Korin spent the rest of the morning shopping.
On his way out, Korin had stopped to talk to Lily, the girl who’d brought Korin food last night. She’d been hard at work scrubbing the tavern floor, but she’d looked up at Korin and smiled, which gave him the courage to ask where was the best place to spend Marta’s money. Lily offered suggestions, then shyly asked, “You use your magic on Miss Marta?”
“I did.” The way she continued to smile at him relaxed Korin. Some people freaked out about magic, even helpful magic. Nice to see Lily wasn’t one of those. “Marta’s going to be fine.”
Lily nodded, like she expected as much. “There’s some other wizards in the city who are healers, but they charge a lot. More money than we’ll ever see.”
Korin knew exactly what wizards she meant. “Wizards of the Wing. They’re…” assholes, in Korin’s experience. Arrogant, selfish, dangerous. “They’re different than my order.”
“The wizard who comes around here and does the lights and the sewers and stuff, he’s nice. But he’s got a different necklace than yours. It’s purple, with a set of scales pictured on it.”
“Order of the Balance.”
“Right!” Lily answered brightly. “I remember that. And you’re Staff. And now I know wizards of your order are much nicer than the Wing.”
“I try.” Uncomfortable with the attention, Korin excused himself from Lily and set out into the city to try to get through his first full day in his new home.
The wide square that Lily’s directions had led to was packed. To Korin’s eye, it seemed like there were more people crowded in this space than had lived in the town where Korin had been born. Which was both terrifying and reassuring. So many people Korin could drown in them, but also if Korin kept his head down, if he did nothing to draw attention to himself, there was a better than even chance he could live his life in peace here.
The storefronts around the square promised goods far nicer than Korin could afford, but the tables and stalls lined up outside were more reasonable. Everything was bright and colorful. Sparkling jewelry of cut glass, rainbows of dyed cloth, pillows and rugs, woven belts and painted sandals.
People all around him, just as bright. Just as colorful.
Some of them were wizards.
There had been no wizards in Korin’s home town. His school had been all wizards. On the warfront, the wizards had kept separate from the soldiers and other workers. Here, for the first time, Korin saw wizards moving through crowds of normal people, like they were normal people, and no one seemed to mind.
The Flame wizard was easy to spot, in billowing sleeves of red and gold, and the shining gold sigil around his neck. Even in this bright place, he stood out, but Korin had never seen a wizard of the Flame that didn’t love drawing attention.
At one of the tables of glassware, two Star wizards, a man and a woman, negotiated with the merchant. They were both dressed in a more familiar southern style, covered head to toe in dark, heavy clothes. They had to be dying in this heat. But given they were Star wizards, they probably didn’t mean to stay.
A happy little thrill went through Korin at the familiar sight of a Crystal wizard arguing with a metalsmith. Not everything in this city was completely alien.
Korin paused at a fabric stall, entranced by so many bright colors. But the woman working there wasn’t paying attention to him. Korin followed her gaze and tensed. Something else familiar in this city. Bright as a flock of peacocks, as subtle as a stampede of oxen, there was no mistaking a group of bored, young noblemen out slumming.
They were across the square, at a table covered with cut glass jewelry. Laughing, and not in a pleasant way. Korin couldn’t hear what they were saying, but he recognized the contempt on the faces of the two men holding up various necklaces and sneering.
“Light,” the fabric woman muttered. “What are they even doing this side of the river?”
“Do they cause a lot of trouble?” Korin asked carefully. He didn’t know the politics of the city yet, how safe it might be to criticize.
“Not usually, but,” she shook her head, still frowning. “It’s been worse, with the prince away at the war. He took a lot of ‘em with him. Ones left behind…” she shrugged. “Not the best of the bunch.”
The young men were mostly firstborn, which only made sense here in Ritalle, the first and greatest of the firstborn kingdoms. They were a mixed group: four men with hair and skin the soft brown and copper that seemed most common in the city. One dark brown, with hair to match. One particularly short firstborn, with bronze skin and sun-bleached hair. Two men as pale as Korin, one with blonde hair and the other with brown. And the last, tall and lean, with broad shoulders and sharp eyes and skin so dark he could have been first cousin to the royal family of Ulek.
Korin forced himself to look away, to turn his attention back to shopping. Staring drew attention, and the last thing Korin wanted was attention from that group. He touched the collar of his shirt, made sure his amulet was still hidden. Kept his head down.
After some amount of looking, and more than a little haggling—Korin wasn’t quite as helpless as Marta seemed to think—Korin had a couple pairs of light, drawstring pants, and three of the common open-collar shirts: one in bright blue, one in bright green and one in bright yellow. Weird to think that in order to blend in, he had to dress like this. His only regret was he wouldn’t be able to “accidentally” hide his sigil beneath his shirt.
Technically, it was illegal to hide the fact he was a wizard, to keep his sigil where no one could see it. Realistically, as long as he didn’t do magic, he wasn’t likely to get in trouble with it hidden. And even here, where people seemed to welcome the wizards who walked among them, Korin felt safer if no one knew what he was. It was hard to get past the habit of hiding.
He also found a light pair of fingerless gloves that would keep most of the scars on his hands hidden. Just because he’d be wearing the sigil out in the open didn’t mean Korin had to display everything to prying eyes.
Korin spent the rest of his money on a delicious iced drink that was a mix of coffee and chocolate—two rare treats back home—and a guava pastry—a fruit he’d never before tasted but was immediately added to the list of foods he needed to eat as often as possible. The last few pennies went to a little ceramic charm in the shape of a flower, to take back to Lily to thank her for being kind.
The sounds of the market crowd had become a comfortable blur. But as the ceramic merchant handed Korin the little charm, carefully wrapped in paper, a sharp, shrill voice cut through the rumble. “What’s wrong with his face?”
Korin’s heartbeat sped and the taste of adrenaline flooded his mouth. Too on edge, too easily startled—Korin’s knuckles went white against the bundle of clothes in his hand. Korin forced himself to breathe, reminded himself over and over—a mantra in his mind—that he was safe. That no one here was after him. That he didn’t need to be ready to fight.
Risking a look back, Korin realized he’d let the group of noble troublemakers get too close. They were less than ten feet away, with only a scattering of people between Korin and them. Their attention wasn’t on Korin, but that fact only provided him with a moment’s relief until Korin saw who it was they’d surrounded.
An old man, begging. With gnarled hands and wrinkled skin and on his face—black lines. Black lines like rotting veins. Black lines spread like branches. Black lines Korin had hoped never to see again.
“Leave him alone,” the dark, handsome one said. “Come on. I’m bored.” But none of his friends were listening.
“Don’t touch him,” from the blonde, his voice laden with disgust, as one of the others reached out to grab the terrified old man by the arm.
“What’s wrong with him?” another of the group demanded.
Korin thought he knew. Korin had certainly seen this before. But the implications were terrifying if this poor old man was sick in the way Korin thought he was.
Either way, Korin didn’t have it in him to just stand by and watch these highborn predators torture their victim. Keeping safe was one thing, but even Teriad would have stepped in to stop this. And Korin needed a closer look—needed to see if this old man was really carrying a disease straight out of Korin’s worst nightmares.
Before Korin could act, the decision was taken from his hands. The firstborn who’d complained of boredom moved forward with the speed and grace of a striking snake, twisting his friend’s arm so that his friend dropped the old man. The old man scrambled away with surprising speed, dodged between two of the nobles, and ran off towards the edge of the square.
Korin didn’t linger to watch any fallout between the firstborn. He needed to find the old man. He circled around the arguing group and dove through the crowd. Giving chase.