Pilot Tide, Chapter 4

Previously on Pen and Fire: [Chapter 1], [Chapter 2] and [Chapter 3]

Chapter 4

Daily Proverb: “The flight, the fury, the ecstasy—give me the stars.”

– The Micanopy Mirror, Galactic Date 2730.98

“Here’s the simulator room!”

Deeta disappeared through the sliding doors and the rest of the squadron followed. Ceet drew in his breath as they stepped inside.

The walls were covered with plasma screens displaying data dashboards and artificial landscapes. A few holographic images of three-dimensional ships hovered in the air, rotating slowly on an axis. Ceet blinked a few times to adjust to the dim lighting. As his gaze swept the room, he noticed a single guard stationed in the corner, silently watching them.

He jerked. “Oh, are we allowed in here?”

The guard nodded. “You’re welcome to try the simulator.” He motioned to a series of closed hatches against the wall.

“Wow,” Veeta breathed. “Must be state-of-the-art equipment.”

“Doesn’t anyone monitor the controls in here?” Heet asked.

“The technology is self-sustaining,” the guard replied. “The computers have sufficient intelligence to perform maintenance without assistance.”

Heet flicked a gaze at Ardee. “Yeah, their kind killed a lot of careers.”

“Androids are forcing organic life forms to constantly improve themselves and aspire to higher intellectual activities.” Ardee swiveled his head to look from Heet to the guard. “We cannot be responsible for those who fall behind.”

“Alright, let’s not accidentally offend anyone here,” Ceet muttered under his breath, coming up behind the android.

“What about intentionally?” Ardee also lowered his volume dial.

Ceet ignored him, his gaze drifting to the hatch doors. Atta, Veeta, Deeta and Neeta were also eyeing them from the other side of the room. Excitement swelled up inside him. They had received a guided tour of The Nebula the day after arriving, and formal activities filled the next. As much as he enjoyed the pampered lifestyle aboard the station, he was itching for the inside of a ship, his hand around a control yoke.

“Let’s do this.”

The rest of the team whooped as the hatch doors slid open with a loud hiss, and they each climbed inside one.

Ceet found himself in a small cockpit that hummed to life. The black screen in front lit up with a selection of simulator runs, and a control panel glowed beneath it. He fastened himself into the pilot seat, pushing it as far forward as he could. The height and reach was clearly designed for humans, but it was flexible enough that he could manage. Running a critical eye over the available switches, he flipped the communication link on.

“Testing. Dwarf One here, all systems ready.”

“Dwarf Two on board. I’m your wing.” Neeta’s voice came back, high and clear.

“Dwarf Three,” Atta called. “Which simulator run are we doing?”

As the rest of the squadron chimed in, Ceet scanned the available options. Volcano run, asteroid belt, combat mission… The last one caught his eye. They had never flown into a live-fire situation. He was privately grateful for that—he felt a significant burden for his squadron’s safety, and that was without being in the crosshairs of enemy guns. What better time to try a combat mission than when they were flying inside a simulation?

“Let’s run number three,” he said.

The panel in front of him went dark before it returned with a new view. The black overlay rolled away to both sides like a curtain, and he found himself staring at a giant blue planet, a shimmering shield wrapped around the globe. A combat space station hung above the shield on the far side of the world, and his side computer indicated his companions were formed up behind him in their ships.

A few gasps cut across the comm unit, and Ceet guessed they were all seeing the same thing. The screen dimmed for a moment, and text scrolled across:

The water planet Galileo is in the grip of a cruel imperial regime. You are among the brave forces Micanopy is sending to break through the planet’s defenses so ground military can capture the capitol. The space station above Galileo controls the planetary shield, and enemy fighters are also docked there. Your mission is to dismantle the shield with as little loss of life as possible.

The text faded, and the planetary view returned.

“How inspiring,” Deeta laughed.

“What’s the strategy, Captain?” Neeta asked.

Ceet looked over the mission field. The space station seemed quiet, but he figured the enemy fighters would activate and release once they began to move.

“We need to take down the station. Dwarf Two, you and I get as close as we can. Three, Four, Five, and Six, you are our diversions. Engage the other side. Shoot them down if you can, or at least lead them on a wild ewha chase. Seven, you run scans on that station and call out the weak points.”

“What if they shoot at me?” Ardee almost sounded whiny.

“Shoot back.”

Ceet shut down his comm line and fired up his engines. The controls were slightly different from his Claw, a round ship with four pincer-shaped extensions, but he quickly identified the crucial ones.

Seconds later, at least a dozen enemy fighters appeared from behind the space station.

When they came within firing range, he dropped altitude, diving beneath the row of oncoming pilots. Neeta followed him smoothly. His visual indicated that the two other pairs of Dwarf Squadron broke off to port and starboard respectively, and Ardee hung back from the clash.

It was a testament to their years together that they could operate with limited verbal communication, even in unfamiliar situations.

As Ceet expected, the enemy pilots scattered to follow each wing pair. He noted two fighters match their altitude drop ahead of them, directly in their path to the space station.

He flipped his private comm with Neeta on. “Two, not sure how intelligent this sim is, but let’s not make ourselves obvious.”

“As in, don’t blast straight to the station?” she returned dryly.

“Nah, let’s have some fun first.”

Ceet accelerated into a reckless head-on collision course towards one of the fighters before pulling up into a last minute roll. Blood rushed to his head, and he briefly marveled at the gravity simulation.

In the same span of time, Neeta had fired on the other fighter. An orange blaze lit up in front of her.

“Great shot!” Ceet exclaimed.

He glanced at his dashboard. Dwarf Three had scored two kills and Dwarf Four had scored one. Five and Six were fending off four enemy ships at once. Ceet caught a glimpse of them weaving through the opposing fighters and the bright streams of laser fire.

Ardee’s voice filled the cockpit. “One and Two, go for station. Path is clear.”

“Any weaknesses we can target?” Ceet was already flying towards it, with Neeta tailing him closely.

“Structurally, the bridge seems most vulnerable. I will transmit my analysis to you.”

A digital mapping of the space station filled his visual. Ardee highlighted the points of greatest exposure on the bridge, which jutted out towards the planet. While his analysis seemed sound, Ceet knew they would first need to dismantle the shields.

A red alert flashed on his screen. Dwarf Five is out. Dwarf Six is critically hit.

He bit back a curse, reminding himself this was merely a simulator run.

“Six here,” Deeta said, her voice shaky. “Five’s comms are cut since she’s out. One more shot and I’m down too.”

“Alright, hang in there.” Ceet switched his visual to a view of the field. “Seven, can you enter the fray as Six’s wing?”

“Negative, I’m on the run.”

Ardee’s relatively stationary ship was no longer being ignored. Two fighters were angling towards him, and he had made a sharp nosedive to avoid their fire.

Neeta came on their private channel. “One, I think our best shot is to take out the bridge quickly.”

“Agreed.”

Again, he felt grateful he did not fly for the military. Ceet could not imagine maintaining course and focusing on the mission at hand while his friends blinked out of existence with each blip on the dashboard. In a real battle, he felt certain he would turn around and fight the enemy off his squadron. The simulation felt so authentic, he was almost tempted to do just that.

The space station grew large on his view screen, and his visuals indicated the bridge was within range. On his port side, Neeta was already unleashing a torpedo stream.

“Shields at eighty percent,” she muttered.

He followed suit and turned a barrage of fire on the bridge.

“One and Two, they’ve noticed you,” Heet said tersely.

Enemy fighters were circling back towards the station. Ceet estimated they had just seconds more before they would need to divide their attention between the bridge and the sim pilots.

A new, female voice came over the line. “Hello, Dwarf Squadron. Need a hand?”

He frowned at the comm line. She was not one of them, but her voice sounded vaguely familiar…

“Suri!” Neeta gasped.

“Good ear,” she replied. “I just swung by the simulator. The nice guard let me into the extra hatch. Can I join the fun?”

“Yes,” Ardee said. “Please, just start shooting.”

Ceet grimaced, but heard her laugh over the line. She hardly needed the encouragement. Before he could say anything, she was flying straight into the chaos, lasers flaring from her ship. Two orange blossoms lit up behind him as she tore through the battle.

“Wow,” he breathed.

“Boss, no time for admiring the light show now!” Neeta exclaimed.

He came to himself and rejoined Neeta in battering the station shields. They were down to thirty percent, and Suri’s heroic entry had confused the fighters angling towards them, as some turned around to engage her.

Another red alert. Dwarf Six and Seven are out.

“We need more firepower,” Ceet said.

“Three here, we’re on it,” Atta returned. “Suri can take care of these fighters singlehandedly.”

Atta and Heet flew in behind them, adding their torpedoes to the mix. Ceet watched Suri fly from his side viewport, wheeling through the half-dozen fighters trying to shoot her down. Her ship sailed effortlessly through the crosshairs of laser fire. She added two more kills to her tally.

He was not the only one watching. “That girl is going to win the Tide,” Neeta said.

“Five percent,” Atta interrupted. “Almost there.”

The shields collapsed. Without hesitation, Ceet fired two torpedoes straight towards the bridge, and the station erupted in a blaze of crimson and gold.

The screen went black and the comm line shut down. Congratulations! Galileo Simulation: Success. Ceet read the words that scrolled across the computer, along with a dozen statistics of their performance.

The hatch behind him opened with a hiss, jarring him back into reality.

As he climbed out, the rest of his squadron was already gathered around Suri, wrapped up in animated conversation. She was grinning down at them, her dark eyes crinkled with mirth.

They had met her briefly at the opening banquet, where Ceet sensed her discomfort with the spotlight. Still, she seemed spirited and strong-willed, though her youthfulness gave her an air of naïveté too.

He shook her hand. “You were amazing. Thanks for the help.”

“Of course.” She studied him for a moment. “Ceet, right?”

“Yes,” he replied, surprised and flattered that she remembered. “I think you just made our day.”

“It was fun for me. I don’t get to fly with too many people.” She looked around at them. “You all were great. I was watching for awhile before I climbed in.”

Her tone conveyed sincerity, not mere courtesy. As the rest of the squadron flushed with pride, Ceet felt a deep rush of gratitude towards her.

“You’re too kind,” Veeta said. “We were dead in space without you.”

After a few more minutes of chatter, Suri was forced to leave for an exclusive pre-Tide event. She seemed reluctant to go, as they were in the middle of speculating what the newest model of ships, set to release in the next few days, would resemble.

“Can I fly with your squadron again sometime?” She turned to Ceet as she reached the door.

He almost choked on his incredulity. She was asking permission?

“If you win Pilot Tide,” Ardee deadpanned. “We only fly with the best.”

The entire squadron turned death glares on him, but Suri only laughed, undeterred. “I’ll do my best. Thanks for the motivation.”

She waved and disappeared, leaving Dwarf Squadron to stare at each other and pinch themselves, wondering if they had really left the simulator and reentered reality.

