Orenda had been shown to one of the rooms she had looked in earlier, carrying her package. It was a plain room, really, but it was certainly a step up from the shared hovel of the workhouse, and Orenda thought that perhaps awaking her princessness would come in small steps. When Miss Susan had left her, she opened the wardrobe and saw that it was empty, so she put the package inside. She didn’t know how to cinch or wear it, so it was really no more than a long strip of fabric to her. She carefully closed the wardrobe and walked to the small writing table. There was nothing laid out upon it, so she snuffed out the lamp, sat on the bed, took off her boots, then her apron, and folded it to lay it over the back of the chair.
She thought of the woman in the book. She was so beautiful, but she did not exist. She was a ‘composite drawing’ from a ‘lost culture’. She was no one. She was many people. Orenda’s culture… had existed. And people had written it down. She would learn all that she could about it, because it was not dead, it was lost. Lost things existed to be found, like Orenda herself.
She thought that her mother probably did look very much like the woman in the drawing. She may have worn her hair long, under shimmering veils. Orenda realized that she had never seen a male fire elf, but the image her mind conjured of her father seemed easy enough. He would have been distinguished, of course, as a king- it was very likely that there had been a king- and as beautifully dressed as his wife. They would have lived in a palace, like the ones she heard about in stories, the one the empress supposedly lived in.
Orenda climbed into the bed and slid a hand into her pocket to grip the fire stone. They had both been mages, her parents. They were probably the best mages in all of Xren, who had only fallen because of treachery, not because of any lapse in strength. They would retreat, briefly, to rebuild their forces, and to find Orenda. Then they would reclaim their kingdom, and she would take her rightful place as a princess. She only needed to bide her time.
The next morning, Orenda woke early, as she had been accustomed to do at the workhouse, and made her way outside to check on her laundry. She noticed that several more things had been added to the soapy water, but she was used to worse and would not allow it to phase her. She was not afraid of a little washing. She held one hand over the water, gripped the fire stone with her other, and let out a giggle as the laundry began to boil and bubble. Then she rolled up her sleeves, knelt beside the washtub, and began to scrub as the sun rose on the horizon and tried to break through the cloud of smoke that was so much thinner here.
Ellie found her as she was pumping the rinse water and looked panicked.
“I thought we had lost you!” She said as Orenda wrang the soapy water from her stockings and tossed them in to rinse.
“No one told me I was to stay in the bedroom,” Orenda shot back as she pulled her dress from the suds and began to wring it out. She would not be punished for rules she did not know.
“Oh, no, you don’t… have to stay anywhere,” Ellie told her, “I just… didn’t know where you were.”
“I like to keep a close eye on my things,” Orenda explained, “I didn’t like to leave them out here all night. It’s quite common for things to be stolen.”
“Oh,” Ellie looked as if this factual statement had saddened her, “You aren’t among thieves, Orenda.”
“One is always among thieves,” Orenda argued, “They could have come right over the fence.”
“...I suppose you’re right, at that,” Ellie admitted, “But you have to leave them out to dry. There’s no helping it.”
“I’m not sure,” Orenda said, but did not elaborate. She felt that she could probably dry them quicker, using the fire crystal somehow, and take them inside with her. But she would be much more cautious about using magic now that she knew it could be caught.
“Susan has made breakfast,” Ellie told her, “I was hoping that you would eat with us. Then I’d like to go over the common syllabary with you.”
“Of course,” Orenda wiped her hands on her apron and looked at the laundry still in the suds, “Am I to be working in the library, then?”
“What are your favorite games, Orenda?” Ellie asked instead of answering as they made their way inside.
“I’m afraid I don’t know many games,” Orenda explained, “I used to be a little good at hide and seek, when I was younger, but I think I’m of an age where my time should be put to better use. One outgrows such behavior.”
“How old are you?” Ellie asked.
“I’m not sure,” Orenda admitted, “But I think, by my best guess, about ten years old. It’s difficult to judge, because I’m not sure when I was born. I only know when I came to be at the workhouse, and so I must guess.”
“That isn’t terribly old,” Ellie argued, “Elves can live for centuries, if we take care of ourselves. Are you sure you don’t like games?”
