On Tuesday morning, just before dawn, Cricket Street vanished.
Telna stared at the grey, pearlescent wall in front of her and put down her basket of breakfast rolls. She stretched out a hand and touched the barrier. It was real, smooth, and cold. And it shouldn’t be here. She glanced around and, yes, this was the arched entrance to Cricket Street. Her feet had taken her here by habit, and they hadn’t led her wrong. This new barrier cleaved between the brick houses flanking Cricket Street like a knife through a tomato, blocking the road.
Around her, the other early risers of Lumeria murmured and exclaimed over the new wall, feeling it with their hands and in the case of one frustrated centaur, punching it. The wall remained inert, looming overhead with no end in sight. A winged horse whinnied its surprise and anger from above, unable to fly toward its favorite meadow. Frazzled neighbors began to trickle out from their front doors in sleeping robes and pajamas, complaining that the new wall was blocking their windows and doors to the world beyond.
Telna squinted at the wall again, hoping to see through its opaque finish to Lilac Market, filled with spices, food and hungry friends on the other side. She strained her ears, in case the sounds of chirping crickets in their wicker cages could be heard with a lone erhu. On warmer mornings, Cricket Street would be filled with the high-pitched, warbling chorus of its namesake. Other than the occasional cries of outrage and confusion from the crowd, she heard nothing.
“Who walled off Cricket Street?” Telna looked down to see her neighbor Henna standing next to her and staring up at the wall. Bundled up in a giant shawl against the morning cold, the elderly gnome peered through her large spectacles, tapped her cane and let out a disdainful sniff. “Telna, my darling orc, what’s going on?”
“I’m not sure.” Telna prodded a loose cobblestone. The pearly barrier seemed to have cut it in half. “I just got here a few minutes ago. Henna, is there no other way into Sea City?”
Henna pursed her wrinkled lips. “I’m afraid that Cricket Street’s the only way, love. The other roads lead to other cities, other worlds without end. Have you—”
“The ways are shut!” A dark-haired young elf in white robes strode forward, his hands waving erratically. His shrill, gleeful voice pierced the pre-dawn light. “No more fools! No more unwise, unenlightened beggars flooding our streets, leeching away our gifts!”
“Go home, Nevyn,” Henna snapped and flapped a part of her shawl at the elf. “Always causing trouble, arrogant Meridians!” Behind the gnome’s diminutive form, Telna shifted uncomfortably in her plain, faded blue dress.
“You’ll thank us, old woman. All of Lumeria will thank Draven! We will all live better lives without ingrates begging for our hard-won magic!” He looked up at Telna and pointed a slim finger at her. “Only the worthy will inherit this city’s bounty. Will you be one of them, simple baker?”
Henna picked up her cane and advanced on the elf, shaking it in her fist. “Go on, get out of here, you skinny pest!” Taking the hint, he scampered off.
The old gnome spat on the ground. “Bright as a burnt match, that one. Come now, don’t look so glum. Some new mage is probably messing around again. I’m sure someone will undo it before too long.”
Telna had been staring at the barrier again, realizing what this meant for her bakery. No Cricket Street meant no Lilac Market. No Lilac Market meant no spices, no flour, no exotic fruits, no special meats or cheeses or equipment. And no customers to buy her wares. A pit in her stomach opened up, and Telna struggled to return Henna’s smile.
“I’m sure they will put it to rights soon, Henna.” Telna opened her basket and offered her a warm spiced roll with dried fruit. “Now, go home. Here’s some breakfast. I’m going to Viridian Alley to see if I can unload the rest of these.” She balanced the basket on her head and waved goodbye as Henna cheerfully bit into her roll.
Walking away, Telna could hear the growing cries and shouts of the crowd as more people woke up and gathered to gawk at the wall. Viridian Alley wasn’t as vibrant or open-minded about flavors as Cricket Street, but hopefully she could at least make some money for her efforts. Lumeria’s clockwork sun ticked and began to rise, adding a pink glow to the scene below. Alone, Telna and her basket walked past more and more confused Lumerians, a single dot flowing against the stream.
* * *
Hours later, Telna returned with her half-empty basket to the Hearth. Its wooden chairs and tables were surprisingly unoccupied as she walked in. Sniffing the warm air, the delicious smells of baked goods flooded her senses. She put down her burden and surveyed her shop.
“Grenelle! I’m back!” she called into the kitchen. Freshly baked loaves, cookies and pastries had already been set out for the day. Telna was relieved to see that the usual quantities were gone. At least the morning crowd still came in for bread and breakfast, she thought, but maybe the lunch folks are still staring at the wall. Shaking her head, she wiped the sweat from her face.
“Telna! You’re late!” Her human apprentice, Grenelle, emerged from a pair of swinging wooden doors separating the kitchen from the shop. In her strong, freckled arms, she held a fresh tray of sandwiches. A stray auburn curl peeked out from her pink headscarf as she set the tray down and began placing the sandwiches on the table for sale. “You always sell the entire basket before dawn, and it’s an hour to lunchtime! Wait – are there STILL rolls in the basket?” Grenelle gaped at the remaining buns.
