The Trade District Portal stood nearly twenty feet tall, towering above its slightly sloped pedestal. The large edifice was made of a glossy black material that struggled to reflect the midday sunlight. The Portal’s northern slope edged towards a gray like charcoal, and that was the surface’s brightest point. It formed a high, pointed arch, hollow on the inside. The interior only revealed the Trade District Square’s opposite side. People moved about from shop to shop all across the square’s perimeter. Portals to Edaria always made for commercial boons. Carved figures and characters adorned the Portal’s sleek black surface in regular patterns. If they did comprise a language, no one had ever deciphered their meaning.
Caru studied the Portal letters years earlier, but more so for appreciation of their aesthetic beauty than an effort at finding greater purpose. The shapes were grooves in the Portal surface, nearly an inch deep. In some places they were jagged; in others sinuous. Corded bands covered the length of the arch in regular intervals, giving the impression that the entire Portal was frozen in black stone ropes.
The characters along the arch and the twists in the adorning braid flared to a radiant blue. The image of the Trade District Square’s opposite side vanished, shifting from storefronts to what seemed a still water filling the Portal interior. Ermen called that still substance the aether. It did not spill beyond the confines of the Portal and left no impression upon ermen walking through. The aether shimmered, and two ermen stepped out, a man and a woman. The man’s wings were spread to half their fullest extent, and the woman’s were folded closed behind her. As they came down the ramp, the man’s brown-feathered wings collapsed against his back, and he turned to smile warmly at his companion. She moved to his side and laced her fingers between his as they came to the pedestal base.
An Edarian Sentinel moved from his stationed corner at the base to confront the couple. The Sentinel stood nearly a head taller than Caru. He wore the standard Edarian military garb—black plate fitted with silvered chain around the joints and the Edarian crest emblazoned over the breastplate. A simple embossed shield covered his back, and a scabbarded sword dangled from his left hip. He held a large book in his left hand and a fountain pen in his right. He lowered his head to the couple and listened briefly before smiling and scribbling into the book.
Although Caru could not hear their exchange at such a distance, he knew the Sentinel had taken their names. Edaria wanted records of its citizens’ movements on the world below. Beyond that, ermen enjoyed privacy from the government, but the human nations demanded responsibility from those who held such power.
Caru thought of a day barely more than two weeks prior when he gave his name to another Sentinel. As he sat on a bench in warm shade, he wondered if anyone investigated his whereabouts when he did not return for the Void night.
Though it was imperative to return before Rythellas shifted into its Soulless phase, there were no laws demanding that ermen back to Edaria during the Void.
Staying on the world below on that night, that was only considered foolish.
He examined his fingernails, hoping he looked casual. Would they connect the disasters at Garenesh’s military installations to the missing Edarians? Of course, if no one heard from him in two weeks, they may already consider him dead. He wondered if the Seranian government paid witnesses that night to spread rumors of his death. He may not have thought so two weeks earlier, but the last Rythellian cycle made him think differently of Serana. They would not be above such bribery. He wondered sadly about his mother’s reaction to the news.
The couple walked away from the Portal, smiling to each other as they came to the most immediate shop fronts. Caru envied their happiness, that simple carefree attitude.
He envied their naiveté toward humans.
He missed his wings, brown and flecked with black. He missed the sense of power their magic brought, the way magic flowed and pulsed within his being. He yearned to again have the sky’s winds buffeting against his face as he soared high above. It was a shame, being an erman bound to the earth.
Damn the humans! They took everything from him, even stripped him of what made him an erman, the thing that separated his kind from theirs. He felt cold, alien, and alone, stranded in the human world below.
The couple walked away from one of the stores, their hands still empty of goods. The man shook his head and spread his wings, flapping softly until his feet lifted from the ground. He elevated himself above the rooftops before the woman grinned and joined him. She laughed and batted playfully at the man before they disappeared behind the roof line, undoubtedly searching for another fun store to visit.
Caru’s feet itched to speak to the Sentinel at the Portal base. He might be able to gather some information about his own records in one of the books. Maybe Edaria had posted a notice to keep a watchful eye for the whereabouts of Caru Freehaven.
Doubtful the Sentinel would even believe Caru was an erman, though. It would be a ludicrous claim that would surely bring intervention from the Seranian government. They would clutch him tightly again before any word came back from the Edarian embassy, somehow covering the whole situation and preventing Edaria from looking into the matter.
Caru reclined lightly on the shady bench, crossing his feet as he sat with hands laced over his stomach. He scanned the milling crowd, hoping for any kind of development, anything that might give him a clue on how to get outside Garenesh’s walls. He could try investigating the Portal to see if he was still able to draw enough magic to power the thing, but he would certainly attract attention with so many onlookers. No doubt the Sentinel would expect an explanation as well, and that would—again—only hasten Seranian involvement.
