Orenda ate quickly and efficiently, as she had been trained. She was used to tight schedules and whistles that indicated when time for one’s self, devoted to things like food and sleep, were over. Susan had gone out the door that Orenda had come in and had not returned by the time Orenda had finished eating, so she stood and looked around for a dishtray to put her empty plate into. She found none, but she did find a sink with a pump, cake of soap, and cleaning brush, so she quickly washed her plate and left it in the sink to dry. It was quite a high sink, and she had been forced to move the chair from the table to do so, but she replaced it and began, once again, to think on her situation and surroundings.
The earth elf woman, Ellie, had certainly recognized her, and Susan seemed to recognize her as well and connect her to her parents. Orenda believed that they both knew more than they were telling. She thought of them both and their possible connection to her royal lineage as she hunted around the room.
She eventually grew bored of the room, collected her sack, and walked into the hallway. It was lined with doors, and she opened the first one she saw.
Inside was a small room with a double-bed, covered with a real quilt- not just the sheets that Orenda was used to. It also held a wash basin and all the conveniences associated with it, a wardrobe, a tiny desk, and a bookshelf. It looked lived-in and Orenda thought that the understated plainness of it all spoke of Ellie. She closed the door and opened the one across the hall.
It looked very similar, if a bit smaller. Another double bed, another wardrobe, another wash basin. Orenda had never seen two beds in the same house before- in the workhouse only the headmaster had a bed, and she had only seen it once, when she was so small she barely remembered it. Everyone else made do with straw or cloth.
Orenda closed the door and moved further down the hall. There were two more doors, and both opened into identical rooms. The place looked as if it would sleep far more than three people, and Orenda wondered how many people lived there.
She finally made it to the end of the hallway, which terminated in another door. It was locked, but it locked from the inside using a metal latch that hooked onto the wall from the door, so Orenda flipped it and pulled the door open.
The heat of the day hit her as she stared up at the soot-clouded sky. It was much cleaner here than it had been at the workhouse. She turned her attention closer to the ground, and took in the sight of the small yard. It was built for practicality, not excess, with a tall fence surrounding it, a few food-bearing plants, and trappings of domesticity- but did hold one feature that spoke of frivolity and perhaps wealth- exactly something that royalty would have: an extra water pump. Water was scarce, had always been scarce, and very, very few places would have two sources.
It was located near a clothes line, which was currently empty. There were three basins laid out near the line, all as empty as the line. She had never known laundry facilities to be empty; at the workhouse one had to fight for space. Orenda moved the washbasin closest to the pump even closer and began to fill it. She did so quickly- she was already strong, and had just eaten the biggest meal of her life; she was almost certain she could feel the nourishment moving through her blood. It took no time, compared to laundry or bath day at the workhouse, and Orenda untied her boots, and stepped inside. She watched the first layer of the soot filter off into the clear, cold water from her dress and thought about what Susan had said.
Susan heated water for bathing. Orenda didn’t understand why anyone would do that, because of how much work it would normally be. It would have to be carried in buckets from the fireside to the washtub, one at a time, and Orenda didn’t see what benefit that would have.
Her hand closed around the fire stone.
She concentrated this time, on the thing she felt flowing through her and around her, and tried to push it downward, to her feet. Orenda watched as the water there began to simmer, then to boil with great rolling bubbles. She stared in amazement as the washtub began to turn red.
Orenda had initially believed that the voice had belonged to Susan, but when she looked up, she saw that she had been mistaken. She would have never thought that Ellie could speak so loudly.
“Yes?” Orenda asked as she released the stone and the washtub slowly regained its proper color, though almost all of the water was gone.
“Are you…” Ellie took a few tentative steps and seemed to consider saying a great many things but eventually settled on, “Are you alright, child?”
“I’m fine, thank you.” Orenda told her and stepped out of the tub to pump more water, more than a little ashamed that she had wasted it. “Susan told me that I needed a bath.”
“Orenda,” Ellie closed the distance between them, laid a hand on her shoulder- then quickly pulled it away as if she had been burned. She grabbed it with her free hand, stared at it for a few seconds, and then slowly turned her gaze back to Orenda. “How did you… does magic… come easily to you?”
“Yes,” Orenda said, and began to pump.
“Do you... have a… staff?” Ellie asked, seemingly aware of the fact that the question was stupid even as she asked it, and tried again to compensate, “Or… a wand?”
“No,” Orenda said, and stepped into the filled tub. She sat down, still in her dress, and stared up at the adult, careful to keep her hands out of her pocket.
“A fire crystal?” Ellie asked.
“No,” Orenda lied. She wasn’t exactly sure that the thing she had found was called a fire crystal, but she guessed near enough to know that she was lying. But she would not have it taken from her.
