Pera wakes up and I'm just staring at him. Even though I'm embarrassed he's gracious about it.
"Hey, buddy," Pera says, stretching his arms into the air before rubbing his eyes. I like it when he called me buddy. "I feel like Torrvic hit me in the head with his war hammer."
"Well, you did have a lot to drink last night," I say, laughing. "I had to help you into bed."
"Well, it's Turtlefest! We've been through a lot, it was nice to just let go," he retorts.
Pera and I are clearly very different people. I would never want to "let go:" the mere prospect terrifies me. But he looks so cute, I find it difficult to muster anything but a smile.
Pera looks around. Seeing only me, he asks, "Where is everyone?"
"Well, Torrvic never came back to the inn last night," I respond. "I assume he just passed out drunk in a ditch somewhere. It wouldn't have been the first time."
Pera laughs. I adore the melody of his laughter.
Torrvic had gone off late in the evening with Princess Sirena to a less-stuffy party, but I was too busy "Pera-sitting" my stumbling crush to follow them. I don't tell Pera this, as I don't want to embarrass him.
Also, I didn't mind helping Pera last night as he leaned on me to get him from the Turtlefest party to our room. I found it actually pretty sweet as I placed him down on his bed and he said, "Thannnnnks. You are my besssst friend, you know."
Pera gets out of bed and lumbers to the washing bowl. He splashes some of the tepid water on his face and makes a satisfied "mmmm" sound.
"What about Dorro?" Pera asks me.
"Well," I respond, eyebrow arched. "Dorro came in late and seemed lost in thought last night. So much so, he didn't even answer me when I asked him what was wrong. He got up about a half hour ago and went downstairs for some food. He hasn't said a word to me. I hope he's not mad at me. I haven't said anything mean to him."
"You would never say anything mean to him," Pera says, smiling. Pera's teeth are white and straight: something not expected of Wesselian farmers. He must take very good care of himself.
"And 'Her Majesty?'" Pera draws out "majesty" mockingly, obviously referring to Phryane. Phryane has been rather horrid to Pera from the start. At first, I piled on whenever Phryane would mock Pera, wanting to please Phryane for a reason I couldn't quite put my finger on. I resolve to stop that. Pera is a great guy. Whether or not he likes me back, I'm not going to make fun of him ever again. He saved my life!
"Pryane has her own quarters," I respond. "She is likely being attended to by numerous servants. She plays at bucking at the reigns of nobility, but she doesn't fool me. She was too much in her element when chatting with "Uncle Jacob," you know, the actual GOD KING last night to leave that life for too long. I suspect our days of traipsing through the woods are coming to an end."
"What do you mean?" asks Pera. He clearly doesn't know who Phryane is, but I do.
"Pera, Phryane is a good person to know," I start. "I will need friends like her to protect me from the wrath of Kadar. It's good for you to know her too. She is Anian nobility. And she's like us. She will likely be embraced by her connected family, even as mine will reject me."
"So what is her family?" Pera asks. "What is yours? You both act so high and mighty with your big words and high-held heads."
He is trying to act lightly. Though a light ribbing, that comment stings a little. I realize that I have treated Pera exactly as I was expected. He is a peasant farmer from Wessel and I am the son of an Antitheot leader. Yet, I am no better than him. I, like Phryane, have received an excellent education. That is all. Perhaps magic could be a great equalizer. I nervously fidget, but decide to focus on answering Pera's question.
"I know of Phryane's family, the House of Tinueth," I say. "As she knows of mine, the House of Praeten. My uncle is the Speaker of Kadar. He is the head of the Kadarian delegation in Ani. He is a dour man that I have never liked, what little I have seen of him."
"Phryane's mother is the Speaker of Ani and her father is the Rylendic Ambassador to Ani," I continue. "It is a rather small world among the ruling class."
I am immediately embarrassed. I just called my family the ruling class and this guy that I really like right in front of me has worked his whole life on land that is owned by people just like my cruel father.
"Of course, my days of having family connections are over," I quickly stammer. "Hopefully, they all just think I'm dead."
"That's awful," Pera starts. The tremor in his voice tells me I've said the wrong thing again. "Losing family is awful . . ."
As Pera trails off, I realize my mistake. Pera just lost a brother. I bow my head, ashamed.
"I'm sorry . . ." I say.
"It's not your fault," he continues after a moment of silence.
I want so badly to hold him: to love the sadness out of him. But I know that isn't possible. No amount of affection could do that, and we haven't ever really embraced. We sit silently for a few moments.
Dorro opens the door to our room, food in his mouth, Oliver the turtle in his hands. "Hurlllllo," Dorro mumbles, through the bread in his mouth.
