Cuff II: Chapter 2

Cuff II: Chapter 2

VIN CULLUR

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Vin left the butcher’s tent, the smell of death coating his simple clothing, and began walking along the road toward home. The sun was about to set on Kailin City. Sometimes, Vin liked to spend this time at the harbor, watching the boats flow freely along the Q’Mo Sea. This is when he would imagine living the life of a sailor, travelling the oceans and seeing the world. While drifting off into thought, he liked to watch the sky struggle against, but ultimately submit to, the creeping darkness. There was something cathartic about it. No matter one’s status, the nighttime engulfed everyone equally; emperors and peasants alike were subject to the same void.

Tonight, however, Vin was in no mood to sit at the harbor and think. His thoughts were far too incendiary to hold inside, least of all by the calming waters of the Q’Mo.

Everything the butcher had told him reeked of defeat. Vin fearfully wondered if all adults perceived life in that same way. As far as he could remember, every adult he had ever spoken to seemed to carry the same message: that life is truly unwinnable, and happiness unattainable. Vin’s father told him to give up. His late uncle had told him that things never change for the better. Today, the butcher told him that he would never become anything. Perhaps, Vin thought, everybody reaches a certain age where sadness outweighs energy. Perhaps there is a point at which everyone projects their failures onto those around them. But until that day– should he ever reach it– Vin swore to never surrender his ambition in the same manner as all of these depressed men around him. Capitulation is not an inevitability of life, but a conscious choice.

Vin frustratedly kicked a rock, lobbing it off the side of the road and into the wall of a building, where it bounced off feebly, rolling right back into the road. He grunted and kept moving.

Beneath his worn shoes, the narrow cobblestone ground expanded out into a wider, but less civilized, pathway of dirt and pebbles. Few, if any, horses rode out this way, so there was no need to improve this part of the road. More importantly, there was nobody willing to spend the coin to do so.

Vin was entering a poor district of Kailin City known as The Rancids. It was not the only severely poverty-stricken region of the city, but it was certainly the most infamous. Violence and mistrust were rampant. There was no unifying community– only thievery and resentment.

Though both The Rancids and the Kailin Marketplace were parts of Kailin City, they felt like two entirely different worlds. As Vin walked,  crumbling stone huts replaced the colorful tents of the market. The noise of lively bustling evaporated completely, making way for the barking of dogs, the howling of wind, and an occasional suspicious murmur while passing somebody’s home.

The Rancids were dangerous and vicious. Poverty tended to elicit savagery from even the most wholesome of people, and the abundance of cheap aqua vitae and smoking-plants certainly did not help. Finding a place to sleep could prove rather difficult, as any bump in the night could be a robber or rapist. Yet, the risks of living in The Rancids were tame compared to illegally resting on the streets nearer to Kailin Castle. The poor residents here might assault you, but the guards of the marketplace would kidnap you, question you, and then hunt down three generations of your family. In short, they were not fond of residents of The Rancids leaving The Rancids.

Vin had overcome this many times to find work in the marketplace– and, indeed, he had spent just as much of his life in the bustling shopping district– yet, he still felt like an outsider. Acutely was he aware that the marketplace guards would take any excuse to punish him, based simply on his Rancid-like appearance: scrawny, raggedy, and unable to hold his tongue. Leaving the policed area by nightfall seemed to keep the apprenticing boy out of trouble, though.

At this very moment, Vin was about five minutes away from his father’s house. Yet, more importantly, he was ten minutes from home.

Vin did not live with family. At least, not the type related by blood. Instead, he spent his days with two other boys in the streets of The Rancids: one dark-skinned, one fair-skinned. Like everybody else in the area, these three never knew luxury, but, very uniquely, they all knew happiness. Everybody else seemed to spend their lives drinking or complaining or robbing people to buy bread. Vin and his friends had the most valuable commodity of all: hope.

Vin tried to kick another rock, but missed entirely this time. He stopped to try again, but hesitated, and decided to keep walking instead. That little rock was not worthy of his time, anyway.

