Miracle at the Oracles’ Conclave
∞ Imperial Year 20431∞
—Excerpted from the account of Principal Scribe Ibn Karoujah, serving historian of the Empire of Veloressia, by appointment of His Divine Grace, the Adi Niappan of the six moons
The Oracles’ Conclave this year is a solemn affair. Although there are no victories to rejoice or conquests to celebrate, there are no losses to mourn either. And yet there is no peace.
There can be none. The Adi Niappan of our mighty Veloressian Empire, the supreme ruler chosen by the Gods, is 102 and dying, yet to this day, his successor has not been named.
For five years, the Imperial Council that holds power when the Adi Niappan is absent or undermined has been the de-facto rulers of the Veloressian Empire. The Great Search—a holy quest to identify the Adi Niappan’s successor—began five years ago. But time has flown by, and there is no indication of who the next Adi Niappan would be. It is an irregularity like no other. Never before has the search taken longer than two years.
Our world is whole while the Adi Niappan is living, but if he passes and his successor is not identified within a year of his passing, the Empire could crumble. The lengthy list of legal stipulations with the forty-nine protectorates that make up the Empire also includes one for secession. In the absence of an Adi Niappan, the protectorates are bestowed the right to break away from the Empire.
It is no secret that the principal protectorates—those most wealthy and powerful—are no longer keen to be part of the Veloressian Empire. The only thread holding the Empire together is the Adi Niappan’s presence and the Oath of Allegiance the protectorates have sworn to him. Without the Adi Niappan, that thread will be broken. And what will the Empire be without its principal protectorates and the coinage that flows from them?
Then there is also the matter of the renegade protectorates, ones that regardless of their lack of economic stature or self-sufficiency, clash openly with the Empire. The loudest among them is New Haphniss, clamoring against the Veloressian theocracy for decades. While the Haphnissians’ protests have not amounted to much, their angst is spreading its dogged roots through the Empire, much like a chronic disease. Simply said, the situation is tenuous.
In the Veloressian Empire, the task of finding the Adi Niappan belongs to the Veloressian prophecy system, specifically its ten leading oracle clusters. But to their woe, in five years not one of the ten has produced a vision leading to the new Adi Niappan. Every year after the commencement of the Great Search, the Oracles’ Conclave has met and departed with nothing but despair and shame in their hearts. This year seems to be no different.
It is the last hour of the Conclave, and 4,023 oracles from all major and minor oracle clusters are crammed in the expansive Imperial Chamber of Prophecies, their brows wrinkled as they discuss the onerous situation. Sighs rise in the air, swirling around the magnificent statuettes and extravagantly carved columns that ring the center of the chamber, reflecting off the ornately painted ceiling, and falling back heavily on the assembly again. Gentle murmurs grow into whispers and then into a restless humming. The assembly buzzes nonstop, in a tiring, headache-inducing drone until the curtains part over center stage.
A Grand Niappan—a chief aide to the Adi Niappan—walks on stage, his black robe made resplendent with a wide red sash. He is followed by Sister Paramount Magetha, the leader of the Order of Divine Sight, a prominent cluster among the leading ten. Magetha rustles across the high podium, the edges of her silvery-white robe trailing behind her. Her cherubic face is flecked by the light and dark of the sacred fire burning below, and even in the unreliable light, she can clearly be seen smiling.
It is odd that she looks so joyful in such grim circumstances, but not one of the 4,023 souls gathered at the conclave frowns, for Sister Paramount Magetha is not someone to be doubted. If she is smiling even when her elite coterie of oracles has not been able to spell out the name of the next Adi Niappan, then there has to be another reason for her smile, a reason the lesser people cannot fathom.
For over twenty thousand years, the Order of Divine Sight has prophesied without a glitch. They are the only oracle cluster of the Veloressian prophecy system with such a record. They have earned a reputation—a status, an honor—that is unshakable.
When Magetha walks across center stage, an expected hush falls over the crowd. The Grand Niappan who ushered her in bows before scurrying away, leaving the elderly woman alone in the spotlight. Her voice, pleasing to hear yet forceful, rings clear even at the farthest rims of the assembly.
