“She is the daughter of lava, never content, never idle, never satisfied. My daughter desires freedom, yet she is bound to the continent in a way that not even I could foresee.”
I WAKE TO FIND WEAK GRAY sun rays scattered across the white linen of my bed sheets. I move slightly to get up but sink back into the cozy warmth of the covers. My head is clobbered with a champagne hangover, a throb in my side from Cat’s dagger, a thousand questions regarding last night, and confusing thoughts about Roland.
It isn’t the worst situation I’ve ever woken up to, but certainly the most interesting.
A ball of unease sits high in my stomach.
Roland has drawn me into a political-intrigue scheme. But for what, and why? Why would Roland, a dark prince, the most powerful being on the continent, want my help? I laugh a little. Help. Who said anything about help? Roland is using me, plain and simple, to achieve a goal. His confessional and offer to make the marriage engagement real complicates things. His words linger in my mind.
“Listen to your soul.”
“Time is running out.”
“You have no idea what you achieved tonight.”
“I’ll earn your love the right way. One day you’ll tell me you love me, and on that day, I’ll know that I’ve become the man I am supposed to be.”
Sigh. He sounded truthful, but a hint of darkness stained his eyes, his demeanor, his entire being last night. What ensnares him? What holds him hostage? And why does he think I’m the one to fix everything?
Or does he? The more I think about last night, the more nothing adds up. If I’m not here to make Roland’s scars melt away, which by now I realize was mostly a ruse to get me here, then did he really summon me? What does Roland know about my family? Why does he care about a family of class zeros? Why is timing running out?
Knowing I’ll never figure Roland out, I shift my thoughts elsewhere.
It transformed Roland into a perfect-looking man for several hours. Those scars visually faded into nothing. He said it was all my doing, but really, it had to be Dorni’s Charm that made it truly effective.
A smile forms as I think of Dorni. I cannot wait to tell her just how well it worked.
Even Cat was impressed, shocked even. Shocked as in I was able to do something I was hired to do in the first place; as if she wasn’t fully convinced about me.
My lips curve into a frown and the knot in my stomach tightens.
What am I not seeing?
I shake my head. It throbs harder.
I cannot discount Cat Evinas, the ever-faithful chief of staff. She’s involved in all of this. I should think of them as a team working together; not working against each other to. After last night, though, the way she made love to me, marked me, is enough to sideline any previous notions I had about her. Not that I had too many previous notions about her. Just a few insecurities because of her exotic beauty.
There is more to her than meets the eye.
I peel back the delicious covers to inspect Cat’s artwork. A spot of blood dots the inside of the blanket. It is a fair amount, but nothing life-threatening. Hell, I walked around in a silver, diamond encrusted fabriskin robe last night and barely gave the wound a second thought. It is almost as if my skin accepted it immediately.
But now I can see just how stupid I was last night to let her mark me. If Roland is correct and Cat intends to perform a reclaiming ritual—and if her sly looks from last night during our lovemaking are anything to go on—then Cat technically will own a part of my soul. Until my death, I will always be connected to her. Even if I’m on one of the savage continents, she will have a claim on me.
Which is exactly what I’ve avoided my entire life.
No loyalties. No allegiances. No bonding. And certainly no branding.
It’s possible she doesn’t intend to take ownership; perhaps she carved into me because she could, because Roland was watching, because she wanted to teach me a lesson.
Not even the Grandfather demanded that his disciples, and I’ve known and trusted him for more than a decade.
The skin below my right breast is swollen and red, but the raised marks—which will eventually sink into my skin like an engraving—are succinctly clear and blood free. The area throbs and tingles, but it doesn’t hurt at all. From this angle, looking down, I cannot decipher what it is. It isn’t a word, but more of a symbol or an emblem, and one I am not familiar with. Several inches long, the slashes appear random, most of them intersecting at certain points around a free-formed object.
In an odd way, it is beautiful. Damning and problematic, but beautiful.
I should feel some sort of anger or despair. But I don’t. It just is. Maybe I’m jaded. Maybe I’m confused. Or maybe it’s the champagne hangover. I cannot change the past. Goddess knows I’d love to alter my personal history for a multitude of reasons.
I find my purse and dig out my family photo. Four shining, smiling faces peer back at me, including my own youthful grin. I trace a finger over my brother’s face.
I’m sorry, Pareu.
Studying my parents’ faces, I’m struck by their intelligent eyes. Even then, when I was a child, they were old, like wise old trees. How did Roland know my full name? I’ve never told a soul. I set the photo on the side table.
Pushing the blankets all the way back, cool air hits my skin. I have no idea what Roland and Cat see in me. I’m too curvy, too pale, too unremarkable in every way. I know what the Grandfather would say to me right now: Feeling sorry for oneself never did anybody any good. One day, you’ll see the strength behind your eyes that I see there, that those around you react to. No amount of coins to buy it and no amount of coins to recognize it. Until then, well, you’ll have to figure things out on your own.
Here I am, trying to figure things out.
I spy the spent prototype on my nightstand. I must have placed it there last night before climbing into bed. I roll it between my fingers, savoring its cold, heavy, solid feel. It seems heavier this morning. I notice that the material inside is no longer liquid but a dark solid, like frozen coal water. I’ll inspect it later in my lab.
A noise from the dining room distracts me. A service robot must be setting the table. A delectable, sweet aroma wafts in. I can’t wait to see what’s laid out this morning. I step out of the bed and reach for a plushy robe just as something else catches my eye.
