Free Sample

Manly Hero

 


~ prologue ~

THE MORNING OF HIS THIRTIETH BIRTHDAY, Manly Hero woke to find that he had nearly come to terms with the facts of his life. They were as follows:

Firstly, his parents – almost certainly inebriated at the time – had inappropriately and anti-prophetically named him Manly, and no one was ever going to give him a half-decent nickname.

Secondlier, he was a Hero with a capital ‘H.’ The last, and very likely the shortest, in a long, illustrious line of Heros. Manly’s family, alongside the Legends and the Champions, had long-ago sworn a solemn oath, promising to protect the Queendom of Aldendhar against all manner of evil. Specifically, the Hero family had dedicated themselves to dealing with monsters. Dragons being a prime example, but there were also demons, swamp goblins, hydras, the unnaturally undead, the naturally undead gone rogue, bad unicorns, etcetera, etcetera. It was a rather long list.

Thirdlisome, Manly was never going to live a mystery-filled, quest- questing, monster-hunting life of adventure, for monsters no longer existed in Aldendhar. Manly’s grandfather, with a little help from his contemporaries, had managed to rid the entire queendom of every last monstrous thing, ushering in an unparalleled age of prosperity and boredom in the process. There were, of course, a few ogres left here and there, some tourist-attraction trolls chained up under bridges, and a centaur or two poking around the darker parts of the forest. But, technically, these didn’t count as monsters, as long as they kept to themselves and didn’t do anything... monstrous.

Fourthlilike, Manly was never going to grow up and marry Amelia Champion, his childhood crush and eternal dream-girl. In fact, forget marry! It was increasingly unlikely that they would ever speak again. Amelia had grown into a beautiful, fashionable socialite; the toast of Thrakis and darling of the tabloids. Manly, on the other hand... well...

Fifthliwise, Manly Hero was the Curator of Butterflies at the Royal Museum of Arcanonatural History.

And so, by the morning of his thirtieth birthday, Manly was pleased to find that he was honestly and truly, almost okay with all of this. So very close to ‘okay’ that it nearly counted as being actually okay with it all.

Almost.

~ one ~

MANLY SAT ON THE EDGE of his deep featherbed, wearing his favorite striped nightshirt and cap, and forced his eyes open against the morning light. Thirty, he thought groggily, feels very much like twenty-nine. It was a mildly disappointing realization.

For several weeks now, Manly had been experiencing a peculiar anticipation in regards to his birthday, as if something truly life- changing were about to happen. He hadn’t yet decided if the feeling was exciting or ominous. A small part of him had hoped that turning thirty would magically make him smarter, or wiser, or... taller. Make him amazinger, somehow.

He glanced over the edge of the bed at his dangling feet, toes barely reaching the floor. Not taller, then, he thought ruefully. But, I suppose the day is still young.

“It’s an excited feeling,” he decided aloud, nodding to himself in encouragement. “Today is going to be a very good birthday, indeed.”

But a good birthday, like any good day, had to start with priorities first: tea. Manly had purchased a new Thuvian breakfast blend from his favorite teashop the day before. It was embarrassingly expensive, but he had excused it as a present to himself. He forced himself up from the bed and stumbled sleepily into his kitchen, eager to try it out.

‘Kitchen’ was a very generous term for the two shallow cabinets, tiny wood stove, narrow prepping table, and small cold-cupboard wedged into a single corner of his apartment’s main room. (Manly thought of it as his kitchelividining room.) Though quite compact, it was functional enough to prepare tea and a decent birthday breakfast.

Besides, Manly thought, as he took one of the kitchen chairs and stood on it, giving himself the necessary reach to retrieve his copper kettle from its special shelf. There is nothing wrong with being just a little small.

After boiling water and setting the tea to steep, he opened the cold- cupboard. His mother had insisted he add it during the remodel, and now, though he would never admit it to her, it was something he couldn’t imagine living without. Inside the cold-cupboard were truffle-fed Heffenshire bacon slices, local cream, a stinky yet delicious cheese, a carrot from Mr. Yaffle, leftovers from the great little stew shack down the street, and an egg. An egg! Yup, an omelet would make a nice birthday breakfast. A single megahen egg he’d picked up the day before at the Cherry Hill peasant’s market. He added a little cream, a little cheese, and some oregano. He considered the carrot, but didn’t want to go too crazy. He poured the mix into a cast-iron frying pan he’d inherited from his grandmother, set it over his small wood stove, and topped it with bacon. Voilà! Perfect.

As breakfast cooked, Manly surveyed his apartment. It was part of an ornate old mansion that had been converted into a lodging house. Quite a common situation here on Cherry Hill, a formerly posh section of town that was now popular with artists of the struggling variety. It was a vibrant community, brimming with musicians, painters, and people who spent vast amounts of time experimenting with fringe magic and smoking whatever they could burn. With his family’s name and money, Manly could have lived almost anywhere he liked, but that was one of the reasons he’d chosen Cherry Hill. To be away from all the money, and – if he was honest with himself – to have a little distance from his family and his noble upbringing.

“How can you want to live up there?” his mother had asked. “People will think you are a drug-addict or a... a poet!”

“I don’t really care what people think,” Manly had replied.

At this assertion the Lady Hero had nearly fainted.

The only way Manly could convince his mother to accept his choice, without letting her feel like a gigantic social failure, was to give her control over decorating his apartment. It had, of course, turned into a full-scale remodel.

For three months Manly’s life had been consumed by candle consultants, fabric experts, and rare woods people. Not to mention the twitchy lady who had spent an entire afternoon smelling the walls, making the contractor rip out ‘spiritually rotten’ sections. She had specialized in Décor Magic, a branch of the mystical arts that Manly’s friend Cronimus found embarrassing, insisting that it gave real magic a bad name.

The whole ordeal must have cost his mother a small fortune, but in the end Manly supposed it had turned out alright. Light blue walls that were specifically hued to accentuate his skin tone; fashionably ornate furniture that was hopelessly uncomfortable to sit on; and highly appropriate, completely uninspiring paintings hanging here and there about the space. Not the artsy apartment Manly had hoped for, but it was nice in its own way. Like a picture. Except for one, tiny detail.

The head decorator had been so enamored of the reclaimed hardwood flooring that he had refused to allow Manly a rug of any kind. “Bug farms,” the man had taken to calling them whenever Manly tried to gently broach the subject. “Here?!” the decorator would ask with a shudder and a grand gesture. “You want a bug farm here, in this domestic temple?!” It nearly came to blows – well, emotional blows anyway – before the Lady Hero took Manly aside and pointed out that once the whole process was finished, and the decorator long gone, Manly could “buy any hideous carpet in the entire godsdamned world.”

But, with no functional concept of style to call his own, Manly had still not found the ‘bug farm’ of his dreams. He had grown increasingly convinced that this chronic ruglessness was the source of the vague, un-grounded feeling that had haunted his life of late. He resolved, for the umpteenth time, to simply make a decision and buy the first functional rug he found. It seemed like the adult thing to do. A thirty-year-old should definitely own a rug.

He turned his attention back to the sizzling omelet, but, as he did, something on the floor by the front door caught Manly’s attention. It was a small, powder blue envelope.

He froze at the sight of it. He knew exactly what it was without needing to pick it up. He knew how fine the antique paper would feel, how precise and perfect the handwriting on the card inside would be, and how that card would carry the faintest hint of a scent that would transport Manly back in time.

For that little, powder blue envelope contained a very special birthday card. It was from Manly’s long-deceased grandmother, Sophia Hero.

And, Manly knew, it was the last such card he would ever receive.

~ two ~

MANLY BENT TO THE CARD and reverently picked it up. He had received a similar card every birthday since his grandmother had passed, beginning with his sixteenth. That card had explained how she had written from her sickbed, knowing her time was coming to an end, and how she desperately wished she could watch her beloved grandson grow to be a man. It promised more cards in the future, and also requested, in the most earnest terms, that he keep the existence of the cards a precious secret.

Manly had never been able to work out how the cards were delivered to him. They simply arrived, most often slipped under the door of wherever he was staying, and always when his attention was otherwise occupied. Once, his mother had sent him south for his birthday, but he had still woken to find the card waiting on a table in his room at the inn. After that he had given up trying to figure out how the envelopes arrived – though he sometimes suspected magic – and simply enjoyed the fact that they came at all.

The card he had received when turning twenty-nine had warned Manly that the card for his thirtieth birthday would be the last. His grandmother had promised him this represented only the limits of her time, and not of her love. She also promised him that the last card would contain a very special message, and asked him to keep an extra eye out for it.

Manly tapped the card lightly in his palm, anticipation and sadness warring in him. Perhaps this was the grand birthday event he’d been anticipating. Part of him wanted to rip it open then and there, but a larger part of him preferred to wait. I’ll open it when I get home tonight, he thought. It will be the perfect way to end my birthday.

The faint odor of his omelet starting to burn brought Manly’s attention back to the task at hand. He opened the drawer of his prepping table and slid the blue envelope inside. Then he slipped the finished omelet onto a plate, poured himself a steaming mug of tea, and, still in his nightshirt and cap, headed for his porch.

On the way, Manly caught sight of himself in the garishly framed mirror his mother had insisted on installing, claiming that it would “make this sad little space feel less pathetically small.” His somewhat boyish reflection blinked back at him blearily. He balanced his teacup on the edge of his plate and reached up to smooth down his perpetually unruly brown hair. Then he turned his head side to side, narrowed his green eyes, tried to even out his lopsided grin, and tilted his jaw to a more confident angle. There, he thought, with a little nod. Now I look more like thirty. He paused. I also look like I’m smelling something foul. He made a face, grinned unevenly at himself, and stepped out onto his small porch, overlooking the communal garden.

Mr. Yaffle was already out among the plants, pruning, weeding, and doing all sorts of green-thumby things. The old gardener fancied himself a painter-poet, but Manly felt his real calling in life was the giving away of vegetables, a task at which the old man excelled.

Ms. Pennynickle was also there, lounging on a quilt at the edge of the garden, sipping gently spiked lemonade. She was the owner of Manly’s lodging house, and this was her usual rent-day collection spot. The tiny, elderly woman would spend the entire day fanning herself with one of the enormous hats she favored, and lavishing Mr. Yaffle with a never-ending stream of stories and anecdotes. Mr. Yaffle, for his part, did not seem to mind.

Ms. Pennynickle and her four sisters, each confoundingly referred to as ‘Ms. Pennynickle,’ owned nearly all of Cherry Hill, and fancied themselves as great patrons of the arts. Manly’s Ms. Pennynickle in

particular was convinced that every single one of her tenants was “brilliant, simply brilliant.” For her, rent meant anything her tenants could provide that month, be it a poem, a song, or – luckily for Mr. Yaffle – a tremendous amount of zucchini. She had extended the same expectation to Manly, but he just couldn’t bring himself to believe that curating butterflies was art. It was scientification. Manly, therefore, paid a regular and timely rent in coin.

He exchanged pleasantries with his landlady and the gardener, thanking Mr. Yaffle again for the carrot, and putting in a request for a purple tomato as soon as they bore out.

“You can have two,” Mr. Yaffle offered cheerily. He stopped trimming a plant and looked up at Manly. “Have you heard anything about this fire to the north? It was the talk of the tavern last night, but the talk was short on facts.” Mr. Yaffle had a thing about keeping up with the latest news.

“I hadn’t heard,” said Manly. “But, if I learn anything in the city today, I’ll fill you in this evening. And, Ms. Pennynickle? I deposited my rent in the box last night, just so you know.”

“Yes, yes!” she chirped, raising her lemonade in approval. “I saw. On time, as always. You’re my Hero!” She laughed with twittering glee. It was her favorite joke. “Oh, speaking of being my hero. Would you mind escorting an old lady downtown, on your way to work this morning? I have some business to attend to.”

The request struck Manly as a bit odd. Ms. Pennynickle never had ‘business’ to attend to. Her business was being rich, drinking spiked lemonade, and sweetly mothering her tenants. “Of course,” he said. “I’d be happy to. Um, how soon can you be ready to go?”

“Oh, I’m always ready to depart, dear,” she replied. “Always.”

