Rooftop in Golden Light
I'd like to say that I can see every building in the city up here, but I can't. The wind's blowing in my eyes enough to make them sting, and my hair, short but sharp, cuts at my cheeks. Still, the sight from up here is gorgeous.
"Julienne, come back inside."
I turn my head to watch Lise climb the last rung of the ladder onto the roof, but I don't say anything. She pulls her cape tighter around her tall frame either to keep out the cold or to keep it from whipping in the wind, I can't tell. Her blonde hair is pulled back so tightly into its bun that the wind can't even ruffle it.
"They all know?" I ask. It's barely a question. I turn back to the view of the city, watching the setting sun turn everything golden, watching the shadows rise and fall between buildings.
Lise comes to stand next to where I'm sitting, never one to be afraid of heights. "I think so," she replies quietly.
I shudder against the cold, my shoulders hunched.
"You have to come back in eventually."
I narrow my eyes, staring at the scar on my palm. "No one wants me in there, Lise. Not today."
Her boots shift. "I do, of course. And Mickaël."
"Mickaël just likes to have me around for gossip."
"The lady wounds me," comes Mickaël's voice, deep and quiet. I whirl towards the sound, finding him leaning against the chimney. I hate that he can still surprise me, even when I know how silently he can move.
"If you keep sneaking around like that you're bound to overhear people complaining about you," I snap at him.
"I'm used to it," he says, amused.
I shift my jaw and decide to keep quiet, listening to the wind blow past the rooftop.
"You'll come with me." It's a command. Lise is holding her hand out to me, her cape free, snapping violently in the wind. I stare at the hand she offers, her right, clad in a black glove. Black to match the rest of her outfit. I know what's underneath that glove: the matching scar to my own.
I clasp her hand and let her pull me upright. When I look into her face, I see that she's relieved, that she thought it would take more work to convince me. I glance over at Mickaël, and a smile twitches onto his face. Sometimes I wonder if he can read minds with those green eyes of his.
"I'm sorry, Lise, you'll have to go in without me," I say. Then, quickly enough to startle her, I take off, feet pounding against the rooftop, heading west into the setting sun: the blinding golden light.
I can't hear Mickaël running behind me, his footsteps are too light, but when I glance back he's there, keeping pace. And when I jump to the next building, he follows, leaving Lise all alone.
On the Edge of a Bell Tower
In that moment, running across the rooftop, I want nothing more than to leap off the side, alter my arms into a collection of familiar inky feathers, and glide to street level. But I don’t. Not with Lise still watching, and definitely not with Mickaël behind me.
I’m banking on Lise’s energy being too low to follow me; she’d been training some of the council’s children on altering earlier in the day so she’ll likely be drained. Mickaël’s easy to shrug off, but Lise? Near impossible. It is her job to be by my side, I know, but it can be exhausting.
Mickaël’s quick, silent feet soon overtake me, and suddenly he’s ahead of me, running like a cat across the shingles, leaping deftly from one building to the next. We’re lucky the architecture in this city is built so close together. He makes a precarious jump, his fingers rippling into a scaly texture as he grabs hold of a drainpipe, then hoists himself up. Gecko hands: a trick he taught me, too.
I follow, only stopping when he does: when we’ve both scaled the side of an old church. He hops into the opening of the bell tower only to sit down on the ledge and dangle his feet outside. He watches me as I climb in much less gracefully, my skin itching to alter, but I hold back. I don’t sit next to him, just put my forearms on the ledge and lean, letting the cold air cool me off after the exercise.
“Better,” he tells me, and I consider pushing him off the ledge. Just because he taught me climbing when we were both pesky kids does not mean I want continual updates on how superior he is. Or thinks he is. I’ve had years of practice--far beyond what he knows about--and I’m often tempted to let loose, to show him what I can really do. But I always hold back. Try not to alter too much, run too fast, jump too smoothly.
“Lise is going to be very upset with me when I return,” is all I say in reply, squinting into the distance as if I might see her. She despises our climbing adventures, partially because she hates to admit that she could never keep up. She’s much more water-oriented than either of us.
“When is Lise not upset? I think she enjoys being in distress over you, Julienne.” Mickaël puts a hand in the air, twirling it slowly, watching the skin flutter between colors and textures. He’s well practiced; he transitions seamlessly from one to the next--black cat fur, cardinal feathers, lizard scales, and back to human skin again.
“Do you just do that to show off?” I don’t bother hiding my annoyance, and his green eyes flash when he looks at me.
