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The last court case ended as such: Acacia’s parents had been quiet for so long that such an adventure took all dreams and ruminations of rebuilding Domain and reuniting the torn empires back to the forefront.

Mrs. Alexander addressed Daphne and the judge. “I have been left out of the will too, Judge! I was supposed to be next in line, but my mother here wanted too much protection for me and for the longest time I hadn’t known my ancestors, but thankfully! —thankfully, Daphne’s not dead!” Acacia was offended, although not embarrassed, that her mom digressed over the will again when Acacia’s mind had already jumped so far ahead to the future and dreams, but her mom added, “I can rightfully pay for college without the will! Acacia! Come restart the fishery.”

“But— Acacia began to protest.

“Tourists will come bargaining and I know your friends like to hang out there!”

“But—what about the other’s in town?” Acacia was not about to insult the family business but she thought the business needed more than a fresh start, and however much the Alexander’s denied Acacia’s aging, it kept up with the stress hairs greying on her parent’s foreheads. “You said—”

She was almost about to say, “You said that the fishery is strong by itself and you won’t mind if I had to stop for a while to study all-nighters.”

“I don’t know what I said!” Mrs. Alexander shook and clipped at the beginnings of a wail. “But you can’t help others unless you help yourself. The fishery is the center of Domain’s town economy.”

The emotion, foreign to Mrs. Alexander’s personality, made Acacia stoop back into her pew but speak more forcefully, “Mom, I know...I know Daphne had shortcomings as queen, but unification is forthcoming for the two empires, not just for us, and I can take care of the business. If only you respect your past choice, Mom, while respecting Grandmother’s and mine. I can restart the fishery while serving as mayor,” she turned to the jurors and audience, “And as your queen, courtroom.”

However forceful the words fought out, Acacia had the sense her thoughts were too scattered to sink in. She wanted to add more to clarify but Danika’s gavel woke them into existence. Entire courtroom sped into murmurings.

“E-nough! As much as I’d not like to misjudge Ms. Acacia Stephanopoulos Alexander based on her grandmother’s shortcomings I cannot tolerate these interruptions and rants in my courtroom, nonetheless, in my presence.” Danika urged that Acacia was not to be judged but Acacia silently judged the official’s cool fury. Danika Pierce’s outrage rivaled the Alexander’s and made the Judge seem less distant, especially with the motherly scold using her middle name. Once upon a time, Acacia asked her mother to flip her middle and last name when she started kindergarten but Mrs. Alexander brushed off the innocent question and shuttered as if it were a curse.

Judge Pierce asked one of the Elders of the Old World to rise with an attempt to return to a polite tone, “I give Ivovan the floor.”

“I cannot, Your Honor, change your laws, thus I cannot choose them but I wish not to follow them because in our country, in our world, there doesn’t need to be a full consensus between all the elders because we have too many elders to consent. It’s up to Daphne and Daphne only—to proceed with questions. Ah! But it’s only every one of us that needs questioning. I can confirm Daphne will not tell you where the will’s deed is. We do not operate on deeds or written word but maybe it is Daphne who doesn’t know and doesn’t wish to tell us. I doubt there is a deed. Our ways aren’t your ways.”

Daphne shot out of the pew, making Ivovan jump and all the searching, the wondering, and trust of Daphne faded away and what was revealed made them more uncertain. “I have the deed! It is unwritten! And had I known the interrogations my people would endure I would not have faked death! But no...I had not faked death...I cheated her. Acacia’s deed has been Acropolis and Acropolis only, but this case has been not in vain. There is still something, Your Honor, we need to protect, and I’m still not comfortable revealing it you, but this case has been about what was given to my granddaughter on the battlefield. You may have noticed it. Once it was taken unintentionally by our new friend, Conrad. He has returned it and thus, has returned back from soil.”

The town exacerbated into waspy whispers and snippets of worrisome gossip. Ever since the newcomer came to town, rumors had been high-flying about the boy whose father had taken ownership of the college, challenging their loyalty to Janus—the quiet and sometimes reticent foreigner Conrad, who was just as immune to rumors as he was poison. Judge Pierce knocked her gavel, this time in fatal exhaustion.

“I don’t pretend to understand or have Domain understand what you are relaying, but this has changed the course of the court if you tell me what is true—that Conrad has returned...then I’ll have the Droughts return for a verdict. This has been about the battle all along. All along this has been about the deed to the town. How this worries me. I’ll have as you wish, Daphne, but you haven’t been clear.”

