I already have many changes planned for this draft--including adding depth to the magic, properly foreshadowing certain events, building up with more appropriate escalation (making the impact of this ending not quite as large, etc.) I mean, we can all agree that this draft is bad; all first drafts are. What I would like from you, if you are so diligent as to get to the end, are the things that you liked about this draft--that way when it goes through major changes (hopefully for the better), I won't accidentally kill anything that's working.
THE UNRAVELING OF US
Part One: Kilik Nid
Prelude to Part One
The capital island of the Southern Ielevandak archipelago was not necessarily the first place Ren would have chosen to take a holiday. Which made it the most excellent place to hide.
Snow came up to her knees as she waded her way toward civilization. There were only hints of daylight in the sky—a small rim of perpetual sunrise and sunset that encompassed the horizon. The thick clouds overhead didn’t help matters much, either. It had been nearly three centuries since she had last been to the island, and though she’d known what to expect, the memories had not prepared her for the bitter, bitter cold that was blowing through the barren, eternal landscape.
She pulled the bearskin coat she’d brought while passing through the great Barguns of Talamora around her more tightly. And even as she felt the icy breeze die down (if only slightly), she felt her toes begin to freeze up.
Ren might have been immortal, but Yaran had done little to free her from discomfort.
Ngatui, her destination, couldn’t have been more than a quarter of a mile south, but that did little to warm her skin. . . . I need to find some place warm, she thought. And fast. . . . The frost wouldn’t kill her, but she couldn’t use her Divinity on herself. And even if she could, Ren couldn’t risk revealing herself.
Her highest priority in that moment was to find a place to hide.
She quickened her pace, ignoring the fact that the snow was slowly melting into every inch of clothing below her waist. She could almost see the Dutri now, their enormous, white bodies raised on two legs, as though they wished to be human.
The Dutri were not unlike the great bears of the northern continents, but they were nearly ten times the size, and with breath that seemed to be filled with a thousand arctic colors.
They were the reason that humanity had flourished here. Their Divinity was warmth, issuing from their mouths like breath. Their dens were all around this area; their cubs pranced through the white powder as though it were sand from the coast of Naban. Hundreds and hundreds of their abodes dotted the landscape, eventually creating an enormous circle. And within that circle lay one of the most lucrative cities in Labryn: Ngatui.
Now came the tricky part. How to pass the Dutri without being singled out? It was going to be difficult—that was a given. There weren’t exactly many travelers in this area of the world. Thankfully she had thought a little bit ahead and was prepared with a bearskin coat. The Dutri might have been creatures of the Divine Guild, but their intelligence was still beneath that of a human. . . . Even so: They weren’t stupid.
Ren put her hood up as she approached. There was a Dutri only two-hundred paces away now. The snow—which came up to Ren’s waist—barely reached the animal’s knees. Fur at least the length of Ren’s arm whipped in the wild wind; and though Ren did not look up, she could feel the beast’s eyes boring down on her. The trouble was, she couldn’t tell if it was in accusation or curiosity; it was most likely both.
Ten feet away now. Careful not to actually pray—simply begging for luck to be with her—Ren pulled the fur coat about her as tightly as she could, keeping all members within. Her bottom half was hidden in the snow . . . she moved carefully now, trying not to draw attention. Though she feared there was nothing she could do to keep the Dutri’s eyes off of her.
The only sight she had of the creature was the small crack where her hood ended, and it was just enough space to place the next step. Up close, the air around the Dutri shimmered.
She drew a silent, bone-chilling breath and exhaled slowly.
The Dutri let himself down on all fours—perhaps so as to get a better look at her before deciding whether or not she was worth his time. There was a violent tremor that shook through the ground, and even with the thick snow piled around her, Ren nearly fell to the ground.
Oh, please, no . . . Please.
The Dutri made a growling noise that seemed to emit from the deepest recesses of its colossal body. Almost unknowingly, she held her breath. She could smell the animal’s breath, bloody and raw. Very slowly, and clutching the bearskin so tightly she thought her knuckles must surely have turned white as the rest of the landscape, she began to maneuver her way around the Dutri.
The creature seemed to watch her for a moment, but then seemed to lose interest. Each step causing the earth to shake—though perhaps not as strongly as that first landing—it walked in the opposite direction. Ren let out a breath and continued moving, picking up her pace as she did so.
Within the Dutri’s protection, the snow quickly began to melt away. Within only a few paces, it went from a depth of nearly three feet, to only a foot, and then a mere six inches . . . until it was gone completely. A bit more relaxed now, Ren loosened her grip on the coat and practically jogged until at last the city Ngatui was in sight. Barren ground gave way to grass, and after a few more paces, the trademark of Ngatui began showing itself: flowers. Hundreds of thousands of them. Every color and shape imaginable—growing both wild and in more cultivated manners. There were entire flower farms and other types of commerce surrounding the beautiful plants.
The flowers of the Ngatui could be found nowhere else in the world; it was their greatest commodity. Due to the Divinity given to them by the Dutri, the normally delicate plants were far from fragile, and could stand to be transported thousands of miles for all to enjoy.
Although busy and prosperous, Ngatui was also very remote, and the journey to reach the island was a long, cold one—a journey usually taken once a year by merchants, and only ever once in a blue moon by tourists; the rest of Labryn was content to enjoy Ngatui’s spoils from afar, rather than make the journey themselves.
Ren had made the journey; she desperately hoped that she would be well-received. She wondered if any mention of her still existed there, and if there were still stories about her. Whether or not they would recognize her as being the same warrior of the songs.
There were no walls surrounding Ngatui. That couldn’t have made Ren’s life any easier. She left the bearskin coat underneath a bush covered in many different colors . . . her garb was simple: a long, blue silk dress. It was entirely uncomplicated, modest—traditional for her. And although she was doing everything in her power to go against her old life, the outfit was as comfortable to her as her own skin.
From a distance, the city had appeared to Ren to be an enormous hill, with odd-shaped, sand-colored substances supporting it. But up close, it simply took her breath away.
Nearly every building was—at the very least—ten stories high. Each floor was terraced so that the edifices reached toward the sky, each level becoming progressively smaller as they towered into the sky. Skinny pyramids simply overflowing with the goods of Ngatui. The buildings grew taller near the center (and more close together), until the buildings became virtually inseparable.
At least ten miles in diameter, the city, at least from where Ren stood, seemed to go on forever. Most of the streets were covered in ivy—plants seemed to be allowed to grow as they wished, wherever they wanted in Ngatui—and they never moved in predictable patterns. They twisted in and out, to and fro like some giant hedge maze from the gardens of Lussefdrei.
Here at the outer reaches of the city, there were few people milling about, putting generous amounts of water on their many urns and boxes. In fact, at the outer districts, entire yards and plots seemed to be sanctioned off for the single purpose of growing Ngatui’s commodity.
For a while, no one seemed to take notice of the appearance of a young woman in the city. After all, there were nearly a quarter of a million people living in Ngatui. Surely these people had days where strangers were seen commonly.
Ren took the way of the river into the city. It flowed from the icy glaciers only a mile away, gathered into a ravine, which fed its way into the sprawling labyrinth of homes and whatever other businesses had come about as a byproduct of their world-wide success.
Several people’s heads turned as she passed them. Even those who were not close enough to get a real glimpse of her craned their necks, peered out of windows (sometimes prompted by hushed tones), did double-takes and somehow forgot that staring was generally considered rude by most people in the world.
It wasn’t that she wasn’t used to the phenomena. Unfortunately, it was something that happened to her every day of her life. But right now, when there was so much going on in her life, when she needed people to not be singling her out, they continued to stare. That made her a bit uncomfortable.
She cracked a smile, though, and kept walking, chastising the fear in her stomach. These people could not help who she was, no more than she herself could. And Ren would be lying if she tried to tell herself that there were never any perks to her existence. As a general rule, strolling down any old street and having everyone’s heads turn to catch a glimpse of you did quit e a lot for your self-esteem.
“Who is she . . . ?” “I don’t know . . .” “You ever seen her?” “No. I never seen anyone like her.” “D’you think she’s from here . . . ?”
The rumors had started. To be expected, but she had still allowed herself to hope.
Ren stopped at the first inn she came to—which was just before everything started getting crazy. She had been alone, or nearly so, for so long that the “sudden” dearth of people was almost overwhelming. She needed some space.
The place was named, as were most things in Ngatui, after a specimen particular to the region. This particular inn was named after a flower called the Jovious. The doorway, windows, grounds—and nearly any other surface that appeared to be lonely—were all adorned with the flower. It had five petals, each of them triangular with a round tip, waxy and thick. The pollen it carried was yellow, its leaves brighter than any other she had ever seen.
In fact, the flower was so perfect, Ren thought it was rather like someone had taken dyed candle wax and created their own plant. She felt the need, almost, to touch one with her bare hands, just to be sure. . . . There . . . a little closer, and she would feel that it wasn’t a living plant at all, but just some façade intended only to deceive. . . .
“May I help you, young lady?”
The voice was not in the way of chastisement, but rather genuine concern that she might need a place to stay. A bit taken aback, Ren straightened up, nearly all thought of the Jovious gone. “Yes. I need a room for the night.”
The man whom she had just finished addressing scratched the generous stubble gathered at his chin. “You . . . uh . . . you from around here?”
“No,” she said, hesitating just too long; but there was really no use denying it.
“Your voice. Sounds funny.”
Ren scrunched her eyebrows. It was rather an odd comment for someone to make. And surely not one that she’d heard very often. Still, she took it in stride and allowed the man to show her into her room. . . . The air outside was certainly fresh, but the air inside was a nearly overpowering perfume. It wasn’t unpleasant, simply strong. Sweet, with a little stab of something more tropical than its surroundings.
Silently, the innkeeper ushered her into her room, asked her name (she said it was Salvrina) then left her alone.
I’m going to be alright. Though her thoughts were at times unsteady and her emotions mixed, her determination stayed strong. It was her lot in life to be with those of the world—she had never really had a home. And so this small, stucco room (clay walls, dusty wooden floor with a dusty, wooden rug, a small writing desk, a standard bed and a window that let in a warm, sweet breeze) felt no different to her. The strangeness was not bother.
But whether or not she was justified in her actions, that still remained to be seen.
Until she could figure something else out, however, she was going to continue as she had done: hiding. This was her first hiding place.
Ren flopped onto the bed, exhausted. It had been a very long three months’ travel, and to finally think that she was at some sort of destination—no matter how intermediary—was a great relief.
The scent of the Jovious filled her. The bed was warm, even without the covers over her, and she found sleep coming easily. She let herself concentrate on the noises filtering through the bedroom window. The light drapes fluttered susurrously. Yes, she was determined to rebel . . . but her life . . . what would she do without that identity? . . . Without that pressure, she thought. The things she could do! And yet running away meant a stripping away of her core. She could not access her Divinity, and she wasn’t entirely certain of the best ways in which to help people when that was lost to her.
She had acted, but her heart hadn’t quite followed.
More than anything, if she was entirely honest . . . I’m just really, really confused.
But it didn’t matter. Just right then, the only thing on her mind was getting a good night’s rest—even if it wasn’t quite dark outside. The ache in her bones and the tingling warmth in her extremities as she began fully warming up made it easy to succumb to the deep specter of the dark:
There were screams. Ren shot straight up in her bed, coming to the realization that they were not the screams of her dreams, but real and terrifying.
Men and women alike. They were crying. There was smoke.
“Help us!” Someone cried. “Help us, please! Somebody—help us!”
Immediately she shot out of bed, tripping over some vines in the process, yet still making it to the door without too much effort. She flung it open, without regard to who might have been outside. There was smoke at every turn, but that wasn’t so bad. She could simply not breathe. . . . Though how long she’d have to keep it up, she didn’t know; oddly enough, throughout all her years, she had never bothered to find out.
The cries grew more intense. She was on the fourth floor and could hear wooden beams both above and below creaking as fire ate away to them. This was not her first time in a burning building. That knowledge told her she didn’t have long. Not long at all.
Cries came from all directions. Where to start? And where was the innkeeper?
It didn’t take long to assess the initial source of everyone’s dilemma. Someone had gone around and set the backs of chairs beneath everyone’s door handles. Locks jiggled, and many tried pushing with all their might, but it was no use. She quickly set about to removing them all. The first chair broke loose its hold, and the door came crashing open, sending four people (a mother, father and their two children) tumbling to the ground.
“What—” The father began, getting up quickly and helping his wife and children.
“Run!” Ren commanded. They didn’t seem to need any second warning; they ran to the stairs at the end of the long, narrow hallway and made their way out of the inn. With every chair freed, more and more people rushed to the exits. It wasn’t until Ren had covered both the fifth and the fourth floors that she began to question just how dangerously bare the walls were. Bare stucco. Ren might not have known the area well, but if there was one thing she knew about Ngatui, it was that their walls were never, ever bare.
“Run!” Ren commanded. They didn’t seem to need any second warning; they ran to the stairs at the end of the long, narrow hallway and made their way out of the inn. With every chair freed, more and more people rushed to the exits. It wasn’t until Ren had covered both the fifth and the fourth floors that she began to question just how dangerously bare the walls were. Bare stucco. Ren might not have known the area well, but if there was one thing she knew about Ngatui, it was that their walls were never, ever bare.
But the people needed to escape. The mystery of the barren walls could wait.
Nearly everyone was out now. They pushed and shoved their way down the staircases, children crying, mothers with tense looks in their eyes trying desperately to calm them as they entered the inferno. Smoke burned her nose, her eyes; it found its way into her mouth where it seemed to settle on her tongue. Her hair was a dark, fly-away mess, and sweat streamed down every part of her body.
There was fire burning at the bottom of the stairs, and everyone stepped gingerly to avoid too much damage to their skin. She could hear what she hoped were water carriages coming to their rescue.
Someone let out a shrill cry. A mother—the very first Ren had let free. She was carrying her two-year-old son in her arms, and she had fallen, head first, into the inferno burning on the second floor landing.
Yaran, Ren thought. The mother’s hair was singing as Ren knelt down beside her.
“Meloda!” The young father, who had already reached the bottom flight (though it appeared he had not let them out of his sight) ran up the stairs, taking three at a time.
Their son cried at her side. The husband set their other child—also crying uncontrollably, and for good reasons—down beside the first.
When Ren reached them, the woman’s face was unrecognizable, though she’d just been pulled from the flames. Although fire raged around them, it seemed to have to affect on the man. It seemed he had eyes only for his wife, who was dying in his arms.
The woman’s throat had been burned badly; she struggled to breathe, and it looked as though something that had been so natural to her all her life was suddenly the largest struggle for survival.
Meloda’s husband whimpered, rocking back and forth on the groaning planks.
“We must get somewhere safe,” Ren said, “it would be senseless to get you all killed.”
The husband looked up for a split second, seeming to recognize that there was someone in the world other than himself and his family, then nodded and picked himself up. Careful not to hurt her neck too badly, he put his arms around his wife and lifted her into his arms; unable to wipe the tears away, they soared down his cheeks, catching in his dark stubble.
Ren caught hold of the two children (the younger she put in her arms) and began descending the stairs as quickly as she could.
“You!” she called to one of the other young men trying to exit.
The gangly lad turned and looked at her but didn’t stop moving. She called him again; she needed to enlist help or many lives would be lost this night.
The boy looked at her with wide, frantic eyes. “What do you need, lady?”
“I need you to go through this floor,” Ren said, out of breath, “and let everyone out of their rooms. Just remove the chairs. It shouldn’t take long; the first floor needs to be attended to as well.”
He grimaced but didn’t complain against it. He set off immediately through the all-but-empty corridor. . . . Good lad, she thought. Yaran, please don’t let him be killed because of my stupid little errand.
She was praying again. Ren needed to stop doing that.
“What is your name?” she asked the husband.
“Palken,” he said through gritted teeth. “of Brehedak.”
Another islander. Though far away from here, in the northern archipelago of Lussefdrei. This man had come even farther than she had.
“Shh,” she whispered, trying to calm the two small children about her. “Everything will be alright.”
Well, it could be alright . . . if she were willing to use her Divinity.
But that would entirely defy the point of coming to Ngatui in the first place. She had come here to hide; though, granted, she had not counted on the inn catching on fire. And this man—Palken—was in serious emotional pain. Yes, she was running from her identity . . . but that identity hadn’t abandoned her.
Ren was still Ren. And she could not watch people suffer like that—not when she had the power to change the outcome. No, she could not yet deny that.
Having already come to a decision, but not really wanting to go through with it, she prepared herself to use her Divinity. She knew she could not properly channel it unless it she was more or less calm, collected. The frivolous mess that she was in right then would not allow her any kind of power.
The top floor and roof collapsed. The building shuddered; they really didn’t have much time left.
“Everybody out! Now!” Ren commanded.
Palken ran outside the front archway and set Meloda down on the lush grass of the edifices across the inn—it was nearly ten times the size, dwarfing the much humbler dwelling that now would be even smaller.
The world around the inn was alive with leaping flame. Even if not on fire itself, every surface glistened with the flickering movements.
Palken came back for his children, taking them both to safety as Ren turned around to make sure everyone was out before the entire thing came crashing down hard.
The young man nearly ran into her, out of breath. “I got all the doors, like you said!” he nearly shouted. Though it wasn’t in anger; Ren could clearly hear the panic building up in his voice. He set his hands on his knees and tried to inhale deeply, though it appeared a struggle.
“Thank you,” Ren said.
A woman whom Ren assumed to be the boy’s mother came rushing forward. “Theocha, where were you? I was worried sick!”
“I’m sorry to frighten you,” Ren said, voice entirely calm given the circumstances. “But we all desperately needed his help. You should be proud of Theocha; he saved many lives tonight.”
The mother gave Theocha a bewildered look, and still slapped him on the back of the head for good measure.
Palken lay with his dying wife, desperately looking at Ren for help.
And Ren would save her.
She knelt down beside Meloda, slowing her heart rate down, ignoring the smoky night air. She tried to find the sweet perfume of Nguti’s commodity in the air and focus on that scent alone. She magnified it; it calmed her.
Meloda was gasping for air, her eyes wide. Her children weren’t crying anymore, but his husband was—albeit silently.
Ren closed her eyes and ran her hand gently over the woman’s face, feeling the burnt skin and injured flesh—but also searching for the connection between the woman’s energy and her body. The part where the two of them fused as one . . . Ren would draw on that natural energy to heal her.
Although it would give her up, she knew that she would not let Meloda die. She called on Yaran for help and began warping the energy within Meloda’s body. Yaran did the rest. The gasping slowly gave way to even breathing, the burned flesh giving away to new skin.
Palken gasped in surprise, and a new wave of tears came upon him. Meloda sat up, light filling her eyes. “. . . Thank you . . .” she managed. She looked as though she wanted to say more, but nothing came. Instead she just stared straight ahead, her eyebrows scrunched together.
Ren already knew. She nodded in her direction then stood up.
Others had apparently gathered round to see the spectacle. Many had been burned, and they asked for Ren’s blessing as well.
And she normally would have gladly given it.
But she was distracted. There was still a voice coming from inside the inn.
Ren picked up her skirts and marched decidedly—no, she ran, to hell with dignity—back into the building. How could it be? Theocha had said that every room had been accounted for. . . . But there. Behind the wooden desk and stacks of ledgers . . . a narrow passageway.
The innkeeper’s quarters.
The building was down to this single floor. The roof would collapse on them at any second, and still she pressed forward.
On the left-hand side. A door. Apparently jammed shut, though there was no chair to keep the door from opening.
“Oh, by the gods! Get away from her! Get a—way!” The innkeeper was shouting. “I told you not to touch her! Get away! Leave now!”
Ren approached the door, curiosity replacing fear. The arson was probably inside this room. This crime could be solved right here, and she wouldn’t have to deal with any of the nasty politics that came with a crime like this.
The carriages were outside now—from what slice of the outside Ren could see from her little corner. Everyone was throwing buckets of water on the flames, many were inside the building now, throwing up beams to keep the last of the ceiling from caving in too quickly.
She put her hand on the heavy iron handle and turned. The room wasn’t locked at all. The only thing keeping the innkeeper from escaping, then, was whoever was inside. Why were they inside? And what did they want?
Nearly without thinking, Ren stormed into the room. Aside from the light spilling in from the window—which looked onto the back garden, colorful and dancing with light of the flames—everything was in shadow. Except the three . . . were they men?
Could Ren call them men? She was inclined to think not. She shivered, unable to rip the idea from her mind that she had seen things like them before. That this was not their first encounter. . . . But if they had met previously, it was in the very, very distant past.
The creatures had nearly translucent skin—the shadow of muscles and ligaments underneath could be seen. Through their veins ran a cool, glowing blue liquid in place of blood. Their nails were claws; they were naked aside from a cloth covering their loins—which was more akin to a burial sash than anything worn by the living—; and their faces were shadowed (baggy underneath their eyes, everything somehow alive yet not at all).
They looked at Ren with a curious expression, though the one holding the innkeeper’s wife (or mistress, perhaps; Ren wouldn’t have put it past the man) didn’t relinquish his grip. His hands were large and thick, his sneer plastered on a face that could have been very handsome had he not been so frightening.
“You carry Divinity in your veins,” the one closest to her said, his speech very little more than a whisper. And even so, Ren felt herself grow cold as memories began seeping through. The fires. The earthquakes. Blue human figures—souls lost, a fate more terrible than any death.
Suddenly Ren was very scared.
However, she could not deny the truth. They could sense the Divinity in her—that she knew—because she had just used it. She was like a stove that was still warm, although the fire inside had just died down.
Ren didn’t respond, other than to clasp her hands in front of her to keep them from shaking. . . . The movement did not go unnoticed by the creatures.
“Let us go!” the innkeeper pleaded. “Please!”
The same creature who had addressed Ren now spoke to the man, though he did not take his eyes off of her. Nor did he turn his torso. For better or for worse, Ren still held all their attention.
Breathe, Ren told herself. Breathe . . . things will not be as bad if you only stay calm.
But these things—they were the first destruction! They were so old they had been forgotten by man. Had been forgotten by her.
“Young one,” the creature whispered. “The Jovious. How does it grow?”
“What?” The innkeeper said, aghast, as though wondering what in Labryn he would need to know the answer to that question for.
“The Jovious,” the creature repeated, his words more terse, his stare at Ren more intense. “How. Does. It. Grow?”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
“Anka, just tell him!” the woman screamed.
“Be quiet, woman!”
What is so important about this flower?
The creature-man growled, his tired eyes lighting with fire. “No matter,” he said, seeming to calm down slightly. “It doesn’t matter.” He grabbed Anka’s partner and threw her to the ground, then he turned to his comrades. “We make our leave,” he said. “Head out.”
All three of them made their way out of the building. They were clutching torn handfuls of the Jovious. Before they passed through the doorway of Anka’s quarters, the first creature stared at Ren, almost seeming to sniff her. He narrowed his eyes . . . the woman on the ground made a noise, and whatever the man thought of saying didn’t leave his lips.
The door banged open.
The building was on fire. But none of them moved.
“Is anybody in there!” A man called from the smoky corridor.
The man called Anka jumped off his bed, pulled his wife off the ground, and ushered Ren through the doorway.
“By the gods . . .”
They must have seen the creatures. But their little band didn’t stop. The exit was nearly there. Fire. Smoke. Death. Decay all over—an entire world changed in just a few moments.
Fresh air. Ren barely saw the people milling about, hardly registered anything aside from the creature’s luminescent forms forcing their way through the crowd.
“Somebody stop them!” It was Meloda. “Why is nobody stopping them? Palken, come on! They’re getting away!”
Palken held tight to her, but she wriggled free. “Hey!” she yelled.
They halted. One of them nodded to the other, who held a crossbow.
It happened in an instant, in that smoky street in the perpetual twilight. Ren saw it as though through water . . . one creature raised the crossbow, cocked it with a sound like stretching fibers . . . thump.
A scream from Palken, shrieks from the general crowd.
Not a sound from Meloda.
“Oh my gods,” Anka’s wife said.
Shaking herself from her stupor, Ren rushed forward. Palken lay next to Meloda, his flushed, tear-stained cheeks pressed upon her breast, looking for a heartbeat. Ren gently pushed him out of the way and felt for it herself.
There was none.
“Please,” Palken begged, “there’s got to be something you can do.”
He seemed on the verge of tears once more; it looked pitiful on his youthful face—though not in a negative way. Ren could quite understand; this man had lost his wife.
Ren shook her head. She spoke to him as though they had known each other their entire lives. Indeed, the ten minutes that had elapsed since their meeting felt like an eternity. “I’m sorry, Palken. I’m really sorry. But I cannot bring back the dead.”
“What are you talking about? I saw you heal her—moments ago!”
“I cannot . . .” Ren herself was close to tears now. Not solely for Palken—though that was indeed a part of it—but because she had revealed herself (made herself vulnerable) for what? Meloda was dead. Annoyed at the fact she was having such selfish thoughts, and scared of what her choices may have done to her, she shook her head—perhaps more vehemently than she had intended. “I cannot raise the dead, Palken! I’m sorry . . .”
Palken fell to his knees. Ren tried to put a hand on his shoulder, but he shrugged it off and turned away.
Frustrated and disheartened, Ren stepped away from the crowd. The fire of the inn had finally burned down; only the first floor remained; everything was a big jumble, a mess of boards, beds, bedding, and everything smoking, everything in half forms. There was no sign of the inn’s namesake.
Anka sat on the wild grass, holding his wife’s hand.
I need to get out of here. First thing in the morning, two days’ time, she’d heard tell of a merchant ship that was leaving for Brehedak. It would be a long journey, but what did that matter to her? There was nothing in her life that she didn’t have to have patience for. And besides, it would give her time to think, would it not? About herself, about life, about her role in the world. . . .
Until then, however, she wanted to remain out of sight. Already people looked at her with curious expressions. Any one of them could tell the creatures her location. . . . Ren knew that they had understood who and what she was. And that made her extremely anxious. But then again, if they had wanted to kill her, why hadn’t they?
She nodded politely to those who were looking at her, then set off to find someplace soft where she could sleep. The high of using Divinity was wearing off—and as she hadn’t used it in so long, that one particular healing had been more draining than she had expected.
It was only then that she realized that her door hadn’t been locked. Why? Had those creatures known who she was? If they’d known—why wouldn’t they have wanted to keep her as incapacitated as possible . . . ?
She needed sleep.
The ship rocked back and forth, not violently, but enough to make Ren slightly dizzy. Ice-wind nipped at Ren’s cheeks and dried her eyes. Everyone was below deck; everyone except she and one of Palken’s small boys. The older one. He looked about six years old.
“What’s your name?” Ren asked.
“Kenos,” he said.
“Do you feel like . . . talking?”
The boy said nothing, but Ren knew what he must have been feeling.
“You miss your mother,” Ren said.
“She wasn’t my mother,” he replied, though he still looked troubled. Certainly it appeared Meloda had been the caretaker, and Palken had enormous affection for him. . . . Had she misjudged the couple entirely?
Ren looked out at the expanse of sea, a little of the droplets stinging her face. A couple caught on her tongue, and she tasted the cold, briny salt. “Maybe we should go down and sit with your father, yeah?”
“You mean my uncle.” Kenos said.
Ren had to hand it to him: For a six- or seven-year-old boy, he was very obstinate.
“Well, with your uncle, then,” Ren said. “C’mon.” She put her arm around his shoulders, and though he seemed very keen to stay out on the deck, freezing to death and watching the enigmatic waves—no doubt they were in perfect harmony with his mood—he went with Ren without too much prodding.
Ren was left to wonder about the boy. He was curious, although not in a way that she could pinpoint. He seemed . . . beyond the current world, as though his mind was on another plane entirely. A thirty-year-old in a child’s body. Or so it seemed.
Down below, the smell of human waste was overpowering. The only consolation was the sweet scent of the flowers being sent to the world. However, the two together made a scent so sickening, she almost would rather have dealt with the former alone.
The only living quarters was the ground, covered in moist, scratchy straw.
Ren sat down anyway, shifting to make herself comfortable.
Anka, the inn-keeper, having “nothing left for him in Ngatui,” as he put it, had decided to come with them to Brehedak. He sat at the prow of the boat, snoring despite the chill. The woman—Anka’s wife, Lakonine, as Ren had come to find out—sat next to him. Her head rested on Anka’s shoulder, thick, dark hair rolling down his limp arm. Her pallid face and gray eyes—open wide—stared into the void. If she had heard right, it was because of Lakonine the couple had decided to take the specific journey to Brehedak; it was Lakonine’s home.
The only other people on the small vessel were the captain, some crew, and a single Ngatui merchant. All but two of them were down below deck, all scruffy men in sweat-stained shirts and patchy trousers.
Palken, like Lakonine, was also staring. Staring at Ren with glacial eyes. And though it was a bit unnerving, Ren could see that he wasn’t seeing her. He was perhaps thinking of Meloda.
“How are you feeling?” she asked.
As expected, Palken shook his head as though coming from a trance and made eye-contact with her. After a moment, he said: “Fine . . . I think.”
“You know,” she said. “It’s alright not to be okay.”
He shook his head. “Then I’m not okay. . . . But I will be. We’ll get through this. By Yaran, we’ll get through this. Won’t we, boys?” He pulled Kenos and the younger child close to him, and Ren saw it now. She hadn’t noticed before, but Kenos merely allowed Palken to touch him. He refrained, but she could almost see his eyes rolling.
A dimple formed on Kenos’s left cheek, as though he were biting the inside.
Ren thought it best to perhaps bring the conversation elsewhere. “I don’t think we’ve actually been introduced,” she said. And in all reality they hadn’t. A small exchange of names while running through a burning building followed by silence as they boarded and sailed over the next few days didn’t count.
Palken gave a hint of a smile. “No, we haven’t,” he said. “I’m Palken Shakoline.”
He didn’t seem willing to give more. He said: “What is your name?”
“What’s your full name?”
She smiled. “I’m afraid that is a secret.”
“Come now, there has to be more than just ‘Ren’.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, feeling empty. “That’s all. That’s . . . my entire name.”
And indeed it was. There I go again, she thought. Ren had tried to make light conversation, and they hadn’t gotten very far. She hadn’t had a full conversation with anyone in a long while, and this was why. Because she started to feel that hole creep up again. That emptiness. . . . And it didn’t matter how much she did what she was created to do—serve people at all times, be present and kind, et cetera, et cetera; the list went on—she couldn’t seem to shake the notion that people stared at her for a reason. She wasn’t like every other person in Labryn; she was entirely unique.
By Yaran, if she was unique then she was going to take it in stride. She felt a flare, once again, the same flare that had propelled her to Ngatui, to break free of her past and find out who she was. And, oh . . . how desperately she wanted to live just like everyone else.
“That’s your entire name,” Palken said. “. . . Alright. I guess that’s okay. Where are you from? Your Drunian is excellent.”
Of course it was. Ren was native to all peoples. She claimed command over all tongues.
But I’m not from anywhere. . . . To hell with Yaran.
“I’m from Brehedak, actually,” Ren said. “Born and raised.”
Palken beamed. “Really!”
She nodded, recalling memories of the island in case he started asking more specific questions. Her last visit was at least a century ago—probably seventy years before Palken was born. A lot could change in seventy years; she simply hoped her knowledge would be enough.
It was, fortunately. They talked for most of that afternoon and on into the evening’s serving of stale biscuits.
She knew she was on a slippery slope, and it felt good.
To hell with Yaran, she thought. And to hell with Naray. Ren wasn’t going to worry herself or think about the events at Ngatui; she wouldn’t let it bother her. She was going to find her own life, and it was going to be sweeter than honey.
The scent of the brine and sea salt never seemed to go away for Kenos. In many ways, although it had been many years, he had never left the boat that carried them from Ngatui back to home. He had never loved Palken; but Meloda . . . well, his aunt he had loved dearly.
Kenos looked out from the mountain peak where he stood. The air was warm, but the evening wind wasn’t; and the sinking sun didn’t help matters. His dark hair, longer than most boys’ he knew, whipped out behind him. The fog covered nearly everything, as it did every morning and every night, and yet Kenos knew this island well enough he didn’t even think of it as an impediment.
The trees on the other hand. . . . The scent of pine was strong, at once sweet and robust. It created a perfect melody with the cool night air and the saltwater spray. The enormous giants were everywhere on this island, and even standing in a rather sparse grove on the top of one of the largest peaks, it was very difficult for him to make out a complete picture.
Brehedak was split into a couple of main valleys, with ports all around. A small mountain range split the two bowls—Kenos always thought that if he could fly, the island might very well resemble a pair of spectacles. To the west lay the government buildings where his uncle Palken worked, granite buildings that soared over four stories (although any trees surrounding them greatly outdid them).
A few deciduous trees rustled. It was a clear night, but one never knew what might happen when one lived one’s life surrounded by the unpredictable ocean.
Where is the damned place? He thought, shuffling left and right in order to see through the trees. His teeth grabbed hold of a flap of skin on the inside of his right cheek. It didn’t really hurt so much anymore.
Kenos shivered, regretting that he hadn’t brought any coat with him. But he’d left that coat at home on purpose; the blasted thing really made him stand out. The laced cuffs, the long tail with brass buttons. He could do without that. Now if he only had a coat like Ren’s; she still had that bearskin even after all these years. There was a certain rugged style to it that he really liked . . . of course, Palken would never agree to anything like that.
There were certain disadvantages when you were the adopted son of the Prime Minister. Not the least of which was Kenos’s inability to pick and choose his own clothing. He wore only a simple white cotton tunic—a blue strip of cloth tied around his right arm like a band—brown trousers, and shoes which buckled. The footwear was a contrast to the rest of his wardrobe, but he had no other kind.
The prison. Where was it? The merchant at the dock said it had high cedar walls. Said no one could ever escape from it.
He had never been to the prison before; indeed, he hadn’t even known there was such a thing. It was on the eastern cup of the island—a place he was warned constantly not to go. The homeless and the beggars were on that side of the island. Sure there were some nice folks as well (Palken seemed intent on finding “nice folks” in every situation in life), but really—they weren’t their kind of crowd. And surely Kenos didn’t want to go around with a group like that.
Lights twinkled on, golden yellows, all casting flickering shadows. It contrasted deeply with blues of evening and brought comforting warmth to the wooden homes. By Yaran it was beautiful. . . . He had come here many a day to watch and listen and think. To be alone. But he didn’t have time for that now.
Even as the crickets chirped in the underbrush, his heart sped up at the mere thought of what he was going to do.
“Psst . . . Kenos . . .”
He flipped around, suddenly even more nervous than he had been. If someone turned him in to his uncle there was going to be some hell to pay.
“Hello?” Even in his sixteenth year his voice croaked.
“It’s me . . .” Still whispering. A girl’s voice, he thought.
There was rustling that didn’t belong to the leaves themselves and a small figure emerged in the coming light of the blue moon. She was half in shadow, yet he recognized her. It might have been her skeletal frame that gave it away, or the way she held her chin in the air as though she knew something no one else did. Her thin, blonde hair hid half her face. But he could tell her eyes were alight with excitement.
If Sucha hadn’t been so sickly, there was a definite possibility that Kenos would have found her attractive . . . as it was, with those cheek bones jutting out, and with joints that seemed made of rocks, there was little chance of that happening. Shrewd, he knew, but it was the truth.
“Hey, Kenos,” Sucha said.
Kenos was no longer worried about being told on; Sucha would never do something like that. He let out an exhasperated sigh. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“I wanted to know what you were up to.” She twirled her simple dress a little.
“It’s none of your business,” he said, turning away from her and looking back at the western valley. He was fairly certain there had been a now go away tucked somewhere in there, but Sucha didn’t seem to fully grasp it.
“It just isn’t.” Those were the words which first came to him, and he felt idiotic for saying them. They weren’t ten anymore. But . . . Yaran! She made him so edgy.
“You can trust me, Kenos! I promise I won’t tell anyone about it. . . . Or all the times before.”
He spun around. “What times?”
“All the times you come up to this spot. I watch you do it all the time. Does your uncle know where you go?”
She’s been watching me? How long has this been going on?
Kenos shook his head—better to stay quiet than to hurt someone’s feelings, Palken always said (a lesson he had learned on many occasions)—then turned back to the scene, looking for the prison.
Sucha approached him and stood next to her. Kenos clutched both hands into fists. He was never going to get anything done with her tagging along.
“Kenos, why don’t you like me?” She asked.
“It’s not that,” he said, though he knew they both knew he was lying.
“No, I can tell. You don’t like being around me. . . . And I keep wondering why because you don’t have any friends.”
Kenos was only half-listening now. He’d spotted the building in the distance. Once his eyes singled it out, it was quite obvious what it was. Why didn’t I see this before? He thought.
Near the edge of the western valley, in the thick of a lot of trees, there were two solitary lights that shone through the darkness. They were the only ones for at least a mile; from Kenos’s vantage point they were mere pinpricks. But yet they were there, raised in mid-air. That had to be the place; it made perfect sense. The back wall would face out to the sea; there were no beaches or ports on that particular side of the island, and the waves were especially rough in that patch. Any man crazy enough to take that exit route would drown before he could even think of a place to swim to.
“You need to stay here,” Kenos said, though unable to keep the excitement out of his voice.
“Why? You going somewhere?”
He rolled his eyes. “Yeah.” Without saying another word, he began his way down the mountainous hill. Kenos had seen Talamora’s Barguns with his uncle last year—tall, towering giants that had snow on them in the heat of summer—and had known what it was like to behold one. Brehedak’s mountains didn’t hold a candle to that kind of grandeur, but they were still potentially dangerous.
Kenos had to walk in a zig-zag pattern down the incline, holding onto the sap-soaked bark of the great pines to keep from falling at some places. There were moss-covered boulders he could lean on to steady himself as well.
In all reality he had not expected Sucha to follow him. Surely her condition (whatever the hell that was; she’d never said) would prevent it. But behind him he heard the consistent tread of one who was not unaccustomed to scaling the large hills.
Naray be damned, he thought. Why won’t she leave me alone?
No, he didn’t have friends. That he could admit in front of anyone and everyone—though perhaps to the dismay of his uncle. But I don’t need friends. Why does everyone keep thinking that’s what I need?
He knew what he needed. And he was going after it. People kept trying to convince him otherwise, but he knew.
The island was about twenty miles long, and Kenos was starting from the center. Well, perhaps not the exact center, but fairly close to it, and the prison was at the very edge of the western border. If he kept up a good pace, he reckoned he’d be there within a couple hours.
