Aton shuttered his balcony door and lay on his bed, exhausted. He had discussed plans and contingencies with his siblings for an hour or two, after which Misolfa had accompanied him and Reedl back to Grendhill. Domire had been the most interested in returning, but Reedl had suggested the notion that discretion was worth the effort, and the sight of two Farella boys might be more noticeable than a boy and a girl.
Aton and Misolfa had met with the royal council for hours after that, hashing out the details of the strategy to be employed and sending messengers to make arrangements. Nobody had any clue whatsoever who may have abducted the King and Queen, nor how to begin any concentrated search, with no information beyond the speed of their attack and what little Aton himself had glimpsed of their uniforms. Nevertheless, they had to start somewhere.
Thus, emissaries had been dispatched to all nations within two weeks’ travel of any platform of the Thallenroads, on any world. Most emissaries would have to visit multiple nations, as Grendhill did not maintain sufficient diplomats on staff to visit all known lands at once. The Guard selected a few of their best and brightest to go incognito among nations with suspected less-than-transparent tendencies, in an attempt to glean information that may not be offered freely.
The council, with Aton’s and Misolfa’s blessing, published only vague promises of rewards to individuals or favorable trade agreements to nations, for information leading to safe recovery of the sovereigns. The council officially awaited their safe return and accepted the guidance of the Farella youths in their stead. Meanwhile, all of Grendhill had nothing else to do for their King and Queen, but to wait. Reedl escorted Misolfa back to Harrval to continue awaiting her turn in the cave, and the other siblings would be apprised of any update immediately.
Meanwhile, they would continue their planned training in isolation with no change. Hopefully the King and Queen would be found very soon, but barring further developments, Valkyr would not be interrupted. She would learn of the abduction when she completed the two weeks alone with her bow.
Aton, awoken in the middle of the night, facing an unnaturally early dawn by travel to Harrval and then an inhumanely long morning by returning to Tasala, had finally collapsed into bed in an awkward position, one arm pinned beneath his torso and one calf bent underneath his other leg, extended. He didn’t care until his arm started falling asleep. He turned over to release his pinned arm and let his whole self succumb to his exhaustion.
Aton passed the next week in a haze. He did his customary time on the training fields and the library, but found himself listless during hours he would have passed observing his parents in court. He met once or twice with his parents’ council and mentally skimmed over the meetings, nothing really needing his full attention. The council was taking care of business in their rulers’ absence, and Aton gave the formality of approving their common-sense measures. It was mentioned, of course, that their messengers and emissaries had been sent, but there was no word back yet from any of them except that nobody knew anything.
Aton found himself spending some extra time in the library, reading old tomes on geography. There was so much to read. Dozens of worlds, hundreds and hundreds of countries and wildernesses were described. He dabbled in the history of some of the more interesting-sounding countries. Unsure of exactly what he was looking for, he hoped to find some clue for his parents’ disappearance. Maybe he would get extremely lucky and find an illustration matching the uniforms the kidnappers wore, identifying the nation they belonged to. Or maybe, just maybe, the abductors would kindly bring his parents back, safe and sound, and apologize. It seemed just as likely.
It seemed most of these old history books contained some mention of the mythical Diaspora, when humanity spread from a single fabled mother world across the Thallenroads to all the worlds they now inhabited. Everybody knew it was hocus—the Thallenroads had obviously been there for as long as the worlds had, since the platforms were indestructible. They could be obstructed. If you wanted to isolate your world, you built a wall around your platform. People could still come and go, but they could never step off the platform. They could be obstructed, but they could not be destroyed. There were histories of people who had tried. All failed, and none even left a scratch.
No, the Thallenroad platforms had always been there, created with the worlds. If humanity had spread from a single world, it would have happened over the passage of time immemorial, not as some event that one could read about in history books. They myths of the Diaspora were obviously hocus, yet they still existed. Reedl had once said something about people’s innate desire to explain the status quo, and to connect themselves to something greater. The Diaspora myths filled that need, tying all the worlds and all the countries in them to one fabled mother world, Arryth.
