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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Fantasy

Trinka and the Thousand Talismans

Trinka

and the

Thousand Talismans

by Christy Jones

 

For the One who is the Way,
and always with me on the journey.

tal·is·man:
“anything whose presence exercises a remarkable
or powerful influence on human feelings or actions”
dictionary.com, accessed 03-19-2016 

© 2016 Christy Jones

Cover & interior art, illustrations, and photographs by the author.
Special fonts by Kimberly Geswein and Emily Spadoni used by commercial license.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced
in any manner without written permission, except for brief quotations in articles and reviews. All characters and events appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Second edition

www.joneschristy.com 

…     Ellipsis     …[][]

“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.”

- Lao Tzu

h1={color:#808080;}. Chapter One

The City of Mirrors

In the tallest glass tower, in the lowest classroom, all of the students were carefully filling glass jars with clouds full of thoughts.

Except one.

Trinka’s head rested softly on her arms as they lay folded across the top of her desk. In the silence of quiet study that surrounded her, Trinka’s mind was slipping away, flying far from the tower, beyond the white walls, up into a world where there was nothing but blue…

“Trinka!”

Her head jerked. Her elbow jumped and jostled the jar at the edge of her desk. The glass teetered for a moment, then slipped over the side and shattered into a thousand pieces.

Everyone turned at the sound, then listened as the sudden tinkling of breaking glass was replaced by the steady clink-clink-clink of Mrs. Swissle’s steps sweeping toward the back of the room.

“At least it was empty,” Clarinda whispered loudly to the row of girls behind her. “Can you imagine if we had to breathe Trinka’s thoughts?”

The girls giggled softly. Trinka blinked, still coming to terms with the fact that she was not flying free, and slowly lifted her eyes to meet the gaze of those glowering down at her. She expected her teacher to lecture her on the importance of not interrupting everyone’s concentration, but Mrs. Swissle didn’t need to say anything. One look made Trinka wish she really were flying away.

Without a word, Mrs. Swissle pivoted gracefully on the delicately spiraled stiletto heel of her left glass slipper and returned to her place at the head of the class. A small, thin woman with even smaller eyes and thinner lips, she surveyed her pupils critically.

“Mrs. Swissle, may we have extra time to complete our answers?” Clarinda inquired from the front row. “I was almost finished, but a certain noise burst my concentration.” She smiled and ran a hand down her neatly bobbed hair, which was already as smooth as the surface of the glass jar on her desk.

“Our class will end at the scheduled time. Which, I might remind those of you who have been lost in thought, is very shortly.”

“But I want it to be perfect,” Clarinda insisted.

“Then you will make it perfect in the time that we have left.”

Trinka looked around. Most of the students had already filled at least two jars. Clarinda had five.

Trinka’s friend Nikolay had three empty jars on his desk, but rather than filling them, he held one of them in his hands and stared into the bottom of it, concentrating all his thoughts into a small, dense cloud. The jar gradually took on the shape of the cloud inside it, becoming slimmer and narrower until it formed a tight tube. Then he picked it up, turned it around, and whacked the bottom of it, sending the dense little cloud hurtling across the room and into the back of Clarinda’s head.

Clarinda gasped, whirled around to face him, then immediately turned toward the front, her hand waving.

“Mrs. Swissle! Nikolay hit me in the head with his thoughts! And you won’t believe what he said!”

“Not another word. I expect silence until you have completed your tests. This class is far too advanced to expect me to keep intervening like this. You are in pursuit of higher learning. Act accordingly. And remember, class,”

Nikolay suddenly sat up straight, mimicking the mantra everyone knew Mrs. Swissle was about to recite:

“Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”

Trinka couldn’t count the number of times she had heard that from her teacher and, of course, her own grandmother. But no matter how many times she heard it, Trinka was always left wondering: how could she practice doing anything perfectly if she couldn’t do it at all?

I don’t even remember what the question is, Trinka fretted. Maybe I can think of something that makes sense.

She glanced at the desks next to her. Ophelie had formed her answer jars into a perfect model of the City of Mirrors. Unlike the real cluster of towers, which were too shrouded in cloud to ever glimpse clearly all at one time, Ophelie’s model showed almost the entire city in exquisite detail. Each glass tower twisted and spiraled from its bulbous base, stretching ever thinner and higher until its tip became so delicate it seemed to disappear into the air. Clouds of thought filled each of the five main towers, and Ophelie had even managed to color her clouds with tints of blue and bits of silver, sending them swirling and shimmering in a constant motion that made her answers alive with light.

Ophelie caught Trinka’s eye, deftly picked up an empty jar, and created a tiny cloud near the top of it before passing it over. Trinka breathed in the thought and the question became clear:

Where do you see yourself?

Trinka closed her eyes and prepared herself for what she knew would come to her: nothing.

Every time she was supposed to focus, she found her mind wandering, thinking about anything except the task at hand. Or worse still, she’d keep her eyes closed for so long, waiting for something to happen, that she would simply fall asleep.

Come on, you have to do this. Where do you see yourself?

Trinka took a deep breath and stared into the empty jar, concentrating hard. The tiniest little thought began to form at the bottom, but before it could begin to grow, Trinka hesitated. Where did she see herself?

In that moment of uncertainty, the white wisps came apart, and the cloud dissolved.

Mrs. Swissle called the front row forward to turn in their answers.

Trinka tried again. A few little bits of cloud darted around the bottom of the jar, not connecting with each other. The jar wobbled in her hands, becoming taller and misshapen.

“Second row.”

Desperately, Trinka tried to make something, anything, happen, but the more she panicked, the less she was able to concentrate at all. Her hands were starting to shake badly, and the jar was getting more and more lopsided. She glanced over at Nikolay, who was hurriedly piling thoughts into all his jars and topping them off with a few sloppy twists. Distractedly, he ran his hands—still moist with clouds—through his dark hair, making it stand up in a mess of helter-skelter spikes with white stripes. Fortunately, he could make up anything at the last minute and convince everyone that it was brilliant.

Why can’t I do that? Just think of something!

Trinka tried again, but she couldn’t even get the cloud started this time. Nikolay and Ophelie were already sliding out of their pedestal seats and carefully carrying their work to the enormous candelabra-shaped display at the front of the room. Trinka felt herself following along.

Where do you see yourself?

She placed her badly warped exam jar on the lowest branch of the display. Empty.

“As you may know,” the teacher announced as the students returned to their seats, “today’s lesson has been the most important in your schooling thus far.”

Nikolay blew a soft cloud of thoughts over to Trinka. It caught on her hair and then dissolved in her face, forcing her to breathe its contents.

That’s what she said the day she brought a collection of ancient jars to show us… Nikolay’s thoughts whispered.

Despite herself, Trinka stifled a giggle.

“Many of you, although not all,” she added with a meaningful look toward the back row, “have been striving for acceptance into the Elite Academy.” Her voice swelled with pride, and Clarinda sat forward expectantly.

Airheads Academy… another puff of Nikolay’s thoughts reached her.

“Today’s results provided the entrance exam. Those of you who were serious about acceptance would have foreseen that months if not years ago and started studying.”

Mrs. Swissle paused to allow her students to murmur with surprise and anticipation.

“For your next session, you will meet with the Five and find out where you are supposed to go. If,” she emphasized, “you don’t already know.”

Clarinda smiled smugly.

“In the interim, I suggest you use this time to reflect on your future.”

As they filed out into the hall, Clarinda stopped and smiled at Trinka.

“Mrs. Swissle said she wanted silence until everyone completed their tests. You never finished yours, so does that mean you won’t be speaking anymore?”

“Not to you,” Nikolay confirmed.

Trinka followed Nikolay and left an open-mouthed Clarinda behind as they crept along the corridor to a winding passageway. Most of the students had gone into the small reflection rooms to sit and wait in silence, but Nikolay had another idea.

“The Star Chamber,” he beckoned.

They slipped past the main entrance toward the staircase that spiraled around the vast glass atrium in the center of the tower. All along the circular walls, great trees of twisted white glass spread their barren branches toward the swirls of cerulean blue far overhead. On the domed ceiling, waves of cobalt intertwined with whispers of white as the frosty patterns shimmered and shifted in an impressionistic simulation of the sky.

“Come on!” Nikolay whispered. Trinka started forward, then realized she was only looking at a reflection of her friend in the room’s many mirrors. She turned and scurried in the opposite direction, and they wound their way along the great glass banister, darting in and out of small rooms and up back stairways, to the most secret staircase of all.

Above that cloudy ceiling, in the very center of the tower, stood a room where the leaders of the city came to decisions and exchanged secrets. The chamber was protected against all kinds of unworldly listening, so that no one could ever spy into it through telepathy or talismans.

There was one device, however, that Trinka and Nikolay had found quite effective.

“Are you sure about this?” Trinka asked as Nikolay carefully swung the narrow, arch-shaped door slightly ajar and put his head close to the opening. That little crack between the wall and the door of opaque glass made a tall, thin window through which they could see and hear everything.

“What? Have they ever caught us before? Those old philosophers are so caught up in their self-reflections and their prophecies, it wouldn’t occur to them that somebody might just stand in the hall and listen.”

Trinka hesitated for a moment. She wasn’t really afraid of getting caught. She was more afraid of finding out something she didn’t want to know.

“Hey, I think they’re talking about me,” Nikolay whispered.

Trinka hesitated for a moment, then leaned over and put her ear close to the glass.

“The boy is incorrigible. He spends all his time trying to distract everyone and thinking up snide remarks.”

“He’s nothing like his brother Andrey,” another voice added.

Trinka and Nikolay exchanged knowing glances.

“What about the girl, the one who sits next to him?”

“Absolutely unbelievable. How can a girl with a sister like that have no talent at all?”

“Her sister?”

“Annelise, the star pupil of the Elite Academy from the day she arrived.”

“Ah!” the other professors sighed in recognition.

If the teachers thought Clarinda was the perfect student, it was nothing compared to the admiration they held for Annelise. Why couldn’t Trinka be more like Annelise? It was a question that everyone always asked—the teachers, their grandmother—even Trinka herself.

“Here, they’re talking about you.” Nikolay moved out of the way so Trinka could have the closer spot.

In spite of herself, she leaned nearer to the door, then tipped her head so she could see through the narrow opening into the room. Mrs. Swissle had her back toward them, with the other four members of the panel gathered in a half-circle around her. Trinka readily recognized Melisande of the Artists Academy, and Zelousha, leader of first-year Elite students. They sat at a gleaming, crescent-shaped table in tall, silvery chairs with gracefully curved armrests. The table appeared even more crowded than it really was, since its shiny surface reflected the enormous cache of exam jars, crystal candelabras, and faintly glowing glass spheres that covered it from tip to tip.

“Where is her test?” asked Qui, a pale, tight-lipped Elite professor.

“I didn’t bother to bring it,” Mrs. Swissle replied. “She never even answered the question.”

Melisande and Zelousha murmured.

Another voice spoke. “As we all know, students of this age—and even far beyond—focus mainly on self-reflection, for seeing the future of others is a task requiring particular insightfulness.”

All eyes turned to Viellie.

The last member of the panel was the eldest and perhaps the most important, but she looked the least like she belonged there. Unlike the others—poised, refined, and serious—she had a pile of curly gray hair with a few wisps sticking out, a far-off pleasant look, flushed cheeks, and a soft, dreamy smile. Maybe, Trinka considered, she looked happy because she too imagined she was somewhere else.

Viellie paused thoughtfully, and looked toward the small opening in the doorway. Trinka drew back slightly, but couldn’t pull away.

“She should not study at the Elite Academy,” Viellie pronounced softly.

Trinka was sure now that Viellie was looking right at her.

“For she has far more important things to do.”

They held their gaze for a moment before Viellie blinked and smiled. Trinka slowly eased back and softly shut the door to the Star Chamber.

“Come on, let’s go do something else,” Nikolay urged, already bored. As she followed him down the hall, Trinka couldn’t help wondering what could possibly be more important than getting into the Elite Academy?

After waiting in one of the reflection rooms and watching Nikolay wrestle with his thoughts for what seemed like forever, Trinka rejoined her classmates as they prepared to find out their futures.

Mrs. Swissle opened the door that led to the city’s steepest staircase. All eyes immediately turned up to follow the seemingly endless set of steps that spiraled out of sight.

“Today, I’ll be taking you halfway to the top. How far you go in the future is up to you.”

With one last sweeping glance, she started up the steps. The narrow corridor rang with the sound of dozens of pupils’ clinking shoes, each one striking a unique pitch as it hit the various sizes of glass steps. The effect was like the soft, unpredictable music of wind chimes, echoing in the unmoving air.

Trinka kept her eyes downcast, focusing on the faint reflection that shone up from the heavily frosted glass floor. She had only visited this part of the tower once before, when she had first started school at the Predilect. It would be a pretty view, Trinka reflected as they spiraled higher and higher, if only it weren’t covered with mirrors.

She glanced up at her classmates. Clarinda smiled and ran the tip of her tongue over her shining white teeth, checking to make sure her reflection appeared perfect. Which, of course, it did. Her hair and eyes, both dark as night, provided an ideal contrast for showing off the delicate features of her fair skin. Nikolay walked beside Trinka, pulling grotesque faces at every turn to get Trinka to laugh, but she felt only dread as they came closer to their destination.

At last, they filed into a room already filled with parents and supporters. The normally hushed atmosphere hummed with anticipation.

“I wonder why no one from your family came,” Clarinda mused in mock surprise. “Could it be because you’ve produced nothing for them to see?”

“I wish mine hadn’t,” Ophelie confided, shyly brushing the ringlets away from her wide, silver eyes. “Whenever I feel like someone’s watching me, I get so nervous that I can’t do anything right.”

Trinka nodded in understanding and stole one last look around the room. Nikolay’s father, Balakiry, sat in the front row with his son Andrey, but Trinka’s grandmother and sister were noticeably absent. She was safe.

“As you know, we are gathered to find out the futures of those who have been studying at the Predilect, hoping for acceptance into the Elite Academy,” Mrs. Swissle announced with pride “or one of the other fine callings,” she added dismissively.

She began to introduce the panel.

“Zelousha evaluated each pupil’s perception; Melisande, artistic ability. Qui looked at clarity of expression and evidence of understanding, while Viellie evaluated each student’s prophetic proficiency and overall insightfulness.”

“Whatever that means,” Nikolay whispered.

“There was one student who received top marks from all.”

Trinka wished it could be her, as it had been Annelise. Clarinda was already hovering on the edge of her seat.

“Our first choice for acceptance into the Elite Academy is…”

Clarinda’s parents exchanged glances and squeezed each other’s hands.

“Ophelie.”

A flutter of gasps arose throughout the room as Trinka’s pale-faced classmate made her way to the front.

“I must say I’m disappointed,” Melisande told her, “as you would have been my top pick for the Artists’ Academy. However, the quality of your work is just as evident on the inside as it is on the outside.” She held up Ophelie’s miniature City of Mirrors for all to see, drawing murmurs of admiration from the crowd. A flush came into Ophelie’s cheeks, and Trinka could imagine just how she felt: embarrassed by all the attention, but encouraged by their praise.

“Second choice: Clarinda.”

Looking flushed for reasons other than embarrassment and none too thrilled with her new label, Clarinda still managed to look smug as she took her place at the front of the room.

One by one, Trinka’s classmates went forward. Still her name had not been called.

“Nikolay.”

Balakiry clapped Andrey on the back as the two exchanged grins.

“Can you believe it?”

Trinka looked up to see Nikolay’s face beaming back at her, his lively, green eyes shining brightly. “Now I’ll get to make those professors wish they’d never been accepted into the Elite Academy!”

“I thought you didn’t want to get in,” Trinka said quietly.

“Well, I know.” Nikolay shuffled his feet. “But my dad’s really happy about it, and at least this way we can keep having fun together like we always have.”

“I didn’t get in.”

“Not yet, but you will. If they let me in, they’ll let in any idiot!”

Trinka half-hoped Nikolay would wait with her, but he hurried off to the hearty congratulations of his father.

“Now, for the list of students who have gained acceptance into the Artists’ Academy,” Melisande continued, but Trinka barely heard the names. Without Ophelie, that list was small, and soon, it too had ended.

The question Trinka had faced earlier in the day was beginning to sink in. Where did she see herself? If not in the Elite Academy, then where?

The room had all but emptied, with just a few students left hanging around as their parents babbled with the Elite professors, excited by the prospects of acceptance into the most prestigious calling in Ellipsis. Balakiry rounded up the few remaining students to discuss apprenticeships with the dream merchants for them. Trinka wondered if he would come and talk to her, but he, Andrey, and even Nikolay walked out without giving her a look.

Trinka was the only one who hadn’t been chosen by anyone. Even the panel members showed signs of departing. Viellie had already gone, leaving Trinka no chance to ask what she had meant earlier. And besides, she thought, I don’t want to explain how I heard it.

Summoning her courage, Trinka stepped to the front of the room to face Mrs. Swissle. The rest of the professors cast her curious looks.

“Yes?” Mrs. Swissle finally asked.

Trinka swallowed. “Where am I supposed to go?”

Her teacher looked back at her blankly.

“We have no use for you,” she said simply. “Go home.”

 

h1={color:#808080;}. Chapter Two

Dream Merchants

Trinka went down one step, the sound of her shoes echoing through the empty corridors. She took one step more, then another, then another, and each step came faster than the last. She felt as if the weight of the entire tower were pressing down on her, pushing her out and casting her away. She pried open the impractically tall front door and made her way down the final steps that spiraled around the base of the building.

She tripped, missed the last flight of six or seven steps, and spilled onto the streets of the City of Mirrors. Her long, fluttering white robes kept her from falling too hard, but she still felt the impact smash through her, vibrating her bones. She lay, hands pressed to the hard glass ground, nose a few fingers’ width away, her ragged breath fogging its unforgiving surface.

You would think, Trinka mused, that living in a city of glass, you’d be able to see everything clearly.

But she saw only billows of fog beneath her, swirling and changing with as much uncertainty as she felt churning inside her. She lifted her eyes and could see no more than a dozen arm-lengths ahead of her. Even the huge tower she knew stood only paces away was almost completely obscured from view. On Ellipsis, the teachers emphasized looking into one’s own mind for answers, but instead Trinka wished she could see more of the outside world around her.

If only I could see where I was going as clearly as in Ophelie’s little model. To stand back far enough to see everything, and know where to go.

At last, Trinka pushed herself up and made her way down the foggy streets, each step only reluctantly revealing the next step of her path. As she walked, the thick, life-sustaining mists that covered the city filled her, refreshing her lungs and easing the knots in her stomach, and she felt calmer and less empty with every breath.

It was a simple enough concept, “home,” except that Trinka didn’t really have one. She lived in one of the smaller towers near the edge of the city with her older sister, Annelise, and grandmother, Elora, but it wasn’t a place Trinka felt she belonged.

On her way through the clusters of  towers, each more diminutive than the last, the white fogs gave way to deeper grays, and finally dusky black. The buildings, a little less obscured by cloud here, glowed with a white luminescence, their light standing out in stark contrast to the surrounding dark. The sight usually made Trinka feel hopeful, but tonight a sense of dread crept up inside of her. What would her grandmother do when she found out?

Of course, she probably already knows, Trinka reminded herself.

Deep down, Trinka had always known the day when she failed to get into the Elite Academy would come. She just hadn’t thought it would happen so suddenly, or that she would fail so spectacularly.

She paused outside the door, took a deep breath, and went inside. As usual, the circular room sat empty. Trinka glanced up at the only object inside it. From a small mirror made of bits of broken fragments that covered the center of the ceiling, a chandelier hung suspended, and on its stems sat jars of Annelise’s past work. Each glass bottle that balanced there was beautifully curved and filled to the brim with thick, cloudy thoughts. All of the jars gave off a soft light that reflected in the mirror, filling the room with a gentle glow. As Trinka craned her neck to look at her sister’s work more closely, she suddenly noticed another face peering up into the mirror with her. A face with gray-blue eyes from which all signs of twinkling had faded.

“So,” Elora said. She let the word fill the silence, as if she were handing Trinka an empty exam jar and expecting her to fill it with the answers to her unspoken questions.

Trinka took one last glance at the ceiling. Keeping it inside wouldn’t help anything. She might as well get it over with.

“The Star Chamber met today.”

“And…?”

“I didn’t get into the Elite Academy.” As the words left her mouth, she felt as if the air had been knocked out of her. There, she had said it.

Elora nodded softly, stood there for a moment, and turned back toward the gossamer curtain that covered the doorway to her chamber.

“Are you angry?”

“No, no, of course not,” Elora reassured her, waving her hand vaguely. “I’m just disappointed.”

The answer didn’t surprise her. It had been Elora’s dream to be accepted into the Elite Academy, but since that hadn’t happened, nothing thrilled her more than seeing Annelise do so well there. It would have made her twice as happy to have two of her granddaughters there, but there was nothing Trinka could do about that now.

“They told me to go home,” Trinka added bravely. “Nobody wanted me.”

“Your father wants you.”

Trinka looked at her grandmother, feeling a tiny bit of hope glimmer inside her for the first time that day.

“You mean I could go live with him?”

“I think that might be best,” Elora sighed. “We’ll discuss it later. I need time to reflect.”

Trinka was left alone.

She couldn’t bear to stay in that empty room, so she crept outside to sit on the steps. It wasn’t long before she sensed something sliding silently alongside her, like a shadow, except that instead of a cast of darkness, its presence shone with a gentle light.

Annelise sat down beside her.

“Did Grandmother…?” Trinka stopped as she realized that of course Annelise already knew.

“It’s not so bad,” Annelise said soothingly. “You never wanted to go to the Academy.”

Trinka had been telling herself that same thing, but somehow, even hearing Annelise say it didn’t make it sound any better.

“I’m sure you’ll be much happier with Daddy,” her sister continued. “I know how much you miss him.”

Trinka stared down at the glass street below her feet, which was too dark now to cast even a faint reflection back up to her. She hadn’t seen her father for some time. He visited as often as he could, whenever his ship brought the dream merchants glass and crystals from far away. She had longed for the day when she would be old enough to leave the City of Mirrors, leave all of Ellipsis and go with him on his journeys, but now that the day had come, she wasn’t looking forward to it as much as she had dreamed she would.

“And just think, you can both come visit us every time his ship comes this way,” Annelise continued brightly. “All of us can be together again. At least you and me and Dad and Grandmother,” she added quickly.

Trinka sighed heavily. While Annelise had meant it as a cheering thought, the part left unspoken only increased the aching feeling inside, for the members of their family that were still far away—and probably always would be. The two of them sat in silence for a moment.

“Here. This is for you,” Annelise held out a small glass vial, about the size of a finger, with a tightly twisted top. Inside, a fine white mist swirled.

“What’s this for?” Trinka asked, and immediately she felt more stupid than ever. Swallowing its contents would transport her to the watery world of Brace, to be with their father.

“It is what you make of it,” Annelise emphasized, pressing it into her sister’s hand. “The academy might not see all that you have to offer, yet, but I believe in you Trinka.”

She smiled, and for a moment, Trinka managed to smile back.

“Do you want me to stay with you?” Annelise’s wide, glimmering blue eyes looked down at her in concern, and her thin hand rested on Trinka’s shoulder.

Although she sensed her sister’s desire to comfort her, Trinka couldn’t help but notice how fragile Annelise’s touch felt compared to the strong, ready hands of their father.

“No,” she said finally. “You go back to Elora. I’d rather do it alone.”

Annelise’s eyes blinked in understanding, and she gave Trinka’s arm a squeeze. Her grip felt as if her fingers were made of glass, like the stems of a fine crystal candelabra.

“See you soon,” she said, and Trinka nodded.

Annelise slipped back inside. Trinka sat alone.

Go on, she cajoled herself. This is what you’ve always wanted. To be free from that school. To be with Bram. Go on!

Trinka lifted the vial toward her lips.

Just as she was about to shut her eyes and drink it down, a tiny bright spot broke through the fog, and she caught a glimpse of a billowing, white sail floating above the tops of the towers. Another sail appeared and passed, then another, as a whole fleet came soaring in.

“The airships,” she whispered aloud.

For the first time that day, Trinka felt a tingle of excitement work its way through her. Without another thought, she tucked the vial into the folds of her robes and raced across the glass streets. The sails disappeared from view for a moment, eclipsed by the tops of the closely clustered towers, as she rushed through the outer circle of the city.

As she came around the last curve, the ships reappeared—bigger, brighter, closer than ever before. Their wide, white arms stretched out as if inviting her onward. Each gracefully curving sail, gleaming like a beam of light reflected in a cloudy mirror, beckoned her to explore the expanse of blue beyond.

The same sense of happy anticipation that filled her every time she came to meet her father filled her now. Only this time, she would be the one going to meet him. Ever since she could remember, Trinka had always wanted to know what it felt like to fly, and this was her chance. If the airships could bring Bram from Brace, surely they could take her to him.

Trinka slowed to a careful walk as she made her way past the flurry of activity surrounding the airships. Lampposts covered in clusters of glowing white orbs made the work area even brighter than day, despite the darkening sky. Great collections of glass swept through the air as the dream merchants unloaded their wares, summoning them off the airships with the power of their thoughts. Clear crystals spun in formation, like disconnected chandeliers suspended from the air itself, as the dream merchants called them forward and collected them. A dazzling array of rainbows splashed every surface in sight as the spinning crystals refracted the white light, splitting it into its invisible wonders.

She passed the airships that had just arrived and made her way toward a fleet that was powering up and preparing to take off. As Trinka came closer, the vessels became even more breathtaking. Each ship’s sleek, curved body tapered to a delicate tail that burst into an array of small, white sails, like hands spread open wide. A soaring, slightly bowed mast supported three huge, crescent-shaped sails, made from the same silky, shimmering fabric as her school robes—a delicate-looking material that was so much tougher than it appeared.

Although the city had not been dark very long, tendrils of bright, extremely concentrated white mist were already threading their way from the tips of the city’s towers out toward the airships, shooting down their masts and powering their sails with the oneiric energy of dreamtime. The incoming energy from the citizens’ dreams made the sails sparkle as if they had just been splashed with a thousand handfuls of stardust. Trinka resisted the urge to climb up the airship’s wings and just stand on top of it, feeling the fresh air on her face and the caress of the sails on her hands.

Instead, she stepped as quietly as she could up the dainty glass steps of the gangplank on the last airship. Her hands touched the door-less, solid wall of the airship in front of her. This would take concentration, but she wasn’t going to let any thought of failure defeat her now. She took a deep breath, and passed right through.

She glanced quickly around the cabin, but with just three high-backed seats surrounding a central control pedestal, there was no place for her to hide. She descended the spiral staircase that led to the cargo hold suspended below the main body of the ship, the clink of her shoes echoing loudly in the cramped space despite her best efforts.

The circular walls of the first level were lined from floor to ceiling with pockets of clear, slightly iridescent fabric that made the whole room look like it was covered in giant bubbles. Trinka could just picture Nikolay running around the room in circles, bouncing off all of them. Thinking about the antics of her (former?) friend made her swallow hard.

She descended to the second level, which looked like a mirror image of the first, and finally to the lowest cargo space. Here a large decanter, sealed to a pipe running down the center of the staircase, sat partly filled with cloudy thoughts, but unlike the ones she had seen at school, these were a polluted gray so deep they actually stained the glass.

She knew from peppering Bram with questions on one of her childhood port visits that this was the perisseia, or residue left over after the airships burned off the dream energy, and that the dream merchants considered it worthless yet used it to pay the sailors for the glass and crystals they traded for. What the sailors of Brace did with it, though, Bram had never divulged. Trinka wondered if any of her dreams ever made it into that beautiful, collective energy that helped power the airships, or if all of hers were dumped directly down here.

That’s all I am on Ellipsis, anyway, she thought heavily, gray, leftover dross to be traded away. Maybe on Brace I’ll be worth something too.

Thinking of Bram and his love for her made Trinka briefly raise the vial to her lips, but having come this far, she wasn’t going to give up now. Maybe soon, she’d even see what sailors did with the perisseia for herself. With a sigh, she replaced the vial, settled back against the residue decanter, and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Trinka’s head jumped from its dozing place and smacked the side of the decanter when, finally, the airship began to move.

The sudden motion shook Trinka fully awake, and she felt a beat of excitement that started in her heart and quickly moved down to her middle as the airship lurched and lifted off. Her ears rang, she felt slightly sick, and she wondered for a moment if she would actually pop inside out. So far, she reflected, her first experience with flying had been very disillusioning.

Instead of the free, floating feeling she had imagined, she found herself experiencing a sensation more like sitting in one of the cramped reflection rooms at school, on a day when she would rather be home sick. When the nausea finally subsided to be replaced by boredom, Trinka looked around at the mostly empty chamber, and noticed a small pile of colored crystals in one of the lowermost bubble pouches.

More rejects, apparently. I really do fit in here.

Trinka reached in and picked up one of the crystals. It felt smooth, hard, and cold like the glass that made up everything on Ellipsis, but instead of being white or a lightly frosted blue, these jewels were tinged with green, red, amber, violet, turquoise, and even some bright hues she had never seen before. As she set it down, her eyes rested on a jewel that stood out. Its murky green six-sided center was surrounded by a strange collection of loops that were not glass but something hard, flat, and dull.

As she picked it up to look at it more closely, the loops grew hot in her hand, and the surface of the jewel began to ripple. Trinka quickly dropped it. The loops faded away, and the murky green center grew larger and larger, rippling and spreading, turning and twisting until it finally resolved into a form that looked almost like a very short person, about half Trinka’s height.

His skin was the same drab green as the jewel she had been holding just a moment before. His two short legs ended in rounded mounds with no toes, while his hands finished with very long, thin fingers, flat and jagged. His eyes bobbled at the top of two long stems that rose from his head, so that they seemed to hang suspended. The rest of his face was filled by an enormous green mouth that, at the moment, was hanging wide open.

“Who… what… who…?” Trinka began.

“Grble,” the creature made a strange throaty noise that bubbled up from the back of his mouth. He looked at Trinka with the same surprise and inquisitiveness that she had looking at him.

“My name is Grble. You are not one of them?” he asked.

“Who? One of the dream merchants?”

Grble nodded, his eyes bobbling up and down as he did so.

“No, I’m going to find my father.”

Grble blinked, and his eyes rotated around, looking in all directions.

“He is on this ship?”

“No. He lives on Brace. I…”

Trinka’s words were interrupted by the sound of voices coming nearer.

“I’m telling you, Pellen, there’s someone here. I can sense it.”

Trinka and Grble looked at each other.

“I am not supposed to be here,” the creature told her.

“I’m not supposed to be here either.”

She looked around, but there was no place to hide. The stairs above them began clanging with footsteps, and as the faces that went with the voices appeared, Grble shrunk behind her.

“What are you doing here?” a light-haired, clear-eyed man demanded. Two identical-looking young women appeared behind him. Trinka recognized them from her previous visits to the port: Pellen, Solange, and Delphine. She was sure they wouldn’t remember her, though.

“We…” Trinka stammered.

“Who’s we?” Pellen interrupted.

Trinka looked behind her, but Grble, such as he had been a few moments before, had disappeared. Only the weird green ornament lay in his place. Trinka turned her eyes from it quickly, but Pellen spotted it immediately and picked it up.

“How did that get there? Ugly, don’t you think?” He handed it to the women.

“Extremely,” Solange and Delphine answered in unison.

“I wonder if the sailors will exchange it for us, or if we should just throw it out now?” Pellen mused.

“No, don’t do that! You might hurt him,” Trinka pleaded.

“Him?” Pellen’s eyes turned on her.

“Euuuh!” Delphine exclaimed as the jewel in her hand suddenly sprang to life, and once again, Grble was standing beside Trinka, his eyes swaying uncertainly.

“Two stowaways,” Pellen exclaimed. “Extraordinary. You didn’t bring it with you, did you?”

Trinka shook her head. “No, I… I wanted to go to Brace to be with my father, Bram.”

“Your father?” Pellen repeated impatiently. “Don’t you realize he may not even be on the ship we’re going to meet?”

Trinka had to admit she hadn’t thought of that.

“Why do you think we’re called dream merchants?” Pellen persisted. “Because we get paid in dreams. Now, we don’t, as a rule, take passengers, but if we did, we would expect to be paid for it. Are you skilled in making dreams?”

“I’ve done it a few times in school,” Trinka stammered, all too aware that her skills were as lacking in this area as in any other.

“What school?”

“The Predilect.”

Pellen laughed out loud. “The Predilect,” he scoffed. “What possible use could we have for dreams from someone from there?”

“Oh, Pellen, they might be interesting,” Solange chided him.

“She might make very imaginative dreams,” Delphine added.

“Well, they’d hardly be dreams powerful enough to fill the sails of this ship,” Pellen scoffed. “Let alone be payment for us.”

“The fleet’s already been fully powered, by the collective energy of everyone in the city,” Solange reminded him.

“And we are going to Brace already,” Delphine persisted. “I think we could set the price for her transport accordingly.”

“Oh all right, we’ll get you a jar and see if they’re satisfactory,” Pellen relented. “But this had better be worth our time.”

The thought of facing another empty glass jar made Trinka’s mouth go dry and her palms start to sweat. She’d never be able to fill it with dreams, especially not the sort of vivid, exhilarating dreams that would be sufficient payment for Pellen. Besides, if she couldn’t do it on one of her very best days, there was no way she’d be able to do it now.

“I can’t,” she answered softly.

“Then you’ll have to leave,” Pellen ordered. “And you may as well take that thing with you,” he gestured toward Grble, “or I’ll have to send it back where it came from.”

Trinka looked at Grble.

“Do you want to go with me?” she questioned.

“Yes,” he affirmed instantly.

“The question is how to send you back when we’ve already started flying. It’s too late to turn around now without disturbing the whole fleet.”

“Relax. If she’s from the Predilect, she can send herself home,” Delphine consoled him.

“We’re still in the outer clouds of the city,” Solange added. “Anybody can transport herself from here.”

Relax, Trinka repeated to herself. Just focus and relax.

Transporting herself was the one thing Trinka had been good at in school. So good, in fact, that the teachers had made her stop practicing. While the other students were still struggling with moving from one end of the room to the other, she found herself outside the school building entirely on the very first try. She hadn’t tried it for so long, though. She only hoped she remembered how.

“Are you ready?”

Grble nodded, so she took his hand, closed her eyes, and concentrated.

For a moment, Trinka felt herself growing lighter, as if her weight were slipping away and she were moving freely.

“She can send herself home.” The words echoed in Trinka’s mind. But home wasn’t on Ellipsis. She hesitated. Should she go back to the City of Mirrors, or should she try to transport herself directly to her father?

Of course not, you’d never make it that far, Trinka thought. You can’t even… don’t think that!

But it was too late.

In that one instant, all the focus she had built around herself snapped, and she felt the air swirling and spiraling. The solid wall of the airship gave way, and as she opened her eyes, Trinka saw the entire fleet disappearing into the blue plumes of cloud above her.

Trinka had longed to know what it would feel like to soar, but now she wasn’t flying—she was falling.  

&     Ampersand     &[][]

“You gain strength, courage, and confidence from every experience in which you really look fear in the face. You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

- Eleanor Roosevelt

h1={color:#808080;}.
p.

Chapter Three

Traveling Tents

It wasn’t until she dared to open her eyes that Trinka realized she was lying on something solid. It felt hard and cold, like the glass streets in the City of Mirrors, yet lumpy and uneven. Her robes had protected her from falling hard (a much needed safety feature in a city made entirely of glass towers), but she still felt the shock of the impact reverberating through her body.

Slowly, she lifted her head and saw a glint of bright glass on her chest.

Why didn’t I just use that? she scolded herself as she scooped up the vial. I never would have fallen if I had taken what Annelise gave me.

She began to sit up and glimpsed that strange, murky-green ornament on the ground beside her. Grble whooshed into life, his eyes wobbling back and forth uncertainly.

“We’ve landed on rock,” he observed, surveying their new surroundings.

All around them, Trinka could see nothing but rock―hard, gray, and empty. No sign of buildings or mirrors or schools. Just an endless stretch of lifeless hills, sloping upward until their white peaks blended into the cloudy sky.

Trinka looked above her, but the City of Mirrors was too far off to see. She caught a glimpse of the last airship before it, too, disappeared into the clouds. There was no going back that way now. She must have slumbered in the cargo hold for most of the night while the airship was powering up with dream energy because the sky was no longer dark, but splashed with the rosy glows of dawn.

It was a new day.

She had heard rumors of this place, of a land beneath Ellipsis. Her brother had left their family several years ago, determined to find out if it really existed. He had never returned.

Is he still here somewhere? Trinka wondered. She slipped the vial back into the folds of her robes―safe, in case she needed it later.

“Come on, we’d better look around,” she murmured. She took a step, and instantly her glass shoe splintered into a thousand pieces, sending her crashing to the ground. She slid down the slope and cried out as the rocky terrain scraped against her legs and stomach.

She looked up to see Grble’s worried eyes blinking at her, and he reached out his long fingers for support. Carefully, she removed her other shoe and got to her feet. Whatever this strange new place was made of, it obviously wasn’t meant to be walked over in glass slippers.

Determinedly, she edged her way back up the slope. It was almost like walking on broken glass, and the ground seemed to tear at her feet with every step. Grble’s grasp held her steady as he moved easily across the rugged surface, gripping it with his round wide feet. Every once in a while, Trinka stepped on a patch of something white, wet, and soft, like liquid glass, except that it turned her skin cold.

As they stepped over the crest of the rock Trinka could see what looked like several small, pointed buildings below. A few dozen people moved among them, dressed in long, white robes that weren’t smooth and gleaming, but thick and hairy. As Trinka came into view, a woman with her arms full of white hair screamed in terror and dropped her load as she ran to grab the hand of a small boy and yank him from their path. The little boy reached out and touched the edge of Trinka’s robe.

“Pretty, Mama,” he began, but the woman quickly scooped him up and ran away.

Trinka tried to take a different path, but everywhere she turned, more screams, more scurrying, and more terrified faces surrounded them. Whoever would have guessed that people would be afraid of her?

“Come on! We’ll hide in there.”

She pointed to a cone that stood a little ways off from the others, its door open wide. Unlike the glass towers on Ellipsis, this building was not much taller than Trinka herself, with three large poles and a collection of smaller ones leaning in on each other in the center. Walls made of something thick and soft wrapped around it like a garment. As they hurried inside, the opening fell closed behind them at the slightest touch, leaving them in darkness. Only tiny points of light peeked through the top, like little morning stars.

“Well, go on then. Other people need to use the traveling tent,” a voice from the darkness made Trinka jump. She grabbed Grble’s fingers and bolted, bumping into the back of the building. It gave way easily and the two of them tumbled out on the ground.

Trinka leaped to her feet, ready to run, when she realized they were in a totally different place.

Her eyes began to blur and water at the brightness of it all, trying to take in the vast, sunlit landscape before her. Her vision knew no limits, unhindered by mists or towers or anything until the horizon of rocks far, far in the distance. The hills here weren’t jagged and gray but a rich, rippling brown, curving like the tops of clouds. Patches of what looked like golden hair sprouted from the ground, and tangles of low, scrubby plants cropped up among the peaks and valleys. The air felt warmer and drier than anything Trinka had ever experienced. A huge cluster of low, lumpy, deep brown buildings dotted the hills before them.

Two men in shaggy, light gray robes emerged from the traveling tent she had hidden in, came to an abrupt stop, and stood gaping at her.

The taller one gasped.

“Are you the one from…” the thin-faced man lowered his voice and pointed a crooked finger toward the sky. “Up there?”

Trinka looked up at the pale blue empty expanse stretching as far as she could see, without a single cloud in sight. It seemed too hard to explain her story.

“Um… yes?”

“I told you, Sten! I told you I saw an angel fall out of the sky!”

Trinka looked down at her glowing white robes, and couldn’t help but smile.

“All right, Aart,” his companion harrumphed. “You were right. I guess we don’t need to tell the chief—we can just take her there. Unless you’re one of Kolinkar’s tribe?”

“Tribe?” Trinka wondered aloud.

“His family?”

“Yes, I’m his sister,” Trinka managed to stammer. Her mind raced with the possibilities that Kolinkar really had made it here, that she could actually see him again. “Is he here? Do you know where we can find him?”

“We?” the man looked at her quizzically, and Trinka realized that Grble, startled by the unexpected greeting, had disappeared again. She quietly reached down and slipped his ornament next to the vial in the folds of her robes.

“I mean me. That is, uh, I.”

“That’s his tent.” Sten pointed gruffly.

Trinka began to thank him, but at that moment a mammoth creature, almost as tall as she was, ambled out of the traveling tent they had just come through. It had the same shaggy hair that hung from Aart and Sten’s shoulders and heads, except that its hair covered its entire long, wide body supported by four thin legs. Its face was hairy too, and its nose stuck out far in front of its eyes. Two large twisted objects curved out of the top of its head, like black chandelier branches.

“Who’s that?” she managed to ask.

“That?” Sten scratched his head. “Is a goat.”

“Is he related to you?” Trinka asked uncertainly.

Sten guffawed, and Aart’s snickering echoed all around them.

“Well, you look like each other,” Trinka defended herself, but the two of them only laughed harder until Aart had to lean on Sten for support.

Sten regained his composure first.

“These are our coats,” he explained, smoothing the long, hairy robes that he wore. “They come from our animals, our goats.” He pointed to the creature.

“Haven’t you ever seen a goat before?” Aart walked right up to the creature and slapped its side. “There’s a good boy. Can you believe it? She just fell out of the sky!”

“Never mind,” Sten grunted. “Kolinkar and Habba will sort it out. We’d better get this goat back home before the meeting. Come on, Aart.”

The two of them cajoled the goat back into the traveling tent. As the flap closed over them, Trinka could hear them talking for a moment, “Honestly, Sten, I can’t help it if they follow me everywhere I go…” before even their voices disappeared. She peeked cautiously into the traveling tent, her spirits lifting as she found it empty.

That was so easy. I didn’t even have to concentrate to get from one place to another. Maybe I could get used to living in a world like this.

Trinka made her way carefully toward her brother’s tent, wishing Grble hadn’t hidden so he could still help her with her balance. This part of the land wasn’t as rough or as steep, but it was covered with smaller rocks and a rich brown powder that clung to her bare feet.

Unlike the tents she had seen when she first landed, these dwellings did not have a bundle of poles coming out the top, but appeared to be held up by very thick threads that extended from the roof and wrapped around numerous rocks placed a short distance away. The heavy, deep brown fabric hung parted in the center, with bands of ornamental stitching all along the opening, as if inviting her in.

Trinka stepped into the tent and drew back with a start when she saw a young woman inside, huddled over a pile of stones that lit the tent with their soft, amber glow.

“Oh, hello.” The woman looked up and thoughtfully eyed her strange new visitor’s glowing white robes. “Are you Trinka?”

Trinka nodded dumbly.

The woman smiled. “Kolinkar has told me all about his sisters and their school, but I never thought I’d actually get to met you.” She held out a warm, golden hand. “I’m Kolinkar’s wife, Tarian.”

Trinka was so surprised, she almost forgot to hold out her own hand, suddenly conscious of how cold and wet her fingers must feel. Kolinkar’s wife (whoever would have thought he’d have one?) certainly looked nice, and very pretty. She had long, dark hair that hung loose about her shoulders, except for the strands twisted into a braid that held it back from her heart-shaped face. The end of the braid dangled with little entwined accents that looked like opaque jewels in subtle shades of red, yellow, and green. Matching lines of amber, ocher, and olive were woven through her cloud-colored clothing. Loose strings cascaded over her shoulders and fell from the hem of her garment, swishing gracefully as she moved. Although her sturdy, gently curving figure and coarse dress wouldn’t have met the standards of fashion on Ellipsis, there was something about her that showed a kind of beauty Trinka had never seen before. Even her rich, deep, sparkling eyes revealed a warmth that seemed to glow from within her. A warmth that Trinka felt rush through her when she took her hand.

“Oh, you’re freezing. Come sit down.” Tarian knelt on the richly patterned rug that covered the floor of the tent. Hesitantly, Trinka did the same. The rug’s hues of hazel and henna made peaks and curves that seemed to mimic the rocky landscape outside, and it felt hairy and scratchy beneath her hands.

“Here—have some tea.” Tarian handed her a jar not made of glass, but something hard and opaque, just the right size to hold. It was filled with a hot and fragrant liquid, like nothing she had ever smelled before. The scent reminded her of the plants and the earth outside, yet more concentrated and intense. It warmed her hands, and the smell somehow made the gnawing feeling in her stomach seem stronger. She raised the jar to her lips, and let the warm liquid seep into her mouth and slide down her throat.

The taste was almost like breathing in a cloud of thought. Trinka could picture the rich, brown land she had walked on as she savored the warm, underlying aroma. The tiny flecks of black, russet, and gray-green that had floated in the drink added in vivid flavors that made her mouth prickle with heat, but were quickly cooled by overtones of soft, golden tastes. The tea left a tang in her mouth even after she had swallowed—tart, but not unpleasant, as if she had just drunk sunlight. Trinka savored the sensation for a moment, then eagerly sipped some more.

“You must be hungry. Have some akenes,” Tarian urged, and held out a dish covered in what appeared to be small, golden-brown stones in assorted sizes.

Trinka hesitated. It had been a long time since she had eaten. On Ellipsis, the mists they breathed provided all the nutrients they needed, so they only ate vanity cakes―sweet, hollow pastries―on special occasions.

But since it seemed to be expected of her, she took one of the small objects. It felt like a rock between her fingers, and even more so in her mouth. Trinka rolled it back and forth on her tongue for a minute before finally crunching it between her teeth. It crumbled into little sharp, bitter-tasting bits she had no idea what to do with. Desperately, she took another swallow of tea and managed to choke them down.

Lagou?” Tarian offered. Trinka wondered briefly if her brother’s wife was just too polite to outright tell her to go away, but she saw only kindness and concern in Tarian’s face and outstretched hands.

 Although the lagou also looked like rocks, they felt slightly squishy. Cautiously, Trinka took a bite, causing it to ooze a sticky, cloying syrup that immediately fused all her teeth together. Unused to food that didn’t just melt in her mouth, she chewed and chewed, unable to swallow.

The tent swayed and the stones clattered as Kolinkar’s broad shoulders brushed both sides of the entrance.

Her brother dropped his bundles as his gray-blue eyes widened in surprise.

“Hey, sis!” he exclaimed, scooping her up into a huge hug that left her feet dangling in mid-air. “I never thought I’d see you here!”

A huge creature that seemed to be made entirely out of rocks bounded in after him, taking up half the tent. He immediately pushed in front of Kolinkar, making him drop Trinka, and stuck his face in her food. Much to Trinka’s relief, he gobbled it down instantly.

“Arabis!” Tarian pushed him away.

“Come here, you rockhound,” Kolinkar called. Arabis sighed and dropped his massive, gray-brown body at his master’s side. His long, thick tail waved back and forth incessantly, shedding little pieces of stone onto the rugs.

Kolinkar accepted a jar of tea from Tarian, grabbed a handful of akenes, and began chewing them down easily. Although his clothes now complemented Tarian’s (only dirtier), his shocks of tawny hair, prominent nose, and lopsided, boyish grin looked just the same as always.

“So, what’re you doing here? You finally get sick of sitting inside all the time, too?”

Trinka tried to respond, but her throat was still blocked. At last, with the help of her final sip of tea, she gulped the sticky stuff down.

“You don’t mind that I’m here, do you?” she blurted. After the school, her grandmother, and the dream merchants hadn’t wanted her, she couldn’t be too sure of anything.

“Well, I can’t very well send you back now any more than I could the first time you came into my life,” he grinned, tousling her hair. “Not that I didn’t think one sister was enough.”

“How is Annelise?” Tarian inquired.

Trinka sighed. “Perfect.”

Kolinkar laughed, inciting Arabis to try to jump into his lap.

“Here,” Tarian came to the rescue, tossing a few long, thin white objects to the floor. Arabis bounded over and started chomping them into tiny pieces.