With a slow precision, his eyes still on mine, Mickaël alters his whole left arm into peacock feathers. And not just the tail feathers, though those do cover what I can see of his bicep down to his wrist. His hand is the shimmery dark blue of a peacock’s body, his fingertips a pale yellow to match the skin around one's eyes. “And what are you saving up your alterations for tonight?” he asks with a raised eyebrow.
I can’t tell him. Or I won’t, anyway, so I push away from the ledge and blow out a breath. “Alterations aren’t a party trick,” I recite back to him.
He shifts back to his regular light brown skin. “Not a very good trick when anyone can do it.”
While he’s right--everyone can alter their skin to mimic other creatures--I don’t take the bait and admit that most can’t change that cohesively, let alone make such a show of it. We both know he’s very skilled, so I just kick a boot against the ledge idly.
The last rays of sun are almost gone, and I should technically be back at the dinner. Though, so should he. Not that many would miss him. Most of the council refer to him only as ‘the bastard son,’ which is harsh, but he doesn’t much try to make any other name for himself either.
Regardless, I know for a fact neither of us will be returning to the council dinner, because when the sun sets, we have much, much more exciting things to be doing.
“I should go before Lise finds me and skins me,” I say, sticking my face out of the bell tower to absorb what little sunlight I can still get.
“Do you mind going cheetah print before you do? It’d be a lovely rug, if nothing else.”
This time I do push him, and his fingertips turn into butterfly wings, as if that will help his balance, as he attempts not to fall out of the bell tower.
“Goodbye, Mickaël,” I say with a satisfied smile, then step back out onto the rooftops.
Crows Come Out at Night
When I’m far enough away from the châteaus and the council house, I stop and discard my cape. I could wear it into the city, but capes mark you as a council member, or in my case, an up-and-coming one. Technically anyone from the city can be appointed council member, but the tests are based on skill. So those of us with parents as council members are raised to ace the tests. I won’t even have to try.
Naturally, this creates a division between councilors and city folk, and I prefer not to be identified as the prior. I’ve set up hiding spots around the city, places to stash my finer clothing and exchange it for the thicker, more practical attire popular in the city.
I jump down to street level into an alleyway, where a few large crates are sitting, rotting and forgotten. With a broken scrap of wood, I pry one of them open. The inside is half-full with dried-out corn kernels, and a mouse whips it’s head around to look at me, its ear changing between white, pink, and brown in a the blink of an eye. Its tiny hands flash into bigger paws, and its tail temporarily flicks into a bushy squirrel’s.
It’s always amusing when animals are scared; unlike humans they have no control over their alterations, and they really only ever alter when they sense danger. I watch the mouse regain control of itself and scrabble over the corn and out the top of the box.
Reaching a hand down, I find the pants and poet shirt I’d left here last week. I’m always aware that the clothes might not be here when I come back, but I’m in no position to care. I can always find more. I take off my cape and the embroidered dress that my parents had insisted I wear to the council dinner and put them in the crate, almost hoping that these do get stolen. I don’t hate the clothes, but it is frustrating to be a grown adult and still be told what I can and cannot wear. Mother claims to know what’s appropriate, as if I haven’t spent all twenty-one years of my life in the council house at her side.
I slip into the billowy pants and loose shirt, letting the breeze cut through me. I know I should’ve left a coat of some kind in the crate as well, but I can always purchase one. I use a strip of black cloth to tie my hair back at the back of my head--it’s just long enough to stay. Then, as the finishing touch, I pull my signet ring off my pinky and add it to the chain around my neck, tucking it under my clothes. If the cape wouldn’t give me away as a council member, my family crest would.
The ring is engraved with two wings, Mother’s family symbol, surrounding a blank circle. My ring is identical to Mother’s save for the circle, since hers bares the image of a quill in ink to denote her as a council member of the education branch. Even though I don’t have a council engraving--yet--my family’s been in the education branch for generations, so my family crest could still be recognized. The chances are slim, but I prefer them to be nonexistent.
Now the fun part begins.
I try my best not to alter during the day, sufficiently saving all my energy up for the evenings and nights. Everyone knows that we get our alteration energy from the two suns, so it’s also important to spend as much time outside as possible. I asked Father for a sunroof above my bed when I was eight so that I could soak in the morning sun, even when sleeping.
I feel the familiar rush of the alteration, similar to the feeling of goosebumps, as I alter the skin of my face. It’s not an easy skill, and it takes a lot of energy, but it helps hide my identity. Few people train enough with alterations to learn how to keep one on for long, but I’ve spent years practicing this trick.
I smooth over the mole I have one my chin first, and shadow the skin around my eyes, letting crow feathers grow at the outer edges like extra eyelashes. It’s not an uncommon fashion to add animal patterns to the skin, alteration or just painted on. Black feathers form across my hairline as well, blending into my dark hair and giving my face a different shape.
