“Ain’t no shame in that Lightborne game.”
NIGHTBORNE, sequel to LIGHTBORNE, coming soon. :3
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I can’t stop looking at him. I should, but I can’t stop.
We both look away.
I wait a few seconds before looking at him again.
I can’t help myself. The boy in the blue hoodie is like me, and it’s so very rare to see someone like me.
I wonder if he knows it.
I bring my hand to my right earlobe. A small glowing orb of turquoise radiates from the skin there and pulses at my touch. It isn’t a tattoo or a piercing; it’s proof of what I am. The boy in the blue hoodie has a matching one.
For now, my light is dim. His is dimmer. Does it mean he hasn’t awakened yet?
Only one way to find out.
“Ahhh. I’m stuffed!” I kick my legs from the booth and stretch. The booth makes a squeaky protest at the release of my weight. The boy in the blue hoodie looks up from a fry coated in ranch dressing.
“Hey, Moll,” I call to the sole waitress. “Can you run my card?”
The Café on Grand is less crowded than usual. I only ever go there alone. To think or to plan. Moll hurries over to clear my plate and take the debit card marked with a fake name: ‘Amanda Robertson.’ That’s what I’ve been going by lately. Completely inconspicuous.
Only those in the coterie know my true name.
Moll returns my card, with receipt, and I leave her the sort of tip an Amanda would leave. Not too big, not too small. Then, I make my way for the boy in blue – whose glow is only slightly visible, though it’s definitely there, tucked behind his hood.
As I pass him, the receipt from Moll is loose between my fingers. Just loose enough that–
–it accidentally drops into the puddle of ranch on the hooded boy’s plate.
A half-bitten fry falls from his mouth as he gapes down at the receipt in dismay. By the looks of it, ranch dressing is very, very important to him.
There are worse things. At least it isn’t mustard. Shudder.
“Oh wow! So sorry about that!” Eyes locked on the stranger, I pluck the wet receipt from his plate. “Hey, Moll! Can we get another side of ranch over here? I believe I’ve just committed lunch murder in the third-degree.”
“It’s okay,” the boy starts, appearing somewhat put-off that a random girl has just dug around in his food, “I was just about fini–”
“Nonsense!” I fan at him. “Condiments are important. Very much so.” I lean in with cupped mouth: “It’s the little things.”
The boy is now even more put-off.
If only I were good at flirting, I might be able to approach this in a different way. Alas, charm and coyness aren’t my strongest of suits.
I plop down in the booth opposite him, in response to which he stiffens against the vinyl of the cushion, shocked apparently. “Sure,” he says under his breath, “go right ahead and have a seat.” He doesn’t bother to lower his hood.
His earlobe hasn’t changed. Not even with me this close to him. Mine, on the other hand, is glowing obnoxiously. He doesn’t take notice.
It can only mean one thing:
He’s still dormant.
“Hmm. I’ve never activated anyone before…” I mutter to myself, chin in hand.
The boy’s left eyebrow twitches with something between confusion and annoyance. “Excuse me?”
Right. I probably seem like a crazy person.
“My name is Amanda,” I lie, sticking out my hand. “I come here all the time, but I’ve never seen you before. Come here often? Sorry about the ranch.”
“I told you, it’s fin–”
“There you go!” With ninja stealth, Moll is at the side of the table, delivering a fresh cup of dressing.
My hand is still hanging awkwardly over the table. He never took it. It doesn’t look like he intends to, either. I inch it a bit closer to him, and he backs further into the booth seat. “How old are you?” I ask. “Middle school?”
My question triggers something. The boy’s already unenthusiastic expression transforms into one of utter foulness. “I’m seventeen.”
“What!? No way! You look quite young!”
He stares down his nose at my outstretched hand. “Quite?” he sneers. “And what about you? How old are YOU supposed to be?”
Snarky little fella, isn’t he? Wasn’t expecting that.
“T-twenty-one,” I say, taken aback.
“Ah,” he says, pushing my hand aside with the prongs of his fork. “Did you want to buy me booze, then, or–?”
“Of course not!” I spout. “We don’t drink! It dulls our lightborne sense!”
I cup my mouth.
It’s too soon to tell him the truth of what I am. The truth of what he has the potential to be.
“Lightborne sense?” The boy’s demeanor is indifferent. “Look, I saw you staring at me before. What is it you want from me, old lady?” His mouth turns haughty. “I know I’m hard to resist and all, but–”
“Old lady?” I repeat through my teeth.
This encounter isn’t anything like how I expected. This ‘boy’ is more of a ‘guy.’ And an unpleasant one, at that!
“Listen, you baby-faced runt!” I counter. “I was going to let you in on something really amazing, but now I’ve deemed you unworthy. So there!”
Silence follows my proclamation.
“So, what,” he says, after a moment, “it’s something like… drugs?”
With a sigh, I peel myself from the sticky covering of the booth. My sweaty thigh seems to have formed a glue-like bond with the vinyl. My skin makes a sickly ripping noise as I stand.
The unpleasant boy wrinkles his face in disgust.
“Shut up,” I tell him.
He folds his arms. “I didn’t say anything.”
With that, I march away from him, flustered enough that Moll notices. She calls something to me, but I ignore it.
What a shame. The boy had such potential, too. It’s rare to come across one of us, as it is, but to find someone turquoise like me…
We are a dying bloodline.
I move to the door marked by a bell. And that’s the end of it.
Or so I think.
Just as I make a motion to push at the door. A certain discourteous boy in a certain stupid blue hoodie pushes past me rudely–
And inadvertently brushes his hand against my wrist in the process.
Skin contact is made. The turquoise light streaming from the boy’s right earlobe flares blindingly bright, and he stumbles against the café door, which retaliates in disrupted bell clamor. In the aftermath, he is wide-eyed, gaping at the brightness on my ear that matches his own.
Not only that, a thin turquoise string of light now connects us, from his wrist to mine. Something only the two of us can see. Realization hits me–
I’ve unwittingly just activated my first lightborne ward. And he’s possibly the worst human I’ve ever met.
“What’s with your ear?!”
I pull the newly awakened lightborne away from the café. He’s like a baby. A baby-faced baby lightborne.
As I draw him down an alley strewn with cardboard boxes, he puts up a protest: “Why is your ear glowing like that?! FREAK.”
“For the record, YOUR ear is glowing just the same as mine,” I tell him. “Don’t worry, though, normal humans can’t see it.”
This only sets him off. “Normal humans? Meaning there are abnormal ones, also?!” He begins to flail, of all things.
“Stop it,” I bark. “If you don’t, someone will notice and think I’m abducting you.”
His face reaches new levels of desert-like dryness. “Aren’t you? And what the heck is this thing?” He gives his wrist a shake, where the thin string of light connects us. It runs from his wrist to mine, like yarn.
“It’s our lightstream. It allows us to share power.”
He roots himself to the cobble of the alley. “Power?”
This isn’t going over well.
I try to remember back to when Aiden gave me ‘the talk.’ How did he put it?
“You are a special, glowing person. Like a princess. One seeded with the light of the Maker’s breath. Chosen, over everyone else, to protect the–”
I stop myself. I was five when Aiden gave me the talk. It won’t work on this guy.
Indeed, his lip is curled with disgust. “A princess?”
“O-or a prince? Ugh. Never mind. It’s too much to explain right now. The sun is almost at highpoint, and they’ll be coming soon. Anyway, what’s your name?”
The boy rips his wrist away from me, and the light chain shakes in retaliation. “Wait a minute, I know what this is! You’re a cougar. AND you roofied me. That’s why I’m seeing weird things.” He scoffs to himself smugly. “Gotcha.”
Is he serious!? Four years isn’t that great of an age difference!
I glance at the sky because the sun is moving into position. Normally it would be fine, but with a newborn on my hands . . .
“First of all, I’m not a cougar,” I say, rushed. “Second of all, any seventeen-year-old boy should be happy to have the attention of a hot older woman. Thirdly, when would I have roofied you!? Did you even eat anything around me?”
“Well, no, but–”
“Plus, I’m far too cute to be your standard abductor.”
He rolls his eyes. “As cute as you are humble.”
“Good, now that that’s settled–” I snatch his sleeve and tug him down the alley. “I don’t like you, and I didn’t mean to awaken you, but it happened, and it’s probably for the best, being that you’re turquoise and we need as many people as we can get. Now that IT’s happened, I figure I need to keep you alive at least until sundown, so I’m going to need you to do exactly as I say until we get back to the coterie. There, Aiden and the others can help me figure out what to do with you.”
The boy looks like he wants to protest, but he doesn’t get the chance. The sun is at highpoint, and it’s time to do what I do best. I begin to sprint, and I’m sure he notices that it’s quicker than an average human. It’s enough to distract him.
At least until we reach the end of the alley.
There lies an open stretch of sunny street. The sort of place darklings like to dwell. The very place I was supposed to be guarding, before being distracted by the boy in the blue hoodie.
Any moment now–
“Ho! What is THAT?” the boy squawks.
Right on schedule. There, on a stretch of pavement, heavily occupied by humans, a shadow passes, blacker than any black the boy has ever seen. He clings to me.
“You can feel it, right?” I say. “Not only see it, but feel the darkness?”
He doesn’t answer, just watches as the shadow swims over the pavement, beneath the feet of unsuspecting humans.
“The funny thing is, you expect dark things to hide in the night, but actually–” I bring my hand to my glowing earlobe and give it a pinch. “Only in the brightest sunlight, do the darkest shadows show themselves. Our job is to drown them.”
“Nope. Nope, nope, nope.” The newborn lightborne covers his ears and turns his back to the shadowy beast. “It’s not real. It’s the roofie.”
Guess denial is to be expected.
I spin him around. “Just watch.”
Watch and learn.
It’s my turn to be smug. He’s about to be impressed. I concentrate my turquoise power from my ear and into my fingertips. In response, my fingers pulse with the magick of the earth. My veins are now one with the veins of the tree of light. Yggdrasil’s power courses through me. I channel it into action.
“Yah!” With a cry, I sprint into the open street.
Normal humans don’t notice. They can see it, but it doesn’t register with them. They don’t think anything out of sorts about the girl dashing quicker than a person should be able to dash.
The shadow below is still circling, looking for its next victim. Its sights are set on a woman with red shoes, shouting into her cellphone. Something about her cable fees doubling. Bright colors are appealing to the darklings. That’s why I most always wear black.
As the woman’s scarlet feet become encompassed in darkness that only I and the boy waiting in the alley can see, I run at her, dragging my lighted fingers along the ground as I come. A strip of turquoise light glows along the coarse street where I’ve drawn it. I’m creating a passage of light between the earth and the mortal world. A vein.
Even the woman doesn’t notice me as I dart at her. She can’t see the glow on my ear, she can’t see the line of light drawn along the ground, and she can’t see the chain of turquoise that connects me with the boy in the alley. She’s busy taking out her frustrations on the customer service representative on the other end of the line – a person who probably has no control over the red-shoed woman’s cable fees.
By the sound of it, the woman is one of those people that deserves to be eaten by the darklings.
But it’s my job to save even the horrible ones.
I don’t dare touch the shadow directly. Instead, I circle it – and the red-shoed woman – creating a ring of turquoise glow around them. For the lesser darklings, this is all it takes. Yggdrasil, tree of light, will do the rest.
Once the circle of glow is completed, I take my fingers from the pavement and dart back to where I started the line of light. I bring my hand again to my right earlobe to replenish the power in my fingertips, before placing a spread-fingered hand against the ground, at the start of the light line.
I give a glance over my shoulder to make sure the baby-faced baby is watching. He is. He’s crouched, but he’s watching. Good. With a grin, I draw my breath and channel the power of the earth into the line of light. It sears in response.
Like a lit fuse, power courses down the line of light until reaching the red-shoed woman where she stands.
Teeth-gritted, I push everything I have into the spell. “TAKE THAT, YOU FIEND!” The world lights blindingly bright with turquoise power. There is a pop! And a hiss! And once the world becomes visible again, the shadow beneath the woman is gone. All that remains is her own huffy one as it storms down the road, still ranting at the poor representative on the other end of the phone.
The line of light is gone. My fingers have returned to normal, and even though I can’t see my own earlobe, it’s dimmer than before. I feel it. I’ve exerted a fair amount of power today.
The rest of the world carries on their way, returning to work from lunch, or scurrying about on their errands. Only the boy in blue knows what’s happened.
He’s crouched against the ground, muttering under his breath like a foaming raccoon.
I brush off my hands and return to his side, following the chain of light that connects us. “Well, what did you think, runt? Preeeetty sweet, am I right?”
He says nothing that amounts to words. He just continues to mutter and stare at the space where the darkling formerly was. He’s caught in the sort of disbelief that can only be eased, in my experience, by one thing:
“Let’s go for bubble tea!”
Expression vacant, the boy slurps another boba up the straw. He hasn’t said a word since the alley. Maybe I broke him. Whoops.
The day is bright and warm. I keep a keen eye out for any other darklings that might be forming over the ground. My mission was to watch that open stretch of street only, but if any others happen upon us, I’ll have no choice but to act – with a ka-pow! And a hi-yah!
“What the actual hell?”
The boy is watching me, as I’ve been unconsciously making karate motions with my hands.
“H-hey, good job!” I divert. “You said something. And they were actual words, too! Does that mean you’re ready to tell me your name? I can’t keep calling you ‘the boy,’ you know.”
He rolls his eyes, as he’s prone to doing. “You haven’t once called me ‘the boy.’”
“Maybe not out loud.”
The boy lets out a sigh, and stares into the center of his straw. “You can do . . . magic. Like a wizard.”
“Not a wizard,” I correct. “But yes, magick. Light magick. You can too.”
He halts in the middle of the sidewalk and chews his lip a moment. “You fight . . . shadows?”
“Darklings,” I say. “Among other things. To be honest, lesser darklings like these are a walk in the park compared to what’s out there.”
He chews his mouth a moment more, and then– “Teach me.” His eyes are set on mine, stern almost.