A small sheet of paper, folded once, sits on the floor several feet away. Certainly an odd place to leave a message, if that’s what it is, but I imagine it was on my nightstand and I probably accidentally knocked it off last night.
I hesitate unfolding it.
My first thought is Cat. But the yellowing, almost dingy color of the note doesn’t seem Cat’s style. Her notecards would be vibrant, bold, and exotic. The paper in my hands is anything but. It can’t be from Roland; by his own orders, he’s banned from entering my apartments. Plus, Roland wouldn’t leave a note; if he wanted to tell me something, he would knock on my door until I answered it.
I bring the note with me into the dining room, the service robot’s duty now done, and sit down to a plain-looking bowl of oatmeal surrounded by smaller bowls of cinnamon, hazelnut butter, mashed fruit, fresh jeska-grape preserves melted down into sweet relish sauce, and a dish of creamy butter.
I scoop the hazelnut butter into the oatmeal out of habit; it’s what I ate for breakfast—when we had breakfast—during my military service years. After several satisfying bites and one cup of coffee later, I finally stop stalling and flip open the note. Even though the words are small, elegantly cursive, and familiar, I feel an instant chill, as if the room’s temperature has dropped fifty degrees.
“Meet me when the clock strikes eleventen. You know where.”
Only the Grandfather used the code of eleventen to mean one in the afternoon. More importantly, though, he only writes a missive when he is unhappy. I’ve seen what he’s had done to those he is unhappy with and it isn’t pretty.
During yesterday’s excursion to Widow’s Lane, what did Gryan say to Dorni?
“Last I heard, the Grandfather disowned her.”
My mentor does not know I have betrayed him. He doesn’t know that I’ve changed my mind about killing Roland.
So why is there a notecard on the floor?
Dorni’s old face pops into my head. Did she slip it into my fabriskin robe yesterday? No, that doesn’t make sense. The torn fabriskin robe is still in my lab. Did someone give the note to one of the service robots? Using a messenger is extremely risky, though. It should have never been out of my direct possession.
A renewed sense of dread throbs in the pit of my stomach.
Wadding up the paper, I drop it into the silver coffee carafe. The note disintegrates completely.
I push away from the table, dress in a clean set of clothing—black shirt and trousers—grab the prototype, and leave my apartment. I’ll go to my lab first, but there is something else I have to do today.
THE DOOR TO MY LAB SLIDES open and a crushing weight of guilt hits me. Stepping through the door, I breathe in the charred smell of burnt plastic.
I forgot just how trashed my lab is. I literally burned and all but destroyed the lab yesterday during The Pale Waters experiments. However, I didn’t do anything that I wasn’t already capable of doing. All it required was a catalyst of buried anger, resentment, and unaltered memories brought to the forefront.
I see no reason to clean anything; it would be a waste of energy best spent elsewhere. Not even the service robots are allowed in without my permission. I do not trust them not to tell Cat the current state of my lab, or I’d instruct them to clean the room. Perhaps Cat can assign me my own service robot. I’ll have to ask her about it.
I look around.
Only one side of the lab, a corner, and one table are unaffected by the fire. Luckily, it is the useful side of the lab that is still operational. Even in my fit of rage and despair yesterday, I seemed to know to avoid the actual side of the lab that contained useful objects. Well, except the microscope. It is still on the floor, under the table, smashed. I pick it up to inspect the damage. While the body of the tool is slightly misshapen, which I can easily fix, the magnifying lenses appear to have escaped major damage and should still be useful. I’ll need the microscope to delve deeper into The Feeble Princess’ secrets. The Feeble Princess is good, but I’m better. I want to know everything The Pale Waters is capable of.
I sit at the long table and crack open the prototype. The tube seared itself together at some point since yesterday, lid and all, so pulling the top off isn’t possible. I have a drawer full of tubes, so breaking this one isn’t the problem. It’s the fact that the contents, as they spill out, are three perfectly formed black orbs of equal shape and size.
This just doesn’t happen in nature, but then again, when does the black ink of a cuttlefish get mixed in with a Charm made from Roland’s blood and the pulverized dust of The Pale Waters? Right. Never. I pick up one of the orbs with silicone-gloved tongs. I worry that anything more solid might break the orb apart, but I need not have been all that concerned. It’s solid.
It is not quite black, but a darkly burnt red so dark that it is easy for me to mistake its color. But that’s not all. I can tell it is semi-transparent. In the middle, a small white sphere is encapsulated, much like a prized pearl within an oyster. I immediately inspect the other two but find that while they are also the same color and semi-transparent, they do not possess a white center mass.
I suspect that the prototype began to lose its properties last night because The Pale Waters was unbinding itself from the black liquid and reforming into the white sphere I am currently staring at. It is about the same amount I used.
I sit back, impressed.
I wonder if, to make the next prototype last longer, I should use more of The Pale Waters or less. Or none at all. Statistically, the more of a substance, the longer it takes to bind together based on the larger amounts that need to bind; though, on the other hand, the less amount of a substance largely outnumbered by other substances—in this case, the black ink of a cuttlefish—the more difficult time it will have navigating through the others to coagulate with its sisters.
It could go either way, with the end result being the prototype loses its properties as The Pale Waters reassembles itself.
Sadly, this will never work. I need a permanent solution; one that is rechargeable without having to modify or reformulate or, Goddess forbid, recreate from scratch. And if I continue to use The Pale Waters in my experiments, I doubt I’ll have a working device with longevity.
