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The Zodiac Chronicles: #1
In the city of Zodio, a person’s fate is determined by the stars they were born under. The position of these stars sets the basis for one's personality, success and destiny. For three generations, all first borns in the governing Polaris line had been born under the zodiac star sign Leo, a star sign known for leadership and power. Gemma was the first Scorpio heir in nearly five hundred years, the first Scorpio sign born on the cusp of Saggitarius in memory. However, this was not common knowledge. Amongst most government officials and citizens of the city, she was neither a Scorpio or a cusp but a full Saggitarius, bound to usher in expansion and good fortune from Saggitiarius’s ruling planet Jupiter. If she were a Scorpio, her ruling planets would be Mars and Pluto, the planet of intensity and war matched with that of death and secrets, a dark pair turned wild and rebellious on the cusp of expansive Jupiter. It is a dangerous sign that historically would have died in infancy so as to prevent it from inheriting leadership, a sign meant to be a Scorpio’s deepest secret. With the power of Governor, such a sign could wreak havoc on Zodio if not held in check, and by all the stars Gemma tried to hold it in check.
But in the end, who can fight fate?
Fate was, after all, what led Gemma to the marketplace. It was fate that, through all the patrons and merchants, Gemma made her way toward the brightly-clothed man sitting at a small table where he shuffled a deck of cards. Fate was at work when her long strides halted and she noticed the man at the table.
Gemma gave the man a quizzical look, still unsure if he had spoken to her. He smiled, his white teeth in stark contrast to his ebony skin, like stars in the night sky.
“Five stellar fortune? The discount only lasts until the end of the hour.” he said, holding up a fan of tarot cards.
“Oh, I uh...” Gemma stumbled over how to best decline the man’s offer. If he really was clairvoyant, he was bound to see past her peasant’s disguise of a simple maroon sleeveless tunic and brown pants, he might even see past the Sagittarius charm on her necklace.
“Thank you but I have too…”
“This is your card, yes?”
In a single motion the ebony-skinned man pulled a card from the fan and layed it face down on the silk-covered table in front of him.
“That’s rather easy to tell don’t you think?” Gemma replied with an uneasy smile, she was unnerved by the intensity of the fortune-teller’s gaze.
She told herself that this little card game was simply a tool to get her to stay and that the card before her was only Saggitarius’s card, Temperance, with its happy wine-pouring angel. Gemma hoped that was the card he’d chosen. Instead, when she flipped over the card she found herself gazing upon Death. Her real card. She felt her heart start to beat more rapidly, a feeling of dread weighing on her limbs. She swallowed and looked back up at the fortune teller, his dark eyes watching for her reaction. When she said nothing he drew two more cards and laid them in front of her. They were Temperance and the Emperor.
“Do these cards mean anything to you?” He asked, a satisfied lilt to his voice as Gemma’s heart skipped a beat. She sat down at the stool in front of the table and handed the man five silver stellar. He smiled and pocketed the coins.
“Don’t worry, your secret's safe with me.”
After skillfully shuffling the cards back into the deck, the fortune teller held out another fan of cards.
Gemma reached out a shaking hand and selected three cards from the very edge of the fan. Their blue star-patterned backs were faded, the edges worn soft from use. She carefully placed them face-up in the middle of the small table. The fortune teller released an ahhh, as though she had just presented him with a single-digit arithmetic problem.
“The Wheel of Fortune, the Devil and the Tower, interesting. You know what they represent, yes?”
The man’s amused tone and intent gaze analyzing her every reaction made Gemma want to crawl out of her skin.
“Destiny, bondage and disaster” she said, her voice barely audible.
“Something along those lines. Would you like me to tell you what they mean in this case?”
“I thought you usually ask me.”
Gemma let an edge of annoyance leak into her voice. She was about through with all of his pomp and ready to be out from underneath his scrutinizing gaze.
“Listen, if you’re just going to…”
The fortune teller held up a hand and she fell silent.
“I’ll make it brief if that’s what you wish.”
He reached into the sleeve of his colorful robes and produced another card which he laid beside the Wheel of Fortune. The Lovers.
“As fate would have it, the travellers will arrive in the city in correspondence with the day of your birth, you know of whom I speak.”
The fortune-teller pushed the cards of the Lovers and the Wheel of Fortune towards Gemma then laid the Devil on top of them.
“This is the day that your bond to the zodiac will be strongest.”
Gemma felt a twist in her gut. She knew the travellers the fortune-teller spoke of, the ones the Lovers represented. It had been two years since her mother died of the disease her own body had given her. The memory was still a painfully raw wound to Gemma, but to her father, the feeling of grief had already scabbed over enough for him to arrange for a new bride. Her father had said it was a necessary arrangement, a political marriage similar to the one he’d had with her mother, a pale-skinned Northerner whose green eyes Gemma saw every time she looked into the mirror. Her soon-to-be stepmother was from the city of Electra, just south of Zodio, and who they relied on for their supply of dyes and metal. Gemma had never met the woman and knew only that she was the widowed younger sister of the king who was rumoured to be extremely expressive in her dress. The princess would be traveling with an escort of royal guards along with an ambassador and children from noble families wishing for their child to be educated in Zodio. However, if something were to happen to any of the party while they were in Zodio, it could result in an all-out war. That was why it was essential that everything went smoothly upon their arrival and the chances of that happening would be drastically lower if Gemma would spend the day under the influence of the planets of war and death. The Tower card stared ominously up at her.
“How do you know this?”
She heard fear in her voice as she spoke, only serving to stoke her anger toward the fortune teller.
“You would not understand the mechanisms of the psychic realm even if I explained them to you.”
Gemma stood abruptly, her stool tipping over and hitting the stone floor of the open-air marketplace with a resounding clack.
“Fine, but I don’t understand the point of telling me my terrible fate if there is nothing I can do about it.” she exclaimed, trying to keep her voice steady, to no avail.
