‘Are you sure you haven’t made some mistake?’
It was not a mistake; Creem was a man, but the woman would not believe him. They had been in a back-and-forth for ten minutes, Creem answering benign questions while the woman wrote on his application aimlessly.
Creem stood at the base of the enormous building, the Ozori skyscraper. He headed the independent conscripts line, those with no claim nor name, just themselves.
‘Do you have a birth certificate?’ she said, flipping between a computer screen and Creem’s application.
‘Yes, but it is back home,’ Creem replied.
‘Well if you can go and get it-‘
‘I can’t… I am from Eld, how can I get back in time?’
She was not convinced he was a scissorknight. His attired help none; Creem wore a long coat with a furred collar and a short shawl draping down his neck. He was armoured, well armoured, with gauntlets, greaves and a chest plate, but none of the kind a scissorknight would wear. And yet affixed to his back, catching a sliver of the sun peeking through a gap in the Ozori’s white brim of clouds, was a scissor blade. Under it, all was a slender man whose long hair and soft face would have fooled her if he had never brought up that he was a man.
‘Let me get my supervisor,’ the woman said.
Creem exhaled and nodded.
Creem stared into the distance as the woman walked over to her superior. Both the women looked at Creem. He feigned ignorance to their gaze and instead moved his eyes to the parade on the street. Children were skipping with show bags and candy on sticks, their parents being dragged along unwillingly to every new kiosk. Festival workers were hollering their wares in garments more colourful than comfortable, smiling so wide their cheeks were about to split. Creem hadn’t seen such merriment in one place before, let alone before a tournament. On some showbags was the name ‘Clerion’, and others had ‘Ozori LTD’. Creem saw a few branded with ‘Westward industries’, among countless others. His attention turned upwards to the tower.
A skyscraper so tall it brushed up against the limits of the sky. For the blue above the nation of Ororoon, that limit was ever-growing as more and more buildings rose to meet each other. The Ozori building recently became the tallest, and the company’s name on the side scrolled across a screen just as tall. It had been built so tall that the tip was shrouded by clouds that coalesced around no matter the weather. Even on the sunniest days, the blue sky and cool breeze still had the Ozori donning a white brim.
‘Hello!’ a voice called.
A bubbly lady stood beside the woman Creem had been talking with, who explained the dilemma, and the cheery woman nodded before she clapped her hands together with conviction.
‘Not a worry, I am sorry for the confusion sir, we often get a lot of unique applicants but once in a while we are stumped! We will leave your details as it is. It says here you have a partner?’
‘Yes,’ Creem said, ‘over there.’
Creem pointed at Theo, a man standing across the road, leaning on a pillar while he read. The supervisor made marks on the application, circling words and ticking boxes.
‘Excellent. Pass this onto your partner, you’ll need this to start the tournament. Good luck!’
The woman gave Creem an admission slip with their names printed.
‘Outta my way,’ a man behind Creem shoved him as soon as everything seemed in order. The man wasn’t even in the line, but he was twice the size of half the warriors, and so in their comparative meekness, they stood idle while he muscled in. The hair on the man’s head coalesced with shag on his shoulders and the heft of his beard to form a mane around his brutalised face. Oddly, the hand he used to push Creem aside was smooth and healthy; each fingernail adorned a different colour. The man handed the woman the application, turned to Creem and smirked before sauntering away. The warriors in the queue were dumbfounded, and some marvelled over the fact that the man had put his hand on Creem. The man walked into a crowd, where he was the skyscraper, taller than them all, and everyone stopped to revel in him. Creem then heard it; a child screamed the man’s name.
‘Mr Sid Raffie! Mr Sid! Can you please sign my hand?’
Sid stopped and looked down at the kid, that smirk turning into a warm smile.
‘Sure, kid,’ he said, taking hold of the pen the child gave him. He signed the kid’s hand and patted his head.
‘One day I’m gonna be like you!’ said the boy.
‘Ha, alright, kid,’ said Sid.
Sid continued walking, the crowd following behind, and Creem watched the skyscraper that was sid disappear down the road.
