The red and lilac flush is fading from the twilight-blue sky, the cool air heavy with that recent-rainstorm fragrance. I’m walking briskly from the guesthouse to the Camerad without my messenger bag, which I left in my room; traveling light feels a little odd. About half the houses have their porch lights on, giving off a thin orangish-yellow glow that casts cloudy patches on the dirt. It feels as if the trees around Asulon are encroaching upon its edges. I seem to be the only one out here; I know nothing’s going to happen, but I still get flashes of the Brone Attack and it makes me flex my fingers and dart looks over my shoulder.
As I approach the Camerad, the light shifts on its tall stained-glass windows, making their gold and orange and green panels gleam brighter. Now that I’m closer to the five-story building, it’s not as similar to Aabryn Temple as I thought on first sight. Constructed from yellow and salmon stones and rough-hewn ashmelin beams, the Camerad features rounded walls ascending up to parapeted balconies and turrets etched with Vermusk characters, and asterisk towers with ribbons of embroidered fabric rippling off the points of multiple triangles crowning their steeples. It gives the impression of a cathedral built with the idea of both a castle and a wooden lodge in mind. A weather vane marked by two entwined snakes sticks up from a spire above the entrance, a set of ashmelin double doors carved with a map of Bicap.
Entering through the doors, I pause in the pentagon-shaped vestibule, into which strains of music are thumping from the archway ahead of me, to take in the kissnut queen planted off to one side. An opening has been cut out of the domed ceiling directly above it to admit light during the day. An unexplainable chill runs down my neck at the sight of what’s nailed to its bark: a metal ring measuring ten inches in diameter with five chains thicker than my fingers dangling from it. I take two steps toward the tree, peer at what I initially take for brown rust eating away at the ominous decoration and then cringe upon realizing it’s dried blood.
I tear myself away from the kissnut queen, head onward through the archway across the vestibule, its keystone embossed with the Quelevoze symbol of a snake and a crescent moon. The music’s good, a track with Stewart Sammon’s high and soulful croon backed up by a combination of piano chords and energetic synth beats, and that familiar heat buzzes in my chest as I enter an enormous room scattered with oblong tables, each one seating anywhere between three and seven diners digging into their appetizing-looking meals, and equipped with one of those tablets rooted to the tabletop by a jointed arm. At one of the tables I spot Belldon, Yentus, and a balding man with a heavy straw beard fading into gray; Kurolt is sashaying circles around them and feather-dusting their legs with his three-branched tail.
A set of handleless double doors intermittently flap open in the left wall as waitdrones zip out of them, come to full stops at several tables, and unload dishes and bowls, cutlery and napkins, glasses and mugs and occasionally entire bottles of alcohol. The waitdrones then soar back into what must be the kitchen just as efficiently. A vast bookcase stands to the right, a chintz sofa and two armchairs set at right angles to it. The most raucous activity is coming from the clusters of leafpock tables and old arcade machines pushed into the back corner. Strings of small lights shining red and green and purple and other hues cover the high ceiling, vaulted with lacquered ashmelin, in an intricate crisscross that gives the illusion of hundreds of multicolored stars twinkling overhead. They shed a soft illumination over everything and obscure whatever’s been painted onto the ceiling—a golden feathered wing, the Dsinolic double-circle, figures in dark hooded cloaks, but I can’t make out anything else. A balcony with a Thredner-vine-intertwined railing encircles the upper level. A hallway on the far side of the room is aglow in orange lighting.
Spotting Sidney and Cooper at a table, I make my way through the room to reach them, noticing along the way how diners are playing apps or streaming movies and TV channels on the tablets.
“Mind if I join you?” I ask Sidney and Cooper. She’s in the same outfit as before, her pendant glinting in the soft lighting, the sleeves of her hoodie rolled up to her elbows, her dish packed with sautéed lamb chops and cherry tomatoes, her cup half-full with yellow-white sichupod milk. He’s across from her in a gray crew-neck sweater one size too small for his beefy frame, a Dsinolic rosary with deep brown beads and a silver double-circle strung around his neck. He’s taking spoonfuls of vegetable stew, accompanied by two slices of buttered toast and a snifter of berramo, a bitter, kissnut-flavored liqueur.
“Totes not!” His conspicuously plastic grin says he hasn’t forgotten my dubious role in the Myrius Affair. “Yeh can nosh on pretty much everythin’ here—except frommbol rolls.” His grin slides off his face so fast it’s almost comical. “Shame. I was really in the mood for some frommbols.”
“Always looking at the glass half-empty.” Sidney holds up her own half-full glass of sichupod milk, takes a sip, then says to me, “And would you mind seeing how Penny and Corbin are doing? They’ve been over there for a long time, and I’m starting to get worried.” She indicates the leafpock tables and arcade machines across the room; it takes me a couple seconds to make out Penelope and Corbin’s backs, the two of them hunched over a two-player game of Foul Brawl.
“Sure, be right back.” I walk over to that corner, the gleaming ashmelin floorboards creaking soothingly beneath my feet. I dodge the butt ends of cue sticks as leafpock players slide them back and forth, then stop behind Penelope and Corbin, two of the many people fixated on these clunky computer monsters. They must’ve been playing a while; the health bar for each avatar is inches away from depleting completely. An urban park provides the background for the computerized fray.
I’ve never been that much of a gamer, except with the puzzle and RPG apps on my phone. The beeps and explosions coming from the arcades combine with the clacks and thuds of the leafpock action behind me to create a cacophony that complements the genial atmosphere.
Corbin’s avatar, a muscle-bound woman with a chain whip, is lashing over and over at Penelope’s avatar, an equally ripped dude armed with two swords. The game’s over once Penelope blocks a hit from Corbin’s whip, then counters with a sweep of her swords. Corbin’s avatar lurches into the air and blinks red, then dissolves into a pile of dust on the grass. “TRIUMPH!” a voiceover proclaims at the same time that TRIUMPH!!! flashes on the screen, complete with the trio of exclamation points. Penelope’s avatar does a cringeworthy happy dance, and unfortunately Penelope sees fit to perform it in real life, which makes Corbin shake her head in disbelief and amusement.
