2017 Polaris, New York
Redemption is a path that runs alongside but never touches the person you were before you sinned. I can never be the Drakon youth I was, and for that matter, I would not want to be him. I grew up with privileges, but I did not grow up happy. Perhaps I’d never been happy, and I doubted I’d find happiness here on Gaia.
After Sam left, I barely bothered with formality. Unbathed, my hair in the waves I did not prefer, I pulled only what I needed to wear out of the dryer and dragged myself to Our Lady of Sorrows. I felt pathetic and wondered if Drakon spies watched me and reported my pitifulness to the king.
Victoria didn’t like when I put in too many hours in the kitchen and began scolding me for staying too late. I reminded her that I was a volunteer, and she did not have to worry about overtime pay. The work brought me peace and made me feel closer to being whole than I had felt in a long time, but when my shift ended, the peace faded, so I worked longer.
Today, Victoria would make sure I’d be out before the dinner service, so I tried to do as much as I could before that happened. I diced ingredients for meals I wouldn’t cook, cleaned my station twice, and topped the shift off by auditing the shelf life of goods.
A gallon of milk had become rather thick. We could not afford waste here, but I still would not compromise our ethics just to save pennies. I dumped it down the drain. I thought of an old friend, Dorais, and how he drank an Elvish drink of the same consistency. Then I thought of what he—we—did. And what had happened to him. What his blood had tasted like.
I could not allow myself to relive the memory of my friend’s death while so many relied upon my work in the kitchen. The seeds of that tragedy had been planted with my brother’s murder, but sometimes when I replayed the years between Varin’s and Dorais’ deaths, I didn’t always find shame. I found moments of intense emotion and glorious destruction that exhilarated me. Things I had done prior to arriving on Gaia that I would do again if given the chance. My rehabilitation could not begin until I viewed these deeds as wrong. Perhaps I’d never had it in me to be truly good. Denying that I took pleasure in some of my sins felt like a lie, and I could not lie to myself. It did not align with my quest.
Hands shaking from adrenaline, I turned the water on and rinsed the milk away. I had to tend to the delivery.
I received the shipment in the rain. Victoria and I put it away, the byproduct of our labor being mountains of empty boxes. I broke down the cardboard obstacles within minutes and took them outside to recycle despite the rain, while Victoria and the others prepared the cafeteria for early arrivals. We could not leave people out in the rain, but we weren’t exactly ready to serve either, so once the doors opened, people would be led to the connected church to wait. Kyle, my fellow food prepper in the kitchen, continued his work at the butcher block.
“Can the rolls go in yet?” Kyle asked when I returned.
“Let’s wait until we are closer to opening.”
Kyle and I only ever spoke about work with the exception of group conversations. I knew he was an academic at heart because of conversations he had with Brida, but we had nothing in common, despite his studious nature. Truthfully, I had nothing in common with any of them, but Brida made an effort because she desired my companionship—and I hers—and Victoria made it her business to know everyone who worked with her.
Just as I began chopping the next batch of vegetables, a knock resounded from the back door. I ignored it; I knew better than to just open the door to the alleyway. Kyle had other ideas. The target of my blade changed; I gripped my chef’s knife like it were a dagger.
“Don’t open it.”
Kyle paused, his hand on the handle of the door. “Why not?
“You don’t know who’s out there.”
“It could be a delivery.”
“It’s not. They’re done for the day.”
“It’s raining. Maybe someone needs to come in.” Before I could protest further, Kyle cracked open the door and peered through the dangerous slit to the outdoors. I expected a hand to snatch his neck and pull, breaking his nose against the hefty door.
I stepped closer, glancing at the doors to the cafeteria. The others would not pay for Kyle’s mistake; I would stand between them and danger.
“Kyle,” I said calmly, quietly, “who’s at the door?”
Kyle waved me off and relaxed against the doorjamb. “Who are you looking for again?”
I tried to peer in the sliver of space between hinges but only saw a mass with no other identifiers. My limited human hearing couldn’t understand anything clearly with the sound of the rain and the whirr of the convection oven’s fan. The two spoke in murmurs. I stepped closer. Anyone speaking so quietly in the rain had either lost their voice or wanted their prey to lean in further to hear them.
Nothing in the air provided any clues; I smelled only the scent of rain and onions. I silently cursed my dulled senses and fully approached the door, pretending to wipe off my knife with a cloth. The cloth had another purpose: I would stuff it in the attacker’s mouth and hold the knife to their neck.
Damn it. If I had only investigated Saint Mary’s instead of brushing it off as folklore, then I’d have my magick back and be better prepared to face whatever danger stood behind the door.
