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This was the way it started. A story, a beginning. First a discovery. Then…it all began.
Branch stepped from Magehelm, into the stairwell, the hard stone echoed the soft dull thuds of his footsteps. His breath was quick, he hadn’t realized it, but he had been in and out of holding it the whole time. Branch didn’t get nervous often, he liked to think so. But that room, the stark darkness and emptiness that filled it. It was really only the raised desks of the Seasoned Mages and two shaped stone benches. It could be overbearing, and Branch was sure that was the point.
He got it.
Well, he wasn’t done, the city wasn’t done with Branch, and frankly, he wasn’t done with Clarity. Two weeks of travel had brought him here, long days spent walking, thinking, working with Growth and the understandings of it. He had barely scratched the surface. Here in the walls of Mageform were stacks and volumes of the life work of countless lives. Somewhere, there were accounts of other Growth mages. The library was a massive mess, a shaping, moving, shifting, ever shuffling trove of books. Over thousands of years the shelves had moved beyond organization. It was an adventure just to go in.
He was going to have to bring Estelle there. He was sure she would love it, especially if she hadn’t been there. Not everyone came into Mageform, it was a daunting place. With many floors closed from the public, a shroud of mystery hung around it. And with the ways of some, they urged on the darker rumors, as jokes or just plain fun. The way of rumors though, is that some take root and grow, intermingling into fact and then believed.
Branch flew down the stairs, his steps quick and light. He was free for the day to roam the streets of Clarity, sure he was tired, the trail-weathered weariness was there. But he felt alive, and Estelle was out there, somewhere in the city. He passed by floors where he had studied the ways of moving and shaping and breaking, learned their histories. Classes and halls and rooms, all full of memories, some full of people too. Branch could hear new mages afoot. They clamored and filled the corridors of the lower floors with noise and the energy of fresh and curious minds.
He had noticed since he had left the grove, the magic sprouting one, he could feel more of the world. It was beyond description. Or maybe had hadn’t come to understand it yet. Either way, it was there, a feel, like a closer attachment to the energy of magic, of the world.
On the way down he had run into a couple of mages he knew from earlier years in his life, they said their greetings, but his mind and thoughts were on getting into Clarity and finding Estelle. And a delicious drink, maybe something to eat, there was a spot that had the best, most savory food he’d ever had, it was deliriously slow though. In fact, it was quite known for it.
When he found his hand on the last doorway, the one that led into the open floors of the library and museums it hadn’t been long. He walked through the library, wondering if Torant had felt like he did now. After he had first gone to the Seasoned Mages, before the world found out about his ability, even walking through the library and museum.
He stopped short, he had forgotten to ask about where he could find Torant while he was up there. He nearly turned around right then and walked the dizzying stairwell again. He decided against it, Estelle had come all this way, he wondered. No one does anything for no reason. Unless of course they do.
Branch veritably snuck out of Mageform, he had a suspicion that soon he wouldn’t be able to pass through the tower without notice. He stood in the great courtyard, looking out over Clarity, the sun shone bright, the wind was sturdy, but not bothersome, stark-white billowing clouds dotted the sky here and there.
It felt good to be under the sky, to be in the open air, with an afternoon open before him. He stepped down the stairs, bone-white stone that was polished to shine in the sun. It did. He looked over the busy streets, folks from all over the kingdom, really the world came here. They’d travel days, weeks, months in some cases. From the Stormlands, to the Valley of Shaping, all the way to the southern cities, Crescent Bay too. They made the most splendid metalworks, knives and swords and armor, down in Crescent Bay. Not to mention all the other amazing things that came out of the Ironworks.
Where Clarity had its Mages and magics, the southern kingdom had its own ways. For ages they had been able to find a peace in the separation of their own beliefs, their own realms. Neither had vied for needs from the other, that was from the days of Halaar, when all the kingdoms raged in wars and destruction. Nowadays though, everyone seemed to accept their places, Clarity was thriving, as much as it ever had. At least as much as anyone alive had known.
“Now where would she have gone.” He spoke his thoughts aloud.