He couldn’t have had the foresight to know the prison would be so far out, but he’d had a hunch. Kenos had put pillows beneath his comforter and closed his bedroom door before he’d left. One of the servants had seen him leaving the house, but he’d made her swear she wouldn’t tell Palken. (It wasn’t the first time she’d caught him; they had a little agreement.) In truth, he had been feeling a bit down lately, and he hoped that excuse would suffice for his uncle.
Even so, he was going to have to find a way to wash all this sap and sweat off of him before he made his return—which at this rate looked to be past midnight.
“Kenos, would you slow down?”
He didn’t feel the need to reply.
“Kenos, I really want to talk with you!”
I don’t want to talk with you. How can you have a one-sided conversation?
“Look, I’m sorry if I’ve been bugging you, but I really feel like you need a friend. It’s not good for people to be alone, you know. . . .”
She kept talking, practically yelling. In the darkness and stillness of night, her at-times shrill voice was like a shockwave moving through the air.
“Would you be quiet?” Kenos hissed at last as a small flock of birds rose from the pines. “The entire damned island can hear you talking.”
He was surprised to find, at turning around, just how close she had gotten. Whether he had slowed down or she had sped up, he had no idea. Sucha stopped when he did. After staring at her for a moment, clenching his fists and taking deep breaths, Kenos continued moving. “You should go home,” he called back to her. “Really. You don’t belong out here.”
“Neither do you, really,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone that only fanned Kenos’s annoyance.
What by Naray did she mean by that?
“I mean, it’s far past our curfews,” Sucha continued. “Where are you going, anyway?”
“Nowhere in particular,” he said, though he was once again certain she knew he was lying. But he wasn’t about to tell her that he was on a mission. This was his. And no one else’s. Not Palken’s, not Ren’s, not even Bent’s. His cousin was perhaps the most understanding of all the people in his life, but he couldn’t possibly understand this.
Once down the hill he made a sharp turn to the north in an attempt to avoid all the dwellings. They were more closely packed here; and though everyone on the western side of the island had all gone within their houses, these people seemed intent on staying out as long as possible. Life-weary old men and vigorous boys alike smoked the weed. Smoke drifted among the houses in small currents. Fires were burning. The houses were small, their simple log walls filled with pitch. Many didn’t have floors. Some of the roofs were mere collections of pine branches—which Kenos assumed would have to be replaced quite often.
People didn’t seem to know who he was over here, but even in his simple clothing he knew he was wearing cloth with more quality in it than these people had probably ever seen. One of the men with a leathery face looked at him and narrowed his eyes, as though daring him to come any closer.
Such didn’t speak so much now, but she still whispered to him continuously. He blocked it out.
Many times he thought about running, but the underbrush was too thick to try anything like that. Better to take it slow. And anyway, he thought, it would probably be best to arrive at the prison later in the night.
Kenos had been right about the location of the prison, and the pride swelled in his heart when the enormous building came into view. It really matched the surroundings—so much so that if there hadn’t been those two beacons lit on the top of the ramparts, it was very possible that no one would have picked it out as being a building at all. At least until they came really close to it.
The wall wasn’t made of logs, he found. But actual living trees. They were pines as large as any in the surrounding area, with deep roots and so many needles Kenos could barely see the torches lit on top. They extended for many feet in either direction; even in the darkness he had a hunch it was larger than even any government building on the western side. The air here was mistier; water droplets had already gathered themselves on the trunks of the trees. Kenos heard the ocean crashing violently against the jagged edge of the island.
“By Yaran,” Sucha said. Her face looked even paler in the dim light.
Kenos smirked at her, although she probably couldn’t see it. Naray be damned. How do I get in there?
He began circling the perimeter of the prison, hoping to find . . . he didn’t know what. A door? A window? This was meant to keep criminals inside forever, and it certainly wasn’t for people to come visit for tea. And yet . . . there were workers, weren’t there? How did they get in and out . . . ? Perhaps the only way in was through the ocean port.
“Kenos,” Sucha whispered, a considerable distance away now because she hadn’t moved.
He ignored her.
“Kenos!” She said it more loudly this time, and Kenos winced, hoping nobody had heard.
“Ke—” Before she could finish, Kenos rushed over to her, hissing “Shhh!” the entire way. Hell, he’d thought she had more sense than all that.
“Sucha,” he said in the most furious whisper he could muster. “Shut up.”
She lowered her head; the fourteen-year-old girl seemed to move back in time six years.
Yaran, he did feel sorry for her, but not enough that he didn’t regret saying it.
“I just thought you might want to know I found a crack in the trees.”
“Up there.” She pointed upward to one of the spots where the trees hit into each other. About ten feet up, after the first few boughs, was a gap that looked like it just might be wide enough to . . .
He looked at her, and she met his eyes with a pointed glare. As if to say Hah!
Kenos smirked back and started looking for a way up. If he put his foot there on that knot and grabbed onto that first branch . . . He started moving. The initial lift was difficult, but nothing too hard after that; Kenos had climbed trees before. . . . It would be a tight squeeze, but he felt he could make it.
Turning his head side-ways he slid himself into the crack and immediately began to panic. It was indeed a tight fit. The enormous, rough trunks scraped against his front and back, constricting his lungs. He breathed in small gasps—never enough. Just keep going, just inch through . . . A few more seconds and he was through. Careful to step on a branch on the other side, Kenos took a deep breath.
It was a prison, but he supposed you couldn’t be that predictable with nature. Perhaps the men who ran the prison camp thought it wasn’t a danger. A grown man would not be able to make it through that gap—not even a small woman. For once he was glad his body hadn’t quite begun to change.
He picked his way down the other side and landed with both feet on the ground. A few moments later, Sucha followed in a similar fashion. He wished she would leave. She couldn’t keep her big mouth shut; and she’d found an entrance. I was supposed to find an entrance. This is supposed to be mine.
Kenos wasn’t sure what he had been expecting, but the prison caught him off guard. There were no lights save the torches above. He looked up, finding a scaffolding which had been built right onto the trees, giving whomever stood on it a full view of the . . . what was it? A prison? It wasn’t what he’d expected a prison to look like. It was more like a village than anything.
Although there were no lights coming directly from the village, the blue moon above their heads was sufficient to make out the many square buildings. Each was made of stone—each one a simpler version of the granite government buildings on the western side. No windows, only one simple door on each, pitch keeping them sealed shut.
He looked at Sucha, who seemed scared.
“What are we doing here, Kenos?” she asked.
“Just look for the main building. We need the main building.”
Creaking from above froze them both as they attempted to move forward. The scaffold-like bridge above them: Someone was up there, watching. It appeared high enough that the guards could see out through the branches. . . . Had they seen them sneak through? Would they sound the alarm?
They could do anything. But he didn’t have time to think about it; he would face the consequences later-on if he had to (and they couldn’t be so great—he was, after all, only a fifteen-year-old troubled youth).
“Let’s move,” he whispered, barely shifting his feet himself. “Now. Quiet-like.”
There were hundreds of the small houses, set in neat lines and rows. There was a haunting order to it, as though it spoke to those inside: You have done a terrible wrong to society and to yourself; for this, you will be trapped within a chrysalis of order and righteousness; may Yaran rest your souls.
He’s here, somewhere. He has to be . . . where else would they put him?
The torch from the scaffold bridge moved—Kenos knew by the shadow of the man on the ground before him, as well as, perhaps most chilling of all, the silhouette of himself and Sucha.
“You there!” The woman called.
Kenos’s heart froze, stopped. Oh, Yaran, no. Please, no—not when he was so close. He did the only thing his instincts told him; he turned to Sucha: “Run!”
Even the starting off seemed to take a lot out of her, but she staid just a few steps behind.
Into the grid they went.
Kenos could hear the two guards, the supposed two who had been holding the torches, make their way over the scaffolding to the stairs. How many steps are there? How long will it take?
He could hear shuffling inside many of the cells; there were definitely people inside them. They’re probably all inside the main house asleep?
Something made the back of his neck tingle, and he stopped, putting out his arm to stop Sucha from continuing. On the ground, barely visible—barbed wire, and lots of it. He had on decent shoes, but nothing that could stand that much of an attack. And what if they were to fall?
He moved quickly to the next step. Same. Whoever had build the place was not an idiot.
And then the alarm sounded—a clear bell so loud he was certain everyone on the island, perhaps even the mainland, could hear. The other guards would be on especial alert, he knew. No one in a prison really expected anyone to break in; their one priority was to keep captives from breaking out. I have to get to that center. Sucha couldn’t keep-up with him very well, and that was alright; he’d just have to leave her behind.
Not feeling very sorry at all, and having a rush come over him at the thought of being so close to his goal, he took off down the side of the street. His back nearly hit every stone rectangle he passed. He tried to stay within the six inches between the nearest strip of wire and the cells and so had to walk with one foot directly in front of the other.
“Kenos!” Sucha called.
To Naray with you! He thought. I have my own damned problems. . . . But he vocalized nothing; if he did, he was certain to give himself away, and then where would he be?
The center of it all was in sight: a great wooden lodge surrounded by a high, marble wall. There was one entrance, and already he could see doors jiggling as the guards within unlocked it.
“Halt! Halt in the name of Yaran!”
Where were they? Could they see him?
Breathing fast (by Naray he hoped that wasn’t going to give him away), he crept into the shadow of one of the cells. Please, Yaran, no.
“Over here!” The guard called from behind. The ten men who burst from the center building rushed past him. Kenos saw that they had thick boots to keep the barbed wire from affecting them too much. “Over here!” He called again.
Was this happening? Had they really given him a perfectly free entrance? He crept slowly, hiding in every shadow he came across. Inside the thick wall, lights were burning. And the door had been left wide-open, like a birthday present. Hardly able to contain his excitement, he moved inside, checking behind him for any guards—but they were too busy with Sucha. He heard them talking to her, the regular question . . . who are you and what are you doing here? Et cetera, et cetera.
She’d turned out to be useful after all.
There was an outer courtyard to the main lodge, rather nice in his opinion. Although the courtyard to Palken’s home, where he lived, eclipsed it a hundred times in complexity and expense.
Kenos could hardly believe his luck when he found the door to the lodge unlocked as well. . . . There was a staircase which led, he assumed, to the guards’ quarters. It smelled of dust and damp wood. A hint of saltwater lingering in the stale air. Then again, everything smelled, to some extent, of saltwater here.
What looked like a sitting room was to his direct right, a dining room to his left. A pair of ornately carved doors with brass handles led to the only room that interested Kenos. This had to be the records room, the all-business room.
And there he would find the ledgers.
He marched forward and jiggled the handle. That damned thing was locked. There had to be another way in. . . . The bell outside continued to ring; people stirred upstairs. There has to be a way into this room—there has to be! He looked around frantically. Any moment now he was going to be discovered. And then what would he so? Sucha might have been caught, but he still had a chance of getting out. . . .
There were large rocks, outside, he remembered, keeping the patches of new flowers separate from the rest of the courtyard.
Without caring whether or not people saw him, Kenos ran out the front doors, stooped and heaved one of the larger rocks into his arms. His biceps burnt, straining to keep the thing aloft then moved as quickly as possible back into the foyer. Kenos widened his stance and took a deep breath. He shoved the rock with all his might at the door. It made a decent cracking sound, though it still wasn’t near giving him passage.
Kenos picked up the rock again, this time was more difficult than the first—the throw had nearly put his arms out—but he managed. This time, Kenos tried putting more force into the effort, swinging the large stone before letting it fly free.
Noises from upstairs. This time, an actual crack appeared. It seemed that, though the prison took the security of its prisoners very seriously, budgets had been cut in the lodge. This door was thinner than it first appeared.
More guards were coming.
Quickly he repeated the process a third time; it looked weak enough now. Kenos left the rock where it was and kicked with all his might. The door splintered where the crack appeared. He hastily moved in, pushing with his knee and trying to spread the wood apart with his hands. Immediately small, intense pains blossomed on his palms, but he’d had splinters before. Just ignore it, he told himself.
At last there was a space large enough for him; he crawled through.
It seemed the warden had gone out with the other prisoners. A single candle burned on the wide, polished desk; most of the cabinets—the wood, all dark brown and ornately carved—were closed, but some were open just a tad. Some seemed large enough for Kenos to hide.
Kenos’s eyes rested on the desk where a decent-sized ledger, wider than it was tall and filled with lines and scribbles. He approached and moved the candle closer to see the pages better. It was a basic binding with wooden covers and leather.
I don’t have very much time. He just had enough time to register that perhaps it was organized according to months, and that each month the census of the prisoners was taken anew. And then he heard the guards hit the landing.
He grabbed the candle and the ledger—which nearly slipped out of his hands because he was moving so fast—and scrambled to one of the larger open cabinets. There wasn’t enough room for him to sit, but there was enough for him to stand, his back against the wall. He blew out the candle, the ledge clutched to his chest, and tried not to breathe. But his heart was pounding so fast, it practically demanded that he take long, calculated breaths.
The unbroken door opened and someone stepped in.
Whoever it was moved around the room, the floor creaking beneath them. They made a circle around the room. He heard them exit after a moment; the door latched behind them. Though why, he didn’t know . . . it seemed silly to Kenos to close a door when the other beside it had been smashed open. . . . Perhaps it was simply due to habit.
Slowly Kenos opened the cabinet door. There was shouting all around, but none of it came from his particular room. He set the now unlit candle on the desk and moved to the only window, hoping to get a better look at the ledger.
Kenos stayed in the current month, looking for the right surname. . . . Where was it? Aboline . . . Aboline . . . it should have been near the beginning! He looked over the As again, hoping that it was . . . There! Near the top stood the surname Aboline, and the man was here. In the prison. He was here.
“Stop where you are,” a man called from behind.
Nary be damned, he thought.
Though not very low, the man’s tone was nonetheless commanding. “Mind turning around and telling me what you’re doing?”
Kenos closed the book and faced his captor. “Nothing . . .” he said.
The man didn’t buy it. He smiled, his thick black beard hiding his lips. “No one breaks into a prison for the adrenaline rush, Kenos.”
Kenos narrowed his eyes (not necessarily surprised that the guard knew his name) but didn’t say a word. He probably works with Palken, he thought. Of course he’d known who he was.
“Come on,” he said, ushering him none-too-kindly out of the lodge. “We’re going to have a word with your uncle.”
And yet, even though he had been caught—even though he knew he was going to be in so much trouble—, he had what he’d come for. The name: it was in the book.
Kenos thought about the man from the book, sitting in one of these cells right now.
He grinned as they approached the other guards (who still looked as though they’d just been woken up) and Sucha. He’d rarely felt this happy before.
Aboline. A surname. His proper surname.
And the surname of his father before him.
A number beside it, now burned into his memory as though with a branding iron: 304. He was in cell 304.
I’ll come back for you, he thought. And Naray be damned but he meant it.
Ren said nothing as she watched Kenos. It was too early in the morning, but lack of sleep didn’t really affect her as much as it did Palken. The poor man could barely stay awake as the warden explained what had happened. Palken had sent for her after getting the news. As his secretary, she liked to think that he trusted her opinion. Perhaps that we needed her close by in his time of need . . .? Ren certainly hoped the latter was true.
She couldn’t say she was surprised—although Palken seemed to be. She’d seen this coming from far off; indeed, she was fairly surprised that something like this hadn’t happened sooner. . . . Kenos kept his head down, although it seemed he only did so to give the adults around him what they wanted. In his eyes she could still see the flame. What had he found?
Narrowing her eyes in his direction, she tried to read him. But by Yaran he was a hard boy to understand.
Palken usually kept his face well-shaven these days, but there was still some stubble. He rubbed his red eyes. “Kenos, please help me understand what is going on?”
“I couldn’t get anything out of him,” the Warden said. “Very obstinate kid you’ve got there.”
“Thank you, Warden,” Palken said. Ren cracked a smile; there was a small drop of annoyance in his voice. He must really be getting frustrated. He continued, “I really appreciate your taking him down here. We’ll work on getting the lodge fixed up as soon as we can.” The implication hung thick in the air.
Perhaps a bit embarrassed, the warden nodded in his direction and left, the servant showing him out the door.
There was silence for a while, and finally in exasperation Palken said. “Kenos . . . please talk to me. . . .”
Kenos kept his head down in pretend-submission. Ren knew; he wasn’t going to talk.
Palken looked to her, still hunched down in the plush, scarlet reading chair. Help me, he seemed to say.
But she couldn’t make people do things they had already made their minds up about. And Kenos was not going to talk.
Palken seemed to realize this, too, because a moment later he said: “Go to bed please.”
Without a word, the boy got off the davenport and moved, non-too-slowly, upstairs.
“. . . I think he went to find his dad,” Palken said.
“What?” Ren was genuinely surprised. There had been no talk whatsoever of Kenos’s parentage. Palken hadn’t divulged the information to Ren—nor, perhaps to the boy’s detriment—to Kenos himself. Ren had seen enough boys grow into men to know that there came a time when everyone had to know themselves. And Palken had deliberately kept a very important piece of who he was from everyone.
“His dad . . . Kenos Aboline. Same name. He was put in that prison over fifteen years ago. He’s never been out.”
“You know,” Ren said, deciding to voice her opinions. “I think you should tell Kenos yourself about what happened to his parents.”
“I don’t think he’s ready for it.”
“He clearly thinks so.”
“Kenos doesn’t know what’s good for him.”
“I think he knows a lot more than you think. . . . He’s growing up, Palken. Believe it or not, I think he can handle the truth of his life now. Look at him closely next time—you can see it in his eyes, burning.”
Palken sighed, but he didn’t reply.
When it seemed that perhaps it was time—that he needed sleep, and she had better get along home, anyway—she said goodnight and showed herself out, as she had done many times before.
He really does mean well, she thought as she walked down the street toward her home, closer to inside of the western cup. It wasn’t anything near the size or grandeur of Palken’s house—but it was hers, and life had never been more wonderful for her. . . .
He needed to let people out of his control sometimes. The man loved Kenos so much that he couldn’t bear to let anything happen to him. Couldn’t bear to tell him his dad was in prison. Couldn’t bear to tell him about his mother—Yaran alone knew what had happened to her (Ren had a strong hunch the rest of the story was very grim).
Her thoughts strayed from one to the other, until she was barely even thinking about Kenos any longer. . . .
Pine and salty air mixed together on this island. Before now, Ren had never remained in one place for so long. Her plans for Ngatui had been foiled faster than she’d ever imagined, but she was very satisfied with how things had turned out. She was here, in Brehedak, and it had begun to feel . . . by Yaran, if she was placing the feeling right, it had begun to feel like home. A place for which she had an unexplainable burst of affection. The colossal evergreens and the ocean spray, the marble edifices, the ports and goods from all around Labryn.
Every day seemed magical. And her life was blissfully mundane. She had a job: Secretary to the Prime Minister of the Sovereign State of Brehedak. Palken had been a trooper when they came back to the island. He’d been on-track for a high government position already—for which he was on business in Ngatui (trade negotiations). But he never stopped moving. And yet he never got over Meloda.
Ren stayed close to him not out of divine obligation, but because she desperately wanted to. She had found a part of her that she never knew she could explore. Instead of being at the service of everyone around her, she could simply be herself. She could take walks; she could go bathe in the ocean—though that wasn’t normally recommendable, no matter the time of year—; she could go to work and handle boring papers and ledgers. Naray be damned but she loved it.
She didn’t feel tired at all. In fact, quite the opposite. The crisp air invigorated her with a newfound energy. . . . She didn’t go into her house, walking straight past it toward the beach. The slope of the hill was considerable and entirely covered in gorgeous white sand—softer than fresh-ground floor.
Ren sat, watching the waves come in and out. There were no more than two or three boats here, and even those were anchored far off-shore.
No, this was much more peaceful. . . .
It had been eight years since the incident in Ngatui. And Ren had let herself free of worrying about any of it. Nothing strange had happened since then—at least not that she had heard of; from what she could see, everything was right with the world.
And yet . . . every time her mind wondered to the creatures, her stomach gave a little jolt, as though she knew they could mean nothing but trouble for Labryn. As though she should have been doing something about it.
It’s not my job anymore, she told herself once more. Do not think about it again.
Not much later, the sun began to rise; and the fog that whirled around the islands in the morning began to burn away. The sun was little more than a mirage on the horizon. She wondered how Palken was going to handle Kenos after they’d both had a good-night’s rest—whether or not he would see reason and tell the boy about his past.
What she knew of Palken, it would more likely end up more like a deliberate attempt to correct behavior using soft voices and the like.
Her stomach grumbled, but she wanted to stay just a moment longer. Until the sun was full in the sky, she told herself; then she would leave. Until then . . . ah, she soaked it all in. What bliss it was to enjoy the sunrise every morning.
Within a few minutes the light had gone from a ghost on the morning breeze to a blazing torch in the sky, reflecting off the sea in blinding beams. It brought some warmth into the chill, damp air, which seemed to have a difficult time leaving once it had gotten used to being there.
There . . . out at sea. Someone rowing. It was not unusual for people to pull into Brehedak, but this particular part of the coast was not one chosen by many; it offered no practical uses, and the nearest merchant was miles away. This side was where people put their boats if there wasn’t room anywhere else.
“Hello, there!” The man called. He spoke continental Drrunian—soft guttural consonants, the letter “s” pronounced with a whistle instead of a hiss. All-in-all, however, entirely understandable.
“Good morning!” Ren called back as he approached the breakers.
A considerable wave pushed him forward until he was in shallow enough water that he got out and pulled the small row boat to shore. “Something tells me I perhaps should have gone around,” he said.
Ren stood and brushed the sand from her silk skirt, smiling. “Well, usually people go through the main port on the other side. But it doesn’t appear that you have a lot with you, so there shouldn’t be too much harm done.”
The man shrugged. “That’s comforting.” He set the oars inside the boat and dragged it to the base of the grassy hill so as to keep it from the tide, then pulled a leather pack from its drum. “My name is Brellan. I’m visiting from Lussefdrei.”
Ren nodded; she’d expected that.
“Ren,” she said, accepting the young man’s large hand, slick with seawater. There was something about him that seemed familiar to her, something about his square jaw and deep-set eyes. But that happened to her all the time; it was one of the many perks of being immortal: You began to see people you know in everyone.
“You wouldn’t mind showing me around a little?” he asked. “I’ve never been here before. . . .”
“I suppose for a little while. I have to be at the office before too long, but there’s not much to see.”
“Thank you,” he said with a genuine smile. He shouldered the pack, gesturing for Ren to lead the way.
They crested the hill and found themselves in a world that was just waking up, stretching its arms, yawning. There were a few small tents set up for mini bazaars, and a few government officials were walking into the large granite buildings in the center. But most of the activity lay to the far southern side, where dozens of people moved cargo to and from dozens of ships.
The last of the mist was burning off the tops of the pines.
“What brings you to Brehedak, Brellan?”
Ren saw him smile from the corner of her eye. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-five-years-old, especially with those dimples. “I’m a missionary, yana,” he said, addressing her more formally—as though, now that casual discourse had been managed, it was time for him to get serious.
This Ren hadn’t been expecting. Especially given that he was from Lussefdrei, the Ynarik capital of Labryn. There were denominations, of course—some disregarding belief in Naray, others turning against Yaran and hailing Naray as the only true deity—but they were mostly obscure and entirely unorthodox. Certainly they were not the kind of people who would send missionaries (especially so close to home).
“Oh?” Ren prompted, not wanting to sound too curious so she wouldn’t raise suspicion.
“I know it’s probably not something you come across every day,” he said, chuckling. “We aren’t very large at the moment, but we’re growing stronger as a faith.”
“What do you call yourselves?”
“Kilik Nid,” he said. “We come from a very old tradition.”
They approached the beginnings of the city now, raw countryside giving way to cobblestone streets and lamps; the light keepers had only just reached this part of the island, reaching into the glass panels of the tall lamps and extinguishing the burning wick within. Ren really hadn’t seen any need for these new oil lamps; call her old-fashioned, but she liked the light of the moon at night. She couldn’t see a thing with fire burning in front of her eyes everywhere she went.
“You seem very well-advanced here already,” Brellan noted. “It appears that you’ve had the lamps longer than we—and I’m from the continent.”
“I suppose it’s one of the many advantages to living at a cross-roads.”
Brellan took off his back and reached inside, producing two apples. He offered one to Ren, and she accepted, again noticing the hunger pangs.
After swallowing the first sweet bite, she asked: “What is this old tradition?”
“It’s the first of all beliefs, the thing all men are striving for.” He took a crunchy bite of his apple and continued speaking while he chewed. “That mankind is to be happy and at peace.”
Ren nodded; it seemed agreeable enough. As for the rest of the religion . . . well: “And do you believe there is a god?”
“The oldest god in all Labryn. His name isn’t known. We of the Kilik Nid call him The First.”
“Yaran.” Ren filled in.
“No, yana. Not Yaran. I’ve heard of your god—I grew up believing in him. But The First is different.”
Ren smiled politely, not wanting to argue further. She knew (as much as she knew that she existed) that Yaran was God. Whether or not this young man recognized Yaran and The First as being the same, they surely were.
There were many different thoughts about life, Ren had discovered. And each one was not necessarily wrong—but different, with different words and different texts and names for things. But yet essentially the same; all looked for the essential elements of life.
“Here,” Brellan said, having finished devouring the apple—core and all—and digging in his pack once more. “I have . . . some pamphlets. They were just printed, fresh off the press.”
Brellan handed her a sheet of thick paper, probably cotton, which had been printed on using a bold calligraphy font, at once pointed and sharp but also curved and circular. It was a font Ren had come across in most eastern religious texts, as well as, perhaps ironically, publications concerning the new advances of “the sciences,” as people began to call it.
“Thank you,” Ren said, looking over it for a moment before tucking it away in a hidden pocket in her skirt.
The young man nodded, though seemed to realize that he wasn’t going to get much further with her—at least not in the ways of conversion. He contented himself to whistling and looking around at the waking island.
“Good morning, Ren!” Lakonine waved to her from the stoop of her home, a two-story building built in the same manner as the twenty surrounding it, and entirely too close to its neighbors. They were built of cobblestone and wooden beams and looked much like any other building in Brehedak that didn’t belong to very well-to-do merchants or those involved with the government. Flowers grew on every patch of ground Lakonine could get her hands on; she might have been born and raised on Brehedak, but it was clear she had left her heart in Ngatui.
“Morning!” Ren replied.
“Who’s the handsome one?” Lakonine asked. She was old enough that it didn’t come out sounding cheap, but rather like a mother talking fondly about her child.
“My name’s Brellan,” he said, blushing. “I’m from Lussefdrei.”
“Lakonine!” Anka’s voice filtered through the dining room window, the shutters of which had been thrown open to keep the air inside fresh. “I’m off!” He came out the front door and seemed surprised to see Lakonine standing there. “Oh!” He said. His brow creased. The gruff man didn’t appear to have expected company.
“Ren,” he said, nodding to her.
“Anka?” Brellan said. “From Ngatui?”
“Yes,” Anka replied, clearly suspicious.
Seeming to sense that Anka didn’t remember him, Brellan rushed into an explanation. “My father’s a tradesman. We used to stay in your inn whenever we visited the island. What are you doing up here? I thought you’d never leave that place.”
Anka took in a deep breath, cleared his throat. “It burned down some years ago.”
“Oh . . .” Brellan’s smile drooped. “I’m sorry.”
Lakonine placed a hand on Anka’s arm.
“’S okay,” Anka said. “It’s been a while now. We’ve moved on.” He looked at Lakonine and the two of them shared a smile. “It was nice seeing you again . . .” Anka seemed to realize he hadn’t caught the young man’s name.
“Brellan,” the young man supplied.
“Brellan.” Anka nodded. He looked from the missionary to Ren, then Lakonine, then back at Brellan.
“What do you do now?” Brellan asked. “For work, I mean.”
“I run the printer here. Didn’t take long to pick up the trade. I’m a quick learner.” He winked at Lakonine, and she rolled her eyes.
“Great!” he said. “I might need to call on you for some things later on—depending on how things go.”
Anka nodded. “Glad I could be of assistance.” He apologized for having to leave so quickly then headed off to the trades district.
Lakonine turned her full attention to Brellan. “Do you have somewhere to stay?”
“No, I’m afraid I haven’t been able to think that far ahead.” He chuckled. “I’m surprised I even got here! You try to hitch a ride with a ferry-man when he only accepts gold and all you can do is swab the deck.”
“Well, there are plenty of places to stay in Brehedak,” Lakonine said. “But of course you’re more-than-welcome to stay with Anka and me. We have a spare bedroom that’s quite large.”
“Thank you,” Brellan said, and Ren heard genuine gratitude. His voice was practically dripping with it. “I’ll have to think about it, but I do thank you in advance for you kindness.”
“You’re very welcome.” Lakonine offered her hand, and he took it.
They said their good-byes, and Ren and Brellan were off again down the steep, cobbled road which led to town from the dwellings. The largest estates were usually reserved for outside the town, but they passed several manor houses as they reached the thick of things. Most were three story buildings built with solid, off-white stone—much of it from the island, though some imported—with several windows, fine drapery, enormous columns at the façade and immaculate grounds; even in the compact space there seemed to be a lot of room for yard.
“Is there any place in particular you would like to see?” Ren asked.
Brellan shrugged. “Not necessarily. Just wanted to get a feel for the place. You know, the general layout.”
“Well, we’ve passed most of the residential areas,” Ren said, deciding to start explaining everything as they passed it. “And once we get past the manors we’ll get to the parliament building. The goods district is that way—” she pointed westward— “and the trades district to the east.” She pointed the other direction. “The ports are to the south. Most of what you’ll need is going to be on this side of the island. I’m afraid there isn’t much to be said about the other half.”
“Only the beggars. Am I right?” He said it with such sarcasm that Ren stopped, nearly ready to say something. (That she did not share the same opinion as most; that she of all people knew how they felt.) However, years of holding her tongue perished the idea of speaking her original thoughts.
After a moment of collection, realizing what perhaps he had really meant, she said: “Yes. The beggars. . . . I’m sorry for assuming that your business would be here. Certainly a missionary’s job is with the less-fortunate.”
Brellan smirked, but seemed to forget about it almost instantly. He started off again, and Ren had to walk briskly to keep up.
“This island is fascinating,” he said, looking around at the tall buildings. “It’s more than the architecture. . . . Brehedak, the smallest, most resilient sovereign state in all of Labryn. Oh, the lessons we could learn from your government.”
He wasn’t the first to point out their supposed “revolutionary” way of running things. Lussefdrei was still more-or-less opposed to the idea, but the people of Nabán were looking for a change in government; they had sent several emissaries to shadow and study the way Palken ran the little island.
A few carriages moved past them now, dropping several people at the parliament building. One of the cars she recognized almost immediately.
“Palken!” she called as he got out of the carriage. He had just finished putting the powdered wig on his head when he heard her. He was dressed in a dark blue coat embroidered with gold thread, light brown trousers and a puffy lace cravat. Though externally he appeared entirely ready for the day, the deadness of his look said otherwise.
“Long night?” she asked as she approached.
He huffed. “The longest. And to be honest, I really don’t want to sit through another meeting listening to old men talk about the benefits of a tea embargo.” He jumped as one of the “old men” called to him: “We’ll be starting within the hour, Minister!”
Brellan approached from behind, his hands clasped behind his back.
“Oh,” Palken said, trying to smile. “Who’s this?”
“Palken, this is Brellan. He’s—well, I’ll let him tell you himself.”
“I’m a missionary from Kilik Nid,” Brellan said, offering his hand. “I can’t tell you what an honor it is to meet you, Prime Minister. We’ve heard all about what you’ve done in Lussefdrei. That stunt you pulled in Nabán—offering so much help after that disaster. Very touching. Very moving.”
Brellan’s words seemed to lift Palken’s sinking spirits. There you are, Ren thought. He just needs a little confirmation that he’s actually doing the right thing.
“I do what I can,” Palken said.
“I trust my preaching won’t pose a problem,” Brellan said.
“Of course not. Perfectly within the laws. So long as no one is dying as a direct result, you should be all right.”
The two men burst into laughter at that. “Of course, yana.” Brellan said. “Of course.”
“Well,” Palken turned to Ren. “We’d best be getting into the assembly hall. It’s not for another hour, but . . . you know how they get. Can’t do it without my secretary. It was a pleasure meeting you, Brellan.” He nodded in his direction, and the young man reciprocated. Palken turned to go, but then seemed to notice something. “Ren . . . is that sand in your hair?”
“Sleeping at the beach again?” He asked.
“Yeah,” Ren said.
Brellan chuckled. “Fairly normal for you then?”
“You could say that,” Palken said. “You should hurry home and get a change of clothes. And maybe a bit of perfume. You smell like seawater.”
Ren nearly objected, but she knew he was right. Palken was a sensitive man, but there were times when she wondered if he had any common sense. Clearly she smelled like seawater—but did he have to point that out?
“Well, I can see that the two of you have business to attend to,” Brellan said. “Ren, thank you for showing me around a bit. I really appreciated the kindness.”
“It was my pleasure,” Ren said.
“Oh, before I forget—” Brellan dug in his pack and pulled out another pamphlet, handing it to Palken. “Just to let you know what we’re about,” he said.
“Thank you,” Palken said, nodding in appreciation.
“Good luck,” Ren said, shaking the young man’s hand.
“Thank you, yana. I have a feeling I’m going to need it.” He winked at them both and then ran off.
Palken walked up the shallow steps to the entrance of the parliament building, and Ren hurried back home to change—and try not to use her entire year’s supply of perfume.
Saldrenia stood at the foothills. Above her, the enormous mountains loomed like sentinels of a dark, dark secret. The peaks of the stately earthen beasts were swallowed up by the water-sky: a vast dome where the water stopped, allowing the enormous City to flourish at the bottom of the sea.
The City was in a shallow enough region that sunlight reached them—thank Yaran for that—, and everything here was green.
Suporah, water creatures of the Divine Guild (known affectionately as “the gods” to the people of The City) swam above in the water-sky, their long necks straining down as though to see the inhabitants of The City. It would be a few hours still before they lifted their lament. . . . Zana would kill me if she knew what I was doing.
And yet, she had to know it existed. They had been at the bottom of the sea for far too long. And while everyone seemed content with doing nothing (indeed, squabbling amongst each other for the stupidest reasons), she was ready for them to return to the surface. To Labryn. Who knew what awaited them there? Far more than what we have now.
She was grateful to Yaran for sparing their lives, but it was time for them to move on; and she was sure, if Yaran had any sense, that he would share her opinion.
Saldrenia knew the Suporah couldn’t come to them (at least not without some type of important prompting), and that was alright. She would simply have to go to their realm, and that meant scaling this mountain—perhaps not all the way to the top, but at least enough to get the attention of one of the creatures.
She started the only way she knew how: putting one foot in front of the other.
It was a difficult task, but one she knew wasn’t impossible. The godmongers lived in these rocky hills; certainly they possessed no faculty that was foreign to her. Then again . . . they have been here for more than a century and a half; they’ve grown into the task of scaling these.
Some of The City folk found enormous joy in taking hikes through these mountains. (The number of pleasure-hikers had declined after the “godmongers” moved to these hills, but it was still considerable.) Saldrenia had never been one of them, although now she wished she had been. She followed a beat-down dirt path, but it was steep. Her legs strained with the effort of propelling herself forward.
She decided to ignore it and would not even acknowledge her rough-and-chopped breathing as she continued upward.
After nearly an hour of vigorous, non-stop climbing, Saldrenia could not continue without stopping to catch her breath. To her left was the canyon wall, plants growing out the side, rocks ready to fall to the narrow road. The other was a small drop-off (not entirely vertical but steep nonetheless). A few saplings—many of them conifers but some deciduous—and several full-grown trees dotted the decent. Some bright red flowers grew at the bottom, twenty or thirty feet down.
She went to sit on one of the larger rocks near the edge. In her rush to reach it, her foot slipped on the gravelly road; and though she nearly caught herself, the effort wasn’t enough.
Saldrenia fell, waist hitting the ground first, then her head nicked the boulder, and over the edge she went. She rolled the rest of the way down, narrowly avoiding many of the trees (although destroying many smaller plants).
When she finally stopped a few seconds later, she didn’t move—couldn’t move. Her head ached, as did her hip. Even though she made no attempt to stand, stars put on a show for her as dark curtains began closing in on the stage . . .
There was a voice in her dream. A voice that didn’t belong in any of the character’s in Saldrenia’s play. . . . How did she know? Simple: In this particular dream, there weren’t any men.
“By the gods. Saldrenia! . . . How did she get down there . . . ? Here—you hold this, I’m going to see if I can . . .” Some crackling of twigs and the sound of small rocks sliding. Such odd noises to be coming from her sleeproom. Neither did the cool breeze belong. In her half-dream state, she tried to think of all the possibilities; and within ten seconds she had already remembered her fall and sat up.
That was a mistake.
A new wave of nausea nearly overcame her, and she immediately lay back down.
She knew that voice. A calm, warm voice. “Alanga . . . ?” She whispered.
“Oh, gods, you’re bleeding.”
Saldrenia opened her eyes. It was dark, although a faint blue glow reached them, diffused first by the water-sky, it was much dimmer than she remembered it being on the surface.
The surface. She needed to get to the surface somehow.
She felt like yelling in frustration; Alanga was here, and he wasn’t going to let her continue. Saldrenia would be forced to returning to The City, perhaps to be reprimanded by the Singularity.
Turning to the side so as to avoid Alanga’s expectant eyes (Naray be damned but those eyes got her every time), she took a deep breath of night air and fresh lemongrass.
There. Not a foot away from her.
Yaran, please no, she thought. She couldn’t be sure. It was, after all, dark, and she hadn’t seen it for a very long time. But if she didn’t know any better, she’d say that flower (with its bright red color and waxy petals) was. . . . No, that was impossible. Wasn’t it?
No one had reported anything strange from these mountains. Then again, most of the following generations had known nothing about the Jovious. And when was the last time any of the Isaliar had gone walking through the woods?
“Here,” Alanga said, “take my hand.”
“Is she alright?” Another voice called, this one female. She was the one who had stayed on the trail, holding the torch. The flame cast long, flickering shadows down the small cliff-side.
“Yes!” he replied.
Saldrenia turned to him, not entirely certain what to make of the little plants next to her. She brushed some of her hair out of her eyes, noticing that some of it was caked with blood from the gash in her forehead.
