The next morning Cassie, Finn, and Kenneth met, as usual, in the library. “How did it go last night?” Finn asked when Cassie walked in.
She plopped into a chair with a sigh. “I don’t know. How is it supposed to go?” The night before Cassie had met with the Ahrra for her first ever magic lesson. As easy as it had been to access her power before, it turned out to be that much harder to put it to any use. Baely had gone over basic spell construction with her, but even with the right words it was hard to will them into action. It was like flexing a muscle she never knew she had, a completely different way of looking at the world. “I managed to do some simple stuff,” Cassie said, “but all the crown magic…I just can’t connect.”
“What do you mean by crown magic?” Kenneth asked.
“I thought you’d know. Apparently now that I’m officially queen I can tap into the ‘ancient communal magic that builds the foundation of the beings of Light”, whatever that means. Baely said that I’ll be able to access powers from other disciplines, not just my own, which is basically only spells and stuff.”
“Well that’s cool,” Finn said. “What will you be able to do?”
“That’s the thing,” Cassie said. “I don’t know. I couldn’t figure out how to do it. Baely said that every monarch has controlled at least one element and had a little bit of the Sight, but that’s all he knows. Supposedly I’m ‘connected to the wind’ somehow, but no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t even make a light breeze.”
“I don’t know what to tell you on that front,” Kenneth said. “I’ve always found elementals to be a weird group. But as far as magic is concerned, it just takes time to figure it out.”
“I know,” Cassie said. “But I think it’ll take more than two weeks.”
“Well, it might not matter,” Finn said. “I was in here all night last night and I wasn’t able to find any leads. If we can’t figure out where Mercutio stashed his research we won’t be going anywhere any time soon.”
Kenneth ran his fingers through his hair. “Mercutio might have started here, but he’d have moved on quickly. The collection is extensive, but it doesn’t go far beyond basic information. I was talking to some of the scholars yesterday and they said that most of the information about Creation and universal theory is still part of the oral tradition. So the only written record would be whatever Mercutio left, if he left anything at all.”
“I’m sure he did,” Finn said. “Look, I’ve been reading more of what Elysiaa wrote.” She pulled out the prophet’s book, which she had taken to carrying around with her. “This isn’t just a collection of prophecies. If you read closely, most of the parts are just her rambling. I think it’s a journal started way back when she was still in captivity.”
“And what does that have to do with anything?” Kenneth said.
“Well, in this section before the Ultimate Power prophecy she talks a lot about her relationship with Mercutio. Some of it is a little vague—I’m not sure she meant for anyone to read this. But she says that Mercutio is very concerned with his legacy. Here see,” Finn pointed to a spot on the page, “ ‘…not for me, but for those who come after. He will live his life for the future only, and I fear what he might do now in thinking only of his heir.’ A man like that doesn’t discover a world-changing philosophy and leave no record of it. Somewhere, somehow, Mercutio left something for us to find.”
“It make sense,” Cassie said. “But it still doesn’t bring us any closer to finding it.”
Kenneth was looking over Finn’s shoulder at Elysiaa’s journal. “What are those markings in the margins? They’re not more glyphs.”
“Huh?” Finn looked where he pointed. “No, they’re just doodles. Elysiaa did that a lot. Faces, objects, I think they were parts of visions that she didn’t want to forget. It’s hard to tell because of the way the words spiral, but this one seems to go with this passage here about found objects. ‘A way to hide his sins even from god, wisdom not kept but stored in a cold heart’,” Finn read.
“Well that’s cheerful,” Kenneth said.
“Elysiaa doesn’t seem to have been a very happy person,” Finn agreed. “Near the end she gets really paranoid, and not completely there. See this glyph? That means sacrifice. She repeats it over and over again. Says that all life is forfeit, payment for our desires. I think it’s because she knew that her husband was going to give up his life for that stupid Rite.”
