The Tower of the Eternal Queen soared high into the sky, an elegant spire of stone stabbing up amid the clouds. It was built of silvery gray granite, the blocks so meticulously shaped that the joins between them were nearly invisible. The lower levels were a solid bulwark of thick stone, a defense that had stood for centuries, but higher up gracefully arched windows and balconies with lacy carven rails circled its sides. The uppermost level was nearly entirely open to the sky, having no walls, but only pillars topped with smoothly curving arches, which supported a roof that in turn supported the final needle spire.
The Eternal Queen herself often watched the city below from this lofty perch, and on rare occasions the citizens might see her take flight from it, passing over the land that she had ruled for countless generations on golden dragon's wings.
Beneath that towering spire, though, more prosaic lives were lived by the ordinary citizens of the Eternal Kingdom. Nobles and wealthy merchants occupied grand houses that clustered close to the manicured park that covered the hilltop from which the tower rose. Further down the hill spilled the houses, apartments and shops where most of the city's inhabitants lived and worked, spreading out into the level lands beyond. Farms, orchards, fields of grazing sheep, and other such pastoral things stretched in a patchwork of varying green across the plain that surrounded the city's solitary hill. On the edge of the city proper, though, shy of the farmland, were patches of squalor, the poorer quarters that no city could ever entirely escape. On those streets people didn't so much live as scrabble for life, in a constant struggle to find food and keep shelter and safety.
Which is why Kelwyn Grayson kept a hand on the dagger at his belt as he made his way amid the midday crowd.
He was young, only sixteen years old but looking even younger than that due to his short stature and thin, somewhat malnourished figure. Avians were always on the small side, of course. Their slender, short builds made them lighter, something that mattered a great deal to a race of winged fliers. The wings at Kelwyn's back should have been creamy white, but were grungy and dirty, cared for only enough to be capable of flight and no more. The rest of him was in similar condition, his freckle-spotted face further smeared with dirt, his bright orange hair a tangled mess that fell untidily in an irregular cut just short of his shoulders, and his tunic and breeches both were worn, patched, and very much in need of a wash. His boots were near falling apart, and he would probably be barefoot soon, which was a problem, given that it was autumn, and winter's snows weren't far off.
His eyes, a clear blue-gray, flicked around alertly, looking for both danger and opportunity as he walked along the cobbled streets. Those too had seen better days; many of the stones were missing, and though the gutters were maintained here as they were everywhere in the city, they reeked all the same, for the throng of beings, both human and other, in this part of the city had things other than hygiene on their minds most of the time. In the richer quarters servants might make certain the gutters in front of a given house were sparkling. Here even an innkeeper who employed some would never waste valuable time and therefore valuable coin on such a task.
A tall man, well-dressed, with a long red hair, who was walking in front of Kelwyn, stepped in one such neglected mess and paused, cursing at the disaster that had befallen his very nice boots. This gave Kelwyn the opportunity to demonstrate the other reason he kept his hand on his dagger. He walked past briskly, just brushing against the tall man's side, and in a swift motion drew the knife, cut his purse from his belt, and kept walking as if nothing had happened. The man would hopefully be so distracted by the ruination of his shoes that he wouldn't even notice it had happened.
Kelwyn had barely tucked the delightfully heavy purse down the front of his tunic, though, when a hand grabbed him by the shoulder of his wing and yanked him backwards. He found himself spun around, and the tall man grabbed his wrist tightly, squeezing so hard that he couldn't keep from dropping his dagger to the filthy cobbles.
"I would like my purse back, please," said the man, almost pleasantly.
Kelwyn blinked at him. "What?"
"I couldn't help but notice you stealing it. You've rather ruined it in the process too, which is quite rude, but in any case I would like it back."
Kelwyn blinked at him. He'd been caught a few times, and it usually ended up with him being either beaten or dragged to the guard. He'd never had somebody just politely ask for their money back. "Uhm... What will you do if I give it back?"
Now it was the tall man's turn to blink in confusion. "Surely you mean to ask what I'll do if you don't?"
"Beat my face in, I'm sure. You're big enough. I'll give it back. Just are you going to turn me over to the guard too?"
The tall man's eyes swept up and down the scrawny avian, and he shook his head. "No, I won't turn you in. In fact if you give me my money back, I believe I will go buy you lunch. You look like you could use it."
Kelwyn blinked again, then suddenly smiled. He'd found a soft touch, it seemed. Too bad he didn't do cons, the tall man would obviously be a good mark. "All right then. Here." He dug down the front of his tunic with his free hand and gave over the leather pouch.
