A shrill whistle caught her attention just as she was about to enter the teleporting station.
She looked up and, seeing Ribbon standing in the doorway, watching her, she jumped right into the stall and tried to activate it.
It didn’t work.
Ribbon’s laugh was harsh. “You honestly thought it’d be that easy?” she asked, pushing off of the door and entering the transportation hub. The door closed with a decisive click behind her, telling Amadhay that she was now locked in there with the woman. “You need a password,” Ribbon explained, moving around the cars. Amadhay warily moved from the teleport, keeping a good distance between herself and Ribbon. Ribbon was doing a good job of circling her, but Amadhay kept her eyes on the woman.
“See, I would ask you what you’re doing, but I’m pretty sure I know,” Ribbon held something up in front of her face and it took Amadhay a moment to recognize her hair ribbon. “It’s weird, because when I went to check on you, all I found was this. Even weirder is that Kimiko and Tairyn are searching their room and the garden for the chip, worried that they must have lost it. But I thought it was strange that I remember her having the chip right before you attacked Tairyn. Funny coincidence, huh?”
Amadhay still didn’t say anything, keeping a close eye on Ribbon as she moved closer to the door. She pulled at it, but it didn’t budge. “Green sleeves?” she muttered, but the door still didn’t budge.
Ribbon laughed again. “Come on Red Bird. You have to do better than that.” She hopped right over an air cart and was eating up the distance between them quickly, but Amadhay rolled right under a carriage. She could see Ribbon through the window, but the width of the carriage kept them apart. Amadhay kept moving back, not wanting to have to fight the woman.
“You see, it’s funny, because I knew something was wrong with you the moment I found you in the garden. You were too calm, too sure of yourself. That wasn’t my Red Bird, who’d been curled up at my side for the past week. No, you see, that was much more like the Red Robin I first met. The calculating, manipulative Phoegani member.”
She gave another harsh laugh as she walked the entire length of the carriage rather than rolling under it, which would have been easy for her to do. Amadhay slid across a car. She tried the door, but it was locked.
“How long have you been planning this? Or was it a spur of the moment thing?” Ribbon paused for a moment, watching as Amadhay tried different doors, her green eyes turning paler by the click, a sure sign to the aelfe that Ribbon was calling all of her power to her skin.
“Because I figure that you’ve been planning this the whole time, only this was the first time the chip was somewhere you could get it, which in hindsight was probably a stupid idea. We just thought that with you all grief-stricken, that you might not notice us working. Should’ve known.” Ribbon moved quickly and stood on the hood of a car before moving to stand on the cab, jumping over to the top of another and then another until she was at the end of the cars. “Because you always notice everything. You always have. You are always watching. And we were idiots to let our guard down when you still hadn’t.”
Amadhay dashed back to the teleporter.
“Are you even actually sad about the golem-makers death, or was that all part of your plan too?”
“His name was Indigo,” Amadhay automatically responded, focusing on the way Ribbon had pointedly not attacked yet. She thought that maybe Ribbon didn’t want to hurt her anymore than she wanted to hurt Ribbon. “And don’t ever question my feelings about him.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Lying Bird, I just wasn’t sure what parts of you were real. Didn’t mean to insult you,” she drawled, circling around toward the teleport again. “It’s just you’re so good at faking emotions that it’s hard to tell.”
“I really don’t want to hurt you,” Amadhay whispered, more to herself, but Ribbon heard her.
She gave her a sharp smile. “I think we might be a bit past the time where we worry about hurting each other. That’s a fixed point. The real question is how much I have to hurt you.” Amadhay frowned, staring at her lover. “Am I going to have to kill you? It would be an incredible shame if I do. Atlas would never get over it. But if I don’t, how long before you betray us again?”
“Just let me go and no one has to get hurt,” Amadhay tried. She tried not to let it bother her that Ribbon was worried about hurting Atlas, but was completely fine with killing her. She had thought they were more than that, more than she was with Atlas.
“I’m already hurt!” Ribbon yelled, allowing Amadhay to see that she was truly upset with the entire situation, even if she had tried to cover her own feelings by using Atlas as a focus. “I trusted you. I more than trusted you. I love you.”
Amadhay flinched. “I’m sorry,” she said, choosing not to move as Ribbon closed the distance between them.
“No, I don’t think you are,” Ribbon stated, looking her over.
She stood directly in front of her, still wearing her pajamas while Amadhay was dressed for travel, with her hair pulled back in one thick plait, wearing tight pants with boots, a loose black shirt and cropped red jacket. The jacket was Ribbon’s. The rest of the clothes were borrowed from Kimiko. On her, she had one of Ribbon’s ceremonial knives strapped to her thigh and a gun stolen from Atlas’ room holstered to her hip. Ribbon only had the hair ribbon and a thin, long wire that Amadhay had never seen before. Her eyes were wide and an icy color, lips pressed to a thin line, and her veins were a visible dark green all over her body, throbbing with power.
She had never seen Ribbon look more dangerous.
“But you’re going to be,” Ribbon swore, narrowing her eyes. “I hate people who break promises.”
Amadhay didn’t flinch, but she thought that Ribbon was talking about the promise she had given when she kissed her the first time. She didn’t want to break that promise. This didn’t mean that Ribbon didn’t come first. She wanted to tell her that, but she couldn’t form the words. It wasn’t something she could tell the woman standing before her, the one ready to kill her. This wasn’t her Ribbon. “I don’t want to hurt you,” she repeated.
Ribbon shook her head. “But I really want to hurt you,” she stated. She reached out and Amadhay let her. Amadhay let the older woman cup her cheek gently, rubbing her thumb in the pattern of her spoor. They both stood there for what had to be a whole clack, staring at each other. Some of the hardness eased in Ribbon. Amadhay pressed her cheek to Ribbon’s hand.
“We don’t have to do this,” she tried softly, encouraged when Ribbon didn’t move her hand. “I just have to go. I need answers and you know Atlas won’t give them to me. I have to keep Benjy and Monkey safe. I love you but I—”
“Are you done running?” Ribbon interrupted abruptly, dropping her hand to her side.
Amadhay stared at her for a long moment, her mouth still open to plead with her lover. But after a click or two, she saw it. There was a glint in Ribbon’s eyes that told Amadhay all she needed to know. She wasn’t going to convince her of anything, because the woman had already made up her mind. So, recognizing that the woman had no plans of them both leaving this fully intact, she nodded and took a step back.
She was reaching for her Gift when Ribbon gave a dangerous smile. “Good,” the woman said.
She didn’t have to fake anger when she saw Tairyn.
She was furious. Just the sight of him, sitting on Kimiko’s bed, talking gently to the other teenager made her blood boil. She wanted to kill him. She wanted to maim him. She at the very least wanted to scar him for life.
But that wasn’t part of the plan. She had to stick to the plan. Her fury came with a strange sort of rational thinking, something she had to thank Arne Riff for. It was good for filing away all of the sadness and uncertainty she’d been feeling the past weeks. Tonight was the first time since Indigo’s death that she finally felt she had a purpose. She had a mission. Of course, she still needed to feel all of those emotions to feed Kimiko, so it was also a problem.
Ribbon was close behind her as they entered Kimiko’s room. The lovers had been muttering to each other when they entered and Kimiko jolted to her feet, standing protectively between Amadhay and Tairyn.
“What are you doing?” she demanded, looking at Ribbon. “We agreed that she wouldn’t see him!”
“I didn’t agree to that,” both Tairyn and Amadhay automatically responded.
Tairyn gave Amadhay a rueful grin while Amadhay simply stared at him. This was the hard part of the plan. If she veered too far on one side of emotion, any emotion that wasn’t appropriate for what she was trying to portray, Kimiko would know in an instant. So for now, she focused on feeling confused. That was easy enough.
“We made that decision without them,” Ribbon answered with a shrug. “She promised not to kill him.”
“Well that makes me feel so much better,” Kimiko spat, but Tairyn stood behind her.
“She won’t hurt me,” he said assuredly, looking at Amadhay from over Kimiko’s head. “Will you, Mayday?”
Amadhay flinched at his use of her nickname. He had lost all right to using it the moment he had first betrayed her. She was too late to clamp down on the rush of betrayal and hatred and Kimiko jumped on it.
“See?” the symmetrical teenager gestured at her adamantly. “She’s about to hurt him.”
“No,” Amadhay finally responded, shaking her head quickly. She focused on the chip to feed Kimiko the right emotions, emotions of confusion and curiosity. She needed to make it seem like she had questions, and she did have questions, just none to ask Tairyn. None that she thought he’d answer honestly, anyway. The calming of her emotions made Kimiko relax a little bit. “I’m not. I just want to talk. I promise,” she lied.
She had every intention of hurting him, but she couldn’t think about that yet. First, she had to figure out where the chip was and how to get it. She was almost positive that it was in one of Kimiko’s hands because she thought she had seen the succubus holding it up to the banshee when she and Ribbon had entered. If it was, then this was going to be incredibly easy for her.
“See? It’s fine,” Tairyn said, pressing on Kimiko’s shoulder to make her move from in front of him. Kimiko regarded her with mistrust, but she did move to the side, allowing Tairyn to move forward. Amadhay pretended to focus on Tairyn as he stepped toward her, but her attention was fully on Kimiko as the girl slipped something into the pocket of her plaid pants. It was definitely a chip. She just hoped it was the chip.
“I’ve been wanting to see you, Mayday, I just didn’t know what to say,” he started.
Amadhay glared at his shirt, no longer needing to hold back her anger with him now that everything else was in place. “How about telling me how you started selling information about me? Who else did you tell all my life to?”
Tairyn looked insulted, as though he felt vilified. “No, hey, it’s not like that at all,” he moved forward and she had to physically stop herself from hitting him when he put his hands on her shoulders. “I have always been loyal to you.”
She knew she wouldn’t get real answers from him. She scoffed. “You have a great way of showing it.”
“Don’t be like that. I didn’t tell them anything until I was sure that they didn’t want to hurt you,” he swore.
Amadhay shook her head. “You’re an idiot,” she snapped. “An idiot with only your self-interest in mind. You get some hot girl fluttering her eyelashes at you and you just drop everything?”
“It wasn’t like that,” he pleaded, reaching for her hands. She pushed him back. He took a step back and didn’t try to touch her again. “You have to believe me. What Kimiko and I have didn’t replace you. I didn’t just see her and forget my loyalty to you. Everything I did here was for you.”
She gave a shaky laugh. “You sound just like Atlas,” she said soberly. She took a moment to file that away. All of the Palnoki seemed to display Atlas’ characteristics, especially when dealing with her, but unlike the others, she knew that it wasn’t how Tairyn was originally. Taking note to look further into that at another time, she looked him straight in the eyes. And then she punched him.
For the first time since entering Kimiko’s room, Amadhay allowed herself to feel what she was truly feeling. All the anger and betrayal, hatred and sadness seemed to stun Kimiko for a moment, until Amadhay landed another punch. When the aelfe knocked the banshee off of his feet, she felt a sort of euphoria. At that change of emotion, the succubus moved quickly, but not quickly enough, because Amadhay launched herself at Tairyn and Kimiko wasn’t able to stop her. The man was too slow to move completely out of the way, but he did move enough that her fist didn’t connect with his face again, but this time his throat.
She was okay with that.
Ribbon tried to dive into the fray, but Amadhay landed a good kick on her, pushing her back. The aelfe was on top of Tairyn, punching, scratching, and biting him, and because Kimiko was in there, she was hitting her as well. It was ridiculously easy to steal the chip under pretense of pushing against Kimiko. Once she had it, she sent another loose punch and hit someone, but she wasn’t paying attention to whom any longer.
She allowed Ribbon to grab her by the waist and pull her back. Amadhay pretended to struggle to get back at them, but Ribbon held her steady against her own body. Kimiko and Tairyn got to their feet and Kimiko started forward, but Tairyn grabbed her arm and pulled her back.
“Don’t hit her back. That won’t help anything,” Tairyn told Kimiko. Ribbon shifted her stance so that she was holding Amadhay more protectively now as Amadhay kept her fists clenched and the chip tightly tucked to her palm.
Sensing now was the time to do it, Amadhay burst into tears, focusing on her last moments with Indigo to make it feel sincere. Ribbon turned her from the hold into a hug, stroking her hair slowly.
“I told you this wasn’t a good idea,” she muttered. Amadhay couldn’t see the other two, but by Ribbon’s relaxing, she guessed that they were probably looking sorry for her. “You should go sleep,” Ribbon suggested in a way that made Amadhay pretty positive that she was being gotten rid of. That only helped her.
She nodded shallowly, rubbing her eyes and choosing not to look up at Ribbon. “I’m going to sleep with Atlas,” she lied.
Ribbon nodded. “Alright. I just need to talk to Kimmy for a clack, and then I’ll take you.”
She shook her head. “I need to be alone right now,” she whispered, leaving the room so there would be no argument. Ribbon didn’t even start to come after her. The door closed behind her with a solid thunk and Amadhay was sure that she had been right. They were going to talk about something they didn’t want her to hear and while she was incredibly curious about what it might be, she was also just as aware that she wasn’t going to get a better time than right then to leave. Everyone was either sleeping or prepping for their individual missions. No one would even notice her missing until, at best, the morning since she had taken to solitary morning walks. She just had to get to the transport hub.
As a rule, Amadhay normally didn’t hurt animals unless they hurt her first.
But for Mayday, she was going to have to make an exception. The first part of her plan was to put the cat out of commission. She still didn’t understand how the Palnokians understood the cat, but recognized that since the cat made it a habit of following her since he had been brought over, he was a danger to her. She knew he was watching her somewhere and that he could ruin her plans surer than anything else could.
All she really had to do was put him out for, at most, a zoot and everything was a go. In fact, it was rather simple to do, surprisingly. Mayday practically ran to her the moment she set foot out of the building. He meowed urgently at her, butting his head against her ankle.
She laughed softly. “It’s okay, Mayday. I’m just going for a walk.” Mayday meowed at her, curling around her feet. “You can even come with me to make sure I don’t go and drown myself in the mud puddle.”
Mayday gave a meow that sounded positively unamused at her joke. She scooped him up into her arms. He kneaded the knit of her black top as if questioning when she had changed.
“I was tired of feeling like a five-year-old,” she muttered defensively at the cat. He rubbed his head against her chest. “And I’m defending myself to a cat,” she said to herself, shaking her head. She passed the mud pools. Remembering her way through the maze, Amadhay petted the cat to make him purr contentedly. She liked the sound of his false sense of security.
“I would say that I was sorry for this, but that would be a lie,” she told Mayday as she paused at the center of the maze. The cat was slow to stop his purring and before he could meow a question at her, she tapped his nose a little harder than was strictly necessary for the paralytic spell to work. Once he was frozen, she hid him in the brush, tying his body to the base of one of the bushes. She wasn’t sure how long the spell would last, given it was her first attempt with it as a silent invocation. When she said the spell aloud, it always lasted fifteen clacks. She was hoping for more than fifteen with it having been silent. She was hoping for at least 30.
She had just barely made it to the end of the maze, and was sitting down and finishing her plans when a worried Ribbon found her.
“Tired Escort!” the woman exclaimed, heaving a sigh of relief when she saw Amadhay sitting there. Amadhay looked up at her as blankly as she could.
“What?” she asked softly.
Ribbon ran a hand over her own bush of curly hair before sitting next to the girl. “Well considering how you’ve been the past few weeks, I was kind of insanely worried about your ass when I didn’t know where you were,” she answered, putting her arm around Amadhay in a half-hug, which the teenager forced herself to relax into.
“I just wanted to be outside,” Amadhay said, which was partially true. She had also wanted to go to one of the last places anyone would look for her so that she would have time to plot. The only better place would have been the meeting room, and that had still been occupied when she had stopped eavesdropping.
Ribbon nodded, looking out over the hedges, at the bloody sunset. “Is it helping?” she asked after a few clacks of silence.
Amadhay nodded. “I’m good today,” she claimed.
Ribbon gave her a long, disbelieving look that Amadhay feared meant that Ribbon knew she had been eavesdropping. It didn’t. “You don’t have to pretend to be strong for me,” the woman said.
Amadhay gave her a weak smile. “I know,” she responded, leaning her head against Ribbon’s side. She waited a few more clacks before she found an appropriate segue. “I want to see Tairyn.”
Ribbon sat up straight abruptly, frowning. “No,” she started. “Red Bird, that’s a bad idea. You’re just starting to—”
“I want to see him,” Amadhay said firmly. “He’s part of all of this. I need to talk to him.”
Ribbon made a sound to make it very obvious how much she didn’t like the idea. Amadhay didn’t care. “At least promise not to hurt him?”
“No,” Amadhay said with absolute conviction. “I can’t promise not to.” In fact, she could only promise the opposite. She had to. While partially blaming him for Indigo’s death was a part of her needing to see him, it wasn’t the most pressing point. She had so many different reasons to want to hurt him that she honestly couldn’t come up with one why she shouldn’t. Which was going to make that part of the plan that much easier. “I want to kill him.”
“Don’t. Red Bird, please? Do it for Kimiko?” Ribbon tried, apparently not realizing that the other girl held no sway for Amadhay any longer.
“I would if I thought Atlas would let me,” Amadhay breathed, testing the waters for her next actions.
“He probably would,” Ribbon muttered before thinking. She covered her mouth, looking askance at Amadhay. “But you still shouldn’t,” she added hurriedly. “It would break Kimiko’s heart.”
Then maybe I actually should, Amadhay thought. So she’ll know how it feels. But she shook her head, forcing herself to forget petty vengeance. She had a plan and she had to stick to it. “I won’t,” she whispered. “I just want to see him.”
Ribbon frowned, looking at her worriedly. “I really don’t think you should.”
“If you won’t take me to him, I’ll go on my own,” she stated. “But I’d prefer you went with me. You’ll stop me before I do anything horrible.”
Ribbon sighed, rubbing her brow before she nodded. “Fine. But if you do anything rash, I’m going to have to stop you.”
“I’m counting on it,” Amadhay said earnestly. She gave Ribbon another weak smile, completely playing the part Ribbon expected from her.
If nothing else, it was waking up alone in Ribbon’s bed that made the decision for her.
The spot where Ribbon had lain was still warm, telling her that the woman hadn’t been gone for long, but the fact that she was gone was what gave Amadhay a moment to let the silent part of her mind speak. She had come here because she had seen something in the Palnoki that she hadn’t seen in the Phoegani. But the longer she stayed, the deeper into it she became, the easier she was seeing more aspects of the Phoegani in the Palnoki than she liked. There were still secrets, there were still innocents being hurt, there was still an ingrained hierarchy and a goal that she didn’t know furthered by pain she didn't understand.
