MELODY | Chapter 1 : Market View | Spirit 20th, Year 90. Early Morning.

When I was younger, I had a storybook. Each page was painted in vibrant colors, each picture inlaid with metal foil. It told stories of our noble country, Angeocia. The land of golden fields and green forests. A land free from deathly frost or burning heat, with days graced by sun and nights by moon. A land under the watchful protection of the Seven Virtuous Gods. All kinds played in the glow of these magnificent beings. With the god’s incredible power and endless wisdom, Animals, Men, Sylph, and Rodents were free to live without fear.

I’m not certain what happened to that country. Sometimes I wonder if it was just a myth. All I’ve ever known is a city of cold, black stone. Grey clouds are the only thing in its sky, with night and day only separated by a variance in light. All kinds live here in harmony. But we are not without fear. Monstrous nightmares roam the pitch black streets. It’s well known that a night outside means never returning home again.

Few things come from beyond the walls. Snippets of muddled news, goods and trade, sometimes a foreigner or a craftsman. But very little can leave, both exits held in the talons of watchful birds. Be this protection or punishment by our watchful God of Kindness, our entire lives must play out here, in the city of Helleborus.

And I, like many others, simply live the very best as can be.

 

~Α~

 

My hand hovered on the latch, my heart racing. I took even breaths, in time with the first of the morning bells. Our house was dark, my sister Violet holding up the last of the lamps by the handle. All the windows were covered in heavy cloth. The rags that once stuffed the cracks in the doorframe sat in a pile by the corner, the door free to swing open at any time.

But there was no light coming from the crack beneath the door…

The last bell droned on and on, fading until the only sound was the ringing in my ears. Violet huffed beside me. But we had to be patient. It was dangerous to rush.

“Melody…” she grumbled.

“I know, I know,” I said.

I squeezed the latch. It opened an inch. Violet blew out the lamp, and I exhaled as I looked outside. There’s light. It was light out. It was just a little dimmer from the morning fog.

“Finally!” Violet groaned.

I threw the door open, and Violet charged past me, already a blur in the gloom before I could shout my goodbye. I laughed, wondering why I was ever nervous. The bell’s never let us down before!

I slung my messenger bag over my shoulder, straightened my skirt, and marched out into the morning gloom. I locked the door firmly behind me, and with that, I was on my way.

At a brisk pace, I crossed the bridge, cut through the Patience District, and headed directly towards the Bravery District’s market, on the far western edge of the city. It was practically the best place to see the clouded sky west of the Claybed river. Around those West Markets, the buildings were only tall enough for the storefront, and a few floors of living space.  Very unlike the towering Patience district, where the buildings were nearly pierced the overcast clouds.

The buildings abruptly shortened from tens of floors to under half dozen, signaling the start of the Bravery District. Most sellers were setting up at this hour, with only a few customers sniffing at the wares. There really wasn’t a set time for the market to open, but most customers knew they wouldn’t get much if they turned up too early. And there were plenty of people who chose not to trust the bells.

There was some jostling for spots, but not much in the offshoot alley I walked. Most of the shouting matches went down around the statue of the General himself, the Virtue of Bravery. While not specifically a symbol of economic strength, it was definitely agreed that business did better under the watchful eye of the Virtuous cougar god.

I hesitated at the corner between one alley and the other. I was just a block away from my normal barking spot. This was one of the most open streets of the dozen offshoot alleyways, big enough to allow one row of merchant stands and two lanes of foot traffic. I was in no rush… Well, I should have been in some rush. Certainly, there wouldn’t be many customers out this early. But with only so many hours in a day, one doesn’t have time to dally.

I could feel it. Today. I hadn’t been back in, what, a week? Three? Was today was going to be the day where I turned the corner and she was no longer there…?

I took a deep breath, and took a look. I could see Apple-a-Day’s stall from here. And… yes. The old gray Goat reset placidly on her blanket-covered bench, sitting stoically above three or four crates of lemons and limes. She was slowly chewing through a plate of steamed leaves and vegetables as her kids and grankids scurried back and forth, preparing a small, Goat-sized cart.

I sighed in relief, and walked around the corner, head held high, as if I didn’t have a worry in the world.

“Good morning, Apple-a-Day!” I cried, waving a hand, “Good to see you again!”

The old Goat looked up from her plate, and a grin spread across her face.

“Melody!” she brayed, “I can’t say the same! You run out of work again?!”

“Certainly not!” I scoffed, “This city’s never going to run out of farmlamps. Spring’s just coming up, and I know a lot of people are going to need more regular daytime lighting.”

“So you’re just back to poach some of my customers again, are you?”

“Certainly,” I said, tugging out my sign from behind her stall. “Because there’s obviously such a huge overlap between our services. Where are the kids heading off too, anyway?”