“Orenda,” Ellie fell to one knee, to be more on her level, “We are your friends here. No one will hurt you. Everything is going to be alright.”
“Good,” Orenda said, wondering if she should believe it.
Ellie chewed her lip, played with the hem of her apron, and took a great deal of time to collect her thoughts before she spoke again.
“Most mages cannot cast from a crystal,” Ellie explained, “they have to set it in something. That something is called a ‘focus’. Most mages begin with staves, then work down to a smaller wand.”
“As far as I know,” Orenda said, and began to untie her dress, “I’ve never met a mage.” Ellie stared at her as if thinking very hard about something, so Orenda continued, as politely as she could, “I don’t mean to be rude, Ms Ellie, but I would like to take a bath.”
“Oh,” Ellie said, and jumped quickly and awkwardly to her feet, “Yes! Just… come inside when you’re finished, please? I would like to talk to you. Let me get you some real soap- you wouldn’t like to bathe with laundry soap, I assure you. I’ll be right back!”
She darted into the house, and Orenda sat in the cool water, moving her hands through the grey that seeped from her into the clarity of it in small spirals. A few seconds later, Ellie came back with a little box, and knelt beside the washtub. She opened it and pulled out a fresh bar of soap, whiter than any Orenda had ever seen, a washrag, and a few bottles that Orenda had never seen before.
“When hair is quite so curly as yours,” She explained, “After you wash it, you may want to rub this into it. Let it soak in well, and then rinse it out. It will help with the combing. You may like it so much you decide to grow it long.”
“I don’t like long hair,” Orenda said, “It interferes with work. But I thank you.”
“It doesn’t if you tie it back,” Ellie argued.
“Perhaps not,” Orenda pretended to consider, for the sake of politeness, but did not think she would grow her hair out. At the workhouse they had all had it cut once a month, though now she considered that she would likely have to do that herself. She wondered if she could burn it. That seemed the easiest solution.
“Well,” Ellie stood with a smile, “I’ll leave you to it.” But she didn’t. She stood there for a few minutes, wringing her hands, and eventually asked, “Do you like any particular color, Orenda?”
Orenda considered this. She had often thought about colors and which would be nicest to have, on furnishings or clothes, which her parents probably liked the most. Orenda herself was more colorful than most people, with her bright red hair, burnt umber skin and golden eyes- and those were the colors that she liked the most. After she had taken this consideration, she elected to answer.
“I’ve always been fond of red.”
“How nice!” Ellie smiled, turned on her heel and walked slowly back into the house.
Orenda wondered where they were in connection to the other buildings in town and looked up at the back of the library. All the windows on this side were dark and had their curtains closed. She wondered if everyone bathed in the back yard and had boarded up the windows on that side. She had heard, on the half days at the workhouse when they all had to assemble to listen to the headmaster read from the holy texts, of the concept of modesty, but had not found much practical use for the concept in her daily life. Bathtimes at the workhouse were communal, but this was a strange place, and perhaps things were different here.
It took her some time to scrub the few day’s worth of filth from her flesh and hair. She had a luxury here that no one had yet taken from her- a seemingly infinite supply of water, so she emptied and refilled the tub twice. The day grew dark around her as she worked, but she saw nearly as well in the night as she did in the day, and she paid it no mind.
When she had finished, she carefully unfolded her sheet, took out her spare dress and stockings and put them on, followed by her boots. Then, she rolled up her sleeves, heaved the heavy tub on its side to dump it again, placed her soiled clothes inside after taking the crystal from her pocket, and refilled it. She added the shavings of laundry soap and left it to soak. It was quite dirty, and she wondered… if hot water made things cleaner. Was that why Susan heated it despite the extra work?
She held one hand over the washtub and wrapped the other around the crystal.
Every time it got a little easier.
This time she was able to heat the water without heating the washtub and watched it roll to a boil. This brought bubbles and suds that normally took scrubbing to call up, and she smiled. Magic made things easier- and this was magic. Orenda did magic that other people could not- did it without staves or wands- because she was a princess. Because she was special.
She splashed her dress and stockings through the soapy water and watched the suds begin to turn grey. She thought, after a while of this and the garments getting no cleaner, that they may have to soak, even if the water was hot, and stood, shaking the water from her hands before she dried them on her skirt, to head back inside.
She opened the door so quietly that no one could have noticed.
“She has to be, don’t she? I can’t see no other explanation,” Charlie was saying to Susan, and Orenda stayed in the hallway where the shadows were longer.
Susan was sitting at the writing desk and Charlie was out of sight, but Orenda heard splashing, and thought he was probably wiping or washing the dishes. She had, after all, been outside quite some time.
“Does she got herself a last name?” Susan asked, looking in the direction of the sink.
