I like my life like my coffee
I like my life like my coffee.
Simple and black and dark and thick
without all the creamy white
It will be bitter,
It will be ugly,
It will be draconian,
Nothing can get worse from there,
For your vision will be clear
of all the things they try to
If you can take it
It's not that bad, really.
It's smoky aroma is wonderful.
The taste is pure.
The generous man
It first began with the choosing.
In the darkness before dawn, Mrs Colesbury was wide awake, buttoning up her winter coat, putting on her boots, wearing her gloves before she tucked a small scrap of paper in her breastpocket.
"Whatever is the paper for Ma'am?"Josh held up an oil lamp, watching her scrurry to the door.
"Not now, Josh.Not now."She chided and left.
Odd...He shrugged and headed back to bed.
But a slender figure in her icy white nightgown surrendered an answer.
"She's going for the Choosing."
Josh cast the lamp over her oval face.
Nina Colesbury.Mrs Colesbury's daughter.
"What choosing, Miss?"Josh prompted.
"For Winston's logding."
"You're kidding--right?"Nina sighed like Josh missed an impossibly obvious answer right infront of him.
"Well, who is he, Miss?"He was feeling stupid.
"Forget it.You're leaving tomorrow anyways."She whirled away and climbed the stairs to her bedroom.
"I'm not, Miss."He sighs.
"I can't.The snow's too heavy, Miss."
Nina stopped in her tracks.She twirled with her dark brown hair, melted into the darkness.
"You're really staying?"Her grey eyes widened.
"Yes I am, Miss."Josh paused before reminding,"Now can tell me who's Winston? "
"Fine.Just stop calling me...'Miss'."Nina cringed at the word.
"Understood, Mis-I mean, Understood."
"Good,"She smiles, beckoning him,"you might want to have a seat for this."
It was from there, Josh learnt of Winston--the old man who came to town once a year.They called him "an angel from heaven" for his generosity and kindness.In return for these attributes, the town folk treated him hospitably, threw him a feast and gave him a place to stay(which was where the Choosing came in).
But there were still a hazy detail he didn't understand.
"I've a question."Josh frowned.
"Spill."Nina sipped her late-night cocoa.
"What makes Winston so great?"He paused to catch himself from saying 'Miss'.
"I get that he's legend for his virtuous personality, but...what did the man do?"
Nina shook her head.
"This part, I cannot tell you."Her silvery voice slipped into a whisper.
That wasn't part of the deal.
"It's bad omen, Josh.Speak of Winston's kindness before his arrival, and he'll have no generosity for you--for his whole visit."Nina told him slowly.
"That's an odd custom."He thought aloud.
"Odd but treasured."
Nina swallowed what remained of her hot cocoa and blew out the lamp as daylight had began to filter through the windows.
"Thanks...Nina."Josh dipped his head respectfully.
"Welcome.Do get some sleep, before my mother gets you up to do the chores."Nina yawned.
But Mrs Colesbury burst through the door.
"Good news!"Her announcement rang through the house, like a joyous melody.
"We'll be housing Winston!"
The Colesburys spent the rest of the week preparing.They spared no expense.
With the new guest on the way, Josh worked doubly hard, to rid the house of grime and dust.His old room was cleaned and rearranged.Nina helped him hang glossy gold streamers all over the room, so they dangled playfully over the ceiling.
Mrs Colesbury mopped the floors, polished, well, everything and scrubbed the fabrics spotless.Mr Colesbury borrowed planks, the Taleens' hammer and some old nails to fix the leak in the storeroom.
Josh was grateful Mr & Mrs Colesbury let him stay in the attic.They knew how he got nightmares sleeping in the alarmingly quiet storeroom with odd silhouettes that manifested as monsters in the night.
"Shall I add salt to the road, sir?"Josh volunteered when Winston's arrival drew near.
"Not yet."Mr Colesbury held up his hand."We need the salt for the food."
"We could borrow salt from the mayor's wife.She'd understand."Josh proposed.
"Yes, but that won't be nice, will it?"The mayor's secretary flashed a smile Josh could almost pass for wincing.
Indeed, it wasn't nice.The Colesburys were already borrowing meat, vegetables, fruits, milk and wine from the mayor's family.There was only so far diplomatic friendships could extend.
"I'm sorry, sir."Josh dipped his head.
Mr Colesbury waved it away,"It's alright, lad."
The man gazed towards the snow covered path in a great depth of renewed hope.