I waved a hand at the group of busy Goats. Her grankids, as far as I was aware, since they were not using magic. Instead, they held wooden scoops tightly in their teeth. They hopped up, resting their front hooves in the rim of the crate, dipping their heads inside to grab four or five of the small fruits at a time. Then, head tilted back slightly to balance the goods, they trotted right over to the squat cart, and lowered their necks to let the fruits tumble into short barrels. If a lemon dropped, they picked it up carefully in their teeth, rubbed it clean on Nan’s blanket, and dumped it back into the barrel, all without breaking the skin.

“Just up the hill, to take care of a few of my snappier customers,” Apple said, “Might head off with ‘em, to be honest. They don’t ever bring back enough money from those old crones!”

“Thanks for the confidence,” one of the kids snorted, spitting out their scoop into the back of the truck, “I’m nearly ten, Nan, I think I can handle a little bartering!”

“Not with Lady Bertholdt, you can’t! She’s got a sharp eye for money matters, sharp as a cat’s claw, that one! I’ll be making the walk myself!”

I kneeled calmly, as Apple-a-Day bickered with her kids. I leaned against my sign and watched the streets for an increase in traffic. I had cleaned my sign the best I could, and painted it to the best of my ability. But sadly, it still looked exactly what it was: nailed-together pile of wood scrap. It announced my name and trade as proudly as one can with such a sign : Melody of June, Professional Lamplighter!

Please, I beg of you. Don’t laugh. This poor lass was a Sylph… Of noble birth, yes! Yet, this pitiful girl has fallen so far that she needed to peddle her magic out on the streets to feed her poor, little baby sister! Alas! She is but a pure and unsullied soul, and yet she must bear such a heavy burden!

I know what you’re thinking. Your heart weeps, does it not? Just so you know, I take pity in the form of coin and local vegetables.

Ahem. In any case, I don’t sit around on my haunches for most of the day. It was barely fifteen minutes before the first and most important flock of customers wandered by: the merchants themselves. After their stands are set up and properly manned, there was a brief flurry of activity as the unprepared and unconnected grabbed their daily groceries.

These kinds were exactly the ones I was looking for. The most likely to need a bright light to shine through the rain, and attract customers of their own. I rested my sign against my legs, and began the first, most important phase of my daily hunt for work.

“Lamplighter, lamplighter!” I cheerfully shouted, clapping my hands for emphasis. “Add warmth to your store! Bring life to your garden! Even if you can see in the dark, your home is warmer with a lit lamp!”

Of course, it’s not long until my voice was lost in the rabble of the West Market. As the fog slowly lifted, the streets rung with the clop of hooves, scratch of paws, and the slapping boots of Men. The air actually started to become warm with so many bodies, and the smell of hot fur overpowered the chill of the cobblestone.  I usually tried not to wear out my voice at this time of the day. But after years of shouting, I could certainly get a lot of use out of my windpipe.

“Lamplighter, lamplighter!” I shouted at a passing Horse, “Keep your foals warm at night! Flameless! Stench-free!”

The Horse barely offered me a glance as he clip-clopped on by. Not an unusual event. I had my regular clients, certainly, but calling out my skills, or lack of them, was a remarkably low-yield strategy. There were just too many Sylph in the city! And it’s not like this skill was unusual or difficult… often, making light was one of the first things any magically-inclined kind ever learned.

However! Most of a magical inclination would find their energy set to better uses… So, eke out a mediocre existence I shall!

The day went on, with luck in my favor. It was near-noon, and I had managed to arrange a few short-term deals. One representative for the mice’s Little City in South Bravery had requested I come once a week to light indoor street lamps, for the fairly decent fee of a flower coin per week. I nervously accepted, hoping, as I did with most new jobs, that it wasn’t just a trick to get me to some out-of-the way hole to rob me. Or worse…

Well! A few shopkeepers had also made non-committal agreements that, if I stopped by when it was raining, they might offer me some work. Nothing worth going out of my way for, that’s for darn certain. I wandered this city enough to know I did not want to waste energy hunting down random ‘maybe’s.

Many kinds had stopped for Apple-a-Day’s fruits as well, with Apple-a-Day stubbornly attending the counter. She laughed easily at customer’s jokes, bartered with a vitriolic joy, and brayed angrily after a few grubby piglets ran off squealing, stolen limes clutched in their teeth.

“Get back here, you brats!” she shouted, “Why’d you take the bruised ones?! Gods Above, at least learn to spot quality when you’re stealing!”

I chuckled as she shook her head.

“Maybe next time they pass by, I’ll accidentally kick the good stock off the stall,” Apple grumbled, “If they aren’t gonna respect me, then they need to at least respect themselves.”

I nodded sympathetically, “They seem to have grown so much since I was last here.”

“Ehhh…” she grunted as she resettled back into her pillow, “That Gourd kid is near two now… sure hope he gets a good job before the wardens decide he’s garden material.”

I settled back against my sign, smiling as more of Apple’s customers passed by me. She quickly recovered from her soured mood in time to receive a Dog in a fine coat.

