Why is Rayen looking at me as if I’ve wronged her?
Callan kept his chin up, refusing to allow Rayen’s brooding silence to bother him. She kept pace with his fast stride toward the Governing chamber. Anger burrowed deep in her gaze during the brief moments she flicked a look his way.
He had not put her in this position.
She was a prisoner. Even if V’ru cleared her from being TecKnati, Rayen was still in league with his enemy otherwise why had she helped the scout earlier and called Tony a friend?
Callan refused to believe he’d seen hurt in her face when he’d ordered her to meet with V’ru. Never allow an enemy to get close. Something he should have been thinking about when he’d almost kissed her in the woods.
Did she wield some power over him?
No. Even he could not accuse her of that. He’d know if anyone used power against him. The only times he’d witnessed her tapping an energy force had been to kill croggles, twice, and to help save that little boy.
She confused him.
Maybe that was her game, to confuse him and Mathias while her friend, Tony, the without-question TecKnati, had aided the scout in fleeing.
But that left Rayen and Gabby to fend for themselves, which would fit the selfish mentality of a TecKnati like Tony. So why would Rayen do anything to help him? Or continue to defend him?
Was she thinking the same thing right now? That her so-called friend had abandoned her and the Hy’bridt?
Betrayal cut. Callan knew that first hand.
Why should I care? He had a duty to his people and these three strangers were creating problems he didn’t have time to deal with today, not with the stupid celebration for Mathias’s turning eighteen before the moon set in less than an hour. He was no longer in a hurry to enforce a judgment against Rayen’s friend.
A TecKnati, he reminded himself.
But Rayen would not look at him the way she had in the forest if he sent Tony to his death. Why did that matter?
Callan lifted his hand to his neck and rubbed the tight muscles, cursing himself for whatever had gotten under his skin. He never vacillated on decisions and couldn’t now.
Rayen broke into his jumbled thoughts when she leaned close to say, “Callan?”
Her rich voice rushed over his skin with the edgy feel of a vibration. A confused part of his brain was cheered over her finally speaking to him and in a non-angry tone. But he must remember he still dealt with an enemy.
He intended to answer with a sharp, “Yes,” but the single word came out gentle.
“Will they bring Tony back alive?”
Of course. She only wanted to know about the TecKnati. “Maybe.”
“What kind of answer is that?” she demanded, her brisk tone irritating him.
Maybe a little irritation was just what he needed to shut down any stupid reactions he had when she got near him. “That’s the best answer I can give. If he doesn’t harm one of our own, then Mathias will very likely bring him back alive. If not, Mathias knows his first duty is to protect MystiKs, especially the next generation.”
“Tony won’t harm a child.”
Callan stopped and faced her, his voice whipcord hard. “You told me you have no knowledge of anything before today when you opened your eyes in a strange desert, but you speak of this Tony as if you’ve known him your whole life. How can you make any claim as to his character or be so sure he’s not TecKnati? Especially after he left you and Gabby to face the result of his escape.”
“I may not have known him long, but I know Tony would never harm a child and I don’t believe he’d leave us by choice. The scout might have taken him as a hostage.”
He didn’t want to admire Rayen’s sense of loyalty to someone she claimed she hardly knew. In her position, he’d be furious with Tony. No TecKnati deserved this type of unquestioned support or the earlier sacrifice Rayen had made to step in, taking Tony’s place as the fourth person to check the transender lines.
And how had Tony thanked her?
By disappearing without a word.
How could someone as selfless as Rayen appeared befriend a soulless TecKnati?
And why was Callan so furious on her behalf?
Because her commitment to Tony and constant arguing on his behalf chipped away at Callan’s conviction that Tony was TecKnati.
Made him doubt himself.
That was the quickest way to wake the bear inside him and bring out the raging warrior, because warriors could not afford to doubt their decisions.
Standing firm on his opinion, he crossed his arms and gave his answer in a voice meant to quell an enemy. “Believe what you will. But the question is, what will you do when your friend is brought back by Mathias, proving Tony did not return on his own?”
Pain eased into Rayen’s gaze over the long moment she spent thinking before quietly admitting, “I don’t know.”
Callan should enjoy his moment of triumph, but the disappointment riding alongside Rayen’s doubt made him feel like he’d been cruel to a pupple.
Why did she cause him to question everything he did, every word he spoke...and stir up the urge to protect her from being harmed?
With her standing so close, he battled to keep his hands to himself.
