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Chapter 16 of River's End
Written by Taki

River's End chapter 14: Monsters Difficult to Tame

Alone was a key word there. No officials currently occupied this room, no one to tell me not to look at stuff.

Guilt twitched that I would leave Niiq alone in unknown passages, but I shook it off and knelt, scooping up my satchel and strapping it diagonally across my body, hand slipping under the flap to inventory the contents. A lot was missing—several of the tiny bottles of essential herbs and oils I had packed in case I needed to concoct something, my favorite feather pen, all currency except a small coin tucked into a bottom corner, one of my shoes—but my scarf and some sealed packets of food remained.

Pulling out one of these latter, I surveyed the papers surrounding me—new road proposals connecting Emerald and Amber cities, a petition to expand Tils’ library system to better suit the needs of the growing population, census and demographic studies to go along with that, a report on an investigation regarding tainted water sources in a Platinum city. Mildly boring.

I distractedly stuck a dried slice of baffble into my mouth, its crispy outer shell crackling, taffy-like center resisting. With the tangy flavor of home came a realization: this was where my message needed to be, here where official people read and researched, analyzed and formulated solutions.

Except my message was in the form of a datapin with no device to read it, and even then it was encrypted in top-secret Menyaze.

I scanned the room. Did they have a data reader? Yes, sitting dusty in a bookcase at the far end of the room, the bookcase that had partially flipped and folded to admit me to this space.

Munching on another slice of baffble, I rose and hurried to the reader, shaking sticky papers off my feet. As I hopped onto a suspended seat, momentum swinging me close to the shelving, hand a hairsbreadth from my prize, the wall flipped again, paddling me at the floor.

“Forest girl, hurry! We can’t be in here!” Niiq called from atop the level partition.

“I have a name,” I grumbled, halfway in the water, head bruised by the contorted bookcase, side concussed by the sharp edge of the pond.

“Well, you never said it. C’mon, this’s the king’s council chamber. If I’m caught in here snoopin’, Timqé’ll get in a lot of trouble.” As I slithered over the edge of the horizontal wall, she added, “And you shouldn’t take stuff!”

“This is my stuff. It was taken from me when I got here.”

“Oh, I guess that’s alright then. But hurry!”

Following her retreat into the hidden passage, I countered, “They shouldn’t treat you as they do. You’ll be queen someday. They should be training you, taking you into their confidence. Whether you’re Silver or not”

“It’sn’t because I’m Silver.” She stopped, stiff as if my words had turned her into a conspiratorial tree. “It’s because they think I’m a spy for the ~inonii.”

With that egregious confession, she dashed off down the dark corridor, silvery tail waving wildly with her waddling run. I trailed her, mind racing just as fast, dashing through the legend behind the stigma curse of Silvers.

It was connected to the famous love story of Jixon and Zaqhara. When they had returned to Tils, Jixon’s hometown, his childhood rival, Qen, became jealous and tried to persuade Zaqhara away from her husband. Failing in that, Qen stole Jixon’s journal and retraced his journey, finding the hazardous path to the floating islands where Opals like Zaqhara lived.

The Opal patriarch disapproved of him, forbidding his kin from associating with Qen and telling this Onyx foreigner to leave his lands. Angry, Qen poisoned their water source and kidnapped an Opal girl named Sharshin. Her kinsmen pursued, but as they were weakened by the poison, Qen easily killed them.

When Jixon, Zaqhara, and their first child later sojourned to visit her family, they discovered the rotting remains of the Opals. In his last moments, the Opal patriarch had carved a curse against Qen in the dirt.

All the children of the Onyx Qen were Silver. Jixon’s and Zaqhara’s youngest child was also Silver, but, fueled by envy of his Opal brother, started a rebellion that nearly wiped out the Onyx, adding another layer to the essence of the curse.

Silver is actually the result of Onyx and Opal genes manifesting together, not the curse of a long dead man, but the Druojojneerpsrii had no success convincing the Grenswa-nas of that. Grenswa-nas had little interest in DNA. Family was family; it needed no further explanation.

But nothing in any of the cursed tales I knew connected Silvers with ~inonii, who were no more lenient toward Silvers than the Silvers’ relatives. The Chrome treated Silvers worst of all.

Uncomfortable in my half-wet clothes, clingy fabric chafing my thigh, bare feet bruised from the army of stray pebbles loitering in these passages, I could not come up with tactful phrasing to ask why they would associate​ Niiq with ~inonii, and the pause stretched too long.

“They gave you a nice room, Forest Girl? Where’s it at? The Amethyst section? Sapphire? Today’s Blue-day, so the Sapphire rooms are closest to the Royal Tower. Maybe we can find a passageway leadin’ there?”

“Wait, the palace moves that much?” Each tribe had a dedicated portion of the complex, a tower and affiliated wing, but I hadn’t known they shuffled around one another daily.

“The palace’s is always movin’. Beautiful, isn’t it? So where’s your room?”

“I, uh, don’t have one. I kind of said some things in your defense at the table, and as soon as the queen finds me, I’ll probably get kicked off the island.”

Astonishment brightened Niiq’s already shining, mismatched eyes. “Really? Then you can be my guest. Oh, do you hear that?”

After a pause: “No.”

“It sounds like the mewlin’ a child makes when they’re lost and scared and hurt and need help.”

I still didn’t hear anything, but like my eyesight was much keener than hers, her ears were much more sensitive than mine.

“Maybe it’s another button. Help me look!” She ran her hands along the wall.

“Here,” I pointed to an intricate carving of a bird, wings depicted like lace.

Niiq’s fingers traced the lines. “I’m pretty sure it’s a tye, so this time…” She twittered like those tiny birds that had followed me out of the forest, and the wall dropped. In near silence, the wall behind us slid forward, pushing us into open air.

Lacking any penchant for flying, we both plummeted, two stories flashing by before we splashed down in a deep, algae-filled pond. Lungs already demanding another breath, I kicked, the surface so far away. Weeds tangled around my legs, insisting I stay.

Niiq laughed, her crystalline voice just as clear underwater as it was in the air. “That surprised me, but it’s fun! Let’s do it again!”

I shook my head, unable to reply vocally beyond grunts, curling up, hands tugging at the weeds to no avail.

“What’s that?” Niiq asked, squinting into the darkness past my shoulder.

Despite the tepid water, I froze, disruptions in the current revealing something large loomed behind me. Niiq screamed, arms wrapping around me, fast kicks towing me forward only a little, clingy weeds tying me in place. I glanced back over my shoulder, seeing nothing but teeth.

I screamed, too, bubbles gushing out of my mouth.

A dagger shot past my face, an instant later embedded in the middle of a me-sized tongue, and the aquatic creature recoiled, rumbling a hiss. The tongue flicked, attempting to dislodge the dagger as a second knife sliced through the weeds.

“Go! Both of you!” Hent ordered, shoving me away from the creature.

I didn’t have to be told twice, taking Niiq’s arm and dragging her with me.

“Wait! Hent!” she called.

The giant amphibian chased us, but Hent dashed in front of it, knife slashing at its nose, and the monster decided he was a more immediate problem. It snapped at him, but Hent was fast, sliding above the closed jaws.

A second of these creatures raced toward the disturbance, a ray of light piercing murky shadows and giving me a perfect view of the beast: snout like a broadsword lined with way more teeth than necessary, wide body with four stubby legs, a saw-like dorsal fin on its flat back, a long mermaid tail.

Someone gripped our hands, yanking Niiq and I onto a raft. “Where’s Prince Hent?!”

“Still down there battlin’ two kronlinds,” Niiq answered. The man dove in, immediately concealed by algae.

Kronlinds. My inner encyclopedia unhelpfully recalled that if large enough, a kronlind would eat a Grenswa-na whole, and when there was more than one of them, they would play tug-o-war over their prey.

I peered over the edge of the raft, unable to see anything. Inky blood clouded the water, and dread raced through my veins, heavy and frigid. Grenswa-na blood was colored by the same pigment as their scales; an Opal’s blood contained a variety of these tints, often resulting in the same inky obsidian that surrounded the raft.

Hent would not survive losing that much blood.

Our platform rocked, dancing on a parade of tiny bubbles, and then all fell still.

“You don’t think he…” Niiq stuttered, at my side peering into the opaque pond. “I mean, they couldn’t both be…”

The tears glistening in her unique eyes made me want to leap back in, pry apart the monster’s jaws, and drag Hent from its throat, no matter how impossible or stupid that would have been. I didn’t know what to say to her.

The raft tilted under the weight of something climbing aboard behind us, and we squealed. I nearly tumbled over the lifted edge, chest slamming against the slats, fingers clinging to the rounded boards.

As the platform leveled, I got a face full of water, but Niiq was on her feet, rushing to the other side of the craft.

“Hent, don’t you dare scare me like that! I could’ve exploded! You’re hurt?!”

If he isn’t, he’s going to be if he says anything else disparaging to Niiq, I thought, recalling her confession of how he had advised her to run away so they could pretend she didn’t exist. In my current situation, I shouldn’t have been threatening Grenswa’s prince, even if only in my own mind, but thoughts and opinions can be monsters difficult to tame.

I turned in time to see Niiq shove past the man who had pulled us onboard and wrap her arms around her brother-in-law’s waist. Neither of them acknowledged her.

“That’s the patriarch of the pond, the other’s one of our best studs, and now they’re fodder! The Stock Master’ll be furious.”

“They’d’ve eaten people. You’d’ve let them, Tzam?” Hent countered, eyebrows rising and evoking a wince.

“You’re really hurt!” Niiq confirmed, embrace abandoned to reach up toward a bandage coiled around Hent’s head, which I assumed he already had before diving in the water to save us. His scales and eyes were maroon, a color I took to mean he was both in pain and annoyed.

Hent leaned away, staring down Tzam, an Amethyst bordering middle aged, his pale hair and lavender eyes reminding me of Dollii. Dollii would have been kind and sweet even in this situation, going over and thanking them for the rescue, for being in the right place at the right time with this raft. But I didn’t feel like getting up. While the three Grenswa-nas present had already mostly dried, I was fully wet and fully miserable, my legs strangled and bruising.

Stupid weeds.

Fists clenched, Tzam’s thoughts raced across his face, and even without Hent’s kaleidoscope colors, I saw when resolve set in. “This’s all her fault! How much’d improve if the fishes made her disappear?” He grabbed Niiq’s arm, yanking her to the edge, and both Hent and I were there.

Hent captured each of Tzam’s wrists while I looped my arms around the Amethyst’s middle and hauled him backward. Dragged along, Hent kept his footing, face to face with me, Tzam’s shoulder a fence between us. Fascination sparked in his eyes, a flash of turquoise before maroon returned.

“You came here with Niiq?”

“Yeah, what of it?”

“Nothin’.” He looked away.

The bandage was thickest over his left temple, a dark bruise shaded in around it. Despite a wash in the pond, its medicinal herbs were pugnacious enough to catch the attention of even my unobservant nose, and I recoiled, but no one noticed. Hent’s gaze had already returned to Tzam, sharpening, color deepening.

“Niiq is a princess of Grenswa. Try treatin’ her with at least half the amount of patronizin’ you show me.”

“Why half?” Niiq questioned.

“Because the full level of coddlin’s annoyin’, and you don’t want it.” He released Tzam’s arms with a shove, and I slid out of the path of the Amethyst’s reeling. “By the way, Niiq, didn’t your doctor tell you to stay in a reclined position for the baby’s sake?”

“Well, she doesn’t know anythin’. She also says that every day I’ve to eat two servin’s of chimts.” A bitter, slightly spicy vegetable.

Hent blinked. “You probably should.”

“I’ve been dumpin’ mine under the table for years, you know, and I’m perfectly fine.”

“Maybe that’s why you’re so short.” A slight grin from the prince.

Niiq’s face scrunched, fists curled. “Forest girl so incredibly tall, you don’t eat chimts, do you?”

Considering the acid in chimts was not compatible with my intestinal juices and would have quickly burned a hole in my colon, the answer to that was no, I didn’t eat chimts.

But instead I replied, “As I said before, I have a name.”

“But Forest Girl So Incredibly Tall is such an interestin’ title,” Hent inserted, gaze on me intense, still maroon, but swirled with blue and lavender amusement.

I was starting to see why he found his color changes vexing; so little time had passed since we met, and already I could read the mix of hues in his eyes and know his emotions.

“Why are we actually out here?”

“Fishin’ lessons,” Hent answered. “You?”

“We fell out of a secret passage,” Niiq replied, “um, somewhere up there.” She pointed at the flat wall bordering one side of the pond, but there was no evidence of an exit. The jeweled surface glistened, giving the illusion of being translucent in the evening light.

“We should cancel the rest of the lesson,” Tzam recommended. “Prince Hent should be in the infirmary.”

“Go inside if you want,” Hent dismissed, sitting feet tucked under him at the raft’s edge. From a small pouch, he pulled a juicy morsel of meat and tossed it into the water. After an initial plunk, it returned to the surface, bobbing there less than an arm’s length in front of him.

Niiq sat down alongside the prince, curiosity twitching her tail as the watched the bait. I plopped next to her, exhausted. How many Seallaii-na days had I been awake?

With a sigh, Tzam knelt on Hent’s other side. Everyone was still, quiet, and I had just about nodded off when a long, shimmering body came to investigate the floating meat.

Hent’s hand shot into the water, aim true, but the fish slid free of his grasp and into Tzam’s grip. He lifted it from the water, fingers speared through its side, and I gagged. The animal flopped and wriggled, suffocating, and I stared, wide-eyed, potent imagination supplying the sensation of fingers sliding out of holes​ in my own torso as Tzam dropped his victim in a dry bucket.

Druojojneerpsrii do not kill anything,” Ambassador Lafdo had said, and that was true. Though I knew the concept, I was far from familiar with death.

“Don’t be disappointed,” Tzam placated, calling out Hent’s slide toward a peach color. “That one’s extra slippery.”

“That’s what you want to learn to do?!” I gasped.

“It’s a survival skill,” Hent defended.

“One you don’t really need, my prince,” Tzam cut in. “You’re already expertly skilled with your weapons.”

“What if I’m ever without my weapons?”

“You don’t need to be able to catch your own food. You’ll take away the honor it’s for others to give it to you.”

“What if I’m stuck somewhere alone and weaponless?”

“That won’t ever-”

“If you say somethin’ won’t ever happen, then it definitely’ll. That’s a law of the universe, like gravity.”

Actually, gravity is much more reliable than anything invoked by careless words, but this was Grenswa. Considering this planet’s odd rendering of that natural force (hence we stood on an island hovering among the clouds), they probably did view gravity as haphazard.

Hent threw in another piece of bait, concentration deep as Seallaii’s ocean, motionless as an untouched pond. I could have thought him a statue conjured by the most skilled sculptor, an expert in transforming planes and angles into fierceness and delicacy. Only his eyes belied the delusion, teeming with life in a way no statue’s could be.

I realized I shouldn’t stare at him with the same intensity he stared at the pond, and I turned away, nervously blurting, “How did you hurt your head?”

“I got in the way of a rock.”

I quirked a brow. “Was it a particularly animate rock?”

“The mob that threw it’s quite lively.”

“Shouldn’t you have guards to protect you from projectile-throwing mobs?” As the words escaped me, it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen nearly the level of security I expected here. Shouldn’t guards have escorted me away when the queen ordered I leave the table? So they apparently didn’t have a mighty horde of Myktas like those perpetually surrounding my family.

Hent glared at me. “Don’t give the over-coddlers any more ideas.”

“People love you, Hent,” Niiq asserted between us. “Why’d they throw rocks at you?”

“I’sn’t their intended target.”

“So a mob with poor aim; doubly dangerous.” That statement should not have been said with as much glee as she poured into it.

On Hent’s other side, Tzam shook his head. “There’s gonna be an investigation? It’s dubious how they could miss a Seallaii-na trespasser and hit our prince instead.”

My heart froze, a heavy gong in its place, the ringing in my ears sounding vaguely like Fredo’s name. Could he have survived? Was he looking for me?

Searching within myself, in the place where he should have been, I found nothing, darkness, a vacuum threatening to pull me in and never let go.

I retreated, scared but refusing to relinquish that smidgen of hope. “There was a Seallaii-na trespasser?”

“While my father and I’re in Tils, we encountered a mob that’d trapped a Seallaii-na merchant on the ground. They’d had him there for more than a day. I pushed through the crowd and escorted him back to his vessel.”

Shock splashed through me like a bucket of ice water dumped over my head. It really could have been Fredo, except which ship did he get returned to? “I thought you thought Seallaii-nas​ were monsters. Why would you save one?”

“He wasn’t a deliberate intruder; his bein’ on the ground’s an accident. He’d fallen off the roof of his transport, and he’s injured.”

A second bucket of frigid water tipped over my head. The man Hent saved was probably the one I knocked off the roof as our distraction. His predicament was mostly my fault.

And Hent had just earned some “good guy” points. He wasn’t as closed-minded and obstinate as he could have been, able to recognize the difference between a deliberate intruder with mal intent and someone caught in circumstances beyond their control.

How far did that understanding stretch? Would he have saved Fredo and I? We had stepped on their soil of our own volition, but we were not the ones who had come up with the idea. We were here under the banner of their Seallaii-na allies, here to help, to warn, to stave off calamity.

And instead they shot calamity at us.

“Seallaii-nas don’t heal very quickly,” I heard Hent say as if from a distance. I must have missed some of their conversation. “Because they’re so long lived, a lot of their processes seem to take longer- well, that’sn’t completely true. Sometimes they seem faster, too. Their days’re too short, so their whole concept of time is just wacky.”

“But I understand,” Niiq assuaged. “Timqé says they seem stronger, but they’re fragile at the same time. Oh, Forest Girl, you’re raised by Druojojneerpsrii. What’re they like?”

“Okay, my name is Rose.”

“Old news,” Hent said, gaze on me unfathomably deep again. Have I mentioned how tall Hent is for a Grenswa-na? We sat, but ever so slightly he looked down at me, gaze pinning me like a spear through the heart, eyes a deep teal, flecks of that watermelon green twisting the light.

His expression was rife with curiosity, voice imbued with zeal: “You view them as family? Those that raised you?”

“That depends on how you define family: Someone genetically close to you? Someone who has influenced and taught you, who provided the means for your survival? Someone for whom love would prompt you to do anything?”

Lavender confusion seeped over his scales, trickling into his eyes. “You love them? They hold your loyalty still? You’d do anythin’ they asked without question?”

“They taught me to question everything.”

“Then how do you rationalize what they’ve done?”

I froze, bewilderment balancing atop fear’s shoulders. “What do you mean?”

“They do stuff just to see what’ll happen.”

Like bringing Ambassador Lafdo to the Citadel to meet me, my subconscious ​added.

I defended, “The Druojojneerpsrii unlock the secrets of the universe and use them to help the worlds they visit.”

“How they unlock them’s where I’ve a problem.”

“What do you mean?”

The mantra of the Druojojneerpsrii was to learn everything, but I had never thought too deeply as to how they gathered their information. Neerpsrii had played the world like a game, killing those he deemed counterproductive, spurious, or weak. From what I knew of subsequent Eteriqs, they viewed the lives of others with even greater nonchalance.

Hent tilted his head as if he heard something, then snatched at the water, this time succeeding in catching his fish. Pride painted a smile as he held the wiggling creature high, then lobbed it in the bucket with the first.

Niiq and Tzam praised him, but I frowned, disgust and pity for the gaping victim twisting my gut.

“The Druojojneerpsrii have never hurt Grenswa, have they?” I pressed.

Reaching for another piece of bait, Hent stilled, curiosity flickering cerulean in his eyes. “You really don’t know?”

I shook my head.

“The Grenswa-nas they take, they study…well, one they removed his right hand to see if he could become proficient with his left. They cut off the tail of another to see how it’d affect his balance.”

“That’s horrible!” Niiq gasped, clutching her own silken tail protectively. “I mean, a tail isn’t only about helpin’ us get around.”

“It’s part of one’s self image,” I added. It would be like mutilating someone’s face and expecting them to still have confidence in their own beauty.

“Exactly. They don’t’ve tails, so maybe they don’t understand. It could be forgivable,” Hent reasoned, “the first time. But not the hundredth time.”

“They didn’t? Really.”

“You want to see the reports?” He raised an eyebrow, wincing as the movement tugged at the wound beneath his bandage. “No, you don’t. They’re awful.”

My eyes fell to the wooden slats of the raft, mind sprinting and torn. It was terrible, but I also wanted to see their results. Did anyone manage to switch handedness? How were the tailless affected? I felt that ignoring the findings negated the value of the sacrifices made.

But I also felt horrendous for thinking that way.

“I see why you called them monsters.”

“They took your tail, too, right, Rose? And made it so you can’t zap things?”

I looked up, no words on my tongue.

Really, how had I expected them not to notice my lack of tail when it was such a major player in their body language? Some ~inonii kept their tails covered as part of their modesty, but I didn’t really want these high-and-mighty Luejii to associate me with the ~inonii, especially not after what I had witnessed thus far of their strained relationship.

“I want to understand,” Hent pled, “how you can defend them, care for them, forgive them. They’re beautiful monsters. It’s said they incite love with no reason, shaking loyalty free from its natural place, and I don’t know. I’ve never experienced that, but I want to understand you.”

I felt as if I stared directly into a star, amazement dawning within me.

“Thank you,” I said, hands clasped in front of me, head bowed—an apologetic stance. “I very much want you to understand me.”

Determination set, a mortar made of diamond and steel. I had to fix his tainted view of us. I could not deny these shocking accounts, but I could show him not every Seallaii-na was as twisted and cruel as he believed.

To avoid the veil of bias, I would have to show him without him knowing what I was. He wanted to understand me, and I would make sure he did.

In the meantime, I still needed to deliver my message. I didn’t know when this supposed attack would occur, but every seclii trickling by was wasted time they could have used to prevent or prepare.

Yet how could I deliver my message without letting anyone know I was the messenger?

I had the datapin. I also knew a secret way into the king’s council chamber, where they had a reader. I could sneak in and leave it there, but they would need an interpreter.

The papers…

Yes, I could sneak in, watch the message, and transcribe a translated report for them. They would take it seriously, right? Not think it was a prank and squander precious time trying to track down the prankster?

My mind whirred, wondering what details the message contained, what countermeasures the Grenswa-nas could take. Would it be prudent for me to suggest any of these in my notes?

I looked back at Hent, a third fish in his hand. Grenswa-nas were predators imbued with grace and wit. They deserved more respect and fear than I had possessed for them before coming here, but it was those same qualities that now assured me they could handle any crisis. The Druojojneerpsrii had lost their love, and I would reacquire it.

-continued in chapter 15: A Valiant Cause for a Queen-

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Chapter 16 of River's End
Written by Taki
River's End chapter 14: Monsters Difficult to Tame
Alone was a key word there. No officials currently occupied this room, no one to tell me not to look at stuff.

Guilt twitched that I would leave Niiq alone in unknown passages, but I shook it off and knelt, scooping up my satchel and strapping it diagonally across my body, hand slipping under the flap to inventory the contents. A lot was missing—several of the tiny bottles of essential herbs and oils I had packed in case I needed to concoct something, my favorite feather pen, all currency except a small coin tucked into a bottom corner, one of my shoes—but my scarf and some sealed packets of food remained.

Pulling out one of these latter, I surveyed the papers surrounding me—new road proposals connecting Emerald and Amber cities, a petition to expand Tils’ library system to better suit the needs of the growing population, census and demographic studies to go along with that, a report on an investigation regarding tainted water sources in a Platinum city. Mildly boring.

I distractedly stuck a dried slice of baffble into my mouth, its crispy outer shell crackling, taffy-like center resisting. With the tangy flavor of home came a realization: this was where my message needed to be, here where official people read and researched, analyzed and formulated solutions.

Except my message was in the form of a datapin with no device to read it, and even then it was encrypted in top-secret Menyaze.

I scanned the room. Did they have a data reader? Yes, sitting dusty in a bookcase at the far end of the room, the bookcase that had partially flipped and folded to admit me to this space.

Munching on another slice of baffble, I rose and hurried to the reader, shaking sticky papers off my feet. As I hopped onto a suspended seat, momentum swinging me close to the shelving, hand a hairsbreadth from my prize, the wall flipped again, paddling me at the floor.

“Forest girl, hurry! We can’t be in here!” Niiq called from atop the level partition.

“I have a name,” I grumbled, halfway in the water, head bruised by the contorted bookcase, side concussed by the sharp edge of the pond.

“Well, you never said it. C’mon, this’s the king’s council chamber. If I’m caught in here snoopin’, Timqé’ll get in a lot of trouble.” As I slithered over the edge of the horizontal wall, she added, “And you shouldn’t take stuff!”

“This is my stuff. It was taken from me when I got here.”

“Oh, I guess that’s alright then. But hurry!”

Following her retreat into the hidden passage, I countered, “They shouldn’t treat you as they do. You’ll be queen someday. They should be training you, taking you into their confidence. Whether you’re Silver or not”

“It’sn’t because I’m Silver.” She stopped, stiff as if my words had turned her into a conspiratorial tree. “It’s because they think I’m a spy for the ~inonii.”

With that egregious confession, she dashed off down the dark corridor, silvery tail waving wildly with her waddling run. I trailed her, mind racing just as fast, dashing through the legend behind the stigma curse of Silvers.

It was connected to the famous love story of Jixon and Zaqhara. When they had returned to Tils, Jixon’s hometown, his childhood rival, Qen, became jealous and tried to persuade Zaqhara away from her husband. Failing in that, Qen stole Jixon’s journal and retraced his journey, finding the hazardous path to the floating islands where Opals like Zaqhara lived.

The Opal patriarch disapproved of him, forbidding his kin from associating with Qen and telling this Onyx foreigner to leave his lands. Angry, Qen poisoned their water source and kidnapped an Opal girl named Sharshin. Her kinsmen pursued, but as they were weakened by the poison, Qen easily killed them.

When Jixon, Zaqhara, and their first child later sojourned to visit her family, they discovered the rotting remains of the Opals. In his last moments, the Opal patriarch had carved a curse against Qen in the dirt.

All the children of the Onyx Qen were Silver. Jixon’s and Zaqhara’s youngest child was also Silver, but, fueled by envy of his Opal brother, started a rebellion that nearly wiped out the Onyx, adding another layer to the essence of the curse.

Silver is actually the result of Onyx and Opal genes manifesting together, not the curse of a long dead man, but the Druojojneerpsrii had no success convincing the Grenswa-nas of that. Grenswa-nas had little interest in DNA. Family was family; it needed no further explanation.

But nothing in any of the cursed tales I knew connected Silvers with ~inonii, who were no more lenient toward Silvers than the Silvers’ relatives. The Chrome treated Silvers worst of all.

Uncomfortable in my half-wet clothes, clingy fabric chafing my thigh, bare feet bruised from the army of stray pebbles loitering in these passages, I could not come up with tactful phrasing to ask why they would associate​ Niiq with ~inonii, and the pause stretched too long.

“They gave you a nice room, Forest Girl? Where’s it at? The Amethyst section? Sapphire? Today’s Blue-day, so the Sapphire rooms are closest to the Royal Tower. Maybe we can find a passageway leadin’ there?”

“Wait, the palace moves that much?” Each tribe had a dedicated portion of the complex, a tower and affiliated wing, but I hadn’t known they shuffled around one another daily.

“The palace’s is always movin’. Beautiful, isn’t it? So where’s your room?”

“I, uh, don’t have one. I kind of said some things in your defense at the table, and as soon as the queen finds me, I’ll probably get kicked off the island.”

Astonishment brightened Niiq’s already shining, mismatched eyes. “Really? Then you can be my guest. Oh, do you hear that?”

After a pause: “No.”

“It sounds like the mewlin’ a child makes when they’re lost and scared and hurt and need help.”

I still didn’t hear anything, but like my eyesight was much keener than hers, her ears were much more sensitive than mine.

“Maybe it’s another button. Help me look!” She ran her hands along the wall.

“Here,” I pointed to an intricate carving of a bird, wings depicted like lace.

Niiq’s fingers traced the lines. “I’m pretty sure it’s a tye, so this time…” She twittered like those tiny birds that had followed me out of the forest, and the wall dropped. In near silence, the wall behind us slid forward, pushing us into open air.

Lacking any penchant for flying, we both plummeted, two stories flashing by before we splashed down in a deep, algae-filled pond. Lungs already demanding another breath, I kicked, the surface so far away. Weeds tangled around my legs, insisting I stay.

Niiq laughed, her crystalline voice just as clear underwater as it was in the air. “That surprised me, but it’s fun! Let’s do it again!”

I shook my head, unable to reply vocally beyond grunts, curling up, hands tugging at the weeds to no avail.

“What’s that?” Niiq asked, squinting into the darkness past my shoulder.

Despite the tepid water, I froze, disruptions in the current revealing something large loomed behind me. Niiq screamed, arms wrapping around me, fast kicks towing me forward only a little, clingy weeds tying me in place. I glanced back over my shoulder, seeing nothing but teeth.

I screamed, too, bubbles gushing out of my mouth.

A dagger shot past my face, an instant later embedded in the middle of a me-sized tongue, and the aquatic creature recoiled, rumbling a hiss. The tongue flicked, attempting to dislodge the dagger as a second knife sliced through the weeds.

“Go! Both of you!” Hent ordered, shoving me away from the creature.

I didn’t have to be told twice, taking Niiq’s arm and dragging her with me.

“Wait! Hent!” she called.

The giant amphibian chased us, but Hent dashed in front of it, knife slashing at its nose, and the monster decided he was a more immediate problem. It snapped at him, but Hent was fast, sliding above the closed jaws.

A second of these creatures raced toward the disturbance, a ray of light piercing murky shadows and giving me a perfect view of the beast: snout like a broadsword lined with way more teeth than necessary, wide body with four stubby legs, a saw-like dorsal fin on its flat back, a long mermaid tail.

Someone gripped our hands, yanking Niiq and I onto a raft. “Where’s Prince Hent?!”

“Still down there battlin’ two kronlinds,” Niiq answered. The man dove in, immediately concealed by algae.

Kronlinds. My inner encyclopedia unhelpfully recalled that if large enough, a kronlind would eat a Grenswa-na whole, and when there was more than one of them, they would play tug-o-war over their prey.

I peered over the edge of the raft, unable to see anything. Inky blood clouded the water, and dread raced through my veins, heavy and frigid. Grenswa-na blood was colored by the same pigment as their scales; an Opal’s blood contained a variety of these tints, often resulting in the same inky obsidian that surrounded the raft.

Hent would not survive losing that much blood.

Our platform rocked, dancing on a parade of tiny bubbles, and then all fell still.

“You don’t think he…” Niiq stuttered, at my side peering into the opaque pond. “I mean, they couldn’t both be…”

The tears glistening in her unique eyes made me want to leap back in, pry apart the monster’s jaws, and drag Hent from its throat, no matter how impossible or stupid that would have been. I didn’t know what to say to her.

The raft tilted under the weight of something climbing aboard behind us, and we squealed. I nearly tumbled over the lifted edge, chest slamming against the slats, fingers clinging to the rounded boards.

As the platform leveled, I got a face full of water, but Niiq was on her feet, rushing to the other side of the craft.

“Hent, don’t you dare scare me like that! I could’ve exploded! You’re hurt?!”