“If only she’d stopped him,” Cassie said. “Can I see?” She held out her hand and Finn passed her the journal. Even though she couldn’t understand the writing, Cassie had to admit that it had a certain beauty to it. Baely had showed her some of the Craftling sigils and how they could be used, but these glyphs were different. They meant something more. Cassie flipped through a couple of pages before she went back to the one Finn had been reading from. There were indeed a bunch of half-imagined drawings sketched in the corner of the page. The only complete picture was a ring with a heavily carved setting and a stone round as a crystal ball. There was a darkly shaded rendering of the stone by itself, and then some pictures of the ring from different angles so that it looked like it had been broken into segments. Cassie gasped. She had a flash: her own hand clasping a worn book, this ring on her finger.
“Does Elysiaa say what this ring is?” Cassie asked, pushing the journal back at Finn.
“Uh…not really,” Finn said, taken aback by Cassie’s sudden urgency. “I think it’s just one of her found objects. Why? Is it important?”
“I’m not sure…” Cassie said. “But I’ve seen it before. In my vision, the one the Book gave me. I was wearing that ring.” Cassie had explained to Finn about the Tome’s vision and what it meant, although she hadn’t been able to bring herself to describe what she had seen. Judging by his lack of surprise, Cassie figured that Kenneth, like Anyu, already knew about the Tome and its visions. “I didn’t think it had anything to do with Mercutio,” Cassie went on, “but if Elysiaa was writing about him when she drew that, then it could be a clue.”
“‘Wisdom not kept but stored in a cold heart’…” Kenneth repeated thoughtfully. “This could be more than a clue.”
“What do you mean?” Finn asked.
“Well it’s not a very common practice among Craftlings,” Kenneth said, “in fact I think the Dacruum invented it, but there is a way to store information inside objects like that, especially gemstones.”
“Like a flashdrive?” Cassie said.
“Maybe. What’s a flashdrive?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Finn said. “Do you really think Mercutio could have put all his research into a ring?”
“It’s possible,” Kenneth said. He looked at the drawings again. “Elysiaa wouldn’t have recorded it unless it was important, right? Besides, see how it’s split into pieces here? I’ll bet he used the Morrison technique. Even if someone were to gather the pieces together, only someone with the correct genetic signature can make the ring whole again. It’s the perfect way to pass on information to his heir.”
“And the perfect way to hide it,” Finn pointed out. “Tiny pieces of a ring? They could be anywhere.”
“True,” Kenneth said, “but that doesn’t mean we can’t find them. Artifacts from around that time are very valuable; someone will have kept track of them, even something seemingly useless like this. And if we can find just one piece of the ring, I could use it to lead us to the others.”
“If I were Mercutio,” Cassie said, “I wouldn’t have made a big production about hiding them either. If people just thought it was old broken ring, they’d toss it aside with some junk and forget all about it. Like hiding treasure in plain sight. If we ask around, we should be able to find out who has relics like that.”
“I’ll talk to the Lords later this afternoon, see if any of them can help us,” Kenneth said. “Who knows, maybe we’ll get lucky and a piece will be here already.”
“We could certainly use all the luck we can get,” Cassie said, standing. “I’ll ask Baely if he’s seen anything too. They have all kinds of weird stuff lying around in the temple.”
“Do you have to go already?” Finn asked.
“Farand said to meet him in the training yard at the third hour, and I have no idea what that means,” Cassie said. “So I figure I’ll just go early. Weapons training doesn’t seem like the kind of thing you should be late for.”
Kenneth laughed. “Definitely not. Especially if Farand’s coaching you.”
“Why, is he bad?” Cassie sat down again and leaned in conspiratorially. “The council did pick him to replace me.”
“There’s nothing to be worried about,” Kenneth assured her. “They only picked him because he’s technically the Queen’s Champion, which as an office would put him on a level with Finn here. Not that Farand ever pulls rank. I’m sure he’d be glad to get rid of the title if anyone could beat him in combat.”
“I guess it’s good that he’s strong,” Cassie said. “What’s he like? As a person.”
Kenneth thought about that for a second. “He’s a good guy,” he finally said. “Farand’s been Captain of the Guard here for…forever. He’s focused, attentive, an amazing leader, oddly cheerful. I’ve never heard a bad word said about him. He is tough, but not more than he needs to be, and if you want to learn it’s the best way. And you’re lucky to get the chance to train with him. Supposedly he knows a thousand ways to kill a man without magic. And with it…well he’s unstoppable.”
“That’s not scary at all,” Cassie said.
