LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 18

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CHAPTER 18

I burst into Dylan’s room, shaking all over and calling his name, only vaguely remembering how I got up here. He’s still on the phone with Teresa, lounging in one of the chairs in the far corner, all bare-chested and wearing those jersey pajama pants of his. But at the sound of the door crashing open, he’s up on his feet and spinning around toward me.

“Z—Sophie.”

As soon as he registers the fear on my face, he gets off the phone: “Teresa, I’ll call you back. Everything’s fine. Yes, you too.”

He’s already moving across the floor, reaches me just as he’s hanging up.

“What’s wrong?” he says, gripping me by the arms real firm and bracing.

It’s so bright in here. Such a startling white after the dark of the nightmare, the dark of the halls as I ran to his room.

“A sighting,” I sort of stammer. “I— He—”

I don’t even know where to start. The whole horrible thing is still real present in my mind and I can’t seem to stop shaking. It’s like I’ve gone all weak and flimsy or something. Like any second I might just fall down on the floor and cry.

Dylan’s hands move up to my shoulders and he bends toward me, looking me right in they eye until he knows he’s locked me back into reality.

“Come here,” he tells me, and leads me back over to the chair where I was sitting just an hour before.

He sits on the coffee table in front of me, leans his elbows on his legs and looks me real sober in the face, waiting for me to calm down. From the total patience in his own expression, you’d think he had all the time in the world, and when I finally start to stumble through my story he doesn’t interrupt me. Just listens all silent and still.

It’s kind of weird how describing it out loud helps the panic to die down a bit. Sure doesn’t get rid of the fear, though. I mean, just minutes ago I felt myself dying—felt someone killing me—and there was nothing I could do to stop it. It may have just been a sighting, but it felt pretty potent and real to me, and I don’t know if the shock of that will go away anytime soon.

“Do sightings always come true?” I ask when I reach the end of my story, and Dylan hesitates before answering.

“Yes,” he says. “Though not always in the way you expect. Agni would explain it better, but while some sightings are merely hints or abstract interpretations of events, I believe a sighting as clear as yours is usually accurate. Did you recognize the voice of the man?”

“No.”

“Do you know who the friend was? The one in pain nearby you?”

I’m not sure how to answer that. For a second I just study the straight line of Dylan’s nose, count each perfect little eyelash arcing off of his eyelids.

“No.” I say finally, instead of telling him that I’m terrified the kid I heard was actually him. That someday, I’m afraid, he’s probably going to die because of me.

He’s quiet for a few minutes too, biting his lip a little and thinking. The way he’s sitting, with his elbows resting on his knees and his fingers linked kind of loose and easy—he seems as calm as ever and I wonder if it’s bothered him more than he’s showing, the fact that I’ve just described what is probably going to be my own death.

“There’s no conclusion,” he says all of a sudden.

“What?”

Meeting my eye, his expression edging somewhere near to relief, he explains, “Your sighting didn’t have a conclusion. We don’t know what happens to you or the other person you heard. You can still determine the ending. You just have to work hard to be ready for it. Perhaps it’s a blessing even, seeing it now, so you have something specific to train toward.”

I try to picture it as a blessing, but all I can think about is the feel of that man’s hand around my neck, of him reaching his mind inside me.

“When Agni comes back,” Dylan says, “he can help you put it all into perspective. That should be soon, but there’s not much else we can do until then, except what we’ve been doing. Do you want me to come sit with you for a while?”

I shake my head, trying to be brave even though I’d actually love not to be alone right now.

“Do you want to sleep up here with me?”

My heart kind of skips a beat. I mean, I know what he’s actually asking, but suddenly I’m real aware of his half-naked body right there in front of me, and of me in my lacy little camisole and pajama shorts. And the fact that we’re sitting so close to each other that I can see the speckles in the color of his eyes.

I’m also real aware that it’d be a disaster if I did any of things I’m suddenly thinking about doing to him, and it seems like it’s probably not a great idea for me to be one-on-one with him much longer.

“I’ll be alright,” I lie. “I was just kind of shocked.”

“May I walk you to your room at least?”

Picturing the dark and winding halls out there I give a little nod, thinking that it’s funny how in the middle of a totally fearful moment, I can still get so distracted by the appeal of a cute guy’s naked chest.

***********************************************************************

The next day is the Mawihl Academy Welcome Ball, which is, apparently, a much bigger deal than I’d realized. Family and friends of the new students come from all over the city to add to the welcome, and everyone takes their dress and appearance real serious. Aunt Nia even hires hair and makeup artisans to come and fix her and Eilian and me up. Three artisans for each of us, which feels like a small army invading the house.

The traditional style of clothing for these events is always something historically inspired. My dress, which Eilian picked out for me, looks like something from the late 1800s, with this tight bodice and a flowing skirt. It’s all shimmering green and as soft as downy feathers, embroidered with blues and yellows in a delicate sort of raindrop pattern running from one shoulder and down into the gauzy folds of the skirt.

To match the style of my dress, the artisans add length to my hair and curl it and pull it up on top of my head. They also alter the pigment of my cheeks, my eyelashes, my nails—just enough to “enhance my natural beauty,” as they put it. When I ask how they’re able to make the changes to my skin like that, they tell me none of it’s permanent.

“Think of it like a particle dye,” says the one in charge, an older woman with shiningly silver hair falling in real ordered waves down the length of her back. “It will all fade away by morning.”

“Like Cinderella,” another one says with a strong German accent, kind of laughing at her own joke.

This girl is curvy and big-eyed, and she’s got such a jovial laugh that it shakes pretty much her entire body. Probably I’d really like her if it weren’t for the fact that she smells almost exactly like that man from my sighting. All chemical-like grass and cucumbers. Or maybe celery?

Every time the girl comes near me—pulling strands of hair up onto my head, pushing her fingers across my cheeks real slow as she changes the pigment—I get all washed over in that smell of hers, and I feel the panic again. Feel sure that I’m dying. That Dylan’s dying beside me.

I want to ask her what the smell is exactly, but I’m not sure it’d be safe. I mean, I don’t know this girl. There doesn’t seem to be anything too sinister about her, but it’s real weird that she’s here today, barely twelve hours after I had a sighting where that smell of hers featured pretty strong.

I tell myself I can just ask Dylan about it later. Have him look into her a little bit. But my mind keeps trying to work the puzzle out on it’s own. Trying to figure out if there’s anything about her that’s suspicious. I keep finding my eyes following her, searching in the profile of her face for any sign of what that smell of hers really means.

When the artisans finish their work and stand me up in front of the mirror, I barely recognize myself. I look somehow taller, more sophisticated. My blue hair’s piled on top of my head with little wispy curls dangling down onto my shoulders, and my whole head’s dusted over with these blue and yellow crystalline things, barely bigger than the point of a needle. Combined with the shimmer in the fabric of my dress, I look like some sort of Marie Antoinette who’s been hand-dipped in a vat of stars or something.

The artisans are clearly waiting for some reaction. They’re lined up behind me, their faces visible in the mirror, and it’s so obvious they want to know what I’m thinking. They’ve done good work—I look amazing—but the only thing I can think as I stare at myself in the mirror is what a waste of time this all is. I should be training right now. I should be learning how to save lives. Dylan’s life, in particular. Mine too, if I can.

It’s Eilian that salvages the moment, bursting into my room without knocking and then stopping on the spot and staring me up and down and all over, like she’s in some sort of shock.

“I knew it!” she says, all accusing. “I knew you’d look stunning in that dress. Calon tân, you’re gorgeous.”

It’s all the artisans needed to hear. They smile at each other with this open pride, compliment Eilian on her own appearance, which is just as incredible as mine. If I’m wearing the stars, she’s draped in sunset. All clinging, coral-tinged silk underneath an ethereal looking sheer fabric in a light, yellowy sort of orange.

She thanks the artisans for their work, then she grabs my hands and spins me out the door in front of her, telling me she can’t wait to hear what everyone else says when they see me.

As she pulls me down the hall—talking the whole time about the people she hopes we’ll see at the ball, the dresses other girls might be wearing—I feel kind of restrained and disoriented. It’s strange to be swallowed up in her excitement and feel so removed from it all myself.

Aunt Nia and Unlce Wyn and Dylan are waiting at the foot of the marble stairs for us, and seeing Dylan there dressed in a dark, double-breasted tuxedo that’s straight out of the 1920s, I manage to regain some sense of steadiness. He watches me as Eilian and I come down the stairs, and there’s just something so reassuring about his presence there.

As we get near the bottom, Eilian says to the three of them, “Isn’t Sophie just drop dead?” and Uncle Wyn and Aunt Nia real readily agree.

