VII. Looking Back

The wide streets of the merchant’s district had never been this packed before. The familiar shops were hidden away behind vibrant banners and tangled webs of bunting strands as Rosie pushed through the shifting current of people. The flower stand should have been at this corner, but — no, wait, wasn’t this the boutique Nanami had taken her to last month? How had she managed to get so lost?

The buzzing crowd faded out as she ducked into an empty alleyway, giving rise to muffled singing and deep drumbeats from somewhere in the distance. She breathed deep the smell of last night’s rain and stared through the main street. Across the way, a glimpse of something recognizable caught her eye: Top Picks, the local locksmith’s shop. She’d gone too far.

Holding her head high, she returned to the main street. Two blocks down, then take a left, and then — where was it? There, at last, tucked behind a family from out of town. The parents had stopped to argue about who-knows-what while their son begged and squirmed and tugged their sleeves toward town square. No wonder she’d gotten lost. Beside them, the florist’s folding sign had been knocked over.

“Excuse me?” Rosie approached the counter, nudging the young boy aside as if he wasn’t even there. “Could I get—”

“Oh, Miss Rosalind! Your father placed the order last week. Same as always, yes? Let me gather it all up for you.”

Mr. Nolbesh was a pleasure to watch at work. Even on breaks or between customers he was in constant motion, spinning and stepping around his stall like a dancer. His hands were never at rest, instead busy with endless watering and trimming and rearranging. It was impossible to imagine him anywhere else. The bright stripes of colour that traced up his arms and tail seemed at home among his displays.

“You’re a bit early today, Miss Rosalind, aren’t you? Henry said he’d come pick these up in the afternoon after he’d closed up shop, as I recall.”

“Sullivan and Nanami made sure we didn’t work today, actually.”

“Oh, that’s very kind of them. You’ve had some time to enjoy today’s festivities, then, by the looks of it.” He nodded down at the floral design inked on her right forearm, grinning as he continued his dance. Her face burned and she flung her arms behind her back.

“Yeah, it’s been pretty fun. Me and dad are heading out soon, though.”

“Well, wherever you’re headed, do stay safe, and I hope you’re back by nightfall. I hear there’s a lights display happening over the river tonight. Here, take these,” he wrapped up the familiar bouquet in brown paper and tied it off with string. “Make sure to hold them close. I don’t want to hear that my flowers got lost or trampled before they were appreciated, alright?”

“I will, Mr. Nolbesh. Thank you.”

She dropped all the coins in her pocket on the counter and scooped up the bouquet, wasting no time to take a deep whiff. She held in the breath and was taken back to the same day each year, much quieter than today. As she let out a sigh, the sounds of the town rung loud once more. Whispers from the lost family hit her ears as they slipped away, having paused their argument long enough to notice her. The father looked back with a familiar scowl as they went. She watched them disappear into the street for a moment and tried to smell the flowers again, but their scent was buried by the moving crowd and nearby food stands. Sweet, fruity, chocolatey, sugary treats pulled her nose in every direction, but she had to get back. Hugging the flowers to her chest, she hurried home.

Reunited with her dad, who had packed a small bag and some food, they trudged through the busy streets toward the outer walls. She felt his hand firm on her shoulder, keeping her tight to his side. Several onlookers glared at them in that familiar way; she made sure not to make eye contact.

In the open square at the city gates, a man’s voice echoed out over the noise. Even beyond the walls, when the glancing eyes were behind them, his voice droned on.

“…ten years of change, of prosperity and newfound community. Ten years ago, our humble town was at risk of destruction from two forces. I feared, as I’m sure many of you did, that our future had been stolen from us that night. There was certainly no way we could go on. Yet today, we celebrate a decade of peace. The nefarious elven forces are no more. While we lament the loss of our creators and guardians, we are also safe from their warmongering brethren. Today, we celebrate everything that we have done with our own two hands to help Whitegrove grow into an incredible city. So much has changed in ten years, and though hardships remain, there is much to be thankful for…”

A long way out of town, when there was no one else around, they crept off the main road. It lasted only few minutes or so, but sneaking through the brush toward the river always felt like a small but thrilling adventure. Her dad taught her when she was young how to walk with light steps and how to ruffle the grasses and bushes to hide the path as they went. At the end of their stealth mission was a simple reward: a small clearing along the river where the ground was soft and they could be alone. Pushing through a sturdier shrub, Rosie tumbled toward the water and scrubbed the childish design from her arm. The bright pinks and yellows faded away, but the deeper reds and greens would leave a stain on her skin for days.

A single tree stood tall above them at their hideout, separated from the rest of the orchard across the stream. At its roots, she knelt down and placed the bundled flowers, pausing for a moment to stare up into the branches. There was still fruit hanging high above them, but this wasn’t the place for climbing. She shuffled over to make room as her dad cleared the dirt and weeds from the smooth, square stone set into the ground in front of her. On its blank surface, he set two white candles and lit them with his lighter.

