Black moon, p.27
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       Black Moon, p.27

           Romina Russell
 
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  “They call themselves Luminaries, and they are devoted servants of the sun who have been searching for ages for a way to stop the Last Prophecy from happening. She wouldn’t tell me more until I joined them, but she warned me never to speak of this vision into the Psy again, or I could be putting my family in danger. I thought, as much as I didn’t want to leave you, that maybe this would be for the best. I would become a Riser one day, and I couldn’t put you through what my mother did to me. But I’ve never made a decision without first consulting the stars, so that night, I read my Ephemeris, and what I Saw made me turn down her offer.”

  The intensity of her stare takes me back in time to Stanton’s tenth birthday and to a week later when I saw her for the last time. It’s the look that heralds storms.

  “I Saw that someone from my bloodline would be the harbinger of the Zodiac’s doom.”

  I swallow hard.

  “Stanton was a funny boy who didn’t like to slow down. He was a child of the present. But you had your father’s quiet, introspective disposition. You were just four years old the first time I tried teaching you to Center yourself. And you did it. I instantly knew you were the one from my vision, and so I knew I had to use every moment we had left together to prepare you for the stars’ plans.”

  “Great job,” I growl, and at last, the sculpted ivory of her face cracks with remorse.

  “Rho, there was nothing I wanted more than to stay by your side for all the trials you were fated to face. But more than ever, I knew I had to go. My being a Riser would only be a hindrance to you.” She leans forward without sliding closer, like she wants to bridge the distance between us but knows better than to try. “I know I was hard on you, but I had to be sure you would be strong enough to endure all that was to come.”

  “Couldn’t you have stayed a little longer?” My voice sounds as small as I feel, but I can’t silence the cries of the little girl anymore. “You weren’t showing signs of the shift when you left. You could have at least tried sticking around. Maybe you wouldn’t have become your mom. We needed you. You took off right after Stan recovered from the Maw bite—”

  “That was why I had to go,” she says in an equally pleading tone, sliding up a little on the bed toward me. “I believe the Maw’s attack was an omen. That’s when I reached out to the hooded woman and made plans to leave. I worried they would cast me out when my transformation began, but those fears went away when I met other Luminaries and saw that there were Risers among them. They accepted me completely, and I’ve been with them ever since.

  “But after the attack on Cancer, I became restless and anxious with worry, and I wanted to find you. Only, if a Luminary leaves—or reveals her identity to an outsider—she can never return.”

  She blinks a couple of times, and I suddenly realize she had a true home among the Luminaries. That’s why we never heard from her the past ten years. She liked her new life and didn’t want to risk it. Being away wasn’t a sacrifice for her the way it was for us. She was happy.

  My thoughts grow dizzy, and I feel dazed from the conversation. I pull my traveling case closer and pry out the black seashell from an inner pocket. “If you’ve really been with the Luminaries this whole time . . . how did the master have this?”

  She digs her fingers into a pocket of her aqua cloak and pulls out an identical shell. “What you have is a fake. I don’t know the master.”

  “But—the master knew about Hurricane Hebe. How could he know these things if not from you? He must have a source—”

  “You’re his source,” she says gravely. “He knows everything that matters to you because he’s in the Psy, and what you bring with you to the astral plane is your soul. Everything that’s dearest to you is exposed there.”

  It sounds like what Ochus was starting to tell me when we spoke on Aquarius. This whole time, on every level, it’s been my heart betraying me.

  “I’m proud of you, Rho.” Kassandra has now slid close enough to touch. “You’ve lived your life honestly and stayed true to yourself, two things I could never do. Despite the darkness around you, and within you, you have channeled only light.”

  “That’s why you never wanted me to subscribe to happy hearts start with happy homes,” I whisper. “Because you knew one day we would be broken. And you didn’t want that to break me.”

  Her breath blows into my face as she says, “All I wanted was to give you everything you needed before I had to go.”

