(This story section is too long by about 100 words. I will try to cut it down if I get a chance, but I’ve been dealing with a lot lately and am trying to get things back to normal)
Lancer lay in a hospital bed, bored. There wasn’t anything to do. Nothing.
Sure, Rei was in the same room, recovering, reading a school book and doing homework, but who wanted to do homework?
And Jaylee, also here in a third bed, kept looking at him funny, but he couldn’t talk to her or anything. That’d be weird, first off. Also, what would he say?
“Lancer?” Jaylee said.
“Yeah?” Lancer asked.
“You look weird. Are you alright?”
“What do you mean? Do I have something on my face?”
He knew he shouldn’t have eaten pancakes for breakfast. They were delicious, but the syrup was so sticky and messy. And the nurses wouldn’t let him bathe! Granted, he couldn’t stand up too well, so he probably couldn’t have walked to the showers anyways, but still.
“No,” Jaylee said. “I mean, are you thinking about something? You look upset.”
“Oh,” he said. “No. Yes. Kinda.”
Rei butted in. Wasn’t she busy with homework or something? “He’s mad that Kanin saved us, though I don’t know why. I’d rather be saved than dead.”
“No one was dying,” Lancer muttered. “I was just about to find a way to beat Rupert.”
“You were just about to die,” Rei said. “Kanin saved you, and was very nice, and you haven’t even said thanks. That was a really difficult sphereshift he used, too.”
Lancer grumbled, not talking, because no matter what she said he wasn’t going to thank his older brother. Why should he? He hadn’t asked for help, so whatever Kanin did on his own was his business. Maybe Lancer benefited, but that was no good reason to show appreciation. People gained benefits from lots of things for tons of reasons, and a person couldn’t very well show gratitude for every little thing.
“What was that sphereshift, anyways?” Jaylee asked.
“Kismet sphereshifting,” Rei said, using a tone reminiscent of their teacher’s back at school. “It’s a specialized form of cross sphereshifting. Difficult, but very concentrated. It focuses on karmic deliverance–”
“Do you even know what those words mean?” Lancer asked.
“I do!” Rei said, lifting her nose up at him. “Basically it uses good or bad karma that someone’s gained, and tokens gained during the actions. So Kanin found us after checking the library–”
Lancer interrupted again. “I’d like to add that I found you first by checking the library. Kanin did it after.”
“So Kanin found us–” Rei repeated. “He knew Lancer was doing tasks all day, since they met in the morning and he had asked around. Luckily Lancer kept the quill, leather parchment, and ink on him, or else we would’ve been out of luck, because–”
“Exactly,” Lancer said. “Kanin couldn’t have done anything without me.”
“Shut up!” Jaylee and Rei said, glaring at him.
“So,” Rei continued. “the kismet sphereshift used those items as foci. Kanin couldn’t know what would happen, but obviously since Lancer wouldn’t have done anything bad, except interrupt everyone, it was safe. The quill brought the swans, who attacked Rupert. The leather turned to thin armor. Good enough to deflect a blade, since Rupert wasn’t expecting it. Lyle Lampblack knew about Rupert’s private study and the ink Lancer had acted as a catalyst for the kismet sphereshift, so he came to investigate.”
“Like good luck,” Jaylee observed.
“Yeah,” Rei said. “It’s guaranteed so long as you’ve been good. Otherwise, it’s bad.”
Someone knocked on the door, catching everyone’s attentions. “It’s tasking,” Kanin said. “May I come in?”
“Of course!” Rei said. “Kanin! I’ve missed you.”
“Sure,” Jaylee said, looking at Kanin like a hero.
“No,” Lancer said. “Visiting time isn’t for another hour.”
Kanin grinned at Lancer and walked towards his bed, ruffling his hair. “True, but I have special permission.”
Lancer glowered. “That’s dumb.”
“You’re dumb,” Rei said, sticking out her tongue.
“I’m glad to see everyone’s fine,” Kanin said, ignoring the dissent. “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to help sooner, but we had to take precautions to not jeopardize anyone’s safety.”
“Well,” Lancer said loudly. “I had it under control.”
Kanin nodded. “You did. You kept Rupert distracted so I could sphereshift.”
Lancer frowned. This wasn’t what he expected, and he found it hard to argue when Kanin said things like that.
Rei shrugged. “Honestly, why did you talk to Rupert in the first place, Lancer? If you hadn’t, none of this would’ve happened. I’m not blaming you, but you need to be careful.”
Lancer frowned. That hurt. He wanted to discover a way to fix Rei, return her to normal, and while he hadn’t told her, or anyone except Rupert(and Kanin somewhat), it upset him that she’d chastise him. If she knew–but he couldn’t tell her. She didn’t like it when he talked about it..
“Gaining information isn’t bad,” Kanin said. “Rupert wasn’t a good source, though.”
Lancer, annoyed, glared at Kanin again. He channeled his upset feelings towards Kanin instead of holding a grudge against Rei. Kanin was being too nice.
“Speaking of,” Kanin ducked outside for a moment, returning with a book. “I think you’ll like this. It’s a book on alternative sphereshifting. Mostly fantasies and myths, so more a book of stories than anything educational, but some of the sphereshifts are proven real now. It might help?”
Lancer snatched the book and shoved it under his pillow. “Thanks.”
Kanin patted his head. “You’re welcome.”
“Don’t be so nice.”
“What? Why not?”
“Stop being difficult,” Rei snapped. “Thank him for saving us, too!”
“It was nice of you,” Jaylee said. “My father wants to invite you to dinner before we leave Garde, if you’ll come?”
Kanin nodded. “Of course.”
“I’m busy that night,” Lancer said. “I have a lot to do.”
“Lancer!” Both girls shrieked, exasperated.
“Fine, I’ll go,” he mumbled.
“I need to return to work, but everyone relax, alright? You especially, Lancer. You might feel better, but Rupert did a number on you.”
Kanin left, bidding everyone farewell. He hugged Rei, and shook Jaylee’s hand. When he went to hug Lancer, Lancer turned away. Handshaking met resistance, too. Instead, he waved and said goodbye. Lancer tried to ignore him.
Once Kanin left, Lancer said, “He can’t tell me what to do.”
Rei sighed. “Lancer, really?”
“Seriously,” Jaylee said. “You’re so stubborn.”
“Whatever.” Lancer grumped.
“You’re cute still,” Jaylee added. “I appreciate you trying to save me–it was really nice.”
Lancer rolled over so he didn’t have to look at them. “I’m tired, so I’m going to sleep?”
Jaylee frowned, unsure. “Alright–”
She said no more. Lancer knew what she would say, anyways. He couldn’t like Jaylee, though, for lots of reasons. She would grow into that sure, confident woman, while he would live in a shack. Also, she was clingy.
He fell asleep before he changed his mind.
