Kon hesitated at the door while Armsmaster Topek rushed into the chaos. In Vigor’s radiance, Excel was free to leave Kon’s body, exploding forward as a bolt of jade-green lightning to envelop her Seer. She surged into the Armsmaster, giving him the strength to leap all the way to the tall ceiling, where an emerald whirlwind spun furiously, carrying the thousands of groaning particulates that made up Grit’s body.
The Armsmaster hung there for a moment, looking down on the table of young Seers with bowls of food in their hands. Vigor was hand-standing in the furthest corner, alone and facing the wall, as Lafer, Wilm, Rej, Gaj, and a small boy, who sat five seats down the table’s length, ate in silence. By process of elimination, the boy with his face hidden behind a mop of gray-blue hair and a tome as big as him was Morus. Unlike the others, his food lay uneaten next to the bony elbows that poked out from his uniform’s rolled-up sleeves.
In a strike of lightning, Arsmaster Topek crashed into the table, releasing sparks into the air and lighting up four guilty faces. Morus shifted, tucking some hair behind his ears and adjusting his glasses until he could see what was happening in his peripherals. Lafer, Wilm, Rej, and Gaj had all stopped eating. Wilm shot up to their feet and saluted, prompting the others to scramble up and do the same. Lafer cried audibly when her bowl fell over, spilling rice and bugs cooked in a sage green broth.
“Good evening, Sir!” Wilm shouted. The words pounded against Kon’s ears.
“Good evening?” the Armsmaster asked, chuckling deeply into the fist rising to his face. “Good isn’t the word I would use. Not this evening.” His fist unfolded, slashing a bolt of electricity beside him, the sparks bouncing off the stone table and into the spilled broth. “I’m assuming the fae have informed you of what I caught them doing? Yes or no answers only, please.”
“Yes, Sir!” the four Seers shouted.
“That’s interesting, considering you’re all sitting and eating. Didn’t they tell you I was coming with Recruit Kon?”
“Then why? Don’t answer that, Recruit Wilm. Recruit Gaj is the least guilty, so I’ll let him speak on all your behalfs. Recruit Gaj?”
To Kon’s surprise, it was the lanky brother who startled. Grit resembled him, and yet she was apparently the bulkier brother’s fae. “I blame Lafer,” he began, then startled at the Armsmaster’s furrowing brow. “Sir,” he corrected. “The food smelled too good. Lafer couldn’t resist for more than a minute. The rest of us caved after that.”
Bursting with sparks, the Armsmaster spun toward Lafer, making her jump. She was wearing a scarlet tunic and maroon leggings in stark contrast to the other’s green-and-gold uniforms. Her cheeks flushed a bright red against her light pink skin. “Private Lafer,” the man addressed.
“You were the Seer who discovered Recruit Kon, correct?”
The girl bellowed the same response in the same eager tone.
“Then you are considered his mentor, are you not? That means you’re in a leadership position above this man, which means it is your responsibility to see himself fed before you. Am I wrong?”
“Good. Then you won’t mind holding this salute until he finishes eating. Recruit Kon!” he shouted. “Go order your food!”
Kon almost leaped out of his skin to obey. As he ran for the window that opened into a view of the kitchen, his fae clung to his side, opposite the yelling. He could feel her discomfort and worry as much as his own.
A portly man in an apron was standing on the other side of the window, leaning against the counter and fanning himself with a menu as he watched the Seers. He greeted Kon with a smile and slid the hand-drawn menu his way. “Never a dull night in Westwind,” he muttered, chuckling to himself. “What’ll you have, stranger?”
Not very polite, Kon remarked. He glanced over the one-paged Gilday menu. Verdant Curry with Rice and Nicks stood out with a bold-red border. Kon had never eaten the treefolk delicacy, but he’d heard rumors of how spicy it was. “I’ll have the Baked Chikibi and Vegetables,” he replied, suppressing a groan. His three-day journey with Lafer had made him tired of the meat, but it was his best option.
