Note: This will be the last chapter from my story that I will post here on this blog. Stay tuned for news on where (and when) you will be able to read more of this story.
Chapter 4: The Hospitality House
Esther looked over at Andrew. As far as she was concerned, meeting him was the same as meeting a random guy that happened to be her classmate. Nothing particularly stood out about him, other than the fact that he came from an entirely different culture. In fact, she still felt somewhat embarrassed over her outburst to him the previous night. It reminded her that there was a lot about the world, and even of just Greater Jolysi, that she did not know.
Maybe it was for that reason that, despite the fact that Andrew was not exactly the type of person she would normally hang out with, Esther still found herself caring about him. Of course, if the matter of her adoption ended up successful, then he would become her brother, and in that case it would be expected of her to care about a family member. In that case, there was no harm in caring about him for now. Sure, he was not particularly good looking – he was not ugly, but his appearance definitely had more of an academic, scholarly look, which was not her type – but that did not matter in a future brother. It is not like I am going to be betrothed to him or anything, she thought.
While Esther was sitting down thinking about these things, Andrew got up from his seat. “Okay, I am going to walk around the Hospitality House and learn more about how it works,” he said. “If I am going to work here, I better learn more about what I might be doing here. That must be the real reason why Father did not want us to work yet.” He started walking out of the room.
That sounded a lot like what he would say, Esther thought. Thinking of what she might do, she realized that she was alone in the room. And Esther, more than anything, hated to be alone. She got up and quickly caught up with Andrew. “Is it okay if I go along with you?”
“I do not mind,” Andrew said.
Another very Andrew like response, Esther thought.
The two left the house and entered the main building of the Hospitality House. They started by walking into the main lounge area.
“Hello!” Zoe said upon seeing them. “Are you two here to help out?”
“No, we are just exploring the place today,” Andrew said.
“Oh, okay,” Zoe replied. “Go ahead and walk around or sit down or order a snack.”
Esther and Andrew walked around the lounge area. It was an incredibly large area, easily as large as the main building of Esther’s high school, and that building had to hold five thousand kids. Esther figured that, given that there were not quite as many floors, with there only being a mezzanine like second and third floor, the lounge area could hold perhaps two or three thousand people. She noticed that in the back, there was a stage on which some people were playing music, with many of the tables in front of the stage filled by travelers who were probably listening to that music.
Looking more closely at the tables themselves, she noticed that each table had a number and a bell. If a traveler were to ring the bell, Zoe or one of the other workers would quickly go over there and serve that traveler. The numbers, Zoe assumed were just there to make keeping track of what the people at different tables wanted.
She and Andrew walked up to the mezzanine levels. There were more tables and longchairs there, and there were also some rooms inside the walls which seemed to have people in them. Esther figured that the rooms must be able to be reserved for travelers traveling in a party that wanted a room to themselves instead of being in the larger, noisier lounge. Esther also noticed doors that led to the rear balconies of the lounge building, which had plenty of tables and chairs as well.
As she went back downstairs, she noticed that a number of the servers were other people that she had not met yet. She wondered if they, too, were adopted by Father. There seemed to be a lot of them; would they all be her brothers and sisters? I kind of hope not, she thought. Having seven new siblings is going to be crazy enough as it is.
Having decided that they had explored the lounge enough for now – it was large, but also relatively simple in its design – Esther and Andrew moved on to see what else was in the main building. What they found were all sorts of large rooms with different things. One moment, they would enter a snooker room where some travelers were playing against each other. Another moment, they found themselves in a room with several weights that the people inside were lifting, as well as some bicycles that were fixed in position and a weird machine that she could only describe as a moving belt that people ran on top of, so that it looked like they were running in place. It seemed like a handy way to do some running exercise indoors, at least.
The next room they entered had an older worker who was looking over several babies and really young children. “This is a day care,” the worker explained. “Travelers with young children can leave them here and I watch over them while they have some time off to themselves.”
Another odd room they found seemed to have workers hitting travelers lying on their backs repeatedly, as though they were drumming. The workers there called it a “massage” service, though Esther had no idea why travelers were so willingly letting themselves get beat up by these workers.
In yet another peculiar room, Esther found a pool of water indoors. There was no steam coming out of the pool, either, so it could not have been a bath; it must have been just a standard watering hole that people could swim in. However, she could not figure why in the world would they need to have one indoors. “Why would they need to have a watering hole indoors if it is perfectly warm enough to swim outside?” she asked Andrew.
