Renegade section 1 scene 4- The New Emperor

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The metal hull of the borrowed Oha groaned as Xlack guided the plane down through thick clouds. Beads of moisture scurried up the windshield, the gale hissing its irritation at being unable to reach the Oha’s occupants.

Rell slept, curled in Xlack’s pants pocket. Oblivious of the outside world, he snored softly, content to be close to his master.

Xlack felt restless, hands fidgeting on the Oha’s steering staves. He was a Protector—one of the four caste-like ranks of Aylata, above Messengers and Defenders and equal with Watchers. Protectors were accustomed to knowing what awaited them around every corner. They knew every nook and cranny of their assigned Districts and rarely left them. That would be a breach of loyalty—a contradiction to duty.

Duty said summons from dubious emperors were to be ignored. Even Emperor Gera Kise had no official command over Aylata. Duty insisted Kizmet should be his priority, not satisfying his curiosity as to what Revel K’alaqk wanted.

Yet still Xlack flew toward Kobolast, Yakru, the capital of the Napix Empire. The sprawling network of lush estates mortaring pockets of urban areas appeared beneath him as he broke through the clouds. Here he was halfway across the world from his District, his home since receiving it as his first assignment last year.

I didn’t abandon Kizmet, he told himself. Vlokem’s there. He can handle it…

It’ll probably be a mess when I get back. Hopefully this doesn’t take too long.

Kobolast was not home, though it held Aylata Tower, the center of the Aylata universe. At the southern edge of the vast Imino Lake, the Tower resembled a pair of wings stretching into the sky, a showcase of sharp points. Perched alongside it, the emperor’s palace was a structure of sweeping curves, like waves frozen as they crashed ashore, dwarfed but also enhanced by its neighbor as if the massive wings were its own.

As Xlack landed in a hangar near the Tower’s base, the afternoon storm clouds hung heavy and low, the Tower’s metal and the palace’s foggy crystal gleaming at the touch of the daystar’s few penetrating rays.

Even inside, the air smelled of rain and forest, the ventilation system contributing a cold, numbing aroma. The leather and fur of the Guards’ uniforms was another prevalent odor, though Xlack didn’t venture near any of them. The noble Guards remained at their posts—one on either side of the hangar entrance, another in an alcove high above the door that led inside—silently staring at Xlack and the tiny elitbeast trotting along at his heels. Anyone with a golden neerj overlay in their gray eyes was easily identifiable as an Aylata, and no full-blooded Napix questioned an Aylata’s presence.

Xlack didn’t talk to them either. He didn’t need to. The Tower computer orchestrated everything here, including control of the teleporters. There were even some rooms one couldn’t get in or out of without those teleporters. It was mostly the ‘out of’ part that bothered Xlack.

Passing another Guard as he entered a wide, tube-like corridor, Xlack pulled his datapad from a small pocket on his belt, allowed it to unfold, and synced it with the computer, downloading his instructions.

Welcome, Xlack Skyme, scrolled across the screen.

Where does the new emperor want me to meet him? Xlack typed.

Before the computer replied, angry shouts erupted from the Guard behind Xlack.

Turning, he found the Guard hopping on one foot, other leg in the air trying to shake off a certain beastling.

“Rell, here, now,” Xlack ordered, snapping his fingers and pointing at the ground next to his feet.

Obediently, Rell let go and bounded to the spot indicated, not taking his keen, dark eyes off the flustered Guard who complained, “That creature of yours ruined my service shoes!”

Rell roared, the tiny sound matching his tiny body.

“The shooter in your hand,” Xlack questioned, “why isn’t it in your holster?”

Smile false, the noble rubbed the shooter’s chrome barrel with his half-untucked shirt, which along with his open jacket was in violation of dress code. “I was just polishing it.”

Xlack felt if the weapon were any shinier, the next time the Guard drew it he was just as likely to blind everyone as he was to hit his target.

“Maybe next time an elitbeast comes into the Tower, you’ll keep your weapon where it belongs,” the Aylata reasoned. He would have said more, but he was trying to be nice. Like most Protectors and Watchers, Xlack greatly distrusted Guards and troopers.

Xlack’s datapad beeped, alerting him that the Tower computer awaited his response.