The family aspect that she had once seen was starting to lose its finishing. Atlas was still very much in charge and he had no problem using his power to make the others do what he wanted. The faces were different, but the problems were still the same. She had traded in one evil for a newer one and while she wasn’t going to lie and say that she wasn’t part of the problem, she could honestly say that at least in the Phoegani, she knew where she stood. Here everyone kept changing their stories, everyone kept adding new dimensions to something she had thought to be a linear. The only thing she knew for certain was that Atlas hadn’t lied to her when he had explained why she was here.
“You are here because I want you to be.”
That was the only reason she was there. As much as she wanted to, as hard as she had tried, she didn’t fit into their tight knit community. No matter how much Atlas wanted her to be there, she couldn’t stay. As long as she was there, she would always wonder what they weren’t telling her. She would always wonder if Ribbon was only her friend, her lover, because Atlas wanted her to be. She would always wonder if they would target other people she cared about. She would always fear that one day she would open a door and find Monkey or Benjy or even one of her sisters being held captive, tortured, killed.
She wasn’t going to let that happen. Never again. She was determined that Indigo was going to be the last person she cared about to die right in front of her eyes without her doing anything. The thing was, she knew that going back to the Phoegani wouldn’t make it any better. Atlas had been right. There, she was simply another asset, another well-trained killer. She didn't know their goals, and doubted she would stand by them given a chance. She was just another piece of the puzzle, or worse, just a replaceable tool to be discarded when she was no longer of use.
The true problem was that she feared that here, with the Palnoki, she was no better. Despite what Atlas and Ribbon, or even Tenshu and Kimiko told her or tried to make her believe, she couldn't help but to believe that there was more going on than she was seeing. And that was why she needed to go back. Not just for Christein and Benjy. Not just for her sisters and family. But because she needed to see more than she was. She needed to figure out what was going on, who was truly in charge, what everyone was trying to do. At least with the Phoegani, she could work her own agenda. She couldn’t be the Amadhay Atlas wanted, not while they were still killing people all around her and she didn’t know why.
Finally made up about what to do, Amadhay sat up. She set her feet on the floor and it felt strange. It wasn’t the plush carpet from the Ice Castle or the smooth wood from the Sand Castle. It was cobblestone and for some reason she couldn’t explain, that caught her attention. Cobblestone is so hard to wash blood out of.
Shaking her head to push away the strange thought, Amadhay got off of Ribbon’s bed. She paused at the wardrobe, momentarily thinking about changing, but decided not to. There was no point in drowning herself in Ribbon’s clothing when she was leaving her behind. It would only confuse her and make it easier for Atlas to convince her to stay. It was already going to be difficult in the clothes Atlas had dressed her in, but it would nearly be impossible if she were wearing Ribbon's. She would feel protected if she were wearing Ribbon's clothes and she didn't need protection; the weak needed protection. She had to be strong.
Purposely avoiding the mirror, Amadhay smoothed her hands over her hair, knowing that it was a curling mess and not wanting to see herself looking wild and untamed, especially since that was how she was feeling on the inside. For a moment, she almost laughed, thinking I bet I look just like Amaya. But then she pushed that thought back as well, leaving her hair in its natural form. Instead, she focused on what she could fix, straightening her purple dress so that the ribbons at the waist fell in neat bows at perfect points on either side. She ran her fingers over the lace collar to make sure it was all laying flat. The kitten pin that Ribbon had put on the dead center of her chest, she took off, setting it on the bed.
She nervously fixed the pinstripe stockings so that the lines were straight and the pattern was mirrored perfectly on both legs. Taking a deep breath to set herself, she left Ribbon’s room, closing the door softly behind her. For a moment, she paused, looking down both sides of the hallway to try to reacquaint herself with the set up of the building. It was different from both other Palnoki buildings she’d been in. She had mildly wondered if all the Palnoki buildings were different. Now she’d never know.
There were only three places she knew in this building, not including Ribbon’s room: Atlas’ room, the mudroom that led to the gardens, and the meeting room. She doubted that Atlas would be in the mudroom or the gardens, so she decided to try his room first. She wasn’t ready just yet to go to the meeting room, where Indigo had died.
Of course, however, she had to pass the meeting room before getting to Atlas’ room since Ribbon’s room was on the opposite side of the building, closer to the gardens than his was. It was purely by luck that she happened to hear voices coming from the meeting room as she passed it. In fact, she still would have passed it if she hadn’t heard Atlas’ voice, sounding angry.
“You are honestly telling me that you can’t get anything off of that chip?”
She paused, considering making her presence known, but Kimiko’s response changed her mind.
“I’m assuming that they had Base fix it.”
“And you aren’t skilled enough to break his coding?” Atlas demanded. “Maybe I should replace you. You haven’t been much of a help lately.”
“She almost had it,” Tairyn defended. “But then Ghost Sparrow and Red Baron got in the way. Again.”
“What were they doing there?” Atlas demanded. Amadhay moved closer to the door, listening more closely now that she had heard Benjy and Christein’s code names.
“I’m going to assume they were looking for Red Bird,” Ribbon stated sardonically. “Since they keep showing up. Everywhere.”
“They’ve shown up more than once?” Atlas was sounding even less pleased.
“I’ve run into them three times,” Ribbon admitted.
“They tried to corner me and Tenshu a few months back,” Cowboy added. She could hear a savage grin in his voice. “They won’t be trying that again.”
“Why is this the first I’m hearing about their interferences?” Atlas asked. Amadhay had to strain to hear him because his voice had gone low and quiet.
There was silence for a moment.
“They haven’t really been an interference until now,” Kimiko said slowly. “Just minor annoyances.”
“Annoyances large enough that they stopped you from being able to use Base Inventions mainframe,” Atlas reminded them in the same, even tone.
“If we could just kill them it would be easier,” Tairyn said, making Amadhay clench her fists in anger. He had been their friend. How could he even suggest that?
“Then why haven’t you?” Atlas asked, almost conversationally.
There was another silence. This time Johannes broke it.
“You told us that they were off limits.”
“Because of Amadhay?” Cowboy reminded him.
“Amadhay would never have to know,” Atlas said, his voice sounding tense. “She hasn’t heard from them since coming here, has she?” he paused for a click, but no one answered him. “She hasn’t. For all she knows, they aren’t even looking for her. Kill them. If she finds out, we’ll comfort her later. But right now, I need you to get them out of the way so that we can get the information we need.”
Ribbon was hesitant when she spoke. “Is that an order?”
“Yes,” Atlas said, “Kill the phantom and the Hakinato. They’re not in my plans.”
“I’ll do it,” Cowboy volunteered when Ribbon didn’t say anything more.
“No. Ribbon will do it,” Atlas stated. “It’s her job. I have another job for you anyway.”
“With Tenshu?” Cowboy asked, “Because it’s getting more difficult to bring him out. The Heralds are getting fond of him, enough so that they ask too many questions when he leaves.”
“Just you and Stefan. Don’t worry. I need him right where he is. He’s vital in bringing the Heralds to us.” There was a pause in which Amadhay imagined Cowboy nodded his head. “You need to bring me Darach. He’s been playing with the Hakinato’s far too long. He’s forgotten who he really belongs to.”
Someone laughed, and since Stefan’s voice was still amused when he spoke, Amadhay assumed it was him. “I was wondering how long you were going to let him hide out there.”
“Darach Devalier is one of us?” Tairyn asked in a shocked voice.
“The game with Darach goes much farther than this one with the Phoegani,” Stefan answered, giving another laugh. “Though I doubt he’d call himself one of us.”
“I don’t understand,” Kimiko said.
“You don’t have to,” Atlas snapped, causing silence to fall again. “You just need to get to decrypting that personnel chip. I need to know who else to bring from the Phoegani before we destroy them.”
“I really don’t think there’s anyone else worth your time,” Tairyn spoke, sounding sure of himself.
The ice in Atlas’s voice mirrored Amadhay’s own feelings toward Tairyn at the moment. “I’m sure I didn’t ask you.”
There was a loud thump against the door and an accompanying grunt, making Amadhay jump back, but the door didn’t open. Instead, she was able to hear Atlas perfectly, telling her that he was at the door.
“In fact, I’m trying to decide if you are even worth keeping around anymore. Your information is outdated. I have Amadhay. Really, the only reason I can see to keep you around is to keep Kimiko happy, since you being here makes Amadhay decidedly unhappy.” She could hear the sound of a series of flat slaps, which she imagined was Atlas patting Tairyn’s cheek.“So if I were you, I would be silent and hope that Kimiko is able to decrypt the files soon, because if not, I might not be so easily persuaded to keep you around.”
“Atlas…” Kimiko started.
Atlas gave a low chuckle. “Just playing, Sweet. I won’t hurt your banshee. He makes you too happy. Just know that I won’t be happy until you’ve decrypted that chip.”
“I get it,” Kimiko said in a tense tone.
“I hope you do,” Atlas said. Someone, probably Atlas, clapped their hands. “Everyone knows what they’re going to be doing?”
There was an assortment of different confirmations. Someone started to pull the door open. “Oh wait, wait.” Atlas stopped them from leaving. The door was closed again.
“Has there been any success with the Heralds?” he asked.
“Other than Tenshu becoming close to Amaya and Blu? Not really,” Cowboy answered. “If anything, they’re more closed off since the Feral wolf incident.”
“Closed off in what way?” Atlas asked.
“It’s going to be difficult to bring them here. More difficult than expected. They’ve settled in Ratigattan and the Pirate King has decided to become their protector. Any move to change that will be met with with extreme resistance. I doubt we can keep them and fight him and the Phoegani all at once.”
“We can wait,” Atlas decided. “If push comes to shove, we can have Amadhay infiltrate. They didn’t notice the last time, right?”
Cowboy seemed hesitant. “She wasn’t under much scrutiny then. One wrong move and—”
“You can train her on how to be more like Amaya,” Atlas dismissed. “But as I said, it’s our last case scenario. I’d prefer not to have to put her into this.”
“She’s always talking about wanting to help,” Ribbon mentioned. “I think she’ll be thrilled to know she’s part of the plans.”
There was a certain sarcasm to the words. Or maybe Amadhay just imagined it there because no one said anything about it. Amadhay backed from the door, feeling betrayed on too many levels to count. Atlas had played her. She had been the game. She had been the game and he had played her so expertly that she had fallen for it, for him.
No more, she decided.
A week after Indigo’s death was the first time Amadhay left Atlas’ room.
She still felt wrong. She still felt sad. She still felt angry. But she was dealing with it. She was dealing with it and she needed time on her own, away from Atlas and all of his things to think about everything. Normally, she would curl up in her own room, in her own bed all alone and surrounded by her own things. But because they hadn’t returned to the Sand Castle, she didn’t have a room of her own, didn’t have a bed to curl up in all alone, and didn’t have any of her own things.
Because she had nothing, she went to the next best thing.
She knew, in some part of her mind that she tried not to use, that she was making no sense by leaving Atlas’ bed just to curl up in Ribbon’s bed. She knew that she should be angry with both of them. She knew that. She just couldn’t bring herself to be angry anymore. Not at them. She was angry, she wouldn’t lie about it. But she wasn’t angry with them.
She was angry with Maria, for messing Indigo up so badly that he been easy to manipulate. She was angry with Arne Riff for forcing her to send Indigo away when he had needed her. She was angry with Christein for giving her Indigo to begin with. If he hadn’t, Indigo wouldn’t have latched onto her. If he hadn’t latched onto her, Maria wouldn’t have hurt him to hurt her. If Maria hadn’t hurt him, he would have been mentally sound enough to not be so easily manipulated. If he hadn’t been so easily manipulated, the Palnoki wouldn’t have been able to take him and use him by simply saying her name. If the Palnoki hadn’t been able to use him, he wouldn’t have become a danger. If he hadn’t become a danger, Atlas wouldn’t have made the order. If Atlas hadn’t given the order, Stefan wouldn’t have killed him. If Stefan hadn’t killed him, Indigo would still be alive.
So yes, she was angry. She was angry with Stefan and Kimiko and Tairyn. She was even angry with Sebastian for not keeping Indigo safe. But she wasn’t angry at Ribbon or Atlas. Atlas had only done what he had thought was right. Ribbon had only tried to make the best of the situation. She, above all people, knew that Ribbon would keep a secret to her grave if she promised it. If Ribbon hadn’t mentioned Tairyn, it was because Kimiko had made her promise not to.
And while that tiny part in the back of her mind kept telling her that she wasn’t making sense, that they were the ones she should have been angry with the most, she just couldn’t do it. She needed them too much. They were all she had. It didn’t matter that Ribbon, who always talked about putting her first and claiming to love her more than anyone else, had kept a secret she knew would hurt Amadhay. It didn’t matter than Atlas, who always went out of his way to make her trust him and was always there when she needed him, had hurt her Indy and had him killed. It didn’t matter because she needed them.
That was why she left Atlas’ bed for Ribbon’s. Ribbon was hers. She might not have a bed or a fancy canopy chandelier or any knives or even her own shampoo, but she had Ribbon. Atlas was hers in a much less physical way. Atlas was hers just as she was his. They were in a circle of possession in which neither one would ever truly gain anything.
Ribbon on the other hand, was hers in a truly possessive way, had been from the moment that Amadhay had declared that Ribbon meant more than she did in her mind, from the moment she had kissed the woman. Ribbon was her Godesian heart, the only person more hers than she, herself, was. She was positive of that. In that way, her protective possessiveness meant that Ribbon was hers and all that was Ribbon’s was hers. So when she curled up in Ribbon’s bed, it was like curling up into her own bed. It wasn’t as good, but so long as Ribbon was there, it did what she needed it to.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Ribbon had asked when she had opened her eyes to watch Amadhay curling up into bed with her.
Amadhay had shaken her head and simply lain with her ear to Ribbon’s chest, listening to her heartbeat. It calmed her in a way that listening to Atlas’ didn’t. Listening to Atlas’ heartbeat only reminded her that Indigo’s would never beat again. Listening to Ribbon’s heartbeat reminded her that life went on. She may have failed Indigo, but she wouldn’t fail anyone else.
“I’m sorry,” Ribbon said. Amadhay listened to her heartbeat speed up. “I’m sorry that we hurt you. I’m sorry we kept Tairyn a secret. I’m sorry that I kept DuPreve a secret. I’m sorry that I didn’t ignore the orders and just tell you everything. You should have known. I’m so sorry about everything.”
“His name was Indigo,” was all Amadhay said, choosing instead to continue to lie there, listening to Ribbon’s heartbeat.
Most of all, she was angry with herself.
Amadhay had a feeling that she was purposely being distracted from whatever Atlas was doing.
It took her a few loud exclamations and being steered in different directions to make her stop trying to convince herself that she was just being naturally suspicious. Once or twice, she would take as coincidence. Five times though? Five times was a stretch even for normal people.
Immediately, she had to clamp down on the mistrustful part of her that was screaming that she needed to figure out what was going on. She trusted Atlas. She trusted Ribbon. If the two of them had decided she didn’t need to know what he was doing, then she was going to go with their decision. After all, they had said that whatever Atlas was going to be doing was boring. Perhaps they were only trying to spare her.
Only it was really hard for her to honestly believe that. She felt very strongly that the two of them had gone out of their way to try to convince her not to come to the Mud Castle to begin with, Atlas only relenting, really, when he was holding her onto the pegasus. Ribbon, on the other hand, had been decidedly secretive since they had arrived. She had rushed Amadhay out of the comfortable room where Atlas had seated himself in wait for Stefan. She had urged Amadhay as far from that room in general, leading her through the gardens and the mud pool even though she knew Amadhay had no real interest in either. She had then led her through an awkward maze.
Or she had tried to.
They were lost right now. At least Amadhay was, which was saying something because she was known for having an incredible sense of direction—another skill Arne Riff had trained into her at a young age. To be honest, Amadhay simply assumed that if she was lost, so was Ribbon, an assumption that became certain fact when they had run into the same brush three times.
“Okay, I honestly have no idea where we are,” Ribbon admitted, squinting at the yellow flower Amadhay was positive they had passed three times. “But doesn’t that flower look familiar?” she asked.
Amadhay glared past her. “You said that the last two times too.”
“No, I’m certain this is a different one,” Ribbon attempted to assure her.
Amadhay gave her a long look. “Go on then. I’ll be right here when you come back.”
Ribbon shook her head. “What if I get out? I’m sure as Water not coming back for you if I do.”
“I can assure you that you won’t,” Amadhay said, rolling her eyes. “Go on. I’ll be right here.”
“Okay…” Ribbon said slowly, touching the pouch on her hip. “I’ll leave a trail just in case.”
Amadhay nodded, gesturing for her to go on. She waited until Ribbon was out of sight to attempt to crawl up one of the hedge walls. She wasn’t even surprised when no matter how high she climbed, she never reached the top. She had honestly been expecting it. Letting go of the green, she dropped right onto her feet as if she had only climbed inches rather than feet. She sighed and sat down just as Ribbon was coming back around.
Amadhay waved at her with a sardonic smile. “Welcome back, great voyager,” she said flatly. Ribbon stared at her in wonder before rushing forward to see that she had, indeed, ended up right where she had started. The trail of glitter was even in a full circle.
Ribbon gave an exasperated sigh. “Goddess, I just want to get out of here!” she exclaimed.
Amadhay sighed. “You shouldn’t have brought us through here if you didn’t know the way,” she said, kicking at a bush.
Ribbon gave a long sigh. “I thought I did. Kimmy and I come through here all the time. She always tears through here when she and Tairyn are trying to get a moment to themselves.”
Amadhay paused, looking up at Ribbon. “She and who?” she asked.
Ribbon blinked a few times before saying, “Kimmy and Ten. They come out here sometimes for privacy. Why? Who did you think I said?”
Amadhay shook her head, “Sorry. I thought you said Tairyn.” She gave an embarrassed laugh. “I don’t even know why he’d come to mind. He didn’t like mazes and he’s a swamp witch, not a hedge witch.”
Ribbon blinked innocently and Amadhay shrugged off the feeling that she had just been tricked. “Tairyn?” she asked.
Amadhay gave a small smile. “Tairyn was my first partner out of training. He was my best friend from the time I was nine until I was thirteen and we stopped talking. I don’t know why I’d be thinking about him. I normally don’t. He’s been on an offshore mission for a few years now.”
