“Brie, be a dear and help me sell these watches to the servants here while I fix this grandfather clock,” Dad drops some brassy wristwatches into my hand, hands me spare change and adds, “we’ll be here for a few days. Lord Maxwell wishes to have all the clocks, especially this heirloom, in this mansion fixed before he digicates them.”
“Digicates? What’s that?” I ask, eyeing the scuffs on the leather bands.
“It’s when you upload physical items to the Grid, dear, and they become digital.”
“You can do that?”
“It’s something that’s possible because of Lord Maxwell. A fine creation indeed, though it’s what putting us out of business.”
“I don’t like this Lord Maxwell,” I pout. “I want to see how he feels when we put him out of business.”
Dad throws a glance behind his shoulder. “Not so loud.”
“Well, I want him to hear it,” I fold my arms.
“He’s no ordinary noble, Brie. He could have you executed for disrespecting him.”
“How great can he be if he robs the poor?”
“He has a close relationship with the One Ruler, that’s how great he is. Now, hurry on, off with those watches you go,” he gestures to the secret doors, “you must sell those watches at all costs, do you understand?”
I nod. “I know.”
“Come back here when you’re done.”
“Okay, Dad!” I say, scurrying off. The looming mansion proves to be a maze, with rooms the size of a football court opening into more rooms, opening into hallways of endless doors. Each room is decked in expensive furnishings, lined with rose gold and sparkling with palely coloured diamonds of all sizes, from azure to obsidian. I explore the mansion until it becomes clear that I’m definitely lost. I call out for the help but the only reply I get in return is my own voice greeting me. I resort to knocking on walls to check if they’re hollow, hopefully leading to the evasive quarters of the servants of the mansion.
“Hello?” I whisper into the expanse, “is anyone there?” There’s no doubt that I just heard a voice, though it’s pitched like I’m interrupting something personal. I tiptoe towards the source of the voice, careful not to betray my presence. I hear sobs emanating from beyond a double door that is left ajar, followed by the sound of breaking skin being lashed by a whip. I conceal my frame behind one of the doors and peek into the room on the other side.
“I’m sorry....” A sob escapes from a small figure, crouching near the ground, covering his injured arm with a tiny palm. They must not have heard me.
“Let this pain be seared into your mind, so you’ll know better than to fail my expectations next time,” whispers a fearsome man with a steely gaze and a whip in one of his hands towering over the small boy. The man must be Lord Maxwell.
“Okay...” The small boy whispers back, too afraid to meet his gaze.
“Now, leave me.”
“Yes, father.” The small boy picks himself up and dashes towards my hiding place. Before I can hide myself, he escapes past me, sobbing all the while he is running. I return my gaze to Lord Maxwell, only to find him no longer there. In his place, a maid coils up the whip left draping over an armchair. I instinctively walk towards the maid, pulling out the wristwatches at the same time.
“Ma’am, would you like to buy some wristwatches?” I ask her. She glances at me in surprise.
“I have no need for a physical watch, little girl.”
“But wristwatches are more than things that tell time.”
“Oh? What could they be used for, then?”
“They are facets of the past. Antiques. Great for any collector.”
“I am no collector.”
“How about for sentimentality’s sake, Ma’am? Do you remember when you last owned a watch?”
“Oh, I do remember. I had the prettiest watch in my school.”
I show her the wristwatches in my hand. “How about reliving that feeling again?”
“How much for one?”
“Please buy all five of them for 50 newlars.”
“Fifty! For these old things?”
“You won’t get a better deal elsewhere, Ma’am.”
“I can have five meals for that price!”
“Then I guess you just have to buy two, then.”
She thinks for a while. “Alright. I’ll take two.” She fishes the coins out of her pocket and hands them to me. I give her two wristwatches.
“Do any of your friends miss the past? Would they like some of these?”
“I’m sure Annie wouldn’t mind one, you can find her in the next room.”
“Thank you, Ma’am.” I make my way to the next room. Thankfully, there are a number of maids there and before long, I sell my remaining wristwatches.
“Do you happen to know where the heirloom, the grandfather clock, is?” I ask Annie.
“Turn right on every corner and you’ll get there, dearie.”
“Thank you,” I bow courteously and turn around. I do not take three steps before I turn back. “Do you know where I can find the young master?”
“Jun? Why do you want him for?”
“I have something to ask him.”
“It’s a little more difficult to find his room,” Annie whisks her phone out, “I’ll have the Grid show you. Follow the arrows.”
“Thank you.” The arrows light up on every empty wall and I begin to make my way to the young master’s room.
“Wait, little girl.”
“Yes?” I turn around again.
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Brie Weed.”
“W, huh? Life must be hard.”
“I get by.”
“I’m Annie Pace, a P,” she says, “well, then, go your way. I won’t disturb you any longer.”
“Goodbye,” I smile and bow. Following the arrows, my mind wanders to the Name-Caste. Set into place by the first One Ruler, after she managed to conquer and unite all the countries of the world into one kingdom - Newsia, it divides all citizens into ranks based on the first letter of their last name. The first letter is reserved only for the One Ruler, who is now Hark Acker. Last names from B to F belong to nobles, of which Lord Maxwell is one. G to L belongs to members of the military, M to S to business owners and T to Z to commoners. The higher up you are on the alphabet, the greater your rank. I’m a Weed, and as you can see, a noble employs even families who own businesses as his servants. I’m an outlier of the system, a lowly commoner with no place in this world. “Hello? Is anyone inside?” I ask as I rap on the door.
