“Do we really have to sneak into the city?”
“Yes,” replied Elenor, without further explanation.
Instead of going through the gates the way Moxy had advised, Elenor led me through an old pipe that had once been a part of the city’s sewage system but had fallen into disrepair over the years. Someone had sawed through the metal bars covering the pipe’s mouth, and the muddy floor suggested it was being used frequently to avoid the spear-wielding guards standing by the main gate. Surprisingly, the pipe didn’t reek of human refuse, despite it being caked onto the walls, probably because of a trail of purple flowers that spewed a thin stream of white vapor into the air. Elenor made me pop a bit of green jelly into my mouth to ‘fight the Sweetflower poisoning.’
After we emerged into a decrepit house near the wall, Elenor made me wrap a brown rag around my head, leaving a little slit for me to see out of. We snuck out through the backdoor and began walking through a crumbling street scented with vomit, piss, and the unwashed bodies of dozens of pedestrians and beggars.
Despite their evident squalor, the streets on this side of the city were alive with bickering, talking, and the noise of children playing. Every so often, some of the children would snap their fingers and sparks would jump out, making the adults around them scold or chase them. Near the corner, a group of kids managed to light a bearded middle-aged man’s shirt on fire. The man had to tear off his shirt and stomp out the flames, by which point the kids had already escaped into the winding alleys and narrow pathways that crisscrossed through the wall of shabby, multi-colored buildings that lined either side of the streets.
I noticed the flame-shaped burn marks on the kids’ cheeks light up whenever they made the sparks come out of their fingers. This world’s magic was fascinating, but confusing, especially because I was certain Demetrius had used it to steal the House from me, yet I couldn’t remember any scars lighting up on his body at the time.
“In here,” said Elenor, pushing open the door of a muddy red-bricked building. The bright sunlight cast a shadow across the sign that hung over the door, so I couldn’t read what it said as I walked in.
“Take this,” said Elenor, handing me a key.
“What’s it for?” I asked.
“Your room. Upstairs, the second one on the right. We’ll stay here while we look for a ride to Chart.”
“Can’t we get there on our own?”
“We could probably get to the city walls but getting inside would be impossible.”
“Couldn’t we just sneak in like we did here?”
“No, Sett isn’t like the other cities in Fore. It’s the only city run by the Side Party, so there aren’t as many guards here, and the ones who are, are all registered with the Fighters Guild.”
“The Fighter’s Guild?” I asked, as we left the building.
“Yeah, that one over there,” said Elenor, tapping her stick in the direction of a red, triple-storied building at the end of the street. There was a yellow building to its right, and a blue one to its left, both triple-storied but with markedly different designs. While the red one had large balconies, and thick iron balustrades outside scratched windows, the blue one was mostly made of stained glass with metal paneling, and the yellow one looked like a brick house stacked on top of a mud hut stacked on top of a bunch of iron rods with sheets of metal soldered onto them.
There were different types of people outside of them too. The red one – or the “Fighter’s Guild,” as the crudely written sign over the salon door called it – attracted well-armored figures, most with a sword or spear slung across their back. These people, despite their scars and deadly weapons, chatted with each other like they were taking a coffee break at work. Groups of people walked into and out of the building, some lugging bags and nursing closing wounds, others exchanging plans for the day.
The people around the blue building reminded me, at first, of the mindless drones buzzing around the high-rise office buildings back home. Most of them wore black suits on top of immaculately pressed white shirts, with bright blue ties and pocket protectors. Every so often, a person in ordinary clothes would appear, usually with a bag or pouch in hand, and depending on whether they were going inside or coming back out, they’d have a nervous, satisfied, or profoundly dissatisfied look on their faces. A metal plate hung on top of the swiveling glass doors, with “Finder’s Guild” stenciled on it.
Around the yellow building, people in ruddy, unwashed clothes mulled around with tiny trinkets and strange contraptions. Most ordinary people steered clear of this building, with the few who went in through the simple wooden door making sure to avoid the many unidentifiable objects littering the rocky courtyard and path. A glowing yellow sign made of rocks, rods, and feathers declared it the “Fiddler’s Guild.”
