Black moon, p.8
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       Black Moon, p.8

           Romina Russell
 

  Ophiuchus was right: It feels good to open up to someone again, and I think my brother would benefit from it, too.

  “So how are you doing, Stan? How’s Jewel? Have you talked to her since we left Tierre?”

  “We’re fine,” he says vaguely, gulping down half his drink.

  “Do you want to borrow my Wave to call her?”

  “Rho, stop.” He sets his glass down hard enough that water sloshes out. “Quit acting so naïve. The Houses are facing annihilation, and you want to gossip?”

  “That’s not how I meant it—”

  “Pisces is under attack! I think we can find a better time to share our feelings, don’t you?” Even though he’s raising his voice to me, he still isn’t looking me in the eye, and I feel like this whole time he’s been trying to keep me from truly seeing him.

  “I don’t know what to do,” I say carefully. “It’s like everything sets you off—”

  “Maybe that’s why I’ve been avoiding this conversation! You’re the one who cornered me into talking tonight, so don’t make me feel guilty for not being ready.” He snaps to his feet. “If you think going to Aquarius is the best way for us to get involved, let’s go. But if this Party winds up being a bunch of school kids trading philosophies, I’m not sticking around.”

  I nod because I don’t want to say the wrong thing again. Then he stalks out without so much as a good night.

  For the first day in two months, I don’t search the stars for Mom. There’s no point in activating Vecily’s Ephemeris; I already know I have no hope of finding my Center tonight.

  8

  I WAVE MESSAGES TO BOTH Crompton and Nishi, accepting their invitations to Aquarius. In her response, Nishi includes information for an early morning chartered flight to Primitus. Apparently she wasn’t exaggerating about her new Party’s resources.

  When it finally hits me that I’m about to see Nishi again, my whole being feels lifted, somehow making even the pain of arguing with Stan feel less weighty. It’s been too long since I’ve looked forward to tomorrow.

  Before going to bed, I stop by Sirna’s stateroom to let her know our plan. She meets me in the doorway and says, “Come in.”

  “That’s okay. I only wanted to inform you we’re leaving for House Aquarius first thing tomorrow.”

  Her sea-blue eyes examine mine curiously. “May I ask what’s there?”

  “My friend Nishi’s working with a new political party, and she believes I could be useful to them . . . for a change.”

  Sirna’s guarded expression softens. “Rho, I’m afraid my emotions got the best of me yesterday, which was the very crime I accused you of committing. I’m sorry.”

  “I’m sorry, too,” I say, but my muscles don’t unclench. I can forgive her heated words, but I can’t forgive the fact that she and the Plenum used me again.

  “Aquarians like their traditions,” she says in her usual all-business tone. “You’ll want to pack a good dress for your trip.”

  “Thanks.” I don’t bother mentioning that for obvious reasons I didn’t bring any dresses with me.

  As I look into the sea of her eyes, for a moment, I consider warning her of Scorpio’s spyware.

  “Take care of yourself,” I say instead.

  • • •

  When I wake up in the morning, I see a small black box resting by my nose on the pillow. It takes a second for me to register what I’m seeing, then I leap off the bed.

  “Who’s here?” I call out, my voice quivering.

  I kick open the door to the lavatory, but no one’s inside. I check the closet next, and under the bed, but I’m definitely alone.

  I consult the settings on my wristband: The room is locked, and the window’s laser alarm system is active. That means whoever came in had the power to override the system.

  The package on its own proves my room’s security can be breached—but placing it on my pillow feels like a warning of how easily I can be reached.

  I shakily pop off the box’s lid. Inside is a smooth black bangle sitting atop a bed of velvet.

  Jewelry?

  Unlike the rubbery wristband with the room’s controls, this band looks to be made of black pearl, and it’s about twelve sizes too big for my wrist—with one swing of my arm, it’d go flying.

  I slide the bangle over my left hand and, as predicted, it dangles loosely around my wrist. Why would anyone—most likely Skiff—think this would fit me? I flick my wrist to slip it off.