Acacia leaned in her seat. She almost sided with Danika now but the verdict now strayed toward Daphne’s sentence and Acacia’s sentence. She did not anticipate sentencing, even on the Drought’s, but the links chinked together. Acacia never wanted to be High Warrior; her political leanings were anti-war but battle had been about her coronation as well as protecting all the unicorns, including the domesticated ones who joined Jason. She wanted Domain and Acropolis to reach a truce, but her coronation confirmed her dreams of uniting the two empires was the truce Daphne wanted always. Jason’s absence from the will had been Daphne’s deliberation although Daphne and Acacia had once had his confidence.

Danika continued, “...and the deed to the town, in truce, includes the deed to the Acropolis!”

“Wise deduction, Danika,” Daphne beamed with childlike mischief.

“But Jason’s interference proves a different case,” Danika sighed almost nonchalantly. She then held her breath, “we shall see in due process after a due recess.” With the knock of the gavel, Acacia suspected it would be the last time she would ever see Janus. His nightmares had transferred to her but she hoped the worst of his dreams didn’t come back to him.

6:0o P.M.

Acacia’s own nightmares were closer than realized. Jason and the Droughts awaited their sentence in the other room. Danika had reasoned with Firebird to allow them temporary passage into their world. The case changed quicker than it had in months. Jan’s parents were seen as the perpetrators just as much as accomplices. Chiron and Circinus, who had been known as “subspecies” up to this point, were allowed to have the final floor.

“I tolerate justice over mercy, but only when it is due,” Chiron declared. “Jason hasn’t even shown that much to my kind, but I’ll give him my justice. Exile is acceptable but my kind is still afraid of what he might do. However, if it hadn’t been for Acacia venturing inside the dreamcatcher, we would not understand Jason’s fears. Humans, Mr. and Mrs. Drought, you may or may not have led your son to this, but if you did, then you must know how to turn him around.”

Jason’s blackened and weary eyes looked sycophantically up at Chiron as if the pain of his past was not passed.

Daphne looked older again. Perhaps it was the Domain air or perhaps it was the pressure. Daphne had one last announcement but no one knew whether her visage meant to conceal something physical or reveal one of her metaphysical truths, “It would do well for Jason to have some time away. I’ve sent him in exile before, Judge, but under your nose and to my land. So, if this is not about election or mayoral seats as you say, exile Jason to whatever land lies beyond Acropolis we know nothing about! Under my law, exile him, but under your law, set him a fresh start.”

A shiver wrenched up Acacia’s spine at the sound of “fresh start.” Jason could have still been originally part of the will, but he hadn’t proven himself so Daphne accepted Conrad as a stand-in, perhaps forever.

Judge Danika answered with a polite and denotative nod, the most dramatic move gestured in months. The empire grew at its seams, like two trees growing too close together that wrap around each other like candied marshmallow ropes, crossing fingers, or a childhood promise.

I revealed to you the plans I wanted, for our lands to grow closer together, but I had not revealed to you what Daphne previously told you: the empires need to not only get along but come together in unison. This had been the deed. The fruit had only been behind it. I had appointed Conrad to take care of my seal, and thus share it even though I feigned for him. I pretended my ignorance but I shouldn’t pretend any longer once I return to Domain Private. I lied to my friends and the court as well. I lied about my searches. I lied about my ancestry. Why did I still need to search Jason once I’ve returned home? Had he not stolen the weapons and treasury and given them to Mother? He had been hiding from me. Much more he hid from you, town, wrote Acacia.

Mr. and Mrs. Drought took Janus Drought out of the courtroom into a sea of reporters while the Malevich and Alexander elders and family stayed a little behind to get out of the crowd of strangers and stranger people. Cavalcades of cars waited to take Janus away to an unknown Western town or neighboring towns like Archaica and Oldston. While they stayed behind, Acacia was the first to leave, just to catch a glimpse of Jason’s face. He looked awkwardly at Acacia and she wasn’t sure if he wanted to avoid her gaze, but there were first signs of remorse.

Jason was later brought to final trial where the new mayor was announced, the gypsy queen, Acacia, Acacia, with the devising of bringing the long-torn countries of Domain and Acropolis together, was busy building a renewed empire. She wanted Daphne to take charge of Domain, once more, with Jason sent far into exile with his father. The coronation meant mayor of Domain and the Land of Jewels. The coronation meant a long juggling match, especially through college.


Domain took a few weeks to acquaint itself with Acropolis of Old. They honored Daphne, despite her deceptive play, for preparing them to meet the Elders and other citizens of The Land of Jewels. The Old World intermingled with the new and the empires slowly gained unity through sharing of cultures.

