2017 Polaris, New York
I unlocked the door to my apartment an hour later than expected. Mishap after mishap occurred after we closed the kitchen at Our Lady of Sorrows, and I had no way to contact Jemier and let him know. I endeavored to purchase him a phone somehow with the tablet.
I stepped into a dark apartment. Had he gone out looking for me after only an hour?
“Jemier?” I flicked on the light. I checked the sofa, wondering if he had fallen asleep, but instead found his blanket folded neatly beside his pillow with a piece of paper atop it.
A note, written in Drakon. After only three days here, he was already gone, his farewell containing no explanation.
I sat down on the sofa and stared at the note for a long time. I contemplated the history and the futures I would never have. I contemplated until the night became morning.
Sleep-deprived, I soldiered on and visited Star Café. Armand smiled at me from behind the counter. I ordered my latte, not decaffeinated even though I knew what I was in for—that was the point—and sat down in the corner away from the windows. The place soon filled up with busy, unpleasant people. Many treated the baristas poorly and did not clean up after themselves despite the many trash receptacles available for their use. They did not respect others in the café. Thank goodness for Our Lady of Sorrows. When a guest became unruly, it wasn’t personal. Here, humans treated one another with an egregious amount of disdain. Although the baristas seemed accustomed to the behavior, I’m sure they didn’t appreciate it.
A dry sandiness filled my eyes. I needed another boost. I stepped into line again, holding a new book I’d acquired using the tablet, and waited.
Armand spotted me and found his way to the register when I approached. I ordered another suspended coffee, a second latte—decaf—and decided my boost would be glucose in the form of a muffin, a kind I will never get again. Whoever thought that all those fruits needed to be crammed together and destroyed with sickeningly sweet jam in the center? They must’ve been born without a tongue or a digestive system, because they lacked respect for either. I ate the muffin, but I did not enjoy it. The latte helped destroy the taste.
Traffic in the café died down, and the baristas dispersed from the counter and took on other tasks. Armand came out to wipe the tables.
“So,” he said, tending the table next to me, “when did you start ordering muffins?”
“Worry not. Today was my first adventure into such a precarious order.”
“Glad we could take it together,” he smiled. “How’s the latte?”
“And the book?”
“Grotesquely over-reviewed.” I’d actually closed it several minutes ago and had picked up an abandoned newspaper from another table.
“I thought the same thing.”
“You’ve read it?”
“Unfortunately. Her other works are better. You should check them out. They probably have them at the library.” He stuffed a crumpled napkin into an empty cup and tossed both in the trash.
“Where is the library?”
“You’ve never been?”
“I’m new to the area.”
His eyes darted upward. “Um, let’s see. From here you go…actually, do you have your phone?”
“Yes.” I pulled out my phone. Gaian advertisements on the tablet had alerted me to all of the various map apps available to me. They had a long way to go when compared to Daerlyvian technology, but Gaians weren’t exactly devoted to interplanetary travel either. I opened the map app. Armand held out his hand, and without thinking, I passed him my phone. He made a gesture, zooming out the map, and then leaned close and pointed to the library.
“That book icon right there.” He smelled of vanilla and coffee. He returned my phone.
“Thank you,” I said.
“No problem.” He held out his hand. A handshake, a gesture found in some parts of the Daerlyvian system as well. Albeit with its nuances. “What was your name?”
“Jon.” I shook his hand.
“Armand. Nice chatting with you, Jon.”
“You too.” I paused, staring at the map on the phone. “Actually, while I have you here, would you mind showing me where Saint Mary’s is?”
“I would, but I don’t actually know.”
“What have you heard about it?”
“Not much. Apparently it’s beautiful.”
“Because of the architecture.”
“Yeah. Sometimes people and local bands go there to take pictures.”
An urban legend then. No way a Daemon would go unnoticed by so many cameras. “Thank you, Armand.”
“Let me know if you ever go there. I’d love to see some photos.”
“Assuming I’ll come back to show you?” I grinned.
He gave me a sly smile. “One can hope.”