The defeatism of the butcher was not the only topic that had Vin’s brain turning. More than anything else, Vin was bothered by Kraz’s incessant yelling and raging in defense of Emperor Godsrich. This was a man whose livelihood was being hindered by an elite ruling class, and yet he refused to accept the truth. Surely, Kraz understood this– his work was being undervalued and overtaxed. Yet, when the edacity of the royal family was brought up in conversation, he angrily told Vin to be respectful of the very people oppressing him.

What could make a person so complacent? Where was the indignant rage– where was the passion?

Vin idly recalled the Burning of the Writers several days earlier. Perhaps the butcher was just paranoid about stepping out of line after the royal family had made such a show of killing dissenters. Surely, though, that was the intention of such a horrific massacre: to keep everybody else in line by making examples of the outspoken few who did not.

The skinny boy scoffed. To obey such a display of brutality was to accept the system behind it.

Vin made a turn off of the road, weaving between dilapidated buildings until he reached an alley slightly wider than the rest, where the buildings on either side had no windows facing in. An assortment of identical wooden crates lined the passageway, all illuminated by a warm glow. At the center of it all, in a small stone pit, a sizable fire crackled invitingly.

“Eyy,” called a familiar, boyish voice.

Vin sat down on one of the crates, next to a ratty-looking child with fine leather shoes. The boy was about the same size and age as Vin, but with darker skin, even compared to Vin’s deep olive tones. He had blacker, curlier hair, and a shadow of adolescent facial hair, which contrasted next to Vin’s smooth, hairless face.

“Hey, Theo,” Vin replied.

“You want something to eat?” Theo asked.

“No, I’m not hungry.”

Theo looked his friend up and down, a look of blatant disbelief on his face. “Maaan,” he started, “I don’t know what happened today, but if you don’t eat before Javisin gets here and scarfs the rest, you’re gonna be a sorry little fucker.”

“I just–”

“Eat! We can bitch about our problems with full stomachs.”

Vin smiled as he down at his feet, now being warmed by the fire. Sometimes a familiar face made all the difference between a good and bad day, even if that familiar face constantly gave you a hard time.

“Alright, chef Theo,” Vin said, with a new energy to his voice. “What’s on the menu?”

“Rat.”

Vin chuckled at the joke, then noticed Theo’s deadpan expression. His joviality vanished within a fraction of a second. “You’re kidding.”

“I told you,” Theo retorted, “Didn’t I tell you? I said ‘if we don’t get some coin by tomorrow night, we’re gonna be eating alley rat for dinner.’ I said that, right? I said that.”

“I mean, I thought that was just a figure of speech,” Vin replied, still trying to assess if Theo was messing with him.

“Figure of speech? I don’t mess around about food. This shit’s serious.”

Theo picked up a stick with a black mass of meat hanging from it. Vin grimaced at the sight.

“Oh, don’t look at it like that,” Theo said. “If I remember correctly, you’re the one who works for a butcher. You’ve seen worse.”

“I really don’t think I have.”

“And by the way,” Theo continued, ignoring Vin, “You should be the one bringing the fancy meats home, man. Imagine! A dinner of chicken… a dinner of beef… a dinner of… shit, man, we could even cook up some nice quail meat! Maybe marinate that shit, get it looking like some fine meal straight out of Ikazu’s tent. Five-star shit.” Theo spoke through his obvious salivation.

“We don’t even sell th– wait, why does everyone want quail? What’s so great about quail?” Vin retorted indignantly, before pausing and pondering aloud. “Maybe we should start selling quail.”

“Forget the quail– it was just an example. Pig! Pheasant! Taddie! Lamb! Shit, I dunno. Artichoke? Is that an animal? Doesn’t really matter, as long as it ain’t rat.”

“Either way, I can’t just steal from my master.” Vin thought for a moment. “Although, really, it would go to better use if I did. That man wastes so much food. Charges too much for it, can’t sell it, and ends up feeding it to dogs once it spoils.”

“Exactly. I’m just saying, the apprentice butcher should really be the one getting the grub,” Theo gestured to his beautiful shoes, “Not the apprentice shoemaker.”