“That IS the idea.” I take a final slurp of my tea before tossing it into a can at the corner of the walk. “Whenever we meet a new lightborne that hasn’t been activated, we’re supposed to activate them. TBH, you’re my first, though, so I want to ask Aiden how to deal with you.”
“My waker,” I explain. “The one who showed me what I am.”
The boy eyes me up and down with apparent dislike. “That means that you’re MY waker? Great.”
I flick him in the nose. “Try not to be too excited about it. Little asshole. I’m actually pretty awesome, you know.”
“I’m not little,” he grumbles.
“Suuure.” But I feel bad for him . . . a little. I haven’t been ‘normal’ for a very long time, so I can’t really relate. As we cut through the cemetery at the edge of the city, I think about how to be tactful. “Look, I know it’s a lot,” I tell him without meeting his eye. “I’ve seen others right after they awaken. It’s tough. You’ll feel better when we get to the coterie. There’s a whole group of us. People that are better at this sort of thing than I am.”
He squeezes the empty plastic cup in his hand. “Can you at least give me a rundown of who you people are?” He swallows at the cup and his voice becomes squeaky: “Aliens?”
I wish! But a rundown? That’s a tall order.
“I can try?” I say, equally squeaky. “But first you have to tell me your name.”
“I don’t . . .” he stalls.
I turn back to him and his forehead is furrowed.
Of course. How could I have forgotten? Now that he’s awakened, he probably can’t remember his old name. After all, I can’t remember what I was called before I was five. He probably has an ID in his wallet that shows the name his parents gave him. It won’t do any good in our world, though, so it’s better not to remind him now. That’s not the name I want to hear, anyway.
“You’re going to have many names in the future,” I tell him. “Right now, I’m Amanda Robertson. But my true name, my lightborne name, is something deeper than a name. It’s something that’s been with me forever, in my blood. You don’t have to remember your human name right now, but try to recall your lightborne name. Even if you don’t think you know it, you do. Here–” I take the destroyed cup from his hand. “Bring your hand to your ear. That’s our link to the earth. I know it doesn’t make a lot of sense right now. It probably sounds like weird spiritual crap, but trust me. Your earlobe is a connection between the mortal world and the world of light. Touch it. Concentrate.”
He looks reluctant, skeptical, and like he wants to murder me.
I lean against a polished tombstone. A large one in the shape of a Celtic cross. “Just do it.”
He does so with the utmost disinclination. With eyes locked deadly-like on mine, he brings a twitching hand to his earlobe. Upon touching his skin there, though, something happens. A sizzle shoots up his body. I see it run from his feet the top of his hair – not that there’s much space to cover on a shorty like him. “Pidd,” he says automatically, and the light chain between us pulses.
“Did you say Pit?” I tease.
“PIDD,” he says again, this time stronger. Bolder. The chain pulses again. Good, he’s telling the truth. “It’s weird,” he says. “I can’t feel it or hear it, but I KNOW it.”
I nod. “Sounds about right.”
He turns to me expectantly. “Your turn.”
“Hm?” I raise a brow at him.
“Your true name,” he says.
From some far off part of the city a jackhammer starts.
“Oh,” I say absentmindedly. “It’s Pauline.”
“Liar,” he shoots.
“Ah, you can tell.” I grin at him. “See? It means we’re connected, waker and ward. Lucky you.”
“What is your real name?” he demands, arms crossed foully. “I told you, didn’t I?”
I stand from the tombstone and kick at the weeds that have overrun the grass. “That’s true,” I sigh. “And I suppose you’ll need to know sooner or later . . .”
He waits, browline darkening by the second.
“Jeanine,” I say.
“Felicia,” I say.
“Ugh! Just tell me, would you?!”
Heh. It’s somewhat satisfying to torment him.
All the same . . .
“My true name,” I say, “is Bexley.” The turquoise chain running between our wrists flares.
“Bexley?” He cocks his head. “Yeah, you seem like a ‘Bexley.’”
I don’t want to know if it’s a good or a bad thing.
“Anyways,” I say, moving around the cross-like tombstone. “Let’s get back to the coterie. There’s actually kind of a lot going on in our world right now, so the sooner we get there, the bett–”
“But I have to go home.” Pidd roots his shoes to the ground. There’s probably a dead body under there. Shudder. “You can’t just expect me to go with you to your magical cult or whatever it is,” he says.
“Pidd . . .” Now I feel more than a little bad. “Do you . . . have anywhere else to go?”
“Of course I do!” He reels backwards in offense. “My HOME, idiot.”
“But . . .” I hide my eyes in the weeds around our feet. “Do you remember where it is?”
He takes a moment to answer. “I . . .”
“How about a family? Do you remember your family? Or friends? Or anyone?”
I wait for something more, but he’s quiet. Truth is settling on him and it’s a heavy truth to bear. “Do you remember anything but your name?” I ask softly.
“I remember . . . I like taking pictures. That’s all.” He is horrified by the discovery.
“You remember other things, I’m sure,” I say, fanning at him. “It’s just hard being put on the spot.”
He meets my gaze, with eyes that are sharp and cold. Until they aren’t. For all of my earlier staring, I haven’t really gotten a good look at him yet. Not a true look.
His eyelashes are dark. So are his eyes. It was hard to see before, but . . .
More than angry, more than defiant, his eyes are afraid.
It was a long time ago, but I understand. It can be frightening to forget your old self so suddenly and without remorse.
I put a hand to his shoulder. “Come with me, Pidd. I’ll keep you safe until you can keep yourself safe. You didn’t choose this, but your old self is gone. For a while, it will bother you. I used to strain my memory for a face. Any face to connect me to the mortal world. But new faces will begin to fill your life, and then it won’t bother you anymore. Mine’s the first.”
The world seems to pause. The air around us is still, but it’s an alive stillness – as if the air is clashing against itself so ferociously that it has no choice but to cancel itself out.
As the world around us clashes, Pidd stares at me. He slowly lifts his hands to the edges of his hood and drops it for the first time.
I suddenly feel embarrassed for how I’ve been treating him.
“Y-you’re seventeen?” I say.
His hair is blond and reaches below his ear to the base of his jaw – which is more defined now that it’s out in the open. He may be baby-faced, but there’s something about his jaw and his adam’s apple that makes me realize:
Pidd isn’t a boy, at all. He’s a guy. One normal girls probably find attractive.
“I’ll be eighteen next month,” he says with a haughty swish of his hair.
“H-hey! You remembered something else! Anyway–” I awkwardly remove my hand from his shoulder. “I promise everything will feel better once we get to the coterie. All of this magick stuff? Pretty badass. There’s so much more to it, too!” I box at him. “So stick in there, runt!”
For some reason, it feels weird to call him that now, though.
“You realize we’re the same height, right?” he says dryly.
Are we? I eye at the top of his head. Aiden is a lot taller than him, but then . . . Aiden’s also a lot taller than me.
“Oh my gawd.” I feel my eyes widen. “Maybe I’m a runt too.”
He snorts, for the first time looking amused by the situation – though he’s quick to revert. “Ah, this is all a lot, Bexley.” He scratches at his hair vigorously. “Argh! Aren’t people going to look for me if I just disappear? What if there were people that cared about me? I mean, I’m SURE I must have had a girlfriend.”
“Maybe you had a boyfriend.” I shrug. “That would explain why you weren’t susceptible to my sexiness.”
“Ha! Sexiness, right.”
“I’m kidding.” I shield my eyes from the falling sun. “But for real, don’t worry about any of that. You’ve disappeared from the memory of anyone that used to know you, just like they’ve disappeared from your memory. Even if there’s a you-shaped hole in their life, their logic will twist around it. People have an uncanny way of overlooking things they can’t understand.” I halt abruptly enough to startle him. “Besides, Pidd, normal humans can’t follow us where we’re going.”
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All living things, it is said, are contained within a vessel. Made of material beyond man’s comprehension, the Eternity Vessel rests suspended in the blackness of time. Therein, the world is kept lingered between two powerful, terrible sources: Azure and Bloőd.
At the top, Azure, filled with cunning and bide. At the bottom, Bloőd, of ardor and haste.
Two powers to hold a sphere.
The world rests;
The powers turn.
The world turns;
The powers rest.
The time for bequeathment approaches.
The castle town of Eldrade has not been invaded for nearly a thousand years. Protected by powerful barrier enchants, its people live in near seclusion, awaiting nothing; for they have long forgotten the balance of enchantments. They have long forgotten the consequences of their stolen color.
One such resident, a sphinx-eyed boy, sits sifting grain in a most unassuming storehouse at the western docks. A modest boy in a modest task, there is nothing so remarkable about him.
But all of that will change.
All of it is already beginning to change.
Not yet seventeen, the boy’s Amethyst has yet to emerge, but seventeen is fast approaching, and the inherited power has already begun to writhe in his veins. On this day, it courses through his wrists, turning them a deep, flushed purple.
“It grows stronger,” the boy observes while staring at his own changing flesh. And he is not glad. He is bothered. For seventeen’s emergence of power means a great deal for the boy. Soon, very soon, he will be made to cast. Like his father. Like his grandfather. After seventeen, he will be made only to cast, and his grain-sifting days will forever be over.
That is the penance of those living with stolen color.
I call to that boy in the midst of his sifting, and he looks up to see me standing upon the storehouse’s topmost catwalk. Unbeknownst to him, I have been spying. On his sifting. On his brooding. I take the opportunity to use an Amethyst enchant of my own.
“Here I come, Awyer!”
And I do come. Featherlike, I come floating through the levels of the storehouse and land into the pile of grain halfway sifted. It catches me softly and spills in overflow. Awyer shakes his head. A boy of few words and even fewer expressions. But I know him well enough to know what he is thinking; I know him better than anyone, for I alone remember the consequences of the stolen color. I alone remember the balance of enchantments. And I alone can see into Awyer’s future.
Not that I will ever tell him so.
“Grim.” Awyer says my name with perturbation. “Move.”
But the pile of grain is soft and welcoming, and although I have knowingly disrupted his work, I will not be moving just yet. “Join me, Awyer,” I issue. “Take a break.”
I am responded by a headshake.
Within the storehouse, the air is mugged and still. Our words are dropped by the muting piles of grain all around. I must work all the harder to make my wants clear.
“Your brow is heavy, Awyer,” I prod at him. “Join me. Divulge your worries.”
Awyer gives it some thought. His brooding brow broods a little deeper before making a decision. He leans into the side of grain.
A satisfactory outcome.
Were the pile outside, it would shimmer golden in the sunlight. The gold of the land. The treasure of the earth. But within the storehouse, the shining is muted to dull tan. “Now then, Awyer.” I slide into place next to him. “Tell me what plagues you.”
Awyer stares into the ceiling. His features are dark, his hair and his brows and his lashes; all but his eyes, which are golden and slanted and look more like an animal’s than any person’s. That is only fitting. Sphinx blood runs thick in Awyer’s veins – a gift passed down from his mother’s father.
Awyer takes his time answering, as he usually does. “It is not anything new, Grim,” he admits once allowing a helping of seconds to pass. “It is . . .” He bares his rightmost wrist. Purple-hued, the veins beneath twist and curl. I put a finger to it. The Amethyst is warmer today than yesterday; soon Awyer’s time will come. I put an ear to it, and a rushing sound only I can hear tells me of what will be.
Awyer stands atop a pillar, encompassed in a funnel of Amethyst smoke. Soundless, the air around him rises, pushing the cloud higher and higher until there is nothing less than a direct line to the heavens.
The future flashes at the front of my mind, hazed like a dream yet certain as death. Awyer’s destiny: A little more of it is revealed to me each day.
Lo, it is my destiny to read his.
“It grows stronger,” Awyer says again upon inspecting his painted flesh. “And it aches.” The storehouse’s catwalks pervert the few beams of light allowed to exist therein. One perverted ray spreads across the whole of Awyer’s face. Illumination does not suit him.
Then again, I may merely be predisposed to things dark in nature.
“I have a new task for you, Awyer, if it interests,” I say.
But to the request, my ward, wholly content with sifting long into the evening hours, shakes his head and continues to stare.
That will not do.
“The fountains are overrun by Pates, and it will take someone of great craft to convince them to move,” I tempt.
Awyer narrows his already narrow eyes.
“Something to say?” I inquire.
“You play with me, Grim.”
And to some extent, that is truth. I do play with him. I know as well as he that there is not an ounce of craft within his person. A sphinx born without guile. A boy born without wile. My ward is the ultimate paradox.
No matter. That is where I come in.
With an invisible giggle, I float to the door of the storehouse. “Come along, Awyer! To the fount!”
The outside air clears away the muggedness of the storehouse, cool and crisp and clean – enchanted to be so. The overhead sky tints a lavender color, and no one of Eldrade knows that skies should not be so. Blue skies and warm air, those things exist only beyond Eldrade’s barrier, forgotten by Awyer and his neighbors; forgotten by everyone but me.
Eldrade bustles. Its buildings of polished stone rise, neatly cutting through the horizon, texturizing the skyline. Carved and curled statues of the Great Ones, nameless avian protectors of Eldrade, guard the entrances to every inhabited tower – all of them tinted with Amethyst, all of them enchanted.
High overhead, amidst the smooth building tops, Eldradeans float to and fro on umbrella-adorned platforms – the premier transportation of an enchanted city. Though the flats have been spelled to keep along predetermined paths marked by threadlike lines of light, that does not stop the Amethyst-empowered youth from finding ways to make them stray.
Awyer, no ordinary youth, has no taste for mischief. It is I who will spell ours astray.
“After you, Awyer.” At the loading docks, I prod him onto a rickety looking flat. The ricketier, the better, as any hoodlum knows. Those are the ones whose enchants have worn enough for modification.
Awyer steps on with reluctance. Outspoken or not, there is no question he dislikes being bossed by me. Alas, if I do not pressure him, his destiny will never come to fruition.
That funnel of Amethyst smoke, it is up to me to get him there.