Acacia returned to Domain Private College to visit Kazimir in the quiet that followed the final verdict. He agreed to take a year off after learning so much from Acropolis. Kazimir already had learned enough from his apprenticeship, or as Domain liked to call it, an “internship”, but he agreed to visit his elders in Acropolis on the holidays.

Acacia and Kazimir walked down crowded steps of the college but throughout the clamor, all eyes flickered to the unicorn riders, so they whispered carefully between classes. Every day Kazimir and Acacia rode with Chiron and Circinus and no one was tardy again. Acacia made the mistake of telling everyone in mythology classes, before it was time, that unicorns exist truly, and it took everyone back to “Crazy Acacia” or “Cray Acay-cay,” the names people called her since Elementary, but riding to class on her old steeds stopped the name-calling and made her feel royal.

“Have you decided what your major is going to be?” Kazimir asked sympathetically upon dismounting Chiron.

“Well...I, uh...decided a major in political science?”

“Really, and I thought you hated politics!” he choked in forced laughter above a whisper.

Kazimir’s worst subjects were in political science so she wasn’t fazed. “It’s not really useful, but know what I mean?” she thought how her studies could keep the town from crumbling but also how it would further her rank up from High Warrior. However, raising her status wasn’t her first mission of missions, even competing with the realpolitik of Janus.

“I know exactly what you mean! I feel the same way about calculus. I guess it’s see you next semester,” he walked off down the hall toward class, his bag hanging over his right shoulder. “Off to some important stuff, ’Cray Acay-cay!” he strutted. Acacia laughed and rolled her eyes.

Acacia couldn’t stop thinking about Chiron and Circinus when they went back through the portal. Andelko was the strangest character to arrive in the fishing village since she restarted Mr. Mallard’s new class. Acacia no longer tripped over everything and brought calamity to the sleepy class. The world outside was much more calamitous. She didn’t have to miss Andelko because Domain gradually became his home but she thought about returning to find Chiron and Circinus—except the thought of Acropolis brought back the image of Ara, charred and burning at the stake. Acacia liked to think she saved Ara, but Ara’s recovery also came from the young priestess’s medicine. The priestess, priests, and healers from all four corners of the land carried Ara miles on a gurney throne to a spring of rest after the deciding council with Cyrano.

At the thought of Ara and her health, a simple smile eased at the corner of her mouth. She looked up and found Conrad talking in the corner, finally to someone—anyone. When Conrad saw Acacia he smiled, happy to drop a conversation but respectfully.

“We have much to learn about you,” Acacia greeted. Conrad was as new to the college as her but his encounter with death gave him a renewed sense of life. Acacia was ruler, she held the fruit which seeded the original lands, the nursery to all worlds, and it was her turn to oversee far beyond the orchards, but Conrad experienced something no one else experienced and so expressed ruler potential.

“I missed far more than class,” Conrad quipped, “but you’re here to teach me.” Conrad was still concerned with classes although they weren’t as overwhelming as before. As renewed heir to the college and the new empire, he kept busy. His father, the President and former Dean, was about to retire. This meant the college would be handed down to Conrad; and Acacia, as empress, ensured he kept Domain Private even if that meant keeping the college private. However, it was up to the Correlli’s to keep the standards strict. Emperors and empresses were scolded more for being late to class, especially four months late.

Acacia laughed, “I don’t know which of us has missed more.” Muffled echoes from the Literature in Myth 102 class issued Mallard’s constant reiterations of the words “juxtaposition” and “accentuated”, words he tried to work into the heads of the freshmen last year, so Acacia knew it had to be the right door. She walked into Mallard’s class with the same embarrassment but the expressions of the students and professor didn’t read in shock, pity, or giggles but in awe. Mr. Mallard seemed quieter and more knowing.

“Welcome, Your Majesties. You have a make-up assignment for being late. That is if you don’t mind getting credit for teaching your classmates about the famed Land of Jewels.” The pirate and the gypsy stood at the front of the class while Mallard played “fifty questions.”

Outside of Domain Private, the town seemed refreshed though still struggling to climb its way out of poverty. The cornfields swayed for miles beneath the ridges and high hills of trees as puffy as the clouds. Summer was approaching and Acacia could smell it in the corn as she rounded on the corner of a dead-end road edging a cornfield. Forward, beyond the cornfield, the hills rose above the unknown. Behind, the town was alive not with mysteries, but comforts. Some comforts were dwindling but the sense of normality and return drew in deeper assurances.