“Come on, we should get you home and cleaned up.” Alanga said, still proffering his hand.
She took it and let him lift her up. Yaran her hip hurt.
Saldrenia didn’t want to, but she had to resign herself to the fact that she could think about these things—the flowers, the surface—a little later. Perhaps after the inevitable fire Zana was going to give had died down.
But she was determined not to forget.
Most of Kenos’s breakfast sat beside him on the large wooden table in his room, everything arranged neatly upon a silver serving tray with decorative handles. He’d taken a couple bites of the biscuit and left his tea and poached eggs entirely untouched—though he had more or less inhaled the sausage links. Kenos left the small jar of honey open, dipper left to drip sticky honey on the naked surface of the tray. Every now and then Kenos stuck his index finger in the jar and sucked off the ambrosia, smiling as the sweetness spiked in the back of his throat, almost too much to bear. Surely this was the only food Yaran ever ate.
Last night had been an absolute success. He didn’t care that he was in trouble—or that Palken thought he needed something more constructive to do with his time. Kenos thought he’d done a fair job of playing the victim, and it appeared Palken had bought into it. Ren, however . . . he could see in her eyes that she wasn’t buying any of it. He would have to be more careful around that woman.
That was hard, though, because there were many occasions on which Kenos felt he was doing his utmost, entirely comfortable in the façade he was playing. Like last year’s Moon Festival after he’d poured some of Jalek’s hard liquor into the punch Bowl intended for children. He thought he’d gotten away with it; all the other adults seemed content with looking for someone else as a suspect. . . . And even without seeing him do it—Kenos knew she hadn’t because he’d had three look-outs on that occasion—she had known it was him.
Damn that woman. He was fond of her as a person, but he really wished she would keep more to herself.
He didn’t even care that he’d been confined solely to his bedroom until “other punishment could be arranged.” This was exactly what he needed: a place where he could think and go over what he’d just been through. Kenos felt vindicated in the fact that his infiltration of the prison had brought unexpected results; it was proof he could do it a second time.
This second attempt, however, would have to be done with much more caution—much more planning. No more running off in the middle of the night, hoping, somehow, that he’d make it out alive. It had only been by luck and happenstance he’d gotten the information he needed (though he’d perhaps never admit this to anyone else, especially not Sucha). He wondered if Sucha were alright, given what had happened and her physical state. . . . And then he thought of all the warning he’d given her—every single one of which she had ignored. If she was in as much trouble as he was
There were going to be more guards, that would be a given. They had no doubt discovered the small gaps between the trees he and Sucha had squeezed through; those were likely being filled in with tar or the like. If he knew anything about protocol, the doors to everything was going to be locked from now on. They might even replace them with something that could stand its own against a break-in.
All these thoughts flashed through Kenos’s mind as we wiped his sticky finger on his trousers and reached for a blank sheet of parchment and a newly-sharpened quill. First he drew a rough sketch of the island, noting all the important buildings, look-out peaks and hiding places. Then he drew a map of the prison itself, as accurately as he could remember. The three wooden walls, the rough seas—the layout.
And then he began running through scenarios. What tools would he need? How could he possibly scale the entire solid wall of trees? Was there any way he could approach from the side of the ocean without being taken down by a strong wave or stolen by the current? And once he was in, how would he keep himself from being noticed while he looked for cell 304? The cells were a mere seven feet tall—if that—, and though he had been able to “hide” in one of their shadows before, he’d had a distraction there to aid him. What distractions could he make on his own without dragging anybody along? How to get inside the cell? To get the cuffs off? How to get them both out safely? And after that . . . where would they go? Staying on Brehedak was out of the question. . . .
The more he wrote, and the more he crumpled up parchment and tossed it away, the more discouragement seemed to creep up behind him, a dark specter that wouldn’t loosen its hold on Kenos’s thoughts. It seemed impossible to him that he would ever get his father out; and every time he thought it, another voice spoke, reminding him of all the life he had here. The comfort. The luxury.
Outside of his privileged existence, he would be an outcast, running from the slightest mention of the law. There would be no food, no shelter. Was that really the life he wanted? Was he not comfortable here?
Comfortable? Perhaps. Happy? No.
He sat down the quill and rubbed his eyes, a little grit he hadn’t managed to get earlier that morning falling to the table. There were at least ten sheets of paper around him now, each with half-plans written out in his furious, tiny scrawl.
Kenos could remember his father. Not much, but just enough that it had driven him near insanity wondering where he had gone. He had longer, dark hair like himself. He could remember pulling on it and his dad chuckling—although now Kenos wondered why; it couldn’t have been comfortable. . . . He could remember his mother too. She was gorgeous in his memory: a brown-eyed blonde with long lashes.
Both were gods in his eyes. This idea of their being “divine” was propelled by the fact that both seemed entirely unattainable, unreachable, something real but not quite corporeal. Both more just ideas than anything.
He had no idea where his mother was. But she couldn’t have been dead. . . . Palken had never once visited her burial site, and wasn’t that what people did when they’d lost someone they loved? He hadn’t even so much as mentioned her. That was the only question he had ever answered for Kenos: Whether or not he was the brother of his father or mother. After that question (when he Kenos was ten) there had been no more answers.
And yet there were days he wanted them near so badly, he could feel the excitement in his chest, as though it were happening to him in that very moment. His mother and his father—together and with Kenos.
As far as he was concerned, they were out there, waiting for him to find them.
He had begged and pleaded with Palken for any information on them. Absolutely nothing. . . . And so he went on the only things he knew: his last name, which he had somehow always remembered (and not simply because his sanction of birth said it was so).
Oh, the fortune of hearing that name uttered at the docks those weeks ago. His first heading; Kenos was making perhaps more progress than he’d hoped. He had hoped, certainly, but now he knew this could be a reality.
Palken was his uncle, and he did love him. But he needed parents. He could see the way he looked at his cousin, and it wasn’t the same way he looked at Kenos. He didn’t blame them for it; it was only natural; that was why he had to do this.
The light streaming through his window was strong and direct; it was probably around noon, or at least just before.
Someone knocked on the door—though it wasn’t his door, he realized after a moment, but the main one downstairs. Kenos heard Lali shuffle forward to answer.
“Good day,” said a curt, gruff voice. It wafted up the banister and underneath the crack in his door. If everything in the house hadn’t been entirely silent, it was very likely Kenos wouldn’t have been able to hear this conversation. As it was, however, it seemed clear as a bell—loud, even, considering the silence he had just endured.
“Is the Prime Minister at home?” It seemed the man was doing everything he could to keep his tone polite and casual, though it really just came out terse and dry.
Although Kenos couldn’t see him, he thought he knew who it was: Brehedak’s physician and Sucha’s father. His determination to stay in his room—which before was nearly gone—soared; he wasn’t going to budge if Lila promised him the entire pantry’s worth of honey.
“I’m sorry, he’s not at home,” Lali said, in as good-natured a voice as was possible to produce, given the circumstances. “He’s in session with parliament at the moment, and I’m afraid he won’t be home until late this evening. You’re more than welcome to come back later, if you’d like. I’m sure the Minister would be more than happy to meet with you.”
This didn’t appear to be what the physician wanted to hear. “Gone off with those loons, has he?” He seemed on the point off losing what little composure he had.
“Sir,” Lila insisted, “I’m sure that if you will come back this evening he will be more than happy to—“
“Is that little brat in here?” The physician made sure his voice carried.
Kenos didn’t move, though he smiled at the fact that the man wouldn’t find him here. Lila wasn’t going to let him in the manor unannounced.
“Physician, please!” Lila said.
“Listen well, do you hear? Stay away from my daughter! We don’t want any relations with your kind! You just stay away!”
The door closed a moment later. Whether Lila had ushered him out or he’d left of his own accord, Kenos didn’t know.
Kenos’s stomach gurgled, and he thought about perhaps eating his eggs, but they had gone stone-cold in their neglect. He called for Lila to bring him lunch and then gathered up the parchment he’d thrown around the room (just in case any of them proved useful in ways he couldn’t have foreseen when he discarded it), setting them in his old wooden chest. Yaran knew what would happen if Palken or Lila came across his plans for breaking out a convict.
Many scribbles—and dozens of sheets of parchment—later, Kenos set down the quill, put this last parchment in the wooden chest at the foot of his bed and called it a day.
None of what he had written had come out as a usable plan, yet he didn’t think of it as a wasted day. Kenos could start to see the shape of something very effective forming in the back of his mind. And he had all the time in the world.
He wondered if part of his punishment would be a release of his summer studies. It was a brief hope, a shimmering firefly at twilight. How much time that would give him to plan his new life. In reality, his punishment was probably going to be the opposite: extra mathematics and no reading other than The Assorted Poetry of the Disciple of Enduerfren.
Kenos resolved that, if this were to be his punishment, he would simply not do it. His time was better spent elsewhere.
The door opened, though Lila didn’t converse with whoever it was. The door closed. Palken was home.
He waited on his bed, expecting him to walk up the stairs and crack his door open, asking if he could come in—just as he had done several times. Warm sunset-light glared in his eyes from the window. . . . And a few moments later, just as expected:
A knock. “May I come in?”
Kenos didn’t reply, but Palken must have known that he wouldn’t because he walked in anyway. He’d taken his powdered wig off—recently, by the looks of it; the hair underneath was matted and unruly. He’d also taken off his tailcoat. It looked as though it had been a very long session of parliament. . . . Then again, had anyone ever heard of a short session?
“Kenos, I’d like to talk to you for a minute,” he closed the door, “if you don’t mind.”
Palken sat beside him, resting his feet on the chest. Kenos didn’t meet his eyes.
“I know . . .” he took a deep breath, put his hands together and pressed the tips of his fingers to his lips, as though in prayer. “I know that life isn’t always what we want it to be. And it’s frustrating because sometimes there’s nothing we can do about it.”
You’re wrong; there’s something I can do. I have a father.
“Look, I’m sure it hasn’t been easy for. It’s been hard for me, too. Very hard. . . . When your aunt died, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but then, you know, we pick ourselves up. We get going, even if every step hurts. It hurts because you feel like you’re leaving something behind.
“I don’t expect you to say anything. But I do want you to know that, um . . . that I love you. Really, I do.”
It sounded genuine, but who knew? And, anyway, Kenos didn’t reciprocate as strongly—he never had.
Palken cleared his throat. “I, uh, got a visit today, while I was in parliament.”
Kenos thought he knew what was coming.
“Mr. Rapoline, the physician—Sucha’s father?”
“Oh?” was all he could think to say.
“Yes . . . he came to talk to me about you. In front of the entire government.”
Kenos did feel some pang of guilt about this—his uncle had obviously been very embarrassed—but he refused to let the feeling linger for very long. It was Sucha’s fault that had happened, no matter how much the physician wanted to peg the blame on Kenos.
“He claims that you drug Sucha along with you so you could use her as a decoy.”
“Is this true?”
“Couldn’t be further from the truth,” Kenos said.
“Kenos, you can tell me if you did, you know.”
“I don’t think you’ve ever met Sucha. She’s the most obstinate, pig-headed, annoying—” he stopped short, catching the look in Palken’s eyes. If the plan had been to convince his uncle that using her as a decoy had not been his intention from the beginning, it seemed he was failing.
At that moment, Lila called from below. “Minister! Your guests will be arriving shortly!”
“Oh, Yaran, that’s right.” He ran his hand through his hair, realizing what a mess it was. “Kenos, splash off, will you? And get into something appropriate.”
“One of the Nabanian ambassadors and a friend of Ren’s. I’m going to go change as well. I want you on your best behavior.” He was already out the door at this point. “And we’re not done with this discussion!”
They used the smaller of the two dining rooms that night, the one that could seat ten not thirty. There were three gold and gilded candelabras and a richly embroidered runner. There were large candelabras in each corner of the room, but even so there were shadows.
Porcelain and silver clinked together, the sound of delicate eating and propriety. At Kenos’s left, Bent, who, though he was just as skinny and slow to mature as Kenos, practically inhaled the food put before him: fresh barber fish (its long spikes still mostly attached to its spine), plump white rolls, steamed roots, boiled potatoes and soft wine from Kaska Grosen. To his right sat a young man, looking entirely comfortable in his simple, white shirt, trousers and boots—he hadn’t even bothered to shave. Ren, who sat at the head of the table opposite Kenos, had brought him. She’d introduced him as a missionary for some religion or another.
At the side opposite him sat Anka and Lakonine, holding hands as they ate—luckily Lakonine, who sat to her husband’s left, was left-handed—, and the final chair closest to Palken contained the Nabanian ambassador.
As during breakfast, the majority of his plate remained untouched. Kenos satisfied himself enough with several goblets of wine. Around his fourth, Palken began giving him the eye. Kenos thought his uncle looked rather comical with that expression under the shadow of that ridiculous wig of his.
Kenos couldn’t keep his eyes off the Nabanian. He knew it was rude to stare (Yaran save him if Palken or Ren caught him doing it), but he found his small glances at the man growing longer and longer in duration, until he couldn’t seem to peel his eyes away. Either the man ignored him or he didn’t care because he paid Kenos little notice.
He was very short, shorter than anyone Kenos had ever seen. And his skin was white as a cloud in a blue sky. His eyelashes and hair were white, too, although they appeared almost yellow up against the pure skin. His lips were small and thin. His eyes a blue so piercing it was like looking at a painting. The man wore clothes from Brehedak, and he kept squirming in the fabric, moving constantly to get a new position—almost as though the idea of covering oneself up was foreign to him. Over the lace cravat and vest he wore a long necklace made of what Kenos assumed to be un-cracked nuts.
Kenos had seen their race before, but never had he been so close to one of their kind. And for so long. He wondered what it was like in Naban; he’d heard there were jungles, whatever those were. People said they were like forests, but much more wild and much more wet. They said there were colorful animals down there, and that the people ran just as wild as the world around them. Savage-like.
Well, he looked uncomfortable, but this Nabanian was definitely not the savage type. He conversed with Palken in very well-practiced Drrunian, occasionally sounding clipped if he got in too much of a hurry, but otherwise he was entirely fluent. And intelligent.
Each person seemed lost in their own little world. Serious discussion wouldn’t start until dessert came around. Some small-talk still continued, however. Palken with the Nabanian, Anka throwing his opinion in now—and-again. Ren and the missionary exchanged a few words here and there, but nothing too extensive.
Bent, as always, didn’t utter a word.
Ren wouldn’t stop staring at Kenos. He did his best to ignore it, but it was hard when there were perpetual prickles on the back of his neck.
A knock at the front door. Palken looked up for a brief moment, but continued talking with the Nabanian. A moment later, Lila came into the dining room and whispered something in Palken’s ear, her aged face crinkled with nerves and, perhaps, annoyance.
“Excuse me,” Palken said, nodding to his guests. On his way out of the dining room he sat a hand on Kenos’s shoulder and whispered: “Come with me.”
Rolling his eyes, Kenos sat the goblet of wine down and followed his uncle out of the shadowy dining room into and even more shadowy foyer, where Rapoline stood with his hands on Sucha’s shoulders. Both were dressed in their very best eveningwear. The hooped skirt seemed almost comical on Sucha, whose small weak frame it contrasted.
“We’ve, uh . . . we’ve come to apologize,” Rapoline said, his eyes wandering around the room. Anywhere but directly on Palken or Kenos, it seemed. “Sucha’s told me what happened. She, uh . . . that is, we insisted on coming. To apologize for all the raucous I caused you both today.”
“That’s quite alright, Mr. Rapoline. I can certainly understand your need to defend your daughter,” Palken said. It seemed to forgiving to Kenos. How the words came out so smooth bothered him.
That was it? The discussion was over, then?
Rapoline’s gaze wandered to Kenos, and it looked to him as though the physician’s eyes were going to pop out of his plump head—such was the contempt directed at him.
The message was clear: Kenos might not have dragged Sucha into the prison, but he was still more trouble than Brehedak could handle; he was to stay away from Sucha at all costs.
Kenos nodded in his direction. He had no intention of ever having so much as a friendly acknowledgement with Sucha.
And yet as he looked at her, he recognized some of the frustration in her face. She was uncomfortable under the grip of her father; the crooked way she stood suggested she was not at home in that ridiculous dress; yes, she had told the truth, but her father had dragged her here.
He couldn’t help the little smile that spread across his face as he recognized the feeling. Palken imposed the same on him five times a day—or so it seemed.
Rapoline caught his smile (and his gaze); his eyes narrowed.
“Well, I am sorry, again.” The physician said. He looked Palken in the eyes this time and nodded. “I’ll not take up any more of your time. Goodnight, Minister.” He didn’t acknowledge Kenos at all this time.
Lila opened the large door (a bit of ocean mist rolled in; the gas lamps outside glowed like balls of luminescent yarn), and Rapoline led Sucha out.
The guests in the dining room were silent. Even the delicate clattering of utensils had ceased.
“I’m glad that’s been sorted,” Palken muttered, moving back into the dining room, Kenos following in his wake.
Dinner had been finished by most; Lila came in to clear the table, using her white apron to hold the dirty dishes so as not to dirty her hands, and another of the servants—one Kenos rarely seen, and whose name he hadn’t bothered to remember—brought the dessert.
On any normal night, without the company, Palken would most-likely have told Kenos he wasn’t allowed dessert because of his lack of interest in any real food, but he wasn’t about to blurt that out tonight.
Kenos took up one of the spoons, the soup spoon, he thought—but what did it matter? It was big enough to get him large scoopfuls of fig pudding, at any rate.
The pudding was soon finished off, at which point a small cup of coffee was served. Kenos didn’t touch the stuff.
“As I was saying,” the Nabanian said to Palken, his r’s were rolled instead of gurgled in his throat. Everyone seemed to be in on their conversation this time around. “We are having very much difficulty with the poor of our people. We are growing more prosperous, but there are many who are still in need of the most basic necessities.”
“I’m afraid that problem is only going to get worse, Ambassador Palá,” Palken said. “As you can see, Brehedak has the same issue. Perhaps on a much larger scale than you imagine.”
Kenos was only half paying attention, but he still keyed in to snippets of the conversation here and there.
Palá seemed troubled by this. He looked down at his hands.
“I realize that you’ve probably come to the realization that our government isn’t all that it seems?” Palken asked.
“You would be correct, Prime Minister,” Palá said without looking up.
“We aren’t perfect, but we’re trying. Ambassador, you have to remember that when we chose to have a government ruled by representatives of the people, we chose a process that was inherently more complex than. It takes a considerable more amount of time to make decisions when one man can’t sign off on something he feels is right—we have to have the consensus on quite a few people.”
The Nabanian nodded.
“Well, Palken . . .” the missionary said. Had Ren said his name was Brellan? “But I don’t think the poor of this island are being treated fairly at all.” He lifted his head and looked at Palken.
Palken sighed, though seemed content with having his patience tried.
“Why are they on the other side of the island?”
“It seemed the easiest.” Palken took a sip of coffee. “We don’t need any of the land over there, and we’re content with what we have. They needed a place to live—especially those who didn’t have homes. We provided the materials.”
“But why the segregation? Are you any better than they are?”
Kenos felt excitement rushing inside him. This was going to be a nice, thick argument. If Kenos didn’t know any better, it would seem that this issue that had brought Brellan here. Then again, perhaps it was.
“Think about what it says,” Brellan continued. “They are on the side of the prison—no one sees each other over that mountain range.”
“You’re forgetting that I wasn’t the only one making this decision; it was made by the people.”
“Then the people should reconsider.”
Palken sipped his coffee; it was a well-known fact about Kenos’s uncle that he would rather sit in uncomfortable silence than raise his voice.
Kenos looked to Brellan, practically egging him on.
“When was the last time you visited them, Minister? The poor and dying of your island . . . ? They are dying, Minister. Disease runs rampant, they have no medical assistance, no money . . . Women and children are being raped in the streets! What is it going to take for you to see—?”
Palken set his cup on its saucer and said, robustly but still rather soft-spoken: “If you only knew how many hours I spend thinking about them. Wishing I could do something but not being able to.” His voice cracked. “You have to realize, Brellan that this isn’t just my decision. Everyone has to come to a consensus, and if you’ve ever tried to get fifty old men who have nothing better to do than sit around sipping tea to make an effective decision in any reasonable amount of time . . .” He stopped there, waved his hand that he didn’t want to say more.
“You’re Prime Minister,” Brellan said.
“Prime Minister,” Palken said. “Not king.”
Palá kept his head low throughout this exchange, mulling things over. His expression was troubled, and Kenos guessed it wasn’t due at all to the discomfort of his clothing. This ingenious government, this possible salvation, was turning out to have as many new problems as those they would leave behind. And at least they knew how to deal with the old issues.
“I’m sorry to have troubled you, Ambassador,” Palken said, shifting his gaze away from Brellan.”
The Nabanian shook his head, “It is alright, Minister.” After a moment he turned to Brellan. “What is it you preach, missionary?”
Brellan smiled—not entirely glad for the shift in conversation, but seeming to be excited to discuss his religion. “I’m a member of the Kilik Nid,” he said.
“Ah,” said the Ambassador. “I have heard of your people.”
“You have?” Ren asked. It was the first thing she’d said all evening.
“Certainly,” he said, nodding.
“I told you,” Brellan said, “we’re going very strong. Very fast. We have missionaries in every nation. . . . It’s been very popular—especially among the older crowd.”
Ren seemed troubled by this, though Kenos had not an idea why. It was a religion . . . they happened. Didn’t they? Kenos knew there were other faiths, but he hadn’t cared for them. He barely mustered the strength to keep his own (much to Palken’s chagrin, of course).
“We believe in the liberation of mankind through the freeing of one’s soul to the First, the only true god. It involves a process of enlightenment, and a giving up all you possess.”
“Everything?” Lakonine said. “Surely that’s a little extreme?”
“Not physically so much as mentally. What do you possess mentally that is keeping you from moving on? From happiness? I’m sure you’ll all be able to attest that there are many things weighing you down.”
“And people are just able to let it go?” Anka asked.
“Of course. It’s much easier than you’d think.”
Palken said nothing through all this.
“Our text is small but, to me at least, poignant.”
“Bliss,” Palá offered.
Brellan lifted his coffee to the Nabanian in toast and took a long sip.
Kenos had no need for coffee; Brellan’s words were gripping.
“Bliss,” Brellan said. “Pure joy. Unfettered happiness. What all men strive for.”
“And you think you’ve found it?” Palken said with a fair amount of skepticism.
“In a manner of speaking. Yes.” He seemed to take pleasure in the enigma he had created, relishing their reactions as he peeled back the layers of mystery.
“Isn’t that what every belief offers?” Ren asked. “Some sort of freeing from earthly cares? The promise of ‘unfettered happiness’, as you put it, at the end?”
“Of course,” Brellan asked. “But do they actually give it to you. What proof do you have that that happiness will come? Ren . . . what if you could experience it now. This very instant.”
Ren appeared stumped by this, looking down at her now cold coffee which she hadn’t touched. She looked at Kenos for a moment, her eyes half-seeing him, her mind in another world.
Kenos could certainly see the appeal. He could think of several people—himself included—who would jump at that chance. But that was oaky, Kenos didn’t need this. He knew what was going to bring him happiness, and he was in cell 304.
The conversation moved from ethereal and interesting to philosophical and entirely drowsy. It wasn’t long before Kenos began entertaining himself by making little swirls in his coffee cup with his index finger, elbow rested on the table.
His thoughts wondered to his father and the prison. There had been one specific time that continued to bring itself forward during all his planning; it seemed appropriate—given that everyone would be so distracted—to rescue him during the next Moon Festival.
He decided on it then. A definite date—three months hence at the end of summer.
Kenos had ninety days to come up with a water-proof plan.
Ren sat on the damp groundcover behind her home, a few gaslights barely reaching her. She wished they would go away; her view of the ocean was impeded by light on both sides. She could still make out the waves, but only just.
She hadn’t heard so much as a whisper about the Kilik Nid. Yet it was all over Labryn? Was it really that recent . . . ? If it is, it had to have come about within the last seven years. Anything other than that she would have been aware of; she was sure of it.
It crossed her mind that perhaps Brellan had been lying about its spread. But the Nabanian had known about it, too, and one couldn’t falsify that level of recognition. And anyway, he hadn’t had a reason to.
Why do I care so much? It’s not uncommon, after all, for a new belief to form—that was just the way of things! But this . . . something about it didn’t sit right in her heart. Maybe it was the fact that it had spread so fast. At a normal pace, it would have taken decades to accomplish what these two men were claiming it did.
Or perhaps it was that so many people were turning their backs on the most common belief of all—that Yaran was the Creator. Ren knew this as absolute truth; how have so many people gone away?
And even as she thought this, something tugged at her heart. Had she not turned away? No, she justified, not really. She didn’t deny his existence; Ren had simply lived a very long life and wanted some time for herself. Because frankly she wasn’t sure who she was. Who was Ren? What did she like? What made here happy?
She had finally begun to find that. But, no, she decided. She hadn’t turned her back on Yaran, and she would be his advocate so long as she lived.
In all honesty, there couldn’t have been anything wrong. She was overreacting. The core beliefs of Kilik Nid were not so different from the truth. And hadn’t she come to the conclusion that everyone came to the absolute truth in the end? They all just had different paths?
This wasn’t going to bother her any longer, she told herself. There was nothing wrong. There was yet another long session of parliament coming up tomorrow, and though she didn’t need the rest, she didn’t want to think anymore. She picked herself up and went to her quarters where she fell a
The next couple of weeks went without incident—other than parliament at last came to the conclusion that, yes, tariffed goods weren’t necessary. A step in the right direction, she thought. But then she would think of all the things they hadn’t covered, and her patience continued to wear down.
The task was getting to Palken, too—as it always did this season—, but he was holding up well. None of them had spoken with Brellan since their dinner, and Palken didn’t bring his name up. Ren, too, tried to keep talk as far away from the Kilik Nid as possible.
In fact, it was nearly two weeks before they encountered each other again.
Their last parliament session of the six month block had just ended (it wasn’t a lie that everyone was relieved; even the crankiest of men walked out with enormous smiles). The day was rainy—the sun was all-but gone, hidden by enormous, boiling clouds that spread on toward the horizon. It was one of those rare breaks during an ocean storm where there was only a small drizzle of moisture in the air. The fog swimming through the streets (half-hiding the pines and the mountain peaks) made her feel just as wet as if she had been doused with rain.
Adash, the Minister of Trade, bumped into her from behind. “Oh, please excuse me, miss,” he said, chuckling.
Ren turned to find the old man smiling brightly before walking off, looking entirely disoriented.
She was heading to Palken’s carriage when Brellan approached her, his shaggy hair loose and soaked around his face, his beard more unruly than ever. The shirt he wore left him nearly bare-chested, and she found herself blushing.
The look she gave him, however, was frantic. Immediately she felt her stomach clench.
“Ren,” he said, not bothering with any pleasantries. “I need you to come with me. I normally wouldn’t ask, but it’s an emergency.”
“Ren, are you coming?” Palken said from within the carriage, exhausted.
Her mouth opened as she looked from one to the other. Of course she would help. “I’ll meet you later,” she told Palken. “But if I’m not back by dinner don’t wait for me.”
Palken glanced at Brellan out of the corner of his eye, though he couldn’t possibly see him for the carriage door. “Alright. . . . Be safe.”
She nodded. “Of course.” She shut the door, and the carriage started off down the dark cobbled street, horses’ hooves slapping the puddles of water in their canter.
Ren turned her full attention to Brellan. He looked as though everything in his body was telling him to move. . . . The man hadn’t brought a carriage; it seemed they were going on foot.
“What is it?” She asked.
Brellan gently took her arm and led her down the large square, heading east. His pace was quick, and in her tight shoes she had to concentrate to keep up. She lifted her hooped skirt up a tad so as not to brush the mud and water-soaked cobbles too much.
“Her name’s Arikha.” The way he explained this was all very quick and deliberate, as though he didn’t have much time for explanations. His disturbed look shocked her a little. What could possibly have happened?
He was quiet for a few paces, and then: “I don’t know exactly what happened to her. They just found her like that.”
“Brellan, calm down. What’s wrong with her?”
“She’s covered in blood. So much blood—I don’t know.” He was shaking.
“If it’s a medical emergency, we really should get the physician—”
“I already tried. He refused to see her.”
“He says he won’t do anything without payment, and I have nothing.” Brellan said this through gritted teeth.
“Well, I’m sure I or Palken could—”
He stopped, which Ren thought odd considering how much of a hurry he was in. He put his hands on her arms, looking her head-on. Coalesced moisture from the fog—or sweat (she wasn’t sure which)—dripped down the bridge of his nose.
“They say that you are a healer,” he said. “That you can perform miracles. . . .”
What did she say to this? That she could? She was trying to distance herself from this—Yaran, why did these things continue to pop up. As though no matter what she did, she was never getting away from it.
She continued walking as he started moving, realizing that there was a possibility she wouldn’t have to use her Divinity. She was as skilled a physician as any in Labryn; surely she could do something. And even if not, she could always get medical attention, even if she had to pay for it out-of-pocket.
The only people who had witnessed Meloda’s healing were Palken, Kenos, Bent, Lakonine, and Anka. All had kept—for the most part—quiet about it. There were still rumors, but for all the people knew she was just a good physician.
“Tell me more about what her condition is.”
“I can’t explain it,” he looked around wildly, as if wondering if people were listening to him. “You just have to see it with your own eyes.”
They walked to the western borders of the Western Bowl, and when she realized exactly where they were going, she wished she’d thought to find a change of clothes before they had set off. The foliage continued to grow denser, and her dress snagged on every possible twig and branch.
She stopped a moment. “Brellan, turn your back,” she said, then lifted her dress and petticoats to undo the hoop underneath. Once free of it, she left it between two trees—she could always come back for it—and they continued. It was still difficult to keep it from ripping or dragging in the mud, but it was much less cumbersome.
They found themselves in the foothills of the Eastern Bowl, the sun even lower in the sky. There were a few lamps here and there—at the border where the foothills met the valley, but they weren’t lit as they should have been. For all the light they had it could have been night already.
It began to rain again, not in pouring sheets—but Ren knew from experience that downpour would be coming soon.
Ren had only visited this side of the island on a couple of occasions—political trips that Palken made, though, like Palken, she thought of these people often. . . . She had yet to come up with a solution. . . . The air was much fresher here, not as polluted with the scent of horse dung as the Western Bowl. The familiar scent of fresh bread wafted to her nose as they drew closer to the homes.
It wasn’t until they were deeper in the city that the stench hit her. Not the stench of horse dung, but human waste. It appeared to be everywhere, mixing with the mud and the rain—as much a natural part of the landscape as they were.
Someone screamed out for help, a desperate cry. There was a thump and another sob. Ren turned toward the source of the noise, her stomach turning sour; but Brellan held her back. “Please,” he said. “We need to keep moving.”
Everything about the atmosphere seemed dark, a world left to fester in the thoughts of those who had never known life to the fullest.
Many people’s doors were left wide open, despite the cold and the rain. Fires were left roaring inside small stone fireplaces, some dinners served but untouched. There was a commotion somewhere farther inside the village; this was the emergency, she assumed. And everyone had to see it.
There were some, however, who had chosen to ignore it. They passed a hut with an old couple sitting inside, the man—who had a long, white beard and ragged clothing—gave her a rather accusatory look as she passed. As though it was her fault they lived the lives they did.
Whether they knew her or not, she supposed the fact that she was dressed in a richly embroidered dress with miles of petticoats and ruffled lace at her sleeves (despite that she was soaked to bone by this point) gave these people some clue of her station. However lowly it actually was, relative to any station this man held it was glorious to the point of obscene.
Brellan caught the look in the old man’s eye; he put a hand on the small of Ren’s back and gently nudged her forward. “Ignore him,” he said, “Iz doesn’t like anyone.”
They came to what must have been the center of the village: an enormous street that stretched what appeared to be the entire length of the Eastern Bowl, though it wasn’t very wide at all. Fires burned on the dirt road, sporadically. Dirty, patched merchant tents (many with small burn marks along the surface where sparks had begun to eat away the fabric before being caught) had been set up all along, supported by branches—some of them still with their needles—a menagerie of colors under which lay many artifacts, all of which Ren assumed had been found in some midden in the Western Bowl.
These people stayed alive through barter; no currency was used here as very few of them had jobs which paid in currency (and even those who had money often bought goods from the Western Bowl that they could then barter here). Their goods were their currency. They often bartered for food with the merchants from the other side of the mountain range and were often rewarded with grains and fruits. Any game they had they hunted themselves. These, along with the yearly fare (minute though it was) given by the government, allowed them to survive.
A little ways down, close to one of the fires, huddled beneath one of the make-shift tents, a crowd had gathered. Many stayed feet away, seemingly wishing to stay while having the sufficient tact to keep their distance. Others, she hoped were closer friends and family, crowded feet away from the woman. She lay on a rickety wood table.
“She’s just over there,” Brellan said, nodding in that direction. He led her closer. “Everyone please get out of the way,” he said. “I’ve brought help.”
The crowd parted as though Brellan’s word were law.
They moved through; Ren noted nods of respect to Brellan and many open mouths directed at her. It had been a very long time since she had come in contact with anyone who wasn’t accustomed to her presence that this made her smile.
These were good people, Ren could sense it. Many were disheartened with life; many were ready to give up on it. Many were angry at the government, though Ren could never understand why: There was nothing that the government did to bring about their poverty. . . . And still they wallowed in their sorrows. Their lot in life—a supposed preemptive damnation.
The woman (who could have been in her forties) lay beneath one of the better tents on the street. It had three “walls”, the third—the one facing the street left open. She lay on a small bed of pillows. Her fingers and toes were swollen, skin so pale it nearly seemed blue. Like a corpse. And yet she breathed, steadily, too. If it weren’t for the sweat coating her skin, she could have been sleeping.
She was indeed covered in blood. A lot of it soaked her dress, dribbling from her mouth. It seemed to have come from vomit.
Ren dropped to her knees, which were now soaked with dirty rainwater. “What is her name?” she asked Brellan.
The young man who sat closest to her—the woman’s son, perhaps?—answered instead. “Arikha.” He didn’t take his eyes off of her.
“This is Arikha’s son, Kiyasil,” Brellan said.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Ren said, offering her hand. The young man eyed it but didn’t accept the offer—she thought perhaps this was alright, considering the circumstances. She withdrew her hand. “Kiyasil, could you tell me exactly what happened?”
“Can you save her?”
“. . . I can most certainly try.”
Kiyasil sized her up with his eyes, apparently wondering if he could trust Ren.
Outside the small enclosure, rain pattered even harder on the small roof, which dripped with the burden of moisture.
“I wasn’t here when it happened,” Kiyasil said, voice cracking, though not because of stress or crying; black eyes rimmed with red gazed at her with the intensity of one who was under a lot of pressure. “I came lookin’ for her when she didn’t come home after working the bazaar. She’s never late. . . . I found her like this, lyin’ on the floor. First thing I thought was to get Brellan.”
Ren looked around at the crowd that had gathered. “Surely somebody saw what happened?”
“No, yana,” the closest to her said.
And as she gazed from face to face, they each in turn shook their heads.
“She was perfectly fine this morning?” She asked Kiyasil.
“Yeah,” he said. “She was alright when I went fishin’ this mornin’. Everythin’ was . . . fine . . . just fine.” The young man—still a boy, really—looked at his mother, and the tears that welled up in his eyes seemed to suggest he was coming to the realization that people were, indeed, mortal.
“What’s her routine?” Ren asked, putting a hand to Arikha’s chest, just above the breasts. She was breathing fine . . . she probed deeper, sensing the flow, but not tapping into Divinity. Ren would not use her Divinity; she wouldn’t risk being found again. Especially not after what happened to Meloda. . . .
Arikha could only have been like this for a few hours. “Her afternoon routine,” she clarified before anyone could answer.
Kiyasil looked down, thinking. “She barters fish here until three or four, and then she stops for tea—”
Tea. Could she have been poisoned? The most likely assumption she had come to yet, even if it was only an assumption.
She looked around the enclosure. There—on a small stool was a fired clay kettle and a clay cup. She picked herself off the ground and took the cup in her hands. It appeared to have been used for many years, as small, hairline cracks had begun to creep their way up and down its walls. The water had already evaporated—though there was still dampness to it from the misty air—, but in the bottom and stuck along the sides were the crushed leaves of an herb. Sweat smelling and strong. An oily residue coated the bottom.
“Molu,” Kiyasil said.
Ren nodded. She had had Molu before, though not for several years; coffee was much more popular in the crowds she ran with. There was nothing special about Molu. It tasted rich and sweet, spicy and robust—a good thing to drink in the late afternoon when weariness was beginning to take its toll, and common to the island. But it had never so much as given the drinker nausea let alone bring with it a serious sickness.
Brellan and the rest of the crowd were watching her every move, expecting her to solve the crime, to bring Arikha back. Repressing a sigh, she sat the cup down. There was nothing else in there but Molu, which wasn’t the culprit.
She knelt once more by the woman’s side.
“Let’s give Yana Ren some privacy, shall we?” Brellan suggested, patting Kiyasil on the back and gesturing for them to leave the small tent.
Ren noted how much these people heeded Brellan. As though within a manner of weeks this man had managed to claim the top position in their social circle. Brellan was a leader here—she could see that. And these people looked like they would follow him to their graves. . . . The way Kiyasil looked to him for comfort was at once touching and awe-inspiring. Had they—all of them—converted to Kilik Nid?
Arikha’s breathing was eerily regular, as was her pulse. Ren placed a hand on her chest once more, using her left hand this time and placing her right hand in Arikha’s. She closed her eyes, and immediately the physical world shifted. Ren’s scope shifted into things of a spiritual nature. . . . This woman: She wasn’t dying, but neither was she responding.
“Arikha,” Ren said. “Can you hear me? I need you to let me know if you can hear me.” Nothing. She tried jolting her awake. Nothing.
Yaran, why was her skin so blue if she had enough air? If Ren hadn’t known better, she would have said the woman was suffocating.
Ren concentrated once more, but it was as if a block had been thrown up around the woman. An impenetrable wall not even the most adept could scale. Ren couldn’t see her in the spiritual sense, not any more. Where once she could sense her, there was nothing. As though she no longer existed.
What had happened?
The woman named Arikha opened her eyes.
Ren was so surprised that she stood. The way Arikha breathed—deep and quick—made it seem like she had been holding her breath. She looked around wildly, sitting up then standing. Her eyes landed on her son, and they each rushed forward.
