Authors: Michael Phillip Cash
“Idiot. Get us out of here.”
He climbed up, hauling himself in as the door burst open, revealing a group of Planta warriors with bloodlust in their eyes, swords and spears held high. Punching the thrusters, he gave a satisfied grin when they roared to life, and without regard for his sore shoulder, he shoved it to the maximum level, praying
to all the Elements that he wouldn’t stall. A huge Planta jumped onto his wing, and he cried out to Denita, “Buckle up, buttercup!”
The engines squealed with power, and he felt the giddiness that always precluded the burst of speed his ship was capable of. They shot out of the building with dizzying speed, the warrior peeled off by the force of gravity.
His ship picked up momentum as it left the embattled planet, but did not escape notice of a Plantan hunting party. His left arm almost useless, Zayden swerved his ship toward the blazing suns, hoping his maneuver would blind his pursuers. He felt the jolt as one of the heat seekers grazed the wing of his small ship, making it go into a wild spin. Denita pounded on the glass that separated their compartments with her fists. “Not now, sweetheart,” he yelled sarcastically, “I’m sort of busy!” Gritting his teeth, he grabbed the wheel, sparks of pain flashing behind his eyes from his busted ribs. His hand went numb, but he held on, pressing for as
much power to go to his tiny engines. He loved his ship. It was a gift from his father for his captaincy. It was compact and the fastest on Darracia. The engine screamed in the void of space, zipping under the startled pirates to escape into the darkness beyond the atmosphere.
“You okay there, Denita?”
“Denita?” He painfully shifted in his seat and saw a fine line of blood from a hairline cut on her forehead. “Shit.”
He needed a place to think. He needed to heal his wounds. He turned his ship and headed to Fon Reni.
The brush swayed, and Denita stood in her torn black jumpsuit proudly holding a dead pozin in her hand. It had been a dicey few hours after he landed, according to him, crashed as far as she was concerned. Denita suffered a concussion; she had
never belted herself in, as there had not been time. Her head connected hard with the dashboard, and she missed the entirety of their daring escape. After they landed, Zayden pulled her from the ship painfully, stripped out of his shirt, and doused it with cold seawater to place on her head. It took a few hours, but she returned to him, angrily cursing that he didn’t land on Planta.
“Where is this place?” she spit, mobile once again.
“Fon Reni, Fon Reni,” she shouted. “You take me to a resort when we can avenge my family!” She paced the indigo beach shakily. “Take me to Planta, now!”
“No can do, General.” Zayden didn’t look up from the small fire he was building. “I would remove the boots before you burn your feet through them. The sand doesn’t react well to the material of your soles,” he explained calmly.
“Don’t tell me what to do, and don’t call me
general,” she grumbled.
They barely talked for the rest of the day. Denita had taken herself off to explore the dense forest of swaying palms, and he had removed his shoes and rolled up his pants to enjoy the gleam of the suns bouncing off the golden ocean. “She’s back.” He smirked hearing her stomping through the brush madder than a wet gresh.
She eyed the pile of discarded crab. “You ate already,” she accused him with disgust, laying her catch beside the fire. She stared at the ribbed muscles of his chest, gleaming in the firelight. He had the rough, pebbled skin of the Darracians; she saw that his chest was a lighter gray than the rest of him, with big, purple bruises covering half his torso. She knew he was still in considerable pain. His shoulders gleamed in the firelight. The shadows played off the sculpted angles of his lean face.
“Didn’t you hear the dinner bell?” Zayden looked up innocently. “You snooze, you lose.”
“I wasn’t sleeping. Unlike some I was checking this place out for a way to get off. And I trapped a pozin as well.” She kicked it toward him with the toe of her boot.
Zayden held up his index finger. “One, we are alone. My family owns the rights to Fon Reni, and no one can come here without permission. Two,” he touched the next finger, “pozin are foul, nasty rodents that have a scent sac that makes them inedible.”
