It took until sundown for Maya to finally let up on her training. Not that Boomer wasn’t getting something out of it, but aside from useful tips on how to properly move objects with his mind, and navigate his way through the minds of others, it consisted largely of her berating him for one reason or another. Most of which were completely beyond his control. She cursed him for being tall, and for having the earlobes of a jejen, whatever that was.
Nonetheless, at the end of the day he felt more confident in his abilities. But no closer to taking her up on the challenge of getting a bead on the thoughts of the red-headed street siren, Lenora. He felt like a frog trying to cross a freeway. Her thoughts just moved far too fast. If he tried, he couldn’t keep hold of it. His own mind stumbled and fell as a result, giving him a momentary bout of vertigo in the process.
It frustrated him, but no matter how much he tried, there was no purchase. Not even the slim hope of one.
Yet Maya insisted it could be done. She’d said that the moment he learned to do it, he would be ready for whatever might come his way, and thus could carry on to Shavi.
Not that Boomer wasn’t still wrestling with his pride on that one. But then he’d been listening to nothing but his pride since Anastae. It was time to think with his head. And his heart.
And that was giving him no end of grief, either. He came back to the inn with the sole intention of going to sleep, and yet his thoughts were troubled. Not by Arie, for once, but by what Maya had told him. About the children. About the missing women. About the dead prostitute that nobody cared about.
Boomer knew these things occurred back home, but here it was different. The lawkeepers, such as they were, were only interested in protection. They did nothing about investigation. Kidnappings didn’t become important until there was a body involved. And even then, if nobody cared about them, then neither did the lawkeepers.
And it bothered Boomer. So much so that he found himself leaving his room in the night and walking, perhaps subconsciously, in the direction where the dead woman had been found. He needed to see how the seedy side of the city went about their business.
He wore his hood up as he wandered through the alleys, studying them. He wanted to know how they were laid out. How tall the buildings were. What was where. What faces would be seen on what corners. Most of the beggars and prostitutes did a good job of making themselves known. They would come right up to Boomer’s face, allowing him a good look at them.
More than once, he caught the attention of a would-be mugger, watching him. But Boomer wasn’t interested in a fight that night. Instead, whenever he felt he’d caught their attention, he would stop, then look them in the eye. The muggers always lost their nerve when they were the ones being watched. He’d wait until they slinked back into the darkness, trying to look nonchalant, then continue on his way.
Boomer ended up finding his way into an open tavern. He could hear the telltale sounds of drunk men singing from a block away. The light and laughter flooding out of the place were obviously meant to attract patrons. The naked woman giggling and laughing as she ran away playfully from a particularly drunk, overweight man told Boomer exactly what kind of patrons they preferred.
Boomer took down his hood and walked in. A sign over the bar proclaimed that the place was called the Velvet Tongue. With a name like that, it left little to the imagination. Obviously a place where one could find one of two things: sex and information.
He walked up to the bar, surrounded on both sides by people drinking and singing. Their thoughts were practically being vomited into the air around them. Boomer was in the midst of a cacophony that would have overwhelmed him a month prior, but he’d since learned to only focus on one voice at a time.
“Gitcha somefin’?” Came the voice of the bartender. Boomer turned to face him. He slipped a gold piece to him.
“Give me a jug of whatever this will get me,” he instructed. The bartender nodded and went off to fetch Boomer his drink.
He turned back to face the bar, letting his eyes scan the room. At one table, in the far corner a group of four men played a game of eighty-eight, a game that reminded Boomer a little of Blackjack, except they used dice. Not far away from them sat a table of two men with three women. The men were clearly drunk, and the girls clearly prostitutes who had a vested interest in getting them drunk.
Boomer kept studying the room, taking his time and being as nonchalant as possible about it, when he suddenly felt a strange sensation. It was kind of like his own version of spider-sense. Whenever someone in his vicinity was thinking about him, it warned him.