Blackness covered Lancer like a mother tucking her child into bed. The pain eased away as if it were ice melting in the summer sun. The taste of blood in his mouth was now gone, and he could no longer hear his heart thumping over Rupert’s voice. The bookish smell of crisp paper permeating the librarian’s study seemed like an afterthought, some vague remembrance of a surreal daydream.
Overall, it was kind of nice. Lancer felt an interesting calm pass through him. Was he dead? Was this what the afterlife felt like? Should he count the seconds? Except it was difficult to know if he thought in real time or if his perception of time controlled the speed of his thoughts. He wasn’t much of a philosopher, but this idea intrigued him.
His nothingness took shape, a room, and it seemed like the void nearby lightened as if a spotlight were shining on him very dimly. A sound, music, interrupted his isolation. Classical, mostly piano, but with faint hints of violin added in. Lancer felt this was very strange, because he shouldn’t be feeling anything, but there it was.
The spotlight widened, making a circular area for him to stand in. Him in a metaphysical sense, he assumed. Or his afterlife self? He didn’t want to contemplate the implications of seeing and hearing things when he shouldn’t be seeing or hearing anything, so he stopped before he started.
A spot on the “wall” of his enclosure flickered, a rectangle appearing. Inside the rectangle a series of images progressed. A few seconds, then it paused, and replayed. He saw himself as a child playing with Rei, them hiding beneath a table while Kanin pretended not to notice.
Another rectangle flared to life. This one showed his first day at school, unable to participate with the other children because of his lack of sphereshifting ability. The teacher shook her head, annoyed, but Lancer’s child self merely grinned like an idiot.
He’d been that once. Maybe he was still. No one thought him intelligent, but it didn’t matter. He had friends and no one mocked him, or at least they didn’t to his face. Did they do it behind his back?
Another image. Jared talking to Jaylee, both younger. He couldn’t hear them speak, but somehow Lancer knew they were talking about him. Jared mentioned how useless Lancer was, how he shouldn’t go to the same school as them, and Jaylee agreed. Odd. Would she do that?
Then another picture, another Jaylee. She looked nice, grown and older. She wore a rich-looking dress and seemed important. The way she walked accentuated this, making her appear confident and sure. The pictures started this way, then shifted, showing a destitute, older Lancer living in a rundown shack by a lake. He held a mangled fishing rod and was failing his attempts to catch fish. Summer sped by to autumn, then winter. The lake froze and the older Lancer lay huddled in the shack, shivering.
One final image popped up. The perspective was odd as if he were seeing it for himself, first person, but watching from far away. Starting blurry, it cleared until he saw Rupert wielding a knife above him—real this time, not a letter-opener. The knife fell into Lancer’s chest, guided by the librarian’s hand, and the picture blurred and took on a ruddy hue.
Lancer turned and looked at a different image. They kept repeating. Jaylee, older, then Jared berating him, and him and Rei hiding under the table. That teacher harassing him, over and over again.
And his death at the hands of the maddened bookman.
The piano music changed depending on where he looked. He liked the childlike plucks on the keystrings for the image with him and Rei, but the elegy that played when he saw the older him was frustrating.
His final remembrance, the death scene, had strange music, though. It picked up, heavy and fast, then slowed to a screech at the end. Lancer thought if he could jump through, enter at the right time when the music was fastest, maybe he could stop it from happening. Or maybe it had already happened, and this was a memory.
Except why would he see an older him in another picture then? Granted, it wasn’t a nice picture, with him homeless and poor and freezing by a lake. Still, it seemed like there was something he needed to recognize, something he should do.
“Lancer,” someone said.
He looked around. An image flickered, vanished.
“What?” Lancer asked.
“You can’t stop me!” Rupert’s voice.
Another picture ceased to exist.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Lancer said.
The other images blew out, making loud popping noises. Pop. Pop. Bam!
The room never existed. His thoughts of it shattered and his mind carried him to the fore of reality. He was on the floor in terrible pain, but something was happening around him. A discarded knife lay at his side. He stared at it for a long while, then realized he was wearing leather armor. When did he get that? Was this the real afterlife now? If so, it kind of sucked. What sort of afterlife kept you in horrible pain?
He heard loud honks coming from one side of the room. Ruffled feathers erupted into the air. Lancer saw Rupert struggling against an onslaught of swans. They pecked his body and battered him with wings, buffeting air and feathers into his face. The librarian shrieked and fell against a bookshelf.
Vials of ink spilled from a desk, upending their contents on the floor. The ink moved like shadows, seeping across the floor towards Rupert. At his feet, the tenebrous substance sprung up and grabbed his legs, latching him to the floor. The swans continued their assault, shredding his clothes to tatters.
“Are you alright?”
Lancer glanced sideways with groggy eyes.
His brother, Kanin. And Lyle Lampblack, the lantern cleaner, standing in the doorway.
Kanin smiled. “Everything will be fine.”
Lancer thought he put every ounce of strength he had into slashing Rupert, but it was all for naught.
Rupert stood on guard, learning his lesson from Lancer’s previous determination, and merely stepped away.
Not terrible on its own, not really. Lancer accepted failure when it happened. Granted, he would’ve preferred success, but he had options. He could do this, he could overcome adversity. He wasn’t worthless and he wouldn’t succumb to apathy and settle into life like people thought he ought to. His strength, whatever was necessary, he would do everything as best he could―no, better, because without sphereshifting he was already at a disadvantage when compared to others. He would become strong enough to stand toe to toe with his brother on his own terms, and then he would become stronger. If he could prove himself to Kanin, then everything else would be easy. This was nothing.
That’s what he wanted, but when Rupert sidestepped his attack Lancer found the blade of the letter opener in his hand diving straight for Rei’s chest. With her gone he couldn’t do anything.
Lancer prayed and panicked. Without knowing how, without feeling it, he jerked his body sideways and avoided stabbing his unconscious sister head on. The dull blade of the knife dropped from his hands and glided across the desk towards Rei’s side, where it thunked and stuck lightly into her wooden body. His head slammed into the desk and he fell in a heap on the ground. Well, if anything, he appreciated Rupert’s sphereshifting now; Lancer was probably in an inordinate amount of pain, but his senses hadn’t realized it yet.
Rupert snapped his fingers. Probably more for effect, but Lancer didn’t have time to contemplate intricacies. The bottled up pain blared through his body like the feeling of really loud music at a huge party. Everything ached, even things that shouldn’t ache. His foot felt twisted and deformed, like someone had slammed a wooden club into it, broken it, then tried to splint it with that same club. His head, too, and then he noticed the bleeding. Also, and quite distinct, his shoulder felt like someone had ripped through it, shoved spinning metal gears into the wound, then powered them with thrashing jolts of lightning.