Ribbon shrugged almost guiltily, though Amadhay wasn’t sure if she had imagined the guilt or not. “How about we try the way I didn’t go?” the woman suggested, brushing glitter off onto her waterproof pants.
When Amadhay nodded, the two started picking their way through the maze again, this time in silence. This time around Amadhay led them, though she had never been in the maze before. Unsurprisingly to both girls, she was able to pick out a path based on what she was able to smell and hear, the cat of her aelfe making her senses stronger than the diluted elvish in Ribbon’s blood-witch.
“I hear Kimiko,” Amadhay said excitedly, positive that they were close to the end of the maze.
Ribbon perked up at that, following Amadhay’s gaze down the long pathway. “Follow her voice! She can get us out of here!”
Amadhay didn’t need Ribbon to tell her that, because she was already following the other teenager’s voice. As she followed, she was able to make out more than just her voice; she was able to make out snippets of conversation and another voice, a male voice that sounded mildly familiar.
“-and they’ve all been angry with each other for what feels like forever but it’s starting to get better, I think,” Kimiko said.
Amadhay narrowed her eyes, positive that the girl was talking about her, but not knowing why or to whom.
“Well that’s good, isn’t it?” the male voice asked. The voice was deep, resonating in a way that didn’t make sense for the rough texture.
“I guess,” Kimiko responded. Amadhay could just see her high ponytails over the top of the hedge. “It’s just that now that they’re not fighting, they’re all so confused and confusion tastes wrong. I mean I like their happiness better than their anger and sadness and loneliness, but they aren’t happy enough for it to taste like happiness, you know?”
Amadhay wasn’t sure what Kimiko was talking about, at all, but she could see her now, sitting on a bench. She was sitting on the back of the bench, making herself seem taller than the man she was talking to. He was sitting properly on the bench, his legs set apart and one of his arms wrapped around the girl’s waist.
When he laughed, he shook his long, long hair from his face. Amadhay froze, staring first at his hair. If he were standing, she would bet that it hit his knees now, quite a sight longer than his waist, like when she had last seen him. The dark black had either been dyed or stained a strange green color that reminded her of the swamp, much like his dark skin. Where it had once been a healthy brown color, either with age or from contact with the swamp waters, it now had a sickly, green hue to it and looked pale. He was taller than when she had last seen him and wearing clothes that fit him quite a bit better than the torn jeans, ripped and frayed jackets, and dirty t-shirts she had grown used to him wearing. But his smile was still his, was still a bright white shine across his otherwise dark features and his eyes still glowed an alarming silver color.
“Tairyn,” she whispered, coming to a stop.
His laugh stopped short, and she was able to compare his younger, melodious voice to his new, much deeper one when he spoke her name in reply. “Amadhay?”
Ribbon bumped into her. “Geeze, Red Bird. You can’t just run off without me. Give a girl some warning,” she said. When Amadhay didn’t shoot back a witty retort, she nudged the girl. “Red Bird?” she asked before looking past the girl, to the couple on the bench, who were frozen in shock.
Ribbon sucked in a breath just as Tairyn got to his feet. Tairyn, Kimiko, and Ribbon all spoke at the same time, Ribbon being the only one to properly sum up the situation.
“Mayday, I didn’t mean to—”
“Amadhay this isn’t what it—”
Amadhay only stared at Tairyn for a few more clicks before she took off running. At first, she ran slow enough that she heard three sets of footsteps following her, but she kept going faster and faster until she was at the speed she and Sha’adahk had been working on, the speed that felt like no one else was moving around her. She shot right out of the maze, into the garden, where Tairyn and Kimiko had been. She went through that garden, through the bug garden, right through the mud pool, barely making a splash she was moving so fast. She kept going until she was right back where she had started out, looking for Atlas, needing to talk to Atlas.
Her eyes were burning when she shoved the doors open, dropping her speed the moment she touched them. The room was empty and for a moment, she wanted to keep looking for Atlas, until she realized she was better off on her own. Like when she was a little girl and scared and needing to be alone to synthesize her own thoughts, she looked for the smallest place she could curl up and be hidden. She stripped off the raincoat and boots, tucking them under a couch. Seeing a seat that she recognized from the Madra job, she knew it had a false bottom. Knowing it was the best chance she had at not being found, she pulled it open and curled up inside, placing the seat back on top of her.
Now in the dark, alone, and tiny, Amadhay was able to let herself be upset. She didn’t cry, because she was a Hakinato and Hakinato’s don’t cry, but she did rub viciously at her eyes because they burned.
Tairyn. Her Tairyn. Yes, she had assumed he had been the one to betray her from day one because they knew things only he would know. Yes, she hadn’t seen him in almost three years, and hadn’t seen him regularly in longer than that. But he had been her Tairyn. He was the same boy who had told her, when he had been fourteen and she only nine, that he was going to Bind to her one day. He was the same one who had been with her, had comforted her after she had killed on her first mission. He was the same one who had been holding her hand when she had first spotted Amaya, the wild and utterly vicious Amaya who had been rescued from the Thief Lord when she was ten.
It was one thing to believe that person could betray her. It was a whole different thing to know it. No matter how she was with the Palnoki now, it was a betrayal of her, of her confidences in him. She hadn’t told him her every secret so that he could turn around and tell her worst enemy. She had told him because she had trusted him, had sincerely cared about him in a way she hadn’t known she could. He had been the first person besides Monkey that she had genuinely felt something other than vague amusement for. She had thought he loved her and he had betrayed her. For what?
She didn’t know. She wasn’t even sure she wanted to know. She couldn’t imagine anything that would make his betrayal any less heartbreaking. It didn’t matter why he did it. It only mattered that he did. If anything, the obvious relationship he and Kimiko had only made her hurt worse. It was like a triple lanced betrayal. He had betrayed her as a friend, as someone she trusted by giving away her information so freely. He had betrayed her as someone who had loved him by replacing her love with Kimiko’s.
And Kimiko, Kimiko had known all of that, had known their relationship, she had to have. Yet still she had not only taken him from her or had hidden the relationship from her, but she had hidden him from her. Kimiko had purposely kept Tairyn, who he was to her, to the Palnoki, how he’d betrayed Amadhay, a secret.
If anything, Amadhay was positive that that was what was hurting her the most.
She hadn’t seen Tairyn in years, so while finding out that he had truly been the one to betray her hurt, it wasn’t what had her hiding. She had been around the women almost every day for the past few months and neither had even mentioned Tairyn, had ever brought up that one of her friends from the Phoegani had defected. She had trusted Kimiko. She had trusted Ribbon. But clearly they didn’t trust her. She had been sure that they wouldn’t hide anything crucial from her. She had been positive that they cared about her, but she wasn’t sure about that anymore. She couldn’t imagine that they could honestly care about her and hide something like that from her.
And with that, her mind went to Atlas. Atlas who she had gone to for comfort. Atlas who she had trusted more than all the rest of them, had trusted enough to allow him to get her on top of a winged horse. Atlas had to have known this and kept it from her just as much as Kimiko and Ribbon. More, actually, because she had outright asked him who the informant was and he had…
He had never told her that it wasn’t Tairyn.
He hadn’t told her it was Tairyn, but he also certainly hadn’t said that it wasn’t. When she had decided it was Tairyn on her first day as his captive, Atlas had completely ignored her, which she hadn’t even thought about. She had known it was Tairyn from day one. Atlas had all but admitted it by ignoring her.
In some twisted, demented way, Amadhay was still sure that Atlas was trustworthy. Kimiko, and—worst of all, Ribbon—was not. They would have to start from scratch, if they were ever to regain her trust again. Ribbon had probably told her hundreds of tiny lies hundreds of times to cover up a slip up concerning Tairyn. Kimiko had told her that her partner’s name was Orvu, that she hadn’t met him because he lived far away and was completely uninvolved in all that the Palnoki did. All of those were obvious, blaring lies.
But Atlas, he hadn’t lied to her. Yes, he had kept it from her much like the women had, but that was his way. He never told her anything that he assumed she could figure out on her own. That was simply the way Atlas played with her. She knew that. She even loved that most days. She loved that he forced her to think instead of just letting her know everything she wanted to know.
In fact, considering his Gift and the way everything had gone, Amadhay was almost convinced that he had set it up for her to find Tairyn and Kimiko in the garden just as she had. It was too much of a coincidence that she just happened to be lost in the maze at the exact time, in the exact place that would lead her to hear Kimiko’s voice. It was too much of a coincidence that of all days, after them all working hard to keep her from seeing Tairyn—and she knew it must have been pretty hard considering Kimiko was a succubus and needed regular feeding from her partner—that she would just stumble onto him. Since Kimiko was almost always physically with her when not on missions, she couldn’t imagine when the two could have regularly been together. After all the effort it had to have taken the succubi not to be around the banshee, not to have him right on the same base, she was positive that there was no way that she had just stumbled onto them.
It was no coincidence that things had happened the way they had. Honestly, Amadhay wasn’t even sure that she believed in coincidences anymore. Every coincidence in her life, especially in the past six months could probably be linked to Atlas and his meddling. Every time she had accidentally bumped into someone right when they were looking for her, every time she had been right where she needed to be without knowing it, every time one of the Palnokians had been right where she needed them when she needed them, every one of those coincidences were Atlas’ doing.
For some reason, that calmed her. The idea that Atlas was at the helm, leading everything made it all less overwhelming. It made everything easier to manage.
Because despite everything else, she still trusted Atlas.
Ribbon sat in Atlas’ favorite lounging loveseat with both his kitten and Amadhay partially sprawled over her lap as she petted both of them.
The kitten and feline aelfe both purred in time, kneading their claws—or in Amadhay’s case, her nails—into the red velveteen upholstery. Atlas sat in a less comfortable, wooden seat, pretending to read a book on the inner workings of owning a food establishment while actually watching the three with a strange sort of jealous contentment. While he would have preferred to be in Ribbon’s seat, he was conversely happy to see three of his favorites happy together. It had been a while since anyone had been happy with one another in the Sand Castle, so he wouldn’t ruin their good moment with his pettiness. While he and Amadhay were still on less than perfect terms, she and Ribbon seemed to have patched up their own problems nearly a month ago.
“I’m tired of this place,” Amadhay said out of nowhere.
Atlas set his book down, abandoning all pretenses. “Are you wanting a new locale?” he asked, glad to have something that she wanted. He had missed being able to fulfill her wishes.
She nodded, slowly sitting up as though she didn’t want to let Ribbon stop petting her, but needing to so that she could engage him in conversation. “Don’t you have any other castles? I’ve done the Ice Castle, and this is the Sand Castle. Where else is there?”
Atlas almost laughed. “Of course we have other castles. Just about anything you can name, we have.”
Amadhay narrowed her eyes in challenge. “Wood Castle.”
“That one’s easy. Of course we have a Wood Castle,” Ribbon responded before he could.
“Cloud Castle,” Amadhay tried, sitting forward and curling her legs under herself.
“Up in the sky, yes,” Atlas answered with a grin. “I doubt you’d like that one.”
“If it is really up in the clouds, I can assure you that I won’t be visiting it anytime soon,” Amadhay said, tilting her head back and leaning against Ribbon as she thought more. “Fire Castle,” she suggested, grinning wickedly.
Ribbon snorted but Atlas was the one to answer her. “Snuggled right between a couple volcanoes.”
“I’m good,” Amadhay replied instantly. “Water Castle.”
“It’s undersea,” Ribbon said, giving a shudder. “The magic down there gives me the willies.”
“So that one’s out,” Amadhay said, giving Ribbon a friendly nudge. “Mountain Castle?”
“Of course,” Atlas and Ribbon said at the same time.
Amadhay giggled. “Okay, I give. What castle don’t you have?”
While Ribbon only shrugged, Atlas actually gave the question a deep thought. “Well, I suppose we don’t have a—” his DS rang an urgent tone, immediately taking his attention from the conversation. Grabbing up the device, he swiped the screen to answer Stefan’s call.
“What is it?” he demanded before the man could get a word out.
“You need to get here. Now. This is beyond me.”
Atlas narrowed his eyes before letting out a huff of irritated air and nodded. “I’ll be there within the zoot.” With that, he ended the conversation, setting his DS back onto the table and running both hands through his hair in frustration. It was only after he pushed his glasses up on his nose and looked up that he remembered the girls in the room with him.
Ribbon had a questioning look while Amadhay’s could only be described as curious. “What’s going on there?” the younger asked, her red eyes wide.
“Nothing for you to worry about,” he said, making eye contact with Ribbon, who seemed to get the gist.
She stood up and tried to grab Amadhay’s hand to lead her away, but the aelfe was already hooked and didn’t move. “Alright, well what am I not needing to worry about?”
“It’s just some unrest among the workers. Stefan needs my help calming them down,” he lied, giving her a reassuring smile. She nodded.
“Mud Castle,” he responded warily, “But now is probably not the best time for you to go there.”
Amadhay narrowed her eyes. “Why? If it’s just a little unrest, what’s the problem with me going there?”
“It would be boring for you,” Ribbon jumped in. “Trust me. It’s usually some little thing that gets the workers all huffy and it takes Atlas’ presence to get them working again.”
Amadhay shrugged. “I don’t have to worry about that, then. I could just check it out. I was just saying that I was bored here. What better distraction from my boredom than a new location?”
Atlas shook his head. “Then how about you and Ribbon go to the Flower Castle?” he suggested. “I could drop you off there on my way.”
Amadhay crossed her arms over her chest, looking from Atlas to Ribbon and then back. “Is there a particular reason you two don’t want me to go to the Mud Castle?” she asked.
“No! Of course not, I just don’t want you to go hoping that it’ll be interesting when it won’t,” Ribbon attempted.
Amadhay only had eyes for Atlas though. “Because I thought we were all on the same side, so it makes no sense for you to be keeping things secret from me, right?”
“I just think you would enjoy the Flower Castle more,” he attempted lamely before giving in to her. “But since now you’ve become suspicious I suppose there’s no way to keep you from the Mud Castle, is there?” Amadhay shook her head. He sighed. “Then I suppose I might as well just bring you along. I warn you though, Ribbon is right. This will be boring. The Mud Castle is really just where we set up all of our business affairs. Nothing too interesting there.”
Amadhay gave a beautiful smile before hopping up. “Awesome. Is it hot there or should I change?” she asked.
“It’s always raining there,” Ribbon stated, “So you should probably change. I know I’m going to.”
Amadhay nodded. “Do I have rain clothes?”
“Sure. Somewhere. Go look for them. If you can’t find them, then you can borrow mine,” Ribbon suggested. As if she couldn’t tell that she was being gotten rid of, the teenager rushed off to do just that, followed by Mayday. Once they were both sure that she was gone, Ribbon turned back to Atlas. “What are we going to do?” she asked, absolutely fretting over the unforeseen difficult spot they were in.
Atlas waved it off, though he was equally worried. “Just keep her busy and away from the Containment Room. If I can’t get him under control, which it doesn’t sound like I will, we’ll just get rid of him. Once that’s done, there won’t be any more problem. So long as you stick to her like glue and keep her oblivious, everything will be fine.”
Ribbon gave a bit of a delayed nod. “What if she—”
“Found it!” Amadhay exclaimed, walking into the room with an adorable raincoat covering her torso and down to her knees. It was red with pockets on either side in the form of black cats. She was even wearing matching rain boots. “I feel about ten, but as long as it keeps me dry, right?” she suggested, shrugging before she focused on Ribbon, who was still dressed as she had left her. “I thought you were going to change too.”
Ribbon sighed dramatically. “Not everyone moves at your speed, Quick Bird,” she joked, tugging on the teenager’s braided pigtail as she passed by her, leaving Amadhay and Atlas in the room alone.
Amadhay turned her attention to Atlas, who wasn’t sure that he was ready for the full brunt of her curiosity. Luckily, she seemed not to be in her most inquisitive state. “Did you and Stefan just buy a bunch of things you would’ve liked to see little Amadhay in?” she joked.
“Pretty much,” Atlas admitted. “We actually have everything we got little you somewhere around if you ever want to try them on for us,” he teased, making her roll her eyes.
“Alright, I grant that I haven’t gained much in height, but I’m pretty sure these,” she gestured first to her chest, then to her hips and butt, “Have grown quite a bit since I was four.”
Atlas laughed. “That they have. A shame. I would have loved to see you in the dresses Scarlet and Medica got for you again. Pictures just don’t do you justice.”
Amadhay flushed. “You have pictures?” she demanded. “Why haven’t I seen them yet?”
“Other than the fact that I don’t trust you not to destroy them?” he asked sarcastically, “Nothing at all.”
“So I have to promise not to destroy pictures of me so that I can see them?” she asked incredulously.
“Looks like,” he said with a shrug. “Stefan would be heartbroken if you destroyed them.”
Amadhay scoffed. “If any of them involve him being dressed up as a dragon, I doubt it.”
“Those are his favorite,” Atlas told her earnestly. “The ones where you’re wearing his red cape, riding on his back with your sword high up in the air.”
Amadhay flushed again. “I have no memory of that, therefore these pictures have been doctored,” she claimed, looking away from him.
Atlas chuckled, watching her nostalgically for a moment when her eyes flashed sky blue. She raised her eyebrows when she saw the way he was looking at her. “What?” she asked, “Do I have something on my face?”
He smiled as her eyes slowly shifted back to red, “No, nothing. Just remembering when we had to bathe you and your sister after the two of you decided to play pirates in the mud,” he said, purposely trying to embarrass her enough to see the blue again. It might have worked if Ribbon hadn’t chosen that moment to return.
Amadhay clutched to the blood witch. “Ribbon, save me. Atlas is being a creepy old man,” she accused, making Ribbon laugh as she hid Amadhay behind her.
“Don’t worry, I’ll save you from the lecher,” she joked.
Atlas rolled his eyes, trying not to be bothered by their joking because he knew that was what it all was, just joking. “Yeah, well this old man will leave you two behind if you don’t get a move on it,” he said, standing up.
“Sir, yes sir,” both girls teased, following him as he led them to the front door.
As always since gaining her own access code, Amadhay was the first to speak to the door. “Green sleeves!” she exclaimed, making the door open. Atlas and Ribbon exchanged amused glances at her expense, but she didn’t seem to notice because she was instead focused on the horses waiting for them.
“Um. Aren’t we going to take the car?” she asked, gesturing toward the automobile that she had become rather fond of since staying with them. He had enjoyed introducing her to the joys of an individual automobile, since she was so used to the trains and the other, more archaic, modes of transportation that the Ha’s region was fond of.
