Alyssum – Chapter Thirteen

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Two Days Later

Leon’s evocation marker was an incredible object. The scroll-like marker consisted of two finely-carved cylindrical ivory containers and what appeared to be a thick page of vellum between them. When the scroll opened, the vellum would unfurl from within the cylinders to present a “blank” page, and when closed, the vellum retracted precisely when intended and not a moment sooner. With the “blank” page open, Leon could say any number of ashanti words (in a language he called drael-dena) to “command” the scroll to reveal important information, all displayed in a variety of shimmering colored lines and light. The word ‘lah-sev-rai’ would cause a list to appear upon the vellum, revealing, as Leon explained, a record of the various supplies and ingredients carried in the wagon (minus the concealed ones, of course). With the word ‘nal-dor-ma’, the vellum would reveal a map of the surrounding area. And with the words ‘dah-si’ and ‘dah-sol’ respectively, the map would enlarge or shrink to reveal more or less of the world around their current location. It even displayed the wagon, Poro, and the faint shimmering outlines of deer moving through the forest. How the marker could do all of this, Aeo hadn’t the faintest idea.

One of the most important commands for the marker was the word ‘fah-coh-pah’, which enabled Leon to contact any other marker he knew the name of. He used this function to contact an ashanti by the name of Master Kane Dolshir, someone Leon had mentioned before as a peer in the alchemy department of the Academy. His voice came in loud and clear as if he were sitting in the wagon himself, and Leon didn’t even need the marker to be open to speak to him.

“Leon, it is wonderful to hear from you, my boy!” The ashanti’s accent was very pronounced, almost lyrical in its deep bass tones. “I haven’t heard from you in ages! Where have you been all this time? I haven’t been able to contact you.”

Aeo remained quiet.

“I’m about six weeks’ travel from the Everspring,” Leon said, holding Poro’s reigns as the wagon rolled on down the dirt road. “Traveling south in Antiell. You can track my marker if you’d like. Is this evocation shielded?”

There was a slight pause, and then the sound of Master Dolshir mumbling a few ashanti words.

“It is now,” Master Dolshir said. “But when you say things like that, I worry for your safety. Have you been on the road for two years, or working in one spot in particular?”

“A year and half in one spot. I didn’t dare contact anyone in that time. Let’s just say I have quite the haul of fascinating flora our first level students will fall in love with. As for the rest, Kane, I’m afraid I’ll have to speak with you privately when I arrive. Just know that it’s important, and I’ll need to rely on your assistance.”

“You’ll have it, of course,” Master Dolshir said. “But not even a shielded conversation will suffice? Tell me straight, Leon, are you in danger?”

Leon paused.

“I don’t believe so,” he said. “But my work can’t have gone unnoticed. Especially now. I’m afraid I may have overplayed my hand.”

Aeo frowned, sitting in the back of the wagon with a blanket around him and listening intently. They were in danger? From who? From what?

“Well,” Master Dolshir said, sounding as if he were settling into a chair. “That isn’t out of character for you. One of these days, no-mwen, someone’s going to discover what you’re up to. Do I even want to know?”

No-mwen, the drael-dena word for ‘clever boy’. Ironically used, Leon was sure.

“You’ll want to know, yes,” Leon said. “But I guarantee you won’t like it.”

“A feeling I am familiar with,” Master Dolshir said with a sigh. “Very well. I shall await your arrival with great anticipation.”

“Oh, and another thing,” Leon said. “I have a new apprentice, he’ll need citizenship papers for the Academy when we cross the border. You wouldn’t mind putting those together, would you Kane? Come, Aeo, say hello.”

Aeo dropped the blanket and stumbled towards the front of the cart.

“An apprentice?” Master Dolshir said. “Wonderful! I didn’t know you were looking for one! That is something I can certainly do. What’s his name again?”

“Come, say your name,” Leon said, turning in his seat to offer Aeo the marker.

“Umm… It’s Aeo, sir.”

Vai-kahl, my boy! Let me write that down. Did you say ‘Aay-oh-seer’?”

Aeo looked puzzled. Leon smiled and rolled his eyes a bit.

“No, Kane,” he said. “Just Aeo. A-E-O, I believe. A fairly common Antielli name. Does that sound right, Aeo?”

“Um… I think so.”

“Does Aeo have a last name?” Master Dolshir asked.

“I don’t… believe so,” Leon said.

Aeo nodded.

“Interesting,” Master Dolshir said plainly. Aeo wasn’t sure what he meant by that. “Is he Antielli? Eye color, hair color? Date of birth?”

Aeo shook his head, his long hair flopping about.

“Red eyes. Red hair. And… we’re not sure about the birthdate,” Leon said.

There was another pause.

“Ah. I see.”

“He’s a free Edian now, but I don’t have any papers to prove his freedom. Everything was performed fairly… unofficially. Do you think we’ll have a problem at the border?”

