“You feel that?”
“...Yeah. Don’t worry about it, kid. It’s probably just Lafer’s fae.”
“But it feels like an earthquake! What if we’re under attack?”
“Just relax. If your heart is pounding, it’s because of his magic. Look, see? There’s a man approaching now. Must be the new Seer that she mentioned.”
“He doesn’t look like much of a Seer to me…”
Kon sighed quietly, ignoring the guards’ muttered comments in favor of the colorful banners waving above the wide foyer. A brief glance of the chattering pair had informed him they were Sightless. Both the middle-aged woman and twenty-something ‘kid’ had failed to notice his fae as she danced around their heads. As for Vigor, they were only aware of his presence from the rumble of his heavy footsteps, and apparently, their pounding hearts. His aura washed over them, growing brighter with their closing proximity.
“Halt, stranger!” called out the younger guard.
Vigor froze mid-stride, his exaggeratedly swung arms hanging by his sides. He’d taken the lead, which meant Kon had to step around him to see the guards’ faces. As soon as the kid’s face was in sight - visibly round behind the open-visor of his steel helmet - Kon stopped and saluted. It seemed like the appropriate thing to do.
Both guards brought their feet together, lifting their halbirds into the crook of their armpits and placing two fingers against the poles.
“Corporal Bola,” the woman greeted, her face sharp behind her visor.
“Private Stad,” greeted the round-faced kid.
With a smile, he broke his salute. “Good morning, ma’am, sir. I’m the new student, Kon.”
“Please don’t call me ma’am,” the woman said, relaxing and waving a hand. “I’m not an officer and never will be, if Fate is kind.”
Kon didn’t understand the distinction, but he nodded his head anyway, then looked toward the younger guard. “I’m sorry if Vigor surprised you. He is escorting me into the Cradle to meet Lafer. He says hello.”
Vigor reanimated. “No I didn’t,” he scoffed, as if offended. “But I will now. Hello!”
Oblivious, Private Stad began talking over the fae. “Good morning, Kon. Can you show me your identification?”
Corporal Bola sighed, poking her halbird in her companion’s direction. “I know you’re new, but you need to chill. And yes, that is an order.”
“But Corporal,” he stuttered. “That’s literally the only reason we’re here.”
The woman removed her helmet, revealing short brown hair cut in a military fade. With her free hand, she rubbed at her brow with visible frustration. “Please go on, Kon. It seems I need to have another private conversation with my Private.”
More confused than anything, Kon hurried out the gate. A dirt path stretched down the large hill below him, leading into the whirlwind-shaped roads of Zephyr’s Cradle. Vigor followed after him as his fae lingered behind.
“In spite of what your little handbook says, there are only two circumstances we actually need to check for identification. If someone we don’t recognize comes from the Cradle, obviously we grill them and watch them empty their pockets. If someone comes from within, it probably means they’re supposed to be there. It’s only the kids we need to make sure are old enough for unsupervised liberty.”
Kon beckoned his fae. In a second, she was by his side and chiming brightly. She almost seemed happy for learning the information by eavesdropping.
From now on, he thought, imagining a similar tone to Corporal Bola’s order, you need to stick with me, okay? Roosts like this tend to be busy, especially on Endays. I can’t have you getting sucked into every passing conversation.
The floating knot dimmed as she nodded.
Vigor caught up, glancing quickly between them. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah.” I’m not mad. This is just important. But once we purchase the instruments for our class, we can spend the rest of the morning testing them out. Okay?
Sparks of light burst from his fae’s shell. Kon smiled in her luminescence.
“Good,” Vigor continued. “Sorry about the guard up there. Wish I could have vouched for you, but they couldn’t exactly hear me.”
“It’s alright, friend. As Lafer would say, don’t even sweat it.”
Vigor chuckled, his eyes flaring into torches. “She’ll vouch for you on the way back. Professor Meir will create your Westwind I.D. tomorrow morning, during her lesson. Students technically aren’t supposed to come and go from the Academy without it, but you’re obviously an exception, because of your…”
“Age?” Kon offered with a short laugh. “It’s fine, you can say it. I know I’m old.”
Vigor shook his head eagerly. “Headmaster Nise is old. You’re just… older. I’m just glad Corporal Bola is on guard duty. She’s one of the nicer ones.”
“Really?” Though she let Kon by without complaint, the woman didn’t seem especially friendly.
“Of the Corporals, most definitely. But if you ever see one with a cord wrapped around their arm, turn the other way immediately. No matter what your plans are that day, it isn’t worth it.”
Kon frowned, nearly stumbling down the hill as his gaze shifted away from his feet. Driven by instinct, he snapped his fingers. Magic crackled with the sound as a force pushed back on him, righting his balance. They’d learned the trick when navigating the mountain’s treacherous cliffs. Including this, it had saved him from pain or worse on twelve separate occasions.
