Audrey Semprun lives in the heart of Prescott, Arizona with her husband, Al, their large dog, Duke, and a parakeet she named Snow, but whom she calls Blue. Audrey enjoys the peacefulness that living in Prescott allows. She gleans inspiration from not only her small-town community but also from the beauty that surrounds her in her mountain-desert home.
Audrey has been a contributing writer in several anthologies, including VSS365 Anthology: Volume One. Audrey gets great pleasure in sharing her poetry on Twitter with her handle, “iAmWriting” @audreysemprun these days.
She is also busy getting sponsors for her own monthly neighborhood print magazine, which went to print with the first edition in August 2021. Audrey is passionate about her family and her community and loves people in general. She has completed several novels but is building her brand and writing platform before releasing any of them. Audrey is an Independent Publisher who has published for herself and for others as a hobby. Audrey’s domain AudreySemprun.com is a work in progress.
Audrey won the July 2021 contest under the pen name “Christina Bodene.”
Captain Ward cradled her head in her hands. She hadn’t killed anything in days. Not since she’d landed. And playing politics with these cities made her ache for a kill. What she wouldn’t do for a single snap of a neck.
But she had a duty to perform, and she couldn’t let a little thing like not killing someone get to her.
She rolled her shoulders, the tension assaulting her vertebrae. Even her hair wound in a bun so tight, it stung her forehead.
A screech through the intercom made her wince, and she held herself back from slamming her fist through the terminal. Achieve the objective, by any means necessary. She let out a deep breath. Just relax.
“What is it, Montoya?” she snapped.
“There’s a Vernon from Belmont asking to see you, Captain,” his voice crackled.
“Send him in.” Ward scrambled to her feet and brushed the creases out of her uniform, checking her lips still held their crisp purple shade. Vernon had been the only one on this planet who could’ve given her a decent hand-to-hand, especially with the muscles she’d felt beneath his robe when she’d teased a squeeze of his shoulder.
She needed to relax. Either he’d have good news, or he could do something to relieve some of this mission’s tension. Achieve the objective, by any means necessary.
The door opened and Vernon entered, bowing in his customary way.
“I wish all men had your manners, Vernon. What have you got for me?”
“I know a way into Belmont, Captain.”
Finally. Some good news. “You found the other Belmontian?”
“He asked me to give you a message. He said that Lorenzo of Belmont pledges friendship to the Polity.”
“And who is this Lorenzo? Anyone of interest?”
“Just a boy, Captain. But he is wise. He showed me the spot on the mountain where we can access the city. You can fly us there.”
Or a hike in the fresh air and a mountain climb might just be the thing to release some stress. “Could you guide us there on foot?”
“Is that an order, Captain?”
Ward’s smile grew until it strained her cheeks. “A request.”
“In which case, then know it won’t be an easy climb.”
“I’ll bring my best men.” She slammed the intercom. “Montoya, get Valdez, Johnson, and Ringo, and meet us outside the hangar in five. Make sure you’re cammo’d and ammo’d.”
She turned back to the Belmontian. “Lead the way, Vernon.”
“As you wish.”
Ward scooped up her gun and gloves, and they left together down the ramp. The other officers met them by a land cruiser, and Montoya piloted them across the dunes towards the distant mountain range.
They abandoned the cruiser and fixed breathing masks to their mouths before they strode into the mist.
“Here.” Ward pressed a small diode onto Vernon’s back, attaching it to his robe and letting her hand linger on his muscular frame for a moment longer than necessary. “So we can follow you through the fog.”
“Mind your step,” he said.
Over the barren rockface, they clambered. Ward followed first, and Montoya brought up the rear. Montoya was a good officer, paternal, with just the right amount of spunk to keep him wired without losing that level head he wore so well. He’d make a fine replacement for her one day. That’s why Captain Exeter had chosen him at the last minute for her crew.
The only person who didn’t like Montoya was Cookie. But Cookie couldn’t stand anyone with a food intolerance.
The light blinked on Vernon’s back as he climbed ridges without any need for the balance boosts wired into their suits. A sheer, fifty-foot drop faced them.
Vernon scrambled up using the thinnest of handholds, and the final bound took him ten feet to the top of the ridge. Ward followed slowly, maxing out her artificially enhanced grip, and as she neared the top, she slipped just short of the ledge. Vernon reached down and grabbed her arm, pulling her up as though she weighed nothing.
She gripped hold of his arm. “Thanks,” she said. Her hands refused to let go of the muscle bulging beneath the fabric. “What else are you hiding under that robe of yours?” she asked.
“What do you mean, Captain?” he said.
Her breathing mask hid the blush reddening her cheeks. “I mean, what other secrets have you kept from me, Vernon? About Belmont?” She let the rope fall and Valdez caught it, hauling himself up the final peak.
“Belmont is a cage, Captain. A cage of their own making. They say that segregation is purity. They have no interest in outsiders. You’ll have to be wary of the Council.”
“You mean, they won’t be welcoming us with open arms?”
“I doubt they’d welcome you at all.”
The others joined them at the top, and Vernon led them to the vent, which he found in the exact place Lorenzo had shown him.
“Down there, Captain,” Vernon said. “That is your back door into Belmont.”
Ward deactivated her breathing mask, and it snapped back, revealing her lips. “Nice work, Vernon. Montoya, take Valdez. I want surveillance on the city. And when the time’s right, I’ll follow you in.”
“Aye, Captain,” Montoya said.
“Expect a hostile response. You copy?”
Montoya drew his gun and charged the blast cycle. “Loud and clear.”
The two officers switched on their chest-cams and lowered themselves into the shaft.
Ward took a marble from her pouch and held it in her palm. It projected the feed from Montoya’s suit.
In darkness, he navigated his way between twisted metal, like climbing through a dinosaur’s skeleton. Eventually, he found a grill, and kicked his way through, emerging onto solid rock.
“I’m in,” Montoya said. He raised his pistol and swept an arc around the shaft’s opening. “All clear. Far as I can see.”
Smoke smothered the feed, denser than the mist swamping the mountain.
Montoya inched forwards. He crept along a passageway, and found steps chiseled into the rock.
“I’m heading down,” he said. “Valdez, watch your step.”
They scaled the mountain’s core on the smooth steps chiselled into its side. Smoke charred everything. Soot festered around them. Shadows loomed out of the smog, but they held no threat. A lump of rock here. A shard of metal there. Then a shadow moved in the distance.
“Did you see that?” Valdez said, his voice faltering.
“Stay close,” Montoya ordered.
They crept forwards, but the shadow disappeared into the mist. Footsteps echoed around them, pattering like rainfall.
They followed the shadow deeper into smoke, their guns raised. A faint red glow burned through the mist.
“Whew, it’s getting hot in here,” Montoya said. He crept towards the glow and a blood-red river flowed from between two pillars that loomed out of the smog, towering over the heart of the mountain.
Across the river, a metallic pounding rang once, reverberating around the cavernous chamber. Then it rang again. And again. Harder. Faster.
“We’re not alone,” Montoya said.
A clang struck behind them. Then all around them.
Sparks flew as iron met iron and shadows swarmed their vision. A form leaped through the mist. By the time the officers fired their weapons, the creatures were already on top of them, red eyes fixed on their faces, and they clawed the guns away and threw them into the river.
The creatures possessed human faces, but their snarling teeth and unbridled shrieks made them animals rather than men. The enhanced power of the suits couldn’t compete against the rage that fuelled the beasts’ strength.
“To the King,” voices cried around them. “To the King!”
A mob dragged Montoya and Valdez to the pillars and they plunged through an opening into darkness. A lift ascended. Gears whirred.
