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The Black Pearl (Volume 1)

By JennInk All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Adventure

Chapter 16: Day 6 - The Malum & The Flifary

The dreary Malum village haunting Rin’s worries was passing another seemingly quiet afternoon. Of course, even the chronically excluded Rin could have felt the thick tension permeating the village and blanketing the worn wooden houses. Anxiety levels brimmed and tempers wore raw. The rare times two Malum happened to cross paths, they snapped at each other and continued on their ways in a huff.

The door to Shrilynda’s house thrust open, and the dark-haired woman emerged in poor spirits. The nearby chickens who demanded breakfast in squawks and clucks were too short-sighted to understand they took their lives into their own wings. Luckily for the foolish poultry, she had need of them. She carelessly tipped out a pile of feed, and the chickens clamored over it, pecking madly at each other for a share.

Having Rin gone was a mixed blessing. Her absence was a welcome respite, but the girl had minded the cooking and cleaning and cared for the garden and the animals. Shrilynda would need a permanent solution to that problem sooner than anticipated, it would seem.

Shrilynda made her way to Namon’s armory, a multi-purpose building he put more care into than his own home. Waylaid by the chickens, she was the last to arrive. Zaref, Namon, and Ezelle were already gathered around a heavy wooden table, engaged in a discussion that sounded as if it had already drifted into erratic personal attacks. They were attempting to iron out a plan of action, but the sullen group seemed to be creating more wrinkles than they were flattening.

Zaref sat squarely with both hands on the table, shifting his heavy stare to one member after another. The only remaining original founder of the Malum, Zaref commanded respect. Unfortunately, commanding had little effect. In his mind, the younger Malum (or perhaps a small, but representative sample of the Malum) should set him on a golden throne and worship him for enlightening them and allowing them to use magic how they chose. At the very least, personal attendants were a necessity. Slaughtering chickens and fetching things were tasks better left to the younger, greener Malum. As much as he railed, he was told their numbers were too few. Since these demands had gone unheeded, he wondered if the ritual hour of worship every morning and evening would ever become a reality, despite his well-timed hints. Although he believed his hints fell on deaf ears, the unspoken opinion of his fellow Malum was that consulting Zaref on matters of importance was an ample display of proper respect.

On his right, Namon pulled back from the table, arms crossed in a sulking posture. Logical and organized, Namon had a talent for tracking any creature unfortunate enough to catch his attention. At the height of the Malum’s strength, he could track the movement of a sparrow from the comfort of this room with a simple elixir of Sorceress blood. Any poor fool imprudent enough to question his ability was reminded in the instants before an untimely death that Namon was relentless and ruthless.

Namon remembered most proudly when he had once been given the task of neutralizing the potential threat of a Malum deserter. The traitor thought himself safe to hide in the forest for over two months, believing he had thrown Namon off his trail. In truth, Namon watched his every move with meticulous interest. He surveilled the wishful betrayer’s trek from the forest until he was within the sight of Kianne City walls. He saw the horror on the man’s face when he nearly tripped on the volume emblazoned with his name, each page chronicling his daily movements and ending with his demise outside of Kianne City. Well-paid thieves loyal to the Malum may have been the ones to actually slice the man to pieces, but Namon knew the man died with the hatred and terror of the unseen watcher burning in his heart. Namon’s system was perfectly tuned, and he reveled in his omniscience.

With the loss of the prevalence of Sorceresses and, therefore, the loss of their very useful blood, Namon was saddled with the more mundane reliance on informants, spies, and his army of Scouts. He knew every Malum Scout’s position and the extent of every informant’s knowledge. In fact, every piece of information that arrived from outside the village was seen first by his eyes and ears. The outside world was a web he lorded over like a beady-eyed spider. All Rin and Alexander had to do was leave the safety of Crystal Palace, and they had mere days before Namon could trap them in position.

Because the haughty traitor Sorceress was an outsider, the duty of gathering information from Serena had fallen to Namon. Dealing with the conceited Terran girl had already pushed Namon past his limit of calm and rational behavior. Adding to his already tried patience, this meeting was interfering with his ability to check in with two scouting parties. Namon was growing antsy, and the loss of his cool, rational head was taking its toll on the productivity of the meeting.

