A cool breeze meandered through the dark alley, rustling the hair of the boys crouched below. Loras and Tinko peeked around each side of the abandoned cart in front of them. Their ears strained against the quiet of the night. All was silent. It had been that way for the past few minutes, but they were still too scared to move.
It was blind luck that the alley they’d chosen to duck into contained something to conceal them. The merchant's cart was overloaded with goods; various dried meats, canned goods, bottled elixirs and other sundries, all ripe for the picking. Many years ago, a merchant would never have left his cart abandoned in some alley. But these days, if a merchant decided to serve a late customer, they had a dilemma once their business was complete. They could risk pushing the cart home, which increased the probability of them being caught after curfew, or they could leave the cart, even though that meant leaving their entire livelihood unguarded. As it was, abandoned carts were not uncommon in Reysa.
"We can't stay here all night," said Loras uneasily, as he peeked through the wooden spokes of the cart’s front wheel. He was the more impetuous of the two. Always had been. If it weren't for Tinko's timidity, or sensibility as Tinko called it, Loras would have spent the majority of his teenage years in detention, or worse.
"This is the last time that I listen to you," whispered Tinko. "We should have been home an hour ago. You know what happens if we get caught out past curfew."
Loras gave his friend an admonishing glare. He sometimes thought that Tinko allowed himself to be persuaded to break the rules only for the opportunity to tell Loras, "I told you so" when they got caught. But, they never got caught, so Tinko was forced to settle for preemptive scoldings. Both boys knew one day Tinko would get to rub it in Loras' face in earnest, but neither of them wanted today to be that day.
"I think he's gone," said Loras. "We can make a run for it."
Tinko grumbled to himself. Whenever a potential conflict arose, Loras only ever had two solutions – fight or run. When dealing with a Gartune, fighting was not an option. Still, it had taken every ounce of persuasion to convince Loras to hide instead of run when they initially spotted the large shadow a block down the street. The telltale hint of violet had reflected off of the glass buildings. In Reysa, that color meant only one thing. Now, it was back to Plan A: run. Tinko knew that Loras would not wait for him. Not once in his eighteen years had Loras waited for his slower, heftier friend. It had meant plenty of close calls for Tinko.
Loras was already out of his crouch and inching towards the street when they heard the metallic tap of metal on stone.
"Get down!" Tinko whispered frantically. In an instant, they were both back behind the cart. Tinko's breath accelerated to the point of hyperventilation. Loras held one hand over Tinko's mouth and used the other to put a finger to his own lips. The two boys stared at each other, wide-eyed, as the tapping drew closer. Its interval never changed, but the sound became louder as the Gartune zeroed in on the boys' location. Tap... tap... tap. Loras pressed his hand harder against Tinko's mouth and the stocky boy’s normally pink cheeks flushed a dark red. A drop of sweat dripped from Tinko's forehead onto Loras' hand. Tap... tap... tap. The unmistakable sound of metal hitting stone continued up the sidewalk as the Gartune approached. When the tapping reached the alley where Loras and Tinko were hiding, it stopped.
Loras and Tinko froze. On the wall above them, a trickle of glowing liquid flowed through a thin translucent tube that ran the length of the alley. A soft, shimmering light cast a soft glow several feet above and below the tube. Everything else was completely black. The darkness and the abandoned cart were the only things hiding the two boys from the Gartune standing directly in front of them.
Suddenly, they heard a rustling in the cart. Bottles clinked as the Gartune shuffled through them. The boys held their breath. Their wide, unblinking eyes locked onto each other. The sound of a cork popping echoed through the alley and the boys heard the Gartune take a large swig of liquid. "Hmmmm..." rumbled a voice from deep within the Gartune’s chest. More bottles clinked together. After making his selections, the Gartune once again tapped his metal staff on the sidewalk and slowly continued down the street.
When the tapping was a good distance off, the boys exhaled.
"I thought that was it," said Tinko, struggling to breathe and whisper at the same time. "I thought we were goners for sure!"
"Oh, stop being so dramatic," said Loras. "Come on, let's get out of here before he tells his friends about the free drinks."
The two boys slowly peeked out into the street. When they saw that the coast was clear, they ran across the road into an adjacent backstreet, then cut through an old glass warehouse which led to the road to Loras' house.
Fortunately, only the furthest of Torma's three moons, Ramala, was full that night. Most of Reysa was shrouded in darkness, and the boys’ cover only increased as they raced towards the dimly-lit city outskirts. As Tinko had predicted, Loras paid no attention to his friend, quickly lengthening the distance between them as they raced through the darkness. Neither boy looked over their shoulder as they ran.
Loras waited in his front yard for almost a minute before Tinko came panting up behind him. He immediately collapsed to the ground, his head between his knees. "I thought you said you had taken up jogging, Tink," said Loras as he flopped down next to his friend. Too tired for a rebuttal, Tinko shot his friend a piercing look instead. Loras smiled.