“Captain, are you seeing this?” Montoya said.
“Stay strong, Montoya,” Ward whispered into the feed. “I’m here.”
The lift stopped and they were thrown into a chamber where an iron throne reigned in its centre. On the dais, a man sat in a hooded robe, his red eyes glowing behind the shadow of his hood. Beside him, a woman sat quivering.
“Ophelia, leave us,” the man said.
“Treat them kindly. He’s alive, Brutus. I know it. Maybe they know where he is?” she said.
“Did you not hear me? Leave us.”
The woman disappeared into the corner, and she shivered, holding her legs and rocking back and forth.
“Speak,” the King said.
“Oh, mighty King,” one of the mob said. “We found these outsiders trespassing in Belmont.” They pushed Montoya and Valdez before the throne.
“Who are you?” the King commanded.
From Montoya’s chest, a blue glow illuminated the chamber, and Captain Ward’s face appeared larger than all of them.
“My name is Captain Ward,” the hologram boomed, “and I represent the Polity. These are my men. Who are you? Where is the Council of Belmont?”
“The Council is no more.” The man on the throne’s eyes narrowed. “I speak for Belmont. I am the fire.”
“No man is a fire.”
“Fool. What know you of fire? You appear in light and yet your flame holds no heat. There is no spark. You are an illusion. You are a myth, waiting to be judged by the true fire of Belmont.”
Captain Ward scowled. “Is that a threat?”
“Heed this warning. The fire of Belmont will consume you. It will purify you or turn you to ash. You cannot escape the fire. The time for our reckoning has come.”
The hooded king stood from the throne and picked up an axe. He ignited its blade and swung through the hologram. Valdez’s head rolled across the floor before Montoya fell, and the feed was slashed by his blade.
On the mountain, the hologram dissipated into smoke, and Ward stared at the mist, her fists clenched so tight, her nails drew blood from her palms.
That’s two for the butcher’s bill. And not by her hand.
“Did you know this was going to happen?” Ward yelled.
Vernon shook his head in dismay. “What has become of Belmont?”
“If it’s a fight they want, it’s a fight they’ll get. You said they built themselves a cage. Then let’s cage them.” She turned to her two remaining officers. “Johnson, Ringo, I want you to stay here and set up a perimeter. Nobody in or out. We’ll assemble a team and surround the gate. Let’s see how long they last without food or air. Vernon, you’re with me.”
“Should I not stay? Perhaps I can go down and reason with the people?”
“Vernon. Don’t be a fool. They want a war, and the Polity will give them one.”
“Belmont dreamed of peace once. The people are not beyond hope.”
Ward bit her lip. “Ringo, Johnson, you have your orders.” She snatched Vernon by the arm and yanked him into the mist.
Ward began the climb back down the mountain, retracing their path. Vernon followed easily. It had been years since he’d dared approach the mountainside, but the tricks to crossing the rocky terrain and steep slopes hadn’t escaped him.
His mind reeled from the violence he had witnessed. And he knew Ward was ready to kill anyone or anything to avenge her men. Her movements were lythe as a hunter, as if she were stalking prey through the mist. He waited for the climb to take some wind from her. When they reached a flatter plateaux, he spoke, knowing any time would be too soon.
“Captain,” he said, “I’m from Belmont. I’m an outcast, but not an outsider. Perhaps I can broker a peace?”
Ward whirled on him. “Listen, Vernon. Those officers gave their lives for the Polity. So don’t you dare think you can go down there on some kind of suicide mission and get yourself an easy way out of this. You hear me? Those people are savages, and we’ll treat them as we do all savages. But until then, you have a duty to avenge those officers whose lives were just wasted. So I need you here. I need you with me. Understand?”
“I understand, Captain. Duty is sacred. I won’t fail you.”
She paced the flattened path, her blood rising, death yearning to find its way into her hands. “Just calm down, Ward,” she whispered to herself. “Find a way to relax. To think.”
Achieve the objective, by any means necessary.
“What can I do?” Vernon asked.
Ward snarled, succumbing to instinct as she flung out her hands. Knives twirled in her grip. The first blow rang from where it collided with his staff. But her rage only grew. She swung again. And again. Each thrust stronger than the last. Even over the rough terrain, she moved smoothly, in her natural element. Ward and Vernon began to dance, the only music the knives ringing against his spinning staff. Their breath and the slide of their footsteps across the gravel punctuated the tune. She stretched her muscles, striking high, and then swooping low, making him bend to meet her glinting blades.
His hood fell back. They breathed deeper.
She slashed at his face, and he ducked, but lost his footing. She swept his leg, and he planted his staff, launching himself through the air in a somersault over where she stood. Her roundhouse struck air, and she pirouetted, facing him, their shadows growling through the fog.
Apparently, Belmont’s Gatekeepers knew how to fight, better than a lot of her Marines. But Ward was not just a Marine, she was a Polity SEAL.
In a flourish, she sheathed her knives. The time for finesse was over. Two of her men were dead.
Tears filled her eyes. Not tears of sadness. No, she had lost Marines before. Some of them better than Montoya and Valdez. These were tears of rage, she told herself. She unleashed herself upon the Belmontian with a force deadlier than any beast he’d encountered in the savagelands.
Vernon dodged the full brunt of her kicks and blocked others with his staff. She closed in and slugged it out, her punches growing sloppy, as if she didn’t care where they landed. Anything to vent the fire within her.
Vernon dropped his staff and blocked the lunges with his palms. Then he wrapped her fists in his own large, gloved hands.
“Fighting will get us nowhere,” he said.
She fed from his strength, finding solace in his touch. He leaned over her, surrounding her with firm shoulders, biceps of iron, and his dark cape.
She withdrew her hand from his grasp and reached up. He flinched, but saw in her eyes the smoulder of her anger transmute into desire. They breathed heavily. She pulled his head towards her and planted her lips on his.
“Shut up, Vernon. That’s an order.”
Guilt inflated her chest. She thought he had emerged from the fight unscathed. But she’d slashed both his wrists and ankles. Nothing serious. She had merely kissed the skin with the blade’s edge. But in a few seconds they would sting, and he might bleed into his leather gloves. Yet, she relinquished her guilt to the pressure of his lips, and surrendered to the fire that burned inside him.
To Vernon, her perfume mingled with the mist, intoxicating him. Swallowed by the mountain’s veil, they found comfort in each other’s arms. A flame ignited within Vernon, one that had long since died. He would never need to wander again. His heart became glass, and it took the shape of the warrior in his arms, an outcast no more.
If you enjoyed Frasier’s story, please make sure and share some kind comments below. If you would like to see how this story began, read Frasier’s “Pillars of Smoke,” which kicked off the Belmont stories in the Globe Folio series.
P.S. Now you can enjoy the Globe Folio from the beginning:
The Marine Lander’s doors whooshed open, and Vernon’s long robes trailed behind him as he entered the hangar. He left his iron staff by the door and paced towards the center of the vast chamber.
Captain Ward stood with one hand on her hip and the other twirling a laser pistol. Subtlety was for diplomats, not marines.
Vernon approached her and bowed. “You summoned me, Captain?” His face remained hidden in the shadow of his hood.
Ward holstered her pistol and smiled at the Belmontian, catching her reflection in the glisten of his mirrored goggles. “Vernon of Belmont. You’re a hard man to find. You know it’s taken me three days of sending messages through Whitehallers to get you here. Where’ve you been?”
“Is that why you summoned me?”
Ward raised an eyebrow and tapped her pistol. “You showed up out of the blue the night we arrived. We watched Kite Night together. And then you vanished into thin air, with no way to be contacted, despite the fact I made it clear how much I wanted an escort into Belmont. I just wondered what could be more important to you than your duty to the Polity, and to your city?”