Then the Thistle sister looks back at me, raises her eyebrows and says hi, and Penelope whirls in my direction, greets me with a boastful smirk on her flushed face. “Hey dork, I hope you saw me completely whup Corbin’s ass.” She’s wearing espadrilles, baggy black trousers, and a shirt advertising the Archkeepmovie franchise beneath her black cardigan. It won’t shock me one bit if that prall pin starts dancing on her bun.
“Good job. But actually, I saw both of you whupping each other’s asses.”
Penelope stops mid-victory-jig to glare at me, as if I coughed in her face. “Sure, but I’m the fucking winner, so what does it matter?”
I look at her for another moment, then turn to Corbin. “How’s Gene?” She’s in chic ballet flats, sheer gray tights, a knee-length floral skirt, and a pine-green pinstriped blouse that goes well with the emerald fangs on her ear, her drawstring pouch and its ouroboros badge faithful buddies on her back.
“Quite well, thank you for asking.” She lifts her wrist, checks the time on a wristwatch with a leather strap as worn as her pouch. “He should be joining us soon. And I must say, without spoiling what’s to come later, I hope you’re inclined toward a night of magnificent merriment.” Her face lights up mysteriously in contrast to my bemusement, making it clear she’s excited about whatever she’s keeping secret.
“Shit, I had a four-hour porn marathon planned out tonight,” Penelope says, reaching up to take a mug of coffee off the top of Foul Brawl. She takes a slug, purses her mouth and narrows her eyes in facetious consideration, then goes on, “But, you know what, for your baby brother, I can do that any other day.”
I take Penelope and Corbin back to Cooper and Sidney’s table, where I sit on Sidney’s left, Penelope’s on her right, and Corbin’s across from us on Cooper’s left. Less than two minutes after entering our orders into the tablet, a waitdrone whirs out of the kitchen and serves me piping hot sichupod soup and goldseed wine, Corbin two nostmelon burritos and mulled beer, and Penelope creamy pasta sprinkled with legumes and crushed bits of reddish-green herbs and a bottle of Mosnica salamandrine whiskey to go with her coffee refill.
We make small talk for the first five minutes, but nobody can deny the tension charging up the air over us, as though a thundercloud is going to materialize. Maybe we’re just nervous about our situation, the fact that Grimhets could be prowling around Asulon right now, trying to figure out a way to break through its defenses. Personally I hope the guards are keeping a close eye on Augen’s goons.
Then Penelope says, “I didn’t know your mom and Yentus are dating.” I follow her gaze, which is directed at Belldon’s table as she gives Yentus a long and deep kiss.
Corbin nods, smiling. “Almost a year.”
“Huh,” Cooper interjects, slowly rotating his head right and then left to scan the room with big eyes, as if he wandered into a curio shop and he’s taking in all its exotic goods. “Yeh know, I gave myself a tour earlier, and this place really looks like it’s got everything. There’s a school, a church, a gym, a hospital, plenty of space for the locals. Somewhere around four hundred?”
Corbin amends, “Three hundred ninety-four.”
“Yep, yer ma’s doin’ interesting things here.”
Corbin’s smile falters and she doesn’t respond, just keeps consuming her burritos and beer.
I think the nerves start to die down once her brother shows up in loafers, khakis, a pristine white button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and a loosely knotted green necktie with an intricate design of golden leaf motifs in place of the sweater vest. I guess it’s bandages making the small bulge in his shirt’s right shoulder; he’s leaning that side slightly on his knobby maycewood. But the undereye bruises are already going away, he’s grinning amiably, and his head of curls springs up and down as he takes the seat on his sister’s left.
“Damn, Genius, took yeh long nuff to get yer snazzy butt down here.” Cooper’s tone is critical, but his brown eyes are alight with good humor and maybe something else I can’t fully read—surprise, maybe relief?
Adjacent to the tablet is a cruet with salt, pepper, kissnut butter, hot sauce, and other condiments. After Gene types his order of medium-rare peppered steak and kellberry juice into the tablet, I pick the bottle of butter out of the cruet, squirt some of it into my soup, and ask Sidney on my left if she has any good kissnut butter puns.
“Yeah, but I don’t think I should butter you up,” she answers without missing a beat. “There’s no chance of that going smoothly, since all my puns are nuts.”
Corbin regards Sidney with an incomprehensible expression, her burrito frozen halfway to her mouth. A long time passes before she says, “Sidney, that was painful.” She clasps a hand over her chest. “Physically, emotionally, and mentally painful.”
Gene pats her shoulder in sympathy.
From here on the aura at our table relaxes significantly. Music keeps pumping out of the loudspeakers—Emovere, Stewart Sammon, The Four Apes, Rain God. We chat about funny or strange stories that have popped up on the news (a local zoo has been encouraging patrons to write letters to its animals), movies (The Many Dreams of Mrs. Bliss has been shortened to The Dreams of Mrs. Bliss), and political nonsense (some Cerebral officials are running an unsuccessful campaign to shut down Torchen and censor all literature sympathetic to subjects of the occult and the paranormal).
There’s a point where Penelope tilts over the tablet and starts flipping through channels. She passes up a banal sitcom that got canceled last year after seven seasons, a game show with gaudily costumed contestants maniacally shrilling over each other, a political thriller called The Ogwandlian Dossier that Sidney insists we skip because it’s essentially a two-and-a-half-hour file scene (and I totally agree with her, watching people riffle through filing cabinets or trawl computer databases drives me up the wall too), and then stops on CMBN as it broadcasts live coverage of Vermusk protestors in uptown Lumin.
Penelope twists the tablet on its arm so we all can see the display. I’m unsurprised to see the protestors waving handmade signs covered in mottos like NO SILENCE FOR NEUANFANG and VERMUSK VIGOR, and donning gray masks with black mouths shaped into an open O and white painted teardrops dribbling from their eyeholes. What does take me aback is watching them stamp cars with inkbrands, leaving a variety of glowing Quelevoze symbols on hoods and doors; dumping buckets of rotten figs on the streets; and plastering posters with Belldon’s face and Quelevoze mottos over the windows of businesses that reject Vermusk customers. Nobody stops even in the face of oncoming police, suited in riot armor and gas masks, beating shock batons against their plastic rectangular shields.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen them demonstrate so aggressively,” I comment.
