The air in Pimeria smelled of bread. It was the smell that greeted the Delsani party as they reached the outskirts of the city. This made Zeke’s stomach churn. He wanted nothing more than to stuff his face with any food that was within his grasp. He signaled to his horse to walk a little faster. He had been bringing up the rear, but now he was leading the party.
“What’s the hurry?” Rafe asked, tickled by Zeke’s enthusiasm.
“I’m starving! You kicked my door down before I could have breakfast!” Zeke said, making sure that they understood what they had done to him and what he had sacrificed for them. “I’m going to eat all the things!”
“I’m a little peckish myself,” Moralie said, rubbing her stomach. “Nothing like killing Shadow Walkers to stir up an appetite.”
Rafe looked to Simon and saw that he indicated that he wouldn’t mind something to eat right then. She nodded her head and said, “Then I guess it’s settled. We’ll stop here and get some food. We shouldn’t stay too long lest we invite trouble.”
“Trouble? No way?” Moralie chuckled. “We’re just going to stuff our faces, get a few to go boxes, and be on our way.”
“That simple?” Rafe asked.
“That simple.” Moralie whipped the reins and her horse picked up the pace to match Zeke’s. “Last one there is a lion licker!”
Moralie and Zeke raced each other into town. Rafe and Simon laughed as they watched their eager friends. They were ready to put the nasty business in the woods a few hours ago behind them. Maybe a good meal could help to that end.
The party put their horses in the stables and then set out to seek their lunch. The marketplace was jumping today. There were a lot of people crisscrossing the streets looking at everything the shops had to offer. Each shop owner was in front of their shop advertising their products, bread and a sundry of other tasty delights.
Zeke couldn’t make up his mind what he wanted to eat. There were so many options. He glanced at the shop displays and his mouth watered. Bread bowl soups, sandwiches, pastries, bread, bread, and more bread. He didn’t care if it would eventually make him fat, he wanted all of it in his gut right now. If the things he saw tasted anything like they smelled, he was in paradise.
Each shop owner tried to get Zeke’s business by shouting to him their best prices. He knew that the best way to get to his stomach was through his coin purse. The ones that were too high he brushed off. He thought that their prices were highly inflated. Then there was one person, a young woman wearing a light green dress with silky black hair, stood by her shop and smiled at him. Zeke stopped for a moment and smiled back to her. He guessed that she was about his age. He thought that she was pretty cute. Her smooth light brown skin glistened in the sunlight. She had to be an angel. She looked inviting, even the little black crow on her shoulder looked adorable.
“It appears our young wizard has chosen a shop,” Rafe said, snickering.
“Boys,” Moralie said, rolling her eyes.
Zeke walked over to the young woman and she bowed to him.
“My name is Mai. Welcome to my humble bread shop,” the young woman said. “How many will be joining you?”
“Four, please.” Zeke looked back at the others and smiled. Rafe nodded her approval. Simon raised his eyebrows as he looked at Mai, then he gave Zeke a wicked smile. This made Zeke a little uncomfortable. Moralie looked minorly irritated by how he chose their lunch spot. He shrugged his shoulders and returned his attention to Mai.
“Please, let me show you to your table.” Mai led them inside the small shop. There were only four tables inside and three of them were already taken up by dining customers. Mai invited them to sit at the empty table. She pulled out a chair and indicated that she would like Zeke to sit there. Obliged, Zeke did so. Rafe and the others pulled their own chairs and promptly sat in them.
“I will get you some menus.” Mai went to the front of the shop and grabbed four laminated menus. She set them down in front of the adventurers and smiled. “Can I get you some drinks? Perhaps some lemonade? Iced tea?”
“I will take a lemonade,” Zeke said.
“I will take some hot black tea,” Rafe said, flipping the menu over.
“I’d just like some water.” Moralie looked at Mai suspiciously. Mai averted her gaze.
“I will take some hot chocolate.” Simon grinned at Mai. She recoiled as she looked at how creepy he looked doing so.
“I’ll be right back with your drinks.” Anything to get away from Simon’s grin. She shook her head as she walked into the kitchen. She wasn’t going to be able to sleep tonight.
Zeke looked at the menu and saw that there were pictures next to each item. They all looked delicious. If he had enough money, he would order every item on the menu. It was then that he realized that he hadn’t really counted how much money he had. He supposed that it would be rude to count his money in front of the others. He could be seen as mistrustful if he did that, but he didn’t want to order too much and not have enough to cover it all, that would be embarrassing. He sighed because he was in a predicament. Maybe it would be better if he just ordered two fairly inexpensive items and called it a day. He gave another sigh.
