I departed the city of Issabella on the twenty-sixth day in the month of Coter. It had been nearly seven months since I left Charlesville. I had never been away from my home city that long. And the decision made at the hearing before the konseho of Kammbi brought my homesickness to the forefront.
“Maisa Merez has made her decision, and she will be the new owner of Silver Mine 12. This hearing is adjourned. Now, Diondray Azur, you will get the chance to prove whether you are the one to fulfill Oscar’s prophecy.”
Deputy Santiago’s words had reminded me of how I’d been used by Mr. Cortes. The businessman wanted the silver mine the Merez family had owned for nearly two hundred fifty years, and he’d thought that Maisa’s love for me would win out over her wanting to keep the silver mine as the last heir of the family.
I shouldn’t have been surprised by her decision. Maisa had made it clear to me during our time in the city of Alicia that getting ownership of Silver Mine 12 would finally bring the Merez family name to prominence and get them the recognition they rightly deserved as one of the founding families who had helped discover the region north of the Great Forest alongside Oscar Ortega.
However, her decision would keep Maisa in Alicia, and I would never get to see her again. I understood her decision, but I was not happy with its outcome.
“Do not fault yourself for what has happened,” Diakono Copperwith said.
I looked over at him and his wife, Annalisa, who were sitting across from me on the plane. I had been staring out through the window at the clouds, trying to manage my thoughts. Diakono Copperwith’s blond hair and mustache had become a regular sight in my life. We did not have many people who looked like him back home in Charlesville—I’d heard there were a few from Terrance, but I had never seen them. Diakono Copperwith was my first direct encounter of someone who looked the way he did.
“I have since we left Issabella,” I replied.
Mrs. Copperwith got up from her seat and sat down next to me. I had gotten used to her pious nature and motherly presence during the journey. Her long brown hair and olive skin were more common back home than her husband’s pale coloring. But she wore dresses that seemed a size too big, hiding her attractiveness.
“We could tell,” she said as she caressed my right hand. “You have not said a word since we got on the plane.”
I stared into her soft, brown eyes and found some motherly comfort in them. “I have always trusted my instincts, and allowing Frederic Cortes to come felt right at the time. If I had only known what his true intentions were.”
Diakono Copperwith handed his wife the copy of the Book of Kammbi they were both reading together. She released her caressing grip on my hand and opened the book. “I thought my instincts were correct in that most people in Guadharra would believe in Kammbi because of the miracles he did amongst the people,” she read. “He fed ten thousand people with a few loaves of bread and meat. Replaced a woman’s broken leg with just a touch of his hand. Showed that a young boy could walk on water. I thought those miracles would be enough to show people they should believe and follow Kammbi. I thought that by sharing the stories of those miracles, the people would instantly believe. But they did not. They ran me out of the city as a heretic.”
“Gregory felt the same way as you do, Diondray.” Diakono Copperwith said after his wife finished reading. “He was Kammbi’s first disciple, and he wrote those words in the first chapter of the first book in the Ryianza section of the Book of Kammbi. The opening chapter of our sacred text reveals how our instincts can be misled.”
Mrs. Copperwith added, “Mr. Cortes had his own agenda from the start. Thankfully, the Eternal Comforter allowed it to be revealed at the right time.”
“What does that really mean?” I retorted. “I thought I allowed Mr. Cortes to join us on the journey to the cities north of the Great Forest because of the Eternal Comforter. I even started praying. And it did not work.”
“Sometimes the wrong outcome can be used by the Eternal Comforter to lay the path down for a better result in the long run,” Diakono Copperwith said.
He smiled reassuringly, but I did not feel reassured at all. I was still confused about the Eternal Comforter, even after reading about in the Book of Kammbi and having the Copperwiths explaining it to me since I’d met them in Santa Sophia.
“Diondray, we will have to trust in the Eternal Comforter to use what has happened so far on the journey for our benefit,” Mrs. Copperwith said as she returned to caressing my right hand.
I glanced at the diakono’s wife. I sensed that she was going to sit beside me for the rest of the plane ride. Her touch was comforting, and I knew that she had become my second mother for the rest of the journey. She smiled at me, and while I was not reassured about the Eternal Comforter, I did feel comforted by her presence.
“Would you like to read with me?” she asked.
Mrs. Copperwith released my right hand and moved the Book of Kammbi closer to me with her left hand. I looked over at Diakono Copperwith, who had pulled out another version of the Book of Kammbi from the overhead compartment. He was going to read with us. I guessed their comfort came from reading this sacred text.
We landed at the airport in the city of Adrian two hours later. The Copperwiths and I had spent the rest of the trip reading about Gregory. Kammbi’s first disciple had left his home in Guadharra after a dream about Kammbi. The dream felt so real that Gregory knew he had to find out about this god. He faced more resistance than any of the other disciples in the rest of the book. Being Kammbi’s first disciple had many more disadvantages than I would have expected. We had a good discussion about Gregory, and it helped with my uneasiness about the Eternal Comforter. However, I still was homesick, and as we landed, my thoughts returned to Charlesville.
