Chapter Eleven

Anaru awoke to the sounds of rhythmic chanting in the old tongues, the smell of incense and felt his head pound. The Piscean kept his eyes shut. He couldn’t remember last night, in fact the entire day before was blurry in recollection. The bits and pieces of the previous afternoon gleamed momentarily in his memory.

He knew he performed yesterday with his band. In the months since his band, Nga Tama a Rangi — or “The Sons of Heaven” in the worldwide tongue — had been officially promoted by the local churches and hailed as “true gospel,” the requests for concerts became more and more frequent. However, the spiritual substances — the drink, the smoke, the mushrooms and many other gifts of the gods — often brought reckoning the next day for their pride and their sins. When he heard a curtain slide open, Anaru knew better than to open his eyes right away. He felt his guitar case under his hand and pulled it close to him for comfort.

“Your repentance looks painful this morning, young worshiper.” A kindly old voice said.

“This morning I repent for all the sinners in the world,” Anaru said with slight smile. “Or at least that is what it feels like.”

“It is already the afternoon, so your penance will have to be cut short.” The priestess laughed. “We need our confession room for the faithful.”

“Is that where I am?” Anaru hazarded opening one eye slightly and was thankful to find the room was not as bright as he had thought. “Did I confess last night?”

“Honestly, no.” She said while forcing him to sit up by propping him up against the wall. “We found you lying in the sand not far from here, singing of Neptune and your wish to go surfing.”

“Sounds like a confession of the heart to me,” Anaru smiled and very slowly tried to sit up.

The confession space was similar to most others he had frequented. Lengths of luxurious cloth covered the walls, punctuated only by icons and paintings of the gods, mostly Neptune. Pillows covered every square inch of the floor, with the exceptions for the center of the room — for the hookah — and the large cabinet in the corner which kept the “harder” spiritual substances for the more serious sins.

“May I confess, priestess? Before I go, I mean.” Anaru spoke softly and sincerely.

The old woman nodded and swept her long seafoam-colored robes out from under her as she sat by the hookah. From a pocket inside the wide sleeves, she produced a tin of strong, dried sea cannabis, or seaweed, and began to pack the wide bowl.

Anaru made the symbol of the trident across his heart and head. Kissing his fingers and pointing to the sky, he began.

“Gods forgive me, for I have sinned. Today is the nineteenth day of April, and last night I performed in worship of you. As my popularity grows across the Isles, I know the Holy Pantheon is watching over me and allowing me to shine like a guiding star for the faithful…” The young rock star’s voice trailed off as the priestess handed him a hose as she began to puff smoke from the corner of her wrinkled mouth.

Anaru took a draw from the hose and felt the pain of the hangover fade away, the world softened and began to slow. His body grew heavy but his face was grinning as the mouthpiece left his lips.

“… However, I can hide nothing from the gods, and Neptune knows that I have taken freely of the love and gifts of the faithful fans who have followed me and my band on this tour.”

Anaru began his long and storied tales of celebrations, sex and debauchery which followed Nga Tama a Rangi around the islands, and the old priestess listened patiently until he was finished.

“Hmmm. Well young man, it seems you’ve certainly made time for yourself during this circuit of worship.” She raised an eyebrow and spoke with the hose at her pursed lips. “It is clear the gods have not sought to turn away your fame and fortune — yet. However, the Church is willing to absolve you of your sins by way of spiritual substances if you make a generous donation to our temple.”

Anaru nodded too quickly and found the room spinning. He opened his guitar case and found one of the cards for the line of credit his band manager had given him.

“How much do you need?”

“No, my child, the question is, how much do you need?” She lifted herself to her feet with care, and made her way to the large, driftwood cabinet.

The priestess opened a few cabinets until she found the jar she sought.

“I’m sure, with your history, you are familiar with these,” the old woman held up a large jar, filled nearly to the brim with tiny mushrooms. “They will test your spirit and cleanse you of your past mistakes. Clear a day and take three in the morning. Meditate on the man you wish to be. Although, it is obvious you have much to atone for and you know your sins better than I, so buy the number you think needed to atone for your transgressions.”

She bowed her head solemnly and took up his card of credit.

“How much are you willing to donate today?”

“Umm…” Anaru tried to do the math for how much the sacred ‘shrooms went for in his hometown church. He figured an increased price for the immorality he had undertaken, and then lost the figures in his mind altogether. “Two hundred?”

The priestess tried to hide her surprise at the size of the generous amount.

“Come now son, is that what you immortal soul is worth?”

“Oh, yeah. Of course not, my bad…” Anaru struggled to think and then decided against it. “Five hundred is what I meant.”

“Understood, here are your reparations.” She took half of the mushrooms out and placed them delicately into a smaller jar. “May Neptune’s love be with you always.”

“And you as well, priestess.” Anaru made the trident motion again and took the jar from the old woman and found a place for it in his guitar case.

He stood with some difficulty and made his way through the beaded curtains into the main hall. The church was exquisite by Piscean standards. Anaru had nearly forgotten which island he was on, but the stained glass windows depicting the ten great gods of the pantheon as well as the ornate fixtures decorating the pews and altars told him his tour must be nearing the pantheonic see. Most temples to the gods were built as basic as any home or tavern with palm and driftwood. As money flowed into the Church, suddenly massive, resplendent buildings were built as temples, but only those chosen by the high priestesses for their heavy traffic. Anaru took his time and stood in awe of the building’s glamour before stepping into the afternoon sun.

The town of (town name here) was already alive with pedestrians, rickshaws and the horses of the sea scurrying about from store to stall. The sounds of the crashing surf mingled among the noise of the people and the whineys of the sea horses, smoothing the harshness of so much motion at once for Anaru.

The Piscean loped leisurely on the outside of the sandy street in his tall, gangly way. He paused at a fruit cart to admire the produce and the horse resting between the tracer poles of the cart.

“May I pet your horse?” Anaru asked the vendor with a dopey smile.

“Yeah, sure. She’s real friendly.” The tiny, chubby vendor grumbled. “As long as you buy something.”

“Okay then, one bushel of apples please.”

Surprised, the vendor began bagging up the fruit as Anaru approached the mare.

The seahorse was shorter than most at nine, maybe ten hands tall and the ringed armor-like texture to her skin was the color of coral and oceanside sunsets. Her mane fin and tail flickered softly in appreciation as the Piscean slowly stroked her the smooth space of her back.

“Here ya go, that’ll be ten dollars.” The vendor held out the hemp bag filled with apples as well as his other hand to receive payment.

“Here’s a card for credit…” Anaru began as he fished around in his guitar case for the stack.

“Credit? Credit?” The vendor barked. “What if I never see you again, boy? I’m as charitable as the next, but I need to make ends meet! I don’t have the Bank of the Church at my disposal y’know.”

“Oh, sorry man. How ‘bout a trade instead?” Anaru found the jar the priestess had handed him and brought it out into the sunlight.

The vendor’s eyes went wide as Anaru began to do the math of how many “caps” he would need to atone for his past mistakes. He began to unscrew the lid.

“Good sir, I’m certain we can work out a trade! How about two, maybe three for the bushel?” The vendor had walked around his stall and placed the bag at Anaru’s feet as her rubbed his hands together.

“Oh, well I already took out five, so here you go.” Anaru casually dropped the spiritual ‘shrooms into the giddy fruit salesman’s hands.

“So generous! The gods must certainly favor you sir, thank you!”

“I hope so.” Anaru took a bite of an apple before moving around to the front of the horse.

He held out the rest of the apple as an offering to the gentle creature. Her many nostrils flared and she nudged the fruit with her muzzle before pulling back her lips and retractable baleen gums to reveal her teeth as she benignly began to nibble at it. A few bites in, she took the apple from his hand in one big chomp.

She permitted him to softly touch her face and cheeks as she chewed happily.

“Enjoy it,” Anaru said to the amphibious beast before navigating the wild traffic of the street to the tavern on the other side.

The dark tavern was a much needed rest for Anaru’s eyes. The slight migraine had grown in sunlight, and the thick, tattered curtains which covered the windows of the building gave him great relief. Surprisingly empty for one o’clock in the afternoon, Anaru counted only three people inside the bar — including the bartender. An unconscious Piscean sat facedown and snoring at his table by the door, occasionally hiccuping in his sleep. Anaru gently stepped around the slumbering man, and picked a stool at the bar two seats from a beautiful woman who seemed to feel as wretched as he did. The suffering rockstar motioned for the barkeep to come over.

“Hey, how are ya?” The barkeep seemed to shine jovially with his shaved head and hints of shimmering jewelry about his person. “Happy Saturday!”

“Oh, it’s Saturn’s day? Is that why business is so slow here?” Anaru queried.

“While it is the religious day of work, I’m afraid I haven’t been sanctioned by the local church yet either. So between those two things, the afternoons have been mighty slow. But anyway, what can I get for ya?”

Anaru glanced down the bar toward the woman sitting a few seats away. Her hair was blonde and full of body, as was she. Her curvy structure and wavy golden hair reminded Anaru of the shoreside dunes. Stirring what seemed to be only ice left, she stared past the short glass — possibly contemplating another strong drink. She slumped on the stool with her brow in her hand, as if the bar was the only thing holding her steady.

“I’d like two glasses of whatever she’s having,” Anaru said to the bartender as the blonde looked up to face him, to which he winked in reply. “One for the lady, of course”

“Two monsoons, coming right up.” The bartender grabbed her glass and a fresh one for Anaru and began his happy work, whistling a sailing tune.

The blonde got up and moved to the seat next to Anaru. She wore a turquoise robe, if one could call it that; low-cut, shapley and the hem reached to barely mid-thigh. Both her lips and her eyes were full and red, she had been crying into her drink.

“Hello handsome, thank you for your kindness.” she murmured. “I don’t think I’ve seen you around here, and yet you look so familiar. What’s your name?”

“Perhaps this meeting is fated by the Gods,” he paused to lock eyes with the woman. “Anaru.”

The Piscean knew he embodied the religious rock star with every inch of his mellow smile, tanned skin and sandy hair always pulled away from his smooth brow and strong cheekbones. The ability to sing, play and write music only furthered his confidence and unwavering sense of self. He was tall for a Piscean, and goofily proportioned with even longer arms, legs and feet. However; his handsome smile, his music and his piety earned him the attraction and approval of hundreds across the Piscean islands. Anaru felt in his bones that this was only the beginning.

“Anaru,” she tried the name in her mouth as if tasting a new drink. “Surely not the Anaru of Nga Tama a Rangi?”

“One and the same, at your service.” Anaru grinned widely, as he felt the conversation sliding in his favor.

“I love your music! I nearly bought an electronic music player just to listen to your voice at home.”

“Buy the technology the church forbids to listen to the hymns of the faithful, eh?” The bartender joked as he brought them their drinks. “It’s a strange form of sacrilege, but not an uncommon offense. Especially since your band became so popular within the last couple years.”

“I’d hate to be the cause of any soul’s separation from the church,” Anaru’s face grew sad and long suddenly. “We are all sinners, but the Gods have given us the gift of scripture to save ourselves from Pluto’s grasp and grant us immortal life. I have only sought to rescue souls from him by leading those drifting astray back to the Holy Pantheon and Neptune.”

“That is so beautiful,” the blonde slurred. “So, you’re a sinner too, hm?”

Already halfway through her current drink, she smiled. Anaru tried to gauge whether her eyes were gray or green but each glimpse he caught conveyed a different color or shade.

“Aren’t we all?” Anaru mused, and took a gulp of his drink. “I didn’t catch your name…”

“You didn’t put your hook in the water,” her stormy eyes twinkled as she winked. “It’s Angelica.”

“That’s a lovely name, is it Cancerean?”

“My father was from Cancer, my mother is a Piscean priestess.”

“And the result is as beautiful as the ocean is deep…”

“You flatter me…”

Their eyes met and the conversation fell into silence. The answer to the mystery of the color of Angelica’s eyes became clear, even as his own vision became blurry. They were both. Gray and green, the color of an ocean in the eye of the storm. Neither calm nor stormy, but something soul-shaking in between. Though they often wandered over him during the course of their conversation, her eyes had settled on his face and didn’t seek for anything more.

“So you’re on tour then?” She broke the silence but not the eye contact they shared.

“Yeah, I’ll play tomorrow night at Moana, near the western end of the island, and then we set sail to play at capital’s stadium in Kullat.”

“You’re only here for one more day?” The ocean in her eyes cast shadows.

“Yes,” Anaru swept a strand of blonde hair from her face and let his hand linger there. “But we don’t have to say goodbye just yet.”

“Would you like to try some of the liquor I keep at home?” Pausing only a moment, she placed her hand on his and kept it close to her face. “I have a very extensive collection of fine imports.”

“A gorgeous woman offering me a free drink — a truly irresistible combination.” He grinned.

“Speaking of free drinks,” the bartender interrupted as politely as possible.

“Oh, yes of course.” She pulled out a small, but heavy purse.

Intoxicated as she was, the tiny bag slammed onto the bar top and the clasp let loose a cascade of coins. The sand dollars — the Piscean currency of choice — were often shown as a sign of excessive wealth. The tiny ivory colored coins clinked in the bartender’s hands as he picked up his fare, one coin at a time.

“The rest is a tip,” Angelica winked at the barkeep, then turned to Anaru and grabbed his large hand as she stood up. “My home is not far from here.”

Anaru was a bit wobbly as he lifted himself from the barstool. He followed her to the door, but then felt bony fingers quickly grab hold of his other arm. He looked down in shock, muted by the sea weed and drink, and saw the previously unconscious patron staring up at him with blind-white eyes in a look of desperation.

“Trust not the harpy beside you instead of the goddess in-side you!” His deathrattle voice shook as he pounded his chest with his free hand in time with syllables of “inside.”

“Ah!” Anaru gasped in belated surprise. “That is hardly the way to address a lady. I would demand an apology if I thought your sanity or sobriety had it in them.”

Anaru shook off the old man’s grasp, but the nearly skeletal hand clutched wildly in the air. In fear and disgust, the young pair hurried out the bar and into the sunny street. Angelica took Anaru’s hand and pulled him to her as she placed her head on his chest.

“Why would that man say such unkind things, Anaru?” She let out a shaky sob. “I have never even met him before!”

Anaru wrapped his long arms around her and felt the soft fabric of her robe under his fingertips as he pulled her into a tight embrace.

“I…” Anaru’s chest tightened for reasons he could not explain. “…wouldn’t worry about it. I think that fish just had a few too many substances. He’s probably just running from his own demons.”

The blonde sniffed and pulled away from him, but kept careful hold of his hand.

“You were so sweet and chivalrous,” Angelica cooed as she led him down the street, away from the bar. “You’ve definitely earned these spirits.”

The cobblestone road opened up as it led them up into “The Hills,” a neighborhood of merchant’s stately mansions known and envied by all on the isle and several surrounding spits of land. As the sand beaches slopped up into grassy knolls, the style and price of the homes increased.

Anaru followed Angelica, street by street, until he wondered how much further his prize could be. When they finally found the villa, Anaru could hardly believe his own eyes. Between an ivory estate decorated with massive marble fountains sculpted in the likeness of Neptune, and what had to be a Leonean “winter home” judging by the gold inlaid into every decorative facet of the ornate architecture, stood a manor completely unwilling to be outdone by its neighbors.

“Here it is,” Angelica purred. “Home sweet home.”

The lawn was not so much land as water. A saltwater pool — complete with a mini-ecosystem of perfectly maintained plants and fish — filled the front yard, with a driveway off to the side of fine crushed coral. Pillars and high arches greeted him, as Anaru was led dumbstruck through the pair of mostly stained glass front doors. The inside was no less decadent. Although the home clearly had at least two floors, the foyer reached to the ceiling of the home and opened up to an enormous parlor with a glass ceiling and another salt water pool above that. Anaru gawked at the tiny fish swirling above his head until Angelica tugged on his hand once more.

“Don’t dwadle now, the spirits are just upstairs…” She shot him a sultry look over her shoulder. “…in the bedroom.”

*** ** *

Anaru woke up, once again unsure at first of where he was, with another bad headache. Though the silk sheets of the waterbed were far more comfortable than the pile of church pillows he slept on the previous night, he woke up with a sudden shock and a face full of pain. It took several moments to realize there was another man in the room, standing over the bed with clenched fists, and another minute or two to realize that he had been punched awake.

“Eh?” Anaru blinked slowly and gingerly felt his cheek and jaw as his eyes focused to look around the room.

The man standing over the bed was grinding his fist into his palm like a mortar and pestle. Though his vision blurred in and out, he could make out the fuzzy shapes of well-built men in the back of the room blocking the only way out.

“Oh. You’re awake are you?” The accent was strong, foreign yet familiar. Anaru could feel the answer to its origin on the tip of his tongue.

Another hard punch rocked his skull and lost his train of thought. This blow burst his bottom lip and left the taste of blood in Anaru’s mouth.

“Owww…” He groaned almost comically. “Do I even know you?”

The Piscean tried to sit up against the cushioned silk backboard of the bed and felt the room spin from the punches and the spirits consumed hours ago. When his eyes finally oriented themselves to the intoxication and the pain, he finally saw Angelica. Her hands were draped across his assailant as if she was an accessory to be worn, and that was the moment he saw something he hadn’t before — a ring.

“You seem to know my wife, carogna.”

The language brought it home to him, definitely Cancerean. Judging by the build of the man and his buddies, they were sailors, and if the home was any indication he was a wealthy captain with connections. Anaru tried to shake off any remaining sleepiness and focus on the moment.

“Niccolo,” Angelica was trying to move her husband’s hard glare with her hands, pulling his chin toward her face to no avail. “I told you, I was drunk. It meant nothing. I…”

“Get her out of here, boys.” He snapped his fingers and the men behind him, clad in matching striped shirts and bandanas, strode over to Angelica and picked up the flailing woman as if they were moving furniture.

“Get your hands off me! Nicci! Don’t do this!” Her protesting cries echoed off the cavernous walls in the parlor once she was carried out. The door slammed behind them.

Niccolo, as he was apparently called, didn’t move. He stood over a very naked Anaru and glowered down at the tired and sore Pisces.

“So can we talk about this?” Anaru ventured, attempting to slide out of the other side of the bed while wrapping the top sheet around his waist.

“Sure, we can talk.” The Cancerean growled with malice. “Let’s talk about the little trip you’re going to take with me and my crew.”

“Hey, hey, wait a minute… “ Anaru began to get truly nervous. “She never told me she was married. We met at a bar and she invited me over for a few free drinks. Angelica…”

“DON’T SPEAK OF HER AS IF YOU KNOW HER!” The Cancerean Captain shouted until he was red in the face. “My wife may be unfaithful but she is still my wife. I won’t throw away our life together for a rotten piece of driftwood like you. No…”

Rage took hold of Niccolo. His teeth bared as he reached for the nearest thing, a chair — an exquisite piece of woodwork — and threw it at Anaru. The Piscean, having honed ducking reflexes due to a history of nights on stage which went south, dodged the chair but wasn’t ready for the man to come barreling toward him immediately after. Niccolo tacked Anaru and began pummeling his face until Anaru lost consciousness again.

*** ** *

The familiar sounds of the sea were soothing, yet muffled when Anaru awoke. He tried to stretch, as he felt incredibly stiff and sore, but found that he couldn’t. He had been stuffed into a shipping barrel. Suddenly wide awake, he could feel the sea rock far outside his barrel though his container was being jostled quite violently. He was being carried.

“Hey! HEY!” The Piscean banged on the lid of the container and shouted, but only heard the laughter of two men as a response.

They set the barrel down none too gently and though the sounds were muffled, Anaru understood that he was being presented to the Captain for final judgement. The ocean sounded much clearer now, and the Piscean could only guess he was on the ship’s deck.

“Ready, men?” Niccolo’s voice boomed right above Anaru’s barrel.