Pilot Tide, Chapter 3

Previously on Pen and Fire: [Chapter 1] and [Chapter 2]

Chapter 3

Jules has been the darling of the Flight Academy since her graduation, lighting the fuse for a long, decorated career. She joined the Cluster Defense Coalition for a brief stint before claiming her first Pilot Tide crown. Last year, she returned to the Academy as an instructor.

But Micanopy citizens are already putting credits on Suri to emerge victorious. She may be untested, but if she is even half the pilot Mona was, admirers predict she will steal the show.

– The Micanopy Mirror, Galactic Date 2730.96

Purple and crimson curtains draped from the arched ceiling, though only five tables spread across the tiled floor. Each one boasted a spray of wildflowers and china cutlery. A single chandelier hung overhead, the crystal chiseled into the form of an ewha.

Micanopy Major loomed large outside The Nebula’s viewport, its crimson haze set in stark contrast with the black space around it. The three moons of the Cluster floated distantly in the background.

When Suri stepped inside, there were nearly a dozen people mingling in the banquet hall. A server expertly moved from group to group, offering tasters and long-necked wine glasses.

“Suri, welcome!” A silver-haired man abandoned his conversation and strode towards her. His brassy voice drew the attention of others, and she flushed as she became a magnet for all the eyes in the room.

She shook his hand. “Argent, right?”

“Yes, I’m sure you’ve seen me on holovision. Everyone is dying to meet you.” He motioned for her to follow him. “You, Jules, and Alai are at my table, of course.” As he led her further inside, he waved down a server. “We can start with dinner.”

Argent was a media giant, and his showmanship was apparent. He dressed the part, his stylish black leather outfit juxtaposed with his glossy hair. He gestured fluidly with his hands as he spoke, and Suri noticed how he enunciated each word with practiced precision. Did he ever conduct himself as if the holocams weren’t watching?

She felt mildly star-struck, but if The Mirror was right these days, Suri was becoming more of a legend than Argent. It was difficult to believe that being Mona’s daughter alone would thrust her renown to the edge of the Cluster. Was the inheritance of a name so powerful in Micanopy?

The other two Tide competitors were already seated when they arrived, making polite conversation. Suri recognized Jules from endless holovision reports and digital billboards. She wore a silk gown, her jet-black hair swept up in an elegant bun. The man beside her looked like he just stepped out of the cockpit after a long flight.

“Jules, Alai,” Argent interrupted, grinning broadly. “Allow me to introduce our third, infamous contender.”

She shook hands with both of them. Jules smiled, though something in her eye flinched at Argent’s description. Alai exuded an air of indifference, which Suri almost appreciated, as she felt gazes from other tables still following her furtively.

“I watched countless tapes of your mother flying,” Jules said. “You have a high, high standard to live up to.” Her soft voice did not disguise all the condescension in her tone.

Suri felt a flash of irritation, but she simply said, “I’m not my mother. But I hope to make her proud.”

“That’s the spirit,” Argent exclaimed. “I’m sure Jules is looking forward to a tough battle this time.” He winked at the other woman.

That was doubtful. Suri met Jules’ gaze over the table, and saw an icy hardness beneath her genteel features. Even from her holovision interviews, Suri sensed the celebrated pilot’s haughtiness. It did not surprise her that Jules would see Suri as a threat, if not as a better flyer, than as a more adored public figure. But she had always admired Jules’ career, and though they were rivals, she had hoped they could be friendly. She felt a pang of loss followed by solitude. Papa, Shell and Chip were far away in Nimrim, and The Nebula was like an alien world to her.

She turned to Alai, trying to shake off her melancholy. “I heard you fly a Stingray.”

“Yeah. It’s the only kind of ship worth flying.”

Suri cocked her head, surprised at his pithy bluntness. But then she detected the smirk playing at the corner of his mouth.

“My guess is you’ve never tried a One-Wing.”

A full grin broke over his face. “I know I’m the foreigner here, but I’d say the media’s got it wrong. All the buzz is about your famous mother, when it should be about your lunacy, entering this in a One-Wing.”

She laughed, feeling a weight lift, and wondered if she had gone mad. After all the scrutiny and blind adoration, it was strangely refreshing to hear someone—other than Papa—call her a lunatic.

“It’s almost half the cost of a Stingray. What I can’t afford in credits, I’ll make up for in skill,” she shot back.

Alai shrugged, unruffled. “Talk’s cheap. Prove it to me out there.” He gestured towards the viewport.

“Alright, alright, let’s not burn the station down before the Tide even begins,” Argent interjected lightly. “There’s some real fire here, isn’t there?” He threw a meaningful glance at Suri, and she saw the surprise in his expression.

The servers began bringing out the main course on large platters. A sizzling skillet of meat and side of leafy greens appeared before Suri. Her stomach growled. She realized, in the chaos of the day, she had not eaten a single meal yet.

“This,” Argent pointed at the dishes, “is a Micanopy delicacy. Boar liver and lungs.”

Suri hid a smirk when she noticed Alai wrinkle his nose. Citizens of other worlds viewed some Micanopy delicacies as vile, or barbarism veiled in the snobbery of the elite. Jules and Argent showed no hesitation slicing into their food.

She used the momentary silence to take in the environment. They sat at the best table in the hall, a few feet away from the wide-paned viewport. A brief thrill rushed through Suri. Inside the tight One-Wing, her view of space—from the naked eye, not counting digital enhancements—was limited to the strip of transparent steel bending around the cockpit. On The Nebula, the viewport extended almost from floor to ceiling.

The table beside them hosted a curious set of diners who seemed even more awestruck than Suri, and did a poor job hiding it. They gestured animatedly at the viewport, at Suri’s table, and their general surroundings.

“Were they the lottery winners?” she asked, looking to Argent.

“Oh, yes. I met them earlier—very nice, if a bit overzealous. But it’s understandable, with this being their first brush with real fame.” He spoke kindly, but gentle condescension also colored his voice.

“It’s mine, too,” Suri said.

Argent blinked, uncomprehending for a moment, before he broke into a smile. “I forget that, after all the chatter from The Mirror! Well, there’s no way you could escape it with your heritage.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Jules grimace. If only I could, I would return this unsolicited fame in a heartbeat. Alai wore a similarly unhappy expression, but she surmised it came from the hunk of liver he just swallowed.

Suri returned to the original topic. “I thought Essgees despised flying.”

“Most do. It’s low on their rung of career choices. But I believe they are pilots also.” Argent nodded towards the other table. “Made a bit of a name for themselves on Micanopy Minor, at least among their people.”

“But your Flight Academy is for humans only.”

They all looked in surprise at Alai, who rejoined the conversation.

“It’s because we only take the best,” Jules said frankly. “Some call it discriminatory, but Essgees don’t have the physical build for flying as well as humans. And we send most graduates into military and defense. There’s no room for error there. It can cost your life.”

They were controversial words, but Suri recognized they came from a place of bald honesty. Even if she disagreed, her estimation of Jules inched up. It was the first authentic impression she sensed from the other woman.

It can cost your life. Surely, Jules knew that from experience. Sometime in her training and career, she must have lost someone. The words reverberated in Suri’s mind. They sounded almost like something Papa would say—and he knew from experience too.

“You’re saying it’s a mercy to ban them, then,” Alai said. His tone and expression did little to betray his own opinion.

“It sounds cruel, but yes.” Jules did not waver.

“What do you do in Renova?” Suri asked.

He shrugged. “They have training programs for pilots, but it’s strictly utilitarian. There’s no celebrity or glory attached. Humans are the minority too, so they don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing.”

“They?” Suri echoed, wondering if he used the term consciously. “You don’t consider Renova home?”

He met her gaze, but if her perceptiveness surprised him, he masked it well. “The application asked for a home world. I left when I was young. Bounced from Cluster to Cluster, doing odd jobs. Flying was the one thing I was really good at.”

“Pity you didn’t come to Micanopy sooner. There’s no better place for a good pilot,” Jules said.

“Yes, and we’re not all about the flash and the show,” Argent put in. “Like Jules said, most of our top pilots go to the military.” He winked. “Put in a good performance, and they might try recruiting you.”

The corner of Suri’s mouth threatened to turn up. It was amusing to hear Argent, the long-standing host of Pilot Tide, defend piloting as more than an entertaining spectacle.

“I’m not the patriotic type,” Alai returned dryly.

Jules turned to Suri. “Why didn’t you consider coming to Flight Academy?” She added, half-grudgingly, “We would have snapped you up.”

“I did. But my father didn’t want me to go. Actually, he didn’t want me to fly at all.” She flushed, but held her chin up. “He knows the cost can be high.”

A somber moment of silence overtook their table. They knew she did not speak of money and credits. Suri thought she saw a flicker of understanding in Jules’ eyes, and felt a passing kinship with her.

The remainder of dinner was uneventful. Dessert consisted of colorful cinnacoa cakes, and afterward, they began to circulate around the room again. Suri met the six Essgees and their android. From their quick interaction, she wished she had been at their table, even though she couldn’t keep their names straight. The event concluded with a brief speech from Argent. Suri noticed he directed his gaze beyond the guests to the far wall of the banquet hall—she felt a jolt when she followed his eyes to an unobtrusive pair of holocams installed in the crevasses of the ceiling. Was the entire station under surveillance?

When she asked him, he waved her trepidation away. “Oh, it’s mostly for security, but they’ll repurpose a few good shots for the holovision.”

“Are they recording our conversations?” she pressed.

He laughed, giving her an incredulous look. “Again, I forget you’re new to this. Stars, no. They’ll have some of my speech since I had a mic in, but not our dinner table talk. I think Micanopy can do without all your political opinions flooding the wavelengths too, don’t you?”

She heartily agreed.

Pilot Tide, Chapter 2

Happy Friday! Even if you’re in quarantine, there are plenty of ways to enjoy the weekend. How about a fun read?

If you’re just joining in, the previous installment is here: Chapter 1

Chapter 2

The Tide is not without its controversies. Citizens of other Clusters are welcome to audition for the contest, provided they are human. Micanopy natives, such as Essgees, have traditionally been prohibited from competing or joining the prestigious Flight Academy. While organizers cite safety reasons—Essgees are smaller in build with slower reaction times—protestors have long railed against these policies.

– The Micanopy Mirror, Galactic Date 2730.96

Marble and bronze statues encircled Rhiannon Square like silent watchmen. The eight most prominent figures stood at the forefront, well-polished and bathed in golden sunlight. While most Metropolis residents took the landmark for granted, Ceet and his squadron gawked and fumbled for their holorecorders.

“Stephan was The Octagon’s pilot.” Neeta pointed at one of the men in the center.

She wore a faintly dreamy expression, her round eyes focused on the colossal sculpture. Stephan was handsome even in effigy, carved with strong cheekbones and a chiseled jaw.

“He was named most eligible bachelor of the galaxy after they discovered Micanopy,” Veeta noted.

