The official way to enter the King’s council chamber involved standing on a three-sided platform hoisted and guided by a series of pulleys. No railing prevented passengers from falling off, nothing offered to hold onto as the platform slowly glided around corners and slid through narrow passageways, ever rising. Its small size forced Hent, Blu and I to stand close together.
Blu was at my back, left arm not quite around me in a protective stance reminiscent of Fredo’s, something I found vaguely comforting until memories of the icy void slithered across my skin, Fredo’s panicked voice telling me I couldn’t stay here. Did he mean I couldn’t stay in the void? On this planet? Drowning in the pond? I was now ninety-nine percent sure he was alive, and I would not leave here without him.
The boys’ lack of body heat only increased the icy feeling, and I held my arms in tighter, right hand clasping my left bicep. In an effort to distract myself, I cleared my throat. “Um, not to sound rude or exclusive, but why does the council need Blu?”
“He’s our resident expert on Shlykrii-na tech,” Hent divulged.
My eyebrows twisted in incredulity.
“They say that because I used the broken pieces of old omnoits I found deep in the ocean to build Paqo.”
“While that’s impressive, the omnoits from the invasion are centuries’ old technology, and Paqo is hardly as they were. I think you’ll find current Shlykrii-na machines are very different.”
Teal specks glistened in Hent’s foggy jade green eyes. “The Druojojneerpsrii taught you about Shlykrii?”
“Much,” I squeaked. Seeing Hent colored with suspicion and worry scoured my conscience. I had yet to outright lie to him; every aspect of my subterfuge contained at least a sliver of truth, but inner me chose now to insist he wouldn’t see it that way.
I bit my lip.
“I bet I could build a whole army of special omnoits,” Blu mused, and I whirled, eyes wide. Deep in concentration, he rested his chin in his hand, fingers tapping the side of his nose. As his cerulean eyes slid to me, he grinned. “Especially if you helped me, Rose.”
“I don’t think an army of Paqos would be a solution to anything.”
Blu snickered, and Hent reluctantly joined in.
“I can see it,” the prince said, a bit of periwinkle sinking into his green, “The Paqos annoy our enemies so much, they give up and leave.”
“Or they blow up the world,” Blu countered, too somber too quickly and evoking a gasp from me.
It reminded me that delivering my message was only half the issue. Just knowing what Shlykrii planned would not stop them. And they were fully capable of destroying all life on this planet.
“Blu likes to tinker,” Hent soothed, fingers brushing my elbow, sliding up to rest on my shoulder. My skin tingled in the wake of his touch. “He views machines and ideas like puzzles, fitting different parts together, which sometimes results in the ridiculous. Don’t let my second cousin’s thinkin’ out loud disturb you.”
“You’re...you two are second cousins?”
Blu’s eyes cut to Hent, narrowing on my shoulder and the hand loitering there, and he plopped his own hand on my other shoulder. I would have shrugged them both off had I not feared such motion might send one or all of us plunging off this platform to our deaths. This raft swayed with our movement, hanging from twisting, helical ropes as it followed the outside curve of a turret, slowly rising. A pond shimmered in the afternoon moonlight, at least ten stories below us.
“Hent’s mother’s supposed to be Lady of Sapphire,” Blu explained, “but she’s queen instead, so her cousin and next of kin, my mother, inherited the title.”
Which, assuming he was the oldest of his siblings, made him future Lord of Sapphire. It also meant Pullee was the same Pullee and daughter of the Lady of Sapphire that Niiq had said needed friends.
I giggled, and both boys looked at me with drawn brows.
“Without even knowing, I sort of did what Niiq planned.”
Hent grinned. “Somethin’ good, I hope?” He started to move even closer to me, but Blu’s hand shot across my back, sliding under Hent’s palm and knocking it away as Blu squeezed between us. Hent teetered, a scrambled step back adjusting his balance, and I hoped no one would get shoved off this elevator...especially me.
“Blu, what’s your problem?” Hent returned his cousin’s shove, and the platform rocked again. Blu’s tight grip on my shoulders ensured I stumbled with him, and shrugging free of him, I dropped, crawling for the raft’s exact center.
“You shouldn’t be makin’ moves on my girl,” Blu growled, face to face with Hent.
“I’m not your girl,” I inserted at the same time Hent asked, “She’s your girl since when?”
“When doesn’t matter. She can’t be your girl because of her birth defect. You can’t bring that into the royal line.”
Lavender confusion trickled through Hent’s scales. “What birth defect?”
Blu shrugged. “Niiq said the size and shape of her breasts’re a birth defect.”
Why in the world was he discussing my breasts with Niiq?! Crossing my arms over my chest, I was the most purple I had ever been in my life, and I felt about to implode. “I’m right here.”
“It’s okay. I don’t mind your birth defect,” Blu soothed, hand alighting at the nape of my neck, and I slapped it away, indignation launching me to my feet.
