Chapter 1: Among The Ashes
And now there was no more screaming. Where there had once been laughter, joy, and love, there remained only silence and death.
The fallen world tree lay on her side, most of her ribs reduced to ash. In the shadow of her last standing piece—the trunk—stood Ramses Saracen-Jormundyrr, mage and teacher; the loved and the lost. He reached up, delicately, slowly, and brushed his fingers against the blackened wood. Too fragile for even that, the trunk crumbled in a cloud of ash and soot, staining his skin and black robes a washed-out grey.
He stood in the dust, hand still out-stretched. Tears ran down his cheeks freely, without sob or grimace. A stale wind pushed in from the east, ruffling his short black hair. As his fringe of bangs buffeted out, they revealed his docked ears which had once been cut to resemble a human’s. His brown eyes stared, full of some tired, unreadable sadness.
He knelt and laid his palm against the black earth. “And so ends the Time of Sleep, and all the lazy days that have previously passed without fear or grief. Goodbye, Rumiko, my old friend, may your dreams be sweet and full of spring’s soft perfume. The greatest pain is always reserved for those left behind, isn’t it? And who will be our Goddess now, I wonder? Your daughter, as we so often speculated—or even your long-lost son, as he clings to life in that world we cannot reach? Goodbye, goodbye.” As he moved his hand over the crumbling coals, something caught his eye. A small green seed sat innocently in the dark dust, its case shining in the weak and watery sun.
“From life, so comes death…and from death, so comes life.” He smiled, and there were no lines to guess his age by. Only the black rings in his drowning brown eyes seemed to give some semblance of time passed, memories shared, grief given, and joy stolen. “Welcome, welcome, little one. Welcome, and goodbye; for I will surely see you perish, as I have seen all your sisters do before you.”
He grasped the soil and raised his palm, trailing dust, and felt the seed with his thumb. A gift for Ryoko, I think. She will be pleased to know there is life still in this desolate place. With care he picked his way out of the crumbling temple complex, and trudged up the hill behind what was left of the main building.
The view lay out below him in a wide valley. What had once been the prosperous and green Ricazon Jungle, was now no more than ash, rubble, and standing skeletons of trees that had been petrified by the fire. The whole land in every direction was desolate, dry, and smoking. Only the Ricazon River showed any flash of color; filled with silt and soot it flashed silver in the distance. There was no more forest, only the broken bones of one. The place that had been home to the kitsune people since the dawning of the Second Age of the first Cycle was gone, nothing remained but scorched buildings and broken hearts.
Of course, the origin of the fire was not in question. It had been started by Lavosier StSyrr, Ramses’ old master and a powerful mage. With this horrendous act, there could be no doubt; he had returned, and the game he now played was all or nothing, his rule or death. At the closing of life of the very last tree, Lavosier had gathered his first victory. His second had been erupting the volcano Ashevein above the island city bearing the same name, halfway around the world.
Ramses kicked the dirt, furious that he had not known soon enough to change anything. But that’s just hollow, righteous anger, isn’t it? You wouldn’t dare stand in his way, and you know it. His eyes swept the smoking landscape, finally resting on the black Moon City helicopter that perched by the riverbank.
Jamie Peterson, a long-time friend of his, had insisted on coming out himself to survey the damage. He stood on the slope of the hill with his pink-haired secretary, Annie, making tight, angry faces at the scene around him. He waved with a tired hand, calling the mage down.
Ramses trudged down the hill, the cloth-of-gold runic trim on his robes and academic hood shining dully. Overhead, dark clouds covered the pale sun. By the time he’d reached the helicopter it was starting to rain.
“Did you find anything?” Jamie ducked his head a little as Annie opened a wide umbrella, holding it over him. The see-through plastic rattled with droplets, the loudest sound in the valley.
“No, it’s the same everywhere. Master didn’t spare any details this time.”
“What do you mean?”
“During the first Great War he commanded armies against one another for his pleasure, and raped a great deal of the land on Sentir. It’s why the eastern forest is so small—the soil quality is poor—and why the rest of the country is mostly barren plain. He didn’t dare touch Oesta, as you know, since that was his home.”
“I see. That’s why we had to negotiate a trade contract with you and the Council for imported grains and meats, because your country is rich in goods.”
They watched the grey landscape in silence for a while. Jamie molded his face with his hands and gave a deep sigh. “Well? What do you think?” There were very few physical signs of weariness about him, except for his turned-in posture and the slow way his eyes surveyed the horizon.
Ramses slipped the seed into one of the inner pockets of his black robes. “In fifty years, if Master does nothing else, the forest will return. Will it be the same? I’m not sure.”
“How can it come back after such a harsh fire?”
Down the valley, a white hare streaked with black soot lifted her head and stared at them. She blinked her green eyes at them, unafraid. Next to her another hare rose, this one with blue eyes. They watched the two-legged strangers, and then raced away, disappearing into the smoke. Somewhere, a bird of prey screamed. A hiss nearby, a crackle of burnt leaves, and the distinctive smell of sulfur told Ramses that a fire salamander was burrowing under the debris.
“Life…finds a way,” he said. “It might not be the life we expect, but hurts heal, wounds close, and the earth…well, she moves on.” He fingered the seed in his pocket, and the smooth casing felt good on his skin.
“And what about Lavosier? He’s not finished.”
“No, you’re right. This is the least of what he’ll do.”
“We have to stop him.” Jamie grated his tongue with his teeth, voice deep with determination and rage. “It’s his fault that Rumiko—”
Ramses knew better than to slap him; it would only hurt his hand. Instead, he reached up and yanked on the taller man’s ponytail. “Hey, listen to me. Don’t go acting like an idiot; you’ll only get yourself killed, or worse. You don’t know my Master, you don’t have any idea what he’s capable of.”
“And this isn’t enough?” He pointed at the valley around them. “Why can’t I gather my soldiers, find this asshole, and beat the sorry out of him? Hmm? Give me one good reason why I can’t do that—and it can’t be something religious, like it’s Fate or Destiny!”
Ramses shuddered. “Can we not talk about them, please?”
“Oh, no, I’m not letting you get away without an explanation this time. You’ve kept too many secrets for too long, and thanks to your Master my son and my—”
“Your what? Your lover, your secret affair with Rumiko, your…animal?”
Jamie grabbed him by the front of his robes, long fingers twisting in the soft cloth. “Enough. Ramses. Or I will break you.”
“Ha! Go ahead and try, Peterson! It’ll take, what, three minutes—tops—for me to reanimate? You know you can’t kill me; my bond with Ryoko, and Kris through her, prevents that.”
“Are you saying he’s alive, then?”
“No, I’m just stating the facts.” He sighed, and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Alright, I’ll explain. Just let go of me.” Once free, he smoothed down his front and regarded Moon City’s leader with a perusing gaze. But the you that I see isn’t what everyone else sees, is it? Sometimes I wish I could get rid of this troublesome True Sight, if only so I could finally hang mirrors in my house again. True Sight had been an added gift when he had taken the Headmaster’s position at Autumn Academy. Once he had attained a certain level of power there, well, nothing looked the same anymore. His vision had been forever altered, forever forcing him to see people and things as they truly were, their real essences. Jamie, why is it whenever I look at you I see my brother Alecto? Was he a previous life for you, or do you share a piece of his soul? Your hair in long braids, pointed ears like mine used to be, and a calm visage that creates a sea of ease about you… But it’s only in photographs that I can see what you think you look like; shorter of hair, filled with metal and wires, and oh, so human, so painfully, mortally human.