Gene’s face darkens. “Their bellicosity will only increase as long as Sornis and other prejudiced politicians maintain their negligence. Healthcare is particularly an intractable issue. They are refusing to distribute equipment like respirators, gloves, and skinmats to Neuanfang hospitals, of which there aren’t even that many left due to the funding suspensions. The infirmaries and doctors in Lumin who are spurning Vermusk patients only compound the problem.”
“Good thing your mom’s telling all those bugfuckers to suck it!” Penelope observes around the pasta in her mouth, her smirk somewhere between devilish and drunken.
“Yeppers,” agrees Cooper, gesturing his spoon to the Thistles. “Yeh know, I almost forgot you’re half Vermusk. Yeh two look as Starsian as yer names sound. Musta made things a heckuva a lot easier for yeh.”
He eats some chunks of carrots from his stew, oblivious to the hard side-eye from both Thistles. Sidney’s shifting uncomfortably in her chair and Penelope rolls her eyes over the rim of her mug and honestly, why is it so hard for people to catch themselves saying and thinking shit like that? This is the year 1171, we should be—
“Yes, I suppose we benefitted substantially from our passing privileges,” Gene says lightly, sawing his knife to carve a slice off his steak. “However, you shouldn’t be so insensitive as to discount the Vermusk heritage coursing through our blood.”
Cooper pauses, his next spoonful of stew en route to his mouth, and his eyes flicker nervously between the tablet and the Thistles. “Uh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”
“I for one believe you had no intention, unlike earlier today, of derogating us. What do you think, framana?”
Corbin replies, “I concur, framano. And of course, it isn’t our job to reprogram people’s tactless remarks and thought patterns—except when you deliberately throw out offensive jokes at our expense, at which point we’ll strike you in the solar plexus.”
Gene says, “Correct—we Thistles are not as benign as we look!” He thumps a fist on Corbin’s shoulder, and both siblings grin at us in creepy unison.
I clamp my lips together, stifling my laughter at the memory of Gene knocking back Cooper with an energy blast from his cane. Cooper, for his part, sips his berramo, looking quietly abashed, and he says, “Really, I, I was stickin’ my foot in my mouth there, I’m sorry.”
Corbin and Gene nod simultaneously, as if to conclude the talk, and return to their dinner.
My attention returns to the tablet, where the police are jabbing their batons at rioters and lurching them away with electric charges. However, the rioters don’t disperse until the tear gas canisters are fired and dense clouds of white smoke billow into the air. Reminds me of the black smoke at Myrius, the altered tear gas that leaves Vermusk unaffected. As CMBN cuts to Everest Lowrion to get her opinion, I think to myself, How far does this have to go? They’ve never demonstrated in the city before, they’ve always kept it within Neuanfang. A vague unease grips my insides, a dreadful uncertainty, because this is only the beginning. This unrest is a tiny flame that will keep growing, burning, flaring, until it spreads across the city, turns it to ash and chaos—
No. That won’t happen. The world is dying, Augen warned, but she’s wrong. We’ll make it through this. We’re returning to Lumin with our nephus, and we’re going to stop her.
Even though she’s got the virus and her own nephus? intrudes my Voice of Pessimism.
Let me show you the way out, I tell it, kindly ushering it out of my head.
“Hope you’re having a good time.”
I look up from the tablet at Belldon as she strides up to our table, peach cloak rippling and hissing behind her, hoops and glass teardrops shimmering on her ears; it’s not an exaggeration to say Kurolt has a swagger in his gait while following her.
“A good time? Of course! Aside from that fucking gross toffee, it’s been nothing but shits and giggles,” Penelope barks, darting her bloodshot eyes around the group, then tossing back her drink, which probably consists of more whiskey than coffee by now.
“I’m sorry you’re in this situation,” says Belldon, taking the chair on her son’s left, “but there’s a small, selfish part of me that’s happy it turned out this way so I can see my kids again.” She wraps a maternal arm around Gene’s shoulders.
“As in, you’re happy Gene got bit by a Rusthund?” Corbin says mildly, inclining her head so her chestnut pixie gleams with reddish shades, almost the same color as her mother’s hair.
Belldon snaps her fingers a couple of times, reflexively, it seems, a wounded flash in her eyes. “You know that’s not what I—”
“If you miss us, then you should let us stay here. Better yet, maybe you shouldn’t have left the city at all.” Corbin’s air is still friendly, airy, as if she’s recommending a good movie. Gene rubs his bitten shoulder with the weary look of one who’s been inured to the racket from the construction site right next to his house.
I exchange nervous looks with Penelope, Sidney, and Cooper, the four of us feeling as if we’re intruding upon private family tensions. I glance at Yentus and her companion, who are watching us from their table with measured gazes. Something brushes past my ankle and I look down at Kurolt, who’s strutting around the table.
Keeping her arm around Gene, Belldon’s knits her brows at Corbin and her lips part slightly, as though she’s about to chastise her daughter. Instead the Quelevoze leader quietly studies her with a look full of sadness, remorse, perhaps an inkling of disappointment. If Corbin catches this, she doesn’t let on, and bites into her second burrito.
Perhaps to diffuse the friction, Gene looks at Sidney with an incredibly serious expression. “I haven’t had a chance to express my gratitude. After all, if you had not been there to help me, I’m uncertain whether . . .”
He has a rare moment of speechlessness and tries to continue, but Sidney says, “No problem, G,” and returns a humble smile that makes my heart flutter rapidly.
I can’t explain how we’re at this point now. I mean, she was my upstairs neighbor, but we didn’t even run into each other that often, and I always felt vaguely awkward around her. The day when she saved me from Brone Hennum and brought me to her place—that was when a stone dislodged from the wall between us, followed by more stones falling loose, and now there’s a sizable opening for one of us to climb through to the other side.