Acacia stood a few yardsticks from the entrance of the Wild Unicorn Brewery and Saloon bearing its inconspicuous name. One door over from the Wild Unicorn was Anton’s, a club Jason’s father owned but maybe not for long after the following court hearing for the parents of the pretender. Though Acacia was in college, wild, and sometimes lackadaisical at heart, she did not care to frequent the raucous hole-in-the-wall.

Find the missing link, the unicorn chimera had said from the dreamcatcher. Of you and Janus.

Midnight four years ago, it didn’t seem so late and still not so long ago. Kazimir, Ondrea, Acacia, and a few of their friends came to Anton’s to get away from the sleepy but watchful Domain. Acacia had been the most silent of the group. Maybe it was the nerves or maybe the fact Jason had been missing to provide the jokes and fill the voids in chatter. Jason was absent; usually, he liked to show up to these shindigs. No one below eighteen ever stepped foot in Anton’s, although Jason’s father procured it.

Entering the bar and club, the scene was opposite of raucous—the regulars gradually poured in with the same thought, “it must be the only thing to do in Domain on a Thursday night.” Friday nights, the relatives would have shown, Saturday night, the couples, and Sunday was only open in the afternoon for luncheon dinner.

The lights, however mellow, were piercing like the smell of smoke which ominously filled in and wafted in the group’s faces as they tried to settle on seating. A dance floor had been set aside next to where they were standing. It was hard to see through the smoke but Acacia hoped the smoke would muddle the sight of her dancing, or, if there was a large enough crowd, other dancers would show-off and turn attention away from her mishaps.

She looked from Ondrea’s friends, to Kazimir’s friends. She looked from face to face trying to make a connection but thought of her friends instead who were busied at night with homework. Everyone, including Kazimir’s familiar but very different friends, knew already what to order and much to their chagrin, they had fake I.D’s. Usually, Kazimir would have been the one to confide in but he pulled out one for her, sending very mixed feelings including gratitude.

“Uh, I know what to order, sir,” piped Ondrea. He had been so much older, reserved, ordered, yet cool and ominous without cold reproach. “I will have the Cherry Cherie and the no-dairy jalapeno bites.”

“Um, and—I’ll have the—Peach Wiz Cocktail Fizz.” Acacia decided quickly that was the safest gamble. Acacia was always afraid of making a mishap when around Ondrea because her young self was flamboyant. She always piped up at the wrong time. Anton’s was smoky and stifling, anyway.

“Okay, and for you, ma’am?” the waiter turned to Kazimir’s friend from out-of-town.

Very rare it was for Domainers to go out-of-town so guests were treated with hospitality mixed with curiosity and skepticism. Domain was comfortable. Everything that was needed stayed and everything from the outside was usually unneeded. The very thought of this cultural quirk turned Acacia’s attention to the foreigners, those from out-of-town.

In those days, she especially loved perusing graveyards, looking for foreign names and noting those which stood out and taking those to the library. Rarely was there information outside family records but a lot of names weren’t from any country she recognized nor did the records list any one country.

Younger guests, perhaps in their mid to late twenties came pouring in as if it were some unwritten bar rule to show up in droves of ten after midnight. The friends of Kazimir weaved in and out of two discussions, sometimes breaking the group into two factions. Acacia did not know which conversational direction to follow with the strange new people. New people often didn’t show up in her life although, in stories, she imagined hundreds gathered together around buildings which looked like giant bricks. Cities were only in stories.

From the droves, she recognized many local workers and although they weren’t technically old, her heart raced like a sewing machine. Would they notice their ages?

“Kazimir,” she prodded him with her fork like a jest.


“We have to get out of here!”

“Why? We just got here.”

“Because I recognize those people as you do,” she pointed toward the distracted and giggling twenty-somethings in clothes which resembled tight hand-me-downs. “And this isn’t like you.”

“Can we just get the food? I can pay your bill—

“No! That would be weird.” Everyone looked at her with concern and embarrassed confusion.

“Can we just get our food?”

“Okay, but if I get tired, I get to leave,” she lowered to a whisper as the bar rose volume. “I don’t want to be rude to these people, but I can handle it.”

“Where’s your sense of adventure?”

“Who are you? You know as well as I how the blame is always put on me because of my adventures!”

A disco ball lowered itself out of the smoke from the ceiling. Soon banjo rap music started bouncing and reverberating off the floors and then the other distracted crowds joined jigging and twisting. That night went as if no town worker had ever recognized Acacia. Perhaps they trusted her, perhaps they trusted her cousin and friends, or maybe they had something they wanted to hide too. Acacia ordered more drinks, and by her cousin’s advice, ordered an appetizer.