“Up to no good again,” the man at the docks assumes. He looks at Awyer with disfavor. My poor ward must take the brunt of consequence when it comes to our mischief. After all, to everyone but Awyer, I am nothing more than a shadow. “At least you’ve got your naefaerie with you,” says the man, whose arms blare full Amethyst. “Keep him on the right path, Mistress.” This he commissions to the space just to the right of me. The man cannot read the sun. He knows not where I stand in relation to my shadow, though it is all he has as a reference. He cannot see me. He cannot hear me. I do not fully exist.
“If you knew,” Awyer responds.
Yes, if the man knew. Just as any naefaerie’s job is to guide their ward along the path that is right and good, it should be my job to guide Awyer’s conscience. Should. Not in our case. I am a naefaerie of . . . uncommon descent.
But that we shall save for later.
Everything about our situation is erroneous. Awyer the cunningless sphinx and his mischievous naefaerie. We will let the Eldradeans think what they like.
“Going up!” The man taps the umbrella with his finger, and the lift takes off into the air along the string of silver guiding light.
We are in ascent.
“Do you tire of it?” Our ride is not more than a few stories up, when comes a rare conversational piece from the few-worded boy.
“Tire of what?” I say.
Awyer nods to the man who is quickly shrinking as our umbrella moves farther and farther away from him, the docks, and the ground.
“Being invisible?” I say.
Truthfully, all that matters is that HE can see me, but to say something to that extent would be . . . compromising, so all I answer him is, “Not particularly.”
Awyer settles his eyes on the silvery skin of my invisible face. He says nothing. He is in thought? Yes. About our pact? Yes. His hand finds its way to his right shoulder. The tattoo beneath his tunic is our proof. Like a cracked, imperfect shard of obsidian crystal, the spelled shape rests against his skin, binding him to me, allowing him to see and hear me, and allowing me a glimpse into his fated future.
With that tattooed shard, our destinies are tied.
Air pours past as we glide into the air and hover across the tops of the towering architecture – stone structures cut and set neatly without wear from wind or rain or age. Our destination is meant to be the Grand Grimoire Library at the center of Eldrade’s hilly non-residences. Our business, however, is not there.
I call upon an Amethyst enchant to steer our course. “To the fountains!” Not only to them, but to the high top of them, where the Pates have been illegally gathering.
Excitement catches me.
Awyer, on the other hand, is disinterested in the task. He kicks his feet over the edge of the platform and stares with unaffected eyes over the metropolis that is his home. The invisible barrier surrounding the Amethyst City stretches into the distance. Awyer cannot see it, but even he can feel it. They all can. And although they have forgotten the balance of enchantments, there is one thing all Eldradeans know to be true: Once one leaves through the protective barrier, it is impossible to find his or her way back. That fact looms around the outskirts of the city, warning any who get too close.
Willingly kept within one land for nearly a thousand years.
Perhaps Awyer and his neighbors deserve what is coming.
It is not my place to warn them.
This I know.
. . . And yet, when I look at Awyer . . .
No, I cannot think to that extent. It is too compromising.
“How?” says Awyer.
No elaboration necessary. I understand what he is asking. “How are we to convince the Pates to leave the fountains?” I say. “Simple. We will trick them.”
He will see. There is not need to waste words on the inevitable.
Awyer does not press. He rests his chin on his hand and his elbow on his thigh. My stooped ward. How he has grown in the days since our pact. When I found him, he was only a boy. Now he is tall. And strong. And lean. Seventeen is fast approaching.
The umbrella has shifted course. It whizzes sideways, along an unused path without silver guideline. When we near our true destination, it begins to slow. Awyer lifts his feet in anticipation. Just in time. The platform skims along the top of one fountain’s jutting water.
We have arrived: Fountain Terrace – a place harboring seventy fountains of varying size, power, and build. Housed on multilevel tiers, the enchanted water reaches a massive diameter for no purpose other than to beautify Eldrade.
And beautify it does. Glimmering water hops from fount to fount, spraying offshooting mist into the air, which in turn catches the sun and glistens. The whole of the place sparkles, mimicking a waterfall’s crashing domain.
Sadly, the beauty is dirtied by a presence. The Pates collect atop the topmost fount, conspiring to absorb the natural power found within the skipping water. They know not that their methods are akin to those used by necromancers beyond the walls of Eldrade, for they know not of the existence of necromancers at all.
But they will. And soon.
The water skips. The Pates conspire. What they wish for is petty sorcery, indeed. They are the riffraff of the kingdom, content with bullying the lesser residents and causing piddly acts of disarray. Comprised predominantly of failed Amethyst users, the Pates are gnats; and the rulers of Eldrade have long sought to banish them from the otherwise peaceful city. Alas, the enchanted barrier is a double-edged sword: Just as anyone who leaves cannot find his or her way back to the Amethyst City, so too cannot any one inhabitant be forced to leave. Through any means. And so the Pates, who have caused no offense worthy of being locked in the underground prisons, as far as the street officials are concerned, are left free to wander and disrupt the flow of daily life. Were they successful in their attempts to draw power from the water, a viable threat they would become; for this reason alone, they are not to gather in yonder fount.
But gather they do, and a menace it is. Awyer will rid them with my craft, and his reputation will rise.
“It is time, my fief.”
The stooped boy steps from the lift and stretches. His eyes gleam yellow. It is fortunate that he looks the part, even if far from it. Encompassed in mist, Awyer approaches the Pates.
Ten of them today accumulate – eight of no consequence; two obviously occupied by wit. Those are the two we will focus our convictions on. Gull those and the rest will follow. I hide my shadow within Awyer’s shadow. Unless they are looking intentionally, I will not be seen. There are certain advantages to being nonmaterial.
Upon Awyer’s intrusion, one of the wit-occupied gnats, a woman of wide stature and thick chin, steps forth. The others shuffle to conceal their tools – bone and beak and powdered crystal – and, in a fully conspicuous manner, huddle to wall off the targeted fount.
“Why are you here, O crafty one?” the woman speaks.
Awyer squints at her assumption, but remains widely disinterested in the task. His mouth is bored, his posture uncommitted.
“Now, now, Awyer,” I scold. “No one will take you seriously if you slouch.”
He rolls his eyes. He does not delight when I act like a mother. Lately, it bothers him more. He gives a sigh and brings a hand to the back of his neck. Reluctant to the core, my ward is.
But reluctant or not, when I whisper into his ear, he dutifully repeats:
“A wealth of knowledge is held in its crown. It spreads with wings; it sits on down. Name it not, you may not stay. Win the guess, keep ire at bay.”
The woman glances at the other gnat of wit. “A riddle?” she says.
Aye, what else from a sphinx?
Awyer nods and presents his hand. “A riddle of gold,” he expounds.
Of gold. This is a blessing cast upon the sphinxes. With the riddle’s true answer spoken into Awyer’s mind, a sanctified deal may be struck with the Pates. He may not go back on his word. He may not house two answers, though many may exist. Of gold: It is meant to keep us honest.
An unspoken exchange transpires between the woman and her comrade, and when it is finished, “Very well,” she says and takes Awyer’s hand. But the deal cannot happen just yet, as Awyer does not yet know the answer to his own riddle. The moment I tell it into his ear, a light of gold reacts within their clasp. Their hands glow. The pact is formed.
Upon releasing the woman’s hand, Awyer’s continues to glow; and it will until the riddle is solved. So, too, does the woman’s as she retreats into the fold of her fellow riffraff.
“Well done, Awyer. You are quite crafty.”
Awyer scoffs at my praise, and then he looks to the lavender sky. Clouds move in. Not because they have broken through the barrier somehow, but because the sky has been enchanted to show variety. Even rain may come.
The Pates are huddled. Awyer waits. He brings his glowing hand to his face and his eyes shine in reflection.
In time, the Pates let out an: “Aha!” because they think they have found their answer. They have not. I have observed their so-called wit. I have predicted their guess. And it will be wrong.
The thick-chinned woman approaches.
“Have you an answer?” Awyer asks, aloof.
“We have,” she says. “It is one of the Greats of Eldrade. A phoenix. It holds a wealth of knowledge within its crown; spreads its wings; sits upon a bottom of feathery down. The answer is a phoenix.”
With the answer given, the Pates are smug.
I am far, far smugger.
“Incorrect,” I say via Awyer, and the woman’s smugness falls. “The answer is the Grand Grimoire Library. Its wings stretch – north and south and east and west; it sits upon a hill without trees – a down; and a wealth of knowledge is stored in its shelved crown. Therefore, the library is the correct answer.”
The gold of the Pate woman’s hand dims, while the light of Awyer’s grows. She scowls at her comrades, though there is naught she can do. The deed is done, the riddle solved, and the Pates have no choice but to retreat. The deal is such that even if they wished to go back on their word, the blessing of the sphinxes would not allow them. A riddle of gold’s outcome is undeniable. Their riffraffed feet begin to walk on their own. In a line, the Pates do go, and a zipping hummer appears in the place they once were. A tiny bird of teal and scarlet, the hummer flits about the scene, sweeping the air and collecting information. It is building a report to bring to the elders.
Yes, Awyer’s reputation will surely grow.
“A phoenix could have worked too, Grim,” says Awyer gruffly as he hops upon the umbrellaed platform.
“But that was predictable. The greatest riddles have three layers. I knew they would not be able to see past the first, which is why I told you the second.”
“And what of the third?” he asks.
The third involves things beyond Eldrade’s border. I say nothing. Awyer folds his arms and looks at me slyly.
Our flat begins a sloped descent, through the misty offspray and away from Fountain Terrace. Awyer’s arms remain crossed. Not only has he been in a mood all day, our rapport has not been in the best standing as of late. Things between us have been wrong. Tense. And seventeen’s emergence of power is not all to blame. The truth of the matter is that it has been a while since we last . . . diverted. In Awyer’s younger days, diversion was all we did.
For beings in our situation, diversion is everything.
“Here I go, Awyer!”
Without additional explanation, I hop to the top of the umbrella and give it a kick. Awyer perks as, once more, our flat changes course.
I command the lift go up, and it rises straight into the sky. Though the barrier’s warning looms overhead, we press on. We will not break it, but we will come close. Pressing the limits in this way is an act most exhilarating. Awyer does not necessarily feel the same.
I take care to tiptoe around the umbrella’s edge. “Look into the distance, my fief, and tell me what you see,” I say.
Using the umbrella’s handle for grounding, Awyer stands and scans the horizon. The expanse beyond Eldrade’s barrier is blurred – enchanted to be so – but if Awyer will use just a whit of the Amethyst writhing about in his veins, he may be able to see a hint of clarity. “There, Awyer.” I point to a particular peak through the dense lavender of the upper sky. “Press at the center of your eyes with your mind, and you will see it,” I tell him.
Awyer’s animal-like irises become intent.
“Can you discern what lies beyond?” I ask.
“It is foggy.”
“Stare into the blur and push it away. Only then will your vision clear.” Awyer gives it more concentration, but still he cannot see. “Focus, Awyer. Enough Amethyst writhes in you to perform a spell so small.”
Belittling the issue works. “A . . . mountain?” he guesses.
Yes, a mountain. But more importantly, a story. A story he must hear. I make my voice to be ominous:
“For on that mount, two witch sisters lived, collecting unlucky animals that wandered into their lair. Theirs was a nest of things unholy, and the witch sisters, called by their underlings ‘Hamira’ and ‘Gorma’, were known throughout the land for their acts of treachery. Most treacherous was their lust for enchants.
“Only three powers were ever meant to exist within moral reality, Amethyst being the daughter of the other two; but the witch sisters, they pulled from a fourth magick, a darker magick – an accumulation of the evil thoughts thought but never carried through; and the secrets kept in shame, never to be shared.
“Aye, secrets and malice, those were the things that fueled the witches, and it was no small sin that it was so; for unused malice is sent to a place beyond the Eternity Vessel – a blackness no man or god has ever seen, and a place no mortal should ever touch. But touch it they did, and corrupt they became, and from that day forth hoarded forbidden magicks alone within their shrine. While the other powers of the world spun, their control over the darkness grew. An unbalance into the balance. A wrinkle into the fold.
“Ages passed. Stars faded. And what became of the witch sisters? They yet reside on the mount, rotting in spite, and their power continues to grow. Any who encounter them be wise: The peak is named Ensecré, for a witch will always trade a spell . . . for a secret.”
Awyer gazes into the hazy skyline as I finish my tale. I have offered him just a little of the knowledge he should not know. “Two powers that birthed Amethyst?” he inquires. “Grim, explain. Excluding storytales, Amethyst IS the only power.”
I cannot say any more. All I can give him is a nod. Small and deceitful, the nod makes Awyer frown.
In due time.
In time near.
But not now.
I float from the umbrella’s top and to the platform itself. Next to Awyer I settle. Together we kick our legs over the side of the flat. Over the whole of the polished stone city. Over the Pates and the street officials and the elders and the casters. My ward and I sit in silence.
“You cannot tell me.” Awyer does not ask, merely states.
“I cannot,” I respond.
Awyer gives a sign and stares down at his own changing flesh. “It grows stronger.”
I put a hand to his wrist, finishing: “And it aches.”
He nods. “Mm.”
“Not for long, Awyer.”
The silvery skin of my arm rests against the healthy tan of his. The longer parts of his hair, dark as untilled under-earth, toss in the enchanted breeze. Mine rest, for I do not exist enough to be kissed by the wind. My hair is short and shifts in color during the hours, from palest white to deepest onyx. I could will it longer, but there is no point in that. There would be no one to see it but Awyer, and if I were to do so, he might think I had for his sake. And that would be . . . compromising.
Ever compromising are the things I should not imagine.
“You can lean here, Grim.” Awyer pats his tattoo-marked shoulder.
“You know I do not tire, Awyer.”
“I do know,” he says. “I offered because you looked like you wanted to.”
It is compromising.
Both that I wanted to.
And that he could see it.
We cannot have that.
I float to my toes and return to the top of the umbrella. “Time to go home, my sphinx.”
“I am more man than sphinx,” he says.
“You are more boy than man.”
But as I watch his hair toss about behind his neck, I realize the differentiation is becoming as blurred as the enchanted horizon. Boy, sphinx, man, ward – of those things I am not certain, though there is one thing I am.
