A Likely Friendship

Published by Lucas Dale on

Matteo da Silva chewed his lip as he tried to put pencil to paper, then sighed. He sat back on the bench and glanced at the scene before him, tapping his fingers. The lighting was wrong, again. Of all the places Giorgos could have sent him to practise, this had to be the worst.

Lamppost Square was flat and tiled in smooth sandstone, which would have made a brilliant road were it not for the forest of lampposts that littered the floor. Each post was nigh identical: cast iron, fluted and balustered, and with smooth finials on top. The lanterns were all gas, each four-sided, and if the posts were arranged regularly, the lighting wouldn’t have been so difficult to draw. The lampposts were as maddening as anything he’d seen, each one crooked and bent at a slightly different angle. A frenzy of gaslight gleamed off black iron and sandstone tiles, staining everything in ambers and yellows, and Matteo had rubbed out his sketch so many times that rolls of fibres were scraping off the paper.

What else could he draw? Bricked and stuccoed buildings surrounded him, the platform rising perpendicularly upwards several houses to his left, but Matteo had been sketching architecture for days. Besides, he didn’t see much point in carving maps into wood. Ornamentation was supposed to be decorative—interesting.

People it was. Matteo flicked to a blank page and started sketching civilians as they passed, a myriad of people going about their daily lives. Washerwomen bundled fabrics to the nearest wet-house, carrying them in sacks hauled on their backs. A tinker hurried along, spools of silver and gold thread at his waist, and two children were playing catch between the lampposts. A Mason passed, nodding at Matteo with one glass eye, and a pair of Smiths ambled through the square. Gaslight danced through the transparent yellow of their limbs, splaying patterns on the floor, and the two children laughed as they tried to catch the glittering lights and shadows.

Matteo rubbed his right wrist as he set down his pencil. Two more years, and he’d finish his apprenticeship. Two more years, and he’d have his own sacrifice. His own magic. Matteo would finally be able to contribute towards humanity’s survival—towards finding an exit. He’d be like his father: everything he’d ever wanted.

A clock chimed second third as he continued to sketch, the time whittling away. One person passed with pearls threaded through their hair, and another man had copper discs embroidered into his clothes. Matteo would have to tell Jamila about that; it seemed a fashion she’d like. Someone skipped through the lampposts, their hair wine-red, and he winced at all the colour his pencil couldn’t capture. Perhaps he should come back here with paints, if the guild still had any left in their stockpile.

“Should I pose?”

Matteo looked up. The person with red hair grinned before him.

“You were sketching me, weren’t you?” they said. “Would you like me to pose?”

“Oh!” Heat flushed Matteo’s face and he snapped his sketchbook shut. “I—Sorry, I was… I didn’t think—”

“It’s fine.” The person laughed. “I’m beautiful, I know. You can’t help but sketch me.”

They were beautiful, Matteo supposed, in an unusual way. Red hair was rare in Golgossa, exceedingly so, and his eyes caught on the way the gaslight highlighted the strands in flame and burgundy. Their skin was pale, their face slender, and they wore the grey coat of an apprentice, with the yellow sash of a Smith.

“My name is Luni.” An extended hand. “Luni Ferri.”

“They?”

Luni nodded. “You got it first time.”

Matteo shook their hand. “Matteo da Silva. He, him.” It was the first time he’d met someone new in a while.

“Da Silva.” Luni’s eyes flicked to the black sash on Matteo’s arm, as if noticing it for the first time, and they hesitated. “I see.”

A woman called across the square to the two children still playing and they squealed, running in the opposite direction. A pause, then Luni sat next to Matteo on the bench.

“What’s someone like you doing out here?” they said.

“Sketching.” Matteo scratched the back of his neck. “It’s practice for wood carvings.”

“I thought you Carpenters only made doors.”

“Mostly doors,” Matteo said. “We have to know other types of woodwork, too.”

“Sounds fancy.”

A faint chuckle. Matteo had the sudden realisation that, apart from his family’s servants, this was the first time he’d spoken to someone who wasn’t a Carpenter since he’d started his apprenticeship. It would be nice to learn something new about the other guilds.

“Would you show me some of your sketches?” Luni asked.

“Uh… Sure.” Matteo bit back his embarrassment as he handed over his sketchbook. There was nothing worth hiding in its pages, but he still felt strangely exposed. Perhaps it was how closely Luni sat to him, as if he wasn’t the sole heir of the Da Silva family.

Luni’s eyes widened as they flicked through the book. “These are amazing!”

“Thanks.” Matteo smiled. “I’m nowhere near Ibrahim’s level, though.”

“Who’s Ibrahim?”

“Our manservant.” Matteo’s father always made sure to snatch extra materials from the guild, and Ibrahim’s quarters were full of canvases that near-perfectly resembled real life.

