The vacant streets of Academy City were coated by dashes of orange and red, thanks to the settling sun over the horizon. The chirping chorus of crickets blanketed the landscape, its reign only challenged by the chipping songs of their feathered neighbours.
An ensemble of songbirds and pigeons flew by overhead, each returning to their natural habitat by the trees on the sidewalk, their homecoming accompanied by the rustling sounds of the wind.
With such a scenic view, it was hard to believe these streets were utilised by hundreds of residents and students every day, yet miraculously void of any hint of litter.
As though approving of a symbolic harmony between man and nature, a few birds could be seen perched on a bench close to a convenience store, possibly attracted by the sweet smell of confectioneries inside.
The store banner was a neon fixture with a blue hue, a smaller version of it could be seen flickering slightly behind the display window. It buzzed a little when three Academy students exited via the entrance, their already blue uniforms were dyed even more so under the artificial light.
The three were heading towards the academy, trying to make it before the dark. As they set to consume their recent purchase, another load of crisps and soft drinks could be seen safely stowed away in their shoulder bags. A typical rendezvous for someone their age, on a Friday night no less.
But activities on the whole were winding down across the city. The Academy had been adamant on its “recommended closing hours”, with sporadic inspections from the school board from time to time.
Only one of the City's many Cafés refused to adhere to the common closing time, instead insisting on staying open all day and night during weekends.
However, despite of its panoramic view from the peak, diverse menu and fantastic service, it was not enough for anyone to consider visiting it anytime after eight o'clock; which made it an odd decision to remain open when there were no customers to validate the need.
Through the antique mirror installed behind the counter, the interior of the café was accurately portrayed down to every diminutive detail, except everything went the other way; left to right and right to left.
The elegant furnishings, the classical décor and the abundance of antiquities were all there in the looking glass world.
Twelve different clocks from twelve different eras ticked in twelve comparatively similar intervals, scattered evenly around the parlour. Most had conventional pendulums that swung from side to side, but there were exceptions to this convention. One of them had a ballerina for instance, while another had a rooster. There was also one that featured a serpentine dragon, the kind that was popular in the east that would vent a stream of steam on the hour.
The café itself also featured a copious amount of flowers as decorations, freshly imported from different parts of the globe everyday. Some of its African selections looked so alien compared to the indigenous plants, they would be ripe for a permanent spot in a natural museum. One Turkish family of vines stretched far and about the café, intermingling between its antique aesthetics, growing curious fruits free for the guests to pick and eat.
The flower’s exotic fragrances intermixed with the distinctive aroma of grounded coffee and earl grey made a blend of something exclusively unique to this establishment, becoming a trademark of sorts for the place.
Although reflections could not denote scent, but if the looking glass world existed within the mirror, surely patrons from that side would also flock there for this alluring scent.
However, even with all the distracting characteristics displayed in the mirror, they could not obfuscate the main attraction from focus. For at the center of the image, the predominant feature was an adolescent girl at the height of her youth, staring intensely at me with her viridian eyes.
A few purple clips were clamped onto strands of her long ebony hair unevenly, but they looked more to be a whimsical afterthought than a necessity. Some unruly twines fell loose on the incline, but the small imperfections only complemented the style as a whole.
Then there were the tautly woven waitress uniform, with its distinctive brown and white scheme…
But who could this person be, I wonder?
Myself, of course. It’s a mirror, silly face.
I was occupied by my own introspection, while reciting my name by each of its four syllables, tilting my head left and right for each one.
“Fe, Li, Ci, Ty.”
It was a habitual practice by instinct. The head tilting, name chanting thing I mean. I never exactly knew why, but I guessed it would somehow be useful in case one forgot their name.
It might not be very much common for people to forget their names, but people tend to leave the elephant in the room unaddressed, or to look for things that were under their nose all along.
It might have been more common for one’s door to get knocked down by an army of penguins demanding a very specific type of tea, because that happened to me once, apparently. But the way I remembered it… Well, it was all pretty blurry.
A cool and composed voice was heard speaking in my subconscious. It was a certainly new development, for usually I don’t hear voices calling me in person.
There it was again, uttering my name in repetition.
“Who’s there?” I turned around swiftly, my dark hair dancing through the air as I did so.