Mr. Yaffle nodded in agreement, and the two of them had a good laugh at some inside joke Manly was not part of.

“I just need to finish my breakfast,” said Manly, “and then get dressed.”

“Take your time, dear,” said Ms. Pennynickle, waving with her lemonade. “I just appreciate the neighborliness.”

“My pleasure,” said Manly, and he meant it. This neighborliness and sense of community was a big part of why Manly had chosen to live on Cherry Hill. It was an out-of-the-way spot really, slightly inconvenient if you worked downtown, as Manly did, but he felt it was worth the commute. He’d chosen this specific lodging house because of its communal garden. Not that he was a gardener of any sort. Manly’s only skills with plants were the killing and eating of them. Rather, he enjoyed the garden for all the butterflies it attracted. This morning alone he could identify six species of butterfly, all of which he had personally named.

He was especially happy with the iridescent blue one whose shades shifted hypnotically as it fluttered in the sunlight, like a blue silk flag caught in a snapping breeze. As a child he’d known them by their colloquial name, Blue Dragons, and they had been his favorite butterfly. Seeing one always reminded him fondly of his grandmother’s garden, of the good days before she had passed away, while Grandpa Hero still had his wits about him. Manly had spent hours in that garden, often with Amelia, telling each other stories of the adventures they would one day share. He found it hard now to recall the full power of those daydreams, nearly two decades gone.

The Blue Dragon was the first butterfly Manly had named when the Royal Academy of Arcanonatural Scientification had appointed him to his post. Dracosus Sapphiritic Amelium. Amelia’s Sapphire Dragon.

He was still rather proud of that one.

The bells at the local Aggregate chapel rang the hour, and Manly rushed through the last of his breakfast, then hurried inside to dress. The brown pants that Ruby said made him look taller seemed like a wise choice. Then a brand new, white linen shirt, with hand stitched details on the cuffs. It seemed like a good outfit for turning thirty.

He dressed quickly, grabbed his leather satchel, and went to get Ms. Pennynickle. Manly liked being punctual, and if he was going to stay on schedule today they had a gondola to catch. After that, he would meet Cronimus and Ruby for tea and presents, then work, then off to the party his mother was throwing him.

This last thought made him shudder, and he pressed it resolutely from his mind. No point in letting it ruin the rest of the day. For now he had bigger things to worry about. Birthday things. Thirty was a big deal. It felt like the line between pretending you were an adult and actually being an adult. And Manly could not shake the feeling that something epic was going to happen today. It just had to. Whatever it was, Manly’s optimism was growing by the minute, and birthday optimism cannot be ignored.

~ three ~

AS MANLY ESCORTED MS. PENNYNICKLE through the labyrinthine, cobblestone streets of Cherry Hill, she chattered away happily, regaling Manly with colorful stories of her youth. Her feathered hat bobbed languidly as she gestured to landmarks. It seemed as though she had once visited every elegant old home they passed, most often to attend a party. To hear Ms. Pennynickle tell it, she had been quite the catch as a young woman, though she also managed to indicate, with many a demure wink, that she had not been a particularly difficult catch.

They reached the gondola station just in time to be the last two passengers on Manly’s usual car. When he reached out to hand over his coin at the ticket booth, he received a sharp slap on the wrist from Ms. Pennynickle. The tiny old woman paid for both tickets herself, brushed confidently past Manly, and elbowed a space for them on the crowded iron gondola, motioning for him to follow. During these maneuvers, she never once paused in her happy chattering.

Manly stepped into the ornate car, nodding a friendly apology to a merchant he bumped as he entered. The man didn’t even notice, absorbed as he was in reading the morning edition of the Gazelle. An enchanted headline pulsated red at the top of the page: ‘Inferno In Farwall!!!’

The gondola door clanked shut behind Manly, and the depot master rang a small brass bell mounted on the platform. This bell had a twin, at the other end of the gondola line, that would now be ringing out magically, all by itself. The gondola attendants in the downtown station had a count of thirty in which to safely secure the few passengers allowed on their lightly loaded gondola, then the heavier car, here on Cherry Hill, would be released to the forces of gravity, pulling the lighter one up, and both cars would be taken for an exhilarating ride.

As they waited for their car to be released, Manly tried to skim the merchant’s newspaper without being too obvious. Apparently a milkmaid in Farwall had tipped over a lantern, and the fire had gotten out of control. A great number of people had died in the blaze. It sounded like pretty horrible stuff.

“Sad isn’t it?” Ms. Pennynickle asked.

Manly turned his head to find her watching him intently.

“Very sad,” Manly agreed. “Those poor people.”

“Oh, I don’t mean them,” Ms. Pennynickle replied with a small shake of her head. “I was thinking about those they left behind. All of us sad, lonely people.” She tilted her chin down as she said this, and her eyes disappeared behind the brim of her wild hat, leaving Manly unsure of how to respond.

He glanced back at the headline, seeing it differently now. Ms. Pennynickle was right. His heart caught in his chest as he imagined what the story meant for anyone who had relatives in that small town, far to the north. It was a painful thought. He found himself wishing there was something he could do for everyone affected by the blaze, but there wasn’t, of course. Unless a call went out for charitable contributions. If that happens, he resolved, I’ll definitely donate.

“Time to go,” the depot master called out. He stepped to the side of the gondola car, peering in through the iron filigree, smiling beneath his bushy mustache. “Have a safe trip!” he said merrily, as he threw the great brake lever mounted there.

The gondola car bounced mightily as it lurched free from its moorings, rolling forward to begin its decent into the city. Ms. Pennynickle squeezed Manly’s forearm with her tiny, birdlike hand, and lifted her face to him. “Oh!” she exclaimed, a delighted twinkle in her eye. “I do love this part!”

“I know,” said Manly, as the car emerged from the depot, the view opening panoramically before them. “Me too.”

The capital of Aldendhar spread out below them, tiny and distant, like a child’s toy. Up against the perfect blue waters of Crescent Bay stood the oldest part of Thrakis, still surrounded by mighty stone walls. Those ancient ramparts had been breached from the inside by the city itself, as it prospered and grew in the heady days after Manly’s grandfather slew the last dragon. Now the city covered the lowlands all around the bay. A loose ring of five hills surrounded these lowlands, each hill named for a different fruit – a system which Manly found unforgivably silly. And each hill had its own gondola connecting it to Old Thrakis.

The gondola car Manly and Ms. Pennynickle now rode in picked up speed as it moved out over several yellow lodging houses owned by one of her sisters. Once beyond these buildings the gondola dropped like a stone – always a thrill – as the cable dove down the steep, western slope of Cherry Hill. Manly put an arm around Ms. Pennynickle, instinctively trying to protect her from the jostling of the car and its other occupants, but the gesture was unnecessary. She smiled up at him, obviously enjoying herself.

A high-pitched whistle started up as the iron cage tore down over the mansions of the recently gentrified western slope. Then came a heavy feeling in Manly’s legs as the car leveled out and shot off over the lowland districts, with their annoyingly identical houses and markets. Here, at the halfway point, the other gondola hurtled past on its way up, nothing more than a blur to the eyes. Manly looked out ahead, anticipating the adrenaline buzz he always received near the end of the ride. He felt a light squeeze on his arm and glanced at Ms. Pennynickle.

“This is my other favorite part!” she said loudly, above the whistling of the wind.

Ahead of them the ancient wall of Old Thrakis, with its twelve massive gargoyles perched protectively around the rim, loomed large. The feeling that one was about to crash was very strong, until a sharp climb in the cable hurled the car up and over the granite battlements, taking away its momentum. The brakes came on and the world around them slowed back to its normal pace as the gondola came to a jerking, staggering stop at Breadmarket Station, depositing its passengers into the bustle and chaos of Thrakis.

“I do so love that ride,” Ms. Pennynickle said with a chuckle. They made their way down the steep stone stairs of the depot platform, joining the rush of people along Market Street. “Exhilarating! I’m certain I’m going to die every time.”

Manly grinned at her as he offered his arm. She certainly was a unique old lady. “And, where can I escort you today, Ms. Pennynickle?” he asked.

She took his arm with a delicate little curtsy, the most ladylike of manners, then launched off down the street, heading deeper into Old Thrakis, nearly dragging Manly along behind her. “This way, dear,” she said sweetly. “This way.”

Market Street, the main thoroughfare of Thrakis, sloped away ahead of them, down through the heart of the city, all the way to the docks, where Ruby liked to spend her time. Shops of every sort lined the street. Here, toward the eastern end, were the mid-scale shops; the discount cloth merchants, the secondhand tome shops, the working-class cobblers and such. Vendors who couldn’t afford shops cluttered the sidewalks with their carts and blankets. A great many of these were food vendors, doing a brisk morning trade. Manly found it nearly impossible to start hungry at one end of Market Street and make it to the other without purchasing at least one tasty morsel. The whole thing was a wondrous, discordant symphony of color, smell, and sound. Manly loved the crush and busyness, the energy and the anonymity of it.

“Dear me,” Ms. Pennynickle said. “Market Street gets busier every year. Or, perhaps it only seems that way. Perhaps it stays the same, but I slow down.” She giggled as if the concept pleased her somehow. “Oh, I spent so many crazy nights here, you know?” she said, raising an eyebrow at Manly. “When I was just a little younger.” She winked.

Manly tried to imagine a younger Ms. Pennynickle, but couldn’t. She had the look of a woman who had always been ninety-two.

“This city can be a wonderful place,” she continued, breathing deep of the mixed aroma of Market Street. “Wonderful and terrifying.”

A crier on a small platform yelled out the morning news as Manly and Ms. Pennynickle hurried past. The story had changed since the morning papers were printed. Now they were saying the fire in Farwall had started with an explosion at a small spellworks. I’ll have to remember to tell Cronimus, thought Manly. He’ll be interested to hear that!

“This is my stop, dear,” Ms. Pennynickle said, coming to a sudden halt, interrupting Manly’s thoughts. He looked up at the stout brick building they were standing in front of. A small wooden sign, with ornately painted lettering, hung from an iron bar above the door. It read, ‘Harrington, Hemington, Procter, Procter, and Peeves: Three Good Lawyers, Four Excellent Liars, and all Five Chaps have Reasonable Fees.’

“Are you sure?” Manly asked, frowning. He wondered what Ms. Pennynickle was doing here. With the money she had at her disposal, she could have afforded an attorney from the Palace District.

“I’m quite certain, dear,” she said patiently. “The address has not changed since I was a small girl.”

Manly glanced back up at the sign. Above it sat a window, and through this he caught a glimpse of a man staring down at them. He was tall and very thin, with a gaunt, serious face. Manly could have sworn the man was wearing a dusted gentlemen’s wig, though such things had not been in style for at least fifty years. The man’s eyes grew wide when Manly looked at him, and he ducked quickly from view.

Manly turned to Ms. Pennynickle. “I don’t mean to intrude,” he said, “but... you aren’t in any trouble, are you?”

She chuckled and reached out to pat his cheek in a motherly way. “You really are my Hero. No, I’m not in any trouble. One of my sisters passed recently, that’s all, and I’m hearing her will today.”

Manly was stricken, feeling as if he understood her reaction to the Farwall headline better now. “Oh, I’m... I’m so sorry for your loss,” he said. “I hadn’t heard.”

“Thank you, dear,” said Ms. Pennynickle, “but I’m fine, really. Tabitha was ninety-four! That’s a lot of years we had together, exploring this wonderful life. I’m just a bit jealous, truth be told. She’s on to her next adventure, and here I am, taking on more and more responsibility.” She pulled a piece of paper from her small handbag and frowned at it. “Tabitha owned quite a bit more property than I do. I’m afraid a lot of it will fall to me now. I suppose it’s all part of growing older.” She lifted her head and looked at Manly. “You’ll understand soon enough, turning thirty and all. Happy birthday, by the way. I didn’t want to say anything in front of Mr. Yaffle. He’d bury you in artichokes.”

“Oh, thank you,” Manly said, though he felt a little strange accepting the congratulations. It was odd to admit to something like a birthday, when so many others were in mourning.

Ms. Pennynickle moved up the steps and Manly opened the heavy wooden door for her. “Would you like me to wait for you?” he asked. “Walk you back to the gondola?”