Arryth was a concept that connected all the worlds. The standard Year belonged to Arryth. Each world had its Turn to measure the seasons and the lives of people, but all Turns were of different lengths, each belonging to its world. The Year was a standard measure. If you came from a world with short Turns and needed to understand the age of someone from a world with long Turns, you converted to Years. There were other pieces to the myth. One moon as the standard, and supposedly Arryth is where many animal and plant species originated. Each world had some unique flora and fauna, and also shared some with all the other worlds.
But where was Arryth now? It was not one of the worlds found in human knowledge. Fifty-six worlds, that is all there ever was. There was no discovery of new worlds. Some people had different names for the same worlds, as Aton was reminded while reading these histories. But it was always clearly due to linguistic differences, not any confusion about the number of worlds. Arryth had been known as Arlit, Erithi, Arth, Eyart, as well as Tellan, Tern (which could be confusing when discussing the passage of large amounts of time), Telra, and so on. Ultimately, Arryth was nowhere.
And so, training and reading, the week passed slowly. Then late one night, Captain Bailen came to find Aton where he was reading in the library, curled sideways on a large armchair.
“Prince Aton, I’ve been looking for you. Normally you would be in your chambers at this hour.”
“Yes, but I can’t sleep well, since last week…”
“Yes, my lord. About that. There’s been a new development. Umm…”
Aton closed the book and sat up straight. “Yes?”
“Well, an arrow was just shot at the front gate to the palace grounds. We couldn’t tell exactly where it had flown from, but I believe that pursuit would be fruitless. Whoever loosed it is long gone.”
“An arrow at the front gate?”
“Yes, prince. There was a message attached to it. A ransom note.”
Aton looked at his brothers and sister, who stared back at him expectantly. Aton took a deep breath, then let it out through his nose.
“Did you have something to tell us?” Tido asked.
“Yes,” Aton said, but then stopped. Looking down to his side, with his left hand he wordlessly took hold of the single scabbard that hung there, grabbed the protruding hilt with his right hand, and drew the sword named Justice for all to see.
Domire and Misolfa inhaled sharply at the sight of the weapon. Tido made a clicking sound inside his cheek. “I see. Why are you carrying Father’s sword?” Aton responded with silence.
Domire spoke next. “I think a better question is, why isn’t Father carrying his sword right now? He never parts with it, as I don’t think I will, either, once I have mine in my possession.” His next question came out uncomfortably into the silence of the room. “Aton, where is our father?”
Again, Aton noted how the three of them stared at him expectantly. He took another deep breath, then finally spoke again. “Nobody knows. Mother and Father have both been abducted by an unknown party.”
Misolfa looked at him, wide-eyed. “What? When?”
“Not an hour ago,” Aton replied. Having arrived inevitably at the point of disclosure, he started speaking more quickly to get it all out. “I awoke in bed—something was odd. I arose to investigate and went to find Reedl to ask if anything seemed amiss to him. When I got to his home, I heard a shout of alarm from the palace. I ran back and when I got there, Mother and Father were gone. Father had left his sword on its rack next to their bed. I looked down from the balcony and saw scuff marks on the wall below. I ran back to Thallenrose Square and saw some people vanish from the Thallenrose. They’re gone.”
Aton finished and waited for his siblings’ reaction. They seemed to want more from him. He continued.
“Reedl tried to follow, using what I thought I heard their Sageman say. No effect. I evidently misheard them, but it was definitely no world we are familiar with. They were wearing a uniform that I have never seen before. It is nothing we know, not simply nothing we have seen personally. I learn all I can about diplomatic relations, and no nation that Grendhill is acquainted with uses these uniforms. Our Royal Guard did their job as best as could be hoped. There was posted, as usual, a double sentry outside our parents’ chambers, and they investigated when they heard a scuffle inside. The attackers departed too quickly, and the sentry found nobody inside. They were already gone. Reedl had a page awoken, and our parents’ council is being gathered right now. We came here to inform you and discuss. Also, we need to decide on a framework for a plan of action.”
As Aton finished, Reedl stepped forward to address the unasked questions in the incredulous eyes of the others. “It is true. Your parents’ disappearance is unexpected, of course. With Grendhill’s security and your own father’s constant readiness to face any foe, nobody could have imagined such an abduction possible, let alone so quickly accomplished. Nevertheless, it has occurred. I am here to guide you, though as you are of age, each of you on the cusp of Retrieval of your own Arms, I will try to act as a guide and resource only. Your parents’ Council is gathering, and you will need a plan before you meet with them if you expect to be heard properly, Council’s loyalty or no.”