Vernon nodded. “Nothing is more sacred than duty, Captain. But I have no duty to Belmont. Not anymore. So I can be of no use to you. It was in your best interest that I disappear, for I would only hinder your chances of safe passage into Belmont.”
Vernon’s shoulders shuffled in apprehension. “Because of my banishment. I may never return to Belmont.”
Ward frowned, her tongue pushing against the inside of her cheek. “But you represented Belmont at our talks?”
“I represented myself. I never claimed to speak for Belmont.”
Ward laughed. “Vernon, you sly dog. You know I’ve heard so many things about Belmontians. That they’re made out of fire. That they’re inbred mutants, allergic to sunlight. That their skin is so pale they make the moons look dark. But I never heard they were smart.”
Vernon shook his head. “You shouldn’t believe everything you hear, Captain. A true Belmontian would never deceive another. Not intentionally.”
“Then you really aren’t a true Belmontian, are you?”
His head dipped. “Not anymore. A pure Belmontian would never be seen outside the mountain.”
Ward’s lips curled into a smile. “I’m curious to know how many of these rumours are true. Why don’t you pull back your hood and show me that face of fire?”
Vernon stiffened. “It is forbidden to reveal oneself to an outsider.”
“You can’t remove your hood? Not even if I ordered you to?”
Vernon’s fingers fluttered in a ritualistic gesture. “I still follow the way of fire, Captain. But, like I said, nothing is more sacred than duty.” His hand quivered as he peeled back his hood to reveal his face. Scars tattooed his cheeks in a pattern of scorch marks.
Ward ran her eyes over his calloused skin. “Well, they were right about you being pale, at least. Still, I like a man who knows when to follow orders. So tell me about Belmont, Vernon. How do I get there? How do I get inside that mountain?”
He shook his head. “You cannot. The Gatekeeper watches when the force field protecting the city is lowered to allow supplies through.”
“It was the station I used to hold in Belmont. They monitor everything that enters the gate. It would be impossible to get past them, either in or out.”
“Not totally impossible. Take a look.” Ward produced a marble from her pocket and it floated from her palm, projecting a holo across the hangar.
Cast in pale blue, footage played of a skirmish at a restaurant. Two people boarded a hover and the camera chased them through the streets. Just before a pistol-blast fried the footage, the image paused to show a young man and woman.
Ward clipped her fingers together and zoomed into the image. The fractured pixels revealed the man wore goggles, the same as Vernon. Along the hangar wall, Vernon reached out and traced the faces of the man and woman.
“This was taken from a drone in Whitehall during kite night,” Ward said.
“The Whitehallers gave up their footage?”
Ward pulled the imaging-ball back to her and it zipped into her palm. “Not exactly. We monitored all of Whitehall’s drones during kite night. For security, of course.”
Vernon nodded. “Of course.”
Ward slunk towards him with panther-like grace, ready to pounce at whatever prey crossed her path. “Rumour has it that goggle-boy’s a Belmontian. So he must’ve got out somehow.”
“Not through the gate.”
“Then there has to be another way into the city.”
Vernon rubbed his brow. “If another way to reach Belmont exists, the boy is the only one who knows it. Why not summon him instead of me?”
“I tried. But he’s even harder to find than you are. I think he’s getting help to stay out of sight.”
“And you want me to find him?” Vernon asked.
“Not just a pretty face, are you? I have the feeling you know all the best hiding places. But I want access to the city, Vernon. I want Belmont to know we’re here.”
Vernon bowed. “I will find the boy, and if he knows of another way into Belmont, then you shall know it too.”
Ward grinned, placing her hand on his shoulder and squeezing. Her perfume danced through the air between them. “I know you won’t let me down.”
Vernon pulled his hood over his head. “I will not fail you, Captain. I, too, wish for Belmont to know you are here. Who knows what kind of fire that spark of knowledge may stir? When I find the boy, I shall return.”
He paced away from her, picked up his staff, and left the hangar. The door whirred closed behind him.
Another Belmontian had left Belmont. Did that mean Julius had failed again? His lip quivered at the thought of another outcast roaming the sands.
With staff in hand, he journeyed across the dunes towards the river. His feet had grown so used to sand, he’d forgotten what it felt like to stand inside the mountain, to feel the surety of rock and the pulse of magma rippling up from the river of fire. He’d caught glimpses of it in the Marine Lander. The dormant engine’s hum filtered through the hangar’s floor, reminding him of his post by the gate, before Julius’ scheme was discovered. If only he’d opened the gate before the Council had sent their enforcers against him. They were all so young back then, with dreams of harmony and unification. Ideals which abandoned him as he’d been forced to walk the sands alone.
Those first nights after he’d been forced out from the mountain, he’d wandered the savagelands, his robes tearing as Mirrims snatched at him. He’d spent his days wrestling unseen beasts and his nights wrestling the cold. His skin blistered as the sun penetrated his hood. Skycrawlers circled above, until he stumbled across the river, to Wildcat Fields, and the fringe of Westminster.
It was there he’d found a shard of glass poking out of the dunes. His first glimmer of fire beyond the mountain. He still remembered the day he built his first kiln, and the first ornament of glass he fashioned as he turned the sand around him into cups and bowls.
Nomads from Newlondon had stumbled into him, and traded his sculptures for food. As his craftsmanship became more precise, he sculpted them ever more intricate maps for their skivs. That was how he’d made the beginnings of a life, how the seeds of friendship with the outsiders had been planted, and how the harmony he’d dreamed of had in a small way come to pass.
Now, as he journeyed across the same desert, from Ward’s ship to the Elizabeth river, he trudged through his memories. They shivered through him like the shifting sands.
Vernon wondered how long the boy might’ve wandered alone before he’d found help. Whether the boy had been luckier than him. His help had come too late. His curiosity over the lights had made him a puppet of Ward. But it might not be too late for the boy, provided he kept the lad away from her. Besides, if he brought another Belmontian to her, she may not request his presence again, and he may never smell the sweet intoxication of her perfume. But he pushed thoughts of Ward away from his mind, as he focused on the image of the young man from Belmont and the woman on the skiv.
Vernon dipped his toes in the Elizabeth’s crystal water, and waited for the passing hovers which had fed him all these years. He collected boulders from along the riverbank and wisps of tall grass. Stones grouped together to form a kiln, and he removed the shard of glass which had saved him all those years ago, and given him the gift of fire. He angled sunlight through the shard, and the grass erupted in flame. He fed the fire until it was so hot, he could barely stand beside it, and then he tossed sand into the hearth.
After hours of working on the sculpture, and blowing air through his hollow staff, he’d worked the glass into the image that he’d seen on the holo. He let the glass cool, and flagged down a passing skiv.
“You need a ride, old man?” the Newlondoner hollered as they slowed.
“I need a favor. Do you know Oberon?”
The Newlondoner scoffed. “What Newlondoner doesn’t know Oberon?”
“Will you give him this for me?” Vernon handed them the sculpture. “Tell him that Vernon the Outcast seeks an audience with these two. I’m certain he can reach them, for one of them has eyes of blue.”
“And in return?” the Newlondoner asked.
“In return, you may keep the sculpture. The glass alone is worth the hassle. Do you accept?”
The Newlondoner weighed it for a moment. “Okay, Pops. You got yourself a deal.”
“Tell him that I shall wait here three days, and on the third day, if I haven’t heard from them, I’ll know they refuse me an audience.”
The Newlondoner sailed into the distance.
Vernon laid beside his kiln and slept. Three days should be plenty of time for Oberon to send the message. The old sea dog had connections up and down the river. Someone was bound to know of them.