“I’ll be concise; if you go to war, who will help the people? Who will protect them, see that they are fed and healed? There’s only one person with enough influence, resources, and manpower to do that, and that’s you.”
“He’s right, sir,” Annie said softly.
“You think so?”
Jamie passed a hand over his face, and looked up into the sky through the umbrella. “How bad is it going to get, and how long do we have?”
He gestured to the valley. “As bad as this, or worse. And I don’t know. Six months or less.”
“Why that amount of time?”
“Master enjoys causing others suffering. I’m certain he’s going to want to prolong it for the rest of us, so I say six months of giddy enjoyment from finally being out of the closet and then he gets down to serious business.”
“Only a whole season…damn. You know him best, any suggestions?”
“Run, hide, save as many as you can. Not just humans, but the other races, too, and as many plants and animals that you can get your hands on.”
“And then what?”
“Get underground.” He drew his outer robe around his shoulders as the damp finally soaked his skin. “Ryoko told me every detail about her journey to the Saracen Kingdom. The power source my Mother’s people relied on seems to still be there. I can’t guarantee much, but digging deep appears to be your best option.”
“That’s no way to live.”
“It’s not about living. You’ve been in the trenches before, in the Sixth Age during the territory wars, and later, before you made peace with the centaurs on Sheerwind Plateau. Get into place early, choose your spot, dig a foxhole, survive. I sat through some of those long nights with you, do you remember? Back when I thought the good old days were gone for good, and that the future would be built on computers and electric lights.”
“Rumiko changed all that.”
“That she did. You make your preparations, and I’ll find the hidden Doors that will lead you down. Alright?”
“Mm. What about the Academy? Surely you don’t mean to go on teaching?”
“I do. The school is the safest place right now. It’s protected by all the spells I’ve been weaving into it for the last few thousand years, the other teachers, Master’s actual fondness of the place, and myself. We’ll be alright, trust me.”
“Why does it make me nervous when you say that?”
“Oh, shut up.”
“All joking aside, you’re sure about this? About what he’ll do?”
“Then who is going to stop him?”
Ramses looked to the east. Beyond the valley, beyond the river that ran to the sea, and beyond that were the two people he knew he had to trust. To each of us his own duty, and for each duty, the courage to see it through. “You know the answer to that. Come on, let’s go. I’m sick of looking at this place.”
“If you insist.”
They all climbed back into the helicopter, and the bird took off with an air of regretful care, hovering near the earth as if to say, “Do we really want to go, can we really leave this place to its fate?”
Jamie tapped the pilot’s shoulder. “Get a move on.”
The craft dipped and swung about, heading west. Ramses looked back through the open door at his side. Far below the river wound through the landscape as though someone had dropped a silver ribbon. He sighed, pulling the door closed, and tucked his hands into his sleeves. Tilting his chin to his chest, he closed his eyes.
From the ground, the hares watched the machine speed off. When it was out of sight they changed form into a pair of magnificent black stags with shining obsidian horns. The blue-eyed stag bucked, tossing her head. She sprinted lightly up the hill, and waited for her mate. He plodded stately up to stand beside her. Then, in perfect sync, they raced down the other side, their tracks leaving little bluets and tiny desert roses behind.
Chapter 2: Blue Horizon
A cormorant cried out and dove, its black body slicing easily through the sapphire waters of the Sornian Sea. It emerged with a flashing silver fish in its beak. Gulping the fish down, it stared impassively at the Silver Harpy as the two-masted schooner cut through the water.
Sparkling light shone off the barnacled hull, and on James Hyde’s skin. A young man of nearly fifteen, his newly-trimmed blond curls framed his young, heart-shaped face. He kneaded the railing with his fingers, expression troubled and full of worry.
“What’cha thinking about?” Shelly slid into position next to him, flute bouncing in its case at her side. Her fiery curls danced, pushed forward by the wind.
He sighed. “Ryoko, Lavosier, everything.”
“Is she awake yet?”
“No, the Healer’s with her now. He said—”
“James!” Captain Shoal Crete hailed him from low poop deck. His navy blue coat fluttered out, white trim stark against the expensive cloth.
“I’ll be right there! Sorry, Shelly.”
“It’s fine.” She watched him go.
He took deep gulps of warm, sea-spiced air as he climbed the few steps to the poop. “Yes, sir?”
Shoal shook his head. “What am I going to do with you?”
“Sure, you do your chores well enough, but I’ve seen enough more than enough moping out of you. Perhaps we could—”
“Captain.” Two crewmen approached. One was Collie, the first mate. His thin black beard was getting a little long on the chin, and his three-cornered hat was pushed back to show his open face and glittering, mischievous eyes.
“The Healer here has news for you and the boy there, an’ then I’ve got some news of my own.” He jerked his thumb in the direction of the other man, the Silver Harpy’s Healer, Shinn.
“Well?” Shoal stepped back and let Collie take the wheel. He glanced at James’ anxious face.
Shinn bobbed his head, hair falling into his eyes. He wore a clean, but stained, white tunic, and he looked as though he hadn’t been eating properly. “I’ll cut right to the chase, then. The Princess—I mean, Queen, is awake now, and—”
James didn’t wait for him to finish, but pelted down the steps and the ladder below it, eager to be at Ryoko’s side. He sidestepped sleepy pirates and burst into one of two main living cabins at the back of the ship. “Ryoko?”
A deep plush carpet with a geometric design covered the floor, and a row of well-sealed glass windows on the rear wall let in a swath of honeyed light. A basin, table, wardrobe, and mirror lined the back wall, and there were two double beds, both on the port side. One was normally occupied by Shelly, the other by him and Ryoko. It was to the last bed that he turned now, black eyes desperate for some sign of life from his dearest companion.
He kicked off his boots and crawled across the sheets to take her hand. “Ryoko, can you hear me?”
Her eyelids fluttered open, and she looked lazily about, finally focusing on him. Lifting her left arm, she brushed his cheek. Those sapphire eyes stared out, so tired, so wearied. The edges of her lips lifted in a faint smile. “Is this…a dream?”
“No, I’m here.” He squeezed her fingers. “I’m here.” With care he reached over to a shelf, taking down a clean washcloth. He passed it over her face, pushing back the rebellious tendrils of clumped black hair. And, like he did each time, he silently marveled over her dark skin, and the tone of his own hand; so pale. “You’ve been out for a long time. Even the Captain was beginning to worry about you. But I told everyone that you’d wake up, I did…” He pressed her fingers to his mouth, squeezing his eyes shut. Tears dampened his lashes. “I really did.”
“Shh.” She pulled him down to lay beside her, one hand entangling in his curls. “I know. Tell me—” She broke off, coughing. “Mm. What have I missed?”
