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M u s e
Author's note: Muse was conceived at the keyboard during one of my random musings. I wondered: what if I had to play a piece perfectly or someone would die? Soon I had developed the basis for my first completed novel and Muse was born through National Novel Writing Month, during which I wrote over 50,000 words in 30 days. What an experience. I really hope readers will be so excited about the story that they can't resist telling others about scenes or dialogue, like the best novels make me inclined to do. But realistically, I want them to learn from my mistakes so they can make their own writing better.
He added a dab of quicksilver and swirled the mixture around. This was it. It was time. He set the beaker down with a dull thump. Everything was prepared. And after tonight... well... it was the beginning of the end.
Jin tripped on the door frame in an uncharacteristic display of klutziness. She cursed quietly, and then took a few seconds to get her bearings.
The joker muses clustered together nearby glanced at her briefly, and then turned back to their tightly-knit group. Jin ignored some of the more disdainful looks.
Sable was near the back of the creaky dormitory, reclining in his usual spot on his bunk, looking at the same papers that he usually did. Jin was going to find out what those papers were once and for all. Lately he had been glancing at them more and more, his expression switching between excruciating indecision and genuine curiosity. Jin couldn’t stand it any longer; she had to find out.
Having adjusted to her surroundings, she chose her target -an old, burgundy velvet curtain, such as those used on stages- and leapt behind it on springy feet.
That was more like it, she thought, observing how the curtain barely wavered behind her light touch. After all, this was what she was “made” for.
Jin edged along the smelly old stage prop and silently made her way towards Sable, who had ignored the slight commotion and who’s face had assumed the usual indecision. He nibbled on his thumbnail, dark eyebrows and eyes scrunched in concentration. He would never see her coming.
There were only feet left in the cloth tunnel; Jin could practically reach the end... just a few more shuffles... Extending her fingers, she touched something soft midair. Something solid.
Momentarily mystified, she groped what seemed like thin air until a boy materialized in front of her.
It was a stealth muse. Jin opened her mouth to ask what he was doing, but the boy was faster. “I’m going,” he said before she could make a sound, and was out of the curtain with a dramatic swish.
Jin wasn’t too put off by this encounter; she didn’t pay the other muses much attention. That was, except for Sable.
Having reached the end of her stealthy journey, Jin soundlessly emerged right behind Sable and managed to focus on one boldfaced word: Jesse. Then Sable noticed her irregular breathing and as if in slow motion, turned his head around. Thinking quickly, Jin yelled, “Flying Jalapeno!”
“Hey-Zeus!” Sable shrieked. The moment was priceless.
This particular phrase gave Jin pause. “Who’s Zeus?”
“What the heck are you doing here?!”
“Can’t a man have his privacy?!”
“Hey-sous... like chef?”
“I think it’s pronounced Jee-zus, Sable. Jesus,” Jin said quietly.
“Not ‘Hey-zeus,‘ but ‘Jesus.’ At least in America. Stupid Earthlings. I never was clear on their religious beliefs...”
“I agree. Stupid Earthlings,” Sable said reflectively, and then appeared to think better of it. “Jin! What are you doing here?”
“A better question would be, ‘What are you keeping from me?’”
“I hate you and your stupid evasions,” he grumbled.
“I know!” Jin said cheerfully. “But since mine is the best, answer it!”
Sable appeared to consider this for a few minutes. He resumed the assault on his fingernail and a small droplet of blood appeared on the cuticle. Jin grabbed his hand away from his mouth. “Stop that.”
“Alright, well. I suppose now is as good a time as any. There’s something I need to tell you-” But Jin would never know what he was going to say at that moment, because there was an announcement.
It was accompanied by a collective head ducking in the dormitory as a familiar voice cleared its throat in their heads. Zephys, of course. The message relayed was altered slightly for everyone, depending on their talent, but for Jin it spoke, “Muse of Agility. Report to the southern tower.”
Jin had qualms about this method of communication; she felt it was too intimate. However, since she did know the speaker of the message personally, she supposed it was probably more awkward for the others.
“Talk to you later, after...” Sable said, far too eager to escape the conversation.
“Yeah...” Jin trailed off. “Hey, where’re you going?”
“Pavilion.” Of course. Sable was a muse of music, he would be playing in the music group and Jin and her fellow agility muses would be entertaining from above.
Sable was already out the door and so were the rest of the muses. She hurried to catch up.
What was happening was a performance of sorts. The muses were citizens of a land that revolved slowly around a planet that the Earthlings named “Earth.” Possibly the ideas of heaven formed on Earth came from a primitive understanding of this “Land of the Muses.” The ruler was named Zes. He was powerful and demanded regular performances from the muses in his royal court, which was where Sable, Jin, and the others lived.
Similar courts used to be set up in the land with lesser monarchs or nobles that controlled them, but by Jin’s time Zes’ was the only left; it had always been the most elaborate and the most ruthless anyway, and so had survived longer than the others. One mistake in this torturous place, and a muse was promptly executed in a method voted on by those present. One of the most popular methods was banishment to a barren land called Valdir, where certain death would await. Others included the guillotine, drowning in an underwater aquifer, -the usual assortment.
This was a danger that Jin and Sable had faced together since they were five. It was not uncommon to see a muse executed or banished; it was all part of the show. But they had managed to survive for eleven years.
Jin put on her green unitard along with the rest of the agility muses and tied her short, black hair back. Took a deep breath. Zes was a critic as well as a tyrant. He had a good eye and a short fuse.
She could see him sitting regal straight, hands on the delicately carved armrests of his royal chair next to a few visiting nobles, black beard and bald head framing his bushy eyebrows and hollow, deep-set eyes. His mouth was tight-lipped and set in a permanent grimace. All together, he made an imposing figure. Zes was 8’2” with a muscular frame that clogged doorways like a blood clot.
He was sitting at a large oak table covered with many delicacies of his choosing: lovely food such as cordyceps fungi victims and monkey eyes. Exotic food from the far corners of the Earth were prized in royal courts. But since some of the visiting nobles had more delicate palettes, there were also more common foods, such as plain, cheese-less mac and cheese (so specified by Arices, who liked to call himself the father of America purely because of their similarity in names, though with that kind of taste he didn’t really deserve the title).
The table was set under a transparent glass slab that protected the guests from weather elements and flying muses.
“Jin,” prompted a familiar voice from behind her.
Jin turned, “What are you doing here?” It was Zephys, middle-aged, prematurely grey with dark eyes that always had a glint of something flinty. He carried a couple books to his side. Typical.
Zephys was, of course, the announcer, as well as Zes’s right-hand man and a bit of a mad scientist. His talent had been a mystery as long as anyone could remember, but he was on the muses’ side, and Jin’s best friend besides Sable. For years he had been planning and trying to overthrow Zes and start a revolution, and for almost as long been trying to recruit guards and muses to his side, with moderate success. Zephys had tried many times to recruit Jin; even though she kept refusing -she didn’t want to get into trouble and it seemed like a lost cause, anyway- they were still the best of friends.
But what was he doing here, on the tower where only agility muses were supposed to be, when the show was about to begin? Shouldn’t Zes notice something out of place?
“I came to ask you-” Zephys began, shifting his grip on the heavy volumes.
“-you already know the answer,” Jin interrupted impatiently, she didn’t want her friend to get into any trouble, and besides, she needed to prepare, “I’m sorry, but I can’t join your revolution.”
“No, that’s not what I’m talking about, my dear.”
“You’re in a fine mood. But no matter. I’ll need to talk to you later, in my lab. You know, the back entrance, my dear.”
“Why-” Jin began.
“-just be there,” he interrupted, suddenly serious, “and take this.” He pressed a smooth, circular rock into her hand, “If ever you need to talk to me, flip it three times and speak to it. I shall hear.”
Jin opened her mouth to ask about a million questions, and didn’t get a single one out because just then Zes interrupted and Zephys disappeared and her mind snapped back to the task at hand.
“Let the show begin!” Zes bellowed. And it did.
Musical muses flooded out into the cobblestone pavilion, playing every instrument imaginable, from tubas to saxophones to banjos to piccolos and everything in-between. It shouldn’t have been in the least harmonious, but somehow the tunes blended together in a way that only musical muses could contrive to create. Jin could spot Sable playing his guitar with his favorite pick, one made from a Saber-toothed tiger’s tooth and extremely rare. She watched him play, sure that at the moment his attention would only be focused on the music.
At the same time, Jin watched Zes’ mood carefully. He did not seem forgiving today. One little mess up and the muse would be dead for sure. All it took was a snap of the fingers...
Sable was Jin’s life. He was her only reason for not giving up in all the horrors of the court. They had been best friends ever since she could remember, and because of him, Jin had never needed to bother with the other muses. How fragile was the string that connected a muse to life, with Zes watching. In an instant it was all thrown away.
Sable’s arm jerked sideways suddenly, but he was able to recover and keep playing with no repercussions. Jin looked closely at his eyes, and even at this distance could see that he was scared of something. Something was definitely wrong, and she could only watch it play out at this stage of the game. Then his arm twitched again and the string on his guitar gave an indignant twang. His other arm made the same strange motion. Then his legs. Soon his whole body was shaking and twitching; his eyes rolled back in his head and his head bobbed like a limp rag-doll. He tipped off his chair and the guitar clattered and echoed loudly on the cobblestones.
Zes stood up with barely contained glee and yelled, “Stop! Who dares disturb my entertainment?”
“Sable,” Jin whispered. She realized she was the only muse still standing at the edge of the tower. The rest had all backed away in fear, leaving her to watch in horror as Sable twitched and shook on the cobblestones, banging his head and drooling in a humiliating manner.
“What’s that, muse?”
“Sable, sir. His name is Sable,” Jin said, louder, her eyes wide like dinner plates. Where was Zephys, she wondered, somewhere in the back of her mind.
“Sable, is it? Well this unfortunate fool has dared to ruin my evening. Which will it be then, Nobles? Execution on the guillotine? Or perhaps drowning?” Zes gestured at the guests, who were jeering with pleasure at this unfortunate turn of events. “No, he deserves worse. He dares to continue his disturbance?”
“It’s not his fault!” Jin yelled, indignantly. How could anyone be so blatantly cruel?
“Do you have something to say, muse?” Zes boomed.
“Yes, I do!” She said, and without thinking, leapt over the parapet and dropped thirty feet to the pavilion, landing with a roll. She scrambled over to Sable, who had stopped twitching and was lying limp on the cobblestones. The other muses of music were frozen in fear, some still with their hands in the position of their last pluck or lips still closed around the end of a woodwind instrument. Jin kneeled roughly by Sable and gently caressed his face. “What’s wrong with him?” she yelled, to no one in particular. She wiped the drool from his lips and gently laid him on his back, righting his splayed limbs.
“What’s wrong with him?” Zes asked sarcastically. “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with him! He has a little rebellious streak, that’s what! Get him on the first caravan to Valdir.” And with a snap of his fingers, Zes’ personal guards, muses of strength, were employed to drag Jin away and pick up Sable, who was now fluttering his eyelids and groaning.
“You,” Zes said, motioning at the struggling Jin, “Go to the dorms-” (As if she had a choice in the matter) “-We’ll deal with you later. Oh, and if you even think about getting out... the punishment will be worse than your worst nightmare.
I don’t think so, Jin thought, knowing that her worst nightmare had already been lived right before her eyes, and allowing the muses to take her by the elbows and “escort” her back to what would be her own personal hell for the coming hours.
Jin paced back and forth across the dormitory floor. The other muses eyed her nervously, quickly apologizing or stepping out of the way when they came in contact. She brushed them off like usual.
Sable. What was she going to do about Sable? What had happened that day in the court? It had been so otherworldly, watching him reduced to struggling under some unseen influence, some evil force. Her mind kept replaying the instant over and over until every shuffle of a muse’s foot, every nervous chuckle, was driving her over the edge.
She thought about what might happen if she had a nervous breakdown right here, in front of all these muses, and dismissed the thought. Now was not time for imaginative sequences, now was time for calculated plans. And she was notoriously impatient. It simply could not wait any longer.
And so, in an instant, she had made up her mind. Jin would go after Sable. She would escape from Zes’ court and follow the caravan, biding her time until an opportunity arose. Easier said then done. Especially when highly trained muses were likely stationed all over court for the express purpose of keeping an eye out for her.
She stopped pacing and faced the other muses, assuming a stony expression. Though she appeared to be cold and detached, inside she was burning and reckless. “No one better say anything about this,” she said deliberately, feeling like she was putting words in their mouths. It was received one hundred times what she had hoped. The muses nodded fearfully. The tide had turned. Hopefully in Jin’s favor.
If Jin could have looked in a mirror that night, she would’ve been horrified by her expression. Her small, angled eyes were rimmed with red and bloodshot, shelved by eyebrows that swept upward in a dramatic angle. Her mouth was set grimly with determination, and her hair was wild all over.
“OK,” she said, more to herself than anyone else, and made her way to a window overlooking a steep drop-off opposite the pavilion. It was the only window out of the room, the same one framed by the same musty-old curtains that Jin had hidden behind only that morning.
And then a thought occurred to her, one that should have made itself known much earlier. With Sable disabled, who was to stop her from grabbing the papers? It was an evil thought, Jin realized, as soon as she thought it. No, she would not follow through.
Yes, she would. She had good reason to. Sable was likely already in the caravan and on his way to exile. Assuming Jin made her big escape, it was unlikely either of them would ever make their way back to this place. Jin would never have another opportunity like this.
So she walked over to Sable’s bunk, ignoring the blatant stares, whispers, and exchanged looks from the other muses, and began rifling through his stuff, swiftly at first, and then slower. What she held in her hands were Sable’s only records of his life. They were handwritten notes, flyers, but mostly musical scores. Jin gathered up as much as she could, and then came across a most curious bundle of documents. On the top was a warrant for the arrest of someone named Jesse. Try as she might to steel herself, Jin couldn’t look farther than that. It was invading a secret that Sable had kept so clandestine for so long. With the answers she was seeking so close, Jin didn’t dare violate that rule anymore. She had no desire left.
So she delicately put these most valuable records into a sack and slung it over her head and swung out the window. Jin thought about saying, “I’ll miss you guys,” or, “Sorry for all those years I ignored you all.” But was unable to humble herself like that. What a disappointment I am, she thought. What would Sable think? So before she could change her mind, she lifted her head back above the sill and said, softly, “I’m sorry.”
For a minute they all just stared at each other, and then a joker muse named Dahre replied, seriously, “Good luck. You’ll need it.” And Jin swung back down until she was hanging by the sill to get her bearings for the second time that day.
Jin was wearing her typical well-worn agility boots, made of leather with thin soles that curled up over the toes to protect them. The tops of the boots reached to right below the knee and were tight-fitting, but flexible. Beneath that she wore a black unitard from a performance long ago, and over that she placed a mossy green tunic with the sleeves cut off and fastened with a thick leather belt. Jin was prepared. She scoped the cliff.
Beneath her was an expanse of leathery black darkness and jagged handholds. Jin looked closer, trying to find the bottom. On a night like this, with a clear sky and a waxing moon, it should have been easy to see her surroundings. But the pit stretched like an abyss, and that was when she realized that she was at the end of the land. Literally.
Since the Land of the Muses was a mass of land floating above Earth, there was literally an end of the land. A place where you would drop off the edge into total nothingness. As Jin had just discovered, Zes’ court was situated on the edge of the place. The very edge.
A shudder ran through her. Jin wasn’t normally scared of heights, but this was another situation entirely, - who would want to hang out a window over complete and total zilch? There is always at least a little inclination towards survival that is ingrained in all creatures.
So she forced herself to focus and find a foothold, then a handhold on the stones that made up the wall of the court. She told herself she had an advantage, being a muse of agility and wearing primitive climbing shoes, and brought up a picture of Sable in her mind and kept it there. Jin’s motivation. The only motivation in her life.
It was pretty cold, hanging over a cliff on the precipice of civilization. The wind blew ceaselessly and Jin’s fingers were soon numb from the frozen handholds. She worried about fumbling her hold because she couldn’t feel her fingers.
It wasn’t a bad trip. Jin made it back to the world in one piece with only one near death experience. One that she didn’t care to relate at the moment.
Jin climbed over the edge and onto the roof of the dormitory part of Zes’ court. She jogged on feather-light feet, slipping a little on the uneven tiles towards the pavilion.
Whatever had happened to Sable that day was totally out of his control, but that hadn’t made it any less terrifying. Jin had never been so scared for him and she had never seen anything so scary happen to anybody else. It was like the devil himself had possessed him.
She took a calming breath of the chilly summer air and knew she was overlooking something important. Maybe this was paranoia, -but where were all the guards?
Jin dropped off the roof and landed in the pavilion. Everything was still set up from the earlier performance and appallingly barren. The performance itself had lasted until very late, and the muses employed as servants had either not had enough time to clean it up yet or hadn’t even started. The agility act had supposedly gone just as planned, though Jin was not there to see it, and so did the comedy and all others. The one exception was Sable.
Jin could see where he had fallen from his chair. In her mind’s eye she was still replaying the scene over and over, unable to eradicate it completely from her thoughts. But she wasn’t here just to stare and think. She was here to get Sable’s guitar. It was his life and, well, muse.
Besides being a little banged up here and there, the guitar was doing pretty well, unlike its owner. Jin even found the sabertooth pick and tied it around her own neck. The guitar made hollow noises when she picked it up, reminding her of how completely alone she was. This is weird, she thought while hoisting herself up the side of the tower like a chimpanzee.
Having had plenty of time to think about it, Jin decided that someone was playing with her, here. After all, Zes had acknowledged that she might think about escaping. The only precautions they had taken were to close and lock the door to the dormitory. Obviously it took more than that to keep a determined agility muse from getting her way. For that matter, why had no one tried to escape in the past? Maybe because nothing awaited them in the rest of the land than more suffering and hard work in these times of economic inflation.
She dwelled on this thought for a few minutes, bracing herself against the top edge of the tower before firmly planting herself atop the same turret she had stood watching Sable earlier. Suppose she succeeded in saving Sable, -what would they do next? Where would they go? How would they survive? And what would happen if another twitching attack seized him? Life is hopeless, Jin decided, mentally throwing up her hands while in actuality running across the ridge of the roof. All you can do is make the best of it.
She leapt into thin air with no hesitation, expecting a certain hay-cart to break her fall, but then she looked down and realized it was wheeled a few feet too far to her right.
Jin was falling, with nothing but the cracked summer dirt to break her fall, and then there was a wooden spar in front of her, a lamp post, and she crashed into it. It cracked off its rotten post and they both fell to the ground, guitar and all.
This was the end of her little field trip, Jin knew. No one could ignore that noise.
She touched her diaphragm gingerly, where she had smashed into the spar, and finding the pain bearable, staggered upright and sprinted away as fast as she could.
Imagining her recapture and escape a billion times was wearing her brain out, and as there was no commotion coming from behind her, Jin thought: there is hope yet.
And with the thought of saving Sable still floating above the horizon, life was perhaps not as hopeless as it seemed. Then again, the real problem was figuring out how to save him. But that was a thought for later. Jin stretched her legs and ran along open, rocky land for the first time in her life, reveling in freedom that was far too easy to achieve. Obviously something deeper was at play.
In the meantime, she would enjoy the endless expanse of green and rocky hills, the wagon tracks the caravan had left which made for easy tracking, and the feeling of progress that for once in her life satiated Jin’s impatient and ambitious nature. Life was not as bad as it seemed. Jin stretched her arms out to the night air, embracing it.
Perhaps life was not as bad, but it was most certainly more complicated then she suspected.
Everything had gone as planned, he thought triumphantly. Better than planned. Sable had been sent off to Valdir, which was a much better execution style for his plans. Now, he just had to wait for his little pawn to figure everything out for herself.
A voice broke his contemplation and quiet celebration; oh, he thought ruefully, time to get back to my royal court duties.
Dawn was thinning the cloud cover on the horizon when Jin realized she had forgotten something crucial: food and water. Without them, she would struggle to survive. How could she have forgotten something so obvious? “Rotten jalapenos,” Jin cursed under her breath.
The jalapeno fixation was a bit of a joke. Jin always had loved anything spicy, and she was playing a bet with Sable, trying to figure out if she could eat the spiciest things they could get their hands on, which was not much, since Zes’ court is a rather limiting place to a muse. However, they did catch word one day that what the Earthlings considered to be the spiciest pepper, the jalapeno, was to be served in the performance that week. And when Jin got her hands on one, it was the spiciest thing she had ever tasted. She was able to choke it down, but with serious consequences later. It also changed her opinion of Earthlings dramatically. Perhaps they were tougher than they looked. Ever since, she had cursed jalapenos, the one spicy food that had almost beat her.
Mentally reprimanding herself, Jin tried to focus. It was obviously too late to hurry back to the court and try to sneak some food out. Jin was not a stealth muse and would, for sure, be caught, especially since her presence would be missed soon if it had not been already since the spar incident.
So she would have to find food in some other way, and sometime soon. The last meal she had had was the small portion of rice and soy beans that was doled out to muses twice a day. Not much. Plus, her stomach was already growling. Jin told herself she would eat grass if she had to, though, if it meant saving Sable.
Sable didn’t deserve this injustice. He didn’t deserve any of this. If there was any kind of justice in this land, then he would be spared of any punishment. Considering the fact that Zes was the uncontested ruler in all the land, however, it was unlikely that there was and would be any justice. Wishful thinking, only.
Oh yeah, she was supposed to visit Zephys. Oh, well. He would understand after all that had happened. And anyway, where had he gone during the great confrontation?
Jin spared a brief moment to consider what he had been going to talk to her about.
It was midmorning now, and Jin’s joints were beginning to get sore from all the continual impact. She had kept up a steady jog all this time, the only reason she could maintain it being that she was in great physical shape from her talent, -agility. Since a muse’s job at Zes’ court was to entertain, what they did all day, was, well, practice entertaining. And so, a normal day in Jin’s life, until now, was like an olympic gymnast’s, with much the same exercises. The only difference being that agility muses worked more together in a group.
Muses were named for their most defining feature, their ability to possess a single talent, which became their muse. Muses were more or less impressive, you might say, depending on their muse. Music, for instance, was a minor talent, while stealth was a major talent. Social muses, such as jokers or decepters, fell somewhere in-between. Agility was a muse that fell between deception and stealth, slightly above average in the ranking. And the most impressive talent there was for a muse to possess was the gift of spell-craft.
Spell-crafters were rarely seen; to most muses they were somewhat of a legend. They were so powerful that once, long ago, they led a rebellion over Zes and prevailed. What ended up happening was Zes’ agreement to leave them alone to their own devices if they would do the same for him. And the spell-craft society, tired of uprisings and violence, retreated into some hidden haven far across the land where they could not be disturbed.
Jin felt some resentment towards the spell-crafters. After all, they had had the chance to resolve Zes’ leadership, which was obviously lacking, and they threw it away for the selfish desire of leaving themselves out of it. They could have been heros. They could have saved hundreds, even thousands, of muses’ lives, and yet they decided to run away from it all and take the easy way out.
Jin sighed and stopped to catch her breath for the first time all that night. She looked down and rested her hands on her on her knees for a few moments, and when she looked up, she found herself staring down the shaft of an arrow.
Jin gasped and sprung back reflexively, right into another arrow that was aimed at the back of her head. “Who are you? What do you want?” She spat out, the whites of her eyes showing like a mordacious animal.
Jin was standing ambushed in a meadow. The grass was tall and a fresh yellow-green color and the place was rimmed by a pine forest. The sun was shining and the birds were chirping and Jin was staring at her attackers.
They wore black from head to toe and dark coats with the collars drawn up over their faces so they were completely unrecognizable. There were eight of them, Jin noted, three surrounding her with bows and arrows and four standing back, observing. The eighth man -she assumed they were all men- stood apart from the rest and held himself higher, as if he commanded them. Jin guessed they were all stealth muses since she hadn’t seen them at all in their approach, wearing black in broad daylight... “Muse! State your business!” the man who was now without a doubt the leader, shouted, and drawing a pistol out of his belt pointed it at Jin. Now she was staring down three arrow shafts and the barrel of a gun, feeling quite unnerved. It felt like a blast to the past, to the time an unnamed muse stole something and everyone was punished for it. Sometimes with the other end of a gun.
“I-,” Jin stammered, finding it hard to formulate ideas into words in her position, “am traveling...yeah.”
“I don’t believe it,” he countered. The man’s voice was deep and rough.
Jin found her voice. “You don’t believe it,” she said with incredulity, “maybe I just live here... and what I do for a living is wear paths in this meadow.”
He looked at her, like, I am standing at the other end of this gun and you better watch your mouth, and then said, “I find that hard to believe. On the other hand, a little bird told me that a muse has recently gone missing from Zes’ court. You fit the description. And I bet he’d pay a hefty price for your safe return.”
Jin felt like throwing up her hands. Finally, a display of intelligence! Knowing better, she instead said, “and if not? You are obviously traveling the other direction and all you’d gain would be a time-expending detour with some authorities that could be mighty interested in your illicit activities.
“Think about it,” Jin continued, as assertively as she could manage in her precarious position, “do you really want to deal with a man who has various devices of torture -some you’ve never even heard of- gathering dust in his basement?”
The poor man was thinking like a mile a minute, and his thickly lashed eyelid was twitching faster. “You know, I don’t like you,” he stated, inclining his head. “Just grab her,” he told his men.
“Are you sure? That sounded pretty reasonable, Cap’n Blackbeard. Maybe...” a short man holding an arrow right at Jin’s nose articulated. Jin didn’t appreciate this as well as she should’ve because in speaking, he was also waving the pointy tip around without knowing it.
“Ya know, Delly, when I was telling you about my Captaininity?” Blackbeard asked dangerously. “Well this is one of those times. Just grab her.” And that’s when the men in black went after Jin.
She kicked and bit and made them hurt and grumble, but in the end, the combined weight of eight men was what overpowered her.
They dragged her by the arms, half-crushed from the dog-pile, and hoisted her up like a sack of potatoes and slung her over someone’s shoulder. She tried to keep her eyes open but when Captain Blackbeard realized that she could potentially find her way back to the wagon tracks, she was bound, gagged, blindfolded, and rendered helpless. So then all she could do was lie on a stranger’s back, jiggle around, and reassess the situation to see what she might’ve done differently.
Jin was rudely awakened from the confines of her mind when she was tossed to the ground and couldn’t catch herself with her bound hands. She bounced once, rolled, and came to a rest with her face in the dirt. She wiggled to a position where she could breathe again, feeling vulnerable and stupid with the blindfold obscuring everything.
Until one of the bandits tore it off, that is. “Alive to see the light of day!” Captain Blackbeard proclaimed.
They were in a small camp in the middle of a pine forest. There was a small fire pit in the middle, with several bedrolls kicked to the side of it. A deer carcass was lain over a pine branch high above their heads, or at least that’s how it looked to Jin from ground level. “How do you like your prison? Nicer than most. As if you deserved it.” Captain Blackbeard picked up Jin’s sack, which had been taken from her when they captured her, and opened it. Rifled through it. “An entertainment muse escapee carrying papers? And what might these mysterious documents contain?” Considering Jin didn’t know herself, she had no idea what Blackbeard would find. He continued to flip through them, his frown slowly deepening. “Worthless,” he declared, and tossed the bag and contents aside. “We’ll burn them later, at the campfire.”
A few stiff hours later, Jin had started to give up hope. For the past few hours she had lain there, shifting positions every once in a while for a change of view, and trying to observe the bandits’ habits. The way she saw it, every piece of information increased her chance of escape. She learned two major things: one, that the bandits tended to keep their weapons under their bedrolls, and two, they were dead novices. Captain Blackbeard was a wannabe pirate carrying an obviously false identity. As Jin had observed earlier, he was gullible and forgetful, but his main weakness was his power. What little power he had, he exploited it. Mostly on Jin.
When he finally left her alone to get a piece of stew, he insisted on giving her the dregs of it and watch her try to eat it like a dog, since her hands were bound. It only succeeded in making Jin very annoyed, but she had already hatched a plan.
Later that night when the campfire had died down to a few smoldering coals and all the bandits had stretched out on bedrolls, Jin located her target, one she had observed as younger and newer, if possible, than the rest to the whole business. The boy was nicknamed “Little Joe,” but he also used throwing knives as his weapon of choice. The perfect victim.
Ultimately the ninja bandits’ downfall was their neglect to tie Jin to an object of some sort. Although she was bound thoroughly, she was also able to move around by squirming and rolling quite effectively. So she rolled towards the choice target and wiggled her hands under his bedroll, searching for a knife. He groaned and rolled over, giving Jin pause, but otherwise she was able to withdraw a knife with little effort. She worked through the bonds tying her hands together first.
With those released, she took the gag off her mouth and cut the ropes binding her feet together. Freedom felt good. She quietly got to her feet, gingerly rubbing the sore ribcage where Blackbeard had kicked her and diaphragm from where she had fallen, and was just about to turn around and run off into the night when a thought hit her. Wouldn’t it be prudent to kill the bandits now? It was an idea entirely not her own. Jin Nyx would never kill a man, but it was likely that if she wasn’t rid of them now, Captain Blackbeard and his motley crew would come back to punish her later. And she had just made up her mind to teach them their last lesson and was readying herself to the task, when something unexpected happened.
A pair of ominous glowing eyes lunged out from the darkness, right towards the large shape of Captain Blackbeard. “Jalapeno, four ‘o clock!” Jin yelled, in spite of herself. It just was not in her nature to let these men die. The Captain just had enough time to lift his head in confusion before the black panther hit him squarely on the chest, knocking the breath out of him. Jin looked down at her own hands, at the two knives she gripped in them, and in that instant, made a decision. For the first time in her life, she threw a knife. A second one followed soon after.
It was a lucky strike. The first one hit dead on target and lodged deep in the black panther’s chest with the second one right beside it. Jin watched her first kill stop, watched the bloodstain bloom darkly and gleam in the fire light, watched the poor creature collapse on top of Blackbeard, who heaved the beast off and scurried backward, crablike, on his backside, whimpering.
The other men watched speechless, some still tangled in their blankets, and pointed at Jin. Jin reached for another knife, ready to defend herself, but came back empty-handed. She was weaponless and had just sacrificed her own freedom to save a man who had held her hostage. Apparently, Stockholm’s Syndrome was far more common and fast acting than most would think.
Captain Blackbeard sat with an expression of extreme anxiety on his face as he examined his bloodstained hands. His blond beard contrasted dramatically with the dark liquid. He stood up, dusted himself off as best he could, and said, in a shaking voice, “You saved my life, muse.”
Jin stood there, speechless. All this time she had been expecting him to execute her immediately, and here he was, declaring the obvious.
“You-you,” he repeated, pointing at her in disbelief, “saved my life. How will I ever repay you? I-I can’t. Nothing... will match this but a saved life for another saved life...”
Jin took this in quickly: the Captain was apparently very loyal and stayed true to his word, despite his lawless lifestyle. Jin thought quickly. “I need knives; 10 will do. And food, enough to keep me going for a while. Oh, and a bandana. Do that, and consider the debt settled.”
“Done,” he replied, “but I’ll forever be in your debt. You need me or my crew, just holler. We’ll come running like a pack of rabid wolves ready to pounce.” He grinned in a macabre manner and yelled at Little Joe to grab the stuff. “Give her all your weapons; she actually knows how to use them, unlike you.”
Little Joe threw Jin a withering look but did as was asked. The items gained included twelve throwing knives, two already stained with panther blood; a knife belt; two daggers and sheaths; a pistol; a black bandana, and plenty of dried fruit and tough jerky. Everything that was asked for and more.
“Thank you,” Jin said, and meant it.
“Oh, you may want this,” Blackbeard added, and threw her a long highwayman’s coat. “It’s better than that cloak you have there.”
Jin put it on and fastened the weapons. She felt dangerous for once in her life. “Until we meet again,” she said, bowing her head.
Captain Blackbeard nodded solemnly. “Until we meet again,” he vowed, and gave Jin a flourishing bow. Then Jin grabbed her bag, and disappeared into the forest.
A few seconds later, she returned. So much for the dramatic exit. “Sorry to bother you all again, but could you point out which direction the wagon tracks are?”
“Of course. Guess the blindfold worked. It’s that way,” Blackbeard replied, and pointed southwest. Jin followed his suggestion.
Alone again, and on the hunt, Jin didn’t feel herself. She felt strange, like the calculated decisions made back at the bandit camp were not her own. Possibly the only time she had acted from familiar instinct was when she spared the Captain’s life. After that, she almost felt ashamed, acting with so much authority. What gave her the right to take advantage of a poor man who hung on her every word like they were the laws of the universe?
Jin was exhausted, and attributed these confusing thoughts to the fact that she hadn’t gotten more than two hours of sleep in the past thirty-six hours or so. And yet, she didn’t want to lay down. Somewhere out there, she reminded herself, Sable was getting one step closer to his death every minute. Was he thinking of her, she wondered? Had he given up on her already? Did he think her capable of saving his life?
Eventually, tired of her own mind playing cruel games, Jin broke into a midnight jog to get her mind off of things. She ran off into the night, desperately hoping to make it in time to save her only true friend in not the Land of the Muses, or the world, but the universe.
When dawn broke on the horizon, Jin felt exhaustion settle over her like an oversized blanket. Her steps dragged now with frequent stumbles.
Jin slowed to a crawl and looked around. She was nearing the edge of the forest, and up ahead was a familiar meadow, the one she had been whisked away from. The tall grass was wet with dew and looked more yellow than before. The change of seasons was beginning to show in this and the yellowing pine needles that littered the forest floor. Plus the weather looked overcast, with dark clouds littering the sky. Today was a major indicator of the encroaching Autumn. Just perfect, Jin thought. She would be cold and wet by the time she reached Sable, and the wagon tracks would be very muddy. But for now, she needed food.
Jin sat down on a large rock in the meadow and searched through her bag, which now contained a plentiful supply of food. She was starving, but forced herself to eat slowly and sparingly. It was no use using up all the supply when it wasn’t needed and her stomach was too shriveled to hold much.
Having eaten enough, her eyelids began to droop and she slouched in place. How sleepy Jin was, on this nice dry rock in an open meadow. That was, until the sun glinted on something at the corner of Jin’s half-closed eyes.
She sat up, quickly, and looked around. Nothing seemed out of place. No one else was in the meadow, it was just Jin and the rock. The rock. There was something strange there. What was a large, flawless grey rock doing in the middle of an open meadow? And she didn’t remember it being there before. It seemed like an abnormality that she would have noticed.
All at once there was a loud grinding noise that seemed to come from right where Jin was sitting. The rock vibrated, and Jin leapt up and aside, heart in her mouth. A large crack appeared down the middle of the rock, accompanied by an ear-splitting noise. She covered her ears, and before her eyes, thousands of tiny spiders scurried from the rock and scattered everywhere. Normally Jin wasn’t scared of spiders, but these were different. These were bright red like cayenne peppers and each was the size of half a fingernail; where they moved, they left a bright red trail that cooled from red to yellow to blue and then faded entirely. The rock fell apart completely, revealing a complicated layer of sickly-yellow egg-sacs.
Jin was just about to turn around and sprint off in the other direction, when there came a loud clacking noise from right behind her. She turned around, slowly, not wanting to know what was there. The sun glinted off two large, dagger-shaped fangs.
The fangs were set on opposite sides of a large, drooling mouth that kept clacking them together. The mouth was set in a head that also contained eight eyes that were redder than the baby spiders and infinitely more ominous. And the head was set in a body that towered over Jin by a good five feet and was held up by eight hairy legs. It was a goliath spider, -yellow, with bright red stripes sort of like a tiger.
Jin held very still as the spider surveilled her as well as it could -which was not very well, since Goliath spiders had horrible eyesight. However, they also had an excellent sense of smell for their prey and a bit of a sore spot for their younglings. It clacked its fangs together yet again, spraying Jin with foul-smelling green saliva. She didn’t dare lift her hand to wipe it off her face. Instead, she slowly reached for a dagger from her belt, and in one swift movement threw it at the giant spider’s face. It bounced off, harmlessly.
This only made the Goliath spider mother angry. It lunged at Jin and Jin rolled out of the way just in time to draw her daggers and swipe at a leg. The dagger was deflected by a hard, outer-shell. So if the Goliath spider was invulnerable in her legs and head, what was vulnerable? Nothing, probably, Jin thought pessimistically as she dodged another lunge, I should just run.
By now the pounding exhaustion that had been dragging on her earlier had vanished without a trace. Adrenaline was pumping through Jin’s veins now, as she drew and threw a blade at the spider’s eye, followed by another. The spider yowled in pain, and paused for a moment, giving Jin enough time to puncture the rest of the red orbs. They gave a green discharge that smelled horrible. But when the spider looked up, again, with eight daggers sticking out of eight useless eyes, it didn’t look defeated; it looked very, very annoyed. Remember, eyesight is not very useful to Goliath spiders.
Jin felt like she was playing a very dangerous game of deadman that involved sharp weapons and venom. She was down nine knives. Three left, plus two daggers and a pistol. Time for improvisation.
The next time the spider lunged, she rolled under it, catching her arm on the spiny hairs on the spider’s legs. They felt like knives, ripping apart her skin, but her momentum held and she followed through, taking both of her daggers and lodging them soundly in the Goliath mother’s large belly. Jin kept rolling all the way out from under the spider as it roared indignantly. Wait a minute -how do spiders roar, exactly? Well, this one did. Surely that should have done the trick. In all the stories, giant spiders were killed by targeting their soft underbellies.
This one was clearly in a lot of pain, considering it was stabbed in ten places, but it was not done fighting yet. All this meant was that Jin was short eleven weapons (one was laying in the grass, having done no damage whatsoever). The spider yowled again -a strange, ear-piercing, scream-like sound- and an idea hit Jin full speed, propelling her into action. She drew her pistol faster than the fastest reigning quickdraw champion on earth, firing it into the spider’s gaping maw three times before the spider realized its mistake and closed its mouth. But the damage had been done. It staggered once, twice, during which Jin, without thinking, dove under its belly to retrieve her daggers. She pulled them loose with little time to spare and rolled out of the way as the spider collapsed with a resounding crash. Jin wasted no time in recovery. She jumped up and scurried backwards, just in case this wasn’t all over yet, but the spider had clearly fought its last battle. It lay there pitifully, eight knives sticking at grotesque angles out of eight red orbs that flickered out and died, leaving the shell of a spider continuing to drool green gunk everywhere.
Jin approached it cautiously, almost regretting the task of killing the beast. She wanted to leave the scene and wipe her hands of any evidence of having taken part in it, but there was one thing she needed to do first: retrieve her weapons. So she carefully extracted each knife from each dull orb and found the one laying harmlessly in the grass. Then she cleaned each in the dirt, a tedious business, before she realized something.
