This is a story about gods.
Well, that’s not quite true — mostly this is a story about people, in all their questionable glory, but in telling the one story, we also tell the other, because people are a reflection of their gods. Some people say it’s the other way around — that really, it’s gods who are a reflection of people, but that only works when the gods don’t exist. When the gods do exist, people reflect them, in the same way that a court reflects its monarch.
If you wish to learn about a people’s gods, you have only to observe what the people in question get up to, and in this story, it doesn’t take much observation to know that the big guys and girls upstairs are not sitting around being noble ideals of chastity, sombreness, and modesty. Exactly what it is they are up to though, remains to be seen.
One group of people who would very much like to know what their gods were up to was the Father Council (one-third of the mage big-wig club) who received a prophecy from said gods three years ago, instructing them to evacuate all of Earth’s one million secret magic users into a brand new world, or face both nuclear and non-nuclear destruction. But don’t get hung up on that, because that extremely terminal evacuation dead-line isn’t for another two years, and isn’t what this story is about in any case.
What this story is about, apart from the aforementioned gods and people, is that new world — Creakylid — an ornate wooden trunk just under two meters wide on the outside, but rather a lot larger on the inside, full of islands and seas, and continents that stretch out for thousands of kilometres.
It’s also about a young man called Richard Struggle. He technically falls into the people category, but is nevertheless important enough to be singled out. An orphan (sort-of), a hero, and a maker of magical trunks that are at least somewhat larger on the inside than the outside, he is currently lying asleep in bed dreaming about a rather pretty young woman sleeping not too far away, who he would very much like to have sex with, and when Richard wakes up, he’s going to be in very much of a hurry, but not for that.
There really are quite a lot of puzzling knots to unravel, both about this new world and about the people looking to make it their home, but in order to piece together the full picture, a keen observer needs to first know the rules. We’ve already mentioned the first rule. A people are a reflection of their gods.
— CL —
On an island only a few days sailing from the entrance to Creakylid, a weasel emerged from a small gnawed hole in a town-house wall and darted across a wood-chip street.
It was midnight and, except for the lapping of the water by the dock, absolutely quiet. There were no night-time bells to annoy people on Ophelia Island. They hadn’t been installed yet.
There also wasn’t much light. The moon was new, and electricity wasn’t a thing the mages had got around to yet, so the islanders had innovated instead by collecting thousands of the native glow moths together, and hung them up in wire spheres outside their workshops and houses. They bathed the largely wood-built town in faintest royal purple.
The weasel reached a corner at the end of the town’s longest street and started to furiously dig away at the bottom of a wall.
One might suspect that a glow moth wouldn’t last long in a world full of keen sighted predators, but they compensated for this by being the most foul tasting things it’s possible to imagine eating. This was an extremely effective strategy.
The glow moths had been discovered three years prior with the swooping arrival of the island’s first whisperers — mages with the ability to transform into a single chosen animal, allowing them to live in perfect harmony with nature, its bounty, and their carefully selected choice of creature. Inevitably, some of the more avian among them found themselves sorely regretting said choice after an unsuspecting mouthful of glow moth.
The weasel continued to dig, scrabbling its little paws on the ground like a small, furry demon.
Not all birds eat insects though — some prefer slightly larger prey. This was certainly the case with the bird currently perched on top of the mage tower in the middle of the town. This bird was definitely not a whisperer, and from up here it had a perfect outlook across the strange new forest that had sprung up in its territory three hatchings ago. It gripped the flat branch below it with talons fully capable of rending flesh and scanned the oddly fat and leafless trees with ears that could detect a mouse scurrying through over a foot of undercover.
It spotted dinner.
Locked onto its victim, the majestic raptor crouched down, spread its wings, and leapt — death swooping down onto its unsuspecting target, as silent as the night around it, and its target, tiny and defenceless on the ground, froze, twitched in mid dig, and surged up to meet it.
Where the weasel had been, now stood a rather slim woman, dressed in what could charitably be described as one-fifth of a thief outfit, one arm covering her face, the other thrust out in front of her like a shield.
Panicked, the owl tried to adjust in mid dive, but its efforts were about as effective as a skydiver waiting for the last few feet to pull their parachute. Bird collided into woman, and, thanks in no small part to newton’s second law, the bird came off worst. It scrabbled about on the floor before pulling itself together, hopping into the air, and flapping back to a perch some way down the street.
On the other side of town, a wolf howled.
The woman rubbed a nasty scratch on her hand and furtively looked around to see if anyone had spotted the exchange. Once satisfied that they hadn’t, she turned back to the wall, changed, and went back to work. She eventually managed to weasel her way fully under the wall without further owl attacks and poked her head out the other-side, her whiskered head twitching left and right as she sniffed the air.
The space beyond was massive — far larger than the town-houses and workshops that made up most of the rest of the settlement. Whole tree-trunks supported several floors of balcony, surrounding a large open area. The walls and railings were carved with a patchwork scattering of gods, animals, animal gods, and god-like animals. And at the front of the room, someone had started sculpting a female figure out of a large marble block, set in a pose of sultry divinity. In short, everything about the place suggested, ‘temple under construction.’
The tiny predator didn’t pay any attention to the decorations though. She scampered across the floor, reached the first step of the long curved staircase leading up to the next floor, and changed fluidly from weasel to woman, foot hitting the first step without even breaking stride.
Somewhere outside, the wolf howled again, muffled through the wooden walls, but definitely closer.