“I don’t have a birth defect!”
Blu’s palms cupped either side of my face, and he rose on his toes to kiss me between the eyebrows just as our elevator pushed us through the open hatch in the floor of the king’s council chamber. Behind me, Hent let out a choked squeak. Shock and embarrassment rendered me nearly the color of a plum and immobile. I couldn’t even blink.
All faces swiveled toward us, an amalgam of emotions sweeping across the gathering. How much of our argument had they heard? Blu’s mother appeared the most scandalized, sitting primly with her feet tucked under her in a chair suspended above the floating table’s moat, her eyes so wide as to nearly engulf her face.
“Sapphire Lordlin’,” a middle-aged Topaz rebuked, orange scales bright against his ruddy skin in this dusky room, failing to hide in the shadows of his curly black hair and the neatly trimmed beard outlining his mouth, “this’s no time to give your girlfriend a tour.”
Clearing his throat, Hent yanked me away from Blu and stepped in front of us, clarifying, “Rose’s here because she knows Menyaze.”
Not to be outdone, Blu added, “She’s trained by the Druojojneerpsrii.”
A din erupted, each Lord or Lady murmuring to their neighbor, and with Blu’s mother here representing Sapphire, I was fairly certain the majority in this room held those titles.
Unlike Seallaii-na Lords and Ladies who were elected for life by each village to be intermediaries toward other villages and the central government, these Grenswa-nas were considered gifts from their tribes to the king. By inheritance they were to be his closest companions and confidants.
Scanning the room, I cataloged a representative from each Luejii tribe minus Onyx, a conspicuous omission, but I quickly filed this detail away, concentrating instead on the documents projected on every wall by the datareader sitting on the table’s center. The projections danced, spinning around the room and their companions, pages and pages of cramped, swirling text that held the key to our safety, completely illegible to anyone here but me.
The letters as they were spelled nothing, but my eyes quickly picked out the pattern. This was one of the simplest crypts, each letter substituted for another. Finding the first page only confirmed this suspicion, the sheet containing the date and the ever-same sentence: Language is for communicating, confusing, clarifying.
I started to switch out letters in my mind, muttering what must have sounded like nonsense to Hent, who looked at me over his shoulder in open fascination and curiosity. The task of rendering this message all in my head would have been near impossible even under the most conducive of circumstances. With Hent staring at me and the Topaz Lord loudly lecturing Blu on propriety (a lecture that, with the feel of his lips still so fresh on my forehead, I agreed he needed) my concentration was shoved over the Cliff of I-Can’t-Do-This and crammed into a box too tiny for anything.
But this had to be done, and I had to do it.
Whirling around Hent, I dropped to my knees at the end of the floating table, the bookcase I had once come through now behind me. I lay my palms flat on the stone floor, wrists touching my legs, fingers not quite reaching the curb of the moat—a Grenswa-na pose of beseeching. Lifting my chin, I met the brilliant aqua gaze of the man standing at the head of the table. He could only be King Rangial, his an aged blend of Hent’s and Timqé’s angular features swathed in their creamy skin and topped with obsidian hair slicked back, the undulating colors of his scales plain for all to see.
“You seek what, Pink child?” he acknowledged, voice reedy and warm, speckles of the faintest magenta appearing in his eyes. Every Opal had his own color scheme, so even had I known what these hues meant on Hent, they likely rendered a different emotion of the king’s.
“Allow me to interpret this message,” I begged. “Support me in this effort, and I will work as fast as I can.”
His smile blossomed, magenta brightening, overtaking the aqua. “Only a fool wouldn’t. State what you need.”
“Quiet and a means of writing.”
The first had already entered the room, every voice and rustle packed away in favor of hearing our soft exchange. For the second, leaves of waxy paper and an ink-filled stick were thrust into my hands.
Gazes remained glued to me though as I stepped onto the table, the long board’s dip upsetting the pond beneath despite my best efforts to be light of foot. How the Lady of Pearl—a broad-boned woman with pinched features who was likely Wae’s mother—could sit on one corner of the table and not have it tilt toward her seemed a defiance of gravity.
With swiftness tempered by a smidgen of caution and admittedly not much grace, I plopped down next to the datareader, a device that now looked like a glowing, rounded rock, the strands of my datapin draped over it. Tapping the device, I stilled the projections. Grenswa-nas might have viewed the ever-moving world as beautiful, but my mind didn’t work like that, and I didn’t need to chase the words I tried to unscramble.
Eyes steadfast on the wall, I followed the loops of Menyaze syllabaries, secret pleasure grinning at the beauty of this written language, how the words curled back on themselves to reuse letters already inscribed. Paper pressed against my thighs, my left hand danced across the page, sketching the sentences I decoded.