Goliath spider venom was notorious for being fast-acting and deadly. Supposedly after an enemy was injected with it, they suffered a seizure and subsequent death within ten seconds. Jin decided to take advantage of this fact. She took each weapon, except the pistol, and dipped it in the spider’s drool, coating it with the nasty green stuff. Then she waited for them to dry. They did, in a few minutes, to an invisible coating with a glass-like texture. Jin almost laughed at herself. Prudence was not one of her traits, but in this case she had shown incredible insight. Another Jin-but-not-Jin moment. What was happening to her?
Then her arm throbbed painfully, so Jin sheathed her weapons, tore a strip of cloth off of her tunic, and wrapped the affected spot tight. It looked like a mountain lion had mauled her, because there were three deep cuts one after the other on her upper arm. She hoped that the hairs from the spider were not venomous. Then again, if they were, than she would be dead already. Ten-second rule.
Jin took one more look at the remains of the spider and vomited up her recent lunch. She spat into the grass and looked away, only to see thousands of tiny red spiders scuttling towards her. She jumped back, and saw that they were swarming to check out the vomit. Lovely.
Jin turned on her heel and rushed back to the wagon tracks, eager to be out of the once placid meadow. She counted up her injuries in self-pity: diaphragm, rib-cage, arm. Scars for Sable. Scars she would never show him.
Back on the hunt again, the hours passed quickly enough. Jin’s thoughts were consumed by the plan to save Sable. She ran over all the moments they had shared together, and hoped that everything would go according to plan.
Speaking of plans, Jin realized she didn’t have one. The wagon tracks were growing fresher by the minute and she would need to think one up quickly. Jin was not good at making up plans. It was always Sable who would dream it up and Jin would carry it out. She despaired for a moment, and then decided on striking during the nighttime. First she would scout it out at dusk and come back later when it was even harder to see. The pistol was out on this run; it would be too loud and conspicuous. She would use her daggers and throwing knives. Satisfied with this rather hastily-concocted plan, Jin put it out of her thoughts for later.
Some time later, the clouds finally broke and the rain poured down like there was no-tomorrow. On second thought, Jin thought, maybe there wouldn’t be a tomorrow for her. A fine mist settled down on everything, blanketing the wagon tracks but not preventing large mud puddles from forming. The tracks grew deep and uneven, and filled with muddy water quickly. Jin knew that the time for action was drawing near. She ate again while she slowed to a brisk walk, and then picked back up to a jog again. Somehow the adrenaline hadn’t exited her system, yet.
She fidgeted with her belt and coat, antsy, not relishing the idea of killing a human, no matter how much they were under Zes’s corrupting influence. Anything for Sable. She would cut off her own arm rather than see him suffer. Jin would die for Sable. He was her life, her everything. Always would be.
Suddenly, a loud, boisterous laugh broke the silence. Jin froze. She had been so consumed in her thoughts that she hadn’t noticed she had gotten so close to the caravan; it was obvious now, being only about fifty yards or so away. She slowly lowered herself to the grass, and slithered along, under cover of the tall fronds, to the relative safety of the nearby forest. Once there, she backed away and tried to observe the camp she had come so close to stumbling upon.
In fact, the caravan train stood out like a sore thumb atop a hill in the middle of the grass clearing. There were three or four wagons parked in a semicircle, and in the middle was a makeshift fire pit with a few pitiful flames struggling not to be smothered by the downpour. These muses had nothing to fear; no one would dare mess with them. That was, besides Jin.
Jin was vaguely impressed by the lengths to which Zes had gone to transport Sable to Valdir. There were a good five muses on duty, mostly hanging out around the fire, trying to keep warm. However, the whole caravan was not devoted to his sole cause. Zes was smart. He also used this daily “chore” for trading with faraway and exotic places, as Valdir was very far away; in fact, the whole journey took half a year. Jin had all that time to plan a perfect rescue mission and she didn’t use up a day of it. Barely an hour.
The hours she spent waiting for dark were torture. Every minute she spent standing around or pacing quietly, she was tempted to run over to the camp barely one hundred yards east and bust Sable out. He was so close, she could almost convince herself that he could feel her presence and knew she was there. Jin was not the patient sort. She sat around for several hours tapping her leg, twitching, messing with her hair, trying to find something worthwhile to do besides play the guitar, which would’ve made too much noise. It occurred to her that she might look at the papers, which were still waiting for her in the bag. But with Sable so near, she couldn’t bring herself to do it.
Finally, Jin came up with an idea. She took out her throwing knives and practiced targeting minute spots on trees. Now this was a time passer. It was physical and mental concentration, leaving no room for wandering of thoughts.
And then something happened that broke her concentration. She remembered Sable talking similarly about music. How it cleared his mind, relaxed him, gave him the perfect environment to think hard about something while being so preoccupied with something else that there was no room for any other thoughts to break in. It was almost like the thought process was slowed for the benefit of the interpreter.
Jin could remember the scene perfectly. She paused, mid-throw, to recount it.
They were sitting on Sable’s bunk, their usual spot, after a performance like any other, though, slightly different, as Sable had pointed out, because Sable had played the guitar instead of his customary mandolin part. Jin was tired and just wanted to go to sleep at the time. Now she regretted cutting him off so quickly.
“Music is always special for me,” Sable said, “of course, it should be, -I’m a muse of music. Do you ever get that feeling, Jin, when you’re doing agility stuff, that this was meant for you? That there is nothing better in this world than what you’re doing right now?”
Jin didn’t know what he was talking about. “Um... well, we are muses, right? We were made to perform our muse specialty.”
“Right, well, I just said that. But you know, when I played the guitar for the first time today, it was different.” Sable was able to just pick up the guitar and play it perfectly, of course; muses of music could just do that. “My thoughts, just cleared, like that-” he stretched his hands out, “-and I felt totally immersed in the music. I could have gone on like that forever. And it’s not like that with other instruments. Like, it was different.”
Jin was quiet.
“I don’t know how to explain it!” Sable said, exasperated. “I don’t know, I found -found my muse, I guess. If that makes any sense.”
“It doesn’t make any sense. The only thing that makes sense right now is my overwhelming urge to sleep,” Jin replied, yawning.
“You’re impossible,” Sable muttered, “stupid witticisms.”
“That was not a witticism. It was a cold, hard fact.”
“Here I am, pouring my heart out to you, and what do you do-” The moment was lost.
Jin threw the knife angrily as hard as she could at the tree. It buried deep into the wood, up to the hilt. She scrunched her hair and screamed silently at the sky. She wished that she could go back to all those moments with Sable and relive them. How many times had he tried to tell her something important, and she hadn’t listened? And it was at that moment that Jin realized that she barely knew anything about Sable. Anything at all. He had known almost every atom of her being, and she felt horrible for it. Every time he had tried to lend some personal insight, Jin just turned the conversation back towards herself. How self-centered can one person be, she wondered.
But one thing was for sure. Sable had found his muse, as he had described it, in guitar playing. Jin had just found her muse in knife throwing. And she absolutely couldn’t wait a minute longer to see Sable. It had to be now.
Jin crept down to the camp with a tear stained face and steeled eyes. It was now or never.
Two of the guards were by the fire, playing cards. Another was on one side of the semicircle, and the other was somewhere between the center of the arc and at the other end. Jin assumed that this was where Sable was. She could barely pick out bars in the back of a wagon. Yep, that was it.
Jin snuck down from the forest to the apex of the arc, unseen by the guards, who were too busy doing anything other than surveillance. She moved, unnoticed, toward the guard who was guarding Sable. On her way, she picked up a rock, and, drawing near, threw it on the ground around the corner from the guard. She was waiting for him, and as he bent down to inspect it, she crept around behind him, brandishing the dagger she held clutched in her hand, and slit his throat. Jin sincerely wished she didn’t have to kill the man, but it was the only way she could think to keep him quiet. The only noise she had made in the entire process was the revolting sound of spurting blood. The man looked at her one last time, as she slowly lowered him to the ground, his expression like a gaping fish stopping Jin for a millisecond; she looked back at him and hoped he understood everything from her glance: that she didn’t want to hurt him, that she wouldn’t if she hadn’t had to. Like that would make any difference to a dying man.
Trying not to dwell on these thoughts, Jin drew two throwing knives, and snuck around the corner of the caravan, trying to target the two guards by the campfire, who would surely notice their fellow guard missing. She pinpointed them and threw the knives simultaneously dead on. The only sound, barely audible, was a slight whistling through the air, and then two dull thumps as they lodged hilt-deep in the guards’ backs. One of the guards made a slight choking noise, the other looked around wildly for a half second for their attacker, and then both keeled over noisily. Jin waited, waited for the other to come running. And when he did, yelling nervously for his friends, Jin threw another knife at him, which hit slightly lower than targeted, but still close to optimal. He fell over, with a frightened yelp, and then made no more noise.
Jin, unable to stand it any longer, searched the guards’ pockets for a key and found one on her first victim. Sable is worth anything, she told herself, even -she hitched her breath a little- the killing of other people. Then she ran back to the cage and dared a look. Sable was curled up in the back of the cage, hugging his knees, chocolate-brown eyes wide in fear and shock. Even in the dark, Jin’s wolfish eyes noticed bruises on his cheek and tears in his clothes. Tears welled up. “Sable,” she whispered, “what have they done to you?”
Sable’s mouth opened in an “o” shape, “Jin? Is that you?” he asked hoarsely.
“Yes,” Jin whispered, fumbling the key in the lock, and finally getting it open. Sable scrambled out right away and hugged her hard. Jin didn’t know what she was expecting from their reunion, but she found herself slightly disappointed.
“I thought you were going to kill me,” Sable admitted. “You look... rather intimidating.”
Jin almost laughed. “Let’s get out of here. You don’t know how much I’ve missed you.” She looked at his familiar face, touched it, and the tears finally spilled over. Sable’s eyes looked suspiciously moist as well. They put their arms around each other and walked away from the camp, back towards the trees.
But what they didn’t notice was the last, poisoned soldier, foaming mouth dribbling blood down his tunic and lifting, with a shaking arm, his pistol; he pointed it towards their retreating, rejoicing figures, and somehow his dead-numb fingers found the trigger; with his dying breath his finger twitched and triggered the gun.
Jin felt Sable go limp in her arms suddenly, and at first she thought that maybe he was having another seizure, than that maybe he was messing with her, but then the sound registered in her brain, the sound of the gunshot. Sable sunk to the ground, his legs gave out and he fell, arms clutching his skinny stomach where the bullet had passed clean through, and blood dripping through his pale hands. Jin tried, but she couldn’t catch him, she grabbed his arms, too late, trying to slow his fall, but it only caused more pain and he moaned. And Jin found her voice, suddenly, screamed, “Sable!” She looked, in the midst of the moment, at the soldier who had sunk back to the ground and lay dead now, ten-second rule, the man who had caused such pain in the very moment they should have been rejoicing in.
Sable grabbed her arm, pulled her down with such force that she nearly fell on top of him, and then whispered in her ear, nose clumsily brushing her skin, “It’s not your fault, Jin. You saved me.”
“But I couldn’t!” She protested, choking on hot tears that ran down her face and throat. “Don’t leave me, please! You’re all I’ve got!” And a voice, even in the direst moment, tortured Jin, telling her how even when Sable was lying here, dying, she had to turn the conversation to herself, always worrying about herself... She hated herself more than anything else at that moment, more than the soldier; how could she ever have let this happen?
“Listen,” he said, urgently, “I don’t blame you. Remember always.” Sable drew a rattling breath and tensed his hand tighter on the wound. “The papers. Read them, I should have shown you -sooner.”
Jin held his head in her hands now, trying to absorb his chocolate-brown eyes, trying to understand every atom of his being as he had done her, trying to figure out in these last moments, everything she had overlooked before, everything she regretted missing. “I-I’m sorry,” she said, “I should have listened to you more. Please, how can you ever forgive me?”
“I forgive you, Jin,” he whispered, barely audible now, she had to lean in close to catch the words tumbling from his lips. She relished now, the way he said her name, so different from everyone else. “Let me go, Jin.”
“I never will!” She protested.
“Just know,” he said, and Jin somehow knew that this was it, “I love you. Always have, always will.” Jin choked, and started sobbing uncontrollably, she tried to stop, to savor the last moment, tried to get the words out, but they wouldn’t come. Sable drew his last breath and let it out, slowly, the last physical evidence of his living being in this land.
Jin collapsed over his body and somehow choked the words out, “I love -loved- love you still- too. Always.” Then she lay there over his body, holding on to the last traces of warmth and squeezing his hand as best she could.
As she lay there in the total darkness, little bits and pieces of her time with Sable flashed before her eyes-
The time that he had played the guitar for the first time, again.
And further back, Jin’s first memory, of Sable reaching, taking her hand, comforting her; Jin didn’t know why, what had happened.
Surely Sable couldn’t be dead? See, his body, right in front of her, he was still warm, wasn’t he? Or was it just Jin, feverish, warm enough for the both of them... It must have been a dream... all a dream and Jin would soon wake up from it to another day at Zes’ court, to find out once and for all what those mysterious papers were. Jin pinched herself to make sure, but nothing happened.
A warm sticky liquid was leaking everywhere, -what was it? And Jin looked at her hands, but they were crimson, like a battle flag. She didn’t know who it belonged to: her or Sable, or maybe the Earth. Maybe the Earth was falling apart at the seams and bleeding out...
And Jin lay there, she didn’t know how long, feeling Sable’s body go stiff in her arms, no longer able to pretend his deceased state, and finally all the warmth left his body and no matter how many times she hugged him, sobbed all over him, brushed the hair out of his eyes, it wouldn’t come back.
She cried until no more tears came, and then she finally fell asleep, clutching Sable close, two days with little or no sleep finally catching up to her.
Jin didn’t notice when the sun came up and illuminated the bloody scene she was placed so inconspicuously in the center of.
She didn’t look up when vultures arrived and picked at every body save Sable’s.
She didn’t even feel the beetles and maggots squirming and decomposing Sable, wriggling over her face and hands.
Jin was too busy stuck in a semi-sleeping, semi-in-shock state.
And when she finally came to, she calmly flicked the bugs off of herself and stood up bravely. She dragged Sable as best she could into the forest, drawing on some hidden store of strength. And then she found a hollow in the base of the tree and gave him a makeshift burial, the best she could manage. She said a few words, as many as she could without her voice breaking and giving away the raging turmoil inside her. And then she turned around and walked back towards the road.
Jin walked twenty feet or so before her legs gave out.
She sunk to the ground, every last bit of adrenaline having left her, and that was where a very curious trader found her several hours later.
Jin woke up not knowing where she was or the time of day. The moment her eyes opened, her first thought was: I’ll be in so much trouble; I’m not supposed to be out on the grounds. Zes’ll kill me. Literally.
And then: Ugh! The spider must’ve knocked me out, got to get out of this meadow.
And finally: she sat up straight as a lightening rod and shrieked, “Sable!” There was a loud, “Whoa!” and then, “Uh, you’re awake...” Jin brought her knees to her chest and started rocking, muttering, “Sable, no -couldn’t be true- can’t be dead; Sable, where are you...” Finally registering that someone else was there with her, Jin looked around, temporarily distracted.
She was crouched on some kind of mat in the middle of a dirt clearing in the forest. There was a fire pit nearby, unused, at the moment, as there also loomed a clear sky overhead and the beautiful sound of chirping birds. Jin could hear a woodpecker pecking a tree, which reminded her of maggots, and she whispered to herself, shuddering, “Maggoty-maggots. Millions of maggots...”
“What’s that?” A voice said from nearby. “Oh yes... maggots. Nasty little things. Once found one in my stew. Several, in fact. Not a pleasant experience, as you can imagine.”
Jin jerked to her right, which was the direction of the voice she had heard. For a second she thought she had gone mad, but then she saw a boy’s face. He was older than her, perhaps seventeen, with shaggy, golden-blond hair and oriental-looking, slanted, brown eyes, which gave him a slightly strange appearance. His face was wide, and so was his nose, and flat. He looked like a Chinese man wearing a blond wig. She supposed he was handsome, in an off sort of way.
But there was something about him, something in his eyes, maybe, that held her interest. He was different, somehow.
The boy also wore a shabby, moth-eaten tunic with the sleeves cut or ripped off, loose trousers like an arabic street urchin, and boots that puffed out his pants even more so he looked sort of like a genie. Such a mixture of different cultures in one person might have been funny, had the circumstances been any different.
He saw her expression and looked a bit nervous suddenly. “Right. The name’s Quintus Neph, if that helps...” he trailed off. “Oh,” The boy-dubbed-Quintus added, as if struck by a sudden thought, “You might want this.” He tossed her a wet rag that looked like all it had seen for the last couple of years was the bottom of an old, dusty trunk. Perhaps it had.
Jin caught it easily, and looked at him questioningly. “You know, for washing,” he said, prompting her, and then made vague motions that were supposedly meant to be interpreted as washing. While Jin was removing the dried blood on her face and hands, he continued, nervously, “Er, and what might your name be? Only fair,” he explained, “I told you mine.”
Jin began to relay it, automatically, and then paused for a minute, wondering if it was such a good idea to so readily hand out her birth name, and then forging ahead, regardless, deciding it didn’t matter anymore now that Sable was dead. “Jin Nyx,” she said as an afterthought, “muse of agility.” The result was a not very convincing statement.
“Oh, uh, nice to know... I am, er -a muse of- well, I don’t exactly know...” Quintus looked down, awkwardly; Jin seemed to have hit upon a sore spot.
Her thoughts flitted back to Sable for a minute, and she forgot about Quintus, brooding instead upon Sable’s untimely fate. Tears began to fill her eyes again. Quintus, perhaps noticing the change of expression, suddenly burst out, “No, please! Don’t cry! There will be no crying here.”
Jin looked up, quizzically, and almost laughed at Quintus’s ridiculous expression of mock horror. He continued, “I have seen enough tears to last a lifetime... don’t subject me to any more pessimistic torture!”
Which reminded Jin, “What exactly happened?”
Quintus paused, as if gathering his thoughts. Then he began, slowly at first, “Well, I’m a traveling trader, which you can probably gather from my pack.” He motioned at a large, over-stuffed bag that had a lot of trinkets and shiny things attached all over it, so that if he put it on, it probably clinked and clanked like a rough imitation of Christmas bells. “I travel all over this land, just like my father... but you don’t care about that,” Quintus said quickly, and then focused on her with a sharp look. Jin waited indifferently, quite out of character, in fact.
He snapped his focus back to gazing off uncertainly at the trees, and continued his tale, “I happened to be traveling along this road, when I noticed a lot of birds circling some caravan camping spot, so I hurried over to check out the scene. There was a lot of blood and carnage everywhere,” -he looked rather pale when he said this- “but I looked around and found you lying somewhere between the forest and the death site. I thought you were dead, but miraculously you were still breathing... so I, um carried you out of there, back to my camp in the forest...” He paused, again, and Jin looked at his build, not quite convinced that he could have carried her all that distance. But then again, carrying a pack as over-stuffed as that one must have built some endurance muscles. Plus, Quintus seemed to have the build of an endurance runner, tall and lean.
“I figured you must have been running from the attacker, and almost made it out; though, you seem to have no serious wounds,” Quintus looked at her, perhaps expecting an answer, but received none, so he continued on, “That’s basically it. I, uh, fed you, built a little camp... you were sleeping for a long time... two days, in fact. It’s around mid-afternoon, by the way,” he added, helpfully.
Jin suddenly stood up, remembering something. “My pack!” she exclaimed. “I must have left it at my old campsite...” She looked at Quintus, who was watching her with a conflicted look on his face, like he was amused but trying to hide the fact, “Would you mind... showing me where the caravan site is from here?”
He searched her expression for a minute, and then said, slowly, “I’m not sure you want to go back there. Zes’ guards sometimes patrol the road, and they might suspect you. But if you must, we can hurry in and out. Just make it fast.” Quintus considered her again, for a moment, like he himself was not sure what to believe about her innocence. She was, of course, guilty of murder. Jin remained standing, jaw set, so Quintus joined her, and they wove between the pine trees directly opposite the sun, which must have meant they were heading eastward.
Jin wasn’t quite sure what to think of Quintus. He seemed nice enough, a bit awkward, maybe, but then again, the whole situation was awkward. She wondered what he must have thought when he found her, near the wreckage.
They walked in silence for several minutes, awkward tension growing in the air between them, until Quintus asked, “Would you mind telling me what you’re doing here?” He made a point of studying her clothes, taking in the black leotard costume and highwayman’s coat. “You’re wearing quite the assortment of items...” he added, and then grimaced a little at his own remark.
“You are too,” she pointed out coldly.
This mystery set swiftly aside, Quintus picked up rather half-heartedly another conversation thread. “So... leather climbing boots, tells me you’re probably pretty athletic. Worn, too... they’ve seen a lot of use. So whatever you do, you do it often.” He waited to see if she objected in any way to his projecting his thoughts on her apparel. She didn’t. “Black unitard... performer of some sort, something athletic... Hmm. Highwayman’s coat. That’s a bit of a roadblock.” Jin barely acknowledged this attempt at a joke. “But perhaps you’ve stolen it? No, that doesn’t seem right, but it’s possible, I suppose... I’m stuck.” Quintus admitted.
Jin didn’t answer, but turned the spotlight on him. “Well, I already know you’re a trader, which the well-worn boots confirm... but those puffy trousers look kind-of Arabic, perhaps acquired during your worldly travels?”
They continued like this, for a while, finding it exciting to make wild guesses about each other, until they reached the edge of the forest and studied the gruesome scene before them. There were more vultures than ever, circling the caravans and letting anyone with a good set of eyes know that something macabre happened. Jin, turning from the reminder as fast as she could, quickly began searching for the path she had taken several nights before on her way to save Sable.
No, don’t think of Sable.
It was, unsurprisingly, difficult to find the path, as Jin had been in an off-mindset the last time she had been there, but she ended up finding it, with the help of Quintus, who, strangely enough, knew a great deal about tracking. He kept pointing out things like snapped twigs, and imperceptible disturbances in the ground, saying, “Two days old,” and other phrases like that. Jin wasn’t listening closely.
Then he stopped, suddenly, and motioned for her to come over. At a whisper, he quickly relayed, “Very recent, twenty minutes at most. Someone’s been here in the past hour. We should proceed carefully.”
They gingerly placed their footsteps after that, and sure enough, it wasn’t long before they heard voices. “Dagger mark, Dill. Someone’s been here,” one voice said.
Dill, wheezy, replied, “Yeah, Dooz. And this dirt, over here, near the trunk, looks freshly piled. Wonder what it is?” Jin and Quintus were hiding in the nearby bushes now, and could see the owners of the voices. They appeared to be patrolling guards, as Quintus had mentioned. Jin watched as Dooz and the other guard drew near the tree where she had buried Sable.
Unable to stand it, Jin gave a queer little squeak and jumped out from her hiding place, blowing their cover. “Don’t touch him!” she yelled, suddenly, and the two guards almost jumped out of their skins, but recovered quickly and both drew guns and aimed them at her.
Jin was sure that this was it, that she was surely a goner now that she would have to fight them hand to hand, and not stealthily, as she was beginning to become used to. She looked around wildly for Quintus, and, not finding him, cursed him as a traitor and adopted a fighting stance, drawing two throwing knives.
Just then, Quintus emerged from the forest behind the guards, a round pebble in each hand, and knocked Dill and Dooz both on the heads. They collapsed unceremoniously. “Lower your weapons, Jin. They won’t be after you anytime soon. Really?” he repeated her curse. “You think I’d abandon you that quickly?”
Jin stared at him, guiltily, for a moment, and then became angry. “Well, how long have I known you, Quincy, or whoever you are? An hour?”
Quintus looked hurt. “It’s Quintus. And in any case, I was just joking. They won’t be bothering us for a while. Where’d you learn your mad fighting skills?”
“None of your beeswax.”
“And I suppose ‘him,’ who’s currently residing under a tree, is also none of my business?”
“That is correct,” Jin said coldly, and gathering her stuff, which was miraculously untouched, the guitar and bag with food and papers. She hoisted them on her back stiffly and headed back towards the direction of the caravan wreckage.
“Hang on a minute,” Quintus said, rushed, “we could just cut through the forest. I’m sure I can find our way back. Might save you some time and worries,” he added, shyly.
Jin nodded and followed him back into the trees. Their journey this time was silent and tense, the first intense moments of their acquaintance broken by their argument. Now that Jin thought about it, it did sound pretty stupid, but she wasn’t about to admit any faults.
They reached the camp with a grand total of having said three words between them: “ouch,” when Quintus had tripped on a root, “right,” when Jin had ventured off in the wrong direction, and “no,” when she replied, after which had followed a mini argument in pantomimes, which Quintus ended up winning. Plus, he turned out to be correct. When they finally stumbled upon their camp, exercise and fresh air having cleared their heads, Jin laughed at how ridiculous they were being. Soon Quintus joined in.
Finally Jin called for a surrender and they went about trying to fix dinner.
After a thin meal made mostly of dried meat softened in a watery broth, both settled down on their bedrolls by the now blazing fire. Jin hadn’t felt this good in a long time; full belly and someone to talk to.
“You know, I really did think you had abandoned me, earlier, in the woods,” she commented.
“Well, if you had just used your brain... I mean really, I have been taking care of you all this time and you think I’d let all my work go to waste as you were murdered by Zes’s guards?” Quintus laughed.
“Heh, Sable would’ve gotten me for that, too. He always said I used my heart and not my head-” Jin clapped a hand over her mouth, alarmed. The spell was broken.
“Who’s Sable?” Quintus asked, innocently.
“No one important.”
They dropped that thread of conversation, but the jovial mood was ruined. Soon both of them settled down to sleep on their bedrolls, warmed by the fire and some thin, moth-eaten blankets Quintus had provided...
But Jin couldn’t help thinking about Sable. She felt almost guilty, joking around after something so tragic as his death. And it was right there, right then, that she decided she would never, ever, whatever the circumstances, love anyone else.
So that settled it. Jin could barely admit to herself, even now, that she had loved Sable. Very much. And Sable had admitted his own feelings to her, dying before she could reiterate his words... Would he ever know that she had loved him too, -still did?
Plagued by these emotional thoughts, Jin slowly wound down and forced herself to a fitful sleep. But not before making another resolution, stronger than the last: Zes will pay.
He was getting impatient. Notoriously impatient. And he didn’t get impatient often.
His little pawn was too slow, too stupid. It would’ve been better to use the boy, he thought, and immediately tried to console himself. You know that never would’ve worked, he tried. In any case, the boy was no longer an option.
At least he could track his little pawn on her little adventures. He knew where she was. And the friend she had with her.
This friend had been both unexpected, and, it had turned out, crucial to his plans. A small miracle.
And so, he decided, it was time to test his plan.
Yes; he needed some action, and so he would practice for a little entertainment. He stood up. He was getting tired of his royal duties.
Soon, he promised himself.
Jin woke to find the sun shining overhead. She bolted upright. “Whoa, why didn’t you wake me?”
Quintus was crouching by the fire, cooking something that looked like fresh eggs. The sun had already risen, and been up for a while, it seemed. “Well, you seemed still pretty tired after whatever you went through a few days ago. I thought it best to let you sleep in.”
“Well, now that you’re up, we’d better hurry. We need to get on the road soon. I have a schedule to follow, you know, got to get up to the village before-” His cheeks reddened a little, snapping Quintus back to his awkward self from the day before. “That is- well, if maybe -I thought-”
“That I’d want to come with you?” Jin finished, helpfully.
“Well, I don’t know, these threadbare blankets were giving me the shivers all night and that stew from yesterday, I swear didn’t agree with me...” Jin saw Quintus look even more embarrassed, and burst out, “Of course I will! What were you thinking? I have no one else who’ll have me...”
Quintus brightened, but still looked at her a little warily as he took the eggs off the fire and put them on two flat rocks.
“If you’re upset about my comment just now, don’t be,” Jin apologized, “The blankets were plenty warm next to the fire and the stew is one of the best I’ve had in a while... I was just kidding...”
Quintus laughed. “Now I’ve got you chasing your words!”
“Guess I’ve met my match,” Jin said ruefully. They finished the slightly undercooked breakfast and each hoisted their packs, Quintus’s banging loudly when all the trinkets clanged against each other. It continued to ring afresh every time he made the slightest move. “Will it ever shut up?” Jin asked, after a few minutes on the road of nonstop noise. “At this rate, there’ll be no bears left for me to hunt!”
“Nope,” Quintus said, grinning, “I find it kind of relaxing; when you’re on your own it’s like a constant companion, keeping you company.”
“Yeah, well, now that you’ve got someone else, perhaps you could say goodbye to your noisy friend.”
“Can’t. He’s too dear to me. Plus,” he added, “He makes a lot of money each time I visit a village.” Jin smiled distractedly. A thought had crossed her mind. This boy, Quintus, seemed to be exactly what she needed to get her mind off Sable for a while. Never, ever, would he replace Sable, but Quintus could fill his place for a while. Temporarily. Jin planned to somehow dump Quintus at the nearest town. Never trust anyone, she thought to herself, keep moving and don’t look back.
And it was when they saw the little place stretch below them in a valley that Jin felt a sharp stab of regret. She almost regretted abandoning Quintus in this beautiful, verdant valley.
They descended, slowly, taking their time, not in a hurry. Jin stalled even more, watching him clunk along in front of her, feeling guilty and traitorous, betraying Quintus like this. She just wanted to spend more time with him, enjoy their time together. The constant clanging became almost endearing to her; she didn’t want to leave it.
Why should she? Why couldn’t she stay here forever, with Quintus? He would take care of her, she knew he would... But he had his own agenda. She couldn’t just restrict his life like that... plus, she knew nothing about him. Like what his plans were for the future, what his life was like before she met him... Why not ask?
“Hey, Quintus... what do you want to do?”
“Uh,” he looked puzzled, “get to town...”
“No, I mean, like, in the future.”
“Oh, well, um... I haven’t really thought about it... I s’pose I want to, you know, travel a lot, like I’m doing now... see the world and stuff. I never did want to settle down in one place for a while.”
“Wow, yeah. I hadn’t really thought about that... That sounds cool,” Jin said, meaning it. She had spent her life aspiring only to live through the next performance, and now she had her whole life ahead of her, assuming that Zes didn’t catch her first. But what would she do with it? No question about that; she’d take revenge for Sable’s death, she’d make Zes pay... if it was the last thing she did...
“What’s wrong?” Quintus asked, noticing her expression.
“Oh... nothing,” she muttered.
“There is obviously a lot more to you than one might think,” he said, craning his head to look at her face, and walking backward in doing so. Jin half-smiled, still absorbed in her thoughts.
They walked in silence after that, both absorbed in parallel universes, not knowing that they were thinking similar thoughts.
As they descended into the valley, the weather got warmer and the pine trees turned into shrubby trees and quaking aspens. The sky overhead was a bit overcast, and the air was muggy, like it usually was before a coming storm. They were expecting rain later.
And later, indeed, it was upon them. As Jin and Quintus settled down for the night on their bedrolls, a thin sheet of rain was coming down. They tried to take shelter under the smaller and shrubbier trees, but to little avail. Both were freezing.
And while they lay in silence, neither feeling any inclination to speak, Jin thought of something that she hadn’t thought of for a while. That was, the book that was practically her only possession, -Stories from Earth. She wondered -briefly- why she hadn’t thought of it when packing her stuff to go save Sable, but the answer was clear. She was too preoccupied at the time.
Jin loved that book. She would’ve given almost anything just to spend an afternoon with it, undisturbed. It told tales of the inhabitants of Earth, of inventions, of famous philosophers, of adventure on the high seas, and, conversely, in the desert... She had always longed to be able to jump into the world portrayed by the book and leave all her worries behind.
Now, more than ever, Jin wanted that. She wanted to leave the burdens of all the past few days behind forever and go and live among the Earthlings. But now, she cursed herself for entertaining such impossible notions. That could never, ever happen. And she couldn’t just leave her responsibilities behind like that. It seemed so puerile.
What responsibilities? Who was there, now, to condemn Jin? The only real weight that still burdened her was revenge for Sable’s death. That went without saying. But everything else... she could turn her back on the other muses, if she liked. She had no friends. No one left that truly understood her. Sable was gone, and with him, all the love and friendship Jin had ever known.
She understood that there was no one out there who would be like Sable. She was on her own now. And that was why she had to abandon Quintus. Simple logic.
Jin rolled over, slightly less worried, and fell asleep immediately. She was dimly aware, some hours later, of the rain stopping and a heavy silence falling over the valley. It made her sleep all the harder.
So when morning rolled around -Jin was in quite a good mood- she was surprised to see Quintus’s empty bed. She looked around through the lush greenery and streaming sun-rays -not a sign to be had that he had even been there that morning. Where could he be?
Jin sat up, slightly alarmed, and called out, “Quintus?” Her voice rang through the strangely quiet forest. “This isn’t funny, Quintus. Your idea of a joke?”
She was starting to get worried now. She stood up, and walked around the camp, inspecting everything with a critical eye. If he didn’t turn up soon...
“Of course not,” Quintus said, cheerfully, appearing out of what Jin thought could only be thin air, “just taking a walk.”
Jin gave him a suspicious glare. “Really?”
“Really,” he held up his hands, “fire away, but keep in mind, I’m innocent. One hundred-percent.”
So Jin dropped it, her mood slightly dampened, and they packed up and headed into town.
It was barely mid-morning when they finally reached it. It was an unbelievably beautiful place called Mourve. There were little bungalows everywhere with thatched roofs and dark green ivy. The place was spread out, and covered in luscious grass that would surely taste sweet if Jin were to cut a blade.
But the best part of the place was the roses. They were everywhere, - yellow, white, red, every color imaginable, and then some; blue, green, violet, and mixed, almost tie-dye looking blooms. They shouldn’t have been blooming this time of year, and yet, they were still. Which seemed strange to Jin, but in all the beauty she didn’t give it much thought.
It was impossible to feel anything other than awed in a place like this, even with the sky still clouded over and threatening to rain, and the dirt paths squishy and muddy and slightly overgrown.
The one thing that unnerved Jin about the place, however, were the inhabitants. At first, she and Quintus saw none, which in and of itself was strange, but the first one they saw was a strange old man.
He walked hunched over, thin and unhealthy looking, with a pinched expression, and he kept glancing over his shoulder with narrowed eyes, as if checking constantly for someone who might be following him. He also mumbled incomprehensible phrases nonstop under his breath, reminding Jin of an incantation. She and Quintus walked by, and Quintus looked straight ahead the whole time, only nudging Jin once and saying, under his breath, “Don’t stare. He’ll suspect something.”
Suspect what? Jin burned to ask, but held her tongue.
The second person they came across was a woman, and they didn’t actually get near her at all. She poked what could have been a round, jolly face outside her door for a fraction of a second, eyebrows furrowed and eyes flitting around suspiciously, and then closed the door quickly.
After that short encounter, Jin was definitely unnerved. She looked at Quintus, and asked, “What’s with this town? The people, they-”
“Shhh,” he interrupted, suddenly, “Try not to talk much. Stay near and don’t act like a tourist.”
Jin took the advice, burning to ask more questions, but not letting any escape there. She wondered why exactly Quintus had led her here in the first place, considering this strange little village couldn’t be very good for business. These people were probably too scared to trade among anybody but their own kind. She wondered why. What could have happened to make this place so unwelcoming and suspicious?
For the next twenty minutes of walking through the stunningly beautiful, rural town, they saw no other living thing except for a small garden snake, that soon took off into the rosebushes.
Where were the children? Jin wondered. Where were the dogs, the cats, the chickens, the horses? Wasn’t this a rural town? How could people make their livings here?
Her last question was answered when the loud echoing noise of tool against stone made itself heard. And finally, they saw the source of the sound. Jin couldn’t help herself. “A quarry,” she whispered in awe, “a granite quarry.” It made sense. This place was full of granite. And sure enough, when they approached the place, what Quintus and Jin saw was extremely imposing.
Tall, granite cliffs rose up suddenly from the green, hilly land, but the granite was jagged, obviously quarried, judging by the loud ringing noises and wooden structures up near the cliffs. There were workers there, too, wearing a uniform brown, and though Jin couldn’t see their expressions from the distance, they looked to be hunched over, as if with old age, perhaps, like the first civilian they had passed on the street.
Quintus nodded, slightly, in reply, but didn’t look at her straight on. They continued by the cliffs, which seemed to stretch for quite a distance, as far as the eye could see, at least. Jin didn’t dare ask Quintus where they were heading, but she didn’t have to wait much longer.
He turned, finally, at a winding old path that led to a rundown tavern; it had a thatched roof, like the other buildings, with drooping eaves and a sagging foundation. An old, weatherbeaten sign read “The Leather Boot,” with a rather neglected picture of just that hanging beneath it. All together, Jin didn’t exactly agree with Quintus’s taste, but then again, she had no knowledge prior to now that the charming town of Mourve even existed. As they entered the door, ajar with a flickering light coming from within, Quintus held a finger to his lips, and said, “Let me do the talking.”
They entered The Leather Boot. Jin wouldn’t have been surprised if he had told her it was really the inside of a boot. The floor was dark wood, and very worn and creaky in places, so that it was grayish colored. The room was long and thin, and in the right uttermost side was a metal spiral staircase that led up to the unknown.
Jin turned her attention to that which was in front of her: a long, unkempt bar that sagged at the ends, like the foundation. The sides of the whole room sagged downwards, and the many tables looked like they were slowly sliding towards either end of the room. Jin felt like she was on a fault line.
But Quintus strode right up to the bar and began talking into space until a woman appeared behind the bar, apparently having bent down to pick something up. “We’d like a room, please.”
The woman was short and rather heavy, with frizzy red hair, crooked teeth, and a wide-set jaw. She was wearing brown, like the quarrymen, and the cut sleeves accented her heavily muscled arms, giving Jin the impression that she could just as soon have joined them as stayed behind and cooked all day. (With heavy metal pots that weighed a ton.) She considered Quintus, then Jin, narrowing her eyes, and then said, in a gravelly whisper, “I don’t know, we seem to be getting a lot of business lately...”
“You hardly ever have business, and you know it,” Quintus said determinedly, “So give us a room and be done with it.
“Well alright,” the woman relented, but continued to watch their backs suspiciously after she had given them the key and they headed for the staircase in the corner.
Jin and Quintus ascended it, feeling slightly claustrophobic because there was hardly a foot on either side of the spiral, giving the staircase a real feel that they were in the neck of the boot. And then it opened up on one wall, revealing a long hallway with several doors on either side. It seemed to extend into infinity, as far as Jin could tell. She wanted to investigate it, but Quintus ushered her up farther, and the wall opening closed up again and they again found themselves in the neck of the boot.
