A man with skin like cracked leather crouched over an open flame with a rod of coloured glass in his hands. He turned the rod so the flame licked its middle, twisting and pulling the molten centre until it looked like a fine hair.
Using the flame again, he cracked the hair from the rod, and, with a pair of forceps, transferred it to a microscopic slot on a metal frame, completing the last, wispy thread of a glass feather. He stepped back and examined the work.
Before him stood a majestic, birdlike machine composed of thousands upon thousands of feathers made from these glass strands. The flameworker pulled a tiny lever hidden under a feather on the bird’s back, watching as the crystal plumage bristled and relaxed. The fiery irises contracted, and the eyes rolled with life.
He nodded brusquely, jotting notes on a card.
Thoroughbred Aerothian Peregrine
Crimson Hen from Rebel Fires (cock) and Winter Song (hen)
The leathery flameworker paused. He scribbled.
Gabriel Silbi strolled through the back corridors of the Zodic Casino at the base of Mount Leah, looking calmer than he felt. A crowd of staff members readied to go on shift; they laughed and argued as they adjusted their uniforms, greeting him respectfully as he passed.
“Good afternoon, Mr Silbi. Beautiful day, today, isn’t it?”
“Good day, Mr Silbi. Nice to see you today, Sir.”
Gabe smiled at each of them as he continued down the corridor. A man joined him as he walked.
“Do we have any news?” asked Gabe.
“He is at Galleywags,” said the man. A janitor stopped mopping the floor and waved.
“G’day Mr Silbi. Careful where you walk, Sir. The floor’s still wet.”
“Thank you,” said Gabe with a smile. He waved to the janitor as he headed toward the lobby. The angry sounds of a woman protestor could be heard shouting from outside.
“You’re all going to die! If you come to the casino, you are going to die in fire and brimstone!” she shouted.
“I’ll take care of it, Sir,” said the man. He hurried ahead, grabbing two guards from the security line to carry the woman away.
“There will be fire and brimstone!” she shouted.
Gabe nodded to the incoming guests. “Apologies for the disturbance,” smiled Gabe. “Please, enjoy your stay.”
He crossed to the Galleywags Bar and Grill in between the tropical foliage next to his casino, his eyes widening in the dim light. A giant, black flag with a mechanical skull and crossbones was singing from behind the drinks counter; it was programmed to adjust its manners according to patron’s neckwear. The skull rambled on.
Splinter me timbers and twiddle your thumbs,
You’ll all be dead when the next storm comes.
“And what does this wasted landlubber… Oh, a very good day to you, Sir,” said the skull, seeing Gabe’s cravat. “How may I be of service?”
“Where is he?” asked Gabe.
“Starboard quarter, Sir, and may I perhaps offer you a treacle rum as a welcome drink?”
Gabe hurried to the back of the bar, while the skull called after him.
“Very good, Sir…and ye be warned, two sheets to the wind, if leeward on, go overboard. No hopes for landlubbers swell.”
In the back-corner booth Prince Dominic slouched over a half-empty glass of ale with a girl on either side of him, his slurred voice swaying like a rolling sea.
“GABRIEL! I was just toasting my beloved uncle. Won’t you join me for another drink?”
“Some other time. It’s best we leave now,” said Gabe, his face stern. The girls took the hint and slipped out from under Dominic’s arms, moving to another table. Dominic frowned.
“Aw, don’t be sour; have a drink with me. My uncle deserves a drink in his honour after getting a knife in his chest. A knife of all things, who would’ve thought?” said Dominic. He broke into loud, howling sobs.
“Oh, oh. Come Dom, not here. It’s time we go,” said Gabe, helping the inebriated prince to his feet. “Can you walk?”
“Walk? Of course I can. Wa-oh nope,” said Dominic, slumping downward. “No, don’t think I can.”
Gabe slid Dominic’s arm over his shoulder and heaved him upward, carrying most of the young man’s weight on his shoulder. A blinding light flashed as the two staggered out—the bulb of a photographer’s camera. It shocked Dominic like a live wire.
“YOU!” shouted Dominic.
Before Gabe could react, Dominic threw himself at the photographer, knocking him to the ground as he delivered a hard punch to the photographer’s face. The photographer retaliated with a left jab and the two rolled on the floor, caught in a brawl of clashing fists and choking holds. The skull and crossbones cheered.