Ezelle perched meekly on a corner of her chair, either believing herself unworthy of the whole chair or ready to make a quick escape. She fidgeted often, pushing her wispy black hair behind her ears or picking at the folds of her skirt.

The meek potions keeper had a brilliant talent for sorcery. As a young Terran girl, she had been called to serve the Naxturae as a Sorceress, but her mother, despite all evidence that Ezelle’s clumsy fingers were better suited to turning pages and mixing potions than to threading needles, insisted her daughter was to become a respectable seamstress. The Malum had been quick to snatch her away, wiping out all trace of her and her family in case anyone thought to come looking. Some of the tasks she might be asked to do were distasteful, but that was all a small price to pay to do what she loved.

In contrast to the timid Ezelle, the imposing Shrilynda had already taken ownership of the seat next to her and busied herself with rolling a bracelet around her pale wrist. Being one of the few women in the community with Naxturaen blood, Shrilynda was one of those few who still possessed magic outside of a bottle or a bag. Knowing full well how powerful this made her, she lorded her magic over the others like a coveted toy. The remaining Malum had grudgingly bowed to her logical demand to be in control of the pearl and the plans to release the Demon. Unfortunately, as a final shot, they had used her own argument to saddle her with the care of Rin, insisting only Shrilynda could possibly have the power to safely hold the girl until their plans could be completed. Shrilynda could not think of an opposing argument at the time, but if she had known the months of failed attempts would stretch into long years, she would have tried harder.

Shrilynda’s ice blue eyes scanned the men at the table as she spoke, but generally ignored the mousy Terran turned Dark Sorceress next to her. Ezelle’s hard-earned talent grew even without the benefit of the Demon. In some ways, Ezelle’s power threatened Shrilynda’s, and Shrilynda took great care to keep the insecure woman under her thumb. Ezelle was rarely able to interject a suggestion without suffering an insult from the sharp-tongued woman.

“I found a spell for locating a lost magic user,” Ezelle reported to the group. “Unfortunately, it takes a few days to gather and implement.”

Shrilynda rolled her eyes. “Thanks, Ezelle. We’ll get back to you on that.”

Ezelle tried to continue, but was unable to hide the tired edge in her voice. “I just thought it would be a good way for me to be useful while the rest of you were free to work on your own plans.”

“Oh please,” Shrilynda scoffed. “You couldn’t chop the head off a chicken without me.”

“Exactly when is the last time you got your hands that dirty?” a defensive Ezelle squeaked.

“Excuse me for pointing this out,” Namon snarled back, “but Rin was your responsibility, Shril.”

Shrilynda’s ice blue eyes flashed. “I kept that little trollop doe-eyed and ignorant for fourteen years! She has no idea—”

“Had no idea,” Zaref interrupted. “Athena will take one look at her and—”

Shrilynda cut him off abruptly. “She will have no idea who Rin is. The original memory spell was very effective.”

“Thank you!” Ezelle brightened and was ignored by everyone.

“That’s what we thought,” Namon added, “but surely the Prince would never have gone with her if he hadn’t recognized—”

“Men will follow any footprints if the feet are pretty enough,” Shrilynda scoffed. “I say the memory spell is still holding strong.”

“You had better be right,” Namon muttered.

“Is that a threat?” Shrilynda laughed derisively.

“It was my spell,” Ezelle tried to interject, hoping for credit, even if it meant inserting herself in the middle of this argument.

Zaref banged a fist on the table. “Stop it, all of you, quarreling like spoiled children. Is everything in place?”

“Precisely as in place as yesterday,” Namon snapped.

Without his strained nerves, Namon knew better than to take that tone, but Zaref narrowed his eyes in displeasure and let it pass for now. His flashing eyes implied he was making a mental note of the incident to be dealt with the second the Demon was released.

“Humor me,” he growled.

Namon obliged, parroting the checklist in his head. “Magical Races—taken care of.”

“We’re certain?” Zaref questioned.

“We watched the demise of the Naxturae and the Enchanters with our own eyes,” Shrilynda offered.

“And—and the Flifary?” Ezelle chimed in timidly.

Shrilynda laughed at the suggestion, and Namon shifted his feet in annoyance of this waste of his time, while Zaref smiled in amused condescension.

“The Flifary have never acted of their own volition,” Zaref explained, as if to an ignorant child. “Since we’ve seen no interference in our plans thus far, we are safe to assume with no possibility of Enchanter or Naxturaen guidance, the Flifary will remain uninvolved.”

