2. Roses are White, Bloodstains are Red

Donna looked at her reflection in the shop window of Tottie Lovell’s shop, Tottie’s Threads. It was dark inside, so it was almost a perfect mirror. Her white dress and golden curls stood out starkly against the medieval grimness of the street behind her. The other pedestrians wore random combinations of what passed for 1500’s-style dress in the Krim virtual world. Peasant dress. Merchant robes. Fancy gowns. And lots and lots of medieval armor of all kinds. But some players simply refused to get into the spirit of things and wore T-shirts with the names of their favorite bars.

Wagons and coaches rolled through the street behind her, throwing up sprays of mud whenever they hit puddles. It had rained last night. For some reason Donna didn’t know, it seemed to rain every night on Krim, so there was always mud in the streets, especially in the mornings.

She frowned at the mud splatter near the hem of her dress. People were so rude.

She licked her fingers and smoothed an errant curl into place and walked inside.

Her boss, Tottie Lovell was already at work. When Donna walked in, a bell chimed over the door. It was a lovely bell, and when Donna opened her own shop someday she would have a bell just like that.

Tottie looked up and frowned.

“We need to have a talk,” Tottie said. “Come in and sit down.”

Donna smiled. “Oh, that’s great! I love to talk!”

She walked past the fabric displays and the fashion mannequins and sat down in the customer chair in front of the business desk, the one where Tottle kept her accounting materials and ledgers and the giant toy with the metal rods and little wooden balls that Tottie played with whenever she added up bills or made change.

“I’m letting you go, Donna.”

“Go where?”

Tottie sighed. “You can go anywhere you like. Just not here.” The seamstress looked at Donna’s smiling face and added, “You’re fired.”

“Oh. It’s that kind of talk.” Donna got these kinds of talks often, but she knew what to do. She blinked her eyes rapidly and teared up, bit her lip, clasped her hands to her chest, then looked up at Tottie with tearful eyes.

“What did I do?” she asked in a soft, high-pitched voice. Tottie had to lean forward to hear her. “I was trying my best.”

“I know you were trying your best, I’m not complaining about that.” Tottie opened her ledger. “But your best cost me five times your salary. You undercharged one customer by two hundred golds. Overcharged five others so they walked out without paying and cost me the sale — even though I’d already done all the work. You ruined five rolls of fabric. Two customers fell in love with you and had a sword fight right in the shop, destroying two mannequins and leaving me with two dead bodies to clean up. You don’t know how to use an abacus. And you almost burned my shop down last night.”

Tottle moved the wooden ball toy in over in front of her and flicked the little balls around. “Your salary is… five golds a week. Total losses to my business, this week alone, were 90 golds’ worth of fabric, six silvers for mannequin repairs, and the undercharge cost me 200 golds, like I said. That’s nearly 300 golds right there, not counting the loss of business from angry or dead customers. And if I hadn’t put the fire out in time it could have burned down the whole shop.”

“I’m so sorry!” said Donna. “I promise I’ll try to do better!” She picked up a swatch of fabric and wiped her tears.

“I know you tried,” said Tottie. “But I really can’t afford to keep you.”

“Maybe you can get some real lights,” said Donna. “That way, I won’t stumble over things. And I try to do math, but every time I try to ask Avexa what the answer is, it doesn’t say anything.”

“We’ve had this same conversation every day since you started,” said Tottie. “Avexa doesn’t work on Krim. None of the online services work on Krim. This world has a medieval theme and they didn’t have the net back then.” She tapped the wire-and-wood ball toy. “They used an abacus when they had to do math. They also didn’t have electric lights or electric heaters or electric water kettles.”

“I don’t understand!” Donna started sobbing again, then blew her nose into the silk swatch of fabric.

Tottie stood up and patted Donna on the shoulder. “I know you don’t. Have you considered moving to another world? Maybe Clem Brana? They have fairies and magic wands and pixies that do chores for you. I think you’ll be much happier there.”

“I love Krim,” said Donna. “It’s the only world I’ve been to that passes the toe test.”

Tottie sighed. “I probably shouldn’t ask, but what’s the toe test?”

Donna looked up at her. “It’s when you stub your toe. If you say ‘ouch!’ then it’s a good world. If you don’t, then it’s a bad world. Like if you’re on Facepage, if you stub your toe, you don’t feel anything at all. And Clem Brana is pretty, but if you stub your toe, you notice it, but just barely.”

She didn’t mention that on Clem Brana, everyone looked like a beautiful princess. Nobody noticed her. On Krim, everyone did.

“Aren’t you worried that one of the role players will stab you and you’ll die a horrible, painful death?”

“Oh, nobody would ever do that! People are so nice on Krim!”

“It could be by accident.”

“Well, I’ll have to get a new avatar, I guess. But I’d come back right away and tell them that I forgive them. I wouldn’t want someone to feel bad over something that wasn’t their fault.”

She looked up at Tottie again, tears dripping down her face.

“No.” Tottie sat back down on the other side of the table. “I’m not going to give you your job back.” She shut the ledger firmly and put it away in a drawer, not meeting Donna’s eyes.

“But what will I do?” Donna said, stammering over the words. “I have to pay rent.”

