Faces of New Bargas

Plebe #12

I've written family bedtime stories for a long time, and last year I compiled everything into a thick book. After all these years, it turned out our family had dreamed up quite the collection of creatures, characters, storylines, cities, regions, wars, and other lore.

Once the book was published, I thought it would be nice to write my two girls into the next story. My goal was to find a way to let them have two different adventures. So rather than send both of them to fight a dragon, discover a group of magical artists, or escape from jail ... I'd split the story in two. Their adventures would be their own. At first, I codenamed the story "Roaming" because I wasn't quite sure where the two would end up, I just knew they weren't going to go there together.

And this is the result! The girls love the story, I loved writing it, and the ending is inspiring me to write another book in the series. All of us hope you enjoy reading it!

A Brief Recap

Leading up to this story, Natalie and Lauren went on a sailing vessel with a friend headed towards a grand city named New Bargas. But due to a misunderstanding, they were falsely accused as slave-traders. Upon their arrival, Natalie and Lauren attended a court case where a villain with some magic spells got sentenced to jail. This story starts with the sisters sitting in their new cell expecting to be set free in a day or two once the misunderstanding was resolved.

Chapter 1: The Inside of the Jail

Natalie and Lauren were put into the same jail cell, so they had time to compare notes. The first thing they discussed was the odd smell. Their building was set into the side of a mountain covered in trees. It was a beautiful sight from the outside. Beautiful mist and fog all hours of the day, thick trees growing high into the air, so tall you couldn’t see their tops. Long trails through the damp and lush forest, and even some waterfalls. But the girls weren’t on the outside. Here on the inside, it was damp, and smelly, and cold. And there were rats.

“How are we going to get out of here?” Lauren asked.
“I have no idea,” Natalie replied.
So they waited.

The jailmaster had been pretty nice to them. He knew they weren’t actual slave traders, because the judge had said as much when they were taken away from their trial. “This will just be temporary,” the judge had cautioned the man, and the girls took comfort in his words. They had been chained, gently, and led to a large horse. They had been lifted onto its back where they rode along for a fifteen minute journey from the courthouse, up a winding road, through dark groves of trees, and finally to the entrance of their new home.

The stocky man hadn’t said anything as his horse had led theirs, but he carefully lifted first Natalie, then Lauren, to their feet and unlocked their chains. “Right through this way, ladies,” he said, gesturing to a vast cast-iron door that was at least three meters high and wide enough for ten men.

He had booked them into their room, explained when their food would be brought to them, and told them not to worry. That was hours ago, earlier in the day. Now all they could hear was dripping water, scurrying rat sounds, and the sound of their stomachs grumbling angrily.

“Hey, come look at this,” Lauren said after a while. She was watching carefully out their one window. “See that?” she pointed through the iron bars to the steep mossy slope of the mountain. Then Natalie saw what Lauren did. It was a short creature that was munching on a fern. “That’s an almalak!” Lauren explained. “I’ve read about them in books but I’ve never seen one in person!” The two girls stood watching as it finished one fern, waddled over to another one, bent a branch down into its mouth, and took a big ferny chomp. “This is so cool!” Natalie whispered. They stood there for several minutes, watching and saying nothing.

“Lunch,” the jailmaster announced behind them. “Shhhhh,” the girls said in unison. The jailmaster set the food down on an old wooden bench in the corner of the room, closed the iron door behind him quietly, and came to the window. “See it?” Lauren said. The jailmaster paused for a moment, focusing his eyes, and said “Ah!” when he saw the creature let go of the eaten fern to walk towards a third one. “That’s an almalak,” he said. “We call her Bitey. See how you can see the white spot near her left ear?” The girls craned their necks until they saw it. “Yup, that’s how we know it’s her. Did you know we run a farm and garden here at at the jail?”  The girls looked at him in surprise. “It’s true. She’s a wild animal, but we’ve got lots of animals out there, up the way a bit. I can take you later this afternoon if you’d like.”

“Yes please!” Lauren cried. “Well ok then,” he smiled. “Eat some food and I can take you later on. And pretty soon I’m expecting the judge to send word that I can release y’all from here.”

“What kinds of animals do you have?” Lauren asked. “Let’s see. There are lots of animals all through these woods, but in terms of our farm we’ve got some weeshes, colony of thornkeys, an old pangooa, let’s see, what else. Oh, we have two Klakleas. And a bunch of wild tekos. Some other things, too. Horses. Oh, also a domesticated abagy named Jade.”

“YOU HAVE A DRAGON?!” Natalie yelled, scaring away the almalak. “Shhh!” said Lauren. “DRAGONNNNNNNNN” Natalie replied. “DRA. GON.”

After a boring but not-awful lunch, the girls were let out of the jail cell so they could follow the jailmaster outside to the farm. As they walked through the wide hallway, careful to step over mossy puddles of water, they counted the other cells beside theirs. They counted to 19 before they made it to the end of the cellblock and headed outside. None of the cells had any prisoners in them.

Outside the girls could see the length of the farm. It was pretty big! They immediately saw some horses and weesh over in the pasture, but the jail master led them to the thornkey colony first. “See, this is how they like to pack themselves together. Not just for warmth but because they like being around people.”

“Like Lauren,” Natalie said.
“It’s true,” said Lauren.

They spent the rest of the afternoon learning about the animals and caring for them. The jailmaster had a list of tasks that he posted near the main stable door, and the three of them worked through each task until everything was done. They had to swap out the water with big buckets filled at the pond so the animals wouldn’t get thirsty. They had to set out grains, carrots, and meats so the animals wouldn’t get hungry. They had to check the teeth and clean the shoes of the horses to make sure they were healthy.

The work was mostly quiet work. They talked some, but the conversation centered around the farm, how to keep it running well, and how to keep the animals healthy. The jailkeeper seemed pretty kind to them, and they grew to like him more as they day went on. Eventually, Lauren asked “When do you think we’ll be out of here?” and he shrugged. “Not quite sure, actually. I expected that you’d be let out already. But you might have to stay the night. Who knows? People don’t tell me anything much, other than ‘hey someone’s coming to the jail’ or ‘hey it’s time to let them out.’”

The girls looked at each other. They wondered how Duke was doing. They wondered if Sass had something to do with them being locked up. They wondered if it would be hard to sleep that night. But they were happy to have each other to talk to, and they were happy that jail didn’t seem so bad.

They had a boring but not-awful dinner, then went to sleep soon after the sun went down. Nighttime was pretty scary. Nothing went wrong, but the whole building dripped and creaked. It was cold and their blankets didn’t do a good job protecting them against the wet, cold, clammy feeling in the air. When you build a jail and farm on the side of a mountain covered in fog and moss, you’re bound to have some cold nights. The girls knew why the air was so frigid but they also wondered if maybe there were ghosts. Then there were the sounds. They heard the standard neighing and hurrumphing of the animals outside, and the chirps, squeaks, and nibbles sometimes made them giggle. But some of the sounds were harder to identify, and it made it hard to sleep soundly.

In the morning, they were treated to a beautiful sunset. The room started to light up well before sunrise, turning the inky blackness into a dull gray, then a warmer grey, then suddenly the sky started shifting on them, brighter, pinker, purpler, swirls of light and colour, oranges competing with reds, like the sky was on fire. They realised they had been watching for a while when they noticed that the animals were making a lot of noise too. They seemed to like the sunrise as well. Or maybe they were just hungry.

They hoped this would be the day they’d be saved. But maybe they’d get to play with the animals some more first. After another ten minutes, the jailkeeper came to the door and offered them some breakfast and asked if they were ready to work the farm for another day. “Yup!” the girls said. “Do you think we’ll be out of here today?” Natalie asked. “I wish I knew,” the jailkeeper smiled, eating a chunk of bread from through the gates. “Let’s do some good work today and you’ll be out of here before you know it,” he said. “The easiest way to make time pass is to work hard.”

Up on the ledge behind the jail and farm, a dragon bandit waited and watched. He was smoking a hand-rolled cigarette.

Chapter 2: The Dragon Bandit

Another day passed. They had lunch, then dinner, then the sun went down. And all without any word from the judge. They got ready for their second night in the cold, damp jail.

“Do you think we’re ever going to be let out?” said Lauren in the near darkness.

“I hope so,” said Natalie from her cot.

“The jailkeeper is nice at least,” said Lauren.

“And it’s fun taking care of the animals,” said Natalie.

They kept talking in the dark. They compared notes about the things they had seen and the animals they had gotten to play with. Natalie’s favourite animal, by far, was Dartanious the abagy dragon. She spent as much time as possible with it, and started to understand many of its movements and mannerisms.

Which is why her ears perked up when she heard Dartanious cry. She got out of bed quickly, knocking her pillow to the floor, and looked out the window. She couldn’t see anything, because the farm and Dartanious’ pen was around the corner from where she could see. But she smelled smoke. “I think someone’s out there,” she said.

“Should we say something?” Lauren asked.

“Probably,” Natalie said, listening carefully. She couldn’t hear anything. “The jailkeeper lives at the end of this cellblock, right?”

“Yeah, the building with the red roof.”

“Then he won’t be able to see the farm. I think someone is in the farm!”

And indeed someone was in the farm. He had snatched Dartanious while he was sleeping and stuffed the dragon into a large burlap sack. He had done this many times before, so he knew to soak a towel in toxic chemicals and store it in the sack so the fumes would make the dragon pass out. He knew to rub himself in mud to make sure his scent wouldn’t be picked up by other dragons or other animals. He knew exactly how to sneak onto the farm and exactly how to sneak back out without being seen. He knew there were only two prisoners in the jail walls, and that the jailkeeper couldn’t see the heist. The bandit had it all planned out.

But he hadn’t expected Natalie to be standing behind him, wondering what he was doing there. He screamed like a four year old whose toe had been stepped on.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO DARTANIOUS?!” Natalie yelled. She was trying to yell loudly enough to wake up the jailkeeper and alert others to help her stop the bandit. But before she had a chance to say anything else, the bandit had grabbed her, tucked her under his arm, and began running to his horse. Natalie tried to claw at him and kick her feet, but it was no use. He vaulted onto the back of the horse, attached the bag with Dartanious in it to the side, and began to gallop away while still holding onto Natalie.

Natalie kept flailing and twisting and pushing and pulling and biting-

“OW!” the dragon bandit yelled. “OWWWWWW!”

Natalie kept biting, and held on as hard as she could, clenching her jaw with all her strength. The dragon bandit hollered and cried out, frantically swatting at Natalie and pulling hard on the horse’s reigns. The horse drew back on its hind legs, whinneying and flexing, and the dragon bandit fell to the ground with Natalie. The flesh of his butt was still in her mouth as they tumbled to the ground and the horse ran off.

“Get off me!” the dragon bandit yelled, shoving Natalie away.

“Get off me!” Natalie yelled back, jumping at the dragon bandit and kicking him in the knee.

“Now look what you’ve done!” the dragon bandit yelled over his shoulder as he chased after his spooked horse.

“You were the one who stole me!” Natalie said, chasing after him too. “Give us back our dragon!” she yelled.

As Natalie ran, she could see the horse way out front of the dragon bandit, and it was getting further and further away. She couldn’t keep up with the man, but she thought it was funny that his horse might hate the man as much as she did. Or maybe that was just sad. But either way, she wasn’t going to be able to catch up. She slowed to a jog, and then a fast walk, then a walk, and then finally she stopped completely and tried to catch her breath.

She looked around her. She was in a grassy field that she could barely see lit up by a sliver of moon in the darkness. She could see stars all above her. There was a dirt road nearby, and it was on the edge of a large forest. She wasn’t actually sure which direction the jail was in, but she assumed it was back down along the same road, away from where the bandit and the escaped horse was running. So she followed it back down the path. She could hear the drone of insects in the air around her.

After a few minutes, someone yelled “Hey!” behind her, so she began to run away from it, then she cut back into the woods and hid behind a tree. She sat there stiff all night, afraid to sleep. She didn’t hear his voice again, and after hours the darkness began to fail. Within another 30 minutes, it was daytime. She had stayed outside all night and she had no idea where she was.

Lauren had an interesting night, and now she found herself in the morning and she was worried. Natalie was still missing. She wondered where she was.

When Natalie had heard Dartanious cry out, she had gone to the door to the cell and tried to squeeze her way through the bars. The girls had never tried, since they were pretty sure they’d be let out of prison soon anyway. But Natalie found she could put her leg through the bars, wiggle and press her hips until they eventually popped through. “Ow!” she had said. And then with her sister’s help, Natalie managed to weasel the upper part of her body through the bars as well. “Owww!” she said again, louder this time. “That really, really hurts.”

And then she stood there, bent over at the waist, her head still stuck in between the metal bars. Her entire body — her legs, arms, and torso — was free. But her head was still on the imprisoned side. And it was stuck.

“Can you get through?” Lauren whispered.

“Ow ow ow,” Natalie said. “I’m fine.”

“I know you’re fine,” Lauren said. “Can you get through?”