“You’re both like beautiful visions,” Aunt Nia says with even more than her usual level of warmth. “Just look at the two of you.”

For a second, with her smiling at us like that, it’s almost like being an actual part of their family, and I feel this unexpected little thrill of pride shoot through me.

Dylan, all mock-serious and gentlemanly, takes my hand as I go down the last step and flashes me this conspiratorial little smile, saying in a near whisper, “You won’t be taken for a farm girl tonight.”

Before I can stop myself I’m kind of blushing, and I feel the first seeds of excitement begin to push out the fear from last night’s nightmare.

I look up at Dylan, unable to hide the gratified smile that’s pulling at my cheeks.

“Isn’t that a bad thing?” I ask, and he shakes his head, his eyes passing over me again as if he’s not aware he’s even doing it.

“Tonight it isn’t.”

***********************************************************************

The ball’s held in one of the skyscrapers downtown, in this huge octagonal room surrounded entirely by windows. The space is filled with thousands of white, delicate glass lanterns that are just hanging in the air there above our heads. They’re floating outside the windows too, making it seem like the room goes on forever.

You can feel the music of the live orchestra in the sound waves as they travel toward us through the particles in the room. The musicians are playing a variety of instruments, some of which I recognize, like the violins and the cellos. The rest, Dylan tells me, are Painter specific and they make sound by being manipulated on a particle level.

The combination of the Particle-Blind and Painter instruments makes the orchestra’s music almost unearthly, both beautiful and kind of strange. And the dancing is a perfect match for it, like something out of a dream.

Eilian and Aunt Nia took a little time this week to teach me some of the steps—mostly old-style waltzes and things—and they described the ascensè technique, where Painters add shallow pillows of air beneath their feet as they move from one step to the other, to lengthen their stride and give the illusion that they’re floating across the floor. Having it described to me and seeing it in person, though—well, those are two real different things.

With everyone dressed in their fantastical clothing from all periods of history, gliding around each other in these elegant, seamless twists and turns—all of it backdropped by the already magical setting—it pretty much takes my breath away. Standing with Dylan at the edge of the dance floor, all I can do is stare.

“Do you like it?” he asks, and there’s laughter in his voice as well as that same sort of pride that he had the first night I saw Daxa spreading out through the valley below us.

“It reminds me of the story of the twelve dancing princesses,” I say, and he cocks an eyebrow at me.

“I don’t believe I’ve heard that one.”

A couple dancers pass by, the man wearing an Indian-style turban and some sort of military uniform, and the woman dressed in African-looking patterns and bright colors. Both of them are real tall and handsome and dignified. The kind of people you notice in a crowd. And the way they dance, it’s like they were born for it.

I glance up at Dylan, giving him this teasing little smile. “Well, it’s a story that reminds me of this.”

“Fair enough,” he laughs. “Want to try it?”

“Yes—no. I don’t know,” I falter, imagining myself stumbling around real awkward among all those highly coordinated people, but Dylan’s already grabbing my hand and leading me onto the dance floor anyway.

“Oh, I’ll do most of it for you. Come on.”

We swing into motion with everyone else, and with him guiding me along it turns out I can perform most of the steps with an un-embarrassing level of credibility. Then, once he’s sure I’ve got the hang of the movements, he starts doing ascensè, and suddenly we’re dancing on air.

“We’re flying!” I laugh up at him, kind of afraid to look anywhere else in case I totally ruin this moment by losing my balance and falling on my face.

With his arm around me all warm and solid, our bodies close together, and his attention focused entirely on me—if there’s going to be one truly happy moment the whole evening, I’m thinking this is probably it.

When I start to feel comfortable enough to look around us, I notice that same couple from before, dancing just a few feet away. It’s not just the way they dance that draws my eye to them. They’re both so totally lost in each other, as if none of the rest of us exists. It comes as kind of a shock to me when I realize that I actually know the man.

His face is shaved, the turban covers his bald head, and he looks like some movie star instead of Father Christmas, but I’d recognize those smiling eyes of his anywhere.

I let out this little gasp and Dylan, like he was just waiting for my  reaction, swings me real swift away from them, nearly to the center of the floor.

“Don’t show your recognition,” he says all quiet and firm, but kind of smiling.

I bring my eyes back to his face and try hard not to look as surprised as I am.

“Did you know he was back?”

Dylan shakes his head. “He must’ve returned this evening. No, don’t look at him again.”

Kind of laughing at myself, I apologize and whisper, “But he looks so different tonight. I barely recognized him.”

“Other than the ball attire, this is how he normally looks in Daxa.”

“Who’s that woman with him? She’s gorgeous.”

“That’s Ona. His wife.”

Obviously. I remember now that Agni talked about her, but I didn’t expect her to be so stunning.

“She’s like a tree,” I say, and Dylan nearly bursts out laughing even though I’m pretty sure he understands what I mean.

When the music stops Dylan doesn’t let go of my hand as we walk back across the room. It’s like it’s just natural for him to hold onto it, and it gives me this tiny little sense of giddiness to think so.

Then we see Teresa waiting for us there at the edge of the floor and all my giddiness ends. Dylan lets go of me to wave at her, picks up his pace a bit like it’s simple instinct for him to close the distance between them as fast as possible.

Teresa’s leaning all languid against one of the room’s stone pillars, looking like some model from the 1920s with her newly bobbed hair and a midnight-colored flapper dress that is clearly meant to complement Dylan’s suit. Elian’s next to her, chatting away at her while picking at a plate piled high with cookies and custards and things. It’s obvious Teresa’s only half listening to Eilian, though. Mostly, she’s watching Dylan and me, with that look in her eyes that always makes me feel uncomfortable.

As we get closer, she pushes herself up from the pillar, her body unfolding as graceful as if she were in some sort of ballet. Then, for just a second she looks straight at me like she wants to be sure I’m watching, and she takes a couple steps to come right into Dylan’s space, sliding her hand up and around the back of his neck to his essensus and pulling him into a kiss that is way more intimate than the occasion calls for.

I feel suddenly real weird, standing there right next to them while they’re doing such a private thing. When I meet Eilian’s eye, though, she seems to think it’s pretty funny.

“Get a room,” she says when Teresa and Dylan pull away from each other. “There are children here. You could burn their eyes out.”

Laughing all engagingly, Teresa twines her fingers into Dylan’s grip and leans her shoulder against his, smiling up at him. He smiles back, but I notice a tinge of a question in that look he gives her, like maybe he’s not exactly sure what’s just happened between them either.

Our other friends start to arrive then. Leti and Gabriel each come alone, staying by us most of the evening. Tua, on the other hand, shows up with what must be every person on the planet who is related to him in anyway, and he brings them all over to introduce them to us.

Nando—here with just his two younger sisters and his dad—introduces us to his family as well. His sisters are like little female, much more lighthearted copies of himself, and it’s pretty obvious he adores them. But I notice that, as he watches them run off to talk to some of their friends, the proud look on his face is tinged with a level of care and responsibility that seems a lot heavier than you’d expect in most brothers.

I get something of an idea of why that might be when he tries to introduce his dad. The man—all disheveled hair and an easy, vague sort of smile—seems harmless enough, but it’s also real obvious that he’s not exactly present. Like, his eyes are strangely unfocused and he can’t seem to stay even remotely still. Before Nando’s even finished telling us his dad’s name, the man’s moving around the perimeter of our little circle of family and friends, staring off into the distance and not really talking to anyone. I notice Nando’s eyes following him kind of anxiously, until Mr. Peréz comes back over and tells Nando in this slurred sort of a whisper that he’ll be back “pronto.”

“You have a nice time with your friends,” he pats Nando’s arm several times too many.

When he wanders kind of aimless away, it’s like Nando’s relief is actually palpable. His shoulders relax and he definitely seems to breathe a bit better. Though he still looks to me like it wouldn’t take much to push him out of his calm.

So, of course, this is when Tua decides to start interrogating him about why Hina’s not here.

“I thought she told you she was going to come tonight,” Tua says, when Nando just kind of shrugs.

“She ended up having to work last minute.”

“But your office is closed today.”

Nando stares at Tua for a little bit. Long enough that Tua should see the warning in it. “Yeah.”

Tua doesn’t get it though.

“So…what, she’s working a second one? I thought you’re not supposed to work off-campus jobs if you’re getting that half-tuition employee discount.”

At first Tua doesn’t seem to catch the change in Nando’s expression—this deadpan look that’s just seething with anger potential—but I’m pretty sure the rest of us do. I notice Leti and Eilian exchange quick glances, and even Gabriel looks at me and kind of raises his eyebrows.

