Author's note:

Well, I'm back! And not just to fictionpress—but to school, too! (Graduate program! Weeeeeee!)

Anywho, I've got enough material to post a more-or-less through-written version of the story. Yes, it's not complete; yes there are still gaps; yes, it's virtually all unedited; yes, I need to cut back quite a bit of unnecessary jibber-jabber. But, right now, FEEDBACK is more important than any of that. Indeed, only with good feedback will I be able to properly resolve the aforementioned issues.

People familiar with this story will find that there is much more here than what they saw before. And hopefully, new readers will find this to be a story to enjoy and cherish. I know that the first few chapters are a bit slow (I'm presently working on fixing it!), but please, if you can, stick with this story. I've poured my heart and soul into this thing, and as such, I'll be eternally grateful for a review or two.


"We are the authors of the book of the world," his father had told him—but what were they but empty words?

The city of Meovîgn still seemed to slumber, even though the sun was already well on its way, climbing up into the clear morning sky. The city slept in the southern shadows of the snow-capped Crystalpeaks. The city slept in comfort, nuzzled from the east by the gentle bend of the great river Vorraine, and by mighty walls on the other three sides. The city slept in safety; verdant forests hugged it to the south and to the east, kept at a distance by a ring of meadows filled with urban echoes—hamlets, mills, and workshops and more. But while others were asleep in rows of tall houses, with steep roofs and brick chimneys, Reayx Depynn was up and about, wide awake, and living life to its fullest—waiting in the middle of a long line of applicants, hoping to be one of the lucky few to get an unforgiving job with a pittance wage. And he was loving every moment of it—whole-heartedly.

For once, here was something that he could do. This mattered a great deal to Reayx, given all the innumerable things that he could not do.

He couldn't eat pie.

He couldn't ride a dinosaur.

He couldn't spend the night with a friend, nor go to school, nor have a pet.

He didn't have a place to be or a role to play or a course to follow—he couldn't.

He couldn't stay in any one place, nor could he bear the thought of having to leave again.

He was terrified of having company, and yet he couldn't stand to be alone.

He couldn't have children—biological, or otherwise.

And he couldn't be acknowledged, or remembered.

His home had burnt to the ground, his parents were dead, and his sister probably was, too.

Reayx sighed and tried to think of something else.

Yes, there were many things that Reayx could not do, but luckily, waiting in line was not one of them—and that was better than nothing. It made him feel like he belonged. And he didn't really have anything better to do.

{3 weeks, 1 day, 4 modes, 15 minutes, and… uhh…}

Reayx couldn't recall the last number of his present time count. He looked up at the sky and took note of the inclinations of the sun and the two moons. Although he could have calculated the number of minutes with a few cross-references to the longitudes of places and some straight-forward arithmetical maneuvers—Reayx knew the latitude and longitudes of most of the major cities on the continent—he was feeling a bit lazy on this particular morning; he wasn't in the mood for math.

Sticking the newspaper he clutched in hand under his arm, Reayx reached into the deceptively plain-looking leather satchel he kept strung on the elastic belt on his waist and, from it, pulled out a smaller, cloth-lined leather pouch, from which he pulled out his old chronograph; he held the circular timepiece in the palm of his hand—they were about the same size—and grasped the holding string between his fingers. In a certain respect, it was something of a shield: a trusty bulwark to fend off the ravages of ceaseless time. Like most of the things Reayx kept in his handy-dandy magical satchel, he had made the chronograph from scratch. Not wanting it to look plain, he had also taken the time to make an acid-etching on the timepiece's metal backside. Nothing ostentatious: just a reproduction in gold inlay of The City Sublime, Sankino's famous mid-thirteenth century painting of the (now-lost) city of Dahrton. It was one of the last works Sankino had made before becoming completely blind.

Of course, Reayx did not normally look at that side—but that was neither here no there.

Reayx held the device close so as to not pique anyone's curiosity—but not too close as to seem suspicious. The chronograph had six pointers for seasons, days, modes, minutes, and seconds, respectively. By its reckoning, he had exactly zero seasons, 3 weeks, 1 day, 4 modes, 15 minutes, and 92 seconds left to spend as a human being.

{Ninety-three seconds,} Reayx thought, correcting himself.

{Ninety-two…} But he stopped there, not wanting to waste any more of his humanity on mere counting.

He slipped the chronograph back into its case, and slipped the case back into his satchel, without having even glanced at the decorations on its back. The little sack swallowed up the timepiece without visibly increasing in size.

For a third time, Reayx thumbed through the newspaper in his left hand. He skipped passed most of the articles—"Tellygraph Line to Cross the Crystalpeaks"; "Three National Guardsmen Missing, Presumed Dead"; "Dragon sighted near Casçon Corniel"; "D'Dumaché vows to End the Varise"; "Famed jeweler dies after a long illness"—to get to the advertisements in the back.

WANTED: Magic-Users to assist the National Gaddeonese Circus Performers (N.G.C.P.) with the show planned for this Year's Festival: Vasta Barné and the Dragon.

JOB(S): Construction; Stage-Hands; Special Effects; Technicians, Extras.

QUALIFICATIONS: Must be skilled at casting Ambulations and/or Illusions. Must be able to cast spells from a pre-prepared field with the utmost ease. Skill in creating/manipulating fields is not mandatory, but will be looked favorably upon; cannot have stage-fright, regardless of kind or intensity. Preference will be given to applicants not affiliated with a Mages' Union.

LOCATION: The Orange N.G.C.P. Tent in Scalifax Plaza, Meovîgn, at 8:30 A.M. First-come, first-tested: hiring is on a potemetric basis.

Reayx scrunched the newspaper back up after he'd finished reading it. He twiddled his toes, rubbing them against the smooth, fuzzy softness of his nice, brown boots. He'd made them himself, just a few weeks before when—absentminded, and in a rush—he'd accidentally made his previous pair explode. He was especially pleased with how comfortable they were.

{Papa would have been proud,} Reayx thought.

Even now, he could still hear his father's gentle lectures, spoke on excited breaths as he worked on his newest project in his workshop.

{"To make a thing is the greatest deed a man can ever strive to do, Reayx. Make art, make inventions, make progress, make beauty, and make love. Never forget that, son,"} he thought, remembering.

"If only it was that simple…" Reayx mumbled.

He glanced down at his outfit: brown boots, blue plants, blue shirt—long sleeved—and a thin orange-brown scarf wrapped round his neck.

Most of Reayx's outfit was wrought almost entirely from enchantments he had long ago placed upon the four elastic bands he wore on his limbs—on his upper arms, and on his shins—beneath the blue "fabric" of his clothes. That "fabric" was little more than an ultra-dense cloud of condensed [oxygen]—the constituent gas of the air that man and beast alike inhaled for breath.

Hence the blue color.