He laid his head on the crook of her arm, drinking in the sound of her voice. Every night he had slept beside her, hoping against hope that the next day she would wake and rise, but it had never felt like this. Now he could feel her calm energy, her little shifts as her mind roused her body. “Two months ago we fled Ashevein on the crest of the volcano’s eruption. I…we were the last ones off the island, I think. Shoal was still waiting for us, thank the Goddess. We got away before it was too late, and made for a cluster of islands not too much farther south. We stayed there for quite a while; it seems Shoal had some administrative duties to take care of in the wake of the eruption; relaying orders, directing people and supplies. Even Jamie showed up, but you know what he’s like, and he was too busy for me to even tell him about you. Otherwise, I’m sure he would have visited. It was only recently that we were able to leave the situation in the care of others and begin our journey toward the City of Spring. We left port the day before yesterday.”
He looked up. “Don’t you remember?”
Her eyes narrowed, darkening. “You were in danger. I left with Raiden to give you time to escape with Cygnyt. That foolish ninja didn’t last long. He fell prey to man’s greatest weakness.”
He paled, sitting up. “You didn’t.”
“No, but I made him think that I would. That left him vulnerable, and open. His death was swift.” She turned a little, reaching up to her face. “Lavosier brought the mountain’s rage upon us, but not before he revealed himself to me.”
She bared her teeth, and growled. “I was no match for him.”
“Oh, Ryoko, I’m so sorry.”
“He told me…terrible things.”
“It’s alright, you don’t have to tell me.” He made to rise.
She grabbed his wrist. “One day, but not now.”
“What happened to Cygnyt? Is she here, too?”
—The cloak’s hood fell back to reveal Cygnyt, most of her face covered by the same sort of mark that still grew on his right hand. What he could see of her skin was lucid and pale, and though the burned hole gaped wide in her chest, some small part of her dead blue eyes looked at peace—
He balked at the memory, and turned his face away, choking down the grief that threatened. “Ryoko—” Somewhere above, on the poop deck, the schooner’s bell clanged, loud in the cabin’s relative silence. “That’s all hands on deck, I’ve got to go.”
“Tell the Captain.” She squeezed his right hand.
“I will.” He pulled it back, holding the cursed limb to his chest. “Don’t push yourself too hard.” With her nod he rushed from the room, finding his way by memory. The black skin on his right hand burned hot for a moment, and then the pain subsided. He pulled the bandages tighter, shoving the memories of Cygnyt, and the guilty feeling that he, somehow, hadn’t protected Ryoko well enough, away.
The main deck was a flurry of activity. Most of the crew not sleeping, or just recently roused from their naps, crowded at the port railing. James jogged lightly up to the poop, coming to a halt next to the Captain, Collie, and Shelly. “What’s going on?”
“That.” Collie nodded his head off the port bow, holding up a brass telescope. “See that patch of white yonder? That’s another ship’s sails, a sprite, if I’m any judge.”
“What kind of ship is that?” James asked.
Shoal turned the wheel. “A tiny pip of a thing, sort of a cross between a schooner and a galleon. They’re built small and fast, and they’re used mostly for fishing in the tricky spots. What’s one doing all the way out here?”
“Pirates?” Shelly asked, and then flushed scarlet when the men laughed. “Well, I mean, you know…”
Collie ruffled her hair. “You’d be half-right, gel.” He put the telescope up to his eyes again. “Cap’n, they’re flying a yellow flag, an’ I can’t see anyone else aboard. They’re standing.”
“Standing? Yellow sails?”
“That means they’re not moving.” Shoal gestured for Collie to take the wheel, and they exchanged places. “And the yellow flag belongs to the Coriander family. We had a trade agreement that ran out a few years back, but they haven’t been too much trouble.”
“Cap’n, think it’s what Peterson said?”
“Damn, I sure hope not.”
“What did Jamie say?” James leaned on the railing, trying to get a closer look as they approached. He looked back when neither man answered his question. “What?”
“It’s not important. Let’s get closer and see what we can see.”
Chapter 3: Usu’er-an
The blackened landscape spread out under them, divided by the silvery Ricazon River. From the air, its path to the sea could easily be seen, as it wound like a pale snake through the smoking dust.
Ramses hugged his arms tight, trying to block out the helicopter’s clatter as they sped toward the City of Summer. The air turbulence jostled him as he tried to sleep, squeezing his eyes shut. After what seemed like an eternity of rocking half-sleep, dreams took him.
Smoke clung to the ceiling, staining the stone with soot. His skinny little six year-old self huddled in the shadows of a side hallway. An open pair of double doors stood before him, the bloody figure of his mother sprawled across the threshold. His brown eyes were wide with overwhelming fear.
Someone raced down the main hall, their loud footsteps echoing off the rock. Alecto rounded the corner, black braids flying. “Ramses, Mother—!” He pressed a gauntleted fist to his mouth at the sight of Fatima’s body.
Ramses ran to his brother’s side, clutching onto his leg. He cried with wordless grief. Something shook him.
“I’ll protect you.”
Alecto’s voice and face blended into his waking sight. Jamie shook him again, one hand on Ramses’ knee. “Hey, wake up.”
“Mm, I’m here.” He rubbed his eyes. “How long was I out?”
“Just an hour or so, long enough for you to go into REM sleep, anyway.”
“Are we almost there?”
“Yeah. And you looked like you’d rather be awake.”
“Did I, now? That bad?”
“Well, you weren’t making any noise, but your face said it all. Dreaming about Ryoko?”
“I wish, sometimes thinking about her leaving me for Kris is less painful than reliving my past. I keep thinking about the fall of the Saracen Kingdom, about the night my family died…and Alecto…”
Jamie folded his arms, looking out the window. “Your brother, right? The second oldest?”
“Yes.” The one you remind me of; the same face…the same voice. “He knew about the Secret Door, the passageway out, to the surface. He took me to it, cut my ears so my race couldn’t be recognized by those who were set on slaughtering my kin, and…when he closed the passageway behind me; it was the last I ever saw of him. He saved my life that night, and I miss him.”
“Ah, I’m sorry to hear that.” Jamie leaned back in his specially-designed seat—any other wouldn’t fit his tall frame—and spoke into the button on his lapel. “What’s our status?”
“I’ve got the city in my sights, sir,” the pilot replied, his voice crackling over the intercom. “There seem to be some people milling about the wreckage, but other than that it doesn’t look good.”
“Understood. Find a safe place to land.”
Ramses leaned over, breath misting on the window. “Great Goddess,” he whispered. “Those poor people.”
The City of Summer, which had once appeared like the tip of a golden spear thrust up from the heart of the world, a pyramid city full of white-washed houses, golden roofs, and flashing fountains, was now no more than a crumbling, blackened ruin, its belly broken open, revealing a network of passages, living quarters, and bath houses. Not three hundred yards south of the city gates ran the river. It was on the earth in-between that the helicopter landed.
Jamie slid out first, then Annie, holding the umbrella over him. She stood close enough so that it kept her mostly dry as well. Ramses followed, looking a little apprehensive.
“Are you sure it’s a good idea for me to be here?”
“No, but I need you.”
He sighed. “Very well.”
They approached the gates. There were no soldiers on watch, as there should have been. Many kitsune sat propped against broken walls, staring at the rain with empty eyes. Others lay on singed blankets, wounds and burns wrapped clumsily in an assortment of cloths. Dead filled the streets. Everywhere the stink of fire and charred flesh permeated the air. Every breath felt gritty, and Ramses scraped his tongue with his teeth, trying to dislodge the sensation.
