“Arch Magus Septim began Anticom Sililgui with the immortal words ‘Ascanaha, putreba ni cataga’.”
“Yes,” Riley grinned. “I know, it’s incredible, but I can pronounce words in a lot of five thousand year old dead languages.”
Riley continued grinning as the young woman he was walking with burst out laughing. He’d known Crista since he was knee high, but her family had been living down in Antiok for the fast six years and he hadn’t seen her.
Boy was he glad to see her now.
Six years ago when he was eleven, Riley hadn’t thought much of girls. Since then he’d developed quite a liking for them, but there weren’t that many to choose from in town; and around the small village Riley Hachiro had a sort of reputation for being… odd.
He was tall, and muscular despite his slim build. His hair was unkempt and dirty blond, an unusual color around Pine Colony. His hands were almost always dirty from the various jobs he did, and he always seemed to be running from one end of town to the other.
“Well anyway, Riley,” Crista said with a last giggle. “I have to get home, but it was nice seeing you again! It’s like no one else here even remembers me.”
“Oh, who’d forget a pretty face like yours,” Riley dismissed.
“No, it’s weird,” Crista pressed. “Nothing ever changes in Pine Colony, I spent six years in the big city and everything was constantly changing, constantly moving, then I come back here and it’s like the only thing that’s changed is that everyone’s forgotten all about me. Really, thank you, for remembering me.”
Crista blew Riley a kiss as she disappeared around a corner, and Riley just stood grinning. She was right; nothing did ever seem to change in Pine Colony. For the seventeen years Riley had been alive, nothing had changed. The faded, weather-beaten buildings, the town’s one main road, even the trees, were all exactly the same. Riley was in fact quite positive that he could go home, climb in bed, sleep for a hundred years, and when he woke it would be like he hadn’t even left.
Pine Colony was only about a hundred years old to begin with, one of a few dozen such towns built during the colonization movement a century ago.
Back then, there had been just three cities in the world. Three large, densely packed cities, crammed into three large mountain valleys, surrounded on all sides by terraces. For reasons not fully understood, people simply believed there was no where else it was safe to live.
Then one day (also for reasons not fully understood) a brave young girl hiked over six thousand miles through the wilderness and came back alive, and reported that the world outside was not only safe, it was begging to be explored!
That, coupled with a few remarkable advancements in flying machine technology, had made the exploration and colonization of the known world a reality.
For a good twenty years or so, colonies went up at the rate of two or three a year. Then the flare died down, and colonies started disappearing. The most famous among these was Wind Colony, which everyone always talked about. Riley had never been able to find anything really succinct about the disappearance, and nobody he had ever talked to could answer his questions, but the facts were the facts; there had been a Wind Colony and their wasn’t anymore, and people were scared again.
But a few colonies flourished, and a few, like Pine Colony, simply settled. Great construction projects followed to link the colonies on the ground; data lines, trains, anything to make communication possible. It was hard going; the great mountains of the world did not like to allow passage overland. In a project that had itself taken half a century, a great rail-line between Pine Colony and the city of Antiok had been constructed, with the hope that Pine Colony would flourish if it had a way to import and export goods without the aid of SkyShips. It hadn’t helped, and if the line had not also linked to Fire Colony two hundred miles further, it would likely not still operate.
Now Fire Colony was an interesting place, or so Riley had been told. The colony itself had actually been constructed inside a volcano. The available heat and geothermal power were immense, and the cities industries (glass, steel, pretty much anything requiring massive quantities of heat) did staggering well in the harsh conditions.
Someday, he was going to visit Fire Colony. And Sand Colony, and maybe even Water Colony.
Today, Riley had to take on the incredibly irritating task of bailing his younger brother out of prison.
The chance meeting with Crista had been productive, and set him in a good moon, which was no doubt going to make the coming conversation easier. Sheriff Brike was a pudgy little man with tiny round beady eyes and not one hair on his head to speak of. The difficulty with being the sheriff of such a small town where everyone got along and nobody ever shot anyone who didn’t really deserve it, was that it was a very boring job. Brike spent most of his days sitting at his desk or waddling the streets in search of some mundane crime to break up the monotony.
And Riley’s younger brother, Gunther, never failed to provide.
