Dirke was one of the largest and most alluring cities in the world – the kind of bright and beautiful place that people dream about; of beauty so different from nature's splendor, but still so magnificent; of sophistication worthy of royalty, and of wealth that almost every human in creation longs for.
In the summertime, brilliant sunlight spread over the port city, winding through gleaming white streets that teemed with people. It swept over the roofs of the largest and finest mansions, through intricate gardens, and over a wide, glittering bay shining like a sapphire in Dirke's luminosity.
It was on the East side of this city where the wealthiest and most well to do citizens lived. (As if the rest of the city were much lower.) One of these sizeable houses sat directly next to the Aberion harbor, with as serene and peaceful an appearance as any of the others, with the same radiant white walls and shining, new windows with vibrantly colored shutters.
In an upstairs window seat in this home, a girl in her late teens was leaning against the frame. With her golden hair and youthful look, she could have been a part of the sunlight that warmed her face, or so anyone would have thought if they'd seen her in her usual optimistic mood.
At the moment, she was feeling quite the opposite. She would have to go back to school in a week, and she had summer homework that still needed to be finished. (What kind of kid would she be if she didn't procrastinate?) And so, for the last four hours, she'd devastated her mind with a couple of months worth of advanced equations and sciences compacted into a far smaller amount of time. Among the general mess in the room, textbooks and papers were listless on the floor and the seat beside her. As the girl gazed out at the sunny landscape outside, everything in the room sat still, frozen – her thoughts were on the horizon, and it was as empty as if no one was there.
This lingering poignancy was suddenly interrupted by the wide double doors opening with a thud, allowing her unwanted caretaker to come in.
Ms. Abigail was the name she'd always used for the old woman. She was an extremely short, stooped woman who always had a very strict and stubborn attitude that showed in her severe expression. Her steely eyes looked scornfully toward the mess on the writing desk, at the disorganized bookshelves, at the unmade bed, at the clothes sprawled out across the area, and finally at the girl napping by the window.
"Silvia!" she snapped. Her voice was naturally uneven, as rough as the harbor waters in a storm, and just as harsh too.
The young blonde gradually turned toward the woman, the atmosphere shifting as her thoughts returned to the room. Ms. Abigail began to move about rapidly, grabbing and folding clothes in seconds and then snatching up thick books in even less time.
"How might ye be doin' with that work?" she asked.
"Good," Silvia replied vaguely, taking up her homework again and grimacing at the equations.
"Well, I hope so! Might I remind ye that post-summer exams start the day ye get back t'school, n' that this is yer final year before ye head off t'university?"
"Yes, I know."
"People expect great things of yeh, yer sister bein' as important as she is…"
Silvia absentmindedly sighed in a sort of reply and lowered her head to the windowsill as she began her work again.
The elderly woman spoke again, still furiously cleaning. "Yer birthday party's in a week, 'n Mizz Cassandra would like for me t'take ye out t'buy ye a dress."
The lethargy Silvia had seemed to be enthralled in the entire time quickly vanished and she whipped around, scowling at Ms. Abigail.
"A what?" she exclaimed.
"A dress, girl, a dress!" the old woman replied, pausing in her work and glaring at the open-mouthed teenage girl.
"But… why do I have to wear a dress?"
Ms. Abigail snorted. "Because ye're a young lady. Young ladies wear dresses. …Don't you want t'be pretty?"
"Dresses aren't what make girls pretty."
"But they can make girls look prettier."
Silvia just scoffed. She returned her gaze to her books and disregarded Ms. Abigail, and after a short moment of silence the woman returned to her work.
"Be ready in fifteen minutes t'go t'the market, whether ye're studies are done or not. The cook don't have enough ingredients to make lunch and he's absolutely livid… The ruddy kitchen maids are too lazy t'go 'n get it themselves. It's a wonder they get paid…"
Still ranting about the kitchen maids, she left, shutting the door loudly behind her. Always loud, wherever she went… Silvia shut the book and tossed it to the floor inattentively as she lifted herself from the seat. She approached her writing desk and took her time choosing an Altheiran map from its surface before leaving.
Silvia and Ms. Abigail headed to the market district of Dirke by way of carriage and soon arrived at its center. Here masses of people traveled all over, going in every direction, the waves of a turbulent ocean all crashing against each other, the sound resonating between rows of tall, picturesque shops and cafes. Silvia knew this district well – she used to think it was great when she was little, with so many different people – traders from the deserts of the east, with skin worn by sand and wind, travelers from the holy cities looking elegant even in such a beautiful city, and the rare journeyers from cold northern villages. Still she took a bit of an interest in them, these adventurers and their stories – pieces of a whole world she'd never seen.