If he isn’t, he’s going to be if he says anything else disparaging to Niiq, I thought, recalling her confession of how he had advised her to run away so they could pretend she didn’t exist. In my current situation, I shouldn’t have been threatening Grenswa’s prince, even if only in my own mind, but thoughts and opinions can be monsters difficult to tame.

I turned in time to see Niiq shove past the man who had pulled us onboard and wrap her arms around her brother-in-law’s waist. Neither of them acknowledged her.

“That’s the patriarch of the pond, the other’s one of our best studs, and now they’re fodder! The Stock Master’ll be furious.”

“They’d’ve eaten people. You’d’ve let them, Tzam?” Hent countered, eyebrows rising and evoking a wince.

“You’re really hurt!” Niiq confirmed, embrace abandoned to reach up toward a bandage coiled around Hent’s head, which I assumed he already had before diving in the water to save us. His scales and eyes were maroon, a color I took to mean he was both in pain and annoyed.

Hent leaned away, staring down Tzam, an Amethyst bordering middle aged, his pale hair and lavender eyes reminding me of Dollii. Dollii would have been kind and sweet even in this situation, going over and thanking them for the rescue, for being in the right place at the right time with this raft. But I didn’t feel like getting up. While the three Grenswa-nas present had already mostly dried, I was fully wet and fully miserable, my legs strangled and bruising.

Stupid weeds.

Fists clenched, Tzam’s thoughts raced across his face, and even without Hent’s kaleidoscope colors, I saw when resolve set in. “This’s all her fault! How much’d improve if the fishes made her disappear?” He grabbed Niiq’s arm, yanking her to the edge, and both Hent and I were there.

Hent captured each of Tzam’s wrists while I looped my arms around the Amethyst’s middle and hauled him backward. Dragged along, Hent kept his footing, face to face with me, Tzam’s shoulder a fence between us. Fascination sparked in his eyes, a flash of turquoise before maroon returned.

“You came here with Niiq?”

“Yeah, what of it?”

“Nothin’.” He looked away.

The bandage was thickest over his left temple, a dark bruise shaded in around it. Despite a wash in the pond, its medicinal herbs were pugnacious enough to catch the attention of even my unobservant nose, and I recoiled, but no one noticed. Hent’s gaze had already returned to Tzam, sharpening, color deepening.

“Niiq is a princess of Grenswa. Try treatin’ her with at least half the amount of patronizin’ you show me.”

“Why half?” Niiq questioned.

“Because the full level of coddlin’s annoyin’, and you don’t want it.” He released Tzam’s arms with a shove, and I slid out of the path of the Amethyst’s reeling. “By the way, Niiq, didn’t your doctor tell you to stay in a reclined position for the baby’s sake?”

“Well, she doesn’t know anythin’. She also says that every day I’ve to eat two servin’s of chimts.” A bitter, slightly spicy vegetable.

Hent blinked. “You probably should.”

“I’ve been dumpin’ mine under the table for years, you know, and I’m perfectly fine.”

“Maybe that’s why you’re so short.” A slight grin from the prince.

Niiq’s face scrunched, fists curled. “Forest girl so incredibly tall, you don’t eat chimts, do you?”

Considering the acid in chimts was not compatible with my intestinal juices and would have quickly burned a hole in my colon, the answer to that was no, I didn’t eat chimts.

But instead I replied, “As I said before, I have a name.”

“But Forest Girl So Incredibly Tall is such an interestin’ title,” Hent inserted, gaze on me intense, still maroon, but swirled with blue and lavender amusement.

I was starting to see why he found his color changes vexing; so little time had passed since we met, and already I could read the mix of hues in his eyes and know his emotions.

“Why are we actually out here?”

“Fishin’ lessons,” Hent answered. “You?”

“We fell out of a secret passage,” Niiq replied, “um, somewhere up there.” She pointed at the flat wall bordering one side of the pond, but there was no evidence of an exit. The jeweled surface glistened, giving the illusion of being translucent in the evening light.

“We should cancel the rest of the lesson,” Tzam recommended. “Prince Hent should be in the infirmary.”

“Go inside if you want,” Hent dismissed, sitting feet tucked under him at the raft’s edge. From a small pouch, he pulled a juicy morsel of meat and tossed it into the water. After an initial plunk, it returned to the surface, bobbing there less than an arm’s length in front of him.

Niiq sat down alongside the prince, curiosity twitching her tail as the watched the bait. I plopped next to her, exhausted. How many Seallaii-na days had I been awake?

With a sigh, Tzam knelt on Hent’s other side. Everyone was still, quiet, and I had just about nodded off when a long, shimmering body came to investigate the floating meat.

Hent’s hand shot into the water, aim true, but the fish slid free of his grasp and into Tzam’s grip. He lifted it from the water, fingers speared through its side, and I gagged. The animal flopped and wriggled, suffocating, and I stared, wide-eyed, potent imagination supplying the sensation of fingers sliding out of holes​ in my own torso as Tzam dropped his victim in a dry bucket.

Druojojneerpsrii do not kill anything,” Ambassador Lafdo had said, and that was true. Though I knew the concept, I was far from familiar with death.

“Don’t be disappointed,” Tzam placated, calling out Hent’s slide toward a peach color. “That one’s extra slippery.”

“That’s what you want to learn to do?!” I gasped.

“It’s a survival skill,” Hent defended.

“One you don’t really need, my prince,” Tzam cut in. “You’re already expertly skilled with your weapons.”

“What if I’m ever without my weapons?”

“You don’t need to be able to catch your own food. You’ll take away the honor it’s for others to give it to you.”

“What if I’m stuck somewhere alone and weaponless?”

“That won’t ever-”

“If you say somethin’ won’t ever happen, then it definitely’ll. That’s a law of the universe, like gravity.”

Actually, gravity is much more reliable than anything invoked by careless words, but this was Grenswa. Considering this planet’s odd rendering of that natural force (hence we stood on an island hovering among the clouds), they probably did view gravity as haphazard.

Hent threw in another piece of bait, concentration deep as Seallaii’s ocean, motionless as an untouched pond. I could have thought him a statue conjured by the most skilled sculptor, an expert in transforming planes and angles into fierceness and delicacy. Only his eyes belied the delusion, teeming with life in a way no statue’s could be.

I realized I shouldn’t stare at him with the same intensity he stared at the pond, and I turned away, nervously blurting, “How did you hurt your head?”

“I got in the way of a rock.”

I quirked a brow. “Was it a particularly animate rock?”

“The mob that threw it’s quite lively.”

“Shouldn’t you have guards to protect you from projectile-throwing mobs?” As the words escaped me, it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen nearly the level of security I expected here. Shouldn’t guards have escorted me away when the queen ordered I leave the table? So they apparently didn’t have a mighty horde of Myktas like those perpetually surrounding my family.

Hent glared at me. “Don’t give the over-coddlers any more ideas.”

“People love you, Hent,” Niiq asserted between us. “Why’d they throw rocks at you?”

“I’sn’t their intended target.”

“So a mob with poor aim; doubly dangerous.” That statement should not have been said with as much glee as she poured into it.

On Hent’s other side, Tzam shook his head. “There’s gonna be an investigation? It’s dubious how they could miss a Seallaii-na trespasser and hit our prince instead.”

My heart froze, a heavy gong in its place, the ringing in my ears sounding vaguely like Fredo’s name. Could he have survived? Was he looking for me?

Searching within myself, in the place where he should have been, I found nothing, darkness, a vacuum threatening to pull me in and never let go.

I retreated, scared but refusing to relinquish that smidgen of hope. “There was a Seallaii-na trespasser?”

“While my father and I’re in Tils, we encountered a mob that’d trapped a Seallaii-na merchant on the ground. They’d had him there for more than a day. I pushed through the crowd and escorted him back to his vessel.”

Shock splashed through me like a bucket of ice water dumped over my head. It really could have been Fredo, except which ship did he get returned to? “I thought you thought Seallaii-nas​ were monsters. Why would you save one?”

“He wasn’t a deliberate intruder; his bein’ on the ground’s an accident. He’d fallen off the roof of his transport, and he’s injured.”

A second bucket of frigid water tipped over my head. The man Hent saved was probably the one I knocked off the roof as our distraction. His predicament was mostly my fault.

And Hent had just earned some “good guy” points. He wasn’t as closed-minded and obstinate as he could have been, able to recognize the difference between a deliberate intruder with mal intent and someone caught in circumstances beyond their control.

How far did that understanding stretch? Would he have saved Fredo and I? We had stepped on their soil of our own volition, but we were not the ones who had come up with the idea. We were here under the banner of their Seallaii-na allies, here to help, to warn, to stave off calamity.

And instead they shot calamity at us.

“Seallaii-nas don’t heal very quickly,” I heard Hent say as if from a distance. I must have missed some of their conversation. “Because they’re so long lived, a lot of their processes seem to take longer- well, that’sn’t completely true. Sometimes they seem faster, too. Their days’re too short, so their whole concept of time is just wacky.”

“But I understand,” Niiq assuaged. “Timqé says they seem stronger, but they’re fragile at the same time. Oh, Forest Girl, you’re raised by Druojojneerpsrii. What’re they like?”

“Okay, my name is Rose.”

“Old news,” Hent said, gaze on me unfathomably deep again. Have I mentioned how tall Hent is for a Grenswa-na? We sat, but ever so slightly he looked down at me, gaze pinning me like a spear through the heart, eyes a deep teal, flecks of that watermelon green twisting the light.

His expression was rife with curiosity, voice imbued with zeal: “You view them as family? Those that raised you?”

“That depends on how you define family: Someone genetically close to you? Someone who has influenced and taught you, who provided the means for your survival? Someone for whom love would prompt you to do anything?”

Lavender confusion seeped over his scales, trickling into his eyes. “You love them? They hold your loyalty still? You’d do anythin’ they asked without question?”

“They taught me to question everything.”

“Then how do you rationalize what they’ve done?”

I froze, bewilderment balancing atop fear’s shoulders. “What do you mean?”

“They do stuff just to see what’ll happen.”

Like bringing Ambassador Lafdo to the Citadel to meet me, my subconscious ​added.

I defended, “The Druojojneerpsrii unlock the secrets of the universe and use them to help the worlds they visit.”

“How they unlock them’s where I’ve a problem.”

“What do you mean?”

The mantra of the Druojojneerpsrii was to learn everything, but I had never thought too deeply as to how they gathered their information. Neerpsrii had played the world like a game, killing those he deemed counterproductive, spurious, or weak. From what I knew of subsequent Eteriqs, they viewed the lives of others with even greater nonchalance.

Hent tilted his head as if he heard something, then snatched at the water, this time succeeding in catching his fish. Pride painted a smile as he held the wiggling creature high, then lobbed it in the bucket with the first.

Niiq and Tzam praised him, but I frowned, disgust and pity for the gaping victim twisting my gut.

“The Druojojneerpsrii have never hurt Grenswa, have they?” I pressed.

Reaching for another piece of bait, Hent stilled, curiosity flickering cerulean in his eyes. “You really don’t know?”

I shook my head.

“The Grenswa-nas they take, they study…well, one they removed his right hand to see if he could become proficient with his left. They cut off the tail of another to see how it’d affect his balance.”

“That’s horrible!” Niiq gasped, clutching her own silken tail protectively. “I mean, a tail isn’t only about helpin’ us get around.”

“It’s part of one’s self image,” I added. It would be like mutilating someone’s face and expecting them to still have confidence in their own beauty.

“Exactly. They don’t’ve tails, so maybe they don’t understand. It could be forgivable,” Hent reasoned, “the first time. But not the hundredth time.”

“They didn’t? Really.”

“You want to see the reports?” He raised an eyebrow, wincing as the movement tugged at the wound beneath his bandage. “No, you don’t. They’re awful.”

My eyes fell to the wooden slats of the raft, mind sprinting and torn. It was terrible, but I also wanted to see their results. Did anyone manage to switch handedness? How were the tailless affected? I felt that ignoring the findings negated the value of the sacrifices made.

But I also felt horrendous for thinking that way.

“I see why you called them monsters.”

“They took your tail, too, right, Rose? And made it so you can’t zap things?”

I looked up, no words on my tongue.

Really, how had I expected them not to notice my lack of tail when it was such a major player in their body language? Some ~inonii kept their tails covered as part of their modesty, but I didn’t really want these high-and-mighty Luejii to associate me with the ~inonii, especially not after what I had witnessed thus far of their strained relationship.

“I want to understand,” Hent pled, “how you can defend them, care for them, forgive them. They’re beautiful monsters. It’s said they incite love with no reason, shaking loyalty free from its natural place, and I don’t know. I’ve never experienced that, but I want to understand you.”

I felt as if I stared directly into a star, amazement dawning within me.

“Thank you,” I said, hands clasped in front of me, head bowed—an apologetic stance. “I very much want you to understand me.”

Determination set, a mortar made of diamond and steel. I had to fix his tainted view of us. I could not deny these shocking accounts, but I could show him not every Seallaii-na was as twisted and cruel as he believed.

To avoid the veil of bias, I would have to show him without him knowing what I was. He wanted to understand me, and I would make sure he did.

In the meantime, I still needed to deliver my message. I didn’t know when this supposed attack would occur, but every seclii trickling by was wasted time they could have used to prevent or prepare.

Yet how could I deliver my message without letting anyone know I was the messenger?

I had the datapin. I also knew a secret way into the king’s council chamber, where they had a reader. I could sneak in and leave it there, but they would need an interpreter.

The papers…

Yes, I could sneak in, watch the message, and transcribe a translated report for them. They would take it seriously, right? Not think it was a prank and squander precious time trying to track down the prankster?

My mind whirred, wondering what details the message contained, what countermeasures the Grenswa-nas could take. Would it be prudent for me to suggest any of these in my notes?

I looked back at Hent, a third fish in his hand. Grenswa-nas were predators imbued with grace and wit. They deserved more respect and fear than I had possessed for them before coming here, but it was those same qualities that now assured me they could handle any crisis. The Druojojneerpsrii had lost their love, and I would reacquire it.

-continued in chapter 15: A Valiant Cause for a Queen-
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Chapter 12 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki

Renegade section 3 scene 2- Invitation

The hallways seemed endless. Countless doors hid any actual exit well. Frustration was a mild term for what Xlack attempted to keep bottled up, but it grew nonetheless. To top it off, Revo still followed him, humming like a muzzled bird.

Xlack eventually found his way back to the hangar housing his Oha, but the heavy doors refused to grant him passage. He knew that beyond them and the very long, dark, twisty cave, outside awaited.

Impatience spilled the words, “Do you know how to open the doors?”

“Yep.”

“Then open them,” Xlack ordered, still managing a thin façade of calm. On his shoulder, Rell growled.

Revo crossed his arms, murky green eyes accusing. “Last I knew, I wasn’t supposed to take orders from uncooperative strangers who refused to answer more than seven questions.”

Xlack sighed, “Fine. You want to know what an Aylata is?” He snapped out his Ier.

A straight, simple beam of light emanated from its center. Surrounded by tiny electromagnets, amplified, divided, and curved as it ran along the length of the weapon’s structure, it split any molecules in its vicinity. It wouldn’t hurt the hand of the Aylata for whom it had been made, bonded to his life-signature and hence remotely a part of him, but other things...

He stabbed it into the door. Sparks flew as the weapon seared through blast-resistant metal, cutting a hole just large enough for Xlack to fit through.

“Short definition, that’s what happens to anything that stands in an Aylata’s way.”

Revo was dumbfounded. Though the Ier reminded him of his own ju’wack, blast-resistant metal considered itself safe from his green-glowing weapon.

Slipping through the new opening, Xlack found himself in a high-ceilinged cave with dripping rock formations. A smirk crept across his lips, the silver Ier still pulsing in his hand. He had never used it to injure anything animate. The sight of it was enough to persuade most offenders to compliance. The Ier was as much symbol as weapon, recognized far beyond his empire’s borders.

Xlack’s left hand curled around his back, digging Rell out of his jacket. He had shown the Ier to the beastling several times so it would become familiar, but Rell insisted the tool was scary and always hid.

“The cave is a maze,” Revo warned. “Ya won’t get out without a guide.”

Xlack ignored him and kept walking.

Jogging to catch up, the O’ee offered, “I could show ya the way out, but on one condition.”

A sideways glance. “What?”

“Ya try to consider us friends and not obstacles.”

Xlack grinned. “Hard bargain.”

“No harder than blast-resistant shielding. Accepted?”

Xlack nodded. “Sure. Which way, Guideman?”

For light (and reassurance with the Ier so near), Revo drew his ju’wack and pointed down a narrow path to the right. “The tunnels are dark. Keep yer weapon on.”

Squirming in Xlack’s hand, Rell froze, curiosity and fear sharpening his gaze and tying it to the ju’wack’s viridian tendrils.

Xlack frowned. To his eyes, Revo’s weapon emitted no light, but it was loud like a stiff breeze, and it copied the O’ee’s life-signature like an Ier would.

As the Tala turned, proud of his negotiating prowess, his ju’wack’s glow revealed a person in the mouth of the passage.

“Hello, Revo. Skyme,” Twi greeted, nodding at each in turn. Rell sniffed at her, leaning as close as he could without falling from his perch in Xlack’s hand.

“What’s up?” Revo asked, halfway between concern and relief.

Mueta gather in Vlavaran. Restigam wants to know what they’re up to.”

There was a title Xlack recognized: Restigam—someone commanding great respect.

With a roll of his eyes, Revo announced, “Where the Mueta gather, we go!”

Twi turned her quick eyes on Xlack, asking, “Would you mind accompanying us to Vlavaran?”

Anywhere, as long as it was outside!

“Sounds interesting. I’d like to go.”

“Good.” The slightest of smiles found Twi. “I must collect Stevalok. Meet us at the top of vacporter four.”

“Will do,” Revo agreed as Twi left them, shadows stealing her from sight. With a snort, Rell settled into Xlack’s palm, hugging his master’s thumb and chewing at its tip.

As Revo walked on, Xlack continued following him, wondering if the O’ees or Mueta could be the protectors the stories spoke of—the protectors K’alaqk had meant when he mentioned collecting information.

“Ow, Rell, stop!” Xlack hissed, thumb tearing free and tapping the beastling’s velvety nose. With a disgruntled yip, Rell retreated, jumping onto Xlack’s side and squeezing into the Ier’s sheath. Xlack let him stay there, attention returning to the vagueness of his mission.

“Hey, Revo, what are Mueta?”

Revo laughed. “They’re people like ya and me, I guess.”

“Then what makes them Mueta?”

“They have Magni ancestors, like O’ees do. The mix of genetics makes us stronger and faster, both mentally and physically, than the natives of our worlds. It also gives us some special Talents.”

Same with the Aylata.

“So the Mueta protect the common people?”

Revo grimaced. “I guess they would if it served their interests, but that’s rare. Easily defined, they’re an organization of underground gangsters with strict rules and driven by selfishness.”

“Sound like great friends,” Xlack drawled. “We’ll meet some in Vlavaran?”

“It’s just the way it’s always been: Mueta make a mess, and O’ees clean it up.”

“So, what’s with the girl who always shows up out of nowhere?”

“Twi? Yeah, she’s pretty, ain’t she?” Revo praised, a sly grin making a brief appearance. His next words chased it away. “She’s a good person. My amarac’s death hit her hard, but don’t worry. She won’t let ya get captured by Mueta. She has…history with them.”

“What do you mean by history?”

“What do ya think I am, a blabbermouth? Go ask Lanox.”

In front of them, a vacporter door slid open, and Revo stepped into its blinding, artificial light, closing his ju’wack and dropping it into one of the pockets lining his right leg. Xlack plucked Rell from the Ier sheath and returned him to his shoulder, putting away his own weapon and following the O’ee, though he would rather have taken stairs.

Vertiporters—contraptions employing pulleys or the like to carry passengers along a vertical shaft—always felt like a trap. One way in or out. No place to hide. Little space in which to dodge. Vacporters, which traveled in a vacuum, only decreased one’s chances of escape.

As Xlack stamped down this stubborn paranoia, the computer requested, “Please select a destination.”

“Outside,” Xlack ordered.

Several beats passed before the computer replied, “I apologize, but-”

“Surface level,” Revo clarified. The door closed, and the vacporter did its job, carrying them up through the vacuumized tunnel.

“If ya get separated from the rest of us, ya will probably need this,” Revo anticipated, handing Xlack a small pendant on a chain, “unless ya plan on cutting through every door ya come across.”

Rell scampered down Xlack’s arm, whiskers twitching, a curious paw swatting at the shiny thing.

Xlack inspected the pendant—a fingertip-sized equilateral triangle with a computer sphere in the middle, this last like a glittering, translucent jewel. Twi wore a near-identical ornament on a short necklace, and Lanox wore hers looped through her bundled curls, though Lanox’s was a seven-sided shape that reminded Xlack of a fish.

“What is it?”

“An O’ee emblem. It used to belong to my amarac, but he doesn’t need it anymore.”

Back home, Aylata emblems opened otherwise locked doors and served as tracer signals for Messengers. An O’ee emblem could come in handy.

“Thanks,” Xlack said, shooing Rell back to his shoulder and dropping the emblem in his pocket.

“Don’t mention it,” Revo responded. “Really, Twi’d kill me.”

-continued in section 3 scene 3- Prison-

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Chapter 12 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 3 scene 2- Invitation
The hallways seemed endless. Countless doors hid any actual exit well. Frustration was a mild term for what Xlack attempted to keep bottled up, but it grew nonetheless. To top it off, Revo still followed him, humming like a muzzled bird.

Xlack eventually found his way back to the hangar housing his Oha, but the heavy doors refused to grant him passage. He knew that beyond them and the very long, dark, twisty cave, outside awaited.

Impatience spilled the words, “Do you know how to open the doors?”

“Yep.”

“Then open them,” Xlack ordered, still managing a thin façade of calm. On his shoulder, Rell growled.

Revo crossed his arms, murky green eyes accusing. “Last I knew, I wasn’t supposed to take orders from uncooperative strangers who refused to answer more than seven questions.”

Xlack sighed, “Fine. You want to know what an Aylata is?” He snapped out his Ier.

A straight, simple beam of light emanated from its center. Surrounded by tiny electromagnets, amplified, divided, and curved as it ran along the length of the weapon’s structure, it split any molecules in its vicinity. It wouldn’t hurt the hand of the Aylata for whom it had been made, bonded to his life-signature and hence remotely a part of him, but other things...

He stabbed it into the door. Sparks flew as the weapon seared through blast-resistant metal, cutting a hole just large enough for Xlack to fit through.

“Short definition, that’s what happens to anything that stands in an Aylata’s way.”

Revo was dumbfounded. Though the Ier reminded him of his own ju’wack, blast-resistant metal considered itself safe from his green-glowing weapon.

Slipping through the new opening, Xlack found himself in a high-ceilinged cave with dripping rock formations. A smirk crept across his lips, the silver Ier still pulsing in his hand. He had never used it to injure anything animate. The sight of it was enough to persuade most offenders to compliance. The Ier was as much symbol as weapon, recognized far beyond his empire’s borders.

Xlack’s left hand curled around his back, digging Rell out of his jacket. He had shown the Ier to the beastling several times so it would become familiar, but Rell insisted the tool was scary and always hid.

“The cave is a maze,” Revo warned. “Ya won’t get out without a guide.”

Xlack ignored him and kept walking.

Jogging to catch up, the O’ee offered, “I could show ya the way out, but on one condition.”

A sideways glance. “What?”

“Ya try to consider us friends and not obstacles.”

Xlack grinned. “Hard bargain.”

“No harder than blast-resistant shielding. Accepted?”

Xlack nodded. “Sure. Which way, Guideman?”

For light (and reassurance with the Ier so near), Revo drew his ju’wack and pointed down a narrow path to the right. “The tunnels are dark. Keep yer weapon on.”

Squirming in Xlack’s hand, Rell froze, curiosity and fear sharpening his gaze and tying it to the ju’wack’s viridian tendrils.

Xlack frowned. To his eyes, Revo’s weapon emitted no light, but it was loud like a stiff breeze, and it copied the O’ee’s life-signature like an Ier would.

As the Tala turned, proud of his negotiating prowess, his ju’wack’s glow revealed a person in the mouth of the passage.

“Hello, Revo. Skyme,” Twi greeted, nodding at each in turn. Rell sniffed at her, leaning as close as he could without falling from his perch in Xlack’s hand.

“What’s up?” Revo asked, halfway between concern and relief.

Mueta gather in Vlavaran. Restigam wants to know what they’re up to.”

There was a title Xlack recognized: Restigam—someone commanding great respect.

With a roll of his eyes, Revo announced, “Where the Mueta gather, we go!”

Twi turned her quick eyes on Xlack, asking, “Would you mind accompanying us to Vlavaran?”

Anywhere, as long as it was outside!

“Sounds interesting. I’d like to go.”

“Good.” The slightest of smiles found Twi. “I must collect Stevalok. Meet us at the top of vacporter four.”

“Will do,” Revo agreed as Twi left them, shadows stealing her from sight. With a snort, Rell settled into Xlack’s palm, hugging his master’s thumb and chewing at its tip.

As Revo walked on, Xlack continued following him, wondering if the O’ees or Mueta could be the protectors the stories spoke of—the protectors K’alaqk had meant when he mentioned collecting information.

“Ow, Rell, stop!” Xlack hissed, thumb tearing free and tapping the beastling’s velvety nose. With a disgruntled yip, Rell retreated, jumping onto Xlack’s side and squeezing into the Ier’s sheath. Xlack let him stay there, attention returning to the vagueness of his mission.

“Hey, Revo, what are Mueta?”

Revo laughed. “They’re people like ya and me, I guess.”

“Then what makes them Mueta?”

“They have Magni ancestors, like O’ees do. The mix of genetics makes us stronger and faster, both mentally and physically, than the natives of our worlds. It also gives us some special Talents.”

Same with the Aylata.

“So the Mueta protect the common people?”

Revo grimaced. “I guess they would if it served their interests, but that’s rare. Easily defined, they’re an organization of underground gangsters with strict rules and driven by selfishness.”

“Sound like great friends,” Xlack drawled. “We’ll meet some in Vlavaran?”

“It’s just the way it’s always been: Mueta make a mess, and O’ees clean it up.”

“So, what’s with the girl who always shows up out of nowhere?”

“Twi? Yeah, she’s pretty, ain’t she?” Revo praised, a sly grin making a brief appearance. His next words chased it away. “She’s a good person. My amarac’s death hit her hard, but don’t worry. She won’t let ya get captured by Mueta. She has…history with them.”

“What do you mean by history?”

“What do ya think I am, a blabbermouth? Go ask Lanox.”

In front of them, a vacporter door slid open, and Revo stepped into its blinding, artificial light, closing his ju’wack and dropping it into one of the pockets lining his right leg. Xlack plucked Rell from the Ier sheath and returned him to his shoulder, putting away his own weapon and following the O’ee, though he would rather have taken stairs.

Vertiporters—contraptions employing pulleys or the like to carry passengers along a vertical shaft—always felt like a trap. One way in or out. No place to hide. Little space in which to dodge. Vacporters, which traveled in a vacuum, only decreased one’s chances of escape.

As Xlack stamped down this stubborn paranoia, the computer requested, “Please select a destination.”

“Outside,” Xlack ordered.

Several beats passed before the computer replied, “I apologize, but-”

“Surface level,” Revo clarified. The door closed, and the vacporter did its job, carrying them up through the vacuumized tunnel.

“If ya get separated from the rest of us, ya will probably need this,” Revo anticipated, handing Xlack a small pendant on a chain, “unless ya plan on cutting through every door ya come across.”

Rell scampered down Xlack’s arm, whiskers twitching, a curious paw swatting at the shiny thing.

Xlack inspected the pendant—a fingertip-sized equilateral triangle with a computer sphere in the middle, this last like a glittering, translucent jewel. Twi wore a near-identical ornament on a short necklace, and Lanox wore hers looped through her bundled curls, though Lanox’s was a seven-sided shape that reminded Xlack of a fish.

“What is it?”

“An O’ee emblem. It used to belong to my amarac, but he doesn’t need it anymore.”

Back home, Aylata emblems opened otherwise locked doors and served as tracer signals for Messengers. An O’ee emblem could come in handy.

“Thanks,” Xlack said, shooing Rell back to his shoulder and dropping the emblem in his pocket.

“Don’t mention it,” Revo responded. “Really, Twi’d kill me.”

-continued in section 3 scene 3- Prison-
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Chapter 15 of River's End
Written by Taki

River's End chapter 13: Adventure is the Only Tonic for Boredom

To look at someone was an acknowledgement of their existence to a Grenswa-na. It showed respect for their life, for their right to live. Therefore, to turn away and ignore someone was beyond rude, akin to implying they should cease to be.

So when heads swiveled toward the enthused voice calling the first prince’s name, then immediately pivoted away, jeweled eyes on their plates or hands, it puzzled me.

Timqé dropped out of his swing, hurrying under the table to meet his summoner before her lumbering strides carried her too far beyond the doorway. Clumsy me managed to navigate turning around in the hammock just as she threw her arms around him, bouncing heavily on her toes.

“Niiq, what are you doing up?”

So this was Niiq, the pregnant wife of Grenswa’s first prince, and I suddenly understood the reaction of the Luejii around me.

Niiq was Silver, a race they considered cursed.

Niiq possessed a strange beauty, and I wished Timqé would step aside so I could study her in greater detail. Her hair was colored like a smooth mirror, cut short at her nape and angled sharply over her shoulders, bangs hanging halfway to her elbows, a few beaded strands proclaiming her married status. Silver scales matched her hair’s brilliance, freckled with shimmering onyx. But her eyes captivated me the most: right iris black as the deepest, darkest cavern, left a radiant chrome.

I stared, and while everyone else pretended to ignore the couple, the group’s strict silence and occasional stolen glances revealed the direction of their attention.

Their voices were too low for me to understand, but I watched Niiq’s enthused expression drop into a pout. She shook her head, mumbling something.

“Niiq,” Timqé said, affection and exasperation amplifying his voice, “the doctor said-”

“But I’m so bored!”

Behind me, the queen stood in her hammock. “The child within you, it’s not more important than your momentary entertainment?”

“He’s bored, too,” Niiq huffed.

Queen Jianthy sighed, “You can’t act properly, even in this.”

On our left, an Onyx woman inserted, “Forgive my daughter, my queen. You know she’sn’t intelligent.”

Niiq didn’t seem to hear them; a good thing, I suppose because had my mother said the same of me, I’d have cried or punched someone…probably both.

Instead, Niiq pitched, “That book you brought me from the library, Timqé, the one on architecture, it had old diagrams for this palace, and there’re hidden passageways everywhere. I want to explore them, Timqé. Adventure’s the only tonic for boredom.”

“I love your insatiable curiosity, Niiq, how you don’t view anythin’ as an obstacle, how you believe you’ve to know every part of everythin’,” Timqé rebutted, turning her around. She seemed very tiny, especially compared to Timqé, who was tall for a Grenswa-na. Hands on her shoulders, he directed her through the exit. “But you’re already on an adventure, an important one, growing our son within you.”

“I can multitask adventure,” Niiq claimed as they disappeared behind the curved wall.

Whispers hissed around the room, none quite distinct enough for me to understand, though I caught a few snippets that sounded like ‘unsuitable princess’ and ‘royal execution.’ This latter particularly befuddled and disturbed me.

“You seem confused,” Blu whispered. “You didn’t believe Niiq was real?”

“I haven’t heard much about her at all.”

“Makes sense, I guess. The family’s been tryin’ to quell any mention of her in the media.”

