Kaio continued to hover. Fen could feel him behind her, with a constant awareness of his presence that was really annoying. She wanted to tell him to go away; he wasn’t making anything better by being there. Shouldn’t he have people to talk to, things to do, minions to boss around?
But she concentrated on her fish. Now that there were no dead eyes looking up at her, it tasted pretty good, and she was hungrier than she’d realized.
“I was under the impression that the choirmaster had particularly requested your presence for this evening’s performance,” Lady Cyntha said to Kaio.
“Yes,” he replied, but offered no further details.
“And?” Cyntha’s narrow-eyed glare prompted him for more.
“Oh, shall you sing?” The queen sounded delighted. She leaned toward Fen. “My grandson is a gifted musician. It was a sad loss to our choir when he chose to become a seeker. The choirmaster mourned his loss, and although Kaio chooses not to further develop his skill, it is always a great pleasure when he returns for a performance or two.”
She turned back to Kaio. “Shall you sing for us?”
Kaio’s response seemed more directed to his mother than the queen. “I expressed my appreciation for the honor of the request and informed the choirmaster I would join them were I able.”
“And you are able, are you not?” Lady Cyntha asked.
“I…” Kaio hesitated. His glance fell upon Fen again.
“Lady Felicia will be fine in our company,” Lady Cyntha said pointedly.
“Of course.” Kaio inclined his head to his mother. “Merely…”
“What?” she snapped.
“I would wait here until Master Horatio locates my lady sister, if I may.”
His voice sounded completely neutral, no hint of any emotion that Fen could read, but she set down her weird fish spatula carefully and put her hand over the ladybug tattoo in the v between her finger and her thumb on her other hand. It was asleep, head tucked under its wing, and green, which meant that she was safe, not in any danger that the tattoo could recognize. But something about the way Kaio spoke had her throat closing.
She was fine. She was sitting in a beautiful place, between two powerful people, nothing dangerous anywhere near her, if one discounted the incredible weight of water looming. But she felt scared anyway.
“Nonsense.” Lady Cyntha gestured toward one of the servitors and then her plate. He whisked it away. Another swept in with a platter of pastries. “Gaelith is undoubtedly amusing herself somewhere, perhaps with Lady Din Souza’s babe.”
“Indeed, that is most likely,” Kaio agreed.
Somehow Fen didn’t feel better.
“Then be off with you.” Lady Cyntha’s order was brisk, authoritative. The kind of command that would be hard for anyone to disobey, much less a dutiful son. Fen almost wanted to get up and dash off herself.
Actually, Fen really wanted to get up and dash off herself. She didn’t understand where the feeling was coming from — it wasn’t one of those times where she understood what was freaking her out — but she felt the imminent panic attack tickling the back of her throat.
She took a breath and released it slowly. No hyperventilating, that always made it worse. Slow breaths, that was the ticket. She peeked at her ladybug. Still green, still sleeping, still nothing to fear.
“Indeed,” the queen said. “We look forward to hearing you. It will bring us much pleasure.” The words from the queen were slightly less of an order. But only slightly.
Kaio bowed. If he felt reluctant, it showed in neither his expression nor his words as he gracefully conceded to the queen’s wishes and departed.
Only a few minutes more passed before a woman in a seriously gorgeous robe of a garnet red embroidered with patterns of flame approached the queen. She leaned down next to her and murmured something in her ear.
“Of course,” the queen responded promptly. She turned to Fen. “My dear, I must excuse myself. Please enjoy your dinner. Try the pastries, they’re delicious.”
Fen murmured something that she hoped sounded polite in reply. Shit, the queen was going to abandon her with Lady Cyntha? It wasn’t like Cyntha had done anything terrible to Fen: no snide comments or disapproving glares, much less some actual mea. But Fen had never met anyone more intimidating.
Part of it was that both her sons were totally hot — Fen had been seriously considering how to seduce Luke just a couple days ago and it was sort of weirdly awkward to sit next to his mom knowing those thoughts had been her head.