Awyer is mine. He will be mine until the day that he dies. Awyer’s destiny: A little more of it is revealed to me each day.
That is how I know something is brewing, even before the first blast of red smoke hits Grand Grimoire Library and shakes the enchanted city of Eldrade.
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“I think we would have been better off in the barn,” I conclude after doing a sweep of the farmhouse’s interior.
No matter how rundown the structure may look from the outside, inside is far, far worse.
Around the den, the remains of a couch have been strewn, as though an angry raccoon – or several – have taken out their small-clawed aggressions on it. Musty odor drifts up from the floorboards and in through the walls – a reminder never to take for granted the much feebler smells of the antiques found in Jerry’s Canned Heat Emporium. Overhead, fallen beams allude that it might not be a wise decision to venture to the second floor, lest we come crashing through the rotted wood and end up splintered and torn.
All in all, the place is trashed.
Ardette turns up his nose at a floor littered with fragments of waste and debris. “Yes, these accommodations are somewhat lacking. Especially considering the lavish motels you usually pick.”
“Very funny.” I kick at a tuft of couch fluff with my toe. “Sorry, Ardetto. Looks like we’ll be tracking mud into your precious vehicle after all.”
Ardette, never one for dirty things, wrinkles his nose in repugnance. “Ugh. I suppose running water and clean towels were too much to hope for,” he says.
“Way too much,” I agree. I pick a cleared spot of floor to stand in and do a final inspection of the accommodation that never was. “I wonder how someone could just leave an entire farm out here to rot away, anyway.”
Ardette has a theory.
“If I HAD to guess,” he says, attitude ripe, “I’d say it has something to do with the pooled power in yonder pond. Unusual things have been known to transpire at places of strong character. This being one of those places, the former inhabitants may have left for any number of reasons. A haunting perhaps.”
“Haunting?!” I take a reverse step into the corner.
“No, no.” Ardette fans the air. “Not a real one, mind you. I simply meant that condensed areas have the ability to twist nature and lead to paranoia.”
“And now I want to leave more than ever,” I say. “Let’s GO.”
But before I am able to make way for the door, Ardette catches me around the waist. From behind, his arm breaks across my abdomen. I’m pulled against him. “A moment, pit,” he says into my ear, low and soft. “I’ll be savoring this feeling.”
My pulse kicks. “F-feeling?”
“Mmhmm.” He takes the moment he demanded. In the meantime, I manage to say a single aching thing,
The thing comes out hushed. Standing motionless against his strong frame, the silence of the farmhouse has just hit me for the first time. It is the stillest sort of silence – a silence that makes me inexorably aware of myself and lends my ears the ability to hear a range of noises they wouldn’t otherwise have noticed. Breathing. Pulsing. The ruffling of a sleeve. I’d hear it if some distant floorboard creaked. Actually, I’d be glad for a distraction like that. But not a thing within the shambled farmhouse stirs, and so there’s nothing to hear but the own thudding of my chest.
My pores are pricked. My skin notices every bit of invisible air against it, but something much more obvious is Ardette’s arm remaining across my stomach. Inevitably, the enticement of it becomes me. My fingertips drift to his forearm’s warm skin. I connect with the hairs of his arm; the muscle beneath. Then I slide my hand until it meets his. Trembling, I hold him as he holds me.
“This reminds me of the place we met in our second life,” he says into my ear, voice keeping lower than low.
The second first time we met. I don’t even need to search my mind; the memory floats to the top on its own.
“The Osterflit keeper’s house,” I breathe.
I feel him nod behind me.
Yes, the humble abode of the deceased Osterflit keeper. Looking around with new eyes, I realize there is some similarity between this place and there. An abandoned residence in the middle of a forgotten field. An empty house. But places like this hold their own personality, too. In the absence of actual life, the structure takes on its own.
That feeling is the same here as it was there.
That time we met.
How annoying I found him then. Haughty and gaudy and persistent, and with an intolerable knack for reading my thoughts. But then there was a princely sort of charm about him too – something that made me want to see beyond his fronts.
He hasn’t changed. Not even the slightest, little . . .
Well, he no longer has horns, I guess.
The surrealism of it hits me.
This is what he meant about taking a moment. A moment for stepping out of the present and gathering what’s happened. A moment to absorb.
We really get to be together? After everything, we get another chance? A third chance.
How are we that lucky?!
Overcome, I spin to face my princely Daem. He doesn’t anticipate the action, and it reflects on his face. Taking him aback is a thing of scarcity. A thing I adore. Before he can say something snide, I wrap my arms around his neck in a hug. A non-sexual, non-nerve-arousing hug. I need him to hold me.
He does. He returns the gesture. Without cynicism. Without defense.
My cheek becomes pressed against his chest as he holds me in adoration. There is comfort. Safeness. I love him. I love him so much.
“My, my, having an overthinking again, are we? You know, my pit, if you aren’t careful, you’ll begin to develop unsightly worry lines right here.” Ardette flicks me in the forehead.
I’ve been caught in my head again.
The fault belongs with the coupe. Its sleepy rumbling, responsible for retreating me into my thoughts, is to blame.
Stupid fancy car.
The driver’s side window is cracked to allow a small amount of spring crispness into the air previously filled with only our exchanged breath. I use it to come to my senses. Guess invigoration has its usefulness after all.
“Do share what was so interesting in there;” Ardette lazes, glancing at me from the corner of his eye, “what was consuming your entire attention.”
I rub the spot he flicked and grumble, “Nothing really. It’s not like I was really worried about anything.”
Ardette drums the wheel. “What then, were you allowing to mull about in that distracted little skull of yours?”
Such a minor thing that if I answer, he’s going to sneer. But knowing him, he’ll imagine something worse than the truth if I don’t.
“Just that . . .” I start, guardedly. “I was kind of surprised our force ended up being wave.”
“Oh? And why is that?”
“Well, . . . eh-heh . . .” I prepare myself for insult. “First there was wind, and then fire, so . . .”
I’ll let him finish.
“You expected earth?” he says dry as toast. “As in Earth, Wind and . . . Tell me you aren’t serious! As though the forces of the world would follow twentieth century music trends!”
He puts a hand to his temple, shakes his head, and lets out a condescending, “EGH.” And then, “Really, pit? Really?”
So he says, but the side of his mouth shows signs of amusement.
The amusement only puts me grumpy. I slump into the seat and stare out the window in a pout. It was a perfectly reasonable thought, as far as I’m concerned.
“You’re too much,” Ardette coos.
We continue to drive through most of the day, stopping only for gas. The pit-stop is also a prime opportunity to clean up, so before anything else, we make use of the station’s dingy bathroom, which has one of those pull-down cloth towels on a reel that appears to have been last changed . . . NEVER. We aren’t picky. Our muddiness has long turned into a caked layer. Though a change of clothes makes things slightly better, the small sink doesn’t allow for an adequate hair washing. After several neck-craned attempts, I give up, slopping my hair into an oversized bun atop my head.
Ardette has better luck. He exits the bathroom looking fresh and neat. And shaved?
“You really don’t like messy things, do you?” I size him up sourly. But sourness is hard to maintain when he looks so desirable.
He begins a saunter down the station’s aisles.
“Care for a bite, my pit? Perhaps a . . .” He frowns upon inspection of the rotating hotdogs in the station’s deli. “Never mind. I won’t allow you to eat that. Go find whatever else you’d like. We’ll stop at the first decent-looking establishment we come across for a real meal.”
A hotdog would have been fine for me, and for a second I think about grabbing one just to spite him – until I notice that the dogs have an unhealthy green tint about them. Not happening. I trot away to find something else.
Ardette is waiting at the counter with a bag of jerky when I return.
Like that’s so much better than a hotdog! Well, whatever. I plop my pickings onto the countertop. Ardette takes time to study them before tossing a bill at the cashier.
“A jar of peanut butter and a bag of potato chips?” he says with disapproval.
“Yeah! Have you ever tried it? You dip the chips in the peanut butter. But regular chips won’t work. These are kettle chips.” I pat the bag proudly.
“Uh-huh.” He chews his cheek, unconvinced.
“I highly doubt that.”
. . .
Ten minutes later, I sit satisfyingly plopping peanut-butter-dipped chips into Ardette’s mouth.
And I’m smug.
“They aren’t anything special,” he sniffs.
That hasn’t stopped him from eating a dozen or more. “All right, then,” I say. “You indulged me. If you don’t like them, I’ll eat the rest–”
“I didn’t say they were bad. Another,” he orders.
I cock a brow at him.
He rolls his eyes. “If you please.”
I shove a particularly large one mounded with peanut butter into his face. He takes it with an unprepared crunch! Excess peanut butter dribbles down the corner of his mouth. He wipes it away with his finger and then, more invested than necessary, licks it off.
Oh please. Like I’d be affected by something like that. Yet I’m forced to look away.
It’s Ardette’s turn to be smug. “Next time you do that,” he says, “you’ll be the one licking it off for me.”
My neck rises in temperature. Stupid! There is great frustration in my body’s reaction to him.
“I’m the only one who could put up with your foulness, you know,” I tell him.
His response is quiet: “I am aware.”
Because I expected something snappier from him, I steal a look to make sure I haven’t gone too far, but instead of displaying offense, he looks oddly sentimental. “You’re the only one I’d want to,” he says, eyes still on the road.
I love his foulness.
We drive tranquilly an hour more before we reach a town. A small, backwoodsy sort of town, but a town nonetheless. A real town? Holy tomato sandwich! Haven’t seen one of those in a while.
By this time, the sky is dark. As we drove, the sun crashed into the horizon, painting the dash in ochre, but now that night has fallen, only midnight blue cloaks the distance, dotted with sparse light from the town. Without the threat of Sowpa’s ‘dark forces’ finding us, we haven’t a reason NOT to turn in at a decent time tonight. A real meal and a full night’s sleep. Sounds appealing.
Ardette pulls into the first food-serving ‘establishment’ he sees, a bar called Freaky Frankie’s. Freaky Frankie’s? Reminds me of the gas station dogs.
While I picture the undesirable, ill-hued things, Ardette takes care to park his beloved ride several spaces away from the rest of the bar lot vehicles, in a corner clear of streetlight.
“What’s that they say about paranoia?” I mutter.
“I rarely find it beneficial to follow advice from unnamed groups of people,” he says. He comes around the side of the car to open my door for me, then loops his arm through mine and escorts me into Frankie’s.
Inside, warm air welcomes us, infused with the smell of plastic seat cushions and lit by vintage baroque pendant lights that Jerry of Jerry’s Canned Heat Emporium would surely covet. Their dim glow shines over each booth and above a worn pool table stashed near the back wall.
At the other end, a lone cowboy sings out-of-tune to a decade-old song. Something sappy about a missing wife and dog.
Gag. I really don’t like that stuff.
Lined along the bar are a few men and a woman who clearly thinks her iron-curled bangs make her quite the catch. All of them talk too loudly and laugh too enthusiastically for what is mostly likely a conversation lacking in nature. Yet they laugh and talk and laugh. All except for a man at the end, who remains silent and stares into a half-full beer as though the amber within holds the secret to happiness. For him, maybe it does.
Ardette strides through the room, inspecting booth tables as he goes, until finally finding one he deems worthy of our company. He gestures that I should take one side before scooting into the other.
I’m fairly certain the sign upfront said to wait to be seated, but Ardette isn’t the type to wait for something trivial like that. It’s probably better this way, anyway. He would only have caused the hostess grief for picking out a table with a smudge on it or something.
A few minutes later the bar’s one waitress – a relation of Frankie’s more than likely – holds a pad of paper before her nearsighted eyes and asks if we’d like to try the special – a type of trout, apparently.
“We’ll pass,” Ardette says, turning his nose up at the thought of fish from this rundown of a place. Instead, he orders a Reuben and whiskey. I order a burger and cola. And when we are finished, the waitress tucks the paper pad into her busty shirt and waddles away. I am left alone with Ardette beneath the dusky glow of vintage light, in a squeaky seat, while the pleasant sounds of drunken laughter and off-tune country and glass clinking surround us.
Ardette leans into the booth, arm over the back of the seat, and watches me. He says nothing; just watches.
It’s stuffy in here.
I avert my eyes into the happy hour menu.
It’s really stuffy in here.
And for some reason, I can’t think of a single thing to say. Not. A. Thing. Even though there’s so much to say, so many things to ask, so much to find out about him – the past lives he’s had, his experiences in this current one – I can’t bring myself to say anything. I can’t find even one word.
I venture to look at him again, and he’s still watching me, mouth entertained.
My stomach does a twist and my eyes again flee – this time to the shoddy pool table.
Why is it so stuffy in here!?
“Tut. Tut,” comes a coo from across the table. “Suppose it says something to our chemistry that I am able to make you nervous after all of this time.”
So that’s it; I’m nervous. Leave it to him to discern it before me. But wait. I’m nervous? Out of the blue? I wasn’t nervous in the car. But I’m definitely nervous now. I can feel my pulse in my neck. For what? It’s not like we’re about to share a bed again. And we’ve spent a lot of time like this the last couple of days. In close proximity. Not to mention, shared so many . . .
I bite my lip.
Thinking about kissing him makes it worse. To heck with that!
I look at him again and lie, “I’m not nervous.” But my neck knows the truth. It flares in heat.
“That so?” says Ardette. Eyes agleam, he leans forward, rests his elbows on the table, and begins to rub a thumb along his chin. “Well, that’s good. I worried you might be all giddy –” His eyes almost appear to flash red – “Considering it’s our first date.”
First date. First date? First date?!
Those last two words slither into the air and circle my head in a wrapping motion, forcing it to begin thinking. Over-thinking, to be more specific.
Our first date. Our first date ever. Just the two of us. Alone. Where other people can see us and assume we’re together. My pulse accelerates in my neck, so much so that it blocks my throat from opening. If I’m not careful I just might pass out.
Because Ardette would only gloat over making me swoon.
I fumble for something smart to say, and just when I worry my tongue has somehow fallen out and is flopping around on the floor, my salvation comes in the form of the busty waitress returning with cola and not only one but two whiskies.
