1. A New Home

 

 

The first time I saw Mr. Nestor was at the orphanage. Several people a day came and saw the children there, but none had even an ounce of Mr. Nestor’s genuineness.

He came with his wife. They glowed together, laughed together, and drew the attention of all the children. He was short, balding, and pudgy, and his wife was tall, lean, and buxom. At the time, I was fifteen and had given up any chance of adoption. Nobody wants a teenager. So naturally, when his gaze kept pausing at me, I wasn’t able to keep the puzzled look off my face.

And when he spoke to our priestess and pointed at me, I almost took cover behind an actual child. She even told him my name was Katya, so there was no confusion.

Make no mistake, this is no coming-of-age story. By that time, I was a fully grown woman. Well read, more mature than most adults, and wise beyond my years. Sometimes I emanated an absolute cuteness to get my way, but that was a simple manipulation.

But it wasn't like I didn't want to be adopted. I said yes.

The couple didn't stop holding hands until we left together, and a messenger ran up to Mr. Nestor and handed him a note. You can tell the true nature of a person by how they treat strangers. Mr. Nestor greeted him with a handshake, a smile that gave the sun a run for its money, and a small gratuity. A true gentleman.

Everything changed when he opened the paper, however. After a slight pause, he began to weep. His wife looked on and, much to my surprise, gave minimal reaction other than curiosity.

He quickly apologized to me for some reason, and we rushed to the community doctor. I heard him say sorry at least fifty times to various strangers and horse-drawn carriages along the way as we bobbed and weaved through people.

His mother had died just before we got there — no last words, no goodbyes. The doctor mentioned that it might have been her heart due to stress, but he wasn't sure.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” Mr. Nestor said, holding his mother’s pale hand.

His wife, who had somewhat distanced herself from him ever since they got the news, stared off into space. "What will you do about The Humble Wares?" she asked.

“Her shop?” he asked without turning away from the bed.

“Yeah. Guess you’ll have to sell it, huh?” There wasn’t any inflection in her voice. No tone. It was almost as if she didn’t care. I wanted to say something, but I was so far out of my element.

He stared down at his mother’s hand as he caressed it. “I’ll have to run it. That’s what she would have wanted.”

“What?” his wife said, startled. “We were going to go on vacation. You were going to take me out west to see the sea. Aren’t we still going?”

For the first time, he looked away from the woman lying on the table and glared at his wife. "Are you serious? Of course not." His eyes were red from the tears he shed.

His wife stood up. "Okay, that's it. You've chosen work over me for the last time. Either we're going on this trip, or I'm going. For good." She crossed her arms, and her eyes lit up with fire.

Mr. Nestor’s mouth hung open, as did mine. I uncomfortably fiddled with a string on my worn backpack. After staring at each other for what seemed like ages, his body jumped a little from a single small chuckle, and he only said one word.

“Bye.”

The fire in her eyes burned out, and she was taken aback. "Fine! Have fun being alone for the rest of your life! You were lucky I lowered my standards for you. I could have any man!" She began to storm away, then turned and spat on the ground in front of him before leaving.

Sunlight bounced off the marble pillars that held the ceiling up. It was a beautiful day. I remember being glad that someone took me out of the orphanage, even for a day, as I was sure he would take me back after all that.

"I'm so sorry for that," he said, gently letting go of his mother's hand as the doctor prepped her body for ritual rites. "Let's get home. They're things I have to get in order."

“A-are you sure?” I stuttered in surprise. “You aren’t taking me back?”

He looked at me and smiled. It surprised the hell out of me, that smile. After all of that, he still showed kindness. “Of course not. None of this was your fault. You shouldn't be punished for it. Would you like me to carry your pack?”

I was too confused. My heart skipped a beat. I hadn't yet been shown that much kindness in my life, that I remember. I respectfully declined. I might not have, had the circumstances been different, but until I could stash away what was in the pack, I wasn’t letting go of it.

