Like a flower, love grows
Small and barely seen
Then beautiful and grand
Like a river, love flows
Shallow, light, and lean
Then broad against the sand
Like a good book, love knows
Magic is the next scene
Never let go the strand
Pearl Before Swine ch 31: Evidence
The fire strokes my curves as the sea’s waves once did. It roars and whimpers, flows and ebbs, telling the same short tale again and again. It chases the ice and wages war when they meet, but nothing changes.
Water joins the waltz with a competing rhythm. It jars the circle. A break. A difference. A beginning and an end.
My fire rejects this foreign energy with spitting hisses. Whose is it? Not Halcyon’s or Lance’s. It smells too much of the sea that once trapped me, as malleable as a wave, skittish as a fish, and course as sand.
I chant a mantra that the Sea is not my enemy. This energy, however disgusting, is a hand offering help. Yet, fire does not bow to reason. Fire eats, and this fire is picky. It shoves back ten times what was given, and the ice reigns for a while.
The fire grumbles at the setback, and I tell it this would not have happened if it listened to me. The water could have been our ally.
The water does not return.
In time, voices find their way here alongside tiny morsels of heat. A touch to my arm, my neck, my forehead. Some skitter away. Some linger.
“I don’t care what the dean said,” Sal snaps. “Nothing’s more important than making sure she’s okay.”
Sal. He watches over me. I need to tell him everything.
Time burns faster than my fire, but with the will of the rising sun, I open my eyes. My first sight of Southern Shores University greets me again—a ceiling carved with flowers. The flimsy chairs and cloth walls remain, but instead of Pike’s smiles and chatter, crossed arms and dagger-sharp lips greet me.
The slightest upturn quirks the corner of his mouth, but stillness’ rigid fingers encase him, granting only the freedom of a tapping foot. His hair, pulled high in a short tail, patters like distant rain against the wall. Though it resembles the Golems’ paintbrushes, none of its darkness transfers to the beige fabric.
My nerves walk the edge of the blade in his hand, losing limbs on either side of it. I want him with me always. I want to craft his smiles and collect each one. Yet, his unease is a deluge, and I am a sponge made of salt. Only the cradle of his hand beneath mine keeps me from dissolving completely.
No, it cannot be his hand. His are both visible, their copper tint pale against the stygian flow of his new jacket.
My gaze shifts to the limb in question, follows the fingers to an arm, the arm to a shoulder, and a collar to a face.
Relief loosens his shoulders and cheeks, but tightness remains around his eyes. They cut to Jun for a hummingbird’s wingbeat, then return to me, gray-green streaked with the same gold that powdered Jun’s previous jacket—a jacket I no longer wear as I sit up. Instead, thin fabric matching the walls hangs loose on me. It smells of ash.
With a heavy exhale, Sal lowers his head to our clasped hands. “You’re alive.”
A thousand notions flock to my tongue, none of them willing to morph into the words I need. I have so much to tell Sal and no idea where to begin, especially with Jun present.
One insufficient syllable escapes. “Beau?”
Jun leans forward. “Third-degree burns, but he’ll live.”
My attention catches on his own burn just above his high collar.
“Whatever he drugged you with, I was sure…” Sal drops the sentence and looks up at me, chin on our knuckles and brow wrinkled beneath starlight-colored bangs. “No matter what we tried, you weren’t responding.”
“Did you share energy with me, Sal?” I ask as I extricate one of my hands and reach toward Jun.
My islander flinches but does not pull away as I press my fingers to his throat. Beneath my touch, the darkened wound fades.
He catches my wrist. “Can you walk? We have to leave fast.”
“No, Jun,” Sal warns.
My blue-eyed human ignores him, staring into my face and into my soul. “The dean ordered that one of Aunties’ students have to guard you at all times. It took a lot to convince them I should get a shift, and after that—”
“No, Jun.” Sal reaches for him, and the knife swings. The healer slides between Jun and I, breaking our connection and filling my view with golden jacket.
They fall, kick, and roll. A chain rattles. The knife impales the floor.
“If you want to die, Jun, trust me, you’d rather that happened here. Quickly.”
They still, tangled but with Sal mostly on top. The tip of an injector needle hovers above Jun’s eye. He struggles, but the chain wrapping them both leaves him no leverage.
I scramble to the floor, and my hand encircles Sal’s on the syringe. “I will protect him. Always.”
Sal snorts but does not resist as I relieve him of the needle. “We’ve had this conversation before.”
“Yes, and like you said, when my protection fails, I will heal him. I will learn so that I do not fail again.”
Sal scoffs. “I’m sure he wants to live through Mare dismembering him over and over because you keep putting him back together for her.”
“As many times as it takes,” Jun says, voice strained beneath Sal’s weight on his chest, “for me to kill her.”
This is where I should tell him no, that I am not taking him to Mare even if it means I lose the bet. That this is my best way of protecting him.
Yet, Sal responds first. “You’ll what?”
“This jacket? Go ahead, take the knife. Try to stab through it. It’s made from the hide of a captured Coral.”
Jaw slack, Sal retreats as if the basalt-like fabric is diseased.
Jun sits up, partly of his own will, partly because the chain still binds them together. “Beau’s drug knocked out a Creature of Essence for a whole night and then some. We’ve captured two Swine. We’re ready for this fight. We’re ready to claim this world.”
Sal speaks through his teeth as he unwinds the chain. “Fine. I’m done caring about you.”
“Never expected you to in the first place.” As Jun crawls free, he kicks Sal’s side.
Sal collapses, a hiss crumbling into a groan as I plant myself between them, my back to Jun. The healer cannot catch his breath. His fingers curl against the floor, dotted with scabs and bruises.
“Is that all from Aurora?” My hand hovers inches above his. “Did no one—”
“Don’t touch me.” He pulls in his arms and wipes his face on a sleeve. “Please. I’ll be alright. Just tell me you’re not taking that islander to Mare.”
He asks me to speak nothing but the truth, yet I would not wish for this to be its dressing. A “no” can land with a butterfly’s grace. This one has been forced into the frock of a hammer.
Jun’s touch presses into my back, the shift of his weight requesting I turn to him. As on the roof, he is so very close. Even the air carries a taste of him—sugar and iron. The butterflies I wish my rejection could be flutter in my core, their wings aflame.
A clatter precedes a shout, and Pike’s arms are tight around me, my name repeating a dozen times.
“She gets the point.” Jun drags him back, and the last render of my name squeaks as Pike’s collar pinches his throat. “Didn’t you have class?”
“Ended.” He shrugs away from Jun and gathers the bundles he dropped. “I wanted to run some of my inventions by Sal, but now we can all look. The more brains you put together, the more complete the puzzle, right?”
“As long as everyone’s brains get to stay in their own skulls.” Sal sighs as he attains a crooked sit, his legs crossed in front of him. One end of the chain shackles his ankle, while the other finishes in a half loop lined with spinning gears and anchored to the floor.
I frown at it.
He notices, and his shoulders hunch in a sad parody of a shrug. “I saw some things I wasn’t supposed to.”
“That’s an interesting way of putting it. Now he’s my captive audience.” With a chuckle, Pike unfurls the first bundle. “I give you exhibit A.”
It is a sack of sealskin with tubes, vents, and pulleys.
“It’s for taking air with you when you go underwater.”
With mild interest, Sal leans forward and pokes at it. “You’re really set on this ‘humans going into the ocean thing.’”
“Yep.” With a canyon-like smile and an avalanche of nods, Pike launches into an explanation of what each segment does.
As he chatters, my mind tears in too many directions. I still need to tell Jun—gently—that I will leave him here where he is safe. I need to tell Sal of my realm and ask his help in attaining my freedom. Yet, I see where Pike’s inventions for the Sea fill the holes in Beau’s inventions for the Stars.
I hear the tension crackle between Sal and Jun, and I wonder if perhaps my blue-eyed human is correct. These things will allow humans to breathe beneath the waves, to swim like dolphins, to secure themselves like clams.
Armored with the imagination of scientists, humans might really take the sea from Mare.
As the sun reaches the apex of its leap, the angle of the light through the high windows shifts.
Jag comes to relieve Jun, but my islander refuses to switch out, and Jag slinks away with distrustful backward glances aimed oddly at Sal.
Before I can ask their meaning, Halcyon fills the narrow gap in the curtain door, laden with bags. A knot within me uncoils to see him animate again and wearing an unharmed human disguise. From his burden wafts the scent of warm foods, and a primal string along my spine straightens. I am not hungry—the energy I have already burns and jitters, begging to be set free—but the lure of curious tastes persists, and I incline toward him.
His attention glides over Sal and the chain that tethers him to the floor before he offers one of the bags. “Lunch.”
With a muted, “Thanks,” Sal opens the package. Steam billows from the opening and quickly clears to reveal shredded meat drenched in brown and white sauces, wrapped in thin bread.
I stare, mouth watering, hardly able to sit still on the edge of my medical cot as the Dragon hands off a second bag to Pike.
He takes it with his fingertips, nose wrinkled. “Why does this reek of fish?”
“I selected the sushi for you. It has seaweed.”
Pike thrusts it back at him. “I’ve told you I don’t eat things that used to move around of their own free will.”
“You only want to eat prisoner fish?” Halcyon’s gaze jumps to Sal again, lip curling in a feral smile. “Do they taste better?”
Sal bites into his wrapped meat and returns the Dragon’s look with a subtle shake of his head.
“You like seaweed.” Halcyon pushes the bag back, and it thuds against Pike’s chest with a hollow thud. “Only eat that part if that is all you want.”
With a dramatic eye roll, Pike plops on a chair. “This one time, Halcyon. Because I’m considerate. Next time, could you be considerate?”
“I am considerate. I brought food you like.”
“Wrapped around evidence of murder I don’t morally approve of.”
Halcyon’s chin lifts. “You care more about it than the fish do. This is difficult to understand.” Folding his legs, he sits in front of Sal. “Can you explain?”
“Can and want to are two different things,” Sal mutters and stuffs his mouth with food again.
I inch forward, balancing over the bed’s edge. My gaze is a rope lassoing each of the Dragon’s five remaining bags. Which one does he intend for me? What does it contain? My patience is a lizard upon hot sand, in danger of frying if I succumb to stillness.
“Halcyon…” The name escapes despite my best efforts, the ending stretched and crimped, and he turns to me, eyes like glimpses of the sky through bronze leaves. Embarrassed of my impatience, I shy from the topic of the food, lip squelching between my teeth as I search for another subject. “Can you heal Sal?”
The Dragon’s head swivels back to my wise healer. “Can and want are two different things.”
Pike laughs. It is a sound of dew, sand, and waves sparkling beneath morning’s caress. “Halcyon, are you going to hand out the rest of the lunches, or is that all for you?”
“These are for me.” He clutches the five bags tighter, and I droop like a flower bereft of spring.
Pike slides his eyes from the task of unrolling his food, meat laid out reverently on one corner of the napkin across his lap and a long strand of seaweed dangling from his hand. He lifts an eyebrow.
Halcyon glances at me, then Jun. “I did not know the Pearl would awaken nor who her guard would be and what he would like.”
Sitting alongside the curtain, Jun clears his throat. “You’ve brought plenty anyway. You could share.”
“I only brought things I want to try,” Halcyon says, neck hiding between his shoulders. “I will not get to try them if you eat them.”
Chuckling, Pike cups a hand to the side of his mouth as if to direct his false whisper, though Halcyon sits between us. “That’s a dangerous venture. Yesterday, he decided to try my shoes. As in, eat them.” He points at the scuffed boots on his feet. “I had to borrow these, and trust me, no one should have to wear anything of Vidal’s.” He shudders.
