Traitors. All of us.
2017 Polaris, New York
Sam pulled his car into the lot of a twenty-four-hour diner and parked. Dormant tractor-trailers lined the grass along the back of the lot while only a sparse handful of cars rested in marked spaces.
His phone kept ringing. We got out of the car, and I leaned against the passenger door, holding my arm. He held a finger to his lips and answered the phone.
“Flore? Is it done?” He paced around the vehicle, occasionally stopping to stare at passing nighttime traffic.
What? I mouthed.
He waved his fingers at me. “Uh-huh. Well, glad that’s getting taken care of—what? No, I haven’t seen anything like that.” He grunted. “I have a college friend in town. You know that. Why the hell else would I be here?” He groaned and rounded the car until he faced me. “Flore? Seriously? Do we have to do this now?” He met my eyes and shook his head, pointing at the person on the other end of the call. “Drop the Federation crap for just one second and think about how I just hauled ass away from a magickal pig trying to shoot ice spikes up my ass. Yes, up my actual ass.” He covered the microphone and muttered, “I swear to god.”
I raised my brows at him. What is going on?
“Okay, Flore. Hugs, kisses, middle fingers, all that. Thanks for taking care of this.” He hung up the phone. “Okay, what do you want first? Good news, bad news, or the god-damnit news? Oh, wait.” He pocketed his phone and held my wrist. “Never had a dislocated shoulder before?”
“Yes.” Courtesy of Varin. “Have you?”
“Once or twice. You want to do it yourself, or do you need help?”
I gave him a sheepish look. “Help please.”
“Got it. Let’s fix this and grab you some ice.” I clenched my jaw as he straightened my arm. “Okay, one, two—”
I yelped. Shoulder reset.
How the hell did Gaians deal with so much pain all the time?
“You look green.”
“I feel green.”
“Think about that good news, bad news, god-damnit news thing for a few. Be right back.”
He jogged into the diner and emerged minutes later holding a to-go tray of drinks and a pile of ice contained in layered plastic shopping bags with knotted handles.
“Got you something.” He set the tray of drinks atop the roof of the car and pressed the awkward, lumpy bag of ice against my shoulder. All right, that felt good. “That’s probably gonna leak in a bit.”
I took over ice duty and settled my breath. “Good news first.”
“Sure.” He unwrapped a straw, pocketed the wrapper, and popped it into one of the ridiculously tall, wide cups covered in condensation. He shoved it in front of my face. “Sip.”
“Is it poisonous?”
“It’s ginger ale. Drink it.”
“You’re giving me alcohol?”
“No, it’s for your stomach. Drink it already?”
I sipped the fizzy, sugary syrup. “This can’t be good for anyone.”
“Yeah, but does your stomach feel better?”
Sort of. “Good news, please.”
“They grabbed your rogue Drakon dude and somehow lied about the whole fiasco to the security guard.” He set my drink back on the car. “Apparently our friend had some tech stashed on the upper floors.”
“To find me?”
“Probably. It’s also probably just a coincidence that we crossed paths with him at his base, but he was bound to find you eventually.” He shuddered and rubbed his hands together. “Anyway, they’re still going through it.”
“My tech or yours?”
“Drakon tech. Yeah, so the Alliance has that now.”
I sighed and adjusted the crinkly bag. “Is that the bad news?”
“No. That’s the lukewarm part of the good news.”
“What did they do with the bodies?”
“Oh, that’s the other bad news. They took him and the magick pig in alive.”
“Yeah. I told you.” He unwrapped his own straw, pocketed that wrapper, and shoved it into the other cup. “They think they’ve earned a spot in the Big Kids’ Club, what with having guarded that never-closing portal for your people for centuries.”
“Yeah. You can understand that they’d be a little pissed about not getting to have advanced space travel capabilities.”
I cast him a side-glare. “You agree with them?”
“Uh, yeah? Isn’t that what you said earlier too?”
“I meant to reward your kind for saving our ancestors. Not for guarding the portal.”
“Yeah, well maybe I don’t agree with their means, but come on. We aren’t even allowed to cross over.”
“You said ‘we,’ Sam.”
“An accident. So, what’s next, the bad news or the god-damnit news?”
“Just go in order.” I pinned the ice bag with the back of my shoulder to the car so I could drink without Sam’s assistance. The bag slid a little at first, but otherwise the pinning worked.
“This one’s pretty obvious. The Alliance got there so fast because they already had a team here.”
I stared into the distance. “For how long?”
“Long enough.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry, Solin. Guess I didn’t cover your tracks good enough when you got here. I thought I’d thrown them off, but Florence knows me better than that.”
“So they saw my arrival, but do they know when Jemier arrives?”
“Well no, but that’s the problem.”
“If this is the god-damnit news, just say it already.”