Tido spoke. “How can this happen? How can they just break in and vanish? What are we supposed to do about it?”
Misolfa answered with anger in her voice and a scowl on her face. “We can’t let them get away with this! There is nowhere they can hide from us! We will hunt them down!”
Domire followed. “The cowards will—they’ll—”
Reedl cut in. “Young princes, princess, remember who you are. I do. I still remember the Impression I felt of each of you when you were born. True, an Impression is but a glimpse of the personality you are likely to grow into, but I expect you to fulfil every expectation. True, you are not yet your full selves, but you soon will be. You will feel and know yourselves as you are and as you ought to be.”
Reedl turned to each of Aton’s three present siblings. “Tido, look within yourself and find your confidence. It is in there, and if you do as you know you must, it will manifest itself for all to see. Misolfa, you have a kind heart. It is likely your kind heart towards your parents that generates this anger towards your enemies. Let your heart drive you, but do not swing as a pendulum. Domire, take a moment and find the answers within yourself. Your behavior will be above reproach and your wisdom will be uncontested. Do not allow this morning’s events to cloud your thoughts.”
Reedl turned to Aton. “You know I felt no Impression from you, and obviously you have no Arm to train with. Yet I have observed you for the past fifteen Turns. Your focus is unparalleled when you set your mind to a task. Your pragmatism has helped you overcome every obstacle you have found in your path. The current challenge is a new one, and daunting, but you know how to come ahead. Do as you have done for every other challenge before. Analyze it, find a way around it, and follow through. Let your inner light guide you.”
Finally, Reedl addressed the group. “Now, my young lords and lady, your parents have been carried away by some unknown enemy. How can I help you plan your path ahead of you?”
Reedl and Aton blinked against the sudden morning light as they landed on the Fassendais. Harrval’s pale sky greeted them out of the night that still prevailed in Grendhill. The pair made their way to Kascho’s home in silence, a heaviness hanging over them as they walked. Aton was armed, as was his custom, but today he did not carry his twin dao as he normally did. He felt the weight of the weapon he carried pulling him down, but at the same time the knowledge of its presence pushed him almost to take off running.
They presently arrived at the house and Reedl knocked curtly. Uillia smiled at them as she opened the door. “Come in, of course come in. Kascho’s out right now, but I suppose Aton is visiting his brothers and sisters? Well, brothers and sister, of course, the other sister being indisposed at the moment. Or at the week.” She let out a quick laugh. “Come on in, I expect they’re out back running through their forms like they do in the mornings. Should be done soon. Can I get you anything?” She let a quizzical expression slip through her friendly greetings, obviously curious about the Sageman’s presence attending Aton.
Reedl spoke. “Please gather the three of them. We need to speak with them as soon as possible. That is all right now, thank you.”
“Alright, one moment.” Their hostess disappeared towards the rear of the house.
A few moments later she returned, trailed by Domire, Misolfa, and Tido. The three were catching their breath and glistening with a thin layer of sweat.
Reedl addressed Uillia. “Madam, I apologize for our odd visit, and I apologize that we are not going to explain it at this time. Is there a room where the five of us can speak with greater privacy?”
Uillia nodded. “Yes, I will show you now.” She walked down the hall to lead them to a bedroom. “I understand you folks have important business all the time. It is no trouble. Besides, Kascho and I are paid so that we will accommodate such things, aren’t we? Now, is there anything I can get you to make you more comfortable?”
Aton, Domire, Misolfa, and Tido filed into the bedroom while Reedl stood in the doorway. Reedl paused a moment before answering the question. “Yes, please. Could I get some plain hot chocolate? And some for Aton, as well? It’s a very early morning for us.”
“Of course, as quickly as I can,” Uillia answered. She looked at Aton expectantly.
“Extra milk, please,” Aton answered the unvoiced question.
“Alright, I’ll be right back.” Uillia left and Reedl entered the room entirely, closing the door behind him.
“Aton, I will leave this to you—where would you like to begin?”
