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Embed code for: River's End ch 11: A Trap and a Lie
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REPORT book 1 chapter 11
Rose arrives at Ledatiis Island and rides leemprees.
Chapter 11—A Trap and a Lie
Now I was at a loss. Grenswa’s second prince thought of my people as monsters, and the first prince had possibly eloped with one of the very people I had come to tell them was their enemy. Blu was my only apparent ally, and at that moment, he was enduring a loud lecture that I and the princes politely pretended we couldn’t hear. The doors seemed paper thin, and I wondered they hadn’t heard noisy Paqo and the discussion of my heritage earlier.
Surreptitiously retrieving Fredo’s shooter had been a bit of a dance performed as I swapped out my borrowed hat in favor of my cloak. The weapon was a weight on my belts and in my mind as I followed the princes through the restaurant’s exit.
Would I have to take my message straight to King Rangial? If so, I headed in the right direction. Ledatiiss Island would have been difficult to find and access on my own. It was said to float among the clouds, as did several land masses caught in Grenswa’s odd gravitational relationship with Sparqtra.
Hence the nreyetko, a vehicle designed to work with Grenswa’s unique gravity field. I had never seen one in person. The one Timqé brought was the same cerulean as his eyes, but in lieu of the life dancing in those portals of blue, thin, hematite lines drew a faint, angular pattern over its metal sides. Resting flat on the ground, the nreyetko was shaped much like a kayak, dugouts in the hull providing access to two seats, a clear wind screen partially shielding the driver.
“Um, where am I supposed to sit?” I questioned as Timqé stepped into the front dugout.
He shrugged. “The trunk.” I couldn’t quite tell if that was a question, a joke, or a serious suggestion.
“The trunk’s for inanimate objects,” Hent vetoed, “like Paqo.”
“Then I suppose she’ll’ve to sit on your lap since you’re the one illegally bringin’ her to the island.”
There were many reasons I shouldn’t have sat on Hent’s lap. For starters, Seallaii-na proprietary would brand it inappropriate, but Grenswa-nas sat on each other all the time and thought nothing of it. So disregarding that, safety warned the seat was not designed to host two, and in the event of a crash we would both die.
Actually, safety seemed very much absent in the design of this vehicle.
Figuring Timqé would take any excuse to leave me behind, I swallowed my objections and crawled into the second seat with Hent.
As we lurched into the air and I nearly tumbled out over the side, Hent wrapped his arms around me, locking me in place. I blushed. Seallaii-na propriety still claimed I should not sit on his lap, especially not held tight in his embrace. And as I tried to tell myself this meant nothing to the handsome prince holding me, my analytical training kicked in. Hent’s embrace was unlike any I had ever known…not that I had known many, thanks to the non-River Guardians not touching River Guardians rule.
Whenever Fredo caught me his arms felt warm and solid, imbued with safety. No amount of shoving on my part could make Fredo move if he didn’t want to.
Hent lacked Seallaii-na solidity, instead a creature built for flight, grace, and movement. A bird, not a tree to be rooted to the ground. Plus, Grenswa-nas are not warm blooded. Absorbing and storing heat, his touch was like that of a shark’s: several degrees cooler than me and smooth with the grain of his skin, rough if against it.
I didn’t mind, though. The wind roaring past was hot and sticky, tearing at my hair like a spiteful bald man. It would have been stifling without his cooling presence wrapped around me.
“You’re alright?” Hent called into my ear. My flush had crept all the way to my fingers, and I was positively purple.
“I’m fine!” I shouted into the gale as it tried to peel my lips from my face. It did a good job of blasting off my leyrah coating. “Just…nervous!”
“Before gainin’ access to the island, people usually must present several official documents,” Timqé noted, “includin’ a doctor’s report provin’ they’ren’t carryin’ the next great epidemic!”
“If she’s contagious, I’ve caught it now!” Hent argued.
“I’m not contagious!” I claimed. “I’m not even sick!”
“But we’ve to take your word on that, and you’re far from inconspicuous. Normally a mystery like you’dn’t even be allowed to see our island.”
“Normally you wouldn’t be allowed to collect srymals this time of year either!” I shot back. “How is your wife, by the way? What is she like?”
“You brought Niiq srymals out of season?” Hent questioned.
Bad Hent, interrupting my subtle information fishing.
Timqé explained, “She’s been cravin’ all sorts of crazy things because of the baby!”
