Keira stared at the hourglass shaped board in front of her, considering her options. She’d used a Surcess Opening, had been surprised when her opponent had not followed suit – she had thought he was planning something she might not expect but had found his subsequent moves efficient but easy to predict – a dangerous weakness to expose in a place such as this.
They were playing in the living room of an apartment in the eastern part of the Sengri Academy. She was Keira Turn, a recognized genius with dangerous friends. He was Lucio Amadus, the younger of twins, and it was his sister that had set this appointment in an effort to socialize her brother. Keira hadn’t liked the sister but had done her the favor anyway, mostly to sate her own curiosity.
Kinguim children were typically raised by their parents or by their parent’s servants, taught the rudiments of the world and left to discover what they wanted to on their own before coming to one of the six Academies. There, her people learned to harness the divinity in their blood and learn what it was to be the Get of Kingu.
One of the first things they learned was that there was no law against murder, either among the adult Kinguim or among their children here at this school. At nine years old they were marched over to the Typper’s Tower, where a withered old man named Pitch taught them that their souls would always return to bodies with Kinguim blood. He even showed them a method to see this happen, so there could be no doubt.
Keira had trembled, helpless to do anything but watch as Pitch slit the throat of two grown men from the outside world. They had been collected for just this purpose: the Adama had been screaming for mercy, but the Kinguim had smiled at the assembled children, had waved at them before Pitch killed him.
It wasn’t the first time Keira had seen someone die and it wouldn’t be the last. She’d likely see the exercise repeated that afternoon. It was just that she’d never seen someone willingly go to the slaughter like that.
Pitch showed them how to watch, to trick their eyes into seeing the soul of a thing. Five hundred children had gasped when the weak soul of the Adama fell apart and drifted away like flotsam on an ocean tide, but the soul of the Kinguim began to glow sapphire blue, sinking into a shimmering net to await a body to inhabit.
She’d been there when Lucia and Lucio Amadus had been exposed to this horror and neither of them had flinched. She wondered how Carmen would react, her finger tracing a path along the edge of the table upon which the board was set as she tried to distract herself from the time and studied her opponent.
Murder was wasteful, yes, but she could reach over the snap his neck and no one would punish her. The sister would be mad, but Keira could kill her, too – but she knew that would make her enemies, make people wary of her, and that she would die at the hands of the Amadus line. Instead, she studied his slight frown, his narrowed eyes.
He was cute and of African descent, far younger than her but brilliant, fingers thrumming a gentle constant rhythm that mirrored his decisions. She had offered to put on some kind of music but he’d asked her not to, favoring the soft percussion of his fingers. She might have found it annoying had his talent for music not far exceeded his talent for Rafael.
“It’s five minutes since the last time you checked the time,” Lucio said, not looking up from the board. She bit her lip, took a deep breath. He was young, younger than her, younger than the person she was waiting for.
“There’s someone coming today,” Keira said, watching his fingers keep their steady pattern. She was eleven years old, he was seven but very bright, and the girl coming today would be all of nine. “Someone I’m looking forward to seeing very much.
“A sister?” Lucio asked, looking up, a flicker of interest passing through his features.
“My sister is older than I am,” Keira answered. He nodded sympathy; Lucia was, Keira had been given to understand, thirty-six minutes older than Lucio. Their parents had not been expecting twins. Keira knew this because she was inquisitive and liked to know things about the people she was going to have to deal with, and she expected Lucio to ask her questions about her sister or the person coming.
Sitting, silent, he stared at the board and considered his next move. She could understand why the parents Amadus had sent their kids to the Academy so early. Lucia was gifted at getting people to do what she wanted, so much so that Keira now sat here playing Rafael with this strange boy. Lucio himself was a gifted mathematician, and she could see how that played into his decisions even upon the hourglass between them.
Both twins liked music and languages. Lucia wielded all three like weapons. Lucio seemed to love them for their own sake, but there was an alienness to their gifts that frightened some of the other Kinguim. Keira was not so afraid; she, too, had talents that set her apart even from those with divinity in their blood, and while she did not like Lucia she felt a strange kinship for Lucio, a kinship the parents of these twins had not felt.