Rayen might handle herself as a warrior, but she was feminine in a strong way he found attractive. And sexy. He couldn’t keep his eyes off the exposed skin below what was left of her shirt. That sliver of cloth barely covered shapely breasts.
His thoughts skidded to a halt. Wrong direction. Think enemy.
Rayen’s gaze had wandered past Callan.
He turned to find out what held her interest.
Three girls ranging from thirteen to fifteen created decorations for Mathias’s celebration. They were watching him and Rayen with guarded glances. He knew nothing about decorating for a party and felt sure Mathias had raced off to hunt Tony just to dump a “leader” duty on Callan. He told Rayen, “Stay here. I’ll be right back.”
Striding over to the girls without a look back at Rayen, Callan searched for the right thing to say. “Are you almost done?”
All three girls turned looks of panic on him. Guess that was not the right leader thing to say.
Rayen appeared at his side, ignoring his glare at blatantly disregarding his order for her to stay put. She smiled at the girls. “Those are beautiful.”
As if someone had released the air in a taut balloon, the girls all let out a breath at the same time and became active again.
Phoebe, the one in charge, lifted a pango orb made of the brightly-colored feathers from little pik-pik birds and answered, “Oh, thank you.” She peeked up at Callan. “We have only to hang these along the vines and cover the floor with tullee petals.”
When his gaze landed on the pile of hōzuki lantern flowers with their orange coloring and transparent skins, he followed Rayen’s example and smiled. “Those are pretty.”
All three girls turned adoring eyes up at him as if some mythical god had spoken to them.
Rayen angled her head at him in a way that made him want to say, “What?” The universal word every male spouted when faced with silent female accusation.
Rayen asked the girls, “What do you call those?”
Swapping shy looks between them, Phoebe once again played spokesperson. “Our version of a Physalis alkekengi wreath, which is meant for many years of happiness and health. The real ones are made of blown glass...at home.”
No one could have missed the misery in Phoebe’s mention of home.
Once again, Callan had no idea what to say that would lessen the hurt in Phoebe’s voice. Mathias could always find the right words at a time like this, but he was not here. And he shouldn’t have stuck me with this.
Wait until the next training. Mathias would pay for putting Callan in this position.
Rayen scrunched her eyebrows together in thought, glanced from Callan’s face to the girls, trying to figure out something. When she spoke to the three girls, her voice carried a sincerity that reached out and touched anyone close. “But these decorations are more delicate than anyone could craft from glass. When you go home, you may become famous for creating these and be sought after to teach others this art.”
“Art? You really think so?” Phoebe asked, glancing up through silver bangs at Rayen.
“Of course. Change is good.” Callan caught on quickly and added, “Every generation should leave its own mark.”
All three girls’ faces lit with enthusiasm, then Rayen said, “Artists capture moments in history for others to enjoy over a lifetime.”
The girls started chattering amongst themselves about different ways to customize the Physalis alkekengi. Phoebe paused and looked up with brighter eyes at Rayen first then Callan. “Thank you.”
The other two chimed in their appreciation right behind her then went back to discussing their new possibilities. Callan experienced something he hadn’t felt in a long while. Making someone happy warmed his heart. A moment ago those three had only been doing their duty, but now they had a calling as artists, even though none of them came from the Creativity House.
What would Rayen do next?
He had to get to the bottom of just who she was before this got any more complicated. He stepped away, ordering her, “Follow me and do not stray.”
“I wasn’t the one who took this detour,” she reminded him.
He clamped his jaws shut, unwilling to say another word that would give her an opening to cloud his judgment further.
A wise plan that would have worked if Rayen had complied by not asking, “What’re you celebrating?”
Ignoring her might send the message that she made him uncomfortable. A warrior never appeared weak or unsure. “Mathias will reach the age of maturity prior to moonset. In my world, reaching one’s eighteenth BIRG Day marks the end of childhood.”
“What is a BIRG Day?”
“It’s the annual celebration of one’s birth. We have a BIRG Day each year and a BIRG Con once every five years where those who have reached eighteen since the last BIRG Con are honored before representatives from all the Houses.”
“So the BIRG Con is a big deal?”
He shrugged. “One may have a BIRG Day every year, but a BIRG Con only once in a lifetime.”
“Must be hard for you and Mathias to keep everyone’s spirits up with no idea when you’re going home.”