Then it opened out again, this time in the opposite direction, and Quintus stepped out onto this level. Jin followed. There was a definite ending to this passageway, a clear, solid wall at the end. Even so, Jin couldn’t see how there could’ve been all this space upstairs in the one, little bungalow they had glimpsed from outside. She must’ve remembered wrong.
Then Quintus turned into a little door that read “304” on the outside, and stepped inside, motioning Jin to follow. He closed the door behind them, and Jin exploded.
“Where the rotten jalapenos are we?! I mean, I’m just supposed to follow you blindly, not speaking, into this rotten pepper-hole, and where do I find myself?” She motioned wildly at the room, which had two dirty beds on one side of the room and cracking paint. The floor sagged in the middle. She continued to wave her hands around, apparently at a loss for words.
“Calm down, Jin,” Quintus said, simply, and began to approach her.
“No!” she yelled.
“Someone will hear you, and think there’s something wrong,” he continued to approach her, and reached out a hand to her face, to brush the hair out of her eyes.
“I don’t care! What if it’s a good- what are you doing?” She interrupted herself, caught her breath, and stepped back when he began to run his hand down her arm and clasped her hand. Jin continued to step back, when he followed, suspiciously, fear beginning to clench in her stomach. “Stop!” she yelled, hoping someone might hear her. Why had Quintus brought her here?
“Jin...” he said, in a soothing, sweet voice quite unlike she had heard from him before, “No need to struggle...” And then she saw his eyes. They were yellow, with narrow pupils, like a cat’s. They looked hungry.
There was no decision after that. Jin turned, and ran for the door. She made it two feet before he grabbed her leg, bringing her down with a muffled crash on the floor. But she got up just as fast, kicking wildly and coming in contact with what she hoped with his face; there was an indignant spitting noise and Jin thought she might’ve knocked out a tooth. She didn’t stop to check. Taking advantage of the slight stall in his attack, she hurried out the door and slammed it in his face, then ran for the staircase as fast as she could. Being an agility muse, that was pretty fast.
But Quintus was right behind her. He followed her down the staircase, leaping inhumanly -was that fur sprouting around his face?- and basically drooling in his pursuit. Literally.
What the heck? That was Jin’s primary thought as she gained a head start and took off down the second-floor hallway that looked like it extended into infinity. Maybe she’d keep running into infinity, chased by this Quintus-who-was-turning-into-a-monster-thing.
Apparently not. Jin ran into something hard, and staggered back, disoriented. She realized that what she thought was a hallway that extended into infinity, actually ended in a mural of the same hallway extending forever. Strange. But with little time to spare, she burst through a door nearby and hid, breathing hard, behind it, trying to gather her thoughts together in a now aching head that had borne the better part of the impact.
Attempting to still her breathing, she listened carefully, and heard what sounded like snuffling and the padding of paws. It didn’t sound friendly. Jin grabbed a candlestick in the room that looked exactly the same as the other they had entered, and stood, on the ready, at the door, peering through the keyhole.
The snuffling gradually became louder as the thing stopped to consider each door. And when it reached Jin’s, she made a quick decision.
Before Quintus could react, she swung the door inward and brandished the candlestick. But what she saw was so surprising that she paused for an instant, and in that instant, her original plan failed.
Jin was staring into the same, yellow eyes, but around those yellow eyes was thick black fur that sprouted all over his body. Even his shaggy blond hair had turned black. And his face, his face, wasn’t the same. It was longer, leaner, not Quintus-like in the least bit. This was no Quintus. This was a monster from its hunched back right down to its paw-like hands and feet.
It snarled, spraying Jin with flecks of drool, and pouncing on her. She fell backwards, onto the sagging floor, dodging the creature’s snapping jaws, and with one final groan, the floor seemed to give up and fell apart, right beneath her, splitting beneath their combined weight, and they fell down.
It felt like slow motion, what with all the dodging and scrambling all over the creature, but Jin still held her candlestick, miraculously, and she hit it on its scraggly head with a satisfying clang. Then they landed on the middle of the bar table, which cracked and gave way also, and the floor under that, so that when Jin recovered her breath, she was picking her way out of a small crater.
But this time she had landed on top of the monster, and so he had received the brunt of the impact, and was lying temporarily stunned, gathering his wits. Jin wanted to do the same, but she forced herself to run out the door. As she did so, somewhere in the back of her mind she wondered where the woman they had met at the bar was.
There was no more time to think. Jin ran out the door and was stunned to be met by pure darkness. Hadn’t it been mid-morning when they arrived in the village? It couldn’t have been more than a half an hour since her and Quintus-but-not-Quintus entered the tavern. She pushed that thought away, though slightly disturbed by it, and ran full-speed down the dirt road toward the main path, drawing her gun as she went.
Suddenly a howl sounded forlornly behind her, and Jin knew that the monster was still coming. And then a chorus of howls answered, and she knew that she was done for.
Everywhere, pairs of yellow eyes were appearing; right before Jin’s eyes villagers were bounding down from their houses, changing mid-stride into the same monster that she had seen earlier, and heading for none other than her.
She sped up, if it was even possible, having met the main road now, and ran hard, back the way she had came earlier. Somehow her feet found the way, even when her mind was racing and her heart was jumping out of her throat...
And suddenly, she thought she must be losing them; she chanced a glance back and saw the yellow eyes fading, fading into the shroud of darkness. Jin thought she might have a chance. But just then, while she was looking back, she ran into something hard.
She sprawled headfirst into the mud, and looked around as best she could for the source of the impact. It was Quintus. Jin screamed and backed away, crablike, but he came towards her and put a hand over her mouth.
“Please be quiet,” he pleaded, and his voice, somehow, sounded normal, “They’ll hear you! Jin! I’m not going to hurt you!” Quintus was his nervous self, and he was speaking like he wasn’t one of the monsters.
Jin stopped struggling, and peeled his hand off of her mouth (which she had covered with spit) and gazed at him, suspiciously. From what she could see in the pitch blackness, his puffy pants were torn at the knees, and his hair was wild, sticking up everywhere. For some reason, she trusted him. Recovering her composure, she grabbed his arm, and made to keep running.
It was rightly chosen, because one of the creatures suddenly jumped out from the bushes. Even with their head start, however, it succeeded in toppling Quintus over, ripping his arm from her grip. Quintus struggled on the ground with it, until Jin shot it with her gun, because it was most convenient, though admittedly a little loud. It rolled off of Quintus, paused for a moment -during which Jin pulled Quintus up and ran flat out- and stood up, seemingly unharmed by the well-aimed bullet.
She and Quintus ran for their lives from the creature that was apparently impervious to bullets, and was soon joined by other evil things that had heard the gunshot.
But the creatures were gaining on them, and Jin was running low on stamina. Quintus was already gasping for breath, and tripping occasionally over his own feet. It didn’t look promising.
Suddenly the creatures stopped, like they had run into an invisible border. Jin kept running for a few seconds, but curious, turned around to look. What she saw gave her a double take. They were all lined up next to each other, standing on their hind paws and howling, no doubt, at her and Quintus. She didn’t stop to look longer.
Jin grabbed Quintus again and forced him to keep running, for how long, it was hard to tell. Though the yellow-eyed monsters were far behind them, the howls could still be heard, even as they started to run uphill. Only when they reached a plateau of sorts did Jin allow them to stop.
“What-in-the-?” Jin began, but was forced to stop as she gasped for breath, doubled over. They stood there for several minutes, trying to catch their breath, and then Jin, still breathing pretty hard, regarded Quintus with a very wary look. “You’re not going to morph and attack me, are you?”
He looked up at her, and furrowed his brows, “I thought you’d trust me by now!”
“Well you can’t blame me!” she said, throwing up her hands, “I saw you do just that, back at the inn!”
“You saw -WHAT?” he said, with a look of utmost shock that appeared to be very believable. Jin explained what she had seen, the look of unrest growing steadily worse on Quintus’s face. “There can’t be two of you...” Jin finished, at a loss for explanations, “Where in this rotten pepper-hole were you, in the first place?”
Quintus explained how he had woken up that morning in a strange house, with a strange woman looking after him, who had tried to feed him breakfast -which he had refused- and vehemently opposed his leaving. “When I finally was able to leave, I found myself in this strange village with lots of roses everywhere. The one we just got out of,” he said, pointing back down into the valley.
“You see, I wasn’t actually going to take you through Mourve. I’ve heard stories, like you wouldn’t believe, of that place -and apparently they’re true- but the creatures must’ve been one step ahead of us!” Quintus began to rant, as Jin listened with growing disbelief, “They must’ve kidnapped me in my bed last night, as I was sleeping, and sent one of their own kind to morph into me and take my place, fooling you, and-”
Jin interrupted him, “Wait, so you’re saying you never were in camp this morning?”
He nodded an affirmative.
“So then... That actually makes sense! When I woke up you weren’t in bed, and I was worried, so I went around calling for you, and then you turned up... I thought it was a bit strange at the time because your excuse was kind of... questionable.”
Quintus sat down, holding his head. “How could this have happened? I mean...”
Jin bravely sat down next to him, put an arm around his shoulders. As they sat there, it felt natural, two human beings sharing warmth and comfort. It was completely different from the monster Quintus, and almost like what she’d had with Sable. But she couldn’t think about that.
Then, to her disappointment, Quintus seemed to gather his wits about him and stood up.
“We should keep moving. Who knows what’s out there?”
So they walked back up, retracing their footsteps out of the valley long into the night. They reached the top of the hill at daybreak.
“Whaddaya say we take a day-break?” Quintus asked, with the faintest trace of a smile.
Jin didn’t like this idea. She wanted to keep moving. “No, I want to get out of this place. Now.” She ended up convincing Quintus by promising they would have breakfast first.
After a quick breakfast, they walked along another path, which Quintus assured her would take them all the way around the valley, at least a couple miles away from the village all the way around. But it would take more than a day.
They trudged onward, Jin lost in her thoughts. It was hard to adjust to this new information. That the Quintus she had thought was Quintus was not actually Quintus. That her plans for abandoning Quintus had fallen through the roof and been injured fatally. In fact, she had no appetite left for them. She found that she really wanted a companion after that terrifying night. Could it have been any worse?
At least the rest of the day was uneventful. Jin spent most of it worrying about nightfall, so that when it finally cast its long shadow upon them, she voiced her concern to Quintus.
“Well, did you see how they stopped right when we exited the village?” he said in what was obviously meant to be a reassuring voice, but wasn’t, since it was shaking so badly, “There must a line they can’t cross. I bet we’ll be safe tonight.” Even with these not entirely convincing words of advice, both of them were hard pressed to find sleep that night. Jin wanted to keep walking, but Quintus pointed out that they were both exhausted and hadn’t slept in forty-eight hours.
So in spite of her fears, comforted with a cozy fire and familiar moth-bitten blankets, Jin fell asleep almost as soon as her head hit the bedroll. It was morning before she knew it.
When Jin woke up, her heart gave a little start when she saw that Quintus was not still lying on his bedroll, but she relaxed a little when she saw he was making breakfast over the re-built fire.
“Mornin’” he said, cheerfully, “looks like we survived the night.”
“No kidding,” Jin said, shuddering. But she had had a deep, dreamless sleep, and was glad of it. She felt well-rested, and almost could regard the night before last a dream in and of itself. But not quite.
They enjoyed a quiet meal of dried fruit and meat from Jin’s bag, no fried eggs this time, which Jin sincerely regretted having eaten the day before. She hoped they hadn’t been contaminated by the creature that had cooked her breakfast.
And then they set out along the path Quintus had set the night before last, still not speaking. But it wasn’t a pressured silence. It felt good just to be in each other’s company with no need to speak, so they kept it that way for most of the day, only speaking a little when they broke for lunch.
By afternoon they had made it all the way around the valley, and left that nightmarish event far behind. It was refreshing to be making progress, but soon Jin began to wonder where exactly they were heading, so she chanced an ask.
“It’s a few days past this valley, little place called Nording,”
“Oh,” she said, “Is that a place you usually trade at?”
“Yeah, I guess you could say that. Well, you know, this is my first round trip since my dad died.” Jin could see that Quintus was trying to look nonchalant about this, and failing.
“Sorry,” she muttered.
“No problem. I just... yeah.”
“What happened?” she asked, without really thinking, “Er- I mean-”
“Stroke. It was my granddad, actually. He was getting on in the years. But my mom and dad died when I was really young, from the yellow fever. I don’t remember them. But then my granddad took me in, and decided to teach me the family trade...” he stopped, looking slightly embarrassed.
“I’m an orphan, too,” Jin said without really meaning to, she hadn’t planned on telling Quintus anything about her past, but suddenly it spilled out, perhaps since he had just revealed part of his, “I don’t know anything about my parents. I just remember arriving at Zes’s court- yeah,” she interrupted herself, seeing Quintus’s surprised expression. “I was a performing muse there, an agility muse. We did lots of cool tricks, though, sadly, for an unwelcome cause. It was pretty stressful, always being threatened with imminent death.”
“Yeah, and that’s where I met Sable...” she paused for a moment, not sure if she was ready to talk about it. Even the thought of his name gave her pain. She looked at Quintus. He had assumed a neutral expression, though Jin could pretty much tell that she had piqued his interest. Seeing her looking at him, Quintus quickly fished around for something to say.
“Sable?” he asked a little too quickly, “Is that the boy’s name you blurted out several days ago?”
“I -yeah- well, I guess,” she admitted, eyes downcast.
“If you don’t want to talk about it, we can wait.” Jin had the impression that Quintus had guessed a lot, and rightly, judging from his reply.
“No, It’s fine. Sable was my best friend... we’ve known-knew each other for most of our lives, and then not too long ago, there was to be a performance...” Jin trailed off, having just remembered something, “Holy jalapenos! I forgot!” She kneeled on the ground, searching for something.
“Wha...?” Quintus was watching her, confused. She didn’t answer, but withdrew the papers that, though a little water-stained, still seemed to be alright. On top was still the warrant for someone named Jesse’s arrest. He looked like he was wearing smeared eyeliner, since the drawing was blurred from the rain. And then Jin looked closer at the flyer: scrunched to the side, a tiny surname was scribbled in, almost as an afterthought -Jin recognized Sable’s handwriting- it read “Nyx.”
Her first reaction was that it was a coincidence. Surely the man who was warranted for an arrest on account of kidnapping was no relation of hers? But why had Sable written it in? There must be something deeper going on.
Jin looked at the next paper. It was a newspaper, with a big headline reading “Nyx: Elopement, not Kidnapping?” She began reading the text.
Some time ago, the royal guards ascertained that Jesse Nyx had kidnapped a young woman named Marine Aelin. At the time, it was attributed to his already troubled past. But now, however, the guards have been forced to reconsider.
Neighbors of the Aelin house have reported seeing a mysterious visiter appear several times a week in the dead of the night. “He -I assumed it was a ‘he,’ since he had a very muscular build- would sneak out of the woods near our neighborhood and climb up to the young woman’s window, disappear for a few hours, and then leave,” said one anonymous neighbor. Another confirmed these claims.
Having heard these new pieces of evidence, Royal Guard Tenue states that “it was only natural” for them to jump to the new conclusion of a possible elopement. Were Jesse and Marine having a love affair? Was this not a kidnapping, but the escape of two lovers?
Jin stopped reading. She was wondering why, exactly, Sable had had these papers and not shown them to her earlier. If he had come across anything, anything at all about a possible familial connection, he would’ve told her right away. Or so Jin thought. But that was apparently not true. Jin quickly rifled through the other papers.
Meanwhile, forgotten and feeling it, Quintus was muttering to himself, “Of course. Just go on, leave me hanging; have to go and have an epiphany at this incredibly convenient time... I’ll just be standing here, in this most comfortable position, waiting until the end of time, if need be...”
The next few papers were more news reports that said much of the same thing. And then Jin came across a log tracking arrivals and departures (deaths) of muses in Zes’s court. This certainly piqued her interest. How in the land of Valdir and beyond had Sable come across this most interesting piece of paper? She examined it. Many names were listed in the arrival slot, not many that Jin knew, and just as many (none that Jin knew) in the departure slot. But then she came across a most curious name in the arrival column: Jin Nyx, muse of agility. She looked at the date on the paper, which was eleven years previously. Of course.
She wanted to slap Sable. She wanted to pull him out of his makeshift grave and punch him. How dare he keep this from her? But then she saw another, slightly smaller name beneath her own, one that made her catch her breath. Sable Nyx, muse of music.
“WHAT THE FLYING JALAPENOS?” Jin yelled. Quintus jumped several feet, and then frowned, trying to regain his composure. Jin offered no explanation for her outburst.
Sable Nyx? Wasn’t that Jin’s surname? And here was another record, more recent, of resident muses in Zes’s court that had been there at least five years. It went into much more detail, and again, listed Jin and Sable next to each other, both with the surname “Nyx,” but beside that, there was a column for blood relations. Someone had written “Jesse Nyx, muse of agility” and “Marine Aelin, muse of music” as parents, whereabouts: unknown.
So there was no doubt that Sable had made the connection. That Jesse Nyx and Marine Aelin had apparently eloped, and had Sable and Jin as the result. Jin found it hard to process this.
Quintus interrupted his mutterings to ask, “Are you okay, Jin?” She promptly ignored him.
Her immediate thought was a flashback to when Sable had told her he loved her. So that was not what she had thought it was. It was a last-minute expression of familial love.
Jin’s world was spinning. How could she ever have thought of Sable in that way? She thought she loved him... It was so wrong, it was all so wrong... Why hadn’t he told her? And if her parents were still alive, which was very possible, then why had they abandoned Jin and Sable to Zes’s court? It was basically a death sentence!
So her parents had abandoned her, Jin’s potential love interest was completely turned upside down and inside out, and everything was changing so fast that it felt like the ground she was standing on was spinning. She sat down, hard.
What did this mean to her resolution? Jin had promised never to love anyone besides Sable. Now that he had turned out to be her brother, that promise was worth nothing. She dropped the papers and held her head, trying to still the thoughts whizzing around inside.
But then, what if this was all a mistake? What if Sable was wrong, and it was all just a big coincidence? She had been too quick to accept the fact, she thought. But then, it seemed like -and this was just one of her gut feelings- this was the real thing. She somehow believed it, just like she had believed the real Quintus was really the real Quintus and not the monster-Quintus. Feminine intuition, maybe.
She stared off into space for another five minutes, before Quintus ran out of patience and asked, in a slightly irritated tone, “You want to stop for the day?”
Jin jerked out of her reverie. “No,” she said distractedly; she wanted to take her mind off these thoughts for a while, “It’s only afternoon, we’d better keep going.” She and Quintus took off again, not saying anything to each other for the second time that day, but this time it wasn’t just because they were comfortable with each other. Quintus was a little irritated, and Jin was absorbed in her own thoughts.
Dinner was also passed in silence, and it was only when both of them were lying on their makeshift beds that evening that Quintus finally spoke his mind. “Are you going to tell me anything? You know, I don’t appreciate being left in the dark. Especially after saving your life,” he winced, “Sorry, I didn’t mean that.”
“No, you’re right,” Jin admitted, “I’ve been kind of selfish.” So, after taking a deep breath, ready to plunge underwater, she began to tell her story to those widening chocolate eyes. She told everything about her life at Zes’s court, and Sable’s seizure, and her decision to follow him. She told him how it was suspicious that Zes hadn’t tried harder to prevent her escape, and about Captain Blackbeard, the spider, and finally, the caravan. She told, her voice cracking, about how just when she thought that she and Sable might have escaped, and then the last soldier had shot Sable. Barely able to choke the words out, she omitted the part about his confession of love and hers. And then she burst into tears.
Quintus reacted kind of awkwardly. He sort of stood up, and made a few jerky movements like he wasn’t sure what do to, and then he came over next to Jin and put his arm around her. She cried into his shoulder for a long time. And then they sat there for longer, in the dark, without speaking. She subconsciously watched his half-closed eyes, coal-black and unreadable in the dark, while he wasn’t looking, and then blushed and looked away when she realized it.
It felt like part of the heavy burden she was carrying was lifted, now that she had someone to share it with. But there was a part of her, however, that was still wary about opening herself up to someone else like that. It was like she was binding herself subconsciously to Quintus. And she didn’t like that feeling of commitment. But she recognized that a teeny part of her did.
For now it was all fine, having a comforting arm around her and another source of warmth to make up for what she had lost while crying. She was exhausted, despite her uninterrupted sleep the night before, so she said, shakily, “I think I can sleep now.”
Quintus didn’t say anything, but just nodded and stood up to go over to his own bedroll. Jin squinted at his face in the firelight, but couldn’t quite make out what the expression was. She felt weak, and exposed, and too trusting, and she couldn’t sleep despite being so tired. It was only a few excruciating hours later that she finally dropped off to dreamland.
She dreamed that Sable was standing a hundred feet in front of her, but apparently didn’t notice she was there. Jin tried yelling at him, but he didn’t notice. And then she began to run towards him, but the closer she got the slower she became, until she wasn’t moving in the slightest. It felt like she was running in very thick mud.
She needed to get to him, to tell him something important, but she couldn’t remember what it was. All she could do was say his name, over and over, hoping he would hear her...
Jin woke up to find her face wet. She pawed at it quickly, embarrassed, and then looked around. The forest was misty, but fresh with the cool and crisp feeling of an autumn morning. The sun hadn’t risen yet, and the sky was slate grey, only just beginning to lighten.
She looked over at Quintus’ bedroll. He was still sleeping. She studied him for a minute, watching his breathing, the contours of his face, and found herself thinking sentimental thoughts. Perturbed, she decided that she owed him a breakfast. After all, he had made her breakfast for the past few days. It was her turn.
Trying to be quiet, she shuffled around the dormant campfire, having decided to make oatmeal. This was the first meal she had ever cooked, and so Jin wanted to start with something simple. It was no surprise to her, then, when the oatmeal started to smell burnt, so she quickly took it off the fire and examined it with some dismay. Parts of it were blackish-brown. “Hmph.”
“You might have tried stirring it.” Jin jumped about a mile and glanced around to see Quintus smiling, dimples prominent. She noticed, in an off-hand sort of way, that they were asymmetrical, and somehow this was very attractive. “Ever cooked before? Oatmeal is like the simplest thing ever.”
It took a second for her mind to switch gears, and then she was embarrassed, “Oh, thanks,” she said tardily, and then, “I try and do a good deed, and this is what I get for repayment. No, I have never cooked before.”
“Didn’t think so,” he said, still smiling, “I’ll try it anyway, I guess, if it makes you feel any better. Just don’t give me the burnt parts.”
Jin ladled out the oatmeal and added some dried fruit. They both ate in silence, trying not to gag. Finally Jin said, “This stuff is disgusting. You don’t have to finish it. Bleh.” She spit out a particularly bad mouthful.
Quintus laughed. “Guess cooking isn’t really your thing.”
“Hey!” Jin said, with a sudden burst of insight, “Maybe that’s your muse! You could be a muse of cooking!”
“Maybe...” Quintus said doubtfully, “Though that doesn’t quite sound right.” They sat for a minute, considering. “Oh well, I’ll figure it out someday. We should get moving.”
“Yeah,” Jin agreed.
Once on the road, Quintus asked, “So how do they figure out what you muses are muses of at Zes’s court?”
“Well,” she said slowly, “Its a bit hard to remember, - I was only five, but I think they did a series of tests. The judges are highly experienced in these matters, so I guess they can figure it out pretty quickly. They get hundreds of young muses a day, probably.”
“I know! We should set up a series of tests, for you, to figure it out!” Jin said, excitedly.
“Uh, if you say so... but what if I’m not a muse of anything? What if I’m just,” he paused dramatically, “powerless?”
“Of course you’re not powerless! I’ve never heard of a powerless muse!”
So while they were walking, Jin tried anything she could think of. “Make me laugh,” she demanded, quite seriously.
“Uh... don’t laugh?”
“What do you mean, ‘don’t laugh?’”
“Aww... Come on... It usually works. Reverse psychology. When someone tells you to not laugh, you can’t help but laugh. Don’t smile. Don’t smile; I’m telling you, don’t smile...” he coed, and eventually Jin gave him a grudging smile.
“I don’t think I have to tell you, but that was an ultimate fail. You’re definitely not a muse of joking.”
When they sat for a quick lunch break later that day, Jin tried to cheer Quintus up.
“I’m not good at anything!” he moped.
“Don’t be silly,” Jin said, “after all, we’ve only tried one skill!” Once back on the road, Jin demonstrated a series of backflips that looked pretty impressive to Quintus, and told him to try it. It was also apparent that he wasn’t destined for agility anytime soon, as he crashed headfirst into the ground after bravely attempting to launch himself backwards. Jin had to hold back a laugh. “No worries!”
Later she tried telling him a riddle that she herself didn’t know the answer to, as she wasn’t a muse of intelligence, but Quintus couldn’t figure it out either. The rest of the day was attempts at heavy-lifting, complicated math equations, and memory games. All they had accomplished, however, by the time they were sitting on their bedrolls by the fire was learning that Quintus was definitely not a muse of humor, agility, intelligence, strength, numbers, or memory. Quintus was, quite understandably, feeling pretty dull, and Jin was having trouble coming up with more tests. They sat, the night dark and full of stars -cloudless, for once- in silence.
Then Jin spoke, “Maybe you’re a muse of growing things. Although, the only way we could test that would be to have you grow a plant of some sort...”
“Believe me, I’m not. My grandpa gave me a pot of flowers to take care of when I was younger -didn’t turn out too well,” Quintus replied, glumly.
“Aha! Maybe you’re an artist! Draw a picture in the dirt, there!” Jin said brightly, and pointed to a barren spot of ground near the fire. Quintus moaned pitifully, but did as he was asked. The result was something like a grotesque misshapen lump with too uneven dots and a line. “What is it exactly -a potato?”
“No. It’s supposed to be you,” he said, irritably.
“Oh,” she said, softly.
“Don’t you see the resemblance? I mean, same eyes-”
“Aww, cut it out, you’re embarrassing me!”
“Straight-up Jin is turning soft on me!”
“Straight-up Jin...? Is that supposed to be a nickname of some sort?” Jin asked. Quintus looked affronted.
“What, now you’re degrading my naming skills?”
“Heh, I like it, it’s kinda tough sounding...” She glowed inwardly.
“Yeah, until it turned soft!” Quintus retorted. This made her laugh.
A few days later, and after several more failed experiments masterminded by Jin, Jin and Quintus arrived at the windy town of Nording. It was set atop a hill, like an agora, an ideal religious refuge, and had its own brand of religion that was painstakingly followed. It was a bit of a mysterious old place, set hundreds of miles away from any major city (Mourve most certainly not included, and Zes’s court not classified as a city), and had many tall, spiraling towers made out of black stone, giving the place a foreboding look.
However, the religious practices were pretty benign, only involving abstinence from any type of floral fragrance and frequent burning of beauty products. The followers renounced beautification, the result being lots of warty social outcasts, the young and pimply and the old that were seeking to redress their mistakes. When Jin and Quintus entered the town, they received many glares from people dressed almost entirely black from head to foot. They didn’t have much to complain about on Jin, but Quintus, dressed in exotic and slightly more colorful apparel, quickly became the subject of muttered conversations between the civilians. They reached the central market square as quickly as possible, at which Quintus abruptly stopped and pointed at an empty cobblestone square. “Let’s set up there.”
“Peddling, of course,” Quintus replied, impatiently, and hurried over to begin unpacking his bag. “First rule to observe is to always be aware of your audience.”
Jin interrupted him here, looking slightly amused. “Really, you couldn’t have worn less conspicuous clothing?” He started to protest, but she raised a hand. “Wear my coat. It’s black.” Quintus put it on, and immediately looked much more mature and serious. Jin stepped back to admire the effect. “Oh, very handsome,” she said teasingly, “Pity the coat’s mine. You can’t have it.”
Quintus blushed, but attempted to ignore her, and continued to rifle through his pack, coming up with several pairs of black boots, a few rolls of expensive-looking black silk, what looked to be ten tiny boxes of red-tipped sticks, and an ominous wooden carving of a raven captured mid-squawk. He laid it all out in front of him, neatly sorted into little piles.
Jin picked up the raven. “What from Earth is this?”
“Excuse me? I carved it myself, thank you very much.”
“Oh, uh, it’s very good... indeed, I was just messing with you...”
“So, what next?”
“I’ll tell you what’s next,” Quintus said, determinedly, and began to shout, “Exotic items, for sale! Black leather boots from er- I forgot; black silk, hand-woven, or at least, I think so; these sticky things I can’t remember what they’re called...”
“Oh man, you stink at this,” Jin commented. Quintus wilted. “Let me try. Fine black silk for those formal occasions - leather boots-” She began whispering to Quintus, “What are these stick-things?”
“Well, I forget what they’re called-”
“Oh, big help...”
“But they make fire! Watch this!” Quintus said, excitedly, until Jin made him stop.
“Wait a minute,” she said, quickly, and then raised her voice again like a commentator’s, “Demonstration! This boy here is going to-” she broke off and addressed Quintus at a whisper, “what are you going to do?”
“Boy?” He looked unimpressed.
“Just -whatever-” Jin waved her hands impatiently.
“Make fire,” he said gloomily.
“-make fire! He’s going to make fire with these very unassuming stick-things!” People were already coming to investigate -they didn’t get many vendors- and now were very intrigued. A good twenty or so gathered around to watch, some dubious, but many more practically bouncing with excitement.
“I don’t know if I can do it with so much pressure,” Quintus muttered, nervously.
“Of course you can! Watch, now, as he demonstrates the impossible- !”
Quintus, hands shaking slightly, took the red tip of the stick and swiped it in one smooth motion against the side of the box, where what looked like a red abrasive strip was placed. Nothing happened, although the flimsy stick did break in half. “Dammit,” he cursed angrily. “I’m sure this is how you do it...” People were beginning to mutter as he sifted for another stick. Jin, meanwhile, was temporarily stunned at Quintus’s word choice. He didn’t seem like that kind of person. But she liked it.
Then he found another “magic” stick, and rubbed it again. Something happened; a spark flew from the tip. Those who had seen began whispering to others. And then Quintus tried again, and it finally worked. With a crackling noise and a whooshing accompaniment, the red end was set alight. Quintus yelled, and jumped back, almost dropping it. The fire was burning it up alarmingly fast.
But Jin was ready. She had gathered some kindling, and told him to quickly light it. He did, and all eyes turned as the kindling mercifully took to it right away; Jin waited a couple minutes before placing a couple logs over it and people could tell that it would make a good fire.
Quintus yelled, unexpectedly, “Matchlings! That’s what they’re called, - matchlings! Matchlings for sale! Forget flint or rocks -light a fire in much less time!” Pretty soon a lot of people had come over and were checking out these so-called Matchlings. Jin watched as they sold out, and then more people came to check out the other items for sale. It was immensely gratifying to be making such good deals out of everything, even if Jin was not usually a tradesman.
“No worries,” Quintus said cheerfully, “I have more matchlings in my bag. I’m just saving them for the next town. If they’re such a hit here -and with you by my side- nothing can stand in my way! You’re a really good saleswoman,” he added, confidentially.
“Thanks,” Jin said, surprised.
Jin began to feel bad about this. She needed to speak to Quintus in private again, and soon. She needed a feeling of progress, and though the life of a traveling trader is an exciting one, this just didn’t cut it. What Jin really needed was to begin figuring out how she would exert revenge on Zes. Nowadays, even with laughing at Quintus’s antics all day, it seemed like the only reason she got up in the mornings. Yes, she needed to speak to him soon.
The items finished selling themselves, and soon the only thing left was the crudely carved raven that Quintus had made. No matter how he tried, he couldn’t get anyone to buy it. Not even Jin, who was coerced into the quest, could do any better. It simply did not want to be bought.
As it was quickly becoming dark and Quintus was quickly becoming irritated -despite their great success that day- at the fact that no one seemed to like his raven, he finally gave up and secured his pack back over his shoulders. Then he took the raven, and muttering, threw it over his shoulder. Jin happened to be standing behind him, and since he wasn’t watching, quickly snatched it out of the air and put it in her bag. She didn’t know why, but she had been seized with a sudden desire to have the raven.
They navigated the quickly darkening and thinning streets to an old inn not unlike the one Jin had visited at Mourve. She drew a sharp intake of breath. “I’m sorry, but this is too weird.”
“Well, at Mourve, you led me into an inn very much like this one, and then, well, attacked me... It was a bit unnerving, you know.”
“I promise I won’t attack you.”
“Good. Pinky promise?”
“Pinky promise,” Quintus replied, quickly, and they clasped pinkies. He led the way into the inn, which turned out on the inside to be much different from the other one, neatly polished and very homey looking with a roaring fire in the grate and a friendly man behind the counter, wearing what looked to be a strange circular hat set slightly askew on his head with a strange loopy thing coming out of the center. Beneath that, he had a goatee and was wearing a woolen tunic that did nothing to conceal his plenty plump belly.
“Bienvenue à la duexième portefeille, chez moi. Je m’appelle Bernard. Faites comme chez vous!”
“Je ne parle pas de français,” Quintus replied, awkwardly, and Jin looked at him, surprised, having not understood a word the man had said. The only thing she had surmised was that he was speaking in some foreign language from Earth.
Muses didn’t speak a language from Earth. They spoke the oldest form of Latin, in the beginning, which branched out over the ages to different dialects. Each town spoke a slightly different strain of the language, and could get difficult to decode the farther away a muse got from his or her home region. But the languages had more or less the same roots.
Every once in a while, a muse could come across an individual that spoke languages from Earth -the intelligence was available. Likely it wasn’t very close to the original language, though, and altered by the long lines of communicating through oral measures.
“Ah, but you do!” the man exclaimed in a heavily accented voice. Jin still had difficulty separating the accented words.
“Not really, no,” Quintus said modestly, “That’s the only thing I know how to say in French. Comes in handy sometimes, though.”
“You were speaking French?” Jin interrupted.
“Oui, mademoiselle!” the man said enthusiastically, “My name is Bernard, by the way, if you hadn’t surmised as much.”
“What does ‘wee mad-mouse-ell’ mean?”
Quintus turned, slightly embarrassed, to Jin. “Really, you don’t know?” he asked incredulously, and seeing her expression of bewilderment and humiliation, said, “It means ‘yes, miss,’”
Bernard had been watching this exchange with a slightly amused expression. “I see we have some work to do to bring you up to par,” he mused.
“Uh, that’s okay, I’m a failure at learning other languages... can’t even get Latin right, sometimes...” Jin said, ruefully. Quintus laughed. “Really, sir, could we have a room, please?”
“Call me monsieur. And, anything for le jeune amour!” He clasped his hands together and rocked back and forth for several seconds, apparently enthralled by whatever thought he had just voiced. Jin looked questioningly at Quintus, but he wasn’t paying attention to her and had blushed slightly.
“The room, please?”
“Of course,” Bernard said, and busied himself to find the key. Once he had located it, he gave it to them with many whispered words in rapid french that Jin could only take a stab at. She wondered absentmindedly how he could make a living in a language dead in the Land of the Muses.
Quintus and Jin found their room on the second floor; it was unexceptional, with a single bed and a fireplace, and little else except the bare wooden floor. Quintus took the floor with gentleman-like relish, so Jin owned the bed.
Jin woke up rested and in an excellent mood. Quintus practically growled after waking; he was stiff and sore from sleeping on the bare wood, having said a grand total of two words to Jin after their untimely meeting with Bernard, and was now in a rather grumpy mood.
Jin got up first, humming, until Quintus told her to shut up, and then she tried to be as quiet as possible while bringing the fire back up to par again.
They had a rushed but amusing breakfast, waited on by Monsieur Bernard, who spoke to them nonstop in unintelligible french. Quintus sat at the table sullenly, not responding to his enthusiastic hand motions and other gestures. Jin enjoyed watching Quintus’s reactions while wolfing down chocolate éclair and other tasty pastries.
Finally Quintus interrupted M. Bernard’s musings, “We are not together and never have been. You are not invited to the wedding, because there never will be one.”
Jin guffawed at this. “So that’s what he was saying!”
Quintus gave her a look and she tried to compose herself.
M. Bernard refused to be put off so easily. “Maybe so, but I can tell a golden opportunity when I see one!”
Jin was complacent after this, a little embarrassed herself.
And then they rushed out as soon as they could, Bernard calling out, “Au revoir, mon jeune amour!” Jin had no clue what it meant, but she had a good inside laugh at Quintus’s expression. “That was revolting,” he commented.
Jin said nothing, but led the way out of the village, listening to the familiar clinking of Quintus’s pack and early morning bustle in Nording. She decided it was a gloomy town, and the people there were close-minded. Bernard certainly did not fit in the atmosphere, and she wondered why he was here. These people did not seem the type to be going on about romance. He was one in a million, she decided.
When they left the village once and for all, Jin turned on Quintus, and asked, “Where do we go from here?”
He stopped walking. “Well, to complete the round trip, we continue inland to a city right on the outskirts of Valdir, and then a couple more on the way back to Jedendah, which I suppose you could say, is my home city, and then from there we pass a few more towns on the way back to Nording.” He looked tired as he said this.
“So your life is a big circle,” Jin mused.
“Pretty much,” he said, sighing, “I get tired of it sometimes, but it seems too risky to travel farther, what with the Valdirean desert and all that, and the Broken Mountains.”
“Yeah,” Jin replied. She was thinking of how she could possibly exert revenge on Zes. What she needed was more people on her side, people that were capable of fighting, and wanted a revolution. She didn’t know how she would get that. But to begin, she needed to let Quintus know that she would have to leave his company soon. It was getting tiring, not being able to pursue her goal, and she craved progress. “Listen, we need to talk.”
“We are talking.”
“Yeah, I know, but I’m serious. We need to talk.”
“Okay, I’m listening.”
“So, you remember when I told you about Sable,” Jin began, willing herself not to break down at thoughts of him, but it still brought up a lot of confused emotions. She was finding it hard to accept the fact that he was her brother.
“Um, yes,” he looked immediately ten times more nervous. Jin laughed at his expression.
“Don’t worry, I’m not going to break down on you. I hope, anyway.” And then she began to explain her vendetta against Zes. She was aware at how stupid, how naïve it sounded, but Quintus didn’t laugh. He listened, seriously, for several minutes, as she poured out all her anger. “He ruined my life, and Sable’s! He killed my only friend; even my father was against him, and maybe my mother” -she had explained about the documents and what they meant- “and every muse that stays there, their lives are at stake every second of every minute of every day. It’s not right.” she finished, loudly.