Sudden sunlight flooded his eyes as the top of the barrel was removed. Anaru quickly stood up, still shoulder-deep in his container, but found the blades of twenty deckhands’ cutlasses pointed at his throat.

“Now let it never be said that ol’ Niccolo is without mercy,” The Captain shouted with mirth for his crew to hear. Chuckles rose eerily from all across the ship. “You came into my home with your guitar case, now you’ll leave my ship with it as well.”

The Cancerean snapped his fingers and Anaru’s guitar case was brought forward and placed easily in the spacious barrel.

“Uh, thank you?” Anaru’s voice wavered.

“Shut up, pigliainculo!” One of the sailors in stripes shouted and smashed the tang of his sword into Anaru’s face.

“Owwww…” Anaru rubbed his forehead where the hilt had hit him.

Captain Niccolo’s cold stare made his smile look strange.

“All right men, close ‘im up. Throw ‘im overboard.” The Cancerean turned his back on Anaru’s barrel and strode into the captain’s quarters.

“Wait! Wait!” Anaru shouted but the cutlass tips inched forward, forcing him back into the massive barrel. “Please, don’t do this! It was an honest mistake!”

The crew ignored him and hammered the lid back into place. It was dark inside the drum again. Abruptly the keg was kicked over. Anaru reached out and clutched his guitar case to his chest. The barrel began to roll and pick up speed, spinning Anaru in a sickening way inside. Then, he was in freefall — for a few short moments the Piscean felt himself lift off the side of the cylinder — and then as ocean hit the wood, Anaru hit the wood. Every sore spot he had accumulated over the past three days seemed to ignite at once.

The Piscean tried to sit up and the motion tipped the vessel until it bobbed vertically in the sea. Anaru pounded on the lid until it separated far enough for him to see out. All he could see was the side of the massive cargo ship, so large it blocked out the sun.

“‘Neptune’s Will,’” He read the name of the ship off the side of its port-side bow. “I’ll have to write a song about this later.”

Anaru tried to laugh, but he felt his cheeks sting with salt water. He tried to remember when the seawater had splashed him, as he wiped what he discovered to be tears.

“Neptune protect me,” he whispered and motioned across his chest with the sign of the trident.

Chapter Ten

The day was calm with the occasional cloud drifting listlessly in front of the sun. A peaceful afternoon with little to be done, Pallas had grown to hate the pace of these slow, early-summer days. She longed for issues to resolve, for paperwork to file, for an argument, for something — anything — to take her mind off the ever-growing hole in her heart.

Pallas shut the the thick velvet curtains to block out the sun. She could still read the letters and reports by the shafts of light which shone through the gaps, though she had already read them several times over the past week. The Libran had retreated to her study, hoping the latest letter may arrive with better news than each letter before it. She picked the papers up again and sprawled across the silk-upholstered couch.

How can they not have found anything? Pallas moaned mentally. I know it’s not even a country but it is a physical place, isn’t it?

The silence of the room was a heavy crushing weight which she bore when her workload began to lighten. Every assignment brought her the temporary solace of something to do while she waited for word on Iota’s fate — a tale that grew darker with each new scrap of information she salvaged. Pallas draped an arm over her eyes, holding back tears of frustration.

We know the last confirmed sighting of him was Bauch. We know he travelled in from the north so the next town would be Dietrich. Pallas went through the knowledge Rajat and Rajit had shared with her, trying to calm herself with facts. We know Dietrich … exploded.

The thought of Iota dying by fiery explosion in a foreign land flooded over her in an icy wave. A sob escaped her chest, as she was unable to completely hold in the terror, depression and grief.

But… other than that… I know nothing. She sat up and threw the letter toward the desk, it fluttered like failure to the floor. The quiet sounds of paper and air were sudden and short, amplifying the stillness of the office. And now the senior Representatives want to give me Iota’s place of honor. They want me to curate this major diplomatic event that doubles as the social event of the season, possibly the year

She sat up. Even the nearly-silent sounds of the couch shifting under her were audible in the crushing quiet. Pallas let her head fall into her hands as she ran her fingers through her white-gold curls.

“To turn it down would be professional suicide, I must accept it.” She tried to break the reticence and taciturnity with her strongest of skills — speech.

But the silence fell heavy around Pallas once more.

The emerald, paisley wallpaper of her office appeared to pulse slightly, in tune with her headache. The Libran felt the wear of weeks without a full-night’s sleep, decreased appetite and a lingering nausea. Pallas thought of them as symptoms of chasing omens, but she continued to suffer, even as Iota’s trail grew colder. Her elegant hands balled into fists.

“How can Master Phryne remain so calm in the face of his death?” Pallas demanded of nobody. “While I’ve tracked her son’s path from thousands of miles away.”

A melodic knock sounded at the office door. From behind the thick Virgean mahogany, she could hear her friend’s muffled voice.

“Come in,” Pallas shouted wearily, sitting back on the couch with her eyes shut.

She held her eyes closed until the sound of the door closing made Pallas peek. She caught the bright blue curls of Eurycyda’s ponytail bouncing into view. As it did most days of the week, her toga matched her magically-shaded head of hair, which it always seemed to do regardless of how often she shade would change.

“Oh Pal,” Eurycyda crossed the room quickly and wrapped around Pallas’s narrow frame. “I am so sorry to hear about Iota.”

Pallas felt neither the warmth of her words nor the contact. She said nothing, leaving Eurycyda to awkwardly fill the morose pause.

“My best friend’s cousin was lost in Southern Taurus for three weeks, and…”

“This isn’t like that, ‘Cyda.” Pallas interrupted quietly. “I know him, they found Stentor. Taurus has its dangers, but they are nothing in comparison with whatever killed Iota.”

“Y-You know that he’s dead then?” Eurycyda’s hand covered her mouth in surprise.

Pallas noted that even her fingernail polish matched the hue of blue.

“Master Phryne has made the executive decision to scale back the investigation into Iota’s disappearance.” Pallas said tersely.

The memory of her previous conversation with her Master made her angry. Logically, she knew Aries grew more unstable by the day. Since the explosion, waves of Arien immigrants poured into Gemini seeking a safer place to start a new life. Dormant volcanoes were beginning to smolder like they hadn’t in decades, if not centuries. The likelihood any Libran had of finding a clue to Iota’s fate diminished from single-digit percentages to decimals. Sending a single diplomat, or even a crew of investigators, would surely put their lives at risk as well as the political career of whoever sent them.

But this was Iota. Pallas’ couldn’t help but think it over and over. His reputation alone after training under his mother, Master Phryne, would’ve been enough to secure him a cushy spot in a well-provided for state position. However, he had always been ambitious and took the diplomatic assignment to Aries without thinking twice about it. With his patience, kindness and inherent magical talent, he had no shortage of friends or political supporters.

“Iota was…” Cyda hesitated awkwardly, trying to find the words. “One of the best of us. Master Phryne knew that better than anyone. If she thinks that the situation was too dangerous for him, then I’m sure she wants to avoid the possibility of losing anyone else.”

“I know that!” Pallas snapped, then, at seeing Eurycyda’s pained expression, she softened her own. “I mean, I understand that Master Phryne is grieving in her own way by refusing to risk anyone else. It’s just…”

Pallas’s voice trailed off at the thought of all the things she wish she could do to bring Iota back as tears left gossamer trails down her elegant face.

“… not fair.”

Eurycyda bit her lip and her slightly darker blue eyebrows knitted together in worry for her friend. On average, she was excellent at offering wise advice — even if she didn’t always follow her own sage suggestions — but seeing the usually cheerful Pallas torn and mourning left even Cyda the chatterbox muted.

“Sometimes life isn’t fair.” Cyda paused, searching for the right words. “But that’s what we’re here for! As Librans, it is our responsibility to help the downtrodden and create harmony in an otherwise chaotic world. Lady Venus has blessed our people with beautiful bodies and elegant minds so that we may use our gifts and charms to bring people together across the world. Is there no greater calling than this?”

With no words left, she pulled Pallas into another embrace which Pallas meekly returned. Once they separated, Cyda saw the deep in thought look on Pallas’s face and realized that this was the most serious she had ever seen her.

“You’re right, Cyda.” Pallas’s bright, silver eyes seemed transfixed on a point in the distance. “I can’t give up now that all my — now that all of our — hard work is paying off. It’s time to start changing the world for the better.”

In an instant her serious expression shattered into a wide smile, she wiped her eyes and this time pulled Cyda into an embrace.

“And I’m sure Iota couldn’t have said it better himself.”

“Aww, thanks Pal.” A relieved Cyda returned the hug, grateful to have her friend back to normal.

After a few moments, Pallas finally let go. She wiped her eyes, sat up straight and scanned the room for a brief moment. Then she stood, with a newfound energy she began tidying the office, collecting the papers and sorting them into the appropriate folders. Once the papers were in order, she put away the volumes of books on international missing persons law back on the shelves and finally — after having cleared the surfaces of clutter — she pulled back the curtains to let the light back in. Golden afternoon sunlight poured into the room, all but blinding Eurycyda whose eyes had become accustomed to the dark. After blinking the sudden blindness away, Cyda saw Pallas framed by the bright city beyond her window and the shadows of the office behind her. Her figure stood strong, looking as powerful and glamorous as ever in her senator’s toga and Cyda felt her heart lift — inspired by her friend’s resolve.

“So Cyda, what’s new on the agenda?”

Chapter Nine

“Keep up, Koray!” Leonara shouted from her twenty-pace lead.

The pudgy Cancerean did his best to hide his exhaustion, trudging on under the afternoon sun. The chef felt guilty. He knew that between the prince, the bodyguard and the assassin, he was the least able-bodied.

“I’m doing my best, my prince.” Koray weakly shouted back.

“Don’t encourage her,” Renata growled from her place between them. “Her attitude is insufferable already.”

Dropped into the vast, flat wilderness of Leo, the odd group of four had no choice but to walk, and walk they had. For three weeks they had walked, across what seemed to be nearly endless golden plains. The tall grass was easy enough to wade through but each day the sun grew stronger as the shift to summer came nearer and nearer.

Occasionally they would pass a patch of dense forest, Leonara and Renata would enter empty handed and exit with enough meat for the next two days. Koray longed for spices and herbs to cook with, and for his kitchen and all its utensils. However, Jal often surprised him with some clever use of local flowers, weeds and shrubs to make the meat more than simply edible. Renata would dry the meat, absorbing the water from it, salting it and leaving it in jerky form.

Renata had become synonymous with survival in Koray’s mind. Though she certainly looked out of place waist deep in the waves of golden grass in her all black, geared-up bodysuit. The Cancerean often wondered if she overheated underneath a suit which stretched from just under her chin to her fingers and toes. If so, Renata never displayed any discomfort. She went on in her way, silent except to grumble occasionally about the spoiled prince.

“Is your ankle okay?” Renata stopped to wait for Koray to catch up.

“Yes, thank you again for healing it. I hardly even feel it anymore.” Koray managed a big smile.

“Don’t wait to speak up if it hurts,” She cautioned, her voice was dark but her face was void of anger. “If you injure it again, it will be harder to heal the second time.”

“Y-yes of course, I’ll say something.”

Koray still felt intimidated by her, even when he could tell she was attempting to be kind. She always seemed to be a moment away from a wrathful bloodbath, quietly radiating a killing aura.

“Leonara,” Jal called out from behind Koray.

“That’s Prince Leonara to you!” The royal yelled, maintaining her pace.

“Right, right… Hey look,” Jal motioned behind him with his hands. “We have an assassin scout tracking us about half a mile behind us.”

“So why are you slowing down?! Move it.” Leonara barked orders with all the aggression, but none of the authority, of a soldier.

“I’m sure Renata would agree with me when I say it’s better to fight a Scorpio in a sunny field than a dark one,” Jal smirked impishly.

“Absolutely.” The ex-assassin stated briefly.

“Hmph. Alright, we lie in wait until the assassin arrives.” Leonara commanded and crouched low in the grass.

With her blonde hair and bright caramel-colored eyes, she blended in completely with the tall blades of the meadow. The few features Koray could see — her furrowed brow, her intense golden glare — made her appear beast-like. The Cancerean felt shivers down his spine as he briefly remembered the form Leonara could take.

Jal also knelt down, and Koray curled up not far from him. Renata followed suit, after more scowling about Leonara’s attitude.

****  ***  **  *

Thirty minutes later, Jal and Koray whispered to each other while the group waited for the assassin to approach — or attack.

“In what reality would the Bulls beat the Queens?” Koray felt himself get heated as he whispered his argument. “They couldn’t shoot the crown to save their lives! If their scoring relies on lap after lap of one-pointer orbits, they’ll get torn apart by the Queen’s infielders.”

“Not if they can keep possession of the crown for the majority of the game,” Jal countered with playful enthusiasm, also trying to keep his voice down. “Once Larcerda Lorarii gets his hands on that ball, the next fifteen minutes of playtime will be uninterrupted Taurus possession. Guaranteed.”   

How are the Taurens going to get it to Lorarii, when they can’t get the crown back from Luana Barbo’s fantastic feet?” Koray hissed desperately. “The sheer number of total eclipses — that’s five points, Jal, five each — is going to bury the Taurens under such a huge lead that Lorarii couldn’t catch up with with the Queens with half the game in his pocket!”

“Will both of you shut up?” Renata scowled in low tones.

“Yeah,” Leonara piped up in a growl.

Silence settled in the grass as a breeze rolled through the four of them.

“ … I mean it’s not like either of them are going to make it to the playoffs this year.”  Leonara finished muttering, loud enough for the others to hear.

“The Queens are having a great pre-season!” Koray muttered adamantly.  

“They’re three-and-three.” Jal’s nearby skepticism sounded in hushed tones. “Granted, the Taurens are doing worse at two and four. At least the Archers are still on point. They’re four-and-one now, and will be playing against the Arien Rams later this month.”

“They’ll slaughter them, but next month I know the Archers are playing Quicksilver. Aquarius is going to out-strategize and out-score those Sagittarians six ways to Saturn’s day.” Leonara said haughtily. “We beat them three months ago, when the Sun’s record was still spotless.”

“Before that crushing defeat to the Capricorn Claymakers, you mean?” Jal verbally parried and countered.

“THAT REFEREE WAS CLEARLY BRIBED!” Leonara stood and yelled in the Sagittarian’s general direction, forgetting their situation.

Renata immediately tackled her back into the grass as three, small bladed rings sliced through the space the Prince had just occupied. Zipping by with incredible speed, the rings mowed down a short path of grass they descended to the ground.

“Lay here and don’t move.” Renata grabbed the front of Leonara’s leather armor as she spoke, assuring eye contact with the younger woman she was charged with guarding.

Renata threw the Leonian Prince back to the ground and crouched over her as she listened intently for the assassin’s movements. More projectiles cut through the golden blades a few feet from them, Renata followed the path of cut grass and zeroed in on a black spot not far in the meadow.

Koray watched, with trembling hands on trembling knees, as Renata stalked through the grass until his eyes couldn’t find her. A big hand rested across both of his, causing the Cancerean to jump slightly before following the hand to its owner, Jal, with a finger across his lips in a shushing symbol.

“Don’t worry,” he whispered. “She’s done this before. Trust me.”

Before the Sagittarian could finish his words, the sound of frantic rustling grass could be heard by the group. Some distant, deep gasping and then, the meadow was silent once more.

Koray swallowed hard.

“We’re safe,” Renata’s face popped out of the tips of golden grass, serious but satisfied. “For now, at least.”

The chef rose to his feet with some difficulty. His knees remained rubber-like despite the Scorpio’s assurance. Jal stood next to him and steadied Koray by slapping his large hands onto the Cancerean’s shoulders.

“What did I say? Renata is amazing,” Jal beamed in Renata’s direction, which she pointedly took no notice of. “Truly, she the best at what she does.”

“Which is what exactly?” Leonara tromped over from a few paces away, pulling long blades of foliage from her armor. “Shoving people to the ground? Injuring the subject she is to protect?”

“Are you injured?” Renata asked dryly.

“Well, erm…” Leonara backpedaled. “Somewhat. You bruised my shoulder when you threw me to the ground.”

The prince pretended to stretch out her left arm, making wide circles and fake wincing.

“Oh. My apologies,” a dark smile crossed Renata’s face. “Luckily, I know a cure for shoulder injuries. Unluckily, it will break the arm if there was no original injury … But that shouldn’t be a problem right?”

The Scorpio stretched her lips and bared her teeth in something similar to a smile, only colder.

“Y’know I don’t think the injury was that serious. Plus, I’m a very fast healer. I think I’ve healed already,” Leonara swung her arm around in more frantic windmills. “Yep, yep, yep. All better. No need for dangerous assassin medicine whatsoever.”

“Mmhmmm.” Renata purred. “In any case, let’s get a move on. That assassin was likely reporting to a team stationed nearby.”

“We’ll probably make it to that forest by nightfall,” Jal pointed to a cluster of trees on the horizon. “We could use the trees for cover when we build camp.”

“I still don’t understand why we have to walk all the way to the Republic of Libra,” Leonara pouted. “The assassins have failed…”

“So far,” Renata said with annoyance under her breath.

“…. Why not head back to Leo, for a royal welcome and reward? I’m sure my father will be at peak generosity when he sees me unharmed.”

“We’ve been over this,” Jal explained patiently. “Libra is the safest, diplomatically neutral country. Until we know who is trying to kill you, and why, Leo remains unsafe for you.”

“Or, in simpler terms; there is no way those assassins made it that deep into the castle without help from the inside,” Renata stated. “And I don’t mean a few servants bribed. This was a job planned out for months by someone who has total access to the castle and is very rich.”

Renata let Jal take the lead and watched carefully as Leonara followed after him with a scowl on her face, clearly mulling over what the Scorpius said. When Koray moved to walk past Renata, she caught his eye and motioned for him to walk over to her.

“That attack on Leonara was most likely a fluke,” the ex-assassin spoke in low tones. “I believe the assassin mistook Leonara for another bodyguard she could thin out. What I’m saying is, the assassins may still be targeting you as ‘Prince Leonara.’”

“Oh, um, I see.” Koray gulped audibly. “Well, I guess that’s a good thing. It keeps Prince Leonara alive, and maybe distracts the… “

“No.” The Scorpius voice cut through his timid stutterings like claws. “Koray, that is incorrect thinking.”

Renata scowled. Her furious black eyes bore into him. The few units of height advantage she held over the Cancerean suddenly made Koray cower.

“No one’s life is worth more than anyone else’s. It doesn’t matter; prince, chef or assassin. Just know that will getting you both to Libra alive,” Renata locked eyes with Koray, and softened her gaze as the corner of her lips turned up. “And that Leonara is only considered a prince when inside a castle. There’s no reason to let her bully you so.”

With that Renata gestured to Jal and Leonara, who had already left a decent trail between them in the pasture’s grass.

“Now let’s go.”

Koray, still slightly startled by Renata’s sudden lecture, hopped ahead two or three steps in a jog before settling into a quick-stepped walk. After three weeks alongside the Scorpio, Koray felt as though he held some insight into her intense way of talking. Despite her dangerous image, she held as surprising capacity for kindness as well as craftyness.

They left plenty of distance between Jal and Leonara, but the two could still be heard bickering about Zenith, the major international sport.

“Also,” Koray jumped slightly at the sound of Renata’s acutely close voice. “All of you seem to have forgotten that Scorpio’s Hellraisers remain undefeated.”

He turned to find her black bodysuit right behind him. She winked and walked around him, her long black braid swinging like a tail behind her.

****  ***  **  *

At camp, the four assumed their usual positions. Renata and Leonara argued about hunting tactics while walking into the woods. Koray breathed a sigh of relief. Between the prince and the assassin, it was better to have an argument than no words at all.

