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The Foldings: Ten Years Earlier

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Jasper was in the middle of negotiating over spices when he first saw the man. He was oddly ageless, his curly hair unruly in the front but short in the back, and somehow Jasper thought he was unused to it not being combed and controlled. He was dressed expensively, but strangely carelessly as well. His belt hung loose, his shirt neck open. His eyes wandered the goods but ignored most of the people, unless they came close to him. Then the eyes would narrow slightly, and the people would move on and away. He projected a floating island of emptiness. Occasionally he would touch something, but he never bought.

“That’s the heir,” the stall owner said, drawing Jasper’s attention back.

“Oh? Ah. That explains it.” Jasper watched a moment longer, smiling faintly. “Not very friendly then, is he?”

“Depends. The old Vedouci, he’s very good with people. The young sir there, this is him being friendly. Actually comes out in the market once in a while nowadays. Think he’s a bit shy.”

“Is he?” Jasper said, reaching into his coin bag, extending a chunky stack of currency to the man in exchange for a bundle of spices. 

The man took it, blinked at the coins, and a brief frown flickered into a grin. He held two of the coins back out to Jasper. “Here. You’re terrible at haggling.”

Jasper waved the coins off, tucking the spices into his shoulder bag. “It’s fine. Your boy added a few herbs while you gave me some information. We’re even.”

The merchant touched the coins to his forehead in salute. “Welcome to our city, then. I hope the rest of your trading fares well.”

“It always does,” Jasper said, turning away with a smile.

He lost track of the heir, collecting the rest of the supplies on his list. The market was humming; a warm day in early autumn had brought out the crowds - the rich to chat, idle, and catch up at the start of the Lunule season, the rest delighting in good weather and the unusual food. He always liked this part of Lunule. The streets wound in complex patterns, the shops and houses pressing close together, bunching up and then spilling out in wide piazzas and stall-lined streets. Portal ships had docked in Amsbury just last night and everywhere there were crates of bizarre-smelling herbs, sticky foods and unrecognisable creatures. Jasper smiled, watching curious children, shrieking and daring each other to try offworld sweets.

 His bargaining left him enough for a piece of exotic fruit he didn’t recognise, and a tree branch taller than himself. It had some magical properties, to which he’d paid polite attention as they were listed, then pointed out some scratches, the density of the grain, and a strangeness of colour, and arranged a discount. Magic it may be, but to be used to make anything of real power its owner would want it handsome as well. All Jasper wanted was something to carve into a walking staff. It was a bit too large to carry easily, but he slung his bag across his shoulders and rearranged his purchases. The wood balanced well and made a comforting thud striking the ground. He’d need to take care to keep that native balance while slimming it down to fit his grip.

There was a gap in the milling market, and Jasper recognised the movements in the crowd - the parting with no visible cause, no disruption. It had to be the heir. Jasper grinned to himself, lowering his head so no one would think he was laughing at them. He began to work his way across the thoroughfare. He bit into the fruit, knowing the chewing would help hide his expression and walked towards the empty space, swinging his timber.

He stumbled as the balance faltered, as if the branch’s end were stuck to the ground. His foot caught the wood and he slammed onto the cobbled street. He scrabbled, tugging at the stick but something was still holding it fast. With a punch of adrenaline he saw the silhouette of the cart. It was nearly on top of him, the huge creature pushing from its rear oblivious, its cargo of mini-drays rearing up, straining their wings against tight bindings.  He ducked, trying to roll between the wheels as the cart passed over him. With a boom of splintering wood the cart slammed against empty air, crashing into an invisible barrier inches from Jasper’s face. Its sides split, huge planks ripping outwards in a shower of splinters, the leads holding the horses snapped as the force hurled them into the street, some bindings ripping open. Those that could took to the air in a huther of wings as the contents of the cart hurtled forward. Jasper froze, cowering in place as tiny horses poured over him, cascading off the invisible barrier. Hooves went clattering in all directions as the little animals made a bolt for freedom, scattering into the crowd. A ring of shouts and screams spread from there as they stamped passing feet, toppled tables, reared and bucked their way free from every grasp. Two more took to the air, knocking people over with hooves and wings. 

