T.C. McMullen's Disillusionment Series

Descended Excerpt

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Descended
Words and chapters subject to change during editing.
2012 T.C. McMullen
 
 
 
 

Descended

 

 

Prologue

 

 

Kira DeVassi-Brye Annis-Valdor gazed out the large south window of Nikkar’s Great Hall and into the still night. The view was one she had seen for so many nights, too many to count, and too many alone. She had withstood nearly all of her immediate family, including her beloved Dane, relinquishing their holds on their lives, her father, mother, and brother to wars. She remained as sole survivor of the original family to her people, a background but vigilant advisor along with her son. Vanik resided on the far eastern coast where the old city, now named Oradon but once known as Madai City, was situated. Vanik was a strong leader, but even he couldn’t keep a full watch on the whole coast, and his years too were numbered. His child, her granddaughter, had lived a full lifetime of a human, not Dreovid, but bore a child to an Annunukar. Although it was forbidden for such a thing to happen, the child’s offspring were blessed with genetics even cleaner than a second generation Dreovid. Kira couldn’t regret it, not when the union, after a few generations, had given her two young and gifted grandchildren, Blaine and Aiden, who would have a long lifespan if Fate permitted.

Still, she was growing weary of watching over it all, but didn’t have the heart to leave her living descendants so alone. None of them but Vanik had ever seen war. She had lived through several. She had the experience they would need if what she felt in the changing winds came to pass. And if it did, she with her children wouldn’t be enough to stop it.

The doors at the far end of the long meeting room creaked open, drawing her attention away from the silent night view. She turned slowly, no longer quick in her reflexes at more than a thousand years old. She had the body of a sixty year-old, but her mind had absorbed so much more. She found the young guardsman, Valentar Lev, standing just over the threshold.

He bowed his head to her. “I’m told you requested to see me.”

Over a thousand years and forty-four generations had passed since she witnessed his ancestor’s death in the first war with the gods, but she still saw her friend Varik in Valentar. He was handsome, kind, yet strong and full of honor. She had no idea if Valentar realized why she had watched after his family and his rise through the ranks just as she had watched after the well-being of all his ancestors. Varik had saved her life by giving his, and she had spent her days looking after first his son and then his son’s children and so forth. Valentar was the first in two generations to follow Varik’s footsteps into the guard.

“Yes,” Kira said, trying not to hesitate too long with her thoughts. “I have a great favor I must ask of you.”

“If I can, you know I’ll grant it.”

She smiled and moved to sink into a chair she had filled for nearly four hundred years but had once seen her uncle and her stepmother fill. Valentar moved quickly to help her, but she swatted him away. They all saw her as much frailer than she was these days. She was exhausted, but only because of the weight of her mind. Or so she hoped.

She pressed her back straight against the chair, steeling herself for what she must do. “I have need of your skills to keep my grandchildren safe in a task I regret will take you away again, but I must ask this of all of you.”

Valentar frowned. “Aiden and Blaine?”

She nodded once.

He wiped a hand over his face and sighed. “I don’t question your wisdom, but I can’t promise my skill will be enough. I know they’re your bloodline—”

She held up one hand, stopping him. “Their immaturity and recklessness is not beyond my notice. This is why I ask you to accompany them, and I will speak with them at length before your departure. One of the Pure Annunukar will also accompany you, I do not expect you alone to look after them.”

“May I ask, why send them at all?”

Kira smiled. “It is the bloodline that’s needed in this task. It takes a Dreovid to sense another. It is my hope that my grandchildren will more easily find those who are in hiding.”

Valentar widened his eyes. “Hiding? The Brye Annis lineage?”

“The Devassi-Brye Annis lineage,” she corrected.

“Tarenek’s,” Valentar whispered.

Kira nodded, saddened by the sound of her brother’s name. Even after so many years, she missed him so deeply it seemed only yesterday that she had lost him and both her parents. She had promised Tarenek that his children would be kept safe from those who hunted them because of their heritage. To keep them safe, after two were hunted to their deaths, the Annunukar and she with Dane had put the other into hiding with a new name. Kira had followed Trysty’s life, had followed Trysty’s sons’ and his daughter’s, but they had died and the daughter’s husband had vanished with her children. All Kira knew now was that Tarenek’s descendents were somewhere on the lower continent for none had ever returned anywhere near her home.

Noises sounded outside the doors, trifle arguing. Valentar lowered his gaze to the table. “Have you told them?”

“I’ve called them here now. Please, I must know—will you join them? I know it is much to ask, you’ve been home such a short time, but I ask you only to do your best, and if trouble too large befalls them, I will hold no ill feelings. I know the risks very well, more than any of you can understand, but I must know if they can turn to you for help even if they deny needing it.”

“Of course, I’ll do all I can,” Valentar answered very quietly when the doors swung inward.

Kira raised her face to her youngest descendants, both in their early twenties in age, only a handful younger than Valentar, but both acted more like adolescents. They had never seen battle or had to hold a border. They were trained guards, just as Valentar was, they knew how to work hard and could be responsible if pushed to the limit, but they competed with each other too much to be wholly reliable on any task. Aiden strode through the door first, but Blaine cut to the opposite side of the table, gaining an angry glare from his brother. They nearly raced to the end of the room where she sat. Valentar stepped into the shadows behind her. She rubbed at the doubt building in her temple.

“Stop,” she demanded and held her hands up, one to flag each brother to a halt. Aiden dipped his head to her in his boisterous manner. Blaine stiffened and showed the same gesture of respect but in a much more refined way. She peered at both of them.

“I have called you here as equals with a request for help.”

“Anything you need, Greatmother,” Aiden said.