Stack of paper in hand, Hent sat down alongside me. “Can I help?”
I paused, warning whispering in my mind. Menyaze would only remain a clandestine language as long as it was not taught arbitrarily to anyone. But I wasn’t at the translation stage yet. This was just swapping out one letter for another. And there were a lot of pages. I could use all the help I could get.
Sliding a fresh sheet to the top of my stack, I scribbled Menyaze’s twenty-three consonants and handed the paper to Hent.
“This is Menyaze’s alphabet in order for the date indicated on the first page. Every consonant is off by three, so match the letters to this list and write down the third one beneath it. Vowels are indicated by the location of these dots around the consonants, and they’re inverted. If the dot is above the letter, write it below. Got it?”
He nodded. “I’ll start on the second page, and we can do every other.”
“I’ll help, too,” Blu announced, kneeling on the other side of me, “but I’m a bit confused. You said alphabetical order for that day?”
“It’sn’t important, Blu,” Hent censured, focus on the wall. Without him looking, his pen scratched words onto the page, lines deliberate and precise. Amazement fluttered in me; he didn’t even know these letters, yet he rendered them exactly as I had.
Shaking my head, I inscribed an alphabet for Blu to copy, and he sat with his feet tucked beneath him, tail guiding his pen in bold strokes. Ink spattered often as he tried to catch up with Hent.
In the grainy voice of an old man, the ancient Aquamarine Lord sitting to the left of the king revealed, “Menyaze’s originally twelve separate codes used by Neerpsrii to communicate with his subordinates. Now Menyaze’s a conglomeration of those. As a language designed for crypt, the alphabet shuffles according to the date.”
“It also sounds like somethin’ done in an attempt at fairness,” Blu’s mother hypothesized.
The Topaz Lord reasoned, “Because the twelve codes possessed different orders, and no one’s made to decide which one’s the best?”
“Maybe,” the Sapphire Lady mused, “but I thought more along the lines of thin’s that get ordered alphabetically. For instance, H holds the last place in the Sishgil alphabet, so ones like Hent’re always among the last when ordered like so.”
“Unless we do it backwards,” Hent countered, already on his fourth page. How did he write so perfectly that fast?
Envy broiled in my gut, and I told myself this wasn’t a race, no matter if Blu viewed it that way, a pen wrapped in his tail and either hand. Most of what Blu wrote was illegible, and dividing his attention three ways did not make him any swifter.
Regardless of my slowness, I was still very much needed here. No matter how impeccable Hent’s script, he had no idea what it said.
Oblivious of my inner deliberations, the Sapphire Lady pressed, “B’s the central letter in the Sishgil alphabet, and I know my Bluanto gets tired of always bein’ stuck in the middle. In Menyaze, does every consonant get a turn at bein’ first?”
The elderly Aquamarine laughed, scales glistening bright against the deep abyss color of his wrinkled skin. “First or close to first. There’re only twelve orders while there’re twenty-three consonants, after all.”
“What if a name begins with a vowel like yours, Lord Ayf?” King Rangial questioned the elder. “You’d be kicked out or forgotten?”
“Sometimes these old bones might prefer that,” Lord Ayf chuckled, “but vowels at the beginnin’ of any word’re implied in Menyaze and simply unwritten.”
“Your name’d just be an f!” Blu guffawed.
As the Topaz Lord slapped the back of the Lordling’s head with a rebuke about showing respect, I peered at the Aquamarine.
He noticed my curious stare. “Questions plague you, Child?”
“Do you know Menyaze, Honored Elder?”
He laughed again, a jovial, tinkling sound rising from his lowest depths. “I often begged Sjaealam to teach me, but he said he couldn’t, that it’s a language forbidden to those who’ren’t River Guardians.” His gaze grew a seriousness that stuffed fear down my throat, and I quickly turned back to my pages.
“Why do you write it with your left hand?” Blu questioned, and I bit my lip so as not to snap at him to be quiet.
Left-handedness was an extreme rarity for Grenswa-nas, whereas the opposite was true for my people. I had never met a right-handed Seallaii-na. The wrinkly Aquamarine already had suspicions, I was sure, and Blu didn’t need to throw any fuel on that fire.
But silence was not in Blu’s repertoire. “I think it’s slowing you down, writin’ like that.” He had no room to talk, on his back, head hanging over the edge of the table, hair floating in the moat as he looked at the projections upside-down.
But then, considering the letters meant no more than squiggles to him anyway, it likely didn’t make that much of a difference to him.
“See.” He offered proof, holding up a triune of fanned sheets. “I’ve already got three pages.” Three sloppy, partial pages, which, had they been complete, would have been twice as many as I had.
I didn’t dare check Hent’s pile.
“Menyaze is properly written with the left hand,” I excused.
Beside me, Hent stiffened, gaze cutting to the hand weighting his paper on the tabletop.