Jamie stopped, his military-issue boots scuffing the stone. “How…how did this happen?”
Ramses brushed his hand over the main gate’s open arch, reading the passing of magic as one would read the life of a tree by its rings. “Master set a very real fire, spurring it on with his power, forcing the wet jungle to burn. I’m guessing he summoned a legion of flame imps—beings made out of fire—and instructed them to tear down the city.”
“It looks like they did a damn good job of it, too. But, how can there be no organization? Don’t they have people to go to in this sort of situation—some kind of triage?”
“Jamie…all those people are dead or gone. The King and Queen, Ryoko, and…and your son, Noir. The city can function, can run, and trade, and keep living without its head, but it can’t deal with a crisis.” He put his fingers on the taller man’s wrist. “That’s where you come in. Fix this, or don’t you know how?”
He frowned. “But, someone must—”
They turned to see a weathered man with thin lips and grey eyes striding towards them. He wore a dusty tunic with brown fur edging in the style of Norda’s Healers. His face was a mask of exhaustion and anger.
Jamie’s face went blank, eyes flicking back and forth at lightning speed. Ramses sighed, he knew that look well. Any person who’s ever passed through his lands has been identified with a photograph and all known information about them. He always does this, trying to figure out someone’s name and how they feel about him before he acts. I know he keeps all that data on his precious Main Computer. I won’t let him show me up this time, though.
He stepped in front, inclining his head. “Healer Borr, it has been some time since you graduated.”
Borr’s momentum broke. He paused. “Master Ramses,” he said, bowing. “I’m surprised you remember me, to be quite honest.”
“I may be a bit scatterbrained, but I do try to never forget a student. As I recall, you were particularly studious; top of your class, yes? Professor Kacillia always had good things to say about you.”
“Ah, yes.” He looked a little deflated, but quickly mustered his energy again. “Master, as happy as I am to see you again, it is with your company that I have my quarrel.”
“Quarrel? Jamie, what’s going on? Why should one of my alumni have cause to be angry at you?”
He grimaced. “Borr came to me some years ago, asking for a doctor’s position in Crater City. I said he could, if he passed the health exam. He…did not pass.”
“I didn’t pass because of your prejudices, nothing more! I am as healthy and fit as I can be for my age, and you denied me.” Borr spread his arms out, indicating the destruction around him. The rain clumped together what little hair he had left, and ran in the crevasses of his wrinkles. “And now you come here, to my new place of sanctuary—where I am welcomed as better than human—and intend to do Goddess-knows-what with these poor people? Well, I won’t let you! Get out, usu’er—yes, I know that’s what the kitsune call you; usurper—get out!”
Instead of the anger Ramses expected, Jamie bowed his head. The rain gave his pale skin an unnatural sheen. “I’m here to help.”
“Help? Help? Removing the Goddess from Fjolde was help? Don’t bother, Peterson, you’ve done enough.” He turned his back on them. “If you hadn’t meddled then none of this would have happened. These people are good and decent; they don’t need whatever you have to offer. I have a few other Healers who are still alive. We can take care of this.”
Jamie stepped out from under the umbrella. Steam rose from his shoulders. “Whether you can or can’t isn’t the issue. Lavosier did this, the old Master of Autumn, and he might be back to finish Summer off. Think what you will of me; I love Rumiko, and I did what I thought was best. Curse me, rail against me, damn me to the nine hells and back, but if I ever had a right to love her as I did, then I have a right to roll up my sleeves and save the city she loved.”
“You think you have that right? All you’ve ever done is poison and destroy. It was you who killed her, you presume to have the whole world at your fingertips, and it was you who broke my heart because of your petty standards! Look at me, Peterson. Look at me!” He turned and fixed Jamie with a piercing glare. “I am human, do you deny it? I am not damaged, I am not less, I am not wrong, just as these the kitsune are people, not thoughtless animals. There is much you don’t understand about us, about this world. These people need what only their Goddess can give them; you and your metal world could never fill that empty void.”
“What exactly do you think I’m going to do here? I won’t use the kitsune as lab rats, if that’s what you mean.”
“You plan to offer them sanctuary in Moon City, or some other place filled with chemicals and electric lights. I won’t let you. It would kill them, to live in a place like that.”
“Stop this at once.” Ramses sliced his hand through the air, cutting the men off from further bickering. “We are planning nothing of the sort. Now, the longer you two stand here bitching is that much less time we have to save everyone. Jamie has a substantial amount of healing power. He will triage the wounded, working with you and your colleagues. We are here to save lives, Borr, not ruin them. Tell us where to start.”
The old Healer reined in his composure with visible effort. He pointed toward the middle tier of the city. “We’re using the market tents to keep out the rain. It was a good half-way point for everyone.”
“Very well,” Jamie said. He turned to go. “And, Borr? I’m sorry.”
“If you really are, then prove it.”
They watched Jamie go, Annie scurrying along behind him in her shiny black heels.
“He does mean well, you know.”
“Well, he’s a fool.” Borr mopped rain off his brow. “He doesn’t understand the world we come from, and I don’t think he wants to.”
“You’d be surprised.” Ramses shrugged.
“Is it true what those returned from the Faire say, is Lady Ryoko truly the new Queen?”
He pulled up the black hood of his robes, settling it over his head with care. The cowl dripped. “With Rumiko dead? Oh, yes. Her crowning was rather informal, more of an announcement to frighten off my Master. There hasn’t been a ceremony, but most of us in power recognize her new title.”
“Will she return to rule over the City of Summer?”
Ramses thought of the visions he had been seeing lately, the images of a white city on a cliff by the sea. The images were gifts from Rumiko, beacons of hope for the dark days to come. “No, not over Summer.”
“Then where, a new city?”
He looked up into the rain. “Yes, a place of peace, a city unburdened by our long and tired legacy—a new beginning.”
Chapter 4: Shadows In The Hold
“’Scuse me, pardon me. Hey, Princess, good to see you awake!” Shoal pushed his way through the throng of well-wishers to Ryoko’s side.
She sat on a table in the galley, surrounded by most of the pirate crew, and the Healer Shinn, who was busy finishing his physical examination. “Shoal, good to see you. And it’s Queen now.”
“Ah, right, of course. Well, Shinn, how is she?”
“Fit as a fiddle, Captain.” Shinn straightened up, putting his stethoscope away in a small bag. “I was worried that her long sleep would have some lasting effects, but I guess not. Your Highness, I pronounce you fit to leave my care.”
“Thank you.” She slid off the table.
Shoal waved his hands at those gathered. “Alright, you heard the Healer, she’s fine. Back to your posts, all of you.” He waited until they had cleared out, frowning.
“There’s no need to look like that. I’m flattered your crew is so worried about me.”
“You aren’t just an ambassador, Ryoko, you’re a friend of the family. We Sornians take that very seriously.”
“Come up on deck with me, I want your opinion on this ship we found.”
Within minutes they were above deck, staring at the purpling blue of the evening sky. Ryoko breathed in and out, the salty air cleansing her lungs. “There’s nothing better than a sunset at sea.”