Vigor’s eyes dimmed into coals. “Maybe I should be quiet until we get off this hill. It’s a long journey, and pretty steep for even me.” To demonstrate, he slid down a little, his top-heavy armor dragged by gravity.
With a wave of his hand, Kon dismissed the gesture. “I’d rather talk. I’ll just make sure to keep my eyes where I’m walking. Why should I turn away if I see a guard with a cord?”
“Ugh,” Vigor scoffed. “Please don’t get me started on Ulen.”
“I’ve no idea who that is—” Kon began.
“—Okay so, Ulen is this absolute snob, right?” Vigor interrupted. “Best friends with Saiet, if that tells you anything, and somehow actually worse. He doesn’t like us, and we don’t like him. The cord is some award he was given in some battle. He lords it over everyone - including the Student Seers - and demands respect for it. He’s disgusting.”
Kon nodded, hiding a grin behind his hand. He knew that Lafer was a bit of a gossip, but he didn’t expect Vigor to be too.
“Speak of the devils,” Vigor hissed, his eyes blazing and pace hastening. “Come on, Kon. We need to hurry.”
“What? Why?” Kon panted as he sprinted down the hill, struggling to keep up with the edge of Vigor’s aura.
“Saiet and Ulen just ran into Lafer. We have to save her!”
Kon swallowed, clenching his fists. He gazed at the roost in the mountain valley, with its glistening tiled roads and colorful, spiraling nests. They were barely halfway there.
So much for a pleasant trip into the Cradle.
“Clear the path!” Kon shouted, his voice carried further by a golden sheen of magic light. “Giant fae coming through! Please move out of the way!”
Between his voice and the Vigor’s quaking footfalls, the bystanders obeyed quickly, parting to the edges of the tile-road as a cloud of steam quickly hissed by them. The fae was huffing loudly, forcing his heat to waft out as water vapor. A mother grasped their young child tightly against her leg as he bounced up and down, seeing the blazing knight in all his glory.
“So cool,” the girl mewled.
The adults seemed more wary than anything. Kon made sure to look each roostfolk in their eyes and apologize as he chased Vigor into Zephyr’s Cradle.
“Can we please slow down?” he pleaded as the road opened into an intersection. “I’m starting to cramp, Vigor, and I begin my training tomorrow.”
The giant skid to a halt, armored boots kicking up sparks on the street’s green-and-gold tiles. “Sorry, Kon, but I need to hurry. They’re being annoying.”
“That’s all? You made it sound like her life is at stake.”
Vigor scoffed, shaking his head. “You obviously don’t know what it’s like to be a woman.”
Kon’s mouth gaped as he nodded. The fae was right. Jrana often complained about men pestering her, even after they were wed. He expected better from people of the Modern Era, but really, he was too far removed from the problem to see it as it was.
“Okay,” he said, quickly massaging the tension out of his legs. “Let’s hurry.”
After several minutes of shouting and running, Kon had finally reached the roost’s center. A wide plaza sat at the heart of Zephyr’s Cradle with a raised stage in its middle, surrounded by six concentric rings of tables. Over half of their chairs were occupied with roostfolk of all ages. Several waiters drifted between them, taking orders to booths at the edges. When drinks and meals were ready, the waiters lifted plates and mugs into the air for a glowing wind to carry away.
Kon scanned the crowds for Lafer’s bob of auburn hair and scarlet dress. She was easy to spot among the locals dressed in whites, yellows, and greens. At one of the furthest tables, she sat alongside a girl that looked her age. At the table beside them, two young men were whispering and chuckling haughtily. Kon didn’t need his fae to overhear their conversation for him to get upset.
While Vigor was forced to go the long way around, Kon shambled between the tables, pushing through his soreness to reach them first. “Lafer,” he greeted, injecting cheer into his tone. For her benefit, he approached from an angle that kept her from seeing Saiet or Ulen in her peripherals.
“Kon! There you are. Quick, Iko. Finish your drink so my friend can walk us home.”
Lafer’s friend quickly chugged the last of her steaming tea. Both girls rose from their seats and bowed to Zephyr’s glowing wind. Lafer hurried to grab Iko’s arm and walked off to meet the now-arriving Vigor.
Kon took a moment to look Saiet in his bright white eyes. The young Seer swept the bangs of feathery hair out of his face, meeting Kon’s gaze. His hand lingered behind the sharp point of his ear, as if to emphasize that he was of noble blood.
“Kon,” Saiet greeted, his voice slick. “We were just talking about you. Isn’t that right, Ulen?”