Gemma realized she was making a scene as others in the marketplace stopped what they were doing to look at her. She felt heat rush to her cheeks, she was not behaving like she wore the sign of a Sagittarius around her neck. Ducking her head she righted the stool and sat back down. Despite being yelled at, the fortune teller smiled like she had set him up perfectly to tell the punchline of a joke. He reached up his sleeve once again and pulled two new cards out which he handed to her.
“Temperance and the Star; hope through moderation. By lessening the stars’ effects, you may yet be saved.”
“How?” Gemma demanded.
“This is not information I give freely. If you want to know the cure, you must promise to bring me any instruments you use in suppressing the stars’ influence so that I may possess them as my own.”
Gemma searched the fortune teller for any signs of foul play. She decided she would rather have to fight this man over a deal than fight an army.
“Deal, now what do I need to do?”
The Astronomy building was by far one of the largest structures in Zodio. Three stories tall and possessing a massive domed roof inlaid with silver that shone like starlight, it could be seen from miles outside the city's wall. Inside the building was just as breathtaking with murals of zodiac myths on every wall and the stars of the summer solstice painted on the ceiling which opened at the peak of the dome to reveal the sky. Below the opening sat a large silver basin nearly twice as wide as Gemma was tall. The basin collected any rain water that ran through the opening and at night, the night's sky was reflected in the water. Gemma had lost count of how many nights she'd sat on the cool tiled floor of the Astronomy building, surrounded by the smell of the papers and ink as the astronomers and their styluses scratched away at natal star charts and illustrated records, and gazed into the basin as rain water slowly dripped from the roof, sending ripples through the galaxies. In the daytime however, the building was occupied by only a handful of daytime workers who sorted files and replaced empty ink pots. This made it the perfect spot to have a secret meeting to talk about less-than-legal affairs. Unfortunately, the person she had intended to discuss these highly-sensitive matters with had brought along two other people; people she wouldn’t trust with a secret if her life depended on it.
“I thought we agreed that this was a private matter.”
Gemma was having a bad day already, but she made sure to pitch her voice sweetly so as to not upset her friend.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I passed them on my way here and they asked me where I was going so I said that I was meeting you at the astronomy building and they asked if they could come and I figured it wouldn’t hurt anything...so I said yes.”
Pleione gesticulated wildly and talked so fast it was difficult for Gemma to keep up. She looked over at the two boys Pleione had brought with her, Saiph and Corvus, the Leo son of the army General, and the Capricorn-Aquarius cusp who apprenticed to the head Apothecary. They were a pair equally inseparable and insufferable. What made it worse though was that Pleione, ever the Libra, had been having alternating crushes on either boy since the first time they’d met when Pleione had just started her apprenticeship with the court Justice. Internally, Gemma was cursing them and all their stars, but outwardly she plastered on an apologetic smile.
“I’m sorry for the mix-up, it’s just that it’s sort of a sensitive matter,” Gemma told the boys.
Neither of them moved. She had to stamp out a flair of exasperation.
“We could go to the records room on the third level?”
Gemma tried to convey her true meaning by making intense eye contact with Pleione. She seemed to understand and they began walking toward the stairs.
“We saw you at the marketplace.”
Gemma tripped and nearly fell. Pleione held out a hand to support her but she was already whirling to face the boys.
She said it more as a challenge than a question.
Saiph let out an exasperated sigh and started to repeat himself.
“I know, I heard you the first time.”
She waited for them to give her the answers she wanted, too afraid to ask what they had seen outright. If they had seen nothing, she would only be confirming their suspicions. Corvus put a hand on his friend’s shoulder, the Leo looked like he wanted to punch something. While Saiph might have been the one with the bravado, something told her that they were here on Corvus’s request. Trust a Cap-Aqua cusp to involve themselves in things that don’t concern them.
“You practically yelled at the fortune teller for predicting a ‘terrible fate’, not to mention that when both of you left, this,” Corvus reached into his pocket and held up the Tower card, “Was still on the table. So, if I may ask, what is the terrible fate bound to befall you?”
“To be forever tormented by eavesdroppers.”
Sarcasm was a Scorpio’s tool, not that of a sociable Sagittarius. Gemma found herself not caring. Corvus laughed, obviously pleased at rattling her.
“Or perhaps it’s to be afraid of your own card?”
She could tell he was just venturing a guess to see how she would react. He hadn’t seen the card itself, just her reaction. None of that mattered though, they were on to her and sooner or later they would solve the puzzle and then she would be at their mercy. It was a far better bet to make a deal on her terms.
“If you come with us, you have to promise never to utter a word of what we discuss.”
“Deal.” Corvus said instantaneously.
Saiph still seemed sore over being interrupted but gave Gemma a spiteful glare before looking up at his friend in resignation.
“I’m serious, not even my father can know all I’m about to tell you.”
“Yeah, we get it.”
Gemma prayed that Saiph would become more cooperative once she explained her situation, though she doubted that would be the case. As long as she’d known him he’d had a chip on his shoulder, whether it was because he wasn’t born an Aries like his father or because he was several inches shorter than any other boy his age, Gemma wasn’t sure. All she knew was that she was born to have a title and three inches on him and he despised her for it.
Gemma gestured for the boys to follow as she and Pleione headed up the spiral stone staircase to the third floor where they quietly padded down the walkway overlooking the main floor where the silver basin sat. After making sure no one was watching, they slipped into a records room and shut the door. Inside the room, the hot afternoon sun filtered through a small window built into the top of the far wall. The ray of light caught on the dust floating in the air above cases upon cases of centuries old records that had been etched into stone tablets.
“The third floor is where they keep the oldest records. No one ever comes up here so we should be safe.”
Gemma turned to face the group. She was met by a worried look from Pleione along with an expression of deep interest from Corvus. Saiph busied himself with looking around the room in disgust rather than at her. She decided she’d best get right to the point.