"Thank you." The tall man released his wrist, then bent and picked up his fallen dagger, offering it back over the back of his arm, hilt first, like he was giving it over in some fancy ceremony.
Kelwyn blinked again, but took the dagger and sheathed it at his belt.
"What sort of food do you like?" The tall man smiled down at him warmly.
With an answering smile Kelwyn said, "The kind you can eat. I ain't picky."
"Very well, follow me." The tall man led Kelwyn through the streets to a nearby district that was a little bit nicer than he usually ventured into by daylight, though it certainly wasn't wealthy. He stopped at a modest pub there, saying, "I believe this will do, I recall them having generous portions," and stepped inside with Kelwyn close at his heels.
A few moments later they were both seated at a table, and it even had one of the narrow-backed avian chairs that made it easy for Kelwyn to sit down with his wings and not have to hold them awkwardly out. The tall man ordered food and small beer from a serving girl, then turned his emerald gaze on Kelwyn.
"I'm Harun," he said with a smile. He held out his hand over the table.
"Kelwyn." Kelwyn took it, his smaller hand engulfed by Harun's long, strong fingers. Harun was obviously very strong, and could probably have crushed Kelwyn's hand easily, but he just squeezed it firmly and let go. He was dressed richly; his long tunic was indigo blue, a fairly expensive color, and the dagger at his belt had a silver-chased hilt, in addition to his fine if still somewhat the worse for wear boots. His face was strong, fairly square-jawed but with a slightly snubbed nose, and his hair was a magnificent mane of deep red curls barely contained in a ponytail tied with a silk ribbon. His eyes were bright green, an almost unnatural color that had Kelwyn wondering if he had a bit of elvish blood or something of that sort.
Somewhat annoyingly, Kelwyn felt a nervous flutter in the pit of his stomach, and a blush blooming on his cheeks as he realized how absurdly good-looking Harun was. Kelwyn already knew he liked guys, and if he had a type, Harun was definitely at least close to it.
"So, Kelwyn, what exactly made you decide to cut my purse?"
Kelwyn found his eyebrows going up incredulously. "What do you think? I don't have money. You have plenty. I gotta eat, I need shoes, ain't going to get any of that for free."
"You don't have parents who provide for you? Surely there are orphanages, then..."
"Hah." Kelwyn snorted. "No, I ain't no orphan, so orphanages are no use to me. I got parents, they just ain't so great. Mom lives in a bottle, dad..." He shrugged, not wanting to say anything about what his father did.
"Does he beat you, then?" Harun's expression was sympathetic, his voice gentle. Kelwyn had the thought again that the guy would make quite the mark if he were running a con. Maybe he should try anyway, see if he could get more than just a meal out of this.
In response to the question, though, he only shrugged again. Beatings had certainly been part of it, but they hadn't been what had finally driven him out to live on the street. He most certainly wasn't going to discuss that with some stranger, though.
"There are charities, surely? Somewhere you could go? I know the Queen has funded some children's programs."
"Oh sure. I used to get food and readin' lessons at the temple. I liked the lessons, even. I'm too old now, though. They only take till fifteen."
Harun blinked at him. "But... Forgive me, how old are you?"
"Sixteen. Be seventeen at midwinter."
"I thought you were twelve! You must be joking, you can't possibly be sixteen."
Kelwyn bristled just a little. "I'm not human, okay? I can't help it you're used to everyone being tall. Avians are short, that's just how it is."
"Forgive me." Harun lifted his hands in a placating gesture. "I should know better than to make such an assumption. I know very well how difficult it is when people judge you by human standards."
With a curious tilt of his head, Kelwyn said, "You ain't human neither, then?"
"No. I am a were-cat of a particular sort."
"Wow. You can turn into a cat, then?"
"I can indeed. And at times I must. Fortunately most times I am able to chose my form, for it would be difficult to live among humans if I did not have hands." The serving girl arrived just then, and set a large bowl of stew in front of each of them, along with a thick slice of buttered bread. It was fresh too, not just a stale trencher. Two mugs were plunked down as well, holding the almost-water that was small beer. "Times such as this, for example," said Harun with a smile as he picked up his spoon. "I could eat the soup without a spoon, but it would be quite undignified."
Kelwyn laughed a little at the mental image of a well-groomed, upper-class man like Harun just sticking his face into the bowl, but amusing at that image was, it couldn't distract him for more than a second, he picked up his spoon and dug eagerly into his own portion.
The stew was very good, hearty and with actual chunks of meat in it, not just thickened broth and little fragments like the stews he was more accustomed to. He more or less inhaled the entire bowl, and ate every crumb of the soft, delicious bread with its heavy layer of butter. It was probably the best meal he'd ever had.