“It’s faster by pegasus,” Ribbon answered her, petting the head of one of the horses. Amadhay only seemed less excited the closer she got to the three horses, something Atlas knew he could use to convince her to stay.
He didn’t though. “Mara, you go back,” he ordered the smallest of the horses, the one he had intended for Amadhay.
Immediately, Amadhay protested, though it was a weak one. “Hey, I didn’t say I wasn’t going,” she said, still eyeing the pegasi as if they were fire-breathing dragons rather than gentle, winged horses. In fact, she looked as if she would prefer fire-breathing dragons to the horses.
“You don’t ride, do you?” Atlas asked, making Ribbon look up from her steed, Grits.
“Really?” the woman asked Amadhay, who shifted.
“Not if I can help it,” she muttered.
Atlas was suddenly reminded of an Amadhay story from Tairyn. When the girl had been trained as a lady, in hand with her secret assassin training, horse riding had been an important skill that Amadhay had never mastered, no matter how hard Arne Riff was on her. The horses were always skittish around Amadhay, who was in turn always too wary around them. The lessons had ended when an otherwise gentle mare had bucked Amadhay off and left the girl, then only ten, with a broken arm.
With that in mind, he realized that he was going to be asking a lot of her to even get her on the pegasus. It was literally two of her least favorite things combined: a flying creature and a horse. Either way, he was determined to try.
“Ride with me then,” he offered, leading his steed, Ludo to her. She backed up when the pegasus shoved his face into hers.
“No, I think I’ll pass, actually. Maybe I’ll, um, not go to the Mud Castle.”
Even though that was what Atlas wanted, he couldn’t bring himself to take the victory. He had a bigger one in mind. “Come on,” he coaxed. “You know I won’t let anything happen to you.” Ribbon was looking at him with confusion, but he couldn’t be bothered to care. He almost had her; he could see it in her eyes. “You know you’re safe with me,” he promised the raven-haired girl.
With a wary look at him, she reached out to pet the pegasus, closing her eyes as her hand came close to contact. She winced and held her hand an inch away from the horse’s flank, afraid to touch it, so Atlas helped her. He put his hand over hers and pressed her smaller hand against Ludo’s flank, rubbing in a gentle circle.
“You see? Ludo won’t do anything to hurt you. Even if he wanted to, I wouldn’t let him. I won’t let any harm come to you,” he swore.
Amadhay looked up at him, fear still in her eyes, but she nodded. She smiled at him, allowing him to help her onto the pegasus’ back. She was on a pegasus because she trusted him. The feeling was heady. She trusted him. She was scared out of her mind, but she trusted him to keep her safe.
He seated himself behind her, pressing her forward, into Ludo’s mane so that she could feel the strength of him behind her and the pegasus below her. “I won’t let you fall,” he whispered into her ear as the pegasus began to lift off of the ground.
The disapproving look on Ribbon’s face didn’t affect him because he was the one in charge. If he wanted to take Amadhay to the Mud Castle, then he would. It was all worth it for the trust he saw in those sky blue eyes when they were flying through the clouds and she was able to let go of Ludo just for a moment because she knew he wouldn’t let her fall.
“I need to talk to you,” Tenshu said, grabbing Amadhay’s hand and pulling her away from Ribbon.
“About what?” Amadhay asked, looking back at Ribbon, who shrugged.
The taller woman blew her a kiss. “I have to go talk to Vlad about our next mission anyway. Meet in your sand castle?”
“Sure,” Amadhay called back as Tenshu pulled her around a corner. “Seriously, Ten, what’s the deal?”
Tenshu glanced back at her. “We just need to talk,” he stated, continuing to pull her down halls. The two of them were walking fast and Amadhay noticed that he was pulling her almost to the point where she needed to use her Gift to keep up with him.
Where was he taking her and what was so urgent that they had to get away from the others to talk about it?
“About what?” she asked.
“Ribbon,” he stated, slowing down now that they were at the less frequented part of the Sand Castle.
“What about her?” Amadhay asked warily.
Tenshu glanced back at her and pushed open a door. “Your intentions,” he said before letting go of her hand and entering the room.
Amadhay paused outside of the door before following him in. The room was nearly empty, aside from two chairs and a table between the two set with cookies and some steaming drink. Tenshu was already seated in one of the chairs with his hands interlaced in his lap as he watched her. Amadhay frowned, but moved to the seat opposite him, dropping into it gracefully.
“What do you mean?” she asked softly before picking up a saucer and cup to occupy her hands. She poured some of the drink into it and when cinnamon assaulted her nose, she knew that it was Ribbon’s cinnamon peppermint tea.
“What are you doing with her?” he asked, leaning forward and picking up a gingerbread cookie in the shape of a girl. He bit its head off and chewed slowly, his eyes never leaving hers.
“I dunno, what does it look like I’m doing with her?” she drawled sarcastically before taking a sip of tea. Of course, she was just deflecting. That was actually a very good question, one she wasn’t sure how to answer herself.
“Well it looks like you’re leading her on to make Atlas jealous.”
Amadhay had been mid-sip when Tenshu had said that. She almost spit her tea back out, but instead forced herself to swallow it, her eyes glaring at the ribbon holding his ponytail together at the top of his head. It wasn’t symmetrical. “That is not what’s happening,” she stated angrily. She would never do that to Ribbon.
“Really? Then what is?” he demanded, munching on the headless gingerbread girl so that she now had no legs.
“I’m…” she paused, trying to think of a word to describe what she was doing with Ribbon. Entwining wasn’t exactly it. Entwining, to her, implied a purely romantic relationship and their relationship was so much more than that. They were friends, best of friends, who sometimes kissed and held hands. They loved each other and would put down their lives for each other. They were there for each other and would never hurt the other one, not intentionally. They came first for each other.
“You’re?” Tenshu prompted, biting the gingerbread torso in half. His olive eyes were boring holes into her, demanding an answer.
“I’m in love, I think,” she whispered before taking another, longer drink of her tea. She stared at the saucer in her lap rather than Tenshu.
“Well Ribbon actually is,” Tenshu stated. “She is completely caught up with you. So don’t fucking hurt her.”
“I won’t,” Amadhay swore.
“Just don’t,” he repeated. “She’s been hurt before and I refuse to let you do it to her.”
“I’m not going to hurt her,” Amadhay stressed, setting the cup and saucer back on the table. “I would rather die than hurt her.”
“If you hurt her, you will,” Tenshu promised, making Amadhay narrow her eyes.
“Are you threatening me?”
Tenshu grinned. “That’s what brothers do for their sisters,” he told her before standing up. He ruffled her hair in a way he knew she hated, before finger combing the curls back to symmetry. “I did the same shit to her.”
“You did?” she asked softly, frowning.
He grinned again. “Of course. You’re my sister too. My icky wittle baby sister.”
She rolled her eyes. “All the incest in here is getting suffocating,” she joked. Between everyone claiming familial ties, yet the somewhat sexual, definitely romantic overtones to the relationships between Vlad, Nico, Tenshu, and Kimiko and her new relationship with Ribbon, it was getting strange.
“It only gets weird once you start rutting with Atlas,” he said with a shrug.
“Well since I have no plans of doing that—”
“Sure,” Tenshu said, “If the sexual tension between the two of you doesn’t bubble over, then I’ll rescind my fairy ways,” he joked, making her roll her eyes.
“I wouldn’t do that to Ribbon.”
“Ribbon doesn’t mind sharing. Do you?”
Amadhay frowned, watching Tenshu as he left the room. “Yes,” she muttered softly to no one, “I do.”
Amadhay was lying in her bed, reading up on vampire-love theory when Ribbon came in.
It had been two days since she had kissed the woman and she had been expecting her sometime soon. It had been long enough for Ribbon to process everything. So she smiled up at the woman, setting the book aside, giving the blood witch the chance to speak first.
“Why did you kiss me?” Ribbon asked. “I mean…Red Bird. You can’t just kiss someone like that and then walk away. I don’t know what that means to you, but to me it means something.”
“I don’t kiss if it doesn’t mean something,” Amadhay immediately responded, even though it wasn’t strictly true. She had been known to kiss people to further her missions. Escort knew she’d done plenty of that in Madra. But Ribbon had to know the difference between a mission kiss and a real kiss. She had the same job.
“Well, what does it mean to you?” Ribbon pressed.
Amadhay smiled at her. “It means that I have a promise to keep to you.”
Ribbon nodded slowly. “Alright,” she said, sounding strangely deflated. “So you were just trying to prove a point.”
“No,” Amadhay said with a frown, moving to the end of her bed, where Ribbon was standing. Careful not to hit her head on the overhang or get caught in the curtains, Amadhay stood up on the bed. “It means that you’re important to me.”
Ribbon stared at her for a few clicks before moving in closer, leaving no space between them. Amadhay looked down at her, enjoying being the taller one for once. She leaned down.
“Why are you wanting to kiss me now?” Ribbon asked softly, stopping Amadhay before she could.
Amadhay frowned. “Because I want to,” she said. A ghost of a smile flew across Ribbon’s face.
“Maybe you should ask before you just do something because you want to,” the woman teased.
“I’m taking a note from Atlas’ book,” Amadhay whispered before she kissed Ribbon. This time she wasn’t the one to pull away.
Ribbon smiled up at her. “I guess I can live with that,” she said, pushing Amadhay’s chest so that the teenager fell back onto the bed. She crawled onto the bed after her, letting Amadhay pull her up. They kissed again.
“So are we done fighting?” Amadhay asked abruptly, looking hopefully at Ribbon.
Ribbon laughed into one of Amadhay’s pillows. “Yes, I think that we’re done fighting.”
“Good. ‘Cause I was tired of Mayday peeing on my door. Maybe now he’ll stop.”
“Oh my Goddess, you only kissed me to make Mayday stop peeing everywhere!” Ribbon exclaimed, laughing loudly.
Amadhay covered her face with a pillow, pressing down lightly.“You try waking up and having to clean that little booger’s pee so it doesn’t stain the floor. Then you’ll understand. You’d do anything too.” Amadhay insisted. Ribbon just laughed harder, laying there looking comfortable and perfect. Amadhay liked that look.
While her reconciliation with Atlas hadn’t gone as planned, Amadhay was still determined to make amends with Ribbon.
Sure, she still wasn’t sure why the woman was avoiding her when at all possible, especially since they hadn’t yelled at each other. But she was sure that she could figure it out quickly enough to either apologize or gracefully take Ribbon’s apology. After all, their problem stemmed with Atlas, and if she could get the problem away from Atlas, then she was sure it would all be fine.
The problem was finding Ribbon. As she had told Kimiko, Ribbon hadn’t left the Sand Castle, except for missions, in weeks. The problem was that the Sand Castle was enormous. If Amadhay were to compare it to the Phoegani base, it would be lacking, but if she compared it to the Hakinato First Family domicile, it was large. Considering that only the main Palnokians, the ones she knew by name, lived there, it was still rather large. There were only twelve of them, not counting her, so the hundreds of rooms were a bit excessive. And they made it rather hard to find someone who didn’t want to be found.
Amadhay had, of course, tried the obvious places first. Ribbon’s room, Kimiko’s room, Tenshu’s room, the three libraries, and the main common areas were all devoid of the blood witch. That forced Amadhay to try a little harder. She checked rooms that she normally would have avoided, like Cowboy’s, Stefan’s, Nico’s, even Vlad’s and Johannes’. She checked with Accelerated and Medica, both of whom were suspiciously in hurries to get somewhere decidedly not there. She even checked her sand castle and all around the beach just in case Ribbon had decided to ignore Atlas’ suggestion that she stay inside until he said otherwise.
All to no avail. Now she was checking rooms individually. Most of the rooms were empty, save cobwebs and dust. Some of them were made up as if for guests, which made Amadhay wonder at the fact that, aside from the twins, she had never seen non-Palnokians inside the Sand Castle. She wondered if it was normal for them, or if they still didn’t trust her enough to have allies around her. She didn’t want to think it, but she would bet on the latter, which made her more upset than she would admit. There were a few rooms that seemed to be in use, but she couldn’t figure out by whom or for what, which made her all the more curious.
There was one room she lingered in longer than strictly necessary, considering it was obvious Ribbon wasn’t in there. In that room was a strange little lab, full of bubbling vials and beakers full of odd concoctions. She sniffed one and immediately started coughing, turning her back on the gases and liquids so that she wouldn’t get anything in those from her coughing fit. Once she was able to breathe well again, she focused on a box of some strange solids on the table across from the beakers and vials. Glancing back at the door to make sure no one was watching, she went over to them. The box was full of some small, brightly colored pill. She wasn’t sure what it was, but her curiosity got the better of her and she slipped a handful into the back pocket of her shorts. One last look around the room made her determined to come back at another time to figure out what was going on in there.
It wasn’t too many more rooms after that one before she finally found Ribbon in, what she could only describe as, a ceremonial altar room. It surprised her because as much as she knew about Ribbon, she had never imagined that the woman was religious in any real form. But sure as anything, there was Ribbon, kneeling in the center of the archaic twelve-pointed star that represented Goddess, Escort, and the ten supposed original Splinters. It was odd to see, considering Amadhay was so used to the ten-pointed star used in the Roadesian flag for Goddess, Escort, and the Splinters of water, fire, earth, air, light, dark, spirit, and metal. The mythical time and space splinters had been taken off of most religious paraphernalia for centuries.
When Amadhay took a step to enter the room, Mayday appeared from nowhere and head butted her ankle, making her step back. He hissed at her and then yowled loudly enough to make Amadhay take a few steps back from him in alarm. Once she was far enough back for the kitten’s liking, Mayday lifted his tail up high and entered the room. He moved quickly but Amadhay noted that he had walked the lines of the star, rather than over the different sections. Once far enough in to catch Ribbon’s attention, the kitten meowed plaintively.
Ribbon, who hadn’t been bothered by Mayday’s earlier noise, looked up from her trance. She smiled at the kitten, lifting him off of the lines and onto her lap. “What are you doing here?” she asked as she petted the kitten.
She seemed to get some kind of answer from his purring because she nodded. “Thank you then. I didn’t really want her to break the circle.” She kissed the top of his furry head before standing. Ignoring the yowling complaints he gave anytime someone carried him without his leave, she cradled him to her chest and blew out the twelve candles she had lit at each point. After blowing out the candles, she reached into a small pouch at her waist and scattered a mixture of glitter, dirt, and metal carvings into each section of the star. Finally, she opened the water pouch on her hip and sprinkled water at each point. She gave a shallow bow and then left the room, closing the door tightly behind her until there was a click.
Now out of the room, Ribbon first set Mayday down, and then turned her attention to Amadhay. “Mayday said you seemed like you wanted me?”
There was a strange politeness to the question that told Amadhay that whatever was wrong between her and Ribbon was still a problem. Instead of going headfirst into that, she tried for a little pointless chatter. “Am I the only one who doesn’t talk to the cat like he speaks a common tongue?” she joked.
Ribbon raised an eyebrow. “I suppose so,” she answered, crossing her arms over her chest.
Seeing that she was going to get nowhere with her first approach, Amadhay tried again. “Why are you mad at me?”
“I’m not,” Ribbon said with no visible change in her expression. If the still polite tone she used to answer hadn’t told Amadhay that she was lying, that would have.
“Except you are. And I can’t figure out what I did wrong to you. Atlas is mad because I’m not his ideal Amadhay, but why are you mad?”
A look of disbelief crossed Ribbon’s face before she covered it with the polite farce again. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Obviously, I am not angry with you,” she shrugged. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get myself something to eat.” She moved past Amadhay without touching her and Mayday followed after giving Amadhay a look that was positively mean.
“Oh, look at the coincidence,” Amadhay said, moving quickly to keep up with Ribbon, “I’m hungry too. Since you’re not mad at me, we can eat together.” She smiled widely when Ribbon looked down at her with a quick, irritated look.
Ribbon once again covered it with a polite smile. “Of course.”
They walked side by side in silence for a while until Mayday began to circle Ribbon’s legs. The kitten meowed a few times before Ribbon finally stopped. “This really has nothing to do with you, Mayday,” she said to him. The kitten gave a snuffle and Ribbon glanced at Amadhay before looking back at him. “No.”
“Wait. Can you seriously tell what he’s saying?” Amadhay asked in surprise, looking from the kitten to Ribbon and then back at the kitten.
“Yes,” Ribbon said before stepping over the kitten and continuing to the kitchen.
Mayday followed after her immediately. Amadhay, however, paused for a moment before following again. “Seriously?” she asked. “As in he makes weird kitten sounds and you can understand him?” she asked.
Ribbon gave a short, “Yes,” before she entered the kitchen.
“How?” Amadhay wanted to know, nearly tripping over the kitten in her haste not to lose Ribbon. Mayday bit her ankle lightly enough for her to know that he wasn’t angry, but hard enough to let her know that he didn’t appreciate her feet being so close.
“Atlas,” was the only response she got from the woman as she went through the cupboards for food.
“That doesn’t mean anything to me,” Amadhay stated, watching Ribbon pull peanut butter and orange jam from the cabinet. She made a face, knowing that the other woman was about to make a sandwich with the two condiments.
“Then you probably aren’t on a need to know basis,” Ribbon snapped, making Amadhay survey her face for a moment. She was definitely showing cracks in her mask.
“I still want to know. Shoot me, I’m curious,” she pushed, knowing Ribbon was only a few comments away from being open enough that they could argue out whatever was bothering her.
“Then ask someone else,” she snapped, popping open the top to the jam. Amadhay watched silently for a few moments as Ribbon pulled the rye bread from the breadbox. She angrily slathered a piece of bread in orange jam before doing the same with peanut butter on another piece. She tossed the bread back into its box and pulled a banana from the hook beside the knives. She was unnecessarily rough with the banana as she unpeeled and then chopped it up into, Amadhay had to feel, purposely asymmetrical pieces. She set the hacked up pieces of banana onto her sandwich and slammed the pieces of bread together.
Amadhay waited until she took a big bite of gross sandwich to say anything, knowing it was a big pet peeve of Ribbon’s, to be asked questions while eating. “Well what was Mayday saying to you?”
Ribbon’s eyes narrowed as she chewed. She swallowed. “Ask him yourself.”
“I would, you see, but I don’t understand him. He just makes cat noises to me.”
“Then I guess you weren’t meant to know what he’s saying,” Ribbon said before taking another bite of her sandwich. Her eyes dared Amadhay to ask her another question.
She did. “So is Mayday a real kitten or is he something turned into a kitten?”
Ribbon gulped down her bite of sandwich without even chewing this time. “Why do you keep asking me?” she demanded.
