2017 Polaris, New York
I could not sleep. It had been days since Brida and I had broken into and narrowly escaped Saint Mary’s, and my back still ached from all that running and lying on the ground beneath that SUV. The unusual burn marks had etched themselves in my mind. I browsed the internet. I turned on the television. I turned everything off and stared at the ceiling. I fantasized about buying the grocery store and giving away all its food. I read. I stared at the ceiling again. I visualized the scorching, and it morphed into the wall of the library where I’d torched my brother’s skin.
I had to return to Saint Mary’s before its owners demolished it, but when? Surely someone had been hired for the night watch by now. I needed my powers to sneak in there, but I needed to sneak in there to regain my powers.
I sat up and clicked on the light, then stared at the palm of my hand, imagining an apple. Nothing appeared. Still a no on the illusory magick. What about telekinesis? I concentrated on the alarm clock. It read 1:34 in glowing red numbers. I just needed to lift it from the nightstand an inch, and I’d be satisfied.
I groaned. “Seriously, what the hell is wrong with you? Get. Off. The damn. Table.” For my next trick, I would set the clock ablaze for its insolence.
I growled and shut off the light, then flopped back into bed.
At the obnoxious time of 1:48, I devoted myself to arithmetic. I added, subtracted, multiplied, and divided the red digits by each other, only to start over when the minute had passed and gave me a new variable. This went on for twelve minutes. 2+0+0=2. 20+0=20. 20×0=0. Before I could play the same dull game with 2:01, the door rattled.
I bolted upright and listened. The door rattled again. I clenched the sheets, then flattened my palms. I listened. I listened with ears no longer blessed by the gift of the Last Dragons, but I’d heard enough.
“Damn it,” said Jemier.
I do not know why he expected the door to be open. Cydrithenna had soldiers, and the palace had locks. He must have seen me lock the door every night he had spent here already. Yet still he tried to get in.
He knocked heavily. I groaned and rose from bed. I couldn’t let him accidentally crack the door.
I unlocked the door. With the first click, he stopped pounding. Thank goodness. I didn’t need him rousing the neighbors.
I opened the door, made an annoyed gesture for him to hurry up and get his boisterous self in. He wrapped me in a tight embrace, pulling our bodies flush and my head toward his shoulder.
“It was there,” he said. The button on the cuff of his coat caught in my hair, but it would only become painful if he moved suddenly.
“What are you talking about?” I said, muffled by his coat, which smelled of Heartwing’s rain and Cydrithenna. Icy buttons pressed into my bare chest. His hands were only slightly warmer.
He pulled away enough to look me in the eye, and I felt an irritating tug on my scalp. I uttered a remark of pain. He untangled the button, then returned his hands to my sides.
“The box, Solin. I found it, just where you said it’d be.” He smiled, but the expression turned to one of pain. “I was unkind to you. I acted like an entitled brat. I—”
“Stop,” I uttered. I pulled away from him completely to shut and relock the door. He removed his boots, set down his bag, and hung up his cold coat.
“Did I wake you?”
“I wasn’t sleeping.”
“Can humans see in the dark, Solin?”
“My sight is less proficient than it was before,” I said, guiding him through the apartment by the elbow, “but my eyes have adjusted. You can’t see either, you know.” Slivers of city light poked through the curtains I’d purchased with my tablet, and it was by the grace of this steel aura that I did not run into the coffee table. We stopped at the sofa.
“Well, I could if I were—” He let out a slight gasp. “Sorry.”
Whatever. “I already put away your things. You were gone for too long.”
He grazed my arm with his hand. “I know where they are. Allow me. You need your rest.”
“Yes, but I cannot simply close my eyes and magick myself into dreamland.”
“Am I a burden to you?”
I stared unseeing at the sofa. “You’re not a burden.” I retrieved the extra bedding, and he took it from me and set it down before taking me into his arms again. This time, I returned the hold. For the first time in my life, my name had been cleared, truly cleared, and the alien feeling of relief brought a need to be comforted.
His cold hands clutched my back, but I didn’t complain. My fingers dug into his shirt, and I took in the cold scent of rain in his hair and let the warmth between our chests do its work. Too many years had passed, and too much resentment had festered in that time.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered. “I should have believed you.”
“You do now, and that’s what matters.”
He continued to whisper apologies, whisper my name, and I uttered small assurances that he didn’t need to express his regret so profusely.
He kissed my cheek, tickling my skin with his beard. I chuckled lightly, and he apologized again for tickling me.
“You’re shivering,” he said.
“You’re cold and wet.” I hoped I hadn’t said that callously because I did not want him to think I was scolding him.
“Embraces are meant to be warming,” he said.
“This is warm, just not on my back.”
“You should get to bed,” he said.