Deeta snorted. “Or most inaccessible? Micanopy was at the edge of Unknown Space back then.”

“Every girl wants what she can’t have.” Neeta grinned.

“Humans are strange,” Deeta mused, her gaze straying to the people milling around them. She was not the only one looking. Their group of seven drew more than a few furtive glances and whispers. They were almost two feet shorter than the average human, and they had already been mistaken for children two times that day. While Essgees were native to both of Micanopy’s worlds, they were more unusual in the Metropolis. Only Pilot Tide brought an influx of them into the city. “Frankly, I think Stephan was a terrible pilot.”

“Blasphemy.” Veeta feigned a look of horror.

“He veered off course by more than ten star systems! He probably mistyped a coordinate and ended up here.”

“Sounds like something Heet would do.”

Heet was digging through his pack for an energy bar, but paused to scowl at them. “Read human history. That’s how all their discoveries are made. Accidents and idiots.”

Ceet tuned out their bickering and trailed behind Atta, who was angling her holorecorder painstakingly to capture a panorama of Rhiannon. While they were all close in age, Ceet often felt the two of them shouldered parental responsibility for the squadron. Though they began as professional colleagues, choosing the pilot’s life—the rugged, less-traveled path—knit them together as family.

While flying was the most glorified occupation for humans in Micanopy, it was one of the lowliest among Essgees. Though many expressed outrage over the Flight Academy’s discriminatory practices, Ceet knew Essgees quietly acknowledged their small stature was a limitation. Humans were not entirely wrong in the their diagnosis that physical constraints turned Essgee culture inward, away from planetary exploration.

But their culture was rich in other ways, perhaps more than most, due to their earthbound nature. Essgees were known for pursuing advanced education and research in diverse fields. Ceet’s squadron was a microcosmic representation of that. He had pursued a career in medicine. Atta was a linguist, fluent in the Essgee tongue and three human languages. They met in university, and a chance experience with a flight simulator called them both to the stars.

Ceet winced as he remembered the scorn he received when they tried to start an Essgee pilot school. His family’s words left deeper wounds than his roughest flights.

Only five others arrived to their grand opening. Heet was an overworked, cynical doctor who saw too many patients extorted by his employers. Neeta, Deeta, and Veeta were childhood friends and brilliant technologists. They sold their own line of gadgets, and built one of the most high-functioning—and cheeky—androids Ceet had ever encountered. Ardee rounded out their small band of misfits, and Dwarf Squadron was born.

“My hands won’t hold steady,” Atta murmured from behind the lens, bringing him back to the present.

Ardee whirred up beside Ceet. “You know, I have a high-definition recording of Rhiannon Square. I can print a photo of any frame you want.”

“It’s not the same. Photography is an art form.”

“But art has no utility.”

“Can we cut his philosophical wires?” Heet glared at Ardee, though with no real malice.

“Let’s move along,” Ceet cut in, waving the rest of their group towards him. “Atta, are you ready?”

She peeled the holorecorder from her face. Ceet glanced around them. It was late afternoon and the Square was growing crowded. Workers were installing floating plasma screens above the statues for broadcasting Pilot Tide. Until the screens were activated, they camouflaged with their surroundings, so Ceet could still see through them to the sky’s pale pink hue.

They wove through the maze of people. Some set up small camps around the Square, reserving a viewing spot days before the Tide’s commencement.

“Let’s get some cocoa pods,” Veeta called from behind.

Ceet felt his stomach groan in protest. He and Atta had left their home world to attend university on Micanopy Major, but this was the rest of Dwarf Squadron’s first time on the planet. Of all the novelties in the Metropolis, they were most excited about the edible ones. After two days of tasting human, Essgee, and more alien cuisines, he feared for the already-tight safety buckles in his cockpit.

Ardee located a premier sweet shop near Rhiannon, and they followed the android’s lead as he routed them.

The Metropolis was the apex of a high-tech, human city. Skyscrapers were angular and sleek, sporting wide glass panes. The variations in height seemed symmetrical down any given street. In contrast to most Micanopy Minor cities, which often featured dilapidated buildings next to new construction sites, the Metropolis demonstrated consistent architecture and aesthetics from end to end. Even with the massive population, ground and air traffic crisscrossed the city in orderly fashion.

“Look at these,” Neeta breathed.

They had arrived at their destination, and she was admiring the elaborate dessert displays in the window. Each pastry demonstrated meticulous detail: the ridges in the One-Wing, the razor-sharp tip of the Needle, and the smoothness of the Stingray.

“The ships of each Tide competitor this year.” Atta ran a critical eye over the designs. “I wonder which one is selling best.”

“My bet is on the Stingray,” Ceet commented dryly. “It’s got the largest surface area.”

Inside, the heady scent of cinnacoa clung to the furnishings. They snatched a table and ordered a large serving of cocoa pods to share.

Chatter from groups around them muted the holovision, but the plasma screen overhead drew Ceet’s eye. It was showing a full-orbed view of the large, oblong space station hovering just above Micanopy Major.

He was not the only one who noticed. Deeta turned everyone’s attention to the holovision. “They just christened it The Nebula. It’s crazy. Competitors have always stayed in the Metropolis before.”

“That whole station for three of them?” Heet looked dubious.

“And Argent, Pilot Tide’s host,” Deeta said. “I’m sure they have mad security up there too, so guards on every corridor.”

“And a handful of lucky guests,” Veeta added. “They ran a lottery, remember?”

Ceet felt Atta’s eyes skim over him, but he avoided meeting her gaze. She was the only one in the squadron who knew, other than Ardee.

The cost of the lottery tickets was not trivial, but they had racked up a decent sum of credits from their last few engagements: flying bootcamps for young Essgees and air shows for private celebrations. With a squadron to look after and tight finances, Ceet did not have the luxury of making impulsive investments.

But the Tide was every pilot’s pipe dream. Essgees could not audition for it, but he could not pass up the possibility, however slim, of staying aboard The Nebula during the event.

Their server returned with a large bowl, crackling with hot cocoa pods, dusted with cinnacoa spice. As the others eagerly dug their spoons in, Ceet finally met Atta’s gaze, and she nodded.

“I have something to share,” he began, wincing at how abrupt the words sounded.

“Uh oh,” Heet mumbled, mid-crunch. It was his favorite human colloquialism.

Ceet glared at him. “Trust me, this will be the best news you’ve heard in years.” He paused. “Have you all swallowed? Are you ready?”

Veeta forced a large mouthful down. “Ay, Captain.”

“We’re staying on The Nebula.”

Silence struck them like a sudden bolt of lightning, and Ceet felt the heat from each pair of round eyes trained on him. The world continued to move in slow motion beyond them, but Dwarf Squadron was frozen around the table, spoons in mid-air. He almost laughed; if only their holorecorder could capture and enshrine this moment. It was more priceless than a hundred panoramas of Rhiannon Square.

Ardee interrupted with a mechanical beep, and seven holographic tickets appeared above him. As they stared at the images, reality broke over them like cold water.

“You entered the lottery?”

Neeta’s spoon clattered to the table, and she gripped Ceet’s shoulder, a frenzied look in her eyes.

The rest of the squadron unfroze, rounding on Ceet with partially coherent exclamations of shock and indignation that he kept the matter quiet. They shouted over each other for a few minutes before angry looks from other diners began to subdue them.

Ceet glanced around the table, exasperated but amused. “So, aren’t any of you happy?”

“I don’t have the capacity for that level of happiness,” Heet grumbled. “But I guess now would be the time I’d feel it, if I did.”

They all laughed, their faces flushed red and feverish as the implications dawned on them more fully.

Deeta looked pointedly across the table at Ceet. “You still owe us an explanation.”

“Alright.” Ceet grew quiet, meeting each of their eyes. Silence fell over the table again, until he began. “When I first heard about the lottery, I felt this…nudge. It was almost like the first time Atta and I went through a flight simulator—the pull was so strong, I left my career behind in pursuit of the skies.

“I know it cost all of us to take up flying. There is a ceiling we can never bypass, no matter how good we get. We can never go to the Academy or compete in a Tide. You work hard and I don’t blame you if you wonder whether we will ever be more than a stunt show or traveling circus.” Ceet’s voice became low and rough with passion. “But you all are born to fly. That’s why you don’t quit. And I wanted to give you something memorable.”

A tear slipped down Deeta’s face, and she did not bother to hide it. She reached over and gripped Ceet’s hand wordlessly.

“You’re too good for us, Captain,” Veeta tried to joke, though her words sounded strangled in her throat.

“Nobler than Captain Stephan,” Neeta piped.

“Oh, he did it for himself too,” Atta returned, and that drew a chuckle from all of them, including Ceet.

Heet, who sat beside Ceet, clapped him on the back. “Best boss I’ve had. Though the old ones ranged from vile to dreadful.”

“So, when do we go?” Veeta looked expectant.

A wide smile spread over Ceet’s face. “Finish your cocoa pods. We can dock at The Nebula tonight.”

Pilot Tide, Chapter 1

Hello friends and wayfaring readers – I know I’ve been absent for a long while. (I won’t take offense if you didn’t notice). The busyness of life has kept me from writing, and I keep meaning to return to somewhat-regular blogging, i.e. at least once a month for me. To ease into it, I pulled up this novella I wrote over a year ago for a fairytale retelling contest – realistically, it would just gather dust on my hard drive, so I may as well share it here. If you’ve been reading too much of the news and it’s getting to you, perhaps a good dose of fiction will be a reprieve. 

I will update with a new chapter regularly  since the whole thing exists already. And I won’t give too much of a preface, since you already know it’s a fairytale retelling. I did write a query letter for this at one point (back when I was feeling more ambitious), so here’s my one-line summary (that probably oversells this story): “Pilot Tide” is “Snow White” dressed up in “Star Wars” attire, in a competition reminiscent of “The Hunger Games.” 

Now lower your expectations. Obviously, this isn’t Shakespeare or Dostoyevksy. Please read for fun. Feedback is welcome, of course!

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Chapter 1

The Octagon crew discovered the Micanopy Cluster in Galactic Year 2420. The skill and audacity of the explorers formed the foundational values of our culture: strength, honor, and sheer nerve. Every five years, the Flight Academy of Micanopy celebrates the embodiment of these ideals in Pilot Tide.

Three competitors round out the roster for the twenty-sixth Tide. Returning champion Jules will face two wild card challengers: Suri, the daughter of renowned pilot Mona, and Alai, an unknown from the Renova Cluster. Experts claim this will be the most unpredictable Tide in years, deviating from the usual pattern of well-known, high profile pilots.

– The Micanopy Mirror, Galactic Date 2730.94

Suri punched the thrusters and banked hard to starboard. The One-Wing was a fickle beast when it came to sharp maneuvers during acceleration, but she felt it was a worthwhile bargain given the price and otherwise decent design. The new model generated contentious debate in the pilot community when it was released. The asymmetry of the ship caused it to fly at a slight angle—a quality that some considered inventive, and others decried as a fatal flaw.