Of course, there was no way of guaranteeing Oberon would send out the message. But he trusted his friendship with the man enough to believe that Oberon may feel a duty towards him.
All Vernon need do now was wait, and hope that duty would be enough for the old trader.
Night fell on the third day. Vernon had blown glass in his makeshift kiln each day and night. At first, they were just random shapes, but as the hours drew on, they came out more and more like the image of Captain Ward. He’d foraged enough to survive this long, but he could wait no longer. He stomped out the fire, and took his staff to smash his sculptures, when a hum droned up the river. A barge approached with its lights off, but his red eyes made out its shadow as if it were midday.
“Are you Vernon?” a voice echoed from the hover.
“I am the same,” Vernon answered.
“Then hop aboard. Nice and slow.”
Vernon collected his staff and his latest sculpture. He leapt in a single bound onto the deck of the skiv.
A gun pointed straight between his eyes.
“I mean you no harm,” he said.
“If I had a credit for every guy I’d shot who said that, I’d be a rich woman,” the Newlondoner threatened.
“I seek only to talk with the Belmontian. Look.” Vernon removed his goggles and hood, flashing his red eyes. “I am a friend.”
“Lorenzo, do you see anything?”
From behind the helm-panel, the young man from Belmont appeared. “It’s all clear on the shore. I think we can trust him, Ros.”
She lowered the gun. “What do you want with us?” she asked.
Vernon shuffled forwards and placed the sculpture on the deck. “I am Vernon. I was once the Gatekeeper of Belmont. And though I am an outcast, I honour the flame.”
“My name is Lorenzo. I never heard of a Gatekeeper by the name of Vernon before.”
“It was a long time ago. Do you know a Hoodsman by the name of Julius?”
Lorenzo nodded. “I heard rumours of him down the mine. They say he wants peace between Belmont and the outsiders.”
“And so do I. He was my brother once. I may have been forgotten by the mountain, but does he live?”
Lorenzo shrugged. “All I heard were rumours. Is that what you wanted to ask me?”
Vernon shook his head. “Did you see the lights that adorned the sky?”
“The Polity?” Ros asked.
“You know of the Polity?” Vernon raised an eyebrow.
“They’re looking for a home,” Lorenzo said. “They’re no different than the rest of us. If you’re here to convince us otherwise, you’re wasting your time.”
“They sent me to find you,” Vernon said.
Ros frowned. “You’re with the Polity?”
“Captain Ward of the Polity seeks an audience with the Council of Belmont. But she cannot obtain entry to the city. You got out, Lorenzo. How?”
Lorenzo glanced at Ros and back to Vernon. “Through an old smoke vent. The deeper they mine, the more smoke they produce, but this old vent was redundant. The smoke barely reached it.”
Vernon pinched his brow. “There must be hundreds of vents that lead to the mountain. But you say you found one that is safe to travel through? Can you show me where it is?”
Lorenzo crossed his arms. “I’m not going back to that mountain ever again.”
“You don’t have to. Here.” Vernon gestured to the glass sculpture. “This is the mountain. All you need do is point at where the vent is.”
Lorenzo approached the glass object on the deck and peered closer at the intricacy of its details. His jaw dropped as he recognised the path he’d wandered, and the ridges he’d scaled. “You made this?” he asked.
“I did,” Vernon answered.
“Then I salute you, Vernon. This is the entry point, exactly where I was when the Polity landed.”
Vernon memorised the spot. Not even the thickest mist could’ve hidden it from him. “Thank you, Lorenzo.”
“Will you take a message to the Polity for me?” Lorenzo asked.
“Speak, and they shall know it.”
“Will you tell them,” Lorenzo said, “that we are all the same. And that Lorenzo of Belmont binds himself to them in an oath of friendship. We are galvanised by one purpose.”
Vernon smiled. “I’m sure that Captain Ward will be thrilled to hear of your vow.”
Ros stood behind the helm. “You need a lift?”
“Can you take me to Whitehall?” Vernon asked.
“We’re not too popular around Whitehall these days,” she said. “I can get you to the city gate, but no further.”
“Thank you. Now, tell me of Belmont, brother Lorenzo. Do the pillars still stand?”
Ros threw the hover towards Whitehall. Lorenzo caught Vernon as he stumbled at the sudden lurch of the craft. “They stand as solid as I am on this deck. And yet, how I wish they would fall.”
“The way I do on this deck.” Vernon laughed.
“You get used to the way she pilots,” Lorenzo said.
Vernon nodded. “People can get used to anything.”
Lorenzo pulled him to his feet. “Even the darkness,” Lorenzo said. “That is Belmont, brother. They are so used to the darkness that they cannot see the flame, even as it burns before them. Is that why you left?”
Vernon sighed. “I left because I tried to make them see there was a world out here. That we had a higher duty which stretched beyond ourselves.”
Lorenzo nodded. “You cannot cure a man of blindness while ever he refuses to open his eyes.”
“We’re at the gate,” Ros called. The hover slowed to a thrum.
“Thank you, brother.” Vernon took Lorenzo by the arm.
“I hope we meet again,” Lorenzo said.
“May the fire warm and feed you. Both of you.” Vernon leaped from the hover and landed on the sand. Ros turned the skiv and it faded into the distance as Vernon vanished into the night.
If you enjoyed Frasier’s story, please make sure and share some kind comments below. If you would like to see how this story began, read Frasier’s “Pillars of Smoke,” which kicked off the Belmont stories in the Globe Folio series.
Check back on Friday, when we reveal the conclusion to “Outcast of Belmont.”
P.S. Now you can enjoy the Globe Folio from the beginning:
Emilia shifted her feet as she stood next to the desk where Cleo was stationed. If Emilia was successful in throwing the placement test just enough to land her a spot as a Vestra, she would gain access to security systems and learn about the shielding equipment. It was the only way she could think to get the mission to help rescue Antonio back on track. She said a silent prayer to Elizabeth Hathaway as Cleo studied the results on her comm tablet.
“Alright, I have your results.” Cleo looked up at Emilia, who bit her lip. “Not nervous are you, Emilia?”
“No, I just . . . I . . . oh. I guess I am!” Emilia laughed anxiously.
“I won’t keep you in suspense. You’re designated a Vestra.” Cleo smiled.
Emilia let out a breath. “Great. When can we start training?”
“Got somewhere to be?” Cleo stood, raising an eyebrow.
“Oh, no. I guess I– I am just excited to know what I will be studying.” Emilia’s face flushed.
“Glad to see you are so eager, but we can start tomorrow. Today has been long enough for you anyway.” Cleo motioned toward the lift.
“Yes, of course.” Emilia entered the lift. “Actually, I’m feeling a bit hungry. Am I able to explore the city on my own during training or am I restricted to my quarters?”
“Now that your eyes have recovered, you are welcome to come and go as you like, with a few minor restrictions. You need to be on time for training each day and you must be in quarters for nighttime curfew.” Cleo handed Emilia a miniature version of her comm tablet. “This will have your daily schedule and meeting location on it. It also has study materials you are able to look at after our sessions.”
“Thank you and that will not be a problem.” Emilia turned the tablet over in her hands. “Can you point me in the direction of somewhere to get a bite to eat?”
“I’ll do one better. I’ll take you to my favorite spot for when I’m missing home.” Cleo winked as she exited the lift.
“Lead the way!” Emilia jumped out of the lift to catch up with Cleo.
