I woke up the next day, my fever practically gone and strength back in my body. Opening up shop a little earlier than usual, I hummed at the counter while waiting for the others to arrive. I looked out the window, seeing the sun high in the sky and shining brightly. People were beginning to walk through the streets in their skirts, and even the men were sporting short-sleeved shirts. It seems like a nice day today.
"Boss!" Veronica exclaimed, quickly rushing into the shop, Chase and Alan in tow.
"I heard you were sick yesterday, are you alright?!" she worriedly asked, beginning to examine my body. I laughed and placed a reassuring hand her shoulder.
"I'm all better now, thanks to these two rascals," I replied, patting both Alan and Chase on the head. "Seriously, thanks for yesterday and sorry for all the trouble."
"Don't worry about it. We need you around for our paychecks, anyways," Alan joked, grinning. Chase cracked a smile at that statement, and I let out a chuckle of my own.
"Alright guys, let's get set up for today. We're opening a little earlier than usual to compensate for the early closing yesterday. We all have a lot of work to do," I commanded. Everyone immediately began to move, Chase and I going up the stairs while Veronica and Alan made sure that the counter and shelves were all prepped.
"Are you sure you're alright?" Chase asked from behind me as we walked up to the second floor.
"I'm really fine. The stew you guys brought me yesterday was really good, by the way. Who made it?" I asked, opening the door to my room and letting Chase inside.
"Oh, I did," Chase said. I could hear a bit of shyness to his tone.
"Really? Haha, you cook much better than I do," I said, walking over to my desk and organizing the bulk of paperwork atop it. I heard the sound of pots and bottles being pulled out, and Chase cleared his throat.
"Thank you. I mostly learned how to cook from my brother. My mom was the one who taught him, and he's a real natural at it." I remember that he had mentioned his brother yesterday, and realized that with me being sick, I probably missed the time to meet him.
"Did your brother already arrive here?" I questioned, looking back at Chase.
"Yeah, last night. My family was actually wondering if you would join us for dinner tonight. We eat later than most families, so you don't have to close up shop earlier or anything like that," Chase mentioned. My eyes widened, and I could feel a small pit of nervousness form at the pit of my stomach. I don't know why, but the prospect of meeting someone's family seemed so daunting to me. No specific memories from my past came to mind, but I had the feeling that I was always like this when it came to going over to people's houses. I want to leave a good impression- no, as his employer, I have to. I gulped.
"Sure thing, I'd like to eat some more of that home cooking," I lightly joked, and Chase laughed.
"Gray is excited to meet you," he said, examining some of the herbs in the bottle he was holding. "Is this a bit too dry?" he asked himself, holding it up to the light.
"Wait, Gray? Is that-" I asked, recognizing the name.
"Boss!" Veronica called out from downstairs. "The merchant from one of the commissions is here!" All thoughts of Gray left my mind as I hurried downstairs, grabbing the salves I'd prepared for the customer as I rushed by the kitchen counter.
"You must be Miss Jade," a man in a suit said as he waited by the counter. This man was a merchant from the heart of the Royal City, and he had come all the way to the periphery just to commission the creation of some salves from this shop. In other words, he was a VIP.
"Yes, I am. And you must be Mr. Elios Mantrey?" I responded, taking the time to slightly fix my appearance. Mr. Mantrey nodded, leaning on the fancy looking cane that he had brought with him.
"I was hoping that we could have a chat somewhere. I'd like to discuss some business prospects with you," he said, and I looked at him, slightly surprised. I might have hit a jackpot here!
"Of course! There's a nice cafe along the central street where we can discuss things in quiet," I said, hurriedly taking off my apron and handing it to Veronica.
"Guys, take care of things here while I'm gone," I called behind me as I left the shop with Mr. Mantrey. Alan and Veronica both nodded, both flashing me a thumbs up in show of support. I laughed quietly and unhooked the satchel I left near the front door, fixing it around my shoulder and putting in it the salves and paperwork I had brought with me.
We arrived at the small cafe, which was still mostly empty due to it still being early, and took a seat indoors. I pulled out the papers and salves, and handed them over to Mr. Mantrey.