The woman noticeably quickened her pace. She reached a door and tried the handle. It was locked. She inspected the lock. It was made of steel. She reached into the folds of her clothes, such as there were of them, and produced a set of lock picks. A moment later, the door swung open to reveal… another door. This one had a lock of brass. The woman shook her head. In Creakylid, she thought, it was always about the elementals. Everyone went out of their way to protect themselves against the mages who could command iron or oxygen or nitrogen or any one of the other elements of matter, except carbon, and then went on to forget that there were plenty of non-magic ways to get through a door.
The woman opened the second door just as easily as the first and stepped into someone’s study. A large writing desk was pushed against the wall next to a shuttered window. Her breath hitched. Dozens of books lined the walls. Dozens of them. Drool threatened to soak into her face mask. Dozens…
The woman shook herself and quickly moved to the shelves, calloused fingers trailing along the titles like a lovers caress. She picked up a cage of glow moths and held them up to the tomes. The books were mostly on timber construction and hydrology, but there were some on far more industrialised topics.
Her fingers itched. She knew she should be more choosy, but she couldn’t help herself. Producing a plastic carrier bag, she plucked a random book off the shelf, an oil surveying text-book it turned out, and placed it inside. Not long after, the bag was full and threatening to rip. With one last, longing look back at the remaining books, she quickly left the study, closing the doors behind her.
The wolf howled again, this time much closer.
That wasn’t good.
She stepped onto the stairs leading down and froze.
The door to the temple creaked open and a timid male voice said, “Excuse me, is there anyone there?”
Drat. The woman snatched a pepper bomb out of the pockets of her outfit.
“Only, you’re not supposed to be here this time of night. People might think you’re the book thief. It’s past curfew, you know.”
The woman hefted the small object and took aim.
“My girls will find you,” the voice said. “They can track a rabbit through a snowdrift.” A wolf growled in the darkness.
The pepper bomb flew. It landed right by the door and was followed moments later by a loud curse and several equally loud yelps.
The woman ran back into the study and dropped the bag of books on the desk. Drat it all! Several weeks of easy walk outs and now this. She levered the wooden bar off the window shutters, threw them open, and poked her head out. It was quite a way down. The drop would surely injure a human, but as something much smaller….
The woman grabbed the bag of books and tossed them out the window, apparently not caring about any damage this might cause. Then she turned back to the room, grabbed her second pepper bomb, covered her eyes, threw it to cover up her scent in the room, and jumped out the window. She shifted into weasel half way down, landing somewhat harder than she’d have liked, but thankfully managed to avoid breaking anything.
She turned back into a human and looked behind her. There was no sign of pursuit. She smirked under her mask. Successful, once again. People were getting smarter, but they still weren’t good enough to keep her out. She frowned. But there had been all the books she hadn’t been able to grab. She shrugged. Oh, well. Her smile returned. No use worrying about that now.
Snatching up the bag, the woman legged it back up the street, purple light illuminating her mostly naked figure, plastic bag joyfully swinging by her side, full of her night’s work. The goddess would be pleased.
— CL —
Morning broke over Ophelia Island, shifting the colour pallet from dim purples to fresh yellows and blues. Slowly, the town started to come to life. Craftsmen and women threw open their doors, looms were loaded, chisels sharpened, and cooking fires stoked. Information moved slowly without phones or the internet, so news of the temple break-in would take some time to circulate. A middle aged rotund woman standing near the docks whose very essence shouted ‘inn keeper’ inspected a large water tank and frowned.
Behind her, on the inn’s second floor, another woman—much younger than the innkeeper—was sat at a writing desk in a small bedroom wearing a look of deep thought on her face. This woman’s name was Elizabeth Whisper, and a look of deep thought wasn’t the only thing she wore — not by a long shot. In fact, her clothes covered so much of her—were so heavy and ill-fitting—that it was near impossible to make out her figure anywhere below the sliver of elegant neck leading into baggy jumper.
Elizabeth nervously glanced out of the window before dipping her pen into a small jar of brown ink. She placed the pen at the top of the straw coloured paper in front of her — the same straw colour as her long, ponytailed hair — and wrote…
A good start.
Elizabeth nibbled at the top of her dip pen for several moments before putting pen back on paper.
It’s been a week since I last wrote you. I’m doing well and am currently staying on Ophelia Island. It’s very busy here. So many new mages pass through on the larger boats heading to the new city on the mainland.
The journey into Creakylid was—
Elizabeth hesitated. Exciting? Thrilling? How did you describe helping a group of refugee craftsmen to escape from a corrupt cartel in a home made row boat? Especially to someone like Aunt Sarah.
Elizabeth nodded, then continued.
I succeeded in changing my money, and currently have 520 chad left. The tickets off The Second Island were very expensive.
Better not mention that she didn’t actually end up using that ticket, choosing instead to row away with Richard. And speaking of Richard…
I have been travelling with a young man the same age as me called Richard Struggle. We met on Earth just before entering Creakylid. Richard is—
Elizabeth hesitated again. Noble? Brave? So hot she had to stop herself squirming in her knickers whenever he looked at her? Not a good idea.
Auntie was a terrible snob.
—and a perfect gentleman.
And like so much of the contents of this letter, that last bit was only a half-truth. Richard was indeed good at acting like a perfect gentleman, but he also gave off the distinct impression of coiled purpose hidden just under the surface. She’d seen it bubble up when he worked on his magical trunks — a heated focus as directed as a blowtorch. She could only imagine what it would be like to have that focus turned on her. He could be quite flirty too, when he thought he could get away with it.