“I didn’t mean to come here,” Trinka’s words suddenly came out in a rush. “I failed the test for the Academy, and I was going to go find Dad. Annelise gave me a vial, but I, I saw the airships and I…”

“And they just dropped you off? No way! I had to do all their manual labor for a whole year to pay them to land here!”

“They didn’t exactly land, I just… fell.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re here now and you’re safe,” Tarian affirmed as she collected their empty jars and began scrubbing them with a fine, gray powder.

“Yeah, we’d better take her to see Habba before his tribal council meeting starts,” Kolinkar suggested, getting back on his feet.

“Who’s Habba?” Trinka asked nervously, wishing she could stay and just talk with her brother for a little longer, after all this time.

“The leader of the tribes of western Bedrosian,” Tarian answered, then quickly added, “I’m sure he’ll let you stay with us—after all, he is my father.”

Trinka blinked in surprise.

“Yeah, if he could put up with me for a son-in-law, it shouldn’t be too hard to convince him to let you stay and do some work around here,” Kolinkar teased. “Come on.” With a sigh, Trinka followed along.

Arabis bounded up the hill and ran around a tent that looked much like Kolinkar and Tarian’s, only four or five times as long, with several smaller tents beside it. A woman stooped beside the long tent, setting out a series of stones in the sunlight just as Tarian had done when they left. As Arabis looped past her, she looked up, and the wrinkles on her face multiplied as she burst into a smile.

“Mom, I’d like you to meet my sister-in-law, Trinka,” Tarian announced.

Before Trinka could say or do anything, she found herself scooped up into a very warm, very fuzzy hug.

“Welcome, welcome,” the woman said as she finally let go. “Another one from up there?”

“Afraid so, Wynn.” Kolinkar winked.

Trinka was used to being regarded with a look of disappointment, but in Wynn’s wrinkled face and shining eyes, she saw only heartfelt admiration. She wondered if it would stay that way when Wynn got to know her better.

Arabis suddenly let out a harsh, grating sound. His teeth gnashed together, and he stood alert, guarding them. Trinka tried to see what could be bothering him, but all she saw was a man coming up the hill from the other direction.

“Come!” Tarian said suddenly. She grabbed Trinka’s hand and pulled her behind one of the smaller tents.

“I think you’d better come inside,” Wynn mused.

“And I think it would be a very good idea to cover her dress as well,” Tarian replied in an emphatic whisper. “Before certain people see it.”

“Yes, yes. Let’s go into the loom room.” Wynn slipped beneath the tent flap, leaving Trinka to stare at her sister-in-law with curiosity and a slight sense of fear. What could possibly be going on? She heard the rumbling sound coming from Arabis again, followed by sharp, loud barking.

“Quiet!” Kolinkar ordered, and nodded encouragingly to Trinka. She shrugged and followed Tarian.

Her eyes opened wide at the sight that met her inside.

Dozens of poles rose from the rug-covered floor, nearly touching the ceiling, with even thicker poles connecting each pair near the bottom and top. But rather than supporting the tent itself, these held up only thick, cloud-colored strings wrapping around and around in endless loops. Before them groups of women sat moving long threads, ranging in color from black to ecru, back and forth between the loops, not with their thoughts, but with their own hands.

This freed them up to talk with each other, producing a hum of voices that rose and fell in time with the weaving. Occasional laughter flowed through the room, resulting in ripples of gold, peaks of umber, and splashes of sepia woven into the fabric in time with their creators’ voices.

Trinka thought this must be the meaning of a vocabulary word she had learned in school, but never really understood: community.

“Let’s see what we can find for you,” Wynn murmured.

A hush fell over the room as everyone stopped and turned to look at Trinka.

She wondered if people could transport themselves away by using their thoughts here, or if she should just turn toward the tent flap and flee.

Before she could move, the women began coming forward to welcome her, with the same warmth that Tarian and Wynn had. Some of them, Trinka realized, were girls not much older than she was. As they pressed their warm palms to hers, and marveled over the material of her robes, Trinka demurred any knowledge of how it was made. One by one, they drifted back to their work as Wynn, who had bustled off to the back of the room, returned with her arms full.

“Here you are. They might be a little big. No, no, I think they’ll fit just fine.” She had brought a light gray, furry garment, like the one she wore, with a thick, long skirt and a top that laced down the front. Dark brown bands with ornamental stitching covered the shoulder seams of the long sleeves, and a matching belt wrapped around the waist.

“You’d better just put it on over your robes,” Tarian said. “We don’t want Renwick to see you until you’re dressed like us. He’s the leader from eastern Bedrosian, and he doesn’t like, ah, strangers.”

Trinka didn’t understand this explanation, but she was too preoccupied to try to figure it out. Her new clothes were heavy and had a distinctive smell like the tents. In fact, it was rather like trying to walk around wearing a tent, it was so thick and stiff. Tarian and Wynn fussed with making sure all evidence of her gleaming, white robes was tucked inside, and Trinka felt glad she still had them on; she felt itchy wherever the new clothes touched her skin.

At that moment, the tent flap parted, and a familiar face appeared.

“Oh, sorry, wrong tent. Hey, it’s you!” Aart declared. “Wow, you look like a regular kid, now, doesn’t she, Sten?”

“Yep,” Sten answered. “We thought she looked like she could use some boots.”

“Thank you.” Trinka slipped her scratched feet inside the soft, brown coverings topped with white-gray fur. They fit well, but tickled her toes.

“How perfect. They’re northern boots, too,” Tarian commented as she helped Trinka lace them closed. “Have you come to meet with Habba?”

Sten nodded. “Renwick is here now, and Jirair is on his way, but Habba wants to meet with you first.”

Despite encouragement from Tarian and Wynn, Trinka felt as nervous entering the large meeting tent as she had before the test committee in the tower. Arabis, seated just outside, thumped his tail when he saw Trinka. She patted his hard head, took a deep breath, and slipped under the entrance flap.

Kolinkar already sat on the floor across from an old man with white hair, a very round face, and wise eyes. He smiled when he looked up and saw Trinka, and offered her a place beside her brother. She sank down onto the pile of low, striped cushions that covered the ornate rugs. Judging by the patterns, it must have been a joyous day in the loom room when these were woven, as hardly any plain threads showed through all the peaks and valleys of warm colors.

A single, oval-shaped dish took up most of the low, laden table between them, heaped with piles of dark, irregularly shaped chunks surrounded by what looked like hundreds, if not thousands of tiny, pale brown pebbles. At the edges of the table, five sharp instruments lay pointed toward the dish in the center. Wynn and Tarian seated themselves beside their husbands, everyone held hands for a few moments, and then pressed upon Trinka to, yet again, eat.

She watched her brother eagerly plunge his sharp instrument into one of the dark chunks and bring it to his lips. Trinka carefully did the same, and tried not to grimace at its heavy, greasy texture and smoky flavor. As she chewed and chewed, she could only wish that Arabis had come into the tent with them. The little pebbles turned out to be soft, but lumped together in a texture that nearly set off her gag reflex.

Kuam?” Wynn offered, passing her a jar.

Trinka eyed the pale yellow contents suspiciously, and as she raised the jar to her lips, a faintly sour smell made her nose tingle. As everyone set down their instruments, they dipped their fingers in a bowl of orchid-scented water to clean them. Trinka only wished she could drink that instead.

At last, Wynn cleared the table. Habba picked up a small glass object, like a clear stone and handed it to Tarian.

“And you, my daughter? Are you willing to take your husband’s sister into your home?”

“You know we are, Father,” she answered. Tarian held out the stone, and it immediately glowed a deep, warm red. She then brought it toward Trinka, who slowly stretched out her cold, damp hands. Habba placed the stone on her palms and folded her fingers over it.

“What about you?” he asked softly. “Where do you want to go?”

“I don’t know,” Trinka stammered, finally breaking Habba’s gaze to stare at the rug. She felt her cheeks growing hotter. “I don’t know where I’m going or what I want.”

She uncurled her fingers and saw that the stone was a swirl of black, bright reds, dark purples, and all colors in between.

“Would you like to stay here while you decide?” Habba asked gently.

Trinka smiled, and the stone changed to a single shade of pure pink. She reached to give it back to Habba, but he closed her fingers over it.

“Keep it, my daughter,” he said. “You are welcome to stay with my tribe as long as you wish.”

His face broke into a wrinkled smile, and he and Wynn took her into their arms as if she were their own daughter. The genuine warmth astonished Trinka, yet caused an ache deep inside her for all the times her own family hadn’t welcomed her as much as these people she had just met.

“Come,” Habba ambled slowly toward the entrance. “We must add your name to our family line.”

“You can always come home to our house,” Wynn reminded her, giving her another fuzzy hug.

As they exited the tent, Trinka glanced back and smiled.

And smacked straight into someone’s shoulder, sending herself sprawling. Arabis got to his feet and stood by her, growling protectively. Trinka felt a shadow creep over her and looked up to see the man who had come up the hill earlier towering over her. He wore a bright red shirt with intricate designs all down the front and furry black cuffs that matched his boots. His piercing eyes looked over her suspiciously.

Instead of helping Trinka to her feet, he picked up the stone she had dropped and rolled it between his rough, cracking fingers.

“Is this yours?” he asked, in a tone of disbelief.

“Habba gave it to me.”

“She’s my sister-in-law,” Tarian put in brightly, lifting Trinka to her feet and putting an arm around her shoulder. “Habba was just welcoming her to the family.”

“Well, I’m glad he has time for family matters before our critical council meeting on immigration,” Renwick sneered.

“Of course I do,” Habba countered behind them. “If you will wait inside, Renwick, my wife will be happy to meet with you and our northern delegation until our ambassador from the south arrives. She’s made some incomparable goat milk delicacies.”

Renwick bowed slightly, but with an audible huff.

“Nice to meet you,” he added to Trinka. The stone glimmered a bright shiny black before he returned it to her and disappeared into the meeting tent.

“Why does the stone change colors when people hold it?” Trinka asked as they continued down the other side of the hill, toward a rocky cliff.

“It’s a truthstone,” Tarian explained. “When the stone turns a solid color, it shows you said what was in your heart. If it turns black when someone holds it, they’re not speaking what they really believe. My father often uses it at meetings with the other leaders.”

Habba leaned heavily on his staff, and sometimes Kolinkar’s elbow, as they made their way further up the next hill. The rocks here jutted up in strange columns that towered overhead, far taller than any of the glass towers on Ellipsis. They looked almost as if a giant artist had carved them, stacking oddly shaped blocks higher and higher until it seemed certain they would topple.

At last, they arrived at a hollow place, under one of the many overhangs of golden brown rock, and Habba stopped to catch his breath.

“This is my tribe,” he pointed to the array of deep red lines, small half-circles, dashes, and assorted symbols etched into the surface of the rock, “my clan… my family.”

“There’s your brother’s name, and when we became married,” Tarian pointed to a series of marks near the top.

Trinka’s eyes followed their gestures from one set to the next, craning her neck to see the symbols high overhead. While Habba’s family signs were still sharp, bold red, some of the tribe symbols near the bottom had been washed clean, with even the edges of their carvings starting to wear away.

“We will add the sign for ’sister,’ as well as a symbol for your name,” Habba announced.

Trinka was just beginning to wonder what such a mark would look like, and how they would ever make it on a stone so high, when Habba gently lifted the small stone set in the end of his staff. A deep purple-red rock flecked with tiny sparkles of white and gold, it was shaped a little bit like a bird, with a spherical head, pointed beak, and rounded body that tapered back into long, flat tail.

“Hold it in both hands,” Habba instructed, and as Trinka took it between her cupped palms, she suddenly felt it come alive, writhing and wriggling to be free. She looked at Habba and he nodded.

Trinka opened her hands, and the birdstone fluttered loose, ascending toward the top of the cliff face. With a flurry of purposeful activity, it began carving out a combination of curved and straight lines, making a clatter of rock upon rock and sending down a shower of bits of dust and loose stone. With a flourish, it carved out two symmetrical twists overlapping in the center, with some straight lines underneath. When it finished, it turned from the cliff and stretched its stone wings into the air. A burst of color lit up the new symbols with a brilliant red glow as the sunlight touched them for the first time. The birdstone hovered for a moment, then alighted on the top of Habba’s staff, still and quiet as a stone once more.

Trinka would have thought the whole experience a dream, but her name still shone out brightly, written into rock. Part of a family. Forever. For the second time that day, Trinka felt like she had swallowed sunshine. Her heart lifted like a soaring bird as she smiled and stepped down the hill.

 

h1={color:#808080;}.
Chapter Four

Herders’ Horns

Trinka landed flat on her face and slid down the hill, sending clouds of dirt up her nose that made her cough uncontrollably. Her eyes stung as she struggled to her feet, entangled in the strands of goat hair she was supposed to be spinning into yarn. All the other girls ambled easily down the hill, wooden spindles whirling in their hands. The piles of black, gray, brown, and off-white hair coming from the colorful bags slung over their shoulders spiraled seamlessly around their spindles, forming long, smooth strings. The spinners chattered happily and busily, shooing the Caprines—dainty, miniature goats—effortlessly before them.

“It takes practice,” Tarian smiled as she reached down to help Trinka.

Perfect practice, Trinka scowled inwardly.

She looked for her spindle, and finally found the long stick underneath her, snapped in two.

“I’m sorry,” Trinka felt tears starting in her eyes, and not just from the dirt this time.

“It’s okay, I’ll help you make a new one sometime,” Tarian soothed.

Trinka’s voice broke.

“Maybe you added me to your family line too soon,” she whispered.

For the first time, Trinka saw a flare of what looked like anger briefly cross her sister-in-law’s kind face.

“Being a family doesn’t depend on anything you do—or don’t do—Trinka. It’s part of who you are, who we are.”

Before Trinka could respond she heard deep, rolling laughter behind her. Kolinkar brushed the dirt from her shoulders and slapped her on the back.

“Hey, you look like me after a week of rounding up wild goats and you’ve only been here half a day!”

“Kar…” Tarian began.

“Oh come on, she doesn’t want to spin yarn and herd babies with the girls anyway, right? She can spend the day with me, doing real herding.”

“All right,” Tarian consented with a sigh. “I’ll be helping move tents.”

Trinka watched Tarian retreat back up the hill, and to her astonishment, saw that families all around were untying cords from the support rocks, pulling down fabric, and rolling up walls and rugs. Some slung the rolls over their shoulders, while others loaded them onto the backs of broad, powerful-looking goats. Women, some with babies slung over their backs, talked, laughed, and called to each other as they worked, making the hills hum with voices. Small children ran back and forth, sometimes helping, sometimes hindering, but always adding to the crescendo of activity everywhere.

“You’re moving the whole city?”

Her brother laughed. “Well, we don’t call it a city, but yes we move it all the time. Got to get the brush goats to better feed. Come on!”

Trinka followed her brother until a herd of furry gray, black, and brown animals dotted the hill all around them. Unlike the Caprines the girls had been herding, the brush goats were nearly as tall as Trinka’s shoulder—and had horns two, maybe three times as long that curved over the backs of their heads. One sauntered toward her, and she cautiously reached out to touch it. Its fur felt just like the skirt and jacket Wynn had given her—soft, yet scratchy. Then without warning, the goat pulled back its head and butted full force into her hand. Trinka staggered backward, and her legs gave way beneath her, still unused to balancing on the rough terrain.

Kolinkar laughed as he grabbed an arm and hauled her to her feet.

“That’s just their way of playing,” he explained. “They’re a load of trouble.”

Trinka brushed bits of stone from her skirt. “Then why do you keep them?”

“That’s where we get everything we need―our clothes, our tents, our food. You liked the roasted goat at Habba’s, didn’t you?”

Trinka’s stomach turned over within her. Suddenly, the life-sustaining mist of Ellipsis didn’t seem so bad in comparison. Trinka wished she could talk to her brother, not a quick conversation, but a real, deep talk about all that had been going on with school, with Annelise, with their family. But Kolinkar, ever a man of action, was already wading eagerly into the sea of activity ahead of them.

“So, Kolinkar, I see you’ve got a new helper,” one of their neighbors greeted them.

“Yep,” her brother answered proudly. “Yuoli, this is my sister Trinka.”

“Kolinkar’s the toughest goat herder around here,” Yuoli boasted. “I hope you’re just like him, even if you are small. We can use another strong hand.”

Trinka swallowed hard. She was used to being compared to Annelise, but she had never expected, or wanted, to be compared to her brother too.

“Here. You can use this herder’s horn.” Yuoli thrust a hollow, curved object—almost like half a crescent—into her hands. The pointed end had a small hole and a loop of stiff string, while the large end bore a dark band of carvings around its opening.

“Let’s go!” Kolinkar shouted, and about half the herders put horns to their lips and blew.

A long, low moaning noise emanated from the horns, and a second, higher noise answered as another group blew, then the two sounded together and stopped. Then many individual horns sounded, some higher, some lower, some in unison and some sounding alone. The noise was beautiful, and a chorus of bleating echoed over the hills as the goats began following the herders’ song.

Trinka tried blowing through her horn, but all she got was a strangled squeak. She attempted to follow her brother, but before she could take her first step, a goat butted her from behind and threw her forward, tumbling her head over heels over some rocks until she landed with a sickening crack. She lay there a moment, her chest heaving, afraid that despite her robes she had just broken every bone in her body. But the only pain she felt was from the sharp grass that poked up all around her. She heard a crunching sound then felt something pulling the top of her head.

“Ouch!”

The goat sampling the grass had caught her hair in his mouth along with it. The more he munched, the more her hair pulled. By the time she had worked herself free of its teeth, the goat had entangled itself in the loops of lumpy yarn and the cloth bag that still wrapped around her chest and shoulders. Try as she might, she couldn’t untangle herself, and Kolinkar and the others were already getting farther and farther away.

“Grble,” she whispered urgently as she drew out the ornament. “Grble, please! I need help!”

The talisman quivered for a moment before Grble burst into shape.

Before Trinka could explain, the goat emitted a startled cry and bolted up the hill, dragging Trinka along with him. The hillside flew by so fast Trinka could hardly breathe. Patches of stiff grass and loose rocks appeared and disappeared beneath her, as her legs moved faster than she had ever imagined they could run. At last, the toe of her boot hit an outcrop in the rock, sending her sprawling onto her stomach. The goat dragged her for a few paces, until Grble used his long, strong fingers to pry her free. As she lay on the rock, gasping for breath, she heard the clamor of hooves behind her. She tried to roll out of the way but couldn’t avoid being pummeled by dozens of shark kicks as the stampede of furry bodies passed over her. Grble attempted to shield her with his small body, then disappeared as Yuoli stumbled up the hill and hauled her to her feet. Moisture dotted his red face as he surveyed the scene, eyes wild, chest heaving.

“What in the hills happened?” he gasped.

Trinka couldn’t answer for lack of breath, but her hand closed on Grble’s talisman on the ground beside her. She picked it up and slipped it into her skirt pocket as she lay on the ground panting and staring up at the cloudless blue sky.

All was peaceful when Kolinkar came up the hill, herding some stray goats that hadn’t come with the rest of the panic.

“Wow, I’ve never seen the goats move that fast. What spooked them?”

“I don’t know,” Yuoli shook his head. “Something strange appeared―like a plant, or an animal. It was right next to her…” he pointed accusingly at Trinka, “and then it was gone. Never seen anything like it.”

“Well, at least the goats found good feed,” Kolinkar shrugged. “See! You’re a born goat herder!” he yelled toward Trinka, who could only cower in embarrassment. The other herders shook their heads and muttered as her brother helped bring in the rest of the goats, then dropped to the ground beside her.

“Here, you look like you could use this about now.”

Kolinkar placed a lumpy glob of brownish-gray rock in her hand.

“A rock?”

“Well, it’s a special rock.”

Trinka examined the bits of smooth, flat stones in pale yellows and greens dotted the lump’s surface, as if someone with very strong hands had taken a bunch of dirt and a handful of small stones and squeezed them all together.

“What’s so special about this?”

“It’s an aquarock. All you have to do is talk to it, and water will pour out of it.”

Trinka was sure that her brother must be teasing her.

“Go on! Say mayim unda hudor.”

Mayim unda hudor,” Trinka repeated, and a small stream of water poured from the rock and trickled down her hands. Arabis eagerly lapped up the puddle that began forming on the ground.

Batsa ur vesi,” Kolinkar said, and immediately the water ceased flowing. “It’ll never get used up, but be careful not to let it run all over the place. No one likes the smell of wet goats,” he joked.

Mayim unda hudor,” she whispered again, and a small stream of water poured into her hands. The cool fluid felt good on her hot, sticky skin, as it flowed over her hands onto the rock below. Yuoli dipped his hands in gratefully, and the goats begun butting each other to get to the stream of water forming on the ground.

Kolinkar cupped his hands beneath the rock, let them fill, and then drank from them. He then held the rock so Trinka could do the same.

Nothing, not even Tarian’s tea, had ever tasted so good as that clear, fresh liquid rolling down her throat.

Batsa ur vesi,” she murmured gratefully. She shoved the aquarock into her skirt pocket, and felt a twinge of guilt as her fingers brushed Grble’s talisman. She had already messed everything up on her very first day here—again. Kolinkar and Tarian were so kind, but would they really want her as their family no matter what?

“Well, since the herd’s settled in, guess we may as well eat too.” Kolinkar slapped his legs and began rummaging through his deep pockets.

Trinka started. “You eat more than once a day?”

Kolinkar and all their neighbors within earshot laughed.

“We eat three times every day, usually,” Yuoli answered. “Though normally we eat the midday meal as we herd,” he added darkly.

Kolinkar handed her a few thin, rough brown strips, and began chewing several others himself.

“What is it?” Trinka ventured.

“Pemmican. Dried goat meat. It’s great for traveling,” Kolinkar enthused.

Trinka longed to refuse it, but her empty stomach was already rumbling in protest, despite the food she had already had at Tarian’s and Habba’s that morning.

She took a bite and chewed and chewed until she felt like the goats in front of her, whose teeth never stopped moving.

A few of the goats began to wander off and Yuoli called after them with his herder’s horn, then got up to send a few boys after the strays. The energetic youths raced eagerly around the perimeter, circling the goats and keeping them together. Teams of brothers and sisters and cousins laughed alongside each other as they worked—some blowing herders’ horns, some spinning goat hair into yarn, while others used sharp instruments to shape pieces of what her brother called “soapstone” into dishes and jars. Everyone’s hands and voices were busy being useful, busy being a part of something…

“Here, try some dried lavosh.”

Trinka accepted a pale brown rectangle that looked like a very thin, flat cake. It didn’t taste like much of anything (which was an improvement in some sense), but splintered into tiny sharp pieces in her mouth.

“Dried cheese curds?” her brother offered, but Trinka only managed to shake her head as she coughed.

She had to use the aquarock again to wash away all the jagged edges in her throat. Breathing a sigh of relief, she kept the aquarock flowing a little longer, letting the smooth water rush over her scratched hands.

Yuoli cupped his hands in the water again and shook his head wearily as he sank down beside them again. “I’ve never had such a day. And I hope I never have one like it again.”

As she washed the dirt from her many scrapes and bruises, Trinka couldn’t help but agree.

When Tarian came with the rest of the village and set up their tent, Trinka dropped, exhausted, onto the rugs. She ached all over, as if her entire body had been beaten. She had probably moved more in one day of living in Bedrosian than she had in her entire life on Ellipsis, Trinka reflected. She had spent the whole day watching her brother work happily, unable to talk to him or even Grble, since he had to stay hidden in her pocket.

“I don’t belong here,” she told herself. “Wherever ’home’ is, it’s not here.” She opened her hand to see the truthstone inside. It glowed a bright, clear red. “I’ll go see my father,” she whispered. “I’ll use the vial Annelise gave me. I’ll leave tonight.” The truthstone’s red faded to a gloomy, brownish pink, as swirls of uncertainty swept through it.

“What’s eating you, kid?”

Trinka slipped the stone into her pocket as Kolinkar stooped beside her.

“Nothing,” Trinka mumbled quickly, then bit her lip. How was she going to tell her brother and Tarian she wanted to leave without hurting their feelings? They had made her feel more welcome than everyone in Ellipsis put together had.

Tarian handed them each a bowl full of steaming goat guts.

“You don’t like it here, do you?” she asked pleasantly.

Trinka looked up, startled at the abruptness of her question.

“What? How can you not like it here?” Kolinkar protested, as he shoveled stew into his mouth.

“I hope you’ll at least stay with us until tomorrow,” Tarian added. She took a small bite of stew and chewed thoughtfully. “We’re leaving for Parthalan in the morning.”

“What’s Parthalan?” Trinka asked, grateful for an excuse not to start eating.

“The civilized side of Ampersand,” Kolinkar mimicked primly.

Tarian pushed him playfully, but it was enough to topple him off balance, spilling him and his stew to the ground. Arabis sprang forward and gulped it down, alternating licks between the soiled floor and his fallen master. His tail wagged furiously with resounding thumps, rocking the tent along with Kolinkar’s laughter.

Tarian could no longer contain her giggles. She tried to move away from the melee, but Kolinkar caught her behind the ankles, and she came crashing down on top of him with another burst of laughter. As Trinka stood watching them try to get back on their feet (with Arabis seemingly doing all he could to hinder them), she couldn’t help put her rough day behind her and crack a smile.

When the dishes were scrubbed, the tent rugs cleaned, and Arabis sound asleep after his unexpected extra meal, Kolinkar began turning over the light stones, until only one of them gave off a soft glow.

The rock beneath their feet seemed to rumble lightly as a deep moaning noise rolled through the hills. Harmonies of low groaning and higher wailing rose and fell through the darkness, as if the rock itself were breathing.

“What’s that sound?”

“It’s Arabis snoring.”

The rockhound’s sides were heaving mightily with long, rattling breaths that seemed to shake the tent floor. A tiny whimpering noise escaped him every now and then, and his feet twitched as if he were bounding up the steep rocks in his sleep.

Oh, Trinka thought. But then the low, moaning noises started again. Surely that wasn’t Arabis?

“They’re longhorns,” Tarian’s voice answered. “The night watchmen use them.”

Trinka peeked out through the tent flap. It was strange to see so many other small tents scattered across the ground, their broad tops silhouetted in the deepening dark, instead of the tall, graceful white buildings she had always looked out on before. Just a few of the tents showed a faint glow of light from inside. Trinka pulled the flap shut and noticed Tarian settling down into the thick, coat-like blankets she had placed on the ground.

“You sleep on the floor?” Trinka couldn’t conceal her surprise.

Kolinkar grinned. “You’ll get used to it, princess.”

Tarian leaned on her elbows, her bright brown eyes sparkling in the darkness.

“How do you sleep on Ellipsis?”

Trinka tried to think of how to explain the floating chrysalises that carried them to their dreams.

“Suspended from the ceiling.”

Tarian laughed, but when Kolinkar didn’t, she saw that Trinka had answered seriously. “How come you never talk about Ellipsis, Kar?”

Kolinkar wrestled off his boots and dropped down beside her. “Why would I talk about the past when I’m enjoying the present?” He leaned close to her and kissed her.

Trinka felt a sudden flush of discomfort that, she felt fairly sure, wasn’t from her itchy new bedding. As Kolinkar turned the last light stone over, sending the tent into blackness, Trinka finally remembered to ask.

“So what is Parthalan?”

She waited for the answer, but Kolinkar and Tarian were already dozing shoulder to shoulder. Trinka listened to Arabis’ snores wheezing above the low thrum of the long herders’ horns, then put her head back down and sighed. She would have to wait until morning to find out. As her mind began drifting off into sleep, Trinka thought for the first time not about what she might dream that night, but about what the new day might bring.

 

h1={color:#808080;}.
Chapter Five

Fields of Gold

“It’s beautiful,” Trinka breathed.

“Yes, it is,” Tarian agreed. “We visited Parthalan a lot when I was growing up. I even thought about living here someday, but then I met Kar…”

“Ah, yes,” he sympathized morosely. “And so she gave up the quaint and quiet farm life to live in a goat-hair shack with an overgrown, smelly herder like me.”

“You’ve got the smelly part right!” Tarian teased.

“Well, why didn’t you want to move here?” Trinka asked her brother.

“You know I hate being cooped up,” he shrugged. “What’s the point of being outside if you have to work in the same field everyday?”

Trinka turned her attention back to the lush landscape before them. She couldn’t imagine anyone preferring the rough rocks and roaming goats of Bedrosian to the scene her eyes feasted on now. Amidst the green fields rose stands of trees that reminded her of the glass towers on Ellipsis, but instead of being frosty white, great clouds of green covered their tops.

Beneath the trees, colorful wildflowers in pastel pinks, purples, and golds dotted the soft, green grass so unlike the stiff, dry plants that sprung from the rocky soil of Bedrosian. A stream of water wound between the trees, as if someone had left an aquarock running while dashing between them. As they came to the edge of the group of trees, glimpses of more green fields appeared in the distance. Not far from the water’s edge stood rows of small, low buildings. With walls of branches and roofs of leaves, they seemed to spring from the ground like the very trees that surrounded them, as if the the people of Parthalan had woven living trees into buildings the way the people of Bedrosian wove yarn.

Near some of the buildings, a large oval of thin, young trees reached toward each other, their spindly branches barely beginning to intertwine. It was funny to see a “baby” building just starting to grow, and Trinka wondered how long it would take them to become a whole house.

“That’s where you’ll go to school,” Kolinkar pointed to one of the larger, leafy ceilinged buildings.

“School?” Trinka paled at the thought. She had finally arrived in what seemed to be paradise, and they had to ruin it by sending her to school?

“Here,” Tarian said proudly as she handed Trinka a small bundle. “I packed you a lunch. It’s not goat meat,” she whispered. “The people in Parthalan don’t really accept that.”

“There’s nothing wrong with eating goats,” Kolinkar retorted as their cart, drawn by four enormous, thick-legged goats, rolled to a halt.

“Just the same, you don’t need to overwhelm them with your barbaric ways all at once,” Tarian chided. Kolinkar stepped down from the cart, his boots sinking slightly into the soft, green ground. He put his hands around Tarian’s waist and swung her over the edge.

“How gallant,” Tarian commented. “Or did you not think I could get that far by myself?”

“Just trying to prove I’m not a total barbarian. Hey, sis, you need a hand?”

Trinka jumped the short distance to the ground. The sudden breeze sent her robes from Ellipsis fluttering, and the filmy, white fabric peeked out from beneath her heavy skirt before she hastily set it straight and adjusted the herder’s horn that hung from her belt. She eyed the school building for a moment, and gently rested her fingers against the vial from Annelise, still safe in the folds of the robes underneath her dress. Oh well, she had come this far. She might as well see what it was like.

And if I don’t belong here either, she thought as she dragged herself toward the schoolhouse, I can always use the vial.

Tarian and Kolinkar had already reached the door, and she found them talking with a small, respectable-looking woman whose light brown hair formed a soft poof at the back of her head.

“Fionula, this is Trinka.”

“This will be such a culturally important experience for us all!” the teacher gushed. “Do come in.”

Trinka took one last look back at Kolinkar and Tarian, who smiled encouragingly, then followed the teacher into the room. It was much smaller than her old school―simple, round, and brightly lit by the holes that dotted the walls of tightly woven branches. She would have liked a seat in the back row, but all the chairs sat in a circle.

The teacher beamed at Trinka and patted her on the shoulder. “Why don’t you take a seat next to Oana,” she mouthed boldly, as if she didn’t expect Trinka to understand her very well. “Class, I would like to introduce you to Trinka, who is visiting us from Bedrosian, the outer circle of Ampersand.”

Trinka’s cheeks flushed as she slid into her seat next to the dark-haired girl, who pushed her hair from her eyes and smiled shyly, then quickly turned away. The girl kept twisting her fingers nervously, crossing and uncrossing her ankles, and glancing down at the large container crammed beneath her chair. Trinka wondered what was in there, as it certainly looked too large to be a lunch.

“As some of you may know, Tarian and Kolinkar, two of Bedrosian’s leaders, are visiting the council in Parthalan.” Fionula paused. “They’re not your parents, are they?”

“No,” Trinka managed. “I’m Kolinkar’s sister.”

The girl next to Trinka suddenly clapped one hand over her mouth, while the other reached frantically for the edge of her chair.

“Oana?” Fionula prompted. “Do you have something you’d like to share with the class?”

In response, the dark-haired girl’s chair suddenly reared into the air and fell backward with a thud. Something shot from the basket, and a series of shrieks went up as whatever it was rose toward the ceiling, hitting the branches of the roof with a crack. Two little blurs of yellow and pink zoomed around the room.

“We’re freeee!” their tiny voices chattered.

“Ickle! Fiszbee! Stop this unseemly behavior at once!” Fionula commanded.

“Are you okay?” Trinka reached down to help Oana, who nodded but looked close to tears as she watched her pets fly out of control. Ickle and Fiszbee rushed past them, still shrieking with merriment. They soared right over the students’ heads, disrupting class completely.

As the whizzed by her, Trinka tried to get a good look at them. They seemed to be just little balls of fluff, with tiny hairs sticking out in all directions. Each of them had two large, round eyes and a wide open mouth that was screaming in delight as they bounced off room’s ceiling and its occupants’ heads.

“Oana, catch them!” Fionula squealed as the pets touched down on her briefly, blowing her hair out of its neat bun and into her eyes.

But Oana, still watching in horror, was too dazed to do anything.

Trinka grabbed the basket. This can’t be any worse than herding goats, she decided. She watched and waited until Ickle and Fiszbee both zoomed down toward the floor together, then pounced, catching them in a single swoop. The class applauded as the basket jumped and wriggled in Trinka’s arms, and Oana looked at her with sheer relief and gratitude.

“Oh, how marvelous, how agile,” Fionula gushed as the two girls squished the squirming basket back under the seat. “What wonderful Bedrosian strength.”

Trinka’s face flushed, and she looked down, letting her hair drop over her eyes as Oana’s did, as the students slowly returned to their seats. Soon all was quiet again, except for an occasional thump from the basket under Oana’s chair, as Fionula resumed her speech about intercultural enlightenment.

Some of the students made strange marks using sticks on what appeared to be large, flat white leaves. Trinka craned her neck to peek at the marks the other girl next to her made. The girl noticed and gave her a strange look, but said nothing. The rows of small lines looked a bit like rough, repeating drawings of branches and leaves. Since Trinka didn’t have anything to mark with, she just sat quietly and hoped there wouldn’t be a test anytime soon.

Trinka’s stomach was just starting to rumble when Fionula finished her speech. As the other students eagerly opened their small baskets, a wonderful aroma filled the room. Their lunches looked like vanity cakes, only denser and darker. Trinka felt her stomach stir in anticipation as she carefully unwrapped the package Tarian had given her. A horrible stench rose out of it, and Trinka gasped and put her hand over her nose as she stared at the putrid blob.

“Ewww, what’s that smell?”

“I think it’s her lunch,” the girl next to her gagged.

Trinka folded the cloth back over the offending substance, but even the people on the other side of the room were shifting uncomfortably as Trinka sank deeper into her seat in embarrassment.

This is it, thought Trinka when she spied Fionula coming toward her. I’m going to get thrown out of school again, and this time it’s all because of my stinky lunch.

“Well, well, what have we here?” Fionula bravely peeled back the cloth and peeked inside. She gasped excitedly. “Oh class, I do believe our new student has brought a wonderful treat from Bedrosian. May I?”

Trinka nodded and tried to hold her breath as Fionula held up the wobbling, white substance for the whole class to see.

“This,” she explained, “is goat cheese.”

A few of the boys leaned forward as if they wanted to poke it, but most of the students pulled back in dismay. The boy directly across from Trinka raised his hand.

“Fionula? Perhaps if Trinka would share some of her cheese with us, we could all share our bread with her?”

Fionula beamed. “An excellent suggestion, Ewen. What a wonderful opportunity for a cross-cultural experience.”

She turned expectantly toward Trinka, who sat stunned for a moment. They were going to give her their wonderful-smelling food? In exchange for that awful goat cheese?

“Yes, please!” she answered quickly.

As the teacher divided up the offending substance, the class began breaking off pieces of their lunch and bringing them to her. Most of them, Trinka suspected, weren’t doing it as an even trade but because they felt sorry for her. Trinka wondered who would be the first to actually gag down any goat cheese, but Ewen quickly answered that by chewing on his piece thoughtfully for a moment, then polishing it off.

“It’s very interesting. Thank you.”

Trinka bit into her first piece of bread. It was tougher than a vanity cake, but still light, fluffy, delightful. And such a welcome change from goat meat. Oana gave her the most generous piece, covered in a sweet, creamy red substance, and Trinka savored her kindness.

The rest of the school time passed quickly. Most of the other students took turns talking to the class, but Trinka was allowed to just sit and listen. Some told about their families, others talked about their farms, and Ewen gave a particularly long and eloquent speech about negotiation.

At last Fionula ended with, “Excellent work today, class. You may now return to your farms and your families. Perhaps someone would care to show Trinka their home?”

Trinka casually looked over at Oana and saw that Oana was already looking back at her. Trinka smiled, and Oana’s face lit up with a warm glow of relief and a friendly smile reminiscent of Tarian’s.

“Hello, Trinka?”

Trinka looked up and immediately wished she could hide under her seat like Oana’s pets.

“Hi, I’m Ewen.” The boy from across the room flashed her a confident smile and stuck out his hand. “I was wondering if you would give me the honor of showing you around Parthalan this afternoon.”

Trinka flushed and glanced over at Oana. She tried to think of something to say that wouldn’t upset either of them, when Fionula bustled over.

“How nice to see you two attending to our new little student,” she beamed. “Have you decided to work together this afternoon?”

Trinka quickly took in Ewen and Oana’s expressions.

“Yes, I think we have,” she murmured.

The three of them walked out from under the trees into the warm fields that seemed so bright and golden compared to the cool pathways near the school. Everything around them felt free and open, from the sweet, musty scent of the air to the tall yellow stalks that rippled beneath the pale blue sky, dotted with white clouds. The smell made Trinka long for more of the bread she had tasted in the classroom—here, maybe she could even look forward to eating.

Ickle and Fiszbee seemed to enjoy the change of scenery tremendously as they chased each other along the tops of the fields, their bubbling giggles occasionally emphasized by the sudden snapping of a stalk.

“Hey, keep those pests out of my grain!” a man yelled.

Embarrassed, Oana picked up two tiny pink and gold objects that hung from a braid of stems around her neck. She blew into one, then the other, and a faint high-pitched noise escaped. Ickle and Fiszbee chattered and laughed, and tumbled a little bit higher.

“They never do listen,” Oana sighed.

The three of them passed more fields as Ickle and Fiszbee skittered ahead. The path wound past several small, low buildings. But unlike the buildings beneath the trees, they seemed to grow from the golden plants around them.

“Oana! Oh…” a round-faced woman with dark hair and eyes just like Oana’s stopped outside the doorway of a somewhat larger, lumpier building. “I didn’t know you had company.” She took a second look at Ewen, and her eyes swept Trinka’s dress uncertainly.

“Mom, this is Trinka. She’s visiting from Bedrosian,” Oana stammered. “Fionula asked someone to show her what family farming is like. Is that okay?”

“Yes, yes.” Oana’s mother answered slowly, unable to take her eyes off Trinka until another visitor grabbed her attention―and her pant leg. A baby girl with big, brown eyes had crawled out from the house and used her mother’s clothing to hoist herself up. She peeked out for a moment then shot them a mischievous smile. A blur of pink and yellow swept by overhead, and a crash inside the house signaled that Ickle and Fiszbee had gone inside.

Oana’s mother sighed.

“I’d tell you to pick up after them, but right now I need you to watch Leffa while I help our neighbor with her weaving.” The little girl tottered toward them with both fists clutching her mother’s guiding hands.

Another crash, followed by Ickle and Fiszbee’s exuberant giggling, rattled the house.

“The bread dough’s ready to make into loaves. And mind your brothers and sisters as soon as they get home from school!” Oana’s mom called as she hurried down the path.

“That’s funny. It’s usually our house that has holes in it,” Oana mused.

Right on cue, Ickle and Fiszbee burst outside. And, Trinka realized a moment later, they did not come through the door.

“Ho-wuh!” Leffa pointed.

“Yes, that’s a hole,” Ewen repeated. “Very good, Leffa.”

But Oana did not look so amused.

“Trinka, help me fix it, quick! Mother will practically cry if she comes home and finds there’s more weaving to do.”

“But I don’t know how.”

“I’ll show you,” Oana scooped up her sister in her arms and ran back toward the house as Ickle and Fiszbee continued tumbling outside. She emerged with Leffa in one arm and a small basket in the other, which she started rummaging through.

“I’ve got the shuttles.” She held up two small, flat sticks with gently pointed ends and a large, oblong hole in the middle. “But we haven’t got nearly enough straw,” she eyed the hole desperately.

“Why don’t you start weaving while I harvest some more. There’s got to be enough grain that’s nearly ready,” Ewen suggested.

Oana nodded as she began trying to stick one end of the straw through the hole in the shuttle, her panicked fingers missing every time.

Trinka looked to the field outside where Ewen had wrapped a long, sparkling thread around a patch of grain and started running. A great rustling arose as the thread swept across the tops of grain. With a multitude of whispering noises that reminded Trinka of the whistle Oana had used, the heads of grain flew into the air and became tiny specks that scattered in the light like a golden rain against the bright, endless blue.

Trinka watched in awe for a moment, but her thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of two boys who came dashing up the path. If they had held still long enough, Trinka guessed, one of them would have come up to Oana’s shoulder, and the other to her nose.

“Eoff, Edelen! Will you help Ewen get some straw?” Oana called without looking up.

“Yeah!” her brothers answered. Both had bright, flashing eyes, easy going smiles, the same round, open faces as Oana and her mother, and a boundless amount of energy, as if they were as happy to be free from their schoolroom as Ickle and Fiszbee had been from their basket. They immediately ran toward the field.

Trinka turned her attention back to the hole and noticed that, if anything, it looked slightly bigger than when Oana had started. Trinka was about to encourage her when she found the shuttle being thrust into her hands.

“Oh, Trinka, will you try it for awhile?” Oana’s large eyes looked close to tears. “I’ve got to go get Leffa.”

Trinka didn’t think she could, but as she watched Leffa toddle further and further into the field, she knew she couldn’t refuse.

“Thanks, Trinka. Just touch the new straw to the ends of the old ones.”

Skeptically, Trinka took one of the new-cut straws, looped it through the shuttle, and carefully touched the end of the shuttle against the broken edge of an old straw. The two straws instantly fused together as if they had grown as one piece.

Maybe I can do this, she thought as she tried another. And another. This is actually kind of fun. Within minutes, all of the straw dangled from the bottom edge of the hole, their cut ends swaying gently in the breeze that whistled in from outside. Trinka picked up the loose end of one straw, fed it through the shuttle, and touched it to the rough edge of the top of the hole. It instantly attached itself. She tried another and another. No matter what part of the hole she touched them to, the straws always seemed to be just the right length. Some became fatter, some thinner, as if the extra length got pulled down inside them.

The hole was almost completely covered with a thin layer of straw now, and Trinka admired her work for a moment when she felt something press against her legs.

“Hey, you two, don’t come over here,” Trinka turned to brush off Ickle and Fiszbee, but instead she found two more little girls standing behind her, who shyly withdrew from petting the thick gray fur of her goat-hair skirt.

“Hello,” Trinka greeted them as she crouched down to their level. They both looked up at her with huge, brown eyes and round, innocent faces, and the smaller one shrank behind her sister. Like the other girls in Parthalan, they wore loose, comfortable looking tops made from a much lighter material than goat hair, but instead of pants like Oana and her mother wore, they had long, layered skirts that reached nearly to the ground. Unlike the pale blues and yellows that the older students seemed to favor, they wore cheerful hues of pink and purple that made them look like they were dressed in giant flower petals.

“I’m sorry,” Oana said. “These are my sisters, Lellawyn and Isyllit. I didn’t know they…” she stopped and gasped. “Trinka, you did it!”

“It’s not done yet,” Trinka tried to protest through Oana’s hug.

“Do you want to come in? I’ve got to put Leffa down and get the bread started.”

Trinka followed the girls into the simple straw house, and marveled at the extravaganza that met her eyes. Like the schoolhouse, the oval-shaped room had a central table surrounded by chairs made from gracefully intertwining branches, but much of the wall area was covered by three curtains made of tiny swatches in all different hues and shades, patterned and pieced together in an incredible array of color, as if hundreds of beautiful butterflies had decided to alight on the sky-blue fabric and stay there forever.

Oana’s small sisters pulled back the curtain with the most pink “butterflies,” revealing several very large floor cushions covered with blankets of the same amazing piecework.

“Will you read me a story?”

Trinka looked down to see Lellawyn holding out a stack of flat, white leaves full of strange marks like she had seen in the schoolhouse.

“Um…” Trinka hesitated.

“Trinka’s busy working on the house,” Oana chided them. “And I’ve got to shape the dough.” She was already working the strange, pale substance she had pulled from the bowl, stretching and rolling it on the table. Trinka wondered what it would be like to shape things, not with thoughts, but with your very own hands.

“Here, I’ll read to them,” Ewen offered. He gave Trinka a small pile of straw and a promise that Oana’s brothers would be bringing more. “Give me the book.”

They sat down as Ewen took the stack of leaves and began telling them about a farm maid who turned out to be a princess in disguise. The girls sat enthralled while Trinka began weaving the straws across the inside of the hole using the shuttle.

“What are those marks for?” Trinka finally asked when the story was over.

Ewen looked at her in surprise. “That’s writing,” he explained, assuming the confident tone he used in school. “Like you use in Bedrosian except the marks represent sounds instead of words. We use stick marks for consonants and leaves for vowels.”

Trinka looked back at him blankly.

“Read us some more!” Lellawyn commanded.

“Read all of them!” Isyllit added, jumping up excitedly.

Ewen obliged while Trinka completed the weaving as best she could. The smell of baking bread filled the room, making Trinka not just willing, but eager to eat.

“Do you want some fruit?” Oana offered shyly. “We went berry picking this morning—they’re a little squashed, but they’re still fresh.”

Trinka took a few of the bumpy little spheres and ovoids, which ranged from pale purple to deep maroon, and cautiously sampled one. Unlike the rock-hard akenes she had struggled with in Bedrosian, these immediately burst open in her mouth, sending streams of flavorful juice down her tongue.

Soon they were all munching fresh, crusty golden bread, and wiping up the last of the smashed berries, as they looked at their work in satisfaction. The patch was a little bit bulgy and uneven, but not really more so than the rest of the house. Oana’s mother, Alin, and father, Eiden, seemed pleasantly surprised by the peaceful sight that greeted them when they returned home.

So this is what it’s like, thought Trinka,  to have a real family that stays together. What it’s like to have a home.

“Well, I should be getting back now.” Ewen handed the book back to the girls and rose to his feet. Trinka did the same. “Thank you for having us,” he added. Trinka mumbled her thanks as well and smiled at Oana.

The sky was just starting to go slightly dark as they started back down the path, but they could still see easily, as the fields and houses all around them gave off a soft, golden glow.

“You’re very good at weaving, Trinka,” Ewen said as they approached the cluster of trees.

She felt her cheeks redden in the growing darkness. “I’m not good at anything.”

“That’s not true,” Ewen insisted, “Everyone’s good at something. You just have to find it.”

Trinka suddenly had an urge to pull out the truthstone and find out what he really thought. But they were almost there.

Just as they had in Bedrosian, Kolinkar and Tarian had taken the tent with them and set it up beneath the trees of Parthalan, right alongside the branch houses of Ewen’s village. The four cart goats munched contentedly in the nearby grass, and a heavy, greasy odor indicated that Kolinkar and Tarian had already started cooking dinner. Trinka paused outside the flap.

“Trinka, can I ask you something?” Ewen began earnestly.

“You just did,” she grinned.

“Would you and Oana come visit my house tomorrow? It might not be as exciting as today, since we live in the village.”

