just above a whisper, “I will sleep. I am safe here.”
The aroma of something cooking wafted up to Etri's nose. His brother never cooked anything, although this was more a request from Etri than a choice on Sol's part. Sol could burn water, which wasn't much of an accomplishment when he was a fire mage. Not burning something would be an act of wonder without the magic. When these thoughts made their way through his groggy mind, Etri's eyes shot open and he pulled himself up on his elbows. If he wasn't home, where was he? His heart began to pound until his ears caught the sound of low humming. He sunk back into the pillow and took some deep breaths. He recognized that humming. Blythe always hummed while she was at work. This wasn't his bed, but here he was just as secure.
When his breathing had returned to normal, he pushed the brightly dyed bed curtain aside. The tiny bells sewn to the red fabric jingled merrily and Etri winced. Blythe looked up from the pattern she was sketching in her notebook and grinned at him when she noticed his reaction. “Sorry. I keep forgetting to cut those off. Every time I have the windows open they decide to play a song. I don't know what Firedrake was thinking.”
Etri looked over at Blythe's bunk. In comparison, the curtain that hid her bed was a neutral brown with a subtle plant design running along the bottom. Far more practical, just like Blythe herself. Practical, reserved- excepting the humming- and reliable. Those were the traits that had turned Blythe into his closest friend only a few weeks after meeting her. A few months later and he trusted her as much as he did his brother, except in one necessary way. He couldn't tell her about his magic.
He slid down from his bunk and as soon as his feet were on the floor, he reached back up to fold up the blankets. Blythe's voice stopped him before he could start. “Don't worry about that. Breakfast is on the stove.”
Etri turned around with a disbelieving look on his face. Blythe was as likely to cook as Sol was. She chuckled and amended, “I scooped it out of the pot at the cooking fire this morning. I had work to do for Wystan and figured you wouldn't want to go there. No one was even around to notice.”
How Blythe could voluntarily wake up so early was the one thing he didn't understand about her. No matter how late she went to bed, she was always awake before dawn. He wasn't about to complain, though. He didn't want to go home yet and he had even less of a desire to go to the cooking fire. That was the central meeting place for the troupe and this time of morning it would be swarming with chatty carnies. He liked this troupe well enough, but the thought of many of them in one place made him eternally grateful for Blythe's foresight.
After he tugged his boots back onto his feet, he walked over and picked up the empty bowl sitting next to the sink. When it rattled, he realized it wasn't as empty as he had thought. He looked down at the object in the bowl, then up at Blythe in confusion.
He held the key out to her. “You dropped this, yes?”
Blythe shook her head and begun to trim the leaves on the plant in front of her. It gave off a musky yet not unpleasant smell and he guessed this was one of the herbs she used for her healing pastes. Etri still considered Wystan almost a stranger, just like most of this troupe, and relied on Blythe whenever he came down with a cold. He was growing used to the smells of the tools she used since this happened frequently.
A head shake was still not an answer, however. “Blade?”
He saw her bite her lip, something she only did when she was particularly uncomfortable. “Look, I'm no good at saying stuff like this. Take the key. It was Firedrake's. Anytime you need to use it, you can.”
Etri stared down at the key in his hand. Its silver color contrasted sharply with the dark blue crescent moon tattooed on his palm. “I am to keep this, yes?”
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Blythe put down the plant trimmings and turn her body so that she faced him. When he looked up at her face, he saw that she had a dirt smudge on her cheek. What he noticed most, though, was the serious look in her dark brown eyes. “Yes, Etch. Keep it. I want to give you a safe place you can go anytime you need it.”
These words made Etri's face break into a smile. She understood. Despite being as much a loner as he, she still offered this. Etri hesitated for a moment, then took a step forward to wrap his arms around her shoulders. She remained stiffly still long enough for Etri to worry that this had been the wrong action. Then, to his relief, she hugged him back briefly.
After she let go, she picked up her tiny shears again. As she trimmed a few more leaves, she told him, “Now go eat before it gets all dried out.”
Etri planned on doing just that. First, though, he pulled the loop of cord from his pocket and unknotted it to slide the key next to the other two. The copper one with a stylized moon and sun wrought into the bow grip was for the lock on his wagon. The long one with a protective rune etched into the shaft opened the main entrance of the caravanserai in Silveridge, his previous home with the carnies in the capital city. Now Blythe had given him a third key, deceptively plain for the importance it carried. Three keys for the three places he felt safe.