I emerge from the alley a different person. This one is sure-footed, laid-back, and critical. She’s navigating the streets with ease, as if she’s here all the time, and used to the dust in the city.
I hear the figure in the shadows before I see them, and when their hand snaps out and grips my wrist, I instantly morph my arm into a slippery squid texture, and the hand slides off.
"You told me you wouldn’t do this tonight, Julienne."
I roll my head towards the sound, watch as Lise steps out of the darkness. She’s good; I didn’t think she’d find me tonight.
“It would be nice if you didn’t blow my cover,” I whisper, but there’s no one else around to hear.
Lise’s standing ramrod straight, her arms clasped behind her. Some call it loyalty, I call it borderline suffocation.
Louder, I say, “You saw what happened; I couldn’t stay at the dinner.” My eyes accidentally flick down to where her left hand would be, if I could see it, and she notices. She takes a small step backwards.
The silence in this part of the city surrounds us. It's the slums, an area that's too dark for anyone to want to stay. The suns are blocked by the tall city buildings that have cropped up on either side, so no one living here has the energy to alter unless they go further out into the city during the day. Some people don't mind that way of living, prefer it, even, but most like to live in an area with better sunlight access.
“At least wear your mask, then, if you must,” Lise finally advises. She's given in, probably on account that I'm right: I can't go back to that dinner. And no one will expect me to, either.
I sigh and reach into my boot, where I always keep my small eye mask. The feathers shine almost iridescent black-blue. “And tell Mickaël he’s not off the hook either; you both must attend the next--”
“I won’t be telling him anything,” I tell her firmly. We both know this, but I purse my lips at her anyway.
She touches her forefinger to her top lip. “Be safe. Or I will drag you back to the château, costume or not.”
I turn away, fitting the mask on my face and trying not to let her words sting. She thinks this outfit is a costume, that what I do is a game, that one day I’ll grow out of it and realize that sitting in the stuffy council house is a better way to solve problems. Instead of saying anything else, I climb the nearest house, hoisting myself up by the windowsill, and start across the roof. Not running, just walking.
Unlike earlier, I now have the confidence of my second self. Nothing will stop me now, not Lise, or rumors at a council dinner, or the insecurities that run through my head during the day. It’s all gone now. There’s just one goal for the night: meet up with Lightfoot and make a deal.
They Called Me Raven
We’re going to meet in the city square, because that’s the best place for it: a crowd.
Lanterns are lit, and they spread an orange glow on the street vendors, replacing the light from the suns that are already hidden behind the surrounding clay buildings. The storefronts here are decorated too, lit and painted with lettering, enticing the evening crowds in for cards or dancing or, in a few cases, more elicit activities.
It’s certainly not a place that Lise would want me to be, or my parents. But it doesn’t matter now. I shake out my sleeves, lean into my heels as I walk, nod at the people here as I pass.
I’m still holding onto my alterations--the dark wings along my hairline and some edits to disguise my facial features, wishing I had physical accessories so I wouldn’t have to hold the alteration for so long. Had I planned this outing better, instead of just running out of the council house, I’d have had time to get my gear from my rooms. It’s fine, though, I have the energy to hold it. But I’m already feeling a familiar buzz just behind my forehead, which will only get stronger the longer I hold the alterations on my body.
I pass a black girl with hair down to her ankles, pink and braided, her fingertips matching pink feathers. She’s got a girl on her arm who’s whole forehead is scaly like a crocodile, and her lips are tainted blue. That’s what I like about City Central: there’s no good way to tell what’s an excellent alteration and what’s just a prop. Apart from time, of course, because all alterations fade when the night wears on long enough.
I prop myself up on the side of a building, tucked out of the way of the crowd, just watching. An old man with moths in his beard is dancing in circles around the well in the center of the square. A white boy with a faded vest and a pan flute is providing the music.
“Raven.” It’s a moniker I didn’t choose, but I can’t say I’m surprised, because my disguise always utilizes black feathers. His name is silly too: Lightfoot. But that’s what happens when you do something noteworthy one day and refuse to give a name--one gets assigned to you.
It was about two years ago now, and in this very same place, City Central. I’d been in the Altar, which is a dancing club I frequented ever since turning sixteen. Mother never liked it, which is why I opted for alterations and costume pieces to hide my identity. That night I happened to be wearing a black gown, hair extensions that reached my elbows, and a black feathery mask.
That night I’d just wanted to have a good time.
