“It was an accident,” The man coughed.
Naffur looked at the man with disbelief.
“An accident,” The woman said icily. In the darkness, her eyes flashed different colors: one blue and one yellow.
“That’s seriously the best you could come up with?!?” Naffur blurted out. Immediately he regretted it because both pairs of eyes turned to him. Holding up his hands, Naffur did his best to convey that he was a third party that wasn’t involved in the affair at all.
From the hard gazes of both, it seemed neither truly believed him.
“Pah!” The man spat on the ground at the woman’s feet, even as he edged away. The roof was ultimately not very large, so he could not retreat much further before crossing to another roof. Which, Naffur knew, could be done very quickly. “What use have you for a Lottery ticket? I can tell by your dress you are not of the Orchard.”
The woman’s eyebrows rose marginally. “Do you think you have a right to steal from humans who grew up elsewhere? If you believe you are better than others-”
“You cannot enter the lottery,” The man hissed. His eyes were bright and strangely fragile, like candy from a gumball machine. “Look at you! You undoubtedly have a Class to wield magic such as that. Yet you want to monopolize the resources? If I could, I would-”
Without any flourish, the man turned and dropped off the roof. With the dexterity of a monkey, the man sprung off the wall to another building and scuttled along the sides to a thin alley and slipped into it. Within four seconds, he was no longer visible, leaving Naffur with the strange woman. But immediately after the man left, the woman’s gaze lost a lot of its hostility and instead turned thoughtful.
She still held her magic in her hands, although she lowered them as her piercing gaze focused Naffur. “Speak. Tell me why this man felt so emboldened to steal from me.”
Although he was sweating, Naffur did his best to lay out the function of the Lottery, and how covetously the people of the Orchard viewed the chance. It was their chance to be put into the view of people who could afford to give them resources to gain a Class. In a way, Naffur could understand how a desperate man could be infuriated by witnessing someone who didn’t need the Lottery discovering a ticket.
Not that crime wasn’t a problem, especially in this district of the Orchard. But with the arrival of the System, usually, people who looked rich were also powerful. It wasn’t an easy thing for a criminal to get the jump on someone like this woman.
Clicking her teeth, the woman let the magic drop after he gave an explanation. Then, she seemed to intuit Naffur’s thoughts as she stated, “The fault is partially mine. I laughed at the idea of a Lottery when a shop owner explained it to me. But perhaps I remembered the foolish hysteria of lotteries before the System. It is not my place to mock.”
Naffur nodded seriously, feeling the beginnings of elation in his chest. Now he just needed to make his own casual escape. “Well, since the misunderstanding is cleared up, I suppose I’ll be on my way…”
“Ah, wait.” The woman said, holding up a hand. “My name is Sydney. You must be quite unlucky to be standing in the exact spot where someone leapt up to the roof. Please, let me make this up to you. And I would like to hear more about the Lottery system here. You stated you are familiar with it?”
“Yes, but…” Naffur fidgeted. The threat of Skills was gone, but Naffur didn’t forget how quickly she had brought out the threat of violence. Being around such an obviously powerful and unbalanced woman was exactly the wrong sort of thing for him to have a peaceful day. His Devil’s Luck for Entrances would probably have a field day if he was accompanied by a woman like that.
“Please,” The woman said. But her voice was surprisingly insincere for someone who said please. Instantly, Naffur recognized her type. Although she was a young woman, it reminded Naffur quite a lot of those sort of attractive women or powerful men who were so used to getting their way that they didn’t expect you to reject them even as you were doing it. No matter how perfunctory their imitation of manners was, they assumed that would be enough to sway you.
With a frown, Naffur opened his mouth to refuse. But then he had a thought.
Blinking, Naffur instead asked, “How old are you?”
Sydney pursed her lips. “Is that really relevant? I am… 25.”
“Uh…” Naffur licked his lips. She was a little older, but still a woman. And honestly, without some input, he would be lost over what to do. “Would you be willing to go gift shopping with me? For a girl- err a woman. Young woman. A birthday. But she’s younger than you; nineteen, she’s nineteen...”
