It is a common observation in life that some people have all the luck. In the case of one Paragon Collymoddle, lately of the town of Toll, this was literally true: he did have all the luck, because he had until very recently been the Luck of Toll, regarded by that virtuous burgh as the key to its continued prosperity.
Toll had apparently been right, for Paragon had not been outside its walls for twenty minutes before the entire town was pulled down round its own ears and its inhabitants fled east for the dubious safety of the territories to which they had formerly served as a gateway.
Paragon was a bright lad; now that his horizons had been forcibly broadened by the application of one Mosca Mye in much the same way that a mallet is applied to a steak, he bade fair to be an enterprising one too. Moreover, with the brazen certainty of youth, he was of a mind to think that if he never saw anyone else from Toll in his life it would be too soon. So Paragon went west over the bridge and across the moors when his impromptu acrobatic routine was concluded and passed out of the knowledge of Toll's former inhabitants, and of its destroyers-cum-liberators too.
Mosca Mye and Eponymous Clent had found that making the journey from Mandelion to Toll on the edge of winter had pushed them to the limits of their formidable wits; for Paragon, naturally, things were much simpler, if not less picaresque, but his odyssey need not concern us here. Suffice it to record that Paragon, thanks to the well-timed application of some of the radical sentiments he had heard Mosca espouse, entered Mandelion only a few days before the winter solstice.
Now Mandelion was altogether a different beast than Toll, and still more so than the small, grubby towns whose edges Paragon had flitted through on his peregrinations. Mandelion was the richest and, some said, the grandest city in the Fractured Realms, and in those days not long after the city had taken its destiny into its own radical hands its luxury was all the more striking for the contrast it presented to its increasingly shabby neighbours who had cut off commerce with it, and thereby harmed only themselves. In the first flush of revolution egalitarianism was on the lips of every one in the city who remained, and fraternity everyone's watchword; so it was that the guards bade Paragon a merry solstice, and were happy to direct him to a district in which he could find an inn for a reasonable amount of coin, when he asked.
Here was the first noteworthy hiccough in Paragon's plans, for he had no money to speak of.
Still, as could only be hoped for a boy who had spent the entirety of his life locked up in a small tower room with no one but books for company, Paragon was possessed of an essentially optimistic soul, and the thought of his lack of money was not enough to depress him for long. Instead he resolved to see the sights of Mandelion with his own eyes, and let the future take care of itself.
Paragon's luck held, and before the day was out he had been given cups of hot cider, of mulled wine, a bag of roasted chestnuts and a slice of plum pudding, all on the strength of his unassuming charm and protestations (all true) that he had never eaten or drunk anything so fine in his life. As the sun began to sink to the horizon he found himself on the riverbank, marvelling at the gaily-covered coffeehouses strung with pennants and winter bunting and shining with lanterns as twilight fell over the river.
In the course of his wanderings that day Paragon had pieced together not only the bones of the story of the city's recent history, but enough as well to put together a patchwork to cover them. The radical faction, led by one Captain Blythe, reputed to be either a gallant hero or a quick-witted politician, governed the city in uneasy alliance with a consortium of the leading Guilds. He had heard, too, how the city's floating coffeehouses had been the centre of the duel that had left the mad Duke dead, and how his sister Lady Tamarind had fled the city in the confusion of the ensuing insurrection. With the keen eye of a long-time captive, Paragon had noted too how no flags in Mandelion flew the emblem of the Twin Queens, despite the Twin Spires and many other Twin things that the Duke had built throughout the city.
Even the Queens' Heads coffeehouse, in a desperate attempt to stay in business, had repainted portions of the portraits on its kites so as to suggest that the Twin Queens had met a fate identical to their grandfather's. It did not seem to be having much positive effect, but then, many known royalists and partisans of the Avourlace family had departed Mandelion with downright indecent, but laudably savvy, haste. Even now patrons of the more radical coffeehouses, their clientele having increased remarkably, were wagering on whether and how Lady Tamarind, now Duchess Tamarind, would seek to re-enter her family's city.
Paragon stood at the waterfront and stared at the coffeehouses long enough that he began to really feel the cold for the first time, which was unfortunate given that he was not really dressed for the weather. The sun had nearly gone down by the time he turned away, purposing to seek some stroke of good fortune within the city, and out of the wind.
It seemed to be a stroke of ill fortune that he walked right into a booted man wearing a battered cloak of hessian over a greatcoat, a round-brimmed hat pulled low over his eyes. "Watch where you're going there, lad," the man said, with a sort of absent courtesy, reaching out to catch Paragon by the shoulders before Paragon had really realized that he was about to fall.
"I'm sorry, sir," he stammered when he'd gotten his feet under him again. "Only I don't know where I'm going, so you'll understand it's hard for me to precisely watch it, wouldn't you agree?"
"Don't know where you're going?" the man repeated, giving Paragon a measuring look. Paragon was used to being taken lightly; the man's scrutiny weighed on him. "And why should that be?"
Paragon had, in a fit of prudence, resolved not to unfold the entirety of his tale to just anyone, and so he only gave the man and his companions a highly edited précis of his previous exploits. But even the most expurgated version of his story was colourful to the extreme, and at the end of it the man laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. Paragon nearly staggered; although his muscles had strengthened since his departure from Toll, he was still not very used to physical exertion, and was quite reedy for his size.