Beside the lithe Saiet in his ruffled coat, a proud-faced man crossed his muscular arms over a tight, wide-collared vest. “The new Seer,” he grunted, scratching the side of his faded blonde hair. “How is Bola handling the fresh meat? I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s killed him already.”
“They’re getting along fine,” Kon said in the most polite tone he could muster.
“You coming, Kon?” yelled Vigor, drawing his gaze. Lafer and Iko were already strolling into one of the smaller tiled streets that fed into the plaza. Neither of them looked back.
“I’ll see you tomorrow morning, Saiet. Ulen… I would say it was nice to meet you, but we both know that would be a lie. Enjoy your tea.”
To the sound of the young men’s tapering laughter, Kon moved quickly to rejoin his friends. “Are you two okay? What was that all about?”
“We’re okay,” Lafer assured him, punching his shoulder lightly. “We just wanted the excuse to get away and a reason for them not to follow. Don’t worry about us.”
Iko nodded eagerly, spilling tight braids of black hair. Her green eyes were wide in Vigor’s molten light. “We can take care of ourselves,” she said, the words tumbling out of her exuberantly. “Lafer has taught me all your self-defense techniques. Shoulder-throw, side-choke... you name it, I know it. Wanna see?” she asked happily, smiling to reveal well-polished teeth.
Lafer giggled as her friend babbled on. “Note to self: Iko, caffeine, and Vigor make a very entertaining combination.”
Iko yelped as Lafer pinched her arm playfully. “I’m not even that hyper! You should have seen me dancing last night.”
Sighing, Lafer exaggerated a flick of her wrist. “I would have if I could. I’m lucky the Armsmaster said I could leave the Barracks today. I’m telling you Iko, he was mad. For good reason, too. Kon got severely hurt last night because of my reckless ignorance.”
“Is that true?” Iko gasped, letting go of Lafer’s arm to spin toward Kon. He rolled up his sleeve, baring his arm, grazed with long, pale scars. It prompted another gasp, then her waving both hands in the air. “Vigor! How could you let this happen? I thought you were supposed to protect people!”
The blazing knight - who was walking behind them to block Saiet’s view into the street - abruptly startled, his flaming eyes burning low with guilt. Unable to reply, he just stared at the girl, his movements languid and deflated.
“I’m more than fine,” Kon insisted, rolling his sleeve back down. “Vigor fixed me before I could lose too much blood, and the physician I saw this morning said I was perfectly healthy. It doesn’t even hurt thanks to him.”
Iko nodded, her grin returning. “If that’s true, I suppose I can forgive him. But he better make sure it never happens again! Lafer already told me all about you, Kon. I’d be mad if something happened to you. Think of poor Jrana and Kinjra!”
Kon halted in place, his breath stuck in his chest.
“Iko,” Lafer exclaimed. “You can’t just say things like that!”
Kon shut his watering eyes before any tears could leak, then hastily fluttered them dry. “It’s okay, Lafer. No harm done.”
By the look on her face, Lafer recognized the lie. He would need to speak with the girl about sharing his personal things.
Iko seemed to believe it, though, and she calmed down. “Lafer also mentioned you are going shopping. My nest is just beyond the Merchant’s Circle, so you won’t have to travel far.”
“Please lead the way,” Kon said. He forced a grin as he gestured them ahead. “I’ll let you two catch up while I hang back here with Vigor.”
Nodding eagerly, Lafer took the cue to pull her friend along.
“I’m so-so-so sorry!” Lafer pleaded the moment Iko was out of earshot. After walking her to her family’s nest, they stepped aside to talk. “Please don’t be mad at me or my friend.”
Kon backed away from the girl, waving his hands between them. Combined with her voice, the steam hissing from her eyes was beginning to draw the attention of passersby. Vigor continued to huff and puff beside her to keep people away.
“It’s okay, Lafer. I’m not mad. Please, just take a moment to steady your breath, and listen.”
As if to punish herself, the girl’s skin immediately paled as Vigor’s warmth receded from her blood. The bursts of steam pouring from the fae’s helmet puffed out smaller with the dimming glow of his aura.
“I’m not mad,” he assured her, tapping her shoulder with his fist to prompt a weak smile. “But I am sad for obvious reasons. I’m tortured by my thoughts enough about being so far from Jrana and Kinjra. One of the few respites I get from all the bad feelings is when I’m around you and Vigor. One of the others is getting to lose myself in all these new surroundings. I’m always grateful for your counsel when I ask for it, but those kinds of conversations should never involve people I don’t know. Do you understand what I’m saying, Lafer?”
Shrunk into herself like she was, the girl appeared so young and small. When Kon had first seen her, she had cackled as she struck down that wraith, alive, brave, and strong. In this moment, she wasn’t a Fate-chosen Seer. She was just a teenager.