He couldn’t move, and for once he didn’t want to. Everything hurt. All of it. His body, of course, but his mind, too. Rupert didn’t have to do anything more and he’d already won, because he could do whatever he felt like doing now without interruption.
Lancer scrunched his brow, concentrating, to figure out a plan. Talking, perhaps? Except arguments were never his strong suit and Rupert had a stranglehold on logic. Twisted conclusions, perhaps, but whatever knowledge the librarian had unearthed to let him arrive at them seemed infallible in the man’s eyes. Lancer doubted his current ability to speak coherently, anyways.
“And so,” Rupert said, “You should now understand the differences between us. While you blindly chase ideals, I use knowledge to improve myself. My way is infinitely better, because I gain information from numerous sources, cite references, and have the backing of multiple professionals in their fields, while you have only your own drive. A group effort always trumps a lone person.”
Rupert was in the midst of conversation, though Lancer couldn’t remember how or why it started. He managed a glance at the librarian, wincing in pain.
“I won’t torment you any longer. I’ve gathered enough information about you to adequately fill a few pages in a notebook. I can measure your general statistics after, so that’s a non-issue. Though―hm―just to be on the safe side I’ll show you something reserved for special occasions.”
Lancer wheezed and crumpled up further, knees inching towards his chest.
“You might surprise me more, you see? How should I know? I’m not keen on discovering any tricks at this point in time, though. Luckily for you, this means something exciting!”
Lancer couldn’t wait. He was so excited he almost momentarily thought of attempting to clap, but didn’t.
“Perhaps you noticed the duration of my sphereshifts? Not long. Approximately one minute. That’s my current limit, though I can reapply it or switch it afterwards. You should realize that by now, so I won’t bore you with details. But! Listen, because this is the exciting part. For a far briefer moment I can remove every single one of your senses. That pain you feel? Gone! Seeing your sister and friend bound before me? No more! The smell of despair and the taste of defeat and the sounds of my shoes scuffling along the floor right before I pierce your heart and end your life? Mostly you won’t know any of that, but you are defeated and I expect you’ll despair, but I don’t know what you’ll think of in your last moments?”
“Ah,” Rupert added. “If you’re curious, you’ll have twelve seconds of last moment thoughts, too. Less, depending on the exact nature of my sphereshift once I kill you. Will you realize you’re dead, and just stop, or will the sphereshift maintain itself and allow you a full twelve seconds of senseless thought before you shuffle off this mortal coil? A difficult question, because it’s impossible to ask someone after the fact, but I wish you luck.”
Lancer attempted to spit at the man’s feet, but he only managed to drool. Saliva pooled on the floor and dampened his cheek.
Lancer knew he hit Rupert. His fist whalloped the man’s jaw and it made a smacking sound on impact. Rupert’s head jerked to the side.
Except Lancer felt nothing. Minimal sensation, a microsecond of flesh on flesh, but no more. He saw himself punch Rupert, knowing it should hurt(his hand, Rupert’s face), except—it didn’t.
Bewildered, Lancer stepped backwards. One foot rose, but when he lowered it there was nothing below. A trap? He sought purchase, but failed, and fell. Down, down, this deep dark hole and…
His rear slammed onto the floorboards. He heard the sound, but no more. Beneath him was solid flooring. No hole, nothing to trip on. Why couldn’t he feel the floor, then? Everything was odd, off, like a dream where he couldn’t remember things, what they were.
Rupert rubbed his jaw, groaning. “I wasn’t going to attack you,” he said, apologetic. “You’ve forced my hand, though. You aren’t interesting, can’t even sphereshift by your own account, so there won’t be much to write, but I’ll create some notes and then end you.”
Lancer stared, dumbfounded. “I won’t just let you—”
Rupert strode to a bookshelf and removed a thin notebook. “There’s nothing stopping me. What can you do? You’ve noticed your predicament, haven’t you?”
And in fact, Lancer hadn’t. He made to stand, but couldn’t feel his hand pressing the ground. His knee bent, thigh flexed, but he only saw this instead of feeling it. Though what did that matter? He just did it, watched himself carefully, and managed to steady his unsure footing.
Rupert nodded approval, impressed. “No sense of touch, yet you stand. I commend you. It won’t help, but your mettle is admirable.”
“What are you talking about?” Lancer asked.
Rupert grinned, setting the notebook aside. “I devour information,” he said. “My hunger for knowledge is insatiable. I want to read everything, know all, even if it’s impossible. I informed you of my information sphereshift previously, didn’t I? A trick to glean information on a subject. And, as common sense dictates, evident by your current situation, there’s a way to retract knowledge, too. When you hit me, a premeditated cantrip sphereshifted upon myself reacted, and you lost your touch.”
“Really?” Lancer said.
“Indeed,” Rupert responded.
Watching his movements, Lancer tensed his muscles. It should work, he hoped, but maybe not. Still, better to try than surrender altogether. He watched his legs flex, running at Rupert, ignoring the odd sensation of nothing. He nearly tripped, but caught himself and rode on instinctive memory, darting forward. When he was within arm’s length of a shocked Rupert, he wound back his arm. A fist, powered far too strong because Lancer couldn’t feel what was too much, slammed into Rupert’s chest.
The librarian wheezed, all the air in his lungs squeezed out of his body, and crashed, floorbound. He avoided Lancer’s subsequent stomp by rolling under, and to the other side, of the desk, but it was close. Lancer lost his footing when he missed a kick and found himself sprawled on the ground again.
Rupert grimaced. “You’ve more determination than I thought. I’ll note that in your book.”
“Great,” Lancer said.
The ground solidified, and Lancer could feel it again. His feet pressed the floor, soft-cushioned shoes touching his soles. He stood up. Not much of a trick, apparently, Rupert’s removal of senses. If the man could only maintain it for under a minute Lancer didn’t need to worry.
Or he thoght not, except the world turned black. Light faded, as if someone had doused the lanterns, and his sight flickered.
Rupert chuckled. “At the risk of punny cliches, let’s see you rouse your way out of that.”
Lancer hesitated, listening. Sightless, but during summer he enjoyed playing a game at the lake. One person shouted a word while wearing a blindfold, and everyone else playing respond with another. Odd words, different every time, but the game always played the same; tag someone without seeing them.
Tricky in an unknown room, but he felt like he had a decent understanding of his surroundings. He dropped to the floor, feigning a trip, then rebounded and pushed himself underneath the desk. Hoping he could duck below to the other side, where Rupert waited, ripe for assailing, but without sight he might just crash, too.
Fortunately the desk was high, and Lancer dived low. He passed beneath the desk, sharp, and snatched Rupert’s legs. A lug brought the bookman down, tumbling and screaming.
“Seriously?” Rupert asked. “Is he serious?” he repeated, to himself. “Preposterous. No one can do this. Do you not know fear? That’s something no one can remove. Everyone feels it. Anxiety? Do you think I’ll let you free after ruining my research? I would’ve if you acted reasonable. I might’ve let you help, even. But you’re being obstinate and chaotic and it upsets me.”