Thankfully, the spell that condensed the [oxygen] kept it at a comfortable temperature, as well as removed its troublesome inclination to combust at the slightest spark of heat. As long as he kept the enchantment well-maintained, his clothes would remain clean and nigh-indestructible for the rest of his life. But not his boots.

Reayx needed new boots from time to time, because, try as he might, he had never been able to figure out how to do them what he had done to his other garments. The magics he used for the relevant enchantments simply refused to make a form that had a closed end.

The scarf was just something extra for the cold. Spring had just barely come to the northern hemisphere; the weather could still be a little nippy in places.

"Next!" A shout shot out from the head of the line.

The noise caught Reayx's attention. He jerked his head up from a downward gaze and looked toward the head of the line. As he looked, Reayx took in the sight of the circus grounds lying in the background, and the many people therein.

Reayx heard a ragged sigh from behind. "Dahr; at this rate, there'll be no spots left."

The center of Scalifax Plaza—one of many such plazas in Meovîgn—was almost entirely occupied by NGCP circus grounds. A tall, square-shaped picketed fence walled off the circus. The fence was wooden, reinforced in places with the occasional metal strut. The tops of the tarp tent buildings inside could be seen, peaking out above the fence—like colored icebergs, floating atop a brown sea. The colors were all wonderfully gaudy—violets, blues, oranges, and yellows. Some were solid colors, while some were striped, or otherwise patterned. Most of them had single little pennant-flags at their summits, flapping in the wind.

There was a crowd of circus-workers just outside the fence, chanting something about wanting an increase in wages. Several of the workers bore the [detail] banners of the mages' union atop tall poles.

{A workers' strike, obviously.}

The strikers paced in circles around the fence, like an army marching on a castle. Several burly-looking fellows flanked either side of the line of applicants, keeping the protesters from assaulting the circus' newest applicants. It did not, however, keep the strikers from making faces or shouting insults—"scab!", "strike-breaker!"—at the line of applicants.

The mages union was but one of the many (mostly international) organizations that existed to keep track of people who used magic in more than just an everyday capacity. In a world where anyone could learn to wield magic—with the right training, of course—it was essential that society kept tabs on individuals who had the power to cause quite a bit of trouble if they chose to do so. By all accounts, Reayx should have been one of the many millions who kept a certified, up-to-date mages' license on his person. But he didn't.

{Paper trails are dangerous.}

Pushing the protestors' chants out of his ears, Reayx leaned out of the line at an odd angle, hoping to get a better look at things further down the line. He could just make out a disheveled, portly-looking figure, sitting at what looked like a table at the head of the line, right beside the main entry gate.

A disappointed-looking man stormed out of the fence, troubled at having been denied yet another job. As he passed, the people in line slugged forward. They stepped in unison—but not Reayx. He started moving once he heard the man's first, angry footfall smacking dry against the dirt.

{Wha—?}

Reayx tensed his legs and pushed back against his motion. He would have collided with the person in front of him: a gaunt-looking man with hair like a rats' nest, and a brown felt trench-coat with the acrid reek herbs smoked at night.

"Oh, excuse me," Reayx said.

No response—at first. Then, one of the shoulders behind the felt rolled, and with it a voice whispered: "Fuck off."

The strikers made a triumphant ruckus, happy that a would-be scab had been denied.

"Ugh, my head…" said the druggie, gripping his forehead in hand, and rubbing it slowly.

Some of the protestors came close to the line, their union's banner waving [color] in the wind behind them. They glowered at the applicants—Reayx included.

One of the mercenary guards spoke up, glaring at the approaching strikers. "Folks, I'd keep my distance if I were you." He thumped his hand on the pistol holstered by his side.

One of the other mercs unsheathed his sword, raised it in front and pretended to inspect it. The looks of fear on the protestors' faces were reflected in the blade's polished metal. The sword-bearer glanced up from his blade, and at the crowd.

"I agree."

The protestors stepped back, grumbling, scowling, and—under their breaths—swearing.

{Wow.} Reayx nodded at the development (or lack thereof). The guards hadn't brandished blunt batons and bashed a few of the strikers' heads bloody and bruised. Now that was progress!

Meovîgn was the capital of the Maridan Union, the massive federation of states that dominated the heartlands of the continent of Faern. Meovîgn embodied the (supposedly) progressive-minded disposition of the peoples of the Vorraine River Valley. Granted, it was still second-place to the progressiveness of the Union's northern wilds—the people there acted like they were in the thirteenth century, instead of the nineteenth!—but, nevertheless, Reayx was glad to see that the river valley was living up to its reputation. Or at least, that it appeared to be doing so. Appearances were everything, after all.

"Damn it, what is this world coming to?" someone wondered aloud. "What's next? Riots?"

Whenever Reayx came to Meovîgn—or any other city, for that matter—with the intention of staying a while, he always made a point of finding some sort of employment; something to keep himself engaged during his stay. Preferably, this would be a "quiet" job—one that wouldn't attract too much attention from other people: repair-work, filling clerk's assistant, delivery service, restaurant chef—those kinds of occupations. But finding work like that was really just a means to an end. It gave him a pretense to do what he loved: spending time among people. He liked the comfort that came from being a faceless member of the crowd. It was more than that: he needed it. Reayx knew himself well enough to know how risky it was for him to be wandering about without a place to be in a city of this size, especially for several weeks on end.

And that was because Reayx was a shape-shifter.

It took only a simple pluck of magic for him to change. Granted, that magic was supposed to be impossible—at best, he should have long since melted into a nightmarish puddle of organic slush; at worst, he should have exploded with the force of ten thousand suns—but those little "facts" were neither here nor there; if anything, they were so far away from everything else that Reayx saw little point in dwelling on it anymore. He had suffered enough already; enough years spent in search of an answer—even just a clue—to the unfathomable, unbearable WHY of his condition, only to come up empty-handed and empty-hearted. Eventually, he had had to force himself through the pain and simply accept that there was nothing he could do about it, save to carry on with his life, trying to carve out for himself something approximating a happy, healthy existence.

A nervous voice spoke, trembling. "I should have gotten here earlier… If I miss this… If I don't pay Bosart what I owe him…"

Reayx couldn't see the young man, only hear him, and smell him.

The next rejected applicant walked past, away from the line. Reayx was too stuck in his thoughts and his senses to notice it. Even so, at a primal level, something in him felt a body move close from behind. Too close.

Bff.

Reayx and the man behind him bumped together like slow-rolling marbles.

"Hey, kid—watch it!" the man said. He was balding, middle-aged, and wearing an ascot clearly meant to impress someone.

Reayx glanced back. "Sorry."

"Move!"

"Sorry!" Reayx repeated his apology for everyone behind him. Then he stepped forward, closing up the gap in the line.