Quintus had listened to it all quietly, but now looked slightly confused. “It was a bit confusing-” he admitted, and put up a hand to stop Jin’s protest, “-but I get the gist of it. And I agree, most citizens have this on their mind. They just don’t have the confidence to think that it could ever happen. Truthfully, it seems like a lost cause. Even if we do manage to get a few sympathetic souls to join the cause, it’s likely that all we’d accomplish is our deaths and a tighter regime-”
“If you don’t want to help, then say so,” Jin retorted. “But I’m going to try, no matter what it takes.”
“Calm down. I understand. Didn’t you notice how I said ‘we,’ not ‘you?’”
Jin thought about this. Quintus continued, taking advantage of the silence.
“Of course I’ll help you! Haven’t you realized that by now? I have no one, nothing, holding me back. Plus, I have a bad case of boredom, and quite frankly, you are the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me.” He paused there, considering, and then finished, “The point is, you need my help. Badly. No offense, but you are a bit too reckless and, I agree with Sable, you use your heart much more often than your head. What you need is a level-headed person who can plan stuff.”
Jin nodded her agreement.
“That person could be me,” Quintus said, looking unsure.
Jin paused, pretending to be contemplating this offer deeply, and then burst out, “Who else? Didn’t I just ask that?” Quintus smiled, and Jin hugged him hard, which held an unpleasant connotation for her, dealing somewhat with Sable.
“Let’s go,” Quintus said, rubbing his ribs which he thought she may have just cracked. “I have a few ideas that we may be able to start with.”
Over the next few days of travel, their destination being Rillings, the town on the edge of the Valdirean Desert, since they had nothing to go on quite yet, Quintus and Jin spent most of their waking moments together, planning. As a result, Jin learned much about Quintus. She thought she had had him figured out before, but now she learned that that was just the tip of the ice burg.
And the more she learned about Quintus Zephr Neph, the more she liked about him. He wasn’t Sable, but he was his own person, and likable in his own way. He was true to his word, and was much more levelheaded than Jin, and once he got past his awkward social skills, turned out to be cheerful and usually willing to goof off. He tended to be the one worrying about safety, usually doing all the stressing about Jin’s life, which she could care less about since Sable’s death, but he managed to convey this importance to her by saying that she would never achieve revenge being dead. Which, however blunt, was nonetheless very true.
After that, she attempted to become more careful, but still valued Quintus’s life much higher above her own. Quintus seemed to feel the same way, except the other way around. This was apparent when they kept fighting over who would receive the bigger portions when their rations began to run low.
Quintus’s few ideas he had mentioned earlier turned out to be more like hunches. He explained that in Rillings, there were many more muses who were outspoken against Zes’s court, since the city was so far away from it, and therefore saw few guards. They did, however, have front row seats to watch the sufferings of those condemned to death by starvation in the Valdirean desert, but were forbidden to help these victims. Quintus explained how they harbored open resentment against this law, and frequently held boycotts and violent uprisings. It was a dangerous place.
Quintus recalled how, the last time he had been there, there had been talk in the inn about the spell-casting society, the powerful muses that opposed Zes, but lived in ambivalence with him. Although most people didn’t know exactly where this force resided, some seemed to think that they were near Rillings. And that was where, Quintus finished, they should start.
“If there’s any way we can rally a force strong enough to oppose Zes and his men, it will mean gathering the support of the spell-casting muses. We need to find, learn, and convince them.”
That became Jin and Quintus’s mantra. They repeated it over and over, “find, learn and convince,” until it was branded in their brains and was the only thing they dreamed about at night.
Jin began to get impatient. Even though she was finally in pursuit of her goal, the days seemed to get longer and more tedious with the dwindling of their food supplies. It seemed impossible that they would ever reach Rillings, much less be able to find the spell-casting society. But she wouldn’t give up. When she asked Quintus about his past journeys to Rillings, and food supplies on the way, he replied pessimistically.
“Well, yeah, there was always some question about food, but never as much as now. Now that your food supplies are completely gone, we’re dependent on mine, which weren’t exactly meant to sustain two people.” Quintus began dwelling on why he hadn’t thought to buy more food in Nording. “What was I thinking?” he would say, out of nowhere, but Jin was so used to him doing this that she would forget to react, and the outburst would go unnoticed.
Then there came a day when they finished, glumly, their last crust of rock-hard bread. It was a depressing affair, but neither voiced their concern. They went to bed that night, stomachs growling worse than ever, though they had already been doing this for the past week or so as they had tried to ration the food intake.
Water was plentiful. They followed a stream endlessly, which Quintus said would take them to Rillings and then mark the beginning of the Valdirean desert. Jin would have thought that life would crop up around it, but she was wrong. In fact, the dirt around the stream was hard and cracked, and rarely did a tree blemish the horizon. For the most part, the country was barren; cold, with the onset of winter; and devoid of all life. Which made it impossible for any food to be found.
On the third day without food, they woke up to snow. Every muscle in Jin’s body was sore and stiff from the cold and starvation and had begun to atrophy. They had long since given up on speaking about the spell-casting society, focusing instead on their own predicament, and so they broke the ice on the stream in pressing silence.
When Jin looked at Quintus, really looked, for the first time in days, she was shocked to see a reflection of her own sufferings. His eyes were dull and listless, and his clothes now hung off him, like they were draped over a skeleton. The skin on his body sagged, and his hair was now long and dirty and wild, giving him a demented look. She supposed that she didn’t look much different. But she was past caring for her own appearance.
Despite their fatigue, they pressed onwards, gradually slowing down in the midst of pressing silence broken only by the shuffling of boots in newly-fallen snow and the sloshing of ice-cold water in empty stomachs.
The landscape seemed to stretch infinitely in every direction, flat and dazzlingly white. The sky was gray and covered in storm clouds that continued to snow ceaselessly upon them. As the snow grew deeper, it impeded their progress still and exhausted them quickly.
Jin began to resent this journey. She blamed herself for dragging Quintus into this; if he died she would have the burden of another innocent individual’s death on her hands to deal with. She began to hate the people of Rillings, and wondered why they had never thought of settling just a little closer to civilization; maybe, if they had, Jin would not be dying out in the middle of nowhere like this with a poor loyal trader.
And then, she thought, this was what she had been trying to save Sable from. She understood the morbid popularity of this form of execution in Zes’s eyes. It was long and hopeless, and caused suffering much longer than other forms of death. But it was also dull after a while, and the victim would begin to just give up, wishing for imminent death. There was none of the fighting to survive. That battle had already been surrendered.
Then her thoughts descended into hopeless confusion.
Vaguely she heard Quintus trip and fall on something. She stopped and waited for him to get up, but not hearing anything, turned around and dragged herself over to where he lay prostrate upon the ground, unmoved from the position he fell into. Like a frozen corpse.
“Quintus, come on,” Jin croaked. “Get up.” She bent down and shook him, but there was no answer. Her momentum carried her down onto the ground next to him, and she lay down on the soft bed of snow.
Musn’t fall asleep, she thought vaguely, even as her eyelids pressed down heavy.
She didn’t know how long she lay there, eyes half closed, but then something changed on the horizon.
A pinprick of hope appeared. Jin opened her eyes all the way, fighting their predicament. Behind her, she felt Quintus stop as well. She looked back at him, questioning with her eyes, but his merely reflected her own hopeless confusion. Maybe it was a mirage?
The speck was getting bigger, heading straight towards them. It was dark against the snowdrifts and moved smoothly. Jin shrugged inwardly, and then forced herself up with her last vestiges of strength, powered by adrenaline, and began waving her hands and yelling “Help!” as best she could with a voice hoarse from lack of use. She could soon make out what looked like a pack of wolves, and experienced a pang of fear as she thought that they would come to tear her and Quintus apart in their weakened state. But they were attached to something, some kind of basket-looking thing with a person riding on the back.
Quintus’ head sank back down into the snow beside her, and Jin, for the first time in days, knew only one thought: she had saved him. She kneeled down beside him and held him, hot, pure joy coursing through her veins. They would live! But Quintus wasn’t moving; his eyelids were open but his eyes were dull; Jin realized that he had stopped shivering long ago, which was a very, very, bad sign...
“Stay with me, Quintus,” she whispered frantically, shaking him, trying to warm him up, “we’re nearly there!”
And then the gliding sled caught up to them, and the last thing she knew was a pair of arms grabbing, lifting her, and calling for Quintus... or was it Sable’s name tumbling from her lips?
He was getting extremely irritated. Would his pawn ever gather her wits about her and remember? She had already proven herself irrational and forgetful.
Jin’s dreams were confusing, like her brain was when the sled appeared, a strange mixture of bandits that turned into giant spiders, and Sable, turning yellow-eyed and rabid, but being shot by Zes himself... it was a strange mix-up of the events of the past few months... and then Quintus. Quintus, laughing. Quintus, standing awkwardly, and Quintus, starving, staring at her and blaming her for his slow and painful death...
Jin woke up with a jerk. She was lying on a woven bedroll with geometric and yet still ancient looking patterns on it in the middle of what looked to be a red-stone cave. There were stalagmites and stalactites everywhere, but otherwise the place looked very welcoming. A couple of torches were set into the reddish walls, and there was a fire pit at the back of the cave actively in use, the smoke gracefully spiraling upwards and out of a rough hole that looked to be made for this purpose. This room was entirely foreign to her in its design, but the weirdest thing she had seen yet lay outside. The cave opened out to the outdoors, and outside snow was falling. It was exceedingly strange to be in this reddish-stone place that felt so much like a desert habitat, and look out to see snow falling thickly outside. Jin just could not put the two together, so she sat up.
And was met with an even bigger shock. She found herself to be staring at a wild-eyed, stick-thin girl in the mirror. And then Jin realized that it was herself, and that the last time she had looked in a mirror was before she left Zes’s court. She was staring at a person that looked so entirely different than she remembered that it was hard to swallow.
Jin was thin, and although she had always had prominent cheekbones, now they jutted out even more strangely, and dominated the whole of her face. Her eyes, smallish, striking green, and set widely apart, looked strange and exotic and... scary. They looked wild and had Jin not known this person in the mirror, she would have avoided this girl. No, woman. She looked aged, somehow.
The hair didn’t help the fact. It was wild and down to her waist, knotted and sticking up wildly in places. The longest section was pure, perfect black, as Jin had remembered it before, but some three inches from the scalp down was streaked with grey. She had a moment of panic as she realized she was turning prematurely grey, - at sixteen! Oh well, she thought glumly, it’s to be expected, I suppose, since the jolt of Sable’s death and everything that had happened since. But it was still very strange, looking at this girl that was her, and seeing a sickly, boney creature with vengeance burning in her jade-green eyes. Unable to look any longer at this unhealthy creature, Jin diverted her vision to the intricate patterns around the edge of the mirror.
It was made of a carefully-constructed bronze, woven delicately into swirling patterns and shapes, and set with colorful gems each the size of a pinky-nail, framing the perfect circle of the mirror. It was one of the most beautifully crafted objects Jin had ever seen in her life. And although Zes’s court was crowded with some of the finest objects in the land, this one was different, somehow. As if it was made for the pure beauty of it, and not just something ostentatious.
Jin stood up, unsteadily, and paced around, testing her capabilities. She tried doing a backward twist, and, failing and finding herself facedown on the hard cave floor having nearly impaled herself on a stalagmite, decided to start simpler. Jin tried doing a somersault, and a running roll. Then a cartwheel. Her abilities were still there, but after a few minutes she found herself panting hard and unable to continue. This would take some work to bring herself up to par again.
With a jolt, she remembered her possessions. Where were they? She was wearing a strange khaki-colored tunic and baggy pants, which were comfortable but very unfamiliar. And then she saw them in the corner of the cave. But it wasn’t all her items. Though the highwayman’s coat and her weapons and sheaths were still there, her tunic and black leotard and boots had disappeared. In their stead was a pair of very warm-looking, fur-rimmed boots, thick leggings, and a wool tunic. Everything was a reddish brown, like the desert stone.
Jin put them on, and the highwayman’s coat over it all, though she supposed it clashed horribly. In spite of herself, she rather missed her old clothing, as threadbare as it had become during their journey. But she thought that this was probably for the better. And then, after donning all her weapons as well, Jin was unable to avoid looking outside again.
Through the snow, Jin could see foggy nothingness. And although there was a dark wooden platform outside of her cave, below was nothingness as well. But when she turned around, out on the platform, she began to make sense of her surroundings.
Her cave was set high on a cliff of the same reddish stone, and everywhere there were more caves, at every level of the cliff, which rose up thousands of feet, she thought. Every cave had a wooden platform, and connecting them all were staircases and boardwalks that looked anything but safe and snaked unsteadily all over the face of the cliff. It was an amazing sight. Everywhere she looked, snow blanketed the landscape.
Once she was dressed and armed with all her weapons again, plus carrying the bag that, though devoid of food, still carried the papers that had journeyed with her from the beginning, Jin set out along the rickety boardwalk. It creaked ominously at her light step, but having nothing to lose, she didn’t particularly care.
Each cave she passed was empty and barren of furniture. She descended a staircase in one direction, and then another in the opposite direction, and found herself looking into what seemed to be a giant nest of straw, cloth scraps, and rotting bones. It emitted both a smell and an aura that made Jin hurry on past. The next opening she came to was what looked to be a common room of some sort. A giant woven rug with the same type of patterns she had noticed on her bedroll was lain on the cave floor. The walls seemed to be carved more delicately than the others, and there were hardly any stalactites or stalagmites. A few flat-looking cushions littered the room, but, other than that, it was empty.
Jin persevered on, only pausing to catch her breath a couple of times and draw her coat tighter around herself. It smelled musty in the fresh air. And then, finally, just as she had begun to worry if she would ever find her way back to the relative safety of her cave, she found someone that she was not expecting to see.
It was Quintus, fiddling with something in his hands at the back of a cave. “Quintus!” She whispered, then ran towards him. He turned around, slowly, to reveal a bony face that was almost skeleton-like and as pale as the snow behind her. And then, right before Jin’s eyes, he turned to dust and spiraled past her outside to the blizzard. She whipped around, confused, but there was no trace of him anywhere.
“Poisoned jalapenos,” Jin muttered under her breath. She must be hallucinating. This place was giving her bad vibes. The cave was completely empty. So she hurried back outside and picked up a run, slipping and sliding down the wooden planks and calling, “Quintus!” with only two things on her mind: find Quintus and reach the bottom of this very strange structure.
She ran past a cave in which twenty, reddish-brown-cloaked people were standing in a circle, heads bent and chanting. This made her run all the harder and louder, though they didn’t give a sign that they had heard her scramble past at all.
Then there was Quintus; he was everywhere, his face leering out of the blizzard, his shadow, on the wall, and then there he was, standing only yards in front of her, and Jin covered the distance in a matter of seconds, determined to see what he really was.
With a loud “Oof!” and then, “What the heck are you doing?” Jin ran into Quintus. They tumbled down the staircase and Quintus almost teetered over the edge before Jin grabbed his tunic and pulled him upright again.
“Whew, that was close,” Jin choked out, trying to catch her breath.
“What in the-” Quintus was pale looking, but definitely not as horrible as the many faces Jin had seen before. He was also wearing new, fur-clad items and covered from head to foot in snow from their fall. As she watched, he began to brush the snow off of himself.
Jin ruffled his hair to get the last of the snow out. It stuck up, comically.
“No really, though, what were you thinking, running into me like that?”
“Uh, well, I kept seeing your face everywhere and I saw you but you turned to dust, and then I saw the real you...” Jin trailed off because Quintus was looking at her funny. In a valiant effort to sound sane, she changed the subject, “What were those people in the reddish cloaks?” That, apparently, was not the right subject to pursue.
“You know; I saw them running down here in some cave, they didn’t even seem to notice me...” She trailed off, trying to think of something else to talk about. “Anyway... Did you-”
Quintus interrupted, “-No, what cave? Show me.”
Jin turned around reluctantly and retraced her footsteps with Quintus, not a hard thing to do since her tracks were everywhere in her desperate scramble to descend the structure. Quintus raised his eyebrows a little, reminding Jin that he was somewhat of an expert tracker -though it wouldn’t have taken one to see how desperate she was- but didn’t say anything. They reached the cave that Jin was sure was it, but no one was there.
“Are you sure there were people? I mean...” Quintus looked concerned, “You know, we nearly starved to death, right?”
Jin glared at him. “Are you questioning my sanity?” He said nothing. They turned and followed Jin’s lead, descending the structure at a lazy pace. After a while, Jin broke the silence. “So, do you remember how we got there? I mean, you were kind of... downhill at the end, but- where are we? And who brought us here?”
“Oh, you haven’t met them yet?” Quintus asked, cheerfully. “They’re great people, -a bit strange, but once you get over the initial surprise-” He was interrupted by a loud gonging noise. It rang once, twice, three times, and echoed thousands more off the cliffside. “That’s the gong,” he explained.
“Yeah -it rings every hour. Must be 3 ‘o clock.”
“Do you want to meet them?”
“The people of Rillings,”
“Yeah- so that’s where we are, then?”
“Yup,” Quintus confirmed, then began to lead the way in a descent again.
“Listen,” Jin said, after a few minutes, “I just want to say, that if you’re having second thoughts, you know... I never meant to put you in danger, and I completely understand if-”
Quintus stopped suddenly, making Jin run into him. Then he turned around and gave her a belligerent look. The intensity of his look held her in place for several moments. “How many times do I have to tell you?” he burst out, “This is -what- the fourth time or something?”
“I keep telling you, I have nowhere to go, no one to care what happens to me-”
That gave him pause. “Um, thanks- but, you know what I mean. You should understand by now! I mean really, Jin! You need my help! And plus, this is my own decision. I want to come with you! I think you need me.”
“Yes, I do, it’s just-”
“Don’t feel guilty. This is my decision. If I get hurt, or damaged, or whatever, this is my verbal release form that says that I am responsible for my actions, okay?”
“Okay,” she said, quietly.
“Now. Here we are,” Quintus said, in what was a clear dismissal. They had been descending and making their way through the labyrinth of boardwalks and rickety staircases all this time and now they had reached the valley floor. It was snowy, as was to be expected, and the frozen ground underneath was covered with at least three feet of dull white snowflakes. Jin and Quintus slowly picked their way through it, getting snow in their boots and in spite of their furry garments, feeling the cold biting through. Around them were tall, bare trees that could be thousands of years old, though they were not pine. They were of some specimen that Jin had never seen before.
“How can the trees be like this?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, last time I was -awake, I guess- the landscape was all flat and barren in every direction, and now there’s these strange trees everywhere...” Jin thought aloud, but then trailed off when she saw a woman coming towards them.
The woman was tall and regal with pale skin accented with almost catlike markings. Jin supposed they must have been painted on, though they looked to be part of her skin. Tattoos, maybe. Her hair was drawn back by a furry band that matched the fur on all her clothing. She wore a tunic with no sleeves, though the woman didn’t look in the least bit cold, and beneath she wore no leggings, just tall fur boots that still left a strip of bare skin. Jin couldn’t understand how the woman could be out here, and yet still not be cold.
“So the muses are awake,” the woman said, impassively. Her voice was deep and rumbling, and carried. Jin glanced around nervously for eavesdroppers. “I wondered when you might deem it time to thank your saviors,” she continued, addressing Jin, “Quintus, as he calls himself, awoke a day ago. It was about time for you.”
“Please... Madam. I’m sorry, I didn’t know...”
“Do not make excuses for that which you know to be at fault for,” she raised a hand, to silence Jin’s protest, “If not your mind’s conscious choice, it was still the fault of your body.” She paused a minute, then said, “I am called Sheila.”
Quintus bowed beside Jin, and Jin followed his lead. “We thank you deeply for the great service you have done our minds and bodies,” Quintus said, smoothly in the accent of this Sheila, surprising Jin, who thought he always spoke rather awkwardly. Sheila turned then to Jin, as if expecting something from her as well, and then, receiving nothing but a blazing defiance in return, promptly straightened impassively. Jin supposed it would be polite to thank Sheila; after all, she had saved their lives, though Jin did not like how she was treating them. So she stayed silent.
Sheila assumed an authoritative expression and said, with finality, “If one were to hurry, one may be able to arrive at the hall of dining before the lasts of lunch.” And then she turned away and left, leaving Jin and Quintus to decode her complicated sentence.
Jin soon learned that most of the inhabitants of this strange haven were like Sheila: aloof, strange, and blunt. They were also firm believers in “adopting responsibility of one’s actions,” as she observed when some younglings were whipped for avoiding just that. Their beliefs were open; they advocated a person’s right to have his/her own belief system, but then again, the dominating religion was a strange one. Jin learned that the twenty cloaked people she had seen standing in a circle were practicers of it. Always at the same time, half-past two, they gathered in the same hall and muttered unintelligible words. Jin supposed they were in a different language.
Curiosity eventually got the best of her and she tried to learn a little about what the followers believed in. Even though she was snubbed by Sheila, and told, “If you do not partake of intention to join, avoid of business which does not partake of interaction with you,” Jin was able to gather a few interesting tidbits. One, that the room that looked like a smelly nest served somewhat of a sacrificial purpose, and two, that their rituals were rather vile and tended to involve mind-altering chemicals. After that, Quintus urged her to stay out of it, and Jin, reluctantly, obeyed. She had not forgotten what he had said to her the last time she had doubted his friendship.
Jin couldn’t forget her original purpose of coming here, either. Her promise to avenge Sable haunted her dreams at night, giving her no rest, forcing her to relive the memory of his death. But, for inexplicable reasons, Jin seemed to be procrastinating her duty. So it was, one day, that she forced herself to act.
They were in the dining cave at dinnertime, and the citizens of Rillings that had partaken of the food -oh no, she thought, I’m even thinking in this senseless folly- were drowsy and content. Jin decided that now was as good as any. So she leaned over, and spoke quietly to her neighbor, a portly man with a tendency to wear only a furry vest over his large stomach and no tee-shirt, “What do you know of Zes?”
The man choked on his drink, spraying gooey green liquid everywhere. Jin ignored this. “Zes?” he spluttered. “What are you about, milsa?” Jin didn’t know exactly what “milsa” meant, but she had an idea that it wasn’t flattering.
“I am called Jin Nyx. And you are...?” Jin said, offering her hand. The man looked at it, like he had never seen the likes of it before, and finally ignored the gesture.
“I am called Porin Delsyn,” he said, haughtily, and Jin retracted her hand. They both ignored this.
“Zes, Mr. Delsyn. What do you know of him?” She said, impatiently.
“What do I know of him? What goes about him, you mean?” he asked, loudly. Their conversation was starting to turn heads.
“Whatever,” Jin replied, irritably.
“Whatever,” he repeated, the words foreign in his mouth, “May the tyrants about him forsake him!” he yelled, and stood up. Jin almost breathed a sigh of relief, but caught a warning in Quintus’s eye, and stayed alert. Now everyone was looking at them. “What goes about him? This milson who wields of arm the destroyer of our lives? The one of whom lies of reason which denies of us our freedom in this milpla! This milpla of which subjects of us the freezing or the burning of the seasons!” His accent was getting thicker and harder to understand.
“Surely you had a choice-?” Jin started, confused.
“-not of chance!” declared another, reedy man, who stood up unsteadily a little ways down the table. “We were banished of here of the man of whom tyrants lie. Of acknowledging of our power, he had not; he forced of us -not of the Valdirean Desert, but of milla near! Of near enough that we feel of it every day of life!”
Jin thought about this, and then said slowly, “You are the spell-casting society.”
“Oh, milpa; partaken of the knowledge, have you?”
Quintus stood up at this, “Don’t talk to her like that!”
Then Jin stood up, struck with sudden inspiration, and, raising a hand, silenced Quintus. “Surely, then, you all see sense. That we are united against a common goal?” This statement was met with a perfect silence, and so Jin continued. “Don’t you see? We’re on your side! Yes, Zes is a tyrannical ruler. What he did to you, -to me, my friends- to everyone, is unthinkable. He is not fit to rule, and you know this. I know this! We,” she gestured in a wide, sweeping motion with her arms and lowered her voice suddenly, “know this.” She continued, quieter, so that those at the far ends of the table had to lean in to hear her words, “You all agree, that together we have more strength that we have apart? That we should all hang together, or we shall all hang separately, as a wise man once said?” There was a murmur of assent. “Then it is clear. Quintus and I are bringing about a revolution, one to unseat Zes from the throne that has too long been tainted by the evils of tyranny. We will do this, with or without your help. It is you, the people of Rillings, the spell-casting society, the only ones that have ever held a power strong enough to achieve this, your decision. We await it.” And with that, Jin made a grand motion towards the exit, but was stopped by a lone voice, one that she recognized as Sheila.
“How does one partake of this trust?” Sheila asked, with her usual air of disbelief.
Jin glanced at Quintus, steeling herself, asking the question; he nodded his head almost imperceptibly, once, and Jin said, finally, “Let me tell you a story.” And she went on to explain what it was like, as a muse in Zes’s court, threatened with execution every second of the day, Sable’s death, and her vow for revenge. “I cannot claim to have suffered the most of all of us, though I feel that I have at least some good reason to vie for revenge,” she finished, “and should any of you choose to join us, I know that there are muses still suffering in Zes’s court that would convert to our side, if they haven’t already. We are, even now, not alone.”
“How should us, the people of whom Rillings houses, have of need of your feeble muse?” Sheila countered, “You, of whom a single muse of agility houses, and him, a man of whom trader lacking muse houses? If of revolution we have of want, we have of potential to not have of need the services of meme of a single muse of agility,” she scoffed.
“More,” Jin said cooly, though inside she was struggling to contain her anger, “is nearly always better. Consider the losses you would harbor. As I said earlier, we eagerly await your deliberation.” And then she turned on her heel, and, motioning to Quintus, completed her grand exit.
“You were amazing,” Quintus said, in awe.
“It didn’t work,” Jin said, sulkily.
“I wouldn’t be so sure, -you almost had me ready to jump up and follow you around like you were the pied piper!”
“But you do that already!”
“Oh, ha ha. The point is, Sheila can only gather so much support after that speech. The spell-casting society, though somewhat removed now from Zes’s reign of terror, have known more than any other group of people what it’s like to be at his mercy. They will not forget easily. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a people that are more willing to overthrow him. The only thing holding them back is fear. They’ve experienced firsthand what he can do when he gets angry, -and I mean really angry,” Quintus said quickly, noticing Jin’s indignant expression. “Sure, you’ve seen what he’s like irked, maybe, but he goes through that everyday. The muses that are sent to be executed in his court, they’re pretty much a source of entertainment, now. They don’t annoy him so much as give him a chance to show off his tyrannical powers.”
“Nicely put. But if you’re right, then I shudder to think what he does when he’s really angry,” Jin said, defeated.
Over the next few days Jin had to put up with several lingering glances, glares, and confused looks alike. People didn’t seem to know what to think, and Jin found it difficult to interpret their foreign expressions. She began to worry about the effects of her speech and if it really was so wise. Of course, she thought, if I hadn’t done it then, I’d be nowhere now. At least there’s still a chance.
And so there still was, or still there was so, as one of whom Rillings houses might partake of speaking, when a man that Jin vaguely recognized as having sat and observed at the table the night of her speech approached her one morning. He was tall and handsome, she supposed, with dark hair and eyes and a hard-set jaw. He walked up to her, brimming with self-imposed egotism, and announced, “The name’s Jorlin. I’d like you to know that I am on your side, and so are a great many of the people of Rillings. We await your orders, if you have them.”
Jin was taken aback. First of all, his accent was all wrong- more like the accent of Zes’ court- though she wasn’t unhappy about that. Secondly, this news was great, she had no doubt, but she really had no plan in place, and she had no idea where to start. Her one and only idea had been to speak to the people of Rillings. Now that she had support, where to begin? “I-I’m really not quite ready... yet...”
“Oh,” he smiled slightly, “Don’t take me to mean that we’re actively waiting as you speak. Take as much time as you like. Meanwhile, I shall begin the campaign against Sheila.”
“Wait, I don’t mean to force anyone into this, if that’s what you mean,” Jin said quickly, “If Sheila does not wish to join us, then let her have her own way. Only those who support the cause should fight, otherwise their help is worthless.”
“But you misunderstand. This decision is splitting our society apart -I fear that Sheila may actually turn against us and join Zes!”
“But that’s ridiculous!”
“Exactly,” Jorlin said solemnly, “we need to make her see sense, or she may betray us before we can gather our resources-”
“You don’t mean -go to Zes, and-”
“-I do mean. We must restrain her in any way possible.”
Jin didn’t like the sound of that, but she let Jorlin go, and headed off to speak with Quintus.
“I don’t like the sound of that,” said Quintus.
“That’s what I think!”
“I mean, Sheila was a little dubious, but not against our cause! You heard what she said- how if they wanted to gather resistance, they could do so without her help- not that that’s right of course, but-”
“I know what you mean. Her sympathies lie with us. But Jorlin seems to have good intentions...”
Quintus looked dubious, “I’m not sure I like the guy... he’s too... slippery.”
“You’re just jealous of his good looks!” Jin teased.
“Or maybe you’re totally biased towards him for the same reason!” Quintus snapped.
“Calm down, Quintus. Didn’t mean anything by it,” Jin said, still smiling. Quintus returned her smile, reluctantly. They sat in silence for a while in Quintus’s cave. His was similar to Jin’s, though a little rougher around the edges and the mirror was made of wood. Jin found it creepy how many of the caves were almost identical copies of each other, right down to the stalactites and stalagmites.
She had begun to finally understand the layout of the place, that according to tradition, guests were at the top level, common areas below that, and below those the houses began in order of youngest generation to oldest generations, the very oldest being on the forest floor. These caves were regularly separated by rooms for sacrificial and other religious purposes; 9 was the magic number. Every guest room looked near-identical, and every permanent household was very similar as well. Only the religious rooms varied, and they seemed to come in themes. One that Jin came across was flooded with different color crystals that played patterns on the walls like millions of colorful stars. Another was pitch black except for thousands of glowing white things hanging from the ceiling; Jin was eventually told that these were glowing worms, and stayed out after that. And the most grotesque, was, of course, the room that she had mistaken for a nest, but was apparently a sacrificial grounds for the remains of dead ones.
“What I’m really worried about is what to do next,” Jin admitted, “Sure, now I’ve got people that’ll listen, but where do I begin? How do I plan all this?” She threw her hands up in exasperation. “I’m just a stupid sixteen-year-old who has big plans for revenge. Sure, I wasn’t going to stop at anything to get it, but then again, I never expected to succeed. I think the whole thing was a ploy to bring about my death, somewhere in the back of my mind, and now it’s spiraled into something much bigger! What do I do, Quintus?”
Quintus looked down at his fidgeting hands. “Is death really the answer?”
“All I want is that none of this would have ever happened. That I could have my old life back, with Sable and everything. All I’m accomplishing with this is a revolution that will change my life even more. And maybe, maybe the only way to get my old life back is to join Sable, wherever he is...”
“Jin,” Quintus said seriously, “you’ll never get your life back. Ever. You need to accept that. What’s happened’s happened. And nothing can change that. You know, I didn’t know Sable, but I know for sure that he wouldn’t want you to give up just because of his death. No one would want that.”
“You don’t know that,” Jin said stubbornly.
“Jin,” he said, exasperated as well, “Anyone that’s anyone wouldn’t want that. And, I’m assuming, Sable was someone. What you’re trying to accomplish -yes, it could spiral out of control and end in tragedy. But it could also change thousands of lives, -for the better! It’s a noble quest. And now that it’s begun, you can’t easily stop the rolling ball.”
“But now we’re back to the original question,” Jin said miserably, “What do I do now?”
“That’s the wrong question.”
“The right question is: what do we do now? How many times do I have to tell you? You’re not alone. I’m right here beside you, always. I have my own opinions about this matter, and I just voiced them. But I’ll stand by you whatever your decision is.”
Jin stayed sitting on the floor. Quintus thought he was making her feel better, but in reality he was making her feel worse. One more person who would suffer for her, die for her, die like Sable. She didn’t think she could stand it if Quintus went through any more on her behalf.
Quintus stood. “You’re welcome to stay, if you want. It’s dark already and the blizzard picked up again.”
“Thanks,” she mumbled, standing also, “but I need to get back.”
“At least let me come with you! You’ll get lost or something.”
“No!” she growled. “Really, I’m fine.” Jin left him standing there dejectedly, half-turned to head out after her. But she really just wanted to be alone. To wallow in the depths of despair for a while.
Jin knew what she needed to do. It was something that she couldn’t face to tell Quintus about yet, for some reason. She needed to contact Zephys. Jin fought against the storm with cold purpose; each step was a struggle against the wind that threatened to toss her over the boardwalk railing. The snowflakes burned against her skin and reduced her eyes to slits that could barely see for white frostiness everywhere. She began to wonder if it had been such a good idea to leave the warmth of Quintus’s cave. Surely the necessity of contacting Zephys could wait until morning.
Jin half-turned, half-ready to go back, and in that half-turn, she lost her sense of direction. She thought she saw someone’s shadow flicker against the wall. But was it the wall? It was white like everything else, and as she began to turn wildly, white was in every direction so that she didn’t know which way was the safety of the cliff wall, which was certain death on the forest floor... She did the only thing she could think of: dropped down on all fours and felt around for the edge.
And came across something medium-sized, like a rock, and oval, but more flexible... it was a shoe, and the shoe kicked her in the stomach.
She recoiled inwardly, but at the same time some-one or thing grabbed her by the back collar of her coat and forced her up. She staggered to her feet, looking around wildly. A frozen hand clamped over her mouth; she tried to bite it but it only tightened more. Jin struggled harder, tried to reach her weapons, but another hand forced her arms and shoulders back in a painful position, and then nudged her forward. No, not nudged: shoved.
She tried to stay on her feet, but was too unstable and ended up being dragged by the arms, slipping on the tips of her boots. It was extremely uncomfortable, but her attacker seemed to be having problems with his footing as well. He said, in a surprisingly soft voice that Jin subconsciously registered as lacking an accent, “Stay quiet or you’ll get a taste of this steel,” and the man clothed in a long reddish-brown cloak showed her a short, deadly knife clutched in his hand. He released her mouth; Jin felt something warm dripping from it and a sharp pain in her tongue, she supposed she had bit it in the struggle. Unable to reach her hand up to investigate further, the blood dripped down her chin and into her hard-earned highwayman’s coat. She thought, perversely, that she must look like a vampire.
Why had she left Quintus’s cave, again? It seemed very stupid, indeed.
After what seemed like hours -the man seemed to know where he was going- he forced her into nothingness. Jin let out a yelp, expecting a free-fall, but instead rolled and hit what seemed like a stalagmite. She scrambled up and made a motion for her knife, but instead received a sharp blow to the back of the head and face-planted, unable to stop her fall. The man kicked her in the stomach again and again and all she was able to do was curl up tighter and tighter in an effort to protect herself and keep spitting out blood. “What do you want?” she yelled.
“You were warned,” he cried, “to stay out of business that is not yours! You will either join our zealots or die! And seeing as you will not join, you must die!”
“Who-who said I wouldn’t join?” Jin gasped, now seeing black spots. Sure she didn’t want to join, but the circumstances seemed to dictate otherwise. She didn’t have a choice. And she was just about to say that when the man gasped loudly. Jin looked upwards and saw what looked to be a spearhead sticking through his chest. His reddish-brown cloak now turning dark maroon, he staggered back, then collapsed forward, onto his knees and slowly keeled over, revealing a second person standing behind him.
The person was tall, wearing only a vest, sleeveless tunic, and boots that showcased the many markings and tattoos on her arms. Her hair was dark and so were her eyes, set in a pale face with a strong jaw. It was Sheila.
It was also all Jin could do not to pass out. She lay there, moaning and digging her fist into her stomach on the floor, unable to process what this meant. Sheila approached her, mumbling something that Jin didn’t catch. Sheila, in an ever-so-gentle, matronly fashion, picked Jin up and carefully carried her out of the cave, back into the stormy night. Jin’s eyelids slowly fluttered shut; she mumbled, “Zephys,” once, “Quintus,” perhaps, a couple times, and was out. But Sheila persevered, and got her safely to her bed, where Jin lay recovering.
When Jin awoke, she had a distinct feeling of déjà vu. It was strange, waking up in her cave again, like the time after she and Quintus had nearly starved to death. It was the same time of day, really: mid-afternoon, she supposed, judging by the sun streaming through the doorway. It seemed as though the blizzard had finally ceased, for a while at least.
But this time, she had a visiter. Someone had pulled up a cushion, and now sat asleep where they had fallen, cheek pressed up again the cave wall and muddy-blond hair sticking up everywhere. It was Quintus.
Jin felt a gush of gratitude and affection for him well up inside her. Why had she not listened to him that night? She could have spent an uneventful, yet safe night on a makeshift bedroll in his cave. What had happened only proved Quintus’s point that she needed him. Which she did, but looking back, she didn’t regret her decision. Though it would have been better to stay in the cave, if it was absolutely necessary that she should leave, she still didn’t regret not taking Quintus with her. He had avoided danger and potential death that would’ve happened on her watch. And Jin didn’t think she could’ve stood the guilt on top of everything.
As she watched, he stirred, mumbling something that was unintelligible because his mouth was all stretched against the cave wall and gaped open grotesquely; Jin somehow found it cute, however.
She didn’t know what made her do it; it just flitted through her mind, a random wish that she obeyed. Jin got on her knees and crawled over to where Quintus was leaning on the rough stone, bent towards him, and gently brushed her lips against his forehead, then with her hand brushed the hair out of his eyes. She crawled backwards onto the bedroll, afraid that he might wake up, might catch her in her weakness, and sank back down into the blankets, buried deep in confused thoughts that culminated into another dream.
She didn’t remember it when she woke, but while it lasted it was nice.
This time when she woke, it was later, evening, of the same day. Quintus was still sitting on the cushion, but this time he was awake and actively watching her as she stirred sleepily, stretched a little, and opened her eyes. “Finally awake, are we?” he said, tensely. Jin smiled, and winced as she moved her head. She wondered if what had happened only a few hours ago was all a dream; she certainly hadn’t remembered being so sore everywhere; it all just ached horribly, though the stomach was the worst. Had it been a dream, it would’ve explained the inexplicable thing that Jin had done. She still didn’t quite understand it, and wondered if this meant that she was stupid or just refusing to believe what it might mean. “You know, I could say a lot of things right now,” Quintus said, firmly. He looked terrible. “But I’m going to leave it at this: I thought you were going to die. When you left, -I just knew something was wrong -I just had this feeling, so I went out after you-”
“-you went out into the blizzard?” Jin asked incredulously, “Are you crazy?”
“Don’t change the subject,” Quintus snapped, “I’m serious!”
“I know you are.”