“First off, I’m not a Saggitarius, I’m a Scorpio-Sagittarius cusp. The second thing to note is that my sixteenth birthday is tomorrow, which is the same day fortune teller said the Electrans will come.”
Saiph looked at her then, frowning.
“Makes since, you were always too much of a...water sign, to be a Saggitarius.”
“Ah, but of course she is!...It makes so much more sense now. You were a terrible Saggitarius but you were just enough to pass...and that’s why you are always sick on the same day every year...the calling of Mars, Pluto and Jupiter can’t be ignored... And I thought I had it rough with Saturn and Neptune!” Corvus exclaimed, laughing to himself.
Gemma wasn’t quite sure if he was talking to himself or to the group but he was obviously lost in thought now. She turned to look at Pleione, hers was the only input that really mattered. Pleione had been there for her when her mother had fallen ill, she had done her best to support her. Pleione was the only real friend she had. Now, Gemma had just revealed that she’d been lying to her all along.
“I hope it’s okay that your birthday present still won’t be ready for another week.”
Gemma smiled back at Pleione who embraced her.
“You could have told me sooner,” Pleione whispered.
“I know, I’m sorry,” she replied, pulling away.
“You have nothing to be sorry about...except not telling me to stop talking bad about Scorpios, I didn’t know my best friend was a Scorpio,” Pleione teased.
Unfortunately the moment didn’t last.
“Wait, if the Electrans arrive tomorrow, that will require a celebratory feast, which you will need to attend as a show of good faith. However, under your stars’ influence, you could very well start a war by attending the feast. An insult to the wrong person, a challenge or a complaint about your father’s betrothed would sever the thin strings holding the current alliance together. But if you weren’t to attend, the damage would still be done. However, I’m assuming you probably have a plan to avoid our inevitable doom?”
Gemma sighed and willed herself to put her fist in her pocket instead of using it to punch Corvus right in his smug face. On the bright side, at least she wouldn’t have to spell out her problem.
“The solution, it’s illegal, not to mention dangerous. The fortune teller said I needed to have two talismans on me in order to combat the stars’ effects: a live black scorpion, and the bow string of Zodio’s best archer.”
“You’re a dead man walking Polaris, and that’s if you can find the talismans,”
Saiph snickered at Corvus’s prediction.
“Then I guess so are you,” Gemma retorted.
Pleione attempted to intervene.
“Are you sure there’s no other way?”
“I guess I could always tell everyone what I really am, but I’m dead that way too,”
For a moment, everyone was silent.
“I’ll help you find the talismans.”
Pleione’s voice was barely a whisper, as though what she was speaking of was too dangerous to say aloud.
“You know I’d never ask you to do this, it’s your choice.”
“This isn’t a task you ask someone to join, you need me to help you. It’s my responsibility to do so.”
Pleione had a way of making Gemma feel a unique type of shame, the kind that comes when you know you don’t deserve someone’s kindness, but need it just the same.
“Thank you,”she whispered.
When Gemma turned to look back at the boys she was surprised to find them having some sort of silent argument, complete with crossed arms and raised brows. In the next second however, it appeared that the decision was made. Pleione smiled warmly in their direction and miraculously Saiph uncrossed his arms and tapped into some sort of hidden chivalry.
“I guess since I am the only one here with combat training, it would be irresponsible of me not to accompany you for protection. I also stay level-headed under duress so I can make sure no one’s making any stuipid decisions.”
Saiph looked directly at her when saying the last part and Gemma had to bite back both a laugh and a retort. They may not have needed his “combat training” or “level-headedness” but they did need access to the Armory and Saiph’s father was their ticket.
“I know where we can get a black scorpion,” Corvus said matter-of-factly.
“Name pretty much anywhere in a one-hundred mile radius and scorpions live there,”
Gemma didn’t grant the same mercy to Corvus as she did Saiph. They did not need him slowing them down with his interjections. Corvus rolled his eyes.
“I know where we can find one in a cage.”
Gemma crossed her arms.
“Where would you find a caged black scorpion?”
“Easy, the apothecary has one. It’s venom is helpful in certain treatments.”
“And it’s alive and whole?”
“It was this morning.”
“Well then, I guess it will be your job to get the scorpion.”
She turned to Saiph.
“Could you get the archer’s bowstring?”
“Hey, I thought this was your job,” he protested.
“Well I don’t see the point in me breaking into the Armory if you can tell them you’re the general’s son and just walk right in.”
Saiph let out an indignant hmph and crossed his arms.
“It’s not that simple...I’d need help.”
“Well if the little lion admits to needing help he’ll get it. Why don’t we meet back here at nightfall and we can find a way to steal the bowstring then, I have to go with Pleione to oversee a murder trial in my father’s stead. Will you be able to get the scorpion by then?”
She turned back to Corvus who nodded.
“Well that settles it then, today we will attempt to evade war and death. Tomorrow, we’ll just have to see if it works.”
In agreement, the four youths left the room. The fortune teller sat at a desk in the back of the record room, watching as they departed. Death and Temperance, the Devil and the Star, Strength, and Justice. His plan had been set in motion. With their cards laid out in front of him, the fortune teller drew a new card from the deck and laid it on top. The Wheel of Fortune. The man frowned, the group’s fate was yet unknown.
