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As screams sound out through the room I take a few instinctive steps toward Elspeth, but both Dylan and Gwilim grab my arms to hold me still. The president’s bodyguards have sprung into motion. Some of them falling back to act as a second line of defense and some of them trying to catch hold of Elspeth, but even though the electricity flaring all around her doesn’t seem to be doing her any harm, the sparks she sends out at the guards makes them jump away again, shouting in pain.
Some of the people in the crowd are trying to back away from her, while others are pushing forward to get a better view, staring at her totally transfixed. The president himself is standing there like a mountain, facing Elspeth’s wildness down with an angry sort of calm despite the fact that she is moving—tiny step by tiny step—closer and closer to him through the lines of his security.
Then, one of the female guards that’s been trying to get her hands on Elspeth, steps away from the rest of her team and pulls out a gun that looks like something from a sci-fi movie, the whole of it rippling with light matter and energy as if the thing itself is somehow alive. At the sight of it, it’s like everything else in the room slows down for me. I’m shouting out, lunging against Dylan and Gwilim’s hold as the guard raises her arm to aim. With a bright flash her gun goes off, and Elspeth just crumples to the ground.
My scream escapes at the same time as others in the room. Then there are more shouts as more people realize what’s just happened, and more shouts after that.
I’m standing there, staring dumbfounded at Elspeth’s lifeless body, barely aware of the way the noise of the crowd is threatening to build into total pandemonium. Then the president holds his hand up for silence, and with just that one authoritative gesture the chaos stops as fast as it started.
“Please don’t be alarmed,” he says, his voice carrying real easy across the room. “It was simply a tranquilizing shot, am I right?”
“Yes,” says the guard, holstering her gun and hurrying over to help her colleagues lift Elspeth up off of the ground. “She’ll be conscious again in roughly a half hour.”
“That woman needs help!” one of the onlookers shouts, and President Lucas turns his head toward the sound as precisely as if he can actually pick the man out among so many people.
“Obviously. My team will transport her safely to a hospital.”
The guards are already starting toward the door when a familiar voice sounds out from the crowd.
“Stop. I will take her.”
Shama Haddad steps out into the open space in front of the president, this barely controlled fury in her eyes, and President Lucas considers her for a long minute with a satiric smile curling at the edges of his lips.
“Ms. Haddad,” he says finally.
“Elspeth is with me. I’ll take her to the hospital,” she says again.
“I might have known you had something to do with this. Were you aware, when you brought her out into public, that your friend’s mind was so troubled?”
Shama glances at Elspeth, hanging all limp in the security guards’ arms, and her own bitter little smile passes over her face. “Not like this, no. I’ll be finding her some help now.”
She takes a few steps forward, but with a tiny signal from the president a couple of the guards move to block her path.
“I hardly think it’s possible for you to take her anywhere by yourself,” President Lucas says. “My team will do it, as I said. You’re welcome to accompany them.”
I’m watching Shama’s face and I’m wondering how she’s going to deal with this situation without actually fighting her way through the guards, when Gwilim lets go of my arm and strides quickly forward.
“I’ll help Shama,” he announces, moving real easy through the little circle of guards while they try to figure out what they’re supposed to do about the president’s own son. “Between the two of us, we’ll manage fine, so no need to diminish your little security detail.”
If President Lucas was angry before, he’s downright livid now. He’s staring hard at Gwilim and Gwilim’s staring hard right back, this glint of a sort of giddy defiance in his face. It’s a battle of wills, and watching the two of them facing each other like that it’s crazy how different they can look while being so much alike at the same time.
Just when it seems like one of them has got to break, Aunt Nia comes bustling forward with Uncle Wyn only a few steps behind her.
“Oh, Gwilim, what a wonderful idea,” she’s pouring out words in that way that she does. “A wonderful idea indeed. The poor dear needs friendly faces around her when she wakes up. Not the mugs of these terrible brutes.”
She comes up to the guards and kind of swats at their shoulders all affectionate and playful. Then she just lifts Elspeth right out their hands with that gentle firmness that only she can manage.
They glance toward the president for guidance, but it’s clear that with the his sister in charge now there’s nothing anyone can do. From the look on his face, I don’t know if he’s ready to wring her neck or laugh out loud about it.
Gwilim’s quick to help her, the two of them slinging Elspeth’s arms over their shoulders while Uncle Wyn and Shama Haddad take hold of her legs.
“Well,” President Lucas says, in a sort of wry resignation. “I suppose she couldn’t ask for a better escort. Would it be too much to expect a full report once you get her to the hospital? I am, you see, sincerely concerned for her well-being.”
“Of course, Hiarwar,” Aunt Nia throws over her shoulder as they carry Elspeth out of the room. “I never would’ve thought otherwise.”
