11. Night Market

For just one day of the week, Mythaven forgot her toils and troubles and indulged in a night of revelry.

The entire length of the citadel’s central thoroughfare, Main Avenue, was speckled with all manner of lively paraphernalia: stalls of steaming street food, bards and their wild yarns, card dealers with deft fingers and shifty sleight-of-hand. The plucky music of lutes and drums barely pulled above the bustle of the crowd packing the cobbled road from end to end. Families and their bright-eyed children, sets of young lovers, eager tradesmen and merchants—people of all sorts and stages could be found in the Mythaven Night Market, because it was a place for everyone.

Azalea sighed with pleasure at the garden of light and color before her. She loved the night market dearly. To her, it was a piece of everything good about Airlea: the life, the beauty, the undying hope. It was everything she’d sworn to protect as a Hunter.

Not that she was on duty here; she’d briefly dropped by her rented room on Gallows Square to slip into something more comfortable. She’d shucked her plate armor and layered pieces in favor of an earthy ruffle collar dress, her favorite for going around town. After switching out her gold-trimmed cape for one of a plainer make, she was ready to disappear into the crowd for a night out.

Next to her, Wes gingerly extracted his hand from Azalea’s grasp. “So,” he said, clearing his throat. “What do you want to hit first? The pastry stall? Maybe the card dealer?”

Azalea grabbed his hand again. This time, she wound their fingers together tightly.

Wes choked. “What are you doing?”

“Holding your hand,” Azalea said, puzzled. “We don’t want to get separated.”

She wasn’t sure what had startled him so—it wasn’t the first time they’d visited the night market together. They often had to hold hands, or risk being lost in the overwhelming crowd.

“Oh, right,” Wes said. He sighed resignedly. “Yeah. Let’s hold hands.”

Maybe he found the whole display childish and was getting tired of it. Azalea hoped not. Wes’s touch meant more to her than just a few callused fingers. She felt cozy when he held her hand—safe, like she belonged. She loved the beauty of the night market, but she loved it more with Wes at her side.

Azalea wove her way to the closest stall, stepping beneath the string lights hung in swooping lines overhead. Each little bulb was a thumb-sized shard of luminous stone and glittered like a yellow star. Walking down this road was like journeying beneath a canvas of constellations, magical in every way.

The first stall was manned by a newcomer merchant. New stalls tended to place closer to the front of the night market—the Magistracy of Culture’s attempt to keep the experience fresh. This particular one boasted rows of exquisite blown-glass chalices, each filled with vibrant, crystalline liquid, in which little translucent cubes bobbled around like petals in a bubbling brook.

Behind the counter, the merchant beamed. “Sweet jelly tea! Refreshing and luxurious, like drinking nectar from a flower!”

That was all the convincing Azalea needed. She immediately bought two tankards. They each picked a different brew: Wes, black tea with apple and mango jellies, and Azalea, honeyed green tea with rose and pomegranate jellies. It tasted as promised, the light, sweet flavors sparkling on her tongue like sunshine on a waterfall.

They returned the empty tankards and moved to the next stall, where a woman with streaks of grey in her hair sat with a whittling knife and a little block of wood. The table of her booth was peppered with wooden statuettes of animals, flowers, and signature weapons of the legendary Mythic Stars.

Azalea turned to Wes. “How’s the craftsmanship?”

Wes peered closely at one of the statuettes, which depicted a flowering vine curled around a slumbering fawn.

“Remarkable,” he said breathlessly. “So much rounding, and so much detail—look, there’s ribbing on the petals.”

He gingerly reached out and turned the statuette by the base. His eyes were alight for the first time since they’d left the Guild, and it made Azalea smile.

Wes loved to whittle. Back at the Academy, he’d always kept a block of soft wood and his pocket knife on hand. He carved all sorts of trinkets—little flutes and whistles, stout gnomes with floppy hats and bushy mustaches, bulbous mushrooms with fun dotted patterns. But his favorite subjects were always woodland creatures, especially small birds. He loved to whittle them perched on branches, drinking from flowers, fluttering about in a puddle.

“Have you ever held a sparrow in your palm?” he once asked, the tip of his knife texturing in wings. He and Azalea had stowed away in some obscure corner of the Academy—probably the cleaner’s closet—to hide from the watchful eyes of the faculty.

“No,” Azalea admitted. She’d tried, but animals always fled from her.

“When a shy little thing trusts you like that,” Wes said in a hushed, wondrous tone, “it steals your breath away. Makes you want to be just as good and pure of a person as it expects.” He stopped, and his warm eyes rested on her. “I’d never want to break that trust.”

“If you have it, it’s because you’ve already earned it.”

“I haven’t earned a thing.” He returned to his little wooden sparrow. “But I will. One day, I will.”