In this particular case it was a woman with shoulder-length black hair, a low-cut shirt that openly advertised her cleavage, and skin-tight pants that reminded Boomer of yoga pants. She looked at him with two piercing brown eyes and a smirk.
“I’ve seen men come in here for all sorts of reasons,” she stated. “Whores. Drink. Gambling. Perhaps some oil of the poppy, but you’re the first I’ve seen to not care about any of that.”
Boomer raised an eyebrow. “And how do you know I don’t care about any of that?”
“Maybe I’m a Psimagi,” she said with a wink.
“If that’s the case,” Boomer said without skipping a beat. “What am I thinking?” He inwardly hoped she actually wasn’t a Psimagi, but he felt pretty confident that he wasn’t unlucky enough to run into two in as many days.
“Well, I may be out of practice. But if I had to guess, I’d say you’re looking for information,” she said.
Boomer looked over to her. “You’re good,” he said. “What gave it away?”
She smirked and smiled seductively at him. “Let’s just say I’m good with men.”
“Then you’ll know I’m not here for a girl. So why come to me?”
She traced her fingers along his chest for a moment. Boomer gave no reaction. “Because I’m here for the same reason. And I thought that maybe I could convince you to bend on that rule.”
“Tempting, but no,” Boomer said. “Just information for me, thanks.”
The woman leaned back and crossed her arms. The smirk never left her face. “You’re a tough one to crack, aren’t you?”
“I’ve been accused of that,” he replied. “I’m James.”
“James, is it? I’m sure it is, James. My name is Henna.”
“So you’re here for information, then?” Boomer asked. “And what kind of information is that?”
“The kind of information that is best paid for and not asked about. Something tells me that you’re new to this.”
“New to Telemenn, perhaps,” he admitted. “But not to the game.”
Henna raised an eyebrow. “A game now, is it?” She smiled. “Yes, yes I suppose it is.” She laughed. “So what then, James, are you looking for?”
“Truthfully?” Boomer asked.
“Unless you’d prefer to lie,” Henna replied.
“I don’t know yet. I think I’d like to know what my options are first, I suppose.”
“My, but you are new, aren’t you?” She said. “You’re young. Your skin and hair smooth and strong, and your complexion enough to make the loins of many an innocent young maid burst, but you are naive when it comes to Telemenn. I do hope you’re rich, because otherwise I see you going nowhere but to the bed of a rich Lady to get the information you desire.” She waited a beat. “Or a Lord. There are some who would appreciate your company.”
“I hear this is the kind of place where it’s easy to buy and sell… people,” Boomer said.
Henna uncrossed her arms and leaned it. “Perhaps it is,” she said. “If a slave is your flavor, I can point you in the direction you seek.” She plucked at the button on his shirt. “But I would require some… recompense.”
“What are we talking about here?”
“Ten pieces,” she replied.
Boomer said nothing. He merely reached into his purse and pulled out ten pieces, and laid them directly in her hands.
“Confident, aren’t we?” she said, counting the gold coins. “That I won’t just feed you whatever you want to hear?”
“Well, maybe I’m a PsiMagi,” he replied.
“Perhaps,” she said with a smirk as she dropped the gold into her own purse. “I suppose we’ll both find out. We are tied to each other now, James. Come here tomorrow night. At this time. I will take you to the man you need to meet.”
Arie laid back on the bed, staring half-heartedly to the ceiling. Since she had arrived in Dey, she’d been ushered from one spot to the next. First, Tome had brought her to the Academies, directly to her old room. She was astonished to see that it had remained untouched since she’d last seen it, the night she took it upon herself to rescue Tam, who’d been sentenced to the stone unfairly. She was given a few hours to bathe, and change into a clean, less worn set of clothing.
Soon after, Tome and another man ushered her away from her room. Tome had given her pack to one of the hallmasters, and she found herself on a mrynah-led coach headed directly to the estate of Lord Hult Scaszi. The very same man whom Arie knew was responsible for Tam’s sentencing. The very man who had pretended to take interest in her education, but was secretly hatching a plot against the Queen. The very same Queen Arie later discovered was her own mother.
