“We aren’t using the sewers?” I asked.
“No, the canals are cleaned regularly, and they fix the steel grates at the same time,” said Sally. “That’s why Devel’s the hardest city to sneak into, it’s the only city where the holes get plugged up.”
We stood in the thicket where we’d set up camp for the night. Now that the stars were hidden behind the veil of a pale blue sky, we could see Devel shimmering in the distance. Little dots scurried over the bridges as people went about their daily lives.
Something buzzed by my ear. I swatted it away but it came back. I took a step back and saw the tiny bird hovering in front of my face. It looked like a hummingbird, with a long beak and tiny frame. It didn’t have wings on the side like most birds. Instead, an appendage extended from its head, attached to a rotating wing. Like a hummingbird with a helicopter propeller.
“Oh, a tiker!” said Sally. “That’s a good omen.”
“Says who?” said Jerome.
“Says all of Devel.”
“Since when did you start believing in superstitions?”
“I don’t believe it, but it’s good to have a positive attitude.”
Jerome stared at the city in the distance and sighed. “I suppose you’re right. We could all use a little positivity sometimes.”
Sally slapped him on the back. “There we go.”
“Is Ben back yet?” asked Elenor.
“No,” said Jerome. “He said he was preparing for the worst.”
Sally shook her head. “Pessimists.”
“I’ll go get him,” I said as I swatted away the tiker again.
He was probably by the stream so I made my way there. The tiker followed me, the buzz of its rotating wing ringing in my ear. Annoyed, I tried to grab it but it fluttered out of the way. Eventually, I gave up and tried to ignore it.
“Ben, where are you?” I shouted. The stream flowed silently but I couldn’t see him. Something fell, a rock or a stone. I peeked behind a rocky outcropping.
Ben stood in front of the stream with his back to me. He lobbed a pebbled in the air and caught it. He took a deep breath, then threw the rock. There was nothing in front of him, so what was he aiming for?
Movement in the distance. A flock of birds flew into the sky. Ben picked up another pebble. He lobbed it in the air, caught it, doing it again and again, until he could repeat the motion perfectly. Another deep breath, then he threw it upstream. The pebble skipped twice, thrice, four times, before vanishing from view. A faint plop announced the end of its journey.
Ben cursed and clenched his fists. He said something under his breath but I couldn’t hear it. I was so focused on what he was doing, I forgot what I’d come to do. It was only when he saw me peeking at him that I stepped out.
“We’re about to leave,” I said.
“Oh, right, sorry. I got a little carried away.”
We began making our way back to camp.
“You’re pretty good at throwing pebbles,” I said.
He chuckled. “I was practicing my magic.”
“Was it the same magic you use to find stuff?” I asked. It would make sense for magic like that to improve your accuracy.
“No, I was practicing my other unburnt magic.”
“Both your magics do the same thing?”
“With pebbles, yes. But they’re very different, trust me. Sometimes I wish I could use both of them at the same time because they complement each other so well, but I guess that’s a little too much to hope for. I’m already fortunate enough to have two amazing books.”
“And the third?”
He pointed to the flame signs on his cheeks. “The Book of Sett. I’m a Cheek, so I had to burn it.”
“Oh right,” I said, as if I’d asked a dumb question.
“It must be really nice having three books on your shelf,” said Ben. “The best part is, you aren’t even a stupid Header! I can’t stand them, and I know Sally and Jerome don’t like them either.”
“I haven’t even met one yet but I know I won’t like them,” I said. These noble types always rubbed me the wrong way.
“There you are,” said Sally as we approached.
“Sorry, I lost track of time,” said Ben.
“It’s fine,” said Sally. “Alright, everyone knows the plan, correct?”
“I’ll go over it just in case. Ben, Elenor, and I will cross the Collar’s bridge first. We’ll pay the toll and let the guards inspect us. While the guards are busy with us, Jerome will fall into the canal with Val under his robes. We’ll help Jerome out of the canal, and deal with the guards’ complaints while Val will swim under the bridge with one of Jerome’s air boxes on her head, and meet us on the other side.