And I’ve been staring at her for an awfully long time now, and she catches me staring, so I turn away and, hoping nobody’s heeding the blush crawling up my neck, concentrate intently on downing my heavenly soup and herby wine.
“. . . and I almost toppled into the gaping maw of Death,” says Gene, and I sense I tuned him out for the past few moments, “but I have returned more robust than ever. I am a miracle who shall tread this universe for eternity!”
Corbin scoots her chair a couple inches away from him. “And now the universe is going to set you aflame.”
“I am fireproof.”
I ask Belldon if it’s possible for me to contact my parents, and I’m unsurprised when she responds, “As I told you earlier, Asulon needs to remain classified. Sornis said he’ll inform your parents that you’re on a top-secret paladin operation.”
“But they don’t know I’m a paladin.”
“Well, they probably do now.”
After a couple seconds, Cooper dabs his lips with his napkin and asks Belldon, “Whaddya think ‘bout all this?” He motions to the tablet where Lowrion continues reporting on the protests. “All this . . . disorder?”
“It’s essential.” Belldon declares this with a twist of her brow, as if this fact is undoubtedly apparent. “Your politicians, your people, need to start listening to us. And they will, one way or another.” She looks around the table, shakes her head. “The sad thing is, Sornis, and people like him, they’re masters at blocking their ears when we call to them for help or denounce them for their actions. They punish us with their corruption, their greed, their incompetency, their prejudices. And nobody is stopping them. Everyone else in your Union is content to stay on the sidelines, and watch this turmoil spread without making any efforts to help us.”
Sidney throws in, “What do you expect, the Commander booting Sornis?”
“Yes. Marsden has the power to do so.” Again, she says it in a yes-one-plus-one-does-equal-two manner.
Cooper argues, “Doesn’t mean she should use the power. Face it, we’re stuck with Sornis till the next appointment.” He shrugs. “We gotta deal with it.”
Belldon bores each of us with her green eyes, an acute, almost pitying gaze that makes my heart shrink. “No, we don’t.” She pulls her arm away from Gene, pushes back her chair, rises to her feet, stoops to kiss Gene and then Corbin on the cheek, mumbles something to them in Vermusk, then swivels away without saying goodbye and snakes through the tables to Yentus and the bearded man with Kurolt sauntering after her.
Suffice to say, the rest of dinner never regains as lighthearted of an air as it had before Belldon. But dessert’s as delicious as the main course; this is the first time I’ve had chocolate bread pudding, I’ll have to cook it myself when we’re back home. Some of the other diners are wrapping up their meals as well, and they’re straggling toward the hallway at the back of the room.
When Cooper asks where they’re going, Gene says, “You will see very soon. I’m exuberant about the heartily harmonious happiness you are all about to experience.” He rhythmically raps his fists on the tabletop.
Penelope warns, “Be careful, you might break your delicate knuckles.”
Corbin assures her, “Not to worry, Mr. Miracle’s knuckles can sustain his own weight.”
“What the hell yeh talkin’ ‘bout? He survived a Rusthund roughin’ him up!” Cooper chin-points at Gene. “Been round tons of cubs who got knocked down by Grimmies, and most of ‘em don’t get back up nearly as fast as yeh did, yeh tep tuss.”
There’s a beat where Gene appears to be determining whether Cooper is being sarcastic (“tep tuss” is cub slang for a tough nut), which I don’t think is the case. Then Gene says, “Thank you for recognizing my exceptional resurrection,” and he plants a hand on his cane, stands up, and sweeps it at the new passageway. “Are you ready?”
We follow his lead across the room to the hallway, finding ourselves proceeding alongside Belldon, Kurolt, Yentus, and their bearded friend; I recognize him as the geevee driver who helped Yentus evacuate us after the Rusthund encounter. The passage we’re filing along is big enough for five people to walk side-by-side, doors spaced every seven feet on both sides. The circular orange lights glowing along the top edges of the thin walls cast sharp shadows across the masks hung between the doors. Some of them have been worn in Quelevoze demonstrations, but I don’t recognize the other masks, the ones with tusks and horns and antlers, brilliantly colored facial markings, weirdly shaped eyes and noses and mouths, looking like the faces of mythological animals. They’re not really that scary, but they make me jittery enough to itch through my shirt at the trembling, toasty sensation flushing in my heart.
Sidney, Penelope, and Cooper look as perplexed by these masks as I am, which is why the geevee driver explains to us, “We treasure them for the memories they hold. Our ancestors used them many, many years ago for war, for peace, for holidays, for prayer, for remembering the dead. It’s all a part of our history.”
“That’s right,” Yentus supports, putting her hand on the small of Belldon’s back, who reciprocates the gesture. “And she’s honoring it,” Yentus goes on, “by selecting certain masks for her supporters, so other races and the Union can appreciate our history too. You get the idea?”
I nod solemnly. “I do.”
Then the passage forks into three paths, and everyone bustles into the one on the right. Where do the other paths go? It feels like the Camerad’s bigger than it’s supposed to be. And then this new hall, which has even more masks to substitute for the lack of doors, hooks a sharp left. The crowd’s moving faster toward the open archway up ahead, I’m picking up the pace, and we spill out onto a spacious interior courtyard. I crane up my head at the indigo sky, powdered generously with twinkling stars. The towers of this building stretch up to them, desiring to touch them with their tapered tips. People are packed into the galleries running around the upper three levels of the walls enclosing this courtyard, cheering and cackling and howling, and everyone down here on the ground is just as animated.
What gives me pause is the motley of, shall we say, miscellaneous sculptures strewn all over the courtyard—a five-foot-tall orange pig with the legs and tail of a horse, a pair of yellow fluffy dice four feet on a side, an old-fashioned ice cream cart, a dozen smartphones with shattered screens suspended inside a floating glass sphere, the stripped carcass of a car with a thorny kellberry bush growing around it, and I could describe fifteen or twenty more of these things. Couches, gravity chairs, and blankets have been spread out haphazardly between them, all angled toward some kind of platform in the back of the courtyard. A table loaded down with platters of pastries has been pushed over to one corner.
