Anastasia stood at the counter, talking to the employee across from her.
Delilah was shocked. Anastasia was smiling. She seemed to be having a nice, pleasant conversation with the employee. Delilah could pick up a word here and there, but they were just a little too far away to hear, so she reached into her pocket, taking hold of her keychain talisman, and used Divination Magic to extend her hearing to pick up the contents of the conversation.
“Jared wants to get a puppy,” said the employee, shaking her head. “I keep telling him, there’s a reason only people with penthouses own pets in Starlight Spires. There just isn’t enough open space outside.”
“Well, he always was a softy,” Anastasia said, her voice surprisingly warm. Delilah hadn’t heard Anastasia talk in the Wood of the Wisps, but from her demeanor and violent skill set she hadn’t expected her to sound so… nice. “And I thought the two of you were looking into upsizing.”
The employee shook her head. “It was a thought, but… well, we’re looking into leaving the city. He has family in Sunset Square.”
“That old dump?” Anastasia asked, shaking her head. “Come on, Alice, you don’t want to live there. You’re too refined for it.”
Alice giggled. “Oh, maybe you’re right, Ana,” she said. “So? How are things in the human world?”
Anastasia sighed. “Well, you can already guess why I’m here,” she said.
Alice nodded. “Master Mathers has you running errands for him again.”
Anastasia pursed her lips. “I know it’s important. I know that. But my place is by his side. When he sends me away…”
“You worry that he doesn’t trust you,” Alice said, nodding. “I know. Look… I know how important he is to you. And I know why you wouldn’t dream of ending your work for him. But… have you tried talking to him? Let him know what kind of work you prefer.”
Anastasia shook her head. “I can’t do that,” she said. She let out a long sigh, then smiled. “Anyway, when do you get off? I have to wait until the path’s open to the Waystation, and that won’t be until tomorrow.”
“I only have a few hours left,” Alice said. “And Jared won’t be home until late. Let’s have some fun. And hey – when you’re sent away on errands, it gives you an excuse to visit old friends.”
Anastasia grinned. “Silver lining,” she said with a laugh. “I’m glad I wound up here, even if it was by accident. I’ll be back in a little while, okay?”
Alice nodded, and Anastasia turned to leave. Her path took her towards the exit Delilah’s group was “hiding” at, and halfway there, she noticed the girls and stopped in her tracks.
“Run?” Lorelei asked, looking to the rest of them.
“She can’t do anything to us,” Gwen said, standing up and eyeing Anastasia defiantly. “That’s the nice thing about Starlight Spires’ first law.”
“Can I go through?” Anastasia asked. Delilah blinked in surprise. Anastasia wasn’t at all intimidating right now. When she asked her question, it came out wearily, like she didn’t want to deal with a confrontation.
“Aren’t you after Isabelle?” Chelsea asked, standing in Anastasia’s way with her arms folded across her chest. It was kind of a funny pose, what with Chelsea’s owl Summon still perched on her shoulders, trying to mimic Chelsea’s pose with his wings. “Why would you just leave us be?”
“Because, as Gwen smartly pointed out, I can’t do anything to you here,” Anastasia said coolly. Her violet eyes rested on Isabelle, who shrank back in fear. “It wasn’t supposed to go this way. I didn’t want to scare her. And I never wanted it to come to a fight.”
“You tried to kill me,” Chelsea said, eyes narrowing.
“As I recall, I told you I didn’t want anyone to die,” Anastasia countered. “I’m not fond of collateral damage. And just because you get in my way doesn’t make us enemies. Now – can I pass? Or are we going to stand here and talk all day?”
“Guys…” Delilah said, stepping forward, “maybe… she isn’t so bad.”
“She tried to kill me,” Chelsea said, glaring at the Anastasia.
“She didn’t,” Delilah said. “She fought because she felt she had to. And she’s already made it clear she can’t do anything to us here. Let’s just let it go.”
“Let it –” Chelsea started, before cutting off with an angry sigh. “What about back in Grimoire, when she was using the Piper’s Flute in the library? When she unleashed a horde of Hollows on us, that were definitely trying to kill us.”
“Master Mathers,” Lorelei said. She fixed her gaze on Anastasia. “I didn’t catch everything the two of you were talking about over there, but I did hear that. You mean Blaise Mathers, don’t you? The head of the Mage Council?”
Anastasia sighed, looking away dejectedly. “Naturally,” she said.
“Wait, so you…” Chelsea stared at Anastasia, then at Isabelle, then back to Anastasia. “What does the head of the Mage Council want with a little girl?”
Anastasia scoffed. “Like I would tell you,” she said. “Look, if you’re done with questions, I just want to find somewhere quiet and peaceful to wait for my friend.”