Corvus had encountered few complications when retrieving the scorpion. He had simply walked into the back room of the apothecary, found the scorpion, and walked out with its cage in hand. The biggest problem he had was finding a cloth to drape over the cage so no one would see what was inside. Now however, as he entered the Astronomy building for the second time that day, he realized his mistake. All three of his partners-in-crime stood to the far left side of the cavernous room, and they'd been standing there long enough for an argument between Saiph and Gemma to turn heated. Granted, it took about point nine seconds for an argument to form and escalate when they were in the room. When Corvus came within speaking range of the group he noticed the tiny Pleione trying to separate the fixed fire and water signs as they postured at each other. He pitied her and would have helped but, secretly, he enjoyed watching Saiph and Gemma’s fights. He had known them for all of the four years he’d been apprenticing for the head Apothecary, and in those four years he’d learned that Gemma and Saiph would say things to each other that he had always wanted to say to them, but didn’t for lack of seeing a point in it. Instead, he would let them insult each other freely and it was like every blow was coming from him because he allowed the fight to continue. Suddenly the pair stilled, no longer pacing or gesturing wildly. Corvus stilled too, trying to pick up on their hushed conversation.
“...is that it? You know you’ll never really be able to inherit your father’s position so you just bask in the glory of being his son? You strut around putting other people down just to make yourself feel better, just trying to pretend like a Leo and an Aries are the same, like a father and his son are the same. Well I’ll tell you, I’ve met your father and he is a great man, it’s a shame that he has you to taint his reputation,” Gemma hissed.
In that moment she reminded Corvus of the scorpion he held caged in his right hand. She had stilled, drawing her prey in, only to sting just when one would think they could be safe. The lion in Saiph looked ready to tear her apart for it. Corvus decided he needed to intervene. He felt the scorpion rattle its cage in protest as he swung it directly between Gemma and Saiph. With a flourish, he removed the plain cloth covering the cage to reveal the scorpion, posed to strike. It charged at the metal wire entrapping it, causing the cage to shake violently. The situation was diffused instantaneously as everyone took a collective step back.
“Ugh, get that out of my face. Seriously Corvus, was that necessary?”
Saiph pushed Corvus’s outstretched arm away and took another step back.
“I thought you all would want proof that I honored my commitment,”
“Sometimes I wonder if you’re right in the head,” Saiph said with disgust, though Corvus knew it wasn’t all meant for him.
Gemma was watching the scorpion with a curious expression, oblivious to the look of pure hatred Saiph was sending her.
“Can I see it?” she said, gesturing for Corvus to hand her the cage.
He shrugged and gave it to her. She held it up to her face and looked at the scorpion scrambling to get out.
“There’s really not much to see. It’s a devil, but it’s useful. All we ever do in the apothecary is get it to sting a container so we can collect the venom.”
The scorpion stilled, its tail raised at Gemma. She continued to watch it in silence as it lashed out with its stinger. Then, when it seemed to realize that it was getting nowhere, the scorpion lowered its tail and was silent.
“I guess you’re the scorpion whisperer,” Pleione said with a laugh.
“I think it’s more that they’re kindred spirits.”
Corvus felt a flair of satisfaction as Gemma glared at him.
“It was only upset because Corvus swung its cage around too much.”
As much as he enjoyed annoying Saiph and Gemma it was almost fully dark and he still didn’t know what the plan was. He suspected with all their arguing the rest of the group didn’t know either. Luckily he’d made sure to take a walk around the Armory complex before meeting them there and already had an idea for how they would get inside.
“I’m assuming you all were too busy arguing to formulate a plan for getting the bow string, so I’ll offer mine. Once Saiph gets past the wall, he can let us in through an emergency exit on the west side of the complex. From there, we’d split up. One group would distract the guards by ringing the fire alarm and the other would slip into the Armoury building and find the bow of Sagittarius, which is awarded to the General’s best archer. Then…”
Corvus stopped, frowning. Gemma was staring daggers at Saiph who grew increasingly red with anger and something else Corvus had not seen in his friend, embarrassment.
“I’m afraid your plan is fundamentally flawed considering that Saiph here has not been allowed into the Armory since a pyromania incident when he was twelve,”
Corvus looked back at Saiph with raised brows, but the other boy wouldn’t meet his gaze.
“Wait,” Pleione exclaimed, “You said it’s the Sagittarius bow we’re looking for?”
Corvus nodded and Pleione spun on Gemma.
“And you knew this?”
Gemma furrowed her brows, her expression puzzled.
“Of course. You didn’t?”
“The Sagittarius bow isn’t housed in the Armory, it’s displayed in the house of whoever won it.”
Realization seemed to dawn on Gemma.
“Wait, so you’re saying…”
“My father keeps the bow in a glass case in his first-floor study,” Pleione finished.
Corvus had to stifle his surprise. He never really thought about Pleione having a family, let alone a father who was Zodio’s best archer. When someone became an apprentice to an important figure like the Justice or the head Apothecary, they moved into the government complex at the city’s center. There, the people they worked with became their family, their mentor like a father, the other apprentices were their only friends. Saiph had been the lonely and ill-tempered son of the army General when Corvus had first come to live behind the sandstone wall of the complex. However, after a minor bit of hazing, the Leo boy had taken a liking to Corvus’s willingness to follow him around and help him get away with minor crimes. In the three years since, the boys had grown as close as brothers. Saiph was always the confident and enterprising face of their every activity, while Corvus became the brain. Even though he tried to bury it, a part of himself still resented Saiph. Sometimes Saiph’s domineering personality made him feel smothered and used, the Leo’s self-centered drive proving too much for his creative and independent cusp. He had sometimes seen the same resentment in Saiph as well. That was the trouble of being on the cusp of two opposite signs, it became difficult to connect with other people and for them to understand the contradictory cusp.
As Corvus watched the two girls shift away from each other and he saw his own struggle in the look of betrayal in Pleione’s eyes. Gemma had known that they would be stealing from Pleione’s father and had been fine with it, her cusp lived for rebellion and conflict. Pleione’s sign strived for peace and harmony in everything, something that melded only with the Sagittarius aspects of Gemma, and that was the part Gemma showed her. The internal part of her was still a Scorpio though, and that was not something Pleione had expected. As Corvus knew, an unexpected betrayal hurt far more than if it was a known possibility.