“On behalf of the Order of Divine Sight, I am honored to bring you most joyful news. We have humbly received the Eternity prophecy all Veloressians have been praying for. We now know where we shall find the next Holy One.”
She pauses, and as one moment stretches into another and then one more, the conclave stays silent. It is astounding how thousands of people can hold their breath at the same time. Then, one oracle rises to his feet, as is custom when an Eternity prophecy is announced. Then another rises, followed by one more, and another, the rustle of cloth echoing off the high dome of the Oracles’ Conclave.
Magetha speaks when the entire assembly has stood. “His Holiness, the next Adi Niappan, will be found in New Haphniss, the blessed world with three stars.”
A collective gasp rises through the chamber, defying long-practiced etiquette and forgetting decorum. Never before has an Adi Niappan been chosen from a pariah protectorate, one that has all but rejected the Veloressian theocracy.
Unfazed, Magetha smiles and bows at the assembly. Silvery gown swishing across the dark-grained ancient wood floor, she disappears, specter-like, behind the blood-red curtains framing the podium.
Organized chaos is the most powerful political weapon of modern society.
–Adi Niappan of the three-star system
Oracle Prime IXV Leon Courtee
Oracle Prime IXV Leon Courtee hurried along the cobblestone pathway leading toward the Prophecy Archives. His feet, small and not used to walking, screamed for some rest, but Leon did not have time for such luxury. He had to get away from the shadow that was following him.
He cast a quick glance backward, seeing nothing but the jubilant crowd thronging the plaza. Since Sister Paramount Magetha’s announcement of the Eternity prophecy at the Oracles’ Conclave the previous night, Ajokkan, the Empire’s expansive capital city, had erupted into festivities. On the other hand, Leon’s life had spiraled toward a hell he had not known existed.
His problem was simple: he alone knew Sister Paramount Magetha had lied about the Eternity prophecy. He knew because he was the one who had received the true vision.
“Shouldn’t have said a word last night,” Leon muttered to himself, thinking of how the trouble had started with Magetha’s announcement of the Eternity prophecy at the Oracles’ Conclave.
Shocked by Magetha’s proclamation, Leon had decided to see her at the foundation right after the conclave ended. He had known confronting Magetha would be considered impudence. At the Order of Divine Sight or the ODS, the sisterhood—not blessed with prescient minds themselves—was a tier above the oracles. They recruited and herded their flock of visionaries with the benevolence of egg farmers tending their fowl.
Since being drafted into the ODS as an oracle when he was sixteen, Leon had learned one important fact: defying the sisterhood was a serious step and a career-risking one. But Leon had not let the hesitation spread its root inside him. Wrapping his thickest Pamisha around himself as a shield against the chilly air, Leon had set across the wide grounds that lay between his quarters and the Sister Paramount’s chambers. In part due to the post-prophecy frenzy at the ODS, Leon had to wait long for his chance at an audience with Magetha, but he was determined.
“You misread my vision,” he had alleged, breathing in deep on seeing Magetha’s eyes harden. “I never saw a boy in New Haphniss. I never saw a boy at all.”
“Maybe it’s not your vision I spoke about.” Sister Magetha had strolled away, turning her back on him.
“That cannot be,” Leon had protested. “I know none of our other oracles saw anything. I checked. I was the only one who—”
Magetha had walked over to touch his forehead with three fingers and a tingle had spread throughout his body, calming his thoughts, relaxing his muscles as she gently tapped his forehead.
“Leon,” she had said, “I know what I’m doing. Tonight at the conclave I announced what the Gods demanded of me. Your task, as my oracle prime, is to help me complete this work of the Gods. That I want you to remember. Everything else you need to forget. Will you do that?”
Just like a puppet on a string, Leon had nodded. He had retired last night, content and at peace.
That should have been it for a regular person, but Leon Courtee was no ordinary man. He was an oracle, a seer, a clairvoyant. Mind control did not hold him down for long. As soon as he opened his eyes today, he had remembered everything. It had not taken him long to realize that Magetha was trying to keep him quiet, which disturbed any little peace he had left.
