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The steele wolf, p.19
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       The Steele Wolf, p.19

           Chanda Hahn
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  Gloria noticed my odd behavior. “Is there something wrong with the food? I find the beef to be quite delicious.” She took a small petite bite and chewed slowly as if savoring every bite.

  My stomach cramped uncomfortably and started to burn. I bit my bottom lip until the pain made it disappear and licked my lips nervously before answering her back. “No, everything’s delicious; it’s just my nerves are getting the better of me.” I took a bite of the beef, chewed, and smiled, giving her my best attempt at looking like I enjoyed what I was eating.

  She nodded encouragingly at me. “Yes, see, it is good, isn’t it? You know, you are quite pretty; I think you would make a good match for Joss. Give us fine looking grandkids. Yes, yes, you would.” Her voice drifted off dreamily.

  Taking advantage of the moment, I turned away and did my best to make myself swallow the meat. A slight pressure began to build in my side and I identified the poke of a hand. Recognizing the presence immediately and without drawing attention or turning around, I slipped my right hand nonchalantly under my left elbow as strong fingers pushed a few dried leaves into it. I waited a few heartbeats before opening my hand to recognize the same leaf Kael had given me while on the road. Slowly I lifted each leaf to my mouth and chewed them until the pain in my stomach went away.

  I stared at the window, which was now empty and waited until I saw his form take up his spot again. Kael had taken care of me; he was still watching over me as he promised my father and had noticed that I was in distress. This small act of kindness proved that he wasn’t angry with me. When I felt sure he was looking in my direction I slowly mouthed the words “Thank you.” Kael nodded his head once in answer. I felt heat rush to my cheeks.

  The conversation at our table traveled from weather, to dorabill racing, to crops. Gloria spoke very little and seemed to forget I was at the table. But when she did speak to me it seemed as if she had forgotten her animosity towards me. It wasn’t until a tray of chai drinks was brought to our table that I once again remembered Kael’s warning. Mona filled Gloria’s cup to the brim and the pale haired beauty drank it down greedily as if it was the essence of heaven in a cup.

  Mona’s hands rested lightly on Gloria’s arm as if giving her a reassuring pat. A cup was placed enticingly in front of my plate and I slowly pushed it out of reach. Gloria watched me; her back stiffened and she turned on me, eyes blazing.

  “Do you think you are too good to drink with us? This was specially made for your party tonight. The least you could do is to honor our guests with a toast.”

  What had I done? Why the sudden change in tone and demeanor within a few minutes? I thought fast. “Oh yes, a drink sounds lovely but my hands are shaking so badly with nerves that I’m scared to even take a sip for fear of spilling on myself and embarrassing you or your family in public.” The words came rushing out in an awkward attempt to appease Gloria. It seemed to do the trick as I saw her eyes take on a glazed look and she seemed to calm down again.

  “Yes, that is smart. You mustn’t embarrass us. No, never.” Gloria looked off into the crowd and seemed to get lost in thought.

  Breathing a sigh of relief, I looked over at Joss to see if he had seen any of that last exchange with his mother, but he was leaning towards his father and was in a deep conversation.

  “Oh, no!” I thought to myself. I had forgotten to tell Joss not to drink anything either. Grabbing his cup, I lifted it to feel that it was already emptied. Whatever had gotten Kael on edge, he obviously wasn’t concerned enough to share his suspicions with Joss.

  Mona had gotten up and brushed past Gloria to stand behind Joss and personally refill his cup. Her hand brushed his arm as she placed the drink very carefully on the table. Mona’s eyes met mine over Joss’ head in a challenge and then she left the room. Joss had barely given Mona a glance during this whole silent scene but no sooner had she left than he started to reach for his cup again. I had no choice.

  Reaching out quickly I beat him to it and knocked his cup over in an awkward attempt at pretending to hand it to him. The brown gold liquid spilled out of the cup and all over Joss’ pants. He jumped up, covered with the chai, and gave me an exasperated look, which pierced my heart.