The Dog’s suit, while plain in color, was crisply tailored, their yellow hair sharply and cleanly shorn. A set of two bags were tightly strapped against their sides, in a style often referred to as saddlebags. The Dog plucked a letter from a satchel fitted neatly around their neck, and rose on two paws to slide it in front of Apple.

“Good to see ya, good to see ya,” Apple nodded, rumpling open the paper with her hooves. She squinted at the letters, and nodded. “Here for Lady Starlight? Better pick wisely then, eh, Spades?”

“I will be sure to,” the Dog said smoothly, plucking out a pair of simple, mouth-held tongs from their saddlebags.

“This’ll be all then?”

“The Lady would also like to know when you will be getting strawberries this season.”

“They should be coming in soon enough,” Apple said. “I got a cousin out in the mountains who should get them quick enough for your Lady’s tastes.”

The Dog nodded, smiling and talking easily, despite the tongs carefully balanced in their fangs. I watched as they distributed twelve lemons evenly among both saddlebags. I shifted against my sign, trying not to stare. Starlight… That could be a Sylph name, or of a well-to-do Dog, I suppose. In either case, it had to be a name for some wealthy family. Few on this side could afford that much imported fruit at once.

Business apparently concluded, the Dog replaced their tongs in their saddlebag, and made on their merry way.

Or, apparently not. The Dog turned to me next, scanning my shoddy little sign. I immediately perked up, leaning forward and bracing against the wooden sign for balance.

Smiling brightly, I asked, “In need of a lamplighter today, my lord, my lady?”

They gazed passively up at me. After a moment’s consideration, they said:

“My Lady. And actually... we might. Do you light flameless ovens?”

“Of course, my lady,” I smoothly replied, “What size bulbs are we talking about?”

“Seventy centimeter tubes, six of them,” she said, “For two baker’s oven.”

I paused, still smiling, but on the inside, a little worried. “When was the last time they were lit…?”

“Oh, they’re lit daily,” the Dog said. “Our Sylph assistant didn’t turn up today.”

I nodded gravely, as ‘not turning up’ could mean, potentially, anything.

Yet, I still gave a small, internal sigh of relief. Heating lamps usually took days, if not a week’s worth of magic for a single Sylph to fully light. It would mean a lot of work, but it would be at the expense of my regular clients.

“If I’m just bringing the lamps up to full capacity, then I can manage all six,” I said, “My going rate for heat lamps is—“

The Dog nodded, and said, “It’s fine. Follow me.”

She took a step back, pointed her snout east, and stood, placidly waiting for me. I… hesitated, a bit more than she did. Sure, I could guess that this Starlight had money to spare from Spade’s earlier transaction. I've gotten used to picking jobs up, going to new parts if the city, haggling with new clients... Really, I shouldn't be nervous at all. I mean, not like there are random murders in the daylight hours, right?

“Recharging heat lamps is fairly expensive,” I said smoothly, hopefully appearing  unfazed, “I wouldn’t want to walk all the way to your shop, just to be turned away.”

“Ah. Pardon me,” the Dog said, “We have a set rate we pay our usual lamplighter. You will at least be paid the same as him, though I cannot negotiate a price further here.”

I nodded smoothly. I was still leaning towards the ‘potential murder’ scale of things, especially if their last lamplighter had gone ‘mysteriously missing.’ It was a constant, wild rumor that the butcheries often hired their own daytime hunters, to bolster their own stock. Nobody had been caught doing such an act, of course. Completely infeasible. But in this city…

On the other hand. By my usual rate, six heat lamps could feed my sister and I for nearly a week. I think I was capable of taking care of myself in case the deal went south. I did still have a lot of energy to spare.

I carefully stood, watching the well-shorn Dog as intently as she watched me.

“One moment please.” I gave Spades a reassuring smile. I tucked my sign behind Apple’s stall, offering the aging Goat my smile.

“I’m going out on a job for Lady Starlight, Apple-a-Day,” I said, nodding to the suited Dog. “See you again tomorrow?”

The old Goat smirked at me, “Don’t let that crone’s claws tear you up, Melody.”

I shivered fitfully, trying to maintain my grin. “Don’t even joke about that, you old nan!”

Well, hopefully that was enough proof that I’d be missed, and wasn’t just some friendless piece of meat. I dropped my sign against the wall of Apple-a-Day’s home, and slung my messenger bag over my shoulder. I hurried after the Dog, who was already waltzing off into the crowds.

We left the streets of the West Market, and quickly made our way through town. The market stalls and storefronts became sparser, and the buildings taller. I assumed that, since we had clearly left the Bravery district, we would stop here, somewhere in the Patience District. Perhaps for a local bakery, one that prepared a neighborhood’s rations of wheat for their customers. But the Dog kept walking, firmly leading me onward without a single word.

“This location is certainly quite far…” I said, “I don’t think you’ve told me where we’re going, madam.”