“I don’t believe so,” Master Dolshir said. “Not as long as there is an Academy representative at the crossing expecting you. I’ll ask one of my students if they would travel there for some extra credit.”

“Also,” Leon said. “Aeo may have… burned down a village. All on his own. I am unsure if rumors of the destruction will reach the border before we will.”

Another pause.

“Wonderful,” he said, decidedly less enthusiastic than before. “I won’t question your motivations, Leon. But what makes you think the Academy would want to accept a practicing arsonist? The Academy already has more than our fair share of firestarters who would be in prison if not for education reform.”

That word again, Aeo thought. Arsonist. Firestarter. Is that what it means?

“Well, he didn’t start the fire with matches or bombs, Kane,” Leon said. Aeo kept his mouth shut. “It was magickal, and the boy’s only… eight? Nine? He shows a lot of promise as a thaumaturgist. He just needs training and discipline. Master Naal will have his hands full, but I think he’ll be overjoyed to have a student like Aeo.”

“I suppose so,” Master Dolshir said with a laugh. “As long as he isn’t brewing dioxide bombs and hurling nitrate flares in the hallway!”

“No, nothing like that,” Leon said with a chuckle. “Although I expect a few singed shirts and pants here and there. Eh, Aeo?”

Leon patted Aeo’s head, and Aeo attempted a smile. The thought of holding fire in his hands again filled him with an unmistakable dread.

“Okay, ‘red’, ‘red’, ‘unknown’ birthdate, approximately age nine… Academy class: fourth level thaumaturgy. Do you know your heritage, Aeo? Your parents? I don’t suppose you know if you were born in Edia. Were you, my boy?”

Aeo frowned and shook his head. His earliest memories said something otherwise, but he honestly didn’t know. Same with parents: only vague figures and voices, nothing concrete.

“A lot of unknowns, I’m afraid,” Leon said, noticing Aeo’s reaction.

“My apologies,” said Master Dolshir’s voice. “Well, it matters not what you were, it only matters what you’ll soon become. Your destiny will be yours and yours alone.”

“Yeah,” Aeo whispered.

“No arguments here,” Leon said. “Need anything else?”

“Don’t suppose you know the boy’s height or weight?”

Leon looked at Aeo, and Aeo looked at Leon.

“Not a clue,” Leon said. He smirked. “Short and skinny aren’t appropriate for state papers, though.”

“Hey, I’m not short,” Aeo pouted. He could accept skinny.

“I’m kidding,” Leon replied with a whisper.

“Indeed they’re not. But that will give me enough to work with; I’ll write down averages, and that should suffice. I don’t expect the Antielli border patrol to start weighing and measuring every immigrant that passes through their lands.”

“I worry they might make an exception for an Edian boy,” Leon said. “But I’ll trust in the student you send to meet us. I’ll contact you again when we’re closer to the border.”

“Excellent,” Master Dolshir said. “And, Leon… It’s good to hear from you. I expect you’ll have a grand story to tell me.”

“Yes, I will. Thank you Kane.”

“Shall I contact your mother to let her know you’re coming?”

Leon paused for a moment.

“No,” he said. “I’ll meet with her when we arrive.”

There was silence on the other end for a split second.

“If you’re certain,” Master Dolshir said.

“I’m certain,” Leon replied, adjusting his position on the driver’s seat. Aeo frowned. That didn’t make much sense. Two years away from his mother, and he wants to wait another six weeks to say hello?

“Well, if there’s anything else you need from me,” Master Dolshir said. “Don’t hesitate to contact me. Do you have the supplies you need for your journey?”

“We’re nearing the town of Rurali. Shouldn’t be another day before we can get what we need.”

“Very good,” Master Dolshir said. “I’ll talk to you again soon?”

“Yes, thank you Kane.”

With that, the evocation faded, and Leon handed the marker to Aeo.

“Put that back in my bag, would you?” he asked.

“Sure,” Aeo said, walking to the back of the wagon.

“We want to be certain,” Leon said, turning his attention to the road ahead. “That when we cross the border, the soldiers there don’t think I’m attempting to smuggle an Edian slave to Ashant. The more questions they have, the more likely they’ll detain us… and commandeer the wagon. And that’s the last thing we want. I certainly hope whoever Kane sends to meet us knows how to sweet-talk Antielli soldiers.”

“Sweet-talk?” Aeo said. “What’s that mean?”

“Convince in a clever way,” Leon said. “Eh, praise someone even if you don’t mean it so they’ll do what you ask.”

“Isn’t that wrong?” Aeo asked, returning to the front of the cart.

Leon looked up at the bright morning sky and pursed his lips.

“Not exactly,” Leon said with a laugh. “Not if you can get away with it.”

Aeo arched an eyebrow.

“Sounds sneaky.”

