Cicadas hum in the branches of a nearby grove of honeypole trees. The Capitol looms overhead, the domed white roofs of the castle at the center of the city glimmering silver in the afternoon sun.
A guard steps out of his post when a boy approaches the gate to the city. The boy wears a sharp vest, dark boots a size too big, a fine steel sword and a purse. His hair turns gold in the light and his white eyes are vacant as the underside of a cloud.
“I’m assuming you have a license for that sword,” says the guard, raising one eyebrow.
The boy nods, and hands him an engraved bronze token from his vest.
“Joss?” asks the guard, peering at the writing.
“Calean Joss,” replies the boy.
The guard glances over the token once more before handing it back.
“The fee is fifteen cod.”
Calean reaches into the purse and fishes out three gray coins. He drops the three coins and another smaller one into the guard’s outstretched palm.
“Sure, Mr. Joss,” says the guard. He checks the coins as he returns to his post, and dumps them in the till. “Open up.”
At his word the gate creaks open, a mammoth iron thing that swings wide as a house, groaning like an old maid as it resists gravity and the pull of time. Once the gate grinds to a halt, the guard gives a signal and Calean enters the city.
The purr of cicadas becomes the roar of a metropolis.
The Capitol is more than a mere urban center, teeming with people and animals and cobblestone. It is a living, breathing entity, an animal that wakes and sleeps and gives life. It even has a heartbeat—a sound that runs through the ground, weaves among the roads and alleys and houses, and up into the feet of everyone and everything that passes through. The sound is sometimes slow as a walking horse’s hoofbeats, and sometimes as fast as the shouting of dirty children playing in the streets.
And no matter where the roads of the Capitol take a weary traveler, he can always feel the heartbeat of the city, living and breathing beneath his very feet. It is said that in times of war, the Capitol can even lift itself up off the ground and relocate to greener pastures.
The flags of many nations portly stand just inside the city gates. They harken to a time when the nations clashed over resources and water and borders, before King Herula united them under a single flag and bore the Capitol from his own blood.
Calean approaches one of the ancient flags and brushes a hand across the royal blue stripe down the middle, as if seeing the pattern of the fabric through his fingers.
“The Vonguts,” murmurs a voice behind him, and Calean drops the flag, his absent hand darting to the hilt of his sword. The scabbard utters a familiar clink, but the blade remains hidden.
“My apologies.” The voice moves around him. Though the stones in the Capitol speak a different dialect than the pebbles on the road, they can still tell him the speaker is a man, an old one. They tell him the visitor walks with three legs. Calean isn’t sure what to make of that until he hears the clack-clack of the old man’s cane.
Stones are not very well versed in the ways of men.
“Ah,” says the man. He nods when he sees Calean’s gaze staring blankly ahead. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“You didn’t startle me,” says Calean, following the man’s movements with his ears instead of his eyes. His sword clicks back into place, but his hand doesn’t leave the hilt.
After a long moment of silence, the old man sits down on the pedestal of flags. The top of his head is smooth as an opal in a creekbed, with tufts of white hair sprouting wildly from the sides. It even sprouts from his ears and his nose in a similar, uncontrolled fashion.
“That’s the flag of the Vonguts,” says the old man. Calean nods his head. “Are you familiar with them?”
“No,” he says. Then he adds, “Sir.”
A smile leaps across the old man’s face and he stands up. “The Vonguts are one of our oldest families,” he says in the full-throated way a professor would. “The vertical stripe on the flag represents their bloodline. Blue and thick.” Calean stands at attention, his face expressionless. “The red line around the border of the flag represents the size of their kingdom. It was the largest kingdom ever to exist before the unification.”
The old man steps down from the pedestal. He is silent, as if waiting for his student to ask a question.
“Thank you,” says Calean after a long moment. He hikes his sack back over his shoulder and begins to walk away. “I have much to do before the sun sets.”
“Oh ho ho!” The old man hops along behind him in a youthful display of vigor. He hardly uses his cane. “Shopping? Lodging?” he asks.
“I’m looking to buy a horse. I will stop at an inn too, yes.”
The man easily keeps step with Calean’s long, purposeful strides. “How can you properly evaluate a horse if you cannot see?”
Calean stops. His face contorts, a mixture of anger and something unintelligible; an upward twitch of the lip we often associate with frustration. “One does not need eyes to buy a good horse,” he snaps. “I can feel the tendons in the ankles, the quality of the hooves, the squareness of the back.”
The old man is unruffled.
“What about the color?” he asks. “The seller could lie and say the horse is black when really it’s white.”
Calean sets his teeth.
“Color does not matter.”
“Ah!” The old man smiles broadly. “You’re quite wrong! Are you traveling a long distance? Do you prefer to stay hidden? Do you travel on the main roads? Do you fear bandits, or do you fear lawmen? All of these matter when choosing the color of your horse.”
Calean begins walking again, following the guiding words of the stones toward the marketplace.
“I do not see how those things matter.”
“That’s because you’re blind,” says the old man.