“Unlike most of the rest of us,” Nando’s voice comes out like a snap. “Hina hasn’t got anyone here to give her support or to put a roof over her head. When you’re in a situation like that, you find work where you can and maybe, yeah, you have to bend the rules a little.”

Tua’s shocked. Just totally unprepared for this sort of response from Nando. Real quick, he does some back pedaling.

“No, no! That’s fine. I mean, that’s not what I meant. Lagisakes, I just thought,” he suddenly looks real embarrassed, “I thought maybe she was trying to avoid us or something.”

That’s when it dawns on the rest of us, why it is that Hina’s absence is bothering Tua right now, and I’m guessing he immediately wishes he could take back what he just said. It has a sort of magical effect on Nando, though. His anger dies as quick as it flared in the first place, and Eilian starts punching Tua sort of playful in the arm.

“You wanted to see her dressed up all pretty,” she says in this sing-song voice as Tua tries to push her hands away.

“Can’t imagine why anyone would want to avoid you, Tua.” Nando adds.

“Come on, you guys,” Tua’s kind of laughing, still fending Eilian off. “Try being a bit mature for a minute.”

Just then, this crash sounds out from a dozen or so feet behind us, and we all spin around to see what it was. Nando’s dad is standing there, and the broken shards of what used to be one of the floating glass lanterns is scattered at his feet. He’s looking both kind of sheepish and kind of confused, his cheeks a ruddy red that could be from embarrassment, but I’m guessing are from something else entirely.

The color in Nando’s own face has washed almost completely away. He rushes over to his dad’s side as people around us all turn to try and see what’s happening. Nando’s jaw is so tight I’m surprised I can’t hear the sound of his teeth grinding. He whispers something at his dad, all intense and angry, but it doesn’t seem to faze the man at all.

“I think I did that,” I hear him say. “Did I do that? I’m pretty sure I’m the one that did that. I was just trying to turn it green.”

Then he looks at Nando, and his eyes suddenly go all warm and tender as if he’s only just noticed that his son’s the one standing there.

Ay, mijo!” he says, going in for a hug that Nando only half manages to deflect. “I really love you, you know? You’re a good young man, so much like your mother.”

More people are craning their heads to catch a glimpse of the two of them, and Nando’s embarrassment is obviously in a pretty neck-and-neck competition with his anger now. He bends down to try and gather up the pieces of the lantern just as one of the venue’s steel faces swoops in to clean it up.

Once it’s clear the steel face is going to make quick work of it, Nando grabs his dad’s hand and pulls him kind of gruffly through the curious crowd. As the two of them disappear through the ballroom doors, I catch Tua and Eilian and Leti exchange another glance, and from the expression on their faces I’m guessing this sort of scene with Nando’s dad isn’t exactly uncommon. The way Nando talked about that Stranger’s Hollow place is starting to make a whole lot more sense.

About ten minutes later Nando shows up again, not seeming so much angry now as just kind of tired and sad. I hear him tell Tua that he sent his dad home in a taxi.

“I just hope he actually makes it this time,” he says, and I see that heavy look in his eyes again. The one like he’s staring into the face of overwhelming responsibility.

I feel something like that myself, seeing that pain of his and having zero idea how to make any of it better for him. He throws himself into the party, though, and pretty soon he’s doing a convincing job of seeming okay.

As the night wears on, our little circle of friends and family fluctuates a lot, with people coming and going. Some leaving to dance and some to talk to other friends. About two hours into the party, I’m coming back from a dance with Tua’s older brother Kaho when someone steps real purposeful right into my path.

I look up, and I’m kind of surprised to see that it’s not someone I know.

“You are Dylan Lucas’s little cousin Sophie, are you not?”

The woman is not exactly tall, but she sure gives off the impression of tallness. This feeling like to see her properly you’d have to sort of shade your eyes.

“Yeah. I’m Sophie Warren.” Using that name is getting to feel less and less like a lie.

“I am Nunurai Takafar,” the woman says, her words coming out all compact and to the point. “I am Dylan’s supervisor.”

“Oh!” I say, trying not to show on my face the sudden memory of Dylan telling me that the double agent at the GIB might be one of his bosses.

“He has told me a lot about you,” she says, and I can’t help thinking that everything about her is sharp. The tone of her voice, the angles of her face. I have a hard time imagining her ever smiling. “Quite a lot.”

I’m saved from responding to this by Dylan appearing kind of miraculously at my side, Teresa right behind him.

“Director Takafar,” Dylan says. “I didn’t realize you were coming tonight.”

“It is not possible for me to attend your cousin’s party tomorrow. I thought I would pay my respects here.”

If Dylan thinks this is at all weird, he doesn’t show it. Just says, “That’s very kind of you,” with this easy sort of sincerity that I don’t think I could muster myself. There’s not much about that woman that suggests kindness.

“Additionally,” she says to him, “there is something I would like to discuss with you in private.”

Dylan’s eyebrows kind of raise, but he gives her a little nod. “I can speak to you now.”

They excuse themselves—or rather, Dylan does the excusing—and then they walk off and leave me and Teresa standing there together, and compared to facing this Nunarai Takafar person, I am definitely way more uncomfortable now.

Still, when Teresa’s eyes shift over to me, it’s kind of a shock. I mean, this is the first time she’s ever looked at me like she truly hates my guts.

“I heard you had a bad dream last night,” she says like it’s obvious that bad dreams are real childish. “It must’ve been so terrible, to make you go crashing into Dylan’s room like that.”

She pauses as if she’s waiting for me to respond, but I’m pretty sure nothing I could say would make this conversation go in a direction that I’d appreciate.

“Did you know that Uncle Wyn brews a calming tea that helps people sleep?”

I make myself just look at her still, wait to see what’s coming.

“Seems to me that it’d make much more sense to go rushing off to his room the next time you have a bad dream.” She flashes me one of her killer smiles. “Don’t you think?”

Then—before I can even comprehend what she’s doing—she brings her hand up to my face and sort of pats my cheek, as if I really am just some kid or something. And with just that one, stupid gesture she manages to make me feel real pointless and ridiculous and small.

It takes me a second after she’s walked away before I can even breathe, and a second after that before I realize that I am totally furious. I’m not sure what makes me madder, the thing that she just did to me or the fact that I let her do it. Or maybe it’s the fact that I’m dealing with this sort of thing at all. That when there are people out there dying because of me, I’m stuck at this frivolous little party, letting that evil princess treat me like I’m some sort of a joke.

And it only makes me feel more foolish to think that for a while tonight I’d forgotten what my role here in Daxa is supposed to be. For a while I was actually letting myself have fun.

There’s a word that they use in the Painter world—bisher—that means someone who’s just totally rubbish, and I can’t decide whether it’s her or me that it describes best right now.

I spin around on one foot and start pushing my way past people, heading toward the refreshment table as if it offers some sort of escape. As I go, it occurs to me just how many strangers there are here and that, for all I know, any number of them could be takers. It threatens to make me feel even more vulnerable and small, which just makes me all the angrier.

When I reach the refreshment table I grab a plate and start just shoveling food onto it like it’s the end of the world and I’m gathering rations. I don’t notice Gwilim until he’s pretty much right by my side.

“Why the long face, little cousin?” he asks, and my stomach practically jumps straight out through my chest.

As I spin around toward him, the jelly-filled pastry I’m currently holding goes slipping out of my fingers and real nearly beans him in the stomach, grazing his suit jacket as he dodges out of the way. The look he gives me then is full of so much scolding you’d think I’d thrown the thing at him on purpose.

“Now, what was that for?” he asks, painting away the powder trail that the pastry left behind. He’s dressed like some rockstar straight out of the 1960s, with a sort of Beatles hairdo and a real well-tailored suit.

“Geez,” I say, not bothering to hide my exasperation. “How do all of you Lucases manage to look so freaking good in pretty much anything you wear?”

He’s stooping down to pick up the pastry, and he looks up at me with this laughter in his eyes.

“I could say the same of you, of course.” He stands up and hands the pastry to a passing steel face. “Were you planning on eating all those things tonight?” he asks me, eyeing the pile of food on my plate.

“Yeah, actually,” I answer real truthful. “I was probably going to shove every last bite of it down my throat while hiding by myself in a corner.”

“Crikey,” he says all sarcastic, as if the word itself is a joke. “Something seems to have ruined your night. I’m all ears, you know. Should you need a chance to talk about it.”

It beats me how he can come across as sincere at the same time that he’s clearly making fun of me. Maybe it’s his eyes or something. All laughing and unreserved.