She sets them on the table and wobbles away.
I eye the whisky suspiciously. Why’d she bring two? Ardette gestures at the happy hour menu. “Two-for-ones. Didn’t you notice?” He slides the second drink at me. “Drink up.”
“But I can’t–”
“Oh, Aura. The rules of this world are senseless. And besides, your soul is much older than the required age. Drink. It’ll help you get over your nerves.”
Guess that’s true.
In the hopes that it’ll allow me the courage to look Ardette in the eye, I bring the glass to my mouth and tip it back, but cannot hide the foul taste from my tongue. My mouth wrinkles in repulsion.
Ardette sniggers. “Here–” He reaches for my cola and begins guzzling it down.
And when it is half gone, he pours the whiskey into the remaining cola, and gives the glass a shake. “Try that,” he says.
Mixed, the second drink is much better than the first, although the aftertaste is still nasty. I resort to drinking down the whole thing before I can taste it. Glug. Glug. AH.
I set the glass onto the table and wipe my mouth with the back of my hand.
All of this Ardette watches with traces of alarm, and when I am through, he injects, “Well, well. That was an interesting choice, my pit.”
I understand what he means after the waitress returns with our food. Something about the way her nearsighted eyes squint seems much funnier this time around. Oh. So whiskey is strong as far as alcoholic drinks go. So I downed the beverage too quickly on a stomach filled only shallowly with kettle chips and peanut butter. So it’s already beginning to affect me.
Smiling evilly, Ardette orders another for himself, and consequently, one for me.
The burger is thick and feels like a rock falling into the liquid of my stomach. A satisfying plop comes at the end of each swallow. Mmm. Turning brave from the liquor, I catch Ardette’s eye and smile like I’m remembering a joke. But there is no joke. Just a slight jumbling of my mind. Ardette returns the smile with one more puckish and shakes his head.
“Feeling better, are we?” he asks.
The second round of whiskey comes, and this time I don’t feel the need to mix it with anything but burger. Bite. Sip. Bite. Sip. First date jitters cast aside, I’m finally able to converse normally.
“SO Ardetto.” I set down my glass and toss a fry leisurely into my mouth. “What’s your major, anyway?”
I wait for him to reveal that it’s a joke. He doesn’t.
“Yes, really,” he says disgruntledly.
“You’re kind of a nerd, then?”
“I’m KIND of trying to make sure we have an enriched life this time around.” He picks a piece of lint from his collar and eyes it with disgust.
But going to college for something like that takes preparation. Even before he found me, he was already planning things like our future? Plotting out the way our life would be together? Losing no faith that this time would be our time at last?
A bit of those jitters return. I take another sip from the glass. “I can’t imagine you sitting through a lecture, no matter how I try,” I tell him.
“And I can’t imagine you, the great savior of the world, waiting around that hoarder warehouse without any direction nor thoughts of your future.”
Harsh. “I don’t know. I just always felt like I was waiting for something,” I tell him. “I don’t even know what. Just something.” But the moment the confession comes, I sheepishly understand. “Or someone,” I add. It is as much an admission to myself as it is to him.
It’s Ardette’s turn to preoccupy himself with his food.
By now, my second glass of whiskey is nearly gone. So is my burger. The sad sounds of that unfortunate soul’s country continue to resound in the air. It’s horrid. Isn’t there someone else who’ll step up and take a turn?
I finish off the whiskey and allow it to sink in. It begins to creep around my body, somewhere between my stomach and my ribs.
Fiddling with his unused fork, Ardette is saying something about the way he thought I’d become a social worker or something. I’m not paying attention. I decide it’s my turn to speak.
“Ardetto . . .” I purr across the table when the warmth of the liquor is at its peak.
Ardette again settles into the plastic cushion and tosses an arm across the back of the seat. “Yes, my pit? Feeling warm, are we?”
“Were you a frat boy?” I ask with a giggle. “Because it seems like you’d be a frat boy.”
At this, his countenance stiffens. “Ugh. Of course not. Don’t lump me in with those moronic types.”
I giggle at him some more. The waitress returns to take our plates. “Another?” She nods toward my empty glass.
“I don’t think–” Ardette starts.
But I beat him to it. “Do you have anything that doesn’t taste so awful?” I blurt.
Looking unenthused, the waitress proceeds to ramble off something with two types of juices in it.
“It isn’t part of two-for-ones,” she warns.
“That isn’t a problem,” Ardette says dryly. He wants no part of something so fruity. As the curvy woman leaves, he turns his attention on me. “Fixing to become sloshed, are you? Well, I can’t say I’m not interested to see you drunk, my pit – as I recall, I’ve been responsible for your intoxication once or twice before – but I hope for your sake you don’t become . . . unruly.”
But while he’s lecturing, I am transfixed on his mouth. Why is it always such a focal point? Magnetic, almost. Soft. Warm. I chew my own in remembrance of his taste. Ardette swallows. “And for my sake, I hope you do,” he says, staring at my moving lips. Then he shakes his head and stares off across the bar in an attempt to remain cool. “I’ve a feeling this night will be another test of my morality. Fantastic.”
The third drink is indeed much better tasting. Fizzy and sweet and with only traces of bitterness.
“Ardettoes . . .”
I scoot into the wall. “Come sit by me?”
By his reaction, it is just the sort of request he was hoping for. The dragon in him looks at me through his lashes with dark pleasure. “Gladly.” Like a silent thief, he slips around the table and into my seat, and loses no time bringing an arm around my shoulder and pulling me into his side.
My heart gives a kick, but is quickly stifled by the warm dizziness skulking through me. It feels good to be right up next to him. I allow myself to melt against him. My cheek falls against his chest; my fingers rest upon his solid abdomen. His free hand he uses to pull at a curl of his hair. His other he grazes along the top of my arm, near the shoulder.
It sends a shiver through my neck.
He feeds off of the effect, whispering, “Can I have some of you?”
It is an inquiry I’ve heard from him before, in a lifetime long ago. My response is a kiss to his neck. And then another that is deeper than it ought to be in a public setting.
“My, my, cherry pit,” he says. “You should feel fortunate that I’m an honorable man.”
“Hah!” I giggle into his neck.
He pushes his mouth into my hair, which is still holding a small amount of dried mud, and breathes.
His grazing hand on my arm moves down the side of my ribs. My body gives another shiver. “We should leave, Aura,” Ardette speaks against my hair. “We really must.”
I nod. It’s all right if we leave. Because it’ll mean I’ll have survived our first date. Ardette flags the waitress for the bill, and while he’s settling things, I realize that the room has gone silent. The depressed cowboy has returned to the bar, taking seat next to the downtrodden man staring into his glass.
An impulse, fueled by the liquor in my veins, overcomes me.
“Excuse me, Ardettoes.” I prod my dragon out of the seat. He obeys only because he’s amused by my sudden stricken determination, and before he can stop me, I have moved halfway across the room to the place where the microphone waits.
. . .
“You weren’t lying. You really can’t sing at all, can you?”
We drive through town in search of an elusive bed and breakfast mentioned by the nearsighted waitress.
“Oh, it wasn’t that bad, was it?” I say, words admittedly a little slurred.
“About as bad as a cat taking a bath,” is Ardette’s reply.
“Would you prefer dishonesty?”
“No . . .” In truth, I am already fully aware of what a terrible singer I am.
Ardette sniggers. “You up there belting out your heart for Frank’s most devoted patrons.” His lips purse. “At least you looked adorable doing it.”
Whatever. I’m warm, and happy, and sleepy. Too sleepy to care that I’ve just made an ‘adorable’ fool of myself.
Fifteen minutes later, we find the bed and breakfast. A large white house, Victorian style, sits amidst a night-blanketed yard complete with neat fence and rolling garden. “How quaint,” Ardette notes in a drone. Yes, he’s being sarcastic, but the word adequately describes the place perfectly. A quaint, quaint getaway at the edge of a small, small town.
The wheels make a crunching against the dirt of the lot as we turn into a space. I like that crunch. Cruuuunch.
Noises are much more pleasant than normal at the moment. Like my ears can feel them more than hear them. There’s something magical about the way their tonal quality hits me. And while I’m lost in sound-induced pleasantness, Ardette is shrewdly examining our surroundings through the windows, checking for any hiding fiends that may be waiting.
He notices the anomaly first.
Of course he does – because I’m not suited for shrewdness just now. Each time I move my head, whatever was previously in view grows a tail. The picture through my eyeholes repeatedly blurs until my mind catches up with my eyes.
“Is that a sword?” I hear the shrewd boy mutter. When I turn to look at him, he’s stretching his neck to see out the dash, squinting at a sign above us – the bed and breakfast’s sign. He squints a moment more before –
“You have got to be kidding me!”
– in a lightning move, he turns vicious.
Now, inexplicably fuming, he unbuckles himself and storms from the car. Confused, I fumble for the handle, but per usual, he reaches it first. “Tell me, if you’d be so kind, how we always manage to find ourselves in the least desirable of places!” he spits at me upon opening the door.
“What? Atto?” I’m too discombobulated to be much help.
He notices my perplexed expression. “Apologies, Aura. Don’t worry about it.” Head shaking angrily, he helps me from the car, then moves to the trunk to collect our bags.
I don’t get it. I don’t get it at all! I strain my eyes to see the sign, but it’s too dark, and my focus is too off. He said he’d seen a sword up there? A bed and breakfast with a sword on its sign?
“And for another thing,” he mutters vilely into the trunk, “how is it that a town of such puny population maintains a bed and breakfast specifically catering to Dungeons and Dragons?! It’s hardly a lucrative notion!”
Dungeons and Dragons? As in that roleplaying game?
“Personally, I like dragons,” I tell him earnestly because it is the first thought that comes to my mind.
“Hah. Hah. A comedian you’ve become, have you? Come on, drunken pit.” With that, Ardette grabs hold of my wrist and pulls me with him up the walk into the world’s first D&D B&B.
Inside is a bizarre sight indeed. I know so, even in my current state. In what I can only imagine is the collaboration between a senile woman and her whimsical grandson, the interior is filled with crocheted doilies, floral patterns, and pointless bric-a-bracs . . . as well as cases and cases of tiny monster figures, and bookshelves lined with rulebooks. At one time this was unquestionably just a regular bed and breakfast. I can tell. The rest of this fantasy stuff was added later – an afterthought resulting in pure mishmash.
But if I want to learn the reasoning behind such madness, I can’t. The person working is neither the senile woman nor her grandson, but a pretty girl with dark eyeliner. I determine – without much good reason – that she knows nothing; and so while Ardette goes to speak with her, I begin to browse the foyer.
Ceramic cat figurine . . . Sack full of polyhedral dice . . . Painting of a little girl in a sunhat . . . Box labeled ‘Dungeon Masters Only’ . . . Just-for-show tea set . . . Little plastic elf toy? To that, I scoff.
Everyone knows all elves have green hair.
“Aurelia, I’ve gotten us a room upstairs.” Ardette calls to fetch me just as I’m glaring at the yellow-haired elf. “Their roleplay, or what have you, starts at ten if you’d like to join.”
I wonder how much of a roleplay can be had, considering there were only two other cars in the lot, one of which probably belongs to the eye-lined girl.
To answer my unspoken question, Ardette continues, “Apparently many enthusiasts live around here. They don’t rent a room, per se, merely come for the game.”
“So that’s how they manage to stay in business.”
He nods. “Let’s get to our room before they begin arriving, shall we? I’ve a feeling they won’t be our kind of people.”
Realistically, though, they’re probably exactly our kind of people. Regardless, I haven’t the energy to argue with him now.
Fearing my own sluggishness, I try to step lightly up the stairs. This only results in overcompensation, and I end up prancing like a pompous horse. Ardette walks behind in case I become unsteady. Oh dear. I’m a hindrance.
The door to our room comes, but I pass it.
“This way, my pit.”
Ardette pushes through the door and tosses our bags onto a wicker chair in the corner. “I made sure to get us a room with a bathroom en suite. You, stinky pit, may wash first.”
But not before taking in the room’s incredible ambiance. An oak dresser, topped with framed pictures of people from the 80s. A white hat placed on the wall like art. A pale comforter atop a four-poster bed. This bed, at least, looks much more inviting than the buggy, and again, appears NOT to rotate.
“This is a grandma’s room,” I say assuredly.
“Yes, yes. Now into the bathroom with you.”
Ardette scoops my things from the wicker chair and tosses them in after me. I let my clothes fall into a pile on the bathmat and then step into the shower, which has a bottom so cold that it forces me to stand on my tiptoes until the water has washed over the whole of it.
Mmm. Soapy. Bubbly. This shower is longer than my everyday showers. Mainly because I’m staring at the way the water falls over my hands as though it’s incredibly complex science. My fingers fumble. They’re lazy. Yet somehow, I manage to get every last speck of mud from my hair. I manage to haphazardly shave my legs. I manage to turn the faucet and dress in a towel. Just like I do at home, I walk from the bathroom, to the bedroom, with a towel wrapped around my middle, clamped to my body by my armpits.
Only . . .
This isn’t home.
And there’s a hungry dragon waiting in the other room.
When he sees me, he says nothing, though it looks as though he’d very much like to say more than nothing. Jaw tight, he stares at my exposed collarbone a handful of seconds, breathing only through his nose, before swallowing and shoving past me into the bathroom. Once there, he closes the door with more energy than necessary. I wouldn’t say it’s a full slam, though.
“GET DRESSED.” His words come through the door.
Followed, a minute later, by my bag, which I left lying on the tiled floor. Taking Ardette’s side, it comes flying out at me without restraint.
The second time Ardette closes the door, it’s a full slam.
Realizing my mistake, I hurry to dress, comb out my hair, and hop onto the lumpy bed. Lumpy or not, this one is much safer than the last. Far fewer kinky things happen in a B&B than in a pioneer’s fantasy suite, I assume. Then again, if this is a roleplay themed place . . .