What the hell happened? Ren thought. She had always been able to tap into that second sight, and no one had ever been exempt from it. Granted, she didn’t go around sensing everyone’s life-force, but even so. . . . Arikha had disappeared. Even when people died—and Ren had had the unfortunate to see countless people die—they never left; they changed, but they didn’t leave.
She tried again, touching the woman on the shoulder as she embraced her son. (Ren hoped it would come across as a comforting gesture.) Nothing. Nothing but dark, empty space—a contradiction: her eyes told her there was a person there.
Ren began to grow cold as the adrenaline of the event had worn off, and the chill in the air began to permeate. She slowly drew her hand away; Arikha paid no attention to it. This woman was impossibly here. She couldn’t shake the feeling that something awful had happened to Arikha, and that Arikha was unaware of it.
There was always time for new things. But after living for centuries and centuries, Ren hadn’t once come across anything that surprised her. What was most troubling was that she had now come across three new things in the last decade: a record unprecedented.
I have to understand what’s happening. This isn’t right; this isn’t natural. People don’t disappear—ever.
“Thank you, Ren,” someone said. A woman?
“What?” Ren said, not entirely coming out of her thoughts but making herself aware enough she could pass for holding a conversation.
“For saving me. I can’t tell you how grateful I am.”
Ren said something she hoped was polite and then excused herself. She needed to go home and sort things out; she was cold and very hungry and dreading the walk back.
This isn’t right. This isn’t normal. A nagging feeling at the back of neck that she should know what was going on. She tried to ignore it, to focus on getting home. But centuries of experience told her that she couldn’t ignore it—moreover that she shouldn’t ignore it.
“Ren, I want to thank you for coming. I know you had to miss out on a lot—dinner with the Minister and all.” Was that Brellan speaking.
“Yes,” she said, hoping the response made sense.
“Would you like me to escort you home?”
“. . . No, thank you. I think I can find the way.”
But . . . Naray be damned it’s dark.
“At least let me find you a torch,” Brellan said as he ran off to one of the fires.
Rain dripped down her face as Ren stared at the mountain she had to cross to get into the Western Bowl, her eyes as fogged-over as the sky above. The sun had left entirely during the time she had been with Arikha. Now only the light spilling over from the lamps in the Western Bowl gave her any light; the light silhouetted the trees and boulders, accentuating everything.
Why can I never be myself? Why can’t I do what I want to do. Why must I always be the one to fix things—to investigate? Surely there were other beings in Labryn who could do just as well. She felt like this was her form of punishment for breaking every rule in the book.
An orange light flicked into her vision, and her view of the pine-covered hills turned to black. “Thank you, again,” Brellan said, offering her thick, knotted bough the length of her arm, the top of which wrapped in thick oil-soaked cloth and burning bright.
“Right,” she said.
Behind her, the crowd was beginning to disperse, many offering up food in celebration or offering encouraging words. And still many offered Ren praise, calling her a worker of miracles. These people all thought she had done it. Had she used Divinity without meaning to? But no, she couldn’t have. She’d have known—she would have felt the familiar buzzing of Yaran’s presence around her, but instead she felt nothing but the cold normality of her new life, a feeling she had long become accustomed to.
The recovery was too quick, she thought, looking the crying woman named Arikha. . . .
“Ren, are you alright?” Brellan asked as she accepted the torch.
“I’m fine,” she said quietly, little more than a whisper. “I’m glad everything worked out.”
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like me to escort you home?”
“Yana Brellan!” Someone called out, an old man. “Would you be able to join us for supper tonight? My wife and I would love to hear more about the First.”
Brellan looked to Ren. “If you need me to take you home—”
“No,” Ren said. “You should be with . . . your people.”
He smiled at that, seeming to take pleasure in his new position in the community. “Okay, then. If you’re certain.”
He shook her hand and headed off toward the man who had invited him for dinner. And Ren started off for home.
Ren arrived back in the Western Bowl around what she assumed was ten o’clock. She’d taken her time returning; there wasn’t an emergency pulling her forward, so she just walked and thought. Thought about Arikha’s disappearing from her sight.
Several conclusions had brought themselves forward, but she was no closer to understanding the problem than when the problem came up. One explanation above all frightened her immensely: that Yaran had intentionally taken away this gift because she had chosen to choose her own life. This seemed likely, though she felt it was something much more sinister.
Although the torch had gone out well over twenty minutes ago, she still carried it with her so she could dispose of it properly. She’d reinstated her hoop as well—couldn’t leave that lying around.
The rain had stopped, but only just. And from the small glimmers that appeared, Ren could tell the clouds were clearing; tomorrow seemed slated to be clear and blue.
Nearly everyone on the island was asleep by then. It was a solitary walk Ren took through the cobbled streets, small puddles the only sounds in the still night air. Even the ocean had calmed down from what it had been before—moving from raging currents to ebbs and flows.
She reached the western edge of the town, coming through the residential district and the manor houses—most of whose lights were one, laughter and tinkling crystal drifting to her from a couple of opened windows.
Ren had to pass by Palken’s home to get to hers. She thought about the dinner they were supposed to have shared that evening but that had been interrupted. It felt like more than mere hours had passed since then; so many questions had been raised for her.
She thought about knocking and apologizing to him for her absence, but no . . . it was probably best to continue on home. Ren was tired, anyway. As far as dinner was concerned, some bread and milk would have to do.
She heard a latch open and turned to see what it was. Palken had opened the large oak door and was peering out at her. “Ren!” he called. His clothing was much simpler; he looked more like the Palken she had met in Ngatui than Palken the Prime Minister for whom she worked. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” Ren faked a smile. “Just a little wet and hungry, that’s all.”
“Well . . . why don’t you come inside for a bit.”
Ren began to protest, but he said: “I’ve got a nice fire going, and Lila can always warm something up for you.”
“I . . . Alright. . . .” It would be better than bread and milk, she thought.
“Where did you go? Is everything okay?” He asked as she crossed the threshold. It wasn’t until she felt the warmth rush over her that she realized how cold she really was. What else was she ignoring—thinking they weren’t problems simply because she’d grown complacent?
“To the Eastern Bowl. A woman was dying, and Brellan wanted me to heal her?”
Palken was silent for a moment, both of them standing in the foyer. Palken asked Lila to get Ren some soup, and the woman scuttled off to the kitchens.
“Did you?” Palken asked. “Heal her, I mean.”
“No,” she said.
“But it turns out she didn’t need it.”
“What do you mean?” Palken led them into the dining room. Where they sat, just the two of them, a crackling fire blazing in the hearth.
“She didn’t need it. I wasn’t going to—I mean, I was going to do all I could to help her, but then she woke up. Good as new.”
Ren left it there. No one knew about her. No one knew what she was, and Naray be damned she wasn’t going to let anyone know. She was sure Palken had hunches, but she wanted it to stay that way.
And so all her thoughts, all her worries, she kept to herself. Divulging just enough to keep their friendship going, while saving the most intimate parts of herself—pieces Palken would never have.
And the emotion of the night’s events mixed with realization made an unsettling connection in her chest, realizing that no matter what she said, no matter who she pretended to be, no matter what job she had or where she lived . . . she was never going to be like everyone else. She would never be normal.
Quietly she sat, accepted her bowl of soup and ate, slowly at first, waiting for it to cool, then hungrily. The savory broth and chicken seemed to sap away the dampness like a dry towel.
They had shared many a night’s discussion like this, by the fire late into the evening. Mostly they talked about Meloda and what she had meant to him. Often they were discussions about political campaigns, moves to make in the next session of parliament, et cetera. But tonight, neither of them said anything.
“Ren . . . we’ve known each other for a very long time. . . . I can’t help but feel that something’s wrong.”
She looked into her now empty bowl, at the thinly coined roots and onion still left there, the green herbs stuck to the sides. Like the green Molu herb in Arikha’s tea cup.
Palken couldn’t know her past, and without that knowledge he wouldn’t understand her present concerns. So there was a new belief system . . . what was new? So people got sick—and then they got better? Why was that important?
“I’m just worried about the people in the Eastern Bowl,” she said. Thankfully it wasn’t a mere excuse not to talk about what was really troubling her. Among those larger things she had thought about those people—so crowded, so vile, so much lawlessness.
“I know,” Palken said.
Did he? “When was the last time you visited them?” She asked. “Really visited them? Brellan wasn’t kidding about people being raped in the streets, Palken. . . .”
He sighed. “You’re probably right. But what would be the point? I alone can’t do anything for them.”
“Maybe they just need to be shown that there’s someone who’s on their side. We’ve known that that part of the island has had issues for years.”
“I know. . . .” He said no more, apparently deliberating it inside his own head.
The clock began chiming the hour: eleven o’clock.
“I should get on,” Ren said, standing.
Palken stood, too, perhaps more enthusiastically than was necessary. “Yes. Of course. I . . .” he looked down, cheeks flushing.
Ren found herself blushing, too.
“Never mind.” He said. “Never mind.” He showed her to the door, and Ren started home for the last time that night, thinking only of the way he smiled crookedly at her, the flush in his cheeks. . . . It was all rather pleasant, Ren thought. Although she wasn’t entirely certain what it meant.
It was two weeks before Palken gave Kenos permission to be out of his room. By then he had used up countless stacks of parchment, and Kenos was feeling so confident in his plans, he thought he might burst with the excitement of it all.
Palken was home for the day; parliament had adjourned the night before. And though yesterday had been as gloomy as Naray’s own nightmares, today was bright and cloudless. Summer had truly set in, and there wasn’t a plant in sight—cultivated or otherwise—that was not covered from top to bottom in green: moss, groundcover, ivy, leaves, needles, flowers and fruits.
He needed to get out the house; it was an itching need that permeated every part of his body. People weren’t meant to be stuck in a room like that, he thought—not for that long. He couldn’t imagine what his father was going through, especially as he had neither the room nor the amenities that Kenos could enjoy. I’m coming, he thought. I’m coming. . . .
Kenos put a lead pencil in the pocket of his trousers, grabbed his large moleskin notebook, and rushed out the bedroom, taking the stairs two at a time. He ignored Lila’s yells that he was making too much noise and that he needed to put on something decent.
He flung the door open, felt the warm sun on his face, and breathed in startlingly fresh air. Yaran that felt good. . . . He’d been able to open the window in his bedroom, sure—but this was more than a good breeze and lovely scents: this was freedom.
Where did he want to go? He could choose for the first time in weeks. How long did he want to stay there? Well, that didn’t matter, did it? Kenos could stay as long as he damn well pleased.
The docks. That was always a place he could enjoy himself. He loved looking at the large ships with their yellow-tinged sails, barnacle-encrusted hulls and people who simply didn’t give a damn who they were talking to—they always said what came to mind. Honest people. Nothing like his uncle or Ren, whom he considered superficial.
He thought, as he made his way south, that he could see a small shape with blonde hair following him out of the corner of his eye. He prayed to Yaran it wasn’t Sucha—though he was afraid his hopes were all in vain.
The merchant’s district was coming up. As Kenos walked down the road, past many expensive-looking shops, he stopped at one in particular. The printer’s. It had been far too long since he’d seen Anka. And perhaps it would give Sucha the slip.
The printer’s had two floors and was half bookshop, half printer. Kenos walked around back (he knew Anka wouldn’t mind), trying not to get stuck in the mud left over from yesterday’s rain. The back of the shop let off into an alley which was strung all over with wire on which hung large sheets of copy, drying. A worker up top continued to put them out as they came off the press on the top floor. Kenos saw through the back window, the room behind the storefront, where several women sat sewing signatures into blocks.
Kenos let himself in through the back door; some of the women, dressed in simple grey dresses and white bonnets, looked up as he walked through, but they did little more than smile. Anka came down the narrow stairway with a voluminous leather satchel, looking ready to leave the store.
“Kenos, boy!” He said in his sing-song accent: surprised though not necessarily displeased. “What are you up to?”
“Just . . . thought I’d stop by.” He shrugged, not wanting to divulge the fact he’d only come because he thought he was being followed by someone he had no inclination of talking to.
Anka didn’t meet Kenos’s eyes. Instead his gaze wondered to a stack of pamphlets on one of the many long tables in the room. They looked like single signatures but half the size, sewn through the middle, printed in a curving type on bright cotton paper. Anka grabbed a handful and began stuffing them into his satchel, not giving much notice to Kenos.
“What are those?”
“Just some propaganda for Brellan. You remember Brellan, yes? The missionary?”
The man Ren had brought for dinner a couple of weeks ago.
“He asked me if I could print some for him. Hand some out. Would you mind—” he grabbed a few and offered them to Kenos— “handing a few to people you meet. It would really be good.”
“Sure,” Kenos shrugged, taking the pamphlets. Kilik Nid: the cover read. Find absolute bliss; forget pain; follow the First. . . .
“It seems he’s grown rather popular,” Anka said as Kenos looked the sheets over. “Already converted most the people in the Eastern Bowl; now he wants to come here.”
Kenos stuffed them in his notebook.
“I’ve got to be going, Kenos. You could come over later?”
Anka gave him a friendly slap on the arm and headed out the back door. Kenos slowly followed suit, wanting to give Sucha enough time going the wrong direction before he started off again. . . . He stayed behind the shop for a few minutes before leaving, looking hard down either side of the street; Sucha was nowhere in sight.
The merchant district sloped downward toward the ocean as the shops grew sparser. The docks came into view, busy, with men moving to and from several large ships carrying crates and wooden boxes filled with coffee, tea, flowers from Ngatui, textiles, livestock.
There was a certain stench of barnacles, rotting fish, and fecal matter, but Kenos was more or less accustomed to it. He sat on an empty crate and just watched, ignoring the pamphlets and his notebook for a moment.
Three minutes hadn’t gone by when he heard rustling of petticoats behind him. “Why did you spend so much time in the printer’s?”
Kenos’s heart sank. Sucha had found him after all.
He didn’t look at her. “’Cause I like it there,” he said. “Now would you go home? I really don’t want you here. And your father doesn’t want you here, either, you know.”
“Home’s boring,” she said.
He heard her plop herself down next to him.
“I suppose unless you like needlepoint and studying Nabish for hours on end. Honestly, if I see one more declension set, I swear to you I will be sick.” She laughed at her own joke, though Kenos didn’t find it funny. “Honestly, I don’t know why father thinks it’s so good for me. Kaskan would be so much more practical. Like I said: completely boring. Anyway, you looked like you could use some company.” She let out a wet cough.
Why study, anyway? She’s dying. . . .
“Get out of here, Sucha.” Kenos gritted his teeth, could feel the explosion coming at any second if she didn’t leave him alone. “Ever thought that maybe I like being by myself?”
“Of course not. That’s ridiculous.”
Was it? Kenos didn’t think so. Yaran, she almost seemed offended by the idea. Kenos began thinking of ways he could get rid of her; the thing was, though, that he didn’t think it was fair to give up his docks for something so stupid. Stupid and annoying, he corrected himself.
“Those papers sticking out of your notebook. They aren’t handwritten.”
Kenos didn’t acknowledge her, didn’t offer her a pamphlet—didn’t even move. But Sucha plucked one out of his notebooks with a frail white hand. “Kilik Nid,” she said. “I’ve heard of it, I think. My father attended a meeting with them the other day.”
“Did he?” Entirely indifferent, watching the gray clouds in the far-off distance.
“I think it’s completely ridiculous. Rubbish.”
“Well, of course! I don’t know what I would do if I got rid of my pain. It’s odd, but in a way it defines me. Kilik Nid is entirely ridiculous.”
“Ridiculous,” he repeated, not paying attention at all anymore. And then: “Wait. What do you mean ‘get rid of pain’?”
“That’s what Father says they do. Kilik Nid believes that the way to bliss is the through the extrication of any and all pain. That it is unnecessary to suffer. I suppose it makes sense . . . in a way. It just doesn’t seem right to me.”
Nor did it to Kenos. “Are you sure that’s what they do?”
Sucha nodded. “I’m fairly certain.”
Well, that seemed fine for those who chose to follow it. But Kenos wished to keep his pain for the time being. It was the only thing that moved him forward to his father—something he needed to keep momentum on until they were somewhere safe.
In that moment, the freedom that he had enjoyed so immensely when he first set out of the house seemed bound once more. Kenos turned his head around to see a black carriage gilded with silver pull up to the edge of the docks. Palken was inside, dressed as any proper Minister would be. People nodded in respect as they saw him pull up.
“I think you’d better go,” Sucha said.
“Shut up,” Kenos said. He dumped the pamphlets onto the crate (surely someone would find them there) and shuffled his feet as he went to see what his uncle needed.
Palken didn’t seem pleased with him. “I thought we had discussed coming here,” he said. “Get in.”
Kenos walked around the other side, rolling his eyes as the porter insisted on opening the door for him. Bent sat next to his father on the back seat, which was plush and deep purple. Ren sat opposite them; Kenos would have to sit next to her. He wondered why they were always together, and he thought for sure that secretaries couldn’t possibly be needed as much as these two made it out to be.
“I suppose I should have told you before you ran out this morning, Kenos. We’re taking a trip to the Eastern Bowl. All of us—together.”
The Eastern Bowl. The prison was there—maybe he could get another look at it, revise his plans accordingly. Palken eyed him carefully, and Kenos didn’t flinch away from the hard gaze. It seemed Palken was only ever angry—if not angry, at least frustrated—with Kenos anymore.
Perhaps Palken could read Kenos’s thoughts about wanting to take another look at the prison, because he said: “Kenos, I expect you to be on your best behavior. Understand? You are coming with me and therefore represent the Ministry and Parliament as a whole. I know that must be a lot of responsibility for someone your age, but . . .”
Kenos stopped listening after that. He could tell words were coming out of Palken’s mouth, but he simply didn’t care to know what they were.
The carriage started off as soon as he was seated. Kenos popped his small window open and enjoyed the sensation of cool ocean air brush past his face; it would be much warmer before long.
There was only one road which was large and clear enough to fit a carriage, and it ran along the southern coast of the island. After the ports in the southwest, the coast slowly grew steeper and more like a cliff, waves, no longer so gentle, crashing against the coast, etching away stone pillars and other formations.
Kenos peered out the stained-glass window, having just enough space at the opening to be able to observe. He was reminded of just how impenetrable this island seemed to be; he assumed the fourth wall of the prison was the same, nearly impossible to escape. Naray be damned the place had been built well. They would have to escape over one of the wooden walls, that was certain.
That little prick of doubt began to sting him, right in the chest. The idea that he wouldn’t be able to do this, that he was too young, that he should give in and live his life with Palken and Bent. That he should accept that and be happy with it.
But then he thought of having his own father whom he could talk, thought of how happy he would be when he finally got him out—and the desire began to return, melting away any questioning with a warm touch.
It was all he could think about anymore: his father, the prison, his mother--on occasion—, wondering where she was and whether or not his father knew. They occupied his mind unceasingly, the only thing that made him happy, the only thing that got his blood pumping with excitement. . . .
“. . . Kenos, is that understood?” Palken’s voice was stern, though not harsh.
“Yes, sir,” he said, not entirely certain what he was agreeing to but willing to appease his uncle—so long as it kept Palken off his back.
Ren and Palken talked about something political. About what he had no idea.
Bent had already fallen asleep, it seemed. His head lolled to the side, and occasionally he would jolt whenever the carriage hit a rough spot on the road.
Their pace was normal, the horses’ gait a mere canter. Kenos reached over and popped the window open on Bent’s side so he could get a glimpse of the other side. They were up against a second cliff now; the road they were on was perhaps twenty feet wide, leaving maybe five feet on either side of them. Kenos could tell that both were steep: straight, in fact.
Rocks tumbled down from the top cliff—perhaps only ten feet up, but still a considerable distance, it seemed—, some of them continuing to roll down the second cliff. He was sure they crashed into the water, but the roar of the waves was so loud he wasn’t sure.
They almost to the Eastern Bowl. Just a couple more minutes and they would be—
There was a thump on the top of the carriage. Probably a rock.
The driver stopped, the horses neighing. “Get out of here!” he called.
“Everyone, stay where you are,” Palken said, putting a finger to his lips.
Bent was a wake now. He stared forward at nothing, eyes wide. . . . Kenos felt a little knot begin to form inside his stomach, even though it wasn’t for certain that anything was wrong yet.
Breathing seemed too loud a noise.
“I said get outta—” A grunt, and then a sound like someone falling to the ground.
It was odd; Kenos had heard that there were dangerous people this way (that was one of the many reasons Palken had given him for staying away from the docks), but it had never really felt so until now.
The door opposite Kenos flew open, and there stood a man. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-five, yet already he was missing several teeth. He held a knife out to them which glowed in the bright sun.
“Don’t nobody move. We gonna take ye out one ada time.” Kenos had heard people talk this way before, but it was still rather foreign to him.
Kenos’s heart sped up. And here I was thinking this trip was going to be boring. Yaran had he been wrong. He cracked a smile; no one seemed to notice.
There was movement from above as someone—not a rock, then—got off the roof. Kenos glanced out his round window—men everywhere. They were entirely surrounded.
“Don’t do this,” Palken said, voice tripping diplomacy as he lifted his hands in the air in surrender. “We can talk about this. Do think this is really the way to get what you want?”
The man didn’t say a word as he led Palken out the door, the knife making a small rip in his tailcoat where he pressed it to his uncle’s back. Bent went white as a sheet.
Just before they closed the door, Kenos stole a glimpse of the man coming off the roof of the carriage. He was old—older than Kenos had expected—, definitely too old to be able to jump on carriage roofs. His white beard was scraggly; this was a man who had never grown full facial hair in his life. His wrinkled skin hung to his sharp bones, his thin white hair was unkempt and dirty, and his eyes: blue . . . so startlingly so they practically glowed, even in the broad daylight.
The old man looked once inside the carriage, with a glare that could boil water, and then began talking to the other men. Through the carriage walls, his voice was muffled but still intelligible. Either he had never learned to whisper or he simply didn’t care who heard him. His bass voice didn’t help his cause, echoing toward them off the dirt wall around them.
“She’s there. Why didn’t you take her.”
Kenos looked at Ren—the only woman in there. What would they want with Ren? She didn’t look frightened by their wanting her, rather confused; her face screwed up as though she were working on a maths problem.
“Because he’s the Prime Minister.” This man’s speech was much more in-line with the mainstream Brehedak accent.
There was another grunting noise and a gasping for air—then a slamming against the carriage door. The entire car lurched and swayed. Kenos was reminded of the steep drop and churning water not five feet to their right.
Brent put his arms out, grabbing onto anything he could find. He closed his eyes and took in deep breaths. Yaran but it was almost comical to watch; Ren gave him a pointed look at his apparent enjoyment of the ordeal.
The door swung open, and the old man with the blue eyes reached a hand in for Ren.
The carriage lurched—though Kenos suspected it wasn’t because someone had been thrown against it. The steeds outside whinnied, shuffled their feet. There was no dust—the ground too wet for that.
It was just enough to throw the old man off balance, though that fazed him not at all. He reached harder, grabbing Ren by the hand and yanking her toward the door. She struggled against the old man’s pull, his strength in defiance of his age.
“Let go!” Ren commanded, slapping him across the face. Another man moved to the doorway to help—this one a true thug with muscles and gatherings of dark chest hair sprouting from the collar of his worn tunic.
The two men moved inside the car, each grabbing one of her arms. She screamed for them to let her go; Bren simply sat there. Kenos realized that he had yet to do anything to help—so involved had he been at simply watching it happen, as though it were a play which he could enjoy though not participate in.
He stood from the seat and tried prying the men’s hands from Ren. It was hard work as there were two men, both full-grown, and only one teenage boy—a boy who had yet to hit maturation. He gave Bent an annoyed glare, and after much prompting, he, too, stood and tried to help. At first he continued to watch--shaking as he tried to assess where his energy would be best placed—then tried to help Kenos with the old man’s hands.
The men treated them more like a nuisance than anything, putting more energy into slapping them away like flies than getting Ren outside the carriage.
“Get off, you little—” the thug called, wrenching Kenos’s hands, which flared up in pain as his fingers and wrist twisted at unnatural angles. He cried out, but there was no one who could help.
Two thuds sounded from outside, and in a split second, the car was moving at an impossible speed down the road. The two men were still inside; all of them slid pack as the inertia of their acceleration hit them.
“Damn!” The old man said, spit flying dangerously near Kenos’s face in his vehemence. “Damn—damn—damn!”
Kenos rushed to the front of the cab, opening the slot that was sometimes used to talk with the driver. . . . Palken was in the driver’s seat—a large tear in his coat, his wig somewhere behind them—barely holding onto the reigns.
The man with the blue eyes growled and grabbed Kenos by the collar, pulling him down. Kenos hit his head on the floorboards and tried to steady himself as the carriage continued to bump over rocks and holes in the road.
A banging from the back of the carriage brought him back to awareness. The head of an axe broke through the back wall. Someone was trying to break through.
Bent jumped back; Ren grabbed onto one of the rope handles hanging from the ceiling to keep herself upright. (Kenos had always assumed that they were useless, but now it appeared they might have been made for occasions just like this.)
The thug grabbed onto Ren tight and took her down on the seat while the old man looked through the window at Palken. “Blast it!” he said. He threw open the side door, and wind rushed into the cab as he moved himself out of the carriage.
Ren let out a scream. “Palken!”
Kenos looked through the small rectangular window; his uncle looked back, seemed to see the old man coming for him.
The car lurched once more, and Kenos felt the cab tipping. His stomach dropped. One of the wheels was off the road.
In a split second, Kenos imagined them falling to their deaths into the water. Surely they wouldn’t survive such an ordeal.
Suddenly Kenos’s life seemed a whole lot shorter.
“Get on the other side!” He called to Brent, who idiotically had let Palken’s absurd driving put him every which way. He scrambled upright, grabbing onto the rope-handles for support.
Not the second wheel. Not the second wheel.
The old man was now scrambling for the reigns up front. The horses whinnied loudly, their cries echoing off the cliff walls.
The second wheel fell over. The horses strained to keep the carriage upright; the wheels were right up against the inside of the cliff wall.
Even the thug’s eyes grew wide. He pulled Ren up and pushed her out the door before throwing himself out.
“C’mon!” Kenos yelled to Bent.
His cousin, face still plump with a layer of baby fat, shook his head, looking wide-eyed from the door to the ever-sloping right side of the carriage. Whether he wanted to jump or no, it didn’t matter to Kenos. He was jumping, and he was going to live. Kenos couldn’t force Bent.
Kenos didn’t think about what he was doing—didn’t let the quickly moving vehicle bother him. Didn’t think about his body hitting the hard ground, bones breaking. That was all hypothetical, anyway.
He jumped. It took only a second; in that moment, vertigo threw his stomach down as he stopped moving at such a high velocity. And then he hit the ground—hard. The impact knocked him to his knees, and he grabbed his newly-sprained ankle as though that would lessen the pain.
Bent fell nearly twenty feet away from Kenos. The carriage continued to move, then two shapes—the old blue-eyed man and Palken—jumped from the driver’s seat. . . . With no one left to support it, the weight of the carriage became too much to handle. With a final cry from the white steeds, they and the carriage fell over the edge.
A moment later, Kenos heard a hard thunk as the vehicle hit the water, unmistakable.
The sunlight was bright and hot—no more cool morning air—and it made the dirty cliff-sides surrounding them seem almost white.
Ren was running toward them, her dark hair, which had been in a neat, fashionable bun atop her head, splayed behind her. The thug ran behind; Ren was barely more agile.
The other members of the mob were not far now.
And the old man—
The old man had a knife to Palken’s throat. Not sideways to slice it—as Palken had seen enacted in many an adventure play—but pointed straight at his Adam’s apple. The blade was long enough that if he stabbed, it would go all the way through his skull.
Ren stopped, hair falling to cover half of her face. Her eyes looked forward in terror, although perhaps not for fact that she was about to be taken over by strong men who couldn’t possibly have had any good intentions.
Kenos scooted over, keeping himself as far from the edge as possible, enjoying the rush as his body shook with adrenaline in doses he had never experienced before.
“Ren!” the blue-eyed man growled, smiling (perhaps at the horror he saw in her face; Kenos wasn’t sure, though that’s what it seemed). “Come quietly and the Minister will remain unharmed!”
Why did they want Ren . . . ?
Little drops of blood were falling from the spot where the blade tip pierced Palken’s skin. His eyes—frantic—looked intently at Ren and then at Kenos and Bent, as though trying to communicate something to her.
He’s actually going to kill Palken.
The thought came almost as a surprise as he realized that the old man was not a play-actor. He had come for a purpose, and he wasn’t leaving until he had Ren. (Yaran only knew why that was.)
Kenos looked into those icy, glowing eyes and saw that Palken would be just as easy for him to kill as slaughtering a pig for Moon Festival.
He looked around for something he could use. . . . The old man’s gaze was focused solely on Ren, who stood completely still—in a way neither complying nor denying the terms.
There: a rock the size of Kenos’s fist. It was large enough to hurt yet small enough that it could be thrown easily.
Slyly as he could, Kenos reached out and cupped the large stone in his hand. I’ll have to do it all at once. After a moment of deciding where it would be best to hit him, Kenos stood to gain more leverage and less than a second later chucked it as hard as his arm would allow.
Pain flared up at the joint in his shoulder, but the rock had at least made its mark.
It hit the old man’s groin with a soft thud.
Before he even had time to cry out, a second—this one larger—came down on his face. Blood sprouted on the grazed skin. Kenos looked to the source of the throw to find Bent standing there, breaths deep, and shaking uncontrollably, but entirely ready to defend his father.
Kenos felt a sudden rush of pride for his cousin.
“Palken, run!” Ren said.
He tried to move, but, though the blue-eyed man was in obvious pain, he didn’t relinquish his grip on him.
The thug from the carriage grabbed Ren from behind, wrapping his arms around her stomach and squeezing. It seemed to Kenos more than your basic detainment procedures.
Blue-eyes laughed through his pain, a wet, gurgling sound.
From Kenos’s vantage point, he could see the bend in the road quite clearly. Someone was on it.
The stranger stopped when he saw the scene. He looked as though he’d gotten dressed in a hurry—Kenos could nearly see his potbelly hanging out of his tunic—, and there was something swinging at his side; Kenos squinted and made out, through the burning sun, a crossbow. The matte steel arrowhead looked sharp as a needle.
“Iz!” He barked, raising the weapon. “Let the Minister go.”
There was a second—a brief glimmer—of defeat on the blue-eyed man’s face. Then his lips twitched back into a smile. So feral and wide was the look he gave Ren that, somehow, he didn’t seem very human to Kenos.
“I need that woman, Huk! I’ll let the Minister go, but Ren must come with—”
“I will shoot you, Iz. Don’t think I won’t.”
Slowly, the old man lowered the knife and turned to face the man with the crossbow.
“Iz . . .” he nearly took a step back before seeming to consider it was best to keep his ground. “Naray be damned. . . . What happened to you?”
The old man turned and came at Ren. Kenos had never seen anyone move faster. And though the old man was fast, the newcomer was also a good shot. There was a snap as the arrow was loosed from its cocked position and sprouted from Iz’s calf. He cried out just as more men rounded the corner, coming to the shooter’s aid.
The other thugs who had accompanied the blue-eyed man backed away, though the one who held Ren persisted.
“Let her go, Buyuk,” the shooter said.
Buyuk glared at him, though after a moment he took his arms from around Ren.
The shooter walked over to the old man lying on the ground. He stopped and wrenched the arrow from his leg. The men who had attacked their carriage promptly gave themselves over to the shooter.
“Get up, Iz,” the shooter said.
The old man cried.
It took a moment to realize what everyone was looking at. Why Palken and Bent and Ren all gazed open-mouthed and wide-eyed at the injured man.
Memories and nightmares alike flashed past Kenos’s mind—things he hadn’t thought about in a very long time. His aunt, Meloda. And an inn. . . . An inn called the Jovious.
Because the man’s blood, like his eyes, seemed to glow though it wasn’t dark. . . .
His blood was blue.
“You shouldn’t be doing this,” Alanga said, resting on the edge of the worn wooden table.
They were there in the dead of night. There were a few oil lamps spread across the table, but no light came from the outside. The gods had already lamented the setting of the sun.
“I know,” Saldrenia said, plucking some of the petals off the flower and dropping them in a stone bowl. She picked up the grind stone and began crushing the waxy fibers; instead of breaking off into smaller pieces, a film of oil came through the pores, making the rough inside of the bowl shine in the flickering light of the oil lamps.
The oil was clean and pure. Less viscous than she was expecting, almost like water. Yet when she splashed it with water, they inevitably separated.
It made Saldrenia nervous. She hadn’t been certain when she’d first come across the flower, but it had proved to possess all the properties of the original that she had known. And the fact that it was here in City made her very anxious.
“What does it mean?” Alanga asked, peering into the grinding bowl.
“It means that we have to stay away from this. We should quarantine the hiking trails. No one can find these.”
“Saldrenia. . . . What is it?”
“Something you must never know about. . . . You shouldn’t even be here.”
He looked at her, that young, handsome face questioning. “Why are you acting like that?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Alanga,” she said, taking the remains of the Jovious she had collected and putting them in a wooden box. She would put them in her special storage once Alanga left; it would be useless to take them back to the mountains at this point. But no one could ever find them.
“Like the rest of the Isaliar—like Zana and Silgin.”
“Well, I am an Isaliar, Alanga—”
“No, you’re not,” he said. He looked her straight in the eyes. “You might be ‘officially’, but you’re nothing like them. You’ve never been secretive or off-putting. You don’t look down your nose at everyone you walk past. . . .”
“And I’ve been treated very well by them, I assure you,” she said sarcastically.
“So why are you acting like that now?”
“Being so secretive! There’s never been anything before that you couldn’t tell me!”
Alanga’s eyes didn’t sway from hers. Deep brown eyes, thoughtful eyes. Did he know? Did he realize how much older she was—even though they looked the same age? (A fact which never ceased to shock her every time she came across a mirror.)
I must have been his age when the Bavenigayn came. Not really an adult yet, but neither had she been a child. This among many other things had separated her from the other Isaliar most. She’d had no experience.
It made sense to her now, but even after all these years, she still had not been given any respect. In Zana’s eyes she was still a child, although Silgin, thankfully, had begun to come around to her side these last few years.
Saldrenia capped the wooden box and set it aside, wondering what to do with the oil in the bowl. There was no easy way to dispose of it . . . it was insidious. Perhaps it was best just to leave it as it was and lock it away; she could always get a new grinding bowl.
“You’ve never followed the Singularity strictly—”
“—and you haven’t exactly been the most orthodox member of the Discipleship either,” she said with a wry smile.
Alanga smiled back. “No, but . . . I don’t understand why you’re acting like this. What is so special about that flower?”
“The things tied to the Jovious are so wretched that I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Especially you, Alanga.”
That seemed to give him pause. He bowed his head in thought.
“But I will tell you something, because I don’t ever want you to go looking for it. . . . The last time this flower appeared, our world ended. All of it. Everything burned, and people died in the most horrible ways.”
Alanga met her gaze, his face screwed up at her words.
“Please listen to me, Alanga. Don’t ever go looking for it.”
“I’ve heard it’s all fake,” one of the young men said, holding up his cup of wine.
There were five of them in the group—including Toruk—, and all of them sat around an impromptu campfire at the edge of City, watching the crackling flames and enjoying their being away from work and family for a time.
“I heard she runs the Singularity—but no one ever sees her,” said another.
“Who says it’s a she?” another piped in.
“Makes sense, doesn’t it?” the first replied. “The Nihak has to be a woman—what man d’ya know what does anything important in this place, eh? They’re all women!”
The others chuckled at this comment, but Toruk did not. He sipped his cup of wine quietly, thoughtfully.
“Hey, Toruk!” Volu, one of the more jovial, said, his face already red with alcohol. “You know, don’t you? You’ve seen her, eh?”
Toruk smiled, setting his cup on a nearby boulder and looking up at the water-sky. A deep blue filtered down to them: it was Moon Festival (though the last celebration had been nearly fifteen years ago—Toruk could barely remember—and hadn’t been celebrated since).
“I have never seen the Nihak,” he said. “Nor has anyone that I know seen her . . . or him.”
“Oh, c’mon, then!” Sefet, a young man with a strong build and thick red hair, said. “You must have seen the Nihak at least once! What do you do all day?”
Chuckling, Toruk said, “I stand outside an enormous door for hours on end. Hardly anyone passes, and no one goes in or out. Around dinner time, I leave. That’s it. I’ve never been inside that room.”
That last part wasn’t entirely true, but it was what he was obligated to say, by virtue of the oath he had taken.
“Gods, what I wouldn’t give to know what’s really in there,” Sefet said. “. . . And you’ve never even tried to get a peek?”
“I’d lose my job.” Toruk shrugged.
“Told ya,” Jenan said, his opinion booming off the mountains behind them. “Ain’t nobody in there. It’s gotta be completely empty. . . . You know what it is—” he took a big slurp of his wine—“it’s the Singularity’s plot to keep us on our toes. Make up a big, scary person, give it a funny name ain’t nobody heard before, and slap guards out front sos it seems real.”
They all muttered in semi-agreement, though the conversation surrounding the Nihak seemed to have come to an end.
Toruk suppressed shouting aloud that he knew the Nihak was real. He didn’t know who or what it was—he didn’t have any proof, and he had never seen anything. But he had heard enough that he could not deny it, even though his oath prevented him from speaking about it.
Every once in a while, moans—like the quiet screams of a dying man—would reach his ears through the thick doors. And sometimes Zana would come, as prompted by one of the other guards. She would go inside and sometimes wouldn’t leave for hours.
There was definitely something inside those doors he guarded. He was about as clueless as all the other young men sitting around the campfire, but there was something . . . and he hoped he’d be able to figure it out one day.
It seemed that no matter what she did, Ren couldn’t ever really escape the trappings of Labryn. She stared at the old man who had attacked them, now lying on the ground, whimpering like a wounded dog. Blue liquid ran down the dirt road like the beginnings of a river.
This man was somehow like the creatures from Ngatui. His skin wasn’t translucent, his countenance not as frightening, but Yaran, it was the same thing. Ren knew it. And looking at the expression on Palken’s and Kenos’s faces, she knew that they knew it too.
But the fight was over.
Ren looked at the shooter and his men, judging him; he was on their side, otherwise he wouldn’t have gone to so much trouble to protect them.
She pushed her hair behind her ears, wishing her pins hadn’t been scattered.