“Yes, Grenelle. There are still breakfast rolls.” Telna sighed and stood up, hefting the basket again. “What there isn’t anymore is Cricket Street.”
“What?” The girl nearly sat down in shock, but caught herself before she plopped on the floor. “Gone? How? Does this have to do with the wall people were talking about earlier?” Grenelle blinked and then began to undo her apron. “I have to take a look at this.”
Telna put down the basket, walked around the counter and put a large, comforting hand on Grenelle’s shoulder. “Calm down. Yes, this has to do with the wall. It’s cut off Cricket Street and the surrounding neighborhoods. Word is that it’s encircled the entire city, from Cricket Street all the way north to Redwood Heights. I’m not sure how far west it goes, but the regulars on Viridian Alley say it’s cut off Hostler’s Point as well.”
Grenelle bit her lip, her hand gripping the countertop for support. “But..that’s the most eastern point of Lumeria. What about Ronnata or Cerlevel or—”
“Yes. As far as we know, the city proper is safe and whole. But as for our connections to other worlds like Ronnata…we’re alone now.” Telna turned Grenelle toward her and looked down into her eyes. “Grenelle, this is important. I need you to help me inventory every ingredient we have. We need to know how much we have left, so that we can start figuring out what to do when –”
“When supplies start running out,” Grenelle gasped.
“Yes.” Telna fought to keep the panic out of her voice as she gave her instructions. “We don’t know how long this wall might be up. We need to know how long we can keep the Hearth running.”
Grenelle glanced up at Telna and gave her a fierce hug. “I’ll get on it right away. I’ve already finished the cake orders and prepped for tomorrow.”
“That’s my girl.” Telna watched Grenelle bustle toward the kitchen. Hopefully this will all end soon, and this will be nothing but a quick exercise in inventory management. But her instincts – honed from old battles on Taravel’s plains and her less fortunate time on Lumeria’s streets – screamed otherwise. Telna donned her headscarf and took out the rolls left in her basket, counting them to make batches of bread pudding.
The Hearth’s display counters were empty of delicacies, but its tables were full of patrons. Fueled on hard biscotti and lashings of hot coffee, displaced off-worlders and Lumerians alike took to gathering there. The bakery now played host to lively discussions about what to do now that Lumeria was alone, and from behind the counter, Telna could see the patches that marked which patrons belonged to new factions.
“The Aviary Commission is wasting its time.” An elf thumped his hand on a wooden table for emphasis. He wore a green leaf patch on his sleeve. “Flying around, trying to find answers in moldering, dusty libraries. We need to solve problems on the ground!”
“Your Garden Renewal Association doesn’t need our research to plow fields, Larchen,” a human woman replied. A blue wing patch fastened to her jacket signified her allegiance to the Aviary Commission.
Larchen flushed and glared at the woman. “If you hadn’t noticed, Berene, we’re running out of food. If we can’t figure out how to grow anything under the clockwork sun, we’ll all starve.”
“What do you think I’ve been doing the past two months? None of our griffins or eagles have been able to get over the wall. We’ve been poring over thousands of pages—”
“I don’t need your excuses!” Larchen stood up. Berene also stood, her mug of coffee spilling. “How dare you!” she cried and lunged at the elf. Both fell to the ground, grappling with each other as other patrons scurried out of the way.
Seated in a corner, Henna stuck out her cane and tripped another patron attempting to join the fight. “Excuse me,” she said.
Telna bent down and picked up the fighters easily, hoisting them like kittens. Berene sported a black eye, while green blood trickled from Larchen’s nose. “You know the rules,” Telna said. “Apologize. And don’t fight in here again.”
Both human and elf began to protest, but were silenced by Telna’s glare. Thoroughly chastised, the fighters hung limply from her hands.
Telna lowered the two to the ground, and then picked up an overturned table. “No fighting here.” she growled. “The Hearth is a place of peace. Do it again, and I will throw you out. And you know how far I can throw.”
Hearing grunts of assent around the room, Telna took a deep breath to rid herself of the adrenaline in her veins. She turned back to walk toward the counter when she overhead a hushed conversation.
“—he bought two cups of star anise? And peppercorns, pink peppercorns?”
“Astor’s just an old historian. How did he come across those spices?”
“Well, he’s always been odd. Maybe he needs them for alchemy? Who knows the ways of historians?”
Looking behind her discreetly, Telna noticed the voices came from two customers with Golden Accord pins, glinting on their lapels. Walking back behind the counter, she tapped Grenelle on the shoulder and told her: “I’m going to need the back for a few hours. Can you handle things?”
Her friend smiled. “I’ve got this.”
Telna walked into the kitchen, where she washed her hands again and began pulling out dry ingredients from a shelf. The smell of cardamom and vanilla wafted toward her nose and she inhaled gratefully, filling her lungs with the comforting scent. It would take almost half of her remaining spices, but hopefully a decadent offering during these hard times would help sweeten her request.