“Nochdifache,” Charlie said as if it held some great meaning.
“Well, that settles that, don’t it?” Susan said.
“Younguns lie.” Charles argued.
“If she’s lived in a workhouse her whole life, I don’t know how she would know to lie,” Susan argued back.
“She looks so much like him…” Charles said, softly, as if he was afraid of being overheard. “But… if… if that’s true, I don’t know who the mommy would be. You was on that ship with me. There wouldn’t no lady fire-elf.”
“We don’t know his whole life. Xac only said that we could trust him. And I trust Xac.” Susan said with conviction, “After everythin he done for us.”
“He risked his life,” Charles agreed, “risked his youngun’s lives. It is better here.” There was a clattering of dishes, “I feel… I feel like I got meanin now. My life means something. I trust that there is something out there beyond them mountains. I trust that freedom exists. And… if this is Captain-” He silenced himself and held up a hand as the doorknob from the library turned.
Ellie stepped inside carrying a package, and Orenda stepped into the kitchen as if she had just come in from outside.
“I set my things to soak,” Orenda announced, and everyone turned to look at her. “I’ll check them in a bit, if that’s alright.”
“Honey, them probably need to soak overnight,” Susan told her, smiled, and continued, “You clean up nice, don’t she?”
“Well,” Ellie stepped forward and sat her package on the table, “She’ll clean up much nicer once we’re through with her. Orenda, please come and look at this. I want to know if you like it.”
Orenda walked as she had been bid and stood with her hands behind her back. Ellie stared at her as if she expected her to do more, so she said, politely, “It’s very pretty. I like string. One of my roommates knew how to play games with it. She could make crow’s-feet and kitty whiskers. I learned them myself.”
“Did you? Ellie asked as if she found that interesting. “Well, if you like the twine, you may have it, of course, but I was hoping you would open the package.”
Orenda looked questioningly at her, moved slowly to the table, and tugged at the bow to unravel it. She pulled the twine apart and stuck it in her pocket before anyone could stop her, then carefully unfolded the brown paper, in case they would need it later. Inside was a white box with a lid, which she removed to reveal a long, folded piece of red fabric.
“It’s a sari!” Ellie explained excitedly, but Orenda stared at her with obvious incomprehension, so she explained, “It’s what fire elves used to wear- hold on, I have a book!” She ran excitedly to the room that Orenda had correctly guessed was hers, and came out a moment later with a book the size of her torso. She spread it open on the carpet by the hearth and motioned for Orenda to follow her, so she did.
Ellie had opened it to a drawing of the most beautiful woman Orenda had ever seen. She was a fire elf, with long red hair twisted into several tight braids that fell down her back and shoulders, partially covered by a hood and veil, but the fabric was translucent, and did not hide her beauty. Her face looked very much like Orenda’s, but accentuated by ceremonial makeup in golds and oranges around her eyes and on her lips. Her body was draped in flowing fabric, held together by beautiful gathered belts to create a stunning outfit.
Orenda thought the woman had to be her mother. She was beautiful enough to be a queen.
“Who is it?” Orenda asked.
“It’s no one in particular,” Ellie explained, “It’s a composite drawing, based on what we know about the lost culture of the fire elves.”
“Was she a queen?” Orenda asked.
“No,” Ellie said in a tone that Orenda didn’t understand, conveying more emotions than children were prepared to process at once- excitement tinged with sorrow, anger, and other things lurking below the surface that made Orenda curious as she continued, “Fire elves did not have a monarchy. They were a religious oligarchy.”
“Oh,” Orenda said, though she did not know what that meant.
Ellie studied her stoic little face and asked, “Do you know what those words mean, darling?”
“No,” Orenda said, “But I would like to learn. I would like to learn a great many things. I was told that you may teach me to read, so that I can learn from your library.”
“You were never taught to read?” Ellie asked, and the anger was more apparent now, but she quelled it and continued, “Yes, absolutely. We’ll begin in earnest tomorrow.”
Orenda nodded, and asked, “What is a monarchy?”
“A monarchy is a system of government led by a king or queen,” Ellie oversimplified, “Usually power is hereditary.”
Orenda nodded, and asked, “What is a religious oligarchy?”
“I thought you would ask that,” Ellie smiled and explained, “The Fire Elves believed that power could only be given by divine right. They had a link to the great god, Thesis, and would choose their leader that way. But it wasn’t just one person- it was an entire council, led by a high priest or priestess. Sometimes the position was hereditary, but not always. It was supposed to go to the most worthy person. So the woman in this picture could not have been a queen. Fire elves didn’t have queens.”
Orenda did not know if she believed this. Fire elves had to have queens, because her mother was a queen, her father was a king, and she was a princess.