“Didn't you have an order?” My co-worker was in his impeccably ironed uniform, wearing the Cheshire smile as he always did with his eyes narrowed to a slit. He was a slender character with chestnut coloured hair, short and messy.
“I did? Oops, I totally forgot.”
He was not mad or ruffled at the slightest at my reply, on the contrary, he looked glad to have remained me when he did. He took a conspicuous glance at the silver patter I held, kindly reminding me of its existence along with the two drinks on it. Then he turned and walked towards a clock in his casual pace, “These two cups are for the customer out on the terrace, be a dear and deliver them to him. I had to attend to the clocks, making sure they are synchronised.”
How funny of me. I seemed to have forgotten the very things I held in my hands. If the owner was to see it, I am unsure what he would have said to it. Of course I've never met the owner. Nobody has ever met the owner, but he lived upstairs.
I trotted along with the tray just as my co-worker began servicing on one of the chronometers. I never knew what he found so interesting in those time pieces, but he would check them over twice a day without fail, with a mandatory polish every odd day. To each their own I supposed, as I myself had quiet a few hobbies that had been branded as weird by my colleagues in the academy.
Out on the terrace, the chilly weather was kept in check by a magical barrier, invisible to anyone that did not bother to pay attention to the runes engraved on the outer side of the banister. For all intends and purposes, the terrace had barely any differences to the interior, besides the unobstructed view of the sea beyond.
A man sat in a niche corner of the area, looking out to the picturesque sight of dusk, unconcerned with my approach as he twirled a lock of his brown hair around his index finger.
“Here’s your order, is there anything else I can do for you?” I had no idea how longed I spaced out earlier, I only hoped the drinks had not gone lukewarm by the delay.
“Thank you.” He smiled pleasantly, taking a steaming cup of cocoa and stirred it lightly with a spoon. He wore the winter attire of the academy uniform, when most students were yet to change from their spring getup. Judging from the surprise drop in temperature today, it was perhaps a wise move.
It was then I noticed his eyes, one had a different colour from the other. What was the condition called again? “Heterochromia… Iridum”, that was it. I remember picking that term up from an obscure medical paper, I had a penchant for reading random stuff in my free time.
One of the eyes was brown like the cocoa he ordered, and the other was violet like… What is like violet exactly?
“What’s violet like?” I sounded out my enquiry, asking him directly. I had a tendency to do that often, striking up conversations when people least expected it.
“Violet?” He took a sip from the cup, then lifting his head up to stare at me. He wasn’t glaring, more like he was curious by my inquiry.
“Violet.” I patted the accessory in my hair, which was of the same colour before continuing, “What is it like?”
“I consider my right eye more a deep lavender than violet.”
“Lavender, huh... I’ve never seen someone with heterochromatic eyes in a violet shade.”
“I’m often questioned about my eyes. They’re not heterochromatic.”
“Isn’t it? What is it then?”
“I have absolutely no idea.” He shrugged with an air of indifference.
I gave him the benefit of the doubt and assumed what he claimed was the truth. He seemed rather laid back for such an interesting “condition”, if I were in his shoes, I would definitely delve deeper until everything that could be known was known. Shame it wasn’t contagious.
I took his lack of regards as an invitation and leaned in closer, so I could better examine the his eyes. He did not seem reluctant to my inquisition, branding a casual grin.
Our gazes met briefly, it was an incidental happening, but I experienced a spontaneous lapse of consciousness. I felt drawn in by the visual, awestruck by the astronomical scale of what I saw.
Believe me that exaggeration was not my vocation, with the exception of a few occurrences, nor did I mean to push the boundaries on the suspension of disbelief. But his irises were like a nebula of stars, of which I was only a mere speck of dust within. The imagery was layered, like a mathematical fractal that would spiral without end, of which I tumble down eternally.
I was entranced, eager to stare however much longer I need. It was a rabbit hole to wonderland, a gateway to a mad fantasy, and I just wanted to know how far down it goes. Strange as it might have sounded, this was not a fantasy of my own, but one that belonged to him too.
The description came off a little like a babble, a bit like the graffiti in toilet cubicles, and possibly like the rambling of a madman. The only difference would be that a madman thinks he is sane, which I never once made any claim to being. Reality is a subjective delusion enacted by millions on a daily basis, and I think that’s precisely what made it fun to live in.