Even though his meeting with the Seasoned Mages was mostly short. It had been a couple hours now, it took a long time to walk up a tower’s worth of stairs. Mostly houses surrounded Mageform, though a few shops lined the road that encircled the tower, the markets were closer to the entrance. There was always something going on in Clarity. Today would be no exception. Branch bounded down the steps. He let some excitement grow, the kind that places itself into a moment. When something that needed to be done, finds itself done, and a moment of freedom opens up.
His stomach grumbled, as if to agree it was time to rest, relax, get something to eat and share some good company. Not that his stomach said all this, mainly it spoke of soup and roasted chicken, or some of the spiced lemon drink that Storack’s sold, a small little-known shop of wondrous flavored beverages. Maybe he would start there. Branch felt his stomach rumble again, he set off toward the markets. Toward Storack’s and to find Estelle.
Branch walked along the first stretch of houses. Some of them barely qualified, they were so ornate, they could have posed as cathedrals. Carvings and bronzed statues lined walkways, where flowers and plants flowed in and out of the tastes of neighboring houses and gardens. Where some flaunted with flourishes and flowers, others showed it in different ways. Tall white columns, a shining polished stone courtyard, shaped stone fountains of every shape.
He walked by tourists and locals, passer-throughs and folks that just hung out on corners. He waved at some, smiled at others, some he outright avoided. Those were usually the folks that reeked of a maddening itch to sell you something. He’d learned to recognize that look, they’d cut your pockets to pull the coins out if they could. He followed smells of roasting meats, or baking sugared breads, or caramelized apple pies, or the turn of the road that looked pleasant, where grass grew or a garden was in grand display.
Mostly, he kept his eyes and open for Estelle.
Mageform soon disappeared behind him. This part of town, the residents, they didn’t often know the pains of hunger, or worry over a place to sleep. No, their worries were surely different, though their homes were worked pieces of art, their coffers full, pantry bursting. They feared the judgements of their neighbors, the loss of all they had, they hid it all behind the veil of success.
But it was beautiful. He passed an old couple that sat on a piece of stone that held a Shaping, it wound around them in a likeness of a crashing wave. Splashing up in a backdrop of water, as though it was unsure if it should continue to crash, frozen in moment. They looked out, and he could see they were truly happy. The kind that reflects in an eye. Where their attention speaks softly, quietly, but it resounds. He smiled AND waved at them.
It took longer than he’d hoped, about an hour, to find Storack’s. It had moved, things always seemed to shift around in Clarity.
It was a familiar call. Like Branch had known the shop owner well.
“Branch! Where in the storming worlds have you been?! What has it been? Seven years now?” Frentz Storack was a short man, rounded with years of tastings and experiments with scrumptious drinks, delightful desserts and everything between. He was a man who regarded the sense of taste as a haven to experience life through.
Branch had always liked him, he had always held an air that exuded a readiness to find you what you most wanted. Storack sought to find the most absolutely perfect beverage for each of his customers’ taste buds, to send their sensating tongues into a frolic. Some called it, ‘an overbearing delight in succulence.’ Others called it ‘the pestilence of all other beverages’, as once you went there you’d never appreciate the flavors of anything else quite as much.
“It’s been ten years, not…!” The words died in his mouth. Branch was further surprised when the person in front of him turned, it was Estelle.
Sometimes in life, everything just falls into place, it works and winds and fits, pulling or pushing, thrashing or leaning into the most preciously perfect spot. It fits like a river to its bed. Sometimes it doesn’t. Luckily for Branch, this was one of those moments. It floated into existence, as though in a dream it formed, and shifted into life.
Branch laughed. It was a good-hearted loud one, that resonated through the room. Storack followed suite, good man. He wasn’t afraid of the unfettered release of enjoyment. Branch however, did manage to find the courtesy to flush a little, when the entire building full of people turned to locate the producer of the disrupting and engaging laugh. Soon enough, as it is the way it goes -especially when in line at Storack’s, everyone returned to their waiting and forgot Branch.