  “All I wanted was a childhood.”

  “You didn’t have time for childhood, Rho.” She takes my hand in her cold one, and my heart pumps twice as hard. “You are a flame that burns too bright.”

  She suddenly presses her cold lips to my forehead, and the gesture smashes the dam that’s been holding back my feelings. A sob shoots up my throat, and Mom pulls me into her chest as I cry, the way I always hoped she would when I was little.

  But she doesn’t smell like water lilies anymore.

  31

  BRYNDA BURSTS INTO MY ROOM, and I sit up and pull away from Mom, suddenly embarrassed by my outpouring of emotions. Especially when I still don’t know how I feel about her or about any of the things she’s shared with me.

  “We’re having a Guardian meeting in ten minutes, and we unanimously voted to invite you to join. Can you come?”

  “Of course,” I say, eager to share what I’ve learned of Ophiuchus and the Tomorrow Party.

  “We’ll talk more later,” Mom says, and I nod as she leaves the room. I’m about to follow her out when my Wave goes off.

  Thinking of Nishi, I tell Brynda, “Give me one quick moment.” She steps out, shutting the door to give me privacy. My hand shakes as I snap open the clamshell to accept the transmission, and a holographic, puffy-haired Leo with decorated eyebrows beams out.

  “Mrs. Dax.”

  My whole body deflates. “Traxon, I don’t have time to be extorted by you right now.”

  “Well, that was rude.” He must still be on Aquarius because the time lag is slight. “At least my greeting was a compliment. Now say something nice about me, or I won’t tell you what I found.”

  I roll my eyes. “You’re . . . not hideous.”

  After a brief delay, he frowns. “And you’re not very good at this.”

  “Just tell me what you found. I’m serious, I don’t have time.”

  “I found the answer to your question. You know, the one you extorted me into answering. You wanted to know who’s backing the Tomorrow Party, right?”

  “Yes, we want a list of the major donors.”

  “You don’t need a list,” he says, his hologram flickering. “One person has been financing almost ninety percent of the Party’s expenses since its founding.”

  “Who?”

  The Leonine leans in and arches a pierced brow. “Supreme Advisor Untara.”

  • • •

  I pay little attention to where we’re going as I follow Brynda to the Guardians’ meeting. I don’t know why Traxon would lie to me, but I also can’t see how Untara could be the person behind the Party when she was so set against it—unless she was protesting to disguise her involvement.

  Did Crompton discover what she was up to? Is that the real reason she had to get him out of the way? Is that what he wanted to tell me when he was being carted off to the dungeons?

  We take a different elevator to the thirteenth floor and enter a round room with pink crystal walls. Just like the lobby, half the space faces the ocean, and the daylight outside has dimmed to a gray dusk. Alamar is a small planet and its quick rotations make the days here rather short.

  A round table takes up most of the space, surrounded by thirteen chintz chairs: Four are empty, two have humans in them, one has an android, and seven are inhabited by holograms. Transmitters are embedded into the seatbacks, and though the holographic Guardians look slightly blurry, they’re somehow ope
rating in real time, as though they were transmitting from nearby.

  I feel the influx of Psynergy in the air, and as my Ring buzzes with its presence, the Guardians’ faces come into focus, and I realize what’s happening. The technology is Psy-powered. To travel faster than the speed of light, the holograms are taking a shortcut through the Psy Network.

  The fact that there are no Advisors here is probably another precautionary measure, since trust is always the first casualty of war. It feels almost intimate, being in this room with only Guardians, without any entourages or audience members. On their own, the Guardians look smaller somehow, like actors in a play. Humans playing at gods.

  Only one of them might actually be a god.

  “Welcome, Wandering Star,” says Prophet Marinda in a weak voice, her delicate, feminine features making her seem too frail for this war. When she rises a little higher in the air, I realize she’s in a medical hover-chair. I met her on Phaetonis during the armada; she’s in her late twenties, but right now her drooping eyes, emaciated body, and paling brown skin make her look much older. “Please, have a seat.”