Aton stood in the darkness, dumbfounded. Somebody had just carried off the king and queen of Grendhill, right out of their own bed! With Guard standing sentry, somebody had dared to attempt abducting a Farella with Aguneg’s Gift giving him an edge. How… Aton shook his head. Where had they gone? He had not heard very well their instruction to the Thallenrose, but he was sure their destination was no place he had ever heard of. It only worked for finite destinations though; one could not simply make one up.
A guard came running down the street from the same direction Aton had come, red-faced and breathless. “What happened, my prince? Are you well?”
“I am fine,” Aton replied. “They’ve gone, though.”
“Who’s gone?” the Guardsman asked.
“I don’t know. I never heard…and they have my parents,” Aton answered in disbelief. “Go get me Captain Bailen! I need to speak with him at once.”
“And Sageman Reedl!”
“Uh—yes, prince.” The guard turned to go and nearly ran into Reedl walking up behind him. “Oh—I’ll go ask for the Captain, then!”
Reedl stepped aside to let the man pass. “What is going on, Aton?” Reedl asked with a probing look in his eyes.
“My parents have been abducted! We have to go find them,” Aton said urgently.
“Yes, yes, as soon as you have a proper escort gathered,” Reedl said. “Did you hear where they went? Wait—first, tell me what is going on. We must understand the full situation.”
Aton did not like the sound in Reedl’s voice. It sounded like he wanted Aton to slow down, but Aton just wanted to rush off to stop the abductors. “Yes, uh, they wen to…” Aton was trying to piece together what he had barely heard whispered as the party departed. He spoke quickly, trying to get it all out. “Well, I don’t know what’s going on. I just woke up, and something was weird. I followed it and found myself near your house, so I decided to ask you. I’m sorry I left you standing there suddenly, but I had to come find out what it was, and—”
“Very well, but now tell me where they went.”
“Yes, they went…I could barely hear him, Reedl. And I think Aguneg’s Gift let me hear him at all. He was all the way across the Square, and he was whispering, and I don’t think anyone else—”
“Where, Aton? I need to know where.”
“Right, of course. It was…at least, I think…it was, umm, ‘Artcha?’”
Captain Bailen came running. “Prince Aton, what is going on? Why did you run off?”
“My parents are gone, Captain. Somebody climbed the palace walls, in and out like lightning.”
“What do you mean? How?” Bailen quizzed.
“I don’t know how,” Aton said, “but there were scuffs on the toeholds outside and below my parents’ balcony. I ran here and saw them vanish off-world.”
Bailen looked alert again. “Where did they go? We will get a contingent and go find them.”
Aton looked at Reedl. “Can you take us there?”
“’Artcha?’” Reedl repeated the word back to Aton. “I’ve never heard of it. I’m almost sure it doesn’t exist.”
“But we have to try, Sageman,” Bailen pressed.
“Oh, I will try it right now,” Reedl said as he strode from the edge of the Square towards the middle. “I will try it alone. If it works, I will return as soon as I arrive. Don’t hold your breath.”
Aton and Bailen watched as Reedl covered the distance, mounted the Thallenrose, and spoke, “Andi mito mito ‘Artcha’ niti nun pondere!” Reedl looked back at them from where he still stood, blinked, stepped down from the platform, and calmly walked back to the edge of the Square.
Aton sputtered. “But it has to work. You have to take us—”
“Aton, it is apparent that you did not hear them clearly,” Reedl interrupted. “There is nowhere to go that we know of. Come.” Reedl turned to Bailen. “Gather your top staff. I will have the King’s and Queen’s advisor council woken. We will discuss what must be done.”
Aton couldn’t believe Reedl’s calm next to the rage he felt inside. “But we must—”
“And we will, my young prince. I only need to wake one messenger and he will do the rest of the gathering. Then you and I will meet with your siblings while your parents’ advisors are being collected.”
Aton ran all the way back to the palace, and in through the gate. He heard commotion above him. He sprinted through the shadowy palace and up a flight of stairs. As he approached the level with the royal chambers, he met Captain Bailen running down towards him.
“Prince Aton!” Bailen shouted. “What a relief you are here!”
“What do you mean?” Aton asked. “Where would you expect me to be?”
“Uh—here, of course, but I was worried that after your parents—and you weren’t in bed, either.”
“What do you mean?” Aton felt his confusion turning to dread. “My p-parents?”
The Captain flushed, eyes wide and breathing intense. “They’re not here, my prince. No warning, they’re just gone.”