“I’m at your service,” Blaine said.

She motioned for them to sit and they eagerly did so, across from each other. She studied their expressions and decided they were focused closely enough on her for her to begin.

“I, as well as all the people of Neridu, am in need of your help in a task that only you as brothers will be able to see to a good end.”

“I’ll do it,” Aiden said.

Blaine furrowed his brow. “You don’t even know what it is.”

“I’ve trained hard, I’m sure whatever it is, I can handle it,” Aiden answered through clenched teeth.

“I trained just as hard and paid more attention in my studies,” Blaine said.

“My point exactly,” Kira said. “Your sibling rivalry, you both allow it to get in the way so often. I don’t understand why, but can’t fuss about that now. I can only hope when the situation calls for it, the two of you can work together. For now, both of you should have studied a bit about my brother, correct?”

“Tarenek, the child of Cedrik, your father, and Tryn Brye Annis. I’ve studied him, everything he did in the Freedom Wars and the sacrifice he made in the Continental Wars,” Aiden said, sitting straighter, obviously proud of what he remembered of his great uncle.

Kira bowed her head and pressed her fist to her chest, her heart aching. Tarenek had been so much more than any words could express. “So hard to teach the full quality of a person,” she whispered. “He was much more than a warrior in wars.”

“Of course,” Blaine said. “He had a family and he helped build the cities of Angoren, before he met his wife. And I remember he had a fondness for ancient poetry.”

Kira smiled. “Yes, yes, that he did. His family… After his death, Alie continued on for just three decades more but without him… To protect his children and their children, it was necessary to place them into hiding. We tried to remain knowledgeable of their whereabouts, but time has a way of erasing many things. To this day, I don’t know for certain where Tarenek’s descendants may be. And this is why I have called for you.”

She sipped from a glass of water to ease the dryness in her throat, taking her time to swallow, sip, and swallow again. Aiden clasped his hands together on the tabletop, obviously growing impatient. Blaine sat relaxed and attentive, his eyes focused on the table.

“Please, Greatmother,” Blaine said, looking up. “I don’t understand.”

Aiden glanced at his brother, his brows raised in obvious shock that Blaine had blurted something first.

“Listen closely and maybe you will begin to,” Kira said. “More has changed than you two can possibly imagine in the years of my life. The wars, the peace, the battles fought, people lost, all for the hope of peace and safety for the people. We’ve won it, some periods lasting longer than others, some lessons being learned better than others. None of it matters really, not to you. What matters now are the new battles we have heard rumor of, and the growing tensions that have been reported. I recognize the signs of something darker preparing to grow worse. To keep our continent safe for the people here, we need more than Vanik, your uncle Kelan and you. I cannot continue on for much longer, not alone, not for all my desire to see peace renewed. I’m too tired to fight this new war. What we need, what the people need, is for you to find Tarenek’s descendants.”

“Whoa, wait. Why? Blaine and I, we’ve been here with you, among the people, we’ve studied, trained. We have you to counsel us,” Aiden said. “This is what we’ve worked to prepare for since I can remember. It’s our duty to look after the well-being of our people. We will protect them.”

Kira bowed her head. “How are five far less powerful than I or my brother to help protect all our boundaries at all times? We won wars where my parents, the other Dreovids, and I with Tarenek strained to keep just our mountains safe. Without the help of others, we would have lost our freedoms then, and the numbers have dwindled. You two are strong only when you are together and only when you are not bickering. Kelan, his guards, and the other Dreovid are straining to keep order with the help of our top commanders to the south, Vanik to the east. That leaves too many miles unguarded. You’ve also never seen true war. Despite all your training.”

“Then we need to get more of the commanders to help,” Blaine said.

“We need Tarenek’s descendants,” Kira said quietly. “He was a god among humans, more powerful than I ever was, even in my prime. The genetics passed down through his lineage, my dear ones, are more than either of you can comprehend. We will need their help to hold our borders against the coming assaults. And I am not the only one who believes this to be true. I have consulted with the Annunukar. Zaid and Ora’s daughter, Odelia, has volunteered to accompany you as your counselor and guide, to help keep you both safe, as will Guardsman Lev.” She gestured to Valentar behind her.

“Wait, what? Counselor and guide to what?” Aiden asked.

“I need you both to travel to the lower continents and search for your cousins,” Kira said. “I am counting on the two of you to find them and treat them kindly. Guide them as they learn. Do so gently, they most likely know not who they are, and bring them here.”

“They,” Blaine said. “How are we to know where to look, who to look for, and for all we know there could be just one or maybe none.”

“There are three,” Kira said. “Young, like you. They are not together now but will be soon. I need you to go to them, in a large city, though I don’t know for certain which one.”

“Greatmother,” Aiden said. “You can’t expect us to leave now, in this time of such need.”

Kira slapped the table so hard Aiden jolted back against his seat. Blaine flinched but otherwise didn’t lose his composure. She had to gain their attention and hold it tightly, for they had to truly understand the importance of what she needed from them.

“I do not ask,” Kira said. “This is a task only the two of you are able to do. You both are capable of accomplishing what I say. Do not question what I tell you. I have my reasons and I know the facts as I tell them to you. Please do not argue, not now, not with this.”

Aiden glanced at Blaine. They eyed each other as if sharing some hidden dialogue only they could translate, then both nodded in unison.

“We will do our absolute best,” Aiden said.

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

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!”

“Get out!”

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.

“Covered what?”

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.

“Mr. Wyllturn?”

“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.

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

 

Taite rushed from the employment building, her mind and her heart crushed. There were no jobs available for someone like her. Someone like her—what was that supposed to mean?