So the old man follows the boy through the city. He watches with glittering green eyes as Calean stops for children, weaves easily around slow-moving wagons, and avoids scowling militiamen. Occasionally the old man asks a question, and Calean dodges it deftly as a deer.
“Why are you following me?” Calean asks, having resigned himself to the old man’s company. Instead of using the cane to walk, the energetic old coot helps a merchant start his stubborn donkey with a thwack on its rear end.
“You seem to know where you’re going,” replies the old man. “Since I’m not going anywhere in particular, I thought I’d come along and find out where the path is leading you. Might prove interesting.”
After some time of twining among the buildings, the path leads Calean to Turner’s Row, a pair of red-brick alleys that bubble with bartering and the squealing of pigs. He makes his way from booth to booth, listening as merchants shout their wares.
“Pork! Bacon and chops and sausages!”
Calean pauses and leans closer to the shopkeep. His breath smells of good salt and spices from the north.
“Oi, boy,” growls the shopkeeper. “You like fennel in your sausage? Great over a fire in the morning. Only two cod each.”
“I’ll take two.”
They exchange and Calean tucks the meat in his sack.
“You could have gotten that for a half-cod,” says the old man. He stands in the middle of the alley judging the weight and color of tulips. “You didn’t bargain him at all.”
“Bargaining is a waste of time.” To illustrate his point, Calean flicks his purse and it jingles with coins.
The man wrinkles his nose. “The sound of one who rarely has money in his pocket.”
“What’s your name?”
Calean’s question is so sudden and brisk it chills the air. He has stopped moving, and his hand rests on the hilt of his sword.
The old man raises both eyebrows.
“Kren,” he says. “Oscar Kren.”
“Kren.” Calean says it slowly, as if tasting it. “Okay, Oscar Kren. Tell me what you need. I will give it to you.”
Kren’s eyebrows rise even higher on his forehead, quadrupling his wrinkles.
“I do not need anything,” he says. “I’m simply making sure a young stranger who has never been to the big city before is headed the right way.”
“How would you know if I was or wasn’t?”
He smiles. “The right way is everything but the wrong way, and the wrong way is very easy to see in this place.”
They move on, and Kren points to a stable erected at the end of the alley. “This is Stanton,” he says. “You’ll find the horse you’re looking for here. I saw her yesterday.”
Calean says nothing and they walk to the stable. A man with a potato-shaped nose and a heavy jaw leans over a wooden post, wrapping rope around a joint in the fence. He smiles when the old man approaches.
“Good to see you again, old friend,” says the farmer, tying off the rope.
“You as well, Irus. This boy’s looking for a horse.”
Irus Stanton stands up straight at that, and he rises nearly seven feet in the air. The size of his body is comparable only to the size of his nose.
“A horse? What kind of a horse? ‘Horse’ is a very broad term.” The farmer stretches his arm and it pops. “What is he using it for?”
“I already know what the boy needs. I saw her yesterday. The little chestnut mare.” Kren wiggles his hand over his face. “You know, the one with the blaze?”
Stanton’s eyes widen. “That little thing? She’s nearly thirteen years old.”
“Perfect!” Kren sings it. Calean stands immobile behind him, expression blank as a frosted window. “Is she still here?”
“Of course.” Slowly, suspicious of his friend’s choice, Stanton walks into the stable and calls out into the dark. “Senna! Bring me the mare.” He pauses. “No, not that one. The nag.”
A girl leads a chestnut mare from the stable. The girl’s feet are not bare, but almost; she wears thin sandals that leave only the faintest sound in the dirt. She begins to walk the horse in a circle, showing off its physical attributes, until Kren waves his hand.
“Fellow can’t see a darn thing,” he says. “Just bring ‘er over. He’ll check her out.”
Calean stoops and runs one hand down the horse’s front leg. When he presses her ankle she obediently lifts her hoof. He inspects it with his hands, looking for hoofrot and good shoes. The mare stands patiently as he examines every square inch of her body.
When he’s finished, he rises and turns to Stanton.
“Six hundred even.”
Calean smiles. It’s a broad smile that shows every last one of his teeth.
“Her rear leg will give out in eighteen months,” says the boy. “She suffered a minor bone fracture. Her age is fifteen, not thirteen.” Calean runs one hand along her back. “Someone rode her very hard for a very long time. She is running on borrowed time. She will not last me long. I will give you one hundred fifty for her.”
Stanton’s face turns fiery red.
“One hundred fifty!” He looks from Kren, to Calean, and back to his friend again. “What kind of business have you brought me?”
But Oscar Kren is smiling. The girl holding the horse flinches.
“I can come back tomorrow,” says Calean.
“Let’s see that you don’t,” snaps the farmer. “Take her back inside, Senna.”
The girl nods and the two disappear with the horse into the stable. Calean turns and walks back the way he came.
Kren takes up step beside him.
“He’ll give her to you tomorrow,” the old man says, wiggling his eyebrows. “Smart talking there, boy.”
“Not really.” Calean shrugs. “The horse was eleven. She’d give me another ten years, at least. But she’s not been well fed in a while and her back leg is bruised.”
Kren stares at him.
“Like I said,” says the boy. “I don’t bargain.”
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Read part IV.