“I’m trying,” Natalie said tugging and tugging, but her chin couldn’t quite get around the bars. And when she could twist her head just right, her temple got stuck.

“I have an idea!” Lauren said. “Remember the squid oil from earlier?”
“Yuck,” Natalie said. “I thought I smelled something. I thought it was for the pangooa?”

“It was,” Lauren said. “But he didn’t eat all of it so I put it in my pocket. Here, hold still.”

“Yuck! No! No!” Natalie yelled, wrestling to get away. “It smells!”

“No, Natalie. I think this can help you, let me just rub the oil behind your ears.”

“No! Lauren! Get off me!” Natalie screamed, and then a loud clang sound shot out. Natalie was on the other side, and her head was totally free.

“OWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW!!!!” she screamed. “OWWWWW!” And then she ran off down the hall, opened the door to the side courtyard, and Lauren hadn’t seen her since. She had tried to get through the bars herself, but it didn’t work. She didn’t even try the squid oil because she knew she just wasn’t going to be able to fit through. So she sat in bed and tried to rest, but she hadn’t been able to fall asleep all night.

And now the sun was up, and Natalie was gone.

Natalie stood up, her knees and arms creaking. She hadn’t moved at all overnight. She was stiff and cold. Her toes were numb. Her shirt and pants were wet with condensation. She jumped from foot to foot, then tried jumping. She was pretty sure the bandit was gone. After she heard him yell, she hadn’t heard him again all night. She had listened carefully, and heard all kinds of sounds in the forest. But not him. She was pretty sure he was gone.

Now all she had to do was walk back to the jail, meet up with Lauren again, and they’d be on their way. But which direction was the jail, anyway? She spotted a young sapling, maybe ten meters high, and thought she could climb it. It took a while to figure out how to get up in the higher branches of the tree, but eventually she worked it out and from her perch she could see the jail a bit further down the road. She could also see the sprawl of New Bargas stretching out in the distance in the other direction. It was an enormous city, and there were taller buildings towards the centre. It looked interesting, and much bigger than anything she had seen before.

She climbed back down the tree carefully, no longer cold. In fact, she had started working up a bit of a sweat. She was thirsty, and eager to get back to Lauren. So she ran along the path to get back to the jail, where she came across the jailkeeper out walking a weesh.

“What are you-“ he started.

“I’m fine!” Natalie chirped back.

“How did you get out?” the man spluttered. He had been eating an orange, and now there were pieces of orange chunks and juice on his chin as he held his finger out at her. “How did you get out?” he said again. “Jailbreak!” he yelled, and started towards Natalie.

“Wait, I was helping with Dartanious,” Natalie started to explain, but the jailkeeper kept yelling at her. “Get back in the jail! You’re going to be in jail for a long time, you, you, jailbreaker!”

Natalie tried to calm him down, but realised he was coming for her, and wasn’t going to listen. So she turned and ran back up the hill. “Come back, jailbreaker!” the large man yelled after her. But she was gone. She ran away from him, away from his cute weesh, away from the farm and the jailhouse, and away from Lauren. She didn’t stop running until she stopped crying, many kilometres down the road. She changed her pace to a fast shuffle, and decided she needed to get into the city. As quickly and as casually as possible.

The jailkeeper stormed back into the jailhouse from the side door, his chin still wet with orange bits, and shouted out. “Lauren?! Are you still here?”

Lauren was standing by the window looking outside. “Yes, I’m here,” she called. The jailkeeper came running down the hallway and looked into the jail cell. “Where is Natalie?” He stopped himself. “Why isn’t Natalie here? She’s escaped!”

“I know,” said Lauren.

“Wait, you knew?” the jailkeeper thundered. “How could you-“ He thought for a second. “Did you help her escape?”

“No. But I saw her do it,” Lauren said. “She was going to save Dartanious because there was someone out there. Is she gone?”

“Yes, she’s gone!” he yelled.

They talked about what had happened, and soon sorted everything out. The jailkeeper was still outraged and confused, but he pieced together the story bit by bit. Natalie had managed to squirm out of the bars. Then she was somehow spotted outside. The jailkeeper said “wait here,” and went down the hall and out the door to the outside. After a few minutes, he returned.

“Dartanious is missing,” he said.
“So is Natalie,” Lauren said.

Just then, someone came to knock at the door near the office. “Hello?” a young-sounding voice called out. “We’re in cellblock A,” the jailkeeper called down the hall. “Is that Juniper?”

“Yup,” came the reply, and a short girl came into view. She was wearing a leather cap, sturdy leather pants, and a billowy white blouse. She looked professional and fashionable. “I’ve got your papers,” she said. “These two are free to go, on order of the high council.”

“One,” the jailkeeper corrected, throwing a thumb at Lauren standing alone in the cell.

“One?” the young girl said, holding the paperwork out to the jailkeeper. “One,” he repeated back. “The other one broke out last night.”

“Oh,” the girl said, starting to take the paperwork back. “No, no, hand me those,” the jailkeeper said. “We’ll get to the bottom of this.” He took the papers from her hand.

“Well, no, it’s that the paperwork isn’t valid anymore. A successful jailbreak means additional charges. Which one escaped?”

“Natalie,” the jailkeeper said, ruffling the papers. “I saw her earlier out on the path towards the city.”

“I see,” the girl said, unsure what to do.

“Listen, Lauren, you’re free to go. Fill out this paperwork and we’ll get you processed and on your way. Here’s something to write with,” he said, pushing a pencil and the paperwork through the metal bars. “I’ll return once you’ve filled these out.”

Lauren sat down on the bed and read the form. The first page was the standard information about her name, her hometown, her age, and the crimes she had been arrested for. (“Slave trading.”) But the second page surprised her. It asked where she’d like the court to send her. It asked if she had a job to return to, and if she needed help with training. It even asked how much money she predicted that she might need. She stared at the page, thinking what she’d like to do.


Natalie soon realised how close to New Bargas she really was. The jail was only a five or ten minute walk away from stores and shops. But rather than stop in the smaller stores, Natalie was eager to make it to the centre of the city, where she could blend in and disappear. So she hurried along and felt the blocks get more and more dense as she walked. The streets got busier, the stores got nicer, and the sound became more cluttered and chaotic around her. Natalie kept her eyes down. There would more time to explore later.

A few characters stood out as she hurried by them though. One was a bronze-coloured creature with a dragon’s face muttering outside what looked like a clockmaker’s shop. Another was a young man with jet black hair and a white stripe down it, with large black glasses, studying a wanted poster. Natalie snuck a peek at it and was happy to note that she didn’t recognise the large bald man’s face on it as she passed by.

She noticed that most people were turning left down a wide avenue, so she decided to get swept along into the crowd as it walked downhill. There were more stores here, fancier ones. She looked to her right and saw a short woman holding what looked like shopping bags. A few people ahead of them was someone wearing a suit of armour, but with five snakes peering out the top. Natalie stared for a few moments until the footraffic broke off again and she found herself walking along with a slightly smaller group. There was a woman beside her with tanned skin and flowing red hair, and beside her was a motorised robot. Natalie looked around for a place to sit down and get away from the crowd for a minute, and soon saw a bench just off the footpath. She made her way to it and sat down as people kept walking by.

Gosh, the city was busy! She supposed the crowd was heading down to the market, which she could see at end of the long hill, near the docks and the waterfront. She had made her way about halfway down, but she wasn’t in any rush, and she enjoyed people-watching. A minute later, a human-like creature with a fluffy red tail walked by with a look of concentration on her face. And a few minutes after that, she saw a dragon walk down the street wearing clothes and carrying a shopping bag! That was the first time she had seen a dragon in a situation like this, and she wondered what other excitements the city had in store for her.

After the dragon, the humans all around didn’t really stand out as much. But one woman caught Natalie’s eye. She was slight, had green hair, and olive skin and she wore very nice clothes as she strode through the crowd with a kind smile. Whoa, and then right behind her she noticed a strange creature that was so dark, and so deep black, that it almost looked like light disappeared off it. It wasn’t wearing any clothes, and it didn’t have any face. Just a form that was vaguely human-like and an eerie flowing style with no sound or light. A shiver went up Natalie’s spine.

Eventually she stopped watching the parade of characters and looked around her. There were benches set up across the footpath and also down the way from her. She noticed someone staring at her across the path.

He was about as tall as her, slightly shorter than the average male human, with a pair of curved horns spiralling out from the base of his head. He was wearing nothing but a loincloth made of tanned skins, and he had a very lean, yet well developed strong body.

Haunted bags rested under his dark eyes, framed by similarly dark stringy locks of hair. Beardless, skin tanned, it was obvious that he had spent his days under the harsh sun. He was carrying a fire-hardened spear and noticed Natalie staring at him. He scowled angrily, sizing her up. Natalie smiled nervously and he turned his back on her. Natalie decided it might be time to keep moving, and quickly slipped back into the stream of people to go visit the market.

“The carriage will be here in about an hour,” the jailkeeper said. “My name is Folgreg, by the way.”

Folgreg and Lauren had a nice hour together over breakfast. He explained the exit form and where it came from. Apparently many years ago the forms changed because of a wise king that thought it was a good idea. The theory was that setting people up with jobs and a place to stay meant that they were less likely to commit crime once out of the jail.

“I don’t want to come back,” Lauren said. “Good!” said Folgreg. You seem like a good egg, but I’d rather you not come back.”

“I am going to miss the farm though,” said Lauren.

“Of course you will! And that’s why we’re sending you to the Conservation Ministry. Plenty of animals there for an animal lover like you. You’ll have a great time.”

Lauren learned more about what her job would entail, and where she’d be staying. Apparently New Bargas was a grand city, large enough to house many many people. Large enough that it was possible to spend an entire life there without needing to venturing out of your part of the city. Large enough that people traveled from all around the known world to visit, to learn, to start businesses, to trade their wares, to grow families, and to set off on grand adventures. “New Bargas is a lovely lady … and she knows it,” Folgreg said with a smile. “It’s the best city I’ve ever had the pleasure to live in. You’re going to love it.”

When their breakfast was done, they went outside to spend some more time with the animals. “Can I feed them?” Lauren asked. “Of course! They need to get fed, after all!” he said happily. Lauren already knew how each of the animals were to be fed, and how to approach them, and where to put the tools back. “You’re a quick study,” Folgreg said with a smile.

“Thank you,” Lauren said. “You know that Natalie didn’t mean to leave, right?” Folgreg got a funny look on his face. After a few minutes of stirring oats, he finally spoke. “I believe you,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter. She’s a fugitive now. And let me give you some advice. I’m old enough to know you’re not going to listen, but I’ll tell you anyway. You can’t go find Natalie, or else you’ll find yourself right back in jail. And it’s just not worth it.”

They kept stirring in silence, and Lauren took a cup of oats and brought it over to the thornkey enclosure, pouring it in and watching them swarm to it, chattering. “I understand,” she said. Folgreg didn’t believe her, but he understood how she must be feeling.

They continued talking about other things for the rest of the hour. The weather, where he was from, how he got into being a jailkeeper, what the judge was like at their weekly Wizards and Wyverns game, and what had brought him to New Bargas originally, many years ago as a young dwarf looking for fortune. But then the horse-drawn carriage was there, and Lauren climbed aboard. Then Juniper, the young girl, climbed aboard as well. “Where were you?” Lauren asked. “Oh, I had some paperwork to do in the jail, but now we’re heading back to the same part of New Bargas, so I’ll be joining you.”

And so they said their goodbyes and set off. About thirty minutes later, they were on the far side of New Bargas and Lauren had a job, a friend, and had seen all sorts of incredible people. New Bargas looked like it was going to be amazing!

Chapter 3: New Bargas

"Help! Help!"

Natalie had been people-watching in the market when the shout came. She turned around and saw a young girl coming around a corner while being chased by two wolf men. Others watched in shock as the situation unfolded, but Natalie reached out, grabbed the girl’s hand, and they ran away from the men. The girl shook off Natalie’s grasp but kept running alongside while they raced to a tavern just across the street. They threw the door open and tried to close it quickly behind them. The wolf men crashed into the door as it closed. People in the tavern helped them to push the door until it could be latched. The wolfmen snarled and pounded from the other side.

“We've called the guards, they'll be here soon," someone called out. “Are you ok?"

"I'm fine," Natalie said. "Are you?"

"I'll be ok," the girl replied. "Thank you."

“Sorry about this!” a fancy looking man with glasses said, striding up to the two girls. “This has been happening more and more recently. No one’s gotten hurt yet, but it’s been scaring the stuffing out of everyone. I wish we could figure out what’s going on with those demonhounds. If nothing else, it’s bad for business!”

They peered out the window beside the door and saw a crowd gathering in an uneasy circle around the two snarling wolf men. “When did it start?” Natalie asked. “A week or two ago,” he responded. “They’ve been putting soldiers on every street corner to try and stop the attacks but so far nothing’s worked. Really quite ridiculous.”

"Do you know who they are?" Natalie asked the girl.

"No," the girl said. "I've never seen them before today.”

"What's your name?" Natalie asked.