Lancer’s sense of touch vanished again. Not knowing if he still held Rupert, or if he was squeezing midair, he panicked. His vision blurred, slowly returning. When he could see again he saw Rupert standing free at his side.
“I didn’t want this, but you’ve forced me,” Rupert said.
The librarian mimed words. Lancer heard nothing. Through current experience, it seemed Rupert could only block one sense at a time; currently hearing.
Rupert snatched a letter opener from the desk. Lancer heard, “–making this difficult,” before the man stabbed the tool into his shoulder. Pain welled, vanished. Lancer eyed the letter opener embedded in his shoulder.
“You won’t die,” Rupert said. “I’ll be less forgiving a second time around, though. Also, don’t move your arm. You’ll only wound it further since you can’t feel it. Inadvertent ripped ligaments, usually.”
Maybe Rupert meant to scare him, but right now Lancer didn’t care. His free arm grabbed the knife and wrenched it loose. He frowned, knowing it would hurt later.
Careful, he thrust the blade at Rupert.
He hoped he put all his weight into it, but he couldn’t tell.
Lancer skulked through the streets, creeping towards Rupert’s studio. Everything was quiet. The commotion that set everyone off was confined to one area, apparently. Which made sense since everyone shopped or worked there, so that’s where they heard the news.
With the address, 949 Sable Lane, Lancer discovered the studio relatively easily. Settled in a passageway between buildings, he initially passed it by before realizing he’d come up one short counting street numbers. He backtracked, rechecking between 947 and 951, and saw steps halfway down the passageway.
The place needed a good cleaning. The steps were covered in dirt and probably originally not black. Oddly, the numbers, 949, were relatively shiny, though. Lancer descended the stairs and peered through a window in the door.
Nothing. The dim passage, mixed with overhanging shadows, and a dirty window, ruined any chance of espionage. Was Rupert even here? Maybe he’d gone somewhere else?
Well, Lancer decided to find out. The rusty doorhandle gave him issues, but he succeeded in turning it and opening the door a crack. A dreadful creak gave him away if anyone stood opposite him at the door. Too late for misgivings, though. He snuck through the scarcely open door, closing it behind him
Inside was better, barely; less dirty, more cluttered. A bookcase beside the entrance desperately needed organization, what with half the books crooked or stacked atop each other. Beside that, Rupert had set up a desk and makeshift planner. A regular person might use a ledger, but the librarian just piled paper notes on top of each other.
The top note read: “Investigate Lancer’s Story.”
The tale he’d told about Rei, he assumed. Possibly more. If Rupert learned of Jaylee and the pearl, then who knew what else he’d figured out. Librarians were tricky like that, deducing information from the most obscure reference points.
A loud crash sounded farther in. Lancer darted for the wall, hiding alongside the bookcase. When nothing came, he craned his neck forward and peered towards the noise’s source. Flickering light illuminated a room at the end of the hallway, and a man’s voice muttered nonsense in a low rumble.
Definitely something to investigate, Lancer thought. He tiptoed down the hallway, passing a pristine bathroom, and a room with only a cot and a bedside table. Tumbled books, ripped out pages strewn across the floor, acted as obstacles. He sidestepped them and moved on.
Outside the inhabited room, he sidled against the wall and peeked inside. It looked like a miniature library, organized properly with bookshelves lining the walls, two high. Rupert even had a rolling ladder and a researcher’s desk nearby. Possibly more, but Lancer couldn’t see anything else with the door half shut.
And Rupert, of course. The man was inside, his voice recognizable even as a mumble. He said something, asked a question, but no one answered. Talking to himself? Probably, Lancer thought.
This was it. There was nothing else to do except barge in and confront the crazed bookman. Perhaps he was innocent, right? No one knew for sure. He’d assaulted Jared and Mr. Ellis, so not absolutely guiltless, but Rei and Jaylee might be missing for another reason.
Lancer charged, shoving the door open so it slammed against the wall. He found Rupert slouched over a desk he couldn’t see before. When Lancer entered, Rupert looked up, startled.
Then, as creepy as a cat, he grinned. “Hello there.”
Below him on the desk lay Rei, unconscious, with leather straps binding her wrists and ankles to the desk legs. Rupert had a blank book near her waist for jotting notes. Tied to the chair behind the desk was Jaylee, her eyes closed and head hung to the side with a ball gag in her mouth. Another notebook, this one closed, was on the desk in front of her.
Well, Lancer’s hope of being wrong was definitely wrong, so there wasn’t much he could do there.
“This isn’t what it looks like,” Rupert said calmly.
Or not? “Um, it looks pretty bad,” Lancer said.
“Oh, I know. I apologize. Don’t worry, though. I’m recording their vital statistics. Everything possible. Height, weight, shape. I inspected quickly for birth marks or other identifiers, but nothing in depth. Anything else I should write down? Also, do you know what type of wood was used for your sister? Curious, too, you never told me your frien—” Rupert gestured at Jaylee with a quill. “—owned the Moonstruck Pearl. I’ve researched it, did you know?”
“Uh?” No matter what Rupert said, this definitely sounded devious to Lancer.
“You’re confused,” Rupert said. “Understandable. Not a writer, I assume? Let me explain.”
Lancer said nothing. Rupert continued. “Besides research and information, I enjoy fiction. The characters are fascinating. I write sometimes, too. To get an understanding of a character, you need a sheet of statistics. You won’t use everything, but even recondite details are good for reference. How does this tie in? The utmost appeal for a novel, I find, is that characters live forever. Even if they die in the book, one can flip back a few pages to resurrect them. Immortality, so simple, yet it’s eluded mankind forever.”
“I really don’t understand,” Lancer interrupted, “but I’d appreciate if you let Rei and Jaylee go.”
Rupert stood tall, gazing upward as if recollecting a fond memory. “Accessing knowledge, Lancer, is the supreme act of great civilizations. So! Please don’t worry for your friends. Even if my research results in their eventual death, they’ll live forever in my notes. And! If I’m unable to write their characters into a novel, I bequeath their information books to you, so you may find a writer to induce their immortality.”
Lancer understood that perfectly well. Maybe Rupert enjoyed books, but Lancer hated them. Especially when this man wanted to substitute his living, breathing friends for a cold, inanimate binding holding papers together.
Rupert smiled, continuing his writing. Lancer stomped forward and bashed him in the jaw.
[Author's Note: Rupert's dialogue about "Accessing knowledge is the supreme act of great civilizations" is a modified quote from Toni Morrison. The original was stated as: “Access to knowledge is the superb, the supreme act of truly great civilizations. Of all the institutions that purport to do this, free libraries stand virtually alone in accomplishing this mission.”
