The mountain town of Avalon was in full swing by the time I hopped the final boulder down the trail.
Avalon rested on a natural slope that reminded travelers there was no lodging and they needed to keep moving on. Guests, of course, could do whatever they pleased, but the small pitstop was a place for repairs, trades, and maybe a quick luxury to-go.
Luxuries like the aroma leading my nose to the first shop on my delivery route.
On a day like today, I always entered towns from the upslope to make sure I was going against the flow of the guests. It was always so tempting to stroll up with visitors and listen to their stories. But when I had a schedule to keep, it was better to pass people going the opposite way than be drawn into their tales of love triangles, social politics, and fears of not being enough.
They were endlessly baffling and I never tired of them, which was why I needed to travel opposite of temptation for the day.
In the storybooks, Avalon was a magical place with witches, knights, kings, and castles. Anyone expecting to find as much in this namesake mountain town was bound to be disappointed. It was basically two rows of shops framing a path up the mountain for about a quarter of a mile.
Guests either stopped or they didn’t. Their choice. But nearly everyone passed through.
Everyone got an early start this high up in the mountain. Avalon bustled — all types of foods already cooking over open fires or baking in clay ovens as shop owners laid out their wares and got ready for the day. But nothing cooking over a fire completely overpowered the sublime aroma of bread baking at the first shop on my list.
“Z!” the baker’s daughter called out to me when I was still a good distance away.
I waved back, double-timing my pace to reach her as she pulled a sticky bun off a cooling tray. By the time I got to her she was holding it out to me.
“Good morning, Emma,” I said as I took the delicious pastry.
“Good morning,” she replied with a bright smile. “Today is not your usual day.”
“I know,” I said, finding a stump to rest my bag on. “I couldn’t sleep last night so I decided to come up the mountain.”
She eyed my bag and gave a small impulsive bounce. “Have anything for us?”
Emma’s father was a baker and her mother was a seamstress, so I often had items for at least one of them.
“Only small things this time,” I said, taking a bite of the hot bun as my free hand undid my pack. I peeked in, knowing exactly the pouch I was looking for. “But I do have…”
I pulled out the pouch, letting Emma swipe it from me to peer into the bag as if it contained great treasure. Because it did.
“Buttons!” she squealed, looking through them as I made quick work of the sticky bun. “And they’re all different. Where did you get these?”
The answer was always the same: Guests.
Items on the mountain were a rotating stock of what visitors left, lost, or traded during their time on the mountain. Which was pretty much everything. So when someone asked where something came from, they weren’t asking about who brought it up the mountain, but the why and the how of it all.
“Well,” I began, reshouldering my pack as I gave her the story behind the buttons. “Once upon this one time, a rich man lived in a high tower in the middle of a great city. This man had everything he had been told he could want, yet he felt empty. And, as the days passed, his emptiness grew and grew until, not knowing what else to do, he chartered a jet off to Timbuktu.”
She rolled her eyes as she leaned on the stump and settled in for the story. “Predictable. Then what?”
“First, the man sought out a monk, who asked him, ‘What do you seek?’ The man replied, ‘The meaning of it all. I do all the things I’m supposed to do but, at the end of the day, none of it feels true.’ To which the monk replied, ‘And so you came to Timbuktu? Because you think our way of life holds answers for you?’
It was then the rich man looked around and realized he was far too good for such a place. No one he saw had a life that he wished for, so he left the monk, returned to his private jet, and set off for Paris.”
Emma perked up. “To have pastries?”
“How could he resist?” I teased. “But that’s not what he was there for. He visited shop after shop filled with beautiful things that were up to his standards, but—”
“He still felt empty?” Emma guessed.
I nodded sagely. “He did. And as the rich man wandered the city, searching for the meaning of it all, he started to wonder if maybe he needed to attract new friends by adopting a new style of fashion.”
Emma scrunched her face as if she found the idea stinky.
“And so,” I continued. “The rich man went from shop to shop, sampling their wares and trying different looks on.”