“Whoooooh. Fight! Fight! Fight!”
Gabe spun around.
“Fi—shall call an ambulance, Sir,” said the skull, “straight away.”
Gabe pried the Prince’s hands from around the photographer’s neck and threw him back, grabbing Dominic by the abdomen as the drunken prince lunged for more.
“You were supposed to call a doctor,” shouted Dominic, struggling against Gabe’s restraining arm. “YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO CALL A DOCTOR! And now he’s dead.”
“All right, that’s enough,” said Gabe. “Let’s go.” He pushed Dominic into a waiting pteroduck that had been parked near the door and jumped into the pilot’s seat, releasing a lever as the aircraft beat its colourful, bat-like wings and took to the sky. Dominic held a handkerchief to his bloodied nose and slumped in his seat.
“That photographer was there, snapping photos while my uncle bled to death. He should’ve called a doctor. He should’ve…”
Dominic nodded off as Gabe steered the pteroduck west. After a time, the lines of bustling boats and pteroducks around the docks near Galliwags faded to white sands and palm trees. Soon the pterodactyl-like aircraft somersaulted, transforming into a metal duck as it glided to a stop on the water just before the beach. They had landed near a sleepy row of surf shacks along King’s Beach. A man with spiky, white hair was already running to meet them. It was Gill Ullrich, a Renaultan veteran and one of Dominic’s closest friends. Lazy waves licked the side of the pteroduck as Gabe opened the hatch. A bruised Dominic tumbled out, still swaying and covered in crusting blood.
“Biy’avi,” said Gill.
“Can he stay here awhile?” asked Gabe. “I don’t want people to see him like this.”
“What happened?” asked Gill.
Gabe rolled his eyes.
“Not to worry, I’ll look after him,” said Gill. Moai, a short, wooden creature with an oversized wedge nose grunted in disapproval. He was a tikihune and head servant in Gill’s house, and he did not approve of nonsense.
Gabe returned to the pilot’s seat; the pteroduck’s engine hummed as he readied to take off.
“Thanks, Gill,” said Gabe. “Send him back when he’s come through.” He closed the hatch and the pteroduck sped through the water, somersaulting and changing back to its previous form as it climbed toward the clouds.
“You have to pull yourself together, Dom,” said Gill, as he helped him toward the house. “This is no way for a king to act.”
“King?” snorted Dominic. “The King is dead. Dead, dead, dead.”
“And you are next to rule.”
“Well, maybe I don’t want to be—to be—excuse me a minute.” He staggered to the bathroom, where the sound of retching and heaving shortly followed.
Gill looked toward his wooden servant, who was already shaking his head. “Eh-eh. No mahn. Moai don’t clean slosh juice.”
The tikihune touched his stubby hand to a glass tile on the wall of Gill’s bachelor pad, disappearing into a cosy, miniature living room hidden behind the wall. Gill sighed and walked toward the bathroom where Dominic had already passed out beside the sink. He shook his head and dragged him out.
The following morning, Dominic awoke to the icy sting of a tub full of frigid water being dumped on his body. He was lying naked on the dewy grass in Gill’s backyard; a wooden tikihune wearing a rain hat was scrubbing his buttocks raw with the stiff bristles of a shower brush. The tikihune leaned his giant wedge-shaped nose nearer to Dominic’s skin and sniffed, frowning as he signalled another dump of chilly water from the tikihune with the barrel above him. Dominic cursed.
“Enough. Enough with the damned water. Do you want me to freeze to death?” he asked.
A stern-looking tikihune pushed a coconut sweet into his mouth.
“Hush, mahn. Tikihune must clean the demons off Dumb-Dumb so Dumb-Dumb can rule,” said Moai, “though only the Great Fish Tongue know why.”
“Don’t be cluck-cluck, Moai. Everyone makes mistake sometime, even Moai,” said a lady tikihune as she joined them. She had a hibiscus flower behind her ear and was carrying a folded towel and robe on top of her square head. She set them down and held out a tray of sweets. “Here, Honey, take another sweet. Dumb-Dumb has a rough time since his Uncle Saladin die. Hongi know.”