Actually, her landlord gave her a steep discount on the rent. Most of Donna’s money went to replacing her white dresses and buying soap for her hair.

“You can try Quimby,” Tottie finally said. “Quimby Plummer. He’s the owner of the Barley Mow Inn.”

“Oh, I eat there all the time.”

“Good, so you already know him and know the menu.” Tottie tapped the table. “He lost another server last night to the war.”

“Oh, no! Eddy died?”

“No, he went off to fight in some stupid war. Seems like the last thing people want to do when they come to a virtual world is work a menial job, but getting chopped up in a pointless battle is just fine.” Tottie sighed. “Well, I guess it keeps us tailors in business.”

Tottie opened her cash box and counted out five gold coins. “Here’s your last week’s pay.”

Donna wiped her tears again and picked up the money, then tried to give the swatch of silk fabric back to Tottie.

Tottie leaned back in her chair and waved it away. “Now, shoo. I’ve got customers coming, and I don’t want to see another bloodbath here.”

Donna stood up wringing her hands and paused. Tottie didn’t relent.

Donna took a couple of steps towards the door, then looked back at her former boss and let out a dainty sob.

Tottie pointed to the door.

Shoulders slumped and feet dragging, Donna left the shop.

But outside, on the street, the sun was shining and the air was crisp. Donna took in a deep breath. The odor of Krim was so strong that she didn’t just smell it, she could taste it in the back of her mouth. The smoke and air from wood fires. Airborne particles of horse, pig, and chicken manure. The smell of decomposing bodies lying in back alleys.

It smelled like home.

She stepped down onto the cobblestone sidewalk and turned to the right. The Barley Mow Inn wasn’t far, but there were other places that might be nicer to work at.

Frieda Lane’s flower shop was right next door, for example. Selling flowers might be nice. Donna loved flowers.

Frieda had a beautiful display of white roses arranged in buckets of water. Donna bent down so that her nose was right in the middle of the petals and breathed deep. She didn’t care what Tottie said. Krim was the place for her.

She straightened up and, as she wiped the rest of her tears away, she noticed a “help wanted” sign hanging in the window. Frieda herself was inside, clipping the thorns off of roses. She looked up, saw Donna, and her eyes immediately flicked over to the “help wanted” sign. The florist dropped her flowers and scissors, reached over to the sign, and pulled it down.

Maybe that meant that she wanted to hire Donna.

Donna put a brave smile on her face and stepped inside the shop.

“I saw the…” she pointed at where the sign had just been hanging, but Frieda interrupted her.

“Oh, that was up by accident,” she said. “I don’t actually need any help just now. I’m totally fine on my own.”

“Oh.”

“Not that I wouldn’t love to hire you,” said Frieda. “I’m sure the fire wasn’t your fault. And it is hard to find workers around here. But I just don’t have the budget for it right now. You know how it is. Cash flows are so unpredictable here on Krim.”

“Of course,” said Donna. “I understand. I’ll come back later.” She looked around the shop. Frieda did wonderful things with mirrors to make the place look brighter and bigger. If Donna ever had her own shop, she would do the same thing.

“Maybe you could try the Barley Mow,” said Frieda.

Back outside, she leaned down and took one last, deep breath of the roses.

When she straightened up, a woman in skin-tight leather armor handed her a handkerchief.

“You look so sad,” the woman said. “Is anyone giving you trouble?”

“Oh, no. I’m fine.” Donna smiled brightly, wiped away the last traces of tears, and offered the handkerchief back. When the warrior woman shook her head, Donna tucked the handkerchief in her bodice.

The warrior woman’s eyes followed the handkerchief to Donna’s chest, then snapped back up. “If there’s someone bothering you, just let me know, and I’ll kill them for you.” The woman blushed slightly. “Do you like flowers?”

“I love them,” said Donna. “White roses are my favorite.” She touched the woman’s bare, muscular upper arm. “You’re so sweet. Everyone on Krim is so nice to me.”

The woman looked around and leaned in towards Donna. “Be careful. Not everyone here is as nice as they seem.”

“I will. Thank you.” Donna smiled again and walked away.

Maybe she would open a flower shop. Flowers were nice and a lot easier than dressmaking.

She was almost at the door to the Barley Mow when a man with a sword blocked her way and thrust a bouquet of white roses in her face.

Donna stumbled back, and he grabbed her arm to steady her.

“Careful, these cobblestones can be slippery,” he said. “You don’t want to fall and hurt yourself.”

As she took the roses, she heard a woman’s voice behind her.

“Unhand her, you oaf!”

The swordsman pushed Donna off to the side and drew his sword.

Donna turned and saw the woman warrior from earlier, also holding a bouquet. The woman tossed the bouquet to Donna and in a smooth motion pulled out her own sword. The two fighters lunged at each other. The man stabbed the woman through her exposed midriff just as the woman sliced open the man’s throat.

Donna stepped back to avoid the spray of blood but wasn’t fast enough.

The man fell, grasping his throat. The woman, with his sword in her abdomen, turned her head towards Donna and whispered, “Be safe.” Then she also fell to the sidewalk, moaning and clutching her stomach.

Donna gingerly stepped over the spreading pool of blood and went inside the inn. She was going to have to buy a new dress.

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