He looked at Estelle, who was watching him with an amused look that struck itself into her features, she tried to tuck away a smile that couldn’t help but reveal itself. It broke out into a real and true smile. Every now and then, the right words find their way.
“What is such a beautiful woman like you doing in a place like this! To think of what your parents would say! You…do…know what they do here…” It took a great deal of effort to keep his face straight.
“Branch!” She laughed, it was sweeter than Storack’s finest.
They had known each other for ten years now, ever since he had moved from Clarity, and the tutoring with Trent, to Terrace. She was the one who had shown him the grove, where the Magic Sprouting was, where the plant he had first learned to grow thrived. He had fallen hopelessly for her, from the beginning, but knowing the ways of magic better than love had not gotten him much further than playful conversation.
Maybe, when he learned the Growth, it opened up some understanding in him, to see the truth of the moments, or a piece of it. That was the thing with truth, it was never really a thing. It just seemed that way. But well, no one could go on constantly thinking that nothing is true, then everything would fall apart, like a misused Growth.
“How did Mageform go?” Estelle asked him.
“Great! I think. It was quick, easy, and I have the rest of the day to myself. Tomorrow I do a Growing for them, in the Garden of Sense. Makes sense.” He quaked that he actually said that, it was a bad joke from his days of study here.
Estelle laughed however, she must not have heard it yet. Or she was sparing him the embarrassment of a terrible joke, it still washed over him, the embarrass. She didn’t seem to notice that though.
Storack’s was a small place, two tables, long line, quick service. It was a personal place, and Branch was sure that had been the point of it’s form. Storack was a personal guy. He got to know everyone that came through his shop. The oddest thing about it was, that he really cared. Not just cared about the money, or the renown. No, he really cared. Branch found him to be an anomaly, an enigmatic force of servitude, placed in a small shop that fell into the ocean of markets that filled the bustling corridors of Clarity. Even the line, how it made you stand, felt close, comfortable. The jovial background conversation that constantly ran from Storack to the next customer filled any small corner that tried to hide uncomfort.
“How did you find this place?” Branch said to Estelle.
She smiled, it was a smile of precious remembrance. “I used to come here with my parents, we lived here for a few years. We would come here at the end of every week, I still remember the first time I tried one of the butterscotched shakes, I don’t think I’ll ever forget how delicious it was! I like coming here any time I’m in town. Reminds me of spending time with my parents.” She looked at him, “What about you?”
Branch laughed, he could see it. Especially because he so vividly recalled the way he felt and how it had tasted, the first time he had one. “I used to sneak out of class, one day I accidently ran in here. I’ve been coming back ever since. Storack knew what we were doing, but, you know. He doesn’t just let you come into his store, he welcomes you, accepts you in. Besides, best drinks around.”
They shared a laugh, and before long were walking from Storack’s back into the busy and bright streets of Clarity. Branch had actually decided to get one of the butterscotch drinks, citing inspiration from Estelle’s story.
It was a night to write of.
Branch felt lighter, more able to enjoy himself. Estelle made that easy, but it was something different, something that permeated through him. Like he was less worried about trying to grow in the moment, and more simply being there. Feeling and living, laughing and running, at one point he even heckled a guy. They drank exotic mixtures, and local concoctions. There was music and it was beautiful. Some of it was slow and haunting, playing on the edge of sorrow. While others, leapt and danced across the notes, cajoling those who heard into an irrevocable enjoyment.
The night ended, or, came close to it. The sun had fallen behind horizon and the high walls of Clarity, Branch and Estelle found themselves sitting in the Traveler’s Respite, it was proving itself to be quite the fine inn. It was full, a good sign for an inn. People laughed loudly and often, another. But most importantly. There were two fireplaces. They were warm and kept clean, and even more importantly, cushioned chairs surrounded them. It really was a respite. Tall drinks, comfy chairs, and a warm place to set your feet.
Clarity was a great place for a traveler. There were endless corners and shops, they pandered to all flavors of preference. The city had a pride for being this way. Branch had heard it in many of the voices, an enamoring with their home, for what it was, the appreciation of its diversity.