My malevolent side giggled that we should let him believe he had to write with his weaker hand now. Surely that would stunt the growth of his heap of completed pages, and we could surpass him.
Again I reminded myself this was not a race and I should be proud and grateful for Hent’s skill. Blu’s pages were going to be a pain to read later. And we needed to get this all done as soon as possible. How awful would it be if the Shlykrii-nas attacked while we were stuck in this room, trying to write our plans with our inferior hands.
“You can use whichever hand is more expedient,” I ruled. “I’m just used to writing Menyaze with my left.”
“In the interest of expediency,” King Ragnial said, stepping onto the table and sitting back to back with me, “we should all help. Rose, you’dn’t mind etching letter keys for us all?”
I had not written the alphabet so many times in a row since I had been a small child first learning it. But with the help of the Ladies of Sapphire, Amethyst, Pearl, and Emerald; the Lords of Aquamarine, Amber, Ruby, Topaz, and Gold; a king, a prince, and a very eccentric Lordling who was upside-down most of the time, we completed the decryption of the message in a whirlwind of activity.
I sat in the suspended chair across from the Sapphire Lady’s, our completed manuscript stacked on the table in front of Hent. As I finished translating and transcribing a page, he handed me another and a fresh paper while someone else whisked away the previous ones. Discussions raged around me, but my concentration reduced me to a world of letters and definitions. I couldn’t even recite half of what I’d translated, constantly looking ahead to the next page.
My chair spun, a warm plate deposited in my lap. Crysslist soufflé.
Blu’s smiling face hovered a hand’s width from mine. “You liked it last time, and you need to eat.”
My stomach growled in agreement, fertilizing his grin.
“Thank you,” I mumbled sheepishly, using the shell-spoon to scoop up a piece of mushy rainbow fruit and slide it into my mouth. Sour heaven.
Blu watched me intently, cerulean eyes glittering. “You do still like it!” He was so close, for a moment I feared he would try to kiss my head again. My brow suddenly felt very unprotected, and I scooted back, my chair sent swinging, negating all attempts at regaining my personal space.
“Blu, give her room to breathe her own air,” Hent chided, arm thrust between us and pressing his cousin back.
Hent received both a grimace from Blu and a grateful look from me. Not that I couldn’t stick up for myself, but with my luck, my evasive maneuvers would have pulled down the ceiling and I’d have fallen on the cousins, somehow accidentally kissing them both.
With Hent’s intervention, that crisis was avoided, and I sat peacefully in my chair, eating my delicious soufflé. It brought back memories of my first meeting with these crazies, and curiosity impelled me to ask, “Blu, if you’re the future Lord of Sapphire, why were you working in that restaurant?”
“You mean yesterday? The restaurant’s important to my dad, and he says working there’s supposed to keep me humble and in touch with the world beyond the island. So always on Blue-day, all the employees get the day off, and I’m supposed to run the place by myself.”
“Most customers know this and don’t come that day,” Hent pitched in, hopping back into the chair next to mine. He picked up the paper I had half-translated.
Blu added, “Hent’sn’t supposed to come with me either, but he usually does.”
Was Hent not supposed to leave the island like I wasn’t supposed to leave my citadel? Maybe we had that in common.
A chime sounded, and I looked around, hoping I hadn’t lost my mind enough that my epiphanies had sound effects.
With a second chime, the hatch in the floor at the end of the table slid away and the elevator lifted an Onyx man into the room. His features were strikingly similar to Niiq’s, minus her silver coloring, his skin darker and with a warmer tint, but there was nothing warm in his expression. Pride and decorum stood rigid in his stance, eyes possessing the hollow sheen of one whose worried mind was elsewhere.
Niiq’s father, perhaps?
“Guardian of Onyx,” King Rangial addressed him, “while all the visiting Guardians’re free to roam, this’s a restricted area and we’re busy. Why this interruption?”
“The Lady of Onyx’s unable to heed your summons, so she sent me in her stead. She sits vigil alongside her heir, my son, in the medical ward.” Which made this man Niiq’s uncle. “I trust you know what happened.”
An ~inonii assassin stabbed the Onyx Lordling, and Niiq was blamed.
The king’s expression softened. “You should be with your son as well. I relinquish the Onyx from the summons.”
Niiq’s uncle bowed shallowly. “With all due respect, this wouldn’t’ve happened if you left my niece under my supervision in the Onyx Fort. I again implore you to return her before tomorrow.” Meaningful glances and heavy silence all around. I felt a little lost.
Hello, trying to save the world here, Onyx Guardian. Sorry about your son and no, you can’t have Niiq. I willed the king to say this and maybe explain the ‘before tomorrow’ stipulation as well. Was tomorrow significant, or was it just a ‘right now’ kind of emphatic?