He diverted his gaze, freeing me from the spell as he took another sip from the cup.
“Amethyst?” I took a while for me to return to my senses.
“It’s a violet jewel.” Cedric stated, afraid that I might not catch on with the conversation. But I knew what it was, I had a cousin who specialised in the gem trade.
Lavender like a darkened amethyst. That was it, he got it spot on.
Regaining the relative sensibility of my normal self, I had more pressing questions that needed answering. First of all, who was this guy? Why was he here when nobody ever comes at this hour? And, those eyes, why did they have those enchanting properties?
He didn’t seem like the dangerous kind, and he didn’t look any less sane than I was. Yet those eyes reflect such an ambiguity that just made me so…
I was at a lost for words, they kept eluding me.
It was then I noticed the miniature panda rising from his cup, made entirely from the cup’s content. The white foam represented the fluffy furs, while the darker shades of cocoa represented the black bits.
“Panda… Panda…” I muttered, still looking for the missing word.
If my vocabulary would come back to me any time soon…
Then the picture of a panda eating bamboo suddenly popped up in my head, clicking my thinking gears into the right place. “Bamboozled!” I hollered, delighted by my quick wit.
“Is bamboozled even a word?” My co-worker abruptly asked, his voice echoed from inside the café. He was scrubbing the counter with a sponge, which I thought was immaculately clean already.
“Bamboozled is indeed a word. And a remarkably good one at that.” The customer stated bluntly, giving off a mild smirk to his handiwork.
Pleased with his creation in the cup, he blew onto the panda gently, invigorating it to animation. The foamy creature was ecstatic once it realised it could move, it climbed out of the confines of the cup and danced on the wooden table. Whatever excitement it was spurred upon though was fast wearing out, for the creature soon slumped over on its bottom, rubbing its tummy longingly.
Prestidigitation spells were meant for their demonstrative uses and were not meant to last. This one however, lasted so long that it even felt hunger from its longevity. I wondered what he did to perform such a feat, or if this was a new type of spells that I’ve yet to come across.
“I’m Cedric de Lunarford.” he left his seat out of the blue and greeted me formally.
With all these commotions and distractions, I had forgotten that we have yet to introduce one another formally. Lunarford, wasn’t he the president of the student council? Then I noticed the yellow armband that he wore, further consolidating my suspicions.
I had never seen the president before, but he did look the part compared to the photos in the academy newsletters, a bit leaner and less flat than how he was depicted on paper. I might not be the one to speak, but he had come off delightfully eccentric to me, his mannerisms though, did live up to his position.
“Good to meet you, President! I'm Felicity Hollingberry.” I returned the greetings as formally as I can muster on short notice.
If the president was here at this time of the day, could he be expecting someone here? There would explain an awful lot of things, including why he ordered two cups instead one. But I had to be sure, as I guess it wouldn’t be out of the line for me to inquire.
“Why did you order two cups o-” a sneeze interrupted my line, it must have been the breeze on the way to work today.
When I set about fetching my handkerchief, a cup of cocoa and a napkin levitated before me, at just the right height for me to grasp. “Huuuh…”
“I often find the warm drinks help when you’re having a cold.” Cedric was soft spoken, looking almost concerned for my welfare.
“Isn’t that just sort of a psychosomatic effect?” My co-worker asked, hands still busy scrubbing.
“Well that may be the case, but saying such ruins the rather delightful illusion.” Cedric explained as he ushered me to drink from the cup, I did as he requested, as a warm drink did sound rather nice at that point.
“So, Mr President, may I ask why you’re here at this hour?” Even with the developing cold, I had to ask.
“Here? Hmm… I do like the cocoa here.” Cedric snickered.
“Would a better question not be to ask why I’m wandering in the city at such late hours?” continued Cedric, “The reason I am here, is because I'm going to take part in a story, and you are going to as well.”
“I am?” I lit up at the possible cue to adventure.
“How much do these cups of cocoa cost?”
“Four pounds, thirty pence for the two cups.” I answered straight forwardly, the question was a no brainer for someone who’s work here for any length longer than a week.
“If I multiplied by three hundred and ninety three, and asked for three cups for each of my clones, how much would that cost?” He carried on with another question of “delightful” irrelevance.