Inside, Reayx smiled; it was nice to be included in other people's conversations like that. It was a burden for him to have to always play the role of the quiet one at the back of the classroom. Granted, it wasn't entirely untrue to who he really was, but the endless days of living at a distance left him always yearning for the simple pleasure of being included—of someone reaching out to him, simply because they wanted to. But, he was afraid of reaching out; not for fear of rejection, but for fear of reaching too far too much; of getting too deep into a situation to be able to easily escape from it.

Reayx was being indecisive, as he usually was. Even now, he wasn't truly certain about what he wanted to do. Part of him wanted to remain in the line, where everything was safe and certain—a place where he belonged simply because he was there. Another part of him worried that he wouldn't be able to stay immersed in the people for long. The thought of having to leave, again—of having to become… it scared him.

A remembered scent surfaced in his mind: orphans' corpses, roasting in an open fire. He shuddered internally, and banished the memory from his nose.

After keeping his head down for about half a minute, Reayx's eyes wandered off again. He turned his head left and right, gazing peacefully at the plaza, seeing the sights, watching people going about their business—watching the many machinations of the day, slowly taking hold of the city once more, as they always did. He thought of all the drowsy buildings tucked away, out of sight; of the slender apartments and steep-roofed town-houses that snuggled up in lines along the gently curving cobblestone streets. He thought of what it looked like from up above: old, paved streets laid out like wheels—the spokes grand, verdant boulevards; new streets, often dirt, laid out in lazy grids; and chimneys—chimneys everywhere. Even now, as he looked up, they filled the skyline, almost obscuring the bigger buildings deeper in. Only a few of the chimneys had started to puff, though; those that did let loose the smoke from morning hearths and stoves cooking breakfast.

{Breakfast. Mmm….}

Reayx especially sensitive nose caught a whiff of delicious things slowly coming out into the open. Bakers setting out their oven-fresh pastries, letting them cool. The many aromas of fresh produce at farm-vendors' street-corners; the smell sometimes tangy, sometimes sweet, other times earthy or pungent, yet always full of verve. And, of course, the succulent, somewhat metallic scent of fresh meat, slapping wet against butcher's tables, ready to be sliced and sold. Yet—and Reayx winced at this—he could just as easily catch the distant stink of the usual un-pleasantries: dinosaur dung, tanneries, subdued sewage, and others. But they were unavoidable; some messes just followed people wherever they went.

Reayx would have given anything to be able to eat those pastries. True, there was nothing stopping him from scarfing down as many as he liked, but, there was also nothing stopping his stomach from vomiting them back out because they weren't on the list of approved edibles: meat, meat, and more meat. Human meat most of all.

"Ugh, what I wouldn't give for a warm bowl of eel soup right about now," someone said.

A gentle trickle of pedestrians flowed more or less constantly along the periphery of the plaza. Lower-middle classes, mostly. Men in flat-caps and thick, big-buttoned overcoats, tramped their way toward workshops or the river wharves. Women in gray skirts, striding in their tight-laced boots, off to make an impression at class, at the office, or at some cozy social function. The women's fancy hats stuck out from above the flow of heads like the very blossoming flowers that often adorned them. But nothing too fancy: it was not a posh district of the city. The sigh of the headwear in particular gladdened Reayx. He was thankful that bonnets were no longer in fashion; from behind, they made their wearers heads look like pie tins. And that was extremely distracting; the smell alone was tantalizing enough.

The plaza was somewhat removed from the Civic Center, a ways to the north—the heart of old Meovîgn—but, it was by no means a recent construction. The multi-story townhouses and condominiums that ringed around the plaza were still all closed up; the same could be said of the big-windowed boutiques that many of those buildings had on their bottom floors. For those that didn't have a business at ground-level, the quaint little front yards they had instead were still moist with dew. Droplets still clung to the rough, lively patches of their mini-gardens' grass, and to the petals and leaves of the flowers—roses, violets, fulippas, lavender, and many other that Reayx couldn't name—framed in metal-wire fences, a line of thin but thick metal rods, bent into a row of small arches. The metal shined a fresh, blackish-grey, moist, and no doubt cool to the touch. It reminded Reayx of his mother's herb "garden"—planters on the balcony, and on the kitchen windowsill. He missed her dearly.

{"My little chef…"} Her voice echoed in his mind.

Of course, it was she who had been the true chef, of course—not him. Her pies had been fit for an emperor. He was just the little assistant.

A trio of songbirds—emerald gossipers—fluttered past, overhead. Reayx's eyes followed them across the plaza, to one of the trees scattered along the plaza's octagonal perimeter. They settled down in the branches, and started making their quiet music—lost, though it was, among the din of the crowds. They sung the sounds that they had heard whilst eavesdropping around the city: heated words of family arguments, tune of played by marching bands or orchestras in parks, or the rhapsodic melodies sung by bathers in their homes. All were sounds of life, and lives being lived.

For an instant, the breeze grew into a gust, making Reayx shiver. It died down just as quickly. It was as if the sky was reminding him that he didn't belong here.

As much as Reayx enjoyed being around people—it, along with flight, were the only two things keeping him sane—spending time among people was a burden all its own. It was like walking through a land of living candy, his mouth ceaselessly watering. Constant, dedicated practice had trained Reayx to walk amongst humans without having to constantly remind his belly that they were people, not the meals. Even so, the temptation was still there; no amount of ignoring them would change the fact that they smelled like the best of his mother's sunset avadarra pies.

Reayx was having a wonderful time waiting in line, watching the people going about their business, and the strikers going about their striking—people, places and purposes together in tidy concert. He wanted that; he wanted to belong. Here, there, somewhere, anywhere—it didn't matter. That was why Reayx was in line. It was a place where he could blend in, fade out, forget, and just feel—for once—that he was in a place and among people that wanted and needed him. The rules of the line were so simple: put one foot in front of the other, don't bump in to anyone, and be respectful; that was it. That was all he needed to do to belong. And, as long as he adhered to his chronograph and pushed all the wrongness within him out sight and mind, he could keep on pretending that he belonged. There was no uncertainty, no impossibility, and no loneliness in this kind of waiting. Yes, he would ultimately have to move on when his time finally came—but it hadn't. But, given enough of time, it would.

Reayx pushed those thoughts aside; he had other things to contend with at the moment: first and foremost, the competition. The NGCP human-resource manager administering the potemeter test at the table in front of the line had already accepted quite a few applicants. It worried him a little.

{Well, at least I look job-worthy,} Reayx thought.

He had spent a whole third-mode earlier this morning making sure that he looked presentably professional. He'd combed the bangs of his light-brown hair over and to the side, leaving only a few small thorns of hair pressing flush against his brow. He liked it that way: not too long, not too short, and all clean and tidy.