I shake the idea away and listen to the hum of shower coming from underneath the bathroom door. Since when do showers sound so . . . inviting? My intoxicated mind begins to drift.
He’s in there. Completely naked. Separated by just a door. One door. I doubt it even has a lock.
Ardette. Ardetto. Ardettttoooesss.
At this very moment, water is falling over his chest and back and shoulders. His hair is wetly plastered to his head. He’s wiping the water from his eyes and rubbing at his face. Chin. Jaw. Neck. All trickled with sliding drops of wetness. The space between us is filled with magnetic particles that fight to pull me to him.
I bring a hand to my mouth and press into the plush of my bottom lip. I am not fearful like I was last night. That feeling is still back with freaky Frankie. Now, I feel only the desires previously clouded by my nerves and thoughts and anxieties.
I want him.
I want to feel his mouth against mine, tasting me as I taste him. I want him to throw my body onto the pale comforter. To force my hands and bite my lip. I want to wrap my legs around his waist and become tied up with him, tousled in the sheets.
I want to be lost in him. Consumed with nothing but him. Forever and ever and ever.
The water stops, and I hear him begin to dress. I find myself sitting on the edge of the bed, gripping the mattress.
Eventually, the door to the bathroom opens. The navy sweatpants are back, framed by a cloud of steam from the shower. At the sight of my dragon, my chest takes in an uneven breath that it forgets to release.
Ardette begins a smug strut into the room. “Why, my pit, what a surprise. I thought you’d be out cold.” He shifts to wryness. “That, or cowering in a corner, wrestling with your conflicted yearnings.”
There’s no confliction. Ardette’s chest is exposed. His stomach, too, down past the navel. Desire. I feel nothing but desire for him.
From here, everything happens fast. I feel as though I’m floating behind a body that has begun spontaneously acting on its own as it hops from the bed and rushes the unassuming twenty-something. Before I know it, my mouth is thrown on his; my fingers are ensnarled in his wet hair.
Ardette attempts to say something through the kiss, but gives up after the third word, and begins kissing me back. Passionately. Deeply. Slowly. In the middle of the grandma’s room, our mouths move together.
We were made for this.
As pictured, he lifts me from the ground effortlessly, but doesn’t toss me onto the bed; instead, he takes me to the edge of it, sets me down and continues to move his mouth with mine. With intention. I clutch at his back and wrap my legs around him and pull his body over mine. He obliges by crawling onto me.
I want him. Hundreds of years I’ve waited to have him. If I don’t have him now, I won’t be able to live.
His hands find the bottom edge of my cotton shirt and begin to slide it up my waist. This starts a sinful feeling low in my stomach. But it isn’t a bad thing. It’s indulgent. Gluttonous. Meanwhile, I, too, am pulling at the waistband of his pants, fighting with my sloppy fingers to be productive.
He pulls away from my hungry mouth long enough to pant and say, “All mine.” Then he moves to my neck and wets it with his mouth. I let out a cry, soft, as his hand finds my chest.
“I love you so much more than anything,” I say. But because of the alcohol lingering within me, the words are slow to come out. They’re too slow. Too lagging. And they ruin everything.
When he hears them, Ardette stops. He leaves his hand on my chest a moment longer, caressing me gently with his thumb, before sliding it away. He does not lift himself from my body.
“You, my pit, are drunk,” he says into the bed over my shoulder. “And I, my pit, need to leave.”
Leave? N . . . No! That’s the last thing I want!
“What are you . . .” I bumble. “Why?”
“Because I love you.”
But in flash, Ardette is off of me. He finds a shirt, throws it on, and leaves out the door, while I remain grabbing at the place he just was – the place his warmth has yet to leave.
“Go to bed, Aura.”
That is the last thing I hear from him for the night, followed by the brisk stomping of a frustrated man’s footsteps.
I am angry and confused and tired. Mostly tired.
Before I know it, I’ve fallen asleep.
The night is spotted with dreams.
When they end, and when earliest dawn light is streaming through a checkered curtain over the room’s sole window, I wake. I’m curled into a ball, and I can feel no warmth coming from any other body in the bed.
That’s because there isn’t another body in the bed.
Ardette’s sleeping form is limp in a chair. Not the wicker one, but a plump paisley armchair in the opposite corner. His neck is cranked to the side unnaturally, and a wad of shirt is stuffed between his ear and shoulder as a makeshift pillow.
I blink at him. Why is he there?
I can’t begin sorting through the events of last night just yet. I have to go to the bathroom before anything else. I give my knees a final hug before deciding to rise, and find that my leg has a lovely long patch of hair running up the center. My slapdash shave job from last night left me with a mohawk. How ladylike.
I trot to the bathroom to relieve myself, in the meantime, giving a quick dry swipe up the center of my leg with the razor. I half-brush my teeth and do a quick run through my hair with the brush on the counter for good measure.
All right. Now halfway decent, I return into the room. Some part of my routine was loud enough to wake Ardette. Shoot. Even though I was so quiet! He sits in the chair, bags under his eyes and frowning adamantly at me.
“Well, I was up all night lost in a cursed forest,” he says.
The absurdity of it gets to me first.
“You were playing that game?”
“You’ll be pleased to know I am well on my way to becoming a level two Cleric.”
“Cleric?” I say. “Out of everything?”
“I was trying to maintain integrity while knowing you were up here, vulnerable and willing.”
I don’t entirely understand. The events from last night are still hazy.
Rising from the chair, Ardette goes on, “You, my cherry pit, are the cruelest type of woman.”
Sounds like a clue, but I don’t quite grasp it.
Peeling back the covers on his side of the bed, Ardette persists, “I waited until I thought it safe to return. Until I was certain the beast within you had calmed.”
“Beast . . .?” It comes waffling back to me. Ungainly and ruthless. OH! Last night I was unruly. Just as Ardette feared.
“Oh Creator!” I cup my mouth to contain the gasp that wishes to exit. “I was all over you.”
“Yes, you were. And I you. And it was one of the most enjoyable moments of my present life. Now then–” He hops into bed. “Allow me a few hours of gropeless sleep, would you?”
I stand frozen in the bathroom doorway.
“Now, now, Aurelia. You can’t tell me you aren’t still tired. Wouldn’t want our angel to have a hangover, would we? The forces would be so disappointed.”
At his invitation, I walk timidly across the cold floor and crawl into bed beside him. Because I’m suffering of guilt, I lie facing away from him. His breathing is already turning heavy. I hear it coming out of him deeply. He’s exhausted.
“Sorry about that,” I say quietly. “I should have controlled myself better.”
He doesn’t respond, so I add, “You know, you probably could have . . . I mean, I really love you so much, and I really wanted to . . .”
“I would never, like that,” he says, perturbed. “Not if you wouldn’t even remember it.” His tone drastically changes to something passionate. “I want you to remember every last movement.”
I am quiet.
Ardette’s breathing becomes even.
“Thanks,” I whisper, feeling even guiltier.
And then I roll over to face him.
His dark eyes are closed; his face tired. He doesn’t look innocent, as some boys may, resting like that. He doesn’t look like a puppy or any other young animal. He looks like a sleeping lion. A proud, dangerous dragon, always.
And he isn’t all the way asleep yet.
The dragon, reaches for me and pulls me to him like a gathering of blanket. I kiss his cheek to show my remorse, and together we sleep again.
Each time, it feels more natural than the last.
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There was a story my grandfather told me once.
On the edge of a desert, one flower bloomed, with petals of pink and a stalk of green. Far, far away, on the opposite side of the desert, another flower bloomed. Its stalk was gray, its petals black as inky night. The two flowers never knew of each other, and the desert liked it that way. It kept them separate for many, many years, until one day, when a great sandstorm arose. The winds tore a petal from the pink flower and flung it across the stretch of sand, reeling and whirling, and when things were settled again, the pink petal drifted from the sky, landing in front of the black flower. The black flower saw the beauty of the pink flower it had never met and it lusted.
“You are like that pink flower, Zillow,” my grandfather told me. “And one day, the black rose will come for you.”
. . .
“What are you thinking about, Zill?” The girl in the pew next to me had sharp eyes and a small mouth that was usually chewing itself. Karán – she didn’t have time for impractical thinking, and her stare often fell disapprovingly on anyone that did. For now, her stare was set on me.
I looked to the hymnal in my hand, pretending to be interested in the chorus the rest of the room was singing. “I turn twenty in less than four hours,” I said.
“That again?” From the corner of my eye, I saw Karán’s mouth begin to chew.
“It won’t do any good to worry about it, Zill. You don’t know you’re going to be one of them. It could be Cadence or Laurelia or Pon. It could be any one of those girls. They aren’t twenty yet either.” She tucked her dark hair behind her ear and allowed her stare to linger over me.
She was attempting to be nice. That, or she was in denial.
“No one in our class has been marked in over two months,” I countered, eyes deep again in the hymnal. “Everyone thinks it’s going to be me.” Only four more hours until I’d know for sure. After that, I’d be free and clear, just like Karán. Otherwise, I’d be . . .
“Enough, Zill. Even if it is you, you’ll be fine. You’re fast, maybe even the fastest. You’ll never let him catch you.”
That was what everyone said about Othello too, and now she was dead.
Maybe coming to the same conclusion, Karán fell silent. Meanwhile, all through the chapel, the singing of my classmates rose. It wasn’t a pretty sound. It erred on the side of ugly. A hundred bad singers and five good ones made for an awful clamor. I kept my mouth closed tight. I wouldn’t join in, not today. I’d join in tomorrow, if I were still here, in celebration of making it through the day unmarked.
But just in case, my pack was already loaded, my rations readied, and my weapon cleaned. If the black rose came for me, I’d be ready. No, that was a lie. I could never be ready, not really.
Around me, the bad singing of my peers swelled.
In Eastern City, the metropolis of wind and rain, twentieth birthdays weren’t celebrated or even spoken of. Twenty-first birthdays, on the other hand, were a grand affair because they meant that the marking had skipped someone, or that that person had been one of the lucky few to survive it.
In that way, no one talked about the fact that it was my twentieth birthday, though they all knew. All day, their glances had slipped over, slowly, as if to say, ‘I’m glad it’s you and not me, Zillow Stone.’ True, there were a few like Karán, with whom I’d bonded enough to call friends, that tried to make light of my situation, but really, none of us were friends, not truly. Not until after our twentieth birthdays was it safe to become attached to anyone or anything. We’d all seen too many marked ones disappear. We’d all made the mistake of growing close to someone that never returned, and so eventually, we learned to become cold to one another. The twentieth year was something we all looked to with expectation, wondering always if we’d be one of them; constantly honing our skills, afraid we’d have to use them.
“Are you listening, Miss Stone?”
From the front of the classroom, the nosy priest frowned at me. His skin was as wrinkled as his disposition. No, I wasn’t ‘listening.’ I was watching the clock on the wall, as it ticked closer and closer to my twentieth year.
“Yes, Father. I’m listening,” I lied.
The priest stroked his wrinkled chin. “If that’s true, then which of the collapses was I lecturing on?”
I didn’t know. Of course I wouldn’t. No sane person would be able to concentrate with that ominous ticking coming from the top of the wall; and while I stared blankly ahead, on the verge of reprimand–
“The sixth,” a small voice from behind me whispered.
“The sixth,” I repeated. “The collapse of Southwestern City.”
The priest looked at me shrewdly a moment before returning to the screen stretched across the wall. I had Karán to thank for the save. I shot a look of fake camaraderie over my shoulder as the priest busied himself with swiping the dates of the collapse into the air with his glove. The glove’s fingertips glowed blue, and the dates materialized onto the screen.
“Correct. After the fall of Southwestern City, that left only Southern City, Western City, and our own Eastern City. It was then that we formed an alliance with Southern City to . . .”
With that clock going on that way, my thoughts drifted.
Southern City, metropolis of field and flower – sure, we’d formed an alliance with them, but it hadn’t done any good. They’d been wiped out like the rest. Now, we were alone in this world, alone with them; two great capitals, one east, one west, separated by only a lonely stretch of wasteland. Across the sands and ruins, they waited – the unholy ones.
And we were in their debt.
They had access to the generator, they shared their power with us, and even though we were vulnerable, they refrained from attacking us all at once. That was why the Director allowed the markings to continue – because we didn’t have much of a choice. Besides, our city was overcrowded as it was. No one minded the disappearance of a few University students every now and then if it meant keeping the peace.
In an effort to block out the ticking, I turned to the window.
Through the yellowed glass, I saw the other tower, identical to ours, where the boys were being lectured in a class similar to our own, no doubt by a nun with a sour face. University policy stated that we were to remain separate from them until our markings had passed. Why? Because love was even more gripping than friendship, or so I’d heard. It was for our own protection, or so they’d said.
We’d played with the boys when we were children, before entering the University, but they were different now, taller and leaner. I’d seen them around the city. I’d exchanged glances with the ones I used to know; not that I could exchange much else. If anyone saw an under-aged girl chatting them up, there’d be hell to pay.
Karán had made it through her twentieth birthday without being marked, so she and some of the others were allowed now to meet with the boys that had also passed their twentieth years unmarked. Would I join them soon? Or would I . . .?
It was getting closer. It was almost here. I knew it. Everyone knew it, and yet, no one acknowledged it. Only the clock on the wall dared to speak of time’s forward movement.
How much longer now? I wondered. Ten minutes? Five? I refused to look, as though looking would be signaling my consent.
I heard Karán’s breathless protest before I saw the door handle turn. The priest’s endless babble ended, and a quiet disquiet fell over the room; and I, very slowly, turned my neck to see the door push open. The sound of my throat swallowing drowned out everything else for but a moment before the hushes of the class began. Whispers and utters and mutters flurried around the room, all aroused by a shape in the doorway. A person stood in the shadows of the hall, and at the sight of him, my chest began to thud louder than it ever had before.
From the front of the room, the priest cleared his throat loudly – a warning for the rest to become silent.
I waited in my seat, as I’d been instructed to do, as so many had before me. I supposed I was lucky that my time of birth wasn’t in the middle of the night. There was nothing more terrifying than the thought of being snatched away in the dark.
