Chapter 1: Dead Fish
Gudomlay. Five foot four, long medium ash brown hair, green eyes--sometimes gray--shy, kind, and stoic. She was the sweet girl everyone at Black Eel Academy adored and or admired. The popular kids were nice to her, maybe even wanted to be her comrade. But her shyness sometimes hindered her ability to make friends. Though well liked, some thought she seemed stuck up. To others, she was a tiny nice looking girl who was far less intimidating than she was pretty. Some were able to gain her trust. And the few that saw her open up were her devoted loyal friends.
She was an orphan taken in by the state, raised by a professor at Black Eel Academy, and a shining star student. All her life she had little to worry about. She was one of those abandoned children that had a promising future. Promising because she was the ward of a collective people who held important positions. People who had invested riches into her development. People she never met. People she didn’t think about.
For the fourteen years she’d been with the professor, she devoted herself to becoming a perfect star student. But her greatest ambition and hope was to be one of those graduates that would one day be sent across the wall. She wanted to go into the Wild Lands where only the best was sent. She wanted to see the world beyond the city. She wanted to live a life brimmed with the unknown.
Some thought her too sweet for the task. Those who knew her best also knew otherwise.
Even the stripe students liked her well enough and knew she was more than the surface suggested. After all, Professor Kunagi wasn’t likely to raise any normal girl. She also didn’t care about the hierarchy within the academy’s separation of classes, and so she treated everyone the same. It made getting along with people easier, and the stripes respected her for it.
As a star student, she wore the white, gold lined suit uniform of the school. The girls were in pleated skirts with gold trim and the same blazers and cravats as the male students. The only part of the outfit that was consistently different was someone’s shoes. Gudomlay preferred flats since it was nearest to being barefoot.
Stars were those who were learning combat. But more importantly, how to be the best negotiators, politicians, and peacekeepers. Their job, once they graduated from the academy, was to stop battles and wars before they began. They were to keep diplomacy between the walled off cities throughout the land. And they were to stop the mad nomads, and other creatures of the Wild Lands, from crossing the border.
A stripe student’s duty was far less glamorous. And they were donned in less fine attire of neutral colors. To the star students, they were only the poorer class. Young people who were learning the normal materials of a school. Their actual studies, however, were much more intense even compared to that of a star’s. But the star students would never know. Not until they graduated and were teamed up with a stripe student. One whom they might have ridiculed during their years together. It was the stripe students whose job it was to keep the star student alive. Even if it meant giving up his or her own life.
Only Gudomlay knew this secret as a student because only Gudomlay was allowed in the striped student’s part of the school. And this was only allowed because her foster father was a young professor. One whose purpose was to ripen the stripe crop or kill them trying.
“Here.” Gudomlay, inside her guardian’s dungeon tower, held out a brown paper sack. The juices of the old dead fish inside had leaked through so it was dripping and smelled rank. Holding her breath, she handed it to the silver-haired man wearing big wired glasses. Blinking, his black eyes shifted from his computer screen to her offering.
He lifted a hand and accepted it from her. Then he plopped it down on his desk on top of a keyboard not currently in his use and peeked in. The juices within splattered on the keys, and though it might have been obvious, he was interested to see what she’d brought him for lunch today. When his guess proved correct, he quivered with delight so even his long white lab coat trembled.
Gudomlay made a queer face and took a step back as he reached into the sack and pulled out the old smelly trout. Its scales caught the light of the computers in front of which he sat, and its dead eye rolled as if to fix upon her. The grin on her guardian’s face that came next gave away the sharp teeth he often kept hidden with tight lips. And then he tilted his head back to clamp his mouth over the thing with a snap.
Gudomlay grinned wryly. Though she’d grown up with her foster father’s taste in food, it still made her squirm. Even now she couldn’t understand why he liked food so foul. As a child, she wouldn’t explore the idea of putting something so slimy and gross looking in her mouth. And when he’d tried feeding it to her, she’d ran so he couldn’t find her until the next morning. But even after that, he sometimes tried to slip her something every now again. Luckily, Gudomlay had a good sense of smell.
She coughed, trying to be polite and not plug her nose. She’d teased him about it before but had grown out of that phase in her life. Her respect for the strange man had risen over the years. So, she did her best to not insult him. Though he never actually ever seemed to be insulted by anything she said or did. Nor had she seen him upset over anything anyone else had done before. He was a monotone, seemingly emotionless man. The only way she knew he had a heart at all was the one time a council member from the government had threatened her.
That was the day she’d learned that the professor wasn’t perfectly human. And, that he was the only person in the world that loved her enough to risk everything for her.
He should have been imprisoned or even executed. But a man--one she recognized as gorgeous and strange even at her young age--had come. He’d smiled, and gave Kunagi a gentle warning.
“Don’t make me have to put on a show of killing you,” he’d said. “Odessa would be displeased if I even faked it, and she already has ill feelings towards me.” Even his voice had drawn her in at the time, almost seeming angelic. And yet, it’d had a dark undertone that warned this handsome person wasn’t all kind.
Anyway, it was a strange thing to say on his part. Odessa was supposedly the patron spirit of the Black Eel Academy. Each of the eleven spirits of their world protected at least one somewhere on the map. Or, that was the belief. Gudomlay didn’t know if she agreed that they would care at all for the kind of academy Black Eel was. In fact, it seemed contradictory. The professor always said that Odessa would never support the sort of things that went on in the school. It was as if he knew her personally and could say so.
And then he would glance at her, his eyes fixated on a place below her throat. He would always make a grim face before turning away. Gudomlay hadn’t always thought that odd. Not until she was old enough to understand.
Behind those glasses, with those black eyes, he was looking at her as if he were searching for something. Something that couldn’t be there. As if she were data on one of his computers and he was waiting for something to make itself known. She’d always cover the spot subconsciously, worried because he seemed worried about it too. What unnerved her even more, though, was that she sometimes imagined she could feel something there. Something soft and warm and inviting. Something that was alive and breathing and powerful. Something that hadn’t yet woken up.
“I’m off to class then, Kunagi,” she said, turning away from him and his lunch with a wave.
“M’lay,” the professor called, his voice much lower than she was used to.
She paused and glanced back at him, waiting. Kunagi never called her by her full name. Though he’d gone to great efforts to make sure she remembered what it was. Instead, he insisted on calling her M’lay. It had always sounded as if he were saying my lady to her, though she knew he would never do so purposely.
Kunagi had an odd sense of devotion to the spirit Odessa. He considered only her worthy of any reigning title. At least aside from the three of fourgodshe’d told her of. Though, she supposed the younger two weren’t exactly gods. It was all complicated and she understood it, but to think of the story made her sad. Even now the thought of those brothers made her melancholy.
“Come back when your classes are through. Interviews for third-year students is come. We need to discuss your future after your graduation next year,” he said. Something in his tone made her tighten her jaw and tense with anticipation.
She nodded. “All right...” And then she waited a moment to give him time to say anything more, to look at her even. But he didn’t do anything. He just kept his shrugged back to her and nibbled on his fish. The lights from his several monitors outlined him that way with a glow that made it all seem a scary sight. Thinning her lips, she turned. And then she hurried out the dungeon classroom and disappeared up the winding stairs.
Kunagi, his teeth sunk in the flesh of his old fish, paused from eating and frowned deeply.
How was he supposed to tell her? This imp-like child thing he was forced to look after and had grown attached to--though he would never admit to the fact--was a slave?