Now, on the lively streets of Airlea’s night market, Azalea watched Wes handle the statuettes with a careful touch. How far he’d come in just a few years—from a hobbyist whittler who only worked in secret, to a full-fledged ingeniator with a patent under his belt. She always knew he had the talent, of course. She’d known ever since she saw how he handled a block of wood. The care, the patience, the ingenuity. His hands were blessed with the ability to create, just like Azure’s hands had been blessed with the ability to destroy. Azalea hadn’t quite figured out what her hands had been blessed with, if anything at all.

They moved on to the next stall, which served bites of smoked brisket on thin flatcakes. The skin was blackened and crispy, the meat piping hot and dripping with savory flavor. Azalea hummed happily around the soft, fatty fare.

“I’m always amazed,” Wes said, swallowing the last of his brisket, “at how much attention is given to every last detail. It’s just street food, but every merchant treats it like an art.”

He was right. This brisket must have been carefully smoked overnight. Even the flatcakes were tastefully made, plain with a smattering of oil, salt, and crisp spring onion.

“These stalls are often owned and operated by the same families for generations,” Azalea said. “To them, their recipe is their art.” At least, so claimed the Magistracy of Culture. And she could easily believe it from how the chefs’ deft fingers folded dough and minced vegetables, moving swift and assured, as if they’d been born to work with food.

Azalea and Wes continued their sampling along the market path, splitting larger portions to control the fullness of their bellies. They relished skewered slices of quail eggs that were rubbed in spices, coated in batter, and fried deep in oil. Next was a leg of fire-roasted chicken, steaming juices bubbling under golden brown skin. Buttered crackers with an herbal cheese melt, thick seafood chowder in a bread cup, spindled noodles in a luscious dipping sauce—even just one bite from each stall added up to a king’s feast that left Azalea stuffed.

They slowed as they approached the final stalls, which were some of Azalea’s favorites: the pastry chefs and bakeries, loading their displays with vibrant cakes and buttery rolls.

Wes squeezed her hand. “Milk buns?” he proposed. “Or want to try something new?”

Azalea’s eyes drifted to a row of decadent cakes dressed in wildflowers and fruits. Ma would sometimes make hearty nutmeg bread filled with raisins for Azure’s death anniversary. But the delicate cakes of the capital with their refined flours and sugars were something else entirely: light, milky, a bit sickening if one ate too much.

One particular slice caught her eye—a pale cake layered with rich, dark globs of cream, topped with a beautiful lily of graduated night-blue. She recognized it as night lily cream cake: luxurious and smooth with just a hint of sweetness, featuring a subtle blend of night lilies and almonds.

Wes noticed her gaze and, before Azalea could protest, quickly bought a slice.

“You spoil me too much,” Azalea said, a touch sullen.

He only laughed and nudged her shoulder. “Just making up for all those years you couldn’t have cake.”

She blushed. She still remembered just how befuddled she’d been the first time Wes had popped into her Academy dormitory, cake in tow. It had been a pretty thing: pink cream, cherry-dotted, dollops of jam. Wes had grinned bashfully and told her that it was a birthday gift.

And Azalea had promptly burst into tears.

Wes had explained, in great panic, that it was Mythaven tradition to receive cake on one’s birthday, and he hadn’t meant any harm by it, and please don’t cry, he’d throw it out, please don’t cry—

Azalea had instantly seized the cake close and blurted that it was the nicest thing anyone had done for her birthday. Then she’d proceeded to cry even harder. Da had tried his best to make such days special, but with an ailing wife and a young daughter, there hadn’t been enough coin to go around. Having a whole cake to herself had been unthinkable.

Now, Azalea, slice of night lily cream cake in hand—so easily procured—settled in the darkened central square. The establishments that usually kept aglow had extinguished their lamps, as was tradition for the weekly night market. Families were setting out blankets and corralling their children, who clutched their ragdolls close and whispered excitedly to one another.

The Troupe, the Troupe, they were saying, eyes glittering like the stars. What do you think they’ll do tonight?

Azalea smiled and nibbled on her cake. The floral sweetness, touched with a nutty hint of almond, bloomed on her tongue. Sweets, festive crowds, a magic show. All the makings of a perfect night for a child. Who would she have become if this had been her childhood—light and life and a world of wonder?

Who would Azure have become?

Beyond this central square, Azalea knew, there was a looming columbarium with walls full of niches and urns—the evidence of so many fallen to the Storm, and it would only continue to grow.

Azalea bit her lip and set down her cake. She glanced sidelong at Wes, who was scribbling something in a small leatherbound book with the charcoal pencil he always carried around.

“Wes,” she said quietly, “if you knew where the next surge was going to strike, what would you do?”

Wes’s pencil froze, and his head whipped in her direction. “Excuse me? If I knew—get the people out, of course! And notify the Hunter’s Guild!”

“Right?” His indignation was fueling her own. “You wouldn’t stay quiet and do nothing.”

“Absolutely not.” Wes slumped back with a heavy sigh. “The Observatorium has broken their backs trying to figure out a prediction system. It’d save so many lives.”

