Separating reality from the System was not nearly as easy as one would expect. My eyes had become liars. At any moment, some portion of my vision existed to no one but me. I would call it the very definition of insanity, were it not that every person on Salazie was having the same experience and took it much for granted.
Tiny dots appearing in your peripheral vision meant information awaiting your leisure. A wish for access granted a display of tiny images floating before you, each of which contained its own abilities and data. Queries brought answers, either via the voice speaking only in your mind, or in moving pictures like the one Ella had shown me, overlaid on reality but slightly transparent unless you chose to direct your gaze to a wall or blank surface.
I hated it for the first few days, grudgingly accepted it for a few more, and then forgot about it as thoroughly as any other Salazie resident. I was much too busy to worry about anything as trivial as a machine in my brain talking to me.
At home, I had no experience with children. It wasn’t cultural: any ordinary child in a town or with younger siblings might have been supervising the littler ones from the time he or she was old enough to be deemed responsible. But Ella and I weren’t ordinary. We lived mostly isolated, and had no regular encounters with children younger than ourselves. Plus, of course, no one would ever expect a young Fire talent to be responsible for anyone who might be vulnerable to accidental burns.
But on Salazie, I wasn’t a young Fire talent or even a deWinterhoffe. I was just a girl with two hands, two arms, legs long enough to outrun a toddler, and a perceived ability to judge the wisdom of smearing your breakfast into your hair.
Not wise, in my opinion.
But Tycho, the unrepentant little in question, responded to my exasperated sigh with his usual sunshine smile. He thrust his messy hands into the air and demanded, “Up. Up, up, Lee-lee-lee-lee.”
I pointed at those hands. “Dirty.”
He clapped them together, scattering more of his crumbled vito onto his head. “Up!”
The little already resting on my left hip, Shoshi, clung tighter. “My Lee-lee,” she whispered, before giving a sleepy yawn and rubbing her face against my shoulder.
I rested a hand on her back. “Two arms,” I reminded her. Two arms, a back, and occasionally a front, in fact.
Of the four hundred children at Domas, three hundred or so were between the ages of four and ten. Roughly another forty were between ten and fourteen, and the remaining sixty were infants and toddlers. Under any circumstances, twenty adults would have been hard-pressed to meet the needs of so many children. It was only possible at Domas because of the capabilities of the Salaziean magic.
Well, they called it technology, but it seemed like magic to me.
No one had to cook, because food emerged from a box in the wall. Little machines called “autonomous devices” or “addies” maintained the grounds and did most of the housekeeping. The machines in our heads provided students with individualized educational programs and supervised and tracked our learning, testing, and achievement. The System also alerted the appropriate adult if a child left the grounds or a heart began racing or a temperature rose.
There were still not nearly enough arms to go around. It was rare to see an adult without a child or three in tow. Fortunately, our uniforms — the strange jumpsuits — were willing to rearrange themselves to form handy carrying harnesses. I was a little proud of myself for not even jumping the first time my clothing reshaped itself, but once you’ve been startled by magic furniture, magic clothing is practically ho-hum. Of course, Ella claimed it wasn’t magic but more technology, but I was quite sure that was just a translation issue.
I admit, I also made life easier on myself by using a bit of deftly applied levitation to lighten the load. Otherwise I would have ended every day exhausted and sore from the exertion of lugging multiple littles around all day. One wasn’t so bad, but all of them wanted to be held and carried, and I found them hard to resist.
“Up, up,” Tycho demanded again. He banged a hand on the table. We were among the last people left in the large breakfast room. Most of the children had already moved on to their classrooms or playtimes.
“Clean, clean,” I mimicked him. An addie trundled over to the table and up the side of it, pausing next to Tycho’s plate. Its top slid open and a tray rose into the air, a damp cloth resting atop it.
Tycho’s face screwed up. Before he could let loose with the inevitable wail, I snatched up the cloth and swiped it over his face, then scrubbed it over his short curls. He screamed and I ignored him — it was an already familiar routine — but Za Reija, at the next table over, turned to check on us.
He took in the scene with a quick glance, but before he could do more than open his mouth, I handed Tycho the cloth and said, “You do hands, then up.”
