Saturday Special from the Vaults: The City Must Die

Chapter One of a YA novel I hope to finish someday…The City Must Die (that’;s an entirely fictitious cover).

Why is it unfinished? Well, because I sold Masks instead, I guess. But reading this over again for the first time in months, I realized I really want to write this one.

There’s actually a different version of this, too, one in third person and starting off with a completely different character’s viewpoint. But I like the first-person approach best, I think, so if I do get around to finishing it, I’ll probably carry on with this, which is about half of what I’ve written in total. Whole thing is planned out, though.

Anyway, enjoy. And let me know if you’d like to see it carried on!


The City Must Die

By Edward Willett

Chapter One

I never meant to destroy The City. It just sort of happened.

Not that The City is really, you know, gone. I mean, I can see a big piece through my bedroom window, sticking up above the ridge on the north side of the farm. It kind of looks familiar, like maybe I used to walk by it when I–

Oh, I’m doing this all wrong. I knew I would. “Write down what happened,” Fedlar said. “For posterity.”

“But isn’t it a big secret?” I said. “I mean, we’re not supposed to tell anyone–”

“It’s a secret for now,” he said. “But not for always. Someday, someone will want to know.”

So I guess I’m writing this for you, Mr. or Miss Mysterious Someone way off in the Someday. And I guess I should start at the beginning. Which would be my fifteenth birthday.

You’d think turning fifteen would be really special. And I guess it was. But not in a good way.

See, when you’re the Ward of an Officer, which is what I was, back when all this started, there are Things Expected of You, one of which is to hold great big birthday parties, every year, for every girl within two years of your own age.

Whether you like them or not.

Which is why, on the day this all started, I was sitting on a dais in the really much-too-warm dining room of Quarters Beruthi, watching the Amazing Belgrani make himself disappear in a puff of purple smoke.

Which may sound very exciting to you, Someone in the Someday, but you have to realize I’d seen the Amazing Belgrani before. At Vessa Stillmore’s sixteenth birthday party. At Shelli Antonin’s fourteenth birthday party. And at the really boring party Parisi Hedmore had thrown just the week before just because there hadn’t been a party for ten whole days days.

The Amazing Belgrani was amazing enough, I guess. But the fourth time you see someone disappear in a puff of purple smoke, it kind of loses its appeal.

Besides, that smoke smelled like moldy cheese, and not the good kind of moldy cheese, either.

I coughed (covering my mouth, of course; I was a very well-brought-up Ward), waved my hand idly in front of my face, and turned to look at Sallia, my personal servant, hovering just off my left shoulder. “The main course now, please, Sallia,” I said.

Sallia curtsied in precisely the proper manner of a servant acknowledging a command from the young mistress of an Officer’s house, but then rather spoiled the effect by winking her left eye. I winked back, then folded my hands in front of me and peered out at my guests.

“Peered” is the right word. The theme for my party, which I had had nothing at all to do with–there were People who decided that sort of thing for me–was Primitive Romanticism–you know, candles, gowns cut daringly low in front and even lower in the back, big hair, lots of ribbons. All well and good, I supposed, and many of the girls looked lovely–I wouldn’t know about myself, though I doubted it; frilly dresses and I never really got along–but the candles seemed to have been made according to some far-too-authentic recipe involving rendered animal fat, and they smoked. Worse than the Amazing Belgrani, in fact, though not as smelly. So I could really only see the girls in the seats closest to the dais at all clearly; the others were just kind of faded silhouettes in the fog.

Plus side: I couldn’t really see Bacrivia Jonquille and her catty little clique, whom I had made certain were seated as far away from me as possible.

Did I mention we were required to invite all the other girls within our age group? No matter how much they reminded us of snakes?

The sad fact was, I reflected as I peered down at the twenty-three perfectly coiffed heads at the lower tables, I only had two real friends among the lot–and they, naturally, were seated at the head table with me.