“Of course I would.” Trinka smiled but wondered if she dared to ask something in return. “And the day after that, maybe you and Oana could come over here to the tent, if you want.”

Ewen seemed surprised but nodded.

“I’d like that. I’d like that a lot.”

Trinka turned to go inside.

“Wait,” Ewen stopped her. She watched as he reached for something in his pocket. “Here,” he handed her a small weaving shuttle.

Trinka looked at it for a moment, then looked back at him.

“What’s this for?”

“So you’ll always remember something you’re good at. You may be from Bedrosian, but you fit right in here in Parthalan.”

Trinka felt her cheeks flush with excitement as she turned and slipped inside. Tarian looked up from the fuming pot that sat on the heat-stones in the center of the tent.

“How was your first day of school?”

Trinka broke into a wide grin as she answered with words she never expected to say about school:

“It was great!”

h1={color:#808080;}.
Chapter Six

Into the Fire

As Trinka walked along the quiet paths among the trees, she felt a surge of… well, peace, from deep within her. She had never felt more at home than among the shady branches, gentle streams, rippling fields, and quiet people of Parthalan.

Maybe Kolinkar and Tarian will like it so much they’ll decide to live here, Trinka thought as she approached the school. Or maybe they’ll let me stay with Oana’s family, or Ewen’s.

She could see several students gathered near the school, just on the other side of the stream. She looked about uncertainly, trying to figure out the best way around. The water wasn’t deep, and it looked cool and inviting.

“Better take off your boots,” Ewen called out as he saw her. “You don’t want to get the goat skin wet.”

Trinka flushed as she sat on the ground and struggled to pull them off. “It’s kind of disgusting, wearing pieces of dead goat, isn’t it?”

Ewen only shrugged. “We make our clothes out of dead plants.”

Trinka could only hope that if she got to live here she would get to wear “dead plant” clothes too—with soft clouds of pale-blue fabric gently gathered into sleeves and swishy pants, drawn in close from knees to ankles. Maybe Oana’s family could even show her how to make those amazing fabric “quilts.”

With a final tug, Trinka’s foot pulled loose, but the force sent her toppling over backwards, and the edge of her goat-hair skirt flipped up, revealing the gleaming, white folds of her robe underneath.

“Ooh, what’s that?” one of the girls gasped, as Trinka quickly got to her feet and let her hemline fall back over it.

By now, almost the whole school had wandered over to see what the others were staring at. Trinka picked up her boots and carefully stepped through the stream. She only wished her face felt as cool as her feet.

“Show us again,” pleaded Amarine, the girl who had sat to one side of her the day before.

Embarrassed, Trinka pulled up her Bedrosian sleeve and let her white robe flutter out. Everyone oohed and aahed, and a few of the girls even ventured to touch it. They stared at each other in wonder as they ran their hands along its ethereal silk.

“Where did you get this?”

“It’s my uniform from my old school on Ellipsis,” Trinka stammered. “I kept wearing it after I came to Bedrosian to keep the goat-hair from itching.”

A few of the students giggled while some just continued gazing at her. Trinka turned and found herself staring into the wide brown eyes of Oana, who stood motionless a short distance away. Slowly, Oana stepped forward and stroked the fabric, still clutching Ickle and Fiszbee’s basket tightly, and smiled at Trinka.

“What’s Ellipsis?” one of the boys asked.

“It’s another realm,” Trinka explained. “The one I grew up in. Where everything is made of glass and we try to predict the future. I was never very good at it,” she added in case anyone asked her to demonstrate.

Fionula called everyone inside, and Trinka hurriedly stuffed her feet into her boots and awkwardly made her way toward the door.

“My, my, how nice to see everyone taking such a thoughtful interest in our visiting student,” Fionula remarked as everyone crowded around Trinka and tried to walk through the door en masse. One by one, the students drifted to their places.

Just as Trinka was about to go in, she noticed Ewen was still behind her. She smiled and held out her sleeve.

“Would you like to touch it too?”

Ewen folded his arms over his chest and set his jaw squarely.

“You don’t fool me,” he said. “There is no such place.”

Trinka’s jaw dropped, and she wondered what he could mean by that, when their teacher shooed them inside. Trinka slipped quietly into an empty seat, while Oana quickly thrust Ickle and Fiszbee’s basket under her chair and jumped on top of it before they could escape. Everything Fionula said seemed to make even less sense than the day before. The girls beside her couldn’t stop whispering and smiling at Trinka every time she happened to look their way. Oana gave her a friendly grin every time the two exchanged glances, but, as usual, spent most her time worrying about her pets getting loose. But it was Ewen that Trinka found most disturbing. Unlike yesterday, he never looked toward her at all.

How can he not believe that Ellipsis really exists? And why would it matter to him? Trinka wondered.

“And now, let’s get into our share groups,” Fionula announced. The other students began turning their seats into small clusters of threes and fours.

“Trinka, come join us,” Amarine beckoned. “Please?”

“We’d love to hear more about Ellipsis,” her friend Nishal added.

Trinka looked across the room, but Ewen immediately joined the boys sitting next to him without a glance their way.

“Trinka, please?”

“Um, okay, but only if Oana can join us,” Trinka agreed.

Oana got up from her chair with a look of relief, then sat back down as the basket underneath heaved, but it was too late. The sound of chattering and small bodies smacking into branches filled the room.

“I suppose we can let them get their exercise for now,” Fionula sighed resignedly.

“Wheee!” Ickle and Fiszbee chortled in response.

“What kind of pets do you have?” Amarine asked.

Now here was a question she could answer easily. She pulled the murky green ornament from her pocket. The other girls leaned over to inspect it.

“Um, it’s very quiet, isn’t it?” Nishal commented.

At that moment, Grble sprang into shape, his eyes bobbling as he quickly took in his new surroundings. The girls drew back, startled.

“Who are these humans?” he asked in his low, burbly voice.

“These are my friends, at my new school,” Trinka explained.

The girls, feeling bolder now, shook Grble’s long, thin hands, and he seemed pleased with the attention from his new admirers.

“Awesome!” one of the boys exclaimed, and the other students started to take notice of their strange new visitor.

“Gracious me,” Fionula declared. “You certainly have brought us a variety of new things to experience from Bedrosian.”

“Actually, he’s not from Bedrosian,” Trinka stammered, flushing from all the attention. “I found him while I was leaving Ellipsis.”

“There is no such place as Ellipsis. That filthy creature’s from Apostrophe!” a voice suddenly shouted.

Everyone turned to see who in the Parthalan School of Peace had raised his voice in such a way. But Trinka already knew. The whole class sat in hushed amazement as the two of them stared at each other. Ewen, his cheeks as red with anger as Trinka’s were from embarrassment, slowly rose to his feet.

“I tell you, that creature’s from Apostrophe!”

“So what if he is?” Trinka demanded.

“So what?” Ewen repeated incredulously. “Don’t you know what Apostrophe did to our people, to our land?”

Trinka shook her head in surprise.

“Everyone knows that the people of Apostrophe used to invade Parthalan. They slaughtered everyone in their path and stole our food and water, leaving our people to die. That’s why the mountain passages were sealed off to keep the invaders out forever. Everyone knows that. Everyone from Ampersand, that is!”

“I told you, I’m not from Ampersand. I’m from Ellipsis,” Trinka insisted.

“Oh, yeah? Then where did you get this cave creature? Admit it! You’re from Apostrophe too!”

“I am not!”

“Children, children,” Fionula interrupted, having at last regained control of her reeling senses. “Ewen…” she began, but he turned and marched out the door. The entire class murmured. The teacher, clearly at a loss for what to do in these unprecedented circumstances, finally managed to say to Trinka, “I think you and I should have a quiet chat.”

Trinka took Grble’s hand, and followed Fionula to the side of the room.

“Now, all this about Apostrophe…” she began, shuddering as if the very word were anathema.

“My mother was from Apostrophe,” Trinka admitted quietly. “But I’ve never been there. I found Grble when I came here on the airships from Ellipsis.”

“And this… Ellipsis,” she faltered, “is not part of Apostrophe?”

“No, it’s…” Trinka struggled for the answers that would somehow make everything all right again. “No, it’s not.”

“Very well,” Fionula answered with a heavy sigh. “You may go back to your seat, and we will finish the school day as if none of these unexpected events ever happened.”

Trinka slunk back to her seat and didn’t even dare to sneak a glance at Oana. How could her teacher pretend that nothing had happened, when her new friend had just betrayed her in front of the whole school?

Trinka passed the rest of the day passed in numbness, unable to listen, think, or feel anything. Fionula presented each student with a piece of “canvas”—a thick, rough, colorless fabric hung directly from the schoolroom’s branch walls—and handed out jars full of colored liquid and some oddly shaped sticks. Amarine dipped her stick into a jar of red and began using it to create an image of berries, while Nishal, much to Trinka’s dismay, brushed her canvas with shades of green mixed with yellow, creating a life-size portrait of Grble.

Oana, free from worry about Ickle and Fiszbee as they still zoomed about the ceiling, looked happier than Trinka had ever seen her at school. Her canvas soon glowed with a brilliant blue sky, radiant golden fields, and sparkling streams of water that rivaled the beauty of the landscape itself.

Trinka stared at her own canvas, which remained as blank as an empty exam jar. It reflected how she felt right now, at least…

“Ooh, what are you painting?” Ickle hovered about her shoulder.

“Looks like you could use some pink!” Fiszbee cheered gleefully.

Before Trinka could react, the two of them splashed down into the jars and began pelting themselves into the canvas, creating sunbursts of fuchsia, citrine, and cyan overlapping in a wild, screaming mess.

“Very, um, contemporary use of color,” Fionula remarked absently as she made the rounds of her inspection.

Oana hurriedly stood directly in front of her painting, and the teacher passed it by without so much as a glance.

“Well,” Fionula announced finally. “As this is an unusual day in more ways than one, you shall be dismissed early to attend the council meeting with your parents or your… people.” She waved a hand vaguely at Trinka.

“You’re really good at painting—you should have let everyone see it,” Trinka told Oana as they lined up at the door.

“I’m not good at anything,” Oana’s hair fell ever more forward over her downcast eyes.

“Everyone’s good at something,” Trinka insisted, then realized that was just what Ewen said. She swallowed hard. “And you’re good at lots of things. You can make bread and read, and you’re a good friend and sister.”

As the students stepped into the warm, dappled sun, Trinka felt her pale skin go even whiter.

“What’s the matter?”

“I can’t find Grble,” Trinka said quietly. Her fingers traced the edges of her pocket again and again, but each time it was just as empty.

“You don’t think he would just wander off, do you?” Oana asked, her deep brown eyes growing worried.

“No, Grble doesn’t like to do anything by himself. Besides, he was hiding in my pocket, and I would have felt him transform.”

Urgently, they peered among the tall grasses, behind trees, and even checked the stream for that familiar glint of green.

“You don’t think Ewen would have…” Oana’s voice stopped and she bit her lip, as if she couldn’t bring herself to even think the terrible thoughts that would finish that sentence.

The schoolhouse door swung open, and Fionula peered out over them.

“Why are you girls still here?” she asked sternly.

“We’re looking for Grble,” Oana murmured.

“My pet,” Trinka added.

Fionula’s face looked blank for a moment, then suddenly paled in recognition.

“Oh. Oh,” she repeated faintly. “Well, I’m sure he’ll turn up eventually.”

“We’ve looked everywhere,” Oana worried aloud.

“We thought Ewen…” Trinka, like Oana, stopped in mid-sentence. Could she really accuse Fionula’s best student of having something to do with Grble’s sudden disappearance? “Might have seen him,” she finished lamely.

“An excellent idea. Why don’t you girls run along and ask him.”

Just then, Oana’s basket burst open, and Ickle and Fiszbee escaped through the open door into the school once again.

Fionula sighed. “I’ll leave you two to gather them up and close the door after you leave. It’s been a most unusual day.” She started down the path, still muttering to herself and shaking her head.

“I’ll help you look for Grble while we’re here,” Oana assured Trinka.

“Thanks.”

Oana hesitated. “I, um, I wanted to know if you would take Ickle and Fiszbee for me.”

“Take them? Oana, I’ll get Grble back. I’m not trying to replace him.”

Oana shook her head. “It’s not that, it’s that I can’t.”

“Can’t what?”

“Keep them. You know all the trouble they get into.” Oana winced as a crash signaled that the fast-flying fluffballs had just knocked over a row of chairs. “And then I get in trouble, and my mom thinks that’s why I’m not doing well in school. I spend all day just trying to keep control of them.”

“Do you ever get control of them?”

“Well, I have whistles for them.” She held up two small pink and gold sticks around her neck. “But they never listen.”

Trinka dodged a whirr of pink just in time to be bowled over by a flash of yellow. She crashed into Oana and sent both of them sprawling to the floor.

“Oops,” Ickle buzzed, stopping in midair to hover over them.

“Whoopsie-oops, whoopsie-oops, we knocked them down,” Fiszbee chattered, bouncing up and down vigorously.

“Sooorrry,” they proclaimed in unison, flashing identical glittering smiles, then rushed off to chase each other around the ceiling.

Oana sniffled as she and Trinka got to their feet. “I know you’d take good care of them, Trinka. And if I have to let them go, I don’t know what would happen to them. They might not survive on their own.”

And I don’t know if I’d survive if I do take them, Trinka thought.

“Please.” Oana’s teary, brown eyes grew soulfully wide, and Ickle and Fiszbee stopped racing around the room to hover innocently above her shoulders.

Trinka’s mouth twisted into a wry smile. “Well, I suppose I could take them for a while,” she agreed.

“Gooood!” The two pets flew gleefully over to Trinka and began snuggling into her reluctant arms.

Oana smiled broadly for the first time since Trinka had seen her. She reached forward and dropped the pink and gold whistles around Trinka’s neck.

“Thanks, Trinka. I know they’ll have a good time with you.”

“Oh yessss!” Fiszbee exclaimed, catapulting toward the ceiling.

“An excellent time!” Ickle agreed, bouncing enthusiastically into Fiszbee. The two were spinning themselves in circles when a sharp whistle blast sounded through the classroom.

“Oh no!” Ickle cried out as he was suddenly carried backward through the air. “The master squeaks!” Without another word, he was sucked into the small, pink whistle. Meanwhile, Fiszbee had begun flying even faster. “Aaaaah! Fiszbee doesn’t want to go to sleeeeep!” he babbled. “Ah, naptime at last,” he murmured softly, as his yellow fuzz slipped into the charm.

Trinka looked into Oana’s shocked face. “What? They’re okay in there, aren’t they?”

“Well, yeah. They can stay in there for ages. It’s just,” her eyes opened even wider. “You actually got them in there!”

The two of them headed toward the council meeting, still checking the path along the way, and arrived to find Ewen leaning on the door frame. He smiled, but not with the sympathetic, friendly grin that he had shared with them just the day before. Trinka wanted to ask him a thousand questions―what had happened to him? Why was he acting like this? But only one came forward.

“Where’s Grble?”

Ewen’s smile turned into a smirk of satisfaction as he folded his arms in front of him with a look of extreme superiority.

“He’s gone. Back where he belongs. In the burning fires of Apostrophe!”

Trinka’s jaw dropped.

“You didn’t really think I’d let him stay here, knowing he’s from the world of our enemy?”

“Even if he was, he never did anything to you, and he’s Trinka’s friend,” Oana retorted sharply, and Trinka threw her a surprised look.

“I know,” Ewen’s eyes narrowed. “And if you’re really from Apostrophe, we’ll send you away too.”

With that, he turned around and marched inside.

Trinka and Oana stood stunned, but before they could do anything, Kolinkar and Tarian exited, looking grim but calm.

“Come on, Trinka, we’re going home,” Kolinkar said briskly.

“And where would home be―Apostrophe?” The tall, menacing form of Renwick appeared, blocking the golden sunlight and looking just as hostile as when she had first bumped into him at Habba and Wynn’s house. A crescendo of outraged voices swelled behind him.

“Aha, I see you have the very student who dared to bring a creature from the caves of Apostrophe to one of the Parthalan schools of peace.” His light-blue eyes glittered with hatred. “I have already invoked the ancient curse and expelled the cave creature from our lands.”

“He wasn’t from Apostrophe. I found him on the airships,” Trinka protested hotly.

“Ah, but you’re wrong. We have the most simple proof. The expulsion curse worked. If the creature had not been from Apostrophe, he would have remained here. The same is true of you,” he turned his gaze to Kolinkar and Trinka. “If you are from Apostrophe, the curse shall banish you instantly. If not,” he smiled with feigned benevolence. “No harm shall befall you.”

“Not without a hearing from the full council of Bedrosian,” Tarian answered calmly.

“If you are hoping your father will save your foreigner of a husband, you are wasting your time.” Renwick spoke softly, threateningly. “As leader of the east, I can invoke the curse at any time, without approval from anyone. Tarian, I’m only doing this to protect you.” His hand found its way onto her arm.

Arabis appeared out of nowhere, barking and snarling. Renwick fell back as Kolinkar’s rockhound lunged at him, forcing him against the wall and keeping him there with a low rumble in his throat and with bared, jagged teeth.

“Call off your beast!” Renwick rasped. “Or I’ll invoke the curse now!”

“Oh, it won’t work on him, he’s definitely not from Apostrophe,” Kolinkar replied coolly.

He took his wife’s hand and gently escorted her down the path. Trinka followed, and Arabis stopped growling and trotted happily after them.

Kolinkar laughed. “What timing. Did you see the look on his face? Some fearless warrior. Arabis, I thought we left you at Habba’s!” Arabis bounded joyfully ahead of them with his tongue hanging out, shedding little bits of rock all over the soft green grass. “He must have walked halfway across Bedrosian to find us.”

Tarian laughed too. “When two belong together, no distance can keep them apart.”

“Where is Apostrophe, anyway?” Trinka found herself asking aloud.

“Not far from here,” Tarian answered. “It’s just on the other side of those mountains.” She pointed to the barren hills beyond the forest. “That’s why the people from the east are so scared of it―they always bore the brunt of the attacks.”

If it’s not far, maybe Grble could find his way back too, Trinka thought. After all, we belong together.

“The ancient people sealed off Ampersand when they made the curse, so that no one from Apostrophe could ever cross those mountains again,” Tarian continued, and Trinka felt her hope flicker out as quickly as it had been kindled. They reached the tent and slipped under the goat-hair flap.

“Can you believe what happened at the council today?” Kolinkar started.

“It’s because of Ewen.” Trinka could no longer hold back the tears, as her words spurted out in hiccups. “He saw my robe at school today and I told him I was from Ellipsis and he said there was no such place. And then when he saw Grble…”

“Is he that thing you found in the airship?”

“He’s not a thing,” Trinka protested. “He has feelings.”

“Of course he does,” Tarian soothed.

“I just want to get Grble back and go home.” Trinka stopped abruptly. But where was home? She knew she didn’t want to go back to Ellipsis. She was grateful to have found her brother, but she wasn’t going to wait for some council to throw her out of another realm.

“Well, there won’t be school tomorrow, that’s for sure,” Kolinkar said.

“Maybe you’ll feel better if you spend the day playing with Oana,” Tarian suggested.

No school. Spend the day playing with Oana. Just yesterday, Trinka would have jumped for joy to hear those words. But with Grble gone and Ewen… Trinka crumpled onto the blankets and hid her face, knowing they could probably tell she was crying anyway. She heard her brother and sister-in-law slip outside and begin talking in what they probably thought were confidential voices.

“You know, she’s taking this really hard.”

“Who? Trinka?”

Tarian sighed with mock exasperation. “Yes, Trinka. Who else?”

“I wouldn’t worry. She can go to Brace anytime she wants to.”

“Do you think that would be the best thing for her?”

“Well, I don’t know. She never seemed to like it here much, even before today, I mean Brace isn’t a bad place, you know. And she and Dad are really close. She probably misses him more than anybody.”

Trinka thought for a moment about how much she did miss Bram. She slipped her hand beneath her dress into the folds of her robes, and felt the cold familiar glass between her fingers. But the vial from Annelise couldn’t solve anything this time. It wasn’t powerful enough to bring Kolinkar and Tarian with her, and how could she be happy knowing that she had left them in trouble on Ampersand, struggling with a problem she’d started, while Grble was off alone somewhere in Apostrophe?

“Yeah, I wouldn’t even be surprised if she’s gone by morning,” Kolinkar mused aloud.

“What are we going to do in the morning?”

“Eat breakfast?” he answered hopefully.

“Oh, Kar, I wish you’d take this seriously.”

“I am taking this seriously. Trinka and I aren’t from Apostrophe. We’ve never even been there. Besides, even if we do end up in Apostrophe, you could come find me, and we could eventually escape to Brace, or Ellipsis. They may be airheads but they don’t care where you’re from as long as you can hallucinate your way around a crystal.”

“But you said you hated living on Ellipsis, Kar, and you love Bedrosian.”

“Not as much as I love you. Honestly, Tarian, I don’t care what place we live in―Ampersand, Apostrophe, Brace, Ellipsis―even if we have to create a whole new realm from scratch just to accept us, we’re going to stay together. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“I think I’ll go for a walk.”

“Be careful,” Tarian answered. “Take Arabis with you.”

“Are you kidding? I can’t leave him anywhere if I try.” Trinka heard the sound of a kiss, then the gravelly grating of Arabis bounding after his master.

“Trinka,” Tarian whispered as she crept into the tent and knelt in the blankets beside her, “I have something for you.”

Trinka accepted the small bundle and felt something wriggling underneath the cloth.

“Not another pet,” she said aloud before she could stop herself.

Tarian smiled and lifted the edge of the cloth so that Trinka could peek. She half expected to see a tiny version of Arabis, but inside were two sandals with long, white wings!

“They’re called talaria,” Tarian whispered. “My grandmother gave them to me when I was about your age.”

She smiled again with a warmth that seemed to fill the room, but Trinka still couldn’t stop staring at the sandals in her hands. The wings began fluttering more quietly, and almost became still, when Tarian gently covered them again.

“You have to keep them warm to keep their wings fresh,” she explained. “They’re pretty easy to use, it just takes getting used to.”

“What do I have to do?” Trinka asked.

“You just put them on, and when it gets hot enough, they’ll fly.”

“Fly?”

“So you can have fun tomorrow,” Tarian answered, but before Trinka could respond, they were interrupted by the unmistakable sound of a rockhound barking ferociously.

Tarian jumped up and flew from the tent as if she were wearing the winged sandals herself. Trinka kept up as best she could as they dashed through the forest and into a clearing.

A horrible sight met their eyes.

Two men at the edge of the trees held a thick, twisted rope around Arabis’s neck, restraining him from lunging forward. Renwick stood several paces away, glaring at Kolinkar. If the look from his hate-filled eyes could expel people from Ampersand, Trinka thought, they’d all be gone by now.

“…you’re making a big mistake,” Kolinkar tried to reason with him. “This isn’t just about us. Think how many generations of your people have longed for peace, have worked their whole lives for what we have now.”

“Part of having peace is being willing to fight for it,” Renwick snarled. “There can be no peace in the land when we are being invaded.” He emphasized the last word, then finally noticed Tarian and Trinka. “Ah, how touching. I see your wife has come to say goodbye to you, and your sister to join you.”

In his hand, he held out a staff of lumpy yellow rock with a cluster of putrid crystals at the top.

“For the last time, we’re not from Apostrophe.”

Renwick’s eyes narrowed malevolently. “You have the blood in your veins, and any who support Apostrophe can be cursed away as well.” He raised the staff and lowered the crystal toward Kolinkar.

The men pulled the rope on Arabis’s throat tighter, and he emitted a high pitched yelp.

Trinka panicked. This was all her fault. She had to do something. Fast. As she wiped her sweaty hands on the top of her skirt, her hand brushed the herder’s horn still dangling from her belt. She seized it and blew with all her might. A long, triumphant note erupted, echoing through the forest.

The men holding Arabis looked baffled, until they were bowled over by a stampede of furry bodies as the four enormous cart goats came running at the sound of the horn’s call. Arabis tore free of the rope and plowed straight into Renwick, knocking him over as he bounded toward Tarian and Kolinkar, overjoyed to be free.

Renwick’s staff smashed to the ground, releasing a cloud of yellow dust that choked the air with its noxious fumes. The crystals melted into a pool of blood-red liquid, as if the staff had an open wound. Everyone coughed and gasped.

The ancient curse had been broken.

But through the cloud of dust, Trinka saw Renwick grasp the last unsmashed shard and point it mercilessly toward her brother.

Without thinking, Trinka jumped in front of him.

The cloud left Kolinkar and concentrated around her, its fine particles burning against her skin as it swirled closer and closer. She tasted acid on her tongue and felt herself being swept up into it just as the last of the staff crumbled away, leaving Renwick with nothing but a handful of caustic yellow dust. The accursed cloud gripped her tighter, and she saw the beautiful, green forests of Parthalan fading from her eyes.

Apostrophe. Ever since her mother had disappeared, it had been the last place she would ever want to go.

‘     Apostrophe     ‘[][]

“When things look like they are falling apart, they are actually falling into place.”

- Iyanla Vanzant

h1={color:#808080;}.
Chapter Seven

Slaves in Sahar

“Hey, where’d you come from? Get out of my way!”

Trinka staggered back, dazed by the sight of a huge cart, clanging with the noise of dozens of pots and pans banging against each other, rolling over the sand where she had just stood. Her senses reeled with the sudden change from standing beneath the cool trees of Parthalan with her family, to being drenched in overwhelming heat with strangers pressing her on every side.

“Watch where you’re going!” Another shout of protest came from behind her as she backed into the corner of a small canopy.

“I’m sorry,” Trinka murmured.

She was about to turn away, when she noticed the man under the canopy had displayed rows of small jewels on his table, glittering brightly in the relentless yellow light.

“Have you seen a green jewel?” she asked the vendor. “It’s kind of dirty looking, about this big.” Trinka held out her hands as she struggled to find the words that would describe Grble’s ornament.

“I don’t sell ‘dirty’ junk,” the man retorted. “Now move on!”

Hastily, Trinka retreated and made her way down the dusty street, lined with stalls like the one she had just run into. It seemed to be some sort of marketplace, and the entire market rang like a set of clanging musical instruments, with each merchant making noise to a different beat and drumming out a different tune. But they all sang the same song.

“The most beautiful eggs in all the land. Like jewels that you eat. All laid by my princess.” A bright blue bird with a large plume of tail feathers chirruped from the side of the stand, where she was tied to one of the merchant’s poles. A sharp-eyed woman peered at the eggs through a small piece of glass, determined to inspect their perfection for herself, while the merchant folded and unfolded his hands and kept up a constant stream of praise for his wares.

Beside him, another man unfurled huge pieces of cloth, all bright reds and glowing purples, intertwined in intricate patterns. A group of women, some with babies strapped to their shoulders, ran their hands over the fabric and bantered back and forth. Everyone seemed to be moving everywhere, with people and animals, young and old, heading in all directions. It was all Trinka could do to not get dizzy watching them.

Amidst a stand of heavily jeweled bangles and a booth selling strings of gangly, repulsive-looking sea creatures, the wares of another merchant caught Trinka’s eye. A man with meaty hands gripped an enormous, green fruit, which he split open with one whack of his curved blade. He turned the insides of the fruit toward the street, where already a small crowd was gathering. Trinka worked her way through the shoppers and bags and babies to get a glimpse of the sparkling, green slices.

Hands with small clinking jewels appeared, and one by one, the slices disappeared as the fruit stand man dropped the jewels into a pot and handed each customer their slice, his left hand never straying from his knife. Two women oohed and ahhed as they savored the fruit in tiny bites and carefully licked the juice from their fingers. Trinka eyed the fruit enviously until a loud crack shattered her concentration. The fruit stand man had swung the long knife whipping against the chopping block, its shining blade just a blur. With a start, a boy who had attempted to sneak a slice dropped the fruit, which fell, useless, into the dusty street. Wide-eyed with terror, the boy quickly scampered off into the crowd.

“Next time someone steals my fruit, I don’t miss!” the fruit seller boomed threateningly.

Trinka nervously backed away, and caught a whiff of something she had never smelled before. On the other side of the street, a man dished out scoops of a thick, stew-like mixture for a line of hungry customers. Trinka’s nose tingled from the exotic mix of sweet and pungent spices, and her mouth began to water as the scent sparked the sensation of mild flames upon her tongue. Her stomach grumbled, reminding her that she had missed lunch and, being alone in a strange land, had no prospects of getting any dinner. To her surprise, as the customers finished gulping down their meals, they tossed their crystal dishes into a roaring fire. Another man pulled the bowls from the leaping flames with a long, sharp hook and set them on the booth again, sparkling clean.

Trinka sighed and turned away.

The heat blazed on, and the dust stirred up by all the merchants and animals and people passing by coated Trinka’s skin and clothes and filled her mouth and throat. She longed for a cool drink of water to wash away the cake of dust from her mouth and eyes. How good it would feel running down her arms and even splashing against her feet. Just then, she spotted a merchant selling small sips of water in little metal cups, while his associates filled larger bottles and flasks for what appeared to be a substantial fee, as the customers handed over bags full of flat, round jewels.

In front of his stall, a father carried a little girl, about half Trinka’s age, in his arms. Her eyes lay closed as if she were asleep, and her hand drooped lifelessly to one side.

“She needs water. We have none, and no coins to buy any,” the father told the water seller bluntly.

“Please… we have animals in the hills we could trade. We’ll pay anything you ask if you’ll just save our daughter,” the mother pleaded, but the merchant’s stern features remained unmoved.

“No merchandise, no trade.” The family looked desperately to the other merchants at the water counter, who turned away pitilessly or busied themselves with other customers. The father threw their empty flask down in disgust.

Trinka slipped behind the nearest stall and discreetly drew the aquarock from her pocket. “Mayim unda hudor,” she whispered. Instantly, the water trickled out, spilled over her hands, and disappeared into the dusty ground. She reached over, grabbed the empty flask, and filled it to the brim before whispering, “batsa ur vesi.” She took the flask and ran over to the family.

“Here, here’s some water,” she said hurriedly.

“It’s a mirage,” the man protested in disbelief, but his stubborn expression soon turned to joy as he tipped the flask and felt the cool drops fall to his hands and splash across his daughter’s face.

The girl’s beautiful brown eyes fluttered open, and her parents quickly administered a long, cool drink to their daughter.

“Militsa, my baby!” the woman cried.

Trinka started to move on, but the woman caught her shoulder. “Here, please take this with our thanks.” She held out a small metal box with what looked like a curl of smoke carved into the lid. “It’s not much, but it may help keep you warm tonight.”

“Wouldn’t you rather trade it for water?” Trinka asked in surprise.

“It wouldn’t even buy a sip,” the man gestured disparagingly, so Trinka thanked the family and slipped the box into her pocket. She noticed several of the water merchants staring at her with a mix of amazement and disgust, so she quickly melted back into the crowd and continued on her way.

The stall next to the water merchant had a large pen behind it, filled with animals that looked a little like goats, but not much, with very tall necks, short, not-quite-white fur all over, and soft-looking tufts of hair on top of their heads. Instinctively, Trinka reached out to touch the one closest to her, and it nuzzled her hand, gently licking the leftover water from her palm. A baby appeared behind its mother and reached out its pale pink tongue for the few drops. It was so cute, and so soft―and so much more manageable than a goat, Trinka couldn’t help thinking.

“Stay away from my lanidera and their cria!” a crabby man suddenly reprimanded her, and Trinka drew back as if she had been bitten by his words. “What do you think this is, a petting zoo? Unless you’re buying meat, move off!” He waved his knife at her as he gestured―a sharp, metal knife with red jewels in its handle, glittering like drops of blood.

Embarrassed, Trinka turned away and was surprised to see a huge man in a turquoise turban peering down at her even more intently than she had been looking at the animals. Her head barely came past his waist, and his fixed gaze made Trinka uncomfortable. She edged away and tried to blend in with the crowd, painfully aware that her heavy, gray goat-hair clothes looked nothing like everyone else’s lightweight, colorful garments. Every few stalls, she glanced back and spotted the man’s turban above the heads of the crowd. He was following at a distance, but trailing her nonetheless. She quickened her pace and so did he.

In desperation, Trinka ducked into an opening between stalls. She could feel her heart pounding in her chest, then suddenly realized that wasn’t the only flutter beneath her jacket. She pulled out the piece of cloth from Tarian that she had stuffed there when they had fled the tent. In the heat, the talaria’s long, white wings had come to life, beating against each other. Inspired, Trinka pulled the heavy boots from her feet, tied the thongs together, and slung them over her shoulder. Carefully, she unwrapped the talaria. One of them flew straight up out of the bundle. She jumped and caught it just before it could flutter out of reach, but just as she was bringing that one back down, the other one escaped and smacked into her chin. Fortunately, the encounter had stunned it long enough for Trinka to grab it by the heel.

It was a good thing she’d had so much practice with Ickle and Fiszbee lately, Trinka reflected, as she grasped one fluttering sandal firmly while she slipped on the other one. The wings tried to pull her leg into the air, almost flipping her upside down. Trinka couldn’t help being glad there was no one to see as her goat-hair skirt fell back, revealing her glowing, white robes underneath.

Suddenly, an enormous shadow crept over her, and the talaria settled down just enough for her to slip the other sandal into place. Great hands reached out to grab her around the waist, but Trinka sprang into the air as the talaria forced her feet upward. Her sudden movement caught the man off guard, and she slipped from his grasp. Instinctively, Trinka tried to run, and the talaria took off then settled down to hover just a handbreadth above the surface. The wings pumped quickly, propelling her forward.

Trinka sped through the marketplace, dodging carts and stalls and making countless pedestrians jump from her path. She could hear crashes and curses behind her as people fell out of her way or were pushed aside by the man pursuing her. But eventually, even his huge strides couldn’t keep pace with her winged feet. As he disappeared from view, Trinka relaxed and slowed a little. The talaria (once she had gotten the hang of them) made her feet move swiftly and effortlessly but did nothing for her weary, aching legs and tired body. Her arms were sagging with the strain of trying to hold her body upright, and only the talaria’s movement kept her from stumbling and falling.

As she came to the end of the smooth, flat sand of the marketplace, Trinka saw rocks far in the distance that jutted up in strange columns, far taller than any of the glass towers on Ellipsis. Bright light illuminated the red rock, making it seem to burn against the darkening background of dusky sky. The land around them stretched as far as she could see, barren and flat, with not a sign of life upon its skittering sands.

Unwilling to explore the deserts of Apostrophe in the deepening twilight, Trinka looped back around the marketplace. The street had already begun to empty. Sounds of footsteps on the road, stands folding up, and merchandise jingling away replaced the earlier banter. The sky turned from pink to crimson and spikes of fiery orange shot through it. The talaria slowed, occasionally bumping the ground, and anyone not looking closely would no longer have noticed that she was flying. Trinka stumbled to a stop, exhausted, and lay panting for a moment before she could wrap the talaria in their cloth and slide her aching feet back into their padded boots.

The heat of the day had disappeared in the darkness, and with the sweat pouring out all over her, Trinka shivered in the sudden cold despite her warm garments. As she tucked the talaria back into her jacket, Trinka remembered the little metal box the woman at the water stand had given her. She pulled open the intricately carved lid and found a dozen tiny red beads inside.

Trinka removed one. It smelled tantalizingly sweet and started to melt between her fingers, so she placed it on her tongue. At first, nothing happened, then she felt a spark jolt through her mouth and a flood of warmth run through her body and into her cold hands and feet, warming them up as well as if she had swallowed a fire. The warmth gave Trinka the energy to stand again. As she looked around, she noticed she was behind the same animal pen she had seen earlier.

The lanidera were gone, but the faint sound of plaintive bleating came from nearby. Trinka craned her head and saw that the noisy animal’s right hind leg was caught in a loop of cord. Balefully, the little animal kept bawling and tugging at the cord that only cut tighter into its leg. Trinka rushed forward and began pulling at the knots. She worked until the cord finally pulled loose and the baby animal fell free into her lap. She sat up and pulled straw from her hair with one hand while she gently stroked her new friend. When she stood up, the cria joyfully tried to follow, stepping after her on still unsteady legs. It must be just a new baby, Trinka thought, scooping it up in her arms. She turned and found her way blocked by an enormous dark shadow. She stepped back, and the cria bleated in surprise as she squeezed it tighter. She found herself staring up at the man in the turquoise turban.

“Um, hello,” Trinka said nervously. She tried to step away, but one of his enormous hands clasped her shoulder. She opened her mouth to scream, but his other hand immediately dropped a poof of powder in front of her face. She could feel her throat and lungs screaming and screaming, but even she couldn’t hear a sound. With one mighty arm, he scooped her up as she had done with the cria, and carried both of them away.

Trinka tried to think straight as her head bobbed up and down, and she caught only glimpses of the few remaining stands as she went by. No one seemed to give a second look to the sight of the man carrying her off through the marketplace. Her arms held stiffly to the cria, but her legs hung limp. She couldn’t move them at all to kick or try to get away, but they swung back and forth a little in time with the man’s stride. She tried screaming again but no sound came.

With a thud, Trinka felt herself drop to the ground, and the cria protested loudly.

“Now, let me see.” A small, nearly bald-headed man with a squeaky, busy voice came bustling toward her. “Young, strong, female. Able to carry a heavy load, yet dainty feet?” He peered down at Trinka’s bulky work boots and clicked his tongue. “Well, not too large anyway. Yes, I think we may have a match here. Ghert,” he called to the giant man in the turquoise turban. “Get this slave ready to take to Madam Vashti. And hurry up, it’s almost dark!”

“Slave?” Trinka managed to say, her voice finally unsticking itself from her throat.

“Yes,” a familiar voice oozed. Trinka tensed as the mean lanidera owner appeared before her. “That’s what happens to little foreigners like you who lurk among the market stands. I shall be rewarded for trapping you.” He smiled mockingly. “Pimlico?” he prompted, addressing the balding man.

“What? Oh yes. You shall have your pay when the slave actually sells.”

The crabby man’s face fell. “But our agreement was payment on delivery,” he objected.

“Yes, when I deliver and get paid.” Pimlico answered dismissively. The man’s lips curled. Without another word, he snatched the cria from Trinka’s arms and stalked away.

“Hey!” she called out, but before she could get to her feet, Ghert seized her around the waist and dropped her inside an enclosed cart.

“You can’t do this to me!” she yelled, but Ghert’s face remained expressionless as he swung the door shut in her face, sending her into darkness.

 

h1={color:#808080;}.
Chapter Eight

Of Castles and Cousins

Throughout the journey, Trinka felt surprisingly calm. But as the swift motion of the carriage abruptly halted and she felt Ghert’s big hands lifting her out into the unknown, she found that the nervousness she had felt in school was nothing compared to this. Her feet touched the ground, and Trinka saw that it was not the hard-packed sand of the market street beneath her boots but a smooth, polished surface like a river of white stone, flowing in wide sweeping steps from a huge, black door. From there, her eyes floated up higher still, taking in the sweeping archways of windows without glass, only patterns of sand-colored stone, criss-crossing over each other like a loosely woven basket. She could see a tower rising from each corner of the building, perched upon a cliff of red rock that blocked her view of whatever lay beyond.

“Come on now,” Pimlico urged her impatiently. “I do have other deliveries to make.”

Grudgingly, Trinka put aching foot onto the lowest step. She glanced back and saw Ghert standing by like a guard animal.

Pimlico drew a small object between his thumb and forefinger. It made a single click, and suddenly Trinka’s tired legs snapped to attention and began taking her quickly up the steps. She moved as fast as if the talaria were taking her, only her feet didn’t dance through the air but marched stiffly until she stood gasping for breath at the top of the steps.

Pimlico smiled with satisfaction and slipped the talisman back into his sash, then rapped sharply on the black door.

The imposing gate immediately swung wide to reveal a tall, severe-looking woman in a starched, floor-length garment as black as the door itself. Without a word, she looked Trinka over sharply. For a moment, Trinka wondered if she could be rejected from household slavery as easily as she had been rejected from everything else, but the woman in black handed the man his payment. Pimlico grabbed it and positively scampered down the stairs.

“Right this way,” she announced crisply.

Trinka took one glance back at the bottom of the stairway, where all she could see in the glowering dark was the bright form of Ghert, arms akimbo. She swallowed hard and followed the black back in front of her. They made their way down a narrow passageway, then stepped into a room that rivaled the atrium in the City of Mirrors. The ceiling soared above them in wide arches hung with long, embroidered rugs that swayed gently as if there were a breeze indoors.

“In here.” The woman stopped abruptly, and Trinka collided with her back. The effect was like walking into a stone wall. She peered nervously at the grand figure who appeared before them. Her face looked long and pinched, with unusually high eyebrows, a long nose, and pursed lips that positively glittered with red dye. Her long, black hair was swept up in tight coils beneath a fan-shaped green and gold hat, while her wide skirts slid across the floor as if she had no legs at all, like a puppet being worked by people hidden by the curtains underneath.

“Madam Vashti, your new servant,” the woman in the black dress announced. “And Bahir Faruq is here to see you as well.”

“Ah, excellent,” Vashti answered. She seated herself at a small table cooled by enormous white fans that swung themselves gracefully up and down as if held by unseen hands.

“I’m sorry to delay our visit, Faruq,” Vashti stated, as a white-haired man with glowing golden skin stepped past Trinka and took a chair beneath the swinging, white feathers. “I just purchased a new watering girl, and I wanted to see her so she understands what it means to serve in this household.”

“Well, isn’t she cute,” Bahir Faruq smiled at Trinka as the woman in black pushed her forward into the room.

“That skirt,” Vashti exclaimed in dismay, “is much too short!”

Trinka looked down, puzzled, to where her hemline came just above the tops of her boots. “It’s the only one I have,” she began.

“Wherever did you get that horrible blonde hair?” Vashti interrupted.

Trinka’s cheeks flushed. She had never really considered her hair blonde—just a brownish mess—but she nervously twisted the ends of it in her fingers.

“I’ve never seen a color like that on any slave from the marketplace. Are you from Brace?” She daintily took a sip from a small, red glass she held loosely in her long, white fingers.

“I’m from Ellipsis, actually,” Trinka stammered.

“You look awfully stocky for that,” Vashti returned bluntly.

“My father was―is―from Brace,” Trinka explained, wishing she could float away from there with the white fans.

Vashti wrinkled her nose distastefully.

“And my mother was from Apostrophe.”

“Really?” Vashti asked dryly, taking another sip from her cup. “What was her name?”

“Ashira.”

The cup shattered into hundreds of fragments as it suddenly dropped from Vashti’s grip and hit the table. Her hand flew to her chest. Her eyelids fluttered for a moment, and her expression bore a strong resemblance to the way Trinka had looked when she had first tasted Kolinkar’s cooking. Quickly, Vashti uncorked a small bottle, inhaled its fragrance, and then drank the contents in a single gulp. She smiled faintly, and a bit of color trickled back into her cheeks. Her hand still clutched at her necklaces, and her breathing came uneasily. With a look that Trinka surmised was mounting dislike, Vashti rose slowly and surveyed Trinka closely.

“Well, it’s of no consequence,” she said firmly, her shaky fingers still gripping at her little vial.

“Ashira, Brace―why she’s your sister’s child!” Bahir Faruq exclaimed.

“Thank you, Faruq. I do know my own sister’s name,” Vashti answered coldly. “This is an odd coincidence, nothing more.”

“You know only one person can be registered to each name,” Faruq countered. He stood up to look at Trinka more closely. “She must be the one.”

Trinka’s breath caught in her throat. But that must mean… “Is my mother here?” she finally asked, her throat nearly closing in anticipation.

“No, she isn’t. She is far away, and you will not ask any more questions. You will go about your chores quickly and quietly as Beatrice directs.”

“Ah, Vashti,” Bahir Faruq smoothly butted in, “If the young lady is your relative, the decree of Hamatha the Great bars you from having her in your household as a slave.”

“Very well, I shall call Pimlico and have him return me her price and find her a more suitable situation at once.”

“But she’s your niece,” Faruq objected. “You can’t sell her any more than you can sell your own daughters. I’m afraid,” he continued, settling back in his chair, “that you have lost the money and gained a family member.”

Vashti’s lip curled, and she looked ready to stand up and strike someone, but instead she gripped her fingers around another glass from the center of the table.

“As always, Faruq, you have a supreme social conscience,” she snarled. “I will have her stay with my own daughters. Beatrice, show her to Jamilah and Sabirah’s room.”

Trinka’s eyes snuck to the right, then to the left as she followed Beatrice down the hall. Every few paces an entry to a new corridor appeared, leading off into unknown directions, or an alcove curved into the wall, creating hollows filled with massive statues. Each alcove was lined with brilliantly colored jewels or tapestries, their shining color making the plain, white marble figurines in front of them look almost illuminated.

Trinka wondered how large Vashti’s palace (or, she supposed, Aunt Vashti’s place) really was. If the downstairs had been any indication, it must stretch farther than an entire village in Ampersand. She looked forward to exploring it but only hoped she didn’t have to clean it all. Trinka wanted to ask a million questions, about the palace, her aunt, her cousins, her mother.

“This way, please,” Beatrice’s sharp voice interrupted her thoughts. She opened a door and steered Trinka inside.

“Girls, this is your cousin Trinka. She just arrived, and your mother would like her to stay with you in your room,” Beatrice announced crisply to the two girls who stood at opposite ends of a very odd table set in the center of the room.

The taller girl’s mouth fell open, while the shorter girl dropped the paddle she was holding with a clatter and then wrinkled her nose in distaste.

“Supper will be served at the usual time. Good-bye girls.” Beatrice shut the door firmly, leaving Trinka to stare back in silence at her “new” cousins as the last sound of Beatrice’s footsteps echoed down the hall.

“We don’t want her in here!” the shorter girl whined loudly, as if her protest had been delayed by her shock.

“Well, I don’t want you in here either, but I’m stuck with you,” the other girl retorted.

“I didn’t even know we had another cousin,” the whiny girl complained.

“That’s because you don’t know anything!” her sister snapped.

With a look of outrage, the younger girl picked up her dropped paddle and swatted a ball at her sister. It missed, bounced off the table, and rolled across the smooth floor until it disappeared under a plush, pink settee.

“Well,” the older girl demanded impatiently, thrusting her paddle toward Trinka. “Go get it!”

Without a word, Trinka retrieved the ball and handed it to the taller sister, who snatched it up and hit it back to the other side of the table, scoring a direct hit on her sister’s forehead.

“Hey!” the girl shrieked. “What was that for?”

“You should know, you started it!”

“I was only playing. You just didn’t hit it!”

Trinka’s eyes slowly wandered as the arguing continued. Her cousins’ playroom was the size of a small palace all by itself. Numerous comfortable-looking settees faced the window, piled high with tassel-cornered cushions of all shapes and sizes. A small table surrounded by high-backed, pink and red chairs stood closest to the window, and the table top was set with a neat, white cloth and dishes that seemed to be carved from single jewels. They sparkled in the brightness, and produced drips and puddles of rainbow lights all over the ceiling and walls. A bar strung with countless numbers of fancy dresses ran all along the back wall, which was about twice the length of the entire school in Parthalan.

“What’s the matter, can’t you hear?” a demanding voice interrupted her thoughts.

“I’m sorry, I was just admiring your room,” Trinka explained.

“Nice, isn’t it?” the shorter girl said smugly.

“Except for having you in it,” her taller sister retorted.

“You mean it’s nice except for having her in it,” she countered, pointing a stubby finger at Trinka.

Trinka sighed inside. It isn’t going to be easy getting along with two people who so obviously don’t want to, she thought as she racked her brains for something to say that they wouldn’t argue over.

“So which one of you is Jamilah and which is Sabirah?” she asked.

“I am!” they both shouted simultaneously.

The two girls glared at each other.

“I’m Jamilah,” the older girl edged her sister out. “And she is not even worth talking to!”

“I would be if you weren’t talking all the time!”

“So where do you go to school?” Trinka tried to change the subject.

“We don’t have to go to school,” Sabirah said smugly.

“Because I’m already too smart, and she’s too stupid,” Jamilah returned with a hint of a satisfied smile.