Independence was strongly encouraged: a necessary goal, I supposed, with so many children. Still, I personally didn’t want to stand around waiting for the ten minutes it would take Tycho to get over his loathing of cleanliness and make an attempt to wash his face and hair himself.
Za Reija’s lips curved and he walked over to us anyway.
“Thank you for your help, Lila.” He said the same thing every morning, and it always sounded absolutely sincere.
“My pleasure,” I said carefully. I bobbled Shoshi a little. Her head was drooping, tilting down my chest.
“How are your lessons coming?” Za Reija asked.
I restrained my sigh.
“Your sister’s doing incredibly well,” Za Reija continued. “Za Kestrel believes she’s going to be our first student to progress out of rotecion.”
‘Rotecion’ was another word that the machine in my head struggled to translate to Tizaian. It didn’t mean childhood or supervision, but it meant something like both those things. Variations of the word referred to different states of being.
The babies and toddlers were rotecionata, the most protected. Eventually, for reasons not as obvious as the turning of the year, the System would declare them roteciona. They’d enter the medical tank, inhale a dose of nannies, and have the System integrated into their brains. Then their formal education would commence, including basic instruction in the subjects the System deemed important.
As the roteciona demonstrated required proficiencies, they became roteciono, and then rotecion. Progressing out of rotecion meant being declared a contributing citizen of Dalais. Contributing citizens could choose to continue their education, leading to further ranks, including that of full citizen, and then something known as demorsay.
Za Qintha, the woman to whom Ella had curtsied at our first encounter, was demorsay. Demorsay did not mean royalty. It was not a hereditary position, and Za Qintha was not a queen. It was a rank that was earned. But Ella hadn’t been wrong: very few people on Salazie became demorsay, and Za Qintha was treated with the kind of deference and awe reserved for royalty in Tizai.
I was currently a roteciona, along with most of the children aged six to ten and a few of the adolescents.
I was not particularly happy about this.
For one thing, roteciona had no right to privacy. At any time, their caregivers could monitor them by choosing to see out of their eyes. Indeed, a caregiver could also set the System to record, and everything the roteciona did would be logged for future review.
I found that idea truly horrifying. If our mother could have seen out of my eyes when I was a child, I would have spent my entire life locked in our schoolroom or my bedroom. But on Salazie, the concept of “when no one is looking” was non-existent — someone could always be looking, and through my very own eyes. It was not a relaxing thought, especially given how imperative it was that I hide my talents.
Also, though, I was apparently quite stupid.
This was previously unbeknownst to me. While Ella was flying ahead in her coursework, I was struggling to pass the earliest set of lessons. The alphabet was different from that of Tizai and while the System interpreted spoken words for us, it did not translate the written language. Ella’s Truesight helped her understand what she looking at, but I was learning to spell the equivalent of “cat” and “dog,” while Ella was studying history and biology and the Dalasian literary classics.
I was not jealous.
Truly, I wasn’t. Annoyed at my own stupidity, yes. But at any given moment in time, Ella’s eyes were glazed over, her lips moving slightly, as she studied the images inside her own head. I much preferred seeing Tycho’s smile or singing a lullaby to Shoshi or listening to the earnest chatter of Cam, one of my other particular favorites.
All of my life, people had treated me with a certain wariness that came from both my talents and my heritage as the child of my parents. But the rotecionata had no idea of either, nor would they care if they did. They just wanted attention, interaction, and love, all of which I was only too happy to give them.
Za Reija was still waiting for my answer, however.
“Ella very good,” I said, feeling like an idiot. I could understand Dalasian perfectly well because of the System, but I still spoke like a rotecionata myself.
“We appreciate your help, very much,” Za Reija continued. “You’re wonderful with the children. But it’s important you don’t shortchange yourself. Your needs matter, too. If you need some private time to get your studying done, that can be arranged. I know the classroom experience might feel a little awkward.”
I refrained from snorting. I was a solid half meter taller than the average child in the group setting for my skill level. Awkward was one word for it.
Za Reija was trying to look me in the eye, his gaze earnest, but I kept my own eyes on Tycho, who was swinging the cloth around as if it were a toy flying machine instead of a napkin.
“Here, let me take Shoshi,” Za Reija said, apparently giving up on his academic encouragement for the moment. “She must be getting heavy. I’ll get an addie to put her down for a nap.”