“It’s only scary if you’re on his bad side,” Kenneth said. “Trust me, once you meet him, you’ll be glad to have him around.”
“I certainly hope so,” Cassie said, standing again. She put a hand to her belt where she had tucked Aingath. It was comforting to have it there, even if she wasn’t quite sure how to use it yet. She smiled at her friends. “Wish me luck.”
Once Cassie was off at her lesson, Finn and Kenneth set about re-shelving some of the books they’d compiled. The circular room, which they’d appropriated for their research, had turned into quite a mess over the past few days. Books from all over the library had ended up in piles—encyclopedias, maps, reference texts, whole volumes of diaries and primary histories. “I can’t believe we went through all of this and the answer was in the first book all along,” Finn said.
“Isn’t that how it always goes,” Kenneth said. “I mean, just think about how much trouble Carl, and Tom, and I went through to get that book and try to translate it and you just picked it up and read it.”
Finn thought about the dish full of ash she’d found beside Kenneth that night and wondered exactly what he had done. “It’s not so bad though, getting away with doing things the easy way. With everything that’s happened I think we deserve more than a few breaks.”
“Couldn’t agree with you more,” Kenneth said, sliding maps back into their cubbyholes. “Any information we can get about the ring here we should be able to get pretty quickly. That gives us at least two weeks to prepare for our journey.”
“Is there really that much we have to prepare?”
Kenneth shrugged. “Better over than under-prepared. This kind of search could take us anywhere and last who knows how long. I don’t want to be caught off-guard.”
Finn tried to sound casual. “You think we’ll be attacked?”
“I don’t know,” Kenneth said. He dropped a stack of encyclopedias on the floor and started to put them back on the shelf in order. “The Consulate is open to the public, and Cassie declared her intention to look for the Rite clearly. But since she also didn’t say if she’d be leaving the palace or where she might go if she did, the Dacruum might not care enough to put forth the effort. Our little quest does seem a bit silly.”
“Maybe it is,” Finn said. “But it’s all we’ve got. Cassie says that if we send in troops we’ll just be starting a fight we can’t win. It won’t stop the Ultimate Power.”
“This is from her vision?”
“That or the Watchers,” Finn said. “She’s not very clear about it. But that just worries me all the more.”
Kenneth stood and looked at Finn. “Because there might be war? Cassie’s never seen combat before, it’s understandable that a vision of it would scare her. But sometimes war is inevitable. The necessary evils to protect our race. As long as one of us survives, we all survive.”
“Maybe you do,” Finn said. “You Craftlings and your legacies. I’m not part of that, remember?”
“But you could be,” Kenneth said. “Look at Elysiaa: she was born a Malcoh on Rhiath, but after she married Mercutio she was our queen. She died a Craftling.”
“Did she?” Finn said. She led Kenneth back into the circular room and picked up Elysiaa’s journal. With her thumb, Finn flipped through the pages until she found the one she wanted. “I think history has romanticized her story a little bit.” Finn said. She read: “‘I was born in the shadows and in the shadows I shall stay. My husband fears for my fate with every breath, as I fear for our future. The people look at me and see no more than an intruder in their midst. What will they see when they look upon a royal babe that bears my blood?’” Finn looked up. “A little overdramatic, but I can still relate. This ‘silly quest’ is all I have to prove myself with. If we fail…it won’t just be us who die. And I’ll be the one blamed for it.”
Kenneth took the journal from Finn and skimmed through it as if he could actually read it. “You know what I think Elysiaa’s problem was?” he said after a while.
“She was a recluse. She stayed locked up in this stupid palace with its gossip, and double-dealing, and hate-mongering. It poisoned her brain.” Kenneth’s eyes were a reddish-brown with flecks of white when they met Finn’s. “You’re not as hated as you think you are.”
Finn thought back to what Gaenish had said when he cornered her after the coronation. “Blood will tell”, he had warned. “Wanna bet?” she said.
Kenneth grinned. “Yes. Come on.” He took Finn by the arm and dragged her from the library.
“Where are we going?” she asked, stumbling to meet his stride.
“To see what the real Craftlings have to say.”