“Well, I wouldn’t be so worried if I knew where, would I?” Bailen answered, urgency removing tact from his tone. “Come see if you can figure it out.” He turned to lead the way back up the stairs. Aton followed behind him.
As they jogged through the halls, Bailen shouted orders to members of the Guard. Aton had left a quiet palace only a few minutes before, and now it seemed everybody in the palace was on the search for his parents.
They trotted to a halt as they reached his parents’ chambers. Bailen pointed at the door latch and hinges. “No forced entry. You know the doors are normally kept unlocked. Tonight was no different because as usual, we had our sentries.” He addressed the guards, one on each side of the double doorway. “Tell Prince Aton what you told me.”
“There’s barely anything to tell, my prince,” the female one answered. “We were here, posted two hours ago, still fresh enough—”
“Get to the point,” Bailen prodded.
“Yes, sir. Nothing was happening, then we heard a yelp and a crash. We rushed in and the King and Queen were both gone. We checked the room and the balcony, then raised the alarm. That’s all we have to tell, except what you can see inside. The bed—”
“Thank you,” Bailen said. He led Aton inside. “You can see from the state of the bedcovers that there was some, but little, struggle. It appears that your parents may have been seized forcefully and quickly, before they had any time wake up and react. There sits your father’s sword in its rack on the wall, same as every night while he sleeps. It’s never so far from him as it is right now.”
Aton looked around and took in the room. Nothing was out of place except the bedcovers, evidently thrown to the foot of the bed at the moment of seizure. As the guards had said they checked the balcony, Aton saw the glass-paned balcony doors open. He trotted to the balcony and looked out, then down at the palace wall with its pattern of blocks protruding minimally out of the wall face. It would be too far to jump down. It would be too high to get up. Sure, the blocks’ edges would be climbable, but nobody could climb it fast enough to avoid being caught in the act, right? Besides, this was within a compound wall around the palace with the same design as the palace itself. Anyone not using doors would have to make that climb over the outer wall, then up the wall of the palace itself.
But then Aton noticed scuff marks on the blocky protrusions below him. A tingle of fear struck him as the realization hit. “Block the Thallenrose and lock the city gates!” He shouted at the top of his lungs now. “Send the signal now!”
Aton ran, sprinting through the hallway and down to the ground level. Guards followed him as he ran. Others would be sending a visual signal right now, over Grendhill’s rooftops to Guard posts at the city’s gates and at the edge of Thallenrose Square. The gates would be closed and barred until another signal was given, and nobody would be allowed to approach the Thallenrose platform. Anybody arriving would be apprehended and held.
As Aton exited the palace compound, he heard shouts from the palace Guard tower. “The Square post is not confirming the order! The Thallenrose guard has not confirmed the lockdown!”
Aton ran as hard as he could. Unencumbered by armor as were the guards, and blessed by Aguneg’s Gift, he outstripped all the others and covered ground at record speed.
Aton reached the edge of the square and stopped, cautious. He looked into the square and saw two people step onto the Thallenrose. He barely heard a whisper from the platform and they were gone.
Aton awoke with a start. Something was wrong. He sat upright and looked about at his surroundings.
I’m in my own bed, back home in Grendhill. Nothing wrong.
Aton had come home today—yesterday—whatever it was. He found himself awake in the middle of the night immediately following returning from Hevvlar.
I’m probably just too tired, Aton told himself. It had been an exceptionally long day, as he had left Hevvlar in the early evening and arrived in Grendhill at midmorning a moment later. He tried to lie back down and go back to sleep.
He couldn’t shake the feeling that something was still wrong.
Aton got out of bed, starting to feel annoyed and unnerved at the odd sensation. He yanked on his boots and stormed out of his chamber. He started to run.
Aton ran through the palace and out into the city, making his way towards Reedl’s home. Sages were supposed to know things. The royal Sageman in particular was expected to know things. Aton would find Reedl and get some explanation from him. Perhaps the Sageman felt it, too. As Aton neared the Sageman’s home as well as Thallenrose Square, it felt as if he were going towards the source of the strangeness.
Aton pounded on Reedl’s door, impatient for the older man to wake up. After what felt like ages, the door finally cracked open.