“She’s the sweetest girl you’ll ever meet,” Blu’s mother placated.

With a grunt, Blu added, “Mom, you can only say that because she’s never decided your face looks like a drum.”

The Sapphire lady ignored his comment, a sad tone strumming the words, “She’s unfortunate, though, our Princess Niiq.”

I looked over my shoulder at the queen. She sat alone now, lost in bottomless, troubled thoughts, ocean-deep gaze on her plate, shell spoon in hand but not moving. She looked like the entire world had fallen on her stiff shoulders, either she or it about to crumble.

I can’t drop my bad news on her here by herself. The king needs to be present…and advisors. And Timqé because he seems the most open-minded.

“Blu, where are Hent and the king?” I asked, repositioning myself in my swing so I faced the table again.

With another bird leg in hand, Blu related, “There’s an incident in Tils, and the king went to allay the people’s fears.”

“What do they fear?”

“Seallaii-na invasion.”

The din of voices had steadily grown into the raucous symphony it had been when I had first entered this dining hall, but with those two words spoken casually around a bite of meat, I suddenly couldn’t hear anything over the pounding of my own heart.

As if from far away, I heard Queen Jianthy clear her throat, saw her turn to me, tears barely contained, a tiny twitch of a smile appearing as she found a subject to distract her thoughts.

“Pink child, what were you saying before the interruption?”

I shook my head, throat tight and voice squeaky. “This isn’t really the place to say what I have to say. Sorry. Can I request an official audience with you and the king and the first prince?”

The queen’s brow furrowed. “The first prince’s no longer qualified for official audiences.”

“Because he married a Silver? He’s still your son!”

Jianthy’s face hardened. “Leave this table. Now.”

“Gladly.” I tried to slip gracefully from my hammock, but my leg got tangled, and I fell on the table, dragging several dishes down after me. As they crashed against the stone floor, I dangled upside-down, my foot caught. Some pathetic wiggling freed me, and I face-planted on the fish head.

Disgust and embarrassment buoying me to my feet, I quipped, “Thank you for your hospitality,” and ran from the room.

Where are you going? a tiny voice in the back of my mind nagged.

To find Timqé and Niiq.

And how do you plan to do that?

I didn’t answer inner me.

What about your message? You were very rude to the queen. They’ll probably throw you out of here.

Inner me was being very annoying, and she planted paranoia in my consciousness. I slowed, scanning my surroundings, expecting a pack of officers to jump out from around every corner or off every glittering chandelier.

I spied out possible exits, noting that nearly every surface was wet. Water and crafailia ran throughout this place—rivulets along the stone walls, cascades dropping over balconies, ponds harboring hallways. And what had Niiq said about there being hidden passages?

Someone grabbed me from behind, my mouth covered, scream muffled as I fell over backward.

“Shhh! You’re the girl Timqé found in the forest!” Niiq exclaimed in a melodious hiss by my ear. I landed on my backside in a very narrow hallway.

“Yeah, that’s me,” I confirmed, hoping this description wouldn’t become a permanent title.

Glee danced in Niiq’s mismatched eyes, stretching her lips wide. “He said you’re raised by the Druojojneerpsrii.”

“Uh, where did Timqé go?”

“He’s walking me back to my room, but King Rangiel and Hent came back, and some officials insisted Timqé had to go meet them. So I’m free to explore until he finds me. Wanna come along? I’ve already found a passage.”

I had ticked off the queen, so I probably wouldn’t get any formal audience. Giving my message to Timqé seemed my best option, so I had to stay in the palace long enough to meet up with him again. Hiding in unknown tunnels with a wife he would be searching for seemed a great way to accomplish that.

And it could be fun.

“Of course,” I beamed.

“Great. Hurry up!” She scurried deeper down the narrow hallway, and as I followed, the passage appeared to shrink behind me. It got very dark, very fast. Just in front of me, Niiq scrambled up steep stairs, and a little bit of panic swelled in my chest, making it very hard to breathe.

I often traversed the hidden halls of the Citadel of Menyaza, but that was a maze designed to protect me. It responded to my touch, my safety and my wishes its priority. If this building listened to anyone, it likely wasn’t me.

Just as I opened my mouth to suggest we should go back, the path widened, small slits letting in natural light.

Scaled fingers sliding into an opening and bare toes scraping at the wall as she tried to lift herself high enough to see through the slit, Niiq exclaimed, “Awesome, I think these’re for espionage.”

“If it was your goal to spy on trees,” I added.

Niiq presented a more entertaining view than the static foliage offered by the slits, her soft features scrunched with effort, glittering eyes squinting, as if with enough sharpness they could peer through the solid stone wall. Her toffee-colored skin had a pallid quality here in this oddly angled light.

“Oh, it’s just trees,” she acknowledged as she finally succeeded in peeking through the spy hole. Dropping down, she bounced onward through the tunnel. “Though trees’re great conspirators. They already’ve everyone convinced they’ren’t suspicious.”

This made me think of how I had teased Fredo aboard Bongii’s ship, joking about disguising him as a tree, and I tumbled into distracted silence, Niiq’s further comments and softly spoken puns slipping past my ears without registration. I should have planned better. Fredo trusted me, and I failed him.

Your sister trusts you as well, my subconscious taunted, as do the Druojojneerpsrii, to deliver your message.

The Grenswa-nas don’t trust me, I argued.

Have you given them any reason to?

I stopped, the realization lashing me like the whip-thin tip of a scyuen’s tail. A Grenswa-na’s trust, as with most of their psyche, ties back to their most prominent attribute, their loyalty. A Grenswa-na’s loyalty is complex and boundless, unbreakable, and stalwart, but it is not automatic. It must be earned.

“I heard you threw a leempree across a ravine,” Niiq’s alacritous voice burst through my thoughts.

“How exactly did you hear about that?”

“That’s awesome. You’re awesome!” She threw her arms around me, and I squeaked, surprise sucking in a breath.

“Doesn’t answer the question.” I patted her shoulder, unsure of what was expected of me.

“And you’re so tall! Maybe if I’s as tall as you, the doctor wouldn’t think this baby’s too big for me and banish me to borin’ville!”

“His opinion has merit though.” Beneath layers of cascading obsidian and azure lace, her belly looked about to burst. “I mean, you look like you might…pop.”

She looked up at me, tears glistening in her opaque eyes, one luminous, one glossy. “You think I’m ugly?”

“No.” I knelt and wrapped her in my gentlest embrace. “Niiq, you’re like a moon shining bright in a dark night sky.”

An analogy that made no sense to her, confusion twisting her brows and wrinkling her petite nose. Grenswa’s moon was the harbinger of daylight.

“You’re like a moonrise,” I corrected.

Joy dawned across her face, smile more radiant than all Seallaii’s moons combined.

“That’s amazin’. I knew you’re awesome.”

Her arms slinked away as she twirled, facing the dank unexplored depths of the passage and springing a few more steps.

“Just after I moved here, Hent told me what the counselors said,” she confessed, back turned to me. Tears were in her voice. “They debated whether stealin’ the first prince’s heart’s a crime punishable by death for someone like me. Like my mother wished I didn’t exist, they wished that, too, that I would just disappear.”

“That’s deplorable.”

She turned halfway back, eyes closed and smile wide, as if it could dam all sadness. “Hent advised me to run away.”

I wanted to smack him.

“But I stayed. I love Timqé, and there’s never been a princess like me. Do you think I can change the world?”

Her question startled me, both in its scope and in how she worded it. The questions I had heard thus far from Grenswa-nas had all been phrased as statements, a language quirk rooted in their penchant for assumption. This was a true inquiry from Niiq with no implication I would be required to agree.

But I agreed wholeheartedly. I wanted to believe in her.

“Niiq, with enough effort and determination, I know you can do anything.”

She giggled, hands still clasped behind her back, but her tension had fled. “That sounds like the Druojojneerpsrii’s motto: Impossible’s a matter of opinion.”

I had heard that mantra a million times, but never before had I noted how pompous and invigorating it sounded. I got lost in my thoughts again, and when Niiq’s words broke me from my introspection, I suspected our secret passage had led us high in a tower.

“You know our former Sarquant Sjaelam figured out the moving parts of this palace. The book Timqé gave me said he designed these passages after his beloved Menyaza Citadel where he grew up.”

Her gait was some mix of skip, sway, and waddle, and the faster she went, the more ridiculous it seemed. My long strides kept up with her well enough, but this was no casual stroll, especially considering the plethora of stairs. My Citadel had that, too, I supposed, if I wanted them. If I asked, they could smooth into a ramp or slide. At my request, they would fold away, granting access to a passage they had blocked and disconnecting higher pathways.

I didn’t know how long ago those features had been added to the Citadel. Uncle Sjaelam had been raised there several centuries before me. He may have even had some part in designing its current abilities. In which case…

I ran my hand along the wall. It felt nothing like the coarse stone of home, moist and glossy. No mortar glowed at my fingers’ entreaty. But I did find something.

“Niiq, look! There’s something carved into the wall here.”

“By design or by a vandal?” she queried, face a hairsbreadth from where my fingers rested on the deep lines. I doubted her mediocre eyesight could distinguish it in the dimness.

“It’s probably a marker that does something if given the right cue,” I speculated. “The picture is of a quunee. Try cooing to it.”

With a grin, Niiq perfectly imitated a quunee’s fluttering warble. It sounded a little like a drowning flute.

Nothing happened.

“Try it again,” I advised, “but this time touch the etching.”

I guided her hand to the line drawing, tracing her fingers over its swirled edges. A quunee had the bone structure of a bird, but its skinny arms ended in tiny, clever hands. Expandable membrane stretched from the length of its arms to its sides, forming pseudo wings that it used to glide, not fly, flat tail acting as a rudder in either air or water. Over-long legs allowed it to leap like a cricket, while three large feathers protruded from its head, serving little discernable purpose other than to make it appear less bald.

“Maybe it’s a good thing it didn’t work,” Niiq excused, “Quunees often symbolize mischievousness. It might be a trap.”

Quunees represent mischievousness because in their never-ending quest for food they can get in everywhere. It probably opens an even more super-secret passage.”

“A secret passage within a secret passage?” Her eyes lit up again.

With her palm covering the quunee, Niiq cooed again, and a square section of wall swiveled on a horizontal axis, scooping us both onto our bellies. Niiq rolled, feet under her immediately, while I lay there a bit stunned, butt in the air, legs dangling, toes almost reaching the floor.

The wall had created a shelf showcasing us.

Pushing myself up on my hands, I surveyed the new room. An important-looking, thin table floated on a rectangular, shallow pond. Cushions hung around it, hovering over the marginal waters. Waxy papers cluttered the area, and at the head of the table, forlorn, bedraggled, and looking as if it had been dumped there rather unceremoniously, was my satchel.

I scrambled off the shelf, swinging on a cushion and skittering across the tabletop, board rocking beneath my heavy steps.

Either my lack of grace upset the balance of the shelf or it was on some sort of timer. Niiq squeaked as it flipped shut, trapping me alone in this official-seeming room.

-continued in chapter 14: Monsters Difficult to Tame-

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Chapter 15 of River's End
Written by Taki
River's End chapter 13: Adventure is the Only Tonic for Boredom
To look at someone was an acknowledgement of their existence to a Grenswa-na. It showed respect for their life, for their right to live. Therefore, to turn away and ignore someone was beyond rude, akin to implying they should cease to be.

So when heads swiveled toward the enthused voice calling the first prince’s name, then immediately pivoted away, jeweled eyes on their plates or hands, it puzzled me.

Timqé dropped out of his swing, hurrying under the table to meet his summoner before her lumbering strides carried her too far beyond the doorway. Clumsy me managed to navigate turning around in the hammock just as she threw her arms around him, bouncing heavily on her toes.

“Niiq, what are you doing up?”

So this was Niiq, the pregnant wife of Grenswa’s first prince, and I suddenly understood the reaction of the Luejii around me.

Niiq was Silver, a race they considered cursed.

Niiq possessed a strange beauty, and I wished Timqé would step aside so I could study her in greater detail. Her hair was colored like a smooth mirror, cut short at her nape and angled sharply over her shoulders, bangs hanging halfway to her elbows, a few beaded strands proclaiming her married status. Silver scales matched her hair’s brilliance, freckled with shimmering onyx. But her eyes captivated me the most: right iris black as the deepest, darkest cavern, left a radiant chrome.

I stared, and while everyone else pretended to ignore the couple, the group’s strict silence and occasional stolen glances revealed the direction of their attention.

Their voices were too low for me to understand, but I watched Niiq’s enthused expression drop into a pout. She shook her head, mumbling something.

“Niiq,” Timqé said, affection and exasperation amplifying his voice, “the doctor said-”

“But I’m so bored!”

Behind me, the queen stood in her hammock. “The child within you, it’s not more important than your momentary entertainment?”

“He’s bored, too,” Niiq huffed.

Queen Jianthy sighed, “You can’t act properly, even in this.”

On our left, an Onyx woman inserted, “Forgive my daughter, my queen. You know she’sn’t intelligent.”

Niiq didn’t seem to hear them; a good thing, I suppose because had my mother said the same of me, I’d have cried or punched someone…probably both.

Instead, Niiq pitched, “That book you brought me from the library, Timqé, the one on architecture, it had old diagrams for this palace, and there’re hidden passageways everywhere. I want to explore them, Timqé. Adventure’s the only tonic for boredom.”

“I love your insatiable curiosity, Niiq, how you don’t view anythin’ as an obstacle, how you believe you’ve to know every part of everythin’,” Timqé rebutted, turning her around. She seemed very tiny, especially compared to Timqé, who was tall for a Grenswa-na. Hands on her shoulders, he directed her through the exit. “But you’re already on an adventure, an important one, growing our son within you.”

“I can multitask adventure,” Niiq claimed as they disappeared behind the curved wall.

Whispers hissed around the room, none quite distinct enough for me to understand, though I caught a few snippets that sounded like ‘unsuitable princess’ and ‘royal execution.’ This latter particularly befuddled and disturbed me.

“You seem confused,” Blu whispered. “You didn’t believe Niiq was real?”

“I haven’t heard much about her at all.”

“Makes sense, I guess. The family’s been tryin’ to quell any mention of her in the media.”

“She’s the sweetest girl you’ll ever meet,” Blu’s mother placated.

With a grunt, Blu added, “Mom, you can only say that because she’s never decided your face looks like a drum.”

The Sapphire lady ignored his comment, a sad tone strumming the words, “She’s unfortunate, though, our Princess Niiq.”

I looked over my shoulder at the queen. She sat alone now, lost in bottomless, troubled thoughts, ocean-deep gaze on her plate, shell spoon in hand but not moving. She looked like the entire world had fallen on her stiff shoulders, either she or it about to crumble.

I can’t drop my bad news on her here by herself. The king needs to be present…and advisors. And Timqé because he seems the most open-minded.

“Blu, where are Hent and the king?” I asked, repositioning myself in my swing so I faced the table again.

With another bird leg in hand, Blu related, “There’s an incident in Tils, and the king went to allay the people’s fears.”

“What do they fear?”

“Seallaii-na invasion.”

The din of voices had steadily grown into the raucous symphony it had been when I had first entered this dining hall, but with those two words spoken casually around a bite of meat, I suddenly couldn’t hear anything over the pounding of my own heart.

As if from far away, I heard Queen Jianthy clear her throat, saw her turn to me, tears barely contained, a tiny twitch of a smile appearing as she found a subject to distract her thoughts.

“Pink child, what were you saying before the interruption?”

I shook my head, throat tight and voice squeaky. “This isn’t really the place to say what I have to say. Sorry. Can I request an official audience with you and the king and the first prince?”

The queen’s brow furrowed. “The first prince’s no longer qualified for official audiences.”

“Because he married a Silver? He’s still your son!”

Jianthy’s face hardened. “Leave this table. Now.”

“Gladly.” I tried to slip gracefully from my hammock, but my leg got tangled, and I fell on the table, dragging several dishes down after me. As they crashed against the stone floor, I dangled upside-down, my foot caught. Some pathetic wiggling freed me, and I face-planted on the fish head.

Disgust and embarrassment buoying me to my feet, I quipped, “Thank you for your hospitality,” and ran from the room.

Where are you going? a tiny voice in the back of my mind nagged.

To find Timqé and Niiq.

And how do you plan to do that?

I didn’t answer inner me.

What about your message? You were very rude to the queen. They’ll probably throw you out of here.

Inner me was being very annoying, and she planted paranoia in my consciousness. I slowed, scanning my surroundings, expecting a pack of officers to jump out from around every corner or off every glittering chandelier.

I spied out possible exits, noting that nearly every surface was wet. Water and crafailia ran throughout this place—rivulets along the stone walls, cascades dropping over balconies, ponds harboring hallways. And what had Niiq said about there being hidden passages?

Someone grabbed me from behind, my mouth covered, scream muffled as I fell over backward.

“Shhh! You’re the girl Timqé found in the forest!” Niiq exclaimed in a melodious hiss by my ear. I landed on my backside in a very narrow hallway.

“Yeah, that’s me,” I confirmed, hoping this description wouldn’t become a permanent title.

Glee danced in Niiq’s mismatched eyes, stretching her lips wide. “He said you’re raised by the Druojojneerpsrii.”

“Uh, where did Timqé go?”

“He’s walking me back to my room, but King Rangiel and Hent came back, and some officials insisted Timqé had to go meet them. So I’m free to explore until he finds me. Wanna come along? I’ve already found a passage.”

I had ticked off the queen, so I probably wouldn’t get any formal audience. Giving my message to Timqé seemed my best option, so I had to stay in the palace long enough to meet up with him again. Hiding in unknown tunnels with a wife he would be searching for seemed a great way to accomplish that.

And it could be fun.

“Of course,” I beamed.

“Great. Hurry up!” She scurried deeper down the narrow hallway, and as I followed, the passage appeared to shrink behind me. It got very dark, very fast. Just in front of me, Niiq scrambled up steep stairs, and a little bit of panic swelled in my chest, making it very hard to breathe.

I often traversed the hidden halls of the Citadel of Menyaza, but that was a maze designed to protect me. It responded to my touch, my safety and my wishes its priority. If this building listened to anyone, it likely wasn’t me.

Just as I opened my mouth to suggest we should go back, the path widened, small slits letting in natural light.

Scaled fingers sliding into an opening and bare toes scraping at the wall as she tried to lift herself high enough to see through the slit, Niiq exclaimed, “Awesome, I think these’re for espionage.”

“If it was your goal to spy on trees,” I added.

Niiq presented a more entertaining view than the static foliage offered by the slits, her soft features scrunched with effort, glittering eyes squinting, as if with enough sharpness they could peer through the solid stone wall. Her toffee-colored skin had a pallid quality here in this oddly angled light.

“Oh, it’s just trees,” she acknowledged as she finally succeeded in peeking through the spy hole. Dropping down, she bounced onward through the tunnel. “Though trees’re great conspirators. They already’ve everyone convinced they’ren’t suspicious.”

This made me think of how I had teased Fredo aboard Bongii’s ship, joking about disguising him as a tree, and I tumbled into distracted silence, Niiq’s further comments and softly spoken puns slipping past my ears without registration. I should have planned better. Fredo trusted me, and I failed him.

Your sister trusts you as well, my subconscious taunted, as do the Druojojneerpsrii, to deliver your message.

The Grenswa-nas don’t trust me, I argued.

Have you given them any reason to?

I stopped, the realization lashing me like the whip-thin tip of a scyuen’s tail. A Grenswa-na’s trust, as with most of their psyche, ties back to their most prominent attribute, their loyalty. A Grenswa-na’s loyalty is complex and boundless, unbreakable, and stalwart, but it is not automatic. It must be earned.

“I heard you threw a leempree across a ravine,” Niiq’s alacritous voice burst through my thoughts.

“How exactly did you hear about that?”

“That’s awesome. You’re awesome!” She threw her arms around me, and I squeaked, surprise sucking in a breath.

“Doesn’t answer the question.” I patted her shoulder, unsure of what was expected of me.

“And you’re so tall! Maybe if I’s as tall as you, the doctor wouldn’t think this baby’s too big for me and banish me to borin’ville!”

“His opinion has merit though.” Beneath layers of cascading obsidian and azure lace, her belly looked about to burst. “I mean, you look like you might…pop.”

She looked up at me, tears glistening in her opaque eyes, one luminous, one glossy. “You think I’m ugly?”

“No.” I knelt and wrapped her in my gentlest embrace. “Niiq, you’re like a moon shining bright in a dark night sky.”

An analogy that made no sense to her, confusion twisting her brows and wrinkling her petite nose. Grenswa’s moon was the harbinger of daylight.

“You’re like a moonrise,” I corrected.

Joy dawned across her face, smile more radiant than all Seallaii’s moons combined.

“That’s amazin’. I knew you’re awesome.”

Her arms slinked away as she twirled, facing the dank unexplored depths of the passage and springing a few more steps.

“Just after I moved here, Hent told me what the counselors said,” she confessed, back turned to me. Tears were in her voice. “They debated whether stealin’ the first prince’s heart’s a crime punishable by death for someone like me. Like my mother wished I didn’t exist, they wished that, too, that I would just disappear.”

“That’s deplorable.”

She turned halfway back, eyes closed and smile wide, as if it could dam all sadness. “Hent advised me to run away.”

I wanted to smack him.

“But I stayed. I love Timqé, and there’s never been a princess like me. Do you think I can change the world?”

Her question startled me, both in its scope and in how she worded it. The questions I had heard thus far from Grenswa-nas had all been phrased as statements, a language quirk rooted in their penchant for assumption. This was a true inquiry from Niiq with no implication I would be required to agree.

But I agreed wholeheartedly. I wanted to believe in her.

“Niiq, with enough effort and determination, I know you can do anything.”

She giggled, hands still clasped behind her back, but her tension had fled. “That sounds like the Druojojneerpsrii’s motto: Impossible’s a matter of opinion.”

I had heard that mantra a million times, but never before had I noted how pompous and invigorating it sounded. I got lost in my thoughts again, and when Niiq’s words broke me from my introspection, I suspected our secret passage had led us high in a tower.

“You know our former Sarquant Sjaelam figured out the moving parts of this palace. The book Timqé gave me said he designed these passages after his beloved Menyaza Citadel where he grew up.”

Her gait was some mix of skip, sway, and waddle, and the faster she went, the more ridiculous it seemed. My long strides kept up with her well enough, but this was no casual stroll, especially considering the plethora of stairs. My Citadel had that, too, I supposed, if I wanted them. If I asked, they could smooth into a ramp or slide. At my request, they would fold away, granting access to a passage they had blocked and disconnecting higher pathways.

I didn’t know how long ago those features had been added to the Citadel. Uncle Sjaelam had been raised there several centuries before me. He may have even had some part in designing its current abilities. In which case…

I ran my hand along the wall. It felt nothing like the coarse stone of home, moist and glossy. No mortar glowed at my fingers’ entreaty. But I did find something.

“Niiq, look! There’s something carved into the wall here.”

“By design or by a vandal?” she queried, face a hairsbreadth from where my fingers rested on the deep lines. I doubted her mediocre eyesight could distinguish it in the dimness.

“It’s probably a marker that does something if given the right cue,” I speculated. “The picture is of a quunee. Try cooing to it.”

With a grin, Niiq perfectly imitated a quunee’s fluttering warble. It sounded a little like a drowning flute.

Nothing happened.

“Try it again,” I advised, “but this time touch the etching.”

I guided her hand to the line drawing, tracing her fingers over its swirled edges. A quunee had the bone structure of a bird, but its skinny arms ended in tiny, clever hands. Expandable membrane stretched from the length of its arms to its sides, forming pseudo wings that it used to glide, not fly, flat tail acting as a rudder in either air or water. Over-long legs allowed it to leap like a cricket, while three large feathers protruded from its head, serving little discernable purpose other than to make it appear less bald.

“Maybe it’s a good thing it didn’t work,” Niiq excused, “Quunees often symbolize mischievousness. It might be a trap.”

Quunees represent mischievousness because in their never-ending quest for food they can get in everywhere. It probably opens an even more super-secret passage.”

“A secret passage within a secret passage?” Her eyes lit up again.

With her palm covering the quunee, Niiq cooed again, and a square section of wall swiveled on a horizontal axis, scooping us both onto our bellies. Niiq rolled, feet under her immediately, while I lay there a bit stunned, butt in the air, legs dangling, toes almost reaching the floor.

The wall had created a shelf showcasing us.

Pushing myself up on my hands, I surveyed the new room. An important-looking, thin table floated on a rectangular, shallow pond. Cushions hung around it, hovering over the marginal waters. Waxy papers cluttered the area, and at the head of the table, forlorn, bedraggled, and looking as if it had been dumped there rather unceremoniously, was my satchel.

I scrambled off the shelf, swinging on a cushion and skittering across the tabletop, board rocking beneath my heavy steps.

Either my lack of grace upset the balance of the shelf or it was on some sort of timer. Niiq squeaked as it flipped shut, trapping me alone in this official-seeming room.

-continued in chapter 14: Monsters Difficult to Tame-
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Chapter 11 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki

Renegade section 3 scene 1- Cookie

In Hrausq Seven-One-Nine’s room, Kix Entrycii looked at the crumbling sweet before him, skepticism prompting, “What kind of cookie is it?”

“It’s a cookie. Just eat it and be happy,” Lanox countered, shoving it even closer to his face, the pastry’s cerulean surface reflected in the silvery Knalcal birthmarks on his cheeks and ears. The cookie’s color went well with his hair—short, purposefully messy locks claiming an amalgam of blues, from near-black like Twi’s to a pale platinum, this latter the most prevalent.

Entrycii made no move to take the treat from Lanox. “Did you make it?”

“Entrycii, do I make cookies?”

“Is this a trick question?” Suspicion crawled across him, inciting schemes; Lanox could see it in his stance, in his icy eyes, in the twitch of his fingers near the pouches on his belt.

Sliding down the ladder from her bunkroom, Twi warned, “Run away before you make her angry, Entrycii.”

He snatched the cookie and stepped in Twi’s path, asking, “Have you received missions for tonight?”

“You mean these missions?” Twi confirmed, three glittering datasticks fanned in her raised hand. Entrycii reached for them, but Twi pulled back.

“I’ll give you a cookie for one,” he offered.

“A cookie that’s already been bitten off of? You are such a great negotiator, Entrycii.”

“Ew! Lanox, you gave me an already-been-chewed cookie!”

Lanox shrugged. “Ya didn’t ask me where I got it from.”

Entrycii’s stern stare latched onto her, not deigning to track the cookie as it flew into a trash bin.

“So, what’s up with the assignments, Twi?” Lanox queried, ignoring Entrycii’s oppressive gaze.

Twi gestured with the datasticks. “These were written before Skyme showed up.”

“And the problem?”

“Have you ever seen anyone like him?”

“Ya mean his gray skin and hair, and how they’re almost the same shade, so it looks a little weird, and how he doesn’t have a smidgen of color?” Lanox elaborated.

“Except for the neerj in his eyes,” Twi corrected. “The way those cut into whatever he looks at, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he has Mind Talents, but he’s not Tala.”

“So?”

“There’s something too strange about him,” Twi admitted. “I don’t want to leave him here to wander around unattended, but these datasticks send us into the city.”

“I don’t see why ya are putting up full security shields, Twi,” Lanox argued. “Didn’t that patrol find his ship sailing out of the deep gases? None of our ships have shields that can withstand the inner nebula. Not even our worlds venture in there.”

Unease shifted Lanox’s feet.

“Look, who knows how he lost his amarac or what he’s been through, but we can’t expect him to tell us everything right away. How were ya when ya first came back from Kelis, Twi?”

Mistrust narrowed Twi’s eyes. “I should report him to Stella.”

“And embarrass every last bit of pride out of him?!” Lanox exclaimed. “He seems to get along pretty well with Revo. Give him time. Just ask him to come to the city with us. Revo, too.”

With a subtle nod, Twi headed for the door, passing Lanox.

“You’re actually going to take advice from Lanox?” Entrycii questioned, his intense stare swinging from the Tala to her amarac.

Without looking back, Twi responded, “At the moment, I don’t have any better ideas.”

-continued in section 3 scene 2- Invitation-

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Chapter 11 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 3 scene 1- Cookie
In Hrausq Seven-One-Nine’s room, Kix Entrycii looked at the crumbling sweet before him, skepticism prompting, “What kind of cookie is it?”

“It’s a cookie. Just eat it and be happy,” Lanox countered, shoving it even closer to his face, the pastry’s cerulean surface reflected in the silvery Knalcal birthmarks on his cheeks and ears. The cookie’s color went well with his hair—short, purposefully messy locks claiming an amalgam of blues, from near-black like Twi’s to a pale platinum, this latter the most prevalent.

Entrycii made no move to take the treat from Lanox. “Did you make it?”

“Entrycii, do I make cookies?”

“Is this a trick question?” Suspicion crawled across him, inciting schemes; Lanox could see it in his stance, in his icy eyes, in the twitch of his fingers near the pouches on his belt.

Sliding down the ladder from her bunkroom, Twi warned, “Run away before you make her angry, Entrycii.”

He snatched the cookie and stepped in Twi’s path, asking, “Have you received missions for tonight?”

“You mean these missions?” Twi confirmed, three glittering datasticks fanned in her raised hand. Entrycii reached for them, but Twi pulled back.

“I’ll give you a cookie for one,” he offered.

“A cookie that’s already been bitten off of? You are such a great negotiator, Entrycii.”

“Ew! Lanox, you gave me an already-been-chewed cookie!”

Lanox shrugged. “Ya didn’t ask me where I got it from.”

Entrycii’s stern stare latched onto her, not deigning to track the cookie as it flew into a trash bin.

“So, what’s up with the assignments, Twi?” Lanox queried, ignoring Entrycii’s oppressive gaze.

Twi gestured with the datasticks. “These were written before Skyme showed up.”

“And the problem?”

“Have you ever seen anyone like him?”

“Ya mean his gray skin and hair, and how they’re almost the same shade, so it looks a little weird, and how he doesn’t have a smidgen of color?” Lanox elaborated.

“Except for the neerj in his eyes,” Twi corrected. “The way those cut into whatever he looks at, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he has Mind Talents, but he’s not Tala.”

“So?”

“There’s something too strange about him,” Twi admitted. “I don’t want to leave him here to wander around unattended, but these datasticks send us into the city.”

“I don’t see why ya are putting up full security shields, Twi,” Lanox argued. “Didn’t that patrol find his ship sailing out of the deep gases? None of our ships have shields that can withstand the inner nebula. Not even our worlds venture in there.”

Unease shifted Lanox’s feet.

“Look, who knows how he lost his amarac or what he’s been through, but we can’t expect him to tell us everything right away. How were ya when ya first came back from Kelis, Twi?”

Mistrust narrowed Twi’s eyes. “I should report him to Stella.”

“And embarrass every last bit of pride out of him?!” Lanox exclaimed. “He seems to get along pretty well with Revo. Give him time. Just ask him to come to the city with us. Revo, too.”

With a subtle nod, Twi headed for the door, passing Lanox.

“You’re actually going to take advice from Lanox?” Entrycii questioned, his intense stare swinging from the Tala to her amarac.

Without looking back, Twi responded, “At the moment, I don’t have any better ideas.”

-continued in section 3 scene 2- Invitation-
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Chapter 14 of River's End
Written by Taki

River's End chapter 12: Dramatic Declarations

We fell...too slowly. Not like when the brain races and the world seems too slow. We literally were not falling as fast as we should have been.