Kenneth seemed more than relieved to leave the palace behind. He took a deep breath of fresh air as they started down the road into the city. Finn followed him slowly, staring up at the glittering buildings. “What kind of a city is this?” she asked.
“An old one,” was Kenneth’s answer. “This kind of stone-coating over the structures was very popular back before the Sealing. I think it was supposed to have some sort of protective value. Or it was just supposed to look impressive.” He shrugged. “Marupren is the oldest city in the realm. The name itself means “the first city” in the old language.”
The towering skyline didn’t seem very ancient looking, but as they walked down the main road, Finn got a closer look at the buildings they passed. Underneath the outer-coating, they were all brick and stone, limed and cracking with age despite their protection from the elements. Here closer to the palace were the small shops and open markets. Strolling by the crowds, Finn found herself once again impressed at how many humans there were. Still, there was a good enough number of other creatures walking around. A gryphon with the body of a small mountain lion stood with his front paws against a jewelry stand, haggling with the proprietor about a string of ocean pearls and a dwarf blacksmith shouted up at a customer who was seven feet tall with blue skin and horns on his elbows.
Kenneth easily navigated from the palace’s dirt path onto some cobbled side streets. Further away from the palace the city seemed newer, or at least better renovated. The streets were paved smooth and there were more people crowding the sidewalk. The buildings were taller here too, like the skyscrapers back on Earth. Still, as she trailed behind Kenneth obediently, Finn couldn’t take her eyes off the cars.
The vehicles rushing back and forth were at least hundreds of years more modern than the city they rode through. They hardly looked practical, and Finn suspected that some of them only moved because of magic. Most of the cars were three-wheeled, if their supports could be called wheels. It didn’t seem like they spun, more that they slid like sled-runners. A few didn’t even touch the ground. The designs were slim and sleek with rounded edges and windows tinted too dark to see behind. They were fast with precise movements, even the largest machines zipping around the narrow streets with ease. Finn was reminded too much of the future cars in science fiction movies. She ached to see the inside of one.
Kenneth weaved carefully through the bustle of people, leading Finn toward one of the outer arms of the city grid. Finn did her best not to stare, but there was too much to see. “This place is…crazy,” she said as she and Kenneth crossed the street.
He chuckled. “It’s a far cry from any of your Earth cities, I’ll give you that. But Marupren is nice and quiet compared to where I grew up.”
“If you tell me you grew up in a floating city I am going to lose it.”
“Don’t worry, you’re safe,” Kenneth said. “The Athean Capital is big, but it’s actually a little more like Earth cities than Marupren. Plain stone and mortar, raised by the grit of its people.”
“You must have really liked it there.”
Kenneth smiled, leading Finn quickly through another crosswalk. “My mother likes to say it was the city that raised me. Even back then I wasn’t too keen on staying in the castle and minding my duties. And now…well you’ve met my fellow council members. You have to find a place down here with the people just to clear your head.” He stopped in front of a long, one-story building, dark stone under the shining coat. There were no windows, and instead of a sign there was only a shield hanging above the door. It was huge, enough for both Finn and Kenneth to sit on comfortably, and it bore a coat of arms that Finn didn’t recognize.
“This is where you clear your head?” Finn asked skeptically.
“It’s called the Arcade,” Kenneth said. “They did use the correct word, right? It’s supposed to be a play on words, but not everyone knows the Earther language very well.”
“It depends on what the play is supposed to be,” Finn said. “Is this arcade full of games?”
“It’s a bar mostly,” Kenneth said. “But there’s definitely room to play. Let’s go inside, I’ll show you.”
Finn was hesitant, but, eager as he was, she followed Kenneth into the Arcade.
It was not a bar.
At least, not entirely. In front of them, behind a tall podium desk, a large man relaxed on a stool reading a magazine. He leaned against a low wall that began where he was and stretched all the way to the back of the building, cutting the Arcade in half. On the right was the bar, fully stocked with every kind of liquor Finn had never heard of. High tables and low comfortable booths filled the space. At this time of morning the only people there were eating, most likely those taking a break from activity in the other half of the Arcade.