Agitated, Leon had decided to find someone to confide in. He did not know for sure if anyone at the foundation could be trusted, but his hopes had quickly settled on one person. If there was a chance that someone would stand up for the truth, it had to be Sister Subordinate Xihin, the seemingly-frail, dark-eyed recent recruit of the Order. Not too long ago she had supported Leon, much to the chagrin of Sister Paramount Magetha. The issue—oracles occasionally straying from the guidelines of quarantine while working on a vision—had not been too serious but not entirely trivial either. Magetha had waved it away, but Xihin had fought for stringent enforcement until Magetha ceded. Xihin, Leon knew, could be one with advice on his current quandary.
Once again Leon had made the trip across the courtyard, this time with the suns beating down on him. Leon had trudged along, forcing his feet forward, chanting a prayer hymn over and over so he’d not utter a profanity. Remember your station, Leon reminded himself, but the frustration kept bubbling up. Did the ODS need to be so large? Or designed like a penitentiary? He knew that was the way things were at every cluster. But did it have to be?
Each oracle cluster, particularly the leading ten in the Empire, owned foundations—expansive compounds where their oracles lived. Replete with every material need, they were cloistered havens for the oracles. The seers were not held captive, but they were urged to stay away from the world outside the foundation, from the distractions and noises that could mar their tender sensibilities.
The foundation buildings of the Order of Divine Sight were arranged in the form of a ringed fortress. The outermost administrative ring was separated by a sizable band of open ground from the next ring which housed the living quarters of the sisterhood. Next, separated by another strip of open land, were the accommodations for the oracles. At the very center were the vision chambers where the oracles held their daily foresight sessions and attempted a glimpse into the distant.
It had taken Leon a good part of an hour to reach Xihin’s office, but as fate would have it, Xihin had already left for her routine morning walk across the city. Leon had paced her empty office for a bit, finally deciding to leave a note. Scribbling hastily on a small piece of parchment, he had placed it far inside one of her bureau drawers.
That would have been a good time to abandon his quest for truth and pursue his usual routine, but did he? No.
Almost right away, he had thought of checking the Prophecy Archives—the central place where every oracle’s visions were recorded and stored. All of the oracle clusters had a direct feed, a superhighway of information that linked their vision chambers to the storage clocks of the archives. Every prophecy made by the oracles was routed there instantly, and after the head of the cluster validated it, stored for perpetuity. The archives had to have information of his newest vision, Leon had deduced. He needed to find it and extract a copy before he could challenge Magetha again.
With that plan in mind, Leon had headed out of the foundation. Now as Leon neared the Archives, the dual suns were approaching their peak, their intense white rays scorching. Leon’s spine tingled when he was a hundred paces away from the Archive’s vaulted entrance. His feet slowed and his shoulders tightened as he felt a gaze burn into his back.
Someone was watching, Leon was sure.
Leon stopped, his heart thrashing wildly inside his chest. Did Magetha know he had slipped out of the foundation? Had she sent someone after him? He had defied her order to forget about the incorrect prophecy. She would be furious, perhaps banish him from the ODS.
Leon looked up at the towering façade of the Prophecy Archives and hesitated. There was still time, he could still turn away and forget about it.
Leon’s fist curled at the thought of surrender. No, he could not simply forget. This was not just an everyday prophecy of the upcoming year’s weather pattern but the holiest of them all—the Eternity prophecy. He could not knowingly forsake its sanctity. Banishment from the ODS he could endure, but not living with the knowledge that the Eternity prophecy was read wrongly and he had done nothing to correct it.
He glanced around once more, hoping to detect the person trailing him but found nothing out of the ordinary. All he saw was the commonplace crowd of townsfolk going about their usual business, a few excited sightseers. He shook off the unsettling feeling and hurried inside. He did not have much time.