"I'm Parmick," she said. "What's yours? Are you new here?"

"Natalie," she said. "How'd you guess?"

"You've got that look," Parmick smiled.

If Natalie and Parmick were going to be trapped in the tavern, they figured they’d order some lunch. Parmick told Natalie that the better food was further down the marketplace, away from all the tourists. But Natalie didn’t mind, she was so hungry she would have eaten anything. As they ate their sandwiches (filled with some kind of tough meat), Natalie learned that Parmick had grown up in New Bargas, far on the other side of town. She was visiting the market to get some special ingredients for her grandmother’s dinner when the dogs came out of nowhere.

“So there aren’t usually dogs chasing people through the city?” Natalie smiled.

“I mean, not usually! There are all kinds of things. Someone spit in my mouth once, once a rat climbed up my arm while I was sitting at the Grand Fountain, once a runaway robot assistant knocked me down, I’ve had my heart broken, I’ve had my bike stolen, I’ve gotten kicked out of the most wonderful apartment you’ve ever seen, I’ve had my roof flattened by an illegal magic commune with bad safety precautions, but no. Never been chased through the streets by wild dog men. That was definitely a new one. Oh New Bargas, never change,” she said with a sigh and chuckle. “But they’re gone now, see?” She threw a thumb towards the window overlooking the street. “Say what you will about New Bargas, they take the crime seriously at least.”

After a while, the owner of the store came by with a big smile. “Thanks again for your patience ladies,” he said. “It’s been crazy out there lately. I hope you’ve been enjoying the food while you’ve been here despite all the drama. You should come back to The Roly Poly sometime soon. Tell your friends!”

“Yup, thanks,” said Parmick.

“Yeah. Thanks,” said Natalie. And then she realised she didn’t have any money to pay. She started to say something to the owner, but Parmick gave her a look, and she closed her mouth again like a bullfrog.

“Do you have any money?” Parmick said when the man had left again.

“No,” said Natalie.

“That’s ok. I’ve got an idea for what you can do,” Parmick said.

In late morning, Lauren’s horse-drawn carriage pulled off the main thoroughfare and turned down a steep hill. The noise of the city street was soon left behind as they dropped lower, lower, and lower down the hill, eventually levelling out far below the city block’s footpath. Lauren saw a grand, old, and pretty building up ahead. There were three stories of very tall windows and stone, and they were mostly covered in ivy. She longed to get lost in it.

Juniper had explained what to expect, so Lauren knew a few details going in. The grand building was the main headquarters for the Ministry of Conservation, so it was full of scientists, policy-makers, and people like Juniper, whatever it was she did. Lauren had talked about wanting to learn more about animals on their trip over, so as the carriage finally parked against the side of the building, Juniper motioned to her to jump off the carriage and follow her into a small path through the woods. “Shouldn’t we go inside?” Lauren asked. “We will! I just want to show you something first!” Juniper said.

Lauren followed Juniper through a twisty and windy little path, and eventually they came to a little clearing. There they saw a large fountain with a large hegabeicky curled up off to the side. When they walked in, the large colourful creature opened its eyes and purred. “Her name is Blanche and she’s very friendly. Watch this!” she said. Lauren stood up, held her hand out, and the animal held her paw out against it. They touched and Lauren grinned. “She’s so sweet!”

“Isn’t she? I love her. She’s the grand old lady of these gardens. A total sweetheart.”

Lauren smiled at the magnificent creature. She had read about them before, but never imagined she’d find one resting like this. At the place where she was going to work! “Ok, let’s get back. They’ve prepared a little party for you.”

“They did?” Lauren said. “For me?”

“Of course, silly. It’s what people do in New Bargas when a new person starts a job. Helps everyone get to know each other! Where are you from, again?”

“Mitlasa,” Lauren said.

“Oh I love it there. I went on holiday once and I can’t wait to go back. Do you miss it?”

She did, a little. But Lauren didn’t have time to think about that just yet. She had new friends to meet, and a new job to do. She was excited to meet some new people and learn more about them.

The group was really friendly. There were seven people on her team, and another ten or so people stopped by while they were having cake to introduce themselves to Lauren. Everyone made jokes like “you’ll regret working here in no time!” and “there’s still time to run!” but as she got to know everyone she found that everyone had been there a long time. One woman had been in the department for ten years. Another for seven. Another had come straight out of Uni three years ago and loved her job. “That seems like a good sign,” thought Lauren as they wrapped things up and people said their goodbyes.

“What do you think?” asked Juniper. “Pretty good group, eh?” she said.

“Yup!” said Lauren. “They seem great.”

“You wanna hear about your first animal assignment? I’ll be helping you out.”

“Yes please!” said Lauren.

“So there are these wild wolf men,” Juniper began. “And we need to capture them.”

Natalie didn’t realise just how lovely Parmick’s house was at first, and didn’t understand just how nice her family was. At first, Natalie just saw a house on the hill. But as they walked inside, it slowly dawned on Natalie that the house wasn’t just big, it was enormous. It was like a small village! There was room after room after room! She counted twenty different people before she realised the scale of the building she found herself in. She decided not to bring it up, because she didn’t want to be rude.

And the niceness of the family, gosh! Natalie soon arrived in a large banquet room where a group of people were having dinner. There were about a dozen people assisted by another five who were bringing out food for the group. The scale of the room was immense, with a giant window covering the entire half of the room. The view was of a valley. Beyond it a mountain lurked in the distance. The visual was stunning.

“Mom, this is Natalie,” Parmick said as they walked in.
“Hello and welcome!” her mom said. “Come eat with us!”

So they did. Natalie was starving from her busy and frightening day. The Roly Poly sandwich from earlier was a distant memory and her stomach had been grumbling since halfway through their trip through the countryside. By the time the first appetisers arrived on a nice ceramic dish on the table, Natalie was hungry enough to eat the drapes off the wall. Fortunately they didn’t expect her to eat drapes, and instead gave her cheeses, exotic meats, and vegetables. And at the end of the meal she even got an assortment of fine candies for desert. That was her favourite part.

The family was curious about Natalie’s adventures, so she explained everything. Well, almost everything. She left her prison break part out of her official story. The table listened intently as she described her her journey across the ocean, about Duke, about the jail, and about people-watching in New Bargas, and about the incredible wolf-men incident. Parmick and her mom shared an ability to listen very well, nodding and probing at the right parts of the story. “That’s quite a journey!” her mom said when Natalie was done telling her part of the story.

The conversation then turned to Parmick’s day in New Bargas, and Natalie listened in awe. It sounded like the family was pretty important in the city, but she couldn’t quite understand exactly how. She sucked on her exquisite luxury after-dinner candies — her favourite was black and red ones that tasted like fruit — as they discussed. She noticed that many other people around the table were listening but not saying much. Sometimes one might agree with a point, or chuckle, or even tell a little detail to further a story that Parmick’s mom made. But mostly they listened and smiled along peacefully.

Eventually people began excusing themselves from the table, and in time there were only three people left, Natalie, Parmick, and her mom. The sun had gone down, the curtains had been closed with big burgundy sashes, and the room was warm and shimmering with torch and candlelight.

“I’ve really enjoyed meeting you, Natalie,” Parmick’s mom said. “You can stay here tonight. And we can offer you a room whenever you’re in the area, of course. But there’s something I need to tell you.”

“What’s that?” Natalie said, sucking on a black gem candy.

“Have you ever heard the term ‘truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable?’” she said, raising her eyebrows slightly.

Natalie felt her heart shrink in her chest, but she tried not to show it. “No, but I understand it,” Natalie ventured. Her breath suddenly took a lot of effort to get straight. She felt like she was starving for air.

“I think you’re leaving out a part of your story, Natalie,” the woman said. Her face still looked calm, and even kind. But she was looking at Natalie in a way that made her feel uncomfortable. “So I’ll propose something to you. If you’re honest with us, the truth will set you free,” she said. “How about it?”

“How about what?” Natalie said, her eyes looking casually to the doors leading out from the room. She thought that her eyes were probably giving her away so she tried to focus at Parmick’s mom while still looking casual.

“Will you be honest?” the woman spoke. “What kind of person are you? One who tells the truth, or not?”

“I think so…” Natalie said. She wasn’t sure what to do. She froze, looking at her hands. She didn’t like the house anymore. She didn’t like Parmick’s mom anymore. And Parmick wasn’t saying anything either. Was this all a trap? She missed Lauren. She wanted to run but wasn’t sure she could. There were probably guards everywhere.

“Then go ahead,” her mom said. “Tell us the part of the story you’re leaving out.”

Tears welled up and one rolled down her cheek. Natalie didn’t know what to do. After a long minute, Parmick’s mom said “Here’s another bit of wisdom for you. When in doubt, bet on the truth. Still in doubt, bet on more truth.” She stared at Natalie. “Go ahead, Natalie. I know you can do it.”

So the truth finally came tumbling out of her quivering lips. She told Parmick’s mom that she broke out of jail. She explained that she hadn’t meant to, and that she was just trying to help the dragon. She explained that she missed her sister, and she didn’t want to be an outlaw, and while she was being honest she also admitted that she didn’t really like the salad at dinner. Parmick’s mom smiled warmly.

“Natalie, that took a lot of courage to admit,” her mom said. “I knew you had good character. And that’s why you’re always going to be welcome here.”

Two men appeared beside Natalie, and grabbed her arms.

“But because you’re an outlaw, you need to be punished. Breaking out of jail is a big deal, and now you need to go back and serve your time. It’s only fair.”

Natalie stood up, terrified.

“Don’t worry,” Parmick’s mom said. “The truth will set you free. But first it will make you miserable. We knew you were an outlaw from the moment you walked in. It’s not every day that someone breaks out of prison. Your sketch was passed through the entire royal council this morning, so it was only a matter of time until you were brought to justice. But I want to commend you on your honesty. Either way you were going to be taken back to jail, but now I know that you are an honourable person. And that counts for a lot.”

And with that, Natalie was walked down a long hallway, turned down a side corridor, and put into a holding cell. One with bars much closer together. There would be no way to squeeze through bars like these. Even if her sister came at her with gross squid oil again.

Natalie waited.

Chapter 4: New Lives

Lauren’s new job was interesting, if a bit confusing. She was supposed to set traps throughout the city every morning, then wait to capture a wolf man. Each time a trap was triggered, a numbered pigeon would come land on Lauren’s shoulder to notify her to check the trap. But every time she saw the same thing: a triggered trap, the bait trap left empty, but no wolf man.

First it happened at the trap near Castle Hill. She raced down to the street corner and only got there about ten minutes after her pigeon signal. But by the time she got there, the wolf man had already left. She asked the storekeeper what she had seen, and was told the creature got trapped under the cage, but had simply disappeared.

“Disappeared?” Lauren asked.

“Yup, we were looking right in the cage but then it just wasn’t there anymore. It was like watching mist vanish.”

Which was pretty strange, and no one in the Ministry knew what to make of it. Animals don’t just disappear like that! So she worked with the scientists and librarians at the Ministry to try and figure out what was going on. She spent her days half inside reading up on creature books and half outside wandering the grounds of the Ministry Headquarters, waiting for pigeons to land. There was a zoo that started to the side of the large main building and stretched deep into a forest. Then at the edge of the formal zoo, there were still acres of forestland that acted as a conservatory.

Between the science labs, libraries, zoo, and forest, Lauren spent those early weeks soaking in all kinds of information about all kinds of animals. By the end of twenty days, Lauren was starting to realise the sheer scope of all the animals there were to discover and learn about. But while she was learning about creatures, the number of escaped wolfmen rose to 23 and no one seemed to have any idea how to make sure they wouldn’t disappear. So they kept trying the same traps, with the same results.

Lauren slept in a dormitory in the Ministry, and became friends with several of her coworkers. When they weren’t working on the wolfmen mystery or studying up on animals, they enjoyed playing board games in the social meetinghouse that was attached to the east wing of the building. It was just a short walk from her room, so she spent most of her free time there.

After two weeks, she got her first paycheck couldn’t believe how much gold there was in it. She was rich! She didn’t have to spend much money on food, lodging, or clothing, so she began dreaming about all the things she could do with her newfound wealth. She decided to take a trip into the city. She liked the bustle of New Bargas, but it was a bit full on. After walking along the road for only ten minutes, she decided that there was too much activity to absorb at once, so she ducked into a little store to catch her breath.

It appeared to be a birdshop of some sort. Or at least, there were lots of birdcages hanging from the ceiling. Large ones, small ones, ornate ones, ones with lamps in them. But they were all empty. There were pebbles sprinkled along the floor of the store, which make a creaking cracking noise as she slowly walked through the cluttered isles. Besides birdcages, she also saw lots of toys, knick-knacks, and dressers with colourful sashes and clothes stuffed in them. As she explored in awe, she noticed more lights, lanterns, and candles. The more she looked, the more she realised the store was perhaps … a light and birdcage store? Was that even a thing?