Both Vidals rise to the surface of my memory: the one who introduced me to chocolate and the other who offered to let me try cockroach. They were nice enough, but I would much rather wear Jun’s jacket than theirs.
Wise Sal swallows the last of his meal, eyes on his sticky fingers. “Why not share like a good little lizard, and whatever you don’t get, you can try tomorrow.”
“Can and want—”
The sword of Sal’s glare cuts the quote, and Halcyon swallows his tongue with a flinch. From where does the authority in Sal’s look stem? Why should a Dragon fear a human, especially one injured and chained?
Unless the golden blood on Beau’s floor was Sal’s, and he is not human at all. He has met the Essences of Sea and Sky and fears them both. He rescues pirates, travels the world, and…
I peek at Jun alongside me, standing between two Creatures of Essence and trying to convince a Dragon to give up his food. Sal has met other Koa. He claims it is only book knowledge, yet it is more than that. I feel this just as I felt the truths in Issoria’s description of the stars. Either he has gone to their islands or he is old enough to have met the last ones who traveled. Perhaps both.
I sink into my knees, a puddle given to parched earth. Jun said they captured two Swine. Saburra escaped, but Sal sits here chained, with more knowledge about the sea than Pike who grew up on it. If he is the second Swine, is he the one sent to sabotage me? Even if he isn’t, can I trust him?
Here I am, wanting to tell him everything, even if he is a Creature of the Sea. Did I not want to make Pike my ally when I thought he was the Swine? When I fell in Terra’s cave, one of Mare’s minions did not laugh. He looked at me with envy because I had a freedom he did not and a chance to keep it.
The Sea is not my enemy, and I should not label a Creature of the Sea villainous by default. Yet…
I fear Sal is a Sea Swine, and how very much I wish to be wrong.
Alliance ch 31: Welcome Home
The emperor of all headaches built his palace within Ject’s skull. At the command of this cruel dictator, mallets pounded drums of bone, and everything—air, light, blood—became an instrument for pain.
The outside world sat across a wide chasm, and nothing made it across intact. When they—faces he thought he should know but didn’t recognize—noticed his open eyes, they spoke to him, but it was only sound, no meaning. Mouths moved funny when people talked.
He laughed, and the drummers hastened their efforts. The light became spears, and the room’s bitter scent stuck him like a pincushion. It lingered on his tongue, metallic and acerbic.
Disinfectant. This was a med-center.
He closed his eyes and focused on untying his muscles. The doctors would overthrow the headache, and things would go back to normal.
He waited, trying to count the drumbeats, but numbers were banned in this domain. He counted anyway—an act of defiance riding random integers. Sometimes six came after eight. Sometimes six came after six. Sometimes the number didn’t have a word, only measure, and it was all there was.
A giggle broke through the palace wall, and more followed through the rubble: a rebuke to be quiet. An apology. Two voices, both with a feminine chime and the elongated Zalerit cadence.
One had the rasp of age, and he knew that one. Her name sat behind a barred door. Names, like numbers, were a danger to the crown and forbidden. Yet, he wasn’t loyal to the fake emperor—not in the wider universe and definitely not in here. If he could see this woman’s face…
He set his will upon the pulley that controlled his eyelids and heaved.
A sting met his elbow. Ice flooded his veins, then warmth. He lost the pulley, and it took him some time to find it again. By then, the drums had slowed, though they remained as loud as ever.
The light was a horde of arrows this time, but he squinted past them. A teen with a Zalerit’s luminous skin and four dark eyes cradled his arm with an unfelt touch, head bent over a multi-tool picking at his scabs. He didn’t feel that either.
As if footsteps heralded his stare, she looked up. “Estiga, he sees.”
He did. Between a sitting and lying position, he saw her return to her ghostly work with hands unsteadied by his gaze, so he shifted his eyes elsewhere. The onyx-beaded sash at her hips marked her as a doctor’s slave, but the nostril ring that would have told him to whom she belonged hid in its own shine.
The answer was forthcoming anyway. A burden lifted from his head, allowing the drums to resurge. His eyes tracked the missing weight—a compress in a familiar hand. It discarded the used packet, then returned to cup his chin and forced him to look at her.
He whispered her name. “Auntie Uriet.”
“Your fevers always were the worst.” A package crinkled, and she slid a fresh compress into his grasp. “Are you with it enough to find your own forehead?”
His nod fought her grip, and she straightened, charcoal robe open over her lacy shirt, flowing pants, and clunky shoes. He closed his eyes against the onslaught of her platinum doctor’s beads.
Other sights just as unwelcome played on the inside of his eyelids: Sažka scooped up by the mykuro. The crowd whispering his name. Ateki held by his father’s men while an Ier gulped a path to his heart. No one listened to Ject, not until he made them in the worst way.
“Where are my Zalerits?”
“In the hallway. Now, open those lovely eyes of yours and don’t blink.”
He released a sigh as he complied, and she shined a pin light at either pupil. He rolled the compress to give his hand something to do. Chemicals mixed within, and it became soft ice.
Don’t touch the Zalerits. They’re mine, he had said, the only protection he could offer them at the moment. They had survived at least, and they were nearby.
“Your father had a terrible time getting the truth from them, and what he ended up with is ridiculous, though not half as ridiculous as you.”
“I’m not in a mood for insults, Auntie, even in jest.”
“I’m never in the mood to have to bring you from death’s door.” She stepped back, fists on her hips. She was an aged replica of Aalee, down to her holier-then-thou stance and unruly hair, though hers was dark like his mother’s. Not as dark as his. “Really, Ject, a shout suggestion in a frenzied crowd. What were you thinking?”
Arguments like insects swarmed up his throat and over his tongue, but before he let any of them fly, the curtain at the foot of his bed flapped aside. There stood his father, High Defender Qem Sirvette, tall, broad, coloring middle-gray, features round and soft and curved in a jagged frown.
‘Everyone thought you were dead.’
‘From a shout—’ The whisper wilted beneath a burst of pain, and his head sunk to his hand, finding the compress.
His father huffed. “Your aunt wouldn’t let you die from that foolishness.”
Of course not. A Ravi was too valuable. Even if the brain he had left equated to vegetable stew, she would bring him back and keep him breathing, just as she had when he was born too soon.
His eyes caught on the arm he still couldn’t feel and the glowing hands dabbing salve onto a row of tidy stitches.
“Because I disappeared,” he said, and the word had two faces. He had abandoned his duty as Protector of Lakol District to serve a greater duty to the empire—rescuing the First Ravi, Xlack Ekymé. To those who would—could—never know that reason, he had fled. When they needed him to maintain their daily norm, he disappeared.
He watched the slave’s hands lift and lower the swab in overlapping circles. Zalerits could be invisible. Ateki had rendered Ject invisible on multiple occasions. A deep, stupid, hungry part of him wanted that ability for himself.
“You disappeared,” his father repeated with a pinched sigh, “after an explosion in your district, your blood and skin and hair found in the rubble, your emblem there with it.”
Ject looked up and met his father’s frown, offering an open window into his intentions. “I had to—”
“I would like nothing more than to be enthralled by your reasons, but one higher than me wishes the honor of hearing them first. Dr. Remkiren, can he stand?”
Auntie Uriet grinned. “With effort, like with most tasks.”
“Then he’ll follow me.”
Ject obeyed the indirect command with a mountain’s worth of winces and hitched breaths. Walking gave the drummers in his skull something to compete with. The compress wasn’t doing anything, so he stripped it off and squeezed it in a fist.
The iconic art of Threnian Station’s wire-woven walls hummed the melody of distant conversations and unseen machines. Threnian was a place he associated with family, with vacations spent teasing younger siblings and letting his mother spoil him. It was not a place those who outranked his father frequented.
Yet, someone on that short list had tied his father’s tongue, and the headache wouldn’t give him peace enough to unravel who. Ject’s Mental defenses were walls of wet paper. His father’s worry howled like a summer storm, and frustration crackled like thunder, interlaced with an undefined sizzle. These took the drummer’s mallets and taught them how to hit harder.
The hallway stretched and narrowed, and Ject was a giant, his head stories above his toes. A fall would be fatal, but no chair offered to catch him, and he wasn’t supposed to touch the walls. He’d been told that often enough as a child.
Wait. The hallway.
He stopped. “Where are my Zalerits?”
His father didn’t turn or slow, and the distance between them grew. “Interesting that they were wearing Adapt and yet nothing to mark them as yours.”
“I needed the stealth the Adapt provided, and they’re recent acquisitions.” Ject grimaced. His word had saved Ateki and Sažka two-fold then. Something as small as a stud through a nostril stamped with his clan pattern could save them when he couldn’t say anything. “I’ll need a piercing for them both.”
“What you need is to keep walking.”
Like a pet on a leash, Ject complied. Despite the headache, despite the jumble of emotions—his, his father’s, and distant others’—truth gleamed in the sentiment, wrapped in the promise of more unsaid. Someone important—the Lead Protector, an Elder Watcher, or even Refraction Leader Mohk Ekymé—waited at their destination, and so did Ateki and Sažka.
The crowd’s fickle, fleeting thoughts found Ject long before they entered the station’s lobby. He tried to patch his paper walls before stepping through the final door, but broken bones only healed so fast, and broken defenses healed no faster.
All traffic to and from the station funneled through this room, and all were curious of today’s guest. Those who could lingered. For some this meant slowed steps and rubber necks. Others lounged on couches around low tables spread with refreshments.
As he entered, shoulders straight and chin level, their recognition formed a barbed fence. He walked through it, limbs tangled in its wire, eyes on his father’s flailing cape, blurring now. How he wished for his mask and hood, for the brief security of anonymity.
Was he still walking? He couldn’t feel his feet.
Solid arms embraced him, and a deep, aged voice spilled syllables he barely pieced together. “Welcome home.”
* * *
Home had always been a fluid notion for Anku Phy. If a con required he be from the fields and karsts of Azlano District, then that was home, regardless of if he had ever been there. More often, it referred to a place to temporarily return to—a bed in a rented room under a false name or guest quarters lent to little-known relatives.
Per his great uncle’s tutoring, Phy had never stayed anywhere longer than a month. Until now. This was the greatest gambit of his career—of his whole family’s career. As the days and weeks had passed, he knew he needed to get out. The trap would close, but pride weighted his feet.
He wanted to see Great Uncle’s face twist as Phy told him he had not swiped the famed Fountain of Conquerors from the center of Kizmet District as challenged. That he had instead stolen the entire city and lived as its king for two months, then three, then six.
He lingered in the doorway of the bedroom he had most recently called home, jaw attracted to his toes. No matter how many times he blinked, light continued to slant through the wall of windows. The drawers and closet remained tucked away. The round chair and small table in the corner waited as always for him to wind down in the evening with a cup of tea. Per usual, the thin sheet tucked at the corners of the mattress centered across from the door, but a body beneath that blanket gave contour to what should have been a flat plain. It was no one he had invited.
He stammered soundlessly as a large feline form grazed his knees and spun tightening circles on the bed, then settled on the intruder’s chest. With the familiar face hidden beneath the beastling’s spotted scales, Phy could pretend the legs were mere wrinkles in the sheet. That the mess of ashen curls on the pillow was something the animal had dragged in.
“Rell, down! You’re too big for that.” Lady Aliara Yayin shoved past Phy just as she had an hour ago when she barged into the apartment, hair blowing in the breeze of her own haste. A team of men had poured in after her, carrying the body now on the bed, and she’d had a terrible time since keeping the beastling away.