Although most of the people around the guilds had the flame-shaped burn marks that the people of Sett had, a few had burns shaped like three wavy lines, or a water droplet. I saw one person around the Fiddler’s Guild with a triangular burn mark, who ran inside with his cheeks alight while wildly waving a wooden claw.
“I’m going to get a copy of the Gazette from the Finder’s Guild, there’s always an ad or two by mercenaries and guards,” said Elenor, tapping her stick in the direction of the blue building.
“And what should I do?” I asked.
“I don’t know, just keep your face covered, I’ll be back in a second.”
A few people on the streets had been staring at Elenor’s face for a while, but when the people around the guilds saw her, they either looked away or greeted her respectfully. Most of the pedestrians stopped staring at her after that, but I noticed a hooded figure near the alleyway continue to stare at Elenor’s back as she entered the guild. A tall lady with a pickaxe noticed the figure and eyed them warily, prompting the figure to step back into the alley.
I stood at the corner, looking at the guilds and all the strange and unusual people they attracted. The lady with the pickaxe stared at me too, suspicious of my hidden face, probably. I didn’t meet her gaze but felt it bore into me nonetheless. The burn on her cheek was shaped like a water droplet, which shone with a soft gleam in the corner of my vision.
Waiting for Elenor to come back, I looked at the buildings on the other side of the street. There was a store selling fruits and vegetables, one with dresses and shirts hanging from rods in the storefront, and a windowless store that just said “Shop” on it. The uninviting décor ensured nobody would go into the Shop, passing by its unassuming wooden door as if there was nothing between the colorful berries and dresses in the windows on either side.
Elenor still hadn’t come out yet. I was feeling a little hungry, so I walked over to the store with the fruit, only to realize that I had no money. The people in the store exchanged purple roots and orange pods for little scraps of paper at the cashier’s counter while I watched a black-haired kid nibble on a bright yellow sphere. He met my eye, and raised the fruit towards me. I stared blankly at him until it clicked – he was offering to share.
While I hesitated, I looked around. The kid’s parents saw him offer the fruit to me but their gaze didn’t stop at the sight, and they continued picking more fruit from the stalls that lined the shop’s walls. He offered the fruit again, and I found myself accepting it. I broke off a small piece and kept it for myself, giving back most of it to the little boy. The fruit was tangy, but had a sweet aftertaste.
“Thanks so much,” I said, crouching so I was at eye-level with him. “I’m Val, Val Forster.” I offered him a hand.
He shook it. “Kino Paley.”
“That’s such a lovely name! Well, I have to go now, but thanks for helping me out there, Kino.”
He nodded. “My momma says if you see someone in need, you better help them or else you’re a tumbling Flopflapper.”
The proverbs in this world were something else, I realized. “Then you’ve got an awesome mother. See you later!”
I wasn’t interested in the clothing store, since trying on clothes with a scarf wrapped around my face was a dumb thing to do, and the ‘Shop’ wasn’t all that intriguing either. I was about to cross the street to wait for Elenor, when a tall man with a package tucked under his arm opened the Shop’s door from inside. He tucked the package into his robes, and eyed the crowd. His lips moved as he said something, and merged into the line of window-shoppers outside the fruit store.
I looked away as he suddenly turned his head in my direction. Facing a dull red dress, I observed him from the corner of my eye. He vanished into the crowd, but I waited, went inside the clothing store, pretended to look at a few shirts, then came back out. I joined the stream of pedestrians walking to the fruit and vegetable store, but ducked into the Shop instead.
There was no window, so the only light inside came from the candles that lined the walls. The room was empty, save for a wooden counter at the far end with nobody behind it. The only thing on the counter was a metal bell, which I tapped gently, making a ring echo around the dimly lit room.
A muffled grunt came from the wall behind the counter, and a portion of the wall swung inward like a door. A white haired old man came hobbling into the room. His flowing white beard trailed the floor, and his bright green eyes shone from under drooping eyelids. He was hunchbacked, although it was hard to make that out since he was wearing a large purple backpack.
“Wasn’t expecting someone today,” he said in a surprisingly deep voice.
“Just looking around.”