The portly man nodded, plucking the menu from Kon’s hands and leaving through the half-open door behind him. “Zephyr will deliver it to you when it’s ready,” he yelled, once out of sight. If not for his fae, Kon might not have heard him over the clanging pots, rushing faucets, and clattering dishes within.
Kon walked toward the others while the Armsmaster peered around the room, a sharp frown on his face. “I can see how you’ve punished Grit and Vigor. What of Rugged? Is he buried in the gardens again?”
“No, Sir!” yelled Wilm. “Permission to speak freely, Sir?”
“Permission denied. Just answer my questions. Where is Rugged?”
“We put him inside Vigor’s armor, Sir. It’s very hot in there.”
Trailing lightning, the Armsmaster ran to Vigor’s side, bending over to gaze into his molten helmet’s visor. Top-under-bottom as he was, his legs were dim and smaller than usual.
“Fate cut me down!” he laughed. “You actually fit them both in there! I can’t believe I never thought of this before!”
“I’m glad you like it, Sir,” Lafer chuckled. “It was my idea.”
Kon was left blinking as the Armsmaster shot by his face. In a second, he was crouching in front of Lafer, poking the two fingers held against her forehead with two of his own.
“I’m sorry, Private. Did I say you could laugh or speak?”
“You did before,” Lafer sputtered. The Armsmaster shook jade-green sparks from his head. Lafer gulped immediately, keeping her mouth closed by holding her breath.
Sighing, Topek straightened, his features softening with the exhale. “Let all of them go. Zephyr!” he yelled up to the ceiling. “You can release Recruit Grit now!” The whirlwind vanished, allowing the particulates of both twins’ fae to descend and collect behind them.
In the corner of the room, Vigor’s helmet dropped onto the ground, cooling and shrinking rapidly as Rugged climbed out of his open neck. Lava hardened to magma on the statue as he crawled away. Vigor fell down onto his hands and knees, inhaling the splatter of his molten essence before placing his helmet back on his shoulders. As soon as the fae were on their feet, they sprinted behind their Seers, saluting along with Grit.
Still looking dissatisfied, the Armsmaster gazed around the room. He finally noticed the boy and his book, just as Kon sat down across from him. At the time, it seemed like the safest place.
“It’s nice to see you too, Recruit Morus. Why aren’t you eating?”
Upon being addressed, the young boy closed the tome upon the table and rose into a languid salute. Under his glasses, the dark circles around his pale gray eyes suggested many nights gone without sleep. “Good evening, Sir. I was distracted by my studies, Sir.”
“Very well, Recruit. Finish your meal first, then your book. Eating needs to be your priority.”
“Wilco, Sir,” Morus intoned, returning to his seat. He glanced at Kon briefly, then quickly hid his face behind his bowl. A faint veil of gray transparence spread out between them, obscuring him further. Kon looked around for the boy’s fae, but found none in sight.
“Should just be a few minutes now,” the Armsmaster chuckled. “Recruits Rej and Gaj, you two can sit down and finish your meals. Recruit Wilm and Private Lafer, you two can keep saluting until Recruit Kon is eating.”
The twins broke their salutes and collapsed into their seats, their spoons and bowls already in their hands.
“Sir?” Kon asked. “Please don’t make them wait. I was up there with the fae. I could have stopped them, but I didn’t. I believe that means I’m more responsible for what happened.”
Topek frowned as he faced him. “True as that is, I’ve been ordered to leave you alone until Valday morning. We’ll see about your punishment then.”
Kon frowned, blinking in confusion. The Armsmaster’s tone had rang out loud and firm.
“In the future,” the man continued, “please don’t interrupt my lectures. Your food is coming now. Eating should be your priority too.”
Kon nodded, not knowing what to say. Armsmaster Topek’s mood seemed to whiplash both ways.
A few seconds later, a green breeze of glowing wind swooped over the table in front of him, depositing a steaming bowl and a cloth-wrapped spoon. Kon wasted no time lifting his meal up to his face and digging in. A flash of light in the corner of his eyes marked the Armsmaster’s departure. Kon’s head turned, finding him at the corridor’s door.