I wonder if they do something like this every year, too. Maybe there’s a tree just like this one where they are, and they sit under it just like we do, and they talk about dad and me and about how things used to be, and about what’s going on there and what they think is happening here. Mom would tell Oscar about dad — I wonder what she would say about him? — and I guess Oscar would wonder if he’s just like him. Maybe he is. Mom must tell him all about magic and mana and stuff, maybe even show him how it’s done. He’s bound to know how to use mana by now, we’re almost teenagers. I guess that depends on if there’s mana where they’re at. Maybe there’s mana here still, too, but we just don’t know how to find it…

“I miss you both so much.”

Rosie sidled closer to her dad, leaning into his tensed arm. He eased his clenched fists, let out his breath, and pulled her into a hug. This time of year was hard for him. It was easy enough for Rosie to focus on her own birthday, and he tried to be cheerful for her, but he wasn’t very good at hiding his grief. They had both lived through the same night, but all she could remember was this weird feeling of fear or pain — not a true memory, really. Sure, she never really had a mom, and it was weird to think that she wasn’t actually an only child, but that was all she knew. That was normal. But he lost half of his family in one night. The few times he talked about it, it always seemed like it had just happened. He remembered every little detail.

He wet his fingertips and pinched out the two flames. From his bag, he pulled out a small parcel wrapped in paper and laid it down on the stone. His eyes were wet. Rosie kept her gaze focused on the ground, listening to his deep breathing.

“Happy birthday, son. I hope, somehow, you’re celebrating, too.”

Once the smoke trails and the smell of vanilla faded, he wiped his eyes and stood up. A few feet away, where the ground was less lumpy, he fought against the wind to lay out an old blanket. Rosie grabbed an armful of stones from the river’s edge to weigh down its edges, rushing back as he struggled to keep the unwieldy fabric down in the sudden gust. She glanced back toward the tree — the candles stood steadfast in their place.

“So, did you have a good time at the festival today?”

“Yeah, it was fun.” Rosie crawled around the edges of the blanket, placing the rocks down as the wind dwindled. “Me and Tisha went around town square and ran into Ash and their older brother. He’s kinda weird and quiet, but he entered the archery game and got two bull’s-eyes and won a prize! We passed by the music stage, but I didn’t see Mrs. Grannark there — I hope she’s singing tonight when we get back — and Tisha’s mom gave her some money, so we all got some desserts, too. Or, well, just me and Tisha did. Ash’s brother wouldn’t let them have any sweets, but they bought a couple books and a deck of pretty cards.”

“Well, I hope you still have an appetite. I think I overdid it on lunch today.” He passed her half of a sandwich, filled to bursting with meat and leafy greens and a sauce that was almost sweet, and stretched his legs out toward the water. “I’m glad you had a good time. Sorry to pull you away from the fun so early.”

“That’s okay. I like it here, too.” She stretched her legs out beside him, failing to finish her bite before speaking. “You didn’t go back to the store after we split up, did you?”

“No, no,” he chuckled. “Nanami’s got Aditan stationed at the entrance on the lookout for me. I couldn’t get back in there if I tried.”

“Good. They’re closing up early today, right?”

“Probably before dinnertime. Why?”

“I was hoping that they’d all join us tonight. Adi said he’d braid my hair like the girls from his hometown did for special occasions.”

“I’m not sure Sullivan will be okay with the bright lights, but I’ll definitely invite them all. Maybe Mrs. Grannark and Nanami’s wife would like to join us as well. Did you want to have your friends come along too?”

“Nah, that’s okay. I asked them earlier. They said they’re going with their families.” She swallowed on an overzealous mouthful, reaching for the canteen and taking a sizable swig. “Besides, they don’t like Adi.”

“Oh? I didn’t think they’d met him yet.”

“They haven’t. I know they don’t like him, though, or the others like him. They were saying some mean things about a penumbral woman once, and they stopped when I told them that was rude, but I’ve heard what they say when they don’t think I can hear. People look at me and him the same way sometimes, but he’s also big and I guess he can look scary if you don’t know him. I dunno, I really like him and I think they’re missing out. They’ll see how nice he is someday and hopefully they change their minds.”

“I… huh. I’m very proud of you, Rosie.” He took a quick drink from the canteen and glanced past her toward the tree. “Your mom would be, too.”

There it was: the perfect opening. “Did people stare at her, too?”

“No, we could count the number of people in on her secret on one hand. No one else had any reason to suspect a thing.”

“But, wait… didn’t they notice she looked like an elf?”

“She didn’t look like an elf. At least, not around other people.” Rosie’s head cocked to the side, her eyes flitting around in search of some missing information. “You knew that, didn’t you? Your mom got really practised at it — changing her appearance, I mean. It wasn’t permanent, but she could keep up the disguise effortlessly for most of a day.”

