New place, new face. Time for the final misfits to arrive!
VHEN LIFTED HIS pack onto his shoulders and stared around the cabin for the last time. He’d spent three months in this cramped little room, staring at the walls, questioning his choices, angry, resentful, regretful and determined all in turn. Now he was apprehensive and, perhaps, a little bit scared.
A sharp knock gave him a moment’s warning before the door opened. “Ready, Vhen?”
He lifted his chin and looked his sister in the eye. “Ready.”
Her mouth pulled into a grim line as she stepped back and led the way along the corridor, up two ladders and out onto the top deck of the good ship Windblade. His sister paused to speak to the captain, exchanged handshakes, then she was nudging Vhen ahead of her down the gangplank onto the busy docklands below.
“I don’t like doing this, you know,” she said, falling into step alongside him as they wove between the crowds. “I wouldn’t, if I had a choice.”
Vhen nodded, staring down at his boots, and only partly to avoid the muck puddles and questionable piles of refuse. He’d heard those words a lot of late. No one liked what they were doing; no one felt they had any choice. Vhen hadn’t been given a choice either; he could only stand by his beliefs.
“Mother will come around, I’m certain, you just have to give her time.”
Their mother would not come around, Vhen was convinced, because when Nevana said time, what she really meant was that Vhen would change his mind. He wouldn’t, he couldn’t. He was his mother’s son that way. She had her convictions, he had his.
“You’ve put her in a terrible position, Vhen, you know that. She couldn’t be soft on you. It would have looked awful.”
He nodded, because he knew all of this, had gone over it a thousand times in his own head during the voyage. He knew why his mother had done this, he understood, but he didn’t have to like it. Or like the part his sister had played, or the way his father had stepped aside and let it happen. No one had stood up for Vhen. He’d known he would cause waves when it all came to light, but he hadn’t known they’d be enough to see him shipwrecked on a distant shore.
“I mean honestly, Vhen, she’s a Sun priest, what did you expect her to do?”
The tone was familiar, the words tinged with both anger and exasperation. Nevana didn’t understand, his father didn’t understand, his mother never would. They were so happy and safe, secure in their beliefs. They didn’t question anything; they just accepted it.
Except for him. None of them could accept him and his beliefs.
Or lack thereof.
And therein lay the problem.
His mother was a Sun Priest, one of the most highly respected faith leaders in all of Sutherall and her youngest son was an atheist who wrote seditious pamphlets and distributed them to the general populace inviting them to question the way their society was structured, with the priests right at the top.
It could never have ended well.
Still, Vhen had had enough faith in his faithless heart to hope… But love, like gods, was a weak concept predicated on certain conditions being met. Vhen had never come close to the threshold of his mother’s approval, so love had never been a factor in saving him.
He’d denied everything that secured her much-valued place in society and she had denied him. He should probably have been relieved that his sister had found out first and arranged to send him away before his mother knew anything, but he wasn’t. He was hurt, and angry at himself for being so.
“You’ll write, won’t you?” Nevana asked, stopping just outside the city gates and taking his shoulders in her hands.
She was looking short these days, now that his second growth-spurt was well underway. He topped her by more than a head now, despite her having a good ten years on him. She looked so much like their father, small and soft, with rounded edges and warm eyes. Her pursed lips were more used to smiling, but she had their mother’s shrewdness as she looked him over one last time.
“She’ll come around,” she promised, hauling him into a hug.
Vhen let it happen, feeling no inclination to raise his arms and hug her back. He was too much like their mother: tall, skinny, all sharp angles and abrasive edges. He felt too brittle for affection, as if one hint of it might shatter him to pieces. So he let his sister hug him and told himself he felt nothing.
Affection, like love and gods, was for the deluded masses. A comfort blanket to believe in to hold back life’s bleak despair. Sweet to believe in for a time, but it always ended in disappointment.
He stepped away and ignored the sheen in his sister’s eyes. Turning to face the city gates, he took a deep breath and prepared to walk into his new life.
