The morning was crisp like a summer ripened apple. Frost settled over Dunworth. Every surface, from roof to cobblestone path, glistened with ice-like gemstones. The streets were already bustling, with street vendors and shops opening up. The air was filled with the smell of cooking sugar and coffee.
It was easy to find a cart, manned by a surly-looking man. For a few coins, they purchased warm drinks and bacon and egg sandwiches wrapped in parchment. A handful of coins later they secured a carriage and headed for the city of Ringcomb.
The name Ringcomb was familiar to Hazel. Garth’s Scholar was said to hail from there.
Hazel could never bring themself to think of him with anything other than that potent fear. The Scholar was a boogeyman stalking around the Brairgarth cathedral, with a scalpel and a cold smile.
He did not view the clerics as people, only caring if they were sent to him for examination of their crystals by Garth. A despicable man who spoke of the world as data, not living beings and nature, his memory made their skin crawl.
The ride was quick. Fletcher had been right about that. The frosty morning dissolved into the afternoon. The sun was high in the sky, casting patches of warmth across the snow. Indigo and sparkling against the blue sky, the rings shone above.
By the time they pulled into the Ringcomb station, it was barely three in the afternoon. The carriage house was built right into the monastery, the white stone building sterile and monolithic on the mountainside.
Great towers seemed to be built straight into the cliffs. Banners depicting halos of purple and blue on an ivory background hung off the walls. The town around it was almost an afterthought, buildings of matching ivory stone spilling out haphazardly.
Fletcher was the first one out of the carriage, turning to offer Hazel his hand. “Watch your step, Miss Hazel.”
Hazel took the hand, carefully navigating the steps down beside Fletcher.
The monastery towered over the other buildings, casting a long shadow even into the tree line.
This would have been where official clerics were trained, unlike Hazel and Garth’s other personnel. Most would likely not give them the same respect. Their reputation suffered enough from the promiscuity of certain clerics
“I..” Fletcher trailed off, “I know of a place we can stay for free.” He did not drop Hazel’s hand, lacing his fingers in their's. “But-” He halted as he cast his gaze upwards at the towers.
“It is not for sure,” he finally said. “My brother lives here.” Fletcher pointed his free hand up to the towers.
Hazel gazed up to the monastery towers. “Will he be permitted, guests?”
Memories of the punishment a few other clerics had received after smuggling in acquaintances pushed to the surface. Surely all places were not so harsh?
“Yes,” Fletcher said. “He told me he had a spare room. However, that was a year ago.”
He pulled his gaze from the towers, facing Hazel. “If not, we can book somewhere in town. There is at least not a celebration happening here.”
Past the carriage house was the main entrance to the monastery, an enormous wood door with intricate carvings of swirling shapes etched into it. They were held open by large stones and a pair of guards dressed in the crimson of the Fjorden military.
To control embedding is to control the world.
That was the motto of the monarchy, etched above the door. The staff of Celestihalo were treated well, given private quarters and workshops within the sprawling building. Their every need was taken care of. The King made sure of that in exchange for access to their research.
Beyond the door was a massive foyer, tiled with black and white marble and white columns that spanned up to the painted ceiling. The scene above was barely visible to the human eyes. A navy sky had been drawn onto the ceiling with countless glittering stars. In the center was their planet, Ithea, depicted with the rings in iridescent glory.
“Damn,” Fletcher breathed.
Hazel had never been in a place like this. Garth kept his home dreary and gray, as though he feared spending coins on the well-being of anyone besides himself. In keeping with that, Hazel knew very little of the nuances of magic. The crystal embedded in their chest controlled their healing and the one on their lower back would “protect” them, though Hazel did not know what the Scholar had meant by that.
“It is...very impressive.” Hazel agreed.
“I can’t imagine living in a place this grand.” Fletcher halted in the foyer, breath held tight.
Scholars and clerics alike milled about, arms full of scrolls and tomes. A woman in floor-length white robes, trimmed in crimson chatted with her blond companion. A man with a long white beard read from a book as he stumbled over the step facing the front door. Snippets of conversation drifted through the air.
”Did you attend Professor Leen’s lecture?”
“I cannot believe-“
“I think I’ll choose Flow. It’s unorth-“
“Excuse me,” Fletcher approached the woman in white. “Do you happen to know where Louis Black’s quarters are?”