"Winston's coming soon."
Finally, Josh got to see 'Winston the Generous'.
But he was nothing the boy expected.
He had no gold robe, no mighty steed or parade of riches.Not even valued gems or stones hanging in earrings, necklaces and bracelets and his silvery beard.
He was quite the opposite.
This Winston was a skinny old man in mud brown clothes.His eyes were crescents over his rosy, toothless grin as he ambled slowly to the Colesburys' home.
He was panting from exhaustion.Yet, this frail man managed to raise a bony limb to wave eagerly at the cheering and clapping townsfolk.
"Hello dear people of Gaderian!"Winston announced in a shaky voice.
Everybody fell silent, listening intently to the old man.
"It's great to see all of you again!"
The townspeople whistled and applauded.
Nina wove through the crowd to stand beside Josh.She whispered to him.
"He always says this speech.Every year.I wish he'd at least find a new way to say it."
Josh shushed her.
"...wonderful as ever.I'm so glad all of you are still prospering as a town and helping one another.In return, I shall grant you all one thing you desire as I have for the fifty years since the riot."
The crowd burst into shouts and claps.Someone played music, drowning out the 'thank you's exchanged.People formed a dancing train and lined up along the Colesburys' lawn, swaying to the rhythm in their fluffy winterwear.
When all the preliminary celebrations died away, the Colesburys and Josh proudly ushered Winston into their beautifully decorated house.
The cottage floor sparkled.The new lights glowed.The aroma of Mrs Colesbury's feast wafted down the corridor and lured them into the dining room, where a generous spread waited for them.
"Hold it, let Winston take his portion first."Mrs Colesbury instructed.
All of them stared longingly as her hands hovered over a golden turkey, fragrant bread rolls, chicken pot pie with filling oozing from its lattice, corn with coats of glistening butter...
"Oh, you're too kind Mrs Colesbury.There's no need for that."The cheery old man waved away her hospitable gesture."All of you must be starving too."
"Really, sir, its fine.You've had a long journey."She shot them a warning look.
"Alrighty then."Winston shrugs.He plucked a few rolls and distributed them among everyone--including himself--before insisting they sat down with him to enjoy the food.
Josh sat at the Colesburys' table between Nina and Winston--another reason he liked working for this family.He thanked Winston, along with the Colesburys and wolfed down the fluffy roll in a single mouthful.
"Oh my,"Winston looked at him and gave a good-natured chuckle."Your roll must be especially delicious."
Josh could only nod and try for a smile.
"Well, relax Josh.You look like a chipmunk."Nina commented.
"Fuit orself,"He gestured at the turkey bone on her plate.
"Manners, lad."Mr Colesbury tapped his mouth.
The rest of the conversations went about in the same airy manner, until the mayor dropped by.He wedged himself between Josh and Winston for Mrs Colesbury's "famous chicken pot pie" and to fill the old guest in on the events of that year.
Josh--squashed between a meaty diplomant and Nina's elegant frame--felt uncomfortable listening to the mid-year drought and trade exchanges.
He peered over to glance at Winston.His amber eyes flickered between weariness and interest.
Then, Winston winked at Josh.
It was so subtle even the mayor didn't notice.
Josh couldn't really sleep that night.Maybe because he gobbled too much of Mrs Colesbury's rich pudding.Or the strange new environment.Or that this was the first December he wasn't going to spend with his family.
Whatever it was, it was making him tingly and itchy.He wormed out of bed and reached for his nightlight--a candle the Colesburys let him keep in the storeroom.Josh made his way out of the room to pace about the house, gazing idly as the honey glow from the candle mingled in the blue black night.
"Well, hello there."A mellow voice greeted him."Figured I'd find you here."
This was followed by a series of shuffling as Winston stepped into golden candlelight with his signature smile.
"Hi,"Josh returned response.
"Is there room for another?"
Winston nestled himself on the last few steps of the staircase landing.
"I believe you're enjoying your time here?"Winston inquired politely.
"What's your name?"
"Ah."Winston's eyes sparkled in the light."Beautiful name."
"Thanks, I guess."No one ever told Josh that before.
"Now, I suppose you must be wondering what a funny man I am, in funny clothes celebrated in funny tradition no one would tell you much about?"
"More or less."Josh shrugged."Where are you from anyway?I've never heard your accent before."
A shadow swept over his face, pursing his lips grimly, before Winston reverted to his radiant smile.
