Black moon, p.21
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       Black Moon, p.21

           Romina Russell
 
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  “Rho!” Imogen runs up to me, her copper-flecked eyes round. “Did you hear about Crompton?”

  My friends gather around us as I ask, “What about him?”

  “Untara had him arrested for treason. He’s being escorted to the dungeons now—”

  Before she’s finished speaking, I run down the burgundy-and-blue steps. I determine which way to go by following the swarm of fair-skinned, glassy-eyed, light-haired Aquarians racing across the sandstone, whispering about the arrest.

  Up ahead I spot a dozen Elders marching through a drawing room surrounding a tall man with silver hair. I hurry until I’ve caught up, and then I call, “Ambassador Crompton!”

  The troop of Elders tries to keep marching, but Crompton stops moving, and they begrudgingly halt, too. “Wandering Star,” he says, his pink eyes looking much dimmer this morning than they did last night. “I had hoped to see you before going.”

  He looks to one of the men around him, and I recognize grim-faced Pollus, who spares me a disgruntled glance before nodding at Crompton.

  “You have five minutes,” he says.

  Another Elder turns to him in alarm. “We are under strict instructions not to allow him access to the Wandering Star.”

  “I am the senior official here, and I’m saying they can talk.”

  I try twisting my Ring to see if I can call to Crompton through the Collective Conscious; but I’ve only ever tried it with people I’m close to, so I’m not sure how to reach out for his particular essence. Ambassador? Can you hear me?

  I don’t feel anything, and when I look over, I don’t see his Barer or his Ring on his fingers. He’s no longer wearing his Philosopher’s Stone around his neck either. They’ve taken his devices.

  A loud whip of electricity crackles between us as an aqua blade beams out from the interconnected rings on Pollus’s clenched right hand. Quick as lightning another Elder draws his own Barer, and protective shades glow around both men, similar to the one Morscerta used to wear.

  “Stand down or I will have you locked up next to the Ambassador for taking arms against your superior,” warns Pollus. “Supreme Advisor Untara only said they may not meet privately. She also did not want us to offend the Plenum, whom the Wandering Star represents. Your lack of subtlety, Revelough, is what keeps you from moving up the ranks. Now I will not repeat myself again. Stand down.”

  Revelough looks to the others, but since no one else reacts, he lowers his blade. The whole platoon falls back a couple of paces, giving Crompton and me the smallest modicum of space.

  “It seems I’ve failed to follow my own advice,” he says gravely, in a low voice that nonetheless carries to the Elders around us. “Learn from my experience, because the Zodiac needs you far more than it does me.”

  “I’m sorry this is happening to you,” I say, moving as close to him as I dare and dropping my voice to a barely audible whisper. “The Tomorrow Party isn’t the solution I thought it would be.”

  “I’m sorry, too,” he says, his brow creasing with more weight. “Neither is the Aquarian government. When Morscerta chose me to be his replacement, he faced a world of opposition, primarily from Untara. People from her camp said I came from too small a village, that I wouldn’t be able to deal with palace politics. I guess they were right.”

  “How long will they keep you locked up?”

  “Pollus is working on my defense, so hopefully not long. He’s smart, and I trust him. He might be the last friend I have left.”

  “One of the last,” I say, and I’m embarrassed to see from the warmth in Crompton’s eyes that I’ve moved him.

  “I’m sorry I can no longer help you with your search,” he says sadly. “In the end I’m afraid I’m just another old politician who’s let you down.”

  “No, you’re not—”

  “Listen,” he says, speaking as low as he dares, “I know it will be tempting to stay here searching for your mom, but you should leave this place as soon as you can.” The Elders around us begin to crowd in again, and Crompton whispers faster. “With me out of the way, Untara will not be so welcoming. She’s—”

  “We have to go,” says Pollus roughly, cutting Crompton off before he can say more. Then the Elders swallow him in their formation, and he’s gone.

  • • •

  We leave the palace and step onto the sunny, sandy plaza, but the fresh air doesn’t make my breathing any easier. Neith, Nishi, Crompton . . . lately it feels like I’m powerless to help any of my friends.