Koray helped Jal assembled the tent, set up a campfire and collect edible herbs from the area while they talked about the latest Zenith match-ups. It was nice to have something familiar to talk about, considering the strange circumstances under which they travelled together. The Cancerean looked to Jal.

“What’s that one from?” Koray poked a large, intricate numeral for two.  

Scars and tattoos decorated Jal’s body. Like medals, every one of them had a story. Koray and the Sagittarian had made it a campside game to discover the adventures connected with the “skin souvenirs.”

“Ah, that is for my Gemini cousins and, yes, they are identical twins.” Jal laughed, thinking of Rajit and Rajat. “They were taken in and raised by my great aunt, Babaanne, at the early age of seven, and we’ve been thick as thieves ever since.”  

“Wow, I thought the tales of a Gemini tendency towards twins were allegory. Are the three of you very close? Is it strange being friends with identical brothers? Do they get along well?”

“To answer your questions, yes, yes and yes. We grew up spending every summer and winter together, summers in Gemini, winters in Sagittarius. Though, for the last five years we’ve only spent one season together a year. It is an unusual friendship, they are definitely closer to each other than anyone else, even Babaanne. Unless they fight, which does happen upon occasion, in which case they both come to me to complain.”

“But that’s what friends are for, right?” The Sagittarian winked at Koray. “What about you? Tell me about your family.”

Koray’s face beamed, as Jal expected it might. He knew a fast way to the heart of a Cancer was to always ask about their family.

“I am a Pescatore from the capital city of Alveare. My mother owns and runs the original Mama Pescatore’s, established 767 by her predecessor, Fiarenza Pescatore. I am the seventh of sixteen and the third son of seven. My mother’s name is Nerina and my father’s is…”

Jal hushed him suddenly.

“Listen, do you hear that? Someone is dragging something this way.”

Koray could make out the sound of flattening grass not far off and the sound of boots stomping. And then, a voice sounded.

“Stupid, stubborn, arrogant…”

Renata appeared in the clearing carrying Leonara over her shoulder with some difficulty. She dropped the prince none too delicately on a blanket near the fire.

“This idiot tried to escape,” Renata sat on the ground and sneered into the fire. “Again.”

“There, there… Jal plopped down next to the ex-assassin and draped a long arm around the less than thrilled Scorpio. “At least the attempts are getting farther apart. Don’t take it too personally…”

Renata gave him a scathing look which seemed to have no effect.

“She’s just going through a rebellious stage!” Jal joked.

Koray giggled at first, then withered under the look in Renata’s eyes.

“Next time you’re going hunting with her,” Renata squeezes a pressure point on Jal’s hand between her fingers and he immediately retracted his arm. “Now that the prince is docile, we can enjoy a nice, quiet meal at least. Sorry, but it will be jerky and onion grass tonight since I wasn’t able to spend any of that time hunting anything we could eat.”

“I’ll go hunting before dawn so we can cook and be on our way before the sun sets too high in the sky,” Jal offered.

“Fine, just take that thing with you.” Renata motioned with her boot toward a slightly snoring Leonara.”

“I might just skip dinner…” Koray said quietly. “I snacked on some jerky not too long ago and I’m pretty exhausted from all the excitement today.”

“Ah, you want first pick of the beds!” Jal tapped his nose in a sign of acknowledgement. “Clever lad. I’m still hungry so I’ll stay up a while longer. See you in the morning, little crab!”

Koray smiled and waved goodnight to them both, the Scorpio nodded to show her approval. He lifted the blue flap of the tent and entered the space, thinking about Jal and Renata and finding their partnership quite funny. He chuckled quietly into the blankets of his bedroll as he snuggled in.

“Now there is a story I’d like to hear,” Koray yawned deeply. “The history of Renata and Jal.”

His eyes felt so heavy as his body relaxed. As he drifted off to sleep, the Cancerean’s last thoughts were of home. It came as no surprise to Koray to find his dreams filled with mirrored memories.

 

****  ***  **  *

 

Koray Pescatore yawned and stretched his arms, but not too far, as he swayed in his hammock. Careful not to wake his sisters, he lowered himself down the rope ladder to the bare wooden floor, grabbed his chef-wear and shuffled to the bathroom.
Living and working with his family of seven girls made the twenty-year-old learn to wake up early and plan ahead. He learned to enjoy the quiet hours of the morning and his precious few moments alone to contemplate the day. Gently pushing the door of the bathroom open to avoid its squeaking hinges, Koray tiptoed onto the tile and set his towel and chef’s tunic down to wash his face.

Looking into the aged mirror, which had seen generations of Pescatores before him, he saw himself without much polish. His curly blond hair was wild from sleep, though he could hardly toss or turn in his bed-netting, and his sea-green eyes were only half-opened. Through his blurry vision he almost looked like one of his sisters, a happy moment for the feminine lad. Within Cancerean society strong women were valued highly, and the men were put to work in the fields or served on the seas. He had managed to avoid the gendered career-drafting by feigning sea-sickness for years. Luckily, Koray had a talent which made him valuable above and beyond his gender — cooking.

The Pescatore family owned their restaurant, their home, for nearly four hundred and fifty years. The Pescatores maintained a reputation of legendary fine food, even against the cutting-edge competition within the capital city of Alveare. Respect for the Pescatores grew, with the highest levels of hospitality, the freshest ingredients and flawless execution of every meal — due in no small part, within recent years, to Koray. While the mix of his sex and his profession was highly unorthodox within the matriarchal society, Koray had earned his spot as executive chef. Under the close watch and scrutiny of his mother, Koray proved himself capable beyond his years and his gender much to the distaste of his eldest sister who was next in line to inherit the restaurant.

As Koray splashed cold water from the wash basin onto his face, he steeled himself and reflected briefly on Cecilia’s loathing for him. He tried to remember what his other older sister, Bianca, told him often — Cecilia was simply jealous that Mama loved him so much she’d break tradition to see him succeed.

He blotted his round face dry — Koray was fond of his fair skin — and combed back his wavy golden hair which curled like crashing waves. He changed into the informal Pescatore chef’s tunic and slacks. Unlike the formal wear, it was sand-dollar white with small, polished sand dollar buttons. The family crest remained in the same place though, over his chest and heart; two circling currents which symbolized the great Mother Ocean’s supposedly ample breasts. As Koray smoothed the aprons his face flushed with the thought of his own plump figure — with none of the curves in the right places — and the woman inside him whispered in the recesses of his mind.

You are beautiful.

Koray inhaled, he exhaled. His ancestor again, her voice felt as familiar as his own mother’s. Koray knew how crazy it was to hear a voice murmur inside his head, and so he never spoke of her to anyone. And yet… Even if she was only a product of his mind, a desperate manifestation of a man in a woman’s world, she made him feel safe in his own skin which was no modest feat. He thanked her in his own way. Koray closed his eyes and resonated with the warm voice from within.

“Um… Ancestor Spirit?” Koray said weakly to himself, feeling silly and nervous that his sisters might catch him in the act.

As always, you may call me Mama Cancer, but yes? What is it my child?“ The voice hummed soothingly.

Koray’s smooth and broad forehead began to shine slightly as his nerves made him sweat. He felt uncomfortable addressing the voice in his head as “Mama” — he already had one after all — but seeing as he was about to ask the voice for a favor, Koray reconsidered. He gulped and continued quickly and quietly as he could.

“Well, I mean no offense, Mama Cancer…” A stir in the snores from the bedroom made him hesitate for a moment to listen, but the typical bedroom noises resumed their rhythm. “And I greatly appreciate your kind words… But may I have my mind to myself this morning?”

He winced and waited for a reply, but she answered in her own way, with no answer at all. Koray inhaled and sighed heavily, wondering if it was even possible to have hurt her feelings.

Koray swung open the double doors to the kitchen and found his mother already at work. A typhoon of a woman, she moved like a force of nature. Wherever she focused her gaze was where she’d hit next; cleaning, shining, polishing, moving, shifting, organizing.

Everything in her kitchen had a place and most likely they were the same places and the same utensils that her mother had used, and that her mother had used before her. The ladles, the butcher’s knives, the peelers, the scalers — Nerina Pescatore had callouses shaped by their handles. Koray’s cautious entrance made no difference, Mama Pescatore would’ve known three blocks away if someone stepped foot in her kitchen.

“You’re up! Good,” Mrs. Pescatore didn’t make eye contact with her son, just waved a flour-covered rolling pin vaguely in his direction. “I’m getting the dough ready, could you start the stove?”

Just like that the Pescatore home and restaurant began to come alive, beginning with the warmth of the kitchen. Breakfast for the family was always the first thing to prepare; sweet honey loaves with teas picked in Taurus, boar-bacon and pheasant eggs, and of course a spread of fruits found in four different nations. By the time the boar fat hit the griddle, Briana, Cecilia and Simona were already awake and dressing the youngest daughters. Their squealing and laughter could be heard down the hall as well as the busy bustle between the bedroom and bathroom of seven noisy girls.

The men of the house were out at sea on the fishing vessel, Vita Marina. Though the fishing season had just started, Koray wished that it would last forever and dreaded the days when Vita Marina returned home with their catches.

He shuddered at the thought of his father and brothers loudly roughhousing, wrestling and beating each other like savages. The disgusting sweaty smears they left in their wake, the muddy bootprints, the crumbs and puddles of food leftover. The girls were plenty to clean up after but they spent enough time living and watching within the home to see all the work which went into keeping each space a sanitary one. Slowly, with age, each learned to follow behind herself and, eventually, after each other.

The lady Pescatores took their seats, thanked their mother and mother ocean, and dug into the breakfast with enthusiasm. With eleven people around the table, there was bound to mess, but nothing like the bedlam the men brought in with them. Koray shook his head in disbelief of simply imagining the chaos. Even worse was each male’s witless spread of mess, as if they were blind to the debris they caused.

Koray lifted the dishes from the youngest’s, Teresa’s, place setting.

“Tanx ‘Ray!” The blonde cherub-like child giggled through toothless gaps. She was the youngest at five years old and the last, their mother assured them all. Koray’s pink lips spread wide as he wiped Teresa’s face.

“Be sure to chew with your mouth closed Teresa,” Koray chided gently.

“Ima lady!” Teresa covered her mouth and muffled her squeal between her tiny fingers. Koray rolled his eyes and helped the little self-proclaimed lady out of her chair.

The nine women, and single male, formed a line and reported to the kitchen. A family of soldiers stood before their general, Mrs. Pescatore, as she addressed her troops with vigor and candor.

“Today is going to be busy.” Loud groans from the little ones didn’t even make the mother pause. “The winter’s rush continues ladies! Tourists are pouring in from Taurus and Gemini. A fraction of the Royal Leo fleet’s finest ships dock not far from here and maybe, this time, we can hook a high-status nobleman!” A fire burned behind Mrs. Pescatore’s gray-green eyes.

It was the goal of every Canceran mother to expand the status of her family name, whether it be through the means her mother left her or marrying off a daughter. Nerina counted herself fortunate for her own mother’s shrewd business sense. She had been given the family business. Not the new locations, built on the West Shore or near Aragosta Lake, but the original building she had been raised in and her mother before her.

Heights of generations had been measured on the wide kitchen door frame. Dukes and duchesses, diplomats and anarchists once sat at their tables. Everyday she hoped for elite clientele. Everyday Nerina waited for a chance to show off her son’s culinary art and skill. She had a feeling about him.

Mrs. Pescatore looked over her third son; a plump young man, unmuscled and graceful, pale as a fishbelly but in a healthy shade of eggshell. He ushered the youngest toward the unfolded linens. Once the little hands were busy, he briskly made his way to and through the double doors of the kitchen as he transformed into a different person with a palpable confidence.

The days had passed when she needed to find prep work for Koray and her girls. Cecilia,  at twenty-seven years of age, possessed a passion for management, and, to her credit, an eye for people as pieces of a puzzle. Bianca’s smile beamed like moonlight, equally upon everyone patron, friend or family. She made wonderful waitstaff: eternally patient, mindful and intuitive at the age of twenty-six. Angela followed Bianca onto the floor, at seventeen she was excited to make tips and catch the eyes of rich, handsome tourists.

“Order up!” Bianca shouted with a smile. “Table four wants two fava bean succotash appetizers, one coriander-crusted halibut entree and one coriander-crusted sea bass entree.”

“Simona,” Koray nodded toward his older sister with his chin as he tied his aquamarine bandana around his head, keeping his hair in check. “The shipment of fava beans came in yesterday, can you start peeling them? I’ll get the corn and coriander together and start working on the sea bass and halibut.”

“Ugh, I hate shelling fava beans,” Simona mock pouted, her full lips bulging as they pursed. “Make Juliette do it!”

Juliette and Simona stuck close to Koray as they worked in the kitchen. Despite being six years older, Simona was never bothered by taking orders from Koray and made a superb Sous chef alongside him.

“I’m not doing your work,” Juliette paused meaningfully to glare over her glasses at her sister. “Again. I’ve already started baking the bread for the sandwiches.”

Juliette, at twenty-four, was a stark contrast to Simona. She didn’t enjoy taking orders from anyone and resented being told what to do. Though she longed to sail with her father on the Viva Marina, Juliette respected Koray for making the most of his talents despite Cancerean culture and often supported him by autonomously handling the necessary, but tedious tasks.

Rosa led the younger troupe at twelve years old, and she took her job very seriously. With the dreamy Maria at ten, a rambunctious Elena at eight and Teresa, “the tempest” at five, Rosa often had her hands full — but her bound and bossy demeanor was a natural fit for the job.

“Tables seven and eleven need breadsticks,” Angela yelled. Then, in a sweeter swoon, “and Holy Ocean, you wouldn’t believe the two handsome merchants from Taurus that just walked in!”

“Mmm… I love those broad-shoulded Tauran guys,” Simona gushed while making her way through the piles of Fava beans. “Let me know if they’re good tippers!”

The lunch service went by in a flash for the Pescatores. The steady flow of business kept the kitchen busy and the waitstaff happy as they occasionally counted their tips.

“Alright ladies!” Mama Pescatore raised her voice as she made her way into the back of the restaurant.

“And Koray!” Angela corrected loudly and with humor. Bianca clipped her on the back of the head lightly, aware of how sensitive Koray was to being left out of their feminine half of the family.

“Right, so it’s time to clean up lunch and set the tables for dinner.” Mama Pescatore’s gaze set upon Rosa and the younger girls. “Which means I’m counting on you to keep us in a good supply of rolled napkins and silverware.”

Rosa stood up straight and nudged her sisters to do the same, which two of the the three did.

“Will do, Mama!” Rosa said enthusiastically.

“I’m tired,” Teresa slumped and wrinkled her brow in cranky obstinance. “I wanna go to bed.”

Rosa’s face furrowed in frustration, but before she could snap at her sister Koray stepped in.

“Teresa, being a lady means persevering through hard times and tired feelings,” Koray smiled and his dimpled cheeks made Teresa grin as well. “How about you do twenty-five rolls of silverware, and then you can go to bed?”

She looked down to her shoes and back up at Koray shyly.

“I can do ‘virtee rolls, big bruver…” Teresa said and her gap-toothed smile beamed.

Rosa let out an audible exhale of relief and put her hand on Teresa’s shoulder.

“… But only if ‘Ray sings me asleep!” Teresa finished, and Rosa’s eyebrow twitched underneath her dark curly bangs.

Koray winced. He knew her bedtime lullaby would most likely have to happen during the dinner rush — the time when he was most needed in the kitchen. He looked to his mother helplessly. Nerina shook her head and sighed.

“How about if I sing you to sleep, little one?” Mama Pescatore picked up her youngest child and nuzzled her tiny, button nose with her own. “So that big brother ‘Ray can get his work done?”

For a tense moment, Teresa chewed her bottom lip before replying.

“‘Kay!” She kissed her mother on both cheeks and squirmed to be put down.

“The rest of you,” Nerina Pescatore eyed the older girls. “I want to see your brightest smiles and best dishes tonight. I’ve got a feeling that we’re in for some five-star company.”

The Pescatores took their mother’s instincts seriously, and exchanged nervous glances. Each child could remember more examples of Nerina’s accuracy in her intuition than they count on both hands. Cecilia could remember more than thirty — not including Nerina’s nearly perfect track record of correctly identifying the gender of all of her children except one. Cecilia’s face set in a grim expression at the thought of Koray.

“Cecilia, walk with me.” Nerina called her eldest daughter to her as the rest of her present children began the dinner preparations.

“Do you really think we’ll get a nobleman tonight?” Simona gushed to Koray and Juliette. “Ouh! Or maybe a foreign diplomat?”

“Or a super harsh food critic,” Juliette said with her usual lack of optimism.

“Juliette!” Simona covered her mouth in surprise. “You’re going to worry Koray to death!”

Koray felt himself go pale and clammy for a moment. He wiped his wide forehead on his sleeve and tried not to think of all the possibilities of who he could be serving that night.

“Simona, can you start on the prep for the more popular appetizers? Juliette…” His voice trailed off as he caught the glare on his sister’s face. “You… just do what you do.”

“Let’s start cooking!” Koray said brightly.

The hours flew by without the Pescatores noticing. As expected, the night turned out to be busy and frequented by rich foreigners and familiar faces alike. It wasn’t until eleven, long past dusk, that the kitchen staff has their chance to breathe.

“I hope Bianca pools her tips tonight,” Juliette said, sounding tired. “I can’t imagine she’s made less than three hundred shells with the entrees we’ve been turning out.”

Simona rotated her arm in a wide circle, rubbing her shoulder.

“Yeah, no kidding. I lost count of how many trays I’ve had to haul for Angela.”

Angela burst through the double doors with a massive smile on her face.

“Ladies, we didn’t get slow… Some member of the Leo nobility bought out the entire restaurant for the rest of the night.”

A stunned hush hit the kitchen until Mama Pescatore stepped through the kitchen doors with Cecilia in tow.

“A dignified woman would never say ‘I told you so,’” Nerina winked at her children.

“But, ‘I told you so.’” Simona finished for her mother, rolling her light green eyes.

“Your sister is half right,” Nerina continued. “The entire restaurant has been bought out, by request of the royal guard for the Prince of Leo’s safety.”

The girls squealed and clamored amongst themselves, all of them — with perhaps the exception of Juliette and Cecilia — went starry eyed and gushed over how handsome the prince must be.

“Ladies! Ladies,” Nerina Pescatore waved her thick arms, and the girls settled down. “First, I doubt ‘handsome’ is the word you would choose after laying eyes on the Prince. She is very regal in her formal wear.”

“Aww, it’s a girl?” Angela nearly shouted.

“I realize the affairs of Leo are not as prominent in your minds as Cancerean current events, but do try to keep up with what gender the future leader will be, ladies.” Nerina childed her children.

Koray was as surprised as Angela. Everyone knew how fiercely patriarchal Leo’s culture could be, a stark contrast to Cancer’s Queendom. Only Juliette and Cecilia seemed unsurprised, although not unimpressed.

“The Prince has sought out our restaurant due to its reputation for fine seafood and wonderful waitstaff. Of course, she will expect nothing less than five-star, as she is served by chefs who train their entire lives to be vetted into the royal chef position as well as servants who have been handpicked by Leo nobility. In other words, we have some tough competition.”

The women of the Pescatore family had lost their bubbly demeanor, and replaced it with steadfast determination. Koray wrung his apron in his hands.

“But I have the utmost confidence,” Mama Pescatore singled out Koray and smiled. “In all of you. Let’s give the Prince of Leo a meal she won’t soon forget.”

“YEAH!” The sisters cheered.

“Alright, Bianca, time for you to meet a prince.” Cecilia slapped her sister’s shoulder with a grin.

Bianca looked at Koray behind her as Cecilia pushed her towards the floor. She mouthed ‘Good luck’ and gave him a thumbs up as she left.