And to make everything so much better, the heavy clouds suddenly decided it was time to release their load of water. She stopped and looked up into those drops, wondering if the day would just keep sliding into the mess her life had become. She sighed and waited for several transports to pass before she dashed across the street.

“Hey! Watch where you’re going!” a gruff voice shouted. Taite looked back at the muddy street, trying to figure out who and what to look out for. A man in a carrier transport swerved around the sharp turn and zoomed close behind her. She jumped onto the sidewalk with a yelp both from the shock of the noise and the spray of mud onto her shoes and pants. Cold water soaked in to chill her legs.

She glared after the man, having no idea why he couldn’t be patient and wait two more seconds, and if he hadn’t shouted, she would have been out of his way sooner. She shook her foot to kick off the worst of the mud and continued down the street to the only place she had left to go. Her one room residence would only remain hers for two more days.

Hopelessness pecked at her heart despite her struggling attempts to stay upbeat. It had only been a handful of days since she started looking for new work, and while an instant job would be nice, she couldn’t expect it, not really. She had tried everything, but even her offer to become an apprentice was balked at. She was far too old for anyone to take under their care. Old? She snorted. She was twenty-three and, the last she knew, still young.

The rain quickened, flattening her dark hair. She swiped her long bangs from her face and blinked droplets away. She had two more streets to cross and one alleyway to go down before she reached the tiny boarding house she had called home for a year. Each step she took through the rain brought tears closer to the surface. Her life wasn’t perfect, but she had what she needed and, before her manic fit, even had the prospects of moving up if Althia ever left.

“Darn bread,” she grumbled and swiped water from her brow. It wasn’t really the bread’s fault though. Bread didn’t have the capability to hone in on her and dominate her mind. No, the freaky outburst was all her doing and she still had no idea why.

She quickly crossed the first street, not caring if she upset anyone, and shivered from an odd tickle on her neck under the collar of her jacket. She pulled the fabric in closer and lifted her heavy hair from her shoulders but the feeling increased, a creeping feeling of someone near. She stopped short and looked up. A woman with two children under an umbrella hurried past her, as did two men with their heads down under hats and behind high collars. She eyed each one of them, having no idea what stood her nerves on end. No one seemed fixated on her. She stepped backward and pressed against the bricks of the clothing store, just under the high overhang. Splatters of rain still sprinkled her but the heaviest drops landed on the stone sidewalk in front of her. She glanced up and down the street.

The dark man stood in the shadows beneath the canopy sheltering the entrance to the armory across the street. It was a controversial business these days, one the owner of the armory constantly battled to keep. People claimed weapons caused violence. But others argued weapons weren’t any guiltier than her loaf of bread. Still, the man staring straight at her made her wonder about that belief.

He was tall and topped with coal black hair, or blacker than coal with a unique blue tint where dull light caressed it. Even across the distance, she saw his stunning eyes, eyes so dark they had to be black, but piercingly attractive. In fact, his features too were more handsome than most men, handsome and intense. He stood perfectly poised, his shoulders straight beneath the big brown overcoat he wore. It was the large sheath strapped at his side, only partially hidden by the curtain of raindrops and tails of his coat, that knocked the breath from her. He carried a sword. A very large sword.

While not outlawed yet, carrying such weapons was frowned upon, and those who revealed one so brazenly wanted people to fear them so they could dominate. And this man had his attention solidly on her.

Surely what she had done in her life didn’t warrant the punishment the gods seemed intent on dumping on her. She fingered the rough bricks of the store to her back, wishing she could melt into them and vanish from the man’s heavy stare. He didn’t appear angry, but he also didn’t appear anything else. If the gusts of wind hadn’t rustled his curling tresses, she would have thought he was a stone carving. He turned his head just slightly to the left and she suddenly realized there was another man with him. The second male wore a strange full-length coat, more like a cloak with its large hood, and was nearly the same height as the first man, but his back was turned.

The dark man nodded, never pulling his gaze from her. He said something to his comrade and moved forward. Toward the street. Toward her.

Taite choked on a strained breath and glanced left and right. A carrier transport pulled out from a side alley and turned to cross in front of her. Taite ducked behind the carrier and forced her shaking legs to run. She cut down the first street she came to, straightened and ran as fast as her muscles would carry her, feeling the weight of the pursuers heavy on her back. What they could possibly want with her, she didn’t know and didn’t care. From the looks of them, they weren’t out to offer her honorable employment.

She squeezed through the narrow space between two buildings, ignoring the rat that squealed at her, and holding her breath against the stench of decay. Once out, she was on the alleyway leading home. She twirled, looking behind and up and down the alley, but the dark man wasn’t among the few people she saw. She licked rain from her lips and rushed down the sidewalk to the front door of the place she called home.

Inside was stale and filthy, but concealed. She hurried up the first flight of stairs, around the landing, and down the dim hall to her door. Her fingers shook uncontrollably and she dropped her key twice, but finally managed to calm herself enough to finally wrestle her haven open.

Taite closed the door, snapped the lock in place, and leaned her head back, pacing her breaths. When her heartbeats quit echoing in her ears, she opened her eyes to her rented room and looked around the small space. Everything was as she’d left it. No brooding man stood in any of the corners.

She had already packed her books and all but one change of clothes into two crates. Another crate sat empty but ready to carry her few kitchen utensils and dishes. It was all she had to her name. She stripped her jacket off and tossed it over the back of one kitchen chair, thankful Palitan had been curious enough about her outburst to use the jacket as an excuse to see her. Taite had no explanation for the girl and felt so silly if she dwelled for even one moment on her ridiculous outburst over bread. Her stomach growled at the thought of food and she wished she had a slice of the loaf she had so neurotically destroyed. She also wondered if her imagination had run away with her again in tricking her about the mysterious man. Maybe he wasn’t watching her at all. Maybe she was simply being paranoid.