Toni Morrison is a wonderful author who has won the Nobel Prize(1993), the Pulitzer Prize(2012), and most recently the Presidential Medal of Freedom(2012) which is the highest civilian award in the United States. If you'd like to learn more about her, I urge you to check out her Wikipedia page (here).]
[Interested to see how I edit? Check out this story, with editing marks/comments, on my blog. Criminal Record(Editing Tutorial)]
A throng of Garde’s citizens filled the streets outside. Lancer didn’t know where he intended to go, or what to do once he arrived, but with people blocking his way he wasn’t going anywhere. A woman wearing a multi-feathered hat craned her neck to look over a tall gentleman’s shoulders, and a little girl hopped at her mother’s side hoping to see what the hullabaloo was about. The guards attempted to calm the masses, shouting loud for everyone to head inside for their own safety, but after the declaration of Rupert’s crime people wanted to discuss it.
Conversation smacked into Lancer’s ears much like the lanky elbows of the man to his right hit his shoulder.
“A robbery. Someone stole items and people. Hostage situation.”
“What’s a hostage, mommy?”
“Heard he stole a famous painting being delivered to the Musee.”
“Is he holding painter’s captive? Making them paint a picture?”
“Hush, that’s ridiculous. A person can’t paint a masterpiece under duress.”
“It was Rupert, that librarian.”
Lancer stepped forward, attempting to thwart the crowd’s impassibility with his determination to move. The crowd said no, in less words, and jostled him back to where he started. This wasn’t working, and he needed it to. Argh!
The only available path was an alleyway beside Nisa’s, so that’s where he went. Unfortunately once inside and unhassled, he realized this wasn’t any better. A wall blocked his way, trash cans filled to the brim alongside it. Half an alleyway removed to support another store? Just wonderful.
Lancer rushed a trashcan and kicked it, frustrated at everything ruining his plans. The lid rattled onto the paved ground. He grabbed it and tossed it at the wall; it ricocheted off the bricks and up to the roof. Which, he noticed, wasn’t that far from the ground. High enough considering the building interiors, but not too far…
In an instant, Lancer vaulted onto a sturdy-looking trashcan and rebounded off it, reaching upwards. He just barely grabbed the edge of the roof tiles. Swinging side to side like a monkey, he used his momentum, and a well-timed kick off of the frustrating wall, to launch him onto the roof.
Here there was no one but him. He surveyed his new domain, relishing the emptiness. With only chimneys to obstruct him, he had free reign of the rooftops. And with Garde’s houses clustered so close together the jump from roof to roof was like skipping down the street.
Not that Lancer ever skipped(not in public). And the split between roofs took a little more effort to bridge the gap(if he did skip). But at least he could move.
He leapt onto a neighboring roof. The library’s huge stone pillars, threatening education, towered above the rest of the nearby buildings. Rooftop to rooftop, he scaled his new pitched walkway with ease. No one noticed, or if they did no one cared. He didn’t look like a demented librarian, and so he might as well be invisible.
Without thinking, Lancer jumped from the last roof and snatched one of the library pillars mid-flight. Holding on for dear life, thinking this was a much better idea theoretically, he awkwardly spun around the pillar until gravity pulled him to the ground. Maybe it looked awesome or horrible, depending, but he preferred to think it was the former.
There was no one here to confer with about that, though. As packed as the storefront streets were, the library section was void of life like a post-apocalyptic city. He pulled on the front door and it swung outwards. Open for business, obviously, but who wanted to visit a library during calamity? No one, apparently, except Lancer.
He approached the central desk where Ms. McDonald, the head librarian he’d met with Rupert, sat reading.
“Excuse me?” Lancer said.
She looked up. “Oh? Yes, dear, what is it?”
“I don’t know if–” Before he finished speaking, he noticed calling card holders spaced evenly apart on top of the desk. “Can I have one of these?” he asked, pointing to the holders.
“You can have a card,” Ms. McDonald said, “but please don’t take the entire stand or all of them.”
Lancer nodded. “Oh, I won’t. Just um–” The librarian lady watched him, curious, and Lancer skimmed through his options. As he’d guessed, Rupert had one, and he plucked that card free. “This is all I need. Thank you.”
Ms. McDonald smiled. “I hope it helps. All the librarians will accommodate whatever researching needs you have.”
Lancer agreed hastily then excused himself. He was pretty sure running in a library wasn’t allowed, so he briskly walked towards a card catalogue. Checking Rupert’s card, he saw nothing useful. A name, certainly, except he already knew it. Lancer needed an address or something, except maybe that was asking too much. A person probably wouldn’t advertise where they lived for all―or at least all library patrons―to see.
He flipped the card over, thinking. Flipped it back to Rupert’s name, occupation, and a bookish quote. Flipping it again, he stopped and stared at it. In the lower left, hidden partway under his thumb, someone had written a number: 922.564.
Lancer looked at the card, then at the card catalogue. The bottom right drawer seemed more enticing by the second and he ripped it open. His fingers skipped through cards, searching for the 922′s, then further until he found 922.564 and pulled it out.
Handwritten on the card, in Rupert’s script, was an address. An additional note said, “For your exceptional researching skills, please feel free to call on me after hours at my private studio.” A scribbled smiley face with lopsided lips served as punctuation to Rupert’s signature. Lancer knew this address, had passed it on his way to Lyle Lampblack’s.
He pocketed the card and dashed towards the front door. Ms. McDonald looked up from her book. “Did you find what you needed?”
Lancer hesitated, said, “Yes, thanks!” and then ran into the streets.
Grammer’s Meatmarket, with a backroom to utilize the extras involved in butchery. No waste, a man said when Lancer asked why they made parchment at a meat place. It made sense, since why trash something useful?
While Lancer waited for someone to bring the stack of goatskin parchment, the meat manager wrapped up two goat kebabs for him and Nisa. In short order, the other man returned with the parchment, and then he was off.
Strange, that. He assumed he’d have to do some odd job, but apparently Grammer’s didn’t fool around. If you ordered something, they kept it ready and waiting. This suited him perfectly as he needed to finish his errands and return to Rupert immediately.
Maybe nothing was wrong. Perhaps everything was perfect, and he’d find Rupert in the library, prepared to perform the information sphereshift on the parchment. Lancer would return to the inn, amidst worry from the girls, then explain everything. He would solve Rei’s predicament, then Kanin would arrive and show him respect.
Or everything except the last. Lancer could dream, right?
He moved as fast as possible towards Nisa’s shop while carrying her delivery. Mostly a swift jog, he managed a few fast dashes when pedestrians cleared away fast enough. Why were so many people standing about? A guard shouted, some sort of announcement, but Lancer was too busy rushing to listen. Oh well. Cityfolk were weird, anyways. Probably just some unheeded declaration about loitering. These people, really. He pushed past a small group on the final stretch towards the scrivener’s.