Here was where the play on words had probably originated. The people were jovial and hard at work, but the various “games” being played were hardly recreational. There were three circles of packed dirt where pairs of men and women sparred with various weapons. The clack of practice swords and the thunk of shields echoed against the high ceiling. Along the back wall was a target range where people lined up to shoot all kinds of things, from arrows to energy balls. A strangely beautiful Zen garden, complete with fountain, sand, and grass occupied one corner. There a woman was moving water through the air as if it were a ribbon, her hands as fluid as the liquid itself.
As they entered, the man behind the desk glanced up from his magazine. “My Lord!” he jumped to his feet and pulled Kenneth into a fierce hug. “It’s been too long. Don’t tell me that council’s finally made you soft.”
Kenneth patted the man on the back and pulled away, smiling. “Of course not. I could still beat you with one hand tied behind my back. I’ve just been caught up in my own sparring matches of late.”
“That wouldn’t have anything to do with this pretty young lady, would it?” He smiled at Finn, taking her hand and kissing it. “Nice to meet you. My name is Rupert.”
Finn blushed. “You too. I’m Finn, Finnia Morgan.”
Rupert’s eyebrows shot up. “Morgan? The Finnia Morgan?” Finn nodded unsure. Rupert bowed low, his face breaking in a broad smile. “I am so honored, My Lady. Incredibly honored.”
“I…thanks?” She looked up at Kenneth, perplexed.
“You should never judge the people by what their councilors say,” Kenneth said. “It’s not just Cassie and I that believe your theories. To hear it told in the taverns, you’ve been sent by the gods to help our Queen fulfill the prophecy.”
“My cousin was in the gallery at the Consulate yesterday. He said you spoke for Elysiaa like a new prophet. And now you’re here in my bar,” he smiled proudly. “You are here to train, aren’t you?”
“Of course,” Kenneth answered for her. He winked at Finn. “The lady here’s a force to be reckoned with.”
“I’ll bet,” Rupert grinned. “You just let me know if you need anything, my lady. Anything at all.”
“Th-thanks,” Finn said. As she and Kenneth walked away toward the training area she whispered to him, “Why did you say that to him?”
“We made a bet remember?” Kenneth said, sounding very pleased with himself. “I’d hate to sully your reputation.”
“Sure,” Finn said. “One guy doesn’t count, you know.”
“Oh, I never said it did.”
They spoke to literally everyone in the arcade. Once Finn had been recognized, the people paused in their training and came over to say hello. They asked after Cassie, of course, and tried to weasel inside information out of her about the search for the Rite, but most were just happy to meet Finn, shaking her hand and even thanking her. It was both flattering and incredibly unnerving. Finn did the best she could, asking questions of them about training and their weapons, shifting the focus off herself. The swordsmen showed her some basic footwork and taught her a couple of simple blocks. She got to try shooting an arrow, but it flew far wide of the mark and she cut her finger on the bowstring.
Kenneth was in his element, laughing and joking with the others. Soon they had coerced him into a practice bout with the sword. Finn eyed his opponent: one of the larger men, broad in the shoulder and boots big enough for Finn to pull over her head. “Are you sure about this?” she whispered to Kenneth.
He winked. “Try to learn something.”
They moved into the dirt practice ring. Kenneth dug his toe into the ground like a pitcher warming up, getting into his stance. The larger man spit and rolled his shoulders. Finn wasn’t sure when the bout officially began, but they started to casually circle each other, swords held loosely out in front of them. When they finally moved, it was quick. If she’d blinked, she might have missed it. Finn saw Kenneth move his arm out, displaying an opening. The man took the opportunity, and Kenneth quickly danced around him, hooking his sword against the man’s wrist and turning until the sword popped out of his hands. By the time Kenneth finished his step he was standing beside the man, sword at his throat. “How many seconds was that?” Kenneth called out.
“From first movement?” a woman said. “Four.”
The large man smiled and shook Kenneth’s hand. “I’m getting better.”
“That’s better?” said Finn.
“Kenneth here’s a trained soldier,” the woman said. “More than most of us. I can handle a good fencing bout, but in battle…”
“In battle you get seconds to kill or die,” Kenneth said. “With magic even less.”
“It’s good to see you training our new leaders, Lord Ken,” one of the other men said, clapping Kenneth on the shoulder. To Finn he said, “Don’t listen to any rumors about this kid. Just listen to him.”
