May yours be merry and bright, full of family and friends and laughter. Let us always remember the true reason for the season, and may this time of love and light carry us on into a new year full of brand new experiences and renewed hope.
Since it's Christmas, and because I enjoy writing, I thought I would write a short story for you to enjoy during your down time. It is based in the milieu of the novel that I'm currently working on, with some of the characters and ideas salted in. It's also a quick read, so you can spend less time on your devices and more time with family and friends.
Enjoy, and Merry Christmas!
All the Brightest Lights in the Sky
The days surrounding the Festival of Lights were the busiest for Ren. The entire Capitol was covered in little yellow lights strung from eaves and bridging the gaps between roofs so that entire streets became tunnels of bright lights. The Citadel mall looked more like a garden of giant columns of light than the tree-line strip of grass that it was, and the Citadel itself was wrapped like a gift with lights going all the way to the dome at the top. Even the wall that wrapped its way around the city and the Republic at large was lined with lights on the guard towers and along the long stretches between them.
Everywhere he looked there were lights upon lights upon lights, and he loved it. It was the one time of year that, even though he was completely out-of-his-mind busy, he didn't mind work so much. He knew what his job meant, especially at this time of year, and it made him feel like he was part of something bigger than himself.
He was jogging down the main strip of road that ran through the Capitol, relishing in the cool morning air in his lungs, the scents of cinnamon and fresh baked bread, and the uncharacteristic calm that hung over everything. It was a pregnant silence, because he knew that once he started his rounds people would start to wake up and go about their daily business. Tack on a holiday and the potential energy of the place was tangible.
"Ren!" Someone shouted.
He slowed down, trying to pinpoint the source. The street, as calm as it was, made the task simple. There, standing next to the signpost for his woodworking shop, was Gerald. Ren saw that he was gesturing for him to come over, and holding a wooden box under one arm.
"Bright festival, Gerald," Ren said as he jogged over.
"Same to you," Gerald said with a smile. "I have a delivery, if you don't mind doing something for me on the side."
Ren paused. "You know I have to go through the guild. I can't just take jobs on the side."
"Call it a favor, then." Gerald shrugged. "I just need this delivered to Cynthia today. She lives on the south side, number twenty-three Hickory street. If I drop it at the dropbox, it won't make it until tomorrow."
"Who's your runner? Hiro?"
Gerald leaned in a little closer. "He's slow."
"He's learning. It's only been a few months since he finished apprenticing under Gregor."
"And Gregor was slow too."
Ren crossed his arms. "I'm sorry, Gerald. There's nothing I can do."
Gerald's gaze drifted away from Ren and to a horse-drawn wagon that rumbled down the street behind him. Ren turned to see that it was loaded down with large bags of potatoes. And none other than Gregor was sitting on top of the wagon, driving the horses. He touched two fingers to his temple as he passed, nodding to Ren and more reluctantly to Gerald.
"Not great at making friends with the runners, I see," Ren said, turning back to Gerald.
"Maybe I'll just take the box over there myself."
Ren quickly shot a glance over his shoulder toward the retreating wagon. Gregor was still facing forward. He hadn't heard.
"Keep it down," Ren said in a hoarse whisper. "Asking me to do you a favor under the table is one thing. Delivering something yourself?"
"What's the big deal? It's just a box." Gerald shrugged again. "Maybe the guild needs a little shake up to get you guys working a little faster."
"I like you Gerald," Ren said. "I'd even say we're friends. But when you talk like that it makes it hard to keep coming around here." He motioned for the box.
"You'll take it?" Gerald's face lit up.
"Just give it here," Ren said. "Quick." He looked over his shoulder again, Gregor was still driving away.
Gerald handed him the box. It was made of rough scraped pine wood, but all of the corners were perfectly square and there was an emblem burned into the top that Ren recognized as Gerald's logo. For all her could tell there was no lid, but the thing had weight to it like there was something inside.
"Thanks, Ren, I really--"
"Don't say anything else," Ren said. "I didn't do this for you, understand?"
Gerald looked puzzled, then understood and nodded and smiled. "Bright festival, Ren."
Ren nodded back. "Bright festival, Gerald. Say hello to Amy for me."
"I gave her the day off, but I'll tell her tomorrow."
Ren patted Gerald on the shoulder, turned, and jogged away down the street toward his original destination. This box changed things, and it made his day a lot more difficult. It was one thing to take a box across the city under the nose of the guild, but it was downright dangerous to take anything across the city if you didn't have runner's credentials. Ren had busted a few people himself, and every time he hated doing it but let them off a little easier than some of his colleagues would have.