“I do not want to talk about it,” I say, and his lip sort of twitches.

“Fair enough. I’m not going to let you mope all night, though. You and I are going to dance.”

I’m about to tell him that we are definitely not going to do that, but he’s already taking my plate out of my hand.

“You won’t be needing any of this,” he says, setting the food back down on the refreshment table. “Come on.”

When he grabs my hand he holds it tight, like this is a hand that he likes holding. Like he’s actually aware of what it means to be holding someone’s hand, and like he knows I’m also aware of it.

I follow him to the dance floor, feeling suddenly kind of confused and exhilarated. And dancing with him doesn’t exactly help that feeling to go away. He dances like it’s second nature to him—like it’s as habitual a thing as taking a walk in the park—and I’m surprised that he’s not at all satirical about it even. Though he does keep leaning in close to me to whisper real wry critiques of just about anyone that passes by.

“Eilian’s going to be furious when she sees you’re here and you came to talk to me first,” I say after a while.

He just smiles and does this lift of his eyebrows that’s basically the same thing as a shrug.

“Perhaps she shouldn’t get her way all the time,” he says, with this laughing smile that makes my heart do a triple beat.

We’re swinging around in this gently ascenséd turn, when the music just suddenly comes to an end, leaving all of us on the dance floor to sort of stumble to a stop ourselves. There’s some kind of commotion by one of the ballroom doors, and as we look to see what it’s all about Gwilim takes the opportunity to slide his arm over my shoulder all casual and easy.

After a few minutes, I catch sight of a security detail surrounding a real tall man—all perfectly styled hair and a movie star-worthy sense of poise—who’s making his way through the crowd, stopping every few steps to shake hands and grace party guests with his impressive smile.

I don’t need the sudden tension in Gwilim’s body to tell me the identity of the man. He’s definitely much older than Gwilim is and, I’m thinking, a whole lot more arrogant, but other than that the resemblance is real uncanny. He’s got to be Gwilim’s dad. In other words, the president of the Painter Republic.

At the moment he’s bending over a little elderly woman, holding her hand in both of his and looking into her eyes with a real practiced air of attentiveness as she talks. Off to the side a photographer’s snapping photos of the two of them, the flash of her camera going off so rapid I’m surprised it’s not sending anyone into an epileptic fit.

President Lucas nods his agreement to whatever it is the elderly lady’s just said, and he pats her hand all comforting before moving on to to the next person waiting for a chat. The whole vibe he puts out is like he just can’t get enough of listening to these people. Like they’re all doing him real big favors by taking up so much of his time.

When he notices Gwilim and me standing there though, a dozen or so yards away from him now, this cruel little smile pulls at the corners of his mouth. He excuses himself from the woman he’s currently talking to and starts moving all purposeful toward us through the crowd.

Glancing up at Gwilim, I take in the expression on his face—anger, maybe some sort of disgust even—and I’m suddenly sure I don’t want anything to do with whatever’s about to go down between the two of them.

I try to sort of slip out from under Gwilim’s arm, but his grip on my shoulders just gets a little tighter.

“Oh, don’t go abandoning me now,” he says with this real dark humor, his eyes never leaving his dad’s face. “You’ll have to meet the man eventually.”

  As if by some sort of pre-arranged cue, Dylan and Eilian materialize out of the crowd then, lining themselves up on either side of Gwilim and me like a couple real fancily dressed bodyguards. Just as Gwilim’s dad reaches us, the photographer darts out ahead of the president’s own security detail and immediately starts snapping photos of the five of us together.

“An unexpected family reunion,” the president says to Gwilim. “I’d not thought to see you here. My sources tell me you’ve been avoiding most of your family ties of late.”

The security guards have lined themselves up in a sort of perimeter around us now. I know they’re just protecting the president from any threat that might try to get through from the outside, but I can’t help feeling more like they’re trapping us in.

“I’ve been visiting friends,” Gwilim responds, all cool and unwelcoming. “You should teach your sources not to exaggerate.”

President Lucas accepts this with a little nod of his head, this look on his face like he’s mildly amused by it.

“Odd choice in friend who’s been getting so much of your attention, though. Son of the man who put your uncle in jail?”

My reaction to this little bombshell about Tom Cloutier is probably real visible on my face, but at this point nobody’s paying any attention to me.

“How is my brother, by the way?” the president asks Dylan and Eilian. “I believe you still see him dutifully.”

When Dylan answers, you don’t have to look too hard to see the irritation there on his face.

“We saw him this morning,” he says, which is only slightly less of a surprise to me than the news about Tom Cloutier. I mean, neither Dylan or Eilian even mentioned going to see their dad. “Da’s as well as could be hoped, under the circumstances.”

“Yes, it must still be quite hard on him, to have been caught in such a hypocrisy.”

The effect of those words is like the shock of a thunderclap. I feel it in the sharpened tension of Gwilim’s arm, see it in the expression on Dylan’s face. But it’s Eilian, who’s mostly been feigning boredom up until now, that can’t help responding.

“He didn’t do it!” she spits out, and I notice the photographer flash this tiny little, vicious smile before snapping a photo of Eilian’s angry face, as if the woman knows exactly what’s going on here and she couldn’t find it any more entertaining.

Kind of surprised, I look at the president to see if he noticed it, but then something happens that makes it pretty much a moot point.

You,” a voice hisses out from behind him, and he turns real sharp to see who it is.

Gwilim recognizes the person before I do, and he’s already stepping around to block me from view by the time I realize it’s that woman Elspeth standing there. She’s just outside the ring of bodyguards, staring President Lucas down like she’d love nothing more than to break his neck. I mean, I thought the way she acted toward me was pretty intense, but right now she looks downright scary.

You did this to me.”

“Excuse me?” President Lucas asks, sounding truly confused, if curious.

His guards are barring Elspeth’s way, though they haven’t made a move to do anything else yet. They’re waiting for the president to give them some sort of signal, but he doesn’t seem too inclined to.

“What is it you imagine I did?” he asks, and that cruel little smile’s playing on his lips again.

I’m wondering where in the world Elspeth came from. I mean, she’s all dressed up for the ball—and she actually looks pretty good, healthy even—but if she’d been here the whole time, I’m pretty sure I’d have noticed.

“You think,” she chomps at him, “that your conscience can remain clean because you never laid a hand on me yourself?”

At this point everyone even sort of near us has noticed that something’s going on, and I can’t be the only one that hears the bite in the president’s voice when he responds.

“I don’t know you, woman. And I don’t know what you mean to say.”

He practically towers over her with his authoritative, athletic body, but even still when she takes the teeniest, tiniest little step toward him, there’s something so menacing about it that I’m surprised he doesn’t even react.

“They may have tinkered with my memory,” she says, all chilling and calm, “but my painting is still very much intact.”

Then all at once, with a sudden tensing of her muscles and a guttural, terrifying sort of scream, she erupts into a pillar of electricity and flame.


Previous: Chapter 17


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LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 13

Posting for feedback. (Frame of reference for people who read the previous draft: this used to be Chapter 8.) Thanks for reading!


CHAPTER 13

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I’m in love with Dylan or anything. I mean, I guess I wouldn’t know what that feels like, but I’m pretty sure this isn’t it. What I do think this is maybe, is that Dylan is the only one around right now who knows who I really am. He’s the only one I’m allowed to be myself with, and I guess I felt like I had some sort of claim on him. Like he was, in some small way, kind of my territory or something.

Seeing him with this girl now, though—seeing the way he looks at her as they pull away from their kiss, the way his hands linger on her body as if they’ve always just belonged there—I’d be pretty dumb not to realize that the only person’s territory he’s probably ever been is hers.

“Teresa!”

The sound of Eilian’s voice makes me spin around. I can see her across the room, where she’s standing outside the dining room door as if she’s just stepped through it. All of her usual poise is totally missing. Her eyes are fixed so dumbfounded and happy on the girl standing by Dylan’s side that, with her curls falling around her face like they do, Eilian looks about as bright as the sun itself.

She lets out this squeal so unlike anything I’d expect to come out of her face that I almost doubt it was really her. Then she sets off across the great hall like her feet are on fire or something, doing more of a speeding skip than a run. She ploughs into the new girl’s arms and they exchange ramu, laughing and talking at the same time as each other.   

Eilian’s as giddy as a school girl, and for some reason that also kind of hurts.

Aunt Nia appears at the dining room door then, Uncle Wyn right behind her, and their pleasure at seeing this Teresa person is only slightly more contained than Eilian’s. They hurry across the room to offer their own hugs, their own ramu. Aunt Nia, in that way that she does, is talking about a mile a minute.