“I don’t know who that is, sorry,” Kyle said. His hand grabbed the edge of the door, and he stepped back. “Sorry man.” He waved and swung the door shut, but the latch didn’t click. The visitor must have kept it open.
“He has dark hair.”
“Oh.” Kyle left the door ajar and looked my way. Confusion and fright painted his face, probably because of the way I held the knife. I adjusted my posture, then set down the knife and cloth before removing my apron.
I did not know if Jemier were here to watch or speak to me. I put a brick between the door and the doorjamb and stepped outside to see my rain-drenched visitor.
He did not look like himself. He still had his perfect skin, his long, light-brown hair with a few elegant yet slightly messy twists and braids and the short, even beard covering his jaw. But he wore a long black coat and other human attire. If he carried weapons, then they were hidden in the large messenger bag slung over his shoulder.
I took him in, my eyes curious and my mouth agape. How had he found me? Why wait until now? And did he not realize that his disguise would be better with an umbrella?
I wanted to tell him I missed him, and that I had been working hard to undo what I had done. I wanted to ask how he was doing, ask how Cydrithenna’s most powerful kingdom fared under the rule of a self-righteous bastard. I wanted to ask Jemier if he had met anyone, if he was considering marriage or children, and whether or not Karrdil forced such decisions to be made or if Jemier had met someone on his own. I wanted to ask him the most mundane of things, things I’d never thought were important before now.
Instead, I continued looking foolishly at him.
“Solin,” he said quietly, and I leaned in to hear him over the pounding rain.
“Jon,” I said.
He nodded and cast his eyes down. “Jon.”
“Who told you I was here?” I asked.
“The soldiers were forbidden from telling me much,” Jemier said, rain dripping from his chin, nose, and lashes.
Not really an answer. “You are getting wet.” I opened the door and let him inside. He glanced around but said nothing. “Wait here.”
I needed Victoria’s permission to let him in. Gaia was my new prison, but Our Lady of Sorrows was not.
Victoria eyed me with authority, a hint of a smirk on her face. “Your friend can come in, but he can’t stay long, and he can’t help unless he signs a few forms.”
“I understand.” I bowed my head to her, and she gave me a quizzical look. Another alien gesture, at least in this city.
I took Jemier’s coat and hung it up, and he set his bag beneath it.
“Why are you here, Sol—Jon?”
“We feed those in need,” I said.
“Yes. You met Kyle already.”
“I hear others,” he said.
I held my finger to my lips. “Must you always be so loud?” The only noises allowed back here were the clanks of pots, pans, and dishes. Anything else sounded too much like goofing off to Victoria.
“Sorry,” he said at a volume much more tolerable.
I washed my hands. “It’s the least I can do.” I returned to my workstation where partially chopped carrots awaited. I picked up the knife, and Jemier did not flinch. “Some of these humans have no home.”
Kyle caught the word “humans” and gave me a weird look.
“I’m an alien,” I said with a smile, and he gave a quick laugh and returned to his work.
“It is admirable work, drathos.”
“I am not your friend,” I uttered. I moved on to the next carrot.
“Sorry. Habit.” He reached for one of the sliced carrots, and I swatted him away with the elbow of the arm not holding the knife. “Your hands are filthy, and this is for them, not us.”
“I haven’t eaten since yesterday,” he admitted.
“I spent the night searching for you until a tall device rang at me and told me where to look.”
“A pay phone?” I asked.
He shrugged. Sam, no doubt, had his various eyes watching for Jemier.
“Wash your hands immediately. Those things are disgusting.”
“The rain took—”
“You are in a kitchen, and you’ll wash your hands.”
Jemier grinned, then took my command seriously and washed his hands.
When he returned to my side, I said, “When we get home, I will cook you something.”
The words came out of my mouth before I gave them permission. I didn’t mean to come off so nice. When the criminal is nice, everyone questions why.
Jemier did not. But we had been nice to each other before. Long ago.
“You will cook for me?”
“Yes,” I said, my face warming. I feared my embarrassment showed to Jemier, so I caught my reflection in an appliance and saw it did not betray me. Good. Masking was not an option.
Jemier eyed the carrots again. “I would like that.”
“You snuck into the portal chamber, didn’t you?”
“Why have you come?” I said much quieter than before, not needing to destroy my cover with Kyle present.
“I came because of what you said.” Jemier fixated on my work, watching the sliced carrots tumble into the mixing bowl.
“I’ve said a lot of things. Many of which you never listened to.”
“What you said at the trial.”
I started on the celery. “Which part?”
“That you would seek redemption. I believed you. I begged your father to—”
I said nothing. He seemed to anticipate I would speak, and I had wanted to.