“So, what made you pick this place?” Rafe asked. She had a devious smile on her lips.
“As if you didn’t know!” Moralie sniffed loudly and sent a stare at Zeke.
Zeke got a shiver down his spine. If looks could kill, he’d be dead. “I just didn’t want to wait anymore.”
“And I’m sure her cute face had nothing to do with it,” Simon teased.
Zeke’s face reddened. Apparently, his motives were transparent and he wasn’t fooling anyone. He decided that it would be better if he just admitted it than try to play it off. “Okay, okay, she’s really soft on the eyes. But I’m starving and this looked a good a place as any.”
“Decisions driven by hormones can lead to a devastating end,” Moralie said.
“And who made you the Moral Police?” Simon jabbed Moralie in the ribs for which he received a slap on the wrist. “It’s not like you haven’t fallen for a pretty face.”
Moralie turned her nose up at Simon and replied, “I have and that’s why I have this.” She pointed to the scar that was just underneath her left eye. Everyone was silent for a moment. The mood was suddenly heavy. Fortunately, Mai had returned with the drinks.
She set the appropriate drinks down in front of their intended audience. Her hand brushed again Zeke’s as he reached for his glass of lemonade. She giggled and Zeke smiled cheerfully and blushed. “Have you decided what you’re going to have?” Zeke hadn’t decided on anything, but he didn’t want to tell her that. He picked something at random and pointed to the picture of a soup bread bowl. Mai looked at it and asked, “Do you want broccoli and cheese or potato?”
“Both,” he said.
“Why don’t you get the broccoli and cheese and I’ll take the potato,” Moralie said. “And if you don’t like it, we’ll switch.” She sent Zeke a warm smile, which confused him. He just nodded his head. “Excellent.”
Mai wrote the order down.
Zeke didn’t hear what everyone else ordered. He was too busy watching Mai in action. She wasn’t doing anything special other than writing down their orders, but Zeke seemed to be enamored with her. He wasn’t sure why either. There was something about her that allured him. She seemed to float on air as she walked around the shop, checking in with the other customers. He just watched her. He started to get self-conscious thinking that he might come off as a creep so he looked down at the table expecting to see the menu, but it was gone. She must have taken it without him noticing.
Mai disappeared into the kitchen and suddenly Zeke’s attention was snapped back into reality. He stared at Rafe, eyes blinking in a confused manner. She was looking at him expectantly. Did she just ask him something? He vaguely remembered her voice raise like she had asked a question. He felt foolish for not paying attention and just nodded his head. “Yes.”
“Then it’s settled. We’ll ride on to Epherma until nightfall,” Rafe said. She patted Zeke on the back. “I’m glad to see that you’re up for more riding today. I was beginning to doubt whether you’d be able to make it.” She picked up her glass and took a sip of her tea.
“You know me, up for anything,” Zeke lied. He chuckled nervously and tried to avoid eye contact with anyone. What was it with him today? He felt that something was wrong, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. His mind was fuzzy, he couldn’t concentrate. He heard that Moralie and Simon were laughing about something, but he couldn’t divine what it was. He couldn’t hear complete words, just clips of sounds. Maybe he needed something to drink. He picked up his lemonade and took three gulps. It was really good.
Rafe tapped Zeke on the hand, this broke the fog and he looked up at her. “So, tell us about yourself. Who are you?”
What kind of a question is that, he thought. “Umm, I’m no one special. I’m just a guy, you know? I don’t know what to say.” He scratched the back of his head and tried to think of something interesting to say. He didn’t have any cool stories nor had he been on any big adventures. He could tell them about the time in the woods with the Shadow Walkers, but they were all there for that. He just shrugged his shoulders. “There’s really not much to know.”
“Well, you’ve got to have something to share.” Moralie leaned forward and folded her arms. “When was your first kiss and who was it?”
Zeke blushed again and he felt a little hot. Now he was embarrassed. “Umm, I haven’t had one yet.” Moralie and Simon gasped in shock. He didn’t want it to be a big deal. “So what?”
“So you’re telling me that you’re a virgin?” Simon asked incredulously. “Oh man. That’s rich!” He started laughing and banging his fist on the table.
“Shhh!” Zeke said. He looked around them and saw that people were staring at him. He could have sworn that some of them had smirks on their faces. What business was it of theirs? “Could you please stop laughing? My master thought that love was distracting and forbade me from dating.”
“But you’re a virile young man,” Moralie said. “You mean that you haven’t been sowing your wild oats? What have you been doing?”