Vin looked carefully at the rodent-covered stick in Theo’s hand. “No kidding.”

Maaan,” he started, almost melodically, “Have some appreciation. I caught four rats on my own! Chased the fuckers down, killed ‘em. I skinned ‘em and deboned ‘em and cleaned ‘em and–”

“Alright, give me the damn rat,” Vin said, grabbing the stick from Theo’s dirty hands. The more he heard, the less he would want to eat this.

Theo laughed. “Enjoy. I made it, uh, rat-misery style.”

Vin carefully observed the stick. “Rotisserie.”

“Whatever.”

Vin smelled the rat, which was a mistake, then put it to his lips. Bravely, he took a huge bite out of the side of it, leaving only two-thirds of the rat remaining on the stick.

He chewed loudly, and eventually swallowed, while Theo eagerly awaited a verdict.

“You cook like you make your shoes,” Vin noted.

The dark-skinned boy grinned. “Skillfully?”

“No, I mean, this tastes like a shoe.”

“You fucker,” Theo chuckled, while Vin started laughing, looking back at the remains of his supper.

Still smiling, Theo picked up a half-full clay bottle behind him and started pouring it into two old ceramic cups. They were cracked and beaten, but still served their basic purpose of holding liquid, at least most of the time.

Vin, meanwhile, battled the remainder of his dinner. Not one to take small bites, he speedily devoured the rest of the charred rat, grimacing as it crawled down his throat. It was, without a doubt, disgusting. Yet, Vin knew he needed the fuel in his system, and he definitely was not going to throw away Theo’s hard work. Food was food.

“I can’t believe that just happened,” Vin said, picking a bit of burned fur out of his teeth. Perhaps Theo had not skinned them as thoroughly as he thought.

“We ate our first rats, man,” Theo answered, carefully handing Vin one of the ceramic cups, now filled with an odorous liquid. “Cheers to hitting rock bottom.”

“Saria salut,” Vin replied.

The boys downed their drinks simultaneously, pointing their faces toward the night sky. Theo took it easily, but Vin started coughing and gasping as soon as it touched his throat. If nothing else, the taste of rat had completely vanished from his palette.

“I swear,” Vin said, between coughs, “As soon as I stop living in an alley, I’m never touching this stuff again.”

“What, aqua vitae?”

“Alcohol. I hate the taste.”

Theo chuckled. “You and I have very different opinions.”

“You like it.”

“Nah, it tastes like shit. But it warms the heart, you know?”

“No.”

“It absolutely does.”

“Maybe you just like feeling stupid,” Vin teased.

“Maybe. It’s nice to see the world through your eyes every once in awhile,” Theo replied, cleaning up the ceramic cups. “You know. Because you’re stupid.”

“Good one.” Vin rolled his eyes and gazed into the fire. It was nice and warm on his face. Kailin City nights were not especially cold this time of year, but when breezes came through the alley, they were thankful for it.

Soft clinking sounds replaced conversation as Theo cleaned up the few grimey dinner supplies they owned and put them in a crate.

They called this alley the Courtyard. It is possible that they just wanted to make it sound like a nice outdoor area of a palace; “courtyard” was clearly far too endearing a term for such a grungy, tiny alleyway. Yet, they had an appreciation for the gross little spot.

The Courtyard was situated between two particularly tall buildings, but, since none of the windows faced inward to the alley, the boys never got waste dumped on them. This, combined with the fact that their fires were not visible from the road, made the Courtyard a perfect home, as far as Vin was concerned. As for the residents of these buildings, Vin had never seen them before, so they were never given any trouble from them. In fact, they had never been given trouble from anyone, despite living here for months and months. And, in The Rancids, such safety was the most valuable resource.

Vin used to have another home. His father, Sage Cullur, owned a small house nearby. After a few years of raising Vin, however, Sage kicked him out of the house, telling him to find work and get his own money. He was a man with a firm belief that people should do things for themselves, rather than rely on others– an ironic prospect for the unemployed man. Yet, Vin suspected that it was all much more personal than that. He had always seemed to have some vendetta against his only son.

