Image courtesy of Shahin Khalaji at Unsplash.

I couldn’t sleep.

Of course I couldn’t sleep.

I sat at my desk, Cha-Cha snoring happily in my lap, and stared out the window. Security lights illuminated the backyard, the gazebo, the ironwood perimeter fence, and the decimated oak tree. I wondered how long it would take to heal. There was no sign of the ravens, but they were probably as soundly asleep as Cha-Cha.

Taz and Kanady had long since slipped away to their respective bedrooms. Taz had hugged me first. Kanady, on the other hand, had made a trip to the library and dragged two armloads of books upstairs.

Meritha hadn’t asked if she could spend the night. She had just kicked off her shoes, found a spare blanket, and curled up on the couch.

I caught a slow slide of movement through the window, and leaned forward cautiously. A Vigilant, plain clothes from the looks of it, circling the inside of the fence.

There was a knock at my bedroom door. It was soft, but I still jumped, squeezing Cha-Cha too tight. She woke up, squirmed and glared at me annoyance, then jumped to the floor.

I turned in the chair. “Come in.”

Sedgewick pushed the door open, not bothering to move aside as Cha-Cha sauntered between his legs, her tail upright. He closed the door behind her and took a few steps into my room. Then he stopped and just stood there, hands clasped behind his back.

Silence.

I shifted uncomfortably. “Are you afraid of me now?”

“No.”

“Good, because —”

“I’m afraid for you. I was worried before. Now I’m terrified.”

I gaped at him. Grabbing the back of the chair, I pushed myself to my feet. “This is stupid. I am not a Divine Summoning. I’m not some hero specially created to perform some epic feat. I would know if I were.”

“You would?” 

“Yes,” I snapped, my voice rising. 

“Someone out there does not share your belief. Someone out there believes that you are a Divine Summoning, and they are trying to kill you.”

I gripped the chair tighter. “That doesn’t make any sense. My power — my skill — is no secret. It’s been known for years. Why are they only trying to kill me now?

“Perhaps there was no reason to do so until now.”

“Meaning?”

Sedgwick opened his mouth to answer, only to be interrupted by an outraged yelp from downstairs. He tensed, turning towards the door, his hand reaching for his sidearm.

Footsteps on the stairs. Very annoyed footsteps. And loud muttering.

A staccato knock and Meritha shoved open my bedroom door. She held out Cha-Cha by the scruff of her neck.

“This thing just sat on my face!”

The cat looked amused. 

I sighed and crossed the room to scoop up Cha-Cha. “She could smell the ice cream on your breath.”

Meritha scowled. “Are you implying that I sleep with my mouth open?”

“Yes,” Sedgewick said. “You also snore. I think the attacks were separate.”

“Everyone snores, and anyone who says otherwise is lying. That is my conclusion, as well.”

“Uh.” I tried to put the sentences in order. “You think the attacks were separate, too?”

Meritha leaned against the doorframe. “Completely different methods of attack, and they were months apart. Bomb last spring, timer with random shrapnel, shoved into a big flower pot; lazy and crude, but effective. Now, creepy dead bodies twice in a day — very late last night and then this morning — created through an elaborate rite that takes lots of prep work and skill. I think the bus bombing on the North Road earlier today was the real baddies taking notes and improving on the previous attempt. Something to keep you where they wanted you until the second set of creepy dead bodies could hit — with some really nice bombs strapped to their chests.”

I bit the inside of my lip. So much for being a great and powerful necromancer. In the wake of everything that had happened over the last couple of day, I had forgotten about the busload of murdered tourists, pilgrims, and merchants.

Murdered to get to me.

“Really nice bombs?” I whispered.

Meritha shrugged. “The baddies have mad skills. And varied skills. Someone to kidnap their victims, someone to conduct the Wheel of Unbecoming, someone to build their bombs, probably another person to get the bomb on the bus, and someone else to boost those motorcycles — which, by the way, we traced to a stolen shipment from Syris two weeks ago. Half dozen people easy. Dedicated, detail-oriented, and patient.” She held up a hand. “Oh. And whoever was that last motorcycle today who thinks they look badass in black leather and who gave you the stink eye. That may or may not be the person who conducted the Unbecoming rite.” Meritha shrugged again. “Not a hundred percent that different parties were responsible, of course, but I’m pretty good at this deductive thing. Willow’s not too bad at it, either.”

“I may faint at such praise.”

I drew a deep breath and buried my face in Cha-Cha’s fur. She purred, rubbing the back of her head against my shoulder.

Meritha straightened and pointed a finger at me. “So, you, sleep. Tomorrow we see what kind of information we can finagle out of the city’s highest and most powerful zoemancer. Should be fun. Maybe there will be balloons.”

“And then?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Depends on what we find out.” Meritha shot a look over my shoulder at Sedgewick. “Though I have a pretty good idea what at least one step in the plan will be.”

I swallowed hard, remembering what Vigilant Odressa had said during the Summoning, and what Meritha had said in the kitchen. I found my arms tightening around Cha-Cha again. 

“We’re going to Petral.”

I lowered myself onto my bed.

“There will not be balloons for that.” Meritha stretched her back. “I’ll reach out to some of the Rangers who patrol that area. Maybe get us an escort.” She tilted her head at Sedgewick. “You got any friends in low places?”

“I know a few people who may possess useful information. Unfortunately, they may be unwilling to share it.”

I slid around on the bed and frowned at him. “Like who?”

Sedgewick hesitated. His jaw worked. He finally answered, “Refugees from Petral.” At my questioning look, he continued. “Among the first generation who fled the fall of Petral were a few Necromantic Vigilants. Our Commandery reached out to them. They refused to join our Order, but we … kept in touch. Tried to keep the lines of communication open.” He hesitated again. “You recall the refugees last winter who froze to death?”