She chuckled. “I can take care of myself, dear. I just enjoy your company, is all. Roped you into an escort so I’d have someone to chatter with. Besides, I could be here quite a long while, and I know you like to be on time for things. Go meet Ruby and Cronimus. Say ‘hello’ for me. Oh, I do so adore your friends.” She stepped inside, then turned back. “And, for the gods sake, don’t waste the whole day working! Make time for a bit of adventure, dear. This life is only so long.” She turned and moved inside, waving over her head as she did.

“I will,” Manly promised with a grin, watching the old woman until she had shuffled the length of the corridor and disappeared around a corner.

~ four ~

THERE WERE NO LESS THAN SIX White Whale teashops in Old Thrakis alone – not counting the numerous blue and white vendor carts scattered throughout the city, like so much caffeinated confetti. The shop Manly and his friends frequented, the one he referred to in conversation as “my Whale,” occupied part of a renovated textile factory on the corner of Market and Grand. This specific shop was a convenient stop on his morning commute, and on Cronimus’ as well. Ruby, having neither commute nor consistent living arrangements, didn’t really care where they met.

Brass bells chimed Manly’s arrival as he opened the door to the teashop, and he was met by all the warm, earthy smells that should inhabit such a place. Jaela, the portly manager, glanced up from where she stood at an iron stove covered in whistling, copper tea kettles. She had the air of a captain, firmly in control at the helm of her ship.

“Oh, good morning, Manly!” she called out happily across the crowded shop, holding up a hand to pause the customer she had been helping. “Come in! It’s Tuesday, right? So... that’s a black tea Caramel Catapult for you.”

Manly nodded. “Yes, it is. Thank you.” Feeling like a regular here always gave him a warm glow. For no reason that Manly could explain, Jaela had taken a real shining to him, and he rather liked it. Convenience aside, she was the real reason Manly frequented this particular Whale.

Jaela turned her back on the line of customers waiting at her counter, and started collecting the ingredients for Manly’s drink, as if she were in her own personal kitchen and Manly were her only guest. “Take a seat, dear,” she said. “I’ll bring it out to you.”

The entire line of customers turned to glare at Manly, and he winced at them apologetically. “No, it’s fine, Jaela,” he said. “I can wait in line.”

She waved him off without glancing up from her stove. “Don’t be silly, Manly,” she chuckled merrily. “And your tea’s free this morning, being your birthday and all.”

The line of customers glared again and shook their heads, but no one spoke up. Jaela had been known to permanently refuse service to those who dared complain in her shop. And being cut off from her scones was a dire fate indeed.

Manly nodded another quick apology to the other patrons, then moved toward an open table with a couple of comfy chairs by the large, storefront window. There was no sign of Ruby or Cronimus yet, but he’d expected no different from his perpetually tardy friends.

Next to the table Manly chose, two merchants sat talking about business and the state of the local economy. The senior of the two gestured languidly as he spoke, the massive Merchant Guild ring on his right hand flashing like a beacon in the sunlight. Both men were dressed in the finest current fashion of the semi-rich. Finely patterned silk vests under linen summer jackets, big, floppy, red velvet merchant’s hats, and highly improbable mustaches, curving and whirling around up-turned noses. They sipped at their tea, frowning superiorly, and “Mm-hmm”ing to one another in constant agreement.

Manly found an unoccupied wooden chair nearby, and pulled it up to his chosen table, so Ruby would have a place to sit – she had recently decided that plain wooden chairs were under-appreciated, and was doing her best to give them all a little attention. That complete, Manly settled down into a super-soft, velvet chair. It was standard White Whale blue, with a subtle, white paisley pattern. He sighed contentedly, and turned his attention outside. It was an absolutely perfect morning, after a long, rainy start to the summer.

Traffic beyond the window was really starting to pick up as people hurried off to work or to shop. Manly’s Whale marked a loose boundary between the upper and middle-class shops along Market Street, and this part of the city attracted a nice potpourri of lifestyles and cultures. He loved sitting here in the mornings. It was as if he were peering through the glass into a massive terrarium.

From the free-love communers of the Southbridge district, with their mangy hairdos and tie-died togas, to the affluent merchants of Wedgetown, stopping by for a scone on their way to the harbor to welcome a ship, or to send one off. Manly loved inventing stories for the people that rushed past the window, especially those most outlandishly dressed. He wondered if their lives were as interesting as their outfits, or if they were just dressed to compensate for how boring they felt inside.

This morning he barely had time to properly start people-watching before Jaela came striding proudly across the shop, carrying a gargantuan, steaming tea mug, half the size of Manly’s head. He tried not to look shocked, or intimidated.

“I found this at Breadmarket!” Jaela declared excitedly. “I instantly thought of...”

She was interrupted by a clattering of brass bells, as a tall, dark- haired man entered the Whale, using his back to shove open the door. He came twisting into the shop, tripping over the threshold, muttering impotent curses beneath his breath, as loose parchments hemorrhaged from his book-laden arms. He stooped and bent in all directions at once, grabbing handfuls of papers, losing as many as he collected, the tails of his long black overcoat flapping like the wings of some great and wounded bird.

The first of Manly’s two closest friends had finally arrived. It was Cronimus Crudge, looking frazzled and distracted as usual.

~ five ~

APOLOGIZING ELOQUENTLY AND GRANDLY, Cronimus bumped and jostled his way through the crowded shop towards Manly’s table. Jaela set the massive tea mug in front of Manly and then stood, hands on hips, glaring at the new arrival as he approached.

Cronimus had nearly reached the seat Manly was saving for him, when he suddenly tripped on his own feet, surprise registering briefly in his deep brown eyes as he lurched forward. Somehow he managed to dump most of his books and papers onto the table as he fell past, but he himself landed in a tangled heap on the floor. Fortunately, Manly scooped up the head-sized mug just in time, and thus avoided drowning in his Caramel Catapult.

Cronimus leapt back to his feet, his wavy hair a fluffed mess. “Oh, fuck it all!” he swore loudly, in frustration. It sounded rather silly in his refined, proper accent. He seemed to suddenly become aware of his audience and sat down in his chair, turning in a half circle as he did. “Sorry,” he whispered, “so very sorry.” He smoothed his hair down with both hands, scratched at his perpetually stubbled chin, and straightened his wrinkled coat. This seemed to resurrect his dignity and he sighed contentedly.

Cronimus nodded to Manly, a very formal gesture. “Good morning, Manly,” he said gravely. “Happy birthday.” Then he turned to Jaela and smiled as if he had just noticed her. “Ah, Jaela my dear! You radiate. Summer becomes you. I would absolutely adore one of those blueberry scones you’re becoming so very famous for, hmm? Warm, with a half-pat of butter?”

Jaela huffed. “I always radiate. Order at the counter like everyone else.” She headed back to her post at the iron stove, as normal conversations resumed around the room.

“Well!” said Cronimus, stooping to gather up a few last papers from the floor. “Can you believe that woman? We have been coming here for years and she still does not know who I am! Besides. Look at that line. It’s absolutely serpentine.”

Manly was still holding the huge mug out above the table and his arms were starting to ache. He nodded at the pile of papers and books. “Do you mind?”

“Hmm? Oh gods, sorry Manly,” said Cronimus. “That is an obscenely large tea mug.” He started shoving fistfuls of parchment into his satchels, bags, and even the pockets of his overcoat. He had no less than four different bags slung from his shoulders, ostensibly to organize his ‘research’ into various categories, but there didn’t seem to be any order to the way he stuffed papers here and there.

The papers themselves were full of strange notes and diagrams in Cronimus’ unexpectedly neat and flowing handwriting. Some were surely notes for his classes later in the day, and he would regret not paying better attention to which bag or pocket he was now stuffing them into. But most of the papers were likely new spells that Cronimus was working on. There was big money in patenting a useful spell, and Cronimus was convinced that was his ticket to the good life. He’d never had a spell actually work, not properly anyway, but that didn’t stop him from trying. Constantly.

And it wasn’t just to make money. For Cronimus it was a matter of pride and identity. He had to create a successful, useful spell. If he didn’t, he’d be the first adult Crudge in five-hundred years to never have an official entry in Blackmore’s Compendium of Spells and Hexes. Manly knew the constant failures were a burden that seriously weighed on his friend.

Cronimus collected his books into a sloppy pile at the edge of the table. Manly couldn’t remember ever, not in their entire lives, seeing Cronimus without a book somewhere close by. These had titles like History of the Mage-Kings, Common Garden Alchemy, and Better Pyrokinesis in 30 Minutes a Day. The last was more of a pamphlet than a book, and looked to be one of the magical-improvement courses Cronimus was always getting suckered into.

Manly set his mug down and rubbed his wrists. “Jaela knows exactly who you are, which is probably part of the problem.”

Cronimus looked scandalized. “What is that supposed to mean?”

Cronimus was a Crudge of the Shassur Crudge’s, the oldest and most respected mage family in all of Aldendhar. So old that several bedtime stories featured Crudges doing this or that bit of magic. History of the Mage-Kings could very well have been titled A Family History of the Crudges, and if Manly wasn’t careful Cronimus would tell him all about it.

Again.

He didn’t feel like arguing on his birthday so he pointed to the books, changing the subject. “Busy?”

Cronimus perked up instantly, his dark eyes shining. He loved talking magic. “Oh yes, very busy! I am giving a big test this week. I expect it will be impossible to pass.” He grinned. “I still cannot believe I am stuck teaching summer classes. Again!” He waggled a hand dismissively at the stack of books, then dug through one of his satchels excitedly. “But this! This is what has been occupying the greater part of my attention of late.” He dumped a handful of crumpled parchments onto the table, smoothing them out and arranging them neatly in front of Manly, to whom they were quite incomprehensible.

They were certainly fun to look at though; so full of strange diagrams and complicated magical calculations, written in Cronimus’ flowing hand. The papers looked very wizardy.

“Is it a spell?” asked Manly. Cronimus had a whole shelf in his minuscule apartment overflowing with failed spells he’d designed, some going back to when they were kids.

“No,” said Cronimus. “It is a potion. Well, more of an elixir really. Very exciting!”

An elixir? Manly thought, frowning. He still hadn’t entirely forgiven Cronimus for using him as a guinea pig for a particularly nasty ‘Elixir of Biceps’ their freshman year. “What’s it supposed to do?” he asked, suspicious.

“Take, for example, that elephantine tea you are chugging your way through. Going to really perk you up, isn’t it? Or ruin you, more like. Where did she find that mug?!”

“Breadmarket, I think,” said Manly. “It’s like a tea bathtub. I love it.”

“Well,” said Cronimus, tapping a finger on one of the diagrams. “Three sips of the ‘Elixir of Unwakefulness’ and your tea-buzz is gone like that!” He tried snapping his fingers, didn’t quite pull it off, then snapped them triumphantly and sat back with a smug smile. He immediately leaned forward again. “That smells delicious. May I?” He lifted the mug to his lips with both hands. “Oh, it weighs a ton.” He took a sip. “Mmmm. Very nice.”

Manly smiled. Usually Cronimus’ idea of what constituted useful magic was a bit sketchy, at best, but this... “You know, that’s not a half-bad idea, Cron. For people who enjoy black tea, but don’t want the buzz. Maybe people would like a cup before they go to sleep. Seems like there could be a market for that.”

Cronimus nodded excitedly. “That is what I thought as well. Establishments such as this could remain open later. Think of all the late night tea business my elixir would create!” He sighed and looked out the window. “It would be nice, wouldn’t it? A best-selling elixir. I could retire early from teaching and dedicate myself full-time to designing spells.” His voice trailed off as he lost himself in the beautiful thought.

“Does it work?” Manly asked gently.

“Hm? Does what work?” asked Cronimus.

“The elixir.”

“Oh, yes. Well, mostly.”

“Mostly, eh?” said Manly. “You know, I’ve been on the receiving end of a few of your experiments that ‘mostly’ worked.”

“Oh, honestly,” huffed Cronimus. “I have apologized quite enough for all of that, and besides, it was ages ago.”

“Maybe for you,” said Manly. “I still have a mole.”

“A benign mole,” Cronimus pointed out.