Nisa met him at the door, turning the “Open” sign around so it showed “Closed.” She pinned up a note that said “Lunch. Back in 30 minutes.” Lancer did a fidgety dance in front of her, and she waved him in with a grin.
The door closed, the bell above tinkling their retreat inside.
“So,” Nisa said. “Is that it?”
Lancer nodded, placing everything on the shop’s countertop. “Yes. I got everything you asked for. I hurried as fast as I could, but–”
“You looking for a job, kid?” she asked. “That’s the fastest anyone’s fetched goods for me.” At that, she tossed him a pair of coins; gold and shiny.
Lancer caught them, stared at them. What, really? These were legit, some high quality coins. He had money, but nothing like this. If he worked here for a year and earned this much every day, he’d be able to return home, purchase land, buy materials, then build a house.
Distracted by the prospects, he didn’t see Nisa survey the kebabs and bring them into the side kitchen. Before he knew it the scent of roasting goat, sweet peppers, and tomatoes filled the room. Lancer pocketed the coins, following his nose to the smells.
Not much, just a room with a tiny table, chairs, and an oven, but what it lacked in furniture it made up for in food. The kebabs spun on a sphereshift-powered rack over the oven’s flames. On the table, a dish of rice with spiced sauce, stuffed grape leaves, and orange custard waited. Lancer plopped into a chair, mouth watering, entranced by lunch.
“Well?” Nisa said, laughing at him ogling the meal. “Eat something, will you?”
Lancer devoured a stuffed pepper. The rice went slower(spoon limitations), but he ate as fast as he could. Before he managed to destroy the custard, Nisa tossed a kebab on his plate. Slathering it with plain yogurt when she offered it, Lancer endured minimal mouth burns while gulping the seared meat. Nearly stuffed, he savored the custard while she started on her own food.
“Good?” she asked.
Lancer burped. “Amazing!”
“Nothing special, kid. Your parents don’t feed you?”
“They aren’t around much,” he said, mouth full of custard. “My sister cooks, but it’s not this good.”
Nisa smiled, reminding him of his mother. “Bring her by. I’ll show her how it’s done.”
“Sure,” Lancer said, smiling back. This was nice. He liked Nisa. Then he remembered what Lyle said, and his complacency wavered. “Um, Nisa?”
“Lyle mentioned Rupert’s–”
“Yeah—” Nisa trailed off. She moved a pile of rice around in a circle, then looked him in the eyes. “Kid, listen. Rupert’s not bad, it’s just—”
“Huh?” Lancer blinked. “I didn’t–”
“Look, I’m not judging him, alright? But he’s gotten himself into some trouble now. I’m not sure what exactly, but the city guards are after him. I wouldn’t look for him right now. I bet one of the other librarians can help you. Information sphereshifting isn’t too hard, you know? It’s like breathing to them. I’d do it if I could–”
“What did he do?” Lancer asked.
“Look, like I said, I don’t know the details–”
Lancer’s stare cut her off. He had eyes like a stone golem, perpetually unblinking.
“Robbed an inn, alright? I don’t know the name. Some people staying there, two rooms. Knocked out two guys, then stole some things. The innkeeper reported more people in there, but they can’t find three of them. A guy and two girls, I guess. That’s it. Don’t worry about it, alright? They’ll arrest him by day’s end, no problem.”
“Nisa, I appreciate everything and the meal–”
“Kid, don’t do this. It’s not worth it. You want to be the hero? Rupert’s an adult, he knows more than information sphereshifts. Whatever’s riled him up enough to commit burglary—you can’t handle him. There’s no reason to.”
“Thanks for the food, honestly,” Lancer said, standing.
Nisa sighed and cursed under her breath. “Look, take the stuff I owe you, alright? Make me think you’re not going to do something stupid, please?”
“Yeah,” he said, taking the pouch she handed him filled with a quill, parchment, and a premade ink vial. “I won’t do anything stupid, I swear.”
“Heard it before,” she muttered. “Well, go. Don’t get yourself hurt, alright?”
[Special Note: Check out Sphereshifters beginnings on Smashwords (here)! If you like the story, why not leave a review on Smashwords?]
Lancer ran to Lyle’s, a box of feathers tucked under one arm and his map clutched in the other.
Breathing heavily, he stopped in front of the Gothic-looking shop and peered into a display window. Or he tried, but it was covered in dust and grime and impossible to see through. In contrast, the window on the other side of the front door was spotlessly transparent. An interesting marketing trick, that; show customers how clean they could become.
Pocketing his map, he opened the door and stepped inside.
“Good. You’re here,” a man said. “Sit, relax. Care for some tea?”
Lancer paused. “I don’t think I have time.”
“There’s always time. Sit. There’s a nice chair here. It came from the Outlands. Paragrin to be exact. What do you think?”
For lack of anything better to do, Lancer sat in the chair. Smooth leather covered the outside and the seat cushion bounced when he put his weight on it. A nice chair, he had to admit. Casual, comfortable, but with a hint of sophistication in its appearance.
“Nice, eh?” the man said, offering a steaming cup of tea.
“I don’t mean to be rude,” Lancer said, blowing on his tea. “I think you have me mistaken, though.”
“Oh?” the man asked. “My apologies. Your nametag says Layne, and Nisa said to expect one. I’m Lyle, by the way. You aren’t here to collect her soot?”
“Er, strictly speaking, yes–”
“That’s good, because there’s plenty. Have you done this before? It’s easy. People send their lanterns for cleaning, and you wipe them with rags. You keep the rags, of course, and then Nisa turns the soot into ink. It’s magical, isn’t it?”
“So I’m going to have to work again?” Lancer sighed. “Does this take long?”
“Ah, you visited Sussex and Clyde’s first, eh? Right, there’s the feathers. I’m surprised you’re this early then. Is everything there? Did you double check?”
“I collected them myself! It was horrible!” Catching himself before he went on a tirade, Lancer added, “It wasn’t terrible. I had a system, which was fun, but I don’t see why they don’t manage their farm better.”
“Inherited,” Lyle said. “They’ve only owned it for a year. Business stays steady, but it’s not like it was with Old Sussex and Grandpappy Clyde. Good men, those two. Honest and true.”
“Oh,” Lancer said. “I didn’t know they’d―passed―I’m sorry.”
Lyle laughed. “Ha! Those geezers are good for a few more rounds. They retired. Moved to a tropical island where all the women are under the age of thirty.”
“Ahh.” Lancer didn’t get it.
“Anyways, shall we?” Lyle asked. “Lanterns are there.” He pointed to a wall of shelves, floor to ceiling, filled with different shaped and sized lanterns. “Rags are in that cask.”
Lancer eyed the wooden cask, tilted sideways with the top removed and filled with white cloth. “Rags?”