Amadhay gave her an innocent smile. “Because we’re friends. And since you’re not mad at me, I don’t see any reason not to ask you, do you?”
Ribbon glared at her. “Fine. I’m mad at you. I am ballistically pissed with you. Now let me eat my fucking sandwich in peace.” Ribbon took an angry bite of her sandwich. Amadhay let her chew it before speaking again.
“Good. Now that we have that out in the open, you can tell me why.”
Ribbon’s glare intensified, but Amadhay didn’t look away, not even when Mayday butted his head against her ankle. She was wise to his tricks. If she looked down at him, Ribbon would have time to get herself back under control and that was the last thing Amadhay wanted.
Ribbon swallowed. “Fine. You wanna do this? Fine. Let’s do this.” She set the sandwich down on the counter, and Amadhay had to physically stop herself from wincing at the thought of how dirty the counter probably was, and how disgusting Ribbon’s sandwich was already, and how bad it was going to be with all of the leftover bits and ends of everything everyone had made and not cleaned up off the counter.
“I’m pissed at you because you don’t think about anyone but yourself. You don’t!” she exclaimed when Amadhay looked ready to argue. “You come here and make us all like you, but really you’re only thinking about yourself. How have you lived like that? How have you lived your entire life and never put the whole of someone else before yourself?”
Amadhay scoffed and laughed at the same time, creating a strange choking sound. “Me? You are seriously saying that I don’t care about anyone but myself? For Escort’s baby phoenix, wake up! If I didn’t care about anyone but myself, would I be here?”
“Yes,” Ribbon stressed. “You being here is the epitome of you not caring about anyone else. If you had cared about someone in the Phoegani more than yourself, you wouldn’t be here. You would have gone back when Atlas offered. But you didn’t. Because you only think about yourself.”
“That’s not true,” Amadhay started to argue, but Ribbon cut her off again.
“And then I thought ‘Hey, that’s fine. They’re just assholes. We’ll give her someone to care about,’ but lo and behold, you can’t bring yourself to give a shit about any of us, either! Open your eyes, Red Bird. We’re all worried about you and that’s why we’re so fucking angry. You don’t even realize how screwed up everything is! Atlas was right when he yelled at me,” she was shaking her head, “Because you don’t think, Red Bird. You just act. And when you act, you don’t act in the interest of all of us, you act only in your own best interests, and then, you know, I’m not even sure you know what your fucking best interest is. That might have worked out for you in the Phoegani, but that’s not how we work here. We look out for each other here and you can’t do that.
“So excuse me if I’m a little, no, a lot pissed that you put us in trouble and don’t even seem to give a shit.”
“How did I put you into trouble?” Amadhay demanded, crossing her arms over her chest.
“The fact that you don’t even know is what makes this even worse. Think, think Red Bird. What did you do that could possibly have us all in a big fucking conundrum?”
Amadhay shook her head to let Ribbon know that she had no idea what the other woman was talking about. Mayday scratched her ankle hard enough to draw blood and Amadhay hissed at the kitten, dropping into a crouch to clutch her ankle. Looking at the claw marks on her ankle, Amadhay gasped and jolted back up to stare at Ribbon.
“I marked Diable,” she whispered. She had put her calling card on the bones and not even noticed it. She was so used to marking her kills so that others would know not to mess with the Phoegani that it hadn’t even crossed her mind that she shouldn’t put her three, vertical magic marks on the bones.
“You marked Diable,” Ribbon agreed sardonically. “You marked Diable and we sent the marked bones back to the Skouras clan. If it weren’t for the fact that those that had seen the bones died anyway, we could have been in serious trouble. Mitch didn’t even notice it until he handed the last bone over and they said ‘Oh my, isn’t that the Red Robin scratch?’ And he freaked out. He freaked out. Mitch was ready to kill everyone there if Tenshu’s phantom didn’t get them. He was ready to kill them for you.”
“He was going to kill them either way,” Amadhay pointed out, staring at her hands. Blood from the cuts Mayday left stained her fingertips.
“Not if they were able to survive one of Tenshu’s phantoms. We aren’t in the habit of killing those that can be assets to us at a later time. You would know that,” Ribbon stated, crossing her arms over her chest. “But we would do that to keep you safe.”
“Is it really to keep me safe or is it to keep my habitation with you quiet?” Amadhay countered, crossing her arms over her chest so that she couldn’t see her fingers anymore.
“Can’t it be both?” Ribbon asked exasperatedly. “Why can’t you see that the good of you, for us, comes first? We put you first. Has there ever been anyone in your entire life that you could say that about?”
Amadhay was immediately going to counter with ‘Monkey,’ but the longer she thought on it, the more she thought that maybe Ribbon was right, maybe she couldn’t say that. She had, after all, just abandoned him for them. He couldn’t protect her, so she had traded up. Wasn’t that what she had done?
She shook her head to remove those thoughts and Ribbon took it as an admission to her point. “Exactly. We would put our lives down, definitely the goal aside, to keep you safe. All of us, because you’re part of us. But there isn’t a single fucking person here or in the entire world that you could say the same for. That is why I’m so pissed with you.”
With that, Ribbon tossed the rest of her sandwich into the trash. She started to leave the kitchen, but paused, looking at the counter. With a muted curse, she wet a cloth and began to clean down the countertop.
Unsure of just what she was thinking, but positive that she needed to say something to discredit Ribbon, she looked away. The kitten caught her eye as he pawed at the air as if to get her attention. Once he had it, Amadhay watched Mayday skitter from the counter, to where her stepladder—hers not because she was selfish, but because as the shortest person there, she was the only one who had need of the stepladder to reach the cupboards above the counter—stood in the corner. It took her a split click to realize that standing on the top step would put her right where she wanted to be. It took her another few clicks to grab the stepladder, place it before Ribbon, climb atop it, turn Ribbon toward her, and to press her lips against the woman’s.
“There,” she gasped, pulling back from the kiss albeit a bit reluctantly. “That’s my promise to you. You are more important than me in my mind. You come first to me.” She hopped down from the stepladder and looked back up at her friend, who still stood with her lips pursed forward and her eyes wide with shock. “And just for the record? You have been since you dug me out of the snow.”
With that, Amadhay was the one to storm off with Mayday on her trail, leaving Ribbon staring slack-jawed after her.
Well, Amadhay thought, this is awkward.
And it was.
Since Atlas had gone off on her and Ribbon, she had taken to avoiding him, which was surprisingly easy, which told her that the man was avoiding her just as much as she was avoiding him. In fact, he wasn’t the only one avoiding her. Ribbon was also avoiding her since the cowboy and cyborg had come back from a mission. While Amadhay couldn’t, for the life of her, figure out why they were pissy with one another, she was pretty sure that Atlas had told Ribbon to keep her distance.
But the three of them not talking wasn’t what was awkward right now. It wasn’t even that Nico and Tenshu seemed to be having problems. Tenshu, she knew, was one to fight loudly, but apparently, Nico wasn’t, because the entirety of the fight was fought behind closed doors and in looks rather than words. The current awkwardness wasn’t even that Cowboy and Johannes had been at each other’s throats since coming back. Johannes was, if it was actually possible, meaner to Amadhay and Ribbon than before, which was strange because Amadhay couldn’t think of a single thing she’d done wrong to warrant the abuse.
In fact, the only two people in the entire place willing to talk to her and not be frostily polite or outright rude, were Sha’adahk and Stefan. That was both strange and somewhat expected, really, considering the two of them had gone so far out of their ways to befriend her.
What was awkward right now, at this moment, was that she was standing on her stepladder in the kitchen, trying to reach a bowl on the top shelf. Normally, someone would have helped her, considering there were four others milling around the kitchen. They didn’t. Tenshu was staring intently at the toast he was buttering. Ribbon was focusing on the counter she was scrubbing. Cowboy was pouring soup into a bowl, though she didn’t know why, considering he couldn’t eat it. Their bird-kin, who wasn’t even part of all this, was in a corner, munching on cereal and steadfastly avoiding making eye contact with anyone else.
Amadhay just gave up. She wasn’t that hungry anyway.
“I told you that you didn’t have to kill anyone anymore!” Atlas all but yelled into Amadhay’s face.
She rocked back on her heels, staring up at him in shock. “What?” she asked softly, sure that she had missed some kind of joke. She looked at Ribbon for back up, but the woman was looking at Atlas with as much surprise as she had.
“There was absolutely no reason to drag her into that, Ribbon,” he said, turning his anger to a new target. Ribbon raised her eyebrows. “That was Palnoki business. Amadhay should not have had to kill anyone for you.”
“I offered,” Amadhay argued.
Atlas ignored her, continuing to dress down Ribbon. “Really, I expected more from you, but considering the twins were plants in your friend group, I suppose I should already know I can’t trust you to make good decisions on your own.”
“Whoa, hold up,” Amadhay tried to interrupt when Ribbon looked stricken.
“If checking if your friends are going to attempt to kill us all is too hard for you, maybe you shouldn’t leave home,” Atlas stated, making Ribbon nod.
“You’re the one who kept inviting them in to be your models!” Amadhay exclaimed, still not gaining Atlas’ attention, but she did get Ribbon’s.
The woman shook her head. “No, he’s right Red Bird. It’s my fault. I should have been more careful. I thought they were trustworthy and obviously, they weren’t. Atlas only followed my judgment of them.”
Amadhay shook her head, staring at her friend with worry. She sounded like she was close to tears, which wasn’t something Amadhay had seen before. Ribbon had always been so determined and excitable, never sad or at least never upset enough to cry. “No, screw you, Atlas!” she yelled, moving forward to Ribbon. “Ribbon didn’t do anything wrong. Everyone has a mistaken friendship. Everyone,” she made eye contact with Atlas pointedly when she put emphasis on the word. “So don’t you dare try to make her think she did something wrong.”
Atlas and Amadhay stared each other down for a few clicks, neither backing down until Ribbon cleared her throat.
“Whether I made a mistake or not,” she started, gaining Amadhay’s attention. “I shouldn’t have brought you in on it. I’m sorry,” she apologized to Amadhay, “That was Palnoki business and even though you’re part of the family, you are not a part of the war. I wouldn’t have asked you to help me with a Phoegani member.”
“That’s different and you know it,” Amadhay argued. “I have no qualms against using my skills to help you out or keep you safe—”
“That’s the thing,” Ribbon cut her off. “I didn’t need help. You defended yourself and that was fine, but I didn’t need your help sending a Palnokian message to the Skouras’s.”
“But I wanted to,” Amadhay emphasized, glancing at Atlas, who had a blank expression. “I wanted to help, to make sure they knew not to mess with us ever again. I want to help keep us all safe. If I don’t, what am I doing? Why am I here? Should I just sit around and take up new hobbies? I liked my job for the Phoegani. If I could, I would do the same for you guys because I want us to be safe and happy.”
“We don’t need your help,” Atlas snapped before Ribbon could say anything. With that, he turned and left the room, leaving Amadhay and Ribbon to stare after him.
When Ribbon put her hand on Amadhay’s shoulder for comfort, the younger girl shrugged it off and stormed after Atlas. “What is your problem?” she demanded, running to catch up with his fast, angry strides. Each one of his steps was equal to three of her own.
“What is my problem?” he turned so abruptly that she ran right into him. He grabbed her shoulders and placed her steady on her feet in front of him. “I bring you here, away from the Phoegani so that you can have a life where you don’t have to kill, where you can make your own decisions on what to do with your life and all you can think to do is keep killing? What is the point of saving you from them if you’re just going to play the same part here?”
“I keep telling you that I didn’t ask to be saved!” she yelled in his face, “You didn’t save me. I didn’t need saving. And if I did, I could do my own saving, thank you very much.”
“I’m starting to think you need saving from yourself,” he snapped before turning on his heel and leaving her again.
“Excuse me?” she yelled after him before jogging to catch up with him again. “I don’t need saving! Get that through your thick skull! I’m not some scared princess hiding out in a room, needing some strong hero to come and save me. I’m better than that. I don’t need you telling me that my decisions are wrong. I’m not going to sit around and let others save me when I can do it myself!”
“I didn’t ask you to!” Atlas yelled, stopping again to say it to her face.
“No, you’re telling me to right now!” She yelled right back at him. She grabbed the collar of his shirt when he tried to turn away and pulled him down to her height, forcing him to lean down. “I am not going to let you make me into a damsel in distress just because you have a hero complex. If you want someone who will sit around and wait for you to save me, you abducted the wrong sister.”
“I’m just trying to give you a choice,” Atlas said through clenched teeth.
“No, you’re trying to make it for me,” Amadhay corrected him. “You don’t want me in the Palnoki, that’s fine, but don’t you dare try to hold me back if I want to use my skills. If I have to go outside of us to find work, I will, but I didn’t want to. I really thought this would work. I really thought I could help you out.”
“You’re not killing for us,” Atlas told her, taking her hands from his shirt. He forced her hands back down to her sides. “Never again.”
This time, she didn’t follow him when he stormed off.
Amadhay narrowed her eyes at the text she was reading.
Once learned, any spell may be internalized. An internalized spell will always strengthen, whereas a verbalized spell is weak by nature.
“Ribbon?” she called, but received no response, which was strange in itself. She knew Ribbon was back from her last mission, and aside from when the woman had a mission, Ribbon was almost always at most a few feet from her. Their rooms were even next door to each other. It was then that she realized that the entire Sand Castle seemed to be silent. With so many people, that was even rarer.
She frowned, setting the tome of Obscure and Rare Secrets: Dark Magic Edition on the floor. Trying to think back, to determine when she had last heard someone making noise, she got to her feet.
She opened her mouth to call for Ribbon again, but instead she froze. Her ears twitched just slightly, catching fast footsteps that were too heavy to be Ribbon’s. Narrowing her eyes, she moved to her door, pausing there because she couldn’t decide whether she should go out or wait there. She wasn’t sure what was going on, or who was out there, but she did know that she was in a dangerous place. She backed further into her room when the sound of the footsteps became louder, meaning whoever it was, was coming her way. She considered going somewhere tactically better, but as she scanned the room for the best place to hide, she saw something.
Atlas had painstakingly painted her walls for her, even though he had told her that she was being paranoid, when she had asked for something harder for invisibility spells to blend into. Regardless of him telling her that no one using an invisibility spell would be able to make it into her room, he had made sure that every inch of the room, from her walls to her ceiling, was covered with the most impressive picture that he had told her reminded him of her. There was a bleeding sunshine falling, hitting and shining on the reds and yellows and browns and purples of autumn leaves, all framing one doe in the distance.
The doe, with her sky blue eyes and dark, speckled pelt, was missing. Amadhay stared at the place on her wall, where she knew the doe should be, but it didn’t appear. The footsteps were much louder, almost right outside of her room now.
Amadhay smiled, giving a shock of laughter before she moved. Moving fast enough to catch her intruder by surprise, but not using her Gift, she grabbed the air before where the missing doe was. She felt fabric and the warmth of a body so, grabbing a good hold on the invisible person, she slammed the body into her wall. For a click, just long enough for her to determine where to grab, the person’s grasp on invisibility slipped and she saw a male, not much taller than her and frail looking.
Her door was kicked open just as she grabbed the invisible man by the neck, slipping herself behind him. Kicking the back of his legs in, she forced them both onto the carpet. She barely had time to grab her ceremonial knife from the floor, where she had left it, before there was another man standing above her. He had a staff aimed at her and from the decorated orb at the top, she was going to guess that it was a magical one rather than a fighting staff.
“You do anything and I slit his throat,” she threatened before the magician could open his mouth.
His eyes went from her, to the invisible body she was grappling. While the man she was holding didn’t become visible, he did speak.
“She’s not bluffing. She has me. She’ll kill me. Please. Don’t do anything, please, please I don’t want to die,” he cried in a voice much younger than she was expecting, forcing her to change her approximation of him from man to inexperienced boy.
Not that the change did anything but give her the upper hand. “Shh,” she pretended to whisper, keeping her eyes on the staff rather than the magician. The problem with staffs was, though they added more power to normal spells, they also lit up before doing anything and that would give her enough time to get away. She hoped. “I don’t want to kill anyone. I’m not going to hurt you so long as your friend puts. His. Staff. Down,” she ordered the last few words of the magician, who had shifted the staff from one hand to another.
“Please Diable. Please just do what she says,” the invisible person said, making her look up at the magician instead of his staff. She gave a quick laugh. Standing there, looking strange with clothes on, was one of the twins that Atlas kept painting. He didn’t look concerned, in fact, he looked a little too concentrated for her liking.
She had the click of warning when his staff lit the pink of a lethal spell to activate her Gift. Then, even using her Gift she had to scramble and run as fast as she could to get away from the spell, to get behind the magician so she wouldn’t even get a little bit of the spell on her. She barely managed.
Even before she let go of her Gift, she felt more than saw the spell hit the invisible man. It lit up his body a bright gold before he became visible again, a small man with his limbs at awkward angles and his head turned backwards. She held her breath, losing control of her Gift as she stared at the body of the magician’s partner in horror. Who just killed their partner to get at someone else?
She was so busy staring that she almost allowed herself to be hit. Diable swung the butt of the staff back at her. With ease, she dodged it, knowing better than to touch the staff no matter how easy it would be to pluck it from his hands without him expecting it. Magicians tended to have nasty safety spells on their possessions to prevent theft.
“Why are you even here?” she asked, using her Gift to move in front of him. She watched in mild amusement as he turned to attack her, only to turn back around just in time to get her foot to his chest. She had been aiming for his head, which irritated her. She was out of shape. Not getting into real fights for two months and then only lightly sparring with Ribbon had definitely taken a toll on her.
Diable fell back into the wall. He sent a surprise spell out at her before hitting, though. Fortunately, the orb had glowed silver, meaning it was only a capture spell.
“Dore,” she muttered immediately, batting her hand through the air to swat the spell right back at him. She scoffed when his body seized before invisible bonds caught him completely still. “Well, that was anti-climatic,” she said, walking over to him.
“Oh wait,” she walked back to the other man’s body, picking up her knife. Taking care to pointedly carry the blade so that Diable could admire its sharp tip, she smiled warmly. “So, Diable. I asked you a question.” She put her foot on his chest before crouching partially atop him.
“I’m not telling you anything,” he snarled, fighting against the bonds, but his spell was strong, so strong that he barely moved.