“Oh, there she is!” Susan motioned for Orenda to sit, “Here, Orenda, you sit down and eat.” She picked a piece of toast from a plate in the center of the table and put it before Orenda, then opened a glass jar and spread an orange goop onto it. Then she repeated the process. Then again. Then again, until it seemed someone would have to stop her or she would go on doing it forever.
“I reckon she can do it herself,” Charles explained, with his mouth full. He swallowed and asked, “Do you like coffee?”
“I’ve never had it,” Orenda explained.
“Then you’ll be wanting to put honey or sugar in it,” He told her, “It’s an acquired taste.”
“Is it in poor taste,” Orenda wondered aloud, “To ask where you are from?”
Susan froze, and Charles glanced at the two adult women, his eyes darting back and forth between them.
Eventually he answered, “Not… usually, no. Why do you ask?”
“You speak so strangely,” Orenda told him.
“I have an accent.” He said, as if it hadn’t occurred to him, and to Susan he added, “We got accents. Shit!”
Orenda had not expected this outburst, and felt badly for calling attention to something he was apparently so sensitive about.
“There is a youngun,” Susan reminded him, and Charles’s eyes darted back to Orenda.
“We’ll… have to work on that,” he told her.
“But you aren’t from here,” Orenda said, then felt it would be polite to add, “It’s alright if you don’t want to talk about it. I didn’t mean to upset you.” She took the cup Susan handed her and meant to sip it, but Charles took it from her and began to shovel sugar into it by the spoonful from a little dish on the table.
“You didn’t upset me,” Charles promised. “I just… didn’t realize I had an accent. I don’t reckon anybody recognizes their own. You’re right. I ain’t from around here. I’m from Uril, well… I suppose everybody is from Uril. I’m from the earth continent, closer to the capital. It’s across the ocean. Susy is too.”
“Charlie!” Susan hissed.
“She won’t say nothing,” He argued, “I trust her.”
“How did you come to be here?” Orenda asked. She had never met anyone from an ocean away before.
“Well… Orenda, you’re real little. I don’t know what you know. How much do you know about humans?” He asked.
“She don’t need to hear this story,” Susan said, took the cup from him, and set it before Orenda with more force than was strictly necessary, “She’s a youngun. It’ll scare her.”
“Younguns have lived it,” Charles argued.
“Orenda,” Ellie sat at the table and put an end to the conversation, “Did you like your room?”
“I can’t imagine I’ll stay there very long,” Orenda said, “It seems as if it was already set up for someone.”
“Oh, they’ve left,” Ellie assured her, “We do take in visitors, from time to time. I’m sure we’ll have more, presently. Most of them are temporary.”
“I see,” Orenda said, and devoured her second piece of toast, “I imagine I will be temporary as well, then?”
“I’ve… written a letter,” Ellie said, then trailed off. She had eaten a single piece of toast, quickly, and stood. “Orenda, when you’ve finished, please come and find me in the library.”
Orenda thought that she really enjoyed the coffee, but that Charles was right about the sugar. She finished quickly, more than a little aware that she was asking too many questions and making people uncomfortable, then did as she had been bid and went to meet with Ellie in the library.
The library never seemed to be particularly busy, but that made sense. Orenda thought that most people would be too preoccupied with work to come and sit in a building to read storybooks all day. She wasn’t even sure why such a place existed. She couldn’t imagine enough people would want it to necessitate its presence. As the books meant very little to her, she ignored them and found Ellie quickly.
She was sitting at one of the tables and had a great deal of parchment laid out, as well as a few books. She seemed excited to see Orenda, and turned the dial on the lamp to throw light across the entire table.
“Orenda, sit down, please!” She stood and pulled out a chair for her. Orenda was not used to so much energy from her, and part of her did not trust it, but she listened as Ellie continued, “This is the syllabary, and I want to go over it phonetically for you! Once you have it memorized, I’m sure you’ll be able to pick up reading easily.”
“Alright,” Orenda agreed and looked over the paper.
“Each symbol is representative of a sound,” Ellie explained, “And these sounds together form words. So when you know what each sound is, you can easily put them together. You’re so intelligent, Orenda, it’s almost like speaking to an adult. I know you’ll pick it up easily.”
