5. Mythaven (3)
Having windsoles again was like greeting an old friend.
Azalea arced through the skies of Mythaven like a shooting star, relishing how the wind rippled through her hair and how the magic sang in her blood. A large dinner and early bedtime last night had mostly recovered her manawell, and she felt good. Now, she could soar.
Flying with windsoles was simple in theory. The shoes did most of the work, crafted with an efficient mana quartz that converted mana into a strong, directional burst of wind. But in practice, windsoles were complicated, volatile, and extremely dangerous.
Five degrees off your launch, and you will hit a building and die, Azalea’s instructors had urged at the Academy. Flare too strong, and you will fly too high and die. Decelerate too late, and you will shatter your legs and die. Too little, too low, too rushed—you’ll die, you’ll die, you’ll die.
Death had been the instructors’ favorite threat. They’d used it so profusely that it no longer held any meaning for Azalea. She couldn’t blame them, though—they were mostly correct. Windsoles took years to grasp and a lifetime to master.
The first time Azalea had used the mana-powered shoes, she was fourteen years old and a fresh cadet at the Knight’s Academy. The weather was blazingly sunny, unusually hot and humid for an autumn day. Her class filed outdoors after the introductory lecture on windsoles, which had been extraordinarily dry considering that the topic was on something as revolutionary as flying shoes. Thankfully, they were now let loose to experience it firsthand.
Azalea was given a pair of school-issued windsoles that were shared among the students who didn’t own a personal pair. They were fairly worn and about two sizes too large, so she tore off scraps of fabric and balled them up around her feet to make the shoes fit snugly. Around her, the children from prestigious families flaunted their beautiful, custom-fitted windsoles that responded to the lightest touch of mana. They’d been taking private lessons for several summers and were ready to race. It was a sore contrast to the scant handful of students from common families who’d struggled with the entrance fee, let alone specialized equipment and private tutors.
Once all the cadets were outfitted, the instructor lined up the class in rank and file and strutted before them, his face deadly grave.
“Consider those shoes as shackles,” he said sharply. “While you wear them, you will obey my every instruction. Understood?”
“Should even one of you step out of line,” the instructor said, “the offender shall immediately be expelled, and the entire class shall lose its windsole privileges for the semester. Understood?”
Quieter, a little more shaken: “Yes, sir.”
“Do not ruin this for everyone, and by the Mythic Stars, do not give me more paperwork.” The instructor stepped back, and his stony features softened slightly. “Now for a live demonstration. Wesley Geppett, will you do the honors?”
There was a rustle in the crowd of cadets. A boy stepped out from the throng and marched stiffly to the front. Hushed whispers flitted by him, repeating the name in reverence: Geppett. Wesley Geppett.
Azalea wasn’t sure what all the fuss was for. He was handsome enough, with pleasant, warm features, a shock of neatly kept hazel hair, and a flush of pale red on his cheeks. But he was neither a giant of strength, nor a keen strategist with a mind beyond legend, which were the two usual attention-grabbing types at the Academy. She wondered what he was famous for. She certainly hadn’t heard of him.
“As many of you know, Cadet Geppett is highly experienced with windsoles,” said the instructor. Azalea was, apparently, not one of those many people who knew. “Watch his technique carefully—how he prepares the launch, balances the descent, and times his landing. Memorize it, because he will perform a textbook jump.”
The boy’s face flushed a little darker and he muttered something under his breath. Azalea could barely make out some words that sounded like hooray and no pressure. He stooped down, deft fingers checking the knots on his laces. Apparently satisfied, he tested his weight on one foot, then the other.
He didn’t look like an experienced jumper. He looked like he wanted to be anywhere but here.
“Whenever you’re ready, cadet,” the instructor said, an expectant gleam in his eye.
Wesley sighed quietly. “Yes sir,” he said. And suddenly he was in the air.
Had Azalea blinked, she would have missed it. One moment, Wesley was standing on the grass, poised before the whole class. The next, he was hanging in the sky, smooth as a bounding gazelle, swift as a falling raindrop. There had been no hesitation and no build-up. He hadn’t drawn out the moment for suspense, or waited until all eyes were on him. He’d flown as naturally as she breathed.