“I didn’t know if you’d ever be back,” she repeats just about every other sentence, giving Dylan these little side hugs as if a huge part of her excitement is really on his behalf.

“I just got in this afternoon,” Teresa says, this hint of an accent in her voice. “I came here right away.”

I’m standing barely ten feet away from them, but no one seems to notice me. To be fair, I probably blend in a little with the huge pillar that I’m standing beside, but also, I think everybody just doesn’t have the attention to spare at the moment. I’m not real sure what to do with myself. Seems kind of awkward to step forward and butt in on everything now, but it’d be pretty weird to just sit here and watch them all too.

I’m thinking maybe I could sneak into the dining room and wait for everyone there, but then Uncle Wyn mentions that dinner’s on the table, and he asks Teresa if she’d like to stay.

She does this thing where she touches him all affectionate on his arm and smiles at him with her beautiful, knock-out eyes, and says, “I’ve been dying for some of your home cooking,” as if she really has just been wasting away somewhere without it.

Then they’re all turning back toward the dining room, and I’ve lost my opportunity to sneak in before them. I hug in a little closer to my marble pillar and do my best not be seen, but Aunt Nia catches sight of me anyway. She blurts out my name like she’s only now remembered my existence, and I sort of freeze, trying real hard not to look like someone who’s been standing here lurking this whole time.

As everyone else turns around to look at me too, Aunt Nia’s already bustling across the floor with her arms outstretched so that I feel like I’ve got to move to meet her halfway. She takes me by the shoulders and spins me around in front of her, holding me out toward Teresa like I’m some sort of life-sized doll.

“This is the newest addition to our little family,” Aunt Nia proclaims over my shoulder, while I pretend to myself that I’m not entirely uncomfortable with this situation. “Sophie’s the daughter of one of Gweneth’s dearest friends, and she’s staying with us while she attends Mawihl Academy.”

Teresa graces me with a real pretty little smile, but it’s all mechanical and polite as if she’s trying to figure out what sort of person I am before she decides how to treat me. Faced full-on with that magazine-worthy face of hers, it’s hard not to kind of hope she’s at least a little impressed by my alpha-blue hair.

“I’m also a Mawihl student,” she says finally, and even though the way she says it is real friendly, I still end up feeling like she’s doing me a huge favor just by acknowledging me at all. “I’m starting my last year there this term. It’s so nice to meet you.”

She steps forward to do pono, but somehow the greeting doesn’t feel so much like an exchange. Her energy’s all focused on Dylan, and as soon as politeness would allow for it, she’s already turning away from me and slipping her hand back into his.

All through dinner it’s kind of like that. She laughs with Eilian and Aunt Nia, flirts all charming with Uncle Wyn, asks me exactly the sort of questions you’re supposed to ask a new acquaintance. But I’d be surprised if she’s really paying attention to anyone but Dylan. Like, I’m willing to bet she’s real keenly aware of just about every breath he takes.

And he’s aware of her. He’s all quiet and subdued, watching her like she’s some unaccountable blessing that’s just come blowing back into his life and might go blowing back out of it again at any second.

I understand his feelings. I mean, everything about her pretty much demands that she’d be adored. And it’s not just her sort of ambiguously ethnic prettiness either. There’s an energy to her that’s hypnotizing. A vibrancy that, the more I watch her, makes me think I’d be hard pressed not to fall in love with her myself.

After dinner we go upstairs to the family den to eat cookies and sit all cozy together by the glowing fire. With our chairs pulled in close and warm blankets tucked around our legs, Aunt Nia starts probing Teresa about what she’s been doing for however many months it is that she’s been gone.

Her reason for leaving in the first place, apparently, had something to do with Dylan’s dad, Cadfan. Or really, the fact that after Cadfan was convicted of treason, Teresa’s dad didn’t want that same shame to leak over onto his own family. So he carted her off to her mother’s parents’ house in some remote village in Russia or something, and he wouldn’t let her come back until Mawihl Academy threatened to rescind her position at the school. Almost wouldn’t let her come back even then, which I guess is why her being here is such a surprise to everyone.

“When he finally agreed to let me come, I didn’t want to give him a chance to change his mind,” she explains, her eyes flicking over toward Dylan as if she just can’t help herself. “So I left for Daxa without letting anyone here know I was on my way, as soon as I could get my things together. I thought it would be a fun surprise.”

It’s practically a modern-day Romeo and Juliet scenario, with her and Dylan as the main characters.

I think back to that moment in the woods when that happy family passed by and Dylan looked like someone had punched him right in the gut. I wonder if Teresa was any part of what he was thinking about then, and, if she’s something that could eat him up so much inside, it kind of gets to me that in all the time we’ve spent together he’s never mentioned her even once.

I’m trying not to be mopey about all of this, about the way Teresa’s being here has put some sort of light in everyone’s eye. Probably her arrival hasn’t actually changed anything. Probably it’s just highlighting a truth that was already there, that no matter how much they all may like me, that doesn’t mean I belong yet. Simply being here doesn’t make me one of the family like Teresa clearly is, no matter how many times Aunt Nia says otherwise.

Things feel a little better when Eilian mentions that school starts in the morning. It’s a fact that’d fallen clean off my radar until now and, although in some ways the thought of the first day at a new school is kind of unnerving to me, it’s also a topic I can get involved in a little bit. Even if they do talk a lot about people I don’t know. Like the teachers at Mawihl Academy. Or the other kids who’ve had their becomings recently and which schools they’ll be attending this term.

When they start talking about the symptoms of becoming, I’m kind of surprised that even Uncle Wyn shares a little about what it was like for him. I mean, it’s like they all enjoy talking about it. Like they’re all nostalgic or something, going over every detail as if they’re reliving the good old days. While I just sit and listen and think—with no small amount of disbelief—that all their becoming experiences sound like a series of minor annoyances compared to my nightmare days.

It’s only Eilian that’s having none of the sentimentality.

“I don’t know how you all can be so cavalier about it. I thought it was rubbish. All my life I heard about it as if it were some quaint little spell of feebleness while everyone cosseted and cooed over you, but there was nothing quaint about it at all.”

Aunt Nia and Teresa kind of laugh, but Eilian’s not finished.

“No, really. Didn’t you think it was miserable?” She turns to me for support, and I’m surprised at how gratified that makes me. How glad I am that I can absolutely agree.

“Um, yes,” I say, real emphatic, and my eye catches Dylan’s for a second, long enough for me to notice the hint of a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

“Like, the nausea went right through to your bones,” Eilian continues.

“Right.” I could barely describe it better.

“And that tickle to your skin that you just can’t get rid of. Drove me half mad.”

I nod some more.

“Then there were the raving hormones. It was like…it was like…” She pauses as if she can’t quite conjure up the right words, and I don’t even think about it before diving right in to help her out.

“Like you wanted to just jump on pretty much any guy that came within fifteen feet?”

When Dylan bursts out laughing—this full-bodied thing without any of his usual reserve—I realize too late that obviously he’d guess he’s the only person I could really be talking about.

My cheeks go hot and my eyes flash over toward him, but just then Aunt Nia—almost as if she can’t help herself—blurts out, “Oh, it’s so nice to hear that sound again,” and Dylan’s laughter just dies in his throat.

He looks like he was caught stealing or something. As in, there is actual shame showing on his face. Aunt Nia too—she clamps her jaw shut tight, raises her hand halfway up to her mouth as if she’s kind of horrified with the words that just came out of there. The whole atmosphere of the room has gone real awkward and, from everyone else’s expressions, I’m willing to bet I’m the only one who doesn’t understand why.

It’s Teresa that saves the day. Real quiet and unobtrusive, she takes Dylan’s hand in hers and leans around him to look at Aunt Nia.

“You almost didn’t make the becoming deadline for your first term at Mawihl, isn’t that right?” she asks as if nothing at all weird just happened, and Aunt Nia couldn’t look more grateful for the escape.

“Yes. Exactly right,” she nods all cheerful, shooting a quick glance over at Dylan, who’s already trying his best to act normal again too. “And if I’d started even one term later I might never have met Uncle Wyn.”

***********************************************************************

Back in my room half an hour or so later, I can’t help feeling just a little sorry for myself. I mean, after Teresa’s quick recovery everyone in the family was eager enough to put some cheer back into the room, but they couldn’t fix it totally. That unspoken uneasiness was still there in the air, and it was hard not to feel kind of weirdly left out by it. As if it was just another thing that ties them all together as family and keeps me on the outside.