“I’ll be waiting upstairs with the Barracks Officer,” he yelled. “Tonight I will be hosting a Field Day. Recruits Kon and Morus, you are exempt, so rest easy. Tomorrow, I’ll be knocking on doors at the break of dawn to perform inspections. The rest of your rooms better be as immaculate as your uniforms. Not just the ones you’ll be wearing, but the pairs in your closets as well. Private Lafer, I hope you haven’t ruined your chamber already. Until the Headmaster gives you new orders, you fall under me. Does everyone understand?”
“Yes, Sir!” they shouted, breaking their salutes. Lafer made a show of panting.
“Don’t keep me waiting long!”
In another flash, the Armsmaster was gone.
“Stars bless us,” Lafer exclaimed, falling into her seat. Looking at Kon for the first time, she smiled widely and waved. “I see you didn’t get the curry, which means you’re missing out. That said, I hope you enjoy the meal.”
“Don’t let her butter you up,” Gaj mumbled behind a raised hand. “We’re limited to three bowls a meal, and she’s on her third now. Lafer’s only being nice so you’ll feed her addiction.”
“That’s not true!” she yelled, huffing.
Wilm sat down with a sigh. “It’s a little bit true.”
Even Vigor nodded his head behind her.
Kon wasn’t sure to laugh or feel sorry for the girl. He elected for sorry. “I’ll see how hungry I am later and let you know.”
“Thanks!” Lafer quickly returned to her bowl.
“Why don’t you move closer?” asked Wilm. Gaj sat between them, with Lafer and Rej across the long table.
“I wanted to introduce myself to this young man,” Kon said. At the comment, Morus peeked an eye over the lip of his bowl. The veil of blurriness remained hanging. A second later, he stood, leaving his half-eaten meal on the table and grabbing his giant tome.
He bowed, whispering, “I’m done, Zephyr. Thank you.” A gust of magical wind took his dish away as he pattered toward the corridor. Lafer had mentioned the boy was shy, but he didn't expect ‘leave the room when addressed by a stranger’ shy. Kon frowned as the boy vanished, the blurry veil following behind him. It did little to shroud his thin figure. Armsmaster Topek was right. Eating needed to be his priority.
“Don’t worry too much about Morus,” said Gaj.
“He’s smart,” Rej added. “He can take care of himself.”
Kon wasn’t so sure. Even Lafer and Wilm looked worried. Still, they both waved him to move closer. He sat next to Rej, who proffered up a hand.
“Welcome to Westwind,” he laughed darkly.
“Never a dull night,” Gaj sighed. “I’m not going to help clean our room. My fae and I had nothing to do with this.”
Rej reached for Gaj across the table, only for the route to be cut off by Wilm’s chopping hand. “You’ll tidy your side of the room at least,” they said. “That’s fair, isn’t it?” Rej and Gaj both leaned back, sighing. When Kon met Wilm’s eyes, they rolled theirs and focused on their meal.
“It’s nice to meet you two,” he said, looking from one twin to the other. Both were already eating, so Kon spooned at his food in thought.
Morus was close to Kinjra’s age. A year younger, if he remembered correctly. On the mirror in his chamber, Lucid had shown his daughter pecking at her dinner quietly. He wanted so desperately to be there and cheer her up, and somehow that desperation bled over. Seeing Morus as tired and dejected as he was, Kon felt like it was his duty as the only present adult. Before taking another bite, he looked across the table at Lafer. She wasn’t eating, either. The girl already knew what he was about to ask.
“He’s probably going to the Library. It’s two floors below this one. After we all finish eating, Vigor can accompany you there to introduce you.”
Kon nodded, staring past the Seers and their fae at the open corridor door. He would eat as much as he could, then give Lafer whatever remained. Even his fae, who lingered above his head, chimed a soft duplet of concern. After their brief run-in with Morus, neither was certain that the boy could take care of himself.
Kon had a free evening. He felt determined to reach out to the boy, and see what he could do.
Listening to the other's complain about the Armsmaster's impromptu Field Day, Kon ate his dinner as quickly as he could.