"That's a difficult question.I was never really from anywhere.I didn't have parents or family, though, having one seems wonderful.When I was, I simply knew this was what I was meant to do."
Then Winston added with a hollow laugh,"Believe it or not."
"It sounds whimsical but...I believe you."Josh smiled.
Winston looked gratefully into the eyes of this innocent boy.
"Thank you, Josh."
"Couldn't sleep?"Nina asked, arranging her baked beans in a weird curly line.
"By the way, why'd he wink?"
"Who winked?"Josh yawned.
"Well Winston, silly! He winked at you last night over dinner."
"Oh...Honestly, I'm not sure, Mi-"He cut himself off in time."What do you think?"
"Josh, Winston winked at you and you're asking me?"
"Aren't you the expert?"
"Uh-no.I'm just the person who fills you in.And if you two weren't talking about the winking, what were you both chatting about last night?"
"Mysterious stuff."Josh bit into the plump sausage, oozing with grease.
"Good morning everyone!"Winston smiled."Have I mentioned?You have such a cosy house."
"You have."Nina reminded.
Mrs Colesbury elbowed her.
"I mean--thank you, Sir."
Mr Colesbury smiled at Winston,"Would you like some breakfast before you go?"
"Why, how kind of you."The man beamed."But, I should begin my rounds.Speaking of which, I might as well begin with all of you."
"Begin what?"Josh asked everyone when the Colesburys started grinning like children on Christmas morning.
"Watch."Mr Colesbury told him.
All eyes were on Winston as the man snapped his fingers.A loaf-sized drawstring bag blinked in view, hovering in thin air.
With another snap, it plopped softly on Winston's hands.
"Gather round, Colesburys."He set the bag in the table and opened it.Light sprang from the bag in streaks of gold.
Mrs Colesbury went first.She slipped a hand into the leather bag, rifling through its contents.Until, she found something.When she pulled her hand back out, Mrs Colesbury was holding a skinny pair of knitting needles.
"Why, I couldn't find these since March after I traded them away for flour.Thank you, Winston."She held fast to their beige shafts.
Mr Colesbury was next.From Winston's bag he drew a curious amethyst gem, twinkling in the morning sun.
"Mr Colesbury, you and your lovely wife must truly care about your family."Winston commended the two of them."This crystal is a talisman.It will keep your family from going hungry."
Mr Colesbury seemed to relax.
"I cannot thank enough, Winston."He clasped the old man's hands."This means the world to me."
Winston smiled and nodded,"Always the pleasure Mr Colesbury."
And last was Nina, who pulled out a huge broom from the impossibly small bag.
"Yes!I knew it.Thank you so much Winston."Nina brandished her new broom like a magical staff.
"What is that, dear?"Mrs Colesbury tilted her head to find anything extraordinary.
"It's a broom that can sweep on its own."She said proudly.
"Why?"Mrs Colesbury sighed.
"Because you, me and Josh spend way too much time sweeping.It's boring."
Then everyone stared at Josh.
"Well go on, lad,"Mr Colesbury urged.
"Yes, you."Nina folded her arms.
Josh reached his hand into Winston's bag.
There was only one thing in it so Josh took the smooth, flat object out.
Everyone leaned in to see him pull out a golden panel.
On it were the words,
WILL YOU BE MY APPRENTICE?
The night painted the house in swathes of blue and dapples of white. Its shut windows and drawn curtains sealed the icy rain and raging sea from its silent rooms.
But a dark silhouette distured this tranquility.
The shadow darted across the wooden floor, rippled over the table and met with a slender fingers over a scaly white cloak.
They lifted the cloak off the table, shaking away loose, dry layers and owner of this hand slid her arms through the cool sleeves. The cloak tumbled to her legs and spilled over her hands to give the cloak bearer a dim glow in the moonlight.
Then, in quiet prances she strayed to the bed hiding in the corner. Among its shadowy depths lay a man in fast asleep on the right side of the bed.
She gave herself a moment to gaze at his face and the way his figure tilted to the place she once slept.
She reached down to kiss his cheek.
"I'm sorry I couldn't stay." She whispered to her beloved's face.
Then, she rose, swept out of the door.
Rain pelted against her skin as she raced down the shore and doce into the ocean, a seal once more.
"Why am I here?" Nora surveyed the alley.
She was really hoping Roland's answer wasn't what she was think it would be.
But it was.
"You know why." He told her, as he flung odd objects from a nearby pile of trashbags.
"To see my family."
