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When sensible Taite Wyllturn suffers a sudden bout of crazy obsession, loses her job and lands in jail, and her little sister Shani is arrested for miraculously healing sick children in the suburbs, their trouble-making brother, Rylan, decides his only option is to rescue them from prison. Then iron bars disintegrate, seemingly at the wave of Rylan’s hands, leaving the three baffled but forced to run as searchlights flash to life.
With all hope seemingly lost, four mysterious rescuers appear from the shadows and sweep the siblings into a journey across continents and beyond the reach of their comfortable sane reality. It's a journey their unwanted companions promise will end at a meeting with Kira, a woman, the trio is told, who foresaw their need to be rescued, a woman who has lived for a thousand years and has much to share with them.
What Kira and her people reveal will change the Wyllturn siblings and alter the dynamics of the world on which they all live.
Taite stood in the hot kitchen, not able to pull her attention away from the fresh baked bread on the counter, not able to shake off the feeling she should race across the floor, grab the loaf, and destroy it totally in any way she possibly could. It was a completely irrational thought, especially since she really wanted to keep her job. Althia, the plump head cook, had just removed the loaf from its pan and was washing up the dishes. Taite knew her duties, knew she had the sweet porridge to serve to the family, but she couldn’t shake the odd hate for the stupid loaf of bread.
"What are you waiting for? You two get your puny hineys moving," Althia snapped and banged a clean pan onto the shelf.
Taite glanced at Palitan, a girl even younger than her twenty-three years, who had just joined the small kitchen staff of Governor Harkard’s house. It wasn’t the best of jobs but it also wasn’t near the worst. Taite had worked over the stoves and in the dining hall of the mansion for a little over a year.
"I’ll get this," Taite said with a forced smile. She stepped in front of Palitan, taking over the heavier task. She wrestled the steaming pot from the stove and dipped the porridge into small bowls on the platter, focusing all her attention on it while the others bustled around the room, clanking dishes and silverware. The odd feeling of some dire danger didn’t leave even under the mundane tasks. Taite couldn’t keep her eyes from shifting to view the bread. Something was wrong. She felt it deep inside herself, a warning siren of some kind, one she didn’t understand but couldn’t ignore.
She balanced the individual bowls on the large platter, turned swiftly to avoid running into Althia as the big woman rushed into the dining room, and caught the swinging door on her shoulder, somehow managing not to spill any of the porridge. Taite glanced quickly at the outside of each bowl when she placed them in front of Governor Harkard, his wife, and their five children, three of whom were orphans the family had taken in. She acted invisible with the two elders but grinned at the two daughters. Ages ten and seven, Lana and Saray reminded Taite of herself and her little sister. She hadn’t seen Shani in almost four years, not since Shani left to apprentice under the healer in the outer lands.
Taite turned with the empty tray in one hand, her other out to catch the door. Palitan burst from the kitchen, nearly knocking Taite over, but it was the tray Palitan carried that caught Taite’s attention.
The delicious smell of fresh baked bread filled the room, the slices of it laid out like a fan on the silver platter with a small bowl of churned butter to one side. The crust was perfectly browned, not blackened anywhere. Taite watched Palitan set it in the center of the table. Something was very wrong with the bread, but Taite forced herself to take another step for the door. Then Lana reached for the bread platter.
Taite blinked against the image of Lana and Saray both lying deathly ill in bed, but it grew so brilliant in her mind’s eye she couldn’t dispel it. She tossed the empty tray she held to the corner wall and dove for the bread platter, grabbing it out from under Lana, shoving one of the boys aside and hugging the bread to her as if it was some precious gem.
"What in the grace of gods!" Governor shouted. Mrs. Harkard jumped to her feet, her eyes wide beneath perfectly primped and curled bangs.
"How dare you!" she cried. In the next blink of a second, Althia and Palitan were both in the mix, everyone yelling at her, but her mind roared, and the only thing she understood was the need to destroy the bread.
She shoved Althia against the wall and raced into the kitchen. Althia followed with loud shouts and demands, but Taite managed to reach the sink and dump the bread into the sudsy water, watching the perfect slices sink into the liquid and turn to pale slush. The irritating threat she felt from it faded as the last browned crust sank below the surface in a burp of air bubbles.