To his left, Reayx could see a flustered-looking young woman walking back from the front of the line, muttering under her breath some sort of curse at Jeuxjaux, the Marish trickster Spirit. The strikers cheered, and the applicants trudged forward a single step more. Reayx just managed to catch the motion and respond to it in turn before the person standing behind him had the chance to ram into him from behind. Reayx moved along with them, his hopes still high.

Reayx believed that there were rules to everything, be it applying for a job, waiting in line or living one's life. Even in the impossible, there were rules to be learned. And Reayx had learned them, stumbling forth blindly by trial and error through triumph and tragedy.

The rules were devilish; they were bathtub rules.

Reayx was like bathtub. When he wasn't human, the stopper was pulled out of the plug, letting the water drain away. But when he was human, the tub would be plugged back up again, and began to fill and fill with water. Let too much water in, and the tub overflowed. It was Reayx's self-imposed, sacred obligation to keep the tub from overflowing; he just wished that metaphorical "tub" drained half as quickly as it filled.

Bad things happened when the tub overflowed.

And so it was that Reayx had to be ever-mindful of his time: how much humanity he had left to spend, and how much time he would have to endure as a monster to make up for it—to keep himself from overflowing. Through all the many dyad days, Reayx held fast to hope—hope that things would get better, hope that he would find his answers, hope that he would do no evil, and hope that, one day, he would finally belong.

And, no matter what, he could never let himself give up hope—even if there was never any of hope to begin with. For it was hope and the strength that it gave him that enabled Reayx to keep the beast within at bay—to ignore the part of himself that wanted to kill them all and devour them whole.

— — —

Sitting at the table, all bundled up in his jackets, Rijé looked up from the record notebook. The current applicant was making a lot of noise. He was trying to exert enough spell energy to satisfy the improvised potemeter: a length of grounder-wire, one end coiled tight around an enchanted dagger, the other around a light-enchanted crystal; one of many devices used to test and analyze magic and magical power.

The applicant huffed and puffed, straining his muscles and clenching his fists and teeth, trying to muster enough willpower into the dagger to make the crystal light up and show that he had some skill.

But Rijé wasn't looking at any of that. He'd already made a nice mental doodle of that guy: an angry-looking fellow with a heavy coat, a wool scarf and a dead shrub of hair. No, what grabbed Rijé's attention was the person—the teenager—who stood behind the noisy, sweaty man. The boy was light-skinned and light-boned; lean, without being scrawny, and with a nose just the right size. More importantly: he was a kid—maybe fifteen or fifteen-and-a-half years old.[1] Maybe.

{No…. Spirits, you have got to be kidding me,} Rijé thought.

Rijé felt bad, seeing any young person working for the Circus, but to see a teen applying for such a job—and during a strike, no less!—that was just sad. Youth should be spent with family; that was where they would learn, and grow, not lapping up the crap jobs handed out by a desperate, inflexible employer.

Everyone else in the line looked like they were at the bad end of a slide into poverty, vagrancy, or drug abuse—exactly the kind of people the management hoped would lend a hand to break the strike. The kid, however, looked clean.

{Why would he be applying for such a last-minute, low-end job?} Rijé asked himself. {Maybe he's a student, pursuing a career in magery at the Meovîgn Academy. Could definitely use the money, I guess.}

Rijé had heard about the booms going on in Drexel at the moment; "industrialization" was the word on everybody's tongue. But, he had wouldn't have guessed that it would've hit the Marish economy so hard.

"What the fuck is wrong with this thing?!"

The person at the head of the line yelled angrily at the potemeter, shaking the device's handle out of frustration and sore-loser-dom. He was obviously using some drug or another—Rijé knew he'd smelled something off on him.

This was the third consecutive time the man had failed to elicit a positive result from the damned thing. Usually, a single null result would have made Rijé brush the would-be employee aside, but, in this case he had failed to do so—he'd been distracted by his own thoughts.

But any distractions ended the moment the reject picked up the potemeter.

"Stupid machine!" he yelled. He was obviously intent on throwing it somewhere.

"Nésor—Sir!" Rijé's voice rose alongside his body. He reached over the table and, with an audible grunt, yanked the dagger out of the addled fellow's hands, being careful not to pull off the wire coil. "Ugh! You don't a qualify for the poseetion. Now get a off, or I'll a call a the guards! Li l'holta!" Rijé waved his hand in a dismissive gesture.

Seeing that it was finally his turn, Reayx stepped up in front of the desk, eager, and more than a little nervous.

"Well, what's a your a name, oniaéno?" Rijé asked. He shook out the tail of his worn, dull grey-overcoat.

"… Everett Frissel," Reayx lied.

Rijé mm-hmm-ed loudly, drawing out the sound for what seemed like a long time.

"I read your ad in the paper and—"

"—And just a how old are you, Everett?"

"…Fifteen-and-a-half," he answered.

"Listen, keed. You don't a need to a be here," Rijé said.

Puzzled, Reayx looked him straight in the eye. "Huh?"

"A go a back to a class; don't a worry about a the jobs—not a yet. Enjoy a your youth while a you can."

Reayx suppressed an awkward laugh. "Oh no, I'm not a student," he said, shaking his head a bit. "I'm just looking for a quiet job, that's all."

"Really?" Rijé asked, not quite believing it.

"Really." Reayx smiled softly.

"There are other, more a needy people who a want a thees a job a too, you know," Rijé said, pointing at the rest of the line with the pencil in his right hand. Reayx looked back at them: a slew of men and women—some young, others not—fussing and fidgeting, each awaiting the chance to show off their qualifications. He considered them… for a moment. A few held the newspapers open in their hands; others looked down at the ground, trying to still their anxious thoughts. One fellow near the back was picking his nose.

Reayx turned back to face the man at the table. "I'm aware of that, however, I got in line before them. It's my chance, now."

"I a suppose so," Rijé replied. He sighed and shook his head before he opened the red, leather-bound notebook. Dabbing his thumb with a lick of spit, he leafed through the crisp, chart-ridden sheets till he reached an unfilled page. "Very well, Everett Freessel," he said. "Have you a ever used a potemeeter before?"

"Yes."

"Wonderful." Rijé let the pencil fall to the table. He crossed his arms, and tilted his chair back slightly. "Let's a see what you can a do." He handed the boy the dagger—pointy end down, of course.

Nodding, Reayx tensed his double-handed grip on the dagger's leather-wrapped handle. To his surprise, the hilt felt positively frigid to the touch; he almost dropped it in shock. A subtle tingling sensation ran up his arms as he held it, and a wave of dizziness passed through his head.

Reayx took a deep breath—calming and steadying himself. It seemed to work; the sensations passed.

{I can do this,} he told himself.

Bending his knees and gritting his teeth, Reayx brought his focus down onto the dagger—and his weight onto the table that supported it. For a brief moment, he closed his eyes, stilling his being. He called to the magic within him. Quickly, the energy began to flow out from hidden crevices, accumulating force—effervescing into his nerves at the beck of his will; but Reayx hesitated. He pushed back against his magic, chiding it—shoving it away, stemming the flow barely a moment after having conjured it.

