Something was afoot. That was for sure. The atmosphere was tense, too tense for his liking. Everyone who came into the cafe talked about the impending fighting, to Umbra's dissatisfaction.
He tried to brush it off, to treat it like any other Saturday evening in late summer, but nomatter what was said by the gentle breeze or the hazy, golden sunset, everyone in the whole city was tense.
He was glad when his shift ended, which was weird. The little rustic cafe with its redbrick walls, rough hewn tables and ancient, frosty windows had always been Umbra's favorite place, but today, as the drou elf climbed the creeky stairs to the apartment above, he dragged his feet. Reaching the hallway, he flopped onto the sagging upholstered couch, kicking off his saddles. The light from the window behind him stained the walls a soft pinkish red, boosted by the lamps burning low. Electric lights were too expensive, oil lamps worked perfectly fine. He cleaned his glasses with the corner of his tunic. A strand of curly white hair had lodged itself in the hinge.
He awoke later to the sound of the back door opening. One of his family would be getting home, then. He didn't know which one. The cat, Monty, had curled up next to Umbra, and now meowed, annoyed at being disturbed. Umbra stroked the big cat's corse black fur. The family had thought she was a boy at first, earning her the name, but then she had kittens. That was what, ten years ago now? Crazy.
"Monty, can you believe you're twelve, and I'm thirty? Surely we miscounted somewhere." He said, and the cat chirped. He was among the rare few of his species actually glad they didn't live as long as the ancient drou had. The fewer cat lifespans to fit into his own, the better. He dozed for what he thought had been only a few minutes, but it must have been hours. Eventually, the steps creaked again, signalling the entrance of Jesse, carrying the money jar from the cafe.
"Been laying around the whole time?" Jesse teased, tossing the half full jar onto the empty part of the couch, "while you were lying about aimlessly, I was was busy making this business's millionth gilder. What do you think of that?"
"When you make a million dolders, then I'll be impressed. I bet you could find a million gilders lying around in the street if you tried hard enough."
"Ha ha. So funny. I should fire you on the spot for insubordination, but then I couldn't take your exact place half the time."
The brothers chuckled, but the air was still uneasy. It had been for a long time, it was coming to a head today, for some reason. The peace talks of the last month had gone pretty well, so there wasn't any real reason for things to be so damn tense. There was no war in Beilantown. There couldn't be.
Umbra got up, much to Monty's disapproval. The brothers half hugged before heading to their rooms.
Inside Umbra's room, everything was tidy, as usual. The bed had cat hair under it, as usual, and a letter sat on his writing desk, as usual. There was something magical about having someone to write to, someone who loved his silly little poems. Niamh was that someone. She was perfect, but he was biased.
He mulled around the room. It was too early to sleep, but the post office was closed, so he couldn't take his letter in, and he had read every book in the house. 12:15 was a beautiful time in the city. The unease that he had shaken for a while crept back in, and he decided to go for a walk.
Into the cafe, he slipped into his boots, put on a hat, and tossed a cloak over his shoulders. It payed to look a tad threatening, even in a fairly safe city. Only a couple late night usuals were about, and Melph, his mother, was behind the counter, reading. She didn't look up when he walked by, but she smiled and nodded slightly to the door.
The weather was still and a little humid, but the air held a nip of the coming autumn. The view from the cafe was one of its main attractions. Across the canal, facing him directly was the temple, framed by the Bei mountains. Standing tall and silent, the shadowy, ancient monoliths supported huge boulders, forming a man-made cave. Beyond where the moonlight fell through the bamboo, no light shown into it. It was ominous, but it held a sort of charm. That temple was where he spent a good part of his time, and where he had met Pet a few years ago. He was a medicine man in addition to a cook, and him and Pet had spent many a long day in the cool, cavernous space, crushing herbs, setting bones, and talking.
He walked into the heart of the city at a brisk pace. Whoever said that cities never slept had spoken the truth, Beilantown always had something going on. Even now at going on 1 AM, the street was packed with all kinds of people, walking, sitting, singing, arguing. The same canal wound through the streets, bridges crisscrossing it occasionally. No carts or bicycles were aloud in the inner part of town, and the hundreds of years of foot traffic had compacted the clay as hard as concrete and twice as easy to come by. Old stone buildings mingled with newer ones built of silver and stained glass, giving the walls a patchwork look. Ropes, flags, stairways, canopies and bridges spanned the space between the buildings, with so many porches, landings and next in between. The city was obviously supported by magic, no istructure that complex could stand free-form on the vastly uneven ground that made up the surface of the moon. That's what Beilantown was, really. A single, massive structure that moved outwards like a tangle of roots.
It might have been a little claustrophobic, with all the people moving about constantly, never stopping or giving enough space, if Umbra hadn't spent his whole life under the humming web of the city. He liked the chatter of the people in the streets, the hundreds of feet thumping against the ground. There was always something to talk about, and always someone to talk with, but something told him if the little cafe's atmosphere was so chilly, it might not be the best night to shoot the breeze, if he was looking to de-stress.
"I wonder what Niamh's up to..." he thought, absent-minded as he wandered into the little sculpture park on bahlstreet, admiring a glass representation of a crescent planet. She normally got done with her duties at the palace by seven-ish, and unless they had plans together, she was asleep by nine. He decided not to bother her.
He stopped by the book store, but, since the trade ban, nothing new had come in. It was nice to just look around, though. He was the only one there. In the end, he picked up an old favorite of his, 'Tales of Tahunga', and flipped to the middle. Bay was starting her journey north. The author, who used the pseudonym C C Cipher, had another book, but the damn trade ban meant it couldn't get in. It had been months since anything new could get to Beilantown. But when you have the merchant highways captured by mech angels who are inheritly hostile, what are you going to do. The peace talks the king had just returned from had allowed vitals to get to the Beilantown moon, and at this point, the mess seemed like it was being cleaned up, but...
And there he went, thinking about it again. He straightened his glasses and buried his nose in the book.
'There, standing before the maiden and her snake ally stood a monstrous creature whom Bay knew too well. It was the werewolf known as-'
A slim, russet colored finger touched the page he was on, gently lowering it. Niamh. He stood up, susprised but smiling. The owner of the finger was slim as well, but beneath the soft fur was hard muscle.
"Niamh, darling, what are you doing up so late?"
"Probably the same thing as you," She said. She was clearly very tired. There were shadows under her amber eyes, and both her hair and fur were clean but ruffled, unbrushed, "have you got the news? I guess you couldn't have heard yet. "
"What's the matter?"
"The princes turned up, finally. Half dead and cackling like fools. We havna gotten a straight story out of them yet, but if I know Ramses and Charna, the peace agreements are at stake. "
Umbra did not speak, but motioned for Niamh to sit down. She leaned against his shoulder.
"What are we going to do with those two..." she asked the silence. She had been the eldest boys' nursemaid, until they proved too much for her, and she had been given to the princess instead. She still felt a motherly responsibility towards all six of the royal children.
Umbra put his arm around her shoulders, and they interlaced their fingers.
"Even the small children are picking up on it. Now Brook has an escape route planned for when the mech angels attack, and Zeta keeps jumping out of corners and scaring-" she was cut off by Umbra's lips on her own.
"It'll work out in the end."