Black moon, p.7
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       Black Moon, p.7

           Romina Russell
 

  “Jump,” he orders me.

  “Yeah, right,” I say, backing up from the hole. “After you.”

  “Fine.”

  Before I can stop him, Engle steps off the ledge and vanishes.

  “Wait!” I shout, too late. I drop to my knees and pop my head into the opening, but it’s pitch black, even with these contacts. “Are you okay?” I call into the void.

  No response. I can’t hear anything, can’t see any movement, can’t even feel a waft of air. “Can’t be as bad as the cannon,” I say to myself. Then I jump.

  I scream as I drop through blackness, but no sound comes out. Nor can I feel any air pressure affecting my fall. It’s like I’m suspended in nothingness, even though logically I know I must be descending. An instant later, I feel solid ground beneath my feet, and Engle’s dry muttering breaks the silence.

  “Scaredy crab.”

  I look around. We’re alone in an elegant waiting room decked with black spongy seats and ornate seashell accents. “What was that?”

  “A scan to confirm our identity and inspect us. It’s a requirement for anyone meeting with Chieftain Skiff.”

  “Inspect us for what? Weapons?”

  “Anything dangerous.” Glimpsing the curiosity still coloring my face, he sighs and starts counting things off on his fingers. “You could have embedded spyware in your skin, or your body could be carrying an undiagnosed disease, or—”

  The only door in the room opens, and a wiry Scorp with white-blue skin and scarlet eyes appears. “This way.”

  The strange gadgets dangling from her belt jingle together as she leads us down a dark corridor to another door. “Only you are welcome,” she says to me.

  “I’ll find you later,” says Engle. He and the girl are already heading down the next passage without a glance back at me. I pat down my bushy hair, redo my bun, and then open the door and enter a mostly empty space.

  It reminds me of a Sagittarian White Room, only there’s an unidentifiable energy in the room’s nakedness, as if the walls themselves are alive.

  A gray-haired man with his back to me reaches into the white wall and pulls out a black holographic line. With wide eyes, I watch as he bends the line into a multi-sided shape and places it into a holographic model hovering before him. I start edging around to see what he’s building, when the whole thing disappears.

  “It’s not very Cancrian to pry into a stranger’s thoughts.”

  I freeze where I’m standing as Chieftain Skiff turns around. His hair and slightly stooped figure betray his elderly status, but his refined features and smooth, pearlescent skin give him an ageless quality.

  I only met him once before, at the first armada meeting I attended on Aries, but I remember that while the other Guardians argued about strategy, he stayed silent. “Are you surprised I wanted to see you?” he asks.

  “Yes.” Tension tightens my nerves, reminding me of how I used to feel the mornings I’d awaken to Mom’s whistle. It’s that familiar braid of dread and readiness that comes from facing off with an opponent who’s already a hundred knots ahead of you.

  “You’ve taken private meetings with nearly every Guardian of the Zodiac, so why should I be excluded?”

  “I . . . didn’t think you’d want to meet me. Ambassador Charon hates me, and until recently, he represented you—”

  “Charon is his own man and entitled to his own prejudices,” injects Skiff. When Stridents discovered the soldiers on Squary, they reconsidered the proof of pay-offs Sirna had found before the armada and re-arrested Charon.

  “Well, then”—I swallow, my throat suddenly dry—“so am I.”

  Skiff arches a gray eyebrow, a gesture that makes him seem both insulted and intrigued. “Are you admitting you purposely excluded me?”

  I shrug to downplay my discomfort. “You and your House have given me no reason to trust you, so I didn’t see a reason to humiliate myself before you again.”

  “Has anyone ever advised you not to take politics so personally?”

  I almost ask if Sirna put him up to asking that. But then I remember the silver scrambler she set off in her Hippodrome office on Aries, and how she warned me then—My office is always being watched.

  Instead I say, “You’re spying on the staterooms at the visitors’ burrows.”

  “You’re paranoid,” he says, sounding pleased. “Yes, the staterooms are bugged. Our first duty is to protect ourselves.”