“So he could find friends who would teach him the meaning of life because they liked his clothes?”
I shrugged. “Apparently, so. But this new friend he was seeking did not appear how he thought she would.”
Emma’s eyes grew wide. “She? Did they fall in love?”
“Not as of yet,” I replied. “But as the rich man bored her with his laments of what he was missing from his life, the woman replied, ‘Sounds like you need a trip up Summit Peak.’ Then she gave him directions and told him to come find her again when he wasn’t so lost.”
“Ouch!” Emma giggled.
I grimaced in agreement. “So the rich man packed up that night and followed her directions to Summit Peak’s gates.”
Emma’s eyes opened wide as she returned her gaze to the buttons as if they were perfect-cut jewels. “So these buttons are from shops in Paris?”
I nodded. “These are the options the man considered as he sought out his new style. And he brought them along thinking they would help us find his answers.”
“But there are so many! And they’re all so different. Did he not whittle them down to a selection of preferences?”
“He doubted his judgment, and was trying to be open to all sorts of options. Plus, given who the man was, the shops were generous with providing samples and eager to build their reputations by dressing him.”
Emma rolled her eyes. “Well, he was wise to leave them all behind and climb a mountain to find you instead. You’ll fashion him the perfect suit and it will be better than anything he could get in Paris. Mama always says that when she mends something of yours: that there’s no better tailor in all of Paris.”
Before I could blush through a reply, Emma’s father walked up behind her carrying two fresh loaves of bread.
“Good morning, Tibor,” I greeted.
Emma rushed to meet her father half-way. “Look! Buttons for mama. All different ones. And fancy. From Paris!”
“Ah, your mama’s hometown,” Tibor said with a nod.
“She’s going to love them!” Emma beamed.
Tibor nodded his agreement then held out the loaves my way. “One for the road, and one to share when you get home.”
“Thank you,” I said, mouth already watering for a bite. The sticky bun had broken the seal on my hunger and I was ravenous now—especially for one of Tibor’s loafs. He always filled his breads with nuts and berries that helped keep hunger and fatigue at bay on a long trip.
“Something special bring you this way?” he asked. “We weren’t expecting you for eight more days.”
“I couldn’t sleep,” I replied. “And every time I tried, I pictured myself up here at morning time. So I decided to take a hike.”
“A hike,” he laughed. “Only you would call a journey that takes three days for the rest of us a hike.”
I shrugged. “Well, everyone else goes a different way and is carrying big stuff. I cheat.”
“Still…” Tibor said before looking Emma’s way. “Take those buttons to your mother. She’s opening the shop and will want to add them to the display.”
Emma smiled up at me. “Want to come with me? Mama would love to see you.”
“Z needs to get going,” Tibor answered for me. “Today is a regular work day for all of us. No lollygagging.”
“Fine,” Emma pouted before sending me a wave. “Nice seeing you, Z. Thanks for the buttons!”
“Thanks for breakfast,” I called back.
I looked over to Tibor and held up the loaves in gratitude. “I’ll make sure these find grateful stomachs.”
“One for you, one to share,” he reminded me, knowing I might neglect to remember that detail if I didn’t promise not to forget.
“Understood,” I said, giving him a salute.
“Now get going,” he said, pointing down the mountain. “There’s a mountain between where you are and where you’re supposed to be right now.”
“On my way,” I said, moving toward the next shop on my delivery route. I had a survival knife for them. Handmade. Good design.
Leo was with a traveler when I arrived, so I made sure he saw the knife before leaving it on his chair and setting off for my next stop.
For Aggie the quilt maker, I had scraps of soft fabric, which she started sorting the moment the sack traded hands. She needed them right then, which made me glad she hadn’t had to wait an extra eight days.
Maybe Aggie was the reason I couldn’t sleep the night before. Maybe someone needed a blanket soon, but couldn’t have it if Aggie didn’t have what she needed to make it.
I left the quilt shop with a skip in my step and made my way to my final stop at the jewelers.