A strange little smile flashes over his face, and, as if to hide it from the view of the watching crowd, he spins back around to Dylan and Eilian and me.
“It had been my intention,” he says, and to my total consternation he’s staring right at me. “To pay proper respects to the little farm girl staying at our ancestral home, but as I’m sure you can imagine, I find I’m not in the least bit interested in remaining here a moment longer. Please believe that I have quite pressing presidential matters to which I must attend, and allow me to bid you adieu. Your servant, Ms. Warren.”
He gives me this dismissive little nod and holds out his hand for pono. It takes me a second to figure out what exactly he’s doing, but then I hurry to press my palm against his.
This time I feel the sighting before it hits me—this sense of being dragged suddenly straight inside his skin—and this time, though I’m able to react better than I did with Nando, I’m afraid I don’t keep the shock completely off my face.
I mean, I’d already guessed that the president wasn’t exactly a great person, but I definitely was not expecting to see the dark thing purring there inside his essence, curled around itself all catlike and restless. A monster waiting for its next meal, patient but not at all calm.
I can feel my whole body tense up with the surprise of it, and I’m sure the president notices. Or maybe he doesn’t. For just a second, at least, I think he’s looking at me a little closer—more curious and sharp—and then that impression is gone. He’s turning to say his goodbyes to Eilian and Dylan, and sending a curt little nod in my direction. Then he’s striding toward the door without another look back, his security guards trailing behind him with a little less sense of order than before.
I’m so tired after the party that I just throw myself on top of my bed, burying my face in the covers and letting out a couple real exaggerated little moans. Then I let out a couple more. I’m deciding if maybe I should just get under the blankets, dress and all, when someone knocks real quiet on the door. At first I think maybe I misheard it, and then it comes again.
Feeling like my whole body is one huge bag of bricks, I push myself up off the bed and slog back across the room. When I open the door a crack, it’s Dylan standing there. He’s taken off his suit jacket and tie already, and his shirt’s partway unbuttoned as if he started to change before deciding to come down here to see me. The sight of him like that—well, I’m pretty wide awake now.
“We need to talk,” he steps inside, all business.
“Is something wrong?” I ask him, taking in that nice smell of his as I shut the door.
He sits down on the edge of my bed and leans against one of the bed posts, looking about as tired as I felt just two seconds ago.
“Did you get a sighting when you exchanged pono with my uncle tonight?”
He sure gets right to the point.
I let out a real big sigh and walk back over to slump down on the bed next to him. “I guess I didn’t hide it as well as I’d hoped.”
“Well. I was watching for it.”
I look up at him, kind of questioning.
“I recalled that Agni said pono’s a common trigger for sightings.”
“Oh.” A thing I would’ve appreciated finding out earlier, but I guess I can’t expect him to remember every single little thing I might need to know.
To be honest, I’m not exactly eager to tell Dylan what I saw. I mean, it doesn’t seem like there’s a whole lot of love lost between the president and pretty much any of his family, but still, I’m not real sure how Dylan’s going to react. I guess he needs to know, though.
“I saw inside him, into his essence. There was this darkness there.”
“I’ve seen it before. The night we got to Daxa and we had to hide from those takers in the woods? I saw darkness inside both of them too.”
He just sits there real quiet for a minute, and I don’t know how to read the expression on his face. Stunned maybe. Kind of angry? He’s facing toward me but he’s looking at a spot somewhere behind my head. When his eyes do focus on me again, it’s even harder to read the look in them.
“I forget sometimes,” he says real serious, “who you really are.”
I think maybe it’s supposed to be some sort of compliment, but it doesn’t actually sound all that complimenty.
Bringing one hand up to his face, he kind of rubs at the bridge of his nose, closing his eyes for a long couple seconds. Then he says, “It’s called the stain or the spot. I’ve only read about it in history books. No normal Painter can sense it.”
“What is it?”
“I don’t know if it’s a truly physical thing, or perhaps merely a symbol. Something intangible that the brain interprets in that particular way. But people are said to develop stains when they participate in takings.”
Even though he’s being real careful not to give much emotion away, I know what he’s getting at, and I’m guessing on the spectrum of good and bad news, this one leans pretty far toward bad.
“Your uncle’s a taker?”
He waits a second to respond, his eyes still closed like he’s only sort of coping.
“I don’t know,” he says finally, opening his eyes and looking at me. “There may be other reasons for someone to have a stain like that.”
He doesn’t seem too convinced.
“The woman at the party tonight,” I say. “She’s the same one that grabbed me the other day. I don’t think all the stuff she was saying is totally crazy.”