Then we get what we need and leave the way we came. Just remember to jump into the canal on the Collar’s side, Val. The water’s dirtier there so it should be easier to hide in. Any questions?”
“What if something goes wrong?” I asked.
“But what if it does?”
“We’ll figure something out when the time comes. Stop worrying so much, you met a tiker just now, didn’t you?”
I hadn’t heard its buzz in a while so I looked around. “It’s gone though.”
“But it came to you! Now just stick to the plan and we’ll be out of Devel in no time,” Sally lifted her pickaxe. Its handle was broken and its end had dents in it, but it was still an intimidating weapon. “Honestly, I wanted to show you guys around a little bit. I’ve been to every city in Fore, and even a few in Clef, but none of them can hold a candle to Devel.”
“Maybe I’ll come sightseeing one day,” I said.
Sally smiled. “Let me know when you come, I’ll show you around.”
We walked to the road. There were only a few people there, probably because this road led to the Collar’s bridge and most people who traveled between cities were Cheeks. Our fellow travelers looked as worn out and destitute as we did, with torn, patched clothes stained with mud and grease. They traveled in groups but spoke very little, and no one batted an eye when we arrived.
I walked in the center of our group so I’d be hidden from sight. Peeking between Sally and Elenor, I saw a stone bridge over a murky canal. At the foot of the bridge stood a couple of guards, their resplendent armor at odds with the filthy garb of the people they were checking. In the middle of the bridge were another couple of guards who surveyed the crowd, with their spears pointing to the sky.
We joined the line in front of the guard on the left – a dark-haired woman with a sharp gaze and a thick lower lip.
“Just as planned, alright?” said Jerome in a hushed whisper.
I nodded as he wrapped his robe around me. I was glad he’d washed himself in the stream before we left camp. I didn’t risk using the air box yet, in case it ran out.
“Next,” said the guard in a neutral tone. It was early in the day and her shift had only just started, so she wasn’t tired yet.
“Sally Josef from the Fighter’s Guild. This is my teammate Ben Stane, and that is our client, Elenor Cramer. The big guy back there is my other teammate, Jerome Nandy. Here’s my badge, Ben give her yours please.”
“And you, sir?”
“Ah, it should be…” Jerome stepped to the side and tripped.
With a jerk, we stopped moving.
“That was close,” came the guard’s voice from close by. “Be careful sir.”
Jerome chuckled lightly. “I will, thank you.”
I cursed. Things were already going wrong.
“Here,” said Jerome as he rummaged inside his pocket.
I bit my lip. What was I going to do? The guards would find me for sure. Damn it, Sally, this is why we needed a backup plan!
“Hey, quit pushing,” said Ben.
“Is something wrong, young man?”
“It’s nothing, the people behind us are getting a little impatient, that’s all. Hey, quit it, would you?”
“Please stop pushing,” said the guard. “We’ll all get through this faster if everyone cooperates.”
“Hey, I said sto –”
Ben bumped into us and a sense of vertigo gripped me. A splash and a wave of coolness told me the plan had worked. I put the air box around my head and breathed. The box’s sides were transparent, but I couldn’t see much in the brown water anyway. I heard another splash to my side, someone coming to Jerome’s rescue, no doubt.
I swam towards the bridge until I hit a wall of stone. Sally had told me the bridge extended underwater and I planned to follow it to the other side. Being able to breathe underwater was a strange experience. It was unnerving because I couldn’t see anything and instinctively felt like I needed to hold my breath, but once I got used to it, it felt nice.
My head hit something. I felt it with my hands. It was coarse but solid, the kind of stone the bridge was made from. It extended away from the bridge. I followed it until a bright red shape appeared within the murky, brown water.
“See, what’d I tell ya? Tiker’s are good luck.”
“We almost got caught, Sally,” I said as I climbed out of the water. My clothes stuck to my skin and the breeze made me shiver.
Jerome put his robe around me and said, “Good job there.”