“Never fail, Officer,” Xlack dismissed with a forced grin, thumb barely brushing the datapad’s touchscreen to send his affirmative reply. His skin was still in contact with the button when the teleportation system moved both he and Rell into a dim room deep within the Tower’s basement.

And they were not alone.

Xlack dropped to the ground, an arrow slicing the air just above his head, the sharp-tendrilled staff called an Ier leaping into his hand. The arrow burrowed into the wall behind him with a smooth THUNK, gleaming a shiny black in his Ier’s radiant glow.

Two Messengers faced him, a menagerie of weapons in hand, yet neither wielded anything as ancient as a bow. That one stood closer, arm still cocked back from releasing the arrow.

“Yield,” she ordered, voice as soft as a feather’s landing.

One Messenger obeyed, straightening into a relaxed stance, hands respectfully behind his back. Petite and dark-haired with freckled skin, he hailed from a similar background as the lady, likely her childhood escort and now part of her dowry.

The other, nearly three times her size, stepped in front of her, shooter aimed at Xlack.

“Yield, all of you!” the lady demanded, shoving past the second Messenger. Hesitation slowed him, but he did relent, retreating a pace to stand alongside the first, hands dropping to his sides, grip tight on a shooter and a throwing kanaber.

Xlack did not lower his Ier. Completely still. Unsure.

His home region, Tsira, was considered the most pleasant of the five. An unbreakable bond existed between Tsira Aylata, a brotherhood that had always coddled Xlack. Yet his mother hailed from Skaelao, where treachery hid in every shadow. She had told him ‘Take caution as your guide’ enough times in his first two years of life it was burned in his brain alongside ‘hello’ and ‘thank you.’

Now the part of him that listened to his mother whispered warnings of a trap.

“You, too, Ravi Skyme. Sheathe your Ier,” the lady insisted. “I mean you no harm.”

“You shot at me with an antique arrow.”

“You weren’t supposed to just appear there!” She slung the bow across her slim shoulders, her hair swaying. Such was thick black silk, long enough to brush the floor despite the twists elegantly binding it.

Xlack looked around, noting the arrow now decorating the wall seemed to be the only one of its kind here. The soft wood it had impaled lined all the room’s walls and the floor, pocked and scarred long before anyone present had been born. Crisscrossing, black metal beams stretched to the faraway ceiling, scratched and scorched, witnesses to hundreds of fights, thousands of lessons. At scattered intervals, clay pillars and arches stood guard, extra ground for those with certain Talents, hosting sconces with lit torches—the only apparent light source besides Xlack’s Ier. The air was dusty and reeked of sweat.

A sparring room. A Sereh, female of the Aylata race, standing in the middle of it with a bow and arrow. From somewhere, Revel K’alaqk watched them. Xlack could sense him nearby, but he couldn’t pinpoint the new emperor.

What was he expected to do? Rell, skittish of the Ier, hid in his pocket. The Messengers stood relaxed but alert, watching Xlack. The lady stared, firelight and Ier glow dancing in her eerily bright neerj eyes.

Xlack questioned, “What were you aiming at?”

She shrugged. “Aiming wasn’t the point. I was supposed to stop the arrow.”

“With what? Me or the solid wall? If it was the wall, congratulations.”

“No!” the lady defended, face darkening. “I was trying to control it with…” She trailed off, wrapping herself in secrecy.

“With what?” Xlack pressed, eyes narrowing.

“With nothing.”

A fragile appearance was easily attained with her petite figure and fancy garb—shoes with heels as long as her hand and narrow as her littlest finger, delicate, chain-link straps spiraling nearly to her knees and half hidden by a faux skirt. The latter pooled on the ground by her right foot, slit on the left stretching just above the waistband of her dark shorts. Walking would be hazardous, running impossible.

She shook her head, suddenly appearing overly docile. “I apologize for shooting at you, Ravi Skyme. When I asked the computer to make sure I and my escorts were present when you arrived, I guess I should have been more specific.” She met his gaze tentatively, clinging to the secrecy around her.

“You’re learning to use your Talents, aren’t you?”

Surprise spurted from her, gaze dropping surreptitiously to the floor, confirming his assumption.