Erman heads bobbed above the crowd, but only slightly. Average height was barely greater among ermen, but they could pass for humans if not for the wings. At least that was a bit of luck in Caru’s favor.
He winced as someone sat beside him on the bench. Caru glanced quickly and saw a pretty human woman, blonde hair hanging loosely over her face. She had peaceful blue eyes that nearly matched the sky’s color on that sunny day. Her nose was almost too generous, and her lips were only slightly thin. She smiled at him, but Caru only nodded and turned his attention to the crowd again with a feigned interest. Best to avoid conversation; it would only help to point him out faster if he said anything amiss.
There had to be a way through the Portal. He could try asking another erman to power it for him, but only human dignitaries were allowed on the Edarian continent. Even ermen with human spouses had to leave them behind on the world below when returning to the homeland. If he could somehow steal finer clothes, maybe forge some papers . . . No, Caru was a sculptor, neither thief nor scribe. Any scheme he tried would be too obvious.
He barely kept from groaning as the girl spoke. Her voice was so soft she nearly whispered.
“If you try harder, you might stare a hole through that Portal.”
Caru’s face blanched, but he kept himself seated. Running would only draw more attention.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he muttered.
“You should at least walk around and look through some of the shops,” she said. “When you sit in the same place staring for an hour, it makes you look suspicious.”
Caru turned his head and met her pale blue eyes. He wanted to believe it was only a surprisingly accurate joke. He shook his head and turned to study the crowd once more. “What’s it to you?” he asked. “You’re making me want to run.”
The woman sighed. “If you run, I’ll have to find the other one by myself. I hope he’d at least have sense not to sit in the same place for an hour. Then again, discretion doesn’t seem to be the order of the day.”
Her words tickled in Caru’s mind. “Other one?” he asked.
She nodded. “There were three of us, right?”
Not a human woman at all, then.
Her blue eyes shifted quickly before she blinked. She was nervous.
Caru continued his examination of the crowd. “Sickening they would do that to a woman, don’t you think?”
The blonde erman sniffed. “Don’t be foolish,” she said. “Sickening they would do that to anyone, regardless of gender.”
Another erman arrived through the Portal, gave his name to a different Sentinel, and flew high and away from the Trade District Square. Such freedom.
“You think the other one is still alive?” Caru asked.
She nodded. “I haven’t heard that they’ve caught anyone, but I don’t imagine they would speak of it too loudly if they did.”
“They’ll probably keep it quiet that they’re even looking for anyone.”
Caru shrugged. He wondered if the third erman would make an appearance in the Trade District. It would seem a likely choice, albeit a useless one. Perhaps too unlikely, though. Garenesh was a large city, and it was astonishing that this woman found him at all and would be nothing short of miraculous if the third erman appeared as well. He was still suspicious, though.
“How do I even know you’re one of us?” Caru asked. The Portal aether flashed into activity repeatedly and with a regular rhythm as Edarians descended to the human world from the connected point.
The woman laughed softly. “I don’t think I have much proof to offer. I suppose I could talk to you of effects of the moons, if you like. I don’t think they know how we escaped yet, or they wouldn’t have left us alone last night. Even if they did post guards, even if they posted bloodmages, I doubt they would have made much difference. Don’t you agree?”
Caru nodded but did not speak.
She sighed. “If it helps to convince you, last night was the first time I ever missed the Calming.”
“Mine too,” Caru said in a low whisper. That would be enough proof. “I think I liked it too, and that’s what scares me.”
“Yes,” she said. “I’m inclined towards Restoration myself, so it was especially bizarre. I hope I never experience that again anytime soon.” She grimaced before reaching into a small pack that hung on her right hip. When she brought the hand back, it held half a hunk of bread, which she promptly offered to Caru. “Here,” she said. “You look like you haven’t had a good meal in a while.”
Caru took the bread and said his thanks before biting into it. He savored the rich, spiced flavor. His stomach ached at the incoming food. It had been too long since a decent meal, and, though he was grateful, the bread still barely constituted a decent meal. “It’s good,” he said, swallowing a mouthful. “Spinecorn meal?”
“Yes,” she said.
“How did you get it? It’s been hard for me to do anything without money.”
She laughed. “Sometimes a pretty girl can get favors for a smile and a wink.”
Caru grinned. “I suppose stranger things have happened.”