“Oh, I can think of several better things,” Shoal chuckled. “Women, ale, having you aboard.”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself.” But she smiled. She looked across the deck to where the Harpy’s crew had attached ropes and boarding planks to the empty Coriander ship. The yellow flag flapped in the breeze, its ruffling and the ships’ wooden creaking were the only sounds that could be heard. All its ropes and sails hung slack, and the hull was scarred by cannon fire. “What happened?”
“We found this ship, no name that we can see, just standing here. Collie and I are debating whether to tow it back to the nearest port.”
“Was there anyone aboard?”
“No, and that’s what bothers me. A little blood, but nothing else. The crew thinks it’s haunted, and we should say a few prayers and be out of here before the night sets in.”
The edge of the sky was still gold and pink. Ryoko stared at the horizon in longing. I wish I’d had the strength to get out of bed earlier; I’ve had enough of waking to darkness. “You should tow it to harbor. You can always use the wood.”
“That’s true enough, our islands don’t have enough trees to support the shipping industry. We need whatever we can get.” He clapped his hands together. “Alright, that’s what I’ll do. But to make it to port before I have to start rationing supplies we’ll have to pull out the oars.”
“You won’t say any prayers over it?”
“No. And we don’t need to investigate; Collie already said there were no bad signs aboard.”
“A missing crew isn’t a bad sign?”
“They could have been captured by a rival family, and that’s rather mundane, don’t you think?”
“Yes.” She watched as one of the crew lit the fore and aft lanterns. “If it’s all the same to you, Shoal, I’d like to take the harp from the galley wall and spend the night in the crow’s nest. I haven’t been of much use these past two months, and I have to repay you for your hospitality. And when we get to port—”
“Hey, slow down. You can watch the crow’s nest, alright. Tell the cook I said you could use any instrument we’ve got, it doesn’t have to be the harp.”
Within the hour she found herself climbing the rope to the tallest part of the ship, a small lute strapped to her back. She hauled herself into the weather-beaten nest, and the boards creaked to support her weight. With a few whispered words of prayer to the spirit of fire, she lit the swinging, glass-blown lantern attached to a rusty old hook on the main mast. The flame guttered, but kept on burning. She closed the shutter, and slumped to sit against the mast. Good and clear moonlight shone down, pouring silver-blue over her skin.
Lifting the lute into her lap, Ryoko tuned it with a slow ease, taking her time until the plucked notes sounded just right. She watched the sea and the stars, the Harpy’s light blue flag fluttering at the edge of her vision, like a tattered slip of ribbon. Far below her the crew worked to secure the Coriander’s ship to the stern so they could tow it to port. The rowers gathered in the lowest floor of the ship, and the sails let out full to catch the wind. At the helm, Collie took the wheel.
But up in the crow’s nest all seemed calm. She ran her fingers over chords and staccato questions with sliding scales of punctuation. The warm night air brushed her face and bare arms, as the lantern’s light illuminated all her ragged scars. I suppose I can’t ask for guidance anymore, can I? Mother’s… She’s dead, and I’m on my own now. There’s no Goddess, no one to protect us from Lavosier…so when did it suddenly become our duty to kill him? Ha, I’m saying ‘our’ like I’ll actually take James along. He finds this journal Mother told him about, gives it to Ramses, and then we adults can flush the mage out, and finish him off. She gripped the lute’s neck. I won’t let Lavosier take anyone else away from me, not now, not ever. And I won’t bring James; he wouldn’t last three minutes in a battle like that. No one else is going to die, not around me, and certainly not because of me. No one else, I promise. I promise, Mother…
Drowsy despite her long sleep, the effort of waking and walking proved too much at once for the young Queen, and she propped the lute up in her lap, resting her forehead against the instrument’s neck. Lulled by the primal, womb-like rush of water beneath her, and the easy creaking of the ship and sails all around her, Ryoko dropped off to sleep.
“Well, all of your papers seem to be in order. Ah, what race did you say you were, again?” Jamie looked at her from across his large chestnut desk.
“Kitsune, sir. That’s what Mother always told me, anyway.” She rubbed her temples; the iron and foreign metals were beginning to take their toll on her energy. Already she felt more lethargic than usual. “Can we get this interview over with, please? I’d like to get home before dinner tomorrow.”
“That’s no trouble, you can take the train.”
He winked, eyes full of mischief. “My underground train, the townies don’t know about it.”
“Mafia use only?”
“Pretty much, yes. But you’re free to take it home. It goes right under Burrow’s Bend. Now, your Mother is Dame Rumiko, is that correct?”
“Is she still with your Father?”
“Oh, well, then. As for you, I’ll be assigning you a partner. I prefer it when my assassins and soldiers can work in teams or small groups. I’ll put you with Ramses, he has the most experience—”
Cold, marrow-chilling howls jarred her from sleep. She shook herself awake, focusing on the swinging lantern. Scrambling to her feet, she heard once again the barking and baying that could only come from one creature; the lav’arren.
I knew Shoal should have said prayers over that ship—it was a trap! Wind whipped her hair as she rose above the edge of the crow’s nest to get a better look at the deck. Everything below her was dark, and the ship pitched deeply to one side. Overhead the familiar constellations of Ur, the Running Bear, and Jazej, the Stag-Fox, shone with a cold brilliance. The only other light was the lantern hanging on the main mast—since the moon had long since set—its swinging ruddy light an island of refuge from the blackness below.
Ryoko knew from experience that when they attacked in groups the lav’arren brought a choking, unnatural darkness with them, like a heady cloud of mist. Grabbing the lute in one hand, she swung its strap over her shoulder, and judged her distance. She jumped, willing her arms to turn to wings. They feathered like seed puffs dancing off a dandelion, not much, but it allowed her to steer down to the deck.
The moment she touched down something nearby snarled, rushing her. She swung the lute by its neck in a full arc, meeting a charging lav’arren’s face with her improvised weapon. Wood splintered and strings snapped with a discordant twang as pieces of the lute went flying everywhere. The lav’arren jumped back, yowling. It charged again and she jabbed forward with the broken neck as hard as she could. The slimy pressure of resistance told her she had hit one of its eyes.
A patch of the darkness cleared, mimicking the parting of a dark and heavy fog. She stood near the prow, and the forward lantern illuminated the dark waters ahead and a little bit of the deck. One of the wretched beasts lay dead at her feet, blood and sickly yellow eye jelly oozing from its head wound. This lav’arren did not resemble a fox, as they normally did, but instead a small orca with webbed limbs to crawl forward on and a powerful tail. It was still slick and black with three sets of bulbous yellow eyes upon its head. Its mouth was filled with several rows of powerful, serrated teeth.
She didn’t have time to examine it any further, however, because two more of these aquatic lav’arren dissolved themselves out of the dark fog. Spindly little back legs propelled them forward, like desert lizards. They did not bark or bay, but instead sang in high-pitched voices, the sound just as haunting as a whale’s song.
Reveling in the tingle of danger, she pitched forward, shifting shape. The transformation was smooth, like pouring ink, and she launched forward into her favorite form, that of a panther. The lav’arren couldn’t turn quick enough, and she buried her teeth in the right one’s rubbery flesh. A few rakes of her claws on its eyes sent it rampaging blind. She leapt away, and barely dodged a side-swipe from the second creature.