Wesley arced up and over, slowing as he hit the apex of his leap. His feet swung forward to guide his descent. Azalea watched his uniform jacket flutter behind him like the tail feathers of a swooping falcon as he fell. He was three seconds from impact, then two, then one—
There was a spark of his manawell, just the barest drop of magic into his windsoles. The shoes released a gentle burst of air and he landed nimbly, balanced on light feet, knees limber and steady.
Silence pervaded the field. Azalea’s hands were half-raised, ready to clap—but no one moved. Maybe the students were jealous, or maybe they were just stunned. It had all happened so quickly.
Azalea had learned over the years, grown comfortable with windsoles herself. Now an Academy graduate and a Royal Hunter, she smiled as she crescented down to an orange-shingled roof of Gallows Square. A second before impact, she fed a drop of her manawell into the windsoles. The shoes expelled a soft burst of wind mana, and she landed light as a feather. She immediately bounded into another leap, firing her windsoles on launch.
This smooth cycle of skipping without pause, her instructors had said, was the advanced technique of springstepping. Such was the secret of the man who’d saved her as a child, the hidden wings that she hadn’t been able to see. Shoes that could climb the sky, walk the clouds. It had seemed like nothing short of a miracle at the time. Perhaps it still was. Mankind may have invented the windsole, but nothing had bidden her savior to be in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.
Azalea dropped in front of Wes’s workshop. The door was locked, instead posted with a bright notice scrawled in large charcoal-smeared letters:
Hi, ’Zalie! At least, I assume it’s you, since no one else really visits me…Anyway! Father’s summoned me, and you know how it goes. Family business and all. I should be back tonight. If you need food, check the ice box, and if you need emergency repairs, the toolkit’s on your chair.
If she wanted, Azalea could touch the lock and nudge it with her manawell. The door would give way for her; Wes had Threaded the low-grade mana quartz within to recognize her signature. But there wasn’t much point, so Azalea stooped down, slid out the charcoal pencil stowed under the doormat, and drew a little cat face beneath the message. If Wes came back, he’d know she’d seen it.
Azalea took the afternoon slow, nabbing two more milk buns from Granny Mabel’s cart, lingering by the stone fountain with a worn anthology of the Mythic Stars and their origin tales, resting, revitalizing, and doing everything that the guild manual advised for days not spent in rigorous battle.
It was far from an odious task. She liked deployment to feel helpful and full of purpose, but she liked cuddling up with a book on a quiet day even more, feeling every ray of sunlight dance across her skin and lull her into a peaceful nap.
Azalea huddled at the lip of the fountain and eagerly flipped through the anthology. She didn’t have to. She’d memorized every word by heart long ago. But still, she consumed the sentences as voraciously as an eager child.
She read of Aster Carmine, a simple young girl who found her little town beset with the plague. She bravely tied on her red riding hood, took up her picnic basket, and trekked through the forest to gather medicinal herbs from the flower fields. She continued these trips for months on end, remaining steadfast through the dangerous attentions of the wily Wolf King.
Next came the legend of Aster Ella, a nobleman’s daughter tormented by her cruel stepmother and stepsisters. But she was not consumed with their bitterness. Instead, when her country faced great political turmoil, she adopted the guise of a masked princess and attended the high ball, currying favor with nobles from every nation until she brokered a fragile peace.
And last came the legend of Aster Robin, one of Azalea’s favorites. He refused to stand by while the rich starved out the poor with their greed. So he pillaged their houses and robbed their storehouses, a gentleman thief with a conduct more honorable than those arrayed in wealth and finery.
Azalea’s fingers traced the printed letters tremulously, as if she could soak their power from the pages. Bravery, courage, sacrifice. They were favorite lessons for Airlea’s children, and beacons of hope for their parents. She wondered what it would be like to leave such a legacy, to earn the title of Aster. If only she had been born like the Mythic Stars—strong and kind, fearless, always ready to do the impossible.
When Azalea looked up, the sun was drooping low in the sky, globs of orange pulling the clouds beneath the horizon. She stowed the book away and took to the skies again, setting course for the main road. If Wes was heading back from his family’s estate, she would find him passing through the central square.
Azalea landed by the gatehouse and spotted him almost immediately, even in the thick crowd of townspeople returning home from a long day of work. Wes stood out in the juniper finery of a pressed and perfect evening coat, golden tracery stitched on the edges in a lace of vines. It was well-trimmed to his figure, lordly and stunning.