“Have you a message for them?” Nevana’s voice stopped him.
He looked at her, saw her hope that he would repent, that he would apologise, that even now he would knuckle under and go crawling back, begging for their mother to forgive him and accept him into the Sun God’s light.
“No.” Vhen turned his back on his sister, his family and his old life, and walked through the gates towards something better.
* * *
RHIDDYL WAS NERVOUS. She’d been planning this moment for the last three years, had spent the last three months hiding in Sanctuary with the Cyclone and the free miryhls, and now here she was, running through the streets of Zvenera, almost too late to apply.
Crowds of people jostled around her, pressing against her back and bumping her elbows. It made her skin creep; she had been secluded for too long. She’d forgotten how numerous humans were, how crowded the Overworld could be. She could feel her control slipping.
Not yet, not yet, she begged her inner self, forcing her limbs to stay narrow and long, her skin to remain smooth, her body to be compact. She couldn’t afford to change here. She was already pushing her luck as it was.
A gap opened up as the road reached the main hub of the city, a broad plaza where street markets unfolded every other day and sellers came to barter their wares. Rhiddyl had studied it all the day before, flying over with the Cyclone. They’d worked it all out, set their plan, and now Rhiddyl was late and in danger of ruining it all. She ran, desperate to cross the south-west spoke before the sun reached the mountains and the office closed for Midwinter. Her shadow yawned long behind her. She had to hurry.
* * *
VHEN ENTERED ZVENERA’S gates and stopped, staring. He’d heard about the wonder of the great Storm Peak capital, but like many of the things he’d been told throughout his life, he’d thought it an exaggeration, a tale made tall in the retelling.
He was wrong. If anything the tales about Zvenera did not do the place justice.
The harbour gate entered high on the east side of the city, cutting through the natural wall of the extinct volcano inside which the capital had been built. Stretching away to either side of him, a jagged circle of sheer stone formed impressive defences, while a broad fall of steps dropped away before him. The crowd pouring in through the gates carried him forwards, but Vhen spared little thought for his feet as he stared at the wonder ahead.
They called it the Wheel of the Peaks, the Storm’s Hub, and now he saw why. Seven great bridges arched from the craggy edges of the crater’s rim, leaping a vast crevasse that spread almost the whole way around the volcano, landing on the black stone plateau that had formed in the centre. Here the life of the Peaks flourished, seven broad, straight streets cutting through the buildings and houses to unite in a grand central market space.
It really did look like a wheel.
For the first time in longer than Vhen cared to think, his anger, resentment, regret, guilt and fear faded beneath an up-welling of anticipation. From here he could go anywhere in the world. The wheel didn’t just turn for the Storm Peaks, it turned the entire Overworld. Here he could be anyone, believe anything.
Here he could be free.
An old, almost forgotten bounce in his step, Vhen placed his foot on the arching bridge and crossed the spoke into the heart of the city.
* * *
HOW COULD SHE be late? How could she? Rhiddyl berated herself as she ran. What kind of fool slept late on a day like this? What kind of fool allowed herself to grow so overexcited that she couldn’t sleep the night before, only to snore through both dawn and noon and deep into the afternoon. The small sun was bright in her eyes as Rhiddyl burst out of the central market, taking the less crowded road that led to the south-west spoke.
The lack of foot traffic should have been a boon, but Rhiddyl felt only dismay. It shouldn’t have been so quiet, not unless she’d missed her chance. If the office was shut…
The Cyclone would welcome her back, of course, and she was young enough yet that a year wasn’t too long to wait. But oh, Rhiddyl had waited too long to have to wait again.
The spoke arched up before her, broad and distressingly empty. Rhiddyl sprinted up the bridge.
She couldn’t be late. She couldn’t. She wouldn’t let —
She slammed into something solid and reeled backwards. A voice cried out, too late. Her back struck the bridge rail, the wood snapped and Rhiddyl tumbled backwards into the abyss.
~ Next Chapter ~
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