  “Thank you,” I say, taking the spot between Brynda and Lord Neith. To his other side is Rubi, and beside her is Sage Ferez’s hologram. He bows his head at me, and I bow mine back, and then I notice the misty, gray-green eyes of the white-haired woman next to him.

  “Holy Mother Agatha,” I say, bowing my head at my Guardian. “It’s so good to see you.”

  Before she can respond, a strong male voice rings out and takes control of the meeting. “Wandering Star, we haven’t met yet. I’m General Eurek.”

  The holographic Guardian of Aries sits across from me. He looks to be in his early forties, and he has black skin and orange-red eyes that glow like embers. “I look forward to a better introduction in the future,” he says, “but for now, we all have busy schedules, so let’s focus on the task at hand.”

  I nod, studying him closely. What do we really know about the Ariean Guardian? He’s supposedly been under house arrest for years, locked up by his House’s junta of warlords—but how can we be certain that’s true?

  I pan my gaze from him to Marinda to the olive-skinned, mossy-eyed hologram of a Virgo Advisor who must have replaced Moira for the time being. If the master is an Original Guardian, he or she could be in this room right now.

  Ophiuchus said immortality works in cycles, so age is no indication. It could be anyone.

  Eurek looks pointedly at the two empty seats. “Guardian Fernanda and Supreme Advisor Untara will be unable to join this meeting because they are in flight.”

  I sit up at the mention of Untara, and Brynda leans in and whispers, “It’s a new precaution Guardians have to take when we go into Space, since our capture could be devastating to our Houses. We have to travel with shields up, so we can’t communicate or visit the Psy.”

  Fernanda is probably headed home to Taurus, but where exactly is Untara going?

  “Should we reschedule?” asks holographic Holy Leader Aurelius of Leo, who in his youth was the most famous leading man in Zodiac cinema.

  “There’s no time,” says Eurek. “We’ll fill them in later.”

  Beside Aurelius is the hologram of Chieftain Skiff, whose red eyes are watching me closely. The Scarab around my wrist seems to tighten as I stare back, and Skiff’s gaze drifts away.

  Until I know who the master is, none of these people can be trusted.

  “I’ve collected updates from every Zodai team on Pisces,” says Eurek in his powerful voice, “and at last count, seventy-five percent of the Piscene population is unconscious. We’ve found a link among those who haven’t shown sign of infection yet. They were recently off world, helping out another House after an attack, so they have less of the virus in their system. This seems to confirm the theory that the attack on Pisces’s communication system from a few months ago was some kind of biological strike with a lengthy incubation period.”

  Stan was right from the start. He knew this was the master’s work and that we never should have backed off on our pursuit of his army.

  “It gets worse,” Eurek goes on. “Those Piscenes in comas aren’t sleeping. Their bodies are actually shutting down, just really, really slowly. The first few people who were diagnosed have shut down completely. They’re being kept alive by technology, but they’re technically brain dead. And it’s going to start happening—soon—to everyone else.”

  I look at Marinda in horror, and she whispers, “Helios help us all.”

  “Stridents are working to reverse the effects,” says Eurek, “and we hope House Scorpio will have progress to share soon.” Skiff doesn’t react.

  “Is there any lead on the Marad or its master?” asks Brynda.

  “The trail has been dead for weeks, and the Risers in custody have yet to say anything,” reports Eurek. “However, Lord Neith may have a new lead to share with us.”

  “Thank you,” says the sonorous voice to my left. “There is a new political movement some of you may have heard of called the Tomorrow Party that might well be connected to the master. My Knights began suspecting them when they showed a lot of money right from the outset, similar to the Marad. When we tried to access their files, we found them to be hiding behind encryption similar to what we discovered on the Marad ship we captured. However, Wandering Star Rhoma Grace has been on the ground with the group and will probably have a more thorough report to share.”