I need to find a binding agent that will prevent The Pale Waters from reforming. Until I am able to determine what that agent is, I’ll have to use the same formula, tinkering differently each time, and estimate its potent capabilities.
Thankfully, and to my benefit, The Pale Waters reformed, thus allowing me to reuse it over and over. That and the Charm I bought from Dorni yesterday will no doubt last me some time. Satisfied for the moment, but thinking of how else I can use The Pale Waters, I put everything away, lock it, and exit the lab.
Time to leave the Palace Skyscraper again. It might be my own death sentence, but I am compelled to find out why the Grandfather wants to meet.
AFTER A COUPLE OF MISSED TURNS, I find the servant’s entrance from yesterday, but it’s locked and, no matter how much I threaten the door, it refuses to unlock itself.
So I search for another way to leave and luckily end up near The Gardens. I hear a low buzz of voices mingled with the low hum of soft music. It is public visiting hours.
The hidden door hisses open for me, startling two grubby-looking teenagers. They scamper off in the manner of someone caught doing something improper; in this case, kissing and who knows what else. Given the amount of hidden alcoves—behind trees, the waterfall, and dark corners—I have no doubt that couples routinely get intimate. In fact, it’s probably why many citizens of Skyscraper City come here.
All traces of last night’s ceremony are gone.
Roland was right: the citizens are starting to come back into the city.
Looking around, I wonder something: Who takes care of the visitors? Who opens the door, and who closes up?
I can’t see Cat taking care of everything in person. Walking around, I spot families and adults of all classes—from the poorest homeless families huddled in a luscious floral alcove, eating bread; to wealthier patrons, their delicate slippers and metal boots clicking on the brick pathways, talking quietly to their companions, spouses, or lovers about pink monkeys, broad green canopied leaves big enough to sleep in, and the exotic rose-essence mist.
I feel a sense of forced harmony. The classes keep to themselves, walking specific walkways, always avoiding the other in a separated dance. Neither are willing to give up their right to visit the Palace Skyscraper, to drink from its purified waterfall, and to enjoy its famous gardens.
Walking the perimeter, I inhale the exotic scents, overhear meaningless snippets of conversations, and marvel over how clean everything is. It’s almost as if the celebration never happened, as if I dreamt it.
All of it happened. Cat’s lovemaking. The confrontation with Lord Jaucey. Roland’s confession. Our quick escape once the prototype stopped working.
I almost complete a full circle of The Gardens before I spot a child struggling with a full bucket of water. The small boy rounds a corner before I catch up to him to help, but my assistance is met with harsh resistance. A tall, robust woman in tattered clothing—the boy’s mother—eyes me with distrust, looks me up and down with unveiled hatred, and tells me to bug off.
The child—still grappling with the water—and his mother pass through an arch and that’s when I see a sign and the way to leave the palace. The sign is written in seven languages, three of which I am fluent in, and it states The Garden’s hours of operation.
It’s still too early in the day to meet up with the Grandfather, but I can easily visit Dorni to sit with her awhile and find out if she slipped me the note. Plus, it might be interesting to see what happened after Roland and I left her yesterday. Just thinking about how we took down Gryan, the local bully, is enjoyable. The memory is diminished, however, as I remember how Gryan’s metal rod, embedded with spikes, injured Roland’s leg.
And, if just by thinking about Roland I conjure him, I hear his voice just behind my ear.
“I wouldn’t do it if I were you,” he says in a low voice in the Patroxi tongue, one of the seven languages written on the sign in front of me.
My body trembles and stumbles over mixed feelings of resentment, lust, and the desire to ignore him. I am, however, unable to resist the urge to not turn around. I round on him. Roland is hooded in a dark fabriskin robe, his face covered by a medical mask, as if he is contagious. Because of the black water plague, a lot of the city’s citizens wear masks.
“Do what, exactly?” I respond back in the same language. An eyebrow arches at me. I can tell he wasn’t expecting me to comprehend him.
“Let’s not pretend that we don’t understand each other. You want to walk out the front door. I cannot allow you to.”
“Seems to be a problem of yours: people walking away. I am unable to acquire everything I need from within these walls. Outside assistance is required.”
“I haven’t told you what you need to acquire.”
“It isn’t for you to tell me. I’m the scientist. I require to be afforded a certain amount of trust in order to conduct my research.”
“Don’t be dense, Rahda. The research is a ruse. You’re too smart to not have figured that out.”
“Of course I figured it out. But this isn’t a game to me, Roland. In case you’ve forgotten, it worked. I feel like I’m onto something big with this discovery.” My hands gesture excitedly.
“Things are different now.” His eyes tell me he knows I’m leaving the Palace Skyscraper for a different reason altogether, but I don’t like how easily he dismisses my enthusiasm.
“Well, when you put it that way, it completely explains everything,” I say, my words clipped. “Here’s a thought: tell me what you’re really thinking. Bring me into your confidence.”
“Because you’re the expert on that, right? Telling the truth and bringing others into your confidence?”
No and no, I answer internally. “Go to hell, Roland.”
I turn away from him and reach The Gardens’ entrance. The door is wide enough to allow visitors to enter and exit at the same time, however, most of the space is taken up by an overhead scanner that silently logs each and every citizen. Nearby, a service robot stands as an information post but is otherwise passive.
Roland follows me. He’s so close, he almost covers me with his long robe. Visitors come and go, completely oblivious to the battle brewing.
“Everything in the palace obeys me, Rahda,” he whispers angrily.