Confusion flooded my panicked mind, and then realization clicked: The rocks were floating. Gravity was not normal here. Or more accurately, gravity had some extra factors to deal with and so acted in ways contrary to how I was accustomed.

So I had plenty of time to reach out and grab the spinning boulder, legs tightening around my mount. Snorting in fear, the leempree still ran as if the clouds might offer some traction.

I hooked my toes under the joint of his forelegs and chest and swung my body with the rock’s rotation, flinging Lan toward the cliff’s edge. He flew like a massive, flailing, flightless bird, landing on wet, crumbly clay and scrambling up the slight slope.

My stone still spun, carrying me onto its topside. I leapt, bouncing off two more before joining Lan on solid ground, gnarled tree roots beneath my feet. Their massive owners embraced just behind me, cloaked in juicy vines.

I rubbed my leempree’s muzzle, forcing calm into my breaths, sharing his terror, his need to flee, and countering that with my need for him to stay, though I really had no idea how to convey such. The wild fire in his eyes matched the frantic pounding of my heart.

“World’s finest indeed!” Wae gasped from behind me, sitting easily on the back of her own mount. “You just threw a leempree!” Awe blanched her face and widened her colorless eyes, which should anyone care for my opinion, were a little creepy. Adrenaline had temporarily allowed me to forget she was there and that she had led me into this trap.

“And I’ll throw you next if you don’t start showing me proper respect!” I wasn’t familiar with this gravity whirlpool, but I was still sure I could have easily died.

Awe shut down, and a green tinge spilled across Wae’s cheeks. “The lack of respect’s all yours. You’re never to sit on Prince Hent’s lap again, understand? Stay away from him or else!”

“What if he wants me to sit on his lap?” I challenged, stomping toward her. Lan followed me like a baby bird. I glared up at Wae. “What if Hent asks me to sit on him?”

“This’s an awkward argument to walk in on,” Blu remarked, swinging out of an enormous tree.

“Blu!” I exclaimed, delighted that one: I was no longer alone with Wae, and two: he was no longer getting lectured over a mess I felt partially responsible for.

Wae’s greeting was less joyful.

“What are you doin’ here, Blu?” Tone terse, eerie eyes narrowed, arms tangled across her front.

I tried to ignore her, forcing calm over myself and into Lan. Keeping one hand on his muzzle, I edged to his side and slid onto his back.

Blu explained, “Hent sent me to find Rose after I showed up at the palace before she did. It’s been ruahs, and we’re gonna be late for dinner.”

Wae gasped, “Prince Hent sent you to find me?!” Return of the starry-eyed maiden.

“No, he sent me to find Rose.”

I gave Wae a cheeky smile, grin growing as Blu observed, “Never expected to find her attemptin’ to ride an un-ridable leempree.”

“Not just attempting,” I countered. “Admirably achieving, despite Wae’s conniving manners.”

“She threw that leempree across the fissure,” Wae tattled, calculation pinching her delicate features. “She must’ve been brought here as a freak useful for hard labor.”

“We actually brought her because she’s super smart,” Blu countered, turning to me, “though if you happen to be super strong, too, that’s epic.”

“I think that would be an excellent epithet.”

“Uh, sure. That sounds like it’d be neat,” Blu agreed, scratching the back of his head.

Superior air puffier than ever, Wae chided, “You don’t know what’s an epithet, do you Blu?”

“Don’t expect me to define big words on an empty stomach,” Blu countered with a nervous laugh. “Let’s get goin’ so we don’t miss dinner.”

“Boys and their stomachs,” Wae sighed with a roll of her eyes, tapping her leempree’s shoulder. Her light-footed mount took off, galloping on a narrow path through the trees.

“You expect me to run all the way back on an empty stomach?!” Blu called, but she ignored him. He turned to me. “Well, you think Lan can carry both of us?”

It wasn’t entirely fair to Lan, seeing as how I alone was heavier than most Grenswa-nas, but the young stallion was up to the task. As I tried to pour massive amounts of ‘soothing’ into the leempree, Blu hopped aboard, and Lan took off like a haillet launched from a sling.

I held tight to the filament mane, and Blu held tight to me, his arms around my waist restricting my breathing, which in turn lessened my control over Lan. The leempree ran even faster, and Blu, who hadn’t gotten the chance to properly sit, flopped like a badly designed cape.

We’ll fall and break our necks! my subconscious shrieked. No, calm down. You have to be calm in order to calm this animal.

I forced myself to loosen my grip, to relax, to flatten my palms against the leempree’s neck and lean close to his ear.

“Calm, Lan. Calm,” I breathed, and it worked. His hoofbeats settled into a rhythm my heart could keep up with, his gait smoothing out.

“Your breaths form a song,” Blu gasped, arms still looped around me but no longer like a vice. “A song I can’t quite understand but that I know deep in my heart.”

Oh-no, he’d noticed my Seallaii-na charisma, but he didn’t know what it was. An innate song was an interesting way of describing it, but I had no way of predicting how it would affect him.

With a half-hearted laugh, I excused, “They say there’s music in everything, and only those with sensitive enough ears can hear it.”

“I like your song. I think I love you.”

“What?!” I almost fell off the leempree...or jumped off. Some combination of those verbs. Had I actually succeeded in jumping off, I’m sure there would have been more falling involved.

Hence Blu told me, “Careful, you’ll fall,” as he held me tight again.

We had nearly caught up to Wae, and I wondered if she would chide me for this position as she had when I sat on Hent’s lap. Only at no point had Hent declared he loved me.

“You only met me today!”

Blu shrugged. “How long was it before Jixon declared his love for Zaqhara?” Grenswa’s most famous couple, presumably the founders of the Tyawania^ dynasty and ancestors of the princes I’d met today.

“No one knows how long,” I combated, “but it was probably more than half a day! The legend’s earliest mention of Zaqhara is when Jixon returns to his homeland and she is with him, a lovely lady from lands then unknown.”

“Kind of like you, huh?”

Wae inserted, “I prefer to believe Zaqhara declared her love for Jixon first.” I wondered how much of this conversation she had actually heard.

“Blu, dramatic declarations aside, you can’t love someone unless you know them, and you can’t know them after only a fraction of a day.”

“So then I’d like to get to know you.”

“What if I’m a monster in disguise?”

“Then I’ll find that out.”

Fear congealed in my gut. He might find that out exactly. Hent believed my kind to be monsters.

Wae’s laugh only solidified my terror. “Congratulations, I totally approve of this pairing.”

Only because you have a crush on the second prince, and for some reason you think I’m a love rival, I thought. I wasn’t here to find a romantic partner. As a Sarquant, my future husband would be nominated by River Guardian Elders, and a Grenswa-na who might barely live to a hundred would not be on their list of prospects.

“I’m surprised, Wae,” I quipped, “after you were going on and on about how much you admire Blu. Your eyes practically had hearts in them.”

“Really, Wae?” Blu exclaimed. “I’d’ve never guessed.”

Wae rolled her eyes. “Because she’s lying, Bird Brain.”

“Bird Brain?” Blu snorted. “I’m’n’t the one whose paternal clan name is tye, like the bird.”

They continued to argue as we broke through the tree line onto the palace grounds. Fluffy green clover blanketed the soft soil in round, ankle-high tufts as if plopped there in scoops, no spot bare. Knee-high walls of stacked stone rose in sweeping tiers, evoking thoughts of both stairs and ocean waves. These lapped at the base of the palace—a conglomeration of massive, bulbous cylinders and swirling spirals, some parts translucent like polished gems, others glittering and textured like rough marble. If giant bubbles were to marry an enormous sandcastle, this would be their overgrown baby.

We had big buildings on Seallaii, structures that were elegant, intimidating, practical, or complex. But this was nothing like those, both imposing and fragile, neat and chaotic.

I stared, mouth agape, rotely following Blu and Wae as they dismounted and thanked the leemprees for their service. Wae’s ride wandered back into the jungle, unimpressed by a silly building, while Lan gave me a goodbye nudge on the back before trotting off after his friend.

“Hurry!” Blu urged, grabbing my hand and towing me along faster. “If there’s no food left, I’m totally blamin’ Wae.”

“How’d it possibly be my fault?!”

“Because you ate so much at lunch, everyone suffered with half-empty bellies until dinner, where they took advantage of your absence and gobbled up everythin’!”

“Can you believe this slander, World’s Finest?” Wae scoffed with a dramatic wave.

Only half paying attention, I mumbled, “It’s moving.”

“What, the palace?” Blu clarified, tracing my gaze to the centermost cluster of towers. The walls there rippled as if the edifices were constantly turning themselves inside out. “Of course the palace’s movin’.”

Yes, of course. I had to remind myself that Grenswa-nas associated beauty with transience. In its purest form, beauty was fleeting, and to capture it or force it into stillness—such as in a photograph—was to diminish its value. Beauty was to be experienced by those present at the right moment.

This mindset provided another reason for the adoration shown to Opals like Hent.

I scowled, the second prince and his warped opinions shoved from my mind, and instead I concentrated on mimicking the Grenswa-na springy gait. In this abstract gravity, it was a difficult feat to accomplish without launching myself into the heavens.

And Wae was impressed when I threw a leempree, I mused with a wry smile. I’d like to see her face if I leapt over this castle.

I glanced sidelong at her, amused by my thoughts and equally annoyed by the stairs we climbed. As if walking ‘normally’ hadn’t been hard enough, each step was a little higher than my knees. Wae bounded up with weightless footfalls, graceful and effortless, while Blue performed back handsprings along the inclined balustrade and gained quite a lead on us.

“Blu, why can’t you just climb stairs like a normal person?” Wae chided.

Blu paused in a handstand, calling back, “Because that’d be borin’! You’re so slow. Stop gettin’ in Rose’s way.”

Because the Queen of Agility here is exactly what’s making this so exhaustingly difficult, inner me grumbled. I might as well leap and get it over with.

‘Look before you dive in somewhere.’

Fredo’s words crashed into me like a galloping leempree, and my heart collapsed into a hollow void, freezing my lungs solid. It hurt. I couldn’t breathe, and I tripped over my own bare feet, nearly falling on my face.

But he was right. Fredo wasn’t here to protect me. Caution had to be my most vigilant guard now. If I went around making blind leaps, I’d end up plummeting off this island…at best.

And Wae would likely laugh.

As if on cue, Wae giggled.

“You think this palace’s amazin’, right?” she chirped.

That’s a leading question, I thought, but I nodded anyway.

“The Druojojneerpsrii Sarquant Sjaealam figured out how to make it work.” I started at mention of my uncle, but Wae obliviously continued, “In the past, he’s a close friend of my family. I’m named after him because my great-grandfather says I’m just as brilliant and even more beautiful.”

Grenswa-nas only bestowed unique names, so ‘naming someone after someone else’ only meant terming them something similar. I guessed, “Then your full name is something like Waeala?”

“Waelana,” she corrected with a coy peek at me over a raised shoulder. “Waelana Vinta Tye.” She emphasized her maternal surname like it was supposed to trigger an epiphany.

It didn’t. Vinta was the name of a perpetually stormy sea near Grenswa’s southern pole, and I knew a Pearl city thrived far beneath the churning waves, but I didn’t see any connection as to why that would make her feel entitled to act so pompous.

I felt the need to take her down a notch.

“Wae, have you ever met a Seallaii-na?”

“Why’d I want to?” she chuckled.

“Because Prince Hent thinks they’re all gorgeous.” I gave her the same sly over-the-shoulder glance she had given me.

“He does?”

“He told me so.”

Silence fell over her like a marble veneer, and I didn’t bother breaking it.

Even so, it didn’t last. We burst into the most boisterous dining hall I’d ever seen. That’s not saying much considering meals were a noiseless affair on Seallaii. You weren’t supposed to let anyone hear you chew or swallow, and food was supposed to somehow get in your mouth without you opening it too far.

This was a symphony of slurping, burping, mmmm’s, whoops of delight, and peals of laughter. Lady Lokma would have fainted. It was glorious.

“Over here!” Blu called, again taking my arm and pulling me in a headlong rush.

Most of the spaces I’d seen thus far in this palace were triangular—doorways; hallways; even staircases seemed to come in pairs, forming two sides while the floor drew the base. This dining hall was no exception, a pinched-arch doorway in each of the three corners. The coral-textured table was shaped as a chevron with its blunt bottom point wide enough to seat six. It had no legs, instead chained to the ceiling by a plethora of slender helices.

“It’s Blue-day, so we get the place of honor,” Blu whispered as we ran under the table. Even had I stood on Blu’s shoulders, I would have barely been able to reach its rough underside. The feet dangling from those sitting around it, however, would probably have kicked me in the face.

By ‘place of honor,’ he meant the chevron’s inner elbow, where he grabbed a draping piece of cloth and swung up into a hammock-like chair. Glancing around the table, I observed no strict protocol as to how to sit in these—some reclined sideways, others sat upright with feet hanging or tucked beneath them. Some even sat multiple people per swing.

I climbed into an empty hammock next to Blu’s and sat with my feet dangling and my hands gripping the lacy ropes on either side of me. Blu snatched a large, bread-encrusted bird leg and leaned back with his feet on the table.

“Bluanto, move your feet. That’s where your guest’s plate goes,” a woman on my other side rebuked. Like Blu, she was Sapphire, had rounded features and chocolate-colored hair, and possessed a restless energy. I was ninety-nine percent sure this was Blu’s mother. He barely had time to comply before she plopped a golden platter down where his feet had been.

The giant fish head on it stared at me.

“Um…”

“Don’t feel you must eat it all, Dear, but I figured you’d want a large portion. Paqo told me you ate an entire crysslist soufflé by yourself, even though it was meant for four people,” Blu’s mother assuaged.

“Actually, I’m still full from the soufflé,” I lied, trying not to look at the fish head. I could feel its stare.

Seallaii-nas only ate once a day and in proportions similar to the size of both my fists. As long as they were in a warm environment, Grenswa-nas ate significantly less quantities and about twice as often—or four times throughout their long day.

I was fairly certain more than a Seallaii-na day had passed since I had eaten the soufflé, and I was hungry, but Seallaii-nas didn’t eat meat, and I wasn’t going to start with this grotesque, judgmental head.

“But Blue-day food’s the best!” Blu protested.

“Bluanto, you’ve grown up eating at a multi-racial table,” his mother reasoned. “Most people only eat the traditional food of their own tribe, and you know how different Amethyst food’s from ours.”

Blu was suddenly in my face. “You don’t like Sapphire food, Rose?”

I shook my head; my once-pretzel-inspired bun was a messy tangle, and the movement caused it to pull painfully in several places, making me wince. “I’ve never eaten it before.”

“Then you should try it, because it’s awesome, and we only get it once a week.”

“On Blue-day. Do you eat a different type of ethnic food every day?”

“It’s fair,” Blu’s mother explained. “Little is known about the ancient people of these islands. Those of us here now’re gathered from all over the world. We’re like one big, multi-racial family.”

“So we eat stuff from the tribe associated with the color of the day,” Blu pitched in. Today was Blue-day, so they ate dishes from Sapphire.

While Seallaii-nas termed the days of our week by the logical First-day, Second-day, Third-day all the way through Sixteenth-day, Grenswa-nas titled their ten weekdays after the colors of their tribes. Their system was both more imaginative and harder to remember. At least it mostly went in rainbow order.

Blu and his mother representing Sapphire sat at the inner bend of the chevron table. To our left were a group of Aquamarines, who had likely held the place of honor yesterday, Aqua-day. To our right were Amethysts corresponding with tomorrow, Purple-day.

But this quick study of the table’s occupants produced another question.

“There aren’t any Cobalts here?”

“Why’d there be any ~inonii here?” Blu questioned (that tilde denotes a sharp cluck). Now that he mentioned it, I noticed everyone here was Luuejii.

Grenswa had two tribes associated with the color blue: Sapphire and Cobalt. The former were Luuejii, the latter ~inonii, and this pattern held true for most of the eleven official colors of Grenswa.

Here’s a chart:

Color          Luejii             ~inonii

Black          Onyx              Hematite

Red             Ruby              Iron

Orange       Topaz             Copper

Yellow         Gold              Electrum

Green          Emerald         Viridian

Aqua           Aquamarine   Turquoise

Blue            Sapphire         Cobalt

Purple        Amethyst         Iodine

Brown        Amber             Bronze

White        Pearl                 Platinum

Gray          *Silver*            Chrome

All              Opal               Rainbow

Both words have their roots in ancient Grenswa-na dialects. Luuejii floats around the concept of being gifted and prosperous, whereas ~inonii is related to the word for brat.

The real difference between these peoples is more superficial: the Luuejii display pastel versions of their colors as a child, gaining a metallic sheen by adulthood, and the ~inonii manifest neon shades throughout their lives. The ~inonii’s hair also tends to match their eyes and scales, and their skin usually has a more translucent quality to it.

I had known ~inonii were stereotypically labeled barbaric and that they had no representation in the Grenswa-na government, especially since their attempted revolution two decades ago, but I had still expected to see some.

Instead, those in attendance were as follows: Sapphires in the place of honor, Amethysts to their right, and Ambers wrapping around the end of the chevron. To their right and across from the Amethysts sat Pearls and Onyxes.

Rubies sat on either end of the blunted point across from the Sapphires, the Royal Family nestled among them…or Timqé and his mother at least.

To the right of the Rubies were the Topazes and Golds, Emeralds wrapping around the table’s end so that the Aquamarines filled the last space to the left of the Sapphires.

See, all from the left Luuejii column of that chart.

It clicked in my mind that this was why there was no Gray-day. Though there were eleven official tribal colors, there were only ten days in a week. They wouldn’t name a day after the Chrome ~inonii, and Silver was not an official Luuejii tribe. Sometimes Silvers were born to Onyx, but they were considered cursed.

With all this deliberation forming a blizzard in my mind, I didn’t actually answer Blu, and he apparently expected me to.

Voice in a low, serious whisper, he pressed, “You think ~inonii should be here? You agree with Timqé?”

Before I could say anything, Blu’s mother censured, “Bluanto, the dinner table’sn’t the place to discuss such things.”

But I did agree with Timqé. Leaving the ~inonii out was exactly what made them revolt in the first place. While my situation was far from the same, I knew what it was like to be shushed or talked over, plopped in a corner and told to look pretty or intriguing or mysterious. I was not a statue, but some people acted like they would have preferred it if I were. My opinion mattered very little.

Despite the raucous dinner sounds, the first prince heard Blu’s quiet words. Ocean jewel eyes pierced me from across the wide table. I met his gaze, offering a solemn nod, and his features narrowed, head tilting slightly, calculation flickering.

I suddenly worried about the clues he might put together. As Paqo had already proven, my disguise wouldn’t hold up under much scrutiny, and I had already spoken too recklessly around Timqé. In the forest, I had advocated for Seallaii-na trespassers. When my unfiltered mouth called my education into question, I had told him I had been raised by Druojojneerpsrii, and I still didn’t know how I should explain that if he asked.

Now I agreed on equal rights for ~inonii. At best, he would think me an activist. At worst, he would realize he had found the other alien trespasser and call in that Onyx officer who wanted to erase any evidence of my existence.

Gaze never leaving me, Timqé leaned toward the queen. “Mother, you noticed Blu brought a guest today? Hent insisted on bringin’ her to the island. She was raised by Druojojneerpsrii.”

Queen Jianthy moved like molasses: graceful, smooth, and slow. She studied me for several secliis, her gaze the same burning sapphire as Timqé’s, irises wider and striped in the shadow of long, chocolate lashes. Her complexion was fair rubicund to complement the warm brown of her beaded hair and the cool blue of her scales.

Others joined her, the dinner symphony fading into silence as one by one, everyone took up staring at me. I felt naked without my scarf to hide behind. The silence felt like a vacuum drawing words from me, begging to be filled, and I squished my lips together and dropped my gaze to my plate.

That was a bad idea. The fish head still gawked at me.

Finally, Queen Jianthy spoke: “The guest possesses a name and an age?”

“Rose,” I replied in practically a whisper, peeking up at her. “I’m nearly eighteen.”

“There’ven’t been Druojojneerpsrii on Grenswa in your lifetime.” She said it so blandly, no accusation, no curiosity, just fact floating lazily down a river, and an easy counter came to me in its wake.

“Their fanatics remain, those who learned from the Druojojneerpsrii in times past and try to be like them now.”

“And my Hent insisted we bring an alien-obsessed fanatic into our hidden castle?” Something boiled deep within the queen’s molasses demeanor.

I bit down on my first retort, a little hurt at being called an alien-obsessed fanatic, and then realizing those words did actually apply to me.

“I’m obsessed with the good of Grenswa, this planet,” I professed, sitting taller on my swing. Should I tell the truth, deliver my message now? This was Grenswa’s queen, and I had the attention of representatives from every Luuejii tribe.

Terror eked through me, both stoked and soothed by Timqé’s advice in the woods. A true messenger was willing to pay any price.

I took a deep breath. “I’m here because-”

“Timqé! Timqé! Timqé! Look at this!”

-continued in chapter 13: Adventure is the Only Tonic for Boredom-

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Chapter 14 of River's End
Written by Taki
River's End chapter 12: Dramatic Declarations
We fell...too slowly. Not like when the brain races and the world seems too slow. We literally were not falling as fast as we should have been.

Confusion flooded my panicked mind, and then realization clicked: The rocks were floating. Gravity was not normal here. Or more accurately, gravity had some extra factors to deal with and so acted in ways contrary to how I was accustomed.

So I had plenty of time to reach out and grab the spinning boulder, legs tightening around my mount. Snorting in fear, the leempree still ran as if the clouds might offer some traction.

I hooked my toes under the joint of his forelegs and chest and swung my body with the rock’s rotation, flinging Lan toward the cliff’s edge. He flew like a massive, flailing, flightless bird, landing on wet, crumbly clay and scrambling up the slight slope.

My stone still spun, carrying me onto its topside. I leapt, bouncing off two more before joining Lan on solid ground, gnarled tree roots beneath my feet. Their massive owners embraced just behind me, cloaked in juicy vines.

I rubbed my leempree’s muzzle, forcing calm into my breaths, sharing his terror, his need to flee, and countering that with my need for him to stay, though I really had no idea how to convey such. The wild fire in his eyes matched the frantic pounding of my heart.

“World’s finest indeed!” Wae gasped from behind me, sitting easily on the back of her own mount. “You just threw a leempree!” Awe blanched her face and widened her colorless eyes, which should anyone care for my opinion, were a little creepy. Adrenaline had temporarily allowed me to forget she was there and that she had led me into this trap.

“And I’ll throw you next if you don’t start showing me proper respect!” I wasn’t familiar with this gravity whirlpool, but I was still sure I could have easily died.

Awe shut down, and a green tinge spilled across Wae’s cheeks. “The lack of respect’s all yours. You’re never to sit on Prince Hent’s lap again, understand? Stay away from him or else!”

“What if he wants me to sit on his lap?” I challenged, stomping toward her. Lan followed me like a baby bird. I glared up at Wae. “What if Hent asks me to sit on him?”

“This’s an awkward argument to walk in on,” Blu remarked, swinging out of an enormous tree.

“Blu!” I exclaimed, delighted that one: I was no longer alone with Wae, and two: he was no longer getting lectured over a mess I felt partially responsible for.

Wae’s greeting was less joyful.

“What are you doin’ here, Blu?” Tone terse, eerie eyes narrowed, arms tangled across her front.

I tried to ignore her, forcing calm over myself and into Lan. Keeping one hand on his muzzle, I edged to his side and slid onto his back.

Blu explained, “Hent sent me to find Rose after I showed up at the palace before she did. It’s been ruahs, and we’re gonna be late for dinner.”

Wae gasped, “Prince Hent sent you to find me?!” Return of the starry-eyed maiden.

“No, he sent me to find Rose.”

I gave Wae a cheeky smile, grin growing as Blu observed, “Never expected to find her attemptin’ to ride an un-ridable leempree.”

“Not just attempting,” I countered. “Admirably achieving, despite Wae’s conniving manners.”

“She threw that leempree across the fissure,” Wae tattled, calculation pinching her delicate features. “She must’ve been brought here as a freak useful for hard labor.”

“We actually brought her because she’s super smart,” Blu countered, turning to me, “though if you happen to be super strong, too, that’s epic.”

“I think that would be an excellent epithet.”

“Uh, sure. That sounds like it’d be neat,” Blu agreed, scratching the back of his head.

Superior air puffier than ever, Wae chided, “You don’t know what’s an epithet, do you Blu?”

“Don’t expect me to define big words on an empty stomach,” Blu countered with a nervous laugh. “Let’s get goin’ so we don’t miss dinner.”

“Boys and their stomachs,” Wae sighed with a roll of her eyes, tapping her leempree’s shoulder. Her light-footed mount took off, galloping on a narrow path through the trees.

“You expect me to run all the way back on an empty stomach?!” Blu called, but she ignored him. He turned to me. “Well, you think Lan can carry both of us?”

It wasn’t entirely fair to Lan, seeing as how I alone was heavier than most Grenswa-nas, but the young stallion was up to the task. As I tried to pour massive amounts of ‘soothing’ into the leempree, Blu hopped aboard, and Lan took off like a haillet launched from a sling.

I held tight to the filament mane, and Blu held tight to me, his arms around my waist restricting my breathing, which in turn lessened my control over Lan. The leempree ran even faster, and Blu, who hadn’t gotten the chance to properly sit, flopped like a badly designed cape.

We’ll fall and break our necks! my subconscious shrieked. No, calm down. You have to be calm in order to calm this animal.

I forced myself to loosen my grip, to relax, to flatten my palms against the leempree’s neck and lean close to his ear.

“Calm, Lan. Calm,” I breathed, and it worked. His hoofbeats settled into a rhythm my heart could keep up with, his gait smoothing out.

“Your breaths form a song,” Blu gasped, arms still looped around me but no longer like a vice. “A song I can’t quite understand but that I know deep in my heart.”

Oh-no, he’d noticed my Seallaii-na charisma, but he didn’t know what it was. An innate song was an interesting way of describing it, but I had no way of predicting how it would affect him.

With a half-hearted laugh, I excused, “They say there’s music in everything, and only those with sensitive enough ears can hear it.”

“I like your song. I think I love you.”

“What?!” I almost fell off the leempree...or jumped off. Some combination of those verbs. Had I actually succeeded in jumping off, I’m sure there would have been more falling involved.

Hence Blu told me, “Careful, you’ll fall,” as he held me tight again.

We had nearly caught up to Wae, and I wondered if she would chide me for this position as she had when I sat on Hent’s lap. Only at no point had Hent declared he loved me.

“You only met me today!”

Blu shrugged. “How long was it before Jixon declared his love for Zaqhara?” Grenswa’s most famous couple, presumably the founders of the Tyawania^ dynasty and ancestors of the princes I’d met today.

“No one knows how long,” I combated, “but it was probably more than half a day! The legend’s earliest mention of Zaqhara is when Jixon returns to his homeland and she is with him, a lovely lady from lands then unknown.”

“Kind of like you, huh?”

Wae inserted, “I prefer to believe Zaqhara declared her love for Jixon first.” I wondered how much of this conversation she had actually heard.

“Blu, dramatic declarations aside, you can’t love someone unless you know them, and you can’t know them after only a fraction of a day.”

“So then I’d like to get to know you.”

“What if I’m a monster in disguise?”

“Then I’ll find that out.”

Fear congealed in my gut. He might find that out exactly. Hent believed my kind to be monsters.

Wae’s laugh only solidified my terror. “Congratulations, I totally approve of this pairing.”

Only because you have a crush on the second prince, and for some reason you think I’m a love rival, I thought. I wasn’t here to find a romantic partner. As a Sarquant, my future husband would be nominated by River Guardian Elders, and a Grenswa-na who might barely live to a hundred would not be on their list of prospects.

“I’m surprised, Wae,” I quipped, “after you were going on and on about how much you admire Blu. Your eyes practically had hearts in them.”

“Really, Wae?” Blu exclaimed. “I’d’ve never guessed.”

Wae rolled her eyes. “Because she’s lying, Bird Brain.”

“Bird Brain?” Blu snorted. “I’m’n’t the one whose paternal clan name is tye, like the bird.”

They continued to argue as we broke through the tree line onto the palace grounds. Fluffy green clover blanketed the soft soil in round, ankle-high tufts as if plopped there in scoops, no spot bare. Knee-high walls of stacked stone rose in sweeping tiers, evoking thoughts of both stairs and ocean waves. These lapped at the base of the palace—a conglomeration of massive, bulbous cylinders and swirling spirals, some parts translucent like polished gems, others glittering and textured like rough marble. If giant bubbles were to marry an enormous sandcastle, this would be their overgrown baby.

We had big buildings on Seallaii, structures that were elegant, intimidating, practical, or complex. But this was nothing like those, both imposing and fragile, neat and chaotic.

I stared, mouth agape, rotely following Blu and Wae as they dismounted and thanked the leemprees for their service. Wae’s ride wandered back into the jungle, unimpressed by a silly building, while Lan gave me a goodbye nudge on the back before trotting off after his friend.

“Hurry!” Blu urged, grabbing my hand and towing me along faster. “If there’s no food left, I’m totally blamin’ Wae.”

“How’d it possibly be my fault?!”

“Because you ate so much at lunch, everyone suffered with half-empty bellies until dinner, where they took advantage of your absence and gobbled up everythin’!”

“Can you believe this slander, World’s Finest?” Wae scoffed with a dramatic wave.

Only half paying attention, I mumbled, “It’s moving.”

“What, the palace?” Blu clarified, tracing my gaze to the centermost cluster of towers. The walls there rippled as if the edifices were constantly turning themselves inside out. “Of course the palace’s movin’.”

Yes, of course. I had to remind myself that Grenswa-nas associated beauty with transience. In its purest form, beauty was fleeting, and to capture it or force it into stillness—such as in a photograph—was to diminish its value. Beauty was to be experienced by those present at the right moment.

This mindset provided another reason for the adoration shown to Opals like Hent.

I scowled, the second prince and his warped opinions shoved from my mind, and instead I concentrated on mimicking the Grenswa-na springy gait. In this abstract gravity, it was a difficult feat to accomplish without launching myself into the heavens.

And Wae was impressed when I threw a leempree, I mused with a wry smile. I’d like to see her face if I leapt over this castle.

I glanced sidelong at her, amused by my thoughts and equally annoyed by the stairs we climbed. As if walking ‘normally’ hadn’t been hard enough, each step was a little higher than my knees. Wae bounded up with weightless footfalls, graceful and effortless, while Blue performed back handsprings along the inclined balustrade and gained quite a lead on us.

“Blu, why can’t you just climb stairs like a normal person?” Wae chided.

Blu paused in a handstand, calling back, “Because that’d be borin’! You’re so slow. Stop gettin’ in Rose’s way.”

Because the Queen of Agility here is exactly what’s making this so exhaustingly difficult, inner me grumbled. I might as well leap and get it over with.

‘Look before you dive in somewhere.’

Fredo’s words crashed into me like a galloping leempree, and my heart collapsed into a hollow void, freezing my lungs solid. It hurt. I couldn’t breathe, and I tripped over my own bare feet, nearly falling on my face.

But he was right. Fredo wasn’t here to protect me. Caution had to be my most vigilant guard now. If I went around making blind leaps, I’d end up plummeting off this island…at best.

And Wae would likely laugh.

As if on cue, Wae giggled.

“You think this palace’s amazin’, right?” she chirped.