  The waterfalls around us sparkle from Helios’s touch, and as we walk past them, I think about last night and how much I wish Hysan were beside me right now to put my mind at ease. I twist my Ring, debating reaching out to him through the Collective Conscious.

  “I think we need to abandon this stupid cause and focus on something real, like Pisces,” says my brother, shattering our silence.

  “I think we should find out more about this Party first,” says Mathias. I look at him and he holds eye contact with me for the first time since our dance.

  My skin grows soft from his gaze, and I realize I’ll probably always feel a sense of security when he’s around. But the pulse-pausing jolt I used to get from looking into his indigo eyes is now just a gentle breath between beats. A muscle memory.

  “I spoke to my parents,” he says, “and Sirna told them you reached out. Apparently the Party has been on their radar for a while because of the kind of money they’re throwing around, but they’re very protective of their financial records. Every politician who’s donated has made their contribution public, yet the known total doesn’t add up to even a small portion of how much they’ve been spending. Sirna wants you to see if, maybe through your friendship with Nishi, you can find out who the sponsors are.”

  A couple of Aquarian valets in velvet top hats pass us going in the other direction, and once they’re out of earshot, I say, “Let’s put more space between us and the palace.”

  It was a smart move on Sirna’s part to send me the message through Mathias. Otherwise she would have actually had to admit that House politics are entwining with my personal life. Again.

  As we round the corner, the Pegazi habitat comes into view on the horizon, beneath a cloudless blue sky. Across the lake, hundreds of winged horses in hides of every hue walk along the sand or lie on feathery blankets or wade in the glinting water. Helios hovers over the scene, sandwiched between the pale imprints of planets Secundus and Tertius.

  I cut in the Pegazi’s direction, since that’s probably where we’ll have the least chance of being overheard.

  “Rho!”

  A hairy creature with sharp teeth suddenly jumps out at me and roars in my face.

  Shocked, I let out a piercing shriek of terror, which instinctively prompts Mathias to leap forward and smash his fist into its face.

  “Ow!”

  The creature emits a childlike cry, and as he rubs his bleeding nose, I realize he’s a Leonine teenager with a very bushy mane of brown hair. “You animal!” he snaps at Mathias. “What kind of Cancrian goes around punching people?”

  “Well what kind of person jumps out at—” I stop mid-sentence and squint at him. “Helios, are you Traxon Harwing?”

  His outrage instantly transforms into pride, and he flashes his pointy teeth at me in a smile. “Hard to forget this face, eh, Rho?” A trickle of blood dribbles down his lip.

  “I remember you.” Stanton studies Trax’s hairy features. “You were at the international village on Vitulus. You’re in that conspiracy group, the Thirteenth House—”

  “Actually, it’s just 13,” says Trax, wiping the blood off his nose with his sullied sleeve. He’s wearing a black tuxedo that’s completely covered in dirt and grime.

  “Did you sleep out here?” I ask, gazing at the haphazard piles of hay and stained feather blankets strewn throughout the sand.
<
br />   “Had to, since they wouldn’t let me into the castle.” The Leonine’s face is a tangle of hair, but as he pulls his wild locks back into a ponytail, I see a broad face with multiple eyebrow piercings.

  I think back to the scuffle I saw by the front doors on my way to the ball. “That was you,” I say, frowning. “Why wouldn’t the Tomorrow Party let you attend the event?”

  “Blaze hates me.” He says it like it’s a bragging right. “I’m always blowing the lid off his new projects on my holo-show, Trax the Truth Tracker.”

  “You don’t like him?” I ask.

  “I don’t have a problem with the man,” he says defensively. “I actually admire his idealism.”

  “So why mess with him?” asks Stan.

  “Because I’m a Truther from Leo’s Truth Pride, and I believe in full transparency in all things.” Traxon has the same candid way of expressing himself as Blaze, and the honesty in his speech makes him hard to write off, even if he’s a bit too much.