"These are commissioned products you asked for, along with original paperwork you filled out with additional information about the ingredients used and the proper usage of the salves," I explained as he looked through the papers. He held one of the salve containers in his hand, unscrewing the top and examining the smooth, waxy substance held in the tin cylinder.
"This looks like fine work, as always," he noted, dipping his finger into the salve and swatching it on the top his hand.
"As always? Have you tried our products before?" I asked, folding my hands atop the table. Our cups of coffee arrived, and I gingerly took a sip.
"Indeed I have," Mr. Mantrey replied, picking up his own cup. "I actually sent for one of the men from my guild to pick up a large bulk of your products the first week you opened. All of my men and I were shocked to find that your medicines had immediate results. It was a pleasant surprise to return to see that you were accepting commissions, while also having new products on sale," he explained.
"Oh, I do remember having an oddly large number of sales the first week, though I thought that was just because our grand opening would be quite busy," I laughed. Mr. Mantrey smiled softly, and immediately the daunting, high-class air around him seemed to melt a bit.
"So, I wanted to strike a deal with you. My guild holds some great influence even in the Royal City. I was wondering if you would be interested in opening up shop there?" he asked. I almost choked on my coffee, and had to cough a few times to clear my throat. This is definitely jackpot-! Just when I was wondering how to get into the Royal City, this…!
"What would you need in exchange?" I asked, growing slightly suspicious. Things couldn't possibly be this easy.
"We want the right to sell your goods on the sea fronts. International sales, if you will. Of course, you'll get a percentage of the profit we make," he said. I couldn't ask for a better deal. Getting into the Royal City, and the only price I had to pay was free, international advertisement? Of course I was going to-
I faltered for a moment. Could I really just leave the village like that? Leave Alan, Chase, and Veronica behind? What would happen to the shop here? The people here who needed medicine? Sure, I wanted to get out of here as soon as possible, but…. It seemed that in the short time I'd been staying here, I had grown somewhat attached to the village of Meril.
"I…" I trailed off, looking down at the cup in my hands.
"I see that you still need some time to think about it. It's a big decision to make, so please take all the time you need. But, I still am a businessman at heart. The most time I can give you to decide would be two months, including the time that it would take to arrive at and set up shop in the Royal City," Mr. Mantrey said, standing up. I continued to look down silently at my drink.
"Well then, I bid you a farewell. Please take it into careful consideration," he said. I heard his footsteps walk away, and sighed into my coffee as I took another sip. I should get back to the shop…
After I paid for the bill at the cafe, I quickly headed back to the shop. Veronica and Alan were busy dealing with customers, so I silently waved their way and walked up the stairs to my room. When I entered, Chase only said a greeting, which I echoed, and didn't ask anything further. I took a seat at my desk and began to once again go through my work, mindlessly grinding together new herbs we had found and writing down results. I went through the rest of the morning silently, Mr. Mantrey's offer weighing on my mind. Before I knew it, it was the end of everyone's shift and Veronica and Alan waved goodbye as usual as they left the shop.
"So, I can come here to pick you up around 8?" Chase asked as he stayed behind. Oh, right. Dinner. I almost forgot about that. I smiled up at him and nodded.
"Sure," I replied, looking at the clock. It was 5 already, so I only had 3 hours left. I usually closed up shop around 7 or 8, but when Chase had left, I flipped over the "open" sign in the front of the shop and locked the door. With the state my mind was in, I was in no condition to work.
"Might as well doll myself up a bit with the time I have left," I said to myself, heading to the bathroom.
I took a long bath, letting the warm water soak me up to my ears. What should I do…?
After washing my body and face thoroughly, I decided that it wouldn't hurt to pull out some of the cosmetics I had bought in the village. I moisturized my face and applied a tiny bit of foundation, leaving a natural and dewy finish. What do I do? I dried my hair thoroughly instead of letting it air dry as usual, and combed it until it was shiny and straight. No, seriously, what do I do?