“Pardon my rudeness,” she said, briefly turning back to me, “We are heading to the Wisdom District.”

I stared at her tail as she turned back away. Yes. Certainly. It was obvious now. This was clearly a murder plot. I hardly think my services would be necessary in a district primarily housed by Men and other Sylph. Part of the reason I travelled to the Bravery District was specifically the lack of competition from other, similarly unskilled persons. I can understand the masters of a wealthy house finding it too demeaning to light their own lamps, but…

I laughed, trying to keep conversation light. “What, did the Wisdom District run out of magic?”

Spades laughed as well. “The Lady of the house may have burned through most of it by now, certainly.”

“My,” I squeaked, “What is that supposed to mean?”

“The Lady has recently been appointed the position of Master of Exports, so she is hosting an overnight ball to celebrate. There are quite a lot of lamps to light, and The Lady has probably gone through all Lamplighters without specific duties or appointment.”

“But you have asked me to light a heating lamp…”

“As was said Sylph’s duty and daily obligation.” She turned to me again, face passive. “Take it as luck that he has failed said duties, or lack of luck that you must follow me quite a distance to preform your craft.”

Well, I wouldn’t call it a craft… but my murder bells were still ringing! I, for one, didn’t know that a new member of the Council of Ten had been appointed! Of course news like that wouldn’t go around the West Market unless there were some serious changes to tariffs or the like… But goodness gracious, was I so horribly out of the loop that I was the last to know of major political shifts?!

I certainly hoped not! My little sister Violet would have heard about something like this in school! She learned with fellow merchants! Would they not complain about so-and-so dying or such-and-such getting a coveted position? Political chatter was the mainstay of noble gossip, no matter the age! How else were you supposed to know who’s daddy is richer than whom’s?

Oh, if only I had the time to double check with Violet the current political environment of upper class! Then I would know for certain if the path I was walking was the road to my own demise. As it stood, I was but a poor lass, pulled along by fate and the hunger for a day’s meal!

Still fretting and unable to make my decision, we departed the Patience district, and for the second time today, I arrived at the two rivers that divided the city into East and West, the Diligence District.

This was one of the more open parts of the city. The roads around the river were wide and spacious. The banks of both rivers were of the same black cobblestone, which slowly sloped downwards in gentle steps about two and a half meters. A half dozen bridges crossed both river’s spans, with a thick artificial wall dividing the Claybed River from the Purestream River. From north wall to south wall, the stone center kept the rivers neatly apart, never letting their flows mix together. Small mills dotted both rivers, using the gentle flow to grind their flour.

And that was the only thing shared between banks. It is strictly enforced that the Claybed be primarily used for dumping and washing away of unusable filth, while the Purestream be used as a primary source of the city’s fresh water.

Many people stood on the shores dumping materials unsuited for peat recycling, under the glowering eyes of City Wardens.  A forlorn-looking goose used her beak to drop broken pieces of clay into the river, letting each one fall with a distant plunk. A grubby-looking butcher upturned a barrel of foul-smelling ashes, likely a mix of burned feather, fur, and hair. I saw a scuffle as a tottering old woman lost grip on a cauldron, and was promptly barked at by the angry Wardens. Many desperate souls stood further downriver, fishing out illegal dumps or ‘useful materials’ with long sticks, pulling up old shoes and rusted pans.

It took two bridges to cross the rivers, one taken to the center wall, and then one to the opposite shore. The bridges were all very similar, and not very ornate. They were, however, practically the only structures made from metal in this city, perhaps cast and constructed together by some skilled metal weavers…

I walked down the center of the bridge, bare feet creating a hollow noise in the metallic structure. I was confident that, at the very least, she couldn’t kill me in the Diligence district. Its open nature offered very few hidey holes suitable for murder. But should I continue on this course, and follow Spades into the Wisdom district? I had a very, very effective self-defense spell I learned back in school, and practiced the wording at least once a week. The Dog, on the other hand, was just a Dog. She had all the power of incredibly hurtful, but otherwise non-magical teeth. But maybe I should recall the wording of that particularly painful spell?

Thus distracted, I looked north, up along the three meter center wall… And promptly saw my little sister waving at me.

She stood, soaking wet, her blue-black hair not laid out in elegant curls, but tied back into two tangled bunches. She was not wearing the dress that she left the house in, but instead wearing that silly flax-weave shirt a set of brown breeches, both of which were sized for a much larger adult. She waved at me vigorously with both royal blue hands, hopping up and down with joy.

As soon as I noticed her she pointed to her friend, a large and splotchy puppy, similarly soaked to the bone. She cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted.

“Whitepaw’s teaching me how to swim!” I heard her distantly cry. And, as if to show me, she took a running leap from the wall, grabbed her legs, and dropped promptly into Purestream river. Well, at least she had the good sense to jump in the one not full of trash, but swimming at this time of day?!

