Hazel and Holly — Cats and Contemplation
Previous: Milled Messages, Part Two
They made it back to Sarnum the afternoon of the following day. They had all slept fitfully in the carriage, and everyone was exhausted. They didn’t return to the Backwards Buck, though. Hawthorn directed them to a different inn—one that, he claimed, knew how to properly feed its guests.
The inn didn’t look like much from the outside—a narrow grey stone building wedged between two others like a spindly child trapped on a sofa between her two great aunts. A brass placard near the walnut door displayed the inn’s name of “Sensi’s Contemplation.”
“That’s a weird name,” Holly said.
“Are you sure this is an inn?” Hazel said.
Hawthorn drew himself up. “Of course. Although…”
He shook his head. “Nothing. Just… apologies in advance.” Without further explanation, he stepped inside and the others followed.
A pleasing aroma of rosewater and mint hung in the air, but that was where all pleasantries ended. A garish floral print papered the walls that clashed rather disorientingly with the mosaic-patterned carpets. The curtains were made of heavy chiffon, in lavender, and on the walls hung numerous oil and watercolor paintings of cats and kittens. There were kittens in baskets and hatboxes of yarn, one showed a cat curled up next to a blazing fire. There was even a portrait of a white and orange patched cat painted so intricately that Hazel felt like its brilliant, green eyes followed her.
The main room was snug, featuring only a handful of round tables near the door. On the far end of the room, the hardwood floor rose a step, which led to a fire-lit hearth and a sofa where three elderly women sat while knitting. A grey striped cat lay on one of the sofa’s arms.
Holly’s mouth hung open as she took in their surroundings. Hemlock stared at the wallpaper with a dubious expression, as if expecting the flowers to hop off the walls and advance on them. Hazel didn’t know what to make of it all, so all she said was, “Oh my.”
Hawthorn sighed. “The decor is atrocious. But they have the softest beds in town, and the fluffiest biscuits topped with the most delectable cream.” He nodded towards the trio of women. “I’m fairly certain those women were knitting on that sofa the last time I was here several years ago. I think they might be a permanent fixture.”
“It’s no wonder,” Holly said as she gazed around the room. “This place is amazing!”
A stout, jovial innkeeper greeted them and escorted them upstairs, which was surprisingly vast compared to the cramped nature of the common room downstairs. They were each given their own room and, once Hazel had been led to hers, she stared in horror at a mural painted on the wall behind the bed depicting a collection of flowers with cat faces for blossoms.
Holly walked in and screwed up her face. “That’s actually pretty creepy.”
“Lucky me,” Hazel said. “What’s in your room?”
“A pirate ship with a crew of cats. It’s the best painting in the house, as far as I can tell. So, I’m not swapping.”
“I’ll contain my disappointment.”
Hemlock walked in and froze when he saw the mural, his mouth hanging open. “That’s… impressive.”
“What’s in your room?” Holly asked.
“A line of cats wearing mismatched boots.”
She giggled. “That sounds funny. Mine’s still better, though.”
“Where’s Hawthorn?” Hazel asked.
“He’s already fallen asleep. He’s right about the beds, they are comfortable.”
“What painting is in his room?” Holly said.
“A pair of cats dueling in full plate armor.”
Holly gasped. “Really?” She started for the door.
“Let the man rest, Holly,” Hazel said.
Holly stopped and slumped her shoulders. “Fine.”
“Should I be concerned about the cat infatuation here?” Hazel said.
“Only if you’re allergic,” Hemlock said, grinning. Then he sobered and cleared his throat. “Sorry.”
“So, the potions,” Holly said. “Should we drink them now?”
Hazel sighed. “Can it wait? I’m hungry and tired–not exactly the best condition when experimenting with suspicious gnome-enhanced potions.”
Holly nodded. “All right then. We’ll do it in the morning.” She turned and left.
“Want to go downstairs and get something to eat?” Hemlock said. “I’m rather curious about these biscuits Hawthorn was going on about.”
They made their way down to the common room. The three women were still on the sofa, their needles click clicking as they unapologetically eyed Hazel and Hemlock.
“What do you think they’re knitting?” Hemlock whispered.
“Probably a cat.”
They sat at a table, and waited in silence as willowy young waitress brought them a plate of biscuits topped with cream and jam. Hemlock took a big bite of one, then nodded as he chewed.
“I hate to say it, but Hawthorn’s right. The biscuits are delicious.”
Hazel gave him a tight smile and took a bite of her own, but she couldn’t find it within herself to share his pleasure.
“What’s the matter?”
She stared at her plate a long while. “Would it be so bad if I became a necromancer? It’s not like it’d mean anything. Just words I’d say to find Father. But if it’d lead me to him, wouldn’t that be worth something?”
Hemlock tightened his jaw and set down his biscuit. “Except it wouldn’t be just words, Hazel. Words have meaning. Power. You know this. What you don’t know is what they would require of you. These people manipulate human souls. How do you know they won’t require yours?”
Hazel said nothing as she stared at the table. Hemlock took her hand. “We will find a way. Don’t worry.”
She forced a smile and nodded. “All right.”
They finished their meal and retired to bed early–Hazel to her room and Hemlock to his. She lay in bed as she stared at the ceiling. Despite the fatigue that stung her eyes and ached in her bones, Hazel still couldn’t sleep. Her mind wouldn’t quieten, and an unaccountable fear settled deeper and deeper into her heart. What if becoming a necromancer was her only chance to find Father? What if it was the only way? The others would never let her go. Holly would likely tie her to a chair and haul her back to the Grove. And Hemlock… Hazel wouldn’t be able to look him in the eyes again, and somehow that frightened her far more than necromancy ever could.
Hazel squeezed her eyes shut, telling herself to sleep, telling herself to believe Hemlock in that they would find another way. But her unspoken words held no power for her. This was the only way. The sooner she accepted that, the sooner it would all be over.
A painful lump caught in her throat. She swallowed it down, along with her rising regret. She walked to the little desk in a corner of her room and scribbled a note by the gentle moonlight filtering through the window. Then she got up and walked into the night.
Next: Enshrined, Part One