Paris, France – Thursday, the 7th of June, 2012. 10:42 AM.
Sarina didn’t remember when she’d finally fallen asleep, but she woke to the sound of knocking on her assigned bedroom’s elaborate mahogany door. After half a dozen dull thumps, the dwarf’s Italian accented English joined in.
“Mademoiselle? Come down when you’re ready. All the others are waiting.”
All of them? Already?
Sarina hugged her enormous down pillow. She hadn’t slept nearly long enough and wasn’t feeling prepared to perform in front of a gathering of superpowered strangers. If she displeased them, then what? Would she be banished like that strangely pale girl whose name she couldn’t even remember?
Or worse, would she be forced out on the streets, where the Covenant might be waiting for a chance to track her down and blow her lights out? The thought made her shudder.
Her lack of sleep had much to do with her attempts to mentally prepare herself for this meeting. She’d sat on her little balcony overlooking the overgrown garden for hours, trying to sort out her feelings. Should she trust these strangers? Should she show them her powers? It was all so hard to figure out.
She hugged her down pillow harder, squeezing her eyes shut against the morning light. Now that she was on her own, the growing doubts about whether she’d done the right thing only added fuel to her homesickness.
In any normal situation, she would have called her new family for advice. Over the past two years, she’d grown used to pouring her heart out to her mother and David whenever she found herself in a rut. But she’d deliberately left her cell phone in the army barracks. And even if this place had a landline, she was afraid she’d lead the Covenant right to them if she used it.
She wished she could have knocked on Jasper’s door last night for answers, or even just to have someone to talk to. But she hadn’t had a chance. Right after dinner, Colosso had shown her to her room, which was in a separate wing from the male guests. Sure, Tess’s room was next door, but she didn’t expect to find any comfort there.
“Miss?” came Colosso’s voice again. “Miss, come down at your convenience.” His voice was now impatient.
She forced her eyes open. She knew she shouldn’t make the others wait any longer if she didn’t want to make an ass of herself or insult her host. After all, she’d been treated with the utmost respect since she’d arrived. The Sun King had even provided her with the most luxurious accommodations she could imagine, complete with canopy bed, antique furniture, and gilt-edged porcelain.
After a quick rinse from a basin that looked awfully expensive, she got dressed in the first outfit she grabbed: baggy black pants, a red hip belt, and an oversized white t-shirt.
The dwarf was waiting for Sarina at the foot of the elegant staircase that led down to the foyer’s ground level. He dipped a little bow and gestured for her to enter the reception room.
“And please, no powers in the meeting room unless expressly asked,” the tiny Revoker reminded her.
The idea would have amused her if she hadn’t been so nervous. As if I knew how to trigger them without Jasper’s music.
Standing in front of the reception room’s heavy wooden doors, Sarina could hear the muffled sound of voices on the other side. She didn’t recognize any of them. The thought of countless unfamiliar eyes turning her way the instant she entered made her feet feel like cement on the carpet.
Holy cow, this is worse than the performance with D-Style.
“You need help, mademoiselle?” the dwarf asked from behind her.
His voice gave her the push she needed to gently open the door and quietly step over the threshold.
Thankfully no one noticed her at first, giving her a moment to pause and get her bearings. She noticed immediately that the Nameless group was gathered around the massive wooden dining table, occupying the same seats they had the day before. That alabaster girl was still nowhere to be seen.
The Sun King was enthroned at the head of the table, though without the use of any Lightshaper powers it took Sarina a moment to recognize him. Even with the wig and lavish outfit, the absence of his radiant aura somehow changed everything about him. Still, he held himself with the regal grace of a true king sizing up a crowd of petitioners, a ring-adorned fist propped under his chin.
Princess Odette was sitting at the chair on his right, her legs swinging above the floor. She was wearing pale yellow today, Sarina noticed.
Sunny was sitting on one side of Jasper, and the seat on the other side had been claimed by someone new — a flamboyant-looking eccentric whose outfit matched the Sun King’s fashion sense so well that it seemed hand-picked for the occasion. Sarina surveyed the stranger’s old-fashioned frock with its spill of white frills and the simple blue ribbon that bound his neat brown ponytail. But what really drew her attention was the fact that the upper half of his face was hidden beneath a silver-plated Venetian mask.
Across from the masked newcomer, and beside the empty chair that Sarina had occupied last night, sat a stocky man in his mid-thirties with medium brown skin and a bald head. The pair of worn jeans and the white dress shirt he’d picked for the meeting reminded her of something her adoptive father might have worn around the house on any given Sunday. Though there was nothing out of the ordinary about his appearance, something about him definitely seemed familiar.
Sarina narrowed her eyes to get a better look, but she still couldn’t place him.
At that moment Jasper looked up and noticed her arrival. “Hey, Dancing Queen,” he mouthed, then sent her a genuine smile which she reciprocated.