It was a few heart-pounding seconds before she resurfaced, grinning and floating slowly down the stream towards me. I heard her distant laugh as her puppy friend splashed in the river beside her.

“One moment, madam,” I said calmly to the servant Dog. She halted, and turned back with the intent to ask me why. I wouldn’t need long, and there was no need to explain what was about to become clear shortly.

I slammed my hands on the guardrail, the bar ringing hollowly. I took a deep breath, and shouted, “VIOLET! WHAT ARE YOU DOING OUT OF SCHOOL?!”

I heard a distant cry that I certainly hoped was not a swear word! Violet’s head dunked under the water. She resurfaced near the shore, quickly scurrying up the steps. I couldn’t see her face, but she began to run up the river and darting for an alley, her sopping-wet friend tromping after her.

“You had better be hurrying to class, young lady!” I shouted, “Get cleaned up and head directly there!”

The servant made a rouf­-like sound, a Dog’s laugh. I turned back to her, folding my hands tightly in front of my skirt. For the first time, Spades’ tail was gently wagging, a small smile on her face.

“Pardon me, madam,” I said, offering the servant a small bow, “For my terrible show of force.”

She laughed again, “Your daughter, I presume.”

I shook my head, “Sister, actually. Though I am her acting guardian.”

“I see!” she said, thankfully offering no other comment, “Well, this way…”

After such a display on my part, I wonder if the servant Dog had relaxed enough to speak with me, or do more than blindly lead me onwards. For a good while, it seemed to not be the case. We headed quietly through the Diligence River District, and were approaching the wide avenues of the Wisdom East Market before she said a word.

We walked through the major market thoroughfare, through Wisdom Square and right past the granite statue of Wisdom Himself, a tall and broad-shouldered sylph in Septemist priest robes. His only adornment was a simple beaded necklace that hung low on his chest, ending in a simple representation of the floral gemstone. His brow and sides of his face were rimmed by thick crystals, tapering off at the chin, an obvious sign of his advanced age.

Though, no kind was apparently crowding for the coveted honor of selling beneath his stern gaze. Almost all the merchants had physical shops in this district, even those selling the most basic of necessities. There was just as much incorporation of homes and storefronts into the walls, but the homes themselves seemed more uniform, and shorter. Barely any windows rose higher than five floors up the towers. The shops themselves less and less frequently offered practical things, like food or clothes, and offered more of what the city exported: magically created craft pieces. From the practical like glass and clothweaving, to the comfortable, like wood and stoneweaving.

Sometimes it was difficult to tell these different districts of the city apart from each other. It was all built from the same kind of stone, every wall and street the same black cobblestone. Different materials were rare, often used on landmarks like the bridges or the statues of the Seven Virtuous Gods. Often, it was easier to tell the difference between districts by the window count, or by the sounds in the air, or by the specific variety of kinds walking the streets. All such things were subtleties lost on any merchant visitors.

One of those differences was the ratios of different kinds, and the density of the crowds. Even though it was starting to get later into the day, there didn’t seem to be the same packed quality to the streets. We barely had to avoid the milling Sylph and Man kinds, only occasionally passing by a Horse or a pack of yapping Dogs.

Clothes were also much more common on all kinds this side of the river. Fancy clothes, at that. I desperately hoped that none of them paid any mind to plain linens… or how hopelessly out of fashion a contrasting outer bodice is, oh my goodness Melody, when can you afford to get with the times?! Certainly you can’t help that your piggy pink skin clashes horribly with your maroon hair, but you could at least find a shirt that goes with an underclothes bodice at an affordable price?! Can’t you—

I was jostled from my thoughts by another rouf-ing laugh from my guide, seemingly from nowhere. I stared down at her as she shook her head, and turned back to me.

“Pardon,” she said, “Just an errant thought… How long have you been taking care of your sister?”

“Oh…? Hm… Let me think.” I racked my brains, trying to shake any sense of time from them. “On my own, perhaps, about six years?”

“Seems like such a long time to spend rearing! Pardon, I never get used to it.”

“No need to worry,” I say with a light smile, “Some days I wish my sister would be up and fully grown in a simple two years.”

“Raising pups is never simple!” she chided, “But, yes… I’ve just had my own litter of pups only two months past. Makes one think curious thoughts, or pay mind to things I usually wouldn’t.”

I suppose that was that, because she turned around and spoke no more. And the streets only got quieter as we left the shops behind, and started passing by places solely built as residence.

I was starting to feel antsy again. This was certainly not the longest walk I had taken for a job, and yet, the distance had a sort of numbing effect on me. There was only so long I could be terrified of a potential murder before the fear sort’ve faded away in a haze. Why even walk me to such lengths, nearly an hour in a practical silence, whatever the cause?

At long, long last, the servant turned to me, and said, “Here we are.”