Manly stared at him. “So. This ‘Elixir of Unwakefulness?’ What does ‘mostly work’ mean?”

“Well,” said Cronimus, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. “I gave some to my reader, and it completely negated all the effects of the tea he had ingested.”

“Wow,” said Manly, “that’s good, right?”

“Yes,” said Cronimus, reaching forward to take another sip of Manly’s drink. “Only, he... fell asleep.”

“For how long?”

Cronimus squinted. “Today is Tuesday, right? Oh, call it... four days.”

“Wow,” said Manly.

“Yeah,” said Cronimus, looking over his parchments. He un- shouldered his bags, getting more comfortable, and then removed his long, black overcoat, giving Manly his first look at the outfit beneath.

Manly nearly choked on his tea. He shook his head. “Cronimus! What... what are you wearing?”

Cronimus looked offended in that haughty way he had perfected. “I am wearing a shirt, thank-you very much.” He folded his coat neatly and placed it under his chair.

The ‘shirt,’ as Cronimus called it, was a noisy affair of lavender silk and gold embroidery, with skin tight sleeves, and ruffles running down a neckline that plunged from each shoulder into a very deep ‘v.’ Cronimus had shaved his chest for the occasion.

Cronimus sat up a little straighter. “I will have you know that this,” he pulled at the shirt with thumb and forefinger, “is vintage Frederico Farelli. Only thirteen and a half were ever made. I have it on good authority that one will sit on permanent display in that new fashion exhibit at your museum. And, now, one sits on me.”

“I thought that Farelli guy made women’s clothes,” Manly said.

Cronimus sniffed. “He designs, and I quote, ‘raiment for the beautiful woman and the adventurous man!’ And his vintage lines are making a comeback. This is the absolute latest in fashion.” He said this proudly, as if he had accomplished something grand. Cronimus had always had a fascination with anything on the cutting edge of fashion, but never seemed to be able to quite pull it off. People were staring.

Manly nodded. “Oh, I’m sure it’s the latest fashion. If you’re twelve. And a girl. Gods, Cron, you look like an out-of-work troubadour!” He pointed a finger and grinned evilly. “Oh, when Ruby gets here she is going to cry her one good eye right out of her head, and die from laughing. At you. For once you will be dressed more conspicuously than her. Speaking of. Where is Ruby? This is extra late, even for her.”

“Yes,” said Cronimus, sitting up a little straighter to show how little Manly’s mockery bothered him. “Which brings us nicely to something I have been wanting to discuss with you for some time now.”

“Is it serious?” asked Manly.

“Yes, actually,” said Cronimus. “It rather is.”

“Then please put your coat back on. I can’t take you seriously in that shirt.”

“Oh, just listen, will you?” Cronimus cleared his throat. “You see, Manly, I have been thinking. Quite a lot lately, about us. The three of us, I mean. Ruby mostly, but also about you and I, and also about her and about our friendship. Specifically about our friendship being... well, being the three of us. You see what I’m saying?”

“No,” said Manly. “Is this about you still having a thing for Ruby?”

“I do not have a thing!” Cronimus said, a bit too loudly. A couple of teenage girls sitting nearby giggled and put their hands to their mouths. Manly couldn’t help but notice that their blouses had certain, frightening similarities to the shirt Cronimus was wearing.

“Oh, honestly,” Cronimus said to them. “Grow up and eat your scones!” He turned back to Manly and said, in a quieter voice, “I do not have a thing for Ruby. I will grant you that there has been a certain attraction in the past, but that is all quite over now, I assure you. It is also entirely beside the point.”

Manly strongly doubted that the candle Cronimus had long carried for Ruby had suddenly burnt out, but decided not to press the issue. “Then what are you talking about?”

Cronimus sighed and shifted in his chair again. He seemed unsure of how to begin. “Why do we associate with Ruby?”

“Associate?”

Cronimus frowned and rolled his eyes. “Why do we ‘hang out’ with her? Why do we spend so much time with Ruby?”

Manly shrugged. “She’s our friend.”

“Exactly!” said Cronimus triumphantly. “Why is Ruby our friend?” “I don’t know,” said Manly. “She’s been our friend for, what... twenty-some years? She’s just our friend! Does there have to be a why?”

Cronimus smiled his I’m-about-to-be-very-right smile, which always made Manly want to prove him wrong. “Manly, you and I are going places in the world, becoming men of standing, of society and means. You are the big ‘three-oh’ today, after all, and I am not far behind. You do important scientification work at the Royal Museum of Arcanonatural History. You are a Curator, and I am proud to be your friend.” He placed a humble hand on his naked chest. “I am a student of the Deep Arts, and an up-and-coming Professor of Magic. The world is our oyster and fame is the fork with which we shall pry it open and suck out its... its... well, its succulence, I guess. We are going places, Manly. And Ruby? She is nothing more than a...” He lowered his voice. “...than a common thief! A pickpocket. An impressively talented one, to be sure, but a common, petty criminal nonetheless.” He sat back in his chair and held out his palms apologetically. “I hate to say this, I really do, but Ruby is a liability to our careers, both legally and in terms of our overall focus and motivation. Ruby is holding us back, Manly.”

Manly blinked. “Cronimus. I am the Curator of Butterflies. Butterflies, Cron. Nobody cares! I care, but no one else does, not really anyway.” Cronimus tried to object, but Manly didn’t let him. “No, not even you. It’s nice that you pretend, but I’ve never actually believed that you give a damn about my butterflies.”

Cronimus shrugged and leaned back deeper into his chair.

Manly continued. “As for you, sir. Mister high-and-mighty too- good-for-Ruby, you are not a Professor of Magic. You are a Professor of Magical History at Thrakis Community College, and that is something quite different.”

Cronimus bit his lip and looked out the window.

Manly felt a little bad for coming on so strong. “I’m sorry if that sounds cruel, but don’t sit here and try to make it sound as if we’re better than Ruby, because we’re not. True, she’s a thief, but we both know she’ll never get in any real trouble. She’s flirted her way out of every constable’s station in Thrakis at least once. And she is not common. There is nothing common about Ruby. You above all people know that.” Manly squinted at his friend. “Wait. Is this about Ruby moving in with that Lance guy?”

“Temporarily moving in!” said Cronimus. “And what sort of sailor is named Lance?!”

“Oh, my gods!” said Manly. “This is about your thing for Ruby. It’s not like she’s dating him. Ruby doesn’t date anybody, you know that.”

Cronimus hung his head and sighed. “Exactly. Ruby will never date anyone. That’s the problem. I... I don’t know if I can just be friends with her, Manly. Not when I hope for more.”

Manly could empathize. He knew exactly how an unrequited crush felt. He slid the enormous mug of tea toward his friend.

Cronimus nodded, took a sip, and then stared quietly out the window for a moment. “I received a promotion yesterday,” he said, a bit sullenly.

“Really?” asked Manly. Cronimus had a habit of exaggerating his own importance.

“Well, not a promotion exactly,” said Cronimus. “A name plaque for my desk. It is solid brass though.”

Manly frowned.

“Well, it has a wooden base!” said Cronimus defensively.

Manly sipped his tea.

“Okay, fine!” said Cronimus. “It is almost entirely wooden base with a thin copper plaque, but it’s something at least. It means the administration is starting to think of me as a more permanent part of the staff, don’t you think?” There was a slightly desperate look in his eyes.

In their constant ribbing back and forth, Manly sometimes forgot just how fragile Cronimus could be. “Yeah, I think so, Cron. Honestly.” Manly paused. “But as far as Ruby goes, she is your friend. You know you’d regret losing that.”

Cronimus nodded. “Fine. But I still think it would be nice if Ruby would show a little ambition.”

“Oh, Ruby has ambition,” said Manly. “She wants to be a ship captain.”

Cronimus barked a laugh. “A pirate captain! Ambitious indeed. Pirates don’t even exist anymore, outside of carnivals. And how will she ever be able to afford a ship? She actually is insane, isn’t she?” He grinned, shaking his head and reaching across the table for the big mug. “Insanely perfect,” he muttered, taking a sip.

One of the teenage girls sitting nearby, who had previously giggled about Cronimus not having a ‘thing,’ leaned over and whispered. “Okay, two notes. One, where did you get your vintage Farelli? I love it!” Her eyes were wide.

Cronimus raised an eyebrow at Manly as if to say ‘I told you so.’ Manly, for his part, felt the same.

“Estate sale in Wedgetown,” said Cronimus. “I haunt the obituaries.”

“Amazing,” she said sincerely. “Second note. I think the pirate girl you like just got here.”

~ six ~

MANLY AND CRONIMUS BOTH TURNED to find Ruby weaving her way toward them through the mess of tables and chairs. How she managed to enter stores without ringing the bells above the doors was simply one of the many mysteries surrounding Ruby. “Trade secret,” she had said with a twinkle in her eye, when Manly had asked her about it.

As usual, she was dressed like a pirate. Dark brown velvet breeches tucked into a pair of soft-soled, dusty brown, leather boots – “getaway boots,” she called them. A puffy-sleeved, teal linen shirt hung low on her shoulders, unlaced to just the right place, showcasing Ruby’s favorite assets – “getaway boobs,” she called them. A fabric sash and a wide leather belt around her waist likely concealed a small selection of daggers. Around her neck she wore three mismatched necklaces, and in her nose a tiny gold stud. Her wavy brunette hair was a mass of small braids, beaded sections, and dangling trinkets all pulled back and tied with an embroidered piece of silk.

A black eye-patch covered Ruby’s left eye. Another mystery. “I think my good eye more than compensates, sexy-wise,” was the only answer she would give when asked about it.

Several of the shop’s patrons smirked behind her back as she walked past, or nudged their companions to make sure they had seen the pirate striding through the teashop. It happened a lot when Ruby was around. Manly barely noticed anymore.

She squeezed past the table where the two mustached merchants sat, and then stood with her hands on the back of the chair Manly had saved for her. “Good morning!” she said, flashing her devilish smile. She did a very small double-take at Cronimus’ shirt. “Wow. You look pretty. So, who are we gossiping about today?”

At Ruby’s comment, Cronimus reached behind himself and pulled his overcoat back on. Improvising, Manly said, “My mother,” at the exact same instant that Cronimus mumbled, “His mother.” The two exchanged looks as Ruby said, “Nice. I’ve got opinions on that topic.” She started pulling her chair out to sit down.

Just then the merchant wearing the guild ring, who had been eyeing Ruby, muttered something over his tea. His friend chuckled and nodded, mustache waggling. Manly couldn’t hear them clearly, but he thought he heard one of them say something about “gutter trash.” Ruby stopped, the smile on her face turning cool. Manly could tell that she’d heard exactly what the merchant had said.

Ruby whipped her chair out and spun it around, making as if to sit on it backwards. But, as she did so, she smacked the merchant on the shin with one of the chair’s legs. He spat out a mouthful of tea, uttering a strangled yelp as he did so.

“Oh, my gods!” said Ruby, sounding convincingly sincere. She overreacted and jerked the chair away from the man she had smacked, thumping his friend on the kneecap. The younger merchant let out a yelp as well, and clutched at his knee.

“Oh, no!” said Ruby. “Look at how clumsy I am today! You must be hurt. Two with one shot. If this were a sport I’d be famous. Let’s just check and make sure you’re okay.” She fluttered between them as she spoke, touching them reassuringly on their shoulders and arms. She patted the second merchant lightly on the hip as she bent to check their wounded legs, lifting the first merchant’s pant leg to get a better look at his shin.

“I’m fine, I’m fine! It’s fine, really,” said the first merchant, brushing her away, obviously uncomfortable at being touched all over by someone like Ruby.

“No depth perception. It’s hard, you know?” said Ruby, pointing at her one good eye. She reached into the folds of her sash and came up with a few copper coins. She then took the first merchant’s hand firmly in hers, pressing the coins into his palm, and closed his hand in her fists. “Here. Let me pay for your tea, it’s the least I can do.”

“No, no,” said the merchant, obviously just wanting her to go away. “There’s no need.”

“I insist!” said Ruby, pulling her hands away, leaving the coppers in his palm. She opened her hands, lifting them as if in surrender, palms to the merchants. “Really. I never take no for an answer.”