Creem’s eye caught a strange whiff of black smoke just beyond the crowd coming from an alleyway, and then what seemed to be a black umbrella opened up, only for it to fall to the ground and turn into black smoke all the same.
Then Theo came up to Creem’s side and startled him. In Theo’s hand, he held a book.
‘Look at this,’ he said, ‘Trials of Moonkid. Half price, too.’
Creem looked at the book in Theo’s hand, who Theo pushed it toward for Creem to grab. It was weighty, the gloss on the moon design shimmering as Creem handled it.
‘Don’t you have this?’ Creem said.
‘I have the first day edition, this is the limited release, it’s lucky I even found it. I’m still looking for one more, though….’
‘You say one more, but one turns into two, turns into four and soon I’ll be carrying a bag~.’
‘And your blade isn’t already heavy?’
Creem crossed his arms.
‘A bag in addition to this.’
Theo directed Creem towards the festival’s heart, into the crowd where Sid disappeared.
‘What about Bree?’ Creem said.
‘She’ll meet us there,’ Theo replied.
Creem handed Theo back the book as Theo took off his backpack. Every pocket and zip had a book in it, and inside, it was packed with them, slotting in perfectly to form a lattice of literature. Whatever did not fit into the backpack was strapped to Theo’s body in bands and pockets affixed to his ragged coat.
Theo heaved the bag, heavy with books he refused to let go. Creem was weary seeing him struggle, but Creem could never convince Theo to put off the book hunt, not while there was even a sliver of space left to store one.
Theo tightened his backpack straps and started a march towards the next bookstore. They’d only been in the city for two days, but Theosies had already mapped the city using the bookstores as references.
He had one in his head, and from there, the mental map sprawled out, with the streets he needed to know connecting to the store, so even if he started the journey lost, he’d at the very least find a book. Creem followed him; he didn’t see the city in the same focus as Theo, nor did he have the conviction to divine it just for the books. Theo’s wayfinding gave Creem time to look around at more than just the pastures between metropoles.
In following Theo around, Creem got a good look at Yoomar. The city had long run out of horizons to expand to, yet it would not slow its municipal ascent. Thus Yoomar went up; as all the skyscrapers did, so too did roads and homes. The Ozori’s tallest neighbours rested upon raised ground atop other buildings, which had become the foundation for this second floor of the city, like a forest of concrete trees forming the canopy.
Eventually, though, the sight of it disappeared as they moved into the undergrowth and the canopy of Yoomar occluded the sky. Creem would only get glimpses through the gaps in the canopy where the light came through, but never enough to witness the tower whole again.
Creem had a fixation on it, a tall structure that redefined his concept of height. He asked Theo where the bookstore was, hoping they would have to move up to the canopy, from which he could see the tower again.
‘About 15 minutes away, in that direction,’ Theo pointed to his right, curving his finger to describe some corner yet to be turned.
‘Up or down?’ Creem asked.

The men had travelled some distance into the undergrowth, and the festival crowds had thinned as they moved further and further from the Ozori. But then, they came up to a corner and could again hear a commotion. Cars had completely abandoned turning into the street because a great crowd had usurped the road. There were armed guards, not city police but oddly dressed security wearing blue suits with coiling ties like snakes around their necks. The crowd they were guarding gathered around a townhouse. The house looked like no other, appearing to be a small palace with pillars of that same coiling design as the ties on the guards.
‘The store is just there,’ Theo said, ‘you can’t really see it beyond this crowd.’
Creem marched forward and got only three steps before one of the guards stopped him.
‘Excuse me,’ he said, ‘do you have an entry pass?’
‘No,’ said Creem.
‘You need an entry pass.’
‘Isn’t this a public road?’
‘For the next 12 hours, this road has been specifically booked by the Serpent Court for promotional use, if you want to go in you need a pass.’
Creem blinked, his mind processing a response.

‘Then I suggest you take the detour.’
Theosies hadn’t planned a detour; the mental map did not work if he needed to take a street he was not already planning to take.
‘Woah,’ Theo said, stepping to Creem’s side, ‘we just want to get to the bookstore.’
‘Sorry, you are going to need a pass.’
