One would assume it was a festival. Musicians stood next to the stage, playing strange instruments that had a passing resemblance to those from my world. Families came to the square with their children and elderly, all of whom seemed to be in good spirits. Food stands had been propped up on the outskirts of the square, ensuring that the scent of roasting meat and sweet fruit drinks wafted through the window from which I was looking down at the event.
But reading between the lines, I found hints of unease, and the potential for unrest. Armed guards had cordoned off all roads leading up to the square, and insisted on checking everyone for weapons. All the shops around the square were shut tight, and their doors had been boarded up from the outside.
Only one door was open, the one directly opposite the stage. The flags around this building were the largest, the posters the brightest, and the crowd the thickest. In fact, the front of the building had been painted with the same somber colors that contrasted sharply with the mood of the gathering.
The colors were on the flags, the posters, the backdrop of the stage, and the building too. Even the people wore one of the two colors, making the square resemble a chessboard.
A flag fluttered in the wind, blocking my view out the window. It was a black flag with a white rose and the words ‘Side Party’ written on it, just like everything else in the square today.
As we’d entered the city, the guards had warned us there was going to be a political event in the square, but Sally took that as an opportunity to book us cheap rooms near the best part of the Cheek’s district. The rest of the inn was virtually empty, with a single old lady sitting behind the counter and looking out the window at the sea of people outside.
Even she was wearing black and white.
“The sooner we get out of here the better,” I said to myself.
“What did you say?” asked Elenor who was sitting across the room.
“Nothing, it’s just… this thing outside has me on edge. I keep expecting something to happen.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Sally. “The new leader of the Side Party likes to stir up trouble, but he isn’t violent. And he sure isn’t a big enough threat for the government to take him seriously either.”
“Why not? Doesn’t the Side Party control Sett? And the crowd outside is nothing to laugh at,” I said.
“The Side Party’s held Sett for centuries and the people outside aren’t even a fraction of the city’s population. Plus, most of them are Cheeks. No Header will vote for him, and their votes are the heaviest,” explained Sally. “Now let’s get going. The city of Devel is at least two days away, and the rest stop is pretty far away. We need supplies to camp out for the night.”
I nodded. While I waited for Elenor to wear her shoes, the flag blew away. The crowd was denser now, a churning monochrome sea that made my eyes water a little. The guards closed off all entrances to the square except for the road besides the building with the white rose painted on it, and were redirecting newcomers there.
“We’ll need to split up to gather everything before the speeches start,” said Sally as we met up with Jerome and Ben downstairs.
“What do we need?” asked Ben.
“I’ll rent some sleeping bags and a tent from the Fighters Guild. Jerome and Ms. Cramer, could you come help me carry them?” said Sally. “Val, could you go with Ben to get some food and a few canteens of water?”
She called Elenor Ms. Cramer? Must be because she contracted her.
“Wait,” said Ben. “Why don’t I come carry the tent and stuff, let Elenor go with Val.”
Sally narrowed her eyes and glared at him. “Ms. Cramer is obviously stronger than you. Besides, we need to check in with the guild to formalize the assignment.”
Ben looked away. “Got it.”
“What kind of food do we want?” I asked.
“It doesn’t matter, just grab whatever suits your fancy. It’s your quest,” said Sally.
“What about the reduction of the provisions fee?” said Elenor.
“Oh, I almost forgot!” said Sally. “Is it okay to subtract it from the reward?”
“Yes,” said Elenor.
“Then let’s go with that, if it isn’t too much trouble.”
I clutched the edge of the cloth I’d wrapped around my head, to prevent it from blowing off. Elenor had insisted I wear it because I didn’t have any marks on my cheeks. Most of the people here had three lines on their cheeks, with the people in the Collars district having three rings around their neck.
We split up. Ben didn’t know the way to the market, so Sally gave us directions. We left through the back door of the inn because the front door had been boarded up, and walked toward the city gates. The only open market was on the edge of the wall, at the border of the Cheek’s district.
Even here, the effects of the event showed. There were barely any people, only the cashier, and an old man wearing a purple sweater. The cashier eyed the old man warily, but the old man paid for his vegetables and left without a word.
The market itself was incredibly dirty, and smelled of rotting produce. Flies buzzed all over the place, and trash covered the floor. The only clean parts were around the cashier’s counter and near the entrance.
I grabbed some Golpens and Camcots, since they were the only things I knew about, and Ben collected a bunch of other fruits and vegetables. The cashier weighed them on his balance and we paid for them with the Inketts Elenor had given us. Then we left the market.
