Kael wasn’t ungrateful for his accommodations. His room in the sick house was larger than the room he’d grown up in, with a window that gave him a view of trees and beautiful sunsets instead of the back of a mortared brick wall. The only possession he still had was the book his grandmother had given him, which he kept close to him on the nightstand. He even had a desk, which he was excited to use just as soon as he could walk again. The clothes that had been gifted him were well made, his bed soft, the food amazing. All in all, Headwater had been kind to Kael.
He paused at that notion.
No. Generally speaking, the people of Headwater had been horrible to him. Even so much as going far out of their way to curse at him and throw rocks at the sick house. But they had also saved his life and cared after his recovery.
Not the whole town. Barely a handful had looked passed their prejudices toward him. Not that he blamed them. He’d been surprised that any of the villagers had helped him. They were phaerians, after all, and he a citizen. They had every right to despise him.
Kael should want to leave Headwater, and yet…
The thought didn’t feel quite right to him. Then again, neither did the notion of staying. What about the life he would leave behind? Was he to abandon his dreams for a beautiful face and delicious food? It seemed ridiculous, and yet to a part of him it made sense. Other than his two younger siblings and joining the Crimson Guard, there really wasn’t much in Nyatia return to.
Not after the caravan massacre. Headless had seen to that.
Kael’s mind flinched from that terrible memory.
If Kael went back to the empire with tales of Headless, slaughtering a caravan of do’Vrath and the Citadel’s most powerful cadets, he’d be labeled insane and sent to live out the rest of his days in a cell.
The deep sigh that took Kael seemed to summon a creeping sense of foreboding. To stay, or to leave…
His fingers ran over the Shield on is temple. A bright red triangle with circles at the end of each tip. The imperial mark, proof of citizenship. Along the base of the Shield were the Marks of Candidate and Potential. When Kael finished his training, the Mark of Vrath would be added. If he finished his training.
But if he stayed in Headwater, his Shield would forever be his Mark of Shame. Kael wondered what Tylel would have thought of Headwater, but quickly banished the thought under a pang of loss.
“Why the long face?”
The familiar voice chased away Kael’s dark thoughts and a pulled grin on his cheeks. “I was starting to think you were going to call it a night and stay home.”
Jouler stepped through the doorway, bearing the dirt from a full day in the fields. Most of the grime was on his knees and elbows, though a nice dark streak ran across his brow. As always, his curious eyes lingered on the book on the nightstand. “I almost had to this time. Dralin made me double check the fields. Said old man Biggard told him he’d found some white spot in his potatoes so we needed to check ours. But I know that’s a lie. White spot infects tabac, not potatoes.” Dralin’s just finding any old excuse to keep me from coming here.” Jouler shrugged. “Anyway. How’d your day go?”
“Oh, you know…” Kael gave a casual flip of his hand to his bedridden self. “I jogged to the village square and danced with Livia before kneading some dough and baking some loaves.”
“You joke,” Jouler said, grabbing the chair by the table. He sat hard and gave Kael a pointed stare. “But as soon as you start walking again, Reylan will have you so busy you’ll wish you were back on that bed.”
Kael winced from a hearty chuckle. “Still hurts to laugh too hard, but that was funny.”
“Don’t get mad,” Jouler said, laughing, “but you look funny when you’re in pain.”
Kael wiped tears from his eyes. “Laugh away. I’m used to it by now.”
“Don’t get upset,” Jouler said, wringing his hands. “I was just joking.”
Kael waved off the sentiment. “It’s okay. Honest.” He gestured for Jouler to grab the chair. “My friends and I used to laugh at each other all the time.”
Jouler’s eyes lingered on Kael’s book as he situated the chair next to Kael’s bed.
“I know you want to read it,” Kael said.
Jouler jerked his eyes away. “You know I can’t read.”
“But I could teach you,” Kael replied.
“Maybe another time,” Jouler said, shaking his head. His mouth turned a mischievous smirk. “For now, I’d rather laugh at your pain.”
One day Kael would corner him into learning to read. “Now you sound like Vel.” Kael gritted his teeth as he swung his feet over the edge of the bed.
“Are you supposed to be doing that?” Jouler asked. “Reylan told me…”
Kael held up a hand. “You try laying in bed for a month, see how you like it.”
Jouler’s head bobbed from side to side. “Fair enough. Who’s Vel?”