“Shut up,” Quintus said. He looked away, blinking rapidly. “You’ve got to stop this, you know.”
“Getting hurt! Putting yourself into unnecessary danger! Worrying me ‘till I’ve got grey hairs like you!”
“Well, generally speaking, starting a revolution isn’t all unicorns and daisies,” Jin replied dryly.
“Yeah, well, it doesn’t have to involve werewolves or crazy zealots or-” he gestured wildly, trying to think of something else that proved his point, and, drawing a blank, subsiding into silence.
“If I’m going to avenge Sable, I’ve got to take some risks. And who are you to dictate-”
“‘Who am I to dictate?’ What are you saying? And why is it always Sable? Sable, Sable, Sable,” he got up and started pacing, “I’m tired of it! I’m tired of always hearing ‘Sable this’ and ‘Sable that.’ Maybe I’ve got feelings too, okay?” He stopped and looked at her. “Get over it, Jin. Sable is dead. And he’s not coming back.” And with that, Quintus stormed out, leaving Jin to sit and quietly rage, as she was unable to get up and pace like he had. Let him leave, she thought angrily, I don’t care. But deep inside, she knew she would. And if she wanted his friendship, she would have to fix this.
Later, Jin had a vague idea that she was missing something. There was something that she had needed to do when she went out into the blizzard. She felt that if she could figure it out than it would be clear why exactly she left Quintus’s cave that night. It began to drive her crazy, as the only thing she did all day was sit and try to remember what it was.
She was glad, then, when a visitor came. Although Jin didn’t want to admit it, she had missed Quintus’s company, he was a good pick-me-up. But she didn’t think that he would be back any time soon and part of her didn’t want him to be back; she was still angry with him.
The visitor was Sheila, and Jin experienced a recollection of Sheila standing behind a dying man that night two days ago. She thought that Sheila may have saved her life that night. “You carry the air of improvement,” Sheila commented, and walked confidently up to Jin’s bedroll, pulling up a cushion and gracefully planting herself upon it. Jin was uncomfortably reminded of why she didn’t like this one of whom Rilling houses much. Sure Sheila had some great qualities; a certain charismatic air about her, unshakable confidence, and no fear of keeping others in their places. But beyond that, Jin felt that natural reaction between two strong female personalities: tension.
“You saved my life,” Jin said bluntly.
“You partake of truth,” Sheila replied, equally bluntly.
“How did you...?”
“I had heard of rumors from the zealous of our religion that they might partake of harm against your même, and while I was making of my way through the moisture of storm I learnt of noises of this cave of which your même was receiving of physical harm,” Sheila’s tone indicated that Jin was not to inquire into why exactly she had also been braving the blizzard, “it was of my spirit to try to save your même from zealots.”
“Well... thanks,” Jin said, snorting slightly. “And what’s a ‘même’?”
“I have received of consequences stemming of my actions that night.” Sheila continued, ignoring her question, “The other zealots formed of group to banish me the society which houses their même. My life now holds of grave danger from bloodthirstiness of zealous même.”
“It houses regret. Do not partake of worry for my sake, for my spirit has given of my même precautions.” Jin noticed how she referred to her spirit and “même” separately and again wondered what it meant. “What does ‘même’ mean?” she asked again.
“To partake of such knowledge, one must first bind oneself to certain beliefs.” It was clear Sheila would not elaborate, and they sat in brooding silence for a while.
Then Jin remembered something. “There was a man that came to speak to me -Jorlin, I think it was- and he seemed to think it was a good idea to organize a campaign against you since you seemed against my speech that night.”
“He is called Jorlin?”
“I carry no knowledge of such a même-house, and I hold of knowledge of every même-house which Rillings houses.”
Jin bit back a remark to this statement and said instead, “Well, I mean, could you ask around or something? I find it hard to believe that he’s not a ‘même-house,’ or whatever you say.”
Sheila’s eyes flashed dangerously, but she kept her cool. “Do not partake of speech of that which you carry no knowledge of. I hold advisory of caution. There houses ancient, vengeful spirits which partake of the housing of Rillings, predominantly of our zealots’ ceremonies which partake of sacrifice.”
“You mean... ghosts? And you act like you don’t-didn’t take part in those rites.”
Sheila looked vaguely amused at her questions. “Of the first question, ghosts has not meaning of the right word. Souls of dis-même has of better meaning. ‘Jorlin’ may have had of semblance of a même housing of spirit that had of intention to harm my même,” she said this all matter-of-factly, as if it was all very ordinary being the target of a death-wish, “Of the second question, I did not partake of participation of extreme rites. Rillings houses not many of whom do so. It houses of small minority of whom partake of sacrificing of living beings to the cause, -one of whom has of no part in this has wont to call them the zealots.” Sheila actually looked wistful at this statement, and Jin thought that she really did believe in their religion and was struck with another pang of curiosity as to what exactly she believed in. A curiosity that would likely never be satiated.
“But what Jorlin said-” Jin proceeded with caution, “-is it true that you’re against our cause?”
“I have not antagonism of the cause. I carry of support of it. What I partook of speaking of-”
“-why, then, do you question me?”
“Just partake of listening,” Sheila said with finality, “All I carry requirement of is that one has proof of one’s spirit. Rillings houses dangerous times of the tyranny of Zes, and there is not prudence enough for one to partake of trust of any spirit.”
“Didn’t I prove myself enough with the stories I told?”
“There exists many milpa of which may partake of telling such stories,” she replied, and held up a calloused hand to silence Jin, who was about to retaliate, “Yours had of air of truthfulness,” she conceded, “yet I am not of the spirit to partake of trusting so suddenly. I carry of preparation to partake of beginning trusting you since the happening of the zealots, yet one should carry remembrance of the inclinations of my spirit; we have of need of time and effort from your spirit.” They looked into each other’s eyes for a moment, and Jin understood the unspoken message: you don’t want me as your enemy. Jin nodded curtly to show that she had understood and taken the advice into account. And with that, Sheila stood up and brushed her tunic off though there wasn’t a speck of dust on it. “One shall carry wait until the next time our même partake of crossing. Jorlin partook of some truth; those which stand with your spirit are partaking of wait,” and Sheila left, leaving Jin confused and sure that she hadn’t told Sheila about that part of the conversation. Perhaps Sheila would have to work hard as well to gain Jin’s trust; she was certainly not doing a very good job of it at the moment, Jin thought with mild amusement.
Over the next day, Jin felt that she had improved enough to be out and about. A quiet and small young woman had been bringing her meals over the past few days, and though Jin had begged for something other than broth, it hadn’t come. So she was motivated more for a change of menu than anything else.
She was still sore all over, mostly around her ribs -Jin was sure the man had cracked at least one if not a few, though she might have been being dramatic- but she braved the pain and got on her feet, stretching gingerly.
Apparently that little bit of exercise triggered some kind of mental response, because Jin immediately remembered what she had been trying to remember all these days. She had been on her way to contact Zephys for the first time. And it was about time, after all. It seemed forever since he had pressed that strange rock into her hand and told her to turn it three times if she ever needed advice from him, and she wondered why she hadn’t remembered it sooner.
Outside would have to wait. Now it was time to get some much-needed advice from her mentor, the only one who had known her and been close to her for almost as long as Sable. There was almost a skip in her step as she walked over to rummage in her pack for the flat, grey stone that was a perfect circle.
She found it right away, placed it on the flat of her palm, and hesitated inexplicably. Then, thinking, what am I doing, she quickly flipped it over one, two, three times.
The effect was immediate. A tinny, but mostly intelligible voice filled the room that Jin recognized to be Zephys. He seemed to be having a conversation with... himself, it sounded like. “Yes, very good. Going smoothly so far, and now that I have convinced them to join me-” he sounded almost gloating, Jin thought, but unable to stand the suspense she burst out.
“Wha-wh-” she heard him stutter.
“Your faithful student, Jin!” she prompted, unfazed.
He regained his composure, Jin thought admirably, very quickly. “Ah, my dear Jin. I was wondering when you would call. And what has been happening on your end of the line?”
“What were you talking about just now?” Jin asked, struck with a belated curiosity.
“Never mind that,” he said quickly, and Jin imagined him waving a gnarled old hand. “Please, fill me in on recent events.
And with that, Jin spilled out everything since she had left Zes’s court, which took at least an hour, and she was proud to admit that the tears didn’t spill over as she skimmed over Sable’s death. Zephys was everything she had anticipated him to be and more, listening quietly and with perfect sympathy, surprised “oh”’s at all the right moments, whispered condolences, and periodic requests to reiterate something particularly surprising. Jin felt her spirits truly lift for the first time in weeks as she told him everything, more than she had told Quintus. She revealed how Sable was her brother, really, and didn’t wonder why Zephys hadn’t known this, since he had been at Zes’s court before Jin had arrived, but Zephys reacted with incredulity that Jin believed was completely genuine. She revealed her confused thoughts about how she had felt about Sable, and wasn’t embarrassed by them, and Zephys seemed to find them perfectly natural. She asked him what he thought about her resolution never to love anyone else in that way after Sable’s death and what it meant now that she knew that Sable was actually her brother; he told her that it was a waste to refrain from giving her love to others and that it wasn’t actually breaking the resolution since Jin -as far as she knew- had no other siblings so there was no other opportunity for more sibling love. It was just like Zephys to find a way to weasel out. And then she ended by asking him what to do next. She knew for sure that Zephys was the one to ask, beyond his mentor status to her, since he had been campaigning against Zes since before she could remember. It wasn’t exactly a secret, except to Zes himself, that he was planning a rebellion, though when this would take place, Jin didn’t know. Zephys was quiet for a while before he spoke, and in this lull in the conversation that had until then been almost entirely one-sided, Jin realized that she had said barely anything about Quintus, and not a word about their fight.
“This is perfect,” Zephys declared.
“You are perfectly placed to form this revolution,” he clarified, reluctantly though it sounded. “You know I have been working for this goal for many years now.”
“I am confident that it is imminent, with your help. But I need you to tell me something, first: you are not just converted to the cause because of Sable’s death?”
Jin was taken slightly aback by this question. “I-no. I don’t think so. I mean, I believe that Sable’s death helped to change my mind, but I have always sympathized with your views, though not empathized until lately,” Jin finished with pizzazz after regaining her composure. She always spoke thus to Zephys in an effort to sound on par with his intelligence and was not ashamed of it.
“You have done very well, so far, and, though in part unwittingly, converted many more souls to our cause.”
“My dear Jin, when you committed that very admirable act of mercy on Captain Blackbeard and his band of wannabe miscreants, you gained some very important allies. I believe that they will certainly come to your aid in this battle. Besides that, you have nearly gained the support of the people of Rillings. All that you require to tip the scale entirely in your favor is, I believe, a humble thing called a plan?”
“Correct.” Jin was reveling in the familiar feeling of being taught by Zephys’ vast experience. She loved how he gently pushed her in the right direction while at the same time asserting his control and position. Pure genius, she thought.
“You wish me to impart to you this so-called ‘plan’?”
“Yes,” Jin said, somewhat impatiently.
“Well, once you have the people of Rillings on your side, I believe the next place to go to would be Jedendah.”
“I think Quintus mentioned that place, once. I think it’s his hometown.”
“Did he?” Zephys mused. “That is very coincidental, then. Incidentally, it is also your hometown, so-to-speak. It was the place that your father, Jesse, took your mother.”
“How do you know this?” she said, accusingly; she had been stretched out lengthwise on the bedroll, but sat up when she heard what he said.
“I knew little of your parents, my dear Jin,” he said humbly, “but what little I know I shall impart to you. I know that, when your presence graced this court, you came from Jedendah. This I gleaned from one of the receptionists, and it was not a very far leap from that to the natural conclusion that this must be where your parents were when they sent you off, so-to-speak.”
“But you think that we should go there? Why?”
“Well, back when unrest was breeding quickly among citizens as it is now, Jedendah was a bit of a rebel headquarters. There were many there that headed the cause for a revolution, radicals with big ideas and big heads that fell all the harder when they were squashed under Zes’s giant boot heel.”
“So he destroyed the resistance.”
“Yes, and that is why you don’t hear much anymore from Jedendah. I know that there is more unrest there than other cities, but it is all very hushed up. You see, they are rather like the citizens of Rillings; all for a revolution but too scared to make it happen. You may find a hard job of it. But I have complete faith in you. You will find a way.
“But what are you doing, meanwhile?” Jin asked.
“I? I am organizing a mutiny of sorts, gathering Zes’ right-hand men towards our cause. Soon, Zes’ court will be in my grasp, and nothing will stop the revolution!” Jin didn’t like how he said this. It was slightly deranged sounding. “But for now, I must go. We have spoken too long, though I enjoyed it thoroughly; Zes will be wondering where I have gotten to. What I would give to see his reaction if he knew...” Zephys mused, back to his normal self again.
“Goodbye, and thank you. To Jedendah it is, then,” Jin said cheerfully.
“Goodbye, my dear Jin. Remember: for the revolution!” And with that, there was a tinny beep, and Zes was gone. Jin chanced a look outside; it was definitely a few hours later, but ones put to good use at least. She felt amazing: light, as if a burden had been lifted from her chest. Finally she could get out of her cave; but first she needed to find Quintus.
It didn’t take time to locate his tall figure, shorter because Jin was enjoying herself in the fine weather. The blizzard had stopped and she could see a white blanket of sparkling snow that covered everything. Every once in a while it would slump off the top of the cliffs, and with a loud rumbling noise, crash down below somewhere. Jin supposed this was pretty dangerous, considering it could turn into an avalanche with little effort, but for now it was mildly amusing to watch those caught in its unannounced fall.
Quintus was standing halfway down the cliff face, looking out over the snow with his hands lightly placed on the makeshift railing. He looked sad, Jin thought, but she disregarded this. Surely he would be happy when he heard this change in events.
She ran up to him, ignoring the ominous creaking sounds under her feet, and, realizing something, coming up short. “You are the real Quintus, aren’t you?” she asked, reaching up to pat his head. “Yeah, you are.” Not only was he solid, but Jin just had a feeling it was him. Something that had to do with his manner. He slowly turned around to face her with an impassive expression. “You okay?” she asked, unnerved. He inclined his head slightly, and she responded with a confused look. “I know what’ll cheer you up! We have a plan!” And with that, she launched into a brief explanation of Zephys and what he had told her. Quintus’s expression remained the same, but Jin felt sure that what she had discovered, this new purpose and way to make progress, was affecting his mood for the better.
When she had finished, slightly out of breath, Quintus said simply, “How do you know you can trust Zer-Zeph, this Z man?” He was apparently back to his nervous side, and Jin repressed a laugh, which wasn’t difficult, because this question offended her slightly.
“What do you mean? He’s been my mentor all my life, the only person besides-” she changed direction quickly, noticing Quintus’s growing frown, “-one of the only people I was close to for a long time at Zes’s court. He’s always been on my side!”
“I’m only partaking of prudence.”
“Don’t be Sheila,” Jin warned.
He ignored this. “If you call that an apology, then you need to seriously rethink the definition.”
“Wh-What?” She was caught completely off-guard by this.
“Sure I’ll stand by you whatever you do, but if you value my friendship, I think I deserve a real apology.”
“Yeah, well, maybe you should apologize for what you said about Sable! That wasn’t right!”
“I’m sorry,” he said, and the tinge of sarcasm that lined his voice did not go unnoticed.
“Right, sure. You think that those rules apply to everyone but yourself, do you?”
“I’ll apologize properly when you apologize properly to me. Or can you lower yourself to that level?”
“There will be a meeting tonight, in the common room, in which I will announce my plan. I suggest you be there,” she said coldly.
“I will,” he said equally coldly, and turned perfectly on his heel, swishing his fur coat as he stalked off down the boardwalk in a blur of freshly-fallen snow. Jin tried to copy this, and failed, catching herself with one hand, looking around to make sure that Quintus hadn’t witnessed this -he hadn’t- and headed off in the other direction walking fast. Her ribs gave a sudden twinge, which didn’t help her mood in the least.
She still didn’t think that she owed Quintus an apology. What had the argument been about, exactly? Jin in danger? She found it hard to remember; the only thing that really stood out was his comment about Sable. That was unforgettable. What had he said? Something about respecting his feelings as well... Well, if Quintus needed an apology to continue their friendship, then Jin would have to give him one. Just not yet, she told herself, it can wait.
After organizing a spur-of-the-moment meeting in the common room, which was surprisingly easy, Jin hurried back to her cave with a purpose. Her hair had been bothering her all day, getting in her face and being generally all ratty and tangled, and so, she would cut it. And so it was that she stood, hesitating, in front of the elaborate mirror, with a newly-sharpened knife in her hand. Jin thought, mildly amused, I hesitate before cutting my hair, and kill without much scruple. This can’t be harder than killing. And so she chopped it off, unevenly, it turned out, so it was just above her shoulders. Now the grey highlights had traveled down to the tips of her ears, and only the hair from there to her shoulders was jet black and beautiful anymore. But Jin welcomed the grey in a perverted way. She wanted to bear the scar of losing Sable through and through. Now that she was presentable, she hurried down so that she would be the first one to arrive at the common room.
Quintus, it turned out, was already there, and to Jin’s disappointment, showed no surprise at her new look. He looked like he had made an effort to be presentable as well, however, even though his hair had also grown down to his shoulders and looked a little rugged. Jin made a mental note to cut it at some point.
The common room looked mostly the same, with the long table hewn straight from the cave floor so that it was set in a deep depression in the middle of the cave. People had to go down a short flight of stairs to reach it. Four stalagmites strategically placed -how, Jin didn’t know- at each corner of the depression rose up and were crowned by candles that somehow balanced on the tips. Maybe they were molded right into the rock, Jin thought. Other stalactites from the ceiling of the cave were tipped with what looked like some kind of long-burning substance, as they were expected to burn all night if needed. It looked black and sticky like tar, and every once in a while would drip down onto some unlucky victim. All in all, the effect was generally pleasant. Almost romantic, Jin thought despite herself.
Soon the guests began arriving and sitting down at the long table to enjoy their goblets of assorted drinks -many took the strange, gooey and green substance which Jin was still not brave enough to try- and a hardy roasted boar with a thick winter coat that made it so when Jin attempted to eat a bit, she had to keep spitting out hair. After that, she waited for the others to finish.
The speech also went well; uneventful, and as expected. Quintus stood there quietly the whole time, giving the impression of unity on their side, however much of a façade this was. And afterwards, the people present, even Sheila, agreed to the plan. They decided that Jin and Quintus would stay for a few more days, perhaps, and then leave with the intent of sending a message when the help of the people of Rillings was needed. And at that, Jin hit a problem. She didn’t know how they would get the message in time, so she and Quintus stood quietly to the side discussing this issue while the others continued to drink and eat.
“How did you get the message to Zes?”
“Oh, well, he gave me this strange rock-” Jin began, pulling it out of her bag.
“-Give it here,” Quintus commanded, and she obeyed. She distinctly felt their fingers brush and ignored a latent shiver. He appeared to examine it closely, and then announced, “I see how it works. Only between the giver and the receiver...”
“What?” Jin asked, genuinely curious. Quintus ignored her, but announced to the public in general, “Does anyone have two small rocks?” Jin thought this was a very strange thing to ask, but for some reason, Porin, the man she had talked to before, came up with two from his own pocket. Jin decided it was better not to know why he carried them around with him.
Quintus accepted the rocks with a murmur of thanks, and then turned from the table and began to concentrate closely on the rock with an expression of intense focus. After a few long minutes, during even those closest to him at the table had begun to watch his unmoving figure, Quintus turned and said, “Come here, Sheila, Jin.” Sheila and Jin walked over, obediently. “Both of you hold a rock.” They did. “Then put your palms out like this.” They each put their palms out, facing up, so their rocks balanced on the palms of their hands and the tips of their fingers faced each other. Then Quintus bent low over them and focused hard, again. Jin could feel his breath on her hand, and shivered again subconsciously.
He then straightened and said happily, “They work!” And for a moment he was his old self again.
Jin looked up, herself, and found the whole table staring at this strange scene. Then a woman at the other end of the table said, slowly, “I think we have all partaken of finding a spell-caster which has not house of Rillings. When did you partake of knowing, dear?”
Quintus and Jin exchanged gaping expressions. What? Jin thought. Quintus apparently felt the same way. “What?”
“You have not partaken of the knowledge?”
“Um... no... why, exactly...?”
“The happening of the rock, that carries the air of spell-casting. I am called Andrea, should you hold wonder of the knowledge.” Jin shook hands with the woman, who had come up from the depression so as to speak more effectively with them. Quintus still looked too surprised to register anything.
“I have belief of affirmation,” Andrea said, glancing at Jin; Jin nodded. “One might partake of speaking of the happening of the knowledge of your même which houses spell-casting?” She again looked at Jin for permission; Jin again nodded, feeling rather good about being consulted. Andrea then steered Quintus out into the night, one hand on the small of his back. Quintus looked back at Jin, like, what the flying jalapenos, but allowed himself to be led.
So that was it. The mystery was finally solved. Quintus was a spell-casting muse. How could that have happened? Jin wondered. Had there been a spell-casting gene in his family? Or did it just randomly appear in him? She had to admit, she was a little jealous. Spell-casting was very cool. And Jin was just some girl with good reflexes.
But ignore that, she told herself. In the moment of realization, Quintus had temporarily forgotten their rift, and in that slight mistake, Jin had realized how much his friendship meant to her. It was Sable all over again, except without the tragic ending. Yet. Don’t think about that, she told herself, it’s too complicated. So she straightened up, and walked out into the night to find her way back to Quintus’s cave. She would wait for him to appear.
Jin marveled at the beauty of Rillings at night. The sky was perfectly clear, with millions of stars. The moon, which took up an eighth of the sky, cast down a surreal glow over the still powdery-soft snow. It was breathtaking, and when Jin arrived at her destination, she was almost disappointed to leave, though she had become a solid Jincicle.
After drawing the curtains over the entrance to preserve heat and lighting a small fire in the hearth at the back of the cave, Jin sat down on a cushion to wait.
Was he ever coming? She shifted her position; her leg had fallen asleep. She stood up and paced; peeked outside a couple hundred times. Then her stomach began to growl, reminding her that she hadn’t eaten hardly anything at the feast. That’s why they call it a feast, you dork, she told herself irritably, you feast.
Then Jin went through a worried stage. Maybe something had happened? Andrea was not what she seemed? Perhaps she was a vengeful ghost, like Jorlin had been. But the others at the table had seemed to find her nothing out of the ordinary. Or they hadn’t spoken up, at least. Maybe they were all zealots and were egging on the revenge of the ghost.
But that was unlikely, Jin had to admit. The zealots were the ones who opposed Jin the strongest, so they would’ve been the last people to come and listen to her speech. Andrea was probably not dangerous.
Then again, the boardwalks were. What if he had slipped and fallen through the planks, or lost his balance and hurtled over the railing? And it went on like this for what felt to her like hours, scenario after scenario running through her head, none good for Quintus, and each worse than the last. Finally she was thinking of giant spiders and the inexplicable appearance of Zes with an army of evil Earthlings.
This is ridiculous, she told herself, though she had been unable to stop the pacing for the past half-hour. She forced herself to stop, and lean against the wall. Quintus was probably fine. He was older than Jin, and could take care of himself. Andrea knew her way around; they would be very hard-pressed to get lost. Besides, the fire was too comfortable. Jin’s eyelids were drooping, she was absolutely drained from the speech and everything else, her ribs were aching dully, and her whole body was still recovering from the attack not many days ago...
She sank down onto Quintus’s bedroll, and over the course of a few minutes lay her head down on his pillow, stretched out her legs, flipped over to a more comfortable position, covered herself with a blanket, curled up into a ball, and fallen fast asleep.
Finally his pawn had stumbled upon the answer.
And another pleasant surprise: the boy’s talent was spell-casting. Perfect.
Almost everything was going smoothly; but if the two didn’t put aside their scruples and work together for once, things could fall apart at the seams. Then again, he thought, their strange relationship could come in handy.
Jin woke to sunlight streaming in through a crack in the curtains at the front of Quintus’s cave. She sat bolt upright, remembering the night before. Where was Quintus? She got to her feet with that characteristic agility and looked around without thinking. Then she looked down.
There he was, curled up at her feet, right next to the bedroll she had slept on. She just apparently hadn’t seen him before. Jin considered letting him sleep -he looked awfully tired- for about half a second before deciding to wake him up. She shook his shoulder.
“Go on without me, Pops, I’ll meet you in town...” he murmured sleepily.
Jin allowed herself a smile. “No, Quintus, it’s Jin.”
“I don’t want gin. You’re not supposed to drink in the mornings.”
“Jin with a ‘J’”
“Jaybird? That’s a strange combination...” and with that, he opened his eyes. “What? Oh,” he laughed slightly.
“Really? Gin with jaybird? Wishful thinking on your part?”
“Naw... I was just messing with you.”
“Sure,” she said sarcastically.
“Really,” he said, now sitting up next to her.
“Whatever,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Anyway... where were you last night?”
Quintus stiffened suddenly. He had apparently remembered their fight. Jin wilted. She had hoped that he would forget. “Alright, alright,” she conceded. “Here goes.” Judging by his new expression, one of careful open-mindedness, she had correctly interpreted his body language. “It was wrong and reckless of me to go off into the blizzard by myself a couple nights ago. It was very likely that I would become lost, as I did, and I should have considered your suggestion to stay the night in your cave. I acted without regard for your feelings, and for that I’m sorry. I realize that you were acting only in light of my safety, and the best thing for me to do would have been to help you achieve that. And I also know that I’ve been selfish lately.” Jin looked down into her lap, “I’ve taken advantage of you in my quest for revenge and, again, ignored your feelings,” she looked up again, trying to judge the effect; she was improvising on the spot, “I’m really sorry, Quintus. I promise I’m going to try harder to gain some self-preservation. You’re right. Nothing can be achieved without regard for safety.”
Quintus looked at her suspiciously, “That was a little too perfect.”
“I-um, maybe it’s just that skill for speeches I have that pops up every once in a while?” she asked, hopefully.
“I’m not sure. Do you really mean what you said?”
She nodded, but avoiding his eyes.
This time it was real. “I’m sorry Quintus, really,” Jin said, and looked straight into his almond eyes, “but I really could care less for my own safety. And I don’t know how to care more. I’m just... really messed up right now...” she looked away, and it was her turn to blink back tears. “I really, really, really care about you, Quintus. I really value our friendship. You’re amazing, you-you-” it was getting tougher to say this to his face; Quintus looked at her with a different expression that Jin couldn’t identify, “You make me feel great when I’m with you,” she finished, and immediately regretted saying it. She blushed, and the sudden warmth felt foreign in the hollows of her cheeks.
He looked at her quietly. Then said, “If you can’t take care of yourself for yourself, than can you do it for me? A personal favor?”
Quintus reached out a hand and gently nudged her chin up, so she was forced to look at him. “I care about you too,” he said and wiped some of the tears gently off her face. Jin’s brain wasn’t working properly. She was finding it hard to interpret his actions. Then suddenly he was leaning towards her, and Jin felt cornered; she finally understood what he was trying to do and was confused to find that she wanted it, but then again she didn’t. The tears were coming thick now, she was confused, emotionally drained... not the best state for major decisions...
“No!” It came out louder than she intended. Quintus drew back, surprise and rejection showing on his face. “No, please,” she said, quieter this time, “I’m sorry. I just can’t deal with it right now... please. No, don’t misunderstand me,” she said quickly, seeing Quintus turn away with a pained expression, “I do care about you. A lot. It’s just that I’m not ready. It’s too soon... Sable...”
“Sable,” Quintus muttered resentfully, “is your brother.”
“I know,” Jin said painfully, “just... I’m messed up. It’s not worth it. I don’t know how I feel anymore. Let’s... let’s just be friends for a while, okay?” She knew she was asking a lot of him at that moment, but he nodded, and she went ahead and cuddled up next to him where they sat, again, for a while, not speaking, listening to Jin’s muffled sobs.
After a while, she got her breathing gradually under control again, and emerged from her tears to see Quintus staring off into space, a vacant expression in his eyes. “Quintus?”
It took a while for this to register. “Yeah?”
“We need to talk,” she said, straightening her sitting posture and rearranging her clothes, which had gotten all twisted up.
She had to smile at this, even if it was a little one. Quintus smiled back, letting her know that everything was okay between them, for the moment. “What I mean, is about last night. Tell me what happened after Andrea took you outside to talk.”
“Well, it was like this,” he sighed. “I was pretty stunned when she told me I was a spell-caster and everything, and she took me outside and started talking really fast, -for the first half I barely took in anything, but what I really got was this. Spell-casting isn’t hereditary. Apparently, you’re more likely to be a spell-casting muse if it’s in the family, but most spell-casters just randomly inherit the gift. Which explains why, since no one in my family was a spell-caster, I apparently am. She also said that the so-called ‘magic,’ as some call it, can’t really be put into words. It can’t be channeled into objects or directed through actions or words. It’s just wild like that,” he looked genuinely confused as he continued, “I don’t really understand it. And she said that for novices like me, it’s really hard to exert any control. It just comes and goes without warning, sometimes putting the caster or others or everyone in danger. And because of that, it’s really dangerous. It could kill me at any moment, or seriously injure you-” he looked directly at Jin when he said this, very seriously, “-and that’s why not many spell-casters live to an old age. Only some can learn to control their casting, and Andrea wasn’t very clear on this part, but she thinks that, since she’s never learned, it’s just a matter of luck whether I could learn to control the magic. And I could certainly never do it at will. So it’s all hopelessly confusing, I guess, and after learning this I’m worse off than when I started.” He finished quickly.
“But at least you know what you’re a muse of,” Jin said in what she hoped was a consoling way.
“I still think that I would’ve been better off not knowing. Happier, at least. Now I have to live with the knowledge that I am a living bomb or something, and at any moment could kill myself and everyone in range without the least warning.”
Jin didn’t know what to say to this. “I don’t care,” she tried.
“You should!” he said, angrily. This, apparently, had been the wrong thing to say. “First lesson of self-preservation: care about your own safety.”
“Right, sorry. I promised that I’d try, okay? Give me a little room for improvement. Patience.”
“Do what I say, not what I do? Is that what you’re playing at this time?”
“I guess,” Jin admitted. “It’s true, patience is not one of my strong traits.”
“It’s virtually nonexistent in your world, Straight-Up Jin.”
“Oh, I forgot that nickname. Awesome, it is.”
“Isn’t it, though?”
“Now I just have to come up with one for you. Quintus went-us to the lint... press?”
“What?” he laughed.
“You’d better believe it’s nothing.”
The next few days Quintus and Jin were back to normal with each other. Or as normal as it could get. Quintus spent most of those days trying to learn more about spell-casting from the spell-casters themselves. He seemed to think that the more he learned about it, the more likely he would be able to control the magic. Jin highly doubted this, but she supposed it couldn’t hurt.
Jin, on the other hand, subsided into impatience, taking long walks and aimlessly exploring, trying to pass the time. She and Quintus had agreed on three days of rest, and then they would head on to the next town on their way to Jedendah.
The people of Rillings were very friendly after her last speech, the one about the plan. Almost overly-friendly. Jin felt smothered by all the offerings of mittens, clothes, dried food for their journey, and even a little puppy. She tried to take only what was practical, but the puppy she kept, though Quintus had other ideas. He protested that it would be a nuisance, and eat up all their food supplies. Jin’s amazing counterargument to this was, “But look at its eyes! He’s so cute!” Who could argue with that?
The puppy was indeed cute. It was very furry, probably in response to the freezing cold weather, and white and black, like a husky, with striking blue eyes, which were also characteristic of the husky. Jin knew that he would do great in the wintry conditions, because, as she told Quintus, “he was bred for it!” And with Quintus’s permission, she named the pup Cabel, Cabe for short. It reminded her of Sable, but not enough so that Quintus would be bothered by it.
Quintus eventually gave in, after the naming of the pup, saying that perhaps Cabel would be “therapeutic for Jin in her emotional recovery” as he put it. Jin was just happy he had agreed.
After Jin received Cabel, she passed the rest of the days they had left at Rillings by playing with him, taking him on walks, and teaching him to fetch, sit and do other commands. She assured herself, and was quiet confident, no matter what Quintus said, that Cabel would come in handy someday. Not only for a boost of spirits.
And then the day arrived on which they would leave. Jin hadn’t slept the whole night before, partially because Cabel wouldn’t lie still, but also in anticipation. She was very excited for the feeling of progress. She felt like it was one of the only things that kept her going some days.
When they had finished packing last minute items, a crowd assembled at the valley floor where Jin and Quintus were leaving from. Jin was pleased to recognize a number of faces, including Sheila, first and foremost; Andrea; and Porin, who was drinking more of the green, gooey liquid that Jin would not miss when she left Rillings. She had braved a try when she was bored to death and spat it out straight away.
Sheila approached them, now dressed in very reddish fur that appeared to have belonged to an especially red fox. “I have of possession of ponies for you,” she announced in her blunt way, and waved her hand to the side. A young boy appeared out of the crowd leading three rather plump ponies with thick fur coats and wild manes and tails. Each was chewing a handful of hay. “They may have little of speed, yet they have talent of sturdiness and sure-feet,” Sheila said with a finality that couldn’t be disputed.
“We’re carrying a barn with us,” Quintus groaned, but again gave in.
Then their items were arranged on the shortest and sturdiest pony, a blue roan gelding with distinct flappy ears and a bit of an overbite. Jin rode a fat spotted chestnut-and-white gelding, and Quintus rode a sleek black mare with an unruly, crimped mane and tail. “Do they have names?” Jin asked.
“No,” Sheila looked surprised, “One who is housed of Rillings has not wont of the naming of creatures. Yet there exists none such restrictions of others.”
“Okay,” Jin said cheerfully, and immediately dubbed the blue roan Zephys, the chestnut spotted pony Dakota, and had only begun to consider the last one’s name when Quintus flat out refused to let her name it and instead said, “Her name is Nix.”
“But that’s my name.”
“No, it’s not, you’re Straight-Up Jin,” Quintus said, confused, but mildly amused at the same time.
“My last name. Nyx.”
“You didn’t know that?”
“Well, I must’ve... pure intuition I guess... her name is still Nix.”
Sheila interrupted, “The day has wont to grow old and this crowd has not the time of waiting.”
“Oh, sorry,” Jin said. Quintus laughed. And they walked off on their new ponies, Zephys trailing behind. Neither Jin nor Quintus had ever ridden any horse before and so they would have to learn quickly.
Jin proved to be a natural, probably because of her being a muse of agility. Quintus, on the other hand, had some trouble. He would freak out if Nix picked up a trot, which Jin rode easily, but he bounced along and tugged on the reins. Once, instead of stopping like a good pony, Nix instead picked up a canter, throwing Quintus off balance, and it was then that they experienced another bit of magic. Just as he was about to fall off, he put his hand out, facing the ground, as if to catch his fall; there was a loud bang, and a sudden force of air seemed to propel Quintus upright. It would’ve been all good after that, but the bang didn’t sit too well with Nix, and she took off in a gallop with Quintus hanging on for dear life and Jin hurrying behind on the indolent Dakota. They got her calmed down, but only after a dozen yelled curses by both Quintus and Jin, with the result being Zephys refused to move and spilled the contents of their packs everywhere. By the time all the ponies had relaxed, Quintus had settled down, and they had repacked their belongings, it was time to break camp. Quintus was feeling, understandably, resentful of Sheila.
“What was she thinking?” he asked, rubbing his wrist which had been bent back painfully when he propelled himself upright with the sudden bit of magic.
“I think they’re quite useful,” said Jin, who was trying to scrounge up some dinner. “But never mind that. That was some magic. But I see your point. We’re lucky you weren’t injured further,” she glanced back at Quintus, saw his expression, and quickly tacked on, “or myself. But really, maybe you should get some self-preservation as well.”
“You first,” Quintus grumbled, “Ladies first.”
“Pfft. You really listen to that old saying?”
“It is polite, isn’t it?”
“More like convenient,” she laughed.
After the incident with Quintus and the pony, nothing more eventful happened. It was only a few days later that they came upon their first town. It was a tiny place, not even a mile square, and called “Ray.”
“Strange name for a town, if you ask me,” Quintus commented as they first cast their eyes upon the shabby place.
“I didn’t ask you,” Jin interrupted, with a wry smile.
Quintus ignored this. “I’ve never figured out why they named it that. If they’re referring to ‘sun-ray’ then that doesn’t work, because I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a ray of sun here on my last visits. Maybe the founder’s name was Ray...”
Quintus turned out to be right. The whole time they were there, the sky remained overcast, and though it never did precipitate, Jin was constantly on her toes, expecting it.
The sky matched the town, grey and dreary. Ray was a dilapidated place, fallen into ill repair that was apparent in the missing shingles, broken windows, and boarded up old houses. The population, though small to begin with, also seemed to have shrunk, judging by the closed shops and buildings. The town, they were told, was among the worst hit by the economy, so Quintus and Jin barely saw a soul the whole time they were there, which was a grand total of one day.
“I never got much business here on my last trips,” Quintus told Jin while they wandered through the place, and Jin had the distinct feeling that she was visiting a soon-to-be ghost town, “But this... I never imagined it would be like this.”
Zes’s guards had also apparently judged the place to be forsaken, because they weren’t to be sighted anywhere. Jin took this as a sign that she should speak to the people, and wherever she went, whenever she came across a person, she whispered of the coming revolution, and that they could play a part in it if they gathered in Jedendah. The general reply was a silence and quickening in pace, as if they were trying to stay away from a crazy person without offending them. Jin was disappointed, but thought that she was, in a way, crazy. Quintus was the only one holding her to sanity.
Then they left Ray and witnessed better weather outside of the stormy place. The sun was almost always shining for the next couple days, and Jin felt that she could see the snowdrifts recede before her eyes. The only party member that was unhappy about this was Cabel. He had been enjoying a growth spurt, even in the past week, and now had paws way too big for his body that allowed him to walk on top of the snow. Every snowdrift that resisted the sun he ran over and jumped in, as if trying to relive the memory of his old home.
Jin was glad that it was almost spring. She had been tired of the constant blizzards and freezing cold, but with spring came the realization that she was now sixteen, and had been for a long time; since November, in fact. She couldn’t believe she had forgotten her own birthday, but neglected to tell Quintus, deciding that since it had been almost half a year it wasn’t pertinent anymore.
They were camped a little above the next town they would visit, a beautiful place called Trill, when Jin woke up to an odd sound. It was strangely ethereal, many voices in unison rising and falling a few notes in perfect synchronization. She sat up in her bedroll, unnerved, and found herself showered with dew. Jin looked up.