Lucia had told her all about it. For his part, Lucio seemed glad to be rid and distant from them.
He made a move. She countered. He frowned, staring at the board, moved again. She boxed him in. The two of them were still experimenting with the nuances of the game, both getting a feel for what the game said about themselves and one another. She offered Lucio’s scowl a shy smile, moved another piece.
She was thinking of trying the sport later that year, trying her hand at joining one of the wings that represented the school. There was power that came with being a celebrity but there was risk in becoming a public figure and she wasn’t sure yet how to balance the two. She wasn’t even sure what position she would try out for – a searcher, maybe?
Biting her lip, she checked the time again.
“Six minutes,” he muttered, staring at the board, frustration beat out in the gentle pounding of his fingers. He looked up at the ceiling, never once meeting her eyes, the hand not drumming on the table running through a complex pattern that she realized were all the moves he’d made so far. “I’d say your mind is elsewhere, but…”
“I’ve got a head for games.”
He moved again and this time she started eliminating his pieces, removing them from the board as she made her way towards his me. He struggled, but she could see his patterns now and was able to countermand them – she wondered what he’d be like in a full game, but they had agreed on single rounds today, feeling one another out, getting to know one another and the game itself.
“My plan should have worked,” he said, once all his pieces were gone.
“You’re looking for perfect games,” Keira responded, “and you’re looking at the most amount of direct movement. You’re playing like a mathematician.”
“She’s looking to win.” Keira had a small apartment all to herself, and she had made only two spare keys. One dangled between her breasts, safely kept in waiting. The other belonged to the newcomer, a boy she’d known since childhood. His name was Christian Kennedy.
He was a tall slim boy, filling out nicely as puberty set in. He wore his hair long, white pants and gray shirt, eyes gray and cold and patient, snake eyes, the sort of eyes that should have been a warning. He moved like he owned the world, opening her fridge and grabbing a drink, looking over at the hourglass as Lucio reset the pieces.
“You weren’t even here,” Lucio muttered. “How could you know that?”
“Because I know the two of you,” Christian answered. He grabbed some glasses from Keira’s cabinet, poured another couple drinks for Keira and her guest, all the time acting as if it were his home than they were in and not hers. He looked at Keira as he offered her the drink, giving her a smile that was anything but shy as he nodded towards the board. “Do the thing you do.”
She kept her face neutral as she turned to the board, silently asking permission from Lucio. He hesitated for only a moment, but his love of language extended to the silent words of stance and breath and he moved back.
Christian saying do the thing you do was a code; he was uncertain how to pronounce the word eidetic and probably couldn’t spell it, either, but he knew that Keira’s memory was exactly that and loved to take advantage of such. She went through the game they had just played, move for move, Christian studying the changing hourglass until the game she and Lucio had just played reached the ending.
“It’s weakness,” Christian laughed, sitting down on a chair between the two of them as he leaned in close to Lucio, careful not to touch him. “You think you’re playing with set equations, but the game is algebra.”
“Algebra?” Lucio frowned.
“You know what you wanna do, and you know you want to win,” Christian explained, leaning back with a pleased smile. Tonelessly, tunelessly, he began to tap his feet on the floor. “What you don’t know is what she’s going to do, but you think you do and so you’re playing a game that suits what you think instead of what is. Solve for x.”
“I don’t understand.” Lucio actually looked him in the eye. “Isn’t that what we all do?”
“No,” Christian shrugged. “Everyone plays this game differently. I’ve only seen you do that, which isn’t good or bad, but it’s your perfection that kills you. Anything that’s perfect is perfect for a single moment in time. Then it stops and becomes imperfect. Like, what were their names?”
“Them,” Christian nodded, thanking her for remembering the object lesson when it came to failing despite the divinity of Kingu’s blood. “Don’t assume you know what another person is going to do, or what their game is. And don’t have any set game yourself. It’s easier to break a rock than it is to break water.”
“I don’t understand,” Lucio repeated. Christian turned to Keira, frowning, wondering if he was explaining this wrong. Now it was her turn to shrug, she moving and letting the other boy take her seat.
“Okay, tell you what… we’re gonna play a game, and then I’m going to walk you through why I’m doing what I’m doing and you’ll do the same, okay? Or you can just ask questions. Whatever you’re cool with.”