“I do,” Lafer mumbled, her body rising with her breaths and clenching fists. “You’re not the first person who’s had to talk to me about respecting boundaries. It sounds more reasonable coming from you than my…”
“Mother?” Kon asked. In all their days spent together, he’d picked up enough details to figure out the broad strokes of her situation. Commander Sap had called her a former princess, which meant she no longer held the title. For that to be true, her position must have been renounced by her royal parentage. Knowing that she hailed from Kolod Vor, there was only one logical answer about what she could be the princess of. Everyone knew of the Fated King’s Regent, Ferona, and her fae, Justice. Before the chosen hero came along, she’d been renowned for her propensity for capital punishment. It was no wonder this cheerful, bright girl didn’t get along with the merciless woman.
Unable to mutter a response, Lafer nodded slightly. It broke his heart to see actual tears running from her eyes.
“If anyone knows what it’s like to have heavy baggage from their past, it’s me. As your friend, you have to know that I would understand and support you no matter how bad it is. I won’t bring this up again, but I just want you to know that we can talk about your problems too, whenever you need to vent. Not just this, but about the Armsmaster, Saiet, Ulen, and anything else that crosses your mind or happens in the meantime. That’s what friends are for, right?”
“Right,” Lafer muttered, sniffing and wiping her face. Neither she nor Vigor had livened up again. Kon could feel soreness creeping into his muscles without his bright, molten light.
“Personally, though, I’d rather we talk about depressing things any other day of the week. This is supposed to be our time off, isn’t it? I’ve got a lot of money in my wallet, and I was promised a shopping spree. Can we just put this behind us and go have some fun?”
Warmth flooded over Kon as steam rose from Vigor’s excited breaths. Lafer grinned widely and nodded eagerly, her skin returning to a flushed pink. “Vigor told me you need instruments. I know a place not far from here. Come, it's this way!”
“So this is… the Shady Quarter?” Kon asked, hesitating at the entrance of the blanketed street. Actual sheets and comforters were stitched together and hung from the balconies of two-story residential nests. Though not officially a part of the Merchant’s Circle, these shops were allowed to operate within the homes of retired flockfolk. Once their bodies grew too weary to migrate across the hemispheres, they came to Zephyr’s Cradle to live their final years of life in dim and quiet peace.
“That’s what we call it.” Lafer skipped further into the shade, waving Kon on.
“What about Vigor?” he called out. The girl stopped to glance back.
“I’ll wait here,” rumbled the giant. Huffing, he sat down in the nearest corner of the four-way intersection. Most people were either working or enjoying their day off in the center, which Lafer had called Jubilee Plaza. Kon hadn’t seen any other roostfolk in a long while.
Reluctant, Kon entered the shade, leaving the warmth of Vigor’s aura behind him. The muscles in his back and legs tightened immediately, making him grimace and stumble. In the blink of an eye, Lafer caught his arm, preventing him from falling to his knees.
“You alright, old man?”
Kon nodded, adopting a stable, comfortable stance. “I’m great,” he lied, chuckling softly. “Just holding on until an early night and hoping for a long, pleasant sleep.”
Lafer smiled, knuckling his arm hard enough to push him off-balance. She caught him again, then apologized profusely. “First thing in the morning, Vigor will knock on your door to give you a quick boost. I’ll wake up early to eat breakfast so I can cheer you on at the Training Grounds.”
“I’m glad to hear it. But until then, I’ll be okay walking on my own. You don’t need to worry about me. Just lead the way.”
Lafer released his arm and beckoned him forward. With his fae hovering over his shoulder, Kon followed the girl deeper into the blanketed street. He stared at the ground as they walked, reluctant to peer into the open doors of the candlelit nests.
Jewelry rattled on a nearby door, strung up and blowing in an emerald green wind. Zephyr’s magical breezes drifted throughout the entire roost, sweeping up debris, dust, and dirt from homes, rolling them down the empty road in clouds like tumbleweeds. Kon imagined the appeal of retiring to a place with constant free cleanings. If she were here, Jrana would certainly love it.
Lafer dodged out of the way of a middle-aged man stumbling out of a nest full of hanging cloths, dressed in torn rags and carrying a handful of soiled plumes. He was shooed into the street by a broom’s mangled bristles. An elderly woman struggled to lift it from the seat of her rocking chair.
“Go on!” the woman shouted. “Get out of here and go back to where you belong!”
Sullen, the bald, sun-darkened Lidkhin walked off, meekly apologizing to Lafer as he passed her. Kon gave her a signal to get his attention.
“Mister?” she asked, drawing the man’s startled gaze. “Are you okay?”
Hurrying to the girl’s side, Kon stretched a hand to the weary refugee. The man took it reluctantly.