King Rangial’s face hardened, all emotion hidden except that which escaped in his coloring, a chasm of green. “Niiq’s no longer your concern.”
“She’s very much my concern.” Umber tinted the Onyx’s face in his version of a flush, jaw clenched. “The timin’ of this attempt on my son’s life’s no coincidence.”
The king gestured serenely. “You’ve proof of her involvement then?”
“I don’t need proof.”
Azure swirled over the king’s scales as he shook his head. “Suspicions without fences burn worlds, friend. Increase security around your son, and once you’ve evidence as to who targeted him, I’ll brin’ our wrath on that one.”
“Even if it’s the one we once called First Prince?” A challenging snarl curled the Guardian’s lip, and a gasp scurried around the room, taking a little hop through me. “You should’ve banished him for his stupidity.”
“Timqé’s too smart to be so obvious,” Hent countered, rising.
The Onyx looked the prince up and down. Hent was tall, but this man was broad and muscled. “I’d’ve thought him smart enough not to fall for a cursed, half ~inonii abomination.”
Niiq was half ~inonii?! Of course, that would explain why they kept associating her with the ~inonii assassins and spies. And if Niiq were only an Onyx-born Silver, her hair wasn’t likely to be the mirror color it was. That bespoke Chrome heritage, and I was an idiot for taking so long to realize that.
But if Niiq had a Chrome father, did the Lady of Onyx have some forbidden love story? What had happened to make her shun her own daughter? Had the flames of public opinion pounced on her secret relationship? How could it have ended so badly that she wished Niiq had never been born?
Agg! So many questions!
“You’re a blind buffoon who doesn’t deserve to even know Niiq!” All gazes shot to me. Great, I said that out loud.
Setting my half-empty plate aside, I stood on my chair. “Niiq is beautiful and kind and a piece of cheer incarnate, and I’m new here, but from what I’ve seen, you treat her worse than dirt.”
The Onyx blinked at me, pitch colored eyes meeting mine and sinking into a scowl. “I’m sorry, did Pink get recognized as an official tribe?”
“Rose’s our Druojojneerpsrii-trained translator, and she risked her life to save all of us,” Hent introduced me, stepping onto the table to block my line of sight. “What’ve you done, Guardian of Onyx?” A bonfire burned in the prince’s eyes and scales.
Pride lifted the Guardian’s chin, necklaces jingling over his bare chest. “And now I see we have two idiot princes.”
“I’d rather be stupid than heartless like you,” Hent growled, stepping into the man’s space.
SMACK! The Guardian punched him, and Hent fell. The Onyx dove after him, grabbing the front of his shirt and slamming him against the wall. I could no longer hear their hissed words over the rush of everyone else stampeding to join the fray.
Shock cemented me in place. This was exactly why we had Myktas. This annoying twerp would never have made it in this room if it had the kind of security I was used to.
Swinging in the chair beside mine, Blu laughed, “Oh, Hent’ll have a lovely time at the Onyx Fort this year.”
“Why would he go to the Onyx Fort?”
As the Gold and Topaz Lords hauled the Onyx Guardian back to the elevator and disappeared into the floor, Blu explained, “For his world tour.”
I turned to the Lordling, silent, questioning expression demanding a more detailed explanation.
“Sometimes you know everythin’ and sometimes you know nothin’,” Blu noted with a twisted smirk. “You see, all the Guardians’re here for the festival tomorrow, but it’s extra special because Hent’s turning twenty this year. When the guests leave, he’ll go with the Guardian of Amethyst and spend a week at that fort. Then he’ll go to Amber, then Pearl, then Onyx, and if he survives, he’ll see the Ruby next.” He plopped down in his chair, and I followed suit, reclaiming my plate.
“Like with your restaurant experience, is this tour supposed to keep him in touch with the world?”
“That, and he’s supposed to find a wife.”
I should have known better than to take a bite of my soufflé. I choked. It wasn’t that I had a problem with Hent finding a wife somewhere out there in the world. That seemed only natural, just Blu said it so bluntly.
“That’s why he’s starting off in Amethyst,” he continued his explanation as I tried to swallow and breathe and act like that wasn’t difficult, “because the current queen is Sapphire, so the Amethyst get first chance to offer a suitable queen next.”
“Wait,” my voice emerged squeaky, misshapen as it squeezed past the food having an awfully hard time finding its way down my throat, “purple is Hent’s annoyed color. Wouldn’t it be weird for him to be with someone who seemed annoyed all the time?”
“I don’t project my colors onto others.” I jumped and whirled, chair nearly swinging into Hent. The prince stood just behind me, sliding back into his seat. He looked at me meaningfully. “Besides, not every Amethyst’s purple.”
Right. With my pink eyes and painted scales, I was pretending to be Amethyst. I looked at feet curled beside me, faux rewtatops shimmering in the lie they represented.