She nudged him softly. “It also helps if you can find a change of clothes when you look like you just came from the slaughterhouse.” The woman eyed his ragged coat. “Or the gutter. Or some combination of the two. My point is: you look awful. It’s no wonder you’ve had this bench to yourself for the past hour.”
“I hoped I looked clumsy instead,” Caru said.
“Let’s hope that doesn’t hold true then. Now.” She reached across her chest and offered Caru her hand. “What’s your name, friend? I’m Kimke.”
He gripped Kimke’s hand lightly in his own. “Caru. I guess we’re in this together now.”
Kimke grinned, but it faded quickly as she scanned the Trade District Square. “I think it’s time to move our togethered selves.” She stood and dove into the crowd, gently slipping between people and offering hasty apologies each time.
Caru stood from the bench and followed behind. Moving between people was a greater challenge for him, especially against Kimke’s quick pace. She walked with obvious determination. Her stride was faster than his but shorter. He caught up to her quickly, falling in beside and afraid to look in any direction but forward. The crowd jostled him on all sides, humans and ermen alike.
“What happened?” Caru asked.
Kimke only stared ahead, intent as she wove through the crowd. “Bloodmage,” she said.
Caru tensed and looked over the crowd again. No one stood out wearing military garb and certainly no bloodmages walking about in black robes tinged with red and chain. A few guards stood on street corners on major avenues into the Trade District Square, but they did not seem especially vigilant. They certainly did not scour the crowd.
Caru shook his head. “I don’t see him.”
“He’s not in his uniform,” Kimke said.
He could not see anyone who stood out in the crowd. “Where?”
“He walked into the square from the southern street. He should now be walking past the bench where we sat.”
Caru tried craning his neck to look back at the bench, but Kimke tugged roughly against his arm. “Don’t call attention to us!” she said in a low hiss.
They walked past the nearest corner of the Portal’s pedestal. An Edarian Sentinel stood within arm’s reach, and Caru ached to learn what information the Sentinel’s book held. He wanted to stop and check for his name, but that would only draw attention to himself and Kimke. If anything would get them noticed, it would be the sound of an Edarian sword sliding from its sheath against two humans.
“How can you tell?” They left the Sentinel and his information behind.
“He’s wearing long sleeves,” Kimke said.
Caru glanced through the crowd again. Everyone wore shirts with sleeves ending at their elbows. Even in the cooler seasons, midday in Serana was hot enough to make full sleeves and full-length pants uncomfortable. Short sleeves, short sleeves, short sleeves, all except for the soldiers positioned around the square. Them and Caru, who still wore the grimy coat he stole the night before. No wonder Kimke noticed him so easily.
The Portal disappeared from view as Caru and Kimke turned west, aimed again towards the city’s heart. Stationary Cirellias hung suspended above and behind the spired Palace of Light, a sliver of light descending across its darkened surface. Caru turned his head slightly to the left and saw the long-sleeved man. The supposed bloodmage stood with his head bowed, looking through a display window at a clockmaker’s shop. As Caru took another step, the sleeved man disappeared behind the bulk of the crowd. They left the square behind, passing several corner stores and a final outpost of Seranian guards who barely watched the crowd at all. They talked amongst themselves so intently that Caru wondered if they would even notice a murder.
Caru turned to Kimke as they made their way westward. “Sleeves don’t necessarily mean he’s a bloodmage,” he said.
Kimke shook her head. “He’s hiding his battle scars.”
“I don’t know. That still doesn’t mean he has to be a bloodmage.”
Kimke met Caru’s eyes briefly before turning again to focus on the street. “Is that a risk you want to take?”
Caru only sighed. Of course she would have a point.
“I’m observant,” she added. “Call it a trait or quality or whatever you will, but I’m good at spotting things.”
“Still seems hard to believe,” Caru said.
“Maybe it is, but I saw you, didn’t I? You have to admit I can at least do that much. Besides, you have to know they’re going to keep eyes on that Portal. I don’t think we were going to get anything in the Trade District Square anyway,” Kimke said.
“Why do you say that?”
“Even if the square was completely empty, we aren’t strong enough to use Portals. We’ve always used them without thought or effort since they became such a habit of daily life, but their activation really does take a considerable amount of energy.”
They walked along the westbound lane, flanked by buildings on both sides but without the tightly packed crowds. People streamed along both sidewalks, but they left the main thoroughfare open.
“I did think of that,” Caru said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about how much energy it takes to power one. I probably haven’t considered that since my childhood. I’m sure another erman wouldn’t let us through, either.”
“Not without question,” Kimke said. “Probably a joint investigation by Edaria and Serana as well. Though I hate to say it, we’re stuck on the world below for now.”
* * * * *
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