Sabirah’s mouth worked for a moment, but no sound came out, and Jamilah giggled as the spectacle seemed to prove her point.

“Are you sure you’re our cousin?” Sabirah finally blurted.

Trinka nodded.

“Then how come we’ve never heard about you before?” she demanded.

“I didn’t know about you either, until today,” Trinka admitted. “I didn’t even know my mother had a sister.”

The two girls drew in audible breaths and looked at each other without arguing for the first time since Trinka had entered the room.

“You’re Ashira’s daughter?” Jamilah demanded.

Trinka nodded solemnly.

“You can’t be!” Sabirah insisted. “Aunt Ashira doesn’t have any kids! She’s not even married yet.”

“How do you know?” Jamilah immediately objected.

“Everybody knows,” Sabirah said defensively.

“Well, you aren’t everybody, you’re a nobody,” Jamilah returned. “When was the last time you saw her?” she asked Trinka.

Trinka’s breath caught in her chest, and she wished she hadn’t brought up the subject.

“She left when I was little,” Trinka explained quietly. “She had a fight with my dad. My older brother left for Ampersand a few years later, and my dad went back to Brace after that.”

“You’re a liar!” Sabirah shouted. “Ashira can’t be your mother!”

“Be quiet!” Jamilah yelled at her sister. Sabirah threw herself stomach-first onto one of the settees, her underskirts flopping out as she put her legs in the air behind her.

“Sabirah, don’t do that. It’s not ladylike,” Jamilah reprimanded her.

“Neither is hitting someone in the head with a ball,” she batted her eyelashes innocently.

Trinka wished she could escape from that room. And more importantly, from its occupants. (Without them, the room might be quite interesting.)

“You started it!” Jamilah returned.

“No, you did. You were born first,” Sabirah sneered.

“You’re lucky you don’t have a sister,” Jamilah confided loudly to Trinka. She grabbed her arm and steered her onto the settee that was farthest away from Sabirah.

“Actually, I do,” Trinka began as Jamilah roughly pulled her into a sitting position.

“She doesn’t even have cousins. She’s just a liar,” Sabirah protested.

“Fine, have it your way. I am a liar. I wasn’t born at all!” Trinka responded in exasperation. Her cousins fell silent for a moment, and Trinka blushed. What had made her words rush out like that?

“Have you ever seen my mother?” Trinka asked her cousin quietly.

“That depends,” Jamilah answered haughtily. “I have seen Ashira, but in a way, I’ve never seen your mother.” Trinka tried to figure out what that might mean, but Sabirah broke in.

“Let’s go back to playing habbatoe. I was winning.”

“You were not. And besides, that’s only for two people.”

“So? I don’t want to play with her.”

“Well, I do,” Jamilah huffed. “It’s better than playing with you all day. Come on,” she said to Trinka. “I want tea.”

“I want some too!” Before Jamilah and Trinka could take a step closer, Sabirah scuttled around the small table and took over the red chair that Trinka was about to sit in.

Biting her tongue, Trinka stepped around her and sat in a pink one. Her stomach grumbled loudly as Jamilah took the lid off a plate piled high with what looked kind of like vanity cakes, except they were covered with a thick, fluffy substance and dotted with brightly colored candies.

“Isn’t it almost dinner time?” she asked hopefully.

“Who cares? We can have as many cakes as we want,” Jamilah answered.

As Trinka watched both of her cousins shove pieces of cake into their mouths, she quietly reached for one.

“She said we can have as many as we want, not you!” Sabirah sneered.

Trinka was about to forget the piece of cake and give her cousins a piece of her mind when she felt something wriggling and bumping against her chest. Startled, her hand flew to the front of her dress, but she felt only the talismans strung, hidden, around her neck.

“What’s the matter?” Jamilah demanded, and before Trinka could answer, a series of sharp toots and tweets whistled through the room. Then all was silent for a moment. Trinka stood staring faintly at her cousins, and they stared back. Sabirah opened her mouth to speak just as two balls of bright pink and yellow fuzz erupted from the whistles around Trinka’s neck, hit Sabirah full in the face, and then zoomed toward the ceiling.

Sabirah spluttered, then began screaming as she knocked over her chair and started hopping up and down first on one foot, then the other. Ickle and Fiszbee raced down and hovered near her shoulders.

“Oooh,” they cried in unison.

“That was a beautiful noise,” Fiszbee proclaimed.

“And a wonderful dance,” Ickle added. “Will you do it again?”

By this time Sabirah had stopped hopping, but her scream pierced the air afresh as Ickle brushed lightly against her face before whizzing back up toward the ceiling. The two of them raced about, reveling in the awful noise and obviously glad to have escaped. When Sabirah quieted, they dropped and hovered near her again.

“We like you,” they chorused and tried to snuggle into her hands. She tried to swat them away, but they only tumbled about, laughing with delight as if they thought this fun person obviously wanted to play!

“Do something!” Sabirah finally shrieked to Jamilah, who still stood by in shocked silence. But Jamilah could not think of what to do, and, for the moment, neither could Trinka.

“What is all this noise?” a sharp voice behind them demanded. The girls whirled to see the black form of Beatrice glaring down at them. As if in response, Ickle and Fiszbee zoomed right over her head in their race to the ceiling, making her short, stiff hair blow over so it stood completely on end.

Sabirah’s high-pitch giggle shrieked throughout the room then quickly turned to real screaming as Ickle and Fiszbee rushed down to see her again.

“That is so coooool!” Fiszbee exclaimed excitedly. The tip of his fuzz lightly brushed her face, and Sabirah jumped onto one of the settees, still screaming. Ickle and Fiszbee began racing around the room anew, spilling dresses from their hooks and knocking over the teacups.

“Can’t you control your creatures?” Beatrice demanded.

Trinka fumbled for the whistles, but the sight of her younger cousin throwing a full tantrum kept her from getting a firm noise. Resignedly, she handed them to Beatrice. Two commanding tweets pierced the air.

“Nooo, not again,” Ickle buzzed as he was sucked back into the whistle.

“Just when we were having soooo much fun,” Fiszbee added, brushing Sabirah’s cheek one last time before retreating.

“Well, now that you’ve had a chance to visit your cousin,” Beatrice began. “I shall show her to the kitchen.”

“She’s not really our cousin, she’s just an awful liar who attacked us with vicious monsters!” Sabirah sobbed.

Jamilah rolled her eyes.

“They’re not monsters,” Trinka protested. “They’re just pets who get out of control easily.” She took the whistles and hung them around her neck again.

“And she can’t really be our cousin because Ashira’s not her mother!”

“Yes, she is,” Trinka insisted, her cheeks growing hotter.

“Well, if it is true, then Ashira only left because she didn’t want to be your mother.” Sabirah stuck out her tongue and flounced back to the other end of the room.

Trinka had no response to that. Just a sinking feeling in her heart that it was true.

“Come along now,” Beatrice commanded quietly. “We haven’t got much time left before supper. Hold this.” She handed Trinka a surprisingly heavy, curiously carved, white crystal stick that dangled from what looked like an upside-down purple saucer. “You’ll be needing it where you’re going…”

 

h1={color:#808080;}.
Chapter Nine

Genies in the Kitchen

“Mind you don’t touch the white part. It gets hot.”

Beatrice opened a doorway right across the hall from Jamilah and Sabirah’s room and pointed Trinka inside. Uncertainly, Trinka stepped forward and found herself standing in a shadowy room not much bigger than she was. Was she going to be locked in here?

Parisium,” Beatrice said crisply as she closed the door behind her. At once the talisman in Trinka’s hand began to heat up and give off a pale light.

“Blow on the end,” Beatrice instructed.

Bewildered, Trinka held the end of the dangling white part close to her lips and gave a small puff. A little bubble of light floated off from it and quickly popped with a flash that made Trinka blink.

“That was a bit small. We’ll need a bigger one than that.”

Trinka pursed her lips and blew steadily. This time a large, wobbly bubble emerged and began to expand until it enveloped both of them in its spherical glow.

“It’s lovely,” Trinka breathed. She could see clearly all around them. Not that there was much to see.

“You may keep it. Always useful to have a lantern when you’re traveling by the chutes.”

“The what?” Trinka asked, then realized that these dark little rooms must be transporters, like the traveling tents on Ampersand.

“Chutes. Servants use them to travel through the palace more efficiently. You simply pull this cord and state which chute you wish to go to.”

Trinka nodded. “Do they go outside the palace too?”

“No servant ever goes outside the palace,” Beatrice sniffed. “Now, head straight, shoulders back, no slouching. Feet together, toes forward.” Trinka complied as best she could, though she didn’t think she could ever stand as straight and stiff as Beatrice.

“Kitchen!” the matron commanded. With a pull of the cord, the tiny chamber filled with a choking, pink smoke that came right through the light bubble. Trinka coughed, and she felt her body being squeezed and contorted, as the smoke seemed to push on her from all sides. Her free hand looked wavy, far-off, and wispy, and she couldn’t feel the handle of the lantern anymore, although she was sure she was holding it tight.

“Breathe out,” she could hear Beatrice’s voice tell her. It still sounded firm but very far away. Trinka carefully exhaled, and she felt herself float upward, toward a tiny hole in the ceiling.

Surely I can’t fit through that.

Pop!

Abruptly, Trinka fell to the floor with a thump, and the lantern rattled in her hand as she gasped and wheezed.

“That was a rough trip for you,” Beatrice commented mildly. “My fault. I should have told you to hold your breath first.”

Trinka’s vision still swirled as Beatrice reached out to help her to her feet.

“Well, you’ll know for next time. Esaya,” she added, and the lantern went dark. Trinka blinked in the natural light and saw that they stood in a plain, almost tunnel-like hall with a low rounded ceiling. This must be where the servants work, all right, thought Trinka, eyeing the narrow, black doors at the end of the hallway.

“The genies will show you what to do,” Beatrice instructed then disappeared into the chute behind them.

Trinka expected those dark doors to lead to a room full of Beatrices, all giving orders. She took a deep breath and raised her free hand to the weighty handle.

Before she could touch it, both doors swung open, and the kitchen erupted with dozens of young women moving about in a blur of kaleidoscope colors. Billows of fabric in pinks and blues, yellows and greens, oranges and purples went flying by, and Trinka felt dizzy just trying to focus in on them.

“Oh, look! It’s the new watering girl!” a genie in yellow exclaimed as she came to a stop. Trinka’s mouth fell open at the sight. The genie’s skirt was shaped like two large flower petals hanging from her hips, leaving everything else uncovered. Her middle and shoulders were completely bare, and a long yellow scarf wrapped around her chest and trailed down her back.

“Hello,” Trinka finally managed to say.

Two more genies, dressed in green and purple, stopped to return her greetings. They all had almost the same face―round, with distinctly circular, red mouths; vivacious, sparkling eyes of impossibly bright colors; and long hair that seemed to float gently around their heads. The purple genie wore two long scarves draped over elbows that floated out to her sides, and although her skirt reached almost to the floor, her long, shapely legs showed right through the filmy fabric. The green genie’s bare legs flew out of the long slits in her skirt with every step. And Aunt Vashti deemed Trinka’s skirt too short?

“Oh, how sweet! You must belong to the lady who belongs to the palace!” the purple genie exclaimed. “My name’s Galilahi.”

“And I’m Alsoome,” the yellow genie added.

“Oh, come on. Let’s get dinner ready!” the green genie exclaimed gleefully.

“And she’s Nahimana,” Galilahi pointed to the green genie, then the three of them rushed Trinka into the kitchen. Trinka could see why the huge, hexagonal room’s doors had literally burst open with activity. Genies breezed everywhere between the rows of serpentine tables, dancing as they went about their chores.

“Oh, you can help me get the cakes ready,” Galilahi urged. “This is Lahishana,” she added, indicating a fair-haired genie dressed in clouds of light blue fabric that sparkled all over. Trinka huddled close to the oddly shaped table, trying not to get run over by the joyful genies all around her. Galilahi smiled merrily, and with the touch of her finger, a spectacular, white cake appeared on an empty pedestal.

“Oh, I can’t wait to frost it!” Lahishana laughed. With the twirl of her finger, a foamy light cream spread itself around and over the edges, coming to a perfect little dollop at the top.

“Oh, it’s lovely!” a nearby orange genie sang out, clapping her hands in delight. Lahishana beamed and immediately frosted another one, this one with loops of bright red dots that looked just like strings of flowers.

“Lahishana frosts the best cakes,” Galilahi confided.

“What do you want me to do?” Trinka asked uncertainly. She could never make anything as amazing as that, and certainly not just by using her little finger!

“Oh, just enjoy yourself,” Lahishana laughed merrily.

“Oh, have you heard what the genies at Amalalek’s palace are wearing?” Nahimana gossiped as she spread sauce onto a tray full of vegetables with a wave of her little finger. “Pants!”

A chorus of shrieks and giggles swept through the kitchen, like the sound of butterfly wings on Ellipsis, only much, much louder.

“Oh, can you imagine if we wore pants to Vashti’s banquet?” Alsoome asked, and the laughter sang through the kitchen anew.

Trinka didn’t see why wearing pants could be more shocking than what the genies did wear, but she didn’t dare to say so.

“It must be a very big banquet,” Trinka observed as she stared at row after row of plates and pots, platters and pedestals, all rapidly filling with food.

Nahimana laughed. “Oh, it’s not tonight. This is just for dinner.”

Trinka swallowed hard. “There must be a lot of people here.”

“Oh, just a few,” Alsoome replied merrily, sprinkling another table full of cakes with a soft pink powder.

“What about you?” Trinka asked.

“Oh, we don’t eat. We just make the food and serve,” Lahishana responded. “Come on. Let’s go set the table!”

“Can I set this down here?” Trinka asked, holding up the heavy lantern.

“Oh, you know what you need? A purse!” Alsoome declared.

All the genies murmured in agreement.

“Oh yes, I want to make one!” Lahishana exclaimed.

“No, me!” Galilahi bubbled over.

“Oh, everyone together!” Nahimana sang out. For a moment, all the genies in the kitchen turned toward Trinka, their little fingers upraised as their bright eyes focused right on her. Trinka’s heart beat a little faster.

“One, two, three!” A great cheer erupted, and Trinka saw, on the table, a tiny pouch not even a quarter the size of the lantern.

“Oh, it’s beautiful!” Lahishana exclaimed, and indeed it was a sparkling little pouch trimmed with thousands of tiny jewels that glinted in a blur of patterns and colors much like the genies themselves.

“Oh, put your lantern in it,” Alsoome urged.

Uncertainly, Trinka picked up the purse, undid the little clasp, and held the clunky crystal over it. She lowered it onto the purse; to her surprise, the entire lantern slid in easily. The purse didn’t even seem to weigh any more than when it was empty.

Trinka looked up into the wide sparkling eyes all around her. “Thank you,” she said simply. She tried to think of something more to add, but the genies’ minds had already turned to their next task.

“Oh, come on!” Galilahi chirped. “To the table!”

Trinka got swept up in the wake of genies streaming toward the opposite kitchen door, and she found herself hurrying to the dining hall with only the purse in her hands.

All the dishes from the kitchen flew in above them, and Trinka had to duck several times to avoid being pummeled by a low-altitude cake. As they reached the long, straight dining hall table, the genies danced around with light-footed steps as the dishes came in for a smooth landing. Trinka found herself caught up in between Lahishana and Galilahi, but she couldn’t quite keep pace with the genies’ frolicking. The last dish settled into place at the head of the table just as the dining hall doors flew open and Jamilah and Sabirah strutted inside. The genies disappeared into the kitchen, and Trinka came breathlessly to a stop.

“What’s that in your hand?” Jamilah demanded.

Trinka quickly slipped the genie purse into her pocket. “Nothing.”

“I hope it’s not more monsters,” Sabirah sneered.

“Ah, children. You’re all here. Excellent.” Beatrice swept noiselessly into the room. “Please wait quietly until Madam Vashti arrives.”

“Why does she get to eat with us? I thought she was just a servant!” Sabirah complained.

“She is here to help, but she is your cousin,” Beatrice said stiffly.

Sabirah’s words grumbled no more, but her stomach did, and for once Trinka could empathize with her. Trinka’s insides growled like a caged animal, and she clasped her hands in front of her, trying not to let it grumble as she stared at the tantalizing banquet set before her. Bowls piled high with layer upon layer of sweet-looking fruits were arranged like fountains across the expanse of dining tables. Baskets brimming with steaming hot breads and cakes stood around them, and even the platters of thinly sliced vegetables carefully arranged around pools of brightly colored sauces looked cool and inviting. There seemed to be food in every available color, from vivid orange, gold, red, and even deep purple, to shades ranging from fern to forest green.

There had never been a rainbow of feasts like this on Ellipsis, where hunger was a necessity that was tended to silently through the air around them, with no thought to senses or socializing. It was all Trinka could do to keep from reaching out and cramming one of the golden-brown puff pastries into her mouth, but even Jamilah and Sabirah had to wait patiently behind their high-backed chairs.

Well, Sabirah didn’t exactly wait patiently. She shuffled her feet and made faces, as if her complaints were flying silently about inside her head.

At last, the heavy doors swung open, and Aunt Vashti paraded herself to the head of the table. Her dress stood out stiffly in layers and layers of thick fabric, and long, colorful feathers stuck up in an enormous collar around the back of her neck. Trinka wanted to giggle, but she was too intent on watching Aunt Vashti sit down. With a squeal that brought a “tsk-tsk” from Vashti, Jamilah and Sabirah yanked their chairs back and plopped down simultaneously. Trinka’s eyes darted from platter to platter, trying to decide what she should possibly try first. She reached for a tempting-looking breadstick when she felt something soft and sticky touch her arm. Sabirah’s taunting laugh rang through the dining room, and Trinka flushed as she realized she had just stuck her elbow in her dinner plate, which was already loaded with bread. And fruits. And vegetables.

“Sabirah,” Aunt Vashti reproved. “Young ladies do not make such ridiculous noises at the table.” Sabirah went back to eating without a sound, but she made faces at Trinka between enormous bites.

“And, Trinka,” her aunt continued. “I don’t know how the barbarians from your world eat, but I assure you that in my house, no one eats with their elbows.”

Sabirah had to reach for her drink to hide her laughter, and Jamilah was clearly stifling a giggle by stuffing her mouth. Trinka’s cheeks grew warm, and she stared at her plate to keep from seeing Aunt Vashti’s glare bear down on her. Carefully, she picked up the short, metal spike at the side of her plate. Unlike the short knives in Bedrosian and the plain wooden stick utensils on Parthalan, it was ornately twisted together and bore several large jewels in the handles. Trinka eyed her cousins cautiously as they used the two short, sharp hooks to effortlessly scoop bite after bite into their mouths. Their plates were almost empty already. Awkwardly, Trinka put the hook in her hand the same way they did and tried to spear a sliver of fruit. It slipped off her plate and oozed juice onto the clean, white tablecloth. Sabirah received no reprimand for her laughter this time since Aunt Vashti was too busy scolding Trinka and ordering the genies to clean it up.

Cheerfully, Nahimana―or was she another genie who just happened to be dressed in green?―bounced over, and with a touch of her finger, the spill was gone. She winked and skipped back to the kitchen. Relieved, Trinka tried to spear a piece of bread, thinking that it might be less slippery, and caught it easily. She popped it into her mouth, careful not to stab herself with the hook. Instantly, the warmest, most wonderful sensation came over her. It was like no food she had ever tasted before. It seemed to melt in her mouth without even chewing.

“It’s good!” she exclaimed before she realized that she had spoken aloud.

“I’m relieved to hear it meets your standards,” Aunt Vashti said acidly. “As you will be staying with us until Pimlico can make other arrangements.”

“Not in our room!” Sabirah paused in her eating long enough to protest. Her cousins’ plates were already full again, with their second helping of everything.

“Certainly not,” Aunt Vashti soothed. “But the first rule in this house,” she continued loudly, “is that children are to be seen not heard, especially during dinner.”

Trinka quietly savored the sweet juices, tender flavors, and fluffy breads. The platters and pedestals slowly emptied, as their plates continually refilled themselves. Trinka couldn’t believe that she had eaten half of what she had. She was full enough to burst―or was she? More food had just appeared on her plate for the third time, and her cousins had eaten at least twice as much. Maybe three times. And yet, she didn’t really feel any more full than when she started. Trinka kept eating, and so did her aunt and her cousins until the last morsel had disappeared into Sabirah’s mouth. Trinka carefully set her hooked utensil down and looked at the hundreds of empty dishes thoughtfully. She wasn’t particularly hungry anymore, but at the same time, she felt like she could sit down and eat that much again. What was going on?

“Quite satisfactory,” Vashti murmured, daintily dabbing at her lips. “Of course, we’ll need much more when Amir is here.”

Beatrice stepped forward and offered a little, red jewel dish to Aunt Vashti. She took one of the poofy, white candies inside and popped it into her mouth. Jamilah did the same, and Beatrice handed one to Sabirah to prevent her from taking two.

“After-dinner mint for you,” she said when the dish came to Trinka.

Trinka hesitated. “I’m sure they’re lovely, but I’ve already eaten so much,” she explained.

“You’d better take one,” Beatrice said quietly. “You won’t want to be hungry all night.”

Sabirah snickered, and Trinka’s cheeks flushed as she accepted the candy. It was creamy and made her mouth tingle slightly as it rapidly dissolved. As soon as Trinka swallowed, she felt the weight of a full meal hit her stomach.

“You may go back to your room, ladies,” Aunt Vashti proclaimed as she rose to her feet. The three girls slowly stood up. “And you,” she snarled at Trinka, “may help the genies clear the dishes.” Sabirah shot her a vicious smirk before trailing off after her mother and sister, but Trinka thought washing the dishes with the genies would be a delightful experience―if only she weren’t so full and tired.

Nahimana reemerged from the kitchen with a trail of other genies following lightly behind her. Trinka began stacking a few of the plates on top of each other, but Nahimana just yawned gracefully.

“Oh, that’s all right, we’ll do it,” she murmured sleepily, and with one wave of the genie’s little finger, all the dishes disappeared.

“Oh, as long as you’re here, would you mind shutting the door for us?” Alsoome asked. Trinka noticed that all the genies had transformed their clothes into sleek, shimmering robes the colors of their dresses.

“Sure,” Trinka agreed, although she wasn’t exactly sure what they meant.

“Oh, thank you!” Galilahi exclaimed. One by one, and then in groups, the genies turned into wisps of colored smoke, like the kind that filled the chutes, and disappeared into a hutch filled with shelves of glittering, jewel-encrusted bottles.

“Oh, I can’t wait to make cakes again!” Lahishana called out, and, in a final curl of blue smoke, settled down into a small, silvery blue bottle on the lower left shelf. Trinka carefully slid the door of the hutch shut, and she could hear the faint murmur of the genies giggling themselves to sleep.

“I imagine you’d like to get to sleep too,” Beatrice remarked. “Right this way.”

Trinka whirled, startled. She had forgotten the matron was still there. Trinka’s mind wanted to stay up all night, exploring the palace, but her body seemed to be saying otherwise. Trinka yawned softly as she slowly followed Beatrice from the dining hall, through a chute, and down another corridor.

“This is where you’ll stay,” Beatrice announced crisply.

Trinka looked around the small, soft gray room set with white marble furniture. There was something about it that didn’t quite match the rest of the palace.

“Beatrice,” Trinka began slowly. “Who lives here?”

“No one, so mind you keep things tidy,” she replied shortly. “I have enough to do already, and I’m without the extra help I was supposed to get today,” she added, eyeing Trinka sharply over the side of her long nose.

Trinka looked back at Beatrice, and the matron’s stern look softened. “Well, off to bed then. You’ve had a tiring day indeed.” She clapped her hands twice, and the creamy pink covers folded themselves back invitingly.

Trinka hesitated. “I’m supposed to sleep on it, right?” She felt silly to ask, but after all the different worlds she’d visited, nothing would surprise her.

Beatrice looked at her rather oddly. “Yes. And you may want to wash up a bit before you do.” She pointed at a low, wide dish balanced on a stand in the corner. “I’ve brought water up for you today, but it’ll be your job to bring it from the cistern in the morning.” With one last reproving look, Beatrice was gone.

Trinka hesitated for a moment and wrinkled her nose. Now that she was alone in the clean new room, she noticed for the first time how strong her goat-hair garments smelled after a day of wearing them in the heat. She sat on the edge of the bed and pulled off her boots, then took off her coat and skirt, leaving them as neatly as she could on the floor, while she stood barefoot in the robes she had worn on Ellipsis. They weren’t quite as fresh and airy as they had been in the City of Mirrors, but still it felt good to have only one layer of fabric next to her skin.

She stepped over to the dish on the pedestal and dipped her fingers into the shallow pool. As she wiped her hand across her forehead, the clear liquid instantly turned to silt as it mixed with the sand and dirt she had collected during her journey. The basin’s oasis quickly became a murky puddle, and soon there was no point in washing anymore, as she’d just be rearranging the dirt.

Trinka sank wearily onto the end of the bed, and her eyes traced the arch of the window opposite the door. It was small, with stone lattice work criss-crossing it in flowery patterns so that just a breath of the air outside and bits of starlight could work their way through it.

Across from the bed, the room curved into a small alcove with a white marble vanity table and a large, gleaming mirror. It seemed out of place compared to the rest of the furnishings in the room and yet so definitely a part of it. Trinka slowly got up and walked toward it, her finger-tips lightly touching the face of the glass. She dropped onto the dusty rose chair in front of the vanity, staring at the plain reflection in the mirror.

Suddenly, she felt her hand touch her face and saw herself shaking loose the sides of her blondish-brown hair, smoothing it soft with a carved, white brush she had unexpectedly found in her hand. It was almost involuntary, as if the room itself had decided what its occupant should do there. It seemed so automatic and yet so unnatural. Trinka rarely looked at herself in the mirror. She wasn’t pretty like Annelise, and mirrors reminded her too much of school on Ellipsis. Still, her hands kept brushing, and when they finished, she felt herself getting up and moving toward the bed.

As Trinka slipped into the crisp, cool covers, she also noticed for the first time how horribly her legs ached. But there was another feeling too―even more persistent than the pain―one that she couldn’t quite identify. She tossed, then turned, churning all the bedding into a disarray that surely would have sent Beatrice scowling. She got out of bed and walked back to the vanity, then back to the bed again, but this time, instead of lying down, she bent over and grabbed hold of something smooth and cold near the floor. She pulled, and a drawer hidden underneath the bed opened with a soft scrape. She felt herself reaching inside then settling back against the pillows with its contents on her lap.

It was a book, she supposed, with a faded scarlet cover and gilded with bits of gold leaf along its velvet edges. Trinka opened it, and the scent of a long-forgotten fragrance drifted out to meet her. All at once, a chill whispered its way through Trinka’s spine, and as she exhaled, she suddenly knew. This had been her mother’s room. And in that case, this―she looked again toward the well-worn book in her hand―must be her mother’s diary?

With trembling fingers, Trinka flipped back the cover and began leafing through it. Its pages were filled with a strange, loopy script that seemed to crawl across the page in all directions. She sat completely still for a moment, staring at the pages, wishing for them to make sense. Apparently, whatever force the room had over its occupant wasn’t strong enough to reveal this mystery. Quietly, she laid it down by her pillows and sank beneath the sheets. Even though the diary had told her nothing, she suddenly felt that she missed someone very much.

The plush bedding should have felt good after the long journey with the talaria and a day of wandering in the marketplace, but she could not get comfortable. What if her mother really was still alive, living somewhere in Apostrophe? Even if she was, how could she know that Trinka was there? Would her mother even want to see her again?

And would I want to see her?

Trinka closed her eyes and tried to concentrate on sleep, but the idea that her mother might be only footsteps away kept her awake through the night.

h1={color:#808080;}.
Chapter Ten

Jewel Caves

The day, so far, was pleasant and perfect. The gentlest breeze blew across the terrace, and standing there in the light shade and gentle morning sun was like stepping into a bath of warm air.

“You are here to water the potted plants,” Beatrice explained. “Normally, you’ll go down the terrace steps to draw water from the cistern, but I’ve already done it, so you’ll find a full pour pot waiting for you outside. Don’t waste it,” she ordered sternly.

Trinka found her wonder at the inside of the palace to be only a fraction of what lay before her now. She stood on a terrace almost twice as wide as the market street, surrounded by beautifully carved, white stone railings, shaped like the twisting, flowered vines that covered them. Clusters of chairs, some with tall, intricately caved backs and some with no backs at all, sat beneath scarlet canopies on central poles. Plants seemed to grow from every corner of the terrace. Some stood in large planters filled with sand, while others hung from braided cords strung along the walls and suspended from the overhangs. Their roots stretched out into the air, coiling and arcing like thick strands of hair.

Trinka wondered how such plants could stay alive through the dry heat when suddenly a hissing sound surrounded her. A mist of water sprayed out from the hook holding up each airborne plant, gently soaking the leaves with its fine spray. A few of the plants began to blossom before Trinka’s astonished eyes as all around the terrace bright pink and yellow and orange and purple petals unfolded and began glittering in the light, turning this way and that like a lady in front of a mirror. Trinka jumped as a great popping sound erupted. Streamers of fiery red flowers burst into bloom one after the other, snapping loudly. A single drip of water fell from one of the planters overhead and touched Trinka’s shoulder. Instantly, the misters all shut off. The flowers bowed lazily for a moment, still glistening with tiny beads of water in the morning sun. Then slowly, one by one, they began to fade and crawl back into the foliage to hide under the leaves. Some of the flowers dropped off and fell to the terrace, as crisp and dry as dead leaves. Trinka picked one up, admiring its glittering petals, until all at once it turned to dust in her hand and blew away in a sparkling cloud. She could see bits of it in her hair, still catching the light.

She picked up the heavy pour pot Beatrice had given her and spilled a little water down the broad, glossy leaves of a tall potted plant. The plant seem to shiver as the water trickled down, then it shook the spiky yellow tuft atop its stalk and stretched its bright blue petals. It looked almost like an animal, so alive. Intrigued, Trinka reached out to touch it when she something else caught her eye.

On the ground near the pot lay a little bottle, no bigger than her finger, on a chain. It was finely made metal with little purple jewels, like windows, around the sides of it. Trinka scooped it up, and it instantly began burning her fingers! With a startled cry, she dropped it, and it fell to the stone. The tiny ornate top uncorked itself and rolled to the side. As Trinka bent over to investigate, she heard a faint hissing sound, and pale purple mist began snaking its way out onto the ground. Trinka stepped back in alarm. It certainly didn’t seem to be a miniature genie. What if she had just released something poisonous? Trinka watched and wondered as the mist grew thicker and wound itself into a wide coil.

At last, what seemed to be the end of the coil floated out of the bottle and formed itself into what appeared to be a large bushy tail. The rest of the coil writhed, then stretched as the middle worked itself into a long, thin, misty purple body that arched its back. Suddenly, a bright light flashed from the front, and Trinka blinked in self-defense. When she opened her eyes again, she found two enormous, jewel-like eyes staring back at her.

“Hello,” Trinka said cautiously.

The creature’s yellow eyes narrowed, and its body half slithered, half slunk on light misty paws that seemed to step just above the ground. It wove its way around Trinka’s ankles, brushing itself against her skirts with a soft, throaty noise. Carefully, Trinka reached down to stroke its head. She almost expected her hand to slip right through, but its wispy form seemed solid enough. Its eyes glared at her suspiciously for a moment, but it seemed to relax as Trinka gently scratched its back. All at once, it hissed mightily, and a choking mist blew into Trinka’s nostrils. She staggered back, coughing, as a familiar voice found its way to her.

“Hey! That’s my pet!” As the mist cleared, Trinka saw Sabirah rush forward and snatch the mysterious pet, provoking another hiss full of mist as the animal struggled to get free from her mistress’s grasp.

“You scared her!” Sabirah accused between coughs. “See what you did?”

“You’re the one who scared her, snatching her up like that!” Jamilah returned as she appeared behind her sister.

“How did you get her, anyway?” Sabirah demanded.

“She came out of this,” Trinka reached down and picked up the little bottle on the necklace. “It was out here by the pots.”

Sabirah’s mouth flew open. “It was not! You must have taken her!”

“She did not. You’re so dumb you probably dropped her and left her out all night without even noticing!” Jamilah retorted hotly.

Here we go again, thought Trinka, racking her brains for something to say that wouldn’t exacerbate the argument.

“What kind of pet is she?”

Sabirah actually smiled. It was a scary sight.

“She’s a misticat, aren’t you, my precious pet?” she cooed.

“She’s an arcanphiar. Her name’s Nefertari, and she’s my pet too,” Jamilah added in a superior tone, trying to loosen the creature from Sabirah’s grasp.

“I want to hold her!”

“Girls.” Trinka jumped back, startled, as Beatrice appeared in the terrace doorway. “Now that you’ve finished your breakfast, and your chores, I need you to go up to the playroom.”

“But we want to play out here!” Sabirah protested.

“We need to prepare for the banquet tomorrow night,” the matron said sharply. “We have much to do.”

Pouting, her cousins turned to go inside.

“Can I help you with anything?” Trinka asked eagerly. She didn’t really want to work, but being on the terrace to set up for a banquet had to be better than staying upstairs with her quarrelsome cousins and their mist-hissing cat.

“No,” Beatrice said after staring at her for a moment. “No, I’m sorry, but Madam Vashti is very particular about the setup for banquets, and this one is for his highness.”

“I could learn?” Trinka suggested hopefully.

“Upstairs with you now.”

Resignedly, Trinka turned and followed her cousins who, apparently unable to decide who should have Nefertari, had ended up letting their pet walk. The misticat led the way, her tail held haughtily high as she stepped daintily up the stairs.

“Well, what are we going to do in here all day?” Jamilah sighed as she flopped down on one of the settees by the window, surrounded by the room full of toys. Trinka quietly set the bottle necklace down, and Jamilah quickly put it on before Sabirah could get her hands on it.

“Do you have any other pets?” Trinka asked.

“No, Nefertari’s very special,” Sabirah asserted. “She’s a jewel huntress.”

Trinka blinked. “A jewel huntress?”

“They’re known for finding the largest jewels in the caves,” Jamilah answered idly.

“What caves?” Trinka asked, trying not to let her excitement show too much. She was sure Ewen had said something about sending Grble to the caves.

Sabirah’s laugh echoed through the room. “You hear that? She’s never heard of the jewel caves!”

“So?” Jamilah retorted.

“I’ve been there hundreds of times,” Sabirah bragged smugly. She picked up Nefertari and wound her around her neck like a stole until she began hissing to get free. “Where you do think I got all these?” she added grandly, indicating her jewel collection with a sweep of her arm.

“From Mother, who buys them. Where else?” Jamilah snapped. “You’ve never been to the caves!”

“Have so!” Sabirah shouted.

“When?” her sister demanded.

“That time,” Sabirah faltered.

“What time?”

“With you.”

“Then you can’t have, because I’ve never been there.”

“You see?” Sabirah declared victoriously. “You’ve never been there either!”

“I didn’t say I had!”

“What do they do with the jewels when they find them?” Trinka asked.

“They don’t do anything, they just find the jewels and let someone else do the digging.”

Somehow, Trinka was not surprised.

“I bet Nefertari would find the biggest jewels ever,” Sabirah cooed to her pet.

“Well, I guess we’ll find out because I’m going to go right now.” Jamilah got to her feet. “It’s better then sitting around here all day with you, being bored.”

“We can’t!” Sabirah objected. “Beatrice told us we had to stay in our room.”

“So?” her sister scoffed. “That’s never stopped you before. Especially when you want a midnight snack!”

Sabirah’s cheeks reddened. “I’m not going if she comes along.” She gestured toward Trinka.

“Well, I’m not going if she doesn’t come,” Jamilah retorted.

Why do they always talk about me as if I’m not really even here? Trinka wondered. The thought of going to the jewel caves, though, made her mind tingle.

***

Trinka struggled to keep her feet on the surface as the house slippers Aunt Vashti insisted that she wear kept slipping and filling up with sand. The weight of the lantern her cousins had made her carry wasn’t helping either. She would have just slipped it into her genie purse, but she didn’t want to let her cousins know that she had it.

The wide, sweeping land that spread out before them appeared flat and colorless all over, but in the distance, it hit a row of red, rugged cliffs. On their other side, towers and hills of the same red rock jutted out of the water, where the sands of Apostrophe mingled with the seas of Brace, forming a giant bowl of muddy stew. Only the narrow gaps between the columns of rock provided windows to the sparkling blue water stretching out endlessly beyond.

Maybe I should just leave this place and go find my father now.

But as Trinka contemplated the idea, she could not resist staying just a little longer, trying to finish what she had started. She stopped fingering the vial, and turned her attention back to the inland cliffs.

“How will we know a jewel cave when we find one?” Trinka asked.

“Silly, Nefertari knows the way, don’t you, my pet?” she cooed at the misticat who was still perched on her shoulder. Nefertari merely stared ahead through half-closed eyes, so that only a small slit allowed the light to catch the glimmering surface of yellow underneath.

As they carefully made their way down the slope and rounded an edge of rock, Trinka drew in her breath sharply.

A wall of large, muscular guards with giant scimitars, curved blades that glinted menacingly, stood shoulder to shoulder in evenly spaced rows, blocking a deep opening in the cliff. Each soldier looked almost identical and wore the same brightly colored tunic and long, loose pants. Like their swords, their skin glistened, as the tiny beads of glittering sweat that coated their skin caught the light. Their tunics, edged in velvety red and trimmed with golden tassels, were sleeveless and open in the front, revealing their ample muscles. Trinka doubted that even Kolinkar would have looked life-size next to their massive frames, and she uneasily realized that they reminded her too much of the slave kidnapper in the marketplace.

Jamilah and Sabirah seemed completely unperturbed, so Trinka had to continue to walk with them. When they came close enough to have to pass the guards, the lantern rattled in Trinka’s shaking hands as she eased herself past. She felt the gaze of every guard follow her―she dared not look at them, but she could feel all those eyes staring holes into her back.

“Why aren’t we going in?” Sabirah whined, and instantly Jamilah kicked her sharply on the back of the leg.

“Those guards aren’t going to step aside and say ‘go on through’!” Jamilah retorted in a hushed shout as soon as they were out of earshot.

“Then how are we going to get inside?”

“There are other entrances,” Jamilah responded loftily. “Look.”

Sure enough, a wealth of burrows and doorways speckled the side of the cliff just beyond where the guards were standing.

“Then why aren’t they guarding those?” Trinka asked in perplexity.

“Yeah!” Sabirah exclaimed, before she realized that she was actually agreeing with Trinka.

“We’ll go up a little farther to make sure they don’t see us,” Jamilah decided.

“But I’m tired,” Sabirah complained. “I didn’t know we’d have to walk!”

“How did you think we were going to get there. Fly?”

Trinka was about to say that if she hadn’t had to bring her cousins along, she could have used the talaria and that’s exactly how she would have gotten there, when her heart suddenly seemed to jump into her throat.

“Grble!” Forgetting her cousins, she dashed forward, slippers flapping, as fast as if the talaria were carrying her. She reached the face of the cliff and stopped where a dusty green creature stood, hauling sacks full of jewels from the mouth of a hole in the sand-colored rock. She dropped to her knees and put her hands around his shoulders. His bobbling eyes looked at her blankly for a moment and then turned back to his work, tossing aside jewels almost the size of his head with as much interest as if they were plain old rocks.

“Grble,” she began desperately.

“Bngblutt,” he uttered without looking up, and before Trinka’s astonished eyes, another creature just like him poked his head out from the hole and climbed onto the sand, dragging another sack behind him. This one seemed oranger, and the one who emerged behind him was a dusty purple.

Of course, Trinka realized stupidly. This wasn’t Grble at all. You didn’t just go up to any human and assume it was the one you knew.

“I’m sorry,” she murmured. “I thought you were a friend of mine.” She felt defeated, yet if this was a creature like Grble, then perhaps this really was where her companion would be.

“What are you doing?” her cousin’s sharp voice interrupted her thoughts.

“Ewww, you’re talking to a gorglum?” Sabirah echoed. “They’re icky. They’re the ones who pull the jewels out of the caves once the misticats find them.”

Bngblutt grunted in agreement, as the other two dropped their loads into the cart for him to sort and crawled back into the caves, dragging their empty sacks behind them.

“They’re not icky. I used to have one for a friend,” Trinka began, but her cousins had already lost interest. Jamilah examined a door-like hole that seemed large enough for them to walk through.

“Come on, we need the lantern,” she ordered.

“Do you know where a gorglum named Grble is?” Trinka hurriedly asked Bngblutt.

The creature did not respond as he emptied another sack of jewels into the cart.

“We’re waiting!” Sabirah sang impatiently.

“Okay, well, thank you,” Trinka whispered, then she hurried to catch up with her cousins. Bngblutt paused for a moment and looked after her quizzically as the three girls and the misticat disappeared into the caves.

 As soon as she stepped through the opening in the bare sand-colored rock, Trinka felt as if she had stepped into another world. Tiny fragments of every color imaginable glittered in the pale lantern light, reflecting and refracting from every part of the walls, ceiling, and floor, so that it seemed she was walking on nothing but a path of colored light. The effect was far more glorious than the thousands and thousands of crystals she had seen in the City of Mirrors. It was the background of rock that made it really incredible. It was one thing to see jewels all polished and arranged, but these were raw, untouched, resplendent in their natural beauty.

“They call this a jewel cave?” Sabirah scoffed, her voice carrying far away and then echoing right back to her, as if the walls didn’t want to listen to her either.

“They must have already picked this section,” Jamilah decided. “The big ones will be further on.”

It had been her turn to hold Nefertari, ever since their pet had hissed mist into Sabirah’s eyes. The misticat practically disappeared into the blackness, her light purple body seeming to darken into the shadows. Only her eyes stood out in the dark, and they were glowing brighter with every step. They almost seemed to float suspended above Jamilah’s shoulder as they bobbed in time with the lantern in Trinka’s hand. Only the dim light from the white of the lantern lit their path, as the rough walls of the caves popped all the light bubbles Trinka tried to blow.

“Where do you think the gorglum are?” Trinka wondered aloud. They followed the cave wall as it turned, burrowing deeper into the cliffs.

“Who cares?” Sabirah snorted.

Trinka was about to lose her cool and say that she cared very much when her younger cousin stepped forward and immediately caught on fire.

At least it looked that way as flames suddenly shot up from the floor of the cave, and Sabirah’s screams pierced the air as she flew back in alarm, landing with her legs kicking helplessly in the air, her skirts flopped back in disarray, while the flames disappeared as suddenly as they had come. The other girls stood watching in alarm until Jamilah began to giggle and Trinka felt inclined to join her.

“It’s not funny!” Sabirah shrieked indignantly as she struggled to her feet. “I almost caught on fire!”

“That’s why it’s fun―” Jamilah began when another burst of flames suddenly erupted at her feet, nearly catching her skirt in its burning breath. With a squeal, she ran from the flames, knocking over Trinka.

“Are you all right?” Trinka asked as she helped her cousin to her feet.

“I’m fine,” she snapped. “How do you expect me to be when I practically got burned up? I’m getting out of here right now!”

“I want to go home!” Sabirah whined. “Why did you make us come to this awful place?”

Trinka couldn’t respond as she picked up the lantern and prepared to follow her cousins out of the cave. Besides her desperation to find Grble, she had the strange feeling that something wasn’t quite right.

“Where’s Nefertari?” she asked suddenly.

Her cousins whirled and looked at each other. “I thought she was with you!” they accused simultaneously.

“She must have gone back in her bottle,” Jamilah decided, holding up the ornament around her neck.

But the top hung open, and the little bottle was empty.

 

h1={color:#808080;}.
Chapter Eleven

Cat Spat

All three girls stood in silence for a moment, contemplating their next move. Sabirah was just about to speak when a bone-chilling howl, more startling than the sudden flames, erupted from the depths of the caves.

“What was that?” she shrieked, quaking behind her older sister.

“I think,” Jamilah said quietly, “That was the sound of a misticat on the prowl.”

“But she’s never made a sound like that before!”

“Well, she’s never been loose in a jewel cave before,” Jamilah retorted.

“How do we know which way she went?” Sabirah questioned. Trinka held the lantern up and saw that the cave ahead of them widened and split into three separate paths.

“We’ll just have to split up and search.”

“We can’t! We’ve only got one lantern!”

Another terrible shriek from the lost misticat raised them off their feet just as a poof of flames shot from the cave floor, sending them all sprawling against the wall for safety.

“This place is booby-trapped!” Sabirah yowled. “I’m getting out of here!”

“You want Nefertari back, don’t you?” Jamilah argued. “We can’t just leave her here.”

“If we stick close to the walls,” Trinka began slowly, “there should be enough light from the fires. They only seem to come up in the middle of the path, right? So if we each take a path and stay close to the walls…”

“I’m taking the lantern because I’m the oldest,” Jamilah interrupted. She tore the handle from Trinka’s hands.

“No, I should have it because I’m the youngest!” Sabirah grabbed it then stumbled backward under its weight, nearly catching her skirt in another poof of flames. “It’s heavy!” she whined, staggering out of the way just in time.

“You take it,” Jamilah ordered Trinka. “I’m taking the path to the left.”

“Then I’m going to the right!” Sabirah stalked off in a huff.

Why am I not surprised? thought Trinka. Well, here goes. She edged her way down the center tunnel. All was quiet except for the occasional popping sound of small flames erupting from the path. Trinka stepped carefully aside, keeping her eyes out for gorglum and her ears open for signs of Nefertari. The howling rose again, closer this time.

I wonder if she really does hunt jewels, Trinka mused, ducking under a low overhang. When she emerged, she stopped short at the incredible sight before her eyes. The largest jewels she or―she imagined―anyone had ever seen studded the walls from top to bottom, each one flashing like a thousand lanterns every time the light of the flames shot up.

Trinka’s shielded her dazzled eyes with her free hand, and she noticed a new sound, like something hard hitting against glass. When she could see again, she was startled to find a gorglum working right next to her, chipping out a plate-sized jewel with resounding clinks. His solemn eyes appeared expressionless as he pried the jewel free with his long, stony fingers, dropped it into the brimming sack on his back, and stepped around her to work on the next one. Similar clinking came from up ahead, and in the dim lantern light, Trinka could see a whole group of gorglum working.

Then, as the flames shot up, they instantly disappeared. When the flames died down, she could see a colored ornament glowing from the floor where each of the creatures had stood. One by one, the ornaments quivered, and the group of gorglum rose in their places. Some popped back into shape almost immediately while others rippled out slowly.

Trinka had seen Grble transform many times, but never a whole family at once.

The thought caught in her mind. This was Grble’s family. What if he didn’t want to leave and go back with her, wherever she was going? What if Ewen was right, and this really was where Grble belonged? What if she had come all this way for nothing? Trinka swallowed hard and her eyes stung a little as she eased herself onto the floor, the rough walls of the cave scraping her back as she slid down. Before she could stop it, a tear rolled off her cheek and dropped to the sand. It sparkled for a moment, then glinted green.

Quickly, Trinka cleared her eyes and saw that there was one more ornament still on the ground. She reached down to brush the sand off it, when it whooshed into shape and she found herself patting Grble’s head.

His mouth flopped open in surprise, and his eyes wobbled back and forth.

“It’s you!” he finally uttered.

“I thought the first gorglum out front was you.” Trinka grinned.

Grble’s eyes shone like bright green crystals until his joyful look quickly turned to alarm.

“Go now!” he urged.

“But I came all this way to see you,” Trinka protested. A burst of flames erupted from the floor. She fell back, away from the heat, and shielded her eyes as the gigantic gems reflected back the thousands of sparks jumping from the fire.

“Go, it’s not safe for you here,” Grble repeated.

“But I have to find my cousins’ cat.”

Grble’s response was muted by another terrifying howl, this one the fiercest and closest of them all, so loud that it shook the rock they were standing on.

“There’s no time to explain,” Trinka gritted her teeth as another howl pierced the darkness. “Let’s get her and get out of here! She must be around here somewhere.”