That’s a leading question, I thought, but I nodded anyway.

“The Druojojneerpsrii Sarquant Sjaealam figured out how to make it work.” I started at mention of my uncle, but Wae obliviously continued, “In the past, he’s a close friend of my family. I’m named after him because my great-grandfather says I’m just as brilliant and even more beautiful.”

Grenswa-nas only bestowed unique names, so ‘naming someone after someone else’ only meant terming them something similar. I guessed, “Then your full name is something like Waeala?”

“Waelana,” she corrected with a coy peek at me over a raised shoulder. “Waelana Vinta Tye.” She emphasized her maternal surname like it was supposed to trigger an epiphany.

It didn’t. Vinta was the name of a perpetually stormy sea near Grenswa’s southern pole, and I knew a Pearl city thrived far beneath the churning waves, but I didn’t see any connection as to why that would make her feel entitled to act so pompous.

I felt the need to take her down a notch.

“Wae, have you ever met a Seallaii-na?”

“Why’d I want to?” she chuckled.

“Because Prince Hent thinks they’re all gorgeous.” I gave her the same sly over-the-shoulder glance she had given me.

“He does?”

“He told me so.”

Silence fell over her like a marble veneer, and I didn’t bother breaking it.

Even so, it didn’t last. We burst into the most boisterous dining hall I’d ever seen. That’s not saying much considering meals were a noiseless affair on Seallaii. You weren’t supposed to let anyone hear you chew or swallow, and food was supposed to somehow get in your mouth without you opening it too far.

This was a symphony of slurping, burping, mmmm’s, whoops of delight, and peals of laughter. Lady Lokma would have fainted. It was glorious.

“Over here!” Blu called, again taking my arm and pulling me in a headlong rush.

Most of the spaces I’d seen thus far in this palace were triangular—doorways; hallways; even staircases seemed to come in pairs, forming two sides while the floor drew the base. This dining hall was no exception, a pinched-arch doorway in each of the three corners. The coral-textured table was shaped as a chevron with its blunt bottom point wide enough to seat six. It had no legs, instead chained to the ceiling by a plethora of slender helices.

“It’s Blue-day, so we get the place of honor,” Blu whispered as we ran under the table. Even had I stood on Blu’s shoulders, I would have barely been able to reach its rough underside. The feet dangling from those sitting around it, however, would probably have kicked me in the face.

By ‘place of honor,’ he meant the chevron’s inner elbow, where he grabbed a draping piece of cloth and swung up into a hammock-like chair. Glancing around the table, I observed no strict protocol as to how to sit in these—some reclined sideways, others sat upright with feet hanging or tucked beneath them. Some even sat multiple people per swing.

I climbed into an empty hammock next to Blu’s and sat with my feet dangling and my hands gripping the lacy ropes on either side of me. Blu snatched a large, bread-encrusted bird leg and leaned back with his feet on the table.

“Bluanto, move your feet. That’s where your guest’s plate goes,” a woman on my other side rebuked. Like Blu, she was Sapphire, had rounded features and chocolate-colored hair, and possessed a restless energy. I was ninety-nine percent sure this was Blu’s mother. He barely had time to comply before she plopped a golden platter down where his feet had been.

The giant fish head on it stared at me.

“Um…”

“Don’t feel you must eat it all, Dear, but I figured you’d want a large portion. Paqo told me you ate an entire crysslist soufflé by yourself, even though it was meant for four people,” Blu’s mother assuaged.

“Actually, I’m still full from the soufflé,” I lied, trying not to look at the fish head. I could feel its stare.

Seallaii-nas only ate once a day and in proportions similar to the size of both my fists. As long as they were in a warm environment, Grenswa-nas ate significantly less quantities and about twice as often—or four times throughout their long day.

I was fairly certain more than a Seallaii-na day had passed since I had eaten the soufflé, and I was hungry, but Seallaii-nas didn’t eat meat, and I wasn’t going to start with this grotesque, judgmental head.

“But Blue-day food’s the best!” Blu protested.

“Bluanto, you’ve grown up eating at a multi-racial table,” his mother reasoned. “Most people only eat the traditional food of their own tribe, and you know how different Amethyst food’s from ours.”

Blu was suddenly in my face. “You don’t like Sapphire food, Rose?”

I shook my head; my once-pretzel-inspired bun was a messy tangle, and the movement caused it to pull painfully in several places, making me wince. “I’ve never eaten it before.”

“Then you should try it, because it’s awesome, and we only get it once a week.”

“On Blue-day. Do you eat a different type of ethnic food every day?”

“It’s fair,” Blu’s mother explained. “Little is known about the ancient people of these islands. Those of us here now’re gathered from all over the world. We’re like one big, multi-racial family.”

“So we eat stuff from the tribe associated with the color of the day,” Blu pitched in. Today was Blue-day, so they ate dishes from Sapphire.

While Seallaii-nas termed the days of our week by the logical First-day, Second-day, Third-day all the way through Sixteenth-day, Grenswa-nas titled their ten weekdays after the colors of their tribes. Their system was both more imaginative and harder to remember. At least it mostly went in rainbow order.

Blu and his mother representing Sapphire sat at the inner bend of the chevron table. To our left were a group of Aquamarines, who had likely held the place of honor yesterday, Aqua-day. To our right were Amethysts corresponding with tomorrow, Purple-day.

But this quick study of the table’s occupants produced another question.

“There aren’t any Cobalts here?”

“Why’d there be any ~inonii here?” Blu questioned (that tilde denotes a sharp cluck). Now that he mentioned it, I noticed everyone here was Luuejii.

Grenswa had two tribes associated with the color blue: Sapphire and Cobalt. The former were Luuejii, the latter ~inonii, and this pattern held true for most of the eleven official colors of Grenswa.

Here’s a chart:
Color          Luejii             ~inonii
Black          Onyx              Hematite
Red             Ruby              Iron
Orange       Topaz             Copper
Yellow         Gold              Electrum
Green          Emerald         Viridian
Aqua           Aquamarine   Turquoise
Blue            Sapphire         Cobalt
Purple        Amethyst         Iodine
Brown        Amber             Bronze
White        Pearl                 Platinum
Gray          *Silver*            Chrome
All              Opal               Rainbow

Both words have their roots in ancient Grenswa-na dialects. Luuejii floats around the concept of being gifted and prosperous, whereas ~inonii is related to the word for brat.

The real difference between these peoples is more superficial: the Luuejii display pastel versions of their colors as a child, gaining a metallic sheen by adulthood, and the ~inonii manifest neon shades throughout their lives. The ~inonii’s hair also tends to match their eyes and scales, and their skin usually has a more translucent quality to it.

I had known ~inonii were stereotypically labeled barbaric and that they had no representation in the Grenswa-na government, especially since their attempted revolution two decades ago, but I had still expected to see some.

Instead, those in attendance were as follows: Sapphires in the place of honor, Amethysts to their right, and Ambers wrapping around the end of the chevron. To their right and across from the Amethysts sat Pearls and Onyxes.

Rubies sat on either end of the blunted point across from the Sapphires, the Royal Family nestled among them…or Timqé and his mother at least.

To the right of the Rubies were the Topazes and Golds, Emeralds wrapping around the table’s end so that the Aquamarines filled the last space to the left of the Sapphires.

See, all from the left Luuejii column of that chart.

It clicked in my mind that this was why there was no Gray-day. Though there were eleven official tribal colors, there were only ten days in a week. They wouldn’t name a day after the Chrome ~inonii, and Silver was not an official Luuejii tribe. Sometimes Silvers were born to Onyx, but they were considered cursed.

With all this deliberation forming a blizzard in my mind, I didn’t actually answer Blu, and he apparently expected me to.

Voice in a low, serious whisper, he pressed, “You think ~inonii should be here? You agree with Timqé?”

Before I could say anything, Blu’s mother censured, “Bluanto, the dinner table’sn’t the place to discuss such things.”

But I did agree with Timqé. Leaving the ~inonii out was exactly what made them revolt in the first place. While my situation was far from the same, I knew what it was like to be shushed or talked over, plopped in a corner and told to look pretty or intriguing or mysterious. I was not a statue, but some people acted like they would have preferred it if I were. My opinion mattered very little.

Despite the raucous dinner sounds, the first prince heard Blu’s quiet words. Ocean jewel eyes pierced me from across the wide table. I met his gaze, offering a solemn nod, and his features narrowed, head tilting slightly, calculation flickering.

I suddenly worried about the clues he might put together. As Paqo had already proven, my disguise wouldn’t hold up under much scrutiny, and I had already spoken too recklessly around Timqé. In the forest, I had advocated for Seallaii-na trespassers. When my unfiltered mouth called my education into question, I had told him I had been raised by Druojojneerpsrii, and I still didn’t know how I should explain that if he asked.

Now I agreed on equal rights for ~inonii. At best, he would think me an activist. At worst, he would realize he had found the other alien trespasser and call in that Onyx officer who wanted to erase any evidence of my existence.

Gaze never leaving me, Timqé leaned toward the queen. “Mother, you noticed Blu brought a guest today? Hent insisted on bringin’ her to the island. She was raised by Druojojneerpsrii.”

Queen Jianthy moved like molasses: graceful, smooth, and slow. She studied me for several secliis, her gaze the same burning sapphire as Timqé’s, irises wider and striped in the shadow of long, chocolate lashes. Her complexion was fair rubicund to complement the warm brown of her beaded hair and the cool blue of her scales.

Others joined her, the dinner symphony fading into silence as one by one, everyone took up staring at me. I felt naked without my scarf to hide behind. The silence felt like a vacuum drawing words from me, begging to be filled, and I squished my lips together and dropped my gaze to my plate.

That was a bad idea. The fish head still gawked at me.

Finally, Queen Jianthy spoke: “The guest possesses a name and an age?”

“Rose,” I replied in practically a whisper, peeking up at her. “I’m nearly eighteen.”

“There’ven’t been Druojojneerpsrii on Grenswa in your lifetime.” She said it so blandly, no accusation, no curiosity, just fact floating lazily down a river, and an easy counter came to me in its wake.

“Their fanatics remain, those who learned from the Druojojneerpsrii in times past and try to be like them now.”

“And my Hent insisted we bring an alien-obsessed fanatic into our hidden castle?” Something boiled deep within the queen’s molasses demeanor.

I bit down on my first retort, a little hurt at being called an alien-obsessed fanatic, and then realizing those words did actually apply to me.

“I’m obsessed with the good of Grenswa, this planet,” I professed, sitting taller on my swing. Should I tell the truth, deliver my message now? This was Grenswa’s queen, and I had the attention of representatives from every Luuejii tribe.

Terror eked through me, both stoked and soothed by Timqé’s advice in the woods. A true messenger was willing to pay any price.

I took a deep breath. “I’m here because-”

“Timqé! Timqé! Timqé! Look at this!”

-continued in chapter 13: Adventure is the Only Tonic for Boredom-
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Written by Taki

Because Order

A Big, Cerulean Dinosaur Escaped From Grandma's Henhouse In Jumbo, Kaleidoscope Laser Mukluks, Not Only Perpetually Queasy, Really Suave, Too, Utterly Valiant, Wistful, Xenophobic, Yes, Zany.

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Written by Taki
Because Order
A Big, Cerulean Dinosaur Escaped From Grandma's Henhouse In Jumbo, Kaleidoscope Laser Mukluks, Not Only Perpetually Queasy, Really Suave, Too, Utterly Valiant, Wistful, Xenophobic, Yes, Zany.
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Chapter 10 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki

Renegade section 2 scene 4- Seven Questions

The room with ladders and murals and chaos for a housekeeper was called the hrausq room, according to Revo, who led Xlack back to it. As the door rolled open and he stepped into the space, the Aylata’s gaze fell on the pristine canvas Twi had left perched on a small, square table in the middle of the room. Curiosity dared him to unfold it, discover why it was so special. Did it have something to do with the murals? Had Twi painted those?

Revo trudged to the far corner and pulled open the door of a coolbox nearly hidden by unidentifiable objects…or parts of objects. It looked like a mechett might have exploded in that corner, quite a bit of its scattered pieces scorched. Revo didn’t seem to notice, rummaging through the icy cubby, muttering something about Stevalok having pirated his cookies again.

Keeping a wary eye on him, Rell jumped down and set about exploring the space, clambering over the electronic carnage littering the floor.

Unsure where he should sit or stand in this mess, Xlack let his gaze roam the murals. The ceiling was a mosaic of scenes, none larger than the length of his arm. Several spaces remained blank silver, throwing back his faded reflection.

The panels on either side of the door were similar in their vacuity, but they lacked the same untouched clarity, faint afterimages lingering, as if rain had blurred and washed away what had once been there. This fading effect afflicted only the center of the adjacent scene.

By contrast, the most vivid mural spanned much of the back wall, depicting a dizzying drop into a vine-coated canyon, sparkling swirls of architecture laced through its walls.

“Is that a real place?” Xlack wondered, and Revo froze, finger hovering just short of the start button on the cookbox he had just loaded.

After a moment, the cooker acknowledged his touch with a hushed beep, motor whirring, and Revo turned away, deliberately not looking at anything. “It’s Mumir…on Knalz.”

Xlack noted a faded black scar splashed across the ravine, hovering over the landscape and ruining some of its depth. Several of the murals had these slashes, now that he looked for them. Were they supposed to be words? Did these aliens write with scribbled splashes? It was said ancient Zalerits wrote by dripping scented dye on dried leaves.

“Did Twi-”

“Twi is removing the murals,” Revo interrupted.

Why? Xlack wanted to ask, but the heavy sadness and regret pulsing through Revo silenced him. Revo didn’t want to talk about the murals, and they weren’t important. They likely had nothing to do with Xlack’s mission.

Retreating to a squat, square chair positioned against the wall, thick cushion relatively free of clutter, Xlack sat on its edge and retrieved his datapad from a small pocket on his belt, prompting the fingernail-sized device to unfold.

“Sorry,” Revo apologized, sweeping electronic inners off the seat, “when Entrycii and Lanox get into a project, they can make quite a mess. I don’t even notice it anymore.”

The cookbox hooted, and Revo returned to it. Xlack sat back, mysterious mission looming at the front of his mind. He stared at his datapad—a device, once fully extended, about the size of both his hands held alongside one another; a rectangular prism as thin as an eyelash and just as weightless; a shiny black touchscreen in a smooth metal casing, a variety of ports hidden by this latter until called upon. Eight black ovals adorned the back, designed to take commands from warm fingers.

Revo pulled Xlack’s gaze away from it, handing him a piece of flat, bumpy food.

Xlack commented, “This smells like bread.”

“That’s because it is bread,” Revo confirmed, ripping off a piece and tossing it in his own mouth.

“But it looks like it has a disease.”

Revo laughed, nearly choking on what he had just swallowed. “That would be an interesting concept, having to give yer bread medicine so when it was better, ya could eat it.”

Xlack laughed, too, and took a tentative bite of the flatbread. It was warm, soft, and buttery, melting in his mouth.

Rell emerged from beneath the chair, a sock gripped in his sharp teeth.

“Rell, give me that,” Xlack ordered, capturing the beastling. Setting Rell on his lap, Xlack traded the sock for a fluffy crumb, which Rell happily gobbled, onyx eyes wide in hopes of more. Xlack draped the sock over the armrest.

“It’s funny,” Revo remarked, sliding into the chair next to Xlack’s, “people always try to compare their own experiences to those of others.”

“How so?”

“Well, my own amarac died on Kelis not too long ago.”

Xlack wished he knew what an amarac was.

“Yet, there’s no way ya are feeling the exact same way I was because circumstances are never exactly the same. Even the slightest difference is still a difference, but still, the first words I think to say to ya are ‘I know how ya feel.’”

Interesting sentiment, but Xlack seriously doubted Revo knew what he felt. Debating what he should do next, he turned the datapad on.

“What’s that?” Revo asked, attention grabbed by its sudden glow and quiet tune.

“A device,” was the vague answer he was supplied.

“I can see that. What are ya doing with it? What’s it for?”

“I’m sending my report and receiving further orders,” Xlack replied, typing:

This is Xlack Skyme. I have accomplished my objective and am reporting to you from Tala. Awaiting further orders.

Rell pawed at the back of the datapad, a reminder the bread wasn’t all gone and if Xlack was done with it, Rell would gladly finish the rest. Xlack gave him a bigger piece, and Rell lay down to winnow away at it.

Leaning on the armrest and reading over Xlack’s shoulder, Revo noted, “Those are Zalerit letters.”

Xlack clenched his typing hand into a tight fist, offense bubbling like some nefarious concoction. Nayatilix was the beautiful and ancient language of the Napix. How dare anyone call their letters Zalerit!

“Ya aren’t from around here, are ya?”

“That would be correct,” Xlack admitted, digging deep for a polite grin. It looked too rigid to be genuine. “Tradition dictates that in respect to you, after I tell you my name I must truthfully answer the first seven questions you ask me, and you’ve already asked five.”

“Okay…where are ya from?”

He wasn’t supposed to ask that. Considering how exactly he should answer, Xlack recalled what little he knew of these people, all gleaned from very old legends.

The Knalcals and Tala had been cohorts of Vozin Nar, the traitor, the renegade whom the first Emperor of Napix had hunted down right here in Alliance Space.

Suppressing a shudder, Xlack took a deep breath, placed his hand over his Ier, and divulged, “Napix.”

“Hmmm.”

Not the response Xlack expected. The Aylata said nothing, mistrust blistered with surprise and suspense.

After a thoughtful pause, Revo added, “So, if ya aren’t an O’ee, what’s yer occupation?”

“I’m an Aylata.”

‘Which is?”

Xlack cancelled the conversation: “You’ve already asked seven questions.”

“So what, ya can’t ever tell me the truth again?”

Annoyance seeped from Revo, sawing at Xlack’s nerves. A noise nudged his ears, no louder than an exhale, and cradling Rell, Xlack leapt to his feet, stiffer than Revo’s spiky red hair.

“Whatever an Aylata is, ya sure are jumpy. Listen, this place has security coming out its figurative ears. Nothing will get ya in here.”

“You can’t guarantee that. Look-” His datapad beeped, its signal lost, likely because that signal had been detected. Rell wriggled; his soggy bread piece had fallen on the floor. Xlack felt a bit like that, everything familiar falling away, the hand of tradition and duty holding him tight. He showed Rell he had more bread, and the beastling stilled.

“Am I being held prisoner here?”

Revo flung his arms at their benign surroundings, disbelief clinging to the gesture like ornate sleeves. “Does it look like ya are?”

“Then I’m free to go. Is there a way out?”

“Where there’s a way in, there’s a way out,” Revo told him, arms crossed, “or so says my Sugataep.”

Xlack stepped out the door. “Will you show me the exit?”

Leaning on the wall, muddy jade eyes narrowed, Revo argued, “Maybe I should just stop answering yer questions. I’m sure ya’ve asked more than seven by now.”

“Fine. I’ll find it myself.” Xlack slipped down the hall, but Revo wasn’t far behind.

“Even if ya won’t tell me what an Aylata is, I want to know why ya are here. I’ll keep following ya until ya tell me.”

“I’m learning,” Xlack answered.

“Learning what?”

Xlack shrugged. “Maybe I don’t know yet.”

“What are ya running away from?”

Xlack stopped and turned, finding himself face to face with Revo. “What makes you think I’m running away from anything?”

“Because I’m Tala,” Revo explained. “I really do know exactly how ya feel.”

-continued in section 3 scene 1- Cookies-

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Chapter 10 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 2 scene 4- Seven Questions
The room with ladders and murals and chaos for a housekeeper was called the hrausq room, according to Revo, who led Xlack back to it. As the door rolled open and he stepped into the space, the Aylata’s gaze fell on the pristine canvas Twi had left perched on a small, square table in the middle of the room. Curiosity dared him to unfold it, discover why it was so special. Did it have something to do with the murals? Had Twi painted those?

Revo trudged to the far corner and pulled open the door of a coolbox nearly hidden by unidentifiable objects…or parts of objects. It looked like a mechett might have exploded in that corner, quite a bit of its scattered pieces scorched. Revo didn’t seem to notice, rummaging through the icy cubby, muttering something about Stevalok having pirated his cookies again.

Keeping a wary eye on him, Rell jumped down and set about exploring the space, clambering over the electronic carnage littering the floor.

Unsure where he should sit or stand in this mess, Xlack let his gaze roam the murals. The ceiling was a mosaic of scenes, none larger than the length of his arm. Several spaces remained blank silver, throwing back his faded reflection.

The panels on either side of the door were similar in their vacuity, but they lacked the same untouched clarity, faint afterimages lingering, as if rain had blurred and washed away what had once been there. This fading effect afflicted only the center of the adjacent scene.

By contrast, the most vivid mural spanned much of the back wall, depicting a dizzying drop into a vine-coated canyon, sparkling swirls of architecture laced through its walls.

“Is that a real place?” Xlack wondered, and Revo froze, finger hovering just short of the start button on the cookbox he had just loaded.

After a moment, the cooker acknowledged his touch with a hushed beep, motor whirring, and Revo turned away, deliberately not looking at anything. “It’s Mumir…on Knalz.”

Xlack noted a faded black scar splashed across the ravine, hovering over the landscape and ruining some of its depth. Several of the murals had these slashes, now that he looked for them. Were they supposed to be words? Did these aliens write with scribbled splashes? It was said ancient Zalerits wrote by dripping scented dye on dried leaves.

“Did Twi-”

“Twi is removing the murals,” Revo interrupted.

Why? Xlack wanted to ask, but the heavy sadness and regret pulsing through Revo silenced him. Revo didn’t want to talk about the murals, and they weren’t important. They likely had nothing to do with Xlack’s mission.

Retreating to a squat, square chair positioned against the wall, thick cushion relatively free of clutter, Xlack sat on its edge and retrieved his datapad from a small pocket on his belt, prompting the fingernail-sized device to unfold.

“Sorry,” Revo apologized, sweeping electronic inners off the seat, “when Entrycii and Lanox get into a project, they can make quite a mess. I don’t even notice it anymore.”

The cookbox hooted, and Revo returned to it. Xlack sat back, mysterious mission looming at the front of his mind. He stared at his datapad—a device, once fully extended, about the size of both his hands held alongside one another; a rectangular prism as thin as an eyelash and just as weightless; a shiny black touchscreen in a smooth metal casing, a variety of ports hidden by this latter until called upon. Eight black ovals adorned the back, designed to take commands from warm fingers.

Revo pulled Xlack’s gaze away from it, handing him a piece of flat, bumpy food.

Xlack commented, “This smells like bread.”

“That’s because it is bread,” Revo confirmed, ripping off a piece and tossing it in his own mouth.

“But it looks like it has a disease.”

Revo laughed, nearly choking on what he had just swallowed. “That would be an interesting concept, having to give yer bread medicine so when it was better, ya could eat it.”

Xlack laughed, too, and took a tentative bite of the flatbread. It was warm, soft, and buttery, melting in his mouth.

Rell emerged from beneath the chair, a sock gripped in his sharp teeth.

“Rell, give me that,” Xlack ordered, capturing the beastling. Setting Rell on his lap, Xlack traded the sock for a fluffy crumb, which Rell happily gobbled, onyx eyes wide in hopes of more. Xlack draped the sock over the armrest.

“It’s funny,” Revo remarked, sliding into the chair next to Xlack’s, “people always try to compare their own experiences to those of others.”

“How so?”

“Well, my own amarac died on Kelis not too long ago.”

Xlack wished he knew what an amarac was.

“Yet, there’s no way ya are feeling the exact same way I was because circumstances are never exactly the same. Even the slightest difference is still a difference, but still, the first words I think to say to ya are ‘I know how ya feel.’”

Interesting sentiment, but Xlack seriously doubted Revo knew what he felt. Debating what he should do next, he turned the datapad on.

“What’s that?” Revo asked, attention grabbed by its sudden glow and quiet tune.

“A device,” was the vague answer he was supplied.

“I can see that. What are ya doing with it? What’s it for?”

“I’m sending my report and receiving further orders,” Xlack replied, typing:

This is Xlack Skyme. I have accomplished my objective and am reporting to you from Tala. Awaiting further orders.

Rell pawed at the back of the datapad, a reminder the bread wasn’t all gone and if Xlack was done with it, Rell would gladly finish the rest. Xlack gave him a bigger piece, and Rell lay down to winnow away at it.

Leaning on the armrest and reading over Xlack’s shoulder, Revo noted, “Those are Zalerit letters.”

Xlack clenched his typing hand into a tight fist, offense bubbling like some nefarious concoction. Nayatilix was the beautiful and ancient language of the Napix. How dare anyone call their letters Zalerit!

“Ya aren’t from around here, are ya?”

“That would be correct,” Xlack admitted, digging deep for a polite grin. It looked too rigid to be genuine. “Tradition dictates that in respect to you, after I tell you my name I must truthfully answer the first seven questions you ask me, and you’ve already asked five.”

“Okay…where are ya from?”

He wasn’t supposed to ask that. Considering how exactly he should answer, Xlack recalled what little he knew of these people, all gleaned from very old legends.

The Knalcals and Tala had been cohorts of Vozin Nar, the traitor, the renegade whom the first Emperor of Napix had hunted down right here in Alliance Space.

Suppressing a shudder, Xlack took a deep breath, placed his hand over his Ier, and divulged, “Napix.”

“Hmmm.”

Not the response Xlack expected. The Aylata said nothing, mistrust blistered with surprise and suspense.

After a thoughtful pause, Revo added, “So, if ya aren’t an O’ee, what’s yer occupation?”

“I’m an Aylata.”

‘Which is?”

Xlack cancelled the conversation: “You’ve already asked seven questions.”

“So what, ya can’t ever tell me the truth again?”

Annoyance seeped from Revo, sawing at Xlack’s nerves. A noise nudged his ears, no louder than an exhale, and cradling Rell, Xlack leapt to his feet, stiffer than Revo’s spiky red hair.

“Whatever an Aylata is, ya sure are jumpy. Listen, this place has security coming out its figurative ears. Nothing will get ya in here.”

“You can’t guarantee that. Look-” His datapad beeped, its signal lost, likely because that signal had been detected. Rell wriggled; his soggy bread piece had fallen on the floor. Xlack felt a bit like that, everything familiar falling away, the hand of tradition and duty holding him tight. He showed Rell he had more bread, and the beastling stilled.

“Am I being held prisoner here?”

Revo flung his arms at their benign surroundings, disbelief clinging to the gesture like ornate sleeves. “Does it look like ya are?”

“Then I’m free to go. Is there a way out?”

“Where there’s a way in, there’s a way out,” Revo told him, arms crossed, “or so says my Sugataep.”

Xlack stepped out the door. “Will you show me the exit?”

Leaning on the wall, muddy jade eyes narrowed, Revo argued, “Maybe I should just stop answering yer questions. I’m sure ya’ve asked more than seven by now.”

“Fine. I’ll find it myself.” Xlack slipped down the hall, but Revo wasn’t far behind.

“Even if ya won’t tell me what an Aylata is, I want to know why ya are here. I’ll keep following ya until ya tell me.”

“I’m learning,” Xlack answered.

“Learning what?”

Xlack shrugged. “Maybe I don’t know yet.”

“What are ya running away from?”

Xlack stopped and turned, finding himself face to face with Revo. “What makes you think I’m running away from anything?”

“Because I’m Tala,” Revo explained. “I really do know exactly how ya feel.”

-continued in section 3 scene 1- Cookies-
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Chapter 13 of River's End
Written by Taki

River's End chapter 11: A Trap and a Lie

Now I was at a loss. Grenswa’s second prince thought of my people as monsters, and the first prince had possibly eloped with one of the very people I had come to tell them was their enemy. Blu was my only apparent ally, and at that moment, he was enduring a loud lecture that I and the princes politely pretended we couldn’t hear. The doors seemed paper thin, and I wondered they hadn’t heard noisy Paqo and the discussion of my heritage earlier.

Surreptitiously retrieving Fredo’s shooter had been a bit of a dance performed as I swapped out my borrowed hat in favor of my cloak. The weapon was a weight on my belts and in my mind as I followed the princes through the restaurant’s exit.

Would I have to take my message straight to King Rangial? If so, I headed in the right direction. Ledatiiss Island would have been difficult to find and access on my own. It was said to float among the clouds, as did several land masses caught in Grenswa’s odd gravitational relationship with Sparqtra.

Hence the nreyetko, a vehicle designed to work with Grenswa’s unique gravity field. I had never seen one in person. The one Timqé brought was the same cerulean as his eyes, but in lieu of the life dancing in those portals of blue, thin, hematite lines drew a faint, angular pattern over its metal sides. Resting flat on the ground, the nreyetko was shaped much like a kayak, dugouts in the hull providing access to two seats, a clear wind screen partially shielding the driver.

“Um, where am I supposed to sit?” I questioned as Timqé stepped into the front dugout.

He shrugged. “The trunk.” I couldn’t quite tell if that was a question, a joke, or a serious suggestion.

“The trunk’s for inanimate objects,” Hent vetoed, “like Paqo.”

“Then I suppose she’ll’ve to sit on your lap since you’re the one illegally bringin’ her to the island.”

There were many reasons I shouldn’t have sat on Hent’s lap. For starters, Seallaii-na proprietary would brand it inappropriate, but Grenswa-nas sat on each other all the time and thought nothing of it. So disregarding that, safety warned the seat was not designed to host two, and in the event of a crash we would both die.

Actually, safety seemed very much absent in the design of this vehicle.

Figuring Timqé would take any excuse to leave me behind, I swallowed my objections and crawled into the second seat with Hent.

As we lurched into the air and I nearly tumbled out over the side, Hent wrapped his arms around me, locking me in place. I blushed. Seallaii-na propriety still claimed I should not sit on his lap, especially not held tight in his embrace. And as I tried to tell myself this meant nothing to the handsome prince holding me, my analytical training kicked in. Hent’s embrace was unlike any I had ever known…not that I had known many, thanks to the non-River Guardians not touching River Guardians rule.

Whenever Fredo caught me his arms felt warm and solid, imbued with safety. No amount of shoving on my part could make Fredo move if he didn’t want to.

Hent lacked Seallaii-na solidity, instead a creature built for flight, grace, and movement. A bird, not a tree to be rooted to the ground. Plus, Grenswa-nas are not warm blooded. Absorbing and storing heat, his touch was like that of a shark’s: several degrees cooler than me and smooth with the grain of his skin, rough if against it.

I didn’t mind, though. The wind roaring past was hot and sticky, tearing at my hair like a spiteful bald man. It would have been stifling without his cooling presence wrapped around me.

Blushing again.

“You’re alright?” Hent called into my ear. My flush had crept all the way to my fingers, and I was positively purple.

“I’m fine!” I shouted into the gale as it tried to peel my lips from my face. It did a good job of blasting off my leyrah coating. “Just…nervous!”

“Before gainin’ access to the island, people usually must present several official documents,” Timqé noted, “includin’ a doctor’s report provin’ they’ren’t carryin’ the next great epidemic!”

“If she’s contagious, I’ve caught it now!” Hent argued.

“I’m not contagious!” I claimed. “I’m not even sick!”

“But we’ve to take your word on that, and you’re far from inconspicuous. Normally a mystery like you’dn’t even be allowed to see our island.”

“Normally you wouldn’t be allowed to collect srymals this time of year either!” I shot back. “How is your wife, by the way? What is she like?”

“You brought Niiq srymals out of season?” Hent questioned.

