Alliance ch 31: Welcome Home
The emperor of all headaches built his palace within Ject’s skull. At the command of this cruel dictator, mallets pounded drums of bone, and everything—air, light, blood—became an instrument for pain.
The outside world sat across a wide chasm, and nothing made it across intact. When they—faces he thought he should know but didn’t recognize—noticed his open eyes, they spoke to him, but it was only sound, no meaning. Mouths moved funny when people talked.
He laughed, and the drummers hastened their efforts. The light became spears, and the room’s bitter scent stuck him like a pincushion. It lingered on his tongue, metallic and acerbic.
Disinfectant. This was a med-center.
He closed his eyes and focused on untying his muscles. The doctors would overthrow the headache, and things would go back to normal.
He waited, trying to count the drumbeats, but numbers were banned in this domain. He counted anyway—an act of defiance riding random integers. Sometimes six came after eight. Sometimes six came after six. Sometimes the number didn’t have a word, only measure, and it was all there was.
A giggle broke through the palace wall, and more followed through the rubble: a rebuke to be quiet. An apology. Two voices, both with a feminine chime and the elongated Zalerit cadence.
One had the rasp of age, and he knew that one. Her name sat behind a barred door. Names, like numbers, were a danger to the crown and forbidden. Yet, he wasn’t loyal to the fake emperor—not in the wider universe and definitely not in here. If he could see this woman’s face…
He set his will upon the pulley that controlled his eyelids and heaved.
A sting met his elbow. Ice flooded his veins, then warmth. He lost the pulley, and it took him some time to find it again. By then, the drums had slowed, though they remained as loud as ever.
The light was a horde of arrows this time, but he squinted past them. A teen with a Zalerit’s luminous skin and four dark eyes cradled his arm with an unfelt touch, head bent over a multi-tool picking at his scabs. He didn’t feel that either.
As if footsteps heralded his stare, she looked up. “Estiga, he sees.”
He did. Between a sitting and lying position, he saw her return to her ghostly work with hands unsteadied by his gaze, so he shifted his eyes elsewhere. The onyx-beaded sash at her hips marked her as a doctor’s slave, but the nostril ring that would have told him to whom she belonged hid in its own shine.
The answer was forthcoming anyway. A burden lifted from his head, allowing the drums to resurge. His eyes tracked the missing weight—a compress in a familiar hand. It discarded the used packet, then returned to cup his chin and forced him to look at her.
He whispered her name. “Auntie Uriet.”
“Your fevers always were the worst.” A package crinkled, and she slid a fresh compress into his grasp. “Are you with it enough to find your own forehead?”
His nod fought her grip, and she straightened, charcoal robe open over her lacy shirt, flowing pants, and clunky shoes. He closed his eyes against the onslaught of her platinum doctor’s beads.
Other sights just as unwelcome played on the inside of his eyelids: Sažka scooped up by the mykuro. The crowd whispering his name. Ateki held by his father’s men while an Ier gulped a path to his heart. No one listened to Ject, not until he made them in the worst way.
“Where are my Zalerits?”
“In the hallway. Now, open those lovely eyes of yours and don’t blink.”
He released a sigh as he complied, and she shined a pin light at either pupil. He rolled the compress to give his hand something to do. Chemicals mixed within, and it became soft ice.
Don’t touch the Zalerits. They’re mine, he had said, the only protection he could offer them at the moment. They had survived at least, and they were nearby.
“Your father had a terrible time getting the truth from them, and what he ended up with is ridiculous, though not half as ridiculous as you.”
“I’m not in a mood for insults, Auntie, even in jest.”
“I’m never in the mood to have to bring you from death’s door.” She stepped back, fists on her hips. She was an aged replica of Aalee, down to her holier-then-thou stance and unruly hair, though hers was dark like his mother’s. Not as dark as his. “Really, Ject, a shout suggestion in a frenzied crowd. What were you thinking?”
Arguments like insects swarmed up his throat and over his tongue, but before he let any of them fly, the curtain at the foot of his bed flapped aside. There stood his father, High Defender Qem Sirvette, tall, broad, coloring middle-gray, features round and soft and curved in a jagged frown.