Once they exited the tower, Cleo led Emilia through the tree-lined plazas and gleaming white concourses that wound below the glittering spires. Emilia enjoyed the crisp evening air against her face as she took in all of the sights around her. Among the geometrical architecture, she felt worlds away from the warm, earthy streets of Westminster and the colorful prism of her room. Emilia realized for the first time since leaving, she missed home. Emilia was not sure why she had not felt that way in Newlondon, but she did know that whenever she was with Valentine, she felt close to home.
Cleo rounded a corner to stop at a grouping of tables under angled, glass awnings. Emilia’s mouth parted as she watched the purple hued light dance within the glass.
“This canteen reused malfunctioning photo-voltaic cells for their awnings. To the Hallers and rest, it’s just a glass awning but to violet-eyed Westies and Brides, it’s a light show.” Cleo raised her eyebrows toward the awnings.
“It’s beautiful! I could always see a bit of ultraviolet light, but this is unreal!” Emilia’s eyes sparkled as they reflected the light.
“They also have the best Westie frybread this side of the river.” Cleo found a table next to a rail overlooking a fountain and the central plaza.
Emilia sat across from Cleo, getting a better view of the fountain she had raced past this morning on her way to surgery. She saw the light posts flick on over crowds of people sitting on benches and strolling in the diminishing daylight. A golden-haired woman with blue eyes racing through the plaza holding hands with a young man in ill-fitting clothes caught Emilia’s eye. The woman’s eyes and the way she swiftly moved around the crowds reminded her of Valentine. She longed to be sitting here with Valentine, on an adventure, together.
“It’s crazy down there. I mean it’s always busy at night with the restaurants and bars to tickle the Hallers’ fancies, but with everyone coming because of the Polity, it’s unlike anything I’ve seen here yet.” Cleo peered over the railing.
“Yes, it does seem quite busy.” Emilia watched the mismatched couple.
“A little overwhelmed? It’s okay. I was, too, when I first arrived.” Cleo waved for an automated waiter to take their order.
“How long ago was that?” Emilia turned back to face Cleo.
“Long enough, I suppose. It doesn’t really matter much anymore. The Hallers are quite happy to have a Bride as a trainer so they can get back to other, ‘more important’ things.”
The auto-waiter hovered by their table.
“We’ll have two frybread-and-tuber specials, extra spice and two glasses of wine,” said Cleo. The auto-waiter beeped then hovered away.
“I’ve never had wine before. Father thought I was too young to drink.” Emilia’s eyes widened.
“If you’re old enough to be shipped here as a Bride, you deserve a drink.” Cleo winked.
“Thank you for taking care of me tonight. It’s odd being all alone in this new place.” Emilia batted her eyelashes like she had when she tried to charm the guard at the gate.
“No need to thank me, just cut out the cutesy act. I’m not some Haller you have to impress.” Cleo smirked.
Emilia covered her face, then let out a laugh. She felt her shoulders relax as the auto-waiter brought their meal. Emilia knew she should not be letting her guard down with Cleo. Valentine would scold her for that. Yet, something inside told her that she could trust Cleo.
Over dinner they shared about growing up in Westminster, Emilia in the Smith and Cleo in Wildcat Fields. Emilia listened intently to Cleo’s stories about the creatures she met with her father growing up. Cleo’s natural charm radiated from her like the lighted awnings above them. Emilia was about to ask another question when Cleo checked her comm tablet.
“Oh wow, we’ve had quite the chat haven’t we? We should head back so we are ready for training in the morning.” Cleo set her napkin on the table and stood.
“I’ve been having such a wonderful time hearing the stories about your childhood. It sounds like it was wonderful.” Emilia stood and they walked out of the canteen.
“It had its challenges, but I would gladly take those over being stuck inside these walls day in and day out.” Cleo’s shoulders tensed.
“I’m sorry, Cleo. The world is wider than our traditions and responsibilities. You’ll find your path.” Emilia linked arms with Cleo as they walked.
“What did they do to you in that surgical suite, give you a wisdom injection?” Cleo laughed.
“Very funny. Trust me, you never know what life has for you around the next turn.” Emilia squeezed Cleo’s arm.
Over the next few days, Emilia’s nerves eased, and she fell into a comfortable routine. She started each day by rising early and taking a morning walk around the city. She quickly learned it was the quietest time around Whitehall, and she could wander anywhere she pleased, as long as it wasn’t locked or guarded that is. As she learned more about the security systems, she was able to memorize all the locations she decided needed more investigation.
Before her training session, Emilia would go back to her quarters to change into the uniform Cleo gave her to wear. Emilia mainly wore dresses at home, so the pants and fitted vest felt odd at first, but soon she relished the advantages of being able to crawl into a small workspace or onto a ladder with ease. Emilia’s favorite part of the outfit had to be the smaller version of Cleo’s toolbelt. There was a place for each of the beginner tools she’d need and a small pouch for the mini comm tablet. Emilia made sure to always arrive ahead of schedule to start the training session. She didn’t want to give Cleo any reason to suspect she was snooping around on her downtime. Emilia’s plan seemed to be working because Cleo was instantly impressed with Emilia’s work ethic and how quickly she learned. Emilia even surprised herself with how quickly she grasped the skills.
In the evenings, Emilia would share a meal with Cleo in the colonnade. They spent hours laughing and sharing stories, becoming fast friends. Emilia would then excuse herself to take the long way back to her quarters. There were a lot more people out and about so she would make note of anything that caught her eye to come back to the following morning and explore in peace. When she got back to her quarters, she would check her medallion for any messages from Valentine. Emilia would send quick updates like “Learned about camera mounts today” or “Missing my Shadow.” She’d get messages like “Secured new intel” and “Thinking of my Iris” in return. It was miraculous to be able to communicate while she was away without having to use a drone, but it was limited. Emilia was keenly aware as each day passed how far away from Valentine she truly was.
One morning stroll, Emilia discovered an area by the south wall where there were more security cameras than anywhere else in Whitehall. There was no signage, but her eyes revealed that the doors in the area were protected by shielding as well. In her training, Cleo explained that shielding was generally used for exterior fortifications and rarely used inside any city in the Globe.
“Oh blast!” Emilia pulled the mini comm tablet from her bag.
She had set an alert for herself in case she lost track of time exploring. Emilia hiked up her skirt and ran back to her quarters in the tower . Sweat was rolling down her temples as she dashed into her room and changed her clothes.
“I know, I know! I’m going as fast as I can!” She shouted at her mini comm tablet.
She grabbed it off the bed as she slung her belt around her waist. She ran out her door and nearly collided with Cleo.
“Whoa!” Cleo grabbed Emilia’s shoulders to steady her.
“Oh! I apologize. I overslept and was racing to meet you on time.” Emilia panted and wiped her brow.
“These things happen, Emilia. No need to be in a rush, that’s how accidents happen. That was another one of my Dad’s favorite things to remind me of when I was little.” Cleo smirked.
“Yes, of course. I won’t let it happen again.” Emilia took a deep breath and smiled.
“That’s beautiful. I never noticed you wearing that before. It doesn’t look like something from home.” Cleo leaned closer to look at the eel coiled on Emilia’s medallion. Cleo reached a slim finger out to touch it when Emilia grasped the medallion with her palm.
“My father gave it to me. He went on many journeys and would return home with gifts from all his travels.” She tucked it quickly into her shirt.
“I see.” Cleo raised an eyebrow at Emilia.
“The schedule said our training will be on the wall armaments, correct?” Emilia fumbled to pull out her comm tablet.
Cleo crossed her arms across her chest and studied Emilia’s rosy cheeks. “A bit flustered today, are we?”
“I, I am just ready to start training. Shall we?” Emilia forced a smile and started toward the lift.
“Of course, Lady Vestra.” Cleo tipped an invisible hat to Emilia and followed her into the lift.
