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Eldan chased Cale up the walkway and onto the street, where she walked briskly just ahead of him. He reached back to fumble with his stave pack, patting every part he could reach until he was satisfied that the blade remained fully concealed in layers of canvas. As he pulled abreast with Cale he realized she had tears streaming down her face. Eldan had seen the remote but vicious side of Iyena, if rarely, as she remained cloistered in her rooms most of the time, but had never seen anything like the sheer strangeness she had exhibited today. Cale very seldom spoke about her mother, and Eldan knew that while whatever had happened to change her so completely cast a pall over the household, Cale’s life with her father was a happy one, in part because Iyena was, for all intents and purposes, absent.

“I’m all right, I just..” Cale blew out her breath sharply and stopped to scrub her face with her sleeve. “Let’s just keep going, we have a long way to go, right?” She smiled tentatively and Eldan nodded. He bumped his shoulder against hers and their hands, both cold and clammy, clasped briefly before they fell in step beside one another. Eldan felt a snake of guilt as he realized he was relieved that the bizarre scene between Cale and her mother had completely overshadowed the comments about his blade.

Eldan and Cale needed to travel through a warren of annexes to reach the Court of Keepers in the center of the sprawling city of Servandor. Each annex functioned as a nearly entirely self-contained town within the city, providing its residents with an independent and complete mercantile system, infrastructure, local governance and law enforcement. As settlements surrounding the city were annexed into the city proper each was required to establish boundaries and demonstrate self-sufficiency and the ability to accept and enforce the city laws. Some annexes centered around a single powerful individual with enough wealth to purchase the entire tract of land, and some, like the 32nd, were much more egalitarian, with land purchased in parcels by its citizens and governance enacted by elected council.

While people regularly traded among annexes or traveled to the city center for resources, it was not uncommon to hear of people that lived from birth to death without traveling outside their annex except for the required term with the Court of Keepers. Eldan had traveled with his mother to the outer annexes to purchase unrefined metals, and to the military barracks beyond to deliver orders of weapons. Cale was far better traveled, having accompanied her father to the heart of the city when he fulfilled his obligations as a Keeper, as well as among the annexes to trade with other jewelers. She had even having journeyed with him for many cycles to reach the mountains and sands to acquire rare gemstones, returning with stories of far-flung cities with foreign foods and customs, and nights spent making camp under the stars.

Cale now led them through streets, alleys, markets and neighborhoods, dodging people, horses and carts as they made their way toward the waterfront to follow the river to the main harbor at the city center. When they reached the low stone and sandbag wall at the river’s edge she scrambled over and dropped onto the firm, dried mud at the shoreline, with Eldan following gingerly as the stiff pack impeded even this short climb. When he dropped to the shore in a stumbling crouch Cale’s eyes narrowed slightly as she studied the pack peeking over his shoulder, but she just turned to face the water. “Thought we should come here one more time to take our lunch. After all, we might not be able to do this anymore after today.”

Eldan sat on a flat stone, gratefully removing the packs from his back, and began untying the laces on his boots. “I won’t let that happen. Even when you become Goldkeeper and I become.. successful, I will remember. We won’t be like all the other stuffy adults who never explore anything and only swim in the pools.” He pulled his boots off and tied the laces to his pack, rolling his pants to his knees and standing to walk across the expanse of mud leading down to the water.

Cale’s freckled face began to lighten at that, her eyes crinkling as a hint of her typical mischievous smile emerged, so Eldan pressed on. “There is going to be so very much to explore at the Court. I heard there are secret passages and hidden rooms that no one has found for centuries. There is supposed to be a door hidden in the fountain at the city square that leads to an entire abandoned underground city.” Eldan flushed with excitement. “We are going to be the ones to find them all. Perhaps we should look for the fountain door today?”

Cale shook her head, immediately beginning to turn over the logistics of searching for forgotten passages. “No, we will need to plan. We don’t want anyone else to know we are looking. There are guards that patrol the city center, and more people than you can imagine, especially when Court is starting session. We should start scoping out our approach, though. Take a stroll around like we are just city-struck outer annex yokels and memorize the layout.” Cale nearly always took the role of planner in their adventures, having a mind that seemed made for breaking down devious ideas into manageable steps. If Eldan was the impetus for their schemes, Cale was the driving force behind their ability to pull them off.

Eldan stepped into the shallows of the river, his feet sinking deeply into the soft mud as gentle waves of current lapped against his shins. The river was unusually placid, without the usual winds racing sheets of shallow ripples across the surface. Only faint dimples and swirls from the sluggish current and wide, slow bumps from the wake of distant ships disturbed the glassy surface. The thick, yellow clouds, however, made the depths look black and impenetrable rather than murky green. Eldan shivered, imagining huge, sightless, pale catfish deep beneath the dark waters. A small sunfish that had been eyeing this strange trunk that had suddenly appeared boldly nipped at his ankle and he gracelessly leaped backward out of the water with a strangled cry.

“What happened?” Cale jumped back, too, startled.

“Nothing, just a little fish. I.. I don’t know why it scared me like that.” Eldan turned and walked uneasily back toward the dry shore, pulling his feet free with a wet, sucking sound with each step. When he stepped onto firmer ground Cale turned to walk with him back to his packs, where by unspoken agreement they sat down on the flat rock to eat their tarts. They savored the flaky pastries in silence, each lost in their private worries about what was to come when they reached the Court.

Cale finished first, standing up to brush crumbs from her lap and crumpling the paper wrapping into a ball. Eldan took the last bite of his tart, smoothing and folding his paper carefully into a small square while he chewed.

“Let’s walk on the shore as far as we can go and then cut into the 1st annex?” Cale gestured upriver. Eldan nodded his agreement, mouth still full of tart, and began shrugging into the straps of his packs, remembering that the river wall grew steadily higher and closer to the river’s edge deeper into the city, until the shoreline disappeared completely as it neared the main harbor. He had never seen the harbor in person but had seen paintings of the dizzying maze of docks and winches surrounded by dozens of ships.

They both kept their boots laced to their packs as they trooped upriver, pausing occasionally to skip an especially smooth and flat stone across the river surface and making up the time by racing each other as they jumped from rock to rock closer to the wall, seeing who could make it the farthest without slipping and touching a foot to the ground. All too soon they found themselves running out of easily passable shoreline and had to stop to put on their boots before climbing back over the wall. They clambered out onto a large rock jutting into the current and took turns gripping the other under the armpits while lying flat on the rock as the person being held inched down to dip their muddy feet into the water to rinse them clean.

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Foxfires

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