Theodore bent over the sink to splash himself with cold water. He stared into his reflection in the mirror, mortified by the uniform he was wearing. A heavy khaki shirt and olive breeches, tailored to endure the rugged outdoors. The Ranger Deputy badge, an eight-pointed star cast in silver and iron, was pinned to his chest. It all made his skin itch. These were the clothes of a brute, paid to patrol the Whirlwood Valley and keep monsters in their place. He added a tie to hold onto some trace of humanity, but it wasn’t enough. He looked at his pointed nose, his face, and saw a shade of his father looking back.
How many times had his father dragged him deep into the Whirlwood to train? It was a place so rich with wild magic it attracted every manner of fairy, witch, and ghast. Even if the kingdom made peace with those creatures a long time ago, there was a reason stone walls stood between them and the city. He still remembered the nymph and werewolf that tried to kill him. Theodore wanted no part of that world, but there was no choice. Refusing a royal appointment was treason, it meant banishment from his home.
Theodore tried to imagine himself fleeing to live anywhere else. Grappling to learn the clicky language of Feymire, with its forty-seven vowels and two consonants. The people of Red Spire had yet to discover plumbing, let alone library science. It would not be safe to cross the border into the Sun Meadows on account of his skin tone. The Cloudwell had just started another of its protracted land wars with the empire of Korveil. Every alternative was impossible.
Marching out of the bathroom, Theodore wrestled with a stuck window long enough to crack it open. The capital’s skyline stretched ahead of him, with old cobblestone homes and towers standing alongside the sleek and bulbous steel factories. Laien was a masterpiece, the pride and power of the continent, a grid of streets and numbered buildings parceled into elegant postal codes, and at its heart sat the prize: The sprawling campus of the University. It was right there and yet farther than it had ever been before.
Theodore stomped up the stairs to his apartment, startling his land-lord’s cats along the way. The room was barren now that the library books were returned. He hurled what precious little he owned into a pair of suitcases, his mind racing. There was a way out of this. There had to be. Laien’s legal system was complex, with loopholes and exceptions for everything. When the packing was nearly done, he found room for two heavy tomes on law. If there was a way out of this assignment, if there was some way he could still go to the University, he would find it. He would just have to bide his time for now.
After paying the last of his rent, he uprooted himself and boarded a trolley bound to the Western Gate station. He stepped off on the edge of the city, where the walls towered overhead: centuries old stone erected and warded to repel invaders and every manner of creature. Outside the sanctuary of the capital, civilization faltered. Nervous, he made his way.
“Oi!” a watchman flagged him down. His eyes were dull, like his mind was elsewhere. He had short curly blond locks and wore a tabard over chainmail, checkered green and white. “You the new Ranger Deputy?”
Theodore made eye contact and paused. He withdrew his pocket watch and waited ten additional seconds for the time to tick over to precisely 7:30 a.m., his scheduled arrival time.
“Yes, hello. That is correct.” He snapped the timepiece shut. “I was instructed to meet with the leading officer at the Gate. Is that you?”
“Nah. I’m just Fritz.” The badge on his chest marked him as Lieutenant. He excavated something from his nose and flicked it away. “The captain will be down in the train yard prepping for the harvest. This way, please.”
Fritz led Theodore to the gate, wide enough to allow a whole trade caravan through but barred by portcullis. The Lieutenant picked a small rock off the ground and chucked it at one of tower windows. A man in a plumed helmet leaned out.
“What?!” he called down, annoyed.
“New dep’s here! Open her up, Gary!”
The tower guard disappeared back into the interior. After a few moments, the wall rumbled as the portcullis clattered open. Theodore followed and passed through. Beyond the gate, the roads rolled down into the distant valley where vast tracks of trees spilled out into the horizon all curled together like a briar patch. The capital city overlooked the Whirlwood from the upper rim. From here, Theodore could see a maze of trails running through the forest sprawl like veins. Teetering stone spires and old ruins peeked through the canopy of trees. Islands of rock, soaked in wild magic, floated on the horizon while unseasonal snow fell in pockets. It was a place he had not seen since he was a child and had hoped to never see again.
Fritz glanced back at Theodore. “You’re braver than you look.”
Theodore felt a new unease. “What do you mean?”
“I hear the pay is good, but the last guy that had your job up and vanished.” Fritz shrugged. “Probably got himself eaten. Or cursed. The usual. Anyway, follow me.”