Cleo silently led Emilia through a set of narrow hallways inside the outer wall of Whitehall. While the exterior of Whitehall glistened in the sun like a crystal ornament in Emilia’s room back in Westminster, the worker passages were dank and dim. The overhead lights were fitted with special ultraviolet filaments, since it was mainly the Vestras that traversed them.
Emilia bit her lip, hoping she hadn’t ruined their easy camaraderie with her carelessness. Emilia opened her mouth to say something when they reached a metal ladder mounted to the wall. Cleo wordlessly began climbing the ladder, so Emilia followed behind. Cleo opened the hatch on the ceiling, letting a flood of sunlight fill the darkness. Emilia lifted her hand to shield her eyes as she climbed out of the hatch.
Emilia found Cleo kneeling beside a metal circuit box with conduit coming out of each side. The shielding at top of the wall by Emilia glowed solid purple, but a few feet away by Cleo, it erratically flickered. Cleo gazed over the wall, studying the green sea of trees that lead to the Forest of Arden while she waited for Emilia to join her.
“Any creatures out today?” Emilia hedged, as she knelt beside Cleo.
“Most don’t venture this close in daylight. Plus, the shielding is quite effective, thanks to Vestras. Just don’t let a Haller hear you say that. They’ll think you are saying their engineering is less than perfect. If it was so perfect, why do they need us, huh?” Cleo continued to look out beyond the wall.
“Must be tough to be so close to the creatures you love but stuck behind this wall all the time.” Emilia readied her tools as Cleo taught her during their previous training sessions.
“Let’s just say, shielding days are bittersweet for me.” Cleo unlocked the box to reveal wires and circuits chaotically arranged inside. “Okay Emilia, tell me where we should start.”
Emilia looked inside the circuit box and saw a bare wire that blazed purple.
“That wire needs to be replaced and recapped,” Emilia responded.
“Okay, get to work.” Cleo sat back and closed her eyes.
Emilia set to work repairing the wire in the shielding circuit box using what she learned from Cleo’s previous training and the schematics she studied last night after curfew. As Emilia’s confidence grew with each repair Cleo led her through, she knew her training would be ending soon. She needed to make her escape before the Hallers tried to place her somewhere as a Vestra, but Emilia needed to know about the portion of the south wall she had found that morning. The more she thought about it, she was sure it must be where they were holding Antonio. Her training made it clear that if they had any hope of rescuing him, Emilia would need to stay in Whitehall to disable any security and shielding from inside the city.
“You said that shielding is only on the exterior of city walls and armaments, correct?” Emilia asked casually while tidying up the circuit box after the repair was complete.
“That’s correct.” Cleo reclined against the short wall behind them picking at her fingernails.
“Well, I noticed something funny on a morning walk recently. There is a portion of the south wall that has shielding on the interior side of the wall. Why would that be?” Emilia placed her last tool back in her tool belt.
“Would ‘recently’ be this morning?” Cleo flicked her eyes to meet Emilia’s.
Emilia’s cheeks burned before she could control them. She blew out a breath and leaned back against the wall next to Cleo.
“Was it that obvious I hadn’t just ‘overslept’?” Emilia hugged her knees to her chest.
“Otherwise, you are the sweatiest sleeper I’ve ever met.” Cleo cocked an eyebrow.
“I was really sweaty, wasn’t I?” Emilia laughed.
“You did look a bit like you had just come from a swim in Lake Avon.” Cleo rested her hands behind her head.
“Oh dear, what a sight I must have been! I like to take morning walks. Normally, I am better with my time than today,” said Emilia sheepishly.
“You could have told me the truth. You were still on time, but when you weren’t waiting for me early like normal, I came to find you. And when you got so flustered when I mentioned your necklace, I figured you just wanted your privacy.” Cleo’s gaze grew long again, scanning toward the tree line.
“It’s not that. I just . . . it’s complicated.” Emilia rested her hand on her chest where her medallion hung below her shirt.
“You don’t have to tell me your business. I’m just your trainer. You’ll be placed and moving on soon.” Cleo leaned forward to lock the circuit box with the keys on her belt.
“Cleo, please. If you were just my trainer, you would not spend every evening with me. You’ve become a sister to me. The big sister I wish I had back home.” Emilia rested her hand on Cleo’s arm. “And because of that, I don’t want to get you into any trouble with the Hallers. I wish we had met under different circumstances.”
“Trouble? Different circumstances? What are you talking about Emilia?” Cleo turned to face her.
“Just trust me, Cleo. You do not need to get tangled up in all this. Can you just tell me why there is shielding on the inner wall?”
“Something tells me you already know the answer.” Cleo frowned.
“I have a hunch, but it is very important that I know for sure. Please. Will you tell me?” Emilia pleaded.
“That’s the prison. They leave it unmarked. Only a Bride would be able to see the extra shielding so the average person wouldn’t think twice about it.”
“I knew it! I finally found it!” Emilia threw her fist in the air to celebrate her guess had been right.
“What’s going on? If I’m really your friend, Emilia, now trust me. Don’t worry about me and the Hallers. I can handle myself.” Cleo caught Emilia’s fist and looked directly into her eyes.
Emilia’s smile wavered. The lines around Cleo’s eyes tightened. They seemed to beg Emilia to tell Cleo the truth. Emilia closed her eyes and exhaled.
“I’m trying to help someone that is imprisoned, wrongfully, here in Whitehall. That’s why I need to know where the prison is,” Emilia said.
“A Westie? What did they do?” Cleo’s nose wrinkled.
“It’s not a Westie. I have not been exactly honest about this being my first time away from home.”
“You’re a Globe traveler then?” Cleo crossed her arms.
“That is not quite it, either. I should have arrived in Whitehall the morning after the Polity landed. Instead, I went with the guide who took me through the savagelands to her home in Newlondon. We soon discovered that her sister’s fiancé was wrongly accused of smuggling and thrown into Whitehall’s prison. As we planned his rescue, I volunteered to come to Whitehall, since I could use my status as a Bride to gain access where they could not.” Emilia brushed the hair from her face. “When I was whisked into surgery immediately, I realized I underestimated how hard this would be. I’ve spent every morning before training trying to find where he might be without raising suspicion and how we would be able to get past the security and guards.”
Emilia waited as Cleo’s eyes pierced her own. Emilia’s ears were filled with the sound of her heart pounding in her chest.
“That’s some story, Emilia.” Cleo blinked.
“I wasn’t planning on telling you any of this. At first, I wasn’t sure who I could trust. Then, as I got to know you more, I figured the less you knew, the better. I couldn’t bear it if something happened to you if you got involved and things went wrong. Being forced to live behind one set of walls is more than enough for you to deal with.” Emilia motioned to the wall they sat on.
“My father always said that no creature should live their life in a cage. How ashamed he would be if he knew that’s how his daughter ended up.” Cleo’s eyes glistened.
“Then help me. Once we are done, you can be free to go where you please! The Hallers and the rest of the Globe are too concerned with the Polity and how they can exploit them. Plus, we can help protect you. You could slip away and finally be with the creatures you love so much.” Emilia leaned forward.
Suddenly, a skycrawler pierced the treetops, flapping its terrible, scaly wings. Cleo stood to get a better view of the creature’s stilted flight. It let out a metallic screech before diving back into the verdant canopy again. Emilia stood beside Cleo with her hand out waiting. Cleo looked down at Emilia’s hand and back to where the skycrawler disappeared. Cleo lifted her chin and grasped Emilia’s hand.
If you enjoyed Shanel’s story, please make sure and share some kind comments below. If you would like to see how this story began, read Shanel’s “Shadow of the Dunes,” which kicked off the Westminster stories in the Globe Folio series.