“That sounded awfully paternal,” I replied, but I did desire the warmth of the bed. Our prolonged embrace ended. He retrieved his bag while I snatched my tablet, then slipped beneath the blankets. Propping up on one elbow, I used my injured hand to touch the screen, eyes flitting over to his barely illuminated form as he unfolded his blankets. “If you’re not tired, you could sit with me.”
His silhouette approached the bed. He held an expression of contentment as he settled in behind me, his legs crossed and his back almost straight up.
“Here,” he said.
I turned and set down the tablet. He had the box. “You brought it with you?”
“I’m sorry, but I opened it.”
“But only to see if it was the right box. It looked like you were still using it, so I shut it. I promise I didn’t dig through your things. I just thought you might want something from home.”
I stared at the latch of the box. “Thank you.” I set it on the nightstand and picked up my tablet. I desperately needed a distraction, so I scrolled through the familiar digital catalogue of books to pass the time.
“What are you doing?”
“Shopping for a book,” I said, flicking the screen to quickly scroll through titles I recognized.
“I could bring you books from Cydrithenna,” he offered. “What’s that one?”
“The red one you just passed.”
“I have that one.”
“Stop on that one,” he said of another book.
I glanced back at him. “Which one?”
“The one you can barely read the title of.”
“The titles are reprinted below as a link to the product page.”
I offered him the tablet. He leaned over and pointed to the book. A romance novel. Not what I would read, but strangely fitting for the situation since so many of them involved people finding excuses to be in bed with each other. I remembered my first kiss with Eleric. Then Jemier shifted heavily, and I thought of him. The bed did feel different with his weight on it, and I liked it, just as I had liked the feeling of his lips on my cheek.
I put the book in my electronic shopping cart anyway just to please him. I did that with every book that caught his fancy. I had only found two that I actually wanted.
“Are those scars?” he asked.
“I don’t see that book.”
“Not a book. On your back.” He dragged a finger across the base of my neck. “Small.”
“Yes,” I said, rolling my neck in discomfort, “they’re scars.”
“From that battle with the Fire Giants?”
“They’re much older than that.” I covered the scar with my hair.
“I’d never noticed. From when?”
“Oh.” His hand pulled away. “They didn’t heal you? What happened?”
“Here.” I encounraged him to take the tablet again. “I’m tired. Pick out a few more.”
I lay down, pulling the blanket over my shoulders, and closed my eyes. Even his invasive question could not keep me from sleep, but I dreamt a reconstructed version of the moment anyway, one where his hand touched every scar, and I shouted at him to get Eleric so I could break out of the cell I suddenly found myself in.
I awoke with the tablet at my bedside and Jemier missing. The day had broken. Groggy, I surveyed the apartment. “Jemier?”
“Over here.” He stood in the kitchen, preparing eggs and toast again. I rubbed my eyes and studied him. Were he in Cydrithenna at that moment, I don’t know what he would have been doing. He did not handle administrative duties at all—not even after Karrdil had given him my title—and he would wander around the palace or surrounding city in the meantime, maybe training, or chuckling and getting into trouble—“having fun”—with his friends. How much did these quiet moments in this domestic setting differ from that? No duties, just being for the sake of being.
I checked the wrinkles in the sheets, wondering if he had fallen asleep beside me. He hadn’t. I enjoyed Jemier’s companionship more than I wanted to admit and had been missing this kind of close relationship. When had I last connected with someone so deeply?
Brida and Armand appealed to me for the same reasons. I considered establishing deeper friendships or otherwise with each of them. Would it be as dangerous as I thought? I’d have to be honest with them, but to what degree? At what point would a human want to know that I’d outlive them, that I’d have to watch them age while I barely grew a gray hair?
The curse. Of course. We’d age at the same rate, wouldn’t we? Jemier surely would have spoken up if he knew that Karrdil had delivered me a death sentence.
“Does Karrdil mean to kill me?”
Jemier gave me a forlorn look from the kitchen. “Solin.”
“I need to know, Jemier. Does this spell give me the lifespan of a Gaian?”
He stared at the eggs he scrambled. “If it does, then he did not tell me.”
“Don’t break that flipper, please.”
He took a deep breath. “I won’t let him kill you.”
I had nothing eloquent to say to that. The situation called for humor, but how could I joke about my possible looming mortality when I finally had a sense of what I wanted?
I yearned to return to bed, ignore my meal, and ignore my duties. I didn’t.
We ate. I went to Our Lady of Sorrows. I returned home. Jemier made attempts to help me in my quest and even searched for information on more volunteer opportunities. The list of work I qualified for was grotesquely short. Even with Sam’s identity, how could I circumvent background checks or earn an advanced degree? I understood why such requirements were in place, but I had no answer to my dilemma that didn’t involve leaving my duties at the kitchen for good. I refused to leave Victoria.