“It can be. Perhaps I’ll have to show you how it’s done when we reach the border.”

 

*    *    *    *    *    *

 

The Next Day

The sun shone bright on the the western frontier highway, surrounded by beautiful pine forests and the rustling of orange, yellow, and red poplar and oak leaves. With the Falas Mountains draped in white to the east and the expansive Lake Darlendas to the west, the wagon rode along on a bumpy dirt path that felt more like a tight corridor than a proper road. Either way, the highway was fairly flat, and offered Aeo and Leon more comfort than the terrible pathways the mountain had afforded. The temperature had also increased considerably, and Aeo no longer felt the need for a blanket or his fur boots. In fact, for the first time in his life, he began to sweat a little bit as the canvas of the wagon permeated the afternoon heat.

It was about this time that Aeo realized something truly awful: he and his boots stunk to the high heavens. No surprise there, having been without a proper bath for about three or four weeks. He didn’t tell Leon, and hoped he wouldn’t say anything. After removing his boots, Aeo got a good look at his feet for the first time in bright sunlight: the tips of his toes remained slightly blistered and raw, and skin had begun to peel away from the darker colors. Immense relief came to Aeo as he finally aired out; now that the atmosphere no longer felt like an icebox, he could relax at long last. Even Leon had shed his grand coat and gloves, opting instead of a pair of avyasilk pants (that’s what Leon called the material, anyway), suspenders, and a white linen shirt with the sleeves rolled up. With his spectacles, he looked positively like a fourth-level schoolteacher.

After an hour or so, Aeo settled in against the blankets was about to fall asleep to the rumbling wagon and the gentle heat. But then he heard Leon’s voice: “Aeo, look.”

“Huh?” he asked, rubbing off the sleep in his eyes.

“We’re almost there.”

Aeo leaned against the front of the cart and peered through the opening towards the road ahead. For the first time in two weeks, Aeo saw signs of civilization in the form of small thatched farmhouses and stables, with large fields carved out of the expansive treeline to make way for waves of amber grain, bristling blowing in the gentle breeze. On both sides of the road, wooden fences penned fatted cows, growing calves, graceful mares, and strong stallions from wandering too far into the wolf-infested foothills of Falas. For about half an hour, the view remained much the same as the wagon passed field after field, farmhouse after farmhouse. It didn’t matter, though; Aeo sat at the wagon’s front, enthralled. Occasionally, Aeo would see young children playing in front of their homes with their mothers looking on, and farmhands harvesting the ripened fields. Birds flew from tree to tree, singing their harmonious songs to each other.

“It’s quite the sight, isn’t it?” Leon asked. “Much more lively and colorful than Olvaren.”

“What is all that?” Aeo asked, pointing. “All the yellow?”

“What is… Oh, you mean the field? I imagine it’s wheat or barley. Never seen a field like that before?”

“No,” Aeo said. “But I’ve seen beet fields once. And lettuce and carrots. There was a garden in the back of the inn… for a while. I guess Aristé gave it up.”

“She wouldn’t let you tend to the garden?” Leon asked.

“I was too little,” Aeo said.

“Well, good news. When we get to the Academy, one of the things you can do is help me tend to my garden. It’s up on the balcony of my workroom, and it’s filled with all sorts of herbs and flowers. I’d even pay you to watch over it.”

Aeo’s eyes opened wider.

“Really?” he asked quietly. “With money?”

“Ha, certainly,” Leon said cheerfully. “You’ll have lots of opportunities to help me. That’s what it means to be my apprentice. I’m not the best teacher in the world when it comes to your talents. So technically you’ll be working with Master Edin-Rao Naal for your primary schooling, but you’ll assist me with my projects while you’re not busy studying. Unless, of course, you decide to go exercise, or eat in the refectory, or read books in the library…”

Aeo hunched over and rested his head on his arms.

“I… don’t know how to read,” he said glumly.

Leon nearly dropped the reins.

“What?” Leon frowned, and raised his voice. “Oh, of course, it’s only natural… Never teach a slave anything, and they’ll never run away, right? The unmitigated gall of those bloody… mel-ysok. The only thing that makes me angrier than slavery is the neglect of a child.”

Aeo sat up and gulped. He hadn’t expected that. When Aeo didn’t say anything for a few passing moments, Leon cleared his throat.

“Sorry, Aeo,” Leon said. “That’s a bad ashanti word, and you shouldn’t repeat it.”

Aeo made a mental note.

“…would you…teach me how to read?” Aeo asked.

“Absolutely,” Leon said. “That will be our first priority when we arrive. I’ll speak with the linguistics department and I’ll have their finest tutor help you. I’ll assist your study as well.”

Aeo had never thought it an option. The idea filled him with a strange thrill.

“How did you fare at the inn without knowing how to read?” Leon asked.

Aeo shrugged.