Koray returned a shaky thumbs up a little late, as Bianca had already left. Juliette and Simona exchanged nervous glances and jumped a few inches into the air when their mother clapped her hands together briskly.

“Alright, alright, let’s do an appetizer count. Let’s see what’s still fresh and what we’d need to fix from scratch!” She ushered the girls into work and snapped Koray out of his worried haze. “She has the whole menu to choose from, so let’s do what we can to not make her wait.”

The busy work kept the Pescatore’s mind off the pressure. Koray and Simona had always found prep work soothing, since the motions became second nature over the years.

“Order!” Bianca hurried into the kitchen, still wearing her service smile. “The prince would like two appetizers in one, the baked mussels and the baked clams. She didn’t know what the difference was, so she ordered both.”

“Did her majesty say what she wanted as a entre’?” Koray piped up.

“Not yet. She need more time,” Bianca’s face knitted into a thinking expression. “Honestly I’m not sure if she know what most of the dishes are…”

Angela struggled to suppress a giggle.

“Hush, Angela!” Nerina swatted her daughter. “The prince is a visitor in our land, unaccustomed to our food and way of life. Laughing at her inexperience is horrible service!”

 

Mama Pescatore looked around the kitchen and began to give our orders.

“Simona, get the breading ingredients together. Juliette, start picking out the wine — no extra tastings! Koray…”

But Koray was already in the process of adjusting the oven, as well as helping Simona collect and prepare the ingredients.

“… don’t forget to put the clams in late.” She finished.

“Of course, mama. only five to seven minutes. The mussles get fifteen to twenty.” Koray recited it like familiar scripture to reassure his mother.

She grinned widely, her crows’ feet wrinkles appearing at the corners of her eyes.

“And Bianca, if the prince seems unsure of what to order, then recommend the seared tuna steaks with soy sauce.”

All the sisters exchanged looks and Mama Pescatore raised an eyebrow.

“That’s not exactly traditional Cancerean cuisine. It’s avant garde, son, especially in our restaurant. It’s not even on the menu.” Nerina Pescatore chided her son.

“Exactly mama,” Koray became animated as he began to defend his dish. “With all due respect, the Prince of Leo doesn’t know or understand what she’s ordering. She is familiar with the red meat focused cuisine of Leo, and I think we should present our own version of a meat-centric dish.”

At his mother’s skeptical look he continued.

“Please, mama. Trust me,” Koray quickly cleared his throat, as a strange voice that was his, and also not his, came forward to plead on his behalf. “I can do this. Let this responsibility fall to my shoulders.”

All eyes focused on Mama Pescatore, even the little ones who had snuck from their beds to catch a glimpse of the prince were now transfixed on the scene in the kitchen.

“… Alright. Ladies, you heard him. Koray’s head chef tonight.”

She opened her mouth as if to say more, but closed it again and just waved her hands about in worry. Tracing the shape of the crescent moon around her chest, she prayed quietly to herself.

“Bianca, go offer the dish to the Prince. Simona, Juliette, let’s get started. Mama…” Putting his professional demeanor on hold a moment, he ran over and hugged his mother, kissing her on both cheeks. His eyes held a faint glimmer as he held back tears of happiness. “Thank you.”

Nerina thought she saw something else in her son, but she blinked and he was gone — already preparing the meal and hovering over Simona and Juliette’s work. As Bianca left the kitchen to head to the prince, Nernia saw Rosie, Maria, Elena and Teresa’s curious faces peering in from the hall.

“My girls, time for bed.” Mama Pescatore scooped up Elena and Teresa, while Rosie took Maria’s hand and led her back to their bedrooms.

“Is Koway gonna sing me to sweep?” Teresa asked sleepily.

“Not tonight.” She smiled warmly at her youngest child.

“Tomowo?” She gleamed hopefully.

“Yes, yes, tomorrow night will be fine.”

`Koray could hear their conversation from the kitchen. He tried to focus on the task in front of him instead.

Bianca walked back into the kitchen with a big smile on her face.

“The prince is very interested in trying our tuna steaks!”

Koray nodded with a knowing smile. He had already begun preparing the large cuts of tuna. The appetizers were both in the oven and the tuna steaks were ready to hit the skillet within minutes.

“Do you really think the prince will like the tuna steaks?” Simona asked while cleaning up the prep station.

“It would definitely fit the prince’s palette, judging by the dishes that are most popular there. We have plenty of foreign customers who think they want true Cancerean cuisine, when what they really want is food they already like — served with seafood.”

“That’s true,” Simona laughed.

“Time to get the appetizers,” Juliette said.

A wave of warm air swept across the kitchen and spread the smell of seasoned seafood through the room. It made every one of the Pescatores’ salivate.

The tuna steak hit the griddle with a sizzle. Koray knew only a slight searing was necessary, and cared for it accordingly. Bianca rushed in, the edges of her wide smile set in flushed cheeks.

“She likes them!” Bianca said breathlessly.

The kitchen staff exchanged grins and shared a collective sigh of relief. Juliette began to pull out bottles of the house wines, fermented and stored in the main residence off ** lake.

“Is it too early for a spring wine?” Juliette mused aloud.

“Of course! It’s the middle of winter,” Bianca laughed. “How about a nice strong, red wine?”

“That won’t go with the tuna!” Juliette rebutted.

“Neither will your out of season vintage!” Bianca shot back.

“A Tauran rose,” Koray ended the argument. “The sweet flavor will complement the spice nicely.”

Juliette arched an eyebrow in approval while Bianca nodded slowly, considering the flavors mentally. The younger sister reached for the pink bottle with a foreign family crest stamped into the thick Tauran glass.

“Can you bring it out with the tuna? The steaks are almost done and Bianca will have her hands full with them.” Koray nodded toward Juliette, who rolled her eyes but nodded nevertheless.

Taking the steaming skillet off the the stove, Koray and Simona set the stakes on the plate for display and garnish. Within minutes the meal looked as perfect as a painting, except for the mouth-watering aroma. Bianca lifted the dish — easily the size of her torso — while Juliette followed her out of the kitchen with the bottle of wine.

Koray let out an exhausted sigh. Simona gave him a sudden, strong hug from behind.

“You’re amazing Koray,” she gave him a big kiss on the cheek. “We’re lucky to have you.”

“Not as lucky as I am to have a family that didn’t ship me off to sea with the rest of my brothers. Can you see me as a sailor?”

They both shared a laugh at that.

Juliette bounded through the kitchen’s double doors. Her face was beaming, lit up with a rare, genuine smile.

“The prince is handsome,” Juliette glowed.

“Don’t you mean beautiful?” Simona asked.

“No, handsome, really. Her strong jaw and expressive brow is…”

“Koray!” Bianca rushed in. “The prince would like to speak the chef!”

Koray felt the eyes of his sisters upon him and gulped audibly.

“W-Well, that’s me.” Koray joked weakly. “I guess I’ll go meet a prince.”

On his way through the double doors onto the dining hall, he stumbled. His feet tripped over each other and the Cancerean nearly lost his balance. As he regained his footing, he saw the guest of honor. She sat with her royal guard, both of them in full, regal uniforms with their large, feathered hats beside them. Both of them were grinning, not unkindly but with some humor at the rest of gracelessness they had witnessed. Koray adjusted his collar which suddenly felt far too tight and approached the aristocratic foreigners.

“Y-your majesty,” Koray bowed nervously. “It has been an honor to serve you this evening.”

“As you were, Cancerean,” the knight waved off his honorifics casually. “She’s truly not all that majestic.”

The prince punched her knights shoulder and then placed her elbows on the table as she focused all of her attention on the anxious, pudgy chef in front of her.

“What is your name, chef?” Her voice sounded much like a purr, friendly for the moment.

“Koray Pescatore,” Koray stated, unsure of his place in this conversation.

“I am Leonara, prince of Leo and heir to the throne,” She eyed him up and down as if measuring his worth by something only she could see. “Your food is phenomenal. I want to offer you the honor of serving as my personal chef at the royal castle in Regulus.”

Koray blinked. He had received compliments for his cooking before, and was expecting a simple, “It was delicious!” But he had never been offered a job before, mostly because it just wasn’t done between most old-world Cancerean families. It was widely considered an insult to assume someone would leave their family’s business for an offer as weak as more money.

In this moment, however, Koray was not insulted. He was stunned.

“I’m sorry, you want me to what?” Koray hastily added on a ‘your majesty’ after the fact, but his dropped jaw could not be put back in place.

“As you might assume, I sail in and out of Cancerean ports at least twice a year. This is, by far, the best meal I’ve ever had in your country. I tire of red meat and fowl day after day in my home country, and I would like to add some … diversity to my menu.”

“Oh, um, I don’t know. My mother…”

“…Would be so proud to have a royal chef as a son.” Nerina Pescatore walked up behind her son and set her pudgy hand on hIs shoulder.  “As long as it’s temporary. He is my head chef and son after all.”

“You have my word as future King of Leo.” Leonara stood and bowed to the Cancerean restraunt owner, who returned the gesture with a low curtsey.

The prince turned to the chef and extended her hand.

“What do you say Koray?”

The Cancerean opened his eyes and was snuggled in his bedroll next to the snoring prince he had just dreamed of. He gently shook her awake.

“Uhnn, huh?” Her blonde hair was wild and her face puffy with sleep. Without her usual fierce facade, Koray found her very similar to his youngest sister, Teresa.

“Guess what? I had a dream about the day we met, when you hired me to be your chef!” Koray smiled and spoke softly.

“Yeah?” Leonara let loose a loud yawn, drawing attention from the pair outside.

“You up?” Jal poked his head in the tent cheerfully, and it was immediately met with Leonara’s flying pillow.

“Too loud.” The Royal Leonian said grumpily, rubbing the sleep from her eye with her non-throwing hand.

“Well, the sun is up and I’ve spotted a settlement on the horizon. We’ll finally be able to stock up and trade!” Jal continued, unperturbed by the pillow strike.

“Hurry up,” said Renata from outside the tent. “If we leave soon, we’ll get there before it gets dark.”

Chapter Eight

The Capricorn representative felt the sugary-sweet Libran breakfast rise dangerously in his stomach as the Flutterflight flew. The Flutterflight’s draped howdah was certainly roomy enough inside, but the even its powerful wings, door-sized with the appearance of vibrant stained-glass, had trouble with the ever-blowing Libran updrafts. When Gyles had seen the giant butterfly with the cloth-covered canopy strapped to the underside of its abdomen, it took every dream of ambitious success the Capricorn had ever imagined to force himself to sit inside.

“Isn’t there anything you can do about this wind?” Gyles’ growled, green-faced. The pilot turned his angular face just enough to catch Gyles’ eyes and smile.

“I’m sure my complexion and structure make me appear fair and Libran, good Sir.” The voice was huskier than Gyles expected of the slender pilot, and it held none of the musical tones Gyles grew fond of while in Libra. “But I am mostly Virgean. I have no more control of the wind than you do, I’m afraid.”

Afraid was the last thing the Virgo-native appeared to be to Gyles. Gyles himself was the very vision of nervous, shaking like a small, dry leaf in his three-piece travelling suit. He fumbled to clutch his silver pocket watch, eventually securing his grasp and unfastening the clasp. He felt a rolling wave of nausea as he read the numbers. Gyles had been airborne for the last fifty minutes, which meant there could be anywhere from a quarter to a gut-curdling half-hour left of his ride on the Flutterflight.

“And I thought the carriages were rough,” Gyles cut himself short to cover his mouth, surging with spit-up. “This is ridiculous…”

“If you need to vomit, please do so outside the cab,” The Virgo verbalized dryly. “I am currently unequipped with airsick bags and we are very nearly there.”

Gyles perked up and peered forward, past the pilot, and gasped at sight of his destination. The Great Tree was far more humongous than Gyles’ imagination could’ve ever envisioned. It would easily tower over several stacked Gemini skyscrapers. It’s trunk was farther-reaching than the broad base of Mount Aquarius. Even the thick jungle that circled its circumference could only flourish so far in comparison. The highest canopies could barely cover the top of The Great Tree’s roots. Gyles felt tinier with each flap of the Flutterflight’s wings. Within minutes they were ascending past the larger, lower branches and approaching the massive canopy. Between leaves large enough to cover a modest home, they flittered toward the landing pad and docked on the polished wooden platform. The Flutterflight’s pilot silently started moving Gyles’ luggage from the howdah to the landing pad. A group of three landing workers brought a nectar feedbag for the Flutterflight, and strapped it on the tired creature with ease.

Gyles took his first shaky step onto Virgo territory, and felt his knees buckle beneath him. A small, tubby hand caught Gyles by his elbow and yanked him to his feet before he fully lost balance.

“The Capricorn, I presume?” A tiny, yet rotund woman with a voice that twinkled eyed him up and down as a mother might. Though his knee hadn’t dusted the ground, he brushed himself off with sharp, haughty strokes.

“Yes, of course.” He nodded curtly.

“I am Elder SpringBringer, and I am Matron at this moment.” The crow’s feet wrinkles at the corners of her eyes creased with the rise of her round cheeks, revealing a smiling a row of teeth. Jolly as she looked, the high and light peal to her voice seemed unnatural to Gyles. It took a moderate amount of concentration for Gyles to bury his flinch at the sound. He forced his polite business smile.

“An honor to meet you, Elder. I am Gyles Gabar, representative of the Capricorn Corporation. Thank you for your hospitality and coordination in advance.” Gyles raised his first and middle fingers to his brow and bowed in the customary Capricorn greeting.. When Gyles’ eyes glanced toward the Virgo Matron, her smile had become a smirk.

“Welcome to Virgo,” SpringBringer’s speech sounded mechanical, rehearsed. “As the leader of my people and protector of The Great Tree there are many demands on my time. Thus, you will be assigned a guide.”

She paused and motioned to a plain-looking girl that Gyles hadn’t even noticed at first. Gyles estimated her to be a year or so younger than himself. Barely twenty years, he guesed. She was an inch or two shorter than him; gawky with glasses and a pale complexion. She was nothing like the Virgos he had imagined while preparing for this trip. With no records and only rumors to go on, Gyles had hoped the Virgo race would be one of exotic, tribal people.

“You will be considered her charge, and she will supply you with any and all information you request during your stay here. The guide is non-negotiable.” He fantasized during his travels that he would be hailed as a cultured ambassador from a technologically-superior nation. He expected to be treated with authority.

“Juniper, introduce yourself.” The girl pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose and smiled awkwardly. Gyles twitched.

“Um, hello.” His future guide swallowed hard and did her best to maintain glimpses of eye contact. “I.. I am, my name is Juniper Arbor, but you can…”

“Elder SpringBringer,” Gyles’ voice had a hard edge on it. “My report will be the first impression of the Virgo people upon the Capricorn Corporation and it’s current chairman, Aegeus Buck. I am the only representative to venture this far in decades.”

Gyles head started to swim from anger and altitude. He paused to pinch the bridge of his nose and catch his breath. His twitching fingers clenched into fists.

“…And you give me a kid to work with?! After a ride on that nectar-sucking deathtrap, too. It’s clear you hold diplomacy in very low regard.” Gyles rounded out his shouting with a firm grasp on his lapels and a stern look. SpringBringer remained unfazed. Juniper Arbor looked close to tears. She hid behind her mousey brown hair.

“The lowest regard,” the Elder replied flatly.

“Despite that; however, I have taken time out of the days I spend to secure the livelihood of my own people to personally oversee the selection of your guide, Outsider.” Her eyes narrowed as she dictated each word clearly. “Simply put, she is the most efficient choice. The guide is non-negotiable.”

Her attention focused onto the nervous girl behind her, “Juniper, show him to the living quarters and make arrangements as necessary.”

Juniper furrowed her brow, but nodded with a flushed face.

Elder SpringBringer was promptly plucked from the branch by a bird many times her size, though all Gyles caught of it was a cobalt blue blur.

“AHHHGGG Sweet Saturn!!” Gyles fell back onto his coattails, and pointed shakily to where the Elder once was. “Sh-she.. She.. was just there, and the.. the bird…”

“That was Bluebell, Elder SpringBringer’s personal mount.” Juniper Arbor’s voice was soft, but no longer shy.

Gyles felt sick at the thought of riding another creature through the air. His olive skin went pale and sweaty.

“Is there any other way to the roots, besides riding a.. mount?” Gyles tried using the term and it felt weird in his mouth.

“Yes,” Juniper whispered. She found it difficult to raise her voice or her gaze to meet her charge, this stranger. Gyles stood a hand’s width taller than Juniper. He wore his hair slicked back, with some unnatural substance Juniper Arbor could not identify — it made the Capricorn’s dark hair look wet, oily, black and yet petrified. Stiff, that was the word Juniper thought described Gyles.

The thin young man sat still on the massive branch, feeling very much like a small insect, and gazed with a glazed look around the gargantuan canopy of the Great Tree. Bees the size of buses buzzed about the branches with Virgos fearlessly steering them from their saddled seats. The branches rose taller than buildings, and some had been hollowed out to make space for workplaces and storage. The afternoon sun shone shafts of light between gaps in the gigantic leaves. The branches were breezy at their altitude, but the winds were warm. Gyles breathed in deep the scent of the nectar, bark and hints of earth on the occasional updraft. He felt his racing heartbeat start to calm itself.

“Um, excuse me…” Juniper Arbor was at his shoulder. “I can show you to your room now if you like. It sounds like the ride was a rough one, and I’m sure you’re eager to rest.”

Juniper’s large brown eyes reminded Gyles of a fawn, tawny and timid. A splash of freckles decorated the bridge of her nose and the tops of her cheekbones. Gyles found himself astounded and disappointed by just how plain this girl was. He lifted himself to his feet and managed to address her with only mild snobbishness.

“Yes, that sounds fine.” The Capricorn looked around for his luggage and found all four suitcases stacked nearby. “So, how will we be moving my trunks?”

“The lift…” From the corner of her eye she saw one of Gyles’ suitcases shift, untouched, behind him. “…Would likely be easiest to move your luggage to your room.” The large box, tied and locked, shuddered again. This time Gyles heard it, and turned to see his dark leather suitcase move of its own accord.

“Ah!” Gyles hurried over and picked up the trunk. “Quite windy up here, don’t you agree?” He babbled with a sudden eager edge to his speech. Gyles smiled widely for the first time to Juniper, but it seemed strained to her and she could have sworn she saw the suitcase move in his arms. “Let’s get going then!” Gyles tried to lift all his his trunks together and struggled under the weight.

“May I carry some? It seems like a lot to carry on your own…”

“No, no, no. I’ve got it. A true gentleman would never ask a lady to carry his luggage, after all.” Gyles flashed her another uneasy smile. But the Virgo didn’t notice his anxiety. Juniper felt her ears grow warm and her eyes couldn’t focus on Gyles’ face. She had never been called a “lady” before.

“Um, well..  I guess we should get on out way then.”

Juniper led Gyles down a delicately carved staircase, etched into the branch itself, and into a hollow of taught ropes and rigging. “You can set your suitcases in the rope hammock right there.” She motioned to a bundle of ropes and Gyles lifted all his suitcases into the hanging storage, except the one Juniper saw shifting earlier. That trunk he held on to.

The floor shuddered beneath them and then started a slow descent. Juniper caught Gyles’ worried look as he examined the pulley system that operated the elevator.

“Don’t worry Mister Gabar, the mechanics of the elevator are quite sturdy even if they aren’t made with your metal cables.” She smiled reassuringly and fought the nervous thoughts that wondered if was alright to address him by the title of “Mister.” Juniper relied on books for her knowledge of the world outside the Great Tree, but she often wondered how accurate the tomes could be after decades of isolation. Entire cultures could change in that time, even if the Virgean way of life did not.

