Making their way through the crowd was like passing through loops and swirls of unfamiliar parallels.
Sirius found himself staring at life like it was the first time.
Eleven years ago, he’d be terrified of the density of the masses. Today, he was actually waiting whether people would throw stones at him.
Right now, it was as if he was with a bird, flying free from its cage. One that knew its way in the sky.
Caltha pointed, with much enthusiasm, at every shop she found familiar. Leading him through streets and crowds unperturbed.
She pointed to a diner that claimed the best grilled sarahado. A fish-like sand diver native to Dryar, but were using the toxins of noct scorpianas for flavoring. Delectable, but implicated health problems in the long run.
Caltha came across a lady acquaintance. Someone who resigned from the Gardener’s Patch to care for her two children.
“Is this Astrum? My, how you’ve grown.” Luhrein patted Sirius in the back, excused herself, and went ahead.
Sirius raised an eyebrow at the unusual assumption. “She thinks I’m Astrum?”
Caltha tried to suppress a laugh, but failed. “Black hair, red eyes. Why not? Instead of introducing you as yourself, I could go for adult Astrum. Saves you the trouble, doesn’t it?”
He had to take a mental picture of her every reaction and micro-expressions. Because there was already an album in his head.
Moments ago, she was worried about the addicts in the secluded alley. Now, she was miles away from that thought. Just the way he preferred.
He wished she could always be carefree this way. Nothing lurking beneath her shadow. Nothing to pull her out of the light.
Caltha led him somewhere again. Wherever the fruit-based snowpuffs were, it wasn’t anywhere close as of the moment.
“What’s that?” She stopped.
Sirius followed her gaze to the piazza up ahead. People surrounded a decorated booth. There was a game, high stakes, where payment was one’s dignity should they lose.
The dealer called in a new round. The rules of the game was akin to darts, but the player had three tries.
Strike the lone middle red spot and the best reward was mandatory. Strike the black stripes surrounding it, win a mediocre one. Strike the alternating green and blue outer stripes twice in a row and they walk around naked.
Their clothes was compensation for a failed attempt in place if coin, and the dealer could either sell or reuse it.
Because the last player covered what he could before rushing out of the laughing crowd.
Caltha turned to him. An amusing smile, almost insulting, daring, played at her lips.
He understood that look and narrowed his gaze. “No.”
Caltha pouted, there was laughter in her voice. Her eyes begged him. “Come on, you’re an expert at throwing stuff. I bet this will be simple enough for you.”
Expert was an overstatement. He shook his head and started to walk away. But she held his arm, and pulled him toward center stage. What. The. Hell.
“What have we here? An anonymous wanderer, ladies and gentlemen,” the dealer said. “Care to try your luck?”
“Yes!” Caltha declared as she grabbed the three points from the dealer and shoved it in Sirius’s hands.
“For all I know you just want to see me walk around naked.”
She was grinning widely, like she couldn’t contain her excitement. “Oh, shut up. Don’t you want to know the grand prize?”
Sirius shrugged. “Not really.”
“Good luck,” she said before blending into the crowd to give him space.
Sirius looked around. A lot of eyes were on him, and he couldn’t find the ground to hold himself steady for a moment. He was not used to that kind of attention. In the middle of an open space too. Like he declared himself to the world. I’m here, come get me.
He’d call his position dangerous if it were a mission. Good thing it wasn’t.
He looked at Caltha. Her hands were entwined, pressing it against her lips as if she was praying. She was smiling behind the gesture. He could tell this amused her. She had faith in him.
He sighed and glanced sideways away from the target board. The things he’d do for entertainment. He was actually glad none of his companions were there to mock him for the fun of it.
Should he play it safe or should he wing it? Damn, he thought. Without taking aim to prepare himself while glancing away, he threw the first point. Winging it.
The crowd went silent. Caltha’s eyes were wide, looking at the target board. Her hands covered her mouth. Then she turned to him.
She embraced him.
“You did it!”
The crowd burst into applause and cheers. There were no judgements, no rebuffs.
Huh. This must be what it felt like to actually belong in society.
The dealer approached him. “Congratulations, master, you just won yourself the grand prize. Bloody good shot. You weren’t even looking!”
To conclude the game’s round, the dealer led them to a tent where the prize was given. A vial of elixir.
“Now listen, this is no ordinary elixir. It’s harvested from the holy water found in the Templo ni Idianale. It’s supposed to be a myth, but trust me when I say it heals any type of physical ailment.” The dealer gave them the item.
“What about elemental ones?” Caltha inspected the clear liquid.
“Mahiqa? I’m not sure. This elixir has never been tested on anyone with mahiqa before. Hard to get by them royalties these days,” the dealer said. “I wouldn’t try selling that if I were you. Idianale’s elixir is a rare gift that’s difficult to come by. Its properties are unique that cannot be duplicated. I’d keep it if I were you.”
Caltha nodded and said her thanks before they left the booth.
Finally out of the crowd, Sirius breathed a sigh of relief.
He noticed her humming a faint sound as she walked ahead.
It was in front of a confectionary shop where she stopped next. It was time for Astrum’s toll.
The customers inside were them and another person standing by the counter. Caltha went for the frozen sweets in ice box containers.
Sirius stood close to the counter, noticing how humid the air inside circulated. A drop of sweat betrayed a stroll down his face. The shop needed good ventilation, but he figured that was something Genon knew how to solve.
The other customer had a tray of snowpuffs in hand. Sirius stepped aside to give him space before looking the other way.
It was hot inside. He risked revealing his face if it was to take in air. What are the odds they’d recognize him in this secluded area?
He pulled down the scarf and inhaled.
“Nice shot at the carnival game.”
Sirius turned around to the voice that referred to what happened in the piazza. A humiliating one if not for pure luck.
“Thanks,” he looked at the other customer and sensed a shift in the air.
Sirius was met with a demeanor that was calm, cool. Piercing. The man had an air of elegance which was rare in the city of rust.
His blond hair was almost silver in appearance. What added to his icy look were his eyes. Eyes that held stories of a past conducted by cruel fate. Stories Sirius did not care the least, but found himself interested in partaking.
There was the slightest change in the man’s eyes when their gaze met.
Those eyes gleamed like shattered gems of emerald.