She hissed, spinning to meet it head on. It raised itself up on its hind legs and rushed her. She dove underneath, claws out. Her weight crashed forward, smacking it on its back. She tore at it until it stopped moving. With a powerful kick of her hind legs she sent the blinded lav’arren toppling over the edge. By now most of the darkness had disappeared from the deck. She could almost see the stern’s lantern.
One single monster remained, snuffling at the covered stairs that led to the crew’s quarters. It lunged with its mouth open, grabbing the latticed covering and throwing it aside with a casual toss of its head. Below, on the stairs, someone screamed.
I know that voice! “Shelly!” Ryoko felt her limbs go cold. “Don’t let it get below deck!”
“What do I do?” the girl shrieked.
The lav’arren paced above the stairs, as if trying to decide which would be the easier meal, the human or the kitsune.
“But—! My guitar—!”
“Just do it!”
Shelly took a brave, shaky step forward, her red curls blowing back in a breeze off the water. Her head peeked just above the deck. Just as the lav’arren leaned in, acidic drool dribbling from its wide, sharp mouth, Shelly swung her precious guitar up with eyes squeezed tightly shut. It hit the lav’arren upside the chin, slapping it backwards.
Racing across the deck, Ryoko barreled into its side. She and it rolled over for a few yards, and she sank her fangs deep into its underbelly. She shook it vigorously like a small salmon, stepping down on its face, and ripping with her teeth until it stopped moving. She sat back, panting, and resumed her human form. Still tired, she swooned a bit.
Shelly dropped her broken guitar and rushed to Ryoko’s side. “Are you alright? Is there anything I can do?”
“Yes.” She looked beyond the stern to the Coriander’s ship which was still enveloped in darkness. “Get Shinn to help those who might be injured. Tell Shoal I’m going across.”
“But, you still need time to recover. Can’t we just wait til they come over here, and then cut them down?” Her green eyes were wide and a little glassy.
“No, it must be done at the source. And I must do it alone; I am immune to the lav’arren’s poison, somehow.” She ran her hand over Shelly’s curls. “Fear not, little one, I will return.”
Despite the girl’s protests, she got to her feet. With a running start, she cleared the wheel deck, landing briefly on the railing before alighting on the thick cable they were using to tow the Coriander’s ship. Sprinting across it with light feet, she landed on the deck and grabbed the small forward lantern. The dark fog receded as she drew her scimitar, Saizen Saiai, the Golden Dragon.
“Come at me, you cowards! Or do you have the passion to defy your master’s whip for fear of my blades?”
The lav’arren charged as one, a mass of ten or more of the wretched things, singing a piercing song of hunger and bloodlust.
Throwing the lantern high, she swirled, drawing her dagger from her arm sheath. She pivoted on the ball of her foot like a skater, creating a whirling circle of deadly steel. Two lav’arren fell, dead, while the others stayed back, growling, not daring to come too close. A small group rushed her left side. She spun low, scimitar slicing through three faces. They hit the deck, black blood seeping from the fatal cuts.
She turned to regard the remaining five, sheathing her dagger and summoning fire to her hand. It was not her aligned element—that was water—but she could control it within limits.
The foremost lav’arren laughed; a hair-raising, hollow sound. “We are creatures of the sea,” it hissed. “Fara holds no sway over us.”
She clenched her fist, extinguishing the dancing flames. “You’re right. But the ocean does.” Arms outstretched, she felt for the elemental power she had barely used before, trusting on instinct for the knowledge to control it.
Out of the sloshing darkness beyond the deck of the sprite, there came a heavy, rushing sound. Attackers and defender stared out into the night, trying to make out the source of the noise. Ryoko came to the correct conclusion first. She turned and ran back over the cables, reaching the Silver Harpy’s deck just in time.
Several of the crew had gathered on the wheel deck, including Shoal.
“What’s the meaning of this?”
“No time, cut the cables!”
He obliged with a reluctant look, taking out his cutlass. Together they hacked at the tough cables until they gave way, separating the two ships. Just as the last piece fell from its secure ring, a giant wave three times higher than the Harpy came out of the night and crashed over the Coriander’s ship, swallowing it whole, lav’arren and all. For a long while no one spoke.
Shoal turned to look at her. “Did you do that?”
“Damn, Ryoko.” He whistled low. “You need to get some training under your belt. I don’t want that happening to my ship.”
She sank down to the deck, more than exhausted. Her limbs shook from the effort it had taken to summon the wave, even though she hadn’t consciously done do. “It was a trap.”
“Left here for us to find?”
“I don’t know.”
He spit over the side. “Damn. We could have used the wood, too.”
“Likely it was all cursed, but there were signs of cannon fire. Perhaps we can ask some questions the next time we come to port, and about James’ journal, too.”
“Yes, yes.” He ducked down, putting her arm over his shoulder. “But until we make port I say you get plenty of rest; Captain’s orders.”
Chapter 5: The Biography
“Master, is there any particular reason you’re not helping Mr. Peterson?”
Ramses chewed a fingernail. He sat in the helicopter, his own personal scrying plate propped up on his knees as his legs stretched out across the aisle. “Yes, Mortimer. The kitsune aren’t stupid, if they don’t know my Master was behind all this, then they will soon. They hate me enough as it is, and I’d rather not spend time around people who despise my very existence with such naked passion.”
“Very well, sir, but when will you be returning to Autumn? Classes start soon, and little Navra is anxious to begin his lessons.”
“I know, I know. I’ll be back soon, I promise.” He worked on a particularly difficult piece of cuticle, watching the golden eyes of the man in the scrying plate. Well, Mortimer Acacia’s not a man, not exactly.
A half-dragon, and showing it, Autumn Academy’s Professor of Histories and official Chronicler looked out of the smooth glass with a calm, sensible stare. He had hair the color of poplar trees in fall, the sort of shimmering gold that always caught the light at the right angle, and a trim goatee and mustache. Two ivory horns curved out of his head above his head, curling around and under like ram’s horns. Most of his golden robes with yellow trim and academic hood were visible, although Ramses could not see the teacher’s most distinguishing features; his small wings and tail, usually the color of brass polished to a high luster. He carefully reached to the side and pulled down a large volume. Ramses could not see the title.
“Your biography. You’ve been putting it off for a few hundred years now.”
“Well, up until recently Ryoko was gallivanting off in the jungle somewhere, doing who-knows-what, and hadn’t spoken to me in a few centuries. And now Master is causing terror and havoc.” He rubbed a hand over his face, looking disappointed that he would soon have to move to another nail. “I don’t have time to do an official biography, Mortimer, and I don’t know why you insist on it. I’ve written plenty of books about myself, my travels, and my studies. Just use those for reference. You’re the Chronicler, you ought to know everything else.”
“Well I don’t, and that’s the simple fact of it. This time around you’ve kept a lot to yourself, very secretive.”
“What do you mean, ‘this time around’?”
“Nothing, sir. But it’s my duty, you see? Your biography must be filled out to the fullest detail, with nothing spared. Only then will I be content that history can move on.”
Ramses made a face. “History doesn’t turn on your whim, even though that’s your subject of study. Besides, I truly don’t have the time. Between teaching and whatever part of this Save The World plan Jamie’s going to hammer out, I just won’t be able to do it.”