“Well, hello Aton,” Reedl blinked sleep from his eyes. “An odd time of night to be knocking on one’s door, don’t you think? You need your sleep as well as I need mine. You especially, after yesterday’s jump from Hevvlar.”
Aton hesitated. No, hesitating was not productive. He had to go on, to find out something—anything. “Reedl, does anything seem weird tonight? Does anything feel…different?”
Reedl paused and blinked. “You’re just dealing with the excitement and disappointment of the Departure that does not involve you the same way as it did your siblings. You will be fine,” he said sleepily. “I’m sure I don’t…” He trailed off as he realized Aton wasn’t standing there because he felt anxious about his relationship with his siblings. “Yes…something is different tonight. It’s not…” Reedl looked at Aton in confusion. “You’re a talented young man, Aton, but you are no Sageman. What do you suppose is different, and how did you feel it first?”
“I don’t know,” Aton said, “I just woke up. Something is wrong somehow.”
Reedl interrupted him. “Come in. It doesn’t feel right out here, and I have no idea what it is. It may not be safe outside. Perhaps there’s a storm coming. I have no idea what this peculiar sensation is and—“
“From the East,” Aton replied simply. “it’s coming from over there.” He pointed to his left. “I think it’s coming from the main square at the center of the city.
Reedl did a double-take. “You can tell where it is coming from? I—well, come in, won’t you!”
Aton shook his head urgently. “No, I have to go see what it is.” He ran off towards Thallenrose Square, Reedl shouting after him to come back.
Aton arrived in Thallenrose Square and saw nothing amiss. It was all calm and quiet. Shops were closed. Nobody was in sight. He started catching his breath, wondering what it was he thought he felt, what it was that woke him.
At that moment, a cry of alarm arose from the direction of the palace. Aton took off running again, this time back towards his point of origin.
Augfi Jerllamo slammed his fist on the table again. “We must use this leverage now!” he bellowed. “We cannot sit by and let opportunity pass without even blinking! Can you not see what we have staring us in the face? All these generations gone, and now! Now we can act with impunity!”
The Council stared back at Augfi, some taken aback, others unimpressed at his show of intensity. One gentleman blinked and ventured to reply. “My lord, what exactly is it you are hoping to accomplish with your foreign contacts and Esclace’s most heavily-trained and well-equipped Rangers? You speak of opportunity, but you have yet to disclose what that opportunity is. Why would it involve the Rangers, not some of our successful merchants?”
“You’re so concerned with commerce,” Augfi spat the last word accusatorily. “Do you never think of our small nation itself?”
“That is what we are thinking of,” another replied. “The well-being of this people depends heavily on economic resources. Since we made contact with foreign lands, commerce has picked up significantly. Where does this commerce go? Somebody is buying and selling these goods. This is good for our people.”
Augfi huffed. “Fine. I see where this is going. You worry so much about commerce,” he nearly choked on the word, “that you fail to understand basic politics. Do not worry, illustrious Council. I, Augfi Haltrin Jerllamo, will take it upon myself to ensure Esclace’s future. I, Keeper of the Hidden Gate, Heir of the Dissident, will solve this invisible problem for you.”
“You are not getting full commitment—”
“I do not need full commitment of the Rangers! Don’t you worry, little Council. Go to sleep. I will act independently!”
Augfi turned from the table and stormed out of the chamber. A few Council members shook their heads at his sarcasm. As he passed through the grand doors to exit, two Rangers pivoted and left their post at the exit to follow him.
“Gather my Ranger Guard in my chambers immediately,” Augfi said to them.
“Sir, do you want—”
“Now! I do not require anyone’s approval or consensus for this! We act tomorrow morning as the sun begins to climb high. We must make final plans. Go.”
One of the two Rangers peeled off down a different corridor at a fast walk, the other continuing to follow Augfi.
They found Mynda coming the other way. “Father,” she began, “has something happened? You’re red in the face.”
Augfi stopped walking. “Am I, now? Well, let’s just say the Council is stacked with dimwits who cannot understand the simplest things. I hope you are able, because they will affect you directly.”
“What are you referring to, Father?”
He sighed and chewed his tongue. “Foreign policy.”
“…Foreign policy?” She asked, confused.