  And the band begins to shrink.

  Shrieking, I flap my arm around violently, trying to toss the thing off. But the hard material has now become pliant enough to clamp around my wrist. Heart racing, I slam the bangle against my nightstand, again and again and again, trying to break it off, but nothing happens.

  I search my room for something to use to try prying it apart—and then I remember.

  Every House but Pisces has its own weapon of choice, and Scorpio’s is one of the deadliest devices in the Zodiac. Stridents go to battle armed with the Scarab—a black bangle just like this one that, when triggered, fires tiny, poisonous darts toward its target. The paralyzing agent is so effective, it can even render electronic devices on the target completely useless, and it’s fatal unless the antidote is administered within twenty-four galactic hours.

  I go completely still and stop attacking the device so I don’t accidentally trigger it. Thankfully it’s on the hand that I usually keep covered with the black glove, so it’s easy to conceal. If this is Skiff’s idea of rewarding my loyalty, then I should have told Sirna the truth. I have no interest in a weapon, especially one this destructive.

  Unbidden, a vision of Corinthe carving up my brother’s flesh flashes in my mind, and hatred shoots up my throat like bile.

  Maybe having a weapon won’t be so bad.

  • • •

  The interplanetary spaceport is located high above Nepturn in the uppermost layer of Pelagio, where the glass bubble breaks the ocean’s surface. The endless landscape of sleek silver floor is filled with the rising and falling of spaceships; holographic flight information hovers over each vessel, and Engle guides us down a pedestrian corridor to gate seventeen.

  Helios burns so brightly up here that the overexposed glass walls around us are almost invisible, and the view beyond is brushed with gradients of blue—the baby blue hues of the sky setting off the deep blue tones of the sea.

  This time, it’s Engle who wears protective eyewear; he slides on dark sunglasses that look like the ones worn by the Scorps who cornered me outside the Hippodrome on Aries. I can’t help wondering whether he was among them.

  When Stan and Mathias drift to the window to scope out the view, I say to Engle, “This might be the last time we ever see each other.”

  Despite the tinted lenses, the lines of his face betray his confusion. “I’m not hugging you.”

  “Tell me why you hate me so much.”

  He shrugs. “I don’t care about you enough to hate you.”

  “Then tell me what you and Link have against me.”

  His wispy hair flaps in the wind as an orange Skiff is granted access through the glass ceiling and lands beside us at gate sixteen.

  Shouting over the engine’s roar, Engle says, “There was a delegate from Scorpio at your swearing-in ceremony.”

  I remember spotting the Strident as soon as I walked into the hall because of the strange technology that clung to his suit. “What about him?” I shout back, my curls whipping free of their bun and poking into my mouth.

  The Skiff’s engine finally shuts off, and in its echoing absence, Engle says, “He discovered you were colluding with Hysan Dax of House Libra.”

  Even my heart forgets what it’s supposed to be doing.

  Hearing Hysan’s name knocks the air from my chest, and my gaze darts down to the silver floor so I can c
atch my breath.

  “He reported that you and Hysan eyed each other all night. He said at one point the two of you even spoke surreptitiously, out of your Lodestars’ earshot, and that it was clear from your familiarity you’d known each other for some time.”

  In my head I see Hysan’s lips curving into his centaur smile and feel the Abyssthe-like rush of his touch, and the intensity of the memory keeps me from correcting Engle’s suspicions.

  “Later that night, our delegate spied you and Mathias boarding Hysan’s ship. You might have the rest of the Zodiac fooled, but on Scorpio we see more than others. There’s obviously a deeper agenda you and the Libran have yet to share, and until you do, we will not trust either of you.”

  Never in my life have I encountered this breed of paranoia. Engle’s complete misreading of the situation is so bewildering that I’m not sure what to say. It’s just like when Charon misrepresented everything about me by accusing me of abandoning Mathias to protect myself. “You know what the problem with you Scorps is?”