A low, popping growl filled the room.
The Lady’s stance shifted from authoritative to placating, hands outstretched. “Rell, your master can’t breathe like that.”
Phy clung to the doorframe. He wouldn’t mind if Protector Xlack Ekymé suffocated. Then no one would know he hadn’t chosen Phy to play acting Protector six months ago.
It was time to go. His jelly legs carried him backward down the hall toward the main room as he fumbled in his pocket for his datapad. It unfolded, the emergency departure app shimmering in the corner of the screen.
His thumb hovered. At the touch of this button, Anku Phy, trusted administrator, would cease to exist. He would surface in another city, his name scrambled in an anagram. The things he wanted to keep from this life would make circuitous journeys to a planned cache. He would continue the game.
Yet, he liked playing this role. As acting Protector, others fell all over themselves to fulfill his every request. When scribes accepted gifts in exchange for biased services, he looked away, and they did the same for him. This was a once-in-a-thousand-lifetimes gig, and he mourned its end.
A door near the end of the hallway opened, and Phy stopped short of crashing into a doctor in a black robe and platinum beads. The man, unsteady on his feet, didn’t acknowledge him or his mumbled apology, a hand raking through his mess of mid-gray hair.
“Is Dr. Kitza on his way yet?” the Lady called from the bedroom door, arms crossed.
“He’s been conscripted to serve exclusively at the capital, Lady Aliara. He can’t come no matter how many times you ask.” The present doctor’s words slurred with his swaying steps, and his shoulder thumped the wall. A hung frame displaying some certificate of achievement rattled.
With the slowest of backward steps, Phy retreated toward the main room and the exit like prey hoping the slightest movement wouldn’t attract the attention of powerful beings.
The Lady sighed. “I’m just worried that Ravi Ekymé hasn’t woken up yet, and you seem so...indisposed.”
“Felere insanity is like an acidic venom. I have to draw it out carefully and hold it isolated in my mind while I sew up the holes it leaves, in both the patient and myself.”
The word picture called to Phy too strongly, and he swallowed his curiosity before it lugged him down undesirably dark paths. If being a doctor didn’t work out, the man could be a poet.
The Lady stretched a smile that was compassionate if thin at the edges. “I understand the drive to handle this on your own as a dutiful apprentice, but Dr. Kitza needs—”
“Dr. Kitza doesn’t have Mind Talents and would rely on me for this anyway.” He sighed, rubbing his temples.
With as much nonchalance as he could summon, Phy swiveled to the door.
“It would help,” the doctor continued, “if there were someone I could dump the dregs into. A slave that the Protector wouldn’t mind losing?”
Phy stiffened, sure the Lady had just volunteered him. He was no one Ravi Ekymé would miss. If he ran, how far would he get?
“Go to the market at the edge of the district and acquire a Zalerit. Tell the administrator that the one chosen is not likely to survive what we have in mind.”
Phy’s chest shrunk in relief as he pivoted to her in a bow. His thumb pressed the app that would sever his ties here, and the datapad folded, secreted into a sleeve behind his back. “Right away, Milady. I shall return with unmatched haste.”
He should have known better than to lie in front of the doctor, impaired or not. The Mind Aylata’s eyes narrowed with the faintest flickering swirl of chrysolite, and the fine lines around his mouth deepened.
As one final turn brought Phy to the door, the doctor clamped his wrist.
Phy was a rigid tree, not fighting, simply being, his voice as hoarse and squeaky as two scraping branches. “Excuse me, I cannot fulfill the Lady’s request if—”
“You have no intention of fulfilling the Lady’s request.”
“No, I mean, I do. I will. I…” He tried to convince himself of this truth. On his way out of the city, he could purchase a slave and have them sent here. As long as he believed it, the Aylata should have seen sincerity, but it wasn’t working.
A new tactic came to him. He pictured the most disgusting things he had witnessed and added on anything that would make them worse until he gagged. With his Mental defenses weakened, the doctor swayed, then vomited, but his grip remained. Phy added the new material to his arsenal—the sharp, meaty stench, the warmth seeping through his sleeve and shirt and cloth boots.
The Aylata would not fall for the trick twice. He gripped Phy’s jaw with fingers as cold and firm as steel and met his gaze. Phy tried to cinch his eyes, but it was too late. Sensation fell into that distant storm of chrysolite, then whipped back to him three-fold.
The Aylata’s hands released him, but something far worse took their place. Thoughts wove wires and laced his muscles, their curved ends hooking through his feet. His leg jerked in one step, then two, continuing despite how he internally screamed for them to stop.
These halting paces carried him to the bedroom, where he knelt alongside the headboard, useless hands in his lap. Protector Xlack Ekymé lay shivering, skin damp and breaths shallow. Bursts of heat had rendered the sheet’s edge dark and crisp.
Phy’s eyes widened, but his feet ignored all commands to flee. This man would have killed him a dozen horrid ways six months ago if Phy hadn’t appealed to the Mercy of the Judges. At that trial, this man, had he bothered to show up, would have condemned him to death for petty theft.
The irony formed a dull blade digging into Phy’s gut.
The doctor knelt across him and placed a palm on the Protector’s forehead. Images led, then sound and pain. Flashes of teeth and talons, screeches, muscles punctured and ripped. Softer organs oozing from the holes in his body, the tang of blood welling in his mouth, drowning in it. Loss and failure. Guilt.
“Estiga, please,” he sobbed.
The wire within his jaw tightened and sewed his lips shut.
* * *
On the inside of Xlack’s closed eyelids, a deft hand sewed thoughts of peace, safety, and calm. With this constant repetition, the boiling murk of the felere whispers subsided.
Cleanup was slow, that same hand scooping up fistfuls at a time, then returning to address the damage. Once he worked his inner self free, Xlack helped, but he was no surgeon. The repairs he attempted were lumpy at best, and when he couldn’t dissolve an intrusive thought fast enough, he stashed it somewhere out of sight.
Awareness of his body returned, bringing control with it. He didn’t have enough air, but when he ordered a deeper breath, it wouldn’t come. Weight pressed on his chest. He squirmed, arms pinned by the same bulk.
It stirred, set to a series of low, rapid pops. Smooth scales rubbed his chin, then again in the opposite direction with enough force to rattle his brain. He opened his mouth to shout but didn’t have the breath for anything beyond a wheeze.
Scent came into focus first—the warm salt fragrance of home, and much closer, a stinging tang more metallic than fish and coarser than basalt. Elitbeast, he recognized, just as he would recognize one’s silhouette. But this one had a familiar twinge, stretched and changed but finding a match in his memory same as the nudge against his chin.
“Rell,” he croaked.
The beastling stood over him, a question in the rising pitch of his purr. Sleeping on Xlack’s chest and greeting him by running his side against Xlack’s jaw had been fine when Rell was smaller than his shoe, but the beastling had grown. He pawed at Xlack’s collar, and it hurt.
Xlack wrapped his arms around the beastling’s neck and wrestled him off his feet into a hug. “Rell, I missed you, too, but you weigh more than me now.”
Rell yipped in agreement and nuzzled in closer, belly upturned in a plea to be scratched. Xlack complied, and all four paws rose into the air, toes and claws extended. Those paws were larger than Xlack’s hands, legs corded in lean muscle. Only a thin line along each forearm marked where his baby fins had been.
As the beastling wiggled in appreciation, his pewter scales glistened in the horizontal light of sunset streaming through the wall of windows. Xlack stilled. This was his room, his apartment in Kizmet District. The last news he’d had of Rell came from Lady Aliara, and that was before—
He was on his feet, bare heels sinking into the mattress as he scanned his surroundings.
“You’re safe, Great Cousin,” Aliara said from the chair in the corner. “I’ve brought you home.”
He didn’t want to be home, not this home. “My team? Twi? And don’t make me bargain for your answers.”
With a twisted grin, she set her steaming drink down on the small table. “Life is a bargain. If you want anything, especially a thing as valuable as information, you have to trade for it.”
He trained his crooked glare on her. “Tell me where my team is.”
Her face slackened, and the answer fell from her as a monotone rush. “The two Tala you left behind asked to be taken to the emperor. I brought them as far as the border of Reiceilako and gave them directions to my contacts there.”
“Reiceilako.” Xlack shook his head. Kobolast was the capital, but Aliara had said something about it being moved. Rifo and Lanox must have chosen to carry on the mission.
How brave and loyal of them.
Was it selfish if he wanted a part of that loyalty for himself? They assumed he was dead and kept moving.
They did what they had to. It’s commendable.
Rell, determining that his pose was not going to get him more belly rub, rolled to his feet and stretched.
Aliara stood with a humph. “You will not invade my mind again.”
Xlack’s attention leapt back to her, a second suggestion already on his tongue, but she turned and packed away her emotions before he could snatch them. They remained as a corona along her edges, an intangible glow, faint like a datapad’s screen.
“I’ll win my answers with guesses, then.” His ready stance waned until he stood on his knees, then sat on the end of the mattress, feet on the floor. “Your Messenger, the one skilled in stealing secrets from people’s pockets, also has a knack for adding tracers to the things he returns.”
Without word or movement, she confirmed it was true.
“Your tracer logs show Twi and I underwent a series of teleportations before ending up in Zaranik’s palace.”
“You brought me here. What did you do with her?”
At the growl in his master’s voice, Rell looked up, long, slender tail swaying.
“Lady Aliara.” Xlack rose, feet soundless on the wood floor. “I will use another suggestion.”
“Then you’ll throw away our friendship for nothing, because I don’t know where she is.”
He didn’t touch her. Sereh were never to be touched in violence. But he slipped between her in the wall. “You have the tra—”
“The tracer is on her weapon, not herself, and I wasn’t the first to find you.”
The natural follow-ups, “Who did then?” and, “How did I end up here with you?” thundered in his skull, but he refused to voice them.
Squinting, he leaned back against the door frame. “I’ve never been good at haggling, so tell me what you want from me.”
“Let me tell your father you’re here.”
“Because you want to trade that info to him?”
She lifted her chin. “No, because it’s what’s right, for him, for you, and for the empire.”
“For the empire.” With a scoff, he folded his arms. “You don’t even really know what happened six months ago.” Silence beat an unheard drum. He blinked, straightened. “Will you give me what you know about Twi’s whereabouts if I trade you that story?”
Aliara caught and released a slow breath.
Rell sat between them, tail swaying opposite his head as he looked from one to the other. His master had woken up, so it was time for breakfast.
With a gurgle, Xlack’s empty stomach agreed. He swiveled off the doorframe and sauntered down the hall toward the kitchen, Kinetically fixing the crooked frames along the way out of habit. Where was his over-picky live-in teacher anyway?
Rell followed, tongue lolling out the side of his rounded snout. Most of his molars remained baby-sized with large gaps between them.
“Several historical coalitions have petitioned to turn Zaranik’s palace into a museum,” Aliara called, steps loud behind him. “A survey group found you and didn’t know what to do with a missing Ravi. They were frightened and grateful when I offered to take you. And Defender Lorm Spycykle.”
Xlack stopped, stomach in his toes. Both hands curled into fists. “He was there? And unconscious?”
“The place is infested with felere, so the group carried scrambler lamps. They had protective equipment, of course, but anyone not appropriately goggled who saw the flashes—”
“Would have been knocked out,” Xlack finished. “They didn’t mention Twi at all?”