Not that she thought Cyntha could read her mind but sometimes people did in Sia Mara, and her imagination had gotten pretty damn explicit. Meanwhile, her attraction to Kaio was pure lust, a hundred percent. She didn’t even know whether she liked him, but her body didn’t have any such doubts. And this was his mom.
Also, though, Fen had almost gotten Luke killed more than once. She couldn’t help feeling Cyntha might hold that against her and she wouldn’t blame her if she did. And even if Cyntha didn’t hold Fen responsible for Luke’s near misses, Luke had nearly gotten himself permanently exiled from Syl Var for trying to save Fen’s life, and Cyntha had to believe that was Fen’s fault.
So yeah, Fen did not want to be left alone with Cyntha. Unfortunately, she didn’t have much of a choice. The queen departed as quickly as Kaio had. But before Fen had time to do more than search desperately for a topic of conversation and reject everything that came to mind — how the fuck did people make small talk when the weather never changed? — the guard who the queen had sent in search of Gaelith returned.
At least Fen assumed it was him. The facial tattoos made all the guards look a lot alike.
He bowed respectfully to Cyntha. “My lady, we have been unable to locate your daughter. She is not on the grounds nor in the castle nor does she appear to be in the audience of any of the performances currently underway around the city. I have men searching the causeway, but we are stretched thin, as we also seek the escaped prisoner and the Val Kyr. More, the city is restless from the events of the day. Some of my men must stay on guard to ensure the inevitable debates remain civil. We continue to search, but I would ask if you are able to suggest any possibly locations where her ladyship is more likely to be found?”
Lady Cyntha snorted. “Not where she is wanted, as is usual. But I shall assist you.” She stood and turned a palm up. Frowning with concentration, lines appearing between her eyebrows, she stared at her hand. A spark of green light appeared, then grew into a ball, brighter and brighter. When it was about the size of an egg but so bright Fen couldn’t look directly at it, she turned to Fen.
Nodding at Fen’s still unfinished fish and the tray of pastries, she said, “This magic will fade e’er I do not accompany it, so I must attend Master Horatio. Finish your meal, Lady Felicia, and I shall return with my daughter in but a few moments. Then we shall all attend the performance of the Choriodaki Choir together, a pleasure that I assure you is not to be missed.” She gave Fen a wintry smile.
Fen nodded in response. She wanted to ask questions — how was Lady Cyntha doing that? It had to be some kind of location spell but how did it work? Was she pulling nanomites out of her skin somehow? Or out of the air? What did the light do? But Gaelith was a lot more likely to answer her questions without making her feel stupid, so she’d wait to ask her questions until she could them of Gaelith.
Lady Cyntha led the way, Horatio following, and the two of them left.
Fen took another bite of her fish.
And then she looked around her. She wasn’t really alone, there were plenty of people wandering along the winding paths.
But she felt alone. The grove was dimly lit, shadowy, and now that she was by herself, instead of feeling mystical, it felt… spooky.
Were the Val Kyr really gone? Had they escaped from the city entirely? Or had they just changed their appearances so that they looked like people from Syl Var, unrecognizable as strangers, as they’d done before?
Could they be lurking, unseen, hidden nearby? But why would they?
Her mouth felt abruptly dry and she picked up the water glass that Kaio had filled and took a big gulp.
Her brother had tried to kidnap or kill her at least once or twice. Did he still want to?
She took another slow deep breath, feeling her heart beat accelerating. It was stupid to be worried about this. Her brother wasn’t going to kidnap her and he wasn’t going to murder her.
One long, slow exhale, then another, but her brain was plaguing her with thoughts of the Val Kyr, memories too vivid, too real. Malik cornering her by the bookstore door. The way her knees had turned to water. The pool of blood that seeped around Remy’s body, how it had puddled. The smell of it, heavy in the air.
Her stomach churned and she put a hand over it, pressing into the wide embroidered belt she wore.
Stop it, she told herself. Just breathe.
But the images kept creeping into her head. The sweat trickling down Baldric’s face as he held a knife to the queen’s throat. Luke, unconscious, his face gray.