Gemma looked back at her apologetically, though Corvus suspected she was more sorry that Pleione was upset than she was for the actual transgression.
“Wait, so we’re stealing from Pleione’s father?”
In Corvus’s experience Saiph was smart, but often a bit slow on the uptake and redirect.
“Yes,” Gemma replied, sounding at least a little guilty for not making sure everyone knew.
It struck Corvus as slightly comical that they’d been fine stealing from a stranger but they hesitated once it was someone they knew.
“So, doesn’t that mean Pleione can just get the bowstring and we can be done?”
“Well…” Gemma started before Pleione cut her off.
“No,” she said, uncharacteristically sharp, “He thinks I’m away for my apprenticeship, he’d have too many questions. Besides, he keeps the door to his study locked at all times and there’s a security system in place for the Sagittarius bow’s case.”
“What kind?” Corvus asked.
He and Saiph had learned to bypass one of the General’s security systems in order to play a prank on him. Well, Corvus had learned, Saiph just had the idea to scare his father. When Saiph’s father had walked into his foyer and saw the empty case where his medals should have been, he’d gone ballistic, running as fast as he could to report the robbery. Only, when he’d brought someone to investigate the theft, he found that someone had put all of his medals back. The General had eyed the boys for the next week afterward, though he didn’t have any proof it was them.
“I don’t know…there’s an insignia of a bird on the mechanism if that helps.”
Pleione shrugged, her heart was no longer in finding the talismans. Saiph turned to Corvus, a spark in his eyes.
“Hey, isn’t that the same insignia as the one my father had, you know, the one we disabled that time,” Saiph said, laughing at the memory.
Corvus decided to humor his friend.
“Oh...of course. I forgot about that.”
The girls watched them as they laughed, unimpressed. Gemma cleared her throat.
“Do you think you could disabled this one then?”
Corvus stopped laughing and thought for a second. The mechanism built into the door of the case would trip the security system if someone were to try to pick the lock, resulting in a sort of deadbolt sliding in below the lock, making the case unopenable even with a key. How had he picked it then? Corvus tried to remember the conversation he’d had with Saiph.
“Are you sure you can do it? My father’s already mad at me…”
“It’s easy, even you might pull it off if you bothered to learn how to pick a lock yourself.”
Saiph had just rolled his eyes and went to his position as lookout.
Easy, yet why could Corvus not remember how he’d done it?
“What’s that for?”
“Just watch the hall Saiph.”
A magnet. The bar of the deadbolt was sprung by only a small spring being released, making it easy to magnetically move the bar back into place enough to open the case.
“I can open the door and the case.”
“Good, we should get going then.”
The fortune teller sat at the silver basin, looking at the stars reflected there. He’d only been half listening to the little group of amateur thieves as they devised a plan. What had really caught his interest was the new star that had appeared in the sky above the Astronomy building. It wasn’t particularly bright, the ordinary eye probably wouldn’t even have noticed the new star, but it was there just the same. But what did it mean? The fortune teller thought he had seen the fate of the party, but perhaps not? The Star. Perhaps hope yet remained. Casting the thought away, the fortune teller followed his prey.
The rest of the group stood with Pleione on the dusty road in front of her old home as she stared at its squat facade in trepidation. Pleione knew that they expected her to find an entrance into the quaint little stone house before them. The truth was, while she had visited her family intermittently throughout her apprenticeship, the house no longer felt familiar. Its great palm tree and overgrowth of grasses which she had once known to mark the house as her home, unique from all the others on the street, now felt foregin. As though they were from some alien past life she had lived centuries ago.
“You know, we should probably find a way inside before somebody sees us.”
Pleione ignored Saiph’s comment. Perhaps a part of her wanted to be caught, but that was a selfish thought. As much as she despised what she was about to do, it was for the greater good. She had to believe it was for the greater good. After all, she’d just by another string, her father would never know. That’s what Gemma had told her. She looked at her friend’s words differently now.
Pleione used to laugh off some of the things Gemma had said, like how they could just lie their way out of trouble and know one would be the wiser, or how they could manipulate someone into doing something and make them feel good about it. She now wondered if Gemma had really meant all that she said. If so, had she thought about Pleione that way too? Pleione had always known her as her fun, daring Saggitarius friend who perhaps had a bit of a dark sense of humour and a confrontational streak, but she had never wondered if Gemma was something else entirely, a whole secret side of herself.
Pleione shivered, the wind had picked up and it blew cold through her thin wrap. Blinking sand from her eyes she gestured for the rest of the group to follow her into the narrow alley beside the house. There stood the door to the kitchen, far enough away from the bedrooms for their entrance to remain unheard. She glanced meaningfully at Corvus and he bent down to pick the lock. Before he could start though, Gemma turned the knob of the door and it swung open with a whine.
“People always remember to lock the front door, but a thief always knows to come in the back way.”
Pleione cast a shriveling look at Gemma.
“Hey, this is my first time doing this. How people think just happens to be a keen interest of mine.”
“Damned Scorpio,” Saiph muttered under his breath.
“If you don’t like the way I do things maybe you should stay out here and watch for trouble,” Gemma snapped.
“Fine, I think I will.”
Saiph scowled and stepped to the side.
“Would you two quiet down, my Mother is a very light sleeper,” Pleione whispered.
With one last glare at Saiph, Gemma's whole demeanor changed and she slipped into the house, barely making a sound. The scorpion is a nocturnal predator. She glanced at the cloth-covered cage as Corvus handed it to Saiph. The scorpion had gone right back to attacking the sides of its cage once Gemma had given it back to him. Maybe they’re kindred spirits.
Pleione cleared her thoughts and slipped inside behind Gemma, Corvus on her heels. Gemma’s silhouette waited for them inside the kitchen, so still Pleione barely saw her at first.
“Which way?” she whispered.
