Theodore tried to keep up with Oboe as she darted ahead. Streets forked in odd directions through unfamiliar neighborhoods. Before he had a chance to agonize over which way to go, she picked a path for him.
The afternoon sun filtered through laundry strung up across apartments overhead, clothes lines looped around old statues and rusted fire escapes. The buildings and roads looked more worn and weathered than the well-funded districts of the city’s center. Theodore worried that they were getting off track, but was also relieved to be moving.
“Come on, slowpoke!” Oboe said. “You got snails for legs?”
“No.” It would be absurd for any part of his body to be a gastropod. “Are you sure we’re heading in the right direction?”
“You said we want to go East, right? This feels like East to me.”
A quick glance at the sun told him something else. “This road is pointing North.”
“Well, it still feels like East,” Oboe said. “Don’t worry about all the little turns. They take you any which way, but they’re part of the big turns that take you the right way. I’ll show you!”
She led him up a winding hill, lined with slanted roofs and faded archways, and then down stairs into a cobblestone tunnel that bent at right angles. After a few dead ends, but before Theodore lost his patience, they found their way out. They had stumbled onto a secluded park. It was enclosed, overgrown with ivy, and decorated with unkempt shrubs, statues, and stone benches. A handful of people were lounging, some reading. An artist worked to set up an easel to paint nearby.
“Why didn’t you tell me this was here??” Oboe said.
“I can’t tell you about something I didn’t know about,” he said. Although he could’ve guessed there might be something like it. City ordinance required a minimum of one place of respite for every square mile. He had to admit it was lovely.
“Who’s this guy?” Oboe said, pointing at a statue of a regal man in ornate armor.
Theodore adjusted his glasses. “The inscription is faded, but there’s three to one odds it’s meant to be the hero Laien.” Tributes to the man were everywhere in the capital. “He ended the war with the Devil King, brokered the peace treaties with the fairies and ghasts, and founded this country. All of which make him a popular subject of public art.”
“I like his beard,” Oboe said.
“There’s no historic consensus that he actually ever had a beard,” Theodore said. “The tribes only had oral histories before he united us, so the details are muddy.”
Oboe frowned. “He should have a beard if it looks cool.”
Theodore supposed that was one way to look at it. She moved on, leading him toward the next diversion.
“Hold on,” he said. She turned back. He thought to steer them back on track, but realized after assessing the skyline that they were already heading East. “Never mind,” he said. They left the park, and found themselves wandering through a shopping arcade. Obscure boutiques lined the way through out to the main roads. It would be easy to navigate from here. Somehow, Oboe had led them where they needed to go.
“Theo, look at all this!” She pressed her face up against the glass of a storefront. The window display was filled with marionettes, dolls and board games. Theodore shouldn’t have been surprised that this caught her attention. He wanted to pull her away, tell them to keep moving, but there was something in her excitement that made it hard. He opened the door instead.
“You want to go inside?” He said. “There might be something you actually want to buy here.”
“Can we?” She said, wide eyed.
The shelves were lined with carved figurines in bright paint, wooden swords, ornate doll houses, and every kind of wind up novelty. A plump clerk looked up from his book when they entered.
“Theo! Theo! It’s a train!” Oboe pointed him at an expensive model set. “Just like the one that goes through the Whirlwood!” She removed the roof of one of the train cars with the care of handling a museum artifact. “And there’s tiny wooden people inside!!”
Theodore felt the asking price was a bit high for an unpainted set, but hated to step on her enthusiasm. “Amazing,” he said.
Oboe turned to the clerk. “You made all these things yourself??”
“Most of it is contract work from the wood workers guild,” he said. “I do have imports from the Hook and Red Spire if are looking for hand carved, though.”
Theodore busied himself by examining the workmanship of the chess boards, but doubted he’d get any use out of one.
“This is perfect!” Oboe said, bringing something to the counter. “I’m getting this, please! How much?”
“Fifty thalers,” the clerk said.
Theodore tried to look at what she selected, only for her to push him back. “Don’t look yet!” She said. “It’s a surprise!”
“For who?” He said. “You’re supposed to be finding something for yourself.”
Oboe kept her hands clasped around the item until they were outside the shop, where she revealed her surprise. A little wooden figurine of a knight, with a grim angry face and a sword outstretched. “It looks just like you!” She said. “I want you to have it!”
Theodore said nothing. He stared at the ugly little toy, wondering what about it reminded Oboe of him. Maybe it was the pointed nose, or maybe it was because it was a soldier. A brute knight like the one that harassed them earlier. Like the ones that killed Silas. Like his father. Theodore felt his skin prickle as she tried to put the thing in his hands. He let it fall to the ground.
“I don’t want it,” he said. “You shouldn’t have bought it.”
“Why not?” She picked it back off the ground. “What’s wrong with it?”
“This is what you see when you look at me? An angry little man with a sword?”
She cradled the overpriced garbage. “It’s a knight. You’re a knight too, aren’t you?”
“I guess I am.” Theodore felt a wave of resentment. All his life the world conspired to make sure that was all he would ever be. “That doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
“I’m sorry,” Oboe said, ears drooping. “I thought it would make you smile. I didn’t mean to make you mad.”
“It’s not important,” he said, trying to be fine. He knew she didn’t mean any harm, but the sight of the toy made it hard to stay calm. He needed to get away. “I think that’s enough fun for one day. I’m going to go talk to the duke. He’s in the banned district, so go do something else for a while.”
“I thought we were going to do the jail first?” Oboe said.
“I changed my mind,” Theodore said. “I’ll meet you at the park afterwards, alright?”
Oboe tucked the toy into her pouch, looking sad. “Okay.”
Theodore stormed off onto the main road. If he had to be a knight, he wanted to get the work over with. Weaving through the crowd, he beat a path toward the estate of the Duke.