Not that they were paying the slightest attention to me at that moment. Lissa and Sandi had been giggling, heads together, all through the Amazing Belgrani’s act, which of course they had seen just as often as I had. I suspected they had been talking about boys. Unlike me, they had actually met real-life examples of those mysterious creatures during their outings to their father’s estates on Lake Glass, or balloon trips to Green Plateau.

Unlike them…unlike everyone else in that room…I had never been out of The City. In fact, I had never been off of the Twelfth Tier. Which was another reason I wasn’t exactly thrilled to be turning fifteen. All it meant was that I had spent another full year as a caged pet. A pampered pat, I had to admit–I took a sugared pink bon-bon from the bowl by my plate and sucked on it to ease my woes–but caged, nonetheless.

I became aware that Lissa and Sandi had quit giggling and were now looking me. And they weren’t just giving me ordinary looks. They were giving me Significant Looks.

Oh, great, I thought. They’re going to try to make me feel better.

I dug up my best fake smile and hung it on my face. The things we do for friends.

“Millicred for your thoughts,” Lissa said, leaning in. “You look like you’re a million kilometres away.”

I wish I was, I thought. But all I said was, “Just thinking. Sorry. Side-effect of maturity. You’ll understand when you’re older.” Lissa’s fifteenth birthday wasn’t for another two twenty-days.

“You can’t blame her for looking like she’s at a funeral,” Sandi put in. “After all, a funeral would be more fun. At least at a funeral we wouldn’t have to watch the Vaguely Amusing Grand Belly again.”

Vaguely Amusing Grand Belly! I liked that. My smile turned a bit more genuine.

“Why our mothers put us through this…” Sandi continued, then suddenly turned bright red from the top of her head all the way down to her chest, a great deal of which was exposed by the silly Primitive Romantic dress. “Sorry!”

You couldn’t be mad at Sandi, not for long. It was like being mad at a puppy. “It’s hardly news to me I don’t have a mother, Sandi,” I said. “Or a father. I have noticed their absence from time to time over the last fifteen years.” I sighed. “I’m living proof that these horrible traditions exist independently of parents. Maybe they’re an Order of the Captain.”

“May She live forever,” Lissa and Sandi said in unison. It was the automatic response to every reference to the Captain, although considering She’d ruled The City for, supposedly, more than five hundred years at that point, I did occasionally wonder why she needed benedictions from the beneficiaries of her beneficence.

(So I like alliteration. So sue me.)

“If you could do whatever you wanted for your birthday, instead of hosting these stupid parties,” Sandi said, “what would it be?”

“I’d go horseback riding,” Lissa said instantly. “I only got to go that once, last summer out at our estate, and it was incandescent.”

“Incandescent” was the word of choice for something really wonderful that half-year. I thought it was a silly choice, but nobody asked me.

“I’d go paragliding off the Silver Cliffs,” Sandi said dreamily. “What about you, Alania?”

I felt my smile fade, and I looked up at the dining room ceiling. That night it was programmed to display holographic stars. They were the only stars I’d ever seen. “Me?” I said. “I’d just go…out.”

Which of course earned me more Significant Looks from Sandi and Lissa. And then they exchanged Significant Looks with each other. I knew exactly what they were thinking. Poor Alania, shut up in her guardian’s house her whole life. Never allowed to leave the City. Never allowed to leave the Tier. Never been anywhere. And never told why, either.

It was, after all, exactly what I’d been thinking. But it wasn’t their fault I was a prisoner, and they were my only real friends. I didn’t want them to feel bad on my birthday. I could look after the feeling bad all on my own.

I forced my smile back onto my face. “But since we’re all stuck here, let’s make the best of it.” I looked to my left, where the Vaguely Amusing Grand Belly’s props had been cleared away and the next act, the Seventh Tier Acrobatic Association, was setting up. I felt vaguely interested. Them, I’d never seen. “The entertainment is about to continue, and the main course is about to arrive. I had the Master Chef make my favorite: candied vatam with mashed sweebers and red gravy.”