Aliara’s lips pursed in the thinnest line, infant flames dancing across her polished nails and licking at the hem of her short dress. “I have reason to believe the coalition is a front for a rebellion.”
“Rebels have Twi.” The statement was air and no voice. He couldn’t believe it, yet he could believe nothing else. Had she awakened? What did they want with her?
To the slave at the soup stand, she had identified herself as a follower of Vozin Nar, the original traitor. Six months ago, Revel K’alaqk claimed she was as dangerous as a lightcurver—not because she could cut down armies—but because of her potential to be a symbol.
His throat burned. “You knew she was with me. You never give up, Aliara. You never just let something go. So why...” He trailed off, wanting to run, but his heels remained glued to the floor at the end of the hallway.
Aliara didn’t press for more information on Twi because she wanted the rebels to keep her. Or at the very least, she wanted Twi away from Xlack.
“Are you with the rebels?”
She propped a hand on her hip, and the line of her lips followed the same tilt. “Of course not, but as if I would admit it.”
He no longer wanted breakfast. With a dry heave, he caught the back of his favorite lounge chair. Rell’s nudge at his thigh didn’t help. The stench of vomit clogged his nose, mixed with the sting of antiseptic.
That wasn’t in his head. Someone had been sick in this room, and it had been cleaned. This nausea, this tumult of emotion, wasn’t all his own either. He grabbed that distraction and searched.
There shouldn’t have been a life-signature that size in the coolbox. He stepped toward it.
“How loyal are you to the empire, Xlack Ekymé?”
He paused, and Aliara placed herself between him and the kitchen.
“Why not use your title’s authority, do what your uncle did and make it known you want this foreign Magni delivered to you?” She shrugged. “Safely, in this case.”
Because he wasn’t sure he had any authority left and was even less sure those who did would back him. Deeper than that, his insides shriveled at the possibility of his father’s disappointment. It was better not to know than to confirm that the one person he most wanted to be proud of him thought him a fool.
“You didn’t leave on an approved mission. That’s why you left Rell behind,” Aliara guessed. “You ran away. You had to leave right then, and you didn’t expect to ever come back.”
“I didn’t think that far ahead.” With a sigh, he raked his fingers through his hair, focus bouncing between his cousin and the coolbox beyond her. Either there was a person in there or disturbingly sapient mold. Either theory was ridiculous. A hallucination. “I’ve learned things since then. About how life can be more fair. And I’m selfish.”
“Then use it.” She caught his wrist with a gentle touch, cradling it as it dropped from his head. “You, First Ravi, are in a position to change things.”
“You mean collect power so I can distribute it more evenly?”
“I mean, the Buqo tree of the Antarctic is the symbol of selfishness because it would rather burn than provide shelter through the long winter. Yet, without that fire, there would be no light when the Daystar doesn’t rise. Their heat keeps the ground from freezing solid and allows the seeds of their neighbors to germinate. Without the Buqo tree, there would be no southern Atetu forests.”
“They’re not selfish, they’re martyrs?” He snorted.
“I’ve told you often enough, Great Cousin, if fire doesn’t improve your situation, it at least makes things more interesting.” She upturned their palms, a flame growing in their shared grasp. “Perhaps it is time for the empire to burn.”
Continued in chapter 32
Thank you for reading!
My Writing Process
…is a metaphor, of course.
A canvas of glass called what if hangs before me. Through it, the world appears as it is, but I can paint over it and make changes. Make one alteration—remove or add a constant—and explore how different life in the world can be.
Now, to render this change. I dab my brush in one word. Like color, the word has a set definition, but it also has a feeling, a mood, a tone, and its definition grows with context. I sample other syllables, and when I find the right tint, I sweep it on the glass.
More colors follow, shaped into images that move and jump off the canvas. They form a hologram standing next to me, still hollow, still too easy to see through. To make them real, I need special paint.
I take more what-ifs and grind them into sand, then stir this with the hued powders of how and the juices of why. This textured paint fills in the world with history, culture, and purpose.
Leftovers sit in my palm, clunky and dull. My fist closes, crunches, and uncurls, revealing remnants and hints of backstory. With a slow, gentle breath, I blow this glitter of emotion onto the canvas. It wafts and whispers into the peaks and valleys, delineating highlight and shadow, just enough to enhance the tones already there.
The piece is as complete as I can make it, for the final ingredient must come from you—your interpretation, your reason, your imagination. Will you see beyond the lines and tones of a two-dimensional glass plane?
Pearl Before Swine ch 30: Choice
I float atop Issoria’s constant stream of words, but it is not a lazy ride. As often as I rise, I dive, gathering treasures in my arms. They sparkle, flicker, and pulse like jewels—like flames. The truths themselves are the gemstones, and the enthusiasm with which Issoria speaks is fire, granting movement and life. Its heat seeps through my skin and coils in my core.
Some of what she tells about the Stars is inaccurate, though I have no proof or reason to combat it. It is a feeling, as if she tries to convince me that joy is a myth when I hold it in my palm. Other things are as familiar as my own existence, as if she describes the shape of a hand, and I see mine is so.
I soak up every word and etch them on my soul so I can read them to Terra later. He surely already knows these things, yet I want to hear the poetry of his thoughts. He will craft an explanation so much better than I ever will, and it will not just be the what and the how. He will reveal the all-important why.
As I dream of his response, Terra’s face softens and lightens into copper and blue, capped with midnight’s shadow.
Jun will not say he loves me until he fully means it. I fancy showing him my realm and awe welling in those sharp eyes. Love for me waits as a seed in his heart, and beauty—the beauty of the Stars, a beauty intrinsic in me—will nourish it until it sprouts.
Yet, whether that love is a seed or a tree, I cannot bring him to Mare.
My daydream shifts again, this time to the gold of a healer’s uniform and eyes of indecisive gray. What would the inexplicably wise Sal think of these truths? He was the one with whom I first learned of the fourth realm’s existence.
I should have thought of telling him first, especially since I already have so much I need to discuss with him. My hands still on the tools Issoria explains to me as my breath flees. “I need to find Sal.”
The Pixie rocks back, lip curling, but before she can utter a sound, a blue smudge stumbles through the steam in the doorway, edges sharper the closer he comes.
Beau meets my gaze and stops, mouth ajar. “You’re here.” After a rapid blink, his posture loosens, and he grins. “Of course. Thanks for accepting my invitation, though I don’t recall giving you directions to this room specifically.” His pale green eyes cut to Issoria.
With fluttering wings, she inclines toward him. “What happened? You reek of panic.”
The frame of his rigidity returns. He is a spear, his hair a field of pikes coated in mud. “We had a guest, and someone let him out.”
My skin prickles, and my foot falls behind me, nearer to the star suit though further from the exit. “Your guests are not free to leave, Beau?”
He stretches out his grin again, its ends too pointed. “I use the word guest to be nice, but it’s not the most accurate description. You, however…” He approaches, arm aimed to wrap over my shoulders.
I retreat, wishing I could come and go through solid walls like Lance. It is a coward’s desire, as is the impulse to call for the Unicorn’s protection. If his mandate is to protect me, why does he disappear more often than not? So far, he has done nothing but manipulate humans and hurt other Creatures of Essence. Halcyon still lies on the floor, now wholly in serpentine Dragon form, his long neck crimped like folded paper.
Beau has not even glanced at him.
I can handle Beau on my own.
My feet become roots, and I stiffen my arms, miming a shove that does not touch him.
“You are a valued guest,” he says with a flicker of a frown. His freckles are like a storm’s first droplets darkening dry sand. “I came too late for the big reveal, but Issoria couldn’t have told you everything yet.”
Her laugh chimes like bells. “She belongs to the Stars.”
“I told you that from the beginning. Come here.” He holds out a hand—a command, not an offer—and I do not comply. He leans, fingers closer. “Come on, Pearl. You want to see this. Trust me.”
I do not trust him, but some gravity tugs at the fiber of my being. I am a simple cloth facing a simple choice: heed the pull of a single thread or come unraveled.
I step forward to a double-edged reward. The tension strengthens but through it, sweet energy flows. The wider Beau’s smile, the freer this nectar, and with only two steps, my head buzzes with its euphoria. In this daze, my feet do not ask for permission. They do not know the destination and do not care if one exists. The universe consists of each moment, of one more completed step.
In this way, he leads me down the hall and several ramps until the floor turns to sickly pale grass bent under the weight of the humid air. The turf ends in cliffs of sand and rock, some dipping low enough to taste the wide bay.
The water is unnaturally still—a sea without waves, a body without a heartbeat.
With a steadying hand on my elbow, he pulls me into a canoe. “Uncle severed this inlet from the ocean and closed it in—glass above, buildings all around. A bay this big is called a sound, but it’s sort of quiet.”
“Is it dying?” I lean over the rim and stare into sluggish darkness. It does not even return my reflection.
He hauls on a lever, and paddles stroke beneath the surface, but their ripples barely touch the stillness. We move faster than I can run, yet it feels as if a tree’s growth could outpace our glide.
“It doesn’t support marine life anymore, no, but sometimes things have to die to give birth to dreams.”
Frowning, I slide my gaze to him. “Things like Creatures of Essence.”
“No.” He chuckles. “They’re tough to kill and get ticked off when you try.”
“Why was there golden blood in your room?”
He pauses, lips pursed and eyes rolled skyward, before he heaves on the paddles again. “I’m wise enough not to target Essences and their property, but as you saw on the dock today, that’s a rarity.”
I straighten. “Sal?”
“Oh, it very much had to do with Sal.”
My throat tightens. “Was it his blood?”
His grin returns, slow and smooth as honey. “Uncle has strict rules about what I can say concerning Sal, and I’d rather not get kicked out of a second university.”
The slivers of information are as one raindrop for an entire desert. My face and posture crumple.
“Sal is annoying in the way that all long-lost cousins are, so let’s forget him.” Releasing the levers, Beau slides two fingers beneath my chin and tilts my face to the heavens.
The view pours through me like a deluge and carves out hollows my gasp cannot fill. While I was indoors, the fifth sunset came and faded, but tiny stars do not dust the velvet night. Globes of fire, varied in size and color, crowd the sky, and sparkling webs weave between them.
As Issoria described and I felt, each one is a sun whose light barely reaches us like the echo of a whisper. We associate night with the sun’s absence, yet it leaves us in the care of so many more.
“The dome isn’t just glass,” Beau explains. “It’s a network of lenses. I come to the dock at the middle of the sound whenever I need to be reminded of my dream, but I’m sure it doesn’t look half of what it does out there.”
“Your dream?” With some difficulty, I peel my gaze from the heights and focus on him.
He leans close, grin slanted and eyes glossed with reflections of the magnified sky. “The stars. Most of the world is caught up in trying to go back to the dimension we came from. They think that will solve our resource problem, but me? I say that’s moving backward. We have all the resources we need here. Or”—he points above—“there, actually. An endless sea waiting to be explored.”
This is the goal he came to this university to accomplish, and Tulip said goals pave the path to the human heart. I can walk it by helping him progress toward this dream. This confession has the texture of a gift. I need a human to love me, and I have so little time left. I do not like Beau, but my feelings were never a condition of the bet.
As Professor Ignacio once did, I mirror Beau’s posture, leaning over my knees. “You wish to be the first human to swim in that dark sea.”
“I will be. You saw the suit I built. It’s almost ready. Now with you here…” His teeth catch his lower lip as if that can keep his smile from engulfing his face. “Can I meet Astra?”
I blink. “Astra?”