After all, if just anyone could deliver things from place to place, then a whole lot of people would be out of a job and the entire system would come crashing down around them. That wasn't something that he was willing to let happen.
His dropbox was near the citadel, just across the street next to a bakery that was just setting out its wares in the window. Even though he didn't have an extra coin to spend, he couldn't help but to fantasize over the sweet rolls and iced cakes, savory pies, and the still steaming loaves of bread as they were stacked onto display stands and decorated with spices and bright green leaves. The smell almost put him over the edge, but he knew he needed his money to pay for food that would feed more than just his own mouth.
Another sign of the season: Ren's dropbox was practically full of deliveries. He would often make as much during the festival as the next few months combined. So even though he was currently flush with cash, the deliveries would soon dry up and he would have to live off of what he was making now to cover the gap. That was the life of a runner. That was his life.
Ren quickly catalogued where the packages would need to be delivered, loaded some of them into his backpack, and made a little stack that he would be able to carry. When he was done, he looked at his dropbox again which was still about as full as he would have seen it on a normal running day. The box Gerald had given him was on the other side of the city from a majority of the packages he had to deliver, so he placed it inside the dropbox to pickup later. He could probably get the rest of them with a second trip, including Gerald's box, but by the time he was back he knew there would be more as people continued to put in last minute gifts, hoping like Gerald that they would arrive on time. Lucky for them, Ren made sure all of his packages were delivered.
He hiked his backpack up a little higher on his shoulders, grabbed the stack of boxes he had set aside, and started his run.
By the afternoon, he had delivered most of his dropbox load. He was down to just a few packages and the box from Gerald. All day he had delivered packages through the Capitol and not once had it been convenient to drop of that wooden box. It seemed like every other delivery was to the opposite side of town, and Cynthia's house was just always out of the way.
When he finally picked up the wooden box and a few other packages that needed to go south, the sun was getting low on the horizon, only a handsbreadth or so away from the top of the wall. From where he stood near the Citadel, he could just see the top of the wall between a few buildings, peeking over the tops of the trees to the north. Shielding his eyes against the glare he could just make out a few silhouettes on top of the wall, going about their rounds.
He loved running, or at least he loved the freedom of running, but he always looked up at the wall guard and saw his future. It was all he ever wanted, to be up there on the wall protecting the Republic from the wild land beyond. Above all he wanted to see the wild lands, to know what it looked like outside the Republic, to touch the surface of ground that he had never walked before. It was a seductive thought, to be outside of this place that had become a prison in many ways.
But outside was dangerous, and he had a job to do.
Ren ran south, along a main street that fanned out from the citadel. To the south were some of the lower-class markets. One in particular he enjoyed walking through because the energy was always high. This time of year, it was practically buzzing with joy and celebration. If the lights in the city were extravagant, then they were particularly exquisite here, if there was celebration elsewhere, this was ecstasy. By the time he reached the market the lights were on and casting their glow all around. The smells that he had experienced throughout the entire city were amplified a hundred times over. Children ran about laughing and screaming and free from their usual schooling. It was easy to get caught up in the feeling of the place.
It was in that rush of emotion, the feeling of being in the middle of something special, that made him loose concentration for just a moment. And it only took a moment for him to clip the arm of someone running the other direction and spin to the ground. The world spun and he lost track of the boxes he was carrying. All he could think about was the ground rapidly approaching and he barely had enough time to get his arms under him before his head bounced off of the ground.
The next few moments were a blur of cursing and dust kicked in his face.
"Get up, Ren." A gruff voice. Anger. No. Hatred. A nudge in his ribs. "Come on. Get up."
Ren shook his head and felt a pair of arms under his own, lifting him up. The whole world was spinning around him and it took a few more seconds before he could see clearly enough to understand what had happened. Another runner carrying his own load was heading north, and while Ren wasn't looking he had passed too close and hit him, and they had both fallen to the ground. Unfortunately for Ren, that other runner was Merrick.
"First day on your feet, Ren?" Merrick said. He was gathering his own packages back into his arms.
"No, I..." Ren tried to form words. His head hurt. "I'm sorry, I was just--"
"Breaking the seventh rule, is what I figure," Merrick said. He picked up another box, this one clearly one of Ren's deliveries.
"This was yours?" Merrick said, gesturing to the box in his hands. "Should have paid more attention to where you were going then. Guild law says that whatever a runner is holding is the property of the runner. This is my box."
