Jay adjusted the hat on his head as he ducked among the crowd, keeping an eye out for pickpockets along the way. There were far too many people on the street for him to be comfortable. He much preferred the back alleys and side streets where he could see the threats coming his way.
A small tug on his sleeve stalled him and Jay looked down at his younger brother, Ken. “I wanna see,” Ken pleaded, raising his arms up high to be lifted up.
Jay obliged and hoisted the small child up onto his thin shoulders. At five years old, Ken was still light enough that Jay could pull off the maneuver without too much difficulty. He would prefer to blend back into the background and leave all the fuss behind, yet Ken was far too excited to see the ‘parade’. That was the entire point of this trip.
Soon enough the drums and clack-clack-clack of horse hooves could be heard down the road. Metal horseshoes on stone sent a shiver up Jay’s spine, but the crowd cheered at the sound and the anticipation. Up above the heads of the hustle and bustle, red flags snapped in the wind to show off the flames that had made their small city famous.
Their lord was returning.
Soldiers marched alongside calvary horses, followed by wagons. Ken made small sounds of excitement each time one of the men decided to show off a fancy trick, but Jay wasn’t impressed. He almost scoffed at how much thought had been put into drawing out the crowd and building anticipation. It was a show more than a return home. Half the soldiers had already gone to their homes to clean up before ‘returning’ because they wanted to look their best. Any wounded or injured weren’t even in the procession. They’d already been sent to the hospitals and clinics best suited to their status and injuries.
Most - if not all - would be at the taverns and bars in under an hour complaining about the beds and the food while traveling. In a few weeks those complaints would shift to all the poor and orphans underfoot in a city with a definite lack of crime for all the half-trained muscle-heads now roaming about.
It wasn’t anything new. Their lord was just another man. A man who served another man who probably served another man. The lord before him was the same and the lord who would come after him no different. Celebrating nothing just to show off. An influx of people trained to guard against an invisible threat wasn’t a reason to celebrate.
But Ken was fascinated by the sunlight glinting off the shields and the pretty sheen of the horse’s coats and the way the cloaks of the higher-ranking floated in the slight wind. And Jay could admit it was certainly a sparkly sight. They knew how to show off.
“Lord Fyre,” Ken whispered excitedly. “Jay, you see?” He pointed and bounced, and Jay nodded with a grin.
A large, well-groomed steed with a red coat pranced down the street. The rider didn’t have a saddle or reins, but he didn’t need them. Adrian Fyre was one of the best fire mages on the continent, and the flames danced around him and the horse like playful sprites. The crowd roared as he made silly little displays to awe and impress the masses. Soldiers actually had to march around him to keep the crowd back. A mountain of a man led that honor guard: a fuzzy gray beard and matching gray eyes reminded Jay more of a wolf than the gentle breeze.
Adrian himself had on a bemused little smile as he waved behind the flames, and Jay had to take a second look. The man was handsome. All nobles were handsome at first, but the ones who trained to be soldiers usually came back looking a bit rugged and sharp. They went to training as soft house pets and came back coyotes and jackals.
Lord Fyre looked like he still had a few soft spots left. His hair was still in a long, loose braid that fell neatly down his back like a red river. As he drew closer Jay could see the flames spreading out among the crowd and making amusing animals for the children. One found Ken and ran circles around them on tiny paws, wagging its tail and letting out silent barks.
Ken laughed, and Jay let an indulgent smile show. The flame circled down to his level and studied him for a moment, then the little dog wagged its tail again and let out sparks that flew up high and bright and stunning. It was a beautiful display designed to fascinate.
Jay looked over at the parade again, only to find Lord Fyre staring at him with a curious look and half the crowd turned to get a closer look at the little flame puppy begging for attention before him.
Attention was bad. Jay and Ken were different from the rest. They stood out. Black hair and black eyes combined with a smaller than average frame were unusual in a land where physical attributes usually reflected your magical strength. Most civilians in the area had the brown hair and green eyes of the earth magics; Lord Fyre’s red hair and blue fire eyes were unique enough.
Jay slid Ken down to his hip and started moving away through the crowd, turning his back on the display.
“Jay?” Ken asked.
“Sorry,” Jay said. He gave a small rub to Ken’s back to show his sincerity. “Too much.”
“It’s okay,” Ken said with a grin. “Did you see the puppy! It was so bright! And the flame was warm but it didn’t hurt at all.”
Jay found a secluded spot to breathe as Ken rambled on. They were different from everyone else out there. Jay and Ken were only half. Their mother was a fallen noble from the city who had married her true love: a wandering minstrel from across the mountains. Over there everyone had the same physical traits no matter what their magical gift. To everyone in this city that was worse than having no magic at all.
“Jay, is it true we don’t have magic?” Ken asked with a frown.
Jay rubbed his little brother’s hair and tugged at one of the tiny ears. “Where did you hear that?”
“Just around,” the boy sniffed.
“Well don’t listen to that nonsense,” Jay scolded lightly. “Of course we have magic. It’s just that our magic doesn’t work the same as theirs. And using their magic is really, really hard for us.”
“But you tried to get into that school and they told you no,” Ken protested. “Don’t they let everyone with magic in?”
“Anyone who wants to train,” Jay agreed with a long breath. He looked over his shoulder at the crowded street not far away. The parade had continued without them, obviously, and the attention was back on the bright lights and incredible tricks idle soldiers did. Jay’s magic wasn’t meant for showing off. It was meant for hiding.
That was a bit hard to explain to his brother, though. “Remember when we had the festival of the sun, and those people came out who drew big circles in the sky and made clouds and bubbles appear?”
Ken nodded. “The bubbles were all shiny, and the one cloud looked like a cat!”
“Those were normal mages. They use circles or amulets with the circle inscribed to direct magic. Does my magic work like that?”
Ken shook his head, but didn’t actually say how Jay’s magic worked. He knew how important it was to keep a secret.
“Is it the same?”
Ken shook his head again.
“That’s why they don’t let me in.”
“What if you showed them how you do it?” Ken asked, cocking his head to the side.
Jay shook his head this time with an internal heave of a sigh. Ken understood keeping the secret, but he still couldn’t quite grasp why. No matter how many times Jay said it, Ken always asked again. “That’s dangerous. You know they sent Lord Fyre off to train as a soldier and fight bad people, and he’s a Lord! What would they do to little old me?”
Ken bit his lip and didn’t speak. The word was something of a taboo between them. Jay was terrified of going down the same route his father had. It made him fiercely protective of Ken, and forced Jay to squash any potential magic that whispered in his ear.
“Let’s go home,” Jay said with a sigh. He put his hands on his knees and stood, then reached his hand out to his younger brother. As they turned to head down the alley Jay thought he saw a shimmer in the corner of his eye. A small flame pouting just out of sight.
But that was ridiculous. Lord Adrian Fyre was a handsome, strong, competent man. Two orphans wouldn’t even register to someone like that.