If adults were sad people, Sage was the saddest of all.

Sometimes Vin felt envious towards Theo for having a father of his own, who gave him a room in a house. Theo even learned everything he knew about shoemaking from his father. It was the Yung family trade.

That envy evaporated whenever Vin remembered how abusive and arrogant Mister Yung was toward his son, and that Theo snuck out every night, by choice, to sleep in this dirty alley instead of his family’s comfortable house, just to get away from him. Perhaps fathers were never perfect.

“How was Kraz today?” Theo asked, breaking the silence. His tone seemed calmed, probably by the aqua vitae.

Vin paused for a moment, not breaking his gaze with the fire.

“The usual,” Vin replied. “Actually, no. Angrier than usual.”

“He’s just an angry little butcher, huh?”

“Not so little.”

“But definitely angry. How does someone get that angry?” Theo seemed to be asking a rhetorical question, but Vin really thought about it.

He took his time to reply.  Both boys, sitting side by side, were now staring into the flames, transfixed by its vibrant, flickering tongues. “Theo?”

“Yeah?”

“Do you think anything will ever change?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean… Kailin City. The Empire. The Rancids. Do you think we’ll be stuck like this forever?”

“Oh man.”

“What?”

“No, that’s just a big question,” he chuckled, almost nervously.

“Oh. I just don’t know how to fix it,” Vin continued. “I wish I did. But there has to be some way to… I dunno, make The Rancids less rancid. To make the poor less poor. I mean, think about it. If Emperor Godsrich gave every citizen of the Kailin Empire a hundred silver coins, he’d still have a palace, and excessive luxury, and feasts. He’d still have more coin than he knew what to do with. But the rest of us could eat, too. And Emperor Godsrich is far from the only rich guy.”

“But no one in the royal family is going to give up their wealth. Least of all to kids living on the streets of The Rancids.”

“That’s the problem, though, Theo. We’re the ones who need it most.”

“Sure, but they don’t care.”

“Yeah…” something in Vin’s brain began clicking. “Why don’t they care?”

“Because they’re in power. They make the rules. And they would rather spend it on themselves. On gem-encrusted goblets and gilded feasting tables.”

“They don’t have to answer to anyone.”

“Yeah.”

“But… what if there was someone in charge of the royal family? Someone who they had to answer to?”

Theo thought for a moment, still gazing into the flames. “Well, I don’t know who that would be. I think there’s a bigger problem beneath all of this.”

“What problem?”

“Power corrupts,” the charcoal boy said simply. “I don’t think you could put anyone in charge who wouldn’t abuse their power. Who would you have the royal family answer to? Another, higher ruler? An advisor? A foreign king? It doesn’t matter. No one would stand up for the kids of The Rancids when they could just keep some more coin themselves and buy more gilded feasting tables.”

Vin thought for a moment. “What if they didn’t have to answer to just a person, though?”

“What, like a god? I dunno about you, Vin, but I think the religious nuts around here–”

“No, what if they answered to us? All of us?”

“What, a bunch of dirty kids? Then we’d become the corrupt power, wouldn’t we?”

“I mean… I wouldn’t.”

“Maybe, maybe not,” Theo replied diplomatically. “But not everyone is you, Vin. Even if you were the greatest ruler of our time, and even if you were the one in charge… you’d die, and another Godsrich would take your place eventually.”

“But we don’t have a whole empire of Godsriches, do we?”

“You overestimate people. The Kailin Empire might not be full of Godsriches, but it’s full of stupid people, for sure. They can’t all be in charge.”

Vin’s eyes were completely glazed over, finding strange shapes dancing in the fire. He had a worried expression on his face.

“So, to answer the question,” Vin said, slowly, “You don’t think anything will change.”

Theo snapped out of his fire trance and looked at Vin, who was still frozen in place. The flickering light cast shadows mysteriously across his face.

“No,” he said, “Nothing will change.”