She smiled wider. “Oh, see I had been hoping you were going to say that,” she told him, tracing the tip of her blade lightly over his cheek. It didn’t break his skin because it wasn’t as sharp as she normally kept it, yet another way she had allowed herself to get too comfortable. “Now, before I start cutting into you, I’ll give you one last chance to help yourself. Tell me why you’re here and maybe you’ll be able to recognize yourself in the mirror one day,” she promised.
He spit at her.
“Remember that I gave you a choice,” she told him calmly, wiping the spit off of her cheek. With precision due to her training, she cut off his ear, noting that the rounded tip told her that he was a human, which she supposed she had never noticed before because his ears hadn’t been the most interesting part of him the last few times she had come in on Atlas painting him or his brother.
His brother. Amadhay stood up. “I doubt you’d be here without Riacaro, now would you?” she asked, ignoring his screaming. “Maybe he’ll be more willing to tell me what I want to know, hmm?” He was still screaming in pain, which made her sigh. “Oh shush. It’s just an ear. I can think of other things I can cut off that would give you a reason to scream like that.”
“He’s not screaming in pain. He’s calling for help,” Ribbon said from the doorway. When Amadhay jolted, turning to her in shock, she smiled. The dark-skinned woman was leaning against the doorway, looking worn down. Her clothes were torn, bloody, and she had a very noticeable cut on her left cheek as well as what looked like a burn covering most of her right arm, which she held away from her body.
“Where in the Water have you been?” Amadhay demanded, stepping over Diable and up to Ribbon. She looked her friend over and could tell that she had been in a pretty serious fight, one that she had definitely won despite her wounds.
“Sorry, got a little distracted,” the woman responded, shrugging. She pushed off of the doorway and walked into the room, allowing Amadhay to see behind her, where Riacaro was lying, probably dead, though she couldn’t tell from that distance.
“What happened?” Amadhay asked, turning away from the door, to face Ribbon and Diable.
“These darling twins are working for the Skouras clan. They brought in a horde and attacked. We won,” Ribbon explained with a casual shrug. “He’s the last one.” The whimper from Diable told Amadhay that he knew what that meant.
“Ugh. If you’re going to dismember him, could you not do it in here? He’s already bleeding all over my carpet.”
Ribbon snickered. “That’s on you,” she said, kneeling before the man. “Do you know what I’m going to do to you?” when he gave no response other than closing his eyes and mouthing what Amadhay was guessing was a prayer, Ribbon grasped his head and forced it up, squeezing his cheeks until he opened his eyes. “I am going to cut you apart, drain your blood, and separate your flesh from your bones. Whoever sent you here is going to find you, bone by bone. I’ll even be nice and leave a little note with each one so that they know it’s you.”
“Don’t forget the part where you have Tenshu tie his ghost to the last bone so he’ll be the one to kill his boss,” Amadhay added, sitting at her vanity table, far enough away from both the dead body and Ribbon and Diable to feel as if she were just a casual observer.
“I was getting to that,” Ribbon replied, irritated. She turned her head to look at Amadhay. “Do you want to do this?” Amadhay shook her head. “Then shuttup.”
Amadhay sighed, staring past Ribbon, at her wall, where the doe was back in its proper place now that no invisible body was blocking it out. “It’s just difficult when you’re in my room and he’s bleeding all over my carpet.”
“If you didn’t want him to bleed, you shouldn’t have cut him,” Ribbon stated simply, picking up Amadhay’s knife. “Oh Goddess, tell me you didn’t waste your good blade on him.” She gave Amadhay a long look. “Now we’re going to have to get you a new pretty knife. Do you have any idea how picky you are?”
“I think I might have an idea,” Amadhay replied drily, tapping her toe against the desk. “So about getting him out of my room…?”
Ribbon sighed dramatically, standing up and pulling Diable up with her. “Fine. I might as well take it outside. Mitch made me clean, by hand, the mess from the last time I did it inside anyway.”
Amadhay gave her a lovely smile, cutting her eyes at the dead body. “Don’t forget the dead one, please,” she called sweetly.
Ribbon rolled her eyes. “None of us were killed, by the way, since I know you were dying to know.” She dragged Diable to the doorway, shoving him toward his brother’s body further down the hall.
Amadhay snorted. “I figured that out on my own. You’d have been a lot meaner if someone had been hurt.” She watched Ribbon as the woman reentered her room and went to the dead body.
“I didn’t say no one was hurt,” Ribbon responded, giving her a meaningful look before picking up the body easily and carrying it over her shoulder to the doorway. “Just that we took no casualties. There’s a difference, you know.”
Amadhay frowned and got up, following Ribbon. “What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked, watching as the woman narrowed her eyes in thought, looking at the twins. Diable was crying, whether in fear or sorrow for his brother, she couldn’t tell. She didn’t care, either.
“Do you think we should send both twin’s bones?” Ribbon asked instead of answering her.
“Yes, I mean, no. I—I don’t care what you do with the bodies. Do you think I don’t care if anyone is hurt?”
Ribbon looked down at her in exasperation. “I didn’t say that.”
“No, you decided to pretend to be Atlas and be all cryptic instead. What did you mean?”
Ribbon sighed, dropping the body in a heap right next to Diable, who was lain out so that he was staring right into his partner’s dead eyes. “Look, I’m sorry, Red Bird, if I hurt your feelings but you do realize that you didn’t even ask if anyone was hurt? You’ve been with us for over three months now and sometimes I get the feeling that despite how you act, you’re only here for Atlas.”
“What?” Amadhay demanded. Ribbon shook her head and held one finger up, telling Amadhay that she wasn’t finished.
“Which I understand because the two of you are strangely perfect for each other and I love the thought of the two of you loving each other. But you know, I like to think that the two of us are friends. But you just don’t seem to, and that’s a bummer, but it doesn’t matter because I have a job to do.”
Amadhay grabbed Ribbon’s uninjured wrist before the girl could lean down to pick up one of the three men in the hallway. “We are friends,” she paused, frowning as she gathered her thoughts. “I mean I only noticed something was wrong because I couldn’t find you. What does that say? You are such a crucial part of my life here, that I noticed you weren’t with me and immediately knew something was wrong. You and Kim and Ten mean so much more to me than you think you do. I swear. I’m just on mission mode right now.”
“I’m not a mission,” Diable cried.
“No, you’re a soon-to-be-dead message,” Ribbon shot back at him, turning to Amadhay and taking her hands in hers. Amadhay had thought she’d understand without her having to go into any detail. They did have the same job, after all. Ribbon probably had a mission mode of her own. “I’m sorry, Red Bird. We’re just very…close here and you’re a little off-putting in ‘mission mode,’ I guess.”
“I’m less off-putting when I’m killing something,” Amadhay muttered, looking away and making Ribbon laugh.
“I don’t think you understand the definition of off-putting, lovely.”
“I’m going to kill both of you as soon as I get free,” Diable threatened, making Amadhay and Ribbon both roll their eyes.
“Okay, we’re going to have to kill him before we can have more of a moment,” Ribbon decided. She tilted her head. “Do you want to help?”
“I call dibs on cutting him up. You get Riacaro. He’s been dead long enough that he probably stinks.”
“Riacaro’s not dead yet,” Ribbon whispered sweetly into her ear.
Amadhay went skidding back on her butt.
Before Ribbon could drop kick her, she spun, kicking Ribbon’s legs out from under her and rolling so that she was on top of the woman. Ribbon grinned fiercely at her and flipped them so that she was on top.
“I like you better below me,” Ribbon joked, holding Amadhay down by the girls wrists and sitting firmly on her waist. “Do you give?”
“Not hardly,” Amadhay muttered before crying out “Irem no Va!” Ribbon jolted up from her before the teenager could finish the spell by touching her skin.
“Nice try, but you’ll never get anywhere if I know what your spell is before you use it,” Ribbon told her before a silver ball of magic swirled into existence on her hand. She threw it to Amadhay, who used her Gift to get out of the way. The magic continued to follow her, expanding as it flew.
“See? You had no idea how to avoid that,” Ribbon stated once the ball hit Amadhay in the back, flipping her through the air several times before the girl landed flat on her back with a loud, painful thud.
“That’s enough,” Atlas said from his corner of the room. He had been pretending to read for the past zoot of their sparring session. Amadhay knew he was pretending because he had forgotten to turn a single page of the book. He hadn’t even glanced at it, instead, keeping his eyes focused on them. Amadhay was embarrassed that he was there to see her have her butt kicked by Ribbon. The woman hadn’t even had to cut and use blood magic to take her down repeatedly. It made Amadhay feel incredibly lacking.
The entire point of these sessions was to strengthen her combat magic. All she seemed to be doing was rolling on the floor to avoid Ribbon’s. With a quick glance to Atlas, Ribbon stood above Amadhay, holding her hand out to help the smaller girl up.
“Don’t worry,” Ribbon said reassuringly. She smiled at Amadhay as she pulled the aelfe to her feet. Neither of them let go of the other’s hand. “You’re getting better. Last time I took you out with a fraction of my power. This time I had to focus the ball.”
“What’s the point of this?” Atlas asked, moving between the two women now that Amadhay was standing. Ribbon let go of Amadhay first, moving back from Atlas, who was giving Amadhay an imploring look. “There’s no reason for you to be learning this. There’s no reason for you to be using this. We’ll keep you safe. You could be learning something else.”
“Like what?” Amadhay snapped, “Embroidery?” She rolled her eyes. “I’m learning magic because I like magic, not because I’m scared I’ll be attacked. Besides, sparring with Ribbon cements that. If she can take me out, she definitely isn’t going to be taken out by someone I could fight.”
Ribbon choked back a laugh, turning her back on the two. “I’ll go get some water,” she called over her shoulder as she left the room.
Atlas took Amadhay’s hands in between his own. “Please, just think on it, Amadhay. You could do something else, something more befitting a lady.”
“I’m not a lady,” she immediately retorted, pulling her hands back. “And I don’t want to do something more befitting of one. I want to learn magic that could come in handy one day.”
“But it won’t,” Atlas assured her. “You will never have need to fight while you are here. We will keep you safe.”
“I’m not going to sit around and hide behind you all,” she told him, frowning. “If someone comes at me, I’m going to fight and if you try to stop me, I will leave. You gave me the choice, Atlas. I choose to be ready and able to fight.” Not to mention, she thought, That I won’t be here with you forever.
Atlas muttered something under his breath that she didn’t hear. “I’m not going to let anything get to you,” he swore.
She sighed. “Sooner or later, something gets through even the best defense.”
Amadhay rolled her eyes and turned away from him, heading to the doorway.
“Where are you going?” he demanded.
“To get some water,” she snapped, moving faster once she heard his footsteps following her.
He didn’t try to catch up with her, but he also didn’t leave her alone. She made it to the kitchen in time to see Ribbon make a face at Kimiko, who was grinning at her with a knowing look.
“I don’t care,” Ribbon claimed as Amadhay stepped into the room. The brown-skinned woman glanced to Amadhay, past her, and then looked away. Amadhay didn’t have to look back to know that Atlas was behind her, even if she didn’t feel him. He was always following her, watching her, touching her, too close to her. She wished he would give her a breather.
She moved past the two to the sink, filling Ribbon’s favorite cup with water. She put it to her lips to take a drink, but it was lifted right out of her hands and poured down the sink.
“Filtered water is in the fridge,” Atlas stated, handing her a new cup. She gave him a bland look.
Kimiko groaned. “Atlas. Go away. Please.”
While Atlas looked to Kimiko, Amadhay picked up Ribbon’s cup and filled it up with water from the faucet once again.
“You’re stressing her out and when you stress her out, it annoys Ribbon and when they’re unhappy, I’m unhappy. If you want three pissed off girls, stay. Otherwise, go away.”
Atlas glanced to Amadhay, who pointedly drank from the cup, staring him in the eyes. He looked to Ribbon, who had her back turned to them, running a cloth over the seemingly clean table. Finally, he looked back to Kimiko, whose hands were clutching her chair, her face set in annoyance.
“Perhaps I should give the three of you time alone,” he suggested. None of them spoke, but there was an obvious ‘Ya think?’ response in the air. He nodded before turning on his heel and leaving the room. No one spoke until they could no longer hear his footsteps. By that point, Kimiko’s death grip on the chair had loosened, Ribbon’s shoulders had relaxed, and Amadhay had finished her water.
“Is it just me, or is he up your butt more than usual?” Kimiko asked, irritation still heavy on her husky voice.
“He’s so far up my ass that I’ve considered having him surgically removed,” Amadhay snapped, making Ribbon giggle.
“I know a great wart remover,” Kimiko joked, heading out of the kitchen. “I’ll keep him busy for today. Just know you owe me.”
“You have my undying love,” Amadhay called after her, moving to Ribbon’s side.
“I’d rather have your help with my hair tomorrow!”
Ribbon was still cleaning an imaginary mess on the table when it was just her and Amadhay left in the kitchen.
“I’m pretty sure that whatever you were cleaning has moved to another state of existence by now,” Amadhay quipped, bumping Ribbon’s hip with her own.
Ribbon gave a soft laugh. “You’re probably right,” she said, dropping the cloth and looking at Amadhay. Neither spoke for a while, and then Ribbon spoke again. “He’s only hovering because he—”
“No. I don’t want to talk about Atlas. No Atlas for the next, like, ten zoots, okay?” Ribbon laughed, but Amadhay pressed it. “Okay?”
“Okay,” Ribbon agreed. “No Atlas for the next ten zoots.”
Amadhay nodded and relaxed, smiling up at her friend. She noted that the tiny silver ball in her left nostril had been replaced by a tiny snowflake. She realized then that the day was a holiday.
“It’s Atwea today, isn’t it?” she asked, merely mentioning it as a conversational topic.
Ribbon perked up at the mention. “Oh please, please, please let me take you to the Atwea festival. Please?” she pleaded.
Amadhay had every intention of going if it excited Ribbon that much. The best part, in her opinion, was that they would be somewhere warm, so the outdoors festival for the first day of winter wouldn’t be horrible. “I dunno,” she said instead, pretending to think about it. “Festivals aren’t really my thing.”
Ribbon deflated for all of a click. “Yes they are! You love festivals, you ass. C’mon. Please? Please? Please?”
Amadhay giggled. “Okay, okay. I love festivals. Are Ten and Kimmy coming?”
Ribbon shrugged. “Probably not. Crowds give Kimmy a stomach ache and I think Ten and Nico are out. So…just me and you.”
There was a shy look from Ribbon that turned coy after a click as Amadhay considered what the woman had said. She knew for a fact that Kimiko loved crowds because it was like a smorgasbord for her. Nico and Tenshu had only just come back for a few days from their “missions” with Wonder Girls and Co. But she wasn’t going to say anything. She liked just being with Ribbon. It was always nice when they were able to go out just the two of them.
“Is there a specific dress code?” Amadhay asked. She had never gone to an Atwea festival other than the one the Hakinato First Family threw back at Hartin, and she had always been dressed by her servants in attire that her aunt, Arche Loralyn, had chosen and Arne Riff had approved beforehand.
When Ribbon got a calculating look, Amadhay knew that the answer was ‘No,’ but that her friend was planning on dressing her a specific way anyway. “Well,” Ribbon began.
“Alright, you just go and pick it out. I’ll wear what you want. But I get to choose what you wear,” Amadhay interrupted her before she could come up with some excuse.
Ribbon stared at her for a few breaths before grinning. “Just remember that these festivals are family friendly and I have an image to maintain.”
Amadhay snorted. “Really? As the unknown princess?” She wasn’t exaggerating. In the past few weeks, they had gone out onto the streets quite regularly. Tenshu, Nico, and Kimiko were all recognized and treated appropriately at least once per outing. Ribbon, on the other hand, had yet to be recognized by a single Palnokian. Amadhay was beginning to think that she was invisible.
“You never know,” Ribbon replied, heading out of the kitchen, towards their rooms. Amadhay followed her. “One of these days, I might get unlucky.”
“Yeah, you’re going to be recognized the same time I am,” Amadhay countered, though she was sure that it was more likely she would be recognized than Ribbon. That always made her a bit wary about going out for something as big as a festival. The more people gathered together, the more likely someone knew of her. Even though Ribbon had tried to convince her that Palnokians didn’t care much about Roadesian nobility, it was still a possibility that a Phoegani member or a wandering noble might be there and spot her.
However, that wasn’t a worry for Atwea. Everyone wore snowflake masks for the festivities. Five year ago, she and her sisters had gotten separated and despite the fact that not only was it before any of them had hit puberty and they were all nearly identical aside from the eyes and spoors, but they had been wearing identical teal dresses, and still they hadn’t been able to find each other for zoots, and only then because they’d all managed to have to go to the bathroom at the same time. That’s how hard it was to identify someone during Atwea festivities.
“Do you have a snowflake?” Ribbon asked as they turned the hallway to their rooms.
Amadhay gave her a droll look. “Why would I have gotten one?”
Ribbon rolled her eyes. “I dunno. Usually Stefan and Nico go ape shit and decorate the place in them and me and Kimmy grab up a few to make our masks.”
Amadhay smiled at the thought. “I never got to make my own. It was always made for me by the winner of the Autumn Lovers contest.”
Ribbon gave her questioning look. “Autumn Lovers contest?”
Amadhay raised her eyebrows. “It’s a big deal in Ha’s Region, really in all of Roadesia. Artists come from all over with some sort of art of autumn and a panel of master artists judge them for the best.”
“Huh,” Ribbon said thoughtfully. “And the winner gets to make your masks?”
“And the winner makes masks for the First Family for a year until the next Atwea festival, when they’re released from the contract. It gets them a lot of novelty and whatever else artists want.”
“Does it pay?” Ribbon asked, pausing at Amadhay’s door.
“Of course. Plus they’re boarded at the Hakinato homestead, fed, and get everything they need for their work,” she said as she walked towards Ribbon’s room.
“Hey, maybe I’ll do that when you go back. That way I’d be able to see you on the regular,” Ribbon tossed back at her before entering Amadhay’s room.
Frowning after her friend, she lightly pushed on Ribbon’s door to be sure none of her nasty privacy spells were in place. They weren’t. “Go back?” Amadhay asked herself before entering her friend’s room. Did Ribbon think she had plans to go back to Hartin? Besides the fact that she had no interest going back to the Phoegani, she was presumed dead. Going back there was pretty much number one on her list of things not to do.