At first, it was all going according to plan. The Altar encourages masks, mayhem, and music, and, as one might tell from the name, alterations. Most people don’t have much of a use for their alterations; turning your skin wooly like a sheep or wrinkly like an elephant isn’t helpful for most people’s everyday life, not to mention generally considered unprofessional. But at the Altar, the more extravagant the better. They even have altering competitions based on speed, beauty, and magnificence.
I’d been feeling lonely that night--after one of my many fights with Lise--and had befriended some city girls. They’d instantly adopted me as one of them, never once considering that I could be a council member’s daughter. We’d drank together, danced with each other, smeared glitter across each other’s eyelids.
And suddenly the room had plunged into blinding darkness, people were panicking, someone shoved me roughly to the floor. The lights had come back on, and a tall man with thin hair and wide shoulders was holding one of the girls by the back of the neck. She’d been so afraid that her cheeks were altering: flicking back and forth between her pale skin and the spotted short fur of a deer.
I hadn’t thought, had had too much to drink if I’m honest, and had scrambled to my feet and extended my fingernails into eagle’s talons, latching them into his back. He’d screamed, and by that point everyone in the Altar was staring at us. The other girls were cowering, the one that he’d been holding was choking on tears, and that man… that man was angrier than I’d ever seen anyone.
He’d let go of the girl, luckily, but reared back and rammed me against a table. My talons were sunk so deep into his back that I hadn’t had time to pull them out, so anywhere he went I followed. The blood on his back was everywhere, down my arms, on the table, seemingly in my mouth, but really it was just that I’d bit my own tongue.
I pulled back, retrieving my hands, and scraped the talons against his arms this time as he lunged at me. He never altered at all but his eyes were irregularly red. I swear he would've crushed me if he'd had the chance. But this was when Lightfoot appeared, silently and suddenly. A stranger who’d altered his forearms into armadillo plates like armor, and he blocked the man's blows, even though he was smaller.
It was the first time I’d ever seen anyone use alterations to their advantage in such a precise and practiced manner. It was like this stranger knew every secret in the animal kingdom and when best to borrow each trick. I couldn’t see everything, at that point my head had been pounding, but he was able to get the man out of the building, using his alterations to help. He’d altered so fast and so confidently that I don’t think anyone in the Altar was doing anything but staring.
When it was over, days later, I’d heard the city gossip. Two strangers without signet rings identifying them. They called me Raven on account of my appearance; they called him Lightfoot on account of his silence and stealth. He hadn't said a word that entire time, and no one saw him on the way in or out of the Altar. Almost like he was never even there.
Some called us unlikely heroes, some mysterious vigilantes. In reality we were teenagers. Which for me meant it went straight to my head.
It’s all leveled out now, a little. We’re not famous, per se, but we’re known. I don’t like the word vigilante, but I do feel protective of the city. I hadn’t originally meant to become this kind of guardian, but I can't help myself when I hear about problems in the city that I know the council has no intentions of addressing.
I can only assume that Lightfoot feels the same way, though we've never actually worked together. We just end up in the same spot a lot. But not this time. This time I requested him to meet me here, on this day at this time. I'd set it up the last time I'd seen him.
I look over, shaking the memories out of my head. He’s wearing the same golden-colored eye mask as usual. The markings on it make him look a bit owlish, his eyes round and bright. He wears a simple long coat and clothes, nothing flashy, and his dark hair is tied into a bun at the back of his head, as always.
In this form, he looks very, very little like Mickaël. Our identities may be hidden, but his isn’t a secret to me. Or Lise, as I’ve talked it over with her and she agrees that Lightfoot must be Mickaël. They’re both good at climbing, altering, running, and knowing everything there is to know about animals and the stars. It just makes sense.
I’ve considered telling Mickaël, or Lightfoot, as they are one and the same, who I really am. But it feels like a betrayal of the fun to admit that I know, or to give up who I am.
“You’re not going to say anything at all?” Lightfoot asks, tipping his head to the side. It's funny he says that because as Lightfoot he rarely speaks, which is a stark contrast to his Mickaël self. I guess this meeting has him curious enough to ask questions.
I straighten my shoulders--something I’ve seen Lise do a million times, and it makes her look in charge--and tell him, “I’ve got something of a proposition.”
We Can’t See Eye to Eye
She tells me she has a proposition. Raven has a proposition for me. It’s unbelievable.
The last time I’d seen her, she’d been tearing a coin purse out of a thief’s hands, her face disguised in her customary black feathers but her eyes angry like a wild cat’s. Raven then returned the coin purse to a young boy in a feathered cap, his eyes starry and tiny vest askew. The thief, a scraggly woman, had barked out an insult and then bolted, and Raven had knelt down to the boy and whispered something to him. The boy laughed shyly, gazing at her with such wonder.
I don’t think anyone’s ever looked at me that way.