They padded along the cave wall, dodging flames at every step.

“Do you hear something?”

“Of course I hear something,” Grble answered, his eyes bobbing nervously as the misticat’s howl echoed through the caves.

“No, like human voices,” Trinka explained, then grimaced as she distinctly heard familiar whining coming from the other side of the cave wall. Her cousins’ paths had inevitably intertwined, and they emerged through an opening together, their long skirts in tatters from scraping against the jewels and rocks.

Trinka gasped as she caught sight of the view ahead of her. In the center of the small, hollowed out room before them, a gigantic, perfectly clear jewel pierced the rock, hanging down from the ceiling of the cave like a chandelier in the City of Mirrors on Ellipsis. Except this one, rather than being made of thousands of jewels all balanced together, was a single perfect piece, its massive form encircled by a pale purple, proudly purring creature with her tail wrapped possessively around the jewel.

“Nefertari,” Trinka sighed.

“I told you she would find the biggest jewel!” Sabirah squealed.

“At least she’s not howling anymore,” Jamilah commented, putting a hand to her forehead.

“That’s because a gorglum’s here to dig it out for her,” Sabirah pointed at Grble.

“We can’t just take it,” Trinka protested.

“You can if I give it to you,” Grble answered, “and I will.”

Trinka dropped down and peered intently into her former companion’s deep, round eyes. “Grble, do you want to stay here, where you belong, with your family?”

His eyes glistened, not because of watering from irritation from the fires, but from something much deeper within. Something that Trinka knew all too well.

“If I get the jewel for you, will you take me with you?”

Trinka squeezed Grble’s long, stony fingers, to a chorus of “ewws” from her cousins.

“If you want to go, I’ll take you with me no matter what.”

“But that thing must weigh a ton! How will we ever carry it home?” Jamilah demanded.

“I’ll carry it,” Trinka decided wearily, and drew the genie purse from her pocket. It meant her cousins would have to find out about it, but that was better than spending eternity in a fiery jewel cave. She held the little purse open and centered it directly below the point of the jewel. It was as tall as Jamilah and as wide as Sabirah, at least, but Trinka could only hope that if the lantern fit into the genie purse, this monstrosity would too. Her cousins craned their necks and watched as Grble slowly pried the top of the jewel loose with his long, chisel-like fingers. Nefertari still refused to let go of her prize, and as the jewel started swaying and jolting, she began supplementing the gorglum’s clinks with sharp little yowls.

A mighty crack resounded through the chamber as several handfuls’ worth of stone came tumbling down from the cave ceiling. Sabirah and Jamilah bolted away in alarm, but Trinka had to stand still to keep the genie purse in place. All at once, Nefertari gave a terrified shriek and sprang from the jewel onto the unsuspecting Sabirah, whom she clawed frantically until Jamilah took her and let her mist herself back into her bottle.

Trinka clenched her teeth and braced her legs as the sharply pointed jewel fell. She didn’t know if she could take its weight, but it slid easily into the purse, which still seemed as light as when it was empty. Trinka brushed the dust and sand from her face and snapped the purse shut with satisfaction. She couldn’t believe it had gone so well.

She looked back to the ceiling where Grble had been working, but he had already dropped to the floor. There was nothing where the jewel had been but a big, gaping hole like the burrows in the cliff wall outside. Except this hole seemed to be filled with a river of…

“Fire!” Trinka shouted and tried to grab Grble, but the gorglum had already turned into an ornament on the cave floor. Jamilah and Sabirah screamed and tried to dash toward opposite exits at once, smashing into each other and ending up sprawled on the floor.

The flames poured from the hole in the ceiling, filling the side of the room that her cousins had just gotten away from. They scurried toward Trinka, trying to ease their way to the exit behind her, but a sudden burst of flames blocked that passage too.

Trinka grabbed for Grble’s ornamental form, then dropped it with a cry as the burning hot metal seared her hand. Instantly, she tore the aquarock from its hiding place and stuttered the words to make it spew forth a small stream. The cool water felt good on her hand, but she had to jump back as the water and sparks met and great pops of steam hissed and went flying.

She scooped up Grble again, hastily shoved him in her pocket, and raised the aquarock high with both hands. “Mayim unda hudor!” she shouted with all the power she could muster. A torrent of water blew from the aquarock and collided with the fire, dousing it with a crash, as the water flowed heavily into the fire and kept on flowing. The water soaked the ground and sloshed around her ankles. It was all Trinka could do to keep standing in place, holding on to the rock amidst the crashes of water. The cave was beginning to flood, and she could hear her cousins splashing and shrieking.

Batsa ur vesi!” Trinka finally managed to cry out, and she felt her arms drop as if they were almost ready to fall off, and the torrent from the aquarock stopped flowing. Trinka sank against the wall, exhausted, and only the drip, drip, drip of the final drops from the aquarock could be heard splashing into the water. The water soon began to disappear as well, as it quickly soaked into the sandy ground, leaving only a wet glop where the raging flood and flash flames had been.

Trinka turned, dripping wet from head to toe, and found her cousins huddled against the wall in much the same state, coughing and spluttering. They stared back at her for a moment and, for once, seemed to have nothing to say. Trinka caught the handle of the lantern as it swirled by her in a puddle.

“Have you got Nefertari?” she asked shakily.

Jamilah clutched her necklace and nodded.

“All right,” Trinka glanced around the cave for the last time. “Let’s go.”

Sabirah got her voice back. “I’ve been saying that all day!”

Trinka slipped the aquarock into her genie purse and lit the white part of the lantern again as she led the way back into the tunnel. For the first time, an uneasy thought struck her. They had found their way into the caves, but would they ever find their way out? Her eyes swept along the pathway, searching in desperation for any kind of sign that might guide the way. Some of the surroundings looked vaguely familiar―a jutting rock, a low place in the ceiling, an extra-large jewel placed just so, but Trinka couldn’t remember whether she had seen them while coming or going, from far or from near.

At that moment, the thought of being back in her aunt’s dreadful palace suddenly seemed like the most welcome thing in the world, and she longed to flop down into that softly cushioned bed while her tired legs rested. She was past feeling hungry, but the lack of food inside her made her feel empty, like she would soon have no strength to go on. She looked back at her cousins, still struggling along behind her. Jamilah’s expression was unreadable, but Sabirah wore a pout at least three times the size of her face. Trinka continued the long walk through the tunnel, convinced that any route, any choice, had to be better than staying where they were.

At last, Trinka could see light―real light, not just the glow of the fires―streaming in through small openings up ahead. Her face began to relax, and the lantern swung freely from its handle. Grble was safely in her pocket, they had survived close encounters with the fires of the jewel caves, and she had even managed to get through an afternoon with Jamilah and Sabirah. She stepped joyfully over a heap of rock and then stopped so suddenly that Sabirah bumped into her from behind.

Sabirah was about to emit a squeal of protest when the noise that Trinka had heard came again, making them all stand as still as stone.

“What was that?” Sabirah squeaked.

Trinka swallowed hard. The noise was the sound of feet, and the cracks of light came, not from the many openings they had seen in the cliffs, but from the sparse gaps in the rows between enormous bodies.

“It’s the guards,” Trinka said in a strangled whisper. “We’ve come up right behind them.”

“Who cares? I want to go home!” Sabirah demanded loudly.

One of the guards turned and clearly spotted them. Trinka’s instincts told her to turn and run, but the guard made no further move. Why weren’t the guards coming after them?

“We’ll just have to find another way out,” Jamilah decided.

Trinka gently pulled Grble from her pocket.

“We’re behind the guards,” she whispered. “Do you know another way out?”

Grble whooshed into shape, his eyes bobbling nervously. “There is no other way out for humans,” he stated quietly. “Only other ways in.”

“That doesn’t make any sense!” Sabirah protested.

“Yes it does,” Jamilah returned soberly. “Why have the djinn guard all the openings if no one can get out except through one?”

“Well, you’re the one who got us in here! Why didn’t you think of that then?”

Jamilah’s cheeks turned crimson. “Fine, then I’ll be the one to get us out of here too.”

Trinka watched in horror as her cousin determinedly stomped toward the opening. Sabirah smugly followed, and in the end, Trinka decided she was better off with them than left in the caves by herself. All the confidence she had felt in the jewel caves faded as she came face-to-waist with one of the guards at the entrance. Grble melted into ornament form instantly.

Trinka’s face went white as she quickly slipped Grble into the genie purse inside her pocket. The lantern rattled tellingly in her nervous hand.

“So, you came to steal the treasures of the jewel caves,” the tallest guard accused.

“We didn’t steal anything!” Sabirah squeaked. Trinka almost laughed nervously at that statement, as it occurred to her that the biggest jewel in the entire cave was hidden in her purse. Still, one of the resident gorglum had given them permission to take it.

“But one of you is a slave?” another guard demanded suspiciously.

“She…” Sabirah began, pointing at Trinka.

“Is our cousin,” Jamilah finished firmly. “And we are the daughters of Vashti. We simply came here on an outing and got lost inside the caves. Now, if you don’t want the bahir to think poorly of your services, you will release us at once.”

Trinka looked at her cousin with admiration for the first time. Jamilah stood her ground, chin high, eyes blazing, as the guards consulted with each other uncertainly.

“My mother would hate to tell Bahir Faruq anything that makes him unhappy,” Jamilah continued defiantly.

At this, the guards began to look as nervous as Trinka.

“They are just kids. And if her mother knows Bahir Faruq,” one of them began.

The tallest guard turned to them. “You are free to go,” he announced.

The guards stepped aside, and the girls emerged from the cave, shivering, wet, and shaken. Trinka didn’t really start to breathe again until they were quite a distance past the cliffs.

“I’m cold!” Sabirah wailed miserably, clutching her shredded sleeves.

“So am I!” Jamilah snapped irritably.

Trinka shakily blew a large, wobbly bubble of light for them to walk in. From her purse, she carefully drew out the box of red-hot beads from the marketplace, snapped it open, and picked up a piece for each of her cousins.

“What is it?” Sabirah asked suspiciously.

“Candy,” Trinka murmured, popping a piece in her own mouth. Instantly, the flavor erupted on her tongue and sent tingling sparks of warmth into her legs and hands.

“Mmm, hot candy,” Jamilah agreed.

With a final suspicious look, Sabirah slid hers into her mouth.

“Ooh, it’s good!” she exclaimed. “I want more!”

“No, one is enough,” Trinka objected, but her cousin wrested the box from her hands and poured a handful into her mouth.

“Sabirah!” Jamilah reprimanded, but her sister was already screaming across the sand with steam pouring from her mouth and nose and even her ears. The burst of light from the popped lantern bubble looked like sparks shooting off from her as she ran.

Jamilah fell to the sand, shaking with laughter, and Trinka stood by helplessly as her younger cousin ran circles around them, breathing off the hot flames inside her.

“It’ll probably burn a hole in your stomach and you’ll never be able to eat again!” Jamilah gasped in hysterics.

“It will not!” Sabirah shrieked, finally winding to a halt. It briefly crossed Trinka’s mind that it was a good thing Ickle and Fiszbee hadn’t rushed out to join in Sabirah’s wild new “dance.”

“I wonder what mother will say when she sees your tongue,” Jamilah gleefully got to her feet. Trinka carefully blew another light bubble as they huddled together to continue walking. “Maybe if you eat some more we can use you as a torch for the banquet tomorrow night.”

“It’s all her fault!” Sabirah whined accusingly, with curls of steam still whispering from her lips. “We’re going to get in big trouble. And we missed dinner!”

“She didn’t stick all those candies in your mouth. And if it weren’t for her, we’d still be in the caves, trapped and turning black as burnt bread,” Jamilah snapped.

“If it weren’t for her, we never would have gone to the stupid caves,” Sabirah retorted. “And if we did, nothing would have gone wrong. She’s the cause of everything that goes wrong here!”

“Shut up, just shut up!”

Sabirah gave Trinka another reproachful look as she finally fell silent. She stalked off in a huff, staying as far from the other girls as she could without popping the bubble of lantern light with her turned up nose.

At last, the lights of Aunt Vashti’s garden came close enough to shine across the outline of the back steps. As Trinka prepared to make her weary legs climb up them one more time, Sabirah burst the edge of the bubble, bolted up the stairs and into the palace.

“Stupid little snot,” Jamilah muttered.

“She is your sister,” Trinka ventured. Much as she resented Annelise’s perpetual perfection, meeting her cousins made her awfully glad that she and her siblings didn’t quarrel all the time. “And without her, you’d have no one to argue with.”

Jamilah stopped short, halfway up the steps. Trinka swallowed and wished she could swallow her words with it. Finally, Jamilah’s blazing eyes turned away. Just as they reached the top, the terrace door flew open and Aunt Vashti emerged, dress flapping, eyes sparking, as she glowered at them. Sabirah stood right at her heels like an over-attentive servant.

It did not cheer Trinka to note that her cousin was smiling.

“I told her how you forced us to go to the caves with you and almost drowned us,” she announced proudly from her place behind her mother’s skirts.

“How dare you risk the lives of my precious daughters with your idle foolishness,” Aunt Vashti’s voice ripped through Trinka. “After all that I’ve done to feed and clothe and look after you, what’s the first thing you do? Do you look after your chores? Do you try to be polite and helpful around the house? Or do you deceive me and go running off to waste water on some jewel-cave fire!”

Oh no, thought Trinka. So that’s what this is all about. If Sabirah had told her about the aquarock…

“You think you’re pretty clever, don’t you, pretending to slave up and down the steps all day, wasting water from my cistern, when you have enough water to keep us all supplied for a lifetime right in your hands!”

“No!” Trinka shouted.

“Where is it?” Aunt Vashti demanded, her black eyes boring into Trinka’s. Trinka’s teeth clenched as every muscle in her body seemed to tighten. That rock was hers, and nothing could make her tell anybody where it was.

“You’re going to be difficult about this, aren’t you?”

Trinka set her jaw defiantly, and Aunt Vashti’s painted lips grew even thinner.

“Well then,” Aunt Vashti simmered, “I can see I’m going to have to resort to this.” She drew out a small object, like the one Pimlico had used to get her up the stairs to the palace, and snapped it on.

Trinka felt her body start to tremble, gently at first, until she was shaking uncontrollably. Without warning, her hands flew to her pockets and jacket and began pulling out everything―her genie purse full of treasures, Grble’s ornament, the vial from Annelise, and at last, the aquarock. Trinka gritted her teeth and tried to resist, but despite all her mind’s efforts, her body drew it out and held it toward Aunt Vashti.

Without a word, she snatched it with one hand and snapped off the device with the other. Trinka fell backward as all her muscles that had been straining in conflicting directions suddenly let loose.

Aunt Vashti’s eyes gleamed as she fingered the sought-after aquarock in her hands, staring at it hungrily.

“This is it, girls,” she whispered.

“You still need the right words,” Sabirah pointed out loudly.

“And we shall have them shortly.” She turned again toward Trinka, who still lay sprawled on the terrace floor. “Now, are you going to give them to me willingly, or do I have to prepare the boiling oil?” She smiled sweetly.

Trinka’s brow began to sweat. Aunt Vashti’s charm could force her to do things, but could it force her to say things?

“Well, I’m waiting!” Aunt Vashti demanded. “What have you got to say?”

Trinka bit her lip in thought for a moment until the perfect response hit her. “You’ve always said children should be seen and not heard, Aunt Vashti.”

Sabirah giggled, and Aunt Vashti whirled and turned on her instead. “Sabirah. You were there when she used it. What did she say?”

Sabirah’s nose wrinkled, and she stomped her foot in annoyance. “Well, I can’t remember. I was too busy trying not to get burnt up!”

“Jamilah,” Aunt Vashti commanded. “You’re older. Surely you remember!” But Jamilah only looked at Trinka briefly and shook her head.

Aunt Vashti’s lips parted, as if a great rage were bubbling up inside her. Trinka’s cousins always tended to cool off after bickering for awhile, but her aunt looked like she was only growing hotter.

“You are a deceitful, conniving little two-faced liar!” she hissed at Trinka, and it seemed that at any moment flames might start leaping from the depths of her eyes as they had from the darkness of the jewel caves. “It’s no wonder your mother didn’t want you!”

Trinka leaned back against the pots on the terrace, her cheeks as hot as if she had just swallowed a mouthful of candies.

Aunt Vashti had resumed ranting uncontrollably and pacing across the terrace, but Trinka felt someone tugging at her arm, pulling her to her feet.

“You’d better go upstairs while she’s not looking,” Jamilah whispered. “She’ll cool off faster if you’re not around.” Numbly, Trinka stood and slipped away.

Quietly, she closed the door to her room behind her and flung herself onto the bed, the cool covers smooth against her hot, dirty skin.

Her cousins mad at her, her talismans gone, the aquarock taken away, Grble out of the fire and into the clutches of Aunt Vashti. How could a day that started out so good go so wrong? And that wasn’t the worst of it. Aunt Vashti’s display had hardly improved her mood, and then that remark about her mother not wanting her…

Why do I let her upset me so much? She’s just trying to be mean.

Because it’s true, she responded to herself. My mother didn’t want me. Why else would she go away?

A knock at the door disturbed Trinka’s thoughts. She buried her head in the pillows and didn’t respond.

The knock sounded again.

If that was Aunt Vashti, Trinka thought darkly. The knock came again, more sharply this time.

“Are you in there?” a familiar voice demanded.

Trinka thought about saying “no,” but she figured her cousin would come in anyway, so she swung open the door.

Jamilah had changed into a plush, purple, floor-length robe that looked as soft as pillows and as beautiful as a ballroom gown.

“What’s the matter?” she demanded as she invited herself into the room.

“I was just noticing your robe,” Trinka faltered.

Her cousin shrugged and pulled out the vanity chair. “I have at least a dozen spares, if you want one. They’re very comfortable.”

“Uh, no thanks,” Trinka answered uneasily as she sat on the edge of the bed, across from her cousin.

“I wish I could wear one all the time. Instead of dresses. Oh, here, I brought this for you.”

Trinka accepted the after-dinner candy Jamilah held in her hand.

“I thought you might be hungry. It’s not very tasty, but at least it will keep you going. I would have tried to sneak you a roll or something too, but my sister ate them all. Mother wasn’t going to feed us, but of course that didn’t last long. She found out that punishing Sabirah by not giving her food is really more like punishing herself.”

Trinka couldn’t hide a small smile as she put the candy into her mouth. It sank to her stomach instantly, and she felt as full as if she had eaten an entire meal. “Is she very mad at you?”

“Oh no, not half as mad as she is at you,” Jamilah yawned. “She’s mostly just vexed about the water thing.”

Trinka’s heart sank, and she wondered if the real reason her cousin had come here was to try to get her to spill the words that worked the talisman.

“Of course, she’ll cool off eventually, but as long as she doesn’t think up words like ‘Mayim unda hudor’…”

Trinka’s head snapped to attention. “You knew?”

Jamilah shrugged and toyed idly with the little bottles on the vanity. “I’m not deaf, and I’m not stupid. That’s my sister’s job,” she added, unable to resist a nasty remark. “Anyway, it’s not her rock. And you did save our lives today. And Nefertari’s.”

For a moment, the two of them looked at each other, as if they were really seeing each other for the first time.

“Thank you,” Trinka said. “We wouldn’t have gotten out of there at all if it weren’t for you. I never would have been brave enough to talk to the guards like that.”

Her cousin shrugged. “Well, I’d better get to bed. I’ll see you at the banquet tomorrow night.”

“If your mother lets me go. Not that I want to.”

“You should go,” Jamilah advised from the doorway. “After all, Amir will be there, and that means…” she looked as if she were about to say something, then thought the better of it and stopped.

“What?” Trinka asked.

Jamilah shook her head. “Never mind. You’ll find out soon enough.”

h1={color:#808080;}.
Chapter Twelve

Memories in the Mirror

Even Aunt Vashti wasn’t wealthy enough to have a bath. The households that had one were rumored to need three thousand slave girls, each with a decanter of water, to keep the spacious marble pools filled. Since Trinka still hadn’t yielded the words for the aquarock, Aunt Vashti still had no bath, and she remained in a terrible temper.

 The palace did, however, have a shower. There was not much water in it, but as Trinka stood beneath its misty spray, she could feel the layers of dust sliding away, making her skin cool and fresh for the first time since she had left Ellipsis. She felt renewed, ready to start again after all the terrible things that had happened. All too soon, the stream shut off, and Trinka hurried into the dress Beatrice had repaired for her.

The folds of wispy, pink fabric that had been in tatters the last time she had seen it looked completely new, with long, loose sleeves that covered her hands and a smooth, silky skirt that fluttered gracefully just above her beaded, dusky rose slippers. As Trinka smoothed the skirt, she saw two strange pieces of metal, studded with clear, bright jewels, lying on the table. Intrigued, she picked one up, and it immediately flew out of her hand and started biting at the side of her head. Trinka screamed in alarm, but the little talisman stopped moving suddenly, and she saw that it had braided her hair in a neat little twist, with the jewels of the talisman glittering softly above it. Cautiously, Trinka picked up the other piece of mysterious metal, closed her eyes tightly and let it go. When the crawling and nipping had stopped, Trinka opened her eyes and looked in the mirror.

For once, everything about her was fresh and clean and in perfect order, but she knew Aunt Vashti would still not be pleased. Her brown eyes still looked too large for her face, the unbraided part of her hair hung plain and stiff—too dark to really be blonde, and too light to be beautifully brown—and her skin, despite her recent adventures outdoors, still looked pale and wan from all her years inside the towers of Ellipsis.

Trinka turned away and slipped quietly into the nearest chute.

“Kitchen,” she said then quickly drew her breath in and held it tightly. As the smoke began lifting her through the chamber, she slowly exhaled and felt her feet come to rest on something solid. She swung open the doors to the genies’ kitchen, expecting to find it overflowing with activity, but instead it was quiet and empty. Puzzled, Trinka made her way through the dining room and into the main part of the palace, where her aunt and cousins were putting the finishing touches on their own banquet looks.

Aunt Vashti bent over a small mirror. Brushes and black pencils worked their way across her face adding longer lashes, redder cheeks, and sparkly blue-streaked eyelids. The whole effect made her face look taller and more pinched than usual, but no matter how much color she added, it was still her cold, black eyes that stood out the most.

Trinka’s cousins looked equally ridiculous, done up in dresses that were almost as wide as they were long, with huge collars that stuck up behind their heads. The sight made Trinka glad she was only wearing everyday hand-me-downs.

Jamilah’s honey-brown locks, which normally spilled in gentle waves nearly to her waist, were tightly pulled back in dozens of tiny braids that joined beneath a spiky emerald tiara, then overflowed in a fountain of ringlets. Her gold collar stuck up almost as tall as her hair, like a fan made of broad, pointy blades. Bright green jewels accented each of the blade tips, and matching gems adorned the tight gold chain around her neck.

The tops of her sleeve ballooned out in stripes of mint and jade, then pulled in tightly just above the elbows, ending in skin-tight silk that ran all the way to her wrists. Large emeralds adorned the neckline and waist of her latticed, v-shaped bodice, and a mountain of richly embroidered fabric with jewel-encrusted triangular peaks made up her enormous skirt. Every aspect of her costume appeared to be as spiky and unpleasant as possible, and Trinka felt sorry for her cousin.

Sabirah needed no assistance from her wardrobe to appear unpleasant, but got it anyway. Garish bands of red and black ran all down her sleeves, which ended in itchy looking lace ruffles that matched the frilly collar tickling the sides and back of her head. Her hair had been pulled straight back in an unflattering bun that ended in two black, curling spikes that reminded Trinka of goat horns.

Sabirah held up her layers of ruby and onyx skirt, revealing lacy bloomers and a network of stiff skirt supports, like tent poles, underneath.

“Sabirah, stop lifting your skirt up like that. It’s horribly unladylike. And Jamilah, straighten that necklace,” Vashti looked over her daughters critically.

“But it’s hot!” Sabirah complained, still clutching her huge dress above her knees. Seeing the flash from her mother’s eyes, she dropped it to the floor and pouted, before she spotted Trinka.

“That’s my dress!” Sabirah screeched. “Mother, she stole my dress!”

“You don’t need it anymore, you have a much nicer one.”

“Besides, the last time you wore it, you fell into a vat of puréed durian fruit,” Jamilah reminded her.

“But it’s mine! I don’t want her to wear it. Beatrice got all the stains out, and now she smells like smoke!” Sabirah wrinkled her nose disdainfully.

“What do you expect when she came through the chutes?”

“Only a servant would use those!” Sabirah retorted.

“That’s right, Trinka,” Aunt Vashti addressed her coldly. “For tonight, you are not family, you are just a servant. You may attend the banquet so long as you are quiet and stay out of the way. You are to speak to no one unless I direct you. And if you draw any sort of attention to yourself, I assure you I will find a dungeon for you somewhere.”

Trinka’s cheeks flushed pinker than her dress.

If Aunt Vashti didn’t want anyone to know they were related, that certainly worked both ways. And at least the food would be good.

As she stepped out into the pavilion, Trinka felt as if she were stepping into a place she had never seen before. The terrace seemed to have been expanded to three times its normal size. Long sheets of brightly colored fabric hung in the air like genie scarves, protecting the vast array of tables from the heat overhead. Genies circulated everywhere, chasing after platters of food and drinks, sending tables spinning and chairs dancing into new arrangements. Two genies were hanging up streamers of fabric that issued from their little fingers and caught the gentlest breeze.

All of them rushed about at a pace that made Trinka dizzy, but they seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely. Trinka’s first thought was to offer to help them, but as it seemed she couldn’t even get close to the genies without risking bodily harm, she found a quiet spot behind one of the large potted plants to sit and watch as the guests began to arrive.

Aunt Vashti loomed on one side of the palace door and her daughters on the other, undoubtedly so all the guests could be exposed to their unpleasantness the minute they came in. Aunt Vashti’s heavily painted face pinched itself even tighter as she beamed at each guest and picked up their hands limply. Jamilah managed a bored half-smile when prompted, but Sabirah seemed to have lost all pretense of paying attention as her eyes were fully fastened on the food.

The whole party had the look of a mirage, as guests with painted faces moved about a terrace that wasn’t usually there, ate food that wouldn’t fill them, and said things they probably didn’t mean. All the food around her looked tantalizing, but Trinka couldn’t seem to get close enough to any of it to have a bite.

“Oh, here you go,” a genie that looked like Kimimela cheerfully pointed her finger at Trinka’s hands, which were suddenly struggling with the weight of an enormous platter decorated with rambutan fruits, and piled high with fat, golden tarts, full to bursting with red, juicy berries.

“Well, don’t just stand there,” Trinka caught sight of her aunt’s painted eyelids squinting down at her. “They’re not for you. Go serve the guests.”

Trinka sighed and stepped lightly forward to offer the treats to a short, paunchy man whose dark hair hung in tight curls all the same length, as if they were an upside-down bowl on his head. Just as she approached him, the platter suddenly flew from her hands, upset by the edge of Vashti’s enormous skirt.

The little tarts sailed, as if thrown by some evil force, directly at the paunchy man’s pants, where they splattered and oozed blue and red juice down his fine, white silk front. Several of the spiny rambutan fruits snagged on the threads of his fine clothing, where they hung like odd little ornaments.

“Trinka!” Aunt Vashti began, then inexplicably started giggling nervously as she caught sight of the tarts’ unfortunate target. “Your highness.” She bowed ingratiatingly, then shot Trinka a vicious look. “You must forgive the girl—she is new here,” she cooed as a genie waved away the stains.

Red-faced, Trinka got to her knees and picked up the fallen platter, then found herself almost bumping into the white-haired gentleman who had been in Vashti’s palace on the day Trinka had arrived. Jamilah and Sabirah approached behind her, eager to be wherever there was conflict, or food.

“Good evening, your highness,” Bahir Faruq announced. “I presume you’ve met my wife, Bahira Cantara?” he introduced a small, gray-haired woman who peered at her surroundings through tiny, jewel-like spectacles that perched on the point of her turned-up nose.

“Yes, yes,” Amir answered graciously. “Always a pleasure. Shall we get some food?” He turned expectantly to Trinka, who stood by awkwardly.

“Not very bright, is she?” Bahira Cantara commented primly.

“You, get us food,” Amir commanded slowly, gesturing at his mouth. “Well, Vashti did say she’s a new foreign servant,” he explained to the other guests.

“She’s not a servant,” Bahir Faruq guffawed. “She’s Vashti’s niece.”

Aunt Vashti went a shade paler under her makeup.

“She’s just helping out,” Vashti interjected. “No more than my own daughters are doing.” She quickly grabbed two platters from a passing genie and thrust them into the hands of Jamilah and Sabirah. “Daughters, some hors d’oeuvres for his highness…”

Jamilah curtseyed stiffly and offered him the platter of finger-sized pastries with cream sauce and slices of cherimoya. Vashti prompted Sabirah to offer her mangosteen-topped cakes to Bahir Faruq and his wife, but by that time, she was too busy cramming them into her mouth.

“So how are things in the jewel business?” Amir asked Faruq between enormous mouthfuls of food. Trinka tried to edge quietly out of the circle, but the crowd slowed her progress.

“Quite good. And you—still find time to party with all the goings-on in Sahar?”

Amir nodded and chewed. “Yes, business is far too good, I fear. I curse every moment that keeps me away from my beautiful Ashira.”

Trinka dropped the platter and what was left of the food with a resounding clatter.

“You came to see my mother?” Trinka asked in disbelief.

Amir paused for a moment in his methodical eating. “No, not unless your mother is Ashira.” He chuckled mildly.

“Yes, she is!” Trinka exclaimed.

“Obviously, my sister is not old enough to be the mother of such a child,” Vashti immediately contradicted. “And she is not married. That is, until his highness chooses otherwise,” she added slyly.

“They’re going sparking,” Sabirah blurted.

“What?” Trinka turned to her.

“Courting,” Jamilah supplied in a comparative whisper. “Mother expects they’ll get married any time now.”

Trinka felt as if all the blood had left her face. The motions of the genies and guests, plants, and plates full of food seemed to swirl even faster, and she felt unsteady on her feet. But somehow, a strength within her surged and found its way to her throat.

“You can’t marry Ashira!” Trinka shouted. “She’s my mom! And she’s already married to my dad!”

The entire pavilion seemed to pause.

“Really,” Amir said dryly. “A bit, um, you know, is she?” He made a twirling gesture around his ear, not noticing that he was getting sauce all over his hair.

“Yes, yes, she is,” Aunt Vashti answered with a high, false laugh that was as pinched as her face. “She’s really not well at all, and I think she ought to go to bed. Now,” she emphasized firmly through clenched teeth.

“But you can’t―” Trinka began.

“Little girl, no one tells an amir what he can and cannot do,” Bahira Cantara said primly, her beady eyes looking down sharply at Trinka over her jewel-rimmed spectacles.

“Now,” Vashti repeated. Her hand slipped into the jewel-covered bag at her hip and reappeared, briefly displaying the piacula she had used to make Trinka give up the aquarock.

The tears were already running down Trinka’s face as her grief bubbled over. She turned and ran toward the palace, with startled guests stepping from her path.

Trinka collapsed onto her bed upstairs, the deep weight of sorrow sinking all the way through her. As her cheek pressed into the dampness of the pillow, she felt herself kick something underneath the sheets. Trinka flung aside the bedding and saw the red book lying there, its pages askew.

The strange words that had intrigued her only a few nights ago now made her furious. This had been her mother’s. This and everything else in the room. So why wasn’t she here in it now? If she wanted so much to leave Bram and me and Kolinkar and Annelise, and come back to this horrid place, why isn’t she here?

In a sudden fury, she threw the book across the room as hard as she could. It hit the mirror on the vanity with a crack, followed by a crash and gentle tinkling noises as the tiny glass bottles shattered. The diary lay open beneath the shards and spilled piles of powder.

Trinka closed her eyes and fell back onto the pillows. What did it matter? If her mother had wanted that stuff, she would be here for it. And if she wanted me, she’d be here for me too.

“Never!” a furious female voice shouted.

Trinka sat bolt upright at the sound, every muscle at the ready, but there was no sign of the voice’s owner. Had she just imagined it? Slowly, she let herself relax, when suddenly, the flash of a dark-haired reflection stormed its way across the mirror.

“I wouldn’t marry Musonas for all the jewels in Apostrophe!” the girl’s reflection shouted.

The reflection sunk to the chair in front of the vanity on the other side of the glass, put her hands over her face, and wept, her thin shoulders shaking with sobs. Trinka couldn’t help but climb out of the bed in concern, but the chair in front of her was empty. The dark-haired girl existed only in the mirror. Trinka put her hand to the glass, but it felt solid, smooth, and cold.

“They can’t do this to me!” the girl continued between sobs. “I’ll never marry Musonas!” Her hand grabbed at a fine glass bottle and shattered it against the vanity. She bit her wide, red lips for a moment, then got up and flung herself onto the bed.

Trinka turned. The bed in the room was empty but messy, while the one in the mirror was covered with neatly folded blankets and a desperate, prostrate figure. Trinka couldn’t even see her own reflection in the glass, as it had been completely taken over by the girl in the diary.

Of course, that’s who she was, Trinka thought as she glanced at the open book, now covered with powder from the broken vials. And that must make her…

“Mother?”

The girl in the mirror got up suddenly, but instead of responding to Trinka, she pulled the secret latch at the side of the bed and sat down again with a familiar red book in her lap.

“How can they even think that I’d marry him?” she spoke. “Just because he’s a wealthy, irritable, old…”

Then, in a flash, the girl’s image faded and disappeared from the mirror, and Trinka found herself staring at a reflection of her own white face. Carefully, she got up and brushed the mix of soft powders off the pages of the diary and into her hand. To think that the key to unlocking its secrets had been here on the vanity all along.

With the bottles broken, she only had enough powder to cover one more page of the diary. Trinka flipped through it thoughtfully, but there was no telling what the chapters of unreadable, loopy script might contain. Trinka finally sprinkled the handful of powder over the last page of the diary.

From the moment the powder hit the page, a very different girl appeared in the mirror. She was smiling, almost jumping on the bed with delight as she got out her diary to tell it her latest story.

“I have met him,” she whispered with happiness. “His name is Bram, and he’s from Brace.”

Trinka watched as her mother’s past reflection settled herself into her pillows, a blissful, dreamy expression covering her face.

“Just think, tomorrow, no more engagement to Musonas. I’m going to marry Bram.” She put the diary away and slid happily beneath her blankets, the smile never leaving her face as she dreamed herself to sleep.

With that, the last image of her mother disappeared from the mirror. Trinka hoped the diary would reveal her mother’s secrets, but she was left with more questions than answers. If her mother had really been so determined to run away and marry Bram, rather than marry a man for his wealth, why was she “sparking” with Amir now?

But that must mean… her mother was here. In the palace. And if Amir had come here to see her, then she had probably been here all along.

All thoughts of staying in bed, away from Aunt Vashti and her horrible guests, vanished as she stormed from the room and marched back downstairs to the main hall, where the family was beginning to bid some of the guests good night.

“Aunt Vashti,” she demanded, “Why didn’t you tell me my mother is here?”

For a moment, Aunt Vashti’s eyes grew wide, then narrowed as she resumed her composure. She calmly picked up a decanter from one of the entry tables and filled a golden goblet with rich, dark red liquid.

“I told you she was far away. And, in many ways, she is.”

“Why didn’t you want me to see her?” Trinka continued boldly.

“She doesn’t want to see you. Or even hear about you. Ever again. Is that clear?”

Trinka felt her eyes sting with the onslaught of tears as she tore from the room and stumbled blindly out to the garden. As she dashed across the terrace, she tripped and fell headlong into something soft and white.

“Ooof,” a dry male voice remarked. Trinka felt strong arms hauling her to her feet. She looked up and saw a tall guard holding her firmly on both sides and Amir carefully smoothing out the front of his plush, white jacket.

“What are you still doing here?” Trinka blurted.

“I’ve promised to take my lovely lady for a chariot ride of course.” With a sweep of his arm, he indicated a gleaming golden carriage, finely polished and glowing like the setting sun. At its head, two enormous, muscular white animals clicked their feet impatiently and rustled their expansive wings. Each wing looked as if it were made from jagged metal, its fierce points encrusted with glittering jewels. For a moment, Trinka wondered what it must be like to fly high above the sand in a golden chariot.

“Ah, Ashira! At last.” Amir smiled and stretched out his hands in welcome. Trinka whirled about, and the sight before her took her breath away.

A tall, beautiful woman in a long white dress came gracefully down the stairs from a second-story balcony at the back of the palace. Her dress was sleeveless, simple and flowing, with a pale pink ribbon fluttering down from her waistband that perfectly matched the dusky evening sky. Her skin was as smooth as the fine marble furniture and colored like honey. Her corsage of glittering flowers perfumed the air as she walked toward them. Her dark hair, swept back elegantly into a simple coil at the back of her head, framed her face perfectly and her eyes, dark as her hair, wore a dreamy, far-off look.

“Mother?” Trinka whispered. The woman somehow looked much younger than Trinka remembered, but it was unmistakably her.

Forgetting everything else, Trinka ran to her and flung her arms around her middle.

“My goodness,” the woman exclaimed, trying to keep her balance. “Amir, who is this girl?”

Trinka let go, and stepped back uncertainly. “But, Mom,” she began.

Ashira smiled at her kindly but distantly. “The word here is ‘mum,’” she corrected, “But you may call me Ashira if you like.”

“Mother,” Trinka wailed. She threw her arms around her mother’s waist again and buried her tear-streaked face against the fine fabric.

Ashira looked more and more confused; Amir began to looked disgusted.

“You can’t go with him,” Trinka sobbed, “Don’t you remember me at all? It’s me, Trinka!”

Ashira’s lips parted, and her eyes appeared glazed. For once, Aunt Vashti did seem right. Even when she was in Trinka’s arms, Ashira was far, far away.

“Come along now,” Amir said sharply. He was no longer smiling as he put a hand on Trinka’s shoulder. She jumped back as if she had been stung.

“You can’t take her away! You just can’t—she’s my mom!”

“Trinka!” Aunt Vashti’s voice shot across the terrace and stung her. Through blurry eyes, Trinka saw her aunt sweep forward.

“Your highness,” she cooed sweetly, dropping into a low curtsy, and motioning for her girls to do the same. “Thank you once again for gracing us with your presence.” She smiled benignly, and Sabirah batted her eyelashes and flung open her little fan. She immediately dropped it with a clatter and had to scurry after it, but Jamilah didn’t even crack a smile.

“I came to collect Ashira,” Amir replied promptly. “And no one else.” He looked meaningfully at Trinka.

“Oh, do not worry about her, your highness,” Aunt Vashti warbled. “I assure you, she will be packed and out of here as soon as possible.” She curtseyed low again, waving at her girls with one hand. “We would do anything, anything at all for his highness.” She smiled sweetly and batted her eyes a little. It looked even worse on her than it did on Sabirah.

“Good,” Amir returned shortly. “Then you will let me have the company of this young woman, and we will be on our way.” He turned toward Ashira, who stood staring in perplexity at Trinka.

“Ashira?” Amir asked, and her gaze drifted slowly toward him.

“Mmm? Oh, I’m not sure I want to go now,” she began, putting a hand to her forehead.

“Here,” Vashti offered promptly. “This will help.” Ashira accepted the small goblet her sister offered and drank its contents, then let the red glass slip from her fingers and shatter on the terrace stones. Everyone else startled, but Ashira’s vacant expression gave no indication that she had noticed the sight or the sounds.

“You mustn’t keep his highness waiting,” Aunt Vashti insisted, shoving her sister toward the chariot. “I’m sure the fresh air will do you good.”

Amir helped Ashira up the small step on the side of the chariot. Trinka made to rush toward her, but Aunt Vashti’s hand clamped over her arm, and Trinka could feel her long, sharp fingernails digging in.

With a chirrah from Amir, the animals started forward on clattering hooves. Their mighty wings unfolded and beat swiftly and steadily, carrying them forward along the terrace and then up into the sky. Trinka watched until she could no longer see her mother’s somber face looking back in perplexity through the window. Then Trinka’s breath shuddered, and she collapsed onto the terrace stones.

“You get out of my house right now!” Aunt Vashti’s voice broke like a firestorm overhead. “I will not have you here a moment longer! Beatrice! Beatrice! Get her out of my sight this instant!” she shrilled hotly. “And send for Pimlico immediately. I will pay him, if necessary, to take her away!”

“But, madam,” Beatrice protested gently. “Your niece—”

“She is not my niece,” Aunt Vashti’s black eyes seemed to spark with anger, as Trinka’s mother’s used to do only when she was extraordinarily upset. “She is not my sister’s child. Ashira has no children. She has never been married. They’ll never be able to prove it!” With a swirl of her skirts, she stampeded back into the house. Sabirah skipped gleefully behind her.

“Come on now,” Beatrice said to Trinka, and within moments they were upstairs in Ashira’s old room. “Stay in here. And don’t come out until I send for you.”

Trinka nodded numbly, feeling close to collapse. To her surprise, Beatrice led her over to the bed and sat down next to her. She put a hand on Trinka’s forehead and looked her straight in the eye.

“People do get over-emotional sometimes. They say and do all kinds of things without thinking about the consequences. You understand?”

Trinka nodded dumbly.

“Well, think about it until you do understand,” Beatrice commanded.

She stepped toward the doorway, but before she could reach it, the door swung open and Jamilah’s face peered cautiously around it.

“What do you want, miss?” Beatrice asked crisply.

“I want to talk to Trinka.”

Beatrice looked both of them over sharply and swung the door open. With Beatrice gone, Jamilah sat down next to Trinka.

“It’s about your mother,” she began uncertainly.

Trinka felt another hot tear slide silently down her cheek.

“It’s not her fault,” her cousin continued earnestly. “Well, maybe a little but not really.” She paused and looked at Trinka. “You don’t know what happened to her, do you?

h1={color:#808080;}.
Chapter Thirteen

Don’t Wish Your Life Away

Trinka’s eyes opened wide with shock. She could hardly bear to think that her mother’s disappearance, her reason for leaving, her years of separation that had torn the family apart and scattered them across the four worlds―was all to blame on one little wish?

A smile pulled at the corner of Trinka’s mouth for a moment before her mind began wandering back to the day she had tried for so long to forget. Her mother and father fighting while she and Annelise huddled in Kolinkar’s room, trying not to listen. Then her mother’s final, unmistakable words before she disappeared.

“I wish I never even met you!” Trinka said aloud. The words stung in Trinka’s mouth like a cut that had just been burned with spice.

“What?” Jamilah demanded, bringing Trinka back to the moment.

“I wish I never even met you,” Trinka repeated. “That’s the last thing my mom said before she disappeared.”

Jamilah looked back at her questioningly.

“We could all hear her yelling that. Then everything was quiet. So when we―my brother and sister and I―came out into the room, my mother was gone. And my dad was just standing there, all alone, and he kept running his hands through his hair and walking back and forth. We asked where our mom was, and he said he didn’t know. Maybe she had gone back to her family. We asked when she’d be coming back and he said he didn’t know. Maybe soon. We never saw her again.” Trinka’s voice faltered. “I thought maybe she was dead. Or she didn’t want to see me. But then when I saw her here…” She choked a little as the warm, wet tears blanketed her face again.

“But that all fits, doesn’t it?” Jamilah persisted. “When she showed up here, she had no idea she’d ever been gone, and she had an empty glass vial in her hand. It made her wish come true. She’s gone back to a time in her life when she’d never met your dad, and that’s why she doesn’t know you.”

Trinka took a gulp of air before she could speak again. “Maybe,” she said shakily. “But that still means that she left because she wanted to.” She flopped back helplessly across the bed, her legs dangling over the edge.

“Not necessarily,” Jamilah said as she dropped into a plush, dusky rose chair. “She may not have realized that she was making a wish when she did it. Mother says all kinds of things that she doesn’t really want to come true.”

“Like wanting to put me in a dungeon?” Trinka couldn’t help grinning.

“Well, maybe she meant that a little,” Jamilah admitted.

“Why does she hate me so much?”

To Trinka’s surprise, Jamilah laughed and sat up. “Because of Amir,” she supplied readily. “If Aunt Ashira marries him, we’ll all be wealthy.”

“Aren’t you already wealthy?”

“Not as wealthy as he is!”

Trinka slipped her hands behind her head and thought for a moment.

“But what does that have to do with me?” she asked.

Jamilah shook her head in amazement. “Don’t you see? If Ashira believes who you are, then she’ll have to remember who she is. And if she finds out that she’s really supposed to be a quarter century older and married to someone else…”

Trinka suddenly sat bolt upright. “You mean all she has to do is remember who I am? And she’ll remember everything?”

“Well,” Jamilah hesitated. “I think so. But it’s not going to be that easy,” she added. “You saw what happened when you tried to tell her she’s your mother. She doesn’t understand. She doesn’t believe you.”

“Sabirah didn’t believe me either, but you did eventually.”

“That’s only because I’m old enough to remember her coming back here,” Jamilah scoffed. “Sabirah doesn’t know about it. She was too little to remember your mother arriving, so she thinks Aunt Ashira really is Mother’s younger sister, who’s never been married. Just like Amir does.”

Trinka sighed and flopped back to the bed in thought.

One part of the mystery still eluded her. Where had her mother gotten an esperaliss in the first place? She knew they existed―her classes had even made simple ones in school to give as gifts to loved ones―but a talisman powerful enough to cross between worlds was so very rare. And one that could cross time, too. Where had her mother gotten such a thing? Who could have made it?

Another memory from earlier in that day she had tried so hard to forget slowly began to resurface. She blinked, and suddenly it was clear to her:

Annelise had brought it home from school as a mother’s day present.

“Jamilah!” she called out, but her cousin had already dozed off. “Guess what?” Trinka asked excitedly, shaking her cousin awake.

“What?” Jamilah demanded irritably. “And I’m not going to guess.”

“I just figured something out. Where my mother got that esperaliss from.”

“What?”

“The talisman that made her wish come true and brought her here!”

“Does it matter?” she yawned, collapsing back into the cushions.

“My sister gave it to her,” Trinka continued unperturbed. “She made it at school and gave it to her for a present that day. My mom must have had the fight without realizing that she still had it. Do you know what this means?”

“You want to kill your sister?” Jamilah grumbled. “I know the feeling. If so, would you do mine too?”

“No!” Trinka insisted. “It means it really was an accident! She didn’t mean to leave us! So deep down, she must really want to come back!”

Jamilah’s eyelids fluttered with sleepy sarcasm.

“You haven’t said anything about this to my mother, have you?”

“No, I haven’t said anything to her at all,” Trinka responded defiantly. “If I did, I would be saying something that I’d regret later.”

Jamilah smiled weakly. “You’ve got that right. Do you know what could happen to you if Mother finds out you’re planning to wreck Ashira and Amir’s marriage?”

“Intended marriage,” Trinka corrected.

“Intended marriage,” Jamilah agreed, “which means more to Mother than anything.” She reached for a dish of large candies by the side of her bed, popped one into her mouth, and offered one to Trinka.

Trinka sat down on the end of the bed and sighed. “Well, if he means that much to her, why doesn’t your mother marry Amir?”

Jamilah rolled her eyes. “Because he wouldn’t want her, and she’s already married to my father!”

Trinka looked back in surprise. She had never thought to ask about her cousins’ family, or their father. Then again, not being able to get a word in edgewise didn’t help either.

“Where is he?” Trinka asked delicately.

“They’re separated. Very separated,” Jamilah added.

“Do you ever see him?”

Jamilah shrugged. “Sure, whenever we want to. Which isn’t very often. He’s not easy to get along with.”

And the rest of your family is? Trinka thought, but she didn’t dare say it aloud.

“He’s more like a grandfather, really. He’s a lot older than Mother. He’s wealthy, though. He buys us lots of clothes and presents. You’ve probably noticed that,” she yawned.

“Then why is your mother so keen on my mother marrying Amir?”

“I don’t know for sure,” Jamilah answered, resettling herself. “But I’ve heard that if my father and my mother really do get divorced, she could wind up losing the palace.”