“Rox,” he greeted, his voice a glum baritone. “I’m not sick, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Lafer,” the girl replied, waving gently. “It’s not.”
“Kon,” he greeted, letting go of the man’s hand. “Does that happen a lot?” He gestured to the fabric shop.
“It happens everywhere,” the man grumbled. The wrinkles on his sharp face deepened as his expression sagged with defeat.
“What is it you wanted to buy?”
Rox’s eyes widened. “A bolt of orange cloth. My daughter likes to sew and she needs new clothes.”
Nodding, Kon grazed his bald scalp with the palm of his hand. “Rox, Lafer. Please wait here for a moment. I’ll be right back.”
With his fae beside him, he stepped up to the elderly woman’s nest to gaze inside. She was rocking back and forth in her chair, the broom upon her lap as she knit a wool scarf. Her squinted eyes flicked to Kon’s clothes briefly, as if to confirm he wasn’t especially thin or dressed in rags. She didn’t bother to greet him, however. Kon cleared his throat for her attention. It was to no avail.
“How much for a bolt of that orange cloth?” He pointed to one of the rolls that fell down from the rafters.
“Nice try,” the woman huffed. “That Lidkhin just asked the same question. Tell your disease-ridden friend that there’s no place for his kind in our Cradle.”
Kon could hardly believe what he was hearing. “You can’t be serious.”
“I am! My husband and I had to work hard to afford our nest, and the Seers demanded us to move and make room for those filthy rotfolk. Now he’s dead, and I’m stuck here alone, barely able to move away from this chair, knitting until the day one of them sneezes too close and kills me too.”
Frowning, Kon softly clenched his fists beside him. “I’m sorry to hear about your husband, but that doesn’t give you the excuse to treat another human so horribly. The Lidkhin have been through enough, and they traveled a long way to escape certain death. You should be grateful to share a roost as nice as this with people who’ve suffered as much as them. Unity is the entire thing the Fated King stands for. It’s the only way humanity can survive at all.”
“Why should I care?” she spat, then blew a lock of wispy gray hair out of her face. “I’ll be dead by then anyway. Maybe it’s best if your friend comes to breathe on me after all, just to get it over with.”
Despite his instincts telling him to stay and argue with the merchant, Kon shook his head and walked away. He knew better than to try reasoning with unreasonable people. And today was supposed to be a good day, besides.
“Hey Lafer!” he yelled, his fae amplifying his voice to ensure the woman heard every word. “Do you know somewhere with half-decent fabrics? My plumes are starting to burn holes through my wallet.”
Chuckling, Lafer nudged a teary-eyed Rox down the street. Kon followed after them, smiling to himself.
“I can’t thank you enough, Kon. This is really too generous.”
Grinning, he slapped Rox on the shoulder. A bolt of orange silk with yellow embroidery was cradled in his hands like a baby, along with two bolts of black and reddish-brown. “I hope you and your daughter enjoy your new clothes.”
“We will. Rize will be so happy. It was nice meeting you two. I hope you enjoy the rest of your shopping trip.”
Eager to return home, the ragged man jogged off and out of the blanketed shade. The Lidkhin refugees apparently stayed in a larger stretch of communal nests just beside the Shady Quarter.
“That was nice of you,” Lafer chuckled. “How much did that cost, anyway?”
Kon felt the weight of his wallet in his hands. “Doesn’t matter. I’ve got more than enough left.” Glancing over the girl’s shoulder, he found the entrance to the instrument shop. Aromatic smoke drifted hazily in its doorway, obscuring the glints of polished metal and wood hanging on the walls and racks within.
An orchestra's worth of equipment littered the otherwise empty room. Inside, a young boy with bushy hair slept on a stool, his head and arms down on the snare of a hefty drum set. A man with long, black curls slumped into the back of an upholstered chair, one leg folded over his opposite knee. He hummed quietly as he drummed a soft rhythm on the lute in his hands. Long nails grazed its strings without plucking them. The smoke appeared to be streaming from a pipe on the ground beside him, though the herb inside its bowl looked completely burned out.
Kon sniffed the air, feeling a little light-headed already. “Maybe it’s best you wait outside,” he told Lafer.
She halted beside the doorway. “Can I stand a little inside, at least? I don’t want to be alone in the street.”
Kon nodded, tapping her shoulder and waving her inside. As he ducked under a short, tattered curtain, he grazed a thin ribbon with his scalp, triggering the ringing of airy bells.
“Welcome!” the shop owner bellowed, rising to his feet. At the shout, the boy on the drumset startled awake, kicking the bass drum at his feet.
“Customers!” the kid exclaimed, grabbing a pair of sticks from the snare and rolling a quick three-beat into a crashing cymbal.
“How can we assist you, kind patrons?” The shop owner limped to the front of his nest, using his lute as a cane. Retired flockfolk, Kon noted, but not from age. Wounded.
