Kartega

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Chapter 21

“That was good,” Abbot said, chewing on a piece of fried frigger, “what you did back there. Connor is a good fighter but he wouldn’t know political tactics if they hit him on the head.”

“Thanks,” Ashlan nodded agreeably.

“If he’s so daft, why take him on these missions?” The words slipped out before Sid could stop herself and she readied for one of Abbot’s negative comments, surprised when his lips curled into a smile instead.

“Because sometimes, it’s better to build an army that you can control. One that doesn’t do much thinking outside of orders.”

“An army of fools,” she mumbled under her breath and took a bite off the frigger leg on her plate. The meat was still moist, despite the cool temperature and she pretended it was steaming hot when she bit into it. “He could have killed her back there.”

Ashlan scooted closer, closing the space between them almost entirely. His gaze met hers. “That might be a better option than what she’s heading for,” he whispered.

“What do you mean? Doesn’t she get a trial?”

“Everyone gets a trial,” Ashlan said. “But no one comes out of their trial alive.”

“What?”

“The trials are just a way for the queen to be seen as a fair ruler. At the end of the day, she’ll do anything to protect Tower City and its Citizens. Anything.”

“What about the Domers? Who protects them?”

Her voice started to rise and she could feel the whites of her eyes begin to radiate with magic, blending into the thin line of her pupil. Sid gripped the metal bitesticks in her hand, hoping the pressure would prevent her from shaking. She was fuming. Angry with the queen for her treatment of the workers, with Ashlan for his following of rules that he so blatantly didn’t agree with; with herself. Because she had risked so much to come to this star only to find out everything she knew about it was a lie. There was no peace here. Not unless you were one of Colton’s people; the chosen Citizens. One look at the eyes she hid behind her goggles and it was clear as starday that she was nothing like them. Even if Colton was alive, there would be no place for her here. No wonder he tried to keep her away as long as possible. Who knows what would have happened to her if he’d never put her on that ship? Would she have joined this group of rebels? Would it have been her hanging off the side of the railing with Connor’s fat finger threatening to push her over?

Sid’s fingers tightened against the metal sticks and she could feel the energy shift within her. Crawling from its secret depth under her skin closer to the surface. Closer to the Starblades. To their beating hearts and skin that begged to be scorched. She let the magic reach her fingers, directing it to the metal in wisps of electricity. Tears streamed down her face, catching on the rim of her goggles and forming small pools of saline at the ridge of her nose.

“Sid? You alright?” Ashlan asked.

She took a deep breath and looked down at the bitesticks in her hands. The once straight metal sticks were misshapen, tailored perfectly to the indents of her fists. All twisted and broken, wrong somehow. Just like her. She shoved the sticks into her suit pocket before anyone could see them and got up. “I’m fine. I’m done eating.”

Grabbing her plate, she walked out of the tent, letting the flaps of the entrance dance wildly behind her. She could feel Abbot’s squinted eyes on her as she passed but didn’t bother to look back. She wanted to get away from him and from Ashlan; even Fred was a constant reminder of everything that was rotten on this star. She couldn’t take it anymore. Forget getting information from Ashlan, she’d have to find another way to get off Neostar. Nothing was worth sticking around to see more people tortured or killed for something she didn’t even understand. It was too dangerous for her to stay here longer. What if someone found out she has magic? She couldn’t trust anyone. Not anymore.

The tents in the dome’s marketplace seemed to get more confusing the deeper she got into the center. Some jutted further out, causing the shops to form alleys and passageways that filled with people well into the night. Workers crowded every free space, bartering for services and goods with one another. She spun around when she heard a loud yell behind her only to spot a woman arguing with a man over a grey shawl. Sid wasn’t sure why the woman needed it; she was already covered in at least ten different pieces of fabric that twirled around her as she swayed her plump body from side to side. Next to them, a couple sipped two cups of red leaf broth over an intense conversation. She watched as the man brought the woman’s hand to his lips and kissed it lightly and her cheeks burned hot at the touch.

Sid’s eyes jumped from one neon-lit sign to another, trying to figure out where she was in the space. Her lips sounded the words as she read the signs one by one: dinner here, all night games, girls girls girls. She shook her head, trying to erase the lights flickering before her. There were too many options and none of them leading to any place she wanted to be.

“Magic,” Sid read aloud, gawking at the bright red arrow on the sign. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”

Hot air whipped past her as she made her way through the tight alleyways, following the sign’s direction. She saw another arrow and turned to pursue it further into the core. A few more arrows and she found herself in front of a dark tent entrance that didn’t look to have a beginning or end. The circular tent stood in the center of the dome, its strangeness burdening the street. Something about the place made her feel more lost than found and she wondered why she felt relieved to have ended up here.