“Yes. Foreign policy. Sometimes it is all trade, like with Yallanpo, but other times, like with Indraenea, it is much more. Indraenea sees things more my way. Smart leaders there. But sometimes it must become more than only foreign policy.”
“Father, I don’t see what you’re getting at,” Mynda replied flatly. “Would you like to explain with some specific details?”
“No,” he said. “But you’ll see soon enough. And tell your mother to keep out of my affairs for the time being.”
Augfi turned and continued walking without waiting for a reply. Mynda gave one anyway, calling after him.
“You do not have me in your pocket like the Ranger Guard. I think for myself!”
Aton stood, waiting in line at the travelers’ queue at the base of the hill. The Fassendais sat atop the hill, overlooking the business being conducted on all sides. No Sageman manned the platform, which seemed odd to Aton. They had nobody on duty per se, but three or four always lived at the edge of Fassendais Hill and charged a regular rate for their assistance to travelers.
Aton wondered why Hevvlar had adopted this method for controlling off-world travel and Grendhill had not. Perhaps Harrval’s lack of a single moon influenced peoples’ attitudes somehow. Never mind that, it was probably simply a different idea that had occurred to somebody, years ago. Aton had to remind himself that Grendhill’s system was similar enough. The crown maintained a Sageman on duty at the Thallenrose, and paid him a generous salary. There were two regulars—one worked an early shift, the other worked from midday to the evening. Reedl took some time on weekends, besides living nearby the Thallenrose to be called upon in case there were some emergency. Reedl was always available to the Farella house, having served for years as the royal Sageman. Maybe Hevvlar had a different system because it was a larger city, with greater transportation needs.
“Next!” Aton snapped from his reverie and stepped up to the desk. The woman behind the desk looked at him expectantly. For a moment Aton wondered why. “Your pass, please?”
“Oh, sorry madam,” Aton apologized for his forgetfulness. Blinking, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a leather ticket, stamped with an intricate design showing an image of the city of Hevvlar beneath Harvval’s many moons. He handed it to the woman, who took it and inspected it.
“Right, then,” she said, “a free ride for you today.” She smiled, handing him a wooden token, carved with a business insignia representing the outfit of the Sage she worked for. Most people would pay her directly for a token, but Aton’s diplomatic connections paid through other channels. She pulled a ledger out from under her desk to record the transaction so her government would pay her later, and excuse her from collecting no more information from Aton. She quickly rubbed an impression from his ticket onto her ledger with a pencil, then handed his ticket back to him. “Go to the one in the yellow vest, just like mine,” she said, pointing. “Her name’s Repary. Have a good evening. Next!”
Aton stepped away from the booth, turning to walk up the hill. He glanced to his right and nodded at Kascho and Misolfa. Tido and Domire were elsewhere around the square, trying to avoid notice but standing by to provide security if anyone suspected who he was and tried to interfere. Aton wasn’t too worried, though. After all, nobody was supposed to know where the Farellas went to train, so nobody was supposed to know he was here. He had approached the Sagewoman’s clerk booth alone to avoid anyone who might recognize a Farella face, making a connection between the Kascho and the Farellas.
Aton ascended the hill, watching as one traveler after another stepped onto the Fassendais with a Sage, holding his or her belongings, then vanishing as a Sage spoke the words to send them on their way. He found it interesting that only the Sages could use these platforms. For better or worse, that was the way of things.
Aton approached a dark-haired, tall woman in a yellow vest. “Ms. Repary?”
“Yes, of course, how may I help you? Token?”
Aton handed her his token, proof that he had seen her clerk.
“Thank you, and where can I send you?” she asked.
“Ooh, just going to be aloof and say the name of the world, not the country, eh?” Repary prodded.
“Uh, I’m sorry, I guess I’m going to G—.”
“No, it’s fine,” Repary interrupted, “I was only teasing you. You’re a customer, entitled to your privacy, of course. Step up, then.”
Aton stepped up to the Fassendais, pulling himself atop the platform. Repary followed. “Are you ready?” she asked.
Aton nodded, holding the strap of his back against his shoulder.
“Alright then, here you go! Andi miti Tesala niti pondere!”
Aton found himself still trying to thank her for her help as the square disappeared before his eyes and he watched a continent shrinking beneath him.