‘Everyone thought you were dead.’
‘From a shout—’ The whisper wilted beneath a burst of pain, and his head sunk to his hand, finding the compress.
His father huffed. “Your aunt wouldn’t let you die from that foolishness.”
Of course not. A Ravi was too valuable. Even if the brain he had left equated to vegetable stew, she would bring him back and keep him breathing, just as she had when he was born too soon.
His eyes caught on the arm he still couldn’t feel and the glowing hands dabbing salve onto a row of tidy stitches.
“Because I disappeared,” he said, and the word had two faces. He had abandoned his duty as Protector of Lakol District to serve a greater duty to the empire—rescuing the First Ravi, Xlack Ekymé. To those who would—could—never know that reason, he had fled. When they needed him to maintain their daily norm, he disappeared.
He watched the slave’s hands lift and lower the swab in overlapping circles. Zalerits could be invisible. Ateki had rendered Ject invisible on multiple occasions. A deep, stupid, hungry part of him wanted that ability for himself.
“You disappeared,” his father repeated with a pinched sigh, “after an explosion in your district, your blood and skin and hair found in the rubble, your emblem there with it.”
Ject looked up and met his father’s frown, offering an open window into his intentions. “I had to—”
“I would like nothing more than to be enthralled by your reasons, but one higher than me wishes the honor of hearing them first. Dr. Remkiren, can he stand?”
Auntie Uriet grinned. “With effort, like with most tasks.”
“Then he’ll follow me.”
Ject obeyed the indirect command with a mountain’s worth of winces and hitched breaths. Walking gave the drummers in his skull something to compete with. The compress wasn’t doing anything, so he stripped it off and squeezed it in a fist.
The iconic art of Threnian Station’s wire-woven walls hummed the melody of distant conversations and unseen machines. Threnian was a place he associated with family, with vacations spent teasing younger siblings and letting his mother spoil him. It was not a place those who outranked his father frequented.
Yet, someone on that short list had tied his father’s tongue, and the headache wouldn’t give him peace enough to unravel who. Ject’s Mental defenses were walls of wet paper. His father’s worry howled like a summer storm, and frustration crackled like thunder, interlaced with an undefined sizzle. These took the drummer’s mallets and taught them how to hit harder.
The hallway stretched and narrowed, and Ject was a giant, his head stories above his toes. A fall would be fatal, but no chair offered to catch him, and he wasn’t supposed to touch the walls. He’d been told that often enough as a child.
Wait. The hallway.
He stopped. “Where are my Zalerits?”
His father didn’t turn or slow, and the distance between them grew. “Interesting that they were wearing Adapt and yet nothing to mark them as yours.”
“I needed the stealth the Adapt provided, and they’re recent acquisitions.” Ject grimaced. His word had saved Ateki and Sažka two-fold then. Something as small as a stud through a nostril stamped with his clan pattern could save them when he couldn’t say anything. “I’ll need a piercing for them both.”
“What you need is to keep walking.”
Like a pet on a leash, Ject complied. Despite the headache, despite the jumble of emotions—his, his father’s, and distant others’—truth gleamed in the sentiment, wrapped in the promise of more unsaid. Someone important—the Lead Protector, an Elder Watcher, or even Refraction Leader Mohk Ekymé—waited at their destination, and so did Ateki and Sažka.
The crowd’s fickle, fleeting thoughts found Ject long before they entered the station’s lobby. He tried to patch his paper walls before stepping through the final door, but broken bones only healed so fast, and broken defenses healed no faster.
All traffic to and from the station funneled through this room, and all were curious of today’s guest. Those who could lingered. For some this meant slowed steps and rubber necks. Others lounged on couches around low tables spread with refreshments.
As he entered, shoulders straight and chin level, their recognition formed a barbed fence. He walked through it, limbs tangled in its wire, eyes on his father’s flailing cape, blurring now. How he wished for his mask and hood, for the brief security of anonymity.
Was he still walking? He couldn’t feel his feet.
Solid arms embraced him, and a deep, aged voice spilled syllables he barely pieced together. “Welcome home.”