Sydney just gave Naffur a helpless glance as his words and sentences mashed together and sputtered to a stop. For several seconds she just looked at Naffur. Immediately, some of Naffur’s shame that he wasn’t able to say anything to Mareen directly. And somehow, Naffur expected that information to come out. But it would be much worse to show up without a gift to Mareen’s party than it was to spend a day with a stranger.
He needed the gift to be perfect. And if he were to pick out the gift alone…
Naffur’s expression darkened. Recently, his life had been anything but perfect. It had just been weird.
“...you like her don’t you?” Sydney said. Naffur just blushed.
To his surprise, then she began to laugh. She kept laughing for a few minutes, and Naffur thought that despite her age, Sydney was really pretty in a wild and reckless sort of way. Finally, she rubbed her eyes and said. “Okay, okay, I think we can help each other out. You remind me of a close friend I had growing up. I would love to help you with your gift.”
Sydney watched the back of Naffur’s head, following his sharp, bird-like movements with her eyes. He was the type that was motivated by a body and psyche unable to keep up with the flood of hormonal energy he was experiencing. That was very different than Randidly, whose body seemed to grow far before his hormones had risen to keep up, but somehow when she looked at this kid…
They had the same desperate sincerity. Fairness and justice were important to both. They respected the rules and also frequently completely forgot about them. In a lot of ways, they were similar.
The sort of fools who would burn themselves out trying to be heroes, Sydney thought somewhat sadly. It was too late for Randidly, but hopefully, this boy would have an easier time of it.
“We’ve gone through the stores, Naffur,” Sydney said. “I think one of the necklaces or snow globes would make great gifts. But you need to pick which.”
It was obvious the boy was smitten with this Mareen. They had met earlier in the day and had spent almost two hours with Naffur mechanically taking Sydney through different shops to get her opinions on female gifts. What she wanted to say was that proving that Naffur listened to Mareen and paid attention to what she said was so much more important towards how the gift would be received. But Naffur had insisted that money was not an object, by which he seemed to indicate he was so desperate that this is done right that he didn’t care how much it cost.
Sydney was confused by Naffur. As it was, he served the purpose that had made Sydney put aside her annoyance at the pickpocket and speak to him in the first place: he was a knowledgeable local guide. Naffur had been in Orchard for as long as it existed, which was still barely more than a year. He knew quite a bit about the area, but his knowledge of the economy was only anecdotal.
Sardonically, Sydney what she had expected out of a sixteen-year-old boy when she asked about how much freight moved Orchard.
The idea was to grow more familiar with the Orchard so she was better equipped in tomorrow’s Order meeting to vote on what to do about the manatech rails. Already, companies in Zone 1 were building tracks East, relying on the Donnyton expeditionary squads for protection. Basically, the plan was for the Orders to buy out the railway companies and control the supply lines. After all, neither Zone liked the idea of the other having control of something that would ideally run very deeply in their territories, for all the economic benefits it would bring. But which Order would own it?
Naffur stood at the corner of the busy street, seeming to spin around in a circle. He was breathing surprisingly heavily, considering that they had done nothing but walk leisurely about. “Are… are you sure... We could go to more-”
“No, more won’t help,” Sydney said patiently. Besides, she had spent enough time with the boy to learn everything about Orchard that she wanted to. The fact she had stayed this long was mostly due to pity for the kid. She needed to contact the official elements of the Orchard.
Just as Sydney was about to inform him that she was leaving, Naffur seemed to freeze up. Slowly, his finger rose up and pointed down the street. Curious, Sydney looked over, her eyes tracing up and down the line of street vendors.
“Do you think…” Naffur said nervously. “Do you think she would want something like that? It just… seems like her.”
Naffur was pointing to an old woman selling hand-woven flower crowns. Sydney chuckled and said. “That seems perfect.”