When Roland Lawrell talked about family, Nora always imagined the Laurell's residence as a huge mansions. No one really considered that a boy dressed in long black pants and ironed shirts would lived in a dump.
Roland, however, seemed unaffected by her visible discomfort.
"...Key...the key..." He muttered over the dim, stench.
It wasn't long before Nora considered Roland delirious. She was ready to knock him out with a stray glass bottle and drag him to a psychologist.
But he found something. From particular bag, infested with the flies and rotting fruit, Roland fished an antique golden key.
He held the impossibly shiny object high in the air.
Nora froze. How could such a key get there? Now, she was just confused.
"What's the key for?" She edged closer to get a better look.
Roland traced the decorative carvings, shrugging, "to see my family."
"Not exactly...You'll see."
Roland strode to the narrow brick wall. He tapped on particular bricks with a ruby red colour, until one sank into the wall. Brick by brick, the rest unfurled in tiny crunches and scratches to unveil an artfully styled double doors.
Nora's jaw fell.
"You live in a secret lair." She tried to process this.
"Yeah," A silly grin curled over his face, "sorta."
He inserted the key and twisted it twice. The mechanisms in the door gave a satisfied click and swung inwards into a royal blue hallway.
"After you," Roland held one side of the door open.
All the awestruck Nora could only manage a murmur of thanks, before stumbling into the Lawrell's mansion.
She gazed at the patterns etched on the marine walls that seemed to swirl in mysterious glyphs--like the ones on the Lawrells' key.
But the mansion wasn't done with surprises. As the classmates wandered down the hallway, the glyphs started to fade. Ultramarine walls slowly transitioned to damson purple. And a warm glow sprung from the other side of the hallway, as Nora and Roland moved closer.
They found themselves entering the kind of room hidden among the woods, complete with rustic wooden furniture, wooden sculptures and a glowing fireplace.
Not too far from the fire sat a middle-aged lady, rocking back and forth in her rocking chair. Down her tulip pink dress ran a caramel coloured scarf, rippling as she knitted it. And on the backrest of her chair lay a white coat; bleached, ironed and folded to show the name tag "Dr. Lawrell".
The lady turned to greet them with an ecstatic grin.
"Welcome home Roland, dear. Who's this?" She smiled at Nora.
"Mum, this is Nora. Nora, Mum." Roland introduced them.
Dr Lawrell's aquamarine eyes stared at Nora with surprising intensity.
Then, she blinked.
Her pupils morphed a ghostly pale shade.
But as she blinked again, it was vanished.
"Hi Dr Lawrell, I'm Roland's classmate." Nora decided to assume she didn't just see...that.
"Nora!" Dr Lawrell spoke her name with such cheerful enthusiasm.
Nora tried her best to smile in spite of her surprise.
"Aunt Phoebe will do." She patted Nora's arm, gently.
"Have a seat my dears. I'll get some snacks." She set down the half-finished scarf and rose from the rocking chair.
Roland watched his mother stroll into the depths of the ocean blue hallway.
"What do you think?" He finally asked.
Nora sat beside him.
"What do I think? About what? Your mum? The place? You?" She twirled her backpack straps.
The crackling fire filled the silence for Nora as she thought carefully.
"It's nice. We could come over here for the schools project--if you don't mind. But-" she turned to look at Roland "-ever got any burglars? I mean, it's awesome that your family spends money on this instead of a mansion but--no offence--people might find the key and...yknow."
"None taken. And we have systems for that. So, people only come in when we want them to."
"Systems?" The word stuck in her mind.
It was Roland's turn to fall quiet.
"It won't exactly be mysterious if I told you, would it?" He smirked, tilting his head smugly.
"True." Nora lowered her head to untangle the backpack straps.
When she was done, she prompted, "Is it the key?"
He shook his head.
"Kind of, but no."
"Okay." Nora gave up. For now.
"Anyway, wanna see something cool?" Roland switched subjects.
When Nora nodded, he beckoned her out of the room and into the hallway. She watched as Roland shut the door and pressed his palm to its shiny surface, brows furrowed in concentration. He stretched his fingers to grasp the ornate doorknob and twist its crystal handle to reveal the room with wood sculptures and rocking chair.
But it didn't.
It led to a far bigger place, built of caramel coloured walls and a glass dome for a rooftop. Sunlight seeped down in bright, skinny rays that spread itself over a butterscotch duvet sprawling its bed and a huge desk sitting beside a sturdy bookshelf.