  “That’s why I’ve been waiting to run into you,” he says, looking at me with newfound interest. “I need you to tell me what the Tomorrow Party is planning.”

  “What do you mean?” I ask warily.

  His eyes narrowing, he hunches his shoulders forward, like a lion shifting into hunting mode. “Blaze likes to champion progressive causes, but they’re always specific to our House. The Tomorrow Party is far more ambitious than anything he’s tried before, and he’s managed to attract too many high profile sponsors in too short a time for this to be just another venture.” The focus of his gaze is so constant that I’m not sure he’s blinking; he looks like a predator ready to pounce.

  “I know you, in particular, wouldn’t come all this way just to play politics, which means something Blaze is doing has piqued your interest. I also know he’s already shared his plans with you, or you wouldn’t be here. So what is it, Rho? What’s the Tomorrow Party’s end goal?”

  Even if I begrudgingly respect his investigative prowess, his sense of entitlement sets my teeth on end, just like it did when we first met. “Traxon, if you want to learn about the Tomorrow Party, you need to ask an actual member.”

  “Oh, so you don’t like what they’re up to?” he surmises, his eyes widening with surprise.

  Annoyed, I just say, “Don’t let the Pegazi hog the feather blanket tonight.

  Then I move past him to survey the sea of colorful creatures for Candor’s aqua hide. I keep a respectful distance as I approach the lake’s shoreline where an orange horse is drinking and a purple one is lying beside it with its wet wings fully unfurled so Helios can dry its feathers.

  “Or I can go with a different headline,” Traxon calls out. “Wandering Star Rhoma Grace attends a ball on Aquarius and spends the night with a Libran who came as Skarlet Thorne’s date.”

  My body ices over with his words.

  When my veins thaw and blood begins to flow again, I turn slowly, toward Mathias. He’s staring at the lake, wearing the unreadable Zodai expression he used to hide behind on Oceon 6. He’s shutting me out from his reaction.

  I spin the rest of the way around and glower at Traxon. “You’re a jerk. And that sounds more like a rumor than truth tracking.”

  “You’re right, Rho.” He creeps closer. “I wonder what would make it more newsworthy . . . .”

  He flicks on his silver Lighter—the Leonine version of a Wave—and a holographic image pops into the air: Hysan holding my face in his hands and kissing me outside the castle this morning.

  I can’t breathe.

  “And in case you’re thinking of clocking me again and stealing my Lighter,” he warns Mathias, “I back everything up. So what’s my lead story going to be, Rho?”

  I don’t meet Traxon’s stare. Hysan definitely doesn’t need a dogged Truther looking too deeply into his identity. But I also can’t let this nosy, bullying Leo use me. I need a third option.

  “Okay,” says a dreamy voice behind me. “We’ll tell you.”

  We all turn to Pandora in surprise. Between waterfalls of auburn hair, her amethyst eyes sparkle in the sunlight. “But we’ll need a private place to talk.”

  “Excellent!” says a beaming Traxon. “Step into my kingdom.”

  22

  SINCE MY MIND IS AS blank as Mathias’s expression, I don’t question Pandora’s plan beyond hoping she has one.

  I grudgingly trail after Traxon as he weaves through the landscape of Pegazi, leading us toward one of the sheltered stables. My brother, Mathias, and Pandora fall behind me, and as I walk an acidic guilt eats at my guts. This wasn’t how I wanted Mathias or my brother to learn about Hysan.

  The sun-soaking steeds pay us no attention as we pass them, too busy eating or sleeping or drinking to marvel at the humans in their midst. They’re so silent that I wonder if they have their own way of communicating through the Psy.

  When he reaches the stable, Traxon turns to me and asks, “How long have you known Hysan Dax?”

  I stiffen. “You know Hysan?”

  “Everyone knows Hysan.” The cocky Leo tilts his head. “He gets around.” There’s a bite in his voice that sounds a lot like jealousy. “But you already knew that, since he attended the ball with Skarlet and went home with you.”

