Fae somehow felt at ease in the crowds of the Crimson Docks.
She usually liked distance, space, and solitude. And yet here, in this densely packed city, she felt alive and excited. Perhaps it was that no one here, aside from the Star triplets, knew who she was. Perhaps it was that this city was a brand new and exciting place, completely unlike anywhere she’d ever been.
Whatever the reason, Fae was the happiest she’d ever been in her journey through the Enchanted Dominion.
The girls must stick out, considering their choice in fashion. The people of the Crimson Docks dressed in bright, colorful attire with big, open sleeves. Everything was very loose-fitting and usually one or more sizes too big – it wasn’t uncommon to see people with sleeves or pant legs rolled up, or shirts tied off at their waist. People also wore a lot of jewelry set with gemstones of all colors.
In fact, gemstones seemed to be the primary draw of the Docks’ immense commerce. Many stalls and carts were selling a variety of stones cut and polished and arranged in different ways, and the largest stores the girls passed were jewel, gem, and accessory shops.
“Sounds like the Workshop is on the twelfth layer,” Mercury said, returning from a food cart where she’d asked for directions. “Three levels down from where we are.”
“It’s such a vertical city,” Neptune said, gazing back up the way they’d come. There was a gap through the buildings where the rest of the city was visible, all the way to the top. “If this is built on a mountain, the mountain is completely covered.”
On their way to the next set of stairs leading down, they walked through a courtyard where a live band was playing up on a stage. The instruments seemed cobbled together from several different styles and cultures. The guitars had round bodies and wide necks, and one had eight strings while another had ten. An upright piano had multiple tiers of keys, like a pipe organ, but the sound that came out had a percussive quality, as if it were part xylophone.
The music was pleasant, though, and completely unfamiliar, making all four of the girls stop and listen. The band played a lively tune, melodic and rhythmic, with phrases that folded over and into each other, layering again and again in a way that clearly showed off the high skill level of the musicians – there were seven of them, and yet they were perfectly in sync, despite the complexity and speed of the piece.
And despite all that complexity, the song kept a hummable, toe-tapping quality to it that was easy to pick up and pleasant to listen to.
“Check it out, check it out!” Jupiter said, shaking Mercury back and forth, a wide grin on her face. “This is what we could do if we’d been septuplets!”
“Three’s good,” Mercury said, laughing. “And we don’t need more sisters for a band that size. We could just find more musicians.”
“But we have to be sisters, that’s the whole point of our music!” Jupiter whined.
“And that’s why we stay as three,” Mercury said.
Past the courtyard were the stairs leading down to the next level, or “layer” as the people here called them. Apparently, there were twenty layers in all, varying in size and function. All layers seemed similar in one respect, though: they were all a single, long street, running a slight curve along the mountain or hill or whatever it was the city was built on. There were a few narrow alleys here and there, usually dead-ends, that functioned as breathing spaces between buildings so they weren’t all crammed up against each other.
There were several staircases along each layer that allowed travel between adjacent layers. They were incredibly wide, allowing for over a dozen people to walk side-by-side up and down, and the stairs were shallow and long, making for an easy climb or descent even for the elderly or weak. Fae worried about people who couldn’t walk at all, but the people of the city seemed remarkably friendly and helpful – she saw several cases of people in wheelchairs being carried by friendly strangers up or down the stairs.
The crowds almost never let up, but here again the friendliness in the Crimson Docks showed itself. There wasn’t much in the way of pushing or bumping against people, and when contact did happen, it was often accompanied by a smiling “Sorry about that!”
One thing the girls all learned quickly, though, was the flipside of that kindness: strangers loved to talk to each other. There was no fear of people you didn’t know, or the strange or different. Bump against a stranger on the street by accident, and they could end up talking to you for hours if you didn’t make it very clear that you were in a hurry to go somewhere.
By eavesdropping on passing conversations, Fae and the triplets learned the secret password for getting out of any unwanted conversation: “Bless you on your way.”
It was a way of saying goodbye at the end of a conversation, but apparently it was also a “get out of conversation free” card. Essentially, if you said goodbye in a polite way to someone, they immediately understood and let you move along.
Mercury got a ton of use out of the phrase, as did Neptune, who would often step in and say it for Fae when a stranger decided that Fae was the person of their group to talk to.
Fae was very grateful.
She enjoyed the city, and the people, as an observer. She wasn’t at all interested or comfortable with conversing with strangers, however.
They continued down one more set of stairs, to the twelfth layer, and Mercury asked for directions again.
“It’s all the way on the other side,” she said, pointing straight ahead along the busy street.
As they walked, Mercury resumed what she’d been doing near the end of their journey through Sunset Square: walking backwards, watching Fae with an uncomfortably analytical stare.
“Why do you keep looking at me like that?” Fae asked, avoiding eye contact.