“But they can’t do it?”

Wes shook his head. “Only up to determining the epicenter, and not as accurately as they’d like. The Storm is too volatile. I don’t see how it’d be possible to get a good reading.”

So the Wolf had been lying, just like Azalea thought. He couldn’t tell where the next surge would hit. No one could—not even the smartest, most powerful High Sages of the Observatorium. And if a High Sage could not discern something, what chance did a scrappy mercenary have?

Still, it ate at her. Echo had sounded so convinced, so terribly genuine, when he’d named Northelm as the next target. Regardless of the truth, one thing was clear: he had believed it with every fiber of his being.

“What if,” Azalea said haltingly, “you heard a rumor on where the next surge would strike? It would be—be silly, wouldn’t it. Just some old midwives’ tale.”

“You should go.”

Wes’s response was so firm and immediate that it took Azalea a moment to process. She looked at him. “What?”

“You should check out the rumor,” Wes said. His eyes were clear, burning amber.

“But it’s not true.”

Wes shrugged. “Rumors all come from someplace. In this case, it’s probably fear.”

“Fear?”

“Rumors of impending surges tend to surface in places where people feel anxious and unstable,” he explained. “Seeing a Hunter will dramatically raise the morale of the town. For that reason alone, it’s worth you visiting.”

He was right. She’d never made that connection before. Azalea stared for a long moment, silent and still.

Wes blinked at her. “What is it?”

“Sometimes,” Azalea said slowly, “I think that your father might be right. You do think like a tactician.”

“What?” Wes snorted. “No, it’s just common sense.”

But Azalea wasn’t sure. Wes was averse to fighting, so he constantly played down his martial talents. He had no love for the battlefield nor the art of the sword, and he shied away from them whenever he could, far preferring the warmth of the hearth and forge.

That hadn’t stopped him from placing first in military strategy, subunit tactics, and bestial combat at the Academy. He’d even scored decently in swordfighting.

It’s just money, he’d say with a wave of his hand. I was raised with tutors. Others couldn’t afford that privilege. Or Father paid off the exam proctors, I don’t know. Combat and tactics? Really not for me.

Maybe that’s what others told him—jealous peers, haughty parents, bitter soldiers. But Azalea knew better. She’d watched Wes transform as he led the Mythaven Academy Company beneath relentless rain and howling wind, issuing orders with determination, levelheadedness, and flexibility. Under his command, they’d done what no student unit before them had done: they’d walked out with zero fatalities.

Either way, Azalea dropped the matter. She would be the last one to pressure Wes into becoming a military leader. He, of all people, deserved to do something he loved.

“Look,” Wes said, pulling her attention back. “The show’s starting.”

With a crackle of glittering smoke, a willowy figure materialized in the center of the square, shrouded in an iridescent cloak that rippled with an oceanlike shimmer, even in the scant light. He bowed towards the waiting audience, who clapped joyously.

“Troupemaster!” shrieked the children. “It’s the Merry Troupe, the Merry Troupe!”

He turned in his cloak and vanished, and the entire square became his stage.

Blue light fell in waves over the cobbled ground, rays of silver piercing them intermittently. Slowly, the world around them bloomed to life. Prismatic shells dotted the mortar like winding pathways of stars. Jellyfish swayed around the crowd, translucent flesh shimmering in vibrant hues.

The crowd gasped in delight. Children ran after the jellyfish, laughing, stretching out tiny hands to the luminous creatures. A pair of young lovers stole a kiss beneath blooming seaflowers.

Azalea reached out and passed her fingers through the nearest jellyfish, watching as the image melted through her hand. Illusion magic. It wouldn’t see use in combat; corrupted beasts, which sensed mana presence, wouldn’t be fooled by smoke and mirrors. But in a way, that made this show all the more beautiful. The Troupemaster had taken his natural-born gift and spread hope and joy through the kingdom in his own way.

“Isn’t it wonderful?” she said in a hushed voice. She raised her head just as a school of silver-scaled fish darted above.

“Yeah,” said Wes. His face was open in wonder, his eyes fixed on the rainbow coral starting to sprout from the walls of the square buildings. “A whole world of possibilities.”

The show evolved; a swarm of bubbles materialized a lovely mermaid with a trident, who would certainly sweep along the audience on the tale of Aster Aria—a story of new worlds, tragic love, and ultimate sacrifice. As the beautiful story was painted before her eyes, Azalea felt around for the weight of Wes’s hand, warm and steady, a foundation in a floundering world, and squeezed it.

There would come a day, she knew, where he’d have to let go, where she’d have to watch his back disappear as he walked his own path. He would marry a nice noble girl and have nice noble children, patenting more brilliant inventions while she remained in the Hunter’s Guild until she inevitably died. She did not belong in that world. She could not enter it and she could not demand for Wes to leave it.

But until that day, Azalea would hold his hand, soak in its warmth, and protect it for everything she was worth.