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The next night at my introduction party, I’m standing in the middle of the big ballroom at the Lucas home, listening to Tua try to convince Nando to do some sort of Painter breakdancing called riffing, despite the fact that Nando’s wearing a full-on suit. We’re surrounded by literally hundreds of people, and the noise of them all—the energy of them—hums through the room like some sort of air-born adrenaline.
I can feel it in my essensus, in the pumping of my blood. A rhythmic, off-time counterpart to the music coming from somewhere up near the ceiling.
For the first hour or so of the party, Aunt Nia had me stationed at the ballroom door to greet the flood of guests. I don’t know how many hands I’ve touched today, how many names I’ve heard and then immediately forgotten. Remembering what Dylan said about pono, I was prepared to have a whole slew of sightings—some clues, maybe, about what the Sons of Morning are up to, messing with people’s brains—but nothing happened, and I don’t know whether to be grateful or disappointed.
Now I’m looking around the room at the mob of people that the Lucases count as friends, and I’m thinking about the last party I went to in Flemingsburg. A Valentine’s Day thing in Melodie’s basement, where there were maybe a dozen kids there at the most, and nobody was dressed in anything fancier than jeans and sweaters. The decorations—which I thought were real nice at the time—were things like fabric heart streamers and pink plastic cups that Melodie’s mom bought at the nearest Target.
Today Aunt Nia and Uncle Wyn and a horde of rented steel faces spent hours putting together everything for my party, and there’s no way you’d mistake any of it as being purchased at a department store.
The ceiling is literally dripping with white wisteria. Millions of snowy flower-cicles cascading down around the already pretty impressive golden chandeliers. The sun-colored upholstered walls are marbled with blue periwinkle plants that Aunt Nia convinced to grow vine-like from floor to ceiling, all in one day. Giant mirrors have been hung all over, reflecting each other across the room and making it feel like the whole world is contained in just this one huge, fantastical space.
Aunt Nia says the flowers all have meaning. Wisteria for welcome, and periwinkle for new friendship. My body itself is practically drowning in lilies. They’re woven into my hair, embroidered into the bodice of my midnight purple dress. Peace lilies for harmony, healing and balance, Aunt Nia says, and I’m guessing Dylan’s mom picked the dress out as a sort of secret homage to my Way Reader duties.
It’s a nice gesture, but it does give me a pretty constant reminder that this party is nothing more than a pointless few hours of distraction at a time when I really should be training. When I can’t seem to shake this lurking anxiety that something awful could happen at any minute and I’d just be totally useless when it came time to help.
“Really Nando,” Eilian’s saying beside me, adding her voice to Tua’s persuasions, “the worst that happens is that you’re terrible at it and we all laugh at you.”
“He could split his trousers,” Leti says in her usual dry voice, and it takes me a minute to realize she’s actually making a joke.
“There’s not enough room,” Nando protests, but it seems to me like he’s pretty close to giving in. I think he probably would have given in a long time ago if his initial self-consciousness hadn’t made him say no in the first place.
“Then we’ll make room,” Eilian backs up a little to show that it can be done.
Hina’s here tonight, standing on the other side of Eilian. She’s barely said a dozen words the whole time, but she is here. She’s watching this whole exchange with the tiniest hint of a smile that looks like some sort of a secret. Like maybe she’d hate it if she realized any of us had noticed it there on her face.
It’s funny to think that I still don’t know much about her. Nando’s mentioned that she’s from Haiti and that she’s an orphan, but she doesn’t do much talking about herself on her own. If she does speak up, it’s to ask other people questions with this tentative sort of curiosity, like some terrified anthropologist entrenched with a volatile, incomprehensible tribe.
When Tua suddenly appeals to her to help convince Nando to do the riffing, Hina totally misses the flirtation in his voice and reacts instead like it’s some sort of pop quiz.
“I—I don’t know,” she stammers. “I think—I guess—Nando should do whatever he feels comfortable with.”
It’s so painful to see her discomfort that I feel like I’ve got to step in.
“I want to see Nando do it. I’ve never seen riffing before.”
“Of course, you haven’t, Farm Girl,” Tua says to me, either politely ignoring Hina’s reaction to him or just completely oblivious to it. “You hear that, Nando? It’d be educational.”
Nando scowls at him for a minute, and then finally gives in. “All right. Fine.” he says, all embarrassed and begrudging, and Eilian gives him an encouraging, only slightly sarcastic clap.