“You said okay twice.” Lucio’s eyes narrowed as he focused on the hourglass “You’re up to something.”
“Yes, but nothing malicious.” Christian smiled, making a steeple of his fingers and looking past them at the small genius sitting across from him. “Trust me.”
They started playing. Christian began explaining his actions at first, but quickly let those explanations slip when it became obvious that Lucio was not paying attention to them. Keira watched for a few more minutes as Christian began breaking his wing down, taking control of the board and smothering anything that Lucio tried.
“Do you even have a plan?” Lucio asked, frowning at the board and trembling.
“No,” Keira answered, Christian grinning and silent. “I reacted to your moves and forced you into circumstances that worked for me. He’s looking for weaknesses in your moves and then crumbling the support you’re using. You’re ignoring us both in favor of claiming the me.”
“Start trying to solve for x,” Christian added, resting his hands behind his head. “Don’t forget that your opponent is part of the equation, so you need to know your opponent to win. I like to think of it as turning numbers into fractions and breaking them down. That make sense, genius?”
“No.” Lucio actually growled.
“Well, we’ll let you think on it,” Christian said, standing up. He offered Keira a hand, smiling. She didn’t take it, and that just made him smile more. “C’mon, she’s nearly here.”
“Lucio…” Keira began, standing, but Christian cut her off.
“Let him stay and study the board,” he said. “We’ll be gone, what, an hour? Two?”
“Fine,” Keira muttered, not happy about leaving the strange boy in her home unattended.
“It’ll be fine,” Christian said. “Don’t burn the place down or anything.”
“I won’t,” Lucio said, his voice serious and his eyes not leaving the board. “Thank you.”
Keira thought about saying something, but bit her tongue and grabbed her jacket and sword, following Christian as he buckled his blade around his hips and stepped out the door before cursing herself, hurrying up to stand beside him instead. If I follow him, it looks like he’s in charge, she thought, if I stand in front of him, I’m exposing my back. Neither option was good; the best option was to stand beside him and hope for the best.
She didn’t lock her door, and her keys felt heavy in her pocket the further she moved away. She risked a glance back and Christian noticed, chuckling softly to himself.
“You really think he’s a risk?” Christian asked. “I mean, his sister maybe, but him?”
“I notice you’re in no hurry to leave people alone in your home,” Keira said, pleased with the primness in her tone.
“If it were him, I might,” Christian replied, shrugging. “Besides, we’ll know if he did anything.” Keira stared at him, the two of them continuing to walk.
“Did you leave bugs in my home?”
“No more than usual,” Christian grinned. That’s not a good answer, she thought. “No more than you have bugs in mine. And if he bugs your home, well, that tells us something about him and his sister.”
“And you’re willing for me to take that risk on your behalf?”
“No, no at all,” Christian said. “You have better self-control than I do, so if they do bug your home – and it would be the sister, not the brother, that would do that – you’re the one more suited to feeding them false information.”
“It’s still a risk.”
“Certainly,” Christian laughed. “But save the conversation – it’ll be a good introduction for our good friend, maybe help instill a healthy paranoia.”
“As if Pitch’s welcoming display won’t do that.”
“There’s a difference between a healthy paranoia and fear.”
“Fear? You?” Keira scoffed, kicking at a stray rock and watching it bounce ahead of them. “You’re staying behind to help check the place.”
“I’ll even grab dinner,” Christian nodded, agreeing. “Besides, it’ll be good to catch up with Carm and see where her head is at.”
They walked in silence for a time, watching the alleys and side streets, but no one seemed to be paying them any serious attention.
“You really think you’ll learn anything?” Keira asked.
“Not really, but it’s the thought that counts.” Christian slipped his hands into his pockets, a sign that he thought they were in no danger. “Besides, neither of us are that important, not yet.”
“Your brother runs the Academy.” Keira kept vigilant, her eyes on the people around them, a greater number of them heading south to greet the newcomers. “And your brother knows you, knows what you’re capable of.”
“Yes, well, I know him, too,” Christian shrugged. “Can you believe he’s not in charge? The Halkett Bloc. Pah. Have you ever even heard Jay speak? All he does is shoot things and look intimidating and wave that empty gun of his around.”