“We say rags, but really they’re textile factory scraps. Can’t use real rags or Nisa would rage. Impurities cause subpar ink, she says.”
Lancer nodded. Setting his tea aside, he searched for a lamp he liked, plus a rag. He carried them to his chair and peered at them curiously.
“You remove the glass, whichever way it unlatches, then wipe it. Stack the rags on the floor and I’ll pack them after.”
“How many do I need?” Lancer asked, expecting some ridiculous number.
“Ten. Maybe fifteen?”
Lancer worked. He toiled, wiping soot-smeared lantern glass with white white cloth. One, four, eight. This was fast! He liked it.
“You’re not from here, I suspect?” Lyle asked while cleaning. “Mind telling me where you’re from?”
Lancer told him. Details evolved into a story, which resulted in explanations about Rei and the subsequent library visit and Rupert’s help.
“Rupert, he’s crafty. I’m sure he can help–” Lyle smiled, but his speech sounded cautious.
“Huh?” Lancer fetched a new rag and lantern.
“Don’t attract his attention much, alright? Well, you have already, so perhaps it’s a finished deal. He’s not bad, but when he’s curious, he’s very curious.”
“I don’t follow.” Lancer wiped the glass with his rag using swift, sure swipes.
“Let’s put it this way. One time Rupert became fascinated with myths about a moonstruck pearl and dedicated weeks of research towards it. Myths, so nothing a regular person should invest much time in, right? That wasn’t enough for Rupert. By the end he convinced himself it existed, and likely would have chased after it, except suddenly he stopped. Might’ve found another obsession, or the S.R.D. stopped his shenanigans.” Lyle shrugged. “That’s a mild example. Usually he’s worse, though. He’s been arrested more than once. Stalking, trespassing, stealing, and the like.”
Lancer stopped rubbing soot from the lamp, markedly concerned.
“Don’t worry,” Lyle added quickly. “Everything’s probably fine. Rupert’s a genius when he sets his mind to something. He can definitely do an information sphereshift.”
Lancer nodded, numb. He counted the sooty rags. Thirty-one, really? He must’ve lost track of time, enraptured with Lyle and gossiping.
Lyle grinned. “It happens. I keep a chart for when Nisa comes. The longest she’s stayed was ninety-seven rags. Conversation keeps you distracted, but―here, let me bundle those for you.”
Lancer sipped his lukewarm tea while Lyle packaged rags. “Do you think everything’s fine?” Lancer asked. Rei, primarily, but Jaylee, too? Granted, he hadn’t told Rupert about her and the pearl, but maybe the librarian knew things.
“Ah, kid, don’t listen to me.” Lyle handed him the rags, neatly tied with twine. “Just be careful. Rupert’s not a bad guy, just strange.”
“Alright,” Lancer said. “Thanks.”
“Hey, don’t forget the feathers! You done? Nisa should have lunch ready soon. Maybe I’ll stop by.”
“I need parchment paper. Which is–” Arms full of feather crate and rag bundle, Lancer couldn’t check his map.
“Two blocks to the right. Huge building. Grammer’s. Can’t miss it!”
“Thanks!” Lancer bolted out of the store.
“Good luck, kid,” Lyle called after him.
[Special Note: Check out Sphereshifters beginnings on Smashwords (here)! If you like the story, why not leave a review on Smashwords?]
Ideas happened randomly, and Lancer’s were some of the randomest. Happenstance, ideas, or both―who knew?–but when he saw a swan craning its neck, staring at a latched cage containing feed bags, brilliance struck him.
The plan hinged on a certain amount of uncertainty—were swans reasonable?–but he felt it had merit. So, he started.
First, he searched for a preliminary subject. This was important, the inception. He found one, a rangy cygnet, who the others seemed to dislike. When the poor swan walked towards a group of his fellows, they up and left, honking abuse before striking for the lake.
Lancer sympathized, understanding the swan’s plight. He approached the bird, attempting first contact.
It went splendidly. If the initial biting swan was on the negative end of the friendliness spectrum, this swan was the polar opposite. His wings flapped, propelling him towards Lancer. The ugly swan honked twice, shuffled about, then honked again.
Lancer did his best imitation of the honk. The cygnet bobbed his head, appreciative. With a quick pat on the back, scratching between feathers, Lancer beckoned the swan towards the food cage. The swan followed, happy to gain a friend.
Lancer undid the cage’s latch, lifted the side panel, and peered into a bag. A cup lay inside, sideways, resting on grains. Great! He scooped up feed and pulled it out.
The other swans watched, curious, but cautious about approaching. Clyde and Sussex probably tossed the grains skywards, letting it fall without a care. Lancer imagined a horde of swans stampeding for food, aggressive, crashing towards him. Well, they wouldn’t rampage today because that was outside his plans.
He crouched, showing the cygnet the grains. When the bird’s neck dove for food, Lancer jerked the cup away and wagged a finger.
“No,” he said. “Watch.”
The swan peered at him, head crooked sideways, curious. He honked.
“Look,” Lancer said. “Let’s make a deal. Like business partners. You help me, and I’ll feed you extra, alright? A commission.”
The swan eyed the cup of food, a possible glint of understanding in his expression.
“Here’s how this goes.” Lancer measured two pinches of food into his hand. “You get this–” He set the grain on the ground and covered it with his foot. “―for this.”
Saying that, Lancer patted the cygnet on the head, then plucked a loose feather from his back. Embellishing their transaction, he smiled, fussed over the feather, cooed, then moved so the swan could eat. The bird gobbled the food in seconds, then looked for more.
This was it. The ugliest swan would make or break him.
The swan peered at the cup. He looked at Lancer’s smile. He glanced at the other swans. Then, as if on cue, he preened his feathers and pulled some loose. The swan waddled forward and dropped the feathers.
Three; Lancer measured six pinches of feed and offered them up.
Plan in motion, Lancer placed his feather crate to the side and waited. A swan honked from a distance, then shuffled closer and honked again. A big one, probably a bully to the cygnet, and not nice from the looks of him. He honked up close and personal, staring at the cup.
Lancer sighed, shrugged, shook his head. “I can’t give it away for free.”
The swan narrowed his eyes, contemplating humanspeech. After coming to his conclusion, he mimicked the little swan and pried free a beakful of feathers. He kicked them towards Lancer for appraisal.
Six feathers, twelve pinches, and he doled them out.
This converted the rest. Some rushed to the lake to spread the word, while others rushed forwards.
With effort, Lancer arranged them into queue. It took training, discouraging words and pantomimes for behavior like cutting in line, but they learned fast. Each feather gained two pinches of grain, easy as that. Some enterprising swans searched the farm, looking for fallen feathers to pawn.
Lancer filled the feather crate in under two minutes. Might as well do more, right? He indicated the swans should wait and went back inside. Clyde sat, ogling the entrance
“Can’t help,” he said. “‘M busy.”