“It’s at the end of the hall, it’s tight so stay right behind me.”
She set off down the hall, trying to be as quiet as possible. It didn’t really matter though considering that Corvus seemed to be trying as hard as he could to step on every loose floorboard in the house. Pleione could practically feel the impatience building in Gemma.
“Must you be so loud?” Gemma hissed at him.
“Do I have to remind you that I’m the only reason you’re even able to get a scorpion or a bowstring?”
“I would have found a way.”
“Quiet, both of you, we’re here.”
Pleione stepped away from the door as Corvus knelt to pick the lock. Within seconds it clicked open and they pushed inside. Pleione’s heart stuttered. Light snoring emanated from the desk to their right where a shadowy form was slumped beside a burned out candle. The snores stopped and Pleione’s stomach dropped. Her father muttered something in his sleep and then the snores started up again.
“We need to leave, now,” Pleione’s voice was barely audible, fear tightening her throat.
“Gemma, I’m serious, if he wakes up…”
“Corvus, do you think you can open the case without waking him up?”
Corvus shifted beside her.
“Yes...I think so...probably.”
“Probably?” Pleione hissed, unconvinced.
“You can wait outside with Saiph if you’d like,” Gemma offered.
Pleione could not just wait outside with Saiph.
“It won’t take too long,” Corvus promised.
He and Gemma slipped inside. Pleione stood by the door, frozen in silent terror. After a minute or two and several heart-stopping clicks of the lock, the door swung open.
The Sagittarius bow was an exquisite longbow, its body a perfect curve of yew painted with silver and gold stars. The perfect flex, the perfect balance and alignment, it was an archer’s dream. Now they were about to separate it from its string. The string was replaced every few years, but the act still felt wrong. Gemma started untying the string at the top of the bow, Corvus working on the bottom.
Pleione’s eyes locked on her father. Still, he did not stir. She glanced back over at her friends, Gemma pocketed the bowstring as Corvus went about resetting the lock. The door closed with a satisfying click and he straightened. He turned back to Gemma who nodded, they had what they needed. The pair slowly started the tiptoe back across the room.
Just then, a piercing cry ripped through the night. It echoed through the house, bouncing off the walls, shattering the tense silence. Pleione’s father bolted upright, then stilled, gazing around the room. All three of them froze. Pleione felt faint. Her heart was in her throat.
“Stop!” Pleione’s father roared.
The amatuer thieves before him seemed to snap out of their daze and broke into a run. They blew right past her. Pleione didn’t move. Her father stood, frantically searching for a light. He hadn’t seen her yet. Pleione heard someone’s footfalls behind her. She didn’t quite register they were there until she felt someone yank her arm, pulling her into the hall.
“What are you doing? Come on!”
Gemma slid her hand into Pleione’s and started to run back down the hall, pulling the paralized girl along with her. Pleione’s feet couldn’t keep up with Gemma’s long strides and she fell. She heard someone yell for her to get up as they pulled on her arm but she couldn’t seem to get her bearings.
Another scream sounded.
Pleione scrambled to get her feet under her, bracing herself against the wall. Just as she stood though she felt someone’s hand clasp her shoulder. She whirled, her hand releasing Gemma’s.
Her father’s arm looped around her in a vice grip.
Saiph hadn’t expected to see the little girl getting a glass of water when he looked back into the kitchen. She hadn’t expected to see him either. For a moment, neither of them moved.
Then the little girl started to scream.
Saiph knew he was in deep when the girl, who must have been Pleione’s sister, ran from him. What he hadn’t anticipated was that, instead of getting her parents, she came back with a snarling mass of fur.
The dog lept at Saiph, who dodged it just in time. The beast wasn’t finished though. It grabbed onto his pants leg and tugged. Saiph wobbled and attempted to kick out at the dog but it held firm. He heard someone shouting and running inside the house. The others must have ran into trouble. Saiph tried to pull his leg free, the dog only pulled back. Suddenly, he heard his pants rip and both he and the dog were forced to sit back. The damned scorpion Saiph held rattled its cage in protest as he scrambled up and backed away from the dog.
It snarled at him, ears back and hackles raised.
Saiph gulped and looked for an escape route. The alley led to a dead end.
The little girl screamed again. Corvus burst into the alley. The dog turned on him.
The dog lunged at Corvus, knocking him back. He stumbled but managed to keep his footing. The dog circled Corvus, teeth bared.
Saiph had to think fast. He didn’t want to hurt the dog, but he also couldn’t let it maul his friend.
“Hey, over here!” he shouted at the dog, waving his arms wildly, the scorpion in his right hand voicing its displeasure.
It turned and charged him.
Corvus cast him a look of alarm but obeyed.
When the dog was close enough, Saiph twisted right, it ran past him and skidded to a halt. Saiph didn’t wait to see what happened next though. He ran sprinted to the door as fast as he could, the dog hot on his tail. The door was just inches away when Saiph felt the dog’s claws on his back, his own momentum pulling him toward the ground. At that moment, he felt a hand grab the front of his shirt and pull him inside.
Corvus slammed the door on the dog and let out a sigh of relief.
“Stars Saiph, you cut it close that time.”
Saiph nodded, catching his breath. He was used to danger, but that was a different kind all together. Looking around, Saiph realized the little girl was gone. They’d better leave before she came back with who-knows-what.
“Who are you?” a man’s angry voice demanded from down the hall.
“Let go of her, I have a knife!”
Saiph knew almost for certain Gemma didn’t have a knife, but she sounded like she did. He didn’t know if that was a good thing. Corvus pushed off the door and started in the direction of the voices, Saiph close behind.
There were no windows in the hallway and Saiph could barely see a thing. He felt along the wall with his free hand.
“Give me back what you stole!”
Saiph had a feeling the man was Pleione’s father, which would mean he was holding his own daughter hostage without his knowledge.
“I will cut you!”