After crushing almonds, measuring tablespoons of precious rosewater and zesting her last fresh lemon, Telna glazed her cake and arranged a pattern of dried rose petals and pistachios on top. She stepped back and smiled at her masterpiece.
“I haven’t seen you look like that in months,” Grenelle said from the doorway, surprising Telna. “You’re radiant! I’d swear you were almost glowing.”
The orc waved off the compliment. “It’s nothing. It’s been a while since I’ve done a fancy bake.”
“Those are the ones you love the most!”
Telna placed the cake and some biscotti in a sturdy wicker basket and fastened the lid securely. “We’ve closed for the day, right? I’m off to see someone, but don’t wait up for me. Send my regards to your family.”
“Will do. And the loaves are ready to go for baking at wolf hour early tomorrow.”
“Excellent.” Telna took off her apron and picked up her basket. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then. Take care and be safe.”
Telna left the Hearth and felt the solid, flat cobblestones of Eirden Alley beneath her feet. She turned right, toward the libraries of Scribe’s Ward. Above her, the ruddy golden light of the clockwork sun inched closer to the horizon. In the distance, the silver moon with its whirring gears began to peek over Lumeria’s buildings.
She trod over the flat, square stones of Fosters Way – home to scholars, inventors, and eccentrics. Most of the bookstores and libraries were still open, as winged mounts waited nearby for their owners to emerge from their research. Telna passed students carrying small towers of books, most with the wing patches of the Aviary Commission.
She arrived at Astor’s abode inside the Planar Library – a white, domed building painted with fanciful golden leaves. Blue velvet curtains obscured the windows, and an elegant sign on the door proclaimed that the library was closed. Steeling her nerves, Telna knocked on the door anyway. After a few moments of silence, she knocked again.
The door swung open just as Telna raised her hand to knock a third time. A bearded human with salt-and-pepper hair blinked out at her with dark, intelligent eyes. His embroidered robes were mussed.
He sniffed. “That’s cardamom, isn’t it? And rosewater? And almonds?”
“It’s a Ronnatan Love cake,” Telna replied. “Um, I’m Telna Yroska. I’d like to talk to Astor, please.”
The man smiled at her, the skin around his eyes wrinkling. “My dear, I am Astor. Come in. I think I have some tea that would go nicely with that.”
* * *
Telna gazed around her, trying not to let her mouth hang open. She had never seen so many books in her life, of different shapes and sizes and colors. A huge atlas bound in blue leather rested against a bookcase, while a pile of tiny reference guides were stacked underneath. Above her, lanterns with colored glass illuminated the alcove where she and Astor sat on the ground on cushions. Between them on a low table, her cake sat on a beautiful glass platter, slices already cut for them to taste.
“Come now, you must have books on Taravel,” Astor laughed. He sipped his tea and nibbled his slice of cake. “This is exquisite. Telna, right?”
Telna fidgeted with her napkin and stared at her cake. “Yes, um. How did you know I’m from Taravel?”
“Orcs with your delicate green hue and auburn hair often originate from there. I took notes during my visit a decade ago.” Astor put his empty plate down and sighed happily. “Let me guess what you want. Spices? Exotic ingredients? Other items hard to come by now that Lumeria is cut off?”
Telna looked at him and nodded. “You can see what I can do with them, and I would be happy to bring you more treats. I know other bakers can make something similar, but—”
“My dear, no other baker in Lumeria nor any other world can make this,” Astor said. “You surely know that.”
Telna shifted in her seat and looked away, uncomfortable with the praise.
Astor smiled. “I also know that you’ve been doing good work in the city. Taking in families, refusing to dilute your flour with sawdust or chalk. Other bakeries do, but you won’t.”
Fury pounded up from Telna’s chest and left her face burning. “I don’t want to kill anyone. That’s what those bakeries are doing. Tainted flour for profit? It’s disgusting.”
“Indeed.” Astor studied Telna, then cut himself another slice of cake and put his plate down. “Telna, you’re a good person. A sincerely good person. And that’s why I think you deserve something more valuable than spices.”
Her forehead wrinkled. “Sir?”
“I’m going to give you the truth.” Astor stood up and walked over to another bookshelf, trailing a faint scent of old parchment and jasmine. He came back with a large cream-colored book. On its spine, in gold embossed lettering, its title read “The Greate Historie Of The Architects, by Astor Ibn Veresse.”
“The Architects Myth?” Telna asked. Astor sat down and opened the large book on the table. On its pages, black script flowed gracefully around brightly colored pictures.
“No, Telna. The history of Lumeria is not a myth. The Architects are real.”
“Shouldn’t they be very old, or very dead?”
“They are very powerful, untouchable by old age or illness from Lumeria. When they founded the Infinite City, there were seven,” Astor said. “The six wisest left us to travel. They left us with the one who could not move on.”
“The leader of the Meridian League claims to be an Architect. But I thought that was another lie.”