"This is my room." Roland flopped on his bed.
"Like it?" Nora ran fingers through her hair.
"Roland, you have a huge room all to yourself! I'd die for a place like yours."
The silly grin returned to his face.
"We're definitely moving all our sleepovers with the group here, from now on." Nora decided.
"Nooo my hideout will be exposed." He rolled himself into a blanket burrito.
Nora laughed. She reached for the duvet and pulled it off. But Roland's grip on it was firm. So the pulling escalated into a tug of war, until the both fell on the king-sized bed in peels of laughters.
"I take you both are close friends?" Aunt Phoebe leaned by the door with a bowl in her hands.
Roland sat up.
"Mum!" He whined.
"I know, Roland. I know. I'm not intruding. I just came to bring cookies. See?" She sat the bowl on the bed.
"I'm going now. Have fun, you two!" Aunt Phoebe waved.
The two of them waved as she left.
"Here. Take one." Roland held out the bowl. "Trust me, they're good."
Nora peered into the glass bowl. Inside was a whole array of peculiar cookies. Some she knew, some she didn't.
There were chocolate chip cookies, gingerbread cookies, pretzels, digestives, the fortune cookies they gave you at Food Panda, ones that looked like curly white strands of batter fried into a delicious tangle...
There were just too many to choose from.
"Hey, no pressure," Roland set down the bowl. "my mum just likes to flex her cookie baking skills. Picking one won't offend her or anything."
"What do you recommend then?" Nora wondered.
"I guess her newest batch of shortbreads are awesome."
They did seem promising. Nora picked the cookie.
Roland found a pearl white macaroon and broke it in half. The eager boy pulled a white paper from its sugary cream.
"yOur paff ahead 'ill grow stormier." He read the tiny slip, mouthful of macaroon.
A wave of apprehension rippled over his face. But it quickly retreated to show a bright grin.
"Thanks mum." He swallowed the cookie and set the slip on top of the whole stash of other tiny papers on his desk.
"What does yours say?" Roland craned his neck.
"Mine?" Nora was still new about the whole 'paper in cookies thing', as she snapped her rectangular cookie down its middle.
Crumbs rained into the cookie bowl as she pulled the waxed paper out.
Nora read the cursive letters curling over the white paper.
"Your ultimate test is yet to come."
"Ultimate test?" Roland mumbled, "Never heard that one before..."
"Anyways-" Roland picked another cookie out of the bowl "-don't take them too seriously. They're just-" he takes a bite "-a random fact about the future you probably already know."
Nora didn't really know to take the advice--given Roland's previous unease over his own slip of paper.
But really, it was just a paper. Wasn't it?
A world of glass
Des lay on the grassy fields watching the clouds parade by. The wind was gentle and the sun made the grass blades glisten.
Up on the hill, the village and was nothing more than dollhouses with tiny figurines. Amongst them was her brother, Andy chased after Maggie, their white dog. Des burst into laughter when her brother clumsily tackled the huge dog.
She almost forgot it wasn't real.
The girl was breathing dreams and absorbing the illusions for so long. She barely remembered what it was like to live beyond the glass boundary.
A little dismayed, Des rose with a reluctant sigh. She dusted off the bits of soil on her threadbare frock and headed down the hill.
On the way, she pulled out her necklace and twisted the pendant open.
Des unfolded the small slip of paper that tumbled out into her to read for the umpteenth time.
I'm Deslyn Banks, 17 this year.
My actual birthday is 23rd of July.
My parents are Joe and Linda Banks.
We're relatives of the Duchess Tessie, and live in a manor near the palace.
Then, there was a gap. An empty space that seemed to conceal an ugly reason of her entrapment. The paper merely carried on saying...
You're trapped in a glass bubble.
It's an illusion.
And further down, someone's name was scribbled hastily.
Des could barely remember much about that guy. All she had left of him was a small scene, frozen in her mind.
It captured his beautiful smile and carefree laugh. The boy's fossil grey eyes were crescents on his beaming face.
Were we something more than friends? Des wondered as she kept the slip.
The reason she wrote the name remained an eternal mystery in this paradise.
"Deslyn!" Her brother yelled.
Des had just enough time to snap back before a white blur pounced on her. Maggie pinned her down and gave her face a wet, sloppy lick.
"That's enough, Maggie." Andy hauled the huge dog off. But he wasn't strong enough to hold its weight. They crashed on the meadow, in peels of laughter.