"Hi Dorro," Pera says, emotionlessly. "We were just getting ready for the day."
Dorro sets down Oliver and feeds the scrappy turtle blue trechenroot and shredded carrots. He then meticulously gets his equipment prepared. He hides his contraband dagger in his performance pants and fills his trench coat's numerous pockets with sundries that he thinks might help him.
Pera and I wash and prepare for the day. We put on our new, clean clothes. I like that Pera is more hygienic than Dorro or Torrvic. I like to be clean, but the last few days had made that impossible. It's nice to be fresh for the day.
I love the smell of my freshly-starched shirt. The scent is pleasant with a faint whiff of lavender. I hope Pera likes the way I smell. I love the way he smells. Pera, even when he's been working hard, smells like heat, strength and pomegranates.
Torrvic stumbles in, getting started with a fresh ale from downstairs. Clearly, the plan for him is day-drinking. I keep my opinions to myself. Torrvic has a problem, but to be honest, at least when he's drunk he's not a total jerk.
"Hey, Buddies! How was the night?" Torrvic asks no one in particular.
No one answers, but everyone shakes their head in agreement to nothing in particular.
Mid-morning, giant trumpets blast a cacophony of sound that echoes through Turtle Bay as Pera and I are finishing our breakfast plums. I wash my hands in the room's washbowl and look up, "All right Pera. Let's go see what's going on. Does anyone else want to come?"
Sounding more chipper than he had last night, Dorro says, "Ahhh, that would be me!!"
I'm glad that Dorro sounds better, but really want to go just with Pera. Torrvic, Dorro (with Oliver the turtle in his hands), Pera and I walk out of the inn to the town square. Phryane is already there overseeing the festivities in her capacity as a visiting Anian noble.
The mayor of Turtle Bay stands on a platform and seems to smile with his words: "Gentlemen and Ladies! Welcome to Turtlefest!" He has a mildly humorous way of speaking, emphasizing each "T."
The crowd cheers as the mayor holds up a giant tortoise.
"Shell-y Shell-y Shell-y," the gathered villagers shout. Pera laughs at that, which reminds me of just how different we are. I think it rather low-brow to name a town mascot so on-the-nose, but not wanting to upset my crush, I laugh along with him.
"Don't worry Oliver," I mock-whisper to Dorro's entry in the Best Turtle Contest, as I point to Shelly. "One day that'll be you." This gets a nice laugh from Dorro and Pera, which was my objective.
Things get a little boring after that, to be honest. Watching a turtle sit in one spot for 10 minutes is about as fun as it sounds. But the gathered attendees are very into it. Apparently, whole livelihoods are on the line as whatever food "Shelly" eats first is declared the bumper crop of the year. I come to realize in that moment that I'm too highly educated to ever be content living as a peasant. As Pera's looking so cute, yet so excited about this ridiculous display, I realize a relationship between us, even if Pera likes me back, will be a lot of work.
Still, I'm up for it. I didn't pay attention as to which crop was Shelly's preferred meal, as I am too excited for the upcoming "turtle race." The turtle race is another opportunity to get physically close to Pera. We might not win the race, but that's not my goal.
"And now, Ladies and Gentlemen," the mayor loudly starts. "Welcome to the Great Turtle Race!" the mayor proclaims. "Teams of two line up at the rope. One of you, get on your partner's back and ride them to the end of the town square. Once there, the turtleback becomes the turtle-front. That's right friends, switch it up and run back to the beginning. Defend yourselves, because this gets pretty heated. If you fall, you're out. Of course, no weapons are allowed in Turtle Bay during Turtlefest, so trying any of that nasty business will get you in more trouble than just being disqualified. Hands and feet are fair game."
"Well, why don't we give it a try, Pera," I say, putting my arm around Pera's shoulders. He is so warm.
"Really?" he says, almost surprised that I would ask.
"Well if you want to," I say, just barely on the respectable side of pleading.
"Okay," Pera motions. "Hop on."
I'm surprised by how strong Pera is as he pulls me up on his muscular back. I guess all of that farm work has been good for something. I resolve to redouble my sit-ups and push-ups regimen.
My heart nearly pumps out of my ribs as my arms clasp around his chest. The calming heat of his body envelops me just as the familiar scent of pomegranate makes the grin on my face unstoppable. And just as the flag is lowered to start, some jerk trips Pera and we go stumbling into the dirt, clumsily rolling into a ball.
Thank you jerk! Thank You!
Pera lands on top of me after we stop rolling. We're disqualified from the race, but as we look into each other's eyes, neither of us care one bit.