“Draven is wrong about many things, but not this. He is an Architect. The others didn’t trust him either, so they hid the Golden Key to the City, the Lacuna. Without it, they knew he could do us no great harm. Ah, here it is.” Astor turned the book around and showed Telna an illustration both intricate and odd. It reminded Telna of a golden circle with a single twist, generously sprinkled with arcane runes.
She frowned. “That doesn’t look like a key.”
“Because it wasn’t designed to open a door, but to make doors itself,” Astor said. “It allowed the Architects to create Lumeria out of nothing and nestle it against cities in other planes. This is how they opened gates to Cloudtown through High Street, Weirgulch through the Barrows, Sea City through—”
“Cricket Street,” Telna said.
“Yes. The Architects wanted their Infinite City to become a place of diversity, where we can celebrate and learn from one another. In the Great Sprawl, they realized their dream. Satisfied with their work, they all left, except for one who remained resentful: Draven. He only had patience for the accomplished and exceptional few. And those, of course, who recognized his accomplishments above all.”
Telna raised a skeptical eyebrow, and Astor chuckled.
“You can’t blame the other Architects for wanting to leave him, can you? They must have believed him incapable of finding the Key to the City. And maybe he would have been, alone.” Astor took a sip of tea.
“That’s why he founded the Meridian League?” Telna asked.
“Indeed. And after a brief nine hundred years, they must have found it.” Astor delicately cut Telna another slice of cake and placed it on her empty plate.
“He used it to shut the gates?”
“About three months ago, yes.”
“But Draven can open them again? With the key?”
“The Architects as individuals can only use the key fractionally.”
“What does that mean?” Telna put her fork down, confused.
“Er, that is, my models predict Draven can only close portals by himself. To open them, you would need additional Architects.”
“Wait, so he cut us off. He trapped us.” Her eyes widened with shock.
“Insofar as you can be trapped within the Infinite City,” Astor said. “Yes.”
“But, how can we bring the Architects back if the wall won’t let them in? Do they even know we can’t get out?”
“That’s what I – and the rest of the Golden Accord – have been trying to do since the wall appeared.” Astor closed his book and looked at Telna. His expression was serious. “We’ve been spread throughout the city trying to get word to the Architects, procure the Lacuna, and stop the Meridians from gaining even more influence. You must have seen how he and his faction operate, spreading disdain and division among the people.”
Telna nodded. She had banned all Meridians from the Hearth after they started too many fights. She avoided them on the street when she could. “We don’t need their hate right now. We need to stick together. Look out for each other. No matter our training.”
“Exactly.” The old man looked at the orc. “We need help, Telna. If you assist us, I can connect you to what resources we have left to keep your bakery running and your community safe. I can’t guarantee an endless supply of security or spices, but it’s the best we can do.”
“What can I do?” Telna asked, resolve in her heart. She paused, then looked directly at Astor, blushing. “Um, I don’t like fighting. Unless I have to.”
The historian smiled gently at her. “Luckily, not every problem can be solved by a punch. I need you to shelter my contacts from time to time. Pass along information. We hopefully won’t need you on the front lines, though your cool head and strength would be valuable.” Astor pulled out a small box, opened it, and removed a small golden pin in the shape of a key. He held it out to Telna.
“Is that for me?”
“Yes. All of the Golden Accord have them. You don’t have to hide it, but I wouldn’t crow about it in the streets. Not that you’re the type, I judge.”
Telna took the pin and nodded. She smiled at Astor.
“What we know isn’t secret, Telna, but few believe it,” he told her. “I am glad you do.”
* * *
Telna left the Planar Library that evening with some leftovers and a small bag of spices in her basket. Smiling to herself, she raised a hand and felt the tiny lump in her headscarf where she had hidden the golden pin. The clockwork sun had set, and the silver geared moon had already risen in the dark blue sky.
As she set out for the Hearth, she heard voices whispering in a nearby alley. Telna peeked around the corner and saw a group of huddled Meridians in academic robes caught in a hushed argument. She recognized Nevyn and was surprised to see the confident elf slumped over in nervousness. He fidgeted with the cudgel in his hands as he protested: “Surely violence against the unworthy is unnecessary?”
A young human man stepped closer to Nevyn. “The unworthy cannot understand anything other than crude violence,” he hissed.
“It is sometimes necessary for those of a higher calling to take on the harsh burdens our new society demands,” an older female elf explained in soft tones. “Nevyn, you knew this when you joined our ranks.”
“But surely it is possible for those who are unworthy to better themselves?” Nevyn’s eyes darted left and right, and Telna could see that the hem of his robe was fraying. “If we give them the resources, perhaps we do not have to –”
The older elf shook her head and placed a hand on his shoulder. “You are too optimistic, Nevyn. You must go back and study the words of Architect Draven. His wisdom and intelligence will clear your mind and help you see that this is all for a better Lumeria.” Shamefaced, Nevyn handed over his cudgel and the group walked away, leaving him alone in the alley.
Telna paused, then walked over to Nevyn. He jerked away as soon as he recognized her.
“I don’t mean you any harm,” she whispered. “Are you alright? What did they mean by violence?”