“I saw him shoot someone once,” Keira said, shuddering. She remembered the crack of the pistol, the way the teacher had fallen twitching to the floor.
“Let me guess,” Christian muttered. “No bullet was found, the wound was worse than it should have been?”
“Yeah,” Christian sighed, looking around. “Jay shoots entropy. Not sure if that’s something he inherited from his father or a gift of Kingu.”
“He’s not of the Old Blood.”
“It’s not just the Old Blood that sometimes have Kingu’s gifts,” Christian said. “And there’s other powers, like whatever Pitch is. Or Ashley.”
“I’m not scared of the elf,” Keira growled, fingers tightening around the hilt of her rapier. “Our people already conquered his. His being here is proof of that.”
“Right,” Christian said. “Nothing to worry about, then. And as for my brother, well, he’s got other things to worry about right now and I’m not exactly rattling a saber in his direction. He’ll leave me alone right now. Priorities and all that.”
They continued to walk south in silence, covering one another’s blind spots, keeping one another safe as the crowd got larger. There were maybe a few hundred people around them now, and they kept towards the back of the platform where the Aswasi’atar would come, their backs to pillars in a small and defensible alcove.
Both of them knew that the chances of being attacked here were small. There were traditions that spoke against violence around the Aswasi’atar, and there were eroseeqhi – Kinguim sorcerers – whose duty included the enforcing of those traditions. Challenging a sorcerer in his home was not a good idea, and breaking a tradition without good cause was a good way to draw all sorts of bad attention.
None of that made that tradition a law, though, and there were those that would risk anything to get what they wanted.
“How long has it been since you’ve seen her?” Christian asked. “A year?”
“You’ve been here as long as I have,” Keira said, shuffling and nervous, staring at the place the Aswasi’atar would come to. The eroseeqhi had already gathered, drawing their etchings on the ground, lighting candles and incense to keep the ground holy.
“Your memory is better than mine.”
“What? Yes. A year. It’s been a year.”
“Nine-year-old Carmen Rosencratz,” Christian said, crossing his arms and leaning back against the pillar. “This should be interesting.”
Keira wasn’t sure what to say to that and so said nothing. There was a smugness to her ally that she often found grating, and this was one of those times. She wanted to hit him but swallowed the bile in her throat and the rustling in her belly – they needed one another, their alliance a mutually beneficial one that had worked out well since they had been children.
Purple-pink mist began to swelter out of the aether on the platform, and an excited muttering began to waft through the crowd. The massive and shining black scales of the Aswasi’atar began to solidify out of nothing, the creature pulled out of the soul of the planet and made real. The eroseeqhi approached the creature as it faded from dream to flesh, using hand signs and words that crawled along the skin like spiders, lifting scales the size of cars up and open and revealing the people within.
A gaggle of nine-year-olds spilled out of the creature that had brought them here, brushing past the Aswasi’atar. Some returning students, older than the others, also made their way out – they all looked much more certain, pushing past the assembled children without paying them any heed.
Keira scanned the mass, looking for any sign of the girl that was more precious to her than anything else in the world, but all the kids were dressed in shades of purple and few of them carried anything from the world outside. Their parents would have warned them about standing out in the early days, Keira knew – her parents had done the same. It was important to be invisible until you had some place to retreat to once those you never wanted to notice you, did.
“Do you think you’ll spot her with that thing you do?” Christian asked. Keira grit her teeth and ignored him; he knew full well that wasn’t how an eidetic memory worked, but he also liked to tease out the weaknesses of others and she wasn’t going to give him that satisfaction.
Instead, she kept silent and continued to scan the crowd, in this instance no more skilled than anyone else might be when looking for someone important to them. She knew Carmen had always been on the small side, the slight side, and a small slight pretty girl coming alone to a place like this was a scary thing.
When she’d come here she and Christian had one another, had watched one another’s backs and had gotten themselves to the point where they were reasonably secure. The Amadus twins had come with one another, and though their age had drawn interest, Lucia had been able to strike deals with people on the way in, deals that had served her well.
There’s an ambitious creature, Keira thought, smiling. I wonder what Carm will think of her…?