Walking over to my closet, I pulled out the one of the nicest outfits I had and accompanied it with a small necklace that I had received as a gift from one of my clients. Argh, what the HECK do I do?! Not being able to take the frustration anymore, I glanced at my reflection in the mirror quickly before leaving the shop. It was only 7, so I had some time left before Chase came. You look nice, I thought to myself as I let the cool, evening air hit my face.
"So? To what do I owe the pleasure of hosting this beautiful young lady?" Mr. Rudeforth said lightly, pulling out a seat for me to take. I laughed softly while sitting down, and rested my hands on the wooden table.
"Did you make this yourself? I didn't see this table here before," I asked, tracing over the simple designs. A lot had changed from when I had first arrived in this world, but if there was one thing that was constant, it was the fact that I knew I could go to Mr. Rudeforth with my concerns.
"I'm glad you noticed. And what are you up to tonight? You've dressed up quite well," he replied, bringing over two cups of tea.
"One of my workers invited me to dinner with his family. I wanted to leave a good impression," I admitted, wondering if maybe I had gone overboard.
"Hm? Meeting the parents already?" he joked. I grinned and held the warm cup of tea in my hands, staring at the calm, brown liquid.
"I wouldn't say that. I'm not one to go for younger men," I chuckled. There was a moment of silence between us, and I wondered how to bring up what was on my mind. Luckily, Mr. Rudeforth was the first to take action.
"That's not what you've come to say, though, is it?" he questioned, sipping at his tea and glancing at me.
"It seems as though in the short time I've been here, you've learned to read me quite well," I said, smiling a bit.
"Well, I've got many years on me, after all. There's not too much I haven't seen."
"Truth is… I got an offer to set up shop in the Royal City," I finally said, and I snuck a look up at Mr. Rudeforth. He looked absolutely flabbergasted, his mouth hanging open and his eyes almost popping out of his head.
"Y-you, s-shop R-r-r-oya- What?!" he exclaimed, propping up to his feet. Surprised, I looked up at him, feeling betrayed.
"Hey, aren't you a bit too shocked?! What happened to 'there's not too much I haven't seen'?!" I asked, setting down my cup. Mr. Rudeforth took a moment to recollect his bearings before sitting down once more and clearing his throat.
"I know, but still- Even I haven't seen someone actually be promoted to a position in the Royal City from such a small periphery village like this one. What's the problem? This news is good enough for the whole village to celebrate!" he explained, clapping a hand on my shoulder. I looked down to the side, knowing that this opportunity was just as amazing as he had made it out to be. Well, while our reasons for acknowledging this promotion were quite different, it nonetheless remained true that this was a rare chance. What choice did I have but to take it?
"It's just, I don't know…" I trailed off. I could see the look in Mr. Rudeforth's eyes shift, and he leaned back in his seat.
"Hm," he stroked his chin, seeming to be in thought. "From what I've heard from Clarissa, you never really seemed very intent on expanding business. There's something else, isn't there?" My eyes widened, and I gripped the cup in my hands more tightly. He's right. The only reason that I want to go is that the Royal City is my best lead as to how to get home…
"If you don't want to tell me, that's fine. But why are you hesitating?"
"I can't just leave the village," I replied, letting go of the cup and clasping my hands together under the table. "Who's going to take over the shop? I can't just leave my workers there on their own, and there's still so many people here who need medicine and- I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'd feel guilty," I explained as I let out a sigh.
"You say that, but you still want to go to the Royal City?" he asked. I nodded.
"What… what do you think I should do?"
Once again, a moment of silence passed between us as Mr. Rudeforth seemed to be deep in thought. He chuckled, and took another sip of his tea.
"Clarissa probably gave you a scare, didn't she?" Confused, I met Mr. Rudeforth's eyes as he looked down at the table. "She probably told you that this village here needs your shop, right?" I wordlessly nodded and watched as Mr. Rudeforth gently placed his glasses down.