She looked around her, casually gazing at all the different people, easily distracted. Silvia started to stray from Ms. Abigail's side, but the woman quickly grabbed her upper arm and held her steady.
"What?" Silvia whined. "Can't I just go over there?"
"No, we must find ye a dress," the woman declared. "That's what we're here for."
"But aren't you going to get groceries, too?" Silvia asked, desperately.
Ms. Abigail grunted impatiently and let go of her arm. "I s'pose I am. Well… get on with it then, but be at Wisteria's at one o'clock!"
"Ohh-kay…" Silvia yelled, already pushing through the swarms of people, heading away from Ms. Abigail.
She wandered around for a while after she was sure the old woman was far behind. Silvia walked for a long time, aimlessly down the road just watching all the activity around her. She got all the way out to the edge of the market – and she could tell this was the end of the line by the considerably thinner crowds. All the shops in this part of the city seemed to sell a lot of clothes and goods imported from far off cities.
Silvia admired some silver jewelry laying on burgundy velvet in one window and some very pretty crystals and pendants in another when she noticed a small crowd by the door of a nearby shop. All of them stood close together, looking toward the center of the circle. At times they would talk among themselves, and then an anxious silence would overcome them. Curious, Silvia inched toward them, completely unnoticed, and glanced over their shoulders.
The point of interest was an extremely peculiar woman sitting in a tall wrought iron chair just next to the doorstep. The sleeves of her white dress shirt were pulled up over her elbows, showing her wrists to be covered in many bracelets and bangles. Her hands with nails painted black were held together, holding something, as if guarding the unknown item. Her long black hair, looking faintly indigo in the dazzling sunlight, was tied back with a band of scarlet silk, so that the black patch covering one eye was even more apparent. Silvia was fascinated; she didn't think she'd ever seen someone with one eye before.
The woman held her hands out over a ridiculously small table set before, and from them three small, glittering gemstones dropped to the surface. Silvia and the rest of the viewers looked on with wonder while she leaned forward and examined them for a moment.
"Hmm…" she started, "a topaz means you're feeling ambitious at the present time, and a diamond represents your desire for riches."
Silvia just noticed that she was addressing "Yeah," a young man standing in front of her said. "Yeah, I've always wanted to have a shop up here."
The people in the crowd began murmuring. "I think she's a true fortune teller," a middle-aged woman next to her whispered to her friend. Her companion, however, seemed to differ in opinion.
"Oh please," she huffed. "She probably set it up with him earlier."
"What about the last twenty people we've watched today?" the other retorted.
Silvia moved over just enough so that she couldn't hear the two arguing, still watching the woman as she gazed at the gemstones. "The amber means you have to think clearly and use your head to create a well-balanced business. Another diamond means you should do very well with it." She smiled, a gentle, pretty smile, and the man handed her some money and walked off, looking satisfied.
Many people stepped forward at once, reaching into their pockets for coins, asking to go next.
"Wait," the woman said softly. She reached over to a small, lithe black cat sitting primly on the doorstep and affectionately stroked his head. The commotion slowly died down. "Lucky says there's someone here we'd like to see."
The cat mewed with delight before the woman withdrew her hand and smiled at him. The cat made one downward motion with its head, like a nod, and its green eyes looked lazily in Silvia's direction.
The woman stood up, one hand to her skirt and the other tightly grasping the gemstones. She followed the cat's gaze, and Silvia looked to the people nearest her, trying to figure out which one she was so interested in. But everyone else had the same questioning expression as Silvia.
And then, they stared at her, all turning on her one by one, and Silvia looked up and saw the woman's one eye was focused on her.
"Hello," she said nonchalantly. "Come up from the Aberion district?"
"Oh, yeah," Silvia said, quite surprised by now. "You know my sister?"
The only way this situation would make any sense to Silvia was if this woman knew her as Cassandra's sibling – Cassandra, being the rich and pretty wife of a merchant, had gained a lot of popularity in Dirke. Silvia didn't wait long for a reply, and she didn't hear what she'd expected to.
"I believe so," the woman answered. "You and your sister came here from the far north several years ago?"
Silvia lowered her head, trying to think against the confusion quickly settling in her mind. "That's what Cassandra tells me… I can't really remember."
She looked wonderingly at the woman before her, and now noticed that the iris of her remaining eye was a bright, luminescent red. She smiled, nodded, and asked, "So, your name is?"
"Silvia, sister of Cassandra, from the north. I see. Would you like me to tell your fortune, free of charge?"
There were a few utterances of protest from the group of people around them. The woman looked on and Silvia earnestly consented – there was no way she could say no.