Harun ate more slowly, and kept looking at Kelwyn as he ate. The avian was a little bit conscious of Harun's eyes on him, but in the face of the food it was hard to care.
When the last of the gravy was wiped up with the last scrap of bread, though, he looked back up on Harun. The tall man had only finished about half his bowl. He nudged it towards Kelwyn with a questioning look. "Still hungry?"
"Nah." Kelwyn shook his head. "I'll take your bread for later, though, if you don't want it. Would take the stew if I could, but you can't stuff stew in your pocket."
"Heh. That's very true." He gave Kelwyn a thoughtful look.
Thinking about the potential for a con job, Kelwyn tried to look a little sad and pathetic, without being too over the top. Maybe he should ask about getting a coin or two for another meal?
"Do you have a place to sleep?"
Kelwyn blinked, thought about lying, then shrugged. "Yeah." It was not exactly a home, but for a person with wings there were many private nooks available in the city.
"But no food, and you need shoes."
"Hmm. I am not naive enough to be unaware of the cons that go on in this city." A rush of worry went through Kelwyn, and he felt his cheeks heating again. He'd been found out. "If I give you money, will you be buying shoes with it, or will some adult grifter dressing children to look poorer than they are be getting it?"
"Uh." Kelwyn blinked. He'd been thinking of wanting to get shoe money as a con job, but if that kind of thing was what Harun meant by 'con' then what Kelwyn had been doing was the furthest thing from. "No sir, these are the only shoes I've got, and I don't work for nobody else."
He got another long look from Harun, then a nod. "Well, I suppose there are worse things than giving uncertain charity." He pulled out his purse, which he'd tucked into his tunic, and slid a large silver coin across the table to Kelwyn. "That should cover the cost of a decent pair of boots. I'm going to leave a tab here for you too, so you can get a meal once a day without resorting to cutting purses. And I will be speaking with Her Eternal Majesty about the fact that we stop feeding children when they turn sixteen."
Kelwyn's eyes went wide. Who was Harun, that he spoke casually about talking to the Eternal Queen like that? "You know Her Majesty?"
Harun chuckled at Kelwyn's wide-eyed wonder. "I'm in the Queen's Own. So yes, I know her quite well." He pushed back from the table. Kelwyn rose too, feeling a bit stunned at the discovery that he'd just tried to cut the purse of—and had then been bought lunch by—one of the elite warriors who served the Eternal Queen as her special agents. Though he wasn't so stunned as to forget to snag the half-eaten bread from Harun's side of the table.
He trotted after Harun as he went and spoke to the serving maids about setting up a tab. When that was done he turned to Kelwyn. "There. Now at least you'll have something to eat. I won't be foolish and preach to you about the evils of thievery. I know that's likely to go in one ear and out the other. But I will say this. You expected me to beat you when I caught you. You've been beaten before, I expect. If you keep on this path, someday somebody's going to pull a knife on you, and not to cut your purse, or you'll get the worst kind of beating, or... Well, you know what I'm getting at, you're not stupid. I can help you find work, and do something that won't get you killed before you're twenty."
Kelwyn tilted his head curiously, looking up at Harun as they walked out of the pub. "Why do you care? I thought you were just being a soft touch, but you're doing a lot more than any soft touch I ever saw. Why? I'm just some kid, you don't know me."
Donal halted and turned to him, and his smile was soft, almost wistful. "When I was about your age I was in a pretty rough spot, and somebody gave me a chance to get a better life. I know I can't save all the waifs about your age living rough lives, but your rough life is right here in front of me now, and I can't just ignore it either."
"So, do you want to have a better life than a street thief, Kelwyn?" Harun held out his hand.
As Kelwyn looked at Harun he felt a strange mix of emotions swirl through him. The thought of stepping into a world where one might speak casually with the Eternal Queen was both exciting and terrifying. Yet as he looked at Harun's warm emerald eyes and smiling face, Kelwyn found himself unable to do anything other than take his hand, and his offer for a very different sort of life with it. "I guess I'll give it a try."
Kelwyn may have wings, but in his world that's nothing special. He's just a scrawny little street thief, getting by as best he can, when he cuts the purse of the wrong--or right--person; the fire-lion Harun, a skilled warrior and a personal friend of the Eternal Queen who rules their kingdom from atop her tower. Now Kelwyn's life is going to go places--both good and bad--that he never could have imagined.
Have a sample chapter (one of two that I plan to upload) of my latest novel!