“Really?”

“Well, she’ll still have the palace itself. That’s been in her family forever. She just won’t be able to afford all the servants and everything.”

“Oh,” Trinka answered uncertainly. She didn’t know whether to feel sorry for her cousin or not. After all, most people got through life just fine without any palace, but that still wasn’t happy news.

“It’s kind of funny,” Jamilah murmured. “He should have been your father, really.”

“Who?”

“My father. Your mother was supposed to marry him, but she ran off and got married, so my mother had to marry him instead. Not that she minded. He is wealthy.” She yawned again and closed her eyes.

Trinka felt another revelation slowly creep through her.

“Your father is Musonas?” she exclaimed.

“Yeah, so?”

“He’s the one my mother wrote about in her diary,” Trinka explained hastily. “The one her dad wanted her to marry but she didn’t. So she left and married my dad!”

“That’s what I just said,” Jamilah yawned again then shook it off and got to her slippered feet. “I’d better get to bed.”

“Right.” Trinka stood up and accompanied her cousin to the door. There was no use trying to keep Jamilah up any longer. And yet, she still had the feeling that something important was about to happen. After standing in the silence for a moment, she shrugged it off and eased the door open.

“You know,” Jamilah mumbled just as she was halfway down the corridor. “It’s too bad your mother never kept a diary. That would have helped get her memory back.”

Trinka blinked twice.

***

“Will you slow down!” Jamilah protested as Trinka dragged her down the hallway and into her mother’s old room. She flung open the drawer beneath the bed and held out the diary.

“What do we have to do?”

Jamilah groaned and sank onto the chair by the vanity, her hand to her forehead, half covering her tired, disgruntled expression.

Trinka knelt down next to her, the diary resting on her open palms, and looked up at her cousin.

“Jamilah, please. I know we haven’t always gotten along, but I need your help. Please?”

Her voice must have hit the same needy tone that Oana had used on Trinka, because Jamilah sighed and picked up the book.

“If my mother ever finds out…”

“I promise if she does, you can put all the blame on me. She doesn’t have to know you’re helping.”

There was a long pause as the two stared at each other, and Trinka’s bright excited eyes looked earnestly into Jamilah’s sleepy ones.

“All right,” her cousin finally sighed. “The first thing to do is bring Ashira down here to her old room and get her to read it. It won’t fix everything, but it might help her recover her early memories. That’s half the battle.”

“What’s the other half?”

“I don’t know. You want her to remember who your father is, so eventually they have to meet, right?”

Trinka thought about that for a moment.

“I guess so. But maybe we should start getting her to read the diary anyway. Maybe once she starts to remember who she is, she’ll be able to help. Right?”

Trinka looked up at her cousin and saw that she was nodding off already.

“Jamilah?”

“Hmm?”

“We can get her to start reading the diary, right?”

“Mmm.” Jamilah yawned again. “Yeah, but not tonight. I’m too tired. And besides, we have to make the potion first.”

“Potion?”

“My mom uses a potion to keep Aunt Ashira from remembering anything.”

Trinka’s eyes grew wide with shock. “But I thought the esperaliss did that!”

“It did at first, but my mom doesn’t want to take the risk that it might wear off and she’ll start remembering anyway. Especially now that you’re here to remind her,” she added. “So we either have to get her to stop taking it and wait for it to wear off, which isn’t likely to happen, or make a counter-potion.”

Trinka sat back numbly for a moment. This was getting worse all the time. It was bad enough that Vashti was taking advantage of her sister’s state, but if she was purposefully making it worse… Trinka wondered: Could she really trust Jamilah to help her? Then again, Trinka reasoned, she couldn’t do without her help either. If it weren’t for her cousin, she wouldn’t have even known about the potion.

Trinka looked at her cousin again. Her eyes were closed, her tousled hair resting on her arm on the back of the chair.

“Come on,” Trinka said as she got to her feet. “I’ll walk you back to your room.”

Jamilah rose slowly and headed for the doorway. “No, I can make it. Besides, you’d better stay in here as much as you can. We can’t let my mom see us together. Or Sabirah,” she added. “She always tattles.”

Trinka nodded. “Well, thanks,” she said awkwardly, feeling that it wasn’t nearly enough.

Jamilah nodded vaguely and shrugged.

“It’s kind of fun to have someone else to talk to, besides my sister.” And with that, she was gone.

Trinka looked over at her own bed and suddenly realized just how tired she was. With a thoughtful sigh, she sank into the cushions and reached to put the diary back into its drawer. She hesitated, and despite her tiredness, she got up, stepped over to the vanity, and laid the book open.

Carefully, she sprinkled a tiny scraping of powder over the last few lines of the last page then watched as her mother’s young, contented image appeared in the mirror once more, blissful in the knowledge that she would soon be escaping to Brace.

“Don’t worry,” Trinka whispered as she pressed her hands to the glass. “We’re going to get you back.”

h1={color:#808080;}.
Chapter Fourteen

Take Two of These

Two extra heads suddenly appeared above the shoulders of a statue on the third floor.

“Come on,” Jamilah whispered.

Trinka followed her steps as she slipped out from behind the statue, dashed across the hall, and darted into another alcove. Jamilah edged out, creaked open a large heavy door, and motioned Trinka inside.

“Well, come on!” Jamilah urged, as Trinka stood stone-still in the doorway, staring at the room around her. Hundreds, maybe even thousands, of books covered all the walls from floor to ceiling, stacked on shelves that rose in layers and layers, like one of the genie’s spectacular multi-tiered cakes. To Trinka, who had never seen more than one book at a time, it was like looking out at a wide open landscape after being cooped up in a building her whole life.

She finally stepped all the way into the room, and Jamilah heaved the door shut. Trinka didn’t know which book she’d begin looking at first, but her cousin promptly went to a shelf and pulled out a heavy-looking tome. Unlike the thin books and scrolls she had seen in Parthalan, all of these looked immense and thick, and some were even carved from sheets of thinly shaved stone. Trinka stepped closer and peered over her cousin’s shoulder.

“Can you read them?”

“Of course I can,” she scoffed. “It’s written in common hand. Anybody can read that. Anybody except Sabirah, that is,” she added. “It’s only the literary alphabets that get really complicated.”

Trinka sank quietly onto a seat next to her cousin, feeling mortified that she couldn’t read a word in any writing system. Before leaving Ellipsis, she had always taken for granted that everybody stored their spare thoughts in glass jars. Not that I was ever good at that, Trinka said to herself, so I probably couldn’t learn to read either. As her cousin stared over the pages, Trinka’s eyes turned away and wandered around the room.

The library must have been on the top floor in the center of the castle, since she could see bits of light filtering through the intricately carved tiers in the roof. There were no windows in the walls, but between the columns of books, occasional alcoves held statues, paintings, and carvings. Several large tables filled the middle of the room, each covered with strange spheres and instruments that looked as though they had once moved but now stood still and unused. Trinka sensed, as she had when she had first walked into her mother’s old room, that the library possessed a different character than the rest of the palace. There was something in the shelf-filled walls that spoke of a single occupant who had spent a lot of time there. It seemed to be someone she should know, but she wasn’t sure who.

“Do you come here often? To the library, I mean?” she finally said aloud.

Jamilah had pulled out a huge stack of books and was poring over them rather poutily, as if nothing she saw pleased her.

“Only when I’m trying to get away from Sabirah. She hardly ever comes up here. I like to read and, well, you know she doesn’t.”

Trinka smiled to herself in slight surprise. It was the first time she had heard one of her cousins profess a like for anything. Until now, she had thought they only enjoyed arguing.

“Are all these books yours?”

Her cousin shrugged. “I guess so. No one else reads them now that grandfather’s gone.”

“Gone?”

“I never knew him. He died when I was a baby. Musonas, my father, used to come up here sometimes when he lived here. But he always took his books downstairs to read.”

“So this was your grandfather’s library.”

“He would have been your grandfather too.”

Trinka reflected on that. She’d never thought about having another set of grandparents, other than Elora and Siglar. It was even stranger to think that she and Jamilah (and Sabirah) had the same grandfather. She had arrived at the palace as a complete stranger to Apostrophe, and yet, in a way, part of it belonged to her too, or she belonged to it.

“It’s got to be in here somewhere,” Jamilah muttered as she flipped through yet another volume. “I hope I can remember how to make one of these when we find it.”

”‘Perfect practice makes perfect.’ That’s what they always used to say to us in school… and at home,” Trinka replied absently.

Jamilah stared back at her for a second.

“That’s stupid!” she exclaimed finally. “How can you ever expect to be good at something, let alone perfect, if you don’t practice? That’s what practice is! Messing up. Making an idiot out of yourself.” Jamilah gestured wildly, and Trinka couldn’t help giggling.

Jamilah returned her attention to her books.

“Uuuyyuhh!” She suddenly let out an exasperated sigh of protest.

“What’s the matter?”

“These recipes! They’re just ridiculous. Most of them have tons of ingredients I’ve never even heard of or things we could never get. Look at this one: petals from a white orchid!”

“There are lots of them on Ellipsis,” Trinka said wistfully. If only she had brought one with her, but then―who knew she would end up in Apostrophe trying to help her cousin brew a potion?

“Fat lot of good that does us here! Arg!” Jamilah almost threw the book in frustration. “None of these are any good. Hmm… maybe this one.” She ran her fingers down the page. “Yeah, I have that. Mmm, I’m not sure about the praniz though.”

“Can you get some?”

“No, but you could.”

Trinka drew back, puzzled. “How?”

Jamilah shrugged. “Go to the kitchen and ask the genies for it. You can bring it to me after dinner.”

The two of them were just taking one last look at the ingredient list, when they heard footsteps tromping down the hall. They sounded angry, and short, and…

“Quick, get in the closet―it’s Sabirah!” Jamilah grabbed the nearest door, flung it open, and pushed Trinka inside.

“If she finds us together, she’ll squeal to Mother immediately. Now be quiet!” The closet door slammed shut just as the library door squeaked open, and Sabirah stomped inside.

“What are you doing in here?” she demanded of her sister. “Are you hiding from me?”

“Yes!” she answered emphatically.

Trinka could hear her cousin’s indignant footsteps as she marched over to the chair where her sister was reclining. Trinka put her face closer to the door to listen, then pulled back as her face brushed something tickly. Trinka reached out and ran her hand over the braided silken tassels. It was only a cord. So this was a chute.

“What’s that?” Sabirah’s voice asked.

“It’s a book!”

Trinka could almost hear Sabirah making a face.

“What do you want books for?”

“It’s an intellectual pursuit,” Jamilah answered. “Something you wouldn’t know anything about.”

“I know all about intellectual pursuits,” Sabirah stamped her foot. “I just don’t know what one is!”

Trinka tried to stifle a giggle, but her hand knocked into the door on the way to her mouth.

“What was that noise?”

“My foot,” Jamilah responded, “about to kick you out of here!”

“You’re hiding something from me, I can tell!”

Sabirah jumped from her chair, and Trinka heard her footsteps coming toward the door. Desperately, Trinka pulled the cord and uttered the first room that came to her mind.

“Kitchen!”

Trinka found the genies in their usual positions―floating near the ceiling, chatting and laughing together, and occasionally whipping up dishes for dinner.

“Oh, hello,” Galilahi greeted her. She had redone her outfit again, this time with streaming, green bands.

“Hi. Um, you don’t happen to have any…” she struggled to remember the strange word. “Praniz?”

The genies began chattering and giggling rapidly. Kimimela took a small bottle shaped like a collection of spheres from a shelf near the ceiling and handed it to her.

“Oh, are you going to make an exploding cake?” Lahishana clapped her hands excitedly.

“Well, I am going to make a surprise for someone,” Trinka admitted.

“Oooo!” they all squealed in delight.

“Oh, would you like us to help?” Nahimana asked eagerly.

Trinka quickly scanned the dozens of bright eyes that seemed to light up the kitchen with their glow. “No, I think I can handle it,” she said gently. All eyes fell. Alsoome began twisting her scarf in her hands, and Lahishana’s lip trembled noticeably. “But maybe you could make one for dinner,” she suggested quickly. “Surprise Aunt Vashti with it.”

“Oh!”

All the genies began scurrying about excitedly, whipping up large, fluffy layers of cake with copious amounts of frosting. As Trinka scurried back to the chute, she could hear loud pops and squeals of delight coming from behind the heavy kitchen doors. Trinka held tightly to the strangely shaped bottle and drew in her breath as smoke began filling the tiny chamber.

Aunt Vashti certainly wouldn’t be pleased with the genies’ enthusiastic creation, but then again―pop!  Trinka squeezed through the ceiling and coughed her way out into the upstairs hall. Since I’m no longer allowed to be near her, I won’t be there to blame.

Trinka spent the rest of the long afternoon confined to her room, or rather her mother’s old room, but she didn’t really mind. Although she had never appreciated all the silent and solitary reflecting time so valued on Ellipsis, she found it useful now as she pondered various scenarios for getting her mother to remember her and what she would say to her the first time.

When at last a great “ka-BOOM” resounded from the dining hall, followed by indignant female voices shouting, and then pounding up the stairs, Trinka knew that dessert had been served, and dinner time must be over. She popped her allotted dinner pill into her mouth, then crept softly down the plush hallway and pressed her ear against the door to her cousins’ playroom. She could hear the steady tok-tok-tok of their table ball game. Then, all of a sudden, the rhythmic sound stopped as the ball apparently missed the table and dribbled off across the floor.

“You missed!” Sabirah’s voice rose in shock. “You actually missed!”

“So?” Jamilah’s voice retorted.

“So? I’m winning! I’m really winning!” she shrieked in delight. Then followed uneven footsteps and a thud, proceeded by a screech and yowl. Trinka surmised that her younger cousin must have started a celebration dance.

“Just go get the ball,” Jamilah’s voice returned. “I’m tired. I’m going to bed early.”

Trinka flattened herself against the wall as the sound of footsteps came toward the door.

“You’re just mad because I’m winning!” Sabirah’s voice called after her sister as she stepped into the hall. Jamilah rolled her eyes and slammed the doors behind her.

Trinka was about to speak as her cousin turned toward her, but Jamilah put her finger to her lips and motioned down the hall. The two walked swiftly and softly for a few paces before Jamilah suddenly burst into a run, her great skirts billowing out behind her. Surprised, Trinka hastened to keep up. The two did not slow down until they had safely rounded the corner and headed into a corridor Trinka had never seen before.

“Quick, in here,” Jamilah directed. She threw open the double doors nearest them and then quickly closed them behind her after Trinka had stepped inside.

“I don’t think she followed us,” Jamilah sighed. “Did you get the praniz?”

Trinka pulled out the strangely shaped bottle and showed it to Jamilah.

“Phew. I’ve got everything stored in here.” Jamilah hurried over to the large bed in the center of the room.

“Couldn’t we brew it in my room?” Trinka asked.

“Too smelly. Besides, no one ever uses this room. It’s only for overnight guests, and we never have any.” She began pulling out glass tubes and strange coils, along with the stash of ingredients that she had hidden under the pillows.

“I moved everything down here when Sabirah snuck off for a snack,” she explained. “Then when I saw you outside the playroom…”

Trinka swallowed hard. “You saw me? Then how come Sabirah…”

“Only with this,” Jamilah shook her head and held out a small locket that hung from her neck. She flipped it open and showed Trinka the glassy blue jewel inside. “When you open it, you see a little picture of whoever is on the other side of the door.”

A spy charm. They were strictly against the rules on Ellipsis, and it hadn’t occurred to her that they might have such things on Apostrophe.

Trinka watched as Jamilah carefully mixed and poured, stirred and sprinkled more and more ingredients into the potion. A sweet, heavy stench filled the room.

“Oh!” Jamilah coughed from the overpowering aroma. “Maybe you should open the door. No, wait!”

The jewel in the locket suddenly flashed a glowing orange, and two tiny figures appeared in its center.

“It’s my mother!”

“And Beatrice.”

“Here, hold this,” Jamilah handed the potion to Trinka and quickly began scooping everything back to the head of the bed.

“Where should we hide?” Trinka peered around the room. She wanted to run, but she didn’t have any place to go, and she didn’t dare spill the potion.

“The closet! Behind you,” Jamilah threw the pillows over the potion materials.

“It won’t open,” Trinka tried the door knob.

Wordlessly, Jamilah pulled a long jeweled key from her pocket and shoved it against the lock. The end of the key twisted and fluttered, reforming itself over and over until it finally slid inside and the door clicked open. The two girls hustled inside, careful not to spill the potion, and closed themselves into the darkness.

Within an instant, the door to the room clicked open, and Aunt Vashti’s voice floated inside.

”…in case the bahira wants to lie down. You know how she gets headaches.” She paused and sneezed violently. “What is that smell?” She took out a handkerchief with one hand and reached to straighten the pillows with the other. Both girls held their breath. Another sneezing fit caused her to draw her hand away, however. She looked as if she wanted to say something to Beatrice, but all she could do was gesture vaguely and then stumble toward the bedroom door.

With twin sighs of relief, Trinka and Jamilah listened and watched in the locket as Vashti hastily left the room. With horror, however, they saw Beatrice coming right toward them. The doors flew open.

“Ah, ladies,” Beatrice remarked, as if she expected to find them roaming about in guest bedroom closets every day. “This room may be occupied tomorrow, so I suggest you take your activities elsewhere. I will be back within the hour to make sure this room is in perfect order. By then, both of you should be in bed,” she added severely.

And with that, she was gone.

Trinka and Jamilah stared at each for a moment.

“You get your mother, I’ll clean up the potion stuff!” Jamilah whispered.

“Where is she?”

“That way! Go out into the garden and up the staircase.”

Trinka didn’t see how she could creep past the windows without Aunt Vashti or Beatrice seeing her. Still, she hadn’t done this much work just to give in now.

She slipped downstairs and out into the garden. She wished for a moment she still had the lantern, but fortunately there were lights all along the outside walls of the palace and even the rails of the terrace. Shiny brass brackets with curved edges and sharp points stuck out every few paces, each with a gentle flame flickering above it, making quivering columns of light. She crept carefully up the white stone stairs, and stepped silently onto the tower balcony. But there didn’t seem to be any way into the tower. A row of arched windows curved all along the low wall where benches and chairs stood in quiet groups among small tables and tall, green plants. In the center of the six-sided floor, inlaid stones of light gold and dark gray formed a large compass.

Nothing happened. Nothing moved. Trinka felt she would be lost forever in stillness, staring into that empty silence. At last, Trinka turned to go. Or at least she meant to. But it seemed her eyes could not be torn from the sight of that great dark sea. Slowly she heaved her tired legs into action, ready to return to the tower steps.

But the staircase wasn’t there. Only the low stone wall and a small fruiting tree stood in its place. Trinka leaned over the edge, and peered down at the garden far below. The plants and statues and benches were still there, but the stairs were nowhere in sight.

Trinka stared in perplexity, when all at once, the stone wall of the building slid open, and Ashira stepped onto the balcony.

Trinka hung back silently as her mother walked to the edge of the balcony and put her long, smooth hands on the stone railing, her eyes lost on the waves of the distant sea.

“Mother,” Trinka began, then bit her lip as Ashira turned, her long airy sleeves swirling and slowly fluttering into place. She stared at Trinka vaguely for a moment, then smiled softly.

“Hello. What can I do for you?” she asked.

But Trinka found she couldn’t say anything in return. She had never seen her mother so young and pretty, with her dark hair pulled back with lush, red flowers―and she hardly looked more than Annelise’s age. For the first time, even Trinka found it hard to convince herself that this young girl really was her mother.

Then Trinka felt her mother’s cool hand on the side of her face.

“Are you all right?” she asked in gentle concern, and all Trinka’s calm, logical plans seemed to melt away. All she wanted to do was collapse in her mother’s arms and tell her everything that was wrong.

But she couldn’t very well do that until Ashira really was her mother again. Trinka met her mother’s blank but somewhat disturbed-looking eyes as she searched her mind for an answer. It seemed that she had forgotten more than just her family―it was as if she had lost a part of herself as well. Those cool, distant eyes showed none of the verve and snap that Trinka so clearly remembered. Her soft voice lacked the peals of laughter and sparks of fiery temperament that had, in the end, brought her back here.

“I, I wanted to show you something,” Trinka finally stammered. “It’s inside the palace.”

Ashira looked only slightly more puzzled than usual, but she complacently turned back toward the tower, and the walls slid aside for them. Trinka followed her into the large, plush room. Her heart skipped with anticipation and anxiousness as she peered into the corridor. It seemed empty, but there was no telling when someone―a genie, Sabirah, Beatrice, or even Aunt Vashti herself―might appear.

Trinka took a deep breath and hustled her mother into the broom closet.

“My goodness,” Ashira exclaimed. “I can’t imagine why you wanted me to see this.”

“I want to show you your old, um, new room,” Trinka explained.

“It’s awfully small and dark,” she mused.

“Not here.” Trinka fumbled for the cord in the darkness. “This is just the chute we use to get there. Now when I say ‘second hall closet,’ hold your breath and then exhale when you feel yourself starting to float toward the ceiling, okay?”

Without waiting for a response, Trinka grasped her mother’s hand tightly and yanked the cord. She sucked in her breath just before the smoke began filling the closet, and could only hope her mother was doing the same. She held her breath until the smoke squeezed her too hard to hold it any longer. She exhaled and, with a pop, stumbled out into the hallway near her quarters. Her eyes were too blurry to make sure no one else was there.

But no one else was there, she realized. Not even…

“Mother.”

Where had she gone? Trinka looked back into the closet, but there was nothing there but the genies’ cleaning supplies and an armless statue of a woman, too old and broken to be on display. Puzzled, Trinka closed the closet door again and stared, frowning, down the hall. Should she go back to the tower and see if her mother had somehow missed the chute altogether? Trinka’s heart jumped as a door clicked open, and she turned, guiltily, to see Jamilah’s head poke out into the hall.

“Didn’t you find her?” she whispered.

“Yes, but she got lost in the closet,” Trinka hissed back.

“What?” Jamilah began, when a pronounced thump sent them both scrambling into hiding. The closet door swung open and Ashira teetered out, coughing daintily but steadily.

“Is she all right?” Trinka asked anxiously.

“Of course, you got a little mixed up the first time you went through the chutes, right?”

“Mmm, my head,” Ashira mumbled softly, putting a long, graceful hand to her forehead.

“Here, this will help fix it,” Jamilah readily stepped forward with the potion.

Trinka could hardly bear to watch as her mother took the potion and sipped at it for a moment, then drained the glass. She stood there for a moment with a calm, but far-off, expression on her face, and Trinka slowly began to relax and exhale.

Until Ashira collapsed.

“We’ve killed her!” Trinka couldn’t help voicing her first, panicked reaction.

“Of course not, there’s nothing poisonous in it,” Jamilah scoffed. “And look, she’s still breathing.”

Trinka was relieved to see that she was.

“Here, help me carry her.”

Ashira’s tall, delicate form was a lot heavier than it looked.

“Couldn’t you have waited till we had her inside the room?”

“I didn’t know it would happen so fast!”

Trinka looked around desperately and tried to stay calm enough to think of a plan. If only she could make things float through the air with just a wave of her finger, like the genies did. But she couldn’t, and there was no way she could go to the genies for help without Aunt Vashti finding out everything.

“Here!” Trinka reached inside the closet and pulled out the long, pink genie scarf caught among the supplies. Instantly, the material slipped through her fingers and began drifting up toward the ceiling. Trinka tried to catch it, but she couldn’t stand up in time without dropping her mother’s head.

Fortunately, Jamilah, who was a head taller than Trinka, snagged the scarf and brought it back down.

“Quick, tie this around her waist, and let’s get her out of here.”

Trinka hurriedly tried to comply, but her fingers kept fumbling, and she couldn’t tie a solid knot for anything. Finally, she just twisted the ends around a few times.

Slowly, the ends of the scarf began to rise. Jamilah grabbed them and gently pulled Ashira to her feet. Her eyes fell open as her head came forward, and Trinka and Jamilah guided her into the room. She stepped along in a sort of dreamy dance that reminded Trinka of the way they slept suspended in Ellipsis. Together, they gently guided her onto the bed, and Trinka untied the scarf.

“Come on,” Jamilah whispered.

“Where?”

“It’s better to leave her alone. If she sees us, she won’t know who we are because we’re not part of the memory. And then she’ll be really confused!”

Reluctantly, Trinka eased the door closed until it clicked shut.

“There’s nothing we can do now. We might as well sleep on it.”

Trinka’s face whitened. “Where?” My mother’s got my―her―old room back. I can’t very well hide in the closet all night.”

Jamilah shrugged. “You can stay in my room.”

Trinka shook her head in confusion. “But then where will you stay? And won’t Sabirah see me?”

“It’s big enough for two of us,” Jamilah responded as Trinka followed her down the hall. “Sabirah’s got her own bedroom, so she’ll never know. We’re not speaking to each other anyway.”

The two of them slipped into Jamilah’s room. Jamilah tossed an extra blanket and pillow on the floor. Trinka was so tired, she would have slept on the floor without them. She couldn’t help being reminded, though, of her time sleeping on the floor in Ampersand with Kolinkar and Tarian, only this bedding was much softer and didn’t smell like goats. As Trinka thought about her brother, she reflected on how important it was for her mother to get her memories back―not just because Trinka wanted to know her again but for her entire family.

“How will we know if the diary worked?” Trinka asked aloud.

“Trust me,” Jamilah replied as she flopped back onto her pillows. “We’ll know for sure in the morning.”

h1={color:#808080;}.
Chapter Fifteen

Race to Brace

After a long and restless night, Trinka raced down the hall to her room. And found it empty.

“Where do you suppose she would have gone?”

“I don’t know. She’s your mother,” Jamilah shrugged and yawned. “Let’s go down to breakfast. I’m starving.”

“But we can’t just leave her running around loose!” Trinka protested.

But Jamilah had already started back down the hall. “Maybe she went down to the dining hall already. It’s as good a place to look as any.”

Reluctantly, Trinka followed her cousin back to her bedroom to get dressed, and the two of them, trailed by a whining Sabirah, made their way downstairs.

“I don’t see why we have to put up with her again. I thought she was going to be sent away!”

“If anyone gets sent away, I hope it’s you!” Jamilah retorted grumpily.

Trinka hardly paid any attention to their quarreling, as she peered down every corridor and into every open room, hoping that somewhere she’d catch a glimpse of her lost mother. She even thought of staying behind to explore more thoroughly as her cousins went on to breakfast, but in the end, she was glad she followed them into the dining hall because, sure enough, Ashira was there, seated next to Bahir Faruq, looking younger and lovelier than ever. And a good deal more lively!

Gone was the vacant, far-away look. Gone were the demure manner and the hand to the aching forehead. Her eyes sparkled, her smile flashed. Her dark tresses swished as she laughed. She seemed to be enjoying every morsel of her breakfast, and she had apparently made a witty remark to Bahir Faruq, for he was laughing too, while the bahira looked on primly. As she slid into her seat, Trinka felt as if she had already eaten the most satisfying meal and topped it off with warm candy. She and Jamilah exchanged victorious glances, while Sabirah, who looked puzzled at first, decided to ignore the whole situation and dedicate herself to the pile of pastries on her plate.

Trinka had little appetite for anything other than watching her mother, who still hadn’t paid much attention to her. Trinka knew she couldn’t expect her mother to recognize her yet, but still, she kept hoping.

“I hope you will pardon my tardiness, bahir and bahira.”

Trinka nearly choked on her bite of jabuticaba scone as her aunt swept into the room.

“I had an unexpected matter of business to attend to, and I…” she stopped cold as she saw her older, or now, much younger sister sitting happily at the table.

“Good morning, Mother,” Ashira said brightly. “I hope you slept well. How is your backache this morning?”

Vashti looked for a minute as if she might faint, as she first turned pale, but then quickly grew red.

“Why, my dearest sister, aren’t you in a joking mood this morning?” she replied with a false, high laugh. She took her place at the table, and Trinka could feel Vashti’s eyes burning holes into her side.

“I must say, I haven’t seen Ashira quite like this in years―even decades,” Bahir Faruq commented as he neatly speared a thin slice of meat. “In fact, she looks exactly as she did back then.”

Aunt Vashti seemed to go even paler.

“Excuse me, madam,” Beatrice announced as she swept quietly into the dining room, “his highness is here and would like to take Ashira for another chariot ride, but I have been unable to find…” She stopped short as Trinka’s mother waved at her from the other side of the table.

“Good morning, Beatrice.”

Even the stalwart matron appeared at a loss for words.

“Of course, she would be thrilled to take a ride with Amir,” Aunt Vashti answered for her. “Go ahead, dear sister. You needn’t wait for the rest of us to finish eating.”

“Who is Amir, and what right does he have to drag me away from my breakfast?” Ashira returned archly.

“She is in a joking mood this morning,” Bahira Cantara sniffed.

“He’s your intended, of course,” Bahir Faruq told her.

Ashira’s eyes seemed to darken and narrow, a look that Trinka recognized even though she hadn’t seen her mother angry in so long. It was like the fires in the jewel caves, Trinka thought. Though you couldn’t see the flames, you knew they were smoldering beneath the surface, ready to leap out at you at any moment.

“How many times have I told you, Father, that I will not marry that man!” Ashira threw her napkin down on the table, and her metal hook clattered against her plate.

“Now my mother thinks Bahir Faruq is her father?” Trinka whispered.

“It’s because she’s caught up in her memories of the past,” Jamilah whispered back. “She doesn’t know who the people around her are, so she sees them as people she knew at that time.”

“Don’t be ridiculous! You’re a perfect match,” Aunt Vashti tried to soothe her.

“Mother! You and Daddy are the ones who are being ridiculous. How could a girl like me possibly be a perfect match for someone who’s perfectly awful? He’s a pompous, cranky, boring, old…”

“My dear, Amir is hardly old,” Bahira Cantara interrupted.

“Maybe not to an old biddy like you, Aunt Walhujah!” Ashira snapped. She had abandoned her seat at the table and was pacing about for effect.

“Ashira,” Vashti said sternly. “You will receive Amir graciously, and…”

“Don’t you try force with me, Mother,” Ashira warned, her eyes still smoldering. “You make me meet him, and I’ll make him wish he never met me!”

“Ashira,” Vashti tried to make her voice sweet.

“Uncaring, selfish, miserly old man,” Ashira fumed as she paced. “I don’t see how anyone could marry Musonas!”

Sabirah snickered loudly.

“You stay out of this, Vashti!” Ashira snapped, clearly taking her niece to be her own younger sister.

“Shall I tell his highness that his lady is indisposed?” Beatrice inquired.

“Yes,” Aunt Vashti murmured. “And bring the potion.”

Trinka and Jamilah exchanged worried glances, but before anybody could do anything, Ashira stormed from the room, shouting, “Tell him I’m indisposed to see him ever!”

“Well, now, what’s gotten into her?” Bahir Faruq mused.

Jamilah calmly kept eating her breakfast, with an air of complete boredom and passivity, but the bite of bread Trinka had taken caught in her throat. She felt her cheeks grow red as she struggled to swallow, painfully aware of her aunt’s eyes boring into her, as if they knew she was somehow to blame. How long, Trinka wondered, could her mother keep remembering without Aunt Vashti doing something horrible?

“Oh, well, you know how her memory is,” Aunt Vashti faltered.

“It’s almost as if she’s living in the past,” Bahir Faruq said thoughtfully between bites as he calmly continued eating his breakfast. “You know how she reacted when your father tried to force her to marry Musonas.”

“Ran off with some sailor from Brace, didn’t she?” Bahira Cantara remarked distastefully.

“Yes, well,” Aunt Vashti answered. “Obviously she wanted to forget all about him, or she wouldn’t have come back.”

Trinka choked and forced herself to swallow hard. She could eat no more. Her eyes felt like fire. She ached to stand up and rant, the way her mother had. But a warning glance from Jamilah kept her in her seat.

“Amir knows about that, doesn’t he?”

“Hmm?” Aunt Vashti twisted her necklaces uncertainly for a moment then let out a high-pitched twitter. “Oh, yes, Amir knows… many things. I never mention it in front of him, however, since it distresses him to think how she’s suffered.”

Only the sound of clinking utensils, and Sabirah slurping the fruit from her pastries filled the silence.

“I think I’ll go to the kitchen and see if the genies need help with anything,” Trinka ventured.

Jamilah’s bright eyes turned to her mother and said. “I will too.” Her mother stared open-mouthed as her eldest daughter curtseyed for the bahir and bahira and followed her cousin into the servant’s area.

“What polite young ladies you have,” Bahir Faruq commented.

Sabirah scowled for a moment and then snatched an extra cake.

Trinka was just about to flee the dining room in relief when Aunt Vashti’s voice caught them.

“That won’t be necessary, ladies. I’m sure the genies can handle it. I want you to join us in the conservatory this afternoon.” Trinka and Jamilah exchanged pained glances and sighed.

For the rest of the day, an uneasy hush fell over the palace. Aunt Vashti’s painted lips were set in a thin, straight line across her pinched white face as the girls sat working on their sewing samplers. It was a task that one of Jamilah and Sabirah’s many governesses had apparently set them to, but one that they hadn’t been forced to do for quite some time. Trinka’s frustration grew with every stitch as her needle went into her fingers more times than it went into the fabric. Her stitches were loopy and uneven but, she noticed with some satisfaction, they were better than Sabirah’s. Her younger cousin jabbed at her sampler listlessly, fidgeting loudly and making as much fuss as she could get away with. Jamilah didn’t look any happier, but she worked quietly, glancing up only occasionally from her pretty work of flowers and bows that was Trinka guessed, by far the closest to what a sewing sampler should look like.

Trinka hated the screaming and the yelling that usually filled the palace, but somehow the silence was even more unnerving.

At last, Aunt Vashti, who sat chatting quietly with Bahir Faruq and Bahira Cantara on the other side of the room, told the girls they could go upstairs and play. Gleefully, Sabirah tossed her sampler aside, lifted her skirts, and tried to run from the room.

“Sabirah!” Aunt Vashti called sharply. “Come right back here and put your things away properly.”

Sabirah opened her mouth to protest, but the look on Vashti’s face stopped her from uttering any sound. Jamilah and Trinka neatly put their samplers into their ornate boxes and stepped quietly from the room. They exchanged silent glances. Just a few more minutes, and they could go see Ashira again and make sure she…

“Not you, Trinka,” Aunt Vashti’s words caught her like fingernails digging into her back. “Come here. I want a word with you.”

Slowly, agonizingly, Trinka made her way to her aunt and the bahir and bahira. Despite a quizzical look from Vashti, Jamilah followed.

“Bahir Faruq and his wife have kindly agreed to take you in,” Aunt Vashti announced smoothly. “It will be a wonderful opportunity for you to experience another part of Apostrophe, away from here.”

She spoke the last words with subtle but unmistakable emphasis. It was Trinka’s turn to turn pale.

Away from here…

“But I’ve got to…” Trinka suddenly stopped, not realizing she had spoken aloud, “…go upstairs and get my things,” she finished red-faced.

“There’s no reason for you to go upstairs,” Aunt Vashti dismissed the idea. “The bahir and bahira will be kind enough to supply you with all you need.”

“I have something for her, Mother. It’s in my room,” Jamilah replied coolly.

“But you mustn’t keep Bahir Faruq waiting,” Aunt Vashti said, clearly straining for patience.

“It’s all right, Vashti. We’re in no great hurry. You can let the child get her things.”

“She has nothing of value,” Vashti protested.

“Well, don’t be too sure,” Bahir Faruq countered sagely. “Sometimes we value things for the memories they hold for us, the people they remind us of. The strength of those associations can be worth far more than the objects themselves.”

Unable to press her point further without contradicting the bahir, Aunt Vashti let them retreat hastily from the room, though she still looked daggers at Trinka.

“We’ve got to get you out of here!” Jamilah hissed as they hurried up the stairs.

You’ve got to get to your father.”

“But what about my mom?”

“I’ll do the best I can with her. We’ve got to get you to Brace. But there’s no way…”

“Yes there is,” Trinka answered breathlessly. “The talisman my sister gave me.”

“Well, where is it?” Jamilah snapped.

“I don’t know. Your mother took them all the day she took the aquarock, remember?”

“It must be in her chambers then. Come on!”

The two of them flew down the hall. Through the pictures that only looked like artwork from below, Trinka could see her aunt heading up the stairs, surely coming toward them.

“Faster!”

They reached the massive doors near the shower room that led to Aunt Vashti’s chambers. Jamilah took the long, jeweled key from her pocket.

“You have a key to her room?” Trinka asked breathlessly.

“I have a key to everything,” Jamilah answered smugly. Sure enough, the key fluttered and butted against the door, changing shape until it fit the lock perfectly. It clicked, and the two of them rushed inside and shut the door firmly behind them. Trinka was sure she could hear ominous footsteps coming down the hall behind them, growing ever closer.

“In here!” Jamilah called. A chest with a curved, ornately carved top sat at the foot of an enormous bed covered in richly embroidered fabrics.

 Jamilah checked the tiny mirror around her neck, and must have seen an enraged figure coming toward them.

“Hurry!”

“It won’t open,” Trinka gasped. She strained with all her might against the tiny metal locks that held the lid in place, but the chest refused to spill its secrets. Jamilah’s hands flew forward with her key. It fluttered and wriggled every which way, trying to tunnel its way through the lock. At last, the chest burst open, spilling bottles and baubles, trinkets and talismans all over the floor.

“Quick, which ones are mine?” Trinka scrambled to sort through them.

“No time for that! Take them all!”

“I can’t take them all!”

“Yes, you can—here’s your genie purse.”

Jamilah began shoveling handfuls into the tiny bag. Trinka got to her knees and hurriedly scooped them in too, not daring to look at the strange and wonderful objects for fear she’d spend too long contemplating what powers they might possess.

“But what if she thinks I’ve stolen them?”

Jamilah sighed in exasperation, as she dropped another handful of them into the purse. “Well, you haven’t. If she asks, I’ll say I took them.”

“But you didn’t!”

“Yes, I did, and I gave them to you,” she insisted.

Trinka smiled.

“I’ll miss you,” she confessed to her cousin.

Jamilah laughed. “And you think I won’t miss you with only Sabirah to argue with?”

Trinka smiled, and the two of them threw their arms around each other, drawing apart when they heard a key clicking in the door.

“Quick! Here’s the vial.” Jamilah handed her the tiny glass as Trinka scooped the last of the spilled talismans into her purse. “And take these too.” She handed her the key and the locket around her neck.

The door swung open with a mighty bang.

“Trinka!” her aunt hollered.

“Go!”

Trinka gripped the vial, threw back her head, and swallowed. And in a flash of white light, she was gone.

{     Brace     }[][]

“Hope may not get you to your destination, but it is good company on the trip.”

- Anonymous

h1={color:#808080;}.
Chapter Sixteen

Trinka Takes Flight

Trinka struggled to lift her head.

My body feels so tired… like it’s making up for an entire week of lost sleep all at once.

She fell back with a gentle thud against a firm yet slightly spongy surface. As her eyelids hovered half-open for a moment, she glimpsed a huge arc of green billowing far above her in an expanse of dark gray sky. It was an unfamiliar sight yet, one that seemed like it should make sense.

Everything seems so far away, even though I’m here.

And suddenly Trinka remembered.

“Dad! Dad!” she cried out. She sat upright, but before she could recognize anyone in the small circle of men that surrounded her, she slumped back down.

Her cheeks felt like they were burning even as she shivered and shook, as if her face had been left behind in the heat of Apostrophe while her body lay in the cold, wet winds of Brace. She pressed one of her clammy hands to her cheek to try to cool it, but she could hardly hold up her arm.

“It’s the traveling sickness,” she heard one of the men say. “Not safe. Give me nothing but the wind and the water, I say, and a ship and stories to sail her by.”

“Hear, hear,” the men murmured in agreement.

Their voices were fading now, and Trinka wondered if she were disappearing, if at any moment she might really be back in Aunt Vashti’s room, and the talisman from Annelise wouldn’t have worked at all. But as she forced her eyes open, she saw that the men were still there.

“Dad!” she cried out one more time.

One of the men peered down at her worriedly. “She must be Bram’s little lass.” A few of the men scurried away while the others continued muttering.

Trinka felt something soft fall onto her legs and saw that someone had dropped a dark, slightly slippery blanket on top of her. A shallow bowl of something hot and steaming appeared in front of her lips, and a man helped lift her head up so she could take a sip. It was slightly bitter and not exactly pleasant-smelling, but as she drank, she felt a little bit of the warmth travel away from her face and into her toes, and a little bit of the coolness of Brace brush against her cheeks.

Still, everything felt so strange, so distant. For a moment, she almost fell back into sleep again, but a familiar voice made its way into her mind. It seemed very far above her. And it seemed to be calling her name.

“Trinka. Trinkalassa.”

Only my father calls me that, she thought wearily. I’ve done it. I’ve made it to Bram.

She managed a small, weak smile.

“Trinkalassa,” he called again.

Slowly, Trinka forced her eyes open. It seemed to take more strength than lifting a heavy potful of water. She tried to focus on the familiar, weather-beaten face, the shocks of stiff blond hair, and the deep gray-blue eyes that peered down at her anxiously. As her father’s rough, cracked hands smoothed the hair away from her forehead, Trinka suddenly felt warmer and more relaxed, as if she’d just gone to bed after a hot, filling meal.

“To think you came all this way to see me. All by yourself,” he muttered. “If I’d have known, I would have come and picked you up. Not safe, traveling that way—” he stopped abruptly and looked away, as if he’d just thought of something he’d rather not think about.

At last he looked back, his eyes glistening. “But you’re here now―you’re all right?”

“Yes,” Trinka managed to say. She thought of telling him about the vial Annelise had given her. But there was something else, something much more important…

She sat bolt upright and threw the blanket aside, desperately alert.

“Dad! Dad!” she exclaimed. “It’s Mom―Ashira! Aunt Vashti’s got her and you’ve got to come and help her!”

Trinka paused for a response. When none came, she continued explaining, ignoring her father’s expressionless face.

“She’s got her trapped in her palace. Not in the palace, I mean, but she’s been giving her a potion to make her not remember. Even if the first wish does wear off! She doesn’t remember me at all, even though I was there―I saw her! And she doesn’t remember you. But she never meant to leave us. It was all a mistake!”

She gripped both her father’s hands and tried to look him in the eye, but his gaze turned away.

“Dad! Did you hear me? What are we going to do?”

“It’ll be all right,” he said finally. “You’re just sick from the traveling, that’s all.”

“It’s the truth!”

“Okay. Okay.” Bram’s chapped hands brushed the wisps of hair from her forehead again. “We’ll talk about it after you’ve had some sleep.”

Trinka wanted to stay awake and talk more about it right now, but all the energy that had burst forth within her had burned away, leaving her weak and shivering again.

As she laid her head back down on the damp planks of the ship, her father tucked the blanket around her shoulders. Trinka blinked a few times, trying to fight off the tiredness, but it wasn’t long before the ship’s rocking, the breathing of the sea, and the soft, repeated splash of the waves lulled her to sleep.

***

She awoke suddenly, after a long, dreamless rest, to the feeling that something was burning in the middle of her chest. Trinka gasped and put a hand to the front of her dress. Her fingers closed around a hot little bottle. The cap flew open, and a cloud of purple mist began snaking its way out.

“Nefertari,” she groaned.

How had her cousin’s pet ended up coming with her? She raised her head―it still felt clunky, but not nearly so heavy as the night before―and looked around. The purse she had gotten from the genies lay next to her. The clasp had broken, and hundreds of talismans lay strewn across the ship. Nefertari, now fully formed, stretched her claws and stepped among them daintily, surveying her new surroundings with an air of extreme distaste.

As Trinka began scooping the talismans back into the genie purse, she couldn’t help but marvel at the incredible variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, and wondered what they were all for. Her reverie was interrupted by the sound of heavy footsteps. A rough-looking man with puffy cheeks covered in thick beard towered over her.

“What’s all this?” he demanded.

“It… it’s my talisman collection,” Trinka faltered.

The cracks in the man’s forehead deepened into a frown.

“My name’s Raido,” he said gruffly, “And as cargo master of this ship, I like things orderly.”

“I’ll try to get them all picked up,” Trinka stammered, as the ship’s motion made yet more of the talismans slide away from her grasp.

“All right, then. Best get you some breakfast.”

Trinka hurriedly scooped as many of the talismans as she could find back into her genie purse―all except Nefertari, who seemed to be in a very bad mood and hissed every time Trinka got near her. Even when she did manage to get her hands around the amorphous creature, they went right through the misticat’s middle.

“Come on, then,” she beckoned.

Nefertari hesitated, then brushed past Trinka with her tail held high and her eyes glowing brightly through suspicious slits. Trinka followed.

The men were gathered around a deep, round pot that hung from three poles that leaned in on each other like a tent. A dish of pale blue flames wavered underneath, and the stench that rose from the pot made Trinka’s nose and stomach turn as she drew near. She had thought that nothing could smell worse than the chunk of goat cheese Tarian had sent with her to the Parthalan School of Peace, but if such a thing existed, these sailors surely had it.

One of them offered Nefertari a small, a slippery looking creature with transfixed eyes on both sides, coaxing her with a “here kitty, fishie, fishie,” but the misticat turned up her nose and stalked off. She proceeded directly into the fire, lay down, and curled up contentedly among the flames.

“We’ve got to put the fire out,” the cook protested. “She might get up and walk off with it.”

A few of the men chuckled, but one of them removed the pot from its hook and stood over the blue flames with a bucket of water.

“Go on, get out of it!”

A single drop of water fell from the bucket and hit Nefertari’s tail. With a hiss, she sprang toward Trinka, and the sailor doused the flames. Trinka disentangled one arm from the misticat’s claws and held out the little jeweled bottle. With her source of warmth gone, Nefertari seemed only too glad to return to her plush, familiar surroundings. She floated up in a formless mist and disappeared inside. Trinka clamped the top closed hastily.

As the first group of men scraped the last bites of fish from their shallow bowls, dumped their dishes in a bucket of water, and went back to work, a second shift made their way over. Bram was among these, and Trinka felt a lump rise in her throat as he sat down beside her.

“What’s the matter? You’re not still sick from traveling, are you?” He put a rough, cold hand against her forehead.

“No.”

“Here, have something to eat.” Before she could protest, he shoved a low, two-handled bowl into her hands. Its handles curved into gently spiraling wave shapes, making it look a bit like a miniature version of the ship itself. A few pieces of gray, blubbery-looking flesh and a lot of flat, stringy green and brown pieces of plant floated in a salty smelling liquid. Her stomach grumbled and churned discontentedly.

“Aren’t you hungry?”

“No, not for this, anyway,” she said softly.

“Really? You loved seaweed when you were a baby.”

“Dad!” Trinka exclaimed.

Bram chuckled. “Your mother used to send me out to—” he stopped abruptly. They looked at each other for a moment, painfully aware of the silence. Bram hurriedly scooped the last of his food into his mouth.

Trinka was suddenly aware that, without the warmth from the blanket or fire, she was shivering from head to toe. Her lightweight dress and soft house slippers from Apostrophe had been completely soaked through by the cold, wet winds of Brace.

“Come,” her father said as he stood and plunged his bowl into the bucket. “It’s time we get you set to sail.”

Trinka didn’t particularly want to spend time with him just then, but if it was either that or sit there shivering and eating seaweed, she had little choice. She scampered off after her father.

At his direction, she ducked inside what seemed to be the only place on the ship with any privacy—a cramped storage room built into the bow that made the hold on the airships seem spacious. She rummaged through her genie purse and pulled out her clothes from Bedrosian and Ellipsis.

“Here,” Bram returned with an armful of clothing. “I’m not sure how well it will fit, but… a sweater from Knop,” he began passing out items, “pants from Vann, and some old galoshes from Matros. They’re the smallest guys on the ship,” he explained, as Trinka held up the slick, dark overalls to her shoulders and watched the pants unroll until the knees were about even with her ankles.