Before I could respond, he was lifting her off my hip. Swiftly, I released the bit of levitation energy I’d been using to support her.
It wasn’t swiftly enough.
Za Reija blinked in puzzled surprise as her body went from light to heavy in his arms.
I needed a distraction, and quickly. Illusion? No, that wouldn’t help.
With a silent but profuse apology to Shoshi, I shot a tiny dart of electricity into her leg. Her body arched in shock, the jolt of pain awakening her immediately. She shrieked, as loudly as if I’d just stabbed her through the heart, and then began sobbing.
I reached for her, apologies spilling off my lips.
I’d just hurt a baby to protect my own secrets. What kind of monster was I? Fortunately, I was speaking Tizaian, which meant no one could understand my apologies.
Za Reija’s puzzled look didn’t entirely disappear, but the distraction was effective in that he couldn’t ask uncomfortable questions over the sound of Shoshi’s screams. He drew her close, patting her back, and murmuring the kinds of things one says to crying littles.
Tycho dropped the cloth. His eyes started to fill and his lower lip slid out. “Baby cry,” he announced. He drew in a shaky breath, but before he could start wailing in sympathy, I scooped him out of his seat. His hands were still sticky, but I ignored them. I’d wipe the traces of food off of both of us later.
“Tycho not cry,” I said firmly.
As quickly as that, his incipient storm was over, but Shoshi’s storm continued unabated.
“I take?” I said to Za Reija, shifting Tycho to my right hip and drawing the nannie material of my uniform into a harness for him. I held out my empty arm.
“I must have startled her.” His frown was worried, but he passed Shoshi back to me.
“Shush, shush, shush,” I crooned to her, gently bouncing her. “Shush, shush, Shoshi, sweet girl. Sorry, sweet girl, so sorry.” I was half-humming, half-singing the words, and avoiding Za Reija’s eyes.
I shot him a sideways glance, but he was looking beyond me now, his frown deepening. I followed his gaze.
Two black-clad Swords were standing in the doorway with Za Qintha.
I felt a flush of heat, then a flush of cold, and my heart began racing. One of the Swords was the young man from the forest. His eyes skimmed the room, moving over the scattering of children and came to rest on me. They narrowed.
I should probably have looked away from him, but I felt frozen. They couldn’t be here for me. Za Reija might have noticed me using levitation but he would hardly have had time to summon the Swords. Although that wasn’t actually true. With the System, he could have sent an alert the moment his suspicions were aroused. I might have shocked Shoshi for nothing. The Swords might already be here to take me away.
Za Reija left us and crossed to the doorway.
Shoshi’s crying was subsiding, but she was thoroughly awake now and clearly feeling cranky. She batted at Tycho’s arm. “Go ‘way. My Lee-lee.”
“My Lee-lee,” Tycho replied indignantly, shoving her hand away.
In some other time and place, I might have found it charming to have children fighting over my attention. Here at Domas, such behavior was strongly discouraged. The adults couldn’t afford to have the rotecionata become possessive of their time. But instead of putting the littles down, as I should have, I held them both closer.
“My Shoshi,” I said, dropping a kiss on her forehead. “And my Tycho,” I added, dropping a kiss on his forehead, too.
I wasn’t going to look at the Swords again. If they were here to take me away… well, what could I do? I could hardly fight them, not in a room filled with littles. I could illusion-cast and turn myself something akin to invisible, but I couldn’t hide inside Domas indefinitely. If Za Qintha was turning me over to the Swords, I was already doomed.
“We meet again.”
I didn’t jump, but I squeezed the littles so hard that Tycho yelped in complaint while Shoshi flung her arms around my neck and buried her face against my shoulder.
The Sword from the forest had walked across the room to me. I looked up into his eyes. He was as beautiful up close as he had seemed before — taller than me by several inches, with warm golden-brown skin, dark eyes framed with much darker lashes, and pronounced cheekbones. Really, he was absolutely the prettiest boy I’d ever seen.
I hoped he wasn’t planning to kill me.
“I’m Rye,” he continued.
Rye? As in the grain? Or was he saying ‘wry,’ and telling me his state of mind?
My confusion must have shown, because the corners of his (well-shaped, rather perfect, quite lovely) mouth lifted in a twitch too slight to be called a smile, not sly enough to be a smirk, but a definite indicator of amusement.