Gene is walking on my left, cane thumping on the floor of compressed soil, and I ask him, “Come on, what’s the big surprise?” I have to raise my voice to be heard over the boisterous din.
A smile twitches the corners of Gene’s mouth, highlighting the euphoric sparkle in his eyes. Metura, should that make me excited or terrified? Then he walks faster, threads through the crowd ahead, and Sidney calls out his name and Penelope asks Corbin what the hell her brother is up to and Belldon, Yentus, and their friends guide us to a pair of plush couches sitting fifteen feet away from the platform, raised two feet off the ground, green and yellow teardrop lights hovering above it in a circle. A cushioned stool is up on its stone surface, a guitar case of busted old leather propped up on it.
And now the cheering grows louder and more enthusiastic as Gene hops up onstage, waves his maycewood to everyone in greeting, unlatches the case, flips open the lid, and hefts out a gorgeous silvery-varnished acoustic guitar. Didn’t he mention playing—Yeah, he plays the cerezi, at a place in Jem-7. He lies the case flat on the stage, plants his butt on the stool and rests his cane against it, removes something from the hip pocket of his khakis and clips it to the collar of his polo shirt, a mike. Looping the strap of his eight-stringed cerezi over his shoulder and around his body, he double-taps his forefinger on his mike, and a deep but subdued BUM-BUM resonates from somewhere above, as if a giant heart is pounding up in the sky.
“Greetings and salutations, amacos,” Gene says, his voice smooth and amplified but not booming.
The audience cries and whoops in response, but I don’t think any of us yells louder than Corbin, her hands cupped around her mouth, eyes bright with joy for her dear brother. Kurolt, sitting up in an alert posture on Belldon’s lap, yips just as gleefully.
“Now, I would say that I intend to keep my thoughts brief, but rarely anybody makes such a promise and actually follows through with it.” Some chuckles and smiles rise from the crowd. “Especially when their thoughts are as prolix and sesquipedalian as mine.” The laughter’s even louder this time. “I could easily regale you with the story of how Death almost dragged me into its dark heart, a tale that would make your blood roar through your veins. But I will neither bore you with it nor squander time by describing my peek into the afterlife. I simply want to make the most of my revival. Let me tell you, I was delighted to leave the hospital when I did—urinating in a bedpan is not my preferred way of relieving myself.”
“There were bathrooms!” Corbin calls out. “With scented soap!”
“Please do not promote fallacies. Now, allow me to offer shout-outs to a few rascals.” He goes on to thank Sidney Appleton for providing him first-aid and quite possibly saving his life, Yentus Noribay and Enbo Alviz for facing the risk of encountering Grimhets in order to scout for us, Sílvena Belldon for providing us shelter (Corbin’s face tightens almost imperceptibly at this), and Corbin “simply for being my elder sister.”
It seriously looks like those last words might elicit tears from some of the Asulonians. I even catch Penelope wiping her eyes on the collar of her blouse, and I whisper to her, “Crying?”
Her bloodshot gray eyes hurl daggers at me. “No, you’re crying!” she hisses, her voice a bit slurred from the whiskey. She swivels her attention back to the stage and sniffles.
“Tonight, I’m going to entertain you with covers of several choice tunes.” He strums a chord on his cerezi, which sparkles green and yellow under the ring of lights hovering overhead; complicated Elvaric pictograms are etched along its curvaceous hips. In the middle of strumming another chord, he pauses. “Oh, how could I be so remiss? I should also pay my respects to Cooper Ruzuberuto, Penelope Flame, and Wyatt Durrell, who have been more trouble than they’re worth, but provide amicable company.”
He draws out more chortles, and I arch my eyebrow bemusedly and exchange looks with Cooper, who trots out a crooked grin of cautious humor, and Penelope, who reaches up her hand to itch the tip of her nose and stealthily flashes Gene a rude gesture.
Not long after he returns to strumming his cerezi does he hum a short tune and then warble the opening verses of D.M. Dathlife’s electronica hit, “Hybrid Station.” He starts out slow, intimate, his velvety voice sinks into my head and makes me unwind, before he picks up the tempo, sings with more energy. My parents have taken me to a few concerts, including Emovere and Ilsa Rosior, and there are few things in this world as pure as witnessing the sheer emotion that musicians pour into their performances. You can perceive it all on their faces, when their eyes flitter open and closed, when their facial muscles slacken and tauten, when a smile creases their eyes or a frown furrows their brow, and all of those expressions are shaping Gene’s face throughout this song.
A small number of people have stood up and begun gyrating by the final verses, and more of the audience joins in as Gene launches into song after song. He’s striking a perfect balance between blues and folk, executing upbeat jams and heart-wrenching ballads with equal skill and soul. Meanwhile, Corbin is waltzing gracefully with Cooper, Belldon and Yentus are in a slow dance, Kurolt is slinking in circles with a second agudlin of white and tawny-yellow fur, Enbo is doing a lively gatekick with a stocky woman whose side bangs are as wispy as the crinkly gray lines curling over her cheeks, Sidney’s jigging with Penelope, and I’m alone on the couch drumming my hands on my knees. Sidney keeps shooting me don’t-you-want-to-jump-in glances and I respond with nah-I’m-fine-right-here shrugs. I’m a certified music geek, but that has no bearing on my aptitude for physical rhythm, or lack thereof; I don’t know how it comes so easily to people.
Gene’s belting out the bridge for his fourth song when Sidney grabs my hand without warning, sending a warm shiver up my arm, and yanks me off my comfy couch. Dismissing my protests, she clasps my right hand in hers, puts her left hand on my shoulder. My breath catches in my throat, it feels odd for so little space to exist between us, but I find my left hand resting itself on her upper back and she guides me through a series of relaxed steps and we fall into a natural cadence.
Now Gene’s on his fifth song, and I’m holding onto Sidney more firmly, more assuredly, and she is, too. When she gives my hand a squeeze, another shiver flies up my arm. We’re so close I can see the difference between her right eye, the one over which her scar crosses, and her left eye—the outer rim of her right eye’s amethyst iris is pierced through with deep blue flecks, a smattering of microscopic sapphires, while her left eye is all purple. God, they’re so fathomless, I could fall into them.