“Hey, look.” Luni turned to the last page. “It’s me.”

“It’s a shame I don’t have any colours on me,” Matteo said.

Luni laughed. “Now that would be something I’d love to see.”

Their laughter was infectious, the sound bubbling through Matteo’s chest, and the knot in his stomach relaxed. Luni was easy to talk to.

“I’ll make a note of it,” Matteo said.

#

In the weeks that followed, Matteo saw Luni everywhere. Seamstress Row, the Terraced Quarter, Lamppost Square again… They ran into each other most often in the Guild Plaza, the bustling heart of Il Fulcro. Apprentices always crowded the steps to the Smiths’ Guild, the only one that accepted commoners, and Luni’s hair was easy to pick out from the crowd. A waving hand, a flashing smile and they exchanged pleasantries. Sometimes Luni sat with other apprentices, friends, and Matteo would duck his head and mumble excuses about having someplace to be. Other times Luni would be alone and Matteo would be the first to approach, their conversations growing longer and longer. Luni told him about how the majority of the Smiths’ Guild extended underneath the platform, into the dark. Matteo told them about the horrendous stench that soaked the glue vats. Both of them laughed. Today…

“What’s that you have there?” Matilda asked.

Matteo shook his head and tucked the canvas under his arm, a small square of cloth pulled across a sheet of metal. He’d wrapped it in a scrap of fabric that scratched against his skin. “It’s nothing.”

“You wrapped it up.” Matilda poked her head forwards, trying to catch a glimpse, but Matteo slipped the canvas behind his back with a flicker of annoyance.

“I told you, it’s nothing.”

The two of them stood outside the Carpenters’ Guild, with its sweeping brick and slate rooves, and Matteo scanned the plaza for Luni. How long would he have to wait? How long would it take before Matilda left him alone? Either side of them rose the Architects’ Guild with its barbed steeples and the Masons’ Guild with its marbled façade, and lights twinkled from the platform above, close enough to see the people walking underneath it.

“You’re so rude, Da Silva.” Matilda frowned and curled a finger through her walnut hair. She was the only other apprentice his age, and Giorgos’ niece. Why she was so interested in Matteo, he had no idea.

“I told you to stop calling me that.” Matteo scowled.

“Sorry.” She bit her lip.

This was probably how Matilda acted with her siblings, with other young adults. Matteo wouldn’t know.

“Matteo, I—”

A flash of red hair across the plaza. Matteo squared his shoulders. “I’ve got to go.”

He left before Matilda could stop him and strode up to Luni, swallowing his nerves. He’d been thinking about this moment ever since they’d met, and had sat with Ibrahim for hours learning how to layer paints. A gift. That was something people did, right? He really hoped it wouldn’t be weird.

“Matteo!” Luni grinned. “You won’t believe what one of the exploration teams found today.”

Matteo’s shoulders loosened. “What?”

“Salt.”

“And that’s news?” Salt was one of the more common resources found in Golgossa, along with fabrics and oil.

“It’s coloured salt,” Luni said. “Pink and black.”

Matteo frowned. Pink and black salt? “Does it taste different?”

“Apparently not.” They shrugged. “I didn’t see it, but Dianna did and she said it looked like coal.”

He pulled a face. “I really hope it doesn’t taste like coal.” One time Jamila had accidentally swept ashes into a stew and they had to throw the whole pot out.

The two of them headed to the main road and Matteo’s stomach flipped as he stepped through the bevel of archways, then his gravity righted and he was walking up the street. Marble pillars lined the promenade and strips of mauve and burgundy hung between them, lamplight glancing off the silk so the floor was dappled in shades of violet.

“So,” Luni said, “what’s that you’ve got there?”

Matteo’s throat went dry. “It’s…” He wiped his palms on his trousers. “Um…”

“Um?” A quirked brow.

“Here.” Matteo shoved the canvas into their hands. “It’s for you.”

Luni’s eyes widened and they unwrapped the canvas. Their mouth parted.

“I’ve been thinking about it ever since we met.” Matteo stared at his shoes, at the marble tiles on the floor. “I ran out of blue so the skin’s off, but… Do you like it?”

He’d painted a portrait of Luni, the same as that first sketch. The electric constellations from the lampposts glittered across red hair and green-grey irises, and it had taken months for Matteo to salvage enough colours to get the memory right. It was his proudest work. Even his father had said so.

Luni’s lips curled into a smile and light danced through their eyes. “I love it.”

Then they pulled Matteo into a hug, scrawny arms squeezed around him, and he was so surprised he could only squeak. Luni liked the gift—loved it. Warmth bubbled through him, rising through his chest and breaking in a grin across his face.

“Are you sure I can have it, though?” Luni broke away. “It looks expensive.”

“It’s a gift,” Matteo said.

“It’s the best gift I’ve ever received,” they said. “I have no idea how I’m going to match this.”