“Above all, a last-ditch Flifary attempt to stop us is of no threat. It is well too late for that wishy-washy group of sun lovers to muster an attack powerful enough to hurt us,” Namon affirmed.

Zaref nodded in agreement. “And Crystal Palace?”

“Athena is something of an uncertainty,” Namon admitted. “But days after Rin’s arrival, she remains hidden away in the Naxturaen Glade. Perhaps she doubts the girl or fears her. Perhaps Rin knows as little as Shrilynda claims she does and had no information to relay.”

“Do we have a contingency plan if she is being kept prisoner at the Palace?” Shrilynda interjected.

“Not yet,” Namon admitted after a long pause.

“She never should have reached Crystal Palace,” Zaref decried. “The twit should have been retrieved as soon as she encountered the Sorceress.”

Namon bristled at the personal affront.

“As I previously reported, the girl found the crystal and destroyed it,” he defended himself. “I could not have anticipated she had the resources to reach and cross the mountains so quickly. My closest scouts were only half a day behind her, according to a terrified group of Bellicans, and she should have been easy prey against the impenetrable eastern ridge of the Ascleons. Next we knew, she had crossed the River.”

“Even with my painfully low scouting resources,” Namon emphasized, “I would have had her within hours if she had been alone. Perhaps apprehending the Prince alive was as foolish an idea as I—”

Shrilynda flared. “Even someone as thick-headed as you are should be able to use the marginal amount of brain power required to understand Naxturaen spells are too fickle and delicate to humor your convenience. You know full well I need him to fuel this spell.”

“Both of you should be ashamed of yourselves,” Zaref chided Shrilynda and Namon.

Namon sunk back into his sulking posture, while Shrilynda flushed with anger.

“The silly girl will play right into our hands,” Shrilynda snapped. “We have a full seven days to coax her to us if necessary, and until then, her absence lightens our load. We have the orb and the spell in our possession.”

“The resourceful little Sorceress Sherela—Sereba? Not important. She does seem to have fulfilled that part of her promise,” Zaref pondered. “Namon, see to it we possess all of her information.”

Namon barely hid the flicker of disgust that passed over his face.

Zaref continued. “Final order of business—should the Demon be summoned and apprised of the situation?”

Zaref scanned the Malum around the table for consensus.

Namon shook his head decisively.

Shrilynda returned to rolling the bracelet around her wrist. “We all know the Demon will be much happier with us when we have actual progress to report.”

“No need to bog it down with our day-to-day problems,” Ezelle added quietly.

“Agreed,” Zaref nodded. “The Ancient One will be among us soon enough. Until then, it is our responsibility to ensure its freedom.”

He was answered with silent head bobs. No matter how much at odds they might be with each other, they all yearned for the return of the Demon and its powers.

+++++

When the smattering of snow had long since melted and evaporated, and the warm salty water washed away any traces of ice from the hull and sides of the boat, the hazy outline of land appeared on the horizon. Rin squinted in the white heat as the boat wedged itself onto the soft, sandy shore. What Rin hoped was a welcoming party waited for them on the beach.

The first thing that struck Rin was how little clothing they wore. As the two bare-chested, barefoot male guides led them through a town populated by stone houses, Rin noticed most people wore as little as possible—thin, comfortable clothes made whimsical by chains, bracelets, and bells. Their skin was dark—a protective mask against an unrelenting sun—but a shock of red hair sprang from their heads as if alive. Jingling children chased each other up arcing palm trees like monkeys, both of which occasionally tried to peg the foreign travelers with bananas. The guilty party usually gave itself away with giggles or chittering.

Rin fell behind due to her staring and hurried to catch up before the trees opened up upon a stone palace which seemed to jut directly from the earth. Massive columns rose majestically into and were hidden by the odd, tall trees. From an open courtyard where flowering vines twined up the white columns, she and Athena were led into the royal chamber, which was a good deal cooler because of its protection from the hot sun. The shelter was still several degrees too warm for Rin’s tastes. Light streamed in and danced on the floor, leading a path to the Flifary King, who entertained a large group of enrapt listeners. Everyone was dressed, more accurately not dressed, much the same, and the comparatively rigid structure of Crystal Palace was in no evidence here. If not for the fact that he sat in what seemed to be a throne and had a large crown tattooed around his upper arm, Rin might not have assumed this large, gregarious man was a King at all.