Above her was a giant oak tree with leaves green and soaked with dew. And in the tree were thousands of tiny little purple birds, every one of them singing and moving their mouths in unison. But they couldn’t be singing the song, it was too weird. “What is that?” Jin thought aloud. She twisted her body in bed to see Quintus also looking up at the birds.
“It’s the trill birds,” he said, “You didn’t think Trill was just named that for nothing, did you?”
“That is so weird.”
“It is weird. But also beautiful. That’s why you won’t find any rebel forces here in Trill. This is a place for the nobles of society, the perfect destination for those with plenty of money. I think you’ll find that not many of them are willing to listen to people like us, people dressed in rags. Even if they did, Zes’s guards are stationed heavily here, to keep the nobles happy, and they won’t appreciate it if we out-stay our welcome here. That is, we have to blow on through.”
Jin had listened in growing disbelief. “The more I learn about Zes’s tyrannical reign, the more I realize how important this revolution is. To give to the rich and take from the poor... But really, Quintus, sometimes it seems so impossible... we’re just two kids, not even eighteen, trying to bring about a massive mutiny...”
“Well, here’s a start,” Quintus said with half a smile, “I’m seventeen today.”
“Speaking of which, you must’ve had a birthday some time ago...”
“How’d you know?”
“Wild guess,” he said, smiling even broader, “We’ll have a celebration tonight, for the both of us.”
But first they had to hurry through Trill. Quintus turned out to be right. Though Trill was a beautiful place, it was also a high-class society. The place was filled with rose gardens, mansions, and parks that were acres in length. Jin couldn’t believe that they could reserve land for pleasure when it was so arable and could feed thousands of souls. Quintus said nothing when she pointed this out, but put one finger to his lips.
Jin began to get angry at the people. They strutted around in big, elaborate dresses and tunics with yards of lace and as many slashes in their puffy, pure-white sleeves. Servants, or slaves, more like, Jin thought, were employed to carry the ladies’ long trains of delicate embroidery. It all made her sick.
So she lost it when she saw a woman beating a young boy dressed only in rags with her pink parasol. Apparently, from what Jin could judge, the boy had splashed a bit of the woman’s train with mud when he had ran to open the carriage door for her. Quintus gave Jin a warning look when he saw her staring, not bothering to conceal her anger, but she didn’t listen. She just ran at the woman, picked up a handful of mud and horse dung with her bare hands, and threw it. It splashed across her light pink bodice with a satisfying splat, and Jin leapt over the woman to make a human shield in front of the boy. Though the woman looked wildly around for her attacker, the boy tried to get around back to his master.
“No, miss, I didn’t throw it! I swear! She did it!” he screamed, pointing at Jin. Jin was confused, she thought that the boy would appreciate her protecting him, but he continued to struggle.
“Don’t you see: this is wrong; that woman has no right to be beating you,” she said franticly.
“You’ve made everything worse!” he yelled, breaking into tears as Jin struggled to hold him still, “I’ll be out of work! How can I support my family now?” In her shock, Jin forgot to hold the boy, and he wiggled out of her grasp. The boy was trying to support his family at this age?
And it had only begun to register in her befuddled brain that the woman had been yelling, “Guards!” for some time now and Quintus was nowhere to be seen, before she was clubbed on the side of the head and collapsed into the same mud.
She was dimly aware of being dragged somewhere and a dull clang that had a certain finality to it... like a jail cell before the guillotine, for instance...
Jin sat up, quickly, and looked around. She was indeed in a jail cell that was so dilapidated it was hard to find a single spot of wall that wasn’t covered with at least a thin fuzz of orangish moss. There was a window, but it looked out to a dirt wall and barely let in any light at all, only a thin ray that shone enough light on her surroundings to assure Jin that she wasn’t dead. At least not yet. There was no place to sit, only the slimy wet floor that dipped downwards at the edges and a few inches of smelly water lay stagnant there. Jin had a bad feeling that this foul smelling liquid was something much more sinister than it seemed.
She made her way gingerly to the middle of the room, holding the side of her head, which ached horribly, forcing her to sit down. Putting her head between her knees in the typical recovery position, she attempted to recall what had happened last.
She had been traveling with Quintus, and then a boy was beaten by a lady... and then Jin lost it, right? She had tried to save the boy; he’d been very under-appreciative about it; then after that she remembered nothing. So what had happened?
It wasn’t that hard to guess, judging by the sizable lump on the side of her head. Likely the noblewoman had called for a guard, and he had come and clubbed her, then dragged her to this jail cell. Speaking of which, she wasn’t alone.
Jin approached the front of her cell, which, above a half-wall of foot-thick stone, was enclosed the rest of the way by thick, imposing, black metal bars. Through those bars -the only part of the cell that seemed to be unaffected by the orange fuzz- she glimpsed other cells across a dimly lit hall. Although she couldn’t make out any figures, she could hear a low muttering coming from the cell right across from her. “Hello?” she called out, impulsively.
A voice came from the cell next to her, “Ah, the spirit of the girl has finally partaken of joining us?” Rillings, she thought excitedly, this man is from Rillings!
“You’re from Rillings!” she said loudly.
He said something unintelligible in another language that sounded vaguely Earthling-like, and then switched to an accent reminiscent of the servants’ banter at Zes’ court, “I’m from anywhere but here, sweetheart.” She took the point and slumped down again on the floor of the cell.
So she spent the night -or she guessed that it was night from the dimming of light from the tiny window- in total solitude, curled up as small as she could make herself in the middle of the cell. At first she thought it was just lack of sleep. But as time went on and her brain refused to sleep, she realized it must be something else.
Her thoughts were getting befuddled, and it got worse as the night progressed. She began to think more slowly, more dumbly. The feeling that something was wrong floated out of her mind, and she was unable to retrieve it. The only thing she knew was fear.
Jin’s eyelids began to droop irresistibly. Her limbs were dull and barely had any feeling left; her body was completely limp, staying precariously balanced with her knees drawn up to her chest, except for her head, which was now bobbing, last to succumb. But what really scared her was when her extremities began to twitch. She had no feeling left in them, but they were moving, making grotesque shapes that shouldn’t be possible. It dimly reminded her of something terrible, something that wakened her sleepy brain just a little, so important was the memory that she couldn’t recall...
Her half-closed eyelids registered a figure outside her cell. The person peered in, once, at her, nodded curtly, and moved on. But there was something strange about the person. They were wearing something -Jin couldn’t remember the name of it- around their mouth and nose, something that dripped with liquid. It seemed a bit like a protective measure.
Why? Was Jin’s thought. But her brain was shutting down, it didn’t matter, she should just forget it all and succumb to the coming darkness... her head dropped down onto the loose fabric of her tunic so she was breathing through the fabric. Immediately, she felt better, and lifted her head to peer around. What was she doing here?
Another deep breath, and her brain was befuddled again. She felt like she had discovered something important, but couldn’t remember it, so she dropped her head down again, and experienced another brief burst of clarity. This time she kept her head in the position, trying to still the dizziness. Bit by bit, her brain regained a little function. Jin realized that there must be something in the air that was messing her up. Something that might drive her slowly mad, like the man across the hall, who was muttering still. Jin felt a thin line of drool drip down from her mouth into the tunic, and was suddenly disgusted with herself. But then an idea presented itself.
The person that had looked in on her had been wearing a cloth around his mouth and nose, something dipped in wet liquid. Surely wet cloth would better filter than dry. With shaking hands, Jin tore a strip of fabric off the bottom of her tunic, and, taking deep breaths from under the fabric and surfacing, holding her breath, she spat on the strip of fabric. Apparently she was dehydrated, because not much saliva came up.
Jin did this again and again, desperate for her own survival, and finally the cloth was wet enough. She pressed it to her mouth and breathed deeply. This was even better. She began to recall more events from before she had been put in this cell. The main thing that caught her attention, however, was the fact that Quintus hadn’t been present when she was trying to help the boy. Where had he gone? Had he abandoned her unceremoniously?
It couldn’t be. Jin trusted him too deeply to consider this possibility. Maybe he was taken away, even before she had been? She hoped not. This prison looked unescapable, and besides, her brain would probably never reach full functioning power. The cloth would eventually become clogged with whatever was poisoning her, and would be unusable. What would she do after that? Keep tearing off strips of clothing until she had nothing left? Or give up under the strain of keeping awake all that time?
The only thing she could hope for was that somehow, someway, Quintus was still out there, and trying to save her. Jin could only hope that he had kept a level head, something that Jin was obviously incapable of having, and was actively planning. Jin had ruined everything, and she would probably die here, unable to avenge Sable, likely causing Quintus’ death as well if he wasn’t already dead and trying to save her and failing in the process... Here it was again, what Quintus had been telling her to learn all this time: get a little self-preservation. She had failed miserably in his instructions, and would pay for it. Jin promised herself that if she ever got out of this she would pay closer attention to Quintus’s advice. It was obviously worth something.
Some time later, Jin felt the lack of sleep catch up with her, so she tied the makeshift mask so it wouldn’t fall off, and promptly fell into a deep sleep on the fuzzy orange mat that was extremely disgusting.
She was running, running hard in a whirlwind of colors that blinded her, hurt her head, and made her totally disoriented with vertigo. But she had to keep running, she didn’t know why, but it was really important. Jin was late for something.
Beside her ran Sable, his dark hair and eyebrows scrunched in concentration; their footsteps rang clearly on a marble floor; for some reason she could hear them, even with the distraction of flying colors branded into her eyelids like a tattoo that was continually being made. And then Sable collapsed into a pile of broken bones that shuddered and shook, and Jin kept running, tripping over his body, hearing the broken breath that hissed out of his dead, cold figure, as she stumbled back up, recovering with an agility that shouldn’t have been allowed, now that Sable was gone...
She must stop something from happening, but she didn’t know what it was. It was crucially important that she remember, but her brain was going all fuzzy and she couldn’t see clearly; the only thing she knew was Sable, hissing her name, making her all the more aware that there was some task that she couldn’t leave unfinished.
“Jin...” he hissed, even though he was dead.
“No, Sable, I tried...”
“Jin...” his desperate face filled her vision, but his face was contorting, changing, his dark hair was turning light, and his voice was changing... “Jin...”
“Tell me! What can I do...?” but her voice was impossibly soft, he couldn’t hear her.
“Jin! Wake up!” Came a desperate whisper from somewhere in the darkness. Everything was dark, she couldn’t see anything, she must be dead... there was something wet and uncomfortable around her neck and Sable was gone... gone...
“Jin!” And then arms were on her, they were taking her away from Sable.
“No!” She yelled, her voice rebounding and hurting her befuddled brain. Jin struggled, uselessly.
“Jin, shut up! It’s Quintus,” Quintus looked at her with a desperate expression, “someone’ll hear you...”
“No! Sable!” she reached back out through the bars that Quintus had somehow dragged her from, trying to see Sable, but he was nowhere to be found. Then Quintus had his hands over her mouth, preventing her from making a noise.
She squirmed uselessly, and soon was only trying to stay standing as he dragged her along a slimy, slippery floor, one covered in orange moss. Jin had given up hope, Sable was lost, she had lost her chance, he was gone... It felt like forever in the depths of despair, until she saw a light ahead at the top of the winding, stone staircase that they had been climbing.
Her head was clearing now, and she vaguely remembered something about poisoned air and that the return of Sable had only been a dream, none of it was real, which struck her as very sad. And then they were outside, with the stars sparkling brightly overhead and the wet, dewy grass beneath their feet. Jin collapsed to her knees and began to retch and cough drily. When she had recovered somewhat, Quintus dragged her on. “We must keep going -got to get out of Trill,” he panted, words that slowly registered in Jin’s brain. All that she knew was a vague need to keep moving, which her legs did without being told. They stole through the night until they had climbed over a stone wall, Quintus rather clumsily, and out of Trill, and only when they had gone at least a mile away did he stop, bend over, and try to catch his breath.
Jin sank down onto the ground in the middle of the breathtaking forest, full of giant redwoods and beautiful green ferns interspersed with wild flowers. She barely took in any of it. “That was awkward,” she said dryly, and then passed out cold on the moist dirt.
Jin woke up to immediate relief. Her head was clear, no longer spinning, and she saw clearly that was in a forest in the grey matter before dawn, outside of Trill. She recalled bits of their escape from the night before, and was struck with a desire to find out how Quintus had saved her.
She sat up, and crawled over to where Quintus was sitting and staring off into the trees, and then hooked arms with him and leaned on his shoulder. The wonderfully fresh smell of moist dirt surrounded them, and though her clothes were grimy Jin felt fresh and new, like she had just taken a long shower. “What happened?” she asked.
Quintus took a while to answer. “Well, you were stupid,” he said, finally, not looking at her, “I suppose I can’t blame you-”
“I’m really sorry. I’ve been trying to exert more self-preservation, but it’s going to-”
“-take time, I know. I don’t blame you.” Jin breathed a sigh of relief. “But someone has to keep a level head around here, so I disappeared as soon as I saw the guards were going after you. I watched and followed silently as they took you to the prison. It was pretty gruesome,” he added, though disturbingly impassively, “Then I took Cabel and the horses from where I left them and went out of town, to this very spot, where I tied them to the trees over there,” he pointed, and Jin looked; sure enough, all three horses were standing comfortably, and Cabel was curled up in a dirt bed he had fashioned for himself. “Then I waited until nightfall, stole back into town, observed the prison for a while, where I learned to wear a makeshift mask, and went in to rescue you.”
“How? I mean, no offense... but-”
“I took their masks,” Quintus interrupted, “and watched as the guards descended into insanity. Before they realized that maybe they should step outside, they were too befuddled to do anything. I knocked them all on the head,” he grimaced, “it was far too easy.” Then he went silent, and Jin knew that he was thinking about what Jin had said while struggling against him.
“I know what I said,” she began, breaking the silence. Quintus didn’t answer. “And I’m sorry. It was a dream...”
“You don’t have to explain. I know you need time. I suggest you get some more sleep before we carry on.” Jin did as he said, but Quintus refused to take his own advice and simply sat, staring off into the distance again with a vacant expression. Jin wondered, at first, what he was thinking about, but then again, she thought, maybe it was best not to know. Even so, she fell asleep thinking about it.
Quintus was quiet over the next few days, and no matter what Jin said to try and bring him back to his normal self, she often found him staring off into space with that same, unnerving expression that suggested the lights were on but no one was home. At the moment, anyway. She worried about him.
They passed through another town, Valah, and it was there that Jin came up with a brilliant idea. This town was different from all the others in that it was struck with poverty, but the people there had never felt the true anger of Zes and so were actively resisting his laws. It was the perfect opportunity to further her plans.
They would make flyers, and hand them out to people, and spread by word of mouth that rebels were to gather in Jedendah, where forces were coming together. Jin knew this was a white lie, but she hoped, if all went well, it would soon be true, and the citizens seemed to eat it up, unlike some of the other people they had seen in other towns. These were desperate for any form of hope, and Jin and Quintus happened to be the only source.
As a result of this, they even witnessed a real boycott. Some villagers in rags approached the shack that served as a prison, a place that was overcrowded, and forced the guards to release everyone. The guards, who barely numbered ten in all, were completely outnumbered and weak of heart. Though they backed down without any resistance at all, the villagers were merciless, and skewered them with pitchforks, beheading them and parading their trophies through the streets of the place. Jin was pretty unnerved by this, understandably, and wondered if it had not been caused by the whispers of revolution she had sent out. If so, it was all her fault that these innocent guards had died. They were only humans, like everyone else, with spouses and children, trying support their families, and in some cases, only themselves. They didn’t deserve to die.
Was this what Jin had thought when she killed the guards holding Sable captive? She tried to console herself by saying that truly, being closer to Zes’s court and more under the influence of Zes, they were more evil and therefore more deserving of punishment. But then again, they were human beings, like everyone else. If she went by the everyone’s human argument, she could also argue that Zes was human, and therefore not responsible for his actions. And obviously this was not true.
So when they left that wretched town, Jin tried to empty her mind of everything, for a while. She tried to talk to Quintus about anything but their quest, eventually resorting to favorite colors and shapes and lame topics like that. Jin’s favorite color was black, and she learned that Quintus’s was moss green.
“I hate green,” she commented.
“Why, exactly? I think it’s a great, earthy color,” Quintus retaliated, defensively.
“It’s so perfect... so earthy and ideal.”
“Maybe it’s good to dream of ideals every once in a while. It gives us something to strive for.”
“Ideals are exactly what they’re named. Ideals. They’re impossible to achieve, so we might as well give up now.”
“Is that what you believe about avenging Sable?” Quintus asked irritably. They were silent for a while after this conversation. Soon, unable to find consolation in conversation, Jin took up throwing knives at targets in her free time. She did this for a couple hours on end, trying to enjoy her muse. But then she noticed Quintus turning a delicate shade of green. She stopped and looked at him, concerned. “Sorry,” he apologized, “it’s just when you do that I can’t stop picturing how those guards collapsed... that dull thump the knives make...” he shuddered.
“No problem,” Jin replied simply. In truth, this comment disturbed her. Was she really so sociopathic that she felt no regret for their deaths? She, unlike Quintus, had killed innocent men, so shouldn’t she be suffering more than Quintus? Shouldn’t it be her that was bothered by the ominous thunking noise whenever a knife hit dead on target, the sound with such finality, so reminiscent of the cracking of a man’s skull? She wanted to be sick. She wanted to feel guilty for killing these men. But she couldn’t summon the feeling. Jin worried that maybe she was a horrible person, for not feeling regret for the deaths and injuries of these people. She remembered Zephys telling her once that killing sometimes turned people evil... maybe that was reality, now. Maybe that was her.
Unable to vent her feelings through knife-throwing, Jin took out Sable’s guitar that she had carried all this time and tried to play it, stopping when she discovered that it was hopelessly out of tune due to the horrible weather. She remembered Sable telling her how instruments reacted to changes in climate, especially the cold.
But then Quintus came over and took the guitar. “Let me tune it,” he said, and spent the rest of the evening humming notes to himself and messing with the little knobs at the base of the strings.
While Jin watched him, she made dinner, and as she watched Quintus’s dinner grow cold while he focused his sole attentions on the guitar, she grew curious. “Where did you learn to tune an instrument?”
Quintus paused in the middle of fiddling with the smallest string. “My grandpa used to play the guitar. He would have me tune it for him. He said I had a good ear for it.” He looked sad, lost in old memories. A few minutes later, he spoke again, “It’s done,” and then tried to hand it back to her.
Jin pushed it back at him, gently, and handed him the guitar pick that was on a cord that she had worn around her neck since Sable’s death. “Play something for me, this time.”
“I don’t know... it’s been so long...”
“I don’t care, just try.”
“Well, if it makes you happy, Straight-Up Jin, I suppose...” he said sarcastically. Jin swelled with pride at her nickname, but deflated just as quickly while she watched Quintus adjusting his hand positions. She studied the curve of his fingers and the grip he held on the pick. He was a musician, she decided. Not as good as Sable, but a natural musician.
And then, as the music surrounded her and flooded out into the night, one small bit of beautiful happiness in the middle of the swirling darkness in Zes’s tyrannical reign, she began to muse about muses. Perhaps a muse was a curse. This gift that every muse had seemed almost unnatural. She didn’t want to betray Sable’s memory -his music had been the most beautiful she had ever heard- but Quintus playing the guitar was better, somehow. It was more natural, hearing the simple mistakes he made every once in a while when he stumbled over strings and the guitar let out indignant twangs; the pauses he made when struggling to remember the music seemed to be part of it all, so that it became a piece that was solely his. A piece of Quintus’s soul.
Jin thought that music was very under-appreciated. She decided that it must be a window into the soul, when someone plays a piece. She believed that it had a beauty about it that nothing else could match. Not even the trill birds in Trill. Nothing could come close.
And then the music stopped, and Jin, enchanted by the music and reveling in the firelight, knew that she was lost. No one but Quintus could invoke such feelings in her being. Maybe Sable was one thing, but Quintus was an entirely other, much deeper, thing. Sable had held her being, but Quintus held her soul.
Quintus gently replaced the guitar on the ground and sat, fingers clasped together and resting on his knees, face half-illuminated by the flickering flames.
And then Jin cuddled up close to him, and fingered the guitar. And they sat, by unspoken consent, without speaking, this time with mirrored thoughts.
Later Jin lay awake debating with herself about her feelings, and the midst of her whirling mind, she had a burst of sudden insight. She spoke into the silent night, “I have a nickname for you, Quintus.”
“What is it?” came his voice, assuring her that he wasn’t asleep.
“Quintessential Quintus. ‘Cause you’re too good to be true,” she said truthfully.
“You think I’m quintessential?” He laughed slightly.
“Yes, I do.” There was a lull in the conversation, and Jin thought about saying more, but backed off. She wasn’t ready yet, but it would be soon.
“Jin,” Quintus paused for a moment.
“Don’t,” she said quietly.
She heard a sharp exhale, then intake of breath. The silence stretched until it felt like a big balloon that needed to pop.
“Sorry,” she said, finally.
“I know,” he said, simply.
Jin’s thoughts spiraled out of control into worries for him, for her, for them, for the revolution. What if she never recovered from the loss of Sable and caused Quintus pain for the rest of their lives? What if she was unable to let that promise she had so rashly made on the night of his death go? But maybe, maybe what had happened just that night in the depths of her mind proved that it was possible. That she could love, again.
In the morning, Jin felt that the need to progress was stronger than ever. She was still unsure about last night, and so resorted to acting like it had never happened. Quintus seemed to accept this, maybe even to mirror her own beliefs. She truly had no idea. But she knew he knew. That much was for sure.
Spring was coming; the snow was melting; Cabel was growing fast and learning fast as well, and the horses were finally getting fit and staying happy at the same time. She suspected Zephys of eating when she wasn’t looking, however.
Jin almost couldn’t blame him. New blades of grass were popping up here and there, under the snow, and where the horses stepped, they smashed the blades back into the mud, which eventually penetrated everything. It got in their clothes, their hair, their stuff, it even left dirty brown spots on Jin’s precious papers. She wasn’t too happy about this, understandably.
And yet she took the guitar out every evening and strummed it, tried to make sense of the music that Sable had left her that night she had searched his bunk. She learned faster, with Quintus’s help, though he refused to play again. Jin wondered why.
It probably had something to do with their unspoken conversation. Did he dread it happening again? Did she?
Jin pushed these thoughts away, unwilling to face them. She would figure them out, unravel what they might mean late at night when it was too dark to read faces, and when it didn’t feel like she was wasting time. That was always the best time to think hard, -besides knife throwing: at night when she was trying to sleep. That was when the thoughts would bombard from left and right before she could launch a counterforce.
Jin also felt like time was growing short. She knew that she had years, maybe, before she would be forced to bring the rebellion about, but she just had this gut feeling that the time was drawing near when the real battle would begin. It was terrifying to think of revisiting her past, at Zes’s court, to stare down at those same, sunken eyes, and defy them yet again. Because what had happened the last time she had? She had lost. Everything. Everything that mattered to her. But it would not happen again, she was sure of it. And in that way, she craved the moment as much as she feared it. Her impatience made her irritable around camp as the days crawled by at a snail’s pace; it was their longest gap yet since they had visited a town, though the next one was Jedendah itself. Quintus took to silently whittling wood down with a knife; he was no good at it, that much was sure, but at least it gave him some comfort. His feeble figures tended to turn out more distorted than the original slab.
Mindlessly, she wondered if all this worrying would turn her hair completely grey; it would surely set a new record, going slate grey before she was even seventeen. And then she thought that worrying about turning grey would just make it happen faster, and then she despised herself for leading her mind around in pointless circles.
Jin felt weighed down. She wanted to get everything over with now, before anything more could hurt her or the people she cared about. But she knew that really, there was only one place that had her back -okay, two- and they were Zephys and the spell-crafting society. And together, though somewhat formidable, they were not enough to convince the whole land of the necessity of a revolution. She needed the support of the rebel forces, and that was Jedendah.
And so on the day that Quintus announced would be the day they would arrive, she made him hurry up to pack up camp, and was constantly on edge, but excited, as well. Quintus didn’t appreciate being bullied, but took it in stride, -which was one of the things she really liked about him- and soon they were cantering towards a tall city with only green, hilly formations between it and the revolutionaries. They had finally arrived.
Something was wrong. Jin saw that right away. There was no smoke rising from the chimneys, and the atmosphere was far, far too quiet. She motioned Quintus to slow down and stop, and then listened, straining her ears for any sign of motion.
“What do you think happened?” Quintus whispered. They were flat on their bellies in the grass, hoping anyone happening to glance across the field would see only a couple grazing horses. Horses laden down with traveling goods. But they didn’t have time to deal with that.
“I don’t know... it seems so empty,” Jin whispered back. She inclined her head forward, motioning that they should proceed slowly and with infinite caution. And so it was that they entered the front gates without meeting a soul. Cabel they had left behind in a down-stay by the horses.
The tall wooden doors were almost completely pulled off their hinges, and only hung, sagging against the cobblestones. They were nearly three times Jin’s height, and she was sure that they might fall and squash her and Quintus flat at any moment. But they didn’t, and she breathed a tiny sigh of relief as they exited their range.
In any case, that sigh was undeserved. The sight that met their eyes next was even worse. Every house that had been thatched with straw roofs, which was every house in the city, had burned down to embers. Pieces of furniture staggered and leaned against the ash of the fallen homes, trying to stay up on three and two uneven and fire-weakened legs. The stone walls stood up barrenly, mostly, but in some houses they had collapsed from the burning and heat and lay singed black and smoking up a storm, broken where they had fallen. Wreckage expanded in every direction. It was like a god of some sort had descended upon the poor city that was already a slummy place, and sat down on it. The sewage that ran through the streets was stained black and foamy with grey slush. The rising smoke clogged and pained Quintus and Jin’s throats as they stumbled through, warily.
“Jesus,” Jin said, because she could think of nothing else to say. Quintus appeared to think different, however, and said:
“You must not use the lord’s name in vain.”
“You’re a Christian?” She asked him, incredulously in the strangeness of all of it; she hadn’t thought that earthlings’ beliefs extended beyond Earth. Or, if they did, were practiced by non-earthlings.
“No,” he said with certainty, “I just don’t think you should be flaunting about their beliefs like that; they wouldn’t want it.”
“What’s your problem?” Jin said, distracted by a different scene playing through her head, a scene of Sable, in the dormitory, mispronouncing Jesus’s name when she surprised him. Quintus was saying something, sharp and angrily, but she didn’t hear it. Her mind was focused on another scene entirely, and she giggled suddenly.
Quintus was so caught off guard by this that he whirled on her, and took a moment to compose an angry face before yelling, “You think this funny?” His voice echoed around off the stone everywhere, and Jin, in consternation, thought that the whole world must have heard. Some blackbirds flew off their perch twenty yards away. “Is this whole thing amusing to you? That thousands of people have lost their lives, that we can’t even work together without either declaring our love or staying as far away from each other as possible?” Jin flinched at this. So he had said it, then. That which she had been fearing in the late of night. But she was not offered any respite to think. “Do you realize that the whole world-the hopes of the world-whole-” he was mixing up his words in his anger, and then slowed down, practically spitting them out before her, “-the hopes of the whole wide world rest on our hardly capable shoulders?”
“No-no-no-no-no,” Jin said quickly, “Quintus, no. Calm down.”
“This place, our--land doesn’t have a hope without a revolution. It must come. It must come now!” he bellowed, “And if we can’t put aside our own stupid soap-opera and settle down to the task at hand, then what are we but f-fools?” He looked at her, seething with anger that Jin knew was not solely directed at her, but himself. She knew him well enough now to tell.
“We can do this,” she told him, grabbing his forearm in a viselike grip, “You and I. Together.”
“No, we can’t,” he protested, though quieter and more feebler.
“Yes, we can,” she continued confidently, “I promise you we can. I said I would never give up. You said you would never leave my side. If we both keep our promises, then what chance does this tyrannical government stand against the both of us? None. None at all. And if it takes coming back after death, like that Jolin did, then I will do it. I will make Zes pay. For hurting Sable, for hurting you. For taking me from my family. For the countless acts of inexcusable evil that he has committed.” Her eyes were blazing now, with that fearless determination that so scared Quintus, made him worry for her self-preservation. He was grabbing at his own hair, now, with one hand. Jin made to stop him.
“Look at me,” she said calmly, and Quintus was unable to ignore the authority in this statement. “Just promise me something.”
“Anything,” he muttered.
“That you won’t look at this thing we have as a stupid soap-opera,” she said, softly, unsure of where this unexpected strength was coming from. “What Zes lacks is love; but that’s exactly what we have. It’s what will triumph over him in the end. If we have to put it aside, for the moment, and focus entirely on working together to bring his whole regime crashing back down on him, than so be it. But first, I have something to say.” Jin grasped his hands, now, as he was no longer shaking with anger; they were cold. She tried to squeeze some warmth into them, and drew a shaking breath, “You love me, Quintus.” It was a statement, not a question. His hands grew lax in hers, then tightened.
Quintus looked at her, seriously, with those brown, slanted eyes, his dirty-blond, tangled hair falling down in ratted strands. “I do,” he said, whispered, “And you love me, Jin.”
“I do,” she replied.
They were about a millimeter away from that perfect dramatic indemnity in the middle of a ruined city that looked like it was blasted apart by the backside of a giant when they heard a voice come from not far away. Jin about jumped out of her shoes and almost gave away their position, but luckily Quintus clapped a hand over her mouth and muffled her yelp of surprise. With surprising calmness, he led her towards a nearby house; shuffling their feet quietly. It must have been a baker’s shop, because there was a giant oven in the back that was virtually untouched by the fire. Quintus touched the stone, to test the temperature; it was hot, but not unbearably so, and they climbed inside to the very back where they could hear, yet stay unseen.
“The voice came from over there,” the voice was saying, and another one answered.
“How you couldn’t have heard it, I don’t know... could’ve heard the boy from miles away. He was saying some mightily interesting stuff... talking about startin’ a revolution...”
“Yeah, I bet the government’d pay gold for these rebels. They’d crush ‘em like they did this town, except more drawn out. Hear that, poppies? But we’d like a taste of you first, if he doesn’t mind-”
“-which I’m sure he won’t...” They were talking about Zes, of course. Quintus laid a warning hand against her shoulder, but Jin wasn’t going to try anything. Rather, she disregarded this potential information regarding the destruction of Jedendah, and merely was furious with these unknown men for ruining that dramatic moment with Quintus.
“...made him kill all these people, anyway...”
“Listen,” Quintus said, in a commanding tone. Jin wondered vaguely what was commanding his attention so closely, but she was more focused on the way his eyes squinted while he was concentrating.
“But I heard that they’re not all dead...” came the second voice, jerking Jin out of her reverie. What was the matter with her, romanticizing at a time like this, when there was information out there for the plucking of by anyone with a critical hand?
“That’s my straight-up Jin,” Quintus said, turning to her, “there is a time and place for romanticizing. For now, turn it off and focus on the revolution.”
Jin heartily agreed. She turned her whole focus back on the two mysterious voices’ conversation.
“How could they be alive? It looks like a giant’s backside, these ruins do,” the first person continued.
“Had experience, have you? I agree, this wreckage looks terrible. But don’t underestimate the rebels of Jedendah. If you ask me, this will only infuriate them further.”
“No one asked your opinion,” the voice said quietly, so Jin had to strain to hear it now, and she thought she detected a bit of fear, “And I suggest you keep it to yourself. Now then,” he continued, raising his voice, “where might the little poppies be hiding? You face certain death, no matter where you are, might as well get it over with now.” Their voices began to fade off, and Jin knew they had passed her and Quintus. She decided these men were not stupid, just very imperceptive. Very imperceptive and perhaps a wee bit drunk. She and Quintus crawled out of the fireplace, which had begun to get hot and stuffy and uncomfortable. Jin was sweating when they crept back out into the sudden cold, and the perspiration seemed to cling and freeze to her clothing suddenly.
“What do you make of it?” She asked, rubbing her arms and turning to Quintus. His face was stained with soot.
“I think,” he said, making a philosophical face that suddenly dissolved into a grin and grabbing Jin, kissing her full on the mouth.
She had to stop because she was smiling so hard, and then composed herself and kissed him back.
“That needed to come first,” he finished, smiling. Jin grinned again, she couldn’t help it. And he grabbed her hand and they ran out on featherlight feet, bringing up little puffs of ash as they went, confident that no one would see or hear them in the soon-to-be-arriving dusk on their way out of the ruined city. They stepped over the once twenty-foot wall, such was the devastation, on their way out. And then Quintus slowed down to a walk, swinging their clasped hands, happily.
His face was serious again, though, when he said, “The revolution comes first. And I think that there may still be rebel forces out there, waiting for a leader to come and lead them in a rebellion. I believe that foolish man was right; the total destruction of their home city will only anger them into action. And we can direct their action into levelheaded, careful planning.”
“I don’t know about that,” Jin said mischievously, “I’m not exactly known for my levelheadedness.”
Quintus ignored this, as well he should. He was on a mission. “I can feel it all coming together, can’t you?”
“Yeah... I feel it too. It’s like it’s all coming very soon. And I’m scared of it, but I wish it could be sooner, too.”
“I just want it over with already,” Quintus said, gripping her hand tighter, “all this pain and suffering has to stop. I’m not sure how much longer I can deal with it.”
“You shame me,” Jin said ruefully, “with your perfect humbleness, Quintessential Quintus.” He smiled at her, a real smile, not because it was funny, but just because. Jin smiled back, a real smile. They walked hand-in-hand back to where the horses were growing fat on nutrient-rich baby blades of grass.
“Where do you think they’re hiding out, the survivors?” Jin asked Quintus. They were back in the saddle again, and raring to go. Almost.
“Well, where’d you hide out if you were in their position?” He seemed determined to make her think.
“I’d have to know the geography, first of all, but as a rule of thumb I would be as far away from the main road or any side paths. And probably near a source of fresh water,” she added.
“Exactly. And that’s where we’ll find them.” He didn’t elaborate on that statement for a few minutes, but led the way towards the verdant forest in a very calm and deliberate manner. And then: “All we need to do is find a place perfect for a hideout, -quiet, off the beaten track, and near a source of fresh water. Let’s find the water first.”
It wasn’t all that difficult, finding the water. Everything was so unnervingly quiet that any sounds were amplified a million times over, it seemed like. Even their voices, whispered, in the strange silence, echoed in Jin’s ears long after they had faded into the distance. It was rather creepy, but soon they found a freshwater stream and Jin pushed any thoughts of creepiness firmly from her mind.
“Can’t be far now,” Quintus said, his eyes scrunched in determination again. Jin had forgotten that he was somewhat of an expert tracker. “Look at that broken twig, there. Relatively fresh. And not made by an animal.” At first Jin tried to listen, but soon Quintus lost her interest and she just followed meekly, feeling very childish as the same thought ran through her head over and over again: are we there yet? Mommy, she added, for extra measure, and then snorted inwardly at herself. She was tired, sore in the saddle, and hungry. They hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and darkness was falling fast. It seemed like too much to hope, not complaining, so she let the complaints have free rein in her head, but didn’t share them with Quintus.
Finally, he stopped. “They’re near,” he said quietly, and then projected his voice outwards to the surrounding woods, through the birch trees that looked like toothpicks in the darkness, “We are not here to harm, we are here to support your cause. My friend, here, lost her family and best friend to Zes. I am from your noble city of Jedendah and have always sympathized with your opinions. We are here to extend our help and thanks, if you will receive them.” Jin was rather impressed by this speech. She had not thought him capable.
“Our noble city,” came a mocking voice, a man’s voice, from somewhere in the darkness, “Pfft. Our city crushed by the all-reaching hand of Zes.”
“I thought it was his backside,” said Jin, before she could stop herself. Quintus gave her a warning look, like, what did you do that for.
The voice merely laughed, and the man revealed himself to them, stepping out between two trees. He was tall and lean, with ragged dark hair and one golden earring that glinted silver in the moonlight, crowning his tall, lean, but shabby figure. He walked with a slight limp, not unlike an old soldier, though he can’t have been older than thirty at the most. Jin admired him, instinctively.
“Forgive me, sir,” she apologized, “for speaking my mind. I am Jin Nyx, and this is Quintus Neph.” Jin gestured vaguely at Quintus, who gave her a furtive look that Jin didn’t quite understand.
“Travelers,” he said dismissively. “But you wish to help?”
“Yes,” Jin said firmly, “And who might you be?”
“You could say I’m the leader of the rebel forces, out here in the woods,” he said with a sarcastic edge, “My name is Reln.”
“We,” Jin said confidently, plowing on regardless of this strange man’s sarcasm, “have the full support of the spell-casting society in our quest for a revolution, as well as inside men at the court of Zes, no less. You may find you require our help, if you have the same goal.”
Reln looked tired, but skeptical. “I require proof to believe such an outlandish claim,” he drawled, easily. There were deep bags underneath his eyes.
Jin looked worriedly at Quintus, unable to think of any such evidence, but Quintus leaned into her ear and whispered, “The stones.”
Of course! Why hadn’t she remembered? Jin dug in her bag for the stone that Quintus had bound to her and Sheila, hoping fervently that Sheila would answer. Otherwise she would look awfully strange and dull, speaking to a silent rock. She took the rock out, feeling the strange man’s eyes on her, and flipped it over three times. “Sheila,” she said loudly and clearly, “It’s Jin.” There was a long pause that seemed to stretch on forever; Jin felt the man shift positions, skeptically, she thought.
And then there was an answer. “Jin?” came Sheila’s voice from what was unmistakably the rock, distorted strangely. The man couldn’t pretend it wasn’t real. “What business have you of partaking of the calling of me with the time held so?” Reln still found, out of the goodness of his abysmal heart, the time to snicker at this comment.
“I’m sorry, Sheila, but it’s for the revolution.”
“The revolution has of patience to wait for my sleep, I have surety of,” the tinny voice yawned pointedly, and Reln said loudly:
“Mighty fine connections you have there, girl, and trader,” he inclined his head lazily at Quintus.
“There houses some other spirit,” Sheila said suddenly, “and who else is partaking of listening to our conversation?”
“Just Quintus,” Jin replied. “And this is Reln. He doesn’t believe our claims of having the support of the spell-casting society. I think you’ll find,” she said, now addressing Reln, “That you couldn’t be further from the truth.”
“Yeah,” Quintus laughed, “Especially because Sheila is a spell-caster herself! And she’ll beat you to a pulp if you believe otherwise!”
“I have not appreciation of you partaking of predicting my actions so,” Sheila said sternly, and Jin burst out laughing.
“Sorry-” she gasped, “It’s-just-”
“Shut up,” said Reln pointedly, “and let me hear what she has to say.”