“You’re a good dancer,” she whispers in my ear, as if confiding a secret, her hot breath ticklish on my skin.
“Thanks,” I reply, heart thumping on my ribs as we keep swaying to the music. “You know, I’m not like this usually, I’m kind of an awkward dancer. That’s why I prefer privacy for a jig.”
“So, what, you pop in your earbuds and let loose in your room to a Euphony playlist?”
“Pretty much. I didn’t inherit my habit of solitude-dependent rhythm from my dad, that’s for sure. He’ll boogie to almost any tune in the grocery store, the mall, the park, wherever, so Mom and I have to stand at least ten feet away from him, otherwise bystanders will know we’re related to him.”
“You had it easy. My parents couldn’t stop dancing together, and they were always trying to get me to join them, and it was the most annoying thing in the world.”
“More annoying than the fleece jacket you got from your dad?”
“I would’ve taken five of those itchy things over watching him and Mom do the soo-ba.”
She looks away, smiles wistfully like she’s recalling a beloved moment from her younger years. The tilt of her head causes the light to fall on her dark scar, making it stand out on her oval face. I like it, it’s full of character, makes her more beautiful, accentuates her slim nose and pronounced cheeks. I breathe in the chocolate and hot iron coming off her, it stirs a strange but pleasant breeze of emotion deep inside me. I could hold her forever, I could stay in her arms forever, my heart’s creeping up my throat—
Cursed Cosmotic, why is my face three inches away from hers, why am I leaning towards her, and her wide eyes are staring unblinkingly at me and her lips are parted and a tangle of noodles is coiling in my stomach and I stiffen and my mouth is filled with sand and my lips are chapped and I could lean further forward, just a little further, JUST LEAN FORWARD MORON, but she blinks and asks so quietly that I almost can’t hear her over the music, “Wy, are you okay?”
Some tiny voice in my brain is wailing and swearing for mercy. Aloud, I lie, “Sure. I’m fine.” The creases refuse to leave Sidney’s brow. “I’m fine,” I repeat, as if to make it true. I close my eyes, and I can feel her hand brushing over the back of my neck, the contact seems to tingle, purple dots flicker through the edges of the darkness, and I open my eyes and tell her, “I have to go to the bathroom.”
My brain isn’t wailing anymore. Because it just fainted from exasperation.
“Okay,” Sidney says, as if it’s no problem. She lets go of me, but I don’t want that, I want to rewind one minute and stay in her arms and press my lips to hers.
Instead I glimpse Cooper as he shimmies with Corbin while watching me and Sidney with a trace of interest. Then I rush across the courtyard, accidentally bump into the pig-horse’s rump, ask a random person for directions to the bathroom even though I’m only half-listening, and walk and stumble and scramble through hallways and doors and stairways until I emerge into the steeple of an asterisk tower.
Peering down the dimly lit spiral stairs I just climbed, I think to myself, Wyatt Durrell, you may have graduated from Olympus at twelve, you may be on the road to becoming the first under-eighteen microbiologist at Rad-Bio Laboratory, you’ve faced pobs and Grimhets, dammit, but all your intellectual advancements and your superpowers are irrelevant when it comes to your emotional growth. You were going to kiss Sidney, but you skittered away like a scared little boy, like the immature seventeen-year-old you are at heart. What frightens you so much?
The steeple’s interior is surprisingly large. A hexagonal room about fifteen square feet, with luxurious orchids and creepers painted in gold on the walls, shelves weighed down with leather-bound credos as thick as Cooper’s biceps and religious ornaments like zumues and rosaries, trunks with pillows and cushions piled on top, and azure silk sofas and chairs that look battered yet terribly cushy enough to snooze on. A locked chest against one wall has a sheet of paper taped on its lid and scrawled with bright red writing: Please KEEP OUT. Slightly dangerous and highly inappropriate possessions inside. Open, and you will be cursed.
That’s begging for someone to break it open. Not me, of course—some other fool.
An assortment of Vestral rugs is spread out over the carpet, which is as deep green as the ceiling-to-floor satin drapes drawn over all four of the tall windows. They’re glowing faintly from the moonlight trying to penetrate them. Everything shimmers luminous shades of yellow in the light of the asterlantern suspended from the tapered glass ceiling. I’m hearing muted snatches of Gene’s music all the way from up here. I can feel how thick the carpet is through my sneakers as I pad toward one of the windows and pull back the drapes. Reaching my hand into my pants pocket and fingering my twenty-sided Kasma, I survey the asterlanterns shining through the glass roofs of other asterisk towers, Asulon, the monster-riddled woodland encompassing it, the hundreds of stars smeared across the sky, the moonlight of Memora casting a bronze sheen over the treetops. A wave of unreality washes over me as I consider this place that seems to take pride in thumbing its nose against Grimhet, and S.PA.C.E. Union on some degree, a community as passionate and defiant as its founder.
It’s times like this that make me wish I could deconstruct this place I’m in, the people around me, as though they’re Arka models built from pieces that click and lock together so easily, so cleanly. I want to take those pieces apart, probe the core of each entity, each superstructure. Wouldn’t it be nice to understand them, to learn their secrets. Because there are some locked doors you’ll never find the keys to, arcane books whose rune-scrawled pages you’ll never translate, dark nooks on which you’ll never shed light. That is, unless you’re the architect of your own world, unless you build the absolute everything from the ground up. Wouldn’t it be nice to have immunity against the brutal tempests of life, against the demons and ghosts who chase us from the past, against the darkness that threatens to swallow us whole every day? That’s impossible, though. I had to learn that a long time ago. Even now I struggle to come to terms with this prebuilt landscape in which we have to survive, but it’s necessary, I know that, because the best we can do, is we’ll see what we can do.
I halt my introspection once I become aware of my hands moving with minds of their own. I’m summoning my light into being, sculpting it between my fingers, pinching the sides to create flattened wings, pulling threads out of its form and bending them into legs, and then I stop to examine the spider from my meadow dream. Sitting on my palm, it pulses a soothing blue that contrasts with the pattern of gaunt, almost skull-like faces on its wings.