“I named the Essence of the Stars, and if—”
“She will pick her own name.” Shaking my head, I straighten. The boat rocks dangerously beneath the quick movement.
Beau grips the sides, but his eyes never leave me. “Can we at least suggest the name I came up with? My genius is the reason she exists.”
“That would not give you any claim on her, even if it were true.” I stand, uncaring if the canoe tips, fists and jaw clenched against a fire greater than the sum of all the suns above. His ambition feeds it, and it may destroy him. “Your progress strengthens her, but she has existed for far longer than you.”
His face scrunches, but unheard logic works it like a river carving a canyon, loosening the lines until the expression is open and curious. “Sit, please.”
When I do not, he rises and offers both hands, stopping shy of catching mine—waiting for me to consent and close the gap. Again, I do not.
In this light of low contrasts, his skin is the opposite of the sky—a lighter gray speckled with darkness. “Astra has to have been around longer than any of the Creatures she made, and while the Auroras were first seen less than a week ago, you…how old are you?”
“I spent hundreds of seasons with Terra, and before that, time was not something I understood.”
His brows hop, and his head shakes. “So, older than my nineteen years?”
“Essences measure the angles of the light so we know when to expect dawn and dusk. We measure days so we know when the season will change, and we measure seasons so we know when a new era begins. To assign that measure to ourselves is unnecessary.”
“That’s fascinating.” It is a whisper and a laugh. “The simpler answer I’m hearing is yes, you’re older than me. That’s fine. I’ll still be the first human in space.” He grips my hands and winces as they sizzle, but he doesn’t let go. “Say you’ll help me get there.”
I sigh. “I must return to Mare within two sunsets.”
“To the Sea?” His nose wrinkles as if to keep his lowering brows from sliding down it. His grip loosens. “Astra didn’t send you to spy on me?”
“I have never met my Essence, and if I ever want to, I must win my freedom from Mare.”
The ice of his touch vanishes, and he wags an open hand at me. “That’s how you’re older. Astra didn’t make you. Mare made you, and you have to prove yourself worthy enough of being a gift for Astra.”
“You have a talent for finding the shiny slivers of truth amongst all the world’s grains of sand.” I wring my fingers, needing to use this energy, to run and jump, but this is a very small boat in the middle of a very big lake. I pour it into my words instead. “I must prove myself worthy of having a choice. To Mare. To Terra. To myself. If I fail, if I do not bring back a human whose love I have earned before the time limit, then I will only be a jewel on Mare’s necklace, and that is all I will deserve to be.”
“What if you don’t go back? Will she come after you?” The longing in his tone is like sugar dumped into the sea instead of salt.
“You do not want her to come here and destroy what you have built.”
He nods, eyes fixed on me as he sits, one brow lifting. “Then, I’ll go with you.”
“You just need a human to say they love you. I can do that.”
“It would be a lie.”
“Depends on your definition of love.” With a shrug, he hauls on the lever, and the canoe lurches forward.
I stumble back into my seat. I like Jun’s definition of love, and Tulip’s explanations, and Sal’s lessons. I do not care to know the angle Beau sees, even if it would win me the bet.
Righting myself, I sit with all the rigor of a mountain. My voice plays its jagged, snow-laden cliffs. “Love is a human emotion, and you are human, but you love nothing beyond your own ambition.”
He frowns, but I barrel on.
“Even if Mare does not call out that technicality, you will consider this favor a way of purchasing me. I will not be free, and I will not have proven I should be.”
“Way to hack at my character with a dull little ax. You done?” His glower grows a twisted smirk, his back as stiff as mine. “Can you blame me for hoping you’d choose to stay?”
He holds out a hand, and again I leave it unaccepted despite how the fire within me pulls toward him like a plant reaching for the sun. The hope and ambition he so freely wears is food more potent than coconut or deer jerky, the energy given to me by Halcyon or Lance, or even Jun’s awe. Though as still as the mountain I pretend to be, I am a volcano, danger sloshing within.
Fill anything too much, and it explodes.
With this feeling, my eyes jump to the bay’s borders in search of Aurora. I have more than enough to share with her this time. Yet, only the amplified stars wink back. Because no, I do not want Aurora here. I want her to stay as far from Beau as possible.
Impatience outweighs consent, and he grabs my wrist. A needle burrows in my skin, and ice shoots up my arm. I am a rock, a karst, harried by a thousand eras of erosion all at once. He lets me fall on the canoe’s floor, my head between his feet, my gaze on the unnaturally close sky.
“It’s so much harder when they’re always trying to escape,” Beau mutters as he resumes his grip on the lever and our boat glides onward.
I am not the first Creature of Essence he has taken against their will. As the scene melts beyond a film of tears, memory shines brighter, displaying golden blood in his room. He claims Sal is involved, or is that another lie? Another technicality.
Was it Sal’s blood?
I am not the first Creature of Essence that Beau has taken, but I will be the last. My tears crackle as they slide down my cheeks, wend over my ears, and drip onto the floor. Smoke coils from their kiss upon the wood. Water gurgles through the holes.
Beau glances at his soggy shoes, mouth open.
I burst. At the behest of my flames, white as starlight with a hint and flash of all hues, everything flees.
The water embraces me, bubbles dancing with my fire. I watch them with only the faintest of smiles. The ice still holds my muscles, and I cannot move. I am trapped in the water and sinking. Someone screams and thrashes, but it is not me.
Please, I do not want to lie on the seafloor alone. This bay does not even have fish.
My flames flicker and fade. There is only cold.
Arms wrap me and pull me up. I can neither fight nor accept them, yet some inner sense of myself leans into their warmth. The air tastes of salt and smoke as my rescuer tows me toward the shore. Some distance behind, Beau screams at Pike.
“Stop thrashing, you dolt! I’m trying to rescue you,” my hero pirate shouts.
“But it hurts! It burns!”
Perhaps it is the villain in me, but I am glad. I am a sun, and if Beau comes near me again, he will hurt even more.
My savior’s strokes are uneven and strained, yet we slip through the water with a dolphin’s grace. His every breath carries a wheeze of discomfort, almost a whistle, almost a song. One I almost recognize.
“Can you speak, Pearl?” The voice is Sal’s, said with an ocean’s worth of concern. “Tell me what happened.”
I seek out my tongue, chipping through ice and ash with picks of fire. Beyond it, I map out my jaw and lips, but it takes all the energy I have left.
As the stars wink out one by one, I force one sentence into the world, meaning to warn him of Beau, meaning to thank Sal for being here, but the words do not convey that at all. “You can swim.”
I do not know if the molasses nature of his voice stems from his fatigue or my own. “Yeah, I can swim. It’s one of the few things I’m good at.”
Continued in chapter 31: Evidence
Thank you for reading!
Bright and brilliant
Adds joy to life
Steadfast against strife
Time sees it rise
One object, both labels
Time sees it fall
Now heavy with fables
Time never cries
Instead it flips tables
Time collects all
And weaves them in cables
Freedom to come
Freedom to rise
Like the sea’s waves
And bright, wide eyes
Sunshine on sand
Clouds drifting by
Bury your toes
A long, sweet sigh
Freedom to go
Freedom to rest
Like a mountain
All the world’s best
Fate’s Red Nails
Fate’s nails were red. At first, she’d tease them across your skin, but inevitably, those ruby blades always sliced to the bone. That was how she kept them red.
Ricardo’s mother told him this the moment she deemed him a man. “Watch out for that temptress,” she said.
Ricardo always listened to his mother.
Yet, he pulled over on the rural road. Parked in a freshly mowed field was a truck the same blood color as Fate’s nails. It could have been the truck of his dreams had he dared have such dreams. A “For Sale” sign propped against its windshield. Before he knew it, his hands were gliding across its buffed hood, then shielding his eyes as he peeked in the windows.
“Beauty, ain’t she?” said a man in an unbuttoned suit jacket and overalls.
Ricardo shrugged. “It’s alright.”
“’Twas my grandpa’s, and he don’t need her no more, so she needs a good home.”
Ricardo gulped. He could be that good home. His car ran fine, but this truck was water in the desert—something he hadn’t known he needed tied up with a red bow and delivered by Fate.
As he peeked at the price written in the sign’s margin, Ricardo gripped the cashier’s check in his pocket. Who needed a vacation when he could have the truck of his non-existent dreams?
“Dios en los cielos, bring me not into temptation,” Ricardo prayed. Silly to tell God that God was in heaven, but his mother always said it that way.
He released the check and pulled out an inhaler.
“Asthma?” Overalls asked.
“It’s preventative.” Two puffs through the hollow plastic mouthpiece punctuated his reply.
Overalls leaned over the hood. “This beauty could be called preventative, too. She’ll be whatever you need, guaranteed.”
Ricardo didn’t need a truck, but somehow, he signed paperwork and handed over his vacation money. He pulled onto the highway in the Fate’s vehicle, windows down, wind singing through his hair, and radio blaring. She had given him a gift. He should have known the backswing was coming.
The truck waited in the parking lot while he worked. Clouds covered the sun and poured their wealth onto the sizzling blacktop when he emerged from the office building, shoulders slumped and head drooping as low as his loosened tie.
He climbed into the truck, not noticing how he dripped on the pristine upholstery. “Dios de mi madre, what am I going to do?” His arms and face collapsed over the steering wheel. “I need someone to talk to.”
The truck shuddered, shrank, and folded until he sat on the cement in the pouring rain. A dog with fiery fur rested her head on his knee.
Ricardo looked around. “A-are you a shapeshifting robot? A guardian angel?” He lowered his voice. “A devil?”
The dog stared, understanding in her round, golden eyes. Just like headlights.
He patted her head. “W-what would happen if I said I needed someone who could explain a few things?”
Pearl Before Swine ch 29: Wings
When I was yet small, Terra received a petition from a coalition of queen ants whose neighbors had been massacred by deranged bees. The culprits had taken up residence in one of the conquered mounds. To confront them, Terra broke off a piece of his heart and sent it as an envoy in the shape of a millipede.
I questioned this. If he knew where the villains were, why not crush them with a hoof?
He indulged my interest and allowed me to ride on the envoy’s tail.
We found the bees exactly as reported, in the deepest chamber of the largest warren. They did not feel pain, and they did not fear death. Terra faced them with neither in hand. His words coaxed out the source of their power: an elixir stolen from humans.
He asked for a sip of this elixir to prove its existence, and they agreed. Just a tiny sip. A tiny sip for Terra amounted to the entirety of their cache.
Without their drug, the bees died or returned to normal. Nothing was needlessly destroyed. That was my first outing with a lesson: The act is not as important as the why.
The interior of the science wing now reminds me of the ant warrens. The hallways bend and climb, breaking off into ramps and catwalks. The abundance of six-sided shapes grants the scene a cellular appearance as if viewed through the hexagonal facets of a bee’s eyes.
I am as an ant scurrying along the floor while Issoria and Halcyon are as bees with the advantage of flight. Yet, I follow the scent of their energy—Sky energy, like the howl of a snow-laden gale. Questions propel my feet in a run worthy of a gazelle. The air in here, though clogged with steam, fills my every breath with the purest vitality.
I have never felt more full or more determined to discover the all-important why. Is it because this place captures dreams and transmutes them into reality? Or is it more specific? Does the progress manufactured here relate to my realm, whichever realm that may be?
The act is not as important as the why.
The science professor wanted to bring Saburra—a Creature of Essence—into this building. Why?
The blood of a Creature of Essence painted the floor of Beau’s and Sal’s room. Why?
The dean hoped I would stay here. Why?