“Hmm,” Andrew said. “Actually, now that I think about it, this is an ingenious idea. This way, people can swim even when it is freezing cold outside. I can imagine that, from the tenth through twelfth months of the year, this place must be packed.”
“I guess that makes sense,” Esther said, not thinking of things that way as Kris, being more of a southern nation, did not have particularly cold winters.
The two found some rooms that contained contraptions so complicated that they must have come from either Xysa or Chiansa, the two countries best known for creating incredibly complicated electrical devices. Either that, or they were faerie created magical devices. It was not always easy to tell the difference. In the meantime, they just stared in wonder at things like boards that displayed moving pictures and boxes where you could press buttons and letters would appear on the box.
Eventually deciding to move on lest their brains be wrecked trying to make sense of those contraptions, they continued walking. They had seen all sorts of interesting rooms besides this, including a gymnasium, other rooms with games in them, music rooms where wandering bards practiced their art, and some simpler rooms that seemed to just be for private gatherings. Eventually, they realized that there was no way that they could see all of the different rooms in that building before the sun went down, so instead they walked outside.
Outside, they found even more things for travelers to do. There was a more traditional watering hole, except that someone had apparently added something to it where they took the lower half of a tube, put it on a slant, and then run water down it, and then they had people slide down it into the water. There was also a long plank that sprung up and down slightly that people would use to jump into the air and then dive into the water.
Outside of the watering hole, they also saw other places where people would play games. Esther did recognize one of those games, where people would pass a ball around and try to throw it into a basket (with the bottom cut out) suspended in the air; it was a game that was gaining popularity in Kris. She did not know exactly what it was called, but somehow, perhaps because it was the simplest way of describing it, everyone around her called it “basketball”.
Another game they saw was one that was apparently well known in Alia, so Andrew knew about it. In this game, a player would try to hit a ball that was thrown at them with a club, and then they would try to run as far around a diamond shaped track as possible before the other team could catch the ball and throw it at the player.
“Apparently, each point of the diamond is like a military base, and the runner is trying to invade the base,” Andrew explained. “Each base is guarded by a sentry, and if the ball is caught by that sentry before the runner can reach it, he is forced out of the field, but if the runner reaches the base before he can be caught, he is safe. If the person trying to hit the ball misses three times when he can be expected to hit the ball, he is also forced out, and if someone on the other team can catch the ball you hit before it hits the ground, you are also forced out. You get a point if you can reach all three bases and then return back to home base. If three of your players are forced out, then the teams switch roles.”
“That sounds really, really complicated,” Esther said. “What do you guys call it?”
“Uh… actually, I do not remember what it was called. I read about it in a book, and saw a couple of games, but I never really heard a name attached to it. Well, there’s a ball, and the whole concept is based around invading military bases, so… maybe baseball?”
“That seems too simple of a name,” Esther complained.
“It is not like basketball is any better,” Andrew said.
“Yeah, I guess we need to find a better name for these games,” Esther said. “I mean, next thing we know, we are going to call some game where players kick around a ball ‘football’.”
“Yeah, and then we are going to see another game where they kick a ball around and call it the same thing even though it is a completely different game,” Andrew added.
Esther nodded. “And then we find out that the second game only has kicking for, like, a quarter of the time and the rest of the time it is all just people running into each other!”
The two of them broke into laughter. It surprised them, as it was the first time either one had saw the other laugh.
“Well, enough with these games. I see some gardens over there; let us go take a look at those,” Esther said.
Andrew nodded, and the two of them went over to check out the gardens.
Esther was immediately impressed at how the gardens looked. There were a large variety of flowers, and their colors were arranged to look incredibly nice. She even saw some special flower patches where the flower colors were arranged so that they made simple pictures. She thought it was very creative. There were also several flower trees and some hedges that were trimmed into various shapes.
Walking further into the gardens, though, they found a shift in the type of garden, as the garden plots moved from aesthetic to practical and they found themselves in a large vegetable garden. They also found Winstrom, along with another young man they had not met, tending to the gardens.
“Oh, hello!” Winstrom said. “I see you have found our gardens.”
“So you grow your own vegetables?” Esther asked.
“We do indeed,” Winstrom replied. “Well, we also buy some vegetables that we cannot grow here because of the weather, but where we can, we like to grow our own food. It is cheaper and tastes better, even if it takes more work.”
“I guess that makes sense,” Esther said. “Who is your helper? Is he also one of our brothers?”
“Oh… ha ha,” Winstrom laughed. “I guess no one told you about that. He is an honorary brother, but he has not been legally adopted by Father. Do you know about the Hospitality House’s membership program?”