A fond remembrance of Kael’s friend floated through his mind. “We used to get into so much trouble, Vel and I. We took every opportunity to laugh at each other’s misfortunes.”
“Sounds like me and Pen,” Jouler said. “Although, I think he does most of the laughing.”
“Pen laughs at everything,” Kael said. “Vel was a bit more…aggressive, I guess would be an apt word. I think we were ten, maybe eleven, and I’d caught the eye of an older girl. She might have been fourteen. I can’t remember.”
“What was her name?” Jouler asked, leaning his elbows on his knees.
“Never got a chance to ask,” Kael said. “After a lot of persuasion and insults to my pride, Vel finally convinced me to go talk to her. I crossed the street, our eyes met, she smiled at me.”
Jouler inched closer to the edge of his seat.” What’d she look like?”
“Maybe two hands shorter than I am now,” Kael said. “Big brown eyes, cute button nose, and freckles on her cheeks.” Kael paused, letting the image soak into Jouler’s mind. “And I slipped and fell flat on my ass.” Kael slapped his palms together. “Just like that.”
Jouler burst into laughter.
Kael pointed at Jouler. “That’s exactly what Vel did!”
Jouler laughed even harder, clutching his stomach. “Tolrik’s beard, that was funny!”
“Even worse,” Kael continued, “the Workers District, where I lived, was covered in perpetual gray mud that smelled worse than a privy.”
Jouler’s laughter cut short and he wrinkled his nose. “Why would you live in a place like that?”
Kael shrugged. “You don’t really know any better if it’s all you’ve known, and the mud is just a fact of life.”
“So what happened with the girl?” Jouler asked.
An easy smile crossed Kael’s face as Jouler quivered with anticipation. “Well…” Kael rubbed his hands together. “She started laughing at me, and making fun of me. So Vel threw a big fat, stinking ball of nasty, putrid mud. Caught her right in the face.”
Jouler spurted and his eyes went wide. “I can’t believe he did that! And to a girl!”
A lump formed in Kael’s throat. “Boy, girl, man, woman, tall, short, it didn’t matter with Vel. He was a good friend, and loyal to a fault.”
Jouler sat back in his chair, a somber furrow to his brow. “What happened between you two?” He looked surprised that he’d spoken. “I’m sorry. I was just thinking out loud. I didn’t mean to say that.”
Sudden pain flashed through Kael’s scars, as though his stomach had shattered again. His mind swooned and sweat beaded on his forehead, chilled by the evening breeze. “That one hurt,” he mumbled as the waves of pain subsided to aching rolls. He pointed to the table. “Can you grab me that jar of tonic and the spoon? Livia forgot to set them on the nightstand again before she left.”
Jouler paused when he grabbed the jar, bouncing the spoon in his hand. “You know, she probably wouldn’t forget so often if you didn’t make her feel like a little kid the night before Solstice.”
Kael’s heart skipped and his cheeks tightened from the thought of her.
Jouler rolled his eyes and laughed. “Gods, man. You’re as bad as she is!”
“What can I say? She’d got that effect on me.”
Jouler handed Kael the spoon and jar.
Kael nodded his thanks, then measured two spoonfuls of the viscous tonic. The taste of Livia’s signature orange peel and rose complimented the earthy taste of ha’ath. Reylan liked to joke that she was being too soft on Kael by hiding the ha’ath, but Kael knew the old man also enjoyed it all the same. Calming warmth soon spread through his body, tempering the throbs of pain. He scooted back in his bead to lean against the wall.
“Was there anyone else?” Jouler asked, back in his seat. “A girl, I mean. Before you came here.”
Kael nodded against another rising lump in his throat. “Her name was Aliece.”
“Was?” Jouler asked. “I take it that one ended badly as well?”
The painful memory tugged at Kael’s heart, pleading for tears.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…” Jouler licked his lips and dry-washed his hands. “I’m sorry.”
Kael waved away his concern. “I’m fine.”
Jouler leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “Was she prettier than Livia?”
She was the most beautiful person I’ve ever known, Kael thought.
“Not even close,” he lied.
Jouler nodded to himself, satisfied by the answer.
“Tylel introduced me to her,” Kael said.
“That was your coach mate when…” Jouler gestured to Kael’s wound.
“He was more than that,” Kael said. “When I entered the Citadel, Vel and I grew apart.”