“Madame Athena!” he exclaimed, vaulting himself out of his stone seat. “Always a pleasure!”

He wrapped his giant arms around her and squeezed her in a huge bear hug.

“Arlana insisted you would be here today, and, I say, it’s a good thing you are. We’re having a banquet in your honor tonight.”

“You are a gracious host, King Pelgor.” Rin could see Athena’s smile was not completely genuine, but the High Queen only granted herself half a step backward out of politeness.

Pelgor paid her lack of exuberance no notice and looked over his other visitor.

“Welcome!” he effused in Rin’s direction, flashing her a smile of brilliant white teeth. “It’s not often we have the opportunity to celebrate such important guests.”

Rin wondered at his choice of words.

“Are the Naxturae back, then?” he asked Athena.

“No, King,” Athena replied. “They were all killed years ago.”

“So sad.” He furrowed his brow. “They had the best parties.”

Rin had the feeling he would be equally saddened to hear someone had eaten the last tart at breakfast than he was at the reminder of the genocide of an entire people, but his distress was still genuine. While she took in the stone walls and the ease of the attendants and palace-goers who wandered about freely, she listened to Pelgor tell Athena that Arlana had been waiting for them and would see them immediately.

“Unless, of course, you’d like to begin the celebration early,” Pelgor tried hopefully. “The southern outlet has perfected a new form of current wine.”

“I am anxious to meet with the Seer,” Athena insisted politely.

“You need to worry less!” was his reply.

She smiled at his friendliness with more sincerity, and he cheerfully asked someone nearby to show his guests to the Seeing Temple.

So they were led back out of the palace. They left the path immediately and were engulfed by the trees and vines of the surrounding jungle. Rin had just begun to question how their guide could still be following any sort of path and wondering how many hours it would take her to find her way back to the palace through this labyrinth of vines and leafy foliage when the jungle gave way to a covered clearing surrounding a smaller palace.

This stone temple was sacred and revered by even the surrounding jungle, which saw fit to silence its noises here. The sun filtered through the trees to grant the temple with light, but was clear about not interfering in its solitude. The biggest change was in Pepper who had been bounding his way through the jungle, gleefully snapping at anything that hopped, flew, or ran. Now, he drew close to Rin’s side, calm and watchful.

Their guide asked if they would be requiring anything further, and to Rin’s surprise Athena thanked him and assured him they would be fine here. He smiled genially and ambled back into the thick jungle. With a glance in Rin’s direction to make sure she was safely in tow, Athena approached the temple. Rin followed her into a covered courtyard, flanked by more white stone pillars. Filtered light streamed in from open windows, but this place was darker and calmer than Pelgor’s palace.

In the middle of the courtyard, a lone woman lounged on a low stone chaise. Her left foot was bare, and it dangled off the front of the throne of sorts, tracing a pattern in the cool stone floor. Her right leg hung over the arm of the throne while her head was cradled in the hand connected to the elbow resting on the other arm of the throne. She struck Rin as a comfortable curious cat, especially as she regarded them with her dark eyes. There was something slightly different about this woman, though. She had the same red hair, but it was tightly braided and twisted into an intricate design, carefully ordered while simultaneously wild like her surroundings. Rin was still watching the woman in fascination when Athena addressed her.

“Thank you for granting us an audience, Seer Arlana,” Athena bowed to the woman.

“It’s wonderful to see you again, my friend,” Arlana replied, stretching and rising to her feet. “I have not as much to discuss with your young neophyte as you might expect, but I’m pleased to meet her nevertheless.”

She grasped Athena’s hands and locked her piercing gaze with Athena’s. “Trust yourself. Your heart does not mislead you.”

Arlana kissed the Queen on the cheek in a sudden movement. Just as abruptly, she pulled Rin to her and stared deep into her eyes. Rin was paralyzed, afraid the mysterious Flifary Seer was about to engulf her with her dark, passionate gaze, but the woman stepped back after a moment, nodded to a few of the guards Rin had failed to notice upon entering the room, and swept out of the throne room. Brightly colored scarves trailed behind her.