“You could have left me some crabs. Who is your family?”
Zayden ignored her question and simply said, “Look in the basket.” He pointed to the container with a small wave of dismissal.
Denita walked over to him, leaning against the side of his ship. “We go to Planta?” she asked hopefully.
“No. We are going home.”
“I don’t have a home.”
“But I do.”
Tulani raced through the treetops, her arms grabbing one branch after another effortlessly. Her upper torso had developed, and she wasn’t the soft cloud dweller anymore. She grabbed the slippery vines with her calloused hands, but still worried she would slide down and find herself on the wet Desa floor if she wasn’t careful.
“Wait up, you Keywalla!” Bobbien called from behind her.
She was faster than her grandmother and smiled, her white teeth gleaming in the darkness. Her hair bounced against her back, her braids thick and numerous. “Faster, Grandeam. I want to get out of here. It’s pouring.”
It had started raining in the last moon phase and never stopped. It was a steady downpour; the randam crystals rotted on the bark. Flowers failed to bloom, and fruits were scarce. This was unprecedented, and
the Quyroos complained but failed to see the impending disaster. Food stores were running low. Even the Wysbies had disappeared, their wings too fragile to fly in the downpours.
She was headed for Aqin, their home. They had moved into the vast chambers to be closer to Ozre. Tulani had so much to learn, but try as she might, the Element was elusive. Bobbien used the time to teach her about the herbs and medicines of the forest, but Tulani was miserable. She missed V’sair, and felt she could not return until she understood her role in this world. No longer a servant, not quite a healer, a half-fast high priestess, she was floundering in her own insecurities. She needed to make a connection to her people. She knew her role was to serve as conduit to the king, but she felt as removed from them as she did when she lived in Syos, the city of the clouds.
“Just go to V’sair if you are unhappy here,” Bobbien told her, clearly out of patience for her lovesick sighs. “I am tired of seeing Seren’s nasty face
The big Quyroo hadn’t given up, and frequently could be found just watching their home. She would often catch a glimpse of him, hiding in the treetops, his narrowed eyes cold.
“I am not afraid of that one.” She dismissed Seren with a disinterested shrug. “I can’t leave, Grandeam. V’sair wants me as his queen. I don’t want to be an ornament; I want to make a difference. I fear I know nothing. I need to be able to help. I want to make a difference.”
“Yes, I do agree, child. Time—you need time to learn to use the Elements to achieve greatness, I think. Yes, you do.”
“But the Quyroos still don’t accept me.”
“They are leery of you, they are,” Bobbien said with a sage nod. “Don’t trust you, don’t trust nobody, the Quyroo. You understand why, don’t you?”
Tulani thrust out her lower lip. “It’s all so
exhausting. We are caught in this terrible limbo. V’sair strives to make peace, Darracians act superior, the Quyroo don’t trust them.” She plopped down next to her grandmother. “Some mountains are too hard to climb.”
“Defeatist talk!” Bobbien yelled at her, her red face turning an unbecoming shade of magenta. “Remember you not Ozre telling you to look inside your heart?”
“I have, and all I see is love for V’sair.”
“Then go and live only for your love!” Bobbien got up to angrily ready their next meal. She threw ingredients around like a mad chef, and Tulani bit back a smile. “Whiney, whiney,” said her grandmother. “You think everything should come in a snap?” She held up her hand and snapped her long fingers impatiently. “You have just learned of our healing ways, crammed years of training into mere months. If you want to be accepted by your people, you have to become one of them.”
“I am Quyroo,” Tulani told her defensively.
“Physically, yes, but up here”—she pointed to her temple—“I think not. Do not blame others for your lack of success. Search your mind to see what more you can do.”
“Did Ozre tell you that?”
“He didn’t have to,” Bobbien replied curtly, then turned back to pound some forest edibles into a pulp.
