Kartega

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Chapter 42

“Be quiet!” Tann whispered as they huddled behind the baskets of fruit in front of a small shop run by a widow and her daughter.

The crowd that gathered to witness Leona’s first appearance in a dome grew by the minute and they used the excitement to sneak out of sight before someone recognized them. Sid peered over a pile of green pike fruit that had long started to rot and her stomach turned at the smell. Compared to the lush fruits she had munched on casually in the jungle, the selection the residents of the domes were provided with was nothing short of disappointment. Whatever deal Serryl had with the high priestess could surely be revisited to provide for better fruit. She sighed in annoyance at Tann and shot Ashlan a look of disgust as if to blame him for Tann’s demanding tone. Dalrak crept closer to her and without looking his way, she could sense he was just as irritated as her.

“She can’t hear us,” she hissed back.

“No but they can,” Tann whispered and she followed his gaze to the group of Starblades not far from them.

“I doubt they care about anything but her right now.”

Starblades swarmed around the queen like a hive of misguided insects; a group of children waiting for mother’s command. They stood in a semi-circle in the center of the dome, just steps away from the tent that once housed the liveliness of Magic. Sid couldn’t help but smile at the inconvenience of it all. If the queen only knew the dark trades that had been happening right under her nose all these years. She raised her eyes over the top layer of fruit, hopeful to spot Serryl in the crowd but her luck was unendingly bad. Serryl had gone into deep hiding, or worse, run off altogether.

She ducked back down to face Tann. “What do you think this is about?”

“No clue,” he said and she could see Ashlan shrug his shoulders in agreement.

“Why would she come to the domes now? She’s never made a point of-”

“Shhhh,” Tann said again.

Before she could scold him for his rudeness, a gasp escaped from the crowd and Sid looked up to see the ten Starblades part; their blades raised in unison to form a bridge. The crowd grew restless, shifting closer to the guards; all awaiting the queen. Children squirmed out of their mother’s arms, giggling with joy as if the person about to greet them was anything but a prison warden. Sid could taste bile rise in her throat and pressed her nails into the soft ridges of her palm to keep from screaming. Her magic ignited. It was so raw and angry that she wasn’t sure she could hold herself back. Electric sparks frayed behind her lids and she had to close her eyes to keep herself intact.

A hand squeezed her elbow and she felt another surge run through her; Dalrak.

The warrior tightened his grip and she let herself fall back a small amount, just enough to push her body into the steady weight of his presence. Her fingers uncurled, leaving small half-moons in her skin.

“Stuk lam,” she said.

“You’re welcome,” the warrior whispered and smiled.

Her eyes met the parted wave of Starblades just in time to see the queen walk through. Each step slower than the first, as though she was trailing into a cold river on a hot day, testing the current. The crowd gasped again and this time, Sid could not fault them for their amazement. Leona’s gold dress that hugged every curve of her long body sparkled in the light of the setting ring. With the light of Jericho behind her and the Circulum System making its decent, the layers of gilded fabric shone a cocktail of rainbow. Her hair, tightened into a high knot and braided with the same gold metal resembled a waterfall of light. If Sid was still the same girl she was back on the Arcturus, she’d be stupefied like the rest of them. Leona was ravishing. Not just in beauty alone; she looked like power in the shape of a woman, a queen in every way.

A woman next to Sid hushed a little boy that was getting louder with each step of the queen’s dainty feet. Coming to a halt just ahead of the Starblades, the queen raised a hand and the entire dome silenced. Even the boy that couldn’t stop squirming moments ago had gone slack in his mother’s arms. Sid held in a breath, afraid to make a sound and draw attention to herself. She had almost turned blue when the queen finally cleared her throat and spoke.

“Greetings, my devoted workers!” She announced and Sid could almost hear her own eyes rolling. She turned to Ashlan but he waved her off and continued to listen. “I am certain you are surprised to see me in your dome today. After all, it has been quite some time since I have come for a visit.”

A visit! Sid was outraged at the queen’s use of words. As though she was simply popping in for some pastry and a glass of water. Everyone knew she was here for one reason only, to find the escapees. To find her. She pulled her hood further over her face and slouched down, curling herself into a tight little ball.

“I will not insult you with long-winded explanations as to why I am here,” the queen continued as if answering Sid’s inner dialogue. “There are many more domes for me to visit and while I do so enjoy seeing each and every one of you, there is important business to discuss.”

Starspitting liar!

Dalrak squeezed her elbow again as if urging her not to leap for the queen right there and then.