“How do you have friends?” Chelsea asked.
Anastasia chuckled. “Really?” she asked. “I’m a human being, not a monster. Stop looking at me like that. We only met once, and you already think you know everything about me.” Her eyes drifted to Chelsea’s owl, still attempting to look intimidating. “He’s cute. I’m glad you two are getting along.”
“Can we stop?” Delilah asked, cutting Chelsea off as she was about to speak. “Please. We don’t know her. And she isn’t going to hurt us here. So let’s let her go her way, while we go ours.”
“Amazing, how children can be more mature than adults sometimes,” Anastasia said with a smirk.
“Ana, who are those people?” Alice called from the counter. Anastasia froze, her expression tightening. “Are they more friends of yours?”
“No, they’re just –” Anastasia started to say.
“Invite them to come along with us!” Alice said, grinning. “The more the merrier, right?”
“Unfortunately, they have pressing business,” Anastasia said, her voice taut and strained. She gave Chelsea and the rest of their group a meaningful look. “Don’t you?”
“Can we go?” Isabelle asked. Her eyes had never left Anastasia, eyeing her with the caution of a small, wide-eyed animal cornered by a predator.
“Let’s,” Lorelei said, nudging Chelsea towards the walkway. “Come on.”
“If I see you again,” Chelsea said, glaring daggers at Anastasia, “I swear –”
“You’ll what?” Anastasia asked, walking out of the message center as the girls stepped aside. “Attack me completely unprovoked? Try to kill me? Here’s some advice, Miss Reiner: don’t judge someone by first impressions alone. If you weren’t so quick to jump to conclusions, maybe you’d have more friends.”
“Oh, that’s –” Chelsea started.
“Enough,” Lorelei said, pulling Chelsea away. “It’s enough, right? Come on.” She sounded more annoyed than anything else, like she’d dealt with outbursts like this from Chelsea before.
“Is there something wrong?” Anastasia asked. She was looking at Delilah now, who hadn’t stopped looking at Anastasia since she’d heard her conversation with Alice.
“I…” Delilah started, but didn’t know what to say. She couldn’t connect the vicious enemy from the Wood of the Wisps with the more ordinary woman she saw now. How could they be the same person?
Anastasia smiled, and it seemed genuine. “Well, enjoy the rest of your stay,” she said, turning and looking out across the vast, floating city. “It’s a truly marvelous place.”
Anastasia went one way, and the girls went the other, following the walkway past the message center as it ascended several floors. They diverted onto a bridge, which had strings of white lights like Christmas lights wrapped around banisters on either side. Little extensions from the bridge made room for small trees to grow along the side, and strings of lights were wrapped around them, too.
“Reminds me of the Lunar Festival,” Lorelei said, smiling. “Or Christmas in Lunar Park.”
“Yeah, it’s all very charming,” Chelsea said tersely, her entire body language suggesting barely-contained anger.
“Will you just let it go?” Lorelei asked. “Honestly. I know she attacked us before, but today we saw a different side of her. However dangerous she is, I believe her – she never wanted things to come to violence.”
“Whatever,” Chelsea muttered. She kept casting a glance back the way they’d come, as if scanning for a pursuit by Anastasia.
Lorelei’s words about the lights had brought up nostalgic feelings in Delilah, and even as she smiled at the beauty, she also felt a pang of loss in her chest.
How long had she been away from home now? She had estimated they’d spent nearly a full day on Hollow Island, it had taken several hours to reach the Wood of the Wisps, and they’d spent quite a number of hours there as well, then taking a long rest at Gwen’s house…
It had been at least three days, probably longer. November was coming on fast, and with it, the Lunar Festival. Every year, Delilah went all across the city with Shana and Shias and their parents, marveling at the sights, playing games, winning prizes, and shopping for special trinkets, toys, clothes, and specialty items.
Would she even make it back this year? She thought getting off of Hollow Island would be it – they’d find the way back to Grimoire and get back to their lives. But instead, here they still were, in a magical world full of wonder and beauty, trying to help a little girl find her way home.
Delilah knew that, given the choice to leave and go straight back to Grimoire right now, she wouldn’t. The more time she spent with Isabelle, the more resolved she was to make sure she helped this girl first.
But that didn’t mean she didn’t miss home. That didn’t mean she didn’t worry about her siblings, and wonder how much she’d already missed, and how much more she would miss. How much homework had she missed, for that matter? She’d have a lot of catching up to do when she got back home and back to school.
And what about Caleb? Where was his Time Magic training taking place, and how was it going? After seeing her oldest brother on the brink of death, Delilah couldn’t stop worrying about him. She’d always seen his constant smile and easygoing manner as reassuring and inspiring, but now…
Now it seemed to her more like a mask.