The Peach Wiz Cocktail Fizz kept coming but Ondrea insisted she tried the Cherry Cherie. Two by two, then one by one, the party joined the dance floor until Ondrea, Kazimir, and Acacia were left alone. Then it was only Acacia and Kazimir. Earlier, her discomfort switched to boredom but keeping the drinks coming helped and she was able to join in a few laughs.

The stifling silence returned. Acacia had known Kazimir too long to have anything recent to discuss and this wasn’t the usual activity communed between them. Kazimir didn’t want to leave and make her feel uncomfortable, yet his pity and extra attention singled her out and made her an umpteenth-wheel.

Acacia rose and held out her hand, “Will you care to join me?” she spoke in her mock posh accent. The usual Acacia either came back or it was the Cherry Cherie that topped it off. Kazimir jumped excitedly and danced to the center of the floor, knocking aside Ondrea which did not faze her cousin as he wobbled straight. Privately, this made her smile since Kazimir was usually studying this late. Especially since it was only the first year of Advanced College Prep School. She trusted these new friends since they joined her dance, bumping, swishing, and swaying into each other, palms held high, and hips cocking. The banjos became louder and faster and everyone hopped instinctively toward the center in synchronization.

It wasn’t until two hours later, the music died down, and so did the drink which made you hyper but turned you quite the opposite shortly after. Acacia thought it was the long after-affect or the music that made her sleepy. The discomfort started to pulse in as one by one her new friends rejoined the table, yet Kazimir absentmindedly swayed to the slow dances without attention to Acacia. Nonetheless, she needed to keep an eye on him. Her head throbbed so the mechanical swaying was easier than speech. Could she have rejoined the table? It was a far nobler feat to outlast.

Kazimir waltzed with an imaginary partner but she became bored keeping an eye on him as he seemed to run out of moves. Yet no one else kept an eye on him so she decided to make up dance moves until everyone consented to leave. The twenty-somethings definitely weren’t keen on leaving. Some danced as couples, others gossiped close to the wall. Acacia made up ballet moves, sometimes incorporating pirouettes, sautés, rélèves, and bows. What she hadn’t noticed was Ondrea taking the unsteady Kazimir back to his seat.

Out of the group of twenty-somethings, a woman dyed blonde and hourglass, but distinctly haughty through the smoky bar haze, made a fake smile and laughed like she thought watching Acacia was cute. “You don’t get out much, do you?”

Acacia stopped twirling, “What, ma’am?” She asked slovenly.

She smiled again, showing the chemically white horse teeth Acacia thought wouldn’t last long with what she’s drinking. “Do you get out—?”

“I heard you!” Acacia roared, silencing the bar. She balled up a fist and readied an aim at her teeth. “I’m not a larking idiot.”

This made the instigator at least step back but her bulky male roundup was blocking her view. Acacia thought, the lady is twice my age and she needs backup? And she had the gall?

Usually Acacia was more level-headed and maybe she really was tired, but either way, she would regret more in the future if she didn’t act or learn to stand up no matter name, size, or station. She didn’t think of Daphne in her fury but she learned her virtues.

Finally, the lady pushed aside her hoards. Acacia abandoned her fist and took the bottle of malt ale from the cosmopolitan lady’s hand and smashed it over her head. Acacia panted, finally releasing her rage, but when she saw the blood foam with the ale and the immature woman crash to the floor in suppressing sobs, she panicked and quickly regretted her behavior. She trembled and ran back to her friends but her friends weren’t at the table. She ran into their barricade.

“We’re leaving!” Ondrea affirmed.

“That—that—was amazing,” Kazimir breathed. Kazimir and Ondrea’s friends nodded in agreement.

“Let’s hit the Wild Unicorn!” a girl in long black hair and square bangs whooped. For a head-throbbing moment, Acacia could have sworn she saw a silvery swish of a tale and a swirly horn outside as a car with bursting bright headlights passed. The medicine and tonic did not mix.

“No, we are not hitting the Wild Unicorn.” Ondrea squared his jaw.

“Actually, I am kind of tired,” Acacia sighed as numerous t-shirted men and women along with the bar server were bandaging and patting the bully’s shoulders, but attention from the injured and the attacker was stolen away by a suavely dressed teenager with a broom.

Jason hurriedly came toward the crowd, dropping the broom. “What happened? This is my father’s establishment! I’m supposed to clean up!” He looked from the guilty, drained and contorted nerves on Acacia’s visage to the shards of glass in the crowd, to the blonde lady’s blood smeared forehead.