  My brother arrives in time to hear Traxon’s jab. “And you spent the night with a Pegazi, so what’s your point?”

  I snort.

  “At least the Pegazi stuck around until morning.” Traxon watches me for a reaction, and I feel my face blanching, until I notice his smirk looks forced. Even though he’s taunting me, he’s the one who seems hurt.

  But why would he care that I spent the night with Hysan? I’m not getting the vibe Trax likes me that way. So if his jealousy isn’t over me, then it must be about—

  “Don’t take it personally, Rho.” The Leonine’s expression hardens, like he can read the realization on my face. “I’ve heard Hysan rarely sticks around after getting what he wants.”

  Suddenly Stan yanks Traxon by his tuxedo collar and shoves him into the wall. “I swear to Helios, you better leave my sister alone—”

  Mathias grabs my brother’s shoulders and pulls him off Traxon, placing himself between them and holding a hand to each of their chests. The Leonine grins like he’s having a blast. “You’re pretty feral for a bunch of Cancrians. I dig it!”

  “Just take us to your hovel,” I say through gritted teeth.

  Trax leads us around the side of the structure, presumably to wherever the entrance is, and I cover my nose as the smell grows unbearable for a few breaths, until we step inside. The stable has a grid of square stalls, each one stuffed with hay and feather blankets, except for the stall Traxon takes us to, which has been completely remodeled to look like a holo-show’s studio set.

  Stage lights hover in the corners, and a rectangular bench of hay presses into the wall beneath a holographic banner bearing the title: Trax the Truth Tracker.

  “Okay, Rho, are you my whistleblower?” he asks, adjusting the settings of one of three floating cameras, the lens aimed at the show’s title graphic. “If you don’t want to be identified, I can apply a shadow filter that only shows your silhouette.”

  “Actually,” says Pandora, bravely sitting down on the hay bench, “we want to answer your ultimatum with another choice.”

  She clears her throat and straightens, summoning the quiet strength she showed when we first met. “You can either cheapen your Truther brand by running a story that pries into the personal lives of people who served the Zodiac honorably. Or you can get an exclusive interview with the Wandering Star . . . after you’ve done something for us.”

  Traxon looks taken aback for the first time, and I could kiss Pandora for wiping the confident smirk off his face.

  “We need to know where the money for the Tomorrow Party is coming from,” she goes on, without waiti
ng for his answer. “We have only pieces of the picture, but if you can get us the parts we’re missing, we’ll be able to pool together what we know and sort out what’s happening. Then Rho can relate the real story to your viewers.”

  Traxon looks from her to me and back to her. It’s not an ideal plan—she’s still leaving me on the hook for an interview—but her strategy of making Trax work for us is inspired.

  “Don’t you think I’ve already tried to find that information?” he asks. “They’re using crazy advanced encryption for their financials.”

  “But now you’ll be incentivized,” says Pandora, and when Trax glares at her, I almost smile.

  “If I agree to kill one story, delay another, and do your legwork for you, then I need to know you’ve actually got something for me.” His eyes narrow on me, and the good humor melts from my mood. “Give me a taste.”

  Without thinking it over, I hear myself reciting from memory: “Planet XDZ5709.”

  His adorned brows slope downward. “What will I find when I look it up?”

  “A permit for scientific exploration in the Plenum’s public records.”

  Shrugging, he asks, “And I care because?”

  “The research is being sponsored by the Tomorrow Party.”

  Traxon cracks his knuckles, and his eyes dart from person to person, like he’s trying to glimpse the catch in one of our faces. When he doesn’t find it, he says, “How do I know you’ll keep up your end of the bargain?”

  “If you get us this information, I’ll give you an interview,” I say. “I swear it on—”

  “I don’t want you to swear,” he says, picking at his unkempt beard. “I want proof I can touch.”

  I look to Pandora for guidance, but she looks back at me just as confused. “What do you mean by that?” I ask Traxon.

  “Leave something of yours with me,” he says, still grooming his facial hair. “Something you’ll come back for.”

 
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