"Good, then, this way," the woman said with satisfaction. She turned and calmly went back to her chair near the doorstep where the black cat laid with its paws tucked underneath it. Silvia sluggishly went forward, stopping awkwardly in front of her.
The woman clasped her hands together and shook the gemstones between them once again. The four gems she dropped on the table were very different this time. First came a vivid azure stone, then a larger yellow one, a white gem and finally a fiery red one.
"Ah," the woman sighed. "The sapphire. You're feeling sad. Oppressed."
Silvia didn't make any effort to reply. She stood in solemn silence, contemplating, listening carefully to what she was saying.
"Well, the topaz represents an imminent change, when you'll be happy and energetic and feel free. But," the woman said quickly, "there's also going to be danger… Lots of tough times ahead… You'll be involved in great things that you never thought would affect your life."
"You know all that looking at those crystals?" Silvia said, cocking her head to the side.
The woman laughed a little. The cat, Lucky, crawled onto her lap and she began to contentedly stroke its head. "Yes. The opal represents magic and the aether. The garnet represents a journey."
"The aether…? The life force of the planet? That aether?"
"Of course. There's no other."
The woman reached out and took the gems back into her hand in one swipe as Silvia struggled to work out certain details in her mind. Changes and a journey and the aether. What sense could she make of that?
"Well, thank you, ma'am, for telling my fortune," she said politely. The woman nodded and she very gradually turned and began to walk away, the crowd surging forward again with their wallets.
It seemed to Silvia that it had only been seconds when she felt a bony hand seize her arm. She jumped at first, and then recognized whose iron grip it was.
"What are ye doin'?" Ms. Abigail's harsh voice hissed from beside her.
Silvia groaned loudly and exasperatedly. "I was walking around. Why?"
"You were supposed to be at Wisteria's a long time ago." Ms. Abigail started forward, walking at a brisk pace that clearly reflected her anger. Silvia tried to pull her arm away a few times, but the old woman held fast to her, dragging her back into the ever-changing, massive horde of shoppers and traders and travelers that formed the main marketplace. Silvia was totally embarrassed to have a nanny hauling her around so unceremoniously, and especially when they walked into Wisteria's, which was an obviously sophisticated shop.
It had a fashionable, feminine look to it, with a sign hanging over the door, painted a cheery lilac color. Ms. Abigail pulled her inside, a small bell tinkling as they stepped in. It was spacious enough, and smelled, of course, of fresh new clothes. Hues of rosy pink and pastel colors were all over the shop, and even more so in the profundity of dresses hanging from the racks.
Ms. Abigail let go of her arm, without a word to her, and Silvia instantly backed away and leaned against the wall while the old lady began looking through the dresses.
"What did ye find while ye were lookin' 'round?" Ms. Abigail asked, a hostile edge to her voice.
"Lots of things." Silvia murmured remotely. "There was a fortune teller."
"A fortune teller?"
"Did you have yer fortune told?"
"Well, I didn't really want to have my fortune told, but she did it for me for free."
"For free? Why's that?"
"Ye don't know."
"No, I don't."
Ms. Abigail grunted, discontent, and went on with her search for a good dress. Silvia sighed, crossed her arms, and looked out the shop window past the manikin modeling an airy pink summer dress. She thought more and more of what the fortune the one-eyed woman told her could possibly mean. Happiness would come, followed by great changes, and a journey, and magic…
"Don't ye stand there all day, ye have t'pick a dress!" screeched Ms. Abigail obnoxiously.
Silvia stalked over to another clothes rack and started fingering through a large selection of pastel party dresses and mumbling ferociously. The young girl put her hands down deep in her pockets, trying to make it obvious to anyone who could be watching that she really didn't want to be here.
"Can I at least find a selection that's darker and more… subtle?" she groaned, scowling at a baby blue dress with a bit too much lace.
Ms. Abigail grunted again. "We're already late. Just pick."
Silvia sighed again and asked, "Have you ever seen magic?"
"Magic?" Ms. Abigail asked. "Yes, I have seen magic. I've seen Witches usin' it before, plenty of times. There's a lot of Witches in the world, ye know, and a great deal of magic too."
"How does it work?"
"Ye ask lots of questions, don't ye now…"
"Just tell me, please?"
Ms. Abigail paused to sigh and look up at the pale yellow ceiling in thought. "Well, there's theories that they use the aether. Somehow Witches get to the aether and they turn it into magic. But nobody really knows. They're both very spotty subjects, magic and the aether. They're energies of sorts, and that's all people can really figure out."
Silvia continued to finger through the dresses thoughtfully, and after a moment more of cogitation, Ms. Abigail said, "Why do ye ask, anyway? What's magic t'you?"
Silvia shrugged. "I dunno."