She shook her head to get the thought out of her mind. She’d talk to Ribbon about it later, but for the time being, she was going to focus on the festival and how much fun they would have. And the first matter of business was going through Ribbon’s closet
She scanned the room, more just by habit than for any real reason. The closet was slightly ajar, bathroom door wide open, and all of the windows were open. The faint ocean scented breeze made the gauzy curtains similar to the ones on Amadhay’s canopy flow inward. As much of the bathroom as she could see was empty, but Amadhay still moved far enough in that direction to be sure that no one was in there. The furniture in Ribbon’s room was close enough together to make it difficult for any average sized person—if Amadhay’s size counted as average—to hide behind, under, or between. Leaving the closet for last, she glanced to Ribbon’s bed.
The high bed had a redwood frame, with at least three feet below the bottom of three mattresses. Her bed was made, with silver sheets neatly covering all three mattresses, a pair of body pillows in the shape of Ribbon’s favorite actors on top of the sheets, and the intricately made, glittery comforter she never used but had for show folded neatly at the foot of the bed. No one under or in the bed, but there was a beautifully hand-carved mask.
Amadhay picked it up before she could stop herself, smiling slightly when she saw that the eyeholes were in the shape of gingerbread girls. Ribbon loved gingerbread cookies, so it was a pretty good guess that the mask had been made specifically with the blood witch in mind. The snowflake mask branched from the eyeholes, rather than the mouth-hole, which was irregular, and glittered as Amadhay turned it in her hands. It looked delicate, with only thin spindles of material tying into thin knots to cover most of the face and curved where Ribbon’s face would.
Smiling to herself, Amadhay moved to Ribbon’s closet, too distracted by the mask to finish her check of the room. She walked into the room-sized closet and looked around. Ribbon had a system to her clothes, separating them first into situations, and then into colors. The section with her jeans and sundresses was normally where the woman chose, but for this festival, Amadhay was looking at the less casual clothing. There were long gowns, pantsuits, and full body outfits that looked like costumes, but that, again, wasn’t what Amadhay was looking for.
For Atwea, only commoners and performers wore costumes. As the princess, Ribbon needed to be dressed formally, but not so much that she would stick out Ribbon seemed to pride herself on being able to blend in with the crowds. Amadhay could respect that, but the part of her brain that had been trained and had the proper etiquette drilled into her head told her that she couldn’t just go wandering around looking like a commoner.
She was looking through green dresses, short enough to not be formal, but dressy enough to not be casual, when she hit a dress that was entirely out of place. In the mass of green, which was unsurprising given that Ribbon’s favorite color was green, was a pale, silvery-lilac dress. Amadhay’s breath caught for the slightest click before she pulled the dress out.
No, it wasn’t the dress Ribbon had worn to the Emvia party four years ago, but it was strikingly similar. It was the same color, had only one strap, and would undoubtedly hang on her in the same way. Amadhay smiled to herself, touching it lightly. For a moment, she considered looking for the original dress, but stopped herself. It was another time, and they had been different people.
She quickly plucked its hanger from the rack, grabbed the shoebox on the shelf above it, and left the closet, pushing the door closed with her butt. With the mask in one hand, the dress in the other, and the shoebox under her arm, she left Ribbon’s room and entered her own.
The first thing she noticed was that there was a snowflake mask for her as well. Just as Ribbon’s had, her mask sat on her bed, its white a stark contrast to the black of her sheets.
The second thing she noticed was that her room was a wreck. Shoes, tops, pants were all over the floor, with dresses flung even further. Ribbon sat in her closet, looking from one gold dress to the other. One, that looked suspiciously similar to the one she had worn that Emvia party, was decidedly less covered than the second. It had no straps to hold it up, depending entirely on its tightness to her chest to do the job, and would cling to her like a second skin. It was as if someone had taken the old dress and cut it off at the thighs so that the redeeming part of it, the tulle skirt, was gone. The second dress was probably more appropriate for a family festival, especially if Ribbon expected Amadhay to run around with her. It had simple cap sleeves, a sweetheart neckline, and a loose skirt starting at the hips that made it to her knees.
Amadhay sat down next to Ribbon and dropped the shoebox on her lap before handing over the silver dress and snowflake mask. “Having some difficulties?” she joked.
Ribbon gave an exasperated huff. “Yes,” she said before looking at the dress Amadhay had chosen. She gave a small smile. “But I think you just made it easier.”
The older girl tossed the first dress into the closet and handed Amadhay the sleeved one. “Did you see your mask? It’s pretty epic.”
Amadhay looked around her room before looking back at Ribbon. “You’re cleaning this, right?”
Ribbon rolled her eyes before giving three distinct popping noises and snapping her fingers. The clothes jumped from the floor and flew back into the closet. Amadhay caught sight of them hanging themselves before the panel of the closet slid back into place, leaving Amadhay looking at the doe painted on the panel.
“Done,” Ribbon said smugly before standing up. “So, mask?”
Amadhay turned her back on Ribbon as the woman stripped out of her workout clothes. Listening as Ribbon said her normal cleaning spell, knowing that the woman only said it aloud for her benefit, Amadhay moved to her bed and picked up the mask, looking it over. The mouth-hole caught her eye immediately because it was in the shape of a key. The eyeholes were in the shape of cat eyes and, when she looked closely, she saw writing etched into the plaster. She couldn’t quite make it out, but it was the same writing on both sides. Other than those differences, the delicate knotting and branching was very similar to Ribbon’s, the only difference being how the mask stayed to her face. Ribbon’s knotted round her ears. Amadhay’s had a thin band that went around her head and could be slightly adjusted to keep it in place
“Where did these come from?” she asked, looking back at Ribbon, who was hopping on one foot, trying to get a heeled shoe onto the other.
“I think Nico. Stefan would’ve made them full head masks.”
Amadhay nodded, thinking it over. She had never really thought of Nico and Stefan as the artistic types. Nico was quiet and withdrawn around her, so she supposed she really didn’t have any reason to have made any assumptions about him either way. But Stefan, with his hands-on attitude and boisterous stories was a stark contrast to the studious, serious and dignified attitudes of every artist she’d ever met in Hartin.
She shrugged the thought away, pulling her tank top off.
“Need me to rebutton the bra?” Ribbon asked, suddenly right behind Amadhay.
For a moment, the younger girl considered moving away, not comfortable with anyone but her servants touching her back. But then, she nodded, knowing that it would be simpler for her friend to change the setting from workout to casual than for her to spend the next three clicks awkwardly moving the straps so that they were supporting her chest instead of inhibiting movement. With three smooth moves Ribbon did just that, unbuttoning all the straps, untwisting them, and then rebuttoning them.
“Good?” Ribbon asked, still standing behind Amadhay, her hands on her shoulders. With every breath, Amadhay felt her hair press against Ribbon’s chest. Instead of speaking, she nodded. “Good,” Ribbon said, moving back. “Then get dressed, ya hermit.”
“Your mother is a hermit,” Amadhay muttered jokingly, dropping out of the shorts she’d been wearing.
“Scarlet would be greatly insulted,” Ribbon quipped before repeating the spell she had used on herself.
“Got it the first time,” Amadhay assured her. “Irem rin,” she said, brushing down from her chin to her breast. She felt a tingle on her skin before turning to Ribbon. “Should I have felt a tingle?” she asked.
Ribbon nodded. “That’s how you know it worked,” she answered, looking into the mirror to put on her mask.
Amadhay nodded, finally pulling the dress onto herself. As she turned to Ribbon, her quick reflexes caught the shoes the taller girl had thrown to her before she even realized that the shoes were headed for her. The gold and black of the heels matched the dress, but Amadhay still paused.
“Are we sure we want heels?” she asked warily. “What if we have to run?”
“You can’t run in heels?” Ribbon asked, distractedly as she played with her hair, pinning the curls down to make the hair fluff to one side of her head.
“I can but I’d prefer not to?” Amadhay suggested, playing with the mask. Ribbon looked at her for a moment before shrugging.
“The wear something else,” she suggested. “Because there will be running. Running with the crowds, running games, running for food. Running is what Atwea is about.”
“I thought it was about winter,” Amadhay joked, setting her heels down at the edge of her bed. She kicked off her workout sneakshoes and slid into a pair of black shoes that slipped onto her feet and stayed with no straps.
“Need help with your mask?” Ribbon asked, approaching Amadhay again.
She didn’t. “Yes,” Amadhay said, holding it up for Ribbon. The dark-skinned woman grinned and took it, pressing it gently to Amadhay’s face. Where the face contours had been on the mask fit perfectly to the shape of her face and, for a moment, Amadhay wondered how Nico had been able to get her face perfectly molded for the mask. Ribbon pulled Amadhay’s hair down from its ponytail and worked the backing through the curls, weaving hair into the sides of the mask.
“Just making sure that it won’t fall off,” Ribbon explained unnecessarily.
Once the mask was fitted perfectly, Ribbon stepped back and Amadhay smiled at her.
“You look like beautiful,” Ribbon told her.
Amadhay gave her a small smile. “So do you.”
As if flustered, Ribbon looked away, to the clock beside the doorway. “We should get going. It’s been going for a few zoots now. Any later and we’ll miss all the good stuff.”
Amadhay nodded, headed toward the door. Ribbon beat her to it and took her hand. Amadhay didn’t say anything about it, simply smiling to herself as Ribbon led them from her room and out of the building.
It wasn’t until they were walking along the beach that Amadhay thought to ask about the festival. Aside from a few major points—such as the snowflake masks for Atwea—different places celebrated the holidays differently and considering Palnoki was a separate entity from the rest of Roadesia, she wouldn’t have been surprised if they had completely different traditions.
“What type of festival is this?” she asked.
“A winter one,” Ribbon said with a grin.
Amadhay rolled her eyes. “Back in Hartin, we celebrate Atwea with a big, public gathering with artists and performers and lots of dancing, sampling of trades and a free full course meal for everyone there.”
Ribbon grinned. “You’ll see,” she sang.
Amadhay could see, not too far in the distance, large groups of people. Where the tan sand turned white seemed to be where the festivities began. People were swathed in colors ranging from pastel to eye-blisteringly bright, with the only commonality being white masks on all of their faces. Clothing ranged from casual swimwear and jeans to exquisite costumes and expensive formal wear. There were even a few people wandering around, looking suspicious, in sneakwear.
As they got closer to the festivities, the music hit hard. It went from quiet and calm to loud and energetic in a click, making Amadhay aware that there must have been a spell over the festival to keep the sounds from going too far. That made sense. Besides the castle being only a mile or two away, the Qwuill headquarters were even closer, and nothing was worse than interrupting a Qwuill with loud, repetitive sounds. And she had no doubt that at least one Qwuill had chosen to keep working instead of joining in here, because Quills tended to be rather single minded when they started on a task.
The drums and feet pounding got into Amadhay’s body, making her move to the beat. Ribbon grinned at her, swaying to the sound of the strings. When the vocals began to the song, the two of them were on the white sand and pressed in close to the crowds.
No moon, no sun. Tonight we’ll come undone.
Ribbon’s lips were to Amadhay’s ear. “Dance with me?” she suggested.
“Let’s look around first,” Amadhay yelled over the music, sizzling, chattering, waves crashing, and sounds of people enjoying themselves.
Ribbon nodded, pulling Amadhay into her right before a group of inebriated teenagers rushed through the crowd, shrieking and giggling into the night. They sounded drunk off of the mood, rather than alcohol, and Amadhay was positive that they were succubi.
“Stay close,” Ribbon suggested and Amadhay nodded, keeping hold to the woman’s hand. They shied to the sides of the crowd, away from the performers and the dancing crowds.
When we’re alone, oh when we’re alone. When we’re alone…
Once they were away from the stage, there was much more room to move and Amadhay was able to walk at Ribbon’s side, rather than pressed behind her. The aelfe looked around, at the booths and stalls of all sizes. There was food everywhere, interspersed with aura readings, future-scrying, costume rentals, different clothing tents, specialized healers, weapon tents, animal tents, and games everywhere. A smile broke onto Amadhay’s face when she recognized one of the tents as that of a painter Arne Riff had banned from Hartin after the shifter had painted a humorous image of her uncle riding a dragon and fighting a phoenix.
“C’mon.” She pulled Ribbon after her, headed for the tent.
The blood-aelfe took one look at the pair of them and grinned widely, showing off sharp canines. “Couple portrait?” ge asked, already pulling out ges brown, black, gold, and green paints.
Amadhay looked hopefully to Ribbon, who rolled her eyes playfully. “Sure, why not?” she agreed, walking into the tent behind Amadhay when the painter gestured them in.
“Free picture is what I want to draw you. Paid picture is nice picture that you want.”
“Free,” Amadhay said before Ribbon could reach for her purse. She wanted to know what he would make of them.
As if ge had been hoping she would say that, ge rubbed ges hands together eagerly. “Sit, sit.” Ge gestured to the small loveseat that just barely fit the two of them.
They were close together, but neither complained. Amadhay was watching the painter closely as ge easily moved ges brush over the blank canvas. Ge never dipped into the paint, but paint did disappear from the palate, and combined with the speed ge used, Amadhay was positive that ges Gift had to do with painting. Ge was a speed painter, working even faster than Atlas did, but it didn’t seem to translate to a less than beautiful painting.
Amadhay glanced to Ribbon, who was looking around the tent, at the paintings that were hanging. When the woman laughed, Amadhay followed her gaze to a painting of Stefan with a wide, crazy smile and holding an oversized stuffed animal on his back. Snorting, she looked around the tent as well to find an image with Cowboy and Scarlet, Scarlet with her normal scowl and holding onto a rope around Cowboy’s waist as the vampire rode a toy horse.
“How much for that one?” Ribbon asked, pointing to the one with Scarlet and Cowboy.
The painter didn’t even look up. “Free if I keep this one.”
Amadhay made a face.
“How much if we keep this one and take that one?” Ribbon asked, lightly bumping Amadhay with her shoulder to let her know she knew how much she wanted the painting.
The painter made a face, pausing to think up a price. “100 credits,” ge said, dabbing at the painting.
Ribbon rolled her eyes, but reached for her purse. Except it wasn’t there. Amadhay took a moment to try to remember if Ribbon had brought a purse, and came to the decision that no, she hadn’t. So they had no money.
“Sorry, Red Bird,” Ribbon muttered, looking disappointed. “I can run back and get credits.”
“No, it’s fine,” Amadhay assured her, even though she was disappointed.
The painter turned the picture to them. In the picture, Amadhay and Ribbon were holding hands, riding what looked like a carousel. Both were seated on a cartoonish wolf with green eyes, tongue hanging out in a humorous smile. Amadhay’s eyes were enormous, nearly taking up her entire face and sky blue, like they used to be. Ribbon was looking down at her with an adoring smile, her smile taking up most of her face. Their legs, while probably proportional, looked comical, with Ribbon’s nearly doubling Amadhay’s. They both wore white dresses and the scene around them was covered in snow, but they were untouched.
Somewhere between the need to laugh and admiring ges work, Amadhay felt an abrupt fear. Ge had painted them without masks. Ribbon obviously noticed it as well, because she tensed, staring at their faces.
Ge handed them the painting of Cowboy and Scarlet rolled into a tube and when both girls gave gem a hard look, ge put a finger to ges lips. “I understand secrets.”
“We’ll be back for that,” Ribbon warned gem, pointing at the picture of them.
Ge shrugged. “I doubt it.”
With that, Ribbon and Amadhay left the tent. They wandered about for a bit, but there was a slight tension between the two of them and everyone around, as if they were worried others might know who they were.
“Ignoring that weirdness, food?” Ribbon asked after nearly thirty clacks, obviously trying to get her mind off of the painter and the painting.
“Sure,” Amadhay replied, letting the music distract her. She wanted to have fun, not think about being outed. While she didn’t think the painter had any plans to tell anyone she was alive or where she was, she still wasn’t comfortable with him having been able to see right through their masks like that.
“Meat, plant, or unhealthy?” Ribbon asked.
“Unhealthy,” Amadhay decided.
Ribbon grinned. “Good. I was eyeing those deep fried chips for a bit now.”
Amadhay followed her gaze to the chip vendor. “Which ones?” she asked. There were chips of almost anything that could be cut. The fish chips looked especially appetizing to her.
Amadhay made a face. “I said unhealthy, not suicide.”
Ribbon stuck her tongue out. “You don’t have to eat it if you don’t want it.”
They stood in line at for the deep fried chips behind a person, whose mask hid their gender, wearing a beautiful, translucent cloak. Amadhay wanted to reach out and touch it, but every time she did, she caught herself. After the sixth time of this, Ribbon tapped the person on their shoulder.
“Hey, hi. This might be strange, but she wants to touch your cloak. Can she? She’s going crazy here.”
Amadhay flushed when the person looked down at her, a knowing smirk on their face. “Of course,” they said with a voice like warm honey. “It’s spidersilk from the arachin weavers down there,” they pointed down the aisle that they had not explored yet.
They held their cloak out and Amadhay felt the fabric, rubbing it between her fingers. The pale blue translucent silk felt smoother than any fabric she’d ever touched before. She gave a quick sniff, and while it gave off a hint of magic, the only real scent coming from the fabric was frost.
“It’s beautiful,” Amadhay muttered, letting go of the cloak.
The person smiled and turned back to the vendor in time to order a pocket of deep fried tomato slices.
Once the person wasn’t paying attention to them, Amadhay looked to Ribbon. “We have to go back to the castle. I really want one of those cloaks.”
Ribbon grinned. “I can be really quick if you want to stick around here.”
Amadhay nodded to the person as they turned and smiled at them, giving a small wave before walking away. “I can go with you.”
Ribbon rolled her eyes. “We don’t both have to go,” he said before looking to the vendor. “One pocket of pizza, one of…?”
“Fish,” Amadhay supplied, making Ribbon roll her eyes.
“Just because your share is a cat, doesn’t mean you have to act like one all the time.”
Amadhay stuck her tongue out. “I like fish, you butt.”
The vendor turned back, shoving the sleeves of deep fried food at them. They almost had grease covered dresses, but pale hands caught the food before it could drop onto them.
“Watch what you’re doing!” Amadhay snapped.
“Hurry up,” the vendor stated, waving them off without another glance, already asking the people behind them what they’d like.
“Thanks,” Ribbon told the person who was holding their food. The man was dressed from head to toe in white, with a full wrap-around snowflake mask, a white suit, white shoes, white skin, even white hair. It was the red eyes that gave him away.
“Careful. It’s hot,” Atlas said, handing them their food.
Ribbon glanced at Amadhay, who rolled her eyes. “Thanks,” she said, taking her fried pizza.
Amadhay turned on her heel to walk away from Atlas, but when Ribbon didn’t move with her, she paused, looking back at her friend as she looked questioningly to Atlas, who was saying something too softly for her to hear, though Ribbon seemed to. Ribbon nodded and gestured with her free hand to her side, where her purse should have been.