The streets were empty. I could almost hear the dust blowing in the wind. Dirt crunched under our feet as we strolled straight down the center of the road. I glanced at Ben. He’d slung the larger bag of food over his shoulder, while I held on to a smaller one. We were walking to the store that sold canteens, but a thought came to me as we walked.
“You’ve been out of Sett before?” I asked.
“Not really. I came to Chart once, but master didn’t really let me do anything.”
“I’m sorry about your master.”
“Nah, don’t be. He was getting old anyways,” said Ben, kicking a stone. “And he died happy too.”
“You know, I can tell Sally and Jerome to let you go back to Sett while they escort us to Bendeck.”
“It’s okay. Jerome was right, I need to move on. No point moping about him in an alley back home. They repossessed the house too when the old man died, so I got nowhere to go.”
“Who did?” I asked. Were there banks in this world?
“The government, of course. Inheritance is illegal in Sett. The only city in all of Illustair that does it.”
“Take everything from you once you die,” he said.
That was kind of morbid.
“But other than that, it’s a good city,” continued Ben. “Or at least, that’s what everyone says.”
“Just because people say it, doesn’t mean it’s right.”
“Yeah, I suppose so.” He kicked another rock. “I wanna see the capital.”
“I don’t know anything about it.”
“I heard it’s huge. Bigger than any other city in Fore!” said Ben. “I also heard the food there’s the best in the world. Oh, and the buildings are all beautiful, straight out of a fairy tale.”
“That does sound lovely,” I said.
“And the best part is, it’s got tons of books. They say even the Collar’s district has books in it!”
Books? For a world where magic ran on books, there had been surprisingly few book shops. In fact, despite keeping my eyes peeled, the only one I’d seen so far was old man Ather’s secret shop.
“We are definitely going to the capital,” I said.
Ben giggled and raised a fist in the air. I joined in. It was comforting to know that little things like this were the same as back home. If expressions of joy, anticipation, fear, and other emotions had been drastically different, I would never have gotten used to Illustair.
We arrived at the general store and bought a few canteens. We filled them up at the well right outside the store, and began to lug them all the way back to the inn.
I recalled the thought I’d had, looked at the red-haired kid beside me, and tried to remember the crazy Ben who had whisked me away.
This Ben was younger and more innocent. If they were twins, this Ben was obviously the pampered one. If they were separated at birth, then while this one was picked up by a kindly old man, the other one must have been thrown into the river and picked up by a pack of wolves.
We took a different path back, but weren’t worried about getting lost. All roads led to the square in Chart. There were absolutely no people here. Even insects were crawling in the dark, with the sun so high in the sky.
“What is it?”
“You know, when I first saw you, I thought you looked a little familiar.”
He stopped walking. Crap, was I too direct?
“Yeah. It’s probably nothing. I’ve met a lot of redheads, that’s all.”
“Well…” Ben shifted, and his eyes traced the ground at his feet. He crept closer and said in a quiet voice, “Maybe you met my family.”
He shushed me.
“Sorry,” I said in a lighter voice. “Your family?”
“I was adopted by my master after he found me on the streets as a baby. He didn’t know what happened to my parents, but he took care of me like I was his own kid.”
“I see. Your master sounds like a wonderful man.”
Ben clenched his fists. “I used to call him grandpa. I grew up calling him that. I only changed it to master after he died.”
I frowned. It sounded like he really loved his master, and their relationship was essentially that of parent and child. “What happened?”
“He told me the truth.”
“That I was adopted.”
“Didn’t you already know that?”
“Nope.” Ben looked at me with a smile that wasn’t a smile. “Waited until he was on his bloody deathbed before telling me.”
I didn’t say anything.
“All those years, living a lie. And he could have told me. I wasn’t going to think any less of him but no. He had to be a fucking liar, a goddamn coward. Admitted it himself.” Ben was shaking now.
“Damn it,” he continued. “Why didn’t he tell me sooner. I get not telling a little kid, but I’m old enough to handle it, aren’t I? Did he get some sort of weird kick when I called him grandpa? Was that it? Didn’t have any kids of his own, so he pretended he did. Why, why wouldn’t he tell me? Why?”
I waited for his rant to end, walked up to him, and tried to put a hand around his shoulder but he swatted it away. He continued walking with his head lowered.
Seeing him in that state, I couldn’t bring myself to answer his question. But then I didn’t really need to, anyway. The answer was trailing across the burn mark on his cheek.