“Why don’t you go with your father?” said mother. “You used to enjoy birding.”
Father wrapped the bread and cheese and tucked it into his leather satchel, saying nothing. It was not his place to tell his son what to do. Times had changed. Gone were the days that son followed father’s profession. It was hard work rising before the sun, leaving the city, best part of a day to the Edges, then spending a few days kiting and netting. He gruffly gathered up a bottle of wine and tucked it into the satchel. Manual labour, his son had called it. It wasn’t for him, he had said.
The young man yawned and smiled. “Next time,” he said.
“How are you going to eat?” mother asked. “What are you going to do for food?”
“Do I not bring in food for the family?” responded her son.
Mother shrugged and turned away. “That’s not proper food. Only grain.”
The son snorted. It was never going to be enough. She was right, it was mostly grain, but his work brought in a steady supply for his parents, siblings, and other family members. He made more with his work than his father ever had. That’s what stuck in their graw. He yawned and let it pass.
“All you do is lie there, for hours, every day,” said mother, bustling around her son, and tending the pot over the fire. “What do you do, Aric?”
Aric burred through his lips. It had been a long night, and he did not want to enter into this again.
“Leave him, mother,” said father as he paused before the door. Both wife and son looked at him and for a moment he held their gaze, first one then the other. There was acceptance there, for both of them. This was his path, the same as his father’s and his father before him. “He will live with his choices.”
He turned, pulled the latch and ducked under the lintel, his left hand ritually tapping the ward carved into the door jamb. He had carved that when the family had moved to the city, decades past. “Soaring” or “easy flight”, a sign his father had taught him. It had held him in good stead, and hoped it would his son wherever his journey took him.
Mother returned to her pot, preparing the morning porridge. The children would wake soon. The son sat with his head in his hands, his elbows on the tabletop.
“Work is going well,” he said. “There’s a festival approaching and I’ve been called to the Fort.”
Mother continued stirring the pot. She was listening. She didn’t like to needle her son, and so she castigated herself silently. However, there was always a little tension when father embarked on one of his trips alone.
“The family eats well because the roads and walls I maintain,” said the son and receiving no reaction from his mother, added “and the Tower.” Again seeing no reaction, he sighed. “But things are changing. One day they won’t need us.”
Mother stopped stirring for a moment, then continued. Father’s weekly catch was shrinking, he’d been forced to travel further, the flocks had retreated deeper into the mountains. There was always a market for them. People would pay. If their son fell on hard times, he could return to birding, help his father, and they would get by.
Aric sighed and continued to ruminate alone. It was in his nature to work alone, much like his father. The work brought in food, but it was menial. He was one of a dozen burax workers who closed their eyes and invoked mathix to enforce the silver-laid pavements and inlayed walls of the Fortress. Every time a heel hit the ground, the feedback loops of contact had to be maintained accurately. The Royals were used to it, their regular passage around the Fortress reinforced the beautiful walkways and intricately mosaiced walls, the overarching walkways. However, there were always perturbations, new people visiting for the festivities, and a declension of workers laboured tirelessly to ensure the effect persisted consistently, seemlessly. There was a problem, however, one Aric could see though his fellows could not. He had heard rumours from Bizasbuk that the automata were beginning to replace their burax constructists. If burax was automated, the Mages would have no need for them. He needed to specialise. And so, although his job was done for the night, he would rise early in the afternoon and pursue his own interest, clothing overlays, specifically armour inspired, for he had heard a rumour that an Arena was to be established at Bizapul, just like the fabled Arena which existed in Bizagul. Aric didn’t want to do grunt work, he didn’t want to do more rax overlays for buildings. He had only once worked on the famous Glass Tower. His friend had given him an idea, or rather what he was worked on had sparked it: the masqs which the Royals used to beautify themselves. Unlike building burax, masqs were much more refined, the mathix more demanding. He needed to refine his skills.
Mother dropped a bowl of porridge before him, before swaying up the narrow wooden stairs to the upper room. Aric took up a spoon and instead of dipping it into the porridge, he cupped the rising steam and watched the thin swirls dance. Delicate, refined. The masqs were definitely where the money was, currently, but it was a crowded market. He had to differentiate himself, and he believed that his knowledge of feathers would help him stand out from the crowd. Aric had to thank his father for his knowledge of feathers. His father could tell not only a bird’s species from a single feather, but which part of its plummage. He had shown him as a boy how each feather had its unique colour and pattern: the curvature of the central shaft, the vane comprised of barbs, which subdivided into finer barbules, and down to miniscule hairs. This early education was why Aric had been chosen by the Mages. High sensitivity of mind was required even for basic rax work, though he harboured a dream that his intricate feather designs could embellish armour design. Of course the Mages would dominate the Arena with their full-combat displays, but by referencing the Averini Guard, his feathered inlays was a perfect fit. That was the idea, that’s how he could make his money. If he could refine his rax. The mathix was very demanding though. It was like listening to a fine violinist. And just now, Aric was a common day fiddler, his mind suited for the burax of stonework.
He sighed and dipped his wooden spoon into the bowl and pulled out some thick softened oats. The armour was mostly for looks, seeing no active wear. However, with his experience of burax, his armour could be entirely functional in a battle. Although he knew it was wrong for him to hope it, he privately wished that the troubles to the west might increase, for he secretly hoped that it would accelerate the formation of a rax army. It was a private hope, shared by him and a few his more imaginative friends. They had predicted it when they were children, but as yet it had not happened. Nevertheless, if the rumours turned out to be true, and the troubles in the west were unnatural monsters from Everdark, their best defence would be rax warriors. And they would need armour like his.
A child’s piercing cry knifed through the ceiling planks, his youngest brother no doubt. The place was due for an upgrade too. If his parents saw what he built in the Fortress, perhaps they would pay him a little more respect. It would mean everything to them, but to the Royals it meant next to nothing. The Royals walked the silver-laid streets, below the elegant golden archways, the flower scented roads, and they paid no mind. Their children grew up not knowing what lay beneath Aric’s overlays. They did not see or smell or touch the rancid streets Aric had grown up in, his parents had grown up in, and their parents before them. His parents would not escape from this brutish world. This reality was deeply sunk into their bones.
He was halfway through the porridge. One day he would eat what the Royals ate. It was no doubt the same gruel, but it tasted like ambrosia. He knew the burax chefs. Like him, they were the sons of bakers and pastry chefs, who had been trained in basic mathix to provide rax more delightful than anything they could fashion out of raw grains, course vegetables, and carcasses of animals. Perhaps when they are living in a palace, completely surrounded by luxurious rax, might their parents accept what they did. Every citizen of Bizapul living in a palace. It’s why he had devoted nearly a decade of his life to it, ever since he was a boy. He had only been in the Fortress a handful of times, so why call for him today? What special event would they be wanting for the festivities?
As he licked his spoon clean, Aric heard the clatter from above as children gamboled heavily down the stairs. His brothers and sisters would only have a distant memory of the poor conditions of their upbringing, while his own children would grow up in a world where they wouldn’t know any different. They would be Royals. All of them, Ashitland Royals.