As she rounded a corner, trying to make sense of what the shop sold, exactly, she noticed the owner. He was enormously tall, a giant. Maybe twice as tall as Lauren. And his legs were spindly and brittle, like a stick bug’s. It looked like he could barely support his own weight, and that his legs might snap attempting to hold up his enormous towering body. He was standing clutching onto handles that had been built on either side of the wall beside him.

“Looking for something?” he asked, in a not-unkind voice.

Natalie’s next three days were tough. She slept the first night in the cramped jail cell that was part of a holding block in Parmick’s house. The next morning, after breakfast and some small talk with Parmick and her mom, she was delivered to another horse-drawn carriage where she began her journey to the local jail.

She knew the ride, since she had just traveled the same road the day before. She watched the traffic outside the carriage as they rattled along through the streets, staring in awe at the wide range of people and creatures she saw outside. Eventually she got to the jailhouse, but it wasn’t the same one where she had last seen Lauren. It was a new one entirely. Much larger.

She was processed and sent to her cell. She wasn’t going to be sharing the room with anyone else. There was no window. There were a lot of prisoners in this jailhouse, which meant the main hall was usually busy and noisy. Natalie sat there and waited. She tried to look on the bright side, but she was bored.

Nothing much happened all week. She didn’t make any new friends and nothing much interesting happened. She began to understood the patterns and the noises of the jail, but she wasn’t sure what was going to happen to her next. She was told by Parmick’s mom back at her house that escaping from prison had a standard punishment, but she hadn’t said more. Was the punishment a year? Ten years? “You’ll see,” her mom had said.

But now it had been a week and Natalie was tired of waiting. She thought a lot about the conversations from that night. How Parmick’s mom had said the truth would set her free, but first it would make her miserable. Or how she had said Natalie would be welcome back once she had handled her punishment. She wished she knew what would happen next. She tried to keep her mind busy.

After eight days, someone finally visited her.

“Natalie?” a man in a long black cloak said from outside her metal door.

“Yes?” she said.

“I’ve come to talk to you about your case before the court,” he said. He stood to the side as a guard named Offen wrestled an ornate key into the padlock and scraped the door open. “May I?” he said, as he motioned towards the edge of Natalie’s ratty bed. “Sure,” she said, sitting on the other side of the bed and watching him.

He took off his cloak and folded it over his arm, then set it down on the bed. She noticed that his dark shirt and pants both had ornate patterns sewn into them. In fact, the patterns were very similar to the ones she saw on Parmick’s mom’s blouse and cardigan a week before.

“So the case against you is a tough one,” he began. “You broke out of a New Bargas jail, which typically carries a sentence of at least five years. But the judicial system has decided to reduce your sentence to one year because of the discretion of the judge in your original case.”

Natalie stared at him.

“I know, one year is still a long time. But that’s just how the rules are,” he said. “We understand you’re not a threat. We understand you were just attempting to help the abagy and protect the jail against the dragon bandit. We understand you were set to be released from jail only a few hours later. And to top it all off, we know the original slaver decision was ... not considered credible. So we understand you’ve been through a lot.”

Natalie kept staring. “Ok,” she said, to get him to keep talking.

“But the fact is, you’re not allowed to escape jail. So we can’t just let you free. Even with all these other details, we can’t just let you go. That wouldn’t be fair.”

“Ok,” Natalie said. “So I need to stay here for a year.”

“That’s correct,” the man said.

“Ok,” Natalie said.

“Do you have any other questions?” the man said.

“No,” Natalie said.

He looked at her for a few moments. He looked sad but she didn’t care. She stared straight ahead, thinking. Soon enough he stood, pressed his shirt with both palms, and grabbed his cloak. He put it on, shook it to land better on his shoulders, and pulled on his lapel and then his sleeves. “I’m sorry,” he said.

Natalie didn’t say anything, and he soon was let out of the cell. He walked down the hall and she kept staring straight ahead. A few minutes later, she cried. But not for very long. The tears were hot. Her throat felt tight. She sniffed.

“Ok,” she thought to herself. “So now I need to figure out how I’m going to stay here for a year.” She lay down on her bed and started planning.

Lauren learned a lot in the hour she spoke with the tall, spindly-legged shopkeeper. Apparently he had been running this store for about ten years and sold mostly lamps, chandeliers, lanterns, candles, and other lighting equipment. When Lauren asked about the cages, he laughed off her question.

“I’m not sure, really. I started collecting them a few years ago, and I just like how they look. I think they add a certain decor. What do you think?”

“I like them,” Lauren said, and he responded “I like them too.”

They spent some time talking about Lauren’s job. He told her he was surprised that her jail-sponsored job paid so well. Lauren learned that most of the jobs people got straight out of jail were for lower-level work, like cleaning streets or taking care of children. But sometimes positions opened up at the right time, so he guessed that must have been what happened in Lauren’s case.

“Did you fill out the paperwork requesting a new job?” he asked.

“Yeah, I said I loved animals.”

“Well, what good luck you must have had! I know a lot of people who work there. They shop here every day, and in fact my sister worked in that building for a time. It’s a wonderful ministry and I think they’re doing great work for the whole city. How are you liking it?”

“I love it,” Lauren said. “It’s fun getting to work with animals.”

“And bet the paycheck isn’t so bad either, eh?” he asked with a smile.

“Yeah, and I just got paid!” Lauren said.

“I can tell!” he said. This is payday so I’m used to people coming through these streets with silver in their pocket. You said you weren’t sure what you were looking for, but I wonder if you might like something animal-themed?”

“Yes, please,” Lauren said.

“Follow me,” he said.

Lauren watched as he moved from his alcove where he had been perched. He let go of the handle to the side of him, then reached ahead a meter to another handle. Then he let go of the other hand, then swung it forward to another handle as well. He repeated this again and again as he made his way down the aisle of the store like a rare insect. Lauren followed carefully behind him.

He was truly enormous. His head almost touched the top of the store, but despite his massive size he was able to navigate down the corridor of the store with confidence. His weak and thin legs shuffled along below him, making cracking noises on the gravelly floor as he walked.

He made it to a corner of the store where there were many dressers tucked into a corner. Each of the dressers had strings tied to the handles and knobs on the dresser doors.

“Try looking through there,” he instructed.

Lauren pulled at a string and a dresser drawer popped open. Inside there were glass jars filled with colourful beads. Behind the jars, she saw some bright and interesting fabric. Beside that, she saw some masks with iridescent green and blue dragon scales.

“These are my odds and ends,” he said, from above her. “I think I have something here that you might like.”

He reached down with a long arm and pulled at a string, which caused a drawer to slide open. He reached in and rifled around in the dresser for a moment, then pulled out a book that said A Book of Magical Creatures. “What do you think?” he asked.

Lauren flipped open the book and saw that it was an old manuscript filled with ornate sketches. She flipped through it and saw some animals she knew — folos, sheep, horses, weesh, spiron, brahig — but also several she hadn’t heard of yet, even with all her study and research. Cquid, Ala, and Bunnaboo all looked interesting. The drawings and writing next to each creature were wonderful, written in a delicate and grand script that felt exciting and ancient.

The large man towered above her, saying nothing. He smiled but she didn’t notice. “I’d like to buy this book,” Lauren said after a few minutes of quiet study. She looked up and saw his smile. “How much?” she asked.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “I’ll give you this book for free. And in exchange I hope you come back to my store so I can show you other wonderful finds. Interesting things make their way into my store, and you strike me as a fellow collector. They smiled at each other. A few minutes later, Lauren emerged from the store with a wonderful new old book tucked under her arm. She read the whole thing sitting in a park with her back against a broad tree with blue leaves.

And just like she promised, she started going to the store once a week.

Chapter 5: New Grooves

Day by day, Natalie learned the systems and patterns of the jail. As she got used to the idea that she’d be there for a year, she let herself appreciate more. She noticed when she got a little extra food, or when the weather was a little nicer than the day before. She started to talk to other prisoners to hear their stories and found that she was surrounded by fascinating people with impressive stories.

After a few days, she was called into the main jailkeeper’s office. She had been told by the other prisoners what to expect from the meeting. They’d tell her how well she was performing in jail so far, and they’d assign her a job. Her friends told her if she wasn’t making a good impression, she’d be given a bad job. But on the other hand, if the guards liked her, she might get one of the better roles. She walked into the small office without any expectations about how it might go.

“Natalie,” a short and large dwarf said from behind a chair. He wore a plaid fabric on his broad shoulders, and Natalie noticed it was sewn with the same pattern she had seen on Parmick’s mom and the man who had sentenced her to a year in jail.

“Hello,” Natalie said. “What’s your name?”

The man smirked at her. “Impertinent as ever, I see.” He flexed his fingers against each other until Natalie heard them crack. First one side, then the other. “My name is Sergeant Dower and I run this jail. Do you know why I brought you in here today?”

“I’ve been told I might get assigned a job,” Natalie said.

“That’s correct,” he said. “But first we talk about how well you’re doing in this institution so far. Do you want to tell me how you think you’re doing?”

“I think I’m doing pretty well,” Natalie said, sticking her chin out. “I’ve done what you’ve asked, and I haven’t complained.”

The man looked at her with dull eyes.

“Anything else?” he prompted her.

“No,” Natalie said.

“And you haven’t tried to escape,” he said. “Unlike your first time in our jail system. Yes?”

“That’s right,” Natalie said. “But I really wasn’t trying to escape.”

“Sure you weren’t,” the thick man said, and Natalie felt her anger tighten her chest. She hated to be insulted and contradicted. But she decided not to argue with him further. She stared at him angrily, trying to convince her eyes to look normal. Instead, they looked like little balls of fire.

“So what job would you like in the prison?” he asked.

“Dragons,” she said.

“Excuse me?” he asked.

“Dragons,” she said again, offering no more explanation.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“I mean I want a job that works with dragons,” she told him.

He laughed. “Sorry, we don’t have any dragon jobs available. I was thinking something like working in the laundry room, or cleaning floors, or being a ward proctor. Do any of those sound good?”

“Not really,” Natalie said. “But I’ll work in the kitchen.”

“Sounds good,” the man said. “Report to the kitchen at 4am for the breakfast crew tomorrow.”

“Ok,” Natalie said.

And that’s how Natalie got on the breakfast crew. From there, she learned more about the prison than anyone else. She heard all the gossip, all the rumours, and the politics large and small. She also learned a lot about making food, and she got to eat extra servings. She didn’t realise it for a few weeks, but it was one of the best jobs in the jail. The stout old dwarf had done her a favour, she realised. She wondered why.

Lauren loved payday. Each week she’d get her coin in an embroidered governmental pouch and walk down the street to Lightning Depot. There, she’d have a nice conversation with the shopkeeper. He always had new items to share, from jewellery to rare books, pieces of art to beautiful beads and lights. They’d usually spend about an hour chatting about the items, about her job, about New Bargas, and life. Lauren really enjoyed spending time with him, although she still couldn’t get him to tell her his name.

“What’s your name, anyway?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he’d say.

“That doesn’t make sense!” she’d say. “Besides, that’s creepy!”

“Is it?” he’d smile.

“Yes! I’ve been coming here for how long-“

“Five weeks,” he said.

“Five weeks! You know my name, you know what I like to shop for, and we’ve talked about all sorts of topics. Philosophy, history, military stuff, animals, my job, your shop, New Bargas, but we haven’t even handled the basic stuff. What’s your name?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he’d say again.

“Argh!” Lauren would yell. And then they’d get back to talking about the latest thing in the store, like a locket that hid beads or a fossil from far away mountainous regions.

“Thank you,” she’d say as she left the shop each week.

“Thank you!” he’d call back. “Hope you see you next week!”

“I’ll be back,” she’d say. “Even though I don’t know your name, you weirdo.”

One day as they were talking about the finer points of Mirkpar poetry and music and the ways they overlapped, the shopkeeper suddenly said “That reminds me of something I’d like to tell you.”

“What reminds you?” Lauren asked.

“We were talking about the inspiration for the traditional music in that area, which led my mind to thinking about tradition. But, ah, never mind. It didn’t remind me. It’s been something I’ve wanted to tell you and I just decided I’m ready.”

“Are you going to tell me your name?” Lauren said in a joking tone.

“Actually yes,” he stared down at her from his great height.

“Oh!” she said. “I’m sorry, I was just kidding.”

“I’m not,” he said, unsmiling. “My name is Lightmerchant.”

“Your name is Lightmerchant?” she said.

“My nickname, yes.” He squinted down at her.

“What’s your real name?” she asked.

“How much do you know about goliath culture?”

Lauren thought for a second. “Nothing. I know they’re tall like you.”

“So Goliaths are tall, yes. But names are a much bigger part of the culture. Everyone has their birth name, their clan name, and their nickname. My birthname is Pathani.”

“Pathani,” Lauren said, trying the word in her mouth. “Pathani.”

“Correct,” he said. “And my clan name is Katho-Ilavo,” which is a very well-known clan in the area where I’m from. Where my family is from.”

He shifted his body and reached for a different handle, then moved his body into a new posture. He did this sometimes while they talked.

