Kenneth watched as a small glass bead wound its way around a series of tubes constructed from wood, iron and rubber. It finally rolled to a stop, and once it did a tiny door on the top of the contraption opened, a wooden bird emerging from inside and making a peeping noise.
“A clock, m’lord,” the woman at the stall said.
Kenneth smiled and shook his head. It was cute, but not what he had in mind for Thorn.
He knew it was foolish. Thorn could make his own devices that were a thousand times more useful, and probably better made, than what would be sold here. But it was Kenneth’s chance to find something that would let Thorn know how Kenneth felt about him, even if it may not actually impress him.
The stall he wanted was not nearly as crowded as the others. Kenneth paused before he approached, taking in the sight. Most of the small wheeled contraptions didn’t move, but one rolled back and forth, puffs of steam emerging from the top like a small chimney. It was slightly different than the one that had scared Jade the first day he had met Thorn—the wheels were smaller, the metal lighter. But it was close.
“Excuse me,” Kenneth said, and the young man working the stand jumped, his eyes widening when he saw Kenneth.
“Yes, my lord,” he said, his voice wobbling. Kenneth wished he hadn’t worn his silk robes. Then again, he didn’t own anything that wouldn’t make him stand out. “Are you interested in a heater or perhaps a fan? Or a humidifier?”
Kenneth blinked. “I’m curious about these,” he said, pointing to the contraption. “How much are they?”
He immediately regretted the question, remembering the man in the shop who had fleeced him for a simple steel bar. But it was too late now.
“O-only a sixpence, my lord,” the man answered. Kenneth had to grin. At least the inventor’s college students were honest.
He paid twice that, telling the boy to keep the rest. He packed up the contraption, what the boy explained was a “wheeled automata,” in a cloth bag. Kenneth hoped Thorn would like it.
He walked Jade back to the edge of the crowd, finally noticing his lover, still on horseback, where he had left him. Thorn peered into the crowd, his eyes narrowed and his forehead creased.
“Thorn?” Kenneth asked. Thorn’s face smoothed when Kenneth approached, but the careful glint didn’t leave his eyes. “Is something wrong? You seem on edge.”
“Kenneth.” Thorn smiled. “No, I’m just fine.” Kenneth raised an eyebrow, but didn’t pry. Thorn glanced around him one more time, Kenneth turning his head to follow his gaze. He saw only other talentless milling about, and a boy chasing a large bug with a stick. Filthy, but harmless.
“I got something for you, just as I said I would,” Kenneth said. “Would you like it here?”
Thorn grinned. “What say I take you out to lunch first? You can give it to me there.”
Apparently in talentless towns, it wasn’t unusual to eat outside after being served food that could be easily carried. Chunks of meat on a stick wasn’t exactly the most appetizing meal, but the taste made up for it. Kenneth and Thorn sat outside a restaurant on a bench provided for diners like them, watching the road as heavily laden carts trundled by.
“So,” Thorn said. “What is this gift of yours?” There was something in his voice, some sort of wariness or nervousness, but it wasn’t directed at Kenneth. Something must have happened, but Kenneth had no idea what. If Thorn wanted to be distracted, though, he could do that.
“I do hope you enjoy it,” Kenneth said, a blush stealing over his face. “I know its probably not impressive compared to what you could make, but it reminded me of the first time we met, and—“
“Kenneth,” Thorn said with a laugh. “Just show me.”
Kenneth presented the bag, untying the knot with his hands rather than using magic, mindful of the people around them as they walked by. Thorn broke into a wide smile when he saw the small machine.
“Of course,” he said, his eyes glinting. “Just like my old automata.” He took it from Kenneth’s hands, peering at the underside and tapping the strange chimney-stack like apparatus.
“The wheels are turning slowly,” he said. “I suppose it needs more water.”
“I didn’t expect it to be very good considering what you said of the Journeyman’s fair,” Kenneth said. “But it reminded me of our first meeting.”
“Its wonderful,” Thorn said. “A fitting gift—and a good way to remember where I met you. And the inventor’s college, of course.” He turned, Kenneth following, seeing the large, ugly edifice of the college in the skyline.
Ugly to Kenneth, anyway. To Thorn, it had been home for years, if the talentless attended schooling for as long as magi did.
“Will you miss it?” Kenneth asked.
Thorn looked back at him, his eyes focusing on Kenneth as if losing sight of something else. “A bit,” he said. “I learned a lot there, and so many dreams happen there.” He cradled the automata. “Most first years make these. You know why?”
Kenneth shook his head.
“They’re called wheeled automata, and they’re treated as toys, but long before the war, they made these full size. The dream was for people to ride in them, to replace horses and carriages. It was one of the inventions forbidden by magi even before the war, and never perfected. We make little ones now, in an ongoing attempt to perfect it. One day, I’m sure, someone will find a way to make them efficient, and then the world could change.” He smiled at the small automata. “They represent a lot.” His eyes shone as he looked up at Kenneth. “Thank you.”
Warmth bloomed in Kenneth’s chest. “I just want you to be happy.”