Kon shook the man’s hand with a smile. “I’m coming down from the Academy. I’m going to start teaching a music class tomorrow, and I need enough instruments to fill a room. Strings, brass, woodwind, and percussion. I’m thinking… three of each type, so there’s room for choice and variety?”
The shop owner's mouth gaped wide open. “Good sir, I would love to sell you all that equipment. Alas, it would nearly clear my whole store out! I hope you understand that will cost… quite a hefty price.”
“I understand,” Kon said, unscrewing his wallet. Brandishing four of his midnight plumes, he nodded to the gaping man. “I’m sure this is enough to cover it?”
“That’s more than enough!” exclaimed the boy. He observed the exchange with his eyes wide.
“More than enough,” his father mumbled in agreement. Grasping Kon by his elbow, the shop owner pulled him toward shelves of hand-held percussives. “If you see anything you like, just point at it and my boy will box it up for you.”
A pair of small bongos caught Kon’s eye. He’d seen something like it in one of the Mirror Room’s reflections. Picking it up, he tested the integrity of their frames and hides. Both were sturdy. “This one will be for me personally,” he said, handing it to the father, who quickly handed it to his son. “Keep it separate and unboxed please.”
Both nodded eagerly as the bushy-haired boy pattered away.
“Now let’s see… First question. Can that xylophone be removed from its stand?”
Twenty minutes later and four-hundred plumes poorer, Kon pulled Lafer out into the fresh air. Mak had been kind enough to lend them a long rope to bundle all five boxes of instruments into a tight, neat stack. The vein of Lafer’s neck bulged with molten light as she carried it on her back. Straps had been knotted around her waist and shoulders for leverage.
“What’s next?” she asked.
Kon separated the plume nibs by color, pushing enough aside to pay for two weeks of Morus’ tutoring lessons. He was hoping that after that, the boy would be willing to teach him for free. In the meantime, Kon was happy to fund one of his social hobbies.
“I’m thinking… clothes. Headmaster Nise suggested it, and I saw something in the Mirror Room that I can’t get out of my head. Do you know a place that designs customized outfits? Not just of cloth, but leather and steel too. I’ll need the extra protection when we join the Fated King’s army.”
“Sounds like a job for Ekim. I was meaning to pay him a visit anyway. I’ll let Vigor know where to meet us. Come this way.”
Kon followed Lafer into the sunlight. From their patios, Lidkhin parents watched their children play in the streets and the patches of grass between their wide, ovalur nests. A few buildings down, he spotted Rox hefting a young girl with short hair onto his lap. His daughter, Rize, was caressing the bolt of orange silk against her cheek.
“Is Ekim a refugee too?” Kon asked. Lafer was leading him further into the Lidkhin’s community rather than into the Merchant’s Circle.
“Yup. His shop is set up in a nearby park. It’s the smallest in the Cradle, but it's always busy around this time. A lot of rebellious teenagers hang out there when they want to get away from their overbearing parents. Unfortunately, that old crone selling fabric isn’t the only ignorant person around.”
Kon nodded sullenly as he gave Rox and his daughter one last glance. “Did you hear what she said to me?” he muttered. “I still can’t believe it.”
“I heard bits and pieces. Enough to know I’m telling all my friends to never shop from her again. Mostly though, I heard your heart pounding. By how fast and loud it was, I’m amazed you didn’t lose your temper and start yelling. I would have given that old bat a few choice words without a second thought.”
“I learned a long time ago that showing infuriating people your emotions is exactly how they win. It’s always better to walk away proudly than stoop down to their level.”
“Easier said than done,” Lafer chuckled. “But you’re right. It’s a flaw of mine that I also need to work on.”
Uncertain how to respond, Kon jogged up beside the girl to softly punch her in the shoulder.
“I… may have been unfair to Saiet,” she admitted, her voice tense. As the words left her, the glowing vein on her neck receded. Without Vigor boosting her, she was left to shoulder the boxes with her own strength. Even so, she didn’t shrink or lose balance. Lafer continued marching down the street with her chin high and jaw clenched.
“I say may have been, past tense, like I’m still not being unfair to him… which I am. Saiet is a jerk, don’t get me wrong, but I can hear his heart beating every time he’s around me, and I can tell he’s genuinely hurting. I’m starting to feel like a jerk myself for having so much trouble forgiving him.”
Patting Lafer’s shoulder lightly, Kon’s fae huddled between them, glinting with sparks to help cheer the girl up. “Do you want advice?” he asked. “Or do you just want me to listen?”
Lafer closed her eyes, trusting Kon to stop her from tripping. “Just listen,” she whispered in a tone wrought with doubt. “I know what I have to do. It’s just harder than I would like.”