“Fine. Your boyfriend straight-up lied to you.”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“The Alliance has known about that guy for a while now, thanks to Jemier. They just haven’t been able to find him.”
My blood thudded through my body. “I’m sorry, you’re telling me that they told you—”
“That Jemier dropped by and asked for their help in finding some rogue Drakon. Yes.”
“That is not what he said he was doing.” So much for keeping tabs on the gatekeepers. “Why would he lie to me?”
“That’s for you to sort out with him. I’m just telling you what Flore said.”
We sipped our cold drinks, our straws rattling against the crushed ice in our cups.
“Florence only suspected me of pulling this crap before, but she flat-out caught me because she knew Jemier could only arrive by portal, but somehow their software didn’t pick up anything. So, to her, he just appeared out of nowhere.”
“I think the better question is this: How come you didn’t notice that one of his portals opened way the hell up north in Canada?”
He gave me a flat stare. “Oh, come on, you’re blaming me now?”
I shrugged. My shoulder protested. “You’re the one who wanted to protect me with all this cyber-nonsense.”
“I didn’t see his blip at Shadowfall because I didn’t see his blip at Shadowfall. I have no idea why, but maybe that just means I coded the feedback incorrectly. Maybe every time I see a blip, they see one. And when I don’t, no one does. I don’t know, Solin. Sue me, I’m only human.” He took a long sip from his cup. “That guy probably had that portable portal tech on him, by the way, so they’ve got that too.”
“There’s no way they could figure out how to use it. You give it your bioprint when you first activate it.”
“Well that’s a relief. But I gotta ask, Solin. What the hell was that guy doing here? Why hunt you if you were already in exile?”
“Are you accusing me of yet another crime?”
“Good,” I said. “He hunted me because despite being exonerated, there are those who still believe I murdered my brother.”
“How long ago was that?”
“They need to drop it already.”
“It’s not that. My brother was a depraved monstrosity. He broke off from our group as we got older, and somehow got worse. Who knows the kinds of people he kept company with. I was just grateful for him to be gone most of the time. But this man, he said something odd to me. That my brother’s spirit would not rest until I was dead.”
“Sounds like a cult.”
“I wouldn’t doubt that.” I stared at the ground. A giant beetle skittered across the pavement, perhaps in a last-ditch effort to do all that needed doing before winter officially arrived. “They’ve come after me before, often when I’m most vulnerable.” My lips curled into a sneer at the memory. “I was even attacked on the battlefield by one of my own soldiers once.”
“Yikes. And you wanna head back home despite all of this?”
“I don’t know. I can’t anyway. Not until I get my powers back.”
“Aren’t they back? What you did back there—”
“I borrowed from the boar, and still the curse dampened all of that raw energy. I couldn’t draw a thing from its master.” I examined my hands. Dried blood—some my own, some from the Drakon—covered them. Some had rubbed off with help from the condensation of my cup.
“Hey, come on.” He patted my good shoulder. “Let’s get you home. Try not to dwell on your boyfriend too much and just get some sleep.”
“He’s not my boyfriend, Sam.”
“No?” He picked up the empty tray and held it under his arm. “Then why does he visit you so much?”
“He was probably out hunting for that guy, and anyway, why do you?”
“Because you’re so damn cute and cuddly a hundred percent of the time.” He patted my cheek and smirked. “Get in.” He opened the door for me, and I rolled my eyes but nonetheless got into the car.
I sat on the arm of the sofa, staring at the door. A blip, Sam had told me via video call. He still couldn’t trust his phone to communicate with me, yet somehow, I was supposed to feel assured that the Alliance had no idea Jemier was on his way here despite him having just left their base.
I’d left the door unlocked for him so that I wouldn’t have to move and greet him. I wanted to meet him with my glare when he arrived.
“Enter,” I said when he knocked.
My stare stopped him cold in the doorway.
“You could shut it at least.”
“Solin, let me explain—”
“You’ll have your turn. Get inside.”
He sighed and shut the door, keeping our conversation private from the neighbors. I hoped.
“So, you visited with the Alliance, it seems. And they told you they captured one of our own.”
“I don’t know what Sam told you, but—”
“Sam didn’t tell me anything. I was there, Jemier.” I stood so he could better see my bandaged hand and the sling that carried my arm. Sam had picked up the sling for me a few days ago, the morning after we had left the diner. “We fought.”
Jemier crossed the room to examine me, but I gave him a warning glare. His shoulders slumped.
“Has Captain Lufan been arrested?” I asked.
“Because, Jemier. Only those who attended my trial knew I was exiled to Gaia. And only those from his and your father’s retinue knew my precise whereabouts. I saw the markings on my attacker’s armor, Jemier. He was one of Lufan’s.”
“Captain Lufan has not been arrested or questioned. He’s a good man.”