“Thanks,” said Dominic.
“Hmph,” said Moai. “Dumb-Dumb get dressed now. The Gill-Mahn is waiting.”
Dominic entered Gill’s house through the tikihune’s short door, which though the proper size for the feisty, wooden figures, required him to bow as he entered. Gill was sitting on a straw mat in the centre of his bachelor pad, bathed in the warm sunlight of the early morning. All the furniture that would have normally surrounded him had been removed, leaving the room empty of all décor save three tikihune, two of which held a banner of a rising sun, and the last held a drooping rose—the setting for a tea ceremony. In front of Gill flickered a small charcoal fire; he placed a dark ceramic kettle above it as Dominic took a seat on the floor next to him.
“How are you feeling, Dom?” asked Gill.
“I’ve definitely been better,” said Dominic.
Gill pulled a linen serviette from his waist and began wiping the thin, wooden spoon and lopsided ceramic bowl in front of him. His movements were slow, deliberate, methodical. Dominic felt a quiet peace creep through him as he watched, as though Gill was smoothing the chaotic wrinkles inside him with his movements. Dominic sighed.
“Gabe must’ve been pretty angry with me yesterday,” said Dominic.
“I don’t think Gabe gets angry,” said Gill, cleaning a wooden whisk with water spooned from the kettle, “though I do think he was disappointed. It wasn’t behaviour suited to a king.”
“I’m no king,” said Dominic. “I was never meant to be king.”
“Are you content with letting Lady Imaan rule then?” asked Gill.
“No, that’s the last thing I want,” said Dominic. “She’ll turn the whole of Aeroth upside down with her crazy, religious antics.”
“What are you going to do?” asked Gill.
“I don’t know.”
Gill scooped a spoonful of green powder into the bowl and added hot water. He whisked it into a smooth paste and added more water to the bowl until it resembled green tea. He handed the bowl to Dominic.
“Well, it’s not like I have a reputation as a ruler to go on,” said Dominic, taking the tea. “Even if I somehow get my act together, I doubt the people will ever respect me after the mess I’ve made of my reputation. Prince Dominic—Aeroth’s wildest playboy turned ruler of the humans—that’s going to go over really well, I’m sure.”
Dominic went to set the bowl down but Gill stopped him, cupping Dominic’s hands with his.
“Look at the bowl,” said Gill.
“It’s, uh, very nice,” said Dominic.
“No, look closely.”
Dominic stared at the bowl, confused. It was a basic brown, ceramic bowl with a cracked glaze and an uneven rim. He looked at Gill and shrugged.
“This bowl is the most valuable piece of pottery in my possession, worth almost as much as this house. The bowl was subjected to immense stress during its making, causing spontaneous imperfections, which are highly prized. Removed from the context of the tea ceremony and a discerning audience, however, most would not recognise it from a practice piece thrown by a potter’s apprentice,” said Gill, “yet, it is very valuable.”
“I don’t understand,” said Dominic.
“You see, Dominic, greatness is not often derived from the object itself, but from the systems and conditions that surround it,” said Gill, pausing. “You need a system.”
The door to the bachelor pad flung open.
“Gill! I’m here for my victuals I…oh,” said a scrawny man with a scraggly goatee. It was Norbert, Gill’s neighbour from next door.
“Biya, Norbert, will you ever learn to knock?” asked Gill. “You know Dominic, I’m sure.”
“Hi,” mumbled Norbert, staring at his sunflower flip-flops. Gill stood up and pressed a button under a hidden panel. A fridge, oven and counter emerged from the opposite wall. Norbert marched to the fridge, shouting at Gill in a loud whisper.
“Why didn’t you tell me you had company? You know I don’t like visitors.”
“Need I remind you, this is my house, not yours,” said Gill, “and had you knocked I could have warned you.”
“You could’ve told Henry,” said Norbert, turning around.
Gill groaned, “I am not going to talk to that disgusting—”
“Cockroach,” said Norbert. “And my beautiful bug is not disgusting; this behaviour is disgusting. Actually, it’s downright repulsive, it is, this not warning me. Neighbour-traitor.”
