Stacea stopped in the street, suddenly, making Aría jump.
“What was that?” Aría said.
Stacea raised a hand to her head. “I don’t know…it felt like…” She shook her head, brow furrowed. She looked around, mouth slightly open, tasting the air, thinking.
“I sense a mage…” she said, slowly. She turned around. “The reptile one…”
“Ingram’s apprentice one?” Aría said, following her step in her chosen direction. “His master too?”
“No, just the one…” Stacea’s eyes narrowed. She shook her head again and rubbed a hand under her nose. “None of our business, anyway. I don’t care what the little skink does.”
Stacea continued walking down the street, and Aría tripped after her.
“Does he smell bad?” Aría glanced back.
Stacea hesitated. “Not really, why?”
Aría gave a one-sided shrug. “You seem really…hostile. He seemed pretty harmless to me at the anniversary dinner…”
Stacea kept her eyes on the street. “Have you not heard about Arkenyon mages?”
Aría hesitated. “No…? Aren’t mages like…herbalists, fortunetellers and the like?”
Stacea shook her head. “Not Arkenyons. They take it forty more levels. From what Mariet has told me, they can rip reality apart. Skilled mages can do just about anything they want. They’re sensitives, is the thing. Diliken sensitives are more herbalists, reading the lines of the lifestream, communing with nature and helping keep things in balance. I don’t know what they do in Kaladría, but in Arken, it’s like they’re made of those notorious thunderstorms of theirs. It roots them out, drives them insane…” She shivered. “I can feel it when people like them are nearby. It makes my skin crawl…”
Rapid footfalls on the street swelled behind them, shouts of “‘scuse us! Coming through! Look out!”
Aría glanced back again, just as they tore past her and Stacea.
“I think we’re going to head it off!” one of the boys panted, triumphant. Aría caught the hint of smoke from his singed shirt.
They swerved into an alleyway.
“What was that about…?” Aría looked at Stacea and paused at the look of sheer dread on her friend’s face. “—Are you all right?”
They heard a distant crash of wood and Stacea took off in the direction the boys had gone. Aría tripped after her. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know.” Stacea called back. “Nothing humane, I can tell you that!” She turned the corner just in time to watch the boys turn one further up. “I think they’re after that mage kid. He’s nearby, moving—” Her eyes narrowed. “And he’s scared out of his mind…”
Aría kept up with her, winding through the alleys. Finally, they turned a corner and found a group of people gathered in the mouth of a narrow alley.
“Please listen…” Aría heard a young voice, cracking and frightened. “I’m not dangerous! I haven’t done anything—”
Stacea marched forward, and Aría heard the dragon in her voice. “Leave him alone!”
The group paused, glancing back as Stacea pushed herself through, Aría on her heels. Stacea straightened as soon as she broke through, as if in surprise. Bristling, she twisted to face the group as Aría wrestled herself out the other side of the gathered.
She found herself looking at a huge pile of snake, more than anything else. Pressed up against the wall of the dead end, she saw the boy, his ashen face orange, not the burgundy she remembered from when she’d seen him with his master in the royal commorancy. His brown eyes were wide and tearful. He was shaking.
She took a step forward, palms held out in a peacemaking gesture.
“It’s all right,” she said gently. “You’re all right now. Stacea can hold them off. We’re not going to hurt you.”
His unconvinced gaze switched between her and the deterred crowd. Stacea was chewing them out. Aría ventured nearer, and the snake boy let her approach.
“—Don’t let her get near it!” one of the people cried. “It’s like an electric eel! Not to mention it’ll snatch her faster than you can blink! Crush her in an instant.”
Stacea barred their way with an arm, drawing herself up further. “Does that kid really look like he’s going to hurt anybody?”
“Never seen anything like that,” someone said.
“Shapeshifters are dangerous,” another added, resolute.
“So we gang up on them?” Stacea spat. “Oh sure, that will make them safer to be around. Haven’t you spoken with him?”
“And what was he saying!” Stacea demanded.
“What’s your name?” Aría said softly, kneeling down next to Irix’s apprentice.
“Kennick…” the boy said. He brushed a hand across his eyes. “Kennick Turmen…”
Aría offered a tender smile. “I’m Aría. I don’t know if you remember me…but I’m the maid who gave you soda water that night in the Diliken commorancy…You’re Irix Ingram’s apprentice, right?”
Kennick stared at her, his breathing beginning to calm. Confused, he nodded. “I remember you…” He glanced down at himself and shifted, pulling his torso up to more of a sitting position. “Sorry…I’m sorry–this is so messed up. You probably–”
“You’re a shapeshifter?” Aría said, stopping his embarrassed fumbling.
Kennick nodded. “But I’m not dangerous—I swear I’m not—”
Aría held up a hand. “It’s all right. I know.”
“Go about your own business,” Stacea was growling at Kennick’s assailants. “We’ll take it from here. We know exactly how to deal with shapeshifters. We’ll figure out where he means to go and get him out of here. Don’t cause any more trouble than you already have.”
Aría smiled in spite of herself. Stacea was bluffing. As if all shapeshifters were the same…
“I tried to keep this from happening…” Kennick said, tripping over himself. “I tried so hard–” Aría wasn’t used to Arkenyon accents, but she followed as best as she could. “But—see—I can’t have legs for more than a few hours because I broke my instinctive cast…and I thought everything was going to work out, but I got lost and…” His throat tightened. He bowed his head, wiping at fresh tears and trying to get a hold of himself.
Aría gave him a moment. “Where’s your master?”
Kennick glanced to where the people were beginning to filter away. Some disappointed, some angry, others just embarrassed. Stacea stood planted in front of them like a mean house cat, her fluffy hair a swatch of black in the tan bricks of the alleyway.
“My master…” Kennick trailed off. He lifted a hand to his head, breathing a shaky exhale. “I…” He looked into her eyes, desperate. “I need to speak to the king. Can you help me? It’s extremely important…”
Aría hesitated. “That’s a steep request…”
Stacea came up behind her.
“Thank you so much,” Kennick looked up at her. “They were threatening to cut me open…”
“Disgusting,” Stacea said. She docked her hands on her hips. “You should know better than to show this side of yourself in the city…”
“I know—and I do—it’s just…I couldn’t help it—” Kennick stammered, miserably drawing his tail closer around himself, away from her feet.
Aría glanced back at her friend. “He said he damaged his legs so can’t have them for long. Is that correct, Kennick?”
“More or less.”
“He also says he needs to talk to the king,” Aría said.
Stacea stood over them, brow furrowed. “We can’t get you in there.”
“But you work there—” Kennick blurted.
“Yes, but there are guards at the gate, who are not going to let us waltz through with an orange Arkenyon boy,” Stacea said. “A snake, no less. And even if we did, someone’s going to find out we smuggled a shapeshifter into the royal commorancy, and we will be in the worst trouble of our lives.”
Kennick’s face flushed. He sank into himself a little in despair. “I know…” he said. “I knew it was a long shot…”
“Why are you here?”
Kennick glanced aside. “You won’t believe me…”
“Try me,” Stacea said.
A/N: Hello! It’s been a while! I was going to post a life update, but I thought nah. Maybe I’ll post that later. Have a Diliken fiction blurb instead! *thumbs up*