{No… that's too much….}

Reayx heard voices whispering behind him. For some reason, the sound made him shiver. He turned to look at the people in line behind him—most had looks south of neutral. Reayx could still hear the whispering, but could not see where or whom it was coming from. He made an apologetic face, then turned back to the task at hand.

Exhaling sharply, Reayx steadied himself, pressing his legs down firmly against the dirt underfoot. Each of his subtle re-adjustments scraped the soles of his boots slow against the grains of the ground. The vibrations shook the cothall lining of the leather, making it scratch at the undersides of his toes. Reayx's eyes darted from the dagger to the wire to the crystal to man at the table and back again, and back again.

The gruff jacket-wrapped Gaddeonese man on the circus side of the table frowned back in a mix of concern and consternation.

"Well?" he asked, in a sing-song tone, "I'm a only getting older, nésor Freessel."

"I thought patience was supposed to be a virtue," Reayx said, shaking his head. "Just wait a moment…."

Reayx pressed his palms and clutched his fingers even tighter around the gelid hilt. Despite the cold, the oils of many hands still moistened the handle. His fingers shook ever so slightly as they clung to the grips in the dagger's hilt. The tighter he gripped it, the stronger the cold became—it was like touching ice.

Along with the cold, a strange, potent dread found its way inside of him. Reayx's dismissed it as mere stress. Messing up something as simple as a potemeter test was not an option; joblessness would be the least of his worries if he didn't get it just right. Tapping feet and murmuring voices rustled behind him. The air chilled his ears, as well as his nose. Heart-beats pinged against his temples. Reayx found himself gasping for breath—a tightness gripped at his chest, refusing to go away.

"C'mon, get a move on already!" a crass voice yelled.

{I can do this.}

This time, Reayx ignored his hecklers. He closed his eyes once more. This time, however, he filled his mind with thoughts of the sky—of clouds on a sunrise, and of night pierced by stars. Or at least, he tried to: every time he thought of the starry sky, something in his mind willed all the stars to turn off.

Reayx reached for his power once more—but gently, this time; only skimming the surface, drawing up mere drops at a time—half-drops, even. He balanced the drops of magic on a spoonful of will as he carried them from himself to the field within the dagger. He brought the energy of a spell to the ridge of the intangible field, and there, he let it go, letting it roll along the field lines like a marble on a track. The energy danced, invisible, across the dagger's field; it siphoned into the grounder-filled wire, flowing onto the field of the crystal's enchantment—bringing the dormant light magic to life. With a spurt and a whir, a ghostly, living blue light shot up from the base of the crystal—where the wire first touched it—and bloomed out in a pale, shimmering brilliance. It happened so fast. Dropping the dagger back onto the table, Reayx managed to raise his hands to his face just in time.

Rijé yelped at the unexpected explosion of light. Moans and stifled gasps floated off the other applicants. The man's knock-back reflex would have upended his wooden chair, had his hand not clapped down on the table and held it tight. Still, his lid-like hat flew off his head, plopping down on the dirt.

"Guzi!" Rijé swore. He reached for his cap with his free arm; unable to quite make it—and, forgetting that his chair was off-kilter—he let go of the table, and went tumbling onto the ground.

Plomsht!

A small ripple of laughter belted through the line of applicants. Reayx opened his eyes at the sound. The sight of the worker, rolling off his back, tussled up even more than before was enough to make Reayx join the laughter—but, he suppressed it, managing to keep his snickers confined to a bashful smile. He felt better; his breathing eased, and his hands warmed back up with astonishing speed.

Rijé fumbled for a moment. Sitting up, he grabbed his hat with his left hand and rubbed his now-sore back with his right. Moving carefully, and using the table and chair for support, he got to his feet and planted himself back in the seat. He shook and beat his clothes, shooing the dust and scuff off his thick, dark-brown pants. And, last, he put on his hat.

Guessing that their chances had been shattered, several of the other applicants broke off from the line and slunk off in quiet defeat.

"Are you okay?" Reayx asked.

Rijé sighed. "Scito-sceno, I've a been through worse. Just don't a set a me on a fire, 'kay?"

"Okay."

More people left amidst another wave of grumbles. Folding up their newspapers or spitting out their chewing guin—splattering it on the ground—they walked away, joining the rest of the wanderers.

"So…?" Reayx asked, looking the curly-bearded man eye-to-eye.

Admittedly, he was a little pleased with himself; his performance had been better than he'd hoped.

Rijé shook out his head. "You're a definitely more than a you look, keed."

"Do I have the job?" Reayx asked.

Rijé sighed. "Yes, Everett, you do," he said. Bringing the notebook close—his tumble had pushed it aside—Rijé picked up the pencil and scribbled "Everet Frizle" into the notebook. "Eef anything, you might a be a overqualified," he added, with a smirk. {And overly-hopeful about a crap job with even crappier pay,} he thought. {But the kid doesn't need to know that.}

"Yes!" Reayx gave a single, vigorous nod of his head. Rijé thought it looked a little goofy.

With that, the last remaining stragglers in line took their leave. Reayx looked over his shoulder, alerted by their groans of disapproval. "Why are they leaving?" he asked.

"Because a you took the last a space," came the reply.

Once again, Reayx looked at the manager, slightly confused.

Rijé lifted his arm and pointed a finger at the thick metal rung attached to the wooden fence immediately to his left. A sign with the words "Jobs Remaining" was attached above it. Hanging from the rung were pieces of paper with numbers on them. At the moment, those numbers read "01."

With a flick of his finger, Rijé flipped the "1" over the ring, revealing a "0" beneath it.

"Oh," Reayx said. {Why didn't I notice that…?} He tried to laugh it off, but it didn't come out right. His expression turned slightly quizzical.

Rijé laughed at that, patting the boy on his back. "That's a the risk of a standing een a line, you know," he said. "You a get stressed out and a caught up een the moment—you a can't see where a you really are."

"I guess so." Reayx shrugged.

"Now a, come along, Everett. You've got a a job to do a now, remember?" Rijé pointed his arm through the entryway: a pair of large, wooden-fence doors, surmounted by a painted sign—"VASTA BARNÉ AND THE DRAGON"—enwrapped within the coils of the eponymous beast. The figure of a lone, iron-clad warrior stood with sword in hand, breaking through the dragon's searing flames.

"Given a your skills, you'll be doeeng a sometheeng rather techneecal, so, I might a as well a show you around—a geeve you a the layout of a the place."

Walking underneath the painted arch, he took the lad inside, their soles crunching the dirt with every step.

— — —

Rijé took his time—more than half a mode—giving Reayx a tour of the place. Reayx suspected the manager was still a bit uncomfortable at having been toppled over by his simple spell. Reayx didn't take umbrage at this in the slightest. And besides, the assistant manager's tour had been very informative.