Nevyn looked up at Telna, his dark eyes wide with fear. Then he took a deep breath and looked down at the cobblestones. “They mean to educate some of the stranded off-worlders tonight,” he murmured. “The ones who are trapped here with no place to go.”
“What?!” Telna cried, remembering to keep her voice down. “That’s not their fault!”
“I know,” Nevyn said, shaking his head. “I didn’t think it’d be like this. Telna, I can’t be seen talking to you. I have to go back. The rest of the Meridians will expect me at Draven’s mansion tonight.”
Telna scolded herself for being soft, then reached into her basket and took out a piece of biscotti. “You could use something sweet.” she said. “Thank you for letting me know.” The elf stared at her, then at the pastry, and cautiously took it. As Telna walked away, she could hear the sound of muffled munching.
On quiet feet, Telna followed the Meridians. Eventually, she heard the frightened voice of a child and she quickly made her way over to a narrow street. She saw a small family of fauns cowering in front of the Meridians, trapped between them and a dead end.
“We don’t mean any harm,” a faun cried in accented Lumerian. “We were stranded here on vacation. Please don’t hurt my family.” He tried to shield his three children. His partner stood in front of their family, his hooved feet spread apart in a fighting stance.
“Looks like we’ve got beggars to clear out,” one Meridian said. “The Architect doesn’t want the streets clogged with dead weight.”
“That’s right.” The elf swung her cudgel into the meat of her palm. “Your presence is a blight upon our city. Learn your place!”
Telna growled under her breath and approached the Meridians, but a stone whistled past her head and struck the elf’s hand, forcing her to drop the cudgel.
“You get away from them, you sniveling parasites!” a human woman screamed, her many braids bouncing as she ran toward the Meridians. In her hand, her sling was already whirling around with a second stone and she flung it at another Meridian. It hit the robed man squarely in the head, and he crumpled to the ground.
“That’s right, you get away from that family!” Another group advanced on the Meridians, comprised of humans, half-elves, gnomes, and a centaur. Many of them sported the white shield patches of the Golden Accord, while others wore from the green leaves of the Garden Renewal Association or the red flames of the Barton Street Thrashers. A muscular half-elf woman roared: “Crawl back to Draven’s mansion and tell him to lift the wall!”
One injured Meridian spat at the group, ignoring the bloodstains on his robe’s ornamental ropes. “The Architect’s plans are perfect, you fools! You will see in time.”
As the two groups began fighting, Telna snuck over to the family of fauns who were trying to melt into the brick wall behind them. “Come with me. I’ll take you somewhere safe.”
The family followed her like a train of ducklings as she scurried home under the soft light of the ticking moon.
For the first time in years, the Hearth was completely empty.
A week ago, Telna had finally closed its doors, fixed the wooden shutters over its windows and swept out the last embers from its cold ovens. Her supplies had run out. The dim kitchen had been cleaned and its large bowls and trays stored away. Telna had allowed Grenelle to bring home some of her favorite spatulas, pastry cutters, and whisks. As she hugged her weeping friend goodbye, Telna tried to ignore the deep sorrow in her own heart.
In her apartment right above the Hearth, Telna sat at her kitchen table. She was sketching out plans to turn the Hearth into a community hostel, and the problem of where to fit twenty-five beds was starting to give her a headache. A faun placed a hot mug of tea on the table. “You work too much,” he said in halting Lumerian. “Drink tea.”
“Thank you, Herold.” Telna obeyed, appreciating the tea’s strong, smoky flavor. The family had nowhere else to go, so she had let them stay in her extra bedroom. It was tight quarters in her apartment, but they all made do. Herold nodded in satisfaction and trotted away.
A sharp series of knocks rattled her apartment door, and Telna could hear a few bleats from her guests in alarm. “Don’t worry, I’ll get it.” She went downstairs to open the door.
A human Meridian stood there, her blonde hair braided up into an elegant bun. In her hands, she held an envelope. “Are you Telna, the owner and head baker of the Hearth?”
“Yes?” Telna replied.
“This is for you.” The Meridian held out the envelope. Telna could see her name written in elegant black script on the outside. As she unfolded the letter, the Meridian cleared her throat.
“You must understand that this is not a request. It is an honor to be chosen by Architect Draven for any task. Your talent clearly marks you as valuable to Lumeria.”
Scanning the letter, Telna frowned. “Draven wants me to bake for him?”
The Meridian sniffed. “Yes, that’s what the letter says. You do know how to read?”
Telna counted to five in her mind, letting the insult’s sting fade. Then she smiled at the Meridian. “I’ll have a proposed menu sent to Draven’s mansion by tomorrow. The party is in two weeks?”
“Indeed. You may invoke Draven’s name in the Saffron Market to procure any goods you may require. Do not worry about expense. Good day, baker.”
Closing the door, Telna walked up the stairs back up to her apartment, crushing the letter in her right hand. When she came back to the kitchen table, she found the family of fauns huddled around it expectantly.
“In about an hour, I’ll need a couple of you to deliver some messages to the Golden Accord,” Telna said. “Can any of you do that without getting followed or caught?”