“Who did this? Acacia, why are you here?”

“Of all things! Why am I here? We will explain everything once we get out of here.” Her fists clenched again.

“Hold on, Acacia. I need to call my dad—


“Then, excuse my slang. I’ll call my father.”

“No,” she reaffirmed. “Please don’t call my parents either,” her voice began to croak and tears splashed down her cheeks. She thought her new friends would despise her, but they showed a further strain of concern than when she first saw them, and a fresh wave of embarrassment disguised her.

“Then I’ll call Daphne,” he softly assuaged, slightly afraid of protest.

Acacia nodded consentingly. There was no other choice. She thought of her parents and how if they hadn’t been so strict, maybe she would have been worldly, knowledgeable beyond all the fish in the sea, and able to dance with the sturgeon.

She sat in front of the fire at Daphne’s estate conjured by old money, on the outskirts of town, the outskirts of the world. Daphne stoked it while Acacia stared hypnotically into the dancing flames.

“I will spare telling your parents, but they will find out anyway. It’s your decision, but the longer this simmers,” she said avoiding Acacia’s eye and keeping it on the flame, “the longer it will hurt. You’re lucky Jason was there and acted quickly or the cops would’ve come.”

“This isn’t like Kazimir!” she protested in a high, breaking voice.

“I know, and this isn’t just about Kazimir either.” Acacia was tired of hearing about Kazimir. She didn’t know why she herself brought her longtime friend up. Her relationship with him was fraternal since she had no siblings and was tired of being compared to him.

“I will contact his parents as I doubt Ondrea’s have. Acacia, it’s about time the town knows I show discipline but it’s not just my respect or your family’s respect.” Her long, flowing skirts, peasant shirts, and beaded, braided, and feathered hair gave her the appearance of the classic hippie but she spoke imperially. “You used to be really nice...” It wasn’t an accusation. The corners of Daphne’s eyes drooped and cringed with wrinkles as if being torn from the weight and sorrow of her mind. “...before they hooked you on that new medication.”

This gave Acacia a fresh wave of panting, hiccupping sobs which were, nonetheless, silent and mournful as if she was saying goodbye to her old self as well. Daphne rose into the fire’s glow and stepped over to comfort her, holding her in her lap.

“What do they have you children tripping on these days?” This quelled all of the sobs and moans and made Acacia chuckle. Daphne became serious. “This isn’t you.”

Daphne added sincerely almost forgetting these words, “You just need to control your impulse.” Acacia held her breath. “Rulers and leaders have to hold themselves. Not so high and haughtily but firm on the ground. ” She patted her granddaughter on the back.

Acacia wiped back some tears and snot. “If only you would’ve come sooner, Grandma.”

Looking back on the memory, at the field full of swaying corn by Anton’s and the Wild Unicorn, she knew she had recognized the blonde older girl—it had been the girl Jason dated. Jason had been dumped because their parents did not approve of the age difference but it had been the girl in a long list of girls who had taken advantage of him or who had stolen his heart.

He did not “care for a certain foreign girl in a deep sense”, he told me, but could this be the missing link? That now he is trying to pay everyone back with approval or riches by taking advantage of me?

The battle strategies, the court moves—that had been the type of information she had been after in Acropolis, the Land of Jewels. She listened to the forest for any signs Jan had been near. Even before having gone through the dreamcatcher, however, she had been searching for the wrong information, finding out his motives and intentions instead of his fears and how he had become. Jason was certainly baleful in the present but that had been Kazimir in the past though Kazimir’s pride was subtler.

The new Acacia, turned away from Anton’s, too pained by the memory, and too enthralled with the majesty ahead and around and the magic below and above, the magic that broke her into feeling, real and present.

From beyond the shopping district could be seen the college, church, and winding Laurel Lane which led to the bakery and Alexander Family Fishery. Most of the houses and orchards, including Jason’s estate and Acacia and Kazimir’s house, were hidden from view but the river leading to nowhere was visible—perhaps everything Acacia knew was hidden from view or perhaps it had been right there—in Domain, in the orchards and corn, in the arena of hills, the pillow clouds with the clear cerulean sky giving breaks for fresh air.

Another autumn had begun and so the fall festival. Judge Danika and the Elders were present. It was the first time many of the townspeople saw the Elders and many were just as fascinated with the unicorns as seeing their ancient relatives. At dusk a tent was set for all town members to dance under. The unicorns that couldn’t fit inside the pavilion for banjo and mandolin clomped and cantered to the music outside. Thrashing and clashing of horns could be heard. It almost gave Acacia a start since the battle had frayed her nerves but Andelko assured her unicorns clashed at festivals for centuries. It must have been mating season. Andelko kept his promise and stayed longer in Domain. Acacia grabbed Andelko’s hand when she heard the banjo interlude.