  I had disappointed him. He didn’t understand. How can I tell him in front of all of these people about Kael’s warning? Would he believe me? Joss looked at me sadly and touched my head before promising to return as soon as he changed.

  The whole room had stopped to stare at the young girl who had spilled a drink on their lord’s son and had embarrassed him. My cheeks burned in embarrassment. Berry shot me a worried look and Avina looked horrified. I felt tears burn in my eyes. Nero just looked at me and tried to tell me it was fine. That he’d had drinks spilled on him numerous times at dinner. His try at consoling me only made me feel worse. What I was most surprised at was Gloria’s reaction. Once no one was looking at me, she leaned into me and whispered in my ear.

  “Leave. You are not wanted here,” Gloria whispered.

  “I’m not going to leave,” I shot back quietly. “I have no reason to.”

  “Even if I told you that he is only doing all of this to make Mona jealous?”

  I looked at Gloria to see if she was serious, to see how much she could possibly know. Joss and his father had decided to not tell her about our pretend engagement, so. So what was she talking about?

  A small knowing smile played around her lips as she went on. “He talks to me you know, when he thinks I’m sleeping. I listen and I hear him pour out his unrequited feelings for her. He’s tried to court her but she’s refused. He brought you home to try and make her jealous and change her mind, which I think she has. You’ll see.”

  “No, you’re wrong.” My heart felt like it was in a vice and doubt, that ugly thing called doubt, began to creep in. Our relationship was still new and we really hadn’t known each other that long. But my insecurities made it all seem perfectly plausible. Why would Joss be interested in someone like me when he could marry someone as beautiful as Mona?

  “Am I?” she challenged. “If that’s so, then where is Joss right now? Hmmm? You see, he doesn’t really care about you.”

  “He went to change, that’s all. He’s coming right back.” He had to. I couldn’t stand to be here one more minute defending him to his mother. My first impression of her had been wrong. She wasn’t a beautiful angel; she really was a vengeful dragon.

  “I know that all of you are lying, pretending. I’m a mother and I know my children. I know when they try and deceive me.” Gloria’s eyes burned angrily and she shuddered in anger at me. “I don’t like liars and they are not welcome in my home.” It was unbelievable how much venom she could spew forth in such a cultured voice. But each word found its target deep within me.

  My hands shook from hurt and the deep insecurities she was flushing out, but the doubt was becoming most prominent. It was as if she could read my mind.

  “Poor, poor Thalia. Can’t you see? You are even lying to yourself.” Gloria reached her hand out and touched my skin and I felt an onslaught of mixed emotions, though muted. “It’s Mona; it has always been Mona. It would be better if you left now, quietly while no one is the wiser.”

  I couldn’t take it. Pushing out my chair, I slowly stood up. Talbot’s eyes shot to my face and watched me quietly. Raising my chin up high, I walked out of the observatory and down the hall, taking the first set of stairs that I came to. At first I wandered aimlessly, trying to fight back any fear and doubt I had as I replayed the conversation with Gloria over back in my head. When I had thoroughly cooled down and felt composed, I decided it was time to go back to the dinner. By now Joss would have changed and could even now be waiting for me. But with all of the different levels in the tower, looking, I was lost as to which floor I was on. I decided to open a random set of double doors to find which floor I was on.

  Opening the first set of doors I came to, I found I was in the library. I was about to close the door when I saw two people locked
in a tender embrace by a window. Small feminine hands could be seen locked around strong male shoulders.

  Once again embarrassed, I tried to avert my eyes and quietly close the door but something about their silhouettes looked familiar. Pushing the door open wider, I let it slam against the doorjamb on purpose; hoping that one of them would look up. They both did and I felt my heart hit the floor.

  It was Joss and Mona.

  Chapter 25

  Wide eyed and confused, I turned and rushed out the door. I was not sure what I had seen; I decided that, with the way I was feeling, I wasn’t ready for a confrontation. Was I running away? Probably. But why wasn’t I turning around to confront Mona and fight for Joss? Maybe it was because, deep down, I knew that Gloria’s words had struck a chord with me and I was still feeling the reverberations from our conversation. Maybe Joss had chosen a long time ago, and this was all just a farce. If so, then why did my chest hurt so much? Why did he bring me here? Was it all a lie just so I would come and bring Kael and look for his sister?