Her unexpected compassion chipped at his hard shell and struck close to his heart. She saw past the decorations and celebrating to the plight of the MystiKs in the Sphere. She’d understood more than he’d given her credit for. She’d understood the need to care about tomorrow as much as today.
Mathias would tell Callan to welcome any opportunity to improve the morale of the village, even if the encouragement came from a stranger.
He had taught Callan that part of his duty while in the Sphere was to smile in the face of disaster and on his worst days. Just like a warrior, leaders did not show weakness.
For that reason, Callan would smile during the celebration of Mathias’s BIRG Day in spite of it being a huge nuisance and waste of time. In truth, Callan didn’t really mind because Mathias deserved a special celebration after having spent the last year in here instead of a final adolescent year of carefree time most in his position enjoyed.
This would not be the extravagant production Mathias would receive at home, or at this year’s BIRG Con, the symbolic–and often too realistic–end of childhood. As a Gild Level, Mathias would be first in line to the next Governing House leader. Mathias deserved to lead the Governing House and Callan would do everything in his power to make sure his friend got that chance.
Mathias was built of integrity, but he also understood when he had to be sly, like turning TecKnati lies into a morale booster by leaving tonight. Knowing Mathias, he would not lounge around and use the time to rest. He’d show up tomorrow evening with something for dinner. And truth be told, he would probably enjoy a night alone without sixty kids looking to him for guidance.
But Callan couldn’t watch his friend’s back if Mathias was outside the village and Callan was stuck inside here babysitting. TeK Scouts had told all the MystiKs they would only be here until they were eighteen. Only someone who drank shroom juice would believe that, but Mathias had been adamant about using that story to keep hope alive in the hearts of the children. Callan and Mathias had created a plan to make it appear as though Mathias did leave this evening.
A plan that Etoi or Zilya could not know about since Etoi had no leash on her tongue and Callan didn’t trust Zilya.
A night of solitude might be the best gift of all for Mathias.
Callan entered the common area where a thirteen-year-old boy supervised the food being prepared for the feast. He used the word “feast” loosely. They’d been anticipating preparing fresh roasted croggle meat for this evening’s celebration, but now they were reduced to tullee pods and dried banban seeds.
Rayen’s gaze swept over everyone, her face closed off as she kept her thoughts to herself while matching Callan step for step.
Crossing the open area to reach the Governing chamber, Callan returned polite smiles to all the excited faces turning toward him...all but one.
Neelah rarely had a smile for anyone these days, every glare blaming the Warrior House and Governing House for pulling her away from her betrothed. Callan might feel some sympathy for the girl if she’d direct her anger at the TecKnati, not other MystiKs who suffered alongside her. Neelah was not the first, nor probably the last to leave a betrothed behind.
Entering the Governing Chamber, Callan crossed the room to one of the carved chairs and sat down, weary from using so much energy to heal.
He waited to see if Rayen would take the other one, but she’d paused just inside the door, thumbs hooked in the top of her blue pants.
Did she have to draw his attention to her narrow waist like that? “Have a seat.”
So be it. Best way to put himself back on firm footing with her was by not treating her as a guest. That might also help toss a wet rag on this strange awareness of her that kept his thoughts in turmoil.
Rayen took one look around and moved further inside the doorway then crossed her arms. “Where’s V’ru and what makes him so special?”
Callan wanted to slap himself. He’d forgotten to tell V’ru to meet him. Holding up his hand in a sign for Rayen to wait, he sent a brief telepathic call to V’ru, asking him to join Callan to interrogate a prisoner.
Finally, he answered, “He’s a G’ortian, a rare descendant of the Records House. He’s on the way.”
“Did you just call him telepathically?”
Even motionless, Rayen emitted a silent power. “What’s a G’ortian?”
“Someone of unusual gifts and powers that develop very young.” That’s how he saw V’ru, but not himself. When he looked in the mirror he saw a waste of power that should have gone to someone else, someone like his twin brother who would have used it to lead. G’ortian abilities were too unknown, too unpredictable to be used by a warrior.
Rayen asked, “Are you going to give Tony a real chance to tell his side of what happened today?”
That again? “What is it you think he can explain about escaping that’s not obvious? At least, to everyone else but you.”
“I told you. Maybe he had no choice and was taken as a hostage.” Her words were given in an even tone, but there was nothing easygoing about the snap of her dark eyes.
“If your friend was taken hostage then the decision will be simple.”
Rayen’s body relaxed, the combative edge leaving her gaze and tone. “Good. I was worried you’d just find him guilty no matter what.”