Corvus halted and Saiph ran right into him. The scorpion protested the sudden jolt.
“I think I have an idea”, Corvus said under his breath before shouting, “Don’t move! I have a weapon!”
Saiph immediately decided that whatever it was, Corvus had a bad idea. He was marginally less convincing than Gemma.
“Hold the scorpion,”
Saiph thrust the cage at his friend who begrudgingly took it then squeezed past him and walked up to where he assumed the man was.
“We didn’t take anything of importance. Now give me the girl and you can live.”
Saiph felt the man shift. He was considering his options.
“What’s more important, your life or what we took? We don’t want to hurt you.”
“But we will,” Gemma added, sounding like she would gladly kill someone.
“Fine, step away and I’ll let her walk to you.”
Pleione’s father’s voice was resigned but unafraid. Saiph respected that, he took a few steps back.
“Okay, now let her go.”
Saiph used the voice his father did when he commanded his troops to stand down, calm and confident, like the ram of Aries. Like a lion. He heard a small gasp as Pleione was released, he must have been restricting her breathing. Holding out his hand, he found Pleione’s.
“Don’t follow us.” he said and then took off.
After they escaped from the house, the group kept running until they reached the Astronomy building. Luckily, few people were out that late so no one stopped them to ask why. Saiph felt like collapsing in relief when they reached the building but he made himself walk up to the third floor records room first.
“We made it”, He said, slamming the door behind them and leaning up against it, “Is everyone okay?”
He looked over at Pleione, she wouldn’t meet his gaze. That’s when he realized he was still grasping tight to her hand. Heat warmed his cheeks and he let go.
“I hope the benefactor of this little stunt knows that we all risked life and limb on their behalf today. I personally was nearly mauled by a dog.”
His gaze bore into Gemma. In the light of the small window she appeared to have a look of exhilaration on her face, as though tonight’s near-death experiences were the most fun she’d had in a while.
“She understands and appreciates the sacrifices made for her today. She also hopes that her accomplices might help her finish the task at the end of tomorrow, that is, assuming she doesn’t instigate a war first.”
Her voice was breathless, containing almost a joyful air. For the briefest moment Saiph felt an inkling of sympathy for those in the past who would have made sure someone like Gemma never became governor. While he suspected she would never purposely mean anyone harm, the way she interacted with the world sometimes made him wonder if she was too eratic to be trusted.
“I have a question...”
If Gemma sounded happy after the experience, Corvus sounded utterly unfazed.
“How are you expecting to hide a caged black scorpion in what you’re wearing?”
“I hadn’t thought that far ahead to be honest.”
“I can help you modify your formalwear if you need me to...”
Pleione sounded utterly disimpassioned but Gemma still made a show of smiling warmly at her.
“I’d like that.”
Saiph sighed, he sincerely hoped they were making a good decision in protecting Gemma’s true identity.
The fortune teller stood in the dark street outside the house where the Canis family stood detailing their robbery to the authorities. The man scowled, the fated group had been successful, they had defied the cards. No, the cards were never wrong. Yet still, the party had retrieved the talismans and lived to tell the tale. He had foreseen their failure. He cleared the troubled thoughts from his mind. Something had clouded his vision, he would need to cleanse his aura before he sought to find the error in his predictions.
As the fortune teller had said, the Electrans arrived early the next morning. Gemma had awoken on her sixteenth birthday feeling like starting a proverbial fire, or a real fire. Either way she wanted to do something reckless and drastic. Despite her urges, she was still able to temper her feelings enough to get dressed in the formal attire she and Pleione had altered the night before so she could hide the caged scorpion underneath a very large and gaudy headdress. The only trick was getting the scorpion to calm down enough for the thing to actually stay upright. Once she had her talismans tucked away though, her mind had cleared and she had felt ready to face her step-mother to be.
That did not mean she was actually ready though.
Her father had first led her to the gardens where the officials hosted all of their events. An ornate rectangle of lush green in the middle of the sand-colored government complex, the gardens were home to plants and flowers of all different kinds. There where giant date palms and carefully trimmed shrubberies woven through with crawling passion fruit vines, their purple flowers just beginning to bloom. Even a large bird with iridescent emerald and blue plumage could be found strutting about the gardens like a king through lands of vibrant green. The beauty of the gardens was almost enough to make her father's stern instruction on needing her to be on her best behavior bearable. Still, she had not been able to ignore the terrified tone in his voice as he warned her not to act impulsively and allow her stars to control her. Only afterward did they venture to the center of the garden where servants busied themselves readying a large banquet table.
Her father’s betrothed sat at the end of the table, flanked by guards. She was probably approaching her late thirties and was as beautiful as the moon, with raven black curls and golden skin that looked as though it were lit from inside. However, the headdress she wore was even bigger and more abhorrent than Gemma’s own. Gemma had felt utterly lost for words when meeting the radiant woman who she would one day be expected to call family. That’s why Gemma was relieved to find out she was too, considering she spoke little Zodion.
“Nice to you...finally meet.
I am the princess Luna Corona of Electra.” she had said, smiling up at Gemma.
Gemma had been instructed to bow before greeting the princess, something that she did as gracefully as her oversized headdress would allow.
“It’s a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance, I am Gemma Polaris, future Governor of Zodio.”
The woman had smiled kindly back at her, no doubt understanding little of what she had just said.
From that point on, the day had gone as smoothly as expected. The feast lasted most of the afternoon with the only hiccup being an appetizer of pork, a meat restricted to those from Electra. Gemma had never seen servers carry away food so fast. After dessert however, Gemma had found a way to get out of the conversation she was having with the young son of a Electran nobleman, who she believed might have been flirting with her by complimenting her headdress and preceding to start an entire conversation about it. Once she had escaped, she set out to find her partners in last night’s crime. She was surprised to find them all standing together next to a date palm and trelace of grape vines.