“As you all must know, my trusted Starblades have been paying their own visits to the domes in hopes of finding someone that is a danger to us all. Earlier this week, several fugitives escaped from our holdings and are yet to be found. Among them is a young woman that goes by the name of Sid.” Leona took a long breath and shook her head, “Finding these rebels is a top priority. Not just for myself but for all of you. Do not be fooled by the rebel’s tales and stories! She seeks nothing but the destruction of the peaceful life we have built for ourselves!

“My dear, departed mother has given her life to make sure we continue to coexist on this star and I will do everything in my power to uphold her great legacy. This girl, these fugitives, put all of us in danger and I will not abide while someone threatens my home. Our home!”

A few cheers rose from the crowd and Sid craned her neck to see who would be so foolish as to believe any of Leona’s empty words. She knew that there were Domers that did not agree with the work of the Freedom Runners but even they couldn’t be so daft as to fall for this. Leona was lying through her teeth, surely anyone could see it. She tucked her body closer to Dalrak, shielding her face in case any of the queen’s sympathizers were nearby.

“In order to show just how serious I am, myself and the Neostar Order have agreed to offer a trade for anyone that is able to provide information on the traitor’s whereabouts. Any worker that comes forward and helps me bring this defector to justice will be free of their duties to the star immediately. I will personally escort them to the towers where they will begin the process of becoming a Citizen.”

More gasps fell from the crowd, this time, the shouts were loud and joyful. Sid looked to her friends who seemed just as bewildered as she was. The chance that Leona was telling the truth about this was slim at best but there was no telling what people might believe if they were desperate or hungry enough. She glanced at the boy near them who looked like he had not eaten a proper meal in days. His mother would probably let the queen float her off the star if it meant saving her child.

Murmurs drifted through the dome’s core and Sid searched for an exit. They had to get out of here, make a run for it before someone pointed them out. But how? There was no way to leave without drawing attention to themselves. They were smack dab in the center of the dome, surrounded by Starblades. Anyone leaving now would surely be seen and apprehended.

“I ask you, my devoted workers, who has seen the girl?” Leona demanded, her voice rising to a shrill.

The crowd grew unsteady. Whispers and questions filled the air and people looked around to their friends and neighbors, quietly discussing their options. Sid’s body tensed and she could feel Dalrak tighten next to her. All of them were thinking the same thing — get out before it’s too late.

“Last chance,” the queen cooed.

When no one stepped forward, Sid let herself breathe out. She looked at the woman next to her who met her eyes and smiled before turning back to Leona. Did she know who Sid was? Did all of them? Were they protecting her and the others or was she just imagining that someone might be truly on her side in this? Hoping that they had more able bodies to follow through with the plan. Her eyes raced, trying to find another ally, someone else that they could enlist after this pathetic show was over and done with.

The queen raised an arm just as Sid was scanning the front row. “Very well,” she said coldly, “if a trade is not what you’re looking for, perhaps another type of motivation will do.” She tapped her polished fingers to the side of her head and two Starblades stepped past her and into the crowd.

Sid jerked upright but Dalrak caught her sleeve and pulled her back down with such force that she almost collapsed. She attempted to ease his grip but he held strong, pinning her in one spot. Sid peered over the baskets and watched in horror as the Starblades pointed their blades at the unprotected necks of two Domers and fired. Her eyes overflowed and she muffled a cry that threatened to break free. Her heart pounded in anger and fear and sorrow; every emotion she could muster beneath Dalrak’s heavy hold. Her magic shoved and scratched at her skin, desperate for attention. Sid cried out and tried to force her way through but it was useless. The warrior was not letting her go.

The crowd in the dome mimicked her fury. Screams erupted around them, muffling her own cries. Children wailed and men and women rushed to the bodies of the two slain that lay flaccid on the ground, steps beyond the queen’s feet. They pushed toward her, a mass of bodies and limbs, all wanting to punish the bringer of death. Before they could reach her, the Starblades formed a line and trained their weapons at the Domers. The glow of the blades pulsed in unison, making the line of defense look like a ship’s runway; a beacon beckoning those eager to lose their lives.

A girl, barely old enough to walk, pierced through the crowd and was pulled back by a man mere moments before the tip of a blade punctured her chest.

The line of Starblades stepped forward as one and the mob shrank back.

Fear swallowed the dome in its entirety.

“There will be no more bargains,” Leona said in a tone free of emotion. “Today, all of you decide what is more important, her life or your own.” She turned to leave but whipped back to face the crowd, the heavy folds of her skirts sending a screeching ringing through the now silenced mob. “And if any of you cross paths with the traitor, give her a message for me. Tell her that all of this stops if she comes forward. She simply needs to make that choice.”

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