“I see.” Mortimer raised his eyebrows, and his eyes dimmed as disappointment set in. He didn’t need to say that Ramses wasn’t doing anything productive by sitting in the helicopter.
Damn, he’s doing it again. It’s that King Arthur face, that noble, kingly disposition that makes me give in every time. He must be the only person my True Sight switches for; I know this isn’t his real appearance, but I can’t help wanting to please him. Is that because he was Master’s closest advisor, and was able to remain a good man? Or is it because disappointing someone who looks like King Arthur feels like drowning a sack of kittens? Probably the latter. He shifted in his seat. “Alright, I’ll do it, but I’m not paying you overtime for this.”
“You don’t need to. This is about duty, not money.” He chuckled, a quiet, easy sound. Mortimer opened the book, flipping through the empty pages. “But, since I’m sure you’d rather not think of Lavosier—”
Ramses pursed his lips, clenching his hands tight at the sound of his master’s name. “It’s fine when Jamie says it, he doesn’t know the power behind what he’s saying.”
“It’s just a name.”
“No, it’s more than that. It’s everything he is; everything I’m not, all his years teaching at Autumn. Just don’t say it; knowing he’s alive is bad enough, I don’t need to have his name tumbling off from every pair of lips I pass by.”
“Very well, little prince, if it pleases you.”
“And don’t call me that, either. You want a biography, Mortimer? Alright, but I’ll tell you where to start. I don’t want to think about dark times in an already dark hour.”
“I understand.” He took out a quill, dipping it in an inkwell beyond the scrying plate’s line of sight. “In that case, tell me about Mr. Peterson. How did you meet him? How did you become such good friends? Tell me about that time during the Sixth Age; the Age of Technology.”
Ramses leaned his head back on the cushion seat, staring up at the roof of the helicopter. “That time, eh? It was so long ago.”
“Start from the beginning.”
He closed his eyes, the better to picture the past. “It was the year 3624 by modern reckoning, the first month of fall. I was living near Moon City, in a sprawling suburb pocketed with open parks and little ponds where geese flocked, and star dancers sometimes came out when they thought no humans were watching.”
“Yes. Like the birdmen who now live off the coast and on islands, they are a diminutive race in numbers, and a very shy of other peoples. They look like little glowing fairies, though we have no creatures of the sprite family that live in our world, and they dance naked on the green grass under the moon and the stars. They feed on nightlights, although the ones that live closer to the city center had an orange, streetlamp glow, and I’ve heard they were rather bad-tempered. I caught one of the natural kind once when I was a child, remember? It was blue, like the glowing moss in the forest where you used to live.”
“Haha,” he laughed, his goatee spreading out in a smile. “Yes. You put it in a glass jar with air holes, but it wasn’t there the next morning. What happened? You never said.”
“The tiny thing was barely two inches high. It kept speaking to me in this light, wind-chime sort of language. I told it I wanted to keep it forever because it was so beautiful, and then it went quiet for a while. I went to sleep and woke up to this lovely singing sound, the kind really thin chimes make on a breezy day. When I went to look, I saw that the star dancer was crying. I felt so horrid; here I was, a big, strange monster taking it away from its friends and family.” He opened his eyes, face falling at the memory. “And I hadn’t lost my own family more than a year before.”
“You let it go.”
“Of course—I’m not Master.”
“I never said you were.” But Mortimer passed a hand over his face. He held the quill over the page. “What were you saying before that? It was fall…”
“Ah, yes. Fall. Normally Autumn would be busy with students coming in from all over, people forgetting and complaining about their textbooks, trying to schedule classes around how long they thought they could sleep in, and all of the teachers preparing for Orientation. But this was the Sixth Age. The City of Autumn and the other Season Cities were nothing more than piles of rubble and ruin, something mysterious for archeologists to dig into and wonder over. But aside from my day job as a clerk for the Moon City police department, I was also on the board for the Western Excavations Committee. They couldn’t dig anywhere without my say so, and I certainly wasn’t going to let a bunch of 20-something humans tramp all over my precious library, not to mention the buried city itself. Oh, no, I kept them plenty busy up the river, digging for nothing. Occasionally I’d summon up a broken pot or something for my favorite kids to find. And then there would be shouts, and photos, and reporters, and even more people milling around. Sometimes I’d even create a couple more discoveries just below the sight currently being investigated, so it was discovered while the crowd was still there. Fun times, I tell you. There’s nothing quite like standing with a reporter, just waiting as your favorite student pauses in between careful brushstrokes in the dirt behind you while the press snatches photos, and then suddenly—” He waved his arms around, grinning. “ ‘We’ve found something! Oh, my god, no way, look, it’s right there!’” He snickered. “Priceless. All lies, of course, nobody had ever lived at that part of the river, it was all forested land as you know.”
“But it made them happy. Of course the men who just stomped around, and didn’t act like they cared got nothing. Ever. Oh, it felt so good.”
“But your day job, you were saying?”
“Yes, I was a clerk. I had a big pair of thick-rimmed glasses.” He held his fingers above and below his eyes. “Nasty things, I hope I never see them again.”
“What were they for? You don’t need to correct your vision, because if you had needed to you would have gone to a Healer long before that.”
“It’s true. I enchanted them to block my True Sight as long as I was looking through them. I just couldn’t stand the sight of what people really looked like.”
“And what was that?”
“What was what?”
“What do people really look like?”
Ramses grimaced. “In that time? Not very good. Imagine a world with a billion or more people, and now picture most of them totally disconnected from each other, completely plugged in to their technology, their social networking, and their own obnoxiously shallow little lives. It was just driving me insane, seeing all of that on the surface. People just forget when they’re like that. They forget how to listen to others, and I mean really listen. If someone’s speaking to you now, do you expect them to be so withdrawn, so focused on some tiny, silly little thing—looking away every ten seconds? Offering false sympathy? I couldn’t take it anymore, I just couldn’t. So I told everyone my eyes were bad, and no one questioned the glasses.”
“And Mr. Peterson?”
“Oh, him. Yes, I remember the first time I saw him in person.” He leaned back, sinking into his own memories, hair falling slightly to the side to reveal his docked ears. “As I was saying, it was fall. Jamie Peterson, John Sacsini’s adopted son—he was the head of the mafia—was always around, causing havoc of one kind or another. He killed people who didn’t bring him his coffee fast enough, blew up cars to make room for his motorcycle, and thoroughly enjoyed every illicit mind-numbing substance he could get his hands on. It was awful. Before I had started working at the station he had been captured a lot, but always he either escaped or his father bailed him out. The new Chief—the old one had had a good taste of Jamie’s pistol—wasn’t going to let this continue, though, so the next time our troublemaker came to town…”
—Ramses looked up from his hangout place by the reception desk. Four policemen surrounded a tall and imposing figure, dragging him in through the sliding glass doors. Jamie resisted his captors, swearing in a very loud, very angry voice that rumbled at the back of the mage’s mind.
He must have been psychic or have latent magical talent, there was no other explanation for the strange, tingling feeling Ramses now felt running up and down his arms. He pulled back from flirting with the blue-eyed secretary—trying to distract himself from the recent restraining order he had just received on Rumiko’s behalf, to prevent him from visiting her daughter—clearly intending to get out of the officers’ way.
