“Did you sleep well?” asked Elenor as I entered the dining area. There weren’t a lot of people there, but it was so small that it felt congested anyways. Nobody but the innkeeper, who was going around dropping steaming bowls, had the flame-mark of Sett. Most of the people here seemed to belong to the guilds I’d seen the day before.
“Yes, and you?” I replied.
The innkeeper came to our table, and handed Elenor and I a bowl.
“Sally and her team will take us to Bendeck. We meet at the Collar’s gate in an hour,” said Elenor over a plate of a porridge-like mixture that smelled and tasted like oranges. The innkeeper called it Golpot stew.
“Which one’s the Collar’s gate?” I asked.
“You remember the Check’s gate?”
I frowned. “Checks?”
“Yeah, Checks, as in Cheeks. The middle class.”
“Sorry, we have a different name for them where I’m from.”
“Right,” she said as she leaned closer. “Well, the Check’s gate is the one we came through yesterday. The Collar’s gate is in the Collar’s part of the city, outside the walls.”
“Outside the walls?”
“Not even the Side party would let them live inside the city.”
She shrugged. “Because they’re Collars. And believe it or not, this is the best city to be a Collar. At least you get to come inside the city, and the guilds won’t deny your requests.”
Getting to come inside the city was a perk? What had these people done to be treated so badly? The name suggested they were prisoners of some sort or maybe slaves. Either way, it drove home just how different this world was from mine. Wasn’t there a history book somewhere that I could read to get up to speed? Oh, but it would probably vanish once I closed it!
That reminded me, I needed to ask Elenor about magic. The jostling chairs, and slurping noises made me put it off until we were relatively alone. I also felt a little uncomfortable when I thought about it. Maybe I’d slept off my cheerful optimism, and telling someone I’d met two days ago that I was from a different world had begun to feel more problematic.
“It’s getting cold.”
“Huh?” I looked up.
“Your stew,” said Elenor, tapping her fingers on the table, rhythmically. “It’s getting cold.”
We finished eating, and I followed Elenor out the back door of the inn. The sky was a pale blue reminiscent of clear tropical beaches and bleached overalls. The sun wasn’t up high enough to surmount the rows of houses and stores that lined the street, but it began to peek through windows and open doorways as the morning drew on, and the buildings became smaller, and more run down. We encountered open drains and the noxious odors that accompanied them, just like we had near the Check’s gate, only the children here weren’t playing pranks on good humored middle aged men. In fact, there were barely any children or good humored middle aged men here at all.
Instead, we found what one would expect such abject poverty to cause: a blanket of melancholy so suffocating it painted the light shooting through the holes in the walls a dull, dreary grey. The people here walked with their heads down, eyes on the ground. Surprisingly, I blended in well, since almost everyone had a scarf wrapped around their head and neck like I did. If anything, Elenor attracted some attention for not wearing a scarf, until people saw her dark glasses and walking stick which elicited the occasional looks of pity, even from the most wretched beggars asking for inketts while holding hats and pots with scraps of paper in them.
The gate itself wasn’t that different from the Check’s gate, except the mood here was more somber, and the rows of houses kept going beyond the gate – albeit with a noticeable drop in quality. The guards here stood around doing nothing, eyeing the crowd lazily while occasionally stepping forward to ask questions or take tolls from merchants with large backpacks.
“What if they stop us for what happened yesterday?” I asked.
“They won’t,” answered Elenor.
“Yep, the guards here aren’t like the others.” We walked through the gate. “Remember when I said even the Side party won’t let Collars live inside the city?”
“That’s only partially true. The party’s come under new leadership lately, and their leader’s been loosening the rules. The guards here are all Collars, with their barracks just outside the city. They look the other way if a fellow Collar wants to move into a house inside the walls. They aren’t officially allowed to be there, but nobody talks about it, so it all works out.”
We stopped outside a wooden house, just out of sight of the gate. Elenor tapped her stick, and wiped some sweat from her forehead. “All of this is pretty new, too. Last time I came here, the Collars had only just started setting up shops inside the city.”
“You came her often?”
“Used to come every month. Had to stop last year because…” She paused. “Because Moxy was acting weird. I thought she was sick, so I made her potions and supplements, and stayed in to take care of her.”
“That’s why you were out looking for something the night I came?”
“Yeah, I got lost in the forest on my way back. In retrospect, she was probably trying to drive me out that night, but let me come back so I could leave with you.” She cursed under her breath. “Do you see them yet?”
“No, although I only know Sally. Do you know what the rest of her team looks like?”
“She said it was a small team. They have a fiddler and his apprentice, who does a bit of finding on the side. They should be here any minute now.”
Elenor tapped her stick at regular intervals, like a clock. I kept an eye on the streets. Although the people inside the gates had been wrapped up, and shrank into the ground, most of the people here were normal. Their poverty showed in the rags, and sun-beaten clothes they wore, but for the most part, they seemed like ordinary people. They talked and laughed, and there were kids frolicking in the streets, letting their laughter carry through the dirty alleyways.