“In that case, I’ll be quiet until you ask me a question. Don’t worry about filling me in on the details. You can just tell me whatever is on your mind.”
Lafer nodded, steam rising from her eyes.
“When I first got here, Saiet quickly became one of my best friends. He always seemed to know exactly the right thing to say, and it was only until later that he told me it was because of his fae’s magic. Still, he seemed genuine when he told me he cared about me. I confided him with all the drama with my family, and what happened to my… friend. The one I mentioned who died because of me. A few weeks later, I heard Ulen make a comment about it under his breath, and I just lost it. I couldn’t believe he would share my story with someone else, let alone him. But isn’t that what I keep doing to you? Edos, Ebi, Dír, and Cesca. Wilm the other night, and now Iko this morning. I feel like such a hypocrite. When did I end up being the jerk?”
“Do you want me to actually answer that?” Kon asked, elbowing her softly. “Or was it just rhetorical?”
“The second one.” Despite his nudging, Lafer deflated.
“For what it’s worth, you’re not a jerk.”
Tiny streams hissed from her eyes as she nodded. Despite saying she wanted him to just listen, the quiver of her lips told him to keep speaking. Her eyes gazed at him, as if lost.
“Saiet broke your trust. It’s understandable to be mad at him. Sun praise you, it’s perfectly okay to never forgive him. But if you think it's worth it - either for his sake, or to clear your own mind - maybe you should have a conversation with him. Make sure he promises to keep whatever you talk about between you, then unload your thoughts and feelings. Let him know exactly how bad he hurt you and see if he apologizes. If he doesn’t, walk away and do your best to forget about him. If he does, say you need time away from him to decide what to do with it. Don’t tell Saiet how long you’ll take, and you’ll have him constantly worrying about your next reply. It’s torture for a man. Believe me.”
“I can do that,” Lafer muttered, more to herself than to him. “Thank you, Kon. It does feel better talking about it. I haven’t spoken with Wilm or Vigor about this, though of course he could hear each one of my stewing thoughts.”
“When they start to boil, you got to steam them out.”
Smiling, Lafer nodded, wiping the last of her tears from her eyes. “Hey, look. We’re almost there.”
Ahead, four strange trees with entire bushes growing along their branches loomed over a wide intersection of four streets, casting the fields of grass beneath in a gentle, verdant light. Eight tables with every centimeter hidden under materials and wares formed a hexagon in the park’s center. Several groups of teenagers had climbed up into the trees’ foliage, relaxing among the birds and leaves, and talking amongst themselves. To Kon’s surprise, Lili and Ora lingered under a tree, sharing a private conversation.
Lafer noticed them shortly after. “Why am I not surprised they’re here?” she groaned.
“Something I heard from the guards made me think they couldn’t leave the Academy unsupervised.”
“That’s only for the underage students. Ora recently turned 16, and Lili is 17 going on 18.”
“So no Dowen, then. If we hurry back to the Academy, I might be able to find him and talk with him. Let’s just ignore Lili and Ora for now. They’re pretending that I don’t exist, anyway.”
“How petty,” Lafer scoffed. “I hope you figure out how to reach them.”
“Me too,” Kon agreed.
“Hey Ekim! Long time no see!” A burly young man with a bald scalp and a thick, neatly-trimmed beard abruptly spun. Lafer met him between the hexagon of cluttered tables.
“Lafer!” he bellowed, pulling her into a hug. Kon could see Vigor at the edge of the park, unable to enter, but watching and waving.
“How are you doing, Ekim?”
“Wonderful!” he exclaimed, letting her go and looking her dead in the eyes. “Your eyes are swollen, which either means you just walked away from a fight, or that you’ve been crying. Either way, who is it you want me to beat up?”
Despite his serious tone, Lafer chuckled. “No one, old friend. It was a good cry, not a bad one. Necessary. I’m feeling a lot better now.”
“Sun praise me,” Ekim said, exhaling the breath he used to puff up his chest. “Hena would be furious if I got into another scuffle. I’m on my best streak yet, and she says I’m close to breaking my old habits.”
Waving a hand in the air, he stepped away to survey his wares. It was only then when he noticed Kon approaching a table.
“Ekim! This is one of my newest and greatest friends, Kon. He would like to pay you for your services today.”
“Kon!” the man bellowed, reaching over the table to grab his shoulders and pull him closer. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. Any friend of Lafer’s is a friend of mine. What can I do for you this beautiful morning?”
Laughing, Kon awkwardly patted Ekim’s shoulders until he let him step away. “It’s a pleasure to meet you too. Lafer told me you’re the man to ask for a custom outfit and armor. I’m assuming you made her the suit that she wears?”
