A warm breeze strokes my flushed cheeks as I scrub the hot stones of the courtyard. The afternoon sun burns my aching arms as the swoosh, swoosh of my wiry brush echoes in the otherwise still silence.
If I focus, I might be able to make out the distant sounds of the other children playing inside the monastery, but I shake my head at the thought and renew my scrubbing with doubled fervor. A bead of sweat glistens at the tip of my nose, and I swipe it away with the back of my hand before it can drop to the clean surface below.
The courtyard is never dirty or untidy, thanks to the vigorous efforts of the Chetera Faye. That, and the work of those unfortunate enough to incur their disapproval and discipline.
That would be me.
Some of the other boys have started calling me Tunaterunfo, or Tunate for short, as they claim I have the worst fortune of any Faye child ever born, but I’ll show them. I’m going to prove them all wrong…
“Er, pssst, Eran!” A sharp whisper causes me to jerk my head in the direction of the bushes to my right as I blink my eyes and squint, trying to see through the bright spots and the reflection of the sun off the dazzling inlay. I recognize his chuckle as he crawls out of the bushes and into my view, careful to stop before the hot stones that are burning my knees.
“Thad!” I look around to see if the Cheteras are watching before turning back to my best friend with a smile as I jump to my feet despite my shaky legs. I hurry over to the shady area where he’s now standing, beckoning me over with his left wing. “What are you doing here?” I whisper. “You’re going to get caught.”
There’s a mischievous twinkle in his eye when he pats my arm. “No, we won’t.” He doesn’t bother to whisper, and my eyes widen as I hush him, glancing over my shoulder to see if anyone is coming to check. “Relax, Er, they can’t hear us because they’re not here.”
I turn back to him in surprise. “What do you mean?”
His grin nearly splits his face in half as he rocks on his heels, a habit he’s started since the Cheteras punished him for jumping whenever he was excited. “They left for some meeting, so I’m taking you with me to get some supplies.”
The shade from the trees is glorious as I walk over their roots, stroking their bark as I pass them and stopping here or there to dig my toes into the soft, cool dirt. I’ve often fantasized about running away from the monastery to live in the woods with Thad and my brothers, but I know that Ald would never leave the Cheteras, not after working so hard at school and combat training. He’s convinced that we’re going to be the best of them all. Though I often agree with his passion, I miss the games we used to play together in the woods before the Faye started to speak in hushed tones in the hallways, always going to meetings and sparing few hurried glances for the world outside.
Everyone is so serious and thoughtful. The Cheteras have become sterner than ever and don’t take us out to play under the trees like they used to.
I hear the scraping of Thad’s little knife against the bark, and I turn to see him with his tongue pushed into his cheek in concentration as he collects the supplies for his latest experiments. I walk over to him and tilt my head in confusion at the oddities protruding from his worn-out pack.
“What are you going to make?” I nudge at the pack with my foot and wrinkle my nose at a peculiar smell rising from its contents.
He smiles, and his eyes light up as he turns to look at me. “I’m going to make an invisibility potion.”
I almost shudder at the memory of his attempt at an invincibility potion a few weeks ago, but I catch myself in time. At least the side effects of an invisibility potion shouldn’t involve broken ribs. I nod at him as I glance up from his precarious ingredients and smile. “Thanks for bringing me along, Thad. It feels good to get out of the palace walls again.”
“Anytime.” He picks up his packet and grins at me as he ties it closed, rocking on his heels as he secures it to his side and stretches out his wings.
“Beat you back to the courtyard!” My black wings whip outwards and push down before he has a chance to respond, and I’m up in the air, dodging branches and breaking free of the treeline as the air whirls around my face. I hear the flap and flutter of his wings as he takes off to follow me, but I’m already nearing the monastery wall.
I watch in fascination as the bubbling, steaming liquid changes into one brilliant color after another. It’s so beautiful that I almost don’t mind the horrific stench that’s burning my nostrils. Almost.
My eyes are watering when Thad motions to the next ingredient, and I pass it to him as his brows furrow in concentration, his hand steady as he slowly drops it into the ominous concoction.
He pulls his hand back slowly as he watches it with his eyes shimmering in a mix of hope and dread. I hold my breath as my heartbeat seems to echo in the still, long moment that we stand there waiting. In the blink of an eye, the vial of liquid disappears.
“It worked,” Thad breathes out, barely above a whisper, before he rocks on his heels and clasps his hand on my shoulder, shaking me as he pumps his fist in the air “we did it!”
“Did what?” Ald’s voice has a sharp edge to it, and my eyes widen as I whirl to see him standing behind us with his arms crossed and left eyebrow raised. “What did you do?”
“Nothing.” I spit it out as Thad’s eyes continue to widen, his right hand twitching as his mouth opens and closes.
Ald’s eyes narrow as he turns his focus to me. “You know you’re not supposed to come here without a Chetera. Get out now.”
I look at Thad, who’s glancing at where the vial should be sitting. His hands are fidgeting as he chews on his bottom lip. There’s no way Thad is going to leave without that potion.
