Since I talked Dad into giving us time to reach Bound Castle, we still have two days before we need to meet with him. So at the checkpoint, I ask the carriage keeper, Will, if he can recalibrate us for a 48-hour stop. Then the carriage will return for us, and we'll head into the heart of the fortress.
Carriage keepers are stationed at major trade routes, in preprogrammed checkpoints that all vehicles pass through; so if the carriage's auto-pilot needs adjustments for new travel plans, the keepers can pull up the seven-tiered mapping system to reset where the carriage will go.
Whenever I come home, Will sets the red light on my carriage. He says hello, we catch up, that sort of stuff. We go way back; I can't remember how we met.
Now Will's checkerboard-patterned hat hides his eyes beneath a thick rim as he fidgets with the control panel on the exterior of our carriage. I stand by him, hands in pockets, rocking on my heels, whistling.
Elly and Lutz sit in the gravel just outside the carriage, holding sleeves over their noses, wide-eyed in the face of the great stone buildings of Bound Suburbia. Lilli's still inside the carriage, even though I told her the people here are more tolerant of weird encounters with fey and will'o'wisps.
I could be lying to myself, though. Maybe it's best to keep Will in the dark about Lilli.
Will's parents play ricochet sports with Mel's parents. Occasionally, Will glances up from the control panel not to look at me, but radiant, eerie Eleanora. I wonder which side of the fence he sits on with fey.
I look at the murky noon sky, pretending not to notice his wandering eyes. "Hey," I ask, "do you know if Stilettos serves lunch?"
"I think so," Will says, returning to the carriage's external control panel.
"What's Stilettos?" Lutz asks.
"Shoes," Elly says.
"Nah," I tell her, "it's a restaurant. Best one on the west side of Suburbia. I'm starving. Thought we could head there first."
Will flips a switch; moves a cord. "You need the carriage to take you? It's a couple miles."
"We can walk a couple miles," Elly says.
As she stretches from the grass patch, Will lifts his gaze to her again, and Lilli drifts out of the carriage, elusive and unsure, weaving to my side. I'm a little startled when the wisp tucks into my leather cloak, although I suppose I don't mind; if that's where she wants to hide—
Lutz leaps to his feet, surprising me. "But our things," he says. "We can't carry—"
"We won't," I interrupt. These two can be real bumpkins. "Will, we're staying at... oh-good-dragon's-gold, what's that place called..."
"The Laughing Gardens," Will finishes. "Already have it plugged in."
I tell Lutz, "A concierge will pick up our stuff and bring it to our quarters." As Elly's jaw tightens, I add, "They're robotic. It's all automated. Completely safe."
The walk to Stilettos is hilly, but Lutz, Lilli, and Ben seem fine with it, and I don't want to assume the role of the only complainer. Had I known the two miles would feel like ten, I would've opted for the strange carriage, though; or better yet, I would've liked to head straight for the Laughing Gardens, or whatever our inn is called, so I could nap. Bathe. Read books.
I walk behind the three of them, disgruntled, worrying about my texts, potions, or clothes going missing.
Unlike Riverport, the Suburbia of Bound Castle isn't enclosed; the closest effort they've made to breathable, sustainable air are the purifiers, enormous grills of iron machinery crawling with half-exposed gears up the stone walls of the two-story, back-to-back buildings, foundations cracking, tiny green-glass windows glinting.
Here-and-there, a stray cat or dog bounces through the street, springier than the pedestrians who wander sparsely through the smog. Most of the locals are human, but a few are elves, which makes me think the human majority could include masqueraded fey.
A couple of people, when I observe closer, pass by us with fey-magic glowing through their eyes, and my mind lights up like a firecracker. I want to ask Ben, what dynamics have emerged from this mixed community, except none of the pedestrians talk with one another; so it only feels right to keep silence between us, too.
Then the cobblestone path slopes sharply downward, so even the streetlights wax and wane, as one of the two-story buildings reveals a basement half-peeking from the hillside, the walls made of the same dark green glass as the tiny windows above, a wooden sign hanging in the glow of torchlight, Stilettos Barbecue, and a cluster of several parties of two, three, and four, smoking pipes near the entrance.
Lutz curls his lips while covering his nose.
"Tobacco," I whisper to him.
Ben leans in, confiding between us, "Tobacco's one of my favorite scents."
Lutz balks, with not even a hint of holding back disgust, so that I snort trying not to laugh. Lilli pulls a tendril of Lutz's offense from him before deciding that's not an emotion worth consuming.
Ben walks into the green-glass-walled, torchlit restaurant while we stay outside, a safe distance from the cloud of tobacco smoke beating like a heart within the smog bank. I'm explaining to Lutz how, in food establishments with crowds, restaurants put patrons' names on a list to take them in the order they arrived, when he asks, "Did you work in a restaurant before?"
"Yeah," I reply, "why?"
"You glow when you talk about your past lives," he says. "You like to live in the past."
I open and close my mouth. At first I'm offended, but—at Lutz?—a pool gazer? He's just sharing what he observes. That's their purpose: what his species of fey evolved to do.
Ben finds us outside the crowd of smokers, saying as he walks up, "They'll take us now. Just hold you breath, Lutz. We only got to walk through the tobacco smell for a sec. You know, you and I should share a cigar sometime."
"He'd hate a cigar," I say before chuckling.
You know what hit my writing time like a train?—the information tech and web development online courses I completed between January and May 19. But I have a dream of an interactive, choose-your-own-adventure novella based on Lutz's previous lives, so learning how to make websites could prove important for our characters...
First draft: October 18
Second draft: November 18
Third draft: May 19
Word count: 1120 (43133 total)
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A Shapeshifter, Cyborg, & WispFantasy
A shapechanging ex-princess, a potion-powered cyborg, and a will'o'wisp are on an adventure from the Forgotten Woods, through smog-entrenched Riverport, into the chemistry labs of Bound Kingdom, in an exciting sci-fantasy novel scheduled to complete...