“I’m not one of your robots.”
“Why must you fight me at every turn?” he asks with a tinge of disappointment. His thick eyebrows knit together.
It’s on the tip of my tongue to tell him that he both scares and excites me at the same time. Instead, I resort to my default stance: defiance.
“Because you’re not in charge if no one listens to you. Why do I fight you at every turn? You don’t own me. You haven’t earned my trust. Until then, this is how it will be between us.”
An uncomfortable silence ensues and my thoughts go back to Roland’s confession last night. I watch as his furrowed eyebrows return to normal and I wonder if he also replays the conversation from last night.
He’s the first to say something.
“If you leave, I will program the doors to not open for you when you try to get back inside.”
“Your words contradict your actions. If you are so worried about my leaving because I won’t come back, why even program the doors to behave differently? By your logic, I won’t be returning anyway. So, do whatever the hell it is you want to do to punish me for not worshipping you. Now, get out of my way and allow me to proceed on with my plans.”
I wait for an outburst, but nothing happens other than that Roland, with a quick nod, steps aside.
Surprisingly, it’s difficult to walk away from him. Glancing back, I notice he’s already gone. An ache settles in my chest.
I lost my heart to him when I was thirteen. I don’t plan on losing my soul.
DARK GRAY CLOUDS ALREADY BLANKET THE sky when I step outside. I can remember days, as a child, when the sky was mostly blue, the sun hot, and the weather predictable. I used to eat ripe apples from the neighbor’s lands, sitting in a tree, wiping away the drippy juice in my eagerness to consume it before being discovered. I learned this by mimicking my older brother, Pareu, who felt that our neighbor could easily afford to grant us an apple or two.
Our neighbor saw it differently.
He would set his hounds on us. We’d run for our lives through his patchy lands, into a swampy marsh and sparse forests filled with nervous animals until we hit high ground and then climb up a series of knotted ground ropes that led to our small paradise. It wasn’t much, just a clapboard house, fresh mountain water, a scholarly father who didn’t say much, and a mute mother whose expressive eyes spoke volumes.
Her eyes still haunt me.
Pareu was a gentle soul, ever watchful over me, but deep inside of him, like the happenings of a volcano, he resented the continent’s leaders so much that on the day the army discovered our little hideaway, Pareu didn’t care about himself or what they did to him, but he wouldn’t allow them to take me. He fought back, even killing two soldiers with his bare hands, before an officer placed a gun to his head and executed him in front of us.
It was the event that changed my life forever.
If Pareu were alive today, he would be thirty years old.
Those old thoughts vanish just as loud singing startles me. I’m just outside of Widow’s Lane as two singing romeos follow me down the cobblestone street, each trying to out sing the other.
Their choreographed moves feel fake and stupid and meaningless. Do they know the meaning of sorrow? Hunger? Death? The sad answer is probably yes. But it doesn’t make me feel better.
A few raindrops begin to fall as I slip through the curtain made of finger bones. I don’t need to turn around to find out if the singing romeos have followed me; they are a vain bunch and wouldn’t be caught dead in Widow’s Lane.
At least the weather matches my mood.
I wish I had planned my escape from the Palace Skyscraper better. Without a fabriskin robe, I am unprotected from the thick, black raindrops. As they hit me, it’s like tiny needles piercing my skin. Some rainfalls have been known to contain bits of raw metal, as if an asteroid suddenly broke apart the same time the clouds opened up.
If there isn’t metal in this rain, then it doesn’t explain why it hurts so damn much when it hits my skin. It almost feels as if my clothes are becoming destroyed, like a hundred moths eating away the fabric.
The streets are mostly empty now; all the intelligent beings have scattered inside somewhere. Shops are closed, their small retractable roofs cranked back in to protect them from the rain, windows shuttered.
The air smells like sulfur and chalk as I knock on Dorni’s slanted door. Come on, Dorni, I think. For a moment I worry about encountering Gryan. Knocking again, the door groans and collapses inward with a loud crash. The sound jolts me like a clap of thunder and I jump inside Dorni’s shoppe with the sinking realization that something terrible has happened.
Not only is my old friend gone, but it looks like she left in a hurry. Shattered jars and prized specimens lay scattered on the floor. Lifting her bed mat, I find the floorboards removed and her ivory box missing. I let out a long breath. Yesterday, she said that she would take care of Gryan. I wonder if the Grandfather’s cruel guard had anything to do with this.
But, knowing Dorni and her sixth sense, I feel confident that she was able to escape unharmed.
I, however, do not possess her keen since of adumbration and I have no intention of lingering in a place that someone more intelligent than me decided to leave in a hurry.
Feeling like a nervous, wet dog, I bolt out of the shack and away from Widow’s Lane and Skyscraper City. I head in the direction where the Grandfather stays when he’s away from the Old City: south, toward the blue spike forest, which lies between Skyscraper City and the Old City and covers a majority of the valley. The Grandfather will be in the monastery there. He wouldn’t have sent me the note unless he was nearby. Otherwise, the Old City is a day-and-a-half journey from here, and he’d never expect me to make it in time to meet him at one in the afternoon.
After an hour, I reach the edge of the blue spike forest and step onto a path that, under dense, blue leaves, shields me from the rain.
But it won’t shield me from the guards that the Grandfather has littered all over the forest.
It isn’t long before I hear a voice behind me.
“State your business,” a girl’s voice says in a tone that indicates she’s trying too hard to sound tough.