“People just told me what they wanted to eat,” he said. “I memorized the menu, sort of. I memorized their orders, too. Sometimes priests would come and teach about the Goddess, and they would hand out papers. I tried to learn how to read them, but I couldn’t figure it out by myself.”

“Well, it was good of you to try,” Leon said. “It means you have the desire to learn. And it’s good you have a keen mind for memorization. There’s more to learning than just memorizing, of course, but it does help.”

As the wagon continued down the road, the houses seemed to clump together in tighter groups and the fields became smaller and more neatly aligned with proper fencing. Then, unbelievably, the dirt road turned into a pebbled cobblestone avenue. The dwellings grew taller, no longer made of timber and thatch but of stone and brick. The townspeople hastily went to and fro, not minding the wagon that rode through the main thoroughfare. Every so often, a person or two would make a passing glance at Leon, then stare at the red-eyed boy peering through the wagon flap. Or, at least, it seemed that way, as many of these people’s faces grew sour at the sight. Aeo did his best to hide and watch the town’s wonders at the same time.

Stationed every so often would be a man or woman clothed in chain or leather armor, carrying a sword at their belts or a spear in their hands. Leon waved at one of them, a particularly large Rurali town guard, and stopped Poro with a quick shout of “bah-si”.

“Good afternoon, sir,” Leon said with a cheerful voice. “Could you direct me to the town’s general store? I’m looking to purchase supplies for my travels.”

With a flash of annoyance and a gruff manner, the man directed Leon further into the town, apparently just a few blocks from their destination. Leon thanked him, and the wagon rolled forwards with a “nee-ah”.

Rurali appeared completely different from Olvaren. Where the small mountain town had a few simple outdoor stalls and a humble cabin store that everyone collectively called a marketplace, Rurali had rows and rows of shops and specialty services filled with people. Flower carts filled with chrysanthemums and begonias, row after row of fresh apples, pumpkins, cauliflower, and potatoes, and even strange lifted seats upon which people sat while an attendant wiped their boots and shined their shoes with dirty cloths; at least they looked dirty from a distance. Horses lined the streets, being ridden or tied to posts waiting for their riders to return. Supplies filled wagon after wagonby carried by strong men, loaded or unloaded depending on their destination. The air faintly smelled of manure (to be truthful), but also of baked bread, delicate perfumes, and the scent of blooming roses.

Aeo even saw a few red-haired women and children carrying loads and sacks in their arms or over their shoulders; if they were slaves like he had been, their owners actually let them walk outside freely. Everything was slightly mesmerizing; how much more amazing and active would the Academy be?

Leon pulled the reins to one side, and the wagon turned down a particularly busy road. With great care, Leon and Poro worked together to maneuver towards a large whitewashed two-story building. It wore large black letters painted above the entrance. The wagon stopped just besides the great building on the far edge of the cobbled road.

“Leleve’s Market and Emporium,” Leon said, reading the sign. “Charming.”

Aeo obtained a peek through the entrance, and saw the store filled with a enormous crowd. Aeo thought it was a crowd, at least; he no longer had a frame of reference for anything.

“All right, Aeo,” Leon said, turning in the driver’s seat to face him. “I’m going to head inside. Can you watch over the cart while I’m gone? Don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t think people would appreciate a… partially-naked boy running around barefoot in the store.”

“Oh,” Aeo said. “Um… I can put my boots on. Please?”

Leon considered for a moment.

“I need you to watch the cart so people don’t come to steal anything.” Seeing Aeo’s face, he said: “Don’t worry, you probably won’t even be bothered. I’ll come back out with some fresh clothes for you. Afterwards, we can find some place to spend the night, and come back to shop after a fresh bath. Surely the local inn has one. I’m starting to smell a bit ripe. I’m sure you are too.”

Aeo wrinkled his nose and frowned. So he had noticed.

“I guess…” he said quietly.

“Thank you, Aeo,” Leon said, jumping down from the wagon. He stepped over and tied Poro up to one of the posts, then came around to the back to grab his bag. “I won’t be gone long.”

With that, Leon entered the store and disappeared into the crowd. Feeling somewhat abandoned, Aeo instinctively shut the front flap of the wagon and rolled himself up in a fur blanket despite the heat. Dozens of people passed either coming or going from the store. No one looked into the wagon deliberately, but he saw a few curious eyes peer inside and notice him. The way they all dressed was so different from Olvaren: the men wore suspenders and work shirts and vests, and Aeo even spotted a few wealthy-looking gentlemen with blue or red tunics and doublets topped off with floppy-looking hats. Most women wore long dresses and aprons of drab colors, but once in a while Aeo saw younger women dressed much like the men in a variety of pale colors. No one wore coats or gloves in Rurali. Many wore leather or straw hats, not to stay warm but to hide their eyes from the sun. Like Olvaren, the men wore facial hair in all manner of ways, including some of the red-haired and red-eyed Edian folk. Dark-skinned or light, the Edians seemed more than tolerated in this raucous concourse.