She threw herself onto her bed, sending the coils and wood joints into their familiar squeaks. She would miss the sound as much as she would miss a soft, dry place to sleep.

She had no close friends in the city or anywhere near Cystal for that matter. Only one solution kept swimming into her mind, and it was to see if she could find Rylan. When she last saw him a year before, he had mentioned purchasing a parcel of ground far outside the city limits. The problem was, the city was large with a lot of land surrounding it. She had no idea where to start or even if he had managed to keep moving ahead with his dream of creating a homestead. None of them had ever had a solid home before, certainly nowhere to put down roots.

“You really got yourself stuck in the muck deep this time,” she mumbled. The last thing she wanted was to go crawling to her younger sibling, but the prospect of living on the streets all alone was worse. Probably. Unless Rylan would take pleasure in gloating that he was the one who had managed to be sensible. If he gloated for even a moment, she wouldn’t be able to stand it. It was possible he had grown out of that after having to take care of himself for so long. It was also possible that he wasn’t anywhere near or any better off than she, but if she found him…at least she wouldn’t be alone.

She pulled herself up, disgusted by her own self-pity and stripped out of her drenched street clothes of loose cotton slacks, matching high-collared shirt and wool vest. She scrubbed herself clean and dry then slipped into her nightclothes. The heavy fabric of the shirt and slacks was oversized, dragging on the floor and nearly covering her hands, but was also exceptionally cozy and warm. She curled up under her flimsy blanket, glad at least for the one in her family who had taken a good path. Shani had found the opportunity for apprenticeship when she was still young enough for someone to want her. Taite missed her little sister but was glad to know Shani was well cared for now, especially since she was obviously incapable of caring for anyone. Not even those who provided her reliable earnings were safe from her quirks.

“Stupid bread,” she grumbled as she switched out her lamp and let the gloom of the stormy sky settle in. “Goes with the stupid head.”

She sighed and focused on quieting her mind. It was still fairly early but if she managed to sleep she would avoid being alone for the evening and could start the next day early. There was always a chance that someone would call her with a position within the next two days before rent was due. She counted to three, then two, then one and hummed that single word. Instead of calming her mind, it only punctuated how alone she was. She forced her eyes closed tighter and managed to think of nothing beyond the warmth washing over her as her body heat warmed the clothes and blanket. Sleep softly wafted through her, rescuing her from her torments.

Hands reached from the darkness, grasping her arms in iron clasps and pressing her tight against the bed.

She jolted straight up on her feet, jogging on the squeaking bed, almost screaming into the murky room. It was fully dark with only a dim dusting of streetlight outlining the single window from behind heavy drapes. She dropped and dove for the lamp, hoping to the gods not to come face to face with the mystery sword-carrying man. The light stung her eyes, drawing tears to her lashes, but she swatted them away and studied every corner.

The room was empty, just as she’d left it.

She slapped her tangled hair from her face, straining her eyes to inspect every shadow of the familiar space. Her heart hammered her ribs in a painful rhythm.

“Gods,” she whispered and pressed one closed fist to her chest. “What in creations is wrong with you girl? Just a nightmare, you idiot.”

She sat down on the mattress and pulled the blanket in tight, but she couldn’t pull her attentions away from the door. It seemed to radiate some kind of paralyzing fear, drilling it into her. The bread all over again, only she couldn’t rip the door from its hinges and drown it in a basin of soapy water. She forced herself to blink when her eyes grew too dry.

She refused to let herself climb from the bed, refused to fall victim to another wild trick of her mind, but the more she denied it, the heavier the feeling grew. It drove her to her feet where she hurriedly dressed and grabbed a carry bag large enough to shove some clothes in. She wrestled crazily into her jacket and shoes and threw the door open, stopping cold against whatever strange thing drove her.

She wasn’t a headless bird. She was Taite Wyllturn and she had raised her siblings and cared for a dying father. All responsible things. She was responsible. She stepped backward into the room and forced herself against every nerve in her body to close the door and lock it again.

She moved back and lowered to the corner of the bed. What was she thinking? She had no place to go but where she was. She understood how insane it was to consider leaving and she took some comfort in having the willpower to stick to what was responsible. But she couldn’t crawl under the covers again, and she couldn’t stop staring at the stupid door.

 

***

 

“What do you mean you found one but lost her?” Aiden huffed, hardly able to grasp what Blaine had just said. His brother stood in front of him, drenched in shadow except where firelight washed over his clothing and face.

“What part about it do you not understand?” Blaine said, his eyes narrowing as if he had a right to be upset.

“All of it,” Aiden said. “And don’t be smart about it.”

“Of course, I wouldn’t want to outsmart you and your brilliance. At least I found one, so we know they are here in this city.”

“Or were six hours ago,” Aiden huffed.

“Enough.”

Aiden turned to glare at Guardsman Lev, struggling against the irritation he felt toward him. Lev was supposed to be good at what he did, certainly good enough to catch a girl.

“Enough what?” Aiden said.

“Enough of your arguing, and enough of your voice,” Valentar said. “I already have a headache and neither of you two have discussed the fact she obviously sensed something. They are Brye Annis, isn’t it possible she sensed Blaine?”

“Then why run?” Blaine said.

“Two hulking men peering at a young woman through falling raindrops of a storm in the middle of a city,” Odelia said from her spot under the rain canopy by the fire. “Now why would that cause a young woman any kind of apprehension?”