“Studying,” Zeke said confidentally. “If I ever hope to be half the wizard Gresar is, I’ll have to study.” Moralie and Simon nodded their heads thoughtfully.
“You are shaping up to be a great wizard, Zeke.” Rafe put her hand on Zeke’s and nodded her head. “That spell in the woods saved our hides and for that I say thank you.”
Zeke grinned and said, “You’re welcome. Just glad that I was useful.”
He was beginning to feel better. His mind was clearing up and becoming less foggy. He didn’t know what had come over him earlier. Whatever it was, he was glad that it was over. This lasted for a few more minutes before he felt the fog coming back. His vision was beginning to cloud. He rubbed his eyes in the hopes of clearing them up. When he opened his eyes again, all he was able to see clearly was Mai bringing them their food. All thoughts were directed at her. He felt his embarrassment fade away. The moment she looked at him, he knew true happiness.
“And here’s your broccoli and cheese soup bowl,” Mai said with a smile. “I hope you enjoy it.”
“Th-Thank you,” Zeke managed to say. Mai started to walk away, but Zeke stopped her by touching her hand. “I think your bird is really cute.” The crow looked at him and blinked.
“Oh, her, she’s a sweetie,” Mai said. She freed her hand and bowed to him. She left to visit with the other customers. Zeke found his gaze followed her around the shop. She was all he wanted to see. She was all he wanted to think about. He neglected his food. He neglected his mates. All was focused on Mai. She finally left the dining room and went back into the kitchen. He instantly felt relief. His vision slowly returned and his mind was allowed to wander free. He looked at the table and saw that everyone was looking at him. “What?”
Rafe looked concerned. “Are you feeling alright?”
Zeke blinked and stared in confusion. “Yeah, why?” He was feeling a little warm, but that was about it. He looked at Moralie and Simon and saw that they were also concerned. “I’m fine. I was just thinking about something.”
“I bet you were,” Simon chuckled. “You were undressing her with your eyes. It was pretty creepy.”
“Oh, you should talk,” Zeke replied. “Whatever. Can we just eat?” He looked down at his soup bread bowl and licked his lips. It looked amazing. He picked up his spoon and was about to dive in when Moralie stopped him. “What?”
“I didn’t like the potato one so I’m switching with you,” she said, taking his soup and replacing it with hers. “Thanks, champ!” She immediately dug in. “Hey, this is pretty good!”
“I’m so happy for you,” Zeke grumbled. He looked down at his new soup bowl with less enthusiasm than before. It still looked good, but not as good as the prior. He dug in and found that it was quite delicious now that he trained his taste buds not to expect cheesy goodness. He scarfed the soup down in a heartbeat and soon started tearing the bread apart. His stomach was full and happy. He wasn’t sure if he could eat another bite, but the bread was so buttery and flaky. It was truly the best bread he had ever had. He made a mental note to come back through Pimeria if he survived Mount Death.
“Was that good enough for you?” Mai came by with a tray and picked up his plate. Zeke was only able to nod his head. “That’s good. Would you like some dessert?” Zeke nodded his head. “Okay, I’ll be back with the menu.”
Zeke shook his head as it cleared. He found that Rafe was staring at him again. “Did it happen again?” She nodded her head. Something wasn’t right with him and he knew that it had something to do with Mai.
“I think we need to get out of here,” Rafe said. She had been holding the hilt of her sword. “Guys, let’s split.” She tossed some gold coins on the table and stood up. Simon and Moralie did the same thing. Zeke reached into his coin purse and pulled out eight gold coins, which he believed would be more than enough to cover his bill.
The quartet started to walk out of the shop when Mai showed up, blocking the exit. She held up a dessert menu and waved to Zeke. “But you hadn’t picked out a dessert yet.”
Rafe watched as Zeke started to fall back under the spell. His shoulders slumped and his eyes glazed over as he gazed upon Mai. She pulled out her sword and held the blade at Mai’s neck, startling the other patrons. “Reverse the spell, you black witch!” Mai screamed. The crow on her shoulder ruffled its feathers. Rafe pressed the blade into Mai’s neck; blood began to trickle down. “Don’t toy with me.”
Mai’s innocent face soon faded away and was replaced by one of sheer evil. She sneered at Rafe and spit in her face. “It doesn’t matter anyway. Your wizard is going to die in three… two… one!”
Everyone turned to look at Zeke and waited for something to happen. Nothing happened to him, but suddenly Moralie doubled over in pain. Her body started to convulse as she vomited blood on the floor. She looked up at Rafe and revealed to her that her eyes were bleeding. She mouthed Rafe’s name and then fell to the floor unconscious.