Bad Hent, interrupting my subtle information fishing.

Timqé explained, “She’s been cravin’ all sorts of crazy things because of the baby!”

That perked my ears. Baby? Grenswa’s first prince was not only married but expecting?

But I hadn’t thought a Grenswa-na/Shlykrii-na hybrid was possible.

“What?!” Hent exclaimed, and I realized I had spoken aloud. How much of that last thought had I said? “That’s disgustin’! Why’d you even be thinkin’ about that?”

“Because you mentioned running off with a beautiful Shlykrii-na!” I defended.

“Beautiful Shlykrii-nas don’t exist!” Hent professed.

Even if only in my own mind, I had to differ: Shlykrii-nas have a cruel beauty, sharp and often dark, like the steep precipices of an immense ravine, terrifying if you stand too close.

Aloud, I countered, “I heard you call Seallaii-nas monsters, yet you think them beautiful.”

“Their beauty is a trap and a lie.”

“A trap of what? And it’s truly the opposite of a lie. Yes, a Seallaii-na’s appearance is liable to slow change, but they grow toward their own ideal of beauty. Some of who they really are shines through, like with your transient colors. Would you call them a lie?”

“They’re also a trap.”

His heavy sincerity rendered me speechless. His colors were a trap? What could he mean by that?

Hent swirled through lavender into deep, eerie maroon, and I had to look away. Otherwise I’d have fallen into those eyes and drowned.

Very aware of Hent’s arms around me, I looked anywhere but at him. The clouds were fluffy and a myriad of pale hues. This latter came from crafailia, a substance that performed water-like functions on many worlds. It came in a variety of colors, each a slightly different solution.

In addition to water, Seallaii had only white and clear crafailia, while Grenswa had nearly all available colors.

The clouds churned, wind dancing in the planet’s awkward gravity pools, and I could feel the nreyetko’s motor constantly adjusting to keep us aloft. The ground hid below thick vapor, though I suspected we were over an ocean anyway. A tepid mist washed over us, and I blinked colorful droplets out of my eyes.

Rock loomed out of the haze, a dark, shapeless form sharpening into a jagged precipice, and Timqé directed our vehicle to rise. My stomach took a few secliis to catch up. Cascades poured past us, sculpted into twirling ribbons at the whim of the wind.

The cliff fell away, boulders carpeted by green grass and then a verdant jungle replete with deep ravines and dark fissures. I didn’t get to see much before the nreyetko ducked into a large wooden structure teetering on the edge of the island.

The wind ventured inside cautiously, and in the absence of its roar, I momentarily feared I’d gone deaf.

Lips a hairsbreadth from my ear, Hent questioned, “If Seallaii-nas grow toward their own ideal of beauty, if one of them admired Shlykrii-nas, he’d grow outrageous ears and fangs?”

“For such a drastic change, he would have to want that for a significant portion of his life.” I sat very still, not looking at the prince as our vehicle settled on the wood-and-stone floor. The stone appeared melted around the planks, like thick mortar.

“You know a lot about Seallaii.”

Now I did look at him, terror spearing my heart. He was teal, suspicious.

“I know a lot about Grenswa, too!” I rushed, a little squeaky. “For instance, this floor is made of botibai wood, a tree thought to only grow on the floating islands because it requires high altitudes, constantly shifting soil, and copious amounts of green crafailia. And the stone is oquari, unique in that it melts when cold and gets stronger the warmer its environment.”

I stopped short. That was way too much. I gave a nervous smile. Incredulity sharpened Hent’s handsome face. He was still teal.

And then he laughed, sapphire breaking through. “Timqé, I don’t think you’ve to worry about her bein’ unable to write her own name.”

Having just climbed out of the nreyetko, Timqé turned back to us, arms crossed. “Island trees’ren’t a typical topic of study. Where’d a harvest girl hear all that?”

Where indeed?

Unable to hold the elder brother’s gaze either, my eyes dropped to the too-detailed floor. There was much more to tell about it, like how the pattern of planks was a code of ancient builders, and modern designers copied their clues without knowing their meaning.

I peeked up through my lashes. “Okay, I didn’t tell you the whole truth.”

Eyebrows high in mock surprise, Timqé gasped, “No!”

“I know so much because I was raised by Druojojneerpsrii.”

Calculation flickered across Timqé’s face, tail flicking like Blu’s. A Druojojneerpsrii education was invaluable and well worth any fight to keep me.

Hent’s arms tightened around me. “Did they experiment on you?” He was a brilliant orange; his ears seemed to be aflame, and his eyes alone could illuminate the room, pulsing like a torch in a gale.

“Prince Hent!” The sharp voice shattered my eardrums as a girl vaulted over the side of the nreyetko, slicing her body between us. “Found you, finally! Officer Renit says he needs to see you immediately at the northern gatehouse. Somethin’ about invaders!”

My heart clogged my throat. Did she mean Seallaii-nas? Shlykrii-nas?

Or maybe they had Fredo’s body.

I tumbled over the side of the nreyetko, and I think she may have hastened my plummet with a kick to my behind. My legs tangled beneath me, I looked up to see the cheeky grin of a slight girl in dark blue shorts and a top tie-dyed like a bright rainbow wrapped around her twice and knotted at her back.

Hent leapt out on the opposite side of the nreyetko. “Thanks, Wae. This’s Rose. Make sure she gets to the palace proper and meets up with Blu?”

He said it almost dismissively, but judging from the dreamy glaze over her eyes, Wae perceived the scene differently: flower petals rained from the ceiling, soft lights blurring every edge.

Hent and Timqé rushed off, Wae watching wistfully until they were out of sight. She still stood on the nreyetko’s backseat, heavy hair waving in the gentle breeze. An ocean would be jealous of the waves in her locks the hue of a turbulent bay, parted, twisted, and pulled into a weighty tail held with flowered clips. Her irises were the color of moonlight, scales matching, her skin so fair as to be nearly transparent.

She whirled on me, anger a whip of lightning. “You sat on Prince Hent’s lap!”

“Timqé told me to,” I defended.

“You’ll address the first prince properly, Outsider!”

I straightened. Though we were close in age, her standing on the nreyetko was the only reason we were anywhere near the same height. On level ground, she wouldn’t have been as high as my shoulder.

“I’m not an outsider. The princes brought me here as an asset to the island, tribute from the world’s finest.”

She growled and jumped down from her perch, sly intelligence sliding over her expression. “Rose, can you ride?”

“Ride what?”

She giggled. “Leemprees, what else?”

I could think of plenty else, like space freighters and nreyetkos. Leemprees were another class of riding, but I didn’t think galloping along on an amphibious equine would be much different from riding a serpentine scyuen or a raptor-hipped rhorix.

“Yes, what else. Of course I ride.”

She turned on her heel, pace brisk past the row of parked nreyetkos, a half dozen of them, each a shade of blue boasting unique stripes. “Good. It’s a long way to the palace proper, and no vehicles that might make it fall’re allowed to fly over the island.”

I did not believe a nreyetko was capable of making this massive floating island fall, but I held my tongue. Wae hopped through an open window, and I hurried after her, irrational competitiveness swelling in my chest.

Just behind the garage, a pair of leemprees grazed on green grass. Seallaii-na grass only came in hues of blue, and I was a bit curious if this verdant carpet tasted any less like morning breath, so while Wae wasn’t looking, I pinched the top off a tall blade and slipped it in my mouth.

It was horrible. Like vomit. Which I tried very hard not to spew as Wae turned back to me and whistled.

One of the leemprees raised her head, ears perked and gaze searching. She was a regal creature, structured like a racehorse, muscles rippling beneath soft, pearlescent white scales as she trotted over to us. Her cloven hooves and clawed thumbs clacked against the rocks, her long mane and tail waving in the wind. These latter were translucent, made of nerved filaments instead of hair, strands that would link together and form fins when submerged. More of these hugged her knees or hung over her sides like limp wings.

Wae raised her hand, and the leempree stopped in front of the girl, placing her muzzle against Wae’s palm. Though the leempree’s withers were higher than her head, Wae easily jumped up and sat astride the animal’s bare back.

“Okay, Miss World’s Finest, summon the other leempree,” Wae called down to me, challenge burning in her sparkling eyes. “His name’s Lan, if you think that’ll help.”

Lan was also gorgeous. Like the skin of an alligator’s belly, a leempree’s scales were sleek and glossy, giving them the appearance of being wet even when they weren’t. Lan’s hide looked like a starscape, molten orange stripes slashed across his back and legs.

While nearly as large as Wae’s mount, Lan was also young, and a wild gleam danced in his every line. Lan had never been ridden, I was sure. Lan came at no one’s call.

Lan had also never met a Seallaii-na.

Silent, I held my hand out like Wae had and forced a motionless tranquility upon myself. I focused on what I wanted: that leempree to come to me. I needed him to nuzzle my hand; my life depended on it. I had to believe that or it wouldn’t work.

A slow breath escaped my barely parted lips, carrying my wish on the wind.

After two exhales, the young stallion paused his grazing. His head lifted. His gaze met mine. I did not move, a quiet hiss sounding as I breathed out again, one thought on a pedestal in my mind: Come.

He snorted, shaking his head.

I grinned. Come.

Lan galloped toward me, nearly bowling me over. I slipped my arms around his neck, pouring gratitude and calm into my embrace as his momentum helped launch me onto his back. Antsy and confused, the leempree pranced in a tight circle, muscles coiling in preparation for a bucking riot.

“Calm, Lan,” I whispered in his ear, stuffing a smile into my voice.

A Seallaii-na’s smile had power.

Though still jittery, Lan shed some tension, enough that I no longer feared he would throw me over the cliff if I loosened my grip on his filament mane. Here I was filthy and far from home, but sitting up straight atop this majestic creature’s back, I felt powerful.

Wae stared in amazement, but as soon as she noticed me looking at her, she huffed, rolled her eyes, and directed her leempree to trot down the pebbly path.

I urged Lan to follow, and thankfully he obeyed, receiving more of my gratitude as a reward. Relief swelled within me, glad Wae’s pride hadn’t allowed her to ask for an explanation.

Or maybe my Seallaii-na charisma had something to do with that, too?

I was not a Sojourner, one of the privileged few among the Druojojneerpsrii that traveled across the stars, so I had no training or practice in harnessing this power. As with many subjects, I knew how it worked, like pheromones, my body turning my most potent desires into chemical messages. I had read reports of how our genuine smile could subtly intoxicate non-Seallaii-nas and often proved addictive. Used cleverly, it could change the world.

For example, legend told of the great Lady Asaqrin who had advised a Grenswa-na leader she did not appreciate his army’s treatment of its leemprees. When he failed to take her warning to heart, she influenced all the mounts to rebel, a spectacle gaining her the attention and notoriety needed to reform the view of an entire culture. Henceforth, Grenswa-nas have believed any form of tie or fence constraining a leempree to be wrong.

“We are the caretakers of the universe,” Asaqrin was often quoted as saying. “That is our purpose, and when we do it well, the universe cares for us in turn.”

Ours was not an ability to be abused, not like in Hent’s warped opinion of us. Steal their will and create mindless puppets? Absurd. Seallaii-na charisma was a difficult power to consciously wield; individuals interpreted the same message differently, and sentient creatures were especially unpredictable.

But now I was an envoy and ambassador here just like the Sojourners I had always revered, seeing my book knowledge manifest into reality. I would win over these doubters. I didn’t know why the Druojojneerpsrii had lost this world’s love, but I would fix it.

After all, it was said the great Lady Asaqrin had made an entire empire of worlds fall in love with her.

Yes, I could be like her, a heroine, cloak waving behind me as Lan cantered along, crumbling limestone and decaying branches crunching beneath his hooves in a steady rhythm. A chorus replied to his beat, sounding like a symphony, and though I didn’t see any, I suspected they were vava, a class of insect found only in select areas.

Above the luscious trees, I caught sight of the palace’s twisted bubble towers, but we didn’t seem headed toward them. I didn’t really have my bearings here, but if the castle was north, Wae would have been leading us east.

That’s okay, my rational and trusting side chorused, this could be a plausible route. This island is riddled with shifting fissures. Perhaps the straightest path is impassable.

Or, my logical and suspicious side warned, this jealous girl could lead me to the edge and shove me off this levitating island. In that case, she’ll find I’m well skilled in shoving.

And just as I thought about cliffs, one appeared, a wide, bottomless ravine, boulders like stepping stones spinning above an endless drop through colorful clouds. Wae and her radiant mount leapt from one hovering crag to the next, rocks rolling faster in their wake.

My young stallion followed, leaving my stomach behind on the bank. Fear’s frigid fingers shimmied up my spine and gripped my throat.

Wae’s leempree was a well-trained beast, mature and confident of her skilled rider. They reached the other cliff without incident. But the stone shifted too quickly under Lan’s hooves, and my fear wrote panic in him.

The rock rolled too far, and Lan’s hooves stood on nothing.

-continued in chapter 12: Dramatic Declarations-

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Chapter 13 of River's End
Written by Taki
River's End chapter 11: A Trap and a Lie
Now I was at a loss. Grenswa’s second prince thought of my people as monsters, and the first prince had possibly eloped with one of the very people I had come to tell them was their enemy. Blu was my only apparent ally, and at that moment, he was enduring a loud lecture that I and the princes politely pretended we couldn’t hear. The doors seemed paper thin, and I wondered they hadn’t heard noisy Paqo and the discussion of my heritage earlier.

Surreptitiously retrieving Fredo’s shooter had been a bit of a dance performed as I swapped out my borrowed hat in favor of my cloak. The weapon was a weight on my belts and in my mind as I followed the princes through the restaurant’s exit.

Would I have to take my message straight to King Rangial? If so, I headed in the right direction. Ledatiiss Island would have been difficult to find and access on my own. It was said to float among the clouds, as did several land masses caught in Grenswa’s odd gravitational relationship with Sparqtra.

Hence the nreyetko, a vehicle designed to work with Grenswa’s unique gravity field. I had never seen one in person. The one Timqé brought was the same cerulean as his eyes, but in lieu of the life dancing in those portals of blue, thin, hematite lines drew a faint, angular pattern over its metal sides. Resting flat on the ground, the nreyetko was shaped much like a kayak, dugouts in the hull providing access to two seats, a clear wind screen partially shielding the driver.

“Um, where am I supposed to sit?” I questioned as Timqé stepped into the front dugout.

He shrugged. “The trunk.” I couldn’t quite tell if that was a question, a joke, or a serious suggestion.

“The trunk’s for inanimate objects,” Hent vetoed, “like Paqo.”

“Then I suppose she’ll’ve to sit on your lap since you’re the one illegally bringin’ her to the island.”

There were many reasons I shouldn’t have sat on Hent’s lap. For starters, Seallaii-na proprietary would brand it inappropriate, but Grenswa-nas sat on each other all the time and thought nothing of it. So disregarding that, safety warned the seat was not designed to host two, and in the event of a crash we would both die.

Actually, safety seemed very much absent in the design of this vehicle.

Figuring Timqé would take any excuse to leave me behind, I swallowed my objections and crawled into the second seat with Hent.

As we lurched into the air and I nearly tumbled out over the side, Hent wrapped his arms around me, locking me in place. I blushed. Seallaii-na propriety still claimed I should not sit on his lap, especially not held tight in his embrace. And as I tried to tell myself this meant nothing to the handsome prince holding me, my analytical training kicked in. Hent’s embrace was unlike any I had ever known…not that I had known many, thanks to the non-River Guardians not touching River Guardians rule.

Whenever Fredo caught me his arms felt warm and solid, imbued with safety. No amount of shoving on my part could make Fredo move if he didn’t want to.

Hent lacked Seallaii-na solidity, instead a creature built for flight, grace, and movement. A bird, not a tree to be rooted to the ground. Plus, Grenswa-nas are not warm blooded. Absorbing and storing heat, his touch was like that of a shark’s: several degrees cooler than me and smooth with the grain of his skin, rough if against it.

I didn’t mind, though. The wind roaring past was hot and sticky, tearing at my hair like a spiteful bald man. It would have been stifling without his cooling presence wrapped around me.

Blushing again.

“You’re alright?” Hent called into my ear. My flush had crept all the way to my fingers, and I was positively purple.

“I’m fine!” I shouted into the gale as it tried to peel my lips from my face. It did a good job of blasting off my leyrah coating. “Just…nervous!”

“Before gainin’ access to the island, people usually must present several official documents,” Timqé noted, “includin’ a doctor’s report provin’ they’ren’t carryin’ the next great epidemic!”

“If she’s contagious, I’ve caught it now!” Hent argued.

“I’m not contagious!” I claimed. “I’m not even sick!”

“But we’ve to take your word on that, and you’re far from inconspicuous. Normally a mystery like you’dn’t even be allowed to see our island.”

“Normally you wouldn’t be allowed to collect srymals this time of year either!” I shot back. “How is your wife, by the way? What is she like?”

“You brought Niiq srymals out of season?” Hent questioned.

Bad Hent, interrupting my subtle information fishing.

Timqé explained, “She’s been cravin’ all sorts of crazy things because of the baby!”

That perked my ears. Baby? Grenswa’s first prince was not only married but expecting?

But I hadn’t thought a Grenswa-na/Shlykrii-na hybrid was possible.

“What?!” Hent exclaimed, and I realized I had spoken aloud. How much of that last thought had I said? “That’s disgustin’! Why’d you even be thinkin’ about that?”

“Because you mentioned running off with a beautiful Shlykrii-na!” I defended.

“Beautiful Shlykrii-nas don’t exist!” Hent professed.

Even if only in my own mind, I had to differ: Shlykrii-nas have a cruel beauty, sharp and often dark, like the steep precipices of an immense ravine, terrifying if you stand too close.

Aloud, I countered, “I heard you call Seallaii-nas monsters, yet you think them beautiful.”

“Their beauty is a trap and a lie.”

“A trap of what? And it’s truly the opposite of a lie. Yes, a Seallaii-na’s appearance is liable to slow change, but they grow toward their own ideal of beauty. Some of who they really are shines through, like with your transient colors. Would you call them a lie?”

“They’re also a trap.”

His heavy sincerity rendered me speechless. His colors were a trap? What could he mean by that?

Hent swirled through lavender into deep, eerie maroon, and I had to look away. Otherwise I’d have fallen into those eyes and drowned.

Very aware of Hent’s arms around me, I looked anywhere but at him. The clouds were fluffy and a myriad of pale hues. This latter came from crafailia, a substance that performed water-like functions on many worlds. It came in a variety of colors, each a slightly different solution.

In addition to water, Seallaii had only white and clear crafailia, while Grenswa had nearly all available colors.

The clouds churned, wind dancing in the planet’s awkward gravity pools, and I could feel the nreyetko’s motor constantly adjusting to keep us aloft. The ground hid below thick vapor, though I suspected we were over an ocean anyway. A tepid mist washed over us, and I blinked colorful droplets out of my eyes.

Rock loomed out of the haze, a dark, shapeless form sharpening into a jagged precipice, and Timqé directed our vehicle to rise. My stomach took a few secliis to catch up. Cascades poured past us, sculpted into twirling ribbons at the whim of the wind.

The cliff fell away, boulders carpeted by green grass and then a verdant jungle replete with deep ravines and dark fissures. I didn’t get to see much before the nreyetko ducked into a large wooden structure teetering on the edge of the island.

The wind ventured inside cautiously, and in the absence of its roar, I momentarily feared I’d gone deaf.

Lips a hairsbreadth from my ear, Hent questioned, “If Seallaii-nas grow toward their own ideal of beauty, if one of them admired Shlykrii-nas, he’d grow outrageous ears and fangs?”

“For such a drastic change, he would have to want that for a significant portion of his life.” I sat very still, not looking at the prince as our vehicle settled on the wood-and-stone floor. The stone appeared melted around the planks, like thick mortar.

“You know a lot about Seallaii.”

Now I did look at him, terror spearing my heart. He was teal, suspicious.

“I know a lot about Grenswa, too!” I rushed, a little squeaky. “For instance, this floor is made of botibai wood, a tree thought to only grow on the floating islands because it requires high altitudes, constantly shifting soil, and copious amounts of green crafailia. And the stone is oquari, unique in that it melts when cold and gets stronger the warmer its environment.”

I stopped short. That was way too much. I gave a nervous smile. Incredulity sharpened Hent’s handsome face. He was still teal.

And then he laughed, sapphire breaking through. “Timqé, I don’t think you’ve to worry about her bein’ unable to write her own name.”

Having just climbed out of the nreyetko, Timqé turned back to us, arms crossed. “Island trees’ren’t a typical topic of study. Where’d a harvest girl hear all that?”

Where indeed?

Unable to hold the elder brother’s gaze either, my eyes dropped to the too-detailed floor. There was much more to tell about it, like how the pattern of planks was a code of ancient builders, and modern designers copied their clues without knowing their meaning.

I peeked up through my lashes. “Okay, I didn’t tell you the whole truth.”

Eyebrows high in mock surprise, Timqé gasped, “No!”

“I know so much because I was raised by Druojojneerpsrii.”

Calculation flickered across Timqé’s face, tail flicking like Blu’s. A Druojojneerpsrii education was invaluable and well worth any fight to keep me.

Hent’s arms tightened around me. “Did they experiment on you?” He was a brilliant orange; his ears seemed to be aflame, and his eyes alone could illuminate the room, pulsing like a torch in a gale.

“Prince Hent!” The sharp voice shattered my eardrums as a girl vaulted over the side of the nreyetko, slicing her body between us. “Found you, finally! Officer Renit says he needs to see you immediately at the northern gatehouse. Somethin’ about invaders!”

My heart clogged my throat. Did she mean Seallaii-nas? Shlykrii-nas?

Or maybe they had Fredo’s body.

I tumbled over the side of the nreyetko, and I think she may have hastened my plummet with a kick to my behind. My legs tangled beneath me, I looked up to see the cheeky grin of a slight girl in dark blue shorts and a top tie-dyed like a bright rainbow wrapped around her twice and knotted at her back.

Hent leapt out on the opposite side of the nreyetko. “Thanks, Wae. This’s Rose. Make sure she gets to the palace proper and meets up with Blu?”

He said it almost dismissively, but judging from the dreamy glaze over her eyes, Wae perceived the scene differently: flower petals rained from the ceiling, soft lights blurring every edge.

Hent and Timqé rushed off, Wae watching wistfully until they were out of sight. She still stood on the nreyetko’s backseat, heavy hair waving in the gentle breeze. An ocean would be jealous of the waves in her locks the hue of a turbulent bay, parted, twisted, and pulled into a weighty tail held with flowered clips. Her irises were the color of moonlight, scales matching, her skin so fair as to be nearly transparent.

She whirled on me, anger a whip of lightning. “You sat on Prince Hent’s lap!”

“Timqé told me to,” I defended.

“You’ll address the first prince properly, Outsider!”

I straightened. Though we were close in age, her standing on the nreyetko was the only reason we were anywhere near the same height. On level ground, she wouldn’t have been as high as my shoulder.

“I’m not an outsider. The princes brought me here as an asset to the island, tribute from the world’s finest.”

She growled and jumped down from her perch, sly intelligence sliding over her expression. “Rose, can you ride?”

“Ride what?”

She giggled. “Leemprees, what else?”

I could think of plenty else, like space freighters and nreyetkos. Leemprees were another class of riding, but I didn’t think galloping along on an amphibious equine would be much different from riding a serpentine scyuen or a raptor-hipped rhorix.

“Yes, what else. Of course I ride.”

She turned on her heel, pace brisk past the row of parked nreyetkos, a half dozen of them, each a shade of blue boasting unique stripes. “Good. It’s a long way to the palace proper, and no vehicles that might make it fall’re allowed to fly over the island.”

I did not believe a nreyetko was capable of making this massive floating island fall, but I held my tongue. Wae hopped through an open window, and I hurried after her, irrational competitiveness swelling in my chest.

Just behind the garage, a pair of leemprees grazed on green grass. Seallaii-na grass only came in hues of blue, and I was a bit curious if this verdant carpet tasted any less like morning breath, so while Wae wasn’t looking, I pinched the top off a tall blade and slipped it in my mouth.

It was horrible. Like vomit. Which I tried very hard not to spew as Wae turned back to me and whistled.

One of the leemprees raised her head, ears perked and gaze searching. She was a regal creature, structured like a racehorse, muscles rippling beneath soft, pearlescent white scales as she trotted over to us. Her cloven hooves and clawed thumbs clacked against the rocks, her long mane and tail waving in the wind. These latter were translucent, made of nerved filaments instead of hair, strands that would link together and form fins when submerged. More of these hugged her knees or hung over her sides like limp wings.

Wae raised her hand, and the leempree stopped in front of the girl, placing her muzzle against Wae’s palm. Though the leempree’s withers were higher than her head, Wae easily jumped up and sat astride the animal’s bare back.

“Okay, Miss World’s Finest, summon the other leempree,” Wae called down to me, challenge burning in her sparkling eyes. “His name’s Lan, if you think that’ll help.”

Lan was also gorgeous. Like the skin of an alligator’s belly, a leempree’s scales were sleek and glossy, giving them the appearance of being wet even when they weren’t. Lan’s hide looked like a starscape, molten orange stripes slashed across his back and legs.

While nearly as large as Wae’s mount, Lan was also young, and a wild gleam danced in his every line. Lan had never been ridden, I was sure. Lan came at no one’s call.

Lan had also never met a Seallaii-na.

Silent, I held my hand out like Wae had and forced a motionless tranquility upon myself. I focused on what I wanted: that leempree to come to me. I needed him to nuzzle my hand; my life depended on it. I had to believe that or it wouldn’t work.

A slow breath escaped my barely parted lips, carrying my wish on the wind.

After two exhales, the young stallion paused his grazing. His head lifted. His gaze met mine. I did not move, a quiet hiss sounding as I breathed out again, one thought on a pedestal in my mind: Come.

He snorted, shaking his head.

I grinned. Come.

Lan galloped toward me, nearly bowling me over. I slipped my arms around his neck, pouring gratitude and calm into my embrace as his momentum helped launch me onto his back. Antsy and confused, the leempree pranced in a tight circle, muscles coiling in preparation for a bucking riot.

“Calm, Lan,” I whispered in his ear, stuffing a smile into my voice.

A Seallaii-na’s smile had power.

Though still jittery, Lan shed some tension, enough that I no longer feared he would throw me over the cliff if I loosened my grip on his filament mane. Here I was filthy and far from home, but sitting up straight atop this majestic creature’s back, I felt powerful.

Wae stared in amazement, but as soon as she noticed me looking at her, she huffed, rolled her eyes, and directed her leempree to trot down the pebbly path.

I urged Lan to follow, and thankfully he obeyed, receiving more of my gratitude as a reward. Relief swelled within me, glad Wae’s pride hadn’t allowed her to ask for an explanation.

Or maybe my Seallaii-na charisma had something to do with that, too?

I was not a Sojourner, one of the privileged few among the Druojojneerpsrii that traveled across the stars, so I had no training or practice in harnessing this power. As with many subjects, I knew how it worked, like pheromones, my body turning my most potent desires into chemical messages. I had read reports of how our genuine smile could subtly intoxicate non-Seallaii-nas and often proved addictive. Used cleverly, it could change the world.

For example, legend told of the great Lady Asaqrin who had advised a Grenswa-na leader she did not appreciate his army’s treatment of its leemprees. When he failed to take her warning to heart, she influenced all the mounts to rebel, a spectacle gaining her the attention and notoriety needed to reform the view of an entire culture. Henceforth, Grenswa-nas have believed any form of tie or fence constraining a leempree to be wrong.

“We are the caretakers of the universe,” Asaqrin was often quoted as saying. “That is our purpose, and when we do it well, the universe cares for us in turn.”

Ours was not an ability to be abused, not like in Hent’s warped opinion of us. Steal their will and create mindless puppets? Absurd. Seallaii-na charisma was a difficult power to consciously wield; individuals interpreted the same message differently, and sentient creatures were especially unpredictable.

But now I was an envoy and ambassador here just like the Sojourners I had always revered, seeing my book knowledge manifest into reality. I would win over these doubters. I didn’t know why the Druojojneerpsrii had lost this world’s love, but I would fix it.

After all, it was said the great Lady Asaqrin had made an entire empire of worlds fall in love with her.
Yes, I could be like her, a heroine, cloak waving behind me as Lan cantered along, crumbling limestone and decaying branches crunching beneath his hooves in a steady rhythm. A chorus replied to his beat, sounding like a symphony, and though I didn’t see any, I suspected they were vava, a class of insect found only in select areas.

Above the luscious trees, I caught sight of the palace’s twisted bubble towers, but we didn’t seem headed toward them. I didn’t really have my bearings here, but if the castle was north, Wae would have been leading us east.

That’s okay, my rational and trusting side chorused, this could be a plausible route. This island is riddled with shifting fissures. Perhaps the straightest path is impassable.

Or, my logical and suspicious side warned, this jealous girl could lead me to the edge and shove me off this levitating island. In that case, she’ll find I’m well skilled in shoving.

And just as I thought about cliffs, one appeared, a wide, bottomless ravine, boulders like stepping stones spinning above an endless drop through colorful clouds. Wae and her radiant mount leapt from one hovering crag to the next, rocks rolling faster in their wake.

My young stallion followed, leaving my stomach behind on the bank. Fear’s frigid fingers shimmied up my spine and gripped my throat.

Wae’s leempree was a well-trained beast, mature and confident of her skilled rider. They reached the other cliff without incident. But the stone shifted too quickly under Lan’s hooves, and my fear wrote panic in him.

The rock rolled too far, and Lan’s hooves stood on nothing.

-continued in chapter 12: Dramatic Declarations-
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Chapter 9 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki

Renegade section 2 scene 3- Vlavaran Base

After what felt like forever, the narrow cave opened into a larger cavern, dismal illumination provided by hidden fixtures. Tidy rows of varying vehicles decorated the space, Oha plentiful among the mix.

Their two ships landed lightly alongside one another, cockpits swinging open, the air rushing in warm, damp, and sweet, like the fragrance of dessert baking.

As he jumped out, Xlack took a wary scan of his surroundings. This cave-hangar was tall; around its perimeter, five shelf-levels displayed more parked ships and doorways. People loitered nearby, in the halls those doors led to perhaps, but no one occupied the hangar except Xlack and the two girls. Once again, he found himself wishing to explore the maze above.

Xlack hit the ground harder than he had anticipated, hand briefly leaning against the Oha’s side in an effort to recover his grace. This planet was heavy.

“Are you coming?” the pilot called, already halfway to one of the many doors on the ground level. Her voice was muffled by the helmet she still wore, reminding Xlack he had so unsafely forgotten to redeploy his. He didn’t step away from the ship.

“When do I get to fix my Oha?”

“Maintenance teams will care for your oha. Follow us, please,” she quipped. She had a striking accent with sharp t’s and hollow l’s. Lanox had an accent, too, Xlack noted, but hers was different, more like Centra’s with a kind of lilt, and it didn’t catch his attention in quite the same way.

Xlack held out a hand to Rell, and the beastling hopped onto his palm, needle-like, retractable claws sticking in Xlack’s Tsoqisi sleeve as Rell scrambled up to perch on his master’s shoulder. Closing the cockpit, Xlack started after the pilot, gaze studying the two girls.