Althia shoved her roughly aside, smashing Taite’s hip into the sharp edge of the counter. She cringed from the bite of pain and then from Althia’s shout. The woman slapped both hands to her head in a string of babbling complaints somewhere near hysteria. Then she screamed at Taite, her face red and her eyes bulging.
"Get out! How could you? How? Get out of my kitchen, out of my face!"
Taite stumbled back from the woman’s flailing arms, wishing she knew how to explain or what to say to fix things, but nothing made any sense, not even to her. "No, wait, please. It wasn’t safe, the bread wasn’t safe!"
Taite struggled with building tears. She turned full circle, the room feeling more like a cage. She rushed for the door and out into the side yard, not stopping for her thin overcoat. She turned to look back at the tall stone house when she reached the sidewalk. She dodged a man, as he hurried toward the center of town, and studied the three-story mansion. She wiped her face with one hand, not at all sure what had possessed her. Gods, she knew how precious bread was with grain so hard to come by this time of year. She had no right to steal the food right out from under Lana like she had. She hung her head, feeling worse than stupid. Another job ruined. And she used to think her brother Rylan was the crazy, impulsive one. Apparently it was a family trait.
She walked slowly east along the streets although she really had no destination. The reality of what she had done sank through her. She’d just thrown her job down the drain with the fresh bread. Why had her mind tricked her with some imaginary image of Lana and Saray falling ill?
She stopped several times to view the city buildings. There wasn’t much work for a young woman with no apprenticeship training, and when news of her manic fit over bread reached the mainstream, no one would hire her even for mundane kitchen work. She hadn’t had the opportunity to do more than look after her family and ailing father while growing up. When he passed on, five years ago, he left her and her two siblings with little more than some small family trinkets and advice to take care of each other. She lifted her face to the sky, feeling totally hopeless. Within a week, she would be homeless with no pay to use for rent. She had to find another job or some other option quick.
Rylan wiped his sweaty forehead with his bandana and watched the sleek silver transport zip down his winding driveway. It was over five hundred paces to the main road through a creek and a strip of old wood, not a place people traveled for no purpose, yet he didn’t recognize the visitor. He rested his hammer against the freshly constructed porch railing and turned fully to face it when the vehicle hovered to a stop. Two men in matching dark uniforms climbed from inside, one stepping down to the loose soil as if he thought it might attack him. The other carried an electronic tablet.
"Rylan Wyllturn?" the dirt-fearing man asked. He nearly tiptoed across the earth.
Rylan glanced over the man, from perfectly parted black hair and curled mustache to polished shoes. "Who’s asking?"
"Jossep Canoachet," the man said. He slid a pen over the glowing tablet the other handed him, ogled Rylan again, and scowled. "Why is it you would refuse to answer us, Mr. Wyllturn?"
"Well, Jossep, I make it a habit not to give too much away to strangers."
"Attempting to dodge your taxes?" Jossep said.
Rylan grinned. Of course these two worked for the governor. "Paid my taxes just a week ago."
Jossep eyed the house. It wasn’t much, a two bedroom one story building, but Rylan had built every piece of it himself. He’d just saved enough for the planks and boards to finish a porch where he could sit and watch the deer and birds while he took in his breakfasts each morning.
"You paid taxes on property and a shanty," Jossep said. "What you have here is a full residence with luxuries."
Rylan choked on his laugh. "Luxuries? Gods, I just got running water a couple months ago. No electric or solar yet."
"Yet you chose to add this covered outroom. Interesting." Jossep scribbled on the electronic tablet again.
Jossep scowled even deeper, wrinkling the flabby flesh between his thick brows. "Outroom. This outdoor room is a luxury." He tapped his pen against the tablet. "According to the updated calculations, you paid only a quarter of what was owed. Penalty is another quarter thousand tregs."
Rylan gripped the railing he’d just nailed together, glad the wood was attached and not easily wrenched free or he would have been tempted to smack the man with it. "Outdoor room? I’m assuming you mean my little stoop here."
"Size doesn’t matter. It’s a taxable luxury."
"In case your nose is not working and your eyes are just as useless, this outroom is new."
"And you procured no permital for its construction."