To keep himself from panicking, Aeo dug into the food crate and pulled out a pair of apples. To be truthful, the fact that Leon allowed him to essentially eat as he pleased was both a thrill and burden. He’d been refused from feeding himself for so long, he couldn’t help but feel a bit guilty for doing so. But in the intervening days traveling with Leon, it was becoming more habit to snack every so often, even without asking for permission. After all, Leon did it himself, relying on Aeo to be his assistant as he drove.

For a few minutes, Aeo munched on an apple and watched the passing people from inside the wagon. He felt sleepy, but too worried about someone jumping into the wagon demanding money or food to rest his eyes. Eventually, with both apples eaten, cores and all, he sat there and wondered what he should do. What should he do? After all this time, he felt nervous whenever he wasn’t doing something. But then again, he was doing something by waiting for Leon. And unlike Leon, he couldn’t crack open one of Leon’s alchemy textbooks and read, lacking the skill and all.

He tried to keep Pick and Harthoon from his mind, but just a few days time was not enough to process everything. Harthoon in particular; he could still hear his former master’s screams. How in the world did he summon such a terrible flame to his hands? If he found himself in mortal danger like that again, could he repeat the act? What if Leon attempted to teach him and Aeo accidentally unleashed such a potent flame upon him? Surely Leon had ways to protect himself from Aeo’s inexperience. Right?

In the short time he and Leon traveled, Leon had made no effort to teach Aeo anything about magick. But then again, Leon seemed very tired by the end of each day, and rose with the sun to continue on the road. They seemed to travel at quite a steady pace, nearly in a rush now that the road had flattened. Maybe a night in a proper bed would do them both some good.

Deep in his musings, something caught Aeo’s eye. A large uncovered cart had turned down the street, lead by a pair of brown horses. It slowly approached the general store at a generous speed, weaving through the people crossing the road. Three men rode the wagon, an Antielli driver and what appeared to be two red-haired Edian men. Then, without provocation, the driver pointed.

Right at Aeo.

His stomach sank immediately as the wagon approached. Within a few meters of Leon’s wagon, the cart came to a halt.

“Hey!” the driver shouted at Aeo, waving his hands. “You, kid! You can’t park your wagon here! I’ve got goods to deliver!”

Aeo’s eyes widened, and he didn’t say a word. Maybe if he didn’t look scared, the man and his cart would drive away. They didn’t, of course, and the man stood from the driver’s seat, his face turning a fuming red color.

“Oy, small fry! Are you listening to me?! I said you can’t park here! Get your wagon out of the way!”

Aeo, stunned, couldn’t form words. He attempted to make himself as small as possible in the back of the wagon. Naturally, this didn’t work. The Edian men looked over at the boy in the wagon with dull faces. Unlike them, the driver appeared positively furious. He stepped down from the driver’s seat onto the ground. Walking over to the back of Leon’s wagon, he slapped his hands against the back bar.

“Move your wagon! Now!”

Some people in the crowd began to notice the spectacle. The driver’s voice couldn’t have raised louder. At last, Aeo sputtered.

“I don’t… I don’t know how… It w-was Leon parked here, he sh-sh-should be back soon…”

“I don’t care who your owner is, you little waste,” the man hissed. “If you don’t move this wagon right now, I’m calling the guards and make sure they throw you behind bars. Now moveyourwagon.”

His tone was familiar. Too familiar. In a blind panic, Aeo lifted himself from his seat and opened the front flap of the wagon. He crawled through and sat upon the driver’s seat only to realize that Poro’s reigns were still tightly tied to the post down below. Aeo hastily jumped down from the wagon, and hard cobblestone hammered his bare feet. He clawed at Leon’s knot, but couldn’t immediately get it undone.

“Hurry up, kid! Get your wagon gone now!”

Aeo’s fingers fumbled, and at last freed the reigns. He clambered back onto the driver’s seat and immediately felt the wagon shudder under Poro’s power. She knew she was free, and Leon was not the one directing her.

What are the words… What are the words?!

It came to him in an instant.

“Uh, nee-ah, Poro!” Aeo mumbled. “Nee-ah!”

“What’s taking so long?!” the driver shouted, approaching Aeo. “I’m calling a guard! That will teach you to waste my time, you little-”

“I’m trying, sir!” Aeo shouted. Just as he’d seen Leon do, Aeo slapped the reigns and shouted loud and clear: “Nee-ah!”

“Aeo!” a voice shouted.

