Doubt the Stars Are Fire

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Chapter 7 - The Test

Everyone seemed to know where to stand.

And as Leda and Gemma approached, Leda watched the bright water churn and hiss like flames in a fire. Even small water-droplets shot up into the air like sparks. She watched a confusion of colors and images fold into each other.

Gemma still kept a firm grip on Leda’s arm. She knew her whole family was standing right behind her-- all the Strykers facing down one Tariel. The ministers had gathered behind Adonis, but they kept their distance. Their violet robes offset the green hue in his dark, peacock-blue coat that shone slightly and iridescently in the light.

Henry and Leander stood between the Strykers and Adonis. Both of them facing the silver basin. An attendant held out a tray of different color liquids in small crystal cups. Henry was considering, arranging, and rearranging the cups. Smelling them and holding them to the light.

What was taking so long?

Leda locked her gaze on Henry Pantaleon. Adonis clasped his hands behind him as Leda felt his gaze press in on her. The longer he stared the more red her neck grew. She didn’t even see Henry; Leda was too aware of Adonis’ gaze.

And when he finally glanced at Henry as well, Leda finally exhaled and let her gaze travel to the gap between Adonis and Henry. Her gaze flitted surreptitiously at Adonis.

He had a pale, shining face as though it had been delicately carved out of white marble. But under his dark lashes were a pair of shining obsidian eyes. His short, dark hair had been pushed back, emphasizing his stately features. And his beard had been trimmed with sharp, flame-like patterns that appeared on his cheeks. She observed his long, neck, the handsome angle of his jaw, and how he let his mouth hang open a little as he regarded Henry respectfully. There he stood. No obstacles or bodies between them. He stood there simply as a man.

She wouldn’t mind wearing Tariel colors.

The idea burst into her mind.

Idiot! What’re you thinking?!

Then she thought of Valentina.

Of course... she would look better in Tariel colors. The color would complement her eyes and skin so well.

And then her heart sank.

There was nothing to gain from this. And Leda wasn’t about to fool herself into believing that there was any advantage in this for her.

Henry Pantaleon then stepped forward, his regalia billowing beside him, and gently brushing Leda’s ankles. He bent down and touched the water with his fingers.

“Is that wise?” Leda heard Soler behind her.

“He is a priest,” Leander said smilingly, “they can touch the water, of course, without it burning.”

Henry turned his head slightly, resenting the ignorant question.

“The crests,” he rose and held out his long fingers to the attendant while staring into the water. The attendant was a small, sickly-looking boy that wore a pale version of Henry’s robes. He gaped at both Adonis Tariel and Irena—where were their crest pins? Adonis silently undid the black swan with the coral beak from his breast and handed it to the attendant.

Leda watched her mother from the corner of her eye. Irena wasn’t as swift. Nor as willing. She was undoing the black raven pin from her chest, but she kept glancing to Henry.

And when Henry Pantaleon turned his cold gaze onto Irena, it wasn’t questioning. It was even concerned. It was impatient. And she immediately gave the attendant the family crest.

With a gentle clink, the pins were placed onto the tray where the potions were.

Leda could see her mother’s chest rising and falling. She was panicking.

Henry plucked a thin vial of green water. He turned and in one grand sweep, poured the contents into the waterfire. It only seemed to anger the water, and no sooner did he pour it in than it bubbled as though it were boiling. Henry Pantaleon turned back to the tray. He plucked up both crest pins and held them over the water.

Everyone was watching the waterfire and Henry. Leda also watched in amazement as the water transformed; the bubbling slowed, and the water started to swirl gently. Then it started to race. It became a vortex, and the water suddenly darkened, and Leda could only see stars and galaxies shine in the water. She gasped as Henry dropped both pins into the water. Suddenly, the vortex collapsed folded into itself, and as it did its waves straightened and shot straight up toward the skylight, and suddenly the water made the shape of a very large tree. Its watery, clear branches stretched far, and there were too many branches to count.

Leda suddenly felt two hands clasp her arms from behind: Leda had absently taken a step back.

“Remember,” it was Irena’s voice whispering, her grip tightening around Leda’s arm, “don’t show them anything.”

And Leda felt that knot form in her throat. But she wasn’t about to cry: She felt dread staring up into the glittering tree.

It spun in different directions, pausing in one place for several seconds, as though to be examined, only to spin back around again.

Henry squinted his eyes up at it. He was looking for something.

Adonis, too-- when Leda took in a casual, glancing sweep in order to look back at the tree—was also looking at tree with particular interest.

“Nothing broken… yet,” Henry sighed, speaking more to himself than to anyone.

“So, she can take the place?”

Leda felt her breath catch.

“Now for the second part,” he turned, opening both his hands to both Leda and Adonis.

Leda’s eyes accidentally swept over Adonis while searching for an answer for Henry’s hand. Adonis’ bright face almost seemed eager, his eyes warm with a hint of amusement as he nodded at her: “Your magic.”

In her panic, a white spark fizzled around Leda’s fingers, and she jumped at the sight of her unexpected power. Leda could feel her mother grit her teeth with deep annoyance.

“Tariel,” Leander motioned to Adonis to go first.

Adonis brought his fingers together, and then when he drew them apart, a stream of dark bluish-gray smoke unfurled and stretched the length of his fingers. And when Adonis let his hands drop to his side, there stood before him was a small, ever-tumbling cloud as though lightning and rain were about to burst from it. Within it, Leda could see blue and red sparks flame from it as it floated into Henry’s hands.

Then all eyes were on Leda.

Not all of it. Just enough.

A spark. A little flame.

And between both her long, pink fingers, Leda tremulously conjured a weak, white flame. It was as big as her thumb, and it floated to Henry’s open hand.

There was silence. The air was thick with hesitancy. Was this all?