As a whole, the circus was like a little village within the great big city of Meovîgn. The central area of the grounds was on the open space at the center of the plaza, with benches and kiosks scattered through it. Four paths (one for each direction) stretched out from the center of the circus grounds. Each ended at one of the four entrance gates in the surrounding wooden fence. The paths divided the circus area into four unequal quadrants: two long ones, a rather small one, and one very large—where the big top was. The big-top tent dominated the large quadrant, surrounded by a squadron of wagons and storage containers of every imaginable shape and kind.

At the moment, Reayx was where Rijé hand left him, doing what Rijé had asked him to do: field work. Reayx was in the arena, down on hands and knees like all his fellow field-workers—most of them new hires. Reayx busily threaded the dirt beneath him with an invisible network of magical field-lines. Once they were nicely affixed to the earth, he set about tuning their frequencies and harmonies to those required for the casting of light-related spells: magics for holograms, visual illusions, and other photonic manipulations. He didn't tune the field to the point where it would create any particular spell when activated, just enough to imbue it with the basic harmonics required for light-magics, as opposed to some other kind—chemical reactions, electromagnetism, kinetics, or what-have-you. The specialists in the circus' special effects department would supervise the shaping and tuning of the fields to the configurations and frequency distributions of the specific spells needed for the show after all the setting-up was done and accounted for.

{If I knew what they wanted, I could probably do it all by myself,} Reayx thought.

But, though he thought that way, he knew he really shouldn't—and ultimately, wouldn't—do such a thing. Drawing attention to himself like that was the last thing Reayx wanted to do, and jeopardizing the jobs of the few employees who hadn't gone on strike would do exactly that. Still, Reayx had wondered how they were going to keep all these fields from losing energy and dissipating back into nothingness. In this modern day and age, it took a lot of power to keep an area the size of the arena coursing with fields—more power than most people could muster.

Before Rijé had left, Rijé had explained that the metal rods sunken flush into the ground all throughout the arena would function as repositories for the field energy for the duration of the circus' stay. The rods were hollow on the inside, and had been filled with grounder—grains of strongly enchanted crystals, ground up to a pebbly consistency. It was an expensive, one-time solution, and all the more reason why the circus needed Vasta Barné and the Red Dragon to be a smashing success—to recoup the mammoth cost of producing it in the first place.

Like most other business models, it didn't make much sense to Reayx, but he accepted it as such, and just moved on.

"Hey!" someone shouted. The voice flew clear over the background noise of murmuring voices.

Reayx looked up from the ground; he raised himself till he sat on his knees. His coworkers did the same.

"Yeah?" one of them asked.

"Haron called for a meeting. All of the mages have a to be there," came the answer. "Come, come." The messenger beckoned them to follow with several waves of his hand.
The other mages working in the arena got up and followed the man, but Reayx hesitated. One of them turned back to him: "Come on, son. I guess the boss wants everybody to be there."

Nodding as he got to his feet, Reayx and the one mage followed the others, tailing behind them. As he walked, Reayx gazed up and all around at the magnificent artifice that was the big-top tent. The gorgeously thin, velvet-red tarp managed to enclose a huge amount of space. The roof hung over the arena like the ceiling of a temple, replete with a network of wooden supports and hammer-beams to hold. Bleachers lined the tent's walls, going almost all of the way around the interior, save for the entrance opening at the south end of the tent, and the opening at the north end of the tent where the backstage access was located—the place where everyone was headed. A wood wall encircled most of the empty ground space, separating the arena from the bleachers, while still leaving enough room for people to walk around and find a seat. The opening at the northern end of the tent was obstructed from the audience's sight by wooden extensions above, and to either side, of the backstage access. The access itself was covered by a curtain, to keep backstage activities obscured from the audience, hiding special effects wizards, or the actors and their extras waiting in the wings. There was luxurious, cloth-lined box contain seats for VIPs seats above the curtain. At a glance, the box was an impossible bird, perched there amidst the framework of wood cross-beams. It was rectangular in shape. The diagonal beams of support timbers beneath were like many little legs; the short flights of stairs folding out from either side were like wings at rest. It loomed over Reayx as he approached the curtain.

Past the curtain, there wasn't much room for Reayx to move forward. A sizeable crowd had gathered in the central portion of the backstage area. Not wanting to intrude, Reayx kept to the back of the crowd. He could tell that quite a few of the people assembled had not been educated to be mages; not fully, anyway. He could see it in their clothes. Workers in lower positions wore simpler garments: smocks or smock-frocks—dark brown or blue—and well-worn pairs of trousers, sometimes with a belt of cloth wrapped around their waists. They likely did a spell or two here or there as part of their job, but never anything truly arduous. The higher-ups—the people who spent the whole day working with magic—however, were notably fancier; they were easily spotted within the crowd. Almost all of them wore variations on the same sartorial theme: thin jackets, atop some sort of (usually yellowed) waistcoats, with undershirts underneath, and belts of genuine leather binding their waists. But, regardless of rank, everyone had boots, and most everyone had a hat. Unifying them, too, were their skins: all were weathered, heavily tanned, and tinted in earthy tones—sometimes lightly, other times dark. Each face was like an autumn leaf, crinkled at the edges and colored much the same. Discontented whispers whisked through the air—first out of a mouth, and then into an ear—making the faces grimace and quiver. Aside from muttering, gossiping, or gesticulating, everyone seemed to be standing in place, waiting.

Reayx liked to think he was good at listening; still, even he was having difficulty isolating single strands in the messy net of voices. It would have helped if he hadn't been at the back end of the crowd, seeing how the core of the chatter was further up ahead.

As it was, Reayx could only pick up some disparate fragments: "They're a both seeck," "Unpaid a overtime," "I'm a exhausted," "The new hires are all a idiots," "Fuckin' Marish garlanslalé!"

He didn't feel comfortable asking his coworkers for further details. It was impolite to pry.

The plethora of voices swelled in Reayx's ears, swamping him in a wave of dizziness and nausea—but only for a moment. The odd feeling soon passed. Looking back, he saw more than a few of the circus' other workers hanging just behind or beyond the curtains. Reayx recognized Rijé among them, leaning through the curtain. Unlike most of the others, Rijé looked pensive and worried. Gravity kept tugging at his furred cap. Rijé kept pushing it back up, but it usually just slid back down onto his forehead a moment later.

At first, Reayx supposed that this accessory crowd behind him were those employees whose jobs didn't merit enough magical skill to be worth mentioning. But, upon thinking it over—remembering the social mixture present in the crowd in front—Reayx concluded it was more likely that the folks behind him had never learned how to use magic, whether by choice or by circumstance. That would explain the odd admixture of professions he could espy behind him. Some fellows had nasty-looking triple or quadruple scars slashed on their skin; they were likely animal tamers. Others looked more out-of-shape—either gaunt or one of many various shades of flabby; Reayx surmised they were the drivers, service-providers, bureaucrats, and bit-part actors that made the show possible.