Loras' house was like most of the others in Reysa; small, simple and made almost entirely out of glass. The walls were opaque but the glass in the windows was transparent. Light tubes similar to the ones in the central city's alleyways ran the perimeter of the roof. However, these tubes did not contain any glowing liquid. The light, little that there was, was reserved for the central parts of the city. Citizens were responsible for providing their own light at home. Most of the time that meant candles, if the household could afford them. Candles were expensive.
A large living room window revealed one small candle burning from within. The rest of the house was dark. Suddenly, a figure appeared in the window.
Instinctively, Tinko ducked behind a bush. Loras frowned at his friend and shook his head disapprovingly.
"What?" said Tinko. "What if he's in there?"
"He's not," said Loras as he stared at the person silhouetted in the window. He rubbed the newly-arrived stubble on his chin, thinking about what his next move should be.
"How do you know?" Tinko lifted his head above the bush to take a look. The face of the person in the window was entirely backlit, but he recognized the familiar shape. It was identical to the one next to him. Tinko got to his feet, brushed himself off and headed for the door. Loras did not follow him.
"I can't even see her face but I can tell she's frowning," said Loras. He, too, wore a scowl. The figure in the window turned her head towards Loras. A hint of light illuminated the side of her face as she did so. She had the same light skin and eyes as her brother. They both wore their blonde hair similarly; long and unfettered by braids or adornments, only hers was a bit longer. Her weathered complexion made her seem older than she really was, even though the only time wrinkles appeared on her face was when she frowned, like she was right now. Loras returned her scowl from the yard. Neither of them blinked, their eyes locked.
"Fine, you stay out here in the cold and have your little stare off," said Tinko. "I'm going in."
Loras thought for a moment then begrudgingly walked towards the door while maintaining an unblinking glare at his twin sister. When he was a few feet from the entrance, he tripped slightly on a rock, which caused him to blink and break eye contact. The hint of a grin cracked on the face of Loras' sister before she left the window and went to meet the boys. They had not set two steps inside the house before Regan let them have it.
"I really thought this was going to be the night!" shouted Regan as she stalked towards the front door. "This was going to be the night when I got a knock on the door saying my brother had been caught and put in jail!"
"But it wasn't—" stammered Tinko.
"Shut up!" interrupted Regan. "I'll get to you in a minute."
"No need to be rude to Tink," said Loras as he brushed past his sister and walked towards the kitchen. "You know if it was up to him, we would have been home hours ago."
"And why can't you ever listen to him?!" shouted Regan at her brother's back. "Why do you always have to break the rules?"
"Because they're stupid rules!" shouted Loras. "It's only eight o'clock!"
"Actually, it's eight thir—" Tinko interjected.
"Shut up, Tink!" shouted Loras and Regan simultaneously. Tinko raised his hands in defeat and joined Loras in the kitchen. He opened the refrigerator and began pulling food out onto the counter.
"It doesn't matter if the rules are stupid," continued Regan. "The consequences for breaking them are not. It's only because of this one," she pointed towards Tinko, who was greedily stacking slices of meat and cheese atop a large piece of bread, "that you haven't been caught already."
"Ha!" shouted Loras. "You think he's the reason I haven't been caught yet? If it were up to him, I'd have been caught ten times already! He's just waiting for the day he can walk up to my cell and say 'I told you so'"
"He's not entiwely wong..." said Tinko through a mouthful of sandwich.
"You two don't get it, do you?" said Regan. "You think if you get caught you just go to some nice little jail for a few days? You think you can have visitors? When someone gets caught after curfew, they go away – for good! When have you ever heard of someone being released from jail, let alone being allowed visitors?"
Tinko stopped chewing his food. He and Loras exchanged glances.
"Ah, you don't know as much as you think you do," said Loras, waving his hand at his sister. He walked over and took a bite of Tinko's sandwich. Regan crossed her arms, and the furrow in her forehead deepened.
"Well, I know more than you – that's for sure! And besides, did you ever stop to think about how your actions might affect other people? I've been pacing for the last thirty minutes, wondering where you are; wondering if some Gartune is dragging you by your feet off to gods-knows-where."
"Well nobody told you to worry about me!" shouted Loras, his temper rising. "You're not my mother, so stop acting like it!"
"Somebody has to act like it!" shouted Regan.
"Somebody has to act like what?" said a dirt-covered man as he walked in through the kitchen door. A similarly-soiled woman followed behind him. Each of them hung a grimy hard hat on a hook in the entryway. Then, they wiped their hands on a towel that may have once been yellow but had long since turned a dark shade of brown.
"Loras was out after curfew again!" said Regan, her voice still raised. The man and woman both gave Loras the same, tired look. It was a mixture of frustration and a hint of empathy, as if deep down they understood his need to break the rules, although they would never tell him that.
