The inn looks just as I remember it. Nestled right up against the mountainside in upper New Hostia, the Royal Arcolia Inn is a testament to humanity’s ability to subjugate a natural landscape and bend it to their whims. The surrounding forest has been manicured into an open, inviting lawn in front of the hotel, and even the hot springs in the mountainside has been renovated to have a palatable appearance. Stalagmites and stalactites have been replaced by hand-carved clay tiles imported from Harbia. Even the mountain road has been paved, and although the Royal Arcolia is a secluded resort, it is a slice of decadent civilization carved out of bare rock.
It has been years since my last visit, and this time the Royal Arcolia is just a waypoint, not an escape from the pressures of the rat race. My real destination is in a nearby valley, a place of secrets that few people know about and even fewer dare to speak of. A shiver of anticipation runs up my spine as I think about the valley. I remind myself how much I love what I do.
I park my sedan in front of the hotel and toss my keys to the valet. I can deal with baggage later; it’s been a long drive from home and my stomach is complaining loudly. I’m not exactly dressed for a five-star restaurant, but everybody knows that if you’re staying at the Royal Arcolia you can afford the food.
The Maître D looks at my baggy flannel shirt and jeans with disdain but forces a smile and leads me through the restaurant. Although it is early in the evening and the establishment has just opened, it has a tendency to fill up quickly. I am led to a small floating table in the middle of the floor. My host is joined by a young man who pours me water as the Maître D recites the chef’s features for the evening: Duck, emperor-style with an orange reduction, hazelnut-crusted halibut, and buffalo flat-iron steak. I’m barely listening as I peruse the wine list; everything he says to me will be on the menu.
I order a gin and tonic and both men leave the table. I don’t want to decide on wine until I figure out what I’m having off the menu, and they make a mean gin and tonic here, with cucumber and lime leaves. I bury my face in the menu and clutch my stomach with one hand as I wait for the drink. The trouble with an empty stomach is that everything looks good; I don’t even like white fish but even the halibut is making my mouth water.
“Not exactly a triaum-friendly menu, is it?” a voice asks. Startled, I look up from my menu to find that somebody is sitting in the formerly empty seat across from me. I can tell right away that he’s a triaum, regardless of what he just said to me. His eyes are enormous in his slender, hairless face and his hair is a tangle of orange. It almost looks like a fire. He wears clothing even more inappropriate for the restaurant than mine: dirty old brown coveralls and a ratty t-shirt.
“I’m sorry,” I reply, “I don’t mean to be rude, but I asked for a table for one. I’m just looking to enjoy a meal in solitude, if you don’t mind.”
Instead of leaving, the man leans forward. I’ve never seen a triaum look so predatory. “Well you’re awfully polite for a human who has just been accosted in a five-star restaurant by an unwashed fairy. I’ll leave if you really want, Mister Stromach, but first indulge me a question: is it true that you’re writing a book about me?”
A part of me feels affronted, another part is apprehensive, but the man across from me has appealed to my sense of curiosity, which always wins out against my better judgement. “I’ll answer your question if you answer one of mine.”
The triaum smiles. His teeth are flawless. “I’m surprised you don’t know the answer already, being such a well-read and well-travelled man of paper and ink, but I’m afraid you have to answer first.”
“I haven’t even asked my question yet.” My gin and tonic arrives and the waiter seems surprised to find the triaum sitting across from me. My guest grabs my drink before I can react and downs it in a single gulp. He hands the empty glass to the waiter.
“Two more of these, if you would, good sir. Oh, and two shots of your best triaum whiskey for me and my friend Mr. Stromach. And...” he grabs the wine list and looks it over in the time it takes me to blink, “a bottle of the Lai’och Estates fee’och.”
The waiter looks at me with concern, but I simply nod and send him on his way. I can only assume that I’ll be footing the bill, but I don’t want to cause a scene. A man as bold as the one in front of me is likely to be dangerous.
“I hope one of those gin and tonics is for me. I’ve been looking forward to one all day.”
“Of course! To toast our new friendship, Theodor.” He gesticulates wildly as he speaks. “And about the bill, well...since you’ll soon be accumulating riches off of my story, I see it as only fair that you reciprocate with a simple gesture of generosity. Besides, what’s a few drinks between friends, eh, Teddy?”
“You still haven’t told me who you are.”
He laughs. His voice is as musical as a hama’s, and although his manner is off-putting, there is something very charming about him. “And you still haven’t answered my question.”
“I’m writing a book about the Valley of Tears. How can I be writing a book about you when I don’t even know who you are?”
The man bursts into laughter again, just as the drinks arrive. I haven’t even had the chance to read the whole menu so I have to wave the waiter away again after he does his big routine with the wine bottle. I find it funny that the waiter shows my guest the bottle first even though it’s going to be on my tab. The waiter does a commendable job of being polite, even when the triaum lectures him on how little of the money from the proceeds of triaum whiskey and wine the reserves actually see.
“Here’s to our new friendship, Teddy,” my mysterious guest exclaims as he raises his rocks glass containing the whiskey. I follow suit and the glasses touch. The liquid is smoky and bitter as it goes down, but very palatable. It would have tasted much better after dinner, though. My companion moves on to his wine, and I take a sip of my gin and tonic to take the edge off the whiskey that lingers on my tongue.
“So you’re writing about the Valley of Tears. Very commendable, Teddy, to write about such a tender subject...but I have faith that you’ll do it justice. You always look at both sides of an issue, don’t you? Every good writer should.”
I smile behind my drink. “I thought you said I was writing a story about you.”
He returns my smile, and there is both mirth and danger in his pale blue eyes. “Oh, but you are, or haven’t you figured it out yet, Teddy?” He finishes his glass of wine and promptly pours another.
“Okay, I’ll bite. A lot of triaum were kept there during the war. What makes you so special?”
“Kept there? Oh, Teddy, I dearly hope you’ve done more research than that. Please don’t tell me you think that the Valley was just another prisoner of war camp. You don’t call a place the Valley of Tears to entice the tourists.”
“I know what went on. There are already plenty of books about POW camps but nobody would touch the Valley, or they skimmed over it with lies, so I did a little digging.”
“In which case I’m surprised you’re still here. So you know what they did to us?”
I can’t meet his eyes. They are not soft and warm like most triaum I have met. “No, not exactly. Few people will talk, even triaum. I was threatened with legal action if I pursued this any further, and I had to find a foreign publisher.”
“Hah! As though they would simply ask you to cease your research...no, that would only proclaim their guilt. You will disappear if you publish this, Teddy. Unless you are under somebody else’s protection.”
I finish my gin and tonic and he pours me a generous glass of wine. “I’m not looking for protection. I want answers.”
He watches the waiter return and winks at me. “You know, Teddy, there is a triaum saying that goes: ‘never trust a human who does not ask why’. I’ll tell you what. I’ll come with you to the Valley tomorrow, since I’m sure that’s where you were headed, and I’ll give you all the answers you could ever ask for.”
“And what, exactly, do you want in return?”
“I’m already getting what I want, Teddy. You’re writing a book about me.” He turns to the waiter and orders the summer salad without cheese. I decide on the duck.
“You still haven’t told me your name,” I say accusingly.
He finishes his second glass of wine and leans back in his chair. “When we reach the Valley of Tears, I will tell you my name...and more than you would ever wish to know.”
**TO BE CONTINUED**