She did not mind the imbalance. Rather, since Papa always said she had a tilted view of the world, she had remarked that the designers custom-built the One-Wing for her. He did not appreciate the humor of it, however, and questioned the sanity of purchasing a ship that could not even fly parallel to the ground.

She patted the dashboard and keyed in her home coordinates. Dusk was fast fading, and a swath of stars swept across her viewport. Out to her left, Micanopy Minor glowed with a crimson and burgundy haze around it. The Cluster’s trio of moons hung more distantly in the sky.

Though Micanopy Major, Suri’s home world, was the nexus of innovation, politics, and galactic events, she felt as far from the bustle of life as if she lived on the fringe of the Cluster.

But that was going to change. She had trained and plotted and planned for this to be the year she reversed her and Papa’s fortunes.

Suri felt a sharp tug in her chest as their old farmhouse came into sight. Both fond and bitter emotions swelled up like a brief, violent storm inside her, swirling, then subsiding into a dull ache.

“Papa, I’m home.” She braced herself as she stepped inside.

Silence greeted her, but she heard the pitter patter of footsteps in the kitchen. As she rounded into the dining area, Papa came to meet her, a large mixing bowl and spatula in hand. Her eyes immediately went to his face, which already bore lines from age, hard labor, and grief. Today, they appeared deepened by anguish.

His gaze slid over her, and for the first time, Suri felt ashamed standing in her flight suit. Given the circumstances, would he interpret it as calculated defiance?

“You were flying.” His tone was calm but brittle.

“Yes.”

“Are you good?”

Suri raised her shoulders. ” If you came to watch,” she hesitated, working to keep her voice neutral, “you could decide for yourself. But Shell and Chip think I am.”

“So does the Flight Academy, apparently.”

“Papa…”

He slammed the bowl onto the table, some of the golden batter spilling over the edge. Suri flinched, but did not drop her gaze.

“I found out from The Mirror, Suri.” He spoke quietly, though his dark eyes, the same as hers, burned.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know how to tell you. I was afraid you would react…” Like this. She trailed off, leaving the final words unspoken.

He sighed. “I know what it’s like when you’re young. I don’t want you to be led by passions that will come and go.”

“I promise it’s not a phase. I love to fly. And I want to use it to help us.” The words tumbled out like a rapid stream of laser fire, rehearsed but earnest.

Suri did not know if Papa also became conscious of his clothes in that moment, but she felt a heightened awareness of each oil stain, each black smudge. He had not changed after work, and she could still smell the metal ore and factory fumes on him.

His expression softened slightly. “We don’t need help. I can put you through university, and you can work in the Metropolis. Follow any career.”

“This is the career I want.”

“We agreed, no Flight Academy.”

“And I didn’t go. I learned and trained on my own here.” Suri’s voice took on a pleading note. “I kept up my marks in school. I’m no longer a child, Papa. I decided to apply for this long ago.”

“Pilot Tide is suicide.”

“Only if you’re bad at flying.” She grimaced, hearing the brashness Papa always rebuked. Shell and Chip might appreciate her flippant assessment, but her father would not.

She imagined a fleeting twinkle in Papa’s eye, but his somber countenance quickly buried it.

“Sit.” He motioned to their old, cherry-wood dining table.

Suri shuffled to a chair. She watched him pick up the mixing bowl and return to the kitchen, pulling the oven open. When he came out, he sat across from her, folding his hands neatly on the table.

“I was one of the best mechanics in the Metropolis. You love to fly ships, I loved to fix them. I could fix anything.”

He wore a faraway look, caught in the vortex of some long-gone memory. Suri’s gut tightened. Papa never spoke of this past, of the time before they moved to Nimrim.

“That’s how I met Mona. She brought her ship in for fixing. An old Stingray model.”

“The best ship there is,” Suri murmured. She loved watching the sleek, thin ships in flight, though she knew her budget would have to triple before she could ever call a Stingray her own.

“It suited her.” Admiration bled into his voice.

Suri bit her lip. “I know you’re worried…”

He seemed to resurface in the present, his gaze lucid and hard.

“Your mother was the famous one in the pair of us, but I could easily have kept us in the Metropolis after—” he broke off. “We didn’t move out here because we couldn’t afford the city anymore.”

“I didn’t mean that,” she said. “I know you’re excellent.” Papa tinkered with all kinds of unusual machinery. He earned a reputation in the community as the one to call for everything from broken appliances to faulty software.

He gave her a sad smile. “It’s not my ego that hurts. I took up an old factory job because my skills are not in demand here. How many top-level ships even pass through our town?” He gestured at the window. The flat, rocky earth stretched to the dark horizon, unobstructed by spires or city lights. “What I meant was, I moved us to Nimrim because I was afraid of this. I was afraid for you.”

His words sunk into her like claws, slowly digging deeper and drawing blood. She felt his pain morph into her pain, his fear become her fear.

“I was afraid you would be your mother’s daughter.”

Tears stung her eyes and she quashed a sob mercilessly in the bottom of her throat.

“But,” he continued slowly, “I was surprised. When I saw The Mirror’s report, I also felt…proud.”

Her head jerked up and she met his gaze, jarred out of her sorrow.

“You have her resilience. Her talent. I hid myself from this reality, so I never went to watch you fly. But I’m from the Metropolis, and I’ve seen enough Pilot Tides to know. You must fly like an ewha to get accepted.”

An ewha—the eagle-like king of the skies—was native to Micanopy, and Suri remembered seeing one in her childhood. Their feathered wings unfurled like tapestry in the air. They flew with an uncommon grace given their size, and pilots learned to study them, mimicking their flight behavior with mechanical controls. It was the highest compliment to liken a pilot to one of their kind.

A timer in the kitchen beeped, breaking into the surreal moment. Papa rose from his seat, leaving Suri in shock. She felt as if her heart just went through ten cartwheels in a One-Wing.

He returned with a golden cake, fashioned in the shape of a Stingray. A warm, nutty aroma filled the room.

“Oh!” Suri exclaimed. It was a planet-wide tradition to celebrate each Pilot Tide with cinnacoa cake, made from Micanopy’s signature sweet-peppery spice.

Papa smiled ruefully at her. “Mona would be proud. We are both proud of you.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” she said quietly. “Shell and Chip filmed my audition tape.”

He nodded. “I want to watch you fly before you go.”

“Of course.”

He produced a knife and cut into the cake. A sense of regret flitted through Suri as she watched the impeccably designed Stingray split in two. She scooped a piece onto a small plate for herself, and offered the rest to Papa.

“Happy Tide.” He lifted his slice as a toast. “Fly straight.”

Suri grinned, unable to resist, as profound happiness welled up inside her. “I can’t. I have a One-Wing, remember?”

“Bullet Train to London” – Available Today Only!

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Popping in with a quick announcement: my flash fiction story, “Bullet Train to London,” is live on Havok! It’s available and free for all today only (you can become a paid member, and access all the stories from this year so far).

If you want a quick (and hopefully fun) read, take a peek! And leave me a comment / rating if you’re able to. Thanks friends!

Beneath the Dragon Skies, Chapter XI

The conclusion. I hope you enjoyed, and thanks for following along! I have more posts in the works, so I won’t go radio silent for months again. 😉

Read [Prologue], [Chapter I], [Chapter II], [Chapter III], [Chapter IV], [Chapter V], [Chapter VI], [Chapter VII], [Chapter VIII], [Chapter IX] and [Chapter X].

Chapter XI

The Sparrows said that the man who climbs the Adamaris once is a victor, and the man who climbs it twice a fool.

Kaede’s body ached, and the truth of that saying came to mind with sharp clarity. But a small, steady hope invigorated his worn limbs. While his last journey with Alethea filled him with dread over the outcome, he found a new core of strength this time. Now, they had a real, fighting chance at ending the curse. He clung to the fragment of faith Rafa inspired in him, unable to dwell on the possibility of failure.

With his thin, wiry frame, his traveling companion was adept at maneuvering the cliffs and making precarious leaps. Even though he underwent no formal training, Rafa demonstrated innate agility during their trek. Being fresh and well rested, he began pushing further ahead than Kaede, who felt challenged to keep up.

“Stars, I keep looking behind to see if Abi is following us.”

Kaede laughed. “I think Lord Demarion feared the same. He nearly placed her under lock and chain.”

“She will dare anything. That is who she is.” Rafa shook his head, but fondness warmed his words. He threw a sideways glance at Kaede. “All these years, and I never expected the same of Lethe.”

“It is not audacity. Not with her.” Kaede released a long breath. “She will sacrifice anything. That is who she is.”

“Mm. Perhaps they spring from the same foundation.”

Their conversation lapsed in and out of thoughtful silence. For the first time since they met, Rafa seemed open and genuine. Kaede bit back a smile—perhaps it had something to do with Abigail.

“I usually read the signs so well,” he muttered, half to himself, but he garnered Rafa’s attention. “I insisted to Alethea that you were in love with her.”

The expression Rafa wore made Kaede smirk.

“Well,” he returned after a moment, “we told Alethea that you were sweet on her.”

“Poor girl,” Kaede murmured, “everyone trying to tutor her, yet she knew best and hid it all in her heart.”

Rafa raised a brow. “But we were right.”

Kaede felt his face flush. Though Alethea’s state was horrific in every sense, the tragic shadow it cast made her family more than merciful towards his political manipulation. Abigail dismissed it without much misery, moved by the realization of Rafa’s longsuffering patience and steadfast love for her. Rafa, of course, could only be glad that Kaede did not ensnare Abigail’s heart. And the entire family hoped beyond hope that Kaede’s affection for Alethea would prove to be her deliverance.

Now, it is only Alethea. Will she be glad when she awakens? Will she despise me, let alone have any regard for me?

“Kaede, look!”

He swung his gaze in the same direction as Rafa. Among the dry, yellow shrubbery, small patches of green sprouted out of the soil.

“The famine!” he exclaimed. His breath caught in his throat. “Is it ending?”

A new thought came to him. Here they were, from three different clans, struggling together for one another’s survival. Could we be reversing that curse already?

When they arrived at the mouth of Sela’s cavern, they paused by silent consent and looked at each other. Kaede felt fear, hope and a hundred other unnamed emotions stir inside him. Only a few days prior, he stood in the same place and watched Alethea march to her fate, helpless to stop her, awash in his self-reproach and remorse.

In a surprising gesture, Rafa laid a hand on his shoulder. “Just think of her.”

Is that how he found his strength? Kaede suddenly imagined his companion alone in his room, poring over old Phoenix documents. In the swirl of chaos, he nearly forgot that Rafa’s life had just shifted dramatically in revealing the truth of his identity. What ramifications must he contend with at home after all this? But he followed through with all of his plans for Abigail’s sake.