“But my birth name and clan name aren’t as important as my nickname. In goliath culture, your nickname can change frequently and it’s the easiest way to understand a goliath’s life and goals. So for me, I sell lights. So I’m lightmerchant. That’s what people call me.”

“Ok,” Lauren said. “So I should call you Lightmerchant, or -“ she already forgot his birth name.

“Correct, you can call me Lightmerchant rather than Pathani Katho-Ilavo. If you’d like. You don’t need to call me by my name.”

“Why do you always say your name doesn’t matter?” she asked.

“Because it doesn’t,” he said.

“It sounds like it matters a whole lot,” she said. “Like a lot a lot.”

“If it matters to you, you can call me Lightmerchant. It’s what my friends call me.”

“You have friends?” Lauren said, half-joking.

“I do,” he said.

“Can I meet them?” Lauren said.

“Yes,” he said. “If you’d like.”

And that’s how Lauren ended up joining The Dual Society.

After a few weeks working in the kitchen, Natalie was moved to a new job. She was busy stirring some porridge in a giant caldron when suddenly she heard yelling and clanging down the hallway. Soon, a group of soldiers burst through the door on the north end of the hall, led by one man with a large helmet that had a red symbol on the front. He was yelling about something she couldn’t understand at first. They asked if she was Natalie, who nodded yes. They told her she had been volunteered for duty and to follow them. She did, casting a look to her friends in the kitchen. They looked away.

As they bustled down the hallway, she tried to understand what the solders were saying to each other. Something about helping the cavern furnaces, and it sounded important. The more she listened, the more confused she got. She couldn’t quite tell what they were on about, but picked up that the soldiers seemed agitated and scared. They were discussing a lot of tactics, which made her wonder if maybe she was about to be made into a soldier.

They soon made it to the front office where the stout old dwarf sat.

“We’ve got Natalie,” the main soldier with the red badge on his hat said.

“Mmkay,” the dwarf said, not looking up from his newspaper.

“We’ll bring her back tomorrow,” he said.

“If it all goes well,” someone else said behind her.

“Right, if it all goes well,” the main soldier said. “It might not.”

“Mmmhrph,” the dwarf said. “Natalie, I volunteered you for dragon duty,” he said.

“Dragon duty?” Natalie said. She could barely imagine her luck.

“Well, sort of. That’s not the name. What do you call this job?” he asked.

“Bait,” a soldier snickered.

“Officially, the tactic is called ‘Temperature Modulation via Intra-species Decoy’ but yeah, it’s basically using Natalie as bait to get a dragon to breathe fire on her. You ok with that?” he asked Natalie.

“It doesn’t matter,” the dwarf said, but then Natalie interrupted.

“Yes! I love dragons!” she yelled.

“Yikes,” the main soldier said. “We’ll see if you love dragons after your ‘mission.’ Probably not.”

Natalie was marched through the prison gates into the real world. The sky was very bright blue, and the sun was strong. The weather was hot and muggy. They all climbed into a military wagon, and the soldiers explained the process to Natalie. From what she understood, it sounded like she was going to be dangled down into a deep cavern full of dragons, to try to get them to blow fire at her. Then, with a little luck, they were going to pull the rope back up in time so she didn’t turn into a girl-shaped charred marshmallow.

“Sounds fun!” Natalie said.

“Poor girl doesn’t understand what we’re saying,” one soldier whispered to another.

“She’s a goner,” one whispered back.

“She’s toast,” someone said, louder. “Literally,” and everyone laughed.

“I understand!” Natalie said. “But I’m going to be fine. Plus, I get to see a dragon. Best day ever,” she said.

The soldiers looked at her.

“I like this one,” a soldier said.

“Let’s do our best not to let her die,” another said, and the group laughed. Natalie laughed too.

The next meeting of the Dual Society wasn’t for another three weeks, so Lauren mostly forgot about it until she showed up in Lightmerchant’s shop on Friday afternoon and he asked “So will you be joining us this weekend?”

“Oh! Yes!” Lauren said. “Where are we meeting?”
“We’ll be at our main meeting house. It’s about a five minute walk from here. Why don’t you meet me here at dusk tomorrow and we’ll head over together.”
“Sounds good,” Lauren said. “Anything I should know about them?”
“Funny you should ask,” Lightmerchant said. “How do you feel about magic?”

Over the next two hours, Lightmerchant explained the basics of a world that was completely foreign to Lauren, but every time she asked for more details he said “you’ll see” with a small smile. Later that night, as she ran through the conversation in her mind, she couldn’t quite figure out what Lightmerchant had said.

It was something about special spectacles that could show a magic space when someone wore them. And he talked about how his friends were part of a guild that created animals that could live behind what everyone else could see. But the more he explained, the more confused she got. It didn’t help that Lightmerchant seemed to enjoy confusing her. “You’ll see,” he kept saying with that same small grin.

“Tell me now,” Lauren had asked.

“I’m trying, but you’ll really just have to experience it. Do you think you’ll partake?” he said.

“I guess so?” Lauren said. “Can it hurt me?”

“No,” he said. “It’s mostly harmless fun. The creatures and worlds aren’t really there,” he said. “It’s just a trick of the eye caused by magic.”

A trick of the eye caused by magic. That reminded her of the wolfmen she had been tracking down. The case hadn’t presented much new evidence, so she had been moved to other projects within the ministry. She was studying the birthing patterns of a snake that was slowly being reintroduced into the urban core, and before that she was documenting migration patterns of brahig. But wasn’t that exactly what the wolfman were doing? Somehow appearing without really being there? Lauren looked out the window of her flat, watching a sliver of moon in the sky.

She was looking forward to meeting Lightmerchant’s friends the next day, so she went to bed early. The next day she went on a walk through the woods, which always cleared her head. The weather was nice, although a bit more humid than it had been recently. As the evening drew nearer, she got some delicious but confusing meat stick from a street vendor near the banking district. Then she headed over to Lightmerchant’s place.

He was waiting for her outside his shop, sitting in a large and ornate wheelchair. “Ready?” He asked. “Yup!” Lauren said, and she walked and he wheeled himself down the cobblestone street. They turned left at the end of the block and made their way to a large building with a wide barn door and a smaller door to the side. A man was sitting on a stool and he called out to Lightmerchant as they arrived. “Oi! Lightmerchant! Who’d you bring with you this time?”
“This is Lauren,” he said. “She’d like to learn more about the Dual Society.” “Ooo, a new adventurer?” the man said. “Oh, have fun girl!”

The first thing Lauren noticed when she walked in was that this large barn-like building had hundreds of birdcages hanging from the ceiling, just like in his shop. The second thing she noticed was that everyone inside was wearing special metallic spectacles, and were in deep conversation with each other and motioning wildly to absolutely nothing. Lauren looked over to Lightmerchant, who had put on his own golden spectacles.

“Get ready,” he said. “We’ll get you some of these so you can see what we can. Shall we?”

Chapter 6: Things Heat Up

As the soldiers explained the situation to Natalie, she realised more about what sort of danger she was taking on. They were standing in a large, dark cavern, lit only by torches every few meters. The walls were dark granite and mostly smooth. The corridor looked like it had gotten a lot of use over the years. The torches were fastened to the walls with metal hooks, and the walls above them were stained black with soot from years of torchlight.

They had walked a long distance to get to this point underground, and now they were preparing some equipment near a large square hole that had been cut out of the floor. There were short wooden barriers erected around the hole, looking more like benches than anything that would actually prevent you from falling in. Natalie peeked into the hole and saw only blackness. This was where she was going to be dropped down, so the soldiers were helping her with her equipment, a series of ropes and contraptions that were meant to fasten around her legs and body. The rope led to a large pulley-like machine against the wall, where two dwarves were standing at attention.

A soldier worked on her ropes while he explained her job.

“Right, so we’re going to fix you up and drop you into the cavern here. You don’t need to do much, really. We’re going to drop you down, the dragon’s gonna see ya, and we’re going to pull you back up.”

“How will you know to pull?” she asked.

“Dragon’s flame is hard to miss,” he said.

“But by the time you see the flame, won’t it be too late? Won’t I be on fire?”

“Aye, that’s how it typically goes,” he said.

“But I don’t want to die,” Natalie said.

“Understandable,” he shrugged. “But not much can be done about it.”

“Have you considered putting down a pig or something?” Natalie asked, stalling for time. “Why does it have to be me?”

“It doesn’t have to be you, exactly,” he began. “But it does have to be a human. Dragons just eat animals when we put them down there. Something about a human makes them react, and that’s where we get the fire. And from there, that’s how we get hot water.”

“Wait, hot water?”

“Aye,” he said, and didn’t elaborate.

“I don’t understand,” Natalie said.

“Right, you’re new here. Ok, so New Bargas has a lot of rich folk and they’re willing to spend on hot water. So this is what we do when the hot water supply is running low. We do it once a day to keep the water toasty.”

Natalie stared. “So I’m being used as bait to make a dragon upset. And the reason I’m doing that is to make hot water. Right?”

“Righto,” he said. “Ok, your ropes are all tied off. Any more questions before we drop ya in?”

Natalie had so many.

“Can we set up a plan before we drop me down? I have a way to not die, I think.”

“Well la de da,” the man said. “Sure princess, what’s your plan?”

Natalie outlined her plan and asked if she could have some armour before being brought down, and he said no. She asked if they could postpone the mission for a day, and he informed her that this was a process that happened once a day. “No time to lose, the folks in power have hot baths to take, and they can tell when the water hasn’t been warmed by dragon fire.”

“Ok, how about this then,” Natalie said. “Can you pull me down for ten seconds and then immediately pull me back up?”

He looked at her funny. “Why? Usually it’s about a minute.”

“If I’m only down there for ten seconds, I might not die,” Natalie explained.

“Right, but then we don’t get the dragon flames either,” he said. “I don’t follow you.” He squinted.

“I promise I’ll get you dragon flames,” Natalie said. “Just get me up after ten seconds and I can survive while also getting you the dragon flames. Everyone wins.”

“Eh,” he said. “Fine.”

So they set up a system where the crew of men agreed to dangle her until the rope reached the end of its length, count to ten, then pull her back up. “But if we pull you up and there’s no flame, you’re going straight back into the hole until we get the flames,” he said.

“Deal,” Natalie said, and gulped. This better work, she thought.

“Whoa,” Lauren said. She was looking up at the empty birdcages while wearing Lightmerchant’s golden spectacles, except the cages were no longer empty. Every one of them had something fantastic happening inside. It was a lot to take in, because everywhere she looked she saw something amazing.

In one birdcage she saw a bright blue parrot with feathers that rippled like they were made of water. In another she saw a large cube that was changing colours from bright red to deep blue to bright red again, and every so often it floated, rotated, and set itself down again. Another birdcage appeared to house about a dozen small humans that were all doing a choreographed dance routine, with lots of clapping and handstands. In another she saw smoke pouring out through the slats in the cage and green eyes inside it. There were about a hundred different cages, each with another world in them. It was like the greatest zoo she had ever seen.

“Amazing,” isn’t it? She heard Lightmerchant beside her, and it brought her attention back to the room. “Yeah...” she said, trailing off.

“So this is The Dual Society,” he said. “This is where I spend much of my time.”

“Uh huh...” Lauren said, walking towards a cage that appeared to house a miniature dragon with shiny silver scales and a tiny figurine knight riding on its back.

“May I?” he asked, and she saw that he was asking for his spectacles back.

“Oh, ok,” she said. “It’s just ... gosh,” she said, noticing a pulsating puzzle box building and undoing itself in a loop. She reluctantly reached up to the spectacles and took them off her face, and was immediately disappointed by the plain world that her vision left behind. She was back in a large space with empty cages, and people wandering around exclaiming at things she couldn’t see. She handed them back to Lightmerchant and he tucked them into his front shirt pocket. “Thank you,” he said.

“How does it work?” Lauren said.

“We’re not quite sure,” he replied. “We’ve been trying to work it out. Every creature and every experiment you’ve seen here has been painted by a member of The Dual Society. It’s using a magic we can’t understand yet but some people are proving very good at using it.”

“It’s magic?” Lauren asked.

“The best we can tell, yes,” he said. “But the problem is, magic is under strict regulation here. So technically we’re not supposed to be here, and the club isn’t actually supposed to exist.”

Lauren froze, thinking back to her time in jail.

“So I wonder if you’d like to help us unravel the mystery of this new kind of magic,” Lightmerchant said. “The more creatures and experiments we invent, the more we learn. So I thought you might like to help by using your knowledge and love of animals. But it will be dangerous. What do you think?”

“Can I think about it?” Lauren asked.

Lightmerchant smiled. “Of course,” he said. “Just have fun this evening, and remember not to tell anyone what you’ve seen when you leave here tonight.”


“AAAAAAAA!!” Natalie yelled.

Nothing happened.

“AAAAAAAAAA!!” Natalie yelled again, trying to be twice as loud. She wiggled, she screamed, she flailed her arms, but still nothing. She couldn’t see anything in the darkness, but knew somewhere in the black there was a dragon waiting for her. She screamed another time, and then she felt the rope tightening and lifting her up, up, up out of the darkness and up into the illuminated chamber where the solders were waiting with grumpy looks on their faces. She hung there, feet off the ground, while he addressed her.