Mercury, hands in her pockets, offered a shrug. “Just trying to understand you.”
“You could ask questions instead of staring.”
“She believes in her powers of deduction,” Jupiter said, laughing. “Even though she doesn’t really have any.”
“I do, too!” Mercury said, glaring at Jupiter.
“You’re a much better conversationalist than you are a sleuth,” Neptune said.
Mercury pouted, looking from one sister to the other. After a few moments, she returned to looking at Fae, her expression softening.
“I tried asking questions,” she said. “You didn’t want to talk.”
“Which should be a major hint to leave her alone,” Neptune said.
“Oh yeah, you get like that sometimes, too,” Jupiter said, walking backwards like Mercury but looking at Neptune, grinning. “You act all serious, but you’re actually really shy and emotional.”
“I don’t act more serious than the situation calls for,” Neptune said, looking annoyed. The way her blue hair covered her left eye helped add to the seriousness of her expression. “And I’m not shy. Just introverted.”
Same here, Fae thought.
“How do you two walk backwards so comfortably in big crowds like this?” Fae asked.
“Jupiter doesn’t,” Mercury said, grinning as Jupiter bumped into three people in a row, finally giving up and walking forward like a normal person. “She’s a secret klutz.”
“It’s no secret,” Jupiter said, sticking her tongue out at Mercury. “And you’re just weird.”
“Aren’t we all?” Neptune asked.
“I guess that’s fair,” Jupiter said with a sigh. She raised her arms, clasping her hands behind her short red hair, taking on a super casual appearance as she strolled along.
“I was a tour guide at Grimoire University for a couple of semesters,” Mercury said. “All the good tour guides walk backwards, so I got good at it. Besides, if I walk ahead of you guys, I feel like I’m excluding myself from the group.”
“You just want to stare at Fae and try and deduce her secret life story,” Jupiter said in one of her hilariously loud whispers.
“My life story’s not a secret,” Fae said, frowning. “You can find it out easy enough from someone or somewhere else.”
“I just want to understand your sibling situation,” Mercury said. “And I know you don’t want to talk about it. So I’m staring.”
“I’d prefer it if you stopped,” Fae said, still refusing to meet the blonde girl’s eyes.
“See?” Jupiter asked. “I told you to leave her alone.”
“I don’t like leaving people alone,” Mercury said. “Especially when it seems like they’re hurting.”
Now Fae made sure she didn’t meet Mercury’s eyes.
Do I really look like I’m hurting?
I mean… I am. I guess. No, I’m not.
I don’t know.
I’m just introverted. I’m quiet. I like my personal space. I feel uncomfortable the longer she stares at me.
I’m not some wounded animal. I’m fine. She’s reading too much into things.
“Hey, check it out!” Jupiter said excitedly, turning to the left and pointing.
Here, at about the midway point of the twelfth layer’s road, was a giant statue. It was vaguely humanoid in appearance. Fae could make out what seemed to be two legs, two arms, and a head, and the maybe-person seemed to be kneeling, staring up at the sky. The difficulty in telling exactly what it was lay in how old and weathered the statue was, with many chunks of it completely gone, and much of its features smoothed out into featureless blobs.
What was very telling about the statue, however, was the color.
It was painted, from the top of its head down to the very bottom of the round, flat base it knelt upon, completely red.
“They call it Fate’s Appeal,” Mercury said. “Apparently it used to be very clearly a man calling out for guidance.”
“Why red?” Fae asked.
“Red is a color often seen as symbolic of fate,” Neptune said.
“Like the red thread that connects destined lovers,” Mercury said.
Neptune nodded. “It’s largely due to that belief about the Red Thread of Fate that this city is famous for its lavish wedding ceremonies. Though this place also gets its name for being the primary point of passage to the Fates’ Dwelling.”
“It doesn’t seem like people pay much attention to this statue,” Fae said.
Though the space around Fate’s Appeal was cordoned off as a courtyard, with none of the congested shops, stalls, and carts, people mostly just passed through the place, maybe sparing a passing glance up at the statue. Very few people stopped, and even then only very briefly.
“Well, it’s been here for centuries,” Mercury said with a shrug. “Come on, let’s keep going.”
These girls are so scatter-brained sometimes. Why stop for something that doesn’t mean anything to us?
“So we know you’re an artist,” Mercury said, once again walking backwards and staring at Fae. “And we know you like our music. What other hobbies or interests do you have?”
Seriously? I hate this question. It’s near the top of the “automatic questions to ask a new acquaintance to get to know them but really just to look polite and interested when you aren’t” list.
“I like being alone,” Fae said.
Mercury didn’t immediately respond, and Fae suddenly felt very angry at herself.
Why did I say that? That’s so mean. Who cares if it’s true? It’s not entirely true – I have friends. I like being with my friends. And if I just let this happen, I could probably make three new friends.
