The same old high-pitched ringtone startled Ian from his sleep. At first, he kept his eyes screwed shut due to the annoyingly bright light filtering through the window above his bed. Even so, he shut off the alarm out of habit.
Eh? I never leave my blinds open… Ian thought. Oh, right, I’m in someone else’s home.
Realizing he lay in an unfamiliar bed, he grabbed his phone to check the time. Of course, it read 6:31, a minute after his alarm. In spite of the smartphone’s age, it certainly did its job.
“Only seven percent battery left…” Ian muttered. Even though he did not exactly need the phone in this world, the low battery symbol still stressed him out. After shutting it off, he slipped it into a side pocket of his backpack which leaned against the headboard.
Feeling more refreshed than usual, he hopped off the bed and stretched his arms into the air. With a silly grin plastered on his face, he anticipated an interesting day. Supposedly, Gaelan would be teaching him more about the world and Dark Matter before getting into the actual blacksmithing element of his apprenticeship.
Before he could go anywhere, a faint odor tickled his nostrils. He pulled his shirt to his nose. Twitching at the smell, he remembered he had worn the same sweaty clothes for two days already. Immediately, he changed into a clean set of clothes and placed the dirty ones behind his backpack. Hopefully, there would be an opportunity to take a bath sometime soon.
Then, he exited his room, descended the narrow stairwell, and walked outside. From what he had been told the previous night, there was an outhouse somewhere in the backyard. Barefoot, he trotted over to the wooden shed as soon as he saw it. As he approached it, he realized, I feel way younger for some reason. I don’t even feel pain in my knee from that injury a few years ago… Did the Dark Matter do it?
Once he finished his business in the outhouse, he stepped outside to see Bianca only a few meters ahead wearing a white nightgown.
“Ah…” Bianca practically froze solid when their eyes met.
“Good morning, Bianca,” Ian greeted with a friendly smile. Apparently, the girl was six years younger than him based on the dinner conversation. However, the way they celebrated birthdays in this world differed from Earth, so he could not be totally sure. Either way, she almost looked like a child in his eyes, the key word being ‘almost’.
“Ah, um… good morning, Mister Ian,” Bianca replied quietly, her purple eyes darting to and from Ian’s face. A noticeably curious glint displayed itself in her gaze. Obviously, she did not feel comfortable around him yet. In fact, Ian wondered if she felt nervous around all strangers due to her father’s steady overprotectiveness.
“It’s fine to just call me Ian. Putting a title in front makes me feel old,” Ian said.
“Oh, sorry,” the girl sheepishly replied, “Since you are older, I thought it would be proper…”
“Haaah…” Ian sighed. It hurt a little to be seen as old by a young woman only a handful of years younger than himself. Although, he probably would have experienced the feeling sooner if he had bothered to exert effort in expanding his social life over the past few years. Moving on, he said, “Call me whatever feels most comfortable, then.”
“Uuu~” she whimpered cutely, “Sorry, it seems like I bothered you, mist-, er, um… Ian…”
Perhaps it would have been better to ignore the prefix in the first place. This girl was dangerous. That whimper actually succeeded in pricking his heart.
“Well,” Ian said, casting away the urge to feel attracted to a girl several years younger, “I’ll let you go. I’m going to go relax for a few minutes before your dad starts teaching me anything.”
Yeah, that’s a good way to put it…
“Okay, um… Ian… Actually, do you mind if I just call you Mister Ian?” Bianca asked, shifting her weight in a manner displaying unease.
“Uh, sure…” Ian replied somewhat passively.
“Also,” Bianca added while Ian began his retreat to the house, “breakfast should be ready in a little while.”
“Oh, thanks,” Ian replied, leaving the girl to her business.
A half-hour or so later, Ian once again exited his new bedroom with a refreshed smile. His remaining clean clothes now hung neatly in the wardrobe and many of his belongings now lay safe within dresser drawers. All the while, he continued to look forward to the interesting things he would learn, but at all times kept the thought in the back of his mind to be more cautious around Bianca in the future. Otherwise, he worried he may end up losing his hard sought after apprenticeship.