Standing with my back against my door now and looking around my bedroom that still feels so big it could swallow me, what I want to do most of all is talk to my mom. Or Melodie or Sara or Logan. Even Agni. But I can’t talk to any of them right now. There’s only one person I can think of that I could talk to under the circumstances—only one person who in some way counts as mine—but it seems kind of weird to go calling her up out of the blue.

You barely even know the woman, I tell myself, pushing away from the door and heading into the bathroom. The whole time I’m getting ready for bed, though, her name keeps popping back into my head.

She’s probably sleeping already, I try instead as I head back into the bedroom and take a peek at the clock, but it’s not actually that late yet and in Wyoming it’s probably only about an hour ahead.

You’re supposed to call her.

I’m already slumping down into my bed when this thought occurs to me, and I must be feeling pretty desperate because it’s apparently the only convincing I actually need. Before I can second guess myself, I’m pressing my finger to my handyphone ring and telling it to call “Mom.”

When Mary answers with a “Hello, dear,” there’s the slightest hint of a question in her tone, and I chicken out immediately.

“Oh, sorry!” I say, trying as quick as I can to get off the phone. “You’re probably sleeping. I’ll call back tomorrow.”

“Oh, I can talk now, honey,” she stops me. “I could talk even if I had been sleeping. What’s on your mind?”

Of course, now that I’m on the phone with her I can’t think of a single thing to say. I mean, she doesn’t know me. She doesn’t have any reason to care about me, so I’m not real sure now why I thought this was even a good idea.

“Feeling homesick?” she asks into my silence, and for a second I’m wondering if maybe she can read my mind. “It’s okay to feel lonely.  It’s natural. And eventually, if you don’t manage to get over it, you will at least learn to live with it.”

There’s a touch of humor in her voice and I remember now why I thought about calling her in the first place. There’s something about her that makes me feel like I could talk to her like a friend.

“I’m not real sure it was the right choice to come up here,” I confess to her, and my voice sounds kind of childish and small.

She takes a second to answer. When she does, there’s something about the words she chooses that, just for a moment, reminds me a little bit of my real mom.

“Well, you’ve got to figure that out for yourself, Sophie. Just remember that you’re strong. You’re strong enough to tackle tomorrow. And you’ll be strong enough to tackle the day after that. You do, you’ll remember, come from the Warren family, and there’s nothing a Warren can’t do as long as she takes it a day at a time.”

I kind of laugh at that, at Mary’s claiming me as her own when we both know it isn’t true, but even if I’m not actually a Warren, I do somehow feel a little bit more brave.

“Thank you,” I tell her, staring up at the folds of my bed’s golden canopy and thinking how funny it is that I turned to this stranger for comfort, and that it totally worked. “I think that’s exactly what I needed to hear tonight.”

“We’re both in this together,” she assures me, as if we really are. “You call me any time you want.”

After we say our goodbyes, I doze off for a little bit, with my legs hanging part off the bed and my head sandwiched between two of the huge pillows. I’m drifting through some half-familiar images, things I recognize from the delirium I had while Dylan hauled me through the snow-covered forests on our way here, things from the storm of images that rushed through my head when I first touched his skin.

It’s like my mind’s trying to make sense of it all. Trying to organize everything in a way that might mean something, but when I start to come back to consciousness again I can’t hold onto any of it. The images just go falling away all haphazard until I can’t even remember what most of them were.

What’s there instead is an eerie, familiar feeling. The sense—growing slowly stronger along the back of my neck—that I’m not the only one in the room.

I sit bolt upright, tucking my legs up under me and pushing myself flat against the thick wooden headboard of my bed. Just like this afternoon, I don’t see anyone there and I can’t locate any sort of essence, but at the foot of the bed—right where it just feels like someone is—there’s a deep impression in the quilt, as if it’s being pressed down by the weight of something unseen.


Previous: Chapter 12

Next: Chapter 14


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LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 11

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CHAPTER 11

I’m twisting around in my chair, scrambling at the seatbelt with no other thought than that I need to get away from this crazy monster thing. It takes me a couple seconds to realize that Eilian is practically cackling now and that Dylan, through his own fair share of laughter, is trying hard to calm me down.

“It’s just a golem, Sophie,” he’s saying, his hand all warm and steady on my arm, and it’s weird to hear him address me by that name. “They wash the windows while we’re stopped. It’s stupid and unnecessary, but people find it charming to mimic the Particle-Blind world in these little ways.”

I notice the metal bucket on one of the thing’s arms now, and the yellow rags in its other hands. Dylan waves the thing off, and it turns away and ambles back to the side of the road, its six arms hanging loose like some sort of homemade insect costume, its movements real creepily smooth.

My heart’s still beating twice as fast as it should be, but I can feel my breath starting to slow down a little. Eilian scoots forward and flops across the shoulder of my seat, and there’s still laughter in her voice when she says, “You’ve really never heard of steel faces?”

“If that’s what that thing is called, then no. I have definitely never heard of those.”

The light turns green and Dylan starts the emvee moving forward again, saying, “They’re basically service golems, performing whatever tasks they’ve been programmed for. They’re used all over Daxa, as well as most other cities in the Republic.”

“They give them the metal faces so they don’t make people uncomfortable,” Eilian offers as if this makes a whole lot of sense.

“That face is supposed to not make people uncomfortable?”

They both laugh.

“It’s supposed to make them less humanoid,” Dylan explains.

“Right. Well they definitely hit that nail on the head.”

As we keep moving I start to notice all sorts of those things around. Tall ones and small ones with any number of arms and legs, moving up and down the sidewalks right alongside the real people. They all have those shining steel faces, and it gives me the jeebies every time they so much as glance in our direction.

The shopping mall where Dylan takes us is shaped like a ten-storied crescent moon and inside it’s not so much that the shops have gardens in them as that the gardens have got shops. I mean, it’s just flowers and trees everywhere, and it’s all real pretty. The ceilings are vaulted with crown molding running along the edges, and the outer walls are made entirely of this rainbow-tinted glass.

Eilian dives into the stores as if shopping is some sort of an olympic sport or something, pulling items off shelves and hangers one after the other and tossing them at me to catch. She wants me to try on practically everything she gets her hands on and, if Dylan wasn’t there, she’d probably make sure I bought it all too.

Still, the number of clothes we do come away with—all paid for from some mysterious bank account Dylan keeps referring to as mine—would probably make my mom have a hernia or something. I can hear her voice in my head saying, “Who in the world would ever need so many things?”

There are pants and shoes and sweaters and little jackets and long coats and hats and gloves and earrings and tiaras and basically anything you could ever imagine a person putting on their body. Even, of all things, an honest-to-goodness ball gown that I’m supposed to wear to something called the Welcome Ball that Mawihl Academy hosts at the end of the first week.

At one point Eilian informs me, all nonchalant like it’s no big deal at all, that in addition to the Welcome Ball, Aunt Nia and Uncle Wyn are going to throw me an introduction party, which is apparently a thing people do to welcome friends to Daxa for the first time.

“At least a hundred people have already confirmed they’ll be coming,” Eilian says like this is somehow a good thing.

I glance over at Dylan, probably looking exactly as horrified as I feel, and from the expression on his face I’m guessing this introduction party is as much a surprise to him as it is to me.

“Mum already bought you a dress,” Eilian says as she leans over an assortment of slipper-like shoes and scrutinizes them with a professional eye. “And jewelry. Aunt Nia’s got it all hanging up in her room as inspiration for the party design.”

I give Dylan another look, which he returns with a heavy dose of apology. As we’re leaving the store he comes up beside me and under his breath he says, “I suppose it will help establish Sophie’s identity in Daxan society,” as if this is supposed to make everything okay.

I just groan a little and make a face. If Melodie were in my place she’d probably be dying of happiness right now—if she were here with me, maybe I would be happy about it all too—but mostly I just feel overwhelmed.

Our last stop is to get me something that Dylan and Eilian call a handyphone. It’s basically a cell phone that you wear as a ring on your finger, and it is mind-bendingly cool to me.

First of all, by some sort of Painter voodoo magic that Dylan still insists is science, even though the ring part of the phone stays snug on your finger during a call, you can hear the other person’s voice in your ear as clear as if they were actually in your head. Text messages show up in blue light on your palm when you’ve got your hand faced toward you, and if you press your thumb against the back of the ring a piece of it will detach and expand until you’re holding a full-sized, touch-screen phone.

There’s a “mind reading” sensor on the ring itself and on the front of the cell phone that responds to your brain synapses when you’ve got your thumb pressed over it, so you can control your phone by painting. Another button expands the cell phone into a tablet and, if you happen to set the cell phone or tablet down and walk away, as long as you’re within a few feet of it you can just press your thumb to the ring and the detached part will come flying back into your hand.