Two weeks passed without Jemier, but not without Armand.
I spent the cloudy morning at the café, sitting close enough to the counter to talk to him between his customers.
“You were right, by the way.” I nodded at the book on the table. “Her other books are much better.”
“Seems like we have the same taste in books, huh?”
Thunder boomed, rattling dishes behind the counter and interrupting my witty reply. When we were younger, Jemier and I used to watch storms from a palace tower. As we grew older and our friendship more fraught, I watched them from my balcony alone.
“It’s raining,” Armand said.
“Are you all right?”
My wistful glance must have said more than I desired it to. I brushed the question aside. “Fine. I find rain calming.”
“Ah. Me too.”
My phone annoyed me with one of Sam’s texts. His surveillance infuriated me. Never mind that I’d agreed to it. We’d have to seriously revisit that unsteady contract later. The more pressing issue was the contents of his message.
“Excuse me.” I grabbed a topper to keep rain from infiltrating my latte and headed out into the storm.
“You don’t have an umbrella!” Armand called out to me, but I pretended I hadn’t heard him.
I ran into Jemier on the street, just as Sam’s texts said I would. He was appropriately dressed in Gaian clothing. Still no umbrella. At least I had an excuse.
“Where the hell did you come from?!” I demanded of him, fearing for our security.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I was with the Shadowfall Alliance.”
I shushed him, and I didn’t apologize.
“What do you have?” he asked.
“A latte.” At his puzzled look, I clarified. “It’s a type of coffee.”
“Oh, I enjoy coffee very much. Would you show me where you got it from?”
“You’ll be noticed.”
“I won’t be noticed.”
“You’re a striking man without an umbrella whose often too loud and too cheery.” I led him toward the café anyway. “You’ll be noticed.”
“Oh, shut up. You know you’re attractive. Don’t pretend it’s never given you an edge before.”
“Your hair is starting to curl.”
“Yes, because I had to come out here and collect you before you did anything suspicious.” Long-lasting, maximum-hold product—what nonsense. I vowed to switch brands the next time I went shopping. “Come on.” We stepped inside the café, and most of the patrons within held their gazes long enough to prove my point. I switched to the regional English, hoping Jemier would take the cue. “See?”
“Perhaps they look at you.”
At least he didn’t speak in Drakon. “They see me too often to think such of me. What do you want?”
“What you have. A delicious latte!”
I brought my hand to my brow. “What did I just say?”
“Oh, I heard what you just said,” he smirked.
Armand snickered at me and poured “a delicious latte,” or so the writing on the side of the takeout cup said. I paid and gave Armand an apologetic look before taking Jemier to a table farther from the counter.
“How are my enemies in the Alliance?” I removed the top from my latte, dripping rainwater into it. I let out a quiet scoff of disgust but drank it anyway, if reluctantly.
“They are well. You really don’t like them.”
“Hence the use of ‘enemies.’ I thought we established this last time you were here. Anyway, why would I? They want me dead, and even if they didn’t, they broke their sacred oath to the Last Dragons and formed their own faction. They’re traitors.”
“That’s a given by now, isn’t it?”
“I was just making sure you still felt that way.”
“Sam hasn’t betrayed me yet.”
“Your father agrees with you. Not about Sam, about the Alliance. When I first told him of what transpired—”
“That they are on a long list of those who have betrayed me? Or that they broke their oath?”
Jemier readjusted his grip on the cup. “About the oath.”
“Figures. Did he command you to slay every last one of them?”
“No. Not at all. Is that what you would’ve wanted?”
“Of course not.”
He sipped his coffee. “Don’t seem so surprised that your father didn’t either. They still protect the portal.”
“They do it for their own survival, not because of an oath.”
“Gaians were bound to discover it eventually. Can you blame the protectors for—” Patrons sat beside us. He lowered his voice. “For what they did?”