That perked my ears. Baby? Grenswa’s first prince was not only married but expecting?
But I hadn’t thought a Grenswa-na/Shlykrii-na hybrid was possible.
“What?!” Hent exclaimed, and I realized I had spoken aloud. How much of that last thought had I said? “That’s disgustin’! Why’d you even be thinkin’ about that?”
“Because you mentioned running off with a beautiful Shlykrii-na!” I defended.
“Beautiful Shlykrii-nas don’t exist!” Hent professed.
Even if only in my own mind, I had to differ: Shlykrii-nas have a cruel beauty, sharp and often dark, like the steep precipices of an immense ravine, terrifying if you stand too close.
Aloud, I countered, “I heard you call Seallaii-nas monsters, yet you think them beautiful.”
“Their beauty is a trap and a lie.”
“A trap of what? And it’s truly the opposite of a lie. Yes, a Seallaii-na’s appearance is liable to slow change, but they grow toward their own ideal of beauty. Some of who they really are shines through, like with your transient colors. Would you call them a lie?”
“They’re also a trap.”
His heavy sincerity rendered me speechless. His colors were a trap? What could he mean by that?
Hent swirled through lavender into deep, eerie maroon, and I had to look away. Otherwise I’d have fallen into those eyes and drowned.
Very aware of Hent’s arms around me, I looked anywhere but at him. The clouds were fluffy and a myriad of pale hues. This latter came from crafailia, a substance that performed water-like functions on many worlds. It came in a variety of colors, each a slightly different solution.
In addition to water, Seallaii had only white and clear crafailia, while Grenswa had nearly all available colors.
The clouds churned, wind dancing in the planet’s awkward gravity pools, and I could feel the nreyetko’s motor constantly adjusting to keep us aloft. The ground hid below thick vapor, though I suspected we were over an ocean anyway. A tepid mist washed over us, and I blinked colorful droplets out of my eyes.
Rock loomed out of the haze, a dark, shapeless form sharpening into a jagged precipice, and Timqé directed our vehicle to rise. My stomach took a few secliis to catch up. Cascades poured past us, sculpted into twirling ribbons at the whim of the wind.
The cliff fell away, boulders carpeted by green grass and then a verdant jungle replete with deep ravines and dark fissures. I didn’t get to see much before the nreyetko ducked into a large wooden structure teetering on the edge of the island.
The wind ventured inside cautiously, and in the absence of its roar, I momentarily feared I’d gone deaf.
Lips a hairsbreadth from my ear, Hent questioned, “If Seallaii-nas grow toward their own ideal of beauty, if one of them admired Shlykrii-nas, he’d grow outrageous ears and fangs?”
“For such a drastic change, he would have to want that for a significant portion of his life.” I sat very still, not looking at the prince as our vehicle settled on the wood-and-stone floor. The stone appeared melted around the planks, like thick mortar.
“You know a lot about Seallaii.”
Now I did look at him, terror spearing my heart. He was teal, suspicious.
“I know a lot about Grenswa, too!” I rushed, a little squeaky. “For instance, this floor is made of botibai wood, a tree thought to only grow on the floating islands because it requires high altitudes, constantly shifting soil, and copious amounts of green crafailia. And the stone is oquari, unique in that it melts when cold and gets stronger the warmer its environment.”
I stopped short. That was way too much. I gave a nervous smile. Incredulity sharpened Hent’s handsome face. He was still teal.
And then he laughed, sapphire breaking through. “Timqé, I don’t think you’ve to worry about her bein’ unable to write her own name.”
Having just climbed out of the nreyetko, Timqé turned back to us, arms crossed. “Island trees’ren’t a typical topic of study. Where’d a harvest girl hear all that?”
Unable to hold the elder brother’s gaze either, my eyes dropped to the too-detailed floor. There was much more to tell about it, like how the pattern of planks was a code of ancient builders, and modern designers copied their clues without knowing their meaning.
I peeked up through my lashes. “Okay, I didn’t tell you the whole truth.”
Eyebrows high in mock surprise, Timqé gasped, “No!”
“I know so much because I was raised by Druojojneerpsrii.”
Calculation flickered across Timqé’s face, tail flicking like Blu’s. A Druojojneerpsrii education was invaluable and well worth any fight to keep me.
Hent’s arms tightened around me. “Did they experiment on you?” He was a brilliant orange; his ears seemed to be aflame, and his eyes alone could illuminate the room, pulsing like a torch in a gale.