Sitting behind Ruby, Manly could see the first merchant’s garish ring now lightly, but securely, pinched between the backs of the first two fingers of her right hand. He tensed. Was Ruby really going to try and pull something like this off? With so many people watching?

Ruby dropped her hands to her sides, brushing along her sash as she did so, and the ring disappeared into its folds.

“Fine,” said the merchant gruffly. “It’s fine. Thank you.” His friend nodded tersely and they went back to their conversation, much subdued now.

“My pleasure,” said Ruby. She turned and sat down with her arms crossed in front of her, leaning on the back of the chair. “Sorry I’m late, boys. I swear I was actually going to be on time, but... you know. Lance had other plans.”

“Lance,” muttered Cronimus bitterly, shifting in his chair to look out the window miserably. Ruby didn’t seem to notice. She pulled the Merchant Guild ring out of its hiding place and slipped it onto her thumb.

“Ruby...” whispered Manly, as he tried to keep from casting nervous glances at the two merchants.

Ruby made a face and shushed him with a flap of her hand. “He won’t notice,” she whispered. “They never notice if you give them a little something back.” She glanced down at the table and stopped whispering. “Gods, that is a huge mug! It’s like a tea birdbath.” She leaned over to Manly and kissed him hard on the forehead. “By the way! Happy birthday, Manly!”

Manly smiled. “Thanks!”

“So, what’s the deal with your mother now?” asked Ruby. “Has she finally sprouted horns and a tail?”

Manly’s mother had never hidden the fact that she didn’t like Ruby. “She wears pants,” the Lady Hero would sniff, as if that explained her feelings. “And with a lovely figure like hers, we know what that means.” And Ruby, for her part, had very little patience for snobs like Manly’s mother, with Cronimus being the notable exception.

“Not that I’m aware of,” said Manly. “But it’s possible she had them removed in her last magioplasty.” He took a sip of his tea. “What did you end up doing yesterday, Ruby?”

“Oh, this and that,” she said. “You know, just picking up a few things here and there.” Ruby winked and helped herself to Manly’s – apparently communal – tea, then she set the big mug back down. “And how about you boys?” she asked. “Anything new?”

“Cronimus was just telling me that he got a nameplate for his desk at work,” said Manly.

“Oh,” said Ruby. “Did they finally replace it?”

Cronimus grunted. “Wonderful. Well done, Ruby.”

“Wait,” said Manly. “Replace what?”

“He didn’t tell you?” asked Ruby, her eyes twinkling. “They bought him a plaque about a month ago, all shiny and pretty. He had it on his desk for two days before a student pointed out that it said ‘Professor Cramimus Crudge.’ Cramimus! Is that even a real name?” She turned to Cronimus. “How did you not notice that for two days?”

Cronimus stood, red-faced. “I am going to get a scone,” he said in a low voice, and headed toward the counter.

Manly waited until Cronimus was out of earshot, then leaned in to Ruby. “You should go easier on him,” he said quietly. “He’s having a bad day.”

Ruby made a face. “Over a plaque? If it weren’t this it would be something else.” She leaned in and whispered. “I mean really Manly, I’ve been thinking lately. Why do we even hang out with Cronimus?”

Manly rolled his eyes. “Are you kidding me?”

“No. I’m being very serious,” she said. “He’s like this more often than not. I think he drags us down.”

Manly shook his head in frustration. “He’s our friend.”

“Exactly,” said Ruby. “Why is he our friend? He’s no fun, Manly. You, on the other hand? You’re... well your family sucks, and the butterfly thing is weird and intense, but you’re still fun. You like to

laugh and you’re up for new things. You dance, sort of. You’re fun. And I’m obviously fun. But Cronimus? Not fun. He thinks life is some class or test or something. Everything is serious to him.”

“Cronimus is fun,” said Manly. “Look at his shirt.”

“That’s entertaining, and not intentionally. It’s not fun. Totally different.”

“Okay,” said Manly. “This is ridiculous! I’ve had quite enough of all this. What exactly is going on between you two?”

Ruby jumped quickly to the right conclusion, as she often did. “What do you mean...? Oh! Did he say something about me? Does he not want to be my friend anymore? I knew it! Who does he think he is?”

“What?!” asked Manly. “You were just doing the exact same thing!”

Ruby scowled. “But I have real reasons.”

“What, exactly?” asked Manly.

“He’s as snobby as a noble!” hissed Ruby, her jaw clenching. “No offense to you.”

Manly just stared at her. Ruby looked really, honestly upset, and though he wanted to step in and defend Cronimus, he knew better than to interrupt Ruby when she was like this.

“I asked Cronimus to help Lance and I move to Lance’s new place down by the docks last week,” whispered Ruby angrily, “and he said ‘no!’ He claimed he had to grade papers, but we both know that’s a load of crap. Cronimus gives everyone in his classes a ‘C’ no matter what. He didn’t want to help because he thinks he’s too good to hang out with people like Lance and me. Or maybe he just doesn’t want to be seen down by the docks. What kind of a friend is that?”

Manly shook his head. “I know for a fact that Cronimus does not think he is superior to you. To everyone else in the world? Maybe. But not to you.”

Ruby huffed, but seemed to calm down a little. “Whatever. He just gets under my skin sometimes. He’s such a child!”

“Be nice,” Manly chastised. “Cron is not a child.”

At the counter Cronimus raised his voice to the point where the entire shop could hear. “I most certainly did not! I asked for a blueberry scone. This is a blackberry scone. I demand my proper scone!”

Ruby gave Manly a look.

The girl at the counter mumbled something to Cronimus.

“Well of course it has a bite out of it,” he said. “That is how I discovered its hidden and unpleasant blackberriness!” More soft mumbles from the girl. “I will not pay for your mistake, madam! Do you know who I am? Where is Jaela?” More mumbles. “What do you mean ‘out?’ She is never out!”

“See?” said Ruby. “Child.”

“Fine,” said Manly, gulping down the last of his tea, then smiling sweetly at Ruby. “But, he’s our child.”

Ruby stood up and adjusted her sash. Though she was trying not to let it, a grin played at the edges of her mouth. “Fine. I’ll get the kid and meet you out front.”

~ seven ~

FIVE MINUTES LATER, Manly stood outside the teashop, his arms full and aching from holding all of Cronimus’ bags, papers, and books. Ruby came bursting out through the door, dragging Cronimus behind her.

“...and I shall never darken your doorway again!” he yelled as the door slammed shut. He turned, smoothing out his ruffled overcoat. Ruby was shaking her head at him. “What?” Cronimus asked calmly. “The patron is always right.”

Manly handed him his things, while Cronimus busied himself with securing loose papers in the pockets and pouches scattered throughout his large coat.

“You know,” said Ruby, hands on hips, “we like this teashop. It would be nice to come back.”

“Oh, please,” said Cronimus, wiping blackberry scone dust from his hands. The scone had been crushed in the struggle. “We could defecate on the countertops and Jaela would welcome us with open arms, as long as Manly were with us.”

“That’s probably true,” Manly agreed, with a nod. “But, let’s not test it, okay?” He opened his eyes wide. “Wow, it feels weird to nod. I have a massive tea buzz.”

“Oh, my gods,” Ruby muttered, with a shake of her head. “Lightweight.”

Cronimus gave Manly a knowing, haughty smile. “I bet you wish you had an ‘Elixir of Unwakefulness,’ yes?”

“A what?” Ruby asked.

Cronimus sniffed. “Just a simple, anti-wakefulness elixir I am developing. Should be quite popular.”

Ruby frowned. “With who?”

Cronimus pointed at Manly. “With people who want to ingest their body-volume in black tea, but do not wish to stay up all night.”

“Three things,” said Ruby. “One; staying up all night is fun. Two; pooping on the counters is disgusting. Three; I’m still hungry because of you. Although less hungry now, after all the poop talk.”

“Sorry,” said Cronimus, “but if it is any consolation, I am ravenous myself.”

Ruby reached into the folds of her shirt and pulled out something wrapped in a linen napkin. She held it out to Cronimus. “Here,” she said, a bit gruffly.

He unwrapped it gently, revealing a carefully wrapped scone. Manly caught the faint scent of blueberries.

“These were in a glass case, Ruby,” Cronimus said, a hint of awe in his voice. “How on earth did you manage that?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said with false humility. “I have my ways.”

Cronimus nodded gravely. “Most impressive. And useful, in this particular instance.”

“So,” said Manly. “It’s bad for Cronimus to flip-out in the teashop, but it’s okay for you to steal their scones?”

“Nobody saw what I did!” Ruby said.

Cronimus broke the scone in two and handed half to Ruby. “Here.”

“Oh, no. I couldn’t,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s yours. I stole it for you.”

“Don’t be silly,” said Cronimus. “You said you were hungry, and it’s a large scone.”

Ruby gently took half of the scone from Cronimus. “Are they any good?” she asked.

“Divine,” said Cronimus. “However, beware of the blackberry ones. Very similar in appearance, but total rubbish.”

Ruby took a small bite. “Mmmm. That is good.”

Looking at the two of them Manly felt a small warmth in his chest. They’d been like this forever. Bitter enemies one minute, eating each other’s scones the next.

Just then, the two merchants who had been sitting near them came bursting out of the shop, brushing past, seeming agitated. “I don’t know!” said the senior merchant, looking at his naked hand. “I must’ve left it at the barber’s, somehow. Gods, the Guildmaster is going to kill me!” As they neared the street corner, a beggar lifted a tattered wooden bowl to them, muttering a pathetic plea. The senior merchant cuffed the beggar’s hand aside without so much as a glance in the man’s direction, dumping a few coins from the wooden bowl into the beggar’s lap.

“Assholes!” said Ruby, obviously not caring if she was heard or not. “But, that does remind me...” She reached into her sash, then flipped a golden druple to Manly, and one to Cronimus. Manly caught the heavy coin out of the air, but Cronimus missed his, and he had to retrieve it from a potted plant by the door.

“Lunch today,” said Ruby, smiling a proud smile, “will come to you courtesy of the jerks at the Merchant’s Guild.” She flipped a third gold coin on her thumb, and caught it in her palm with a slap. “You didn’t really think I was just going to give money away, did you?”

Manly shook his head in amazement, shrugged, and pocketed the heavy coin. “Well, I’m off to work,” he said.

Ruby waved a finger at him. “Not so fast, birthday boy. Presents first! Okay, so we all know how terrible I am with things like calendars,” she made a face. “But, I do have the perfect gift picked out, and plans are in motion to procure it tomorrow.” She did a little bow.

“Perfect,” said Manly. He couldn’t help being a little excited. Ruby always made up for her birthday forgetfulness by stealing the best gifts.

Ruby and Manly both turned to look expectantly at Cronimus. “What?” Cronimus asked.

Ruby scowled at him. “Where’s Manly’s gift, Cron?”

“I forgot,” said Cronimus matter-of-factly. “Totally slipped my mind. Busy and all. Sorry Manly, but I shall have something sorted out by tomorrow as well.”

Manly was surprised, and a bit disappointed. As disorganized as Cronimus could be, he never forgot important dates. He loved lording it over everyone else, even if he did give crap gifts. It felt strange to be forgotten by him.

“That’s fine,” said Manly, trying to be sincere. “No big deal.”

Ruby pointed at Cronimus. “Bullshit,” she said. “You told me, just yesterday, that you had the perfect gift for Manly. Give him his gift, Cron.”

“I do not have one, Ruby,” said Cronimus sternly, through gritted teeth.

“Cramimus!” said Ruby menacingly.

“Oh, perfect, Ruby! Just perfect in every direction.” He reached into the largest of his bags and pulled out a wide, flat package wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. He held it out to Manly. “Happy birthday,” he said without enthusiasm. “I’m sorry.”

Manly pulled off the string, ripped at the brown paper, and opened the box. Then he paused. Inside the package lay a silk shirt, identical to the one Cronimus wore, only sky-blue instead of lavender.

Ruby broke the silence that followed. “Pretty,” she said.

“Oh, wow,” said Manly. “Thanks, Cron. It’s... blue. Thanks.”

“I know you hate it,” said Cronimus. “None of that ‘thought that counts’ rubbish. I shall get you a better gift later.”