The whole time the shop attendant’s explaining this stuff to me, I feel pretty much like James Bond getting the rundown from Q. I mean, I just keep wondering when she’s going to show me some secret compartment in the ring that shoots out poisonous darts or something.

What it does have, it turns out, is the ability to produce something called “light matter,” which is this blue, holographic-looking ball of light that you can touch and manipulate by painting. Dylan says it’ll come in handy when I’m practicing for school, that eventually I’ll find all sorts of other uses for it.

The shop walls are covered in little floating handyphone displays. There are metal ones, jeweled ones, wooden ones—pretty much any style a person could want. Dylan’s is a simple band, made out of a dark black stone that seems to glow from somewhere inside when you look real close, and Eilian’s is a white gold ring shaped into a graceful sort of Celtic-looking tree on her finger.

I think it’s going to be hard to pick out the one I want, but I find it in about five seconds. A delicate little dragonfly, all sparkling blues and greens. Real uncannily like the dragonfly that formed out of my dad’s photograph back in Flemingsburg. I know it’s the one as soon as I see it, and there’s a hint of something in Dylan’s expression that tells me he can probably guess why.

***********************************************************************

That afternoon Dylan goes to work for a couple hours, saying he’s got a lot to catch up on. Then, in the evening when he’s back and we’re all lounging around together in the family study, he texts me on my new handyphone and says he needs to speak with me alone. He arranges this by having me announce that I’m tired and I want to go to bed. Before I leave, he offers to walk me to my room so that I don’t get lost in their huge and rambling house, but as soon as we’re out of earshot of the others he says we’re going to his room instead.

It’s on the fifth floor, and to get to it we’ve got to pass through this gym that has a real tall, domed ceiling and these weird pegs and ledges all over the walls. The gym is pretty big—at least as large as the one in Logan’s church building back in Flemingsburg—but after everything else I’ve seen in Daxa today I’m not all that surprised the Lucases have got a space like that in the middle of their home.

Dylan’s bedroom, other than the size of it, is about as different from mine as a room could be. It’s all modern and sleek and pretty spotlessly clean, and from the ceiling right down to the threading in the quilt on his bed, everything’s a bright, crisp white with just a few pops of color here and there.

The only thing about the place that seems at all cluttered or disorderly is the built-in bookcases lining one wall. There are so many books in there that it looks like some kind of literary explosion. Books are squeezed in at every angle, double- and triple-parked on the shelves, and they’re nearly all real well-worn like they’ve been lovingly and frequently handled.

Dylan leads me over to a tidily arranged set of chairs surrounding a white coffee table in the far corner of the room. I flop down into the seat he indicates and curl my legs up under me. Then, on second thought, I carefully unfold my legs again and place my feet nice and neat back on the floor because it occurs to me that maybe having people rub their shoes all over his pristine furniture isn’t exactly Dylan’s favorite thing.

He doesn’t seem to notice any of this, though. Just slides down into the chair across from me, leaning all relaxed against the back of it and folding his arms behind his head like he’s very much in his own territory.

“I got hold of your mum,” he says, real nonchalant like it’s not all that big a deal, but as soon as I hear those words I’m practically out of my chair.

“You talked to her?” I ask, and he’d have to try real hard not to hear the million-and-one follow-up questions that hang ready in my voice.

He smiles a little bit.

“First thing she asked was if she could talk to you,” he says, but when he sees the reaction on my face he’s quick to add, “which we can’t allow yet, though. There’s more I need to set in place before I’d advise any contact between the two of you.”

I sit back in my chair again and try not to act too disappointed.

“Is she safe, then?” I ask, and Dylan nods, reassuring.

“She said it’s nice to be with her brother again, and to get to know his family.”

I don’t say it, but for some reason this just makes me feel a little worse, picturing Mom out there all happy without me, reestablishing ties to some family I’ve never known.

“I’m still working on tightening up any loose ends with her situation,” Dylan says, sitting up and pulling out a thin drawer in the coffee table. “I’m setting her up in protective custody. She’ll have security watching her at all times, but if they do their jobs right she won’t be able to tell they’re there. And they won’t know who she is or why she’s in the program. I’ll be the only one who knows that. Most of those arrangements should be finished by tomorrow afternoon.”

He slides some file folders out of the open drawer and drops them on the table in front of me.

“Your identity, on the other hand, is already nearly complete.” He pulls a couple maps and some photographs out of the folders and pushes them across the table toward me. “This is Gilford, Wyoming. Sophie Warren’s home sweet home.”

It’s small. Smaller than Flemingsburg even. I’m guessing probably way less than a hundred people live there, including kids. There’s only one real road that goes through the town, and a couple little side streets that look so beat and broken that they might as well’ve never been paved. Dylan shows me pictures of the shops and the houses that skirt the main street, and they’re not exactly anything to get excited about. Mostly they’re dirty and kind of rundown. Still, there are some things about the place that feel comforting and familiar. One house in particular, with a real well-kept garden and an old wrap-around porch, reminds me of Sara’s house back home.

On one of the maps, Dylan shows me the Warren farm—my supposed home. It sits at the end of a narrow dirt road that stretches away from the town and winds partway up the nearest mountain. The farm itself is a bit smaller than mine and Mom’s farm, but it’s charming and clean, and I’m betting it wouldn’t be hard to fall in love with the place if I ever did have to live there.

Dylan’s got pictures of practically every Gilford resident and their dog (and there are a lot of dogs), and he explains to me who they are, what they do, how I supposedly know them.

“This is Roger Sheridan” he says. “He’s the town handy man. His son Boyd has been a friend of yours since you were children. This is Margaret Tulley. She owns the general store just like her family has done for generations. She calls you ‘Soph’ instead of Sophie and when you were about 6 years old she caught you and Boyd Sheridan trying to carve your initials into the wall of her shop. She still calls you a ‘little scamp’ to this day.”

It’s like he’s written a whole novel or something. Seems like every person in the town has some story that connects to me, and I’m wondering how in the world he’s arranged all this in a matter of just a few hours.

“Are these actual people in an actual place?” I ask, kind of impressed but also a little skeptical. “What are they going to do if some taker comes walking into town and says, ‘Hey, do you know Sophie Warren?’”

“They’ll say, ‘Why, yes we do. That’s the little scamp I found carving her initials into the wall of my general store.’”

I just stare at him for a second and he gets that little look on his face like he knows he’s being pretty impressive.

“Most of this is Mary Warren’s doing,” he concedes, indicating all the photos and maps with his hand. “She really is an old friend of my mother’s, and when Mum approached her a week or so ago with the vague idea that Mary might be willing to pose as your mum, Mary said she rather thought she could offer up most of the town, and that’s what she has done. Told them all she’s working with the US government. That her job is to provide a false backstory for a sweet young girl who’s real parents got themselves mixed up in something awful. Told them this girl is now hiding out with a new identity until she can testify in court, and that Mary needs all her friends to act as if she’s always had a daughter and as if that daughter’s gone away to university now.”

“All those people were willing to do that?” I ask, and Dylan nods.

“Mary says her only problem has been keeping everyone to the same narrative. They all want to make up their own stories about you, and those stories can get fairly elaborate.”

To be honest I guess I’m not all that surprised. Logan would probably lose his mind if he had the chance to be part of some complicated scheme like this. Sara and Melodie—any number of other people in Flemingsburg too. Especially if they thought they were helping out a neighbor, and a friend.

Dylan pushes another photo across the table to me.

“This is Mary Warren,” he says, tapping his finger next to the person’s face. “This is your new mum.”

It’s a picture of a tall, dark-haired woman standing at the edge of a dirt road. She’s leaning against a rough, handmade log fence and looking at the camera all unsmiling like someone straight out of some Great Depression movie.

I don’t mean to, but I can’t help feeling just a little bit disappointed. I mean, yeah, my real mom’s spent most her life working on our farm too, but there’s just always been something so soft about her still. Sophisticated. This woman is all sturdy and earthy and physical.

“To make it believable for anyone who might be paying attention, you’re going to have to call Mary sometimes,” Dylan says, watching me real steady, and I’m guessing he’s noticed the disappointment in my face. “Treat her as if she’s your real mum who’s waiting back at home for you and whom you miss. Do you think that’s something you can do with her?”

I look back down at her picture, trying to imagine talking to her like she means anything to me at all.

“She doesn’t know you’re the Way Reader,” Dylan says, still watching me real close. Waiting. “She believes she’s simply helping out one of Mum’s friends who’s found herself in a tight spot.”