  Angry tears blurred my vision and I found myself back on the same floor as the observatory. The sound of music and laughter echoed into the dark hallway where I stood alone. Pressing my forehead into the wall, I tried to calm myself down. But it was no use; I couldn’t go back in. I couldn’t pretend to be happy and carefree. I didn’t belong here, I hated living up in the air on SkyFell and all I wanted to do was escape. And that’s when I realized that Mona was right. Gloria had won. I was going to leave.

  Ripping off the necklace that Joss had given me, I placed it on the windowsill in the hallway outside of the Observatory. I was taking the coward’s way out and was going to sneak out in the middle of the night. I would leave Joss and Nero a note to explain my disappearance. After all, I never wanted this. It was premature. I never wanted to pretend to be engaged to Joss for fear of ruining our relationship. I was right. It had.

  I had made it to my room without making any wrong turns, I grabbed my small bag threw the few items of clothing I had in it, not wasting time on folding them. Very carefully, I laid out my dress that Berry had brought for me on the bed in hopes that she would take care of it for me. Now for the hard part: leaving the Jesai residence without being seen.

  With the celebration taking place on another level, it was easier than I had anticipated. I only had to stop and duck around a corner once before I made it down the steps and back onto the street. Walking in what I hoped was the right direction; I followed the road to the end of town. It was only when I saw the tall tower in the distance with the sky cages did I falter in my decision. Where was I going to go?

  Lanterns along the street led the way and I approached the tower to see the beautiful white perot on its perch who trilled softly when I came near. I stopped to admire the bird, when a louder screech sounded. I stepped back and fell on my rear. How could I have forgotten the dorabill that also had a perch outside of the tower? The dorabill screeched again and flapped his wings, and the rustle of a chain drew my attention to his foot. A long chain was attached around his leg and led to a metal hook in the tower.

  “Who’s there?” a gruff voice called into the night. A light came on in the tower and a middle-aged man stepped out into the street wearing a nightshirt. I hadn’t realized the obscurity of trying to leave SkyFell at such a late hour and the attention it would bring.

  “Just me, sir,” I called back unthreateningly. I held up my hands to show that I was not hostile. “I was hoping to take a skycage down.”

  “Well, hasn’t anyone told you?” He answered, rubbing his hands through his whiskered face.

  “Told me what, sir?”

  “We don’t run the skycages at night.”

  “Well, why not?”

  “We just don’t.”

  “Well, what if it was an emergency and I had to get to Skydown?”

  “Then you would risk your own neck and take a skite. It’s too dangerous for the operators of the skycages to run night shifts. Plus it’s harder for the dorabills. They aren’t nocturnal, ya know.”

  “But I can’t operate a skite,” I said dejectedly.

  “Well then, missy, it’s best you wait until morning. You’ll see. I’m sure whatever problem you are running from will have worked itself out by then.”

  “What makes you so sure that I’m running from something?” I challenged.

  “Pretty little thing like you, with a little bag in the middle of the night. Yeah, you’re running. Just wait; with morning comes a new day.” With a shooing motion the Skycage operator yawned and returned to his tower. A few minutes later the light inside was extinguished.

  The white perot cocked his head and looked at me questioningly. The large red dorrabill shuffled sided to side as if it were sulking. I glared angrily at the bird and hissed under my breath. “Tattle tale,” for it was the dorabill who had alerted the skycage operator to my presence. I’m sure that is exactly what they were trained to do and it only made me dislike the bird more. The bird puffed out his chest to make himself look bigger and settled down again, still giving me a woeful look.

  Walking away from the tower, I made my way along the wall that surrounded the city. What was I to do now? I definitely couldn’t fly a skite, so I was stuck waiting for sunrise. Trying to make the best of a terrible situation that I had gotten myself into, I tuckered down into the lee between two buildings that were close to the wall. I was still within walking distance of the tower. At first light, I would be at the tower waiting for the first skycage out of here. Then I would find Faraway, and then what? I guess I hadn’t planned farther than that. Placing my forehead on my knees, I wrapped my arms around my legs and tried to think through all of my options.