Jamie looked down his nose at Ramses and the mage felt power in that gaze. “What are you looking at, nerd?”
He couldn’t help himself. Some of these new colloquialisms just didn’t make any sense to him. “What does that mean?”
The taller man’s face went red, then white, and he bared his teeth. “Are you talking back to me?”
“What? No, no, I just—” Even the secretary had backed away, Ramses was the only person in Jamie’s line of view as the surrounding officers tried to drag him toward the door for internal processing. Jamie planted his feet, refusing to move. The force of his gaze was overwhelming.
Ramses sighed, knowing his magic could force this proud little punk to beg and grovel for mercy at his feet. But he didn’t dare. Aside from being something his Master would do, it would cause questions. And getting dragged off to a lab and experimented on would not be a pleasant experience. So he just gritted his own teeth in a smile. “I’d never dream of talking back to a puny little upstart like you. You think you’re so scary, so powerful, but you’re not. You’re just a child. Our history holds worse demons than you could ever be.”
“And then what did he do?” Mortimer leaned closer, his delicate writing filling the page.
“He broke the handcuffs and punched me, of course. And I deserved it, too, for aggravating him.”
“Well, everyone was surprised he hadn’t killed me, for one thing. But my glasses had fallen off…”
“Shit, I can’t see!” Ramses fell back, clutching at his face. His eyes blurred with pain and blood. He scrabbled on the floor, one hand holding his stinging jaw. “Where are they, dammit?”
There was a decisive crunch of glass as Jamie put his heavy heel down.
Ramses looked up as his vision cleared, and saw for the first time in a hundred thousand years his brother Alecto. So tall, so fair and cold, his braids hanging around his face like a familiar haze of smoke. If it weren’t for what his glasses had shown him, he might have leapt into Jamie’s arms, thinking he had at last come home. It had been so long since there was anything natural or magical around him, he couldn’t speak, couldn’t resist as Jamie grabbed him by the collar, yanking him to his feet.
“Can’t see, you say? Don’t lie. Do whatever else you want, but don’t lie, got it?”
“Sir…” he said weakly.
“How did he know?”
“I don’t know, perhaps it was his latent powers coming through. I had to get a new pair of glasses, though. After that all my colleagues clustered around me, telling me how lucky I was to be alive. I couldn’t believe it, he had so much strength, even I felt it. I didn’t see him again until nearly a year later, in the spring. No one had seen Jamie in town for quite some time, and we all secretly hoped something nasty had happened to him. Everyone but me, that is. The question had begun to burn in me; who was this man who resembled my brother? I tried to convince myself that the shock was playing tricks on my mind, but I couldn’t continue to lie to myself. I had to be honest—I’d seen Alecto, but what did that mean? I was walking home after the second shift at the station, taking the long route around by the park, thinking about Ryoko as I’d last seen her—a proud, huffy adolescent woman, with her Mother’s pout and her Father’s gift for music, barely beginning to fill out her dresses—when a roaming drunk crashed into me.”
“It was Jamie, actually. He’d been trying to find me, as it turns out, but the drinking hadn’t helped with that much.”
“I can imagine. And then?” Scratch, scratch went his feathered quill. His gentle face was full of handsome amusement.
The glowing pink sign read “The Night Angel”, illuminating the dark brick walls of the underground club. Pulsing music seeped through the walls of the long hallway as Jamie led him to a private room. Normally, Ramses supposed, these rooms were where the dancers made their real money. His loins ached again as he imagined Ryoko dancing for him; she was always such a good dancer…
Jamie opened the heavy door and flopped down into a plush seat surrounding a suspiciously sturdy table. A steel pole ran from the center of the table to the ceiling. “C’mon in.”
Ramses nodded to himself. Yes, definitely one of those rooms. He gingerly took a seat. “Jamie—or Mr. Peterson, if you prefer—what am I doing here? What do you want?” Here, with no one to watch, if Jamie acted up, magic in self-defense was definitely an option.
“John Sacsini, my Dad, you know him?”
“I know of him, why?”
“That was my question.”
“Lung cancer, too many damn cigars, as it turns out.” Jamie rubbed a hand over his face. A normal man might have molded the skin of his cheeks in tiredness or frustration, but his flesh had a strange sheen to it under the red lights, although not everywhere. “So now the administration falls to me. And I…I’ve buried John, and yet…I don’t know what to do.” His eyes looked far away and sad, and very, very human.
Ramses stared down at his hands, and then looked across the table. While that look was on Jamie’s face, he didn’t dare take his glasses off. “You’ll be a good leader.”
“Excuse me?” Jamie let his hand fall from his face, those powerful eyes focusing on the mage.
“I…” He took gulps of air to calm his nerves. “I can tell. I don’t know what it is about you, but you’ve got the right stuff.”
“The right stuff, huh?” He looked away, staring at something unseen. “No one’s ever told me that before,” he said quietly.
After a few minutes of silence, Ramses shifted. “Was there any reason you, ah, wanted to talk to me?”
“Just your eyes, I guess.”
“Something about them…I can’t put my finger on it.” He sat up. “I’ll think about what you’ve said. You’re dismissed.”
Ramses scratched his head. “There isn’t much more to tell, really. I went back to my tiny apartment with the distinct feeling that he knew I was magical. It was very strange. Time went on, years passed by. I started to gather myself to move again since I don’t age, when Jamie came to see me. He walked right into the station, easy as you please.”
“What?” Ramses looked up from his cubicle’s computer, blinking in surprise as he saw Jamie leaning on the grey dividers, a silly grin on his face. He started to stand up, but the taller man motioned for him to sit. “What are you doing here? It’s, well…”
“It’s been a while.” He smiled. Something about him looked different, more…at peace, somehow. He ignored the commotion of shouts and radio calls behind him. “Are you doing anything tomorrow?”
“What do you mean?”
“Will you be working for me?” There it was, in the corner of his mouth and the way his eyes scrunched up in happiness. He no longer stank of illegal chemicals, but nobody smiled like that unless they were on something…or truly, genuinely happy.
“You found it, didn’t you?” It wasn’t really a question; Ramses had felt that way once, a long time ago, right after he had taught his first class. When he had found it, that thing he was truly meant to do with his life, it was like breaking open an egg and finding gold inside. Ryoko had always felt like that, all the time, deep in his soul. And now here was this man, this one human in a world of humans who were so shut away with themselves that they didn’t even know there was a sun anymore, and his eyes were open, and his heart was in his eyes, and his heart was filled with light.
Ramses reached up, but Jamie beat him to it. The mafia boss reached over, and, with amazing gentleness, took off his glasses.
“You won’t be needing these anymore.”
The image of Alecto dissolved itself halfway, and stayed there; his ears still elfin in shape, his slender build, a few braids still knotted in his long blond hair. He turned away from the cubicle, moving with grace.
Ramses rose and followed, setting down his headset. He didn’t even grab his lunchbox.
Both men turned to see the police Chief standing in the doorway to her office. Her thin face was very pale. “What do you think you’re doing? Get away from him, can’t you see who that is?”
Mortimer’s quill paused, the feather quivering, over the next, empty, lines. His golden eyes looked eager. “Well? And what did you say?”
Ramses folded his hands behind his head, and grinned. “I can see, I can see perfectly.”