Athena was led away while Rin was funneled in the direction of the fleeing scarves. Oddly at home with his surroundings, Pepper stayed at his mistress’ side. Soon she was deposited in a dark room with strange stars and symbols on the walls that seemed to glow in the darkness. When Rin’s eyes adjusted, her gaze was drawn to a pulsating green glow originating from a large object in the middle of the room—a great glassy ball. Arlana motioned for her to sit down, and her bracelets played on each other, a miniature symphony of metal on metal. Rin settled on an odd wicker chair, fixated on the large glowing sphere as Arlana ran her hands across it. The woman brought her face close enough for the eerie light to cast shadows.

“What is it?” Rin whispered, afraid to break the magical silence.

Without moving her eyes from the glowing sphere, Arlana spoke. “This helps me concentrate the magical energy all around us into one place. Magic is very strong. You have to know how to use only what you are capable of or it will control you. The Malum never learned that lesson, and it destroyed them. They became the very demons they sought to control.”

“How did the Naxturae or the Flifary avoid becoming evil if magic is so powerful?”

Arlana looked up at her and smiled. “I can debate the truth of your statement as well as the next historian. Perhaps in some ways, they did. But you would really like to know if magic will make you evil.”

“Will it?”

“Not if you never stop asking that question. Evil is about choices. The Naxturae used their magic to protect, but the Flifary for the most part chose not to burden themselves with it. We have a rather interesting history; it turns out we can make quite a mess of things with everyone trying to change the course of the future all at once. So, our people choose a few to bear the burden of watching and keeping things in balance, while the rest are content to let nature run its course and simply live.”

“So you do see the future?”

“I see many futures.”

How could a person have many futures? Rin tried to understand, but the Seer was confusing and the glassy, pulsing ball was hypnotic. The green light lit up Arlana’s face and hands in an intimidating, unnatural way. She wanted to hear how to stop the Malum, but she began to realize she may not receive the information she sought.

“Why am I here?” she asked instead. “What can I do?”

“Young one,” Arlana laughed merrily in the midst of her seriousness, “if you survive the next week, you are welcome to come back here and ask me that question, but you’ll already know the answer.”

“If?” Now Rin was more confused than before. “Don’t you know what is going to happen?”

“Things I know,” Arlana murmured, seemingly to herself, tapping her ball for emphasis. “I know you are important. I know your enemies are ruthless and in places you will least expect. I know their failure does not guarantee your success. I know your friends are scattered, but essential. Put your hand on the crystal, if you will.”

Rin almost missed the command directed toward her in the midst of Arlana’s vague rambling. Trembling, but more afraid to disobey, Rin placed her hand on the odd sphere. It seemed eager to draw her inside of it, and the green light pulled at her hand, twisting up her arm like a growing vine. Out of the corner of her eye she saw shadowy green figures dance around the room, leaving a trail of smoky magic in their wake.

Arlana lifted her fingers off the glass ball, and it suddenly went dead, tendrils and smoke evaporating instantly as if they never existed. Rin pulled her hand away and blinked away the confused buzzing in the back of her mind.

“What did you see?” Rin whispered.

The Seer paused to close her eyes and take a deep breath. Rin tried to wait patiently, but she nearly jumped when the Flifary woman’s eyes snapped open, eerie traces of green light still reflected in her eyes.

“I saw you, little one—your past, present, hopes, fears, choices, and some of your future.”

“And…”

“Unfortunately, I would be more useful to you if you had no idea where to go or what to do.” Arlana’s voice was tinged with amusement. “But you know exactly where to go and what you must do when you get there.”

Rin thought aloud. “I need to go to Devil’s Rush and stop the Malum from using the pearl and raising the Demon.”

“The future you’ve laid out for yourself is all I can see.” Arlana nodded, feathery earrings bobbing on her shoulders.

“But how can I stop them? Is there anything else you can tell me?”

The Seer’s gypsy eyes glinted. “Believe someone who lives on an island that never rests: the journey defines your story. There is no easy way to get where you are going. I would just confuse you by showing you the destination, and you would not be ready once you arrived.”

Rin sighed unhappily. “You were supposed to help me.”

“I have helped you, child,” Arlana continued kindly. “Those you have needed most have always been there for you.”

Arlana gestured toward the ground, where Pepper lay on his back, paws grasping a green smoky figure that struggled to escape.

“Pepper?” Rin shot Arlana a confused glance.