“Thanks for remembering,” said Manly. “Honestly.”

“Of course,” said Cronimus. He turned to Ruby. “And which direction might you be heading this morning? Off to the docks, or off to the market to ply your chosen trade?”

“Do you want me to walk you to work?” Ruby asked.

“Ah!” said Cronimus, as if the idea had never occurred to him. “That would be lovely.”

Ruby turned to Manly and rolled her eyes. “Bye, Manly. Hey, try to have actual fun at your party tonight, okay?”

Manly nodded.

He watched his friends as they walked away. Ruby, leading just slightly, weaving through the crowd like a cat. Cronimus followed behind, happily munching his scone, bumping into every third pedestrian on the sidewalk.

As Ruby passed the beggar on the street corner, Manly saw her hand quickly brush across the sash tied around her waist. Without a glance, and with a quick flick of her wrist, she deposited two golden items into the beggar’s bowl; a large coin, and a rather garish Merchant Guild ring.

~ eight ~

AS MANLY MADE HIS WAY toward the museum, the shops along Market Street became larger, airier, and more expensive. Most possessed exquisitely embroidered fabric awnings above the entrances, and nearly all of them had attractive, colorful window displays. Those who could afford to shop here called it ‘High Market.’ Everyone else called it ‘Snob Street.’ In Manly’s opinion, it was a part of town that only had one thing going for it: the faint scent of salt on the air, wafting up from the bay.

He counted three gilded litters among the morning rush, their wealthy occupants obscured by draped silks. Famous or important someones off to a day of shopping. Each litter was followed by a handful of paparazzi, their notepads and semi-magical all-color pencils poised, eager to make a quick sketch for one of the evening tabloids. The Ladder Chatter, perhaps, or maybe Nosy.

One of the litters stopped directly in front of Manly, at the beautiful old brownstone entrance of the Frederico Farelli boutique. The sight of its elaborate purple awning reminded Manly of the vintage Farelli ‘shirt’ he had just received from Cronimus, and he cringed a little. The two paparazzi following the litter elbowed and jabbed at each other with their pencils, attempting to get the best angle. A few passersby slowed down, anxious to see who would step out.

Manly moved quickly around the litter, eager to get past before its occupant emerged and caused a scene. He’d had his fill of celebrity growing up. Being the ‘Baby Hero’ – as the tabloids had gleefully declared at his birth – could easily have led to a very public existence, but fate had conspired in his favor. For one thing, he lived a rather boring life by tabloid standards. No parties, no lavish shopping sprees, no political issue stumping. And, for another thing, there really wasn’t much need for Heros anymore.

Out ahead of Manly, dominating the north side of the street, stood the enormous buildings of the Palace District; the stately, white limestone heart beating at the center of the city. The House of Parliament, the Ministry of Administration, and The Grand Palace itself; all packed tightly into the ancient, orderly walls of the original fortress around which Old Thrakis had been built.

Two blocks before the palace walls, on the south side of the street, lay the main entrance to the sprawling Royal Museum of Arcanonatural History. Manly made his way up its imposing granite staircase, through the massive bronze entry doors, and into the darkened marble foyer. Four rowdy children stood in line at the ticket booth, tugging at their bedraggled mother as she fumbled in her coin purse. Manly sidestepped the guest line and slipped in through the employee entrance, glancing up to smile at the guard. His smile froze awkwardly. Oh, no, he thought. Tormund.

Tormund was, by far, Manly’s least favorite security guard. He was the sort of person who only seemed happy when wallowing in misery. He was most especially happy when he got to share that misery with someone else. Just now Tormund had his nose in The Ladder Chatter, a big picture of Amelia Champion on the front. No doubt Tormund was relishing the variety of misfortunes to have befallen the Thrakian elite in the previous week. Manly tried to sign into the logbook quietly, without being noticed, but the scratching quill caught Tormund’s attention and he squinted over the top of his tabloid.

“ID,” he said flatly.

“I’m sorry?” asked Manly.

Tormund pointed to a freshly hand-printed sign hanging above the log book. It read: ‘In accordance with new security protocol, all employees MUST show identification.’

“Tormund, it’s me. Manly. Why do you need to see my ID? You know me.”

Tormund pointed at the sign, refusing to make eye contact.

“Fine,” Manly sighed. He fished around in his satchel, not entirely sure he even had his employee card with him. But fortunately, after some digging, he found it tucked safely in a forgotten pocket and handed the card over.

“Ah,” said Tormund with depressed glee. “Manly Hero. Did you hear about the fire? Lots of people died.”

“I heard,” said Manly. “Terrible stuff.” He held out his hand for his badge.

Tormund squinted, clutching the card safely to his chest. “You have a package.” He glanced down at the date on Manly’s ID card. “Is it a birthday package?” He sounded jealous.

“I have no idea,” said Manly. “Who’s it from?”

“I can’t tell you until you sign for it,” Tormund said, pushing a piece of paper forward. Manly signed the form with a flourish as Tormund set a large package, wrapped in bright red paper, on the counter. Manly reached for it eagerly.

Tormund placed a protective hand on the package. “ID,” he said. “What?!”

“I need to check your signature.”

“You still have my ID,” Manly said, starting to feel a little put out.

“Oh. Right.” Tormund held the ID next to the paper, examining both signatures closely. He sighed. “Looks like everything checks out. So, my rash is back.”

Oh, boy, thought Manly. He was still developing counter moves to Tormund’s delay tactics, but so far the turn and burn maneuver was serving him nicely. He glanced quickly back to the entrance, as if he had heard something, and Tormund involuntarily glanced as well. Manly reached across the counter, grabbed his badge with his left hand, and scooped the package up with his right. Tormund turned and glared at him, a mildly hurt expression on his face.

Manly backed away, out of Tormund’s reach, and rotated the package to examine the sender’s address. He smiled. The package in his hands was from Gentrifica Thoroughgood, a very talented and knowledgable amateur butterfly collector. She always sent Manly remarkable specimens.

“Rashes are nothing to mess with, Tormund,” he declared happily, as he spun on his heel and headed across the foyer. “You should see a doctor. Have a nice day!”

On the other side of the foyer, the entrance to the museum narrowed into a long hall made entirely of polished black granite. Manly hurried his steps as he entered the black hall, getting out ahead of the woman and her unruly children. He made quickly for the brilliant square of light at the other end of the hall, extra eager to get to his office now. The parcel from Gentrifica was enormous, compared to her usual offerings. There could easily be a half-dozen specimens inside, perhaps more!

Manly was consumed by these thoughts, happy thoughts for a butterflyologist, as he came to the end of the darkened hall. He stepped over the threshold, into the museum proper, and directly into the gaping mouth of Baphomel, the last dragon.

~ nine ~

SLAIN BY MANLY’S GRANDFATHER more than forty years before, Baphomel was the mightiest dragon to have ever lived.

Manly had always felt it made a poetic sort of sense for Baphomel to have been the very last dragon killed; the one to survive the longest, despite centuries of being hunted.

The beast’s ebony skeleton had been reconstructed here in the museum’s main rotunda, positioned so that visitors entered by stepping through its enormous, open jaws. Each time Manly passed through the dragon’s mouth, flanked on either side by razor sharp, obsidian-black teeth, he felt the tinge of an old, familiar fear. For though he had grown up in the home of the man who had personally seen to the extinction of dragons, Manly’s boyhood nightmares had been filled with his own battles against them. Battles he never seemed to win.

He had admitted these dreams to no one, especially not to his grandfather. Partly because he loved being read to from the old man’s adventuring journals, and he didn’t want to risk having the stories censored. But also partly because the dreams had confused him.

As Manly stood at the dragon’s mouth, remembering those dreams, he heard voices coming up behind him; the bedraggled mother and her rowdy children. With a sharp shake of his head he made his way quickly down the steps between the dragon’s jawbones, and walked out onto the floor of the rotunda.

He glanced up at the skeleton as he passed beneath it. The bones were surprisingly thin and delicate in appearance. He had to admit the pose, though thrilling and dramatic, was a tad unscientifical. Standing up on its hind legs, but with its neck stretching down to the entrance; forelegs reaching out as if to snatch at visitors coming down the stairs; tail lifted up nearly three and a half stories, brushing the crystal dome that gave light to the rotunda; massive wings stretching wide in either direction, up into the second level galleries.

A real dragon would probably have fallen on its face if it tried to stand like that. Baphomel’s skeleton only maintained its impossible pose through the use of wires – made invisible by very expensive IgnoreMe spells – and a lavish amount of glue.

Oh, well, Manly thought with a shrug. Scientifical integrity has its limits. I suppose the museum displays are mostly for pomp and show.

Behind him he heard the mother desperately begging her children to “be careful.” Manly glanced back to see one of the children, a young boy, pointing and laughing at a sign at the top of the stairs; a horrific drawing of a severed hand leaking blood. It read: ‘Do NOT touch the dragon teeth.’

It was likely the most honest sign in the entire museum. Most of the other signs here had been played up, for drama’s sake. A large bronze plate, embedded into the marble floor near Manly, was a perfect example of this exaggeration. He stepped over to it. He’d passed the thing a thousand times on his way to work, usually without a second thought, but something about it called to him today.

Probably just my birthday, he thought. Turning thirty sort of makes you think about things.

The plaque in the floor read: ‘THE KILLING BLOW: Directly above you, embedded through the breastbone of the dragon Baphomel, lies the Hero’s Blade.’

Manly looked up.

Above him, the hilt of a sword could be seen protruding from the dragon’s chest, a glint of silver against the dark bone. He glanced back down to the plaque. This next part was where the museum had taken some serious artistic license. ‘With this ancient weapon, Mortimer

Hero slew the last dragon in single combat, and there it shall eternally remain, fused to its victim by the power of the killing blow.’

Completely untrue. Well, the part about Mortimer Hero slaying the dragon alone was true. But the sword wasn’t ‘permanently fused’ to anything. The Hero’s Blade had been forged by ancient, lost magicraft. No holes could be drilled through it, no rivets pounded into its hilt. Not with a modern, atrophied understanding of magic, anyway. It was only wedged back into the hole it had created on its way to Baphomel’s heart, by wood shims and lots of glue.

The rowdy children came pounding across the marble rotunda to where Manly stood. They were followed closely by their mother. She tried to corral them together, then gave up and bent to the plaque, evidently ready to begin the educational part of their museum excursion. “The killing blow!” she began reading.

“Boring!” one little boy pronounced. “I want candy!” He took off running, and his siblings followed. Their poor mother followed as well, though a bit more slowly.

Beneath the dragon Baphomel, between the bones of his hind legs, stood the children’s destination. A bronze dragon statue, about as tall as a full-grown man.

By inserting a copper coin, a wooden sword attached to a chain would be released from a small sheath next to the statue. One would take the sword and stab it into a slot in the dragon statue’s chest, and out would pop a handful of tiny, red, spicy, rather delicious, dragon- shaped candies.

Children loved it.

Manly himself had been encouraged to perform this very task several times when he was young. Most often for visiting dignitaries his parents were trying to impress, but also a few times when museum patrons had begged his mother to let the ‘Baby Hero’ kill the candy dragon.

Manly couldn’t remember how he had felt about it back then, but now he despised the thing. His grandfather had too, and he’d said as much when the museum had unveiled the exhibit.

“Ridiculous!” Grandpa Hero had shouted, instead of giving the speech he had been commissioned to give. “Killing a dragon for sweets?! You think it’s that easy? Damn you all!”

At least that’s how Manly’s mother told the story. The night had been a terrible disappointment all around, but especially for her.

Mortimer had hated the exhibit, Manly’s father Manfred had been disappointed by the poor showing of dignitaries he had invited, and a two-year-old ‘Baby Hero’ had gotten rather sick on spicy dragon- candy, and had to be taken home by his grandmother.

Manly’s mother still liked to bemoan that evening, nearly thirty years later. For her it was a perfect example of how Mortimer Hero had slowly ruined the good name she had worked so hard to marry into.

Over at the candy dragon, the rowdy children were chanting “Kill it! Kill it!,” and were taking turns stabbing the thing, collecting the red candies that gushed out of the statue’s permanent wound.