* * *
Home had always been a fluid notion for Anku Phy. If a con required he be from the fields and karsts of Azlano District, then that was home, regardless of if he had ever been there. More often, it referred to a place to temporarily return to—a bed in a rented room under a false name or guest quarters lent to little-known relatives.
Per his great uncle’s tutoring, Phy had never stayed anywhere longer than a month. Until now. This was the greatest gambit of his career—of his whole family’s career. As the days and weeks had passed, he knew he needed to get out. The trap would close, but pride weighted his feet.
He wanted to see Great Uncle’s face twist as Phy told him he had not swiped the famed Fountain of Conquerors from the center of Kizmet District as challenged. That he had instead stolen the entire city and lived as its king for two months, then three, then six.
He lingered in the doorway of the bedroom he had most recently called home, jaw attracted to his toes. No matter how many times he blinked, light continued to slant through the wall of windows. The drawers and closet remained tucked away. The round chair and small table in the corner waited as always for him to wind down in the evening with a cup of tea. Per usual, the thin sheet tucked at the corners of the mattress centered across from the door, but a body beneath that blanket gave contour to what should have been a flat plain. It was no one he had invited.
He stammered soundlessly as a large feline form grazed his knees and spun tightening circles on the bed, then settled on the intruder’s chest. With the familiar face hidden beneath the beastling’s spotted scales, Phy could pretend the legs were mere wrinkles in the sheet. That the mess of ashen curls on the pillow was something the animal had dragged in.
“Rell, down! You’re too big for that.” Lady Aliara Yayin shoved past Phy just as she had an hour ago when she barged into the apartment, hair blowing in the breeze of her own haste. A team of men had poured in after her, carrying the body now on the bed, and she’d had a terrible time since keeping the beastling away.
A low, popping growl filled the room.
The Lady’s stance shifted from authoritative to placating, hands outstretched. “Rell, your master can’t breathe like that.”
Phy clung to the doorframe. He wouldn’t mind if Protector Xlack Ekymé suffocated. Then no one would know he hadn’t chosen Phy to play acting Protector six months ago.
It was time to go. His jelly legs carried him backward down the hall toward the main room as he fumbled in his pocket for his datapad. It unfolded, the emergency departure app shimmering in the corner of the screen.
His thumb hovered. At the touch of this button, Anku Phy, trusted administrator, would cease to exist. He would surface in another city, his name scrambled in an anagram. The things he wanted to keep from this life would make circuitous journeys to a planned cache. He would continue the game.
Yet, he liked playing this role. As acting Protector, others fell all over themselves to fulfill his every request. When scribes accepted gifts in exchange for biased services, he looked away, and they did the same for him. This was a once-in-a-thousand-lifetimes gig, and he mourned its end.
A door near the end of the hallway opened, and Phy stopped short of crashing into a doctor in a black robe and platinum beads. The man, unsteady on his feet, didn’t acknowledge him or his mumbled apology, a hand raking through his mess of mid-gray hair.
“Is Dr. Kitza on his way yet?” the Lady called from the bedroom door, arms crossed.
“He’s been conscripted to serve exclusively at the capital, Lady Aliara. He can’t come no matter how many times you ask.” The present doctor’s words slurred with his swaying steps, and his shoulder thumped the wall. A hung frame displaying some certificate of achievement rattled.
With the slowest of backward steps, Phy retreated toward the main room and the exit like prey hoping the slightest movement wouldn’t attract the attention of powerful beings.
The Lady sighed. “I’m just worried that Ravi Ekymé hasn’t woken up yet, and you seem so...indisposed.”
“Felere insanity is like an acidic venom. I have to draw it out carefully and hold it isolated in my mind while I sew up the holes it leaves, in both the patient and myself.”
The word picture called to Phy too strongly, and he swallowed his curiosity before it lugged him down undesirably dark paths. If being a doctor didn’t work out, the man could be a poet.
The Lady stretched a smile that was compassionate if thin at the edges. “I understand the drive to handle this on your own as a dutiful apprentice, but Dr. Kitza needs—”
“Dr. Kitza doesn’t have Mind Talents and would rely on me for this anyway.” He sighed, rubbing his temples.