“I told ya,” the head soldier said. “Ten seconds isn’t long enough. Down ya go again, then.”

“Wait!” Natalie said. “How long are you going to keep me down there?” she asked.

“As long as it takes,” he said. “Like we agreed.”

“No, no, no, wait,” Natalie said, “I have an idea,” but they didn’t listen. The pulley system was already dropping her back down into the darkness so she screamed again. “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!”

And then fwooooosh, below her toes the blackness turned bright orange. She yelped and tucked her legs up and out of the way. She was hanging halfway through the hole, her eyes level with the solder’s ankles and her body somewhere in the inky darkness below her. She was pretty sure she wasn’t on fire. Was she? She heard a loud DING! behind her, and then she heard rumbling.

“Lift me up!” she yelled, but before she could even say those three words, the pulley did indeed start pulling her back up. She listened to the faint sounds coming from somewhere. It sounded like it was coming through the walls. Some new soldiers came wandering down the hall towards here.

“Aye, it’s done,” the head solder said. “Ya can come up now.” She was lifted up and then dangled there while they worked to adjust her harness and set her down again. “Looks like ya got lucky, eh?” he said.

But Natalie wasn’t so sure it was luck. She thought she knew what made the dragon fire go at the right time, and how she might be able to beat it next time. “Now what?” she said. “We take ya to the prison, I suppose,” he said. “Most of the time people don’t survive, but it happens sometimes.”

So Natalie was brought back to the prison. The dragon flame had done its job, and the wealthy citizens of New Bargas had their hot water for one more day. As they checked her back in, the stout dwarf expressed surprise that she had returned. “How’d it go?” he asked.

“Great,” she grumbled. “Send me back.”

Lauren had a lot to think about. She didn’t go back to Lightmerchant’s store for a few weeks while she processed everything she had seen. On one hand, she was enchanted by the memories of the beautiful and startling things in the birdcages that night. On the other hand, what Lightmerchant had said scared her. Everything they were doing — no matter how nice everyone was, and how much fun they were having, and how exciting it all was — wasn’t allowed. If they were found out, she could go to jail. And she didn’t want to go back there. In fact, she started wondering if New Bargas was even the right place for her.

But then she thought of Natalie, her poor sister. Lauren hadn’t seen or heard anything in months, since that day in the jail. She didn’t know if Natalie was alive, or if she went home, or anything. She had no way to reach out to her sister, so she tried to not think about it. But thinking about breaking the law always brought her attention back to her experience with Natalie. So she decided to see if she could put together a plan.

At work, Lauren was still working on the wolfman case, along with the rest of her caseload. She was most often paired up with Durft, a tall and kind man who she looked up to like a big brother. He explained how to use the grand library in the ministry, introduced her to his friends in and outside of work, listened patiently to all her questions, and taught her how to do a good job.

One day she got the courage to ask him about Natalie, a topic she hadn’t broached with anyone else. She was afraid that if people knew about her, she might get in trouble and get thrown into jail. But she trusted Durft so over lunch one day she asked him if they had talked about her sister.

“Oh! You have a sister? How wonderful. I have a sister and a brother. What’s her name?”

“Her name is Natalie,” Lauren said softly, and then started to cry.

“Oh no,” Durft said. “Do you want a hug?”

Lauren nodded through the tears, and he came to sit next to her and hug her with one arm while she sobbed. Eventually she was able to say “I miss her.”

“Sure sounds like it,” he said with a warm voice. “I’m sorry, Lauren.”

“I don’t know where she even is,” Lauren said.

“That sounds tough,” Durft replied.

Lauren told him their story. How they were twins, about the boat ride over, how they got in trouble for accidental slave trading, the stay at the jail, and the night when the dragon bandit came and Natalie went chasing after him.

“She sounds brave,” he said.

“She loves dragons,” Lauren nodded.

When she was done with her story, he stood and sat at his end of the table again. “That’s quite a story, and I’m sorry to hear it happened to you. That must be quite a burden being separated from your twin without knowing where she is,” he said.

Lauren nodded. She liked Durft.

“Fortunately, you work for the government of New Bargas,” he said. “We have access to everyone’s records. So if she’s around, we should be able to track her down.” Lauren got a warm tingling feeling in her toes when she heard this.

“Would that be a good idea?” he asked.

“Yes please,” Lauren said. “That would be great.”

“Ok, we can start whenever you’re ready. First stop, the census house. Want to go there now?”

Natalie was sent back on dragon duty the next day. This time she recognised about half of the group of ten soldiers sent to pick her up, including the guy in charge. As they traveled to the cavern, she chatted him up. She learned his name was Duggan and he’d been a soldier for seven years. Heating the water for the city was one of his many duties, but Natalie got the sense he didn’t like it much.

“So how’d you figure out the dragon?” Duggan asked as they bumped along on the cobblestone road from the back of their military horse-drawn wagon.

“I didn’t yet,” Natalie said. “But if you help me I think I can learn more.” Duggan smirked. “It’s more work for me if you don’t get toasty toasty,” he said. She took that as an agreement of sorts.

Soon they were at the top of the giant hole and they were strapping her into her chain and harness. “How many people have survived this?” Natalie asked.

“Only you,” Duggan replied.

“You made it sound like some people have,” she asked.

He let out a small laugh. “Then we were lyin’ I suppose.”

Natalie squinted and thought about it.

“So today can you drop me down as quietly as possible?”

“Aye, we’re always quiet. It’s the victim that’s loud.” he said.

“No, I mean really quiet. No talking, and we should try to dampen the chains too. Can we do that?” Natalie asked.

“We can, sure.” he said. “But don’t take all day. Me and my men have things to do, and other women to light on fire.” He grinned.

Natalie ignored his joke.

“So let’s let me down as quietly as possible-“ she started.

“-without taking all day,” Duggan cut in. He rolled his eyes. Natalie ignored him and said “Right. Quietly and then pull me up when I yell ‘now!’”

He agreed, barely, and they dropped her down into the pure black pit. Natalie hung there, slowly twisting, and held her breath. She listened as hard as she could. She heard running water to one side of her. She heard the chain attached to her as it twisted and strained under her weight. She listened this way for half a minute, then second-guessed herself. If she waited much longer, the dragon flame was sure to come. “Now!” she yelled towards the hole above her, then she strained to listen. She thought she heard something like metal shifting from far away, and then she felt the chains tightening and pulling her back up.

She got back to the hole and waited with her finger against her lips. The soldiers mostly stayed quiet but after a minute they got restless. No giant dragon flame came.

“Alright then,” Duggan said. “Back in the hole. You seem like a nice lass but listen, we need to get on with it. Aye?”

“Wait,” Natalie said. “Here’s what I think. I think the dragon takes about fifty counts before it shoots its flame. But we have to yell first.”

“Well yeah,” Duggan said. “You need to wake it up.”

“You knew this?” Natalie asked.

“Well yeah. The dragon is tied up down there so she just sleeps the day away like a cat.”

“Wait, the dragon is chained up?” Natalie asked.

“Aye. There’s nothing much to do so she sleeps. Waits until a lass-bbq gets brought down, then she sends the fire and flame, you know.”

“Can’t we just yell from up here?” Natalie said.

“Yeah but I’m under orders to dangle ya the way that always works. So down we go,” he said, starting to turn the gear to the pulley.

“Ok, I’m going to count to fifty after the first yell. Can you pull me up when I call up?”

“What’s it worth to ya?” he grinned and she could see black bits on his teeth.

Natalie squinted. “I don’t have anything,” she said. “I’m a prisoner.”

“You can give me a kiss,” he leered.

Natalie did not want to kiss him. She wanted to punch him. “I’ll tell you what, if I survive this, I’ll give you a kiss.”

“On the lips,” he said.

Ugh, Natalie thought. “Fine, but only this once,” Natalie said. “Now put me down into the hole.”

“Gladly,” the man said. She really did not like him now. He was nicer earlier, but had shifted. She thought she’d never enjoy chatting to him again. She’d rather feed him to this dragon, and maybe one day she’d get the chance to. She looked forward to it.

Once her eyeline dropped below the floor, she let out a single long shriek, then immediately craned her neck to listen. She heard a chain slide and clank against itself, and against stone. And somewhere in the gloomy dark, she thought she could see a faint outline of something. She counted in her head. She made it to ten counts, then twenty. Her heart raced and she looked up towards the hole she had been dropped down.

After thirty five counts, she shrieked again, then called up. “It’s time to pull me up Duggan!” But all she heard was a high-pitched laugh. The dragon flame was coming, and she wasn’t being pulled up.

Chapter 7: Curiouser

“Lauren,” he said. “So good to see you. How was your week?”

This is what Lightmerchant said to her every time, and it was comforting hearing it again. Lauren hadn’t been sure how Lightmerchant would react to her coming back after being gone for weeks, but if he noticed her absence, he didn’t show it. As usual, he climbed up from his spot, gripping at metal bars as he moved his way carefully down the store aisles like an elegant stickbug. Once he made it to the back area of the store, he reached for a drawer, like he always did. But Lauren stopped him.

“I think I’m ready to learn more about the Dual Society,” she said.

He smiled down at her. “Are you sure?”

She nodded up at him. “I’ve been thinking about it.”

“That’s fine,” he said. But can I tell you where these latest goods are from? There’s a great story to go along with them. I think you might like hearing it.”

She agreed, and he told her a wild story about one tribe of The Nomads that make their living going up and down the coasts with the seasons. They were known for collecting rare gems and selling them into the black market. Typically rare items like these eventually found their way to large cities such as New Bargas and Mirkpar. But none of the major cities allowed trade with the people of the tribe because they were known for their horrible stench.

Lauren was listening carefully until this part. Her lips pursed and eyes squinted.

“It’s true,” Lightmerchant told her. “This group of people smell so bad that no one can stand being near them. And the story gets worse,” he said. “You’ve smelled bad things before, I presume. But nothing like this. They smell so bad that people can get sick from it. Some people even die from the odour.”

“No,” Lauren said.

“It’s true,” he said. “Would I ever lie to you?”

“So no one is allowed to trade with them?” Lauren asked.

“Well, you know how hard it is to get anyone to agree to anything. Cities pass different laws, see things in different ways, and all have their own traditions, values, and motivations. That’s one of the wonderful things about life, how different we all are. But everyone — and I mean everyone except one group of merchants — agrees that you can’t trade with these Nomads. It just smells too bad, and it’s too dangerous.”

Lauren thought about it and he continued.

“So some cities like ours pass laws forbidding them from being anywhere near the city or any of the roads leading towards it. It’s actually one of the only unifying alliances you can count on in the Known Lands. Nearly every city of a certain size has banned these Nomads from their territory, and a great number of the smaller ones as well. And even the cities that don’t have a formal law against them can smell them coming, so they’re essentially disallowed from everywhere.”

“That’s sad,” said Lauren.

“Maybe so,” said Lightmerchant. “But if you smelled them you might think differently. It’s really quite awful.”

“So you’ve smelled them?” Lauren asked.

“No, but I trade with the one group that trades with them. And that’s how I sometimes get my hands on stinkstones. And that’s what I’d like to show you today.”

“Ewww!” Lauren said.

“It’s not too bad,” Lightmerchant said. “The traders place the stones in small glass balls surrounded in water. The overall effect is quite lovely, in fact. Would you like to see one?”

“Yes please,” Lauren said.

Lightmerchant reached on top of a wooden dresser and got a leather pouch. Inside the leather pouch was a glass ball, around the size of Lauren’s fist. Lightmerchant held it in front of her face and she smelled a distant whiff of a sour-smelling odour. The glass was perfectly see-through, and inside she could see water almost completely filling the container. And along the bottom she saw a small collection of beautiful gems. What looked like a ruby, an emerald, and a yellow diamond.

“Red, yellow, and green,” she said.

“Yes, exactly,” said Lightmerchant. “These colours are considered good luck when used in jewellery, especially amongst the wealthy sorts of New Bargas residents who can afford goods like this. Designing them in this way shows that the traders know their market well.”

“You mean the smelly ones?” Lauren asked.

“Well yeah, but I was actually talking about the traders themselves. They’re a proud group that calls themselves the Jorfi Tribe. If you go to the outskirts, you’ll see two large towers. That’s where their territory begins.”

“But how can they do the trading?”

“Oh, they have no sense of smell,” Lightmerchant said.

“Huh,” Lauren said.

“Yeah, there’s a lot you can put up with when you can’t smell anything,” he said. “And in their case, they’ve turned that genetic trait into quite a profitable enterprise. Their trading prowess goes back generations, and as a result the tribe is very well-off. I’ve had some lovely conversations with their people. Very learned, very well-travelled. And they don’t mind when you burn the toast,” he grinned.