But—last and least—what really made the boy believe that the people behind him were not among the ranks of the magically competent were the presence of non-human minorities: manû, in particular.

By Reayx's count, there were at least ten manû in the accessory crowd, also known as "monkeys" in less politically-correct circles (among other, unsavory titles). Most of them were standing next to one another—big ears pressing against big ears—all huddled up with the backs to the curtain and their long, prehensile tails riding up (or down) behind them, and furred from head to toe. The looks these manû had about them were a noticeably meeker and more self-conscious than what Reayx was accustomed to seeing on manû in Marin. With regret, Reayx noted that he found himself preferring this more obsequious disposition of theirs.

{It's probably because they're Gaddeonese,} the boy thought.

In spite of the Revolution, the Gaddeonese mindset still clung to many of the older, more divisive, social morés. {And it's probably why there aren't any scamandrith here,} he noted, sighing with relief.

Reayx felt awkward enough around manû. However, he was positively disturbed by the scamandrith—the amphibious lizard-folk.

{They… they aren't human, and yet they…} but—with a shudder—Reayx came to a mental stand-still. "Ugh…" he sighed, feeling awful all over.

Reayx worried what his father might have said if he'd been alive to see that his son had given safe haven to such prejudices. That would have been typical of the man; he was Marish, and—as Reayx knew—the Marish tended to be more tolerant when it came to issues of race or species; sometimes, Reayx thought, uncomfortably so.

Which brought him back to the present.

Reayx took notice of the change that had come over the crowd. There was a thwick-thwack sound of footsteps on the dirt, mixed with clothed flesh brushing up against itself. Words suddenly turned soft, and all eyes and bodies turned backward, looking toward the curtained entrance.

Reayx immediately followed suit. He turned about-face… only to come face-to-face with droopy jowls and an angry pair of eyes.

The owner of that face was a portly, slunching orb of a human being. He reached out with an arm and barked in Reayx's general direction: "Move!"

Reayx stepped back; so did virtually everyone behind him. Some conversations continued on unabated behind this wall of men.

With a path thus cleared, the fat man waddle-walked around the crowd; his breaths were grunts straining to escape the pressure of his waistcoat stretched taut around his ballooning paunch. Eventually, he made his way to the head of the pack.

NGCP Senior Manager Haron Tantoriya turned to address his employees.

"A stop a weeth a the wheespering, already!" he yelled, calling everyone to attention.

The sparse chatter still buzzing amidst the crowd petered out into silence.

"Thank you," Haron said.

Before continuing, he paused to clear his throat.

"Yes, the word of mouth, she is a true: Enxo and Larno are both seeck. Out of a commeession"—he gesticulated, swiping his arm through the air. "Along weeth all a the fools on strike, we've now a lost our a star performer and heez a understudy—and they ain't a gettin better any time a soon." The manager's voice seemed to generate its own echo. "So, you all a know whatta that means…" he added. He scanned the crowd, seeing if he could spot a "volunteer".

Under-breath mutterings and scrunched up brows passed through the crowd like a wave. Gradually, the people once again trained their gazes toward a single man: this time, a tall, slender chap. For several minutes, the man engaged quiet, severe conversation with a select handful of his coworkers. In the silence, Haron glowered at his employees. His lips puckered, piling up furrows of flesh on his prickle-haired chin.

The workers' debate grew heated from time to time. The uninvolved listened attentively. Every few moments, someone would make a stir: feet might shuffle in place, a throat might cough or fingernails might surreptitiously scratch at a sudden itch.

Reayx might have been silent and nonchalant on the outside like the rest of them, but, on the inside, he was beaming with joy. This was what he lived for: being among people. The only way it could have been better would be having a conversation with somebody. Now that was a truly special treat!

After a stretch of time that seemed longer than it was, the assembled mages seemed to arrive at a consensus. The tall man stepped out from the crowd and looked Haron eye-to-eye.

{Ay, Vasta Ivao, not the Mages' Union again!} The manager rolled his bulging eyes at the thought.

"I'm a sorry, Haron, but there's a seemply a no one wee can a spare. You've got us all workeeng a two or a three jobs already, and for only a half pay. The union has eets a agreements weeth a the NGCP's admeeneestrative commeettee. Your a new orders a go against eet; you're a askeeng too much, and a not a geeveeng enough!"

"Oh come on, a Paolo," Haron replied, already feeling exasperated. "Eet's just a one role. Surely, one of a you can a do eet!"

"No," Paolo replied.

"But the whole a show a heenges on the Vasta Barné beet! Weethout eet, we'd a have a nothing! A don't a you care?" Haro said.

"Don't a you care?" Paolo retorted. "You already a got us workeeng a two hour-long shows every seengle a day. Do you know the toll that a takes on a man, maintaineeng a many a huge a multeeplex fields for a so long? You feel a exhausted, but you a cannot sleep; your veesion a blurs and flashes, your leembs go numb and a your a nerves a shoot and a burn."

"We're a proud of our work, Haron!" someone shouted in back. Numerous other assents were voiced in response.

"Yes," Paolo said, nodding to his co-workers. "But we won't a keell ourselves over eet!"

Haron stopped to weigh the alternatives. Let the show be ruined from a lack of a player for the role of Vasta Barné.

{No.}

Cut some other workers' wages in order to give the mages more pay.

{That would just shift the problem somewhere else. Worse, they might even expect me to cut my own pay,} he thought. {A definite "no" to that one, then.}

He then stumbled onto a third idea: {Appeasement? That might work.}

"A tell you a what, I'll a order a crate a guin for a all a you to a chew; helps a weeth those a aches and pains. Just, a please, a don't a let the show a fall a to pieces."

The mages' reaction was neither something Haron expected, nor wanted.

"Don't a eensult us," Paolo said, seething. "Drugs are a no substitute for a good pay.

"I'd rather a buy my guin weeth a my own a money!" someone yelled.

"Shut up or a pay up!" someone else said. Others began to repeat that call. It wasn't long before the crowd had broken out into an impassioned chant.

"Shut up or a pay up! Shut up or a pay up! Shut up or a pay up!"

After a moment—seeing that everyone else was doing it—Reayx joined in with the chanting. He shook his fist in the air for added effect.

Haron took several steps back. The fat man turned slightly to the side, masking his arm as he plunged his fingers into his coat pocket and pulled out a whistle.

Streeeeeeeeeeee!—He blew the whistle. The sound pierced through the crowd's chanting, but did not deter them.

A few seconds later, some of the hired mercenaries from outside rushed into the backstage area through the entrance at Haron's back. Haron turned his head and smiled at them.

