Sapphire pulled herself up the pipe, trying to convince herself that the end was within sight. After two more pulls her head poked out the end of the aqueduct, daylight shining down upon her. After hours of sliding through indescribably foul sludge in pitch darkness, she had reached the surface at last. She grabbed hold of the pipesâ€™ edges and heaved herself free. Immediately she fell two feet into a shallow pond, the cool and clean water bringing instant relief.
She carefully rose to her feet, looking over the little piece of paradise before her. The shallow pond covered the hill top, leafy trees and flowers growing around the edges. Several springs bubbled up near a boulder pile, feeding clean water into the basin. Sapphire slowly walked through the pond, admiring the beauty around her. Then she took a sniff, realizing she still reeked of the slime. She turned back to the opening, Hiwei getting to her feet as Hitepshu fell out from the pipe.
â€œUgh, I think we ought to get clean, hastily,â€ Sapphire said pleadingly, â€œthis scum is discomforting me.â€
â€œYech, thatâ€™s an understatement,â€ Hitepshu said, taking a whiff of his arm, â€œI hope this stuff washes out.â€
â€œWell, we had better get undressed,â€ Hiwei said, starting to pull off her shirt.
â€œI sup-, wait! Ack!â€ Sapphire exclaimed, waving her hands. â€œWhat you two think doing!?â€
â€œCome again?â€ Hitepshu asked confused, tossing his dirty shirt into the water. â€œWhat are you on about?â€
â€œHalt undressing!â€ Sapphire exclaimed, waving her hands. â€œHe is, you, are, are not you bashful?â€
â€œWhat are you trying to say?â€ Hiwei asked puzzled, glancing at Hitepshu who looked equally baffled.
â€œStop!â€ Sapphire yelled, grabbing Hiweiâ€™s hand before she could undo her belt. â€œMales and ladies should not together bathe!â€
The two blinked, baffled at their companionâ€™s behavior and uncertain what she was trying to say. Sapphire sputtered, her speech failing her. After several deep breaths she tried communicating again.
â€œWhere I originate from, men and women do not bathe together,â€ Sapphire explained slowly, â€œThat is the cause of my reaction to you both undressing.â€
â€œOh, okay then,â€ Hiwei said befuddled, â€œwhat do you suggest then?â€
â€œI uh,â€ Sapphire stammered, looking around the pond. â€œI am not certain.â€
Sapphire looked around the pond, trying to find a spot she could bathe in private. After a few moments, Hiwei finally lost her patience with the foreigner and undressed the rest of the way. She ignored Sapphire and carried her clothing to a pile of stones on the waterâ€™s edge, hoping to get the filth out of them somehow. Hitepshu shrugged and followed suit, causing Sapphire to blush bright red. She hesitated for a moment, torn between the shame of undressing and the horrible smell of remaining dressed.
The stench started to give her a headache. With a heavy sigh she carefully undressed. Sapphire focused all her thoughts at the task of getting clean, forcibly ignoring her companions. Once under the water completely, she picked up a rough stone and ran it over herself. Though uncomfortable, the scrubbing had the desired effect, dislodging the worst of the grime. After surfacing, she searched through the pockets of her shirt and pulled out her comb. She slowly ran it through her hair, the grime and filth washing away.
â€œS-Sapphire! Your-, what happened to your hair?â€ Hiwei exclaimed, staring confused at her companion.
â€œMy, what?â€ she said confused, reaching through her hair concerned.
Unable to feel anything amiss, Sapphire skillfully froze a small sheet of ice across her palm, forming a shining mirror. A single look at her reflection and the problem became apparent. It seemed the dark hair dye Shamus had given her was not waterproof.
â€œOh, nice one Krauss,â€ she muttered. â€œUh, hope this is not too much of a surprise.â€
â€œWhatâ€™s all the commotion about?â€ Hitepshu asked, turning around. â€œWow I, Iâ€™ve never seen a woman with blue hair before.â€
â€œWell, uh, years of elemental Ice magic will do this to someone,â€ she explained awkwardly, lowing herself into the water. â€œThe dark-colored dye of I was using got out washed, because Shamus is a cheapskate.â€
â€œHuh, so does that mean Hiweiâ€™s hair will change color too?â€
â€œIndeed it does,â€ Sapphire said, hoping to change the topic and get them to stop staring. â€œHer use of Noble magic will lighten the color significantly.â€
â€œI, I didnâ€™t know that,â€ Hiwei sputtered, grabbing at her hair. â€œWait, what do you mean exactly?â€
â€œI assume you have a teacher,â€ she replied, glad the topic had changed.
â€œYes, Harijad is-, err, was my teacher,â€ Hiwei said, thinking back to what she looked like, â€œwait, I remember her having silver hair, though I assumed…though now that I think about it, she never seemed that old.â€
As Hiwei started thinking in circles, Sapphire waded towards the end of the pond, pulling her clothing through the water. Once at the rocks, she beat the garments with a stone, trying to force the filth out. All the while she thought of how she was going to avoid suspicion when she was sporting long, light-blue colored hair. It had been unnerving enough when it was just her pale complexion that gave her away as a foreigner. Now she would be unmistakable even at a mileâ€™s distance.
She sighed before bringing her cloak up for inspection. It seemed to have been cleansed of the worst of the filth, and she promptly hung it over a tree limb next to the othersâ€™ clothing to dry. After repeating the treatment for her undergarments, Sapphire lay back in the cool water and floated for a time. The warm air quickly dried their clothing, and before long they were dressed and prepared to continue their trek.