We were, of course, in front of a mansion of goodly size. An imposing three stories, with a smokehouse and a well sitting to the left and back of the courtyard. Yes, a courtyard. The mansion was a freestanding building of course. At this level of wealth, one makes their own walls. The building itself was still constructed from black stone, the same as all other buildings in the city, but this family was rich enough to cover up that fact with a painted wooden siding along the front. Multiple chimneys poked out of its slightly slanted roof design. The only thing that stood out about the construction was the windows, large, elegant, and spaced very frequently along the face of the building. Of all things, my distance-dulled mind thought it must be very expensive to buy blackout curtains to fit each and every pane.

I looked up as Spades passed through a short wall, into a stone courtyard. With the extra space, this one had little potted gardens pressed against its walls and scattered in large scoops around the courtyard. All the gardens were stuffed tight with a wide variety of long grasses and flowers, growing in thick, barely contained bunches in an attempt to overpower the scent of the soil.  

I shivered, but tried to keep my composure. Well, if the Lady of the household is supposed to become some Master of Exports, then of course it’s presumable that such a lady would live in such a mansion! Only those at the very top of this city’s society can inherent such a role, can they not?

I walked in after the servant with all the grace and elegance my body could muster. Compose yourself, Melody! You spent so much time worrying about being killed, that you forgot your position! A humble lamplighter, in service to a wealthy household! My mind was buzzing, but yet, I still managed to correct my step into a graceful stride. My hands folded back over my skirt, flattening the horribly cheap material. And my hair was still a horrible, frizzy mess—!

Ahem! I pretended not to pay attention to the mansion itself as I glided through the double doors, and definitely did not jump even a little bit as Spades barked her arrival. My eyes were hungry to observe wealth, true wealth, the kind I hadn’t encountered since I was so very young.

I was not disappointed. We had entered into a two-story foyer, with multiple sets of double doors leading deeper into the house. There was a large grand staircase leading up to a landing on the second floor. I noted that the floors were marble tile, but the staircase was a very solid wood… A fortune to build, but it seemed like the family came from a line of woodweavers. The smell of green wood and varnish hung in the air, like a thick perfume.

What I supposed would normally be a quiet and elegant dimly lit foyer was now the scene of a high level of organized chaos. Several Sylph (in more battered clothes than I! hurrah!) sat at the foot of the steps, or wandered the second landing. Lamps were passed to them by servants, which they raised to their gems and quietly relit, or added additional glow. More servant Dogs dashed to and fro, dragging carts of clattering silverware or hauling stacks of linen on their backs.  The double doors to my right were open, and I saw several more Sylph sitting atop ladders, precariously reaching for the bulbs of chandeliers. Several Sylph rested on the floor, accepting cups of stock soup greedily.

So, quite obviously, I was actually here to light an oven. Silly me! Why did I ever think I was in any danger at all?

“Ah! Spades! Another fresh lamplighter?”

The Lady of the household was at the top of the steps, leaning against the wood railing and peering down at me. Instinctively, I averted my eyes and gave her a deep bow, though I would have loved to keep watching her. All I got was that she was a green Sylph, in a similar colored dress, and that dress had some kind of high collar, pressing up against the underside of her chin and overflowing with thin lace. Was that the fashion right now?

 “I was about to have Azure perform the task, but now I see that won’t be necessary. All due respect to my son, but he’d probably only light one lamp before passing out.”

Was Azure the normal lamplighter? No, no, of course not, what kind of lamplighter would be done after one heat lamp? I smiled along, slowly rising from my bow. Finally, I allowed myself a good look at the Lady Starlight. Not looking her in the eyes, of course. What did I think I was? An equal? In my state?

Her dress was well-tailored, of course, in a kind of shimmering satin material. As mentioned, there was a thick lace ruff circling her neck, thick fabric shoulders, and lace at the end of her sleeves. Her hair was held back in a tight bun, for convenience’s sake, I supposed. She had perhaps a dozen diamond gemstone pips arcing across her brow, clear and brightly polished to a shine. The size of some of the gems had grown practically two centimeters in diameter, betraying her advanced age more than any wrinkles would.

If I may be fair, I was a little disappointed. I would have liked to see the Lady at her full glory. Given who she was and what position she was to inherit, this apparel was more ‘I’m going to a well to-do luncheon’ fancy, not ‘I’m showing off for a ball in my honor’ fancy. I mean, she wasn’t even wearing hoops under her skirt! I may be out of the loop, but I was certain that hoops had not faded out of fashion quite yet!

My pause was barely noticeable. In a proper amount of time, I said to the Lady, “Congratulations on your appointment, My Lady. It’s an honor to serve.”

“You’ve found a polite one as well! Well, thank you for coming, young one.” She nodded to her servant. “Please show this one the way, Spades.”

“Certainly.”

And that was the end of that. The compliment was clearly lovely, but she needn’t spend more time on me than that. Finally, at long last, I was lead through the back set of double doors, past a dining hall, and into the actual kitchen.