“They weren’t suppose to be seen,” Aiden grumbled. He turned his back on the goddess again. She’d been quiet for most of the trip down from their homeland, but when she did speak, it was always to prove how incapable or stupid they were. He didn’t care if she had over six hundred years of age on them, she didn’t have the real-world experience he did.

“She shouldn’t have noticed us,” Valentar said. “That is my point. The street was full of people and transports, enough chaos, and we were both in the shadows. Despite all that, she stopped and looked right at us.”

“And then she ran away,” Aiden said. “And now we’re right back where we started.”

“No,” Blaine said and tossed a bit of bread up into the tree that had helped shelter them from the rain. Aiden glared at his brother and then the fur-ball critter he fed. The night was too dark for him to tell what sat on the low limb, but if it moved to go after him, he would turn it into a torch.

“No what?” Aiden said. “She didn’t run away?”

Blaine sighed. “We’re not right back where we started. She came out of an employment place. Apparently she’s looking for paying work and they told me she was Miss Wyllturn but wouldn’t give me a first name or location without my giving them all my information.”

“Wyllturn?” Aiden wrinkled his nose and shook his head. It sounded so unimpressive. “Are you sure it was her name or will we find some plump old lady when we go searching for Miss Wyllturn?”

“Don’t you wish,” Blaine said with a grin and tossed another bit of bread up to the fur-ball. “Yes, I’m sure, she was the only young girl in there so unless the person I talked to was blind, he couldn’t mix her up with anyone else.”

“Then what are we doing here? There has to be a dozen ale houses to mention the name at.”

“Tried,” Blaine said.

“A handful,” Valentar added.

“And?” Aiden eyed the tree again. The furry critter skittered across a lower limb, hidden by the fire lit layer of leaves that fluttered in the turbulence created by smoke and heat.

“And we got nothing. She didn’t strike me as the type to visit ale houses,” Blaine said.

Valentar sighed and straightened his shoulders.

Aiden eyed the big warrior. “What? You don’t agree with him?”

“I agree fully.”

“Then what was the sigh for?”

Valentar pinned him under his heavy gaze again. “We’ve not found anything but this one clue, yet Kira mentioned siblings, plural. Probably three. When Blaine mentioned Wyllturn at the smaller tavern we entered…” Valentar shrugged.

Tree leaves rustled and Aiden ducked, turning to glare up at the fur-ball in the tree. It had jumped from one limb to another, closer to him.

“Relax,” Blaine said. “It’s just a squirrel.”

“It’ll be a fried squirrel if it doesn’t stay away from me,” Aiden said. He’d been the victim of too many pranks from the animals Blaine befriended. “I thought you said you got nothing from the taverns.”

“We didn’t,” Blaine said and threw a piece of bread straight up to his new friend.

Aiden glared at his brother then turned his attention to Valentar. “The shrug?”

“It wasn’t what was said, but what wasn’t and what they did.”

“What who did?” Blaine asked and looked at Valentar.

“That second group of younger men,” Valentar said. “You didn’t notice how quickly they quieted when you mentioned Wyllturn?”

Blaine contemplated Valentar a minute and popped a piece of bread into his mouth. “And here I thought that was just because they spotted you.”

Valentar smirked. “Funny, I got the feeling they took notice of the name and consciously made an effort to deny knowing it.” He strode toward the fire and stooped to sit beneath the canopy near it with Odelia.

“So they did know it,” Aiden said. “Who were they?”

He looked at his brother then back at Valentar. Neither acknowledged his question. Blaine finished his bread and shifted his position against the old stump he had claimed as a chair. Aiden shook his head in disgust and returned to his bedroll by the fire where he’d been when the two came in with their news of losing the girl. The search for the Brye Annis siblings had seemed impossible, especially after a scouring of nearly seven-dozen cities had turned up nothing. Now, all of them were exhausted, frustrated, and hearing of a possible lead should have been a good thing.

“Would you please tell me why a group of young men having put an effort into appearing they didn’t know a name might help us,” Odelia said though she didn’t move at all. Her fingers remained clasped on the edges of the blanket she held around herself. Of all of them, she was the one most uncomfortable. The gods had a city with comforts even Aiden wasn’t accustomed to, so she was far more uprooted from her life than he and Blaine and even Valentar. Valentar though, as much as Aiden hated to admit it, had been on quests and had even fought in battles for the time he had been on Neridu’s west shore up until several months ago.

“I would love to share, Odelia, but I haven’t yet worked it all out in my own mind,” Valentar said, staring into the flames. “I have to ask myself why they would deny knowing the name when they obviously did. Is it because they believe they were protecting them? And if so, that means they expect someone might be looking for them. Probably not us. But then who? And I ask myself if the same thing that’s brought us to look for them would cause others to hunt them for an entirely different reason. Or it’s possible it’s something totally innocent.”

Aiden scrubbed his brow. Valentar didn’t talk a lot, but when he did, he managed to make Aiden’s brain hurt. For being such a tough warrior, he had a knack for thinking about tangled up ideas, which he then seemed to untangle.

“So who are these young men and how do we find them again to pressure them into telling us what they do know?” Aiden said. The solution seemed very simple to him. A few threats, a show of something bursting to flame, and they would talk.

“If we push too hard, it might cause your cousins to go into hiding,” Valentar said. “We know nothing of these people other than that they are descended from Tarenek. From what we know of him…”

“From what I know of him,” Odelia said, “he was a very intelligent and insightful man, amazingly so.”

“Great,” Aiden grumbled. “So if they know they are being looked for, they could vanish on us. Spirits, that’s just terrific.”

“We can’t fumble this,” Blaine said quietly from his place in the shadows.

“I didn’t fumble this. I would’ve caught her,” Aiden said, still not able to grasp how his brother and the big-bad-warrior had let a girl give them the slip.