Ben pocketed the crumpled red rags. “We should get you some dry clothes first.”
“Let her pick something she likes,” said Sally.
“No, it’s fine,” I said. “I don’t need to look good, just grab the first thing you find.”
“Fine,” said Sally as she walked out of the alleyway we were in.
“Good job back there, Ben,” I said.
He put a hand on the back of his head. “It was nothing.”
“No, she’s right. You kept your head straight and got us out of a tough situation,” said Jerome, beaming. “Being quick witted and resourceful are essential qualities for a good fiddler.”
Ben nodded but didn’t say anything.
“Hey, where’s Elenor?” I asked.
“She was here a moment ago,” said Jerome. “She must have gone with Sally.”
“That must be it,” I said, frowning. I thought Sally left alone.
“How are we splitting up this time?” asked Ben.
“Like we did in Chart,” said Jerome. “You and Val go get food from the market, Sally, Elenor, and I will get the sleeping bags, tents, and other amenities.”
“That didn’t work out very well last time,” I said.
“But you hadn’t met a tiker then.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in Sally’s superstitions?”
“I don’t, but I have a good feeling about today.”
I exchanged a glance with Ben. He shrugged.
“Look what I brought!” said Sally as she returned with two bundles of cloth in her hands.
“Were they cheap?” asked Jerome.
Sally gave him a pointed look. “This is for Val, we can afford to splurge a little.”
“It’s going to get ruined in a day.”
“Again with the pessimism, Jerome. Besides, these were reinforced with magic so they won’t tear easily.”
“Unless we want to make bandages,” Ben chimed in.
“We’ll buy proper bandages this time.”
“Just give it to me and let’s get on with it,” I said, cutting in.
“Right,” said Sally as she handed me one of the bundles.
The cloth felt coarse and made me think it’d be uncomfortable to wear. I opened the bundle and something fell by my feet.
“I’m sorry,” said Sally as she bent down to grab what had fallen. “Should have told you there was a mask inside.”
I stared at the mask in her hand. It had a smooth, curved black surface that would probably extend just beyond my chin and forehead. There was a black leather strap on the back, with a golden buckle that made it look like a belt.
“Wrapping rags around your face isn’t very reliable, but this mask is built to handle some rough falls and tumbles,” said Sally.
“How’d you get this?” asked Jerome. “Stuff like this is always in the Header’s zone.”
“I called in a few favors,” said Sally, with a wink. She passed me the mask.
I had no idea what it was made of but it did feel pretty solid. “Won’t this make me look suspicious?”
“You were going to stick out regardless, at least now you can do that in style!”
“Try it on,” urged Ben.
I still had the rest of the bundle in my other hand so I passed it to Jerome for a second. I unbuckled the belt on the back of the mask, and pressed my face into the black surface of the mask’s interior. However, when it touched my skin, the darkness vanished and I saw Sally’s smiling face in front of me.
“Neat, right?” she said. “You can see us but we can’t see you.”
“Is it magic?” I asked, looking around. The streets were just as brown and gravely, the houses as derelict and poised to crumble, and the sky the same shade of pale blue as when I wasn’t wearing the mask.
“No,” she said. “It’s made from tint.”
“A rare metal mined in Epil. This mask is made from unrefined tint ore, which is why it wasn’t that expensive.”
“It’s still worth a fortune!” said Jerome. “How’d you get the money for this?”
“I sold that book Val gave me,” said Sally as she rummaged inside her pocket. “Here’s your change.” She handed me five large strips of paper, each worth a hundred inketts.
“I can’t take all of this!” I said.
“You defeated Skinner, it’s yours.”
“We fought him together.”
“No, she’s right,” said Jerome. “We should have been the ones protecting you, but you ended up saving us in the end.”
“Just take it,” said Ben.
I hesitated, then nodded and accepted the money. No point refusing it if they were insisting so much.
“You should get out of those wet clothes before you catch a cold,” said Jerome, passing me the unfolded bundle.