“I can do it!” The smallest faun raised her hand.
“Alright.” She smiled at her houseguests. “It looks like we have a party to plan.”
* * *
Later that evening, Astor and a few Golden Accord members sat around Telna’s kitchen table, examining the crumpled letter by lamp light. The fauns had all retired for the night, being surprisingly early sleepers.
“‘An evening soirée for Lumeria’s Gifted,’” Astor read. “I received an invitation as well. More of a summons, if you ask me.”
“But it’s held in Draven’s own mansion.” A lizard woman leaned forward in excitement. “This could be the opportunity we need to get the Lacuna.”
“I’m not sure how, Wendolyn,” Grenelle replied. She sat at the table, her golden key pin glinting on her collar. “I’ve only been in this group for a month, but even I know Draven’s dangerous.”
“He’ll display the Lacuna as a trophy. To show he was the only one who could use it.” Astor blew on his tea and drank it. “Ah, thank goodness we still have tea in Lumeria.”
“The Garden Renewal Association is still working on coffee and wheat,” Wendolyn said. “But we’d be fools not to try to nab the Key. With my skills and Telna’s access, I’m certain we could make it work.”
“How did a thief like you become a member of the Golden Accord, anyway?” Grenelle asked.
“Look, I was just stopping by Lumeria to pick up some Vetivan lockpicks. It isn’t my fault I got stuck here.” Her tail lashed the ground in annoyance. “I can’t even leave Astor’s basement during the day in case some Meridian sees me.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re here.” Astor put down his empty mug. “You’re right. This opportunity is too good to pass up. Let’s figure out a plan.”
“As it turns out, I do have a friend who has been cleaning Draven’s mansion for the past few months,” Telna said and began sketching on a piece of paper.
“Do we have all of the cruditeés?” Telna yelled over her shoulder as she unpacked crates of food. The kitchen in Draven’s mansion was spacious, with gleaming copper pots and pans lining the walls above sparkling clean ovens, stoves and counters.
Grenelle bustled into the kitchen, holding a stack of covered trays. She put the trays down on a bench and tugged at her stiff collar. “These are the last of them,” she said. “I can’t believe they asked us to wear these ridiculous things. How can anyone breathe?”
Smiling, Telna took the trays and began to arrange the appetizers. “Come on, we need to preheat the ovens. Wendolyn should be here by now – have you seen her?”
A grinning half-elf woman with a long blonde braid appeared from behind a pantry door. Like Telna and Grenelle, she also wore the dress of the catering staff.
“Like the costume change?”
“How?” Grenelle gaped at the woman, and Telna walked over to the half-elf. Peering at her friend, she asked, “One of the Golden Accord’s illusion masks?”
“Oh yes.” Wendolyn curtsied, and smugly tapped the side of her face. The illusion mask remained invisible. “I did have to tie up my tail though. I’ll let it down later once the plan is in motion.”
The three of them hustled the next few hours, heating up the sumptuous appetizers, handing them to the servers and then working on the next course. Eventually, the time for Telna’s cake arrived. It was a decadent creation, featuring gum paste versions of the Golden Key on multiple white frosted tiers. The edible life size Lacunas glittered with gold leaf, and the three friends gently placed the cake on a trolley.
“Alright, let’s review the plan,” Wendolyn said. “We bring the cake into the room with the Lacuna to show it off before slicing. Then I push the button on this.” She held out a small silver disc with a black button. “To extinguish every lamp in the room. I’ll pick the lock, grab the Lacuna and replace it with this.” In her other hand lay another gum-paste Golden Key. “We put the real one on the cake, then wheel it back to the kitchen for slicing once the lights are back on.”
“How are you so certain we won’t get caught?” Grenelle asked.
“Draven suffers from a surplus of confidence,” Wendolyn said. “He thinks that no one is clever enough to even attempt to steal the key. I can crack that thing in seconds, magic or no.”
“Don’t be too overconfident yourself,” Telna said. “If this goes badly, we won’t have another chance.”
The thief blushed. “You’re right. Hopefully we won’t need Plan B. Let’s go.”
The three friends wheeled the monstrous cake down several servants’ passages, then knocked on the door to Draven’s opulent parlor room. It slid open, and a robed Meridian motioned them to bring the cake into a curtained antechamber. In the other room, Telna could hear laughter and clinking glasses.
“Wait for my signal,” the Meridian said. “The Great Architect Draven will be making his speech shortly.”
“My beloved and worthy guests,” a smooth male voice proclaimed.
The Meridian jumped and rushed over to the curtain, opening it slightly. Telna could just see the handsome, slim figure of Draven standing at a lectern in front of the crowd, his pale hand holding a glass of wine. His dark blue robes were tailored to perfection, and his black hair was combed back neatly. The Architect looked like a human in his mid-twenties at most, and smiled brilliantly as the room quieted.