Somehow, without moving a muscle or changing facial expressions, Vin’s eyes filled with defeat. He valued Theo’s opinion above all others, and his best friend had just confirmed the truth he feared most.

Theo swallowed. “Unless we do it.”

Vin’s head turned toward his friend, as he, at last, broke his trance with the fire. The two boys sat there in the Courtyard, looking each other in the eyes, having a mutual understanding.

“Nobody else thinks the way you think, Vin. Make them see the world like you do. Break their feasting tables.”

Vin nodded silently.

Maybe it was the aqua vitae, or maybe it was the culmination of years of struggle and friendship. Maybe it was both. Regardless, in that moment, Theo strung together the perfect set of words to lift Vin’s spirits.

“I don’t know how. But you’re gonna change everything, Vin.”

Vin’s brain sparked with motivation and excitement. “We’re gonna change everything. We have to.”

Theo gave a half-smile, and Vin gave a full one back. There was no plan, and there was no path. Yet, in that instant, the impossible seemed possible. The future looked beautiful, young, and infinite.

In the next instant, however, it all came crashing down, with the sound of big wooden crates being knocked over, followed by a heavy, bodily thump.

“Oof.”

Vin and Theo turned to the source, and saw exactly what they expected: a small boy, covered head-to-toe in red freckles, climbing over a box he had clumsily toppled. His face split with a giant grin.

“What’s up?” He asked enthusiastically, springing over the fire to sit on a crate across from Theo and Vin. His voice was high and childish, and reeked of an eagerness to please.

“Theo and I were just talking about the Emperor,” Vin answered, hiding a sly smile as he looked at the toppled crates. If this alley was the Courtyard, this boy was the court jester.

“Oh… Emperor Godrich,” the boy said, “You know, I met him once.”

“Javisin,” Theo replied, calling the freckled boy by his first and only name, “You did not meet the Emperor.”

“I did meet the Emperor, Theodore. And, listen to this…” Javisin’s high voice dropped to an aggressive whisper, with his lips over-annunciating each word. “I saw the Empress, too.”

Vin raised an eyebrow. “So?”

“Oh man, don’t fuckin’ tell me,” Theo said, barely containing a laugh. “Little Javisin’s got a crush on the Empress!”

Javisin’s boyish, freckled face suddenly solidified into a very serious expression. His features hardened; his lips tightened, as though they were gates holding back a flood of confidential information.

“Oh, no. No, my Theo. It’s crazier than that.”

“Crazier than you having a thing for women?” Theo teased maliciously.

“What is it?” Vin interjected, entertaining Javisin’s story.

“Oh, Vin,” the small boy said, shaking his head, “You don’t even know.”

“What?”

“Oh, Vin,” Javisin continued, “Vinnie, Vinnie, Vin, Vin.” He then clicked his tongue three times, slowly. Each of these visibly annoyed Theo.

“Come on,” Theo interjected, aggressively, “Say what you gotta say, Jav. We don’t have all night.”

Javisin leaned forward dramatically, the light from the fire illuminating his cheeks.

“Do you really wanna know?”

Vin and Theo remained silent. Theo looked like he truly did not care what this boy had to say.

Empress Vera.” Javisin paused. “Empress Vera Azum-Flectre.”

“…Yeah?” Vin asked.

“She…”

Theo looked ready to get up and walk away. This fake suspense really irritated him, but Javisin did this all the time.

“She…” Javisin dragged it out even further. “She had two faces.”

Vin and Theo looked at each other, eyebrows raised, then burst out laughing. Theo’s cacophonous howl echoed around the Courtyard, mocking Javisin loudly from all sides.

“No! Honest! She did! I seen them!”

Two faces!” Theo snickered to himself, imitating Javisin’s dramatic inflection.

“Yeah… two.” The small pasty boy looked humiliated.

Vin stopped instantly when he saw Javisin’s embarrassment, but Theo kept laughing his mocking, high-pitched laugh.

“She got a face in the back of her head, Vinnie!” Javisin said desperately. “That’s what everyone says. They say the Empress has another face on the back of her head. And I seen it myself!”