Gill frowned. “Aren’t you going to get your—”
“Worms, yes,” said Norbert, snapping straighter as he waltzed to the fridge. “My onions are looking a bit fluish, they are. I want to nip it in the bud before it gets serious.”
“Your onions have the flu?” asked Dominic.
“My onions are a private matter, they are,” snapped Norbert. “Everyone knows that.”
“Excuses, Gill-Mahn? Hongi doesn’t mean to interrupt the spirit tea but an urgent message is coming now. Should probably answer now-now,” said the little tikihune. She held a chrome pen that was vibrating and pulsing red, warning that an urgent aquamail was waiting at the taps.
“Thank you, Hongi, I shall see to this presently,” said Gill, taking the pen. He clicked its top, and an invisible door opened in the wall, revealing a closet-like room with two marble sinks, each with its own tap. Hongi hopped onto a stool in the aquaroom so her eyes were even with the marble. She stood on her toes and looked over her nose as inky water flowed onto an etched tablet in the first sink as Gill turned the first tap, filling the crevices on the tablet in the shape of a message. Gill read the ink lines.
“Dom, you’re needed at the Palace,” said Gill, his face serious. “Something’s happened.”
Gabriel Silbi stared at the portrait of King Saladin in the Palace study, twisting a newspaper in his hands. A young man with similar eyes and a more mischievous chin entered alongside it, looking tired but considerably better than yesterday. He plopped himself in a chair near the desk.
“What is it?” asked Dominic.
“Lady Imaan has declared a state of emergency,” said Gabe. “She plans to name herself absolute ruler in the interim, until she can appoint a king.”
“What? She can’t do that.”
“Actually, she can, and she’s going to, given this.”
He dropped the newspaper on the desk. It was the latest edition of the Rosy Herald, with a bold headline so large it seemed to jump off the front page.
Drunken Prince Attacks Aeroth’s Most Celebrated Journalist
“Not exactly appropriate behaviour from a future king in dire times,” said Gabe.
“Damn,” grumbled Dominic.
“Imaan’s managed to get the judges to agree to a vote to abolish an hereditary succession, which she argues was never established in the first place.”
“And the six judges agree?” asked Dominic.
“She has the backing of the Elite and Theodite judges. The Aaronites and the Octavites are against. And the Rosy Herald is obviously behind her…now.”
“What about the Renaultan judge?”
“Unsure at present, but he will likely side with Imaan. The Renaultans do not look kindly on bestial behaviour. The Humphrites are abstaining from the vote as per usual.”
“So Elites, Theodites, Renaultans are for Imaan; Aaronites and Octavites are against, with the Humphrites abstaining? That would give Imaan the vote.”
“She’s already gaining political favour among the populace as well,” said Gabe.
“Yeah, I guess people would be more willing to agree with her views now that Saladin’s dead,” said Dominic.
“She needed only a thin excuse to take it all, and now she has it,” said Gabe.
Dominic frowned. Lady Imaan was the High Priest of Aeroth and had been the ruler of the humans for many years until an unexpected war had destroyed her credibility with the people. Forced to appoint a king to save her position, Imaan had enlisted Dominic’s charismatic Uncle Saladin to rule with her, but the idea of sharing power had never sat well with the old woman.
Believing herself to be the divinely-appointed ruler of Aeroth, she insisted her demise had been planned by mers, sea people who lived on the other side of the Abyss and the mortal enemies of humans. Imaan believed that as Saladin grew in favour, the people were becoming more vulnerable to attack, a plan she believed was being orchestrated by Saladin’s best friend and confident, Gabriel Silbi, a powerful businessman who Imaan believed was really a mer in disguise.
Of course, none of this had been proven, and until this morning Dominic had considered her a crazy, old goat standing in the way of progress—kept in power merely through his uncle’s decency and respect for culture. Dominic looked at the paper and sighed. It appeared the old goat still had a bit of kick in her.
“I’ve really made a mess of things, haven’t I?” asked Dominic.
“Look, you must know I’m on your side. Despite everything that may have happened, I think you have a good head on your shoulders,” said Gabe.
“Even with all evidence to the contrary?” asked Dominic.
Gabe paused. A long case was sitting on the desk in the study; he nodded toward it.
“Open it,” said Gabe.