She turned her attention to the two other newcomers in the room, who were just about to get seated at the far end of the table opposite their host.
The man wore a black half-mask adorned with a beak over the bridge of the nose and bordered with dark feathers. The mask made his age hard to determine, but his self-absorbed body language suggested someone fairly young. He was dressed in black from head to toe, his long overcoat fashioned from countless jet-black feathers fluttering whenever he moved.
Sarina knew immediately that she was looking at the controversial Darkshaper, Raven. She knew a little about the rogue, including that he’d avoided being branded with the villain tag by helping the EU’s hero team deal with a bad guy or two.
The woman taking her seat across from Raven was just as easy for Sarina to place: Eve. She was perhaps in her mid-twenties and exceptionally curvy, a feature she wasn’t shy to show off. Her skin-tight pants and sleeveless cropped blouse didn’t leave much to the imagination. She’d dyed her shoulder-length curly hair a vivid shade of purple that matched her eyeliner.
As her name suggested, Eve had been the world’s first female Evolved. Though she tried to keep a low profile, the rogue Transmuter had been featured on the news often enough that even Sarina recognized her, despite the change in hair color.
She felt her eyes drawn to Eve’s heavily tattooed body. From all the media coverage, Sarina knew that Eve could command her tattoos to come alive and lash out at anyone and anything nearby. According to rumors, the snake tattoo was even poisonous.
“The Dancer has arrived!” the dwarf broadcasted as he closed the door behind Sarina. Sunny immediately perked up at the announcement.
“Ah, bien!” the Sun King said. “Now we are all here.”
All eyes turned to her and the strangers stared at her with cool interest, not unlike the team of researchers who’d examined her after her transition. It made her wish that her powers involved the ability to sink into the floor.
“Come, sit, sit!” their host urged her with a sweeping arm gesture.
She trained her eyes on the carpet and walked over to the table as quickly as she could. She pulled out the empty wing back chair across from Jasper, saying a polite greeting to the bald man beside her as she sat down. Once seated, she busied herself trying not to stare at the eccentric’s dandified outfit.
“Bienvenue, chers amis,” the Sun King said in French, spreading his hands. He continued in English. “Now that we have assembled, our new friends might appreciate some introductions.” He looked between Jasper and Sarina as he spoke.
Sarina adjusted herself in her chair, trying to focus her attention on what was being said instead of all those pairs of eyes.
“You might recognize Raven, leader of the group Murder of Crows. Mercenaries, you might call them,” the Sun King began, making the first introduction. “And across the table is the beautiful Eve the first one of French blood to transition. She is quite . . . delightful, non?”
“Très mignon, Louis,” the tattooed woman cooed in French, blowing him a kiss across the table.
“And the most likely guest to kill someone here,” Raven added, deadpan.
Sarina hoped he was kidding. He struck her as the kind of guy with an awful sense of humor.
Eve raised a middle finger in response.
“And then,” the Sun King continued, moving on, “here is my good friend Gentleman — a man with a rare sense of fashion.” He gestured toward the eccentric and the mask-clad man dipped his head.
So that’s who the Nameless were contacting en route yesterday, Sarina thought. The one who’s got all the info on power surges.
“And last but not least, our special guest,” the Sun King finished, giving a nod in the bald man’s direction. “Saint.”
Saint? Sarina realized incredulously.
She looked over at the hero in surprise. Yes, it was him, one of the three members of the Latin American hero team. She just hadn’t recognized him without the usual white linen toga, which would have been tied at the waist with a rope belt. He must have decided that such an obvious outfit would do him no good in riot-filled Paris.
Saint looked up at the Sun King’s introduction, but his posture and expression barely changed. In fact, he looked rather bored at the whole situation.
Sarina immediately felt herself relax. The hero’s presence put her more at ease than anything the Sun King had said yesterday. It could only mean that this meeting really was meant to help avert an international crisis, just as the Sun King had promised.
From her internet research a couple of days ago, Sarina knew that Saint was one of the few Evolved with the rare Guardian classification. In fact, he was the one Guardian who could grant immortality, and had done so on several occasions, including for a few of the world’s most important politicians.
It was also said that he’d extended immortality to every single member of the Covenant. He took any damage they suffered in their stead, along with an echo of their pain. It didn’t matter how far away from him they were. And, it was said, his own body didn’t suffer damage from any of it.
“Is there anything you’d like to say, my friend?” the Sun King asked Saint.
Saint just shook his head, fixing his blank expression on the mahogany table.
The host continued. “A few rules. Ciro will prevent the use of powers, but I would appreciate if you do not test me by trying.” The Sun King smiled, but there was an edge to his voice. “Magnifique. Just one other thing. I will not tolerate quarrels.”