"Come on, Merrick," Ren said. "Don't be like that."
He bent over and tried to grab one of his boxes, but Merrick slapped his hand away and grabbed it instead. Ren glared at him, a fear gripping him. If Merrick saw the box from Gerald he would know Ren took it under the table, and then everything would be ruined. His eyes darted around, looking for the box, but he didn't see it anywhere. Merrick picked up another box and another, but Ren no longer cared. None of them were that specific wooden box he was looking for and as long as Merrick was busy grabbing those then he wouldn't be--
There. Almost all the way across the street Ren saw the wooden box lying a few meters away from a food cart, but still in the main path of traffic. Somehow it had flown so far from the collision. Ignoring all of his other packages he darted across the street and reached out for the box, but something ran into him and sent him sprawling.
No. Merrick couldn't get it. He pushed himself back up and turned around. But it wasn't Merrick standing there with the box, instead it was a girl in simple clothes and shoulder-length brown hair. She gripped the box, nodded to Ren, and darted away.
"You going to take care of that," Merrick said from across the street, "or do you need me to step in again?"
Ren looked at Merrick still collecting packages. The man was going to get a nice bonus on his normal deliveries, that was for sure. But nothing else mattered to Ren at the moment. Now not only was his sketchy delivery at stake, but a non-runner was carrying a package through the city. That was not done, and he couldn't be see to let it happen.
With a grunt and wincing through a pain in his shoulder, he pushed himself up to his feet and took off after the girl. She was heading west, which meant that there wasn't much city left before they ran into wilderness. This part of the city was near a forest that the city was slowly expanding into. Though it was the other way around, it seemed as though the forest was slowly eating into the city, creeping its way toward the center like a living thing. He figured that he would be able to catch her before they came to the forest, but he was wrong. Either she was a better runner than he thought, or he had been sitting their stunned longer than he estimated.
At least he had her trail, which through the city was not much more than a gap in the crowd where she had run through and a few lingering glances at someone doing a job they were clearly not supposed to be doing. When he hit the forest, however, his job became a bit harder. He stopped at the edge of the woods and listened for a moment, barely picking out the sounds of snapping branches and rustled leaves in the distance.
Where was she taking the box?
He had to stop a few times to figure out which direction she had gone, but he kept her trail, and after several more minutes he finally broke through the trees into a small clearing that was almost circular. The ground was covered in a lush grass that was a stark contrast to the dirt and shrubs all over the forest floor. Here it was like an oasis in the desert, a retreat from the harsh environment around him.
And there, in the middle of the clearing, was the girl. She was lying on the ground, arms outstretched, a small pack sitting next to her, all illuminated by the little glowlight that was attached to her belt. It was just like Ren's own light, and it cast a pale white glow a few feet in all directions.
Ren wasted no time in walking over to her. "Where's my box?" He asked when he was close enough to be heard without shouting.
"Sorry," she said. "It was a mistake."
"Why me?" Ren asked. "Why would you take my delivery?"
"I thought you were someone else," the girl said. She was lying still on the ground, gaze fixed upward.
"Who are you?"
"Aiyana. And you?"
Ren looked around. This was all a waste of time. He could almost sense his dropbox filling with more deliveries, his livelihood slipping away as he stood in this field with some girl he didn't know.
"Ren," he said.
"Have a seat, Ren," Aiyana said. "Take a break from the chaos for a minute."
Ren relented and unslung his backpack, letting it fall loose to the ground. He followed it down, ending up on his back in the cold grass, next to Aiyana. He wouldn't admit it, but his muscles ached and it felt good just to lie down for a moment.
"Aren't they beautiful?"
Ren looked over at her. "The lights?"
"The stars." Aiyana put her hands up behind her head like a pillow. "Do you know why we celebrate the Festival of Lights?"
Here we go. "Yes."
Aiyana looked back at him, their eyes meeting. "Tell me."
Ren faltered for a half-second and he knew she'd made him. Yes, it was true that he had heard the story a long time ago, probably from some old story-teller when he was a boy, but he couldn't remember any of it. Not that it mattered anyway, he was sure that she was going to tell him either way.
"We put lights up everywhere to celebrate the stars," Aiyana said, looking back up. "The stars remind us how small we are, and they remind us that if we don't help each other and rely on one another, we will never survive. This is a celebration of life, and of each other."