* * * * *
In the kitchen, Bianca pulled a dish similar to a quiche from the oven that took up a large portion of the wall at the front of the house opposite the stairwell that led to the upstairs bedrooms. Plenty of wooden pantries lined the wall opposite the dining room. Beneath her bare feet, the wooden floor creaked with each step.
While she sliced the quiche into triangular pieces, the sound of feet trodding down the nearby stairwell distracted her, causing her to slice her finger ever so slightly. Since the cut looked no worse than a papercut, she decided to ignore it.
Looking at the stairs, she saw Ian duck under the doorway to the kitchen. He nodded at her.
“Um, I’ll get you a plate,” Bianca said while stepping toward a nearby cupboard. “My parents probably won’t be up for a little longer, so it’s fine if you just go ahead and eat.”
“Thanks,” Ian replied casually, “Don’t mind if I do.”
While Ian focused on his food, Bianca studied his face. For some reason, she could not read beyond his physical expressions no matter how hard she tried. Normally, she would be able to react to a person based on their thoughts, but doing that with Ian proved to be impossible due to a thick fog of murky darkness clouding his mind.
Later, when Gaelan started teaching Ian about basic magic theory, Bianca watched from a distance out of curiosity toward this stranger. Questions filled her mind. What kind of person knew nothing of magic at that age? Where did he come from? How should she act around someone if she did not know their thoughts?
Eventually, she came to the conclusion that she would simply have to grow accustomed to Ian over time. Maybe she would see past that cloudy darkness sometime in the future.
* * * * *
Throughout the day, Ian received a crash course on things he would need to know as Gaelan’s apprentice. His new mentor covered everything from the basics of magic to the basics of currency. Supposedly, Innate Gifts fell into three main categories – low, medium, and high – and it mainly applied to elemental affinities and resistances. Currency even followed a similar tier system. Two shillings equaled one copper, sixty copper equaled one silver, and ten silver equaled one gold. Supposedly, the two systems correlated in terms of value as the tiers increased, though Gaelan said it was purely coincidental.
Around midday, Gaelan pulled out some books and said, “If you’re going to help at my shop, you’ll need to learn to read.”
A few minutes passed as the man attempted to explain the foreign characters. Before long, Ian realized he would struggle to learn from Gaelan in this aspect. As such, he interrupted his mentor by saying, “Please stop. You explained the magic and stuff really well, but you suck at teaching this.”
“Tch. Do you want to learn or not?” Gaelan fumed, pride visibly smashed.
“Haaah… I do,” Ian answered, “but is there anyone you know that could teach me quickly rather than blather on about how ‘this’ means ‘that’ and is similar to ‘those’ and so on and so forth?”
“Maybe I should grind you up and feed you to my chickens?” Gaelan threatened with a frightening smile.
“You have chickens?” Ian asked in an attempt to evade the threat. Honestly, he couldn’t tell if the guy was serious or not.
“Yes, we do,” Gaelan answered, “You didn’t hear them this morning?”
“Hmm… you’re less fun to mess with than Aria…” Gaelan complained. Then, he said, “Speaking of Aria, she may be able to teach you. She reads all the time and teaches her younger siblings, so she could probably do it… for a price.”
“Might be worth asking,” Ian muttered while flipping through the pages of a book with a sore look on his face. “Free would be nice, though…” he added, resting his cheek on his palm. Apparently, a bit of stubble already started growing.
“You’ll never get anything free from that girl,” Gaelan said, crossing his arms, “unless she owes you a favor or something.”
Since midday just passed, Ian figured he should have enough time to run to the Visitor Center and back.
Going there is becoming a regular thing, isn’t it? Ian brooded. Then, facing Gaelan, he said, “I guess I’ll run over there now, unless you wanted to add something else before I leave.”
In response, Gaelan shook his head and said, “Be quick about it. If you’re late for dinner, I won’t leave you any food. That’d be detrimental for you since we’ll start smithing tomorrow.”
“Awesome!” Ian excitedly exclaimed. He stretched, palms reaching for the cloudless blue sky. From there, he waved and said, “Alright, see ya later, Gaelan.”
In return, Gaelan saluted nonchalantly with two fingers.