“It’s easy to see the future, but not half as easy to change it.”

“You sent Pepper to me to change the future?” Rin tried to understand.

Arlana only stared back at her.

“But, why?”

“That is for you to discover.”

“My dreams.” Rin’s scrambled brain searched for a connection that made sense. “Did you send those, too?”

Arlana paused. She was choosing her words carefully.

“How like me that would be,” she mused in reply. “No, these dreams do not originate with me.”

Arlana’s inflection caused Rin to ask, “Is someone else sending them to me?”

“Perhaps.” Arlana ran her fingers across the smooth, glassy surface of the inactive ball, her eyes still fixed on Rin.

“Who?” Rin demanded.

“Pay more attention to your dreams, and you will find your answer.”

“What can a dream tell me?” Rin asked. “Dreams are not real.”

“Real?” the Seer scoffed. “Who ever said you need to be concerned with what’s real? Life is like a story, and you are in a position to write it however you want. You—more than most—have little need to burden yourself with the limitations of what is possible or impossible.”

“I am more confused than before,” Rin bemoaned.

Arlana bit her lip. “Ah, me. Seeing the future is the easy part. Lest you leave frustrated, may I gently suggest the reason the dreams plague you so greatly may be found within yourself.”

“With myself?” All Rin knew was she started having these dreams before any of this began. Her eyes widened in alarm. “Do I tell the future also?”

“No, sweet one. Divination is not among your many talents.”

So the dreams did not tell the future, she considered with relief, but they still came from her.

“A memory,” she exclaimed, before thinking through what she was saying. “Is this something I remember?”

Without responding, Arlana rose and beckoned Pepper to her. He rolled to his feet and complied. She gazed into his glassy eyes for a moment, and she smiled like a conversation had taken place. Pepper returned to sit next to his mistress and clean the pads of his feet.

“You know, Caretakers don’t normally become quite this attached to their charges. They watch over all of us here, guarding the island, but they are rarely seen. You must certainly be a sweet soul for your Caretaker to have taken such a fancy to you.”

“Did he tell you something?” Rin asked. “Is that supposed to be an answer?”

Arlana nodded her head, feathers bobbing. “Just another page in a story you’re not ready to read, young one,” she murmured.

Rin watched her friend clean his toes, and she remembered the night she had found him, a cold, shivering kitten with huge, glassy brown eyes, rain dripping pitifully from his ears. She found it hard to believe he had found her, had been sent to watch over her. Until a week ago, no one had shown any interest in her, yet she was supposed to believe that hundreds of miles away, the Flifary had been concerned for her well-being from her childhood?

“How can any of this be true?” she voiced her exasperation.

“Don’t put your trust in me, child. Your truths must be discovered, and you have chosen a rather long road. Your enemies will take many forms, but you have faithful friends who are powerful allies.”

The Seer fixed her dark eyes on Rin. “It is essential to your success you recognize your friends. If you take away nothing else, this is most important.” She paused dramatically, “When your path is most obscured and your destination hidden, recognizing an old friend through the haze will mean the difference between ultimate victory and total defeat.”

Rin was unimpressed. “What does that mean?”

“That I could tell you,” Arlana admitted. “But I do have an aura of mystery to maintain. Someone else requires the specifics more than you.”

“If it was so important, why did you wait until now to tell me?” Rin tried vainly to grasp some understanding of the situation.

“Truly important information is best told last. It’s most memorable that way.”

“But you cannot tell me how to stop the Malum?” she asked, disconcerted that her audience with the Seer seemed to be at an end.

“I need not see the future to answer that question.” Arlana cocked her head, sweeping feathery earrings grazing her neck. “Be stronger and smarter than the foes you seek to defeat.”

Rin sighed heavily.

“Come child,” Arlana relented, her expression softening. “The Flifary have a saying: ‘If you already know tomorrow, why not live today?’ You will ponder my words later. Now, you must relax. Prepare for your journey. Frazzled nerves help no one, and things that are troubling always insist on happening in their own time. It is not our custom to send visitors away empty-handed and unhappy. You will worry no more here.”