“I have debt of you,” replied Sheila, “here houses a spirit of a même of reality.” Sheila explained, then; Quintus and Jin listened somewhat impatiently, occasionally exchanging bored glances as Sheila’s voice droned on, and on. Reln was tolerant, and interested, it seemed like.
They finally finished their conversation which had continued far into the night; Jin had been yawning for a while since she realized Sheila would not settle for a terse fill-in-the-blanks, and Quintus cleared his throat hopefully. Sheila closed the meeting with Reln, having long started to ignore the presence of Quintus and Jin, “I hold wait until we partake of crossing again.”
Reln replied, “Of course.”
“Very well,” announced Reln, “I will take you to our camp. This Sheila seems trustworthy enough, though the same still cannot be said for the two of you, so behave yourselves. Quintus raised an eyebrow at Jin and Jin hugged his arm over the backs of their two horses. It felt so good to be so open and free with him that she wanted to burst with happiness. And here was this new man, leader of the other significant rebel force, taking them to his headquarters? It seemed too good to be true.
He led them for what felt like ages through the trees, after which some of the initial excitement had worn away, and Jin sagged in her saddle, feeling like she could fall asleep at this very moment. Cabel seemed to feel the same way; he was dragging his paws, and Dakota was blinking sleepily over his great horsey eyes. Jin turned to exchange a weary look with Quintus, but he was looking elsewhere, -straight ahead. She turned, too.
It was a sight for the weary soul, that much was true. They had come upon the camp, full of makeshift tents and laundry hung on low-hanging tree branches; a group of children, still awake but stick-thin and dressed in rags, hung from the birch trees like monkeys while their parents cooked or warmed their hands over the fire. There were so many people, all types of people, living in harmony in this forest, and Jin found it unbelievable that they could be hiding in such seclusion. It didn’t seem possible. She was very impressed.
Everyone stared when they walked in with unashamed, world-weary eyes that reminded Jin inexplicably of hundreds of owls. Heads turned when they passed, but Reln just waved them off, impatiently, and the people seemed to answer to him, going back to their jobs and work or leisure without question. And it wasn’t a tyrannical respect, such as the type that Zes commanded, but one out of trust and friendship. Jin found she had new respect for Reln, even if he was a bit abrasive.
Reln stopped in front of a very old, very dirty tent made of moth-eaten blankets. “You can sleep here for the night,” he said uncaringly, “It’s not much, but it’s all we have. The people will expect an explanation in the morning, -thought I should let you know. And I won’t dictate your actions during your stay. You may do what you wish, but offend the people and offend me. That’s where I stand. That is where I’ll always stand.” Not only was this the most he had said at one time to Quintus and her since they had met, but he hadn’t said it with the same lazy and drawling manner as before. This time he stood poised, ready to strike, and sounded completely genuine, so much so that Jin instantly, from that point on, trusted him. He knew where his loyalties lied, and that impressed her. He met her eyes then, and a silent understanding passed between them. Reln nodded, ever so slightly. They would work together for the same goal, with regard for the people. That much was clear.
“What was that about?” Quintus asked Jin as they lay on their backs under the smelly cover of the tent. He sounded irritable.
“You and... Reln,” he said the name with a disgust that Jin hadn’t heard from him before. She turned towards him, curious.
“It was nothing. We just understand each other’s motives, I think. Respect them, as well. Why?”
Quintus didn’t answer, so after a few minutes Jin continued, “He may be an infuriatingly-lazy, sarcastic spider egg-sac... but he’s trustworthy.” Quintus had to laugh at that.
“I suppose you’d know, wouldn’t you? Had experience with those kinds of things.”
“Oh, yes. And believe me, I’ll never forget what a spider egg-sac looks like for the rest of my life. And how to recognize one. That’s one skill that’s honed.” She scooted over next to him, and he put his arm around her and sighed.
“Ah... this is nice.”
“That was about the lamest description that anyone ever came up with,” Jin shot back, teasingly.
“Sadly... true.” And they lay next to each other, content, for the rest of the night, with only Cabel’s snores to disturb the unbroken blanket of sleep that descended upon them.
It was time, he knew, to put his plan into action. For real, this time.
His little pawn was being played by his other pawns. She would never see it coming.
But she also was making him a little nervous; she had shown incredible insight for one so blinded by a thick cloud of roiling emotions. Hopefully this cloud would take a while to clear, otherwise it would not work.
He could almost clap and laugh out loud in anticipation. So long had he waited for this moment! And soon, soon, he would be rid of these stupid chores.
Time to travel.
In the morning, Jin knew she had a job to do. She would need to convince the people of the ruined city of Jedendah that it was worth it, and not futile, to resist Zes even further. Reln may have been on their side, but he wasn’t going to make it easy and he certainly wouldn’t extend a helping hand. His loyalties lay with the people, like Sheila, and, like Sheila, could go so far as to contradict them during the event.
Jin knew she shouldn’t underestimate the task, either, though she was tempted to, since the people of Jedendah were already so far removed from Zes’s influence. But they were scared, like the others, and, like the others, would require proof. Just like Reln.
So Jin and Quintus came prepared, with both rocks, just in case. She wasn’t crazy about the idea of contacting Sheila again, so she hoped that Reln would speak up in their defense if that came up. She might also be forced to call on Zephys, which would be much more dangerous. What if he was speaking with Zes when suddenly an enchanted rock speaking with Jin’s distinctive voice appeared in his pocket? What would happen to Zephys then?
But she took them both, anyway, and the papers from Sable, the proof that her parents had been with the rebels in Jedendah, and the memory of Zephys telling her that they practically had led the last rebellion. She kept it close to her heart, along with Quintus.
And it was Quintus that stood by her as the people gathered closely around the giant bonfire pit. And suddenly, Jin was nervous. Suddenly, her hands grew cold and sweaty and began to shake. Then she felt Quintus’s warm hand in hers, and drew strength from him beside her. Magic?
They were all staring at her, she knew they were, expecting her to speak. But Jin was frozen in time, thinking that this was exactly what her parents must have done, so long ago, and what would they think if they knew their only living child was doing just this? Did they know, in whatever the afterlife held in store for the dead, that the eldest of their children was dead? Did they even care, since they had sent them off to live in Zes’s court at the young age of five?
And then Quintus squeezed her hand, almost imperceptibly. But it was enough. She began.
She spoke of the unfairness in Zes’s court, of the daily executions, and then the shock of Sable’s sentence. She gave a brief summary of what had happened on her journey to save Sable, and how he had died in the process; something she had barely been able to do before without her eyes filling with tears. But she was ready, now. She was ready to exert revenge. She wasn’t broken by Sable’s death, as she would’ve been. And she had Quintus beside her, always. Nothing could be more encouraging than that.
Jin spoke of Quintus and her and their journey to the small town of Rillings, on the edge of Valdir, and how they had discovered that it was the spell-casting society that was hiding there. And Jin knew, by Quintus’s expression, that she was doing her speech thing again, and she had the crowd spellbound. All she had to do was say the word, and they would go. Or was that an over-exaggeration?
As she neared the end of her speech, she quieted so people had to concentrate closely to catch the inspiring words falling from her lips. It was another trick she had picked up by trial and error. And she ended by explaining her connection to Jesse Nyx and Marine Aelin. “I stand here now before the same people my parents stood before ten, fifteen years ago. I speak the same words, of the unfairness against the muses of this land, and what we must do to stop it. And you listen, as you did then. But I ask - are you willing to go to the same lengths?” she paused, for emphasis, “I know the courage you showed my parents. I know that you people, out of every group of muses in this land, showed the most eagerness for a rebellion. But what happened? Zes’s fist, that’s what happened. You were shoved into place like an ill-fitting puzzle piece by his overbearing tyranny. But is that what you’ll do, this time, after the total destruction of your home city, Jedendah? Quintus and I have observed the wreckage. We could never understand the pain you bear, but we have caught a glimpse of it. Will you let him punish you, again and again, or will you end it, once and for all? Quintus and I proceed no matter where your loyalties lie. It is unlikely we will succeed without many of you on our side. Can you carry that on your conscience? The betterment of the land that might have been, likely would have been, and you obliterated it,” Jin was spitting out the words, yelling at them, and people nearest to her actually flinched with every syllable, “That is what the spell-casting society did to us, to you, the rebels. But now they’re on our side. I’m not saying this will be easy. Or fast. But isn’t it better to try, and fail, and instill hope in the hearts of other rebels, if we don’t succeed? Or is it better to sit without doing, forever wondering if it could’ve been? If thousands of lives could’ve been impacted for the better? We await your decision,” Jin finished, as before, and swept the crowd with burning eyes, eyes that no one could question burned with total obsequiousness to the cause of the revolution.
Eyes that no one could avoid, either. They flinched, and cast their gazes away from her absolute laser-eyed glare, feeling the full blast of guilt. But one, one who remained skeptical and with misgivings, yelled out into the silence after a shocking blow, “How do we know we can trust you?”
Before Jin could reply -she only stepped forward belligerently, feeling strangely pugnacious- Reln stepped out of the crowd, and turned so he was facing the people. “I can vouch for that,” he proffered, and stepped back again. “Last night, they showed me the voice of their allies, the people of Rillings. A strong leader named Sheila.” Jin looked at him, her anger temporarily abated and replaced by a strong tide of gratitude. She smiled at him, then looked at Quintus to judge his reaction. He smiled back at her.
The gathering of world-weary families and the collective community reacted well to this statement. Jin watched as Reln was lifted even higher in her esteem; the people took his word for it. At his approval of their cause, it seemed that everyone’s opinions immediately switched over to the revolution.
“Like I said,” Jin reiterated, “We await your decision. Each and every one of you. We’ll hold another meeting here,” she pointed at the small clearing they were gathered at, “tomorrow night. Those that wish to join us will join us at that time.” Apparently she was getting better at her dramatic exits, because she led Quintus through the crowd; everyone parted, no one stood in their way or forced them to stop and explain something. Maybe this was a good thing, maybe not. But either way, it was satisfying. And Jin found herself inexplicably angry and impatient. Bad combination.
Sure the speech had gone well, but she was tired of it all. She wanted no more to do with it. Obviously the revolution would never work, and she had stirred up all these hopes for nothing. She would disappoint all these people.
Her confident stride turned into an angry stalk dragging Quintus along with her. Her feet kicked at the soggy leaves, newly soaked with melted snow; she attempted to kick them far out of her way, but they only flew up and made her boots even wetter, which in turn made her angrier.
“What’s with you?” Quintus asked, a bit timidly.
Jin yanked her hand out of his grip and continued to pick up speed. The truth was, she wasn’t sure what was wrong with her. What had put her in this foul mood? Everything was going well. The people of Rillings, the spell-casting society were on her side. And now the former citizens of Jedendah were on her side. She could talk to Zephys soon, find out what was next. So why was she so irritated at everything? She tripped on a root, and Quintus grabbed her arm to stop her from falling, but then he wouldn’t let go.
“Tell me,” he demanded.
Jin tried to wriggle out of his grip, but he only grabbed her other arm and held her tighter. She gave up and said miserably, “I don’t know.”
“Is it me?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she scoffed, “why would it be you?”
Quintus held up his hands, chocolate eyes widened to show subservience, “Had to check. Is it people in general? Stroke of misanthropy? Life? Sable?”
“Oh, stop, will you?” she snapped, irritably.
Quintus tried one more thing, “Is it your parents?”
Strangely, this seemed to fit Jin’s mood perfectly. “Actually... yes,” she said, slowly. Her parents. Those mysterious eloping rebels that hovered at the edge of everything, reminding Jin of how they had abandoned her and Sable to that less than desirable fate at Zes’s court. Was it all Jesse? Did he force Marine to come with him and then send off their children? Or was she as heartless as he? Were they still off somewhere, in hiding, with not the least tinge of regret for their children’s fate? Jin realized she was crying.
“Talk to me,” Quintus said plainly, but with genuine concern, and grabbed her hand and pulled her over to a log. They sat down, Quintus holding her hand in his and looking at her bent face.
“How could they? How could they leave Sable and me, to Zes? I have no memories of them, no idea of what they looked like, if they loved us... And Sable didn’t tell me until it was too late. Maybe he remembered... something...”
“Stay here,” Quintus said, suddenly, patted her on the back awkwardly -Jin realized that’s what was so endearing about him, his random and awkward moments- and ran off into the trees, leaving her temporarily stunned. Because she was in a bad mood, she ran through her mind every shameful name she could think of calling her parents, and then did the same to Quintus. It was very satisfying.
It was also very cold, in the forest of birches that still looked as if they were in autumn, though it was spring, and Jin had just made up her mind that Quintus wasn’t coming back and the best thing to do was to go hang out in the tent, curse everyone she knew, and maybe contact Zephys, when he reappeared, with someone else, a middle-aged woman.
She was a little hunched, even though she was still young, and shuffled unevenly on the frozen ground. Her mousy-brown hair hung in short wisps that ratted around her face. And she was dressed in what could only be described as rags; a rusty-brown nightgown-looking-thing, tall boots, and a strange knitted shawl. The overall effect was a middle-aged woman that looked like a grandmother.
Of course, Jin thought. Quintus had to bring in the grandmother for comforting. She knew this was an unfair statement, but well, Jin wasn’t in the mood for fair statements.
“This is Mair,” he said, in his endearing-stuttering-Quintus-sort-of-way, helping her along by the arm. “She knew your parents, Jin.”
Now this was interesting, piqued Jin’s attention a bit. Maybe she could get some more evidence to dump on her parents; some more to prove how cold and removed they were from their children’s lives. She waited impatiently, tapping her foot to show it, as Quintus helped Mair along. Since Jin was in a vengeful mood, she began to think of how strange this woman’s name was. Like a horse. Mair the mare. Quintus gave her a warning look, as if he could tell what she was thinking. Jin glared at him and narrowed her eyes.
“Maybe we could go back to the main camp, where the fire is?” Quintus suggested, helpfully, but fell silent at Jin’s blazing glare.
“I’m perfectly okay right here, thank you,” said Jin, in a tone that suggested otherwise.
“Be nice,” he warned, “and if you won’t go near the fire, than at least make this short so Mair doesn’t get cold.” Mair stayed impassive at this mention of her name, as if it was completely normal for people to talk about her while she was standing right there. This was not reassuring. “I’m going to leave now,” announced Quintus, “and when I get back-” he stopped, quailing under Jin’s stare. “Yeah...right,” he muttered, and then shuffled off in a way reminiscent of Mair’s own unsteady gait, talking to himself.
Jin turned her look on Mair, but Mair, aggravatingly enough, didn’t seem to notice the nasty look she was being given, but sat down on a log in such a way that Jin was forced to help her. Well, this was going to be interesting.
“What do you know about my parents?” Jin demanded, slightly breathless; the journey onto the log had been a trying odyssey.
“I think I will leave now, since you don’t want to hear about it,” the woman said, quite deliberately. It was the first time she had spoken, and was exceedingly surprising, since Mair’s voice was that of a very young woman’s, almost childlike.
Jin forced herself to focus on the message. So it was to be war, then, she thought belligerently. But no, Mair wanted her to fight for the knowledge. She was turning the tables, making Jin beg for it. And Jin didn’t like it.
But then again, she really didn’t have a choice. Sure, she could go sit and mope in the moth-bitten tent; she could also hear what Mair had to say about her parents. At least it would be perversely satisfying.
Jin didn’t like being the one to beg. She didn’t think she could lower herself to that level. But if she wanted that knowledge, then she’d have to. And she wanted that knowledge. And this was exactly what Mair wanted her to be thinking about, in her head. She was already a pawn in the strange woman’s game. Now she just had to play her role.
“I would like to hear about it,” Jin said, finally; Mair had been attempting -half-heartedly, Jin thought conceitedly- to get up from the log all this time, and failing.
“I have nothing better to do,” she replied, truthfully, or at least partly truthfully; it was a lame argument, and Jin knew it.
“Fair enough. Twenty years ago, I heard that two muses, Marine Aelin and Jesse Nyx, as I now recall, had arrived in Jedendah. Their purpose for coming here, we didn’t know. But the one thing we did know, is that many muses came and still come here to hide among the rebels. They think that if they can hide among the ‘greater criminals’ then Zes will overlook them in his quest for revenge against the unfaithful. Maybe they are correct. But that is beside the point.
“They arrived here, childless still I suppose, since this was twenty years ago -unless you have a random older sibling-” Jin was very nonplussed by this, and Mair seemed to pick up on it, so she continued with the story, “Anyway, they went anonymous for a while. Didn’t draw too much attention to themselves. People knew that Jesse was a wanted criminal, and speculated that perhaps he had kidnapped Marine. Whether she came with him willingly, or not, who knew?”
Jin was getting irritated at Mair’s tendency to speculate. “Would you please get to the point?”
“And then a few years later we saw the young couple at a rebel rally. They looked happy enough, together, and I watched over the next few months and years as they gained favor with the rebels and enough authority to lead us. Everyone was entranced with what they promised. A new life, one better for all of us. No one seemed to wonder how they might accomplish this, without the spell-casting society. With just a small, dingy old city that was forever the outlet for Zes’ anger. I never knew them personally. No one did, really. The ones that got close enough aren’t alive to spill the beans.
“But I believe that they were good people, if a little strange. There was the day where they rallied the crowds up enough to make us parade through the streets with all sorts of gruesome demonstrations. Demonstrations that I won’t recount today.
“And then Zes came, with all his strength and agility fighting muses, and crushed our hopes and dreams. We never had a chance, anyway. We just didn’t see through that beautifully pictured façade that your parents painted. You could say they tricked us, used us. But you’d have to reckon with their deaths.”
“Oh yes, their deaths. They died that night, in the midst of the battle, fighting for what they believed in. They left a pair of twins behind, in this land. You, Jin, and Sable.
“We, the people of Jedendah -this was before all this doubt was sown in your parents’ memories- protected you two. We did everything we could to hide your existence from Zes. But it wasn’t enough. He took you away, to his court.”
“So it wasn’t my mom and dad -that sent us?”
“No, dear. And you see, I am the one that took care of you and Sable. I am -you could say- your grandmotherly figure.”
Jin’s first reaction was outrage. How could Mair dare to assert her role in her and Sable’s lives so... assertively? But then she considered this revelation a bit. It was a little comforting, to have a sort of family, even if it wasn’t real, genetic family.
And twins. Her and Sable, twins. How could Jin have not realized this before? Sable was always the same age as her, or as far as she knew while they were together. It should’ve been the first thing she realized. Jin was angry with herself. Angry with Sable, again. And her parents, even if they were better than she thought before. Maybe. But she was still mad with all of them, the world in fact, just for changing. For making her own perceptions of everything change so often and so quickly. Faster than the seasons.
Jin had always thought she craved change. And in some ways, this was true. She couldn’t sit still for long and had to always be doing something productive. But on the reverse side of this... she couldn’t understand why people always had to change. And how they were never what she thought they were in the first place. It wasn’t fair.
She sighed and propped her elbows on her knees and her head on her hands. Blew a loose grey streak out of her face. Life was unfair. She would have to deal with it. What she and Quintus had begun had to be finished. Zes would have to die. The tyrannical reign would have to end. Otherwise... everyone would be squashed like a bug for the consequences of their recent actions. It was either follow through, or die.
Maybe that’s why life wasn’t fair. Because you could never blow through your own without any consequences or responsibilities. Because the point of life, in the first place, was to make life better for others.
That’s a big burden, Jin thought. But maybe, after I make the world a better place, I can settle down and live my own life? Of course, Jin knew, but wouldn’t admit to herself, this would never happen. Nothing would ever be peaceful. Her worldly duties, responsibilities of being a citizen of the universe, would always keep coming. She could blow them off, but the consequences would be serious.
How did this turn into such a deep contemplation of the meaning of life within her head? Jin wondered. She shook her head a little, tightened her grip on her own jaw, and tried to think of something else. Such thoughts were not meant to be thought.
And of course, after she resolved not to think of this, the thoughts kept coming back stronger than before. And so, in an attempt to distract herself, she forced herself to answer Mair, who was now sitting quietly, head turned up towards the sky and the large yellow dinner plate of a sun. The sun, that, or so Jin was told, was much smaller on the planet Earth. But for now it took up a good fourth of the sky. And this wasn’t a big day, so to speak.
There went her thoughts again. When Jin tried to gather them together and use them, they ran away and scattered to random contemplations. Maybe she was going crazy? No. And she clamped down harder on them this time, forcing them into a cage which she could observe, with difficulty, for as long as she liked. “So you...’re my grandmother?” Jin forced out through her teeth. It was hard to think like this.
Mair turned her face back towards Jin’s with her characteristic impassiveness. “Not literally, if that’s what you mean. But yes, sort of.”
Jin was glad that this woman wasn’t gushing over her, or angry with her, or any emotion whatsoever. If she felt any strong emotions, she wasn’t showing it. It was very refreshing. And no matter how blunt, Jin mused -and Jin herself was rather blunt sometimes- she liked Mair. Maybe not as a grandmother for a while yet, but at least as a friend from her past. “Alright,” she replied, simply. They sat in comfortable silence for a while. Jin had learned that if you didn’t overanalyze silences in your head, then they weren’t awkward as often.
So they listened to the slight breeze in the barren birch trees, and observed the sun, that, no matter how large, wasn’t shedding much heat. It was like a frozen canary popsicle. But that was kind of a macabre thought, Jin thought herself, why did her thoughts have to be so macabre? And then she contemplated metacognition. Strange frame of mind she was in, that was for sure.
With a shiver, Jin realized just how cold it was. The sun had created a false sense of warmth before. And surely Mair was near frozen if Jin was cold. “Do you want to go back to camp?” Jin asked timidly.
Mair turned her slate-grey eyes to Jin, and nodded, once. That was enough. Jin helped her up -the woman was practically a feather- and they stumbled back to the camp slowly but surely.
When they got back, Jin deposited Mair on a stump by the fire, where she sat precariously, and noticed Quintus standing back a ways, as if he couldn’t quite decide whether or not to impose upon them.
Jin decided that Quintus was worth all of it, as she rushed over and threw herself into his arms. “I’m sorry,” she moaned, “I’m such a pill.”
Quintus said nothing for a while, perhaps not knowing what to say, but then said, “Let’s focus now, okay? Action.” He looked at her strangely -was that resentment in his eyes? There was some kind of darkness, cold darkness there.
“Right,” Jin said deliberately, disentangling herself, and feeling slightly unnerved. She looked back into his eyes, but the glimpse of something had vanished. “Are you... okay...?”
“Yeah,” he said quickly, but Jin was unconvinced.
She cocked her head at him, and began to speak, “Are you-”
“Remember, focus,” he interrupted. “Zephys, right? We need to talk to him.”
“But what about Jedendah, -we have to wait for their decision!”
“No,” he said firmly, in a not-very-Quintus-like sort of way, “I have this feeling that it’s all coming soon. We need to talk to him now. Plus, I think you’ve got them pretty well convinced. Or terrified into agreeing with you?”
“What?” said Jin, shocked.
“Nothing,” he muttered.
“I... terrified them? But... no, I mean, I didn’t mean to!” Jin rambled.
“Anything for the revolution, right?”
“But that would make me-”
“It’s all about you, Jin!” Quintus finally burst out, angrily. “It’s always all about you! Why can’t you put aside your own petty feelings for once and work for the greater good of others?”
That would make me as tyrannical as Zes, Jin finished resentfully inside her own head. Quintus had just confirmed her worst fear. All this time, since before Sable, she had worried that she was too selfish. Too self-absorbed. This confirmed it all. Jin was a horrible person. No one could want a horrible person.
“You don’t care about anything or anyone but yourself!” Quintus whisper yelled, “This is hopeless! If you can’t focus on the task at hand than for Earth’s sake turn back now and watch us all die!” You, not we.
“What?” Now she was confused, “A minute ago you wanted to revolutionize at all costs...?”
“Yeah, but if you’re going to be like this, Jin-” that was awfully strange how he said her name, not like he usually did, but strangely familiar “-then it’s pointless. We may as well give up now. You’ll never focus. You’re too absorbed in your own problems.”
“How can you say that?” Jin pleaded, tears filling her eyes now.
“It’s true,” he said balefully. “I don’t care,” he said in a voice that suggested otherwise, “Go off and cry. Wallow in your own despair. Leave the world to spontaneously combust in a day or two.”
“No!” Jin shrieked at the top of her lungs, startling all the birds and refugees in a mile’s radius. “Stop it, Quintus! Whatever you’re doing -stop it now! I’m following through with this -I thought you had more faith in me!”
“Ji-” Quintus tried.
But Jin was on a roll, “I thought I loved you!” she squeaked, higher still. “And two people in love don’t treat each other like this!”
“I never said anything about love,” Quintus broke in, “where’d you get that idea? I never said anything about love,” he repeated.
Jin burst into hot, angry tears, “But all the -the kissing, the hugging -c-caring for m-me...?”
“That was all you, Jin. What did I keep telling you? Focus on the revolution,” he said, slowly, as if speaking to a young and disturbed child.
This was irrefutable proof. But still, Jin didn’t want this. She didn’t want change. She hated the world shaking and cracking under her feet like this. “It’s over between us!” she yelled.
“You say that,” Quintus said in an infuriatingly calm manner, “assuming that there was something between us in the first place. Well, you’re wrong, yet again. There wasn’t. There never was.”
Each word was another poison dart to Jin’s poor, abused heart and soul. “Well you’re wrong too!” she said desperately, “I’d never abandon the revolution. Ever. I don’t care if you come or not.”
“But of course I’m coming. Remember when I said that I’d stand by you always-”
Jin’s insensible heart skipped a step in anticipation.
“-in the revolution?”
And fell twice as far. “Leave me alone,” she said, in his face, spraying him with a fine layer of saliva with every word, “And for the record, I’m not going to cry!” She stormed off.
“What’re you going to do, then? Hide in your nanny’s skirts?” he taunted after her.
This was far too familiar. The feeling of the land being jerked out suddenly from beneath Jin’s feet. Change was cruel. Change was inevitable. She would have to deal with it.
Thunk, went another perfectly thrown knife. Her thoughts were as crystal clear and comprehensive as a thin sheet of pristine glass. She yanked it out of the tree with a smooth, calculating motion.
She would not dwell on this. It was too much like Sable. No, she would move on right away and store the pain away to deal with later. Quintus was nothing. Quintus didn’t exist anymore. Quintus was simply a business acquaintance she would be rid of once this revolution thing was all over with. Jin sobbed a little at this, and choked.
She would think of something else.
Quintus was turning sable again, thick black fur shooting out of every pore, nails construed into claws as sharp as pinpoints, sharper than Jin’s own knives... His eyes were shocking, saffron yellow, glowing orbs that stared her down as he ran his paw down her arm all over again, the claws like nails on a chalkboard, walking the fine line between shivery tickling and burning pain. But Jin couldn’t move this time, couldn’t grab the candlestick, couldn’t even look the Quintus monster back in the eye again.
She could only stare out the dark window, and feel her eyesight shoot forward so she could see far, far across the town, to the outskirts and the forest, where another figure was running. “Jin!” it yelled with a voice so completely cracked with despair and longing, so genuinely desperate, that Jin forgot where she was.
Jin sat bolt upright in bed, tears retracing the salty tracks from earlier. Was the voice real? Or a figment of her imagination? It had seemed so heart wrenchingly truthful that she decided she would go out and check.
Quintus... Quintus... don’t think about Quintus...
No, not Sable, either...
The night provided some distraction. It was a new moon, and pitch black, giving her something else to worry about than the old ghosts of her long lost lovers. Superstitions seemed so stupid and puerile compared to her predicament, at the moment though, so in the end the night didn’t provide much distraction. She forced herself to talk, “Hello?” Her voice cracked. “Anyone out there?”
Where was the bonfire, and all the other refugees and rebels? Why was it so quiet now, pressing on the eardrums, like the eye of a storm?
The crack of a stick somewhere to her left was a gunshot to Jin’s over-sensitive ears. She flinched, and turned toward the noise. What the heck? She thought then, I’ve got nothing to lose. And then ran full speed towards it.
And slammed into something hard. The something didn’t fall over. Jin did. Plus, the something was a familiar figure. Quintus. Jin scrambled up from the mud and soggy leaves, temporarily befuddled. He hadn’t budged an inch. And then: Quintus! “What are you doing here?” she demanded.
“I-I-I,” he stammered -Jin turned off her ears to this, it was too painful- “I -I could ask you the same question!” He finally got out.
Jin noticed, in her conscious effort not to look him in the face, a stone in his hand. “What the heck are you doing with that?”
He dropped it quickly, but not quickly enough, “Well... uh...” he began, wringing his hands together, and in doing so unconsciously revealing something else to Jin’s probing eyes.
“Rope? What the hell are you doing?”
“None of your business, Jin!” Quintus said loudly, having regained his composure, finally, “Why should you care, anyway? I thought it was over between us!”
“I thought there was nothing in the first place!”
“Grrr!” And they turned their separate ways, Jin now unable to sleep and reduced to pacing circles around her tent and occasionally throwing a knife, waiting for daylight to break the horizon.
It finally did, after what seemed a million ages. Jin could be older and even grayer than before, now. She wouldn’t have been surprised to look in a mirror and have more premature wrinkles than Mair at this point.
During a light breakfast made from her own supplies -the refugees had no central store- Quintus appeared, again. Jin wished he wouldn’t keep bothering her. On the other hand, it always meant another chance. One she wouldn’t take. But of course, he would be the first to refuse.
Where had the old Quintus gone? What was this new -man, not boy- in his place? He assumed all the outward aspects of Quintus -appearance, stuttering, voice- but inside he was different. Changed, somehow, in a way that Jin couldn’t put into words. Less nervous, maybe? No, only on occasion.
He walked up to her with more confidence than she had seen in him before, shoulders back, head held straight on his shoulders. It was almost cocky. “I’ve talked with Zephys,” he announced, dark eyes narrowed in concentration as if trying to read her like a book. Dark eyes cold and hard, straight down to business.
Jin sagged where she stood. This fact didn’t register with her as deeply with her emotions all awry like this. And then: “So that’s what you were doing last night!” accompanied by an accusatory glare that didn’t quite look Quintus in the eyes.
He balked, “What?”
“The rock, sneaking around in the middle of the night, rummaging through my stuff it must’ve been,” Jin reasoned, “It all makes sense.”
“Wha-er... yeah. Yup, that’s what I was doing,” he replied with the air of a madman clutching at straws.
Zephys... Zephys didn’t even know Quintus. “Zephys doesn’t know you!”
“Well yeah, he does, actually. You told him about me.”
“But, I mean, you don’t actually know each other.”
“True, but he seemed to take to me fine,” Quintus said with finality. Something about this claim didn’t make sense. But he continued before Jin could figure out what, “Anyway, it’s a matter of utmost importance-”
Oh. Mr. High Class, is it?
“-We must hurry to Zes’s court immediately. The revolution is starting. Everything is in place. If we don’t do it now, it’ll never happen.”
“What?” Jin was shocked. Sure she knew it would happen soon, but this soon? There was still something niggling at the back of her brain. It would drive her crazy, she was sure.
“You’ll like this,” he bestowed her with a twisted smile, “he’s granted you permission to do the honors.” He waited expectantly, like she would jump and holler for joy or something.
Jin was confused. “What honors?”
Quintus looked disappointed. “Why kill Zes, of course!” You’re so stupid, Jin filled in the blanks. What was it? She couldn’t think with Quintus there.
“Sure, whatever,” she replied distractedly.
“Listen,” he said, and in spite of herself, Jin’s brain took her to another place and time, when everything was alright, and he had said ‘listen...’ “Listen,” Quintus repeated impatiently. Jin stood at rapt attention. “The plan is for us -you, and me- to storm the fortress, so-to-speak. But first we send messages to Sheila and the people of Jedendah. With all luck, they’ll arrive soon after and take on the brunt of Zes’s unconverted guards. Zephys is confident in our abilities. He knows we can get in close and hopefully murder Zes. And then the war will begin.
“We leave now, to arrive as soon as possible. Reln and a few refugees will ride with us to provide a distraction while we sneak in. You need only to worry about killing Zes. After that, everything is taken care of.
“I’ve already spoken with Reln. Even now, he’s making preparations for the two day journey at top speed. I suggest you do the same.”
“-Now, Jin. We’ll be going by horse.”
“No. Different horses.”
“What about Cabel?”
“He’ll be fine here.”
Jin couldn’t think of anything else at the moment, besides that nagging thought, so she turned to grab her stuff. It wouldn’t take long to prepare.
Only when she was alone did she realize what it was. Why? Why did Zephys need them to come right away? What was the problem, anyway? It seemed very important. She would ask Quintus.
She found him already fastening his bags to his horse, which was a swift sorrel gelding that Jin hadn’t noticed before. His back was turned to her, and she enjoyed a brief moment of studying him while he didn’t know she was there. Or while he pretended to not know.
Forgetting what she was about to say, Jin turned to fasten her own bags to her own horse, which was a blue roan gelding, just as swift looking as the sorrel. Where had these horses come from?
There came a weak, low groan from Quintus’ direction, and then a swift movement and a loud, “Ow!” Jin looked up reluctantly. “Hit my bag with my elbow,” he explained while, indeed, holding his elbow.
“What do you have in there, anyway?” Jin joked, and then her hands flew up to her mouth. She had forgotten.
“Official Zephys business,” he replied curtly, with a strange jerky nod.
That was the wrong thing to say, Jin thought, outraged. And then cooled off a little. What had she expected him to say? Only flowers and chocolates, for you, my dear. Really? She mounted quickly with exaggerated movements. Quintus followed suit. Then Jin remembered what she was supposed to say. “Why exactly-”
Just then Reln appeared with three other men. Quintus turned quickly to her, and mouthed, “Just ride, Jin.”
They took off soon after that, Quintus in the lead, and he didn’t look back once during the whole journey.
Reln’s three acquaintances were friendly enough, if a bit quiet. The definition of quiet strength and subservience. They followed Reln’s every order, and Quintus’s, but to Jin they were quick to smile and seemed to understand the situation pretty readily.
One was tall and lanky; young, with sandy hair and freckles. Jin surmised that his name was Span.
The other two were twins, like Sable and her, and identical except for their builds. Both were tall with dark hair and eyes, strong jaws; the type that you wouldn’t bother if you met them in the street. But one was built like a long-distance runner, his name was Lermy; the other seemed to have the beginnings of a body-builder and could’ve challenged Zes himself in the ability to clog doorways with his bulky frame. This guy was named Delwyn.
And so, Jin was the only girl there. Not that she cared. Mostly she kept trying to corner Quintus, to make him impart some answers to the endless questions she held. But if she didn’t forget them the moment she saw his face, then inevitably he would dodge her and leave her confused as to how he had done it. Jin felt stupid, and used, and despised change more than ever.
The one respite from all the confusion of the situation was horseback riding itself. Jin, after experiencing the joys of galloping full-speed across flatlands -after they had left the birch forest- decided that there was little else that could beat it. She loved the smoothness of it all, the feeling of a living, breathing animal right next to her, and Jin’s hair streaming back from her face where it couldn’t bother her. To top it all, the weather was beautiful, giving them all the feeling that it was on their side; the sun gradually relinquished its warmth and new green buds and shoots poked out of the rich dark dirt. Span took a nip out of one and declared it impossibly sweet, though Jin thought it was wrong to kill something so innocent and young.
Quintus was always there, making them plow on; faster, faster -did they want this or not? Making them eat in the saddle, sometimes sleep in the saddle, until the horses were ready to drop. This happened only the first night, but luckily they had come upon a village where Quintus assured them they would trade the horses out for fresh ones.
Jin was fine with this, until she realized the gorgeous little dilapidated old place was one they had visited before: Mourve. Even in the spring it was beautiful, maybe even more so than before, but full of the same number of rosebuds and blooms. Creepy, Jin thought. Unnatural.
She voiced this thought, “What’s wrong with you, Quintus? I thought you hated this place! I mean, last time we were both fooled by these weird people. Weird, Quintus. Let’s not risk it.” Jin had been trying not to interfere with him these past few days, but this was too much. She still had nightmares about this place. And what was he thinking?
“Don’t you want the revolution?” Quintus countered with his usual indisputable argument. This time, Jin was fed up.
“This isn’t like you, Quintus!”
“What, -I can’t be brave?”
“Bravery!” she scoffed, incredulously, “Do you really think that’s what this is about? I don’t want any of us to get hurt. And obviously there’s something unnatural down there. Please don’t risk it? For me?”
“We’re not together. You have no control over me. I don’t care what you think and I’m going down there whether or not you want me to.”
“Then I’m coming too.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Yes, I am,” Jin said stubbornly. “You can’t stop me.”
“Yes, I can,” he said confidently.
“You want a piece of this?” She motioned towards herself. She would not back down, not for something like this. And it wasn’t in her nature.
“Jin,” Quintus said tiredly, almost making Jin feel guilty by the depth of his exasperation, “Stop it. I’m going and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
“I really don’t want to do this,” Quintus said in a strange voice, and stepped nearer to her. Jin’s heart skipped a beat. “Sorry, sweetie,” he said in a voice that spoke otherwise, and Jin had just enough time to register this inconsistency before the rock hit her on the head and a velvet black curtain descended over her eyes.
He looked down at Jin’s limp figure on the ground where she had fallen, taking in the lolling mouth and half-closed eyelids. One arm was bent beneath her body and her knees were scrunched up in a strange fashion. He bent down and hoisted her up, having hung the length of rope over his shoulder.
It was a shame to be using the girl like this. She really wasn’t bad looking, and if a bit impatient, certainly loyal. That was her downfall, he thought as he propped her against the tree with his knee. Loyalty. Was this remorse? No. Surely he would never show remorse. Only pity. But he had quite enjoyed their time together.
Jin kept draping limply over his shoulder and her hair tickling his neck in an annoying fashion. Keep her? No. Never. She would be a liability. So he was in a foul mood when Lermy commented, “You shouldn’t have done that.”
“What?” he snapped after finally tying the last rope knot around Jin and the tree. She looked like a typical damsel in distress.
“Knocked her out.”
“Oh, I have my reasons,” he replied, surveying his work and nodding in satisfaction. Now wasn’t the time to lose his head. Anger was a waste of energy.
Jin’s primary thought when she woke up was what a dirty trick that had been. She was officially mad at Quintus for using her emotions against her.
And then was the sensation of motion.
Ropes cutting into her flesh.
Wind ruffling her hair.
Jin lifted her head, with difficulty, and found she was galloping full speed along the caravan wheel tracks, tied to the saddle. It was immensely disorienting. She took a minute to get her bearings, and then looked around. It was dark.
And yes, she was on the caravan tracks. The same she had followed to Sable. Déjà vu. She recognized their location as being just before the meadow where the spider had been. Fond memories, Jin thought sarcastically.