He was looking at Raven as he said this. The young man’s smirk beneath the feathery beak mask thinned.
“Bien. Now Gentleman, please begin,” the Sun King commanded.
Gentleman straightened, brushing his fingers over the spill of his shirt’s chest frills. “Merci, Louis.” He looked around the table without showing much interest in anyone but himself. “How to begin? As we all know, the opening lines may make or break a play,” he drawled with a strange accent that dramatized every word.
He’s a stage actor, alright.
The theatricality made something click in Sarina’s mind. Suddenly his outfit made sense: it must have belonged to one of the characters he’d played before his transition.
Gentleman took a dramatic breath before delivering his line. “Radiant has deserted the Covenant.”
The corners of his mouth curled up beneath his silver mask, suggesting he was rather pleased with himself and his announcement.
Those five words got everyone’s attention. There were baffled looks all around. Tess and Sunny turned their heads to exchange startled glances, and Jasper’s mouth fell open. Ace muttered a string of curse words that Sarina couldn’t make out. Raven’s eyes widened through his mask’s eye holes. Even Saint’s expression changed to one of shock.
Yet the host and his dwarf page looked unimpressed, as though this was old news to them. The little princess busied herself folding paper napkins on the table.
That doesn’t make any sense, Sarina thought.
From what she knew about Radiant, her long-time hero crush, he’d always been the most hardworking and devoted hero. He seemed compassionate and brave, not to mention handsome and suave. He wasn’t smug like Samael, or cold like Athena.
Then again, she’d only just realized how little she knew about him.
He’s a murderer, she reminded herself. So maybe he’s a deserter, too.
“That’s confirmed?” Ace directed his question at Gentleman.
“It’s absolutely certain, my doubting friend,” Gentleman assured.
“How can you be so sure?” Eve asked, her voice teetering on the edge of something Sarina didn’t recognize.
“Alas, you will need to trust me without proof for the time being. Surely you understand that the Conglomerate has an interest in protecting its sources. They have the unfortunate habit of drying up once revealed.”
Sarina remembered having heard the name before, but she didn’t remember the context. Maybe it was from David, or her internet research.
Looking to Jasper for a clue, she noted the deep frown that overshadowed his usually calm, relaxed features and decided to ask him the moment they were alone. When there was no risk of annoying the others with stupid questions.
“I heard the Conglomerate disbanded because of in-fighting,” Raven challenged, steering the subject away from Radiant’s desertion.
“Not quite,” Gentleman corrected coolly. “There was a fortunate shift in leadership, actually. The Conglomerate will now dedicate its resources to more meaningful projects.” Gentleman placidly contemplated his manicured fingernails as he spoke, sounding mighty pleased with himself.
“Congratulations, mon ami,” the Sun King said jovially. “Can we still count on Data to contribute?”
Data. Now there was another name Sarina recognized. She wished she could remember what she’d heard.
“Absolutely, he will still contribute. But let us discuss the details in private, after today’s conclusion.”
Sarina tried to glean more information from their faces, but she’d never been very good at reading between the lines. Body postures, sure, she’d learned to interpret those through dancing. But those subtle little changes in voice or expression usually sailed over her head unless she knew the speakers quite well.
“Now that Radiant is no longer in the Covenant’s control, we have three options,” the Sun King announced, bringing the topic back to the fallen Lightshaper, Radiant.
Even without his aura, the king’s voice carried. The whispered exchange between Tess and Sunny ended abruptly.
“One. The Covenant finds itself without leadership in Radiant’s absence and becomes torn apart by disagreements. This would be unpleasant. The world would fall into chaos. If the Covenant folds, the void will be filled with opportunists who wish to take control.”
“That sounds better than this heavy-handed political shit,” Raven said with audible distaste, gesturing to the wall of windows in the general direction of the rioting.
Eve rolled her eyes.
“Surprise, surprise. The mercenary leader wishes for more chaos. How predictable,” Gentleman sneered.
“Silence,” the Sun King cut in. “No quarreling, remember?”
He looked pointedly around the table before continuing.
“Option two. Samael becomes leader of the Covenant and we find ourselves in an all-out global war as Samael claims he is protecting the people. We all know the UNEOA Assembly will do anything to avoid power surges, so it won’t disagree with such drastic measures. Samael is no diplomat, remember. And we all know what his number one solution will be.”
“Yeah,” Sunny muttered, then drew a finger across his throat in a gesture of execution. Sarina wondered why he was always so anxious to remind everyone of the Covenant’s apparent agenda.
No one interrupted the brief stretch of awkward silence that followed.
Sarina recalled that Samael’s status as a Covenant hero had been as much of a controversy as Raven’s rogue status. Some referred to him as the Dark Angel, and not without reason. He seemed to enjoy killing the bad guys a little too much.