I went through this with Madeline, too. Only we were in grade school, when everyone’s a lot less cynical and grumpy, and no one has any real ulterior motives.
Wait… when did I start thinking the worst of people?
Like Caleb – sure, he’s annoying and way too cheerful, but he isn’t a horrible person. He was even nice when I ran into him back in Sunset Square. So why was I expecting the worst? Why was I so afraid of even looking at him?
Afraid? Is that the right word?
Anxious is probably more accurate. But why? I can honestly say he’s never, ever been mean or even rude to me. It’s weird, especially considering he’s my brother, but it’s true.
Why do I keep him at a distance?
“I like being alone, too,” Neptune said, offering a small smile to Fae.
“Don’t say that,” Jupiter whined, hanging on Neptune’s shoulder as they walked. “You like being around me, right? Right?”
“Most of the time,” Neptune said.
“What do you mean, ‘most of the time’?”
Why do these girls keep giving me more chances? I’ve given them no real reason to like me. They like my art, but so what? Everybody likes my art.
And why can’t I accept all the second chances they keep giving me?
“I’m…” Fae started, struggling with the next word, “…sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude.”
“It’s fine,” Mercury said, smiling. Fae still thought she had the most dazzling, charming smile she’d ever seen. “We can be really overbearing. Honestly, we don’t spend much time with anyone besides each other. We’re so used to our own inside jokes and closeness that we sometimes forget that not everyone is like that.”
“You said you have a brother and sister who are twins, right?” Jupiter asked. “Are they kinda like us?”
Fae couldn’t suppress a small laugh. “Shana is,” she said. “She loves being in contact with people, especially Shias. But he’s very quiet. It’s kind of one-sided. But he feels the same about her that she does about him, I think… in his own way.”
“So like Neptune, but quieter, and not a meanie,” Jupiter said, glaring meaningfully at her blue-haired sister.
“I don’t know what you’re getting at,” Neptune said, looking away.
Jupiter, about to respond, suddenly let go of her sister, her eyes lighting up. “We’re here!”
And indeed they were. They stood at the door of a small shop with a bell-shaped sign over the door that read: “Soundingstone Bell Workshop”.
Mercury stood aside, nodding to Fae. “It’s all you,” she said.
Fae reached into her bag and pulled out the metal candlestick. She couldn’t resist double-checking the text, and found that it was exactly as she remembered. They were in the right place.
Fae opened the door, which rang a small bell to announce their entrance.
Inside, the workshop appeared even smaller than it was, thanks to being incredibly cramped and congested, filled at all corners with shelves and desks absolutely piled high with items. Nearly all of these items were bells, or parts of bells, or casts for bells. There were a few other odds and ends here and there – keys, a wooden toy train, three typewriters (each missing different keys than the others), and quite a large number of half-finished beverages in ceramic mugs – but the workshop very clearly lived up to its name. Whoever worked here was in the business of making bells.
The two small windows from the shop’s front let in a bit of light, but if it weren’t for the skylight in the center of the ceiling, there would very likely be no light at all reaching the back of the shop, thanks to how congested the place was. There were a few lamps here and there, but they seemed in a state of disrepair.
“Coming!” a voice called from somewhere above – Fae spotted a narrow wooden staircase in the far corner – accompanied by several loud thumps and a rather frightening ka-bang! Footsteps hurried down the stairs, belonging to the man Fae assumed to be the proprietor of the shop.
He was an elderly gentleman, with grey, almost white hair and beard tarnished here and there by splotches of soot and ink. His half-moon spectacles clung desperately halfway down his large, gnarled nose, and he constantly adjusted them with thick, calloused hands. Aside from his hands, the man was very thin and small, the shortest one in the room by a large margin.
“Four visitors at once?” the man asked, staring at the girls in shock. “Well… I… welcome! I am Roland Soundingstone, owner and sole proprietor of the Soundingstone Bell Workshop. To what do I owe the pleasure?” He made to lean on a shelf, but his hand slipped, and his head crashed against a pile of bell parts, knocking them to the floor in a series of chimes and thumps.
“Are you all right?” Fae asked, rushing to Roland’s aid. But he waved her off.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” he said, shaking his head. “Happens all the time. As I was saying, to –”
Roland was suddenly stuck with mouth agape. His eyes had spied the candlestick in Fae’s hands, and they grew wide.
“Where did you…” he started, pointing a rough finger at the candlestick.
“From the Basin of Antiquity,” Fae said, holding out the stick. “It led me to you. I’m hoping you have the item that pairs with it.”
“I…” Roland shook his head, pushing the candlestick back to her. “If you found it, it is yours. I can sense that much.”
“What do you mean?” Fae asked, examining the candlestick.
“Magic brought you to it, yes?” Roland asked, his head bobbing up and down. “So it is meant for you. But the pair… yes. I have it. And that should also be yours.”