“Incandescent!” Sandi and Lissa said in perfect unison, and I couldn’t help but laugh; probably my first real laugh of the evening.

It didn’t last long, though, because just at that moment I heard a deep gong, the kind that gets inside your bones and vibrates your whole body. It came just as the Seventh Tier Acrobats were rushing into the room: the one in front pulled up so short the others piled into him and they all collapsed into a tangle of gold-spangled tights and leotards. While they were sorting themselves out, the dining room’s main door slid silently open. At first all I could see through the smoke was a square of light, much whiter than the yellow candlelight, and two silhouetted figures. But I heard a gasp from the girls seated nearest the door, and as the figures walked toward me, I understood why.

Both of them wore the crisp white uniforms of City Crew, but that hadn’t sparked Bacrivia’s startled reaction: both of her parents were Crew, and everyone there had at least one Crew parent.

It wasn’t the man on the left they were reacting too, either. That was Second Lieutenant Ipsil Beruthi, my guardian, and they couldn’t have been surprised that he showed up at his Ward’s party–although, to tell the truth, I was.

No, the man they were reacting to was the second man. He wasn’t anything special to look at–not much taller than me, really, a little paunchy around the middle, with neat gray hair and a little gray mustache just the same width as his nose. But he had a lot more gold braid on his hat and shoulders than my Guardian.

Which is what you’d expect, on First Officer Staydmore Krenz.

Maybe by the time you read this, way off in the Someday, that name won’t mean anything. So you’ll just have to take my word for it that Staydmore Krenz showing up at my birthday party was about as shocking as waking up one morning and discovering the sun had changed color.

The Captain, as I’d just been thinking, had ruled The City for centuries. But nobody every saw The Captain. We just knew She must still be alive and in charge because…well, because The City kept running, and that proved it, didn’t it?

Sounds kind of silly, now, although oddly enough, I guess what happened proved that it was true…

Anyway, even though The Captain was the One In Charge, the day-to-day governing of the City and the surrounding Homelands actually fell to Krenz. Which made him nothing less than the most powerful man in the world.

And I was pretty sure I hadn’t invited him to my party. I mean, you wouldn’t forget something like that.

I’d only seen pictures and viddies of him before. He was shorter than I’d expected. And fatter. Not fat, exactly, but…thick. Solid. He had gray hair cut very close to his head and no neck to speak of.

He sort of flicked his hand at all the girls who had stood up as they realized who he was, and said, “Please, ladies, be seated, be seated. Go on with your festivities.”

He had the kind of deep booming voice that fills a room even when it isn’t particularly loud, though it certainly left you with the impression it could be louder if it needed to be. Much, much louder.

The girls looked at each other, then up at me, and then rather hesitantly sat down again. The whole room sort of glittered as all those jewel-decorated heads tilted toward each other, and the sudden outbreak of whispering sounded like air leaking from a compressor.

Lissa and Sandi sat down, but I stayed standing. I was the hostess, after all. And did I mention all that drilling in manners I’d had? Somehow it not only kept my astonished body on its feet, it managed to keep the astonishment out of my voice as I heard myself say, “Guardian. First Officer. So kind of you to come.”

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Sandi and Lissa trying really really hard not to look like they were eavesdropping. They failed.

“Happy birthday, Alania,” my guardian said. He didn’t offer his hand. He’d never touched me, that I could remember. One of my earliest memories is of tripping over something in that very dining room and banging my head on the sharp corner of a table. My guardian was right there, but he stepped away from me and had a servant pick me up and comfort me. That pretty much defined our relationship from the very beginning.

But, like I said, years of training in being polite, etc.

“Thank you, sir,” I said.

“May I present First Officer Krenz?” he said.

Unlike my guardian, Krenz held out his hand. I found myself rather reluctant to take it, but…well, most powerful man in the world, ruler of The City, etc., etc. I put out my own. His hand felt smooth and dry, and his grip was firm without being painful. “Alania,” he said. “A pleasure. Ipsil has told me so much about you.”