My mouth runs dry as all three find the same answer. The science conducted in this building involves the Essences, or at least their Creatures. It requires a specimen. A victim. Or many victims.
As I approach the room where the Creatures of the Sky have stopped, I press my back to the wall. It hums at my warmth. The gears hidden behind its smooth surface clatter faster, and my ears strain to catch the hissed conversation beyond.
“It’s the seventy-seventh prototype, Halcyon. He’s almost figured it out. They kicked him out of Central University for even trying, but here at his uncle’s school? In such a short time? You can’t look at this and tell me you’re not in awe.”
The Dragon’s voice thrums, monotone and whispered like the scrape of a rain shower’s first drops falling through brittle leaves. “In all of Sky, I have never seen wings like these.”
“That’s because they’re not meant for the sky.”
Metal clinks and clangs.
“Don’t you dare put that in your mouth, Dragon! I brought you in here for one reason. You’ll go back to Caelus and tell him about all this.”
“You should return and tell him yourself.”
“I have to see this finished. I’ve done too much not to.”
The rain shower becomes a storm, the scrape not quite a roar. “My mission is to bring you home, not tell Caelus about weird wings.”
Issoria’s hiss is the lightning between those droplets, a sizzle no one hears for the thunder. “You’ll tell Caelus about the Auroras. You’ll tell him they’re the infantile creations of a fourth Essence, the Essence of the Stars, and you’ll tell him it exists because of this.”
The Essence of the Stars. I mouth the words, enthralled by their flavor. The Essence of the Stars. Not the Night, not overlapping the other realms, but in the space beyond the sky, swathed in simultaneous night and day. It has no Essence, for there are no humans.
Shaping the words again, lolling them over my tongue, I peer around the corner. I must see this thing that will take humans to the stars.
The air rips, grumbling for several seconds after the knife thrown at my face halts between Halcyon’s jaws. Clawed fingers curl around the handle as his teeth release the dented blade. Its coating of light flickers and crackles.
He turns it beneath an inspecting gaze. “This looks too much like one of Caelus’ feathers.”
“I can’t help it if humans like to copy nature.” She shrugs, wings fanning behind her thrice as big as she is. They are as a monarch butterfly’s rendered in effervescent silver and gold, never still. As they ebb, a glisten behind them peeks at me, a light that whispers of a hundred curves pinched to sharpness. Then, her wings pivot wide again.
“You showed them too much, Issoria.” Halcyon’s claws close around the knife, and it crumples like paper. “Essences are supposed to protect the world from humans, not join them in conquering it.”
He swims through the air, nose in the lead, bones a mere suggestion. Issoria jumps to meet him, and a scaled hand comes down on her sternum. With a ragged cry, she hits the floor, claws around her like the bars of a cage. One punctures her wing and sinks through the metal tile beneath.
She squirms and kicks under the bulging hand, screaming at the Dragon. My ability to comprehend speech has frozen with my heart. All I understand are his intentions. His other hand rises, fingers like swords aimed at the human invention.
My arms fly around his waist. “No, Halcyon! Please!” My voice softens as he looks at me with a tilted head and a curled lip—softens like the ground beneath a monsoon, drawing in all and never letting go. “Please.”
“This is Sky business. Your presence is neither relevant nor wanted.”
“This is the business of Creatures of the Stars, and I—” My voice hitches, but I swallow and press on. “I believe I am one.”
He snorts. “Nonsense.”
“You said I have no connection to an Essence. My Essence is too young to support me.”
“Then you would not exist.” Like a strengthening wind, he stiffens, preparing to break the circle of my arms.
I grip him tighter. “Yet, I do exist, and so do the Auroras. I am closer to them than I have ever been to anyone.”
“I see it.” A wary slant angles Issoria's features, and the acute tips of her teeth glance from under the flat line of her lip. She reaches toward me, and gold wafts from several scrapes beneath her torn sleeve. “The dark expanse of the Pearl’s eyes. Fire coiled within. She’s a fraction of what she will be, and already she’s unlike anything made by Land or Sea. She’s closest to Sky, but we know she’s not Caelus’.”
After a moment, Halcyon lowers his hand. Azure scales revert to pale skin, and curved daggers become fingers.
I release him and finally face the dream that has allowed—no, necessitated—my existence.
It stands as a human-shaped carapace, like a cicada’s abandoned exoskeleton. Its inky, opaque hide conforms to a gnarled, overlapped texture like the Dragon’s scales. Toothed circles dot its surface in gold, recalling the brace that encumbered Jun. Yet, these are tiny and plentiful as a nightscape, their slender cords like comets stealing through the heavens.
Behind it rises a pair of massive wings.
As if a moon drawn to a planet, I approach, fingertips brushing the intricate interlock of feathers. They are as a swan’s yet dipped in onyx and limned in iridescent blue, pulled sharper with a perpendicular slit bisecting each one.
Curiosity sloshes within my core and spills. Like morning light, it washes over all in my vicinity, fills the other Creatures of Essence present, and drums like a thousand heartbeats.
When I ask Halcyon to release Issoria and request she explain this novelty to me, my voice is more than the product of human vocal cords. My mind nudges theirs, wind upon the clouds, and they obey.
With the glow of enthusiasm, Issoria speaks of material. The realm of the Stars would destroy a human’s skin, but this suit protects it. The goggles grant the same security while allowing one to see, and the golden mask delivers air from the flexible containers that hang like braids from the skull.
She pulls a cord and toggles gears to prompt flame from the feathers’ slits.
If I ever wanted wings before, that is dust compared with the supernova that is my wish for these. I close my eyes and picture them on my back. I search out their feeling, explore how they attach, how the muscle winds my shoulders and sides and shifts at my whim.
Nothing happens. I remain wingless, a lowly ant not yet worthy of the stars, trapped in this form just as when I was a stone.
Not a sea stone. A star stone.
My eyes dart to the Dragon. How I covet his skill. Can he sculpt any shape he envisions or only those his Essence has given him?
His Essence, Caelus, the Essence of the Sky. He is a blurry shadow in my mind, a fluffy vapor constantly reshaped. Sal claims to have met him, yet he did not tell me the story. Sal fears him, and Issoria wants this fickle Essence to know of the new realm. What will he do with that information?
“It can’t turn out like it did with Mare,” Issoria answers. “Caelus needs to find the infant Essence and care for it.”
Halcyon’s nose crinkles as he circumnavigates the starsuit. “Terra has always raised the younger Essences. Why should Caelus search for it?”
“I don’t want a hostile border between Sky and Stars like there is between Sky and Sea.” She fiddles with knobs on one of the many tools littering a workbench. “As the humans travel out there, I want to go with them.”
He stops, head listed, and his silence pulls at me, a string harpooning the words that simmer on my tongue.
He breaks it with the barest voice, syllables stretched. “Do you wish to be gifted to the new Essence?”
Her eyes flick to me, as brief and blistering as lightning. Will they change from sky blue to night black like mine if she is given to my Essence?
I capture my cheek between my teeth, unsure of what I hope she replies. I do not want to share my Essence, though I will have to with someone. If Issoria helped the Essence of the Stars come into existence, does she not have a greater claim them I?
With a huff, she points her nose in the air. “That would be a silly wish. When Caelus asked for a gift from Mare, she killed the Swine rather than give him away. Why should I expect Caelus to do differently?”
“What one thinks will happen and what one wishes to come about are not often the same.” Lance melts through the back wall as if stepping through a wave. Metallic edges glow orange as the wall heals without a scar.
Halcyon strikes like a serpent, but Lance catches his neck. His bones crack, and the Dragon falls limp.
My eyes and mouth widen, but only soundless tears escape.
Issoria fumbles her tools with an iron clatter, her every line flattening. Her voice is a single, low note. “Who let you in?”
“No one. I came through this flimsy wall.” He leans against it, drops Halcyon, and inspects his nails. “The question is about what you honestly want, Pixie.”
I crawl toward the fallen Dragon. He lies much too still, and my heart does the same, a stone in my chest as heavy as the world.
Issoria’s wings flutter. “You’re not even going to bother with my name, Unicorn?”
“Caelus makes at least twenty of everything.” He shrugs. “I can’t bother to remember all your names.”
“I’m the one you invited to travel the world with you.” A tempest’s howl fractures her reply as I reach Halcyon.
His skin is ice.
Lance laughs. “Pixie, ‘the one’ would be a misnomer.”
“Lance.” I grab his shin, fingers digging in. “Did you kill him?”
With a sigh, he kneels. “Creatures of Essence don’t die so easily. When he wakes up, he’ll have learned not to annoy me.”
I look down at Halcyon. His silver ringlets are half-transformed into wispy strands of cloud. Scales of the purest blue dot his skin, and massive molars peek from his elongated jaw. The incomplete shift renders his expression difficult to interpret, but its tightness and twist hint at pain.
As an idea comes to me, the boundaries of my frown buoy. “He shared energy with me, and now I can return the favor.”
“No, Honey. I’ve shared more with you than he has, and I won’t let you repay that debt yet.” Lance moves to cradle me, but I evade the scoop of his palm.
Issoria catches me from behind, long arms like a rib cage. A trap. Her intention is to trap me.
“You know what would be wonderful, Pearl?” Her breath strokes my ear and sets my fallen strands of hair in a swaying dance. Her ripped jacket sizzles wherever it touches my skin.
I wish for Halcyon’s claws, but of course none appear. Even if I could shift, would I be limited to the two forms I know: human and stone? Both harmless.
“If you, a Creature of the Stars, were to allow us to study you, imagine what we could achieve.”
“You make progress by studying me, yet I only exist because of your progress.”
She nods, cheek against mine. “An irony, yes, but one that works in our favor. The humans learn, and you grow.”
The tiniest of warnings slithers along my spine. The act is not as important as the why. What will the humans do with what they learn? Already they have made blades and projectiles that can hurt us.
Jun wants to kill Mare.
Yet, my eyes slide back to the spacesuit. Energy fills me. How amazing the human mind is.
I bite my lip and only succeed in pinning down half my smile. “Issoria, tell me more.”
I’ve never been in a cage that looks like a cage. This one has bars. It’s roomy if not big enough. To sit, I have to slouch, and to lie, I have to curl my knees in. Wood shavings cover the bronze bottom and fill the air with the piney scent of the forest where I wish I was. Steam turns to dew on the metal lid and drips.
I’m somehow both very wet and still overheating. It’s been hours, and they’ve given me nothing. As I contemplate drinking the condensation, Pike shows up.
He stares at me.
I stare back.
He stares more, rubs his narrow, square chin, and hums a descending note.
I turn my spine to him.
“You’re a Sea Swine?”
“That’s what they tell me.” I don’t look at him, but I can feel his squint.
He hums again. “I don’t see it.”
Now I turn. “Then why don’t you let me out?”
He kneads the back of his neck, then laces his hands behind his head. “Listen, none of us real followers of science believe that poor animal we caught today was some mythical being. An undocumented species, perhaps. A mutation maybe…”
He leaves the thought dangling as if I’m supposed to grab it. I don’t.
He straightens, hands falling slowly, reaching toward a tray of pointy tools I try not to look at. “I’m not convinced you are whatever it was either. I mean, you look nothing like it. It was changing shape, but it never looked convincingly human, and it didn’t speak.”
Saburra didn’t feel like dignifying them with speech, but I won’t tell him that.
I face him and lean as close to the bars as I dare, not touching them. I’ve already made that mistake. “What do you think I am, then?”