With as much nonchalance as he could summon, Phy swiveled to the door.
“It would help,” the doctor continued, “if there were someone I could dump the dregs into. A slave that the Protector wouldn’t mind losing?”
Phy stiffened, sure the Lady had just volunteered him. He was no one Ravi Ekymé would miss. If he ran, how far would he get?
“Go to the market at the edge of the district and acquire a Zalerit. Tell the administrator that the one chosen is not likely to survive what we have in mind.”
Phy’s chest shrunk in relief as he pivoted to her in a bow. His thumb pressed the app that would sever his ties here, and the datapad folded, secreted into a sleeve behind his back. “Right away, Milady. I shall return with unmatched haste.”
He should have known better than to lie in front of the doctor, impaired or not. The Mind Aylata’s eyes narrowed with the faintest flickering swirl of chrysolite, and the fine lines around his mouth deepened.
As one final turn brought Phy to the door, the doctor clamped his wrist.
Phy was a rigid tree, not fighting, simply being, his voice as hoarse and squeaky as two scraping branches. “Excuse me, I cannot fulfill the Lady’s request if—”
“You have no intention of fulfilling the Lady’s request.”
“No, I mean, I do. I will. I…” He tried to convince himself of this truth. On his way out of the city, he could purchase a slave and have them sent here. As long as he believed it, the Aylata should have seen sincerity, but it wasn’t working.
A new tactic came to him. He pictured the most disgusting things he had witnessed and added on anything that would make them worse until he gagged. With his Mental defenses weakened, the doctor swayed, then vomited, but his grip remained. Phy added the new material to his arsenal—the sharp, meaty stench, the warmth seeping through his sleeve and shirt and cloth boots.
The Aylata would not fall for the trick twice. He gripped Phy’s jaw with fingers as cold and firm as steel and met his gaze. Phy tried to cinch his eyes, but it was too late. Sensation fell into that distant storm of chrysolite, then whipped back to him three-fold.
The Aylata’s hands released him, but something far worse took their place. Thoughts wove wires and laced his muscles, their curved ends hooking through his feet. His leg jerked in one step, then two, continuing despite how he internally screamed for them to stop.
These halting paces carried him to the bedroom, where he knelt alongside the headboard, useless hands in his lap. Protector Xlack Ekymé lay shivering, skin damp and breaths shallow. Bursts of heat had rendered the sheet’s edge dark and crisp.
Phy’s eyes widened, but his feet ignored all commands to flee. This man would have killed him a dozen horrid ways six months ago if Phy hadn’t appealed to the Mercy of the Judges. At that trial, this man, had he bothered to show up, would have condemned him to death for petty theft.
The irony formed a dull blade digging into Phy’s gut.
The doctor knelt across him and placed a palm on the Protector’s forehead. Images led, then sound and pain. Flashes of teeth and talons, screeches, muscles punctured and ripped. Softer organs oozing from the holes in his body, the tang of blood welling in his mouth, drowning in it. Loss and failure. Guilt.
“Estiga, please,” he sobbed.
The wire within his jaw tightened and sewed his lips shut.
* * *
On the inside of Xlack’s closed eyelids, a deft hand sewed thoughts of peace, safety, and calm. With this constant repetition, the boiling murk of the felere whispers subsided.
Cleanup was slow, that same hand scooping up fistfuls at a time, then returning to address the damage. Once he worked his inner self free, Xlack helped, but he was no surgeon. The repairs he attempted were lumpy at best, and when he couldn’t dissolve an intrusive thought fast enough, he stashed it somewhere out of sight.
Awareness of his body returned, bringing control with it. He didn’t have enough air, but when he ordered a deeper breath, it wouldn’t come. Weight pressed on his chest. He squirmed, arms pinned by the same bulk.
It stirred, set to a series of low, rapid pops. Smooth scales rubbed his chin, then again in the opposite direction with enough force to rattle his brain. He opened his mouth to shout but didn’t have the breath for anything beyond a wheeze.
Scent came into focus first—the warm salt fragrance of home, and much closer, a stinging tang more metallic than fish and coarser than basalt. Elitbeast, he recognized, just as he would recognize one’s silhouette. But this one had a familiar twinge, stretched and changed but finding a match in his memory same as the nudge against his chin.