“How are we doing today, Sheriff?” Riley asked enthusiastically. “And I use the term with all due respect.”
Dealing with the sheriff was not difficult. The man was like a vending machine, all you had to do was know which buttons to push.
“I do better when miscreants and hooligans are behind bars,” the Sheriff spat.
“Hooligan?” Riley blinked. “It was just a boyish prank, sir, no harm to come of it.”
“No harm!” Brike shouted. “Your brother diverted the mill water and flooded the miller’s garden!”
“Like I said,” Riley shrugged. “No harm.”
He began to pace back and forth across the small police station, noting that the computer on the Sheriff’s desk was still broken, and now covered in papers. An ancient manual typewriter sat on the disconnected keyboard, because some technologies never break.
The front room of the station acted as a waiting area as well as an office for both the sheriff and his one deputy, while through a doorway between the two desks Riley could make out the four cells in the back. That, and a small closet, made up the entirety of the police station; the building didn’t even have running water!
“Nobody got hurt,” Riley explained. “And it wasn’t like the boys were trying to be all malicious, it was really an accident.”
“And the rose garden?”
“An innocent bystander?”
The Sheriff sighed and leaned back in his chair. It wobbled slightly, broke, and sent the poor man flailing helplessly on his back, stubby arms and legs every which way.
Riley, having seen this coming for several days, immediately extended a hand to the law bringer, and heaved him up into a standing position.
The Sheriff panted for several moments before taking out a handkerchief and mopping his forehead. He proceeded to grab the other, less damaged chair from his deputy’s desk, and sat back down.
“I’ll be by to fix that in the morning,” Riley stated passively, without cracking a smile. Needling the sheriff was all well and good, but laughing at him was the quickest way to get your brother locked up and the key conveniently misplaced in the outhouse.
“What makes it as bad as it is,” the sheriff continued, without missing a beat. “Is your kid brother was the ringleader, he wasn’t acting alone, and I dare say those other boys wouldn’t have acted without him.”
Riley stepped back and clasped his hands behind his back.
“Ah, but is leadership not an admirable quality?” he asked. “I’m sure in your youth; you yourself led a handful of valiant young boys to similar misdeeds. Leadership, for good or for evil, is not without potential.
“And besides, boys will be boys.”
The sheriff nodded grudgingly then shook his head.
“That doesn’t change the fact that the miller is demanding recompense,” he said. “That garden was his wife’s pride and joy.”
Riley nodded his agreement, then began to pace slightly.
“I’ve already spoken to the miller,” he explained. “He’s agreed to let Gunther work off his debt doing chores and the like. I’ll be sure to fill our parents in on the details when they return home next month, so theirs really no need to involve the courts in this matter.”
“That’s not your call to make, lad,” the sheriff warned. “But if you’ve reached an agreement with the miller, then I see no need to hold your brother further.”
“Thank you, sheriff,” Riley said respectfully. “And might I point out, children learn nothing from making there parents pay money for there crimes. You could accomplish a lot more making these boys work off their own debts.”
“Maybe you’re right,” the sheriff sighed. “Well, lad, take your brother and go.”
Riley smiled thankfully and grabbed the keys off the peg. He’d been through this scenario enough times to know the drill.
“Thank you again, sir,” he called as he jammed the key into the cell door. “And I am glad to see you are making good use of the locks I installed last week.”
Gunther was sitting glumly in the back of the cell, and bounded out immediately when Riley signaled to him. He didn’t say a word as the two boys exited the police station and started up the dirt road, but it was clear by the angry look on his face that penitence was not in his purview.
“You’ve got to cut this crap, kid, and I mean it this time,” Riley warned.
Gunther was a kid, in every definition of the word. Scruffy haired, button nosed, all those good descriptive words great writers use to describe little boys. He was also a menace to every planted flower in the world, but somehow no one got sentimental about that part.
“Ah c’mon, bro,” he insisted. “It was just a ‘boyish prank’, you said so yourself!”
“I fed the old sheriff a line he wanted to hear so he wouldn’t put this little incident on the public record,” Riley snapped. “We don’t need an Inquiry, believe me.”
“Man,” Gunther lamented. “Those other boys’s parents is just gonna pay off the miller, why do I gotta do chores?”