Then the little hairs stand up on the back of my neck, and I whirl to the staircase out of which Sidney is silently appearing.
I fist my hand over the winged spider, take a breath, tell her, “Hi there,” as levelly as possible. A warmth fills my hand and dribbles down my wrist, and I open my fist and glimpse my empty palm.
Sidney smiles awkwardly, as if acknowledging how odd it is that she followed me up here. She strides over to my side and looks out the window, her wide eyes admiring the night sky. “God, I love stargazing.”
That brings a swoop through my gut. I think back to the late nights I’d spent on Rad-Bio’s roof garden, losing my head in whatever constellations were in the sky; they’re much more difficult to see in the city. Sometimes Penelope or Dr. Fulbright were with me to share stories about the animals, objects, or mythological figures they were named after.
“Up there’s The Scribe,” Sidney says, pointing up at one of the winking clusters, “and next to it is Loupere, the Teönor wolf beast who avenges the spirits of the wrongfully murdered.”
“That’s right, and there’s Xies, the Teönor light goddess in her bird form. And right above it is the Tigon Jaw.” Planting my open palm on the wall, I affect the deep, grave inflection of one narrating a legendary tale. “Fable has it the Jaw represented the mouth of a cosmic being that took the form of a gigantic tigon, traveling from world to world and consuming their life force. As it approached Bicap, though, a team of six sorcerers combined their powers to battle the ravenous monster. Once it was finally defeated, the sorcerers took their trophies from its body, leaving the Jaw to transform it into a constellation.”
“Dad always said the Jaw looked like an Aso-willow.”
I’ve been drumming my fingers on the wall, but now they freeze in bewilderment. “Really?” I pause. “Maybe he mistook the teeth for catkins . . . ?”
Sidney shrugs. “He loved making up his own constellations, didn’t want to confine himself to exclusively seeing what other people imagined the stars to embody. He and Mom were dedicated cubs, but he would’ve made a great writer. I have his original manuscript, an espionage thriller called The Flies Who Hush, but he never got it published.”
“What’s it about?”
“A spy working on behalf of a shadow agency during the Dragonfly Disputes in the 1050s. He partners with this other spy for a mission and ends up getting romantically involved with him, and the two men have to cope with keeping their relationship secret while untangling this huge conspiracy within Web and the rest of S.P.A.C.E. Union.” She traces absent circles over her pendant with her middle finger. “I’ll tell you, though, you know what the protagonist does when he figures out he’s got feelings for the other spy?” She doesn’t wait for me to answer, which is good, because nothing comes out when I open my mouth. “He doesn’t run away, that’s for sure. He confronts his feelings head-on. It’s actually the second spy, that grazboot, who’s afraid of delving into their relationship—”
“Subtle segue, Appleton,” I say drily, fingers resuming their wall-drumming, keeping time with the muffled beat of Gene’s concert. That breeze is back but it’s a gust surging up within me and sending my heart hammering all over my chest. I take a breath, then say, “It’s just, so many insane things have happened to us these past few days—”
“A ludicrous whirlwind.”
“The crazy thing is, when all this is over, I bet traveling to an alternate dimension won’t even be on our top-five list of wildest things we did.”
“Maybe top ten, definitely top fifteen.”
“And there’s this small voice telling me it would be risky to do this with you . . .” I turn away from the window and I’m startled by Sidney standing a few inches closer to me than she was seconds ago. All I can see is her face, her fishtail braid streaming down over her shoulder, her coy smile, her amethyst gaze exploring my hazel eyes with the dark glitter of hunger. A hunger that matches the want intensifying deep inside me.
“Risky?” Sidney mumbles, as though she’s never heard the word and is testing it out. The corners of her eyes crinkle and her lips press together in some form of anxious contemplation, but then her expression relaxes and that adorably coy smile creeps back onto her face. The light of the asterlantern and Memora fall on her visage perfectly, softening the edges of her jaw. I inhale her intoxicating, torturous aroma again as she murmurs, “Are there any other voices that tell you different?”
She lifts her hand and delicately touches my cheek, sending a thrill of eager anticipation down my spine. I still, more out of shock than hesitation, and my eyes dart to the dice-threaded flower and Corve and other tattoos on her raised forearm. My eyes flutter closed as her fingers tickle over my jawline, curl around the back of my neck, and she pulls me forward and her warm lips are brushing mine so softly the sensation feels almost shy. Then she presses harder to deepen the kiss, her tongue runs over my upper lip, and I wrap my arms around her waist and pull her in and her hand skims up from my neck and onto my head and her fingers wind through my short hair and her other hand loops around my lower back and her pendant presses into my chest and my whole body prickles from the passion and hormones flooding through us and I hear myself groan low into her inquisitive mouth.
When we break apart, her breaths are as heavy as mine, heavy and puffing, like a siftvent that’s been filtering too long without getting cleaned. We take this moment to organize the thousands of thoughts ricocheting in our heads, the emotions coursing through our quivering bodies. I can’t tear myself away from the spark in her eyes, I can almost see what she’s imagining, grasp fragments, her hands roaming my bare skin, our warm bodies entwining together. We’re still embracing, I don’t ever want to let her go, I want more of her, more of the fierce passion surfacing from her clever, spirited, pun-revering soul.
“Well?” she whispers, her hot air dancing over my lips. “Any other voices?”