“I do.” Kaede hesitated, but the memory of Rafa’s revelation encouraged him. “I fear your counter-curse will not work—because of me. My love is not as unfaltering as yours. I fear it’s weak and selfish, and I do not trust myself.” His thoughts turned to his mother suddenly. She was like that. Even with Kaede, she loved him as her son, but he was also a pawn in her political pursuits. I am too much like her.

“You are a man. Who among us can claim to truly love well?”

“But—”

Rafa stopped him with a hard look. “In knowing your own weakness, you give me confidence.” His face softened. “I love Abi, but not perfectly. And I believe you love Lethe.”

Kaede soaked up his words like a dry leaf, willing for Rafa’s conviction to sink into him too. He nodded.

“Ready if you are.”

They took only a few steps into the cavern before Sela met them.

“You are a glutton for punishment.” There was a note of amusement in her voice. Kaede assumed she addressed him.

“We are here for Alethea, not you.”

“Ah, I see you brought a Phoenix friend. And last time you were saying there were no more in the mountain…” Her gaze swept over Rafa, who stood rigid and unflinching beside Kaede. “Ironic. Demarion could never rid himself of the Phoenix disease, could he?”

“We are not here to waste words with you,” Rafa said. “Where is Alethea?”

She gestured towards the back of the dimly lit cavern. “If you think you can reverse the curse, I certainly will not stop you.”

Kaede felt his heart drop a little. He expected Sela to show more resistance, perhaps even violence, to keep them from Alethea. Her calm, flippant composure shook him. Did she simply not care if they lifted the curse? Or was she hiding something else? 

If the same thoughts crossed Rafa’s mind, he covered it well. He strode in the direction she pointed, and Kaede trailed behind him, grateful for his resilience.

Sela’s voice, soft yet haunting, followed them. “She has a golden heart. Better than her father’s. Certainly better than you deserve.”

The words echoed through him like a small bell in a cathedral. He shivered.

“She is trying to unbalance you,” Rafa murmured.

But she is also right.

They found Alethea swaddled in thick blankets, lying beneath a massive canvas of flying beasts—dragons, sparrows, and phoenixes. A spool of thread, unspun from a spindle, spilled out beside her.

She wore a peaceful expression, one Kaede had rarely seen since meeting her. He recalled, even in her gaiety, she bore an air of melancholy, burdened by the cares of her family and clan. Without her worries and guardedness reflected on her face, she looked regal.

Kaede knelt beside her. In his periphery, he caught Rafa closing his eyes and murmuring something unintelligible.

Returning his attention to Alethea, he clasped her cold hands to his gently. The rest of the world seemed to fade into the distance, and even Sela’s lingering words lost their impact. Please, come back from wherever she trapped you. Please do not hate me—stars, I would give up the chieftainship, anything, for you to come back to me.

Compelled by his fervor, he leaned in and kissed her forehead. Her face was also cold like marble. His chest ached.

He felt a slight pressure on his fingers. Alethea stirred.

Tears stung the back of his eyes.

“Kaede?” Her voice was quiet and wondering.

He only gripped her hands in response, not trusting his voice. Rafa came nearer, a smile breaking across his face, but he kept a tactful distance.

“How did this happen?”

“I will explain everything.” Kaede swallowed. “But tell me you do not despise me.”

She did not even hesitate. “How could I?” Alethea said softly, almost musically. And for the first time, he felt her dark eyes invite him in, revealing her heart.

Something inside him soared.

What followed passed by Kaede in a blur. Rafa came over to Alethea and they embraced. Kaede faintly heard him scolding her—lightly—for her brashness, and then offering a quick summary of the last few days’ events. Her post-slumber stupor quickly wore off, and she punctuated his retelling with exclamations of surprise and delight. Kaede merely listened, dazed and enshrouded in sweet relief.

Eventually, Rafa came and touched his arm. “We need to go.”

He nodded, and as he rose to his feet, Alethea said, “Sela simply allowed you both to come in?”

Kaede glanced at her. “It seemed… she did not think you deserved such a curse.”

She fell silent, pondering that. Then she looked at him again, almost shyly. “So, you did not love Abi, but—” she broke off, blushing.

“I set my sights high, milady.”

Rafa glared at him. “Watch your words.”

They laughed, and Kaede felt a genuine camaraderie snake around them. He and Rafa helped Alethea to her feet. There was no sign of Sela as they made their way to the cave entrance, and his spine tingled slightly, wondering where she hid in the shadows. He quickened his pace, but Alethea stopped them midway.

She turned around. “Sela,” she called.

Alarmed, Kaede grasped her arm. “What are you doing?” But Rafa shook his head briefly, and he reluctantly released her.

“My father offered this to you once. I ask again. Will you come with us?”

They waited, but nothing in the darkness flickered. Only the echo of her quiet, sure voice returned to her. Kaede reached for her arm again, this time in support.

But Alethea smiled at him, the same, slumbering peace he witnessed earlier spread across her face.

“Let’s go home,” she said.

The end

Beneath the Dragon Skies, Chapter X

One more installment after this one. Enjoy!

Read [Prologue], [Chapter I], [Chapter II], [Chapter III], [Chapter IV], [Chapter V], [Chapter VI], [Chapter VII], [Chapter VIII] and [Chapter IX].

Chapter X

Sacrificial, unflinching love—what other counter-curse could there be?

He pushed the stack of crinkled parchments aside, burying his face in his hands. Could it be so simple? It seemed sensible. Only an effective counter-spell or curse transfer might save her, and a transfer demanded the same selfless love on the receiver’s part.

A desperate, almost frenzied euphoria set his blood humming. I will need the right words, and a true heart. 

Rafa reached for the top parchment sheet again, his eyes flying over the ink symbols.

Loud footsteps pounded down the hall. He opened the drawer beside him swiftly and threw the papers inside as Demarion surged through the door.

“What is it?” Rafa rose to his feet, alarmed at his countenance.

“It’s Abigail,” he said, and Rafa’s heart leaped into his throat, “she’s awake!”

What—?

“Ziva is with her now. Hurry!” Demarion was already turning away, gesturing for Rafa to follow him. His legs numbly complied, carrying him along. “I—I don’t know how long it will last, and how the curse could make such a provision.” He stopped abruptly, flinging an unguarded, fearful look at Rafa. “I am afraid it is a cruel trick of Sela’s.”

I have not cast a counter-curse yet! How could she awaken? Dread mixed with hope coursed through him. He remembered reading that poorly crafted curses could weaken over time until they lost all power.

He suppressed that strand of optimism. Phoenix lore was ancient and complex, particularly concerning the mechanisms of magic. While Rafa had gathered what surviving documents he could find, his knowledge remained pitifully limited.

She was sitting upright in her bed when they arrived. Ziva was coaxing hot broth into her mouth when her eyes found him and Demarion. She pushed the spoon from her lips.

“Rafa!” The familiar high pitch and brightness in her tone sent a thrill through him.

“Abigail,” he whispered, his voice suddenly hoarse. He felt paralyzed in place, uncertain if he should move nearer but unable to tear his gaze away, fearing that the curse would reclaim her again.

Her glance flitted across each of their faces, amusement coloring her expression. “You all look terrified I’ll faint away again.”

Ziva seized her hand. “How do you feel?”

“Fine, Mother,” she replied, half-reassuring and half-exasperated. “I feel as well as I did on my last day awake.”

“What happened? When you were unconscious?” Rafa asked, finding his voice.

“Nothing,” she murmured. “It was a dark, dreamless sleep. Sometimes I knew I was under a curse, but I was not afraid. It was like being in a cage, imprisoned but peaceful because there was nothing around to harm me.”

Demarion stepped over to her bedside and touched her arm. “You are home now. The cage is gone.”

“I know.” She beamed. “Where is Alethea?”

Her question jolted Rafa. He looked at Demarion—why did he fetch him, but not Alethea, when Abigail awoke? A troubled look crossed the Dragon Chief’s face and Rafa felt a tremor in his chest.

“I could not find her. I assumed she was out in the village with Kaede.”

But there was no sign of her yesterday either. Rafa grew accustomed to seeing less of Alethea, given her courtship with Kaede and the bourgeoning tension between them, but it was odd to go without a glimpse of her in so long. A strange, foreboding premonition began to breed in his mind.

“Kaede!” Abigail exclaimed. She flushed as their gazes all returned to her.

“The Sparrow Chief’s son,” Demarion explained quietly. “Much has happened while you were sleeping.”

Uncharacteristic concern fell over Abigail’s face like a shadow. “Tell me everything.”

“You need to rest first,” Ziva insisted.

“I have done nothing but rest for however long I slept!”

Rafa could not suppress a brief smile at her restless and impatient spirit. She spied his expression and turned an imploring look to him, as if she found a sympathetic opening.

“When the curse took you, a famine fell over the Adamaris too, like the Phoenix prophesied. Alethea posed as you and we went to negotiate with Sparrow clan for peace. They proposed a courtship followed by marriage between Kaede and Alethea.”

Abigail drew in a sharp, painful breath, her eyes fluttering shut. Demarion reached over and gripped her shoulder in distress.

“Abigail!”

She held up her hand. “No, I am fine. It’s simply—oh, Lethe, I am sorry,” she murmured.

Rafa shared an anxious look with Demarion and Ziva. “We can continue the story another time,” he decided. “We should find Alethea.”

As if in response, a servant appeared in the doorway, short of breath and flushed from running.

“Chief.” He bowed. “We tried to stop him, but Kaede insists on coming up.”

Demarion’s brow furrowed. “I will see him, but we cannot meet here with Abigail. Is Alethea with him?”

“No, Chief.”

Rafa felt the ominous portent grow in his mind. Was this another rudimentary Phoenix instinct, like the one he experienced when he sensed something awry with Abigail’s flowers? Demarion instructed the servant to hold Kaede in the guest room downstairs until he could meet the Sparrow chief’s son. The servant left in a flurry. Suddenly, Rafa noticed Abigail’s expression grow pale and frantic.

“Abi—” he began, but was interrupted by the growing sound of footsteps. He stood up in alarm, but Kaede was already in the doorway.

His garments were soiled and despite his broad stature and handsome face, the dark circles under his eyes and unkempt hair considerably marred his features. He looked at each of them swiftly before his gaze settled on Abigail and visible horror entered his eyes.

Rafa moved to stand in front of Abigail, though he knew no physical shield could force Kaede to undo the sight he had seen. If he tells the truth to Meike… 

“Kaede,” Abigail choked, assaulted by tears.

Kaede leaned against the doorpost, his back bent as if the strength went out of him. “Stars, she did it.” His eyes closed.

Demarion was on his feet now too, and all of them looked from Abigail to Kaede. Rafa felt they stood on the cusp of some terrible realization and he reached for a nearby bookcase to steady himself.

“You know each other?” Demarion demanded.

“Father,” Abigail began, a pleading note in her voice, but stopped when Kaede dropped to his knees before them.