After the boy had left, I had dropped down beside her, surprising a startle out of her. It’s embarrassingly satisfying to sneak up on people. She’d been short with me, but when I was about to go she’d sensed it and suddenly spit out the words, “Will you meet me? On mercredi, just after suns set. In City Central.” I’d nodded.
And like the fool I am, here I am in City Central, and I have no idea what she’s about to say next. I don’t even know whether she thinks we’re on the same side or not; maybe she perceives me as a threat.
“I was wondering…” Raven pauses, her eyes narrowing under her mask. The shadows have become so deep where we’re standing that it almost looks like it’s not a mask at all, but just her face, an elegant blend of black feathers and underneath it, the soft barely-pink color of her lips.
“I was hoping you could help me--as in, come with me on a kind of stakeout. Patrol. More like a patrol. Just to check up on a certain area where I heard there was… crime.” She’s not looking at me, and I wait. The more still I remain, the more she shifts back and forth on her feet.
Without taking her eyes off of the city folk in the square, she continues. “Not today; it would need to be in two days from now--but at night, of course. I know it’s unusual for us to work together, but I know what you can do, and quite frankly I respect it. And I’ve been hearing these rumors around the city about a particular person. He’s…” She chuckles darkly. “He’s bad, and he needs to be stopped before he hurts someone else. I’d do it on my own, but I think in this case I could use some help.” She blows out a slow breath, and I can tell just from that how much it pained her to even ask.
I wait until she’s looking at me to say, “I can’t.”
Her head tips to the side, the fingers on one of her hands twitching. “Lightfoot, I know both of us like to work alone, but think of what we could do together, right?”
Together? I’ve given her opportunities in the past to come with me, to give me a hand, to sit in solitary silence for a while. She doesn’t take them, doesn’t recognize that when I slip into the shadows sometimes I wish she’d follow. I think she could keep up.
Plus, it’s not my job to go look for someone who might be doing something wrong. I’m not stalking people, I’m just watching. I don’t catch criminals or get into fights, I just nudge things in the right direction. I helped a young girl get her hair ribbon out of a tree branch, I lent a silver écu to a middle aged man eying a pair of shoes, I gave a piece of bread roll to a half-hairless dog. Bottom line, I don’t want to enforce the law, I just want to be a good citizen.
“Sorry,” I tell Raven, stepping lightly backwards, washing myself deeper in darkness. The suns have set fully and it’s dark. Alterations will be harder and harder for anyone to maintain.
She whirls on me, spinning and backing me up against the wall of the nearest building, her arms outstretched on either side of my head. In my periphery vision I can see the skin on the backs of her hands flash reddish scales, like a snake. If any of the rest of her skin is altering, I can’t see it. I hold my breath, knowing I’m not afraid of her but also unable to stop my heart from beating loudly in my ears.
“He hurt someone I care about. Does this mean nothing to you? I thought you wanted to protect the people in this city, I thought that’s why you do this--this charade,” she accuses. Despite her stance, which is clearly meant to intimidate, there’s not anger in her voice, but desperation.
I don’t look into her eyes because my blood’s rushing in my ears, and I don’t want her to be mad at me, but I can’t do this with her. Something about it doesn’t seem right. I try to pull in a breath, but it smells like her, richly sweet and also something earthy (corn?) and it feels like I can't get enough air. “I can’t,” I repeat, eyes pulled in the direction of the only skin I can see--her lips--which are screwed up in disgust as she shoves me against the wall once and storms away.
To Be Lonelier Than a Sun
I suck in air as my eyes fly open, the lightest of early morning sun warming my cheek but doing little to stop the flood of images in my head. Fingers, worms, muscles contracting and bones snapping and a tiger’s eye. I can never remember much from the nightmares, but they always leave my stomach feeling empty, like I’ve just thrown up.
Lise stirs next to me, still asleep. Mother says we’re too old to still sleep together–meaning sleep next to each other, as Lise has made it clear that she’s not romantically interested in me or anyone else. When I realized at thirteen that I was attracted to most anyone, I’d gone through a short phase of trying to get her to like me, which mostly involved teasing and taunting. It’s a wonder she still hasn’t grown sick of me.
But we never grew out of sleeping in the same bed. When we were young I used to yell and kick in my sleep, when the nightmares were bad. Mother and Father, at the other end of the château, wouldn’t hear me. They never came to comfort me, not unless our housekeeper, Giselle, went and fetched them. It was always Lise that would come instead to wake me, or to whisper to me until I fell asleep again. Eventually we both agreed that she should just stay in my room all of the time. Though neither of us would admit it, we’re both lonely enough to crave the company.