We all move so that he’s got room to dance, and he stands there for a second with his head tilted toward the ceiling as if he’s listening to the beat of the music, feeling the rhythm of it in the air. Then he drops down to the ground, balancing on one hand and starting to spin himself around, kind of slow at first but quickly increasing.
Little drops of shimmering water start appearing in circle formation above him in the air. They sort of bounce to the beat of the music for a while, and then they dive into the barreling spiral along with Nando.
Spinning maybe even faster, he flips over onto his back. Then up on his head, his elbows, one knee. Up to his feet and then back down again. All while those little drops of water fly around him, coming in close then rushing away, merging together and splitting apart like a kaleidoscope in 3D.
Back in Flemingsburg, Sara dabbled a little with breakdancing, and together we’ve watched a whole lot of it on the internet, but this, I’m pretty sure, would blow her mind. I would never have pictured Nando enjoying something like it, but the look on his face as he flips this way and that—it’s like he’s lighter than air, and freer even. Totally on fire with a limitless joy.
I find myself laughing. I can’t help it, seeing him like that. Seeing everyone else enjoy it too. Even a few people outside of our group have stopped near us and started watching.
When I see Hina’s expression, though, my laughter just drops away. Her own smile is mostly gone now and she’s watching Nando with this distant look on her face. A look that speaks to me of so many things I’ve felt myself since coming here to Daxa. Homesickness, self doubt. A sense that with everything that’s happening around me, I’m just observing it from the outside.
It’s strange to see my private emotions reflected back at me, and I’m about to ask her if everything’s okay when she glances over all sudden, her discomfort with being watched real obvious on her face. There’s something in her look that’s almost reproachful even, and confronted with that I totally chicken out. I give her this quick little smile and then look real pointed away again as if that might convince her that I was never actually looking at her at all.
Over Leti’s shoulder, about twenty feet or so away, I catch sight of Gabriel, who wandered off ten minutes ago to taste test some of Uncle Wyn’s famous food. He apparently didn’t get too far, though. He’s currently stuck in the middle of a little troupe of girls, all vying for his attention, and even from here I can tell he’s not enjoying it.
This sort of thing happens to him at school sometimes too and it seems to me like he never really likes it. Although, he does get that drop-dead smile of his plastered across his face and he goes into some sort of weird autopilot where he laughs at everything they say and even accidentally flirts a little. Basically doing none of the things he should be doing if he wants to discourage it.
Still feeling a little embarrassed myself about Hina catching me watching her, I decide that it’s probably my duty as a friend to go rescue him, and I slip kind of quiet away from the rest of our group.
When I come up beside him and tell him I want a word, the relief on his face is obvious, but it’s clear no one else in that little circle is too happy to see me. Kyoko, the girl that sits by him in Particular Sciences, even shoots me a barely veiled, deadly glare.
“Oh man,” I say real low to Gabriel as we’re walking away. “I’m pretty sure I just made an enemy for life.”
He lifts his eyebrows up in this appalled sort of apology and says, “Thank you for saving me. I never know how to get out of those situations.”
It’s funny how good it feels, to have helped him in this tiny way. To have managed to actually help anyone, even if it’s got nothing to do with being the Way Reader.
“You could always try being a little less appealing,” I say. “Then you might not find yourself in those situations at all.”
He laughs a little and blushes all the way up to the roots of his curly hair, which basically just proves my point. I mean, if any of those girls back there had seen that, they’d never be able to get themselves to leave the kid alone.
“Want my escort to the refreshment table?” I ask him. “If anyone tries to talk to you, it’s my right as the official party girl to tell them just to go away.”
He smiles a little and says, “Lead on.”
Getting through the crowd is no small feat, but we manage to have a sort of conversation anyway. He’s from a Painter Republic city-state known as Refúgio, hidden in the middle of the Amazon forest, and I get him to tell me a little bit about what it’s like. He says most of the city’s built into the tops of huge trees that are bigger even than the tree that the Lucases live in, and everything’s connected by rope bridges and giant trams. He says there’s music everywhere and that everything—the colors, the sounds, even the smells—are more vivid and enlivening there.
He’s proud of it, and you can tell he misses it. Listening to him talk about it gives me a touch of homesickness myself.
“It’s hard being so far away, isn’t it?” I ask, looking back at him over my shoulder as we squeeze between a couple clusters of people talking with their friends. “Are you going to have an introduction party of your own?”