The only unusual sights were the wrapped-up figures walking to and from the gate, and the lines of marks on everyone’s necks that explained why they were called ‘Collars’. The marks ran at the base of the neck, each shaped like a flame, and a dark shade of grey that made them look like tattoos. They didn’t have any marks on their cheeks, so the people who covered their necks with scarves looked like they didn’t have any marks at all.
“They’re here,” said Elenor, breaking the rhythmic tapping of her walking stick.
Two figures – one considerably taller than the other – broke from the crowds and walked over to us. Sally’s piercing blue eyes peeked out from under the inconspicuous rags covering her face, making the whole getup even more redundant than you’d think. The shorter figure to her side wore rags that barely hid the contraptions on his knees, and the contours of his face, such that I could identify him as the crazy man I’d seen outside the Fiddler’s Guild, even before he uncovered his face.
“You’re late,” said Elenor.
“My apologies,” said Sally. “But I’m afraid we will have to be later still.”
“My darned apprentice wandered off somewhere, and I absolutely must find him before we set off!” replied the man in a surprisingly young voice.
“We need to leave the city today,” said Elenor. “We won’t make it to the first rest-stop before nightfall unless we leave soon.”
“We understand, that’s why we came here,” said Sally.
“You want me to look for him?” asked Elenor.
“The kid’s a finder,” said the man. “And a pretty good one, too. We’d need an even better one to locate him.”
“You mean he’s trying to hide?”
“He didn’t want to go.”
“Then why force him along?”
“It’s… complicated. And complicated stories are stories for the road! So how about it, could you help us out?”
Elenor grumbled under her breath, but didn’t seem particularly displeased. The compliment must have gotten through. “Fine, but you’ll have to knock off the provisions fee.”
“Fifty percent,” said Sally.
Elenor led us back into the city, through the Collar’s gate, and up the road leading to the guilds. She would stop to tap her stick, taking increasingly longer pauses as we neared the city center, and took us into some weird alleys before backtracking onto the main road.
“You were right, this kid is good,” said Elenor, stopping to tap the ground twice.
“And he isn’t even a full-time finder! A right prodigy, that one. I’d love to say it’s because of my teachings, but I’ve barely known him for two months,” said the man who still hadn’t told me his name.
“How old is he?” I asked.
Elenor nodded her head. “Definitely a prodigy if he can hide from me this long.”
“See why he’s worth the wait?” said Sally.
“It’s always nice having another decent finder along. Means I don’t have to stay up all night by myself.” She tapped the ground again. “I was trying to find him based off what I remembered about him from when we met yesterday, but it doesn’t seem to be working. Did he know that I was the one who hired you?”
“Yeah, he did. Seemed stoked to be working with you, in fact,” said the man. “I didn’t imagine that he’d run away at all!”
“Well,” said Elenor, putting her stick to the ground. “Guess we’ll have to split up and look for him. I need you guys to move around a little, and let me bounce my magic off you. Try not to step too close to buildings, and don’t run out of earshot.”
Magic? She was going to use magic?
I followed her directions down the street leading away from the guilds, stopping just far enough that I could still make out the glint of sunlight on her glasses. The others stood in similar positions down the various streets leading out of the intersection while Elenor stood at the crossing, although I could only see Sally on the street to my left, since the man was hidden behind a ramshackle building.
“Focus on the sound, okay!” yelled Elenor.
What does that mean? I thought. Focus on the sound? The sound of what?
As if in reply, Elenor pointed her stick to the sky, and smacked it onto the ground. A crisp, clear crack accompanied the twang of metal hitting stone, and a puff of dust arose around the point of impact.
“Not good enough. Focus harder!”
As Elenor raised her hand again, I closed my eyes. Her display was impressive, but being a part of this magic was more important. I took a deep breath. The crack came again, with the vibrations of the metal stick serving as accompaniment. After reaching my ears, they didn’t fade. They bounced inside my head, getting amplified by every collision inside my skull until I was on the verge of exploding into a cacophony of noises. The vibrations flooded out of me, receding into the distance until I could hear my own heavy breathing and racing heart.
“Found him, come on!” said Elenor, running towards Sally, who began to run down the street before Elenor had even reached her. The man ran down that street too, well behind the other two.
Yet I stood shell-shocked in place. I could still feel my heart thumping inside my chest, and the ghosts of the sounds that had taken over my head still haunted me like the static that plays in your ears if you focus on it too long. Several thoughts ran through my head, but I couldn’t separate them from each other so I ended up thinking about nothing.
I was jostled out of my stupor by a figure running down the street. The figure probably intended to pass by but had been walking to fast and clipped my shoulder. Thus, my already disoriented self fell on the ground.
A loud thump, and a bunch of other ones. The familiar sound of flipping pages.