He’d never liked it, of course. It makes me feel like a stuffed pigeon, he complained once. Served up on a dish for everyone to see.
It was too dangerous to leap right into the crowd, so Azalea waited until Wes had turned into the cobbled alley that led to Gallows Square. Then she dropped down softly, pulsing her windsoles just before she landed.
Wes’s face brightened the moment he saw her. His eyes dropped to her shoes.
“Your windsoles!” he said breathlessly, clapping his hands together. “Damn, they’re gorgeous! How do they feel?”
Azalea felt her mouth lifting into a smile. “Would you like to see?”
He grinned and sat on the lip of a stone ledge. “Show me!”
So Azalea showed off, just a little. With little bursts from her windsoles, she bounded across the rooftops in a series of weightless layouts and twists like an acrobat beneath a sweltering lamp. Such extravagant aerials were hardly combat-appropriate, but she had always enjoyed the beauty of dancing. Executing a flawless Regalian twist was the closest she could come to the fine art.
She stuck her landing after a particularly demanding triple flip, and Wes clapped hard, his eyes brighter than the stars.
“Beautiful,” he said in a hushed voice. “So much attention to detail in the plait. I can’t imagine how careful the ingeniator was with the absorption pins.”
“They’re very good shoes,” Azalea said proudly, sitting next to him.
He grinned. “Shoes are only as good as their user. I’m sure any craftsman would be thrilled to know that their work is being pushed to the limit by a Hunter, instead of wasting away in some nobleman’s closet.”
She blushed a little. “I’ll do my best to make them proud.”
Despite Wes’s enthusiasm, Azalea could see haggard signs of a long day out. Sallow shadows under his eyes ran halfway down his face, and his mouth was tight and thin where it was usually dimpled in smiles.
She gestured to his rich, silken coat and tidied hazel hair. “You look different.”
Wes’s ears flushed bright red. “What, this? No, this is just—well it’s, uh.” Then he slumped. “Yeah. It’s different.”
“You look nice.”
“Thanks,” Wes said glumly. Then he winced. “No, I mean…thanks. That’s nice to hear.”
He still seemed down, which was sadly the typical aftermath of a meeting with his family. Azalea bit her lip and retrieved a remaining milk bun from her pocket. It was slightly squashed in its wrapper, but she still held it out.
“Milk bun?” she asked.
Wes absently popped open the wrapper, inched out the bun, and bit into it. He chewed for a moment, the sour look in his eyes softening as the sweet custard melted on his tongue.
Then he jolted.
He looked at the wrapper, then at her, then back at the wrapper—and hastily swallowed his single bite, thrusting the milk bun back at her.
“This is your favorite,” he protested.
She pushed it back. “I’ll buy more. Eat it.”
Wes gave a sheepish smile and tucked in the bun. He might not be as obsessive over sweets as her, but hardly anyone would deny a good bit of fat and sugar.
“What was the meeting about?” Azalea asked gingerly.
“Not much,” said Wes. “Same old boring stuff.”
Azalea pondered this for a moment. Wes rarely returned home for boring stuff. Most likely, his family had been invited to some highbrow social engagement, and in order to save face, his mother had screamed, pleaded, and cried for Wes to clean himself up, attend, and pretend that they were a unified family for the afternoon. And because Wes was thoughtful, because Wes was kind, he would have listened to her. He would have pulled on that stuffy suit, combed and styled his hair, and walked into a gaudy room full of primping people who did nothing but fish for lies and sing false praises. He would have withstood that all day. Just for his mother.
Azalea’s heart felt heavy at the thought. Wes didn’t deserve such treatment. He was always so considerate.
She wished she’d brought more milk buns.
“Was it really boring?” she prodded softly. An opening for Wes to take, if he wanted to get some weight off his chest.
Wes’s gaze flickered to her, then down to his shoes. He sighed, carding his fingers through his perfectly styled hair. “Father’s still trying to arrange the marriage.”
Azalea tilted her head. “Whose?”
“Oh.” In hindsight, that should have been obvious.
“Yeah.” He kicked out, letting his leather heel swing back and hit the stone wall. “We’ve been through ten noble families at this point. I don’t think he gets the hint.”
“You don’t like any of them?”
