Once upon a time, a young man opened his eyes.
He stood on a corner in the hot sun of an old city, taking deep breaths. The sky was blue and cloudless, the air humid and sticky. Sun-beaten cobblestones warmed his feet through his boots. The creak of stalls and the flap of cloth awnings and the occasional sharp crack of laughter filled the air.
And at the end of the street, a short, dark man with dreadlocks leaned on the side of a building, watching him.
“This way, boy,” grunted a voice over the young man’s shoulder.
The young man was not a boy. Not anymore. He was twenty years old, and his name was Litnig Jin, and the grunting man was his father and ought to have known all that.
Litnig did not argue. He coiled his arms around a bushel of spring potatoes, lifted it, and ducked behind his tall, fat father through the shaded door of a two-story home. Inside, he set the bushel next to a half-dozen just like it and dusted off his hands while a sandy-haired woman paid his father.
“Thank you, Torin,” she said.
The fat man just grunted.
The bustle of the city flowed and hummed in Litnig’s ears. It was the day of the Equinox Festival, and Eldan City was awake for the spring. The streets shone bright with colored ribbons strung from tall iron poles. Tall stacks of wood waited to be lit at sunset in the city’s largest squares. There would be music, and dancing, and beer and wine and cake and sweet fizzy cordials.
When Litnig left the shop, the dark man was still at the end of the street, watching.
The hair rose on the back of Litnig’s neck.
“‘Ta,” he whispered. “Someone is watching us.”
Torin Jin faced the end of the street and grunted. He ran a hand through his thinning hair, rubbed his chin, and then turned and stepped toward the old, gray cart in which they made their rounds.
“He’s an Aleani,” Torin replied, “and far from home.”
Litnig blinked and looked back at the end of street. The Aleani didn’t come to Eldan City often. Hadn’t for centuries. The figure leaning on the wall was short for a man, and a little stocky. Large beads glinted from its dreadlocks. Its clothes were black and new.
The family cart sat between two brightly plastered, red-roofed buildings, and when Litnig turned around again, Torin was already climbing into it. Litnig’s brother Cole, seventeen, small of frame, and reclining in the driver’s seat, shot their father a glare as he scooted over to make room.
“Probably hungry,” Torin continued. He wiped the sweat from his face with a tan, stained sleeve. “If he makes a move toward us, hit him with the orphan breaker.”
Litnig hesitated at the cart’s headboard. The Aleani stood motionless in the sun. It didn’t look gaunt, or sullen, like he would expect if it was starving.
“Boy,” Torin growled. “Get in the damn cart.”
Litnig did as he was told.
He sat next to a box of red, coldweather lettuce and pulled the long, oak club his father called the orphan breaker from its place behind him. Litnig had never actually used it on an orphan, but he’d hit a thieving man with it once, square in the face, as hard as he could. The memory of the man’s blood hitting his cheeks still made him shudder.
When Litnig looked up, the Aleani was still staring at him.
Torin clicked and snapped the reins, and the graying mule in the traces plodded into motion. The cart rolled slowly toward the mouth of the street.
The Aleani didn’t move, but its eyes, dark brown and glittering, tracked Litnig as the cart approached it.
When they passed it, it smiled.
Its teeth were sharp and yellowed.
Litnig returned home just before sunset with the bed of the cart mostly empty and Cole and his father sweat-drenched and silent in its driver’s seat. His arms and legs ached. His skin felt hot and tight.
Their home stood near the center of the merchant district, a few blocks from the muddy point where the bright, shallow Steelwater River flowed into the dark, steady Eldwater on its way south to the sea. The house was a simple, two-story structure of timber, blackened by time and treatments and the sun. As the cart approached, Litnig jumped out to open the gate to the yard behind it.
His father drove through without so much as looking at him.
Litnig was undoing the mule’s harness and thinking about how good it would feel to wash his face and his feet when he heard his father’s voice.