“What does it all mean?” Fae asked.
“I can explain once one is reunited with its pair,” Roland said, wandering to the back of the shop. He rummaged through several piles of bell parts, sending metal pieces crashing to the ground all around, until he found what he was looking for. He returned with… a bell.
That made sense, considering where they were. But considering Fae was holding a candlestick, this definitely wasn’t what she’d expected.
The bell was the same color as the candlestick – a sort of stony grey – and had three pronounced ridges, running around its perimeter at equal intervals. The bell was attached to a spherical handle, and that spherical piece looked just about the right size…
“It’s a fit, isn’t it?” Fae asked, holding out the candlestick that probably wasn’t a candlestick at all.
Roland nodded, holding the bell upside-down to fit its spherical piece into the candlestick’s cavity. There weren’t any tools involved, but when the bell was fitted into the stick, the space where they connected flashed once with white light. Roland handed the completed piece over to Fae. Turning it over this way and that, Fae found that the two pieces were firmly attached. The bell moved with her turning of it, giving out a small, feeble ring. When she held it up and gave it a proper shake, the sound resonated through the shop. Despite the bell’s small size, it rang out with a middle tone, and had a depth and richness that seemed to seep into Fae’s pores, touching her deep within.
“It’s beautiful,” Fae said. “But I don’t understand. The piece I found looks like a candlestick. And the symbol it bears – the symbol that led me to it – is a flame.”
“It’s designed that way intentionally,” Roland said, smiling. “You see, these two pieces were made as a response to an Intangible: Child’s Innocence.”
“Child’s Innocence?” Fae asked. She stared at the candlestick-bell, wondering what it had to do with children and innocence.
“Innocence could also be called purity,” Roland said. “And purity can be represented by a flame – flames destroy, but they can also be used to purify and refine. So a candlestick was made for the bell’s handle. And the bell was designed with a beautiful tone that hopefully, if I did my job right, rings out pure and clean, beautiful and untainted.”
Fae couldn’t argue with his results.
“Does it do anything?” Jupiter asked, earning a sharp elbow-jab to the ribs from Neptune.
“What do you mean by it being a response?” Fae asked.
“I met the bearer of the purest of Intangibles,” Roland said, a dreamy look in his eyes. “Her innocence – her purity – touched me. I worked with her on the design, actually. I wanted something that could touch others with the purity and goodness that she showed. But when it was finished, she said to me: ‘Someone else is going to need that. Make sure you pass it on to her properly.’ And so now I have.”
“But… me?” Fae asked. “I don’t… what exactly does this do? What do I need it for?”
“I don’t know what you need it for,” Roland said. “But as for what it does… it can give you hope. It can pierce the darkness of any heart. When you are feeling hopeless, or when conventional magic offers no solution, perhaps this bell will be of use.”
I really like it when things aren’t so vague. “Give you hope”? “Perhaps” it will be of use?
The first real accomplishment of my journey, and I feel like I got some mystical wishing wand, instead of something with concrete uses and answers.
But… there is something special about it.
Fae rang the bell again, and once more she felt that deep, pure sound envelop and soak into her. She smiled.
“Thank you,” she said. “I’ll take good care of it, and I’ll keep your words in mind.”
“Since you are here, are you going to meet the Fates?” Roland asked.
“That’s our next stop,” Mercury said. Fae nodded in agreement.
“Then I should caution you,” Roland said. “The Fates… things have changed. They have changed, in a manner of speaking. More and more people who go to visit them are never seen again. Keep your wits about you. For the sake of the bell, and the child who inspired it, but also for your own sakes.”
“We will,” Fae said. She and the sisters bid Roland farewell and left the shop.
“So the Fates are acting up, or something,” Jupiter said.
“We just need to be careful,” Mercury said. “And if things get really crazy, and there’s nothing we can think to do, Fae can ring her bell.”
“For now, I’ll just keep it safe,” Fae said, tucking the candlestick-bell into her bag. “Do you know anything about the Fates?”
“Not much,” Neptune said. “They’re very mysterious. Even those who have returned from seeing them rarely say anything about their visit. And despite how populous and thriving this city is, its namesake – being the port that leads to the Fates’ Dwelling – doesn’t get much use. Very few people take the chance on visiting the Fates. They’ve always been known to be strange, mysterious, and dangerous.”
“So if they’re even more so now…” Fae said slowly.
“Then we need to be extra careful,” Mercury said. “You still up for going?”
Fae nodded. “I’ve been called there,” she said. “I can’t just ignore it. And I want to go. All these mysteries do me no good. I need to learn things for myself, and try to find answers.” She patted her bag. “I’ve only just gotten started.”
Mercury grinned. “That’s the spirit,” she said.
Fae nodded. “Let’s get going.”