P.S. Now you can enjoy the Globe Folio from the beginning:
Emilia placed a delicate kiss on Valentine’s lips in the early morning mist. She stepped aboard the skiv with the Shadow Walker assigned to pilot her to Whitehall as Bianca joined Valentine’s side. Emilia watched the sisters on the shore as the skiv pulled away from the dock. This was the first time since their meeting that Emilia would be apart from Valentine for more than just a couple of hours. Her heart ached to leave, but the excitement she felt helped soothe that. She touched the medallion Valentine fixed to be their secret way to communicate while Emilia was gone. She slipped the chain it was attached to into her dress and turned to face the mist they were gliding through.
Going to Whitehall was very risky, but Emilia knew it was the best way she could help to rescue Antonio, Bianca’s fiancé, who was wrongly imprisoned in Whitehall’s jail. She could use her status as a Westminster Bride to gain access to parts of the city that Valentine and Bianca could not. That would be extremely valuable if they stood any chance to help Antonio. She kept reminding herself of this whenever doubt crept into her mind.
The skiv swerved out of the peacefulness of the Newlondon fog. Suddenly they were surrounded by barges, skivs and all manner of vessels that filled the waterway. As they cruised further up the river, Emilia expected the crowd to thin. Though, as the day wore on, the crowds only got worse. Even though the Polity had arrived a week ago now, people from all over the Globe were still swarming to get to Whitehall.
“If I pull any closer, it might cause suspicion.” The Shadow Walker skillfully piloted through the commotion and found a small bank to pull onto.
“It is no problem. I can walk the rest of the way in. Thank you for the safe passage.” Emilia stepped off the skiv onto the sandy shore.
The Shadow Walker nodded and reversed the skiv off of the bank. Emilia watched for a moment before he disappeared into the crowd on the river. She smoothed the wrinkles in her dress. She placed her hand on the spot the medallion rested beneath her dress, next to her heart. She said a silent prayer and walked toward the city gate.
Loud shouts filled the stagnant air in the archway of Whitehall’s main gate. Emilia’s knuckles were white as she tightened her grip on the small bag she carried with a few essentials. It was easier than lugging her grav-lift trunk through the crowd. It stayed in Newlondon in Valentine’s room along with the glass Mary’s Iris she had given Valentine and the cloak Valentine had given her. Pungent smells of soil and sweat assaulted her nose as she squeezed through the group of Finsbers pushing their way to the front of the line. She desperately longed for the sense of security the cloak gave her, but she knew it would be suspicious for a Westie to be seen wearing such a thing.
Emilia forced herself to remember the tips Valentine and Bianca gave her to help blend in. They decided on two things that Emilia needed to remember at all times, innocence and flattery. Bianca explained that maintaining an innocent facade could gain her sympathy and trust from even the most jaded of people. Valentine agreed with her sister, but insisted that flattery would be key to disarming any egotistical Haller. Innocence and flattery. It played over and over in Emilia’s mind like a mantra. She swallowed hard as she finally reached one of the kiosks set up to filter the newcomers to their desired destinations within the city.
“State your name and business in Whitehall.” The Haller guard did not look up from their comm tablet resting on the pedestal separating them.
“Emilia of Westminster. I am reporting as a new Bride.” Emilia sweetly batted her eyelashes.
“Ah, yes. Of course, you are.” The guard’s own brown eyes widened when they glimpsed the deep violet of Emilia’s irises. “Let me check.”
Emilia nodded and waited patiently. She looked around, painting an awestruck look on her face while she took the opportunity to get a closer look at the extra security Whitehall installed since the Polity arrived. Through the network of Shadow Walkers, Valentine learned that the gate was being monitored more closely for entry than usual, but the details were vague. From where she stood now, she could see four entrance kiosks and only one exit. The exit seemed quiet. The guard manning that station using some sort of handheld device ignoring most of the people milling through the exit.
“You’re overdue! Over a week late!” The guard’s nose scrunched, and their brow narrowed.
“I do apologize. With the rocket and the Polity, I’ve been a bit… lost.” Emilia bit her lip and looked down sheepishly.
“I’ll call for your escort now.” They frustratingly jabbed at the comm tablet.
“Oh, thank you. I heard the people of Whitehall were exceptionally kind. What a marvelous city this truly is!” Emilia smiled sweetly.
The guard flushed and nearly knocked the comm tablet off the pedestal when they caught Emilia’s gaze.
“Ah… my pleasure, miss. Whitehall is a treasure, isn’t it?” The guard’s chest puffed up with Haller pride.
“Oh truly. And you are the first gem I have met here.” Emilia let a blush paint her cheeks, happy that Bianca and Valentine’s tips were paying off.
The guard beamed at Emilia, failing to see the tall, elegant woman who approached the kiosk. Emilia admired the lilac shawl draped over her sleeveless white gown. The woman cleared her throat to break the guard’s reverie.
“Angelica will escort you now.” The guard’s goofy grin disappeared, and they motioned to the woman.
“Thank you again for your kindness.” Emilia gave the guard a slight bow and turned to Angelica, “Pleased to meet you. I am ready to see my temporary quarters.”
“Oh no, my dear child. We are going straight to the surgical suite.” Angelica turned, leading Emilia through the crowd milling around the grand entrance plaza. Tall spires of glass and reflection pools were decoratively arranged to highlight Whitehall’s grand tower in the city center.
“But my father said we are given an orientation prior to surgery.” Emilia struggled to keep up with Angelica’s long strides as real panic set in.
“That is how we normally proceed, but with your extremely late arrival and the Polity arriving, the schedule is, I guess you can say, condensed.”
Emilia’s mouth went dry. Her mind raced as fast as her feet. She pressed her chest, activating the medallion under her gown.
“So, I will be undergoing my surgery now?” She said loudly enough for the medallion to catch her voice. She couldn’t risk checking to see if the violet eye of the eel lit to confirm the message was transmitted.
“Have I not made myself clear? Straight to surgery and recovery. After that you will be sent for assessment and training. Do you understand?” Angelica wheeled around and glowered over Emilia.
“Yes ma’am. Please forgive me. This is my first trip away from home, and with the Polity arriving,” Emilia paused. She let tears well up in her eyes and gave an exaggerated sniff, “I’m nervous to be on my own.”
“There, there. You have nothing to fear here. We take excellent care of our Brides and the Polity, we are assured by the Governor, will not be a threat to us.” She gave Emilia a motherly pat on her shoulder.
“Thank you. All of you Whitehallers are so kindhearted.” Emilia pulled a handkerchief from her bag to blot her eyes.
“Come, no time to lose.” Angelica gave a small smile before returning to her original snobbish expression.
Emilia took a deep breath and followed Angelica into the tallest tower. Nerves tugged at the edges of her stomach, but she was prepared. We’re coming for you, Antonio, she thought as she boarded the lift behind Angelica.
Emilia sleepily stretched and blinked her eyes open slowly. A soft haze clouded her vision leaving her surroundings a blurry mix of shapes and shadows. Emilia’s hands felt the velvety blanket wrapped around her as she pushed herself up from where she had been laying. She winced as pressure began to pulse behind her eyes. Instinctually she tried to rub them but found a pair of protective goggles covering them.
“My Shadow?” Emilia murmured groggily, half expecting to find Valentine by her bedside.
“Take it slow. Seeing some shadows is normal at this point. I’m happy to report that your surgery was successful,” said a calm voice.
Emilia yelped. She jolted upright, disconcerted by the unexpected voice. Her hand flew to where the medallion hung from her neck.