Dylan’s eyes go kind of narrow. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. She just seems real coherent about certain things. Things you wouldn’t think someone in her state should be. And, I mean, she knows her brain’s not working right. Isn’t that supposed to be a sign of sanity or something? She kept telling me someone broke her and that only I could fix it.”
“You think someone has been messing with her mind?”
The feel of that nightmare man reaching into my head flashes up again, and I give this little nod.
“I think maybe it’s the Sons of Morning. How many people have turned up with their brains all troubled like that?”
“I don’t know,” Dylan says, but he seems pretty struck by my idea.
“By the way,” I say, thinking of something else. “One of the artisans who worked on me tonight smelled like the man from my sighting. That smell like cucumber grass.”
Dylan raises an eyebrow at me. “Which artisan?”
“I think her name was Sina, or something like that?”
I give a little shrug, and Dylan’s thoughtful for a minute.
“If it’s her, we were at Mawihl together. Her family’s got a German restaurant in the Government District downtown and she helps there a lot. That could account for the smell, I suppose. Only, at least half of Daxa frequents that establishment, so it doesn’t, in the end, tell us much about who the man might be. I’ll look into it a little more, though. Any information helps.”
I watch him for a second, study the worry that’s hidden just under the surface of every expression he’s made since coming to my room.
“Do you think maybe your uncle’s in on it all somehow?” I ask, a little more tentative. “With the Sons of Morning, I mean. With ruining people’s minds?”
It’s a long while before he answers this time, sitting there, pulling kind of absent-minded on the fabric of his pants and staring off into the far corner of my room.
Finally he says, “I don’t know,” for like the dozenth time tonight, and then he stands up all sudden and stormy, swiping his palm down his face and then up again. Passing his hand through his hair. He takes a few striding steps around to the end of the bed then stops, sort of tap-tapping his finger against the fabric of the hanging canopy.
“If my uncle is involved, he’d be in some position of power.”
“Yeah, doesn’t seem like he’d be too eager to answer to anyone else.”
Dylan shoots me this sarcastic almost-smile. “No, he’s not what I’d call a team player.”
He’s moving down the width of the bed now, running his finger along the quilt and then up the curves of the far bedpost as if he needs to be touching something, needs to feel grounded.
“Even the thinnest connection between Hiarwar and the Sons of Morning would mean disaster. The things they’d be able to do with his help—”
There’s this sudden flash of bitterness over his features, and then—as if he’s just got no energy left—he steps forward and kind of drops himself down into one of the window seats.
“Of course,” I hear him murmur to himself. “I should’ve known he played a part.”
He’s leaning against one side of the window and staring down into the garden, his face profiled all sharp against the dark of the night. Maybe it’s the sheer bulk of the long curtains hanging on either side of the window, or maybe it’s the exhausted sag of his shoulders, but he looks so suddenly small, sitting there like that. So vulnerable.
I’m moving before I’ve even really decided on it. Walking around the end of the bed and sliding down next to him in the window seat. There’s only one little lamp on in the room, so it’s dim enough that I can see outside pretty well. The sky is all lit with stars, and the snow on the mountains is glowing kind of soft in the moonlight. Here and there you can see the shimmer of late night city lights, but mostly the valley itself is washed over in varying shades of darkness.
Pushing my forehead against the window I stare up at the night sky.
“It’s funny how darkness can be real beautiful sometimes and other times so scary.”
Dylan glances over at me but doesn’t say anything.
“There’s Orion,” I point. It’s one of the only constellations I know other than the Big Dipper.
“Where?” Dylan asks, real quiet.
“Right there. Just over the mountain.”
He leans closer to try for a view from my angle.
“You can barely see it,” he says, kind of smiling, and he turns to look at me. He was already pretty close, and now our faces are right up next to each other. Probably less than an inch apart.
I just freeze. I mean, my heart is pounding so hard I’m pretty sure he can hear it. I’m thinking about the way Teresa acted earlier and what a bad idea it would be to let myself get carried away where Dylan is concerned, but at the same time I’m thinking how nice it’d be just to lean in and give him a little kiss right now.
Dylan’s staring back at me—maybe a few seconds longer than he probably should—but then he just sits up real natural, leans against the side of the window seat again as cool and comfortable as if he’s been resting there this entire time.
“In Egyptian lore, the gods come from Orion’s belt,” he says like nothing’s weird at all between us.
I look back up at the stars.
“I wonder if there are any still up there. Hello!” I sort of wave out the window. “Do you think if we make a wish it will come true?”
Dylan glances at me again for just a second, a hint of a smile in his eyes.
“What would you wish for?”
“Peace on Earth and good will toward men?”
The smile pulls fully at his lips now.
“You’ve got all your mythologies mixed up.”
Previous: Chapter 18
Next: Chapter 20
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