“It won’t be a big thing, but my new employer is throwing a party for me before I return with him to Donnyton,” Mareen said excitedly. People flowed past them on the sidewalks, but Naffur barely noticed him. His breathing was short and his skin was tingling as he stared at the purple invitation Mareen was offering him. “It will be at the Eastern Gardens, in one of those cute little gazebo things. It’s close enough to my birthday that my family will be there too. Because I’m not sure when I will see everyone again…”
Mareen trailed off, seeming to notice Naffur’s glazed eyes for the first time. “…Naffur, is something wrong?”
You are leaving.
“No, it’s nothing. I’m just tired.” Naffur said quickly. His tongue felt fat and dry and his mouth. How could he feel so cold but be sweating at the same time? There was a dull ache in his chest as he fumbled with his words. “I… errr- I can come, I guess.”
“Really?!” Mareen’s eyes flashed as she smiled. The pain in Naffur’s chest grew worse. “Thank god. Honestly, Naffur… I wouldn’t want to leave without… um… saying goodbye. To you, I mean.”
They stood awkwardly for several seconds, not quite looking at each other. Instead, both seem to focus on the invitation held between them. At some point, Naffur’s hand had reached up and seized the edge, so that their hands each held an end. They were close, only a small distance from touching. But they were at a strange impasse.
“I-” Mareen began, but Naffur cut her off with an effort of will. His eyes were bright and serious as he raised his gaze. He would say something.
“I like… that you have this opportunity. You… deserve it.” His tongue was fat and dry in his mouth again. His left hand, the one not holding the card so near Mareen’s hand, twisted and fidgetted. It was very sweaty. “I wouldn’t miss your party for the world, Mareen.”
“Oh, that’s good.” Even Naffur noticed that Mareen’s gaze was strange as it looked at him. People continued to move around them. They had earned more than a few annoyed glances from workers, but they both ignored them.
“So, um,” Mareen suddenly said as she let go of the card. Slowly, Naffur’s arm fell to his side, still gripping the invitation. “How about you? Did you get a sponsor from the Lottery…? Things were so chaotic afterward, I looked for you but-”
“Ah…” Naffur reached up and scratched the back of his neck. How should he answer this…? What would be easier to say? That he gained a lot? Or that basically nothing changed in his life? “Yea, but its a minor sort of position for a bureaucrat. Basically, I’m supposed to go to meetings…”
Which was true, in a way. Just extremely misleading.
“Oh, that’s wonderful! Have you told everyone down at the shop yet? Oh, have you heard about the man that’s started pursuing Mama? He’s only 37! That’s 20 years her junior! Say what you will about the System, but in terms of health and beauty…”
Mareen continued talking happily with Naffur, but all he could think about was the moment he had to tell her not to leave, and the fact he had done nothing. Very quickly, he couldn’t stand it anymore and made an excuse to leave. After extracting from him a promise that he would attend her party, Mareen let him go with a disappointed expression.
It was only after Naffur returned to his little base on the connecting scaffolding between two buildings that he could truly relax. But that was short-lived because as soon as he returned the first thing he looked at was the mask that started the entirety of this portion of his life: the Ghosthound Mask. It was partially melted and scuffed from the events at the Manhattan Tower, but it was whole.
And beneath it was a pile of money.
The ending of the Lottery had gone almost perfectly well for Naffur. The Haveheights were cast as heroes, because all that most people saw were them charging into the bank in order to stop the terrorists that were attacking it. Ricky Stain had been over the moon because the exposure had landed them a security gig at one of the lesser government facilities. He had even sent Naffur a thank you note and a fruit basket, complimenting his “gift for knowing when to make an entrance.”
Still, Naffur didn’t have a job or a sponsor who was training him. All he really had was an alter-ego that was the only known member of the Order Ducis, other than Randidly Ghosthound himself.
Even stranger still, upon waking up after the Manhattan Tower Lottery Incident, he had been greeted by a creature that was only Randidly Ghosthound’s doppelganger, named Neveah.
“You aren’t him…?” Naffur asked from his bed, feeling profoundly disappointed. “Then am I not…?”
“Oh, you are still in the Order. Don’t worry, I am basically him. Even if I look like this. My fiance doesn’t like it much either.” Then Neveah transformed, and Naffur saw so many teeth that he wished he had never asked.
But what Neveah did tell him was that the Order Ducis was important. Incredibly so. Mostly because it was seen as the vehicle for the will of the Ghosthound, which was important to basically all of the important political figures, but also because the Order Ducis was given sole responsibility of issuing permits for the founding of Orders by some charter.
And then there was the money.
“Answering all the letters to make things Orders is boring,” Neveah said, shaking her head. After some goopy features, she had settled on an androgynous body that looked similar to Randidly but was clearly not him. “But some are persistent and sent gifts. You can have them, it’s of no use to me.”
So Neveah had given him a seal, signifying the authority of the entirety of the Order Ducis, a pile of letters, and so much money that Naffur still didn’t believe it was really sitting in the side of his small rooftop shack. At nights, sometimes he counted it to fall asleep. He never finished going through the bills.
Some of it was American dollars, others were the Donnyton buck, with there were promissory notes from various institutions, companies, and organizations of varying repute. It was hard to know even what was worth what.
But Naffur’s interaction with Mareen had filled him with a strange sense of powerlessness, so today he made an exception to ignoring the letters. After making a small fire, he began to read.
The first was a letter from someone who simply introduced herself as Annie. She, in spare prose, asked for leave to found the Order Sagitta.
Naffur was having none of it; the letter was dropped into the greedy flames without a thought.
The next was also a rejection: it was for the Order Denaris. Although he wasn’t positive that he knew what it stood for, based upon the implications of the letter this was from a bank. At the thought of a banking institution possessing the power to be an Order, Naffur wrinkled his nose. In the old world, banks had run the world. He wasn’t in the mood to allow that to happen again.
More and more Naffur read applications for status as a recognized Order, and more and more his frustration and anxiety about Mareen dissipated. Soon, Naffur stopped reading the letters, because he was deeply concerned.
In what way would he be able to know if these groups should be orders…?
Already, the influence of the Orders could be seen. For most other Orders, there were small groups in most places supporting them and benefiting the community.
For example, the Order Fide was opening shelters for the poor in the Orchard, giving away soup and bread twice a day. The Order Valorum had set up “Valor Boards” where anyone could post jobs and rewards that were free for people to take.
The Order Veritas offered some sort of honor based promises service that Naffur didn’t quite get, but he recognized it was gaining popularity. Basically, an oath before someone of the Order Veritas meant something special. People had even taken to inviting a member of the Order Veritas to witness their wedding.
These were forces for good. How could Naffur hope to rival the planners of the Orders in choosing who should be allowed into the group of Orders…?
“How can I do this?” Naffur had asked when Neveah dumped it all on him. He was overwhelmed and likely still a bit concussed. “Look at me! I am just-”
“Someone who went back to help in the face of danger,” Neveah had said shortly. She flashed a smile at him. “I was watching. And I think you’ll do fine. Half of being a leader is just clenching your fist and being the first one to take a step forward.”
Then she had paused. “…the second half is results, but you get better at that part over time. The sooner you start practicing, the better, I think.”