“Rell,” he croaked.
The beastling stood over him, a question in the rising pitch of his purr. Sleeping on Xlack’s chest and greeting him by running his side against Xlack’s jaw had been fine when Rell was smaller than his shoe, but the beastling had grown. He pawed at Xlack’s collar, and it hurt.
Xlack wrapped his arms around the beastling’s neck and wrestled him off his feet into a hug. “Rell, I missed you, too, but you weigh more than me now.”
Rell yipped in agreement and nuzzled in closer, belly upturned in a plea to be scratched. Xlack complied, and all four paws rose into the air, toes and claws extended. Those paws were larger than Xlack’s hands, legs corded in lean muscle. Only a thin line along each forearm marked where his baby fins had been.
As the beastling wiggled in appreciation, his pewter scales glistened in the horizontal light of sunset streaming through the wall of windows. Xlack stilled. This was his room, his apartment in Kizmet District. The last news he’d had of Rell came from Lady Aliara, and that was before—
He was on his feet, bare heels sinking into the mattress as he scanned his surroundings.
“You’re safe, Great Cousin,” Aliara said from the chair in the corner. “I’ve brought you home.”
He didn’t want to be home, not this home. “My team? Twi? And don’t make me bargain for your answers.”
With a twisted grin, she set her steaming drink down on the small table. “Life is a bargain. If you want anything, especially a thing as valuable as information, you have to trade for it.”
He trained his crooked glare on her. “Tell me where my team is.”
Her face slackened, and the answer fell from her as a monotone rush. “The two Tala you left behind asked to be taken to the emperor. I brought them as far as the border of Reiceilako and gave them directions to my contacts there.”
“Reiceilako.” Xlack shook his head. Kobolast was the capital, but Aliara had said something about it being moved. Rifo and Lanox must have chosen to carry on the mission.
How brave and loyal of them.
Was it selfish if he wanted a part of that loyalty for himself? They assumed he was dead and kept moving.
They did what they had to. It’s commendable.
Rell, determining that his pose was not going to get him more belly rub, rolled to his feet and stretched.
Aliara stood with a humph. “You will not invade my mind again.”
Xlack’s attention leapt back to her, a second suggestion already on his tongue, but she turned and packed away her emotions before he could snatch them. They remained as a corona along her edges, an intangible glow, faint like a datapad’s screen.
“I’ll win my answers with guesses, then.” His ready stance waned until he stood on his knees, then sat on the end of the mattress, feet on the floor. “Your Messenger, the one skilled in stealing secrets from people’s pockets, also has a knack for adding tracers to the things he returns.”
Without word or movement, she confirmed it was true.
“Your tracer logs show Twi and I underwent a series of teleportations before ending up in Zaranik’s palace.”
“You brought me here. What did you do with her?”
At the growl in his master’s voice, Rell looked up, long, slender tail swaying.
“Lady Aliara.” Xlack rose, feet soundless on the wood floor. “I will use another suggestion.”
“Then you’ll throw away our friendship for nothing, because I don’t know where she is.”
He didn’t touch her. Sereh were never to be touched in violence. But he slipped between her in the wall. “You have the tra—”
“The tracer is on her weapon, not herself, and I wasn’t the first to find you.”
The natural follow-ups, “Who did then?” and, “How did I end up here with you?” thundered in his skull, but he refused to voice them.
Squinting, he leaned back against the door frame. “I’ve never been good at haggling, so tell me what you want from me.”
“Let me tell your father you’re here.”
“Because you want to trade that info to him?”
She lifted her chin. “No, because it’s what’s right, for him, for you, and for the empire.”
“For the empire.” With a scoff, he folded his arms. “You don’t even really know what happened six months ago.” Silence beat an unheard drum. He blinked, straightened. “Will you give me what you know about Twi’s whereabouts if I trade you that story?”
Aliara caught and released a slow breath.
Rell sat between them, tail swaying opposite his head as he looked from one to the other. His master had woken up, so it was time for breakfast.