I turn around slowly and raise my arms. The girl in front of me is young, maybe fifteen, but it’s not necessarily a disadvantage. I could disarm a fully grown man by the time I was fourteen. But the girl doesn’t need to sound tough; the silver Fisk 837 machine gun pointed at my gut doesn’t require her to speak at all. I study everything about her; her freckles, the cropped hair, the way she holds the weapon a little too tightly, even the way her uniform is tidy and worn properly.
“First week on the job?” I ask casually, smiling.
“Wh—what?” Her eyes narrow beneath her dark cap.
“Let me guess: first tier guard is off fucking around, probably poking an older lady that doesn’t mind taking it in the ass and you’re just happy he’s gone ‘cause otherwise, he’d try it with you. So you pay that older lady a third of your paycheck until you are transferred to another post.”
The girl shifts, the machine gun lowers, but she doesn’t put it away. “You’re wrong.”
“Yeah? Which part?”
“I give her half. It’s completely worth it since it keeps Gryan away from me.”
My smile falters. “I don’t blame you. What’s your name?”
“Deni. And I do need you to state your business.”
“I find it easier to answer questions when a Fisk 837 isn’t aimed at me, Deni.”
“You know your weapons, ma’am. It’s a beauty in action, which leads me to reacquaint you with my question. I won’t ask you again: state your business.” Deni raises the machine gun again, this time higher. She’s amazing and reminds me of myself at her age.
“I’m here to see the Grandfather.”
“He isn’t expecting any visitors today, ma’am.”
“He’ll see me.”
“And you are?”
“Why didn’t you say so in the first place?” The girl’s demeanor changes. Her shoulders relax and something of a smile transforms her youthful face. Deni pushes the leather strap holding the machine gun around to her back and steps forward. “I’ll unlock the gate for you.”
DENI, A THIRD-TIER SECURITY GUARD as identified by the patch on her shoulder, unlocks the hidden gate. I already know the code, but I figure it’s easier to let her do her job.
Cloaked among the forest’s thick trees and thorny leaves is a camouflaged, electric fence built around the perimeter in such a manner that a person won’t know what’s zapped them until they are half-dead on the ground.
And it isn’t just a way to keep trespassers out; it’s a thriving business enterprise.
The intruder doesn’t die right away. Old City’s collectors make routine patrols throughout the forest and keep the injured person conscious long enough to steal their fresh organs. And those are the lucky ones. Otherwise, they are left to rot—the guards won’t touch them except to report them to the collectors in hopes of collecting a finder’s fee—and the animals of the blue spike forest feast on their flesh until nothing is left.
“Some of the paths are blocked from a downed tree, so watch for that,” Deni tells me as she secures the gate between us. She stares at me like she wants to ask a question but in the end, she doesn’t. “Take this.” She hands me a small hand towel. “You need it more than me.”
“Thanks. I’ll return it on my way out.”
Deni nods rather quickly. Too quickly. Something’s not right, but I know the risks involved if my mentor has turned his back on me. Once again, I think she’s going to ask a question or tell me something. But she never does. Instead, she turns, looks back one more time, and goes back the way we came.
It is quiet in the forest. It always has been. The animals are nocturnal, even the insects, and it always made the forest the preferred place to escape to when I needed time alone to digest whatever job the Grandfather had sent me on. I’d pack a tent and stay for days.
I follow the path, weaving around large blueblood trees that not only withstood the royal revolution, but thrived. Not much else on the continent can make the same claim.
The Old City protects the majestic blueblood trees and will only use them sparingly to create special things, but never once in my time here have I seen one of these trees chopped down, not until now.
But it’s worse than I thought. The stump and all of her roots have been gutted from the earth as well.
Without warning, my insides vibrate and a sharp ache gnaws deep in my chest. As I approach the majestic blueblood tree, a feeling of evil consumes me.
The dark feeling is gone in an instant, but its aftereffects linger long enough that I have to take several large breaths to calm my heart down. Dear Goddess, what was that? I press the palm of my hand hard against my chest. The last time I felt something like that was the day Pareu died.
A memory of him resurfaces.
When we were younger, my brother loved to tell a story about how faeries lived in the roots of the blueblood tree to protect the roots from those who would steal them. His voice would go low when he said, “Legend says its roots can make a person invincible and impervious to pain, injury, and delay death.” I always laughed at Pareu after he retold the story, which he did often, saying that the legend couldn’t possibly be true since being invincible meant the same thing as being impervious to pain, injury, and death. And as a ten-year-old who thought she knew everything, I would say something like, “Legends lend their credibility by being vague, not by stating its same virtue twice.”
So why did someone take down this tree when it looked so healthy and robust? To steal the roots? With a trunk as wide as a train and as tall as the Palace Skyscraper, there’s no chance that I can climb over. I’ll have to walk around it.
Maybe I’ll spot a stray faery for Pareu’s sake. However, before I can go around, I hear voices from the other side.
Low, gruff, short voices. I strain to listen, but nothing discernible reaches my eager ears and I can’t exactly make my presence known now. Then I hear “deal or no deal?” asked in an elevated, displeased tone. Wait, I know that voice. Alben Underwood, Roland’s weapons expert, among other things, as he was introduced to me.
Why is Mr. Underwood in the blue spike forest?
Some sort of agreement is reached as one of them makes a gravelly sound of someone gathering to spit. A second later I hear a loud Twack as it hits wet leaves.
After a few moments of silence, I assume the owners of the voices are gone. Cautiously, I start to walk around. In the back of my mind I wonder if the dark feeling will come back, but nothing happens, and I crouch down to take a closer look at the tree’s roots.