During the walk to the Visitor Center, he thought, As long as the portal is still in that cave, I should head back to Earth to see if I’m still employed… If not, I’ll need to quit and collect my final paychecks in order to keep up on rent. Then, I’ll need to find a way to bring in some income in both worlds that won’t require my presence over there.
As he left Gaelan’s property, he turned right and headed straight toward the main market street about a kilometer away. From there, he took his time meandering toward the Southern Gate. During the trip, he sulked over his lack of money. Several shops sold tasty-looking treats he had never encountered before, and his tongue cried out to taste them.
At some point, he caught a glimpse of the royal castle in the distance. In a way, he wondered how much the monarchy affected the daily affairs of the people in comparison to the government of Earth, which lorded over every aspect of the citizen’s lives behind the scenes.
Before long, he arrived at the Visitor Center once more. Upon entering, he saw Aria sitting on a stool behind the counter with chin resting in one hand while setting a book down behind the counter with her other hand. The cover looked different from the one he saw yesterday. How much did this woman actually read?
Noticing Ian, Aria smiled and asked, “Did Mr. Marlow send money with you?”
She didn’t even say hello…
Aloud, Ian answered, “No. Why do you ask?”
“Oh, I see…” Aria replied, sighing, “Well, welcome back, I guess. Remind that old man to pay me back when you go back there.”
Yep, there was no way he would be getting free lessons.
“Uh, sure…” Ian replied. Walking up to the counter, he hesitantly asked, “May I ask you for a favor?”
Tilting her head, Aria brushed her hair away from her eyes and answered, “That depends on what it is.”
“Hmm… how do I put this nicely? Well, basically, Gaelan wanted to teach me how to read Common, but he’s terrible at it, so I decided to ask you instead.” For some reason, his instincts told him not to mention the idea originated with Gaelan.
A prideful glint flashed across Aria’s eyes as she replied, “I may be able to do it in the mornings before work. How much would you be able to pay me, though?”
Although she did not give much outward indication of it, she felt inwardly excited at the prospect of teaching this young man. Not only would she be able to observe his growth, but she would also be able to see Bianca more often. Either way, it was a win-win situation.
“Could I give you an I.O.U.?” Ian hesitantly inquired.
“A what? An eye-oh-you?” Aria asked in return, a confused expression plastered on her face. Apparently, I.O.U.’s did not exist here.
“It’s like a contract stating I will eventually pay you back at some point,” Ian explained. “We would each sign off on it to show we agree to it.”
“Oh, that could work, I suppose,” Aria thoughtfully replied, understanding radiating from her eyes. However, she looked slightly conflicted as she muttered, “Although I prefer my money up front, I think I could handle it.”
“Would two copper per lesson be alright?” Ian asked, almost begging.
“That’s a bit on the low side, but I’m no professional, so I can’t complain.”
“Nice!” Ian exclaimed. Without realizing it, he pumped his fist in celebration, causing Aria to giggle at the strange gesture.
A minute later, Aria produced a surprisingly detailed ‘contract’ to be signed by the two of them. Although Ian could not read it, save for the number four, he figured Aria did not seem like the type of person to scam him twice… probably.
After he signed it, Aria gave a gentle smile and requested, “Could you tell Gaelan I’ll be coming over the morning to start teaching you? Wouldn’t want to miss out on Bianca’s cooking.”
“That soon?” Ian asked in surprise.
“Is there an issue?”
“I doubt it,” Ian replied, placing his hand on his chin. “He’s going to start teaching me actual blacksmithing tomorrow, so I guess we can split the lessons equally.”
“Lessons from me in the morning and learning from that old geezer in the afternoon?”
“Uh, yeah,” Ian replied.
“Don’t forget to let him know I’ll be there in the morning, then, and every morning after that, too.” Aria reminded him.
Having overworked himself in the past, Ian concernedly asked, “Won’t you get worn out?”
“Oh, are you worried about me?” Aria retorted with a sly grin.
“Haaah… nevermind… See you in the morning,” Ian grumbled while waving farewell.
“Bye,” Aria replied, chuckling.
And so, Ian’s life in Regnoras truly began.