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
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