The Prophecy Archives was a public building, with a bleak, gray stone façade and a cavernous inside that stretched out like a maze around the central portico. Clerks, all old, crusty women, sat like hawks at the entryway. They questioned every visitor, often for a long time before they admitted anyone inside. For a public building, the Prophecy Archives and its contents were very closely guarded.
Leon did not have any trouble with the clerks, who knew him well enough to let him pass into the inner galleries. All Leon needed was a search portal where he could look for his vision. Once in the portals room, he located a station—a gray bowl-shaped machine with a dusty, oblong screen, resting on stubby legs and ponderous feet. The station was in the back, tucked away from the three other occupied stations, but not too far in the shadows. Casting a quick, wary look around, Leon entered the information he was seeking.
The portal turned into a rotating orb of light, as was customary when a search was being conducted, and then beeped.
“Invalid entry,” the screen informed coldly.
Leon stiffened. Was he entering the correct details? He paused and pulled his hands away from the screen. Closing his eyes, Leon recalled the day he had had the vision. It came to him quickly.
Visions were precious. They did not happen often. Day after day, oracles sat through foresight sessions seeking a path to view unseen times. Most days, they stared blankly at the curved glass walls of the vision chamber. Some days though, they were blessed with a sight. No oracle, not any Leon knew of anyway, forgot any of their visions. Since discovering his gift when he was ten, Leon had seen quite a few. And he still remembered each of them clearly.
While every vision was important, Leon’s last was remarkable, a blessing from the God of Sight himself. He had seen the next Adi Niappan. He was finally what every oracle dreamed of being—a true prophet. And now . . .
He had to find the vision. Frowning, Leon entered the details again—his name, the date of the vision, the place.
The orb spun on the screen for a bit and then once again, “Invalid entry” flashed brightly.
“No, no,” Leon muttered, shaking his head as he entered the details the third time, checking and rechecking his entry before starting the search.
Nothing changed. The same words, “Invalid entry,” mocked him one more time.
It was gone. The record of his vision, the proof of his exemplary work, had been removed. Tiredness creeped up his bones, and his body felt heavy, as if he had not slept in days.
Leon could hardly think any more. By the Imperial laws of Data Integrity, deletion of public records or modifying them was a crime punishable by a life term in prison. And deleting a record from the Prophecy Archives? That was unthinkable. Yet, someone had done just that. Who could have done such a thing? Was it Sister Paramount Magetha? But why would she do it?
Up until now, Leon had thought Magetha had made a mistake and was simply reluctant to admit it. But now it seemed like a willful falsehood, only he did not know why she’d lie.
Leon fell back and rested his head against the arched back of the chair. Drained of the strength to even keep his eyes open, he let his spent lids droop and let his thoughts float free.
The vision had taken a long time to come to him. It was strange that not one oracle had been able to catch a glimpse of the next Adi Niappan for such a long time. Strange it had seemed to him, until he saw what he saw.
He saw a girl.
They had been looking for a boy, just like they were expected to. The Adi Niappans were always found as a boy aged three or four, with numerous siblings, and always a child from a tightly knit happy family.
This one was an aberration on all counts. First, it was a doe-eyed, curly-haired, dusky-skinned girl, about four years of age. Then, she had just one brother. Third, there was no happy family around her. Her father’s pale, steely eyes glinted with wickedness, while the mother and children cowered in fear around him. They lived on an underdeveloped, dusty and barren planet; Leon had not seen it clearly enough to figure out which. Leon caught a hint of nervousness in her; it was odd how a child so young looked over her shoulder ever so often, as if she were always on the lookout for some unknown danger. The halo of divinity danced over her head. It cast a soft glow on her eyes, giving her a piteous look that came upon a cornered animal staring at its ruin. It was a heartbreaking picture of the most sought-after person in the Empire.
That was all he had seen.
Leon sat up, and cradling his head in his palms, thought furiously. Why hadn’t Magetha announced his vision at the conclave? Was it because someone else had seen a conflicting vision?
No, he pushed the idea away. He was Oracle Prime, the lead prescient at the Order of Divine Sight. Leon knew the obligations handed to the lesser oracles, and he kept track of their outcomes. He would know if anyone within the Order had seen anything about the Adi Niappan.