A stinging sprinkle of ice flew out of the darkness and slapped Aiden’s face. He jumped up, shocked from the attack and shot a concentrated bolt of heat from his fingertips. Dry leaves covering the stump Blaine sat on burst into flame. Blaine flew out of his seat, cursing at him. Aiden smiled. For as uncomfortable as cold could make a person, fire was so much more potent.

Valentar and Odelia both moaned.

After a moment, when Aiden was certain Blaine wouldn’t push things any further, he settled down on his bedroll.

“Tomorrow,” Valentar said quietly, “Odelia and I will return to the city.”

“You need at least one of us,” Blaine said, brushing the ash from his seat.

“He is correct,” Odelia said to Valentar.

The sounds of the night crept in, the creak of sleeping trees, the popping of the flames, and the hum of insects.

“I’ll go this time,” Aiden said and rolled onto his side, tucking one hand under his cheek.

“We’ll all go,” Valentar said finally. “Two teams. Blaine with me.”

Aiden cringed at that. Valentar with Blaine hadn’t been the best at taking care of anything, but Aiden decided to argue the point come morning. He took in a deep cleansing breath and closed his eyes.

Leaves rattled overhead and something hard smacked Aiden’s temple. He bolted up, whirling around to catch whoever had hit him, but everyone was where they had been. He sat back and spotted the acorn on his bedroll. He picked it up and glared at the tree, sure the fur-ball was there mocking him. He made a big show of tossing the acorn into the fire before he stretched out again.

Blaine chuckled quietly.

 

 

 

Chapter Three

 

 

Taite bolted from her bed, startled by the thundering crash of sound. Her eyes barely caught the blur of dark figures when she was grabbed and slammed face down on the bed. She coughed in surprise, her mind snapping to alertness. Something wrapped painfully around her wrists. She stared at her rumpled blanket, struggling for unobstructed breaths, not comprehending what was happening at all. But she wasn’t sleeping, not like before. This was real.

“Taite Wyllturn,” a gruff male voice said. “You are under arrest for malicious endangerment.”

“Malicious, what? What’s going on?”

Someone grabbed her hair at the back of her head and wrenched her up so painfully she coughed on a scream. Her bleary vision cleared just enough for her to see two men with laser pistols aimed straight at her.

“No, wait, what’s happening? What are you doing? Stop,” Taite said. “Please.”

“Think you can get away with poisoning our people,” a man growled in her ear. “Well, we’ve got other plans for you, we know you did it and we don’t treat that kindly.”

“Poisoning?” Taite mumbled and cried out when he slammed her against the wall. Two sets of hands rummaged through her coat, over her clothes, over every inch of her. Tears burned in her eyes. She couldn’t move, couldn’t stop them, couldn’t escape, and the sudden thought struck her that she should have left, should have listened to her crazy mind and vanished in the night.

“Shut your mouth, wench, we don’t care to listen to your lies.”

“Lies, how can I lie when I don’t know what’s going on?”

The man rewarded her with a sharp shove into another wall. She winced from the crack to her forehead and stumbled helplessly down the hall, being dragged when she lost her footing.

“I didn’t do anything,” she cried out, but then realized how pathetic it sounded even though it was the truth. The truth obviously wasn’t what these people were looking for. She had no idea what they wanted or would even do with her. A sharp spark of confused fear slammed through her. She wanted to scream for help, but people were standing just outside their doors watching, none moving to help her, but all glaring at her.

The men wrenched her through the main entrance and into a barely risen morning. Dew clung to every drop of air, instantly chilling her face and neck. Her fingers tingled with numbness from the tight restraints. She struggled to pull her arms into a more comfortable position only to be jerked harder and her wrists twisted until she couldn’t stop the cry of pain.

“That’s right, wench, suffer, suffer like you’ve made the people.”

Taite bit her lip, determined not to cry. They had the wrong person and somehow she had to convince them so. There had to be a way. If only she had listened and run while night was still thick, when the sudden urge to do so had plagued her. She had been so stupid for not listening to her inner notions. Then another thought pierced her. If the strange fear toward the door hadn’t been wrong…what was wrong with the bread?

Her long hair fell loose around her face as the men dragged her to the main street. The sidewalks were clear of all but a few people, the streets amazingly quiet. Taite glanced at the buildings but kept her head down, her thoughts churning. She needed help but knew no one to ask. And not even Rylan could rescue her from the Sovereign and Governor.

 

***

 

Aiden awoke to a sharp punch in the stomach. He raised his hand, ready to blast the attacker away, but found only the rough canvas of his travel bag. He glanced over the smoking coals of the faded fire, the trampled earth around it, and found Odelia in the same state of awkward wakefulness. He doubted he looked as fresh and unfrazzled as she did with her silken blond hair and pale skin that never seemed to get dirty. He wrestled his sore and still sluggish body to rise up on his knees. Blaine stood near his stump seat, rubbing his face and shoving his hands through his hair. In another once over of everything, Aiden found Valentar leaning against a tree, watching all of them. He alone looked fully awake.

“What’s the deal?” Aiden said, holding his pack out to the guardsman, figuring he was the one who had tossed it.

Valentar finished chewing something and spit a seed to the side. “Time to move.”

“Oh really?” Aiden climbed unsteadily to his feet. “Since when do you say what and when?”

“Since now.”

Aiden frowned.

“Give it up, brother,” Blaine said. “He’s more qualified than both of us.”

“Speak for yourself,” Aiden said. He faced the guardsman again. “You are only to help us, we’re the lead.”

“You didn’t find her,” Valentar said and smirked. “I did.”

“What?” Blaine blurted.