“Prince Hent!” The sharp voice shattered my eardrums as a girl vaulted over the side of the nreyetko, slicing her body between us. “Found you, finally! Officer Renit says he needs to see you immediately at the northern gatehouse. Somethin’ about invaders!”
My heart clogged my throat. Did she mean Seallaii-nas? Shlykrii-nas?
Or maybe they had Fredo’s body.
I tumbled over the side of the nreyetko, and I think she may have hastened my plummet with a kick to my behind. My legs tangled beneath me, I looked up to see the cheeky grin of a slight girl in dark blue shorts and a top tie-dyed like a bright rainbow wrapped around her twice and knotted at her back.
Hent leapt out on the opposite side of the nreyetko. “Thanks, Wae. This’s Rose. Make sure she gets to the palace proper and meets up with Blu?”
He said it almost dismissively, but judging from the dreamy glaze over her eyes, Wae perceived the scene differently: flower petals rained from the ceiling, soft lights blurring every edge.
Hent and Timqé rushed off, Wae watching wistfully until they were out of sight. She still stood on the nreyetko’s backseat, heavy hair waving in the gentle breeze. An ocean would be jealous of the waves in her locks the hue of a turbulent bay, parted, twisted, and pulled into a weighty tail held with flowered clips. Her irises were the color of moonlight, scales matching, her skin so fair as to be nearly transparent.
She whirled on me, anger a whip of lightning. “You sat on Prince Hent’s lap!”
“Timqé told me to,” I defended.
“You’ll address the first prince properly, Outsider!”
I straightened. Though we were close in age, her standing on the nreyetko was the only reason we were anywhere near the same height. On level ground, she wouldn’t have been as high as my shoulder.
“I’m not an outsider. The princes brought me here as an asset to the island, tribute from the world’s finest.”
She growled and jumped down from her perch, sly intelligence sliding over her expression. “Rose, can you ride?”
She giggled. “Leemprees, what else?”
I could think of plenty else, like space freighters and nreyetkos. Leemprees were another class of riding, but I didn’t think galloping along on an amphibious equine would be much different from riding a serpentine scyuen or a raptor-hipped rhorix.
“Yes, what else. Of course I ride.”
She turned on her heel, pace brisk past the row of parked nreyetkos, a half dozen of them, each a shade of blue boasting unique stripes. “Good. It’s a long way to the palace proper, and no vehicles that might make it fall’re allowed to fly over the island.”
I did not believe a nreyetko was capable of making this massive floating island fall, but I held my tongue. Wae hopped through an open window, and I hurried after her, irrational competitiveness swelling in my chest.
Just behind the garage, a pair of leemprees grazed on green grass. Seallaii-na grass only came in hues of blue, and I was a bit curious if this verdant carpet tasted any less like morning breath, so while Wae wasn’t looking, I pinched the top off a tall blade and slipped it in my mouth.
It was horrible. Like vomit. Which I tried very hard not to spew as Wae turned back to me and whistled.
One of the leemprees raised her head, ears perked and gaze searching. She was a regal creature, structured like a racehorse, muscles rippling beneath soft, pearlescent white scales as she trotted over to us. Her cloven hooves and clawed thumbs clacked against the rocks, her long mane and tail waving in the wind. These latter were translucent, made of nerved filaments instead of hair, strands that would link together and form fins when submerged. More of these hugged her knees or hung over her sides like limp wings.
Wae raised her hand, and the leempree stopped in front of the girl, placing her muzzle against Wae’s palm. Though the leempree’s withers were higher than her head, Wae easily jumped up and sat astride the animal’s bare back.
“Okay, Miss World’s Finest, summon the other leempree,” Wae called down to me, challenge burning in her sparkling eyes. “His name’s Lan, if you think that’ll help.”
Lan was also gorgeous. Like the skin of an alligator’s belly, a leempree’s scales were sleek and glossy, giving them the appearance of being wet even when they weren’t. Lan’s hide looked like a starscape, molten orange stripes slashed across his back and legs.
While nearly as large as Wae’s mount, Lan was also young, and a wild gleam danced in his every line. Lan had never been ridden, I was sure. Lan came at no one’s call.
Lan had also never met a Seallaii-na.
Silent, I held my hand out like Wae had and forced a motionless tranquility upon myself. I focused on what I wanted: that leempree to come to me. I needed him to nuzzle my hand; my life depended on it. I had to believe that or it wouldn’t work.