But he did keep his hands to himself — something Elizabeth was quite thankful for. Her own hand unconsciously trailed a path up her left arm over the baggy jumper. She wasn’t sure she was ready for them to…
Her hand reached her neck.
Elizabeth shook herself. She’d cross the bridge when she came to it. Richard wasn’t like her last boyfriend, of that she was sure. She put her pen back down on the paper, and finished the bit about the boy next door with—
You’d like him.
Elizabeth bit her lip. Now was the hard bit.
There is something else. As you know, I have seven years before I can complete all the rituals to become a full whisperer and gain my horse form. I’ve been thinking hard about my time between now and then. The last week has been extremely interesting — travelling across the islands in the Creakylid Archipelago. I’m considering continuing to do that, at least for a while. That’s if I afford it, of course.
And if Richard is okay with it, Elizabeth mentally added. There wouldn’t be much point otherwise.
I know you have a job lined up for me at the horse sanctuary and that you promised my mother you’d look after me, and I’m thankful for that. My feeling on this are that if I can survive the month long journey to get to where you are, I can also survive at least a little longer than that.
In any case, this is just something I’m considering. It might not actually happen. I thought I should give you a heads up, just in case.
Elizabeth nodded slowly to herself, inspecting the letter from every angle to be sure she hadn’t missed anything, before carefully folding it up and slipping it into the pocket of her jeans.
She then stood up, walked over to her bed and slung the miniature trunk Richard had made for her a few days ago around her neck and let it hang loose at her side. Barely larger than a hand bag, it could theoretically hold enough food to last for weeks, and was almost unique. Only Richard and his best friend Thomas owned one. And Richard had just given it to her as casually as one might toss someone a can of fizzy drink. These things had to be worth a fortune. It was just one more thing she was going to have to talk to him about when she got the chance.
Elizabeth walked down to the breakfast room to find Marge Copperflinger, one-third of the inn’s trio, busying herself behind the counter. The rest of the room was empty.
“Richard not down yet?” She asked.
“Oh, yes. He left in a hurry a few minutes ago. Said something interesting had come up. Asked me to tell you he’d see you for dinner at the place you’d agreed on. That’s if you didn’t run into each other before then.”
“Mmmm…” Elizabeth smiled wryly. Richard would surely tell her what was so interesting later on. In the mean time, that gave her time to go post her letter at the post office and then go window shopping for stuff she couldn’t afford. You couldn’t spend all your time thinking about boys after all.
“Oh, Elizabeth,” Marge said, cutting over her planning. “You couldn’t be a dear and fetch a couple trunks of water from the fountain, could you? The rain tank’s run out.”
Window shopping after chores, Elizabeth amended herself. Mages tended to take a far more communal attitude to hospitality. “I can do that.” She patted the tiny magic trunk by her side. It wasn’t as if hauling several tonnes of water was all that difficult for her.
Closing the door to the sea-side inn behind her, Elizabeth turned left, crystal blue water on one side, two-story-high log houses on the other. Boats lined the docks. Salt permeated the air.
A few other early risers were out and about. A mage walked by carrying a wooden crate of just caught propeller fish. Another mage dried seaweed outside her shop. A group of new arrivals in neon coloured hiking gear guarded their spot at the front of the as yet non-existent queue to the ferry office. The smells were a potent cocktail of freshly clean and viscerally organic.
These were the docks of Ophelia Island, and not too much further along, the post office, reaching out over the water as though the land had eroded beneath it. Letter in hand, Elizabeth walked into the deserted building, unaware that a pair of canine eyes, which had been scanning the docks from atop a nearby rooftop, had briefly followed her in.
— CL —
On the other side of the small town, Richard Struggle hummed to himself while walking at a brisk pace towards his target. His brain thrummed.
He had a date tonight, which was different from just eating together, because they’d both called it a ‘date’. Also, he wanted to get to work on his next magic trunk. He liked Elizabeth a lot. She’d saved him so much trouble since they’d arrived in Creakylid together — But first he wanted to check out the local library, who apparently were selling a ton of books from Earth. He also had a date.
Richard reached the building’s front door. A sign above the house proclaimed it to be ‘Library Tower Spire,’ despite it looking nothing like a tower, but what did that matter to him, when the possibility of new books called?
Once inside, bookshelves stood everywhere, reaching high into the rafters like a four-year-old’s combined sweet shop dream and nightmare. Richard ran a finger along one of the wooden shelves, noting the rough workmanship. This place had obviously been built in a hurry, just like most everywhere he’d seen so far. He walked cautiously through the maze, eventually and found a stout, middle aged man wearing spectacles. The man paused in the act of carefully adding another book to a tall pile already in his arms, and regarded Richard critically. “New member?”
“Actually,” Richard began.
“—Oh.“ The man cut him off. “You’ll be here about the job vacancy. I hope you can take more pain than the last one.”
“What?” Richard tried to make sense of that last sentence in the context of what he thought he knew about library work. He’d never actually been in a mage library before, raised as he had been in an orphanage with a tight travel budget, but he had been to a lot of non-magical libraries. “No, I’m here about the books you have for sale.”
The man shuffled the stack of tomes in his arms. “That? Oh, you’ll want the high librarian for that.”
“What will you want me for? Cecil?” asked low and sultry voice. A tall woman with long black hair stepped out from behind a bookshelf, over a dozen books floating around her like moons orbiting a planet. Richard spotted that the covers were all framed in steel, which could only mean one thing — iron elemental.