They crossed the archways onto the next platform and heat rose to Matteo’s face. “You don’t have to give me anything in return.” That would ruin the whole point of a gift.

“I want to,” Luni said. “Are you doing anything this evening?”

Matteo scratched his head. “No?”

“Perfect!” Luni beamed. “Why don’t you come have dinner with us?”

#

Matteo’s knees felt weak. His heart thundered in his chest and his hands shook, but Luni gave him no time to dwell on his anxiety. They led him down twisting roads and plazas, past promenades lined with bells and storehouses lit by candles, and Matteo couldn’t bring himself to say no. Ten family members. Ten commoners. Strangers. He didn’t know what to expect, whether to be afraid or excited, because he’d never been in a house that full. Even the guild was a hollow of empty rooms.

“There it is,” Luni said. They’d been walking for half an hour already.

The platforms in this part of Il Fulcro were scarcer, brightly lit but with darker shadows between them. Matteo hopped off a staircase frozen in the air and onto a thin strip of street, with an iron railing on one side and a hulking brick building on the other. A network of pipes burst from the building’s roof, painted in red bands and twisting overhead, and the gurgling sound of water rushed through them.

“You live in a wet-house?” Matteo asked.

Luni nodded. “There’s a generator in the basement, too.”

Matteo raised his eyebrows, impressed. Any building with an intact water, gas or electricity system was a miracle in Golgossa, and trying to move the utilities was too great a risk. Instead, Architects connected them to a grid of pipes and wires, and Matteo had always wanted to inspect one of the hubs up close. Apparently, water flowed in from a pipe to nothing, a slice in the fabric of space similar to a Carpenter’s doors.

“Rocco!” Luni called.

And just like that, Matteo was torn from the safety of his own head. A man glanced up at them from where he leaned against the wet-house, a frown crossing his face, and he stubbed a cigar against the brick. Ash crumbled to the floor.

“Who’s this?” Rocco said. His voice was deep and his shoulders were broader than Luni’s, but the red hair and pale skin made the family resemblance obvious. He wore a sleeveless vest, exposing the yellow glass arms of a Smith, and what Matteo could see of his ankles were transparent, too. He tried not to stare.

“This is Matteo,” Luni said. “He’s staying for dinner.”

Rocco’s eyes widened. His posture shot upright. “Da Silva?”

Matteo offered a weak smile. “Hello.”

“I’ll go tell Mamma.” Rocco disappeared inside, a little too quickly.

“This was a mistake.” Matteo’s head span and his skin prickled, because of course it was a mistake. What was he doing here, halfway across Il Fulcro to where the guilds were? He was imposing, out of place. Luni didn’t really want him here. “I should go back.”

“Nonsense.” Luni raised their fist. “If any of my siblings offend you, they’ll have me to answer to.”

“But…” He didn’t want to cause any trouble. He didn’t want to stand out, to have so many eyes on him; Matteo could count the number of people he interacted with during daily life on his fingers.

Luni raised their eyebrow. “But what?”

His shoulders sagged. He didn’t know how to refuse. “Okay.”

Luni’s family lived on the ground floor of the wet-house, in a flat made from three adjoining rooms. The first thing that hit Matteo was the noise, of pots clanging, children bickering and a tired voice telling them to please, for the Queen’s sake, just stop yelling at each other! Two women bustled around a small kitchen, little more than a sink and a stove, and a delicious smell wafted through the air—vegetables and spices, some kind of curry or stew.

Metal cupboards and storage crates were arranged throughout the flat to divide the living space, and curtains filled in the lines where the furniture ran out. Rows of naked bulbs hung along the ceiling, plugged into a socket across the far wall, and Matteo had never been in a place so… bare. The flat didn’t feel empty, quite the opposite, but it felt unfinished, as if it was missing its final coat of varnish.

“Welcome to my home,” Luni said.

“Stranger!” A little boy squealed and tore straight towards Matteo, but before he could dart out of the way, Rocco scooped up the boy by the neck of his shirt.

“You leave Mr da Silva alone, now.” A stern stare.

The boy giggled and kicked. “But he’s a stranger!”

A faint smile tugged at Matteo’s lips and the boy grinned at him, his eyes sparkling. Not for the first time, Matteo found himself wondering what it would have been like to have siblings. His breathing hitched. Luni glanced at him, a flicker of worry ghosting across their face.

“Brio.” One of the women folded her arms, her hair pinned back by golden needles. “Remember what we said about treating guests?”

The boy, Brio, hung his head. “Sorry, Mamma.”

Rocco set him down and shook his head. “Sorry about our brother, Mr da Silva.”

“It’s fine.” The words caught in Matteo’s throat. “Just… Just Matteo is okay.”