Most children, coming to the Academy, would have at least one ally, but Carmen’s difficulties kept her isolated mostly. The only people that she’d ever relied on that were her own age were Keira and Christian, and that was why Keira felt it important to be here and now, and why Christian had come with her.
Carmen was all alone.
The crowd was noisy and nervous and a little scared. The eroseeqhi directed the kids away from the Aswasi’atar, and the new arrivals would have had a chance to look over their pamphlets and maps and make their way to their new homes. Their parents and the pamphlets would have warned them to make alliances with others on the Aswasi’atar, to map a route to where they’d be living, to waste as little time as possible getting to the place they were supposed to be: Pitch’s people would be along in the morning to walk them through breakfast before taking them to the Trypper’s Tower to give them the same demonstration that still haunted Keira and had frightened Christian.
Better that, though, than some of the other horrors the Academy could offer. Custom kept people from attacking and nabbing the kids and the eroseeqhi would deal with violent offenders, but they could not be everywhere. Thomas Kiker, the person currently in charge of the slave pens, had some of his people here pretending to offer guidance to children that looked scared or lost. Keira could pick them out of the crowd easily enough, their smiling faces and gentle motions, the lies they spun to get kids to walk into the charnel house that Kiker called home.
She looked at the small groupings of frightened children that gathered around those faces, breathed a sigh of relief that she did not spy Carmen’s face among their number. She felt bad for that relief, though, and thought about saying something, doing something. There was a small girl with a cane who moved with halted half-steps, and the look on her face – the smile that curved her lips – was the saddest thing that Keira had ever seen, gratitude given to a slaver.
“Don’t,” Christian whispered, his hand brushing her shoulder. “They didn’t notice. We’re fine. There’s nothing we can do about it now.” She realized her hand had tightened around the hilt of her sword and she took a deep breath, slowly relaxing her fingers.
A tug on her sleeve nearly made her jump out of her skin.
She turned, ready to draw her sword, a battle-cry dying on her lips as she took note of the person who now stood beside her, looking up at her.
“Keira?” asked Carmen, purple eyes wide. Her hair was a deep rust and she’d added a crimson streak to it, but she looked as good as ever had, looked better than she had in the dreams Keira told no one about.
“Carmen.” There was more warmth and wet in that single syllable than she’d meant to let out, but in that moment she forgave herself. She let go of the sword, sweeping the small and slight frame into her arms, holding her, soaking in her scent. “I’m glad you’re alright.”
“I found you,” Carmen whispered, her fingers playing along Keira’s spine, her shoulders.
“Hey, I’m here, too,” Christian said. Keira let her friend go, let the two of them embrace as she took point, watching the milling crowd and some of the other people her own age who were watching with interest. She met their eyes, stared them down.
“We should leave,” Keira said. There was a milling group of five girls standing there, looking at them, girls that Keira didn’t recognize. Carmen let go of Christian.
“How do you always find us?” Christian grinned, ruffling Carmen’s hair as if she were a pet. It bothered Keira, the way Carmen pushed up into the ruffling.
Carmen had always been intuitive, always found her way around in the dark, always managed to catch up to people even when anyone else might have been lost. Her parents said it had something to do with her difficulties, but there was no sign of that in her eyes or stance right now, and Keira had learned what to look for over long hours – a shadow in her eyes or a cruel twist to her lips or twitching fingers. Right now she was simply Carmen, and that was all that mattered.
“I made some allies on the Aswasi’atar,” Carmen said, motioning at the five girls that were staring at them, looking nervous and fidgeting, keeping a polite distance from their small troika. Behind them , the eroseeqhi were preparing to send the Aswasi’atar on its way.
“Allies, eh?” Christian said, studying them with interest.
“I’m Keira,” Keira said, releasing her sword and stepping forward, keeping her tone polite and letting a little of the gratitude she felt slip in. “This is Christian. Who’re you?”
“My name is Michelle,” one of the girls said. She was pretty – some mix of European bloodlines, with an echo of the arrogance that Keira had come to associate with the Old Blood. “This is my bloc – Darcy, Jackie, Robin, and Helena.”