She had been brought in through the back door, and sat in the kitchen with the servants while Tome and Scaszi spoke. She’d tried to talk to them, but they were oddly quiet. Before she’d left Shavi, she would pass hours talking to them. Now, they treated her as if she weren’t even there.
The tension grew worse when the sounds of both Tome and Scaszi’s voices rose from the other room.
Thankfully, Tome reappeared without Scaszi in tow, which was just as well. Arie had promised to maintain ignorance of what he’d done, but she was still in no mood to fake a friendship with the old man. But Tome had a grim look on his face, and even in the coach, would not tell Arie what was happening.
She understood why, at least. It was likely something that she shouldn’t know. Should the Psimagi Combine take an interest in her thoughts, there would be nothing preventing the things she already knew from passing into their hands. And that could potentially put Tome, and Dunsmith in harm’s way.
He took her back to an apartment high on the bluffs overlooking Dey’s harbor to a region of the city that housed many of the wealthy merchant class. Bay Bluffs lay to the west of the harbor that hosted the Seat of Shavi, but on a clear day, the residents would be able to see the faraway shores of Rasza, and if one was of a keen eye, the outline of the distant mountains that ran the length of the border with the Disputed Lands.
But the view was the last thing on Arie’s mind. Rather, it was Tome’s absence. He’d left late in the night after he’d seen that Arie was made comfortable. He told her to stay, and that he had something to do.
Now it was the middle of the afternoon. Arie was hungry, she was bored, and she couldn’t stop thinking about how things were going in Dunsmith. She’d left in such a hurry. She felt she had no choice. She trusted Tome.
And why shouldn’t she? He was taking a big risk by even hinting that he was on anyone’s side other than Scaszi’s, and the Council. But he was clear that he was on her side.
And so, still waiting, she opted to trace the faces of her friends on the ceiling with her imagination. She saw Lily, Raine. Marie in her amazing wheelchair. The faces of the others at the Magick Society. She thought of the smell the cars and trucks left in their wake, and she found that she missed it. She thought of the washing machines, the television, the phones and radios. She missed movies and recorded music. She missed books, so many books. She missed their modesty. Their insistence that their library was so small, and yet Boomer’s personal book collection rivaled the collection of the Library in the Hall of the Swan at the Academies, at least in terms of diversity.
Boomer. She missed Boomer.
And Tam. She missed her brother. And Lily. And Raine. The others at the Dunsmith Magick Society.
She was so deep in her study of the ceiling and the figures she imagined were upon it that she barely even registered the sound of a door closing in the hall outside her room. It did little to distract her, at least at first. As the thought crept into her mind that perhaps she had heard something, they shifted away from thoughts of friends and family and more to the situation at hand.
She sat up in her bed. “Is someone there?” she called.
There was no reply. Was it her imagination, or was someone there?
She got up off the bed and ventured to the doorway, opening it. She looked down the hallway. Nothing. Nothing seemed to be disturbed. The main door stood closed. There was nobody there.
But still, something seemed off. The place didn’t feel empty.
“Who’s there?” Arie asked. From where she stood, she had full line of sight to all corners of the main room of Tome’s suite. The other doors were all closed, likely locked. There was no evidence that anyone was present.
It was then that Arie thought to another time in her life when she’d thought the same. And she suddenly caught hold of a growing hunch coming from the bottom of her stomach.
Someone was there. And she had a feeling she knew exactly who it was.
“Hina,” Arie said. “Is it you?”
She heard a sharp laugh, and got her answer. The air in front of her shimmered, and the woman she’d only met once before, the very same night that she’d been forced to break in and steal her brother’s Soulstone and leave Shavi, appeared smiling at her. The Illusionist wore the same purple clothing that hugged her features closely, leaving no question as to the shape of her body. Her long brown hair was tied back behind her head.