"You see, her father's terribly sick. From a young age, Clarissa's supported her parents and family in her own way, working and doing whatever it took to get the money needed to pay for her father's treatment. But… You should know how hard it is to get medicine around these parts. The next town over didn't have what her father needed, and they could only get it from merchants who charged unbelievably high prices, or official markets far away that charged even more. And she's only one of many dealing with similar cases." I remained quiet as I listened, wondering where this was going. Mr. Rudeforth looked up to meet my eyes, and smiled softly.
"I won't tell you that these people don't need you. I don't know why you need to leave, and I don't know entirely why you need to stay, but," he closed his eyes gently, almost as if he was deliberating on his next words. "In the end, you should do what needs to be done. And what needs to be done, well, you're the one who had to decide."
"Is that so?" I asked, laughing. I still wasn't sure as to how to deal with the situation, but even his vague words brought comfort to me. "Those are wise words from a wise man. It'll take a wise person to figure them out," I sighed, and looked at the clock.
"Do you consider yourself wise?" he asked, the slight tone of curiosity laced in his voice.
"Far from it," I smiled. "I should get going, Chase'll be picking me up from my house soon," I said, standing.
"Take care, and good luck," Mr. Rudeforth called out, remaining seated. I turned around to wave at him as I approached the door, and nodded.
"Thanks as always, Mr Rudeforth."
We stood outside Chase's house, and I gulped nervously.
"This is it," Chase said. He walked up to the door and held it open for me, waiting for me to step inside. Okay, Jade… you can do this, I willed myself as I carefully step foot into the house.
"Mom, we're here!" Chase called out. I heard the urgent shuffling of feet as who I assumed to be his parents came out to greet me.
"Welcome! You must be Jade!" Chase's mother said, excitedly taking my hands in her own. Surprised at her high-spirited greeting, I laughed nervously. I wasn't expecting this friendly of a greeting…
"H-hello, that is correct. It's very nice to meet you, um…" I trailed off, realizing that I didn't know Chase's family name.
"Please, no need to be so formal! You can call me Sophia, and this is my husband Oliver. We're the Antons," Mrs. Anton said cheerfully. Mr. Anton nodded silently, his stoic face not giving anything away. I immediately saw the similarities that Chase shared with his parents, and couldn't help but crack a smile. When I first met Chase, he was as stoic as his father, but now that we've known each other for a bit, I could see some of mother's energetic personality in him, too.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Anton. Thank you for inviting me over," I said, bowing my head slightly.
"Let's not remain standing and head over to the table," Mr. Anton suggested, and I followed as the three of them led the way to the dining room. As we took our seats, someone emerged from where I assumed to be a kitchen, and approached me.
"I'm sorry that I couldn't greet you earlier. I had to make sure to turn off the stove. It's a pleasure to meet you, my name is-" I looked up at the source of the familiar voice, and froze as I immediately recognized the face.
"G-gray?" I stammered. "You're Chase's brother?!"
He laughed awkwardly as he took the seat next to me. "Yep. I had my suspicions when we met the other day, but I'm still surprised to see that you're the doctor everyone in the village has been talking about," Gray confessed. I blinked, noticing the air around him was different. When I had met him the other day, he seemed like the quiet, disinterested type. I guess he was more comfortable and friendly when surrounded by his family.
"My, you two know each other already?" Mrs. Anton asked, holding a hand to her cheek. Chase examined the two of us curiously, and I could see that he wanted to ask the same thing.
"We managed to run into each other through a mutual acquaintance," I explained.
"I was curious to see who had taken our Chase under their wing, so I'm glad it was someone like you," Gray said kindly as he affectionately ruffled Chase's hair. I could see the slight embarrassment on Chase's face as he looked to the side, but he didn't seem to mind the gesture.
"You flatter me. You two seem close, though," I noted, looking at Chase.
"We're just normal brothers," Chase sighed in response, taking Gray's hand off his head. Gray and Mrs. Anton laughed, and even Mr. Anton cracked a smile.
"Please, those two are like peas in a pod," Mrs. Anton admitted, as she stood up. "Come, Gray. We should set out the food."
"Oh, right," Gray said, standing up as well. As the two of them disappeared in the kitchen, Mr. Anton turned to me.