Leon decided to check the archives again. Magetha would not have announced the Eternity prophecy—the most fundamental and awaited vision in the Empire—without making sure the archives had a matching entry. Leon wondered who had seen the version Magetha announced at the conclave, and what they had seen.
The portal accepted his entry, and after the requisite spinning of the orb, it spat out a page-long description of the newest Eternity prophecy. Predictably, it matched what Magetha had said at the conclave. Leon’s eyes did not dwell on the central matter; he rushed to the end and on the name of the person cited as the receiver of the vision.
Oracle Junior Ainer Ahloi.
“Impossible,” Leon whispered, his fists curling. Leon Courtee was Oracle Prime for a reason—he knew everything that was to be known about prescience. He also knew each man and woman who worked under him, even the junior oracles. Ainer was not ready for a vision of this scale; he would not be ready for a few more years.
This was a sham. This was planted so Magetha could make her claim. But why?
Leon’s mind squirmed, a million thoughts tangled together in an unholy mess. He needed to speak to someone who could help investigate this, someone who had the reach, the brains, and the brawn.
His ex-neighbor’s son Mako was in the Special Ops unit of the Imperial Intelligence Bureau. He also offered casual investigative services to private parties, especially when tempted with the right price or a suitable challenge. Besides, Mako had known him for too long to refuse him help.
A voice—his years of wisdom and practical sense speaking in unison—in Leon’s head told him to go back to the foundation. It was getting late for his foresight session, and Leon Courtee was never late. People would be suspicious if he went missing for too long.
But he had to locate Mako or at least pass him a message.
Sister Paramount Magetha won’t be happy if she finds out, the voice cautioned.
Leon did not care. He needed to find out why his vision was missing. He had to reach Mako before getting back to the foundation.
Closing the portal off, Leon hurried out of the building and shuffled toward the northeast end of the plaza. Leon knew where Mako lived but he did not head that way. Instead he strode in the opposite direction toward an alehouse that Mako often visited. Not only was the place far closer than Mako’s house, but also since Leon often met Mako at the alehouse he could leave a note there without attracting too much attention.
He picked the shortest route across, one that cut through the abandoned tannery rows and would save him time. Cherishing the quietness, Leon walked determinedly along the alleyway. Within a few steps, he reached the tannery rows. There were houses all around, their fractured walls gaping at him, not a soul in sight.
He had left the humdrum of the plaza far behind when he felt the gaze again. This time Leon did not look around; even the idea of looking terrified him for some reason. He rushed a little more, forcing his feet to step quicker.
As soon as Leon turned around the tree carcass near the old tannery, he saw the man. He was quickly drawing near along the cross street, the cybernetic implants on his head glinting menacingly in the sunlight when the oversized hood of his brown overalls slipped off. His face, as much as Leon could see from the distance, was uneven, like lumpy bread baked by a child. Parts of it—the left side mostly—seemed missing. Never had Leon seen anything so grotesque. He wanted to scream, but his throat was frozen along with his heart.
The man kept approaching as Leon stared open-mouthed. There was an odd, casual stealth about the man, as if he was an apparition who had floated out of the netherworld. He was about twenty steps away when Leon sensed malice in the air. An unholy fear washed over him, leaving every hair on his body tingling. Evil, its eyes dark and penetrating, stared coldly at his soul. Leon did not know why, but he knew he could not let the man catch up to him. For a moment, Leon forgot to breathe or run or walk. Then, as if he was waking up from a dream, Leon tottered backward and hurried back toward the plaza.
Tip, tap. Tip, tap. The footsteps, inching closer, were light and unnatural in their rhythmic perfection. They made Leon think of death and . . . darkness. His trembling feet rushed to cover the never-ending distance to the plaza.
Tip, tap. Tip, tap.
Running is of no use, Leon thought, wiping the sweat off his forehead. He could not give up either. This had to be Magetha’s conspiracy. She was trying to stop him, obliterate his vision and obliterate him. He could not let that happen, he would not let her win. There had to be a way to fight back. There had to be something.