Palken was shaking, although he seemed to be trying hard not to show it. He clenched his jaw and his fists. Bent didn’t try to hide it; he looked as though he was going to be sick. Kenos, on the other hand, though shocked by the color of the man’s blood, seemed rather unfazed.
After a moment, they all took it upon themselves to look at each other instead of the gruesome scene.
The shooter seemed to pick up on the fact that there was something happening that he wasn’t aware of. Though . . . Why isn’t he more bothered by this? Blood is red. . . . Past experience or no, this should have been odd.
Palken turned to the shooter with what seemed all the strength he could muster. “Thank you,” he said, offering his hand—which, no longer a clutched fist, shook violently.
“It’s my honor to serve the Minister.” His words were deliberate; they seemed to say: I don’t do anything for free.
Ren moved forward, going around the old man, and stood next to Palken.
“Name’s Huk,” He said, offering his hand to Ren now. She accepted.
“This is . . . this is, uh—” Palken gave a shaky chuckle. “Sorry, I’m a little scattered at the moment. This is, uh, my son—Bent. And my . . . my nephew, Kenos. Oh, and Ren . . . my secretary.” He pinched the bridge between his nose, clenching his eyes shut.
“Pleasure to meet you,” Huk nodded in their respective directions. “Why don’t I escort you all the rest of the way to the Bowl. It’s only about a mile or so, and we can get you something to eat.”
“That . . . would be—” Palken began.
“—Most welcome,” Ren stepped in.
“Dev, Lani!” Huk waved to get their attention. “Clean up back here and meet us in the bowl. I’m going to take the Minister up ahead with us.”
The larger of them—Dev, Ren assumed—nodded and said, “Yes, sir.” While he bent to take care of the dying, old man, the rest of them set about tying the criminals’ arms behind their backs with thick, albeit fraying, rope.
“Follow me,” Huk said.
“Thank you,” Palken said. He put his hands behind his back and held them tight.
Ren smiled at his timidity. She took a chance, not caring that everyone—including a complete stranger—could see: she put her arm in his and leaned in close to him as they started off. Palken didn’t object; the tension actually seemed to loosen. His breathing evened out. Huk did look back at them, though he only smiled wryly and continued leading them up the rocky path. Bent either chose to ignore it or simply hadn’t noticed. Kenos did see the gesture, and he didn’t seem to like it.
They crested the hill, giving them a near complete view of the Eastern Bowl. The trees rose grandly from the slopes; some fires still burned in the village below.
Ren saw the prison at the far northern end of the bowl, barely even visible for its disguise. She caught Kenos looking longingly in that direction and thought, briefly that perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad for him to see his father. . . . The thought was as fleeting and trivial as she had first thought it to be. People weren’t sentenced to a prison walled by solid trees, ocean, and granite for stealing fish. Why couldn’t Kenos realize what good he already had?
“Welcome to the Eastern Bowl, Minister,” Huk said, turning his head over his shoulder to give Palken a pointed look. It seemed that, although Huk had been generous enough to save them from a mad band of criminals, it hadn’t raised his opinion of them any more.
Typical attitude. Ren wished people would surprise her every now and again. Are things really so bad that there is no genuine respect for government here?
Well, that was why they were here, wasn’t it? To get these good people’s opinion on how they might better the situation for everyone. They had a good six months before the next session of parliament to come up with some sort of solution.
Huk stopped here. Palken’s stance shifted, moving his arms from behind his back. Ren suddenly found his hand in hers. His move. . . . Her smile widened, and her cheeks grew hot—though to anyone watching it could have just been the beginnings of a sunburn.
“The layout here is fairly simple,” Huk said, gesturing at the collections of homes. “There in the middle is the seller street that runs through everything. People can bring their goods there for trading and the like. Then you have the homes wherever they can go.”
Ren saw what he meant (something she hadn’t noticed on her last visit here): there weren’t really any streets—just turns and twists and alleys between. In the daylight, she could see just how many people were here. At least a couple thousand of them milled about, most of them cramped in the single street cutting their world in half.
“And over there’s the prison,” Huk continued. “’Course, most people don’t know ’bout that.” He chuckled.
“Let’s try to keep it that way,” Palken said, good-natured enough. It was still clearly a sensitive topic.
Huk didn’t seem to know how to respond. “Well, let’s get down there. I think my wife should have lunch on about now. ’Course I’m sure it ain’t nothing like you have at that palace of yours, but it’s filling enough.”
They got stares as they went deeper into the Eastern Bowl. Stares no doubt for the state of their apparently affluent clothing as for the clothing itself. People gave Huk questioning looks, though they kept their distance and nodded in respect rather than blurt out questions.
It occurred to Ren that Palken had only ever paid one visit here; how many of them remembered who he was or what their minister looked like?
The group stopped at a house, larger than many of the surrounding ones, but no less as shabby, with tightly woven vine for a roof with pine thrown on top (perhaps more for decoration than any practical function).
A middle-aged woman with grey-streaked hair hunched over a fire to the side of the large hut, poking at the embers, and flipping flayed fish over a bent and crooked sheet of iron.
“Minister, this is my wife, Eva.”
The woman stood straight up, her back popping several times in the process, and turned to see whom her husband might have been presenting her to. Her eyebrows went up, and her mouth opened into a perfect “o.” She looked to her husband as though asking him for words, and then, as Huk said nothing, she yanked Huk’s hand, said, “Will you excuse us for a moment?” in an icy tone, and closed the front door behind them.
A few moments later, she returned, carrying a plate. She piled the fish on without so much as glancing at them and rushed back inside, brushing past her husband who stood in the doorway looking down at his feet.
Finally, he looked up at the company. “Please excuse my wife, Minister. . . . She’s just a little upset. . . . Please! Please, do you come in. Everything’s all set.”
Palken let go of Ren’s hand and took the two creaking steps (no doubt eaten away by termites and salty wind) to the hovel’s entrance. Ren, Bent, and Kenos followed.
Ren had been in such quarters before, but Palken tried—rather unsuccessfully—to hide his discomfort by putting his hands in his trouser pockets and fiddling with his fob watch. There was a bed in the far back corner, a table and fireplace in the middle, and a small workstation near the front. The entirety of the house couldn’t have been bigger than Palken’s dining room—and the small one at that.
Eve noticed Palken and huffed. “Lunch is on the table.”
They would have to cram, but it appeared the couple was used to having more than a few people over for meals. Each took their respective seats at the wooden table, which looked as rough as the front steps despite its being indoors.
The front entrance remained open, as did the back door—perhaps to tempt a breeze through the stuffy enclosure.
“I thought we were feeding the boys today, Huk,” Eva said, going around the table as they sat, and giving them each half a fish, a soot-stained biscuit and a scoop of purple and yellow roots.
“Thank you,” Ren said when she’d been served.
Eva simply tightened her lips into a thin line and took her place beside her husband. Palken, who’d sat next to Ren, gave her a small smile, though he looked more like a lost dog than anything.
“I barely recognized you without a wig on, Minister,” Eva said, digging furiously into her fish with a fork. “What you do with it?”
Huk answered for him. “They were in a rumble on their way here. Iz tried to get at ’em. Seems he wanted this young woman here.”
“Hmph,” Eva said, “too bad.” She chomped on a purple root.
Palken stopped trying to get at his food. He set his rusted silverware down, not too gently, and they clattered on the wooden table.
Eva seemed not to notice.
“We’re here,” Palken said, “to try to help, actually. We realize that we have not paid as much attention as perhaps we should have. Things are bad our here—we see that now. But we need your cooperation if we’re going to come to any sort of solution.”
The woman shook her head.
“What could I do, Eva, to ease your mind?”
Her eyes glistened with tears. “You can bring my children back.”
No one ate. Even Bent put down his fork and tried to chew the food he’d already stuffed into his mouth—slowly, quietly.
Huk looked down at his rough, worn hands. Seemed to study the grooves where dirt had escaped any kind of washing.
Voice shaking, words spat like venom, Eva said, “If you’ll excuse me.” She slapped away Huk’s comforting hand and left through the back door, a sob breaking through the silence before she was out of sight.
“I’m sorry,” Huk said. “She’s just a little emotional since . . .”
“Huk,” Ren said. “Would you mind telling us what happened? I mean, we don’t want to pry, but . . . maybe there’s something we could learn from it?”
Huk nodded. The steam from their hot food grew cold as he began. “We had a girl and a boy. . . . Our boy was named Vik. Such a smart boy. Always did what he was told—pride of our lives. About five years ago, we took in this orphaned boy, we called him Pine ’cause he was so tall. . . .”
Huk’s eyes glistened with nostalgia. “He was one year older than Vik, and they got along real well. Vik even started looking up to him—you know how boys do. Pine was . . . a very opinionated young man, if you know what I mean. Always thought he had the right idea about everything.
“Anyway, about a year ago, I’m sure you remember, there was a few ships burned at the docks.
“It was Pine what done it,” Huk said, rubbing his hands together. “He was mad at you, Minister, for neglecting us. He blamed you for his parents’ deaths.”
“I remember that,” Bent piped in. “Over a hundred people died, didn’t they?”
“That they did, son,” Huk said. “That they did. And Pine was convicted for every single one of them.” The gruff man’s voice cracked. “He was only seventeen. And Vik . . . I don’t think he could stand it. He tried to break him out of the prison. We haven’t seen him since.”
Kenos’s eyes went wide—something that didn’t go unnoticed by Palken—and he set his elbows on the table, suddenly no longer interested in bending his fork prongs every way but straight.
“It’s been over a year, and we don’t know if he’s dead or alive. There hasn’t been so much as a note telling us where he is or if he’s alright. I think poor Eva’s counted them as well as dead.” He looked up at the doorway. Eva stood there, eyes red but otherwise composed.
“We never heard of an intrusion at the prison,” Palken said, knitting his eyebrows together.
“No one did,” Huk said. “That’s why we’re so lost. We don’t know if he succeeded or something else happened to him.”
“What happened to your daughter?” Bent said, and Palken gave him a pointed look. For all his expensive upbringing, he really didn’t know how to keep quiet.
“Raped and killed.” Huk said. The bluntness slapped Ren in the face. “Ten years ago.”
It was obvious now why they were so mad at them. Why Eva glared at them with icy contempt. In a way, it was the government’s—and by association, the Minister’s—fault that their boys were gone. If only life had been better for them—if only there hadn’t been any foolish policies to fight against—then maybe Vik and Pine would be there with them.
“But you can’t blame it all on us,” Ren said, realizing a little late that she’d actually said it aloud. Well, I’ve started, I may as well finish. “Pine chose his path, and so did Vik. Yes, there are problems, but is that any reason to go against us?”
Eva silently moved back toward the table. “Do you have any idea how many times I have petitioned a search by your Ministry? Huk is the head of law here in the Eastern Bowl, and he was still treated like horse dung. Why, it’s as though we’re not even part of this Brehedak of yours! I see no unified people here. We in the Eastern Bowl are cut adrift. The First forbid we try to create our own government. We are still Brehedak’s, though Brehedak cares nothing for our welfare.”
She plopped down in the seat. “Do you know what the Ministry of Law told us when we petitioned a search for our sons?” Eva took the silence as permission to continue. “They told us that there were more pressing matters than a missing sixteen-year-old boy.
“The very same man took off early for a play with his lady friend.” Huk let that hang in the air. His eyes glistened, and he clenched his jaw.
He’s not on our side, Ren realized. Not as outright as his wife, but he wasn’t about to let them off easy.
“I’m very sorry for the way you’ve been treated,” Palken said. “Really, I apologize profoundly. I will talk to the Ministry of Law—surely we can work something out.”
This got no reaction from them.
Then, a moment later, Huk’s eyes flashed to the back doorway for a split second. It slammed shut; Ren caught sight of someone’s arm just before the front entrance was closed off as well. Ren’s stomach knotted.
“It was really much easier to get you here than I thought it would be,” Huk said, a smile barely visible in the thin strings of light weaving through the thatched roof.
Damn Naray, not again.
Someone grabbed her from behind, and she heard Bent and Kenos calling out, their voices drowned by gags.
“Had to change my plans when I saw Iz’d already got to ye.”
Palken’s hand groped for Ren’s in the darkness. “Bent, Kenos!” He hadn’t been gagged, then. They apparently needed him to be able to talk.
“Hold still—don’t move.”
He didn’t need to tell them twice.
“We’re here to help, Huk!” Ren pleaded. Someone whose hands smelled of piss wrapped a gag over her face, and she tried not to bite down too hard on the rough, bristly fibers rubbing up against her gums and cheeks.
“You don’t need to do it this way,” Palken said, not taking his own advice and struggling in the arms that held him to the seat. The sound of creaking wood nearly drowned everything else.
“It is necessary,” Huk said.
Ren heard the strings of a crossbow lock into place. She froze, and so did Palken.
“I have been around enough of you ministry type to know that you don’t get anywhere,” Huk continued. “You’re all talk. Nothing ever gets done—if any of us actually want help from you, this is the only way. . . . Sorry, Eva.”
The woman backed into a corner. She held herself rather composed, her lips stiff; however, Ren could see she was frightened. It couldn’t have been often that the lawman brought the work home with him.
“Now,” Huk moved toward the other end of the table, sat on it, scooting the chair Palken sat in farther back so they could talk face-to-face. “I think you know what we want from you.”
Palken didn’t say anything.
Huk took a breath. “We have weapons trained on you, your girl, and your boys. I wouldn’t try anything. Just listen closely to what I have to say. You agree to the terms, we let you go. Simple.”
“Nothing’s ever that simple,” Palken said.
“No doubt spoken by a true politician,” Huk said, rubbing his hands together. “These’re our terms. Eva and me’ll go back to the Western Bowl with you; the ministry’ll provide full room and board for us. Easterners’ll receive full representation in Parliament—I’ll be the first member. The people here’ll receive equal treatment—and merchants have to trade with this side as well. We ain’t going to be begin’ any more. Basically, Minister . . . you give us what we want.”
Yaran I wish I could see his face. There were no shafts of sunlight dotting even an inch of Palken’s face.
“Oh, and you tell that damn Ministry of Law of yours to get my son back.”
The silence grew even larger between them.
“Let me put it this way, Minister,” Huk said, jumping off the table and walking behind Palken, talking to him, Ren guessed, directly in his ear. “You don’t agree to our terms, we loose an arrow into every one of you Westerners. Not only that. We’ll burn Brehedak. Every last building. You think I’m the only one on this side what’s angry with ye?”
Naray, don’t do it. She thought. But then . . . what would I do if I were him? He’s risking losing everything—and they’re going to burn the island if he refused. They had seen this man shoot one of his own; he’d lost all but his wife and his menial position as lawman. Of course he was serious. Palken didn’t see things the way Ren did—his life was so short, everything probably seemed more urgent than it really was.
“Alright,” Palken said at last. “Alright. We—we agree to your terms.” His voice was shaking again.
“Good choice, Minister,” Huk said. “I’m real proud of ya.”
The gags came off promptly (Bent sighing almost dramatically with relief), the crossbows pointed to the ceiling. Both doors came open, and sunlight flooded the room. Everyone squinted; Kenos sneezed at the dirt that came dancing through the room on a sudden gust of wind.
Ren felt sick. What have we done? They aren’t going to let this go. They saved us once, now they hold us at gunpoint. Either way our lives are indebted to this man. A man who had, presumably without much thought, held the minister hostage. He was hurt and clearly violent. Not to mention capable.
And Palken had just allowed him entrance to parliament. Just like that.
Suddenly things were a lot more involved than they had previously been. In a way, it had been a success. Perhaps they could still make something of this?
I don’t think so. I can’t imagine what he’s going to try to pull.
“Well, thank you for being so cooperative,” Huk said, slapping Bent on the back. “I was afraid I was going to have to shoot this one here.”
“Eva, pack our things! We’re goin’.”
Four months passed without consequence. Kenos remained anxious every day thinking about what he was going to do when the moon festival finally arrived. Everything was perfect, everything set up. He was certain that even the guards at the prison had to do something in honor of Moon Festival.
Ren and Palken, though they seemed fonder of each other now than ever, were also the most worried and preoccupied Kenos had ever seen them. Bringing Huk and Eva into the Western Bowl had been easy, but the second the news of their “agreement” went public, the people—especially the old gas bags at parliament—had really thrown a fit.
Summer seemed even briefer than usual that year. The rain every other day hadn’t helped matters, but even those sunny days in between had flown. Palken had done his utmost to get him reading poetry from the Disciple of Enduerfren and brush up on his Old Kaskan, but Kenos had made sure it had all been in vain (he would rather have had his teeth pulled).
He had, however, gobbled up every adventure story that came across his lap; Anka was kind enough to bring him free editions of the Daily whenever he got the chance.
Kenos pulled on his summer shoes—small black ones lined with silver buttons—and stepped out the front door. The new temple down the road from their house, set higher on the hill, surprised him every time. It wasn’t like any other building he had seen: six stories high (twice the size of Palken’s three-story mansion), it was a force to be reckoned with. Add to that the fact that it was atop a popular hillside and could be seen nearly all around the Western Bowl, and you had something that people couldn’t stop staring at.
The temple was one enormous square with painstakingly chiseled grey granite all around, glistening in the morning sun. The stone was inlayed with floral patterns, the roof supported by enormous limestone pillars on all four corners. The top of the temple was an enormous, glass dome. All of it reminded Kenos of the parliament building downtown, even though the insides were entirely different.
It seemed Kilik Nid had all but taken over the entire island. For all they knew, it had taken over the world. In less than five months, Brellan had managed to gain the following of thousands of people, raising enough money to build two temples . . . and still it managed to pick up steam.
The only person who seemed to care was Ren, who hastily changed the subject or else became very quiet and reserved every time it came up—which was often. Kilik Nid had also been the source of arguments between her and Palken, something that was new to Kenos.
Although the trees that lost their leaves during the fall still had yet to change color, there was a feeling in the air—a sudden drop in temperature, the use of certain spices, the abundant apples, pears, cherries, and peaches in hundreds of straw-lined barrels throughout the island. Fish seemed a minor ware in comparison to the fruit from people’s personal gardens and their neighboring islands.
The sun had just barely come up over the horizon, but already Kenos could see that people had been laboring for quite a while in the city square. He couldn’t make out distinct people, but crowds of them moved in waves throughout; and above it all, he made out several tent poles raised. They only had a few hours before the festivities started.
The beginning of his plan was simple enough: go with the rest of his “family” to the Moon Festival and then make himself scarce. Something he’d gotten rather good at over the years. Also, thankfully, it was something that was expected of him. No one would question his disappearing, and he was fairly well convinced that, though Palken had been wary these last few months, he had nearly been convinced Kenos wouldn’t try again.
His papers and notes were tucked away nice and neat. Not even his nosy servant had found anything.
Today was a good day. It was an especially good day for breaking someone out of prison—though the clouds in the distance did make him a bit wary. Naray be damned—the last thing I need is a blasted storm.
“Psst. . . .”
Kenos turned, feet crunching the gravel around his toes. It seemed to be coming from the side of the enormous house. Another “psst!”, this time much louder. If the person was trying to not be conspicuous, they were failing quite hard.
He rounded the corner. There, underneath an enormous red rose bush, whose blooms were nearly all gone, sat Bent, dressed, as any Prime Minister’s son would be, in a gold-embroidered tailcoat, powdered wig, stockings, trousers, shoes with even more buttons than Kenos’s, and a cravat pierced with an obscenely large diamond-inlaid silver pin.
“What the hell are you doing down there?” Kenos said as he approached, knowing very well that any attempt at keeping this quiet had already been lost.
“Shh! Not so loud!” Bent said.
“Oh, by Naray,” Kenos said, holding out his hand to help his cousin up. Bent reluctantly accepted, brushing off his tailcoat, which, despite his best efforts, it seemed, had been smudged with dark soil.
“Aw, rats!” he said.
Kenos rolled his eyes. “What do you need?”
Bent stopped brushing away the dirt and looked Kenos square in the face, so serious that Kenos nearly broke out laughing. He tried to contain himself.
“I want to help you tonight,” Bent said.
Naray be damned, I wasn’t expecting that—of all things. Had his secret somehow gotten out? Had he not been as careful as he’d thought?
“With the Moon Festival?” he probed.
“No, dimwit, with breaking your father out of—”
Kenos was on him fast. He slapped a hand over his cousin’s mouth and pressed him up against the wall. “Keep your mouth shut, would you?”
Bent nodded vigorously, eyes wide, blood draining from his already pale face. Kenos clenched his teeth, biting the inside of his right cheek; he’d known his cousin to be a big talker, had certainly thought of him in this light . . . and after all these months’ planning . . . would it really be smart to leave Bent around without Kenos—knowing what he clearly did—for him to spill the fish to whomever would listen?
“I don’t know how in Labryn you found out,” Kenos said. “You can come. . . . But you have to promise—no, swear—that you are going to keep that big mouth shut. And you can’t interfere with anything. Got it? Just let me do what I have to do.”
He took his hand away from his cousin, and after a moment of confusion (he’s probably surprised I agreed to it), Bent cracked a crooked smile and shook Kenos’s hand. And Kenos couldn’t help groaning inside—at Bent’s mannerisms: the man was as gentlemanly as they came; he’d never walked farther than a hundred paces at a time in his entire life; and now he wanted to break into one of the highest security edifices in the entire northeastern continent?
Naray, it was going to be like Sucha all over again. . . .
But what other choice do I have, really?
The carriage wobbled back and forth, wheels striking the uneven cobblestones. It wasn’t much different from the car they’d lost to the sea months before—lush velvet upholstery and gilded wood. Both stained-glass windows opened to the outside, allowing a small breeze to waft through the stuffy inside. The air smelled like cottonwood and crushed pine needles; no birds sang, but crickets chirped incessantly.
The sky was a soft pink, something that looked more like pastel on canvas than anything real.
Kenos couldn’t help the feeling in his stomach, the writhing that he took to mean something amazing was about to happen. I couldn’t have chosen a better night. . . . There had always been something about Moon Festival that was entirely magical, a new day beginning with the setting of the sun.
Bent sat next to Kenos, looking as though he were going to burst with any sudden movements.
Kenos and Ren sat next to each other, hands clasped tight; and yet, despite this display of affection, the two were arguing.
“All I’m saying,” Palken said, “is that there is a lot to consider. I don’t think Yaran, as great as he is, would be alright with so many people suffering—”
“But you have no perspective!” Ren interrupted. “Everything is here for a reason, Palken—“
“And you know Yaran so well, do you?”
What is that? A flash in her eye, as though caught off guard. Ren met his eyes, acknowledged that Kenos was staring.
“I would like to say that I know him very well,” Ren said. “More than most, I would say.”
“Some kind of deity, are you?” Palken wondered, half-chuckling. Perhaps remembering that night—or had it been a day?--when Ren had saved a certain woman from burning to death.
Another flash in Ren’s eyes, this time sad. As Kenos remembered, she always seemed sand around Moon Festival, though she seemed to try to hide it. Palken bought into it, which make Kenos wonder just how daft his uncle actually was.
Ren looked down at their clasped hands. “Look, Palken, I’ve told you. There are things I can’t tell you. Things I wish—Yaran I wish—that I could tell you everything. But it’s not . . .” she sighed. “I don’t get to make that choice. But I can choose to be here. So I am.”
Palken seemed to take this as a sign that things were no longer open for discussion; he nodded once and kissed her on the cheek. Ren’s mood appeared to brighten considerably.
The noises from the crowd outside began to grow stronger, louder drowning out any sound of wildlife. Men whistling, making catcalls; girls laughing, begging the men to dance.
They would see the moon tonight. For all the newborns held by their mothers, this would be the first time. The sun they saw day in and day out. But the moon was a mystery to all; it only showed itself tonight, and they had to make the best of it.
The carriage had no issue parting the crowd. There were many more people here than even last year. And nearly twice the amount of Easterners were present—no doubt Huk’s doing. Kenos made out several Nabanian people, most dressed in the common northern garb, though still others showed mostly bare, bone-white skin; their pink irises glowed in the near darkness. Families from the Kaskan lands were present as well, skin several shades darker and hair done in sharp knots above their heads their clothes form-fitting, the tightness of the women’s dresses revealing.
Kenos felt a warmth rise up inside of him, but he suppressed it. I have to stay focused. No distractions.
Although he almost regretted the decision the moment he saw the large kegs of ale being rolled, he wouldn’t be drinking any alcohol tonight, either. I hope Bent has the same idea. . . . He glanced at his cousin out of the corner of his eye, hoping the gleam in his eyes as he looked out on the scene wouldn’t lead to anything too serious.
The carriage stopped, though still moving slightly as the horses moved back and forth, not accustomed to such a large crowd.
A knock at the door, and then it swung open; the footman was waiting for them outside. Palken cracked a smile and moved out first. The square exploded with cries and praise for their minister. Ren followed suit to just as much applause (it seemed by now the public had grown accustomed to seeing them together).
I still don’t know what they’re relationship is about.
Kenos stepped out, then Bent. The carriage pulled away to be parked along with everyone else’s somewhere entirely out of sight.
There were other people of the same social standing as Palken present in the center square—members of parliament, heads of other ministries, etc., etc. They were all the same to Palken. A bunch of overdressed fogies, aren’t they? Most the faces he recognized, but there were two women—one older than Palken, the other not more than twenty—looked around as though seeing the town for the first time.
Not a single one of them seemed to think any more of Kenos than he did of them; they all gave him askance—is that disgust?—looks. Fine with me. The less he was connected to Palken the better. The poor man would still probably be blamed when Kenos and his father escaped Brehedak.
There was one face in the crowd the Kenos picked out whose face was screwed up in dislike, though it wasn’t directed toward him. Huk, standing not twenty-five paces away with his wife, and dressed much more elegantly than the last time Kenos had seen him, glared at Palken. (Palken, incidentally, didn’t seem to notice.) Despite the malcontent, he took Eva’s hand and marched toward the minister.
“You’d think he was the bloody king, wouldn’t you?” Huk said to Kenos, though he paid no mind in getting a response. He tapped Palken on the shoulder. Kenos was surprised to see Huk’s gravelly gaze transform into an utterly convincing smile.
Damn that man is good. I suppose it comes from many years of pretending to be alright.
“Huk!” Palken said. Ren drew closer to him, perhaps as a means of support. “I’m so glad you could make it.”
“I have to admit I’ve never been to a Moon Festival on the Western side of the island. It’s definitely a much more riotous affair, wouldn’t you think, Eva?”
Eva nodded, though didn’t say a word. If Kenos didn’t know any better, he would have thought she was having a difficult time adjusting to their new way of life.
“Much more diverse,” Huk said.
Palken chuckled. “I’m glad you’re enjoying yourselves. Please—excuse me. I’m going to make some rounds, introduce myself.”
“Of course,” Huk said.
“Make sure to be back here within the next hour or so,” Palken said. “We’ll start the ceremony for the Rise then.”
Huk turned, winked at Kenos and Bent, and disappeared into the crowd around the table of ale, all hint of a jovial mood gone.
“Helloooo!” Someone grabbed Kenos’s hand, and he jumped. Sucha was there, her lips pulled into a wide smile that defied her wan face.
Kenos wriggled away from her embrace and started off after Palken without saying a word. He won’t allow her to be with me. He knows her father too well.
Bent followed suit, but Sucha—thank Yaran!—stayed behind. “Fine!” she called. “But I will talk to you before the moon sets, Kenos Shakoline—” Kenos cringed at the use of his uncle’s surname— “I have something very important to tell you!”
“Who was that?” Bent asked as they made their way between the shoulders of tall strangers.
“Sucha,” Kenos said, suddenly aware that he was clenching and unclenching his fists in quick succession. He stopped. Cool head tonight. Everything’s going to go smooth. With some luck he would even find a way to get rid of Bent before too long. Perhaps some drinking would be involved after all.
He didn’t even have to say anything. Bent, whose eyes never left the long table covered with kegs of ale, said, “I think I’m going to go see what’s going on over there.”
Now all that was left was to encourage him to have more than his share, and Kenos would be able to move forward as he’d been planning.
“Kenos!” a man called out. Brellan, from the sound of it. “I just spoke with your father—” he stopped to shake someone’s hand, patted them on the shoulder, and kept coming forward.
“Sorry about that,” he said, approaching them without interruption this time. His long brown hair had been tied back with a black satin ribbon at the base of his neck, and he had a small red flower in the lapel of his navy coat.
“I haven’t seen you in a while. How have you been?”
“I’m sure it’s nice to be out of the house for once,” Brellan said.
Yes, it was. . . . Why is it important to Brellan?
“I was just wondering if you’d like to come to a Kilik Nid service sometime,” he continued. “You know, just to have something to do. You could even pretend that the First is Yaran if it would make you feel more comfortable.”
“Thanks . . .” Kenos said, caught off guard. “I’ll—I’ll think about it.”
“There should be several people there that you’d know by now. Actually, your father—”
“He’s not my father,” Kenos said.
Brellan smiled. An odd reaction, Kenos thought.
“I’m sorry. Won’t you forgive me? Well, it seems as though the minister’s . . . family . . . and Ren are the only ones who haven’t even given it a thought. Might want to think about it. We got Sucha and her father to come as well. Something tells me that she takes a special interest in you.”
“Does she?” Kenos said dryly. Eyes wandering to other faces in the crowd.
“Oh, yes. She was stubborn at first, but I think she found out that we’re the good side in this fight.”
“Right,” Kenos said. “Would you excuse me?”
“Of course,” Brellan said.
No sooner had Kenos started off than Brellan called after him again. “Kenos! . . . You will think about it, won’t you?”
Just focus on your father. Get him out, and everything will be alright. Kenos strutted away, and Brellan was swept off by a large group of people who were eager and actually willing to talk to him.
Kenos searched the crowd for the key people. Ren and Palken were thoroughly involved in conversation with at least a dozen people, Sucha was nowhere to be found, and Bent was happily downing a large double-pint of alcohol, cheeks already ruddy. Even more than getting him out of the way, Kenos couldn’t wait to see the look on Palken’s face when he found out what a disgrace his son was surely going to make of himself.
Wait until the moon’s risen. They would be most captivated by then, and Palken and Ren expected him to be there for the prayer.
And then he would run.
The sun had entirely set within half an hour. Many torches were lit—even though they’d be put out soon--and blue smoke filled the square, mixing with that from the cigars and the fires put around the edges for frying fish. The smell of frying sea food was overpowering; his stomach grumbled.
People were already dancing. One young man tripped over the edge of one of the cobblestones, and the group around him, though rushing to help him, couldn’t keep from laughing.
Kenos laughed, too. It was very funny to watch.
He sat alone on a wall near the edge of the large square; from here he had a sweeping view of the celebrations. He swung his legs back and forth, taking it all in, feeling the rush and fluttering feeling in his stomach. It’s almost time! By Yaran . . . it’s almost time.
Aboline. 304. Aboline. 304. He repeated to himself over and over, keeping the image of the prison cells fixed perfectly in his mind.
A young woman seemed to notice him from a couple hundred yards away. Kenos looked away from her eyes and pretended to whistle—he’d never properly learned how—and continued swinging his legs. But she seemed determined nonetheless.
He could guess what kind of person she probably was. Saw someone sitting alone, wanted to help out of the goodness of her bloody heart.
I suppose it’s probably my fault. I didn’t have to sit in such a noticeable spot.
“Mind if I join you up there?” The young woman asked. She looked to be in her twenties, with black hair twisted on top of her head, decorated with sparkling jewels and golden pins, and a small round face. Very beautiful—far too old for Kenos.
He remembered her now from when the carriage had pulled up. She’d been with that old hag. He’d never seen either of them before . . . Kenos had assumed they were from the main land.
“I think I’d actually like to stay by myself, actually.”
“Oh, come now,” she said, grabbing hold of a ledge on the wall and pulling herself up. She did all this while still maintaining her hoops and petticoats. Someone from the crowd whistled, but she seemed to pay them no mind.
“It’s Moon Festival,” she said. “You can’t tell me you enjoy being here all by yourself.”
“I do. Really.” It was the truth.
Kenos had to admit he was impressed with this woman’s forwardness. She wasn’t quite annoying like Sucha, but neither did she make him feel small in her presence—like Ren. She held herself like a lady—but then did things like climb walls to sit with random strangers.
“What’s your name?” The woman asked.
“. . . Kenos.”
“Well that’s an interesting name, isn’t it?”
Kenos shrugged. He could entertain this for a while, but she would have to leave before any of the ceremonies started. She seemed too nice; she would tell Palken or her hag if she caught him trying to do something like . . . I don’t know—scale a prison wall?
“My name’s Saldrenia. May patron Zana and I are visiting from Lussefdrei.”
“Are you with the government?”
Saldrenia laughed. “Oh, no. The University. I’m somewhat of a genius.”
Kenos supposed that from anyone else’s mouth this statement would have come across arrogant, but it seemed to fit Saldrenia like a glove. She simply stated the facts.
“Zana’s the headmistress,” she said. “She wants to show me off to all you islanders. Or, at least that’s what she says. I think there’s something else she’s after. You never know with those University scholars!” She chuckled again. “So! Kenos, what do you do to entertain yourself?”
The question was so ordinary, he was momentarily stuck. What did he do to entertain? The answer was obvious, but he couldn’t tell Saldrenia about his father.
Kenos didn’t say anything.
“Hey, Kenos, you seem sad. Is everything alright?”
Why did everyone keep saying that? I’m perfectly fine! He had a plan; he was going to execute it soon; he was giddy as he’d ever been in his life, ready to take on the world. Wasn’t that what these flying fish were in his stomach? The same feeling that worked its way up to his chest?
“I’m fine,” Kenos said.
Both looked up to see the old hag Zana marching towards them. Her face livid, her large hooped dress swishing loudly. She swiped at the smoke wafting in her eyes from one of the nearby torches.
“Oh rats,” Saldrenia said.
“Looks like the old crone’s come to take you away.”
Saldrenia smiled. “I like you, Kenos,” she said.
Zana called her name once more. The smile disappeared from Saldrenia’s face, and she jumped down off the wall. She turned and winked at Kenos before turning herself over the Zana’s lecture. Kenos caught some of what Zana was saying: “Smartest girl in three continents, and you can’t seem to behave yourself. I think your father’s right, this fame has . . .” They melted into the crowd.
The bell tower in parliament struck the hour. Kenos’s heart jumped. Shouts went up from every direction, and people began moving to the center stage to listen to the ceremonies and the stories before the moon showed itself to the world.
One by one, men and women—whether or not it was their job—went around the entire Western Bowl and extinguished the lamps and fires (only a few were left burning out of necessity; this included two at the center stage where Palken and a few other important members of the Ministry stood).
Within five minutes all was hushed, quiet. Almost eerily so compared to the noise and commotion before. The moon was almost here.
It would be very soon now, Kenos knew. Once the clock struck the hour, they need only wait a few minutes. The ceremonies and feasts would begin soon thereafter. Just a few minutes. . . . A few minutes more.
Kenos slowly made his way through the crowde. He wouldn’t be in the center of things; he would need to leave immediately.
Almost there. Naray, he could almost taste it. He got his bearings, figured out which way the Eastern Bowl was. He wiggled his fingers, bounced on his toes—anything to keep the energy boiling inside him contained.
“We thank you all for being here tonight,” he heard Palken say across the square. His voice wasn’t too loud, but everyone was silent. “We welcome our guests here from many places around the world, including Naban, Kaska Grossen, the Islands of Ielevandak, and our very own Lussefdrei.”
Kenos saw Zana, who, along with Saldrenia, standing very near the Minister. She nodded.
“I would like to introduce you tonight to two very important guests: Zana Ioline and her protégé, Ms. Saldrenia Yenoline from the University in our esteemed Lussefdrei.”
Zana mouthed what looked like “thank you.”
Palken continued. “We hope you feel welcome in Brehedak.”
The people clapped, becoming silent, however, at a signal from Palken.
Kenos’s heart shrunk when he saw Ren not fifty paces from him. Taller than most the people around her, she was hard to miss. Kenos swore under his breath. That woman was always trying to ruin his damned plans. Why in Yaran’s name couldn’t he be left alone?
He tried to make himself scarce, tried to make use of the fact that he hadn’t grown in nearly two years.
She won’t find me. She is not going to ruin tonight. 304. Aboline. Aboline. 304. Father. I’m coming, Father. And we’ll be together, and I’ll have a family. Aboline. 304.
Kenos slinked off toward the Eastern end of the square, near the back. As far away as was possible.
Palken began the opening ceremonies, starting with the creation of Labryn, the fight between Yaran and Naray, how Yaran won, though Naray was still among them. How Yaran had created man (though why, Kenos added to himself, is conspicuously unclear).
“He gave us the moon,” he said. “Not a constant being as the sun, but to serve as a reminder of Yaran’s constancy. Not present always, but alive and well. It is said, too, that along with the moon, a protector was sent to Labryn. This protector is immortal and duty-bound to serve until the end. Though not omnipotent, omnipresent. . . . It is this protector that keeps Naray at bay, and for this we give our utmost thanks.”
The people cheered, and soon after, Palken continued. Kenos had heard it all so many times he could nearly recite it on-the-spot if his uncle were to ask him. He paid very little attention.
He’d reached the back of the crowd now.
Any moment. Any moment.
More light on the horizon. The moon was almost here. More light just above the ocean, setting the sky aglow.
Something wasn’t right, though.
Kenos had seen the moon every year of his life. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, and at first he paid little attention to it. But then the sliver of moon broke over the waves and hills.
A shiver went down Kenos’s back.
For a moment, Kenos continued talking, and then, realizing that no one was really paying attention, he stopped. Turned.
At first there was only stunned silence.
And then panic.
Shouts of cursing, in more than every-day Drrunian, too, rose up.
The moon was, on any normal year, a beautiful white, glimmering, pure. Light and airy it hung in the sky.
Today it was black and gray, with large red gash-like markings marring its surface. It looked dead.
It grew fairly quickly now that it had broken into the sky, very soon taking up nearly a third of the heavens.
And the people screamed.
Kenos didn’t know what it meant—surely it can’t be as bad as they think—but it didn’t matter. It didn’t affect him, yeah?
In a way, he couldn’t have planned it more perfectly. They would all be so distracted with this new moon to worry about him.
He took off running for the hills, feet hitting pavement hard. He would do it today. Aboline. 304.
Through the screams, the running, the prostration, he could hear the thump of his own heartbeat in his ears, could hear his hard breathing.
