"You're not from around here, are you?"
It was said as an observation, not as a question. I looked up to see who was being so direct. A girl was standing behind me, giving me a shrewd look. Her hair was strung with ribbons, body clasped by a corsette, legs clad in stockings and feet in pointed boots. She had a single-hand sword slung over one shoulder.
"Uh... I'm not from California originally, if that's what you mean." I stared at her, intrigued.
She was surprised and didn't hide it well. "You're American? I assumed you were from somewhere Scandinavian."
"I'm 100% Yank. It disappoints me, also." I smiled.
"I'm sorry. It's your hair, eyes and skin... I figured you had to come from a place where things are icy all year 'round. Your skin looks like it is accustomed to reflecting whiteness, not sunlight."
It is not in my nature to laugh in the face of an attractive lady, but it was impossible to refrain from chuckling.
Her cheeks darkened and she lifted her chin haughtily. "You mocked my imagery."
"No." I hastened to explain. "I laughed at such flowery words coming from a swordsman. Most swordsmen can't stop talking about weapons and battles." I gestured at the proof; there was a man nearby who was waving his axe and calling out antagonistically to anyone passing by.
"Oh." There was a long gap in conversation.
As I watched her, she seemed to be fighting herself internally. I couldn't help noticing how attractive she was. "What is it? You look pained." I wiped the sweat from my brow in a clumsy motion.
With a sigh, she pulled the sword off her shoulder. "I was trying to figure out if correcting you by saying swordswoman would be out of character."
"Ah. Wait, help me out a little. Which character are you?"
"No one in particular." Her eyes searched mine as a pout formed on her lips. "I love the idea of Ren Faires. I came here by myself because my friends get annoyed at how long I want to stay. I hoped that this year I could fit in instead of wearing jeans like a party popper, so I hired the whole shebang." She gestured at her costume. "It failed, huh?"
"Oh, you didn't fail. You did well, really. And you managed to get yourself a free lunch." My words took me by surprise; I had never considered myself capable of bantering with a stranger, let alone inviting one to lunch. I took her by the arm and lead her over to the food court, which consisted of a series of counters selling unusual items, and bales of hay in place of chairs and tables. "You sit here. Do you eat meat?"
"Yes. How do you think I could have built up this brawn without eating meat?" She bunched her upper arm exaggeratedly to show off her muscle.
I raised an eyebrow. "Hey, I have plenty of brawn and I haven't eaten meat in years."
She didn't reply, but I saw her eyes flicker over my body assessingly.
I returned shortly and handed over her lunch wrapped in a napkin. She peeled back the corner of the napkin and eyed the food suspiciously.
"What is this?"
"A bratwurst, steamed in beer and grilled, in a bun. And fresh lemonade."
She grinned. "Perfect. Thanks. Hey, what's your name?"
"Call me Lady Tara." I smiled enigmatically.
"Nice name. I have to tell you I like your costume."
I snickered. She was talking about the flowing purple dress I was wearing, together with the bracelets and rings covering my hands and arms. And the rainbow halo perched high above my head. "This isn't costume. I usually dress like this."
"Y-you do?" For the first time since I'd met her 15 minutes earlier, she seemed uncertain. "Surely not the halo?"
"Darn, you saw right through me." I smiled. "I do wear this dress out in public. And I'm always wearing a lot of jewelry."
"But what about the halo?" She stopped eating her bratwurst and waited.
"Okay, okay. It's more of an accesory than a daily item of clothing. Though I wore it to Pride." I patted it fondly.
"Ah, you're gay? Bi?" She asked in a casual, matter-of-fact way.
"Completely straight. I have boyfriends, not partners. No need for euphemisms with me."
This time she was certain. "No way. Don't even try to lie to me, Lady Tara."
I touched her arm. "What's your name?"
"Willow Tree," she said grandly. "Well, to be honest, I was born Willow."
"What a gorgeous name."
"I-it is?" She stammered, to my amusement. Usually I was the one who stammered.
"Oh, yes," I breathed. "I had to research the willow tree, once. It represents spring. It's about life starting to blossom from within the womb of trees and animals, as they begin to create again."
She had put her bratwurst down entirely. "The womb? Trees have wombs?" Her green eyes were amused.
"Metaphorically speaking, they do." I smiled. "The willow tree is central to femininity."
She rolled her eyes, picked up her brat and took a bite. "I don't really subscribe to all that. Plus, I'm not very feminine."
It was my turn to be shocked. "What?" I didn't know how to argue without offending her, but it seemed crazy to me that she couldn't see how much female energy she radiated. "Well, you strike me as very feminine," I said.
"Thanks. I think. So, tell me more about my tree-sake."
We talked until night unfolded over the sky. The grounds were empty except for wandering fairies, elves and janitors, and for a woman wearing an outfit made entirely of chains.
Willow rubbed her bare arms. "Tara, would you like to come over to my place?" She froze. "Not, um, in a 'want to come in for coffee and sex' way. Just to hang out."
I had to decline. "I'm so sorry, Willow, I would love to keep talking, but I've just realized the time. I have an article due tomorrow that I need to finish."
She looked interested. "An article? Are you a journalist? Writer?"
I nodded. "I'm in the process of becoming one. I write freelance articles and one regular column."
"I hoped so." She seemed satisfied with my answer.
"You did? Why?"
"Well," she began, "the way you speak... the words you choose, they just fit together so perfectly. You're very expressive. So, I started to think that either you get a lot of practice piercing words together, or you're just naturally smart. Or both."
"Interesting perspective. I don't agree, but..." I smiled. "What do you do, Willow?"
"Um, I'm a..." She mumbled something inaudible.
"You guess," she instructed.
I didn't want to mess this up or be rude. "A teacher? Doctor? Dancer?"
She shook her head at each of my suggestions. "An acrobat?" I asked playfully.
"No. It's worse. Much worse."
I played with a piece of hay as I tried to figure it out. "What can be so embarassing? A drug dealer?"
She punched me playfully.
"Give me a clue."
"Okay." She thought for a minute. "We try to make the world better but often make things much worse."
"A radical environmentalist? A right-wing, fundamentalist Priest?"
She giggled. "Okay, I'll tell you. A lawyer." She looked bashfully at me.
"Ahh. Now I understand your hesitance to tell me," I joked. I calculated her age in my mind. "So, you're already practicing law? Finished grad school? How does that work?"
"I graduated from high school when I was 16," she explained, with the patience and shyness of someone who had explained this many times before.
"You know what, Willow?"
"I think it's perfect for you. You're smart, argumentative and passionate. Just what lawyers should be."
She shook her head. "I'm not so sure. I could have been a scientist. I kind of miss getting to mix chemicals together."
"You could become a bartender."
"I'm serious. It's what I wanted to do but I got talked into a life of offices, paperwork and thick books."
"Willow," I said, "you're young. Don't look so worried. If you really decide this isn't for you, then you can go back to school. I bet there'd be schools clamoring to give you scholarships." I smiled at the thought of Willow engrossed in a science book.
She smiled back at me. "Anyway, Tara, what's your article on?"
"It's dumb," I said warningly. "It's for my column. The article is about the best place to meet someone in the modern world."
"So, where is the best place? I'd love to know."
"So far, this week, I've tried out an ice-rink, club, library, cafe, art gallery, gym and beach. And, obviously, a Rennaisance Faire."
"Yes, and which was the best place?" she asked impatiently.
I stood up to leave, after scribbling my phone number on a piece of paper. "The results aren't in yet," I said.