  “But Sirna’s an ambassador—she has diplomatic immunity from your laws. Does she know?”

  “No one outside my Royal Guard knows.”

  I open and close my mouth. Unfortunately no words come out. He’s willingly telling me something that’s top secret?

  “This is a test,” I say at last.

  “We Scorps are called a lot of things—suspicious, jealous, manipulative, ambitious.” He takes a few steps closer, and I make out more details of his face: a small scar on his cheek and faint wrinkles along his forehead. “But there is one value we hold above all others, one I’m not surprised has been overlooked by the other Houses. Loyalty.”

  His red eyes burn like fire. “You have taken the name of Wandering Star, which means you may no longer put your House before all others. You are a citizen of every world now.”

  His gaze strays to my left arm, where the twelve scars are buried beneath blue fabric. “As a gesture of welcome, I have shared a secret with you. What you do with it now is up to you.”

  He turns around again, and the model he was working on reappears, visible from where I am only by its faint holographic halo.

  “Safe travels.”

  7

  SKIFF’S ABRUPT DISMISSAL DISORIENTS ME, and when I leave the room, Engle is already waiting. We don’t speak as he guides me down a different direction, and we come upon a sleek lobby where a handful of exhibits are displayed with holographic tags. The largest by far is in the middle of the room.

  Original Skiff

  A descendant of Strident Galileo Sprock, creator of the first hologram, Chieftain Placarus Skiff is a great inventor himself. He gained renown across our worlds in his youth when he designed this Skiff. The first of its kind, it’s a one-person rescue ship that runs on minimal energy, made from lightweight materials using sustainable resources. In later models Chieftain Skiff added a Psynergetic navigational system that allows the pilot’s mind to sync with the vessel to steer it.

  I flash to Hysan’s face lighting up on Firebird as he marveled over the Skiff he was learning to pilot, how it handled like an extension of his mind, and I hear his voice in my mind—I just wish I’d invented it myself. I’m building my own when we get home.

  Is he home now?

  Is he building some amazing new invention in his workspace on Aeolus?

  Does he think of me?

  STOP, I command my thoughts for the millionth time. Hysan has obviously forgotten me, and now I need to forget him.

  Once we’ve boarded the submarine back to Pelagio, I expect Engle to start projecting messages from his Paintbrush again, but he turns to me instead. “What did Chieftain Skiff tell you?”

  “That was between us.”

  “And if it was Sirna or Stanton or Mathias asking?”

  I reflect his frown. “You’re not rattling me. I’ve been telling the truth for months, and no one’s wanted to believe me. And it’s cost me nearly everything. So I’m done trying to earn anyone’s trust. It’s now on you all to earn back mine.”

  We don’t speak again after that, which is good because I need every single brain cell focused on solving Guardian Skiff’s riddle. His test isn’t over—it only ends when I tell or don’t tell Sirna about the hidden microphones.

  I have to tell her. She’s the Cancrian ambassador, and I’m legally obligated to inform her. And even if I weren’t, telling her would still be the right thing to
do; it’s wrong to invade people’s privacy this way.

  And yet.

  Skiff has a point. I no longer belong to only House Cancer. Spying on politicians is a practice Scorpio has employed for a long time, and they do it with dignitaries from every House, so it’s not actually an attack on mine.

  I could opt to reveal Skiff’s secret to the whole Plenum and not just my House, but that would only isolate Scorpio further. And alienating the Zodiac’s House of Innovation might not be the optimal strategy when we’re facing an enemy whose greatest advantage is their advanced technology.

  To match the Marad’s superior Veils and weapons will require our best inventors. If there’s one thing I’m sure of, especially now that I’ve visited this world, it’s that we won’t win the coming war without them.

  Lord Neith’s words seem prophetic to me now. He was right: There can be no one-size-fits-all formula for measuring fairness because every situation needs context. Everything is a shade of gray.