Jemier’s duties as the crown prince called, whatever those entailed these days. So familiar, the feeling of being left out, but centuries hadn’t inoculated me against loneliness, which made my desire to do just one more thing atop cooking for those in need burn brighter.
Autumn had arrived, but the climate didn’t concern itself with calendars. Yet I worried about those who needed shelter on the colder nights. I worried for too many, and I worried for myself. I needed help.
I sent Sam a text message. He returned the message with a video call on my tablet. I had never used the service willingly on my tablet before, but Sam had everything set up for me. My screen name was so unappealing that I won’t even repeat it.
“What are you drinking?” he said.
“What? Nothing.” I peered at the video. Sam sat before a white wall of multicolored scribbles and copious sticky notes. “Where are you?”
“Some guy’s cubicle. Long story. Actually, it isn’t. I’m thinking of upgrading BubbleCute’s headquarters.”
“I don’t know what you just said to me.”
“The cube part? It’s an office with no privacy. A cubicle.”
“What the hell is the bubble cute headquarters?”
“BubbleCute. The game that’s paying for that apartment?”
“Oh, the bubble game?” The application had come preloaded on my tablet. “That’s what you made your fortune on?”
“It’s what I increased my fortune with,” he said. “Wait, you didn’t know that?”
“Do you play it?”
“Oh my god, you’re lying to me. You play BubbleCute.” His face lit up and pinked as he leaned back in his chair and let out a high-pitched laugh.
“Oh, shut up. I only played it for the first week.”
“You can’t get past the—”
“Sam, I must ask you about something far more important than the mechanics of your digital world.”
He calmed his laughter and cleared his throat. “Okay, fine. So you need me, I take it?”
I snarled quietly. “Yes, I need you. Humans are suffering, and what I’m doing isn’t stopping very much of it.”
“It’s not easy.”
“I want to contribute.”
“In a more hands-on setting, Sam.”
“You always scowl at people who are trying to help you?”
I folded my hands in my lap, regarding him with disdain.
Sam gave me an approving smile. “There’s the Solin I first met. Less angry, more annoyed. So, what’s with this charity thing?”
“I can’t do more work than I’m already doing without the proper credentials.”
He tilted his head, scrunched his face slightly, and uttered a skeptical moan. “I think it’s a great idea, just not for you. If anyone ever found out who you are, no one would come within miles of that charity again.”
“And? You look like you don’t care.”
“I have so much to do and no way to do it.”
“I’m not giving you more money.”
“I am not asking for more money.”
He blinked at me several times. “Okay, let me get one thing straight for you. You can’t help people on a massive scale. You help one here, a handful there. When you start saving mass populations, something gets lost. You’ve changed one thing. You’ve stopped a bad thing from happening to a lot of people, and that’s good. But in the end, how many of those people are going to go on and make the real changes? Shit happens every day. An asteroid could hurtle toward us and obliterate us for good. Just flatten us and wipe us out.
“You make changes with a few people. You get them to want to help you make changes. That’s how the small changes get bigger. One grand gesture isn’t going to correct everything. The kind of change you want starts smaller.”
“I know the concept,” I said. Helping people on a grand scale had gotten me into this mess to begin with. “This brings me back to the original problem. Helping can begin with a small program, funded by a person of means without a record like mine.”
“Every time I start something new, the Alli—hey.” He bobbed his head at the shadow who’d just walked by. “How’s it going?” When the shadow finished crossing our conversation, he said, “The you-know-who investigates. Plus, they just really hate you. And if we put you in that situation, only two things are going to happen.”
“I’ll be accused of infiltrating your charities for nefarious purposes, or you’ll be painted as the villain.”
“There you go.”
“So I can do nothing more than what I’m already doing.”
“You got it. We done here? Last chance to get anything else in. You know I love helping you—”
“You despise me.”
“That’s not the word I’d use, but helping you helps me, remember? Plus, you play my game, so what I’m saying is that if you have anything else, you better spill it. I caught the Alliance on my phone the other day, which is why we’re using video instead. They’re getting pretty good at this not-relying-on-magick thing. It’s kind of annoying.”
“And I thought you just wanted to see me topless again.”
He chuckled and shook his head. “Stop making me like you.”
I gave him a flippant shrug. “You’ll like me a little less when you see what happened to the granite.”
He quirked one brow. “What? Tell me that’s not the name of your special sword. Not sure my girlfriend would be happy about that.”
I carried the tablet over to the kitchen, making sure he saw my side-glare, then showed him the damage Jemier had done.
“Did you literally just show me a piece of cracked granite?”
I flipped the device back over. “Yes. You should Drakon-proof your dwellings.”
“He has been visiting a lot lately…”
“Go away now.”
He chuckled and the call disconnected.
I found myself no closer to my goal than before, but now I had an answer. I didn’t much care for it. If I couldn’t redeem myself and I couldn’t have my powers, then what good was I?