The guard’s resolution churned Creem’s gut and soured Theo’s face. They continued to argue their case, eventually attracting the attention of the other guard, who said much of the same.
‘You’re telling me that in order to get through this street, I need to get a pass from that building, which I cannot get to because I do not have a pass?’ Theo said.
‘Correct,’ one of the guards replied.
‘This is a pathetic scam,’ Creem said.
Theo scoffed and then moved forward. The guards stopped his advance, and Theo began to muscle back. Creem stepped back, wanting no part in it. Even when Theosies urged him to help, Creem shook his head.
‘Pick your battles better,’ Creem said, ‘there are ways around.’
The guards shoved Theo back, the weight of his books nearly bowling him over if Creem hadn’t caught him.
Out of the townhouse, a man dressed in the same blue suit but with accents of silver metal pieces sauntered. His left arm, in particular, was covered in metal plates riveted together. His blue jacket draped over him like a cape, with a string tied around his neck and the sleeves dangling uselessly. The crowd burst into hysterical applause when he came out, and the man indulged every second. He caught Theo and Creem’s attention, so they stopped trying to break in and watched from their poor vantage.
The man scanned the crowd, and then his attention was captured by Theo and Creem standing and staring back at him. When the man saw them, he raised an eyebrow and squinted slightly, then wandered over to Theo and Creem.
‘Well, hello,’ he said, cocking a half smile, ‘what seems to be the matter here?’
The guards stepped aside, letting the man stand before Theo and Creem on his own. One of them attempted to answer, but the man cut him off.
‘Ah, you must be here to see us, I imagine one of the envoys?’
The man inspected Theo and Creem, and before they could respond, he spoke again.
‘And not only that, but you see to be a bookwyrm, and you, a scisssorknight!’
He wore excitement plain on his face, but it switched to frustration regarding the guards in a second.
‘Why did you bar these two, clearly they are of high esteem and want to pay me honours, no less! Let them though.’
Theo and Creem should have felt honoured, but they hadn’t the slightest insight into what was happening. At the very least, they could now pass through the street. However, this man who guided them seemed adamant they would follow him toward the house.
‘What are your names? From where do you hail, oh, I mean to say that the likes of a scissorknight and a bookwyrm together seem to be so extraordinary that I cannot simply believe you are here on your own. Who sent you?’
Theo only managed to breathe in before the man spoke again.
‘Oh I’m sure whoever it is will send me a message, what we need to organise now of course is the gifts!’
The man was eagerly eyeing Theo’s backpack and Creem’s scissor blade, leading them past the crowd to the precipice of the townhouse. And behind the townhouse, stretching far into the sky, Creem could again see the cloudy brim of the Ozori.
‘Now,’ the man said, ‘wait here a moment.’
The man went back into the house, emerging a moment later with someone else. The second person was significant and shimmied through the door on their side. His head was covered in hair, shaggy and volumetric.
It was Sid Raffie.
Sid looked right at Creem, but he did not smirk. Instead, he held some semblance of confusion and disgust. He came down the stairs and walked past the man who guided him out, right up to Theo and Creem.
‘What are you doing here?’ he said. Sid turned to the man, who he called Sam.
‘Do you know him?’
Sam smiled.
‘Yes! They are here with the gifts!’ Sam said.
Sid looked at Creem, then Theo and shook his head. His smirk returned before he looked back at Sam and chuckled.
‘You’ve been had.’
Sam’s face sank.
‘What?’ he said.
‘I saw this one signing up, that blade isn’t a present. And this one? Likely the partner. How’d they get in?’
‘They were at the corner, practically begging to see us….’
Sid puffed up his chest, and Sam beside him looked at Theo and Creem no longer with favour.
‘We just want to get to the bookstore,’ Theo said, finally able to speak.
‘Excuse me?’ Sam replied, a notable drop in tone from jovial to combative.
‘You just planned to walk through? Ignoring the rules and signs? And you wanted to use my good will to do it? Is that what this is?’
‘They may have been sent from the Noble Aplomb,’ Sid said.
While completely meaningless to Theo and Creem, the mention had some significant effect on Sam, as if he’d been force-fed lemons.