Henry stared at the flame that glowed like a diamond held against the light. But he had no choice: He turned with both Adonis’ smoke and Leda’s flame in his hands and gently laid them in the water.

At first nothing happened.

The tree still remained, glistening, majestic. The longer Leda watched the tree the longer she could see images—some familiar, some not. She thought she could see Valentina’s face in mixture of light and water on one of the branches. On another branch, she thought she saw spires and a tall building, and a dirty-blonde haired boy standing beneath them. And then on another branch she thought she saw a group of dark-haired people. They all seemed to resemble Adonis, and they gathered though they were sitting for a family portrait.

Suddenly, the blue smoke and white flame merged and suffused the water in the tree. And it was as though the night sky was compressed in the tree. Then the branches and the trunk began slowly twist and fold, and suddenly Leda found herself gazing at a dark knot of water, not knowing how many streams or which way they were going. It was a dazzling and intricate design that made Leda forget altogether why she was there.

That is until Henry Pantaleon drew a breath, twirled around and opened and closed his hands: “Leda can replace Valentina after all!”

The air escaped from her lungs when she heard the words, and as Henry spoke them the knot collapsed back into the water fire.

All the blood had left her face. Her hands trembled.

It couldn’t be true.

Leda looked to her mother. The morning light and the strain of events made Irena’s features even more stark and ghoulish.

“I, again, advise we proceed straight away with the ceremony, your majesty,” Henry said with a polite tilt toward Leander.

“I insist we wait,” Irena stepped up next to Henry, standing directly in front Leander.

“You do understand the crisis in which we are dealing with, Irena,” Henry snarled at her.

“It will only tear in the desolate regions of the north,” Adonis sang politely, still standing in the same place, his hands behind his back.

But Leda kept her eyes on Leander. He pressed his thumb against his lips, listening and considering.

And when he glanced up at Leda, her heart thumped hard in her chest.

“What say you, Miss Stryker?” His reedy, handsome voice was solemn. “We’re asking you of no small favor here. I think it's fair we know your mind as well.”

Leda swallowed and dared not look at anyone else: “I’d rather wait.”

Suddenly, Henry Pantaleon stepped back toward the waterfire, and in a single motion a tall wave of water arched threateningly. Everyone started with alarm, and even the ministered bleated and cowered backward.

And in the water was a black sky, but from what Leda could see, it wasn’t just the sky: they were black clouds, and within the clouds was a jagged hole, as though someone with a knife hurriedly cut through the clouds to escape. But it wasn’t just the black clouds or the strange circle; there was a waterfall of light and blocks of ice pouring down from it. And when it hit the earth, it cracked open. The ice immediately froze the ground, and because of the velocity and speed in which it hit the earth, the ground surrounding each rock of ice turned ash-white.

It was all so strange and horrifying. Leda could almost feel tears pricking her eyes.

“This!” Henry whirled back toward the Strykers, Leander, Adonis, and the ministers, “this is what’s happening, because Fate has not been obeyed.”

He rested his gaze on Leda finally. “We have a duty to our world. It is a sacrifice necessary of all who possess our powers.”

Leda held her breath, and she could see Adonis’ face darken with anger as he stared at the back of Henry’s head.

“We are the reason the humans have bolstered their nuclear armaments!” Henry took a step toward Leander. “We think there is a war brewing between the east and the west; but because of catastrophes like these, it makes them think we are not only useless but dangerous—”

“—Henry!” Leander stepped toward him, but Henry Pantaleon would not calm down. Leander advanced, holding his hands up to the heaving Henry, who, once again, rested his gaze onto Leda.

“What paranoid drivel,” Adonis muttered simply, examined his nails.

“You think it was just communists, Jews, and Romani the Nazis were rounding up, Tariel, just two decades prior?” Henry twisted his head toward Adonis, speaking in deadly tones. “The humans that fancied themselves the Ubermensch, you think that idea just died right along with the end of the war? They did it once, and they can do it again, and it will come with the advent a nuclear holocaust against warlocks.”

“I just think,” Adonis was examining his nails, and then raised his head and glanced out the fanlight window where the sun had fully risen and shone down on the garden below, “if we are to discuss any kind of corralling, it would be germane to consider what’s happening with the smaller Trym covens in the global south.”

He paused, but Leda could feel the room shift with fresh, mounting anger at his words.

“But that’s neither here nor there,” Adonis waved his hand and advanced toward Leda. She could now see that the fibers in his coat were quite fine; the hairs in his half-circle eyebrows; and the fact that there were slight but unmistakable flecks of gold that flashed in Adonis’ black eyes. But no sign of a pupil and an iris; just black orbs.

“Right now, we must consider what is before us, and that is a task, indeed.” He spoke quickly and smoothly.

“So long as you don’t twist any necks,” Irena’s cold voice slithered from behind Leda.

And before Leda could turn around to her mother, she watched Adonis’ already pale face grow ashen. And the mounting anger against Adonis had boiled into mutterings and condemnations. But no one could interject in time:

“As long as you give me your daughter as was the agreement,” Adonis returned with equal viciousness to Irena.

“What?!” Leda clear voice resounded. She whirled around to face her mother, who was staring at Adonis with seething hatred.

There was movement, an attempt for a divergence when Leda suddenly felt a very strong hand grab her arm. And the next thing she knew Pyramus was dragging her from the throne room.

It wasn’t the commotion of bodies, the words and accusations that were sent flying, or how her mother and Adonis remained bolted in place, ready to fly at each other. It wasn’t any of those things that caught Leda’s attention just before the doors closed, separating her and Pyramus from the room.

The young Valkyrie that had given her tea. The one with the black hair. She was covering her face and her shoulder shook, while the other Valkyrie wrapped one arm around her, trying to comfort her.

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