  Engle cracks a scornful smirk. “Now you’re deflecting—”

  “You refuse to acknowledge that you’re made up of as many feelings as the rest of us. You so badly want to believe you operate from a place of pure logic, but you forget that you’re not Librans. You’re ruled by the volatile sea whose tides change with the whims of the wind—just like Cancrians.”

  The smirk melts off his face, and I match his stony expression with one of my own. “You think emotions cloud one’s outlook, but when you’re so out of tune with your feelings, you won’t see anyone clearly. That’s why you always feel separate from the rest of us. It’s not just your superiority complex keeping you apart. You’re actually terrified you might not fit into this galaxy.”

  He shakes his head. “All this deflecting, and still you haven’t refuted my report.”

  “Hysan and I didn’t know each other before the ceremony, nor were we concocting any plans. What your suspicious friend witnessed is a scientific phenomenon we Cancrians call chemistry.”

  “Right. And rather than traveling to Gemini and Virgo on a Cancrian ship, you happened to board the Libran’s—”

  “When I saw Ophiuchus in the Psy after the ceremony, I ordered Mathias to commandeer the fastest ship available to fly me to Gemini and Virgo and warn them about the threat. It happened to be Hysan’s ship.” I look into Engle’s dark lenses as though I can see the red eyes that lurk beneath. “I swear . . . the only beings in the Zodiac making plans for Hysan and me that night were the stars.”

  He crosses his arms over his narrow chest, staying sullenly silent a little longer, and I ask, “Is there anything I can say that would convince you to give me a chance?”

  I’m so certain he’s not going to answer that I start to turn away when he murmurs, “Tell me what you truly want.”

  I turn back toward him. “I want the Houses to start trusting each other—”

  “No, not that.” He shakes his head impatiently. “What do you want?”

  “I want . . .” My vocabulary seems to be slipping away from me. “I want my loved ones to be happy, and—”

  “Helios!” he growls, dropping his arms in frustration. “Are you actually that daft, or are you screwing with me? If you want me to trust you, then tell me what you want!”

  “I don’t know what I want!” I snap, and then I don’t speak again because breathing becomes more important.

  Mathias said he dreamt of one day returning home and starting a family. But even before becoming Guardian, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. It was Mom’s dream that I join the Royal Guard, but it wasn’t something I chose for myself. I’ve never known what’s in my heart.

  I’m not sure I’ve ever wanted to look.

  “I guess I’m not the only one who’s out of tune with his emotions.”

  I meet Engle’s gaze, but this time there’s only humor in his face. No distrust. “Who’d you lose on Oscuro?” I chance.

  “I didn’t lose anyone I know, but I was there when it happened.”

  I understand immediately; not many people have experienced the violence of a terrorist attack or witnessed how abruptly a living person can become a corpse. This is why Engle wanted so badly for me to earn his trust—he’s been needing someone to talk to.

  “Oscuro’s gills stopped working for a moment, and our world had no air—not in our homes, not outdoors, not anywhere. It’d been so many centuries since any waterworld had an oxygen mishap that no one carried airmasks anymore.”

  His expression darkens, and he runs veiny fingers through his wispy hair. “Scorps fell from the sky, gasping for breath. It was . . .”

  “Horrifying,” I finish for him.

  Engle’s face looks paler than usual. “I wanted to help, but I had to block out what was happening to Center myself and preserve my air.” He almost sounds like he’s asking for forgiveness. “We were only out of oxygen for a couple of minutes, and Stridents were able to resuscitate most people . . . but not all.”

  I think of the frozen students floating on Elara’s surface and the drowned families swallowed by the Cancer Sea, and along with the familiar sadness and survivor’s guilt, I feel a renewed sense of purpose and resolve. “You couldn’t have saved them, Engle. Nor did you kill them. And it won’t help anyone if you stay stuck in that moment.”

