When Lu’s eyes opened, she was inside, laying on the softest surface she'd ever felt, and there was a boy looking down at her from where he sat beside her bed.
With a start, she realized that it wasn't her boy. It wasn't the boy she had traveled with, anyway. This boy was older than her—he looked about as old as the baker’s son, who was fifteen.
He didn't speak the moment he noticed she was awake, but sat silently in his chair and waited for Lu to speak first. He did smile, a warm smile that let her instantly know he was kind.
Lu finally spoke the question pressing on her mind.
“Where's the boy?” It didn't hurt to speak. For the first time in months, her throat didn't crack, or protest, or feel dry at all.
The older boy looked confused. Then his eyes widened with realization.
“Oh, the one that came with you? He’s in the infirmary right now, but he’ll be fine.”
What had happened to him? Was he sick? Had she killed him by letting him follow her? Lu realized what the older boy had said. He’ll be fine. Why was her brain so slow?
The boy smiled comfortingly. “I’m Ayren. What’s your name?”
“Lu.” How was she speaking without pain?
“Lu. That’s a nice name.”
Again, the boy’s words—Ayren’s words—struck her with delayed shock.
“You’re Ayren? The one who sent….”
“Sent the letter?” he smiled. “No, that would be my father. Ayren with a ‘Sir’ before it. Most people actually call me Ren. It helps reduce the chance of mixing us up.”
“Ah,” Lu said as if she understood. She did understand his nickname, but everything around her… being here, in such a fancy room…. It was bewildering. “Ren.”
Ren. Ren. Lu didn't want to forget.
Lu looked around the room. It was big, probably as large as the baker’s whole shop. The bed she lay on was wide enough to sleep on sideways. The room was decorated sparsely, color-themed blue and white. The blue was darker than her ribbon, contrasting beautifully with the stark white of the walls and carpet. Ren was wearing a tight black and gold outfit which provided even more contrast to the room.
This room must be like a rich lady's bedroom, Lu realized with awe. Ren followed her gaze around the bedroom.
“This will be your room,” he said, “my father planned it exactly for you.”
Planned it? Had he known her favorite color was blue? He couldn't have. Lu didn't ask about it.
Ren was still peering around at the room. He looked a little awkward, maybe he was nervous.
“Well,” he said after a few moments, “I was actually supposed to get my father's physician the moment you woke up, so I should probably…” Ren stood, walking towards the door. Then he turned to look at her again.
“I just wanted to meet you before you met anyone else.” He shrugged awkwardly. “Be careful around here, Lu. Most of us have good intentions, but it's hard to know. I wanted to warn you.”
And with that, Ren slipped out the door, leaving Lu alone and confused.
Once the physician had examined Lu and proclaimed that she was fine, he left the room to let Lu get dressed. He was a grumpy man, and Lu was glad to see him leave. She was sore and tired from walking so far, but Lu could have told him she was fine. Until he had come, Lu hadn't thought about what she was wearing, but it turned out to be a white nightgown
Lu walked stiffly to her white wardrobe and opened one of the doors. The color blue exploded out of the wardrobe, light blue frills, sapphire silk dresses, and a supply of ribbons and bows to rival a queen’s.
At the sight of the ribbons, Lu felt panic grow inside herself. Where was her ribbon? Had they thrown it away? Lu’s eyes scanned the room anxiously, stopping only when she saw a bundle of brown fabric that could only be her old dress. Lu ran to the bundle and took out her sky-blue ribbon to drape it around her neck.
Though she was still wondering why everything was blue, Lu admitted that the wardrobe’s contents were beautiful. It was all so perfect, and clean, and… blue. Lu didn't know how to choose one; they were all so pretty she hesitated to even touch them.
Finally, she reached in blindly and pulled out the softest one she could feel, coming up with a simple knee-length dress without any puffs or frills. It reminded her of the nightgown she had on, but the dress was less baggy and was made of a fabric stained to look like scales. How they had done it, Lu could only imagine. The blue was deep, almost the shade of the night-sky and Lu loved it instantly.
Lu entered the bathroom adjoining her room and found a tub already filled with warm water. As she lay in the water, staring up at the blue-painted ceiling, Ren’s words came back to mind.
Most of us have good intentions, but it’s hard to know…
His message was straightforward, but it didn't seem to fit here. On the streets, anyone could steal your food. A kick could strike you at any time. Lu was used to not trusting people, but here was supposed to be better. It would be… right? Ayren had promised that. Hadn't he? Ren was kind, anyway.
Once Lu had stepped out of the water and dried herself, she dressed, slipping into the smooth blue dress.
A thrill pulsed through her as she turned to look at herself in a mirror. There she stood, tall and beautiful, her damp hair pulled into a single tail that reached to the middle of her back. The blue, scaly dress looked as if it had been custom-fitted for Lu.
Lu put on her blue ribbon, and suddenly it looked filthy. Next to the dark, perfect dress, the ribbon was a piece of junk.
Lu whipped it off her shoulders, striding across her bedroom to the wardrobe. There had to be something that fit with the ribbon.
Lu held the fabric up against dress after beautiful dress, feeling the pit in her stomach deepen with each comparison, swallowing pieces of Lu’s identity as thoughts sped through her head.
Was her old life not compatible with this one? Did nothing in the past matter? What could she do now? What did everyone else want her to do?
Could she just pretend to forget the streets? Her treasures from before? And if those were useless, then were her memories pointless too? Her adventures? Her games? Even….Fin?
No, she couldn't forget. She couldn't forget Fin. That would be worse than dying.
Lu ran back to the mirror to stare at herself again. Her skin was so clean, her hair was a lighter brown than before, her eyes were bright. It was as if a lady was staring back at Lu.
“You're still the same girl!” Lu shouted her pain at her reflection. “ The same dirty, useless—”
Lu threw the ribbon to the ground. She couldn't be the same here. But how different did she have to be? Would she have to abandon everything she had known before?
If the ribbon didn't fit here, then neither did Lu. Picking it up, Lu draped it around her neck again. She could do this. She could fit here.
“You're not a lady,” Lu said to the mirror, “You're not. But you're not useless.” Lu stood taller. The ribbon has stopped screaming against the dress, and now it seemed to fit.
Whispering one final reassurance to herself, Lu stepped out of her bedroom and into the halls of Ayren’s city.
Author Notes: Tell me how you feel? Does anything seem rushed, or too slow?