"Permital for what? I’m building it with my own supplies on my own ground and it is a simple porch, a floor with a roof over it so I can sit and enjoy my morning brew."
"Luxury," the other man said. "Clearly."
Rylan lowered his head and counted out a breath, hearing his sister’s voice in his head. Taite always told him he had to better control his temper.
"Look, I had no idea this little project would cause so much trouble. I put all my extra tregs into building it."
"We know. It’s why people like you must be watched so closely," Jossep said.
Rylan squeezed the railing, wishing he hadn’t nailed it so securely. "Jossep, I’m sure we can work something out."
"Mr. Canoachet to you," Jossep said. "And I have full authority to acquire the taxes owed now or to confiscate your deed to this property and enact a penalty against you to increase weekly until the payment is made in full."
Rylan bit the tip of his tongue. He didn’t have the tregs they wanted and had no way of getting it quickly. If they took the deed and penalized him for each week he couldn’t pay, by the time he worked off the first charge, he would be buried beneath the cost of the penalties. He’d heard of crazy circumstances before but this was beyond comprehensible. He had never caused anyone any problem; he had paid what he could to keep current with the taxes and simply hadn’t realized his porch would cause so much hassle.
"Of course," Jossep said snidely. "You have full right to object to these charges in the courts. However, you must comply now, either with the payment or the deed, or we have the authority to bring you in and hold you until all of this is resolved."
Rylan glanced out over the grassy field to the forest, such a calming place. He’d worked his fingers raw to earn enough for the land and then enough to start building even before he reached his twenty-first birthday. He just wanted some place to call his own and maybe have a family, if the opportunity ever came up; a settled family unlike his sisters and he had. He was tired of always moving, but now he understood the reason as to why their father had never settled down.
"So, Jossep, you’re telling me I either pay you a full thousand tregs right now, on this spot, or hand over the deed to my property and be penalized, and all this because of my building this outroom?" Oh, Rylan nearly heard Taite scold him for the swelling rage he couldn’t conceal.
"That is exactly what I am telling you, Mr. Wyllturn."
Rylan glanced at both men, recognizing the second and quiet fellow as being some kind of guardsman. He probably had a weapon of one sort or another under his knee-length overcoat. Rylan glanced down at his hammer, but it was a stupid thought. He couldn’t strike at these men. He was trying to live an honorable life now. He nodded, told the men to remain outside, and shuffled into his home.
The furnishings were sparse, a chair by the fireplace where he slept more often than not to guard against the chill. He had built a table and chairs for the small space he intended as a kitchen but it consisted of little more than a basin for water and a small woodstove and icebox. He had built the two bedrooms on the back, neither of which had heat yet. He had to save up for the bricks and all. His home was a work in progress. His work in progress.
His gut twisted with fury and frustration. Father never told him how unfair everything was. He yanked the metal tin down from the mantle, tucked the small leather pouch into his front pants pocket, and crunched the deed to his home in his other hand. He threw the tin aside, empty now. It clanged on the wood floor and spun to a stop. He could fight for his home but, chances were, he wouldn’t win, and they would suck him so dry of finances that he would never get the place back. He glanced over the space one last time, pulled the full gallon of ale from under the kitchen basin, and snapped the cork from the spout. He took a long swallow of the burning alcohol, then threw it into the center of the living area. The clay jug shattered with a sharp crack and the liquid splashed out, slapping the floor planks and splattering the wall. Eleven months it had taken him, his blood and sweat and half his soul, to get it all to where it was. He shook a match from the box on the mantle, struck it over the chair he slept in, and flicked it into the ale puddle on the floor.
He backed away from the burst of fire, staying just long enough to be sure it all caught quickly. Orange flames roared, growing hungrily, running over the floorboards and wrapping around his chair. Rylan kicked the front door open and stormed down the porch steps, loving the smell of fresh cut wood. Jossep and his lawman stood staring at the building. The blaze grew so fast Rylan felt the heat against his back when he stopped in front of the man. He crushed the deed into the taxman’s breast pocket.
"There, Jossep. Tax that." He strode away from the two, a smile spreading on his lips when he heard them shouting at each other to put out the flames. It was too far gone to be saved. Rylan climbed into his small two-seater transport and drove south away from the main road. It wouldn’t take long for Jossep the taxman to recover from his shock and decide to label Rylan a fugitive. Rylan decided to beat him to the outcome and start acting like one. Gods knew he had enough practice with his nomad background. So much for his plans to be a respectable man.