One of his drooping eyelids lifted until I could see the candlelight reflecting off his eye. “You don’t come to the Shop to look around, young’un.”
“Ah, sorry, I’ll see myself out,” I said. I’d already edged closer to the door. “See you later, sir.”
“Wait,” he called out.
I kept creeping closer to the door. “I really should get going, my friend’s waiting for me.”
“It’s okay, I won’t take too long.” He moved out from behind the counter. “Clef or Epil?”
I reached for the door, but there was no doorknob. “Fore, sir.”
“Nonsense, you’re not from Fore. A Forian could never find this place.”
“I stumbled inside, is all.”
“Like I said, that’s impossible.” He was a few feet from me now. I could see the waves of wrinkles on his face. They sagged over the burn-marks on his cheek, and rippled across his large forehead and chin.
I put a foot on the door behind me and pushed, but it didn’t budge. His eyes followed my foot, and his other droopy eyelid lifted as well.
“Are those Moxy’s shoes?” he said.
I looked at my feet. “Yeah, you know her?”
The old man smiled. “Of course, I do! This changes everything, come in, come in. Don’t be afraid young’un.” He waved for me to follow him as he walked to the door behind the counter. A handle appeared on the door behind me but I followed the old man because I’d caught a glimpse of what was behind the door he’d walked through.
“Have a seat, and don’t worry, I won’t ask any questions you don’t want me to ask.” He gestured to a leather armchair beside a low standing table, but I didn’t sit. Instead, I gawked at the rows of books that lined the walls.
“So many…” I said quietly.
“Impressive collection, isn’t it? Been collecting them from Headers and government storehouses for years.” He poured a drink from a boiling kettle into a little teacup, and put it on the table in front of me. He grabbed another teacup from the shelf where he kept the kettle, and sat on the larger leather armchair on the other side of the table. He didn’t take off his backpack, so he was leaning halfway across the table.
The drink seemed hot, but that wasn’t why I didn’t touch it. “How did you know these were Moxy’s shoes?”
“A simple deduction, young’un. The craftsmanship, the style, the aura, all of it is patently Moxy’s. Plus, those M’s on the side – classic Moxy Melsam.”
“So, you know her?”
“A little. We used to work together.” He took a sip. “A long time ago.” He cast his gaze to the side and stopped speaking. I took the pause in the conversation as an opportunity to survey the room.
There were four rows of books along the walls, each of them running all the way around the room with only the topmost row out of reach. Most of their spines weren’t labeled, and the ones that were, were so faded I couldn’t make out what they said.
“Excuse me, I was reminiscing,” he continued. “Now can you tell me if you’re from Clef or Epil?”
“As I said, sir, I’m a Forian.”
“So, you don’t want to tell me. It’s fine, really. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not exactly a Forian nationalist either. Here, look.” He straightened the wrinkles on his cheek with his hands, and showed me his strangely shaped burn-mark. It wasn’t a flame, or a water droplet, or any other mark I’d seen so far. Instead, it was shaped like a flower.
“Do you trust me now?” he said, letting his wrinkles fold up again as he went for another sip of tea.
I frowned beneath the scarf. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what that is.”
“Really? Old age may have disfigured it a bit, but surely you can tell that it’s a poppy?” he asked, teacup on the edge of his lips.
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Then you know what that means, correct?”
“No, I don’t.”
“You don’t know about Project Poppy?”
I shook my head.
He looked at me strangely, drooping eyelids twitching irregularly. “I see,” he said quietly, leaning into his backpack which was leaning into the chair.
After a moment of silence, I remembered that Elenor was probably waiting for me, and decided to leave. However, I couldn’t leave empty-handed. “Um, sir,”
“Please, call me Ather, Ather Angel.”
“Thank you, my name’s Val Forster.”
“Thank you, Mr. Angel.”
“Right! Ather, I was wondering if you would let me read one of your books. I’ll give it back before I leave the city.”
“Sure. You’ve read more than three books, right?”
Odd question, I thought to myself. “Of course.”
“Then go right ahead.” He grabbed the untouched teacup on my side of the table as I stood up to look at the bookshelves. He drank it quietly while I perused his collection.