I get up and get dressed, even though I know it will probably wake Lise. I’m not as sneaky as I think I am around her. She sits up while I’m buttoning my cape at my throat and looks at me for just a half-second before murmuring, “Nightmare?”
There’s no use in lying, so I break eye contact and nod. She swings her feet off the bed, standing, but hasn’t said anything more. I stare at the plait of her braid at her back while she makes her way to the wardrobe. Before she says anything else, I state, “I’m going down to meet Mother.”
I’m sure every morning is chaos in some of the other châteaus, depending on the number of children and elders and members of Service. I can picture council member Régis, his husband, and his four kids in their half of the finance council château; it’s probably bustling with life, with the littlest kids running underfoot and their pre-teen daughter bored of it all and the staff trying desperately to keep everyone in line while also preparing breakfast.
Here, though, in the education château, it’s silent as I make my way downstairs via the outside staircase. The air is already warm and arid, even in the early morning. The suns glimmer on the horizon, one orange and one white. I can see all the land that our château encompasses: the patio and gardens and grassy fields. It’s all empty of movement, save for two birds that twitter as they fly by. An extensive landscape of seclusion, given to us under the guise of luxury.
Back inside, I join Mother in the drawing room, where she always works before breakfast. She has a desk that she piles with the reports from all the other council members, arranged into three stacks: to read, reading, or completed reading. As the head education councilor she believes that she must stay up to date on everything.
She lowers the report in her hands, pulling her small reading glasses off her nose and watching me sit down in the center of the room. “Julienne, nice of you to return to the world of the council.” Her voice is soft; she doesn’t like to scold me, but I know she’s upset that I ditched the end of the council dinner yesterday.
I fold my arms. “Mother, they didn’t need me there. I’m not on council.”
She gets up from behind her desk, twirling her long black hair back into a practiced bun and holding it in place with a feather quill. “Yet. You won’t get this position when I retire if you don’t show that you want it. You need to be as involved as possible.”
I resist rolling my eyes. “I’m involved,” I tell her half-heartedly.
After a beat, she sits on the sofa across from me. “And you also need to stay out of trouble, Jul.”
I feel my neck grow hot, and it itches like it’s going to alter, but I stop myself. Flashes of adrenaline do that to people. She doesn’t know about me going out as Raven, of course, but I don’t like lying and I don’t want her to think I have something to hide.
“Do you want to talk about the girl?” Mother asks. Her long fingers lace together in front of her, and she’s giving me a hard stare. This is an interrogation, I realize, about the rumor last night.
I tip my head back. “It’s not important! Everything’s fine now. She’s gone.”
“Osmont says he saw you two together multiple times. Who is she?” She’s using that voice that she uses on the children that we teach. The voice where she pretends to be on your side but really you’re about to be in trouble.
Curse Osmont and his persistent need to stick his nose into other people’s business. He’s the other education council member but doesn’t have a partner or kids, so his sole duty seems to be meddling in places he doesn’t belong. We had the misfortune of running into each other when I’d brought a girl back to the château, and I’d intended to keep the whole thing quiet, but he has a way of running his mouth.
“It doesn’t matter–”
“It does matter, because we have principles to uphold, Julienne. Toying with city girls is not what we civilized people do.” Her fingers are laced tighter together, her knuckles white.
I hate the pressure building behind my eyes, the feeling that I’m about to cry. “I wasn’t toying with her,” I choke out, remembering the smell of her hair and the way she always giggled when I’d kissed her.
Mother moves so that she’s sitting next to me, wrapping an arm around my shoulders. “All you have to do is introduce her to the council, Julienne. If you want to see her. You know the rules.”
I try to subtly blink the tears back, my fists clenching my lap. The rules. The unofficial rules are that if I’m going to be a council member, I have to get approval on my choice of partner or partners. Anyone in the châteaus, council member or just family, is privy to council knowledge and needs to be trusted. But it all seems unnecessary if I’m not going to marry the person.
Mother rubs my arm soothingly. “I won’t repeat what was said, but you know how stories can unfold into ugly misconceptions. Running off yesterday didn’t help. You need to show the council that you’re responsible and mature.”
Responsible and mature, two adjectives that I’ve never been called in all my life. I shrug her hand off of me. “Right, because that’s simple enough.”
Mother gives me a thin smile. “It’s not hard to win them back to your side. Either make the relationship official, or come with me to the dissertations next week. As a sign of good interest.”
I actually laugh. “You can’t be serious, Mother. Even you find the dissertations boring; I will die of disinterest.” I dig my nails into my palm. “And the girl is gone. So that’s not an option.”
Mother stands, her cape twirling around her legs. “So be it, we will die of disinterest together. And next time, please just present your partner to the council and spare us the drama, yes?”