Spending nearly seven months traveling to the cities north of the Great Forest had made me long for home. Despite my differences with Mother and Uncle Xavier, I thought about them and Aunt Maxina as we traveled from Issabella to Adrian. Did they miss me? Had they tried to look for me? Had Mother and Uncle Xavier found out it was Aunt Maxina who had helped me escape Charlesville? If so, had they placed her in confinement? Those questions raced through my mind as we exited the plane.
I followed the Copperwiths into the airport lobby. A couple of short and husky olive-skinned men trailed us with our luggage—or rather, the Copperwiths’ luggage. I had only one suitcase and my over-the-shoulder travel bag that had come with me from Charlesville.
The konseho of Kammbi had provided the plane and given the Copperwiths enough silver to make sure the next part of this journey would be well funded. I had learned from Diakono Copperwith that the konseho had plenty of silver bars in its coffers—a good thing, since that was the only currency the people in the cities south of the Great Forest accepted.
The autobus driver retrieved our luggage from the airport employees and placed them in the trunk. The driver had droopy eyes and cheeks, and I wondered if he’d just woken up before arriving at the airport. He took off from the airport in a hurry, and his driving immediately let me know that he was awake.
The driver explained that Adrian had only four main streets, which connected the entire city. He said that the city was shaped like the letter B. We were on the city’s longest road, Araceli Circle. It made a loop around the city and connected with the other three main streets: Adrian Place, Adrianna Way, and Guanna Lane. The entire city of Adrian fit inside of Araceli Circle.
Mostly residential homes and two-story office buildings passed by as the driver raced west on Araceli Circle. No tall buildings or notable landmarks met my eyes, like those common in the cities north of the Great Forest.
The driver turned right off Araceli Circle onto Adrian Place heading north. It seemed like he was driving away from the city.
He pulled into a hotel’s parking lot a couple of minutes later. The hotel was the largest building I had seen so far on the drive from the airport. It was three stories high with a wooded area surrounding it.
“Welcome to Hotel Samantha,” the driver said as he turned off the autobus. “The best hotel for first-time visitors to the city. The Azur family owns this hotel and wants to make sure all its visitors have a first-class experience.”
“You said this hotel is owned by the Azur family?” I asked the driver as I got out of the autobus.
“Yes,” the driver answered as he placed our luggage on the curb in front of the hotel’s entrance. “Eduardo Azur and his family own this hotel.”
“Who is Eduardo Azur?”
“Eduardo Azur is the family’s patriarch and the biggest javann maker in the city. This hotel is just another piece of real estate for the family.”
The driver finished placing our luggage on the curb, and I realized that he had not noticed the last name on my luggage tag. He got into the autobus and drove off just as fast as when he had picked us up.
Two sinewy, dark-skinned men wearing brown uniforms came out from the hotel to get our luggage. They had my complexion and treetop hairstyle. The shortest of the two stared at my luggage and read the tag.
“Azur,” he said in a clipped voice.
“Diondray Azur,” he said more loudly for the other employee. The second man stared at the tag and then looked up at me.
“Is there something wrong?” I asked.
“We have never seen anyone not from the city with this last name,” the shortest employee said. “Are you related to Eduardo Azur?”
Before I could answer his question, I heard a growl in the distance. It must have been coming from the woods behind the hotel. The employees stood stiff as a board—like they knew the growl as well as I did.
Before I could react, Reuel the Leopard came from the east side of the hotel right toward me. I wondered how that animal had made it to Adrian so fast—it had been at my side during the hearing with the konseho of Kammbi, but unlike the Copperwiths and I, it didn’t have access to an airplane. The members of the konseho had been astonished by the leopard’s appearance and knew what it signified.
“You are a friend of the leopard,” the shortest employee said. Both men had astonished look on their faces. They bowed to Reuel. The leopard growled in acknowledgement.
The Copperwiths stood to the left, seeming unfazed by the interaction between the men and Reuel. They had gotten used to Reuel appearing suddenly on this journey.
The employees remained erect as Reuel stopped growling. Both men stared at the leopard like they were waiting for the animal to communicate with them. Could human beings and animals talk to each other?
“Are you going to take us inside the hotel?” Mrs. Copperwith asked sharply.
Reuel growled softly at the employees as the leopard stood next to me. The men nodded at the growl and seemed to understand what Reuel was communicating.
“We have been commanded to take Mr. Azur with us.” the shortest employee said after Reuel growled softly again.
“He is not going anywhere!” Mr. Copperwith interjected. “We just arrived here from Issabella. We all need to get some food and rest.
“My husband is correct,” Mrs. Copperwith added. “Take us inside, please!”
The hotel employees looked down at Reuel, who started growling at the Copperwiths, and then they glanced up at me. “He must come with us,” the shortest one continued. “The leopard is connected to him, and he looks like one of us.”
“We just arrived from Issabella with my husband,” Mrs. Copperwith retorted and shot a sharp look at Reuel. “We have come together on this journey, and we will remain together.”
Reuel left my side and stood next to the hotel employees. The leopard growled back at me and I had sensed that it wanted to go with these men.
“I will go with them,” I said.
“Diondray!” Mrs. Copperwith replied.
“Reuel will protect me.” I said softly.
The tallest employee grabbed my luggage. Reuel and I followed the employees away from the hotel in the direction the leopard had come from.