The city of Nexus was said to have a thousand names. Only a few could be spoken in polite company and even fewer could be thought of as "nice," but it remained itself - a city populated by billions and built upon trade. Wealthy, crime-ridden and ancient beyond its current population's knowledge, it was an ideal place for anyone to make their fortune doing any of a number of trades.
Nexus also happened to be the best place in the world to keep someone from finding you, which for most of the populace, made Nexus's trade success almost a side benefit. Slashing Crane, Archaeologist and Twilight Caste of the Chosen of the Unconquered Sun, was one of those select individuals.
"Right, now, let's give it one more run-through, okay?" Crane said appraisingly as he and a small dark-haired boy walked through the crowded stalls of the Little Market, Crane carrying a basket of food while the boy hefted a large leather-bound book. "Whenever you're ready."
The boy took a deep breath, focusing. "Riverspeak, himmelsprak, haut regne, lumbre-lengua."
Crane reached into the basket, drawing out one of the items inside.
"Carrot." Crane stated.
"Gulrot, carotte, zanahoria." the boy said back.
"Pepper." Crane continued, pulling forth a green bell pepper.
"Pepper, poivre, pimienta."
Crane nodded, reaching for another. "Potato."
"Potet, pomme-de-terre, patata."
Crane snapped his fingers, pointing at the stall at the end of the street. "Shop."
"Forretning, magasin, tienda."
"Good." Crane said with a smile, passing by a stall occupied by a weapon polisher. "Knife."
"Kniv, lingue, cuchillo."
"Excellent job, Cray. You're really getting the hang of Skytongue, your pronunciation's improved a lot."
"Just promise we can stick to one language for a while?" the boy whined. "It's hard to keep everything straight in my head when I need to think of it all four times."
"Relax." Crane said with a smirk. "We'll be working on the older books once we get back to the flat, all right?"
"Good. I like the old books."
"I'm glad to hear that." Crane replied, nodding. "Keep at your language studies and you'll be the most sought-after translator around here."
"But what's that got to do with the old books?" Cray questioned.
"Keep at studying them, and you'll be able to do anything."
It had been a year since Crane had returned from Bhalaam'shir, and his life had seemed to take a more manageable pace. Working as equal parts tutor and appraiser for the artifacts recovered by the city's continual flow of Scavenger Lords, Crane had also begun teaching the more promising of the children of Nexus varied scholarly pursuits, sometimes with the aid of the city's dubiously termed "university." He'd found that subjects that could garner the children good jobs were among his biggest draws - and where he could sneak in stories of some of the true history of Creation, he would manage it in time. He had about fifteen students he gave individual lessons to, and Cray had been his most promising one.
The two of them shouldered their way through a hanging curtain of beads before one of the actual enclosed shops, Crane himself smiling at the large shelves of books and trinkets. The raspy-voiced old shopkeeper turned with a crook-toothed smile at the pair of them.
"Atavarpa Sikh, how I've hoped you would grace my door with your presence again." the keeper said as warmly as he could manage, setting down his pipe and walking over to the pair with a welcoming gesture.
"Glad to see you again too, Impala." Crane said with a smile. "Still, I can't think you'd be waiting for me for no reason. What's the occasion?"
The old southerner held up a finger, heading back behind his counter and pulling out an ostentatious-looking old tome, thick and marked with first age script. "I aquired this through a few contacts of mine. There's many a man who looks for books of the ancient past, mister Sikh, but your friend Impala, he knows when a find deserves your attention."
Crane nodded. "Mind if I...?"
The shopkeeper set the book on the counter and gestured grandly. "I would be most pleased."
Crane walked up to the book, setting the basket of food on the counter next to it and telling Cray to keep watch on it. Skimming a few pages, the archaeologist scoffed.
"It's a fake."
Impala looked confused. "You are certain?"
Cray poked his head up from behind the basket. "...Yeah. Look at the characters here, and the way they're arranged. It's just the words in Riverspeak, written in Old Realm characters. Actual Old Realm is spoken completely different, not to mention the characters are arranged by meaning instead of phonetically."
The shopkeeper looked to Crane, who nodded with an expression of sad truth.
"Hmf! Charlatans and cheats!" Impala huffed, getting out a few silver dinari and passing them to Crane. "Have to check my contacts more, I see. Thank you again, mister Sikh. You save an old man much coin this way."
"Thank Cray, not me." Crane said with a grin, clapping the boy on the shoulder. "This kid'll translate anything, written or spoken."
Impala nodded, and flipped a dinar to Cray as well with another crook-toothed smile. "Next time, I think I talk to you first, boy."
The dinar disappeared into Cray's pocket before Impala was finished speaking. "You get me the coin, I'll do the job." the boy smirked as he and Crane gathered their things and left.
Crane had been living under the name Atavarpa Sikh since he had returned from Bhalaam'shir, working out of a new home in Sentinel Hill district ever since Byblos had more or less destroyed his old residence while making a rather spectacular exit prior to Crane's return. Since then, Crane had been spending considerable time and effort trying to locate both the old book itself, and the secrets behind the "Sikharam" character that seemed to be at the heart of what no one wanted him to know.
The two of them boarded one of the pulley cars for Sentinel Hill, the boy's nose buried in his book while Crane sighed, regarding the city as they passed each street. Crane had made little headway in finding out anything more about this "Sikharam," or "Last Stars," or even anything about Bhalaam herself. In addition, he had been getting ever-fewer leads, especially since the Scavenger Lords had started realizing it was Crane's fault they couldn't peddle their false wares around shops he'd frequented. On the upside, he hadn't been in trouble he couldn't handle for near the full year.
Crane and Cray arrived at Crane's flat in Sentinel Hill just as the sun reached its zenith. It had never been a big place, but rooms still existed to cook, sleep, speak, and study for Crane, and his students had always found Crane's study eminently helpful.
"Right." Crane said with a relieved sigh as he closed the door behind them both. "I'm going to start fixing lunch. Cray, you've got until I finish to read up on the old books, then we'll recap on your Skytongue after reviewing what you read. Sound like a plan?"
The dark-haired youth nodded with enthusiasm and rushed for the back study.
Crane smiled. Cray was a good kid, and for all he hadn't been able to accomplish as of late, it wasn't so bad for him here in Nexus. With so many people around, he had entertained the illusion that he might never be truly found out, even by the people who seemed so dedicated in trying to kill him. It had gotten quiet over the course of a year, in truth, and with the kind of life Crane had previously gotten used to, it wasn't so bad.
The water was boiling quick, and with a few chops and the groceries he'd gotten, the stew was on its way to completion. Simple stuff and hearty, the kind Crane didn't get to enjoy as much in a place even this far south. It was the kind of thing his father would've made in times-gone-by, much as those memories had been abused...Crane took a breath and closed his eyes in a moment of mourning, reflecting as he stirred the cookpot.
Problems did tend to follow him, and to be brutally honest, there were times he actually missed worrying about the sword at his throat or the traps down the hall instead of next month's rent. This was a good life though, relaxing to him, and one where he could really work towards his real goal. People had said he should've been a teacher, and for his part, Crane enjoyed it.
The knock at the door broke Crane out of his reverie, and he stirred up the cookpot one more time, taking out the ladle and tapping it off before leaving the kitchen. "On my way!" he shouted as the knocking came again, slightly more insistant.
"Sorry, caught me in the middle of making lunch." Crane said as he started to open the door. "How can I..."
The demure purple-haired young woman gave a smile as she met Crane's gaze, her green eyes flashing with intelligence and only the slightest veiled hint of satisfaction.
"Hello, Crane." Arathea said with a cultured, smug grin. "I have missed you so."