Duggan didn’t see it coming, which is why Natalie’s fist crashed straight into his eye without any resistance. Her fists were a blur as she dove on top of him, screaming, tearing at his hair, punching at anything she could reach. The guards were on her quickly, but not before she got several good blows in. He was a horrible fighter for a soldier. He was a horrible fighter for anyone, in fact.

Natalie couldn’t believe what he had done. He had gambled away her life for no reason other than to terrify her. The thought stormed through her, made her clench her fists, and lurch forward again, but the six men holding her arms back and chaining her legs were able to struggle her backwards and slam her against the wall.

“WHAT THE HELL?!” Duggan cried, standing up with a bloody lip and swelling cheek. He pointed at her in a rage, and said “YOU’RE DEAD, GIRL.” And it seemed as if he was right. Justice moved quickly from this point and the day became a sickening swirl of repercussions. First she was carted out of the corridor, then thrown into a horse-drawn carriage. Typically the solders would chat with her, but on this day she was chained up more than usual and the soldiers walked behind and beside the carriage, leaving her alone.

They got back to the jail, but didn’t unchain her. After a few minutes, the carriage lurched forward again and went in a new direction. From her seat, she couldn’t see where they were going, but could see glimpses of light through the slats in the carriage. The ride was short, maybe one or two buildings away. The back door was opened, her chains were removed by a group of surly guards, and Natalie was hustled into what looked like a castle. There were spires, a unique sky-blue angled roof, and a giant drawbridge beside the path they were following. Natalie noted with disappointment that there was no moat.

No one had talked to her yet, but now as she was marched towards the castle-like building, Duggan spoke to her from somewhere behind the six soldiers that hustled her forward.

“I knew your plan,” he said. “I wasn’t going to let you roast.”

“Whatever,” Natalie said back. “You played with my life. And laughed about it.”

“You’re being too sensitive,” Duggan said.

“And you’re a fool,” she said, as they turned left into a large chamber with vaulted ceilings. At one end, she saw a wide table of people looking down from seats perched well above the rest of the room. There appeared to be about twenty people in regal looking thrones, and a few dozen people in a large seating area at the floor level. Along the perimeter of the room she saw other prisoners and their guards waiting. She leaned against the wall and waited as well.

The people with higher chairs — Natalie counted and saw that there were 18 — spent time asking questions of the prisoners brought to speak to them. Over the course of an hour, they worked through 12 cases. The agenda seemed to be that the prisoner would explain themselves, then someone else like a guard or another citizen would explain the case against them. Then they’d vote, and if the person was found guilty they’d be led away.

Each time a prisoner was done with their hearing, Natalie and her guards were able to take a few steps forward in line. Eventually, it was Natalie’s turn. She stood in a wide open area and stared up at the panel.

“Please explain yourself,” a man said from above her.

“I don’t know what I’m supposed to say,” she said.

“I can explain,” Duggan said. He was standing to her right. “This prisoner attacked me, which is against the law.”

“Is this so?” a man with a large bushy beard asked.

“Yes,” Natalie said.

“And would you like to explain why?” he continued.

“Yes. I have a job at the local jail to be dropped into a big dark pit to a dragon can shoot flame at me. I had come up with a system to get the flames to come in a more reliable way, but then this soldier kept me down too long.”

Duggan chuckled.

“Is that it?” the man in the beard said.

“Yes, and he also asked me to kiss him, just for doing my job.”

“He did what?” a woman asked from the third to furthest seat on the right.

“Before dropping me down, he told me I had to kiss him or he wouldn’t help me with the dragon.”

“But this is the Artatona Pit, right?”

Natalie looked confused.

“Yes,” said Duggan.

“The pit where prisoners are killed?” another woman asked.

“Exactly,” Duggan said with a knowing smile.

“So what’s the problem?” one man asked.

“Wait,” another man said. “Did you say this was your job?”

Natalie heard some laughs around her.

“It is my job. And I’m good at it,” she said. More laughter. She saw that most people on the panel with smiling at her now, the way you’d look at a baby or a misbehaving pet.

“I am good at it, I know how to get dragon flame without getting lit on fire,” Natalie said.

The panel was skeptical at first, but as she explained her approach the members began to pay closer attention. What she was describing was incredible, but if it was true it would mean she’d figured out a trick that no one else had. She could tell that Duggan was getting more frustrated as the discussion dragged on. But as much as he tried to hurry things forward, Natalie managed to keep the group talking and engaged.

Finally, they voted. Nine people voted to punish her, and nine people voted not to punish her. When this happened, a hush come over the room, and a small bugle was played from somewhere in the back. “Damn it,” Duggan said.

“What’s happening?” Natalie asked.

“They need to get the queen for a tie-breaker vote,” Duggan hissed. “And that usually takes a few hours to get her out here. We’re going to be here a while.”

“I want to know more about the Dual Society,” Lauren said somewhat softly. Lightmerchant smiled and didn’t say anything, which made Lauren want to say more. “I really like learning about interesting things, so thank you for showing me these,” she said. “But I really think I’m ready to learn more about making things for those empty cages” She looked up at him, and he was still smiling.

“I know, Lauren, and I’m very glad you’re here. But actually, telling you about the stinkstones is your first lesson for understanding how to be a great caster. And here’s why,” he said. He reached over to the glass orb and shook it gently. She heard the gems clinking along the bottom. “The world is full of wondrous things, so many you wouldn’t ever be able to discover them all. And the best casters are the ones who have discovered the most.”

Lauren chewed her lip thinking about what he had said. “We know that when we plant flowers that the quality of the soil affects how happy and healthy they become. We know that feeding someone good food affects how happy and heathy they are. And that’s how experiences work as well. Artists need experiences to absorb, process, and share with the rest of us. Healthy and happy artists are ones who experience wondrous things, and have learned how to turn them into art. The Dual Society is full of these artists, and if you want to join us, you just need to be curious and learn as much as your head can handle. Does that sound fun?”

Lauren nodded, so Lightmerchant continued. She had never heard him talk this much! He was speaking differently than she was used to. He was speaking more quickly, and more excitedly. Lauren felt her chest tighten a little in anticipation and excitement. “Let me show you an example,” Lightmerchant was saying. “Would you like to try some magic?” Lauren’s heart best faster in her chest. “Yes,” Lauren said.

Lightmerchant handed her a pair of golden spectacles for her to wear. Then he positioned her around the corner in a small alcove, facing a white stone wall. ‘Lauren, what I want you to do is imagine a strong emotion inside you. Maybe a time you were very happy, or very angry, or felt a lot of love. Any big memory will do, because it will help us to see how much of a caster you are, and what we need to do in order to increase your power.” He was holding a small navy blue box with strange metal loops with arcs welded on top. Lauren could see some purple and yellow sparks flickering across the top of it. “Go ahead,” he said. “Try to come up with something big, and aim over there against that white wall.”

Lauren concentrated hard and thought of being a little girl playing in the ocean. It was a wonderful memory, one filled with excitement and wonder. She was squinting and closing her eyes as she tried to cultivate the memory in front of her on the wall. Nothing happened for the first few seconds, but then she saw a small spiral appear on the wall. It was purple, with stripes of pink. It was rotating slowly. She stared hard, trying to make it get bigger, but like a torch in the wind, it suddenly flew sideways and was extinguished.

“You did well,” Lightmerchant said to her, reaching for the spectacles. He was wearing his own pair. “Now we just need to teach you the eight points of experience. The more you learn about them, the stronger your casting powers will become. We’re going to start by teaching you about culture. I have a friend who can help you with your journey, and from there he should be able to introduce you to plenty of fellow curious travellers. We’ll make you a caster in no time,” he said. Lauren smiled.

Natalie was bored. They had been waiting in this grand room for over three hours, and still there was no sign of the Queen. In that time, she had been told all about how the system worked, gone to the bathroom twice, had taken a little nap, and had counted everything in the room multiple times. There were 15 windows, 4 doors, 123 chairs, and 37 people. Natalie was bored, bored, bored. She thought back to what Duggan had told her earlier.

The Queen wasn’t really a Queen, not in the traditional sense. She was more of a tie-breaker in situations like this, and only served for one year at a time. Then she’d face a vote to decide whether or not she’d stay in the role. This particular Queen was pretty new and had only served New Bargas for three years so far. She was generally seen as capable, but even more importantly she was considered fair. Everything in New Bargas was based on fairness.

According to Duggan and his mates, New Bargas was a unique city because they allowed voting. Every other city in the known world had a monarchy, but not this one. The new approach, called Split Facilitation, had been developed 20 years prior when two great regions went to war. One region was called Lenton and the other was called Foskelinum.

The community of New Bargas didn’t see themselves as belonging to either region, so after a year of bitter warfare, they proposed a peace treaty for the city. The treaty established that neither region could win over New Bargas, and the city would stand on its own between them. It would be apart from both regions, and as a result unite them.

In order to make the system work, their traditional monarchy was replaced with a voting system that balanced the two regions equally. For example, in this room there were eighteen people voting on her fate. Nine from Lenton and nine from Foskelinum. They were rated on how often they voted with each other, and how often they voted to benefit their own region. If a judge was considered to be too biased to do a good job, they’d lose their seat. That’s why this tie was such a big deal. No one wanted the hassle of a tie, because it was a sign that the system wasn’t working. And that’s where the Queen’s tremendous power came in.

Natalie had learned this crash course hours earlier, and was just nodding off into her second nap when people in the room began to stand up and start talking to each other. She stood up as well and saw a woman walking from the back of the large room towards the eighteen judges. She had a long purple cloak and even from a great distance Natalie could see bright repeating patterns sewn into it, much like she had seen elsewhere in New Bargas. The woman climbed a few steps to a special chair and addressed the waiting crowd.

“Please sit. I’m sorry I’m late. I hear we have a tie?”

“Yes Madame Leib,” a man to her side said. “We are nine and nine.”

“Is it a full split?” she asked.

“Actually no,” the man said. “Voting guilty is five from Lenton and four from Foskelinum.”

“Hm,” Madame Leib said, reading from a piece of parchment. “So this is a question of whether or not it’s legal for a prisoner to attack a guard. Madame Marastrand, why did you vote not guilty?”

“It’s illegal to attack a guard, but it’s also illegal to require a prisoner to become intimate with a guard,” a woman with white hair said.

“Indeed it is,” the Queen said. “Show me the accused.”

Someone pushed Natalie forward and whispered into her ear. “She wants to talk to you.”

Natalie walked towards the Queen. “Um, hello,” she said.

“Please address me as your Queen,” Queen Leib said.

“Hello, Queen,” Natalie tried again.

“Fine. Tell me why you attacked this guard,” she asked.

“I shouldn’t have done it,” Natalie said. “But I was working on getting the dragon to heat the water, and I just needed his help. Then he left me down there to die, so I got mad.”

“Most prisoners do die performing that task, right?” she asked the judges beside her, who shrugged. Then, from behind Natalie, Duggan spoke.

“They do, and I was kidding.”

“Who are you?” asked the Queen. “Step forward, please.”

“My name is Sergeant Duggan Bufflemold and I was kidding.”

“About what? What bearing do you have on this case?”

“I was the one she attacked,” he said. “And I was making a simple joke.”

“I gathered that. Both details, in fact. So it’s your contention that she broke the law by attacking you, and that you were joking about – what? Almost killing her?”

“Right,” Duggan said. “I was always going to lift her back up.”

“What about the other thing?” the queen asked.

“What other thing?” he responded.

“It says here you said you’d only help her if she kissed you, was that also a joke?”

“Um, yeah. But she’s just a prisoner.”

“Oh dear,” the Queen said, rolling her eyes and cracking her knuckles quietly in front of her face. “Listen, Duggan. Breaking a law is breaking a law, no matter who does it. Do you understand that?” She flicked her fingers forward, stretching them, then set them down again.

“Um, yeah” he said. But it didn’t sound like he meant it.

“So my job up here is to decide what to do when you both broke laws. You broke a law by requiring her to kiss you, then she broke a law by attacking an officer of the military. Does that sound about right?” she asked.

“Yes, but I am an officer, as you said. And she’s just a prisoner.”

The Queen sucked in a breath and held it for several moments before responding. “Duggan, I don’t want to hear you saying that anymore, do you understand? It’s really not helping your case.”

He nodded.

“Ok, when I look at how people voted, I see something interesting here,” Queen Leib said. “Each of the women voted not guilty, and each of the men voted guilty. It’s a perfect split, isn’t it?”

The people in the large hall began speaking to each other. A murmur went over the crowd. She continued, and the room quieted again while she spoke.

“We’re used to consensus here in New Bargas. Our whole system was built on it. When we see split votes, we assume it’s the Lenton judges voting in a block against the Foskelinum ones. Or the other way around, of course. But not this time. This time it’s the men voting in a block while the women vote in their own block.”

The murmurs got more pronounced.

“Which is notable, to say the least.”

Lauren found the house number written on a small wooden sign. It said 45 and had a little arrow pointing down a rocky path. Lauren stepped down the path and loose stones slid out from beneath her feet. She noticed a rope along the ground, and tied to a large boulder, so she reached for it. Using the rope and positioning her body carefully, she was able to navigate down the path and make her way to Tel Va'li’s hut on the side of a cliff overlooking the south side of New Bargas.

