Everyone has a touch of magic in their blood, though most are limited to only a single talent or ability.
— Limitations of the Crystal Techniques
A night sleeping in a comfortable bed had done wonders to ease Karin's aches but she knew the nightmare would resume as soon as she passed out again. A month of comfort wasn't enough to erase her horrors. To get through the next night, she decided to prepare like she was about to enter a monster's nest and went shopping.
Two hours of cool air, warm sun, and window shopping netted her three bottles of rotgut, a few sets of clean underwear, and a new repair kit for her leather armor.
San Graif was a pretty little town, and she rarely had a chance to stroll along the streets. In a town like this, usually she was crawling through sewers, running down the street toward the fighting, or setting up barricades for the bigger assaults.
She smiled and tried not to think about the nightmares.
Karin came around a corner and spotted a dense crowd in front of a store. Instantly, she grew wary and tightened her grip on her shopping bag.
With a second look, she realized the group wasn't unruly. Almost everyone sat on chairs and benches. A few read books. Others had their faces uplifted and their eyes closed. No one crowded the store entrance and there was a clear path for her to walk through them.
With her muscles tensed, she made her way along the narrow path. She looked curiously at the store as she passed but it was just a bakery and a small restaurant. Nothing looked remarkable about it at all except that it was packed with customers sitting at tables.
Karin slowed with curiosity.
Then she heard the sweetest song drifting through the open door. It was a popular ballad, a lover waiting for her missing knight. But Karin had never heard it sung with such clarity or passion.
The woman's voice wrapped around her, tugging on her heart and dredging up a swarm of memories of previous lovers that left her gasping. There were many of them since she had become a Rat Hunter, and most had ended in sweet partings. More than a few begged her to stay. The song reminded her of the longing she heard in their voices.
A tear ran down her cheek. She glanced around but only an old woman sitting near her was watching. The others were lost in their own thoughts with glistening eyes and the occasional sniff. With a blush, she turned and peered around for a seat to keep listening, but they were all occupied.
The old woman pointed toward the restaurant with a knitting needle. “A spot opened up in there, Love.”
Karin turned and saw a couple getting up from a table. She said thanks to the old woman and headed inside, slipping into the abandoned bench before anyone else could take it.
Feeling guilty, she looked around as she stuck her bags underneath the table. Her fingers were just pulling away when she caught sight of the singer.
The young woman singing was beautiful with bright eyes and a slender build. She had a few streaks of flour across her cheeks and a dusting caught her short, dark hair. Her smile was brilliant as she delivered a plate of food while still singing.
“Oh, fuck me, Mother of Divinity,” whispered Karin to herself. If there was a archetype for her ideal peach, it was the woman bending over the edge of the table while singing.
Karin stared with desire and rapt attention until the song ended.
There was silence.
Then applause. Karin joined in enthusiastically, clapping her hands against the table. They were applauding even outside of the restaurant.
The singer stood in the center and smiled, her teeth brilliant in the light. She held the metal serving tray against her side as she turned around to face the rest of the tables.
When the sound faded, she turned and headed toward a kitchen.
An older man with similar hair color and nose shape stuck his head over a counter that separated the dining area from the kitchen. “Pay attention and do your damn job! New customer on twenty!”
The young woman turned and looked straight at Karin. She smiled broadly and Karin noticed a dimple on her cheek. Heading over, she brushed her hands on her hips.
Karin inhaled sharply and then smiled back.
When the young woman approached, Karin got a better look. The waitress appeared to be in her early twenties, about half Karin's age. However, she smelled of flowers and fresh baked bread. She held out a menu. “Welcome to Lilard's. My name is Lilian. Is there anything I can get for you?”
Karin's stomach rumbled even as she felt a heat fluttering between her legs. “Do you happen to have any peach pie?”
“I'm sorry, peaches are out of season, but we do have apple and pumpkin pies.” Her cheerful voice never changed.
Mildly disappointed, Karin ordered a sandwich and a slice of pumpkin pie with heavy cream. She would have preferred if Lilian had answered with a sultry response. That would have meant that Karin had a chance of company that night; the afterglow of sex always pushed the nightmares away. However, the young woman's response didn't mean no; not everyone used the same codes to make their desires known.
No matter what, Karin could still enjoy the view and the fantasy that the young woman had said there were peaches on the menu. She smiled to herself and leaned back.
Lilian went around the room, gathering orders, then headed over to a large bowl with little strips of paper. Pulling one out with her left hand, she peered at it. With a smile, she rested her hand on an older man's shoulder. “It's your favorite, Bil. 'The Ballad of Lost Waters.'”
The older man sighed and patted her hand.
“Oi!” snapped the older man over the counter. “Off my daughter!”
She favored Bil with a wink and pulled her hand away.
Karin had heard of the ballad. It was one about a lost wife and a man who couldn't accept her death. It was a sad piece to say the least. It was one of the songs a minstrel would sing near the end of the night, when only those losing themselves in bottles were still around to hear it.
She had heard the song too many times on fruitless nights and didn't care for the difficult tune. In her opinion, no one knew how to sing it properly.
Then Lilian started to sing.
Every sour opinion of the ballad faded away with the intense emotions rising up inside Karin. Like the previous song, it managed to dredge up memories that Karin had long forgotten. With a gasp, she closed her eyes and lost herself remembering the days when her grandmother had died and the night she left her husband.
There was no doubt, Karin had to come back to this place.