Lavender-scaled feet stepped into my view, and my gaze followed the attached legs up to a body and face. The Amethyst Lady, a woman old enough to be Hent’s grandmother, held a bundle of warm, smelly herbs against Hent’s bruising cheek. “Your mother said you lacked finesse in minglin’ with the Guardians, and now I see what she meant.”
He accepted the bundle in silence, gratitude, frustration, and a swirl of colors in his eyes as he placed his hand over hers.
“Hold it tight now,” she admonished as she released the pack. “And if you value the advice of an old lady, you’lln’t insult temperamental Guardians just because they insulted you. They’re leaders of armies, after all.”
“He insulted Timqé, too,” Hent insisted.
“You can’t fight Timqé’s battles for him.”
Hent sighed. “I know.” His eyes fell to the half-translated page he had abandoned on the table. Concentration slid over sharp features as he picked it up again.
“Squinting won’t make it make any more sense,” I teased as the Amethyst shuffled away.
Above the paper, all I saw was the adorable quirk of an eyebrow. “There’s no pattern to this. I can’t pick out articles or conjunctions or anythin’ in these sentences.”
“That’s because Menyaze is entirely idiom,” I explained, plucking the paper out of his grasp. “The meaning is more than the sum of the words. For example, here,” I pointed, “Ku te malat; sauté in shadows.”
“Probably has nothing to do with cooking in the dark?” he assumed, both eyebrows raised.
“Correct. It means: I know you are scared. I know this is dangerous. And though none see me, I am here for you.”
“That’s pretty profound,” Blu remarked, leaning over my shoulder. I elbowed him, and he fell back into his own seat with an “Oof.”
“Their every word’s a riddle,” Hent charged, hands running through his hair. “Explains why they never take us seriously, as if we’re children incapable of understanding the world.”
“To them we’re definitely children,” Lord Ayf inserted, easing his fragile body into the chair on Hent’s other side. He was old and slow, but his clear turquoise eyes were swathed in wisdom and vigor. I shied away from his scrutinizing gaze.
“Most Seallaii-nas’re ancient, right?” Hent supposed.
“I bet they all look like dried fruit!” Blu hypothesized, and the Aquamarine shook his head, inclining over the table to have a straighter view of the Lordling behind me.
“You’ve seen transmissions of the Nadinshé, yes Blu?”
“Oh yeah, she’s steaming gorgeous!” To Hent’s and my incredulous looks, he amended, “I mean in a scary way. Rose’s gorgeous in a better way, like a day I’d want to live forever in.”
Lord Ayf continued with his point. “How old do you assume her to be?”
“Eighteen,” Blu guessed, and after a contemplative beat, Hent added, “Twenty.”
“She’s born a month before me, eighty-eight years ago.”
Aghast, Blu shot to his feet, both hands on his head. “She’s older than my great-grandma!”
“Even so,” Lord Ayf conceded with a sharp nod, “she remains Nadinshé, or Heir Apparent, because she’s considered too young to take the throne of Seallaii.”
“But didn’t their queen-like person die already?”
I frowned. No points for wording there, Blu.
“Seallaii’s Dayota perished fifteen years ago,” Lord Ayf admitted, “but fifteen years’re nothin’ to a Seallaii-na.”
“There are young ones, too,” I argued. “I…the one who came here with this message, he’s only twenty. Fifteen years would seem just as long to him as it would to Hent.”
“Except by the end of fifteen years, more’ll’ve changed for us than for him,” the Aquamarine Lord contended. “I’ll likely die, Hent’ll be king, and your Seallaii-na’ll still be considered a child. Which makes me wonder why Seallaii sent us children. You’re very young yourself, Pink messenger.”
“She’s been very brave,” the king acknowledged, sitting across from us, “and invaluable. I wonder if there’s a reward we could give her, a desire she has yet to voice?”
Taking this cue, Hent turned to me, smile as wide and amazing as Seallaii’s rings despite the pack of herbs he still held to his cheek. “If I said you could ask for anythin’, what would you ask for, Rose?”
“I want the Seallaii-na who helped get this message to Grenswa.”
Hent’s eyes widened, smile withering. “We can’t give you that. Ask for anythin’ else.”
“Why, Hent. Tell us what really happened to him.”
He wouldn’t meet my gaze, steel determination stiffening his bones. “He’s killed, and the leader of the Onyx divisions destroyed the body so the Seallaii-nas couldn’t blame it on us. We’ll say he never arrived.”
“Yet we received the message he carried,” Lord Ayf pointed out. “And if he’s a Mykta, his Royal knows what happened.”
“Foolish,” the king denounced, and Hent winced. “If you condoned the cover up, Hent, the Seallaii-nas might even ask for your life among the reparations.”
They wouldn’t. Would they?
A piece of Yol’s plan snapped into place in my mind.
