“Running away again, little sister? Of course you are. I’m bigger, stronger, faster, smarter. Better in every way. And you’re just… Ember.”
“Be useful to me for once, Ember. Put the Duke at ease before the negotiations. You can go back to hiding afterwards.”
“Run, Ember! I’ll keep them here!”
Fear. Shame. Guilt. The voices always followed. Whatever she did, wherever she went, they were there. Subtle, beneath the rattle of her own thoughts. Like someone had etched them in the corners of her mind and taught a tiny piece of her to read a few off at a time whatever else she was doing. She mostly forgot they were there until something would come along and silence them, reminding her what true quiet felt like.
Something like the lake. Ember stopped swimming when she reached the middle and sank to the bottom.
Slowly the water pressed in.
Cold. Crushing. Calming.
Slowly the voices faded.
As she came to rest on the stony bottom she heard a new sound: the continuous thrum of the turbines, steady, constant, and consuming in a way no airborne sound could be.
It erased her with its impersonal roar, replacing everything until she was no longer Ember and was free to be just a person, resting in a glorious stillness so close to death that she wondered how terrible it could actually be.
“Little Orilei! Get up!”
The words rang in her ears and pierced her heart. She opened her eyes and thrashed in the dark waters, searching.
Who had said that?
She was alone. Nothing but stillness.
What else would there be? She was at the bottom of a lake.
She spread her wings and thrust to the surface.
“Can you live up to all this?” Nanli asked.
“No,” Ember said. “I have a natural tendency to hate Kai and my neighbor. Next question.”
Ember felt the weight on top of her head shift and Nanli’s face appeared upside down in front of her left eye.
“Do you really want me to ask another question?”
“Bethania said I have to memorize this.”
“You have to? Right now?”
Ember focused on the girl, which was hard when she was inches away. Her ears were sticking straight out, a sure sign of displeasure in a Lilta. The rest of her face was a blur, but the ears were enough.
Ember gave in.
“What do you want to do, Nanli?”
Ember heard a snicker.
“You’re making the Tixerie laugh, Nanli.”
“Miri wants to be, too.”
“How do you know?”
“I can see.”
Ember looked with her right eye and saw Miri sitting cross legged on a rock, trying not to laugh.
“I don’t think she wants to be. I think she wants to laugh. You should go tickle her.”
“She’s wearing armor.”
“Who said it would be easy?”
The face disappeared and the weight shifted again.
“Are you sure?”
“I’m very sure.”
“Hey!” Miri said. “Leave me out of this!”
Nanli leapt off Ember’s head and ran to Miri, who scrambled off the rock and ran away. Ember chuckled at the sight of the Tixerie running away from a little girl… well, not so little compared to Miri, but still.
Miri didn’t run away fast enough, maybe on purpose, and collapsed in a fit of guffaws when small fingers found the gaps in her half-plate. Ember watched for a moment as Miri fought off the attack and then retaliated until Nanli was sufficiently subdued to give up. The two found a spot of grass to sit down on and went quiet.
Without something close at hand to distract her, Ember started to feel anxious again. A soft kirring started up from where Nanli had been, the near-prescient Brago asserting his presence on top of her head, but the sound wasn’t nearly so effective on her true form as it was when she was a human. She turned her attention to the city beyond the cliff, vibrant and noisy now that the snows were all gone and rich with things to look at. She crept closer to the edge and stared.
A hundred heights below, tall buildings, some as high as eighty heights and most faced with polished stone murals and glinting windows, sparkled in the sunlight on either side of the river flowing out from the dam. Separating the buildings were dark basalt streets filled with any number of pedestrians and bicyclists, as well as steam trucks, steam cars, and fireless trollies. Food stands sat at the corners, stools hosting people stopped for snacks, and shops, restaurants and all kinds of other establishments lined the bases of every building, obvious with their huge plate-glass windows that allowed passersby to see inside, while gardens filled with flowers, vegetables and more crowded the roofs. Stone bridges ran back and forth over the river, allowing the traffic to flow without difficulty between the two halves, and other bridges made of sturdy wood and golden-kren cable ran between the buildings twenty heights up, forming a second network of streets above the first, also filled with pedestrians.
A little over two ten-felds from the cliff the city merged with the great forest, streets continuing while the buildings were replaced by silvery hahraxes hollowed out to serve as apartments towers. Like the manmade buildings, the hahrax towers were also connected by a bridge network, and in many places it connected to the network for the city. The trolley rails also continued into the forest, and ember saw one of the green and gold three-car transports emerge into the northern half of the city while she was looking.
Even after two months, Ember still couldn’t believe what she was seeing half the time. She wondered if she would have time to turn into a human and go down for a bowl of soup from one of the vendors.
The sound of familiar footsteps told her she wouldn’t.
“Flopped out in the sun again, I see,” Trin said.
Ember turned her head to see Trin standing next to her and swung her tail at the woman’s head. Trin ducked and slapped the tail as it passed, then ducked again on the return.
Ember hadn’t even come close.
“You have something for me to do?” Ember said.
Trin shook her head.
“No, I don’t. But I do have a request.”
Trin bowed deeply. Ember eyed her, wondering if she was being Trin, but decided she wasn’t. This was serious.
“Lady Firisskahv, another Garagran has entered Salshira. He is believed to be a military scout sent by the Empire. Will you stand with our army in repelling him?”
An Empire scout!
Had they found her?
She panicked for all of ten heartbeats before calming.
She had been sparring with the Salshira forces for two months now, and although their army was small, it was armed in ways that had no equal in Eddenloe. If some idiot Garagran from the Empire wanted to plow through them to come looking for her all by himself, then he would die. It was as simple as that.
Once she was calm she saw that Trin was looking at her, expecting an answer.
She had to give one didn’t she?
She wanted to say no. Just a big, flat, no. Facing the scout could only bring trouble. While she would probably survive with the Salshirans backing her, he would almost certainly recognize her. If he said anything in a language the Salshirans could understand, it would ruin her cover.
However, saying no would be an explicit act of ingratitude, which was very unwise considering all the care the Tavarins and their people had already extended her. Even if some them had only given it grudgingly.
Moreso because some had only given it grudgingly. They would be quick to call out her unwillingness to defend the country and try to shift others to their side. That could eventually mean losing her place well ahead of the year long protection Ean had given her.
And he was just starting to swing the counselors toward considering her citizenship. She didn’t want to ruin that.
Yet, again, the scout could ruin that just as easily on his own if she did go.
Trin rose from her bow and raised an eyebrow.
“I don’t want to,” Ember said.
Trin appeared to take that as an answer and turned to go.
Trin turned back.
They didn’t need her help. They really didn’t.
She stared at Trin. Looked deep into those eyes that weren’t pushing her to help.
“Damn you woman!” she said in a hiss. “Alright. I’ll help. But I’m only doing this so you and your brother won’t look bad for keeping me here and mess up my comfortable spot!”
Thoughts, comments, and critique greatly appreciated. I especially want to hear what anyone thinks of the characters. How believable are they? How real are their interactions? Am I overdoing anything?