A hand on his shoulder, hard, pulling him back.
Through the thumping, a sound—a word?
Damn it all.
“Kenos, you can’t.” It was Ren. She seemed more panicked than he had ever seen her.
“No!” he said. It didn’t matter who knew. He would get his father out tonight if it killed him. He would rather die than let this woman drag his plans down.
Tears—actual tears streaming down her face. He was making light of this situation, he knew, but that didn’t mean that his world had to end, did it?
The light from the moon shone on her face, red, ruddy, yet dead and gray.
Kenos struggled. She was stronger than she looked.
“NO!” he screamed. “Get your damn hands off me!”
“Kenos, you can’t,” she said.
“I have to. Get the hell out of my way.”
“I’m taking you back to your uncle. It isn’t safe.”
“I don’t care!” He stopped, looked her directly in the eyes. “Shoot me, then.”
“Kenos!” Ren raised her voice now. “We are not discussing this. You’re safest with me—now come on: we have to find your Palken and Bent.”
Kenos tried struggling, but Ren got behind him and steered him away from the brambling shrubbery, strong hands on his shoulders. He fought, but that only got him a slap to the face.
Anger burned inside him, as though someone had set a flaming torch inside his chest. It grew in intensity when Ren slapped him again.
No. She wasn’t going to do this to him. This was his night; this was his chance to earn his freedom. He tried to take off, but Ren was quicker than him once more, putting both arms around him in a tight hold that he couldn’t break.
“Kenos, please stop! This is for you! It’s not safe right now. I know you want your father, but now is not the time to do that! You have to trust me when I saw tonight isn’t a good time.”
Kenos stopped struggling a moment and Ren let him free. “How did you know that’s where I was going?” He demanded. “Who told you? Was it Bent?”
“It was a guess. Where else would you be going? There’s only one thing for you in the Eastern Bowl, Kenos. And that’s your father.”
She didn’t seem mad at him for wanting to free his father. Wasn’t stopping him, necessarily. She’d stopped crying, now wiping the tears from her cheeks.
“I can help you,” Ren said. “But it can’t be tonight.”
He didn’t need her help; he didn’t need anyone’s help. He could do this all on his own—he had it planned out! Hadn’t he? What if something went wrong? He could only attempt this once—anything after that would lead to more security measures, or, even worse, moving his father to a different prison. No. It’s watertight. It will wall work out.
Anger seethed, but a part of him still seemed to register what Ren was offering: Help.
“What are you saying?” Kenos said.
“I’m not saying I’ll help you break him out of prison,” Ren said.
Just what I thought.
“But I do think it’s unfair for you to be deprived of him. We’ll talk it over with Palken. I’m sure we can work something out—a visit, something.”
It wouldn’t be what Kenos had dreamed of. There was no appeal in Ren’s offer—he wanted freedom with his father; he wanted a life away from Brehedak, away from Ren and Palken and Bent and Sucha.
I can’t go now. He realized. Ren had caught him, and she knew what he was planning. Knew that if he ran off into the forest she need only tell Palken or the Ministry of Protection where he had gone—and Kenos knew she would—and he’d be framed.
Keep a cool head. You can try again later. 304. Aboline. 304. Aboline.
People lit torches; it seemed no one had any idea what they should do.
The two of them headed back to the square, Ren uncertain, wary, on the verge of tears once more, Kenos seething, face taught, biting the inside of his cheek.
The moon was in its full glory now. There was something unsettling and primal about it. Just looking made Kenos’s insides turn inside out—a different feeling from the heightened anticipation he’d become accustomed to. Made him forget, for just a fraction of a second, that everything he’d been working up to the last four months had just come crashing down. He almost wanted to cry—if not that, then yell, hit a wall.
“Bent, there you are! Thank Yaran,” Ren said. “By Naray . . . what have you been drinking?”
His cousin walked up to them, his cheeks ruddy, wearing only half his clothes—buttons undone on his shirt, showing skin and chest. He clearly couldn’t walk a straight line, and he kept running into people as he attempted to make his way toward Ren and Kenos.
“Oh for Yaran’s sake,” Ren said.
Kenos had never seen her more agitated. This calm woman was about to lose her temper with them—something that never happened.
“Everyone, please!” It took the banging of many pans to get the people to settle down and listen to Palken. His brow was creased, tone serious. “I know that this is rather unsettling. Nevertheless, the moon is here—” he wiped sweat off his forehead— “. . . I . . . I think it’s best if we all went to our homes now. Go home! Go home and get some rest.”
Many people did just that, and immediately. Others were still more restless. Many of the people Kenos’s age screamed and whined their disappointment.
Palken spotted them, and after making his excuses to the other Brehedak leaders, made his way over to them.
Suddenly, Bent moaned, sitting down on his haunches. Sweat dripped off his nose and onto the street, and he put his hands over his head, lips trembling. He vomited all over his new shoes.
Kenos looked away from the mess as Ren rushed to help, wrinkling his nose at the stench.
Kenos spotted Brellan in the fast-thinning crowd. He didn’t appear panicked, nor did he seem disappointed. He simply stared at the moon with his hands in his trouser pockets, contemplative . . . almost peaceful.
He caught Kenos looking. Without saying a word, his lips pulling into a small smile at one corner of his mouth, he nodded good-bye and began walking in the other direction, blue smoke wafting over him.
Kenos could have been wrong—there was still a lot of noise, after all—but he thought he heard Brellan whistling as he made his way home.
“What do you suggest we tell the people?” Palken asked.
Ren thought he sounded rather tired—they all were. The heads of the Ministries, one prominent member of parliament, Brellan (though only Yaran knew why he was there), Zana, Huk, Ren, and Palken sat in one of the arbitrary rooms inside Parliament.
The ten people sat around a long wooden table, each of them trying to be alert but not succeeding terribly well. Though they’d all followed Palken’s suggestion and gone home the night before, Ren was certain there wasn’t a person in Labryn who had slept last night.
Who could sleep with such a thing in the sky?
Dusty light streamed on the quiet assemblage from the window behind Palken. The world seemed still, silent.
“I don’t know,” Sav, head of the Ministry of Defense, said, throwing his hands in the air and leaning back in his seat. The man hadn’t even bothered to button his shirt to the collar.
None of the men wore wigs.
“Something has to be done!” Zana said decisively, looking at Palken with her beady eyes. “Tell them something!”
“Zana, I can’t give them an explanation!” Palken said. “Can you? We aren’t the church. I’m not going to make up some story just to keep them under control. Please try to remember that this isn’t Lussefdrei, yana. I will not lie to them.”
Huk huffed in the corner where he sat, and Zana sat straighter in her chair, like some sort of bird ruffling its feathers.
Ren tried to pay attention, knew that she needed to in order to do her job. Palken would very likely want to discuss this with her afterward—just as he had on the way here. But her mind simply wouldn’t let her linger on the present.
As the others began giving their opinions on the impossible situation, Ren’s mind drifted, and her heart began speeding up in her panic.
In all her days, the moon had always been constant. She had spoken with her father many, many times. But he was always so busy with one thing or another that sometimes it would be years before she saw him again. . . . During those gaps of time, it was nice to be reminded that he was still alive and well.
This had never happened.
Perhaps the others suspected that this had happened before—the world was, after all, very old. But Ren had been present for every moonrise and moonset. Like clockwork. And the moon, in all that blessed time, had never changed.
She felt it in her heart. Knew that he was not okay.
Ren had never had the ability to know her father’s whereabouts, had had to rely on him always. She didn’t have definitive proof . . . or didn’t she? Wasn’t the moon’s appearance the night before enough to tell her?
I think it’s my fault. This is my fault, somehow.
She started really contemplating the decision she’d made years ago—how mad she’d been so angry with her father. Now she wondered how she’d ever felt so much resentment toward him in the first place: Her life hadn’t improved. And now something else was wrong, and . . . Naray, everything was going wrong. Right down to the Kilik Nid. If she didn’t know any better, she would have—
She blinked, saw that the rest of them were looking at her with expectation in their eyes.
“Is everything alright?” Brellan asked.
“Sorry?” Ren shook her head, blinked again, took a deep breath. She smiled. “Fine,” she said, nodding this time. “I’m fine.”
Palken looked at her with his brow knit and his lips pursed; he knew she wasn’t “fine.” And he also knew Ren couldn’t possibly tell him why. They’d had that conversation that morning as well.
“We just wanted your opinion,” Brellan said. “I just finished telling them how knowledgeable you are about religious things. Thought you might have something to say?”
He was somber as he said this.
“Oh,” Ren said, thinking of something she could say. A half-truth? She couldn’t let on that she knew what this was about; it would be the end of everything. And though she was beginning to want out of this life she had built—a very false life, really—she knew that it had to be at the right time. She couldn’t destroy it all now.
“I’m sure there’s nothing too serious about it,” she said. “There’s nothing in the Texts that mention anything about the moon. . . . I don’t see very much reason to worry.”
Lies lies lies. And she knew that they knew it, too.
“Unbelievable,” Huk said. “Just unbelievable that you’re all acting like there’s nothing wrong! This’s what’s wrong with you Westerners—you think that everything’s jolly in this little society you’ve created. Look at ya, squabbling over this. And you—” he pointed a finger at Ren— “actin’ like you didn’t see what everyone else did last night.
“Even if it’s gone now, ya can’t deny it.” He paused. “You can feel it in the thin air, something dark movin’—”
“Now, that’s enough!” Zana barked, looking first at Huk and then at Palken. “You let him speak to you like this, Minister?”
Huk laughed, cynical. “You just remember, Minister. I’m holdin’ ya to every word you ever said.”
Zana looked even more astonished, and then simply stood up and marched away from the table when she saw that Palken responded only with a resolute nod.
There were no conclusions drawn; the meeting seemed more out of ritual than any actual attempt at productivity.
Zana opened the door but stopped when she saw Palken’s porter there, hand poised to knock.
He politely let Zana pass before turning to Palken. “I’m sorry to interrupt, Minister,” he said.
“It’s alright, Fen,” Palken said, rubbing his eyes.
“It’s just that—well, it’s Bent, sir. He’s very ill.”
“I’m aware,” Palken said. Bent had been sick no less than four times. “It’ll pass.”
The porter shifted his feet. “No, sir, it’s something else. Lali said to send for you at once. Said he’s vomiting blood.”
The symptoms, Ren noticed upon reaching Bent’s bedside, were the same that Arikha had suffered.
The boy lay in his bed, plush covers pulled up to his chin, arms resting at his sides; they looked swollen and blue, his face drained of color, breathing shallow. Flecks of blood dotted a corner of his mouth, the bedspread.
At least in her memory, this had never been a result of alcohol poisoning.
Palken paced back and forth behind her, floor creaking. Lila prepared a change of clothes downstairs, and Kenos stood in the doorway, looking curiously at his cousin.
Ren felt at Bent’s face; although he was sweating, he seemed ice-cold. Arikha had woken up, she assured herself. Surely Bent would do the same. He wouldn’t be this way for long. But at what price? She hadn’t followed up on Arikha, hadn’t heard anything from Brellan about her. As far as she knew, she was doing well.
“Isn’t there anything you can do, Ren?” Palken asked her.
Again that sick feeling in her stomach—that even if she tried drawing on her Divinity, nothing would be there.
She looked at Palken, saw his reddening eyes—though he had yet to shed a tear. “I saw these same symptoms a few months ago in the Eastern Bowl. A woman named Arikha was found like this, covered in blood.”
“She awoke a short time later. As far as I know, she is still alright. I think Bent will be okay soon.”
“Are you sure?”
But there was definitely a connection, and Ren had to find out what that connection was. It could be a new kind of sickness—a plague, even. Ren shuddered as she remembered the last one that had swept through Labryn. She had not been affected, of course, but she had seen more horrific deaths during those five decades than most of her life previous added together.
“I’m sorry, Palken,” Ren said. “I wish I could stay. I’m sure he’ll be fine—” Yaran, please let that be true— “I have to go . . . check into something. It has to do with Bent and Arikha,” she added hastily, “I just don’t want anyone else being affected. . . . If I can find what’s wrong—”
“Of course,” Palken said, taking her hand. “Be safe.” And he pecked her on the cheek—which, even after months of their being together, still made her blush.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” she said.
She headed out then; Kenos glared at her as she passed. Ren would have to remember what she’d promised the boy. After this situation blows over.
Ren went to the city square first. Arikha had had tea before she’d fallen ill, she remembered. And although that had been “ruled out,” she still found it odd that Bent had also been drinking.
Could his vomiting the night before had more to do with some poison rather than overindulgence?
It took all her effort to remain focused, to look for anything. . . . Even though she found herself consciously busy, the back of her mind wandered every which way, falling far too often on her worry about her father, and the nauseating sense that she had done something terribly wrong.
There was no one outdoors, though the sun shone bright through a few sparse clouds. She had never seen such a dead city after a Moon Festival.
It appeared nothing had been touched since the night before. A few fires still smoked—though the flames had long-since died down—white ash floating into the sky as though it were made of air.
A large canvas banner that someone had painted the moon on fluttered around on the ground, having fallen from its place behind the make-shift wooden stage. To the Eastern side of the square were the tables with the kegs of alcohol rolled on top.
Something told her something was out of place with them, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. Kenos hadn’t been involved with the liquor this year—he’d had no need for such a juvenile prank as that—but her intuition, which she’d suppressed for so many years in order to remain comfortable with a decision she knew was most likely wrong, she’d learned was usually correct; I’d do well to pay attention to it this time.
She approached the table. There were still cups of ale that hadn’t been drunk yet, some that had been emptied, others that hadn’t been used at all—scattered among one another.
For a moment, she wondered what she was doing. There couldn’t be a connection; Bent had simply caught some sort of illness, that was all. . . . She was about to turn away when she noticed a small glass vial near one of the kegs, no larger than her little finger, and it had been emptied entirely.
She picked it up, uncorked the top. Sniffed it. There was no scent. . . . Ren moved it around, swishing what little liquid was left in the bottom. It was entirely clear, like water. She turned the vial upside down onto her index finger to catch the remainder, rubbing the liquid between her fingers.
It felt like oil, though it seemed purer than any other oil she’d seen.
The cup Arikha drank from had an oily film at the bottom of it. . . . There was a connection after all, if but a small one. And she still could be wrong, but the vial’s presence here was indeed curious.
Had anyone else taken it?
Rapoline would know. Palken had sent for him the moment he found out Bent was ill; he would have been notified of any other cases.
Ren tucked the vial into her robes and started back for Palken’s home. She’d barely reached the other side of the square when she heard someone scream.
A moment of silence followed, and then loud sobbing. Ren had a feeling she knew what the problem was: she rushed down the street, following the sounds, trying not to be confused by the phenomenon of sounds feeling like they’re coming from all directions at once.
She stopped at the house she thought it was, a nice brick structure with molding around the door and windows, and knocked with the iron knocker in the shape of a Suporah—an interesting water creature with a long neck, and members of the Divine Guild (though they were mostly myth anymore to most people).
This was the house of the Minister of Trade.
He was losing his mind, she remembered. He’d had to have someone else step in to perform his duties the last few months; he kept confusing his quill for a stick of celery.
A small scullery maid answered the door, cheeks and apron dusted with flour—perhaps in the middle of making bread. “I’m sorry, but madam isn’t available right now, miss,” she said, although it seemed that she recognized who she was talking to.
“Who is at the door?” A woman from inside called, appearing only moments after. Her eyes weren’t red, nor was there a trace of tears, so this wasn’t the woman she’d heard scream.
Ren could still hear the poor woman from inside crying.
“It’s alright, Tilma,” the young woman said, “I can take it from here.”
Now Ren recognized the young woman. It was Saldrenia, Zana’s protégé from Lussefdrei. Her long hair was no longer done, but fell loosely around her. On many girls this would have made them look very unattractive indeed, but for Saldrenia, who seemed so naturally beautiful it couldn’t be helped, it did nothing to impede the sparkle in her eyes.
The tips of her fingers were stained—it seemed permanently—with black ink, and there was a paper cut on her left thumb. A scholar indeed.
This is a young woman who knows who she is and isn’t afraid of her talents. Ren was very impressed.
“I thought I heard someone scream,” Ren said.
Saldrenia looked at her carefully, eyes discerning. (Ren met very few people like that.) Finally she seemed to recognize her. “You were at the festival last night, with the Minister?”
“Ren, isn’t it?”
“Yes. . . . Please, if I could just speak with the lady of the house. There is a—” what word to use? “— . . . an illness, I think, making its rounds through the island. I can help.”
“What does this illness look like?”
“The patient swells up like he hasn’t drunk enough water. His outer extremities turn blue, breathing is shallow—and they vomit blood.”
Saldrenia nodded, opening the door wide. “Please, come in.”
“Thank you. Friends of yours?” Ren asked.
“My great uncle.”
There was a great pine door to their immediate right, slightly ajar. Ren assumed it was the sitting room, and it was from this space that she heard the wailing.
Saldrenia knocked softly before opening the door and allowing Ren inside.
“Aunt Ashk? Ren is here. She says she might be able to help.”
Ren took a deep breath. This scene felt oh-so familiar to her. Helping people like this. Being announced like that. She was help. To many people she had meant life.
She stepped inside.
The first thing she noticed was Ashk on her old knees before her husband, lace handkerchief held to her wet eyes. The second thing: the Minister of Trade himself, Adash, sitting, looking much like Bent, blood dribbling from his mouth, in an old wood chair.
The third, a beautiful gold-rimmed porcelain vase on a tea table beside the old man, and the flowers they held—bright, waxy and red on leafy stalks.
A cup of water sat untouched next to it.
It had been years since she’d last seen them, but there was no other plant like it in all of Labryn.
Almost without thinking, Ren said, “Where did you get those?”
“Sorry?” Saldrenia said; Ashk had yet to acknowledge them.
Ren pointed, mind spinning with the possibilities, the ramifications. “The Jovious,” she whispered. The Jovious . . . the word echoed in her mind, as thoughts of burning inns and glowing creatures returned again. The blue blood in Iz’s body when he’d been shot, the oil in Arikha’s tea—the undeniable connection. . . . .
She looked more closely, saw that there were water spots on the table, on the rocking chair, splotched on Adash’s clothing, a part in the flowers, so robust even though they’d traveled far.
“I brought them for him,” Saldrenia said, not entirely defensive but surely taken aback. “They are his favorite in the world. And Lussefdrei was lucky enough to get two shipments of them this year—one just before I left for Moon Festival. I thought of him.”
“Tell me about him,” Ren said, talking fast though she wasn’t entirely certain why. There were still so many things she had to put together—though she could see a vague picture forming in her mind, a dark tapestry that she knew would somehow explain everything to her.
“Adash,” Ren said, “tell me about his condition. He’s been forgetting a lot lately? Confusing things—mixing things up?”
“Yes . . .”
“Do you think it possible he could have confused that vase with a glass of water this morning?”
Ashk turned from her husband, brought herself off the ground—shrugging off Saldrenia’s offered hands. “How did you know?” she said. “Are they poisonous? Is he . . . is he going to die?”
Ren said not a word as she moved closer to the flowers. She stuck out her right hand, slowly caressed one of the petals. And then, hesitating only a moment, plucked it from the vase, not bothering as it dripped cool water down her arm and onto her clothes.
The creatures at the inn had asked about them. They were somehow important—they had burned an entire building just to ask Anka how they were grown. The creatures, as Ren remembered, were old creations. So old that any previous recollection of them was fuzzy in Ren’s memory; they went back to the beginning of the world.
A time when Labryn had burned.
She knew these plants were dangerous, but couldn’t help herself as she stared at them, breathed in the sweet fragrance, let the yellow pollen tickle her nose. . . . Couldn’t help feeling she was playing with a serpent—nearly dropped the flower, composed herself, dropped her arms, the flower still held but out of sight.
“You think there’s a connection?” Saldrenia said, perking up.
Ren was sure that the scholar was about to jump at the chance to investigate something like this.
Saldrenia looked at her, that light in her eyes fanning brighter. “You’re going to find out, aren’t you? Wouldn’t happen to need any help?”
Ashk looked between the two of them. “Is Adash going to live? Is he going to be alright?”
“I don’t know,” Ren said. “I hope for all our sakes he is. . . . Pray, Ashk. To the First, or Yaran, or Matuilik. Just. . . . This is going to take more than just medicine, I’m afraid.”
The old woman nodded, stood up straighter. “Oh, don’t you worry, Ren. We haven’t bought into any of that Kilik Nid rubbish just yet. Rest assured it’ll be Yaran I’m praying to.” She stood by Adash, held his hand.
“I’m sorry there isn’t more I can do for you right now,” Ren said, still in a flurry.
Ren began walking, knowing full well that it was rude to show herself out, but also not caring to deal with proprietary. I’m sure everyone will understand.
“Wait, Ren!” Saldrenia called. “I’m coming with you!”
“Saldrenia!” Ashk called from the sitting room, suddenly more alert that she had been. “You can’t! Zana asked you to stay here, and anyway—”
“Oh, to Naray with Zana.”
Ren raised her eyebrows then smiled.
It wasn’t missed by Saldrenia, who brought out a silk ribbon from her robes, tied her hair over her right shoulder, and grabbed a shawl to cover what would otherwise have been a very modest dress for someone of her class.
I hope for her sake we don’t encounter Zana. . . .
She and Saldrenia were in Ren’s kitchens now. Ren took down a stone bowl and set two or three of the dozen petals down inside, then began grinding them down.
“You think my uncle drank the water in the vase, and it was infused with the Jovious?”
“Well, it’s a very popular flower. Surely this has happened before . . .” Saldrenia stopped here, thinking some more. “Now that I think about it, there’s a friend at University who has a little brother who ate one once.”
Ren stopped grinding for a moment. “What happened to him?”
She picked up the movements again, grind, grind. The sound of stone on stone filled the silence. At last she stopped, peered into the bowl, took out the mashed petals. A small film of oil shone on the inside.
Ren stuck a finger in it, rubbed it together, pulled out the vial she’d found in the square.
“Fill me in on what’s going one exactly?”
Ren told her how she’d found the vial, about Bent, Arikha. She even told her a little bit about her time at Ngatui, though refrained from telling her of the creatures and the murder of Palken’s wife, Meloda.
“And you think these are the same?” Saldrenia asked.
“Yes,” Ren said. “Bent and Arikha would have had a much smaller dose—it took a few hours for the effects to manifest. But your uncle would have had much more. That and given his old age . . .”
Saldrenia’s eyes fell. “He doesn’t stand a chance.”
“But . . . why? Why would anyone do this? I still don’t understand.”
Ren thought about it a moment. Thought about the odd connection, the blue extremities, the expulsion of blood—perhaps to make way for a new substance?
I’m being daft. But it was odd: That the creatures had found the Jovious. That there was a connection between the Jovious and this “illness” that was taking over people. That the blue blood in Iz seemed so similar to that of the creatures—to say nothing of his demeanor.
What’s different? What’s the variable that’s shifted?
There was only one. And though she never had had any evidence against foul play with them, Kilik Nid had always left a bad taste in her mouth.
For the moment, however, it would have to be discarded as having any connection with the Jovious or its abilities. There was nothing tying them together that she could see—other than the coincidence of showing up simultaneously. Still, that wouldn’t stop her from getting an investigation within the month, relation or no. Kilik Nid didn’t ring quite right with her, and not in the way other religions “didn’t ring right with her.” It felt entirely wrong.
“I don’t know,” Ren said finally. “But at least we know what’s making them sick. . . . We’ll give this to Raboline. Maybe he can find something?”
“Allow me,” Saldrenia said, taking the bowl and helping herself to a small tea cup from Ren’s shelf. “I’ve studied quite a bit of chemistry. I’m sure I can figure something out.”
Ah, yes. “That’s fine,” Ren said. “Is there anything you haven’t studied?”
“Zoology,” she said. “I could never really understand what is so special about animals. I ate up Botany when the time came, though.”
Both women smiled (laughing was too distant a thing considering the ambience of their work), and then Saldrenia headed back to Ashk and Adash’s home, which is where she’d said her books and notebooks were.
Ren thought it was about time to check on Bent; it had been nearly an hour. She hoped his dose had been as small as Arikha’s and that Palken wasn’t right now kneeling before his dead son’s body.
“How is he doing?” Ren asked, closing the door softly behind her. The drapes were drawn tight, but even through the gloom Ren could see that Bent had improved.
“Better, I think,” Palken said. He sat on the edge of Bent’s bed. “He woke up about half an hour ago. Went back to sleep. . . . Poor boy looks exhausted.”
Ren felt relief course through her—relief that the very least Bent wasn’t dead. It hadn’t been a lethal dose, then.
Palken gestured for her to join him on the edge of the large mattress. “Did you find anything?”
She hesitated, unsure which parts to tell him. “Yes. . . . I think so.” Ren took a deep breath. “I think he was poisoned by someone at Festival.”
He snapped to attention. “What? It’s not an illness? How can you be sure?”
Ren took out the vial and handed it to him. “I found this in the square, and I’ve just left Adash’s home. He had the same symptoms—he drank out of a vase of flowers.”
“So . . . . you think this plant is the same as the poison?”
“But . . . Ren, why? The Minister of Trade, my—” he choked up— “my son?”
“I know.” Ren pinched the bridge of her nose. Still so much information missing.
Both were quiet a moment, Palken perhaps processing the new information, Ren trying to look for something she’d missed. . . . There it was. On the small table beside the bed, a dozen Jovious.
Those weren’t here before.
“Palken, who sent the flowers?”
“Hmm? . . . Oh, Brellan. He wanted to wish him luck.”
Ren grew sick. Small connections, yes—didn’t most of Labryn enjoy the Jovious?—but still disconcerting and eerily congruent. That she would go years without seeing a single one, only to have them manifest by the dozens all at once—and after she’d discovered they were harmful.
What was it Ashk had said? They were still loyal to Yaran, hadn’t converted to Kilik Nid though the rest of the island had seemed to give themselves over freely, willingly.
There was a temple just up the hill. I am going to solve this right now.
“Ren, are you alright? What’s wrong with the flowers, I thought it was a nice—” his face dropped as he seemed to remember. “You said Adash drank from a vase. Those aren’t . . .”
“Yes, they’re the same flowers.”
“They’re the Jovious, aren’t they? The ones Anka had in Ngatui.”
He doesn’t know there’s a connection between the flowers and the creatures that killed Meloda. She’d very much left that part out the few times they’d discussed that night together.
“I’m going to talk to Brellan about this.”
“What—you think Brellan is responsible?” He stood up.
“I don’t know!” she said, “but I do find it odd, don’t you?”
When he didn’t respond, Ren stood as well. “I’m going out again. I’d like to know exactly what is in that temple of theirs. If I don’t find anything, then I’ll let it go. But something tells me that I’m very, very right.”
She started out the door, but Palken followed quickly. “Wait. Let me accompany you. Two eyes are better than one—and Bent will be fine for a while.”
They stared at each other a moment, and then Palken’s hands were suddenly behind her neck, gentle, soft. She felt the hairs there stand up on end, her breath quicken.
“Thank you,” he said. “For always working so hard.” His tired eyes lit up a bit—not much, but she could tell that in that moment he was happier than he’d been in a while.
And then he kissed her, and Ren kissed back. It wasn’t a long kiss, but it was more than a peck. Sweet. Passionate but reserved. Everything Ren had always thought a kiss should be.
They opened the doors to the Temple of Kilik Nid, and Ren was hit immediately by the scent: there was no mistaking the Jovious was here.
And not simply there. It was clear once they crossed the threshold that it was being grown inside the temple. Something Ren had never heard of; as far as she could tell, no one had ever been able to reproduce the Jovious outside of Ngatui.
It was one enormous open space. No chairs or pews. Large vaulted windows cast long, oblong beams of light across the floor. It seems more like a misuse of space than anything. Gorgeous porcelain bowls hung from the ceiling, many planters lined the walls, symmetrically on either side.
There was no image of a god—or “the First.” No holy text. Only one large unfurnished room filled with flowers. I wonder how their services go, she thought, almost cynically. It didn’t seem as though much could be done in here.
But the Jovious was being grown here.
That had been the question the creatures had asked Anka, had been so anxious over. They had clearly found a way. What was their purpose? Why go to all this trouble? It didn’t seem to kill people—at least not all the time. So what was it doing?
Her thoughts again strayed to Iz, but she still couldn’t fit the two pieces together as one.
A small crash from outside made them both jump.
“Stay here,” Palken said, setting his jaw. “I’m going to see what that was.”
She felt oddly content with his taking control like that.
Ren turned and looked out the window at the sea, the gulls flying high next to the sun. She had to squint her eyes to see them. Not a cloud anywhere.
Something was thrown over her eyes, and her vision grew dark—all save the burnt image of the sun and the sea still swimming in odd colors before her eyelids.
“I would stay perfectly still, Ren.”
It was Brellan.
Ren hit the ground hard, and she let out a scream. Loud. Maybe Palken would hear. Brellan kicked her side, and pain blossomed there. . . . As far as she could tell, they were still inside the temple, but she wasn’t certain where. There had been no other openings—no alcoves, no rooms that she could see.
The smell of the Jovious was even stronger here. Maybe a smaller space? Not as much room for diffusion?
She heard Brellan pacing in front of her.
Ren wouldn’t hide. She wouldn’t scream again. She desperately wanted Palken to come for her, but if this was the only way for her to get information from Brellan about Kilik Nid, then so be it. She hoped there weren’t other people who would do the same to Palken; there had to be someone free to stop this madness.
“Brellan,” Red said, half-coughing. The single scream had already taken a toll on her throat. She inhaled mostly dust from the ground. Below the temple maybe?
“I kept wondering when I’d get the chance to talk to you,” Brellan said. “After Iz took that arrow, I knew I couldn’t really risk sending anyone else. Not with all the damned Ministry staff you keep around. Haven’t been sleeping at your own house lately? Scared to be on your own?”
Ren shifted, trying to find a position that was at least slightly more comfortable.
“You aren’t leaving,” Brellan said. “So don’t think too hard on it.”
“What is Kilik Nid?” she spat.
Footsteps much closer to her ears, popping of knees as though Brellan had sat on his heels.
“There’s not much you don’t already know,” he said. “There are a few details. . . . A religion first and foremost. The first religion. The belief system that would have lasted the ages if it hadn’t been for Yaran. We worship the First. Naray.”
“All lies,” Ren said, turning on her back to keep from breathing in too much of the dry grime on the floor. “Yaran was first.”
“Well, see, that’s where you’re wrong,” he said. “Yaran is light to this world. But tell me . . . what is the natural state of the cosmos?”
I don’t know.
“Darkness. Naray came first. . . . And human beings aren’t meant to be in pain. It’s pointless—idiotic, really, that those mortals let themselves go through it day after day.”
He talks like he’s not one of them.
“Because I’m not,” Brellan said. Ren heard the smile in his voice. “I’m not mortal, Ren. And I hear that neither are you. . . . Naray has made me something much greater. He has given me . . . Divinity. . . . Ren—?” she heard him stand— “have you not been granted Divinity?”
She didn’t breathe. Didn’t dare say a word. If this man—she refused to call him Brellan anymore, as that was clearly a lie, too—knew who she was, it would all be over for her.
Ren had never once been in a predicament where she had been truly known. She didn’t even have to confirm it to him (not that she would); she could hear it in his voice. He knew definitively who she was and what she had done.
Brellan chuckled beside her.
“Why did you do it?” Ren asked instead. “What was so horrible in your life that you had to . . .” she couldn’t seem to finish.
“Oh, I’m sure you can relate,” he said nonchalantly. “My father left me when I was little. My mom died—much like Kenos’s story, actually. I went to live with my grandmother, and then she died, too. And I spent all my time looking out for other people. One day, I decided I was tired of it. I left. Went around the world looking for some sort of purpose. I found myself in Ngatui. . . . Well, this was nearly two centuries past. I discovered something there, Ren. Changed my life.”
“. . . What?”
He chuckled again. “Honestly, Ren, why don’t you just consider our way of life? It’s so much better than what you’ve been dealing with. In all honesty, it’s not much different than what you’ve been doing, anyway. . . . Running. Hiding. Avoiding the pain when all you really need to do is get rid of it. All distress—everything.”
She let her silence answer for her.
“Clearly you haven’t felt enough.”
He was on her suddenly, pulling her up, setting her on—what, a stool? Removing the blindfold. A flame from an oil lamp flickered next to her face. The room was even smaller than she’d pictured it.
“So many people, Ren. And they’ve found happiness!” His voice and eyes lit up as he said this.
Yaran, he really believes this.
Brellan was pleading with her now. “Sucha, that little girl. So strong. So unfortunate. She doesn’t have to worry anymore—neither does Rapoline have to worry or even . . . preoccupy himself over her if she were to die.”
Ren grew sick.
“Such a peaceful sense of power. Of everything being perfectly balanced.”
“Humans need it,” Ren said. I need it. “I’ve seen it work for their good—you don’t know what you’re messing with.”
“Oh, I know. And Naray knows. And this world will burn. And everyone will be free.”
Now that’s interesting. He doesn’t feel like he’s free yet. Even without the pain and the guild and the sorrow, he doesn’t feel like he’s free. He’s following blindly, all on the whim of a dead god.
He looked at her closely, narrowed his eyes, opened his mouth, took a breath. “You are the one, aren’t you? The protector of Labryn. Yaran’s little pet.”
“He is my father.”
“He is your master, Ren. That is not how fathers act. You know better. You’ve seen it. The way Palekn looks after Bent and Kenos—that is how fathers are.”
Ren kept his gaze, felt her eyes burning with everything she had been suppressing, everything finally coming to a head and coming out as tears. Still, she tried to keep from humiliating herself in front of him.
“Tired of it, aren’t you?”
Her lower lip trembled. Stop it! She told herself. Not here, not now of all times.
“I need to show you something,” he said, biting his lip. “And I would ask that you refrain from screaming and the like.”
He rolled up his sleeves, got closer to her, face inches from hers. “I am going to assume you still have your Divinity?”
I don’t know; I’m not sure.
“I suppose we’ll find out, then, won’t we?”
Had he been reading her thoughts? . . . . She looked back on the last few minutes of conversation, realizing that he had replied to things she had never even said out loud. She shuddered.
“Not all of them, no,” he said, as though in direct response. “That ability has come very slowly and only with much, much practice.
“You see, if Yaran would only yield and let his precious mortals take part in his Divinity instead of dealing with those disgusting animals of his, I’m sure this world would be a lot more enjoyable. Don’t you? As it is, the only sapient creature he ever granted it to was you—and that only with healing.
“There are many facets of Divinity. One in particular is discernment. . . . Ah, one you haven’t heard of? I suppose no animal would have need for it. I, on the other hand, have found it very useful.”
He cupped his hands at the base of her neck—much like Palken had not much time earlier, though the circumstances couldn’t have been more different. She suddenly missed him with a very deep pang in her chest.
Brellan smiled in front of her. And then kissed her on the mouth, his tongue thrust forward to find hers.
No. She wouldn’t allow this.
Ren moved though she was still bound, tried to smack him away—perhaps with her head. Brellan slapped her face; her cheek smarted. He smiled through it all. “Sorry—” (though she knew he wasn’t sorry at all) — “thought I might as well.”
He shrugged, but then grew very serious, coming close again.
Ren was breathing hard, didn’t blink so she wouldn’t miss a single movement.
“I’m going to show you something,” he said, voice low, serious. Brimming with excitement—a certain dark edge that infuriated her even more. “Pay very special attention.”
Brellan moved so that their noses overlapped, though he didn’t move in for a kiss. His eyes were less than an inch from hers, most of the light from the oil lamp blocked by his body.
And then her vision lurched, as though she were being pulled through a very dark, very constrictive tunnel.
When it stopped, she saw herself staring up at enormous, jagged mountains, whose peaks reached through the clouds.
This was Kaska Grossen.
Palken walked around the entire perimeter of the temple, and then, finding nothing, let himself back inside.
Ren wasn’t there. She’s probably outside. But she wasn’t outside. He called her name several times, getting only the response of wildlife who either took to the air or the ground at the sound of his voice.
It wasn’t like her to just leave.
That’s when he heard the scream.
It had to have been her.
“Ren!” he called. Moving all around the temple again. There were no alcoves, no loose floorboards—it was all impenetrable stone. . . . He heard nothing after that. No screams, no movement, nothing but birds and ocean waves.
Maybe she had gone back to Bent? Maybe she had found a lead and couldn’t wait for him?
He tried to tell these things to himself even though he knew none of them were very likely. . . . He stood still, put his hands on his waist. Thought.
The scream. The Jovious. Bent and Adash. The inn burning in Ngatui, the dead-pan stare of Meloda as she left her body desolate. Something was with the world; something was wrong with this temple.
I’ll get the Minister of Defense; we’ll do a full search. In the meantime . . . he couldn’t be sure about Kilik Nid anymore. And what was he to do about the fact that they comprised more than ninety-percent of the island anymore?
He was about to start off down the hill when a sound broke through the calm sky.
Palken had heard the sounds of whales before, the call of dolphins. This was somehow similar yet entirely different.
It echoed through the island again, this time louder. A wailing, a sadness but a hope as well. Somehow at once calming and exhilarating. He looked out over the expanse of ocean behind the church, put a hand over his brow to block the bright sunlight beating down and reflecting off the rippling waves.
It was small from his vantage point, though he was sure that up close the creature had to have been larger than anything he had ever seen, even surpassing the Dutri of Ielevandak, with a long neck and an ovular body with four fins and an enormous tail.
Not keeping his eyes off it, he started down a very narrow trail making its way in switchbacks down to the beach. There were more of them he saw as he got closer, each one lifting its song to the heavens.
They look like . . . well, Naray be damned but they look like Suporah.
Ren was still at the back of his mind—and he knew he would have to leave soon—but even so all other thoughts seemed driven from his mind at the idea that he was seeing such a being in the flesh.
He remembered being small and listening to stories about them—how they guided sailors to the archipelagos; that they were the reason mankind had found the foreign continents.
But since then they had been considered mythical, legendary. Not a single one had been seen by man for nearly three-hundred years.
Palken didn’t know what else it could be; he had lived on the island nearly his entire life, and never had he seen any creature like this before. The behemoth—this leviathan—would have been noticed.
“What are you doing here?” he said, not really aware that he was speaking aloud.
As though in response to his question, the creature moved closer to the shore as Palken stared in utter awe. Water streamed down its long neck, salty mist shot from its nostrils. . . . For a moment, it was as though there no longer existed a world in which he couldn’t find Ren, his son was ill, and his nephew delinquent.