“You’re aware of metal?” Gyles said with the same surprise that an adult might show a two-year old with a grasp of complex chemistry. Juniper’s brow knitted above her glasses. She may not understand the subtleties of Capricorn communication, but she knew when she was being patronized.

“Yes, Mister Gabar. We are aware of metal. We are also aware of electricity, among many other technological advances made in the outside world,” Juniper said coldly.

A dawning look of recognition lit Gyles’ face as he realized he may have made an error which insulted his personal guide.

“I’m…” Gyles cleared his throat to stall for time. He truly disliked having to apologize. “…Sorry for that misconception. We learn little to nothing about your culture, as the Virgo people have been isolated for so long. I’m unaware of how much knowledge the average citizen of Virgo has of science, technology, or…” He shrugged. “Anything for that matter.”

Juniper’s lips were still pursed, though her eyes seemed less wary than before. The floor slowed to a stop and the pulleys ceased to spin. They had arrived. Gyles stepped off the elevator floor and into a darker hallway, no longer lit with sunlight. Behind him, Gyles was vaguely aware that Juniper was adjusting the keelhaul which held his luggage but his concentration was elsewhere.

The center of the Great Tree was hollow, to Gyles’ surprise, and unbelievably colossal for an enclosed space. The spiralling balcony, which circled the hollow center, glowed an eerie green due to a fluorescent fungus which lit the walls and walkways. He crossed the walkway to the wooden railing. Gyles figured the distance from his side of the balcony to the opposite side was over three thousand paces, or three kilopaces, and he found himself once again in awe of the sheer enormity of the Great Tree. Juniper pushed the net of rope which contained his luggage. It was attached to pulleys and wheels which ran smoothly in their tracks overhead. Juniper let go of the hanging rope and joined Gyles at the banister.

“There’s so much we don’t know,” Juniper admitted with a small, almost sad, smile. “But I think that’s why the elders are opening communication with the other nations again. We’ve realized that just because we can live without trade and communication with the rest of the world, doesn’t mean we should.”

“It’s amazing,” Gyles said breathlessly, still staring into the dark expanse that stretched on above him. A grin took his face while he wasn’t guarding it or putting on airs, and Juniper caught it. Childlike wonder made his coffee-colored eyes grow big and bright. The edges of his lips stretched far and parted.

Somewhere above, a cluster of the beaming mushrooms stirred and the spores drifted slowly down — like fairy dust, Juniper’s mother used to say — past the two of them. Juniper’s brown eyes widened behind the tortoiseshell frames of her glasses, and watched the soft features of Gyles’ profile illuminate and eclipse. His eyebrows formed dark arcs, an even parallel to his somber-toned hairline. His eyes remained wide, even as the corners of his lips lifted his cheeks. His lips remained full, even when stretched into a smile. The fluorescent spores continued their gentle downward drift.

A piece of his oily hair fell from his styled quaff. Juniper felt a subtle pull to brush it from his face, and wondered why. Gyles turned his gaze away from the empty core of the tree, and met her eyes.

“Well, best get a move on before we grow roots,” the Capricorn chuckled at his own joke. “Hah, roots get it?”

Although she did not find the pun all that impressive, she forced a small smile and took hold of the netted luggage.

The walk was a short one, only a lap and a half until they found the bark-like door which would belong to him. Vines grew in and out of where the hinge would be and encircled the door like a leafy frame. Despite its rusting look, the door swung open easily at his touch, revealing the room inside.

It reminded Gyles of his university dorm room, small with little furniture other than bunk bed-desk combo and a simple dresser. However, the room was much warmer than his dorm could have ever been. Alight by the yellow-orange petals of large, leaning flowers, the room and all its furniture were carved into the tree. A door-less archway hid behind the dresser.

“Interesting,” Gyles moved over to one of the bright flowers, standing tall despite the lean of its stalk. “It produces light, but no heat at all. How is this possible? How does this flower work? Electricity?”

Juniper hid a shudder at the thought of electricity.

“No, this is a Sunflower. The rest of its stalk are vines and leaves outside the tree. It captures sunlight by means of photosynthesis and gives off a softer version of the light when its own needs are met.”

Juniper paused and cautiously caught the glance of her guest.

“In this way, it is like all of us. We take only what we need to survive and give back to the tree whatever we can, each in their own way.”

“And how do you ‘give back to the tree’?” Gyles asked, a slight bite of humor in his words matched his thoughts on the quaint Virgean lifestyle.

Juniper turned to face him with a serious look. Her dark hair framed her thin. freckled face which looked far closer to cross than amused by Gyles’s latest attempt at humor.

“I work in the roots. We are tasked with the important job of maintaining the hydration of the Tree and maintaining our archives which follow history as far back as creation.” Her face and tone was flat, but the Capricorn managed to pick up on the tense atmosphere.

“Ah, I’m sorry if I offended you.” Gyles tried to smooth things over with charm and manners. “That sounds like… A very important job. It may take a while for me to understand your culture, please be patient with me.”

His full lips parted into a smile and Juniper felt her ears warm. Her expression remained as if carved into the wood itself. She let a few awkward moments pass before replying.

“We are not used to your customs or culture either. You and I will have a lot of learning ahead of us during your stay.” Juniper spun on her heel and made for the door. “I expect you are tired and would like some time to get settled in, so I’ll leave you to it. Supper is in a few hours, so I’ll collect you then.”

Without time to allow Gyles a response, she exited, closing the door behind her.

Chapter Seven

The twins sat around the battered, wooden table in a rare moment of silence, studying a mess of papers scattered on its surface. Rain pounded away at the skylights, the windows and the brick of their corner apartment. The late, gray afternoon rolled in like a grindstone, crushing any plans of going out for fun this night. Resting their weary heads in their large hands, they read and re-read the contents of their collection before sighing in unison.

“Alright,” Rajat began. “One more time…”

“…From the top.” Rajit agreed. “Two weeks ago, Aquarius released their findings of a ‘supernatural disaster’ in southern Aries.”

“Completely wiping the town of Dietrich off the map.”

“But there were no other details as to how or why the ‘disaster’ happened, or the nature of what it was…”

“Other than it was magical,” Rajat entoned. “This theory was substantiated by the Sagittarian caravan we interviewed. Each of the troupe members we spoke to claimed to witness the massive explosion — which lasted no less than ten minutes — on the night in question, from at least two days’ journey away.”

“And let’s not forget these…” Rajit motioned to a small, purple velvet bag. “Embers that never go out? Clearly magical sediment of a pure elemental explosion, no question about it.”

“There’s even been a notable increase in Arien migrants lately. Some claim to have seen the explosions over the mountain ranges!”

“Then there’s Pallas’s letter…” Rajit said, his shoulders drooping as he eyed it again.

The letter sat inconspicuously on top of its envelope between piles of paper. Half-closed and bent submissively to its folds, only parts of Pallas’s graceful script peeked out toward the brothers. The silver wax seal broken neatly in two, gleamed in the gray light.

“Yes, asking if Iota has passed through on his return journey.” Rajat shook his head slowly. “But according to all the information we’ve gathered…”

“He should’ve passed through Gemini days ago, and he definitely would’ve been travelling through Dietrich near the time of the disaster…”

The twins collapsed into silence again. Drops tapped on the glass of their office windows, filling the stillness of unsaid things.

“There’s only one way to know what happened,” Rajat said finally. “One of us has to go and investigate.”

“Investigate what? Ashes? Scorch marks?” Rajit scoffed at his brother. “And to what end? Even if we could find some definitive answers by returning to the scene, why bother? If the amount of ‘feed traffic to the Aquarian report is any indication, this isn’t going to bring us any additional readers. This seems like a waste of time and energy to me, brother.”

“Admittedly, no one paid the Aquarain reports ay attention, but we know how those were written. They’re vague and — what’s worse — boring! The Aquarians are trying to bury this story. If there is any possibility that this event could happen again, possibly somewhere other than Aries, then it’s our job to seek the truth and report it!”

“Why us? Anyone could…”

“You know, as well as I do, that no one has connected the dots this far, or else we would’ve seen it posted in the Fayme feeds.” Rajat cut his brother short. “I’m going, Jii. I know you’re trying to be practical about our time and resources, but I have a feeling about this. It’s going to big.”

“That’s almost what I’m afraid of,” His brother responded with a small smile. “Gods only know what could’ve caused such destruction — much less where or when it would strike next.”

“All the more reason we need to be hot on its trail…”

They both chuckled at the intended pun, their quicksilver eyes meeting and glancing away.

“Very well, I know how you get when you’ve caught a hold of a mystery,” Rajit conceded. “I will start researching the assassination attempt in Leo from here. With no word from Jal yet, I’ll have to follow up with some of our old contacts.”

“Agreed. If we can be the first to uncover the identity of the culprit…”

“…Or culprits…”

“…Behind the coup, we’ll easily elevate our international status. Leaving you free to chase your magical mysteries.” Rajit teased his brother.

“We’ll see who brings in the most Fayme when the stories hit the ‘feeds. As for now, I’ll visit Babaanne and let her know I’ll be leaving for a while.”

“That would be in your best interest. Remember the time you left for Cancer without telling her?”

“I thought for sure she was going to string me up on her loom, or beat me like one of her dusty, old Sagittarian rugs!”

They shared a laugh at that. Rajit stood and walked around the desk in quick steps, meeting his twin and adjusting his clothes with a nervous energy that superseded his fatigue. First, the bright blue silk scarf he wore under his collar, then he straightened his blue and yellow plaid vest and dusted the shoulders. His long fingers rested on Rajat’s lapels a moment, then fell away.

“Just… Be safe, brother.” Rajit said, caution and worry etched into his eyes.

“Of course. I’ll be back before you know it!” Rajat smiled widely, trying to hide his own worries.

Rajat loosened his brother’s yellow scarf and mildly dusted his yellow and blue plaid vest, although they both knew there was no lint to be found. They grasped forearms and pulled each other into a tight hug.

“See you in a few months.” The Ashvins twins said in unison, and then they parted ways.

Chapter Six

Heizen slowed the steamcycle for the first time that day and lifted his goggles. Brennan set her boot on the dirt, favoring her injured leg. They peered at the village which had grown large and green on the endless, flat horizon.

“Thank Mars, I thought we’d never reach a town!” Brennan sighed, sounding utterly spent. “Ten days’ ride, and we’re almost there.”

“Yeah, and I’m starving,” Heizen grumbled. “First thing I’m going to do when we get into to town is grab some meat, maybe some bread and ale…”

“Wait,” Brennan interrupted, her brow knitted in concern. “You’re not talking about stealing are you?”

The young, fully-horned Arien turned his head back to look at her with annoyance.

“Did you have a better plan? I’m pretty sure every tribe of Taurus uses their currency, and — guess what — we don’t have any.” He scowled, hungry and tired from their ride.

“But, hey! Wait!”

Heizen fired up the engine again and rode toward the tiny town, bathed in early morning light, with Brennan still yelling in his ear.

“We have skills, Heizen! Between the two of us, we can fix just about anything!” Brennan held on tightly for balance. “I’m sure the repair or improvement of any equipment the farmers have would be more than worth a meal or two!”

Heizen didn’t reply, but the scowl set on his face was easy to read for Brennan.

“I doubt they’d have us repair something and not pay us, if you want you can ask for your meal first!” She continued. “I don’t think they’d cheat us for no reason!”

“But that’s the way the world is Brennan,” He voice was oddly quiet and serious, perfectly clear against the noise of the engine. “We have to take what we need. No one is going to help us, a couple of Ariens, out of the kindness of their hearts.”

“We can’t afford to break laws either, for the same reason!” Brennan pleaded, getting exacerbated. “Everyone will expect nothing but trouble from us, and if we break their laws then no one will be on our side! There are real laws and real punishments here, it’s not like Aries where there’s no one to answer to…”

But Heizen was drowning her out in the hum of the engine. He preferred to think about How good food would taste, and the tune up his bike would need once they found a safe place to rest. True sleep eluded him since Dietrich, with horribly realistic nightmares — flashes of the day he could barely remember — shaking him awake each hour.

As the steamcycle rolled to a stop under a large, old tree, the engine sounded as exhausted as they felt. Heizen dismounted his bike, and didn’t even look at Brennan when he replied.

“Look, I’m going to get us some food. You do whatever you want to do.” And with that he stomped off, leaving Brennan somewhat stranded on the bike.

With her leg as burnt and injured as it was, Brennan could barely move it — much less walk. Desperately she looked around for something to prop herself up on and make her way to the main thoroughfare through town. She looked up and grabbed one of the thinner branches and hung from it until it broke.

“Ouf,” she grunted in pain. “Well, I’ve got a crutch at least.’

Hobbling into to town with her branch as a walking stick, and saw Heizen jump the fence onto someone’s farm. Looking around like crazy, she spotted two, tall Taurens from about fifteen paces away, walking in her direction. The taller male was carrying a huge bucket of apples, while the only slightly-less-tall female held a small stack of folded clothes in her arms.

“Hey! Excuse me!” Brennan frantically waved them over with her free hand, while the other she used to lean heavily on her stick.

She could see the two stop and exchange words with each other. The male with the apples shook his head slowly, then furiously, as the female ignored him and walked toward Brennan.

Her skin was tan and tawny, like most Taurens, but her towering height and naturally blonde highlights definitely broke away from the typical description Brennan had been told.

“Hiya, you alright?” The woman had a surprisingly light voice, and Brennan realized the she was speaking with a very tall young adult.

“Um, yes… well, no…” Brennan hesitated, but only for a moment. “My friend is stealing from that farm, right there, and I need your help to stop him.”

The Tauren’s freckled face furrowed in confusion, then followed Brennan’s pointing finger and saw a glimpse of Heizen grabbing an early harvest from the fields.

“Well how d’ya like that?” The tall woman scoffed with a smile. “Bold, ain’t he?”

“Please don’t hurt him,” Brennan immediately pleaded.

Brennan could tell by the look on the young woman’s face that idea hadn’t remotely crossed her mind, but Brennan continued anyway.

“Please, we’ve been on the road for ten days and haven’t had anything to eat for two… He’s just desperate because we don’t know anyone here.” Brennan rambled like crazy. “We’re good mechanics, frau. If you have anything that needs fixing, we’ll do it. So please, don’t kill him…”

Unwelcome tears started to well up in Brennan’s coral colored eyes,. She had held herself together since they left and felt so frustrated that she would start to cry now, in front of a stranger.

“Kill him! Why, I couldn’t imagine it!” The Tauren replied in her slow, foreign drawl.

Behind her, her larger, male counterpart stomped over and set his basket of apples down.

“What in Taurnation is going on around here?” He looked only at his fellow Tauren. “Who is this?”

“I’ll explain later, big brother. For now, go over to the Rivera farm real quick like and pluck out the thief who’s lootin’ through their garden.” Then she grabbed the large Tauren by the front of his shirt and looked him in the eye. “And don’t hurt him!”

“Hurt him? The thief? What’s gotten into you?”

“Hush up and grab him before he moves on over to the Ortiz’s!” She waved him off, and to Brennan’s surprise he headed toward the farm, despite his scowl.

The Tauren scooped Brennan into a hug as if she was a younger sister.

“It’s gonna be okay, girly.” She said softly. “My name’s Rosie, like the flower, Rosie Mara Oxford what’s yours?”

Brennan tried to make her name sound, but she couldn’t. Though Rosie had only barely brushed it, the young Arien tried to tell herself it was the pain in her mangled leg that got the tears flowing, and not the kindness she’d been shown.

“Brennan Wecken,” she sniffed and quickly wiped her eyes, hoping her new acquaintance wouldn’t notice.

Brennan heard a squawk and struggle that sounded an awful lot like Heizen fighting from the fenced-in yard. Rosie’s brother came into view with a scowl on his face and a clambering figure over his shoulder, who could only be Heizen.

“LEMME DOWN, YA DRECKSACK!” Heizen shouted as the tall Tauren ambled up to Brennan and Rosie.

Rosie’s brother then dropped Heizen unceremoniously onto the dirt next to Rosie and Brennan.

“Thank you,” Brennan said softly, her eyes still slightly misty.

The Tauren turned slightly red under his tawny skin and adjusted the collar of his button-down shirt.

“This was your doing? You traitor!” Heizen howled.

“Shut it!” Brennan snapped back. crawling from Rosie’s lap. “Isn’t it enough that our hometown is destroyed? All our friends and family burnt to ash? You want to throw your life away for some stupid vegetables? If you get thrown in prison, what am I supposed to do?”

Brennan punctuated her shouting by punching Heizen all over his torso before finally collapsing in a fit of tears on top of him.

Heizen looked sheepish then, avoiding all the eyes upon him and taking the half-hearted hits without complaint.

“I’m… sorry, Bren.” He said quietly.

“Apologize to them!” She sat up sharply, pointing at the Oxford siblings.

Heizen blanched, but bit his tongue before managing to mutter a similar down-hearted apology.

“You’re fine, it sounds like you two have been through a lot. Doesn’t it, Faron?”

“Uh, yeah,” the older Tauren nodded.

“You should come home with us, I bet Mama wouldn’t mind a couple extra mouths to feed!” Rosie stood, and helped Brennan to her feet.

“Now wait just a plowin’ minute,” Faron’s face looked cross. “Ain’t it enough to catch him in the act? We’re gonna feed the thief too?”

“Faron! I’m surprised at you!” Rosie scolded her brother fiercely. “Today is Friday, Earth Mother’s day, Lady Venus’s day. We are supposed to show compassion and love for those less fortunate than ourselves!”

The lady Tauren went on, but the Ariens began muttering to each other.

Less fortunate?” Heizen growled.

“Like it or not, we are! No home, family or friends to speak of and nowhere to go. So let’s take any help we can get and not be picky about where it comes from!” Brennan hissed in return.

“Honestly. how are you ever going to be the head of the village if you can’t show compassion to outsiders on the day of Lady Venus…”

“ENOUGH.” Faron bellowed, and turned purposefully toward the two startled Ariens. “You, and you — this way, now.”

With this, the Tauren lifted Heizen to his feet by his armpit, none too gently, and started guiding him forcefully down the large dirt road which separated the town.

“Hey — HEY! What about my BIKE?” Heizen attempted to resist, but the Tauren was nearly double his size and weight.

“Stop walking so fast!” Rosie chided him while keeping pace with Brennan. “Don’cha know she’s injured!”

Faron held in the swelling anger and frustration, with much difficulty.

“Fine.” He said tersely, and turned his hard, green eyes on Heizen. “You, get your bike. We’ll… wait.”

Heizen’s eyes narrowed, but he said nothing. The Arien sensed he was already on borrowed time, and started to run back to the steamcycle and its saddlebags of supplies. As Heizen disappeared behind the large tree, Faron walked over to Brennan, his face softening with each step. Without a word, he lifted her with ease into his arms and waited for the other Arien to round the corner pushing his bike.

“I can walk y’know… It just takes a while.” Brennan said quietly, but didn’t protest.

“Aw brother, ya got blood on your favorite shirt!” Rosie shook her head with a smile.

Brennan’s leg wounds had opened again, and stained Faron’s shirt as he held her patiently.

“Oh no! I’m so sorry… Put me down while the shirt can still be saved!” Brennan wriggled a little, but Faron held on.

“It’s… just a shirt.”

Rosie opened her mouth as if she were going to say something, but then shut it with a knowing smile.

“Alright, where are we going?” Heizen pushed the steamcycle into the dusty street.

“This way.” Faron said shortly.

The walk was an hour. Past the fields of newly tilled soil toward the biggest house Heizen and Brennan had ever seen. Three stories tall and made of wood, a porch wrapped around the home where four children of varying ages chased each other and played. Upon seeing Faron, Rosie and their guests, they rushed around them peppering them with questions and grabbing onto their clothes..

“What took you so long?’

“Who are these people?”

“Why is that one leaking?”

“What is that?”

“Go get Pop and Mama, now.” Faron said seriously.