There was a long black robe with large, upturned collars. The sleeves were a little long but the other measurements seemed fine. There was also a couple of brown undershirts and black tights, as well as three pairs of black socks. The cloth they were made from was soft but firm, leagues better than the crude stuff I was wearing.
“Do you like them?” asked Sally.
“They’re amazing,” I said, sizing up the robe. “Thanks Sally!”
Sally smiled and lifted the bundle in her hand a little higher. “I’ll give you these once we buy some backpacks.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“Oh right,” said Ben. “Is Elenor still at the store?”
Sally frowned and looked behind her. “She helped me pick out these clothes for Val. I thought she was behind me but I must have lost her.”
“Sorry,” said Elenor as she appeared around the corner. On her nose sat a new pair of sunglasses, which had sharp, angled edges that formed triangles. “I got sidetracked.”
“Wow Elenor, those shades are amazing!” I said.
“I didn’t think you could look any cooler but I guess I was wrong,” said Sally.
“I haven’t seen a pair like that in years,” said Jerome. “Glad to see they’re coming back into fashion.”
Elenor smiled. “They were the cheapest ones they had.”
“Great bargain then, I suppose,” I said.
“Right, get out of those wet clothes already, Val,” said Sally.
I changed behind a pile of trash. The robe stopped just over my knees and didn’t hinder my movements much, but the sleeves stretched beyond my hands. I considered rolling them up but it wasn’t like I needed to hold anything yet. I left the dirty wet clothes on the pile of trash and joined the others.
“Wait, you guys don’t know where the market is,” said Sally to Ben and me.
“Oh yeah,” said Jerome. “Guess I’ll go with them, then.”
“Elenor and I can’t carry the tents on our own,” said Sally.
“I’ll come with you,” I said.
And so, Ben and Jerome went to the market while Sally, Elenor, and I went to the camping supplies store. It was a tiny change to our initial plan, but it made me uncomfortable. The mask and robe didn’t help either, since we were still in the Collar’s zone. Sally and Elenor hadn’t bought new clothes yet either, so we must have seemed like an odd bunch.
Worst of all, it felt incredibly strange being able to look at people without them noticing. Even when they looked at my face, they never met my gaze.
Unlike the other Collar’s zones I’d been to, Devel’s didn’t stink of sewage and human refuse, probably because all of that got channeled into the canals. Still, the roads were full of potholes and the people walking on those roads were just as obviously impoverished as the Collars in Sett and Chart.
“Here,” said Sally.
The store was small and the sign on its wall simply said, “Camping Supplies.” We bought five sleeping bags which we tied on top of as many backpacks. With two tents, a few canteens, pots, pans, and some bandages, we were ready to go. Sally gave me the other bundle of clothes, which had an extra robe, several sets of underwear, and another couple of shirts and tights in it. I offered the extra robe to Elenor but she refused, saying she didn’t like long robes.
“Let’s go here next,” said Sally, pointing to a store with glass windows showcasing dresses.
I helped Elenor pick out a few shirts and pants, and convinced her to buy a cloak. Sally bought a set of green robes and brown clothes. She also bought a new pair of shoes, since her old ones had been ruined by mud and rain.
I looked at my own shoes, the ones Moxy had given me. Despite everything I’d been through, they were unscathed, and the little metal M’s on them shone just as brightly as ever. Elenor’s shoes were just like mine, except hers were brown while mine were green.
“That should be everything, right?” asked Elenor.
I eyed the walking stick she was tapping on the ground. It was smooth and undented, but it had traces of mud and dirt on it.
“Let’s get this too,” I said, grabbing a cleaning cloth. I handed it to Elenor. “Take care of your walking stick with this.”
Elenor accepted it but said, “It’s not a walking stick.”
“No, it’s a baton.”
I frowned. It did look like a musical baton, with a sphere on top and thinner end at the bottom, but it was a little too big to be conducting an orchestra with.
“My bad,” I said. “But that just means you need to take even better care of it.”
With everything we needed on our backs, we made our way to the alleyway we’d set as our rendezvous point. Ben and Jerome were waiting for us with baskets of food which we promptly emptied into the backpacks.