Aeo wasn’t certain what happened first. The driver of the cart raced towards him and nearly grabbed Aeo’s leg with his thick hands. At the same time, Poro winnied like mad. She must have become as panicked as Aeo, because she charged forwards with all of her might into the crowd before her. Aeo nearly fell off the cart from Poro’s power and the pull of the cart driver, but just held on to the driver seat by his fingertips; the reigns were long gone from his grip. Poro’s hooves stampeded down the cobblestone road, with the wagon wheels rumbling and creaking like a chaotic earthquake. Men and women screamed, pulling themselves and their children out of the path of the runaway wagon. Poro didn’t collide with anyone herself, but the wagon came dangerously close to hammering some of the more oblivious. Worse, Poro showed no signs of slowing down in the slightest. She galloped at full speed down the cobblestone road as if wolves were chasing her heels.

Of course, Aeo didn’t understand the specifics of the situation. He was too busy trying to hang on for dear life.

“Poro!”

What is the word?!

Bah-si! Bah-si!” he screamed.

No reaction from Poro. In fact, she seemed to speed up.

Bah-si!” he screamed again, feeling his hands slipping. His feet nearly scraped the ground, and were about to skid across the unforgiving stone like a plucked chicken.

Unbeknownst to him, the end of the thoroughfare approached in the form of a fairly well-constructed brick wall. In a split second peek, he saw it, and tried to haul himself up to the driver’s seat.

Bah-si, Poro! Bah-si!”

No use.

Poro was an intelligent horse. Even in her stressed state, she knew she carried a heavy load, and she recognized a solid obstacle when she saw one. As the crowd of people thinned near the end of the road, Poro took a desperately-hard right turn. The wagon nearly tumbled over.

Aeo flew straight off.

He expected the back of his skull and his spine to shatter against the cobblestone. He suspected his end had come in a rush of violence. To his surprise, he never met the ground. At least, not as immediately as he should have. He heard the sound of a hammer shattering a glass window, and suddenly gravity no longer held him for a miniscule moment. Then, he careened through the air in a backflip, and raised his hands to shield himself from the ground. This time he saw the source of the sound: in a bright flash of blue light, a bubble-like surface about a foot from Aeo’s outstretched hands made the boy bounce as if it held him in a weightless, cracking into pieces like someone threw a rock through a mirror.

Aeo continued to flip twice more, and with each collision, the bubble appeared and fragmented against the ground, suspending Aeo above the road each time. On the last flip, the bubble no longer appeared. Aeo crashed into the ground hands and knees first.

For a moment, he allowed the pain to occur. Not a lot did. Lifting himself, he looked at his scuffed hands: no blood, but he’d scrapped off a bit of skin. He slowly stood to his feet, and looked at his knees: a little tender from the stone road, but none the worse for wear.

Then Aeo spun around. Poro was nowhere to be found. On the ground were the bright-blue remains of the mysterious “glass”, spread across the cobblestone like so many pulverized shards of light. Within a few seconds, those shards disappeared, melting into thin wisps of smoke and fading from view.

Perhaps three dozen onlookers stood staring in awe and pointing their fingers right at him.

Blood rushed to his head, and not because he’d been injured. He looked back at the road from whence he’d come, and to his horror, four men in chainmail, swords, and helmets were charging towards him. He didn’t dare stay, but he didn’t dare flee. He simply remained still.

“You! Boy!” shouted a guard. “Don’t you dare move!”

Once they were upon him, two guards grabbed Aeo’s arms by the wrist and yanked him forwards.

“No, please!” Aeo cried, struggling quite uselessly. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to! Please!”

“Don’t resist!” shouted a particularly imposing guard. “It’s the lock-up for you, you stupid boy! You nearly ran over an entire load of people with that bloody wagon of yours!”

“For all we know, your idiot horse is still running!” another guard shouted.

“It’s… it’s not my horse!” Aeo said in a panic, tears immediately cascading down his face. “It’s Leon’s! I d-didn’t know how to drive it, and this man made me do it, and-”

“Shut up, boy!” said the first guard, practically lifting Aeo with one mighty arm. “And believe me, we’ll be having a chat with this ‘Leon’!”

“No, no! Please! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”

People stared at the boy, especially the angry ones that had nearly been run down. The guards hauled Aeo down the road towards a large red-brick building with a large sign that Aeo, in his panic, couldn’t have read even if he knew how. If Aeo stepped into that building, he knew his life with Leon would be over. He’d be sent back to Olvaren. He’d have to explain to Aristé how Harthoon died. She would kill him with her bare hands.

“No, no, no!” Aeo shouted, scraping his feet along the ground to gain traction.

“Stop… struggling!” the head guard screamed. “Carry him if you have to! Continue to resist, and it’s lashes for you, you little Edian shit!”

One of the guards opened the door to the building.

A voice shouted from somewhere distant in the crowd.

“Wait!”

The guards ignored the voice at first, and one of the guards lifted Aeo clear off the ground.

“Let me go! Please let me go!”

“Wait!” the voice shouted again, closer this time. “Wait, gentlemen, please!”

