Authors: Clay Griffith,Susan Griffith
They lay together, while on the other side of the drawn curtains, the sun rose high.
AN YOU FEEL
Adele heard Mamoru's question as if through a long tunnel; even so, she didn't pay him any mind. She was too occupied with reaching out around her, but not with her hands. She couldn't explain or understand what was happening. Still, it felt perfectly natural for pulses of energy to be slipping all around her and pushing through her outstretched fingers like soft, warm sand. These energies had different textures and smells, and in some cases she actually tasted them. Sour. Bitter. Sweet. Others were vile and poisonous, and Adele was repelled by them.
She had only the vaguest sense of location, but she comprehended near and far, so she pushed away even farther, like an unsure swimmer testing the waters while the beach turned into a distant white line in the dark green of the sea. She wondered how far she could go if she kept swimming.
Suddenly, the energies crackled around her with more aggression. They flashed past, unwilling to be touched, too strong to be caressed. Adele realized with a shock that she could see no beach at all. There was only blackness and startling explosions of power that threatened to overwhelm her. She felt something seize her hard, and there was a blinding light. Noises echoed in her head.
Mamoru's frightened face filled her vision. He was shouting. Her eyes fought to focus on him or the bright flowers that swam in the background. Calming green filtered into her. Her fingers dug into the damp soil beneath her, comforting in its mustiness. Mamoru was speaking, but she couldn't understand his slow and primitive sounds.
A sharp stench filled her head, and Adele jerked up. She shook herself violently. Mamoru reached out to her, a bundle of leaves in his fingers. Adele felt slapped by the stink again.
“Princess?” Mamoru asked clearly. “Do you hear me?”
“Yes.” She wiped her nose to drive away the pungent bite that clung to her palate.
The samurai sat back, exhaling in relief and running a hand over his close-cropped hair. Adele briefly wondered why he was sitting on the ground in the garden outside her quarters in Bunia; that seemed unlike him. Then she saw the bench where they had both been sitting. She was on the grass too. Adele reached out to lift herself, but Mamoru merely took her hand without offering to help her up.
“Rest,” he said gently.
“I'm fine. Weren't we studying crystallography? Where are my notes?” Adele fumbled around for her notebook on the bench. As she dragged the folio over, Mamoru tried to stop her.
“Please, Highness. Relax for a moment.”
“Nonsense. Let's continue.” Adele looked at the page. They had been discussing energy absorption and reflectivity in crystals. She saw the drawing Mamoru had made for the exercise, a crystal structure with twenty-five facets identified and labeled for her to assess their function. She realized now how simplistic, even wrong, the drawing was, and took up her pencil to correct it.
Her teacher paused midword as she began to sketch, his mouth open and eyes widening. He glanced between her gaze fixed on the drawing and her sure hand that scratched pencil across paper. Finally, without a pause to consider it, she gave the notebook to him.
“Is that right?” she asked.
“I…I have no idea.” The labeling system she had scrawled on the drawing was infinitely more nuanced than his had been. “You couldn't possibly know this because it is far more advanced than we have ventured. I grasp aspects of your work, but other things are, frankly, a mystery.”
Adele took the drawing back, and some of the elements she had changed were already incomprehensible to her. It was like a dream that burned lucid on waking, but became increasingly distant and nonsensical as the rational day set in.
She hung her head. “What's happening to me?”
Mamoru rose to one knee and squeezed her hand. “I can only imagine. What do you remember?”
“I don't know. Colors. Smells. I felt lost, as if I might never find my way back. But I still wanted to keep going.”
Mamoru closed her notebook and tossed it aside. “Petty academic theory, it would seem, is now a moot point for you. I believe you are experiencing what ancients called the Belly of the Dragon. You were among the energies of the earth. One day you will master them, but for now you are not prepared.”
“Master them? For what?”
Mamoru helped Adele to her unsteady feet. “That remains to be seen, Highness. There has never been anyone like you in my lifetime. Perhaps we should conclude our lesson for today.”
“Must we?” Adele took him by the shoulders. “I want to explore—”
Mamoru held up a stern finger. “No! I know that look on your face. Do not attempt these practices alone. I must be with you. You have no conception of the peril. You will become lost, and there is no one who can bring you back.”
The princess raised her chin. “I performed adequately up in the mountains.”
“Adele!” Mamoru shouted angrily. “Listen to me! This is no game. This is no masquerade in the alleys of Alexandria. You were very lucky not to have been swept away just now. These energies are terrible things and can easily destroy you. I beg you to believe me that you are not ready to act alone!”
She had rarely heard Mamoru shout. “Yes, fine. I understand.”
“I promise. I won't do anything without you.”
Mamoru visibly relaxed. “Thank you, Your Highness. It's only that we are so close, and yet we have so much more work. I shouldn't like to see anything put the future in peril.”
Adele took his arm, linking elbows. “Thank you for teaching me. I can just hardly believe any of this is true.”
“I understand that, but it is true. Finally.”
She laughed from the excitement of it all and danced a few steps, barefoot and dressed in a colorful, flowing dress of local cloth. “I can't believe you and Selkirk have been experiencing these miracles for years. And you didn't tell me.”
The samurai nodded with a sad smile. “No one has ever experienced what you are now seeing, certainly not me. If you'll excuse me.” He took his leave of her with a warm, familiar bow.