"Well, Paragon Collymoddle, it sounds to me like you've come to the right place. If you'd care to join me, and my friends"--he indicated his cohort of bravos with a broad gesture, and the men each gave Paragon a cordial nod--"we were just about to take our ease at the finest coffeehouse in Mandelion. If you'd care to join us, I'd wager that something can be found there to improve your situation."
Paragon had been out in the world long enough to see that the man had gone a bit starry-eyed at the mention of the coffeehouse in question, but at any rate, a coffeehouse could reasonably be expected to be, as well as a hotbed of sedition, rumour, and general good-feeling, warm. He readily acquiesced, and they made their way a few blocks down the embankment to a coffeehouse topped by what seemed, to Paragon's untutored eyes, a forest of robed trees, with a great white kite blazoned with a laurel branch fluttering above them. It was only when the group ducked in through the door, a brown-streaked coffeemaiden popping up out of nowhere to close it behind them, that Paragon realised that the squares of canvas were sails.
The coffeemaiden took everyone's hats and cloaks with a merry air, telling them that their "usual table" was waiting for them. "Captain Blythe," she added over her shoulder, "Miss Kitely is--"
"Here, Dulcet," said the lady in question. A cool, collected-looking young woman entered the entryway and took the man's hand. "Clam, you're late."
"Held up on the way, my dear," the man said gently, pressing her knuckles to his lips even as she looked into his eyes, and smiled back. "We ran into this fellow on the way."
Paragon realised that this was his cue to step forward and introduce himself. He did so, stumbling only slightly when he recalled that he still did not know the name of the man whose path he had crossed so forcefully.
"Clam!" said Miss Kitely, looking shocked. "I'm sorry, Paragon, this is Captain Clam Blythe, my fiancé."
"Oh," Paragon said faintly. "I thought you'd be…"
Blythe laughed. It was a kind laugh, though also a competent one; it is easier to be kind when one is a highwayman who knows how to clean, reload, and fire a pistol in under twenty seconds, and who is also the Hero of an entire city. "Taller? Handsomer?" he suggested, smiling.
"You're quite tall and handsome enough," Miss Kitely said tartly, but she smiled at Blythe when he glanced back at her, and smiled again when he leaned in and stole a kiss.
"It's best if my movements go unremarked," Blythe explained to Paragon, keeping his grip on Miss Kitely's hands. "And that people don't have too sharp an idea of my face."
"It's not that we don't trust the Guilds," Miss Kitely murmured.
"But better safe than sorry," Blythe agreed.
"I suppose you'll be wanting accommodations for this fellow, then," Miss Kitely said to Blythe, eyeing Paragon sceptically.
"I can read and write," Paragon said quickly. "And…er…"
Miss Kitely regarded him with even greater scepticism, if that were possible. "You may find that literacy and letters are more curse than gift here in Mandelion, young Paragon," she said. "But come inside and have a dish of chocolate. It's solsticetide, and we radicals have a reputation to uphold. Welcome to the Laurel Bower."
No doubt, dear reader, you are yourself a seasoned connoisseur of stories, and I do not flatter you when I imply, in a highly complimentary way, that you have already half-intuited where our yarn ravels next. After that remarkably fortuitous encounter, Paragon worked as a coffee boy on the Laurel Bower for the better part of a year, not anxious to attach himself so soon to the Stationers' Guild, and philosophically opposed to the idea of Stationer schools.
Paragon was by nature a friendly soul, and he made friends with the zeal of those who have been nearly friendless their entire lives; we should not be surprised, dear reader, that eventually he unfolded his tale to his employer, and that Miss Kitely and her fiancé were amazed and gratified to hear further of Mosca Mye's madcap adventures, though when informed that Saracen and Clent were still her boon companions, both of them flinched. The Laurel Bower closed for the first time in its history to celebrate their wedding that summer, and Paragon and the coffee-maids served coffee and chocolate to all the guests with aplomb.
It was through the coffeehouse that Paragon made the acquaintance of Mr. Hopewood Pertellis, a remarkably young and remarkably idealistic young radical who was the schoolmaster and proprietor of the city's fabled Floating School. Paragon, at first invited to join the School as a pupil, soon began to assist Mr. Pertellis in instruction. None of the pupils were more thrilled at the radical texts through which Mr. Pertellis taught his students their letters, numbers, and penmanship than he, and he knew he had found a true friend when he divulged to Mr. Pertellis the game he had invented with the Day and Night Beloved. Mr. Pertellis proved an enthusiastic player, and, having safely changed the Beloved icons into the much less inflammatory figures of a royal court, taught it to the schoolchildren in their recess periods. When the game of "chess" was spotted being played at the Queens' Heads, Paragon felt an unmistakable glow of pride.
Here we may safely leave Paragon for an interval of a good few years, with the assurances that his luck was nowhere yet near running out. What happened next, you may well ask, dear reader, but unfortunately, the Stationers' Guild has not yet given my manuscript its seal of approval. When it is certifed for publication, you will be the first to know!