“You were trying to control the arrow with Micro-magnetism.” He reached toward the wall, and the arrow flew back to him. When it had nearly arrived at his hand, he pulled it around in front of himself, holding his arm outstretched before her, the arrow floating above his palm unstably as if rocked by invisible waves.

The lady reached for it, but as soon as her fingers touched the rusting metal, the arrow shattered into shimmering dust, falling to the floor in pieces almost too small to see.

“Hey! Why did you do that?” she whined.

“So you couldn’t shoot it at me again.”

‘Do not break Topeka’s toys,’ K’alaqk whispered.

‘Come out from wherever you’re hiding and talk to me then,’ Xlack challenged.

‘Why did you not listen to Topeka when she told you to put away your Ier?’

‘I was listening, very hard actually, trying to find where you were.’

‘Then why not do as she asked?’

‘I don’t take orders from girls.’

A laugh crept into K’alaqk’s whisper, ‘I wonder why that is. What if it was a girl’s order that could save your life?’

“I’m tired of this conversation already!” Xlack shouted. “Come out or I’m leaving!” ‘Stop avoiding me like I don’t exist.’

Revel K’alaqk dropped from some high location, the spectating Messengers teleported away at a wave of his hand.

Xlack stared. Was that the emperor’s traditional robe draped loose and open over K’alaqk’s simpler Aylata attire? It was true then. Revel K’alaqk claimed the emperor title, despite millennia of tradition insisting that was not a position an Aylata could hold.

“I recognize your existence,” K’alaqk said, “though I do not see why you care what I think of you.”

“It shows exactly what you think of me, calling me here, and then hiding like a perfectly mannered host, leaving your wife to greet me so sweetly.”

“She apologized,” K’alaqk defended. He stood between them, just beyond the reach of Xlack’s Ier but within an arm’s length of Topeka. She was hidden now, as the two Aylata were equal in height and her chin was even with their elbows despite her heeled shoes.

“I feel obliged to remind you she’s not allowed in Aylata Tower,” Xlack combatted, glaring as though he could see her through K’alaqk. “No women are.”

“No women except for me,” Topeka corrected, peeking around her protector. At K’alaqk’s sideways glance, she silenced herself, though the chrome cascades of wire-leaves dangling over her hair still tinked with her movement. Rell peeked out of Xlack’s pocket, entranced by the noise and shine.

“Topeka is in a unique position,” the new emperor excused, “as am I.”

Xlack glared at him. “So I heard. What do the Refraction Leaders say about your position?”

“They have some interesting opinions,” K’alaqk responded. Interesting was an understatement. Xlack was sure his uncle especially had some very strong opinions on the matter. “But I did not call you here to discuss them with you.”

Xlack gripped his Ier tighter, subconsciously slipping into a defensive position. “Then get to the point already.”

“What are your goals, Xlack Skyme? Where do you picture yourself in the future?”

“I’ll be a Refraction Leader, possibly Ravida.”

K’alaqk’s left eyebrow rose, sniffing out the lack of conviction. “Possibly?”

“Or maybe you’ll be Ravida since we can’t all know everything like you.”

K’alaqk blinked the jab aside. “You do not approve of Topeka learning her Talent, do you?”

“What?” Xlack’s eyes jumped to where the Sereh now sat on the floor, Rell happily on her lap, nudging her hands in a demand to be pet. The soft white of her sheer arm warmers, cropped shirt, and dangerous skirt reflected a spectral glow in the Ier light, as if she were an apparition and might fade away at the slightest provocation.

Xlack had never met a Sereh without that alien quality, some subtle sense of not belonging to this world, but then, weren’t Sereh prized for their foreign heritage, same as Aylata?

K’alaqk reiterated, “You do not believe Sereh should learn to use their Talents.”

Xlack considered this carefully for a moment. His mother could whisper, as could his aunt. In fact, whispering was his aunt’s main form of communication since an accident in her youth left her without the ability to speak aloud.

So no, he did not think Sereh should be denied all knowledge of their Talents just because they were female. But the notion still seemed strange.

Sereh don’t need to use their Talents,” Xlack replied, “not the finer applications. Aylata will always be there to protect them.” The whole idea of systematically teaching a Sereh to use her Talents seemed incredibly…odd.