Atlas shook his head, and though she couldn’t see his mouth because of his mask, she knew he was giving the brown-skinned woman an indulging smile. He glanced to Amadhay before looking back to Ribbon and handing her a pouch of what were probably credits. The man tilted Ribbon’s head down and the taller woman leaned forward so that he could press his mouth to her forehead in what would have been a kiss is his mouth hadn’t been covered and he had been able to press his mouth to the gap where the interlocking pronds of the snowflakes showed her skin.
“Have fun,” Atlas told both of them loudly enough for Amadhay to hear. He turned before either of them could say anything more, a tube strapped to his back similar to the one Ribbon carried.
Ribbon grabbed Amadhay’s hand. “C’mon,” she said, jingling the credit pouch. “Let’s buy the painting then get you a cloak, okay?”
“Absolutely,” Amadhay said excitedly, letting Ribbon lead her away. As they moved through the crowds, back to the painter, she couldn’t help but to look over her shoulder to see if Atlas was following them.
Of course he was.
“Oi, Sexy Bird, we’re going swimming. Come with,” Ribbon commanded, pulling Amadhay’s attention from the book she was reading.
Because she wanted to better understand the others, she was reading in depth explanations of different races. She was working on a blood witch book and had already finished one on succubi and two on necromancers. The one on succubi had been a bit of an eye-opener on Kimiko. It made her far more understanding of the pair-obsessed girl’s mood swings. Her emotions completely depended on the emotions surrounding her and how sated she was at any given time. She thought that had to be worse than being an empath.
“No,” Amadhay said, turning the page of her book. She wasn’t really feeling going out in the sun and getting asymmetrical tan-lines and jumping into the water and having sand stick to her. She’d done that the first few weeks they had been here, until she had wounded herself, and since then hadn’t even left the building. The novelty of being away from the cold had already worn thin.
Besides, every time she hung out with Kimiko, Tenshu, and Ribbon in a group, the three of them kept asking her questions about her sexuality and her sexual experience. They were embarrassing and she was tired of dodging answering.
“Wasn’t asking,” Ribbon stated, pulling Amadhay up to her feet. She glanced at the book and rolled her eyes. “Besides, instead of reading about a blood witch, you can hang out with one in the flesh. It’ll be just like you’re still reading.”
“Only not at all,” Amadhay countered. “I’m sorry. Not really. I just don’t want to go out today. My head still hurts.”
Ribbon sighed. “Red Bird, I will carry you outside if I have to. I don’t want to, but I will if you force me. Your wound healed last week. You’ve been inside almost since we moved here and that’s unhealthy. There’s a sun, warmth, and fresh air outside. You need to have fun.”
“I have fun,” Amadhay complained. “I have loads of fun. I just want to read today.”
“Nope. C’mon,” she pulled Amadhay by her hands, smiling sweetly. “I even got you the cutest swimsuit yesterday. I wanna see you in it.”
Amadhay rolled her eyes. “Now I see what’s really going on,” she whined, but allowed Ribbon to pull her out of the library. Ribbon grinned, turning and pulling Amadhay after her. The woman put Amadhay’s small hands on her narrow hips. “You just want to see me in a different swimsuit.”
Amadhay squeezed Ribbon’s hipbones. The swimsuit she had asked Atlas (because she knew Ribbon and Kimiko would ignore what she wanted) to get her was perfect for her. It was black one-piece, with long sleeves and a brief-styled leg, almost a wetsuit and just as durable if she were to get lost in the water and go drifting for a while. She just liked to be prepared.
“I cannot tell a lie. I wanna see you in a real swimsuit.”
“My swimsuit is a real swimsuit,” she argued.
“Real ugly,” Ribbon gave her a look. “You wear it and all I can think is that you’re planning a deep sea mission. The one I got you will make your ass look fantastic.”
Amadhay snorted and moved faster so that she could press against Ribbon’s back. “Just my ass?” she teased.
“No, you’re right. I got it with your boobs in mind too. It’s going to make all of you look fantastic. And I wanna do it today ‘cause Atlas isn’t around to hog you.”
Amadhay snickered. “Just tell me it has enough fabric to actually be called a swimsuit.”
Ribbon let go of Amadhay’s hands to hold her hands to her own chest in a gesture of mock insult. “Me? Trick you into barely wearing anything? Why I never!”
“That wasn’t an answer,” Amadhay pointed out.
“I didn’t hear a question,” Ribbon said, sticking her tongue out as she looked back at Amadhay, who rolled her eyes again.
“What if I don’t want to swim?”
“Fucking cats and water,” Ribbon muttered before shrugging, “I can assure you that I won’t mind it if you just lay out on a towel. I can rub you down in lotion to make sure you don’t burn,” she said with an exaggerated wink that was purely intended to make Amadhay laugh, which she did.
“You’re such a pervert,” Amadhay told her as they entered Ribbon’s room. She didn’t have to look very far to see what she knew had to be her swimsuit. The gold one, consisting of three simple straps of fabric to cover only the chest and intimate bits, connected by thin string was obviously Ribbon’s, given that neither the top nor bottom would have fit much of Amadhay. While they were able to occasionally share clothing, Ribbon had a very tall, slender frame while Amadhay was incredibly curvy and short.
No, her swimsuit was also a one-piece, but thankfully had quite a bit more cloth. It was red, with a full top to hold her chest in, tying around the neck. The bottom was cut quite a bit higher than she’d normally wear, but considering it wasn’t a thong, she chose not to complain. There was a rectangular cut out pattern going from under the chest, down to her hips. It was strange, but symmetrical, so she couldn’t complain. All in all, it was a revealing swimsuit that she couldn’t really complain about.
When she looked at Ribbon’s smug smirk, she knew the woman knew it, too. “You’ve hidden my swimsuit, haven’t you?” she asked with a resigned sigh.
“Please,” Ribbon said. “I destroyed that thing as soon as I got this one.”
Amadhay sighed again. “And I suppose if I say no, you’ll dress me and carry me out?”
“Correct,” Ribbon nodded.
Amadhay gave a long sigh. “Fine.”
“Good. Hurry up!” Ribbon said, tugging her sundress over her head. “Kim and Ten are already out there and Kim burns like a piece of toast, so the sooner we go out, the sooner I can slather her in lotion.”
Amadhay rolled her eyes, trying not to watch as Ribbon stripped all the way down. She was always a little self-conscious when she had to get unclothed around Ribbon. While Amadhay knew she was attractive, she couldn’t help but envy Ribbon’s long legs and slender frame. She always felt fat around the woman, which she knew was silly because she was too muscular to be fat. Curvy and still plump? Yes. She hadn’t hit aelfen puberty yet, so she was still carrying her growing fat, which only served to make her curvier, not fat.
But that didn’t make it any easier when Ribbon just stripped in front of her. She had no fat anywhere on her, just pure, lean muscle. So when she donned the tiny swimsuit, Amadhay wasn’t even going to attempt to say she didn’t look hot. That would be a lie. Even if it was quite a bit less than Amadhay would ever feel comfortable wearing, that was what amazed her about Ribbon. The woman was incredibly comfortable with her body, which was somewhat surprising, considering the scars all over her lower torso, especially the really bad ones close to her groin.
Amadhay was self-conscious about the minor scars she had gained from missions and training, though of course that was more because they made her asymmetrical than because she was embarrassed or ashamed of having them. She was an assassin. Scars happened. If she didn’t have scars, that would mean that she hadn’t learned anything.
But those same scars were part of the reason she really didn’t want to put on the swimsuit. The cutout parts would show the three mostly vertical claw marks from the Feral she’d almost botched in capturing two years ago. It would show the burn mark on her right hip, from being too slow to avoid Rea’s fire breath in training. It would show the still healing scars from Madra, especially the one on her back and the worst of the bite marks on her shoulder. It would even show the scar right at her tailbone, which she got when she tried to heal Indigo and had only transferred his wound to herself.
Ribbon poked her in the stomach. “C’mon. Kimmy’s probably turning into a lobster out there.”
Amadhay smiled, pushing back all of her worries about her own imperfections. “You go first. I’ll catch up.”
Ribbon’s disbelieving look was expounded upon when the woman crossed her arms over her relatively small, but surprisingly perky, chest. “And then you’ll never come out. Nope. Change.”
Amadhay sighed. “I’ll come out, I swear. I just need a moment.”
Ribbon looked from Amadhay, to the swimsuit, and then back at the girl questioningly before raising her eyebrows, a look of realization upon her face. “You’re being shy.”
“I am not!” Amadhay disagreed, flushing as red as the swimsuit. “I just need a moment to figure out how to stuff myself into that.”
“I’ll help you,” Ribbon responded with a wink, making Amadhay roll her eyes.
“Can you not?” she suggested, pointedly tossing her tank top off to prove that she wasn’t shy about her body. She stepped out of her shorts and paused, glancing back at Ribbon, who was staring at her back. “What are you looking at?” she asked defensively.
“What’s that from?” Ribbon asked, closing the distance between them. She lightly traced the scar from Madra, from the curve of her lower back, almost up to the center of her ribcage in the back. The skin was still sensitive and the touch made Amadhay shiver and almost purr.
She pulled from Ribbon, turning so that her back was no longer to the woman. She had a feeling that telling her the specifics of Cowboy’s attention on her would only make pointless difficulties. “I made a mistake,” she said simply, crossing her arms over her chest. She knew she had to take off her underwear to put the swimsuit on, but Ribbon’s rapt attention on her body was a little discomfiting.
“Did it hurt?” the woman asked, her eyes finally trailing back up to Amadhay’s.
“Yes,” she admitted freely. It had hurt in more ways than one.
Ribbon turned her back. “Okay, I’m not looking. You can change now, scaredy cat.”
“I wasn’t scared,” Amadhay muttered, but did take the chance to quickly lose her underwear. She grabbed the swimsuit off of the bed and shimmied into it as quickly as possible. Tying the bow tightly behind her neck as perfectly as she could without actually seeing herself, she fixed the swimsuit. Making sure that the cutoffs were on either side of her navel, her boobs were mostly equal, or as equal as they could get with the left one being slightly larger.
“I’m decent,” she announced to Ribbon, who laughed.
“You were decent when you weren’t wearing anything,” the woman corrected as she turned around. She gave a wolf whistle. “Looking good, Sexy Bird.”
“Why thank you,” Amadhay said, smirking. “You’re not looking too shabbily yourself, Ribby.”
“It is physically impossible for me to look bad,” Ribbon said with a shrug before she tossed her arm over Amadhay’s shoulders. “Now let’s go save Kimmy from burning.”
Grabbing up lotion from the dresser nearest the door, Ribbon steered Amadhay out of her room and out of the building as quickly as possible. Once they were outside, she slowed a bit, as if getting outside had been some great obstacle.
From the front steps of the base they all called Sand Castle, Amadhay could spot Kimiko and Tenshu running around the beach, splashing through ankle deep water. Kimiko was laughing loudly while Tenshu was brandishing what Amadhay thought looked like a starfish.
“Look who I got outside!” Ribbon called loudly, making not only the two other Palnokians, but also other people enjoying the beach, look at them. Amadhay flushed when Tenshu gave a loud wolf whistle and Kimiko squealed, making a beeline for them.
“Yes! That is exactly what I was talking about!” she exclaimed, tackling Amadhay with a hug. Both of them fell into the sand, while Ribbon had sidestepped just far enough to avoid going down with them.
“I knew there was hot underneath all that gear,” Tenshu said, giving Ribbon a high-five.
“I like to think I’m hot wearing clothes,” Amadhay sniffed.
Kimiko took a deep breath, something Amadhay now knew meant she was feeding from her, and smiled blissfully. “This is officially one of my best days ever. Definitely top twenty-four,” she decided, still hugging Amadhay.
Amadhay honestly thought it was weird how excited Kimiko was to see her in a skimpy swimsuit. They didn’t have that type of relationship, or at least Amadhay hadn’t thought they did. But Kimiko had still yet to let go of her and their chests were pressing together. In fact, Kimiko’s black swimsuit top was barely holding her chest in, which, Amadhay thought, was a definite con to the cute thing. Kimiko probably shouldn’t be running around in it; the strings holding the top together were coming loose in the back.
Amadhay, taking advantage of the fact Kimiko was hugging her, tied the top a little tighter, making sure that the tie was directly in the middle of her friend’s back. Kimiko, likewise, let go of her and fixed the bow tying Amadhay’s top to her neck, making it equal on both sides of her neck.
“That’s better,” Kimiko muttered.
Ribbon sighed. “You two are really weird. You know that, right? I feel like you two fixing each other’s symmetry is the equivalent to a hot and heavy make out session for me.”
Amadhay and Kimiko both rolled their eyes at the same time. Catching that, they burst into giggles. “Maybe,” Kimiko said, putting her arm over the shorter girl’s shoulders. “Jealous?” she teased Ribbon.
“You have no idea,” Ribbon drawled. A strange look passed between the two when Kimiko smirked, leaning down to take a deep breath from the air right at Amadhay’s face. The aelfe raised an eyebrow at the blissful look on the succubus’ face, looking questioningly to Ribbon, who had a bit of a strained smile.
Tenshu broke into the conversation again and ended the strange moment by tossing the starfish at Kimiko, who squealed even though it missed. (Which Amadhay knew had to be purposely. She’d seen Tenshu actually throwing and if he didn’t miss with a blade and seal, he sure as anything wasn’t going to miss with a starfish. It was basically a living throwing star.) She let go of Amadhay and started running again.
Amadhay looked questioningly at Tenshu, who grinned as he picked up the poor fish. “She hates starfish,” he explained before running after his sister.
Amadhay looked to Ribbon. “Well. I’m going to go find some starfish to chase her with,” she alerted the woman before darting off into the water to do just that.
Ribbon followed after her. “Wait! I haven’t lotioned you up yet,” she called.
“Don’t need it!” Amadhay called back.
“My ass!” Ribbon exclaimed, making Amadhay giggle. Instead of looking for starfish, she was now dodging Ribbon, who had the bottle between her hands. “You might not be as pale as Kimmy, but you’re still light enough to burn.”
“You’re gonna have to catch me to win the prize,” Amadhay called, laughing. She and Kimiko crisscrossed paths, nearly hitting each other, but just barely managing not to. Amadhay hopped over an intricately made sand castle, noting the detail even as she kept her attention on how far Ribbon was behind her.
“How is my prize making sure that you don’t burn?” Ribbon demanded.
“Please,” Amadhay scoffed, dashing back into the water. “This is all some ploy to be able to rub all over my body.”
“Oh no,” Ribbon exclaimed drily. “You saw right through my ploy. Whatever shall I do? Grab her!”
Amadhay ran right into two men, both of whom fell down with her. One did, however catch her by the waist. She wriggled, but since she didn’t want to hurt the unknown man if Ribbon knew him, she didn’t try too hard to get free.
“Aha!” Ribbon cried, closing the distance between them in three clicks. She had run right through the sand castle, which Amadhay thought was a shame. The man let go Amadhay go once Ribbon had her foot on the girl’s chest, lightly holding her down in the sand “Now I have you at my mercy!”
“I call cheats!” Amadhay cried out. “You had randoms catch me.”
“Amadhay, meet Diable and Riacaro,” Ribbon gestured to the identical men. Nothing about them really stood out to Amadhay other than that they were identical. “There, see? No longer randoms, so no cheat. Now stay still so I can keep you from burning.”
Amadhay sighed. “Fine,” she said, reaching up to Ribbon, who moved her foot and helped her to her feet. “But I get to help you catch Kimiko.”
“As long as I get her before she burns, I don’t really care.”
“You haven’t heard Kimiko whine when she’s burned. I’m going out of my way to do a favor for all of us. And since you’re just as obsessed with twos, I figure you’d probably be just as bad.”
She was admittedly whiney when she got uneven tan lines or burned on one side and not the other, so she couldn’t say that she blamed Ribbon too much. “It’s symmetry, not twos,” Amadhay corrected instead.
“What. Ever,” Ribbon stated, squeezing lotion into her hands. “Be ready, this is cold.”
Amadhay honestly couldn’t put into words how horrified she was that the cyborg had a sharp, pointy object to the back of her head.
Kimiko had rushed off to get Johannes and come back with almost everyone in tow. Ribbon and Atlas had immediately fussed over her while Stefan and Johannes had checked over the wound. The arachin, vampires, and reaper all stood in her doorway, looking in, and Amadhay felt like she was under observation.
“I don’t think everyone was needed to stitch up this scratch,” she muttered under her breath. The looks she received told her that they didn’t appreciate her comment.
“It’s a bit more than a scratch,” Atlas reminded her, holding hair out of Johannes’ way as the cyborg stitched the wound closed.
“And she was going to heal it herself,” Kimiko added, making Amadhay glare toward her when she received more disapproving looks.
“I didn’t know,” Amadhay whined, flinching when she felt the floss-like thread tugging at her skin.
Johannes had immediately numbed the area with a salve before doing anything else, something Amadhay was thankful for. The cyborg had even put gloves on and snarled at anyone who got too close to the wound without her permission. That was the only way this reminded her of Rea. The dragon was incredibly possessive of Amadhay’s wounds, had been since the first time Amadhay had needed medical attention, when she was four and Amaya had nearly drowned her accidentally. For some reason the dragon still refused to explain, Rea had claimed Amadhay as her patient for as long as the girl lived. No one but Rea had ever healed Amadhay, so this was a strange experience for her.
The dragon did things differently than the cyborg did. For one, Rea would have been talking to her, while Johannes had yet to say a single word. Rea had always knocked her out if she had to put in stitches or set a bone, claiming that Amadhay was too whiney and fidgety of a patient. Rea always made her go to the medical wing to be treated, whereas Johannes had brought everything to her.
“There,” Johannes finally spoke, dropping the bloody needle on Amadhay’s vanity table. Amadhay looked at her by way of her reflection in the mirror. She attempted a smile, but the cyborg had a deadly serious look on her face. “If I ever hear of you attempting self healing again, I will tear your brain out,” she threatened, making Amadhay stare at her in surprise.
“Got me?” the cyborg demanded when Amadhay didn’t say anything. Amadhay glanced to Ribbon and Kimiko, who both gave her looks that told her to answer the cyborg.
“Yes?” she tried, glancing to Atlas, who was struggling to keep himself from laughing.
“Good.” Scarlet dropped a piece of mint chocolate in Amadhay’s hand and left the room, taking the four in the hallway with her.
Yeah, Rea had never given her candy either.