A waiter came by and Fen stiffened, a line of tension running down the back of her neck and along her shoulders, but he cleared the table, piling the dishes on a tray without comment, merely casting her a curious glance.
On the verge of leaving, he paused and said, “The music will be starting in the rotunda, miss. You’ll be able to hear it from here, but the view will be better if you join the audience.” He gestured toward one of the paths. “It’s that way, follow the path to the right and then take the first wide left. You won’t be able to miss it.”
“Thank you.” Fen nodded but underneath the table, her hands clenched into fists. She didn’t want to wander the gardens by herself. She wanted to go home.
But she didn’t know where that was.
She didn’t even know where she’d be sleeping that night — back to Remy’s, to the memories of the last time she’d been there, when he’d been killed and Luke had looked like he was dying? Or back to the healing room where she’d woken up that morning, a time that seemed an eternity ago? She’d never find the latter. She hadn’t paid enough attention when they left on their way to the Great Council meeting.
The waiter departed and Fen tried breathing again.
Damn it, she should have grabbed a knife from the table before the waiter cleared it. There must have been something among the weird array of utensils that could have served as a weapon. Not that any of them would do much against a man intent on killing her, but holding one might have made her feel better.
She glanced down at her hands. The ladybug on the back of her left hand was still deep green and motionless. She tried to relax. If the Val Kyr were near, the ladybug would know.
The music began. Fen recognized the difference immediately. The previous music had been background accompaniment to conversation and merriment but this was music that demanded attention, male voices in exultant harmony.
It was beautiful but she found it hard to pay attention. It wanted her attention, it practically demanded it, but it was encompassing enough that she could no longer hear the sounds around her. Was that movement in the shrubbery? She froze, but it was just an errant breeze off one of the waterfalls.
She wished she had a watch. Was it her imagination that she’d been waiting forever? Maybe time was stretching in that weird way it had, elongating so that every fearful minute felt like an hour.
“Elfie? How long have I been waiting?”
“Approximately thirty-five minutes.”
“That’s not so long.” Fen stood, rubbing her arms. It wasn’t cold out, but the air felt misty and damp and the chill easily penetrated the soft, silky cloth of her close-fitting sleeves.
“No,” Elfie replied, but she sounded doubtful.
“What is it?” Fen asked.
“Contingent upon various assumptions, including most particularly the words of Lady Cyntha upon her departure, it is too long,” Elfie said promptly. “They should have returned by now.”
Fen felt a reluctant smile cross her lips. Having Elfie say what she was thinking was a relief.
“I don’t know what to do.” Fen put a hand up to the copper-entwined crystal hanging at her neck. Gaelith had promised to teach her how to use her crystal to communicate directly with other people, but at the moment, when she sent out a call on her crystal, every crystal receiver in Syl Var could hear it. Kaio had said the Val Kyr had no crystal speakers, but what if he was wrong? It would be stupidly ironic if trying to reach Gaelith meant letting the Val Kyr know her location.
On impulse, Fen asked, “Do you think the Val Kyr want to kill me?”
Elfie’s response was slow. “Data is limited. An accurate probability cannot be calculated. However, any percentage chance higher than zero indicates a need for caution.”
“Yeah. I think so, too.”
“Perhaps finding a safe place is in order,” Elfie suggested.
“Any idea where one might be?” Fen took two paces away from the table, feeling the need to move. Silently, the table and chairs melted away, disappearing into the ground. Fen didn’t even gasp.
“Yes,” Elfie said. “The villa of Wai Pa can be secured to you to allow only those persons who you permit into its boundaries.”
“Lead the way,” Fen said with relief.
“One minor problem.”
“Yes?” Fen shivered, glancing into the shadows by the trees uneasily, before lifting her hand to confirm that her ladybug was still nestled in sleep.
“The Val Kyr possess the adjoining villa.” Elfie sounded almost apologetic.
“Great,” Fen muttered.
“My own assessment does not concur,” Elfie said. “However, if the Val Kyr were presently at their assigned premises, they would not be said to have disappeared.”