Shani Wyllturn folded the plants, working the basil and eucalyptus leaves together, pressing them until they became a pungent green cream inside the solution of alcohol. Delphie wanted as much of the cream as possible made by nightfall and Shani worked as hard as her sore hands would allow. So many inhabitants of the little suburb village outside the huge city of Cystal had fallen ill, at least double those who had been ill two days before when she arrived with Delphie after a request from one of Delphie’s old comrades. Shani didn’t know the man personally and since her arrival with Delphie, there had been no time for formal introductions. She was "girl" and he was the man she obeyed.
Her heart broke when she thought of all the ill children lying helpless on one of the floors above her. Tests were being run but, so far, no one knew what was causing their white blood cells to drop, their extreme fevers and ultimately their respiratory failure. Four children under the age of two had already succumbed to the illness.
Shani slowed the grinding of the herbs when Delphie rushed down the stairs, her gray hair tied in a disheveled braid against her back. The woman wasn’t young, but she also seemed to have aged a year in just the last two days. She scurried over the floor, wiping her hands on her apron, and glanced at the herbs and finished creams Shani had spread on the large worktable.
"You’ve done so well," Delphie said, her voice quiet.
Shani slid the mortar and pestle she was working with from the edge of the table, her heart swelling with sadness. She had been with Delphie day and night for over four years and knew the woman better than she knew herself. Things were dire.
"I fear the chance for anyone to be helped by our creams has passed," Delphie said. "Justar has sent for help from the city. Right now, what he needs of us is help in caring for those who are too ill to care for themselves." Delphie held her gaze steady on Shani’s. "I hate to ask, we are not yet sure if this is an air contagion or if—"
"I’ll do it, I’m there," Shani said and moved to join her mentor.
Delphie smiled sadly and turned. Shani followed just one step behind into the upper floor of the inn that had been turned into a three-floor hospital. Shock tore through her, stealing her breath for a long minute, when she saw the front room full of people stretched out on the floor, nearly foot to foot with only narrow aisles between them, nothing but pillows beneath their heads and thin sheets covering them. Most lay silent, glistening with sweat, but some stirred, moaning with discomfort.
She’d never witnesses such an outbreak of anything, but Delphie had shared stories with her of outbreaks caused by contaminated water or some airborne virus.
"Shani," Delphie said, her eyes darkening with worry.
"I’m all right. Tell me where you need me most."
"Maybe you should take this floor," Delphie murmured.
Shani spun her attention back to Delphie. "Where did you want me?"
Delphie hesitated but finally sighed. "I thought maybe you would have the best bedside manner to keep the children calm, and with your charm maybe even lift their spirits."
Shani nodded to ignore the sharp pain in her soul. She adored children of all ages, delighted in being around them. Tears nearly bubbled with just the thought of seeing young ones so ill and close to death.
"What floor?" she asked.
"One flight up and in the rooms at the end of the hall. Justar has two nurses there, but they could use another set of hands."
"Done," Shani said, forcing a smile with the hopes of easing Delphie’s concern. She patted the older woman’s shoulder and rushed with full purpose up the stairs in the center of the building. At the end of the dim hallway, she found a table with masks, gloves, and laundered aprons. She slipped her arms into one of the covering garments, snapping it closed at her neck. She hesitated at the masks. No one had proof that there was any air contagions and, from what she knew of the pattern of infected, it didn’t fit with anything airborne. She grabbed a pair of thin gloves, snapping them onto her fingers and glanced into the first room.
"Ah good. One of us for each room now," a woman spouted as she sprang from the room on the end, half her face hidden and her voice muffled behind the white tent of her mask. "That’s a good one, just go on in there when you’re all suited up and get started."
Shani dipped her head and moved over the threshold. There were three-dozen small cots, all of them filled with sweat-soaked children. She wondered if they had been wiped down with the fever reducing wash but from the look of the bowl of liquid and herbs in the corner, she doubted it. She glanced over the sweet faces of so many, then quickly pulled thirty-six washcloths from the cupboard beneath the basin.