The cleric robes she wore were pristine and modest with a high collar. She had her hair pulled into a high bun, loose strands framing her young face.
“Scholar Black,” she clarified, her nose wrinkling at the name.
Scholar? The internship must have gone well if he had gotten a title out of it.
“He is probably in another professor’s quarters,” she continued.
Her blond companion hid a snicker behind her hand.
“Where is his office,” Fletcher asserted, expression steely.
The woman in white cleared her throat. “Second floor, I believe. In the Lyfe research department.”
“Thank you.” His voice was flat.
Hazel followed silently, feeling out of place here. Even the robes were more extravagant than their own. It seemed that a haughty attitude was its price. Was it too difficult to provide a simple answer? Must she loudly voice her opinion without the courage to do so plainly?
Of course, these things sounded brave and verbose as they bounced through Hazel’s mind, but there they stayed as Hazel merely stood behind Fletcher.
They ascended the steps, passing by the white-bearded man as they went. The second story looked much like the first, with marble floors and walls and impeccably clean. The ceilings were not quite as high, at least in the hall they strolled down. But that did not last for long.
It was a large section of the second floor, to the east, and centered around a large circular room. The sky above was visible in the middle, peeking through a glass dome. Plants and full-sized trees sprung up in planters, situated around fountains and pathways more akin to a park than a school.
There were doors around the edge of the room, presumably offices and lecture halls.
Lyfe Department certainly did its name justice. Hazel had never been surrounded by this much green indoors. And unlike the forests cleric work often brought them to, it did not feel hostile and ready to attack at any given moment.
To the left, next to a lovely translucent glass rose bush, was seated who Hazel could only assume was Louis Black.
The family resemblance was profound. Their hair was the same wavy auburn, though Louis's fell longer down to his mid-back. He was clean-shaven and dressed in a smart cobalt vest and white buttoned shirt with the sleeves rolled to the elbow. Round gold-rimmed spectacles sat on his nose and were held on by a matching chain in front of distinctly blue eyes.
Louis was the spitting image of Fletcher, albeit with none of the ruggedness that smithing life provided.
“Lou,” Fletcher spoke, the name unpracticed on his tongue.
Louis looked up, breaking into a sunny smile. “Fletcher.” He was on his feet at once, embracing him. “You’re here.”
Hazel stepped back from his rapid approach. The stark contrast in friendliness between him and the woman downstairs was jarring.
“Why are you here,” Louis continued, stepping back to look him in the face. Close up, the differences between the two brothers became clear. His features were much sharper behind his glasses, nose narrow and splattered with freckles. “Not that I’m not thrilled.”
“I’m passing through,” Fletcher said. “We are passing through.” He nodded to Hazel.
Louis's shrewd eyes zeroed in on them. “Oh,” he exclaimed. “She is lovely.”
“This is Hazel,” Fletcher said, grabbing onto Louis's arm before he could harass them. “Hazel, this is my brother, Louis.”
Louis sidestepped Fletcher’s hand, bowing deeply. “It’s a pleasure.”
Hazel blushed at this sudden praise. They returned the bow, hands folded. “It’s always a pleasure to meet a brother of Fletcher.” His friendliness was almost overwhelming as he danced around Fletcher.
“Oh,” Louis chuckled. ”Are you the reason my brother left Maple Hollow?” He studied them over the rim of his glasses.
Hazel couldn’t answer. The phrasing Louis used was odd to hear out loud. Had Fletcher truly been such a homebody?
“Lou,” Fletcher cut in, rubbing his temples.
Louis glanced at Fletcher. “Ah. Well-“ He straightened his glasses. “It’s lovely to see you again. I thought you’d never leave.”
Louis grimaced. “Ah. Well. No matter. Please-.“ He motioned with his hands. “Come to my office. I have-“ He wrapped a hand around Fletcher’s upper arm. “-Something to discuss with you.”
Hazel took a place beside Fletcher, looking up at him with uncertainty. “Is...is this gonna be ok?”
Fletcher let himself be steered by Louis. “I-“ he murmured, leaning close to Hazel’s ear. “I believe so.” Though his voice wavered. “If something happens...”
“You know I can hear you both.”
Leading by his arm, Louis pulled them to a nearby door made of shiny cherry wood, the name Louis Black was engraved on the plaque.