“Do I need to dive into the canal again?” I asked.
“Well, they probably won’t stop us on the way out,” said Jerome.
I sighed. “But it’s still possible. Let’s play it safe.”
“No,” said Sally. “It’ll be fine. Trust the tiker!”
“The tiker won’t help me get past the guards,” I said.
I couldn’t convince her in the end, and for some reason, I was swept away by her optimism. I’d been anticipating disaster in Devel, but so far, I’d gone for a dip, bought new clothes and supplies, and generally enjoyed myself for what may have been the first time since I lost the House of Wisdom.
Maybe tikers really were good luck.
People leaving the city walked between the two lines of people entering the city. The lines were bigger now, and the guards were grumpier because of the hot midday sun. The crowd leaving the city was thinner so our group stood out more than I would have liked. Still, the guards didn’t stop anyone in front of us, not even glancing at most of them.
Sunlight bounced off the murky water flowing gently in the canal below. As we left Devel, I felt a slight urge to stay a little longer. It was the best city I’d been in so far. It was pretty, it was safe, and there were so many things Sally had mentioned that I wanted to experience, food I wanted to taste, sights I wanted to see.
But Bendeck was just one city away. As I passed the guards standing in the middle of the bridge, I thought about Bendeck, and the lead Moxy had promised me.
Henry, once I met him, I could finally begin searching for another Wonder, which I could use to track Demetrius, and reclaim what was rightfully mine! I could almost see the blue dome, and feel the coldness of the marble beneath my feet, and smell the musty air that only a giant gathering of books could possess.
To top it off, the other Wonder was probably just as amazing. In fact, I should gather as many of them as I can. That seemed like a brilliant idea! I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it before, and why it had come to me so suddenly, like an epiphany borne out of a daydream.
I took a deep breath, and stepped forward with confidence. After an endless cascade of mishaps and inconveniences, things were finally looking up.
I smiled. Guess that tiker was a good omen, after all.
“You in the black mask!”
I stopped. Looking over my shoulder, I saw one of the guards staring at me.
The guard pointed in front of himself. “Over there.”
I bit my lip as my heart began to race. I eyed the edge of the bridge; could I jump into the canal? No, even if I could make it, they’d jump in after me. If any of them were finders, they’d catch me instantly.
“You dropped something.”
I blinked and followed his finger. A single sock lay on the stone.
“Oh, thank you,” I said as I grabbed the sock.
The guard nodded. Sally and Jerome had taken position on either side of me, while Elenor and Ben stood right behind me. As the guard’s gaze shifted, all of us loosened.
Once the bridge was no longer within sight, someone chuckled.
“I’m glad I wasn’t the only one expecting something to go wrong,” said Ben.
“I’m sorry I almost threw an exploding box at him,” said Jerome.
“Don’t be, I almost smashed my pickaxe into his head.” Sally laughed.
“I almost sent him flying into the canal,” said Elenor.
I let The Tempest fall back on my shelf. Then I tutted. “Unbelievable, how dare you guys doubt the great tiker?”
“Unforgiveable,” said Jerome, shaking his head. “We need to atone for our sins.”
“How can we possibly make up for what we have done?” asked Sally, feigning incredulity.
“I’ll tie my hands over my head and spin in circles,” suggested Ben.
“No.” I shook my head. “That’s not good enough.”
“What if I do this,” said Elenor as she blew a raspberry.
We blew raspberries on the empty road. It was silly, childish, and made our lips hurt, but we didn’t care. The sun shone brightly over our heads, a fresh breeze brushed past my skin, and flowers bloomed beside the road.
Someone blew a raspberry close to my ear. “Ben, stop it!”
“Huh? Stop what?”
A tiny black shape hovered in front of me. “Oh look!” I said. “It’s back!”
“It could be another one,” said Sally.
“Maybe,” I said, as the tiker buzzed past my ear and disappeared behind a tree. “Or maybe it came to see us off.”