The man, apparently called Cecil, stiffened. “This gentleman here is wanting to know more about the books we’re releasing. Can’t imagine why. Doesn’t look like he can afford them. It’s suspicious is what it is.”
Richard frowned. “I’m not poor.”
The iron elemental stepped towards him with a slight smile. “Of course, not, mister…?”
“St-rug-gle,” the woman echoed back, as though tasting each syllable. “What an interesting name. I often find men with interesting names turn out to be interesting people — especially among us mages.” She let the silence descend on them, clearly hoping Richard would fill it in.
There were lots of things Richard could have said in reply. He could have said he was a hero, working towards his first prophecy. He could have said he was blood bound, possessing a spell that no one had ever seen before, excepting the existence of Creakylid itself. Or he could have said he’d recently become a viral success on the crystal ball network with his Pre-Creakylid preparation memory diary. He didn’t say any of these things, mostly because thoughts of Elizabeth were still making their self at home in his head, raiding the fridge and putting their feet up on the furniture. So instead, he said, “I suppose that could be true. I do know this girl who has a pretty interesting name.”
The woman stared at him for several seconds.
Eventually she smirked and straightened up. “My name is Lucrecia Page.”
“That’s an interesting name.”
Lucrecia Page smiled. “It is an old name. But I suspect you’ll be more interested to hear about the books we are saying goodbye to?”
Richard perked up. “Yes — very much so. I heard there was going to be over a thousand of them — all Earth books.”
“Yes — over a thousand — to be sold in five lots at Pluto’s Auction House this Friday.”
Richard’s heart sank. Five lots? That would be what? Two hundred books per lot? No way he’d be able to afford that.
Lucrecia obviously caught the look on his face. She smiled kindly. “You didn’t think we’d be selling them like at a book shop did you?”
Richard grimaced. That was exactly what he had assumed.
“See what I mean?” Cecil sniffed. “Suspicious.”
“Cecil!” Lucrecia snapped.
“My apologies, Mister Struggle.” Lucrecia purred, turning back to him. “Cecil is rather on edge at the moment — we all are, really — what with this dreadful business of the book thief.”
“Book thief?” Richard couldn’t help feeling that this woman looked like the most relaxed ‘on edge’ person he’d ever seen. The books floating around her had started a slow waltz to the rhythm of her speech.
“A mysterious mage who steals into any building they will — through any lock, past any guard, and makes off with any book that catches their fancy. As you can imagine, we would surely make a prize target for such a terrible rogue.”
“Yes, I can see that.”
Lucrecia smiled again. “Was there anything else you needed?”
Richard considered this. Even if he didn’t get the books, which looked likely, knowing who had them could be useful down the road. He nodded. “Could I browse the books anyway?”
Lucretia nodded. She led him through the many book shelves and into a storage area filled with tough plastic crates, each one filled with books. Richard theatrically rubbed his hands together before taking out a pencil and paper and grinning. “I might be some time.”
“Don’t feel the need to rush.” And with that, Lucrecia closed the door, shutting Richard into the storage room. She turned to Cecil.
“Aren’t you concerned he might be the thief?” Cecil asked.
“No, not at all. He’s far too guileless for that.” Lucrecia placed a light finger right on Cecil’s nose. “You, however — you were very rude to Mister Struggle.” Her hand played a light tap-dance across the man’s head. “Meet me downstairs in ten minutes. I think it’s high time we caught up on the back-log.” She walked away.
— CL —
One task down and one to go, Elizabeth thought, walking away from the post office, lighter in chad, but not in worries. She hadn’t said in the letter that she’d be traveling specifically with Richard, but apart from being a snob, Aunt Sarah also made razor blade edges look like spoons and would certainly draw conclusions about her and Richard which simply weren’t true. The fact that a large part of Elizabeth hoped that those conclusions were only not true yet only made it worse.
The morning was now truly underway. What had only been a trickle of people when she’d set out had turned into a fairly respectable stream. The queue to the ferry office that the neon clothed group had been camping now snaked around a corner and out of sight. A loud bell signalled a boat starting to load passengers, causing several mages eating at nearby sea-side cafes to frantically wave for their bills.
Elizabeth headed inland, making her way past the crowds, towards the public fountain.
A teenage girl carrying a large bucket of water jostled her with an apology as she approached, followed shortly by what looked like the girl’s little brother, carefully levitating a large globe of water in front of him, face screwed up in concentration. The sounds of many voices reached her as she neared. A large fountain sat in the centre of the square, made from marble and lined with polished wood. Many people stood and sat around the fountain, almost all female, chatting, drawing water into buckets, or cleaning clothes in a separate pool off to the side. A large sign over the fountain read:
Wash Clothes Only In The Pool Provided
DO NOT THROW ANYTHING IN THE DRINKING WATER
Breaking These Rules Is Punishable By Fine Or Shipping.
Elizabeth ambled over to the drinking water fountain, sat down on the edge, pulled off her miniature side-trunk, and dipped it into the water, causing bubbles to start streaming out as air was displaced by liquid. She let the conversation wash over her. Someone had been stealing stuff.
“Always books,” said a large woman on the other side of the fountain. “Never takes any money. What do you think of that?”
“Maybe he likes to read?” suggested a younger woman.
“I heard Captain Anthony ran into the thief last night. He said he thought she might be a woman.”
“That joke of a guard? Why does he only think it?”
“Apparently it’s hard to tell with a nose full of pepper bomb.”