They chatted a bit more, but Finn didn’t really remember much of what was said. When everyone returned to their workouts, leaving Kenneth and Finn alone in the practice ring, she turned to him accusatorily. “What was all that?
“I don’t know where to start,” Finn admitted. She looked over at the shooting range where a man was holding out his bare hand and producing arrows from thin air to fly at the target.
Kenneth handed Finn one of the practice swords. “Well for starters, I won the bet.”
“I’ll say. What do I owe you?”
“I dunno,” Kenneth said. “It wasn’t exactly a fair wager. But, if you wouldn’t mind, maybe you could train with me. I’m not the best at the sword but—“
“Not the best?” Finn scoffed.
Kenneth chuckled. “In the noble houses you start weapons training the second you’re big enough to hold one. Staff first, then sword, and archery. Once you master that, you focus on your discipline and whatever you can do with magic. I’ve survived melee battle before, but it’s not my specialty.”
“And what would that be?”
“Archery,” Kenneth said. “When I graduated the academy, my father gave me a horned bow that’s been passed down through our family.”
Finn twisted the point of the practice sword in the dirt. “I’m kind of surprised that you guys are using these kinds of weapons. I mean, not just because you have magic but you are an advanced society. I kind of figured it’d be all laser guns and light sabers.”
With all seriousness Kenneth asked, “What’s a gun?”
Finn looked at him taken aback. “Seriously?”
He shrugged. “I guess the word sounds familiar? I don’t know. I know what lasers are. All our technology runs on magic anyway. If it’s not a magical weapon…”
“Well, I guess it’s not magic.” Finn did her best to describe what a gun was, from pistols to machineguns. Short of the basic theory, however, Finn didn’t actually know how any of those weapons worked. Much of her explanation included improvised noises and finger guns.
Kenneth was laughing. “That really exists?” He mimicked Finn’s finger gun. “Have you ever used one of those weapons?”
“Once,” Finn said. “My cousin took me duck hunting when I was eleven. I fired off the shotgun too early and scared away all the ducks. Stop laughing!”
“Sorry,” Kenneth said. “It’s just that from what you described, these guns of yours sound extremely primitive. Maybe those other ones, where you cause an explosion from a distance, can be fun, but even without magic you could probably avoid getting hurt. And with magic?” He made the finger gun again and pointed at one of the empty targets on the other side of the room. With a fake click purple light shot from his fingertip, barely slow enough to see, and pierced the target.
“Projectiles only work when they hit,” he said. “Even if you could inscribe the necessary spells onto a bullet so that it could circumnavigate protective spells, it’d never do real damage. And even if it did, you’d have spent hours of work on a single bullet that would explode after one use. It’s impractical.”
“And arrows aren’t?” Finn said.
“Magic channels well through organic materials like wood,” Kenneth explained. “You can adjust speed, trajectory, and all kinds of other things before you shoot. Plus they’re reusable. Usually arrows are used to set off or carry spells, anyway. Remember that arrow the dogs shot at you back on Earth? I got a good look at it. Sure, a bullet would hurt, but with that you’d have gotten much more than a wound. That spell would have sucked your life energy. Besides slowly killing you, it binds you to the shooter, traps you in your body where he can make you do whatever he wants. Luckily that’s too heavy to go through my shields.”
Finn let out a low whistle. “I guess even if I say I’m used to magic, there’s a whole new way of thinking that I haven’t even started to wrap my head around. Everything I know about…anything is just backwards.
“I wouldn’t say that,” Kenneth said. “The building blocks are there. You understand magical theory pretty well for someone who just started studying it. All you need is experience.”
“I guess you’re right. Except I don’t exactly have magic of my own to practice with. Do you think I could actually protect myself with a sword?” she lifted the dull wooden blade she held.
Kenneth tossed his up a few inches so that it spun before he caught it. “You’d be surprised. In close combat, everything comes down to skill. And we could get you a warded sword, teach you how to deflect magic.”
“Let me guess, swords channel magic too?” Finn said.
“Like none other. The stories I could tell you,” he shook his head. “But we have two weeks. That could be just enough training to save your life.”