Adele breathed in the morning heat. Gareth would be ensconced in her apartments by now, huddled under a cooling blanket. The ever-present heat of the Katangan day, and his infrequent feedings, wore on him. He was becoming ever more distant and isolated and found excuses to spend less time with her just when she was most excited to share her lessons from Mamoru.
The climate of Alexandria would be less oppressive than Katanga. Once Adele assumed power, Gareth could come and go as he pleased. It would be perfectly logical that the Greyfriar would coordinate his actions with the Equatorian government. She couldn't plan much beyond that, but it was sufficient for now that there was a future together, in some fashion. That alone brought a bright smile.
Adele was waiting for the results of political feelers sent out by Colonel Anhalt to determine the receptivity to her return to Alexandria. She had to go back in any case, but the willingness of the army to accept her would be key. The last thing she wanted was to spark a civil war with Simon as the titular leader of her enemy. Adele had tried through various channels to communicate with Simon, but it was impossible. The young boy was no longer her brother; he was the emperor presumptive and therefore shielded from the outside world with no will of his own, controlled by a puppeteer. The idea of finding some way to assassinate Lord Kelvin had even been floated, but that was out of the question, or so Adele hoped. A reign launched in bloodshed was unacceptable.
Colonel Anhalt pushed through the garden gate and approached. No matter the heat, he was in full uniform with every button done up and every seam sharp, his hair immaculately trimmed. He carried a sheaf of papers under one arm and briskly doffed his helmet under the other.
“Highness, are you at liberty?”
“I am, Colonel. What news?”
Without a flutter of hesitation, Anhalt reached into his jacket and proffered a handkerchief. He pointed to his own face, indicating that Adele needed to clean up.
“Studies can be vigorous at times.” Adele wiped at her cheek, coming away with dirt. She grinned at the meticulous Gurkha and patted her skirt without finding a mirror, which wasn't surprising since she was a young woman who rarely carried a makeup compact.
Anhalt reached to his boot and withdrew a dagger with a bright, flat blade. She took it gratefully and studied her distorted face in the weapon. Her cheeks were streaked with black volcanic dirt that she now noticed covered her hands too.
Chuckling, she wiped her face. “Quite the horror. I look like Simon on a good day. Pray continue, Colonel.”
“I am reliably informed that the Fifth Nile at Khartoum would support your claim. In addition, the provincial governments at the Cape and in Ceylon, and perhaps in Bengal, would need little prodding to proclaim Kelvin's regency illegal.”
“As a precursor to secession, I imagine.” Adele's expression sobered. “No, Colonel, I won't assist the Empire to dismember itself. And I will not use the Fifth Nile to storm Alexandria. I won't be remembered as the one who destroyed Equatoria. What of the garrison in Alexandria?”
“I have little hard information, I fear. Former members of the White Guard have been cashiered or reassigned far from the capital. Many old officers of your father's army have been forcibly retired. Lord Kelvin has done a thorough job in putting his loyalists in command.”
The scowl on her face matched her colonel's. “There's no one in Alexandria you trust?”
“Perhaps. Captain Eskandari, now a general, is the head of Home Defense.”
“I don't know him. Persian?”
“Yes, Highness. A Marine. A thorough soldier. He served with Senator Clark at Bordeaux. Apparently he was also the key to Lord Kelvin consolidating his authority over the senator in the chaos following the vampire attack on Alexandria.”
“Perhaps not. It may simply be that he was unwilling to cede power to a foreigner. If Eskandari is a strict imperialist, then he may well support your return as rightful heir. In any case, he is the one who holds the gates of Alexandria in his hands.”
Adele nodded knowingly. “I want to know everything you can tell me about him. I see no reason to delay further; let's go home and see what fate awaits us. I'll check with Greyfriar to see if he's just as willing to rescue me from the gallows as from the altar.”
Adele descended stone steps into a damp cellar. Gareth had moved out of his room near Adele's quarters, which, in truth, had been designed for storage. It had satisfied him perfectly well, until recently, when he relocated to a room deep below the palace complex, claiming it was cooler. She couldn't help but think of her snide comments months ago to Gareth about vampires living in holes in the ground. She pushed open the clammy door and held up a lantern to fill the blackness.
A shape moved in the corner and Gareth hissed.
She stepped in as her chest tightened with concern. “Are you ill?”
“No.” He shuffled farther away.
Adele stood in dismay. “What's wrong?”
“Gareth, this isn't like you. Is it the climate? We're returning north soon, so that should help.”
“Are you hungry? Do you need to feed?”
“No.” His voice was clipped and strained.
She stared at the hunched outline of the prince. She couldn't make out his face to read his emotions, so she kept her voice calm. “Gareth, don't do this. Tell me what's wrong.”
“Say something,” Adele said. “You can't become this”—she waved her hand toward him—”this thing. I need you. You're all I have. What is it?”
She froze with uncertainty and fear. “What do you mean?”
Gareth inched forward with his head down, as if avoiding her gaze. “You've changed. I can't bear to be near you.”
“Changed? I've done nothing but reach out to you, to plead with you to stay with me in Alexandria as much or as little as you can. I've done everything for us. You've crawled into this tomb to live in the dark. How have I changed?”
He looked up, and his blue eyes were bloodshot and exhausted. “Every day you spend learning your secrets, I feel more pain when I'm with you. Adele, you are becoming something I can't be near.”