“I am to blame, Lord Demarion. I met Abigail before the curse fell and we began courting. Thus, I saw through Alethea’s masquerade as her sister—”

Ziva gasped, whitening. “Demarion!” Her husband moved to her side and drew a protective arm around her before fixing a stern, unforgiving look on Kaede.

To his credit, the Sparrow did not flinch. “Please,” he said quietly, holding up his hand. “I have more to say. I confronted Alethea immediately.” A distant look overtook him as an unwitting smile crawled up his face. He glanced at Demarion. “She is stronger than you think. She laid the whole truth before me, trusting in my loyalty to Abigail. I agreed to help her. My mother does not know any of this.”

Rafa’s initial agitation began to ease, but another slow, blade-like pain spread through him. So he was the suitor that enthralled Abigail. He could not deny the stir of envy in his heart. He never trusted Kaede, even if he won Alethea and the rest of the family’s faith. It was vain and selfish, but he could not help disliking the man even more now, in spite of his good deeds.

Demarion was kneeling down beside Kaede. “What is there to blame you for then? You have handled this more nobly than me.”

Kaede could not look at him. “I do not know how to say this.”

A tense silence fell over them until Kaede rose and stepped to Abigail’s side. He pulled a pendant out of the folds of his cloak and slipped it into her palm.

She stared at it. “My pearl!” Perplexed, she glanced at him. “Why do you have it?”

Sudden understanding crashed down on Rafa like merciless waves. He let out a strangled sound and moved towards Kaede, thrusting a trembling finger at him.

“You let her take the curse.”

His words dropped like a heavy hammer in the room.

What? What are you speaking of, Rafa?” Abigail exclaimed.

Kaede’s silence confirmed Rafa’s suspicion. “Phoenix curses cannot be undone.” Each word felt dry and dreadful on his tongue. “They can only be counter-cursed or transferred. You took Alethea to see that witch!”

“Is this true?” Ziva cried.

The Sparrow only bowed his head. “Yes. We scaled the Adamaris and found Sela. She said the same thing about curses. Alethea insisted on transferring it. I could not convince her otherwise because…I failed her earlier. She told me to respect her choice, to go home and return Abigail’s pendant.”

Crimson agony burned through Rafa, but it felt more like regret than anger. “Why did she not even confide in me?” he murmured to himself.

Demarion, Ziva and Abigail all appeared stricken by the revelation.

“Sela must know this cruel twist cuts even deeper,” Demarion said. “To have both my daughters suffer, and Alethea to go willingly…”

Rafa glared at Kaede. “How could you let her?” Helpless fury mounted within him. “Why did you not take the curse for Abigail, if you love her—”

“Rafa,” Demarion cut him off, admonition in his eyes. Even now, he was still a Chief.

“Her sacrifice was needless!” he exploded, ignoring the warning. “I found a counter-curse!”

All eyes turned to him. “What?” Demarion asked, registering disbelief.

He jerked his sleeve up to reveal his bare forearm and the red phoenix emblazoned there.

“You have been searching the Adamaris for Phoenix,” he said quietly, “not knowing you took one into your care many years ago.”

The silence grew thick enough for a knife to cut. Rafa could sense, keenly and painfully, the spectrum of emotions splattered across each face—disbelief, wonder, a hint of fear, and sadness.

Abigail found her voice first. “Did you always know?” she asked, and he felt a rush of gratitude for her gentle tone.

“No. I thought of myself as a full-bred Dragon since Demarion found me.” He met the Chieftain’s eyes briefly. “A few years later, I began to develop unusual instincts, having vague premonitions and heightened sensitivity to trouble. Then my clan mark formed, and I knew.” Rafa glanced at the phoenix tattoo, recalling his quiet terror. “I scoured for documents and stories to learn about my…abilities. It was hard to find things, but my motivation grew when Abigail was cursed.”

“Oh, Rafa.” Ziva’s eyes crinkled with compassion. “You should have told us.”

“How could I?” he murmured. “You were cursed by a Phoenix.”

Demarion’s hand came down hard on the table. “You think we would have judged you by her actions?”

“No. But someone in the clan would, once news spread. The Chieftain’s family, adopting a Phoenix by mistake?” Rafa looked at him levelly.

They became silent again, and he could imagine this startling revelation settling into their minds, becoming a part of the fabric of their lives. He felt a twinge of distress as he watched them wrestle with their new reality. Though he had prepared for this moment ever since Abigail fell unconscious, it came more suddenly than he expected.

Kaede, while similarly shocked by Rafa’s outburst, accepted it more easily. He did not need to consider years of secrecy, and he returned them to the matter at hand.

“You said you found a counter-curse. Can you use it for Alethea?”

Rafa closed his eyes and exhaled. “It will not work. I designed it for Abigail.”

“Why?” Abigail demanded. “What is it?”

It seems today is the day for laying all secrets bare. 

“Apart from transferring the curse to another, I think there is only one viable counter-curse.” He paused. “A love that binds two lives together, for better or worse. A love that will bear anything for another. In some ways, this demands more than taking on the curse in another’s place. It is that, and more. Such love is the only thing powerful enough to restore life.”

Their gazes burned into him, particularly Abigail’s, as understanding dawned over her.

“Oh,” she whispered quietly, and words seemed to elude her. A deep blush crawled over her face.

“And here I thought—” Kaede began, before breaking off, shaking his head with incredulity.

Rafa looked at him, girding himself for a verbal onslaught. He had done no less than confess his heart for Abigail in front of her and her suitor.

And yet, Kaede did not appear enraged or protective. He had expressed no affection, or even relief upon finding Abi awake. Rather, he had seemed almost horrified…

Then, in a final twist to the day’s events, Kaede looked at him with the first glimmer of hope and said, “Perhaps your counter-curse will work.”

Beneath the Dragon Skies, Chapter IX

Read [Prologue], [Chapter I], [Chapter II], [Chapter III], [Chapter IV], [Chapter V], [Chapter VI], [Chapter VII] and [Chapter VIII].

Chapter IX

Alethea felt Kaede’s hand rest on her shoulder, warm and heavy. Subtle etches of pain cracked the otherwise stony guise he wore. His expression hearkened back to their first meeting, as he stood grim-faced beside his mother. Since their acquaintance was born, she could not recall seeing him with such a severe look, even in his somber moods. Like a war drum heralding battle, her heartbeat quickened, thrumming loudly in her ears.

“She cannot help us.” Kaede looked at her, but he seemed distant. His tone was strangely contradictory, half-commanding and half-beseeching. “Let’s go.”

The life of the girl you cheated. Was Sela intending to stir up strife between them and drive a blade between her and Kaede? Still, the Phoenix’s words rang with an uncomfortable degree of truth. And instead of outrage or dismissal, Kaede seemed suddenly withdrawn.

But she could not question him here. Alethea nodded dully, and he took her hand to lead her out of the cavern. She felt Sela’s gaze follow them, but she made no comment or motion to stop them.

When blue skies broke overhead, she drew in a deep breath. Kaede also paused, before beginning to pace on the ledge before her. With sunlight blazing at his back, he appeared to her a shadowy form, his shoulders bent and hands clasped behind his back.

Alethea watched him for a few moments, feeling the air escape her lungs more swiftly with each breath.

“Does she know something about you?” She asked quietly, but ached as the words fell out.

He saved my life today. Though her conscience accused her, she could not shake the nagging doubt formed from Sela’s words.

He stopped pacing and finally met her gaze. His stark expression burned away, replaced with sorrow.

“I have not been forthcoming about everything.” He sighed, casting his eyes to the ground. “I can tell you all, but I fear you will hate me.”

The words choked in her throat, but she spoke them calmly. “Tell me.”

He opened his mouth and closed it, as if testing his account mentally before speaking aloud. “I did not love Abigail,” he said finally, forcing his gaze up to hers. Though it felt like hot iron bars closing in around her, she could not look away. “When we met and I learned who she was, I thought to use it to my clan’s advantage. My mother encouraged our courtship. If I married the Dragon chief’s daughter, I would be in position to challenge your father and—” he broke off, before continuing, “It was not out of mere ambition, though I cannot deny that played a part. I wanted peace between our clans, and this was an opportunity to pursue to it.” A brief, defensive note entered his tone before it dissolved into contrition.

Alethea took his words in, waiting for the agony to break through her. In bracing herself for the inevitable wound, the shock of his revelation came and went, only grazing her fleetingly.

But she only felt numb and hollow, like someone reached inside and emptied her.

“Alethea.” His voice came to her through a fog, and an awful dose of reality struck her. “Please, say something.”

She lifted her eyes to his face but instantly turned aside. She faintly noticed the pain begin to bleed through her.

Kaede. My only friend outside of my family. I owe him my life. She thought of his friendly mockery and moments of unguarded honesty, his strong arms the only thing between her and a thousand foot death-plunge. How could he be untrue?

But all she said was, “So Meike will expose the curse to my clan and try to depose my father.”

He blinked in bewilderment before understanding dawned. “No—I was honest when I said she does not know the truth. She knows nothing of the curse or you.”

“How can I believe you?” The question sprung out coldly but softly as she felt her heart close towards him.

Kaede did not disguise his hurt. “I have no reason to lie to you now.”

“And what reason did you have to only betray us half-heartedly? There is neither kindness nor prudence in that.”

Alethea felt none of the hot anger she expected, but bitterness frosted over her feelings.

A passing struggle flashed across his face. “It was not out of kindness or prudence that I guarded your secret,” he murmured, “but I will only deepen the injury if I tell you.” He paused. “Alethea, I am sorry. I have no excuse or integrity to stand on before you. But for the little it is worth, I have been genuine in my dealing with you. Though I did not love Abigail, I admired her and sincerely wanted to remedy the curse. And I wanted your happiness.”

She absorbed his speech and felt a rock-hard resolve take shape in her mind. A knot began to form in her stomach, but she ignored it.

“Kaede, I cannot deny what you have done for me. If you mean those words, grant me a final favor.”

Wariness flickered in his eyes. “If I can do anything for you…”

Alethea unfastened the coal-colored pearl pendant around her neck. She held it out to him, and he opened his hand to receive it.

“Return this to Abigail. If you can spare her your admission, then spare her. And do not marry her.”

He reached out and clutched her shoulder in a vice-like grip. “You cannot go back there.”

“Do you know me so well, that you know my plan?” she murmured, half to herself, before fixing a soft, sad gaze on him. “Yet, I do not know you at all.”

Kaede did not release her. “Then, let me tell you what is in my heart and we can leave this cursed place.”

“No.” Alethea moved out of his grasp and closed his hand over the pearl, almost tenderly. “This is all I ask. Go home.”

“Alethea—” A dark storm brewed in his eyes.

“My life has been a tale cobbled together by the decisions of others. Do not take this choice away from me.”

His head bowed, and for a moment, she could envision the weight of the Adamaris pressed onto his shoulders. A blaze of empathy blew past her but it quickly faded as the dark cavern loomed in her mind. With a pang, Alethea knew Kaede could say nothing more to her, and such was her intent.