“No problem.” Lancer stacked crates in his arms; six.
Clyde looked at him like he was crazy, but Lancer was on a mission and didn’t care.
Outside, he repeated the process. The crates filled fast, seeing a rush in business. During a lull, Lancer gave the ugly swan a few handfuls of feed to show his thanks. The bird used this to buy some affection with a flock of females.
Lancer needed more boxes. Clyde pretended to shuffle paperwork, staring at him sidelong.
Within thirty minutes, every crate was full, and the swans seemed happy. Good first day, Lancer thought. Net profits exceeded projections.
Clyde wandered outside, stared at the neatly stacked crates, and gaped. “Alright, how’s that?” he asked. “This some joke?”
“Supply and demand,” Lancer explained. “I taught them they can trade feathers for food. If you keep that business model, I expect it’ll sustain itself. Sit here, collect, then feed.”
“I can’t sit,” Clyde said. “I got business to run. Man, that’s more boxes than I seen in weeks, though.”
“Hire someone else? You can afford it with fast turnover. Who are your buyers?”
Clyde counted his fingers for each name said. “Nisa. Sometimes the library buys direct. The S.R.D. And rich folk buy handfuls, too.”
“Good, but–” Lancer had a decent grasp of business basics after performing small jobs for Mr. Cotter in his village’s general store. “Find other outlets. Clothes? Woman love feathers. Jewelry? Home decorations. I bet you can find tons of distributors. You’ll need to or you can’t keep up with the swan’s demands.”
“Can you write that down for me?” Clyde asked.
“Alright, but I have to leave soon. Do you know where–” He pulled Nisa’s instructions from his pocket, reading aloud. “Lyle Lampblack, ace fireplace trace eraser?”
“The chimneysweep,” Clyde said. “Yeah. You write those instructions, I’ll write directions.”
[Special Note: Check out Sphereshifters beginnings on Smashwords (here)! If you like the story, why not leave a review on Smashwords?]
For the sake of professionalism Lancer started at the first item on the list. That’s how they did it, he was pretty sure. They being the professional pick up people.
And so, with professional determination, he arrived at Sussex and Clyde’s swan farm. The front gates looked nice enough, with a fresh coat of white paint, but the further towards their office he went the more rickety and downtrodden the farm’s fencing became. Once at the the office steps, which were located near a corral, he thought maybe he’d gone the wrong way. Except, no, the gate said this was it and the pathway never split.
A man with a fancy hat came out to greet him. He stared at Lancer’s apron, then nodded. “Hey, you one of Nisa’s?”
“I think yes?” Lancer said, then changed that to, “Yes, I am. I’m here to pick up her order.”
“Ahhhh,” the man said. “About that, how about you come inside. I’ll tell you the whatfors and howtos.”
Lancer eyed the man, quizzical, but followed him into the dilapidated building.
Inside, he realized the problem immediately. Small, empty wooden crates lined the sides of the office, a cluttered desk in the middle of them all, with no boxed feathers in site. The man sat in one of two chairs behind the desk. Lancer thought he was supposed to sit in the sole chair opposite those two, so he did. The man shrugged, sighed, leaned back, and stared up.
“Having issues, see?” the man’s story started. “Sussex and Clyde, right? Except Mr. Sussex decided he don’t like business no more. For the birds, he said. What’s that even mean? I don’t know, but he told me to toss it and let them birds do whatever.”
Lancer had no clue what to say to that, but he thought he should say something. “You can’t let swans roam around unattended.”
“Exactly what I said. You’ve an eye for this. Got money? Looking to invest?” Mr. Clyde threw that idea out faster than a spitball. “Nah, you wouldn’t work for Nisa otherwise. Anyways,” he added, “it’s good work, right? We made good money, but these birds, they don’t listen. Do what they want. That’s fine in the lake, where rich folk gawk at them while riding fancy boats, but otherwise it ain’t great.”
“Why do you want the birds to listen, exactly?” Lancer asked.
“Didn’t think you’d understand. Here’s the deal. We let them swim around the lake all they want during daytime hours, but nights we want them to sit in the fence. They’d get lost or somewhat, right? Birds don’t got maps, so how they gonna get home? They don’t sit, though. Yeah, they come sometimes, but it’s not a common happening.”
“How long’s this been going on?” Lancer asked, feeling like he was on to something. “Have you lost many?”
“Years! Imagine that? Never lost one, but still. Years and these swans don’t listen. It’s a travesty!”
“Tragedy,” Lancer corrected.
“I say what I mean, boy. You’re a fetcher, so you don’t know words.”
“Anyways, deal’s a deal, so the feathers Nisa wants are hers, but without a partner I can’t pick them up by myself. You’ll have to get them on your lonesome. Grab a box, fill her up, and that’s that.”
Lancer looked at one of the crates. Not large by any stretch, small enough to hold in both hands, but by his deduction a person could fit a lot of feathers into one.
“Is it by weight?” Lancer asked. “Or amount?”
Mr. Clyde stared at him as if he were slow in the brain. “You take a box. You get feathers. You fill her up. Capiche?”
“How do you get the feathers?” Lancer asked, hoping that wasn’t met with a similar derisive answer. “Just pick them up?”
“Ha! No. I forgot about that. Here, take this.” Mr. Clyde handed him some crazy looking device with backpack-like straps attached to a lumpy bag with a hose coming out of the top and a cord dangling along the bottom. “This thing is great. Put it on your back, right? Then you do a little air sphereshift into this dangly bit and the hosey part starts sucking up. Wave it over feathers and whoosh! In the bag, just like that. Easy as pie.”
“Oh! Yeah―ha―ha–easy.” Lancer took the feather-sucker-upper from Mr. Clyde. One eyebrow raised, he stared at the contraption.
This wouldn’t work. Except it had to. He strapped it to his back while Clyde watched, apathetic. Hoisting a crate into his arms, Lancer waved goodbye, wishing the man luck. Mr. Clyde muttered, spun in his chair, then fell off it. He might’ve gotten up, did something else, but Lancer was already sprinting to the corral.
Swans stared at him when he entered their confines. One walked over to scope out the situation. Lancer held his hand out to pat the bird, gain its trust so he could pluck feathers straight from the source, but the bird reared up and tried to bite his hand. Blocking the attack with the sucker-upper’s hose, Lancer sidestepped away from the wicked fowl. The swan lost interest and elegantly waddled away.
Lancer found a feather and picked it up. He put it in the box, found another. His third search revealed three feathers together, like a miracle, but then he found five and reassessed his beliefs.
After ten minutes he looked inside his box; forty feathers barely covering the bottom. This wasn’t working, he needed to go faster, that elusive promise of wages and a snack break looming over him like death’s presence.
And then it struck him. He had the most brilliant idea of his life. If this worked he would have the rest of his feathers in ten seconds flat, no problem.