“Is the Citadel far from where you lived?” Jouler asked.
“It’s in another district altogether,” Kael explained. “On a higher tier. But that’s not why we grew apart. Not the only reason. He felt like I’d left him in the District. But he couldn’t shape so he could’t train in the Citadel.”
“Which is where you met Tylel,” Jouler stated, fully enthralled by Kael’s story.
“We met on the first day of admissions,” Kael said. “I had no idea he was the son of a high lord, and he had no idea I was the son of a baker from the District.”
Jouler leaned forward on his elbows again. “I don’t see why that matters, but go on.”
“It’s…” Kael struggled to put words to the intricacies of imperial culture, but the ha’ath already had his head in a haze. “It’s complicated. Suffice it to say, Tylel was a great person. You would have liked him.”
“Me?” Jouler asked, his brow furrowed with doubt. “Maybe. But would he have liked me?”
Kael started to respond yes, but held his tongue. Phaerians were no different than chattel to high lords. Slaves used to satiate any whim or desire. “Tylel wasn’t like most high lords,” Kael said. “He cared for people. Even phaerians.”
“Even?” Jouler said, crossing his arms.
“Blast me,” Kael cursed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.”
Jouler eased with a smile. “I was just joking. I know what you meant.”
“As I was saying,” Kael said with a long pointed look, “Tylel introduced me to Aliece. Forced me to talk to her, really.”
“Like Vel did?” Jouler asked.
Kael chuckled and shook his head. “There were a lot less insults to my pride, that wasn’t Tylel’s style, and a lot more books.”
Jouler glanced at Kael’s book.
“It was in a library,” Kael said, detailing the massive collection at the Citadel. “It was huge. Bigger than any building I’d ever seen.”
Jouler whistled with appreciation. “Probably four times as big as Master Halson’s tavern.”
Amusement tickled Kael’s chest. “Well, I have yet to see Master Halson’s tavern. However, I have seen my fair share of taverns, and the library at the Citadel could have swallowed them all, with room to spare.”
“More shelves than you can count,” Kael continued. “Each fifty feet tall, packed to bursting with more books than you could read in a lifetime. In ten lifetimes!”
Jouler sat back into his chair, shaking his head. “I never knew such places existed. Entire buildings, filled with books. And so massive! I can’t… It’s hard to wrap my mind around.”
Kael pulled a knowing smile. “There’s one in every city.”
Jouler’s eyes went wide, then distant with thought as he mouthed ‘one in every city’.
Kael leaned toward Jouler, lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “And they aren’t even the biggest.”
Jouler peered at Kael, raising an eyebrow.
“The Imperial Library is bigger still,” Kael continued. “But the title goes to the boorde. The Everburning Library in Micoé is said to hold every book ever written.”
Jouler leaned his head back and stared at the ceiling with a strange sort of wonder. “So many books…”
Kael grabbed his book from the nightstand. “You’re sure you don’t want me to teach you to read?”
Jouler gave the book a long consideration, then shook his head as if to himself. “But I would like to hear about Aliece.”
Kael knew his disappointment was clear on his face the way Jouler turned his gaze, just as he knew his friend believed it was over his refusal to read. Kael shifted on the bed, then smoothed his blanket as he worked up the courage to present this next leg of his story.
“Really, there isn’t much to tell,” Kael lied. “Tylel and I were always getting into some sort of mischief at the Citadel, which often ended up in extra work. That day was no exception. Tylel and I were tasked to the library, putting books back in their proper place when I saw her. The most beautiful girl I had ever seen.”
“Until Livia,” Jouler interjected.
“Until Livia,” Kael said with a nod, then continued. “She had piles of books around her,” he said with a sweeping gesture, “and notes all over the table.”
“Sounds like Reylan,” Jouler said. “There’s not a space in his house not taken by a book. Probably as much of a library as I’ll ever see.”
“He has that many?” Kael asked, curious at how a phaerian would come by so many books, much less what types he would accumulate. The Imperial Paradigm didn’t outlaw books for phaerians because it didn’t need to. According to the Paradigm, phaerians couldn’t read. But Livia and Reylan had shattered that lie when Kael had first awoken, and he saw the pair pouring over a book on herbal remedies.
Kael had always found that part of the Paradigm peculiar. If phaerians are incapable of reading, why outlaw teaching them? Kael would have to remember to ask the old sage about it during his next visit.
