Once upon a time, a young man opened his eyes.
It was the day of the Equinox Festival, and certain things had to be done if he was going to enjoy the music and bonfires and dancing and beer and wine and sweet fizzy cordials of the celebration that night. His father had to be kept happy. His brother had to be kept from doing anything stupid. And the work had to get done before the sun set.
At the end of the street, a short, dark man with dreadlocks leaned on the side of a building, watching him.
The young man took a deep breath. The sky shone blue and cloudless, and the air felt unusually humid for a day so early in spring. The cobblestones warmed his feet. The creaks of stalls and the flaps of cloth awnings and the occasional sharp crack of laughter filled the air.
“This way, boy,” grunted a voice over the young man’s shoulder.
The young man wasn’t 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 didn’t 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 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 for the food.
“Thank you, Torin,” she said.
The fat man just grunted.
The city hummed in Litnig’s ears. Eldan City was waking up for the spring, and he felt like he was waking with it after a winter of rain and cold and throbbing heartache that had refused to leave him alone. The streets shone with colored ribbons strung from tall iron poles. Stacks of wood waited to be lit at sunset in the city’s largest squares. He’d made Cole promise to introduce him to a girl or two during the festival, and he’d promised himself that this time he’d talk to them and ignore any thoughts he had about Ryse Lethien. He was a man now, and it was time to move on.
When Litnig left the home, the dark man was still at the end of the street, watching.
The hair rose on the back of Litnig’s neck.
He briefly considered not telling his father about the man. But the risks of letting Torin Jin find out about things on his own tended to outweigh the benefits.
“’Ta,” he whispered. “Someone’s watching us.”
Torin 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,” he replied, “and far from home.”
Litnig blinked and looked back at the end of the 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 in his dreadlocks. His 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 and scooted over to make room.
“Probably hungry,” Torin continued. He wiped the sweat from his face with a stained sleeve. “If he moves toward us, hit him with the orphan breaker.”
Litnig hesitated at the cart’s headboard. The Aleani stood motionless in the sun. He didn’t look gaunt or sullen, like Litnig would expect if he was starving.
“Boy,” Torin growled. “Get in the damn cart.”
Litnig did as he was told.
He sat next to a box of 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 still made him shudder.
When Litnig looked up, the Aleani was staring at him again.
Torin clicked and snapped the reins, and the graying mule in the traces plodded into motion. The cart rolled toward the mouth of the street.
The Aleani didn’t move, but his eyes, dark brown and glittering, tracked Litnig as the cart approached him.
When they passed him, he smiled.
His 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. He was looking forward to a quick dinner and a wash before heading to Marcus a’Beddon Square for the festival. He was already thinking about what he’d say to the girls Cole was going to introduce him to.