Lanox had also remembered to wear her helmet, but her visor was now raised, revealing her cheerful eyes. Like the helmets Xlack knew, theirs were hard on the outside but flexible like a balloon if pressed from the inside. While matching her eyes in color, Lanox’s helmet seemed misshapen, stretching to accommodate her piled hair. Without such a feature, the helmet would never have fit her, the pilot either—not that Xlack dwelt overly much on the girls’ hairstyles, though he did wonder what the pilot’s face looked like behind her dark visor. Was she as ordinary as Lanox?

Ms. Security in Anonymity was notably shorter than her friend, her curves accentuated by the long-sleeved, crimson jacket cropped at her ribs, a symmetrical pair of black laces sauntering down her onyx shirt. An ebony utility belt hugged her hips, pants the same red as the jacket, disappearing mid-shin into soft, obsidian boots. Her fingers were all that showed of her skin, fair as moonlight. Mystery slithered in her wake, and Xlack followed.

Lanox pulled off her own helmet, announcing, “Don’t mind her rudeness. Welcome to Tala, Anonymous!” With her helmet folded into a small card and tucked into one of her many vest pockets, she fell into step alongside him, heralding a ridiculous smile. “Ooh, what is that?” She pointed at Rell, who perked one floppy ear, both wary and intrigued by her interest.

“An elitbeast.”

“Where’d ya get it?”

“From his mother; where else?”

A puff of slight envy sprinkled with confusion. “We’re not really allowed to have pets, at least not here in Vlavaran. What hrausq are ya from?”

If he wouldn’t even tell her his name, what made her think she could just start asking random questions? And he didn’t even know what a hrausq was, not that he would admit such.

“What hrausq are you from?” he countered.

“Seven-One-Nine, but that doesn’t answer my question.” So she looked for a set of numbers.

“Uh…Three-Two-One.”

“Doesn’t exist,” the pilot informed him.

“Sorry. I meant Eight-Nine-Nine.”

Halting, the pilot whirled on him, observing, “You’re a bit big for a two-year-old. How’d you get assigned to such a young hrausq?”

“I-”

“It doesn’t really matter for now. Come meet our hrausq!” Lanox interrupted, opening a door and shoving Xlack through.

The square room boasted beautiful landscapes and intricate patterns painted haphazardly on the otherwise silver walls. Overrun by gutted electronics, the furniture arrangement was the design of chaos incarnate. Amidst this, six ladders ran to slide-away doors in the ceiling, each providing access to a short cubicle with just enough space for a bunk on either side of its floor entrance.

Gaze sliding over the abandoned mess, Xlack reported, “There’s no one in here.”

Lanox asserted, “Well, they’re not invisible or imaginary, I assure ya.”

“Lanox,” the pilot rebuked, starting up one of the ladders, “why do you always expect them all to just be sitting in here, waiting to welcome you back with open arms? They have lives of their own.”

“But I brought them a guest!”

“They don’t know that yet.”

Lanox bounded over to the ladder, whining, “Find them, Twi. Anonymous needs to meet them.” As she stomped her insistence, her loose locks danced, the golden bushels of curls atop her head growing slightly more uneven. Rell hissed.

Twi dropped to the floor with the grace of an autumn leaf, helmet and jacket no longer in sight, and for all Xlack’s wondering what type of face her visor had hidden, he wasn’t disappointed. Curiosity, suspicion, and compassion mingled intrinsic in her expression, highlighting features that were both sharp and soft.

She defined beauty more than any Zalerit, the only alien race with which Xlack had regular dealings. That wasn’t really a fair comparison, though, considering Zalerits had four eyes and Xlack thought they smelled like a bitter spice to be avoided.

Lanox was pretty in her own way, but Xlack’s eyes were glued to Twi.

A skein of thick canvas occupied her arms, and she looked from it to Lanox with a sigh, resignation prancing.

Her gaze, glistening silver and neerj, met Xlack’s, and he flinched.

“Do you want to meet them?”

Looking away, Xlack shrugged, a hand rising to curl over Rell and quiet him. “Sure.”

“Alright then. Teree is the closest,” she reported, her plethora of blue-black plaits swinging as she set down the canvas and turned to the door. Amongst the maelstrom of other objects, the canvas held special dignity, perfectly folded and placed with reverence.

She led them back into the hewn hallway. Xlack strove not to stare. Intriguing streaks of shining silver ran through her skin, patterned around the corners of her acute eyes.

“I think you wore that helmet too long,” he expressed through a half-worried grin.

Her gaze jumped to him. “Why?”

“Because it left stuff on your face.”

“My face?” she questioned, voice near silence as she rubbed a hand along her cheek. Louder, she mused, “That’s odd. It’s never done that before. Lanox, does-”

“There’s nothing on yer face,” Lanox interrupted, head swaying in confused disagreement.

“Yes there is,” Xlack countered, stepping within her space. Her scent was ambrosia. “You have these silver lines by your eyes and your hairline and across your nose.” He started to trace one with his finger, but she flinched away from his touch, offended.

“Don’t be a cruel idiot,” she reprimanded. “I’m Knalcal; I should be asking you why you don’t have birthmarks on your skin.”

“Because I don’t.” A blunt response.

Her suspicion flared. “You act as though you’ve never seen a Knalcal before, and when Lanox asked about your hrausq, you didn’t know what she was talking about. Even common people know what a hrausq is.”

Way to make me feel stupid, Xlack thought.

Her hands were on her hips now, her gaze on him steely as, walking backward, she continued to lead them. “Would you mind giving me the definition of amarac?”

“Of course not, if you first recite the definition of Sugataep.” He thought he knew the word, but it was old, and no one used it anymore…except Lanox apparently. Surely she didn’t mean to call him a shepherd.

As they entered a mid-sized auditorium—no chairs, floor sloping toward a flat space in the center, all carved straight into the cave’s dirt and rock—Twi stopped. “I asked you first.”

“And I asked you second.”

“Exactly, so you’ll answer first, and I’ll answer second,” she reasoned.

“No,” he rationalized, “you asked first, so your answer also comes first. You said something, I said something, so now it’s your turn again.” An illogical argument, sure, but he hoped he had lost her somewhere in there and she would just give up.

She stood with her arms crossed, glaring at him with one eyebrow raised, refusing to dignify that with a response. Rell slinked around Xlack’s neck, relocating to the other shoulder where he could better hide from her line of sight.

Small children suddenly poured into the space, yelling and laughing and shoving each other. They paid no mind to the trio of young adults arguing by one of the doorways, even rudely slamming into them.

Predator eyes sharpening, Rell scampered down Xlack’s back and joined the stampede.

“Rell, come back here! Hey!” Xlack snatched up a Knalcal child by the back of his shirt collar, a small boy he was sure had rammed him on purpose.

“Hey ya!” he heard, an echo with an accent and a wail.

Without releasing his first prisoner (who was now trying to kick him), Xlack turned to find another boy scowling at him. Also clad in Tsoqisi—an open sandy jacket with rows of tin zippers, pants the same—brown hair semi-shaggy and curling around his ears, this one was only half Xlack’s height and age, but he claimed more years than the toddlers swarming around them.

“Who are ya, and why are ya in my spot?” the boy demanded, glowering up at the Aylata. Xlack thought the sight funny; glowering was usually reserved for people one could physically look down at, not persons twice one’s size.

Not deigning to move, Xlack defended, “I’m in your spot because I didn’t know it was your spot. Do you have a problem with that?”

The boy’s eyes narrowed even farther, jaw rigid as he pointed at Xlack’s feet. “The marker has my name on it.”

Xlack looked down to see that under the toes of his boots there was indeed a small x with some scribbling around it, but he couldn’t make out what it said. His head hurt, and dimness crawled from the corners of his vision. The children were much too loud.

Most people learned to be reserved around Mind Aylata, but it was a skill that took time to acquire. Small children tended to be completely unguarded, throwing their emotions on any surrounding them. Sometimes it seemed their young minds shouted every feeling they had. With one or two kids, it was simply an irritating nuisance; in a rambunctious crowd like this, it was an outright assault.

Xlack pushed their minds away—their crashing waves of emotion—because if he didn’t, he knew his vision would only continue to retreat. If he focused, he could make this chaos go away and leave him alone, or so his uncle always assured him. It usually didn’t work, but Xlack tried hard to act like nothing was wrong anyway. He just had to collect Rell and get out of here as soon as possible.

A hand clapped down on Xlack’s shoulder, and he jumped.

“Easy, Teree. Are ya okay, Stranger?” This newcomer had a soothing quality to his voice, his accent similar to Lanox’s, and he helped push away the chaos as if encircled by a strong shield.

Xlack nodded. “I’m fine.”

Xlack guessed this one to be about his own age, but he stood a whole head and shoulders taller, his straight hair spiked like a desert plant. His slit nostrils were a bit more obvious than Lanox’s, but not as notable as Teree’s. The boy’s nose was almost flat, which contributed to the sharpness of his voice. All three had the same shimmery quality to their skin…Twi too if Xlack looked for it. Hers was much fainter.

“Be nice to him, Teree. He’s likely someone important.”

“Don’t put me down in front of my charge!” Teree whined, gesturing at the children scrambling around them.

“Then don’t give me anything to put ya down about and get yer class under control.”

“They are under control!” Teree argued just as the boy Xlack held finally succeeded in kicking free and took off. “Kahrin, no running!”

Kahrin stopped and contemplated this rule for a moment before taking one large, quick step, hesitating, then taking another.

“Kahrin!” Teree rebuked.

“I’m not running!” the boy challenged.

“Ya are going to fall flat on yer face like that!”

Kahrin paid no heed to this warning.

Sit!” Xlack instructed, accompanying the suggestion with a whisper in each of the minds bombarding his. The same openness that made kids overwhelming also made them highly susceptible to suggestions.

Teree’s entire class of eight sat immediately, several others doing likewise. From within her circle of personal space that none of the children had dared enter, Twi observed this cautiously.

“See, Teree,” the tall one admonished, “he helped ya. Now be polite.”

“Fine,” Teree groaned, extending his hand toward the Aylata. Xlack could barely see him, his vision so fogged over with clouds of overdramatic emotion.

He squinted, appearing to glare. “What do you want?”

“I’m introducing myself,” Teree explained with a roll of his eyes. “I’m Teree, and ya are supposed to shake my hand now.”

Hesitant, Xlack grabbed Teree’s wrist and made the hand attached to it shake.

With furrowed eyebrows, Teree looked at the tall one, commenting, “He’s weird.”

“Speak for yourself,” Xlack combated. “I’m not the one who asked for someone to shake my hand.”

Twi laughed, calling his attention back to her. He liked her laugh; he sensed that for some reason she needed to laugh, but he didn’t like that she laughed at him.

Turning amid a mix of emotions he didn’t care to identify, Xlack wove through the restlessly sitting multitude, heading toward where tiny Rell terrorized a group of children.

The tall one kept step with him. “I’m Alek Revo.”

Xlack said nothing. He wanted away from the crowd, but Revo’s dampening presence was helpful…nice. Xlack wondered if the sigils like exploding rivets on his auburn boots and belt had any significance. Things like that always had significance among Aylata.

“Ya got a name?”

“I’m called Skyme.”

Clapping, Lanox popped up from an argument with some seated kids. “Oh good, ya met Revo, Anonymous!”

Revo didn’t seem nearly as happy to see her as she seemed…most of the time.

“Now he only has to meet Zeln and Aarex, Naday, and…” Xlack stopped paying attention as she ranted, and evidently so did Revo.

“So why are ya here, Skyme?”

Interrupting her own previous run-on, Lanox answered, “He lost his amarac, and we found him and rescued him, but I think he lost his memory, too, because he talks awfully strange, no offense of course. Oh, and that thing on his shoulder is an elitbeast-wait, where’d it go?”

“Thank-ya Dr. Know-It-All,” Revo commented.

“Ya asked,” she explained with a shrug.

“But maybe I wanted to hear it from him.”

Her shoulders rose again, brushing aside the counsel as a small girl tugged on the longer end of Lanox’s pale aqua shirt.

“Oh, ya are so cute!” Lanox exclaimed, scooping the child into her arms. The toddler cooed indiscernible sentences to her, and she cooed back.

“Ya hungry, Skyme?” Revo questioned.

Until Revo mentioned it, Xlack didn’t realize how famished he was. His stomach’s loud, mournful grumble answered for him.

With an exaggerated bow and chuckling smile, Revo responded, “Well then, right this way, and we’ll get ya some food.”

At hearing these well-loved phrases, Rell bounded over, toting a scrap of fabric as a prize. Slender tail waving, he leapt at Revo’s ankle, claws digging into the tough, brown Tsoqisi of Revo’s boot as the beastling climbed. His nose twitched, whiskers shaking as he sniffed at the lowest of the pockets lining Revo’s leg, baby fangs sinking in a moment later, stolen fabric allowed to fall away at the prospect of a better prize.

“Hey, Pipsqueak, I bite back,” Revo warned, catching Rell by the scruff of the neck and lifting him to eye level. “Ya might make good filling for a sandwich.”

Rell swatted at his captor’s face, little paw nowhere close to reaching its target.

“Rell would scratch and claw the whole way down,” Xlack cautioned, scooping the growling beastling away from Revo.

“I’d prefer an easier meal. Ya coming?”

Xlack’s stomach voiced complaint again, aggrieved that Revo hadn’t pulled food from one of his myriad of pockets. Revo laughed, leading the way to an exit.

Jumping to her feet, Lanox queried, “Where are ya going?”

“Yer guest is hungry.”

“Oh, okay,” she conceded like she had lost all interest in listening to anything else Revo might say, returning to her cooing. Lanox was…weird. Xlack was glad her mind seemed so closed because he guessed getting lost in it would be the stuff of nightmares.

-continued in section 2 scene 4- Seven Questions-

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Chapter 9 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 2 scene 3- Vlavaran Base
After what felt like forever, the narrow cave opened into a larger cavern, dismal illumination provided by hidden fixtures. Tidy rows of varying vehicles decorated the space, Oha plentiful among the mix.

Their two ships landed lightly alongside one another, cockpits swinging open, the air rushing in warm, damp, and sweet, like the fragrance of dessert baking.

As he jumped out, Xlack took a wary scan of his surroundings. This cave-hangar was tall; around its perimeter, five shelf-levels displayed more parked ships and doorways. People loitered nearby, in the halls those doors led to perhaps, but no one occupied the hangar except Xlack and the two girls. Once again, he found himself wishing to explore the maze above.

Xlack hit the ground harder than he had anticipated, hand briefly leaning against the Oha’s side in an effort to recover his grace. This planet was heavy.

“Are you coming?” the pilot called, already halfway to one of the many doors on the ground level. Her voice was muffled by the helmet she still wore, reminding Xlack he had so unsafely forgotten to redeploy his. He didn’t step away from the ship.

“When do I get to fix my Oha?”

“Maintenance teams will care for your oha. Follow us, please,” she quipped. She had a striking accent with sharp t’s and hollow l’s. Lanox had an accent, too, Xlack noted, but hers was different, more like Centra’s with a kind of lilt, and it didn’t catch his attention in quite the same way.

Xlack held out a hand to Rell, and the beastling hopped onto his palm, needle-like, retractable claws sticking in Xlack’s Tsoqisi sleeve as Rell scrambled up to perch on his master’s shoulder. Closing the cockpit, Xlack started after the pilot, gaze studying the two girls.

Lanox had also remembered to wear her helmet, but her visor was now raised, revealing her cheerful eyes. Like the helmets Xlack knew, theirs were hard on the outside but flexible like a balloon if pressed from the inside. While matching her eyes in color, Lanox’s helmet seemed misshapen, stretching to accommodate her piled hair. Without such a feature, the helmet would never have fit her, the pilot either—not that Xlack dwelt overly much on the girls’ hairstyles, though he did wonder what the pilot’s face looked like behind her dark visor. Was she as ordinary as Lanox?

Ms. Security in Anonymity was notably shorter than her friend, her curves accentuated by the long-sleeved, crimson jacket cropped at her ribs, a symmetrical pair of black laces sauntering down her onyx shirt. An ebony utility belt hugged her hips, pants the same red as the jacket, disappearing mid-shin into soft, obsidian boots. Her fingers were all that showed of her skin, fair as moonlight. Mystery slithered in her wake, and Xlack followed.

Lanox pulled off her own helmet, announcing, “Don’t mind her rudeness. Welcome to Tala, Anonymous!” With her helmet folded into a small card and tucked into one of her many vest pockets, she fell into step alongside him, heralding a ridiculous smile. “Ooh, what is that?” She pointed at Rell, who perked one floppy ear, both wary and intrigued by her interest.

“An elitbeast.”

“Where’d ya get it?”

“From his mother; where else?”

A puff of slight envy sprinkled with confusion. “We’re not really allowed to have pets, at least not here in Vlavaran. What hrausq are ya from?”

If he wouldn’t even tell her his name, what made her think she could just start asking random questions? And he didn’t even know what a hrausq was, not that he would admit such.

“What hrausq are you from?” he countered.

“Seven-One-Nine, but that doesn’t answer my question.” So she looked for a set of numbers.

“Uh…Three-Two-One.”

“Doesn’t exist,” the pilot informed him.

“Sorry. I meant Eight-Nine-Nine.”

Halting, the pilot whirled on him, observing, “You’re a bit big for a two-year-old. How’d you get assigned to such a young hrausq?”

“I-”

“It doesn’t really matter for now. Come meet our hrausq!” Lanox interrupted, opening a door and shoving Xlack through.

The square room boasted beautiful landscapes and intricate patterns painted haphazardly on the otherwise silver walls. Overrun by gutted electronics, the furniture arrangement was the design of chaos incarnate. Amidst this, six ladders ran to slide-away doors in the ceiling, each providing access to a short cubicle with just enough space for a bunk on either side of its floor entrance.

Gaze sliding over the abandoned mess, Xlack reported, “There’s no one in here.”

Lanox asserted, “Well, they’re not invisible or imaginary, I assure ya.”

“Lanox,” the pilot rebuked, starting up one of the ladders, “why do you always expect them all to just be sitting in here, waiting to welcome you back with open arms? They have lives of their own.”

“But I brought them a guest!”

“They don’t know that yet.”

Lanox bounded over to the ladder, whining, “Find them, Twi. Anonymous needs to meet them.” As she stomped her insistence, her loose locks danced, the golden bushels of curls atop her head growing slightly more uneven. Rell hissed.

Twi dropped to the floor with the grace of an autumn leaf, helmet and jacket no longer in sight, and for all Xlack’s wondering what type of face her visor had hidden, he wasn’t disappointed. Curiosity, suspicion, and compassion mingled intrinsic in her expression, highlighting features that were both sharp and soft.

She defined beauty more than any Zalerit, the only alien race with which Xlack had regular dealings. That wasn’t really a fair comparison, though, considering Zalerits had four eyes and Xlack thought they smelled like a bitter spice to be avoided.

Lanox was pretty in her own way, but Xlack’s eyes were glued to Twi.

A skein of thick canvas occupied her arms, and she looked from it to Lanox with a sigh, resignation prancing.

Her gaze, glistening silver and neerj, met Xlack’s, and he flinched.

“Do you want to meet them?”

Looking away, Xlack shrugged, a hand rising to curl over Rell and quiet him. “Sure.”

“Alright then. Teree is the closest,” she reported, her plethora of blue-black plaits swinging as she set down the canvas and turned to the door. Amongst the maelstrom of other objects, the canvas held special dignity, perfectly folded and placed with reverence.

She led them back into the hewn hallway. Xlack strove not to stare. Intriguing streaks of shining silver ran through her skin, patterned around the corners of her acute eyes.

“I think you wore that helmet too long,” he expressed through a half-worried grin.

Her gaze jumped to him. “Why?”

“Because it left stuff on your face.”

“My face?” she questioned, voice near silence as she rubbed a hand along her cheek. Louder, she mused, “That’s odd. It’s never done that before. Lanox, does-”

“There’s nothing on yer face,” Lanox interrupted, head swaying in confused disagreement.

“Yes there is,” Xlack countered, stepping within her space. Her scent was ambrosia. “You have these silver lines by your eyes and your hairline and across your nose.” He started to trace one with his finger, but she flinched away from his touch, offended.

“Don’t be a cruel idiot,” she reprimanded. “I’m Knalcal; I should be asking you why you don’t have birthmarks on your skin.”

“Because I don’t.” A blunt response.

Her suspicion flared. “You act as though you’ve never seen a Knalcal before, and when Lanox asked about your hrausq, you didn’t know what she was talking about. Even common people know what a hrausq is.”

Way to make me feel stupid, Xlack thought.

Her hands were on her hips now, her gaze on him steely as, walking backward, she continued to lead them. “Would you mind giving me the definition of amarac?”

“Of course not, if you first recite the definition of Sugataep.” He thought he knew the word, but it was old, and no one used it anymore…except Lanox apparently. Surely she didn’t mean to call him a shepherd.

As they entered a mid-sized auditorium—no chairs, floor sloping toward a flat space in the center, all carved straight into the cave’s dirt and rock—Twi stopped. “I asked you first.”

“And I asked you second.”

“Exactly, so you’ll answer first, and I’ll answer second,” she reasoned.

“No,” he rationalized, “you asked first, so your answer also comes first. You said something, I said something, so now it’s your turn again.” An illogical argument, sure, but he hoped he had lost her somewhere in there and she would just give up.

She stood with her arms crossed, glaring at him with one eyebrow raised, refusing to dignify that with a response. Rell slinked around Xlack’s neck, relocating to the other shoulder where he could better hide from her line of sight.

Small children suddenly poured into the space, yelling and laughing and shoving each other. They paid no mind to the trio of young adults arguing by one of the doorways, even rudely slamming into them.

Predator eyes sharpening, Rell scampered down Xlack’s back and joined the stampede.

“Rell, come back here! Hey!” Xlack snatched up a Knalcal child by the back of his shirt collar, a small boy he was sure had rammed him on purpose.

“Hey ya!” he heard, an echo with an accent and a wail.

Without releasing his first prisoner (who was now trying to kick him), Xlack turned to find another boy scowling at him. Also clad in Tsoqisi—an open sandy jacket with rows of tin zippers, pants the same—brown hair semi-shaggy and curling around his ears, this one was only half Xlack’s height and age, but he claimed more years than the toddlers swarming around them.

“Who are ya, and why are ya in my spot?” the boy demanded, glowering up at the Aylata. Xlack thought the sight funny; glowering was usually reserved for people one could physically look down at, not persons twice one’s size.

Not deigning to move, Xlack defended, “I’m in your spot because I didn’t know it was your spot. Do you have a problem with that?”

The boy’s eyes narrowed even farther, jaw rigid as he pointed at Xlack’s feet. “The marker has my name on it.”

Xlack looked down to see that under the toes of his boots there was indeed a small x with some scribbling around it, but he couldn’t make out what it said. His head hurt, and dimness crawled from the corners of his vision. The children were much too loud.

Most people learned to be reserved around Mind Aylata, but it was a skill that took time to acquire. Small children tended to be completely unguarded, throwing their emotions on any surrounding them. Sometimes it seemed their young minds shouted every feeling they had. With one or two kids, it was simply an irritating nuisance; in a rambunctious crowd like this, it was an outright assault.

Xlack pushed their minds away—their crashing waves of emotion—because if he didn’t, he knew his vision would only continue to retreat. If he focused, he could make this chaos go away and leave him alone, or so his uncle always assured him. It usually didn’t work, but Xlack tried hard to act like nothing was wrong anyway. He just had to collect Rell and get out of here as soon as possible.

A hand clapped down on Xlack’s shoulder, and he jumped.

“Easy, Teree. Are ya okay, Stranger?” This newcomer had a soothing quality to his voice, his accent similar to Lanox’s, and he helped push away the chaos as if encircled by a strong shield.

Xlack nodded. “I’m fine.”

Xlack guessed this one to be about his own age, but he stood a whole head and shoulders taller, his straight hair spiked like a desert plant. His slit nostrils were a bit more obvious than Lanox’s, but not as notable as Teree’s. The boy’s nose was almost flat, which contributed to the sharpness of his voice. All three had the same shimmery quality to their skin…Twi too if Xlack looked for it. Hers was much fainter.

“Be nice to him, Teree. He’s likely someone important.”

“Don’t put me down in front of my charge!” Teree whined, gesturing at the children scrambling around them.

“Then don’t give me anything to put ya down about and get yer class under control.”

“They are under control!” Teree argued just as the boy Xlack held finally succeeded in kicking free and took off. “Kahrin, no running!”

Kahrin stopped and contemplated this rule for a moment before taking one large, quick step, hesitating, then taking another.

“Kahrin!” Teree rebuked.

“I’m not running!” the boy challenged.

“Ya are going to fall flat on yer face like that!”

Kahrin paid no heed to this warning.

Sit!” Xlack instructed, accompanying the suggestion with a whisper in each of the minds bombarding his. The same openness that made kids overwhelming also made them highly susceptible to suggestions.

Teree’s entire class of eight sat immediately, several others doing likewise. From within her circle of personal space that none of the children had dared enter, Twi observed this cautiously.

“See, Teree,” the tall one admonished, “he helped ya. Now be polite.”

“Fine,” Teree groaned, extending his hand toward the Aylata. Xlack could barely see him, his vision so fogged over with clouds of overdramatic emotion.

He squinted, appearing to glare. “What do you want?”

“I’m introducing myself,” Teree explained with a roll of his eyes. “I’m Teree, and ya are supposed to shake my hand now.”

Hesitant, Xlack grabbed Teree’s wrist and made the hand attached to it shake.

With furrowed eyebrows, Teree looked at the tall one, commenting, “He’s weird.”

“Speak for yourself,” Xlack combated. “I’m not the one who asked for someone to shake my hand.”

Twi laughed, calling his attention back to her. He liked her laugh; he sensed that for some reason she needed to laugh, but he didn’t like that she laughed at him.

Turning amid a mix of emotions he didn’t care to identify, Xlack wove through the restlessly sitting multitude, heading toward where tiny Rell terrorized a group of children.

The tall one kept step with him. “I’m Alek Revo.”

Xlack said nothing. He wanted away from the crowd, but Revo’s dampening presence was helpful…nice. Xlack wondered if the sigils like exploding rivets on his auburn boots and belt had any significance. Things like that always had significance among Aylata.

“Ya got a name?”

“I’m called Skyme.”

Clapping, Lanox popped up from an argument with some seated kids. “Oh good, ya met Revo, Anonymous!”

Revo didn’t seem nearly as happy to see her as she seemed…most of the time.

“Now he only has to meet Zeln and Aarex, Naday, and…” Xlack stopped paying attention as she ranted, and evidently so did Revo.

“So why are ya here, Skyme?”

Interrupting her own previous run-on, Lanox answered, “He lost his amarac, and we found him and rescued him, but I think he lost his memory, too, because he talks awfully strange, no offense of course. Oh, and that thing on his shoulder is an elitbeast-wait, where’d it go?”

“Thank-ya Dr. Know-It-All,” Revo commented.

“Ya asked,” she explained with a shrug.

“But maybe I wanted to hear it from him.”

Her shoulders rose again, brushing aside the counsel as a small girl tugged on the longer end of Lanox’s pale aqua shirt.

“Oh, ya are so cute!” Lanox exclaimed, scooping the child into her arms. The toddler cooed indiscernible sentences to her, and she cooed back.

“Ya hungry, Skyme?” Revo questioned.

Until Revo mentioned it, Xlack didn’t realize how famished he was. His stomach’s loud, mournful grumble answered for him.

With an exaggerated bow and chuckling smile, Revo responded, “Well then, right this way, and we’ll get ya some food.”

At hearing these well-loved phrases, Rell bounded over, toting a scrap of fabric as a prize. Slender tail waving, he leapt at Revo’s ankle, claws digging into the tough, brown Tsoqisi of Revo’s boot as the beastling climbed. His nose twitched, whiskers shaking as he sniffed at the lowest of the pockets lining Revo’s leg, baby fangs sinking in a moment later, stolen fabric allowed to fall away at the prospect of a better prize.

“Hey, Pipsqueak, I bite back,” Revo warned, catching Rell by the scruff of the neck and lifting him to eye level. “Ya might make good filling for a sandwich.”

Rell swatted at his captor’s face, little paw nowhere close to reaching its target.

“Rell would scratch and claw the whole way down,” Xlack cautioned, scooping the growling beastling away from Revo.

“I’d prefer an easier meal. Ya coming?”

Xlack’s stomach voiced complaint again, aggrieved that Revo hadn’t pulled food from one of his myriad of pockets. Revo laughed, leading the way to an exit.

Jumping to her feet, Lanox queried, “Where are ya going?”

“Yer guest is hungry.”

“Oh, okay,” she conceded like she had lost all interest in listening to anything else Revo might say, returning to her cooing. Lanox was…weird. Xlack was glad her mind seemed so closed because he guessed getting lost in it would be the stuff of nightmares.

-continued in section 2 scene 4- Seven Questions-
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Chapter 12 of River's End
Written by Taki

River's End chapter 10: Volcanos are a Planet's Pimples

“Found you. That’s one mystery solved.”

My heart dripped to my shoeless, leyrah covered toes, and I scrambled out of sight, back pressing against the wall beside the doorway. The door swung closed behind Hent, his reply muffled as it stilled. I couldn’t really hear anything over my throbbing pulse. I needed a plan of action.

My eyes scoured the room for a weapon. This was a kitchen, right? Were there knives?

None that were readily apparent.

Pans? Pots?

Again, none within sight.

There was Paqo. He would have been a little too heavy to wield effectively.

Think, Rose! River Guardians win battles intellectually!

No footsteps heralded the approach of men to carry me away. No one barged through the door with a triumphant smirk of villainy and pointed me out to doom incarnate.

Curiosity and realization tugged me away from the wall. Had the officer not meant he had found me?

Yes, it seemed quite logical that he meant Hent. I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that a trashed restaurant with only a dysfunctional Shlykrii-na war machine and an interesting waiter for company was where Grenswa’s second prince belonged. Obviously he came here often, but he was likely supposed to be elsewhere, and this officer had come to fetch him. He wasn’t here to hunt me down.

Keeping low, I slid to the crack where the two doors met and peeked into the dining room.

“You killed one of them!” Hent exclaimed, fingers pressing against his temples. His hat was about to fall off.

“They’re trespassers,” the Onyx officer rationalized. “You think we should just let them invade?”

“No, of course! But…” Hent threw his hands in the air, and his hat fell, ebony hair not quite covering the golden scales on his ears. “Last time a Seallaii-na’s killed, they demanded compensation. A life for a life, but since they live somethin’ like thirty times as long as we do, they wanted thirty lives in exchange for the one lost.”

“That’s an official ambassador, though,” the officer contended, “and a casualty of an attempted rebellion. That quota of thirty’s more than filled by the captured rebels.”

Hent crossed his arms. “But I don’t believe one Seallaii-na’s worth thirty Grenswa-na lives.”

Fredo and I were not invading; we were trying to help them. I pursed my lips to stifle a sob, a disobedient tear tracing a path through the leyrah coating my face. Was Fredo worth thirty lives? To me, he was worth a billion, but to those who would do the demanding? To them, Fredo was no one. My sister would probably say good riddance if not even offer a prize.

But what would they demand in exchange for me? A Sarquant was a symbol of tradition and future, of knowledge turning into wisdom. I was not yet wise or elegant or revered, but it was exactly this lost potential that would spark outrage.

I saw Grenswa-na cities burning.

No, we wouldn’t do that. Intellect is our choice weapon.

Sometimes intellect is flammable.