  “I understand that, but”—there’s a transformation in his features that makes him look fleetingly vulnerable—“what am I supposed to do with what happened?”

  “Remember it,” I say, and from his disappointed expression, it’s clear that’s the worst remedy I could have prescribed. “The only thing you owe the Scorps who drowned is to share their story. By never forgetting what happened, you’ll be honoring them and ensuring another attack like that one never again takes your world by surprise.”

  He doesn’t respond, but at least his silence feels less hostile than usual.

  A shadow falls over us, and we look up to see a silvery star-shaped ship descending into our gate, sparkling in the sunlight as if it’d been painted with a paste of crushed diamonds. Its engine is a light hum, and small text lines its underside in elegant lettering.

  Tomorrow Party

  The four of us are ogling at the ship’s splendor as it lands, when a loud voice behind us shouts, “HOLD IT!”

  We turn to see Link and Tyron marching toward us with half a dozen armed Stridents in tow. “You three Cancrians are under arrest,” booms Link.

  The Stridents fan out in a semicircle, aiming the Scarabs on their wrists at our heads. “What’s the charge?” demands Engle, standing between us and his friends.

  “Theft.”

  My right hand involuntarily wraps around my left wrist where the black glove hides Skiff’s Scarab. How can they know about that?

  “Their belongings have been searched,” says Engle, referring to the security scan we had to undergo to gain access to this transportation hub.

  “We believe what they stole is hidden on their person and wouldn’t necessarily draw attention to itself,” insists Link, and my neck begins to burn.

  This definitely has to be about the Scarab. Maybe this is why Skiff sent it—to set me up for this exact moment. Or maybe it wasn’t from Skiff, but from a Zodai in his Royal Guard who wanted an excuse to arrest me. Who’s going to trust me that the Scarab was a gift someone anonymously deposited in my room once they learn that I’ve been keeping it a secret?

  “The three of you must submit to strip searches if you want to leave our borders,” demands Link. “Otherwise we are taking you into custody.”

  My whole body breaks into a sweat.

  “You’re not touching me.” Stanton steps up to Link as if he’s daring him to say otherwise.

  “Then you’re coming with us.” Link steps closer to Stan, too, and the Stridents around us tighten their ranks, th
eir Scarabs still in firing position. I turn to Mathias to ask him for help with my brother, but his stance is stoic and his eyes are stony, and he seems to have completely withdrawn from this moment.

  Engle suddenly faces his friend and says, “Stand down, Link.”

  “Can’t. New protocol since Squary is that we investigate all accusations. They can’t leave without official clearance.”

  “And what cause do you have for suspecting them?”

  Link grits his teeth. “That’s confidential.”

  “How convenient,” says my brother, who’s still standing too close to Link, like he wants the Scorp to arrest us. If they search us because of his antics, I’m the one who’ll be screwed.

  “I have the same level of security clearance as you,” says Engle, drawing Link’s scowl away from my brother and back to him. “So what’s your evidence?”

  Link doesn’t answer, and Tyron edges forward, subtly establishing solidarity with him. But Engle doesn’t cower from facing both of his friends.

  “What’s gotten into you?” asks Link, his voice a low growl.

  Engle looks at me for a moment, then he turns back to Link and says, “I’m not entirely sure it’s right for us to keep expecting trust without reciprocating it. We’re never going to get along with the other Houses if we keep acting this way.”

  “Since when do we want to get along with the other Houses?” Link’s tone is laden with disgust.

  “Since looking out for only ourselves hasn’t shielded any House from attacks, including our own. I think we could be stronger together. And I think Chieftain Skiff agrees.”

  At the mention of their Guardian, the Stridents grow alert, like the discussion has shifted into a graver gear. “He met with the Wandering Star yesterday,” Engle goes on, “and has given her confidential instructions that she has not shared with me or even the rest of her party. So if you interfere with those plans now, you will have to face him and explain yourselves. And he’s going to want to know your probable cause for this arrest.”

 
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