A slow breath escaped my barely parted lips, carrying my wish on the wind.
After two exhales, the young stallion paused his grazing. His head lifted. His gaze met mine. I did not move, a quiet hiss sounding as I breathed out again, one thought on a pedestal in my mind: Come.
He snorted, shaking his head.
I grinned. Come.
Lan galloped toward me, nearly bowling me over. I slipped my arms around his neck, pouring gratitude and calm into my embrace as his momentum helped launch me onto his back. Antsy and confused, the leempree pranced in a tight circle, muscles coiling in preparation for a bucking riot.
“Calm, Lan,” I whispered in his ear, stuffing a smile into my voice.
A Seallaii-na’s smile had power.
Though still jittery, Lan shed some tension, enough that I no longer feared he would throw me over the cliff if I loosened my grip on his filament mane. Here I was filthy and far from home, but sitting up straight atop this majestic creature’s back, I felt powerful.
Wae stared in amazement, but as soon as she noticed me looking at her, she huffed, rolled her eyes, and directed her leempree to trot down the pebbly path.
I urged Lan to follow, and thankfully he obeyed, receiving more of my gratitude as a reward. Relief swelled within me, glad Wae’s pride hadn’t allowed her to ask for an explanation.
Or maybe my Seallaii-na charisma had something to do with that, too?
I was not a Sojourner, one of the privileged few among the Druojojneerpsrii that traveled across the stars, so I had no training or practice in harnessing this power. As with many subjects, I knew how it worked, like pheromones, my body turning my most potent desires into chemical messages. I had read reports of how our genuine smile could subtly intoxicate non-Seallaii-nas and often proved addictive. Used cleverly, it could change the world.
For example, legend told of the great Lady Asaqrin who had advised a Grenswa-na leader she did not appreciate his army’s treatment of its leemprees. When he failed to take her warning to heart, she influenced all the mounts to rebel, a spectacle gaining her the attention and notoriety needed to reform the view of an entire culture. Henceforth, Grenswa-nas have believed any form of tie or fence constraining a leempree to be wrong.
“We are the caretakers of the universe,” Asaqrin was often quoted as saying. “That is our purpose, and when we do it well, the universe cares for us in turn.”
Ours was not an ability to be abused, not like in Hent’s warped opinion of us. Steal their will and create mindless puppets? Absurd. Seallaii-na charisma was a difficult power to consciously wield; individuals interpreted the same message differently, and sentient creatures were especially unpredictable.
But now I was an envoy and ambassador here just like the Sojourners I had always revered, seeing my book knowledge manifest into reality. I would win over these doubters. I didn’t know why the Druojojneerpsrii had lost this world’s love, but I would fix it.
After all, it was said the great Lady Asaqrin had made an entire empire of worlds fall in love with her.
Yes, I could be like her, a heroine, cloak waving behind me as Lan cantered along, crumbling limestone and decaying branches crunching beneath his hooves in a steady rhythm. A chorus replied to his beat, sounding like a symphony, and though I didn’t see any, I suspected they were vava, a class of insect found only in select areas.
Above the luscious trees, I caught sight of the palace’s twisted bubble towers, but we didn’t seem headed toward them. I didn’t really have my bearings here, but if the castle was north, Wae would have been leading us east.
That’s okay, my rational and trusting side chorused, this could be a plausible route. This island is riddled with shifting fissures. Perhaps the straightest path is impassable.
Or, my logical and suspicious side warned, this jealous girl could lead me to the edge and shove me off this levitating island. In that case, she’ll find I’m well skilled in shoving.
And just as I thought about cliffs, one appeared, a wide, bottomless ravine, boulders like stepping stones spinning above an endless drop through colorful clouds. Wae and her radiant mount leapt from one hovering crag to the next, rocks rolling faster in their wake.
My young stallion followed, leaving my stomach behind on the bank. Fear’s frigid fingers shimmied up my spine and gripped my throat.
Wae’s leempree was a well-trained beast, mature and confident of her skilled rider. They reached the other cliff without incident. But the stone shifted too quickly under Lan’s hooves, and my fear wrote panic in him.
The rock rolled too far, and Lan’s hooves stood on nothing.
River’s End Chapter 11: A Trap and a Lieoice.
For example, legend told of the great Lady Asaqrin who had advised a Grenswa-na leader she did not appreciate his army’s treatment of its leemprees. W