“It’s a pleasure to have you with us, Matteo,” Luni’s mother said. She patted down her apron and smiled, her face creasing in warmth, and something twisted inside Matteo’s heart.

“Thank you.”

He glanced out of the window, to where he could see the railing at the platform’s edge. So thin—so fragile. A family. A mother. His anxiety fled from him, replaced by a gaping hole and an aching loss.

“Are you okay?” Luni pulled him to the side, their brows creased.

He couldn’t remember the last time someone had asked him that.

“I…” Matteo closed his eyes. “I don’t have a mother.”

Luni frowned. “You don’t?”

“She died.” When he was two, wasted away by illness. He didn’t remember her, and only knew what she looked like because his father kept a photograph in his study. Curling hair, a thin frame. Sickly.

Luni bit their lip. “I’m sorry.”

“It happened a long time ago,” Matteo said, as if that made it hurt any less.

#

The Da Silva mansion couldn’t have been any further from Luni’s flat if it tried. The front door opened onto a sweeping parlour, the walls panelled in chestnut wood, and a glittering chandelier hung from a ceiling plastered in rosettes. A bouquet of black dahlias and tulips sat on a mantelpiece next to the stairs leading upwards, placed there by one of the maids.

Luni gaped. “Wow.”

“I know.” Matteo rubbed his arm. “It’s a lot of ornamentation.” Some of it quite tacky, in all honesty.

“It’s huge,” Luni said.

Ibrahim chuckled. “Well, it is a mansion.” The Da Silva manservant stood to the side with his posture squared and his arms behind his back, his dreadlocks tied over one shoulder. He’d been overjoyed when Matteo decided to bring Luni over, perhaps even more so than Matteo himself.

“There’s so much wood.” Luni ran a hand down one of the wall panels.

“That’s a guild family’s privilege, I’m afraid,” called a deep voice.

Luni stiffened. Matteo perked up. His father, Salomao da Silva, descended the stairs, a slight limp in his gait. Matteo had inherited his olive skin and thick eyebrows, but his father’s hair fell in a smooth ponytail, tied at the nape with a white bow. That, and his father had brown eyes to Matteo’s ice-blue.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you.” His father extended his hand. “Matteo wouldn’t stop talking about the red-haired apprentice who caught his eye.”

“Father!” Heat flushed Matteo’s cheeks. Why did he have to phrase it like that?

Luni shook his father’s hand. “The pleasure is mine, sir.”

The smell of Jamila’s cooking wafted through from the servants’ quarters and Luni’s stomach rumbled. One of the maids, Priscilla, dusted an oil lamp in the corner of the parlour, eavesdropping with all the discretion of a Shift.

“It’s not often we have guests for dinner,” Matteo’s father said. “You’ll have to excuse us; we usually eat in the kitchen.”

“That’s no bother,” Luni said.

Matteo’s father smiled, and gestured. “Shall we?”

#

“I’m stuffed.” Luni sighed as they leaned back on the top of the stairs, resting on their elbows on the floor.

Matteo nodded. “Jamila’s cooking does that.” She’d outdone herself this time, braising slices of pink meat in a crimson wine his father had brought in just the other day.

The two of them sat at the top of the stairs on the first floor, eye-level with the twisting chandelier that hung over the parlour. Patches of light splayed across the tiled floor, almost like the constellations in Lamppost Square. Matteo thrummed with nervous energy, his mouth dry despite the jugs of water he’d just drank.

He’d known Luni for months now, almost half a year. They’d exchanged gifts, been to each other’s houses and eaten together. Content. Was this how Matteo was supposed to feel?

“Is it…” Luni hesitated, keeping their voice light. “I guess no one else is home, right now.”

“It’s just the two of us,” Matteo said. “No one else.”

Matteo and his father, then the servants: Ibrahim and Jamila, Petunia and Priscilla. Six people, in a mansion that could house sixty. Huge, Luni had called it, but the mansion’s size made it all the more empty. Silence danced the corridors, waltzing through every room.

Luni sat upright and curled their hands. “It must be lonely.”

“Yes.”

He’d never realised how lonely until he’d been to Luni’s flat. Even the Carpenters’ guild was smallest of the four, only two out of three guild families left. His childhood had been one of solitude, and he… He’d never…

“Luni, are we…” Matteo swallowed and his heart thumped in his chest. “Are we friends?”

Luni just stared at him.

Matteo flinched and shuffled back, sweat beading down his back. “I mean, it’s just I… I don’t know if—”

“Matteo.”

He shut up.

“You’re an idiot. You know that, right?” Luni grinned and looped an exasperated arm around Matteo’s shoulders. “Of course we’re friends.”

Something inside Matteo broke and relief crashed through him, tears pricking at his eyes. He leaned into Luni’s hug, a line of warmth where they touched, and the mansion didn’t feel quite so empty anymore.

“Of course.” It was as simple as that.


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