“And your name?”
I swallowed. My mouth was far too dry to speak.
My mother would have been appalled at my lack of manners. I could almost hear her scolding me now. “Delilah Raphaella Lucretia de Veryaz de Winterhoffe, an introduction is the most basic of courtesies. Were you paying no attention at all during your etiquette instruction? Were you simply wasting the time of your tutors?”
Fortunately, before I could open my mouth and reveal my full name — needless to say, not the one that anyone at Domas knew me by — Tycho answered for me.
“Lee-lee. Dis Lee-lee-lee-lee-lee-leeeee. Me Tycho.” He leaned forward off my hip, extending his arms peremptorily toward the Sword. “Up.”
This time the curve of his lips, though still not what one would call wide, was definitely a smile. “Afraid not, kiddo. We’re just here for a pick-up.” He looked over his shoulder and the curve flattened again.
When he looked back, he was definitely not smiling.
“Time to go. But it was nice to meet you, Tycho. And you, Lee-lee-lee-lee… “ His face was still somber, but his eyes were laughing as he said politely. “Were there a few more in there?”
“Lila,” I said, feeling as out of breath as if I’d just been running through the forest again. “It’s Lila.”
“Good to see you again, Lila.” He dipped his head and turned away.
I watched him go. There seemed to be a shortage of oxygen in the room, as if he’d sucked all of it away with him and I was quite sure that if the medical team was paying attention, an alert might get called on my heartbeat at any moment.
He’d come over to me to introduce himself. Just that. No threats, no danger, no killing, just an introduction. He was polite and had a sense of humor and was so, so beautiful.
Really, it was a good thing I was wearing a Dalaisian jumpsuit, because if I’d met him while in formal attire for a Tizaian ball — the kind of gorgeous layered dress I’d never gotten to wear, being deemed too dangerous to have a social season — I would absolutely have swooned. Those things were dazzling, but difficult to breathe in at the best of times.
Still, I wished I was wearing clothing more flattering than the jumpsuit. And — I glanced down at myself to confirm my suspicions — yes, it would also have been nice if I hadn’t had Tycho’s vito smeared across my chest.
His name was Rye. That name rang some bell of familiarity deep inside my head. Had I heard it before? Over the past few weeks, I’d met literally hundreds of children and most of their names blended together in my memory. Perhaps one of them shared his name?
I stole another peek in his direction, but the sight in the doorway brought an end to my internal speculations. The other Sword, a somewhat older man who looked to be in his mid-thirties, was speaking to Za Qintha and Za Reija. But he had taken Cam by the hand.
Cam was a rotecionata, but he was older than Shoshi and Tycho. I had no idea how to judge children’s ages — I truly hadn’t had much exposure to them in my previous life — but he seemed to me to be elongating out of true little status. His legs were longer, his cheeks slimmer than those of the others. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he was almost old enough to become a roteciona.
I found him a most delightful human being. His conversation was endless, and yet highly entertaining. He was curious about everything and loved to tell me things he’d learned. His fascination with plumbing verged on obsessive, but he had an earnest sweetness about him that was beyond charming.
What was he doing with the Swords?
What were the Swords doing with him?
Za Reija rested a hand on Cam’s head for a moment. Za Qintha knelt next to him and spoke to him, words I couldn’t hear. When she stood, the Swords turned and led Cam away.
The feeling of not being able to breathe was back, but this time it wasn’t a good feeling. It was matched by a sick churning in my stomach.
Za Reija was returning to the children, his expression grim.
“What — where is Cam going?” I asked, my voice higher-pitched than usual. Maybe Shoshi heard the stress in it, because she started to fuss again.
Za Reija’s lips tightened. “Last night, the System recorded Cam levitating in his sleep. He goes to the Swords now.” He shook his head and muttered under his breath, “Such a waste,” before heaving a sigh. “Well, what can we do?”
The question was rhetorical for he didn’t wait for an answer before turning back to the last littles left at the table and beginning to help them down.
Not that I had an answer to give him. Argue? Fight? Scream and yell and resist with as much noise as we could bring to bear?
A strange trembling deep in my chest might have been fear, or grief, or even fury, but all I could do was stand motionless, holding Shoshi and Tycho, and do my best to suffocate the flames that wanted to burst forth from the deepest part of my soul.