Dominic unsnapped the clasps on the side of the box. Inside, on a bed of velvet, lay a metal walking stick and a glove. Dominic stared. It was his uncle’s blade.
“Sargon,” he said.
“Your Uncle built Aeroth with this blade; he would have wanted you to have it,” said Gabe.
Dominic put on the glove and tapped the length of the stick with his gloved knuckle. The stick glowed molten orange. Dominic ran his hand over the glowing length, flattening it into a cutting edge. Sargon hardened into a gleaming sword.
“You could restore normalcy and continue your uncle’s legacy,” said Gabe.
“I could protect you also. Imaan isn’t exactly a fan of yours,” said Dominic, waving the sword around.
Gabe gave him a hurt look.
“Sorry, that was insulting,” said Dominic, setting the sword back in the case. “I could never assume someone like you would need protection from me.”
“You can rule, Dominic. I can put Ibex behind you and sway the judges, but I won’t do that unless it is something you want for yourself. Despite what your uncle may have wanted, I will not force it on you,” said Gabe.
“You really think my uncle would have wanted me to rule?”
“Yes, I really do believe that,” said Gabe.
Dominic chuckled. “I am to be the cracked bowl in the middle of a tea ceremony.”
“Nothing,” said Dominic, shaking his head. “Can you persuade the judges?”
“Are you serious about wanting to rule?”
Dominic shrugged. “Yeah, I’ll take a shot at it.”
“I’m going to need more than a shot. You know that, right?”
“Yes. How do we persuade them?”
Gabe looked to the guard at the door. “Call the witness.”
Dominic heard a scuffle happening just beyond the door, followed by the protests of a loud, jittery voice.
“I don’t know what you’re up to, bringing a humble Humphrite here like this,” said the man from beyond the door. “Everybody knows we keep to ourselves and don’t get up to trouble like the rest of you tribes. Judge Ilford is going to be very disappointed at your behaviour, he is, very disappointed.”
The door opened. A round-bellied man squirmed between two guards at the entrance of the study, looking as though he was being attacked by mosquitoes.
Dominic frowned. “Him?”
“What’s your name?” asked Dominic.
“Marcus Schweme,” said the agitated Humphrite, “of Schweme’s Tuck Shop and Company.”
Beyond the walls of the City, the sands of the Marah Desert trembled under an anxious wind as the evening rose and darkness set in. Lady Imaan sat on a fuzzy carpet amid the glowing lanterns in her desert shelter, sipping rooibos as she scanned the books and manuscripts encircling her. With Saladin dead, the High Priest was again to be the only ruler in Aeroth. By the morning, the judges would have voted, and she would again have the control she once had. She glanced toward the photo of a drunken Dominic in the Rosy Herald and smiled. It would be a challenge to endear herself to the dissenting judges, but nothing she hadn’t done before. Imaan turned her attention to the more pressing matters found in the book at her feet. She stared at the words, parsed together from tattered manuscripts, reciting along in her memory.
Then Avinoam cursed Adam, and with a mighty roar and a fiery sword Avinoam split the land into two and banished humans from the land.
Imaan paused, thinking.
Banished from the land…
So many questions raced through her head. Surrounded on all sides by impenetrable cliffs and treacherous waves since the time of the separation, no one had ever managed to descend into the legendary valley at the centre of Paradise Island. Access by sea was impossible, access by air even more so. The dangerous winds and mountain faces made any attempts suicidal. She wondered.
Would the shield offer enough protection?
It was a risky shot, but it was the best she had. Paradise had to be scaled if she was ever to discover the secret to undoing her ultimate enemy, the Leviathan, and she was running out of time. Imaan pushed the urgency from her mind and read through the passage again.
The door to the shelter flung open and slammed shut, knocking over a lantern in its wake. Tristan, the chief commanding officer of Ibex, stood in front of her, dishevelled and shaken. He grabbed a bag from the corner and paced the room, throwing books and clothes into it like a wild man.
“They’ve changed the vote,” he said.
“What?” asked Imaan.
“The judges. They’re going to vote unanimously in favour of Dominic and arrest you on charges of treason, embezzlement and conspiracy to murder. We must get you into hiding before it’s too late.”
“Wait, what are you talking about?”
“You’ve been implicated in an illegal arms deal that resulted in the death of King Saladin. Forty million from the Temple treasury in exchange for a dagger laced with batrotoxin. Ibex is on their way to make an arrest.”
“The police think I killed Saladin?”
“No, they think you were dealing in weapons that after falling into the wrong hands were used to kill Saladin,” said Tristan, “though your detractors will claim you intended to kill either Saladin or Gabe.”
“This whole thing is preposterous—a cheap and desperate lie to try to swing votes,” said Imaan, standing to make tea. “The judges won’t believe it.”
Tristan watched as Imaan calmly opened the container of sugar and spooned it into her cup. He frowned.
“They have Marcus,” said Tristan.
Imaan set down her spoon and paused. “I don’t know who you’re talking about.”
“Don’t play the fool with me, Imaan. Even Ilford is breaking precedent and voting,” said Tristan. “He’s incensed that you involved a Humphrite.”
“The Humphrite’s testimony will never stand in court,” said Imaan.
“With all due respect, Lady, that’s not a risk you should be willing to take,” said Tristan. “You can return when we have a better plan of action. For now, we must get you out.” Tristan grabbed her hand and swung open the door, stopping dead as he came face to face with Wilhelm Schmidt, the most controversial and ruthless guard of the Ibex force. His cold smile sent a chill down Imaan’s spine.
“Going somewhere?” he asked.
Tristan eyed the line of hostile-looking guards behind him. He sighed and released Imaan’s hand. “No, she wasn’t,” said Tristan.
“Well, I am glad to hear we didn’t ruin any plans,” said Wilhelm, looking Tristan up and down, “because I am afraid, Lady Imaan, you are under arrest.”
In the darkened Temple next to the Palace, Liza Hart sat in the last bench toward the back, staring at the bowl of glowing coals on the front altar. Plumes of burning incense rose up from the bowl; it danced above the altar for a brief moment before disappearing into the universe, leaving behind a sweet, earthy smell reminiscent of times and places she would rather forget. She looked away as a tear welled in her eye.
Saladin liked this incense, she thought.
A girl in a bath robe and hair curlers confidently strolled past, pausing as she noticed Liza in the back bench. It was Catherine, a maiden of the Temple and one of Imaan’s students. Liza wiped her eye and waved.
“Hello,” whispered Catherine. “How are you doing?”
“I couldn’t sleep,” said Liza, “but otherwise I’m fine, all things considering,” said Liza.
“I haven’t had a chance to greet you since you’ve been back.”
“Yeah, well, I haven’t exactly wanted to see many people,” said Liza.
“Oh. I can leave if you want,” said Catherine. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your night prayers.”
“No, it’s fine. I wasn’t actually… I mean I can’t shut everyone out forever. I could use the company.”
Catherine smiled and sat down.
“I just can’t believe he’s gone,” said Liza, watching the coals.
“Me neither,” said Catherine. “It must be so difficult to lose your fiancé.”
“I can’t help but wonder if he hadn’t… if I had resisted and not given into my feelings…maybe Saladin would not have died,” said Liza.
“What?” asked Catherine.
“Do you think it was punishment for not following Avinoam’s will?” asked Liza. “Do you think he was taken because of me? …Because I left the priesthood for him?”
“Oh no, how could you even think that?” asked Catherine, leaning nearer. “That’s like saying the hands of that wretched murderer and Avinoam are the same. That can’t possibly be right.”
“Then why did he die?” asked Liza. “Why did he have to die?”
Catherine paused. “I don’t know, but there are many things we can’t understand. Maybe it was just his time.”
“I’ve been training my whole life to follow the Lady. Why couldn’t I resist, Catherine? How can I fast and pray and be in the Temple so much and still be so ‘poisoned by desire’ as the Lady would say? Does all that work count for nothing?” Liza blinked her eyes, fighting the urge to cry. Catherine put her arm around her.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself, Liza. You’re back now, and we’re happy to have you, the Lady especially. She really missed having you as her assistant,” said Catherine.
“I think it hurt her a lot when I accepted Saladin’s proposal. She was like a friend and mother to me, and I didn’t even have the nerve to tell her what happened. Then after Saladin… after I asked to come back, she was so kind and loving. She treated me as if I’d never left. I feel so guilty.”
“Don’t be. The Lady loves you. We all do.”
Liza frowned. Catherine could sense a deep sadness but also a fiery anger bubbling under the quiet priestess’s veil. She nodded sympathetically and stood to leave.
“Speaking of the Lady, I haven’t seen her today,” said Catherine, thoughtful.
“I think she’s busy with the vote,” said Liza.
Catherine nodded and shuffled toward the front altar, taking a seat nearer the glowing coals as Liza rose to leave. Liza grabbed a ring of keys from her pocket and headed toward the public entrance, readying to lock the doors for the night. Opposite the Temple steps stood two shadowy figures engaged in intimate conversation. Liza watched as a thin man with feathered hair looked around, pulling a sack from his bag. The other man dug a wad of bills from his pocket. Liza pushed through the door.
“Hey! What are you doing?” she shouted from the steps. The feather-haired man dropped the sack, and the pair darted in opposite directions, disappearing into the maze of alleys that crossed the City. Liza hurried over and picked up the sack. A heavy amount of shimmering powder shifted as she opened it. It was fine quartz sand highly-prized in glassmaking, and also illegal if sold without accompanying documentation. An Ibex patrol guard who had heard her shouting turned down the lane. She waved to him.
“Can you take care of this for me? Two men were trading it outside the Temple. They dropped it and ran when I shouted.”
The guard looked at the sack in her hands. “Your teacher taught you well, didn’t she? It’s convenient that you would report this now.”
“Liza Hart, you are under arrest for possession of contraband,” said the guard, taking out his handcuffs.
“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in the Aerothian High Court. King Dominic has ordered we be very strict on any infringements.”
“Dominic? But Lady—”
“Imaan has been declared an enemy of the state in a unanimous vote by the judges and is currently in custody on charges of treason, embezzlement and conspiracy to murder. To mention any allegiance to her now would be very unwise.”
“What are you talking about?” she asked. The guard growled.
“Ms Hart, you have committed a crime for which you are being arrested. You are not at liberty to interrogate me. Now are you going to come quietly, or must I do this the hard way?”
Liza held out her wrists. Catherine, who had heard the commotion from inside, peeked through the Temple doors. She opened her mouth to shout, but Liza silenced her with a shake of the head.
Find Tristan, she mouthed.
Catherine nodded and slipped back into the Temple, running through the sanctuary and into the corridor leading to the maidens’ dormitory. She bumped into another girl, Beatrice, who wiped the sleep from her eyes.
“What’s happening?” she asked.
“They’ve arrested Liza,” said Catherine.
“Ibex just arrested Liza. We have to find Tristan now,” said Catherine.
More of Imaan’s students stirred and found their way to the hall.
“What’s happening? Where’s the Lady?” they asked.
“I’m not sure,” said Catherine, “but something’s very wrong.”
“How bad is it?” asked Imaan as she leaned through rusted bars. She was in a damp, maximum security cell in the penitentiary on Kakapo Wreck, an island scrapyard for damaged ships and disgraced people. Tristan handed her a grey wool blanket.
“We’ve managed to get all the maidens safely into hiding,” said Tristan. “It doesn’t look like they will be charged, but we thought it best they keep a low profile until we’re sure. The Temple’s been closed until further notice.”
“She was arrested on charges of possession of contraband.”
“We’re not sure if she was set up, or if it was an unfortunate accident, but she was caught with two kilograms of quartz sand outside the Temple. By the time I got there, she was already gone. I’m sorry.”
“Oh, that I would see the day the Leviathan rises,” said Imaan. She pulled the blanket more tightly around her. Tristan shook with anger.
“No, Lady, that day is not today. We will fight this. People aren’t happy with Dominic’s upheaval and the Fraternity is already organising. Ibex has also doubled its search for the murderer. If Michelson is caught, it will make it easier to get you… Lady, are you listening?”
“Hmm?” asked Imaan, as she rubbed the gravel under her feet. “Yes, you’ve done admirably. Thank you.”
“Don’t lose hope, Lady,” said Tristan. “The Fraternity will follow you to the end. We swore we would. Saladin swore it with us.”
“And the…” Tristan paused.
“We found a bag on Saladin’s body showing the exchange was made, but inside it was just an old piece of shark leather,” said Imaan.
“So no shield was found?” asked Tristan.
Imaan shook her head.
“And the merman?”
“Hush, Michelson’s identity as a merman must not be compromised,” said Imaan, leaning toward the bars. “Only select fraternity members knew of the plan to retrieve the shield; the least we can salvage from the botched attempt is the normalcy that existed before Michelson betrayed us. We are not in a position to add more confusion among the people.”
Tristan frowned. “Lady, if I may, this merman murdered King Saladin, which if known to the people would be considered an act of war. If you are the ruling High Priest, surely the mers couldn’t massacre us again, if we are prepared?”
“After the recent events, I will only have the influence to secure another partnership between the Temple and State again, not sole rule. Stupid as he is, I fear Dominic is here to stay. There will be a king in Aeroth—one that even a merish child could kill, I’m afraid. The whole plan has gone gravely wrong.”
“Lady, you mustn’t give up so easily. You did not murder Saladin, and you have proven yourself a far more worthy ruler than that promiscuous fool of a boy. The Temple has the right to rule.”
“I have to go now, but I’ve managed to secure a small reprieve from your conditions. You are allowed one effect from home. Shall I bring the Sacred Memories?” asked Tristan.
The tired priest stared past the rusting bars.
“No,” said Lady Imaan, “bring my hookah pipe.”
David Michelson stumbled forward with the possessed energy of a wounded animal being hunted, pushed past every physical limit but compelled to move on. For countless days, the scorching heat of the Marah Desert had beat down on him. The rations of water and food given to him by Norbert had run out long before; he kept his satchel only for the memories of Natalie it held—memories that with each passing minute looked more and more like a mirage.
He clung to the last threads of life as he trudged through the sandy sea. The merish markings on his arms burned like a branding iron and his hidden gills cut into his throat like hot knives, begging for the water in which they belonged. His lips were cracked and swollen, and the silken flares of skin beneath his knees that normally turned to fins in water were dry and papery.
David was a merman—a mer and a man, hated by both races for his connection to the other. David was the only one of his kind, and he belonged nowhere, forced into the Marah to hunt for a shield he had held only days before, given away to humans who then framed him for murder.
He squinted and staggered, his head swimming with heat as the desert began to speak.
You know you could’ve just stayed. If you had put on the shield yourself, they probably would have made you king.
“I’m no king. I don’t have the heart for it,” said David. The desert taunted him.
You’re right. For the whole of your time here, you’ve been a pawn in another’s game. You can’t make such a big leap overnight. You do not know how to move the pieces in your game. You were bred for the purpose of servitude. A slave. An ape.
“Is this how you see me, as an animal? …as in ‘not like you’?” whimpered David.
You are an animal, an insolent animal. No matter how you act or what you do, the mers will hunt you like an animal.
“Because you set me up,” choked David.
It’s not like Aeroth would have welcomed you with open arms… To the humans, a mer and a murderer are one in the same. You’re a murderer.
“No. I won’t be your puppet on a string.”
Too late, Child. You gave them a match. Now they will burn you out until there’s nothing left but a hollow feeling of despondency and regret.
“Damn it, this heat. Make it stop,” cried David. “Can’t anyone make it stop?”
You will die in the desert. The gullible idiot, wanted nowhere, belonging nowhere.
David spotted a glimmer in the distance. “Is that a lake?” he asked.
Natalie almost killed you in a lake, said the desert.
“No, that bloody mer in the forest almost killed me,” corrected David. The desert growled.
It was a simple task. No one asked you to play detective or Adam Incarnate.
“Kiwi. Where’s Kiwi?” asked David, looking around. “Kiwi!”
But the faithful parakeet whom he had saved not long ago had also gone, flown away during one of his bouts of delirium. As David scanned the horizon, he saw a shadow move in the distance. He hurried in its direction but tripped and could not get up. The shadow moved nearer, a hooded man with a sword outstretched. He held it to David’s neck.
“Well, well, if it isn’t good fortune to have stumbled upon King Saladin’s murderer,” said the man, his sword across David’s neck. “I’d know your face anywhere.”
He dragged his sword across David’s merish markings and smiled. “Ooh, you’re even juicier than I expected. You’re coming with me.”