He let go. I pulled my hand back and resisted the urge to nervously dry it on my pale green skirt. I couldn’t imagine exactly what my guardian could have told him about me, since as far as I knew he knew nothing at all about me beyond the fact I took up space in his house, but I couldn’t exactly argue the point.

“Thank you,” I said again. That seemed safe.

“I’m sorry to take you away from your dinner,” Krenz went on, glancing around. The servants had emerged with platters, now being uncovered on each of the tables. The savory-sweet smell of roast vatam rose with the steam from mounds of golden-pink protein slabs. The food hadn’t made it’s way to the head table yet, though; I suspected Sallia was understandably reluctant to interrupt whatever it was the First Officer had come to say.

Krenz’s eyes wandered up toward the ceiling and the wire strung high overhead between two pylons. “And the entertainment,” he added. “The Seventh Tier Acrobats are very good.”

“My guardian hired them,” I said.

“I know,” Krenz said. “I recommended them to him.” He smiled at my guardian, who smiled back–or at least curved up the corners of his mouth.

Krenz looked back at me. “Unfortunately I have another meeting this evening and can only stay a few moments. I’d like to talk to you, if I may…?”

He made it sound like a question, but I knew better. You did not refuse a request of the First Officer. I trust I’ve made that clear by now.

“Of course, sir,” I said. I looked at my guardian, who took the hint.

“The music room, Alania,” he said. “I’ll stay here and fulfill your duties as host until you return.”

“Which won’t be long,” Krenz said.

I looked from my guardian to Lissa and Sandi, who had given up all pretense of not eavesdropping and were frankly staring, eyes wide. I suddenly had a mental image of the dour Second Lieutenant Ipsil Beruthi gravely engaging in small talk with my two friends, and had to bite my lip to keep from grinning. I winked at the two of them, then smoothed my expression–not without difficulty–and turned back to the First Officer. “This way, sir,” I said, and stepped down from the dais to lead him out of the dining room.

Since I couldn’t imagine what the First Officer wanted with me, I wasn’t particularly worried yet–just curious. And so I have to admit that my favorite part of the party to that moment was leading the First Officer right past the table occupied by the odious Bacrivia Jonquille and her coven. Much as I would have liked to, though, I did not stick my tongue out at them as I passed. I simply sailed by like the grandest of grand airships, studiously ignoring them.

(What had Bacrivia Jonquille done to me? I’ll keep that to myself, if you don’t mind. Posterity doesn’t need to hear all the embarrassing details of my younger life. Besides, this is the last time Bacrivia is going to show up in this account, so you don’t need to worry about her. I know I don’t, any more. As to why she seemed to have it for me from the moment we met at the age of nine…well, maybe I understand that a bit better, now. Now that I know the truth about my birth and how I came to be a Ward of the Officers. But I’ll get to that later.)

Where was I?

Oh, right, leading Staydmore Krenz to the music room.

It was three doors down the hallway to the left, a hallway painted white, trimmed in gold, and punctuated with statues of the heroic-nude-gazing-off-into-the-distance type. (What is it with sculptors and nudes? I know, I know, celebration of the beauty of the human body and all that, but whenever I looked at those statues surrounded by those snowy white walls I thought they just looked silly…and cold.)

The music room was also white: white carpet, white walls, white ceiling, and the concert kebe in the centre of the room, which I was spectacularly mediocre at playing despite years of lessons, was also white.

Floor-to-ceiling glass cabinets in all four corners of the room housed other instruments: strings, brass, woodwinds, electronics. I’d never seen any of them so much as taken out of the cabinets for dusting, much less actually played. Sometimes I wondered if they were just holographic projections.