Underneath the layer of dirt that had come to serve as a second skin, Loras and Regan's parents were as hard as stone. Their features were all straight edges and flat surfaces. Even their hair was cut short and straight, a stark departure from the long wavy locks that they had donned before they adopted the twins. Several Reysene had cut their hair similarly over the years, although a few still maintained the traditional look, as if the length of their hair signified their defiance. Loras once asked his parents why they had cut theirs, and his mom responded with a half-smile that she liked being able to see her husbands' ears. Loras suspected, though, that it truthfully had something to do with the difficulty of washing dirt out of so much hair.
There was only one thing about the twins' parents that wasn't rigid – their eyes. They were tired eyes, not from work but from worry; the kind of exhaustion that only a parent can know. Both parents pointed those tired eyes at Loras, waiting to see what elaborate excuse he would have this time, but it was Tinko that spoke up first.
"It wasn't our fault," explained Tinko. "We had to hide from a—" Loras shot his friend a fierce glance that quickly silenced him.
"Hide from a what?" asked Loras' mom. Her tired face suddenly turning anxious.
"It was nothing..." said Loras in a voice barely above a whisper.
"Did a Gartune see you?!" asked Regan, shrilly.
"It was nothing!" shouted Loras.
Loras' father strode toward his son, placing a hand on the young man’s shoulder. He brought his face within an inch of Loras' and stared him directly in the eyes. Loras could smell the dirt on his face. Dirt and sweat; that was his father. If he were to die tomorrow, it wouldn't be the lessons he had taught his son, lively dinner conversations or the memories of playing in the yard (if those memories had even existed) that Loras would remember. It would be his smell.
"Loras," his father squeezed his shoulder as he said his son’s name, "you are no longer a child. We cannot tell you what to do. Not that we ever could." He straightened up and let his hand slide off of his son's shoulder. Then he let out a sigh and looked at his wife. She gave him a small nod as if to say, continue.
"Perhaps we have done you an injustice by not properly instilling the fear of the Gartune in you."
Loras frowned at his feet. "What's there to be afraid of...?" he grumbled to himself.
"A lot!" interjected his mother. "More than you can imagine!" Loras' father raised his hand to calm his wife.
"You have never been caught by a Gartune, so you don't understand," he continued. "And now it's too late. If they had caught you as a boy, then they would have taught you a lesson – one that you would have never forgotten – but then they would have let you go afterwards. But that leniency expires when you get to a certain age. If they catch you now..."
"That's what I've tried to tell him!" shouted Regan. "But he doesn't listen!"
"He thinks he's inwincible," added Tinko, through another mouthful of sandwich.
"He thinks he's a Reytana..." sighed Regan, locking eyes with her brother. Her sudden change of tone was staggering.
Tinko choked on his sandwich and coughed up a large piece of bread into his hand. He looked around sheepishly, trying to decide where to put the half-eaten glob. Everyone watched him, waiting to see what he would do. Cut off from both the sink and the trash can, he eventually bowed his head in defeat and placed the glob in his pants pocket. Regan curled her lip in disgust. Loras snorted.
Loras' father turned back to his son. He looked him over slowly from head to toe, as if trying to decide what to say next. "Loras, the Reytana are gone. And they're not coming back. If you get caught by a Gartune, there will be nobody to save you. There would be nothing your mother or I could do. Do you understand?" Loras looked down at his feet and nodded.
"Look at me, Loras," said his father as he took a step toward his son. "Tell me that you understand."
Loras looked into his father's eyes. There was something there that he had never seen before. It wasn't concern, although it could have easily been mistaken for that. Was it... fear?
"I understand," said Loras.
"Then I think it's time you all went to your rooms," said Loras' mom. "I'm sure professor Lucan has provided you with enough homework to occupy the rest of your evening. Tinko, you will of course be sleeping here again tonight?" Her voice trailed up as if it were a question that they didn’t already know the answer to.
"I already made the couch up for him," said Regan. The heat in her voice had cooled. "Come on, Tink. I'll grab your pillows out of the closet." Tinko quickly walked over to join Regan. As he passed the sink, he slid his hand into his pocket and non-chalantly flung his linty sandwich glob into the drain. "Gross," said Regan.
Loras didn't speak to anyone for the rest of the night. He locked himself in his room and lay on his bed with his arms crossed behind his head. He gazed out through his window into the night sky. Ramala's faint glow outlined the rooftops of the adjacent homes. The night air was quiet, but Loras thought he could hear a faint, metallic tapping far off down the street. “Stop imaging things,” he said to himself aloud, as if speaking the words made them more powerful. He closed his eyes and tried to think of something else. His mind wandered back to the conversation in the kitchen
Not that it was much of a conversation, he thought. More like a scolding.
He expected it from Regan, but it was rare that his parents contributed to the chiding. That wasn't really fair though. The reason that his parents hardly ever scolded him was because they were rarely around to do so. Perhaps if they had been home more, they would have had more opportunities to scold him, and this particular admonishment wouldn’t have felt so strange. No matter. Regan had filled that void admirably for many years. But something about the look in his father's eyes that particular evening began to possess Loras' thoughts. It was not like his father to show that much emotion. So why now? He toiled with that question for several hours before eventually drifting off to sleep.