Elizabeth joined the woman around the fountain in making various comments and noises on the theme of, ‘Ooooo,’ ’ouch,’ and, ‘not nice.’
“I was just telling Macy, here,” started another woman. “I told her the library’s selling off a whole bunch of Earth books soon — the council wants copies of important books spread around so they brought lots of ‘em. They’re going to have to be careful with ‘em, I said.”
“What?” the woman asked.
“Sorry.” Elizabeth waved a hand while still smiling. “I just know someone who’d really appreciate knowing that.”
“Your boyfriend or girlfriend, perhaps?” The voice came from beside her. Elizabeth turned and found herself being addressed by a dark haired woman, looking a few years older than herself, dropping the second of two buckets into the fountain.
Despite all her efforts, Elizabeth found herself blushing. “Richard’s not my boyfriend.”
“Oooo, this one’s got it bad. Hey, that’s fine. Happens to all of some time. My name’s Aimee.”
“Elizabeth — and I only meant that he really likes books.”
In the fountain next to them, Elizabeth’s side-trunk was still producing a constant stream of bubbles.
“Has a large collection, does he?”
“One or two, yes.”
“A man after my own heart. Well, you should tell him to make sure he’s careful of them.”
Around them, the larger group of woman had turned back to their tasks, splitting the conversation down two separate lines.
Elizabeth nodded. “I will. And I like books too, I’m just not quite as—” she sought for the right words, “— as forward thinking as Richard is.”
“What’s that have to do with anything?”
“I only had space for one book, well, one series — the Chronicles of Narnia — so I sometimes have to borrow from him.”
Aimee laughed. “I think that has got to be, like, one of the most popular choices for people to bring with them. Not that I blame you — I really like it too.”
Elizabeth smiled. “Yeah. Creakylid still doesn’t have talking lions though.”
“I figure we can give it a bit longer before we demand a refund on our magical world.” Aimee pulled out her bucket of water from the fountain and hefted it to the ground. “You here for long?”
Elizabeth’s trunk continued to bubble.
“Not sure. Depends on Richard.”
Aimee smiled. “I wouldn’t mind meeting your gentleman sometime.”
Elizabeth hesitated. Aimee was certainly attractive, and seemed like an interesting person, but this seemed awfully like a proposition, and was she ready to go for a trio when she and Richard weren’t even a couple yet — there was going to be all sorts of problems before they could—
“Hey,” Aimee said, her voice softening. “I’m not trying to butt in. I just like meeting people. It’s fine if you’re not interested.”
“It’s not that. It’s just not a great time.”
“No worries.” Aimee hefted both buckets, one in each hand. “I’m sure we’ll see each other again.”
“Sure.” Elizabeth then watched Aimee walk away, exaggerated hip swaying and all, although that might have just been the weight from the water she carried.
Eventually her own ‘bucket’ finished filling. Elizabeth slung it around her side and stood up. The sun was high in the sky now, beating down like an electric heater. Her wandering thoughts travelled back to Aimee. Elizabeth shook her head. She really did have enough on her plate at the moment with just Richard and their date later that day. Her free hand unconsciously traced the path from her left wrist up to her neck, before she shook herself lightly, and started the walk back to the inn.
Back in the square, one of the woman still sitting around and chatting, looked down into the fountain and frowned “Hey! Does the water look low to you? It looks low to me. Why in Coincidence’s magical name is the water so damn low?”
— CL —
Marge Copperflinger had co-run the broken bottle ever since it had opened, way back in the early days of the great migration — meaning, almost two years ago — back when this had been mostly forest and getting dinner was a case more of what you could find than what you wanted. That didn’t mean there weren’t sometimes shortages even now though, which was why she was currently womaning the packed dock-side bar without the much needed help of her wife and husband, both of whom had run off to the market to grab what could be grabbed before prices shot up. Which was fine, she thought, while giving out change for a tankard of stripe. So long as someone was here.
At that moment, the door opened and Elizabeth, the nice girl staying with them, walked into the inn. “Is that the water dear?” she called over the throng.
“Yes,” Elizabeth called back.
“Could you just pop it in the big tank outside? There should be a ladder.”
Marge turned back to dealing with the other patrons. Some time later, the girl returned, gave her a nod, walked up to the guest rooms, and came back down again a little afterwards looking somewhat fresher.
“Thanks again, Elizabeth dear,” Marge said. “Breakfast is on us tomorrow.”
“Thank you. I don’t suppose Richard’s been back yet, has he?”
“No, I’m afraid he hasn’t been back yet.”
“I guess I’ll see him later then. Could I get something to take with me?”
Marge made Elizabeth a pair of Egg and Cress sandwiches, which she took gratefully, and dropped them into what Marge had come to think of as her ‘trunk of somewhat infinite holding,’ before leaving with a wave, still wearing the heavy clothes she’d first gone out in. Which was fine for the early morning when it could be a tiny bit nippy, Marge thought, but really wasn’t appropriate for this heat.
Richard arrived out of breath not long after. “You haven’t, by any chance, seen—“
“—She left just after we stopped serving lunch.”
“Oh.” Richard looked disappointed, then immediately brightened up again. “If she comes by again, I’ll be in my trunk.” He left towards the guest rooms.
Marge raised an eyebrow. Ah, yes, the young man’s much larger trunk — Not Creakylid, but Squeakylid. She’d heard stories about that thing. Not the least of them from a couple of drunk craftsman only a few nights ago who swore they and a bunch of their friends had all hidden away inside it. They said they’d rowed away from The Second Island to escape an evil plot hatched by dastardly masterminds and fiendish villains. They’d been pretty well drunk.