Sid took another deep breath and parted the tent’s curtains.

The heavy fabric scratched against her skin as she passed through to the other side. Her breath caught in her throat for a brief moment, the new surroundings stopping her dead in her tracks.

What is this place?

Running a clammy palm against the tent’s curtained walls, she couldn’t help but notice the way the fabric — that looked like a dull sack from the outside — changed colors against her touch. It resembled the feel of the Starblade uniforms except this material glowed shades of orange and red. It looked like it was on fire.

Signs in a rainbow of colors shone above her head that led all the way down the oppressively dark corridor she found herself in. Each read the same message: Magic Here.

“At least I’m in the right place,” she turned around, half expecting to see Fred on her heels but quickly remembered she’d come there alone.

Sid followed the signs that got brighter as she passed them to another large curtain, this one a deep shade of gold. When she reached out to touch the fabric, the magic in her stirred and the electricity jumped from her fingers and sparked along the edges of the curtain. She watched, wide-eyed, as the sparks twirled in circles before flashing out of existence. Seriously, what is this place?

Before she could take a step back and consider her options, the curtain yanked to the side and a tall, lanky Domer stepped in front of her. She stumbled back awkwardly and landed on her behind. The man was at least four heads taller than Sid and his bony shoulders blocked the entrance just enough that she couldn’t see through to the other side. He surveyed her from head to toe, crossing his scrawny arms with some unease. Sid looked over his tunic, draping endlessly long to the bottom of his fitted pants but it was what covered his face that took her breath away. His entire face was concealed in a metal, sheath-like mask shaped like one of the winged creatures that were rumored to live in the jungles of Neostar. A pointed beak ran down the face of the mask all the way to his neckline. The mask covered every feature of the man’s face except his eerily red eyes that shone brightly from the two large openings on either side of the beak.

“Dome number, name, and purpose of visit.” The man grunted when Sid finally managed to get back up. He projected a screen from the interface box attached to his sleeve and started typing.

“Uhm, one twenty eight. Sid.” She answered. Purpose? She didn’t even know where she was let alone her purpose here. “Magic?”

The man glanced up from the screen then entered the information slowly. She was sure she messed it up somehow; that he would either throw her out or return her to the Starblade tents and ruin her cover. Sid got ready to flee, her back hunched down, eyes darting between the man and the exit curtain behind her. Instead, the man unfolded his arms and stepped aside, holding the curtain open for her to pass.

“Enjoy,” he said lightly and closed the fabric behind her.

Sid wasn’t sure how she was supposed to enjoy this place. The tent was like something out of a bad dream, bigger and darker on the inside. It was sectioned into small compartments, all closed off by dark, heavy fabrics. Behind each, she could see lights flickering that reminded her of the electricity she saw rush from her fingers when she first entered this place.

A curtain to her left flung open and Sid ducked into the shadows to avoid being seen.

A man walked out of the room, waving to someone with a grin on his face.

“Until next time, Gamon.” A woman’s small hand waved from inside the compartment and she heard a few more female giggles follow.

The man wavered towards her, tripping over something on the floor and falling right into Sid. His clumsy hands reached in front to steady himself and the two of them barreled backward, crashing through the curtained wall of the compartment behind them. Sid’s back hit something hard and she cried out in pain. Her hands reached back to grab hold of anything to keep from falling down to the floor with this fool of a man on top of her.

When Sid regained her balance, she looked down at the man whose hands were cupped perfectly around her breasts. Flushed, she shook with anger, stretching out her arm and pushing him off so abruptly that he slid across the floor before knocking into a large chair, losing his balance and falling to the floor.

His grin met her face before his eyes did. “Are you one of Serryl’s girls?” He asked, teeth barred. “Make sure you’re in my box next time, I like them full of fire like you.”

Sid stepped forward, her fists ready to slam into the man’s pointed chin, each hand already glowing with the magic rusting within her. His eyes widened in awe and he trembled, reaching for her with a shaky hand. She stepped back and shoved her hands in her pockets.

“You’re,” he said in disbelief, “you’re-”

“You’re burnt up, Gamon. Too much magic in one day. You saw nothing.” A coy voice rang from the shadows next to her. “I suggest you leave before I have you thrown out.”

Sid turned swiftly and focused on the shape of a woman in front of her who sat perched in a chair, wearing nothing but a translucent, skin-tight, red body suit. The woman’s eyes were a beautiful shade of yellow and her long, white hair was parted harshly to the side to reveal the side of her head which was shaved down to the skin and covered in intricate drawings. Sid tried to make out the markings but the woman flipped her hair over before Sid had a chance to inspect them.