Ren was silent for a while, watching the star above. The sky continued to darken, but the lights around them shone out even brighter. They were a ways away from the Capitol now, but the ambient light seemed to carry up and over the trees, washing away some of the starlight from above. He'd never really thought about why they celebrated the Festival of Lights before. It was just a thing that they did every year. To him it was nothing more than a time where he could make a little extra money, and when people gave each other presents. He didn't think it had to be much more than that, but now that he really thought about it the meaning was growing on him.
"I thought you were going to give me a much longer story," Ren said.
"Do I look like a story-teller?" Aiyana said. She rolled over to face him, propping her head up with one hand, a sarcastic smile on her face. "Did you need a bedtime story?"
"No, I--" and Ren realized that he didn't know what he wanted to say.
"You did want a bedtime story," Aiyana said, smile growing ever wider. She shoved at him playfully.
"Come on," he said. "I just thought you were going to give me some long explanation."
"Does it need to be any longer?"
Ren pondered that for a moment. "No."
Aiyana rolled onto her back again, eyes once again scanning the sky, and they laid there side by side for what felt like a long time, just watching. The distant sounds of music and voices from the Capitol were a faint background noise to the chirping of insects and the rustle of the wind through the leaves.
"Will you tell me where my box is now?"
"I thought it was a delivery."
"It's technically mine until I deliver it," Ren said. "That's the guild law."
"Seriously? That's how that works?"
"That's creepy." Aiyana turned and looked over toward the edge of the little clearing. "It's under some leaves by that tree over there. The one with the largest trunk."
"Thanks," Ren said and stood up.
He jogged over to the tree and found the box at its base, silently cursing himself for not just looking around when he arrived. It was barely hidden and the only reason he hadn't seen it from the middle of the clearing was because it was dark.
"Have a good festival, Ren," Aiyana called out. She was still lying down in the middle of the clearing, looking up.
Ren turned and ran back toward the Capitol.
He made it to number twenty-three Hickory street within the hour. It was just before the big lighting ceremony on the mall, where they would be turning on the biggest and brightest of the lights that were strung up and down a large tree that had been cut down and brought into the city for the occasion. Most of the city would be there, watching the lighting, but there were some who skipped the crowds in favor of a nice quiet evening at home. Ren could tell that this was the case for Cynthia and her family when he came close to the door, as he could hear laughter and children running around inside.
She answered the door after the second knock, hair disheveled and eyes tired. "Delivery? What do I owe you?" She started to fish inside the little pouch that hung around her neck.
"No charge," Ren said, quietly so that he couldn't be overheard from the street. He held the box out toward Cynthia. "Favor for a friend."
"Gerald?" Cynthia said, looking at the box. Her eyes that looked so tired before were now welling. "Please, come in."
"I can't stay," Ren said. He put the box in her hands. "I still have a lot of deliveries to make."
Cynthia nodded, lips pursed. She took the box and slid a discreet little panel on the side that revealed a lid opening. Gerald, master woodworker that he was, had somehow hidden the opening, which told Ren that this wasn't the first box he had sent out. She opened up the lid and looked inside, stifling a few more tears as she did so. Ren leaned a bit and saw that the box was packed full of food. Bread, potatoes, poultry wrapped in paper, and an entire pie were all artfully arranged inside.
"We haven't been able to afford anything fancy this year," Cynthia said. "Not since my husband--"
She was that Cynthia. Ren remembered the story of the accident on the wall. Her husband was a wall guard and had saved a worker that was doing maintenance, at the cost of his own life. The Republic required its citizens to work for their food, but there was no way that she, a mother of seven, would have been able to bring home much in the way of money. Not only had Gerald circumvented the runners guild, but the very fabric of their society. All in the service of helping out this family.
And then Ren remembered Aiyana's explanation of the Festival. And it all made sense. How could they ever survive without each other? How could this family survive without help from friends. It wasn't a circumvention of law or policy. It was the right thing to do.
"Thank you," Cynthia said. She closed the box again and placed it inside the door. "Are you sure you can't--"
"Sorry," Ren said. "I really do have to go." He backed down the steps. "Bright festival."
"You as well," Cynthia said, smiling.
Ren turned and ran down the street. He had more deliveries to make, and the night was still young. He ran through the light-speckled street, under the sky blanketed in its own decorations, breathing in the cool air and smells of hundreds of dinners cooking in homes all over the city. Bright festival indeed.
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, be sure to check out some of my other stuff on my Fiction page, and look forward to the short story that I'm hoping to self-publish at the start of the year.