So they settled in the caves, gathering the roots, making potions. Tulani studied the Quyroo, and slowly began to see their way of thinking. Every night she threw herself onto the cold stone floor, called for Ozre, but heard nothing. “Why have you deserted me, Ozre,” she cried out. “I need your guidance.”
The echoes of her pleas were her only response.
“Highness, we must schedule the coronation,” General Swart stated from his seat on the Orbitus Chamber, a group that met daily with the king.
“I am still in mourning, General. It is out of the question,” V’sair answered absently, his gaze on the condensation coating the wall of windows. “It’s filthy out there today,” he added to no one in particular.
“A strange occurrence, for sure.” Brault, the chanter, added with his querulous voice. “The weather is strange. We have not seen Rast or Nost for months. Rain, rain, rain, it’s making the whole Desa run red like blood.”
“Enough, Chanter Brault,” V’sair said curtly. He didn’t like the man. He had been appointed to the head of the Temple for the Elements, and V’sair hadn’t warmed to him. It had been a fair appointment; he was chosen by a group of lesser
chanters. Due to his seniority it was a given that he should lead the temple. Short and dumpy, he had a long, thin nose and beady eyes that seemed too close together. Chanters shaved their head when they took their religious orders in order to be able to hear the Elements better. He wore the maroon robes of high office, with a golden breastplate signifying he was the most high warrior for the Elements. V’sair thought him an ugly little man, whose wrinkled and faded skin gave him the appearance of something that lived underground to tunnel in the soil. He was small minded, hated the Quyroos, and basically made life in the Orbitus Chamber very difficult for V’sair.
But it was true—the weather had changed. It was a few degrees colder, and they’d had unexplained record rainfalls. V’sair had appointed a committee to study the problem. He had yet to hear anything from them. V’sair fiddled with a pen. “Enough about the weather.” He glanced up at a map of the Desa that hung suspended in midair. He motioned with his
hands, and the images changed, from topical, to bird’s eye, to frontal. V’sair studied the screens, searching every face for the familiar one so dear to him. He saw panicked people, filthy and shocked, their homes destroyed. “How many people were hurt?” There had been a major mudslide with many casualties. V’sair wanted to organize relief efforts.
“The coronation, Sire,” Swart appealed.
“Will wait. What happened on the hills of Aqin?”
“It’s all this rain. The bottom dwellers have been flooded out of the illegal settlements. We have set up refugee camps in the Plains of Dawid.”
“How do you expect me to think about things like coronations when my people suffer?” V’sair rounded on General Swart.
“How can you call them your people when you haven’t been properly crowned!” Swart stood angrily. “Perhaps all this is a sign from the Elements.”
“What kind of sign?” V’sair’s back went rigid as he inquired quietly.
“I meant nothing, Your Highness. I am only looking for the good of the monarchy.” Swart leaned closer to V’sair. “Walk with me, Sire.”
V’sair stood and strolled the chamber next to his grand mestor, their feet echoing off the slick floor.
The general waited until they had passed a distance to give them privacy. “I have information.”
“Yes?” V’sair looked at him intently.
“The interrogations of the assassins have been troubling.” Swart frowned.
“What have you discovered?”
Swart looked around the room, his eyes darting to every dark corner. “I am taking every precaution for your safety. But, Sire, I am not happy…I feel that we are missing something.”
“What, General? You did an excellent job. You
intercepted them before anything happened.” V’sair placed his hand on the general’s stooped shoulders. “I know I am a sore trial to you, my lord general, but, like my father before me, I trust you with my life.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.”
“You used to call me V’sair.”
“I am worried, my…V’sair. Although they have talked, I suspect they know someone close to you is involved. I am nervous.”
V’sair shrugged his shoulders. “I feel secure in your hands. But please, General, make sure my mother is safe.”
“I have doubled the guards, on you both.”
V’sair placed a trusting hand on his shoulder. “I knew I could depend on you.”
“But, Sire, I would feel better if we had the coronation. It would give you legitimacy as the king.
Besides, all the people love the pageantry.”