No, the prospect of Samael being in charge didn’t sound like something any Evolved would want to see happen. Especially after Shanti’s death.
“Option three,” the Sun King continued, “and the most desirable one. Paladin claims leadership of the Covenant, and things remain mainly status quo, giving us time to focus on defense measures and other concerns.”
Defense measures? The phrase immediately put Sarina on alert. It sounded as if their little group was already under attack, or expecting one very soon.
“Yeah, and speaking of other concerns,” Ace broke in, “What’s the latest on power surges? They’re just one twisted lottery, right?”
“How interesting that you mention power surges in the context of gambling,” Gentleman drawled, sounding amused. “Tell me, was your lucky draw coincidence? Or did you cheat to get your young friend on your team?”
Gentleman wasn’t looking at Ace as he spoke; the eyes behind his silver mask settled on Sunny. Soon, other pairs of eyes were following his gaze, too.
The boy wriggled in his chair uncomfortably, all trace of his usual teenage confidence gone. He was looking from Tess to Ace, his eyes desperate.
Sunny’s had a power surge?
It made sense. Whatever he’d done to make the whole group disappear from Queenie’s tracking grid probably involved a freaking huge amount of power.
“Odette told me, of course,” the Sun King said, answering the unspoken question. “And we should have no secrets among friends.”
Ace pushed the hat up from his eyes and spoke through gritted teeth. “Dunno what any of that has got to do with this talk,” he said forcefully. “The lad’s with my group, so he ain’t nobody else’s business but mine.”
Sarina gripped the frame of her chair with both hands, desperately hoping for everyone to calm down before this escalated.
“You may keep the boy, mon ami,” the Sun King assured Ace. “We have no designs on him.”
A number of people visibly relaxed, chests deflating and shoulders sagging.
Gentleman exhaled a sigh, fingers lacing together over his stomach. “Fine. You’ve made your point. Now back to the topic at hand. Your assumption about power surges is wrong, my ignorant friend.”
Ace calmed down enough to concentrate on Gentleman’s words. Getting this information was part of the reason they’d come to Paris, Sarina knew.
“When Data wasn’t wasting time on foolish ideas, he collected and analyzed information. He does have a knack for analyzing data, you know.” The man’s lips twisted into a semblance of a cheerful grin. “The Covenant’s theory is not entirely false, but it grasps the wrong angle.”
“You’re talking about feedback theory here, right?” Ace broke in.
Feedback theory? Sarina suddenly perked up. Finally they were talking about something she knew a little about.
Gentleman hardened his lips. “Yes, of course I’m talking about feedback theory. And on that subject, Data has come to the conclusion that if the post-Pulse world were a game of chess — one where the Evolved represented the pieces — then every time a piece was removed from the board, it would eventually be tossed back. Not in the same form, exactly, but similar. Possibly stronger, or as a surge. Like when a pawn is killed, it returns as a knight. Or when a rook is killed, it eventually becomes . . .”
“A queen,” Jasper finished for him, barely breathing the word.
Gentleman nodded, seemingly impressed.
“Have you ever wondered why the number of individuals assigned to a particular power classification remains fairly constant?” he asked, tilting his head inquisitively. For some reason, he was giving Sarina a long look across the table as he spoke.
What’s he looking at me for? She wondered.
All she knew about feedback theory was what David had told her: that powers were all somehow connected, and that any living individual whose powers had surged continued to feed large amounts of energy into that shared grid, thus increasing the likelihood of more surges in the future.
Gentleman continued to stare. As if she had something new to add about surges. It was almost laughable. Her range was off the charts, sure, but she couldn’t even activate her powers without Jasper’s intervention.
“How do we know that power feedback theory is right?” Raven challenged. “There’s lots of theories out there.”
“The data do not lie,” Gentleman answered unwaveringly.
“So the Covenant kills someone, then someone else transitions or surges, oui?” Eve asked, her velvety voice betraying an underlying darkness. She sounded eager, almost.
Gentleman nodded. “Methinks that would be correct.”
“Can’t deny it kinda fits with what we see happening in the world,” Ace agreed. “None of the execution orders on power-surged Evolved did any good. We got Monsoon after Shadowslasher, right? And now riots and chaos everywhere after Shanti.”
Saint just sat there, contemplating his folded hands. He’d been markedly silent throughout the whole conversation.
“So we will unofficially endorse feedback theory?” the Sun King declared, all regal dignity. “And we are agreed that we do not want Samael leading the Covenant. Now, onto other concerns.” The Sun King seemed anxious to move the meeting along. Beside him, Colosso feverishly scribbled notes onto a notepad with his stubby fingers. “Why has the Oracle been withdrawn to an unknown location? The press is no longer permitted to witness her prophecies, but I am not aware of why. Gentleman?”