“You can’t say no to them, though,” Hent ranted. “They’re monsters, but aren’t the kind you know to run from, more beautiful than anythin’ has a right to be. They steal your will, turnin’ you into a mindless pet; you want to do whatever they want you to.”

No. We. Don’t. How dare you spread such lies!

“Then we make sure they don’t find out,” the officer proposed.

Teal rippled over Hent’s scales. “He’sn’t someone they’ll miss?”

The officer shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. Destroy the body and any evidence he’s here, and if they ask, we claim he never arrived.”

Fear and disgust bubbled in my gut, soured further by his next words. “Of course, we also must find and silence the other one. Which brings me back to my original question: you’ve seen anyone you don’t know?”

Sitting in a sulk on one of the least damaged tables, tail twitching, Blu growled, “This’s a very busy restaurant in one of the world’s largest cities. I see a lot of strangers in a day.”

“I can see that,” the officer countered, dark gaze darting across the unoccupied mess.

I backed away from the door, barely daring to breathe, thoughts on a disparaging rant:

Let’s go over just how dire meeting up with this particular Peace Officer is. All he has to tell them is I’m disguised as Pink and have dusty red hair. That will be suspicious enough. But I’m even wearing the same outfit as when he saw me dive into the river. Once he mentions a turquoise shirt with copper chain belts and purple bloodstains? There’ll be no doubt.

“You are Seallaii-na, aren’t you?” a metallic voice announced from behind me.

Paqo.

I nearly leapt out of my skin.

“W-wh-why would you say that?”

“Because you clearly are Seallaii-na. You speak like them, your rewtatops are fake, and your figure is certainly not Grenswa-na. Your breasts, for instance, are like a pair of jarroes.”

Jarro: a Seallaii-na fruit comparable to an Eslat-na grapefruit, but owing to their high copper content, they were turquoise on the inside instead of pink. Neither fruit was approved for Grenswa-na consumption.

“I don’t see how it can be rude for me to sit alone at a table with only one chair and be perfectly fine for you to say something like that,” I retorted, hands on hips.

“It’s quite simple, really,” Paqo elucidated, gestures less circuitous this time and more like a musical conductor’s. “On Seallaii it is considered the utmost compliment to be compared to nature.”

“Then you are a volcano. When you start to spew, I advise everyone to flee.”

“Since volcanos are a large, integral part of nature and you are Seallaii-na, I shall take that as high praise. Thank you.” The machine bowed.

“Volcanos are a planet’s pimples,” I muttered, removing my cloak. I needed to look a little less recognizable. I needed a disguise. “Paqo, don’t tell anyone of my true heritage. They must believe I’m Grenswa-na, lest dire tragedies strike.”

“You ask me to lie?” It sounded so aghast. “Because you are here illegally?”

“Of course not. I ask you to be discreet.” Piling my twisted hair atop my head, I draped my cloak on a peg by the door and snatched a hat like Blu’s and Hent’s from beside it before turning back to the machine. “I am a Druojojneerpsrii Sarquant on a top secret, important mission to save as many as possible.”

“Then you should just tell everyone that.”

“They don’t listen.” I pulled the hat down over my hair, flour that had settled inside it sprinkling down over my face and shoulders. I held my breath.

“Oh dear!” Paqo gasped and made to smother me with its dusty apron. “Allow me.”

“Leave it!” I snapped, retreating. “It’s part of my disguise.”

“This is all uncommonly strange,” Paqo announced, “but I know the Druojojneerpsrii receive the highest of educations. Therefore, you must know what you are doing and the best way to go about it. I shall do my best to assist you by not revealing your true identity or motives, even under threat or torture.”

Torture? I rolled my eyes. Okay, Paqo equals melodrama.

I was trying to figure out how best to costume my shirt when my hand brushed Fredo’s shooter still tangled in my belts. My thumb rubbed the warm metal, smooth except for the tiny letters engraved along the barrel. I didn’t have to look to know what it said, but I stared anyway: Why flee to fight in the future? Fight so you never have to flee.

It was a proverb of the Myktas. Fredo was not an official Mykta; he hadn’t been to their schools, though he was more skilled than most of them with his knives and stealth. I had wondered where he had acquired one of their weapons...and the attire. A gift from the Lokma family, he had said, after the Lady announced that a guard who only knew how to use one kind of weapon was no use at all.

My fingers curled around the handle, and a memory washed over me: the one time Fredo had willingly let me hold this destructive tool.

He had been practicing with his throwing knives. All sunk into the middle of their wooden targets, even the two hidden around corners. I had squealed in delight. I had calculated how it would be possible to curve the throw, to have the knives ricochet onto the desired course, but working out equations was not the same skill as translating this knowledge into real motion.

“Now show me how!” I had insisted, snatching one of the knives and posing on the thrower’s line, ready for Fredo to take my hand and walk me through the steps.

“How about starting with something a little simpler?” he had advised, swapping the knife in my hand for this shooter. Fredo had shown me how to hold it, to aim, to fire.

My aim had been unfortunate, a wild blitz that blew apart a hanging plant and began a cascade. That one little shot ended up destroying half of Lady Lokma’s prized garden and buried Fredo and I in a mountain of putrid soil.

Fredo never again placed a shooter in my hand.

And now this was all I had left of him: memories, a weapon, and a choice.

I spun toward the door in a daze and returned to my post peeping through the split. Flight was not an option, not with that Onyx officer blocking my only exit. He had killed Fredo. He wouldn’t hesitate to shoot me, too…unless I shot first.

Pushing the door ever so slightly, I widened the crack just enough so the shooter’s barrel could slip through. Fear fluttered in my stomach and I fought to keep my hands steady.

“What are you doing?” Paqo wailed, and I fumbled the shooter, scrambling not to let it fall all the way to the floor. “Murder is the highest form of impoliteness! Unless of course you first asked your victim if he wanted to be murdered. Did you?”

“Paqo, you were made for war and invasion,” I hissed, letting the door swing closed.

“No, I was made to know how everything is properly done,” Paqo corrected. “For instance, your hat is crooked. A proper young lady would never wear her hat at more than a twenty-degree angle. You had better let me fix it before you blow your cover.”

The omnoit lumbered toward me, clawed hands stretching to my head. I tried to fend it off. Thanks to my slapping and Paqo’s insistence, we fell in a tangled heap, hitting the floor with a ridiculously loud crash. Flour flew up in our wake like thick fog. I held my breath again, stomach crushed against the floor by Paqo’s immense weight. One of my legs was twisted at an odd angle and lodged in the omnoit’s armpit, as was one of my arms, so I lacked the leverage needed to shove the machine off me. And Paqo wiggled, wrenching my shoulder further behind me.

“I can’t get up!” the machine cried.

“No, really? I’m holding you down here on purpose.”

“Well please cease to do so. I am highly disturbed.”

The double doors flew open, and in rushed Blu, Hent, and the Onyx officer. Thankfully a generous layer of leyrah coated me, veneering both the color and cut of my clothes, and the silly hat had twisted enough that the side flap mostly covered my face. I could only see the trio out of the very corner of my left eye.

“Paqo, stop!” Blu exclaimed, dropping to his knees and further blocking the officer’s view as he attempted to extricate us. “You’ll suffocate her…and she’s allergic to leyrah!”

“If that machine kills someone, I’ll’ve to confiscate it,” the officer warned. I could see only the elbow of his crossed arms.

Blu whirled on him, growling, “You know I really really don’t like you. Get out of my kitchen! Shoo! Leave! Be gone!” Each imperative was accompanied by a shoving gesture that fell just short of touching the officer.

Way to go Blu!

Hent took his place trying to disentangle me from Paqo and the mess, but I didn’t really want him touching me. Hent with his lies of Seallaii-na monsters and agreeing with the officer about erasing Fredo’s existence. He wasn’t on my side, or wouldn’t be if he knew who I really was.

If I gave him Seallaii’s message, would he even accept it? Then he would have to admit I had been here; he couldn’t deny Fredo’s and my presence.

A conceded half grin sprouted across his lips, eyes deepening from gold to sapphire. “You’re trouble, aren’t you.” A statement, not a question.

I bit back a retort, attention returning to the officer who was walking away from Blu with a nonchalant shrug.

Returning to my side, Blu called over his shoulder, “And don’t tell anyone else you saw Hent here!”

“Too late for that,” answered a figure in the doorway. Both boys spun to face the silhouette stepping into the kitchen: Timqé. He had washed the mud away and changed clothes—now sporting pants that matched the blue of his scales, a hematite shirt, and a cerulean jacket styled to be reminiscent of armor—but I had no doubt this was the same person I had met in the forest.

With a chuckle, the officer left.

“Get in the nreyetko, Hent,” Timqé ordered with an air of deadly serious authority. “We’re returnin’ to the island.” By which I assumed he meant Ledatiiss Island, the Royal Capitol. That was a more logical place for Grenswa’s second prince.

“I’ve had enough Shlykrii-na crypt for one day,” Hent countered, making no effort to get up.

“Even so, you can’t just disappear like that,” Timqé sighed.

“Oh, but you can just walk away from it all?” Hent stood.

They seemed to be of about the same height, at least from my vantage point on the floor, both tall for Grenswa-nas, lean and well structured, and with a mesmerizing grace that stemmed from their species’ innate sense of rhythm. Both had skin the color of cream and hair like pitch, glossy and straight, though Timqé’s was shorter. Hent’s fell in his face, and his blue eyes and scales drifted toward that eggplant color again.

Timqé grew a half grin akin to the one Hent had shown me. “I’mn’t as pretty as you.”

“Or me,” Blu announced.

Hent scowled, and Timqé gave the waiter a look that was both questioning and disparaging.

“Did I say that out loud? That probably should’ve stayed in my head,” Blu redacted, abashed. Gaze on the ground, he rubbed the back of his head, and his sudden shyness was cute, especially when tacked on after the bravado he had shown telling off the officer. I wanted to thank him for that, but I wouldn’t have been able to give a proper reason for my gratitude.

Instead, I finally succeeded in kicking the omnoit off me. It flew farther than I had intended, limply bowling into the back of Blu’s legs. The waiter flipped as he fell, landing on his feet behind the clattering heap that was Paqo. Everyone’s stares were on me though.

Already rising, I offered a deep curtsy in Timqé’s direction. “Hello, Timblashanqé, First Prince of Grenswa.” Hent’s older brother.

He peered closer at me, responding, “Girl from the forest. Forgive my bluntness, but you seem in even worse condition than before.”

“I’ve had quite a day.” Indeed, who could have guessed I would meet one of Grenswa’s two princes in the middle of the night in a forest illegally collecting invertebrates, and a few ruahs later meet the other in a kooky restaurant? “An adventurous couple of days, really. I’m on a journey to the island. May I ride with you?”

“Our island?” Timqé queried. Had he been Hent, he would have changed to teal, but Grenswa’s first prince was simply Sapphire like his mother the queen. “You’ve what business there?”

Right, not just anyone could go to Ledatiiss Island. It moved, its route and location secret, but hundreds lived in the palace complex, the best of the best gathered from all over the world.

“I seek employment, but I have no Blessing Letter because my family would rather I remain a harvester. I have more a knack for puzzles than crops, though, and I specialize in crypt.”

“You ran away?” Hent concluded, eyes narrowed and flashing through several colors.

I pressed on, shoveling every bit of confidence I had into my tale as I met his disapproving gaze. “Shlykrii-na crypt is one of the simplest. I can show you the trick to it.”

Pale lavender is gorgeous swirled with teal.

I put on a small, hopeful smile.

Timqé lectured, “Blessin’ Letters’re an ancient tradition. No one’ll hire you without one and run the risk of entanglin’ themselves in a mess with your family.”

Adult or not, a Grenswa-na belonged to their family, and trades were passed from one generation to the next. If one sought a different residence or vocation, they carried a Blessing Letter touting their credentials and proving they had their patriarch’s permission. Runaways were considered deserters and not to be aided, and if they were truly worth anything, their family would hunt them down.

But there were always exceptions.

I adopted my best pout, eyes glittering. “Surely I’m not the only one who wants something different than what everyone else has planned for me. I have real talent and I want to use it to help the world. Won’t you give me a chance? Let me prove myself?”

Timqé’s stare remained stern, but Hent’s had softened a little.

“We gather the best to look after the world, even if their families don’t want to give them up,” Hent reasoned. “How’s this any different?”

“Because we know nothin’ about her,” Timqé argued.

“Then test me,” I suggested. Cryptology really was one of my best subjects.

“And if we find you can’t even write your own name?”

Then you’ll know you have a serious educational problem in whatever city I’m from, I thought, but Blu spoke before I could. “Then I’ll hire her.”

Incredulous looks all around, even from me.

Blu stepped up next to me, arms crossed. “She already fixed Paqo.”

Timqé looked down at the immobile heap of machine on the floor. “Ah, I see. She made him a lot less annoyin’.”

“Uh, actually, I just powered him down,” Blu explained, “but I’ll vouch for her. Rose’s amazin’. Take her to the island, and if it turns out that’s a bad choice, I’ll take the fault.”

“And if her family comes lookin’ for her, we’ll send Paqo out to greet them,” Hent added, colored a foggy cyan.

I smiled wide, and Blu mirrored my expression.

Timqé shook his head. “You two would sneak her there anyway even if I said no. Alright, load up.” He turned to the double doors, and I followed. “We’re in a bit of a hurry; there’s talk of aliens invadin’, and Mother’s convinced you’ve been abducted, Hent.”

Hent shrugged, and though he made every effort to appear nonchalant, he was anything but. His eyes and scales blazed a fiery orange. “Tell her I eloped with some hot Shlykrii-na.”

Timqé’s fists clenched, stride hitching. “That’sn’t funny.”

“No, it’sn’t.”

Tension like that of the cords holding up the bridge across the world’s largest ravine. I found it more intriguing than I should have, a puzzle. I analyzed the princes’ words, trying to guess what Hent meant by saying Timqé thought he could just walk away from it all. Why would mention of elopement garner a visible response in the older brother?

Wait, in the forest, Timqé had told me he collected those srymals for his wife, and Grenswa’s first prince had not been married last I knew. Had Timqé eloped?! With a gorgeous Shlykrii-na even? And here I was with a message saying they were going to attack.

My eyes widened, and I pursed my lips so these theories didn’t burst out.

Fredo, this is crazy! I thought, but of course, there was no answer.

The only one who retained a smile was Blu, keeping step alongside me.

We had just emerged into the dining room when a cry tore through the front arch, full of reproach and betrayal: “Blu!!!”

Blu’s smile shattered.

-continued in chapter 11: A Trap and a Lie-

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Chapter 12 of River's End
Written by Taki
River's End chapter 10: Volcanos are a Planet's Pimples
“Found you. That’s one mystery solved.”

My heart dripped to my shoeless, leyrah covered toes, and I scrambled out of sight, back pressing against the wall beside the doorway. The door swung closed behind Hent, his reply muffled as it stilled. I couldn’t really hear anything over my throbbing pulse. I needed a plan of action.

My eyes scoured the room for a weapon. This was a kitchen, right? Were there knives?

None that were readily apparent.

Pans? Pots?

Again, none within sight.

There was Paqo. He would have been a little too heavy to wield effectively.

Think, Rose! River Guardians win battles intellectually!

No footsteps heralded the approach of men to carry me away. No one barged through the door with a triumphant smirk of villainy and pointed me out to doom incarnate.
Curiosity and realization tugged me away from the wall. Had the officer not meant he had found me?

Yes, it seemed quite logical that he meant Hent. I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that a trashed restaurant with only a dysfunctional Shlykrii-na war machine and an interesting waiter for company was where Grenswa’s second prince belonged. Obviously he came here often, but he was likely supposed to be elsewhere, and this officer had come to fetch him. He wasn’t here to hunt me down.

Keeping low, I slid to the crack where the two doors met and peeked into the dining room.

“You killed one of them!” Hent exclaimed, fingers pressing against his temples. His hat was about to fall off.

“They’re trespassers,” the Onyx officer rationalized. “You think we should just let them invade?”

“No, of course! But…” Hent threw his hands in the air, and his hat fell, ebony hair not quite covering the golden scales on his ears. “Last time a Seallaii-na’s killed, they demanded compensation. A life for a life, but since they live somethin’ like thirty times as long as we do, they wanted thirty lives in exchange for the one lost.”

“That’s an official ambassador, though,” the officer contended, “and a casualty of an attempted rebellion. That quota of thirty’s more than filled by the captured rebels.”

Hent crossed his arms. “But I don’t believe one Seallaii-na’s worth thirty Grenswa-na lives.”

Fredo and I were not invading; we were trying to help them. I pursed my lips to stifle a sob, a disobedient tear tracing a path through the leyrah coating my face. Was Fredo worth thirty lives? To me, he was worth a billion, but to those who would do the demanding? To them, Fredo was no one. My sister would probably say good riddance if not even offer a prize.

But what would they demand in exchange for me? A Sarquant was a symbol of tradition and future, of knowledge turning into wisdom. I was not yet wise or elegant or revered, but it was exactly this lost potential that would spark outrage.

I saw Grenswa-na cities burning.

No, we wouldn’t do that. Intellect is our choice weapon.

Sometimes intellect is flammable.

“You can’t say no to them, though,” Hent ranted. “They’re monsters, but aren’t the kind you know to run from, more beautiful than anythin’ has a right to be. They steal your will, turnin’ you into a mindless pet; you want to do whatever they want you to.”

No. We. Don’t. How dare you spread such lies!

“Then we make sure they don’t find out,” the officer proposed.

Teal rippled over Hent’s scales. “He’sn’t someone they’ll miss?”

The officer shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. Destroy the body and any evidence he’s here, and if they ask, we claim he never arrived.”

Fear and disgust bubbled in my gut, soured further by his next words. “Of course, we also must find and silence the other one. Which brings me back to my original question: you’ve seen anyone you don’t know?”

Sitting in a sulk on one of the least damaged tables, tail twitching, Blu growled, “This’s a very busy restaurant in one of the world’s largest cities. I see a lot of strangers in a day.”

“I can see that,” the officer countered, dark gaze darting across the unoccupied mess.

I backed away from the door, barely daring to breathe, thoughts on a disparaging rant:

Let’s go over just how dire meeting up with this particular Peace Officer is. All he has to tell them is I’m disguised as Pink and have dusty red hair. That will be suspicious enough. But I’m even wearing the same outfit as when he saw me dive into the river. Once he mentions a turquoise shirt with copper chain belts and purple bloodstains? There’ll be no doubt.

“You are Seallaii-na, aren’t you?” a metallic voice announced from behind me.

Paqo.

I nearly leapt out of my skin.

“W-wh-why would you say that?”

“Because you clearly are Seallaii-na. You speak like them, your rewtatops are fake, and your figure is certainly not Grenswa-na. Your breasts, for instance, are like a pair of jarroes.”

Jarro: a Seallaii-na fruit comparable to an Eslat-na grapefruit, but owing to their high copper content, they were turquoise on the inside instead of pink. Neither fruit was approved for Grenswa-na consumption.

“I don’t see how it can be rude for me to sit alone at a table with only one chair and be perfectly fine for you to say something like that,” I retorted, hands on hips.

“It’s quite simple, really,” Paqo elucidated, gestures less circuitous this time and more like a musical conductor’s. “On Seallaii it is considered the utmost compliment to be compared to nature.”

“Then you are a volcano. When you start to spew, I advise everyone to flee.”

“Since volcanos are a large, integral part of nature and you are Seallaii-na, I shall take that as high praise. Thank you.” The machine bowed.

“Volcanos are a planet’s pimples,” I muttered, removing my cloak. I needed to look a little less recognizable. I needed a disguise. “Paqo, don’t tell anyone of my true heritage. They must believe I’m Grenswa-na, lest dire tragedies strike.”

“You ask me to lie?” It sounded so aghast. “Because you are here illegally?”

“Of course not. I ask you to be discreet.” Piling my twisted hair atop my head, I draped my cloak on a peg by the door and snatched a hat like Blu’s and Hent’s from beside it before turning back to the machine. “I am a Druojojneerpsrii Sarquant on a top secret, important mission to save as many as possible.”

“Then you should just tell everyone that.”

“They don’t listen.” I pulled the hat down over my hair, flour that had settled inside it sprinkling down over my face and shoulders. I held my breath.

“Oh dear!” Paqo gasped and made to smother me with its dusty apron. “Allow me.”

“Leave it!” I snapped, retreating. “It’s part of my disguise.”

“This is all uncommonly strange,” Paqo announced, “but I know the Druojojneerpsrii receive the highest of educations. Therefore, you must know what you are doing and the best way to go about it. I shall do my best to assist you by not revealing your true identity or motives, even under threat or torture.”

Torture? I rolled my eyes. Okay, Paqo equals melodrama.

I was trying to figure out how best to costume my shirt when my hand brushed Fredo’s shooter still tangled in my belts. My thumb rubbed the warm metal, smooth except for the tiny letters engraved along the barrel. I didn’t have to look to know what it said, but I stared anyway: Why flee to fight in the future? Fight so you never have to flee.

It was a proverb of the Myktas. Fredo was not an official Mykta; he hadn’t been to their schools, though he was more skilled than most of them with his knives and stealth. I had wondered where he had acquired one of their weapons...and the attire. A gift from the Lokma family, he had said, after the Lady announced that a guard who only knew how to use one kind of weapon was no use at all.

My fingers curled around the handle, and a memory washed over me: the one time Fredo had willingly let me hold this destructive tool.

He had been practicing with his throwing knives. All sunk into the middle of their wooden targets, even the two hidden around corners. I had squealed in delight. I had calculated how it would be possible to curve the throw, to have the knives ricochet onto the desired course, but working out equations was not the same skill as translating this knowledge into real motion.

“Now show me how!” I had insisted, snatching one of the knives and posing on the thrower’s line, ready for Fredo to take my hand and walk me through the steps.

“How about starting with something a little simpler?” he had advised, swapping the knife in my hand for this shooter. Fredo had shown me how to hold it, to aim, to fire.

My aim had been unfortunate, a wild blitz that blew apart a hanging plant and began a cascade. That one little shot ended up destroying half of Lady Lokma’s prized garden and buried Fredo and I in a mountain of putrid soil.

Fredo never again placed a shooter in my hand.

And now this was all I had left of him: memories, a weapon, and a choice.

I spun toward the door in a daze and returned to my post peeping through the split. Flight was not an option, not with that Onyx officer blocking my only exit. He had killed Fredo. He wouldn’t hesitate to shoot me, too…unless I shot first.

Pushing the door ever so slightly, I widened the crack just enough so the shooter’s barrel could slip through. Fear fluttered in my stomach and I fought to keep my hands steady.

“What are you doing?” Paqo wailed, and I fumbled the shooter, scrambling not to let it fall all the way to the floor. “Murder is the highest form of impoliteness! Unless of course you first asked your victim if he wanted to be murdered. Did you?”

“Paqo, you were made for war and invasion,” I hissed, letting the door swing closed.

“No, I was made to know how everything is properly done,” Paqo corrected. “For instance, your hat is crooked. A proper young lady would never wear her hat at more than a twenty-degree angle. You had better let me fix it before you blow your cover.”

The omnoit lumbered toward me, clawed hands stretching to my head. I tried to fend it off. Thanks to my slapping and Paqo’s insistence, we fell in a tangled heap, hitting the floor with a ridiculously loud crash. Flour flew up in our wake like thick fog. I held my breath again, stomach crushed against the floor by Paqo’s immense weight. One of my legs was twisted at an odd angle and lodged in the omnoit’s armpit, as was one of my arms, so I lacked the leverage needed to shove the machine off me. And Paqo wiggled, wrenching my shoulder further behind me.

“I can’t get up!” the machine cried.

“No, really? I’m holding you down here on purpose.”

“Well please cease to do so. I am highly disturbed.”

The double doors flew open, and in rushed Blu, Hent, and the Onyx officer. Thankfully a generous layer of leyrah coated me, veneering both the color and cut of my clothes, and the silly hat had twisted enough that the side flap mostly covered my face. I could only see the trio out of the very corner of my left eye.

“Paqo, stop!” Blu exclaimed, dropping to his knees and further blocking the officer’s view as he attempted to extricate us. “You’ll suffocate her…and she’s allergic to leyrah!”

“If that machine kills someone, I’ll’ve to confiscate it,” the officer warned. I could see only the elbow of his crossed arms.

Blu whirled on him, growling, “You know I really really don’t like you. Get out of my kitchen! Shoo! Leave! Be gone!” Each imperative was accompanied by a shoving gesture that fell just short of touching the officer.

Way to go Blu!

Hent took his place trying to disentangle me from Paqo and the mess, but I didn’t really want him touching me. Hent with his lies of Seallaii-na monsters and agreeing with the officer about erasing Fredo’s existence. He wasn’t on my side, or wouldn’t be if he knew who I really was.

If I gave him Seallaii’s message, would he even accept it? Then he would have to admit I had been here; he couldn’t deny Fredo’s and my presence.

A conceded half grin sprouted across his lips, eyes deepening from gold to sapphire. “You’re trouble, aren’t you.” A statement, not a question.

I bit back a retort, attention returning to the officer who was walking away from Blu with a nonchalant shrug.

Returning to my side, Blu called over his shoulder, “And don’t tell anyone else you saw Hent here!”

“Too late for that,” answered a figure in the doorway. Both boys spun to face the silhouette stepping into the kitchen: Timqé. He had washed the mud away and changed clothes—now sporting pants that matched the blue of his scales, a hematite shirt, and a cerulean jacket styled to be reminiscent of armor—but I had no doubt this was the same person I had met in the forest.

With a chuckle, the officer left.

“Get in the nreyetko, Hent,” Timqé ordered with an air of deadly serious authority. “We’re returnin’ to the island.” By which I assumed he meant Ledatiiss Island, the Royal Capitol. That was a more logical place for Grenswa’s second prince.

“I’ve had enough Shlykrii-na crypt for one day,” Hent countered, making no effort to get up.

“Even so, you can’t just disappear like that,” Timqé sighed.

“Oh, but you can just walk away from it all?” Hent stood.

They seemed to be of about the same height, at least from my vantage point on the floor, both tall for Grenswa-nas, lean and well structured, and with a mesmerizing grace that stemmed from their species’ innate sense of rhythm. Both had skin the color of cream and hair like pitch, glossy and straight, though Timqé’s was shorter. Hent’s fell in his face, and his blue eyes and scales drifted toward that eggplant color again.

Timqé grew a half grin akin to the one Hent had shown me. “I’mn’t as pretty as you.”

“Or me,” Blu announced.

Hent scowled, and Timqé gave the waiter a look that was both questioning and disparaging.

“Did I say that out loud? That probably should’ve stayed in my head,” Blu redacted, abashed. Gaze on the ground, he rubbed the back of his head, and his sudden shyness was cute, especially when tacked on after the bravado he had shown telling off the officer. I wanted to thank him for that, but I wouldn’t have been able to give a proper reason for my gratitude.

Instead, I finally succeeded in kicking the omnoit off me. It flew farther than I had intended, limply bowling into the back of Blu’s legs. The waiter flipped as he fell, landing on his feet behind the clattering heap that was Paqo. Everyone’s stares were on me though.

Already rising, I offered a deep curtsy in Timqé’s direction. “Hello, Timblashanqé, First Prince of Grenswa.” Hent’s older brother.

He peered closer at me, responding, “Girl from the forest. Forgive my bluntness, but you seem in even worse condition than before.”

“I’ve had quite a day.” Indeed, who could have guessed I would meet one of Grenswa’s two princes in the middle of the night in a forest illegally collecting invertebrates, and a few ruahs later meet the other in a kooky restaurant? “An adventurous couple of days, really. I’m on a journey to the island. May I ride with you?”

“Our island?” Timqé queried. Had he been Hent, he would have changed to teal, but Grenswa’s first prince was simply Sapphire like his mother the queen. “You’ve what business there?”

Right, not just anyone could go to Ledatiiss Island. It moved, its route and location secret, but hundreds lived in the palace complex, the best of the best gathered from all over the world.

“I seek employment, but I have no Blessing Letter because my family would rather I remain a harvester. I have more a knack for puzzles than crops, though, and I specialize in crypt.”

“You ran away?” Hent concluded, eyes narrowed and flashing through several colors.

I pressed on, shoveling every bit of confidence I had into my tale as I met his disapproving gaze. “Shlykrii-na crypt is one of the simplest. I can show you the trick to it.”

Pale lavender is gorgeous swirled with teal.

I put on a small, hopeful smile.

Timqé lectured, “Blessin’ Letters’re an ancient tradition. No one’ll hire you without one and run the risk of entanglin’ themselves in a mess with your family.”

Adult or not, a Grenswa-na belonged to their family, and trades were passed from one generation to the next. If one sought a different residence or vocation, they carried a Blessing Letter touting their credentials and proving they had their patriarch’s permission. Runaways were considered deserters and not to be aided, and if they were truly worth anything, their family would hunt them down.

But there were always exceptions.

I adopted my best pout, eyes glittering. “Surely I’m not the only one who wants something different than what everyone else has planned for me. I have real talent and I want to use it to help the world. Won’t you give me a chance? Let me prove myself?”

Timqé’s stare remained stern, but Hent’s had softened a little.

“We gather the best to look after the world, even if their families don’t want to give them up,” Hent reasoned. “How’s this any different?”

“Because we know nothin’ about her,” Timqé argued.

“Then test me,” I suggested. Cryptology really was one of my best subjects.

“And if we find you can’t even write your own name?”

Then you’ll know you have a serious educational problem in whatever city I’m from, I thought, but Blu spoke before I could. “Then I’ll hire her.”

Incredulous looks all around, even from me.

Blu stepped up next to me, arms crossed. “She already fixed Paqo.”

Timqé looked down at the immobile heap of machine on the floor. “Ah, I see. She made him a lot less annoyin’.”

“Uh, actually, I just powered him down,” Blu explained, “but I’ll vouch for her. Rose’s amazin’. Take her to the island, and if it turns out that’s a bad choice, I’ll take the fault.”

“And if her family comes lookin’ for her, we’ll send Paqo out to greet them,” Hent added, colored a foggy cyan.

I smiled wide, and Blu mirrored my expression.

Timqé shook his head. “You two would sneak her there anyway even if I said no. Alright, load up.” He turned to the double doors, and I followed. “We’re in a bit of a hurry; there’s talk of aliens invadin’, and Mother’s convinced you’ve been abducted, Hent.”

Hent shrugged, and though he made every effort to appear nonchalant, he was anything but. His eyes and scales blazed a fiery orange. “Tell her I eloped with some hot Shlykrii-na.”

Timqé’s fists clenched, stride hitching. “That’sn’t funny.”

“No, it’sn’t.”

Tension like that of the cords holding up the bridge across the world’s largest ravine. I found it more intriguing than I should have, a puzzle. I analyzed the princes’ words, trying to guess what Hent meant by saying Timqé thought he could just walk away from it all. Why would mention of elopement garner a visible response in the older brother?

Wait, in the forest, Timqé had told me he collected those srymals for his wife, and Grenswa’s first prince had not been married last I knew. Had Timqé eloped?! With a gorgeous Shlykrii-na even? And here I was with a message saying they were going to attack.

My eyes widened, and I pursed my lips so these theories didn’t burst out.

Fredo, this is crazy! I thought, but of course, there was no answer.

The only one who retained a smile was Blu, keeping step alongside me.

We had just emerged into the dining room when a cry tore through the front arch, full of reproach and betrayal: “Blu!!!”

Blu’s smile shattered.

-continued in chapter 11: A Trap and a Lie-

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