Of course, there were always those that couldn’t see it.
“Today, was a fine day.” Branch said lazily, he was really sinking into the chair.
Music drifted in the background, there was enough conversation to stumble over it that only a few of the notes drifted through the crowd.
“It really was.” Estelle said. She was leaning back into the chair beside his, her voice was also low, relaxed, like it too fell slowly into the warm and cushioned seat.
Traveler’s Respite was one of those places that could be full, bristling with patrons and guests, and still feel comfortable, spacious and personal at the same time. It found itself that way now, full, people milled about, a jovial demeaner permeated through the room.
“Do you think you’ll be coming to the Garden of Sense tomorrow?” Branch asked, filling the quietness that had settled around their small corner.
It was one of those nice, and comfortable quiets. None of that awkward silence. The kind that could make anyone twitch with a sudden urge to shout, anything, to fill the weird and twisting way that an awkwardness can take over a moment.
“To see you do a Growing!?” She said excitedly, “Of course. It’s not everyday that a Growth Mage comes along you know! Besides you need someone there that believes in you.” She winked at him, in the way that seems to joke, but is actually serious.
At the same time, he felt uplifted from hearing she would, and, a pale anticipated worry that she would be there. It was one thing to stumble in front of a crowd, but to do it in front of a crowd and a girl. He would have to make sure he didn’t.
“Don’t blink! You’ll miss it.” He laughed, so did she.
“Did you get a room?”
“Yeah, I’ve always got one over at the tower. You know, the ever-rooms.”
Branch was going to stay at Mageform. Everyone who studied there -and had learned a Magic Form- had a room. It was theirs for the rest of their lives. Branch had left his as it had been, single small bed that was really more a cot than anything. He had a carved wooden dresser, a small table and chair for reading and writing, and that was about it. The room didn’t need much, it had been nearly ten years since he’d been there anyway.
They did it for a reason too. Very few things are done for no reason. Actually, all things have their reason. The rooms, kept a flow of mages coming and going. Ensuring the tower was always at least partially full, and not to mention, full of people who could do wonderous things with the magics of the world. It was one of the things that contributed to its renown, its marvelous air.
“I think that’s really great that they do that.” Estelle said, her voice rose softly over the crackling fire.
He thought it was great that she thought it was. Most of the time it was. “Most of the time, it is. Sometimes though, you know, when you stick a bunch of magic-wielding over-confident folks together.”
There were plenty of stories, most of the time though it ended well enough. Most things could be shaped or moved back into place. Sometimes though, it couldn’t. He remembered a thunderous dispute that shattered a tower wall, nearly destroying a floor. Breakings by furious mages. Emotions, especially when you find yourself on the edges of them, could drastically affect any magic. Really, they affected all of life.
“I’m sure it’s not that bad.” She said.
“I’ll tell you what. I’d rather be spending the night here at Traveler’s Respite.” He meant it too.
“Well naturally! Best inn in town!” She smirked at him.
They spent the rest of their night relaxing by the fire, talking and laughing. It wasn’t long before Branch found himself walking through the cool night streets of Clarity. The night was clear, and crisp, stars filled the sky, not a cloud strayed by. A soft breeze drifted through the city.
Now, alone, with his thoughts, he walked. Branch had pushed off the weight of tomorrow, to enjoy the day with Estelle, to soak in that moment. That is the thing with moments, they pass. He watched, felt and lived as this one fell through his hands, it drifted into the past, where it would always live. He knew though, if he paid attention to the moment when it was happening, he’d be able to look back on it for the rest of his life. The key was to pay attention to it while he moved through it.
Like the way she smiled or laughed at his terrible jokes. He thought they were terrible, was sure of it, the second they flew from his lips, he’d pale. But, she would laugh anyway, maybe they weren’t that bad. He ran through these thoughts while walking back to Mageform. The night was desperately quiet, as if the noise from the city ran off and escaped into the clear night sky. Leaving the ground and city streets to its quiet, and peace.