I stare into the rug on the ground and mutter, “Yes, Mother,” before getting up and leaving.
It's then, walking through the empty hallway, that my mind replays my last memory of Kira, or 'the girl', as Mother called her.
We were laying on the back terrace, basking in the sun like lizards, eating plums off the tray between us. We were deliciously alone; Mother and Osmont were at a council meeting, Father was at the council house doing administrative work (he’s basically Mother’s secretary), and even Lise, for once, was out on last-minute errands, as Giselle had fallen ill.
I had plucked the plum out of Kira’s fingers with a sly smile and taken a bite, relishing the taste. Plum trees hadn’t been in season for so long that I felt like I’d forgotten how they tasted. With our planet’s orbit between two suns being as erratic as it is, the seasons are constantly changing, the plant life with it.
“There’s so much sun out here,” Kira had sighed, her mouth slightly upturned.
“It’s never enough,” I reply, stretching my fingers to the sky like I could take the sunbeams into my hands.
“Julienne,” she had said next, and the tone of her voice had my stomach in knots. Something was wrong.
I had faced her then, touched a finger to the dark skin of her stomach where her shirt had ridden up. Her smile was gone. In the moment, I thought she was going to say something, tell me what she was really thinking. I could see the words being plotted out behind her eyes.
All she said was, “This is the end, Julienne. Goodbye,” as she stood up.
I didn’t hear from her again, even though I tried. And tried, and tried. So now I just need to try a little harder.
Everyone Always Leaves
“Why can’t we call it magic?” Marieke, councilor Nabil’s seven year old daughter, asks me again. She’s chewing on the end of a blade of grass, her little legs crossed underneath her.
I stand, brushing dirt of my trousers, and watch Lise attempt to herd the other children back into the château in an orderly fashion. We’ve just finishing up our lessons with the council member’s children, something that the education branch is specifically tasked with. Ever since Lise and I turned sixteen we’ve been teaching the young ones. Anyone our age or older had had lessons from Father.
“Magic makes it sound mysterious, but alterations aren’t like that, right? You can learn how to do it, just like everyone else can,” I tell Marieke.
“But why does it come from the suns?” she asks as she clambers to her feet.
“We don’t know that yet,” I admit. “But that’s one of the things the council researches. Who knows? It could be your job one day.”
Marieke shakes her head. “No way. I’m going to know all the plants in the world instead,” she insists. “Just like Papa.” She takes off running in the opposite direction of the château, yelling, “I already know a bunch!”
I follow her, having little other choice, and stop just short of where Marieke is crouched down. “These ones are dahlias,” she tells me, running a hand over a bunch of pink flowers as large as her head. They’ve only just bloomed and are beautifully vibrant, planted along the path near the plum trees. I wait as she babbles a few facts about them and then starts attempting to count the petals on one.
“Come on, Marieke, someone will be here to pick you up, and we shouldn’t keep them waiting.”
“I don’t mind waiting,” comes a voice from behind me, and suddenly Mickaël is walking around me and stopping in between me and Marieke, his hands clasped behind his back.
All the words I’d had suddenly drop into the pit of my stomach as I recall our conversation from two days ago. The conversation I’d had with Lightfoot, to be more precise. I’d done a superb job of avoiding Mickaël since then. As soon as I’d stormed off that night I’d recognized how poorly I’d handled the entire conversation, but I couldn’t very well turn around and apologize. I mean, I could have, but I refused to.
Truth be told, I’d been caught completely off guard by his refusal to help me. We’d never worked explicitly together, but I’d always assumed our goals were aligned, and that he considered me an ally. But it seems that he’s as snobbish as Lightfoot as he tends to be as Mickaël.
“I didn’t realize you were coming,” I tell him flatly, watching Marieke pick a ladybug off a leaf and scrunch up her face, concentrating, before successfully altering a patch of skin on her hand reddish with black spots.
Mickaël observes Marieke as well, a soft smile on his face. “That was very good,” he tells her, and she gives him a cautious look. To me he says, “A neighbor’s duty.” The cosmology château, where he lives, is closest to the environment château, so he has escorted the kids before. But only when his older brother Adrien is busy.
“You two should go,” I say, folding my arms.
Marieke is sitting in the dirt again, and Mickaël lazily circles the nearest plum tree. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you’re mad at me. But I don’t see why,” Mickaël says, catching my eye as he reaches up and plucking a plum from its branch. “Is she mad at me?” he asks Marieke in a stage whisper, offering the girl the plum.
Marieke shies away from the fruit and stands up. “Usually when Julienne’s mad she’s mad at Lise,” she states matter-of-factly.