â€œOnward, to Samek and to Sippiru!â€ Hitepshu announced to no one in particular. â€œSo, uh, which way do we go?â€
â€œWell, there is the other aqueduct,â€ Hiwei said, pointing at a stone lined channel running down the East side of the hill. â€œI spotted it awhile ago, itâ€™s probably what drained the pond and exposed our escape route. It must lead to a town or a farm; maybe we could find a road around there.â€
â€œGood thought Hiwei,â€ Sapphire said approvingly.
Ready to get back on track, they started down the grassy hillside, the countryside sprawling out before them. It quickly became apparent that the new aqueduct led to a town in the distance. Hiwei walked faster, her stomach beginning to growl. A small cottage near the base of the hill seemed to be the closest place they might find food. As they neared the building, Sapphire hastily covered her head with the now empty satchel. After a moment of fiddling with it, she managed to cover most of her hair; but the improvised hood looked quite unnatural.
Hoping she would not be remembered as the blue haired lady, Sapphire followed the other two as they approached the cottage. A large flock of sheep grazed in the yellowed grasses around the farm, which hopefully meant there would be some food to spare. When they reached the perimeter fence, Hiwei and Hitephsu paused in front of a small barricade. Sapphire slowed, wondering why they had stopped.
â€œWhy are you only standing there?â€ Sapphire asked, stopping next to the two of them, â€œCome on, somebody had better go knock on that door, and see if anyone is home.â€
â€œJust, uh, thinking about what might happen if there are pirates in that house,â€ Hiwei replied hesitantly.
â€œYeah, I was wondering that too,â€ Hitepshu said quietly, â€œmaybe we ought to lay low, and not be seen by people.â€
Sapphire sighed. â€œAll the provisions were ruined by that muck,â€ she explained, â€œso unless we eat bark from here to Samek, or steal food along the route, we have to try and locate a good hearted person who will give us some supplies.â€
With that, she stepped over the fence and walked boldly towards the cottage, her courage leaving almost immediately as she thought of a pirate death squad laying in wait. Nevertheless, she pressed onward, up the stone pathway to the door, which she rapped on four times. All three of them held their breath, waiting for a response. The latch clicked and then the door swung inward, revealing a young man. He was rather tall, with a mop of brown feathery hair.
â€œWhy, hello there,â€ he said cautiously, inspecting the pale woman, â€œwhat brings you to my doorstep?â€
â€œMy companions and I are a bit lost, and we have no food,â€ Sapphire explained quickly. â€œWe were wondering if we might be able to borrow a few things.â€
â€œUh, well, I do have some meats I was going to preserve, but I was planning on selling them,â€ he replied, leaning against the doorframe. â€œPerhaps you have something you could trade?â€
Sapphire thought for a moment, knowing she did have something of value. She reached under her cloak, bowing to the hunger in her stomach, and produced a small piece of golden treasure. The man did a double take, looking over the intricate trinket. He took the piece from her and promptly fetched his store of meat, shoving all of it into her arms.
â€œT-thank you very much,â€ he said excitedly, â€œIâ€™m going to, to take a trip to the market now.â€
â€œDo not inform anyone where you got that.â€
â€œDonâ€™t worry,â€ the man called, pulling on his coat. â€œIâ€™ll be very discrete.â€
With that the man ran off, leaving Sapphire holding two lambs worth of meat, and her companions flabbergasted. Hiwei and Hitepshu stared for a few moments, still unable to believe what had just happened. Then they rushed to her side, helping her haul the food toward a small grove of trees on the edge of the farm. There they dropped their burden for a time and turned to Sapphire.
â€œHow in the name of Enki did you get all this?â€ Hitepshu demanded, still stunned, â€œYou didnâ€™t do what most women do to get this much, thatâ€™s for sure.â€
â€œHitepshu!â€ Hiwei cried, smacking him in the arm, â€œthatâ€™s not very politeâ€¦but he is correct, how did you get all this?â€
â€œI have my ways,â€ Sapphire replied, leaning against the tree. â€œIf you must know I wowed him with a small trinket of gold from my homeland. It was a gift, from long ago. Another life, perhaps.â€
â€œOh, stop being mysterious,â€ Hiwei said exasperated. â€œJust speak normally, please.â€
â€œAffirmative, affirmative,â€ Sapphire replied, causing Hiwei to groan, â€œIt was just a piece of my motherâ€™s treasure, and she possessed quite a bit of treasure. Now, Iâ€™m hungry, and so are you. Let us cook some of this animal flesh and then get moving.â€
Hitepshu began breaking off tree branches while Hiwei took to gathering kindling from the ground. After preparing the wood, Sapphire used a little heat magic and started the fire going. Soon they had eaten more than their fill, and were ready to depart. They followed the setting sun, passing through several groves of trees and crossing a few rolling hills, always on the lookout for their pursuers.
As the sun drew low over the horizon, they found a green hilltop and began settling down for the evening. Tired from the dayâ€™s travel, they flopped down wherever was least uncomfortable and began thinking about the days ahead. Soon, both Hitepshu and Hiwei were asleep, darkness falling around them. Sapphire, however, was still troubled. She tried counting the stars. An irreplaceable treasure was now lost to her. She tapped the sack they had filled with the rest of the meat.
Despite trying to rationalize to herself that they needed the food, she still felt that there had to have been another way. She reached to the spot she had kept it, one of the last pieces of her home. As she finally began slipping into sleep, the regret slowly became a longing for her icy home. She thought of the icy, crystalline columns, the towering domes that sparkled like diamonds in the sunlight. But most of all, she missed her luxurious bed of soft silk and thick furs.
Sapphire imaged herself slipping under the sheets as she drifted off to sleep on the grassy hillside, so far from home.