Lights shined through, backlighting the woman as she shifted her weight in her seat and four large projection screens came to life, glowing a bright pink with the word ’Magic” pulsing across them in white. The woman uncrossed her legs and Sid looked down shyly to prevent herself from seeing up her long, smooth legs. Above her curvy figure draped hundreds of wires that stretched from the center of the compartment in each and every direction.

“Energy tubes. For the boxes,” the woman said as if in answer to Sid’s silent question.

“Boxes?”

“All the little rooms in here. It’s where,” she paused, “where the magic happens.”

“The magic in the tubes?”

“Exactly.”

Sid’s eyes narrowed and she followed the trail of tubes along the tent’s ceiling. The lights flashing behind the curtains of the boxed rooms, the man’s confused walk, his bewildered eyes when he saw her magic escape.

“You’re stealing the ring’s energy.” She whispered.

“Can’t steal what’s already yours, kid.” The woman got up and stretched out her hand, “I’m Serryl. The proud owner of this fine establishment.”

“Sid,” she reached out, carefully offering her hand in return. “You’re stealing the ring’s-”

“Yes, yes. You got it. We’re stealing the ring’s energy to use for our own entertainment. Very good, you’re all caught up.”

Sid stared, dumbfounded. “But that’s not allowed. The queen-”

“The queen has no idea what happens in these domes. She’s never even set foot in one herself. This place belongs to us and our magic belongs to us. All we’re doing is taking some back and reusing it.”

“For what?”

Serryl flipped her head back and laughed, “Oh, kid. For fun of course! There’s nothing quite like a good jolt of magic when you’ve been left dry your whole life.” She walked closer to Sid, grazing her exposed shoulder against Sid’s suit. “Not that you have that problem, of course.”

“What? What are you talking about? Look, I don’t know what you think you saw but I have no idea what you’re implying.”

“Relax, kid. Your secret is safe with me. Although, one of these days, I’ll definitely want to hear your story. And don’t worry about Gamon either.”

“I can trust that guy?”

“Oh, stars no.” Serryl laughed again, her teeth a bright white against the pink glow of the box. “But he’s much too addicted to the magic and to my girls to risk getting kicked out.”

“Your girls?”

“And boys. The other reason people come to see me. There’s a Magic in every dome. Because sometimes you need magic, but sometimes you just need someone to talk to. And enjoy.” Serryl flipped her hair again and walked past Sid out of the box, her bare feet high on tip toes, making her full hips sway in exaggeration from side to side. “You coming?” She called over her shoulder and winked.

Reluctantly, Sid followed the barely clad woman out of the box and back into the tent’s hallway.

She stayed close enough to Serryl to be able to latch on in case someone attacked her from the back but far enough that she could run if the woman decided to turn on her. Her hands stayed at her sides, ready to electrocute anyone who came too close.

“Relax, kid. No one is going to hurt you here. We’re all friends in Magic.”

“Where are you taking me?”

“I’m not taking you anywhere. You’re really all mucked up inside, aren’t you? I might need to hear your story sooner rather than later,” she winked again.

“Can you please tell me where we’re going?” Sid asked, her voice shaking.

“Like I said, we’re all friends here. But there’s someone I think might be a better friend to you than others.”

With that, Serryl swung open the curtain of one of the boxes, revealing a woman with her tunic half open, straddling a bare-chested man in a chair with an energy tube wrapped around his neck. The woman tugged at the tube and the man groaned in pleasure as she let the sparks of star magic fly across his chest. Breathless, the man turned his head and Sid noticed that he wore a similar mask to the tall man at the entrance, though his was more intricate in design with laces of metal running through it. A staggering waterfall projected on the curtain behind them with water so real, she could almost smell it. When the woman heard the sound of the curtain opening, she jumped back, tugging her tunic across her chest.

“For star’s sake, Serryl! Ask to come in next time!” The woman waved a hand in front of a projection screen and the waterfall disappeared. She stepped back to tighten the belt of her tunic and that’s when Sid saw her.

The woman from the telescreen reports. It was her.

Sid glared into her green eyes, hoping to find some form of recognition, a semblance of a memory but nothing came to mind. Something about this very short woman, with sharp green eyes and red hair shaved almost down to her scalp was familiar. Sid just didn’t know how.

“Relax, Nyala. I brought someone to see you.”

So that’s your name. Nyala. Sid rolled it around in her mouth. So familiar.

The woman stepped forward, her eyes meeting Sid’s. “It can’t be!” She reached for her but Sid jumped back.