I couldn’t, but I wanted to. I understood survival. I struggled more with the broken promise. Our Dragon ancestors had no choice but to open a massive portal and seek refuge here when the Giants had been hunting them into extinction. Could they have known Shadowfall would be the portal that never closed? That in their urgency, they would make a wound in spacetime that would never heal? All they had known was that they wouldn’t be there to protect the link between our worlds, so they had to entrust their allies to do that for them.
“The Daemons and Fae made a promise to their dying friends,” I said. “They went against that, took Gaians into the fold, and the Gaians betrayed them.” I sighed. “Humans.”
“Oh, right.” He leaned in and whispered, “Humans. Hu-mans. Hee-yu-mans—”
“The topic at hand, perhaps?”
“The promise? You may not want me to continue.”
“Because their promise was the same promise you broke when you were last here.”
“It’s not the same.”
“It’s kind of the same.”
“I know you well, So—Jon.”
I tapped my latte. “Let’s just drink these and make attempts to be civil while we dry.”
I glanced at Armand to be sure he hadn’t overheard anything that would scare him away from me. He caught my glance and dipped his brows in curiosity.
I tilted my head in reply. I don’t know what you’re asking.
He exaggerated his expression, as though asking, Who are you with?
I shook my head and sent him a slight wave. I’ll tell you later.
He nodded and carried on with his work.
I turned back to find myself beneath an accusing stare.
“Armand, the barista.”
“What do you see?”
Jemier sipped his coffee.
“We’re going,” I said, standing up. I discarded my rain-infected latte on my way out. Jemier followed. Partway home, I scolded myself for wasting a luxury.
We arrived at the apartment. As we removed our shoes, I scowled at him.
“What is it?”
“Armand is no one. I’m allowed to have Gaian acquaintances. It’s sort of a necessity on Gaia—Earth!—just as it is on Cydrithenna, not that you would know that I don’t know what that’s like.”
“Solin, that’s not what I meant.”
“Then what did you mean? Because it certainly didn’t sound like an apology for leaving so suddenly and with a note of all things, and that could’ve been the only other thing you were supposed to say.”
He held my shoulders square. I squirmed out of his hold and walked into the kitchen even though I really should have been fetching a towel for my soaked hair.
I needed to calm down. I brewed myself a fresh cup of decaf coffee, cheating with my new appliance that made single-cup brews on demand. I went through the steps with swift, stiff motions and tapped my foot while the coffee brewed.
“Don’t you worry that they’ll discover I’m here?” I said.
“The Shadowfall Alliance. The people you so casually visited without a reason.”
“Your father wanted me to.”
“How many years has it been since he discovered they broke their oath? And he sends you, at the same time his son is in exile on their home planet? All they’d have to do is follow you once, and I’m dead.”
“They know nothing of your exile, Solin. They wouldn’t even think you were here to look for.”
“So don’t change that. No more…liaison missions, or whatever the hell Karrdil calls them. Not while I’m here, which is going to be for the rest of my life, if you recall.”
I retrieved my coffee and made it perfect with a touch of regular milk, stirring it vigorously. I’d learned to tolerate milk since arriving on Gaia, especially if it was cloaked beneath the flavor of other things. I certainly tolerated milk better than I currently tolerated Jemier.
“If he orders me to report on their status, then I must.”
“Then you won’t be welcome here.”
“Because I am so clearly welcome right now.”
Jemier stared at me while I stirred, while I brooded, while I tried not to hate that I could no longer use my powers or any sound argument to defend myself.
“I don’t understand why you’re so upset,” he said.
“I’m upset that you left me without a proper goodbye, gallivanted over to visit with the people who want my head on a stick, then came back here and had the nerve to question me about the people I’m befriending. But of course you wouldn’t understand that. You wouldn’t understand because you’ve never taken time to understand anything when it comes to us.”
“I thought we came to an understanding the last time we argued?” He removed his coat, and finally set down his bag. “Solin—”
“Don’t you dare make yourself at home,” I said. At once, I feared he would not ask to stay one last time. He did as I feared, and he reached for his coat.
“Wait,” I said. He paused. Had he hoped I would stop him? I ceased stirring my coffee so vigorously and set the spoon and my favorite cup aside.