“Yes?” A timid voice replies.
“Can I come in?”
I open the door into a dimly lit room. I can barely make out the figure of a small child hunched on one end of his bed, his legs not even reaching half of its length. My heart squeezes with sympathy and I approach the bed.
“Who are you?”
“My name is Brie. What’s your name?”
“How are you?”
“You’re the girl who was peeking,” he says, scooting further from me as I reach the side of his bed. Tears streak his cheek as his lower lip trembles.
“I’m sorry for eavesdropping. How old are you?”
“I’m five,” he casts a wary look my way.
“I’m seven. Nice to meet you, Jun.”
“What were you being punished for?” I ask, wiping his tears away. “Don’t cry.”
“For not reading the book my father assigned me. What do you want? Are you here to punish me too?”
“I’m not going to hurt you, Jun.”
“Then are you here to laugh at me?”
“I’m here to laugh with you, if you want,” I grin while I rummage through my satchel. I’m sure I can find it in here somewhere. After some searching, my fingers finally connect with a familiar tube, and I pull it out. Jun flinches when I take the tube out but he settles down once he sees what I’m holding. “Here, let me rub some ointment on your wounds.”
“I don’t need ointment.”
“Does it hurt?”
He looks down at his tender arms. “Yes, it does.”
“Then you need ointment.” Gingerly, I climb up onto the side of his bed and pull one of his arms to me. Angry, red lines overlapping one another cover his forearms. I squeeze some ointment onto my palm and lightly press it to his wounds, which are still warm from the impact. He yelps softly, which is when I start humming my favourite tune.
“You’re singing Rain Rain Go Away,” he says.
“Yes, do you like it?” I grin widely.
“My mother used to sing it to me, whenever I got hurt falling down.”
“I like your mother already.”
“I like anyone who treats you well,” I apply the ointment to the last of his wounds, “there you go, it’ll heal right away now.”
“You’re welcome,” I say, resting my back on the bed rest and tucking myself underneath the sheets.
“What are you doing?”
“Jun, do you want to hear a story?” I pat the space beside me. “Come here, settle down.”
“It’s called ’The Red and Blue Ogre’. Have you ever heard of it?”
“No,” a spark lights up in his eyes and he settles into the space beside me, “what is it about?”
“Once upon a time, there lived a Red and Blue Ogre. They were good friends. The Red Ogre loved humans very much and would always try to make friends whenever he could in a village nearby. However, the Red Ogre looked terrible and he often scared away the humans living in the village instead of befriending them. He was very saddened because he could not make any friends,” I pause to take a breath.
“Did he find a way to make friends?”
“He did. His good friend, the Blue Ogre, hatched up a plan for him. He told the Red Ogre that he would cause an uproar in the village so that his friend could befriend the villagers.”
Jun stares at me, puzzled. “How does that help?”
“The Blue Ogre told the Red Ogre to pretend to rescue the villagers from him and therefore show them that he had a good heart, instead of the bad heart they all thought he had because of how scary he seemed to be.”
“He’s nice,” Jun smiles contently. “Did it work?”
“Of course it did. Over the next few days, the Red Ogre became friends with the villagers and he soon forgot the kindness of his friend. The villagers showered the Red Ogre with many gifts and they invited him to their homes.”
“What happened to the Blue Ogre?”He asks excitedly.
“I’m getting to it,” I laugh, “one day, the Red Ogre finally remembered his friend. He got up, dusted himself, and hurriedly went back to his home to find him and thank him for his kindness. But when he reached his home, he could not find the Blue Ogre anywhere. Instead, he saw a note that the Blue Ogre left for him. What do you think the note said?”
Jun gazes up to his left. He mumbles to himself, caressing his chin lightly every now and then in deep thought. He stirs and finally, turning to me, he says, “I don’t know. What did the note say?”
“It said, ‘Dear Red Ogre, how are you enjoying your new life with your human friends so far? I hope you’re well! Don’t worry about me, I am fine. I have since left our house to embark on an adventure. It won’t be good if the villagers see me with you and they think “oh, the Red Ogre is friends with the Blue Ogre who caused a ruckus in the village the other day!”, so I have decided to leave you. Enjoy your life and spend the rest of your days in joy! Bye, the Blue Ogre.’”
Jun’s eyes soften as a slight smile graces his lips. He sighs and says, “what a nice guy, that Blue Ogre.”
“What did the Red Ogre do?”
“He cried for days but after that, he decided the make the most of his friend’s sacrifice and lived happily ever after with the humans.”
“That’s good,” he giggles, satisfied. “But why are you telling me this story?”
“Jun, I hope we can be friends like the Red and Blue Ogre are friends. How about that?”
He contemplates for a while. At the end, he beams, “okay!”
“Let’s make a promise,” I hold out my pinky finger to him. “We’ll be friends forever, and I’ll be here to wipe away every tear you shed.”
He shoots up in his bed, wrapping his pinky finger around mine, smiling like a Cheshire cat, “I promise! Plus one more thing.”
“I promise you I’ll marry you one day!”