With a gurgle, Xlack’s empty stomach agreed. He swiveled off the doorframe and sauntered down the hall toward the kitchen, Kinetically fixing the crooked frames along the way out of habit. Where was his over-picky live-in teacher anyway?
Rell followed, tongue lolling out the side of his rounded snout. Most of his molars remained baby-sized with large gaps between them.
“Several historical coalitions have petitioned to turn Zaranik’s palace into a museum,” Aliara called, steps loud behind him. “A survey group found you and didn’t know what to do with a missing Ravi. They were frightened and grateful when I offered to take you. And Defender Lorm Spycykle.”
Xlack stopped, stomach in his toes. Both hands curled into fists. “He was there? And unconscious?”
“The place is infested with felere, so the group carried scrambler lamps. They had protective equipment, of course, but anyone not appropriately goggled who saw the flashes—”
“Would have been knocked out,” Xlack finished. “They didn’t mention Twi at all?”
Aliara’s lips pursed in the thinnest line, infant flames dancing across her polished nails and licking at the hem of her short dress. “I have reason to believe the coalition is a front for a rebellion.”
“Rebels have Twi.” The statement was air and no voice. He couldn’t believe it, yet he could believe nothing else. Had she awakened? What did they want with her?
To the slave at the soup stand, she had identified herself as a follower of Vozin Nar, the original traitor. Six months ago, Revel K’alaqk claimed she was as dangerous as a lightcurver—not because she could cut down armies—but because of her potential to be a symbol.
His throat burned. “You knew she was with me. You never give up, Aliara. You never just let something go. So why...” He trailed off, wanting to run, but his heels remained glued to the floor at the end of the hallway.
Aliara didn’t press for more information on Twi because she wanted the rebels to keep her. Or at the very least, she wanted Twi away from Xlack.
“Are you with the rebels?”
She propped a hand on her hip, and the line of her lips followed the same tilt. “Of course not, but as if I would admit it.”
He no longer wanted breakfast. With a dry heave, he caught the back of his favorite lounge chair. Rell’s nudge at his thigh didn’t help. The stench of vomit clogged his nose, mixed with the sting of antiseptic.
That wasn’t in his head. Someone had been sick in this room, and it had been cleaned. This nausea, this tumult of emotion, wasn’t all his own either. He grabbed that distraction and searched.
There shouldn’t have been a life-signature that size in the coolbox. He stepped toward it.
“How loyal are you to the empire, Xlack Ekymé?”
He paused, and Aliara placed herself between him and the kitchen.
“Why not use your title’s authority, do what your uncle did and make it known you want this foreign Magni delivered to you?” She shrugged. “Safely, in this case.”
Because he wasn’t sure he had any authority left and was even less sure those who did would back him. Deeper than that, his insides shriveled at the possibility of his father’s disappointment. It was better not to know than to confirm that the one person he most wanted to be proud of him thought him a fool.
“You didn’t leave on an approved mission. That’s why you left Rell behind,” Aliara guessed. “You ran away. You had to leave right then, and you didn’t expect to ever come back.”
“I didn’t think that far ahead.” With a sigh, he raked his fingers through his hair, focus bouncing between his cousin and the coolbox beyond her. Either there was a person in there or disturbingly sapient mold. Either theory was ridiculous. A hallucination. “I’ve learned things since then. About how life can be more fair. And I’m selfish.”
“Then use it.” She caught his wrist with a gentle touch, cradling it as it dropped from his head. “You, First Ravi, are in a position to change things.”
“You mean collect power so I can distribute it more evenly?”
“I mean, the Buqo tree of the Antarctic is the symbol of selfishness because it would rather burn than provide shelter through the long winter. Yet, without that fire, there would be no light when the Daystar doesn’t rise. Their heat keeps the ground from freezing solid and allows the seeds of their neighbors to germinate. Without the Buqo tree, there would be no southern Atetu forests.”
“They’re not selfish, they’re martyrs?” He snorted.
“I’ve told you often enough, Great Cousin, if fire doesn’t improve your situation, it at least makes things more interesting.” She upturned their palms, a flame growing in their shared grasp. “Perhaps it is time for the empire to burn.”
Continued in chapter 32
Thank you for reading!