Orenda was not sure that anyone had made comment on her intellect before, but she had always had a high opinion of herself, and it was nice to see that someone else agreed. It was rare, because the subject rarely came up in conversation.
Ellie leaned over Orenda to touch each symbol as she made the sound, and Orenda repeated it. It took several tries for her to memorize them, but apparently less than Ellie had anticipated.
“Now,” Ellie told her, “I would like you to copy the symbol as you speak.”
They went over them again, with Orenda writing, and both of them speaking, until they had finished, and Ellie was confident that she had memorized which symbol stood for which sound. Orenda had not noticed the passage of time, but apparently they had been at it for a good while, because when Ellie spoke again, Orenda was surprised to learn that it was nearly noon.
“If you could,” Ellie told her, “Write these out again, and keep speaking them aloud, while I make my rounds. Once you’ve finished, we’ll have lunch.”
“Alright,” Orenda agreed and watched Ellie disappear into one of the rows of bookshelves. Orenda began writing, but after her second copy, she became curious, and picked up one of the books laid out on the table. There was a picture of a rabbit on the cover, and above the drawing were symbols that she correctly identified would make the sounds, when spoken aloud:
Li-tt-le Bun-ny Foo-Foo.
She opened the book and began to read, referring, as needed, back to the syllabary.
“Little bunny Foo Foo, hopping through the forest,” She read aloud, “Scooping up the field mice, and bopping them on the heads.”
Each line was accompanied by a drawing depicting what was being described in the text, and Orenda thought it to be a strange story. The rabbit, Foo-Foo, seemed to be a mass murderer, and thus far he was an unstoppable force that was going to wipe out all of mouse-kind. She turned the page.
“Down came the fairy, and the fairy said, ‘Little Bunny Foo Foo, I don’t want to see you, scooping up the field mice, and bopping them on the heads’.” Orenda read, and stared at the drawing of the fairy. She looked like an earth elven woman, with the addition of insect wings, which Orenda thought was probably not what fairies would look like in the wild. It seemed strange that two unrelated creatures would look so much alike. But it was nice to see that someone had come to put a stop to the killing spree.
“‘And Little Bunny Foo-Foo’,” Orenda continued after she had turned the page, “know that if you do, I will turn you into- a goon’.” She paused, and as she was already speaking aloud, asked, “What on Xren is a goon?” Without thinking how strange it was to talk to herself.
“It’s a type of water bird,” A girl said, and Orenda jerked her face to see the same girl she had mistaken for a princess the day she had left the workhouse. “And that’s a baby book. Why are you reading that?”
“I am a baby,” Orenda lied, because she thought it would be funny, “I’ve been cursed to look like this. I’m hoping to find a cure.”
“Are you?” The girl asked, as if she had the slightest inkling that it may be true.
“No,” Orenda said, “I just wanted to see if you would believe it.”
“I didn’t,” The girl put her hands on her hips and stared down at Orenda.
“Good,” Orenda said, and went back to looking at the book, “It would have been very foolish of you.”
“So why do you really look like that?” The girl asked.
“Like what?” Orenda asked.
“Your skin is so dark,” The girl explained, “and your hair is so red.” She laid her hand in Orenda’s hair, and began to stroke it as if she believed Orenda to be a dog or some other pet.
Orenda batted her hand away, glared up at her, and responded, “I can’t tell you. It’s a secret.”
“Oh, but you have to tell me!” The girl explained, “My father is a scholar, and we have to know everything we can, for posterity.”
“What is that?” Orenda asked.
“I’m not sure, but it’s very important,” The girl assured her.
“What is your name?” Orenda asked.
“I’m called Kazula,” the girl responded as if it meant something.
“Well, Kassie,” Orenda explained, “I will tell you, but you can’t tell anyone else. You must promise me.”
“I promise!” Kazula said instantly.
“I am the long lost princess of the fire elves,” Orenda explained, “that is why I am so beautiful.”
“I didn’t think you were beautiful,” Kazula said, “I only thought you were different. Are you really a princess?”
“Yes, but you mustn’t tell anyone,” Orenda reminded her, “I’m afraid I have to go. I was invited to a luncheon and I fear I may be running late.” She stood, gathered all her papers, and held them to her chest as she made her way, as quickly as she could, away from the girl through the rows of bookshelves.