“No, not really,” Esther said. “Although I have heard it mentioned.”
“Okay,” Winstrom said. “Basically, travelers that frequent the Hospitality House a lot and want to actually help us keep the place running can apply to become honorary members of our family. They can then work here and help keep this place running, and they in exchange can use some of the House’s most exclusive facilities. In fact, we even allow them to stay with us at our house if they want to.”
“Ah, but I will not be doing that this time,” the other young man said. “My name is Orvin, by the way.”
“Orvin has volunteered in particular to help out with the gardens,” Winstrom said. “So you may see more of him later. We really do rely on a lot on our honorary brothers and sisters, because there are only so many of us.”
“So the other workers we see around the House are also honorary family members, then?” Esther asked, not sure if this counted as having a ridiculous number of siblings.
“Yes, though a few of them may be our aunties and uncles,” Winstrom said.
“Aunts and uncles?” Esther wondered just how big this family was.
“People that Father had adopted in the past but are now at least old enough to be our parents,” Winstrom said. “They watch over us to help make sure we do not get into trouble, and help out where needed, but they largely leave the running of the House to us younger folks. Many of them have families to raise, too.”
“I see,” Esther said. She looked around and saw an area that was enclosed by a hedge. “I think we will go check that area out,” she said. “Talk to you later!”
“Okay,” Winstrom said, waving goodbye to them. “Good luck!” he called out.
As Esther and Andrew headed to the hedged off area, Esther wondered why he wished them luck. After all, they were only entering another part of the garden.
It took them the better part of three hours to find their way out the other side.
“He really should have told us it was a bunch of hedges cut to form a labyrinth!” Esther complained. “Well, I am hungry, so we should go eat lunch.”
“That is a good idea,” Andrew said.
The two of them started walking back to the lounge, but found an outside place that was also serving food, so they ate there instead. While there, they saw Corrine, who seemed to be both eating and reading books.
“Oh, hi guys!” Corrine said.
“Are you not doing fieldwork today?” Andrew asked.
“I only work every other day,” Corrine said. “Other days, I have to study.”
“That is right, you have school to go to,” Andrew said. “That makes sense. Where do you go to school, though?”
“Actually, I learn everything here,” Corrine said. “The aunts and uncles all teach me various things, and then I take special tests that the Jolysi Ministry of Education creates that, if I pass, allow me to get a diploma and everything as if I took normal school.”
“That… does not sound very effective,” Andrew remarked.
“No one in Alia does their schooling at home?” Corrine asked.
“Hmm… maybe if their parents were really high level scholars,” Andrew said. “Are the aunts and uncles that teach you really smart?”
“They sure are!” Corrine said, beaming.
Andrew shrugged. “I guess I will trust you on that,” he said.
Esther also found the whole concept of schooling at home unusual, but for an entirely different reason: the whole idea of not interacting with any classmates just sounded wrong. But then again, it is not like Corrine does not have others to interact with; she just does so during work or with whoever else is around here, she thought, so she decided not to say anything.
After finishing lunch, Corrine went back to her studies, and Esther and Andrew left to explore other places, hoping they do not accidentally enter another labyrinth. What they did find were various playgrounds that children were playing on, which seemed normal enough, except for one structure. It seemed to be limited to older children, and had them harnessed to ropes so that they could safely traverse courses of ropes and suspended wooden beams.
“That looks really complicated,” Esther remarked. “Want to try it?”
Andrew just shook his head.
Scared of heights, I guess, Esther thought.
The two of them moved on, and found a building that looked very familiar to both of them: a church. Neither Esther nor Andrew considered themselves particularly religious, but out of curiosity, they entered the building. Inside, they found Horace.
“Good afternoon,” he said to them. “May I help you with anything?
“Oh, we are just checking the place out,” Esther said. “Do you work here?”
“Yes, I am the head chaplain of the Hospitality House,” Horace said. “Are you two active worshippers of Eiyam?”
“Eh, not really,” Esther said. She never felt that Eiyam had done anything for her, so she never saw a reason to worship Him.
Andrew shook his head. “I do not even know if He really exists… I mean, it is undeniable that something happened with that event that ended the war, but other than that…”
“I see,” Horace said. “Well, I am not going to force you to be worshippers of Eiyam or anything; that is not my job.”
“Oh, that is good,” Esther said. “I have had enough of people trying to force me to join in their beliefs to be part of their group. So do you lead services for the worshippers, then?”