All at once, the mercenaries stepped in front of their employer, forming a barrier between Haron and the crowd. They were fearsome, with their glowered expressions, vicious knives, and their thick, scaly cuirasses of boiled qadro hide.

Reayx was not alone in sensing that the mercenaries were deftly weaving the fields of destructive spells.

"So," Haro said, "won'y you a reeconsider a my offer?" He smirked, showing his tartar-stained teeth. "Or weel a thees a get a violent. Eet's a your a choice, Paolo."

"We're een a the meeddle of Meovîgn," Paolo said. "You wouldn't a dare!"

Haron pranced his hands at his sides, squealing in a sickening imitation of Paolo's voice.

"Ohh a no! We're een a the meeddle of Meovîgn!" The fat man laughed. "Ha! Whatta makes a you theenk the Marish a give a damn about a what happens to a bunch a uppity mages een a Gaddeonese a circus?"

Some of the people around Reayx at the back of the crowd began to take their leave of the rapidly escalating situation. Reayx sensed mages in the crowd preparing spells of their own. Only a few of them, however, were any good.

{Why is it that the scoundrels are always so competent at everything?} Reayx wondered.

{Spritz, what have I gotten myself into this time?} He shook his head.

But then—almost by instinct—he looked for the positives of the situation. It took him a while, but he found one.

{Well, at least no one has been shot,} he told himself. {Or stabbed.}

Reayx saw some of the mages in front of him readying their pistols.

"Oh dear…" Reayx muttered.

Rijé, however did not flee the scene, despite being the only one left standing behind the curtain. An idea had struck him when his wandering eyes caught sight of that insouciant boy in blue at the periphery of the crowd.

{It's a long shot, but it might work.}

The thought filled Rijé with what he hoped would be a lasting dose of confidence. He shook himself out and straightened his fur cap. Then, brushing the curtain aside, Rijé hastily spidered toward the boy, keeping his body bent low, beneath the skyline of shirts and angry heads.

Rijé tapped him on the shoulder.

Reayx would have jumped up in surprise, had Rijé not presciently grabbed him by the arm.

"Follow my lead," Rijé whispered quickly—almost hissing.

"What?" Reayx asked. Against the noise, it seemed more like he was mouthing the words than saying them.

Rijé was about to try and explain himself to the boy before he thought the better of it. Everyone's well-being was at stake—this was the worst possible time for a strike to break out—this was no time for hesitation. The assistant manager redoubled his efforts.

"Gentlemen!" Rijé yelled. He bolted up to his full, unimpressive height. He raised an arm for added effect.

Haron caught ear of Rijé, then eye. "Rijé?" he said, as loudly as ever.

Like a speaking horn, Haron's outburst clearly communicated Rijé's presence to the enraged mages. The chanting stopped, though some vociferous murmurs still haunted the background. A mild, tinnitic buzz sounded in Reayx's ears.

"I theenk I have a a way to a feex a thees deelemma, Nésor," Rijé said.

"Yes? Well, a come on; speet a eet out!" Haron roared.

Rijé walked around (and a bit through) the rest of the crowd, dragging the boy in tow.

Reayx didn't know what to think; he hadn't been expecting this. His legs sort of walked along with Rijé out of their own volition.

Though the hushed expectedness was highly uncomfortable, it wasn't long before the two stood at the front of the pack, beside and between Haron and Paolo.

"What's a thees?" Paolo asked.

Haron's dour, straight-faced expression said much the same thing.

"Thees boy, he can a do a the job," Rijé said, raising Reayx's arm along with his own.

{Wait—what?!} Reayx thought. His mouth and eyes gaped open, dumbstruck by the sharp turn that this day had suddenly taken. A wave of nausea thrummed in Reayx's belly.

Haron crossed his fleshy arms against his chest. "A what ees thees?" He asked, raising an eyebrow.

"He's a one of the scabs," Rijé replied. "I hired heem a just a thees morning; he's a not a member of a the Performing Mages' Union." He turned to address the boy. "Are you?"

"N-No," Reayx stammered, shaking his head.

"And?" Haron asked.

There had to be more; Haron knew Rijé wasn't stupid enough to propose a half-assed solution.

"And a," Rijé continued, "he nearly a broke the potemeter a during hees test."

By now, the crowd had fallen completely silent, and full with quizzical, bug-eyed looks.

"A leetle a boy wonder, eh? Can you a work weeth a these guys," Haron asked, pointing his thumb at the crowd of disgruntled mages behind him. "Can you a work a good weeth illusions?"

"Yes…. Probably," Reayx said, grimacing.

"A Fantasteec," Haron said, rolling his eyes. "I guess a you're our a new a Vasta Barné. Now, eef a you don't a mind," he added, "I have a to go a feex the rest of thees fuckeeng a mess." The surprisingly restrained tone of the vice-manager's voice only made his irritation with the day's circumstances all the more palpable.

Reayx sighed; it came out as a whimper, and quickly dead-ended into a dry cough. He felt a little tingling sensation burning at the back of his throat.

From behind Reayx, someone spoke: "Glad a to see you a so excited, keed." By the voice, it was Paolo. Reayx didn't know whether he was being sarcastic or not.

"Rijé," Haron said, "a take a care of a the rest. Show heem what a he needs to a do."

"Yes, nésor," Rijé replied, sounding somewhat drained. But that was no surprise: today was hectic enough without having to deal with such last-minute disasters. Rijé could already feel the back-ache that he knew would plague him by the end of the week.

"Remember, Rijé: this is on you. I expect it to work, or I'll have your heads—yours, his, and Larno's!" Haron shouted, pointing avidly at Rijé and Reayx, and then at the exit as he said each of the three names. He then stormed off, to continue his duties as the vice-manager of this year's performance. Reayx noticed Haron's backside waddled as he walked.

"Thees ees a the screept," Rijé said, handing—almost shoving—a small pile of rough, sweat-and-ink stained pages into the hands of the still-stunned boy that stood next to him. "Learn eet," he said, "and then a go talk a to a the weezards: they'll a explain a whatta you need a to do to a get a the veesuals a workeeng properly."

"You can't really expect me to do this," Reayx said, his chest rising up and down with a deep, nervous breath.

"Everett, you were the one who wanted thees a job a so badly," Rijé said.

"Theenk of a eet as a chance to prove a yourself," he added.

That didn't really help alleviate Reayx's woes: "But what if—"

"—Enough! Just do a your best. Now, a stop a wasteeng time: get moveeng!" Rijé said, insistently; he shoved Everett toward the crowd of grumbling wizards, just to make sure the kid got the message.

Reayx felt lightheaded, sick to his stomach.


[1] The Aurhìmine year is approximately 14.1% longer than an Earth year (1 EY ≈ 0.876 AY). This makes Reayx between 17 and 18 Earth-years of age. Note that all dates in-text will be given in Aurhìm years.