“Oh thank the spirits, tell me where and how soon we can gather them and leave,” Odelia said.

Aiden studied the guardsman. “Where?”

“I went back to where we saw her yesterday, last night when the streets were empty. She leaned against the bricks when she spotted us. Took me a few hours but I managed to follow her trail. She was smart and not afraid to run with the rats.”

“And,” Aiden said, annoyed by the guardsman’s obnoxious habit of letting things hang. Still, he sensed it wasn’t so easy as going in to talk to her and bring her out. Valentar was too glum for it to be so simple.

“And… I found a little boarding house, figured she was probably inside somewhere.”

Odelia finished filling her travel bag with the few things she carried and picked her way around the sticks and low-growing foliage to stand beside Valentar.

“So, we go, we find the room, we get her and she can tell us where her siblings are,” Aiden said.

Valentar shook his head. “I found the room.”

“All the better,” Odelia said.

“I wasn’t the first to find her.”

There it was, the glitch Aiden had sensed, the thing that scrubbed everything far away from easy. He dropped his bag at his feet and sighed. Blaine strode a few steps away, his cloak shrouding him in brown just a shade lighter than the tree trunks.

“So who found her and what do we have to do to get her back?” Aiden asked, not at all sure he wanted to hear the answer, but they had no choice. Blaine was right with his statement the night before. They couldn’t mess up.

“From what I could figure, they were the Sovereign’s lawmen.”

Aiden clenched his eyes closed. Things couldn’t get any worse than that. “All right, so we go in, blow them up, get her out. Simple. Let’s go.” He strode forward but stopped when no one moved to follow him.

Blaine regarded him with a faint smirk.

“What?” Aiden said.

Valentar raised his brows as if shrugging. “It’s a big continent.”

“Meaning what?”

“Meaning, brother, if we go in there and blow them up, we’ll also be hunted. This is a big continent so there are a lot of miles we would have to run just to get north, all of them while being pursued. Then there’s that little fact of her being only one of a trio. So if we end up on the law’s wanted list, we most likely won’t have time to seek out the other two. Not to mention, maybe we should find out what it is exactly she did to get herself in that position.” Blaine looked at Valentar

“Poisoning,” Valentar said.

Aiden tossed his bag down again. Poisoning very likely meant murder and murder was something no one tolerated. His stomach pitched at the knowledge they had found a lost descendant of the great Tarenek Brye Annis only to find her tarnishing his name, his memory. Anger flared and he decided right then to finish her off himself.

“I don’t think she did it,” Valentar added softly. “Not the way she was acting.”

“Oh, come on,” Aiden groaned. “People always shout their innocence when they’re as guilty as the sun is of shining.”

“Exactly,” Valentar said.

Aiden huffed and glared up at the small pieces of dim morning sky visible through the tallest branches and leaves. His companions were impossible.

“What does that mean exactly?” Aiden asked, hating himself as he forced the question to sound from his lips.

“She was confused, shocked, and claimed her innocence once. After that, she asked them to stop, to clarify the charge and was more stunned than I was when they mentioned poisoning.”

“You were close enough to hear?” Odelia asked.

“I was in the shadows just a few steps away in the corner of another door,” Valentar said. “I was tempted to step in, but, like Blaine pointed out, that might have made things much more difficult. So one of us needs to stay and keep an eye on her, make sure they don’t do anything stupid like execute her, and the rest of us need to find the other two.”

“And how do we do that?” Aiden said. “Doesn’t fix her being imprisoned.”

Valentar sighed and walked past Blaine. He mumbled something to him, then continued down the path to the city of Cystal. Odelia obediently followed, though only because she wanted to because Odelia didn’t listen to anyone but herself.

Aiden draped the strap of his pack over his shoulder again. “Thinks he knows it all,” he grumbled, “and he can’t even think past the point of what we do when we find the other two.”

Blaine patted his shoulder. “Aiden, Aiden, Aiden. Of course he’s thought past that point, but it’s already been discussed. We find them all, then we break her out of prison and run with their lawmen on our tails all the way home. Simple, just like you like it.” He smiled and headed off after Odelia.

Aiden swallowed the sour taste of frustration and glared after Blaine, wishing just the thought of him bursting into flame was enough to scorch him.

 

***

 

Shani tucked Nanni’s blanket tighter around her frail shoulders and smoothed the little girl’s hair back from her fever soaked cheeks before she stepped away. Several of the children she had tended had made full recoveries, but as she moved now through the other two rooms, there were still so many who were gravely ill. Shani squeezed out a fresh washcloth, soaking it in the herbal waters, certain it had helped the children she had tended the last few days. She didn’t know the small boy’s name, and he was far too ill to speak. She sat on the edge of his cot and gently wiped the warm, spicy-scented cloth over his chest and worked down both arms before wiping his neck, face, and smoothing his hair back from his brow to hold her hand there.

He still felt so impossibly warm. She closed her eyes and ached with the need to take it all away, to find whatever was making them ill and banish it before it took another life. It had claimed too many already.

The boy gasped a loud inhale, startling Shani. She jolted back, shocked to find him looking at her.

“It’s all right,” she said softly. She folded the cloth and pressed it to his forehead. “You’ll be all right.”

He blinked several times, then closed his eyes again. Shani sat with him a moment longer, counting out the beat of his pulse. It seemed stronger, but she figured it might have been because he awoke. She hoped it was a good sign and carefully stood to move on to the next child. She had just squeezed out a fresh washcloth when shouts sounded from the stairs; awful, angry shouts.