To be honest, there wasn’t a lot of perusing going on. There were no labels, and most of the books looked like they hadn’t been touched in years. I didn’t know where to start, so I grabbed one randomly. Opening the first page, I realized that it was a play by a playwright who was quite famous on Earth. I flipped through the Acts and Scenes, stopping at the Epilogue. I’d already read this book in the library back home, so I didn’t want to borrow it. But before putting it back on the shelf, I read the very last line.
“Let your indulgence set me free.”
When I closed the book, it vanished. Holding my breath, I looked over at Ather. He was sipping tea while staring at the ground quietly.
“Thanks so much!” I said, pretending to hold something behind my back.
“Don’t mention it, young’un,” he said, not looking up. “I hope to see you again. Farewell.”
“Likewise.” I walked backwards into the empty room with the counter. I sidestepped out of view of the door, took a few breaths to calm myself, and stared at my hands. The book was gone, just like the book I’d read at the House. Since I knew this was a magical world, I tried to call for the book somehow. I thought of the title, the characters, the first and last lines, and whispered the author’s name, but nothing happened.
I needed to find a way to understand this world’s magic immediately, both so I could return the book, and because I didn’t want every book I closed to vanish before I could even read it! But how was I going to learn about magic without giving away my otherworldly origins?
Wait, why was I trying to hide that in the first place? Someone like Elenor would give me an explanation about magic if I asked for it, and it was unlikely that would make her think I was from another world, but even if it did, why did that matter? As long as they didn’t hand me over to the government for dissection, I’d be fine. And I wouldn’t have to dance around explanations about the culture and norms of Fore, either.
If I had questioned my actions sooner, perhaps I could have asked Moxy for a better explanation of the Wonders. That would have helped me track down Demetrius more easily!
Resolving to finally getting a grip on this world’s mysteries, I opened the door of the Shop, and stepped into the crowd. I crossed the street, and went back to the place where Elenor had left me. The sun was descending, painting the sky behind the guilds a mix of red, orange, and blue. The crowds around the guilds thinned as people said goodnight to their colleagues, friends, and neighbors, and went back home. A few people went inside their guilds after saying farewell, while the number of people leaving the guilds decreased.
Finally, Elenor’s brown hair bobbed into view outside the Fiddler’s guild. She tapped her stick, looking exhausted. I was walking towards her when I felt something tug my head from the side. I turned and saw a man with the end of my scarf stuck on his armor.
“Sorry young lady,” he said, trying to pull it loose without tearing it.
“It’s okay,” I replied. He was wearing full-body armor with a helmet and everything, so I couldn’t tell what he looked like. His armor was so shiny, I caught a reflection of my face staring back at me. I also saw my eyes widen as I realized that my face was bare.
“Here you go,” he said, as the fabric came free, and he looked up.
I grunted as the wind was knocked out of me. The armored man’s surprised shout faded as I slammed into the ground, head spinning in a daze. I heard some loud tapping in the distance, as well as confused voices closer by.
Pain shot through my knees as I was dragged across the floor, skin scraped raw against the abrasive floor. A hand caught me under my armpits, and my stomach lurched as the wind cut across my face. Finally, I felt a smooth wall behind me as I was put gently onto the floor. I caught my breath and turned my face.
A hooded figure crouched next to me, the same hooded figure I’d seen outside the alley near the guilds.
“Sorry about that, but there’s no time to explain,” said the figure, leaning forward. The fading sunlight illuminated the corners of his fiery red hair, the tip of his crooked nose, and the edges of the nasty scar on his chin.
“No time,” he interrupted. “We need to get out of here now, Jean.”
At first I thought the explosion had been in my head – a product of this strange man blurting out my name – but then there was another, then another.
“It’s started!” he said, grabbing my hand and forcing me up. “We need to get out before –”
Against the cacophony of explosions and screams, and against the backdrop of encroaching twilight, a single sound cut through the noise to echo inside my head. It sounded like a growl played on a harpsichord, and despite its obviously unsettling nature, it softened my heartbeat, and deafened the explosions to a quiet pop, and the screams to a simple whistle.