Willow Glen Manor boasted a koi pond that was considerably larger than those that could be found in the average suburban backyard. The pool extended far enough that a small stone bridge arched from one side to the other. As I drew near, I was surprised to see that someone else was already there. A young man stood in the center of the bridge, gazing down into the water.
It was someone I had never laid eyes on before. He had black curly hair that grew so that it stood out from his head a bit, but not long enough to cover his ears. He was slender but looked fit; the muscle of his bronzed arms where they extended beneath his sleeves was well-defined. His eyes, when he looked up at my approach, were enormous and brown, framed by long black lashes. I hadn't noticed that he had been listening to music until he popped the buds out of his ears and shoved his iPod down into his jeans pocket. He offered me a gentle smile and said "Hello."
At a guess I would have put him at about twenty years old. In Sentient years, I couldn't have said. "Oh. Hi. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to disturb you-"
He was shaking his head. "Please. Disturb me. I'm kind of bored out of my skull after traveling for so long." His eyes swept over me, assessing. "You work here?" he asked.
"I...I…" I hadn't been prepared for meeting any of the others yet! If only one of the families had arrived so far, it wasn't possible for me to pretend to just be someone else's servant. And if I said I worked for the Dorns, what could I claim my role was? I certainly didn't look dressed for any sort of position in the household, in my own jeans and embroidered top with spaghetti straps.
The young man actually looked pained at my discomfort, one side of his face pulled up into a grimace. Before I could muster any sort of reply he stepped in and saved me from having to make any. He extended a hand to me. "I'm Reza," he told me. "Hakim."
I recognized the last name. "My name is Anna," I said, shaking his hand. "I do know that much." He tipped his head back slightly and laughed, a sound that rang out over the surface of the pond and took me aback with its natural fervor.
"There are so few things in this world we can be sure of," he replied. "Knowing who we are is an important one."
"In that case," I said as I withdrew my hand from his. "I don't think I'm doing so hot."
He cast his eyes over me again, this time with a more probing gaze. He apparently found what he had been looking for and said, "Nah, you're gonna be alright." He turned and leaned back over onto the bridge's balustrade. "Some of us just take longer than others to find the right path."
"I don't know if I'm even on the map anymore."
I could see the corner of his mouth lift. "I think you're closer than you realize."
Just then the gardener came into view with his shears and set to work on some shrubs at the far end of the pond. We watched him for a time.
"So who else is here with you?" I asked after a while.
"My parents and my brother Omar. My oldest brother stayed at home this time, with his tail tucked between his legs."
Things clicked into place in my head. "Is he the one who accidentally set himself on fire?"
Reza laughed again. "The one and the same. He wasn't actually injured too badly; my dad was in the lab with him and they put the flames out right away. It's his pride that's hurt more than anything."
"And where exactly is home?" I wanted to know.
"Ah. You're Moroccan?" I could only detect the faintest hint of an accent, and it was not one I could place.
"We’re originally from Turkey, actually," he answered. "We still have a home there, but these days we spend most of our time at our place in Marrakesh."
"I see." Truthfully, in my mind I was thinking about how different life must be when you had homes all over the world, when you could just move to a different country on a whim. I wasn't surprised, though. If Jameson could fashion a crystal flower out of an ordinary stone, and since one of the main precepts of historical alchemy was the endeavor to turn base materials into gold, I was sure accumulating wealth was not a problem for any of the Sentient.
We could hear the sound of the gardener humming to himself as his voice skimmed across the water to where we stood. We watched as he did a little jig and actually jumped to clap his heels together. "Dude really loves his work," Reza noted. Tom then lifted the flap of his breast pocket and pulled out a silver flask. Tossing his head back he helped himself to a lengthy swig. "Ah, that's why so happy," Reza said.
"Tsk tsk," I added. Then, "Well, it was nice to meet you, but I guess I'll be heading back inside now."
"Okay. See you around, Anna." I started making my way back toward the house. At one point I turned around for one last glimpse of my new acquaintance. He hadn't replaced his ear buds. He still stood leaning over the edge of the stone bridge, his shirt stretching up and revealing an expanse of golden skin and the band of his boxers peeking out above his pants. He was certainly not what I had expected to find in another Sentient. His eyes were fixed on the pond, his gaze as penetrating as if he could read secrets in the water below.
I left with an extra spring in my step, a buoyancy in my spirit that hadn't been there for some time. I can't say why, but when Reza Hakim told me I was going to be alright, I believed him.
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