  Everyone turns to me, and I swallow, my mind scrambling to find a place to start. If the master is in this room, I have to be careful what I say.

  Or maybe not.

  If the person behind the Marad doesn’t want anyone to know the truth, this could be a way to lure them out. And if the master is Untara or Fernanda, then this might be my best chance to share this information without their interference. Either way, Traxon is right—the Zodiac deserves to know Ophiuchus’s story.

  “Thank you, Lord Neith. Given that I had to leave Aquarius at gunpoint, I have no doubt the Tomorrow Party is connected to the master.”

  Agatha and Marinda gasp, and Ferez and Eurek lean into the table with concerned interest. Brynda is the only one who’s unsurprised, probably because Hysan already told her.

  “But before I share that story, I owe you a different one. We have to begin at the real beginning, a time when there weren’t twelve Houses in the Zodiac, but thirteen.”

  I inhale deeply, and I think of Vecily, and how a millennium ago she tried to deliver the same message I’m about to give, and I hope I’m making her proud.

  “Ophiuchus was betrayed by another Original Guardian who wanted his Talisman, because it held the power of Immortality.” Astounded silence greets my words, and I search every pair of eyes in the room for a sign of recognition.

  “This Guardian vilified Ophiuchus to the others and manipulated them into sentencing him to execution. And then while everyone was distracted, this Guardian—the master—stole the stone for him or herself. It was this betrayal that ushered in Dark Matter and undid the Thirteenth House.”

  Everyone is wide-eyed. Ferez looks as fascinated by my words as I always am by his, and it feels strange to be amazing someone who amazes me. I wait for someone to say something, but nobody says a word—which I guess is an improvement over the reactions my incredulous announcements have received in the past.

  “Ophiuchus was trapped in the Psy for millennia, and then a few years ago, the master spoke to him. Just as he manipulated the Risers of the Marad, he coerced the Thirteenth Guardian into helping him wield Dark Matter as a weapon against the Houses. Together, they’ve been attacking our worlds . . . until Ophiuchus changed sides.”

  “Then this is the solution to the riddle of Risers,” injects Ferez, his voice distant, like he’s thinking out loud. “They must be descendants of the Thirteenth House. That’s why they have a reptilian makeup.” He looks at me like he’s aw
aiting confirmation. “They are trying to return home.”

  I nod.

  “Holy Helios,” whispers Brynda beside me, and everyone grows inwardly focused, like they’re doing the math for themselves to make sure it adds up.

  “The Original Guardian who betrayed Ophiuchus is the mastermind behind everything that’s happened. Not just in recent times, but all times,” I say softly, my eyes on Ferez, since he’s the only person in the room who holds my gaze. Everyone else’s stare is unfocused, like they’re still processing these revelations.

  “This person was a star. He or she predates everything we know and has been among us since the Zodiac’s colonization.” I look from Eurek to Marinda to Aurelius to the others, and everyone’s eyes are glassy with fear. I’m not getting master vibes from anyone in here.

  “We’re going up against someone who knows us intimately,” I go on, “who’s seen all our behavioral patterns, who’s studied all our strengths and weaknesses, and who can predict tomorrow eons before we can. And our only advantage is that until now, we’ve acted exactly how he or she has predicted. But if we can do the thing the master doesn’t expect—if we can set aside our prejudices and come together in trust—maybe we can surprise him or her.”

  Everyone starts asking questions at once, and I end up relating in detail different parts of my conversation with Ochus. I then tell them about Black Moon and Nishi’s discovery that the Party knew about the attack on Pisces ahead of time.

  When I mention my best friend, Brynda squeezes my arm under the table. There’s only one thing left for me to share.

  “The Tomorrow Party is terraforming a new planet, and their plan is to select a thousand people from each House to create an experimental society made up of every race. It’s called Black Moon, and as I was coming to this meeting, I discovered who’s been funding it: Senior Advisor Untara.”

 
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