“I only wish for us to be honest with each other, Solin. I don’t want to see what has happened between us happen again.”
“What happened in our past was not merely between us,” I reminded him.
“Part of it was.” His brow raised. “Do I make it harder for you?”
I gave him a snarky shake of my head and a smug gesture to elaborate.
“To reinvent yourself. Do I remind you of what you don’t have? Is that why we fight?”
“We fight because we always fight, Jemier.”
“We haven’t always fought, and you haven’t answered my question, Solin.”
I glanced at my hands, seeking the courage to tell him the truth. “We fight because it is all I can do.”
He approached the kitchen. “You do not have to fight me.”
I stepped back. His kindness would make this more difficult. “I cannot escape you. I cannot trick you. I cannot hide. I cannot use any of my magick, and I cannot even give advice. There is nothing else I can do other than fight you.”
“You don’t trust that I trust you again.”
“Why would you?”
“I’m not asking you a direct question, Heir of Karrdil. I am being colorful about giving you several reasons why you should not trust me. For instance, I tried to murder you.”
“Self-defense, and I firmly believe you wouldn’t have been able to deal with the gravity of such a deed had you succeeded.”
“You believe it was self-defense?” I kept the island between us and circled it. He followed, eyeing me across the short yet metaphorically vast distance. “You think I actually did not understand that you would be dead forever had I killed you?”
“And at what point did you think of me as an infant? I had already slain many by that time. I was not some child who could not understand the finality of death, and I never needed tales of any heavens to make that easier as an adult.”
“You don’t believe in an afterlife.”
I merely shook my head incredulously. “There is no real reason for you to be here. It doesn’t benefit you to be here.”
“I did not think about a benefit to me, aside from getting to see you.”
“And I’m telling you, Jemier, that I don’t have the history to understand that! I have nothing in my past to make me trust that!”
“Damn it, Solin!” His fist hit the counter, leaving a noticeable crack, and not only did my coffee leap from its cup, the cup tipped over and broke on the floor. Whatever he was about to say got caught in his mouth. His eyes grew as wide as mine, and his mouth hung open in shock. “Solin, I’m sorry.”
“You spilled my coffee,” I said with an eerily calm tone of voice. That calmness left, and a grin of anger tugged at my mouth. “And you broke my cup.” I stared at the shards. “That was my favorite cup.” My eyes journeyed toward the crack in the granite. “And you…” The anger faded to madness, and I started laughing. “You cracked my counter!”
I tried to stifle my laughter as I retrieved towels to clean up the mess.
“Solin, I’m sorry. Let me help you.”
I said nothing as he snatched another tea towel and bent down beside me to collect the sharp remnants of my favorite cup.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to break anything,” he said again, crouching only inches away from me. We huddled over the mess, and I kept trying not to laugh as he kept trying to apologize. “I don’t understand why you’re laughing,” he said.
“Because this is so very apropos.” I wiped the cupboard door on the side of the island. “You and I care about each other so much that we fight until something gets utterly and completely destroyed, and then we have to clean up the mess.”
“We should be thankful it was only a cup.”
“And my countertop.”
“And your countertop.” He gave me a look, his eyes and lips smiling at me.
I started laughing loudly then, and he joined in. I leaned back to sit on the floor, using my hands for support, then let out a yelp of pain and the hearty human curse of “Fuck!”
“Solin!” Jemier stood and took me over to the sink. Bright-red blood gushed from my palm where my no-longer-favorite cup had flayed my skin into a flap. I clenched my teeth. I’d been hurt worse before, and I’d been subjected to far worse weapons than a broken shard of my no-longer-favorite cup before too, yet the cut burned. I let Jemier clean me up, mostly because I was both intrigued and shocked that my threshold for pain and injury had diminished this much. I had not even cut my fingers so terribly when I had started my journey as a cook.
“Where is your healing poultice?”
“I have a first aid kit.” I nodded to a cupboard. “In there, bottom shelf.”