Enormous waves flared up as the Suporah flung itself forward, practically on the shore now; water lapped at its body as it stretched its neck toward Palken.
Slowly he walked forward. The undulating ocean slapped his feet, soaking him to the knees, but still he continued.
“What are you doing here . . . ?” Palken reached a hand up to touch the creature’s lowered head. The skin was thick but smooth and cool. He felt the vibrations of its slow breaths, almost sense the strong pulse.
The thoughts racing through his mind were almost too much to bear: he remembered the stories and had read the Texts. Here was one of the first animals Yaran had created; they lived for more than a thousand years; no one knew what Divinity they had been given, but they were the first to receive it; they appeared most when . . .
When man needed help beyond their means.
A sour feeling crept upon him, turning awe for the creature into a miasmic fear of their presence.
That piece of the story suddenly made things make sense to him. Man had needed more land when they’d run dry of their own resources—what would they have done had the Suporah not appeared?
What was so terrible now that they needed to appear to them?
He could feel some sort of disaster gathering, waiting for the most opportune moment to strike them.
The Suporah lowered its head so that it was eye-level with Palken. He became aware that his knees were shaking, that he tried to hold in his breath which only made his heart quicken in pace.
And then it touched his forehead, and Palken found himself standing in a very familiar place. But, no . . . it couldn’t have been Brehedak.
Yaran, please no! Please—no!
Fire and smoke rose ferociously from the pines. Brehedak was burning.
Ren looked out from the base of the mountain range, able to survey the sprawling city below her. She couldn’t see her body, but she saw everything as though she stood there herself—a sensation she hadn’t experienced since the Suporah had vanished to the depths of the sea.
A river nearly a thousand paces wide flowed not far from her, close enough that the rush as it raced down the mountain toward the city nearly drowned her ears. The sun was setting; Ren spotted some sort of bird of prey circling above her.
The city was enormous. Trappers had made this place home, and the wildlife never ceased in abundance.
Brellan was nowhere to be seen, but she could hear his voice clear as day . . . he was still inches in front of her.
“Look closer,” he said.
Hearing his voice so close to her without having him in sight was nerve-racking despite knowing he was still there.
She squinted her eyes, looking closer at the city. Almost as though in response, her vision shifted forward. There were many buildings of government, large schools, homes . . . a temple that looked like it belonged to Kilik Nid.
Ren could almost hear Brellan smiling.
Swarms of people gathered around it, so many wanting to get in that they stood outside, straining their necks to get a view of what was happening within. So many people—easily the most occupied of all the edifices. Shouts rising from it. People raising cups. The Jovious everywhere: in people’s lapels, tucked behind ears, bouquets of them given by gentlemen to their women.
The scene shifted, the sun setting . . . the world was on fire. The flames blazed before her eyes everywhere she turned, down every street, every corner, every shop.
And then the most shocking part of all. The people were the culprits. They brought torches, dressed in long coats and hats; some innocents screamed as the fire licked the life out of them within their own homes. The home of the governor collapsed to her left.
A large man passed her, and Ren got a look at his face.
Blue veins crept up his cheeks, eyes glowed blue, hands stuffed into his pockets. Not fully inhuman yet but approaching it rapidly.
And as the memories of her early life came back to her, everything clicked. The Jovious, the inn burning, the creatures, Kilik Nid—they were all one and the same. They meant for this to happen; they wanted people free from pain and hurt, but they had to live such on Naray’s terms.
She could see the old god giving such orders—that anyone who would not bend to the ways of the Kilik Nid would burn.
Her vision blurred as Brellan took her to other places throughout Labryn—Naban, Lussefdrei, the Southern Continent, every inhabitable place on the globe.
And everything was burning.
“It has already happened,” Brellan said, pulling away. Ren found herself back in the stone room once more, her head spinning with images, the bright sparkling flames dancing before her eyes as though they had been inked there. As though she had seen them herself.
Oh, Yaran . . .
“We’re late here, on this little island,” he said. “Because of you. . . . Funny that even your presence seems to repel us. Brehedak was lucky to have you, I suppose.”
A sensation such as Ren had never experienced before began to envelope, close in on her, suffocating dark wool. Her chest constricted, she wanted to cry but nothing would come. Just panic, horror. She breathed in gasping chunks, yet there never seemed to be enough air.
“Thank you,” Brellan said.
Ren couldn’t manage to say more than “Where . . . ?”
“To talk to the people, of course. And you are going to stay here. You aren’t going to scream—” he tied a gag around her mouth, tied it tight. The coarse rope pinched her hair and scratched against her scalp. “You aren’t going to pray. You’re going to sit here and think about what you’ve done.”
He sounded like a father reprimanding a child.
“Think about how Naray is finally rising,” he said, “and that it’s all thanks to you. Can’t tell you how long I and the others have been waiting for you to take some time off. We thought you’d never get tired enough.”
He snuffed out the oil lamp. “Labryn is no longer yours to protect, Ren. . . . But that’s what you wanted, wasn’t it? Congratulations: you’re off the hook.”
The door shut as he left.
Alone in the darkness on dusty floor, she began to sob.
Palken couldn’t believe what he was seeing, had never experienced anything like this before. He could feel the night wind, the searing heat. Could hear the people screaming. . . . Yaran, it sounded like Anka’s inn had that night on Ngatui.
The only thing he wanted right then was for it to stop. To cease. What he saw wasn’t fact—it couldn’t be. As far as he knew Brehedak wasn’t in flames.
But there it was before, nearly everything decimated.
The Suporah nudged Palken’s head—reminding him that he was yet standing on the beach—and his vision shifted slightly.
There was a figure that seemed to be setting more of the buildings on fire. He had on a large cloak, but as Palken watched, he shrugged it off. He wore nearly nothing save a loincloth. . . . A creature, like the one who had killed Meloda, though, it seemed, not entirely transformed. Though his skin grew more and more transparent, and though he glowed with what seemed like blue fire, it was only a half-way state.
The figure turned its head, narrowed its eyes.
Can it see me? Palken’s stomach lurched. There couldn’t have been a way it could. He wasn’t really there, after all—couldn’t even see his own body.
The figure was Brellan.
Kilik Nid. Ren gone. All her suspicions about the religion.
A sudden urgency flooded him.
He stumbled back, breaking the connection between himself and the Suporah. He stumbled in the sloshy sand, fell on his behind in the wake of an incoming wave and received a mouthful of icy salt water.
He spluttered, gasping as the salt burned inside his nose, tried rubbing it out of his eyes.
It was difficult getting up with the amount of drenched clothing he was wearing, but he managed. He reached the shore, looked back at the Suporah. The enormity of the beast nearly sent him stumbling again. It looked at him intently, making eye contact.
He didn’t know if it could think or talk. But it clearly had some form of intelligence, something more than the other animals in the Divine Guild.
“Kilik Nid,” he said aloud. Needing vocal confirmation. “It’s Kilik Nid.”
Something had to be done right. Something.
He stopped. Slapped himself to make sure he wasn’t sleeping, dreaming of mythological leviathans from the depths of the ocean.
Palken’s face smarted.
He continued walking, looking back every few paces. The Suporah stared at him intently. . . . He thought about finding someone, of getting documentation that there was a Suporah here.
Having crested the hill, he looked out over the ocean, saw that there were yet many swimming farther out.
Only then did the Suporah move its enormous fins, pushing itself back from the shallows to join the others.
Ahead of him, someone walked out of the temple. Brellan. His stride confident, he began down the hill. A significantly large crowd of people seemed to be gathering farther into the island, moving to meet Brellan.
Brellan, thank Yaran, hadn’t seen him.
Palken leaned against the wall, breathing hard from the ascent, heart beating must faster than it should have been. Images. Naray be damned it had seemed so real.
Palken had two options, it seemed.
There was a clause in their constitution that stated that in the case of an absolute emergency situation, the Minister had the ability to exercise autonomous power for the duration of that emergency. He technically had the power to banish Kilik Nid from the island. Keep it from spreading—hopefully things weren’t as far-spread as Brellan had made it appear.
Yet he had no proof of this.
If he was right—if he wasn’t mad—then he didn’t have a problem. . . . If he was wrong, and he exercised absolute power . . . he would most definitely have a falling out with all of parliament and the entire island. He shuddered to think how Huk would react.
I risk losing my position as Minister.
Not something he could give up lightly.
But then he thought about the moon as it had been the night before. The terror that it had planted in his heart that something was wrong with the world. The odd appearance of the Jovious, suddenly the most popular flower in the world. And how it was killing the Minister of Trade and had nearly taken his son.
Were these coincidences? He would have liked to think so. . . . But then there were the Suporah. The Suporah which he could still see biding their time just off shore.
He wasn’t crazy. . . . Something seized him, something rooted in fear and survival. Something telling him that he needed to do something.
Palken continued to watch as Brellan made his way into town before slowly starting behind him. He would need to meet with the Ministry of Defense as soon as possible, directly after checking in on Bent. He’d get two or three men to come back with him to search for Ren—if she wasn’t already in town.
“Who the hell does he think he is?” Huk shouted, pounding the table. The bread and cheese bounced a little with the tremor.
All was silent on Brehedak, though Brellan was going to change that very soon.
Brellan stared at the man sympathetically. Of all people he had gotten to know—especially in the Eastern Bowl—Huk, it seemed, had suffered more than most. “I know. Quite ridiculous, isn’t it? The Minister’s acting as though he were a monarch of this island. Autonomous power. It isn’t fair. It isn’t right. . . .” He stared into Huk’s eyes, saw the pain and the annoyance there. “Where is Eva?”
“Out,” Huk barked.
“You should go find her. I’d like you to be together when we begin.”
Huk’s head shot up, suddenly less interested in the grain of the wood. Excitement ignited behind those sad brown eyes. “You mean it, Brellan?”
“Tonight. . . .” It seemed Huk had a harder time getting his mind around that concept. Brellan didn’t blame him; he knew how he had reacted the first time Naray had told him he would be free. The anticipation—as though the transformation couldn’t happen soon enough.
“I’ll need your help to gather the people together,” Brellan said. “Start a revolt. Those who have committed to the First will transform and be saved. The rest of this island will burn. . . . No more dealing with stale, stuffy governments. Tonight you will become free.”
It couldn’t have been past midday and already Palken had over dozens of people against him.
He had gone to Silgin, the Minister of Defense, had spoken with Saldrenia—who hadn’t had any news for him—had sent people looking after Ren, and had officially banished the Kilik Nid. Officers had gone out immediately to inform everyone.
The people were angry with him. Couldn’t understand. Didn’t know what he knew. Yaran, I wish there was some way to make them all understand. Thus far, everyone had had to go by his word.
Palken knew hadn’t abused the power vested in him, but to the people it certainly seemed so.
Although the noise was muffled on the second floor, still the noise of angry people reached him in Bent’s room. Anka and Lakonine were there with him, had been there (he’d been told) since he and Ren had left.
They pounded on the doors, the windows. He had determined that it was no use trying to get them to stop. Instead, they had locked everything down, created a barricade of sorts.
Palken tried to drown out the voice of Zana, who had approached him as he’d taken his carriage back home from making the announcement. . . . “You can’t do this, Palken! I thought your government was different—I came here partially to help the king see that what you are doing works, but you don’t seem to have it together either . . .”
A certain amount of guilt did press down on him, but he simply continued telling himself that he’d made the right decision—that, as irrational as it appeared, everyone else was wrong.
They’re wrong. This is dangerous.
“If you need to talk, Palken,” Anka said, putting a hand on his shoulder.
Palken sat in a high-backed chair, facing his son. He bounced his left knee rapidly, wrung his fingers, tried to keep his breath even.
“There’s nothing to talk about,” Palken said decisively, getting up (that made him feel lightheaded) and moving around. Yaran . . . his entire body shook, as though he were shivering. The room, however, was very warm.
“Why’d you do it?” Anka asked.
Palken paced. Where is Ren? She never would have been gone this long without telling him—not under the circumstances. He thought about how Iz had wanted her on that road months ago. He’d had Palken, the Minister, at a death grip but used him only as a way of getting to Ren. She was important, somehow. Very important. He remembered the kiss they’d shared, the softness of her lips. The tenderness between them—something he had systematically denied himself since Meloda’s death but which had slowly ignited once more the closer he and Ren worked together.
So many things were happening at once. He couldn’t keep track of it all. Couldn’t think. He felt only the stress: one enormous leviathan atop him.
“Palken . . . ?”
“Hmm?” He didn’t look up, continued pacing.
“Why’d you do it?”
“I . . .” he rubbed a hand over his face. “Uh . . .”
Something was wrong. Something he could hear. The mobbing outside.
Silence shrouded the large house.
Lakonine threw aside the drapes, letting sunlight flood the room, and swung the large windows outward. “They’re all going to the sea . . .” she said.
The Suporah. Had the rest of the island finally noticed the creatures? Perhaps others would see, would prevent the burning that had imbedded itself in Palken’s mind.
“What’s all the commotion?” Anka said.
“There’s something you need to see.” Palken said, taking a deep breath. “It’s the reason I banished the Kilik Nid from Brehedak.”
There were crowds of people by then at the ocean, looking at the creatures—the number of which had increased dramatically since Palken had left. Where before there had been a few there were now several dozen, and as far as he could tell from the rumors, they circled the island.
Yet no one had, as of yet, had a vision similar to Palken’s.
There were whispers: “What does this mean?” “Has the world come to an end?” “First the moon—and now this?”
“I can’t believe my eyes,” Lakonine said, looking at the creatures with absolute tenderness. Tears welled in her eyes. “What are they doing here? After all these years—why would they come now?”
She seemed to have come to the same conclusion Palken had—as had many of the people around them. After the shock and the astonishment and the wonder and the beauty came the realization of something looming.
Something from which they would need protecting.
They stood for a moment before Palken spoke. “The stories are true,” he said. “They’re not like any of the Guild we’ve ever come across before. . . . They gave me a vision.”
Both Lakonine and Anka scrunched their eyes, seemingly trying to decide whether or not he was sane. Despite this, Anka tried to give him the benefit of the doubt. “What did you see?” he asked.
“Brehedak,” Palken said. As the words became physical, he realized just how real they were. “Burning. The island was in flames.”
“That . . . that can’t be what you saw,” Anka said, crossing his arms.
Lakonine only looked forward, face turning pale.
It seemed they had both come to the conclusion Palken had: if the Suporah were real, then why not visions? They knew Divinity existed—they had all of them witnessed it that night on Ngatui. Really, there was no reason to question.
“It was the Kilik Nid,” Palken said. “It was responsible.”
None of them said a word, didn’t ask for any other explanations than what had already been said.
“Where’s Ren?” Lakonine asked suddenly.
Palken’s worry increased; he felt he should be doing something for her. That although he knew she could very well take care of herself that she needed help.
But then . . .
His gaze was drawn almost automatically to the waters where a Suporah seemed to have singled him out once more. He couldn’t have been certain: They were all far away enough that it could have been looking at any one of them. Or all of them at once. But he felt it. A deep and penetrating stare.
And some unseen power that seemed directed at him. Coursing, looping, never-ending, primal and distinct from anything he had ever experienced.
And then, as though someone had put images in his mind, he saw six figures: Lakonine, Anka, Zana, Saldrenia, Silgin, and himself. It wasn’t like a portrait of each of them—more like the idea of all of them. He could feel something like a wall of protection from something, though he couldn’t discern what the wall was nor what they needed protecting from (though he had an idea). He felt hopeful about what he was seeing, happy, even. And yet there was loss there, too. Something omnipresent and melancholy.
His vision shifted once more. He felt destruction, something like the heat of flames. Moving again . . . and he saw, more sharp and distinct than anything, the face of Kenos screaming, holding an iron key in one hand.
Palken knew. He was going to get his father. That boy! Why didn’t he listen? Why didn’t he understand that he simply didn’t want him to have the weight of such things on such a small mind—the truth would destroy him. And he was so delicate, so prone to anger. Couldn’t Kenos understand that he, Palken, loved him, too? Just as much as Meloda had? It was his sister’s son—of course he was loved. How could he not?
Kenos couldn’t reach that cell, couldn’t find out the truth. It would only give him another reason to hold resentment against Palken.
This happened only within his mind. He knew once more—knew like he had known after that first vivid vision what he needed to do.
“What’s wrong?” Lakonine asked, placing a hand on his cheek like a mother feeling for a fever.
“Kenos is going to try to get to his father,” he said, feeling the urge to move. They didn’t have much time.
“But doesn’t he know that the prison’s not—” at seeing the expression on Palken’s face, she put a hand to her mouth to hid the gasp. “You haven’t told him? Palken, this might ruin him!”
“I’m afraid we have a lot more to worry about that just that,” Palken said. “I’m going to find Kenos. I need you to find Ren.”
“Do you know where she is?” Anka asked, skeptical.
Palken had already checked there, but he had a hunch and he didn’t have time to question it. “Check in the Western Temple. There must be some sort of hidden chamber—I don’t know.” He began off, white sand kicked up behind him. “I’ll find you!” He called back to them, almost as an afterthought.
“There you are!”
Palken nearly didn’t hear the man, so focused was he on getting to Kenos.
“Hey!” the man was less cheery this time, and Palken halted, still not entirely certain if he was being addressed directly.
“Where are you going, Minister?” Huk put his arm around Palken’s shoulders, as though they were old friends, as though he hadn’t only months ago held a crossbow to his face and made malicious threats.
His wife, Eva, accompanied him. Albeit silently.
Palken felt a sudden vehemence towards this man whom he had put so much energy into trying to cooperate with. A man who never seemed satisfied, who carried a chip on his shoulder. A man who was inextricably and irrevocably involved in Kilik Nid.
Suddenly the man’s cheeriness felt a façade. Palken had just banished the religion from the island.
This kind of behavior was not normal.
He was in danger. Though how much he was still unsure.
“I’m afraid I’m busy,” Palken said to keep from pushing the man out of the way. If there was any chance he could still wiggle diplomatically out of the situation, he wanted to take it.
Huk grabbed onto his arm, almost twisting it, coercing Palken to stand still.
“Oh, let me accompany you, Minister. I’m sure you wouldn’t mind a little company. There are just a few things I’d like to discuss with you, if you wouldn’t mind.”
Palken grimaced. “I’m sorry, Huk, maybe another time—”
Another twist to his arm.
The people around him either took no notice or simply didn’t care.
Certainly Huk was being discreet, but surely they couldn’t deny the pain on Palken’s face.
“Banished Kilik Nid, did you?” Huk said, leading him away from the sea and toward the temple. Under the rage, he seemed ecstatic about something—gleeful, even. “Thought you could exterminate the First, did you? There ain’t no escaping it. Ain’t no stopping it. It’s just gonna continue on. With or without you.”
The people had definitely noticed the coercion of their Prime Minister. And it was clear from the expressions on their faces that none of them cared.
He looked over the hell, trying not to pay attention to the pain that was now blossoming all over both shoulders and at every joint down to his fingers squished together behind his back.
The mob hadn’t fully dissipated, it seemed. There were people at his home. Breaking glass. Starting torches. Many people streamed toward the temple, expressions as excited as they had been on moon festival.
The sick feeling in Palken’s stomach grew in strength and ferocity.
I have to get away from him. I have to get my family together and run.
He saw the island burning. Knew that it was sooner than expected. That is was just around the corner.
Palken struggled, managed to free himself from Huk’s grip. But it wasn’t enough. Huk caught him once more, being much more physically able than Palken had ever been. Any chance of getting away seemed dashed when Brellan showed himself a few moments later, tisking at Palken’s failed attempts.
“Wouldn’t want to do that, would we?” he said.
Huk drew a knife from his pocket and held it to Palken’s throat. He didn’t slice, but the blade was close enough that a searing white-hot line sprang up on his neck, and he felt the blood dripping onto his shirt.
“Put him with Ren,” Brellan said. “I think it’s only appropriate that they witness this together.”
Kenos heard the shattering of the windowpane and knew it was time to leave. It was sporadic, yes. It was chaotic. It was perfect. As far as he could see, everyone was wrapped up in whatever the hell was going on.
That left the road open to him. The maid was screaming, Bent had already fled the building. . . . Kenos snuck out the back. He hadn’t done anything, but he was sure that being the nephew of the Minister who’d “ruined these people’s lives” was probably just as well for them.
His heart sped up at the thrill of the chase. Kenos felt very much alive. 305. Father—I’m coming.
No one noticed him slip through the kitchen, go out the back and slowly work his way into the mob itself and the throng of people moving toward the Western Temple. He even shouted damning things about his uncle (partly to make it more convincing and partly because he felt legitimate joy in calling Palken a k---).
He had to run upstream, but the happy people didn’t seem to notice him.
Kenos ran into Saldrenia in the middle of town. She seemed flustered. Confused. Frightened. And her eyes kept darting out toward the horizon, to the sea, as though trying to find something.
“Kenos!” she said, barely keeping her eyes on him long enough to grab his attention. “Where is Ren? Have you seen her? I really need to speak with her.”
He shook his head. “Sorry!” Then he dashed away, ignoring Saldrenia’s calls after him.
There wasn’t a single soul in the Eastern Bowl. Still Kenos ran, unsure how long it would be like this. It seemed like the world had turned on its head; he couldn’t have dreamt of such a perfect opportunity—much less planned for one—even if he’d had a decade.
Something wasn’t right with the prison, but he didn’t know what. . . . As though someone had shifted the tree-walls four feet to the left without telling anyone.
Kenos walked around the walls, knowing that the guards had to have some sort of entrance. There were no ladders that he could make out. He’d originally planned to simply climb up as he’d done before, but on the opposite darker side where there was less of a chance of guards.
But there . . . not a hundred feet away from him. Two cellar-like doors thrown open, the leaves and needles that appeared to have hidden them before piled up on either side.
Just for me.
“What are you doing here?”
Kenos flipped around, hair falling in his eyes.
A young man stood behind him, a silver knife in one hand. He seemed not a few years older than Kenos, but he held himself with an air that suggested he was much older than that. His face was smudged, his hair long, and he already had wisps of a distinct beard. He didn’t wear a shirt, and though his was skinny, there was still enough tone in those muscles that Kenos knew he would be in trouble if he was indeed on this man’s bad side.
“I said what are you doing here? Why aren’t you with the rest of the idiots?”
How much to tell him? Do I tell him at all? He decided on the truth. “I’m here for my father. He’s inside the prison, cell three-hundred and five.”
He lowered the knife and looked Kenos up and down with eyes that seemed to have always looked at the world with an intense level of scrutiny. “Your name.”
“Huh. . . . Never heard of you. You a Westerner?”
Kenos looked down at the blue and gold embroidered coat he hadn’t bothered to throw off before leaving. The lace cravat. There was no use denying it, but neither did he have to give this man the satisfaction of an answer.
After a moment of staring each other down, the man pointed to the doorway in the ground. “That’ll lead you inside, though I wouldn’t expect much.”
“I’m going with you,” the man said. “I know this place better than you do, and by the looks of it—” he looked Kenos up and down once more— “you could use my help. Don’t worry. It’s empty. I saw everyone leave nearly an hour ago.”
Kenos felt his face grow red hot, the humiliation boiling into a fury. The idea that this man—this boy, for he wasn’t much older than himself—didn’t think he could do this thing on his own . . . Naray, what an ass. However, one glance at the knife and Kenos found the strength to hold his tongue a moment longer.
They began down into the hole. At first the light from the forest illuminated his steps, but then it was entirely lost. The young man stayed only a couple steps behind him. He kept his pace brisk, but he found he had to slow down after tripping several times over stones and roots and small holes in the subterranean path.
Here in the dark, Kenos’s confidence seemed to swell a little. “I don’t know your name,” he said.
It was a few paces before the man answered. “Vik.”
Why does that sound familiar? Vik. Vik. He repeated it several times in his head before it seemed to clock.
“You’re Huk’s son,” Kenos said.
The footsteps behind him ceased. He stopped, too, breathing in the damp, cool air, turning around and straining his eyes.
“You know my father?”
Damn. He suddenly found himself in a trap of his own making. Vik knew he was from the Western Bowl, and from an affluent family at that. If Kenos knew Huk, the relation would have to be either business or political—but most likely the latter given Huk’s position. Kenos remembered the conversation from Huk’s small hut months ago. Knew Vik’s thoughts about the Brehedakian government.
Kenos felt the spit on his face. The two of them were closer than he’d thought.
“He works with my uncle . . . in parliament.” That should work. Even if Palken was his uncle, Vik didn’t know whether or not Kenos had parents. Not such a dangerous relationship after all. At least, he hoped.
Kenos though Vik would try to inquire more about who his uncle was, but instead he heard denial.
Naray, I wish he’d hurry it along.
‘That’s a lie!” Vik said.
Kenos started moving. He didn’t have time for such drama.
“My father would never reach so low. To be involved in your parliament. Take it back!”
Kenos continued moving. Concentrating only on his mission. The person behind was indeed armed, but what did that matter? To Kenos he was just another hurt boy who’d come to understand how to do things for himself. Like me. He smiled in the darkness at the realization, feeling a little more in control. Just like me, actually. And it didn’t matter how angry Kenos became on occasion, or how many times the thought had flickered through his mind . . . I would never hurt an innocent like that.
“You’ll see, anyway,” Vik spat. “You’ll see.”
Though they made no sense to Kenos, they seemed to bring a cynical strength back into Vik.
At last the passage came to an end. He felt the rungs of a wooden ladder in front of him and began to climb until his head hit what felt like a large, loose floor board. He pushed upward with both arms. The board came loose and clattered to the floor when Kenos pushed it away.
Pulling himself up, he found himself on the inside of one of the large bookcases in the main office whose doors were flown wide open. It was the same bookcase where he had hidden and read the name of his father in the prison’s ledgers some months ago.
It seemed different in the daylight, with sunlight illuminating the ordered chaos in full in place of a half dozen flickering candles.
Vik followed behind, face flushed. The edges of his eyes red even though there were no tears.
There was a woman already standing inside.
Kenos froze. As much as he’d—at first—expected there to be people guarding it, by the state of the entrance and the feeling of misplacement, with the help of Vik’s word he had wooed himself into the complacency that they was alone in this place.
The woman, whom Kenos now recognized as Zana, Saldrenia’s teacher, noticed him immediately. She set her mouth in a line and raised an eyebrow, her wrinkles accentuating the action into something that looked rather bird-like.
Though Vik was the one of the two who was half nude, she seemed to place more scrutiny upon Kenos. “I realize you are not Palken’s fruit, but I would expect even the adopted son of a Prime Minister to be somewhat more well-behaved. . . . I believe I shall have to have a talk with him—though Yaran only knows what good that will do.”
Vik didn’t react to this new news, at least not outwardly. Though he did seem rather uncomfortable in her presence, folding his arms in an unsuccessful attempt at hiding even part of himself from her gaze.
Zana seemed to come off from the slight tangent she had put herself on when talking of Palken. “Straighten up,” she said.
Both did promptly as instructed.
“Who’s this young man?”
“Vik . . .” he coughed, lowered his eyes. This woman seemed to intimidate him more than Kenos would have guessed.
And he was surprised at how collected the old hag still seemed, though he could see her eyes afire. He would have thought there would be yelling, cussing, slapping of hands, and the punishment of having to write painstakingly superfluous lines of meaningless poetry by hand—in script, no less.
“Tell me what you’re both doing here,” she said, shifting her penetrating eyes from Kenos and Vik. Landing on Kenos and then staying put for a while.
“I’m here for my father,” Kenos said, finding no reason to lie to her. Half the members of parliament seemed to know about his “little escapade,” as they so churlishly referred to it, a few months back—surely she already had heard about it.
“Your father?” she said incredulously. “You don’t mean to tell me that he’s here?” Something like sympathy seemed to by playing itself out amongst those wrinkles.
Kenos said nothing, staring at the old woman—hoping that she could read the defiance in his eyes.
“Dear Naray below!” she said. “Do you know what this place is, boy?”
“It’s a prison.” The answer was obvious, Kenos thought. Couldn’t she see the cells outside? The trees guarding the place?
Out of the corner of his eye, Kenos saw Vik give him a pointed look.
He couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something that had been kept from him. . . . Everyone (at least those who weren’t of the general public, those in whose company Kenos always found himself) seemed to understand. . . . What was it Palken had told him after he’d been caught that first time? That this was useless?
“Where is he?” Zana asked. “Are you sure that he’s here?”
“Y-yes,” Damn Naray, why is my voice shaking? “I checked the ledgers—” he pointed to the desk— “cell 305.”
Zana nodded, seeming a bit sad. After a moment, she went to a large cabinet to her left.
This wasn’t going at all as Kenos had imagined it would. Where was the thrill of it all—the chase he’d expected, the guards to run from? The immaculate plan—step-by-step that he’d put together over the weeks and months of solitary confinement in his quarters? The smile on his face as he accomplished something very difficult. Something he’d planned for and finally achieved. The exhilaration of being with his father. . . .
All the things he’d had upon his mind the past few months seemed suddenly distant, like some sort of dream he’d conjured for himself and he’d just been, for reasons he didn’t understand, doused with cold water, forced to wake up.
He felt like some sort of fool. An idiot boy who, for one reason or another, hadn’t gotten his facts right.
“You’ve been here before, then?’ Zana asked as she rummaged through a large drawer at their right. There was no surprise in her voice.
When she didn’t hear a response, she stopped rummaging and looked him in the eye. He obliged with a curt nod, chewing the inside of his cheek with his back teeth.
“I suppose that was why you were confined to your quarters for the majority of the summer. . . .” she opened another drawer, this one low enough that Kenos and Vik saw its contents. It was filled with small, rectangular wooden boxes, each with a branded number on the lid. 274, 280, and so on.
“How did you come to find this place?” she asked, not looking up. “As far as I understand, there are very few people who know of it. And most of them either were assigned to protect it or otherwise work with the judiciary system. The builders did an excellent job of hiding it, don’t you think?”
“I heard some fishermen talking about at port. I only knew my father had been sentenced—”
“For what?” Zana asked.
“I don’t know,” Kenos replied, becoming more and more anxious. “For something! I thought this would be the logical place for him to go.” It was all he could do not to scream at the old bird, tell her to mind her own, that he was perfectly capable. “I was right, you know,” he added, somewhat defensively.
Something like dread began filling him at these words, made him feel even more childish, a lost little boy looking for attention. Which he most certainly was not. . . . The dread increased with each box Zana pulled from the cabinet drawer. They didn’t appear to be entirely in order—otherwise he supposed she would have found it some time ago.
At last she seemed to have found the right one. Kenos saw 305 burned into the small lid. It looked like a simple jewelry box; it even had a small, silver keyhole on one of the long ends.
“And so naturally,” Zana said, moving to the desk now. “You believed him. Because everything that fishermen say is true. Clearly you have never heard them tell each other stories.” Zana almost cracked a full smile as she searched through the desk now, leaving the small box on a stack of yellowing parchment.
“You,” she pointed at Vik. The humor left—as though it had never been there to begin with. “How did you come to this . . . prison, did you call it?” Zana set her mouth in a straight line.
Why is she skirting around what this place actually is?
“My brother was put in here a year ago,” Vik said.
“And you are here to rescue him.”
“No. I already tried to rescue him. A year ago.”
Kenos looked at Vik as he spoke, noting the redness in his eyes; his fists were clenched, one of them around the hilt of his silver knife making his knuckles turn white.
“Then you know that this is not a prison,” Zana said.
Vik’s words were dry, hollow. There were no longer tears trying to reach the surface. “Yes, ma’am.”
Zana straightened from her stooping over one of the compartments, a small iron key in her hand, looking at Vik as though in a new light. Then she inserted the small apparatus into the box, and the lid popped open.
Kenos rushed forward to see what was inside: it was another iron key, this one larger, with teeth cut in more complicated patterns. His heart jumped as he realized this was the key to cell 305. This woman was helping him get to his father.
And then the sudden realization crashed on him, and the dread increased tenfold, no longer a steady drip but a dousing.
Zana would never help him find his father. Somehow this was some form of sick punishment. For what? For breaking in?
“Before I show you your father,” she said to him, eyes fiery and serious. She grabbed hold of his wrist with a hand like leather as he reached for the key, fingertips calloused from years scratching down notes and essays, making sure she had his full attention. “Before I show you your father, I want you to know why I am doing this.
“I am one for rules,” she said, her voice suddenly louder. This was more the Zana he remembered from the night before. “I feel there is a way that things should be done. And under normal circumstances, such blatant breaking and entering onto premises where you are clearly not allowed would never be tolerated. But something is very amiss, and I can see it in your eyes that you would be here regardless of rules, penalties, or people in your path.
“It seems Palken has kept a truth from you. In many instances that can prove useful, keep people from being hurt. But from what I can see you are a truth seeker. You would find it even if it were at the bottom of the ocean. In which case, I can only stand aside and let you discover it for yourself.
“Do you understand?”
I think so. “Yes.”
“Good,” she said, and she let go of his wrist and handed him the key.
He moved toward the doorway, catching and then deliberately loosing Vik’s gaze. There was something there he didn’t care to be involved with: Some deadly combination of rage and sadness and resentment. But also a sense of satisfaction.
Vik did not follow them out into the courtyard.
The day had been sunny, but clouds were already forming in the distance. A small breeze rustled the trees overhead. Trees which seemed to tell a different story now. What that story was Kenos didn’t know.
But he knew he was about to discover it.
They reached cell 305. Kenos’s entire body was trembling. Zana gestured for him to use the key, to open the door. Suddenly, and for reasons he couldn’t entirely explain, he hesitated.
You’ve been thinking on this moment for months—you can’t stop here!
But what was behind the door?
The ledgers and Zana seemed keen on assuring him that he would find his father there. But were they lying?
“It is alright if you do not wish to continue. I would not blame you in the least,” Zana said, her eyes showing more pity than he ever thought it would be possible to show.
They stood there for a moment, Kenos’s eyes on the large wooden door in front of him, Zana’s looking at him. She seemed patient, but he could see that it was something she had to force. She sighed more than once, and she made a habit of holding her hands together in front of her, unclasping them, and repeating the process.
What the hell are you scared of?
He approached the door, inserted the key. Suddenly wondering why, if there were so many prisoners, it was so quiet. Surely his father could hear him from the outside? Why wasn’t he calling out to him? Had prison life hardened him so that he didn’t care about the outside world?
The key slid perfectly into place, jagged, complicated teeth finding their way snuggly in the lock. He turned it, finding it more difficult than he’d previously imagined; his hands were sweaty, the iron slippery.
A heavy mechanical noise and a release as the key fell into place, now entirely upside down. There was no handle so he pulled on the key, an action which seemed to have been the architects’ plans all along—such was the size of it.
The solid wood door swung out of its solid granite frame, squealing on neglected hinges, its bottom scraping against the rough stone. The door was nearly six inches thick. A man wouldn’t even be able to breathe inside.
All the obvious things began clicking into place, as though someone had turned a key inside the mechanism of his mind. Where were the servants the last time he’d been here, to bring food, allow for the prisoners to relieve themselves? Only guards. As far as he could tell there were no kitchens. . . . And why had it been so casually guarded in the first place?
The door apparently was so heavy because the stench was so strong. Something dark, earthy, at once alive and dead, sickly sweet—like Bent’s incessant vomiting the night before.
The granite space was empty and clean save for a dark wooden box as tall and wide as a man which stood in the middle. Just at the top where the head should have been there was a small round pane of glass that looked as though it hadn’t been washed in years. Even from his disadvantageous angle and through the grime, Kenos could see clearly the grey eyelids closed over hollow sockets.
Not a prison, then. A cemetery.
Kenos backed away, the exhilaration morphing into something large, uncontrollable. It was not something he enjoyed; it was heavy, painful, constricting. His entire world shifted—he no longer thought of where they would run to. He no longer dreamed of being with his father, not now, not knowing full well that it was an utter impossibility.
Palken hadn’t told him. Why hadn’t Palken told him?
Ren had let him go on and on. . . . He suddenly thought of who else might know. If Zana and Palken knew, surely Anka and Lakonine did, too.
He became aware that he was screaming, though he wasn’t sure who he was talking to.
“WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME! YOU SON OF A BITCH! I HOPE YOU DROWN—I HOPE YOU GO TO HELL! NARAY DAMN YOU! NARAY DAMN YOU!”
Zana watched him but didn’t tell him to be quiet. Didn’t try to stop him slamming the door and taking the key and shoving it in his trouser pocket.
He screamed even when his throat became sore and raw as an open wound. Wouldn’t stop screaming until he no longer felt so alone and betrayed.
Brellan and Huk together escorted Palken—all the way pretending as though they cared about the “Minister of Brehedak,” mockery, every last word of it—into the temple.
“Can’t you feel the rush in the air?” Brellan asked. “One of the last corners of Labryn finally conquered. You’ll see, Prime Minister,” he winked— “that we are right. This is really the only way to live.”
Palken kept quiet through all of this, not wanting to provoke them any. There had to be another way to get out of their clutches than by sheer force (something that hadn’t worked)—some way to outsmart them? Something in his gut continued to keep him on his toes, however, told him that they were smart. That Brellan was even more intelligent than Palken. That this was all carefully orchestrated by something much larger than any of them combined.
Still, he wouldn’t surrender.
Brellan asked for people to politely move as they made their way to the doors of the temple. They parted for him easily, for the most part, many recognizing his face immediately, others needing a bit more prodding.
The doors were closed, but Brellan only had to knock on their wood and they swung open for him. It seemed unchanged from when Palken had left it hours ago—chasing a noise from the outside. How silly it seemed to him now. Yaran how that seemed like so long ago.
“Keep him here with you,” Brellan instructed Huk and Eva. “I will bring Ren.”
Ren had nearly fallen asleep in her sorrow when a sliver of light flashed across her closed eyelids, changing the distorted colors behind from deep purples, blacks, and blues, to lighter blues, purples, and oranges. The overwhelmingly sweet scent of the Jovious shot like an hour through the damp, dirty room.
Yet she didn’t open her eyes. Couldn’t. Didn’t want to open her eyes to the world that she knew she’d abandoned.
What she had done. What she had caused. To give up on the world as she had done—how selfish! It wasn’t worth it, she realized. And it had perhaps been through selfish thoughts that she had come to this conclusion. In trying to life, she had found herself on her deathbed with the very people she had given up on. This was her punishment for abandoning them. In her mind they screamed: “You die with us . . .”