“Vigor’s too,” the man added. “Though Professor Meir helped with some fancy modifications. What is it you had in mind, exactly?”
Kon hesitated, unsure how to describe it. “One moment,” he said, removing a small quill and his Seer Manual from his pocket.
On one of its empty back pages, Kon traced the shape of his old bard clothes, the half cape along his side and shin-high boots included. Under it, he sketched a cloth tunic with a leather chest piece, along with a belt adorned in crude attachments, and a wide pouch on the right thigh of the trousers. With thinner lines, he drew a tiny bird singing on the belt’s buckle, and several music notes on the cape. Before ripping the page out, he scribbled metallic silver and gold threads on black cloth.
“Here,” Kon said, handing the drawing across the table. “I’m no artist and barely understand fashion, so if you think of something that looks better than that, please follow your instincts.”
“Hena and I can work with this,” Ekim assured him with a slap on his shoulder. “How soon do you need it?”
Kon hummed as Lafer wandered over to a table covered in shiny trinkets. “Three weeks the latest,” he said. “But a little sooner would be better.”
“So an express job, then. Normally that’s a bit more expensive, but for one of Lafer’s newest and greatest friends, we can ignore that little fact and call it a first customer discount. Please don’t tell anyone else, though. From this day on, I’ll feel obligated to do the same for everyone else. On my honor as a merchant, I’ll have to. Let’s try to keep the word from spreading for Hena’s sake, yeah?”
Kon smiled and nodded, then gestured to Ekim to follow him toward Lafer. “How much do you believe that will cost?” he asked, reaching for his wallet.
“Depends a lot on the materials used. And I’m guessing you want this outfit to come in separate layers?” Kon nodded, prompting a long hum. “If I had to guess, roughly 200 plumes, give or take a few sunsets. Don’t worry about paying me now, though. I’ll let you know the final price when you come to pick up the finished product.”
“You sure? I could give you at least half now, if you want it.”
“Don’t worry about it. If Lafer trusts you, then so do I. Besides, if you don’t end up taking it off my hands, I’ll probably wear it myself. Hena would love it.”
Kon’s grin widened. “Sounds like a deal then. Hey Lafer! See anything you like?”
The girl squeed as they joined her. In the time it took them to reach her, she’d already adorned herself in multiple rings, bracelets, and a tiara. She held a pair of lockets in her hands. One was shaped like a seashell, the other a flower.
“I thought I did! Why don’t you have any heart lockets, Ekim?”
“Sold out, I’m afraid. They’re popular this time of year.”
Kon scratched behind his ear. He’d seen a heart-shaped locket around his neck in one of his alternate reflections. The one who’d been a Seer his entire life.
Just a coincidence? he wondered.
His fae didn’t have a response.
“How much will all of that cost?” Kon asked, pointing at Lafer’s twinkling spoils.
“Lockets included? At least 80 plumes.”
“I’ll take them,” Kon said, to Lafer’s muffled surprise. She quickly handed him the empty silver seashell and gold flower by their matching chains. She must have known they’d be perfect for Jrana and Kinjra.
Pocketing them both, he removed a midnight plume from his wallet and handed it to Ekim. “Please keep the change,” he said. “Consider it a tip for your hospitality.”
“Thank you,” the man nodded eagerly. “Will that be all?”
“Yeah.” Kon dropped the hand grasping his wallet to his side. “This was my last stop in the Cradle for today. I’ve got a lot of work to do, so it’s time I get back to the Academy.”
Nodding, Lafer proffered a fist across the table. “I’ll catch you later, Ekim.”
“See ya, Lafer. Come see me in two weeks, Kon.”
All three waved as the two Seers wandered toward the edge of the park. As they walked under the trees, Kon fumbled with his pockets. He wasn’t entirely sure why, but he’d been reaching for it for a reason—
Kon spun, his eyes darting to scan the grass across the park.
“What’s wrong?” Lafer asked. “Did you drop something?”
“My wallet. I swear I just had it in my hand, but it’s suddenly gone.”
Lafer jogged back where they came, kicking the grass as she searched the ground.
A chill ran down Kon’s spine as he spotted Leach’s menacing smile. Lili and Ora were still lingering by the tree, though now both faced him, staring in silence. Beside them, a young boy with a muss of dirty blond hair grinned under the brim of a hat.
“Dowen,” Kon muttered. His fae rang to make sure Lafer heard him.
Shouldering a half-open bag with one hand, the boy laughed as he shook a familiar leather cylinder. Somehow he'd gotten his hands on Kon’s wallet from across the park.
“I guess they’re not pretending I don’t exist, after all.”
“Vigor’s already walking up behind them. What do you want to do?”
Steadying his breath, Kon unfolded both of his fists. “The only thing I can do. Convince them to listen, and to give it back.”