“Forgot to mention, this one’s a little jumpy.”

“Stars. Where have you been this whole time?”

Her voice was soft. So soft that Sid could hear it in her ears as she closed her eyes. Could see her green eyes watch over her before sleep took her. Could feel her strong arms reach around and tug her closer, into comfort and safety.

“Stars help us. You don’t remember anything, do you?”

Sid shook her head and took another step back. “Remember what? Who are you? Who’s that guy?” She pointed to the man with the bare chest still reclining on a chair behind Nyala. “Who are all of you people?”

“That one’s mine, and he was just leaving.” Serryl nodded to the curtain and the man picked up his discarded tunic and walked out without a word.

“And you?” She pointed a finger in Nyala’s direction. The magic in her warmed the tip until it beamed a brilliant yellow.

“My name is Nyala,” she said, then pointing to her hand, “well, at least he wasn’t lying when he said he’ll protect you from the chipping.”

“Who? Colton? You knew Colton?”

“I knew the general quite well. Most of us Freedom Runners did. Most of all your parents.”

The tears in her eyes clung to her lashes for only a moment before she blinked and let them rush down her cheeks. “You knew my parents?”

“Oh, darling, your parents were the greatest people I’ve ever met. They’re the reason we’re still fighting. Them and the promise of you coming back to us.”

“What are you talking about? What’s a Freedom Runner? Who are you people and how do you know anything about me? Or Colton?”

Nyala rested a cold hand on Sid’s shoulder and she let it stay, hoping the touch would bring forth another memory but her thoughts remained bare. She was as blank as she had been before and even more confused now. How did this woman know Colton or her parents? What if she was lying and this was just a trap set by Queen Leona to bring her out of hiding? Sid didn’t think the queen suspected her of dishonesty but perhaps her act wasn’t as convincing as she thought it was? What if Ashlan betrayed her? From what she’d seen, the NSO would not protect her as Colton would have. The queen pulled all the strings and there was a good chance that if she knew about Sid, it would be her on the end of a lightline on her next visit to the throne room. She’d be the one waiting to be put down.

“This isn’t the place to talk of these things.” Serryl said and nodded to the curtain next to them. Light shone through the bottom slit as the session next to them commenced.

“She’s right,” Nyala agreed. “Irin, I don’t know how you got here and why the general did not tell you anything about us or your past. What matters is that you’re here, where you belong. You’re home, Irin. And now we can finish what your parents started all those years ago. This place isn’t safe to speak-”

Serryl cleared her throat, clearly offended by the comment but Nyala didn’t seem to notice.

“Come to this flat tomorrow morning. We can speak there. I promise to tell you everything but for now you have to go. It isn’t safe for you to be seen with me.” She reached for an interface box in her tunic pocket and pulled up a projection of the dome. Her fingers swiped the screen and the dome’s walls shattered to reveal the floor-plan of the flats. Pinching her index and thumb, Nyala zoomed in on a flat and tapped the screen. “You’ll remember?”

Sid nodded. “Nyala?” She asked shakily.

“Yes?”

“Who’s Irin?”

“That stardamned fool!” She hissed and her eyes turned a deeper shade of green, a sadder shade. “That’s you, child. Irin is the name your parents gave you when you took your first breath.”

Her head felt hollow and lighter, like it was in danger of drifting off her body and into the skies above. She tried to stay as still as possible, certain that one step would send her tumbling face first to the floor. More lies, more secrets, more reasons to get the muck off this star and away from these people. Her once clammy hands were dripping with sweat now and she tried to wipe off the moisture on her suit’s pant leg. More of everything bad. But also more reasons to stay. To find out what they knew about her. To find out about the parts of her she never knew existed. They couldn’t be that bad; Serryl saw her magic and hadn’t called the Starblades. Yet. She could stay, meet Nyala tomorrow and find out everything she could. Between her and Serryl, one of them was bound to know where the original ships were kept, or at least know someone who might. She could press them for information, threaten to expose their little thieving exploits if they refused. Yes, that could work. It had to.

“I’ll be there. As soon as I can get away.”

“Where are you staying?”

“In the Starblades’ tents. With Colton’s son.”

Nyala’s eyes went blank.

“Don’t worry, he doesn’t know who I am. I don’t even know who I am. And I can handle him.”

“I’m hoping you’ll have all the answers you need tomorrow,” Nyala smiled.

That makes two of us!

She gave the woman a small nod and followed Serryl out of the box and back to the exit. She had one night to come up with an excuse to get away from Ashlan tomorrow. Her eyes traced the brightly lit letters above her head as she walked away and she couldn’t help but laugh.

She sure could use some magic right about now.

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