“What is that strumming?” Andelko asked.

“It’s a sound I miss,” Acacia answered dragging Andelko along. He needed some Domain dance lessons but Acacia was satisfied with the ones Andelko gave her at the Medoran feastivale. She had too much of a personal renaissance to care how she looked with a strange, scraggly vagabond struggling to teach her dance moves. She didn’t want to ruin the moment because later she planned to take a sabbatical from school to find interests and rebuild Domain. She planned to donate her inheritance to the town and Conrad’s education. Acacia couldn’t stop thinking about sneaking into Jason’s mansion either. What if there were more to uncover?

“Music to my mind,” she said grabbing Andelko’s hand and bringing him under the canopy of lights. Lights strung up around the tent mirrored the stars—the stars they couldn’t escape.

Despite the music, Acacia could still hear Milko’s jingling shoes ringing in her ears. His beard and whiskers receded into his jaw while his jaw shrunk. His hair grew shorter too as did his height. His clothes were baggy, but his power transformed his dancing costume into pom-poms and clogs. She turned around and Milko, no longer using his powers to disguise as a man, was a laughing and dancing child mingling with the townspeople with every step. Again, he was a child kicking up his clogs but no one knew whether it was the child inside of Milko or the man within Milko.

Milko could be seen popping and flitting between the bodies. Sometimes he would apparat as a man, tall, broad-shouldered and bearing a mischievous mustache while other times, he became the tiny dancer with too many wise words and pom-poms, blowing equal amounts of raspberries and kisses. Acacia thought Milko, as a kid, perhaps took the opportunity to be immature, but he was much more man at heart. He harnessed the balance of wisdom and fun.

Milko intercepted a couple of girls from the local college in sapphire satin dresses. “My eyes don’t remember you but they have deceived me my entire life until this point! What a sight you two are!”

The shorter, blonde-haired one remarked with spunk, “I’ve seen you. The drinks are too old for you, Milko.”

Before her friend could protest he suavely and courageously said, “Well, well, age is only a number,” but the rest of his words were lost in his laughter and when the girls nodded away and muttered something with the word “police”, he laughed even more and turned back to his old self with a pop! A few jingles followed afterward.

He ran to the next girl, and once he was free of protection from the crowd, he reappeared as a man, dignified and exuberant in stride. Milko addressed a brown, curly-haired college student with tanned, caramel skin from the beach and green, knowing eyes, “I can tell you all about war, and how I faked my age to become a veteran.” He finished smoothly but his comfort wavered. Acacia pointed her out to Kazimir, thinking it was one of the Council of Elders or women from the battlefield.

The student was taller than him and eyed him up and down with hints of suspicion while coughing with dry humor. “Really?” This broke Milko’s smile but then she added, “Okay, I’m sick of these sailors, but you wouldn’t mind telling me through another drink, would you?”

Acacia left him to his own antics, afraid she was missing something else, so caught up in the wonder and atmosphere there was more than unfinished business. From every corner table of the pavilion, bowls of red liquid were sitting but it didn’t look like punch. The red had a much more vivid form and seemed to pulsate like blood. The vibrations of the music made her slow down or perhaps...the swig of the vinous punch made her slower.

Perhaps they decided to go with wine this year. But it can’t be? Jason has to be still in exile, right? Her mind raced with conspiracies and families left behind, especially those connected with Droughts.

The glass of punch had been swishing in Acacia’s hand in time with the sway of music but the realization of the consequence of trial made Acacia dizzy. The room swam and the punch bowls vibrated. She tore away from Andelko.

Acacia tried not to ruin the warm fest with thoughts of spiked punch and mind-bending fruit wine. Although the empires were united, much needed figuring out. The empires uniting meant her initial fear of never seeing Ara, Andelko, Circinus or Chiron again would be eased but she hadn’t known these strange people and horses until recently.

If anything, the spiked bowls eased her back in her room and into sleep. She carried the protection of the dreamcatchers. Nymphs, fairies, and moths floated in her conscience like pollen with fractal colors and disjointed patterns. The thought of their existence, however far, was comforting. Acacia drifted off into endless seas and the rocking of the waves which weren’t sickening—at first. The sea rocked her like an infant. The sea became lighter, evaporating into the sky and the waves drifted into the sky. Oars swashed and churned in her ears, so fresh and vivid. The mellow tones of sailors eased her into waking.