The kitchen itself was nothing too fancy, no more than it needed to be. A fireplace with a scuffed kettle, a door to an underground pantry, several sets of knives and plenty of space and tools for accomplishing whatever tasks it needed to handle. And of course, there were two squat kitchen stoves, both with metal sheeted tops.

While there was a little bit of hustle and bustle in the kitchen, it wasn’t terribly crowded. An old Dog minded the kettle, which seemed to be boiling stock for the other lamplighters. There was a distant clink of plates as the rest of the staff, a mix of Dogs and men, washed innumerable dishes in a large bin outside. Only two people watched me specifically, a tanned Man that I assumed to be the head chef, and a one-pip teenaged Sylph with long, silky silver hair.

“Thank the gods you came along,” the blue-skinned Sylph huffed, fanning themself with a handkerchief, “I hope you don’t mind, but at the behest of my mother, I’ve charged one of the lamps.”

“An honor, young master Azure,” the chef mumbled, nodding nowhere in particular. Their eyes were glued on me, and they waved me over to the mental stoves. I could feel them staring as I opened the stove door. The metal creaked on its hinges, and I took a hard look at the inside.

Honestly, I was expecting to be blasted in the face with the heat. But the stove was cold, its glass heating lamps dull and coated with soot. Three of them sat under a wire frame, in little docked cups. A similar set was higher up, closer to the stovetop.

“Be careful when you take em out,” the cook warned, “Don’t twist the ends of the rods. That’s how it turns on.”

“Turns on?”

“Yeah. Just lift ‘em from the bottom. They’ll slide right out of their sockets.”

I hesitated as my finger tapped the glass, then did as they instructed. There was a little resistance, then a light click as it pulled free of its socket. I saw that the ends were attached to simple hooks, supposedly threaded through a tiny loop of metal at the lamp’s end.  Even though the oven was clearly flameless, a crust of soot quickly dirtied my hands as I turned the lamp around and around.

“They’ve gone cold?” I asked, “I was informed that your lamps were lit daily.”

“It’s good and charged alright,” the chef said, “Heat-saving. Fancy stuff.”

“More than just ‘fancy stuff’ my good Baker!” the blue Sylph, Azure, gently chided. “The latest technology, specially imported! We came into both of these wonderful pieces in an exchange of gifts, from the prestigious Orchard family!”

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I don’t quite recognize the family name.”

“It is a Man family of wealth and prestige, from beyond the walls of this city!” Azure bragged, still waving his kerchief around his head. “A powerful foreign family that the Starlights have kept in contact with for nearly a hundred years… though I haven’t met a single family member, for obvious reasons.”

I nodded solemnly, though on the inside, I itched to know more. All of it was gossip and curiosity, really. I’d never heard of a family, or many families at all from the nebulous space beyond the wall. Certainly there was something out there, but for there to be anything as powerful and wealthy as the families in this city was a dubious claim… In fact, he could be lying! Oh my goodness, what if he was lying?! What was he hiding from me? Why? What secrets could this well-to-do family be hiding!?

“That don’t tell her how to do her job. Er. Young Master Azure, sir,” the chef hastily corrected themself, “See, you can see that there’s a metal bit on the inside right, miss, sir? We’ve got little levers on the side of the stove that can twist that metal open and shut. All the heat’s packed into the core there, so…”

Yes. Yes, my job. Ahem. I turned the lamp over again, to its less sooty side. I did indeed see a sort of metal rod in the center. But I couldn’t be certain of what he said, just by looking.

Setting aside my curiosity for the moment, or perhaps diverting it towards matters that actually needed addressing, I finally decided to examine the lamp more closely.

I lifted the long glass tube upwards, and tapped it against the largest of my three gem pips, three red rubies blossoming in the middle of my forehead. With a steadying breath, I relaxed my shoulders, and eased myself into the proper mindset.

I asked, what are you made of? What are your instructions? How do you hold magic? How do you release it?

I solidified my intentions, and felt the idea flow from my mind, and through my gem. My aura, a white steam, began flowing from the pips. I left my mind open as the material’s composition slowly seeped answers back into my mind.

I got the impression almost exactly as the chef described. The dull, familiar heaviness of solidly constructed glass. The thin, heated tang of the metal piping. And the burning spark of raw magic even deeper. Powerful, and searing hot. The lamp knew, from the instructions written on its very core, to release its power as heat alone. Even as I reached out to it, the petrichor-infused center pulsed, and I prepared, as I did with all lamps, to prevent a charge from shooting up the small channel my aura had carved through the air.

But the lamp itself knew to not do that! It has instructions to hold its energy until certain mechanical states were met. Even a direct current formed by my aura wouldn’t trigger the release of its stored power.

“What a fascinating device,” I mumbled, “Ingenious.”

More than that. Expensive. A clever idea, efficient and not wasteful of stored energy. Yet it seemed difficult to set up, and worse to maintain. Even more than a basic and rare heat lamp stove, this was purely a toy for the wealthy. Since it needed frequent charging, it was too impractical for standard use, and yet, so much more convenient than a standard wood or peat-burning stove.