“Anyway,” Kael said, returning to his story, “the library at the Citadel was about to close and Aliece still had a week’s worth of studying to cram before the next day. So I devised a plan to break into the library.”
Jouler leaned forward, tapping his foot. “Was it hard?”
Kael shook his head. “Not when you’re the Citadel’s star shapers.”
“Then what?” Jouler asked.
“Then we studied and she passed her exam,” Kael said.
Jouler’s brow furrowed. “That’s it?”
“The night of graduation was quite different,” Kael said with a wink, reigniting Jouler’s interest. A chuckle bubbled in Kael’s chest. “Are you sure you have time? I don’t want to bore you with my stories.”
“Are you kidding?” Jouler exclaimed, running his hands through his hair. “You’re the most exciting thing that’s happened to Headwater since forever. The only stories we ever get are from people returning from Alduos, complaining about the roads and how bad they are, or how horrible it would be to live in Alduos. Livia’s mom just got back, with some real news. Apparently some phaerians are rebelling in Blai-something.”
“There’s a rebellion in Blailon?” Kael asked.
“Yeah, that’s it,” Jouler replied, shaking his hands in front of him. “But you’re getting off topic again. What happened the night of graduation?”
Kael peered out the window, at the darkness outside. “You sure you have time? It’s getting late.”
Jouler growled, standing and sitting in a single motion, then rubbed his knees. “Would you just tell me what happened?”
“Okay, don’t get all worked up over it,” Kael said. Welcomed images of Aliece’s luscious form caressed his mind. The feel of her supple breasts, her skin so smooth, how it shivered at his touch. The excitement of her breath on his neck, her nails on his back, the seduction of her moans.
Jouler snapped his fingers. “That!” He leaned back in his chair, his hands steepled in front of him. “I want to hear whatever it was you were just thinking.”
The images vanished under a pang of regret. “Right. Graduation. We could invite anyone we wanted, from whichever tier.”
“Don’t tell me,” Jouler said. “You invited Vel.”
Kael nodded in surprise. “I did. How’d you guess?”
Jouler shrugged. “It just seemed like something you’d do.”
“You already know me too well, my friend,” Kael said.
“You didn’t invite your family?” Jouler asked.
Kael shook his head. “That’s a story for another time. For now, let’s just say my father was a little too heavy handed and my mother a little too forgiving to want to see them anymore than I had to.”
Jouler frowned. “I know exactly what you mean. But, like you said, that’s for another day. So, Vel showed up?”
“He did,” Kael said, tucking the other conversation away for later. “I almost didn’t recognize him when I saw him. It’d been eight years. He was taller. Harder. I could tell the District hadn’t been kind to him. But when he saw me, a sparkle of his old self came back and it was like I’d never left.”
Jouler nodded with a satisfied smile. “I knew he’d come back.”
“I was glad he had,” Kael continued. “But, for whatever reason, Vel and Tylel didn’t get along. They tried at first, but each seemed to want to outdo the other. Like they needed to prove who was the better friend.”
Jouler gave a long nod. “Sulia does that to me with Pendric. Always trying to show me how she’s better for me, and how she cares for me more, and she’s always trying to cook for me even though her cooking isn’t fit for swine… Sorry, continue.”
“You get the idea,” Kael said. “Anyway, Tylel kept goading Vel in typical highlord fashion. Pretentious and condescending. Vel responded in typical District fashion. A swift punch to the nose.”
Jouler jerked as his elbow slipped off his knee. “What did you do?”
Kael took a long, slow breath. “I punched Vel.”
“You what?” Jouler exclaimed, running his hands through is hair.
The levity in the air turned heavy and somber. Kael continued, regret thick in his voice. “The worst part was how he looked at me. I’d barely hurt him, he was so much bigger than me. He could have easily beaten me to a pulp. But he didn’t. He just looked at me, then turned and walked away.”
Jouler’s face twisted between disappointment and compassion. He hesitated as if uncertain how to continue.
“Aliece was so taken by the moment, later that night she dragged me to her room.” Kael rubbed his face. “I’ll always regret that decision. Of not defending Vel.” Kael pulled a long sigh as he laid back on his bed, staring at a watery ceiling. “Nothing from that life matters anymore. My parents were more than happy to see me leave. I’ll never see Vel again. Tylel is dead and the last I saw Aliece, she was dashing from her coach with a Headless on her heels.”