The person in the shadows strode into the room with a few determined steps. The fidgeting of chair movement followed. Again, the priest cleared his throat. But even if I wanted to disobey and fidget to my heart’s content, I couldn’t. I was stuck, transfixed on the person who had come for me.
He was a boy of average height and strong build, with hair like fire and eyes like ice. Scarlet hair and an icy blue gaze – I’d never seen anything like it. The boy was striking. His eyes were striking. Penetrating, they peered around the room before settling on me. He was dressed in the same uniform all Markers wore, an unassuming black jumpsuit with the sleeves rolled up. His skin had a vibrant glow, like one who spends much time outdoors under the sun. His mouth was flat, held in a serious position, and below his eyes, small tattoos jutted outwards – three pointed triangles under each. All of the Western City Markers had those. They were made to look like the sun’s rays, or so I’d heard.
Sights firmly set on me, the boy approached. Still, I didn’t fidget. I couldn’t, and I did my best to make my gaze as strong as his. I’d let him know right away that I wasn’t an easy mark. Karán was right. I was fast, maybe even the fastest, and I’d trained diligently. I wouldn’t give up without a fight. I’d be one of the lucky few who returned.
Expression emotionless, the boy moved through the desks, past Cadence and Laurelia and Pon, all of whom had yet to reach their twentieth year. Their fear dripped off of them, almost detectable, but I was different. Not knowing whether or not I’d be marked was the worst part. Waiting had been the worst part, and now that I knew for sure, I felt a certain settling deep down in my core. This was going to happen, and the sooner I accepted it, the better off I’d be.
Gaze intense, the boy came right up to the edge of my chair. I looked up at him without fear. No, that was a lie. There was still some fear, but it was masked by something else.
I narrowed my eyes. His remained the same, though his mouth turned downward slightly in the corner.
You won’t beat me, I thought. You just won’t.
As if to hear me, the boy’s mouth turned upward at the corner this time, into a grin that looked amused.
I narrowed my eyes further and set my jaw tight. You won’t, I thought. I won’t let you.
Fully grinning now, maybe even sneering, the boy tipped his head to the side. “Zillow Stone?” he said.
“My Marker,” I replied, through my teeth. I was required to say it, but no one ever said I had to hide my disdain while doing so.
“Hm.” The boy made an amused sound through his lips. “Give me your hand.”
I realized my palm was sweating only after it met his, which was dry by comparison. Was sweat a sign of weakness? If it was, the boy didn’t react. He held my palm in his hand and fished around in his pocket with his opposite fingers, taking out a thick silver pen. It wasn’t an ordinary pen. I’d seen similar ones come through the door many times. I watched as he slid his thumb into an indent in the pen’s side. The indent reacted by glowing yellow. With my hand resting limply in his, the Marker raised the lit pen into the air and plunged it straight down into the back of my hand. Though I held back as much as I could, my mouth let out a small whimper, one I immediately regretted.
The boy did nothing but watch and wait for the pen’s indent to turn green, at which point he slid the tip from my skin, covering the puncture with his thumb. I wanted to rip my hand away, to grab my backpack and pelt him on the side of the head with it, but I couldn’t. The rules were very clear.
Beneath the boy’s thumb, my blood bubbled in reaction to the implant. Hot stinging moved through my flesh for a helping of seconds before subsiding. The boy felt it too, for when it was done, he removed his thumb and inspected my hand. Beneath my skin was a green glow, roughly the size of a coin.
It was done.
Their people were born with extreme lust for ours, and just as my grandfather had warned all those years ago, one of them had come for me.
I, Zillow Stone, had been marked by an unholy one.
While I digested the truth of it, the boy leaned over, placing his lips nearly to my ear, and whispered, “Run.”
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‘The Ring of Perfection: It is a story I’ve heard a thousand times; one I’ve told hundreds. Something like clay planted beneath our city, it shifts with the shifting views of those who keep it. It evolves from year to year, from retelling to retelling, but never strays far from its root.
Do I belong?
I used to think so.
Until I found out what I really was.
That first day was a lonely day indeed . . .’
On an afternoon stained with rainwater, I walked to class.
Half-heartedly, begrudgingly, I walked to the concrete schoolhouse at the center of a field. On days more vibrant, the walk was enjoyable, but amidst the slop of messy, clinging blades, even the scent of rain provided little enjoyment.
The previous night had been a celebration, and I was still tired from that. I’d come out of slumber undercooked, and I was paying the price.
If the walk were any indication, the day would surely drag.
There it was. A rigid building whose sign simply read: Schoolhouse.
‘It wouldn’t be until much later that I’d even come to realize how generic it was to call something ‘Schoolhouse,’ ‘Clinic,’ or ‘Market.’ Within our fairytale, we were children playing house. There was a lack of authenticity to anything and everything we were.
But all of that would change.
It was already beginning to change . . .’
There was no activity around Schoolhouse’s door. My classmates were already inside. It was my own fault. Because I’d woken up too early to go where I wasn’t supposed to, and stayed later than I should have.
But it was worth it!
So I sucked up whatever crankiness I had and pulled the door’s handle. I heard it immediately. That holy tale. That cherished story.
Teacher Dole had been at it for a while, it seemed. His voice had already transitioned from dry to croaky.
“Consider this, students,” he was saying. “Never has there been an economic or scientific need for assimilation. Assimilation is simply a phenomenon that happened on its own. If you think about in that respect, it is something quite astonishi–”
Reeeek! The classroom door’s noisy spring betrayed me.
Shoot! I’d been hoping to duck in unnoticed.
“AHEM. Nice of you to join us, Student Ashlin,” said Dole.
Those gritted teeth were for me? How sweet. I gave the young teacher a tip of the head; then shuffled to the backside of the classroom and settled into my chair, chin down and eyes betraying. Dole shook his head because he knew where I’d been. He didn’t reprimand me, though. He just carried on,
“Earlier generations pushed away from the inevitable; but with scientific advancement, came an opening of minds. At last, people came to an understanding: Everyone was equal.”
I searched through my pack for a notebook. It was pointless, though. I already knew this lecture.
Everyone was equal.
I was equal to the three other students in my class.
I was equal to all ninety people remaining in the world.
“Integration,” said Teacher Dole. “It is a holy path. Can anyone tell me why?”
Cat-faced Lale raised her hand. No surprise there. When it came to the classroom, the little snob was always first to speak and last to leave. The good teacher loved that most about her.
“Yes, Student Lale?” he said, and smiled – in my humble opinion – much wider than he should have.
Lale returned the smile. “Integration is holy because with integration, perfection was attained,” she recited. “From one race we came and to one race we became. The circle completes with us.” She drew a circle with her finger to prove her point. “In that way, history made the Ring of Perfection.”
I yawned and peered through the window that was still dripping with remnants of storm. I’d just gotten there, and I was already bored. That was because I’d heard this tale daily. Humans had once been different. Distinguishable. A multi-ethnic painting of flesh across the face of the earth. But that had been way back when, in a time that no longer mattered.
Now things were . . .
“Very good, Student Lale,” said Teacher Dole, pulling at his collar. Her know-it-all butt-ins always made him hot. “Every generation evolves closer and closer into one true race. The perfect race. That means that, as one of the youngest remaining generations, you are the holiest of humanity.”
Lale nodded hungrily. I rolled my eyes. Holiest, shmoliest. It was no fun being the holiest of the remaining humans if it meant there were only a handful of us left.
The ‘Ring of Perfection’ was a bunch of crap.
The truth was the world was dying, we were the only ones left, and that holiness spiel was just a lie to make us feel better.
But Teacher Dole didn’t think so. “It is true,” he continued, “that convergence into one perfect race is the natural flow of evolution. Any that argue are foolish.”
Lale smiled to herself. I heaved a sigh and scribbled into my notebook. To an outsider, I looked obedient, like a student keeping good record of her studies. But an outsider would be fooled in the worst way. I wasn’t taking notes at all. I was writing a letter. To a secret person that was waiting for me on the outskirts of the commune. I’d meet him after class. Just as I always did. Just as I’d done before. I tried not to let my thoughts roam too freely, though, because knowing that he was waiting for me made the moist classroom even more unbearable.
“As you know, students, the last of you has passed their twelfth year. With Student Kinamo’s turning, the youngest of your class has reached adulthood. You are all aware of this, correct?” said Teacher Dole.
Aware? Of course we were aware! Not only had Kinamo been flaunting it for days, we’d been forced to attend a gaudy celebration complete with fireworks and sugared water the night before. My turning hadn’t been anything like that. It had been simple. But then, Kinamo was anything but simple. He was obnoxious. As flashy as the fireworks he’d demanded.
The boy in question was beaming because he was the center of attention again. Lale tried to catch my eye. She, too, was aware of Kinamo’s garish nature, and she wanted to exchange in some sort of camaraderie, I guess. But I was still angry with her for her actions the previous night – the actions that had exiled my secret person from the festivities – so I let her eyes linger and fall, uncaught. She hurried to find the eyes of the only other girl in our class: Bess. Bess would oblige. Bess was a girl hell-bent on people pleasing.
“Now then,” said the teacher. “With the turning of the last of you, the time has come for me to introduce you to . . .” He cleared his throat. “Something new.”
I looked up. That was different. Teacher Dole was ahead of schedule. Usually, the holiness pitch would’ve gone another ten minutes or more. Whatever. ‘New’ probably just meant an introduction to trigonometrics or something. I continued to scribble the secret note.
But there were others in the class that found the sermon at least a little interesting.
Lale had released Bess’ gaze, and was staring intently at Teacher Dole.
The wind outside sent a splatter of old raindrops against the window. Dole frowned at the interruption before picking up where he’d left off.
“Now, you’ve all been told time and again that the races, which were born as one, split during an era of separation before converging into one mixed race. You’ve also learned that we are of that remaining race. That we are the ‘Remnants’ of humanity.” Teacher Dole paused. “What I must tell you now is that you’ve been misled.”
“Misled?” mouthed Lale. The little snob was quickly losing the flush in her cheeks. Again she searched the room for a gaze of camaraderie. She wouldn’t find it in me, though. I was staring at Teacher Dole.
The way he was chewing his lip . . .
What the heck!?
“We will now watch a video,” he said. “And it will be,” – The stiff man stopped to think carefully about how he would deliver the next line – “hard to stomach, but I assure you, it is a video all of our people must watch at one point or another.”
Kinamo grabbed the front of his desk and used it to pull himself forward. “Truly?” he yelped. “Hard to stomach? What is it? Things that are dead?! Things that have rotted?!”
“Don’t look so excited, Student Kinamo.” Teacher Dole’s expression was foul, as it usually was when addressing the brassy boy.
Kinamo’s nose flared.
Dole walked to the wall and input something into the numbered pad there. “Upon watching this footage,” he said, “you shall become full adults.” He took another moment to fiddle with the command pad and then, “Students Lale, Bess, Kinamo, and Ashlin, it is with a lamenting heart that I now feed you the forbidden fruit of knowledge. Eat it and awaken!”
‘The forbidden fruit. A fruit forcibly eaten. A fruit that, once tasted, could never be forgotten.’
I hadn’t anticipated anything like this. I’d expected a brief retelling of the Ring of Perfection, followed by an hour of arithmetic, followed by tea. But today was special. Or better, it was cursed.
With wide eyes, I watched the projected image that appeared on the wall. The room let out a collective gasp.
The video! It was–!
I’d never seen anything like it, so it took a moment for me to react, and even when I did, I said nothing. I just shook and squinted and made a strange burping noise at the back of my throat.
“W-who?” stuttered Lale.
“Hell!” yelled Kinamo.
Bess, too, was muttering something. Hers, though, was more of a sob.
The others were the same. They couldn’t understand it either. For there, upon the wall, was the image of thousands and thousands of people. People that looked nothing like us. People that were different.
What was wrong with them?!
I was fair-skinned. Blonde. Blue-eyed. So, too, were the others in the class. The last ninety humans were that way. But the people on the video? That massive, massive group of people? They were . . . abnormal. Their hair was dark; their skin bronzed.
“Who?” Lale said again, now white as a ghoul. “Who are they?”
“What you see before you,” said Dole, gesturing to the wall, “is the TRUE integrated race of humanity.”
Not knowing what else to do, I stared at the screen and rubbed my temple. If these golden people were ‘true,’ then what were we? False?
But never once had our teacher jested. Never once had he played. “This is true integrated race,” he said once more.
Kinamo was first to show his disquiet.
“True race?!” He jumped to his feet. “Impossible! There are so many! And WE are the only ones left! WE are the end of the circle! And . . . how did they get that way?! Look at their skin! And their hair!”
Dole held up his hands. “Breathe, students. Breathe.”
It was too much. So I did as he said. I took in a breath. And then another. And it felt good. Gradually, my racing heartbeat slowed to an acceptable pace. Gradually, Kinamo returned to his seat.
“What is this?” I held my chest and inhaled the air that felt thicker than normal.
“It is not your imagination,” said Dole. “The room has been infused with tranquilizer to help you cope. These reveals have been known to be . . . shocking.”
“Breathe, remain calm, and listen,” said Dole.
That sort of thing was getting easier the more breaths I took.
There was silence until, “I get it,” squeaked Bess. “This video is from the time of separation! This is from the twentieth century or something!”
Oh. That made sense. Good one, Bess! Of course it was ancient documentation of the time before true integration.
My thirteen-year-old worldview was restored!
But only until–
“This footage was taken last year.”
–Teacher Dole forcibly pushed more fruit into our mouths.
“W-what!?” cried Lale. Her head was wobbly upon her thin, lanky neck. She brought it into her hands before it could fall on its own.
Meanwhile, Kinamo landed a lazy fist on the table. He probably would have stood, had it not been for the infused air of the classroom.
“We are not the circle of assimilation’s end,” said Teacher Dole. “They are. They are evolution’s endpoint. Not us.”
He meant to tell us that the people in the video were the ultimate mixed race? But that made no sense! What about US?
It didn’t matter ‘about us,’ apparently.