‘Agents of the Noble Aplomb, really.’
By now, the crowd’s energy had significantly dropped, no longer cheering but watching from afar as the one-sided tension built.
‘What is the Noble Aplomb?’ Creem said.
Sam and Sid stepped back, shocked at Creem’s voice.
‘Pardon?’ Sam said.
‘I don’t know what the Noble Aplomb is.’
Sam’s brows pushed deeply into his eyes, and his mouth fell.
‘Sid did you hear him?’ he said.
‘I did.’ Sid said.
Creem’s placid tone and idleness eroded away, revealing a demon. Creem glared at Sam without a word. He didn’t want to say another word. He loathed speaking again.
The stare was overbearing, so Sam unsheathed his blade in self-defense. A long, gleaming rapier seemed to undulate as Sam held it straight. Creem made no move, even as the tip of the sword came up to his nose. Sid then braced himself oddly. He held out his hands, with two fingers centimetres from touching, and the nail polish seemed to have taken on an ominous glow. Theo then readied for a fight, taking a gunman’s hunch, but his six shooters were instead two little books. Sam chuckled.
‘The Noble Aplomb must be desperate for agents, and they are sending clowns,’ Sam said. He looked out to the weary crowd, and over Theo and Creem’s heads, he addressed them.

‘Ladies and Gentlemen!’ said Sam, ‘before you are a pair of impostors who have used the good faith of the Serpent Court to usurp your time and efforts to see us this day. They walked in unabated, claiming to be envoys here to give gifts only to be in fact competitors, marking their prey. I, Sir Sam of the Serpent court and my brother Sidney. They wished to depose us. How should we make an example of them?’
The crowd was quiet. Despite the rousing words, they were shocked to have been put in the situation.
‘One Hundred Thousand!’ A voice from within the crowd said.
The voice split the people, and a woman adorned in a black dress came from within the mass. He black hair draped around the top, and her bangs fell well below her eyes, but despite the apparent blindness, she walked with purpose. Theo and Creem recognised her and their faces sank.
The woman walked right up to Sam.
‘One Hundred Thousand dollars says they beat you in a fight. Both of you,’ the woman said.
Both Sam and Sid erupted into laughter.
‘And who are you exactly?’ Sid said between hysterics.
The woman before Sid and Sam was Bree. Sam and his posse closed the businesses, corralled the confused patrons onto the road, and blended them into his genuine fans.
‘I’m their fight fixer,’ Bree said, a touch of venom on her lips, ‘you want to make an example? That example will cost you one hundred thousand should you lose.’
Theo and Creem jerked forward and yanked Bree back, but she shrugged them off.
‘Bree—’ Theo started.
‘Shush, I’m trying to sort something out here.’
‘Bree, please, I’d rather not,’ Creem said to no avail.
Sam and Sid had stopped, confused by Bree’s words. they traded a look, furrow-browed and introspective, quite honestly considering what Bree had to say as a fact greater than one they believed was true. They then sheathed their weapons.
‘What do we get in return?’ said Sam, turning back to Bree.
‘Sure someone of the serpent court knows how to appraise things of true value? What do my fighters carry that you see of value?’
Bree had struck a nerve, causing Sam to take a firm step forward.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘as a matter of FACT I do,’ Sam took a moment, inspecting Theo and Creem top to bottom, ‘I want their books and blades. Sid?’
Sam looked back, and Sid shrugged.
‘I’m good,’ said Sid, ‘I don’t see anything of value here.’
‘What does that mean?’ Theo said.
Creem glared at Sid.
‘He can’t read.’
‘The mouth on you…’. Sid said, striding up to Creem with a mind to grab him by the neck, but Bree jumped in his way.
‘Oh no, no,’ Bree said, ‘you want to fight? Name a place.’
Bree was a third of Sid’s size, but Sid still stopped.
Does she not know who I am? Sid thought, staring at Bree blankly. He felt her stare in his head though he could still not see her eyes, and he felt compelled to take a step back.
‘The Send-off,’ Sam said from behind Sid, ‘be there tonight. Don’t damage my things.’

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