Fear rippled in Hent’s scales, a dazzling gold, black pupils overtaking his eyes, irises slivers of electrum. “I…I’ll meet with the Seallaii-nas. I’ll take responsibility. But I’lln’t accept a ruling of thirty lives in compensation for one. Mine should be enough, right?”
“No, Hent.” King Rangial crossed the table and crouched before his son, brushing the prince’s long bangs back behind one ear as he placed a hand on Hent’s cheek. Hent let the herbs fall. “There’d be outrage if we gave you to them, and they know there’d be outrage if they took you.”
“Then what can we do?” Hope and trust pervaded him, not enough to chase away his golden fear, but clearly present in the way he looked at his father.
“Yol wants you to take the blame for killing Fredo…the Seallaii-na,” I announced. “When Yol attacked me, he said he needed a favor from the Druojojneerpsrii, and I think he wants them upset at this government or even at Hent specifically. He wants them to demand Hent’s life or at least revoke our alliance if he becomes king.”
All eyes were on me, and Hent voiced the question in every stare. “Why?”
“Because he wants a queen who is both Luejii and ~inonii. He believes in that cause.” I did, too, but Yol was going about it the wrong way.
“If he’s the leader of the Onyx divisions,” Lord Ayt speculated, “he answers directly to the Onyx Guardian, and he’d be in a perfect position to assassinate the Onyx Lordlin’”
Hent’s golden stare bored into me, viridian trickling into widening irises. “Why didn’t you tell me this when we took Yol to the medical ward?”
“Because I hadn’t figured most of it out yet, and I wanted him to tell me where Fredo was.” I closed my eyes, letting out a shuddering breath. “When Yol attacked me, he said Fredo was still alive, but he also hinted he would take him apart piece by piece.”
“That’s sick,” Hent breathed.
“We’ll immediately dispatch officers to collect Yol and rescue this Seallaii-na prisoner,” King Rangial proclaimed. “Hent, can I trust you to oversee the recovery of this important Seallaii-na while I continue to formulate our plans against the Shlykrii-nas?”
Hent straightened, this reassurance soaking into him. He had messed up epically, but his father still trusted him enough to let him help fix it.
With a firm nod, Hent edged closer to me, taking my face in both hands and staring into my eyes. The orange of Seallaii’s sun burned in his gaze. “If this Seallaii-na, Fredo, if he’s anywhere in the world, I’ll find him. I promise.”
Relief and hope lubricated my pen across the pages. I was no longer alone. My message was where it needed to be, and Hent searched for Fredo with the full backing of the king. They would find him, rescue him, keep him safe, and that made me feel safe, too.
The night was old and tired when I finished the last page, my eyes heavy, fingers languid and numb. My head hung closer to the words with each line, and as a I scrawled the last letter, my face hit the table. I was asleep before someone took the paper.
Someone else scooped me into their arms, and I felt as if I flew. I might have heard Timqé’s voice, but my eyes were sealed with massive weights too troublesome to move.
Another voice echoed from the farthest recesses of my mind, too muddled to understand. Needles pricked my skin, injecting me with fear, and I screamed.
But no, it wasn’t me. Fredo screamed. It was his skin the fire crawled through, his arm that felt the slither of calloused fingers searching for a vein.
But neither of us could move.
I awoke in the dark, giant, syrupy-scented leaves curled around me. Heart pounding, I tried to sit up, but my limbs were tangled in the leafy blankets. A cool hand fell on my shoulder.
“You’re fine; you’re safe here in my and Timqé’s suite,” Niiq’s sugary voice cooed.
“Have they found Fredo yet?” The question escaped breathless and packed with terror.
“No, there’s no sign of your Seallaii-na.” She paused, deciding whether or not to tell me. “…and Yol’s missin’.”
“Hush. You need to rest. Timqé and Hent know findin’ him’s important, and both of them’re relentless when it comes to important thin’s.”
But I had an awful feeling they wouldn’t find Fredo in time.
“We need to stay here,” Niiq insisted. “There’re assassins and conspirators, and my bein’ in the wrong place at the wrong time could get Timqé killed. You don’t want to get Hent killed, do you? Or your Fredo?”
I let her push me down on the clay-filled mattress. It squelched beneath my movements as I curled into a ball. Niiq lay behind me, belly pressing against my back, and the baby kicked, a slight comfort…until I realized my earlier promise to Niiq was unfounded. If she were half ~inonii, there was every chance that child would be Rainbow, and Yol would not be the last one to want them as pieces in a scheme.
“Tell me a story please,” I begged, tired of so many things, adrenaline coursing through my blood, helplessness just as strong. “Tell me a story with a happy ending.”
“Alright.” Her voice took on the timbre of a fire, the warm whoosh of flames, its breathy hiss, stressed syllables like crackles.