Rin doubted the Seer’s words, but, regardless, Arlana’s attendants guided her to a white beach already lit by a huge bonfire that threw powerful orange light in smoky waves over the gathered throng. In the early evening, the sun could stifle the land no longer, and the heat-struck city came alive. Rin found herself at a boisterous banquet where odd drinks flowed and tables bowed under enough food for ten gatherings of their size. The platters holding the food were invisible under the mass of exotic fruits adorning the trays of beautifully dressed hunks of meat that dripped juices slowly down their sides.

Something called Kaloi was thrust into Rin’s hands. She examined it dubiously, a frothy drink served in the thick brown skin of a coconut. A grape garnish spilled over the edge of the lavish concoction. Rin ran her fingertip through the icy foam and licked it off her finger. She was knocked back a bit by the strength of the thick liquid and decided against it. She nibbled at the grapes instead and watched the proceedings with fascination.

Musicians played, people danced, and acrobats tumbled through the sand in joyful abandon. There were no moments of silence and no moments without the sound of laughter drifting in and out like the ocean tides. Nothing she had ever experienced was comparable to this. The Malum were rarely happy, and even more rarely at the same time.

A friendly party goer dropped down on the log where Rin had perched herself.

“In his younger days,” the man breathed heavily from frenzied exertion, sweat running in beads down the sides of his face, “Pelgor was quite the dancer himself.”

He pointed to the King, who clapped along heartily to the pounding of the drums. As if to accentuate the speaker’s claim, the entertainers pulled the King into the circle for a bout of dancing. A curious throng gathered closer to watch him. With a twinkle in his eye, Pelgor’s feet kicked up sand, and the shrieking onlookers were coated with a layer of it. Rin laughed along with the people and allowed the troubling, dubiously informative prophesies of the late afternoon to fade to the back of her mind.

While she was engaged in watching the festivities, Rin noticed Pepper was gone. She anxiously scanned the nearby jungle. In the shadows, several dark felines were barely visible in the distance, keeping watch over the merriment. Pepper had slipped away to sit among them, his thick form unmistakable to his mistress, the glimmer of his eyes lit up faintly by the distant flickering of the fire. She wondered what other secrets her friend had been keeping all these years; she could now add even her cat to the list of those who seemed to know more about her than she did.

Although the party maintained its feverish pace with no signs of slowing, Rin faded as the night wore on. Soon the drums and the shouting melded together into one dull pounding, and despite her best efforts, she was unable to stifle her tired yawns.

“You’re not dancing?” A voice from behind snapped her awake in an instant.

Rin whirled her head to see Athena returned from her own lengthy audience with the Seer. Rin was glad to see the High Queen, a tiny bit of familiarity in a strange place. Rin wondered if her travel companion had gleaned more information from the cryptic woman than she had. Either way, Athena seemed more at ease, the carefree Flifary attitude infecting even her for a moment.

“Oh, no.” Rin shook her head effusively. “I do not know how to dance, but they are fun to watch.”

Athena sat next to her for a moment, watching the party-goers dare each other to swallow sticks of fire.

“I’m always amazed how removed they are from the death plaguing the land mere miles off their shore.”

Rin was unable to read into her tone. She was neither wistful nor bitter.

“Would you rather stay here?” Rin asked.

Athena shook herself from her reverie. “Goodness, no! What would I do without disorder to conquer and worries to allay? I prefer the headaches of Crystal Palace to the blissful ignorance of Flifary Island, but, I will admit, my worries always seem lighter to me when I have chosen to bear them again. “

“We are headed back soon?” Rin asked hopefully.

“Tomorrow,” Athena promised, taking note of the tired girl’s drooping eyelids. “You’ve had a long day.”

“I had no idea the world was so…big and confusing.”

“I’ll make excuses to our exuberant host if you’d like to head back to the palace to get some sleep.”

Rin was grateful for the offer. On the trip back to the palace, Pepper appeared at her side once more. She was greeted like royalty at the palace and had to refuse offers of everything from food to clothes; she was already stuffed from the party, and Chandra had sent her with more clothes than a person could wear in a week. However, she gladly made use of the overflowing tub of warm water in her room to wash off the sticky remains of the day—sweat and sand.

Rin marveled that even with the sun gone, it was still necessary to sleep with no covers and with all the windows thrust open. She contemplated the familiar stars and wondered at their names, which made her miss Alexander. She wondered what he was doing miles away and wished he was here to explain the odd sights and sounds of this strange place. Eventually, her head sank onto a soft pillow, her eyes closed, and she fell asleep.

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