Manly glanced down at the plaque again. This last part also always seemed like a bit of an exaggeration, to him at least. ‘With that fateful strike Lord Hero rid Aldendhar of a great menace, and so began a new age of peace and hope.’

Manly sighed. Perhaps it was true that the queendom hadn’t had a war, or been terrorized by a monster, for nearly four decades; a good thing, obviously. But, for Manly’s family, peace and hope had proven to be remarkably elusive.

Peace had never been a natural Hero family trait, and it only got worse once all the monsters were gone. Mortimer Hero’s chaotic energies morphed into a rather long and public decline into madness; a transition Manly remembered quite well. His decline had finally culminated in complete invalidity – and a significant amount of drooling – shortly after Mortimer’s beloved wife, Sophia, had died. After that, Manly’s family had finally entered a period of... well, not peace, exactly. More like a long truce with the universe, a time when nothing especially terrible happened, but nothing especially good happened either.

As for hope? Well, Manly, though something of an optimist, had to admit that he wasn’t so sure about the hope part either.

“I’m bored!” one of the girls shouted. The other children nodded their heads and led their mother off to one side of the rotunda, where a blood-red sign declared the opening of the ‘Taboo Magicraft’ exhibit.

Bored, thought Manly, looking back up at the skeleton, and at the sword that might have been his destiny, if history had played out differently. That was exactly it, wasn’t it? That was the reason his childhood dragon dreams had felt so confusing. Because, while they were undeniably terrifying, they were also exciting. And, as a child, Manly hadn’t been entirely sure he wanted the dreams to stop.

Manly shook his head. He was an adult now, and a scientificator, to boot. Dragons were extinct, the dreams had stopped, and that was that.

He walked across the rotunda, passing through the shadow of the dragon, toward the South Wing, where a sign overhead read ‘Crudge Hall - Magical History - Artifacts and Artifictions.’ He moved down this winding, marble hall, deeper into the heart of the museum, passing various exhibits and displays as he went. The magical history of Aldendhar, cleaned, analyzed, labeled, and properly displayed.

As Manly moved through the labyrinthine hallways, he became aware of the low murmur of voices out ahead of him. The voices rapidly grew in intensity until they were quite loud; very uncharacteristic of the usually quiet museum. Manly quickened his steps, eager to see what all the commotion was about.

At last, he rounded a corner and came to the source of all the noise.

A crowd of reporters and paparazzi were gathered at the entrance to a wing of the museum that had long been dormant. An old sign gave the explanation for its emptiness. ‘Homunculi & History: A Living Exhibit, CLOSED due to escape. Please report any sightings to the Help Desk. Do NOT feed the Homunculi.’

Manly tapped the shoulder of one of the reporters at the back of the crowd.

The man turned to scowl down at him, his long mustache twitching in mild annoyance. “What?”

“Sorry,” said Manly, “but what’s going on here?”

“Press conference,” the man said haughtily, grinning as if the knowledge gave him some sort of superiority. “Amelia is funding the new fashion exhibit here. She’s about to make her official announcement.”

Manly’s heart skipped a beat. “Amelia Champion?”

“Uh, yeah,” said the man, rolling his eyes and turning his attention away from Manly. “Obviously.”

“Right,” said Manly as he strained up onto his tippy-toes to peer over the crowd. He thought about that birthday feeling he’d been having, and grinned. “Obviously!”

~ ten ~

IN REGARDS TO ALL THINGS Amelia Champion, the city of Thrakis was completely obsessed.

Several artists in the city made a very healthy living by dedicating themselves full-time to rendering images of the young socialite for the daily papers and tabloids. Her face was the most recognizable in the queendom. Dazzling smile, perfectly tousled hair, and icy blue eyes that gave enchanters fits when they tried to mimic them. There were, perhaps, women more beautiful than Amelia, but no one could match her engaging public persona. Men wanted to date her and women dreamed of being her best friend.

Whenever she changed her hairstyle, the new cut became known as the ‘Amelia,’ and was the look on the streets of Thrakis by the next day. Her forthcoming fashion line was the subject of a rabid, almost religious anticipation. In fact, in the center of Breadmarket Square, there was a large calendar counting down the days until the line’s release. On the all important social ladder of Thrakian high society, she floated untouchable, ten feet above the highest rung. This was her time, and though it was probably going a bit too far there was talk of a statue.

Amelia? thought Manly. My Amelia? Well, not my Amelia, but the Amelia I know. Or knew, anyway. She’s here? In my museum? Well, not my museum, but... This must be my epic birthday gift from the universe. I knew it was a good feeling! Oh, thank you, universe! This is exactly what I wanted!

Amelia stepped onto a platform at the head of the crowd, to a barrage of questions. She was just high enough for Manly to see. She wore a loose summer dress, a cerulean confection in chiffon and lace, likely from her upcoming line. Her hair was new again, as well. Cut at the shoulders, wavy, and so blonde it was nearly white. Not at all her natural color. Manly assumed it was heavily enchanted.

The director of the museum took the stage, to much less excitement and applause, and gave Amelia a brief, useless introduction. Then they launched into a staged interview about her upcoming collaboration with the museum.

Manly didn’t hear a thing they said.

His head was buzzing. This had to be the endpoint of the feeling he’d been having about his birthday. Amelia, working here at the museum? They would bump into each other, maybe share a table at the cafeteria. They would be colleagues! He found himself wishing that Amelia, now flirting lightly with the clamoring group of paparazzi, would see him. That she would recognize him and smile. Motion for him to wait until she was done because, obviously, she wanted to talk to him. Maybe even invite him to go somewhere quiet to catch up on all the years that had slipped away between them.

The brief interview ended and Amelia started fielding questions from the audience. See me, thought Manly, barely resisting the urge to wave his arms. See me!

Suddenly, Manly was painfully and acutely aware that he was thirty. Thirty! And mildly pathetic. How many years was he going to stand around, waiting for life to seek him out? How long would he sit on the sidelines watching the things he wanted most float on by? Especially when those things were here, right in front of him, just waiting to be talked to? That’s all. Just talked to. He and Amelia had grown up together after all, and had really cared for each other once. What was there to be afraid of?

He tucked the package from Gentrifica securely under his arm and started to elbow his way forward through the crowd, ignoring the angry grunts and glares he was getting. He was going to force his way to the front, he was going to make Amelia notice him, and then... he’d think about that part when it happened.

A man stepped onto the platform, tall and muscular, shirt unbuttoned, and sleeves rolled to the elbows. A smile to whither the confidence of lesser men. The reporters around Manly surged forward, all-color pencils poised, shouting for a pose.

Manly shuffled to a stop. He had seen that man somewhere before. Maybe in the Gazelle? An athlete of some kind. Raymond? he thought. Or Reyfrid? No, Ronfrid. Or maybe Reffrid.

“Kiss her, Morris!” shouted a reporter near Manly.

The man on stage stepped confidently to Amelia, slipped a hand behind her head, and pulled her in for a soft kiss. The crowd loved it. Morris, thought Manly bitterly. I knew it had an ‘r.’ He felt his heart tumble down to his ankles. Strange to feel so sharply the loss of something he’d never even had.

The two celebrities pulled back from their kiss and radiated smiles at the crowd. Amelia turning, turning, those blue eyes scanning. And then, Manly got his wish. Her eyes slid across his, recognition registering as a quizzical frown on her face. Before she could turn back and completely lock eyes with him, Manly spun on his heel. Head down and elbows jabbing wildly, he forced his way to the back of the crowd, heart pounding madly.

He didn’t dare look back as he broke through into the hallway. Instead, he clutched Gentrifica’s package to his chest and hurried toward his office. What was I thinking? Hey, Amelia! Remember the last time we talked? Fifteen years ago? My Grandma’s funeral, right? Yeah, good times.

He came to a door labeled ‘Employees Only’ and pushed through it into a staircase. It would be good to get to work and clear his head. To think about something else for awhile. Although he wondered how long he’d be able to avoid Amelia completely, now that she was involved with the museum.

Obviously not the epic gift I was hoping for, universe, he thought. So thanks for nothing. So far anyway. I’ll reserve judgment until the end of the day.

He pushed these thoughts from his mind as he descended the stairs. The sign on the door one flight down read, ‘Administrative Offices, Conference Rooms.’ Down again, then, ‘Basement: Personnel Offices, Departmental Section Chiefs, Staff Lounge, Cafeteria.’ Then, ‘Sub-Basement: Assistant Offices, Supply Rooms, Janitorial.’ After that, the finely painted signs became hand-penciled. ‘Sub-Basement 2: Broken Diorama Pieces, Uncatalogued Artifacts, Miscellaneous Storage.’ ‘Sub-Basement 3: Overflow Miscellaneous Storage, Old Posters & Stuff, Empty Rooms.’ ‘Sub-Basement 4: CAUTION!! No Entry! Wizards, Mages, and Shamans only! Magical

artifacts, cursed objects, unidentified crates that move and / or vibrate, glowing things.’ The door to Sub-Basement Five had always been, as far as Manly knew, covered in ice, even though the stairwell was rather warm. The sign here read, ‘Sub-Basement 5: Unknown. Do NOT touch! If anyone ever finds any suspicious keys, especially if they are made of ever-ice, please see the Administration immediately.’

And finally, at the bottom of the stairs, slightly out of breath, he came to a large iron door. A sign next to the door read, ‘Sub-Basement 6: Boilers.’ Mounted below that, in Manly’s own hand, was a neat little parchment that read, ‘...and the Department of Butterflyology.’

~ eleven ~

A BLAST OF HOT AIR met Manly as he pulled open the heavy cast- iron door to Sub-Basement Six, blowing his hair askew. The room beyond was a tangle of noise and metal. A dozen ancient boilers, dwarven design mostly, clunked and thunked in the dim yellow light, providing hot water and wintertime warmth to the museum above. He made his way through the room, weaving around the big boilers toward his office on the far side.

Boiler gnomes, barely taller than Manly’s knees, scurried about shoveling coal. Standing on one another’s backs to toggle switches and twiddle dials, they wore pointy little hard-hats and their white beards were turned a sooty grey from the coal dust. None of them, however, seemed to mind. They went about their work in a near constant state of glee, singing merrily, not bothering to all sing the same song. It made the boiler room an extra noisy place to be.

One of the gnomes, with a blue hard hat, spotted Manly and let out a joyous shout, pointing a stubby finger at him. “Hero!” he shouted, in a tiny little voice. Gnomes on every side dropped what they were carrying, be it miniature sacks of coal or even other gnomes. They came running, scrambling over pipes and each other, to form a circle around Manly. They all spoke loudly in their little

voices, in quick overlapping shouts that pelted Manly from all sides. “Hero!” “Hello, Hero!” “Hero, Hello!” “Good morning!” “Great morning!” “Is it morning?” “Are we in morning?” “We’re... we’re in mourning?!” “No, no. Morning.” “Morning?!” “It’s morning!” “Yeah!”

Several gnomes clasped hands and did a little dance. “Hello, morning!” “Hello, Hero!” “Is Hero well?” “Are you good today, this good morning, Hero?” “Are you good?” “Good this morning?”

They all stopped and looked up at him expectantly, a slightly worried expression on their faces, as if he might admit that the morning was not, in fact, perfect. Manly liked gnomes, a lot actually, but even he had to admit that they could be a bit overwhelming at times.

“Hello,” said Manly. He braced himself. “It’s a good morning.”

The gnomes, in unison, raised little clenched fists into the air and roared with an almost violent joy. “YEAH!!!!! Good morning!” They began to dance around Manly, shouting and whistling, giving each other high-fives and punching one another on the shoulder, singing loudly. “Good morning, good morning, morning Hero, good morning!”

Manly raised his voice to be heard over the singing and the clanging of the boilers. “Well, I should be off then. I’ve got work to do.”

The gnomes all stopped in mid-dance. “Work?” “Work.” “Work, work, work.” The gnome with the blue hard hat spread his arms and shouted “Worrrrrrk!” The gnomes scattered in every direction, leapfrogging each other, scrambling up and over boilers, grabbing shovels and pails from where they had fallen moments before. “Back to work!” “Lots to do.” “Boilers, boilers.” “Boiler toilers!” “Toil roiling boilers!” “Good bye!” “Bye Hero!” “Good Hero!” “Hero bye!” “Go play with your bugs!” “Bugs!” “Say ‘hi’ to the bugs.”