How much pain and trouble had he hidden from everyone? And would he be the same person when he came back? Would the mask still be there, or would he have taken it off permanently?
And if he had, would Delilah recognize the man underneath?
“You know, Caleb asked her out on the final day of the Lunar Festival,” Lorelei said, nudging Delilah and nodding to Chelsea. “Almost two years ago.”
“Which means he has to come back soon,” Chelsea said, seeming to relax slightly. “It’s too important a day to miss. And that also means we’ll find the Library of Solitude and get this kid home soon, too.”
“You mean it?” Isabelle asked, staring with hopeful excitement up at Chelsea.
Chelsea laughed. “Sure do,” she said. “Don’t worry about a thing. And especially don’t worry about Anastasia. We’ll keep you safe from her.”
“I think you’re the one who’s worrying about her the most,” Lorelei said teasingly.
“Shut up,” Chelsea muttered, shoving her hands into the pockets of her jacket and walking a few paces ahead of the group.
Delilah smiled. She didn’t know how Lorelei and Chelsea had picked up on the manner of Delilah’s thoughts, but she was glad for it. It perked her up, and she focused less on what she was missing out on, and more on the place she was in right now.
Part of the reason she hadn’t focused so much on the city itself, though, is that Starlight Spires was just… indescribable. She struggled to comprehend the scale and design of the city she was walking through. Nothing touched the ground, and yet the buildings suspended in the air where millions lived and worked and vacationed were larger than any buildings on Earth by such a massive margin that it was unimaginable, something that could only be seen to be believed… and even then, Delilah struggled to believe it.
But in the midst of all the scale and size, Delilah could at least grasp the beauty of it. She’d often loved walking through Grimoire at night, especially on the less traveled streets where the street lights were spaced farther apart. Ever since she’d started her training, that had been part of what had kept her enjoying it. After a long hour of rounding up and eliminating Snifflers, Delilah often sat on a rooftop in a secluded spot, staring up at the stars and moon, marveling at how peaceful the night was just moments after it was alive with combat and danger.
Starlight Spires was entirely designed to capture the beauty and serenity of the most beautiful of nights. Even in the loudest areas the girls traveled through, things weren’t deafening or chaotic. There seemed an unspoken rule to keep things peaceful – to respect others and the space they all occupied.
They walked across the roof of a shimmering blue spire, passing through a garden of flowering trees with petals bigger than Delilah’s face. So many colors captured the light, and the fragrance was soothing. Delilah noticed several people sitting on stone benches here and there, and she envied them, wishing their group could stop and just enjoy the lovely garden.
They left and crossed a bridge that was sloped, descending downward towards a very wide, cylindrical platform. Unlike the spires, this platform was just a single floor, so it was hard for Delilah to call it a spire or tower, but it served the same purpose, as a place where bridges connected. And what this platform housed was beautiful. A sprawling pool was spread out along the floor, with walkways here and there for navigating between large bodies of water. Men and women in one piece swimsuits – even the men had their torsos covered, which seemed funny to Delilah – relaxed in the water, chatting and laughing and occasionally playing, swimming a short distance race or splashing water at each other. There were no water slides or wave pools, despite the sprawling size of the watery haven. This was clearly a place for relaxing, made more apparent by the trio of bars built into the water for patrons to swim up to and order drinks or snacks. Some visitors lounged on beach chairs on the land, and there were a few small flowering gardens around the perimeter.
“It’s weird having a pool when the sun never shines,” Chelsea said. “But, now that we’re here I finally noticed that it’s kind of warm.”
“Starlight Spires has seasons just like most places,” Gwen said. “They’re all quite mild, though. Right now is the warmest part of summer.”
“Oh, that’s super weird,” Chelsea said, stretching out her arms and eyeing the long sleeves of her jacket. “I was comfortable, but when you put it that way, I feel super overdressed.”
Gwen chuckled. “I should have made us some swimsuits,” she said. “I didn’t think we’d be crossing Aquaria Landing, though.”
“It’s all right,” Delilah said. “We don’t have a ton of time anyway, right?”
“Right,” Lorelei said, ruffling Isabelle’s hair. “We’ve got to get this girl home.”
Isabelle giggled. “We should come back and visit sometime,” she said, eyeing the water. “It looks like fun.”
Delilah hadn’t thought about that. She was so wrapped up in helping Isabelle get home, her mind hadn’t even considered seeing the girl again after that. But if it was possible to spend more time with Isabelle, to continue to get this group of girls together and go places throughout the Enchanted Dominion from time to time…
Delilah thought that would be just perfect.