A beat passes as I swallow, gather the right words from the turbulent storm that is my brain, and say over the blood buzzing in my ears, “There is one telling me that even if gravity disappeared from Bicap, I’d still be drawn to you.” I cringe as soon as the words are out of my mouth. Her face is flabbergasted. Did I go too far? She pulls it off better, but it’s not really a pun so much as a corny pickup line. Shit, if I mess things up now—
Her face breaks into a radiant grin, then she kisses me again and we submerge ourselves in our flaming emotions and she pulls me forward to one side of the steeple and twists us around and we half sit, half tumble onto one of the big blue sofas with her wiry body bearing heavily on top of mine. We’re lying along its length, my head on the armrest, her straddling my waist, not a sliver of air separating us, her toned muscles taut beneath her clothes. God, my lips are so chapped, though (shut up, brain), and I squirm which makes her pause and I groan in protest (brain, no offense, but I’m kicking you out for five minutes) and I draw her back in for a kiss. We bury each other in breathless kisses and pleasured moans, hands caress cheeks and hair and chests and hips, she elicits a craving growl from me by biting my lower lip, I slide my hand under the hem of her hoodie and shirt and map out the peaks and dips of muscle in her sweaty back which is interspersed by the long ridges and round bulges of what must be scars, she arches into me with a sigh and moves her lips off mine and onto my jaw, my ear, my neck, my throat, a flurry of greedy kisses that leaves me palpitating with desire—
Something rings through the air, an annoying tune you’d expect to be the theme song of a TV show, and Sidney and I freeze. My head hasn’t stopped whirling, her face is shining with sweat, our hearts are beating fast. We whip our heads at the stairs that Cooper’s tiptoeing down, one hand thumbing his phone to shut off the noise, a half-eaten frommbol roll clutched in his other hand.
“Whatcha doing, Coop?” Sidney says in a friendly manner, as though all we’ve been doing is playing reglintel.
Cooper’s head, the only visible part of him, incrementally, almost creakingly rotates our way, as if he’s got a stiff neck. He shapes his blushing face into a sheepishly lopsided grin. “Sorry there, didn’t know yeh’d be canoodlin’, yeah. Genius is doing an intermission, gods, it’s a ball so far, and I wanted to make sure yeh were okay, and then I was gonna leave quiet as a tigon, but my phone didn’t want that.” He wiggles his phone as evidence. “So I’ll just, ummm . . . yep.” He waves goodbye with his frommbol hand, then his head disappears down the stairs.
Sidney and I wait for his retreating footfall to silence completely before we burst into titters.
“Rechin, you look as if you need a rest.”
“Is that so? I was thinking of running a lap around the neighborhood.”
Sibrilich removes her hands from Augen’s right knee, having just healed the wound. The bloodstained bandages have been puddled into a small pile on the gray-and-yellow parquet by Augen’s feet.
Sibrilich watches her roll down her pants leg over the newly-treated knee. The pobel boss’s most recent errand has greatly fatigued her. Despite that she will stop at nothing to make further journeys, even if they kill her.
They are sitting side-by-side on a rustic ashmelin bench, facing two watercolors hung on the wall five feet away as part of a single piece. The left one uses bright colors and fine, delicate lines to depict a Vermusk family gathering for dinner; the right one uses muted hues and broad, raw strokes to portray the same dining area with one guest, a Vermusk whose unruly tresses curtain her glowering face. From Breath to Living Death (anonymous donor, 1171) is engraved in Vermusk on the iron nameplate beneath the watercolor duo.
Eleven more pieces are displayed throughout this room, which is part of the second floor of the Elucuent House, a four-story art gallery-apartment complex in southeastern Neuanfang. It’s one of many constituents providing aid to the community in this period of civil and racial strife. Not only has the owner been generous enough to set up a fund to help the local hospitals, but he’s also indebted to Augen for her private patronage to the House’s art exhibitions, which is why he has let her and a few of her pobs take up temporary residence in the apartments above.
If Sibrilich turns right on the bench and looks out the window dominating the far wall, she can clearly see the far-off skyline of Civit Lumin, the beast of idealism, protruding into the midnight sky. How strange it is, she considers, that Lumin and Neuanfang are part of the same city, and yet one home prospers while spreading its weeds to choke its neighbor.
When a pained groan escapes Augen and she kneads the heel of her hand up and down her temple, Sibrilich suggests, “Your migraines will subside considerably if you forgo Welkin trips for the next few days—”
“Well, can’t you stop them? You made this feel like new.” Augen pats her right knee.
Sibrilich’s white pupils contract within her yellow eyes. Even as her face is unmoving, shadows are falling over the unnaturally exquisite definitions of her high cheekbones and sharp jawline. “I could.” She pauses. “You shouldn’t have interfered in their trip. When they revisit, it will be best for you to leave them alone—”
“Someone has to deal with them sooner or later. Durrell could ruin everything, and Appleton . . .” Augen’s harsh tone trails off, a vicious glint in her one eye, creases arcing the twisted corners of her mouth, her dour face hinting at the memories of death and love and agony incorporating into a single feeling of pure anguish. “You told me yourself they endanger the existence of countless lives and worlds. Let’s destroy them now—”
“When have you—a miserable pobel lord driven by a savagely nihilistic thirst for entropy—ever cared for the preservation of life?” Sibrilich observed, with the air of a teacher dispassionately reproving the ill-considered behavior of her pupil while also feeling a hint of sympathy for said pupil.
For a few seconds she returns to her objective examination of “From Breath to Living Death,” her hands clasped together in her lap. Wyatt and Sidney are in her charge, not Augen’s. Besides, His Magister is particularly keen on protecting Wyatt. Then she speaks again.
“Be patient. You have the virus and the nephus. It won’t be long now.” She knows it is unnecessary to try Augen’s patience, but she adds, “Maybe you’ll find it in your heart to forgive Sidney before this is over.”
Augen snickers, a snide sound that Sibrilich translates into Up yours.
This meeting has clearly reached its conclusion. Sibrilich smoothly rises from the bench, the silver threads woven through the collar and sleeves of her shoulderless tunic twinkling in the exhibit hall’s dim lighting. “Remember the medicine,” she advises. “If you want to continue visiting the Welkin, that’s your choice. But stay away from Wyatt and Sidney. Do you understand?”
Augen doesn’t turn to Sibrilich but gives a tiny nod of assent. Then she queries, “What about Asulon? If they meddle with the job—”
“Do what you must, but you cannot kill them.”
“I won’t be the one carrying it out.”
“Then pass on my instructions to whoever you’ll be dispatching.”
Sibrilich leaves unspoken the guilt she feels over the invasion that will shred apart Sílvena Belldon’s refuge and the impact it will have on all this unrest. But it will be worth it to help him fulfill himself. . . .
She raises her open hand at Augen by way of a goodbye, then her form vanishes from the gallery.