The masked man shook his head. “I regret to disappoint you this time, dear Louis, but I do not know. All I’ve heard are mere rumors, I am afraid. Although those rumors do suggest an unpleasant future. Perhaps the existence of the Antithesis.”
Sarina remembered having read about the Antithesis, though the bits and pieces she could gather from memory were related to Shanti, the Healer. Namely, there were whispers going around that the Healer had an Antithesis — an anathema, or contrary force that was just as strong, though working for opposite ends. So basically, an ultimate destroyer.
Just thinking about it sent a chill down Sarina’s spine. Luckily, it was just a theory based on some of the Oracle’s unproven prophecies.
“So we’ll want to ensure the cooperation of a Guardian or two,” the Sun King urged, pointedly looking down the length of the table to Saint.
“I am little more than a bodyguard,” the bald man said, his English strongly accented. “It’s Sanctuary you’ll want.”
The Israeli guy? Sarina knew a bit about Sanctuary, including that his particular power involved a large protective barrier that couldn’t be deactivated.
“We do want Sanctuary,” the Sun King confirmed. “But so does the State of Israel and everyone else. He has declared himself the Oracle’s personal guardian, oui?” Another inquiring glance, this time directed at Gentleman.
Gentleman gave a single nod of his masked face.
“We want Sanctuary and the Oracle,” the Sun King mused, his gaze fixed on the ornamental ceiling. “But where might they be?” His voice sounded strangely distant, as if he was daydreaming, before he suddenly crashed back to reality. “I suppose the UNEOA would know exactly where to find them.”
“What about the American runner?” Raven broke in, folding his feathered arms over his chest. “Everything on the news about her screams Guardian to me.”
“Ah, the feisty girl.” Gentleman sniffled. “Powerful. Stubborn. I observed her interaction with the construct, and it was marvelous.” Then the visible half of his face contorted into a theatrical display of regret. “I might have acquired her, but the situation did not allow it.”
Sarina knew they must be talking about Mascot, but she couldn’t help but wonder if she had been acquired herself. There was something about the wording that didn’t sit right with her. In fact, it ignited a spark of anger she didn’t know she’d been holding inside.
She looked over at Jasper and noticed that he was frowning at the word choice, too. Apparently he didn’t much like what he was hearing, either.
Down at the other end of the table, the little princess’s hands were busily transforming more and more paper napkins into a small army of winged creatures. There was something serene about the way she arranged them on the table around herself. When she looked up, she met Sarina’s gaze and smiled.
“The American girl is out of reach, then?” the Sun King asked, eyeing the large ring that sat upon one finger.
“Perhaps. Perhaps not. But the Wardens will be keeping her close.”
The Sun King tapped the edge of the table with his ringed finger as he considered the American girl. Then, as though his train of thought had taken a turn, his attention landed on Sarina. “What do you think, chérie? Do you have any questions? There is no need to be shy; you are among friends. Ask anything you like.”
The sudden shift in attention surprised her, though she couldn’t deny she was teeming with questions.
“Anything?” she repeated.
“Anything.” The Sun King addressed her so warmly that she almost believed him.
She took a deep breath, working up the confidence to voice her utmost concern. Saint’s presence gave her some optimism at least. She didn’t know what to make of those other motley people, but he was a hero.
“What proof is there that the Covenant wants to kill me?” She heard her voice before she’d even realized she’d spoken.
The Sun King didn’t seem surprised by the question. “So you’ve heard about that, have you?”
“That’s why I’m here.”
The Lightshaper cast a glance down the length of table. “What proof is there, Gentleman?”
The addressed rubbed his chin. “Your name is on the list of high-risk candidates stored on the Covenant’s computers. Near the top, as I seem to remember. Still unapproved, last I was aware, but that may change at any moment.”
Sarina felt her stomach fall. His story meshed with what the Nameless had told her yesterday morning. Still, she needed to be sure.
“Can I see it?” she challenged.
“I’m afraid not,” he returned with a smile. “No one instructed me to bring it. Perchance next time?”
There was nothing Sarina could say to that.
“There you have it,” the Sun King concluded. “Anything more you would like to know?”
Sarina sucked in her breath. There was a lot more she’d like to know.
“Did you ask Ace to ‘acquire’ me and DJ?” She used her fingers to make air quotes.
“Your British friend volunteered,” the Sun King defended himself.
She was glad to hear that Jasper wasn’t there on false pretenses. “And what about me?”
“What can I say? I am a sworn shepherd of beauty,” the Sun King admitted with a wink to Gentleman.
“Beauty has nothing to do with it, and you know it,” Sarina replied, pressing on before her courage faltered. “It’s about my power being different, isn’t it?”
At the far end of the table, Raven pressed a few knuckles to his mouth to muffle his snicker. The resulting sound was impish rather than cheerful, as if he’d been the first to grasp the punch line of an inside joke.