“They’re not bad people, it’s just, you know.” He leaned his head back and exhaled between his teeth, staring at the darkening sky. “I’m not exactly aristocratic husband material. Quirky, bumbling, cooped up in a workshop all day. Families are interested in a tie-in with the Geppett line, but their daughters aren’t. And”—he glanced quickly at her—“there’s, there’s already a girl. Who I’ve noticed.”
Azalea brightened. More than anyone else she knew, Wes deserved to be happy. “That’s wonderful. You should marry her, and your father will finally stop bothering you.”
A pregnant pause.
“She doesn’t know I like her,” Wes said.
Azalea blinked. “Oh. Why haven’t you told her?”
Wes was staring at her full-on now, his honeyed eyes wary and cautious.
“I…have,” he admitted. “Three times, actually.”
Azalea winced. She wasn’t personally familiar with the antics of romance—or even friendship, really—but being ignored for three confessions had to sting.
“She sounds kind of dense,” she said sympathetically. “Maybe you should move on.”
Wes flinched a little, then laughed. The sound was warm and open, relaxed, like a knot of tension had just been pulled free. Azalea found herself smiling along with him.
“I probably should,” he said, throwing his head back to grin at the sky. “But nah, not yet. It’s not so bad, you know, having something to look forward to every day.”
His tone was cheerful, glowing with sincerity, but Azalea still felt a little pang. Poor Wes, lovestruck with a clueless girl who didn’t give him the time of day. She really should have brought more milk buns.
“If it means anything at all,” she said firmly, “I think that you’re wonderful. Anyone who can’t see that is—is—not very observant.”
She’d meant for it to be a warm, passionate compliment, but it fell off at the end in a jumble of words. She wished she could be as open and kind as Wes, but she’d never been particularly eloquent.
“And, and that’s why,” she fumbled, plunging on ahead, because oh well, if she was making the shot, she might as well stick it, “I want you, I’d like for you, to be my Support. For the Hunter’s Guild.”
Wes’s eyes whipped to her. His jaw slackened.
“A Support, support?” he repeated. “Like…the subsidized civilian partner?”
Oh. Of course he would know. The Geppett family was a lineage of commanders and generals, a house of military achievement and weapon trade, the very founders and owners of the Knight’s Academy. Wes would be familiar with all the inner workings of the Hunter’s Guild. He probably knew more than her, even—and she’d memorized the handbook.
“I wouldn’t want to trouble you.” Azalea laced her fingers together nervously. “I’d never wish to burden you. I know that you already have lots of important things to manage. But it’s—you’re very smart and good with things, making things. And smart and good in general. Um, it would be an honor if you’d be willing to be my Support. And it pays. I mean, they pay you, I don’t really, not directly.”
Oh, this was a mess. She was no good at winning people over. She’d been distinctly unpopular at the Academy for a reason: she couldn’t read people, nor could she convince them.
“Um, never mind,” she corrected. “I’ll figure something out. Maybe forget about—”
Wes leapt to his feet, his hands crunching into the milk bun wrapper. The greased paper was tearing to shreds at the pressure.
“Yes!” he blurted. “Yes, I’d love to! I was—I was just surprised, is all.” His ears tinged a little red. “I’d love to be your Support, ’Zalie.”
“Oh,” whispered Azalea. She straightened, feeling something swoop in her chest. “Are you sure?”
Wes laughed bashfully and sat back down. “Honestly? I was hoping you’d ask me. I didn’t want to assume, but…”
“Of course I’d ask you,” Azalea said, puzzled. Wes was not only her closest friend, born with a heart that could fit all of Airlea. He was also a brilliant inventor, and practically speaking, that made him an advantageous choice.
Wes beamed at her. The shadows from his eyes seemed to have completely lifted, which warmed her. “Then I won’t let you down.”
Azalea beamed back. “You never do,” she said honestly.
He flushed pink to the tips of his ears and stared at her for a long, long moment.
“’Zalie,” he began softly, but right then—
—the sky blazed with white fire, lightning carving an arc through the clouds.
Azalea heard cries of dismay from the city square as the mana lamps blotted out, overcharged with energy. Slowly, they flickered back to life.
In the distance, a bell tower began to toll.
“A surge,” Wes breathed. His hand instinctively gripped the sword slung at his hip, even though it was ceremonial—barely more than a nobleman’s plaything.
Azalea leapt to her feet. She could feel her mana burning in her chest, begging to be released.
The Storm was a Hunter’s call, and its birthing pains had just begun.