I look back at Ald and shrug my shoulders. “I’ll leave when I want to, Ald. Go away.” His eye twitches – he hates when I call him Ald as he thinks he’s too old for a nickname. I almost laugh out loud at the thought of Ald being an adult, but I catch myself in time.
He steps up in front of me, his lanky body looming over me as he bends closer, his nose almost touching mine as his eyes bore into my very orb. “Get. Out. Now.”
I push up on my tiptoes, forcing him to take a step back as I bump his head. “No.”
His eyes flash dangerously as he sucks in a deep breath through his flaring nostrils. “Back off, Er.” His voice is strained as he talks through gritted teeth. This is the point where most people know enough to walk away, but what are little brothers for if not to push their oldest brother to the breaking point?
I grin and poke him in the chest. “Make me, Ald.” There’s a brief, horrible moment where the air between us feels electrified and taut, like a strained thread before it snaps.
His hand snaps out to grab my arm, but I reach out and shove him back before he can get me. As he stumbles, Thad lunges for the table to hold the vial, and that’s when everything seems to go in slow motion. Ald jumps forward for me but trips Thad instead – Thad’s hands slamming on the edge of the table, causing it to flip.
There’s a loud smash as the invisible vial shatters against Ald’s right wing as it whirls out to protect his face. The only indication of the contents scattering over Ald is his drooping hair and the shocked look on his face. “What the-”
All at once, Ald is gone.
“What do you mean, ‘he might have vanished’?!” Thad’s face is ashen as he runs his hands through his hair, and I pace around the room, swinging my arms around, trying to feel for Ald. “It’s an invisibility potion, Thad; he’s invisible. He’s probably staying quiet to make us nervous, but listen; we haven’t heard or seen the door or windows open. So he’s still in here somewhere.”
“I don’t know – maybe he is.” Thad swings his arms around without enthusiasm or conviction. “But what if – what if there’s a side effect from it combining with a living form? I didn’t -” he shakes his head and swallows. “I didn’t run enough tests. It could have, uh, vanished him – forever.”
There’s a weird pang in my chest at the wild, almost desperate look in Thad’s eye as he glances around the room. I shake my head. No, Ald is fine. Everything is fine.
The door creaks, and I jerk my head towards the open door, expecting to see the opening empty, but instead, I see Bes, who’s standing there with his mouth gaped open as he looks around the room before stopping on me. “What happened?”
Thad wipes his shaky hand across his brow as he takes a deep breath but doesn’t offer to say anything. He has never said much, except to me.
“Thad made a new potion, but Ald found us, and now he’s invisible.”
Bes nods slowly as he turns to examine the overturned table. He takes a deep breath before rubbing his hands together. “Okay. Here’s what we’re going to do: I’ll clean this up, and the two of you find Ald. The Cheteras are supposed to be back soon, so let’s hurry.” He reaches out and pulls both of us in for a quick hug before patting us on our backs. “Let’s do it.”
I grip the sides of my pants tightly to hide the fact that my hands are shaking. Thad has gone completely still from where he’s standing to my left, and if it weren’t for Bes’ occasional glances at the doorway, his relaxed stance would belie the gravity of this moment.
I’m not going to survive this. I will myself not to fidget as Chetera Moswid surveys the line of us, peering down his pointy nose as he stops in front of me. “Eran Faye, step forward.” I try my best to swallow the hard lump in my throat as I lift my foot to obey.
“Apologies, Chetera Moswid,” Ald strolls into the room and tilts his head in respect to the elderly Faye, “I was busy inspecting the courtyard.”
My eyes widen as I stifle my gasp of shock at seeing Ald again. I hastily rub away the mist starting to cloud them over as a deep sense of relief washes over me.
Chetera Moswid’s eyebrows nearly reach his hairline as he turns to Ald. “Why would you be inspecting the courtyard, young Aldrich?”
Ald’s face is serious as his forehead wrinkled in concern. “There was something strange there, sir, a presence.” He nods at the Chetera in the annoying way adults do when they’re keeping something from us.
Chetera Moswid looks startled, but he nods at Ald before glancing around at the rest of us, concern etched over his features. “Are you sure?”
“Not enough to be positive, but I thought it best to keep Eran busy elsewhere, just in case.”
They nod at each other again, and the Chetera strokes his gray beard as he mutters something to himself. Finally, he gives one more short nod before he glances at the door. “Yes, well, excellent – very excellent presence of mind, then. Keep your brother busy,” he turns to all of us. “Everyone, back to your rooms – no more school today.” With one last nod at Ald, he exits the room; the rest of the children headed for their rooms in excitement as they whisper together of plans to use up this precious time off from school.
The four of us are the only ones left in the room when I turn to Ald. “You lied,” I whisper, my mind not quite processing that as a possible fact. “You never lie.”
Ald reaches out and ruffles my hair, which I would typically fight him over. “Sometimes it’s necessary.” He smirks at me, and I smile back. “Besides,” he adds with a mischievous glint in his eye, “I think it’s time we made some more of that potion, don’t you?”