I looked over to see a bunch of books strewn across the sidewalk, with a black-cloaked figure rubbing their head in the middle of the mess.
“Are you alright?” I asked.
“Yeah,” said the figure, standing up. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
I frowned. Something danced on the edge of my mind but I couldn’t quite grasp it. “Do you need any help?”
The figure began collecting the books on the ground. Gleaming white hands – almost too white to be real – appeared from under the black sleeves to gather up the heavy tomes. “I’ll be fine, thank you for your concern.”
Sunlight hit my eyes, making me squint. Something on the figure’s wrist was shining. He looked up, and I met his deep, dark gaze.
“You…” I said, holding my breath.
He left the last book on the ground, and ran.
“Get back here!” I said, chasing after him.
It was him. Demetrius; the boy who had stolen the House from me, beaten me up, and left me to die! He was here, he was right here! Screw going all the way to the capital, that damned book thief was right here!
I followed him down the street, up an alley, through a busy crossroad, and around an open-air fruit market. My chest hurt from all the frantic breaths I was pulling into my lungs, and my legs protested the extensive exercise, but I kept going. Demetrius didn’t slow down at all, and I almost lost sight of him twice.
I didn’t have much energy to spare during the chase, but there was one thought that crept into my mind while I ducked around corners, and jogged up inclines: what was he doing here? I didn’t have the time to ponder an answer. He disappeared around a corner near the inner wall, and I ran as fast as I could to make sure I didn’t lose him.
And there he was! For some reason, he’d stopped near a house just before the wall. The gates weren’t on this side, so he couldn’t keep going down the larger road, and would have to go back into the alleyways where he could trip up on any number of annoying obstacles. This was my chance! I had to catch him during this rare moment of indecisiveness.
It’s funny how sound such flawed logic can seem to an oxygen-deprived, adrenaline-filled brain. I didn’t stop for a second to wonder why he was suddenly so short, or how narrow his shoulders were, or how the patches near the bottom of the cloak all but announced that I had the wrong person.
I tackled him from behind. My head hit the stone pavement, adding to the bombardment of dizzying and confusing experiences I’d had in the past few minutes. He shifted, groaning straight into my ear. I forced my hand to move, and latched onto his cloak.
A muffled voice said, “Get off me!”
I let go. It wasn’t Demetrius’s voice. I moved off the figure, and sat on the ground, breathing heavily. I looked around but there was no trace of Demetrius. I cursed, and stood up, but I didn’t know where to go. He could be anywhere!
I heard the familiar sound of metal on stone. “Elenor,” I said, catching my breath. “He was here!”
“Got it!” said Elenor. She ran over but was overtaken by Sally.
“Don’t you dare move a muscle!” shouted Sally.
I was too caught up in Demetrius’s appearance to realize she wasn’t talking about him, never mind the fact she didn’t know what Demetrius looked like nor that he was the person I was looking for. Since Sally was charging straight at me, I looked behind me, expecting to see Demetrius running down the street. But the only thing behind me was the red-haired kid in the patched cloak, and an empty street. The kid was on his feet now, and his black eyes stared behind my head, with Sally’s growing image reflected inside them.
I turned, wanting to ask Sally where she had seen Demetrius, but she took a step to the left, and aimed her pickaxe over my shoulder. Fingers wrapped around my arm, and I was pulled to the side, straight into Sally’s path. She stopped with her pickaxe stuck in the ground, inches from my feet.
“The first clients we get in over three months, and you run away on the day we’re supposed to leave?” said Sally.
“I’m sorry…” said the red-haired boy hiding behind my back.
“The only reason my pickaxe isn’t picking through your head right now is because of Jerome, you understand?” she continued. “He was so stupidly happy when he told me he had an apprentice, I almost dug the moron a grave right there and then!”
“I never agreed to it!” said the boy.
“Yes, you did.”
“Grandpa made me do it, that doesn’t count!”
“Now you listen here Ben,” said Sally as she reached for the boy’s ears. “Your grandfather just wanted what was best for you, so you better listen to him. Understand?”
The boy avoided Sally’s reach by moving me around. “No!”
“Carol Ben Stane,” said Sally, slowly, through gritted teeth. “If you don’t come with us right now, I’m going to drag your behind all the way to Bendeck!”
I frowned. That name was familiar. The boy whimpered behind me, and grabbed my arm harder. I stiffened, and held my breath.
Why did I do that? It was almost as if I was expecting to be thrown…
My mind blanked. I glanced over my shoulder. He had the red-hair, and the face had its similarities. But there was no scar on the neck, no weariness in the eyes, and he looked much younger. This wasn’t the same person who had dragged me around the city, fought off all the guards, and vanished at the touch of a ghostly feline. He just had the same name, the same hair, and the same grip. It was all a coincidence. Just one, giant accident.
I recalled a saying from a book I’d read once. The book itself had seemed remarkable at the time, but hadn’t aged well. The saying, however, was forever relevant.
“There are no accidents.”