Erik was manning the shop as I entered and he received the small sack of uncut sapphires and rubies with great interest. One of the rubies, in particular, seemed to catch his eye and he examined it as I took a bite of bread and headed for the exit.
“This one is perfect,” he called after me.
“In the right hands it is,” I replied. “I don’t have the skills to do right by it.”
“I do,” he said with focused confidence. “I hope you get to see it again before I barter it off.”
“Me, too,” I said, nearly to the door when my feet paused of their own accord.
Off to my left, in the working area, twin moonstones winked at me from the sea of sparkling things as if they wanted to hitch a ride to wherever I was going.
I moved closer, smiling at the dimensions I found upon closer inspection.
“I know who these are for, Erik!” I called out, not taking my eyes from the stones. “I think they’re why I came up the mountain.”
In fact, I was certain of it.
“Take them,” Erik replied. “I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with them for weeks, so it would make sense if they were waiting for you.”
“They were,” I said with confidence.
Erik plucked them out of the work tray and dropped them into my hand. “What are you going to make with them?”
“Cufflinks,” I said without hesitation. “My client’s signature look is missing singular cufflinks.” Not buttons.
“I can see the potential,” Erik said without looking convinced. “But it would take a very strong man to pull off this much feminine energy.”
“He can do it.”
Erik selected a small leather pouch from the work area and held it open for me to drop the moonstones in. “Sheen polish or signet design?”
“Signet,” I said, recalling his intake profile. “Probably the rose.”
Erik handed me the pouch and chuckled. “Good luck with that.”
I clasped my hand to his shoulder. “Good luck back.”
Then I waved and left.
With all my deliveries complete, I started down the mountain only to have a familiar voice call me back.
“Z?” the elderly voice quaked. “Is that you trying to sneak by unnoticed?”
I looked the old mystic’s way with a mouth full of bread, glad she was blind to the picture I made as I swallowed as quickly as I could to reply, “Not sneaking. Just hurrying.”
“Past me?” she scoffed, as if I had committed a high offense.
“I’ve never seen you awake this early. You usually stay shuttered in until the afternoon.”
“Hmm. True enough,” she griped before gesturing to the chair across from her. “But something is different about you today. I must have a look. Sit with me for a moment.”
A look was a metaphor with Delphi because she was long past seeing anything at all. It made her eyes a bit scary to look at with all their milky swirling. But I’d known Delphi my whole life, which meant I was used to the gaze that often left powerful men feeling anxious.
I chewed quietly as Delphi stared at nothing while holding my hands. “Well, now I know why I got up early this morning.”
“Yeah?” I asked, surprised she was picking up on something. She’d always called me a blank slate and told me I had the rare gift of having no cosmic influences at play in my life.
My fate was all my own. That was my fortune and it always had been.
Until now, apparently.
“My dear,” she sighed. “I fear our paths will not cross again soon, for a dance with destiny is coming for you.”
I swallowed my bite of bread. “For real? A dance with destiny? Like in the stories?”
“Yes,” Delphi said sagely. “Only this story will be yours.”
That … didn’t seem possible. “How can you tell? What do you see?”
“You,” she replied. “Taking the first of many steps toward who you were born to be.”
Well, that wasn’t helpful. “I was born to be a tailor.”
“Yes,” Dephi agreed, ghostly eyes still far away. “Among other things. The good news is you have everything you need for what comes next. The only question is whether your spirit will fail before you complete destiny’s test. Will you cling to what is tried and true, or embrace the challenge of a world that is new?”
“I love new things,” I said with confidence. “And I can pass any test, given enough time.”
“True,” she said skeptically. “But when spirits fail, time tends to run out. Failing is a choice many embrace when fear replaces faith inside their heart.”
“Not me,” I said with certainty. “I’m not afraid.”
“Because you’ve never had reason to be,” she warned, continuing before I could balk. “You’ve been startled and terrified and many other similar things, but true fear is different. Living up here in the flipside of things has sheltered you from so many things. But change is afoot and it’s coming your way.”
Her words had my stomach twisting anxiously like it did the first time I rode the line across the ravine with a hope and a prayer that I had figured out my timing.