— CL —
In years to come, some would say that Squeakylid resembled a large children’s toy-box (as in, made by children) constructed from whatever rejected wood pallets the movers had refused to remove from the lawn.
Others would suggest that the maker, i.e. Richard Struggle, had wanted to make an anti-establishment statement, choosing to express himself through deliberately chaotic craftsmanship.
And yet others would point out that the dark greens, blues, and blacks gave the trunk an almost hewn look, as though it had been hacked straight out of a ghost ship. This third opinion was by far closest to the truth, constructed as it actually was in heroic desperation out of planks of an old sailing ship that had run aground and left to rot for months on end.
The lack of craftsman’s finesse, however, didn’t mean diddly squat in practical terms. The magic which infused it from rough corner to rough corner made it indestructible by every means that Richard had thought to test.
Once safely in his room, Richard pulled Squeakylid away from the wall, opened it up, climbed inside, and quick stepped down the stairs that now led into the large room contained within.
There had been changes.
What before had been an empty space now contained several book cases—each one full of books on everything from physics to first-aid, a workbench—a wall full of wood working tools, a cupboard, and, in one of the four corners, another magical trunk. Finally, a couple of glow-moth cages hung around the walls, bathing the room in their faint purple light.
Richard stepped over to his work desk, snatched a notebook off a nearby shelf, flipped it open, and started to make lots of notes.
His next trunk would be his best so far, Richard decided. The trunk in the corner had been another rush job, made to house the reward their friend Julie had given them from their first adventure.
For this trunk he wanted to try integrating furniture into the very body of the trunk itself, like an instant pre-fab house. If it worked, it would be like building a doll’s house and having it instantly scale up into the bigger version. Now, what kind of room should he try making? Maybe a bedroom? That would be cool — lots of interesting challenges in the construction, and if he and Elizabeth were ever without a room to stay the night in, they could…
His thoughts trailed off. His pencil sketched the dimensions for a king-sized bed without any apparent input from his conscious brain.
Richard stared at the paper. He shook himself. Get a grip, Struggle. He tore the paper off the notepad, threw it in a pile of screwed up paper, and started again, determined to at least give off the vague impression that he wasn’t desperate to see what Elizabeth looked like under those baggy clothes she wore.
— CL —
Window shopping on Ophelia Island was far from what one might expect, if Earth were your only available point of reference. No windows, for starters.
Elizabeth walked up Tinker’s Alley, inspecting all the little objects the local mages had figured out how to make from the local materials — many of which were far out of her price range, even if she weren’t worried about how long her money would last.
What she really needed, Elizabeth thought, was something to do in her spare time that wasn’t reading.
She entered one of the workshops and inspected a fishing rod.
Not that reading wasn’t a wonderful past-time — it was — but it was definitely Richard’s thing for want of a better word.
She picked up a hand net, feeling out the weight.
There was also the slight issue that Richard’s library, while extensive, was almost completely non-fiction — fascinating to read occasionally, but it didn’t relax her in the same way it obviously did him.
Elizabeth put the net back down, flipped over the price tag, winced, and made her way to the next workshop.
Everything was so expensive here. That shouldn’t really be a surprise, she thought wryly. No ultra cheap imported goods from wherever some billion dollar corporation had decided to help develop the local economy, whether the local economy wanted it or not.
Whatever hobby she picked up would have to be one she could carry around on the cheap.
Elizabeth looked at a hand-held flour mill, and imagined herself baking bread in some far flung Creakylid forest. Cooking was useful. She’d pull her loaves off the fire and then Richard would smile and say, “Wow, Elizabeth, those smell really, really—” Elizabeth violently shook herself. She wasn’t even a wheat thumb! What was the point of taking up baking if you couldn’t quickly grow your own wheat?
Elizabeth stepped out into the street and took a deep breath.
What can you do? Well, she could ride, obviously. You didn’t decide to become a horse whisperer if you didn’t intend to learn to ride. But owning a horse was both expensive and not in anyway conducive to traveling through an island chain. There was also the slight issue of her magic not having picked up even a slight hint of horsiness, anywhere.
Elizabeth walked to the next workshop. The smell of wood glue filled her nose. The shop was full of a half made row boat, strikingly similar to the one she and Richard had tied up down at the docks.
Docks, Elizabeth thought. Docks, water — water, swimming.
That was something she’d always been quite good at — swimming —but it wasn’t really a hobby, more an exercise — and besides….
Her hand once more traced the line from wrist to neck.
Something else, then. What about art? She’d always enjoyed that.
Elizabeth walked up the street until she found a workshop full of art supplies — probably the only one in town — possibly even for several islands. Home made pens, pencils, paper, easels, and more piled the shelves on one side. A pestle and motor sat on a shelf on the other, next to knives, cutting boards, scales, and all sorts of other devices. It seemed half the shop was dedicated to art supplies and the other half to making everything in the first half. She tapped on a box encasing a knife set. Everything non-organic was stored safety behind plexiglass — the gods alone knew where the shop owner had got it.
She glanced at the prices before letting out a sigh of disappointment.
“I know,” said the man behind the counter with feeling. He looked up from where he’d been busy tying a tiny set of brush hairs to their handle. “Save up, that’s my advice.”
“I really wish I’d thought out what to bring with me more carefully,” Elizabeth said.
“I’ll bet a lot of folks are wishing that.”