The town guards turned towards the sound, pausing their advance with Aeo in their grasp. A familiar figure approached them, practically wheezing from a strenuous run. Leon. In his arms he held a bundle of clothing.

“Please, wait,” Leon gasped, his hands on his knees.

“Are you the owner of this boy? Answer me!” the head guard demanded.

“I am… the caretaker… of the boy, yes.”

“What the hell was the boy doing, racing a wagon down the road at such speed?” the guard asked. “And during the busiest time of day! You do realize that he might have killed people!”

“Officer, you don’t have all the facts,” Leon said loudly. “I saw the whole thing, but didn’t have time to stop it… A very confrontational man nearly assaulted the boy, and Aeo acted the only way he knew how: by attempting to drive our wagon away from him. Of course, inexperienced as he is, my horse panicked at his attempt. It’s not the boy’s fault. If you want to arrest someone, the fool is at the general store right now gloating about it!”

“You expect me to believe that?” the guard demanded. “It doesn’t matter why it happened! The boy’s crime is at least six months in lock-up for his recklessness, maybe more if he hurt anyone! And I should probably arrest you as well for letting it happen!”

“Look, I know you’re all reasonable men,” Leon said. “People may have been frightened, but it doesn’t appear that anyone was injured, at least from what I saw on my run over here. Please, I can pay you to let us go.”

“Ha! A bribe, is it!” laughed the guard nearest the door.

“Call it a fine,” Leon said. “Let me compensate you, whatever you think is fair to cover the distress we caused. We will leave by tomorrow morning once we’re resupplied, and we promise not to return.”

The guard looked about ready to explode, but he paused mid-breath and looked back at the others for a moment.

“A fine, you say. I’d have to pass it by the chief,” he grunted. “Believe me, the fine is going to cost you.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Leon replied, breathless. “But I am willing to pay it.”

“Put the boy down,” the guard said. “But don’t you dare run, you little twerp. Follow me into the station.”

The moment the guard released his hold on Aeo, the boy leaped forwards and wrapped his arms around Leon’s waist and cried. Leon embraced the boy, and led him wobbling into the building.

 

*    *    *    *    *    *

 

As the afternoon wore painfully onwards into the dark evening, ominous steel-gray clouds smothered the bright sky that had so dominated the pleasant atmosphere of Rurali’s day. Aeo sat upon the edge of his large wool-filled mattress, having been escorted by two armed guards to a quiet inn on the southern edge of the village. Using his marker’s map, Leon tracked down the wagon and Poro. She was quite winded and distressed, but she had indeed stopped on the northern edge of town, choosing to help herself to an empty field of long grass to calm down. Leon had yet to return; he’d departed to reorganize the wagon and drive it back to the general store in order to complete his resupply. Distant thunder slowly became more considerable as rain began to pitter-patter on the roof, rising into a constant torrent of noise.

It didn’t rain much in Olvaren, certainly not in any heavy amount. Perhaps in Rurali, it occurred more often. Aeo decided he liked the sound of rain. It smothered his thoughts, for there were too many going through his head to even attempt sleep. He itched his shoulder; it was now covered by a light white cotton tunic that draped a few inches too long down his arms and about his waist. His disgusting rags (which could hardly be called pants by this point) had been thrown away, replaced with proper brown hempen trousers. Leon had even purchased white cotton underwear for him, something he’d never worn in any meaningful way; perhaps he had worn cloth diapers when he was three or four, but those hardly counted. He wore long white socks that dangled loosely at his toes no matter how tightly he pulled them up his legs, and comfortable slip-on shoes made of soft leather.

It didn’t feel right. None of it. The fresh feeling of a bath in a real ceramic tub with actual warm water, the brush of comfortable clothing on his skin, the creaking bed upon which he sat, the potato soup dinner that filled his stomach, the sound of the rain and the crackle of fire from the open cast iron stove in the corner of the room… Everything that filled his senses made him feel completely ashamed. He deserved none of these pleasures. This marked the second time Leon had paid for Aeo’s mistakes, and this time he had been there to hear the price: two-hundred and fifty-five gold pieces. Not copper, not silver, but gold. Enough to purchase a small house, and Leon carried that much and apparently more in his bag.

The guards were right: Aeo belonged in a cell. Better yet, he deserved to remain a slave. He didn’t dare think of the Gray Pale, but perhaps there was somewhere else he could go. Some other work to which he could be suited. A farm, maybe. He’d taken care of horses before. Maybe he could work as a server in a bar. He was well-acquainted with booze, after all.

Lightning flashed through the room’s single window, startling him for a moment before a peal of thunder rocked through the building. Even that didn’t quiet his mind.