That appeared as his fallback phrase around this Second Ravi, his rival for the title Ravida. Revel K’alaqk had a different way of looking at things than everyone else.

“Why the weird questions, K’alaqk?”

“I have a special task for you, but I know not what sort of weird circumstances you will come across while completing it.”

“Thanks for the weirdly vague answer.”

K’alaqk smiled. “I send you to the planets Tala and Knalz.”

Xlack’s feet screamed for him to run. K’alaqk didn’t smile and say normal things. His smile was the predator of common sense, and prey fled when in his presence. Go to some planet Napix already controlled? Simple. Venture to words beyond the empire? Different story. That was a job for a Watcher, and last Xlack had heard, that was not his title.

“K’alaqk, I’m a Protector. What about my District?”

“Did you not make arrangements for your District before coming here?”

“Yes.” Sort of.

“Then your District will be fine without you,” the emperor reasoned.

Confusion swirled around Xlack. They had known about the worlds Tala and Knalz for as long as history had been recorded, but those planets had protectors of their own, ones the Aylata purposely avoided. What could Revel K’alaqk, new Emperor of Napix, possibly gain by this? Why send someone with no skill in foreign diplomacy to navigate what would become a touchy situation?

“I want you to gather as much information as you can while in their space,” K’alaqk continued, “especially information on their protectors. I warn you to expect cultural differences.”

‘Don’t send me,’ Xlack thought so hard he accidently whispered it blindly to anyone with Mind Talents and close enough to hear. Embarrassingly, this included K’alaqk.

“Afraid?”

K’alaqk’s taunting smirk efficiently strangled Xlack’s patience.

“Of course not! This just doesn’t make any sense. Why should I care about some far-off worlds? What’s in it for me?”

K’alaqk’s stare hardened as if about to throw a suggestion. Well, Xlack was plenty on guard for any of those. “Benefit to you is not in question here. You are an Aylata, pledged in allegiance to Napix.”

“Yes, to Napix, which does not have an Aylata as its emperor!” Xlack put away his Ier and turned to leave. He was not a Watcher, but a Protector, and he would return to his District. What would become of the empire if order were allowed to fly out the window?

“Do not defy me, Skyme,” K’alaqk warned, acute calm surreal, unnerving.

Xlack stopped. “I have every right to.”

“There is no Ravida for you to run to and plead your case. If you continue to speak against me, I will destroy you.”

Turning back, Xlack scoffed, “You’d try.”

“I would not have to. Encumbered by roots of cowardice, you would not even best Topeka. You have been given such potential, but you squander it, preferring to sit lazily in your District, growing old.”

Composure tried to flee despite the vice Xlack kept it in. A fight between him and K’alaqk would expand beyond just the two of them, death reaping its fill until it claimed one or both. If Xlack killed this questionable new emperor, would that make him a hero or a traitor?

Abandoning K’alaqk, Xlack’s eyes found Topeka, who sat on the floor in humble silence now petting a very spoiled beastling.

She interpreted the glance as a cue for input. “It is an interesting assignment.”

She had a point. Did he want to be in the middle of everything, key in influencing the future, watching events as they unfolded? Or did he want to sit in Kizmet, bored, out of the loop, left trying to pry information out of datasea rumors and Messengers like Vlokem?

Xlack spun on his heels, decision made. “I shall do as you ask, K’alaqk, but don’t call me lazy or a coward ever again.”

Revel K’alaqk grinned.

Standing, Topeka handed Rell back to Xlack, asserting, “Peace be yours, Ravi Skyme. Never fail.”

“Contact me when you stand on their soil,” K’alaqk instructed. “I will tell you no more until then.”

Xlack glared at him with distrust, half-formed objections whirling around his head, but before he could voice any of them, a wave of K’alaqk’s hand sent Xlack and Rell back to the entrance nearest Vlokem’s parked Oha.

“Completely ridiculous,” Xlack mumbled as he stepped through the door. Nervousness and determination blended in a batter coursing through him, sapping his energy. Tala and Knalz awaited, unaware, and Xlack knew little more than they did.

-continued in Renegade section 1 scene 5- Pillow Talk-