Shani dropped the cloth back into the water and rushed from the room, intent on keeping the chaos from reaching the children’s rooms and upsetting them. She hurried down the hallway, past the other two caretakers who stood at the other doors. Both glanced at her, but neither were good at acting without being told. Shani figured the approaching ruckus wasn’t any different. She reached the stairs just as two hulking men rounded the corner.

“Shani Wyllturn?” one demanded.

“Don’t you dare!” Delphie cried from behind them. “Don’t touch her.”

Shani stumbled a step back and stared up into the angry face of one huge man.

“Answer my question! Are you Shani Wyllturn?”

Shani tried to look past him to Delphie but the second man kept the older woman blocked. “What… What’s going on?” Shani asked, forcing the words and hoping they would hear her despite her naturally quiet voice.

He grabbed her arms and shoved her back against the wall. Shani yelped in surprise of the instant, painful restraint. “I will not ask again. Your name. Now!”

His breath stank of unbrushed teeth, and the purple veins in his heavily muscled neck bulged. He wore some sort of uniform of dark blue and coarse fabric.

“Are you Shani Wyllturn?”

“I—what’s this concerning?”

He spun her around and slammed her face-first into the wall. She turned her head, wincing when the wall bruised her cheekbone. “It’s concerning your arrest,” the man growled in her ear, “for conspiracy, endangerment, and murder.”

Shani coughed on a breath, not able to take in enough, both from his brutal pressure and from shock.

“She did no such thing!” Delphie yelled, still fighting with the other man.

“Keep it up lady, and you’ll be going with her!”

“Delphie,” Shani squeaked. “Delphie, stop,” she begged even as tears filled her eyes. It was all one giant mistake, but she couldn’t risk them taking Delphie too, the people needed the healer. Shani stumbled when the man wrenched her back from the wall and dragged her toward the stairs.

“No—no you can’t be serious. You can’t take her,” Delphie said, moving to the side, her eyes wide beneath her disheveled hair. “Shani, honey.” She reached out for Shani, but the men pulled her past Delphie too quickly.

“It’s all right. It’ll be all right, just a mistake,” Shani said.

“We don’t make mistakes,” the gruff man said and shook her, knocking her down a couple steps but holding her upright by her wrists and wrenching her shoulders. Shani bit her lip, determined to hold in the pain and cries.

“Justar, how could you,” Delphie said and exhaled a sob.

“How could I not?”

Shani twisted around to see the man, the same man she had come with Delphie to help.

“She healed those children because she did whatever it is that made them ill! They’ve investigated her and her sister. Both have a hand in this.”

“Taite?” Shani said, more than surprised. She had no idea where her sister had gone after Shani left to apprentice under Delphie. They had been in Darsen, a small village several hundred miles away, at the time, but she hadn’t known anything more than that her two siblings were nomads and never stayed in one place too long.

“Don’t act surprised,” the man grumbled in her ear. “We don’t fall for acts, no matter how pretty the face.”

Shani struggled to move her feet fast enough to stay upright and not suffer another yank on her wrists, but he shoved her along, toward a dark, angry-looking transport with a small closed cart attached to its back. He hauled her over the cobblestone street to that cart, snapped the double doors open, and tossed her in. Shani landed hard on her already aching shoulder, the jarring forcing a cry from her lips. Then the doors slammed, everything turned blacker than night, and the floor shuddered beneath her, moving her away from everything she knew.

 

***

 

Rylan stared at Wylie, sure he hadn’t heard him correctly.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Wylie grumbled. “I’m more sober than I’ve been in the past week, and I swear to you, I know what I saw and heard.”

“Taite and Shani,” Rylan whispered, glancing out over the dim street. Night had settled in hours ago but Cystal still buzzed with transports and people all highlighted by the orange glow of the tall solar street lamps. In fact, the city got noisier when the sun set, allowing for the unsavory to come out and play while their identities were hidden in shadow, much like his. He tipped his wide-brimmed hat a little lower on his brow and straightened the high collar of his coat. He’d heard through a friend of a friend that someone had been asking about a Wyllturn at a tavern just a day or so ago, and now Wylie was telling him he had witnessed an arrest and heard of another.

“How are Shani and Taite even here?” Rylan said, more to himself than to the skinny straw of a man beside him.

“How am I supposed to know?” Wylie complained. “All I know is that I’ve seen Taite around, can’t miss her. She’s gorgeous. Haven’t seen Shani though, but I heard the warrant announced and Parsen saw them drag a young gal in the same doors they took Taite through this morning.”

Rylan swallowed the sour taste building in his mouth. He didn’t ask about the warrants, didn’t need to. He knew his sisters, and neither of them would ever do anything that could land them in trouble. He was the only one of the three who had ever tested those boundaries, even when they were starving. Taite once even went so far as to refuse to eat the food he managed to swipe from a baker’s window when they’d gone without anything for three days.

“Where in the building?” Rylan asked, keeping his gaze steady on the gravel at his feet.

“What? Who cares, people who go in don’t come out.”

Rylan straightened his shoulders. “Exactly why I need to know exactly where they’re holding them.” He looked up at Wylie’s slack-jawed face. “Close the yap before you swallow a bug and tell me.”

“How the gods am I supposed to know? What part of ‘don’t come out’ did you not hear?”

Rylan grinned at the man. “There’s always a first. They have an underground type of holding, don’t they? So there are ground level windows, right?”

“Nothing big enough to crawl through, they’re barred so tight you can hardly see in,” Wylie said. “The rats like them just fine though.”

Rylan shoved his fists deep into his coat pockets, hating the thought of either of his sisters crawling with rats. He nodded and walked away.

“Hey,” Wylie called, stopping him. “What are you going to do?”

Rylan regarded the man with a quick glance. “What I do best,” he said and continued on his way.

 

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