"Did you get the basket from Aunt Lora?" Des asked when they finally stopped.
"Yup," he raised a hickory basket.
"Let's go back then. It's almost lunch time."
Andy didn't budge.
"Wait a minute, sis," a frown was forming on his face. "Who's Theodore?"
Her heart plummeted a thousand storeys.
How could Andy possibly know? Perhaps he meant was someone else.
"...Theodore?" she questioned tentatively.
"Yeah. He told me to give you this."
Her brother fished a tiny glass bottle from his pocket. It was smaller than her thumb but large enough to store a tiny scroll.
"Is that your boyfriend?" Andy gave her a smirk.
"No, Andy. I don't know who he is." She told him curtly.
Then, Des pluck off its cork and shook the scroll out carefully. Words on the paper drained blood from her face.
Hang in there. I'm coming.
it came that night
"Hmm..." Ectroy squinted at his reflection.
"I don't see any purple...patches."
"But you-" I inched backwards.
Ectroy set a strong hand on my shoulder, with a charming smile.
"I think you've been in that dark room for too long," his fingers caressed my cheek in slow icy strokes.
"Get some rest. You'll feel clearer in the morning, I promise."
Saviour of the wanted fugitive
Vines, thin and shimmery as gossamer strands, parted. Like curtains, it unveiled a bright room shying behind.
Within the room were more vines, in veins of jade green. Feeble sunrays perking from above, were reaching for a cool teal platform floating over the carpet of grass.
And on this platform, sat a lady playing a harp.
Her eyes were a dreamy blue, swirled with flecks of ivory. Her snow white evening dress bore a rippling sheen of silver.
She paid no attention to the soldiers scuffling in despite the clanking and squeaking of their shiny steel armour.
Instead, she went on playing her golden instrument. Head bowed beneath waves of pale mint hair. Cinnamon fingers strumming vivid melodies in elegant strokes.
One soldier in particularly shiny armour and wine red cape stepped forth in arrogant strides. He coughed loudly to demand the lady’s attention.
The music stopped.
Fingers hovered over the strings.
It took another cough for the lady to pull away from the instrument and tuck the curtain of almost white hair behind her ears.
“You’re Circe’s girl aren’t you?” The leading soldier demanded, scorn in his words.
The lady merely reached toward the harp, strumming notes pitched close to a musical voice.
I go by many names. But this one was always my favourite.
The soldiers exchanged uneasy looks. All of them seemed to understand the lady’s melody. But none of them liked it at all.
Especially their leader.
“May I insist you talk?” He barked.
She played the harp, I am talking, aren’t I?
The soldier’s face flushed tomato red with anger.
“Your majesty,” one of them whispered, “perhaps she is mute.”
The daughter of Circe whipped her head to face the whisperer. She stared with such heavy intensity, several others dropped their gaze.
“I can talk.” She stated in a silvery voice.
“So speak, witch.” The king snarled.
When this was met with no objection, the monarch continued.
“Rumours tell of you housing our fugitive.”
The lady adjusted her sitting position on her tree stump.
“They are rumours.” She pointed out.
“Rumours that I seek to put at ease.” The king growled.
“And so you are led to believe I hid whatever person you’re looking for?”
“Indeed.” He straightened.
The enchantress paused, adjusting a lever on the harp.
“Pardon me but--do you really believe I want any part of your...bizarre politics? I’m not one to involve myself for the sake of one useless fugitive.” Her beautiful features pulled into a frown.
“Very well.” The king huffed.
“If that’s how you wish to play this game-” he beckoned for a few soldiers ”-so be it.”
“Search the place.” He dismissed them.
One stayed to scour the room as the others left. There was the sound of clattering glass, squeaking protests of shifted furniture and the constant pounding of boots on the ground.
Yet, the two of them stayed unfazedly glaring into each others eyes.
Their stand was made clear.
But neither was going to back down.
Alas, the soldiers returned to their rulers side, bowing their heads in shameful dismay.
“We found nothing, sir.” One spoke for the rest.
The king’s face flushed a deeper shade of red. His bristly moustache stood on its ends. Beady eyes were about to pop out of their sockets.
“Bah!” He snapped, shooing them away in utter disgust.
“You’ve evaded me this time, woman. The Next, you’ll be dead.” The king warned his new enemy with boiling rage, before leading the soldiers out of the room, trampling all over the grass and moss on their way out.
The lady watched the soldiers leave the room.