He picks up a cylinder with several knobs and extends it. I fight a flinch and lose, but I don’t retreat. I hold my breath as if it is reins keeping me in place. Pain echoes my current hurts. Caelus’ feathers through my shell. A pirate harpoon in my belly. Jun’s knife impaling my side and heart.
Please, Pike, don’t.
I can’t say it. My mouth is too dry.
Cold water drips on my head. It runs down my face and tastes of metal.
His eyes catch on his sleeve or something hidden beneath it. “Mare isn’t real, but if she was, do you think we could make a deal with her?”
Continued in chapter 30: Science and Stars
Thank you for reading!
Alliance ch 30: Whispered Breaths
A Zalerit proverb claimed one had no need of weapons when in a lover’s embrace—no weapon beyond wit and whispered breaths.
The irony amused Atok. The proverb’s authors intended no allusion to whispers, literal weapons in a Mind Aylata’s arsenal. Yet, between those gifted with this type of Talent, romantic embraces involved more than physical touch.
He carefully kept to his own head as he traversed a corridor in the new Aylata Tower, all too aware of Lady Evimé at his side. Alcoves lined the walls, each with a metal cast of a clan symbol—stacked rectangles for Ekymé, four wings for K’alaqk, an abstract Ier surrounded by eight shattered stars for Quanko.
Atok’s surname was only three generations old, a blip on the timeline compared to those with whom it kept company. Revel was kind to include it in the display.
Evimé stopped before it, splashed in the cold mist of surprise. She reached for his hand, but he tucked it behind him. Her empty grasp hovered long enough for him to regret his resolve, an apology bubbling on the back of his tongue, but she retracted it and fondled the engagement pendant through her left ear. Its Blamooka fire stones glowed, the same shape as the artwork.
It will be her name, too. She is engaged to my brother.
When she stood near Ponruk, did his blood race like this? It must. How could it not? Yet, the idea birthed envy, a twisted, shriveled sprout that split at every touch of logic’s wind. He wanted every world to acknowledge the thrill that was Evimé Clin’s presence, and at the same time, he wanted it to be unique to him.
He swiveled forward, feet pointed toward the guest quarters he had asked the Tower computer to secretly prepare at the end of this hall. These thoughts were a delusion of destiny and exclusivity. He knew better, yet…
“Why are you ashamed of me?”
He flinched at her words, so quiet yet so sharp. Not ‘are you ashamed.’ ‘Why are you ashamed,’ with no doubt to the shame’s existence.
Swallowing his first objection, he turned to her, hands locked around each other behind his back. “What reasons lead you to the conclusion that I am?”
“You are free to roam this Tower, and if I doubted that, this”—she swept a hand at the metallic rendering of Ier and stars more than twice her height—“testifies to your acceptance. It can represent no one else whom the faux emperor would honor.”
He held back all retorts. Revel K’alaqk had been chosen by the Ravida and was therefore as valid as Kys the First had been. He was better even. When crowned, Kys the First had not even known how to read, and Revel could read much more than words. However, telling Evimé what she should believe would not win her, and this was not about her political alignment. Not yet.
She continued. “So, it is not yourself you wish to hide by skulking through these basement halls on alert for anyone’s notice. You want not to be seen with me.”
He wanted nothing more than to tell everyone she was his, but his gaze cut to the engagement pendant.
“If you want me not, Atok, you should not have asked me to stay.” She reached out to him again, and though she did not touch him, fingers a handspan from his jaw, her mind did. The Mental caress had the texture of cream and the strength of the tide. It rewarded thoughts of forward movement with slick, warm bursts of euphoria. Notions of flight impaled themselves upon blades of flame and agony.
It was not a suggestion per se, this subtle art passed from mother to daughter. It was a tenuous offering, as weak as an overextended hand, but it promised happiness—or at least pleasure—to those who reached for it.
His feet followed its summons and brought him to her, cheek leaning into her touch. She flowed only one step with the advance, then her spine pressed against the Quanko art, denying further retreat.
In a voice so quiet, it may only have been the distorted echoes of that tap, she asked, “Beneath the weeping tree in Kikari Station’s gardens on the day of my debut, you remember?”
“Our first kiss.” When he had thought he would be allowed to ask for her.
Sereh were often betrothed by the end of their debut gala. High Lady Clin had not accepted any proposals for her daughter that evening because she expected an offer from Grand Lady Quanko that never came.
Until it did, apparently, but for the wrong son.
“You told me you loved me. Do you still?” She pushed off the representation of his name and tilted against him, her softness and warmth like clouds and daylight—such uncapturable things, yet here they were, personified and tangible.
His hand met hers on his cheek, slid up her arm, tangled in her sleeve, tugged her closer. She was the afternoon sky, and he was an ocean, waves curling across the border between them.
As she tilted her head to accept the deepening kiss, the engagement pendant chimed. The stones’ glow highlighted the ample curve of her cheek, throat, shoulder, the bulge where her pale Skaelao skin met the dark velvet of her low-cut top. His hand followed that line in reverse order, fingers fanning behind her neck and thumb brushing her jaw. Like weight added to a scale, the gesture inverted her tilt and hid the accursed jewelry from his sight.
It was not meant to come off easily, yet he would not leave it. A tug, a twist—each gained a hair’s worth of progress in unraveling the metal knots and laces. With each, he provided a distraction via lips, breath, a press, a squeeze, or a touch only in their minds.
With a growl, she rose onto the tips of her toes—taller than him—and he rewarded her with greed. Tighter, faster, fiercer, deeper. The emotion was a raging river to their Mental senses—cool, strong, and hungry. It was also acidic.
His shoulders hit the wall of the alcove.
Sweet kisses and sweeter whispers, the poets said.
Nothing about this was sweet.
His left hand splayed across her lower back, holding her to him, when the pendant came free in his right. She gasped, and though he chased that breath, she ducked and pounced on the stolen jewels before they could disappear in his pocket.
She pried at his fist. “I need that.”
“To fall back on when I fail?”
She stilled. “It is a sign of my obedience to my mother.”
“It is a sign of your lack of trust in me.”
“I do trust you, Atok.” Yet, she did not let go.
“Then kiss me again.” Her hands fell from his, and she studied his face, faintly shaded eyes burning with even fainter chrysolite and the coals of resolve. “Kiss me, and I will wear it as a sign of your promise, forged in the fire of my blood.”
So he did, slowly, as he wrapped a whisper in amusement. ‘The fire of your blood. You have not your father’s Fire Talents.’
‘I have been told it matters not what Talent a Sereh possesses, only the ones she carries.’
It mattered to Atok, though, that she shared his Talent. That she could touch him both outside and in. That he could share these sentiments with her without a word, and he did.
She responded with silken pride and an engulfing Mental caress.
It collapsed as another’s whisper fell into his mind. ‘Atok.’
‘Not now.’ His fingers crawled through Evimé’s ringlets.
‘You will be teleported here in three seconds,’ Revel said. ‘Consider that a warning.’
Atok broke from Evimé. “Computer, n—”
Darkness and tearing. Smashing and light. This room sat high in the Tower, one wall formed of windows. Evening shaded the cloudless sky, and shadows pooled in Reiceilako Canyon. A loft in the corner boasted the throne from the emperor’s antechamber back in Kobolast, plush with lyoko fur. Revel K’alaqk balanced on the edge of its cushion.
Atok glared at him. “The next time the computer does that, it breaks.”
“An idle threat,” she said, voice echoing. “My reach is greater than yours.”
Nothing was beyond the reach of an intuitive Watcher, but he let it go, noting the room’s other two occupants. High Defender Bril Dekkom stood at the bottom of the loft’s stairs, a large, older man with fog-bright eyes, a crooked scar between them, and a reputation for silence. Per usual, his trusted second, Defender Lioden Nyoki, lurked at his side, a shadow made of glowers.
An odd tension hung in the air, untouched by Revel’s usual calm façade. Sorrow locked around him like steel, tethers of trust taut and fraying.
“What happened?” Atok asked.
Revel rose. “Spycykle has found some disturbing evidence against you.”
And you would believe Spycykle over me?
He knew better than to say it. Spycykle’s tips were always accurate and perfectly timed. Dread hatched in Atok’s deepest bones. The palace courtyard and sparring princes flashed in his mind. Sarqii had tried to warn the others.
Revel’s words fell like boulders and guillotine blades. “You and I discovered that Princes Ontz, Sarqii, and Chyr were killed by death suggestion. Likely Emperor Gera Kys as well.”
A tremor ran through Atok. He had an idea where this headed and no excuse to stop it.
“Yet you knew that,” Revel continued. “Those death suggestions were yours.”
Chyr’s smile. Reluctance like sludge as you slip into the boy’s mind. You don’t want to do this. The palace’s grand chamber glitters through Chyr’s eyes, so much sharper than your own view. Tugging. Ripping. Pain. Darkness.
Atok held his mask in place though unease slithered between every cell. He knew the next argument: Whoever killed the royal family likely also killed the Ravida.
“You do not deny it, so why, Atok?”
He swallowed, hands rigid at his sides. “I swore never to tell.”
“I will not tell that either.”
Revel strode to the stairs, his layered emperor’s robe open and billowing like wings of ink. “So you hid it from me, pretended to help me search, but you already knew.”
Atok’s mask cracked, allowing a tremor in his cheek, his lip. “Not everything.”
“Did you kill the Ravida?”
Revel halted, scrutiny a spearhead on his gaze. Atok fought every flight instinct. He was a worm on a hook, wiggling in vain. The fish Revel wanted would not come for this kind of bait.
See the truth, friend, or at least see the lack of deceit and ask not further. You will not like the answers.
Though soft, Revel’s voice stroked the walls, and they repeated it. “Do you know who killed the Ravida?”
A scream cut through the room.
Atok whirled. Near the door centered in the wall opposite the windows, Evimé thrashed in the arms of Reiceilako District’s Protector, Lemlan Kiqkion.
“Release her.” The suggestion bubbled from Atok’s throat, one part command, nine parts growl.
The Protector’s hold unraveled, and Evimé dropped, the click of her heeled shoes echoing louder than her gasp. Atok extended a hand toward her, but Kiqkion grabbed her arm.
The Protector’s gaze lanced past him and set on Revel. “Let one Skaelao in, and spies breed like rebalo.”
“Lady Evimé Clin is a Sereh, and you will not touch her.” Atok placed a hand over Kiqkion’s—a promise. If that grasp did not retreat, multiple bones would break.
Kiqkion’s grip tightened.
Revel’s hand clasped Atok’s shoulder, and the raw flesh hidden there writhed, recalling the electric caress of that Partah’s weapon just before he had omitted Evimé’s arrival when asked.
He wrenched at Kiqkion’s wrist.
Revel hauled him back. “You will hand over your Ier to be tested against the Ravida’s wounds.”
Atok stilled, an ice dagger of fear through every joint. “You know I did not—”
“I cannot leave any doubt or mystery in this.” Revel let him go, and it took everything Atok had not to sink to his knees.
“If it was me, what then?” So weak. So hoarse. Invisible hands strangled him. “I know what fate he decreed for me.” In a rote move, his Ier slid into his hand.
Kiqkion’s intention slammed into him before the Protector moved. Atok dodged, but Defender Nyoki was there. A shove brought him to Kiqkion, so Atok planted his left heel and poured his momentum into a right-footed sweep. Kiqkion flew back. Airborne and upside-down, Nyoki caught Atok’s shin and slammed both feet into his shoulder.
He collapsed, breath gone, and chased Nyoki’s ankles off his chest with an arm. His unopened Ier clattered on the unfinished floor’s padding, beyond his reach.