Perhaps she could not defeat the famine, or even save her family’s honor and position. Yet a small hope for Abigail’s fate still gleamed and called out to her.

She turned on her heel abruptly and strode into the cavern. Kaede made no move to stop her.

Sela remained by her makeshift fire when she reached the end of the dark corridor. The Phoenix glanced at her, a strange but knowing look in her face.

“Men are worthless, aren’t they?”

Alethea simply stared into the flickering flames, watching the orange light burst into swift and desperate dances before the shadows extinguished them.

“You stepped out of your shelter into a world of bloodshed and betrayal.” Sela rose to her feet slowly. “Perhaps you can understand why I seclude myself here.”

She met the older woman’s gaze. “There is bloodshed and betrayal, but there is also beauty. We see the world through the window of our heart,” Alethea echoed an old Dragon proverb. “If we are bitter, we will find bitterness everywhere. No cave or cabin can shield us from ourselves.”

“Have you come here to lecture me?” Sela merely raised her brow, but the mockery in her tone rang clear.

“You know why I’ve come.”

She seemed unsurprised, and beckoned Alethea to follow her. They went deeper into the cavern, where the fire provided only a faint light to guide them. Alethea felt her heartbeat quicken but the exhaustion from Kaede’s revelation and their arduous journey up the mountain dulled her fear.

When Sela came to a halt, she studied their surroundings. Alethea drew in a sharp breath.

Life-size paintings of flying creatures rose on the jagged rock wall before them—a dragon with its wings unfurled, a pack of sparrows soaring beneath it, and a red phoenix bathed in flames.

A lone spindle with a full wheel of thread stood under the vivid canvas of images.

“Every life, every clan, is a slowly-turning spindle,” Sela said quietly. “Unraveling in numbered days until the thread snaps. Life to death. Dust to dust.”

“Yet in between, we can fight so hard and bleed so greatly.”

Alethea felt their eyes meet in a passing moment of kinship. In some small measure, she knew the other woman’s pain of loneliness and rejection, and Sela knew that too.

“It is folly.”

The connection faded, and oddly enough, Alethea felt a small smile turn her mouth up. “That is the difference between us. I think it is glorious.”

They stood in silence before Alethea asked finally, “What do I need to do?”

Sela laid a hand on the spindle. “When the thread you spin runs out, you will take the curse, and your sister will return to life.”

Alethea knelt on the hard ground and touched the wooden axle. The thread felt rough and thick in her hands as she ran her fingers over it. A sudden memory charged through her—sitting in her cabin with Rafa days after they lost Abigail, confessing her anguish. The curse should have been mine. Look around you. It was already mine.

But now I have tasted a little of life. Alethea felt a wrench in her chest as she thought of the village’s cobblestone paths at dusk, the wild plains of the Adamaris, and even her adventures with Kaede. These things tugged at her heart, as if bidding her to hold on to life, to walk away from this madness.

No. This is for Abigail. The image of her sister’s face, the mischievous glint in her eyes and laughter, rose to mind and hardened her conviction.

Alethea pulled the thread out of the spindle.

Beneath the Dragon Skies, Chapter VIII

Read [Prologue], [Chapter I], [Chapter II], [Chapter III], [Chapter IV], [Chapter V], [Chapter VI] and [Chapter VII].

Chapter VIII

He watched the rocky foothold break loose against her heel and opened his mouth to shout a warning. Alethea swung her arms out to grasp the protruding ledge above her but the reach was too far. Sweeping his gaze around their precarious station in a lightning second, Kaede made a small leap up the narrow incline until he was directly under her. He spread his feet and bounced his knees lightly, his hands splayed out like a small net in front of him.

She cried out as she plummeted backwards. Before he could react, Alethea slammed into him, her spine pressed against his palms. Pure survival instinct rushed through Kaede. He gripped her waist and propelled them both forward, away from the thousand-foot drop at his back.

His hand found a small crevasse and wrapped white-knuckled fingers around it. When he felt their weight stabilize, he leaned against the side of the mountain and closed his eyes.

Alethea’s arms were wound tightly around his middle, her breath coming in gasps. He touched her arm gently, trying to reassure, but felt his own body trembling like a leaf.

When she pulled away, he guided her hand to the same crevasse to steady her. She remained silent for a long moment, wide-eyed and pale.

Kaede mustered a smile, attempting to dispel the fog that followed their brush with death. “We live to Phoenix hunt another day.”

His voice seemed to shake her out of fear-stricken stupor. The sudden clarity in her gaze was almost unnerving.

“Kaede—” she began, and then faltered. “I—”

“Oh, please, no eloquent speeches.”

He felt a small thrill of pleasure and relief when her lips quirked upward. A measure of color began returning to her face.

“Thank you,” she said simply.

His chest throbbed. No one else could steal his ready wit with the simple authenticity Alethea possessed. Her dark hair fell like a messy frame around her face and he felt pain pulse through him as he considered how terribly close an encounter she had with mortality.

She is not like Abigail. He recalled his earlier, vague comment, which hung between them.

Her sister was a risk-taker and adventure-seeker. She could lead a clan with her spirit and courage. Kaede admired Abigail, certainly, and found her wit and daring a worthy match to his.

Alethea chased after none of that—peril, renown or glory. Yet she would brave hell and high water for those she loved. She can inspire men, and she does not even know. With a pang, Kaede thought even his mother could not do that, though she dedicated her life to the pursuit of prestige and influence among the Sparrows.

His instinct urged him to deflect her gratitude with a jest, but he resisted. “My pleasure,” he returned genuinely. In a lighter tone, he quipped, “I’m not brave enough to face the witch alone.”

She laughed, but he heard the quiver in her voice.

“Look. We are nearly there.” Kaede motioned at the ledge a few feet above their heads.

When they clambered over the final ridge, he sank onto a large rock, feeling the fatigue in his bones. The last segment of their climb was the most hazardous, and he had slept poorly the night before, turning over in his mind ways to shield Alethea from the inevitable sorrow she would endure. If they failed, Abigail would remain in her deathly state. If they succeeded, she would learn of Kaede’s deception—and a secret, selfish part of him almost hoped Abigail would not awake to expose his duplicity.

It was a terrible thought. Alethea, in all her simplicity and artlessness, put his character to shame.

“Kaede.” Her voice reached him in a hushed, strained tone.

He rounded a small bend to find her staring at the mouth of a cave, flanked on both sides by great stone monuments that resembled wings.

A breath caught in his throat. “This is what Demarion described?”

“Yes—Kaede,” she said, whirling to face him abruptly, “I have not told you…” she trailed off.

His chest tightened with mingled fear and anticipation. But the thought of his own deception pressed painfully in his mind and stirred up earnest empathy. “You can tell me.”

A glint of desperation flashed through her eyes.

“I am afraid we will fail,” she whispered finally.

Kaede did not know if it was her quiet voice or her honest admission that inspired a steely, protective spirit within him. He gripped her arm and felt her startled gaze lock with his. In the back of his mind, he vaguely hoped he did not overstep the bounds of propriety.

“While I stand and breathe, Alethea, she will not hurt you.” His voice sounded rough but sure in his ears.

She bit her lip and cast her eyes downward. “What of Abi?”

He felt a wave of helplessness but stifled it quickly. Kaede had no power over that.

“We can only try.” He sensed the weakness of his words, though Alethea still nodded and forced a grateful smile.

The inside of the cavern was dark, but a small light glimmered in the back, flickering like candlelight. A subtle but persistent dank smell wafted around them. Kaede rested his hand on Alethea’s shoulder, though he was uncertain if the gesture offered any consolation or simply made her uncomfortable.

A billowing shadow fell over the dim flame, darkening his vision entirely. He felt Alethea tense as they stopped moving.

“I have not entertained visitors since your father last came.”

Her voice was smooth and unthreatening but something in her tone made Kaede grow cold. The shadow fell away and the light suddenly glowed twice as brightly, revealing an older woman with gray hair, wrapped in a deep crimson cloak.

“Hello, Sela,” Alethea said.

Sela’s mouth curved up, though her smile carried no warmth. “You have Demarion’s eyes.”

Kaede gripped Alethea’s shoulder more tightly, but she hardly flinched. He sensed a quiet conviction and composure enshroud her.

“Your curse took my sister. I need you to undo it.”

Admiration and brief astonishment at her newfound courage pierced Kaede’s haze of anxiety like a spear.

“Ah, dear Abigail. She had the hot blood of the Dragons, like your father. You, on the hand—”

“How do you know these things?” Kaede broke into her musing.

She glanced at him for the first time, a haughty but penetrating look in her dark pupils. Wordlessly, she lifted her cloak off her shoulder and exposed a blood-colored Phoenix tattoo.

“The gift of foresight,” she returned. “Though,” she muttered quietly, “I did not anticipate a second daughter—” Her gaze returned to Alethea.

“Undo the curse,” Kaede repeated.

Sela did not respond, but rather moved further into the cavern, beckoning them to follow her. Painfully aware of how vulnerable they were—he suspected that swords and knives would serve no use here—he trailed after Alethea.

They arrived at a dead end in the back of the cave. A small fire burned on wooden logs haphazardly tossed together. If she plans to kill us…

“I cannot undo the curse.”

Alethea became very still, but a slow, steady fury began to burn inside Kaede, like Sela’s fire.

“Why not?” he demanded.

“Phoenix limitations. The creator of a spell cannot reverse it.” She paused, shifting her gaze intently from Kaede to Alethea. “I can only transfer it, or another Phoenix must conjure up an appropriate counter-curse.”

“A counter-curse?”

“Phoenix spells are binding. A counter-curse cannot simply reverse the original; it must make a new provision or develop an antidote. Few,” Sela emphasized, “are ever effective.”

Hopelessness and resentment churned in black waves within Kaede. “There are no more Phoenixes in the Adamaris.”

“What do you mean, you can transfer it?” Alethea asked suddenly.

Sela raised a thin brow at her. “I can remove the curse from Abigail and give it to another. Curses cannot be destroyed, but they can be passed along.”

Kaede felt a sick horror in the pit of his stomach as he watched Alethea’s face. She could not think—

“No!” He moved in front of her, half-shielding her body from the Phoenix, as if the effort might protect her from her own deliberations. He glowered wrathfully at Sela, his earlier qualms vanquished by revulsion. “You are wretched.”

The older woman appeared unaffected. “I do not make the rules.”

Alethea stepped out from behind him, touching his arm as she did. “What about the Adamaris? The famine still lies over the mountain.”

“I offered an remedy for that one. Peace between the clans.”

“We won’t have peace without Abigail!” Alethea exclaimed in a sudden burst of passion, her face reddening. “We won’t have peace without her marriage to Kaede.”

Sela did not respond right away, but turned to look at Kaede. He felt her hawk-like gaze blister him, peeling away his layers until the core of him lay raw and naked and bleeding. Cold dread filled him and his lungs closed as if he were underwater. For a brief moment, he wondered if she was casting a spell over him, but the dismay he experienced originated from his own, familiar demons.