The Sun King ignored him. “Naturellement, your powers are intriguing, chérie,” he conceded to Sarina. “If what you did during your transition is a consistent potential, then we may be able to harness it to undo injustice. Any more questions before you show us a sample of your magic?”
She’d hoped the big announcement about Radiant would have been enough excitement for the day, but apparently, that had just been wishful thinking on her part.
Sarina felt her courage subside and her fear take over. “Will the Covenant find me here?” She gestured to the house around her. “Surely they know where you live, and if they figure out I’m with you . . .”
“Ah, my dear, think about it. I’m a Lightshaper, non? If I so choose, I can keep it out of certain people’s sight. Out of most people’s sight, to be precise.” He moved a finger in front of his eyes for emphasis, then lowered it. “And Monsieur le Président is no friend of the UNEOA or the Covenant. As long as I remain a harmless citizen of Paris, we have an agreement. So no, you are at no risk of being discovered here.”
And you think that agreement still holds? Sarina wondered, casting her mind to the riots in the street. But she kept that thought to herself.
“Now, chérie, will you do us the honor of a dance?” the Sun King gestured graciously towards a slightly elevated section of the room that had been cleared of all furniture. “Ciro will adjust his nullification field for your stage. Do whatever you like on it. But please, refrain from teleporting anyone here. That may complicate things.”
Not sure of how to get out of it, Sarina slowly got to her feet. She didn’t want to risk displeasing her host or his powerful friends. It seemed they might be the only ones standing between her and the Covenant’s hit list.
Still, she wasn’t sure if she should trust them.
What if I just pretended to conjure up my powers and then claimed that nothing happened? But no, she couldn’t. With all the superpowers in the room, someone was bound to catch on.
Sarina looked to Jasper for guidance, but Ace was already speaking to him. “DJ, give her your player with one of your tracks,” the Aussie commanded.
Jasper hesitated for a moment, then obediently dug through his pockets to retrieve his MP3 player with the attached earphones. He touched the controls a few times before passing the device to Sarina. Their hands touched for a moment, and their eyes met in wordless agreement.
We’re in this together.
She knew that no matter what, she’d have his back. And she had a feeling that he’d say the same.
“Just press play when you’re ready,” he told her, dropping the tiny player into her palm.
“Please, do give it your best try,” the Sun King purred. “Ciro would notice if you hold back, chérie.”
Okay, definitely no pretending.
Sarina drew in a breath, then began to make her way to the stage area. As she slipped the earphones into her ears, she realized that she’d forgotten to put on her proper dance shoes in her haste to get dressed. But it was too late to do anything about it now.
As she took her position on the stage, she noted how the dwarf was staying close at hand to restrict her powers to a small area. At least I won’t get totally out of control, she thought. She was pretty sure the Sun King would take offense if she changed his decorating scheme.
She turned to face the table, focusing her eyes on some point just beneath the ceiling. She pressed the play button, then let the player slip into the neckline of her shirt. The song kicked off with a few lines of rap intersected with electronic staccato beats. She was glad to hear hip hop, not some crazy experimental birdsong composition.
Then she began. She jerked one shoulder upwards, a flexed knee sweeping to the side at the next electronic intersection. When the beat came to life again a few seconds later, she rolled her upper body in time with it. The beat developed into a full rhythm, and her shoes began to twist and glide across the makeshift dance floor.
Watch me now, I’m a lady dancer.
Now that she’d eased into the flow of movement, her nerves calmed and everything fell into place, as dictated by the music. She opened the dance with a series of swift changes in position and posture, aligning her knees and elbows in time with the beat. As the pace picked up, Sarina twisted her body into more and more complex moves.
They’re watching me. Judging me.
The thought resonated in her mind and triggered something else. Some part of her broke free and floated to the surface of her consciousness, filling her up with an overwhelming sense of power that vibrated throughout every fiber of her being. In seconds, that sense of power took on an angry edge.
You made me step up here so you could gape at my power, she silently seethed as she pushed her body even harder. Well, screw you. I’m dancing for myself today.
As the furious presence washed over her, it infused her body with a sense of perfection and the potential for change. Reality became a trivial little thing, permeated and reshaped by the force of her will. Unlike the last time she’d risen to this kind of elevated state, on the Maag stage, the range of her power was fenced in now — limited to a small area around the stage.
They’re holding me back. The damn midget’s power was messing with hers. The frustration made her blood simmer.
Still, she savored every moment as she always did when she was taken up by the music. She delighted in the perfection of her movements, in the way the rhythm made her blood sing through her veins.
I. Am. Here.
With the final beat, Dancer unfurled her body and slid off the stage in one smooth movement, her chin held high. She approached the Sun King’s chair to look down on him with a narrowed gaze.