“Their higher souls were stuck. Grieta drove me out there to help them. It took all day.” I swallowed. “There were — a lot.”

“We only knew about it because our contacts among the refugees told us.”

“Oh.”

“After the bombing at the courthouse, we reached out to them again. The assumption was that extremists had targeted you to prevent you from testifying.”

“I still think that explanation makes the most sense,” Meritha said.

“There was never any proof,” I reminded her.

She just shrugged.

“They did not appreciate our questions, and have rebuffed any attempt to reopen communications since. I can try, but I can’t promise that they will help us.”

“I’ll go with you.”

“No,” he said.

“Yes,” I said back, lifting my chin. “They welcomed me last winter when I came to help their loved ones. They were hungry, tired, cold, not — murderous. Tomorrow. After we speak with Grandfather Arcis, we’ll go to the camp. If they won’t talk to you, maybe they’ll talk to me.”  

“Hhhm, yeah, I’d love to stand here with some popcorn and watch you two argue about this, but I’m exhausted and your couch is moderately comfortable.” Meritha waggled a finger at Cha-Cha. “Keep that thing off my face.”

She backed away and closed the door.

I waited until I couldn’t hear her footsteps anymore.

“Yes.”

Sedgewick crossed his arms, almost glaring. “You want to walk into the middle of a refugee camp filled with people who probably want to kill you and ask which of them actually are trying to kill you.”

“No.” I scooted Cha-Cha off my lap and stood, crossing my arms, as well. “I want to walk into a camp filled with cold, hungry, and tired people who are only cold, hungry, and tired because of the deeply immoral, deeply impious actions of my forebearers. I want to beg their forgiveness, beg them to share anything they know, and then beg them to help me stop whoever is murdering innocents before they cause any more damage and commit an even greater offense against the Creators than Egleia already did eighty years ago.”

I stopped. My cheeks were wet.

Sedgewick’s jaw ticked.

Something dark flickered in his eyes: fear and hunger, anger.

Then his arms dropped. He crossed the room in three quick strides, wrapped his hands around my hips, and kissed me.

It was slow and comforting at first, his lips gliding across mine. He was whispering my name, almost chanting. 

He was so warm.

And then the kiss changed. Faster, harder, with an edge of desperation. His hands tightened, his fingers digging through my clothes and into my skin. My arms curled over his shoulders, my fingers threading through his hair. I pressed closer, pushing up on my tiptoes.

Sedgewick. I was kissing Sedgewick. Annoying, stoic, over-protective Sedgewick.

Who loved me.

Did I love him?

Sedgewick groaned. He pulled his mouth away and pressed his lips to my neck.

“Alys,” he whispered. He lifted a hand to cup the back of my head. “I swore an oath as a Vigilant to serve and protect my necromancer, to lay down my life if necessary.” He lifted his head, brushing his cheek against mine. 

I was shaking, my fingers curled into his shoulders.

He pulled back far enough that I could see his eyes. Still hungry and angry, but there was determination there, as well, and resignation and a fierce love that made my lungs catch and my chest tight.

“I’ll die for you if I must, if that’s necessary. But I don’t want to.” His hand slid around so that his thumb brushed my ear. “I want to live a very long time, serving as your Vigilant, watching over you, protecting you.” His chest rose and fell in a ragged breath. “And if that is all I can be, your Vigilant, I will be content with that: to serve you for the rest of my life. Do you understand?”

I nodded dumbly.

He watched me for another long moment. Then he brushed a finger across my lips, turned, and left, closing the door quietly behind him.   

***

Meritha had ordered me to sleep. It didn’t come easily. Reciting the Roots in Earth Chant of the Eastern Temple of Thueta a dozen times finally seemed to do the trick. I opened my eyes when my alarm went off at 7:00 to find Cha-Cha passed out across my chest and the horizon a murky grey-yellow.

My eyes were gritty, my throat dry, and my stomach in knots.

Sedgewick had kissed me. 

I laid there, staring at the ceiling, remembering his words, his taste, the heat of his body.

And just yesterday I had sworn to myself that I would be brave, that I would push aside my fears.

Look at me now, having trouble even getting out of bed.  

There was a loud bang in the hallway, followed by several smaller thumps and thuds.

I lurched upright in bed, dislodging Cha-Cha and wrenching my back. Hissing, I carefully maneuvered off the mattress. I checked the window first. No running, no shouting, no gunshots or flaming sword. 

I shuffled towards the door. Cha-Cha followed, tail tip flicking, making feed me noises.

Pressing my ear to the door, I held my breath.

Taz’ voice drifted through the wood. “Did you sleep at all last night?”

A muffled “research.” Kanady’s voice.

Cha-Cha scratched at the door.

Sighing in a combination of relief and exasperation, I pulled it open. Cha-Cha scampered out, and Taz and Kanady looked up.

A creaking tower of books stood to one side, with more books in a disorganized pile spread across the floor.

“Sorry,” they said.

“My alarm woke me up. So, did you sleep last night?” I asked. “Find anything useful?”

Kanady looked faintly embarrassed. “Yes. Well, maybe. I lost track of time. If your alarm went off, I guess that means we should be leaving soon.” They waved a book. Essays on the First Tongue by Beran Klyde. “I’ll tell you what I might have found on the way.”

Taz wrinkled her nose. “So what does one wear to meet the High Holy Order Zoemancer who might be involved in a far-reaching conspiracy to cover up a war crime of divine proportions?”

“Guns,” Meritha answered as she trotted up the stairs. “But only after a shower. Dibs.” She shoved open the door to the bathroom and hastily locked it behind her.

Taz sighed. “She’s not going to leave us any hot water, is she?” 

[End Part Eight. Part Nine will appear in the June 2021 issue of ev0ke.]

[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]

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