Stallholders began flinging up magical protection barriers, and then everyone was firing spells, the overlap of protections smashing together and shaking the ground. More stalls were toppled, sending wares flying into bystanders. 

Jasper tried to scramble to his feet, grabbing for his satchel and tree branch before they were lost in the scrum. Someone was already standing on the branch, stamping down hard when he tried to lift it.

“Oi, that’s mine,” Jasper protested, then looked up. Things were suddenly quieter. 

The man who was standing on his branch had his hands up, a fierce look of concentration on his face. At first, Jasper thought he might be having some kind of fit, the way his hands were shaking, but no - some kind of spell-casting. Jasper looked around, and everyone was just as startled as he was. Dotted throughout the crowd were the heads of children, lifted into the air, out of harm’s way. They were looking around, waving to each other and giggling as they rose above the heads of their parents and guardians, many of whom seemed to be frozen in place. Jasper saw a few raised fists and furious expressions on those who’d been frozen. Nothing was falling, things that had been thrown upwards were staying in place. It was just for an instant, and then everything slowly began to fall, the children drifted gently onto the street, tables straightened, the yelling died down.  The little horses who’d caused the confusion were returning to the cart meekly, even if it meant fluttering down from neighbouring rooftops. 

Everything was being pushed back where it belonged. And it was pushing - Jasper looked back at the man’s hands, the way he was weaving them through the air, carving invisible shapes. The movements became smaller until it was just his fingers moving, and then he’d relaxed.

There was a bit of applause, and the man blinked, coming back to himself. He glanced around and nodded once, briskly, and the applause died away, everyone going back to their  lives.

Jasper sat back on the street, watching the man, who was still scanning the crowd as if checking for something. “Excuse me, can you get off my branch, now?”

The man looked down at him with just a hint of an eye roll. “Just a moment, if you don’t mind.” He turned away from Jasper, his head tilting suddenly, then he stepped aside, freeing the branch and turning back to Jasper. “Thank you. I’m sorry, let me help you up.”

Jasper took the offered hand, swatting dust off himself as he straightened. “That was fun. What’s the next act like?”

The man laughed, looking surprised by the sound, himself. “I...that wasn’t an act.”

“I guessed not. Somewhere after the cart hit me.”

“It didn’t hit you, though.”

“Didn’t it? Something did.”

“It didn’t. I should know, I was stopping it.”

Jasper finished settling the strap of his satchel across his chest and shifted the tree branch to his other hand. “Oh yeah? You’re a shit driver, then.”

“I wasn’t driving it. I was only shielding you because my attempt to stop you from crossing was unsuccessful.”

“See, now I’m confused. You’re either trying to kill me, or trying to save me. Which is it?”

The man smiled. “Trying to save you, of course. You’re still alive, therefore I think it’s clear I was not trying to kill you.”

Jasper looked him up and down, remembering when he’d noticed him before. “Oh. Yeah, okay. So, well, thanks, Mr. Heir.”

The man blinked, caught off-guard, then tipped his head in a shrug. “My name is Micah, since you already know who I am. And when I say I tried to stop you, I mean I tried to hold you back using magic. It held your piece of wood, there, but not you.”

“Yeah, everyone has an off day, mate.” Jasper turned and moved on.

“After that I tried to impede you,” the man went on, following him, “but you walked straight through, so I had to stop the cart rather suddenly to keep it from barreling straight over you.”

“Bad luck.” Jasper kept going.

“Why did you even buy that branch?”

Jasper stopped and turned back. “No, just...what?”

“Surely it can be of no use to you.”

“It’s a bloody tree branch! I can make it into all kind of things, and just… what?”