“Thanks,” Trinka replied uncertainly.

Her father swung the hanging door down, leaving Trinka to figure out how to arrange her assorted clothing. She finally settled on putting her old school robes under everything again. If they kept out the mist on Ellipsis, they might do some good here—and they were certainly the most comfortable. She threw on her goat-hair jacket, but left off the skirt in favor of the sailor overalls, which she managed to resize somewhat by crossing the straps in back and rolling (and rolling) up the legs. The thick, sea-plant material made her legs feel like silk caterpillars packed into cocoons. Finally, she just managed to slide the galoshes over her goat-skin boots.

Trinka picked up the sweater, and its smell—damp and slightly salty, yet somehow fresh and invigorating—reminded her of her dad, and the joy she had felt each time he returned to Ellipsis from Brace. While Elora had begged Bram to leave his sailor clothes outside and put on something more suitable, Trinka had loved to be wrapped up in his arms just as he was.

Whatever sea plants the fibers were made from resulted in waves of blue, green, and even slightly purple strands in every shade, all rippling together. Tiny bits of silvery white flecks danced through the pattern here and there, like points of light glinting off the water’s peaks. Each color had its own unique texture, too: while some felt thick and bumpy and others were fine and delicate, none of them were rough and itchy like the goat hair fiber. The sea plants made each one soft and silky with just a little bit of shine. She remembered being laughed at when she had snuggled up to Bram as a small child and termed it a “rainbow of feels.” As she pulled the sweater over her jacket and overalls, it was still strange to think she really was here with her dad now, and wearing such a sweater herself.

She tucked the genie purse into the pants’ generous pocket, and emerged feeling rather bulky and ridiculously fashionless, but dry and warm.

Bram was waiting for her.

The two of them leaned over the side of the ship and looked out over the deep water mirroring the endless sky. Unlike the clouds on Ellipsis, which were constantly swirling and recoiling, the sky here was blanketed in a uniform gray, almost as if it were missing altogether. Like someone had replaced it with a blank canvas.

“So,” Bram began slowly, “is Annelise…?”

He seemed in no hurry to finish the sentence.

“She’s fine. She’s doing well in school. She made me the talisman so I could come see you after I… I didn’t get accepted into the Academy.”

Trinka watched her father closely for a reaction, but he only nodded slightly and kept staring out at the sea. “I tried to come by airship, but I fell off and ended up in Ampersand. I found Kolinkar. He’s happy there, and he’s married.”

Bram turned in surprise, and she saw that she had his attention. Trinka felt a glimmer of hope growing inside her. It only made sense that he hadn’t believed her story during her fevered confusion of arriving, but now he would understand.

As she began to explain, Trinka realized how much she had learned during her journey, and how little her father knew of it. Carefully, she recounted the events as clearly as she could, from leaving Ellipsis, to traveling through Ampersand, to finding her mother in Apostrophe. Her father’s eyes flickered a few times, but he stood in silence, his arms resting on the side of the ship, his gaze still staring out across the sea.

Trinka rummaged through her genie purse and found what she was hoping for.

“I’m telling you the truth,” she insisted, “Look.”

She held out the truthstone. It glowed a deep, heartfelt red.

“You’ve got to come and help her.”

Bram still said nothing, but absent-mindedly took the truthstone, rubbing its smooth surface between his hands.

“They’re her family, Trinka,” he answered at last. “If she hasn’t been able to get away, she hasn’t been trying very hard.”

With a sudden motion, he flung the truthstone out into the open sea. It skipped across the waves, then sank beneath the surface.

Trinka opened her mouth to protest―how could he have just thrown away her truthstone?―but she saw in his face that he hadn’t even noticed what he had done. He was as lost in his own thoughts as the stone was lost in the sea.

But she had noticed one thing before her talisman had disappeared beneath the water—the stone had been completely black.

Unable to look at her father or the waves that claimed her truthstone, Trinka turned away. A quick, scuttling motion caught the corner of her eye, accompanied by an unmistakable clanking. Whatever had made the noise seemed to have disappeared near the hull of the ship.

Trinka listened for a moment, resting her ear on top of a nearby barrel. A faint scuffling noise came from within, and she was sure she could hear voices too. Her curiosity aroused, Trinka got to her knees, crept around the edge of the barrel, and peered inside.

“Aaah!” Trinka pulled back with a start as a small, bright orange creature came bursting out with flickering blue flames shooting from his hands and head. A long, low creature with a thin blue body supported by four short feet trotted out and squirted him with water that came from a rubbery cord around his neck. The orange creature’s flames went out, and he stopped screaming as he stood there, dripping.

“Hello!” the blue creature said, still drizzling water. He blinked and smiled. “How do you do? I’m Spout. And this is Spigot.” A third creature spun around, shut off the water, and hopped down from his perch atop Spout’s head. He had a large, six-sided face with enormous eyes, a V-shaped smile, almost no body at all, and three stubby legs. Without him, Spout looked kind of like a small, skinny, blue dog wearing a flat, round hat.

“And this is Butwhat,” Spout nodded toward the orange creature.

“Butwhat?” Trinka stifled a smile.

“Well, we just call him that,” Spout supplied. ”’Cause he’s always saying ‘But what if something happens?’ Nothing ever does,” he added sadly.

Spigot swiveled his head wistfully.

“My real name is Alfredo,” Butwhat said stiffly. “Alfredo the emergency flare. It’s my job to alert the crew if any emergencies arise.”

“What kind of emergencies?”

“Oh, you know,” Spout explained. “Like if the ship starts to take on water—”

“What? The ship’s taking on water?” Alfredo shouted, his flames beginning to flicker again as he dashed back and forth.

“No, but if it did, Spigot and I could bail it out faster than you can blink,” Spout said proudly. “Say, how’d you get aboard anyway? You’re not here to bail, are you?”

“No, I’m Trinka. I’m just here to…” Trinka swallowed hard. “to, um, visit my father.”

“Good. Let’s inspect the rest of the ship.” Spigot and Spout scrambled off enthusiastically, with Butwhat hopping behind.

Spout dribbled water on everyone’s shoes, then accidentally stomped on one of the sailor’s hands, causing him to drop his rope.

“Sea gizzards and nereid spit!” he grumbled. “Can’t a sailor get any work done around here? I see you found the emergency kit. There’s no emergency, I trust?”

“No,” Trinka stammered. “Actually, they found me.”

The next sailor jumped back as Butwhat came hopping by, sending small sparks skittering dangerously close to the stack of green, cross-hatched sailcloth one sailor was unfolding. As another reached out to pull the cloth from harm’s way, one particularly enthusiastic spark hit his hand right in the middle of his tattoo.

“Of course there’s an emergency,” he fumed as a nearby sailor poured water on his hand. “There’s always an emergency when the emergency kit is here―they make all the emergencies themselves!”

Several of the sailors had even less kind words to say, and Spigot hopped into Trinka’s arms for safety while Spout took refuge under the hem of her skirt. She didn’t really mind their cold, damp bodies pressing into her clothes, but she eyed Butwhat nervously. He was hopping closer and closer to her, and if he decided to join Spout, she would be in greater danger of catching fire here than she had been in the jewel caves.

“Why do you keep them, then?” Trinka asked without thinking, until she saw the tears well up on Spigot’s face.

“Regulations require ‘em.”

“They’re just trying to help,” Trinka offered lamely, glancing down at Spout’s watery eyes peering up beneath the hem of her skirt. “It is their job.”

“Tell you what then,” the rope-making sailor announced. “If you’re so attached to troublesome creatures, you look after them.”

Several of the sailors murmured in agreement, and Spigot got so excited that all three legs slid out from under him, leaving him sprawled completely flat. He peered up at her like a very odd but adorable baby.

“Ahem, and speaking of troublesome creatures,” Raido announced. “Would you mind looking after the ones you already have?”

Trinka’s eyes followed his pointing finger and groaned inwardly. The faulty clasp on her genie purse had come open again, and a dozen talismans lay strewn nearby.

A tall, jeweled bottle lay tipped on its side, and beside it stood a genie.

“Hello!” she said pleasantly as Trinka approached. “I’m Ullali.”

Ullali looked very much like the other genies Trinka had seen at Aunt Vashti’s palace, but she didn’t seem to have quite the same bubbly personality. Her eyes had a dreamy, far-off look, and instead of the usual enthusiastic mannerisms, she swayed gently in time with the ship’s movement. Every now and then, she absent-mindedly produced a silky, pink genie scarf and let it flutter to the ship’s floor.

“Um, Ullali? If it’s not too much trouble, would you mind fixing my genie purse?” Trinka asked.

“Mind? I don’t mind anything,” Ullali answered. “Can I make you something to eat?”

Trinka thought of all the crisp, juicy fruit and sweet pastries that adorned the tables in Aunt Vashti’s palace. She knew genie food wouldn’t make her any less hungry, but maybe she could take a bite of it now and then while trying to choke down her next bowl of seaweed.

“Yes please, if it’s not too much trouble.”

“What is?”

“Making me something to eat.”

“My goodness!” Ullali laughed. “Why would you want to be something to eat when you’re such a nice little girl? Oh, well, if that’s what you really want…” she raised her right finger.

“No!” Trinka exclaimed.

Ullali paused. “No what?”

“Um, never mind,” Trinka murmured. Her eyes turned to Nefertari, who had just come out of her bottle and was slinking toward the other end of the ship.

Leaving Ullali to absent-mindedly produce scarves, Trinka followed the misticat, who had just slipped through a crack in an open door that led to a storage area below. She pressed gently on the door, and her eyes grew wide with amazement. Inside, piles of clear jewels and white crystals filled the ship almost to the top of the low ceiling.

“Raido,” a voice called from above. “You’d better go see.”

The cargo master’s broad, bearded face appeared at the doorway. He looked at Nefertari, who had curled up on top of the jewels. She peered down at the “intruders” haughtily.

“Well, she won’t do ‘em any harm,” Raido said finally.

Trinka, relieved for the moment at least, hung the little bottle on a peg near the door in case the temperamental creature decided to return to her own quarters.

“You sure have a lot of gadgetry,” Raido commented as Trinka found a few more stray talismans strewn across the deck and put them back into her bag. She picked up a small yellow jewel that turned a pale blue when she held it up.

“Ah, feldspar,” Raido remarked. “Now that’s a useful thing for navigating. It shows you which direction you’re going, even when the sea spray gets so thick you can’t tell your own nose from your neighbor’s.”

“Ha! That’s a whopper. You know it’s no good except in fair weather,” another sailor countered.

Raido picked up a few of the scarves that Ullali had dropped, letting the soft, fluid fabric run across his hands. “Never felt anything like it. Never seen anything like it. I sure have seen some strange stuff since you came.”

Trinka couldn’t help but smile. “I’ve seen my share of strange things too, since I left Ellipsis.”

“You’ll have to write them down,” Raido responded. He gestured toward some marks on the deck and sides of the ship. “It’s getting pretty full, but we still have some room.”

Trinka looked at the marks more closely as she put the last scarf in her genie purse. She had noticed them before, but had forgotten to ask what they were.

“Is that how you write?”

“Sure. How do you write?”

“I don’t,” Trinka admitted.

“Thork!” Raido called. A man near the mast of the ship wiped his hands on his pants and walked over to them.

“Better teach this one how to write. She’ll be covering the ship with stories.” He winked and walked off.

“So, you never learned to write, eh?” Thork asked.

Trinka shook her head, embarrassed.

“How ‘bout read?”

“No,” she managed to mumble. “Do you think I could learn?”

Thork looked surprised. “Of course. Anybody can read.”

“I can’t,” Trinka confessed readily.

“Well, of course you don’t know how if no one’s taught you.”

At least he doesn’t seem to think I’m just stupid, Trinka thought, feeling encouraged.

Thork pulled a short, sharp blade from his pocket and found a little empty spot in the side of the ship. He plunged the knife into the soft, spongy wood and carved a small straight line, then capped it off with two angled lines.

“See? All of the marks represent sounds that you say. That marks the t sound. Here’s the[_ r_]” Thork quickly swished three slightly curved lines, one above the other. “The i sound,” (one straight line), “the ng” He drew a curved line with a circle on the end that Trinka thought looked sort of like a wilting plant, “the k” (one tall straight line with two straight lines branching off it), “and the uh.” Thork finished with a low, curving line with handles on each end and a short, flat line underneath it.

“That’s my name. Trinka.”

“Now every time you see this mark,” he pointed to the “t” again, “you’ll know it makes the same sound as in your name. Here. You’d better keep this. I have a feeling you’re going to be needing it.” He folded the short blade back into its wave-shaped handle and gave it to Trinka, who slipped it into her purse.

Trinka soon found more “t” and “r” and “uh” marks among the many writings on the ship. Thork patiently interpreted the sounds for marks she hadn’t learned yet. (Thork claimed there were thirty-seven in all, but some of them looked alike to Trinka.) It was grueling at first, as she slowly sounded out each mark, but before long she was recognizing words here and there. With Thork’s help, some of the lines were beginning to make sense.

“Good,” Thork praised her again. “See? I knew you could learn.”

Trinka couldn’t help but smile.

The day passed quickly now that she could look at the symbols (well, some of them anyway) and understand what they meant. Everything on the ship was covered in writing, from the majestic verse on the mast (“a thousand ships have sailed the seas and a thousand in between them.”), to the rim of the cooking vessel that read: “Beware to all who touch this pot… when mouths are full, its bottom’s hot.”

Trinka even discovered writing on the back of Alfredo’s head, who insisted that it couldn’t possibly say “Whenever things are not quite right, you’re bound to see the idiot light”, while Thork and Spigot insisted that it did.

Trinka was just poring over a passage on the deck planks, when she heard someone behind her.

“Trinka.”

She looked up and saw her father standing there.

“Come along, there’s a lyftkarr wind blowing. It’s a strong, low breeze that seems to lift your right off your feet.”

Somewhat reluctantly, Trinka followed her father to the front of the ship. Bram grabbed a hold of a series of twists and knots that hung over the edge of the cargo hold and climbed up. The sea plants squished beneath her fingers and swung a little bit as Trinka grabbed the ropes and followed. He took her hand and helped her to the top of the small deck. A strong breeze nearly toppled her over at first, but she caught the rail and steadied herself.

The wind went rushing past them, lifting her hair and rippling against her clothes. She spread her arms wide to catch the feel of the wind. Even though she wasn’t much higher up than she had been before, she felt as though all of Brace were stretching out before her. A patch of pale, blue sky appeared, like a window in the wall of gray clouds, or the first stroke of color on a canvas. The lyftkarr wind playfully scooped up handfuls of water and tossed them about in tiny waves, making them sparkle in the sunlight like a sky full of shimmering stars. Everything was so wide and open and free. She felt as if she were floating above the waters, carried by the breeze, looking down at everything.

She knew, finally, what it felt like to fly.

She looked up at her father and smiled. The breeze gave an especially strong push that caught her off balance, and she grabbed the rail for support. She looked down and saw that there were words carved into the wood beneath her fingers. She recognized some of the letters, but it was still too long for her to decipher.

Her father read, “All that held us down is beneath us, now that we have learned to fly.”

She smiled at him, elated with happiness. Her father put his arm around her, and she hugged him back. But as he moved his hand away again, she caught a glimpse of something she had forgotten, something that made the joy she had felt just moments before fly away, leaving her with a heavy, guilty feeling in the pit of her stomach. He had a series of five small marks on his hand, and for the first time, Trinka understood these marks were letters that spelled a single word: Ashira.

 

h1={color:#808080;}.
Chapter Seventeen

Sailors’ Stories

Trinka longed for a way to go back to Apostrophe and help her mother, but with the vial from Annelise gone, she had no choice but to stay with the ship. Bram still stubbornly refused to listen to her pleas, but he tried to teach her to navigate by the color of the seawater, the types of plants and fish that the sailors caught, and the sounds in the wind. She still couldn’t see or hear any difference in their surroundings (was there really a discernible contrast between navy-aquamarine and cobalt-turquoise?), but she had an unmistakable feeling that wherever they were going, they were getting nearer and nearer.

The days passed quickly as Trinka spent her time trying to control her talismans, learning to read, and listening to the sailors’ stories.

“Well, I’m fresh out of ideas,” Thork declared one evening as soup-time approached. “Hey, Trinka!” he called, “After the way you got here, I’m sure you’ve got a few stories to tell.”

“Eh, if she’s anything like Bram, she won’t tell ‘em,” Yerik grumbled.

“Still, I’ll bet she could tide us over in an emergency.”

“Emergency?” Butwhat darted out from behind Trinka, shooting sparks and running in circles. On his way past, he caught the edge of Trinka’s genie purse and sent it spilling out onto the deck, scattering talismans once again.

Trinka calmed Butwhat down and began picking up the talismans.

“Here,” Gudlaug called, holding up a small flat circle that had fallen by his feet.

“Let me see that,” Matros reached for the object. “Know what this is?”

“No,” Trinka admitted.

“An astrolabe,” his brother Vann interrupted.

“And alidade,” Matros added, twirling the small stick suspended from its center. “Must be from Apostrophe. Very old.”

“What’s it for?”

“For? Nothing,” Yerik scoffed. “Those sand-loving, red-sailed vulgarians used to try to use them for navigating, but no real sailor uses one. We can tell where we are just by the smell of the wind.”

“Speaking of wind, we’d better call some more if we’re ever going to get moving,” Knop piped up from where he sat, repairing a bundle of seaweed ropes.

Yerik suggested, “Why don’t you tell the one about the nereid who met a sailor and…”

“I don’t think you should tell that one with certain people present,” Knop nodded toward Trinka and winked.

“Hey,” Matros held up the astrolabe and alidade again. “How about Amir Fustafa’s folly?”

A few of the sailors groaned, but Vann said, “Well, Trinka hasn’t heard it before, and a new audience makes an old story seem new!”

The sailors grumbled their assent, and Trinka sat down on the deck, cross-legged like the sailors did. Spout, Spigot, and Alfredo settled themselves and front of her, and Grble even ventured out of her genie purse to sit beside her. Although his cup-shaped feet gripped the deck effortlessly, the rocking motion of the ship turned Grble an even more chartreuse shade than usual, making him strongly prefer the safety of his ornament form. It felt good to have him beside her for a change as Thork began to tell the story.

“The water near the shores of Apostrophe has always been undrinkable, thick with dust from the red rock that reaches into the sea, poisoning the water with land. One season, when the supply caravans that brought fresh, inland water to the parched throats of the shoreline’s children became broken with drought, Amir Fustafa’s father, Alfuying, begged the sailors of Brace for aid—he would give anything, anything, for just enough water for his people to drink. The sailors from Brace took pity on them, and, out of kindness, brought them ships full of clean, fresh water. Far more, even, than Alfuying had asked. But with the children’s thirst quenched, Alfuying only thirsted for more.”

Trinka felt a slight breeze start to stir, brushing against her cheeks, and wondered if it was just a coincidence.

“He ordered his soldiers to build huge ships. They spanned hundreds of feet long, with enormous sails made from fiery red cloth, emblazoned with the emblem of Alfuying’s house, the aeluroscelis. Great creatures with four powerful legs, and enormous jewel-encrusted metallic wings.

“Soon the ships began sailing near the coast, just far enough from Apostrophe’s shores to reach fresh water. Then Alfuying’s sailors began to sail further, driving away the ships from Brace, forcing them from their ancestral fishing waters. But still, Alfuying thirsted for more.

“His ships began to penetrate further and further into the world of Brace, using instruments like the astrolabe and alidade to guide them. But instead of gathering the water and returning with it themselves, they attacked the ships of Brace, putting sharp-edged swords to the innocent, and taking the survivors as slaves. Soon the sight of those blood-red sails on the horizon instilled as much terror into the peaceful people of Brace as the pointed tips of the swords themselves.”

Trinka could definitely feel the wind gusting against the sail now, moving them along as if it was, indeed, listening to the story and joining in the spirit of it.

“When Alufying’s son, Amir Fustafa, came to power,” Thork continued, “he decided to conquer Brace entirely. He knew he couldn’t win against the sailors using ships, because the sailors from Brace were more skillful, speedful, and cunning than any so-called sailor who grew up on dry sand.”

“Hear!” the other sailors called out in agreement.

“So he decided to conquer Brace the same way Apostrophe had conquered its desert lands: with an army of golden chariots, pulled by the aeluroscelis.”

Trinka thought of the creature she had seen with the Amir she knew, who had taken her mother up into the sky. Could at least parts of this story be true?

“Amir Fustafa rallied dozens of them…”

“Hundreds!” Vann called out.

“Thousands!” Yerik yelled.

“Tens of thousands!” Raido’s deep voice rumbled.

”…and they swept over the skies of Brace like a glowing storm cloud. Their golden wings flashed like lighting, the sound of them shook the seas like thunder, and the beating of their wings brought the waves to their peaks.”

Trinka felt an involuntary shiver trickle down her spine.

“As they caught sight of the first ships, the aeluroscelis began to circle, spiraling round and round like a whirlpool of golden fire. The first battalion broke upon the ships of Brace like a violent storm, tearing the green, cross-hatched sails from top to bottom with their jagged wings. The sailors of Brace knew that even their most skillful, speedful sailors couldn’t sail away faster than the aeluroscelis could fly. They panicked, but they wouldn’t fight. So they sent their most skillful, speedful sailors west, to draw the war away from their life ships, loaded with children. The aeluroscelis and their chariots pursued the sailors, ready to strike them down into the waves, never to rise again. And then, without warning, all the aeluroscelis began to fall into the sea.”

“Why?” Trinka asked aloud, then quickly bit her lip.

“They needed the heat in Apostrophe to warm their wings and carry them through the air. Amir Fustafa didn’t know they couldn’t fly once they became chilled by the cold, wet winds of Brace.”

Trinka could kind of understand this feeling.

“All the army that was sent that day was lost. Even the fleets of red-sailed ships were sunk by the weight of the chariots falling on them, or were chased away after the destruction. The people of Apostrophe never sailed the seas again.”

The wind whistled sadly as the sailors lapsed into silence.

“Well, go on, tell the one about how the Plassoplano was created, seeing as she’s from there,” Knop suggested finally.

“The what?” Trinka asked.

“Plassoplano. Isn’t that what you call the city in Ellipsis?”

“You mean the City of Mirrors?”

“Right. Don’t you want to hear how it got started?”

Although Trinka had grown up in Ellipsis, she had never thought about how it came to be there. She had assumed it had just always existed.

“Even before Amir Fustafa’s folly,” Thork took a long drink of water and began again, “there were people in Apostrophe who opposed war. They spent their entire lives in huge libraries, in the very tops of enormous buildings, where they could sit, and study, lost in their lofty thoughts.”

Trinka thought of the library she had visited with Jamilah, that had once belonged to their grandfather.

“Some say they even liked to think and study so much that they invented entire meals that could be consumed in one bite, so they wouldn’t even have to take time to eat.”

“Not me,” Yerik interrupted. “That’s part of living, eating.”

“We know!” Snorri teased him.

Yerik set up the soup pot on its triangular stand and filled it with water, Vann readied the dish of pale blue fire beneath, and Matros produced a seaweed basket full of fish and other creatures their nets had caught that day—some long and slimy, some slippery, some spiky, some with many tentacles and some that just looked like amorphous globs. The cook began cutting off strips of sea plants and tossing them into the pot, and Trinka wondered how such different looking specimens—some bright green, some so dark they were almost black, some flat and thin, some thick and globular–could taste so very much the same.

“Hey, Trinka, catch the salt pig!”

Startled, Trinka noticed the seasoning jar dashing toward her, emitting little frantic squealing noises. Spigot, Spout, and Alfredo rose up in their usual panic, getting several of the sailors wet and setting Knop’s favorite hat on fire briefly, but Grble calmly reached out, grabbed the errant container with his long fingers, and handed it to Trinka.

The little jar squealed and shivered for a moment before quieting in her hands. Its body began by going upright like a normal jar, but then bent over completely to one side before ending in a wide, circular opening that looked like a snout. Snorri took it and cradled it gently over the soup pot, letting a few shakes of salt fly from it before tucking it back in the supply basket.

“You can’t blame the salt pig. It’s had a hard life. An old cook used to keep pepper in it,” the cook explained. A mournful sneeze echoed from the depths of basket.

“When Apostrophe set out to become an empire,” Thork continued as if there had been no interruption, “the elitists who liked to study couldn’t find enough quiet space to sit and think, with all the wars, and talk of wars. They had read of a place on the edge of the world of Brace where new worlds could be created.”

Although this story wasn’t as dramatic as the last one, and the wind had quieted somewhat, Trinka’s heart beat faster. Was there really such a place?

“A few of them set out…”

“A dozen!”

“A hundred!”

“A thousand,” Matros declared firmly.

“Yes, definitely a thousand of them set out, hiring ships to take them there. They left everything behind, bringing with them only the knowledge they had stored in their minds, and a load of glass. And unlike the marauders, these people knew where they were going. They never stole anything, or tried to make slaves of the people of Brace. They even knew how to call the wind a bit, whistling to it using some little talismans they had made.”

Trinka rummaged in her bag, and pulled out a small whistle she had noticed earlier. Shaped like a spiral shell, it seemed made to be blown through, yet it made no sound.

“That’s it!” Thork exclaimed. “Or one of them, anyway. You’d need a thousand of them, all blowing at once, to get the wind to hear it.”

Vann borrowed it and blew into it, but it made no sound that any of them could hear. “Eh. Better to call the wind with stories any day.”

Thork nodded. “But the wind did come to the elitists from Apostrophe. It listened to the thousand of them all calling to it together. It pushed them and carried them, helping them along, until finally they reached the elaphromyria, the place where a new world could be created.”

Trinka waited quietly, expecting him to say more, but he seemed to have finished.

“And then what happened?” she finally prompted him.

“What do you mean what happened? The thousand of them created the Plassoplano, uh, City of Mirrors of course.”

“But how?”

“From the elaphromyria,” Thork’s brow furrowed, as if he were not understanding what she was not understanding.

“But how did they create Ellipsis from the elaphromyria?”

“I don’t know. I guess they called to it somehow, like we call the wind.”

“You know more about these things than we do, my girl,” Knop added. “You’re from there.”

“And when someone has a mind to do something, and a whole lot of people work on it together, amazing things can happen,” Raido said sternly.

“Especially when those people are airheads!” Yerik grinned. The sailors laughed.

“Come! Enough of these serious stories. A rousing tale to raise the wind is what we need now,” Raido commanded.

Trinka tried to think about what she had just heard, but Knop told a ridiculously funny story about a sailor who accidentally wove his clothes right into the sail cloth he was mending that captivated not just the wind, but Trinka’s attention as well. Although Trinka quickly caught on that the sailors cared more about their style of storytelling than the substance of the story, she couldn’t help but wonder if some of them were more true than they knew.

“Well, that’s it, I’m done!” Knop concluded.

“Good thing we’re stopping soon to get more stories for the soup!” Snorri chortled.

“Stories, for soup?” Trinka laughed.

All the sailors’ raucous camaraderie immediately died into silence, and Trinka realized they were, for a change, speaking seriously.

“Well, you ought to know all about that, being from Ellipsis,” Matros chided her.

Trinka was baffled.

“On Ellipsis, the dream merchants call it the perisseia,” Bram, who had slipped in among them unnoticed, explained quietly.

The perisseia! The dream dross, that ashy residue from the oneiric energy? They actually put that cloudy gray glop into their soup and ate it? Trinka’s stomach, which had acquiesced somewhat to a life of being rocked back and forth and subjected to meals of fish and seaweed, started turning over once more.

“What does it do when you…” Trinka gulped, “um, add it to soup?”

“Gives it flavor,” Snorri answered.

“Your stories, or the soup?” Trinka questioned.

“Both,” Gudlaug uttered. A chorus of agreement arose, and the sailors’ buoyant spirits returned.

 “What do people use it for on Ellipsis?” Thork asked, and Trinka wondered if she should reveal that the dream merchants were trading them what, in their world, was essentially garbage.

“On Ellipsis…” Trinka began slowly. “Everyone wants to dream. They seed the clouds of their thoughts every night to try to direct their dreams, then they try to interpret the dreams they do have. They give dreams as gifts, they even buy glass and crystals from the dream merchants in exchange for dreams. In dreams, you can experience anything, be anything… or anyone.”

She looked down at her hands. Even when she was small, and Annelise had given her dream seed clouds to stave off the nightmares, she had never been great… even in her dreams.

“Eh, stories are better than dreams,” Thork told her, and Trinka lifted her head. “Dreams are passive. Even if you can control them, even if you remember them, you only experience them yourself. Stories are alive. They’re made to be shared.”

His gaze took in Trinka and Bram, standing with arms folded a distance away.

“The problem with being able to dream anything,” Bram finally answered, and his blue-gray eyes held Trinka’s for a moment, “is that people try to make those dreams come true.”

He turned and stalked off to the other end of the ship.

Trinka slipped the astrolabe and alidade into her genie purse, and noticed something inside that glinted in the twilight. She lifted it up, and saw two clear, glass bulbs held together by a delicate stem An empty vial, the esperaliss. If she had found it earlier she might have gone running to her father, hoping this would finally be the proof he needed, but now even that hope seemed empty.

The sailors began passing out the low, curved-handled bowls of storyless soup. Trinka tried to force herself to eat, but only managed to imbibe a little broth.

As darkness enfolded the ship for another night, and the sailors’ talk gave way to the voices of the waves and the wind, Trinka lay down on the always damp planks of the deck. She huddled under her thick blanket and its waterproof seaweed covering, tasting the lingering tang of salty soup… and a few tears.

h1={color:#808080;}.
Chapter Eighteen

The Shimmering Path

Trinka awoke the next morning to find that a heavy mist had settled all around the ship. It not only blanketed the surface of the deck, but crept into every nook and niche. It filled Trinka’s mouth and lungs, and as she breathed it in, the heavy mixture of water and air sent a damp, chilly thrill all through her.

Its taste was somehow familiar too. It had the clear, fresh smell of the water and winds of Brace and some of the thickness and lightness of Ellipsis too. Its taste was refreshing―almost delicious―and it filled her up inside like a mouthful of cake, not just a breath of fresh air. For the first time since arriving on Brace, Trinka didn’t feel hungry. She took in another mouthful, thankful that she wouldn’t have to face another seaweed breakfast.

Bram called to her from the other side of the deck to witness the spectacle of seven airships coming toward them. They were hard to see, but faint outlines of their billowing sails and broad, white wings fluttered and shifted in the mist.

It seemed to strange that she had been on one not so long ago, hoping to come here—and here she was. Still waiting, in a way. But was she still hoping?

“Trinka!”

Her thoughts were interrupted by a scuffle near the cargo hold.

Raido and some of the other sailors were trying to get to the jewels, but Nefertari hissed and spit little fiery sparks every time they came near her treasure.

Trinka took the tiny bottle off the peg where she had left it and dangled it invitingly, but Nefertari’s eyes just narrowed.

“Here. This will get her out,” Snorri said as he approached carrying a pot of water. He threw the contents in the cargo hold, and as the cold drops came near the misticat, she fled with a shriek, tearing past them and bolting into the genie purse at Trinka’s side. Trinka writhed and giggled as the creature squirmed inside her pocket. She finally pulled out the purse and dropped the little bottle inside.

“How are we going to get all the jewels out of the hold and onto the airships?” Trinka asked.

“We don’t. The dream merchants will come here and pick them up.”

“Here? You mean, inside the ship?” Trinka asked in surprise.

“Yes, in here, where else?” Raido answered impatiently. “And the inspector will be here any moment.”

No sooner had he said the word than Pellen suddenly appeared in the cargo hold, looking sharply over the load. His back was toward her, and Trinka shrank behind the piles.

“Excellent. Superior quality as always. We’ll take them all,” Pellen announced, and disappeared as quickly as he had come.

“We’re not in Ellipsis, are we? That he can transport himself like that?” Trinka asked, peering up at Raido.

“No, we’re in the elaphromyria,” he answered brusquely.

“You mean there really is such a place?” Trinka recalled the sailors’ stories about how Ellipsis had been created.

“Of course. The boundaries between the worlds are very weak here where the air and water mix. Like the stuff that’s in the traveling talisman you used to get here.”

“But,” Trinka began thoughtfully, “how come I got so sick when I did that and he―?” she stopped abruptly as she realized Pellen could pop in and out of the ship as easily as entering a room because he was so experienced at it. And, unlike her, talented.

“Because it’s safe here, if you stay within the elaphromyria and don’t go flitting about between worlds.”

“You still couldn’t get me to try it,” Vann commented. “I thank my sails we just deliver and the merchants pick up.”

Trinka walked back across the deck to get out of the sailors’ way, and sat down thoughtfully with the genie purse in her lap. All of a sudden, she began rooting through the bag, and at last she found the old ornament with the murky green jewel in the center. In a moment, she had awoken Grble from his nap, and two familiar eyes appeared, wobbling twice as much as they had on land. Trinka knew he didn’t like being out on the ship, but this was important.

“Listen,” Trinka began. “I’ve got an idea. If people can transport themselves in the elaphromyria, maybe if I get enough of it, I can travel to Apostrophe and bring my mom back here. Then she and my dad would have to meet and, maybe she’d remember who she is, and…” Trinka swallowed hard. “And maybe she’d know who I am again.”

Grble’s eyes bobbled as he tried to take all this in.

“Ridiculous, totally ridiculous,” a new voice answered.

Trinka turned her head and saw an oddly shaped talisman staring back at her. He was even shorter than Grble with a large, bobbly head and a protruding hook-like nose. Although the top of his head looked black, like hair, it appeared to have been painted on, and ended in a strange, twisting spiral that came to a rather sharp point. His body, shaped like a large jar, balanced atop a slender pole supported by a single, rubbery foot that looked like an upside-down bowl.

“Who are you?”

“I’m Stanley. Stanley the Whatler.” His body pivoted on its pole as he made a slight bow.

“What’s a whatler?”

“What’s a whatler?” Stanley fumed impatiently. “Only the most useful talisman ever invented. I have more tools at my disposal than… than a hundred talismans,” he huffed. His body suddenly expanded, and his arms spread wide to reveal a sparkling array of unfamiliar gadgetry. Trinka glimpsed the long double prongs of eating utensils and the sharp edges of cutting blades, some that folded out, some with serrated edges, and some that rose and fell in a whirl of assorted shapes.

“Whatlers can catalog books, prepare correspondence, make beds, dispense drinks,” Stanley produced and retracted various claws, pens, grippers, and glasses as he spoke, “slice vegetables in any desired configuration, deliver food trays, unclog plumbing…”

“At the same time?” Trinka wrinkled her nose.

“I assure you, all my functions are completely sanitary,” Stanley sniffed. “Any household would be absolutely delighted to have me. Whatlers were all the rage on Apostrophe, at least until genies came into fashion.” He looked at Ullali, who had tumbled out with him, and drew his hook-nose up haughtily. The absent-minded genie smiled vaguely at him

“Oh,” Trinka answered, unsure what to think of this dazzling display. She turned back to Grble. “So, if I could use the elaphromyria…”

“If even the most experienced people haven’t done it,” Stanley asserted, “it would be absolutely inconceivable that a girl like you could do it. I formally pooh-pooh the idea.” He snapped his body closed again.

Trinka turned to Grble. She could shake off Stanley’s response easily enough, but Grble’s opinion she trusted. He had seen her fail in the airships… was he sure she would fail again?

“Do you think I could do it?” she asked quietly, but before Grble could answer, another voice responded.

“Do what?” Ullali asked.

“Bring my mom here to Brace.”

“Of course you can, dear,” the genie patted Trinka’s arm. “You can do anything if you put your mind to it.” She smiled and continued aimlessly dropping colored scarves all over the deck.

“What do you think?” Trinka persisted.

Grble’s mouth quivered uncertainly and his short legs shook. For a moment, it looked as if he might curl up into his jewel form and never come out again.

“It’s okay, I understand,” Trinka said quietly.

“Of course you can,” Grble answered. “You crossed worlds to rescue me.”

“Here it comes!” Matros yelled behind them.

Trinka looked up to see the airship hovering just above them, the cargo hold dangling below it like a huge white bubble.

The dream merchants suddenly stood side by side on the deck of Bram’s ship, not far from her, their hands raised together. A thick, white mist much denser than the fog all around them swirled through the cargo hold, spinning faster and faster. It lifted the jewels from their stacks and carried them out the cargo hold door and spun them up toward the airship like a glittering, fast-moving cloud. The airship bowed and stretched as the jewels permeated through it as easily as they would have slipped through air or water.

Pellen looked on with satisfaction and, with a curt nod toward Raido, seemed ready to go.

“Wait!”

Pellen turned.

“We have one more jewel,” Trinka stepped forward.

“What are you talking about? I have the exact number written down.” Raido fumed, as he pointed emphatically to the carvings on the wall of the hold.

“No, you’re right,” Trinka quickly soothed. “It’s mine. I… I brought it with me.”

She looked at Pellen. “Will you take it?”

“I’m not sure we’d be interested in anything you’d have,” he began.

“But it’s really huge,” Trinka interrupted. “I got it from the caves of Apostrophe myself.”

“You?” he sneered. “That’s absurd. You must have been on this ship ever since we expelled you from our airship just outside the City of Mirrors.”

Trinka blushed feverishly. She hadn’t meant to make him bring that up.

“It’s the truth,” she persisted. She wanted to get her truthstone, but sadly remembered she didn’t have it anymore.

“All right,” Pellen sighed finally. “Let’s have a look.”

Trinka began emptying fistfuls of talismans from her genie purse, tossing aside bottles and baubles, trinkets and talismans, spilling them all over the deck.

The whole ship rocked as the enormous crystal came loose. It was a good thing the jewel hadn’t landed with its pointed end down or the hull might have been pierced, and Trinka doubted even Spout and Spigot could bail that much water.

“Oooh!” Solange and Delphine gasped in unison as the sailors gaped.

Pellen approached and ran his thin, light fingers over its surface. “It has a crack in it,” he observed dryly, but his eyes betrayed his interest as they flickered over the crystal’s gleaming surface greedily.

“I know. It must have split. There’s more of it.” Trinka shook the bag once more, and the jewel’s outer shell fell to the deck.

“What do you want for it?”

“I don’t want dream dross, I want…” Her voice trailed off, uncertain of how to phrase her request.

“But we are dream merchants,” Pellen explained with a bite of impatience. “That is our trade. I suppose we could take you back with us, if that’s what you’d rather have.”

“No, I don’t want to go back,” Trinka replied firmly. “I will trade you the solid jewel if you fill the outer shell with elaphromyria. I can make my own stories.”

Pellen looked at her in surprise, then something like alarm, then he looked as if he might laugh out loud at her.

“Done,” he said quickly. In a matter of moments, he had filled the outer shell of the jewel with thick, swirling, white mist from the elaphromyria, and Solange and Delphine closed their eyes and concentrated as they laid their hands on it until the top of it twisted closed, forming a massive version of the vial Annelise had given her. And in just a moment more, Trinka was left with what she had requested, as the dream merchants picked up their prize and swiftly disappeared into the mist.

All Trinka wanted now was peace and quiet, but it seemed to be the one commodity that was completely out of supply. Matros and Vann wanted to talk to her about the giant jewel and tried to get her to tell stories about how she had found it. Knop and Thork wanted her to inscribe a record of the incident on the deck where the jewel had almost dented it, and Yerik and Gudlaug wanted to know what she would do with the jewel shell next. Raido only wanted her to pick up the talismans she had spilled all over, the sooner the better, and Snorri wanted Ullali to stop dropping scarves in his soup pot.

Although the ship was always crowded, it had never seemed that nine men took up so much room, nor seemed so hard to find space to sit and think undisturbed. For the first time, Trinka began to appreciate the silence and solitude of Ellipsis. As everyone finally settled back into their routines, Trinka crawled into the empty cargo hold. Her talismans followed and circled around her, resting on her lap or settling down nearby. Grble plunked down at her right arm. Spigot hopped onto her shoulder. Spout rested his head on her knee and promptly fell asleep, dribbling water on her feet as he began twitching in his dreams. Alfredo’s purple and blue flame provided a dim glow in the darkening mist.

Now that she had the giant jewel shell full of elaphromyria, there was only one flaw in her plan to make a traveling charm, really. She didn’t know how to do it. Trinka wished there was a way she could just tell her mother what she was feeling―or even her father, for that matter.

The adults on Ellipsis, especially the teachers, often mind-melded to discuss things with each other without having to be in the same physical space. Trinka hadn’t learned how yet―it was supposed to be easy, but the teachers at the Predilect didn’t consider their students mature enough to use it wisely until they reached the Elite Academy. Most of them had learned at least a little bit about it anyway through parents, friends, or, as in Trinka’s case, older siblings. Annelise had tried to explain to Trinka how it worked and to share her thoughts with her, but Trinka had only succeeded in perceiving a general feeling that was obvious anyway.

The endless, even lapping of the waves against the ship made for a sort of silence. Not as still as the absolute quiet revered in Ellipsis, but a soothing, steady sound. One that let her mind slip away from the water, back to the hot, dry, sandy shores of Apostrophe, back to the palace that perched upon the high, red cliffs, across the garden, and in through the back door.

“I know you’re in there. If I were you, where would I be?”

At first, Trinka pictured the balcony where she had first seen her mother’s sweet young face, smelled her familiar fragrance.

Don’t look for her face, look for her feelings, Trinka remembered Annelise’s advice. When she had seen Ashira that first time, her mother had been facing the sea, looking out at the distant waves, lost in their endless motion.

Just as Bram did when he threw away the truthstone. Maybe if they’re both thinking and feeling the same thing… maybe I can bring their thoughts together.

Trinka closed her eyes and gave away all other thoughts, thinking only of her two parents and what they might be thinking and feeling right now. And then she heard Bram’s voice, seemingly inside her head.

Ashira… is this a dream? Or can I just not forget things that happened long ago? I must still be remembering.

No! Trinka wanted to interrupt her father’s thoughts. You’re seeing her how she is right now. But she kept still. She couldn’t break her concentration.

I keep seeing people who look familiar, yet I can’t quite remember who they are. First that girl, now the sailor in my dreams. Who are they? Why do I feel I should know them?

Why can’t I get her out of my head? She left me and that’s that. I can’t believe she never came back, even to say good-bye to the children. She must be too proud. She always did have a temper.

I feel like something’s missing. Like there’s something I’ve forgotten how to do. Is it living? I go places and do things and see people, but it’s almost like they’re a mirage. Sometimes I don’t feel I’m really here at all, that I’m really somewhere else.

I should have known it wouldn’t last. It was a foolish dream to begin with. We’re from entirely different worlds. We didn’t always agree, but that was the one thing she was right about. We never should have met.

I wonder what would happen if I took a walk, down by the sea. It seems to me I used to do that when I felt angry or happy. But now I don’t feel… anything. Maybe a walk would remind me.

I wonder what would happen if I sailed over there. Just showed up and said, “By the way, remember me? We used to be married and have kids together.’” They’re nearly all grown up now, all but one of them at least. She probably doesn’t even remember you, you’ve been gone so long, and we’ve been apart so much she probably thinks I don’t care about her at all. Even now that she’s here, I’ve hardly spent any time with her. I meant to. But I’ve been busy… thinking of you.

I wonder what’s beyond the garden, down the steps, toward the shore. It’s been so long since I’ve left the palace, I can’t remember. Surely I must have been there before.

I can almost see her, coming down the stairs.

Toward the shore, as if I’m running out to meet it, or it’s coming up to meet me…

She’s like a vision, like no one else I’ve ever seen.

Maybe it’s the coolness of the sea, but I feel better―freer. Is it just the sea I’ve missed? It’s like an old friend. Like it’s not just something coming to meet me, but someone.

I’ve got to do it. No matter how much it hurts, I have to go there. I have to see her.

“Ashira!” A new voice entered the reverie, at first strange, but then horribly familiar. “Come back inside,” it ordered. “You don’t want to get sick, out in the heat of the day. Why don’t you have a nice, cool drink—?”

“No!” Trinka screamed. Instantly, the world she had built in her mind shattered as the sound of Vashti’s voice, and then her own, interrupted it, like the sound of glass crashing to the schoolroom floor. Trinka felt as if she had been struck in the stomach, and everything from her hands to her eyeballs ached with the effort it had taken to keep such a strong connection, between people so far apart, alive for that long. But more than anything, she ached from the knowledge she had almost made something work, and then lost it.

“Trinka! Trinka!” All of a sudden, Bram was standing over her, gripping her arms. “Where’s your mother? Have you seen her?”

At first, all Trinka could think of was that she had never seen her father so excited before.

“Yes,” she finally answered. “Have you?”

“I think so. I was sitting on the ship, thinking about her, and all of a sudden, it was like I could see her, I could hear her.”

“I can get her back! Maybe I can even bring her here.”

Stanley laughed, a dry, involuntary sort of “ha.”

“It would take someone really powerful to transport people outside the elaphromyria,” he said. “And we’ll be leaving it soon. Better save what strength you have left.”

Hearing that only made Trinka want to try harder than ever, but even she felt the weight of defeat dragging her back down.

She looked up at her father, and for the first time Trinka could remember, she saw water dripping, not just from his sleeves, but from the corners of his eyes.

“I’m sorry, Dad, I…”

“No. I’m the one who’s sorry. I…” her father’s voice faltered, as it always did when he was forced to speak too many words at once. “She’s been gone all this time, and I never did anything to…”

Bram’s voice faded and choked, and this time he gave up speaking and held out his arms to her. Trinka did the same. As she closed her eyes and rested her head on his shoulder, she felt for the moment that even if nothing else turned out right, at least she was there, at last, with her father.

It wasn’t until they heard the other men on the ship shuffling uncomfortably and quietly clearing their throats that they finally let go.

“There is another way, I think,” Trinka whispered as Bram pulled away.

Her father wiped the side of his face, then brushed Trinka’s hair back from her forehead, his fingers still wet, his eyes looking intently into hers.

“You can go to Apostrophe. Jamilah―she’s my cousin―and I were working on giving her memories back to her. If she remembers the first time you came for her, she might know who you are if you came for her again.”

Bram sat quietly for a moment, looking pale and thoughtful.

“How soon can we reach the shores of Apostrophe?” Thork asked.

“Well, the return trip is always faster once we’ve unloaded the jewels,” Bram began thoughtfully. “If we chart our course carefully…”

“And you can bet we’ll tell enough stories to bring the wind from every wave on the sea,” Vann interrupted.

“Hear!” the other men echoed in agreement.

“Just a minute,” Raido objected. “This crew isn’t on deck for personal expeditions. I’ll say where this ship goes.”

There was a lengthy pause as everyone turned to stare at him.

“We’re going there anyway,” Thork pointed out finally. “We’ve got an empty cargo hold waiting to be loaded.”

All eyes watched and waited as Raido’s gruff face paused thoughtfully.

“Well,” he said finally. “What are you all waiting for?”

All hands scrambled. All men hurried to their posts. Spigot, Spout, and Butwhat rushed about eagerly and aimlessly.

“Don’t worry, Trinkalassa,” Bram assured her. “We’ll sail faster than we’ve ever sailed before.”

Trinka nodded weakly and hoped it would be fast enough.

 

h1={color:#808080;}.
Chapter Nineteen

Race from Brace

Trinka leaned over the side of the ship and gazed out at the incessant waves. On land, there had been hills, rocks, plants, and objects in the distance to break up the view. Here, there really was nothing but water, water all around. She began to see how the sailors tended to get lulled into a trance if they looked at it too long, lost to the outside world, lost in their own thoughts…

“Trinka,” Bram interrupted. “Here, I want you to have this.” He handed her a short, heavy tube with circles of glass at both ends.

“What is it?”

“A haliommat. Look.” Her father grasped the object and helped guide it up so that Trinka could look through the smaller circle. All of a sudden, the object jumped and, with a series of clicking noises, unfurled itself into an even longer tube made of pieces that spiraled out from each other. Only Bram’s steady hand kept Trinka from dropping it over the side of the ship. Two more small glass circles popped up at the far end of the instrument, blinking like eyes before focusing steadily on the view ahead.