“He was the first to suspect me of killing Varin.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Well know it now. And how convenient that his man found me like so many other Drakon traitors before him, so he could kill me in Varin’s name? Do you really think that order didn’t come from Lufan’s mouth?”
“What?” Jemier’s brows dipped. “Solin, this has happened before?”
“Your father thought Lyrao was the only one.”
Lyrao. The name didn’t trigger any memories. “Karrdil knew about this?”
“It was Lufan who told him one of his men had stolen away to Gaia. He left a manifesto in the barracks.”
“And your involvement?”
“I…” He shifted his weight and stared at the ground before meeting my eyes again. “I convinced your father to let me handle it. I could look for Lyrao and you at the same time.”
“So that’s how you found me.” Not because he had missed me, and not because he had prodded the information from someone.
“Yes. But I still couldn’t find Lyrao and started to worry, so Corian and I—”
“You involved a Scaleborn. Great.”
“We searched. It was her idea to go to the Alliance for help.”
“Corian Scaleborn? A woman who’d marry duty itself? Doesn’t she care that they basically staged a coup and took over operations at Shadowfall?” I laid the sass on thick. “Sounds like something she’d be gravely opposed to.”
“If it helps, she was reluctantly polite to them.”
I could imagine that. “Okay, that does help a little. Do you want to fill in any other details for me?”
“Only that I don’t know how to see you anymore.”
I grimaced. “Because you no longer have an excuse to spirit away to Gaia.”
He fidgeted with his fingers. “Right.”
“Did you retrieve all of his tech?”
“And the traitor?”
“Back on Cydrithenna.”
“He killed it.”
“His own companion?” Monster. I stared out the window. “And the Alliance. Did you give them what they wanted?”
“Of course not.”
“Do they know I’m here?” They’d asked Sam; I was certain of that.
He shook his head. “No. Your father expressly forbade them from knowing.”
Interesting. “He’s playing a diplomatic game here, isn’t he?”
“He’s made it clear that the Alliance must always know that they answer to Drakon, no matter who stands guard over the portal. We dangle the Federation in front of them when the occasion calls for it.”
“I suppose I should commend him for not resorting to bloodshed. Still. What will you do now?”
My chest tightened. “Yes.”
“You don’t want us.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Didn’t you? Don’t you say it every time—”
“Jemier.” I crossed the distance between us. “I’m willing to try, but you have to stop thinking you know what’s best for me. You’ve always done this, and it always ends up with us fighting.” I gazed into his eyes and softened. I cupped his cheek. “I don’t need you to solve my problems for me. I only need you to support me when I make my own decisions.”
He leaned into the touch. “I only wanted to protect you, and to make up for all the times I failed in that duty.”
“You have no duty to protect me. I’m not a prince any longer.”
“You are to me, and you are not just my prince, Solin. You are my drathos, my cherished friend.”
My thumb brushed the stubble on his cheek. “Then cherish me. All of me. Even the weakest, most flawed pieces of me.”
He nodded lightly into my hand. “I will, Solin.” He placed his hand on my hip. “I will find a way to come back.”
“Then you should know something before you go.”
“What is it?”
I gathered my breath. “I’ve been having feelings for some of my friends here.”
He blinked. “Armand?”
“Yes. And someone I work with.”
“No one else?”
I shook my head. “No.”
“Why tell me this?”
“Because if you come back, I want to try. No more lies or secrets between us. And I would be lying if I hid this from you.”
“Then what’s the best way to keep you safe?”
“Keep me in the loop. That’s all.” I hemmed. “Actually, helping me break this curse would work too.”
“Oh, I’ve tried. You have no idea how many of your magick books I’ve read.”
I leaned back. “Really?”
“Oh yes.” We parted. “I’m in the midst of the most riveting narrative on the intricacies of elemental particle theory.”
“Oh, that’s not a curse-y one. You can move on unless you’re deeply interested in how to make fire shoot from your fingers in an arc.”
“That sounds kind of amazing, but no, I’m really not. It’s the worst book you have, and I’ll be more than happy to set it aside.”
We shared a laugh.
“Jemier. I’m sorry I doubted you.”
“I lied to you. I think doubt was fair.” He fixed a stray piece of my hair and now he held my cheek. “But, Solin, can you trust me too? Trust my decisions? Know that I meant it when I said I was given an ultimatum. I took the crown to get you pardoned. It seemed like the only way.”
Ah, turning my words around on me. He had a fair point, but one that I couldn’t acknowledge fully just yet. “I’m working on that. I know it’s been centuries, but please bear with me, Jemier. I’m trying.”
He nodded. “All right.” He pressed his lips to my forehead, and a warmth spread through my chest, but I could not kiss him. Not after we’d had such an emotional fight. We would start over when he returned.
“How long can you stay?”
“Maybe two more days, if you’ll have me.”
“I would love to.”