The more I’m staring at this Mary Warren woman, the more I’m thinking she’s not so severe after all. If you look close enough you can see the hint of a smile there, mostly in the wrinkles around her eyes.

“I can treat her like she’s Sophie’s mom, I think,” I say finally, and this appreciative smile flashes across Dylan’s face.

“Good,” he says, standing up and stepping around the coffee table to grab my hand.

“What are you doing?” I ask, kind of taken off guard by the sudden flare of essentual energy that sparks between our fingers and reverberates up my arm.

“Calling Mary,” he says, pushing his thumb down on the back of my dragonfly ring to expand it into handyphone mode.

He pauses for a second, this look on his face like he’s listening to something that I can’t hear. Then he lets go of me and steps back a little, expanding his own phone and bringing it up to his ear.

S’mae, Mum,” he says, almost cheerful. “You’re up early.”

Sort of smiling down at me, he holds his finger up to tell me it’s going to be a minute. Something about the way he does this—like he’s comfortable with me, like we’re just two friends hanging out—makes me feel kind of warm and snugly inside, and I relax back into my chair and settle in to wait for him.

“How’s nain and taid?” he’s asking. “Hm. Ie. Oes, she’s here with me now.”

Then he’s holding his phone out to me and saying, “Mum wants a word,” and any sense of snugness I was feeling is gone in a snap.

 I take the phone from him, but not because I want to. My insides feel suddenly like something’s in there that’s alive. I mean, what is he thinking springing a conversation with his mom on me like this? You’ve got to give a person a minute to prepare.

But turns out his mom’s got the same knack as Aunt Nia for making you feel all charming and interesting and worthwhile. Although, her accent is a bit more pronounced than Nia’s, dipping up and down in these real unexpected ways. And she doesn’t talk to me like she thinks of me as a kid. She tells me to call her Gweneth and treats me as if I’m just like any other friend.

“I’m sure Dylan will do his best to make you feel comfortable in our home,” she tells me. “Cadfan’s sister Nia, and Wyn as well. But if you find you’re in need of anything that they can’t provide, do feel free to contact me. I’ve asked Dylan to put my number into your phone, and hopefully someday soon I’ll have the privilege of meeting you in person.”

We don’t talk for very long. She says it’s morning in Wales and she’s got to get breakfast made for her parents.

“Maybe someday you can stop off at our little home here in Caergybi. From everything Dylan’s said, I think my mam and tad would really like to know you.”

When we say our goodbyes I hand Dylan’s phone back to him, and he goes grabbing for my other hand again, taking my own phone from me and saying that it’s time to call Mary.

“Best to jump right into these sort of things. Besides, she’s a few hours ahead of us so it’s growing late for her.”

He sits down on the armrest of my chair and props one foot on the coffee table, entering Mary’s number into my phone and hitting send. Then he hands it back to me and I see that the screen says it’s calling “Mom.”

The nervousness I feel as I take the phone now is entirely different than what I felt when Dylan’s mom called. With his mom I didn’t have to play act. Even though she talked to me as if I really was the daughter of her long lost friend, I was fully aware that she knew who I really was and all I had to do with her was be myself. With this Mary Warren person, I’ve got to pretend that I’ve known and loved her my whole life, and I’ve got to do it without letting her in on my real identity.

Staring up at Dylan as if he’s going to somehow save me from this, I bring the phone up all tentative to my ear and within seconds I’m hearing the voice of a stranger. It’s deep for a woman’s, and strong. With this gentle ripple to it like it’s being played over some old phonograph or something.

I barely have time to babble something about it being me, Sophie, before she jumps right in, asking me if I’m well, if the trip was pleasant, how I’m liking the Lucases and their home. Her questions come so quick that I just answer back on instinct, responding as honest as I can to every subject that she poses. Until, totally out of the blue, she asks point blank if I think Dylan’s kind of good looking, and at that point all I can manage is an awkward sort of stutter.

“His mother was stunning so I wouldn’t be surprised,” she says with this laugh that reminds me of well-worn quilts and cozy log fires. I glance kind of wary up at Dylan where he’s still perched on the arm of my chair, but if he can hear what Mary’s saying he doesn’t show any sign of it.

Then, just as unexpected as everything else about tonight, Mary’s already wrapping up our conversation, making me promise to enjoy myself in Daxa, to learn a lot.

“Good night. I love you,” she says as easy as if she’s said it to me every day of my life, and after an uncomfortable pause I repeat it back to her. Then just like that, the call is done.

Dylan’s kind of laughing as I’m shrinking the phone back into my ring. This pleasant, real quiet sort of laugh that I’d probably hardly notice if he weren’t sitting so close to me.

Looking down with a wry little smile he says, “You’ll have to learn to tell her you love her without rumpling up your face like that. It’s a dead give away.”

He slides off my chair and walks back around to the other side of the coffee table, starting to gather up all the photographs and maps of Gilford and putting them back into their folders.

“I’ve kept all of these files offline for now so that no one can hack into it,” he says, dropping the folders back into their drawer and then standing straight and looking down at me again.

“We need to start training you in painting and particle reading—as much as I can teach you before Agni comes back—so we should meet here every day, probably after dinner. You can go over all of the Gilford details as well, and once you’ve got them down I’ll get rid of all these files. You’ll need to seal it all into your mind as solidly as actual memories.”

   I’m pretty sure his standing there like that means tonight’s secret meeting has come to a close, so I stand up too, realizing suddenly how real tired I am. Dylan starts walking toward the door, and I trail after him.

“I’ll walk you back to your room,” he says as he waits for me to step out into the gym. “Until you get more familiar with the house, we don’t want to send you out on your own to go and get lost in it.”

***********************************************************************

In the morning Dylan goes back to work again, and he asks Eilian to take me on a tour of the house while he’s gone. She’s happy enough to do it, but to call what she gives me a tour would be really stretching the meaning of the word. It’s more like a game of hide and seek, the way she’s already disappearing around corners or into another room every time I so much as pause to get a better look at something.

The hallways are like a maze, and most of the rooms aren’t too much better. Every space seems to be filled with family heirlooms and ancient Painter artifacts. Eilian says that each floor of the house was built by a different Lucas generation, carved out of the inside of the tree as it grew big enough to allow for it.

In addition to an army’s worth of bedrooms, the place has loads of spaces that no normal person would have in their house. Like, on the ground floor there are two entertainment rooms that Eilian calls the blue and red salons as if she’s stepped straight out of some old romance novel or something, and on the fourth floor there’s an honest to goodness ballroom just dripping with chandeliers and golden sconces. Not too far down the hall from that there’s a huge arboretum where Aunt Nia grows a whole jungle of plants and herbs and things.

One wing on the third floor seems a little mustier than the others, a little less commonly used, with all sorts of extra weird artifacts and things stashed away in the rooms there. Things like a huge old Asian-style gong or an antique Particle-Blind printing press. They’ve gathered some dust and cobwebs, and they send strange shadows crawling along the floors and walls.

Eilian has even less time to give to this part of the house, as if she thinks whatever might be here isn’t worth our attention, but to me this all seems like exactly the kind of place where some ominous, ghostly figure’d be roaming the halls. Makes my hair sort of stand on end in that way that’s kind of exciting because you know there’s really not anything to be scared about, but maybe I am already a little bit primed and ready for a haunting by the time we pass by the little nook at the end of one of the corridors.

It’s not an inherently creepy nook. There’s a comfortable-looking little cushioned bench seat and a shelf with a few books on it, a vase of kind of quaintly dried flowers. What makes it creepy is the snarling brass dog’s head that’s hanging on the wall right smack above the bench. There’s no light on in the nook and the dim light from the hallway falls across the dog’s features at just the right angle to make it look pretty downright terrifying.

“What is this?” I ask, kind of laughing and stopping in the nook’s arched entryway in fascinated disbelief. But, as usual, Eilian just shrugs and keeps walking, barely looking over her shoulder to say that it probably belonged to one of her long dead ancestors.

I can’t turn away from the thing, though. I mean, it’s so alarming that I’ve just got to keep staring. And despite the fact it’s made out of brass, it’s real mesmerizingly life-like. I wouldn’t be surprised if any second now it turned it’s metal eyes down on me and made a quick lunge for my jugular.

So that’s where I am—rooted in that dim hallway, staring up at the dog while I listen to the sounds of Eilian’s footsteps disappearing around the corner again—when I feel suddenly sure that there’s someone else in the hall behind me. Someone standing real still and real close.


Previous: Chapter 10

Next: Chapter 12


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