“A very long time ago,” he said, “when the races first started to cross, some believed that the nations would grow to be more and more different, genetically; that only a small portion of the population would blend, and that humanity as a whole would evolve apart. However, that wasn’t the case.” He motioned to the video of strangers. “As technology advanced, and travel and integration became easier and easier, the opposite was true. Over centuries, the races converged. And it was an awesome thing. The pinnacle of equality. An erasing of hatred. The road to unity and understanding.”
I squeezed the edges of my desk. We knew all of this. We KNEW that humanity had converged and died until all that remained was us. We knew it. WE were the Remnants, so why was Teacher Dole still rambling? And why did I feel like falling over?
“The powers that be were fearful,” he went on. “Fearful of losing the roots of humanity. So from all corners of the world, small portions of the population were removed and put into small communities, segregated into family lines that would breed only with one another. Gray-eyed people here, deep-skinned people there, all manner of nationalities were plucked and sequestered away to their own communes.”
“Hold up!” Kinamo’s eyes bulged. “You do not mean–!”
Teacher Dole nodded. “All to preserve the ancient races. And what is more . . .” He paused and locked eyes with each of us before continuing: “You and I belong to one of those sects.”
The forbidden fruit made its way down my gullet and into my belly.
Kinamo tried to reject it: “But Teach–”
Dole cut him off. “For countless generations our ancestors have been secluded from the rest of the world as an act of preservation. In that sense we are NOT Remnants. To the rest of the world, we are Purités.”
“Purités?!” yelped Kinamo.
Whatever that meant.
Dole nodded again. “I understand that this is painful and unfathomable, but it is time for you to grow up. Consider this the last step to your coming of age.”
“But there are so many of them! How can that many people exist?!” Kinamo was gaping at the tan-skinned mass. The tranquilizer was wearing from him, judging by his gusto.
“Ah, yes,” said Dole. “Another thing. As you can see, the population today is not ninety, and it is even more than the crowd in this video. It is, in fact, ten billion or so.”
“TEN BILL–” started Kinamo.
“SILENCE, STUDENT KINAMO!” Teacher Dole had had enough. He threw an open palm at the wall of projected bodies. “You must move past a childhood of fairytales and become aware of the real world! You’ve had your turn to be sheltered! Many of you will be married soon, so it is imperative that you understand! It is up to YOU to keep our race alive!”
“Why?” blubbed Lale. “If we aren’t holy, if we aren’t the circle’s end, then why?! What’s our purpose?!”
“Why?” repeated Dole. He tapped his chin. “Because we are a living archive of what once was. We are rare. We are special.”
But as I watched the masses of same-skinned, same-haired people mingling on the screen before me, I realized:
More than anything, we were caged.
‘I wasn’t a Remnant. I was a Purité. I was alone. But at the same time, not alone. I belonged, but I also didn’t belong. I was apart from humanity. But I was a part of something intimate. I was a paradox.
At that time, I didn’t know anything. And to be honest, I still don’t know much of anything. I didn’t know what to do, so I did then what I do now. I went to him. To the one person I could count on.’
The fields at the back of the schoolhouse were wet. The air still misted, though the largest of the drops no longer fell. The shorts I wore went down only to my knees, so the lower parts of my legs were instantly wet from the blades of grass that sopped and clung.
Olté’s place was away from the rest of the village. That was fine. I had to get away. The walls of my worldview were crumbling, so I had to get far, far away. As far as I could. Miles of wilderness surrounded us. I could’ve kept running forever, it seemed. But I had to stop. I had to grab Olté on the way. I had to whisk him along.
There was his home. Brick. Stout. With a lovely bed of lilacs beneath the front window. Olté was one for green things. He always had been. But because he wasn’t allowed in the main market, his planting tendencies were fueled by seeds I’d smuggled for him or ones he’d gathered in the forest.
I didn’t knock. I barged right through. Olté didn’t offer any sort of welcome.
“Criminy, Ashlin! I’m indecent!”
“Ack! You are!?” I prepared to turn away, but let my eyes linger because I was curious. Olté was clad in jeans and a garden-stained t-shirt. He wasn’t indecent at all!
“You are not,” I said. “And besides, it doesn’t matter. I have something incredible to tell you!”
“Calm down, spazoid!” He pointed to his closed right eye. “I AM indecent! So just hold on a sec and let me get my patch!”
“Oh.” That was what he’d meant. I fanned at him. “Go on. But hurry, would you?”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said.
I continued to watch, hoping for a glimpse of the iris behind his right lid, but he turned his back to me, so I studied that instead. His hair matched mine. So did his skin. Maybe after seeing the shocking true state of the world, staring at his similarity would bring me comfort. But it didn’t. Yes, I was comforted, but it wasn’t the similarity of our features that did it. It was his presence. It was him. My secret person. My charming outcast.
“There.” He finished knotting the patch’s belt at the back of his head and turned to me, right eye now decently covered. “What’s the big deal, Ash?” He rubbed his forehead and scowled. “I COULD have been naked, you know.”
“Psh. Naked schmaked. That doesn’t matter at all,” I said.
“What do you mean it doesn’t matter?! Of course it matt–”
“Nope! Me seeing you naked would be a small shock in comparison to what Teacher Dole told us today!” I threw out my hands. “Just wait ‘til you hear!”
“Hold on, hold on. Have a seat.” He gestured to the only chair in the cottage. “Let me get my notebook.”
I blinked at him. Notebook? Oh, right! He thought I was going to show him arithmetic or something. Well, I couldn’t really blame him for that. It was our daily routine after all; me sneaking over to pass along what I’d learned at school. For years I’d been stealing knowledge from the classroom, and for years I’d been secretly giving it to the one person that wasn’t allowed in. To the boy that didn’t count.
I said his name quietly because I needed to feel it on my lips – to reaffirm that he existed.
He heard it anyway. “Hm?” He was shuffling through the stand at the side of his bed.
Nothing. “It’s nothing.”
But it was something.
I was thinking about IT again – the tally.
There was a giant stone abacus beneath the steel clock in the courtyard behind city hall. Reachable only by the town’s tallest ladder, the mechanical thing was a tally to show how many of us remained. A symbol to show just how small and ‘sanctified’ we were. Cracked and wind-worn, the abacus counted ninety, just as it had said since the death of Grandpa Archer and the birth of Baby Archilade. We had an uncanny way of compensating for death with new life. Thus, the number never long fluctuated from ninety. Ninety remnants – or rather, ninety Purités – were all that remained within our commune.
At least, according to that stupid tally.
But even before the forbidden fruit, I’d known for some time now that the tally was a lie. The count, held so precious to us ‘sanctified’ Purités, was a deceit. Nothing more. Nothing less. There weren’t ninety of us remaining, at all.
There were ninety-ONE.
But number ninety-one didn’t exist. Not really. Olté was only three years my senior, so he should’ve been included in my generation. He should’ve been among us that were holy. But he wasn’t. He was taboo.
“What? Why aren’t you sitting?” asked the uncounted one, notebook prepped and ready in his hand.
“Oh.” I shook my head to clear my thoughts. “I was thinking about you.”
“Eh?” He raised a suggestive brow.
“You’re being weird today,” he said. “Then again, I guess you’re a little weird every day.”
I shook my head to shake it away. There were more important things right now: Namely, the reason I’d come sprinting over here in the first place! “Oh right!” I spurted. “Listen to this! So today in class we watched a video, and you’ll never BELIEVE what was . . .” But I stopped because he’d cracked a smile. “Uh, Olté?”
“So that’s what this is about?” he said quietly. “A video?” He laughed.
I stared at him dumbly and said, “Yeah, a video, but why are you grinning at me like that?”
“Finally.” He threw his head backward and let out another laugh, this one more animated than the first.
I gaped at him. “Finally?”
“Yup,” said Olté. “Finally.”
The way he was just standing there, all grinning like an idiot . . .
It set me off.
“WHAT THE HECK DO YOU MEAN FINALLY!?” I narrowed my eyes and waited for an answer, positive that none he could give would be sufficient enough to calm my coming wrath.
Olté didn’t fear the wrath at all. He tossed the notebook to the bed, came to me, and set a hand atop my head. “Ash,” he said, grinning. “I’ve been waiting for you to grow up for a long time. You know that?”
I pushed him away. “What? You don’t mean to tell me . . .”
“You KNEW? About the video? About all of those golden people?”
He nodded again.
“Unbelievable!” After everything I’d shared with him! After all of the rules I’d broken for him! After–
“Cool it, Ashy,” he said. He placed the hand I’d refused onto my shoulder and squeezed. “Didn’t you guys go over the ‘Melojim’ dealie?”
“Meloheeem?” That sounded vaguely familiar. Yes, Teacher Dole had said something about that at one point today, but I couldn’t exactly remember . . .
“Let me guess,” said Olté. “You were off in your own little world after seeing that video.” He tipped his head in consideration. “No, on second thought, you were probably panicking, right?”
Not that I’d admit it.
“Let me see your notes from today,” he said with an amused sigh.
He folded his arms. “Why not?”
Because I was pretty sure there was at least one doodle of him in there.
He cracked another smile. “Fine. If you won’t show me, at least flip through there yourself. Even when you space out in class, your notes are always spot on, right? So check there. Look for something called the Melojim.”
I narrowed my eyes at him suspiciously.
“Grrr. Fine. But I’m still mad at you,” I said.
“I know. I know.”
I was mad. I was very, very mad.
Until I wasn’t. It didn’t take long for me to locate the term he was talking about. He was right. I frequently zoned out, yet my notes were always perfect. Guess my brain was good at autopilot.
I read aloud the first bullet under the word ‘Melojim’:
“If any from the non-turned generations learn the true nature of the Purités, bla bla bla, they shall be put to death at public execution for acts of treason against the . . . WHAT?!”
“That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it?” I scanned the paper again, just to be sure.
Olté shrugged. “Not when you consider how important it is for them to maintain the structure of things. The state of your people is so fragile. The whole thing could so easily break . . .” He stared absently, like he very much would have liked to be the catalyst for something like that.
“OUR people, Olté. They’re yours too, you know.”
“Anyways, if it’s such a secret, how do you even know about it?” I asked.
“They told me. When I turned twelve. Don’t know why they didn’t do it sooner. I mean, they could’ve killed me for treason if they had.”
I hated when he talked that way. “Shut up.”
Stupid Olté. He wasn’t making things better. “Gah!” I said. “Even with that Melo-schmello thingy, you still could have told me! It’s not like they’d ever find out, right?”
“NO. WAY. You’d have let it slip for sure. AND gotten yourself killed. Like I’d risk that.” He shook his head. “I’m just glad you came here right away today. It would be so like you to do something irrational.”
“You know, like run to the children and blurt out everything. Then it would be ‘goodbye’ to the holiest of holy babes.” He drew his thumb along his throat. “Croak.”
I let out a crabby grumble. He wasn’t giving me much credit. After all, I’d kept our meetings secret for how long? Well . . . ‘secret’ was sort of an exaggeration. The two other people in the commune that knew just pretended not to notice because it made them uncomfortable.
I chewed my lip. He was studying me.
“So . . . you aren’t really mad at me, are you?” he said.
“Hmph!” I turned up my nose. I felt like being bratty. Mainly because I’d feel stupid and self-conscious otherwise.
“Come on, Ash,” coaxed Olté. “You know you’re in the wrong here.”
It was true. He’d done the right thing. But I wouldn’t let him know that.
“Fine,” I said, sulking. “Even though you’re awful, I’ll forgive you . . . IF you let me see it.”
“You know.” I pointed.
“Forget it!” He brought both hands to his eyepatch.
But those were my terms. His right eye – I wanted to see it more than anything. That was the reason for everything – his exile; why he wasn’t counted as one of us; the reason we had to sneak our friendship.
“Then I’m leaving and you won’t be seeing me again for at least a week!” I said.
“Okay,” he said, saluting. “See ya!”
I snarled and marched to the door. He said nothing until I put a hand on the knob. At that point, he let out a grumble. “Wait.”
I smiled to myself and turned slowly back to him. “Yes?”
“YES?” I said again.
I blinked. It had worked? Really? My face lit up. Awesome! I’d only gotten to see his forbidden eye once before, and that had been an accident. Another of my intrusive bargings.
“Wonderful,” I said, more than pleased with myself.
Olté groaned. “Why, Ash? Why that? It’s gross.”
“It’s NOT gross. It’s . . .”
But, sighing, he didn’t wait for me to find a word for the patched thing. He walked to the edge of his bed, took a seat, and patted the space next to him. I vehemently plopped down.
“I can’t help it.”
“You get worked up about the strangest things.”
He was stalling. I urged him along.
“Fine. Fine,” he said. And, slower than I’d have liked, he brought his hands to the back of his head and began to undo the tie. A moment later, the patch fell onto his lap, but his right eye remained closed.
“Open it,” I ordered.
He rolled his left eye, but he was only half-convincing. He was . . . nervous? That was stupid. He was stupid.
“Tch. It’s not like I’ll think less of you or anything,” I said.
“I know. But anyone else would. You’re broken.”
It hurt a little, though I tried not to let it show. “Or maybe the rest of them are broken,” I said. “Maybe we’re the only two that aren’t.”
“Heh.” He liked that. And, cautiously, he allowed his lid to rise.
It wasn’t a bad gasp, but Olté flinched anyway, so I brought my hand to his cheek and pulled his face closer so that I could take in all the secrets of his right eye. I bored mine deeply into his and reached for the forbidden tones hidden there. His left eye was blue. Like mine. Like everyone’s. But his right eye? His right eye was–
“An abomination,” he mumbled. He dropped it to the safety of the floor.
“No!” I seized his other cheek so that he’d look at me. The taboo iris was green. Bright green and flecked with pieces of amber. “No,” I said again. I shook my head. “It isn’t anything like that, Olté. It’s . . . so beautiful.”
The word hit him like energy and made both eyes widen. At that time, I didn’t understand why. I just continued to study the intricacy of his right eye more deeply than ever. But he was staring at me for a different reason.
“Ash?” He gulped.
“Hurry and grow up a little bit more, would you?” he whispered.
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