Vin composed himself quickly, trying not to offend his young freckled friend any further. Theo obviously had no such worries.

“That’s… that’s cool, Javisin,” Vin said kindly. “Where’d you see the royal family?”

“Uh, on the palace steps,” Javisin replied, regaining his confidence instantly. “Yeah, I was in the marketplace the other day and they walked down the steps and I saw them both!”

Vin had been in the marketplace all day for the past ten days, and never witnessed anything of the sort. The royal family tended to stay in their luxurious palace, where they had everything they needed. There was literally no reason for them to mingle with plebeian shopkeepers. Yet, Vin was not going to call out Javisin on this absurd claim. Perhaps the young boy truly thought that he had seen the royal family for some reason.

“Is there anything to eat?” Javisin, changing mental gears in an instant, hopped off of the crate he was sitting on and darted to a different wooden crate, which had one side opened. He instantly began rummaging through it.

Theo had composed himself at last, just in time to see Javisin pull out two rat-sticks from the crate, a horrified look on his face.

“What is this?” He asked disgustedly.

“Alley rat,” Theo replied, still smiling and wiping tears from his face. “Better eat up. Don’t worry, they only have one face each.”

Javisin held the two sticks crossed in front of his eyes, analyzing the burned masses on them carefully.

“You know,” he began, lowering the rodents, “We shouldn’t be eating rat for dinner. This city has plenty of real food in it.”

“And we don’t have the coin to pay for it,” replied Theo. “So maybe you,” he paused emphatically, “Should get a little better at pickpocketing.”

“Theo!” Vin interjected, scoldingly, “Don’t encourage the boy to steal.”

“He’s already doing it,” answered Theo. “The little urchin. Maybe if he’d learn to not get caught so fuckin’ often, we could actually eat something.”

“Stealing is wrong!” Vin replied.

“Ain’t you the one who wants to make the poor less poor? Redistribute the coin? Don’t think of it as stealing! It’s just… redistribution!”

“Stealing is why we’re in this mess in the first place,” Vin answered, riled up. “The royal family pickpockets all of us every day.”

“Then maybe Jav here should even the score.”

“Don’t need to,” Javisin replied, interrupting the conversation. “My pickpocketing days… are over.” He grinned smugly.

“Good!” Vin said warmly.

“Ugh,” groaned Theo.

“You know why? I got work.” Javisin enunciated the word ‘work’ so deliberately and clearly that Vin had no doubts that he heard him correctly. This was hard to believe, but, undoubtedly, it was good news. After months of encouraging Javisin to stop pickpocketing and start working somewhere, Vin could not have been more proud.

“Really! That’s great, Jav–”

“Who hired you?” Theo interrupted suspiciously.

Javisin flashed a toothy smile, having anticipated that question. “Ikazu,” he proclaimed triumphantly.

“Yeah, I knew you was lying,” Theo mumbled dismissively.

“No!” The triumph was instantly wiped off of Javisin’s face. A shocked, upset expression replaced it. “Really! I’m apprenticing for Ikazu!”

“You’re not,” Theo replied. “That man is too well respected to take on a bastard orphan like yourself. Besides, you’ve never caught a fish in your life, Jav.”

“No,” Javisin answered, “But I’m really really good at cleaning them.” He mimicked the motion of stabbing a knife into an invisible fish and slicing it vertically.

“Look, Jav,” Vin jumped in, trying to keep the discussion positive. “I’m just happy you’re doing something other than thievery.”

“Yeah, lying,” Theo quipped.

“This is a good thing,” Vin continued, ignoring Theo. “You’re getting some money, getting some experience… and not breaking down the financial fabric of society.”

“Uh, yeah.”

“So are you working tomorrow?”

“No, not tomorrow, Vinnie. Tomorrow’s the Riverlight Festival.”

“I’m off too,” added Theo. “My father don’t work on holy days.”

Vin thought for a split-second. “Shit,” he said. “Guess I’m the only one working.”

“Hey, maybe all the other game butcheries will be closed. You might make a sale for once.”

Vin chuckled. “Yeah, I guess we’ll see.”