She made sure the last of their footsteps could no longer be heard, before raising her hands to strum a brief melody.
It’s safe to come out now.
Slowly but surely, tiny hands emerged from under the teal platform. Their firm grip hauled up a boy that couldn’t be older than thirteen.
“That was close.” He offered the lady a huge grin.
The enchantress nodded, returned the smile and reached for his arm to expose a deep cut on the brink of recovery. She scowled at the part decorated with fresh, pinkish scratch marks.
You need to stop scratching it. She chided.
“I’m trying. But it’s just so itchy.” He shrugs.
For a moment they both sat in a heavy silence with fading smiles.
It’s not safe here anymore. The lady finally addressed their worry.
The boy sighed.
“I’ll go when it’s dark.” He said softly.
“And I’ll go with you, as far as I can.” She offered.
“Thanks. I could really use some help.”
“I’ll miss you.” She bent down to hug her young friend.
“One last thing.” The fugitive remembered as they pulled away.
He took as deep breath and blew into the palm of his hand. Starry bits of gold blossomed from his mouth, swirling and gathering in his palm.
When he was done, a trophy-sized statue lay on his palm. It was a golden sculpture of the lady playing her harp, with details right down to the her nails and lashes.
The boy handed the sculpture to her.
“Thank you.” He told her with utmost sincerity.
“It’s no problem. We enchanters must always help one another.” She took the sculpture gratefully.
“Besides,” she snapped her fingers “if you need me, play the harp and call for me.”
A minty blue harp smaller than his palm promplty landed on the boys lap.
The lady watched him eagerly strum a few notes, in an attempt to replicate a few of her songs, before reluctantly deciding, “Off to bed now. You have a long journey ahead.”
Was it a good idea?
Late-night venturing never ended well.
Still, Tara stayed, to peer through the glass and marvel at the glorious library.
Honey-coloured lights trickling down walls and shelves, gathering in golden pools across polished surfaces. Rosewood tables nestled with velvet chair around a statue bathed in ocean blue sapphires. And far behind the tables were mazes of shelves, standing like hegdes among a garden of knowledge.
Tara gingerly tapped the glass. It disintegrated into crystal pixels that reformed when she entered.
The earthly smell of paper drifted all over the vacant room. Winter cold air-conditioning lapped at her skin.
"Woah." Tara mouthed. The girl had never seen that many books in one place.
This was monumental.
Tara headed straight into the centre of the maze. She ambled down the narrow paths stopping to open beautiful books emblazoned in platinum or bound in aged leather.
There was a particular extraordinary book, scrawled in feathery, silver words curling on the pages like tentacles.
Naturally, the adventurer decided to hold on to it.
"Just borrowing." Tara convinced herself. She kept the paperback delicately in her jacket, eager to venture on.
Except, she wasn't alone.
Tara didn't realise a pair of eyes were staring keenly, the whole time.
They were slanted but bright as a cat's in moonlight. Each silver as the font of the book.
But more importantly, they belonged to a boy in an obsidian suit. A cape the colour of fine wine fell over his shoulders and arms.
Blood drained from her face.
Tara had no other choice but to return the book. Sliding it back into its original slot, Tara raised her hands in surrender.
Please don't arrest me, Tara prayed.
Instead, the witness smiled and shook his head.
"Keep it if you like." He waved the matter away, dismissively. "I have to admit, that's a good find."
Tara couldn't believe what she just heard.
"What'd yah say?"
The lanky sixteen year old stepped closer. He was awful tall for his age.
Or, Tara was just unfortunately short.
"You can keep it." He repeated, an arm's length away.
"Oh." Tara looked the book. "I think I'll just leave it here."
"Are you sure?"
There was a frigid silence as they scrutinised each other.
"...you must be new here." He concluded.
"How would you know?"
"You don't know who I am." The boy explained it like a compliment.
"Wait--I'm sorry but--what would I know you as?"
"Pierce. Just call me Pierce." Tara watched him nervously run fingers through his dark hair. Strange.
"Sophie." Tara didn't trust him.
"Listen Sophie, " Pierce lowered himself so they met eye-to-eye. "You can't stay here."
"There are laws and...things against that."
Pierce just shook his head, silver eyes blazing with urgency.
"Okay, okay. I'll go." Tara reluctantly turned away from the shelves, only to spin around again, wringing her hands nervously.
"I...uh think I'm lost."
"Follow me. Closely."