The change in his face is so subtle that I’d probably totally miss if it if I weren’t looking directly at him just then, but I do catch that little spark of something dark there. Something like panic, or even straight up fear. It’s gone in an instant, though. Replaced by an easy smile that suddenly seems kind of hard to believe.
“Please don’t put that idea into anyone’s head” he says with a charming sort of sincerity. “I think probably the last thing I want right now is an introduction party.”
I’d like to chalk up that change in his expression to some dread of being the center of attention or something, because that’s what it seems like he’d like me to think, but I’m pretty sure the fear I saw there went well beyond social anxiety.
“These lips are sealed,” I say anyway, running my fingers across my lips and giving him a smile that I hope doesn’t show how much I want to ask him why he reacted that way.
Then, just as we’re reaching the refreshment table, this burst of ear-piercing laughter makes both of us kind of jump, and we turn real sharp toward the sound.
It came from a little circle of people not too far from us, and there’s a man there who’s clearly the cause of it. He’s maybe in his late thirties with dark hair down to his shoulders and thick eyeliner framing just one of his eyes. He’s wearing a long jacket that’s printed with his own face on the front and back of it, and he’s literally dripping with scarves of all textures and colors.
He’s definitely not someone I’ve met yet. I’m pretty sure I’d remember.
At the moment, he’s sort of flailing his arms around him, swaying back and forth and making these weird babbling sounds through scrunched up, comical lips. And whatever inane game he’s playing, his companions can’t seem to get enough of it.
“That is him to a tee,” I hear one of them say through her laughter, and I glance over at Gabriel, my eyes all wide in an amused sort of disbelief at what we’re seeing, but if I thought I noticed fear in his face before, what he’s feeling now has got to be downright terror. Like, the staring-into-the-face-of-death variety.
It’s there just long enough for me to be absolutely sure this time that I am not imagining it. Then, just as the scarf-covered man seems to be turning in our direction, Gabriel jolts himself into action.
“I’ll catch you later, Sophie,” he says, and takes off as fast as he can without breaking into an actual run, leaving me standing there by myself and feeling totally unsure of what exactly is happening.
“Why, isn’t this the guest of honor?” The scarf man’s voice is all false and flourishy, and I immediately don’t like him. “It must be. She positively outshines everyone else in the room.”
He takes a couple little dainty steps away from his friends, looking me up and down all critical, and I eye him back with a pretty similar look, wondering what was so scary about the man that it could send Gabriel packing like that.
“The rumors do not lie,” he says. “What’s the word the kids are using these days?” He shoots a rhetorical look back toward his friends. “Alpha?”
“I don’t think we’ve met.”
Painters have got some pretty strict rules about hospitality—Aunt Nia’s been drilling them into me all week in preparation for the party—but I don’t think they’d require me to act all pleased with some guy that kind of gives me the willies.
“Indeed, we haven’t,” the man says. “As I have just now arrived. Can’t seem to be anything but fashionably late, you see. I’m José Anjo, by the way. Perhaps you’ve heard of me?”
I give this little shake of my head, and he clutches a hand to his heart, looks back at his friends again with this horrified, exaggerated little pout. Then, when they all laugh as if he’s legitimately funny, the man straight up simpers.
I mean, I did not think that was a thing that actually existed in real life. Like, I thought maybe it was reserved for old books and bad movies, but now that grown man just went and did it right there in front of me. At this point I’m pretty much zero percent sure how Gabriel could be afraid of this guy. Weirded out, yes, but not afraid. And I have had just about enough of him.
“Well, it’s real nice to meet you,” I say, pasting on a smile so polite that even Aunt Nia would probably say I was overdoing it and holding out my hand for pono.
To my surprise the guy just totally freaks out. He does this crazy little backward leap away from me, grabbing both his hands to his chest again and practically screeching.
“Oh no! Oh dear,” he says as he tries to recover, “Please do forgive me, but I have the most debilitating distaste for human touch.”
I just stare at him in shock. I mean, I know there are people out there that do have phobias about touching other people, but it’s the way he says it that weirds me out. Almost like, when it comes to humans, he sees himself as something other.
When Mr. Braun steps up next to me just then and says there’s a friend of his who would like to meet me, it’s no small relief. I excuse myself from that Anjo guy as politely as I can while still being quick about it, and I’m about to turn away when Mr. Braun sort of pauses like something’s just occurred to him, and he glances back at Anjo.
“Pardon me,” he says. “But, don’t I know you?”