“What do you see?” Bram asked.

Trinka, still startled, peered carefully through the glass.

“Water,” she reported with a small sigh.

“There’s more out there than that.” Bram laughed gently. He took the haliommat from her and looked through it, and Trinka watched the glass eyes grow larger and smaller as they scanned the sea.

“Are we getting any closer?” Trinka couldn’t help asking. Even though everyone on the ship said they were moving quickly, it seemed to her that they were hardly moving at all.

“Of course, can’t you tell? The wind is already getting warmer and tickling you gently every way you turn—a kile breeze, and the water looks a deeper blue—an indigo-ultramarine. Even the seaweed here is redder.”

Trinka’s stomach grumbled, and she tried not to think about the small amount of seaweed soup she’d managed to slurp down that morning.

“Try this one. It’s called dulse—it’s a sweeter seaweed.”

Trinka munched on the copper-colored piece of sea plant while Bram adjusted the haliommat. It felt like a crisp, dried leaf from the terrace garden, but with a rougher, more fibrous texture. While she wouldn’t call it exactly sweet, its lightness was certainly a welcome change from the recent fare. She downed half a dozen of them in quick succession.

“Here,” he said, adjusting the haliommat. “Try again.”

Trinka looked, and to her surprise, this time she found herself staring at a giant sea creature arching up out of the waves. His enormous, round, rubbery-looking body lifted out of the water as if he were going to fly straight out of it, then crashed back into the sea. A mighty tail broke the surface as his head disappeared, glistening briefly. When Trinka lowered her eyes from the haliommat, she could barely see a small glimmer in the distance where the huge creature had been, even though through the haliommat, it had seemed they were standing right next to it.

“An eoui,” Bram explained. “You’ll see lots of them in these waters. Look, there’s even another ship.” He pointed, but no matter how hard Trinka squinted through the haliommat, all she could see were the deep-blue waves and a bit of froth where the eoui had been. Bram guided the haliommat to the left, and the glass eyes grew even larger.

Trinka was startled to see that, indeed, there was another ship.

“There are other people on Brace?”

Bram couldn’t help but laugh out loud, and Trinka grinned. She knew it sounded stupid, but after spending all her time on Brace with her father and just eight other sailors, it was strange to think that there really was a whole world out there full of creatures and people and families. She suddenly felt herself wishing she too had some friends with her. She missed Nikolay, Oana, Jamilah… even Ewen.

“They’re probably sailing to Archiploim, the city where you were born. It’s too far to see from here.”

“Is it on land or in the water?”

“Well, it’s a floating city. Maybe we’ll go there someday.”

Her eyes hungered for more, but at the same time, the sight reminded her of why she had come, and what they were sailing for. She could tell now that their own ship really was sailing fast, because even with the haliommat, the families on the other ship were getting farther and farther away, becoming tiny dots, until even the sails of the other ship slipped from view.

The days slipped by too, one after another, and even Trinka could see and feel the difference in the water now. It was definitely warmer, red rocks jutted out from it occasionally, and bits of seaweed and debris floated by. It had a new smell to it, too.

“It’s the salt. The water gets salty close to Apostrophe,” Bram explained. “Usually, we bring them fresh water from Brace in exchange for the crystals, but…”

“We’ve gotten here so fast, they’d never expect us,” Knop interrupted.

“Besides, the water would slow the ship down, and we’ve got more important business first.” Thork winked at Trinka.

“A span further south, and then we make for the port of Jawhar?” Raido said. It sounded almost like an order, but Trinka caught the subtle questioning tone in his voice. Bram was the navigator. He would decide.

Bram nodded.

“We’ll have to sail directly toward the cliffs.”

“But is that safe? If we get too close we’ll be wrecked.”

“I’ve landed there before.”

“But what if…” Raido began.

“Hey, he’s starting to sound like someone else around here,” Vann called out, gesturing toward where Butwhat sat with Spigot and Spout.

The sailors laughed, and Raido scowled.

“We will have to be careful,” Bram said slowly. “It’s possible the coastline may have changed since then.”

Trinka peered through the haliommat.

On the edge of the cliff, Vashti’s palace loomed closer and closer. Trinka could almost see the individual windows and doors as the haliommat focused in. Through the lens, Trinka could see Vashti’s terrace garden draped with large white banners and more flowers than ever before. Everything seemed prepared for a large gathering, and Trinka had a sinking suspicion it was for much more than an ordinary dinner party.

“Dad!” Trinka paused and bit her lip. Should she tell him what she saw, and what she thought it meant? “I… I think we need to hurry.”

Bram said nothing and didn’t come to look, but his already grim face grew a little tighter, and his steady grasp seemed to will the ship to go a little faster.

“Please let us be in time,” Trinka murmured, as she looked through the glass once again. “She can’t do this. What a horrible wedding.”

“I was a wedding gift.”

Trinka jumped, startled to find Stanley the Whatler perched on the edge of the ship beside her.

“What?”

“I say, I was a wedding gift,” Stanley repeated. “From Bahir Faruq to Vashti and Musonas. Of course, anyone else would have been thrilled with such a marvelous present. But did they appreciate me? No, of course not.”

Trinka sighed inwardly and tried to ignore him as she peered through the haliommat again. To Trinka’s surprise, the garden hadn’t been expanded like it had the night of the dinner party, but all of the planters had been moved to the sides, clearing the way for rows of seats. A center aisle of scarlet made its way straight toward her and ended under an archway of fluttering white fabric. Under the canopy sat a wide, slender table with a large, empty bowl in the center and two small, red bowls of sand on either side. A few of the decorating genies twirled bits of streamers onto the chairs, but other than that, the terrace was empty. Her best chance to steal her mother away from the ceremony and get her to meet Bram would be to slip in quietly while everyone was still getting ready.

“If only I could get there sooner,” Trinka mused aloud.

“I could get you there faster,” Stanley stated.

“How?”

Without a word, Stanley pulled a small string near his shoulder, and suddenly a cloud of rubbery fabric burst out from the back of his head, finally settling into a round, rather flat shape with Stanley’s face on the front.

“Will you look at that,” Matros called out, and several of the other sailors echoed his sentiment.

“Well, then?”

Trinka looked at her father, expecting him to be concerned, but he appeared relieved and nodded.

“Yes, go ahead. We’ll meet you there,” he pointed to the cliff. “If you can’t get away, we’ll come find you.”

The sailors helped Trinka into the raft and lowered her carefully over the side of the ship.

“We’re coming too!” Spout declaring, his handle wagging. “A boat like that is bound to need bailing.”

“And I will stay with you to the end,” Grble told Trinka, his long, rocky fingers gripping hers tightly.

“And take the rest of them with you too,” Raido handed her the genie purse as the rest of her talismans piled in.

True to Stanley’s word, the little raft sped quickly across the water, dodging rocks and splashing them all with a spray of water. Spigot and Spout gurgled and giggled with delight, and Trinka didn’t even have time to glance back at the ship before they had hit the sand. The raft deflated, and Stanley quickly resumed his usual form.

“Thanks,” Trinka told him as she scrambled off and caught her breath.

Stanley bowed briefly.

Trinka turned to look back at the ship through the haliommat and saw her father waving back at her. She took a deep breath and started toward the palace. As Trinka made her way up the steps at the back of the garden, she heard a chorus of clink-clink-clinks, clop-clop-clops, and clackety-clacks behind her as all of the talismans followed. Trinka’s first thought was to tell them all to be quiet and go back to wait on the sand, but as she turned around and saw their supportive faces, she couldn’t help but smile and think it was good to have them behind her.

As they approached the top, Trinka peered carefully over the ledge. No one was in sight.

“Grble, you can come with me. Spigot, Spout?” Trinka hesitated. “Why don’t you wait here?”

“Good idea! We’ll keep watch for you,” Spout answered proudly. Drops of water dribbled from his mouth as his handle wagged back and forth in excitement.

“And I’ll send up the alarm,” Alfredo the emergency flare added, “if something happens.”

No, don’t do that, that’s the last thing we need, Trinka wanted to say, but she said nothing as she watched the three of them scurry under the chairs to hide and wait. Trinka could only hope they’d stay there quietly and not sound the alarm too soon.

“Ullali?” The absent-minded genie was adding a few of her own colored scarves to the white ones that decorated the walls of the terrace, and was too busy with her task to answer. Oh well, thought Trinka. Best to just leave her there. At least maybe she can blend in with the other genies.

“What about me?” Stanley asked.

Trinka paused. As hard as it was to like Stanley, he had helped her a lot and might be able to help her again. And she didn’t want to leave him there alone, with no place to go.

“You can come with me, too,” she said finally. It was hard to be sure, but it looked like Stanley almost blushed as he beamed back at her. The three of them made their way cautiously around the perimeter of the garden, Stanley’s plunger leg squelching loudly with every bounce.

“Um, do you think you can follow more quietly?” Trinka asked.

Without a word, Stanley transformed. He pulled the plunger into his body, shot out six flat, finely tipped blades, and began creeping along as silently and deftly as a spider.

As they drew behind the final row of chairs, Trinka crouched down and crawled behind the planters near the palace wall.

“Grble, can you look in the window?”

Grble’s body stayed safely hidden while his eyes bobbed just above the lower edge of the opening.

“They are there,” he croaked quietly.

“Are they facing the window?”

Grble’s eyes held steady while his head shook back and forth. Trinka was about to risk peeking in when she remembered the mirror Jamilah had used to see people coming toward the room they were in. She reached into her pocket and found it still safely tucked inside. She peered into the tiny glass at the three figures who came into view.

“Jamilah, why such a sour face on such a joyous day?” her aunt’s familiar voice came to her. “It’s most unladylike.”

“I’m hungry,” Jamilah answered moodily.

“Me too!” Sabirah protested. “We didn’t even get breakfast!” But her mother wouldn’t let her wrestle away from her grasp and continued lacing up the back of her dress.

“You both had all that was necessary to feel full. And you can eat after the wedding.”

“Ouch! You’re pulling too tight,” Sabirah complained. “Why do we have to have a wedding? Why can’t we just eat?”

“Nonsense,” Vashti snapped. Her face grew even grimmer as she tied the final knot firmly. “Believe me. There will be a wedding.”

Suddenly, the three figures in the mirror disappeared, and it wasn’t until she heard steps on the stone that she realized they were coming right past her. She hunched down further behind the planters and held her breath as their skirts swept past, wondering how to get Jamilah to see her without being seen.

Carefully she slid the spy locket out in front of the planter. Jamilah spotted it as it glinted and quickly reached down to pick it up. As she bent over, she came face to face with Trinka and almost jumped in surprise. She kept her cool, however, and pretended to busy herself with her shoe as they leaned closer. The two of them locked eyes.

“Jamilah, what do you think of this table arrangement? Is it too close to the thymmel?” Aunt Vashti pointed to the tent at the end of the aisle.

Jamilah said nothing as she stood up again, but her eyes moved silently upward and her head tilted slightly toward the staircase that led from the back of a second-floor tower room to the garden below. Trinka blinked an affirmation. As soon as they were out of sight, all she had to do was creep carefully up the stairs, find her mother, and spirit her away to the ship.

Trinka was just about to risk creeping out from behind the planters when Vashti suddenly turned.

“Gracious! The guests are arriving already! Come along, girls, we must greet them.”

“When are we going to have dessert?” Sabirah whined. Jamilah tried to linger behind them so she could talk to Trinka after the others had gone inside, but her mother steered her girls firmly into the palace.

“Remember, ladies,” she smiled through gritted teeth, “a wedding is a happy occasion.”

As soon as they had disappeared, Trinka scurried toward the steps. But before she could reach them, Aunt Vashti sent her first group of guests out into the garden.

“Come, you must see all the flowers we have…”

“Quick! The kitchen,” Trinka decided, making for the door beneath the steps. She eased open the immense stone door, slipped inside, and closed it behind them. A kaleidoscope of color burst into motion before their eyes.

The kitchen was alive with activity as Trinka had never seen it before. Cakes sped through the air, platters hurtled, and in the midst of it all, streams of fabric of every color imaginable writhed and wriggled, swayed and swooped as the genies went about their business with even more enthusiasm than usual.

“Oh, hello,” a genie in green slowed down long enough to notice their visitors. “I’m Nahimana. Who are you?”

“This is Grble, and this is Stanley,” Trinka nodded toward them. Nahimana looked back at her as cheerfully and blankly as if they had never seen each other before. “And I’m Trinka,” she added finally.

“Trinka, Trinka, Trinka…” several of the genies repeated.

“Oh!” A chorus of the sounds went up all around her as the genies joined in joyful recognition. The genies began babbling to each other in their own language, and its laughing, fluttering sounds filled the room.

It seemed they could remember far more as a group than any one of them could remember alone. Maybe that explained Ullali’s problem. She thought about asking them how she could get to Ashira, but the genies were already playfully back at work, spinning plates, frosting cakes, and whipping up desserts right and left.

“Genies,” Stanley muttered as the three of them slipped quietly from the kitchen into the narrow passageway that Trinka had first come down through the chute. They should be able to use it to sneak upstairs. Trinka paused as she heard familiar voices coming from the other side of the wall.

“And you never did find out what happened to her daughter?” Bahir Faruq was asking.

“Daughter?” Aunt Vashti feigned ignorance.

“I should think she would want to be here for her own mother’s wedding.”

“No, she definitely won’t be here,” Vashti insisted uncomfortably and immediately changed the subject.

Trinka was about to turn and slip back into the chute when Jamilah appeared in the dining room.

“How did you know I was here?” Trinka whispered. Jamilah grinned and held up the spy locket. Trinka pulled her into a hug, relieved to have someone on her side.

“Listen, there isn’t much time. The garden’s filling up with guests, and Amir’s already here,” Jamilah told her in a low voice. “I don’t know what’s happened to your mom, but she’s been acting weird lately.”

“What do you mean?” Trinka asked, wondering what part of her mother’s recent behavior had ever been considered “normal”.

“She won’t take her potion anymore, and all she talks about is wanting to go to sea.”

Trinka remained silent, but inside she was screaming gleefully.

“It’s not going to be easy to get her out of here, though. There are people coming in the front door and the back, and…” Jamilah stopped abruptly as the dining room door opened again.

“Hey, what are you doing here?” her sister’s unmistakable voice demanded. Trinka ducked back into the passageway, but there was no time for the chute. She bolted back through the kitchen door just as Jamilah slammed the door to the passageway shut.

“Nothing, I’m going right back out to greet the guests.”

“If you’re sneaking dessert, I am too!”

“Sabirah, no, you know we’re not allowed in there!” She could hear the two of them wrestling for control of the doorknob.

Stanley quickly pulled a small metal object from his arsenal of tools and inserted it in the keyhole. The doorknob stopped moving.

“Hey!” Sabirah’s shrill voice protested. “How did you do that?”

“I didn’t do it!”

“Then how’d it happen?”

“Maybe the door knows you’re not supposed to go in there.”

“That’s stupid!”

“You’re—”

“Girls! Come back out here at once. It’s almost time.”

“Almost time!” the genies exclaimed. They threw open the back door and began sending the desserts sailing through the air and onto the tables.

There was nowhere else to hide. And no way to get her mother away before the wedding. Trinka sighed, and Stanley and Grble followed her back into the garden, staying behind the genies and their whirl of activity. Sabirah had run out into the garden and was running toward the flying desserts, but her mother dragged her off to stand beside the thymmel. Trinka crouched behind the tables trying to think of a way, any way, to steal her mother away.

She peered out from behind the colored table cloths. The garden was packed with people. Bahir Faruq and Bahira Cantara were seated in the front row, with a couple and two young boys whose fidgeting reminded Trinka of Ickle and Fiszbee when they were about to blast loose. From the sour expression on the face of the woman next to Bahira Cantara, Trinka supposed they must be mother and daughter.

Without warning, the back doors flew open, and Ashira emerged in the archway. All eyes turned.

Her dress was the loveliest Trinka had ever seen—a simple, sleeveless, streaming, white gown whose sleek silhouette revealed the gentle curve of Ashira’s hips while folds of white fabric trailed behind her. Over her dark, upswept hair flowed a flaming red veil that spilled down her back. Her face, far from glowing with the elated look of love she had shown in her diary, had a clouded, far-off quality, as if she were trying to remember why she was there.

“Why does she have that thing on her head?” one of the grandsons asked, much louder than his parents would have liked.

“It’s a flamium,” Bahir Faruq answered quietly. “In the old days, they used to have weddings at dusk, and the bride would wear a crown of flaming torches on her head to symbolize her love. It’s a shame they don’t do that anymore. Remember, my dear?”

“How could I forget,” his wife replied grimly. “A bride had to walk very carefully to keep from catching on fire.”

“Yea!” the boy exclaimed. “Now that would be fun!”

“Shh!” hissed their mother.

“If she’s not on fire, why does she have to carry water?” the other boy asked, pointing to the large, gracefully curving pitcher that she carried in her hands.

“That symbolizes wealth. It’s the water she took a bath in last night.”

“Ew!” the boys exclaimed.

Ashira began her walk up the aisle. Amir stood waiting for her under the thymmel, in a white jacket embroidered with heavy gold thread and a scarlet cape over one shoulder. For the first time, Trinka felt a surge of uncertainty creep into her plans. Would Ashira want to leave her life in a jewel-strewn palace and abandon her prince and her flower gardens to eat seaweed on the never-ending waves of Brace?

Trinka’s mother stepped under the canopy. Amir tried to take her soft, slender arm, but she merely slipped from his grasp and kept walking past him. Her eyes focused not on the one who waited for her by the bowls of sand, but on the ship that waited for her by the sea. Without warning, she dropped the carafe, which cracked and shattered, spilling the precious water and causing the guests to gasp.

Ashira’s lost, clouded look melted away as her smile burst forth like a sudden sunrise chasing away the darkness. Her red veil trailed behind her as she quickened her steps, the flame-colored cloth outshone by the radiance in her face as she ran toward the stairs, not in a dream this time, but for real. The cloth broke free, flying up into the sky.

Trinka was so wrapped up in the delightful sight she didn’t realize she had left her hiding place until a handful of sharp fingernails dug into her shoulder.

“Only you could have caused this!” Aunt Vashti screamed.

“Let her go!” Grble’s strong fingers grasped at her other arm, but Vashti was not to be deterred.

“Get away from here, you horrid thing!” As she tried to release herself without releasing Trinka, they knocked over a table, spilling piles of food onto the floor.

The genies, who had just come from the kitchen with the rest of the desserts, quickly joined in the spirit of the thing and began joyously tossing cakes and creams in all directions, splattering the chairs, the garden, and most of the guests.

“Sit down!” Vashti cried in vain. “There will be a wedding!”

The guests retreated toward the wall of the palace, watching helplessly as pans crashed, decorations flew, and an entire table full of durian tarts sailed through the air and landed on the hapless Amir’s white embroidered jacket.

“Yea!” the two grandsons stood up on their chairs and cheered as their mother tried to soothe Bahira Cantara, who was pulling bits of sticky fruit topping from her décolletage.

Sabirah ran toward the food rather than away from it, sticking her face directly into a six-layered cake. Her enjoyment of the situation quickly turned to high-pitched shrieks as Ickle and Fiszbee came whooshing out.

“We’re back!” they sang gleefully in unison as they rushed around her in circles, brushing against her cheeks.

“Go away!” she screamed hysterically.

Away.

Yes, that was exactly what Trinka needed to do. She managed to pull out her genie purse and slip it to Grble. He took it and looked back at her, blinking in what she hoped was understanding.

“This is definitely an emergency!” Alfredo shrieked, his arms and head sparking wildly as he hurried past. Spigot and Spout dashed after him, trying to douse the flames, but in their excitement, ended up soaking almost everything else instead. The flowing white fabric that hung above them grew wet and heavy and fell onto a row of guests, trapping them.

As Alfredo rushed past, sparks flew onto Vashti’s skirt, and Trinka felt the grip on her shoulder loosen as her aunt shrieked and attended to the smoldering fabric. Trinka seized the opportunity and broke loose, dashing to the end of the garden and pounding down the stairs, not stopping until her feet hit the sand. She could hear the clatter of a few talismans coming down behind her, but most of their noise was drowned out by the sounds of mayhem still issuing from the garden above.

She scanned the beach desperately and spotted Bram and six of the other sailors heading toward the palace on foot while their ship waited near the cliffs. Ashira had abandoned her shoes in the sand and was making her way toward them as fast as her long dress would allow.

“What’s going on here!” Amir demanded from above, trying to muster up all the authority he could while being pelted with candied nuts.

“I know the groomsmen often pretend to kidnap the bride during the reception, but before the ceremony?” Bahir Faruq mused as he looked down at them from the railing.

Trinka quickly caught up with her mother and grabbed her hand, urging her forward.

Behind them, Aunt Vashti screamed “After her!”

A few of the guests started toward the stairs, but Stanley quickly expanded his arsenal of tools and pulled out a dozen different blades, standing guard.

“Sliced, diced, or julienned?” he asked primly.

The guests retreated hastily. Trinka flashed him a smile of thanks over her shoulder.

Bram and Ashira had almost reached each other, their happy faces oblivious to everything else that was happening, but there wasn’t enough time for them to get back onto the ship and away from all the chaos.

Unless…

“Grble!” Trinka called. “Break the jewel!”

After a moment’s pause, the gorglum’s long, strong fingers heaved the enormous crystal over his head and to the stone steps below. It shattered with a mighty crack, sending out a billowing fog that enclosed the entire area in a thick, swirling mist just like the elaphromyria.

Trinka breathed in its coolness as the others sputtered and coughed. All the noisy rancor suddenly died away, as no one could see anything, and no one wanted to move. It couldn’t have been quieter in the silent study halls of Ellipsis.

Trinka took a deep breath and grasped her parents’ hands tightly.

“Come with me!”

 

 

\     Solidus     \[][]

“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I intended to be.”

- Douglas Adams

h1={color:#808080;}.
Chapter Twenty

Family Reunion

Trinka felt warm and calm. She knew the peace she had felt among the flowing streams of Parthalan, the joy she had felt at seeing her mother escape from her palace on Apostrophe, the freedom she had felt sailing through the waters and winds of Brace, and the thrill that had slipped through her mind when she had dreamed of flying away from the towers of Ellipsis. Somewhere, she heard a sound that reminded her of waves.

Trinka opened her eyes and, for the first time, wondered where she was. She suddenly sat upright, and saw that she had been lying on a bed of sand. She looked behind her, expecting to see Aunt Vashti’s palace and a horde of guests and talismans tearing down at her, but instead she saw only a lush green forest with thick, white clouds floating in the brilliant blue sky overhead.

She turned as she caught a glimpse of white skirt fluttering beside her, and was surprised to see, not Ashira, but Annelise.

“Trinka, how did you bring me here?”

“I didn’t bring you here, I… Annelise, you’ve got to help me.” Trinka looked up to see another familiar face staring down at her.

“Hey, sis!”

Trinka winced. Had she blown everything and ended up on Ampersand again?

“That glad to see me, eh?” Kolinkar laughed. Trinka felt his strong hands catch her under the arms and haul her to her feet.

No sooner had he set her down again than another voice greeted her.

“Oh, Trinka!” Tarian exclaimed and immediately clapped Trinka in a huge, warm hug. “I’ve been so worried about you!”

Kolinkar mouthed something that looked like “mothers” as Tarian finally let her go.

“I thought it was a mistake, going to Apostrophe, but I found Mother…” Trinka began. Her voice trailed off as her eyes scanned the beach, longing, hoping…

She spotted her father at the water’s edge, cradling a tall, white figure in his arms. Her long dress streamed out into the waves. Her hair had come loose from the red flowers that held it upswept, and it fell softly over her shoulder. She stirred slightly and slowly lifted a hand toward her forehead. She no longer looked like the youthful lady Trinka had seen on Apostrophe. Slight wrinkles graced her face, her dress hugged her hips more tightly, her skin had slightly speckled and sagged in places, and her delicate fingers showed signs of wear. Her eyes no longer showed the timelessness of an empty life, but the fullness of the age that was due her.

It was the most beautiful sight Trinka had ever seen.

“Mom!” Kolinkar dashed over and picked her up, twirling her around several times before finally setting her back down on the sand. The rest of the flowers fell loose from her hair, and she looked up at him dizzily, marveling at the way her firstborn son now towered over her.

“Kolinkar… how did you get so…?” she began.

“Mom, this is my wife, Tarian.”

“So nice to finally meet you.” Tarian grasped Ashira’s hand and shook it warmly.

“When did you…?” Ashira started to say, but her voice trailed off as her eyes rested on another person standing nearby.

“Annelise?”

“Yes, Mom.” Trinka’s sister stepped forward. Watching the two of them standing there, facing each other, was like looking at some strange kind of mirror. Both had the same tall, slender build, soft hair (although Annelise’s was blonde and, at the moment, tidier), and large, expressive eyes. Only their coloring was different, with Ashira’s rich, dark looks appearing the exact opposite of Annelise’s pale complexion. Even their clothing looked alike, with Annelise in her ethereal robes and Ashira still wearing her long, white wedding dress.

“I never dreamed the day would come when I’d see you again,” Annelise said as the two of them embraced softly.

Trinka caught her father’s eye, and he nodded, urging her forward. Trinka took a deep breath. Her turn. Slowly, she stepped closer to her mother, and waited. Her mother paused thoughtfully, and her eyes widened.

“Trinka?”

“Yes, Mom. It’s me, Trinka.”

Ashira’s eyes grew even wider as she looked her over. “I’m so…”

“Disappointed?” Trinka suggested, praying that the answer would be “no.”

“Yes, terribly!” Ashira exclaimed. “Just look at you!”

Trinka’s throat tightened.

“Here you are, half grown-up, and I never got to see it because I’ve been…” She began to look vague again as she pondered just where she could have been for the last half of her daughter’s life. “I don’t know what to do, I feel like I could…”

A piercing scream hit the air.

The five of them turned and saw Vashti and her daughters struggling with their long skirts at the edge of the water. Jamilah was the first to pick up the hem of her soaking wet dress and make her way toward them.

“You did it! Where are we?”

The rest of the family looked at Jamilah.

“Who are you?” Ashira asked.

“We’re cousins,” Trinka explained.

“Oh,” her mother replied, clearly more confused.

“I demand an explanation for this!” Amir said stiffly as he appeared behind Vashti. The water had washed some, but not all, of the splattered desserts from his cape.

Not only had Vashti, Amir, Bahir Faruq, and all the rest of the wedding guests who had gotten caught up in the mist arrived, but behind them Trinka noticed all her talismans (Grble, Ullali, Alfredo, Stanley, Spigot, and Spout) still looking toward her, eagerly, expectantly. She looked by the water and saw the six sailors from Bram’s ship who had been with them. And from the edge of the forest came Habba, Wynn, Aart, Sten, Oana, and Ewen. Trinka looked in astonishment at the huge assembly, which seemed to include almost everyone she had met in her travels… and then some.

Kolinkar leaned over to Annelise.

“How’d you do all this?”

But Annelise shook her head and held out a thin, pale hand that pointed directly at Trinka. Everyone seemed to be staring at her.

She shifted on her feet. “Well, I was thinking about wanting us all to be together, and the elaphromyria, and I knew we had to get away to someplace safe, and I was thinking about all the places I’ve been, and I guess I sort of concentrated too hard.” Trinka swallowed. That would be a first.

“You mean you brought everyone who ever gave you a talisman with you?” Annelise asked, astonished.

“Well, seeing the talismans reminded me of all the people who had given them to me, and believed in me, and…”

“If you brought us here, then send us back!” Vashti demanded. “We’re supposed to be witnessing a wedding!”

Trinka looked at Amir, who stood with the light glinting off the golden threads in his jacket and his head held high, strong, and proud, like the magnificent winged aeluroscelis that carried his golden chariot high above the palace towers in Apostrophe. He stared in astonishment at his beautiful, young bride-to-be, who was now standing―wet, disheveled, and practically his own age―at the side of another man.

Trinka looked at her father, who stood a few steps away from the rest of the crowd. His hair stood on end, his seaweed sweater dripped, and a faint glow of hope shone from his gray-blue eyes.

“Madam,” Amir pronounced stiffly, “I do not understand any of what has happened today, but as I made a promise to you, I stand ready to fulfill it.”

Ashira looked down at her dress, then back at Amir with even greater astonishment than before. “Sir,” she said, “I am shocked you would suggest I could marry anybody but my husband.”

Amir’s chin never wobbled as he tried to exit with dignity, but he had to settle for retreating into the crowd.

“A sticky situation indeed,” Bahir Faruq assured him.

“Wait!” Vashti entreated him. “This is all a slight misunderstanding.”

“Slight?” Amir’s face flushed the color of his cape.

“I mean, we can’t have you leave your wedding without a bride,” Vashti simpered. “Our family is not without its share of eligible women. I mean, I’m practically divorced.”

 

Amir’s eyes flashed, and Vashti quickly changed tactics.

“And then there’s… Jamilah!” she called out desperately, but her oldest daughter only looked at them with a scowl.

“Sabirah. She’s a beautiful young lady and a mere decade away from a marriageable age.” Sabirah batted her eyes ingratiatingly while Amir turned away in disgust. “If you’ll just wait a little longer, I’m sure we can…”

“Just what do you mean by all this?” another man near them demanded. Trinka had never seen the elderly gentleman before, but his presence seemed somehow familiar. When Aunt Vashti saw him, she bit her lip and retreated.

“My father,” Jamilah whispered beside Trinka.

Some of the talismans in Vashti’s trunk, like Stanley, must have belonged to him as well.

“There seems to have been a miscalculation that Amir and Ashira should marry,” Bahir Faruq explained as he greeted his longtime business partner.

“You mean you’re trying to marry my former intended?” Musonas demanded.

Amir seemed taken aback for a moment, and Trinka’s father stepped forward.

“More importantly, you were trying to marry my wife,” he said icily.

“This was all her doing!” Vashti seethed at Trinka. “If she had never come to Apostrophe, this never would have happened.”

“Quite possibly,” Bahir Faruq asserted. “We are fortunate she arrived in time. It is unfortunate you failed to tell Amir the truth earlier.”

“I do not appreciate your duplicity,” Amir sniffed.

Vashti looked like she was going to try to soothe her way out of it, but after seeing the faces of those she had offended, she could only cower quietly.

“So this is how you behave in my absence,” Musonas turned to his wife. “I can see I must take drastic and immediate action,” he announced.

“You mean you’re getting divorced?” Sabirah whined.

“Worse than that. I’m moving back in!”

Aunt Vashti turned paler than the pristine white sand beneath her feet.

“There’s one thing I still don’t understand,” Ashira said as she looked at her sister. “How did everyone suddenly get so old?”

Vashti’s lip curled.

“That’s not what I care about,” Musonas interjected abruptly. “How do we get back to where we came from? I’ve got work to do!”

“There you go, already thinking only about yourself,” Vashti snapped back. The two of them began bickering, and Jamilah rolled her eyes while Sabirah covered her ears.

“All they do is complain!” Sabirah whined above her parents’ voices.

As Trinka looked at the three of them, all she could think was how much she wished they would leave this place and go back to Apostrophe where they belonged. No sooner had she thought it when she blinked, unable to believe her eyes.

They were gone.

She looked around uncertainly. Did everyone else see what she saw?

“What’d you do with them?” Jamilah blurted out.

Apparently, what she saw was no mirage.

“I guess I sent them home,” Trinka answered quietly.

“I’m sure you did,” Annelise said soothingly.

“But how?” she asked her sister even more softly. “I already used up all the elaphromyria.”

“You don’t need it,” Annelise shook her head. “You’ve created a new place. Just like we can do things on Ellipsis that people can’t do anywhere else, your place has its own rules. You can do things here no one else can.”

Trinka swallowed hard.

She hadn’t known she was getting herself into so much responsibility.

“You mean to say that this, this young girl has power that no one else has?” Amir bristled.

A clamor of voices arose.

“If she’s the one who brought us here, she’s the one who should send us home!”

“You expect a young girl to do something no one has ever done before?”

“No offense, lass,” Yerik told her, “I’d sooner swim to shore than be sent hurtling through the unknown.”

The commotion grew. Trinka felt the voices pressing in all around her.

“She can send me first,” Annelise announced confidently. Everyone quieted to listen to her clear, calm voice. “I believe in her.”

The crowd murmured as she turned to say good-bye to her parents.

“Well, normally, I’d say you can’t experiment on your older sister,” Bram told Trinka. “But I’m sure you can do it.” He put his arms around Ashira. “You’ve already put us back where we belong.”

The two of them took Annelise into their embrace for a moment.

“Come back soon,” Ashira whispered as she gave her eldest daughter a kiss on the forehead.

“I will,” Annelise promised. She turned to Trinka, with a look that indicated she was ready.

But was Trinka ready? What if she sent her sister to the wrong part of Ellipsis? Or missed it altogether? But no, she mustn’t think about that. After all, she had concentrated hard enough to bring everyone here. As Trinka remembered that day on the steps when her sister first gave her the vial, Trinka imagined her sister at home, among the graceful glass towers of the City of Mirrors. She belonged there. She should be there.

And, in another moment, she was.

With a small sigh of both heartache and relief, Trinka turned her attention back to the crowd.

Oana’s wide brown eyes looked back at her in wonder.

“I always knew you were special!” she exclaimed.

Trinka smiled. “So are you,” she answered with a hug. “You’re a true friend.”

“I, um, showed the whole class my painting during share time,” she ventured.

Ickle and Fiszbee rushed up, creating a breeze that blew the hair back from her eyes.

“Gooood!” they chortled in unison. “We knew you could, we knew you could.”

Trinka laughed. “Exactly.”

“Trinka.”

She looked up as Ewen hesitated then stepped forward. “I’m sorry for what happened to you in Parthalan.” His words spilled forth in a rush. “It was all my fault. I thought I was protecting our people. But after I found out you’d gone, I realized I was wrong. You never did anything to us. You came in peace, and I’m the one who destroyed it. I felt terrible, and I missed you. Will you forgive me?”

For a moment, Trinka felt a twinge of the hurt he had caused her―and everyone else―that day. She had trusted him and thought he was her friend. Friends didn’t betray you and hate you and threaten you. But then again, friends did ask your forgiveness when they did things they later realized were wrong. She glanced over at Bram and Ashira. After all, if Ewen hadn’t done what he did, she might never have gotten brave enough to go to Apostrophe. She had never thought she could forgive or even think about her mother again, and now she loved her more than ever.

Trinka turned back to Ewen. “I thought you’d never ask.”

Ewen grinned, but before he could respond, Oana gasped and put her hand to her face.

“What?” Trinka asked.

“I just remembere―my mom will wonder where I am.” Her eyes grew wider. “And I hope I haven’t burned the bread!”

The three of them laughed, and the echoing sound reminded Trinka of their happy times together in Parthalan. She closed her eyes and pictured the golden fields and lush, green forests and Oana and Ewen being back home there. When she opened her eyes, they had gone.

“It’s a wise person who has learned how to forgive.” She felt a hand on her shoulder and turned to see Habba―and Wynn, who immediately caught her up in a tight hug.

“I hope I, uh, didn’t cause too much trouble by visiting you, with Renwick and everything,” Trinka stammered.

“Trouble?” Habba’s aged face grew even more wrinkled with his puzzled expression.

“You’ve brought all of us closer together,” Wynn assured her. “Sometimes people take what’s most important to them for granted until they almost lose it. Then they realize they have to work hard for it again. And that’s what you’ve done for our sense of peace. We’re going to work for it, harder than ever now.”

Trinka nodded in understanding.

After a final, nearly bone-breaking hug, Habba reminded her, “Come see us anytime. No matter what happens, you can always come home to our house.”

“I’ll remember,” she answered, and sent them home.

“Young lady, I do have many important matters to attend to,” Amir interrupted her thoughts. “So, if you would kindly send me home in an expedient manner…”

“Gladly,” Trinka answered with a smile. Amir opened his mouth, but before any words could form, he was gone.

She looked at Bahir Faruq and all the other people from Apostrophe. She didn’t even know many of them, but she supposed they must have given Vashti (and Musonas) some of the talismans that Jamilah had then given her.

“How am I supposed to send you home when I don’t know exactly where you’ve come from?” Trinka murmured aloud.

“Just send them with me,” Bahir Faruq answered. “I’ll see that they get to their proper places, if they aren’t there already.”

Trinka nodded and, with a smile, sent Bahir Faruq and the rest of the crowd back to the only place in Apostrophe she could think to send them. She had a feeling Aunt Vashti’s terrace garden was going to be extremely crowded.

She looked at Jamilah, the only one left from Apostrophe.

“I’m not sure I want to go back home,” her cousin said.

“I’m not sure I want you to go either,” Trinka answered. Somehow, she felt it would be much more difficult to send someone who didn’t want to go.

“But I probably should. Or my mom and everyone might come here looking for me.” Jamilah grinned.

“Then I’d better send you,” Trinka returned quickly.

“You’ll find a way to come see me again, won’t you?” Jamilah asked.

Trinka paused then nodded.

“We’ll find a way.”

And Jamilah was home too.

“Now, look here, lass.” Yerik and the other sailors started backing away as she turned toward them. “There’s no need to send us anywhere.”

“I’m sure we can fish right here from the island for quite some time,” Knop concurred.

Trinka smiled mischievously. “You’re not afraid, are you?”

“No, no,” the sailors muttered.

“You’ll never find a ship full of sailors as brave as we are,” Matros mustered.

“The bravest!” Vann’s voice cracked.

“Hear!” the others echoed in unison, but the fear in their eyes betrayed their words.

“Look!” Knop suddenly called out. “It’s the ship! We’re saved!”

Sure enough, Bram’s ship came sailing around the corner of the island. Raido and Snorri cheered when they saw them, and Matros, Vann, Gudlaug, Yerik, Knop, and Thork ran toward their companions as fast as their feet could carry them across the sand.

“Hard to navigate around an island that was never here before―especially without our navigator!” Snorri called out.

“I tell you, lass,” Raido roared, “We’ll be calling the wind for a long time with this story!”

Trinka grinned and watched as the sailors waded out into the water and scrambled aboard the ship, to the hearty greetings of their companions.

At last, only Kolinkar, Tarian, her mother and father, and her talismans remained on the sand with her.

“Well, it’s nice to know that even though I’m old, I’m still wanted,” Ashira sighed, smoothing a few strands of her fallen hair. “And to think that only this morning I was a beautiful young maid.”

“You’re more beautiful now than the first time I rescued you,” Bram assured her with a grin. “I’d much rather have you old enough to be the mother of my children.”

“And now you’re going to be a grandmother!” Tarian announced. Kolinkar beamed.

Ashira and Bram looked at each other briefly, and keeled over backward on the sand.

”     End Quote     ”[][]

“It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

- Ursula LeGuin

h1={color:#808080;}.
Chapter Twenty-One

Going Home

As Trinka watched the beautiful island she had made slip farther and farther from view as their ship sailed away, she felt a twinge of sadness. But she knew that staying there wouldn’t be the same with everyone gone―it was an empty place now.

“Don’t worry,” Tarian had told her as they hugged good-bye. “I’m sure we’ll find a way to see each other again soon.”

“Anybody who can create a whole island out of thin air should have no trouble making sure of that,” Kolinkar had laughed.

And now her brother and sister-in-law, like everyone else, were back home where they belonged.

Trinka’s attention turned back to the deck of the ship as Spigot and Spout skittered by, accidentally dousing the sailors again.

“So,” Thork said as he wrung the water from his sweater. “What are you going to call your new island? We’ve got to put it on the charts, you know, so ships don’t run ashore on it.”

“Strange color to the sea around it,” Matros remarked. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it.” Sure enough, the water all around the island seemed to glow with a deep shade of purple, as if a bright red light were shining up through the dark blue waters.

“That must be where I dropped the truthstone,” Bram came up behind Trinka and put his hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry about that. I didn’t realize what I’d done until it was too late.”

“That’s okay,” Trinka smiled. “I think we found a good place for it.”

Everyone laughed.

“So,” Vann persisted, “What’s the place to be called?”

“I believe the proper term for such a thing is a Solidus,” Stanley the Whatler told them, in such a superior tone that no one questioned how he knew that.

“Solidus. I like that,” Trinka answered quietly.

“Come,” Bram said after a moment of quiet reflection. “Your mother wants to see you.” He pointed her toward the cargo hold.

Trinka stepped into the low, cramped chamber and to her surprise, saw a large room stretching out in all directions, far beyond the normal boundaries of the ship. Plush pillows covered in rich, brightly colored fabrics lined the walls and floors, making it look as beautiful and comfortable as any bed on Apostrophe. Ashira leaned forward from reclining on the cushions, and held up a small, rectangular prism of helio blue that must have been the talisman Aunt Vashti used to make her terrace garden expand.

“I thought as long as we have it, we might as well use it,” she said.

Trinka’s eyes swept over the crimson cushions embroidered with beautiful, long-feathered blue birds, silken purple flowers, and dazzling rose-orange sunsets, sewn with sparkling golden threads and thousands of tiny jewels.

Everything around her must remind her of home. Trinka swallowed hard.

“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather be back home?” she blurted out.

Her mother’s large, dark eyes blinked in surprise.

“I mean, are you sure you wouldn’t rather be back in your palace in Apostrophe, instead of here with us?”

“Trinka,” her mother answered, “Come sit down.”

As Trinka sank down next to her on the pillows, she was finally able to do what she had been aching to for so long. She buried her face in her mother’s shoulder as her mother stroked her long, wind-tangled, dirty blonde hair. It felt so good not to be a stranger to her anymore.

“My home’s not in a palace or in Apostrophe, or in Ellipsis. It’s where my family is.”

“Which one? Us, or Aunt Vashti and—?”

“You,” her mother answered firmly.

“It must have been hard for you. Everything’s so different between Apostrophe and Brace and Ellipsis.”

“Yes, it was hard leaving the family I grew up with to start my own family,” she admitted. “I haven’t always made the right choices, and when I have, I haven’t always made them in the right way. But there’s nowhere I would rather be than wherever you are, watching you grow up, and I’m sorry I’ve missed that, Trinka, so sorry. If I could go back and do it over again so that I never left you, I would. But now what’s happened has happened. All we can do is enjoy the time ahead.”

Trinka looked up at her and smiled, and her mother laughed―oh, how good it was to hear her laugh―and held her tighter.

The cargo hold door swung open, and Bram lowered himself inside.

“Well, I see you’ve been redecorating.”

“You don’t mind, do you Dad?” Trinka asked hurriedly.

“No,” he said slowly. “It reminds me of the first time you came away to sea with me.” He reached over and squeezed Ashira’s hand. “It sure is good to see all my girls together again.”

“Well, two of us,” Trinka said.

“Nope, all of them,” Bram corrected. Annelise appeared behind him.

“I thought you had to go back to school,” Trinka exclaimed.

Annelise smiled. “I asked to take a leave of absence so I could spend some time with my family,” she said. “Besides, I have a message for you. Two messages, actually.”

“What? From whom?” Trinka’s expression grew puzzled.

“Well, why don’t you tell us about it on deck.” Bram suggested. “This old sailor can’t take too much more time below. Even in the company of such beautiful women,” he added jokingly.

As the four of them stepped out on top of the ship, Trinka blinked at the light glinting off the waves. An especially rough wave hit the ship, sending Ashira and Annelise clinging to Bram for support.

“Sorry, Trinkalassa, I only have two arms.” Bram laughed. Ashira and Annelise reached out to Trinka and, between them, grabbed both her hands. They held on to each other as the wind whipped their hair and the waves threatened to topple them over. As the ship steadied out again, they let go, and Annelise laughed more than Trinka had ever heard before as she struggled to keep her gleaming white robes straight and her light blonde hair smoothed in its usual place. Ashira and Bram were smiling at each other. Bram pulled his wife in closer and kissed her, and Trinka almost managed not to feel horribly embarrassed.

Suddenly, another strong wave hit, and this time Trinka put her hand against the mast to keep her balance. Beneath her fingers, she noticed some writing that seemed much larger and deeper than any of the other letters. She tried to remember her reading skills and thought it spelled “hjem.”

“It’s the name of the ship. We always write it in the Old Salt language,” Bram explained as he saw her looking at the marks. “Yem,” as he pronounced it, “means ‘home’.”

Trinka felt a big breath free itself from her chest as she looked up at her father and smiled. For the first time, she really did feel like she had gone home, where she belonged. And it wasn’t a place, after all. It was with her family.

“I almost forgot your messages,” Annelise told Trinka as the ship steadied. “Which do you want first, the one from Nikolay, or the one from Mrs. Swissle?”

Trinka swallowed hard.

“Nikolay.”

Annelise handed over the strangest-looking jar Trinka had ever seen. Its base curved like a ball, then became a very narrow tube, then a ball again, then spiraled up the tightest pipe to the most elaborate stopper. Trinka untwisted the lid around and around and around, until the contents suddenly popped loose with an ear-piercing squeal, and a cloud of thought blasted her full force in the face, fizzing up her nose.

“Do you like my new invention, Trinka?” the words rang into her mind, and she could picture her friend’s goofy grin. “Can’t say that any of the professors do. I sure wish you were here too. It’s no fun upsetting the balance of the universe all by myself.” The thoughts took on a more serious tone. “I’m glad you found your family, and I really hope you come back. Soon!”

As the message wheezed and sputtered to a close, Trinka smiled.

“Mrs. Swissle has a message for you too. She’s very upset about your missing so much school at the Elite Academy.”

“But I didn’t even get in,” Trinka protested.

“You didn’t get in because Mrs. Swissle didn’t show the committee your answer―they only discovered it when storing all the results afterward.”

“But it was only an empty jar.” Trinka thought back to the gangly, lopsided mess she had made of that glass container.

“That’s what she thought at first, but here’s what they think about it now.” Annelise handed her a small glass. Trinka opened it and breathed in the thoughts.

“So simple, so stunning,” Zelousha remarked. “At first it looks like a warped, defective, empty jar, manufactured entirely incorrectly, but when you look closely, you see the gentle curves where hands have gripped it, hoping, waiting… how it reaches taller, as if stretching openly toward the future…”

“A beautiful, avant garde piece of art,” Melisande added. “It really captures the emotion of the person who created it, and allows the viewer to share in it, as if we’re right there in that moment too…”

“Brilliant,” Qui pronounced. “It shows the uncertainty of life and one’s openness to receive it…”

“None of us truly see every turn we are supposed to take in life,” Viellie added. “All we can do is trust that we’re on the way. Remarkable for a student to know that at such a young age.”

Trinka looked up at Annelise in wonder.

Her sister smiled and handed her an empty jar, the largest Trinka had ever seen. Grble would have fit into it easily.

“Since you’re not at the academy, Mrs. Swissle wants an essay on where you’ve gone so far.”

Trinka looked at the enormous jar and thought of all the places she had traveled, the unexpected twists and turns, the people she had met, the talismans she had been given, and all the events that never would have happened if things had gone “right” in the first place.

She looked back at her older sister and grinned.

“I think I can handle that.”

 

THE END

coming soon

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Trinka and the Hundred Languages[][]

Don’t miss Trinka’s next adventure! Visit www.joneschristy.com for updates and sneak peeks into Trinka’s world. 


Trinka and the Thousand Talismans

Trinka lives in a lofty world called Ellipsis... until she flunks out of her fantastical school. She is sent away to join her father on a watery world where she won't need talent. But when she decides to get there by stowing away on the airships, run by the mysterious dream merchants, she ends up on a journey she never could have imagined. As she crosses into unfamiliar places full of unexpected adventures, Trinka finds herself both helped and hindered by an ever-growing collection of talismans-strange objects and strange creatures given to her by the people she encounters on her journey. Along the way, Trinka discovers the secrets that have fractured her family and scattered them across the four realms. But will she find the strength, courage, and confidence to do what no one (especially her) has ever believed she could?

  • ISBN: 9781310178979
  • Author: Christy Jones
  • Published: 2016-04-17 03:50:20
  • Words: 77682
Trinka and the Thousand Talismans Trinka and the Thousand Talismans