“You mean, like, with magic? How come didn’t I know this, that’s amazing!” She swung her legs around and clamoured to her knees, her heart ramping up to a racing pace. “So then, what did she really look like? And how did she make herself look different? How much could she change? Like, did she just change her eye colour and her hair — and her ears, obviously — or did she look completely different? Could she do it to other people?”

“Whoa there, Rosie. One thing at a time.”

He took another sip of water, holding the canteen close to his chest when he finished. Again, his eye line drifted back to the tree and the two unlit candles.

“Your mother… was beautiful. She looked a lot like you do. Without her disguise, that is. She kept her hair very long, unlike someone,” he laughed, flicking the short tuft of hair pulled back behind her head. “And you definitely got your eyes from her, not me.”

He wrapped up the rest of his sandwich and stuffed it into his bag as he continued on describing her mother’s daily charade. Rosie rolled over onto her stomach, propped up on her elbows, and imagined every detail he described. She couldn’t picture her mother in her mind, and they didn’t have any paintings of her, leaving her imagination to run wild instead. Sometimes, when she was half asleep and her eyesight was blurred, her own reflection seemed to stare back at her with age and beauty that was not her own. Those moments were fleeting at best.

“Did Sullivan and Mrs. Grannark know about mom?”

“He’s not the type to ask, but I’m sure Sullivan has put the pieces together. They moved to Whitegrove about a year too late to have met her though.”

“So then, who does know?”

“Well, our old friends Em and Fredrik were the first—”

“Who?”

“I’m sure I’ve mentioned them before. They were our friends from Crater. I guess Crater is a bit before your time…”

“It was a city underneath the first avian capital, right?”

“Oh, so you do pay attention at school!” Henry handed her a cloth to wipe the smear of sauce from her face and settled back onto his elbows. “Em’s kind of an important figure for his people, so he lives out in their new capital now. He keeps in touch when he can.”

“What about Fredrik?”

“He… he would be wherever your mom and brother have ended up, I guess.”

“Wait, you mean… you mean he’s an elf? But I thought the elves and humans hated each other?”

“That’s one way to explain it. But then, look at your mom and I.”

“Well… I guess. But in school, we learned that the elves—”

“I’m sure they say a lot of things that they don’t know anything about. Fredrik was an incredible man. He was brilliantly talented and helped save everyone in that city. And he did it knowing fully well that they’d have killed him if it weren’t for his disguise.” He sat back up and locked eyes with her. He’d never looked so serious before. “I’m sorry, Rosie. I don’t talk about this stuff very much because… well, honestly, I don’t really know how. What you learn at school is probably true, at least mostly, but it’s not the only truth. Your mom and Fredrik weren’t monsters like some people would have you think. And I’m sure they weren’t alone. Some of the elves were not good people, but that’s not something unique to elves.”

A cool breeze swept by, drifting through from downstream. From their secluded spot along the water, Whitegrove was a different world tucked beyond the horizon. Even passers-by on the road were out of earshot, unseen through thick berry bushes and young trees. Few places were as safe for them to talk like this, but still he kept his voice low.

“I think maybe it’s time we took a trip, Rosie. Just you and me.”

“Really?” She flung herself up to kneeling, wide eyed despite the stinging cool breeze.

“Yes, really. I’ve been thinking about it for a while now. You’re getting old enough to know—”

“You’re really serious?” She jumped up to her feet, hands flung up into the air. “Where are we gonna go? Nanami told me about where she’s from and it sounds amazing, can we go there? Or, wait, what about Sullivan’s hometown? Mrs. Grannark told me about it once—it’s a city built into a mountain. It sounds so cool!”

“Slow it down, Rosie. We won’t be able to leave until I get things sorted out with your teacher first. Besides, Adi’s still learning the ropes at the shop and I’ll need him up to snuff before I can leave the store to Sullivan and Nanami to handle while we’re gone.”

“Okay, fine. But can we visit the capital? Nanami said she went there a lot because there was so much to see. It sounds amazing.”

“Some of it is, I guess, but we’re gonna need somewhere a bit more… remote. This isn’t going to be a fancy vacation, Rosie. We’ll be camping out in a tent for most of it. It could be dangerous, too, so I don’t want to venture off too far. But there’s a lot we need to talk about. Stuff you won’t learn at school or hear from your friends. Things we can’t really say in town without causing problems.”

“Oh, thank you dad! This is the best birthday gift ever.”

“It’s long overdue, I think. Now, should we head back to town? I don’t want to be out once it starts getting dark, and we…”

His voice faded into the wind as Rosie rushed to pack up their things. She plucked the two white candles from the smooth slate beneath the tree, holding them with care. This is it, mom. No more excuses. It’ll be just dad and me on an adventure like you two used to have. I can’t wait. I wanna know all about you. I wanna be just like you.

Next >
(coming soon)

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