Keira smiled at the hubris of the statement; strong alliances at the Academy were called blocs: six individuals who tied their fates to one another, working to keep one another safe and further the interests of the group. Most people waited a year or two before committing to a bloc, if they ever did; she and Christian had been here almost two years now, but the only close alliances they had made was with one another.
“You’re one shy of a bloc,” Christian noted, slipping his hands into his pockets and leaning back against the pillar, his eyes lazy and head tilted back.
He’s measuring them, Keira thought, looking for weakness.
“We make do,” the one named Jackie said, smiling. She had golden hair and a pretty face and stepped up with an easy familiarity. She was used to this, trained for this, and even at nine years old she was good at it. She drew attention like light attracting moths, but Keira had seen people more practiced at it than her and was able to turn away, to notice the way the small girl named Robin was staring at them, studying them with an intensity that mirrored Christian’s.
“It’s okay, guys,” Carmen said, but she had always been a little naive, a little confused, a failing inflicted on her by her unique circumstances.
“Your bloc,” Christian said, a lazy smile spreading across his lips without touching his eyes. He shook his head. “You just got here and you’re already talking blocs. You have any alliances? Know anyone else here worth knowing?”
“We have each other,” Michelle said, one hand on her hip, the other dangling uselessly by her side. “And we’re open to new faces.”
“There was someone on the Aswasi’atar that was following me,” Carmen said, tugging on Keira’s sleeve. “People my age, but they wanted… I had a feeling about them. When I ran I met these girls and they took me into their link.”
“You have a private link?” Keira asked, suspicious. “A whole link to yourselves?” That took a serious amount of wealth and pull, pacts with the eroseeqhi that were beyond the ability of even most Kinguim to grant. The sort of people that had their own links on the Aswasi’atar were dangerous, and more than capable of setting up circumstances to fool poor slight girls who would already be nervous about coming here.
She thought about the people that had that sort of pull, the names of the Old Blood families cycling through her head. She didn’t know these girls, didn’t remember anyone of import named Michelle, didn’t know why someone just arrived would command the pull she clearly had on the other four girls.
“People that come here with a bloc in mind aren’t opening themselves up to new experiences,” Christian drawled, his tone keeping attention on him; she knew he was drawing their ire on purpose, letting her feel them out.
“We’re open to alliances,” Jackie said, her voice polite.
“What bloc are you?” Christian asked. “What title have you given your bloc?”
Michelle and Carmen both looked about to answer, but Keira realized who they were and beat them to the revelation, speaking the name out loud.
“Verene,” Keira said, staring, spitting the name as she spoke it. “These are the Verenes.”
“The Verenes?” Christian sneered and shook his head. “Kingu’s greatest failures? I didn’t realize there were any left.”
“Just us,” Michelle answered, but her eyes had narrowed, her shoulders tensing. “We make do.”
“Carmen, get behind me,” Keira demanded, holding up an arm protectively, her other hand going for her sword. One of the girls, bigger than the rest – Helena – stepped in front of the others. “It’s okay. Thank you for your service. You can go now.”
“Oh, by your leave,” the small girl, Robin, said. Her voice was mocking, her exaggerated bow an insult.
Keira paid it back with the exact amount of vitriol that motion deserved.
“Fuck you,” she said. The small girl looked like she might try something, but Michelle put a hand on her shoulder, shaking her head when Robin looked back at her. Robin muttered something, shaking, as Michelle pulled her people back, eyes never leaving them as they moved away and into the crowd and were gone.
“Why,” asked Carmen, licking her lips, “why did you do that?”
“She wouldn’t have been good for you,” Keira said, taking her hand off her blade and looking at her friend, hoping that she could make the other girl understand. “Do you know the Verenes? Who they are? What they did?”
“No, but I know she kept me safe,” answered Carmen, hugging herself.
“It’s okay.” Keira brought her closer, held her, thrilled a little to feel Carmen’s small arms wrapping around her, hugging her back.
“I don’t understand,” murmured Carmen. Keira could feel her tears through the shirt she wore.
“We’ll bring you up to speed,” Christian sighed. He pointed with his eyes and Keira followed his gaze, noticing that Kiker’s people had taken a casual interest in them. “Come on, let’s get out of here. We’ll talk once we get back to my place.”