“Good point.” Fen swallowed, trying to think. Decisions, decisions. But she wanted to get out of here, and what other option did she have? “Let’s go.”
She hurried through the garden, avoiding the crowds of Sia Mara. It was strange and surreal, moving between spooky shadowed glades into throngs of brightly dressed people, mostly men, with music playing in the distance and the ocean looming nearby. Elfie led her along the side of the dome, the ocean always on her right, a solid wall extending up farther than she could see, before finally turning her onto a path that led through intricate metal gates and back into the city.
The narrow streets were quiet, but comfortable. They felt familiar to Fen, the shadows friendlier than those cast by trees and leaves. Even the sound of her footsteps scuffing the sandy ground felt reassuring, since they were the only footsteps she could hear.
“Left here,” Elfie instructed.
Fen followed her orders, but her footsteps faltered at the scene in front of her. An archway opened onto a wide plaza, complete with a central lake and fountain, with lush flowers and six buildings in a semi-circle around it. The buildings were as varied as if they were samples in some history museum’s architecture display. Except it would be a very weird history museum.
“What is this place?” Fen asked. The first building was gorgeous, tiled in mosaics of blue and green, with bursts of occasional color and open balconies. But the one next to it was ugly–a deep red, spiky, with twisting turrets and flat orange roofs.
“It’s the embassy compound,” Elfie said. “Each building belongs to one of the other cities.”
“Ys Ker, Ku Mari,” Fen said, pointing to each of the first two buildings in turn.
“Yes,” Elfie replied.
The third building was awash with light. It glittered and sparkled, metallic towers in a pinkish metal, silver, copper and gold climbing toward the sky. The fourth, though, was half the size of the first three and looked almost as if it had grown organically from the ground, shaded in peach and ambers, the colors of sand and rock. The fifth was an ice palace, stark, in a deep blue that darkened close to black near the ground. “Lan Tis, Lu Mer, Val Kyr.”
“And Wai Pa,” Fen said, pointing at the last of the buildings.
The building was a stark white, cold and joyless. Fen shivered. Ugh. She wasn’t at all sure she wanted to stay there. Maybe she could move in with Riana and the Ys Ker delegation or Gera and the group from Lu Mer. Their houses looked a lot friendlier.
As Fen got closer to the Wai Pa villa, she saw that it was covered with carvings, whimsical curves of energy and fun. Along the doorjamb, tiny sea creatures peeped out from behind flowing seaweed, and over the door, a curious penguin peered down as if deciding whether to admit her. Fen traced a hand over the lines of a miniature jellyfish. “Weird,” she said under her breath. This house felt wrong. These carvings didn’t match the rest of it.
“Wai Pa was famed for their sculpture,” Elfie told her. “Their villa was a demonstration of their artistry.”
“Why is it so plain, then? So white?”
“White is a color of mourning,” Elfie told her. “In 9851, when the Watchers formally declared the search for survivors at an end, the Wai Pa villa was turned into a memorial for the lost.”
“Great,” Fen said with a sigh. So she was going to stay in some kind of giant tomb? That’d be fun. At least she wouldn’t have to share it with any dead bodies.
“I believe your interpreter pattern is failing to translate that term correctly,” Elfie said. “You have used it more than once in circumstances that do not seem to adequately correspond with the meaning of the Sia Maran equivalent. Shall I attempt to modify your pattern?”
Fen’s lips quirked up. “Nah, that’s okay.” The door didn’t seem to have a handle of any sort, so she put a hand on it, and waited. It took longer than the doors she’d grown used to at Remy’s, but after ten seconds or so, it shimmered away into a grey foggy nothingness. Fen stepped through into darkness and the door re-formed behind her.
“Lights,” she said.
“Lights,” she tried again.
Still nothing happened.
“Um, Elfie?” Her voice squeaked a little. The darkness was absolute, a deep impenetrable blackness.
“The magic in here is old,” Elfie said, sounding apologetic. “It has gone unused for well over three score. It sleeps.”
“Well, wakey-wakey time.” Fen crouched and put a hand on the floor.