Then, as suddenly as they had swarmed around him, they were back about their business. Carrying their coal, whistling, and singing new snatches of song about Manly and how wonderful mornings can be.

At the very back of Sub-Basement Six, past the gnomes and their clunking boilers, there was a large archway in the ancient stone wall. An entrance into the nearly forgotten network of tunnels that were rumored to connect most of the oldest buildings in Thrakis. These tunnels must have served a specific purpose at some point in the city’s past, but, if so, it was a purpose now lost to history.

This particular entrance had been boarded over with a ramshackle collection of broken-down packing crates. A makeshift door gave access to the tunnel beyond, and a hand painted sign next to the door read, ‘Office of the Department of Butterflyology. M. Hero, Curator and Archivist.’

The museum’s director didn’t like Manly much, the result of some old argument with the Hero family that didn’t make any sense to Manly. He knew that being shoved off to a tunnel in the boiler room was a bit of an insult, but it didn’t really bother him. Besides, space- wise, things had worked out wonderfully.

Manly opened the door and began the daily routine of lighting the various lamps and stubs of candles he had scattered strategically about. Once lit, the office-tunnel was a cozy space, if a bit on the crowded side. Both walls, from floor to curving ceiling, were lined with large, oak storage cases made with wide, shallow drawers. These were full to overflowing with butterflies; several samples of each species known to scientification, and additional samples of each species in the various stages of their development. More cases jutted out at right angles from the walls every so often, making the interior of the office a labyrinth of sorts, though not a very complicated one.

Each time Manly filled a case with catalogued, named, and tagged butterflies – which took some doing – he simply ordered another case and placed it next in line down the tunnel. This had the effect of putting the newest, most interesting specimens farthest from the entrance. Manly had solved this problem by simply migrating his desk deeper into the tunnel whenever he added more storage cases.

He finally arrived at his desk, the last warm detail before the flat, stone coldness of the tunnel. Beyond the desk, nothing. Just an inky blackness that swallowed light and thought. It had taken some real getting used to, at first. Partially for all the reasons darkness should take getting used to. The absolute blankness of it frightened Manly, and made the hair stand up on his arms and neck whenever he turned his back to it – which he did intentionally, just to prove he could. It made him hear things too, like far-off voices and scurrying feet. But mostly the darkness bothered him because it called to him.

The urge to light a torch and set off to explore the tunnels had

been strong, but not irresistible, and resist it Manly had. Out of fear perhaps, at least a little, but also out of a lack of any sense of immediacy. Later, he’d told himself, but later never came.

Now, years on, the urge to explore was no more than a gentle tickling at the back of his mind as he sat day after day at his desk, with his back to the darkness. It still called to him, but only faintly now. The voice of adventure had lost its urgency, leaving only a safe and familiar longing.

These thoughts played around the edges of his consciousness as Manly busied himself prepping for the day. He immediately flipped his four-hour-glass – he’d never been able to hear the midday bell over the thrum of the boilers – and then addressed the neat piles on his desk. Mostly stacks of papers and books dealing with a number of different projects and programs. One stack related to an exhibit due to open in the fall: ‘Butterfly: Rainbow of the Field.’ Very exciting. Another stack related to a field guide Manly was hoping to have published, but that was a long way off. Most of Manly’s days, however, were occupied by a large bookcase against the wall nearby, filled to overflowing with books and journals relating to the science of taxonomifics.

For that is what Manly was. A taxonomifier. A namer of things.

In the age of peace and prosperity that his grandfather had kicked off, scientification had replaced magicraft as the driving force of progress – a fact Cronimus found to be extremely tragic. Magic itself was still around, to be sure, but it was no longer a bastion against evil, or any such thing. Rather, it had been absorbed into the domain of progress. There was no longer a need for an ‘Amulet of Protection against Demons,’ because there were no demons. But modifying that same amulet to extend virility far into old age? Now that was useful, and had made the enchanter a very, very rich man.

Scientification was the road to the future, and Manly was proud to be a small part of it.

Specifically, he was the part that named butterflies. Not particularly glamorous, but still important. Essential in fact. If Scientification were to reach its lofty goal of understanding everything, then everything must first be named. Even butterflies.

Manly set the bright red package from Gentrifica on his desk and stepped back to stare at it. Hopefully Amelia’s presence in the museum wasn’t the epic birthday event he’d been anticipating. If so, it hadn’t exactly gone in his favor. But Gentrifica’s package gave him hope for a little birthday optimism redemption.

Interested parties from around the queendom mailed Manly butterfly specimens with surprising frequency. Enthusiastic schoolchildren, eager to make a discovery; retirees taking up a new hobby; and more than a few crackpots convinced they had found some monstrous, magically-created mutation. It was extremely unlikely that any of these were actually new discoveries, but Manly felt it a part of his duties to reply to as many as he could, and thus promote butterflyology among the general public.

However, Gentrifica Thoroughgood was, by a very far margin, the most talented of these amateur naturalists. Her knowledge put many professionals to shame. Over the years she had sent Manly exactly twenty-four specimens. Twenty had been butterflies previously unknown to scientification.

Manly had never actually had the pleasure of meeting Gentrifica, but, based on her letters and her rather eccentric wrapping paper choices, he pictured her as a grandmotherly sort, with wispy white hair and an ancient, kind smile. From these letters, and from her field notes, he also knew that she was a lifelong lover of the natural world.

Gentrifica’s husband had passed away a few years before, and there had been a yearlong gap in her correspondence with Manly. He assumed this was because she had been in mourning, although she never explicitly stated so. The tone of her letters, once they had resumed, was much subdued, and Manly felt he could now sometimes detect a note of sadness in them. Even so, he loved receiving letters from Gentrifica, and also the packages that often accompanied them.

Manly pulled an eye-catching green card from the front of the package and opened it. It read simply. ‘Are you sitting down?’

Unusually concise for Gentrifica, the note brought Manly’s anticipation to an absolute crescendo.

Manly tore off the red paper to reveal a beautiful maplewood box. He cut the strings binding the box shut, lifted the lid, and froze.

Beneath the glass of the shadowbox, pinned to a blue felt cushion, was half of a single butterfly wing. That half was larger than Manly’s outstretched hand. He tried to imagine how large the butterfly would have been, and couldn’t. The wing fragment was stunningly beautiful, decorated in swirls of blue and green that shifted hues if you turned it against the light. It was shaded unlike any species Manly was familiar with, and at the tip it trailed off into an incredibly delicate, curling point.

A card pinned to the cushion, beside the wing fragment, in Gentrifica’s flowing hand, read: ‘Found in a sad little tree stump. What is this, Manly?’

“I haven’t a clue,” Manly whispered. In all his years as a butterflyologist he had never heard rumor of a butterfly this large, not even remotely. As far as birthday surprises from the universe went, this was pretty damn good.

He slumped back into his chair and it creaked a little against the impact, echoing out down the tunnel. Incredible! His mind buzzed. This could mean papers published, grants given. Maybe he could hire an assistant and actually get some things done. He would probably have to go south and work in the field for a few months with Gentrifica, but that was no problem. It would be nice to finally meet her and good to get out of the city for a while. A change of pace. Perhaps Cronimus and Ruby would come along. Besides, an elderly widow like Gentrifica would probably enjoy the company.

Manly shook his head. He was getting carried away. Before anything else, he had to come up with a list of viable names for when he finally found a whole specimen. And that could take some time.

Manly spent the rest of the day happily alternating between paperwork and staring off down the tunnel, letting possible names roll around in his mind. He enjoyed this part of his job, even if it could be difficult sometimes to find the perfect fit. He felt that was important, the perfect fit. Once he named the thing it would be its official scientifical name forever.

At midday, when his four-hour glass ran through, he went upstairs to the cafeteria to grab lunch and a cup of tea. Much to his relief, Amelia had not been there. That awkwardness could wait until another day. Then it was back to his paperwork, with frequent, happy, tunnel-staring, name-generating breaks.

It was during one of these breaks, late in the day, that the smell of smoke intruded itself into Manly’s rather deep, butterfly-naming thoughts. He spun around to find that somehow, most likely by rocking back in his office chair, he had shifted the papers on his desk and tipped a candle into his wastebasket. As he bent quickly to deal with the smoldering mess, the whole thing burst into flame, and Manly leapt back with a shout.

He grabbed the tea cup from his desk and upended it over the conflagration. The cup was nearly empty, and what contents remained hissed pitifully when they hit the flames.

“Dammit!” he shouted. “I drink too much tea!”

He desperately cast about for something else to smother the fire with, grabbing various journals and notebooks, then setting them down again. He could find nothing he was willing to sacrifice.

Flames were licking up the side of his desk and he kicked the wastebasket away in an attempt to isolate it. He nearly tipped the basket over, and a burning wisp of paper leapt up out of it, flapping in the hot air. He flailed at the burning paper with both hands, beating it to shreds before it had a chance to land and light anything else aflame.

Other burning scraps of paper started floating up out of the wastebasket, and Manly feared for his collection. Without really thinking, he ripped off his beautiful, white linen shirt, and started beating at the flames with it. He seemed to remember his grandfather putting out a fire that way once.

Although, thought Manly, as his shirt caught fire and he dropped it to the floor to stomp on it, it may have been a wet shirt.

It was time to find some help. He turned to run back through the labyrinth of butterfly cases and nearly bowled over four little gnomes carrying a large pail of water above their heads. The gnome in the blue hardhat looked up at him.

“Fire!” he yelled in his tiny voice. “Fiiiiiiiiiiiirrrrrrrrre!”

“I know!” Manly shouted back.

“Move Hero!” shouted the gnome, and his companions joined in.

“Hero Move!” “MOVE!

Manly jumped aside and the gnomes dashed forward, water

sloshing from their pail. “Fire!” they shouted. “Dire!” “Dire fire!” “Fire diers!” “Die, fire!”

Like a well-trained team of miniature gymnasts, the gnomes upended the pail into the wastebasket, then tipped the basket over, dumping the water and steaming contents down the tunnel. The gnome in the blue hardhat supervised, pointing and ordering the other three. One gnome stomped and danced in the debris of the

wastebasket, and the other two climbed all over Manly’s desk, cabinets, and each other, chasing down embers. Then they pulled rags from their pockets, mopped the wet floor, and righted the wastebasket.

It was over in seconds, as if nothing had happened. The smoke from the small fire was already drifting off down the tunnel.

The gnome in the blue hardhat sniffed the air and wiped his hands triumphantly. “Welcome Hero!” The other gnomes smiled and nodded.

“Uh, yes,” said Manly, a bit stunned. “Yes. Thank you so much!”

The gnomes nodded, giggling. “Silly Hero,” said the gnome in the blue hardhat. “With the fire and the panicking. There is no ‘thank you.’ BACK TO WORK!”

The other gnomes grabbed the empty pail and they all headed back out through the stacks, calling back to Manly in singsong voices. “Welcome Hero!” “Hero welcome!” “Welcome Hero!” “Welcome back, hero!” “Back to work, Hero!” “Hero, work is back!”

Manly slumped back into his chair, a bit shaky. He hated to think how close things had come to getting completely out of control.

The gnome with the blue hardhat poked his head back around a butterfly case, startling Manly. “Silly Hero,” the gnome said, shaking his head. “You are late.” He disappeared again.

Manly glanced down at the four-hour glass he’d reset after lunch. It was empty. As so often seemed to happen while in his office, Manly had lost track of time. “Dammit, universe!” he shouted. He had no way of knowing how long the glass had been that way, and he did so hate to be late. He was going to hear it from his mother, to be sure.

He looked down at his naked chest, then to his charred and tattered shirt on the floor. That was going to be a problem as well. I can’t show up half-naked, he thought. I’ll just have to buy a shirt on the way, but that’s going to make me really late.

He grabbed his leather satchel from beside his desk, and, for the briefest of instants, wondered why it was bulkier than it should have felt. Suddenly, with a groan, he remembered Cronimus’ birthday gift.

The blue Farelli, complete with ruffles.