  Back at the visitors’ burrow, Mathias and Stanton have gone diving. I’d love to join them, but I need this time to take Skiff’s test. I can’t wait for him to figure out how he feels about me, particularly as this is the kind of test he can drag out forever. We both know just because I don’t tell Sirna today doesn’t mean I won’t tell her tomorrow.

  But I need his trust now.

  I have to share a secret of my own.

  The answer comes so quickly that it’s almost like it’s been on my mind since Oscuro, waiting for me to acknowledge it. And for the first time in too long, what I have to do happens to be what I want to do, and without thinking it over, I Wave Crompton.

  Ambassador Crompton, please call me as soon as possible. It’s a private matter.

  Once I’ve sent the message, I leave my room and set off for Sirna’s stateroom and knock on her door. As I’d hoped, no one answers. The suite is locked, but the sitting room in the lobby is accessible, and after making sure no one’s around, I perch at the edge of the black levlan couch and wait.

  My stomach is so squirmy that I’m starting to wonder if the squid I had for lunch on the sub is still alive inside me. I’ve been dreaming of making this call since discovering the face from my visions was Mom’s, but I’ve been too scared to admit the truth about her.

  My Wave goes off.

  Hands clammy, I crack open the golden shell to accept the call, and an instant later, Ambassador Crompton’s tall hologram beams out.

  “Wandering Star Rhoma Grace,” he says warmly. “It is an honor to hear from you.” He makes a small bow before asking, “How may I be of service?”

  “Hi, Ambassador.” I’d love to begin by telling him off for using me in yesterday’s announcement. But given that I’m in the process of using him, the words taste too hypocritical. “I’m sorry to reach out like this, but I wasn’t sure where else to turn. I’d like your help with a personal matter, but first I need your word that you will not share what I’m about to tell you with anyone else.”

  When his next transmission comes through, he says, “I understand, and you have my silence.”

  I look up to the ceiling, to wherever Guardian Skiff might have hidden his bugs, hoping I can trust him, too. I hate sacrificing more of my personal life for political reasons, but it’s the best secret I can offer.

  How is it Sirna can’t see how personal this is for me?

  “I have reason to believe my mom, Kassandra Grace, might be alive. And I think she might be an Aquarian Riser.”

  When his hologram reactivates, Crompton looks astounded—like he can’t believe I would admit something like that to a virtual stranger—and I’m momentarily mortified by what I’ve just disclosed. I must look crazy to be sharing such an intimate secret with someone I barely know, someone who isn’t even from my House.

  “I understand your need for discretion, Wandering Star. I will commence a search immediately.”

  As his answer comes through, I sense no judgment in his voice, no disgust in his warm gaze. I only wish I knew whether his honesty is real or just my wishful thinking; I’ve been wrong too many times to be certain anymore.

  “Thank you, Ambassador.”

  “Of course. While I have you, I hear that you have been meeting with dignitaries at various Houses, and I would like to officially extend an invitation to you and your party to visit the Water Bearer constellation.”

  “Thank you,” I say again, and now my heartbeat picks up, because his invitation has sealed my decision. “I will consult my party and let you know.”

  • • •

  When Stanton and Mathias return from their dive, we eat dinner in my room to discuss our plans in private. I’d rather avoid Sirna’s company and Engle’s commentary for this conversation.

  Mathias is first to arrive to my room, and the moment I see him, the reason for this meeting fades from my mind. “Welcome back,” he says, standing closer to me than usual. My gaze finds his mouth, and I tilt up to kiss him, when Stan walks through the door.

  “Starving,” he says by way of greeting.

  Mathias and I pull away and join my brother at the stone table that I set for us with food I brought up from the dining hall.

  “I think we should head back to Tierre and make sure our Cancrian settlement isn’t in political danger,” says Mathias as he pours water into each of our glasses while Stanton fills his plate.

  “Ferez won’t let that happen,” I say. It’s been a while since I’ve heard myself sound so assertive. “And I think there’s somewhere else we should go.”