And she wasn’t done.
“I would prepare yourself if I were you,” she continued. “Destiny calls to us like a gravitational force, but we always have a choice. We can deny it if we wish. But the ether will soon call to you in a way you have never experienced before. If you follow the call, I will not see you for quite some time. If you falter and refuse, I’ll see you in eight days.”
I sat dumbfounded, having no idea what to say.
I’d heard others have their fortunes told by Delphi and imagined how it might feel to have such words said. When that day happened, I’d always imagined the words would make sense to me — like someone saying something I’d always known and confirming some secret thought had been right all along.
But nothing Delphi was saying made sense to me.
“Where could fate take me that would keep me from seeing you next week?” I asked, baffled.
“That is for you to find out, and for me to shut up about,” Delphi replied. “In life, there are some things you must see for yourself.”
Again, not helpful.
“Now, get going,” she said, releasing my hands and shewing me away like a cat. “You have so much work to do. I’m glad you followed your heart up the mountain so this old lady could say goodbye, but you have a client who will not be late in picking up work you still need to do. So be gone, but remember: Everything makes sense until it doesn’t, and nothing makes sense until it does.”
“What?” I asked and was met with another shewing.
“I already told you more than I ought. Don’t milk an old lady for more. It’s rude … just like not sharing bread.”
Of course, she wanted some.
I tore off a chunk of my loaf and placed it in her hand.
“Thank you,” she said. “Now go hurry like only you can.”
“Will do,” I said, rising to my feet again. “Thank you, Delphi. I’ll tell you the story of my dance with destiny the next time I’m up the mountain.”
“You do that,” she said, starting into the bread. “But for now? Let’s not dawdle over niceties. Goodbye, Z. Be brave. Be strong. I wish you well.”
“Thank you, Delphi. You, too,” I replied.
Then I headed out.
My head was full of Delphi’s words as I raced past guests moving up the mountain. Most of them were probably headed to Tibor’s, lured by the scent of heavenly bread. But, for once, I didn’t notice them. My thoughts were too full of the things Delphi had said.
A dance with destiny was coming my way?
I’d given up hope that such a thing was possible long ago.
When my parents had abandoned me at the city’s gates, they had left no identifying information with me. No birth date or time, no name or list of favorite things. Nothing.
They’d just left me.
It was luck that Monin and Bora had been willing to take on a baby, despite being divorced.
Once upon this one time, Monin and Bora had fancied themselves in love and tried to make a go of it. They’d gotten married and started to build a life together only to discover that they weren’t in love at all. They just liked complaining about the same things when they weren’t yelling abusive things at each other.
So, shortly after getting married, Monin and Bora divorced and decided to work together instead. They were both Western Zodiac Virgos — fastidious and cluttered, in semi-equal parts. And anything not up to their standards was what they loved to yell about.
Monin and Bora had raised me in what they’d coined as The Virgo Way, which is the way things could be done that didn’t drive them crazy. Because of this upbringing, some people thought I was a Western Zodiac Virgo, but no one pretended to sense something about me.
All of a sudden, someone saw something in me. And, while it made no sense at all that my destiny might interfere with my deliveries, Delphi was the real deal. I’d never heard her be wrong before.
And this time she was talking about me.
Pondering this, I ran down the mountain on auto-pilot until I was standing in front of a massive stump that served as a doorway to my shortcut down the mountain.
Technically, the tracks were for emergencies. If there was an injury or some other issue that demanded immediate attention, the tracks could get a guest back to Summit Peak in a matter of hours, not days.
If you went slowly.
But, if you didn’t go slow — like me — you could get down in under 30 minutes.
I pulled my riding board from its hiding spot behind the sled and cinched up my pack so it was tight on my shoulders. Not crashing half-way down was all about having a good center of gravity while leaning into the turns.
Once everything was as situated as it was going to get, I secured the wheels of the board to the tracks, let out a whoop of warning to anyone who might be below, and glided into the dark drop of the tunnel.