“You’ll work for him because we can’t afford to pay for the damage you did,” Riley snorted. “Besides, even if we could and I gave him the money it would look like I was covering for you; he’s not going to take a red cent except from our long lost parents, and you know they aren’t exactly in a position to be paying him anytime soon.”
At mention of parents, the mood between the two boys very suddenly turned somber. Riley and Gunther’s mother and father were the last of a dieing breed, they were explorers.
Their SkyShip, the Aluvhumana, had been specially designed by Aven Hachiro to be able to make long journeys without the need to refuel. He and his wife Nora used Pine Colony as their home base, where they had built a house and raised a family. They’re own parents (Riley and Gunther’s grandparents) had died long ago, leaving the two boys quite alone in the world without mom and dad.
But mom and dad had gone missing, four years earlier. They said their goodbyes, loaded the Aluvhumana, and set off, promising to be back in under two months.
“I miss mom and dad,” Gunther said bluntly.
“I do to,” Riley replied stiffly, shoving his pain back into that corner of his mind next to public parking. “But you know the only way they’re ever going to find us again is if we stay here and hang onto the house. This is there anchor point, we leave and they’ll be no tracking us. I love you kid, so work with me on this.”
“That’s the trouble init?” Gunther grunted sourly. “I ain’t workin’ with you; you got me workin’ for the man!”
“The miller is hardly ‘the man’,” Riley sighed impatiently. “And yes you will work for him, every day after school and every weekend, until he’s satisfied that you’ve paid off your debt. And you won’t complain either, and I’ll know if you do. You’ll work hard, believe me.”
“Awe c’mon, bro,” Gunther pleaded. “Why you gotta be like that?”
Riley sighed again and laced his fingers behind his head. Gunther needed more than just food and shelter, he was at that awkward time in life when he needed guidance, direction, and a firm hand. Riley had figured out pretty much right away that trying to be any kind of father figure for his little brother was a mistake of every sort, but just being a roll model—teaching through example—worked pretty well. Also informing the kid of all the crazy mistakes he had pulled when he was Gunther’s age helped to.
“Because when I was your age,” Riley began confidently. “I led six boys and pulled off the same stupid stunt, and rather than just pay off the old miller back then daddy sent me to work for him. Let me tell you, it was no picnic, but I learned something.”
“Never get caught?” Gunther suggested.
“Mostly,” Riley admitted with a gulp. Really the hardest part about trying to raise his younger brother was dealing with the fact that he himself was far from grown up, and just trying to stay ahead of his own mistakes was a full time job. “But also I learned about the mill. I learned how important it is to the community, and I learned how it operated, and how to maintain it, and the next summer when the miller broke his ankle I made fifty dollars helping him run the mill while he was laid up. So you see, even a punishment is an opportunity.”
“Now get on home, I’m already late for Desari,” Riley ordered.
“Yeah, yeah,” Gunther muttered and started off down the path. “Hey what’d you leave out for dinner?”
Riley was already jogging in the opposite direction towards the dojo at the top of the hill. Desari practice was the one luxury he allowed himself, because surprisingly it’s lessons had helped him more than anything else in his life.
In the village of Pine Colony their lived and old martial arts master who had spent the last fifty years carefully piecing together all the finest essences of every major martial combat form in existence, or so he claimed. The result was a new school of hand-to-hand combat he called Desari, the clenched fist. Riley really wasn’t sure how it stacked up to more traditional forms of unarmed combat, but it was pretty much the only game in town. He’d been taking lessons since he was ten, and was the most advanced student in the class. The mental and physical disciplines of the art were what attracted him most; and he was lucky enough to figure out early on how important the lessons taught by the old man were, not just in the dojo, but throughout his entire life.
The things he learned, the physical endurance, the mental prowess, the self discipline, were all a part of what had given him the strength to endure these four years.
That was why, once a week, regardless of anything and everything else, he made the trek up the hillside to the dojo for practice. Consistency was everything in Desari, so he was going to go.
“Didn’t have time,” he shouted over his shoulder. “I spent all afternoon running around town bailing you outta dodge! I’ll put something together when I get home, just sit tight until then!”
Even if it meant letting his little brother go hungry for a night.