Chapter 10 - Dinner

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Flanked by the other five Elders, Elder Howard sat across from me, a fork in one pudgy hand and the knife in the other. "Tell me, Talia, how is Chernibden?"

"Chernibden is well, sir. The ocean is a true bounty most of the year." I sipped my water waiting for him to eat before I did.

It was true that the ocean was a blessing for my home village. We packed many of our fish and traded them for other vital supplies via the peddlers, leaving our stockpiles low. But most of the year we could fish daily from the shore or use the small, wooden boats.

Elder Howard held my gaze for a moment longer than was comfortable before sniffing then attacking the meat on his plate. I adjusted the pale blue dress the women had outfitted me in before allowing myself to dig in. Steak, wilted greens with wild mushrooms, and mashed root vegetables filled my plate. I wanted to gorge myself and hoped my rumbling stomach wasn't so loud that the two bachelors on either side of me could hear.

Since I left with Tobin that morning, I had ensured he had enough food by not eating much myself, but now I paced myself, cutting off small bites of food. Appearance had to be maintained, and it allowed me to busy myself. The last thing I wanted was to sit there, my meal finished, with nothing to do. Teacher Sally's advice came back: never underestimate the benefit of a well-timed bite or chew to allow you to gather your thoughts.

The Elders, eligible bachelors, and I sat at a long table in the backyard of the Inn. In the time I had bathed and dressed, Redwater had created a feast. The backyard was a sight. Various tablecloths covered the long table, and someone with an eye for color and pattern had arranged them, no colors or patterns clashing. A plate with utensils lay in front of every seat, and like the tablecloths, only a few were the same pattern, some florals, others striped, and a few plain-white. The table sat in a cobble-stone area and overhead beams and rafters, built off the side of the Inn, created shelter. The slats of wood jutted out at a slight angle to dampen the brunt of the day's harsh light, and candles in jars hung from those slats now, illuminating the table, functional yet ethereal.

"Pretty, aren't they?"

Thomas sat to my left and had caught my continuous admiration of the lights. Scruffy brown hair covered his head, and his dark brown eyes, only a shade or two lighter than his pupils, shared the same wonder that mine did.

"Yes, they are. I'm surprised to see so many jars used this way. Glass is in high demand in Chernibden." I smiled back at Thomas whose eyes lit up. His smile spread even wider, which highlighted his prominent ears as they poked further out of his shaggy locks. I wondered if that was why his hair was so unkempt. If the girls in Redwater were anything like Mindy and Becka, then I could only imagine the horrid things the girls in Redwater said to him.

I waved my hand towards the lights. "How do you have so many? Chernibden still trades or scavenges for glass items to store food."

He shrugged as a toothy grin spread across his face. "They're all over the ruins."

Of course, this made sense. Ruins surrounded Redwater, and the original re-settlers must have scoured the area generations ago. Vast ruins were at least a half a day's walk away from Chernibden. Sometimes we were lucky and useful items washed ashore from the sunken city, but most of the time it was trash. We traded our ocean bounty for such conveniences, or we sent our own to search the ruins, a dangerous job with collapsing buildings and unpredictable weather. Chernibden experimented with forging glass from beach sand, but success had been unfruitful when I left.

Elder Howard grunted. "You'll find we have a lot of things Chernibden doesn't," he chortled before glancing down to the end of the table.

To my left at the far end of the table sat the weasel-faced man. Who was he? He shared a laugh with Elder Howard and didn't notice me looking. I kept my features neutral and turned my attention back to Thomas. But something about that man turned my stomach.

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