The hum of the crowd reached his ears. The plaza was getting closer. There was a chance, he thought, that he could get away. Surrounded by a crowd, he would be safe.
But what if he could not get away? He had to take precautions. But how? The only way was transference—pushing the memory of his vision telepathically to someone. But even if he broadcast a thought, receiving it was not something anyone could do. Commoners or ordinary people did not recognize a thought stream like an oracle could, so here, far from the ODS, there was little chance of it succeeding.
Still, Leon prepared. Focusing his thoughts on the transference protocol, Leon broke into an unstable run. If he could find someone . . . anyone, he would push the message.
He knew he’d possibly fail. He had never transferred to a commoner, no one had in hundreds of years. Transference to ordinary citizens had long been prohibited by Imperial law, but Leon cared little about the law right now. He would have to try.
But first he had to find someone.
Tinkling footsteps dashed toward him, closer and closer . . . His left side burned, a pulled muscle, as he hobbled forward, faster, his feet feeling foreign under him, his breathing ragged . . .
Leon looked around frantically for someone, anyone who could receive his thoughts. He saw no one. Only row upon row of dilapidated buildings boarded up and long abandoned.
Footsteps rushed close . . . closer still . . . A steel arm wrapped around his throat. Leon gasped for air, clawing frantically to loosen the chokehold. His feet thrashed against the pavement in a futile attempt to break free.A long sabre held in beat-up metal fingers slashed across Leon’s abdomen before he could turn around and look at the man’s face.
A white-hot pain erupted, shooting upward through Leon’s body as he fell forward. He clutched at his belly and warm wetness spilled over his hands.
Blood. And a mass of dimply softness . . . his insides.
The stones paving the road rushed up to meet him as he gasped for breath.
Specks of black dotted his sight, and he saw the girl again, the halo of divinity still swirling above her head. Her curly mane was pulled away from her face and tied into a knot at the back. Her hands gripped her stomach as if trying to suppress a pain. “Eos,” someone called, and she turned to look. Even in the pale light that barely lit her face, Leon saw the dark mark . . . an old scar shaped like a crescent moon . . . across her forehead.
He had to tell someone this . . . the name . . . the mark . . . someone . . . anyone . . .
Something sharp and cold pushed through his ribs and into his heart, retreating as rapidly as it had entered his body. Pain exploded from his back and spread through his body in a hot, piercing wave. Warmth flooded his throat and gurgled into his mouth.
Just before the world started to fade to black, Oracle Prime IXV Leon Courtee saw the strangest pair of eyes—irises so pale that you would not think they existed—staring at him through the cracks of a boarded-up window. Leon’s waning senses stumbled in the murkiness that was falling swiftly across his mind, desperate to initiate the transference procedure.
The unending city lights of Ajokkan, stretching like a jewel-encrusted blanket all the way to horizon, almost blinded Noell as the airship circled around for landing. She looked away from the window of the cargo transporter, shielding her eyes from the glare. It was the biggest and brightest city she had ever seen, and the sight made her heart flutter nervously.
“We will be landing soon. Prepare for touchdown.” A mechanical voice spread throughout the cramped hold of the airship, and about twenty people who had been huddled in small groups in-between the piles of boxes, sacks, and packages, stirred uneasily.
Noell pulled her half-asleep daughter close, and clutching her infant son tighter to her bosom, she shuffled nearer to the two large wooden crates that provided some sort of stability. They also cast much-needed shadows over their faces and obscured the little their veils could not cover.
She had never been anywhere on her own, let alone to a place as far away as this, or to a city as big as this. If someone had told her a month ago that she would someday visit Ajokkan, the capital of the Empire of the Twenty-Three Stars, the seat of the mighty Veloressians, she would have laughed it away. Now it sprawled below her, as far as her eyes could see, in an unbelievable spectacle. Noell gulped a few times, but the dryness in her throat refused to go away.
In Milokan, where she grew up, Noell had never walked beyond the mud walls that circled their home. She was not allowed to; she was too precious. What if she slipped and fell and got a scar on her precious face?