It makes my heart weep to know that there is such wonderful technology! Such a thing I may never see or hear of again, and yet, I wondered eagerly what it was capable of. The food wouldn’t be exposed to excessive soot or smoke. And a level of heat good for cooking could be achieved in minutes, not hours…!

My mind faded from my spell, and my aura spun out and vanished. Soon, I lost the sense of the spark, and only felt the cool glass against my forehead. Back on track Melody, you let your mind wander off the job!

With ease, I started back up another familiar spell. I needed to transfer my magic, my heat, into that burning center of the lamp. I took a deep breath, and drew warmth from within myself. The heat slowly drained from the tips of my fingers and from my toes. A chill crawled up my wrists and ankles, making my cheeks and neck burn. Once more, I extended my aura back towards the overwhelming light of the lamp’s core, and let the collected warmth flow from me.

I didn’t actually know how much heat I needed to add. The lamp already felt burning hot in its core, so it was hard to judge exactly how high it needed to be. I just kept in mind that I’d probably have to do this four or five more times, and stopped when I felt like it. I lifted the tube from my face and exhaled. My feet felt like I dunked them in ice, but that was fairly standard for my line of work.

“Alright,” I said, “So I just replace it so the metal hoops here get hooked…?”

With guidance, it didn’t take me long to heat each lamp individually. After I had finished with one oven, the cook pulled out uncooked dough loaves from the pantry and immediately started baking, fiddling with little levers on the side of the stove. At some point, Azure had wandered off, to my disappointment. I had wanted to talk more, but I suppose it was impolite for a laborer like myself to make too much idle chatter.

I was fed a little of the poultry stock for a pick-me-up, and completed my job within the hour. I was cold, of course. Even sitting outside, with my legs folded under my body, my limbs felt like blocks of ice. The stock was just barely returning a shred of warmth to them. I wanted to gulp at the broth, and ask for as much as possible before I went on my way. And yet I sat normally, as if nothing was wrong, and drank the soup in a steady and polite pace.

I would be fine, of course. An overworked day would have that cold cutting into my heart and inside my skull. Numbed legs were nothing compared to that. In an hour or two, I could wander the streets and light a couple night-lamps before heading home.

Of course, that might not be necessary if this job paid well. Oh, I did hope this job would be worth it. Coming all the way out here, draining so much heat from my body, then handing over my messenger bag so they could ‘pack’ my compensation wasn’t exactly my ideal day…

“Ah, here we are.”

To my surprise, it was not the cook who brought me my bag. Neither was it the head butler or one the serving Dogs.

In fact, it was the young master himself, Azure of Starlight, clutching the straps of my overburdened bag in their hands.

“Your payment,” they said, holding it out to me. “This is the price we’ve set with Emerald, the Sylph who usually lights the heat lamps. But if there are any issues, I am here to negotiate further.”

I nodded smoothly, set aside my cup, and flipped open the bag. It was full of a variety of vegetables, a split loaf of bread, and other local foodstuffs carefully separated by rough cloth. Not exactly ideal but… Ooh! There were a few muffins in here! A small block of cheese! A chopped section of a large soup bone! And as I pushed and counted up the cost of the items in my head (the soup bone alone was worth at least a flower and a half!) I noticed the clinking of silver petals. Apparently I had been paid in cash as well, some small amount of coins bundled in a small package of cheesecloth and string.

“I can stop by tomorrow, my lord, my lady Azure,” I rapidly, but smoothly offered, “If I am needed.”

He nodded. “My lord. And if you can, it would be appreciated.”

The unspoken truth of the matter remained that way. I pretended to count it all up calmly, even though I knew I would accept it. Instead I took the opportunity to observe the young master more closely.

He continued to stand in the doorframe, watching my hands as I shuffled through the goods. In all honesty, he was rather good-looking. Light blue skin, with long, straight silvery-white hair tied back in a ponytail. His gem sat neatly between his brows, smooth slit that peeled out vertically through the skin. There was no swelling around the area, so he was probably only a tad younger than myself. Perhaps fourteen or fifteen years of age.

Of course, none of that really mattered. He was a boy. He was my age. And I had gone so, so very long without a decent update on the well-to-do side of Helleborus.

“Pardon my curiosity, young master,” I said, eyes rooted on the goods in my bag, “I’ve heard so little about families outside the walls… how did your family come in contact with such a prominent trading partner?”

This could go two ways. Either he was the bored type, and would shrug. Say he didn’t care, or didn’t know. I would have to switch to personal questions if that was the case. But if he was on the up-and-up with matters of the household and trade, he would smile, and begin to brag. And from there, the world was open to me.

He smiled proudly, and adjusted the lace of his cuffs. I returned the smile, just as broadly.

Today was an excellent day!