“Actually, that is the job of Father,” Horace said. “As his main chaplain, my main job is to simply be here and listen to any of the heavier troubles that travelers may have, as well as help out with anyone who has any particular religious practices they want to partake in.”
“So Father is the head priest, then?” Esther asked. “Is this a religious institution?”
“Oh, no; religious services is just one of our many services, and Father is the one that is best at providing his particular service,” Horace said. “At the same time… what if I told you that it was only with Eiyam’s help and guidance that the Hospitality House exists in the first place?”
Esther did not really know how to answer that question.
“Well, let me reassure you that regardless of your beliefs, you are welcome in our family,” Horace said. Then, in a quieter voice, he added, “At the same time, I would be lying if I were to deny that I hope that you two would also come to really understand the love of Eiyam.”
Esther and Andrew remained silent, not sure how to interpret what he said.
“But, well, that is just my wanting other people to like the things I like,” Horace said in a normal voice. “Feel free to come to me if you want someone to talk to about your troubles.”
Esther and Andrew nodded, and left the church.
“Wow, it is getting pretty late,” Esther said. “It probably is only a half hour to an hour until dinnertime. We sure have been exploring for a long while.”
“Yeah,” Andrew said. “Maybe we should take a look at the rooms travelers stay in?”
“Sounds good to me,” Esther said.
As the two of them walked around the area where visitor rooms are, they learned from the housekeepers working there about how overnight stays worked at the Hospitality House. Most of the rooms were open for any visiting traveler to stay in for one night; these rooms were not particularly ornate, but were well kept and easily comparable to those of third rank inns (inns in Greater Jolysi fell into six ranks). Rooms came in several sizes, from single rooms for solo travelers to large rooms for families and parties. There were also several rooms specifically for travelers registered by the Greater Jolysi Ministry of Travel, which were somewhat larger and nicer overall, at the same level as second rank inns; furthermore, registered travelers could stay in them for five nights at a time. A select few rooms were reserved for honorary family members, and while they did not look particularly better than those for registered travelers, they did have a couple of extra things like an icebox and access to a laundry service to account for how those who used those rooms could use them for up to fifteen nights at a time.
Soon enough, it was dinnertime, and Esther and Andrew returned to the lounge for a meal. Esther was curious about Alian cuisine, so she decided to ask Andrew for a recommendation
“Hey, Andrew, what kind of Alian food is good?” she asked.
Andrew shrugged. “You could always try our specialty, the primavera pasta,” he said.
“Do you like Alian primavera pasta?” Esther asked.
“It is good,” Andrew said.
“What are you having?” Esther asked.
“I had not decided,” Andrew said. “I guess I will take the primavera pasta.”
Esther sighed, as she had hoped for a more interesting answer. Nevertheless, she ordered a primavera pasta as well. They continued to talk while waiting for the food.
“I think I learned a lot about the Hospitality House,” Andrew said. “It definitely is a well run place. Although I do wonder where they get the funding to maintain this place…”
“There were donation boxes around the lounge, remember?” Esther said. “People probably donate money to help this place out. I bet the honorary members in particular donate quite a bit.”
“You think? I mean, by my estimates, every honorary member would have to donate at least one tenth of their wages in order for this place to have enough money,” Andrew said.
“Well, it has been running for thirty years; I am sure it has a good base of donators,” Esther said. “So what do you think about this place?”
“Hmm? Like I said, it is a well run place,” Andrew replied, looking puzzled.
Esther sighed. “That was not what I meant,” she said. “I mean, do you like it? Is it personally to your taste? If you were traveling and passing through here, would you want to stay here?”
Andrew shrugged again. “Maybe,” he said. “I can imagine that any Alian travelers would like this place.”
It finally clicked in Esther’s head what had been annoying her about Andrew for a while now. “I do not care about what an Alian traveler thinks of the place!” she said, nearly shouting. “I want to know about what you think! I want to know more about you! All I know about you now is that you are from Alia, and everything you have done or said so far is like you are just acting as a representative of Alia. But you are not just any old Alian, are you? You are Andrew! So how come you never do or say anything that would represent who Andrew is? How am I supposed to properly become your sister if I do not really know anything about you?”
Andrew looked almost scared by Esther’s outburst. She looked around and saw that the nearby travelers were all staring at her. Suddenly, she realized that she had made quite a spectacle of herself again in front of everyone, and had probably offended Andrew again in the process. Highly embarrassed, she sank down in her seat and remained quiet for the rest of dinner, not daring to say anything else. Andrew was also silent, and the whole dinner was a very awkward experience.
For what it was worth, the primavera pasta was delicious.