Along the far wall of the room, ideally positioned to allow people to sit on it and listen to someone playing the kebe, was a rather spindly white couch with golden legs, and a matching chair, with a glass-topped table in front of them. I gestured to them, and Krenz promptly sat in the chair. I took the couch, carefully arranging my long dress around my ankles and then folding my hands demurely in my lap. I was rather horribly aware of just how low-cut the ridiculous Primitive Romantic dress was, but I resisted the urge to tug it up a little higher, figuring that would just draw attention to my cleavage–or worse, lack of it.

Krenz leaned back, one arm thrown casually over the back of the chair, thoroughly relaxed. “I won’t keep you long,” he said. “I know how anxious you must be to return to your party.”

Of course, I wasn’t anxious at all. This was far more interesting than a tight-wire act. But what in The City could he possibly want? “I’m entirely at your service, First Officer.”

“I just came to congratulate you on reaching this milestone,” Krenz went on. “Fifteen years! It hardly seems possible.”

Which was, of course, beyond weird. Until the First Officer had appeared in dining room, I hadn’t even known he knew that I existed. Now all of a sudden he was talking like he was my favorite uncle.

Not that I had an uncle, favorite or otherwise.

And what kind of “milestone” was fifteen, anyway? I  always thought it was a singularly uninteresting age. You were already a teenager, but you had a long way to go until you were an adult, which in The City didn’t officially happen until you were twenty.

“You’re too kind,” I said, letting my etiquette training handle things.

Krenz laughed. “and you’ve been very well brought up,” he said. “Because I know perfectly well what you really want to know is what in the Captain’s Name I’m talking about.”

Now, look, I’m no prude, but I have to admit the casual way he took the Captain’s name in vain shocked me, just a little. I guess I let a little of that show in my face, because Krenz raised his hand. “Sorry, sorry,” he said. “Pardon my language. I’m not used to the company of young ladies.” He leaned forward, his smile broadening. “But that’s about to change.”

All of a sudden I was really aware of just how low-cut that silly costume was. And took a giant step away from feeling curious and excited and into a big pile of totally creeped out. “Um…sir, I’m…”

For the first time, Krenz looked startled himself; then he suddenly chuckled. “Oh! I’m sorry, that came out rather badly, didn’t it? Don’t worry, Alania, I’m not making inappropriate advances–I’m old enough to be your grandfather, for Captain’s–sorry, for goodness’s sake. I just mean that…well, you’re circumstances are about to change. For the better, I believe.”

I didn’t say anything. I figured eventually he had to tell me what he was talking about.

Didn’t he?

Not right away, apparently, because the next thing he said was, “Have you been happy as the ward of First Officer Beruthi?”

Trick question, I thought. I didn’t know what was going on, but I did know I didn’t want to bad-mouth a fellow Officer to Staydmore Krenz. “He…has taken very good care of me,” I said. Which was true, as far as it went. I mean, I was healthy, I had everything I wanted–and lots of things I didn’t, like the birthday party dragging on in the other room. And sometimes I was happy. With Lissa and Sandi, sometimes. Occasionally when I was by myself. And the rest of the time…well, nobody was happy all the time. Or even most of the time. Were they?

Krenz chuckled. “I’m sure he has,” he said in that indulgent, aren’t-you-cute some grown-ups invariably use with children. Of course I wasn’t a child, not any more, but he probably didn’t realize that from his advanced aged. “I’m sure he has,” he repeated, “but between you and me, he can be a bit of a cold fish, can’t he?”

“He…doesn’t believe in spoiling children with too much affection,” I said, even more carefully, trying to keep my tone as neutral as possible.

Krenz snorted. It wasn’t a particularly dignified sound. “I’m sure he doesn’t. Well, I’m grateful to Ipsil for volunteering to raise you in the…absence…of your parents, Alania. He has done his duty well.” He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and clasping his hands in front of them. “but now that you are fifteen, we believe it is time for a change.”

We who? I wondered. And what did the First Office know about my parents? More than me, that was for sure, since I’d never been told anything about them beyond the bare fact that they were dead, and that it was involved with something called the Secret City Rebellion. Sallia had murmured that to me once. “But the subject is forbidden,” she’d added. “I can’t say any more.” And she’d hurried away.