As she approached them she locked eyes with Pleione, who ignored her and continued her conversation with the two boys. She was still mad at Gemma for the whole ordeal with her father, and probably would be until the end of the week. It was Corvus who greeted her first.
“Ah, there’s the scorpion.”
Gemma gave him a stern look.
“Oh, sorry...What I meant to say was, ‘look, there’s the girl with ten yards of fabric piled atop her head’, my apologies.”
“You're lucky that I’m afraid of my headdress falling off to reveal the scorpion underneath, otherwise, you might be walking away from here sporting a new black eye.”
Corvus’s expression turned reflective.
“That’s actually an apt analogy for your life, you can’t fight everyone you want to because it could reveal your true identity underneath all the show.”
Gemma rolled her eyes and turned to address the others.
“Can you all help me do one last thing, it shouldn’t be trouble, I just need to deliver the talismans to the fortune teller at the marketplace by the day’s end.”
“You know that we have all the right to say no and leave you to do it yourself, right?” Saiph said.
“And you know that you have a responsibility to be completely transparent with us about what we’re getting ourselves into?”
Pleione looked Gemma directly in the eyes as she spoke, as though by doing so she could reach the dark soul inside. If that was her objective, it was a success. Gemma felt her heart clench with guilt.
“No dogs or family members, I promise, only a creepy fortune teller who wants a black scorpion and a used bowstring as payment.”
“He gets to keep the scorpion?”
A shadow fell over Corvus’s features.
“The apothecary kind of needs it.”
“Well then I guess after we give the clairvoyant the talismans we’ll need to devise a plan for finding a new scorpion for the apothecary. Like I said, they’re everywhere, it shouldn’t be too difficult. How does that sound?”
“It sounds like I’m forever going to reget my decision to go to follow Pleione the the Astronomy building, but considering I saved everyone’s skin last time, I am obliged to join you.”
“I think you are over exaggerating how much you really contributed to last night’s...affair.”
“You mean robbery? Because I think you are incapable of making sound decisions.”
Gemma glowered, but just as she opened her mouth to speak Pleione cut her off.
“She’s also challenged when it comes to sewing headdresses and finding willing accomplices, that’s why she should never go anywhere without me,”
Pleione crossed her arms, then smiled. Maybe Pleione wouldn’t stay mad at her after all. Corvus cleared his throat.
“For the record, we found you, not the other way around,”
Pleione sighed in exasperation.
“Fine, but are you in or not?”
“Of course I’m in. I thought that was implied considering that I was the only one who sought this out and volunteered without feeling a responsibility to.”
“The way I remember it is me simply telling you to do something, not you volunteering to aid in our theft. In all technicality, you never even joined the group.”
“Well then of my own free will and devoid of obligation, I volunteer to join the group.”
Gemma looked around at the people before her. They were what, her accomplices? Her partners in crime? No, they had a deeper connection than that, they were friends bound together by fate and circumstance.
“So, we all agree to meet in the records room at dark?”
The fortune teller watched in amusement as the group of adolescents ambled through the marketplace, dodging merchants hurriedly packing up their wares. One of the boys was stopped by a silk merchant trying to sell the last of his cloth. Though the boy only came to the merchant's nose, he needed only to meet the man's eyes for the merchant to step aside and let them through. The diminutive girl to the boy's left however cast a pitying look back at the merchant and stopped as though she were thinking of buying one of his silks. The other girl pulled her away before she could make a bid.
They were an odd group, each with their own opposing ideas and complexities, yet, their fates were bound closely together. Like that of different sea creatures caught in the same net. However, as they drew closer, the fortune teller recognized the marks in their souls. Perhaps they were not so rag-tag after all, the stars had always been purposeful in who they chose to unite.
“Have you brought me my payment?” he asked the girl who was both Death and Temperance.
She answered him by sliding the two talismans across the table.
“I suggest you don’t test me without the talismans to temper my calling.”
The fortune teller didn’t doubt it, hers were hungry stars.
“Ah, but you must allow me to tell you your fortune.”
“If you dare to tell me mine, I’ll take pleasure in telling you yours.”
Her voice was a sweetly-poisoned blade. Justice took the girl’s arm, as though with the mind to hold her back. The other two exchanged sidelong glances.
“Very well, until our next meeting.”
“Not if I can help it.”
Justice led the star-called cusp away, Strength in tow. The boy with the Devil and the Star stayed behind, a torn expression marred his features.
“Here, I think this is yours.”
From his pocket he drew the Tower card, laying it on the table in front of the fortune teller. Perhaps the stars had told him the truth after all, disaster was still in play.
“You wish to know your fortune?”
The boy nodded once.
The fortune teller shuffled his cards, careful to exclude the Tower.
The boy picked randomly, laying the cards he chose face down in front of him. The fortune teller smiled. He turned the cards over one at a time.
“The Magician, the Moon and the Hanged Man, you know what they mean?”
The boy swallowed and nodded.
“Power, illusion, suspension.”
“Would you like to know what they mean to you.”
The boy paused, Devil warring with Star.
“No, I think I’d rather find out for myself.”
The fortune teller smiled.
“Well then, would you be so obliged as to take a card with you?”
The boy hesitated, unsure of what the fortune teller was asking of him.
“It’s just for you to keep for the time being, you can give it back to me when we meet again.”
The boy gazed warily at the fortune teller, but his curiosity won over and he nodded once more.
The fortune teller reached into his sleeve and pulled out the Chariot, placing the card in the boy’s hand. His eyes widened.
“Now go after the others, and know that your fates depend on one another.”
The boy left to follow the others.
The fortune teller gazed up at the sky above the open-air market. It was a new moon tonight. Anything could happen. He drew another card from his deck, the Fool. Understanding struck him then. He looked at where the fated group had been just moments before.
Something new had begun; not just a fate, but a destiny.