“There’s a girl who thinks it normal to be locked in a room when guests come, for it to be a sin to be seen, for family not to care what she eats or if she does. She thinks everyone sketches their dreams on borrowed paper in dark corners, knowin’ reality can never compare. She leaps from tall waterfalls to prove she’s alive, to feel the air rushin’ across her skin, the friendliest touch she’s ever known. She splashes into the pond’s embrace, engulfed in its acceptance and excitement at her bein’ there, and had her body instead dashed against the unforgivin’ rocks, no one would care. She doesn’t know she’s alone.”
“Are you sure this story has a happy ending?” I objected. “Because it has a rather depressing start, and my heart already feels run through.”
“Of course. Hush.
“She lives in the Onyx Fort, a ward of her uncle. A very important guest comes, and naturally she’s locked in her basement room and told to keep out of sight. And of course she doesn’t. She long ago figured out how to escape her room, and she’s very good at sneaking. So she goes to spy on the guest.
“Though it’s late at night, she finds him in the Fort’s trainin’ room. She thinks he’s dancin’, a lone soul among a crowd of movin’ dummies. He moves like the ocean waves that constantly batter the Fort’s outer walls, patient, persistent, hair darker than the darkest night, eyes deep and blue like the pools she always dives into. She wants to dance with him, but she can’t move, mesmerized, perched in the rafters, chrome tail twitchin’.
“He sees her, knocks her down. He thinks she’s a spy or an assassin, and when he asks for her name, she tells him, ‘I am no one.’
“‘You are gorgeous,’ he whispers, words like ghosts in the wind, almost too quiet for her to hear. No one has said anythin’ like that to her before, and he really means it. She knows.
“He only spends one week at the Onyx Fort, but every day she finds a way to be wherever he’s. She usually has to don a disguise, and that makes it all the more fun. He always sees her right away.
“Then, his second to last day there, he’sn’t the only one to notice her.
“Her uncle catches and punishes her severely, and again she’s locked in her room, chains added to her neck, wrists, and ankles for extra security.
“Her heart hurts. She’lln’t get to tell the guest goodbye or watch him ride away. He’lln’t know why she vanished. He’ll forget her.
“Then he bursts through the door, shoutin’ at her uncle, and she doesn’t hear half of what he says, relief poundin’ in her ears. But Uncle’s words cut through that like a knife, a sword. In three years’ time, she’ll die and the curse on their family’ll be broken. The prince should forget he saw anythin’.
“But her prince insists she come with him. She’lln’t stay another day in the Onyx Fort. She becomes her prince’s confidant and second pair of eyes as they travel to the forts remainin’ in his circuit.”
As Niiq detailed their quirky exploits and I sunk deeper into the warm darkness of sleep, her voice faded, words losing their meaning but retaining a soft, rhythmic quality. Safe and surrounded by notions of unbreakable love, I let sleep cover me.
Light on my face awoke me next. Blinking, I stretched and rose, peeling soft leaves off me. This was a loft high in a corner, random scraps of fabric strewn everywhere amid scattered sewing tools. Open, curved-triangle windows looked out above other towers and a sea of jungle, clouds beyond that.
Both thirsty and needing to relieve myself, I wandered over to the railing and the large space on the other side of it. This balcony hung two stories above a stone mosaic floor and a speckling of furniture—a screen, some elaborate benches, a table covered in flowers.
“Yay, you’re awake!” Niiq called from some hidden location. “Come down here and see this!”
Getting down was easier said than done since the only means for doing so was a narrow rope ladder. But I managed to heed her summons without breaking anything.
She jumped out from behind the wooden screen and twirled, her dress flowing like pouring oil. It gave the illusion of translucency, as if I could see right through her into the beyond. A herd of bells and bronze leaves encircled her ankles and wrists, more delicate metal foliage swirled over her forehead and vanishing into her chrome hair.
“You like it?”
“It’s beautiful. It suits you perfectly.”
She giggled. “Wait ‘til you see what I made for you! Go on, behind the screen.”
Obeying, I stepped past her. The screen was thick wood carved to resemble lace, its deep russet doing nothing to prepare my eyes for the slap of red behind it.
I ran my hand over the shimmery fabric—smooth and pliable as the scales of a scyuen’s belly, red as a tomato, a gradient deepening into bronze shaded by night. It looked a little like it was on fire.
“Do you like it?” Niiq squealed, peeking around the screen.
“Niiq, this is…wow. You really made this?”
“Yep.” She grinned, and it was like the night sky when Seallaii’s moons came out to play. “Go ahead, try it on while I get the accessories.”
As she disappeared, I unlaced my top and mentally prepared myself to figure out how to get this ensemble on.
And here I thought translating Menyaze was complicated.
I had just gotten the new outfit off the hangar when Niiq’s scream shattered the air.
-continued in Misplaced Insertion-