“Two thousand five hundred and thirty four pounds, and eighty five pence.” It took me a second to answer this time as I had to check it over in my head.
“And what if I were to ask for another four cups of cocoa for each of the students in the academy, all two thousand one hundred and sixty three of them?”
“Adding onto what you and your clones had before right?”
“Twenty one thousand one hundred and thirty six pounds, and sixty five pence.” I answered promptly. The thought of having thousands of people sipping cocoa simultaneously would be amusing, but the thought of me having to make and deliver them all made me shudder.
“There you have your answer, Miss Hollingberry.”
“Hmm?” I tilted my head slightly, showing my puzzlement.
“My student council has always lacked a treasurer, and due to future events, I am in the need of one now. So you'll join me, right?” He flashed a warm smile, “So, I've come to invite you.”
“A treasurer for the Student Council…” I tilted my head to the other side.
Number crunching day-in, day-out didn’t as thrilling as what I had in mind, but admittedly, the position could lead me to something more exciting in time I’m sure. Decisions, decisions…
Perhaps he sensed my hesitation, he resumed the chat instead. “Do you like stories, Miss Hollingberry?”
“I very much love stories.” I blurted out. Stories were awesome, but the shorter the better since I had a short attention span, so I was told.
“Precisely! Everyone loves stories. It would be a remarkable achievement to find even a single human being who does not enjoy some type of story-telling. Whether it be novels, films, comics or lyrics...”
Cedric's glasses flashed briefly as he leant back, swirling his cup a little to even up the contents before continuing.
“People believe their life to be boring, because their mindset is adjusted to it too easily. So they seek to vicariously experience a type of existence which they would find more exciting.”
“So?” I squeezed in the question between gulps of cocoa. With a quick surveying around, I noticed my co-worker had retreated inside the storage room.
“I believe this desire to be incorrect,” stated Cedric. “Do not get me wrong, I love stories more than anyone else. The world we live in seems much less excitable than the stories of adventure and fiction, merely because the boring parts are cut out. In fact, I found plenty of elements needed in a good story, within parts of my everyday life.”
“Anyhow,” continued Cedric, enjoying the aroma of his cocoa. “Today, I happened upon what seems to be an unfortunate yet rather exciting plot-twist, although completely irrelevant to the case at hand!” His hand sunk into his pocket, bringing up a red glimmering gem, which he placed delicately on the table.
“That’s pretty, what is it?” I inquired, as I moved in closer to inspect the gem. But then the stone vibrated and gave off a bright magenta glow, I jumped back with a small yelp.
“That,” Cedric looked at me with an expression of pure joy and whimsy, “is a truly horrific and unfortunate, yet remarkably exciting turn of events!”
“Huh…” I look befuddled pondering at gem, which is still vibrating vigorously by some unknown cause.
“You see, while one may claim fiction to be more exciting than every day life, it does not negate the fortunate truth that reality is infinitely stranger than fiction, only because fiction is at the mercy of imagination, whereas reality is not.” Cedric stretched both his hands and forced forth a yawn, as he let his gaze fall upon the horizon once more. “And you and I are fortunate enough to become part of a story, not of fiction but of reality.”
“So you’re here today… for me?” I was mildly confused at this point, nonetheless happily so. I’ve never thought of myself to be much the type for the spotlight.
“In a manner of speaking, yes, that would not be a false assumption.” Cedric professed, “But our roles in this story are mere spectators, for the real protagonists are out there somewhere right at this moment, in this very city.”
“That only serves to make me even more bamboozled.”
“Not to worry Miss Hollingberry, you’ll have plenty of time to adjust.” Cedric snickered mischievously before returning his gaze back on the sunset.
“So if we are not the protagonists, you don't suppose we're the antagonists?” I didn’t feel like I had the evil streaks in me either.
“Not as far as I've calculated, but in a sense we could be interpreted as such by some. Not by the protagonist’s perspective, however.” He continued to savour his cup with the backdrop of pleasant sea breeze and the pulsating gem.
“So it's really not any different from the normal fare, huh...” I mumbled.
The panda was still sat on the table, wallowing in a wet puddle of cocoa and licking at a plate of peppermint. Since we had the time before shop closes, I’m sure I could convince Cedric to teach me how the spell works.