“Happy? Did you see what you fucking wanted to see, you egotistical freak?” she asked, her voice angry and cold.
He eyed her intently, assessing. A fading part of her noted, with some satisfaction, that he seemed to be a little less sure of himself than he had been moments ago.
And just like that, the presence was gone. Sarina was left feeling small again, insignificant.
She remembered every moment of her performance and every word she’d just said, but it all seemed so distant. Strangely disconnected from her, like something she might have done in a dream.
Or while stoned.
Actually, even though she hadn’t done anything freaky with her power, she could believe that it had intoxicated her somehow. Had made her do things she normally wouldn’t do. Like back when she was fifteen and got into a fight with another girl after sniffing coke at her ex-boyfriend’s place.
“The dance was magnifique, chérie,” the Sun King said, interrupting her thoughts. “And your personality transformation, very interesting. But . . .” he trailed off, looking over at the dwarf. “Your power did not change anything apart from your . . . how shall we say, attitude?”
The dwarf drew his bushy eyebrows together. He didn’t disagree.
Why do my powers have to be so touchy? She wondered, unsure why nothing around her had changed. Maybe Jasper had given her a weak track or something. Get a grip, Sara, she scolded herself. It was her responsibility to figure out her own powers, after all.
Looking at the Sun King, Sarina was suddenly filled with regret. Why did I confront him? He could kick me out. She considered apologizing, but that would have meant drawing even more attention to herself when all she wanted was just for everyone to stop looking at her.
Even though nothing special had happened, she knew she’d danced well. She couldn’t help but glance around at the faces of her audience as she shuffled back to her chair.
Gentleman was impossible to read. Ace’s group looked genuinely impressed with her dance, especially Sunny, whose mouth was left hanging open. Jasper was smiling at her, but in a distant, absentminded way.
Down at the other end of the table, Eve had a small pout on her lips, and only glanced briefly in her direction. Raven followed every one of her movements with a look she knew only too well — and she really hoped that it wouldn’t became a problem.
The Sun King interrupted before she could get settled in her chair. “Dancer, how about you get some fresh air in my garden? You must feel exhausted after that . . . impressive artistic performance.” His tone was amiable as usual, but something darker bled through the words.
It wasn’t a request.
He’s annoyed that they brought me here for nothing, Sarina thought, not nearly as relieved as she thought she’d be at the prospect of showing off her ineffective powers. Sure, she’d felt them — but that was it. Big whoop. Now she really wanted to kick herself for her rude remark. Or, alternately, sink into the floor and disappear.
“I’ll go with her,” Jasper said, already pushing out his chair.
“That’s a good idea,” Ace agreed, almost too quickly. “Keep the girl company. We’ll call ya back in later.”
Sarina made her way to the door without protest. Jasper didn’t waste a moment getting to his feet. They crossed the foyer side by side, neither of them saying a word until the heavy front door clicked shut behind them.
“Do you think it’s a bad sign that they want to talk without us?” Sarina asked, heading towards a cluster of trees.
“I don’t think so,” Jasper replied, sounding a whole lot calmer than she felt. “If we can keep ourselves from getting in too deep with Gentleman’s crew, it’ll be less trouble if we ever want to leave.”
So she hadn’t been wrong. Jasper wasn’t feeling totally comfortable with this whole situation, either.
“But aren’t the Nameless your friends?”
Jasper shrugged. “They’re not bad, and I’m glad to finally be on the road. Going someplace, doing something that feels right to me, you know? I don’t want to be kept locked away until some office workers decide they want to see us bending spoons.” His eyes sparkled with a hint of British humor.
Sarina couldn’t help but laugh. “That’s how I feel about it, too. But . . .” She lowered her voice. “Are you sure we’re safe here?”
The humor drained out of him. “I think you’re better off here than anywhere else, Dancing Queen.” He leaned back against a tree trunk as though he needed the additional support. “I honestly believe you’re in danger. But if it ever seems that you’re in danger here, I’ll pack my bag, too.”
Something about the way he said that, so serious and sure, made Sarina smile.
“But you don’t even know me. Maybe I’m terrible company,” she pointed out.
He grinned. “Likewise. If you believe Sunny, I snore like a lumberjack. And whenever I zone out to music, I’m about as useful as a chocolate teapot.”
This made her laugh again, but she wasn’t done asking questions. “They said you volunteered. How could you have been so sure about it all?”
“Honestly? I have a feeling they’re okay. I have a pretty decent people sense, I guess, and I don’t think Ace’s group means any harm. I’m not so sure about some of the others in there, but we didn’t agree to join them.”
Sarina mulled it over for a moment, trying to figure out how she felt about the group and her part in it. She had a feeling that if she’d been able to speak to her Mom just then, she would have been told that it was too early to tell if the eggs were going bad. “I guess we could just listen to what they want our help with,” Sarina finally suggested, “Play along if it makes sense or just bail if it doesn’t.”