“Who’s there? Am I in recovery?” Emilia tossed her head around to look around the room but still couldn’t see anything clearly.
“Didn’t mean to startle you, Emilia. Yes, you are in recovery. Your eyes will continue to adjust for another hour or so. Till then, just rest.” A small hand patted Emilia’s shoulder.
Emilia’s mind raced instead. Her pulse thumped in her temples like a hammer breaking apart the plans she so carefully made to help Valentine and Bianca free Antonio. Emilia gulped in air in short ragged breaths. Why had she agreed to do this? It was too important and she was already ruining everything. She tried to stand but wobbled back against the bed.
“Not so fast there. Just take it easy,” said the voice.
“This is too much! I can’t do this.” Emilia wrapped her arms tightly around herself.
“Hey, hey. It’s okay! Wow, you must be really sensitive to that sedative the chemist gave you for surgery.” A pair of petite arms enclosed Emilia’s shoulders giving a comforting squeeze.
Emilia’s breathing slowed as the warmth of the person holding her radiated like a familiar Westie sunrise. A beautiful aroma filled her nostrils, sending her back to the small garden her mother worked so hard to tend in the harsh sand near their home.
“Is that Mary’s Iris I smell?” Emilia sniffed.
“It’s my perfume. I hope it’s not too strong for you.” The person let go and stepped away.
“Not at all! It reminds me of home. That is a comfort now that I am so far away from it.” Emilia smiled wistfully. “I didn’t know they sold such fragrances here in Whitehall.”
“They don’t. It was a gift from my father before I left,” the voice responded quietly.
“So, you are from Westminster? Are you a Bride?” Emilia kept trying to discern which shadow was the one speaking.
“Yes, I have been assigned as your trainer while you are here in Whitehall. I like to be here when the Brides first wake from their surgery so they aren’t alone.”
“That is very thoughtful of you. You have given me a great gift of comfort. I’m sorry, I still don’t know your name,” said Emilia, remembering her mantra, innocence and flattery.
“My name is Cleopatra, but you can call me Cleo.”
“Cleo is a beautiful name. I know you already know, but I am Emilia. It is a pleasure to meet you.” Emilia stretched out her hand in the direction she thought Cleo was standing.
“Pleased to meet you too.” Cleo shook Emilia’s hand. “I’ll guide you to your temporary quarters now and I’ll come fetch you in a few hours. It’s best just to try and sleep. You don’t want to strain your eyes.”
Cleo gently helped Emilia stand. Emilia leaned in, taking another deep breath. As they had spoken, Emilia found herself regaining her composure. If she had convinced Valentine to believe in her, she needed to find a way to convince herself she was ready to do this mission. Emilia reminded herself that plans change at a moment’s notice, just like with Valentine on that Westminster dock not long ago. She took a hold of Cleo’s hand and let her lead the way.
Emilia paced the small quarters Cleo brought her to. Emilia felt her nerves roll around in the pit of her stomach, anxious to get the mission back on track. She was also growing tired of being stuck in rooms by herself. At home in Westminster, waiting for Valentine when she first arrived in Newlondon and now here, in Whitehall, waiting for Cleo.
Not long after Cleo left her to rest, Emilia felt her vision clear. She took off the protective goggles and gently gave her eyes a rub. She smiled when she felt no pain. She didn’t notice a huge change in her vision except the glow she usually saw around lights, like the ones in the ceiling above her, was brighter and was more violet colored than before.
“This will come in handy.” She smirked to herself.
Emilia reached for the chain around her neck and pulled out the medallion. The violet eye blinked slowly, notifying of a waiting message. She pressed the eye and listened. The automated voice relayed Valentine’s message.
“Got ping. Hope you’re OK. Send ping when you can.”
Even though it wasn’t Valentine’s actual voice, Emilia hugged the medallion knowing Valentine was out there waiting for her. She pressed the medallion and spoke:
“I’m OK. Mission is on, my Shadow.”
The violet crystal glowed steadily as the message was transmitted then went dark. Emilia slipped the medallion back under her dress to keep it hidden. She spent the next bit of time studying her room. Valentine taught her to observe all she could. “You never know what you can use to your advantage,” she had said to Emilia. She noted that the small bed had a small space between the mattress and the platform, perfect for stashing something small if the need arose. There were four lights overhead, but she saw no controls for them. She tried saying a voice command to turn them off, but they didn’t respond. There were no windows and only one door. The door handle was locked. She hoped that was just so she wouldn’t wander out while her eyes were recovering and not as a form of confinement while she was in training.
Finally, there was a knock at the door.
“Come in.” Emilia sat on the bed to appear she was resting all the while.
Emilia heard a click and Cleo appeared in the doorway.
“Glad to see you are resting, Emilia. Are you ready for your placement testing?” Cleo folded her hands in front of her. Emilia could finally see Cleo’s short, bouncy hair which framed her chin. Her eyes were violet like Emilia’s, but Cleo had freckles that dotted the apples of her cheeks. A fitted vest complimented her petite frame, and she wore loose fitting cloth pants with utility pockets and a few tools hung from a leather belt slung around her hips.
“As ready as I’ll ever be. I don’t think I’ll make a very good Artemis or Vestra to be honest.” Emilia stood while she nervously played with the seams of her dress.
“Something tells me you’ll do just fine, wherever you end up.” Cleo tilted her head back, appraising Emilia.
“I don’t remember you saying which kind you are.” Emilia followed Cleo out of the room and down the hallway.
“You are right. I didn’t. It’s a bit complicated when it comes to my designation. I am a quick study and I breezed through the mechanical specs they train the Vestras on. But I have a background in creatures because of my father which made me just as suited as an Artemis.” Cleo’s hands balled into fists.
Another lesson Emilia learned from Valentine, during their trek through the savagelands, was the virtue of waiting to ask questions, so she let the echo of their footsteps fill the silence. Cleo stretched out her fingers and took a breath.
“Because my aptitude was split, I was trained in both skill sets. The Hallers that run the Bride program chose to keep me rather than allowing me to be assigned. I can teach you all you need to know to be the most skilled beast-tracking Artemis or mechanically savvy Vestra.” Cleo pressed a button to summon the lift.
“Something tells me that wasn’t what you had hoped for.” Emilia studied Cleo’s tight jaw as they waited.
“My father is a technician in Wildcat Fields. He would let me sneak out with him on night trips into the Fields and we’d watch for creatures together. With my violet eyes, it was only a matter of time before I was sent here. I thought for sure I’d be assigned as an Artemis, and I’d get to be out in the wilds with the creatures.” Cleo’s eyes narrowed.
“You must be so brave to wish for that! Something attacked my Sha-, my guide and I during my trip here.” Emilia shuddered at the memory of the growling beast and Valentine’s blade slicing through the air.
“My father taught me from a young age to admire their beauty despite their vicious nature. He’d always say that if people would only give them a chance, we could live harmoniously, together.” Cleo stepped into the lift as the doors opened.
“Well, I do remember a school friend that kept a kittercat as a pet.” Emilia followed Cleo into the lift once the doors opened.
“Those furballs are harmless, but most of the creatures of the Globe aren’t nearly as scary as they seem. They are just looking for food and shelter, just as we do. We just get in each other’s way sometimes,” Cleo said.
“I never thought about it like that before.” Emilia’s eyebrows knitted together.
If you enjoyed Shanel’s story, please make sure and share some kind comments below. If you would like to see how this story began, read Shanel’s “Shadow of the Dunes,” which kicked off the Westminster stories in the Globe Folio series.
Check back on Friday, when we reveal the conclusion to “The View from the Wall.”
P.S. Now you can enjoy the Globe Folio from the beginning: