The eyes of the dead fish staring up at her looked reproachful.
Fen scowled down at it. In her runaway days, she’d gone dumpster diving, chowing down on half-eaten burgers without even blinking. Food was food when you were hungry.
But she wasn’t hungry enough for eyes.
“Does your fish displease you, love?” The queen gestured to the platter in front of them. “Shall you try something else? The sea cucumber is delightful this evening.”
Fen averted her gaze from the platter and plastered a smile on her face. “No, no, this is fine, thank you.”
The platter contained… creatures. Snails in their shells; open flat shells holding gray slimy goop; white tubes with dangling tentacles; slices of a bumpy yellow flesh that looked squishy; curved pink bodies with teeny tiny legs and antennae.
Sea bugs, basically.
Even eyes were better than eating sea bugs.
When Fen had been invited to the formal banquet celebrating the opening night of the Great Council, she’d pictured something medieval—gray stone walls and long wooden tables with the queen on her throne at the head of the room. Or maybe she’d been imagining Hogwarts. Either way, she’d been impossibly far from the truth.
Instead she sat under the star-sprinkled twilight sky, in a garden lit by thousands of tiny floating lights. Tables were placed under the trees, in nooks and alcoves created by hanging vines and waterfalls, while winding paths led from one grove to the next. People flowed along the paths, waiters in blue and silver with platters of food hoisted high scurrying between the strolling Sia Maran elite in their most glorious attire. In the background, music played, tendrils of melody winding around the rhythm of waves.
And behind them, in a view that Fen was trying hard not to think about, the ocean loomed, up, up and up. It would have been beautiful — it was beautiful — except that nothing at all seemed to separate the garden from the overwhelming weight of seawater next to it.
The water wasn’t the worst part, though.
The company was as terrifying, and much closer. Somehow, she’d wound up seated between Her Royal Majesty, Queen Ellinora of Syl Var, and the Lady Cyntha, Mother of House Del Mar.
The queen wasn’t so bad, apart from being, you know, a queen. But Lady Cyntha was beautiful and elegant and powerful and stern. And she called Fen, ‘Lady Felicia.’
Sitting next to Lady Cyntha while staring at a dead fish felt a lot like a bad dream, the kind where you were naked in math class and desperately needed to pee but couldn’t find a toilet. Oh, and you’d forgotten to study for the final exam that was happening at exactly that moment.
“Breathe,” a voice—chocolate and honey, warm and smooth, the sound resonating deep within her bones—whispered in her ear as Kaio leaned forward and refilled her goblet.
Obediently, Fen took a breath.
And then she frowned at him. What was he doing here?
He looked as ridiculously hot as he had the first time she’d seen him, back when he was a scary stranger in a hotel room wearing American business attire, but he was dressed like the waiters, in blue and silver.
He was no courtly servitor, though. He was the leader of the Watchers, the team of Sia Marans scouting the surface world, and the son and grandson respectively of Lady Cyntha and the queen. Fen didn’t know the exact lines of power in Syl Var — there was a Council and Houses, minor, major, positions achieved by magical tests, blah-blah-blah — but she was pretty sure Kaio ought to be sitting somewhere politicking with the visitors from the other Sia Maran cities, not waiting tables.
“What do you here, boy?” The queen said, sounding equally surprised to see him.
“Good hydration is important, Your Majesty.” Kaio reached for the queen’s goblet. “May I provide you with refreshment?”
The queen gestured toward one of the passing waiters. “My chatelaine would be most disturbed to discover you believe our staff incapable of attending to our needs in a timely fashion.”
It sort of sounded to Fen like the “o” in “Our” was capitalized. Twice. But the queen’s tone was gentle.
A flicker of amusement crossed Kaio’s face. “No insult is intended to the Lady Mother of House Dezala.”
“And so what do you here?” the queen asked again, more pointedly.
Kaio set the queen’s goblet back down on the table. “I thought I might remind our guest that she is not on the menu this evening. Discreetly, I had hoped.”
Fen’s cheeks went hot.
She would have liked to swat him away from her.
Fish eyes were bad enough. They weren’t going to get any tastier with him adding a nice sprinkling of humiliation.
This time it wasn’t the queen who responded, but Lady Cyntha. “Nonsense. We give all honor to the Voice of Wai Pa. Lady Felicia is an esteemed guest at her majesty’s table.”
“Of course. A fact of which she is well aware, I’m sure.” Kaio turned his head away from his mother and dropped one eyelid in a subtle wink.
Fen glared at him. She didn’t need his help, especially not if it came served with heapings of patronization.
But Lady Cyntha frowned. “I think not.”
Fen put up a hand. “Oh, no, I’m honored. Like, totally. To the max. I mean, I’m sitting next to the queen, I get it. Big deal, definitely.” She couldn’t be more honored if she’d been sitting next to the queen of England. Of course, if she had been, someone might have told her some of the rules ahead of time, like what to do with the weird utensils that looked nothing like any silverware she’d ever seen before.
On the other hand, if she’d somehow wound up sitting next to the Queen of England, most likely she could also look forward to several million youtube commentators ripping apart every breath she took and strand of hair out of place. This could be worse. At least the Sia Mara didn’t seem to have cameras focused on her every move.
Lady Cyntha didn’t smile. “My doubts have nothing to do with you, child. But my son is here for some other reason of his own. He thinks to deceive us with his charming lies. He should know better.”
Kaio’s lips curved in a rueful smile. He dipped his chin to his mother. “And so I am scolded.”
“Would that you were still of a mind to listen when your mother scolded you,” Lady Cyntha said. “Had you but a few score less, it would be sea slug paste and water while you memorized the entirety of the Val Ohta litany.”
Sea slug paste? Ew. Just… ew. Fen tried not to grimace, but the idea was revolting.
“The entire litany?” Kaio raised an eyebrow. “Ample punishment indeed for my transgressions.”
“Your brother may yet find himself reciting chapter and verse before the house council.”
“I shall warn him of his prospective fate. Most like, he shall fall into the lines of proper behavior with all due haste.” Kaio wasn’t smiling, but Fen was fairly sure that he was amused and not at all worried about his mother’s displeasure.
“Meanwhile, what do you here? No games, now,” Lady Cyntha continued.
Kaio’s mouth twisted, the trace of amusement gone. “Too awake by half, my lady mother.”
He bent his head. Voice low, speaking both to his mother and the queen, he said, “The Val Kyr have disappeared.”
Lady Cyntha exhaled. “Ah.”
“What?” Fen said sharply. What did that mean, the Val Kyr had disappeared? Malik, her brother, was one of the Val Kyr, currently locked in a cell very similar to the one she’d found herself in upon first arriving in Syl Var. He was facing trial for murder with a possible death sentence attached.
Not that she cared. She didn’t even know the guy, and he was the one who’d gotten her into this mess to begin with.
Except… well, maybe she kind of cared. Her mother had loved him, after all, even if Fen herself had never met him until a few short weeks ago.
“Softly, child.” The queen’s hand covered hers. Her fingers were cool and gentle. “All of them?”
“And you know this…?” The queen cocked an eyebrow at Kaio.
“I felt it prudent to maintain a watch. We want no further incidents to mar the proceedings, after all.”
“I would say that you take too much upon yourself, were it not that your suspicions appear to have been well-founded. Think you that they have fled?” the queen said, keeping her voice quiet.
“It is the best of the alternatives.” Kaio was looking at Fen, his eyes thoughtful.
Her cheeks felt like they were getting even hotter, a flush part embarrassment, part something else. What was he thinking when he looked at her like that? Did he think she had something to do with the Val Kyr escaping? She’d talked to her brother, but it wasn’t like she’d given him the keys to his cell.
Unless something she’d said had tipped Malik off to how she’d escaped from her own cell.
“I cannot imagine that they would muster an attack.” Lady Cyntha spoke under her breath. “What, three, four of them? What could they do alone?”
“Should we fear sabotage?” the queen asked Kaio.
Fen couldn’t resist a glance back at the water behind them. If the invisible wall that kept it out of the garden broke… She shivered. Luke had been teaching her to swim, but the best swimmer on the planet would have trouble surviving the tsunami that would follow that wall shattering.
Kaio tilted a hand, palm open. “By whose order? Baldric could not have envisioned his fate. No, I consider sabotage unlikely.”
Fen’s hand rose to the blue stone wrapped in copper wire that she wore around her neck, but she stopped herself before she could clutch it. The copper wire kept her from accidentally sharing her thoughts, but not if she held the crystal. Playing with it was a bad habit of hers, one that she was trying to break, but the reminder of Baldric made her uncomfortable.
She had killed him, after all. Not intentionally, but dead was still dead.
“But…” Kaio started, then paused.
“But?” Cyntha asked.
Kaio hesitated. Finally, with seeming reluctance, he said, “My lady sister is also noticeably absent.”
Fen froze, suddenly cold. Gaelith was missing?
But neither the queen nor Lady Cyntha seemed worried.
“Neglecting her responsibilities again?” Lady Cyntha set the utensil she’d been using to scoop the innards out of snail shells next to her plate.
“Perhaps she took Our reprimand too much to heart. She may have chosen to absent herself from the evening’s festivities from an abundance of sensibility,” the queen said.
That time Fen definitely heard the capitalized O.
“An over-abundance, if so.” Cyntha reached for one of the gray, wiggly-looking things.
Fen swallowed hard. Was she really going to eat that? But Cyntha lifted the shell and tilted the whole mess down her throat. Fen sucked in her cheeks to stop from grimacing. Gross, gross, gross.
“Sensibility has never been a quality for which my sister is noted,” Kaio murmured.
“Perhaps the scandal caused by her trip to the surface?” The queen picked up one of the pink things and bit off its head, chewing briskly. “The social repercussions may have been more challenging than she anticipated.”
Fen winced, closing her eyes for a moment longer than a blink. The queen hadn’t really done that, had she? It was a head! It had antennae. It probably crunched between her teeth like plastic wrap.
Lady Cyntha snorted and picked up a piece of squishy yellow stuff.
“The conservatives are irate,” the queen said, not as if it mattered, merely as if it were a point of interest. “House Rayavon threatened shunning. Lady Mylahr swore no son of hers would risk such contamination.”
“Mylahr should be so lucky.” Cyntha tore a dainty bite off the thing she held and ate it with seeming pleasure. “Ah, the psychrolutidae are delicious this evening.”
Fen had no idea what she’d just said. Psycho-something? Was that some kind of a drug?
“Elfie?” she subvocalized.
“Assumptions: given context, you wish to know who Lady Mylahr is? Contingent upon said assumption…” a female voice began inside her head.
It wasn’t Fen’s voice, although she sounded just like her. Technically, it wasn’t inside Fen’s head, either, she just sounded that way. Technically, she wasn’t even a she.
Elfie was a data access pattern, a tattoo on Fen’s hip constructed of nanomites — or magic, whatever — that Gaelith had created to help Fen upon her arrival in Syl Var.
“No,” Fen whispered, interrupting her. “Psycho-whatever.”
“Oh.” Elfie sounded disappointed. “Psychrolutidae? Merely a type of fish. Your interpretation pattern was not capable of determining the exact species nor a more colloquial name, so chose to identify the family. The genus would be the psychrolutes. Although they are more commonly found in…”
Fen stopped listening.
Obviously, when you lived underwater, you were going to eat a lot of fish, but she could really go for one of those half-eaten dumpster burgers right now. She picked up one of the utensils that sat next to her plate. It wasn’t exactly a fork, but it was close enough. It had one skinny tine, and one much wider tine, almost like a knife blade, except that the edges were dull, not sharp.
She poked her fish with it, trying not to think about eyes.
Elfie was still talking about fish, and the queen and Lady Cyntha were discussing people Fen didn’t know. Kaio was still standing behind her, hovering as Cyntha would have it, but Fen was determined to ignore him.
Her brother had escaped, Gaelith was missing, and she had a fish to eat. She couldn’t worry about what Kaio was doing back there.
She stabbed the fork into the side of the fish.
And then she had no choice but to worry about Kaio, because he was bending over her, his breath warm against her ear, his presence so vivid and electric that it was like having a space heater sliding against her skin. He gently took the pseudo-fork out of her hand and with one swift, deft movement, slid it under the fish’s skin and turned the body into a tidy pile of neat slices of white meat, with a messier pile of skin, bones, and head on the edge of her plate.
Fen blinked at it.
Kaio opened his hand over the messy pile, flicking his fingers like a Las Vegas magician, and it disappeared.
Fen’s mouth fell open.
Kaio set the pseudo-fork down and handed her another implement, one that was more like a miniature spatula than any silverware Fen had ever seen before. He stepped away from her, his warmth fading as he moved back.
Fen pulled her mouth closed and lifted her chin.
Great. Just great. Now she needed help eating. Maybe they were right to treat her like a five-year-old.
“Thank you,” she muttered, hating the words, knowing they ought to be said.
“A trifle,” he responded easily.
Fen scooped up a bite of fish and stuffed it into her mouth. She was going to eat her meal and get out of here, as quickly as possible. She’d find Luke and they could look for Gaelith together. All she needed to do was finish her food and politely escape.
A guard, one of the ones with scary red and black tattoos on his face, hurried up to the queen. “Your Majesty, my most profound apologies for interrupting your meal. The prisoner—”
“Has escaped, I know.” The queen brushed a hand through the air in his direction. “Old news.”
“I’m so sorry, Your Majesty. We have failed you yet again.” The glance that he cast on Fen was decidedly unfriendly. “If you wish me to tender my resignation, it is yours, but I assure you that the guards on duty will be severely punished for their incompetence.”
“Enact me no melodramas, Horatio. Find for me my granddaughter and all is forgotten.”
“Your granddaughter, Your Majesty?” The guard’s eyes skimmed over the nearby tables as if expecting to see Gaelith sitting with the council members and guests from the other Sia Maran cities.
“No need to interrupt her if she is engaged, but I would know where she is,” the queen replied.
“Yes, Your Majesty.” The guard bowed and backed away from the table, lifting a hand to one of the tattoos on his face, his lips moving as if he were also subvocalizing.
“Should you perhaps consider sealing the dome?” Kaio murmured.
The queen pursed her lips. “We have no right to hold the Val Kyr here. If they choose to leave, that is surely their prerogative. We are not their captors, nor do they come under my rule.”
“Malik of House Hikari?” Lady Cyntha said.
The queen looked vexed. “Indeed.”
“House Dar Elle will demand justice for their lost son.”
“And rightfully so.”
Fen filled her mouth with another bite of her fish to stop herself from saying anything. There was exactly one witness to Malik’s involvement in murder: her.
Of course she wanted justice for his victim, too. Remy of House Dar Elle had been her friend. He’d been gruesomely murdered, stabbed with his own kitchen knife. His blood had spread across the floor in a scene that would probably be the star feature of her nightmares for years, and she’d had plenty of other nightmares without that.
But there ought to be some kind of family opt-out to testifying against your only living relative if it might get him killed. Even if he was a bad guy.
“The Council will debate for days, if not weeks, about the legal implications and ramifications of such a trial,” Lady Cyntha murmured. “The questions of diplomatic immunity alone will entertain us for many hours. Most likely, Ys Ker and Ku Mari will wish to consult with advisors at their home cities. They will send for support and Ku Mari, in particular, refuses to sanction the use of surface technology. The journey back and forth will add weeks to the time spent on the question.”
“Selene is unlikely to allow us to set the matter aside without resolution,” the queen said. “Nor should she. Imprisoning a subject is no light matter, made all the heavier when the subject in question is none of ours.”
Fen restrained her snort. Where had their hesitation been about imprisoning her? But the eons she’d thought she’d spent in detention had only been about a day. It was the combination of boredom and fear that made the time stretch interminably.
“Barring some change in Malik’s stance—” Cyntha began.
“Unlikely,” Kaio interrupted her.
She raised an eyebrow at him, looking stern.
Fen couldn’t tell whether it was because he’d interrupted her or because of what he’d said, but Kaio took no notice, continuing, “I know Malik of old. If he will not speak now, he will not speak later. No words nor grace will sway him.”
“So.” Cyntha inclined her head. “Options of reparation being then unlikely, should all questions of jurisdiction and authority be resolved, a trial held, evidence given, and guilt determined, the most likely outcome is banishment.”
Fen scowled. Banishment?
But Selene, the Council member from Lantis, had been talking about the death penalty. Fen already hated Selene. Her Resting Bitch Face was more like Resting Cranky Get-Off-My-Lawn Witch Face, a sour expression that judged everything around her, including Fen, as appallingly inferior.
Not to mention that Selene had tried to insist that Fen was a minor who required supervision and belonged in Lan Tis for training.
“I thought Selene wanted to kill him,” Fen said.
“Banishment is a death sentence,” the queen replied somberly.
“We have neither the authority nor the power to banish Malik of House Hikari from Val Kyr, although our emissary may offer a strongly-worded condemnation of his behavior. But given the deeper waters ahead…” Cyntha pushed her plate forward a few inches, as if the sight of the empty shells had begun to repulse her. “His fate should be the least of their concerns. Banishment from Syl Var would be a trivial matter to him and to his city.”
“Nor is it more than he has already ensured, by choosing to disappear rather than await the Council’s deliberations.” The queen’s nod was decisive. “The dome shall remain unsealed. The Val Kyr may depart with our blessing. Perchance their quick return to their home may give their people a time to prepare for what may come.”
“And come all the sooner, with his trial no longer a source of delay.” Cyntha shook her head. “He may regret this sad flight.”
Fen reached for her necklace again, then dropped her hand to her side, not quite stuffing it under her thigh but letting her fingers clench the soft fabric of her full skirt instead of her smooth crystal. She wasn’t entirely sure what Cyntha meant.
She wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to know.
They were letting Malik go, though, that much she’d figured out. She tested her feelings about it, like poking at a bruise.
It didn’t hurt. Mostly, in fact, she felt annoyed. Couldn’t they have made that decision before she spent half the day listening to the other Council members droning on about the potential trial? She’d built up such a weight of useless paranoia and uncertainty that having it lifted was almost more aggravation than relief.