  Was I going to abandon everyone? Leave without telling Hemi and Kael? I was wrong for leaving and I knew it. Just when I decided to be strong and confront my fears instead of running, when I decided to accept who I was and Joss’ choice, I was attacked painfully from the inside out.

  “AAAAHHH!” I cried and grabbed my stomach. It burned and I felt as if I were being ripped apart. Falling to my side, I curled in a ball and rocked myself, hoping the pain would depart as quickly as it had come. Sweat dripped from my face and I bit my lip in hopes of stopping the pain. It worsened and I screamed into the night, digging my fingernails into the ground. My breath was ragged and sent little puffs of dust into the air. Turning onto my knees, I tried to get up but I was crippled with pain. My hair had fallen out of its beautiful coif and dangled in the dirt, hiding my tears as they dripped onto the ground.

  I cried out again and this time I heard an even louder scream. Only it wasn’t mine, it was higher pitched but it echoed my cries. Every time I screamed I heard a louder one, until loud voices could be heard in the distance along with a commotion. Shortly after, a great shadow loomed over me and the answering calls of my screams stopped. I heard the rustle of chain and felt something powerful nudge me in the side. I toppled over and saw the giant red head of the tower’s dorabill inches from my face. Painfully, I tried to crawl away from the bird but I watched as the bird’s great talons kept stepping in front of me, blocking my escape.

  The manacle around the dorabill’s leg sported a foot of broken chain and I could see fresh blood from where the bird had struggled to break free. He had heard my screams and probably mistook me for a dying animal and fresh dinner. I was probably a more tempting piece of meat than a rabbit.

  I heard a whimper escape my throat and I thought how pathetic I was, unable to gather the strength to put up a fight. The dorabill cocked its head and darted quickly forward towards my stomach as if it were going to attack. I threw my hands over my neck and tried to curl into a ball to protect my soft spots. Who was I kidding? I was all soft spots. The bird stopped inches away and turned his head back and forth before leaning back away and screeched loudly into the night. More voices could be heard and I saw torches coming lighting the night. The dorabill stepped back from me as men came rounding the corner.

The tower’s operator was the first one I recognized, still in his nightclothes but wearing boots and what looked to be a giant club and a bucket of rabbit. Other townsmen gathered around and froze when they saw me on the ground huddled in fear and pain. They looked confused and shocked. They were probably here looking to find someone who stole a dorabill, not an injured young girl.

  “Well, the least you could have done is wait till morning,” the skycage operator fumed. “I didn’t think you had it in you to try and steal a dorabill?”

  “I…I…d-d-didn’t,” I gritted out between clenched teeth as another painful cramp came on and I curled up and groaned loudly.

  “Larn, she’s hurt!” came a female voice.

  “Well, I can see that now!” The operator, whose name was Larn, shot back. Larn stepped forward and dropped the club and bucket on the ground. The dorabill shot out his giant neck and overturned the bucket to get at the pieces of rabbit and ate his fill in two crunchy bites. Larn leaned down and touched my forehead, which was hot to the touch. “Golly, she’s burning up!”

  “Who is she?” the female spoke up again.

  “She’s staying with Jesai family. I’ve seen her with their son.” This time another unidentified man spoke up.

  “Quickly, we must get her back.”

  I was lifted into the air and carried swiftly down the street. The mob of people that started with us died down as they stopped following us and one by one entered their home.

  “No!” I tried to shake my head. I didn’t want to go back and the pain in my stomach was dying down into smaller controllable cramps. “I’m fine. Please let me down.” But it wasn’t Larn who was carrying me, it was someone else.

  “I’ll take her from here.” A voice shot out from the darkness. The man carrying me stopped and waited for the speaker to come into the light. I felt myself cringe as I recognized the balding head and robe of Talbot.

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