The wide dirt roads, if you could call them that, were fluttered with people going about whatever business they had. The flopping of sandals was music to my ears, as before then, all I heard was the same conversations by the same children day after day. Beautiful chiton dresses flowed to and fro, and birds sang wonderful songs about freedom from the building tops.

Mr. Nestor walked cautiously, unsure of what to do with his hands. Once in a while, he even glanced down at them. He stopped and looked at a homely woman in a potato sack and a shaggy dog next to her. She sat there, alone, huddled against a shaded wall. Mr. Nestor checked his coin purse and looked at me out of the corner of his eyes. I was only a few inches shorter than him. I was lanky, but he was stumpy.

"Do you want a dog? I know a lot of children like pets," he said. It wasn't said in a patronizing tone, but being called a child had always bothered me. I wasn't even particularly a dog person.

I shrugged. "I don't know. It's not necessary."

“But would it make you happy? Even a little?”

I looked over to the brown-haired dog, who sadly glanced from person to person as people walked by. "I guess so." It wasn't that I wanted him. I just felt sorry for the poor animal.

Mr. Nestor smiled, walked over to the homeless woman, and knelt down to eye level. “Excuse me, Ms., is that your dog?”

She furrowed her brows and cocked her head. “No?”

“Would you mind if I bought him off you?”

"He's not mine."

Mr. Nestor dismissively shook his head. “It seems like he belongs to you, which is enough for me. I’d give you twenty drachmae for him.”

The woman stood up in pure confusion, which seemed to alarm the dog. "You would what!" she said exclaimed.

Without raising his voice to match hers, he simply restated what he said. “Twenty drachmae, for the dog. Is that okay? I have a daughter that could really use a friend."

My jaw dropped. Daughter. No one had ever called me that before, and I certainly felt that he didn't have the right to. I didn't even know the man.

The woman looked over to me, then back at Mr. Nestor. "Twenty drachmae, you sure? That's a lot." He simply nodded and handed out the coins for her to take, which she carefully did. "Thanks a lot, mister! This changes things for me. You have no idea!"

Twenty was a lot. It could buy her a whole new set of clothes, a bath, and food for a week.

"Hey, boy," Mr. Nestor said as he pet the dog on the head. "You wanna come home with me? Come on. Pstpstpst."

The dog looked confused at first, but upon receiving attention, his tail wagged, and he followed us as we continued our walk back to Mr. Nestor's home.

“What would you like to name him?” he asked me.

“I get to name him?" I wasn't sure why he wanted me to name him. After all, it was his dog, not mine.

"Of course, it's your dog. I got him for you." Mr. Nestor looked up to the bright, cloudless sky and smiled. This man had just lost so much of his life, gained several new responsibilities, and smiled. I was baffled.

“Um… I’m not sure. Can I think about it and tell you later?”

“Of course, uh… Katya, right?" Everything about this man was uncomfortable. His stumpy waddle, the way he fumbled through some words, and the way he tried so hard not to be awkward.

"Yeah, good memory!" Men like that can be fragile, and I was still learning who he was. He seemed nice, so even a small win, a little compliment, can go a long way.

There was a thick tension between us. A line so dense that it might as well have been a physical barrier. I was old for an adopted kid, and he was young for a parent of a teenager. Even though he was balding, he couldn’t be any more than twenty-eight. I didn’t want to bombard him with questions at the time, and so decided to wait. My biggest priority was finding out where I would stash my backpack so it could be safe.

We walked for nearly two miles through town. Orna was bigger than I had ever thought. Horse-drawn carriages carried goods over the rough roads. Ladies chatted and giggled over humble gardens in front of homes. I even saw a magic glyph on someone's wall, but I couldn't tell what it was for.

Then we got to where I would eventually call home. It was at the end of a market square, which was bathed in radiant sunlight as satisfied customers exchanged coins with happy merchants at their stands. However, the Humble Wares was the only place cast in shadow, as two large trees towered over it on either side.

It was two stories of misplaced stone with dark alleyways on both sides.