And Yaran was gone. . . . She had tried to reach out to her father but had felt nothing but a large void. As though he were gone. Even her Divinity—she cringed at that thought. Felt her stomach drop. Her Divinity was gone.
“I have failed you, father . . .” she whispered to no one in particular, knowing that whoever stood in the doorway could hear her.
The colors before her eyes continued to shift as someone moved into the room, the wood ladder creaking with every step.
“Pick yourself up off the ground, Ren,” Brellan said. Voice too cheery for the occasion.
“Are you here to mock me?” Ren said. She barely heard the words herself she spoke them so quietly.
“No. I’m here to bring you to your sweetheart. That is what you want . . . isn’t it?”
And she heard it—a voice reaching her from up above, mixed with the general shouts of a crowd waiting for its leader. It was Palken calling her name. She heard a grunt then, and a cry of pain.
“Stop!” she opened her eye, but had to close them again. The light flooding in from the opening was too blinding.
Empty, emotionally dead for herself but still somewhat alive for Palken’s sake, she stood as best she could in her bindings. Brellan approached her, removed the rope from her wrists. “Come along,” he said. “. . . Come watch your world . . . burn.”
Ren thought about how—once—they had been friends. That she had helped him find his way around an island that he had always planned to destroy sickened her. Brellan might have been the one executing, but Ren had more than played her part in the coming of this primal plague. Please let there be something I can do about it, she begged.
Ren climbed up the ladder and into the open. Turning around the corner of the alcove in one of the back corners, she found herself in the main of the temple, feet once more on a plush scarlet rug.
“Ren!” Palken called, relief washing over his face.
As much as she was lacking, in that moment, seeing how much this man was glad to see that she was alright, she felt that, just maybe, it had been worth it.
Huk seemed to want to keep Palken in his grasp, but at a nod from Brellan, he was released, and both Ren and Palken fell into each other’s arms.
Oh, Yaran, how she had needed this and never even known it.
He kissed her. She kissed him, their lips melding perfectly into one another’s.
Behind her, Brellan sighed. Ren supposed it did seem pointless. Almost.
There was a moment of hesitancy, where Palken stopped for a slip second but continued on. . . . And in that moment, there was no longer the temple.
Ren felt salty seawater speckle her, catch in her eyes—which actually burned—saw . . . Naray be damned: Were those Suporah? And there was Palken, in the water just beyond the surf, his head touched to one of the creature’s.
The image of Brehedak burning—something which shouldn’t have felt so familiar and old but which didn’t surprise her at all. And then something very curious: Six people—Palken, Silgin, Anka,, Lakonine, Zana, and Saldrenia. All in a aplace she recognized, each . . . there wasn’t an exact image here, more of a feeling. Of elongation, sadness, stretches of time as empty as dunes.
A sensation Ren recognized immediately.
It couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds, and to Huk, Eva, and Brellan, it was nothing more than a kiss. But when they broke apart, the look in Palken’s eyes said it all. He scrunched up his eyebrows, tried to mouth something she couldn’t catch despite their proximity.
How had he done it?
Did it matter?
“The Suporah,” she whispered. “Are they really here?”
“Yes,” Palken said, speaking with more breath than voice.
The temple doors opened, and people rushed inside. Brellan’s smile only increased.
“See how eager your people are,” Brellan noted. “They can hardly wait.”
It almost didn’t matter that these people were here under Brellan’s control—manipulated by false promises and lied to. Because Ren now had hope. The Suporah (Yaran, if they really were there!) would lead those who didn’t want to submit themselves to Naray’s control to safety.
Yaran couldn’t hear Ren. Nor could she hear him. She no longer had access to her Divinity, but he had still done something. He must have known, Ren thought. Known that I would want to go against him at some point. That’s why I’m not the only protector.
She felt humiliated, sad, angry at herself and her foolishness. And so, so grateful that there had been a way provided—even when she didn’t deserve it.
They hadn’t made it out of danger just yet, but they were closer than they had been a few moments before. And that seemed enough to her.
The tears came silently; the only one who seemed to notice them was Palken who put his hand in hers and squeezed—not too hard, but enough that she knew that both of them were going to make it through this. Even if the path ahead wasn’t yet clear.
Brellan picked up a golden pitcher from a large plinth while Huk and Eve brought forth an enormous diamond-encrusted goblet large enough, Ren thought, to give the entire congregation at least one sip.
The people crammed the temple room wall-to-wall so much so that she and Palken’s backs were pressed against the stained-glass window behind them. And still they could not fit everyone. The cue extended what seemed like endlessly out the double doors and down the path into the city itself.
It was all noise and excitement, nervousness and pandemonium—
Until Brellan held the pitcher high.
And then the commotion ceased entirely. Even the roar of the ocean and the cry of young children seemed to be drowned out by the enormity of the silence.
Brellan began to pour; he poured slowly, almost ritualistically. There was nothing in the pitcher but oil, thick and silky yet clear as crystal. It made a sort of splashing noise inside the enormous cup.
“Each of you will consume one drink of the Jovious,” he said. “Any more could be fatal.”
This last statement, though frightening to Ren as she thought of all the people gathered here, seemed to only disconcert a few.
“In a moment, you will each feel enormous and complete joy. It will be painful at first, but that is only your soul being cleansed of all guilt and sadness. Know that it will pass. You will all be free.”
No applause. Only the feeling of intense excitement. Nervous apprehension.
Yaran and Naray only knew what it would actually do to these poor people.
Brellan was the first to take a sip. He rolled his eyes back into his head as he drank with both hands, seeming to take enormous pleasure from what he was doing. And then, gracefully, handed it to Huk who, after his turn, gave to his wife. Eva, her face impassive—though Ren could see she was anxious about what she had just done and what the consequences would be—handed it off to the first person in line to the right of the crowd: a small, sickly girl with blonde hair.
Sucha. Ren’s stomach felt sour. Sucha’s father had his arm around her, and though he looked apprehensive, still he smiled; he gave Eva a grateful look as his daughter took a drink with trembling fingers. None of them broke the silence, not even to say thank you.
The goblet hadn’t passed three more mouths when Brellan’s body began to shake out of the man’s own control.
A visceral darkness came upon the room. The windows darkened. The very sun, it seemed, didn’t want to shine upon such an act. So it had to turn them away, leaving the people it had been so faithful to for so long to wallow in their own dark decisions.
There were a few screams of pain—from Sucha first, and then clenched fists from her father. A lot of sickly moaning. In what little light there was left, Ren could see that the people carried on, continued to pass the Jovious to the next friend, their eyes and mouths greedy for a taste of the nectar and what was promised.
The darkness increased until there was nothing left but a soft, blue glow issuing from the eyes and then the veins of the people of Brehedak.
Kenos lay on the ground for a long time after Zana left back inside the main house. He looked up at the sky, watched as it turned from a perfect blue with a wisp of distant clouds to perfect black without any reason at all. There weren’t even any stars. But Kenos didn’t let that bother him. Damn the stars.
That was fine with him. It looked exactly how he felt; it seemed suitable weather for such a wretched place. He didn’t have any desire to move. . . . In reality, didn’t want to leave his father in his grave—not after all this time, all the planning he had done. How could he simply walk away? He had nothing now. Kenos knew he wouldn’t be able to live with Palken or Ren. Not even with Anka or Lakonine. The answer seemed at once simple and complicated. And he knew he would have to come to a conclusion soon, but it all felt like too much. Made him want to put his hands over his ears to drown out the noise—a noise which he was aware came from within, but which seemed so external. . . .
A blast of wind greater than anything Kenos had ever experienced came rushing down the bluffs separating the island into two halves. It was cold—icy cold, and it whipped the dirt off the ground, filling his eyes, ears, nose, and mouth all at once. The heavy door slammed into its granite frame, cutting Kenos off from his father once and for all.
Kenos stood up, keeping his eyes squinted close, hiding his head beneath his coat. The wind let up entirely a moment later.
Kenos rubbed at his eyes, trying his best to loosen the sand that had lodged itself beneath his lids. At least he’d cleaned them enough that he could open his eyes without too much pain.
Everything seemed to have settled once more. The lock on the door had revealed itself, and Kenos saw no reason to open it again. No point at all. . . . Still he kept the key in his pocket—knew that he would always keep that little bar of iron wherever he went.
He took a deep breath, spat the sand out of his mouth, swallowed a few times despite the pain in his raw throat, trying to keep it moist. He breathed again. And this time around it seemed to clear his mind more.
The amount of time he had spent on the ground seemed uncountable. He still felt the same amount of confusion and despair, and, above all, resentment towards his uncle—more than for Ren or anyone else who had kept this secret from him. But now he knew: There’s nothing I can do about it. Nothing he could say. Nothing he could do. His father was dead—and Yaran only knew what the hell had happened to his mother (though Kenos felt determined to squeeze it out of his uncle, after all Palken had done to him, he felt that he at least owed him this).
Somehow this realization brought him back into reality. His surroundings, though mostly in shadow now, were illuminated by a flickering candelabra in the window of the main house. Why hadn’t his father been buried in the ground—in a cemetery where all the other dead were? Had he been tortured? Had he been sent to prison at all? Why keep any of them here, locked up with guards?
Why did they feel the inclination that the dead needed to be guarded?
Kenos marched toward the center house, threw open the door without saying a word and strutted into the back room where he found Zana sitting at the desk with a pair of spectacles on the edge of her nose and a quill in her left hand.
Vik was still there, too, though he sat in one of the corners, his head down, most of his body wrapped in shadow.
And yet another question came to mind—something that was so obvious but which had slipped his mind: why was Zana here when no one else was?
He remembered something Saldrenia had told him, something about Zana’s wanting to . . . what was it?—research something? Kenos had assumed it had been the government the way Palken had talked about her interference. But was it possible it was something entirely unknown?
Kenos stood there for a considerable amount of time before Zana looked up at him, folded her spectacles, sat the quill in one of the inkwells, and closed one of the larger books she’d been pouring over.
Vik did nothing.
She seemed to be waiting for Kenos to make the first move.
“What is this place?” Kenos said, not moving from the doorway.
“I thought you would have understood that by now, Kenos,” she said curtly.
“I know that it’s a cemetery. These people . . .” he couldn’t seem to bring himself to say—to admit—that they were all dead. And above the ground.
“But why is it here?”
“A much better question. In some ways your first assumption was more correct. It is a type of prison—though one that hasn’t been used in a very long while. . . . At least we though it hadn’t been used.
“When Brehedak was still under the command of the King, and even before that considering some of the things I have discovered here and the exceeding age of the tree-wall, there was a punishment worse than being beheaded—though he resorted to that often. To be given the punishment of Brehedak was to be given—not only death—but an eternal imprisonment afterwards. We don’t know where or why the rituals started, but there is a process, using a wood from Ngatui, that can keep the soul inside the body after death.
“Reserved for only the worst kinds of people, the culprit was first hanged and then placed within one of these cell-tombs. Disgraced finally by not being put in the ground. Their soul is not allowed to leave, a punishment called solphamus. They are here forever. That is, unless someone were to take the body away and allow the corpse to be given a proper burial. . . . That’s why there are guards, you see, day and night.”
“How long has this been going on?”
“Centuries upon centuries, Kenos. In fact, we’re really not sure how long. And only the most select were put here, remember, which is why there aren’t more of them. Warmongers, coldblooded murderers.” She picked up one of the ledgers—the same that Kenos had found that first night of breaking inside—and, after finding the line she was looking for, said: “It seems your father, Aboline—” she looked at him for confirmation— “was the last to be officially sentenced here, by order of the king. Just before the rise of the democracy.”
But that can’t possibly be correct. He looked at Vik out of the corner of his eye.
Zana seemed to see the confusion on his face. “Now we understand the dilemma. If your father was the last to be put here . . .” she shot a pointed look at Vik, who didn’t seem to be paying any attention to the conversation (though Kenos was sure he had to be listening; there was nothing else to pay attention to). “If your father was the last . . .” she repeated.
Then why did everyone seem to think Pine had been sentenced to this prison, Kenos finished in his mind, knowing it was a sensitive subject for Vik.
“It’s not the only case,” Zana said. “There were two more reports. I simply had to find out why this is. . . . You see, solphamus was banned soon after your father’s demise—it caused such a stir. And it was made illegal in both governmental bodies, not just Lussefdrei’s. You’re not the first to try to steal someone away from here, either. Though I’m afraid the recent robber was more savvy to the reality of this place than you were. Just the other week a man succeeded in carrying off two corpses.”
The light near the window flickered, though there was no breeze that Kenos could feel. The window was closed, and Kenos had been sure to close the front doors behind him. Zana, whose back was turned to the window, didn’t seem to notice.
A face in the darkness.
“If I could only understand what is going on here. The king is adamant that we put a stop to this kind of thing—”
The candles dimmed noticeably on their golden perches, the flames shrinking to small, blue orbs before vanishing entirely.
“Yaran!” Zana said, exasperated. “What could it possibly be this time? I—”
The window shattered, sharp glass shredding through the open drapes and peppering Kenos’s face, which was already raw from the blasts of sand. He winced.
There was only one question left in Kenos’s mind, but it was Vik who, suddenly standing closer to Kenos, voiced it:
“Why did the guards abandon their posts?”
“Shit,” Kenos said, seeing the translucent body of the creature, its veins pulsing, glowing blue, eyes shining like dark stars. Though a robe and hood attempted to cover most of him, it was unmistakable that this man was not human.
Not again. Not anymore. It was the fabric of childhood nightmares not reality, he thought. Remembering the pain of losing Meloda. The hatred he’d built up towards Palken that day had fueled him and which now seemed to reach its epitome here. He remembered the fear, the terror, the dread, the disbelief.
At first he experienced nothing but this and sheer panic as the old emotions came rushing in. And then, thinking of his father—though he felt the adrenaline coursing through his body, telling him too make the decision to stay or to go—he felt an odd sense of indifference. What did it matter now what happened to him?
The creature didn’t seem intent on killing them. At least, there were no weapons trained at their chests. Kenos saw more of them backing this single one up saw the soft flickering of blue torches. The man—whatever the hell he was—knocked down the small table below the window as he crossed the threshold into the room.
“Brellan whishes to speak with you all.”
Kenos jumped back at hearing the sound of the creature’s voice. He knew that voice. How many times had he wished that that voice would leave him alone? How many times had it snuck into his dreams until he thought it would nag him into insanity?
He couldn’t help himself. “Sucha?” he whispered.
Zana sounded surprised. “You know this . . . this . . .” she stopped and didn’t finish.
The creature—no, he told himself, she—looked at him. It was hard to discern what her expression was. . . . Still in shock, he wondered how this had happened . . . was this as tall as she would have been if she hadn’t been hunched over, if the sickness hadn’t attacked her growth so early in life. Was this the amount of curves and muscle she would have if it hadn’t been taken away from her as well?
They’re connected, then. The Kilik Nid and the things that burned Anka’s inn—that killed Meloda. They’re the same thing.
Was this how they took away pain? Turned you into something other than human—Yaran, anything other than a human being. Humans experienced far too much pain.
He admitted that he’d thought about doing it, joining the religion. It had crossed his mind with serious consideration more than a dozen times as he’d lain on the ground outside 305.
Kenos suddenly felt awed and disgusted. He looked at her more closely, saw that it was her. A bit taller, yes . . . but Naray be damned, it was her.
She pulled back her hood, smiling. A genuine smile, nothing malicious about it. Or so it seemed to Kenos. Her hair, so long, thick, and very black, fell down bare shoulders.
Sucha didn’t try to strike up a conversation with him, didn’t try to annoy him as she’d done on so many other occasions. She stared at him intensely, eyes never leaving his until—at last—Kenos had to look a way, a sense of embarrassment creeping upon him.
“Brellan would like to speak with you,” Such said, just as matter-of-fact as her first request had been.
Kenos didn’t want to speak with Brellan—he was, in fact, the last person he wanted to see. Last on a list that was getting shorter by the second.
Sucha didn’t wait for any kind of response. She strode to the large door, opened it wide, and gestured for them (all of them) to follow her outside. Outside where he could see other creatures waiting for them.
Feeling he had no other choice, he followed her, finding it increasingly difficult to look at anything but this . . . woman—who was so unlike the person Kenos knew her to be. . . .
“Kenos,” Brellan said, spreading his arms wide, as though to embrace him.
He shied away from the man.
Brellan’s expression wavered only slightly, and then he let his hands drop to his side. There were others here, and the each looked like Sucha. . . . Kenos looked closer at this man in whom he had once found a sort of informal kinship. His face was now clean-shaven, his head bald, all his features chiseled (Yaran, almost jagged). The blue crept up his face like glowing roots. It was Brellan, yes. He could just make out the man he’d once known. But it was also someone else. He couldn’t quite place it, but then—
A man—Huk?—wrestled both Palken and Ren into the main crowd. He, like the rest of them, was hooded.
Ren looked at him curiously. Palken’s eyes darted to Kenos’s pocket first, and, after seeing the handle of the key sticking out from his trouser pocket, looked him in the eye with something that seemed akin to sympathy.
It only made Kenos more angry. He knew Brellan was trying to speak to him, knew that all of them were carrying swords, crossbows, and that he had nothing on his person save his own to hands. Still he spoke forward—and Brellan didn’t attempt to stop him.
“YOU KNEW! ALL THE DAMN TIME! AND YOU NEVER BOTHERED TO—”
Kenos stopped suddenly, egged on to stay silent by a shiver that shot down his spine. It wasn’t because of Palken’s trembling lip, or the pity he saw dripping from Ren’s eyes. Rather the smile he saw creeping over Brellan’s features. There was something inherently ominous about the look he gave Kenos . . . as though this was exactly what he wanted, what he’d been praying for.
There were more of the creatures now. Naray, has the whole island turned mad?
Torches flickering in the absolute darkness.
Eyes flicking to Brellan and back to Palken, Kenos decided, after a moment, to open his mouth again. “What happened to my mother? Why is my father here?” When there was no immediate response: “Yaran be damned—now, Palken! What happened to them?”
“Tell him, Minister,” Brellan said. “Tell him.”
“. . . Please understand—” Palken came forward— “I kept this from you because I didn’t want it to burden you. I know how difficult it is to live with a past that is shameful; I simply didn’t want you to have to—”
“What happened?” Kenos insisted.
“My sister wasn’t so fortunate as I. She didn’t grow out of our situation. . . . I left for Lussefdrei to attend University, and she stayed here—in the Eastern Bowl. Our mother and father were both gone, and she was penniless, and I had no money to spare. She . . . resorted to selling herself.”
The sick feeling inside Kenos (the same something that whispered that he was alone in the world) rose up to an even larger height, beginning to dominate his mind.
“One . . . regular was—well, your father. From the letters I received, they actually fell in love. He was a fisherman who could provide decently for them. She quit her practice and they were married. They had you two months later.”
“You weren’t even one year old when she became pregnant again. Your father thought . . .” Palken choked up, actual tears coming now. Kenos had only ever seen him cry once before. “I—I should have known, from the way she talked about him, he never seemed quite sane to me.”
Ren put an arm on his shoulder and squeezed it.
Palken sighed. “He thought—surely grounded, given her past—that it wasn’t his child. And one night, he—he . . . strangled her.” The word seemed forced. “He was the last one sentenced here. Kenos, really,” he came forward as though to embrace him. “I kept this from you because I didn’t want it weight you down.”
Kenos felt as though he couldn’t breathe properly—as though someone were strangling him. When he spoke, it came out in heavy breaths. “It would have been better than not knowing. Anything would have been better than not knowing.”
He backed away from Palken, away from the flickering torches and into dripping shadows, and Palken, seeming to sense that he wasn’t welcome in his nephew’s eyes, backed politely in the other direction and bowed his head.
“Don’t ignore it, Kenos,” Brellan said, smile becoming wider. “Let yourself feel it.”
How the hell did he know how he was feeling? The rage, the sadness? The sensation that something heavy had been laid across his chest, crushing his lungs, constricting his heart.
“Now think how life would be without it.”
Silence all around. No sound of ocean, no wind. No words.
Vik ran into Kenos’s elbow as he moved past him and joined with Huk and Eva—who, Kenos noted, looked neither delighted or surprised to see their “long-lost son.”
“Kenos,” Zana grabbed his arm, grip firm. “You’re a smart boy.” There was genuine concern in her voice. “You and I both know that this isn’t a very good decision.”
But the pain—why wouldn’t it go away? Damnit, it hurt so much. So much. I just want it to stop. He didn’t think he’d said it aloud, but he supposed he had to have because Brellan responded: “It’ll make it stop. It will make everything stop. It doesn’t have to be like this.”
Palken held Ren who cried silently. It was only then that Kenos wondered where Bent might be, if he was alright. . . . He thought of all those months of planning to be with his father, thought of his father’s face sunken and pale, encased in wood and stone. Thought of Sucha and her father. Thought of his empty relationship with his uncle.
He thought of Sucha and how pathetic she had seemed to him. But how much turmoil she must have actually been experiencing when she’d tried to reach out to him.
He thought about Meloda. Thought about that night on Ngatui. Saw the creature, saw him raise the crossbow, saw the smile as he’d let loose the arrow—
Saw Brellan in front of him in the present, a crossbow in his hand. The same face looking at him for a second time, waiting for an answer.
Kenos backed away, stumbling over Zana and hitting the ground.
Brellan’s smile faltered. The words wouldn’t come out, but he knew that Brellan understood why he had fallen, why Kenos had decided not to join Kilik Nid.
“You have an excellent memory,” he said.
Fear coursed through Kenos’s body. “He’s going to kill me. He’s going to do it—he’s going to kill me.” And although he had nothing much to live for and had even wished death upon himself only an hour ago, now something primal inside of him manifested itself, made him want to run from the man who had killed her. Meloda.
“He killed Meloda!” Kenos screamed out.
Palken halted from moving forward, Ren put a hand on her mouth. Palken’s eyes filled with dread as he saw that Kenos had, put the faces on top of one another. One sickening reality—that they had played host to the person who had singlehandedly caused so much pain—crushing them all at once.
It was almost as though Brellan had planned this.
“No . . .” Palken whispered.
Brellan raised his crossbow. Kenos, who’d stood up, found himself in Zana’s strong arms as she held him back from the creature. The being that had turned from friend to enemy to faceless animal within the span of twenty-four hours.
“You will not join Kilik Nid,” Brellan said. Anger held back, sadness at their choice.
In response, Kenos spat on the ground.
“No,” Palken said.
“We will not be a part of this,” Ren said.
Any second now and he’ll shoot us, Kenos thought, eyeing the crossbow. Wondering what it would feel like if the shaft were to go through him. Would he feel the wood inside his lungs? Or would the pain be so immense—so incomprehensible—that it would feel less than even a simple pinch?
All around them, as though they had been told, the creatures pulled the hoods from their faces. Most of them, Kenos was sorry to see, he recognized. Though on some, their faces were so disguised and taken over by glowing branch-like veins that it was difficult to tell.
“Then you shall watch first, as we burn your island. You home.”
“You aren’t going to kill us?” Kenos said incredulously.
“You will die tonight, Kenos Aboline. But I want you to see what your decision means.” He turned to the crowd in general. “You must see that you have chosen the wrong side. You must see your world burn before you disappear with it. It’s only fair.”
He raised his blue torch and threw it at the lodge. It shattered the glass of one of the windows, and then the entire structure—quicker than Kenos would have thought possible—burst into crackling hell, blinding his eyes.
With loud voices, the mob raised their respective flames and took off toward the civilized part of the Eastern Bowl. And they each—Zana, Kenos, Palken, and Ren—stood there in the darkness with the heat pressing on them from behind, drawing out their shadows into long, unnatural, willow-like beings that floated on the ground before them.
“I think it’s time to leave,” Ren said.
Kenos thought she sounded too enthusiastic for the occasion, but said nothing as he followed them, wondering all the while what he was going to do now that he had nothing left.
They went to get Bent first, finding him huddled beneath a hedge in the backyard. The help were nowhere in sight. The small group grew in size slowly but surely as they made their way to the Suporah, now including Saldrenia, Silgin, Anka and Lakonine, many other members of parliament and regular folk alike: the bakers, cobblers, carriage drivers. These were the few who had not chosen the way of the Kilik Nid.
There were nearly two-hundred of them by the time they reached the western beach—a small group compared to the amount of blue-faced mob lighting their homes with blue and orange flame, but it was enough to restore some of Ren’s hope—though not enough to abate her shame in what she had inadvertently allowed.
None of the Kilik Nid paid them any mind, apparently considering them dead already. Not worth killing. The world would take care of that, they seemed to figure.
It’s like some dark cleansing, Ren thought as she looked around at the flames and the ashes floating in the air like premature snow. But she wouldn’t worry about that right now—didn’t need to.
The Suporah. They were almost to the Suporah.
Ren had taken up a candle when they’d passed her home (which, miraculously, hadn’t been touched yet) and had given several more to those surrounding her. Together they descended the white sand hill, discerning the shape of the Suporah waiting quietly in the still water. The yellow flame of their light flickered on the surface of the mirror-like sea. Not a single wave.
She stopped at the water, as did the rest of the crowd, filing in behind them, wondering, perhaps just as Ren was, what they were going to do next. Ren wasn’t entirely certain, but she had a hunch of how they were going to be saved. She didn’t like the idea . . . yet the rest of the world was in the same position. I hope others are safe.
Kenos walked up beside her, cold eyes staring out at the water. Either he was not surprised by the creatures’ appearance or he simply didn’t care. Ren felt so much pity for the boy—a sad pride that he had not chosen Kilik Nid.
In a way, she felt much the same. . . . I had been so certain when I came here. Now I don’t know what I’m going to do. The future was unclear. She had chosen, but she had chosen wrong. I don’t want to make that same mistake again.
Ren didn’t know where her father was, though she was afraid he was in trouble. Out of curiosity, she reached for that thread of power. . . . But no. Her Divinity wasn’t there. She felt she had very little to live fore—except for maybe one glimmer of a something. A man standing next to her: ex-minister of an experimental government. One more step, she thought. With Palken, it would be alright.
Ren would find herself again—and she would find Yaran.
But first they needed to make it safely to the city under the ocean.
Palken stood next to Ren, holding her hand, looking out at the dark, still expanse. Anka, Lakonine, Zana, Saldrenia, and Silgin stood around him—along with Bent and Kenos. Many others crowded the front of the beach, standing on wet sand, though the water no longer flowed to them.
Yaran, how we wished that somehow he could have explained better to Kenos. He didn’t feel as though he had helped his nephew understand at all—had only fed the anger he held. Though looking at his face now, he saw only a grief so deep that it got lost in the depths of his mind, becoming, somehow, something different altogether—something ominous and life-depriving. Something he had tried hard to stave off in himself, something he had tried to keep from Bent and Kenos.
It seemed the beast had come despite his best efforts.
Palken wanted to say something but knew there was nothing that would help. This would have to be a journey walked alone, by Kenos.
“What do we do now?” he asked Ren.
Before she had the chance to answer, almost as though in response to his question, he felt a tug on his mind once more, somehow being drawn out to sea by the Suporah. It drew him out of his thoughts: A call without language, a distant echo at once urgent and enigmatic.
Next to him, Saldrenia pressed the tips of her fingers to her temples. “Did you . . . did you feel that?” she said, slightly out of breath.
Palken remembered the image the Suporah had given him earlier, thought that now he might be beginning to understand what it had meant.
“Yes,” Palken said.
“I—I felt it, too,” Zana said.
It came again, this time stronger, and as though in unison, the six of them (Saldrenia, Zana, Palken, Anka, Lakonine, and Silgin) took a step into the water. Nothing seemed to get wet, as though his body and clothing were made of oil. They progressed almost eerily toward the Suporah. Six of them in particular swam slowly to meet them, their heads raised on long necks out of the water.
He didn’t know what he was doing, nor did he have an inkling of what was to happen. But he felt that it was right, felt safety and comfort with the sea creatures—as alien as they were.
Palken was vaguely aware of the whispers from behind, the speculation. The wonder.
The bottom dropped off suddenly, jolting his stomach, but they continued forward as though flying through the water.
The Suporah lowered its head, eyes glowing a bright white, skin shining with salt water, and touched its head to Palken’s.
A bright, hot sensation filled him, and he arched his back. He gritted his teeth, grinding them until he thought they might crack. Nothing flashed through his mind—no images. Just white-hot heat. And then . . . it didn’t seem so uncomfortable. In fact, it felt nice, like sitting down to a large fire in the dead of winter. Palken’s muscles relaxed; his fists unclenched.
He dared to open his eyes, saw that his body was glowing, that he had been raised up out of the water. The other five around him were in the same situation. He looked down—saw just how far from the water he was and experienced a moment of vertigo and panic.
But it ceased as he looked at the Suporah, who had raised itself high above the water, too. Its tail fin slapped at the water.
Listen carefully, the Suporah said. He was sure that the creature had spoken aloud, yet he knew that it was only inside his own head—despite the enormity of it. The voice was masculine, deep but with certain youthfulness. I will only be able to speak for a moment. You six have been chosen. You will be known as the Isaliar; you will protect this people; you will lead them to the city beneath; there, we will also be your guardians. You have each been given life—and Divinity should you choose to accept it.
Palken began to be lowered back to the ocean, watching as the light began to fade from his skin.
Gather your people and follow . . . the last word echoed, the light on his skin faded, and the Suporah were silent.
He found himself back in the water suddenly cold, shivering, even. The water soaked through him; he threw off his jacket, suddenly not caring about the expensive embroidery and lace as he would have done the day before, and swam to shore along with the other of the . . . what did the Suporah say that we are to be called now? The Isaliar . . . ?
Everything felt odd; he knew that he was awake, that this was real, yet it was so far removed from anything Palken had had his mind on hours before.
They reached the shore. Palken felt that there was some strength restored to him. The Suporah swam close to the shore, and he knew what they needed to do. He made eye contact with his friends, who each nodded; they understood each other.
There wasn’t a single person on the shore who moved. All looked at them with a sense of awe in their eyes. Many even looked afraid of them. I wonder how it would have looked to them from the shore.
He found Ren’s face in the crowd. She was smiling at him, tears glistening in her eyes. She came forward and put her hand in his, nodding to him, letting him know it was alright to continue. The sound of roaring flames and shattering glass wafted from over the hill. Flickering light throwing the world into shadow.
“The Suporah are going to take us to a safe place. Beneath the ocean.”
The silence was such that even his voice—still shaking due to the cold—carried to every person; they erupted. There were cries of fear, cries for help, prayers for Yaran and curses for Naray.
He looked around for help. Saldrenia was biting her lip, Anka and Lakonine held one another—didn’t say a word—Zana looked around at the crowd, and Silgin kept his eyes closed—trying to get control of his breathing. For all the man’s burliness, it that moment he had never seen such vulnerability. We are supposed to be the protectors of these people? Palken thought, feeling suddenly very inadequate.
Palken had lead nearly his entire life, or so it seemed. But this felt different. This felt enormous, strange. He felt he simply didn’t have the skills.
Zana spoke up then, putting her wrinkled yet strong hands before her in an act of silencing the nervous crowd. “We know that you are scared—but this is above such things! We will have time to think about our situation later—time to fix it. We—”
Different cries rose up now. “The island cannot burn!” a young man shouted. “It’s rock and sand! We won’t die!”
How to make them understand. The Suporah were before their eyes, and they had just witnessed something miraculous. If there had ever been a time when they would believe a vision, it was now.
“Please!” Palken said.
Ren squeezed his hand.
“Please believe me when I tell you that we cannot stay here. Kilik Nid has not simply overcome Brehedak. Remember the moon—look at the starless sky. The still ocean. This is a new world that they have created. We cannot stay. There will be no trade, we will not be allowed back to our homes—our homes which have been burned to the ground. . . . I know it’s difficult, but we have to have some faith. Faith that Yaran will see us through.”
Palken paused. Then: “. . . We leave. Or we die.”
This brought a sweeping quiet over everyone. At last, a young mother spoke up, pushing her way to the front of the crowd. She carried a small son with a lace bonnet in her arms. “What do we do?”
He hadn’t thought of how, but the moment he asked himself the question, the answer became obvious. “We will ride the Suporah,” he said. “They will take us to their place of refuge.”
The young mother clearly did not want to go, yet she continued on into the water, her dress blossoming up around her, clutching her boy with all her might. One of the Suporah came up beside her, offering her its enormous back.
Silgin went to help her on, and with that one small act of courage burning in everyone’s minds, the remainder of the questioners surged forward, splashing up the salt water all around them.
Not for the first time Palken wondered if they would actually make it away.
Something heavy, like a blow to the chest, stopped him thinking further. Something warm trickled down the left side of his breast, down to his grown then down his legs. Sticky. Unnatural.
He barely got a view of the blue-veined man standing at the top of the hill with a crossbow before he looked down and noticed the arrow sprouting from his chest, somehow vibrating with the shallow breaths of a dying man and the beat of a heart that was beginning to slow down.
Kenos saw the arrow hit his uncle, watched Ren’s scream of horror, heard the wail of the Suporah—so much like a sad whale song. But nothing shocked him more than the yell that burst out of his own mouth.
Anger—real, exhausting, exhilarating anger—pumped through him. He’d had nothing. But, no. He’d had something—he’d always had something. He’d always had Palken. Even though he’d hated him, even though he’d cursed him. Palken had been a constant.
He ran to where he lay in the sand, blue pumping through him, his eyes already glowing dots in the dark. Would it kill him or turn him into a creature . . . or both?
Bent was crying, Ren was sobbing—calling on Yaran or some other nonsense. She hadn’t been able to heal Meloda. What the hell makes her think she can do a damned thing now that it’s her precious Palken?
All this was outward, all this anger, the screaming, the clenched fists, biting the inside of his cheek until he was bleeding again.
Inside was something more tender. Please don’t let him die.
“We’ve got to go,” Ren said suddenly, wiping away the tears from her face. We’ve got to get him somewhere safe.
“With them?” Bent asked, incredulous.
“Yes—with them. They gave him Life. He might not die.”
As Kenos watched, they picked his uncle up in their arms and carried him like some overgrown child into the water.
Kenos turned around to find Palken’s killer directly behind him. Brellan.
“Don’t go with them,” Brellan said. “Aren’t you angry? Aren’t you tired?”
“Yes,” he said through clenched teeth.
Brellan smiled. “You see. Listen to reason. You will not survive with the Suporah. They won’t protect you forever.”
Kenos felt numb. Enraged, confused, lost. He thought of Sucha. He thought of Meloda.
“Come.” Brellan held out his hand.
“I’m not going with you,” Kenos said, standing up a bit taller, wiping away the tears. But I want this to end. He just hoped that the arrow would kill him quickly. He hadn’t been given Life. He wasn’t special. Straight in the heart. He’d get to know what it felt like . . .
Brellan narrowed his eyes, lifted his crossbow.
“KENOS!” Ren called.
He’d ignore her. Shouldn’t be too hard . . . he nearly laughed to himself . . . he’d done a good job of ignoring Ren when she only wanted to help.
“Become Kilik Nid,” Brellan said.
Kenos looked him in the eye. “No.”
There was a whoosh as Brellan let the arrow loose. He felt it, just as he’d thought he would, not as pain, but as a thump, a pinch. Not bad at all.
“KENOS!” Some were the strangled cries of his uncle, he was sure, some of Ren’s. In a way, he realized, he would miss them. But that was alright . . . if the stories were true, if Yaran were as real as Ren professed he was, he would see his real parents. . . .
Another thump, more warm trickling down to his legs.
He was aware that he’d fallen backward. Any moment and he was sure he’d be gone.
And then the pain started. Kenos screamed, writhing on the ground, shaking. His head hurt, his heart hurt. Another arrow, this one in his stomach.
Make it stop—Yaran, MAKE IT STOP!
Kenos opened his eyes, hearing more screams for him, could see Brellan’s face swimming before him.
“At least I have you,” he said tenderly, picking him up.
It was a moment before he realized that everything—the Suporah, the torches, his own hands—were all tinted the color blue.
As Brellan carried him away, he hoped that the others would be safe.
Saldrenia closed the lid on the box of flowers and set them beneath her bed, underneath a loose floorboard. It creaked as she closed the hole on the secret.
She thought about that night they’d all arrived to the city under the water. How scared they’d all been. Wondering what would happen next—none of them knowing that anyone outside the Isaliar would soon die. And that generations would pass after them. And still they would be here.
Never to leave, it seemed. A prison beneath the ocean while Kilik Nid reigned above.
The door opened, and Saldrenia jumped, getting off the edge of her bed. “Alanga? Alanga—is that you?”
“No,” the voice said. A voice she didn’t know. “You found something,” he said. “You really shouldn’t keep secrets.”
There was a moment, a breath, and then the stranger came at her in the dark, hands wrapped around her throat. Strong. She gasped for air—even breathing hurt. Bright sparks appeared before her eyes, and she felt something sharp around her abdomen. And everything went dark.
Toruk yawned as he watched the light of dawn slowly fill the wide stone hallway, patterns from the abvoe flickering all over. He had been out for far too long the night before—something he should have known better than to do because he’d known about work the next morning.
Not that there would be anything too exciting—in fact, it was bound to be just as boring as it had been the week before. He’d been able to catch up on some sleep then, too.
He leaned against the door, yawning again and closing his eyes.
There was a sound from inside. A thump, like a person falling off a table or a chair.
Toruk shot straight up, thinking at once that he should send for someone and also that it would be stupid to think something as small as a noise to be of such importance. But then . . . a shuffling, like feet moving.
Was the Nihak inside?
He turned around, raising his javelin.
The handles on the double doors turned slowly, opening to the room Toruk had never been allowed to see. Inside was a simple bed, and before him a man in his prime, face pale, a considerable brown beard, and eyes that held just the slightest touch of blue in their green.
He breathed deeply, leaning on the door knobs for support.
“Are—are you . . .” Toruk began before remembering that his was, indeed, the Nihak. Not a woman. A man. The leader of their society. Why did he look so sick?
“Where am I?” the Nihak asked.
Toruk thought that an odd question but answered anyway. “You are in the city,” he said.
The man looked down at his bare feet, scrunching his eyebrows. “Kenos . . .” he said.
“Sorry?” Toruk said.
“Do you have a name?” the Nihak asked.
“Toruk, sir,” he said. “And . . . and how would you like me to address you, sir?”
The Nihak stood a little straighter though it seemed it took considerable effort. “Palken Shakoline,” he said.