He hated to destroy Rayen’s moment of relief, but she had misunderstood him. “If your friend was taken hostage, Mathias won’t have to make any decision, because the TecKnati do not take hostages. If the scout does not recognize your friend, he will assume Tony is a TecKnati traitor who has gained unauthorized access to the Sphere and kill him.”
Rayen looked away, her face schooled to reveal nothing when she turned to him again. “Having Tony end up dead would suit you just fine, wouldn’t it?”
She made him sound heartless. He hadn’t ordered her friend’s death. Yet. What would she do in his place? “I only told you the truth.”
“Then here’s the truth, too. I hope Tony did manage to escape on his own, because I don’t want him to die. He’s not a traitor or anything else, and hasn’t harmed any of you.”
“He is a–”
“TecKnati. I get it. You hate TecKnati and you think Tony is one therefore you’re justified in hating him.”
When she put it that way, the correlation sounded completely irrational, but he’d already figured out that she had a way with words. A skill he had never developed.
With no better argument, he waved a hand at her. “I don’t play word games.”
She moved so quickly he couldn’t get up before she towered over him, an avenging angel with her hands gripping each corner of the chair back at his shoulders, locking him into place. Yes, he could shove her across the room. She’d sworn to not use her powers against him, but he was bigger, and physically, he was stronger, and he had kinetic powers she didn’t know about yet, though that gift was still evolving. The bottom line was that he didn’t want to harm her.
On the other hand, maybe she’d like a little sparring match. Talking to her might be easier if he let her work off some of that bottled-up fury.
She leaned her head down. “Word games? I’m not playing games with someone’s life. You can’t just declare someone an enemy without reason. As a leader, you’re expected to be fair and consider all possibilities.”
What had been fair about killing MystiK children?
“Mathias is the leader. I’m his sword arm.” He angled his head back, trying not to be distracted by the sizzle of her emotions roiling through the air. “Regardless, do not think to tell me my duty. Every person here is my responsibility. And every one here has been harmed by TecKnatis. Do not dare to tell me how to handle the travesties committed by our enemy. Crimes they must be punished for.”
“I’d understand your punishing a crime committed here, but you blame Tony for crimes he hasn’t committed. That’s wrong!”
He lifted a hand to cup her face and stopped himself, folding all his fingers until only his index finger stood. “Here’s what’s wrong–TecKnati using their advanced technology to commit heinous crimes with no chance of being caught.”
“So anyone you merely suspect of being TecKnati is held accountable?” Rayen’s low voice bubbled with fierce determination. “How’s that right? Or fair?”
“You want to talk fair? They murdered Jornn, my twin brother and sent his body home for my mother to see his bowels hanging out and a triangle hole where his heart had once been.” Callan grabbed the sides of his chair in death grips and pushed up into her face. “They tortured him, brutalizing every inch of his body except his face. TecKnati wanted that to be my mother’s last vision of her oldest son.”
Rayen stared open mouthed then dropped her head, her shoulders easing, her voice lowered. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean . . .”
He hadn’t meant to talk about Jornn. He’d kept that pain locked behind a strong wall, hidden from the world. Grief welled up in his throat until he couldn’t breathe.
His amazing, gifted brother, the one expected to take over the Warrior House. The one who possessed all the attributes of a leader his people would follow.
Not me. But Callan would do whatever it took to protect these children and find a way home. Too many had died. No more.
When he shook off the suffocating grief, he found Rayen squatting in front of him.
For the past year, he’d worked himself twice as hard as any other warrior he trained for the simple reason that it kept him from thinking. And feeling.
This strange girl had done this to him. Made him feel.
He lifted a calloused thumb to stroke the soft skin on her cheek.
The sound of her voice soothed the beast that wanted out to rampage and kill his enemies. She whispered, “I understand your pain. I’d probably feel the same way if I lost a brother or sister that way.” She lifted her hand and touched his arm. “I’m not judging you. I only wanted you to think twice before condemning an innocent person.”
Callan lifted his other hand to her face, holding it there in indecision. He wanted to touch his lips to hers, to feel the warmth radiating from her.
“Are you at a disadvantage, Callan?” a young voice called from the doorway.
Rayen stood quickly and backed away.
Callan took a breath, shaking off the strange feeling that had come over him and called out, “No, I’m ready to meet.” He stood, angling his head toward the door and said, “This is V’ru of the Records House. He’ll tell me who you are.”