Elizabeth spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the town, wondering both about how she was going to afford to travel, let alone buy expensive art stuff, and about how to broach the subject with Richard. The incredibly valuable trunk by her side seemed to get heavier as the day wore on, even though it never actually weighed more than a few kilograms no matter how much was put inside.
She eventually got tired of walking and decided to take her seat at the nearest thing they’d been able to find to a traditional restaurant. The sunset wouldn’t be for quite a while, and it was half an hour before they’d agreed to meet. That didn’t matter though. There were always plenty of interesting people to people watch in a town full of mages.
— CL —
Inside Squeakylid, Richard worked. He worked the work of the totally focused, where time becomes as nothing and more can be achieved in a few hours than can often be achieved in a day. Of course, time becoming as nothing can have some serious downsides when you have an appointment to keep; even more so when your workspace is essentially a wooden box blessed with neither windows nor clock.
“Blast!” Richard jerked his head up from where he’d been in the middle of scaling down a sketched walk-in wardrobe by a factor of five. He jumped up the stairs looked out the window. The sun looked to be getting ready to start its descent to where ever the Creakylid sun went at night. Better, but still not good. At least it wasn’t night.
He rushed into the inn’s bar area. “Has Elizabeth—”
“Not since you asked before, Dear.”
Richard ran out into the street and sought out the big clock tower. The hour hand was pointing not quite straight down. Not quite six o’clock. Richard gave a half-sigh of relief. He wasn’t late… yet.
He took off at a reasonably paced clip.
But he would be if he didn’t hurry.
— CL —
Elizabeth sipped from a wooden goblet filled with water. It wasn’t meant to be for water. Someone had gone to the trouble of styling it to resemble a wine glass and even added little wooden vines coiling around the handle, just in case the hint wasn’t strong enough. No chance of that. She’d taken a look at the wine price list and had nearly had an aneurysm.
“Good evening.” Richard smiled and sat down in the chair opposite her, cheeks flushed and looking slightly ruffled.
Elizabeth noted that his breathing had very nearly returned to normal.
Elizabeth glanced at the clock tower. Six o’clock almost exactly. “I was beginning to worry you weren’t going to make it.”
“No worries there. You know me. Always on the ball.”
Elizabeth’s eyes roved over his shaggy hair and pointed. “You have a pencil stuck behind your ear.”
“Oh, hey, look at that.” The pencil vanished into a pocket.
Elizabeth smiled a wry smile. “Now, are you going to tell me where you disappeared off to in such a hurry this morning?”
— CL —
Richard basked in their conversation. Elizabeth had this way of listening that made you feel like you were the most important person in the world.
“I’d like to see this Dragon Island,” Elizabeth said, cutting into a slice of steak. “It sounds fascinating.”
“Yeah. And there’s so many other places to explore. So many mysteries to unravel.”
“Have any in mind?”
“The weather. I mean, where does it come from? We live in a trunk — a box! It’s not like we’re turning, like Earth is. Why do we get storms?” He pointed to the setting sun, currently staining the sky a vivid red. “Where does that thing go? It’s obviously not a star. And how far down does Creakylid go? If we dig far enough, will we hit woodwork?”
“The sea is pretty deep, I’ve been told.”
“And that’s another thing. Why is the sea salty? It’s salty on earth because of billions of years of slow erosion. But if Creakylid was made, how could that work? The gods aren’t that old.”
Elizabeth smiled at him.
Richard felt glow moths flit around his stomach.
— CL —
Elizabeth couldn’t keep the smile off her face. Richard was just too cute when you got him started on something he really cared about.
“I mean, this place isn’t Narnia!” he said. “It’s a real place. You can’t always just say, ‘because of magic.’”
Thoughts flowed like water — Narnia, Fountain, Aimee.
‘And where did that come from?’ asked a tiny part of her mind. Serious, stoic Miss Elizabeth Whisper never normally giggled.
“You know,” she said. “I met someone today who said something very similar.”
“Oh?” Richard took a bite of his food.
“Yes. She suggested that if this world didn’t deliver on what magic world stories do, that we should demand a refund.”
Richard snorted. “I’d like to see Driven’s reaction to that.” He put on a fake booming voice. “I prophesize that you will fall face-first into a pile of shit — Lo, and it will be so!”
“Richard!” She tried to hide her smile.
“I’m sure he’s not listening. I’m sure he’s got better things to do.” He took another bite of food and swallowed. “So, what does this Aimee do?”
Elizabeth told him, while the part of her mind responsible for planning what to say next now started to jump up and down in alarm. There was a certain inevitability about the direction this conversation was taking.
Eventually she got to the bit towards the end. “—I think she might have been angling for a trio date.”
Richard’s eyes widened. “Really?”
“Yeah, I know. Silly, right?” Elizabeth’s voice quietened. “Especially since, you and me, we aren’t even…. I mean….”
She looked up shyly at Richard’s mildly confused face.
Then the confusion cleared.
“Elizabeth… would you like to be my girlfriend?”
— CL —
That had to have been a sign, right? She wanted him to ask her. Richard spoke the words while his eyes searched Elizabeth’s face for any clue that he’d been correct. Moments later he was rewarded by the largest, warmest smile he’d ever seen on her.
“Yes, Richard, I would like that a lot.”
Richard’s heart soared. “YES!”
— CL —
In the space where the kitchen met the outside veranda, a woman looked out across the diners, and sighed. “Look at those two.”
Her father looked up from a cutting board and snorted. “The lovebirds?”
“Yes. Can’t we do something special for them?”