“You’re null, aren’t you?”

Jasper glanced around. No one was watching them. “Oh, right, I see. You’re shielding us. Doing that stealth thing.”

“I can stop.”

“I…” Jasper waved a hand, then shrugged. “No, it’s fine.” No one had the slightest bit of interest in them, beyond gracefully avoiding their space.

“I just want to understand. My magic should not have...everything else was normal. Why didn’t it affect you?”

“Is that a crime?”

“Certainly not. It does make you impossible. There is nothing more fascinating than the impossible. Is there anything I could offer you that would entice you to let me study your properties?”

Jasper blinked, turning the words over in his mind, savouring them. “You asking to hire me, rent me, or buy me?”

“How available are you?”

“I’m really not,” Jasper said, turning around and moving off again. “I’m in the Earl of Ryebury’s household. Just got to town, got the whole house to settle in.”

“Whatever he pays you, I’ll double it.”

That stopped Jasper. He rounded on the haughty young man angrily. “For an afternoon? That’s the most I’d be able to spare.”  He pushed himself forward, the insult of being bought combined with fading adrenaline, inspiring an unusual aggression, “And let’s be clear - you’ll be paying me twice my annual salary with the Earl for at most two hours getting poked and prodded by you.”

The man was unfazed. “Does the Earl actually pay you anything? In currency?”

Jasper stared back at him, thrown by the presumption. “Yeah, actually, he does. Besides room and board, there’s respect, prestige, materials, protection, and 25,000 per year.” He gave a wicked little grin. “So you’ll be giving me 50,000, and whatever perks you can possibly add?”

The heir’s eyes narrowed, but he smiled. “Done.”

Jasper rocked back. “No, look, really. I don’t have time to spare. The Earl requires -”

“I believe I can arrange for you to receive some time. You’re preparing the house for his arrival - he hasn’t arrived in town yet, has he? I can send over some men to help in your stead. Enough to give the whole staff the evening off if need be.”

“Well... it’s a possibility,” Jasper said weakly, falling into step at the man’s side. “I’m in charge, so they can’t go instead of me, but with a couple more hands we could get it done in half the time.”

“You are very nearly his right hand,” the heir said, smiling, keeping their pace slow and casual when Jasper would have prepared to hurry back for what would now be a tiring and hectic afternoon instead of the rest he had been looking forward to.

“Look, I understand you’re the heir and all, but I really do have a lot to do. Can you just tell me what you want, and what you’re actually willing to offer to make it worth both my time and the Earl’s, so I can get on with things? You might have the freedom to wander the market looking for interesting people, but I just don’t.”

The man blinked, looking like he’d just been attacked by a duckling. “I’m sorry. Apologies for my rudeness.”

Jasper relented. “It’s okay. Just...tell me what you want.”

“I...what I said. I want to understand why you’re resistant to magic. And even if you don’t agree, I will arrange for you to have assistance setting up the house for the Earl’s arrival. You’re new to the city, and Lunule can be quite dangerous if you don’t know your way about.”

Jasper nodded. “Thanks. I might not need it, but it can’t hurt. And I don’t know what’s involved, or what you’ve got in mind, but I should be able to spare some time later this evening, if that’s not too late for you.”

“I’d be very grateful. I apologise for any offense I’ve given - it wasn’t intended.”

“Yeah, it’s okay. But I’ve got to get going, so… is tonight all right?”

“Yes, yes of course.” The man reached into a pocket inside his jacket and pulled out a black, rectangular card. “Here’s the address. Take a left of Broadsmans Crossing, and it’s on the east side of the Tullie, before you reach the posh end of town. Farek en Innen Ciel.”

“You’re saying the Vedouci isn’t in the posh end of town?”

“Trust me. Whenever you finish work.” The man took a step back. “Thank you again.”

Jasper nodded. “Bye,” he said, waving with the card. The man left. Jasper tapped the card against his lips, then carried on home, thinking.