Tara walked beside the stranger as they exited the library and rushed for the lift. She struggled to keep up. With numb, socked feet skidding on polished marble, she wished didn't take off her boots.
A couple times, Tara slipped, smacking face first on the ground.
"I'm fine, I'm fine." She held up her hand to wave away any help.
By the fourth time, Pierce got so worried he reached over to pull her up. He slid an arm firmly over her shoulders and the glossy cape fell over Tara's cheek.
So much for being short, she thought as they whisked out.
Tara held the arm over her shoulders, only because she didn't like falling. Nothing else.
After much struggling on Tara's part, they reached the fortuitously empty lift.
"Thanks." Tara nodded gratefully, entering the elevator.
"One last thing. If anyone tries to catch you-" Pierce reached into his coat and slipped her a royal blue card "-show them this."
The insistent tone in his voice (and maybe a hint of curiosity) motivated her to take the card.
"Thanks. Again." Tara tried a smirk.
Pierce smiled back. But the smile was too filled with worry, it made Tara uneasy.
"Promise me you won't come back. Okay?" Those shimmering eyes pleaded as the elevator door slid shut.
As the elevator raced down, she looked at the blue card. Carved on it was a Rank Number, just like Tara's 99.
But Pierce's was different.
His was an elegant 1.
Her insides fell faster than the lift.
But that would mean...
Pierce was Chief of The Order?
Tara was definitely going back. Even if it killed her, she was going to get some answers.
1. Biding time
ATHENA wasn’t lying. They were found, caught and issued to separate cells.
The last Tara ever saw of her sibling was a storm of rage and regret clouding Terrence’s eyes as he struggled against the guards.
“TARA, I’m sorry... I’LL get you OUT. I swear.” His strained voice echo down the hallway as they took him away.
I’m sorry too, Terry. She thought as the guards forced her in the opposite direction.
They nudged her all the way to a lonely basement, lined with huge glass tanks, each peppered with tiny holes. The only source of light came through a window in the corner, washing the glass panels in a frosty hue. Everything else was drowned in black.
One of her escorters reached for the nearest glass cell. Luminous, aquamarine keypads drifted into view and the guard typed a long string of characters. A tiny hiss escaped and one side of the box swung open.
It couldn’t be an eerier place to spend the night. Tara would’ve kicked and screamed if ATHENA hadn’t warned her.
You’re exactly where you must be. The girl recalled her words.
It was her last lifeline. Everything was staked on those simple words. It was what stopped Tara from fidgeting they set her in the box and sealed her away. She only stared at the guards sauntering off, muttering of “juvenile delinquents” under their breaths.
Tara was intruding the inhabitanting silence. But she didn’t like the way it rested in the room like an tyrant.
She whispered ATHENA’s words to evict the ghostly quietness.
“You’re exactly where you must be.”
Was she though?
It was too late to do anything anyway.
She pulled her green cotton jacket closer to guard her from the icy walls of her jail. When that didn’t work, the jacket became a blanket. Her choice of entertainment alternated between singing 2010s hits and poking her fingers through the huge pores in the glass.
Tara didn’t care if anyone wandered in to see her singing ‘Real Friends’ by Camila Cabello.
Or, her slipping two fingers out of the box, idly trying to make their tips touch.
Really, the girl cared for anything but sleep.
But she knew she was tired.
Her eyes were closing.
The blue window morphed into Carlton’s cobalt blue eyes. A foreign quality of frigidity lingered in them.
“Rough day, huh.” Dream Carlton smirked. He scooted over to huddle next to her, outside the tank.
“Go away. You’re not real.” Tara muttered dismissively.
“But don’t you like me better?” He paused for her to consider.
“A hikikomori-free friend? The old me?”
Tara avoided the question. She missed Old Carlton. The one that pulled pranks, sassed and cheered people up with timely, idiotic jokes.
“Times changed, Carl. But not even Terrence has moved on. How could you?”
Dream Carlton’s smile sank into a tiny pout.
“Okay, I’ll go.” He sulked.
When this wasn’t met with any pity, Carlton whirled to look at Tara.
“Any last words?” He searched for some reason to stay.
She ignored him.
The boy faded out.
Tara opened her eyes feeling rotten. She reached for Terrence to hold his hand and squeeze it till the feeling subsided.
Then, she remembered.
They were separated...
The captive cleared her head of any illusions and returned to her singing and poking, awaiting Carlton’s return.
″I’m just looking for some real friends...All they ever do is let me down...”
It’s melancholy echoed the space.