“What?” her father asked rather sarcastically. “Serenade them by moonlight? Give them a single plate of spaghetti made of just one strand? Can you play the violin?”
The woman pouted. “No.”
“Then back on prep. We’ve another six seats arriving soon.”
— CL —
Boyfriend. She had a boyfriend. One who wasn’t a total jerk. These thoughts had been happily whirling around Elizabeth’s head for the last few minutes as she and Richard talked what they wanted to do next. Traveling, exploring, living — a world full of wonder and possibilities. But Elizabeth soon felt the joyous haze slowly give way to hard reality. She bit her lip. “How though?”
Richard carefully put down his fork and knife down on his now clean plate.
“How are we going to do all this? Travelling isn’t cheap. I’ve been thinking all afternoon about different ways to make money…” she trailed off.
Richard picked up his goblet and sipped. “I always assumed that I’d be able to live off my trunks.”
“I can’t make trunks.”
“I know.” Richard looked Elizabeth straight in the eyes. “If you’re not comfortable with this, then it’s fine, but I could always just make enough for the two of us.”
“I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that, yet.”
Richard grinned. “Yet?”
Elizabeth felt herself blushing.
“Fair enough.” Richard leaned forward and put his hands under his chin in the classic ‘I’m thinking’ pose. “Mmmmmm….”
Off to sea, the sun started to slip further down the sky, moving faster as whatever magic was at play took effect. The waitress walked by and lit the candle at their table. It smelled of beeswax. Elizabeth sighed.
Just then, Richard snapped his fingers. “That’s it!”
— CL —
“That’s it!” Richard let out a long breath. Oh, it was so perfect!
“Huh?” Elizabeth looked confused. “What is?”
“You can’t make trunks.”
“You can’t make trunks, but I bet you can sell them. Think about it! Think of all the times we’ve gone shopping together. Who was it who always did the haggling? Who was it last week who got me the best price on my trade goods and stopped me signing a horrible deal with an exploitative bastard? You’re much better at day-to-day business than I am.”
Richard watched the light dawn on Elizabeth’s face. “I could do that,” she said softly. “And then, what? I take a commission? A cut? A share, or what?”
“Whatever you want!”
Elizabeth smiled her wry smile. “Yes, I can see why me handling the business side of things makes sense.”
“Hey, only you get the special deal. Special deals for a special girl.”
And he then got to watch the blush slowly creep back again. He smiled, then frowned as a thought struck him. “The only thing is, I was always very cautious about starting to sell my trunks. I don’t want to get stuck in one place — If the trunks don’t sell quickly enough then having a moving business could be tricky.”
Elizabeth waved this off. “That shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Do you know how much people are willing to buy one for?”
Richard shook his head. “I’ve had all kinds of offers, but they were all over the place.”
“Then the first thing we need to do is see how much people are really willing to fork over.”
“And how do we do that?” he reached down to his side, opened his side-trunk on the floor, pulled out his note book, and started making notes.
“A large market could work,” Elizabeth said. “An auction would be ideal.”
Richard snapped his fingers. “There’s an auction house on the island — Pluto’s — that’s where the books are being sold.”
“Perfect. Know anything else about it?”
“There’s an auction on Friday — I know that.”
“We’ll go there first thing tomorrow.” She hesitated. “That is, if you don’t have anything else planned?”
“Nope. We’re good.”
“But Friday is pretty close.” Richard said. “The trunk isn’t even built. And getting all the wood can take time. We know that very well. And I’m not even sure if my experiment is going to work.”
— CL —
Excitement coursed through Elizabeth like two pots of coffee and an energy drink. This could work, she thought. With her on the business side of things and Richard making the product, there’d be nothing stopping her… them, she corrected herself, from doing what they wanted, and she wouldn’t have to go begging to Auntie — a dangerous undertaking at the best of times.
Richard showed her the plans he had for the new trunk.
Elizabeth carefully inspected the plans, a hundred thoughts crossing and counter-crossing to suggest the best possible route to profitability. Eventually, she carefully tapped the paper. “Can I suggest holding off on this?” she said. “At least for the moment?”
“You think it’s too risky? I’m pretty sure it will work.”
“It’s not that. It’s that if we want to attract as many people as possible, we should make the new trunk as multi-use as possible. This—“ She gestured to the furniture filled trunk schematics. “—Is for someone who really knows what he wants.”
And deep in her mind, the part of her that was still jumping up and down about having a boyfriend noticed that the bedroom plans she was looking at was obviously set up for two people, except that the bed was only big enough for one — or possibly two — but only if two hypothetical people snuggled closely together.
“I can hold off on experimenting, if you think it’s a good idea,” Richard said. “And if the trunk sells well enough, I might even be able to afford one of the library’s book lots.”
Elizabeth smiled. “There’s some art stuff I’d like to get before we leave as well, if it’s possible. But if we want to make sure the auction is a success, we’ll have to pre-sell the trunk to as many people as possible. We can’t just jump it on people as a surprise.”
Richard grinned. “So, we have a plan.”
They walked back to the inn, reds and oranges fading slowly into the faint purples of the street-side glow moths. Richard held her hand all the way and opened the doors to the inn like the perfect gentleman she knew he’d decided to be.
They paused at the doors to their separate rooms.
“Well, good night,” Elizabeth said, and then, before she could second guess herself, darted forward and pecked her new boyfriend on the cheek before ducking into her room and closing the door behind her.
— End of Chapter One —
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— J.M. Coombs (LeadVonE)