“Thank you for coming this evening. I can only imagine how refreshing it must be for you all to finally be among company of this elite caliber. All of you are people of intelligence, talent, and wisdom. I have no doubt that together, we can bring Lumeria to a new era of pure enlightenment, unburdened by those unworthy of our native magic.”
Telna saw Grenelle roll her eyes.
“None of this would have been possible if I had not reclaimed what my venerable colleagues…” Draven spat out the last word. “…had hidden from me.” He gestured toward a rising granite plinth that emerged from the floor. On top of the pillar, a circle with a twist glittered underneath a glass dome. It was about the size of Telna’s hand, and she was relieved to see that their gum paste replicas were indeed accurate.
“And to celebrate the birth of a new Lumeria, I have asked the most talented baker in all of the city to make us something deserving of this new age,” Draven said.
The Meridian pulled back the curtains and motioned toward the lectern. The trio obediently pushed the cake out into the parlor, and the crowd burst into applause and cheers.
“Behold!” Draven flashed a grin at Telna as she wheeled the cake next to him and the Lacuna. Looking out at the crowd, she smiled nervously.
Then she heard a click, and the lights went out.
“What is this?” A purple ball of fire blinked into existence, and she could see Draven’s angry face. The flickering light in his palm made his pale features gaunt. He waved his hand, and more fire blossomed from the extinguished lamps around the room. Telna looked behind her to see Wendolyn—now a lizard woman again—frozen as she held the Lacuna in her left hand. The plinth held the gum paste copy under the bell jar, but she could tell Draven wasn’t fooled.
“THIEF!” He flung a wave of purple fire at Wendolyn.
She dodged the blast, and yelled: “PLAN B! GO TO PLAN B!”
As they scampered into the antechamber, Telna and Grenelle both grabbed gum paste Lacunas off the cake and ran after Wendolyn. The curtains behind them burst into flames, and Meridians chased them as they dashed into the servants’ passage and down another hallway.
“Here, take it.” Wendolyn handed Telna the Golden Key. She grasped the gum paste copy with her tail and winked. “See you at the safehouse.” She darted away, and Grenelle looked at Telna.
“Go,” Telna whispered. “Hopefully they’ll be fooled by the copies.”
Grenelle gave her a quick hug, then ran down the hall and disappeared inside another passage. Telna tucked the Lacuna securely in her apron pocket, then opened a door to a stairwell behind her and rushed down. As she opened the door at the bottom of the staircase, she could hear the shouts of her pursuers above.
Telna took quick turns and hid in dark alcoves as the Meridians and flames chased her. Neither of the Meridians nor Draven seemed to have studied the servants’ passages at all in the mansion. Probably thought it was beneath them. She opened a door that led into the back garden and rushed through. From there she could jump the fence, then make her way to the safehouse in Scribe’s Ward.
She looked behind her to see Nevyn standing in the doorway. The silver moonlight highlighted the young elf’s robes, now sporting a few faded stains in addition to the frayed hems. If he called for help, they would catch her. And here she was, unsure what to say, what to do. She stared at Nevyn imploringly.
“Meridian Nevyn, do you see them?” someone called. The elf looked over his shoulder, then back at the orc. He shook his head. Looking directly at Telna, he shouted, “No! She must have gone the other way!” He waved his arm, motioning her to leave. She nodded her thanks and ran into the night, heart pounding in relief. Behind her, she heard the door close.
A week later, Telna sat alone in the empty kitchen of Astor’s safehouse, turning the Golden Key over and over in her large green hands. After days of testing, Astor and the mages of the Golden Accord had finally conceded defeat. They could not use the Lacuna. Astor had reclaimed it, and hidden it with Telna in the safehouse.
“Missing the Hearth?” Astor walked downstairs into the kitchen and sat next to Telna. He patted her shoulder, then picked up the artifact. “I’m sorry Draven burned it down.”
She shrugged, resting a hand over Astor’s. “We knew this would happen. I should be flattered he did it personally. I’m just glad we got the fauns out, and most of my things.” Telna looked at her friend. “Astor, what are we going to do?”
Astor’s long, graceful fingers traced a knot in the wooden table as he held the artifact. “I don’t know, Telna. I wish I could tell you that your efforts were worth the risk. It’s a miracle all three of you managed to escape.” His brows furrowed, and he pinched the bridge of his nose. “We even managed to get Nevyn out into another safehouse. But the Golden Accord is out of ideas. This was our last real plan. If we can’t reach the Architects, we can’t free Lumeria. The Lacuna may as well be a paperweight.”
Both of them were silent for a while. Then Telna said, “So, what do I do now? The Hearth is gone. I have no supplies, no home.” She folded her hands in her lap, blinking back tears.
“We’ll find something for you.” Astor smiled warmly at Telna. “Like I said, you’re cool-headed and strong. The Golden Accord will need that, especially with all the displaced off-worlders. I saw your sketches for converting the Hearth into a hostel.” He stood up, placing the Lacuna back on the table. “But I suspect you will want to do something productive now. Maybe bake something?”
“Yes.” Telna heart ached. “But we have no ingredients.”