Finn looked at Kenneth, considering. He could just be seizing an opportunity here to make the weakest member of their team a little stronger. Still, it wasn’t a bad notion. “Ok then,” she said. “Bring it on.”
They practiced without stopping for a few hours. Finally, when the Arcade had started to empty and Finn had soaked through her tank top with sweat, they called it a day. Gratefully, she followed Kenneth to one of the booths near the bar, readjusting her frazzled ponytail as he ordered them some food.
They had been eating for a few minutes in silence before Kenneth said, “So, are you feeling better?”
Finn looked up at him. “About what?”
Kenneth shrugged. “About…being here, I guess. This morning you seemed a little upset.”
“I wouldn’t say upset.” Finn put down her sandwich. “I’m just nervous, I guess. Still, it does make me feel a little better to know that not everyone here expects me to fail.”
“You shouldn’t let them get to you like that,” said Kenneth. “Not everyone at court disapproves of you. And for the ones who do, it’s not you they really hate.”
“You sure about that?”
“They’re just scared. Scared of the Ultimate Power, scared of losing Audrey, scared of change. Whenever people are comfortable, they feel like the slightest new thing will bring it all crashing down. You just have to give them time to accept what’s going on. And in the meantime, maybe try to grow a thicker skin.”
“Hmh,” Finn said, “And here I was thinking I already had one.” She took a long sip of water. “Thanks for trying to make me feel better, though. I mean, you barely know me and I’m pushing your comfort zone as much as anyone else’s. It’s nice of you.”
“Don’t mention it. I owe you, remember? And besides, I don’t have much of a ‘comfort zone’ anyway.”
Finn raised an eyebrow at him. “Really now?”
“Well, not in a ‘roam the skies call no man master’ kind of way,” Kenneth said. “More like…I’ve seen how things can fall apart in an instant. The safer you think you are, the harder it hits. Change is a constant in life, and if you become a part of it instead of getting complacent, you live that much longer.”
Finn noticed him rubbing his arm again. It was an innocuous enough nervous habit, but Finn couldn’t help but remember what Charlotte had said the other day. Ask Kenneth how he got that scar on his arm, she had challenged. Do you think their burden is so easy to carry? Do you want to take on their pain, their mistakes? “You were saying the same thing about war earlier,” Finn reminded Kenneth. “Is that why you wanted to teach me all this stuff?”
“I don’t know,” Kenneth said. “Could be. It’s not like I think of you as some innocent who can’t take care of herself. Maybe I’m just overprotective. And a pessimist. I know you wouldn’t make the same mistakes I have.”
“You know,” Finn pointed out, “you and everyone else keep hinting at these horrible things that you’ve done in the past, but I can’t imagine what someone like you would have done to deserve that.”
Kenneth laughed hollowly. “Then you don’t have as good of an imagination as I thought you did.” He looked away.
“What happened?” Finn asked.
“It’s a long story,” he warned. Finn crossed her arms and sat back in her seat expectantly. Kenneth smiled. “Ok, ok. Well, first off I’m the oldest of four in my family. See, Archdukes typically inherit their position just like the royal family does, but for us the current archduke has to actually appoint his successor. So my father could choose any of his children to follow him, or even someone else if he really wanted to. It’s to make sure that whoever takes over is actually worthy of the job, and my father takes it very seriously. He didn’t want to just give it to me, even though I was the oldest. I had to earn it. And for a while, I did. Top of my class, best in the practice rings, focused, determined. Maybe not as smart as I thought I was. When I was sixteen, I enlisted and was assigned to my uncle’s regiment. He was a general in the ground army, and a little over-indulgent. That’s where I met Matthias.”
“Matthias?” Finn repeated. She was leaning forward over the table, listening intently.