That meant that they were nearing the court, and Jin still didn’t know the plan. Quintus did, obviously. Jin again was struck with a pang of... jealousy? Resentment? Betrayal? Could’ve been any of those things.
Quintus was riding in front of her, as usual, with Span behind her and the twins on either side. Like they were guarding her from something. Or maybe keeping her captive. She thought about calling out to Quintus, taking out some of her anger, decided against it, and then marveled at her own prudence. Jin, showing prudence?
She sighed and groped for her knives. They were nowhere to be seen, which was bound to happen, anyway. Even if they were situated somewhere on the same horse Jin was riding, she couldn’t reach them with these ropes binding her to the saddle. So instead of freaking out and entangling herself further, she simply relaxed into a stupor bordering on sleep. It was nighttime, anyway.
When she woke, again, Quintus was bending over her. But not in a nice way. He was simply cutting the ropes, as Jin realized.
It was daylight now, and they were far beyond the meadow, nearing Zes’s court quickly. But they had stopped, undercover of the trees, for some inexplicable reason -Jin had thought that Quintus would make them keep riding no matter the cost- and were gathered around a makeshift campfire. It must’ve been midmorning.
Jin must’ve been sleeping for a long time. She half fell out of the saddle and then stood before him, feeling very vulnerable.
“Hungry?” Quintus asked impassively.
Jin tried to remember when the last time she had eaten was, but her sleep-riddled brain wasn’t working properly yet. She tried to say something, but what came out was more of a croak, so she meekly accepted the eggs he was offering her, and sat down to eat, thinking of the last time she had eaten fresh eggs.
The rest of the meal was spent in silence, with Jin trying surreptitiously to clear her throat, failing, and hoping that someone would talk so she’d be able to clear her throat more effectively without drawing as much attention.
“So we’re going to camp out nearer to Zes’s court and wait until nightfall to approach,” Quintus announced.
Finally, Jin thought. She cleared her throat loudly and said, “Oh, yeah?”
Quintus gave her a strange look. “Yeah...” There was a lull in the conversation, and then he continued, “So we’ll tie the horses up here and make our way closer on foot. Tonight, you and I’ll scale the walls and make our way inside to get some of the other muses on our side. You speak. And then the rallied muses will make a separate distraction than Reln and his cronies. I’ll find Zephys and get him to bring the guards he’s converted to our side. And then Reln and the muses will attack the rest of the guards, while you target Zes. I’ll join you as soon as possible.”
Not bad, Jin thought. And then with a jerk, she remembered something. “But we forgot to talk to Sheila!” she blurted.
“Already taken care of,” he confirmed calmly.
Jin felt very excluded. “Oh, you have, have you?” Something was wrong with his statement, but she couldn’t think what.
“Let’s not fight, Jin. Not now. Let’s just be friends.”
“Friends?” she exclaimed, loudly. “So we are friends, then? I was beginning to wonder,” she continued sarcastically.
“Shut up, Jin,” Quintus said abruptly. Their stuff was all packed up again and the refugees had tied the horses up. Time to take a hike. Jin shut up and they headed out.
A few minutes into their ride, Jin realized what had been wrong with Quintus’ statement. He couldn’t have talked to Sheila, or Zephys! The rocks were only between two specific people. She had him cornered, and as soon as they stopped she would confront him.
As the day wore on, the storm clouds rolled in, huge and darkly ominous, casting a muggy and claustrophobic feel over everything in its reach. It looked like the downpour could break any minute. The animals had certainly reacted accordingly; they had apparently retreated to their nests because not a single bird was to be found. Only mosquitos. Of course it has to rain at the final, epic taking of revenge, Jin thought resentfully. This wasn’t how she had planned it, either.
In the beginning, she had considered it a solo expedition. She hadn’t known what she was doing, what she was going to do, or even how she would accomplish it. Jin had just been driven for revenge.
And then Quintus had slipped into her life, making everything more complicated. She had decided to accept love again, and help, in taking the revenge of Sable. Quintus had convinced her that it was impossible without help. It was probably true, but after his treachery -Jin called it that only because of how much it hurt- she didn’t like to think he was right. Now she was here, heading towards the object of her attentions for the past few months, practically being dragged along by a bunch of men and not in on most of the plans. When had the tables turned? She hadn’t seen it coming, that was for sure. But at least Quintus was still on her side in this.
They stopped in a little grove of trees near, but not too near the edge of the forest. Thirty feet or so. Beyond the thick wall of trees, Jin could just make out the mossy grey stone wall of Zes’s grand court. They had arrived. And now they had to wait. She had long forgotten whatever it was she was supposed to tell Quintus.
Span took out a basket he was working on and sat down to continue weaving. Delwyn picked up two sizable rocks and began using them like weights. As if he needed any more muscular mass. Quintus took out a book -since when had he ever read?- and Lermy just alternated between staring off into space and observing what everyone was doing. Reln had temporarily disappeared, apparently to scope out the court.
Quintus quickly became engrossed in the worn old pages, Jin couldn’t make out the name of the cover but it looked pretty impressive. And so, hopelessly bored and unable to sit still without twitching constantly, Jin decided it was safe to practice throwing her knives. Plus, she didn’t care what Quintus thought anymore, she told herself.
Lermy snapped his attention to Jin, who was making a bit of an impressive spectacle, whipping out one knife after another and throwing them to make patterns and shapes in the trunk of the tree. It soon became apparent that Quintus was either not bothered by her choice of a pastime, or pretending not to be. Jin chose the latter explanation; she wasn’t ready to believe that he was completely over his initial reaction from last time.
Time dragged on at a snail’s pace, Jin was not entirely successful at distracting her thoughts even while experiencing the clarity of her muse, and then finally Quintus called for a brief dinner of dried jerky and cold rice. Campfires were altogether outlawed, apparently. They ate sparingly and quietly, and then prepared for another long wait. Quintus ran over the plan a couple more times with everyone, and then disappeared behind his book again until darkness fell. After Span gave up his basket weaving as well, they all sat around in the darkness, not speaking and trying not to catch each others’ eyes. It was a bit awkward, and only made time pass slower. Jin tried to imagine what she would be doing a few hours from now, and couldn’t quite make herself believe that she would be trying to kill Zes. Maybe would already have killed him. What would happen next?
Which got her thinking. After Zes died, assuming he died, who would rule? Jin supposed the best one for the job would be Zephys. He was trustworthy, smart, and always had his nose in a highly theoretical book. Yes, he would be the man for the job.
Just then, Quintus stood up. Or Jin thought it was him, in the near pitch-blackness. Then his voice rang out and there was no argument, “Let’s go over the plan again. Jin and I-”
Jin interrupted, “-scale the wall, rally the muses, and-”
“-unlock the gate for you guys,” Quintus continued unflappably, “after which Reln, Span, and the twins will-”
“-provide a distraction separate from the court muses. We know,” Reln said sarcastically.
“And then you will head inside to find Zephys and alert him-” Span said in his squeaky voice.
Delwyn broke in, deep and booming to add to the symphony, “-while Jin goes to dig Zes’s grave.”
Lermy looked annoyed, “You mean kill him.”
“That’s what I meant, stupid. Can’t take a-”
“I will find Jin and assist her with killing Zes. Sheila will hopefully arrive in the days to come, along with some more of the refugees,” Quintus finished.
“I think we have it down,” Jin said reproachfully, “can we go now?”
Quintus couldn’t think of any way to counter this.
It was pretty cold, hanging on the precipice of civilization, Jin thought for the second time and feeling a strong sense of déjà vu. She was hanging over perfect black nothingness again, except this time with Quintus. Admittedly, not what she had expected before. Quintus had been absolutely uncommunicative after they parted with Reln and the others, and the only sign that he was still all there was that he kept putting one hand in front of the other with a strange anticipatory look on his face. Almost greed.
They had decided to climb around to the back of Zes’s court, despite the danger, and directly back up to the muses’ dormitory. Jin wasn’t sure she agreed with this wholeheartedly: one, because Zes likely had taken some precautions against the same escape that Jin had made originally and two, because the rainclouds would break soon, making the stones slippery and impassible. But she hadn’t voiced this opinion, since Quintus seemed to be jovially ignoring her.
Their luck held reasonably well, at least until they reached the window, which was shuttered tight and locked. “No,” Jin moaned. Her fingers and toes had started to ache already and she certainly didn’t want to make the climb back down and all the way around again. Quintus stayed quiet and emotionless, except for the expression of lingering greed on his features, and rapped smartly on the shutter.
It swung inward almost immediately and Jin watched in disbelief as a muse she recognized filled the window frame. Sable.
No, not Sable, Jin gasped to herself. But it was someone she knew. Dahre. The same joker muse that had spoken up when she made her great escape from the dormitory last time. Dahre looked tired and had dark circles under his eyes. He was more scrawny than before, with deep hollows under his bony cheekbones. Something was up, Jin decided after swinging through the frame after Quintus.
“Hey,” she said, like this was an everyday occurrence to sneak in unexpectedly through a window hanging over a cliff, “How’d you know we’d be coming?” She took in the familiar surroundings, spotting both her and Sable’s bunks now occupied by muses and that the musty old velvet curtain had been taken down from the window. The door also looked new, and more imposing. She supposed they would have trouble with it.
Dahre pointed automatically at Quintus, in a most non-amusing manner. Very much unlike him.
“Hey,” Jin said again, turning to Quintus, “anything else you need to tell me before I find out the hard way?”
“No,” Quintus said simply and walked to the head of the room, near the new, thick wooden door reinforced with iron, and turned around so he was facing everyone.
“I thought I was talking?”
“Change of plans,” he said in the same confident tone. “Now, muses. You all know what to do. Distract the guards.” The muses filed out calmly through the door -which appeared to give them no trouble- like they had been prepared for this all their lives with Jin watching in bewilderment. Everything was going perfectly. But Quintus had sure taken precautions beforehand.
Quintus led Jin by the hand -the nerve, Jin thought- downstairs and in a different direction than the other muses. They half-ran, half-walked on feather-light feet through the same stone corridors Jin had explored with Sable as a child, shadows dancing in the torchlight like a life-threatening game of tag. There were tapestries here and there, old and faded to muddy browns and reds so that the original pictures were barely distinguishable. Jin was glad, and always had been for this weathering, because from what she could make out from these pictures, they were rather grotesque. The braziers were set regularly in thick wooden beams like a mine shaft. The stone walls were also like a mine shaft, but the long and richly carpeted floor distorted the image.
Finally they descended the last spiral stone staircase, lacking a railing and dark, and stepped outside into the black night. Rain seemed imminent. The smell was already on the muggy air.
Where were all the guards, Jin wondered. It was like last time, when she had left to save Sable. Too easy. Something deeper was at play.
Quintus kept leading her, Jin following meekly, though she knew exactly where they were going and how to get there. She allowed herself a moment to pretend that she and he were still together and that Quintus was still the same Quintus. Not happening.
They approached the tall wrought-iron gate with ominous spikes at the top and strange shapes bent into the metal. Quintus unlatched it and opened it with an earsplitting grinding noise. Jin was sure it would be the noise heard across the land. Sure enough, as Reln, Span, Lermy, and Delwyn crept inside, guards came running suddenly from around the corner of the building, yelling and making a racket as if on cue. Reln and the others jumped to attack them with an enthusiasm ill-befitting them, especially Reln. Jin ran over as well and managed to knife one in the back and clip another on the forehead with her boot before Quintus dragged her away from the action.
“Stop!” Jin protested. “They need help -I want to help!” A guard, apparently converted to their cause, cried out in pain as she said this, having received a sword jab to the hip.
Quintus retrieved her knife so fast it looked like he was on fast-forward and then was back, holding her shoulders again. “This will all be for naught if you don’t follow the plan. Don’t get caught up in the moment.” He dragged her on.
Jin watched the flinty tip of a sword run through the guard for the second time and saw him crumple to the ground, mouth still widened in an “o” shape. She wrenched her arm out of Quintus’s grasp and ran over to him, ducking swords and managing to drag him out of the heat of the battle. She held his hand and watched him bleed out, though he was already dead. Why did he have to die? Why did anyone have to die? How could she have killed a man only minutes before when now it seemed like the greatest act of atrocity she had ever committed?
Quintus caught up with her quickly, pulled her up roughly by the arms, and said through gritted teeth, “Come -on -now-” as he dragged her from the dead man. Then they were in another, fresh crowd of muse guards, dodging the clanking of swords and whirring of knives, trying to make their way through back to the building.
Surely there were other guards here that were on their side, Jin thought suddenly. “We’re not intruders, guards of Zes’s court! We work for Zephys! We’re for the revolution!” She tried vainly to yell over the deafening din. All this earned her was a few extra sword jabs to dodge. She drew a pistol and fired back.
“Intruders,” Quintus chuckled at her, even though the situation was clearly anything but amusing. His smile was twisted and his usually warm brown eyes were bloodshot and forbidding.
Jin couldn’t stand it. She slapped him. Hard.
Was that a growl that came from his throat? Quintus’s eyes flashed dangerously with a flicker of angry yellow, like a yellow jacket, and he renewed his grip on her arm so that it was painfully tight, dragging her onward until all she could do was stumble along as best she could. “How -dare- you!” she gasped incomprehensibly.
With a final shove that propelled Jin far along the hallway, Quintus called after her, “Kill Zes. End this! In the name of our love, I command you!” And then he was gone.
In the name of our love? Jin stumbled unseeingly through the corridors towards what she hoped was Zes. Her first reaction to this statement was overwhelming hope for her and Quintus and “their love.”
And then she felt she must be outraged. How dare he use this against her, again? He was taking advantage of this stupid little detail that he knew would always get her to do his bidding. It was so twisted. So unlike the Quintus she had known.
Did Zes know that he would die this night? Was he aware of his own impending doom? Of the thirst for revenge that would finally be satiated with the spilling of blood?
Jin knew she was on the verge of a revelation as she swung the large oak-paneled doors inwards. The doors that revealed the room that held the throne of Zes and its owner at the end of a long, blood-red carpet. The carpet that thirsted for more dye. Voraciously. Mordaciously.
It was all about timing. For now, he would wait until Jin struck the final blow.
He had fooled everyone. Zes thought he was on urgent business, the feeble-minded fool. The muses thought he was the noble leader of the revolution. Jin was fooled enough by her blinding curtain of lingering love to last until the revelation. And of course, he had the package. The package that would turn her into a harmless, groveling, jelly-legged fool.
His body tingled in anticipation. So long had he waited, planned, conspired for this moment. He could feel the feral voracity inside his body clawing to escape. Not yet, he promised. But soon.
Soon was the word of the day. Soon.
Jin stared down her ultimate enemy from the far side of the burgundy carpet. She was disappointed.
Zes stared calmly back, but he was completely enfeebled, coughing drily into his salt and pepper beard that was already specked with dried blood. His once imposing limbs were atrophied and pale, with age spots. His bold head was shriveled, and cold eyes rested above deeply bruised bags. “Jin. So nice to see you again. And in such extraordinary conditions,” he rasped.
Jin stepped forward to catch the words that had barely been propelled far enough to reach her ears. “Stand down!” she commanded nervously, voice ringing in contrast to his weak one.
“That is hardly necessary. I can barely lift a finger against you.”
She stepped forward again, drew a pistol with shaking fingers. Here was the one that had killed Sable in a split-second decision. Here was the object of her attentions for the past month. What was stopping her from killing him now? “You lie!”
He chuckled in his complete decrepitude. It turned into a hacking cough that racked his whole frame. When Zes had regained control of himself, there was no longer any doubt as to his total helplessness. “You’ve come for revenge,” he said blandly, “for your dear -Sable, is-was it?”
“Don’t speak his name!” she snapped, cocking the hammer and hearing the accompanying click.
“Ah, just do it,” Zes said in resignation, closing his shriveled lids for a few seconds. He was surprised to hear another click.
Jin had uncocked the hammer. “I won’t kill an enemy unfit to hold a weapon,” she said. The revelation had been reached. Everything made sense. And so, when the oak doors once again creaked open, she swiveled on the approaching figure and trained the pistol directly at the heart of this new visitor. Zes cackled in glee.
Why no noise? No shot of the gun? No scream of impending doom? What was happening in that monster of a room, behind the closed doors that he stood listening at? The oak was too thick to discern anything.
Calm yourself, he thought, taking a glance at the express package lying at his feet. It was time for a little improvisation. He felt the melting, morphing feeling inside as his body changed form. And then the creaking of the door as he swung it inwards.
Quintus, his lean body looking very boyish and innocent, raised his hands as the door slammed behind him. Jin faltered, in spite of herself. What if she was wrong? She wasn’t wrong, she hoped desperately. “Impostor,” she spat out at him.
“Wha-what?” he stuttered. Jin’s heart went under arrest for about half a second.
She wasn’t...wrong...? “You’re a monster!”
“I-I know that it was horrible of me to dump you like that, J-Jin. But I-I can make it...up... to you,” he quailed under the blazing glare of the gun, even if it was shaking as hard as he. Either this guy was seriously good, or Jin was wrong.
Please be the first option, Jin prayed. One more try. “No, a real monster. A furry, rabid... beast-thing from Mourve!” Jin was prepared to accept all wrongness if it wasn’t for the telltale flash of saffron. She had him cornered. “There!” she burst, “Your eyes!”
Quintus smiled evilly. “Finally figured it out, have you? Love-sick puppy.”
“I have you cornered,” she countered. “Nothing you can do about it.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure. Wait ‘till you see what I’ve got for you. Bring in the package, men!” he bellowed.
Jin was already sprinting towards him. She would settle this by hand. She wanted to wring his neck, bite and claw him until he was mangled and unrecognizable, for fooling her like this. He was already morphing, eyes flashing yellow, sable hair shooting out of every pore, fingers turning into hooked claws, body coiled and poised like a spring, ready to strike when she did. But what Jin saw next made her abort all movement.
She changed course in the next instant. Two of Zes’s guards had deposited a limp form near the doorway. As Jin hurtled towards it, they made a motion to stop her, but the monster snarled, “No, let her.” Zes cackled again in the background. Jin had forgotten he was still there, and so, without thinking, she turned mid-stride and shot him square in the forehead. He slumped forward, the remains of his last bloodstained laugh still etched upon his features. Jin didn’t stop to watch.
The guards withdrawn safely out of the way, Jin released a strangled cry as she got closer. It was Quintus, lying unconscious on the marble floor, all skin and bones. The real Quintus. How she could tell- well, she could just tell. She fell to her knees and shook him mercilessly, slapping his cheeks, hugging him, trying to breathe life back into this ghostly form. He wasn’t dead -there was a pulse! Barely, but there.
Jin was hopelessly confused. She had thought the monster had been who she thought Quintus was all this time, but no -there was a real Quintus and an impostor Quintus... A Quintus that maybe still loved her...
“What-when-d-” she couldn’t decide which question to fire at the monster first, “What did you do to him?” She turned back towards the monster.
But the monster had vanished. In his place was the person Jin least expected to see.
Zephys. “You know how I dabble in potions, my dear,” he said in a hauntingly familiar persona.
“You’re pretending! Where’ve you got Zephys? Fork him over!”
“No, dear Jin, I am Zephys.”
“Prove it,” she demanded, standing, and guarding, Quintus, second pistol cocked and pointed straight at the monster’s heart.
“After Marine and Jesse died, their children, twins, you and Sable, were sent to Zes’s court. I befriended you. I gathered guards on my side for a rebellion against Zes. I was there when they discovered your muse was agility and Sable’s was music. I remember you, as a little girl of six, crying because you wanted to be a muse of music too.”
Jin watched, disbelief showing plainly on her face.
“Neither of you had any idea that you were siblings. And then, when Sable was fifteen, I gave him the papers that were proof of your family. He believed me when I said he should wait to tell you. He trusted me blindly. But you trusted me more. I recognized when he began to suspect me. He was no longer as open, and I often saw him go to lengths to avoid me.
“My original plan was to have you executed, and Sable exert revenge. He was a boy, and therefore stronger. But it didn’t work out that way, did it?”
Jin was shell-shocked. Too shell-shocked to register this sexist opinion. “Wh-What?” she stammered.
“My dear, you see, the Land of the Muses needs a new leader. Me. I’ve been planning it all along.”
“But why kill Sable? Why not me?” Jin was stalling now. More time was better. Better for thinking, better for people that might be able to help.
“Isn’t it obvious? He had become too suspicious of me. You still believed in me wholeheartedly. I couldn’t have the revenge-thirsty pawn doubting the player. So that day, I mixed the potion that made Sable twitch and writhe on the ground, one that was sure to make him screw his music up. From there, it was easy to predict. Zes sent him off. You followed. I just made sure to create enough of an opening for you to be able to escape the court. And then Sable’s tragic death.”
There were so many variables in that plan, Jin thought. “But how did you ensure Sable’s death?” Keep calm, she told herself. Just a little longer. What would happen after a little longer, she wasn’t sure. But any time was good time. Time she could use.
“I made sure the poison I administrated would kill him later. He was destined to die even if that soldier hadn’t killed him. I really was quite fond of the boy. What a waste,” Zephys said with mock sadness.
“You-you-” Jin struggled vainly for a word terrible enough to describe how she was feeling at that moment, and failed miserably.
“You are so easy to predict, my dear. As I expected, you set off immediately to have your revenge. With that rock I had given you, I knew it was only a matter of time before you contacted me, your last living friend.
“Quintus was an unexpected surprise. He came in very handy, however. That night at Mourve I was simply testing my plan, and it worked perfectly. I knew that I could use him as my disguise in the battle to come.
“Then you ended up contacting me, of course, a little later than I expected, but you did it nonetheless. I suggested you gain the help of the spell-casting society, and later the people of Jedendah. You are quite the moving speaker, Miss Jin.”
Jin made an indignant noise in the back of her throat, but didn’t move. She wanted to hear everything. All of it. She didn’t care why he was telling her all this. If she asked, he might stop.
“Ah... Straight-up Jin, isn’t it?”
“Don’t-call-me-that.” She enunciated every syllable with pure hatred. How dare he? She forced herself not to begin yelling at him.
He chuckled, “Fits you perfectly. Anyway... Quintus turned out to be a spell-caster... again, perfect... I sent you off to Jedendah, and that was where I put my plan into action.
“Before you arrived, in anticipation and with extraordinary foresight,” Zephys gloated, “I told Zes that the people of Jedendah were rallying a rebel force again. As expected, he immediately sent me off to do whatever was necessary. I bombed the town. Decimated it. Cremated it. However you want to put it.
“I stayed in the area under the ruse of still trying to quell rebel forces, when in reality, I was helping them along.” He laughed at his own joke, “I waited until you had their support. And then while you were distracted with your grandmother, I kidnapped Quintus.”
Jin gasped. Flying jalapenos, she hadn’t seen this coming.
He again, chuckled at her expression, “Oh, how amusing this all is... Quintus was in that mysterious bag you asked about, my dear. How blinded you were! By love! I made sure to break your heart while I was impersonating Quintus.”
“But why?” Jin choked.
“Quintus was a weak thing. His only fault as my other pawn. He needed a new, tougher personality, which could only be accomplished if you thought he was showing his true side, and didn’t want or need you anymore. So I fooled you, got you into leaving right away -back at home I had the muses trained, ready for your arrival, and the converted guards ready for my word. Everything was in place.
“You began to think like Sable, however, doubting me as the impostor Quintus. We had to move fast. And now we’re here! I had to make sure you killed Zes.”
Just then, the creaky old door opened again, and in stepped Reln and his cronies. “At your service, sir,” Reln said, “the other guards are taken care of.”
“What -Reln- what?” Jin stuttered.
“Ah yes, Reln. Span. Lermy. Delwyn. They’re all with me. I planted them with the refugees-”
Span interrupted, “Sir, if I may ask; why are you telling her this when you could just kill her now?” Jin held her breath expectantly.
“I have my reasons!” Zephys boomed. “Now... you have killed Zes, as I planned all along. And now, the throne is open for my taking! Thank you for paving the path, my dear!” He took a step towards her, dangerously. It was clear he was finished explaining.
“But wait-” Jin said desperately, “-why didn’t you just kill Zes yourself? Why draw it all out?”
“I should think it would be clear,” he said, stepping even closer, “if I hadn’t had you running around the land, I wouldn’t have the support of the land. Now I can ascend the throne knowing that all the muses in this land support my position!”
“They must know the truth!” Jin yelled, stepping back as Zephys stepped closer. She stood in front of Quintus like an angry mother wolf protecting a cub. No way would she back down. She would save Quintus, or die trying. None of this was his fault. She had just had to drag him into this complicated mess. But if Jin could help it, Quintus would survive. Zephys would die for his web of lies.
He was morphing again, switching to his strange wolf-like form. “Get her!” he snarled, spraying drool everywhere from the monstrous, gleaming fangs that a minute ago had been yellowed and cavity-ridden teeth. Reln, Span, Lermy, and Delwyn advanced and the two guards that had brought Quintus in closed in on Jin from the other side.
She stepped one foot over Quintus, so that she was straddling his limp form, and drew two throwing knives. In one swift motion, she felled the two guards. But the others were still coming. Jin grabbed another two and threw them at the twins. Delwyn fell, all strength and no agility, but Lermy dodged easily, which shouldn’t have been possible... he was morphing... they all were...
“Oh no,” Jin whispered. Whatever monster Zephys was, so were Reln and his cronies. The three of them came towards her, sprouting russet, golden, and chocolate fur, eyes glinting liquid gold and snarling mouths dripping drool, lips curved upwards into a grotesque baring of fangs. Jin fired a pistol. No luck. She should’ve remembered from last time; they were immune to pistol shots. What could hurt them?
Knives, obviously. But they dodged too easily. She would be out before one hit its target. Jin briefly considered leaping over their heads and running for her life, but dismissed the thought just as quickly. She had Quintus to protect.
And then they were on her. She was fighting iron limbs, stabbing blindly with her daggers, here and there making contact with furry flesh, but in a minute they had disarmed her completely and had her head-locked in the crook of one of their arms. Another deposited her weapons where she couldn’t reach them. The third kept leering towards her face creepily, and then hoisted Quintus over his shoulder and trotted back over to where Zephys was observing with the air of one watching a particularly amusing joke.
Jin tried to cry out, but could barely breathe; the creature was pressing on her windpipe. He was also bleeding from his forearm, however. Jin stored this information away for safekeeping.
Not that it would matter. It was all over. They had Quintus. They could make her do anything because of that fact, and she would obey, because she had no one left besides Quintus. They would kill her.
“Jin,” Zephys drawled, “dear Jin... I have to kill you, you know. It’s a shame.”
Sham, more like, Jin thought resentfully.
“I’ll tell the world that you died for the rebel forces, like your noble parents. They’ll eat it up like maple syrup. Sugary and sweet. You’ll become a martyr. But don’t worry, I’ll give you a proper funeral... this little boy here may not be so lucky, however.” He kicked Quintus with his foot; the creature had deposited him on the ground before Zephys. Quintus moaned. “Oh, look!” Zephys said like someone discovering a pleasant surprise, “He’s coming-to!”
Jin groaned inwardly. How would she ever get out of this? And she was still having trouble breathing, -the lack of air was making her thoughts go fuzzy. The russet-colored monster shifted his grip on her neck.
“You see, Jin? Now, with a snap of my fingers, Reln can snap your neck. I’m just as powerful as Zes!” he clapped his hands, “More powerful, in fact. Let’s make a game of it. I’ll count down from ten, and when I reach zero, you die!” Zephys laughed evilly.
So it was Reln holding her like this.
“Ready? Let’s begin! 10...”
Jin was ready for death.
It was inevitable. Sure, she didn’t want it, but-
-she had exerted her revenge. Sable was avenged.
Her biggest regret was that Quintus would die. It wasn’t fair.
But then again, the land of the muses was about to experience a tyranny much worse than before.
That was certainly unfair.
If there was any justice in this world, something miraculous would happen just about now, Jin decided. But no, things don’t happen like that in real life.
Quintus! Sable! She cried in her head with all her might. We’ll see each other in heaven, she hoped desperately. Hopefully the Earthlings’ god would accept her last minute decision to believe.
“Look at us, here at the end!” Zephys cried, clapping his hands. “Just two, small words, and you die.”
Just kill me already.
“Oh, alright. I suppose it’s time. It’s rude to play with your food before you eat it, you know.”
CANNIBALISM?! Was her last, irrational thought on this world.
The door slammed open, and with it a lot of ashy dust. “Kill her now!” Zephys bellowed frantically, but Reln was distracted. Jin, taking advantage of this, bit him on the forearm, receiving a mouthful of hair, kicked and disoriented him, then ran for her weapons. A lot of men were streaming in, but she didn’t care to find out who her saviors were at the moment. She only had one thing on her mind: revenge.
Jin grabbed a dagger and ran towards Zephys with murder on her mind. She leapt and pounced like a wildcat, feet hitting his chest, and hands gripping his shoulders. With a cry, he thudded to the ground. Jin stabbed viciously and lodged the dagger deep in his heart, then again, and again. His final, disturbing sentence was a dry chuckle, and then, “I still -won, my -dear.”
He was dead. She was sure of it. And Jin was a crazy madwoman. She looked around the room, where everything was in indistinguishable chaos. She looked at her own hands, red with fresh blood. Murdered, stolen blood.
Jin crawled towards Quintus, who was stirring confusedly. She passed out on top of him, eliminating any chances he may have had before of moving from that position. Irritating, Quintus thought, but slightly endearing. So he lay quietly, waiting for the cloud that was his brain to clear. There was a bite on his arm. It burned.
Jin woke up staring at a familiar ceiling. Her eyes traced the stones, the familiar cracking grout, the cobwebby corner. She looked down at those bedsheets she had woken up to all her life; faded brown and moth-bitten. But something was different, -where were the other muses?
Then it all came back to her in a rush. Rather than jumping up immediately, as she was inclined to do, Jin simply slumped down further into her pillow. She didn’t want to deal with it right now. Or ever, for that matter.
It was thoughts of Quintus that finally propelled her into action. She slipped out of bed and quietly padded barefoot out of the empty room and down the familiar hall. She had no specific destination in mind; she had no idea where he was. But moving was better than waiting.
Jin noticed her new apparel: loosely fitting pants and a long sleeve tunic without a belt. Very comfortable, but her weapons were nowhere to be seen. She felt too uncomfortable without them. Like they had become a part of her.
Zes, gone. Zephys, gone. Sable, gone. It didn’t seem possible. All those people that she had forged a relationship with, no matter how strained, were gone. Changed, forever. Why did things always have to change?
Change was not always bad, she decided. Zes and Zephys had to die. For Sable. And then for Quintus.
Jin felt a slight stirring in the air to her left side. Reflexively, her hand shot out at the speed of light and came into contact with something, or someone. It was a stealth muse. “What are you doing...?” she asked, curiously.
“Er... nothing, um- just making my rounds...” he said, and scurried on past, quickly fading back into the background once more and Jin could no longer track his progress. She brushed this strange encounter aside.
She thought of Quintus as she quickened her stride. When she saw him... Jin would hug and kiss him mercilessly, squeeze his hand and beg for his forgiveness... because who was he to refuse? How could he ever refuse? She envisioned scene after scene of joyful reunions, and then she ran into Sheila.
Sheila was as tall and regal as ever, but she looked a little harried with a few strands of hair out of place, and she was talking speedily with a rather short companion. This compact little woman looked inhumanly alert and was taking notes on parchment that had somehow been fitted on a wire roll. Jin also noticed that there were two armed men following the pair discreetly in the background.
Strange, Jin thought. She opened her mouth to speak, but Sheila interrupted her. “You have partaken of rest for three days; those housed of Rillings and Jedendah have partaken of arriving of yesterday. The bodies of Zes and Zephys’ have been taken care of. The court is receiving of new decor. The muses of the place have partaken of helping with various odd jobs, gifted of choices to stay or to take of leave to seek out of long lost family. Many have taken of staying,” Sheila reeled all this off like she had memorized it beforehand. Jin was about to cut in, but Sheila cut her off again, “I have won of election of temporary leader.”
Quite an afterthought, Jin thought to herself, shocked by all that had taken place since the storming of the court. “But of course you’re the right woman for the job,” she said, hastily. It was true. Sheila was already a leader, and a good one at that. With Zephys a traitor and possibly dead, no one else was cut out so perfectly. That explained the guards and supposed secretary, as well.
During this minute of contemplation, Sheila had resumed blabbering out unintelligible phrases to her secretary. Jin endured about a moment of this, and then interrupted, “What happened that night, exactly? Who saved us-”
“-I have not of time to partake of answering all your questions. If you have wont of asking, Mair is taking of existence of the basement, of the dungeons. Partake of speech of her. Of your next question, -Quintus partakes of existence there, too,” she finished briskly. Jin hurried off, swallowing her next question, but Sheila stopped her once again, “Oh, and-” she seemed at a bit of a loss for words, quite unlike her “-take not of it too hard.” Then she was off with the secretary and two bodyguards.
Don’t take it too hard? At least Quintus was alive and safe, and so was Mair... in the dungeons...? A little strange, Jin thought. And why was everyone walking on eggshells around her today, as if she was a bomb ready to go off?
She had been a little crazy that night, Jin conceded, but not many people had witnessed that. So why were they all avoiding her so?
It didn’t matter. She was going to see Quintus, and that’s what mattered. She also wanted to know who had saved them that night; she would be indebted to them forever.
So she made her way down to the dungeons, wondering why they would be in the dungeons... Jin had only been there once, soon after she had come to Zes’s court, it was one of the only memories she had from back then, -it had really stuck with her.
Jin, six years old and standing near the back of the little group of other young muses, next to Sable. The grimy stone ceiling, walls, and floor surrounded them, extended into darkness. There were boxes and barrels everywhere, in the corners, like a hay bale maze, but covered in spiderwebs and most certainly made for adults. Spiderwebs, their guide told them, that were spun by Goliath Spiders.
They were certainly big enough, she thought.
“Now, little muses,” the scary lady with the rotten teeth and mangy hair said, leering towards the kids with her hands bent like yellowed claws, “this is only the anti-chamber. What is it, you ask?” The kids flinched backwards, not wanting to know, or at least desperately concealing their curiosity. “You’ll have to find out for yourself,” she said, cackling, “and some of you no doubt will come to learn it this first performance. Weed out the lesser of the evils, they say.
“But anyway, when you see this place again, you won’t be stopping here. You’ll be taken into the dungeons.”
As if on cue, a muffled screaming came from behind one of the iron doors. Sable grabbed Jin’s hand. She was glad for it.
The guillotine, the torture chamber, the shackles, everything. The creepy lady showed them every room. Even the observation chamber where guests would watch the torture as it went on. And deeper underground, they were told were the endless miles of underground cells... where muses still sat, the skin rotting off of their still living bodies...
Even now, Jin shivered at the memory. She had no wish to relive it, -why would Quintus and Mair be there in the first place? But still, if that’s where they were, then Jin would go there no matter the cost.
She wondered vaguely if there were still muses rotting in their cells, and thought that if they were, she would save them. Maybe that’s what Quintus and Mair were doing? Surely yes. It was a rational explanation.
So Jin convinced herself that that was the reason why, as she drew nearer.
Through the maze of hallways, down a spiral staircase, down another, and then-
The resounding crash of tin or glass clattering to the floor, then unintelligible yelling from a voice Jin recognized. Mair.
She was practically sprinting down the stairs now, taking the steps three at a time, and then, before she knew it, she was yelling Quintus’ name. Where was he? What was happening? What were all the crashes?
Jin tumbled down the last few, staggered up into the anti-chamber and straight into Mair. After she had picked herself and Mair off the floor again, she made for the source of the noise. “What’s happening? Where is he?” she yelled.
“Jin, calm down,” Mair said with obvious distress in her voice, “let’s sit down and talk a moment, shall we?”
“Where is Quintus?” Jin yelled, again, struggling against the woman’s arms that were like vises. The strange noises were coming from beyond the guillotine door, snarling and booms and resounding crashes.
“Shut up, dammit, and sit!” Mair abandoned all pretenses and tried to force Jin onto a barrel, but she was a madwoman again.
“What are you doing to him?”
“Don’t you want to know who saved you that night?” Mair pleaded. It didn’t work, so she continued, “It was Blackbeard, Blackbeard and his-”
“Let -go- of me!” Jin said wildly. “I need to see him!” And then she was biting her lip and crying, because it hurt so bad, not knowing what had happened to him and not being able to find out.
“He -he- he got bit,” Mair said finally, biting her own lip, “by one of the creatures.”
Jin froze, hair settling in a tangled nest.
“He’s dangerous, Jin. Don’t go near him!”
Jin still was at a loss for words.
“The spell-casting, it’s amplified... he keeps setting off random spells and at any minute he could kill himself and everyone in a mile’s radius!”
With one mighty grunt, Jin wrenched herself from her grandmother’s grip and sprinted with all the agility she could muster towards the iron-studded door.
“Jin -no!” Mair yelled, “He’ll kill you!”
But Jin was already at the door, heaving it open and stepping inside in one fluid movement.
Suddenly everything was quiet and dark. Pitch dark. Jin couldn’t see a thing, so she waited for her eyes to adjust, heart pounding and breath coming in gasps. She flattened her hair and tucked it behind her ear.
Two saffron orbs appeared out of nowhere. Eyes. Bright, wolfish eyes, glowing in the dark. Quintus.
It couldn’t be true, Jin thought frantically. Suddenly she didn’t want to know anymore. She didn’t want to be there. She scrabbled for the doorknob, trying to get out, but in the ominous blackness, she couldn’t find it.
Quintus snarled, snorted, and then ran towards her on all fours, judging by the thumps of giant paws.
Why didn’t he have control of his own body, like the other creatures? Surely he was aware of what he was doing? Or was it all instinct? “Stop!” Jin shrieked, shrinking back against the wall. “Quintus, it’s me, Jin!” She was whispering now, “You remember, don’t you? Of course you do.”
The orbs had stopped, and were observing her silently.
“We love each other, remember?” Jin said, quietly. She shrunk back, in spite of herself.
And then he was on her. She felt his shearing claws prickling the skin on her arms and waited for death. Death from her beloved.
Why wasn’t she dead yet? Shouldn’t she be dead? She felt his hot, doggy breath on her face. Why was he stalling?
Then Quintus’ weight was redistributing, he was changing, and when she looked again, those saffron orbs were replaced by a familiar pair of chocolate brown eyes. She felt his weight on top of her, relished it. It really was Quintus. He was here, now.
Quintus gave her a lingering kiss, and when they broke apart, he spoke. “Nothing can break us now.” He touched her cheek, and Jin could feel the spell-casting there, lying latent in his fingertips.