While he retrieved it, I gave my cleaned-off flap of palm a good look. What a curious injury. A bandage would suffice. The cut would impede my ability to prepare food; I suppose I could serve in the cafeteria for a week. Although I could chop with the other hand, even with a glove I couldn’t continuously wash dishes.
“Are you all right, Solin?”
“I’m fine, just surprised.”
“I’m sorry I missed that shard. I should have seen it.” He wrapped my wound.
“It’s not fine.”
“I’m not fragile.”
“I am fragile, but not that fragile. I will be fine.”
He finished and put the kit away. “I shall cook for us. Where do you keep everything?”
“I didn’t say you could stay again.” I leaned against the sink. A mistake. My shirt absorbed water that had splashed on the edge of the counter. I groaned and peeled the wet fabric away from my skin. My hair had soaked my shoulders and back just as much. I groaned again and pulled off the shirt entirely as I headed for the dryer.
While I found myself a fresh shirt, Jemier stayed in the kitchen, insistent on cleaning up what remained on the floor. “May I stay with you then, Solin?”
“I have nowhere else to stay in this city.”
I returned with a shirt that had the image of a green mushroom on it. After purchasing it, I had discovered that this green mushroom image identified me as a “gamer.” At least it made me blend in. I toweled off my hair and threw Jemier a towel to do the same for his.
“Yes, you may stay, but I don’t want any letters from you before you disappear.”
“So you don’t want me to tell you.”
“No, I want you to tell me in person. I won’t have to worry that the Shadowfall Alliance stole you and left a letter in your stead.”
“That’s why I wrote it in Drakon.” He searched through my cupboards. He had watched me cook during the later days of his last stay, but he must not have paid attention. “I think you are pretending you did not miss me.”
“For fuck’s sake, Jemier, I’m trying to keep at least a little bit of myself.”
“You’re speaking like a Gaian.” He shook his head, then massaged his jaw. “A hu-man. A you-min. Which one is it?”
I growled. “Just cook us something, will you? And don’t give me food poisoning. What you’re looking for is in the bottom cupboard. No, not there. How would pots and pans fit in one that size? Yes, there.”
“I can cook eggs and boil noodles.”
“Who can’t cook eggs and boil noodles?”
“I do not know, Solin, but I am amongst those who can.”
I returned to the island and sat on a stool, finger running along the crack he made. “Please be gentler with my dishes than you were with my countertop.”
“I have the touch of a feather, Solin.” He poured two glasses of orange juice. “You won’t have to worry.”
He prepared us eggs and toast. The eggs were scrambled by design, it seemed, not by error. I leaned forward, my elbow on the counter, chin in my uninjured hand, the wounded one in my lap. “It was a runic dagger,” I said.
He buttered our toast. “What are you talking about?”
“For your birthday. The year I taunted you, and you ended up with nothing, and we fought, and you broke something. I had a runic dagger for you.”
“Solin, you don’t have to pretend now that I’m serving you breakfast.” He set our plates down. An ugly presentation, but the food had no visible flaws.
“I’m not pretending. Karrdil stole it from me. He said it was wrong to give children weapons. The irony of that.” I rolled my eyes. “Anyway, the box is still under my bed.”
His arm brushed mine. “You got me a runic dagger.”
“You kept it under your bed?”
“You’re not just trying to make me feel better?”
I swallowed a chunk of egg. Seasoned better than I had expected. “I promise you. It is not some ruse I had planned for years, only to finally lead you to an empty box beneath my bed. I had truly purchased you a runic dagger.” I took another bite. “You would have loved it. It was in perfect condition. The engravings and fuller had little buildup in them.”
“What did he do with it?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I looked for it many times but never found it. He may have resold it.”
His faint smile grew wider the longer he thought about it. “You got me a runic dagger.”
“Yes,” I said with a slight chuckle.
He nudged me playfully with his elbow, only it was a bit too hard because it nearly sent me off the stool. He caught me, and I regained my balance. “Sorry.”
“Never fall for a Gaian,” I said. “I shudder to think of what they’d endure in bed with you.”