"I'd like to thank you for taking in our son. He's usually the reserved type, but ever since he's been working at your shop, he seems much more animated," Mr. Anton said, and I glanced at Chase to see him avoid eye contact with me.
"No, no, I should be the one thanking you. He's really such a big help at the shop, and he's a quick learner, too. I'm surprised someone so young can take on this work already," I replied, and Chase cleared his throat.
"Dad, boss, you're embarrassing me. I'm already an adult, you know. I turned eighteen a few months ago," Chase spoke up. Mr. Anton clapped him on the shoulder and laughed.
"I know, son. But you yourself seem very young, Jade. Might I ask how old you are?" Mr. Anton turned back to me, curious.
"Now, honey, you know you should never ask a lady her age," Mrs. Anton chided as she brought out plates of food.
"Mom's right, dad," Gray chuckled, also carrying a tray filled with dishes. As they set the table, I looked at the feast laid out before me and could feel my hunger growing.
"Haha, it's fine. I'm twenty-five," I answered, thanking Gray as he handed me a plate full of food.
"Twenty five?! You really are young, to be running such a profitable business at this age. Our Gray's also twenty-five, you know," Mrs. Anton remarked. I looked to Gray, who smiled at me in response.
"Please, I wouldn't have been able to do anything on my own. It's all thanks to the support I get from everyone. But it's nice to have someone around my age in these parts." We all began to eat, and I savored the delicious meal with every bite.
"Is that so? Unfortunately, Gray won't be able to stay long. Maybe a few weeks, at most. He's taking a paid vacation," Mr. Anton stated, and I rushed to finish chewing my food to reply.
"Oh really? Well it's nice that you're able to be back home at least for a little while," I hurriedly swallowed my last bite, and just as I was about to take another, more conversation was hurled my way. I usually eat alone, so I'm not used to eating and talking at the same time…
"What about you? You're not from the village, are you?" Mrs. Anton questioned, looking over my way. Chase, who had been eating silently this whole time, also looked at me.
"W-well, I come from somewhere really far from here… I'm not really sure when I'll be able to get back home," I said evasively, realizing that we were about to dive into a red zone. If they ask me about my background, I don't know if I'll be able to answer anything…
"Need my help?" a voice in my head asked. I froze, immediately recognizing it.
This voice! This is that voice that has been randomly appearing in my head all this time- what is it?
"So, you're not planning to stay here permanently?" Mr. Anton asked.
"O-oh, no I don't think so," I managed to reply, caught in between the voice in my head and the conversation that was currently taking place.
"I know about your past. You can count on me," the voice giggled in my head. I gulped, not wanting to make a scene at the dinner table.
What… are you? I asked internally, wondering if I was really about to have a conversation in my own head.
"You can call me your subconscious or whatever… why not call me Jay? It's less confusing for us that way," the voice echoed playfully.
"Your family must be missing you an awful lot, for you to travel so far from home," Gray commented. I looked to him and smiled nervously.
"I'm sure they're doing fine," I said.
"They're the ones who wanted you here, anyways."
"They're the ones who wanted me here, anyways," I repeated without thought.
"Oh? They wanted you to travel? Isn't it tough, being outside your comfort zone?" Mr. Anton questioned.
"Well, all parents want their children to be successful."
"Well, all parents want their children to be successful," I took a drink of water. "For them, they've always wanted to push me forward," I added on. I realized that as I was listening to the voice, to "Jay," if you will, I myself was beginning to recover fragments of general memories.
"Seeing as you've already been able to make a name for yourself, I'm sure that they're plenty proud of you," Mrs. Anton laughed, wiping her mouth with a napkin.
"I'm not too sure about that."
I laughed along with her, and before I knew it, we had already finished our meal.
"But you've been raised so well. You're a very polite and hardworking girl, if I may say so myself. I'm sure your household is full of very warm and wonderful people like yourself. Gray, dear, please bring out the dessert."
"..." The voice disappeared, and I was left with a feeling of uncertainty in my chest.
"Sure thing, mom," Gray said, standing up as he collected everyone's plates.
"I can help," I offered, but Gray gently stopped me.