“Yeah,” Jasper agreed, grabbing a falling blossom out of the air. “That’s what I’ve been thinking, too. And in the meantime, you’ll have a safe place to stay.”
They fell silent and Sarina let her gaze roam. It landed on Snow, who’d been in plain sight all along.
Snow gave no indication that she’d spotted the pair of observers. Her colorless form was wandering between some overgrown bushes, leaving a flutter of white in her wake. Blossoms, for the most part. Her lips moved as if she was singing to herself, but the wind carried the sound away before it could be heard.
She looked strangely happy. Childlike, without a care in the world.
Sarina couldn’t remember a time when she’d ever felt that way, herself. The realization made her sad.
“I don’t know what to think of Snow,” Sarina confided, not tearing her gaze from the girl.
“Me neither,” said Jasper. “I think she’s trapped in her own little world, but what kind of world is it?” he shrugged. “I guess we’ll find out.”
“I wonder why the Princess doesn’t like her.”
Suddenly a third voice broke into their conversation. “Even though Odette’s a Visionary, she doesn’t understand Snow.”
Sarina and Jasper turned at the same time. There was Sunny, standing behind them.
Sunny smirked, his hands nonchalantly tucked in his pockets as though he’d been standing there for a while.
“Aaaand yeah, I overheard. Everything. But don’t worry. I’m not gonna tell.”
Sarina wanted to kick herself. How had she not considered the possibility that someone might overhear them? Especially when she knew the boy had superhearing.
It was only as Sunny wedged himself between Sarina and Jasper that she realized how close they’d been standing; their shoulders had been nearly touching. Now it was Sunny who was glued to her side.
She shuffled sideways to find some space that wasn’t occupied by someone else’s limbs.
“Were you two going to kiss?” Sunny demanded. “That’s gross.” He was frowning, but Sarina thought she could sense a touch of envy in his voice.
Jasper scratched the back of his neck, but said nothing.
“You’re not going to tell anyone what we said, are you?” she asked the boy, both as a way to change the subject and because she was truly concerned.
“Of course not! Besides,” he continued in his most grown up tone, “I’ve got your back. You don’t need to worry about those other guys. I won’t let them hurt you.”
Sarina looked over the boy’s head at Jasper and winked. She remembered her first crush, and it had been a doozy, too. “You won’t, huh? Well, I appreciate that.”
“By the way, that dance was badass,” Sunny complimented, his eyes gleaming with adoration.
“Thanks. But it didn’t do anything,” Sarina pointed out. “I’m probably not going to be much help to anyone.”
Sunny shook his head. “What do you mean, it didn’t do anything?” His gaze dropped to her feet. When she followed suit, she felt silly for not noticing sooner.
Her shoes. White sneakers imported from Japan, with velcro strips of varying length sticking out from the sides like wings.
“Pretty sure you weren’t wearing those when you came downstairs,” the boy pointed out, full of self-satisfaction.
The boy’s attentiveness surprised her, and she was suddenly grateful for his close observation. But the sight of the shoes puzzled her too much to respond. How had that happened? As far as she could remember, she hadn’t done anything. It was frustrating.
The breeze carried noise from more distant areas, drawing their attention back to the chaos in the city streets. Shouts and protest chants blended into the shrill whine of police sirens, whistles, and the sound of something breaking. A dull shudder came from the north, indicating a distant explosion.
What can I possibly do about any of this when I don’t even understand my own powers? She wondered, her brain following the same roundabout path it had gone down hundreds of times over the past five days.
She hung her head and closed her eyes. The erupting conflict made her realize she wanted nothing more than to be the shining, perfect heroine who’d embark on a mission to change wrongs to rights. But with a power that seemed to do whatever the heck it wanted, she didn’t even know where to start.
“Hey,” Sunny’s voice pulled her from her brooding. She opened her eyes to his young face all wrinkled up with concern. “Don’t be like that. You’re with us now, and we always make things work. Watch and see.”
She decided to believe him. She had no other choice.
“I just wish . . .” she trailed off. There was so much she wished for right now.
Too much to voice.
“Hey, don’t worry,” Jasper assured her, giving her arm a squeeze behind Sunny’s back. “You’ll figure it out.” How did he always know just what she needed to hear?
Sarina sent him the most genuine smile she could muster at the moment, grateful for having him on her side.
“And here’s a little something, just in case you ever need a reminder.” Jasper held out a balled-up fist. “Here. Take it.”
Not sure what he was hiding, Sarina held out her hand. Jasper opened his fist and dropped a small figurine into her outstretched palm.
A miniature King Kong.
“Dancer and DJ saving the world,” she said.
“Better believe it,” he promised with a grin.