“I begged him to reconsider even after you were gone.”
“I embarrassed his—your—kingdom.” I moved from slicing carrots to celery.
“You know that I don’t believe you killed Varin. I found his killer.”
I threw him a dark look. “Watch what you’re saying, please.”
Onions next. My eyes teared up, but Kyle didn’t notice.
“I do not deserve your kindness,” I said softly.
“You have always deserved my kindness, drathos.”
“I am not your drathos, Je—” I stopped. He needed an alias too. “James.”
He accepted it immediately.
“What I did to you was—you shouldn’t be here.” It was selfish of me to have wished for him to find me. The childish want of an entitled prince. The homesickness of a lonely boy.
He put a hand on my shoulder. “It’s been forgiven. For a long time.”
“I shouldn’t have done it.” His touch did not erase my guilt, but it comforted me, perhaps a little too much. “I literally hurt you. With a weapon not unlike this one.” I set down my knife.
“You thought I was there to capture you.”
I’d thought worse, actually. “Were you?”
“It’s more complicated than that.”
“Like everything else between us.” I checked on Kyle again. Still no indication of eavesdropping. I tried to cloak my conversation with magick; nothing. Damn habit.
“I don’t understand. Why did you forgive me without any act of contrition?”
“Because I did.” He withdrew his hand. “And now you save Gaians—
“Humans,” I said.
“Humans,” he corrected, “even though I do not understand how. They have hungry in this city?”
“Of course you wouldn’t know.” I picked up the knife again. “You’ve barely spent any time here.” My knife cut into the onion with a satisfying, watery crunch before smacking the cutting board with a loud thwack. “They have hungry all over Gai—” I paused; my voice had raised with my anger. “All over Earth. They have so much food, and they waste it. They keep it, and they—” I sighed. No use trying to explain anything further. Besides, I’d already chopped the hell out of this onion.
“No stranger than the Giants who starve at Drakon borders,” I said. I glanced at Kyle; no indication I’d been heard. “The ones Karrdil forgets.”
Jemier said nothing and looked about the kitchen. Kyle washed potatoes in the sink.
I went to retrieve the next vegetable, but Jemier stopped me with a gentle hand and took me into his arms. The embrace confused me, and I didn’t know whether I should give in to emotions I had long held back or become a statue. For all the jealousy I had felt toward Jemier in the past, I did love him even if I didn’t always like him. He was my only true link to home and the self I had known before my life became filled with lies of greatness. I embraced him in return, lightly, so as not to make it seem as though I missed him and Cydrithenna so much I had become desperate.
We parted. He held my shoulders square. “Will you still cook for me?”
“Yes,” I said. “You should go to my apartment and wait for me.”
“Where is it?”
“You were not told?”
“The soldiers either don’t know or would not—”
I raised my brows. I didn’t mean the soldiers back home; I meant Sam, but I couldn’t simply say his name in case Kyle was familiar with the famous, addictive application that gave Sam his wealth. Worse, if Kyle had actually understood Jemier when he said my real name earlier, he might’ve remembered the first time he’d heard the name “Solin.” He must have been old enough to watch the news when I’d last been here. No. The more I kept secret, the better. I could not ruin Sam’s good name with my sins.
Jemier understood my unstated clarification and shook his head. “No, only that I could find you here.”
“So you did talk to him first.”
Just like Sam to be so curt and direct. I found a pen and paper and gave Jemier directions as well as my key. “Do. Not. Lose. This. The front is unlocked, but you’d do well to come in from the back.” I whispered to him the passcode; I couldn’t risk that being in writing. “Don’t get the paper wet. And don’t touch anything.”
“What am I to do?”
“What did you do when you came here the day it rained just like this?”
He looked a little embarrassed, and I urged him to tell me with another raise of my brows and an annoyed lean of my chin. “I wandered around looking for you.”
Perhaps Sam had only contacted him this time because I’d drunkenly admitted I missed my friend. “And?”
“I went to the local tavern—”
“No! The tavern is where locals gather. I thought you’d be amongst them.”
“This doesn’t answer my question.”
“I am getting there, Solin.”
I groaned. Did he not remember my name was forbidden? “Get there faster. And quieter.”
“The tavern had this incredible technology with instant access to various Gaian plays and stories.”
“Netflix?” I asked, and he sheepishly nodded. “I have Netflix.” I wrote down instructions on how to access it from my television or primitive tablet. “There you are, James. You may watch all the Netflix shows and films you desire and be counterproductive from the comfort of my home.” I handed him the instructions and walked him to the door. “Just don’t delete anything from my queue.”