“How fully she trusts you,” Sela murmured. “Odd, isn’t it? It was your ambition that the curse used, and yet here you are, asking for the life of the girl you cheated.”

His blood ran like ice through his veins. Alethea turned to him, perplexed, but with a hint of trepidation in her eyes that cut through Kaede.

“What is she talking about?”

Sela’s gaze did not move from him. “Now,” she purred, “who is the wretch?”

Beneath the Dragon Skies, Chapter VII

Happy New Year! 

Read [Prologue], [Chapter I], [Chapter II], [Chapter III], [Chapter IV], [Chapter V] and [Chapter VI].

Chapter VII

They came to a halt on the edge of the Dragon village. Alethea turned around for a final, lingering look at the low-rise cottages and cobblestone paths. She drank in the sight, struck by the sudden awareness that this may be her last view of home. To her surprise, the realization did not make her afraid, merely wistful.

The morning air was crisp and cold, but the cloudless skies suggested a hot day ahead. Jade snorted from beneath her and stamped the dirt impatiently, breaking up her melancholy contemplation. Kaede, beside her on Eagle, waited quietly. She caught his gaze and flushed, noting the empathy in his dark eyes.

“You decided not to tell them,” he said.

Alethea shook her head. “They would never let me go. But—” There is no other way. She swallowed the rest of her words. She did not need to emphasize their desperate plight.

“But I still think we should follow through,” she finished instead.

“I hope so.” Kaede furrowed his brow for a moment, but a smile quickly broke across his face. “Now is the time for second thoughts, if you have any,” he quipped. “After this, we must have ironclad wills.” His glance strayed up the Adamaris.

Father’s story leaped to mind. He was so certain Sela would only harm them further. The thought sent a shiver spiraling through her but she quashed it mercilessly. The time for doubts was long past. Abigail and her people were paying the cost with each passing day.

“Then let us put the iron on now.”

She withheld the new insights on Sela from Kaede. Alethea struggled with enough misgivings and she found his self-assured strength indispensable. She dreaded that any dent in his confidence would make her own collapse entirely.

A small part of her also feared he would abandon their plan if he learned everything she knew.

“Spoken like a noble warrior.” His mouth curved further up.

Her face warmed. Though she had grown used to Kaede’s dramatics, which were often half-mocking yet strangely sincere, she had not mastered the art of responding in kind.

By silent consent, they turned their steeds towards the winding path ahead. The first part of their journey would be familiar, as they followed their usual route away from the village. But they would need to leave their horses behind when they rounded the south face of the Adamaris, where the jagged trail became too narrow for the beasts. Kaede had said the view from there, which overlooked the sea, was nearly worth the peril. That did little to ease Alethea’s nerves.

They had planned for a two-day journey up the mountain, hoping to find a suitable place to make camp for the night. She could not imagine sleeping without a bed or a roof, suspended between the cliffs and the stars. Casting a sidelong glance at Kaede, who rode comfortably on Eagle, she wished she could find an equal reservoir of courage within her.

“It will take two days for the ascent,” he echoed her thoughts. “Four days in total, if nothing goes awry. Your family will notice your absence.”

“I know.” It pained her to think of their imminent anxiety. “But it will be a small, forgivable thing if we succeed.”

A sudden, troublesome thought crashed into her. “Does your mother know?”

“What?” His gaze flashed towards her.

Apprehension tightened her stomach. “My family knows nothing,” she repeated. “What about your mother? When you returned home a few days ago, did you tell her—anything?” Alethea shrugged helplessly.

With the turmoil of the curse and famine, she had not even considered what Kaede might share with Meike during the days he was gone. They had established their alliance on a mutual love for Abigail, and as friendship budded between them, Alethea grew more convinced of his dependability. But their entire agreement and relationship occurred apart from Meike’s knowledge. Last time they met, the Sparrow Chief believed that she was Abigail, and that she would marry her son.

Was the bond of trust she built—or imagined she built—with Kaede enough for him to protect Alethea from his own mother?

Something in his eye flinched for half a second, but it passed quickly and his features softened.

“No. I said nothing.” Perhaps reading the unease in her face, he continued with unusual earnestness. “Alethea, she does not even know you exist. She thinks I am still courting Abigail, so of course, I could not tell her anything of this journey.”

She nodded slowly, blowing out a silent breath of relief. An uncertain but genuine smile touched her lips.

“Thank you.”

He returned a somber smile, which transformed into his customary smirk a moment later. “Hence, no one knows where we are or what we are doing. Adventure awaits, milady.”

His hint at the clandestine nature of their operation stirred up a vague sense of guilt in regard to Abigail. This is for her though, Alethea reasoned. Besides, it was simply Kaede’s personality that made him incapable of drawing a line between jesting and flirting.

“I like adventures better between the pages of a book,” she murmured, almost more to herself.

He chuckled. “Well, if we pitch off a cliff to our deaths, we will teach them the true meaning of taking your secrets to the grave.”

It was a morbid joke, with her family behind them and the Adamaris’ spiraling trails ahead, but she still coughed out a genuine laugh. Kaede turned a surprised look on her that morphed into a grin.

“By the stars, you are not the same girl I first met.” His tone revealed a blend of amusement and admiration.

Alethea flushed at the memory. “I was posing as my sister,” she pointed out.

“Yes.” His gaze strayed into the distance, as if the same recollection absorbed him. He paused for a moment before his eyes found hers again, a strange light in them. “You are nothing like her.”

Perplexed, she opened her mouth and closed it again. Kaede did not give her time to ponder, as he quickly looked away and urged Eagle forward, leaving Alethea to trail behind him, wondering at his words.

They left Eagle and Jade at mid-morning when the path bent sharply and narrowly up. Alethea felt her knees tremble and she encountered a moment of terror at the sight before them, her legs immobilized like stone. But Kaede came behind her with a steady hand on her back. He said nothing, but simply stood beside her until the panicked haze passed and she began moving forward.

She felt grateful, and oddly, unembarrassed. He made no comment and expressed no concern, but she sensed his silent protectiveness. With the thin incline forcing them to proceed in single file, Kaede tramped behind her. He did not push for speed or ask after her, but he kept close proximity and Alethea felt assured that he would catch her if she made a wrong step. The knowledge made her more fearless.

As they climbed, the air seemed clearer but thinner. When she would chance a look downwards, she felt vertigo sweep over her. Alethea recalled staring out at the peaks of the Adamaris from her old cabin in the village, awed by how they stood like jagged gray pillars piercing the skies.

Now, she was at their mercy.

Signs of the famine existed even at these heights. Once green copses and shrubbery at the wayside were burnt yellow.

If we do not undo the curse on the mountain, Abigail will be the last one alive in the Adamaris!  

The terrible thought seized Alethea. By its dark magic, the curse on her sister sustained her without food or water. She looked the same as the day the curse took her.

But if the famine persisted… they would all die, except for Abigail. She would hang in that haunted chasm between life and death, alone in every way.

Alethea shuddered at the idea and felt renewed adrenaline churn through her veins.

She kept her contemplations from Kaede, presuming he battled his own private demons and did not need hers to join the fray. He bore the same burden for Abigail, and he still had to contend with his mother and clan politics.

“Ready?” his voice broke into her reflection at the same time his hand gripped her shoulder.

For what? Alarm ran through her, but the words died on her tongue as they rounded another bend and the sea unfurled below them.

Her breath stole away from her lungs. The white-crested waves crashed tirelessly against the cliffs, sending sprays of salt water dancing into the air. She traced the rhythm of the waves out farther and farther until her sight failed. On the horizon, a soft golden light rubbed the edge of the sky.

“Your next painting, perhaps.”

She shook her head. “I could never do this justice.”

An almost sacred silence fell over them. Alethea drank in the vision around her, forgetting the curse, the famine, Sela. Her world, which seemed so rich inside the Dragon village, felt like a trifling thing before the vast ocean.

When the moment passed, Kaede pointed to a dip in the path ahead of them. “That widens into a level ledge behind the rocks. We can make camp here tonight.”

Relief made her breath hitch in her throat. She simply nodded.

Dusk descended swiftly as they rolled out their blankets and ate a dry, meager dinner from their packs. Alethea’s entire body ached from the strain of their hike, but she also felt an unexpected thrill rush down her spine. In a small way, she began to understand Abigail’s yearning for adventure.

“Do you miss her?”

Kaede looked at her. “Abigail?” He grew quiet. “Yes. Though sometimes I wish I never met her. I triggered the curse.”

Alethea heard the bitter edge in his voice. So these are your demons. She nearly forgot it was his flowers, but his words drew her back to that fateful night in her cabin. The image of Abi crumpling like a doll in Rafa’s arms played vividly again in her mind.

“You should not blame yourself. It would have happened some other way.”

He nodded, but changed the subject. “Your family seems well, in spite of all that has happened. You are closely knit.”

Did she imagine a hint of a longing in his tone?

“There has been tension.” Their last gathering sprung to mind. “But we are close. Abi’s fate cut father and mother deeply, though they try to hide their pain.”

“And Rafa?”

Alethea started. “What of him?” she asked, a little too quickly.

“He is close with you too.” Kaede spoke vaguely, and he did not meet her gaze.

Does he know? She reasoned the possibility away. Even she had no idea of Rafa’s affection for her sister until, strangely enough, the day the curse took her. Though Rafa acted aloof around Kaede during his stay with them, he surely would not suspect it was because of Abigail.

“He is like a brother to us—both of us. He was an orphan boy, and Father found him wandering outside the village shortly after we were born.” An unwitting smile turned up the corner of her mouth. “He came home and asked mother, ‘How would you like a son, without enduring nine months of agony?’”

Kaede laughed at the story, but she could tell his mind was elsewhere.

“Well, though I cannot tell Rafa, I am sorry I have made a mess of things for him.”

“What?”

He stared at her for a moment before his face broke into a genuine grin, his usual charm returning with a twinkle in his eye.

“My dear, I forget you spent your life holed up in a cabin! If you do not see it, I should not spoil his secret.”

What—oh! He thinks Rafa is in love with me!

“No,” she managed, “You have a wild imagination.”

Unconvinced, he shrugged and a roguish smirk cut across his features. “Believe what you would like. They say ignorance is bliss.”

“You are intolerable.”

“And you are quite charming when you mount a spirited defense.”

His rapid rejoinder, a mixture of light mockery and unguarded honesty, robbed her of all possible retorts. Alethea felt the blood rush up to her face and a warm sensation spread in the hollow of her chest, followed by a wave of self-reproach.

He means nothing by it. It is simply his way of speech. He loves Abi, and heavens, he thinks Rafa loves me.

“We should rest soon,” she said abruptly, turning to smooth out her blanket rolls.

Something unreadable flickered in his expression, but he merely nodded.

“As you wish,” he said gallantly.