“Still,” Evimé suggested.
It lasted an instant, but that was enough for him to topple the Defender and scrabble at those Mental strings himself. Nyoki knew better than to meet his gaze, and the only pieces of his mind Atok could reach were half-frozen slush—they stung to the touch and, while seeming solid, flowed between his fingers.
Nyoki’s body was just as fluidic. Legs encircled Atok’s waist, and arms wrapped his neck, squeezing the life out of him.
Kiqkion aimed a flaming kick at his stomach, and Atok rolled. The blow reverberated through Nyoki, strong enough to hurt even through this living shield. The Defender’s silent pain was a second blow, like a metallic rasp against Atok’s teeth.
Kiqkion grabbed Atok’s arm and hauled them up, a pistol in hand. Atok kicked the weapon, and Kiqkion yelped. His pain added to Nyoki’s, phantoms of those broken fingers echoing in Atok’s hands.
He twisted free of Nyoki and let his feet slide from under him, arms up to protect his head from Kiqkion’s foot and flames. The kick hooked around an elbow and jerked it aside as Kiqkion’s vice of a grip clamped down on the other. They spun like dancers at a ball in fast-forward. Atok’s feet scraped the floor to no avail, smoke trailing from his sleeve.
When they stopped, a cold, hard barrel drew a perfect circle between his lower ribs. It fired.
Evimé’s scream drowned out any other sound. Through barely open, barely focused eyes, Atok found her.
“Make them stop,” she pled, clinging to Revel’s arm. “Please make them stop!”
Stop. He could not stop. They would kill him, and these secrets would die with him as they should. As he had vowed they would.
Prince Sarqii steps toward the Ravida, but the entirety of his memory sits in your hands. With needles of his own fear, you unknit them. He can no longer walk, cannot stand, cannot breathe, and neither can you.
Atok’s heel met Nyoki’s hip. The circle dropped away from his ribs, but the acid in his veins remained as Kiqkion yanked him into another spin. His arm wrenched behind him.
He crashed into Nyoki. One arm slithered over his shoulder and resumed crushing his throat. Another curved around his side and aimed a kanaber at his heart.
“Halt.” Revel’s suggestion this time, infinitely stronger.
For a beat, no one moved, all eyes on their emperor. Annoyance simmered in Nyoki, pungent like sunbaked carrion. The kanaber’s point hovered a finger’s breadth from Atok’s chest. His free hand on Nyoki’s wrist might as well have been trying to push the wall.
As if a statue at the base of the stairs, High Defender Dekkom had not moved except that now he held Evimé’s arms locked behind her. Tears streaked the hand covering her mouth.
The dormant square of Atok’s Ier vanished into Revel’s pocket as he stopped before them, hand extended in demand of the kanaber. “You shot him. What was in that dart?”
A dart, not a bullet. A drug. It rode in his blood and set the border of his body and mind ablaze. He knew this drug.
Ridduxe, the worst punishment he had ever received. It stripped away his Talent as if ripping off a limb and repeated the process second by second. Nyoki’s pain was gone, as was Kiqkion’s. It was all his own.
Nyoki deactivated the laser knife, but its sleeping hilt remained pointed at Atok’s heart. “You can’t continue sparing him. The kanaber would be kinder, really.”
Revel’s brows drew together. “My whisper does not reach him. Did you dose him with Ridduxe?”
“The modified version we use on our Alliance targets.” Nyoki shook his head, and Atok’s hand fell from his wrist. He couldn’t feel where it was, only that it was on fire despite the lack of visible flames. “It’ll kill him, but it’ll take a while as it eats him from the inside out.”
Somewhere behind them, Kiqkion guffawed in approval. The emotion should have skittered across the back of his mind like insect feet. It should have smelled of boiling broth, sounded like a distant keen, or shone like morning’s first rays. Instead, Atok hovered in a sea of pain. With every heartbeat, its waves washed over his head.
“Give him the antidote,” Revel ordered.
Nyoki remained stationary. Atok’s skull throbbed, and bile rose. Revel was in control only on the surface, his hold on the world oiled by information, and he sorely lacked that in these recent months. Atok sagged in the Defender’s arms.
Please, at least take Evimé away. She should not watch this.
From his previous experience with Ridduxe, he knew he would not be able to hold back his screams. She should not have to watch him die, but especially not like that.
He would not die like that.
Atok ordered his hand to return to Nyoki’s.
“The Ravida is dead, and whether Atok cooperates or not, he has information I need. Give him the antidote.”
It took several attempts, but finally the kanaber’s hilt burned beneath his palm. He tugged it closer.
“If you let him beneath your defenses with a memory flash, you’ll be the next victim.”
The faint, distorted voice did not understand how Revel’s Talents worked. Revel could take whatever memory he wanted with no lowering of defenses involved.
The hilt pressed against his chest. His thumb fumbled over Nyoki’s for a position on the toggle. A swallow, one last breath, and a confession. “I killed the princes. On the Ravida’s order.”
* * *
Following orders kept one alive if not sane. Rifo always did his best to follow the plan. More than that, he made sure he knew all branches of the plan before they set off. Plans always went wrong. By his calculation, he had spent seventy percent of his life worrying about his team and the other thirty percent implementing rescue operations.
No part of the plan called for Twi and Ekymé to vanish down an abyss, so when Lanox asked what they were supposed to do now, he fell back to basics: Rescue the person who could answer that question.
They tossed pebbles into the cave and never heard them strike the bottom.
Head tilted and impractical number of beads chiming, the Sereh Aliara promised to devote her resources to discovering where they had gone. No deceit soured her declaration, but darkness outlined it—an ulterior motive. Rifo didn’t trust her. Let her search her way. As soon as she was out of sight, Rifo and Lanox repelled into the cave themselves.
Their individual ropes were too short, so they lashed the two lines together and tied themselves back to back. Rifo did the work of repelling, and Lanox played lookout, her ju’wack on for light. She insisted this way was safer, and though Rifo doubted it, he tired of arguing with her.
He wasn’t sure what they hoped to find at the bottom. They couldn’t leave without checking, yet he dreaded reaching a gruesome scene.
“Lanox, when we reach the end, I don’t think… What are ya doing?”
Her fingers drummed her arm and the back of his bicep, but before she answered, his sys beeped. Hope dared lift its head as he tapped his ear to answer the call.
Both in real-time and in a delayed, electronically amplified roar, Lanox shouted, “How dare ya fall in a hole like that! Ya had me worried within a moment of my life!” A squeal ended the tirade as they fell then jerked to a halt.
Rifo strangled the rope. “I didn’t fall down any hole, and if ya want to prevent my doing so, don’t yell in my ear!”
“Rifo?” Tears choked her. “Why do you have Ekymé’s sys?”
“He had his datapad, and he only had the time to modify two syses.” Rifo let out an over-patient sigh. “He gave me one, and ya have the other. Actually, he gave the other one to Twi.”
“But I always take care of the electronic stuff!” Offense oozed off her though Rifo hadn’t accused her of anything.
He didn’t push it. He already knew the answer to his unspoken question: Xlack gave the sys to Twi because he didn’t want to lose her, and Twi had given it to Lanox for the same reason.
If Twi is dead, we have to complete the mission ourselves. We have to rescue those taken and negotiate some agreement that this never happens again.
He didn’t even know where to begin.
Above all, I have to make sure Lanox survives.
As he resumed their downward journey, her tapping returned.
“What are ya doing now?”
“We should tell Estiga Mystis what’s happened. And Estiga Sterra.”
“Lanox, I don’t—”
It was too late. She had already convinced the device to somehow stream through this foreign network and reach beyond it. She had mad hacking skills.
Sadness coated his skin like sweat. Twi was also good with machines, but through different means. Lanox tinkered and pushed buttons. She read tech articles and picked up terms for everything. Twi, on the other hand, spoke to electronics through her ’netics. The pattern of ebb and flow was a language to her.
“I’m linking you in,” Lanox said.
Distance and static warped Sterra’s traditional Knalcal greeting. “Oitat.”
“Oitat, Estiga,” Lanox chirped, and Rifo hoped the fact that she didn’t bother to announce herself meant she had included introductory information in the call.
“Lanox?” Despite the distortion, Sterra’s alarm rang true.
“Twi and Ekymé fell down a big hole, and Rifo thinks they’re dead!”
He nearly dropped them again. “I didn’t say that.”
“But ya do think so. Oh, what do we do, Estiga?”
“It was a trap,” Rifo added. “Ravi Sirvette’s little sister led us into it.”
Sterra spoke slowly, over-annunciating. “You do not know for certain they are dead?”
“We’ll know soon enough.” Rifo cleared his throat and tried to steady his voice. “We’re headed down now, but it’s deep, Estiga.”
Lanox’s panic burned. “Tell us what to do.”
“If…” Sterra’s voice faltered, and she drew a deep breath. “Can you navigate without them?”
The answer fell trembling from Rifo’s mouth. “I could find my way back to where we hid our oha. I could fly it, but we would be spotted. I would have to outmaneuver any pursuers.”
“And what would that accomplish?” Mystis cut in. Either Lanox had managed to call both leaders and Mystis had just now decided to contribute to the conversation, or she had stolen the sys right off Sterra’s ear. He wasn’t sure which was more likely.
“Why do you run away like a skittish bird from a child?”
“Because a child with laser weapons is a dangerous prospect.”
“Indeed,” Mystis agreed with some amusement, “but my question stands. If you return now, what will you have accomplished?”
“I have no allies here.”
Aliara would never have talked to him. Even if she would have for the prospect of gaining exotic intel, he would never have known to look for her.
“Yet, it is you on whom we rely.”
“What do ya want me to do?” The words dripped out so softly, he wasn’t sure the sys could pick them up and carry them all the way back to Knalz.
“You’re a good negotiator, Rifo. Find your way to their emperor and use what you can: his wants. His weaknesses. And stop saying I as if you are alone. You have Lanox. Izeko and several members of his hrausq will be guiding a modified Knalcal fleet to join you.”
A fleet? Hardly subtle.
“And keep on the lookout for Sažka,” Sterra added. “Ravi Sirvette took her. She is a linguist and observer—potentially useful in your cause, but what she learns can put her in more danger.”
Rifo to the rescue yet again. The familiar. The expected. His chest swelled with determination.
He repelled down another two body lengths. “I do as I am told, Est—”
Lanox shrieked. “I see the bottom!”
A few more hops brought them there. The rock floor was bare, no trace of their missing teammates. No bodies, no blood, no footprints in the dust. The space was barely as wide as he was tall, the walls unmarred by cracks or passages.
Nausea overtook Rifo, a chill that penetrated his every cell in micro-second bursts. Did this mean they were alive? Where were they? His legs crumpled, and he hung from the rope securing him to his remaining teammate. The soup he had eaten met the floor.
Lanox ran her hands along the walls, ju’wack held between her teeth. Somehow she still managed to speak. “Twi said they had teleporters in Aylata Tower. That must be what happened. They were teleported away, and they’re alive.”
Rifo gulped the stale air. “Where?”
She shrugged. With her head tilted and the laser staff still in her mouth, she looked like a pet fetching a too-large stick. “That’s what we need Aliara for.”
“Right.” He pressed his feet to the floor, tested his legs, stood. He wasn’t sure if Mystis and Sterra were still on the line. “Right. We continue on with the mission. We ask her to take us to the emperor. If Twi and Ekymé are still alive, that’s where they’ll be headed, too.”
Continued in chapter 31
Thank you for reading!