In the town of Pennyhaven, there was honor among thieves.
“So what do you think it means?”
The mayor gazed up at the sky and released a long sigh. “I can’t draw any conclusions based on what I know so far.”
“Oh, come on, you have to have some thoughts.”
Mayor Joyance glanced over at his newest friend. She quirked her brows.
“Of course I have thoughts,” he said. “Just no conclusions.”
Three major things will happen to me over the course of the coming year. I’ll meet someone. I’ll think he’s wonderful. He won’t be. That’s the first thing. Second, I’ll break my arm in a cowardly attempt to flee from my own responsibilities. And third, I’ll serve on the crew of the most extravagant ship to ever sail the nine seas, the Glorious.
How do I know these things will happen?
Because I told myself they would in a letter…a letter that was meant for a future me two years from now, and somehow ended up being delivered to the current me.
There is a valley, where grow flowers of every hue and kind, colors and fragrance in harmony. They sing songs, it is said, in spring and summer, songs whose ghosts and echoes can be heard in winter and fall.
These flowers are singular, for each is inhabited by an animating spirit.
The valley is haunted, they say.
The thief fell from the tower’s upper window. She had lost her precarious grip on the pitted brick. She remembered that she should roll herself up into a loose ball to protect her head and neck. But by the time she remembered, she had already struck the first branch of the tree in the orchard below. Then she struck another and another. Scratched and thrashed and bounced about, she finally reached the ground, thankful that the soil was soft. She lay there for far too long a moment. The breath had been knocked out of her. And she feared moving for fear she might discover that she could not.
When I was born, a clever mage, who was also my mother, made for me a triptych: three panels, attached in a row by hinges, depicting paintings of our home. The middle panel depicted our capital city, where we lived. The left panel depicted my mother, her hands raised as if in the casting of a spell. The right panel depicted the Arx, the great tower of knowledge where mages learned their trade. The flanking panels were each half the width of the middle one, so they could be folded inward, and the image could be hidden. And strangely, my mother had built a lock into the triptych. Once folded, the triptych could be secured. I did not know why it would need to be locked. There were no secret or blasphemous things depicted in the paintings, as far as I knew.
“Is it true that you once beat Hare in a foot race? It can’t be true. But is it true?”
He continued walking along as the little black bird flapped around him. She landed on a nearby branch.
“I’ve heard that you’ve seen the world from above as a bird does when she’s flying. Is that true? How did you do it? It can’t be true. But is it true?”
Tortoise sighed again. But he also smiled.
Starling was young and eager. But she was also persistent. And she was also perceptive. She noted the smile on Tortoise’s face. She understood what it meant. He had expected her to grow tired of asking him the same questions day after day. But she had done so for five days now. Perhaps he would deem her worthy enough to deserve some answers to her questions.
“By accepting this challenge when you are so obviously unready for it, you are jeopardizing the peace meal—“
“No, you’re jeopardizing the peace meal,” Jae said, as she took a step toward her challenger. “By your obvious poor example of what peace means. There is no graciousness or humility in your demeanor. There is no generosity or compromise in your attitude toward those who have been chosen—or even those who did the choosing. By questioning me, you are questioning, doubting, and disrespecting those who chose me.”
I noticed the magician when he slipped in behind the last person to enter the golden-walled elevator, and I sucked in a breath. I held it, half-subconsciously, as if it would make me invisible to him. It did not. I started feeling thudding of my heart as soon as he started turning to people, one at a time, handing them scraps of paper, touching their hands. I exhaled when he turned to me and handed me a scrap of paper too. He grinned and told me what I was supposed to do the next time he called upon me.
When he turned away, my gaze began to dart around the tiny box in which we were all trapped, looking for a way, any way, out. I glanced up. I glanced at the large tall man whom I could easily hide behind, if he weren’t so far away. I saw no way out, and so I took a deep breath and braced myself for when the magician’s attention would once again return to me.
“Why does there have to be winter?”
The asker was my little niece, all bundled up in black-and-silver fleece blankets. Her favorite colors. She didn’t ask the question just out of curiosity. She was frowning slightly. Winter had swallowed up her favorite season, autumn. (The season to which her only objection was, “why does there have to be so much orange?”).
I smiled. “Do you want the scientific explanation or the non-scientific explanation?”