After preparing a nice and smooth herbal tea for Lauren and offering a wooden seat on the deck of his house, they dove in. “First,” he said. “Do you know about the Eight Points of Experience?”

Lauren shook her head.

“Ah, ok! I can teach you what they are and then give you a general understanding of each of them. First, imagine two squares. The first square governs the natural world: flora, fauna, people, and magic. Do you know what flora and fauna mean?”

“Flora means plant life, and fauna means animals,” Lauren said. “I actually work with animals at work.”

“Ah! Wonderful!” Tel Va'li said. He was an older man, with a weathered face, but had the enthusiasm of a little boy. When he spoke, his eyes lit up, and when he listened, he smiled patiently and kindly. He wore spectacles and he didn’t have much hair on the top of his head. The hair he did have was thinning, and his head was very round and large. He wore a cloak with long sleeves, and as he gestured with his arms Lauren could hear the clinking and rattling of bracelets and other jewellery. His nice was very pointy.

“So that’s the first square of existence. Flora, fauna, people, and magic. As you’ve no doubt learned, someone could study each of these points for an entire lifetime and still be uncovering new things in old age.”

Lauren nodded.

“And then the second square of existence focuses on how humankind organises itself. Those four points are religion, politics, military, and my personal area of study, culture. So that’s what I’ll be telling you about today.”

Tel Va'li was a fantastic teacher. He told the history of New Bargas, and how it came to be. Originally it was a small fishing village, but over time it did more and more trade until eventually it was one of the biggest cities in the world. This led to the two surrounding regions fighting for it, with the city being invaded over and over for years.

Then twenty years ago the Split Facilitation Peace Treaty was put into place. It was a big deal because for the first time in history, local businesses had banded together and taken ownership of a city. The treaty told both regions, Foskelinum to the north and Lenton to the south, that New Bargas would be independent from either of them. This meant the Kings of both regions had to agree to give up their plans to take over the city. But they had no choice. The businesses of New Bargas had spoken, and they were more powerful than either region or its kings.

Lauren raised her hand. “But how could they do that? Wouldn’t the kings just force the businesses to do what they wanted? What about the armies?”

“Great question, Lauren,” the old man said. “Here’s the thing about power. You can control some people sometimes, but you can’t control everyone against their will. At least not forever. If you’re a king, you want your people to be happy, not upset. So the the kings could have chosen to invade, but it would have made enough people unhappy that they would have had a hard time governing. Because do you know what happens when the people are upset, Lauren?”

“They kill you?” Lauren asked.

“Spoken like a true revolutionary!” Tel Va'li said, pumping his fist. “Exactly, yes. People will put up with a lot from their kings and queens, but if things get bad enough, they’ll group together and get rid of the leaders. And that’s how we ended up with New Bargas being run by the merchant guild instead of a traditional monarchy. In this city, we vote. And that makes a world of difference. Especially for the artists who live here.”

Lauren learned that some cities in the south had actually been founded by musicians, a rarity for any city anywhere. Apparently poets, performers, writers, sculptors, and painters were common throughout the Five Lands but had a particular affinity for New Bargas. The weather was good for most of the year, there were plenty of wealthy patrons, and the fairness of the politics and the lack of military meant it was a natural place for artists and tastemakers to want to live.

“Sounds pretty good,” Lauren said.

“Mostly it is!” he said. “It’s a fine place to live. But it’s getting harder for artists. This city makes a lot of money, and makes all its decisions based on what will bring the most stability and money to the system. That works … to a point. Until it doesn’t.”

The man got up to get some more tea, and Lauren looked out over the city. She could see a beautiful valley of green trees below her, and beyond that she could see the city itself. It was very pretty. She could just barely see the animals and people walking along the broad streets, but from back here everything felt calm and settled. Away from the activity of the city, her heart felt calm. She thought maybe she’d like to get a house out this way sometime.

Lauren thought of Natalie again. She missed her sister. She wondered where she was. Or if she was even still alive. She thought back to her coworker Durft, and that one time he took her to the census house. Nothing much had come of that visit. She had left her information with a gnome behind a tall bronze desk, and they said they would contact her if they heard anything. But that had been a month ago. She didn’t like that she hadn’t heard anything since. And Lauren decided she’d have to follow up herself. Or else she might not ever see her sister again.

Chapter 8: Unveiled

Sometimes the biggest changes come from very small events. You can be in a room, watch someone say something small, and suddenly the entire world changes. But you don’t always notice it right away. Sometimes you can only understand how big it was later on, with time to look back and think about it. That’s exactly what happened in that big room, with nine judges from Foskelinum, nine judges from Felton, and a queen who would be in charge as New Bargas collapsed.

The Queen sat at her chair, directly in the centre of the panel, and read through paperwork. She was silent for about ten minutes, during which time no one else dared to speak. Natalie studied the expression on Queen Lieb’s face, but couldn’t read it. Natalie wasn’t sure what was going to happen, or what it would mean for her. Duggan was sitting to her side, nervously chewing on his cuticles. She still didn’t like him much, but she did appreciate the careful way he had helped teach her about New Bargas politics.

Then the Queen cleared her throat. “I am ready for my decree,” she said, and everyone stood up. Natalie did also.

“As is required in the tradition of the New Bargas system of Split Facilitation, I have been called to cast a tie-breaking vote. But before I do, I want to provide some context.”

The crowd murmured unhappily. People looked confused. Duggan looked angry as the Queen continued.

“Excuse me. I know this isn’t conventional, but I think this ruling dictates a more thorough explanation. Please be silent while I explain myself, and please listen carefully to my words. For the good of New Bargas.”

Suddenly everyone in the room intoned back at her, “For the Good of New Bargas.” It sounded strange to Natalie. Maybe it was some kind of slogan or greeting?

“Nearly twenty-one years ago, the merchant’s guild established this form of government that makes us the envy of the known world. Rather than allowing kings and queens to decide things themselves, we give everyone a voice. This has never been done before, and we’re lucky to have this system. It’s more fair, and that’s what New Bargas stands for, above all else. Fairness.”

“So what of this case? What is the most fair decision that we can come to? What is a ruling that everyone can understand the fairness of, even if they disagree? Is it fair to sentence Natalie Bell to death for attacking a guard? That is what the law states, after all.”

Natalie’s throat tightened. Death?

“But the law also states that prisoners have rights. And her rights were infringed on by Duggan Bufflemold when he capitalised on his power as a guard to talk his prisoner into kissing him. It was unacceptable.”

Natalie watched as Duggan stayed stone-faced, but she could see his hand clench into a fist as he held it against his leg, hidden from view under the table.

“We don’t make laws based on how we feel, we make them based on what’s fair. And for twenty years, the cases have been pretty clear-cut compared to this one. We have a judicial bench that appreciates consensus, which is why most cases aren’t very controversial. It is possible to see both sides of an issue while still understanding where the moral centre is on something.”

Translation: cases are usually easier than this.

“But with this case, we have a most uncommon tie. We have never had a tie strictly based on judges from each region voting only in their own interests. There have been temptations, to be sure. There have been close calls, and there have been frustrations. But over twenty years, it’s never come down to a Foskelinum versus Lenton ruling. And thank god. The stakes are too high for that.”

Translation: we have always found rulings that both regions can agree to.

“Typically when we do have a tie, there are a healthy blend of votes. It’s well understood that Foskelinum tends towards a view of the law that is more individual, and that Lenton is perhaps more oriented towards the collective good. But despite those differences, we’ve been able to weather disagreements, and when a King or Queen rules as a tie-breaking vote, people can understand the rationale behind it. Which is important.”

Translation: people understand difficult rulings.

“But in this case, it will be too easy to dismiss the rationale behind it. Why? Because we’ve split evenly between men and women. If I rule that Natalie Bell should walk free, it will be seen as anti-military. If I rule that she should be killed, it will be understood as anti-woman. But neither is true. And that is why this is such a difficult case. Because as you may have noticed, I am a woman.”

No one laughed or moved.

“We have been lucky. For twenty years, cases have made sense. People have voted their conscience. And, again, even if people disagree with the ruling, they could reasonably understand why the judgement came down as it did. But I wonder if this case will be afforded the same benefit of the doubt. I hope so. Because it’s possible to rule against a guard without being anti-military. It’s possible to rule against a woman who has been sexually harassed without being anti-woman. The law needs to be broader than any one opinion.”

Translation: I am going to make my decision, and I promise I am trying to be fair. I’m not against the military or against women.

“And with that, I will rule in favour of Natalie Bell, and against Duggan Bufflemold. They both broke the law. But if Ms Bell wins this case, she simply goes back to prison and things go back to normal. But if Mr. Bufflemold wins, then Ms Bell would lose her life. And that doesn’t seem fair considering what he did to her. That is my ruling. Thank you very much.”

As the Queen got up, the room erupted in shouts. The queen quickly departed through one of the side doors and a guard moved towards Natalie Bell. He didn’t look happy.

Lauren decided to walk along the water on her way home from Tel Va'li’s house. That would let her see the city from a different angle than she was used to. She loved how the city always showed her new things. On this street, many of the houses were painted in turquoise. The people walking by her seemed rich and educated. The houses were larger than they were in her part of the city. The stores looked nicer, and the conversations on the street seemed less frantic and more civilised.

Lauren noticed a nice green awning outside a storefront. The sign above it said Fig and Fern, and inside she could see people eating food at nice tables. She decided to go inside and have a late-afternoon tea. Seated at a table, she read through the menu to find something good. As she read, she thought she heard someone say her sister’s name. She turned her head to concentrate and listen more closely. She made a point not to look at them directly, but she could tell they seemed to be a group of men. A big group. And a loud one.

As she listened, she heard something about the queen, and they seemed animated. Maybe angry. She dropped her fork on the ground so she could bend down to pick it up and try to steal a glance. When she did, she saw she was right. It was about 5 or 10 men, guards by the looks of their outfits, and they were deep in a conversation with lots of cheers and shouts of agreement. As she listened further, she heard the name again. “Natalie Bell” came through the crosstalk clearly. They were talking about Natalie.

“Are you ready to order?” a woman’s voice said.

“Huh? Oh, yeah. Uh,” Lauren looked at the menu. “Um, can I have the-“ and then Lauren noticed that the men were starting to leave. They were pushing back their chairs, standing up — gosh they were big — and throwing coins down on the table. Lauren watched as they made their way towards the door, then over to the server. “Actually, I’m not hungry,” Lauren said, and stood up too.

“Ok?” the server said, standing aside to let Lauren pass.

Lauren decided to try following the men carefully. They weren’t talking about anything in particular now. There was talk about winning something, talk of a horse, something about a bet. She didn’t hear anything else about Natalie, but it was hard to hear and half of them were already outside. She slipped in behind the last man to walk out the door. He even held the door open for her, and she thanked him.

It felt strange to follow the shouting group, but Lauren liked the feeling. She wondered how long she could follow them down the street before they noticed her. They weren’t really paying attention to anything, so she figured she’d probably be ok. But she didn’t like the risk. They looked big, angry, and dumb. She walked along the street, but made a point to stay far behind them. It was easy to track them because there were so many, and so loud.

She wondered where they were headed.

Things moved quickly after that. Natalie was hurried back to her jail cell, where the guards seemed to look at her with a blend of anger and grudging respect. She wasn’t there long. A few hours later a large crowd of people were protesting outside the jail. They were upset about the ruling in a way that had never happened in the city like this before. Natalie didn’t know it, but the people she could hear yelling outside the jail walls weren’t only upset with the jail. Huge crowds were protesting outside the Queen’s quarters, the banks, and throughout Merchant Row. She sat quietly in her room, unsure what was going to happen next.

Lauren followed the men outside the bar from a distance. She didn’t want to risk them spotting and recognising her from the restaurant, but after about fifteen minutes the crowd had gotten so large that she wasn’t worried anymore. The people in the crowd were yelling for everyone to join them, with no single message. Mad at the queen? The judges? Low wages? Crime? The crowd wanted everyone to come along, and so many people did.

Eventually the crowd filled the entire street. It felt like several hundred people, and suddenly the random shouts and yells started to centre in on a single chant.

Bring! Out! Nat-a-lie!
Bring! Out! Nat-a-lie!

They had arrived at a large jail. Lauren realised her sister must be in there. And the crowd wanted her out. Lauren did too, but not into the arms of this angry crowd. She chewed her lip, trying to think of a plan.

From the inside, Natalie heard the chants. But even if she wanted to come out, there wasn’t anything she could do. But of course she just wanted to hide, because the crowd sounded angry. But soon a decision was forced onto her. The guards walked down the corridor, four in total, and stood outside her cell. One of the guards brought a large copper key ring out from his cloak, put a key into the cell, turned it with a clank, and swung the door wide. “Run,” he said to Natalie. She stared back at him, and he motioned with his hand. “You’re free,” he said, and the other guards didn’t seem to disagree.