To Heizen’s surprise, they stopped circling them and ran to get the parents.

“Are those your brothers and sisters?” Brennan asked weakly.

“Yes, some of them.” Faron replied.

“Some? Mars’ blood, how many of you are there?”

“Sixteen of us kids,” Rosie said cheerfully. “Plus Mama and Pop, that makes eighteen Oxfords under this roof.”

“How.. How can your family be so big…” Heizen began, but Brennan reached down and swatted him from Faron’s arms.

“Lots of practice.” A massive Tauren, slightly shorter than Faron but heavier built with salt and pepper hair grinned from the doorway as he slowly ambled onto the porch.

“Oh Toro!” A shorter, stockier woman, who could only be the mother, batted her husband and hustled out to meet her children and their guests. “Pardon my husband, he’s such a bull sometimes…”

She stopped mid-sentence when she spotted her eldest son and the young woman in his arms.

“My goddess, what happened to you sweetie?”

“Well Mama, I…”

“Faron I meant the girl, hush a moment.”

“Yes ma’am.” Faron pouted slightly.

“Um, my leg got burnt.” Brennan said, feeling slightly unnerved as the sudden center of attention.

“Yes, I can certainly see that, honey. How did you burn it?” Mara Oxford walked up to Faron and Brennan, eyeing the leg with great concern.

“That’s…” Brennan hesitated, biting her lip. “… A long story.”

“Alright then, let’s get you cleaned up. Dinner’s already on the table, and you can tell us all about it afterwards.”

Faron slowly set Brennan down, and the Arien girl blanched.

“Rosie,” The Oxford matriarch motioned toward her eldest daughter. “Would you set the table and round up the kids while I dress this one’s wounds?”

“Of course Mama.” Rosie grinned. She set her hand lightly on Brennan’s shoulder before she left. “Don’t you worry about a thing, girly. Mama’s real good at patchin’ up people. She’s had plenty of practice with us.”

Rosie gave Brennan one last wink before heading off to herd the smaller children inside.

“And Faron, see the young man inside to the washbin before y’all sit down.” Mara addressed her son warmly and pulled him into an embrace before he left. “I’m very proud of you, son.”

“Um… Thanks Mama.” The large Tauren looked even bigger while bending over to accommodate his tiny mother, and Brennan couldn’t help but chuckle.

“Now go to it!” She kissed him on either side  of his face, then grasped his face in her hands and smiled.

Faron turned to Heizen who held a confused and unsure look on his face.

“You can leave your bike in the barn,” Faron tried to say it kindly, but the edge in his voice remained. “Here, I’ll show you where it is.”

The two of them walked in stony silence. Faron — with his leather-colored skin, muscular build and bloodstained shirt — would’ve made an imposing sight, even without the troubled look etched on his brow. Heizen, for his part looked equally dangerous in a wild, unkempt sort of way. The Arien’s horns were longer than they had ever been, curled behind his ear and toward his chin into intimidating twin points. Faron’s long paces forced Heizen to walk at twice his usual pace to keep up, and this only compounded all the other traits the Tauren possessed which ground Heizen’s nerves further.

After a short walk, they reached the large, emerald-colored barn. Faron easily lifted the massive wooden beam holding the barn doors in place and set it to the side before opening the entranceway for the strange guest to roll-in his steamcycle.

Once the door was shut, the steamcycle safely behind it, Heizen muttered some words Faron couldn’t make out.

“Wha’d you say?” The eldest Oxford child asked suspiciously.

“Thanks.” Heizen said, darkly unconvincing. “I don’t know anything about… Healing stuff. I’m glad Brennan can get her leg looked at.”

The Tauren paused. He had not expected any type of appreciative statement — from any Arien, ever — and now he had been thanked by two in one day. The furrowed expression remained as he slowly tried to work the conflict between his expectations and reality.

“It’s… no trouble. Mama’s used to fixin’ up townspeople as well as us kids,” Faron kept his eyes on the house as they walked back toward it. “…So what happened to her leg, anyway?”

“Dunno.” Even with his guard up, Heizen’s voice sounded a little hollow and sad. “Last thing I remember, we were fighting off a biker gang and then I wake up and everything — the whole town, Brennan’s leg, the other bikers — are burnt to ashes.”

“Except for you.” Faron said slowly, as if chewing on this information.

“Me and Brennan, yeah.” Heizen corrected. ‘I mean, we’re both alive.”

“But you aren’t burnt anywhere?”

“No, I didn’t have a scratch on me.” Heizen knew the answer instantly, but then began to think about the meaning behind it.

“Must’ve been an easy fight and a strange explosion…” Faron’s thought trailed off as they stepped onto the Oxford’s front porch. “Anyway, let’s get washed up for dinner.”

“Aw, do we have to?” Heizen whined. Heizen had never been too fond of bathing or water, and the idea of adding soap in the mix annoyed him even more.

“Yes.” Faron’s voice turned to stone again, but this time with the certainty of a family authority figure. “We gotta wash up, or we won’t get anything to eat — you or me. So c’mon.”

Placing a large, heavy hand on Heizen’s shoulder he steered him toward the closest bathroom, against some slight resistance.

“Hey! Why can’t you eat if I’m the one who isn’t going to wash?” Heizen struggled slightly, trying to buy some time or find an escape, but the Arien’s hunger made him unwilling to put up a real fight.

“Because it’s my job to make sure y’all follow the rules of the house and get taken care of,” Faron stated matter-of-factly. “Y’all are my guests now.”

Heizen felt a strange lump in his throat appear, and that was all the opening Faron needed. Within moments, the eldest brother had striped Heizen of his jacket, boots and pants — leaving him in just his undershirt and shorts. Years of stripping wilder, younger siblings made him adept at this practice, meanwhile the tub began to fill with soap and warm water.

“NOOOOOOOO!” Heizen cried out, but his weakened, hungry state was no match for Faron’s expert execution of preparing an unwilling participant for a bubble bath.

“You can take your shorts and shirt off yourself, or go in with them. It’s up to you.” Faron said with his thick drawl and stood with his arms crossed in front of the bathroom door, blocking any chance of escape by Heizen.

Heizen scowled, but didn’t argue.

“Alright, alright! Just turn around while I get in,” The Arien demanded.

Faron grinned a small smile of triumph and turned to face the door. The sounds of a body entering the tub and a disgruntled Heizen let Faron know it was safe to turn around.

“Alright, good job!” He sounded like a proud brother. “I’m gonna take your clothes to the wash pile, and get you somethin’ to change into.”

Heizen continued to glower, surrounded by small mountains of scented bubbles.

“Oh, and one more thing…” Faron stepped up to the tub and dunked Heizen’s head under by the horns. “That needed to happen. Pull the plug once you’re done.”

Heizen came up sputtering and spitting soap, but Faron was already halfway out the door.

“Damn that rock-headed, stubborn son-of-a-” Heizen muttered as he sunk lower into the tub.

“Hellooo dear,” Mara Oxford entered the bathroom as if it was one of her own children in the tub. “Oh I’m sorry, were you saying something?”

Though her voice was light and cheerful, her eyes flashed and hinted to Heizen that her hearing had evolved through decades of being a mother.

The Arien continued to slip down the side of the tub until his lips submerged into the bathwater and blew embarrassed bubbles.

“Mmmmhmmm…” The lady of the house said knowingly. “Well here’s your towel, as well as a set of clean clothes and underwear. We’ll be serving dinner shortly.”

Heizen felt his face grow hot in the warm bathwater, and meekly nodded in response.

“Be sure to wash your face and behind your ears before you come out,” Mara ordered, not unkindly.

Heizen pouted, silently this time, and waited for the woman to leave before scrubbing himself down. Once he decided he was relatively dirt-free, the Arien climbed out of the tub and began to dry off with the towel that had been provided for him. It was pink, soft and surprisingly warm. Heizen caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror but he hardly recognized himself.

They layer of dirt and ash which covered him since the moment he awoke in his bed of embers was now gone, revealing the true shade and texture of Heizen’s skin underneath. Heizen peered closer, eyeing his shoulders and chest which seemed pink and soft from the bath. It took the Arien a few moments to realize what was different, what was missing from the surface of his body.

There were no scars. None on his knuckles from numerous fistfights, nor any of marks which used to cover his hands and arms from working the forge — there weren’t even any bruises from Zinn’s length of chain.

Fire flashed behind Heizen’s horns.

Sparked by the brief glimpse of a memory, a bolt of pain raked across his brain and disappeared just as quickly as it came.

Heizen opened his apricot-colored eyes again and met the gaze of his reflection. The mirror image seemed just as worried and puzzled as he felt.

“Dinner time!” One of the many Oxford voices yelled.

Heizen hurried into the clothes Mara provided for him, a soft, red cotton long-sleeved tee with brown denim jeans. Everything felt cozy and snug, if not a little loose on his wiry frame. His stomach growled from beneath the cloth and hurried Heizen out the door and into the crowded dining room.

“‘Bout time! Take-a seat, boy. It’s time to eat.” Toro Oxford motioned toward Heizen with both hands toward the massive, nearly-covered table.

Heizen sat across from Brennan, at the only seat left of the long, worn wooden dining room table covered in plates and platters of food. He was about to lunge into the nearest bowl of mashed potatoes before Toro’s booming drawl sounded again.

“Alright everyone, grab hands.”

Heizen’s hands were suddenly bound in both very small, and very large fingers as the tiny girl on his left and Faron’s younger brother on his right clasped his hands tightly. While his first instinct was to resist, the Arien shot a look across the table and saw Brennan complying — albeit confused — and mimicking the Oxfords on either side of her, so Heizen did the same.

“Lady Venus, we thank you for blessing our land and our family with your bountiful grace. We thank you for all we have and we thank you for the prosperity we’ve yet to earn. Watch over us, and our guests, in the days to come. By the earth…”

“Bless us all.” All but the Ariens chanted in response, and then chaos was unleashed on the table.

It was as organized as eighteen kids eating at once could be, with chicken, gravy, biscuits and dumplings everywhere. Piles of red meat with soft buttery loaves of bread as well as steamed, grilled, boiled and fried vegetables glistening across the wooden surface.

At first, Heizen thought he would have to fight to the death to get a sample of anything. He ducked his head down and stuck his elbows out, but before he could manage a scoop the Oxfords on either side of him had filled his plate with helpings of fried apples, meat, and food he couldn’t recognize.

“What’s this?” Heizen asked the Oxford to his right, pointing to a pile of white and and yellow.

“Grits with cheese! Boy-howdy, I cannot get enough of the stuff.” He seemed like a shorter, thinner version of Faron. His eyes never left Heizen’s horns. “My name’s Clay, by the way. I’m the second oldest brother.”

“I’m Heizen, and this…” The Arien motioned across the table toward Brennan, who was currently in the practice of wolfing down a portion of everything on the table. “…is Brennan.”

“‘AY!” The little girl piped up from Heizen’s other side. “M’names’ Daysie.”

“Uh… Hello.” Heizen was surprised by the shout.

“How come you guys eat so much and are still so short?” The tiny, tawny girl cocked her head to the side, and her long brown hair followed.

Guffaws sounded all around, and Heizen tried to remind himself that being fed, clothed and given a place to sleep was worth a joke or two at his expense. Brennan didn’t seem to hear or notice the comment, she was so involved in the food before her.

“Daysie! Be polite and kind to our guests,” Rosie reminded her from her seat across the table.

“Not to mention I’m much taller than you, pipsqueak.” Heizen muttered under his breath.

I’m still growing, you’re gonna be short all your life.” The 5-year-old girl mocked in a sing-song voice.

“But I’m taller than you now, and that’s all that matters,” Heizen grinned with his triumph.

“Heizen! Leave her alone,” Brennan admonished him between mouthfuls of mashed potatoes. “Eat, we’ve never had anything like this before.”

Heizen looked down at his full plate and began carving the large chunk of meat. Bite after bite the steak and gravy flavor filled him, warming him to his core. The breads were various, sweet and buttered. The cans of fruit spreads, the bowls of fried apples, the plates of recently picked and washed fruits amazed Heizen by the sheer volume and variety of color. The fried apples were super sweet, caramelized in their own juices, almost too sweet for Heizen’s taste buds. The grits were a welcome juxtaposition, with a warm and gooey texture as well as the cheesy yet blander flavor. The food was so delicious and heavy, Heizen was easily satisfied after only two plates and felt rather sleepy afterwards.

“Do you eat like this every night?” Heizen asked, amazed.

“No, this is a bigger spread than normal. On Fridays we have our big family dinner, and it seems Mama wanted to make sure there was enough food for y’all as well.” Clay said with a grin.

“Is everyone full?” Toro Oxford asked from the head of the table. “‘Cause if you leave hungry from my table…”

“It’s your own plowin’ fault.” Most of the family intoned, having heard the teasing statement hundreds of times.

“Heh, alright kids. Clear the table.”

He issued his order and everyone stepped up and grabbed what they can and made for the kitchen. When Brennan and Heizen made to do the same, Toro motioned for them to remain seated.

“Hold on, you two, We’ve got something to discuss.” The Oxford parents exchanged a look from their opposite ends of the table. “The way I understand it, you’re broke and got nowhere to go. Now, I don’t know what made you leave Aries, and — as long as you don’t bring any trouble here — I don’t care. But until you decide where you’re goin’ next, you both are welcome to stay here, as long as you earn your keep.”

“We’re good mechanics!” Brennan offered. “Between the two of us, we can fix anything…”

“… If not make it better.” Heizen added.

“That’s pretty handy,” Toro chuckled in his deep voice. “But you’ll also have to work for the house and farm when there’s no fixin’ to do. Especially you, boy.”

Heizen grimaced, but held in his thoughts.

“We need all the help we can get in the fields, and any extra work you do — I’ll pay you for it.”

“That’s far too generous. You’re already letting us stay here and…” Brennan asserted, but she was interrupted by Heizen.

“You’ve got yourself a deal.”

Toro Oxford grinned widely and stood from the table.

“That’s great news. I’ll let Faron know you’ll be working beside him tomorrow so you can get the hang of it.” Toro said.

“Um…” Brennan began sheepishly. “I don’t think… I can work in the field.”

“That’s okay sweetie,” Mara stood and walked over to her and placed a hand on Brennan’s shoulder. “There’s plenty to do around the house, and besides I don’t think you should be doin’ too much on that leg for a while.”

Brennan nodded, looking embarrassed.

“Alrighty, you both get out of dinner duty tonight, but expect to help out from now on.”

Heizen and Brennan nodded vigorously toward the patriarch.

“You got it,” Heizen started before getting elbowed by Brennan.

“…Sir.” Brennan insisted.

“You got it, sir.” Heizen struggled to say.

Toro nodded, then ambled out of the room and up the stairs toward his bedroom.

“Ma, I finished putting away the biscuits, meats and potatoes. Do you need me for anything else?” Clay asked, hopeful that he may be done with his chores for the evening.

“One last thing Clay,” Mara Oxford rose from her seat. “Please show our guest to their rooms.”

The wood floor creaked quietly as he crossed the dining room to give his mother a kiss on the cheek.

“Yes ma’am.” Turning to the Ariens, he motioned toward the staircase. “This way.”

Heizen carefully helped his friend as they climbed, one step at a time. Brennan ran the calloused palm of her hand over the glossy finish of the wooden railing as they climbed the stair, and found herself amazed by how smooth the wood felt. Her rose-colored eyes found amazement everywhere they landed. The delicately carved crown molding panels which bordered the walls and ceiling each held the same intricate design, yet were slightly different. All the house looked and smelled of well-treated mahogany, though she wouldn’t know the tree by name. Portraits of family members looking stiff and proud hung on the walls. The second floor did not have as much open room as the first, and was composed of a long hallway connecting the circuit of the top of the first floor stairs to the bottom of the third floor stairs. The hall had a window on either end of it, providing some sunlight to compete with the dull yellow of the hanging electric lamp. A simple rug lined the walkway, passing by eight doors adorned with various decorations to claim ownership.

“This one’ mine, in case y’all need anything.” Clay motioned toward the second to the last door of the second floor, covered in a colorful quilt which read “GO OXMEN!’ in big, bold patchwork letters.

“Oxmen?” Brennan queried. “Is that like a family nickname?”

“Hah! You sure have a goofy sense of humor,” Clay laughed and continued to lead them up stairs.

Brennan an Heizen exchanged a look of confusion and shrugged their shoulders.

A soft, lavish rug greeted them at the peak of the stairs. The tassels hung tired and beaten down by decades of foot traffic over the lip of the final stair. The third floor was a bit of an odd pentagon-like shape. There were three doors, two of which shared the wall to the far right, while the third stood in the center of the far left.

“Mom ‘n’ Pop’s room is to the right, as is the washroom for this floor. Faron’s room is to the right. And your room…” Clay walked over to the wall furthest from the stair, which held a single, unassuming window. “… Is right here.”

He reached up, pulled down a door and unfolded a ladder which reached to the floor. Clay then proceeded to climb up and flip on an out-of-sight lightswitch.

Heizen approached the ladder and let Brennan go first before he made his way up. As he rose into the room, he noticed the two rickety lamps hanging from either side of the steeply vaulted ceiling. The room must have been used as an attic for storage until shortly after they arrived at the Oxford property. Tons of old rugs, furniture, memorabilia, junk, odds and ends formed a second right-side wall in front of the first. However, two single beds, each with their own bedside nightstand, stood made with numerous blankets, pillows and comforters. Lastly, there was a table, a couple of chairs, a mirror, and two dressers near the furthest wall, which held a window. overlooking the acres of Oxford farm land.

“I hope it’s alright,” Clay rubbed his chin as he looked over the attic. “I did my best to get it cleaned up and organized for y’all.”

“Clay it’s wonderful!” Brennan limped over and gave the Tauren a strong hug, which made him flush a little under his tan complexion,

“Thanks, kumpen.” Heizen said shortly, and collapsed on the closest bed.

A strange look crossed over Clay’s face as he turned to Brennan.

“What did he call me?”

“Kumpen? It’s like… friend, or buddy, or mate.” Brennan said off-handedly as she limped to the farther bed.

The look faded from Clay’s face, slowly.

“Alright, well breakfast is at sunrise. And trust me…” Clay mounted the ladder and winked at Brennan. “You won’t want to be late.”

Brennan smiled at Clay as he climbed down, and laid back onto the pillows and comforter once he was out of sight. She looked over to Heizen, who was already drifting off to sleep. Cautiously, she wriggled under the blankets, doing her best not to irritate her leg. She thought back to what the Oxford matron had told her while cleaning the wound once Heizen had left with Faron.

The leg will have to come off, dear.

Chapter Five

Dark, bruise-colored clouds rolled in over the sunset. Leonara watched from her balcony, the second-highest of the palace, as the misty nebulas swallowed the starry night sky.

“My prince,” Knight Commander Guerrier spoke softly and formally, his voice like dark velvet. “Dinner will be served momentarily.”

The prince didn’t flinch as the wind whipped around her, tossing the curled, wild tendrils of her red-gold hair. The chill in the air and scent of rain erased whatever warmth the spring day held earlier.

“I’ll take it in my room, Marcel.” Leonara said finally. “Have Koray bring it up.”

“The King has returned early and requests your presence in the dining hall, my liege,” Guerrier added with a small smile. As personal bodyguard to the Royal Prince of Leo, he knew his charge and ruler very well. The prince turned faster than the wind with a bright smile on her face.

“Daddy is…” She paused to clear her throat. “King Leo has returned?” Leonara caught herself mid-sentence and resumed her royal speech, but a glowing grin betrayed the royal facade. “I hope his trip to Libra was fortuitous.”

“By my understanding, it was indeed, you’ll have a chance to ask him yourself at dinner. Though I’m certain formal attire will be expected.” Commander Guerrier eyed Leonara, still in her light leather armor from training earlier.