Mickaël erupts into laughter, the corners of his eyes crinkling. “Yes, you’re right,” he says, looking at me as he takes a bite of the plum. I try not to roll my eyes too hard, and I make sure not to smile either.
“Alright, come on, Marieke.” I gesture toward the château, and luckily I don’t need to prod Marieke any more; she skips off in the direction of the limestone building.
Mickaël matches my stride as we follow behind the girl. “What’s upset you?” His hair isn’t tied back at all, and it swirls around his face as a breeze blows by us. When I don’t answer, he takes another bite of plum. “If it’s what was said at the council dinner, just know that it’s not an issue. No one’s even talking about it.”
“You are,” I bite back.
“Fine, then at least I hope she’s worth the trouble.”
When we enter the château, Lise is waiting with Joseph, Estelle, and Cédric. Joseph is currently trying to convince Cédric that he’s strong enough to push his wheelchair, which is doubtful, because Joseph is the tiniest (but loudest) nine year old I’ve ever seen. Cédric is telling him not to, while his sister Estelle, at sixteen, watches without comment. She starts biting her nails when we walk into the room.
“What were you doing out there?” Lise asks, pulling the château’s back doors closed behind us and putting out a hand for Marieke to hold. “Ready to go?” she asks the girl.
Marieke glances back at Mickaël and I. “I don’t wanna go with him,” she whispers to Lise. “Can’t you or Julienne take me?”
Lise shakes her head, kneeling down to get on Marieke’s level. “We’ve got to take Cédric, Estelle, and Joseph back to their château, just like we do after every lesson. Besides, Mickaël is very nice.”
Marieke, still not convinced, looks over at Mickaël again. "But where's Adrien?"
I notice Mickaël visibly flinch at the mention of his elder brother, but he tries to cover it by reaching into his pocket with a flourish and pulling out a fresh plum. He must be stocking up. “You can tell me about all the plant you know on the way there?” he tries, offering it to her.
For the second time she refuses the fruit, but she does let go of Lise’s hand. “Ok.”
Stuck with an extra plum, Mickaël turns and holds the fruit up, silently staring at me until I raise my hand, palm-up. He grins in response, placing the plum into my hand, his fingertips grazing my wrist. Without meaning to my skin alters into iridescent fish scales under his touch. He doesn’t seem to notice, just says, “Do cheer up,” before guiding Marieke away.
It’s not until late that I can slip away from the château, and I’m already not liking my chances of success for this outing. But now the suns are already set, which means I need to be very careful about my use of alterations, but I can’t put this off for another day. It has to be today.
Before I lose my nerve, I’m running along the rooftops of the city, my clothes swapped out for Raven’s, my mask and hair extensions in place to better disguise my identity. I’m Raven. I’m Raven and Raven is perfectly capable of fighting when she needs to, even when Julienne isn’t.
The man at the door of the Altar murmurs something as I enter, but I’m not paying attention to him. Inside I’m met with dazzling lights, mirrors reflecting the different colored lantern flames a million times over, and the flow of costumed bodies, dancing to a drum beat that sounds a bit too much like my own heart. Usually the theatrics dazzle me, but I refuse to be distracted, because I have to find her. Kira’s always here on the same day each week, and I have to hope that she’s here tonight as well.
“Raven!” A girl no older than fifteen is in front of me, her cheeks glittering with scales and pearls, her reddish hair piled on top of her head. I've never seen her before, and I feel a bit of pride that she recognizes me, but there’s also something about the joy in her smile that makes me feel guilty.
“That’s me,” I say with a quirk of my mouth, and she laughs nervously.
We get jostled by two men dancing with each other, and she says eagerly, “I think you’re amazing!”
I’m trying to scan the room, but I take the time to look down at her. “Thank you…”
“Portia!” she shouts over the growing noise. “Are you looking for someone?”
I’m about to answer when I see a flash of blue hair, and it’s so predictable it hurts, because there Kira is, in the same outfit I’d met her in. She’s across the room, spinning in graceful circles, her arms ribboned in white lace and her hair, shaved on either side, dyed blue. I know from experience that any alterations she may have made at the beginning of the evening will have faded away by now. It's her.
“Sorry, I have to go,” I tell Portia, and she looks so starstruck that I’m not sure she heard me. I appreciate her admiration, but I’m glad that most people don’t have that reaction; it would make walking around the city a lot harder.
Eyes still on Kira, I make my way across the crowd, but an older woman with half her face and arms decorated in octopus suction cups grabs my elbow, spinning me in the opposite direction. “Dance, darling,” she’s saying, and I squirrel out of her grip. When I whip my head around, Kira is gone.