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
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