  Mathias sets down the carafe, and Stanton stops chewing the mouthful of seaweed salad he shoveled in there a moment ago. Both guys watch me with an air of ready anticipation, an expression I recognize instantly because it’s the way I’ve looked at them my whole life.

  Like they’re waiting for me to lead.

  “Nishi called. She’s been tapped to join a new political movement of open-minded people who want to unite the Houses. They call themselves the Tomorrow Party, and I think we should meet her there and look into it.”

  Stanton slides up to the brink of his seat, like he’s a rocket ready to launch, but Mathias sits still and frowns. “Is she on Sagittarius?”

  “No. She’s on House”—my voice comes out coarse, and I clear my throat—“Aquarius.”

  As soon as I say the word, the guys’ reactions reverse, and as Mathias’s expression brightens, my brother’s darkens. “Do you know which planet?” asks Mathias, his voice guardedly hopeful.

  “Primitus.”

  “Pandora lives there,” he says, and I hate how happy he sounds about that. “Maybe she’s heard of Nishi’s Party.”

  I force myself to nod. “It’s possible.”

  “It’s getting late there, so I should reach out now before she goes to bed.” He stands up and adds, “I’ll let her know we’re coming and find out if she knows anything.” Wave open in his hand and food forgotten, he strides out of the room without another word.

  His reaction is a punch to my gut, but I can’t wallow in it now, so instead I swallow my pain and turn to my brother. Once the door shuts, I say, “Talk to me, Stan.”

  He doesn’t look up from his plate. “About what?”

  “Don’t do that.” I stare stubbornly at his head of blond curls, until he grudgingly raises his face to meet mine.

  “Rho, everything’s fine—”

  “You threw your Wave at a wall!” I slap my hand down on the stone tabletop for emphasis. “You’re not fine, and since we’re all either of us has left, why can’t you just talk to me already?”

  “And say what?” His voice is low and controlled, contrasting enough with mine that it makes me wonder if I’d been shouting. “I’m sorry I brought that monster into our lives? I’m sorry I made you distrust Hysan’s warnings? I’m sorry I nearly got you killed? How much more could I
possibly fail as your brother—as a Cancrian?”

  “It’s not your fault. We were both deceived.” I reach out for his hand, but he pushes away from the table and cuts across to my room’s only window.

  Without looking at me he says, “The whole time we were apart, I kept thinking if I could just get to you, we’d be fine, because I’d keep you safe. But it turns out you were better off without me. Mathias has done a better job protecting you than I ever could.”

  “You’re wrong, Stan.”

  I stand up, but I don’t walk over to him, because he seems to need this space between us. “It’s thanks to you that I’ve ever been able to face my fears—not just these past few months, but my whole life. You inspire braveness in me.”

  I don’t know how many minutes pass, but eventually, he comes back to the table.

  “I’m sorry,” he says as we both sit back down. “I just think I need to join some kind of resistance effort or find a way to help the Houses somehow. I can’t stand being useless anymore. Do you think Nishi’s Party might have a real plan?”

  He picks up his silverware and digs back into his dinner. “I’m not sure,” I say, watching him wolf down his food and waiting for the chance to catch his gaze. “That’s why I thought we could go check it out.”

  “It’s just that Aquarius . . .” He chews for a few seconds, then swallows and spears another bite of fish with his fork. “I don’t know. It sounds like you might want to go there for personal reasons.”

  “Well . . . don’t you?”

  He shrugs. “Just because you saw a vision of Mom as an Aquarian Riser doesn’t mean it’s true, or that she’s alive, or that she’ll be there. I don’t want you getting your hopes up.”

  While he’s yet to look me in the eyes, it’s still nice to hear him sounding more like the overprotective big brother I know. And before I can stop myself, I start spilling everything that’s been bothering me. “I’m worried about Nish, Stan. I don’t know what’s going on with her, and I want to make sure she’s dealing with Deke’s passing in a healthy way. I also want to check out the Tomorrow Party before she becomes more involved to make sure it’s legit. And, yes, I would like to find a lead on Mom . . . if there is one.”

 
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