Spiderwebs lined the dent between the roof and wall. The tall windows desperately needed to be cleaned. Mr. Nestor even struggled to open the front door, as the handle apparently required a specific jiggle.

“Welcome to The Humble Wares!” Mr. Nestor’s voice nearly echoed into the empty storefront. Even though it was warm outside, the sad stone walls projected a coldness. The shelves were lined with various "goods." Second-hand chitons and other clothes, worn books, tattoo needles, various travel supplies, even a shield.

"It's, uh, nice." I nearly choked on the words as they came up. I even managed to smile. There was nothing formal about that place, but I made sure to check that my braids were still together. Loose, my hair would be down to the middle of my back, like black sludge. I was overdue for a cut.

"Our living space is upstairs. We can go up in a minute, but I need to get some things together first." He put some coins that were behind a counter into a box. "This is my mom's, or... I guess my safety box. When we close up, we put all the coins we made that day in here and take it upstairs for safekeeping at the end of the night."

He held it in his hands for a long moment, looking down at it, and went behind a shelf. The dog sniffed around like he’d never been inside a building before, his tail wagging wildly.

Without making a noise, I peeked behind the shelf Mr. Nestor went behind and saw him wipe something from his face. From his eyes. He turned around, but I went back before he noticed me. "Listen, Katya… I'm sorry you had to see all of that today."

I looked away from his eyes. There was too much intensity there. "It's okay, really, don't worry about it. A-are you okay?"

“Of course,” he said with a giggle. “Never been better. The horizon has shifted. The future is bright.” I simply nodded, unsure of what to say. It’s difficult to console a person who denies their feelings. “Say, you’re fifteen, right? Have you decided what tattoo you’re going to get when you turn sixteen?” He rolled up his sleeve to show me a tattooed glyph of Andreas, the God of strength, poise, and compromise.

I’d known what God to dedicate myself to for years. For me, it wasn’t even a difficult decision. Most people have familial or societal pressures, but not me. “Yes, sir. I plan on dedicating myself to Odessa.”

He grinned. It was a real grin, not one to hide his feelings. "Good. Good. It only makes sense for a young woman to value intelligence, and in the end, we'd be going to the same place. When I was-" There was a knock at the door. After a brief pause, Mr. Nestor said, "Customers? Ah, well, we can open back up briefly. Let me show you how it's done." He cracked his knuckles and opened the door.

A man and a woman in orange chlamys, which is a sort of cloak typically worn by people of combat or ill-means, stood outside. They both had swords in their sheathes but bore no insignia. "Are you Mr. Nestor?" the woman asked.

He smiled wide and made an exaggerated motion for them to come in. "Why, yes, I am. Why don't you come in, and welcome to The Humble Wares! What might you be looking for? We have a wide selection of-"

The man interrupted in a deep, commanding voice. "We aren't looking to buy." The dog went up to sniff the woman's hand, and she knelt down to pet him. I hid behind a shelf. I had a bad feeling about them.

Mr. Nestor stumbled a bit on his bravado. “Oh. Well then in that case, what can I help you with?”

"We got word that your mother died earlier. Is that correct?" the woman said. She looked up at Mr. Nestor innocently as she pet the dog.

"That's right. Did you know her?" Mr. Nestor may not have been, but I was very suspicious. His mother died not long ago, indeed not long enough for word to spread. We came home almost straight from the doctor's.

"No," the woman said.

"Your mom owed someone a fair bit of money," the man said as he rested his hand on the hilt of his sword ever so casually.

“I see." Mr. Nestor sighed and looked down, then went over to his coin box. "Well, let's see if we can't square that away, shall we? How much did she owe?"

The man and woman looked at each other and grinned, and the man said, “A talent.”

I did the math in my head. A talent was one hundred minae, and a mina was fifty drachmae. That was five thousand drachmae!

My mouth dropped, as did Mr. Nestor’s. “Five thousan-… I can’t pay that! What am I supposed to do? How did she owe that much?”