“Sir?” was all I said out loud.

Krenz looked me in the eyes and said, “You’re going to have a new guardian, Alania.” And then, before I’d even had the chance to digest that bombshell–uh, sorry, guess that’s what the Teacher would call a “mixed metaphor”–he dropped another one. “Me.”

I just stared at him. I’d heard the words, but they made no sense. It was as if he’d said I was going to sprout wings and fly to the Barrier Range. Ward of the First Officer? Me? Leave Quarters Beruthi, the only home I’d ever known?

Well, sure, five minutes earlier I’d been dreaming of just that, but I’d been hoping for a trip to the country, not moving into Quarters Krenz.

If I were Bancrivia Janquille, I thought, I’d be squealing with excitement. She has real parents and she’d dump them in a second if she thought she could do better. Just like she dumps her “friends”…

Sorry. Forgot I wasn’t going to say anything else about her.

But for me, the thought of moving into Quarters Krenz was frightening, verging on the terrifying. Quarters Krenz was not only four times the size of Quarters Beruthi, it was a fortress. Every entrance was secured and guarded by armed petty Officers.

I already felt like a prisoner in Quarters Beruthi, where at least I could go out into the streets of Twelfth Tier whenever I felt like it. How much worse would it be there?

What about Lissa? And Sandi? They were the only friends I had. Would they even be able to visit me? And what about Sallia? She’d been my servant for as long as I could remember. She was as close to a mother as I’d ever had. Would she be coming with me?

I opened my mouth to ask…but then closed it again. This was the First Officer. I was a well-brought-up Officer’s Ward. You didn’t question the First Officer that way. It would be impudent, improper, impolite–and possibly imprudent. There were stories…whispered by the servants, never by anyone else…that some of those who had questioned Krenz’s decisions had simply…vanished.

Executed, or maybe exiled to the Middens, the vast garbage dump that filled the canyon The City spanned on its enormous metal legs. Thieves, murderers, the insane, mutants, monsters…there were plenty of whispers about what lurked down there, too, and those whispers came from the girls as well as the servants. The Thing from the Middens was a reliably scream-getter at any Twelfth Tier girls’ sleepover.

I didn’t really think Krenz would have me killed or exiled. That sort of thing just didn’t happen to well-brought up Wards.

But I didn’t see any reason to risk it. Especially not when I took a good look at the bright-blue eyes behind Krenz’s easy, friendly smile.

They looked as cold and blue as the sky above The City on a midwinter morning.

His smile was fading, which made those eyes looke even colder. He obviously wasn’t getting the reaction he expected.

“Sir, I…I don’t know what to say,” I finally managed, truthfully. “Why me?” Who am I, was what I really wanted to ask, but I knew it wouldn’t be answered, and Krenz didn’t want it asked. All I knew about my birth was that some mystery surrounded it, something to do with something called the Secret City Rebellion. Sallia had told me that once, in response to my endless questions, but then had said, “But the topic is forbidden. Don’t ask me again,” and had hurried away. I had asked her again, of course, but she’d never said anything more.

Which left me free to make up my own stories, of course. Sometimes I imagined that my parents must have been heroes, giving their lives to save the Captain from evil mutineers. More often I thought they must have been mutineers themselves, and had been executed, while her endless imprisonment was to punish her for her poor choice of ancestors.

Sometimes I even liked to pretend that they were still alive somewhere. Maybe they’d been exiled off in the Barrier Range, and I was a hostage to their continued good behavior. That would explain why I couldn’t be allowed to leave the City.

For about two weeks when I was ten I convinced myself that Beruthi somehow blamed himself for their deaths in the mysterious rebellion and had taken me in because he was a man of deep compassion. I hadn’t been able to sustain that daydream very long, however, since he so obviously wasn’t anything of the sort.

But none of those explanations explained this.