Mere seconds ago that Anjo guy was acting like he’d narrowly missed getting the plague, but now he slides easy enough into a sort of oozing condescension that makes me like him even less.
“Oh, I don’t suppose you do,” he says, lifting one real languid eyebrow and giving Mr. Braun this deprecating up-and-down look as if the teacher’s simple black suit is some sort of glaring fashion faux pas or something. “Unless, of course, you have been to my home city of Refúgio. Which,” he waves the end of one of his scarves at Mr. Braun’s clothes, “I very much doubt.”
I’m familiar enough with the satirical glint of humor that Mr. Braun gets in his eyes to recognize it there now, but I don’t think Anjo could have caught it, or he wouldn’t still be looking so smug.
“No, I have not had the pleasure of visiting Refúgio,” Mr. Braun says as if he’s not actually that interested anyway, and then he simply turns away from Anjo in a manner that couldn’t possibly not make the man feel like he was being dismissed.
“Shall we go, Ms. Warren? My friend would never admit it, but she’s very bad at waiting, and too much of it may very well cause her some harm.”
He’s so cool about it, but for my part, there are some major alarm bells going off in my mind now. I mean, if Anjo is from Refúgio I’m guessing he’s not some random man that just happened to scare the living daylights out of Gabriel for no reason. I’m thinking there must be something Gabriel knows about him and that it’s bad enough to scare a person practically to death.
And it occurs to me how convenient it was for Anjo to avoid doing pono with me. How convenient it is for him to have a phobia that means not doing pono with anyone. Not giving any possible readers the chance to get a sighting into whatever hidden things there might be in his life.
As we walk away I take one glance back at him, and I’m surprised to find him still watching us, such glittering hate in his eyes that it sends a chill down the back of my neck.
I hurry to walk just a little closer to Mr. Braun, as if it offers me some sort of protection, asking, “Do you know that man?”
His lips turn down in a tiny, thoughtful frown.
“It would appear that I do not,” he says, and then he quirks one eyebrow at me. “But I am not one to credit much to mere appearances.”
It takes me a second to realize what he means by that, and then, without thinking how it might sound for me to act too curious, I ask, “How do you think you might know him?”
“The real question, Ms. Warren, is who do I think he is? A puzzle that, at this moment, remains unanswerable.”
Mr. Braun’s friend turns out to be a woman named Ito Sisiutl, a half Japanese, half Kwakwaka’wakw politician who represents the Kwakwaka’wakw people in the Republic’s parliament. She’s standing in a group that’s mainly other politicians, a few of them arguing real loud with each other about some bill that’s apparently coming up for a vote soon, and I realize too late that Mr. Braun’s just led me straight into something that is the exact opposite of my comfort zone.
When Representative Sisuitl turns her bright, searching eyes on me, I’m already a little bit on edge and intimidated, and the total self assurance in her mannerisms only manages to make me feel a little worse.
“You brought her,” she says to Mr. Braun, in a voice that reminds me somehow of wind on water. “I see that you are indeed my very obedient servant.”
He smiles like this is some sort of inside joke between them and introduces me as, “Ms. Sophie Warren, one of my more entertaining students this term.”
I get a little grimace on my face, but she smiles, just the tiniest bit, and studies me for a minute, all silent like maybe she’s not going to actually talk to me at all.
I can’t figure out quite what I think of her myself. She’s at least half a head shorter than I am, but there’s a weird sense of nobility to her, like she’s spent most her life being in charge and she doesn’t really know anything different. At the same time, she gives off an inherent air of calm. Of patience and a sort of waiting.
“I see that Nia was not biased when she said you were charming,” she says finally. “I thought perhaps she was, but I can see in your eyes that you’ve got intelligence as well as looks.”
She pauses as if she’s giving me a chance to say something in response, and I stammer out an awkward sort of thank you.
“Your aunt Nia is a very dear friend to me, and I would like to call you a friend as well, if you will allow it. You may call me by my first name, Ito. It is not a permission I grant to many.”
I feel kind of bewildered and pleased as she holds her palm out to me and we exchange pono, as if her cordiality is some sort of a gift or a blessing, and the energy I feel at the touch of our palms is…interesting. Stronger, as if its flow from her essence is more open than most people’s, and I’m kind of surprised that I don’t get any sighting out of her.
I’m just saying that she can call me Sophie—as if she’d call me anything else—when one of the other politicians in her circle, a man who I’m pretty sure is named Walter Brandeis, bursts out with this explosive, sarcastic laugh that immediately draws Ito’s attention.