“Prince Matthias Ardal,” Kenneth said. “Heir to the Dacruum throne. Maybe not the root of all evil, but certainly a sturdy branch.” Kenneth sighed. “Sometimes, I think it’s my fate to meet him over and over again in battle. Seems like every time I had a chance at combat, so did he. In fact, on one of my first missions, he killed my uncle. I drove him off, got the men to safety…everyone thought it was a victory for me, but it was only a sad beginning. In a raid I killed Matthias’ mentor, and once we fought so hard in open combat that we got caught up in an explosion and nearly died. Then three years ago…”
Kenneth trailed off a bit. He took a drink of water to line his throat and pushed ahead. “I’d just graduated the Academy. Fresh belt from the masters for my discipline, a shiny new certificate on my wall. Father let me sit in on his cabinet meetings like some personal apprentice. I was invincible. It wasn’t long after that we got the news. An attack on a mining settlement on one of the border moons. There’s always fighting on the borders, that’s not usually a huge problem. There’s a fort there to defend the mines, which is usually enough. But the Dacruum brought in an elite force. I think they were in the middle of an ore shortage or something, and they were desperate. Either way, my father ordered a counterstrike by Athean troops.”
“And you went along?” Finn guessed.
“I wasn’t supposed to,” Kenneth said. “My father forbade it, actually. He knew—he knew how dangerous it would be. But all I knew was that Matthias would be there. I could feel it in my bones. And I had to go.” As he talked Kenneth continued to run his fingers up and down the scar on his arm. Finn watched his eyes morph slowly from navy to grey to a hard brown-black. Like smoke, his irises shifted, revealing bits of what lay behind them. “I wasn’t in charge of anything; I was just a stowaway. I wasn’t even on active duty anymore. But still the men looked to me. They followed me, and I didn’t lead them. I was reckless, and maybe a bit obsessed. This scar?” he lifted his arm. “I don’t know what you’ve read about magical healing, but since it’s magic, it doesn’t usually leave any mark. The only time there’s a scar is when the wound is so bad that the healer doesn’t have enough magic to heal you all the way. I’m lucky I still have an arm. Most of the men with me weren’t that lucky.
“I let my emotions get the best of me and became a liability. Leaders have to be levelheaded, in war and out of it. Discipline, responsibility, a cool head to make decisions—I was too immature to understand what those things really meant. And I proved that I didn’t have any of them. It took almost a year to take that moon back from the Dacruum. My father hasn’t looked me in the eye since. He sent me here to be his proxy because he wanted Audrey to show me what it meant to be a leader. And to keep me firmly under control. All those rumors you heard…it means no one thinks she succeeded. Audrey used to say that it takes twice as much time to earn trust as it does forgiveness. For people like Tom and Carl, who forgave me instantly, it’s easy to go back to normal. But with everyone else…”
“Audrey trusted you,” Finn pointed out. “From what I know of her, she wouldn’t have done that if you hadn’t earned it.”
“Even queens can make mistakes,” Kenneth said. “Audrey shouldn’t have taken me on that last mission. It was risky enough bringing me that close to combat anyway. I had to stay in that base camp no matter what. If she’d brought someone else, trusted someone who could have done something—”
Finn grabbed Kenneth’s hand with both of hers. “Don’t say that. Don’t blame yourself for that.”
“You’re sweet Finn but…”
“I mean it,” she insisted. “I don’t care what the rumors say and I may not know anything about soldiering, but I know there’s no way she would have died if you could have done something. And I think the court knows that. Maybe they’re a little scared of you too.”
“You sure about that?” Kenneth repeated her.
Finn smiled. “Hey if you think I still have a chance…maybe it wasn’t as much of a failure as you thought. I mean, sure your Dad seemed to freak out about it, but look at how much they love you here. I don’t know, my mom says that every mistake we make is a lesson that will eventually shape us into the people we’re meant to be. It’s kind of cheesy, but if you’ve changed at all in the past three years then maybe it was all worth it. I mean, if you weren’t here, pushing to follow up with Audrey’s last wishes, we never would have found that prophecy and we’d all be dead in a few months when they summon that Ultimate Power.”
“You have a tendency to oversimplify things, you know that?” Kenneth said. “My desire to carry on Audrey’s mission has nothing to do with me learning from my mistakes.”
“Then why are you working with us?” Finn asked. “Seems like a reckless, emotional soldier would rather strong-arm the problem into submission than go on a research trip with a couple of rookies.”
Kenneth avoided her gaze. “You don’t know me. That could be exactly what I’m doing.”
“No it’s not.”
Kenneth took a deep breath and when he looked up, he was smiling. “You’re not like anyone I’ve ever met before.”
“Oh, yes I am,” Finn said. “I just hide it better.”