What of his magic? Could he conceal it? Maybe, maybe not. It seemed whenever his life was in danger, the blue light would appear to protect him… or fire would come and cause as much damage as possible. When he fell from the wagon, it felt as though he bounced weightless, suspended within a big glass container, its surface of light breaking and cracking and shattering over and over until Aeo came to a halt. In the end, all the pieces drifted away on the breeze and vanished as if nothing had happened.

He hadn’t told Leon. There had been no time to do so. Maybe Leon didn’t need to know. Maybe Leon would get tired of his company. Maybe Leon could drop him off at the next village and let him go to Edia. Maybe he could-

The door to the room slowly opened. Leon stepped in with his bag and several other items in his arms. His hair was sopping wet, as was his thick coat.

“Hello,” he said without expression, shedding his coat and hanging it on a peg next to the doorway. Aeo didn’t reply, sitting silently on the edge of his bed. He stared at the floor and didn’t dare look up.

“Aeo,” Leon said quietly. Aeo said nothing. Leon sat upon the second bed in the room. He pulled his thin spectacles from his shirt pocket and pressed them up against his nose. “I need you to do something for me.”

Aeo swallowed hard, and gently whispered:

“What?”

Leon paused.

“I want you to hit me.”

Aeo’s face twisted more bitter than vinegar.

“…what?”

“Come on, Aeo,” Leon said. “Stand up and hit me. Use your fist and punch me.”

Aeo looked at his lap.

“Why?”

“Don’t ask why,” Leon said, his voice soft but sure. “Just do it. Stand up, come on.”

Leon stood up and grabbed Aeo’s reluctant hands, lifting the boy to his feet and walking him forwards. He sat back down on his bed with Aeo before him.

“Hit me,” he said again. “Hard as you can.”

Aeo took a step backwards.

“No…”

“Aeo, do it.”

“No, I don’t want to.”

“Do it now.”

“No!”

“Hit me!” Leon shouted.

No! I won’t!”

“Aeo,” Leon shouted, his expression grim. “I will take you back to Olvaren if you don’t hit me this instant!

Aeo’s eyes widened and his temper flared. He wouldn’t. He couldn’t. His fists clenched, and he stood tense as a cornered animal. Hot tears filled his eyes.

“But you said I was free!”

“Hit me, Aeo! Now!

Aeo reeled back.

“You’ll never take me back there! Never!

He shut his eyes and swung his fist as hard as he could at his only friend’s jaw.

Glass shattered loudly and clattered against the floor. His fist connected with a surface as hard as a slab of granite but as forgiving as a pool of water. Aeo’s eyes opened from shock, and he saw nothing but bright blue light where Leon’s head had been. No, he was still there, with the same grim expression on his face, staring at Aeo through the light. Aeo pulled back his hand. It was covered in sharp fragments of blue magick, as if he’d put his fist through a pane of azure glass. They didn’t tear into his knuckles or cause physical pain, but they adhered to his skin as if they had. Then, as abruptly as they had appeared, the glass shards faded into smoke and fell away. The light surrounding Leon’s head faded as well, leaving the room in relative darkness.

Aeo stepped backwards, his breathing panicked.

“What… what did I…”

“Energy manipulation,” Leon said quietly. “I took the energy of your fist and used it to shield myself from harm.”

“It’s the same…” Aeo whispered, looking down at his hands. “It’s just like…”

“I know,” Leon said. “I know what happened. Everyone at the general store is talking about it. You fell off the wagon, but you didn’t hit the ground. A sphere of light protected you, and it sounded like broken glass as it fell upon the ground. Does that sound right?”

Aeo collapsed upon his mattress.

“…yes,” he said at last.

“Aeo,” Leon said. Aeo didn’t respond. “I didn’t mean it. About taking you back to Olvaren. I would never do that to you. Ever.”

Aeo’s heart was racing.

“Do you understand me, Aeo?” Leon asked.

Aeo looked up. He wiped the tears from his eyes; his hands were trembling.

“Why…? Why did you make me do that?” Aeo asked, heartbroken. “You… you paid so much for me! Why do you care? Why?

“Because you’re worth it, Aeo,” Leon said firmly, holding out his hand. “Aeo, I need you to trust me. I only want what is best for you. I want to teach you how to defend yourself, how to depend on yourself and your talents. Don’t be afraid of them. Don’t be afraid of other people. And don’t be afraid of me. Right now, it’s my job to take care of you, and I’m not going to stand idle while the world makes you suffer.”

Aeo wrapped his arms around himself and shut his eyes. He wasn’t worth this. Nothing mattered. He would never truly be free. He couldn’t be…

He heard the floor creak, and felt Leon sit beside him. Two strong arms wrapped around him, and he tried his best not to cry again. He failed, and with a whimper, his head pressed against Leon and he fell into sadness.

“It’s okay, Aeo. I’m sorry for making you do that. I’ll never do such a thing to you again, I promise. Everything will be all right.”

Aeo didn’t honestly think it ever would be.

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