Upon sunrise, the house was silent except for creaking in the boughs of walls. The waking came too soon. She had yet to see what awaited her at the thalassic shore. The longing became sickening so she opened a page in her journal for pondering, struggling to balance and lumber out of bed on her elbows.

So, this is the turning tide but not the ending, Acacia wrote in her journal, definitely keeping it away from Mr. Mallard. He didn’t need to know everything. She definitely didn’t want to admit she kept up with the assignment. Her greater secret than hers to keep was Jason’s. A tear tore down her face in remembrance of the missing link.

Maybe it wasn’t my fault his ambitions overtook him...maybe it was his father’s or his own...but he couldn’t have been destined for this...

Whether or not the Droughts served their own comeuppance, for the first time, Acacia thought her life wasn’t stalling, always working toward a point but never forging the future because no hope had been for the present, especially in times of stagnant nothingness. There had always been work to be done but nothing to work toward.

Acacia was thankful to find the mysteries of her grandmother before Daphne’s real death or a death of her own. She could not imagine how much more life, death, and mysteries the fruit, or the fruit of Transfiguration, as the Jewel people liked to call it, could give. The fruit kept itself in the velvet-decked box hidden even from Daphne. Acacia stroked the velvet lining in the box, wondering if she could evade the magnetizing draw of her seal with its supple core and leathery casing and thought how she guiltily wanted Jan to return, either to take his deserved bite or to make amends.

The first winter Acacia saw in over a year greeted her with the ringing of the belfry tower from the church grandmother Daphne attended for years. Conrad and Acacia walked the cobblestone street up to the church that had a frozen fountain in front of it. Conrad beckoned Acacia behind the church to the graveyards she once explored researching family history. He knelt beside a half-dug grave filled with freshly fallen snow. He wiped the snow from a stone marking the head of the grave which bared cursive memorializing Conrad, we never knew you but your deeds given to this town are enough, new family, Conrad Correlli. We knew not your ties, we knew not your culture—we know your greatness. 1997-2016.

They thought the stone should be inscribed: reborn 2016, without curse forever.

His body had never been missing. Someone had tried to protect it.

Acacia returned a look containing deep awe and empathy. “Not many teens know what those stones would say once they’ve passed. Consider yourself lucky.” At this, Conrad gave an appreciative shrug.

Acacia helped him up from the snow, almost afraid of him falling in, and then joshed with him, “It could’ve been a lot worse, but Chiron always told me: far better to be an embarrassment than a horrible human being or high priest or something of that ilk.” Conrad laughed and grabbed her across the shoulders as they made their way back to campus for the last day before Winter Break.

Conrad desperately itched to ask something but tried to find the right words. “You look younger: did Acropolis do something to you?”

“The effects of the atmosphere might’ve worn off.” She shrugged accepting the mystery.

During break, Acacia had the option of traveling. Daphne promised to take Acacia far away to another Western frontier but only if she kept up with political science. It had been to her liking. Conrad later decided he needed to study politics too. She didn’t know if it was the change in professors or if her brain molded to the subject, but wherever her travel reward took her, she hoped it wouldn’t involve chasing Jason and Ondrea (although Ondrea lay in the hospital for nerve damage on and off). She noticed the entire journey she didn’t have to take the berries but she wondered still if her grandmother’s stories were real because Acropolis felt like a side-effect of reality.

Since the ending of the court case resulting in Jason’s exile, her parents restarted the fishery. Daphne never lost the church, as real or fake as her death had been, and Chiron commanded Kazimir to explore and rebuild the fallen cities beyond Domain. Acacia always wrote to Kazimir and Ara, sometimes relaying messages between them. It was the break from college Kazimir needed; Acacia needed the return and the town needed her more.

Chiron lay in the pasture outside Jason’s old estate with the other horses. “Trust Acacia will travel and trust her mind. Her apprenticeship begins. I am old, but you aren’t too old to realize we begin and end at our own time and grow at a different pace! Take Circinus for comfort in travels. I don’t have long.” Kazimir saw Daphne in the creature’s eyes and words and finally stroked his muzzle and mounted Circinus ready to finish whatever the Elders could not. “I trust you will grow in your own time.”

Acacia saw Kazimir canter off from her bedroom window and thus made a final journal entry. I know not whether my tale began with Daphne, whether it began in illness with the unreality of my medicated addiction, or if all tales ended in these places.

All I know is that I will never be bored again.

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