“Why don’t you check behind that?” Astor pointed at a cabinet tucked against the wall. He smiled at her enigmatically, and then left upstairs.
Telna wiped her eyes, put the Lacuna in her apron pocket and walked over to the cabinet. As she tugged on the knob, the entire fixture swung open, revealing a hidden cache of chocolate, spices, sugar, flour, and dried fruit. She grinned. “Astor, you sly fox.” Telna began to take out the bags and warm the oven.
She brought out mixing bowls, spoons and sieves, carefully measuring out ingredients and weighing them on a small scale. As she toasted cloves, cinnamon, pepper, and allspice in a pan over the stove, the apartment began to fill with a delicious medley of aromas. Telna buttered tins, sifted flour and readied trays, then carefully incorporated one ingredient after another, folding the smooth batter. She tasted it with a spoon, added more ground cinnamon, then filled each of the baking tins expertly. She left them in just the right spot in the oven, then turned her attention to making gingerbread biscuits.
Hours passed, and Telna assembled her last creation. It was a goodbye to her old life, her final farewell to the Hearth. The cake was simple and elegant, its glazed tiers filled with gingerbread Lumerians. On one side, a griffin carried a small scholar in blue away from the libraries of Scribe’s Ward. Another tier had the brilliant flowers of Cerlevel piped in colorful frosting, while the fish markets of Sea City bore tiny sardines and flounder in small gingerbread crates. Every level, every side of the cake was a poem to part of the city and its neighboring worlds as Telna saw it, filled with diversity and color.
Finally, she tucked the last gingerbread piece into place and stepped back.
“It’s beautiful,” a voice said behind her. Turning around, Telna saw Astor, Grenelle, Wendolyn, and Henna standing at the entrance of the kitchen, smiling or gaping in awe.
She blushed and went over to her sink to wash. “I lost track of time.”
“Seems like it,” Henna said and pointed her cane at Wendolyn. “Go make us some tea, you incorrigible thief. And you, go help Telna with the cake.” She gestured at Grenelle, then took Astor’s arm and sat at the kitchen table.
Everyone made conversation over tea and admired the cake’s fine details. “Is that my house?” Henna asked, pointing at a building. Her golden key pin was affixed to her shawl.
“Yes, it is.” Telna laughed. “It’s nice to see it after Draven burned it down, too.”
The gnome grumbled. “Collateral damage, feh! Telna, I’m dying to have a bite of this.”
“Knowing her, it tastes at least as good as it looks.” Wendolyn winked at Telna and offered her a knife. “Go ahead!”
Telna cut large slices for everyone, then finally took her seat again.
Astor took a bite of cake, and closed his eyes
in pleasure. “Telna, you have transported me to another plane.”
Grenelle also took a bite. “My gods, Telna. Where did you get chocolate? It blends with the spice and complements the ginger frosting so well.”
“Mmmf mrrfgood!” Wendolyn said through a mouthful of cake.
Telna beamed. She had taken a small bite, but the happiness in her friends’ faces made her feel more satisfied than any bake could. She felt the joy in her heart grow warm and spread throughout her body.
“Um, Telna.” Astor was staring at her, the piece of cake on the end of his fork forgotten. “You seem to be glowing.”
“What?” Telna looked down, and indeed, she was emanating a soft, golden light. As the scintillation traveled through her body, it touched the Golden Key in her pocket, setting off a brilliant white light. The two lights combined and spread, shimmering over her. “I—”
The lights flashed, blinding her as she felt herself unravel and float away.
* * *
The warmth in her body subsided gently, shrinking to a small point in her chest. She felt herself settle on solid ground.
Telna opened her eyes. She stood on familiar pointed cobblestones about three inches wide, and the smell of spices greeted her nose. Blinking in confusion, she finally realized what her feet and nose were trying to tell her.
This was Cricket Street on a warm, balmy morning. Around her, she could see merchants setting up their stalls and unpacking their wares. Ornamental cages holding singing crickets were tied to tree branches, their inhabitants chirping to greet the new day. An erhu player unfolded a stool underneath a canopy and took out her instrument.
Somehow, she had traveled here beyond the wall, back to a place she knew. Looking around, Telna didn’t see the giant pearly barrier and began to panic, her hands fumbling in her pockets. Her fingers curled around warm metal, and she pulled out the Golden Key.
Telna stood there and stared at the gold circle. It floated above her palm, turning gently, then settled into her hand. She remembered the feeling of happiness, the brightness of the Lacuna and then suddenly floating through an endless expanse. Alone, her mind racing, Telna focused on the artifact.
As she looked at the Key, she realized something. If she could walk between worlds, then perhaps she could find the Architects. She remembered the stories Astor told her, the illustrations he so painstakingly rendered.
She could bring the Architects the Lacuna. Then they could use it together to bring the barrier down, and Lumeria could be whole once more. Her journey would hardly be that simple, but if it could help her friends and her home, she would take it gladly.
She closed her hand around the artifact, smiled and made her way to Lilac Market. Trailing behind her, the sounds of chirping crickets and a single erhu sang in the morning breeze.