“You didn’t make any today?” Javisin asked, picking up a little rock, not dissimilar from the ones Vin was kicking around earlier.

“You know,” Vin answered, “It’s amazing how many people shop at the Kailin City Marketplace, and how much coin gets passed around each hour. It’s amazing that we work there for eight, ten, sometimes twelve hours each day… and can’t make a single sale.”

“I guess that’s a no,” Javisin answered, fiddling with the rock.

“We got close.”

“Close.”

“Yeah. Truth is,” Vin said, “I think Kraz would make more money if he sat on his ass skipping coin across the Q’Mo all day. Maybe one would skip back to him once in awhile.”

Javisin giggled.

“Hey, Vin,” Theo said, in the same tone of voice that he used when proposing someone dive off of the Kailin City docks, or chug an entire bottle of aqua vitae, “You should skip work tomorrow.”

“What?”

“Yeah. You hate it anyway. Kraz is an idiot, you barely make coin. And tomorrow’s one of the biggest holy days of the year.”

“He’s already so angry, though,” Vin replied, making excuses about his master. “He’d kill me if I just didn’t show up.”

“Well, at least come with us to see the morning flames!”

“You’re going to the docks?” Vin asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Yeah, both of us,” Theo answered. Javisin nodded in agreement.

“At sunrise,” Javisin added, putting the two untouched sticks of rat back in their food crate. Going hungry must have seemed preferable to Theo’s nauseating rodent-cooking.

Vin thought for a moment. “Okay. Yeah.”

“You’ll come?!” Javisin bounced up and down with childish excitement.

“Sure,” Vin replied. “I don’t start work till aftmorn.”

“Oh, that’s plenty of time!”

“Yep,” agreed Theo.

At the Riverlight Festival, the morning flames typically began just after sunrise, and merriment would continue until very late the next night. It was one of Vin’s favorite times of the year.

“Sounds good.”

The three of them paused, and the conversation ended. Clearly, a lethargy had washed over the Courtyard, with no warning.

“If we’re getting up early, we better get some sleep,” recommended Theo.

As if they all simultaneously realized what an exhausting day was about to arrive, the boys scrambled to their beds. Theo and Javisin crawled inside of empty wooden crates and pulled ratty blankets up over their bodies. Vin just laid down on the ground next to the fire, enjoying its warmth. There were more than enough crates for him to choose from, but he preferred to gaze at the stars until his eyelids could no longer support their weight.

“Night.”

“Night.”

“Night.”

Vin counted the constellations he knew: the giant ship, the fish, and the horse-with-the-cross. They all meant something religiously, but Vin could never keep those stories straight anyway. The plus-sign cross was Saria’s emblem, and there was definitely some ancient story about Hyra and the fish.

Those, however, were just myths. Vin wondered what the sky actually meant. Were the constellations real, or illusory? Were the stars little holes poked in a vast blanket of darkness, letting light in? Were they vertices on huge geometric shapes surrounding the world? Some people said that stars were actually objects very similar to the sun, except far away. Vin thought that such an explanation only raised more questions.

Vin squinted, changing his vision slightly. Why did the constellations stay static? Rather, why did they move so slowly, changing by nearly unnoticeable amounts each night? Surely, if the horse-with-the-cross constellation was truly a horse, it would be seen galloping across the sky, not standing completely still, like a painting. This had always confused the curious boy.

Vin’s favorite place to look at in the night sky, however, was not a constellation at all. There was one star, in the back of the ship constellation, that shone more brilliantly than any others. It was bluish-white, and gave off nearly as much light as the moon, but from a much smaller point. Vin had heard stories that some eastern civilizations, such as those deep on the mainland, actually worship the star. Vin liked that. If anything is deserving worship in this world, this illuminating nova must be. Unlike the gods, it definitely existed, and could be seen on any cloudless night.

Vin’s eyes began to shut as he stared into that vivid cosmic object. No part of him fought against the rush of languor as it overtook his body and mind. He needed some rest, anyway.

Tomorrow was going to be an exciting day.