It’s like an enormous, garish mouth ripped itself out of the ground, all dark brown, with bruised blue-black prickly roots sticking up, down, and every which way like limp tentacles.
The hole in the earth is large enough for a person to fall into and have difficulty getting out of. In light of the recent downpour, the void is such a muddy mess that I involuntary take a few steps backward. Slip in, and I might not get back out.
Sorry Pareu, no faeries, and while I am interested in finding out why some legend says its roots have invincible properties, I’m not about to touch them, not if I want to get my hand back afterward. The rootlets look like they possess rows and rows of razor-sharp teeth set at an upward angle. Whoever tries to take them must be insane—
I hear a snip-snip. I look up and over and spot a short man with white hair watching me with a guarded expression. On his forehead are his glasses. His hands are encased in steel gloves and he holds two long roots.
Alben Underwood. Whoever he made the deal with is long gone, but beside him is a short, squat personal robot that looks more like a heavily dented square box with non-matching arms sticking out from its sides. Its feet are large, round rubber tires to allow it to traverse the forest grounds.
“Miz Plesti,” he says curtly. Without any hurry, he places the roots into a galvanized circular container, the type that might store rolled-up maps, but shorter and wider, and he quietly seals its airtight lip latch.
“Mr. Underwood,” I reply calmly. “Here on business, I presume?”
He hands the container over to the personal robot, who quickly snaps it up. The top part of the robot opens up and the container is deposited inside. Alben and his robot repeat this process several times before my question is answered.
“Ye presume without knowledge, Miz Plesti. Worst type, that is. Should not go ‘round askin’ questions ye no right ta know ‘bout. Why ye here in da blue spike forest? Out fer a stroll?”
“I’m here to visit a family friend, but as it happens, I’m glad to see you. I have a request.”
“Wot, did Roland give ye a day off?” He rolls his eyes. “Wot’s yer request?” he asks dismissively, as if he’s only interested in hearing what it is, not fulfilling it.
I know he won’t agree to my request, but I ask anyway. “I need a second cuttlefish.”
He barks out half a laugh. I’ve never found half-laughs to be a good thing.
“Get it yerself, Miz Plesti.”
I set my mouth. “What if Roland asks you?”
“What makes you so sure?”
“Let me ask ye something: Do ye think dat after three days, ye know Roland better’n’me?”
“That’s not what I—”
“I don’t care wot’cha think, mizzy. I know da boss since he’s a boy. Ye need cuttlefish, ye get it yerself. I don’t take requests.” Alben and his robot move around the gaping hole. His robot continues on up the path while Alben stops and stands close enough to me that I notice the tattoos underneath his thinning white hair. He pokes me harmlessly in the arm with steel gloves that were probably created to hold broadswords.
I wonder what his weapons shop looks like.
Another type of request hits me, one he might be receptive to. “What about a dagger? Plain, simple, deadly?”
Alben’s eyes light up. I can tell he’s already designing it in his head. This is a good sign: if Roland hasn’t instructed him not to make me a weapon, then maybe there is hope for a little bit of trust.
“J tip or straight?”
“Polished or gun metal?”
“I can have it fer ye tomorrow.” He turns and hits the trail. The robot waits for him there.
“Thank you, Mr. Underwood. Did Roland also give you the day off?” To find magical roots in the blue spike forest?
“Ye ask a lot of questions, just like da others. But I’ll answer ye this, mizzy. It be Roland dat sent me here.”
I STARE AT HIS BACK AS if he’ll turn around to explain further. Instead, he and his personal robot hike out the way I came in. Why would Roland send him to the blue spike forest to retrieve some roots? How would he even know about the downed tree, especially a blueblood tree?
You ask a lot of questions, just like the others. Well, I’m supposed to. But I don’t like how he easily refers to the other researchers, as if I’m just like them and will suffer the same fate.
I go around the opened earth and the blueblood’s roots and pick up the trail again. Eventually, the trail turns into cracked granite, and I enter the northeast side of the compound. Normally, another guard would be here, but I am not stopped. Either Deni informed them of my approach or the guards are on patrol, but the lack of obvious security makes me feel that I’m being observed in some other way.
I try to rationalize the thought, but I don’t want to linger at an abandoned guard shack in case someone does return.
The great thinkers of a past age walked these roads and sidewalks. Monks. Philosophers. Priestesses. All of whom who went into hiding after the royal revolution. Now the Grandfather rules this place with a firm hand, generous but frugal, kind but harsh to those who agree to serve him.
He is the man that Prince Roland—as a young officer in his father’s army—introduced me to when I was thirteen. My mentor was already old then, towering over me like a living tree, silent as he observed my scrawny frame and wan face and probably wondered who in their right mind would recommend me, a class zero, to become one of his students.
Growing up, my family lived in the mountains unregulated, unchecked, and unaccounted for several generations. Which was by choice. Having a Priestess as a mother is still a dangerous thing. On the day the army took me away, my mother instructed me to keep my mouth shut. And I have ever since. Labeled as a class zero, my only options were to languish and die in the army or enter the personal pleasure service.
Thankfully, neither option happened.
The Grandfather and Roland worked out some sort of deal because the old man not only accepted me, he treated me like a cherished daughter.
Some of the sun peeks out now through the gray clouds. It isn’t much of an improvement, but at least it isn’t raining anymore. I pass a school brimming with students of all ages learning history, geography, all the known languages, math, and sciences. I hear their young voices reciting information in unison. As the Grandfather says, Knowledge is power.