He nearly choked on his food.
“Are you all right?” I said, placing my injured hand between his shoulders.
He cleared his throat and drank his orange juice. “Yes.”
“Don’t tell me that all I had to do to kill you was tell you a crude joke while you were eating.”
He swallowed, then laughed again. “That might be the case.”
“Very well then. Armed with this information on your weakness, I should probably add that any Gaian companions should take top.”
He cleared his throat, mumbled something, then said, “That’s not the only method, Solin. You’d know that if you took your nose out of books more often.”
“Oh, you’d be surprised at what books contain. Gaian literature in particular has some interesting uses for telekinesis, ones that would make even a Wraithstone blush.”
“Oh, I highly doubt that.”
“Oh no, my dear Jemier, books would be quite useful to someone as prudish as yourself.” I smirked, raising my glass to my lips. “Even bookshelves have their purpose. They can be quite sturdy when they need to be.”
Jemier let out a congratulatory laugh and patted me on the back far too hard. I choked on my juice.
When I finished hacking, and he finished apologizing, I glared at him. “Could you make an effort to remember that I’m human—Gaian!—now?”
“I’m sorry. And are we using ‘Gaian’ or ‘human’ now?”
“By the Scales, Jemier!”
“Sorry!” He spun in his stool, his foot knocking against mine, once again disrupting my stability. “Sorry!”
“I understood that the first time you said it.”
“I promise to be gentler when I touch you.”
“How very forward of you, Solin.”
I brought my hand to my face. “These jokes between us have suddenly taken on a whole new meaning, haven’t they?”
“I was thinking the same thing.” He chuckled.
I poked my food. “What does your king think of this anyway? Karrdil would never allow you on Cydrithenna again if he discovered you wanted to consort with me this way.”
“He doesn’t know, and he’d have no right to do anything about it anyway.”
“He is the king, I am an enemy of Cydrithenna, you are his heir, and we are both men. It would be a violation of Drakon law.” I shook my head. “Actually, never mind. I just want to eat without choking, falling, or getting injured.”
“As would I.”
Our forks clinked against our plates. We ate for several minutes in a conversational silence that I welcomed. My gaze drifted to him.
“Do you remember Jossavin?”
“I remember you hardly being around when you were seeing her,” Jemier said.
“Karrdil ended that. Not us.”
“Her family are from the guardship, aren’t they?”
“And he said as much. About the dynamic of power between us. That when I came of age to become a senator, things between us would shift.”
“She might’ve exploited you for your power.”
“Or, more realistically, I might’ve exploited my power to make her compromise herself. Even on accident.”
“One of his lessons?”
“One of the few good ones.” I poked at the last chunk of egg on my plate. “One he rarely heeds himself. Don’t go out of your way to question him. Don’t even joke about it. He thinks he has a right to do whatever he wants. Remember that. Because you won’t change his mind by defying that perspective.”
“But he has no right in matters of the heart.”
“He’s not betrothed you to anyone?”
“Well he has talked about it, but—”
I set down my fork. “Who?”
Not the Scaleborn I expected. “Not Corian?”
“When is the wedding?”
“The betrothal is not even set yet. It’s been frivolously discussed.”
“What do the sisters say of this?”
“Corian doesn’t care. She and I…aren’t well matched.”
Interesting. “You finally tried?”
“And it didn’t work. Instantly. Safryne isn’t pleased either. She’s hung up on Eleric.”
“Eleric.” I snatched my fork and shoved the last bite of egg into my mouth.
“He’s different lately.”
No shit. “Perhaps upset about Safryne,” I said. I had no more of anything to shove into my mouth.
He shrugged. “Maybe you’re right.”
“I am.” I stood and cleared our dishes from the island.
“It’s not official yet anyway.”
“So don’t worry about it until it is.” I set the dishes in the sink and absentmindedly turned on the faucet. My hand stung. I cursed beneath my breath. “Could you take care of these, please? I have to work at the kitchen soon. Evening shift.”
“I’ll be here,” he said. I took him at his word.