Krenz’s smile had given way to a careful expression of grave compassion. “I can’t tell you why,” he said. “I’m sorry. I know it isn’t fair. You’ve spent your whole life wondering who you are, and who your parents were, and no one will tell you.”

I blinked. It almost sounded like he’d read my mind. But not even The Captain was reputed to have that ability.

He leaned forward again. “Alania, I promise I will tell you, soon. But not yet. For reasons of City Security, your origins must remain secret.” His smile suddenly returned, but there were a lot more teeth in it than before, and his eyes were as cold as ever. “Suffice it to say, young lady, that you are…special. Quite possibly–quite probably–unique.”

And then stood up, so suddenly it startled me. “Well,” he said. “I must get to my meeting. Go back and enjoy your final evening here, Alania. I’ll send an escort for you tomorrow–it will have to be rather early, I’m afraid–to bring you Quarters Krenz. Everything from your rooms will be packed up for you after you leave; don’t worry about that.” He held out his right hand, and, still feeling kind of numb, I put out my left and let him help me to my feet.

I tried to pull my hand free, but he held on, shifting his grip to my wrist. “Just one more thing,” he said. “A…precaution. Nothing to worry about.” He took something from the pocket of his uniform jacket with his free hand. I’d seen it glinting there and had thought it was a pen, but it was too big around for that. He held it up, and I saw it had an opening at one end. “Put your middle finger in here.” He guided my hand toward it.

It wasn’t like I had much choice. I extended my finger and he slipped it into the opening in the strange little device. Soft rubber squeezed it like mechanical lips. “This may sting a little,” he said then.

Something jabbed my fingertip, the pain sharp and sudden. I yelped and tried to jerk my finger out, but Krenz held it immobile. “A simple blood test,” he said soothingly. “Nothing to worry about.”

The tube beeped, and the rubbery lips released my finger. Krenz let go of my wrist and an pulled my hand back, resisting the urge to suck my finger, which would definitely not be appropriate for a properly brought up young ward of an officer. I did take a quick look at it, though; a tiny round spot of synthiskin sealed the hole made by the needle.

Krenz raised the silvery tube to his face, and green light flashed, reflecting for an instant in his startlingly blue eyes. “Excellent!” he said. He slipped the tube back into his pocked. “Well, I’ll leave you to your celebrations, then, Alania,” he said. “Once again, congratulations. I look forward to getting to know you better in the weeks to come.” He headed to the door. “I can show myself out,” he said, and a moment later the door closed behind him, leaving me alone in the silent music room.

My knees suddenly felt just a little shaky, and I sat back down on the couch so hard I thought I felt a spring give way. What had just happened? In the morning…in just a few hours…my whole life was going to change forever. I felt as if the whole world had been turned upside down and dropped on my head.

All I wanted to do was run to my room and cuddle a stuffed animal or four, but I was–still–the properly brought up Ward of an Officer–Ward of the First Officer, tomorrow, I thought, which did nothing to undo the urge to hide–and there was a rather ostentatious party going on just a few doors down the hall at which I was the guest of honor.

Besides, I knew my guardian–my former guardian–had to be getting tired of Sandi and Lissa, and they had to be getting even more tired of him. Plus they must be dying of curiosity.

Could I tell them?

I didn’t see why not. The First Officer hadn’t indicated it was a secret, and everyone would find out soon enough.

And then I thought of the look on Bacrivia Janquille’s face when she found out, and I felt a little bit better. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, in Quarters Krenz, I thought. Maybe I’d finally find out the truth about who I was, and who my parents were. Maybe Krenz would be a wonderful guardian. Just because people called him a cold-hearted monster who would exile his own mother to the MIddens if she crossed him…

Ulp. Better not start thinking like that.

One thing at a time. Get up, go back to the party, be a gracious host, tell Sandi and Lissa what had happened, rub Bancrivia’s nose in it. All of those things were doable, and they were all I had to do tonight.

Tomorrow would take care of itself.



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