“I had my suspicions you were a clever one, Arie Boas,” Hina said, smiling. “A shame you had to come back to us. Things have changed.”
“What are you talking about? Where’s Tome?” Arie asked.
“He’ll be along soon enough, I should think,” she replied. She smiled. “Oh, the adventures you must have had. I can see it in you now. You were brave, but naive. Now you know the cost bravery claims of you.” She shook her head. “It is not easy, but it’s important.”
“What are you doing here? What do you know of what’s going on?”
“If I were to tell you now, what if the Combine should come tomorrow? Already my face is known to you. Revealing myself to you again would do no further harm. But the interests that I work on the behalf of have a vested interest in you, Arie Boas.”
“No further harm?” Arie asked.
“Let us just say that your departure from Shavi did not have the intended effect. There were variables we had not given the credence to that we should have. This… Dunsmith has ruffled feathers in the avian halls. The Council and the people they keep under hand are a complicated group. They are hidden by way of plain sight, and they have eyes everywhere. My part in your escape from Shavi may not have gone unnoticed, or it may have. One can never tell with the Council.” She sighed. “Needless to say, it facilitates this meeting. I am here to help you again, Arie. This time in a far different way.”
“What do you mean? Who are you to the Council?”
Hina smirked. “A ghost, for now,” she said. “So far I’ve been nothing more than an annoyance to them, but not so much of one that it bears their attention. One of the perks of being an Illuminator is not being seen unless I want to be. Not many have seen my face. And of those, only three can connect me to your escape from Shavi. Only one is a risk. It doesn’t matter who I am to the Council, but rather, who I am to you, Arie.”
“And who are you to me?”
Hina smirked. “I’m the one who’s going to make sure that no Psimagi’s going to get into that pretty little head of yours.” She tapped on Arie’s forehead for effect.
“Does Tome know you’re here?” Arie asked.
“He might,” she replied. “He might not. If you are looking for confirmation that we serve the same oaths, I can’t offer it. Not yet. But know that he is no friend of mine, nor do I need his permission to do what I do.”
“You’re asking questions you know I cannot answer, Arie Boas,” Hina said with no small amount of irritation in her voice. “Just trust in me, and I will help you. As I helped you before.”
“Do you realize how frustrating this is?” Arie suddenly yelled. “I’m being told to trust you, to trust Tome, to willingly accept the fact that I’m not being told anything. Everything is a secret. Why am I confined to this room? A secret. Why were Tome and Scaszi arguing? A secret. Why are you helping me, to what end? Another secret. Why was I sent away by the interests you serve only to be called back? A secret behind a secret behind a secret.”
“Because the part you play in all this is much greater than we had originally thought, Arie. We thought they merely intended to take you and force you to their will. To become nothing more than a puppet for the Council. We could not allow that. Not with knowing who you are.”
“So you knew? You knew all along, even before?”
“It was spoken of, yes,” Hina replied.
“But I did not. Not until Tam revealed it.”
Hina sighed. “When you decided to look into the circumstances surrounding your brother’s sentencing, you brought eyes upon you from both sides of this war. From those who wish to use you, and those who wish to empower you.”
“And which side is which?” Arie spat.
Hina looked taken aback for a moment. Her face grew stern. “I’ll let you decide that for yourself when the time is right, Princess Ariella,” she said. “In the meantime, my only interest is seeing that your mind is guarded from the Combine. Until I am convinced you are capable of it, I will be with you day and night. No more than a few paces away. When I believe you’re ready, you can decide for yourself if you wish to help the Council’s hold on Shavi and the rest of the Pactlands harden, or if you’re what we hope you are, and the key to making Shavi free again.” She wore a look that left Arie no room for argument.
Arie finally deflated. There was no arguing with her, no matter how much she wanted to rage. Hina was right. There was wisdom in her words, despite the icy way she had said Arie’s name. Her true name.
“Fine,” Arie said. “Then what do we do?”