Small, conservative homes dot the streets as I walk through several residential neighborhoods to reach the monastery. I approach two guards who patrol the front entrance. One of the guards recognizes me and allows me to pass through without question. The other guard says something into her radio transceiver, probably to announce my arrival to the guards inside, and I quickly enter the ancient stone building.
It’s about noontime and I’m an hour early. I won’t mind waiting for him, if necessary, but I assume he will want to speak with me immediately since we’ve been without communication since I left him. I climb the stairs to the second floor, walk to the back, and knock on the Grandfather’s door. It swings open silently and I pass through.
“Is he dead?” a masculine dulcet voice asks from behind me as he closes the door.
I bow to him.
“Good day, Grandfather. I left Roland Rexus alive no more than one hour ago, sir. If something has happened since then, it is not by my own hand.”
“I see.” He pauses as he sits down, then indicates I may join him in the chair adjacent. “Any particular reason why?”
Precise answers are always best for the Grandfather. Anything less will never do.
“Our secure communications link was broken not long after my arrival at the Palace Skyscraper. Based on your previous guidance, I was not to act until communications were established, a routine outlined, and your final orders given, sir.”
“All accurate, no doubt,” he says calmly, yet it feels like his voice is stabbing me in the back of my neck. “And you came all this way to tell me this, Rahda? Would not a message suffice? Do you not trust my technical experts to fix a simple communications problem?”
“I would not disappoint or disobey you for the world, Grandfather. I received your note this morning asking me to meet you at eleventen, at our normal place. I know I am early, and for that I apologize profusely, but my opportunity to leave the Palace Skyscraper presented itself to me sooner than I anticipated. I took it rather than be late to meet you.”
“My note?” his voice is an octave higher. “May I see this note?”
“I destroyed it, sir, as per normal protocol. Are you saying that it was not your note?”
“Must I repeat myself, Rahda? These endless questions bring discredit upon me. Were my teachings inadequate? Did I not treat you as a daughter and provide the highest level of training? Did I not extend my love and affection to you? And yet you treat me as if I have inconvenienced you. Oh, how you show me no respect!”
His words hurt deeply, much like a father chastising an already repentant child, and I fight back frustrated tears. I jump up immediately and kneel at his side. I take his hand and kiss it.
“Forgive me, sir. I respect you above all others. I am irrational and spoke hastily. All the best parts of me are because of you.”
He pats my head.
“You are a good girl, Rahda. I have suffered greatly for you. Now repay me by getting me a cup of tea. Then go to my technical support. They will fix the problem. I don’t know why you bother me with your petty issues. All of my directives are stored on your server. I will not be demanded to repeat myself.”
I stay at his side a moment longer, cherishing his attention, even if it is more abusive than kind.
“Of course I will, Grandfather. May I ask you a question?”
“Be brief, child. Others require my full attention as well, you know.”
“Yes sir, I know, and I am humbled to be here. If you did not send me the note, whoever it is knows your handwriting and your code words. I fear we are compromised.”
“My dear, Rahda,” he tsks, getting up and stepping over me as if I am a nuisance to him. “Must I explain things to you in simple words? Surely it was a note left behind by one of your predecessors. My patience thins. You know I rarely offer second chances. If Rexus isn’t dead in two hours, consequences will be felt. Do I make myself clear?”
I REPLAY THE GRANDFATHER’S CONVERSATION OVER in my head as I descend to the sub-basement. His condescending tone. His hurtful words. His unusual demeanor. It almost felt like he didn’t need or want me anymore.
Which is what you want, right, Rahda?
I used the broken communicator tablet as an excuse to stall the mission and sort out my feelings for Roland. I have a feeling the Grandfather knows this.
Hot, stale air stings my eyes when I reach the bottom floor. Behind each door, I hear the whirring sound of wall-sized fans cooling the equipment. The server rooms. There are dozens of doors. It is rather strange, now that I think about it, how everything above ground is antiquated but quaint and barely requires any technical service whatsoever.
So why the need for so many server rooms? A question for another day.
I find the right room and knock on a technician’s door. When it opens, it’s obvious the naked man opening the door is expecting someone else. Perhaps a girlfriend or boyfriend. He just stands there. He doesn’t even cover up.
Actually, he is extremely attractive. Young. Cut. Marked in ink and carvings.
I clear my throat and look into his face. “Hello,” I say in the same cheerful voice I use when I talk to someone I don’t want to talk to.
“Hello,” the man says, opening the door even further. His inviting gesture is unaggressive yet strangely charming in its lack of finesse. If I walk in, will he congratulate himself out loud?
“Are you Technician 34?”
“If that’s who you want me to be. And whom might you be?”
“I might be someone ready to kick your ass if you keep talking like that. I don’t care that you’re naked. I see crazier shit out in broad cloudlight in Skyscraper City. But if you start to sing at me, your days are numbered. Now, are you Technician 34 or not?”
“I am. Please come in, ma’am.”
The room is his personal living space, containing a small bed and such, a complicated workstation with several thin client servers, monitors and tablets, and a small server rack in a corner. There isn’t much room for the both of us in here.
Technician 34 is tall with dark hair, dark eyes, and his skin—the unmarked parts—is a smooth brown color that looks like it might have been kissed by the sun. However, I cannot ignore that he is marked in a lot of places, including his sex. Perhaps he traded his soul in parts to get here and become Technician 34. Perhaps it’s something else. Either way, one person or a lot of persons lay claim to the man in front of me.