The man looks exactly like Mark Twain, and he acts in a way I could imagine Mark Twain doing, always carrying this silver-plated cane around with him, which he seems to use less as support and more as something to point at people when he’s scolding them.
Right now, he’s barking something at this real short bald guy with beady eyes and a potato-shaped head who’s name I don’t remember.
“We don’t interfere too much in how they run things,” Brandeis says, “And they don’t figure out we exist.”
“But it infringes on the rights of Painters who feel allegiance to both the Painter Republic and the Particle-Blind nations in which they live,” the other man responds in this defensive sort of grumble. “It’s a matter of important freedoms.”
“What you’re proposing, Lamerding,” Brandeis aims his cane at the man, “is meddling. Meddling in Particle-Blind politics has never turned out well. Read your damn history books.”
“On the contrary. We have always meddled in Particle-Blind politics—we are doing it already—and it serves everyone quite well. Them included. We have been successful in staving off many wars between Particle-Blind nations.”
Something about the guy reminds me of this kid Buddy Crampton, whose dad was the mayor back in Flemingsburg and whose mom was on the county school board. He was always spouting off stuff he’d heard his parents say as if they were his own ideas and as if there was no other possible perspective in the world. Then again, Brandeis reminds me a little of Buddy Crampton too.
“We do it all out of the limelight,” he’s saying now. “By promoting reasonable dialogue between countries. Not by making their laws for them. We don’t need any Painters becoming public figures in that world. It’s unfair to them and dangerous for us.”
“But we could do so much more to promote peace had we more concrete power in their nations. If we could actually be their politicians instead of simply getting ourselves hired as advisors.”
“More likely we’d get some fool in office who gets himself caught, and a lot of questions begun to get questioned. Or worse yet, we get some essence-thirsty takers in there and they don’t stop wars, they start them.”
“Should we limit the freedoms of everyone out of fear of the few?” Lamerding snaps, his face kind of red with frustration.
“Aye, in this case we should.”
In this voice so quiet I’m surprised anyone except me even hears her, Ito Sisuitl says, “Our policy toward the Particle-Blind nations has always been to work toward peace through respectful persuasion, but to leave them entirely autonomous. What you propose sounds benign, but what it will become is an infiltration. It is actually a question of preserving the freedom of the majority by limiting the few.”
“Ha!” Brandeis shouts. “Ito’s right, Lamerding, and you know it.”
He’s so triumphant about it that I can’t help kind of smiling, which, it turns out, is a huge mistake.
He swings his cane around to point right at me and he says in this gruff voice, “What do you think, girl? You’ve lived among the Particle-Blinds your whole life. Think they’d appreciate us coming in and sneakily sitting in their governments while simultaneously pledging allegiance to another flag?”
“Oh, don’t bully her into agreeing with you,” Lamerding snorts.
“You’re just upset because you know that I’m right,” Brandeis spits back at him.
His cane’s still staring me in the face, and with everyone’s eyes turned in my direction I feel kind of small and foolish all of a sudden. I mean, what could I possibly add on a topic that I know almost nothing about? I look around at all of them, getting a kind of sympathetic and encouraging look from Mr. Braun, but it’s obvious he’s not going to bail me out.
“To be honest,” I start, and my voice sounds to me like it’s coming out of a six year old, “I can’t say that I understand everything you’re talking about too well, but I think people—Particle-Blind people—wouldn’t be too happy if there were, um, other people messing with their governments.”
Representative Brandeis bursts out with his booming laugh again and claps his hands together, which sends his cane dangerously close to hitting Lamerding in the face.
“Well.” Lamerding says, as if Brandeis was trying to assault him on purpose. “Don’t be so sure of yourself, Walter. Just wait and see how your friends start coming over to our side. It won’t take much to make them see the error in your arguments. Goodnight, Ms. Warren.”
He gives me a curt little nod and then does a pretty good job of storming off, despite all the people he’s got to wade through on the way.
“Turn tail,” Brandeis says as if to himself, though it’s loud enough I’m betting Lamerding heard him.
Seems to me this is the perfect time to make my own escape. Half-laughing in an attempt to hide my discomfort with this whole situation, I say to Ito and everyone else, “Well, it was real nice to meet you,” and I kind of spin on my heal and hurry away.
Previous: Chapter 19
Next: Chapter 21
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