“Yes, well, when I need fashion advice from someone who wears nothing but a uniform day and night, you’ll be the first to know,” the prince jeered in line with their familiar repartee.

“Ma’am, I would wear the finest silks and cottons if my station permitted it,” the Knight commander said with mock solemness. “However, I gave up such privileges for the right to have any blade meant for your heart to pierce mine.”

“You certainly received the raw end of that bargain, and don’t ‘ma’am’ me,” her highness snorted as she passed the knight on her way into the royal bedroom. “You know I hate that. Call me ‘sir,’ it makes me look good in front of father’s advisors.” Then, after a pause, she went on to say, “Wait, didn’t you grow up in a Leonion settlement on the borders of Virgo?”

“I did, my lord. I’m honored that you bothered to remember.” Thinly veiled sarcasm dripped from the words of Knight Commander Marcel Guerrier, who was still called “half-breed” by most of his superiors.

The guard closed the large, windowed double doors behind her. For her part, the prince already strode across the massive bedroom into the first closet and started tossing each expensive, tailored outfit she didn’t want to wear on the floor.

“And you say you gave up ‘the finest silks and cottons’?”

At this, the Knight commander laughed, “Alright, so perhaps it was the cheapest burlap sacks.”

The prince poked her head out of the closet to see if her knight was kidding — he was. Leonara then crossed the room to evaluate him up close.

It wasn’t hard to picture the tall, muscled man in the plains or forests armed with a spear. The commander’s heritage was all but a taboo subject: half-Virgo, half-Leo — all warrior. Though the road to his prestigious position had been filled with opposition from his superiors, he rose through the ranks by staying calm and seizing every opportunity to get ahead.

“The Leo uniform suits you best, Guerrier.” Leonara raised a hand to rest on her bodyguard’s shoulder and locked eyes with her most trusted soldier. “You’re the best bodyguard a king could ask for.”

Future king, my lord,” Marcel said with a tone reserved for keeping his sire in check. “And thank you for the compliment. Now please get dressed sir, or you’ll be late for dinner.” Tipping the rim of his helm in a bow, the chevalier excused himself.

The prince waved him off as she returned to the closet, looking for a specific crimson linen shirt with the complimenting gold doublet. Tossing aside brilliant colors of hose and pansied pants, until she found each item which brought her outfit to completion.

After dressing herself, she made her way through the long stone halls. The fast clicking of her freshly shined, military-grade boots was softened by the opulent rugs and lavish religious tapestries hanging from the walls. Her steps down the grand, spiraling staircase, increased in pace, pausing halfway between floors to consider the lightning flashing behind the ornate panels of stained glass. Without waiting for the thunder, Leonara arrived on the ground floor and could hear the uproarious laughter of her father — due to the barrel-ceiling acoustics of the banquet hall — and could not help but smile in anticipation.

Arriving fashionably late to the massive dining hall, Leonara noticed with a suppressed grimace that all of the advisors, as well as her tutors, had also been invited to dinner. It struck her that her bodyguard might have attempted to drop a hint earlier. Everyone but the king rose from their seats as she set foot under the massive archway. She bowed upon entering and the guests returned to their seats with the mild scuffling of wood on marble.

“My king, it is… good to have you home again,” the prince chose her words carefully and projected them forcefully. She knew full well that her every move was analyzed and measured against what a prince, a male prince, would do and say. “The kingdom breathes easier with its ruler close at hand.”

The table had already been set and served. Poultry the size of small cattle and full-grown boars with apples between their tusks sat steaming as the guests helped themselves. Biscuits, loaves and glazed muffins passed from seat to seat and even the sparse greenery seemed to be well-liked among the mostly carnivorous crowd.

King Leo sat at the head of the table, his eyes twinkling and his cheeks rosy. In old age and comfort, the King’s once chiseled, muscular physique had softened from barrel-chested to barrel-bellied. His beard and mustache were well groomed and still held the red-gold tones of his youth.

“Ah, my child! I see you managed to keep the castle standing in my absence,” the King grinned widely and motioned for her to come to him. “It is my greatest pleasure to return.”

Leonara didn’t hold back her full, radiant smile and it was all she could do not to run to her father’s side. Instead she sauntered with pride, slowly strolling in her elegant attire to her proper place, at the right hand of her king. She tossed her coattails out of the way as she sat — a distinguishing mark of a gentleman — and straightened the uncomfortable, yet fashionable frills at her neck. She looked about the table searching for rare tuna steaks, her recent favorite as prepared by her personal chef, Koray.   

“I was told you’ve been busy as of late,” King Leo beamed. “You went hunting with the eldest son of Duke Gustave Cender?”

The prince concealed a growl at the frustration of not finding her steaks and the memory of the pompous Andre Cender, all too aware that the station of his father made him an important ally to the king.

“Yes, father,” her highness said shortly.

“The two of you had quite a wager, as I hear it.” Mischievous notes of playfulness resounded in the monarch’s tone.

“We did,” Leonara grinned darkly at the memory.

“Well? Go on then! Regale me with the story of your conquest!” King Leo boomed, his personality filling up the dining hall.

The ministers, who had accompanied their liege for his travels and therefore weren’t present for the hunt, displayed a rare look of interest in matters regarding the prince. Her tutors, who heard the story as it had raced like wildfire through the nobility and their servants weeks earlier, mostly rolled their eyes and crossed their arms.

“Well sire, I had invited the men of the noble Cender family to our estate in Denebola for a weekend of hunting and philosophy,” Leonara began. As per her father’s request, she didn’t add. King Leo XXII often guided her in issues of public relations, building her persona as a logical, powerful and, most importantly, masculine leader.

Koray Pescatore, the youngest royal chef and only Cancerean, emerged from the hallway struggling with an enormous tray that could only be Leonara’s tuna steaks.

“Koray! You seem to be losing that fight!” King Leo addressed the chef in a familiar manner as only a king could, any other noble of worth and it would’ve surely be seen as uncouth. Snapping his fingers and motioning toward the nearest guard, a royal knight took the silver platter from the delicate young man.

“Ah, um. Thank you,” Koray blushed and addressed the knight with gratitude. The knight said nothing behind his helm, clearly disturbed by the lack of muscle and overall manliness the young man exhibited. He followed Koray silently as they brought the steaks to the lady prince.

“Your highness, seared tuna steaks in olive oil and soy sauce,” Koray said with chef’s pride as the dish was lowered and placed before Leonara. She launched into the fish at a furious pace, barely bothering to come up for air. Instead of admonishing her, the King smiled fondly and addressed Koray.

“My steward tells me you were present for the hunt with the Cenders, Koray. Why don’t you tell us what transpired as our dear prince stuffs her jowls to the brim?”

“M-my lord, sir, well…” Koray struggled to calm down as he addressed the King. “It happened like this, the… um…”

“Speak plainly boy, your king wishes it!” King Leo gave Koray a light hearted slap on the shoulder which nearly dislocated it. Wincing and rubbing his shoulder, Koray took a deep breath.

“Sirs Gustave and Andre Cenders arrived bored from their carriage ride and immediately wished to go big game hunting. Prince Leonara made the arrangements, called the carriages and brought an accompaniment of guards.” Koray tried to keep his face blank as he remembered the pompousness of the Leonian nobles. Assuming he was a servant upon their arrival, instead of Leonara’s personal assistant and chef, they had tossed their heavy velvet coats on top of him without so much as a glance in his direction.

“Leonara dragged you along as well, eh?” King Leo chuckled, his round cheeks jolly with the mental image.

“Yes, your majesty. She wanted me to prepare their catch for dinner and…” Koray gulped audibly, “… She wanted to instill in me an appreciation of Leonean culture through its… noblest sport.”

Leonara snickered a bit with her mouth full of tuna.

“So you rode out to the plains, or the edge of the woods?” King Leo leaned forward and rested his massive bearded chin on the back of his thick fist. Koray thought back to the uncomfortable carriage ride. Although it took hours to get to the hunting grounds, nearly every attempt at conversation fell flat. It was clear neither of the Cenders thought much of their female prince.

“Ah, the woods sir. We arrived as the Sun began to set behind the canopy, but it seemed like no light fell on the forest floor — it was darker than the grave! Wild sounds of birds and beasts echoed beyond the outer bushes, that was when the wager was made.”

Koray couldn’t help but smile slightly at the back of Leonara’s head. Gustave and Andre had patronized and belittled her with a very thin veil of subtlety through most of the trip. He remembered his surprise at the time by how level-headed the prince remained.

For her part, the female prince kept her head down and served herself two more tuna steaks, each the size of her arm.

“And? What was the wager?” The king led Koray back into the story.

“For the royal seat, your majesty.” Koray said quietly.

There was muffled roar among the king’s advisors. As for the King himself, his eyes widened as his lips puckered, hiding a smile of anticipation.

“That’s quite a bet,” King Leo XXII said to Koray while staring pointedly at Leonara. “What did the Cenders have to offer?”

“Well, Duke Cenders seemed to understand the gravity — but Andres immediately offered the family’s unwavering support in her every political endeavor before his father could deem the wager…” Koray struggled to find the appropriate words. “… in poor taste.”

“In effect, forcing the family’s future parliamentary votes.” Leonara patted her lips in a dainty fashion, wiping away the excess soy sauce and fish oil.

Further murmuring from what the prince privately dubbed ‘hecklers’ only cemented her cocky smile in place.

“Once the terms were set, Duke Cenders had no way to back-paddle out of the arrangement…”

“Oh to have seen Gustave’s face!” The king roared.

“And then they set the terms as biggest quarry before moonrise, with extra consideration for dangerous prey,” Koray said, barely concealing a shiver.

The Cancerean chef thought back to the moment the two noble Leos decided their bet. Gustave turned a sickening shade of gray, while his son looked nothing but confident. Andre was a head taller than Leonara, his shoulders broad and his jaw strong. He let his long hair loose from the constraints of a rich blue ribbon and proceeded to remove his belt and shirt.

Leonara mirrored Andre’s motions and removed her gloves and handed them to Koray unceremoniously before moving to her jacket. Koray asked in hurried, hushed tones why they were disrobing, where their hunting weapons were, how would they even see the animals at night, if the forest was dangerous and, again, why — for the love of Mother Ocean — they were disrobing.

He remembered how, in smooth, almost purring tones Leonara exhibited a rare patience while waiting to answer all his questions with one word, “Watch.”

What may have started as a comical scene — two nobles down to their undergarments on the edge of forest — became something terrible to behold in mere moments.

Of course Koray had heard the stories growing up of the wild Leo warriors who fought like beasts, but he thought they were like most manly war tales — more fiction than fact. He never imagined how literal the boasts had been. Andre and Leonara grew at rapid rates, their muscles went from defined to rippling sheer power under skin which resembled hide more and more by the moment.

Koray stumbled backwards, his arms full of Leonara’s elegantly tailored clothes, as the soft tendrils of their golden hair turned to a mane of long locks and nearly coarse fur, fingernails hooked and turned sharp and their ears repositioned themselves and grew pointed. The cat-shaped behemoth which was once Leonara turned to face Koray. He saw serpentine pupils, fangs and yet something familiar in the features of the beast. Leonara’s brazenly confident smile hinted at the corners of its clearly carnivorous lips. Despite staring into the face of this monster, Koray felt she was in there — but so was something else.

“And of this prey…” Koray snapped back to the present with the timbre of the king’s voice. “Clearly our prince brought back the more impressive prize, but spare no details! Tell me what they each caught from the forest.”

Koray realized uncomfortably that he was the center of attention for the most powerful and influential Leos in the nation, and very much felt like prey himself.

“Well, I–” Leonara began haughtily.

“Hush!” King Leo said, seeming to beam as Koray grew increasingly more uneasy. “I want to hear it from a foreigner’s perspective.”

Leonara grumpily shut her mouth and pouted quietly as Koray continued.

“Andre returned first,” Koray began. “A wild boar, dead. It was easily…”

He eyed the table for decent descriptor.

“… Two seasons older than the boar we served here, with tusks the size of sabres. Even Duke Cenders seemed somewhat relieved when his son returned with his…” Koray paused to swallow hard again. “…Prize.”

They were gone for what felt like an entire night, but actually for what Gustave Cenders coldly reassured him was only four hours. Yes, Andre had returned first — bloodied and somewhat battered — with what remained of the clawed animal over his shoulder. Andre’s fur shone with blood in the light of the full moon, a tusk had grazed rather than gored his ribs, and he did not appear to be too deeply wounded.

Koray tried not to cry then, thinking if Andre — with his superior size — came back mildly injured, what may of happened to Leonara. Andre’s transformation would have made him eye-level to a Sagittarian stallion, by Koray’s best guess, and Leonara’s form was a hand’s length shorter than Andre’s. She seemed a bit more lithe as well. Which is why, when she returned, her victory was decisive and clear.

“Prince Leonara returned less than a full hour later,” Koray advanced the story. “With a forest rhino, a young male, still growing into his horns. It seems that moving her kill took just as long as the hunt itself. The Prince had to fashion a sled of sorts from a row of tree trunks and vines just to bring the beast back.”

The quiet of the dining hall, with the exception of Koray’s own nervous voice naturally amplified between the high-arcing ceilings and stained glass windows, was shattered by the king’s own bellowing laughter.

It had been quite an emotional moment for Koray, to see Leonara’s slowly moving form, unharmed, emerging from the forest.

Her dramatic return wasn’t without some effort though, as she dragged behind her the land-barge and the massive corpse over the volumus bushes, young trees and brush. With a final heave, she towed her catch into the clearing, tossed the towing vines at Anders Cender’s feet and released a bellowing roar into the night sky of pride and triumph.

Koray remembered how his entire body had shook at the sound. Although the Cenders were surely more used to a Leoneon roar than he was, they too seemed to be stricken down to passivity by the prince’s performance and prowess. Each took to bended knee and averted their eyes, they muttered two words with utter submission, “Your majesty.”

Her vocal explosion must have sapped what was left of the prince’s inner reserves of energy after the hunt, kill and arduous return. She morphed back into the mortal form Koray knew — only she was completely bare. Muscular in the moonlight, she stood above the kneeling Cenders without a trace of a smile or a smirk. Leonara’s only reply to their sworn fealty was short, “Never forget it.

“What an excellent retelling, Koray!” King Leo boomed, bring Koray back into the present moment again. “You could make a fine living as a bard, if Leonara ever gives you up as a chef.”

“Not for all the gold in the castle,” Leonara responded immediately, surprising Koray with her certainty. “Not only is he an exemplary chef, but he also provides superior service — better than most native-born servants I’ve had.”

The table erupted in murmurs and whispers again at her statement. Koray caught fragments of the whispers, “Prefers foreigners to her own kind… what kind of service…”

Leonara, for her part, sat stoic and grim, pointedly ignoring the mumbling of the assembled crowd.

“Yes, well.. er, um…” King Leo coughed. “Dinner dismissed, you are excused.”

The assembled nobles rose and bowed in a hurried fashion, rushing to gossip behind closed doors.

King Leo let out a drawn out, somewhat dramatic sigh.

“My dear prince, why is it that whenever you gain the smallest amount of respect with the lords of the court, you must immediately place your foot in your mouth?” He chuckled lightly with a sort of hopeless endeared look toward his daughter.

“They took it out of context! Koray is the finest chef and assistant I’ve ever had — bar none! Why shouldn’t I claim as much?” She raised her voice petulantly, annoyed and slightly embarrassed that her proud victory would certainly be overshadowed by a clumsy slip of the tongue on her part.

“You know why,” the King stated, stroking his beard. “The men of the assembly, the nobles and even the advisors of my cabinet will always seek to tear down your accomplishments and build the tiniest trip up into your downfalls. It is this way with most Kings, until they prove themselves, although we both know you will have it decidedly worse.”

Leonara huffed, and Koray felt decidedly awkward witnessing a conversation that was not meant for him. The round Cancerean slowly back-waddled toward the door, hoping to get an early start on the dishes and avoid any more family-fueled awkwardness.

“And yes, you’re excused as well, Koray.” Leonara waved him off. “However, don’t wander too far from the kitchen. I’ll be wanting dessert later.”

“Y-yes, Prince Leonara.” Koray bowed and nearly ran out of the dining hall.

Within the last echoes of his footsteps, an advisor to the King stepped from the shadows behind the throne.

“Ah, Godefroy. Is it that time already?” King Leo laughed and slapped the stiff, tall advisor on the shoulder, unsteadying the man a bit.

“Yes, your majesty. Since your trip to Libra some… issues have arisen in the lower quarter.” His high, reedy voice sounded like a whisper in comparison to the King. “We can meet in the strategy room as soon as you’re ready.”

“May I attend, sire?” King Leo turned to find Leonara suddenly right beside him, eyes gleaming wide with eagerness to attend to official kingdom business.

“I’m afraid this is only…” The thin, snobbish advisor began to say with a sneer, but King Leo cut him off.

“My dear Prince, this meeting I must attend without you,” He paused for a moment to share a wink and a knowing look with his daughter before continuing. “Tomorrow, however, I am all yours. We can talk battle strategy, hunting and the well-being of our country until the walls fall down.”

“Deal!” Leonara beamed.

“Excellent, then get some shuteye and we’ll begin promptly at nine with breakfast.” After tousling her hair a bit with a massive hand, he waved her off. “You’re dismissed, my Prince.”

Leonara bowed deeply and did her best to ignore the blatant look of disgust from Godefroy Moitessier as she turned and practically floated back to her room.

The servants had already straightened the piles of clothes she left in her wake since dinner. She returned to the closet and tossed off the uncomfortable, traditional clothes and looked for her favorite nightgown — an old, crimson undershirt of her father’s she had snuck off with as a child — and buzzed the kitchen from the servant switchboard.

“Koray.”

“Yes, Prince?” He sounded startled, as if the four months of his employment as a royal chef had still not attuned him to the electric speaker-system within the castle.

“I’d like a platter of macarons brought up.” She said, salivating a little at the thought of the buttercream and berry filled treats.

“Uh, yes. Right away.” The sounds of some scrambling could be heard faintly on the other end.

“Don’t take too long. I’m craving something sweet.” The Prince stated impatiently, still rummaging through her closet to find the baggy, ragged nightgown.

Leonara’s clothing servants had learned years ago that the Royal Prince would never wear what someone else chose for her. Months of planning could go into an outfit and she would simply decline it, opting for her worn leather armor for the day. As such, she had ordered the staff not to lay out clothes for her, alongside the age old rule from her youth of never, ever attempting to dress her highness. Several servants had walked away from a tumble with the enraged beast-child Leonara with enough bites and scratches to be thankful for the exclusion of this duty.

Finally finding it, she slipped into it and set her leather armor out for the next day, dreaming of playful sparring matches with her father. She play acted parrying and ducking until a knock sounded at the door.

“Umm.. It’s me, Koray, your majesty.” The muffled, shy voice said on the other side of the bedroom door.

“Come in, come in already!” Leonara rolled her eyes and continued to play fight.

With much difficulty, the door opened. Koray was doing his best to handle both the light, large platter of macarons and the massive door at once. Pushing it aside with his back, the portly young man arrived in his golden formal chef’s attire, panting a bit from the strain and his hurry to arrive quickly. The color of his tunic matched the curls of his hair, accented by the pinkish flush of his cheeks.

“Finally! I’ve been longing for these!” With no further ado, Leonara took the tray off his hands and proceeded to pop an entire one into her mouth, whole.

“Wuh ryew woah wellress?” The prince managed between mouthfuls.

“Um.. I’m sorry? What?”

After a large swallow, she cleared her throat and spoke again.

“Why are you so well-dressed?” She queried.

“Oh! Honestly, I made a bit of mess making the macarons and I didn’t want to appear before you covered in buttercream so I changed uniforms. Tomorrow is the servant’s laundry day, so the only thing I had clean was the formal attire.”