In the shed again, Kascho picked up the lid he had been working on and handed it to Aton. “Maybe you can help me with this. I am making a little wooden chest for Uillia to put her trinkets and jewelry in, but this lid has had me stuck for over a week now. I cannot get the design right. I’ve redone it, but every time I draw it on paper it looks a little off. The few times I get it right on paper, it fails to transfer when I carve the wood.”
Aton turned the lid around in his hands. “Sounds like my life. I’m the different one. I never feel sure of what my life is supposed to me. Every time I think I get it figured out, I talk to my siblings again and it’s clear I am still just a misfit.”
“Don’t be so hard on youself, Aton,” Kascho begain.
“Oh, I know. I’ve heard it before. It was not my fault that I was born with no weapon. I accept that, but it doesn’t change the fact that I was. That I am fundamentally different from my brothers and sisters. From my father. From the whole line, back to Gren Farella’s children. And the whole kingdom knows it. Many off-worlders know it. And somehow, even though everybody acknowledges that it’s not my fault, they worry.
“They worry that Aguneg’s gift has stopped following the Farella line. They worry that this means the end of Grendhill as a nation. I’m not fit to lead or protect. Even if I don’t take the throne—and how could I with no weapon of my own—what happens with my nieces and nephews, the children of whichever of my brothers and sisters does take the throne? Will they have these weapons? Will they lead with the wisdom of our ancestors? And somehow—even though everybody knows it’s not my fault—somehow I have to assure them that it will all be well. Somehow, despite all this being outside my control, it lies inside my realm of responsibility. I didn’t break it, and I cannot fix it, but somehow I have to.”
Kascho sighed, finding that he had unwittingly hit a sore spot.
“You know what, though?” said Aton, tracing the design on the woodwork in this hands. “I change my mind. This lid is not like my life. This lid actually looks great. I think it looks fantastic, and Mistress Uillia will love it.” He handed it back to Kascho.
“Wh-what? You don’t see the flaws?” Kascho inspected it again, confused.
“Sure, I see some flaws,” said Aton, “but they are so minor that they will surely come out with sanding. See, here—” Aton pointed, “—and here, it is a little misshapen. But you will need to sand it anyway to get it smooth like you’ll want it, so just sand a little bit—just a little bit—extra in these spots. It will come out even with the other side, flawless. She will love it.”
Kascho looked at the lid, inspected the points Aton had indicated, and looked at Aton again, smiling. “You’re right! I can’t believe it, you’re right. I have been banging my head against this workbench for days, and the problem will be solved with a bit of sanding! Thank you!”
Aton blushed shyly. “Well, sure. No problem, it’s just, I don’t know…”
Kascho looked at Aton cheerfully. “I was being too critical with my work. I needed a fresh perspective, and then I could see what you saw. You know? Maybe you just need a little bit of sanding yourself. A fresh perspective, and you’ll see yourself and your imperfections for what they truly are.”
Aton shrugged, caught off guard. Kascho spoke again. “Take a moment and look at your situation as if it were new, right now. What is good? What needs to be emphasized? What is not so important, and can be left for others to worry about?”
Aton paused, thinking. He was rather skilled, but that would not assuage public concerns for the health of the crown in Grendhill. He could not grow a weapon out of thin air, nor could he do anything to ensure that whichever of his siblings who took the crown conveyed Aguneg’s gift to his nephews and nieces. He could show solidarity with his family. He could prepare to serve his country however it needed his unique skill set. He had no weapon to train with in isolation, and he truly saw no point in waiting for his turn for the cave.
“Perhaps I should return home. I am not being productive here, loafing about. Back home, at least I could continue my regular studies. It would be something. More importantly…it wouldn’t be here.” Aton’s eyes widened as he feared he may have just offended his host. He spoke quickly to repair the damage. “Nothing wrong with this place. But it’s where my siblings are. Not that I hate my siblings, of course. I’m just not like them. Not that there’s anything wrong with them, I mean. I mean I don’t ha—”
“That’s fine,” Kascho reassured him. “I understood what you meant. I am not offended, and I’ll try not to tattle on you to your siblings.” He smiled. “If you wish to return home because this place is not helping you, then I think that is a good idea. Can you wait until this evening when Uillia gets home, though? She would hate to miss saying good-bye.”
“Alright,” Aton said. “I’ll wait until then.”