The man drew his sword and sauntered over to Mr. Nestor, who backed away up to the wall. "I don't really care what you do as long as we get that coin. In the meantime, we'll go ahead and take what you have as an interest payment, but we'll be back."

The woman went and emptied the safety box into her coin purse. "Good luck," she said with a wink. The man sheathed his sword, and they walked out as if they'd owned the place, which I guess they did in a way.

It became eerily quiet.

After a moment of just standing there, Mr. Nestor went over to re-lock the door and solemnly put the empty coin box back behind the counter. "Well, that was… Interesting," he said. He looked around and spotted me hiding behind a shelf. "Are you okay?"

I was flabbergasted. “Are you okay? I’m not the one who was just threatened!” I was very nearly frustrated at that point by his seeming nonchalance.

“Oh, please," he scoffed. "I wouldn't use the word 'threatened.'"

“Well, you should," I scolded and gestured with my hands. "He had a sword out against you."

He blankly looked around the shop. Up at the ceiling, the walls, and glanced over the products. “You know, this place could use a good cleaning. We have a lot of work ahead of us tomorrow. I better show you where you’ll be sleeping. We can worry about the rest later.”

“Wait, ‘we’ have a lot of work?”

"Yeah. I'll need some help around the shop. I won't be able to pay you for a while, obviously, but you'll get good experience," he said with a sly smile. "Come on. Upstairs, we go!"

He led me through a tight dusty stairway, which opened up to a modest room with a few mesh chairs, an empty bookshelf, and a table half full of dried fruits and containers of vegetables. That was it.

My room was small, but I immediately fell in love with it.

It had the comfiest bed I had seen since I was little, which took up most of the space, and a small compartment for clothes. My favorite feature, however, was the window. It looked out over an alleyway and didn’t grant a view, but it gave me a sense of freedom.

“I have this room all to myself?” I asked with glee, only to be interrupted by the dog hopping onto the bed.

Mr. Nestor chuckled. "Guess that depends on him. I'll be up for another hour or so, so don't hesitate to tell me if you need anything. Even if I'm in my room and it's the dead of night, all you need to do is wake me up. I won't mind."

I nodded, and he closed the door and left. It was dark, but I was accustomed to the low-light. My backpack had cut into my shoulders a bit, and I was ecstatic to plop it down onto the bed.

The dog, whom I still couldn’t think of a name for, twirled around a couple times and then practically fell onto his side. The bed was already dirty before I had a chance to enjoy it.

The room didn't have many hiding spots, and I wasn't sure how big of a snoop Mr. Nestor was. I quietly opened my pack up to make sure everything was there: some clothes, a notebook, and an unusually heavy stuffed cow.

Oh, man. That cow took me so much work to make. A lot of effort went into it. I opened up the notebook. The pages were hollowed out to make room for a small bone. A very special bone. I had stolen it from an eccentric street vendor on one of the orphanage's outings. The bone by itself was worth at least 500 drachmae.

Under a bit of fur on the underside of the cow was a Glyph of sealing. I pulled down my shirt and ran the sharp edge of the bone against the top of my chest. I touched the glyph with the bone's bloody tip, and the blood was absorbed into the glyph's ink. The intricate lines of the symbol briefly glowed, and the underside of the cow unsealed.

I didn't want to empty it out, so I counted the coins one at a time. It took a long while, but eventually, I was satisfied that it was all there. If I was paranoid about one thing, it was my money.

I wish I could tell you that I slept like a baby, that it was easy to rest, but the truth is I was confused. The bed was softer than I was used to, but the room was foreign. And the events of the day had pulled my heart one way and then another. I felt so bad for Mr. Nestor, and at the same time, was so put off by his optimistic attitude.

The night went by mostly sleeplessly. I had a conundrum on my hands. The money in my cow was my own (no matter how I got it), and here I was thinking about paying off this man's debt. He was practically a stranger, but in my mind, it would be analogous to buying my freedom and my place outside of the orphanage. The morning would be a better time to decide, I thought.