“You look sharp! I bet you could even pass for a royal bodyguard,” Leonara looked him over. Chubby as he was, he cut a handsome figure in the golden chef’s uniform. “Maybe a bodyguard in training.”

Koray blushed.

“Thank you, my liege.” He paused before asking his question. “If I may be so bold, do you have plans with the King tomorrow, your majesty?”

“You may, and yes!” She let out a whoop of excitement which she had been holding in since her conversation with her father. “It’s going to be great, we’re going to spar and talk about his trip to Libra and…”

Strange, distant sounds coming from down the hallway stopped the prince mid-sentence. At first it sounded like dishes being thrown down the spiral stair, but the groans of men made the noise recognizable to her — they were the sounds of battle.

“My prince?” Koray queried.

“Shhhh! Be still a moment,” Leonara said a in an urgent, yet furtive voice, and listened intently.

The clash of metal on metal was louder and then — nothing at all.

“Koray, hide. I’m going to put on my armor and…” But the prince got no further in her orders.

Three assailants burst through the door, clad completely in black. Only their eyes, equally as ebon as the cloth they wrapped themselves in, were visible. She had heard stories of Scorpio assassins, and these intruders matched the description unerringly. Leonara noticed that had no weapons in their hands, although she was positive she had heard the sound of blades battling below. Assassins with hidden blades — definitely Scorpio.

The tallest one, leading in the middle, glared at both Leonara and Koray, sizing them up before issuing commands to his comrades.

“Grab the prince, kill the servant girl.” His voice dark and tinted with a strange accent Leonara had never heard before, but her attention was not quite as focused on how he spoke as much as what he said.

“SERVANT GIRL?” She bellowed. “I’ll have you know, I am…”

However, once again her speech was interrupted. Behind her the window shattered and another strange figure appeared, this one tall, tan and equipped with a staff.

“Ah, as always I appear right on time!”

His long, wavy hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Unlike the others, he wore no black; instead, a yellow vest with no undershirt, a large satchel as well as baggy and faded pants which were only fit at the waist and ankles. Clearly Sagittarian, he easily stood a full head’s height taller than the leader of the assailants.

“Grab the prince!” The tallest assailant shouted in his thick accent.

Leonara had not even seen the smallest of the three figures move, but within the time of a blink, she had grabbed Koray’s ankles and started to drag the Cancerean away with only some mild difficulty.

“Wha-wha! Stop!” Koray tried to kick and squirm away but the grip on his legs didn’t loosen.

The tallest stranger equipped with his staff gave a perplexed look to Leonara, clearly confused as to why Koray was being kidnapped.

“What are you waiting for! Get Koray! I will join you once I don my armor!” Leonara shouted at him.

“A little more of a rescue than I bargained for, but eh…” He winked at a furiously aghast Leonara. “Why not?”

The leader quickly assisted his teammate in lifting Koray and escaping with him. The third member drew something from his belt and threw it upon the ground — where an instantaneous explosion of smoke and noise covered their escape.

The Sagittarian hesitated only a moment, then dived through the smoke to take after the raven-robed kidnappers.

Leonara struggled to equip her armor as fast as she could, before the sound of new footsteps on the broken glass behind her gave her pause.

“Jal! Where in Death’s name did you go?! What the Hades is going on in here?” A new, unfamiliar and very angry woman’s voice reached Leonara’s ears. After a pause, clearly listening for a response, it continued, “Damn that sell-staff!”

The woman’s accent sounded harsh and slightly similar to the voice of Leonara’s assailants.

The prince finished buckling the last of her armor together as the smoke began to dissipate. She listened intently for more footsteps to pinpoint the trespasser’s location, but there was only silence. After waiting for what seemed like an eternity, the smoke thinned enough for the lady prince to see from wall to wall, yet there was no sign of the source of the voice.

“Found you.” The sound of the woman’s somber tone held a hint of dark success, but by the time Leonara realized its source was on the ceiling it was too late.

The woman sprung and quickly struck Leonara on the neck with precision, knocking the prince unconscious. Rising to her feet with the Royal Prince of Leo on her shoulder, Renata whistled sharply three times and made her way to the balcony.

***

Jal, on the other hand, was having a harder time of collecting his query.

While the Scorpio assassin team had definitely slowed down significantly under Koray’s weight, the occasional bladed projectile kept Jal dodging and swinging long enough to lose them momentarily.

Rounding yet another corner, Jal found himself inches from the end of a well-placed wrist blade — already soaked red in blood. The killer swung and slashed at Jal’s face and torso savagely while his compatriots struggled to carry Koray away.

“Help!” The frightened Cancerean pleaded, and left whimpers in his wake.

“I’m coming, my pudgy prince!” Jal laughed at his own joke, or at least tried to between the quick thrusts of the assassin’s blade.

The Scorpio’s onyx eyes became furious at Jal’s amusement and their strikes became wilder until the Sagittarian’s staff found the opening Jal had been waiting for. A resounding crack echoed through the stone hallway as the staff connected with the kidnapper’s swaddled skull, and the assassin slid down the wall onto the floor. The Sagittarian quickly searched the body for booby-traps and bladed projectiles and looted the most useful of the items into his satchel.

Three shrill pitches, which Jal recognized as Renata’s signal, let him know the Royal Prince was in their possession and he would have only moments to meet up with her before the Scorpio left without him — a threat which Jal had no difficulty believing.

The tall sell-staff wasted no time in jumping over his adversary’s crumpled body and took up a faster pace.

Catching up with the two remaining Scorpio assassins was easy enough. Jal pulled a throwing knife and pitched it with alarming accuracy into the leader’s right arm. A scream of pain and rage shook the small hallway, and the two kidnappers were forced to set down Koray at the dead end of the stone corridor.

“Now, you seem like a fairly logical assassin,” Jal spread his arms wide to show he wasn’t hostile, for the moment. “Your comrade is unconscious. Without the use of your right arm, you will not be able to carry both the ‘prince’ and your fellow back through the Swamps of Scorpio.”

Jal paused to see if his words were having the desired effect upon his enemies. The two glared, but said nothing.

“If my count is correct, you only have one throwing star left — which I will easily dodge.” Jal continued. “I, on the other hand, have several of your comrade’s weapons, my staff and a whole Sagittarian troupe as my backup. Allow me to assure you that while I may seem able-bodied to you, I am truly the metaphorical ‘runt of the litter’ when it comes to my gang, and they will not approve of the mercy I have shown you.”

The assassins exchanged glances, but held their tongues. Jal nodded and went on.

“I see nothing to gain by ending your lives, but I cannot allow you to leave here with the prince…” Jal sent a wink to the frightened, trembling Koray behind them. “… So my offer is this; leave, grab your compatriot and think up an elegant tall tale of betrayal for your superiors during the return trip.”

In a flash, Jal took an aggressive stance with a throwing knife in one hand and his staff in another.

“Or die here, far from your family and homeland. The choice is yours.”

The smaller Scorpio took up a fighting stance, but the wounded leader placed his hand on her shoulder and shook his head slowly. She relaxed slightly, and the two of them bowed their head briefly before running past Jal to escape.

“Oh thank you! Had you not come…” Koray started to cry.

“Save your tears of thanks for once we are free of this place. We must move quickly if we are to escape.” Jal offered a hand to the chubby Cancerean curled in a ball in the corner.

Lifting Koray to his feet, Jal recognized that the assassins had temporarily wounded his ankle.

“Please pardon me.” Jal grinned warmly.

“For what?” Koray queried.

“This.” Jal lifted Koray onto his shoulder with some difficulty, but was still able to jog with such a weight.

Returning to the Prince’s bedroom, Jal was relieved to find the rope still tied to the balcony wall, which signaled that Renata had not left him, yet. Koray looked down the dizzying height of the tower wall and turned pale. The Sagittarian placed a broad hand on his shoulder softly.

“I can see you are scared, but we have no more time. I will go first, and I promise — as long as you don’t look down — you will not fall.”

Jal’s purple irises matched Koray’s sea green ones, and the young chef felt a warm sense of relief kindle in his chest. Terrified as he was, Koray was going to try.

Jal swung over the balcony with one hand on the rope and slid down a respectable distance, leaving Koray enough room to climb cautiously down. Koray’s descent over the side was a slow one. One leg over the side, he rested uncomfortably on his belly for a moment — gathering his courage — and then slid over the balcony, gripping the rope with clamshell-white knuckles.

“Hurry up!” An urgent voice hissed from below. “We have only so long until the dead guards are discovered and the alarm is raised.”

Koray felt his palms get sweaty against the rough rope.

“Ignore her and take your time. If anyone arrives, I’ll take care of them.” Jal said with smooth bravado.

“Th-thanks.” Koray swallowed hard and focused on moving slowly down the rope.

When their feet finally fell on the the castle courtyard grass, more angry whispers reproached them from the bushes.

“Who the Hades is that? Why is…”

“I believe it was you who said we were in a hurry, so let’s discuss this in the air.” Jal cut her off mid-sentence and pulled Koray into the foliage.

“This was not the deal!” Renata continued. “We don’t even know if this rug will hold four people!”

“It better,” Jal said with tired smile. “Or we’ll be fighting our way out of Regulus, the famously fortified capital of Leo.”

The flying carpet could, in fact, fit four people on it. Though Jal could feel some decreased maneuverability when steering with the tassels, it could definitely still fly. Pulling up on the corner fringe, the flying carpet silently lifted into the stormy sky just as thunder sounded in the sky.

“Perfect.” Renata said bitterly as fat raindrops began to soak them all.

Leonara began to stir slightly from her unconscious state and found Koray clinging to her for dear life.

“Ugghhh… My head. What… Koray, I demand you let me go at once…” The prince said groggily, before Renata landed another swift blow to the back of her neck.

“Oh Mother Ocean! Is she okay?” Koray cried out.

“She is fine, merely asleep.” Renata responded tersely. “Stay still and quiet until we’re over the plains.”

Koray assumed an “Or else…” was implied.

The Cancerean tried not to think about being kidnapped by assassins, then seemingly kidnapped again by an even stranger pair, alongside the Royal Prince of Leo and ended up feeling incredibly homesick. Tears welled in eyes and he began to cry — as quietly as he could to avoid the harsh woman’s wrath. He felt the warmth of the Sagittarian’s hand on his shoulder and looked up.

“Crawl up here a moment, and see how beautiful the capital is at night.” The Sagittarian smiled.

The carpet had just reached cloud cover and had risen above the rain. Koray found it amazing and a bit unnerving to watch the storm pass beneath him, and only feel the chill of altitude on his clammy skin. Koray hesitated a moment, unwilling to let go of a softly snoring Leonara, but then he noticed for the first time that the harsh Scorpio woman was actually gripping the back of Leonara’s armor quite firmly. She was not going to let the Prince fall off. This comforted Koray a bit, and he shuffled toward the front on his belly.

They were high enough to see the entirety of the Leoneon Capital, Regulus. The massive circular walls, both the outer and the inner, made the city seem like a giant glowing target from their aerial view with the massive, golden castle in the center. To Koray, it looked as though a golden glow came from the castle and trickled down the city. The electric lights were replaced by torch light, moving vehicles replaced by rickshaws as his eye traveled to the edges of Regulus, the poorer districts. Koray watched until the buildings faded to dots in the distance and the castle looked like intricate, delicate toy on the horizon. His eyelids heavy and his body weary with exhaustion, Koray fell asleep against Jal’s side

“Are we safe at this altitude?” Renata had waited a couple of hours, until she was sure both of their captives were napping, to ask.

“From the guards? Absolutely.” Jal said flippantly, without looking behind him.

“You know what I mean,” She began. “Staying aloft in a thunderstorm is about the most dangerous place you can be. You’re a veritable lightning rod, and…”

“Hush,” Jal said softly, and turned his indigo irises to face her onyx ones. A serious look crossed over his face as he brought his index finger to his full lips. “You’ll wake the children.”

Renata desperately tried to find something on her person she could throw at him that she would not miss, when a bolt of lightning leaped from cloud to cloud. Not even a hundred paces from them when the bolt had flashed, the following thunder was a deafening din. Koray and Leonara both woke with a start.

“Good God!” Leonara shouted. “Where am I?”

But no one had time to answer that question, as the next lightning bolt nearly struck Jal — leaving a wide, smoldering hole in their airborne rug. The thunder seemed to let out a malicious roar of victory, as the carpet began to pitch and plummet.

“Everyone, grab an edge!” Jal shouted. “I can land this if we keep it flat!”

Renata grasped the corner opposite Jal, while Leonara and Koray struggled to clutch their own corners. Initially, there seemed to be no difference in the rate at which the rug was falling. It was as if the four of them had been plucked out of a living room, placed on a completely ordinary carpet and left to drop.

They fell out of the clouds and into the rain again as the pull of gravity seemed to slow. The carpet wasn’t quite flying as much as gliding, rather quickly, toward the ground.

“Pull up!” Renata shouted. “Pull up! Pull up! Pull …”

The floating foursome hit the earth hard and tumbled to a stop. Coughing up rainwater and turf, the muddy group looked at one another breathlessly.

“Is… Is everyone okay?” Koray asked, trying to get his body to stop shaking and his lungs to fill completely with air.

Leonara only grumbled from the ground.

“Shut up.” Renata retorted, slowly standing up.

“I’m fine,” Jal groaned, also making an effort to get to his feet. The Sagittarian looked around, but the rain poured down too hard for him to get a good bearing on their surroundings.

“Well, we can pitch camp here as well as anywhere.” Jal said optimistically. “Care to help?”

“Someone should keep an eye on these two,” She thumbed toward their captives, still sitting and lying in the mud.

“Really? You think so?” Jal said with some humor in his tone. “Cancerean, what is your name?”

In another occasion, Koray may have been startled to have the focus of two kidnappers upon him; however, he was too exhausted to be frightened any more this evening.

“Koray. Koray Pescatore, who are you two?” Even as the words left his lips, he realized he had hundreds more questions for his captors. “What happened? Why did those assassins attack the castle? Why have you abducted us? Where are we…”

“All in good time, my young friend!” Jal said with a completely natural cheeriness. “But first things first, my name is Jal Aygir and this beautiful woman is Renata…”

“Just Renata.” She interrupted and glared at them both. “And no sudden movements.”

“I assure you, answers will be provided. In this moment, we must focus on taking care of the essentials.” Jal smiled kindly at Koray. “Do you know how to set up a tent?”

“Um. No…”

“How to start a fire in the rain?”

“No, definitely not.” Suddenly, Koray noticed how very cold he was in the chilly evening downpour.

“Well then, it’s time to learn! Scuttle over, little crab, and see what you’ve been missing.”

Koray smiled, despite being cold, tired and covered in mud and limped over to join Jal.

Leonara — who was fully awake and irritated that no one had bothered to introduce themselves to her — pouted on her back in the mud, too tired to contemplate all that had happened within the last hours. Despite her lack of movement, Renata walked towards her and sat within arm’s reach of the royal captive.

“I’ll tell you this now, Prince Leonara of Leo,” Renata said in a quiet, dark voice filled with shadow and hidden menace. “My job is to keep you alive from outside threats. If for one moment I believe you plan to turn on me, there will not be enough of you left to commit to a funeral pyre. Do as I say, and we will deliver you safe and sound.”

“A Prince of Leo bows to no one, assassin.” Leonara barked haughtily .

“Ex-assassin, really…” Jal remarked casually while pounding poles into the ground.

“Whom you owe your life to,” Renata finished. “In case you’ve forgotten the assassins who stormed your castle.”

“For all I know, you’re working with them,” Leonara growled.

“Um… I highly doubt it, your majesty.” Koray piped up from where Jal was setting up the tent.

“Jal saved my life. If he had chosen to simply take you instead,” The Cancerean shuddered. “The assassins may have already killed me, once they realized I wasn’t the person they were looking for.”

Leonara’s mouth opened as if to say something, but then shut sharply. A troubled look settled on her face, as she seemed to contemplate Koray’s words.

The three of them sat in silence for a while, with Jal hammering and humming in the ever-falling rain.

“Alright, I think that will do it!” Jal announced.

A large tent stood a little taller than Jal’s height, it was yellow with blue trim and paisley patterns on it.

“How are we supposed to keep a low profile in this miniature circus tent?” Renata asked cooly, but approached it nevertheless.

“Sometimes it’s best to hide in the open,” Jal winked, but his face showed how tired he was. “Would you do the honors?”

Renata nodded without protest, and then closed her eyes to concentrate. She put her hands together, then spread them to face her palms to the tent and slowly made her way over every inch of it. At first it seemed like the rain was falling up from the tent’s surface to Koray. But as he looked closer, he saw that the water was actually being drained from the tent and then sealing the fabric to let no additional water in.

“Amazing!” Koray whispered.

“It is common practice in Cancer to seal the ships, is it not? I thought the men were in charge of the ships.” Jal asked.

“Um.. well, you’re half-right.” Koray responded. “Many marinas do use magic to waterproof the ships, but. for the most part, men do not possess magical skill. Also, while men spend more time at sea, they are certainly not ‘in charge’ of them. The matriarch of the family or business takes control of that.”

“So you have no magical skill?” Renata asked, her eyes seemed to pierce Koray and see through him.

“I wouldn’t say that…” Koray mumbled.

“Ah, you’re the exception to the rule? How lucky for you!” Jal said cheerfully.

“Well, um… I was never given any formal training in how to use my magic,” Koray’s voice began to trail off. “As most of the schools are only for girls.”

“Oh? How interesting….”

“How backwards!” Leonara, who felt herself being ignored again, interjected. “What use could magical schooling be? And with water, no less. Typical impracticality of a woman-ruled society.”

“Would your kingdom not be a ‘woman-ruled’ society, once you took the throne?” Jal countered with no hints of malice.

“Technically,” The prince scoffed. “But I have been trained in the ways of a king, to not let my emotions rule my mind! As a descendant of Leo, I have blood of a God and the training of a warrior, so clearly I could not be lumped under the simple label of a female leader.”

“Oh, and how clear that training is…” Renata drawled and rolled her eyes. She motioned to the tent. “It is finished.”

“Excellent, out of my way!” Leonara barged past the others to take a seat inside the surprisingly large tent.

The muddy royal sat on a bedroll. She noted how surprisingly warm and decorated the tent was — and wondered how they could have decorated the space so quickly with pillows, blankets, candles and even a small fire pit in the center.

Renata and Koray entered shortly after her, except they were completely clean and dry.

“Wait, how did you…” Leonara began.

“I see you are surprised by the inside of the tent,” Renata addressed Koray’s wide-eyed smile.

“What kind of magic is this? It seems so real…” Koray ventured to pick up a purple, tassled pillow and — finding it to be of substance — hugged it close to his chest.

“It is Aquarian technology,” Renata stated. “Compact, useable items condensed into capsules. Their durability, however, is questionable. We may only be able to shrink and re-use these pillows three times before the disintegrate into their basest elements.”

“Truly amazing!” Koray grinned, and then his looked softened a bit. “And thank you, Renata, for drying me off. I appreciate it.”

The Cancerean laid down on the bedroll, then looked toward the closed flaps of the tent.

“Is Jal coming in soon? The storm sounds as if it’s getting worse…” Thunder crashed outside, as if to agree.

“No.” Renata said shortly. “He’s taken the first watch. Scorpio assassins are decidedly tenacious…”

“You would know.” Leonara interrupted rudely.

“Yes. I would,” Renata glared. “And they would most likely investigate any travelers within a day’s journey of the capital if they suspected anyone of harboring their mark. It is best to remain highly aware of our surroundings for a while.”

But Koray was already asleep and Leonara seemed fast behind him as she was hardly able to keep her eyes open, much less argue.

“I suppose we’ll discuss it in the morning,” Renata said, only slightly miffed, and dimmed the candles for the night.