"Please, we can't make our guest do the work," he laughed, and I smiled.
The rest of the evening proceeded smoothly, and I refused the offer to be walked home as I bid goodbye to the Anton family and left the house. I looked up at the night sky and let out a big sigh, feeling full to my heart's content. Still, I felt troubled.
"First the Royal City thing, now I'm having internal conversations… when will I be able to relax?" I wondered aloud. "But the Antons were good people, I'm not sure why I was so nervous…"
There was a part of me before that had screamed out, saying that no matter what, I couldn't embarrass myself in front of them, that if I did, I would be judged mercilessly. I laughed. Talk about being overdramatic, huh… Just then, I realized that the ring I had been wearing was gone, and I anxiously looked around. It was a ring that I had bought recently, and had taken quite a liking to. I immediately began to retrace my steps, squinting in the dark as I searched the street and nearby grass. Eventually, I found myself right back at the Anton household, and just as I was deliberating as to whether or not I should ask them if they had seen my ring, I heard a voice.
"Oi, you hot-headed, good-for-nothing, moron, if you don't leave my room at the palace just the way it is, I swear I'm going to beat your face in 'till all you can see are the back of your eyelids, you hear-?" I stared in shock as I watched the stoic yet kind hearted Gray hold Thomas by the collar, shouting angrily at him.
"Hey, man, I come all the way back here to return the sword you left with me the other day, and I get this treatment? All I'm saying is, as payment I'll just be borrowing that scabbard of yours that you like so much and-" Thomas defended with a playful tone, not taken aback in the slightest. I decided that this probably wasn't a good time to interfere, and partly in shock and partly in fear, I tried to retreat, only to step on a branch. The two of them immediately turned my way, squinting.
"Who's there?" the both of them shouted in unison. I sighed and took a step forward, revealing myself.
"H-hey there… uh I think I left something…." I trailed off, feeling as if I'd seen something I wasn't supposed to. All of a sudden, Thomas burst out laughing, and Gray, wide-eyed, immediately let go of the former's collar.
"Oh my gosh," Thomas wheezed out in between laughs. "You, you really have the best timing, don't you, Jade?" He struggled to catch his breath as he held his stomach in his hands, bent over in laughter. "Gray, man, this is the fastest you've ever been found out," he said, and Gray promptly hit him over the head.
"Shut up, idiot." Gray immediately began to approach me, and I could feel myself beginning to slink back in nervousness. His intimidating frame didn't help ease the tension as he loomed over me.
"What do you want?" he asked gruffly, the kind tone I heard at dinner completely gone.
"U-um I-I think I left my ring? Here..? But now that I think about it, maybe not, haha, so, uh, bye!" I said, trying to escape. He placed a hand on my shoulder though, thwarting out my attempt.
"Here," he said, holding out the ring that I was searching for. "You dropped it," he said with a big sigh, as he pinched the bridge of his nose.
"So, Jade, what do you think? This is the real Gray," Thomas said, finally having calmed down from his fit of laughter.
"W-what do I think?" I squeaked out, not really knowing what to make of the situation.
"You better not tell anyone," Gray glared at me. I gulped. "I have a character to play out, here. But if you try to rat me out I can't say for sure what'll happen." An evil gleam was found in his eyes as he smirked, and I did my best to avoid all eye contact.
"Hey, hey, you're scaring her," Thomas rushed to my aide.
"Uh, I think I'll just go now… Bye!" With that, I rushed off at full speed, still feeling Gray's eyes on my back. The cool, evening air hit my face, and I watched the night sky in exasperation as I made my way home. The kind-hearted Gray turned out to be one heck of a maniac.
"Seriously," I said in between gasps of air as I ran. I closed my eyes shut as I tried to block out the whirlwind of thoughts that were running through my mind in every direction. The Royal City offer, the voice in my head, Gray's true personality… It all made my head spin. I let out a groan in frustration, my feet carrying me to my house at max speed as I let the wind mess up my hair and neat appearance.
"Seriously…!" I shouted out to myself, my voice echoing in the quiet night.
"When will I be able to relax?!"