Noell was born beautiful. With rare amber eyes and even rarer auburn hair that curled naturally, she would have been treasured in any household. To her needy family, being the only daughter after four sons, she was a god-sent gift. Her parents taught her to be timid and docile, just the way men on Milokan wanted their women. For sixteen years, her parents raised her in every luxury they could afford so she could fetch them the largest dowry offering at her debut.
Noell did not disappoint. Her dowry was enough to cover the farmland her parents had always coveted and leave her brothers enough to look for wives themselves.
On the night of her wedding, her mother had said, “You’re a lucky girl, Noell.” Her mother had kissed her forehead as she wrapped her in the long folds of Milokanese bridal attire. The fabric was heavy and itchy, and Noell had gasped for air as more adornments were piled on her. “The richest man in the Robben-Xiu system has chosen you as his bride. I’m so proud of you.”
Noell still remembered her mother’s suffocating embrace, her weather-beaten weary face crinkled into a happy smile. Noell wanted to be happy, but she was not so sure about her luck. Luca Daksson, the man who had won her hand, was almost twenty years older than she was. He was the owner of the largest legume farm in the Robben-Xiu system and rich enough to hire a private airship to the wedding and back. She had to admit he was good-looking—dark skinned, pale-eyed, and a confident smile that made her sixteen-year-old heart flutter a little. Yet there was something odd about him, something out of place. And then, his home was on 4217, the third planet in the Robben-Xiu system, a dry, dusty hellhole. It was two-day’s journey from her own 4210, a distance Noell found unimaginable.
“Mama.” Her daughter’s soft voice made Noell turn away from the hypnotic spread of lights outside and from the memories crowding her head. “Are we close?”
“Yes, Eos. We are.”
“Mama,” the tiny voice chided. “You can’t call me by my real name, remember?”
Noell ran a caressing palm over her daughter’s veiled head and sighed. She spoke like a child much older than her four years. No, she spoke almost like a grown-up. So wise, so calm . . . not a trace of childishness left in her . . . all because of that monster of a father. She had seen as much violence in four years that people do not see in their entire lifetimes. Eos had learned to survive hell, but she paid a hefty price—her innocence. Noell clutched her child tighter. Her eyes lingered on the crescent-shaped scar on Eos’s forehead and a tight lump grew bigger in her throat.
“Yes,” Noell replied, stifling a sigh and blinking to drive away the stinging tears. “You’re Aidah now.”
Little hands circled Noell’s waist and a head pressed against her side comfortingly. “You worry too much, Mama. Don’t worry. We will be fine. I know.”
Noell pulled her daughter closer and smiled, taking care to keep her ice-cold palms a secret so it would not scare the child. The children had endured plenty—sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night with just a bagful of food and barely enough money to secure a passage to Ajokkan, that too on a freighter ship that treated its human passengers no different from its cargo—in the last two days. It had been harrowing enough.
Noell’s sight blurred as the cargo transporter sunk lower, her heart beating faster and louder. At least they had made it to Ajokkan safely. She knew her odds frighteningly well, and it was not good. It would not be long before Luca realized she was in Ajokkan and then he would come looking. All she could hope to do was make good use of this head start.
The Waterside Alehouse was a misshapen stone structure near a small lake. The area around it could be called bleak, if not desolate. An abandoned tannery stood next to it, casting dark, dilapidated shadows around. The alehouse was barely a few hundred paces away from the big, lively plaza around the Prophecy Archives, yet it felt so far removed from the humdrum, like it was a world away.
Noell stared at the tavern’s huge stone pillars and old hardwood door. The door was closed, but she could hear sounds of merrymaking wafting out from inside. It was unexpected that a shop in these ruined quarters would be open at all, yet this one bustled with activity. A large crowd was gathered inside, their outlines illuminated in the stained-glass windows.
Perfect place for us, Noell thought, as she stared at the lonely locale. Clutching her children tightly, she took a cautious step forward, and then another, until she had found shelter in the shadows of the alehouse.