Every person has a story, but I’m not here to ask about his. I need a new tablet that will access the previous directives from the Grandfather and any other missed messages.
“My secure tablet was accidentally destroyed two nights ago. I need a replacement that will also duplicate any and all messages received for the last seventy-two hours.”
“How much time do you have?”
“I must depart for Skyscraper City within the hour.”
Technician 34 whistles. “Unless you are a level one account, it will take four days.”
“Four days? What the hell do you do all day long?” Simultaneously we look down at his sex. “Oh, right,” I say, looking back up. He grins. “I’m in the system. Account 10d45x2, last name Plesti, first name—”
“Rahda,” he completes as he sits in his terminal chair. “I know who you are. I’ve sat next to you in chow like a hundred times. We even talked once.”
“Really? What about?” I sit on his bed since his is the only chair in the room.
“You said you wished the Old City had apple trees.”
I laugh a little. “Well, it’s as true now and it was then. What did you say when I said that to you?”
“I think I asked if you wanted to come back to my room. But when I looked up, you were already gone, tray in hand, and almost halfway to the exit. You never did say in one place for long. I noticed you. Always on the move, fixing things, creating things. Even now, you’re probably thinking that I’m wasting time chatting with you, that you could be more productive if you were allowed to think in silence.”
“Has anyone ever told you that you talk to much?”
“All the time, usually just before they fall for my incredible charm.”
“Well, don’t stop on my account,” I laugh, relaxing a bit. “Silence is the exact opposite of what I need right now. Otherwise, I’ll have depressing thoughts.”
“A guy? It’s always a guy.”
“What? No, of course not.” My mind instantly focuses on Roland.
“A girl, then?” He winks at me and swivels back to the screens.
I roll my eyes at his back but I still smile. My eyes explore his tattoos. “Just a conversation I had with the Grandfather, that’s all. Nothing important. Seriously, I’d rather listen to whatever it is you want to talk about. While you work.”
“Say no more, Ms. Plesti. I’m bringing up your account now. Luckily, you are level one. I should have everything up and running for you before you leave. It might be close, but I think it’s manageable. So did you hear about someone cutting down a blueblood tree? The leaders tried to keep that part of it quiet, but all it takes is one stupid-ass security guard to leave his post, have a quickie in the blue spike forest with Galeni, and witness it as it falls down.”
Galeni? Gryan’s wife? Very interesting.
“They are lucky to be alive.”
“They aren’t,” he says casually as he types away at his terminals. “Dumb luck would have it that they ran straight into one of the electric fences. The only lucky bastard is the Old City collector that happened to be close enough to find them both, get the story, and then harvest their freshly-zapped organs.”
I’m not sure what to say to that, so I ask, “What is your name, by the way? I can’t keep thinking of you as Naked Technician 34.”
“Devdan Osta. But call me Dev. Everyone does.”
“Alright, Dev. Why was the tree cut down?”
“No one’s admitting to cutting it down—I mean, who in their right mind would—but this morning, that sonsabitch cut a path right down the forest. I’m sure you noticed that on the way in. Each root has to be worth one hundred bedallions. I hear they have a way of making everyone amorous. Thought about trying to get one, you know, but truthfully, I don’t need any enhancements.” He turns and winks at me again.
“I noticed,” I say dryly, though I do feel a little heat in my face.
“Anyway, it woke the whole city at four in the morning, and let me tell you what, these dumbasses couldn’t have been more panicked or hysterical than an aging, over-the-top theatrical actor. It was that bad. At first, everyone thought the beasts from Hades Rock invaded—that’s always a worry, you know—but when that didn’t happen, everyone relaxed and blamed it on a small earthquake. But guess what? I’ve got access to seismic data, and no earthquakes registered. But something else did.”
He pauses for effect and looks at me expectantly.
“Well, what was it?” I ask.
“An encrypted message.”
“Those get sent and received all the time.”
“Not this kind.”
“What other kind is there?”
“The kind that doesn’t originate from our servers.”
“What did it say, or didn’t you get to read it?” And why the hell are you confiding in me?
“It wasn’t addressed to anyone in particular, but the message was so simple that it’s easy to remember. It said: Make ready and dispatch eight.”
“What do you think it means? Where did it originate?”
He shrugs. “Could be anything, really. From the birth of a new baby to weapons to robots to measurements for fabriskin robes. I’m not positive, but the first half of the digital fingerprint is pretty consistent with the Palace Skyscraper’s multitude of digital signatures. Hell, even the robots inside the Palace have their own digital fingerprints. It could have been a message from one robot to another. It’s insane. Whoever manages it all is a genius.”
Yes, Cat would like him. Hell, even I’m beginning to like him.
“When did the message come through?”
Dev clicks on another screen and checks through several layers of green text.
“It got to us at four in the morning, but it left the first proxy server at eight-thirty last night and bounced off about a dozen other proxy servers in between. That explains the delay.”
Eight-thirty last night. Just after Roland dropped me off at my apartments. Did he or Cat transmit an encrypted message? Is it connected to the blueblood tree?
“You certainly seem to have a good grasp of what’s going on around here. Why are you telling me all of this?” I try to keep my voice light.
“I guess I just like talking to you. So I hear that the Grandfather has a new disciple. Do you know what she’s like? I hear that she’s so lethal, she can stop a human heart on command.” He looks at me and frowns. “I said something wrong, didn’t I?”
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